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This work is in the Canadian public domain, but may be under copyright in some countries. If you live outside Canada, check your country's copyright laws. If the book is under copyright in your country, do not download or redistribute this file.Title: The Secret Son [published in England in 1941 as The Hidden Son]
This ebook was produced by: Andrew Templeton
This story is published in England under the title of THE HIDDEN SON
Tony Canning had roughly divided the Redmile Rural District Council into two groups—the Farmers and the Colonels. On one side were the indigenous inhabitants of the place, with their traditions and their taproots, on the other the small gentry who had been drifting into it ever since the war.
The Farmers were not strictly speaking all farmers—they included a grocer, a miller and a publican—while the Colonels were certainly not all colonels, or even all military men, for among their ranks were to be found a parson and two females. The two sides were about equal in numbers, for though the Colonels were not nearly so numerous as the Farmers in the district, they were much more heavily represented on the council. This was due to their greater leisure and to the need felt by their wives, if not by themselves, that they should spend a substantial part of it outside the house. It was always difficult to find members for the council, though for some reason equally difficult to get rid of them once they were elected. Anyway, fourteen seats out of thirty-one were held by the Colonels, who also had a representative in the chairman Colonel Portlemouth.
Canning himself was neither a Colonel nor a Farmer. He had affinities with both—for he had come into the district two years ago from London and he (or rather his wife Betsy) farmed the little property he had bought at Hodshaves—but he was the more conscious of antagonisms. The Colonels exasperated him by their playboy attitude toward the agricultural doldrums in which the place was foundering, while the Farmers annoyed him because they were not so much farmers as peddlers of land and stock.
The battle joined between them was not, as might have been expected, a battle between suburban and rural ideologies, but between two rival schemes of destruction. The Colonels wanted the country "unspoiled," which means that they were liable to protest with equal vigor against the building of a house or the felling of a wood. They had been known to buy farm land to save it from the builder and then leave it to be devoured by brakes and thistles. They wrote indignantly to the newspapers if any favorite piece of downland were threatened by "development," but made no moan if a fruitful field went under bricks and mortar, as long as it did not spoil the view from their own windows. The Farmers, on the other hand, owed most of their troubles to indolence and lack of skill. They found it easier to make money by selling their land to the builders than by cultivating it as their fathers had done, and at their door lay the guilt of some of the worst outrages that the countryside had endured. Canning felt as much out of sympathy with them as with the Colonels. The Colonels were ignorant and ineffective, but the Farmers had betrayed the farms.
On this particular summer's afternoon, as he drove homewards from a council meeting, his heart was full of indignation against them both. Ever since ten o'clock that morning he had been arguing with both sides about the zoning of Shiprods Farm under the council's Town Planning Scheme. The Colonels had been so anxious to save Shiprods Hill from destruction that they had let the Denniker field go at six houses to the acre. They did not really care about what happened to agriculture, only about what happened to the scenery; and the Farmers, who, you would have thought, might care, seemed exclusively concerned with the "new money" which building developments might bring into the district.
Shiprods Farm had been for centuries a part of the Sheddingfold Manor estate. It included in its acreage not only some good arable fields, but several hundred acres of sheep pasture on the downs behind it. Its sale had been a surprise and a catastrophe. Everyone knew that Sir Charles Wakeham was hard up, but no one had expected him to sell Shiprods and to sell it to, of all men, old Rumbeam.
It soon became known, however, that till the matter was settled Sir Charles had had no idea of his purchaser's identity. He had walked a little too guilelessly into a trap laid by Rumbeam and a firm of Redmile lawyers. The neighborhood pitied rather than blamed him, for it had always liked the old Squire, as his contemporaries among the villagers still called him, and he himself was bound to be one of the worst sufferers from his own mistake. Shiprods land marched with the manor grounds, and the Denniker field, where Rumbeam threatened his worst, was in full view of Sir Charles's own windows. He would have to see the farm he had known and loved since childhood reduced to unfertile squalor; unless the Redmile Council could be persuaded to zone it as "agricultural" under their Town Planning Scheme. Today Canning would have to tell him how dismally his efforts in this direction had failed.
The afternoon still lay heavily on the fields, thickened by dust and hayseed; for the earth was dry, and in the little lanes, where the tarmac had flaked off the flints, golden clouds flew up behind each wheel and sank on the powdered hedgerows. The western shapes of the downs were dim, smudged into a sky which was blue only at its bright, hot crown. While in the east, where the country stretched flat and green toward the Weald, the haze had brought invisibility many miles nearer than the hills of Cade Street and Cross-in-Hand.
Sheddingfold lay between two different sorts of country—the spread of downs from Beachy Head to Hampshire and the Wealden borderland of Kent. The village itself, huddling at the foot of Shiprods Hill (a spur of the watershed between the valleys of the Ouse and the Cuckmere), belonged rather to the Downs than to the Weald. It was a small, sheltered place, standing away from the main road among shadowing elms and gardens with high flint walls. Today it was stuffy with the smell of phlox, which seemed to hang in the motionless airways of its lanes, as Canning edged his big car through them, past the church and the rectory and the Lamb Inn to the open country beyond.
The village was not directly on his way home, but he had turned into it from the throws at Dollock Mill and now he was close to the gates of Sheddingfold Manor, separated from the last houses only by the doomed fields of Shiprods Farm.
The manor itself was a Palladian house, rebuilt with a queer stodginess by an eighteenth century Wakeham, ignorant but anxious to be in the fashion and mold into classical dignity his barbaric Jacobean lump. The result was more homely than Palladian houses usually are, and the homeliness had been increased by a lack of paint, so that the front of the house looked weathered, a part of the hill behind it. A park sloped from it in front and on either side of the winding road, dotted with ancient decaying trees and crossed by a drive which had not been made up for many years, so that Canning swore gently as he bumped along it, grieving for the springs of his car.
At the door of the house he had to ring twice before it was opened by a small clumsy maid. Any ordinary maidservant would have appeared incongruous between the giant pilasters (classically conceived but given by the Sussex builders a Saxon substantiality of girth) which should have framed a butler and a couple of footmen at least; but this one seemed doubly out of place, strayed from some humbler doorstep, with her red hands and open mouth. Canning knew that Sir Charles employed only local servants—partly for economy but mainly from choice—and the supply of these had deteriorated since he was a boy and the house had been filled by tidy village girls and farmers' well-spoken daughters.
"Is Sir Charles at home?"
She was not going to waste words on him, or time either, for she turned abruptly on her heel and stumped across the hall—with its high roof soaring into a lantern above the desecrations of Victorian furniture and stuffed birds—into the passage leading to the Squire's study. Here the walls were covered with an old red wallpaper with a surface almost like flannel, weathered by time and sunshine into a rusty orange, which would have been more pleasing than its first state had not the original color been proclaimed at intervals by spaces where pictures once had hung.
The aproned oaf had turned on him at the study door.
She opened the door wide and announced:
"Mr. Candle to see you."
Somehow he must have displeased her, for he knew that a garbled name is a Sussex expression of dislike. No doubt she resented his interference with her private life by calling at the manor. She was gone now, and the room was quiet; for the figure in the armchair was asleep.
For a moment Canning stood still, watching it with a sort of tenderness. The old man was asleep—not grossly or slothfully, but with a strangely childlike air of weariness. His head, with its whitening hair and long brown face—made to appear longer by a drooping mustache—had fallen sideways against the wing of the chair, his long arm, trailing a newspaper, hung almost to the ground over the side, and his long legs stretched before him into the sunshine that was sucking the last dim colors out of the carpet. He wore shabby tweed trousers, and an old-fashioned alpaca coat. His breath came gently from his closed mouth and the expression on his face was a curious blend of sorrow and peace.
Canning half thought of going away without disturbing him; but he knew that the old man would want to hear his news, though he might not like its nature, and after a few moments he coughed discreetly. Then, realizing that slumbers which had resisted the none too quiet entrance of his study would not yield to a cough, he had an inspiration, and went to stand between the sleeper and the pouring sun. The move was successful. The heavy-lidded eyes opened at once, showing themselves unexpectedly bright.
"Canning, my boy . . . forgive me. I'm a bit deaf and I didn't hear you come in."
"Don't get up, Sir Charles—I'll find a seat."
He dragged forward another armchair and sat down, while Sir Charles picked up his newspaper, smoothed back his hair, pulled down his waistcoat and otherwise convinced himself he was awake.
"I believe I've been dozing."
"Very sensible of you, if you were. It's just the right sort of afternoon for a nap. I nearly dropped off myself once or twice."
"What sort of meeting did you have?—get anything useful done?"
"I'm afraid not. There was a lot of obstruction, particularly by Limbourne—which is another name for Rumbeam."
"A great many names seem to be another name for Rumbeam," said Sir Charles ruefully. "No doubt in time I shall know them all."
"I don't think I shall—they change too often. But Limbourne's one of them at the moment. I could tell that. He fought hard and got the Denniker field zoned at six houses to the acre, I'm sorry to say."
Sir Charles looked distressed.
"That's terrible. I'm surprised at the council's passing that. Didn't anybody try to stop it?"
"A few did—I did, of course, for one. But it was impossible to get any real backing."
"But surely Colonel Portlemouth . . ."
"There's only one thing in his mind and that's Shiprods Hill. He's desperate to have it zoned as agricultural land. To get that done I believe he'd sacrifice all the rest of the farm."
The old man shook his head. "It's a pity—a very great pity." He put out a lean finger and pushed the bell beside the mantelpiece. "You'll have a cup of tea, won't you?"
"Thanks very much. It will be refreshing after such a dusty afternoon. I'm sorry I couldn't do more, but apparently it's just as difficult to make people see that agriculture's more important than scenery as to make them see that it's more important than mere money-making."
"I'm disappointed in Portlemouth. And what about Beasley?—didn't he say anything sensible? or Mrs. Sadler? I always thought she understood local affairs."
"Mrs. Sadler did her best; but Captain Beasley was in with Portlemouth and had no ideas beyond Shiprods Hill."
"I'm glad the hill won't be built on, but surely it never could be. Even old Rumbeam would find some difficulty in building up there."
"That's what I said. But the mere possibility made them windy. And of course Limbourne and his friends were insisting that you couldn't forbid all building on a farm just outside the village. The Denniker field is actually next the street."
The old man sighed.
"And to think I did it myself—sold the place to that rascal. If I'd known who the purchaser really was . . . but there's no use talking. I had to sell."
Canning said nothing. He felt that sympathy was better unexpressed. The old man pushed the bell again.
"Drat that girl! Why doesn't she answer? I hope you're not very thirsty. I'm afraid my household's rather disorganized. We're preparing for visitors. My daughter comes tomorrow, and my granddaughter and a couple of friends."
"How is Mrs. Summers? My wife and I both hope to see something of her while she's here."
"Oh, Paula's very fit—worried, of course." He did not explain "of course." "I haven't seen her for quite a long time. She's been abroad all the spring. Nan was here a few weeks ago, but . . ."
He broke off as the door burst open and the maid appeared.
"Did you ring?"
"Yes; will you bring tea, please—tea for two. That's Gladys Cumber," he explained, as the door shut with a bang. "Her father used to be the keeper here. Then I got him a job with Lord Hazeleigh, and I believe he's doing very well. I haven't the work for a full-time keeper now. I'm sorry, for I liked Bill Cumber."
He sighed and offered his cigarette case to Canning.
"Better have a smoke while we're waiting for tea. It may be a little time, as Mrs. Noven's so busy. She generally gets in Mrs. Wildgoose to help her on these occasions, but today Mrs. Wildgoose has gone to Redmile to see a film. Queer, how people like films. I never did."
"Has Sam gone with her?"
"No; he doesn't care for films, either."
"How is his arm?"
"Oh, it's getting on very nicely, Doctor France told me. But he won't be able to do any real work till September."
"That makes things rather difficult for you, doesn't it? Sam himself doesn't seem to be suffering much. I met him yesterday as far away as Monkyn Pin, striding along and looking the picture of health."
"Yes, he's quite all right now, except for the broken bone. Silly boy . . . what did he want to climb that tree for? And his mother had no business to fix her aerial to it. She's the one who's really to blame, with her films and her wireless. I like Sam. He's a real countryman. I enjoy talking to him, for he uses all the old words, even though he is the younger generation. The women around here have almost entirely given up talking in the old way. I wonder why women are like that."
"Women are always supposed to be more amenable than men to civilizing influences," said Canning with a grin.
"It's a pity—a very great pity—" Sir Charles paused as the words brought him back to the context in which he had last uttered them. "Tell me, Canning—what's happened to the rest of Shiprods, besides the hill and the Denniker? How have they zoned that?"
"Most of it's one house to the acre, which probably means it won't be built on at all. The Denniker's the only field with any considerable road frontage."
"And that's nine acres—six to the acre—Good Lord!"
"You must remember that all isn't lost yet. The scheme is only provisional. We may be able to get it changed—or even appeal to the Ministry."
"I don't suppose we have much chance."
"I shall have a good try, anyway. After all, Shiprods has some of the best land in the parish—at least, so I'm told."
"It's quite true. And the best field of all is the Denniker."
"Then surely we can get something done—at headquarters, I mean. This country can't afford to throw away good agricultural land, even if it does happen to adjoin a village."
"I don't think this country cares in the very least about agricultural land."
"It will if there's another war."
The Squire stared at him.
"There can't be another war."
"I wouldn't be too sure of that; and if there is . . ."
"There won't be another war. I can't believe it. We'd never go through all that again. Not after last time. . . ."
His only son had been killed with the Royal Sussex Regiment at Ypres in 1915.
Hodshaves Farm stood about two miles from the village, looking out over the Ouse Valley to the hills of Iford and High Dole. It was an old, flinty farm, mostly a sheep farm, as were the majority of those situated in this the earliest sheep clearing in the primitive Sussex forest; but it also had some very fine arable land, which had been given still greater fertility by Betsy Canning's energetic and enlightened ways.
Her husband often told himself that one of the greatest pleasures of this new life at Sheddingfold was to see her blooming and thriving like one of her own fields. She was country born, and had always lived in the country till she married him, to spend ten years in London, where he was one of the partners in a big firm of chartered accountants. She had loyally smothered her dislike of London life and her homesickness for country ways; she had provided the social background his business required and the best sort of home, where he could take his leisure with her and the two children. But he knew that his early retirement, brought about by the reconstruction of his firm and his own growing weariness of a job that had always seemed sterile and monotonous, must have seemed a heaven-sent deliverance to the imprisoned countrywoman in her heart.
It had been her suggestion that they should buy a farm. She had grown up on a big estate and had both knowledge and experience of farming. She believed that she could make it pay and add thereby to their reduced income as well as to the sum of their happiness. Canning had willingly agreed; for, apart from his belief in her capabilities and his wish to give her pleasure, he was anxious that his retirement from business should not mean the end of their working and adventuring lives.
Though he had lived for many years in London, he had spent enough time in the country to have acquired a dislike of those people who live in it without taking any real part in its essential life. He was anxious to work himself as closely as possible into this new pattern of existence, and for that reason he had offered to represent his parish on the Rural District Council when Reed of Stumblehole Farm gave up his seat about eighteen months after the Cannings' arrival. He had been surprised, however, to find himself returned without opposition; he had thought that Sheddingfold must still regard him as a stranger—little knowing that some villages rely on strangers to do their dirty work.
On the council he had played a lone hand which was not always popular. Sheddingfold would have understood him if he had gone into the land racket with the Farmers, and it would have been perfectly satisfied with him if he had been like the Colonels, mainly intent on preserving the view. But it resented his agricultural preoccupations, especially as it was his wife and not he who farmed Hodshaves. She was the only woman farmer in the district—a fact which would have caused suspicion even if she had not also been the best.
Apart from her breeches and leggings, she did not look like a farmer—at least according to the common picture. She was neither strapping nor weather-beaten, nor had she tested her husband's love by neglecting her hair and her complexion. This evening, as she came toward him from the stockyard, her face, above the open neck of her blue cotton shirt, made him think of a certain rose, which warms its creamy petals with a pink flush. Her hair curled like young bracken buds against her neck, and fell over her forehead in a little, straight childish fringe. She was thirty-three, but she did not look five and twenty.
"Hullo, darling. What sort of a day?"
He shrugged his shoulders.
"Not too good. I don't think the Town Planning Act will do much for us here. There's no one on the council who really cares two hoots about agriculture."
"That's surprising in an agricultural district."
"Not when you understand democracy. The farmers on the council are no more representative of agriculture in the rural district of Redmile than the deputies in the French Chamber really represent the French people."
"Or Parliament represents the people of Britain."
"That's not quite the same. Politics in this country are still considered respectable by the masses."
"But the council isn't?"
"Not really. The best people round here—the best farmers—would never go on it. The councilors are mostly recruited from strangers or from farmers who have failed at farming and therefore have to make their money in other ways.
"You sound bitter, my dear."
"I am, just at the moment. I've been listening to an appalling lot of tosh and humbug and it's got me down."
"Come indoors and talk to me and forget it."
"Can you spare the time?"
"Yes. I've just come back from the Yellowcoat field and I don't mean to do any more today. Tomorrow I shall have to tackle Smole about those wethers, but he can wait."
She had slipped her arm through his and they were walking toward the house. He asked her:
"Smole been tiresome?"
"Maddening. I wish I knew how much he really knows about sheep; but he's determined I shan't. He's like a savage concealing primitive rites and taboos from an inquisitive explorer . . . And he and Field must have wasted an hour today talking to Wildgoose, who came round apparently for no other purpose than to show them his splint and describe exactly how he manages to dress himself with his left hand. That man's accident has been a curse to the whole parish."
"I was at the manor this afternoon. I called in to tell Sir Charles the bad news."
"What bad news?"
"That they've zoned the Denniker field at six to the acre, so that old Rumbeam will be able to build his bloody houses between the manor and the village."
"What a crime. The Denniker field must be eight or nine acres at least. He'll be able to build a whole slum."
"We may be able to stop him yet. I must try to get the zoning revised before the scheme is passed. But there's nothing to prevent the old creature starting building right away, with his ineffable man, John Scrattage. At the rate the council's working he may have time to get the whole place finished before there's a by-law to stop it."
He groaned as they went into the house; and then at once his ill-humor passed, for the ancient peace of the place laid its finger on him. It was quiet as only a house can be when the children are away at school; it was dark because of the trees that stood round it, filtering the hot glare of the sun into a dripping-well of light; it was cool with the sense of earth close under the stone floors.
"Have you had any tea?" asked Betsy.
"Sir Charles gave me some. But how about some beer now, for both of us? I expect you're hot and thirsty too."
"Yes, I could do with a long drink. Bring it into the sitting room and we'll enjoy ourselves for a bit."
They still had that active pleasure in each other's company which had been one of the great discoveries of their marriage. Their engagement had been sometimes a muddled, emotional affair; but marriage had given their love a sort of social grace, so that they were continually playing host and hostess to each other.
Today he filled two pewter mugs of beer at the big barrel, and brought them into the sitting room, where the walls were white with farmhouse whitewash, and the furniture was grave with the richness of old oak and gay with a chintz of harvest flowers. Betsy leaned back on the divan, her neck a pale stalk among the cushions.
"How did you find Sir Charles?"
"He looked well enough—but worried; he can't forgive himself for having been taken in over the sale of Shiprods. He's neglected, too; I never saw such terrible servants—such a servant, rather, for only one appeared."
"Poor old man. I suppose they do just what they like in that house. How long ago did his wife die?"
"I don't know exactly—a long time, I believe. But I understand that she's not so much his great loss as the boy who was killed in the war."
Betsy's eyes glowed with compassion. She always projected herself emotionally into the lives of the people they talked about.
"How dreadful. The only son . . . and the last of the Wakehams, too. What happens to the title? Does it become extinct?"
"No. I've been told that it goes to a cousin."
"And does the estate go with it?"
"I can't say; but I think not. I think he's free to leave that as he likes."
"I wonder if he'll leave it to Nan Chasepool."
"I hope not, and I shouldn't think so. He'll probably leave it to her mother."
"That'll be nearly as bad. She's sure to sell it, if only to pay her debts . . . oh, what a frightful pair of women."
The compassion was gone now, and indignation flashed in its stead.
"Oh, come," said Tony, "Paula Summers isn't so bad."
"Not so bad, but pretty bad. She's attractive, I grant you, but even she must have made her father's life a misery with her money troubles and her husband troubles. I'll agree, however, that when it comes to sheer repulsive odiousness her daughter has her beat."
She sat upright, kicking the booted leg that was swung over the other, as if she measured her aim at the women whose images she held in her blazing eyes.
"You don't seem to like Nan Chasepool. Neither do I. But we must be civil to her for the old man's sake. He told me this afternoon that she and her mother are coming down tomorrow to stay with him."
"Oh, Lord, how terrible . . . well, I'll try to be civil. I'll ask them all to dinner if you like. I feel in the mood for a dinner party, and I don't much care who comes to it."
"There'll be two other people as well—friends of Paula's, he said."
"The two who come every year?"
"I don't know—I don't know anything about them."
"I don't either; but Mrs. Snapper was telling me only the other day that a lady and gentleman—friends of Mrs. Summers—who came to stay at the manor last year and the year before, are expected again shortly. They're both married, but not to each other, and the village thinks they're living together in sin, and that the old man doesn't know it."
"How does the village know it, then, if he doesn't?"
"I don't suppose it does know. But it seems odd that two people who are married to two other people should spend a fortnight together at the manor three years running. Mrs. Snapper thinks there must be something behind it, and I'm inclined to agree."
He grinned affectionately. "You and your Mrs. Snapper."
"Well, I like to hear gossip—it's one of my few compensations for having a cook who 'sleeps out.' She's extremely reliable, too; I've never heard anything from her that isn't true, and useful into the bargain."
"Exactly how much use is it to you to know that two of Sir Charles Wakeham's guests are living together in sin?"
"Oh, a lot of use—it teaches me what to look out for. But she didn't say definitely that they were; only that the village thinks they are."
"And you propose asking them to dinner in order to find out?"
"Only partly. I can't possibly not ask them if I ask the others; though it will be rather a large party for Mrs. Snapper . . . How many shall we be altogether?" She counted on her fingers. "You, me, Sir Charles, Paula Summers, Nasty Nan—that's five—Mr. Malkinson and Mrs. Hurland—that's seven—and I'll have to think of another man to make it eight, I suppose."
"Malkinson . . . I've heard that name before somewhere."
"It's not one to forget easily, and I expect you've heard it from me. I met a Mrs. Malkinson that time I was staying with Claudia and the children at Saundersfoot. I wonder if she's his wife . . . she was a perfectly charming woman, so if she is and he's living with somebody else. . . ."
"Apparently only for a fortnight every year."
"Oh, I expect they meet betweenwhiles; but this is the only time they can get away together."
"Then I'm surprised that they spend it staying with Sir Charles. You'd think that they'd go abroad, or anyway to some place where they could be alone. . . ."
"Oh, but don't you see? They must each have a respectable address to give the husband and wife at home. Their own partners mustn't suspect anything. 'My dear, I'm going to stay with Paula at her father's'—'My sweet, I simply must run down to old Sir Charles—he expects me again this year.'"
"That's how you've settled it, but it doesn't convince me. That's not the way either you or I would behave in such a situation."
The idea that either he or she could ever be in such a situation was so ridiculous that they both burst out laughing.
". . . Malkinson will be here too, and Mrs. Hurland."
Mr. Longslow did not say any more than that. He brooded silently for a few minutes, the tips of his fingers joined.
The two old men were sitting together after dinner, a coffee tray between them. Mr. Longslow was the Rector of Sheddingfold and about the same age as the Squire. They generally dined together once a week—they had done so for the last fifteen years, ever since Sir Charles became a widower. On alternate weeks the dinner was at the rectory, where Mr. Longslow enjoyed it much better, because it was a much better dinner. He was a bachelor, with private means to reinforce the tithes of Sheddingfold, and he paid great attention to his household affairs, which were admirably conducted.
He and Sir Charles had much in common in spite of the different ways in which they lived. Their hearts were both lost in a Sheddingfold that was gone and would never come back; but with the distinction that the Rector's Sheddingfold was very far away—remote in the days of the Saxons and Normans—whereas the Squire's Sheddingfold was the village he had known when he was a boy.
"It'll be quite a house party," he was saying now, as he continued the thread of talk he was spinning through the other's silence. "Nowadays I seldom have more than two people to stay at a time. The household isn't organized for it. But tomorrow I have Mrs. Field coming in to help as well as Mrs. Wildgoose."
"Ah, de Wildigos . . ."
Mr. Longslow seized the thread and diverted it. He knew he ought to speak to the Squire about those others but at the moment he felt disinclined. It was an unpleasant job to undertake so soon after dinner—and such a dinner . . . a dinner which would soon no doubt bring its own wake of dyspepsia, without burdening the digestive system with mental agitations. Those peas were hardly cooked at all. . . .
"How's de Wildigos?"
"Oh, better—much better, I think. But it'll be some time before he's at work again."
"That's a pity—because it must be an expense. And idleness is never good for anyone, especially for a man whose tongue's hung loose. If de Wildigos goes about talking much longer he may meet a stranger at a tavern and fall into the snare that caught Tom Durbeyfield."
The allusion failed.
"Tom Durbeyfield?—who's that? I never heard of anyone of that name round here."
"I was referring to Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles."
The Squire still looked puzzled.
"I'm none the wiser, I'm afraid. I may have read it when I was a boy, but I've forgotten what it was about."
"About a yokel whose head was turned when he found out he was descended from an ancient Norman family. It's a thing which I've often thought might happen any day to the Wildgooses."
"I don't think it will. They're quite uninterested in their own past. And so are the Chantlers and the Bugshulls, who come of still older families."
"But de Wildigos built the manor."
"Mrs. Wildgoose prefers Spoods Cottage."
And as things are, I don't blame her, thought Mr. Longslow, looking round the shabby, draughty room. He was abnormally sensitive to draughts, and even this evening would have been glad of a fire. Spoods Cottage, close to the park gates, was snug as well as neat, and Mrs. Wildgoose's weekly income, made up out of her son's wages and her widow's pension, was in better proportion to its upkeep than Sir Charles's income to the upkeep of the manor estate.
"By the way," he continued, still keeping to his favorite subject, though a more unpleasant one hammered at his conscience, "I've been able to trace even old Rumbeam back as far as the fourteenth century. Richard de Rumbeme was an assessor of the Hundred of Rotherbridge in 1327."
"And you think he had anything to do with that old scoundrel?"
"I've very little doubt of it. There's a Rumbeam Barn, too, near Bury, which is called Rumkemys in the Bailliffs Accounts of 1541. And a James Rumbeam crops up in the same district about a hundred and fifty years later. His family probably migrated to Sheddingfold from those parts."
"It's an extraordinary name. So is his laborer's—Scrattage. John Scrattage—it sounds impossible. What do you make of it?"
"Not much. It's obscure and probably highly corrupt. One may find a clue in the common tendency of certain dialects to prefix 's' to words beginning with 'c' or 'qu.' Such as squench for quench. Scrattage may possibly derive his name from Cracheheg—de la Crachehaye—another ancient Norman in our midst."
"Of course he isn't a local man at all. He comes from somewhere beyond Lewes—I've forgotten where exactly. But the Rumbeams have been settled here for generations. I can remember old Rumbeam's father. He was very like him, but thinner and taller. He worked for Mr. Pallant at Icehouse Farm. I believe the family was very poor. I remember once seeing one of the girls with bare feet . . . I don't know what's happened to the rest of them. He's the only one left in the place."
"And about the richest man in it, I should say. It's queer that he doesn't make more of a show with his riches. I mean, a north-country man in his position would have bought himself a nice house and garden and wear good clothes and drive out in a decent car."
"We care very little about outward appearances in Sussex," said the Squire complacently. The Rector came from Yorkshire and their conversations were apt to turn controversially on the merits of north and south.
"Too little," said Mr. Longslow, "if Rumbeam is at all typical."
"He's certainly not typical, except in that one respect, which he's carried to extremes. The average Sussex man is scrupulously honest and spotlessly clean."
"There I don't agree with you," said the Rector, "his shirt is clean, but his house isn't. And he's much too secretive to be really honest. One of the things I miss here is the open frankness of the Yorkshireman."
"My experience of the Yorkshireman inclines me to rate him as faux bonhomme. There's a great deal of external heartiness and good will, but behind it all he'll do you down if he can. At least one knows what to expect from Rumbeam; and as I said before, he's not typical. Wildgoose and Cumber and Snapper and Field . . . they're all honest, straightforward chaps, though they don't put their goods in the shopwindow—and I only wish their wives could hear you say their houses are dirty."
"I venture to think—" though he spoke deliberately, Mr. Longslow's voice was sharpening a little—"I venture to think that I have necessarily a wider experience than you can possibly have of local interiors, and I've found them one and all messy and untidy and cluttered up with useless junk very like Rumbeam's back yard."
"I'll cede you the point that the Sussex man is untidy—careless about detail. But dirt and untidiness are not the same thing. I'd willingly sleep in any bed and eat off any table in this parish."
"I wouldn't," said the Rector.
"On the other hand," continued the Squire, his voice rising, "I find something definitely repulsive in a workingman's cottage furnished on the hire system in Tottenham Court Road style, with hideous jazz covers and chromium plating. I've seen that in Yorkshire."
"Yes, because when a Yorkshireman has money he doesn't hoard it, but uses it to improve his position and his property. Money spent on furniture is a sound investment; money kept in a hole under the kitchen floor is not."
"And how many of the folk round here keep their money in a hole?—have any money to keep in a hole, for that matter. Apart from Rumbeam, the Sussex man is not interested in money-making—he has other aims in life."
"I know one house," said Mr. Longslow in a patient voice, "where sixty-five pounds in notes is kept in a teapot, and of another where fifty pounds hangs in the pockets of a coat on the wall. I agree that my average parishioner lacks ambition, but if you never spend money you often end up with nearly as much as if you took the trouble to make it. The Sussex man is not energetic, but he is miserly."
The Squire was becoming annoyed. It was a subject that never failed to exasperate him. It exasperated Mr. Longslow too. Though he had been Rector of Sheddingfold for more than twenty years he still had the intense shire-love of most Yorkshiremen, reinforced by all the glamour that attaches to childhood's memories in the minds of aging people. He would have hated to live in Yorkshire, because of the climate and of the difficulty of growing peaches out of doors; but he could not bear to hear it spoken against, and he was genuinely convinced that the majority of his parishioners in Sheddingfold, though amiable, were spiritless and inert, and without any form of mental activity beyond a slow cunning.
Meanwhile the attack was faltering on.
"One reason the folk round here don't make any show of their money," said Sir Charles, "is that, though in humble circumstances, they are most of them well-born. Very few of the nobility and gentry in Yorkshire can claim an ancestry anything like the ancestry of some of our Sussex peasants. You're all recently jumped-up there. Here we have our fields cultivated and our gardens tended by the descendants of Norman knights—de Wildigos, le Chauntour, de Bokeshelle; to which you have just added de Rumbeme and de la Crachehaye, so that even Rumbeam and Scrattage . . ."
"Yes, and there's one other very interesting name you've mentioned this evening," said the Rector hurriedly, "Malkinson. That is almost certainly 'son of a malkin or witch'—probably of sixteenth century origin, or even more recent."
This was not, as may appear, an attempt to equanimize the conversation; it was simply Mr. Longslow's conscience taking advantage of his irritation to press the matter that had been troubling it for so long. He had come to the manor with the full intention of tackling Sir Charles on the subject of these two guests whose reappearance was scandalizing orthodox quarters in Sheddingfold; but he had hitherto felt diffident and reluctant to say what appeared to rebuke his host and his old friend. Now he felt diffident and reluctant no longer.
"Malkinson isn't a Sussex man," said Sir Charles. "He comes from Shropshire. I used to know his father."
"I wasn't thinking of him as a Sussex man. The name . . . but it isn't even the name I'm thinking of now. I came here this evening with the intention of warning you about him."
The Squire looked startled and annoyed.
"Warning me? . . . what on earth can you have to warn me about Malkinson?"
"I have to warn you that his repeated visits with Mrs. Hurland are giving scandal to the village."
"Repeated! They've only been here twice. . . ." The squire spoke sharply, leaning forward in his chair. "Surely I may have an old friend and, a friend of my daughter's to stay here without giving rise to tattle. I used to know Fred Malkinson when he was a boy, and Mrs. Hurland is an old school friend of Paula's."
"The point is," said Mr. Longslow, "that they're always here together; they're both known to be married, but they never bring their married partners with them. You must confess that all this is a little unusual."
"Unusual it may be, but that doesn't necessarily make it reprehensible; and I really think that the village. . . ."
He broke off, remembering that it was a Sussex village. He had been going to say, "I really think that the village might find something better to do with its time than gossip about my guests." Instead he said:
"I find it difficult to believe that there's really any scandal in Sheddingfold. It's not a gossiping place."
The Rector gave him a look that said "May you be forgiven." His actual words were:
"I assure you that there's been quite a lot of talk; and a few days ago, when it became known through your domestics that these two visitors are again to be expected in our midst, a prominent member of the Women's Institute. . . ."
"I can well believe it!" cried the Squire. "A lot of women meeting constantly to waste their time together are bound to gossip about their neighbors. If only they stopped in their own homes and occupied themselves as they used to do before all this nonsense started, we wouldn't have so much tattle and scandal."
Sir Charles had always disliked the Women's Institute, holding that stoolball and country dances and raffia work would make the women of Sheddingfold even more unlike what they used to be when he was a boy.
Mr. Longslow countered loftily.
"I hope you don't take my words amiss."
"It isn't your words I object to. It's the fact that there should be all this tittle-tattle in the Women's Institute."
"Not only in the Women's Institute. Certain members of the Men's Club have expressed their disapproval. You see, Mr. Malkinson and Mrs. Hurland are not very discreet."
"I don't understand you."
"Well, for one thing, though they're staying with your family, they are continually going about alone together for walks and picnics."
"Paula and Nan don't care for walking."
"All the same, it has an odd appearance that these two should seem to prefer each other's company to that of their hosts. I don't say there's any harm in it myself, but you can't expect simple-minded villagers not to be unfavorably impressed."
Sir Charles exploded.
"Your parishioners are a set of meddling busybodies. What right have they to go about spying on their betters? I never heard of such a miserable lot of sneaks."
"They're old-fashioned enough to expect a certain standard set them at the manor."
Both old men were very angry now, all the more because Sir Charles knew that he was attacking Sheddingfold, while Mr. Longslow was defending it. Each was fighting the other from the wrong camp, and the double conflict in their hearts made the Rector's face purple and the Squire's very white. For a moment it looked as if they were going to quarrel.
But they were too good and too genuinely fond of each other for that. Simultaneously they pulled themselves up, as they had done many a time over the rivalries of North and South—which were indeed, had they only known it, the realities of their present dispute.
"You may take my word for it, Longslow," said Sir Charles in a calmer voice, "that Malkinson and Mrs. Hurland are not what your informants imagine. Knowing the villagers here as I do, I think it quite probable that they may mistake the liberty of modern manners for something much more reprehensible. I solemnly assure you that there is no—er—intrigue or love affair between my two friends."
"My dear Wakeham, let me tell you at once that I never thought for a moment that if there was you were privy to it. No one in the village thinks that. But there is an idea that you are possibly being deceived and taken advantage of."
"That I completely deny. Fred Malkinson and Ellis Hurland . . . I know . . . well, I don't feel at liberty to tell you exactly what the situation is, but I assure you I know what I'm doing, and what's more—I know what they're doing."
Mr. Longslow, remembering the sale of Shiprods Farm, thought to himself: I wonder. But all he said was:
"I believe absolutely in your good faith."
Then, shaking his head rather sadly, he changed the conversation.
Early in the twelfth century Simon de Wildigos established himself at Chettenfaude atte Sceaprede in the country of the South Saxons, controlling on his manor the biggest sheep clearing between Leawas and the sea. Seven hundred years later his latest descendant fell out of an ash tree and broke his right arm.
Sheddingfold was divided between those who held that Sam Wildgoose had only himself to blame and those who blamed his mother for exchanging her portable wireless set which had always done quite well without an aerial for an extravagant fixture with demands on the surrounding landscape.
The Squire was in both camps, and secretly did not grieve so much for his gardener's arm as for the branch of the ancient tree from which he had swung as a boy. Sixty years ago it had been strong enough to bear a couple of rope swings, with his own five stone straining and creaking beside the greater heaviness of Bob Gatwick, the gardener's boy of those far-off days. But all the trees in the park were going backward, rotting and dropping, and anyway an ash tree is short-lived—though he did not hold with the superstition that they live no longer than the thirty-three years which one of them took to grow the wood of the Cross. It was thoughtless and heartless of Mrs. Wildgoose to have ordered her clumsy lout up into the manor's biggest, oldest ash; without so much as a by-your-leave to the owner of the property, who would certainly not have granted it. You would think she imagined that the place still belonged to her, though it was four hundred years since the Wildgooses went out of it and began their decline.
But even if he was angry with Sam and still more angry with his mother, Sir Charles did not behave vindictively. Indeed he made up the patient's club money to the thirty-eight shillings of his wages, which was generous of him, considering that now he had to hire Tom Polder from the garage every time he wanted to use the car, and get Bugshull's boy to help Brooks in the garden. He would have to engage extra labor, too, when the time came to mow the paddock and the home field. Sam, though officially a chauffeur-gardener, had made himself useful in a variety of ways, and an outdoor man's right arm does not allow for much in the way of substitution.
The fracture, however, was a simple one, and Sam Wildgoose was a tough, rangy young fellow of five and twenty, who did not like lying in bed or being treated as an invalid. As soon as he was over the worst, he was up and about the parish, making full use of those parts of him which had always been most active—his legs and his tongue. He was a great walker and a great talker, and found his damaged arm no drawback to him in either capacity. In fact, it enhanced them; for he was now free to walk and talk all day. He had a girl—Doll Chantler, in service at the rectory—but she was available only in the evenings, leaving him the morning and the afternoon to roam the village and the surrounding farms.
Wherever he went he was welcome. His red, grinning face peering through the hedge, popping over the gate, or nodding in at the barn door, was a pleasant interruption to the day's work. While he stood there all hands were as idle as his own, for the Sussex man generally finds it impossible to work and talk at the same time—even thinking seems to immobilize all other forces. Sam's arrival would transform a slowly busy scene into a group of statuesque figures posed with agricultural implements; so it was not surprising that his visits were very much less popular with the masters than with the men.
He was aware of this and chose his times accordingly. For instance, today was Monday, the day when old Mus' Rumbeam drove around collecting his rents, and therefore a good day to look in for a word with his man John Scrattage. John was always at work somewhere in the yard at the Creakers; that is, when he was not building the little bungalows with roofs of pink asbestos that had made his master's name a war cry on the Redmile District Council. Mus' Rumbeam had nothing of this sort on hand at present, though he might start at Shiprods any moment now. . . . That was one reason why Sam wanted to see Scrattage. He wanted to find out when all those new houses were going up. It was said that old Mus' Rumbeam meant to build a garden city in the Denniker field. Sir Charles had been in a terrification about it, for he would be able to see it all clearly from the manor house. He was trying to get it stopped by the council, but Sam reckoned Mus' Rumbeam would easily settle that. And anyway it was the Squire's own fault, for selling Shiprods Farm and for not knowing that Finch and Son of Redmile were only Mus' Rumbeam under another name.
He had found him at last, deep in the forest of junk that constituted old Rumbeam's yard. Round him spread every conceivable form of scrapped and broken usefulness—battered old bed ends, buckled bicycles, a couple of wheelless cars, parts of a reaper-and-binder, bits of a Bulverhythe Corporation bus, a heap of rotted spiles and several heaps of old tiles, old bricks, old rubble, old cement, old piping. Among all these Creakers Cottage and its outhouses were hardly distinguishable, being almost as broken and dilapidated as their surroundings.
Scrattage had not heard him the first time, as he was busily rooting in a pile of railings. When he heard, he said without looking up:
He did not seem as pleased as some at the interruption. He was an unsociable man, who liked to pick about by himself and call it working. But Sam was not discouraged by the back view presented to him. He would talk to any part of a man that offered, be it no more, as in this case, than a pair of leggings and the seat of a pair of trousers.
"When are you going to start them houses?"
"On the Denniker. Mus' Rumbeam he's going to build a garden city on the Denniker, äun't he?"
"Who says so?"
"All the pläace. Sir Charles is in a proper state about it. They say up home as he's been walking in and out of all the rooms to see what you can see from them and what you can't. Seemingly you can see the Denniker from all the best ones—he's and Mis' Summers and the yellow room and the blue room. Only that liddle one at the back where Miss Nan usually goes is what you can't see nothing from."
Sam Wildgoose had few reticences, and those with whom he conversed were soon in possession of an encyclopedic knowledge of his person and surroundings. His hammer toe, his broken tooth, his elbow joint that ached every time the weather was about to go back to the southwest, were all common knowledge—likewise his preference of apples to onions, the number of his vests and the fact that his mother washed him a clean shirt every day, for he "sweated terrible."
Of more general interest, no doubt, were the affairs of his employer and his family and servants. Sam was worth listening to when he told of how Sir Charles had had to pay a bill of twenty-three pounds sent in by Miss Nan's dressmaker because Mrs. Summers' second husband had said he wasn't going to pay any more of her debts; of how Mrs. Summers had told Miss Nan that she'd end by killing her grandfather as well as ruining him; of how Sir Charles had been so put to it last month that he'd had to ask Mrs. Noven and Brooks to wait for their money; of how Mrs. Noven was upset because she felt sure Gladys Cumber was having Ernie Bugshull into the house at nights, but that she couldn't prove it, he was in and out so quick.
All this scandal was imparted with no more actual malevolence on Sam's side than his dissertations on his teeth or his toes. It was just talk, and like many great talkers he had no idea of the effect of his words on other people. When in later, unhappier years he was fined five pounds by the Redmile magistrates for making statements "calculated to cause alarm or despondency," the sentence was quite undeserved by any defeatist or malicious intent. It had simply never occurred to him that anyone could greet the news of eleven German parachutists descending on Magreed Down with more painful emotions than would have greeted the arrival of a wild beast show. So today when, the subject of the garden city having failed, he addressed to the same obstinate trouser seat the remark: "I reckon there'll be some fun for your Maas' Tiger when Miss Nan comes down Wednesday," he had no idea of the turmoil he had caused beneath the adjoining waistcoat.
John Scrattage was the very contrast and antinomy of Sam Wildgoose. He was, to start with, about twenty years older, and looked older still with his long solemn face and close-cut, gray-threaded hair. He was a married man, with two grown-up children who had themselves married and left the place where he still regarded himself as a stranger, having been born and bred in Lewes, seven miles away. It was no doubt this remote origin that made him keep himself apart from the village, seldom visiting either the playing field or the public house. Ever since he had been in the parish—which was more than twenty-five years—he had worked for Mus' Rumbeam, qualified by his miscellaneous knowledge of bricklaying, carpentering, plumbing, horse-coping, hedging, ditching, ploughing and poultry keeping, and by a habit of silence which his master valued still more.
Today he hesitated a long time before he committed himself to the question:
"What has your Miss Nan to do with our Maas' Tiger?"
Sam's reply was a rude expression of which again he did not weigh the effect, except for a general idea that it must not be used before females. Scrattage, though not a female, resented it deeply.
"You haven't got no cause to say that."
"Reckon I have," argued Sam, as amiably as if he had been arguing the chances of the Sheddingfold Cricket Club at their next match. "Reckon I've seen 'em together often enough to know what they're after."
"You've only seen them together at the pub. Everyone knows she goes to the pub and talks to anyone she sees there, and you've no cause to say there's more in it than that. Maas' Tiger äun't so hard up fur a decent girl as he need go with your Miss Nan."
Maas' Tiger was Mus' Rumbeam's son and heir.
"We-e-ell . . ." Sam was a little hurt by this reaction. His second topic of conversation had failed as badly as the first. After a brief hesitation he chose a third.
"Mus' Malkinson and Mis' Hurland are coming Wednesday."
Scrattage was a little more cordial.
"About time for them, äun't it?"
"Yes, it's their time. They came last year on the thirtieth of June, this year it's the eighth of July. The year before last it was the sixth. You'll never say as they döan't come here to be together."
"I döan't see why I shouldn't say it. They're friends of Mis' Summers. I reckon she's coming too."
"Still the whole pläace knows wot they come for."
"And if it does it's nobody's business. Wot's the matter with you, Sam? Your mind runs on näun but coupling."
Sam grinned cheerfully.
"Well, I'm hoping to get married myself at Christmas, if we can only find a house. I döan't fancy settling in with Mother, as my room 'ud never take a double bed and she wouldn't care to go out of hern. There's only two easy chairs in the kitchen too, and I döan't see how we'd ever squeege in a third. Doll's bought some sheets at Plummer's Winter Sale—two pairs of cotton at six and eleven and one pair of twill at five and three. She reckons to look out for another pair of twill at the Summer Sales, and she says maybe she'll get the towels then. Four of turkish, six of huckaback—that'll do us for a start."
John's only comment on the towels was a grunt. For a part—the challenging part—of the conversation he had stood upright, confronting the chatterbox with a flushed, indignant face, streaked at mid-brow with a seedy, pepper-and-salt quiff; but now once more his head was low among the railings. Nevertheless, Sam would have persevered, had he not at the moment heard an approaching car. It was an unmistakable car; to judge by the noise it made half the cylinders must be missing, the fan broken, the jet blocked, the carburetor leaking, the clutch slipping, the brake rattling, while every screw and nut was loose. And yet it moved. In a moment it was in at the Creakers' gate, pulling up with a loud explosion just a yard short of John's still indifferent backside.
"Morning, Mus' Rumbeam."
"Morning, Sam. Wot you doing here?"
"I stopped in on my way back from the doctor's to see John."
"This pläace äun't nowheres between you and doctor's; and I'll trouble you not to waste my man's time, seeing you've näun to do but waste yourn."
Old Rumbeam spoke a broader, rougher language than either of the two workingmen. Neither had he the clean freshness of Sam, whose mother would sooner wash him a shirt a day than let him go sweaty, nor the stout respectability of John's leggings. He looked, without dissimulation, a dirty, disreputable old rag bag, as moulty and dilapidated as his car, his house and his yard—just the sort of man you'd expect to marry a gypsy and earn his living by every sort of swindle. This was Sam's thought as he said:
"Well, I'll be moving off. Morning, John. Morning, Mus' Rumbeam."
Neither answered him, but the latter called sharply to his henchman:
"Hi, John! You cöame and täake this stuff out of the car."
At the back of the car were some stovepipes, a bird cage, a mangle, a couple of grates and a tombstone.
Old Rumbeam was the richest man in Sheddingfold.
He had been born in the parish at about the same time as Sir Charles Wakeham. When the latter was in his nursery, little Billy Rumbeam had been making mud pies outside the thimble cottage which used to stand where the Council Houses are now. When Charlie Wakeham was a good and happy little boy in a sailor suit, young Sill had been resentfully earning three shillings a week by working at Icehouse Farm all the hours between five in the morning and ten at night when he was not at school. Soon after young Charles went to Eton, young Rumbeam fell deeply in love with a gypsy girl he met at Redmile Fair.
People said that it was because the Rumbeams themselves had gypsy blood in them that they so bitterly opposed their son's marriage to beautiful and far from penniless Serena Ripley. But it is not likely that they would have had their way—for the young people were passionately and determinedly in love—if her parents had not been just as obdurate. Serena Ripley disappeared, and three years later (just as young Wakeham was going up to Cambridge) Rumbeam married Nellie Coleman, heiress of Coleman's Stores. She had married beneath her, but Rumbeam was a personable young chap in those days, and people who remembered him then were not so surprised as many at Maas' Tiger's good looks.
He derived these, however, more obviously from his mother, who was not the Nellie Coleman who had died childless a few years after her marriage, but none other than the lost Serena Ripley, romantically restored to her true love. He had met her one day in Lewes, and all parental opposition being ended now, either by distance or by death, and he himself the master of his late wife's money, he had married her almost out of hand and brought her to live at the home his wealth had chosen—a disreputable, tumble-down cottage known as the Creakers.
It was a romantic story, hard to associate with old Rumbeam, and few traces survived to make it credible to the rising generation. The marriage, in spite of its origins in faith and love, was curiously detached. The couple went their separate ways. Serena had nothing to do with her husband's concerns—the buying and selling of every form of human possession, from rags and bones to real estate. She herself set out daily in a four-wheeled dogcart, drawn by a sleek horse, and always with a roll of lino at the back. Having no money of her own—for her people had cast her off on her marriage to a gorgio—she kept her gypsy independence by selling baskets and mats. People said that she really sold charms and philters, and that the roll of lino at the back of the cart was the same as it had been the day she first set out. But, unlike her husband, she was liked and respected, though never really known. Erect and dark above the reins, in her black velvet coat and feathered hat, she received more salutations as she passed than old Rumbeam sagging over the wheel of his squalid car. She was clean and she was honest—which were both surprising in a gypsy; but perhaps living with a gorgio who was neither had shown her the need of contrast. From her son—Thomas Reginald, commonly known as Tiger—she appeared as detached as from her husband. If ever anyone rode with her and the roll of lino in the high dogcart it was the man John Scrattage, who had been with the family even longer than Tiger, having entered old Rumbeam's service only a few months after his second marriage.
Tiger Rumbeam, the apex of the family triangle, was to all outward seeming a favored young man—born, if not with a silver spoon in his mouth, at least with the prospect of picking up much gold and silver from Tom Tiddler's ground at the Creakers. His name was already on the big sign that hung over the yard gate—"Rumbeam & Son, Builders and Contractors." But it did not appear on the less conspicuous board nailed to the fence, which announced in tumble-down lettering: "W. Rumbeam. Old iron, old stores, old clothes, old furnisher." This was the work of Scrattage, and Tiger often said it ought to be taken down, but it never was.
On this particular day, while his car was being unloaded, old Rumbeam looked round impatiently for his son.
Scrattage did not answer.
"I asked you—whur's Tiger?"
"Äun't you seen 'un all this afternoon?"
"Maybe he's in the house."
"More likely at the pub."
Old Rumbeam cast his man a withering glance.
"They äun't open yet."
He turned and made his way to the cottage, through piles of scrap iron and building materials which in the course of years had engulfed so much of its surroundings that by now the garden was little more than a few outcroppings of snapdragon, vegetable marrow and runner beans, self-seeded among the dumps. In some places nature had triumphed over the dustbin in a fiery riot of nasturtiums or a Roman dignity of willow herb. But on the whole it was not a pleasance to excite admiring comments or demands for cut flowers from passing trippers.
Once inside the cottage, the scene changed abruptly. To anyone familiar with its surroundings and its inhabitants the interior of Creakers Cottage was bound to be a surprise. It displayed an almost fanatical order and cleanliness. The furniture (which looked little used) and the floors shone with many moons of reflected light. Carpets, covers and curtains were all stainless and dustless. Everything, from the tapestried suite in the drawing room to the cruet on the dining room sideboard, was arranged with diagrammatic precision. In fact the house showed few if any signs of human occupation. For these you would have to look in the kitchen, where the family sat on the rare occasions when it was at home, and in the outhouses, where it preferred to sleep.
The fact was that none of the Rumbeams liked being indoors. Serena had never lived in a house before her marriage, and after some months of bewildered slavery to a roof and four walls, had escaped in her dogcart, leaving the care of her former prison to Mrs. Scrattage. Old Rumbeam, no doubt with the same rebellion in his blood, was also driving about all day, and young Tiger went with either one or the other until he was old enough to range the country by himself.
The family tendency to roam was increased by the domestic zeal of Mrs. Scrattage, which made them afraid to enter a house so swept and garnished. While they were out, she would bring it to such a perfection of sheen and gloss that on their return they would be afraid to tread on the floors or sit on the chairs. As the years passed her tyranny increased. The growing up and departure of her children set her free to spend long hours in her employers' empty house, where she toiled unhindered and perhaps not entirely free from malicious intent. For by making the whole of it thus a monument to her efficiency and at the same time depriving her employers of its use, she asserted her power over them and her moral superiority, in spite of the small wages they so meanly paid her out of their wealth.
So today there was only one room out of seven in which Old Rumbeam could expect to find his son. He found him shaving over the kitchen sink.
"I've just heard. All's säafe."
"All what's safe?"
"Shiprods Farm and the Denniker field, surelye. I met Joe Limbourne and he told me the Council's zoned the Denniker at six houses to the acre. We start building tomorrow."
"Oh. . . ."
Tiger did not look as pleased as his father. He was carefully scraping the darkness from his chin, which may in part have accounted for the grimace that distorted his handsome mouth. But his eyes too were sulky—his great black gypsy eyes with their cloud of lashes, his eyes that he rolled at the girls and the girls loved.
"Well," pressed Rumbeam, "äun't that good news? Or are you so tedious lazy as you'd sooner lose money than have to work?"
"I certainly don't care for building as an occupation," said Tiger. "After all, I'm not a workingman."
He spoke in a swift, clipped voice that he had acquired after a long struggle with the prevailing voice of Sheddingfold, which was slurred and slow. His mother always spoke quickly, but in a sort of singsong. He had managed to avoid that too, and he had extracted from the newspapers and the British Broadcasting Company a vocabulary of what he considered first-class words. He saw no good in being the only son of a rich man and speaking like a hedger on thirty-one shillings a week. Nor did he see any good in being the son of a rich man and working, even if only periodically, as a builder's laborer.
"I think it would be better if you engaged someone with more experience. There's a lot of unemployment in the village, and I must often delay proceedings by my unproficiency."
"You täake your orders from John and you'll be all right."
"I don't see why I should take my orders from a servant, and I see still less why I should work for nothing when you can perfectly well afford to pay me wages."
Old Rumbeam looked angry.
"Hold your tongue, will 'ee. That's no way to talk of John; and as for paying you, I'm always paying—paying for your clothes and your food and your fags and your beer. I döan't never stop paying."
"But you don't pay wages. You buy me the necessities of life and give me pin money, but that isn't at all similar."
"Why should I pay you wages, seeing as when I'm gone you'll have all my stuff and be a rich man? The less I pay out in wages now, the more there'll be for you some day. I tell 'ee, when I die there'll be a fortune left as 'ull terrify this pläace; and I äun't going to spoil it so as you can täake girls to cinemas and have your hair ploughed over by a hairdresser."
Tiger's ancestry had given him a mane of black curly hair which a Redmile hairdresser set for him in smooth glossy furrows whenever he could afford to have it done. It was a sensitive point with him, as girls were given to derisive comment when it was not so sleeked down, but stood up as it did today in a springing bush round his head. They called him Charlie Chaplin and O-Cedar Mop; and who can bear that?
"Why should I be worse off," he grumbled, "than poor men's sons?"
"You äun't worse off than poor men's sons."
"They work for wages."
"When they äun't on the dole. If you think anyone else aräound here 'ull pay you wages, you're free to go and work fur 'un."
This was a winning thrust, for Tiger knew well that no one else would employ him. He had not too good a name as a worker in Sheddingfold, where, besides, there were many unemployed. He mumbled something about its being a duty, if there were so many fellows out of work, to take on a few to help with the new building. Rumbeam, knowing that he had won, and feeling triumphant also on other counts, replied good-humoredly.
"Reckon I do pay wages, to the right sort of chap. I've got Ted Snapper working for me now down at Bungrils, fixing up the pläace as a gent's residence, and I've Dawes putting a bath and a W.C. into the oast at Quiddlewell. But as for the Denniker, it's all a straightforward job as you and John can do well enough by yourselves till you get to the carpentering and the plumbing. The lower the costs the bigger the profits. I reckon to mäake fifteen thousand päounds out of that old field. Six to the acre—that means I can git fifty houses into it at least."
"Good lord!" cried Tiger. "Do you expect me to build fifty houses?"
"Surelye; and I reckon you mun start tomorrow. Mus' Canning and the gentry might git the zoning chäanged afore the town planning goes through the council. But I'll lay it'll täake a twelvemonth to do that, wud Limbourne blocking it at every turn; and a twelvemonth should ought to be long enough to scramble up fifty houses. Fifty houses costing three hundred päounds each and selling at five hundered. Figure that out to yourself, Maas' Tiger Rumbeam."
The offices of Finch & Son, Solicitors, of Redmile, were in an old house known formerly as Loose Hall. It had been built as a Cloth Hall by some Huguenot family which had strayed from the settlements on the Weald, and was a tall, narrow house, towering by a whole story above its neighbors and crowned by a hipped gable.
Finch & Son had taken the whole of it, which was not as large as it looked, there being only two rooms on each floor. The street door opened into the general office, where Mr. Hunter, the clerk, stooped his long nose over mortgage deeds and leases and two uncouth office boys kicked the legs of a littered table and shouted "Eh?" into the telephone. On the floor above were the quarters of Mr. Norman Finch the "Son," and here a typewriter rattled thunderously most of the day, shaking the ceiling of the room below and the floor of the room above. That was one reason why the head of the firm, Mr. Abel Finch, chose to have his office on the top story of all, though the roof swept to the floor on either side of his roll-top desk and clients arrived breathless and exasperated after climbing the stairs, each one of which was no more than a foot wide and no less than a foot deep.
Another reason for this eyrie was that, as the intervening floor was used entirely for the storage of documents, it guaranteed the privacy of all consultations, which might otherwise (owing to certain peculiarities in the construction of Loose Hall) have been overheard both above and below. Mr. Abel Finch's clients were mostly of the type whose affairs are urgently private, and they appreciated this seclusion, even though they reviled it on the stairs.
On this particular morning he was sitting at his desk, listening to the slow approach of footsteps and stertorous breathing. The room, built right into the gable, was stuffy and blazing hot with sunshine. The window was only a few inches open, and the smell of old wood, old plaster and old papers, thickened into visibility by the pungent smoke of Mr. Finch's favorite brand of tobacco, did not help the visitor to recover his breath when he came panting and wheezing into the room.
"Good morning, Mr. Rumbeam."
"Marnun!—whee—whee—ee—ee—why d'you sit up here?"
"Because it's nice and private. I think I've told you that I'm always ready to see clients in my son's office; but I understood that you preferred to come to mine."
Old Rumbeam muttered something unintelligible as he sat down.
"Now about the Chant Stream property," said Mr. Finch briskly. "The deed is here for your signature." He pulled it out of the litter of papers on his desk.
"Got the money?"
"I think so. I've interested Miss Walker again. She's tired of only getting three and a half per cent on her War Loan, so she's asked me to sell out and find her something at five or six."
"Five it'll be—not six."
"I shouldn't stand out for one per cent. She's used to five per cent, but not to six; it's just the extra money that might tempt her."
"How much 'ud she put in?"
"I could get two thousand out of her if she likes the idea."
Rumbeam solemnly nodded his big head. He looked almost grotesque, thought Finch, sitting there slumped on his chair, with his shapeless clothes crumpled round him, nodding his head like a china figure on a mantelpiece—an unusually dirty china figure, such as no housewife worth her duster would keep on any mantelpiece.
"I döan't reckon to develop the pläace yet awhile," he said. "I'll mäake do wud wot's standing there till I'm shut of the Denniker. I mun hire Tom Noven to fix up the farm-house, so as we can git a good price for it, and the cottages are all let at seven bob a week."
"You'll find the council making trouble over those, I'm afraid. They had a demolition order threatening in Mott's time."
There was a contortion of old Rumbeam's features which might have been a grin.
"Reckon I know how to fix a demolition order. There was one threatened me over Roundabouts for five year, and it only come last week; and I reckon to hold up the one against Sprattersreed for another twelvemonth. And every week at least three päound in my pocket for the two of them."
"All the same," said Finch, "it might be more profitable for us to recondition the place—knock the whole row together and sell it to week-enders. You know I don't entirely agree with your demolition policy. It puts money in our pockets without having to spend for it, but it's only for a limited time. I believe we'd make more if we risked a little outlay and then maybe we could get a fancy price."
"Maybe we could and maybe we couldn't. I'm not for risking näun, seeing as I'll have to täake a chance or two over Shiprods Farm. I reckon by the way things are going that I'll have spent nigh all I'm putting into it before I täake anything out."
"If the council's zoning figure holds, you ought to do well with the Denniker. But what about the other fields?—what'll you do with the Flettice and Sore's? I understand that those are at present zoned at only two to the acre."
"I'll let 'em go wud the farmhouse—them and Madam's field. That'll help the sale. Some folkses like to feel they've got their own land wot can't be built on. The Smock I'll sell to Blazier and Company of Lewes. They build that style of two-to-the-acre house. I döan't."
"No," said Finch with a grin, "you don't. But you could if you'd employ the labor, and I believe it would pay you. I can't understand why you won't build anything but what you and Scrattage can manage between you."
"I've got Tiger on the job now, and I reckon we'll have the whole fifty of 'em scrambled up before the town planning's through."
Even old Finch blinked at this.
"Fifty of 'em—my word . . . thought anything about your layout?"
"Aye; and if you'll bring out the map I'll show you."
The map was brought out, and their two heads leaned together over it—the heads of two agricultural procurers, plotting the downfall of an honest farm and their wealth out of its immoral earnings. As soon as "street entrances," "plots" and "frontages" had been discussed to their joint satisfaction, Rumbeam stood up to go, and Finch knew that he would then disclose the real purpose of his visit.
"I wur thinking, Mus' Finch . . . I mun mäake a will of some sorts näow."
The old lawyer's blood stirred. Here was likely to be a good fat, intricate, litigious will, such as would keep him intriguing busily for many a month and finally bring him substantial rewards. He adored wills and old Rumbeam's would be an ace of wills or he was much mistaken.
His manner betrayed none of his private exultation.
"We-ell, Mr. Rumbeam—if you remember, I recommended that step to you some time ago."
"Surelye. But I didn't think there was no hurry."
"I hope there isn't now. But in the midst of life we are in death, as the psalmist says. So it's best to be prepared for anything."
"I didn't think much of that till a day or two ago," said Rumbeam, "but of läate I've bin feeling turble awkward, turning swimmy and such, and I asked Doctor France and he told me I mun pop out any day wud high blood-pressers."
He seemed totally unmoved by this announcement, and it was his lack of emotion rather than the statement itself which made old Finch feel embarrassed and secretly appalled.
"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that, Mr. Rumbeam. But I've some experience of what high blood pressure is. It's not at all uncommon among men of our age, and judging by my knowledge of other cases you may live to a hundred."
The first part of old Rumbeam's reply might have been uttered by a dying saint; the second part, however, was not in keeping.
"It's all one to me, whether I do or whether I döan't. All I care about is who gets my money."
"Very natural, Mr. Rumbeam—very natural. I suppose you want most of it to go to your son."
"Surelye. I want Tiger to have most of it. But his mother mun have her share. I reckon she'll outlive me by many a year."
"What provision do you intend to make for her?"
"She's queer about money—döan't sim to have no feeling for it; and wunst when I wur talking to her about such things she said all she asked wur two päounds a week to live on and a cart and pony."
"Then what about leaving her an annuity?—or the interest on a couple of thousand pounds?"
"I want her to have five päounds a week, paid out regular, so as she döan't have to think about it. Can you fix that?"
"Certainly. And the rest to go to your son, Tiger?"
Old Rumbeam paused, and his eyes on Finch's face had a searching, cautious look.
"I want Tiger to have the money and the business and the houses I've built, but I want Scrattage to have a couple of hundred päounds and Creakers Cottage."
Though he did not show it, Mr. Finch was considerably startled.
"Surely the cottage had better go with the business. All your stock is in the yard."
"The stock is to be Tiger's, but I reckon he'd want to shift it. He'd be out fur a smarter pläace. And seemingly we döan't none of us care much about that cottage; but Mis' Scrattage is unaccountable set on it, so she may as well have it when I'm gone."
Mr. Finch made no further comment. With his fountain pen he jotted down the main bequests of old Rumbeam's will and promised to have it drawn up by his next visit. But when his client was gone he thought to himself: I wonder just where Scrattage has got him for blackmail.
At the end of the day, when old Rumbeam was on his way home, he noticed a trap ahead of him on the Lewes road. It bowled along at a smart pace, the horse going steadily, a woman on the driver's seat. Yonder she goes, he thought to himself. I'll stop at the Crown and have a drink. She don't like my passing her.
Actually the dislike was seated in Serena Rumbeam's horse, which though unmoved by the common ways of traffic, had a violent objection to the distinctive noises of old Rumbeam's car. Already he was tossing up his head and throwing an occasional canter into the measure of his trot. . . . Serena knew that her husband must be somewhere behind them, but she was not afraid that he would pass. He considered her. He knew she disliked having Ruslipen frightened or flustered. "So . . . so," she murmured over the reins, "so . . . so . . . pal," and soon the angry sounds died away. Rumbeam had stopped at the Crown.
By the time he reached home she had unharnessed and stabled Ruslipen and was already in the kitchen, stirring a pot over the duck's nest grate. (She found that more congenial, more in keeping with experience, than a kitchen range—it was even possible to bake a hedgehog or a squirrel in the ashes.)
"Hullo, old lady—so you're back."
"Had a good day?"
She was a woman of few words, but her "yes" was sung so pleasantly that it did not sound abrupt.
"Well, so've I. I've seen Finch and fixed up wud 'un over Shiprods and Chant Stream. And I've told 'un to mäake my will."
She looked at him anxiously with her shadowed eyes.
"You've remembered what you promised?"
"Surelye. You're to have the horse and cart and five päound paid out to you every week wudout any trouble."
"I was thinking of what you promised John."
"Döan't you vrother about John. He'll do fine. I'm letting him have the Creakers and two hundred päound in his pocket."
"It doesn't seem very much, compared with what Tiger will have."
Old Rumbeam shrugged his shoulders.
"I can't help that. John mun have wot he can git, and it wouldn't look seemly if he got more. Tiger's the son and heir and I promised Crouch I'd do well by 'un."
Serena laughed like a gypsy, hiding her mouth in the fringe of her shawl.
"Crouch! He'll never marry Gloria Crouch."
"What mäakes you say that? He's walking out wud her, äun't he?"
"He's taken her to one or two dances, when Nan Chasepool wasn't about."
Old Rumbeam looked disturbed.
"I'll never believe he's running after Nan Chasepool. I'll lay he's never done more than stand her a drink or two in the pub. He's told me he'll marry Gloria Crouch."
"But he hasn't asked her."
"A man mun choose his time."
"Any time's hers, I reckon."
Old Rumbeam thrust his hands deep into his trouser pockets and frowned.
"Where's he gone now?"
"Up to the Lamb. He was starting just as I came in."
"The hell he was! . . . and I mäade certain-sure as he'd be going to Shallowbed, wud that new suit he's bought hisself in Bulverhythe. He's a fool if he döan't go and see her soon—a girl wud five thousand päounds and a good farm coming to her."
"Tiger doesn't need five thousand pounds. But poor John—" she came up to him with her wheedling gypsy smile (spare a sixpence, kind gentleman—you'll never regret it)—"poor John will have only two hundred pounds."
"This hasn't nothing to do wud John. Whosumdever Tiger marries or döan't marry it wöan't be no help to John. I'm giving him the cottage as well as two hundred pounds, and that's enough."
"The cottage will be for his missus."
"It comes out the same."
"No. It'll be her house, just as it is now; and he'll be afraid to live in it, just as we are. She's a hard woman with a house. I think John should have five hundred pounds."
"And I tell you he wöan't never get it. I äun't all that rich; and when the taxes are paid there'll be no more than enough for Tiger."
"If John had five hundred pounds he could start a business of his own."
"And cut out Tiger? No, I'll never have that. John mun work for Tiger same as he works fur me."
"It doesn't seem fair, seeing that he's the eldest son."
"Tiger döan't know näun about that; and even if he did he'd expect John to work fur 'un. A son born out of wedlock's no better than a servant when it comes to money."
"I don't see what difference it makes."
Old Rumbeam looked shocked.
"That's a tedious ordinary thing to say. I'd be ashamed if any of the neighbors wur to hear you speak so. John Scrattage döan't bear my name, so he can't have my money. That's fair enough. It's wot ought to be and what has to be."
She bowed her head, and the plumes in her great hat nodded sadly, like the branches of a tree that bows before an irresistible wind.
"Well," said Nan Chasepool, "here we all are; and I bet that I'm the only one Grandfather isn't pleased to see."
She stood in the middle of the room, her glass in her hand, her bright, contemptuous eyes snapping over the company. They were in the drawing room—the room which was used only for social occasions and still looked very much as Lady Wakeham had last seen it on the day, fifteen years ago, when she had gone upstairs with a shiver in her blood and a queer pain in her side. It was full of the things she had loved—china, pictures, books, none of them very beautiful or very valuable and a great deal too many of them for modern taste. The style of the room, in fact, was still 1894, the year in which it had been completely refurnished for Sir Charles's bride. Only the covers and curtains had been changed since. A large water color, faded by time and light into a dream landscape of unearthly blues, still stood on an easel, the grand piano was still draped in a Spanish shawl, and a "silver table" still made work for less willing and less expert hands than those that had ministered to its first glory.
"Here you all are, and I'm very glad to see you all," said Sir Charles, with a courtly stress on the last word. He was always courteous to women, even to Nan, who flicked away his courtesies.
"It's just as well that lies don't ring bells, isn't it?" said she.
"Why should you think your grandfather isn't pleased to see you?" asked Paula Summers.
"Because I'm always wanting to borrow money," said her daughter simply. "One gets sick of that in time; and I was here only six weeks ago."
The other two people in the room, who had not spoken yet, exchanged a glance. They did it swiftly, in a practiced manner which did not call attention to themselves.
"Ellis, my dear," said Sir Charles, "let me fill up your glass."
In his secret heart of preference, safely hidden beneath his courtesies, he liked Ellis Hurland better than anyone else in the room. She was tall and graceful, but not so elegant as Paula nor so pretty as Nan. Her face looked both tired and alert; her eyes, curiously retracted under long dark lashes and level brows, watched, changed and sparkled, and always seemed to speak or to smile before she moved her lips.
Fred Malkinson picked up her glass and brought it to the table.
"Did Mrs. Noven make these cocktails?" asked Nan.
"Yes—according to the recipe you gave."
"Don't you believe it. There's ice in any cocktail I make, and there's gin. These seem to be fifty-fifty vermouth and bitters—both warm."
Sir Charles for the first time looked offended.
"I'm sure Mrs. Noven wouldn't take it upon herself to change the prescription."
"Prescription's the word, and you've said it. Ellis, don't sacrifice yourself on the altar of politeness. There's bound to be sherry in the house or I can mix you something fresh."
"Nan," said her mother, "you're intolerable."
"Because I won't subscribe to the idea that Mrs. Noven's cocktails must be good because she was born a Coleman and married Bill Noven who's worked all his life at some farm or other where the family used to have their shooting luncheons when Grandfather was a boy?"
Some of the offensiveness was taken out of her words by her attitude as she spoke them—seated on the arm of her grandfather's chair, with her golden head leaning against his silver one. But he was only partly reconciled.
"Mrs. Noven's a very good cook," he said firmly.
There was an awkward silence, broken at last by Ellis Hurland.
"How lucky for us all that you've still got her!"
"I've got her and Mrs. Wildgoose, with Mrs. Brooks twice a week, so we ought to do all right."
"Dad's army of Obligers turned up in force," said Paula Summers. "I wish you could have at least some of them when we're not here. I can't believe that Mrs. Noven and Maude and Gladys really look after you."
"Oh, yes—they do that very well. It's not the same, of course, but then I can't expect it in a place this size."
"You ought to have more servants, and surely you can afford them now you've sold Shiprods Farm."
Sir Charles winced.
"I'm afraid I've other things to do with my money. Besides, there aren't any servants nowadays. The girls don't go out to service the way they used to. I don't think there's a single girl in Sheddingfold now looking for a place."
"You could get maids from London."
His old face stiffened into obstinacy as he met an attack that had been made many times before.
"I don't want maids from London. They wouldn't suit me and they'd upset us all down here—put ideas into the girls' heads. . . ."
"Anyone who could do that," said Nan, "would be worth her salary. But I don't believe anyone could. Gladys and Maude are practically idea-proof."
Fred Malkinson leaned towards Ellis Hurland, who had finished her drink.
"Shall we go out into the garden?"
"Yes—let's. Dinner won't be for another hour."
They walked out together through the French window.
"Just as well let the family get its preliminary wrangle done," said Fred. "They'll get on with it better without us."
"I wish they'd let the old man alone—let him live his life as he enjoys it and not as they do."
"I really think, though, it was going a bit too far in local patriotism to have Mrs. Noven make the cocktails."
"He did it only because he wanted to have them ready for us when we arrived. It's a part of his thoughtfulness . . . and it would never occur to him that hers wouldn't be as good as anybody's."
"No, I suppose it wouldn't. And after all it's a great concession to modern times for him to have cocktails at all. I'm sure they never made them when he was a boy."
"That's just it. He's been extraordinarily good to us ever since we first came. He's not adaptable, but he must have adapted his ideas a lot to have us here at all."
"He used to know my father when he was a boy—that explains everything. I'm my dad staying here with him over again."
"And who am I?"
"You're Paula's old school friend."
"Whom he never saw when we actually were at school together."
"He's forgotten that."
"He's very sweet."
They had walked away from the house, to where the rose garden offered the nearest seclusion. A privet hedge shut it off from the rest of the grounds, and as they came into it, the scent of roses, of the sun-stewed box hedges, of the enclosing privet, mingled in an old-fashioned bouquet of almost over-powering sweetness. Ellis sniffed it with a sigh.
"This is delicious. How do I manage to live in London?"
"That's what I often ask myself," said Fred. "I own I couldn't live without a garden."
"Is yours at Lillystand as nice as this?"
"It's a little neater and trimmer—Victoria would never allow those hedges. But it smells just as good."
Ellis sighed once more.
"Well, anyway, I've got it for a fortnight. Oh, Fred, I can't tell you how much I've been looking forward to coming here. This last year seems somehow to have been much longer than the year before."
He said quietly:
"I'm glad to see you again, Ellis."
She turned her eyes to his face, but he was not looking at her.
The Rector employed an outdoor man called Muddle. The name was so widespread and so highly esteemed in Sheddingfold that nobody except ignorant strangers ever attempted to make a joke of it; and the joke was spoilt by the fact that he was very nearly the most tidy, orderly and methodical man in the parish. The Rector would not have employed him without these qualities, for his ideas on gardening were definitely north country. He liked his borders to be trim and neat; he never would agree that weeds "couldn't be helped," and ordered them to be removed by hand or hoe, instead of "turned in" to race legitimate seedlings for a final appearance. Nor did he like to have his lettuces crowded into a week of hectic abundance by the simultaneous sowing of the entire crop; and he insisted on having his peaches and pears tied up in muslin bags so that the birds and the wasps should not have the greater part of them. Few gardeners in Sheddingfold would have put up with such fanatical ideas, but Muddle carried them out as a man who fulfills not only his master's commands but his own nature.
Sam Wildgoose stood marveling at him.
"Looks as if it was drawed on a slate," he commented on a bed of annuals.
"Well, so it should do," said Muddle, who was self-righteous.
"We've got some of them artyriniums at the manor, but they're pottery li'l things, and half the asters has bin eaten off by slugs."
"You should try meta for the slugs."
"Well, Brooks he said to me that if they didn't get no better we'd have to try something. And them leather-jackets too. The beds is stiff with them. You don't seem to have none here."
"We don't have 'em here," said Muddle sternly, "because they've all been dug up."
"Well, I can't dig 'cause of my arm. And Brooks he never were much of a digger. We're short of spades, too. One got left out in the Bogey field when we was mending the dick."
"Six months ago," completed and commented Muddle.
"Surelye," Sam assented cheerfully. "I been to look for it once, but somebody mun have taken it. I've been thinking to ask Sir Charles for a new one, but he looks at you that awkward when you ask to have anything bought."
"I reckon he can afford a spade. Miss Nan 'ull have left him enough for that."
"If she has, it's because he's hidden it. What d'you think she wants out of him now?"
Wildgoose was beginning to be worth his company.
"Money to make films. Ma was telling me only this morning. Last night seemingly she could talk of nothing else. She knows some chap who's making films and wants the money for it. Ma said as she was telling Sir Charles he mun sell Ruffets now."
"He'd never do it."
"No. He said he never would, though she told him he'd make his fortune if he did. More money in films than farms, she said."
"Maybe she's right, if all a farm was for was to make money."
"I can't see the good of films myself, but a tur'ble lot of people seem to be set up wud 'em. My ma, for one. She'd always think it worth the bus fare to see a film, and now maybe, she says, Miss Nan 'ull be a film star."
Both men laughed immoderately at this, their differences sunk in a common derision.
"It'll be all of a piece wud the rest of her if she is," scoffed Muddle, "but I pray for the old man's sake that she won't. He'd never get over the shame of it."
"'At that he wouldn't, and he's stood enough. I'd like to see her stop plaguing him."
"What about them other two? The Mr. and Mrs. what don't belong to each other? They're here again too, ain't they?"
"Yes, they're both here and going on just the same. They was walking together up the Hobby Way as I started."
Muddle stuck his fork into the ground and laid a meditative elbow on it.
"Queer, ain't it?"
"Unaccountable queer. But Ma says she'll lay there ain't no harm in it."
"It ain't everyone who says that."
"No," said Sam, "it ain't. But Ma says Sir Charles 'ud never stand for any wickedness."
"Maybe he wouldn't if he knew what was going on. But there's a lot going on round here he doesn't know about—or he wouldn't have sold Shiprods to old Rumbeam."
"That's true. But Ma says they're two old friends of the family; and all of 'em enjoyed theirselves so much together fust time they was here that they've been asked to come back this twice."
"Do you believe it?"
"No," said Sam.
"Stands to reason if they're old friends they wouldn't turn up for the fust time two years ago."
"They say Mis' Hurland was at school wud Mis' Summers, but no one's heard nothing about it till just lately."
"I'd like to see my old woman's face if I started taking a holiday wudout her, let alone wud someone else."
"Ma says they may be widow and widower for all we know."
"I don't believe it. Sir Charles 'ud have made it plain if they had been, and anyway they'd have been married to each other by this time at the rate they're going on."
"I mun say I never seen 'em kiss and cuddle, and I seen 'em a lot."
"But you ain't seen 'em always," said Muddle darkly. "You can't see 'em now. There they are together up the Hobby Way, and only the Lord knows what they're doing alone on the hill."
The Hobby Way was an ancient track cutting the face of Shiprods Hill behind the village. It mounted in a chalky ramp to the shoulder and then became lost on the open down, though it was said to have been traceable not long ago as far as the dew pond in Kitchen Hollow. The Reverend Edward Longslow held that it had been originally a Druids' Way, linked with a similar Way from Wilmington, where the Long Man still stands holding open the Midsummer gate. Long after the Druids, had come the hobbyhorses of May-day fertility rites which had given it its present name. Mr. Longslow was always very angry with those who held that the Long Man was only a monkish recreation and the Hobby Way nothing more processional than a lane for the shepherds employed by a farm still known as Hobb's Haste.
The June sun made a white dazzle of the Hobby Way as Fred Malkinson and Ellis Hurland climbed up it. The footsteps of so many shepherds had sunk it so deep into the hill that high banks shut off the little breeze that blew from the Weald and would have cooled their hot faces. The stillness, with their footsteps on the chalk crunching through it, seemed a part of the heat.
Fred wiped his forehead.
"Shall we stop and rest?"
"No—let's go on to the top. There'll be a breeze there. I wish I'd brought my dark glasses—this whiteness seems to bite my eyes."
"Shut them and take my arm. I'll guide you."
She did so, but only for a minute. Soon she took her hand away and he did not suggest replacing it.
Already they could see the gape of blue between the banks that turned the shoulder. Soon the hard whiteness of the chalk was powdering round tufts of grass and borage, while the banks sloped away into clumps of thorn. Then almost abruptly it was the turf cushioning their feet and the wide green spread of the open down rolling before them away and away, beyond the Cuckmere Valley to the blue rims of Hampshire in the west.
The breeze was also suddenly there, but it was behind them, blowing Ellis's hair into her eyes. She swung round and faced it, her hair flying out behind her in a little, short mane. She gulped the sweetness into her lungs, while her eyes rested on the green of the fields below and the dark stain of woodlands on the distant Weald.
"This is lovely. This is worth the climb."
"Shall we stop here or go down to the dew pond?"
"Let's stop here for a bit, anyway, and enjoy the view."
She threw herself down and the scent of the baking thyme came up to meet her in a sudden aromatic waft. She laid her cheek against the thymy turf and a secret smile played round her lips—a smile that stirred an unconscious reflection of itself on his mouth. For a moment neither of them spoke, then he said:
"We're lucky this year. Last year it rained too much."
"Yes, it's nicer when we can get away from the house."
"After all, we've come here mainly to talk."
Talk, talk, she thought—talk and talk.
"That's true, and of course we can't really talk when the others are around—not about our own affairs, I mean. Besides, I'll confess that Paula sometimes gets on my nerves at close quarters. I'm fond of her, and for every reason I'm glad to have met her again; but she's not at her best when she's with her family."
"Who is? Are you and I?"
He flicked her a glance which she would not meet.
"She's really a very nice person," she said, sticking the conversation to Paula, "a nice person who would be a great deal nicer if she was happy."
"Isn't she happy?"
"No; she can't be with that man. And she wasn't with the other one, either. Of course, you may say it's her own fault, marrying the wrong person twice."
"Whereas you and I have done it only once."
"Don't," said Ellis sharply.
She changed her position, leaning on her elbow and looking away from him over the ridges in their hazy pool of heat. Into the little valley just below them, where a dew pond lay like a drop of water at the bottom of a cup, a flock of sheep had appeared, pouring in a pale mass round the dark figure of their shepherd. Their bleating filled the silence with a sort of plaint, an entreaty that ebbed and flowed, a part of the surging of the flock. Ellis watched and listened without speaking; after a few moments she heard Fred say:
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that."
"No. This sort of thing is possible only if we don't say that sort of thing."
After a while he said:
"You're not angry with me, are you?"
"No, of course not."
But she was angry—blazingly angry, as only Fred had power to make her angry. She smiled a stiff little smile.
"We must keep ordinary. We shan't be able to go on seeing each other if we dig."
"Into the past."
"I won't—not again. I like being with you so much that I'm not going to do anything to spoil it. Let's talk about other things. How's Bruce enjoying himself in Italy?"
"I don't know. I haven't heard from him."
She was surprised at herself for being unable to get rid of the sharpness in her voice.
"I expect he's finding it very hot," she went on quickly, "but he loves Venice and when he's there he'll put up with things he'd never endure in London."
She did not want to talk about Bruce, and for the first time it annoyed her to think that Fred enjoyed talking about him. The detached, friendly discussion of each other's affairs, the comfortable exchange of information and suggestion which had been such an important part of their intercourse last summer and the summer before, now suddenly seemed to her a waste of time. Fred evidently did not think so.
"I told you, didn't I," he was saying, "that Victoria hasn't gone to Falmouth again this year. She decided that on the whole it was too relaxing and that North Cornwall would be better for the children. So she's taken rooms in a farmhouse near Bude."
Ellis did not want to talk about Victoria either, but she was beginning to feel ashamed of her present mood, which she felt was due to envy, as his marriage was so obviously standing up while hers had fallen down. So she plunged resolutely into a subject which, moreover, had always had a sort of morbid attraction for her.
"How is Victoria? Has she quite got over that dose of rheumatic fever she had in January?"
"Oh, yes—quite. She's been absolutely fit all the spring and summer. Luckily it wasn't nearly so bad as it might have been."
He rolled over on his back, shading his eyes from the aching dazzle of the blue sky. It seemed to her, watching him thus, that he was putting on flesh, a certain bodily slackness. She thought: it's because he always drives instead of walking; Victoria never goes for walks with him—she can't, of course; she's got the children.
"I want your advice. Nanny has to leave us when the holidays are over; and I'm thinking it might be a good opportunity to stop the reign of nannies and start a governess. Danby's really getting too old for nursery life."
"How old is he?"
Her voice still sounded clipped and sharp. The subject fascinated her, but frightened her at the same time. She never knew what she might find in her own mind about Fred's children. It was like turning up a stone, wondering what might be hiding underneath.
"Then I should think he could do with a nannie for another year, especially as Sarah can't be old enough to be handed over entirely to a governess."
"I know—that's what Victoria says. But if we start another nannie it mayn't be easy to get rid of her at the end of a year or even two. Nannies have a way of staying on and on.
"Till they finally end in the Times obituary column as the 'faithful friend of So-and-So, aged 93.' That's perfectly true. I suppose you couldn't run to both a nannie and a governess."
"That's out of the question. It must be one or the other."
"Have you ever thought of sending Danby to a nursery school?"
She was talking more easily now, losing some of her hungry disappointment in the interest she must always feel in all that was his.
"There isn't one nearer than Shrewsbury."
"Well, that would do, wouldn't it? You could take him in with you when you go to the office."
"I'm afraid I don't go very often now. It's a dull show and they seem to get on very well without me."
"I thought you liked going there. You used to say that the human interest made up for the lack of more exciting things."
"I dunno . . . the human interest seems to have tailed off a bit lately. And it's a long way to go—about twice as far as it was from Breadwardine."
Ellis shook her head.
"You don't approve?"
"I certainly don't like to think of you giving up Malkinson and Freeland. It's a family job and you're the only Malkinson left in it. Besides, what about Danby? Won't he be interested in it some day?"
"I don't suppose that Danby will ever have anything to do with Malkinson and Freeland."
Ellis thought to herself: Victoria doesn't care about it and her people are snobs. Aloud she said:
"Well, on the days you don't go to the office, couldn't you send him into Shrewsbury in the car?"
"I suppose I could. But I don't know . . . he's a bit young to go all that way with only Clarkson. . . . On the other hand, it might do him good to be more on his own. You never know with kids. I wish I knew more about him and his sister, but at present they're too young for me to understand."
"Or for anyone to understand, I expect."
"Victoria says she does."
"Don't you believe it. Nobody understands young children—even the people who really remember their own childhood, which isn't more than ten per cent of the human race."
"I've a feeling you might understand them better than Victoria. I wish you could see them."
Her eyes quickly searched his face, but found nothing there.
"I don't suppose I ever shall," she said lightly. "Anyway, not till they're no longer children. And, Fred, have you any idea what the time is? If we're going to the Rodmell pub for lunch we ought to start at once."
He looked at his watch.
"We certainly ought. But it's been so pleasant here." He gazed round at the thyme-cushions humming with bees. "Now, tell me honestly, don't you wish we'd brought a picnic basket?"
This time her eyes found what she wanted in his grinning face and her heart lifted suddenly out of constraint.
"No," she said, smiling back at him. "I'd still rather walk five miles and have bread and cheese and beer at a pub."
"Even if the pub smells of all the bread and cheese and beer that have been eaten and drunk there since it opened?"
"Yes, even so."
He sprang to his feet.
"Ellis, you're great! Good Lord, how right you are! How I hate picnics!"
She was on her feet too; they were walking over the bee-hung turf down into the hollow—now empty of plangent sheep and holding only the shining dregs of the dew pond—which they must cross to reach the row of seven haystacks on the horizon which the hill had drawn so close to them against the sky. Ellis's heart was singing now. She knew that Victoria adored picnics and hated pubs.
Sir Charles apologized.
"I'm sorry nobody's at home. But it's such a beautiful day—they've all gone out."
"Well, it's you we really came to see," said Canning. "Betsy has a message for the others later on, but I'd like to have a word or two with you first."
"Oh, yes, of course—delighted. Do sit down. Won't you have some tea?"
"Thanks very much," said Betsy, "but we had tea before we came out."
Sir Charles looked relieved. No doubt he had also had his, and there might have been trouble with the kitchen if he had asked for more.
"What I particularly want to talk to you about," said Canning, "is Shiprods Farm—how we can save it from the worst."
"Is there any chance of doing that?"
"Well, it's occurred to me that if you were to have the manor estate zoned as a private open space, you could claim a certain amount of consideration from the council and might be able to get the zoning figure of the Denniker field reduced, as it adjoins your property."
The Squire shook his head.
"It's too late. He's started already. He'll have the whole fifty houses up before the scheme's passed."
"The old scoundrel! You mean to say that he's actually building?"
"Yes. Didn't you see?"
"No. We came the other way, by Stumblehole Lane."
"Well, if you'd come through the village. . . ."
"We can go back that way."
"There's no need. You can see it all plainly from this window."
He lifted aside the old-fashioned lace curtain that was blurring the outline of a chestnut tree, and they could see below the boughs a stretch of park land, sloping toward a heap of pink bricks that rose in the corner of a large derelict field.
"That field's the Denniker," continued Sir Charles. "You can see it almost as far as the hedge that divides it from old Polder's garden. My grandfather planted those trees to hide the village, but the village is a pretty sight compared to what we'll have to look at in a few months."
"Couldn't you plant some more trees?" asked Canning.
"Yes, I could; but they would keep the sun off the house, I'm afraid. Besides, it would take almost a whole forest to screen the Denniker. You can see it from every window on this side and in the east wing."
"Besides," said Betsy, "however successfully you managed to hide the thing, it would still be there—nine acres of first-class arable utterly ruined."
"Yes," said the Squire gently in his old singsong voice. "It doesn't look much now—it's been out of cultivation for a year, but it used to grow the best wheat in the parish. Many a time I've watched the Denniker cut from this very window; and when I was a boy nearly all the young folk of the village would be there on the last day of the harvest. It didn't do so well after the Chantlers went. Joe Chantler was a wonderful farmer. When he died I wished he had a son I could let it to; but he left only daughters. So I let it to Tommy Reed, who didn't always keep things just as I should have liked them. But even in the worst years we never got less than five quarters to the acre off that field."
"And now it's to be six houses, and nobody cares; just because it's plain agricultural land and not a beauty spot already spoilt by car parks and teahouses."
"I still believe," said Tony, "that we shall be able to do something. Even though he has started to build it's difficult to imagine that old Rumbeam will be able to run up fifty houses before the Town Planning Scheme is through—unless he's very much less economical in the way of labor than he used to be."
"As far as I can see, he's only got his son and John Scrattage working there."
"That's what I expected; and Scrattage is one of the slowest coaches in these parts, while Tiger will want to take every other hour off to play. I'm willing to race them, anyhow."
"If Rumbeam sees what you're after he'll put on extra men," said Betsy.
"I don't believe anything will make Rumbeam extravagant with his wage list. No—he'll trust to other methods, to Limbourne's blocking me on the council, to packing the Town Planning Committee with his friends, and so on. But I still believe I can beat him, and whatever the result I shall enjoy fighting him."
Sir Charles shook his head sadly.
"He's a dangerous man."
"Not when he's in the open, and I'll make him come out. But it will help a lot if you'll agree to the private open space idea."
"I'm quite willing to agree. It doesn't involve me in anything, does it?"
"Nothing, except not to build on the place," said Tony with a grin.
"And you think it will help me with the council?"
"It ought to. There's no legal obligation on their part to consider the owners of private open spaces, but the Ministry wants them encouraged, and I think that an agreement would make it easier for me on the committee. It'll be some sort of a stick to beat Limbourne with, anyway."
They discussed the matter a few minutes longer, and then the Cannings rose to take their leave.
"We really must be getting back," said Betsy. "We're haymaking, you know."
"Must you hurry away so soon? Paula will be sorry to have missed you."
"We're hoping so much that you and Mrs. Summers and all your party will come to dinner with us one day next week. Would Wednesday suit you?"
"I'm sure we shall be delighted—but there are a great many of us, you know. I really feel that. . . ."
"Oh, please bring everyone. We shall be quite informal; and we shall have to be dismally early too, because of Mrs. Snapper. Do you mind coming at a quarter past seven?"
"Of course not. Any time will suit us."
Betsy did not say "and don't dress," because she knew that he would be horrified at the idea of going out to dinner in ordinary clothes. He would put on his old-fashioned stiff shirt, with its high collar and narrow tie, and his black dinner jacket that would look dingy beside Tony's midnight blue; and the women of his party would dress to match him in gowns which they never wore except at the opposite poles of Sheddingfold Manor and the Café Anglais.
"I hope," she continued, "the others won't mind accepting a message as an invitation. But I'll ring up Mrs. Summers this evening and fix it definitely."
"If you'll wait a few minutes longer, I expect she'll be home. In fact, I think I hear her coming in now. . . ." Footsteps sounded in the hall—a woman's and a man's. "No, that must be Fred and Ellis. . . ." The footsteps came nearer; they were in the passage, coming toward the study, and both the Cannings looked at the door with a certain interest. At last they were to meet the mysterious uncoupled strangers of whom they had heard so much. It struck Tony that the man and woman in the doorway looked taken aback at the sight of visitors.
"Ellis, my dear, here are Mr. and Mrs. Canning, who have very kindly asked us to dinner next Wednesday. Let me introduce Mrs. Hurland and Mr. Malkinson."
The usual half-listening exchanges were made, and then the two couples seemed to fall apart. Malkinson said he would have to go and wash—he was covered with dust. Mrs. Hurland said "So must I, for the same reason"; upon which Betsy Canning renewed and persevered in her farewells: "We really ought to go. I'm so sorry, but we simply can't stay. We'll be seeing you all on Wednesday."
Tony, who had liked the looks of Malkinson and Mrs. Hurland, was sorry to leave, but he guessed that there was a reason for his wife's determination, a new reason, more cogent than haymaking. After so many years it was sometimes almost impossible not to know her thoughts, and he realized that some new idea or discovery had suddenly entered her mind. He could not be so sure whether she would communicate it to him, but after they had driven through the park gates she turned to him and said:
"Do you know?—I'm absolutely sure that Mrs. Hurland is the Mrs. Malkinson I met years ago."
"I told you I'd met a Mrs. Malkinson when I was at Saundersfoot with Claudia. That's the one."
"Are you positive?"
"Yes—quite. Who could forget those eyes?"
"But if she's really Mrs. Malkinson, why is she called Mrs. Hurland?"
"Divorced and married again, I suppose."
"Then what is she doing here with Malkinson?"
"That's just what we don't know."
"Are you suggesting that he's her former husband?"
"If he isn't, what else can he be? She'd never come here just to meet a brother-in-law or a cousin by marriage."
"I find it still more difficult to believe that she'd come here to meet an ex-husband."
"They may still like each other and want to meet occasionally, and this would be a fairly easy way of doing it. It also explains Sir Charles's connivance. I don't believe he'd connive at an illicit love affair, but he probably doesn't regard an ex-husband and wife as illicit at all."
"You're a wonderful woman."
"Don't be silly, Tony."
She sometimes spoke sharply to him—when he did not take her seriously in her serious moods.
"Sorry, darling. Perhaps you're right, though somehow I can't quite swallow it."
As he spoke he knew that his reluctance was chiefly emotional. The idea of two human creatures who had once been husband and wife meeting in this way—whether as lovers or as friends—gave him an almost physical feeling of disgust. He could face the thought—repugnant as it was—of a clean-cut separation, the complete sundering and refixing of a divorce; but to meet again in a totally new relationship, fellow guests in a country house, exchanging at least in public the banalities of social intercourse, inviting gossip by an association which had once been approved by man and blessed by God, was a state of affairs which his heart could not face and which therefore his reason sought to deny.
"It may be mere coincidence," he said.
"With a name like Malkinson? No, my dear; I'm growing more and more convinced that they're a separated husband and wife, who now regret their divorce and want to meet and perhaps marry again."
So that was how she had settled it, escaping his recoils.
"Perhaps," she continued, "we may be able to help them to a happy ending."
"I had an idea they weren't at all pleased to see us. Do you think she recognized you?"
"I believe she did; but I can't be sure of that."
"If she had, she would have said something."
"Why should she? I didn't. I half thought I would, and then it all seemed too damn awkward. She probably thought the same. . . . On the other hand, I must look quite different now, in these clothes and with my hair like this. And we didn't meet more than twice."
"Then it's still just possible that you may be wrong about her."
She shook her head vigorously.
At the furthest end of the manor garden, a grass walk led through the darkness of yew to an ornamental pool, in the midst of which was a fountain. A kneeling girl poured water from a shell into the shadows of the pond, which even on sunny days was black with the reflections of the yew hedges round it.
The only other images it held were the fountain and a stone seat, both of which had been so weathered by damp and neglect that they looked considerably older than their years. The yew trees, too, sagging in disarray, looked ageless. In actual time, none of it was older than the manor drawing room, and like the drawing room had been created by a bride. Young Lady Wakeham, dreaming of graceful Burne Jones figures moving in a romantically sinister garden, had set a plentiful supply of gardeners to work digging and planting in a hollow held till then by a fortress of rhododendrons. But she had never really liked the pool as she liked the drawing room. It was too far from the house, and dank and cold. She had preferred the gay beds of geraniums and calceolaria under the drawing room windows, and the herbaceous border like a chintz gown. So the pool had carried few reflections beyond the fountain and the empty seat, and when money and gardeners became scarce after the war, the yews were allowed to grow out of their topiary forms into shapeless lumps of darkness.
As a result, the place was avoided more sedulously than ever by the family. Sir Charles had never liked it and still mourned the rhododendrons. Paula and Nan said it was tulgy and gave them the creeps. Almost its only visitors were Fred Malkinson and Ellis Hurland, who came there because it was the one part of the garden which they could be sure of having to themselves. On this particular evening they sat on the stone bench, the crocus yellow of her frock and the royal blue of his blazer reflected in the inky mirror of the pool.
"What a miserable piece of luck," Fred was saying. "But do you really think she recognized you?"
"I think she did—though I can't be certain."
"Surely if she had she'd have said something about it."
"Not necessarily. If she remembered me as Mrs. Malkinson the situation would have seemed too complicated. After all, I said nothing about having met her before and she may have taken the hint from me."
"Are you really sure you've met her?—that you're not mistaken?"
"Quite sure. She was staying with a woman called Allinson, who was her sister, I believe, and they came round twice to the Laceys. She was living in London then, and she knew the Cleasby-Martins. We talked about them, I remember."
"You've got a good memory if you can remember all that seven or eight years ago."
"It's just the sort of thing, I'm afraid, that I do remember—stray people and irrelevant conversations. She told me that she lived in London, but that she hoped when her husband retired they'd take a place in the country."
"I wonder we haven't met them before."
"They haven't been here long, I believe, and of course we've avoided meeting people as much as possible. It's sheer bad luck, our running into them like that."
For a moment Fred was silent. He sat staring into the dark water where their two faces hung side by side like ghosts. Then he said almost angrily:
"What are we to do about it?"
She could see the crumpling of his forehead which had always tokened anger and helplessness. It was seven years since she had seen it, but she could not forget it and all that it had once meant to her. It used to distress her, irritate her, madden her, and suddenly she found all these sensations springing up in her again, demanding something which the present situation could not give.
"I don't see that it matters so terribly," she said, a sharp note harmonizing her voice with his looks; "I don't see that it matters so terribly even if she did recognize me."
"She might gossip."
"She might do that anyhow, even if she'd never seen me before in her life. But it isn't likely that what she says will make any difference to us."
"How do you know? These things do sometimes get round to the people concerned. If either Bruce or Victoria . . ."
"You can leave Bruce out of it."
"Why? Wouldn't he object if he knew?"
"Yes, I suppose so. But that isn't the point. When I first came here with you I knew that we were doing a risky thing and was prepared to take the consequences."
"I don't see that there was any risk till you met that woman."
"Don't you? My dear Fred, she isn't the only person who could give us away. We're at the mercy of at least three others—Paula and Nan and Sir Charles."
"You surely don't think they'd give us away?"
"I don't, but there's always a chance. I trust Paula, but Nan might turn spiteful and Sir Charles might forget. Besides, every small village is a den of gossip, and I can't imagine that the manor visitors escape."
"But . . ." he broke off sharply, and for some moments said nothing more.
Ellis swallowed her bitterness in a gulp of tears. She told herself that she was a fool, that the situation would become impossible once she started putting more into it than he did. She fought for her balance and said:
"I'm sorry. But there's no good pretending we haven't been taking risks from the start."
He still said nothing, and after waiting a little she continued:
"If the mere chance of our being talked about makes you so desperate, we should never have come here."
"Oh, Ellis, don't say that."
"It's true." Anger suddenly swelled up in her and flooded her speech. Her words became like a river, rushing from her without control. "I'd better go home. That'll put a stop to everything. We've tried this and it's failed, so let's cut our losses."
Again she waited—feeling suddenly cold and abandoned, washed up by her anger like a piece of flotsam on the shores of an intolerable woe. She waited—praying for his indignant protest, watching him in an agony of physical awareness many signs of grief or anger approximate to her own.
All he said was:
"Surely, my dear, it needn't come to that."
"What else am I to do? Stay on here and us all go to dinner with the Cannings on Wednesday?"
"We can't possibly go."
"No; that's what I think. That's one reason why I say I must go home."
"But it will look suspicious if we leave suddenly."
"I'm not suggesting that you should leave."
He cried out impatiently:
"Why the hell did Sir Charles let us in for this? He knows we don't want to meet his neighbors."
"I suppose he couldn't avoid it. The Cannings called and took him by surprise."
"Perhaps Paula can think of an excuse for us."
A desperate weariness sank over Ellis. The discussion, instead of leading to some way out, seemed to have stuck in the banalities of the Cannings' dinner party.
"It'll be all right," she said in a flat voice, "quite all right, I expect, as long as I'm not there. You can think up any lie about me that you like—I've gone to join my husband in Italy. Besides, it's quite possible Mrs. Canning didn't recognize me and we've been working ourselves up like this for nothing."
"That's just it. There mayn't be any need for you to go away."
She leaned forward on the seat, staring down at herself in the pool, watching herself drowning in the dark.
"Yes, I must go. I've been trying to explain . . . It doesn't make any difference—it doesn't really matter—whether this woman knows or not that I was once your wife. The point is that she—and a number of other people—know we're both here and may talk about it. If you don't want us talked about I must go away. There always was a risk in our being here together, and I'd never have gone on with it for so long if I hadn't thought you realized it and accepted it."
His looks darkened.
"You think I'm a coward?—that I'm not facing up to things?"
The calmness of her own voice surprised her.
"No—why should I? There's no need for either of us to face up to anything. We've both got our homes and our families and we don't want to lose them."
"Oh, Ellis . . . but must I lose you?"
She thought to herself: you needn't. You could join me later (we'd better not leave the same day) and we could finish our time together at some out-of-the-way place. That's what we should have done at the start—gone to some place where nobody knows us. We thought this was better, safer, more honest—but it isn't. If we hadn't come to stay with Sir Charles and Paula, none of this would have happened, and we'd still have each other—once a year.
She said briskly:
"Well, we decided that we could live without each other seven years ago."
"But since then . . ."
"Since then we've been silly."
"Why do you say that? Because we didn't get on as husband and wife it doesn't follow that we can't get on as friends. And it's quite usual nowadays for ex-married couples to meet and be friendly."
"If that is the case we should have behaved like friends. We should have met in public and at each other's houses."
"You know we couldn't have done that. Victoria wouldn't have stood for it, even if you had been able to put it across Bruce."
"That's really what I mean. It's nonsense to say that a husband and wife can go on being friends after their divorce. Unless the people they've married since are very unusual, it can't be done—except in secret, as if it was a guilty love affair."
"My dear, people who go in for guilty love affairs don't usually carry on as guests of a man like Sir Charles."
"No; and that was one reason why we came here. But it hasn't worked."
"Because of me?"
"Because of everything."
Another silence fell between them and this time it seemed to cut them apart. Sitting there beside him on the stone seat, she felt as if he were very far away, somewhere quite out of reach. His nearness was an illusion, like the nearness of his image in the pool. There they both sat, in the pool, two drowned people—ghosts. She put out her hand and touched his arm.
"Ellis . . ."
He took her hand just as she was drawing it away.
"Ellis, does this mean that I'm never to see you again?"
Disappointment went through her in a long, cold thrust. She did not seem to feel the warmth of his flesh and blood.
"No, never again. I must never come back."
"Couldn't we come here just for a week end?"
Her hand was her own now, lying in her lap.
"It will be impossible for us to meet at all," she said harshly. "There's too much to lose."
"For me or for you?"
"For both of us."
"But you're still angry with me."
She told herself that she must not be angry. It was unfair to be angry with Fred, who had so much more to lose than she had.
"If I had things out with Victoria, and she didn't mind us seeing each other from time to time, would you meet me again?"
"You know that could never happen. Don't be silly, my dear. It's been lovely meeting you and talking to you and hearing about your life. But I see now that it mustn't go on. There's too much at stake. After all, you have the children."
Common fairness had forced her to mention the children, because she knew that they were the real cause of his alarms. He might have risked losing Victoria, but he could not lose the children—the children Ellis had been unable to give him. She had been fair—she had mentioned them. It seemed a poor reward of integrity that he should say:
"Yes; they're what matter most."
She rose from the seat.
"Well, then . . ."
She felt herself trembling, though she could not tell at the moment whether it was from anger or disappointment or merely from cold. She suddenly felt desperately cold.
"Let's go indoors. This place is like a tomb."
At Dollock Mill, where the lane to Sheddingfold joins the Lewes road, stands a public house, the Crown. Between five and six in the afternoon the bar was almost empty, for its usual frequenters were either still at work or busy at home, washing, shaving, drinking tea and eating onions, in preparation for the evening's freedom. Nan Chasepool and Tiger Rumbeam had the place to themselves, sitting at a table in the corner over a Guinness and a pint of mild.
"I'm doing my damnedest," she said, "but Rowley Fitzmaurice can't even begin till he's got at least ten thousand pounds."
"Have you explored every avenue?"
"You bet I have. But I really think Gaffer's cleaned out."
Tiger thoughtfully sipped his beer.
"It's your dad who could help us best," continued Nan.
Tiger did not laugh, for gypsies seldom do, but his mouth stretched in a sort of spasm of amusement.
"My dad 'ud never let us have a halfpenny."
"But why not? I thought your dad was rich and wrecking the place to get richer."
"So he is; but he wouldn't think it feasible to put money into films."
"Where would he put it, then? You can make more money out of films than out of anything else on earth."
"He'd sooner make it out of buying and selling. That's his way."
"And a damn bad one."
"I reckon my dad would buy more of the manor estate if he could get it, and then Sir Charles might be able to accommodate us."
"Gaffer would rather die than sell him another square foot. That's why I'm so sick. If only your dad hadn't started making that horrible mess in the Denniker field . . ."
"He's building a garden city," said Tiger loftily.
"Oh, yeah. It'll be fine. But anyway Gaffer isn't going to have any more garden cities built right under his windows. So there it is; and here we are."
Tiger swallowed some more beer and changed the subject.
"I'd be obliged if you'd tell me what's the latest word in the cocktail world. I understand that 'lousy' has gone out of fashion."
"You don't want to know any more words. You know far too many as it is. And it's time we got out of here; so drink up and we'll shift."
"Where are we going?"
Her eyes, big and stony as pebbles on a beach, stared at him suddenly through the glass bottom of her tankard.
"I rather fancy the Bell at Alfriston."
Tiger looked sulky.
"If all you want is another drink we might as well stay here."
He had drunk enough of the pleasant ale to want to have her closer to him than she could ever be in a pub. In some lonely, rushy corner of a field he could savor again the sweet new experience of her body, warm under silk. After all, you could drink in pubs every day, but to make love to a beautiful, well-born woman in all-silk underclothing was not every day's or everybody's privilege.
It was one of the trials of their association that Nan, though she did not object to his endearments, obviously preferred a Guinness.
"We can't stay here," she said. "It's too near home. Chaps might come in who knew us, and that wouldn't help you any more than it would help me."
"Perhaps," he said unwillingly, "it might be more feasible to go to Alfriston."
"Much more feasible."
He was stung.
"You're laughing at me."
"Of course I am. Why on earth do you talk like that if it isn't to get a laugh?"
"I talk as nice as you."
"Much nicer. You talk like the Forget-me-not Library for Girls. But for God's sake let's stop talking now and get away from here."
He followed her scowling out of the bar to where her little green sports car stood like a toy in the midst of the empty car park. As she moved round to the driver's seat his scowl suddenly disappeared, and a coaxing look crept into his eyes.
"May I drive the car?"
"Yes, if you feel like it. But go easy on the clutch—it isn't your dad's car, remember."
They drove off, roaring low between the hedges. A scarlet cap held down the golden plaster of Nan's hair upon her ears; Tiger's mane rose and streamed wildly in the wind, which combed it almost straight. They were both silent, for the wind was in their teeth as the gleaming tarmac of the road slipped like a knife under the wheels of the little buzzing car. The wind was in their eyes too, so that they could see nothing but the slipping road and the downs ahead that grew nearer and darker, till at last they seemed to be running into them as into a wall. A gate in the wall opened and they streamed through it. A spire shot up ahead and colored houses spattered the green of a river's marshy course. Suddenly and clumsily Tiger pulled up the car. Nan swore at him.
"What are you doing that for?"
"I want to stop here. I want to talk to you before we go to the pub."
There was a gate beside the road, opening into a meadow with tall hedges and some thickets of elder and thorn. Nan appraised the situation coolly.
"If you're feeling romantic, I'm feeling thirsty. Let's stop here on the way back."
"Give me a kiss, then."
She looked round to see what was on the road behind them, and he caught her lips as she turned, seizing them with his and holding her head with both his hands, so that she could not pull them away. For a moment she yielded, partly in passion, partly in surprise; then suddenly she twisted and pushed herself free.
"Must you start necking on the main Newhaven road? I should have thought you had as much interest as I in no one finding us out."
"I don't care."
"You don't care if you go on the films or spend the rest of your life building hovels . . ."
"I shall certainly not spend the rest of my life building hovels."
"You will if I don't introduce you to Fitzmaurice, and I shan't do that if you don't behave properly. Come on, pull yourself together and drive to the Bell."
He muttered and grumbled to himself as he drove on: "You think of nothing but drinking."
"And what about you? You don't seem to dislike it."
"I only drink when I've nothing better to do. You want to drink all the time."
"Not all the time," said Nan, "but I'm thirsty now. I've had a long dry afternoon and my mind won't work till I've pepped it up."
"All right. We'll go to the Bell; but please . . ." the gypsy dodged back into his eyes—"please, don't let us stay there indefinitely."
"I don't want to stay anywhere indefinitely. I've got to get home tonight the same as you."
"But you'll give us time to stop on the way home. Oh, Nan, I love you . . ."
"And I love you too, my beautiful boy, but don't get sentimental now. There's too much traffic on the road."
Two hours later Tiger felt more pleased with himself. He was back at home, twisting his neck so as to see as much of himself as possible in the mirror over the kitchen sink. He could have had a complete view in the full-length glass in his bedroom, but he was afraid to walk on the carpet which Mrs. Scrattage smoothed daily with the palms of her hands so that every footstep showed on it. As he peered and twisted he looked very like a preening pigeon; but he was not preening (all that had been done before he went out with Nan), nor was he personally vain. He was merely contemplating Mr. Tiger Romany the glamorous film star who married a few weeks ago beautiful socialite Miss Nan Chasepool.
Yes, he would grow two little whiskers in front of his ears—they would add to the darkly romantic look he wished to cultivate; and Nan had said he must not smarm back his hair—he must keep all his gypsy curls, and Fitzmaurice would have a gypsy part written specially for him. Dear little Nan . . . he thought of her tenderly. Her hardness had melted after a few drinks and they had been happy together in the thorny field. How anyone could think that he would look at that suet dumpling of Crouch's after Nan . . . but then, of course, no one knew about him and Nan. Nor must anyone know.
That was the trouble. Their friendship must be secret for a time; perhaps for a long time. Even Nan herself had no idea that in his dreams of the future she functioned as his bride. He found this secrecy a burden; not merely because he was simply and naturally boastful, but because it curtailed his enjoyment of what he possessed. For instance, if his relations with Nan had been open and proclaimed he would not now be at home wondering how to spend the rest of the evening. They would have gone somewhere together—to a dance hall or to the pictures; or perhaps they would still be making love. But Nan had to go home to dinner, or her family would have started making awkward inquiries; and though Tiger was not a little proud of the nature of this obstacle, he felt upon him the full weight of a frustrated evening.
What should he do with himself while Nan ate soup and fish in the manor dining room? Still warm with sentiment, he pictured her sitting there, in a low-cut evening dress which puffed in a silver cloud over her little shoes, while her hair shone under a big blue satin bow, such as he had seen Myrna Loy wear at a millionaire's party. (Actually Nan had changed after her bath into a sweater and a pair of old slacks.) How fine it would be if he could call at the manor as her acknowledged suitor, and court her openly in the drawing room, or alternatively clasp her gauzy wraith in some dark, night-smelling corner of the garden. Instead of which he had the uninspiring choice of sitting at home, going to the pub, or taking himself over to Shallowbed Farm to sit with Gloria Crouch.
Which should it be? Certainly he did not want to stay at home—there was nothing in that; and for the moment he was tired of pubs and could not afford any more drinks. An evening with the Crouches would not be bad—they had a radio-gramophone and Mrs. Crouch made a good strong sort of gooseberry wine—but it might be compromising. He did not want to go too far with Gloria Crouch; he did not want her relations—he did not care so much about herself—to have expectations he did not intend to realize. His own dad was tiresome enough without bringing hers into it. On the other hand, she was good cover for Nan. To court her—if only he could do it safely—would avert suspicion from his real designs, which at all costs must remain secret till he and Nan could stand boldly together and defy both their families at once; and that would not be till Fitzmaurice Films had enough capital to start production.
Tiger sighed deeply, and catching sight of himself in the process, studied it attentively, heaving his shoulders and rolling his eyes till the mirror registered what he considered a fitting gesture of sorrow and impatience. He was so intent on his own person thus reflected in not too good a light that he did not hear slow movements in the room behind him, and gave a start that would have done credit to any film star when he suddenly caught sight of another face in the mirror beside his own.
"John! What you doing here?"
"What you doing, come to that?—turning and twisting like a monkey. Was that why you packed up at half-past four instead of stopping to finish your work?"
"I packed up at half-past four," said Tiger with dignity, "because I had worked eight hours and did not choose to work overtime."
"We're working till seven o'clock these long evenings."
"You may be—I'm not. I have my own life to live."
Scrattage looked at him hard and said nothing. Tiger wondered if he knew anything about Nan.
"When I undertook to assist my dad in the building trade," he elaborated, "I expressly conditioned for no overtime. After all an eight-hour day without wages is pretty handsome. And anyway, it isn't you who employ me . . ."
"No; but I've got to see the work's done."
"Then do it yourself. If I take no more than half an hour for dinner, I'm at liberty to go at half-past four; and go I shall."
"Then why have you come back?"
Alarm and annoyance sharpened Tiger's voice.
"That's no business of yours. You've no right to interrogate me like this. You're my dad's laborer—not my elder brother."
Scrattage was silent for a moment; then he said slowly:
"But the work's got to be done. Stands to reason, the work's got to be done."
"And it will be done but not in such a hurry."
Scrattage mumbled something and backed away. In the mirror on which his gaze was still indignantly fixed Tiger saw his father come into the room.
"'Lo, Tiger. Dressed already?"
"Yes; I'm telling John that I don't work overtime without pay."
"Your pay's coming to you when I'm gone; so you ain't got no cause to mutter if you work for it now."
Tiger swung round on his father. John's inhibiting presence had backed out of the room. With luck his father wouldn't know that he'd packed up at half-past four.
"I'd rather have my pay while you're alive. I don't care to wait for dead man's shoes."
"Maybe you wöan't have to wait long," said old Rumbeam cheerfully, "my blood-presser being wot it is I may pop off at any moment."
His words suggested to Tiger that it might indeed be better to have his money in a lump sum than doled out piecemeal. If he inherited a fortune he would be able to finance Fitzmaurice Films and make his dreams come true; whereas a weekly wage would not go far toward that object. On the other hand he did not see why he should not have both. Two pounds a week would not ruin his dad. He said as much.
"Maybe," retorted Rumbeam, "but it äun't my way to go spending when I might be säaving. I döan't spend on myself nor on your mother, so why should I spend on you?—in wages, that is. I spend a lot on you other ways."
"You're an old miser, that's what you are," said his son. "Where's the sense in not spending money when you've got it?"
This question so outraged old Rumbeam that he nearly choked and it looked as if Tiger might step into his inheritance sooner than either of them bargained for.
"Haven't you got no ideas nor sense at all that you speak like that?" he cried as soon as he had recovered his breath. "If I hear any more from you I'll tie up your money so as you can't spend it even when you've got it. I'm mäaking my will at Finch's and if you äun't careful I'll fix it so as you git paid out no more'n two pounds at a time."
"For the Lord's sake don't do that!" cried Tiger, really appalled.
"Then you mun act honest by me and help me by working along of John. I reckon to mäake more money over them Denniker houses than I've ever mäade in my life. But it all depends on my running them up quickly. If I'm läate, Mus' Canning 'ull be bringing in the council and the Town Planning Act and maybe I'll be stopped 'afore I've more'n twenty houses built. So you and John mun put your backs into it."
Tiger opened his mouth to say that it might be a good plan to engage more labor; but he remembered he had already had one argument with his father over that.
"There's another thing," continued the old man, "if you want me to leave you my money free from all constrictions and recumberances you mun marry a girl as pleases me. How long is it since you saw Gloria Crouch?"
"I was going up to see her this evening," said Tiger hastily. "That's why I'm wearing my new suit."
His father gave him a piercing look.
"Sure that äun't a lie? You've bin to meet Nan Chasepool."
"'At that I haven't—" he was scared out of his careful speech by this new danger, "I haven't seen her since she came to her father's."
"Then wot fur wus John muttering at you?"
"Because I said I wouldn't work overtime without being paid for it. I acknowledge—" he was back among his cherished words—"that I ceased work previously to what he did; but it was on principle. I didn't meet anyone. I came straight home."
He hoped sincerely that Mrs. Scrattage had not been hanging about the place.
"There's talk in the village that you're meeting Nan Chasepool."
"It isn't true. I see her at pubs—everyone does; but I've no acquaintance with her outside them."
His gypsy descent allowed him to lie fluently, without hesitations or blushes.
"Have you ever spoken to her?"
"Now and again—but only in pubs, same as everybody else."
Old Rumbeam was silent a moment, then he said:
"I döan't want you to blacken your name wud Nan Chasepool, or Gloria Crouch wöan't have näun to do wud you. Gloria Crouch is a valiant girl and a good girl. She's got her auntie's money, and she'll have her dad's farm. You marry Gloria Crouch."
It did not strike Tiger as peculiar that his father should be so anxious to accumulate riches for a future he would never see. He accepted it as one of the facts of life, a fact with which he had long been familiar, and did not trouble to argue about it, or to advance the point that his inheritance might be better spent in purchasing birth and blood—a socialite in fact.
"I'll go over and see her tonight, but I don't want to upset her by pressing my suit too hard."
"Isn't she ready to have you?"
"No," lied Tiger. "She has a very modest and refined disposition. I shall have to advance with extreme caution and wait for a feasible moment."
Soon afterwards he went out, and directly he was gone John Scrattage came back into the room.
"Wot?—you still here?" said Rumbeam.
"Aye. I want to talk to you before I go."
"Nothing's happened, except what you said."
"Said when?—wot about? If you want to talk you mun talk plain."
Scrattage came further into the room, and sat down at the table.
"It's what you said to Tiger. You was telling him about all the money he'll have when you're gone, and it äun't fair, seeing as you're giving me no more'n two hundred pounds. You don't expect me to sit quiet and listen to that."
"I döan't expect you to sit and listen to nothing," cried Rumbeam indignantly. "Wot right have you to listen to my private talk? You mun have bin sneaking in the scullery the whole time."
"You could have seen the door was open."
"I never thought to look. I saw you go out and I didn't reckon as you'd be hanging aräound, listening to my private words."
"They told me no more'n I knew already; but I wanted to make sure. You've no call to leave Tiger all your money and me just two hundred pounds."
"And Creakers Cottage."
"What use is that to me with only two hundred pounds? If you left me a thousand I could start a business of my own."
Old Rumbeam's face turned nearly black.
"A thousand pounds!" he gasped. "You think you're going to get a thousand pounds out of me!"
"I reckon you can spare it."
"I can't spare it. I've your mother to think of as well as the boy. And why should I spare it? I wöan't have you start a business to cut out Tiger. You'll have gotten his house. Ain't that enough for your mad jealousy?"
Scrattage leaned his elbows on the table and propped his chin in his hands. His narrow blue eyes were fixed on Rumbeam with a queer intentness.
"You and me 'ud better get this argured out between us," he said. "You're making your will at Finch's, so you may as well make it right. Tiger wöan't want Creakers yard no more'n he'll want Creakers Cottage. All he'll want 'ull be the cash and the high-class side of the business—if he wants that. My heart's set on the stuff that's in that yard and enough cash to start me up as a general dealer."
"It surelye wöan't täake a thousand päounds to start you up as a dealer."
"It'll take a good part of it. I mun buy a präaper van and build a lodge—that old place is nearly down; and I'll be needing some new tools and some new rubbish. Besides, it's only fair I should have a thousand pounds. It's what's owing to me for who I am. Creakers Cottage don't count; that's for my missus and is no more than her due, seeing how she's toiled and slaved for you this twenty-five year. What I want is a thousand pounds and Creakers yard."
There is something peculiarly overwhelming in a spate of words from a hitherto silent man, and Rumbeam's retort lacked a good deal of the bounce of his earlier ones.
"That's all very well, John. But wot'll folkses think of it? They'll think it unaccountable queer if I leave you so much."
"Why should they think it queer? I've served you all these years and it äun't so queer, I reckon, to remember a faithful servant."
"But I've always paid you wages and Tiger's never had no wages."
For a moment John looked as if he would spit on the floor.
"Wages! You call thirty bob a week wages?—it's a bob less than I'd get if I was on a farm. I reckon Tiger costs you twice as much, with his feeding and his washing and his drinking and his dressing up in fancy suits."
"That's wot I'm always telling 'un," said Rumbeam, tricked on to the wrong side of his defenses.
"Surelye. And he's to have everything you've got as soon as you're gone."
"No—not everything. Your mother's to have five pound a week paid out regular. Now döan't start terrifying me for that. She only asked for two."
"Reckon that'll still leave twice as much for Tiger as he deserves. I'm telling you I must have the house and the yard and a thousand pounds."
"I'll let you have the house and the yard—I reckon you got it right about Tiger not wanting the yard. But I can't spare more'n two hundred päounds in cash. It äun't so easy to get cash out of a business wot's mostly in the ground."
"You could sell them houses over at Pennygrove and get a thousand pounds for them."
"There'll have to be a dunnamany houses sold if the death money's to be paid and five päound a week to your mother."
"You'll have all the Denniker field built up by then, with fifty houses on it. Reckon that'll pay the death money and hers as well. It'll be easy enough to sell some other place and pay a thousand pounds to me."
For a moment they faced each other in silence. Old Rumbeam fidgeted; he was perturbed—also a little aggrieved. Why should he be attacked by John as well as Tiger? It was unfair.
"If I leave you a thousand päounds," he grunted, "you'll be getting nearly as much as Tiger."
There was a queer convulsion of John's features which might have been a grin.
"Then you're a poorer man than I took you for."
"I am, surelye."
"Almost as poor as you mäake out to the income tax."
Rurnbeam said nothing. He was watching John's face.
"Bah!" cried his henchman suddenly, "you döan't expect me to take what you've made them swaller. I know what you are and what you've got, and I've half a mind they shall know too."
When old Rumbeam flushed his face seemed to turn black; when he paled it looked suddenly gray. This was due only partly to the patina of grime laid over his skin by the unwashed years. Defective circulation as much as defective ablution was displayed by the shadow. John had a moment of anxiety; he did not want him to die before he had made his will.
"So you're threatening me again," the old man spluttered, as soon as he could speak.
"No. I'm only asking why I should keep your secrets when you won't treat me as what I am—which is your eldest son."
"Born out of wedlock."
"And whose fault was that?"
"Nobody's—as you very well know. John, I'll never believe you're such an ordinary chap as to expose your poor mother to scorn."
"I never said I'd expose my mother. I don't need to. If I talk it won't be about her but about you—what you've paid in income tax and Sheddle A and Sheddle B for the last ten year, and why them houses got burnt at Sicklehatch."
Old Rumbeam began to cough, and once more Scrattage felt alarmed. If the old chap died now, there would be nothing for him—nothing. But he told himself the next moment that the old chap would not die; he was tough—and he was probably carrying on like this in order to beat him down. So all he did was to change his tone and say in the injured voice of one making reasonable but unwelcome inquiry:
"What I can't figure out is why you care so much what happens after you're gone."
"I want Tiger to have my money. I want to leave a fortune as 'ull terrify this place."
"And what difference will that make to you?"
They were now up against a theological problem to which neither could provide a solution, if indeed they realized its nature. All Rumbeam knew was that it was of the utmost importance to him now that when he died he should leave Tiger a rich man. John was not the same as Tiger, because he did not bear his name; he would not be old Rumbeam going on and on, getting richer and richer. Tiger, not John, was his immortality.
"I want Tiger to have my money. He's my son and heir."
"And a fine son he's been to you! I ask you—what has Tiger ever done but plague you all these years? I'm a better son than he is, for all I wasn't born in wedlock."
"Yes, Billy. You must own that. He's the better son."
They both started and looked toward the door, which had opened noiselessly to frame a woman's shape. Serena Rumbeam stood there, a hand on either post, her great eyes fixed on the two men, her husband and her son.
"Lordl Lord!" wailed Rumbeam. "I'm done fur näow. Here you are, the two of you, fighting me together."
It was nearly forty-five years since Serena Ripley had walked out of the Bulverhythe Infirmary, carrying a dark, wizened, pitifully small baby. No one had come to meet her, for her people were at Copthorne on the Surrey border. It had never occurred to her to attempt to reach them any other way than on foot; nor had she doubted her strength for the journey—in her sixteen years of life she must have tramped many hundred miles behind her father's cart.
But she had not considered the debilitating effects of the last fortnight—imprisoned in a gorgio place, in a gorgio bed, tended by the cold, clean hands of starched, white nurses. She began to drag her feet at the end of the first three miles. She wished then, as she had wished before, that she could have had her baby in the camp, with old Leonora Boswell to look after her as she had looked after her mother and her sister and her cousins. But her father had said: "It's a gorgio's child and it should be born in a gorgio's place. I won't have it born by our roman fire under our roman roof."
She wondered what her father would say when he saw her Christian baby; for he was a Christian to add to his other drawbacks. A clergyman had come into the ward and asked if he might baptize him, as the nurse thought it likely that he would not live. She had agreed, uncertain whether baptism were a medicine or a spell, but trusting it to save the life which still did not seem quite separate from her own. Those beads of water rolling over the baby's forehead were in her eyes a magic elixir, such as old Leonora brewed for the barren mares. They succeeded where the nurse's rubbings and dosings had failed. The color of the child's skin improved, its movements grew stronger, its cries louder, and at first she had been too pleased to criticize the manner of its cure. Only later had she felt the disability of having a Christian son to take home to her father's tent.
His name was John. The clergyman had chosen it, as she had been unwilling to choose a name. He had asked her what she wanted the child called, but she had hidden her head in the pillow and kept silence. Names were important and dangerous in a rite of that sort, and she might have imperiled her son by choosing wrongly. She had not realized that what he was called now would be his name for ever. She did not like the name John—it was not a roman name. On the other hand, her father probably would not want the boy to be named romanly. He would say it was a gorgio child and its name should be gorgious. But if she had chosen a gorgious name she would have chosen Billy.
She thought of Billy now as she trudged through the autumn country. The woods still wore their leaves, though it was November, for there had been few winds to tear or frosts to bite them off the trees—only a great and constant fall of rain which had drenched them into a yellowish brown; even the wild cherry had a brown smoke in its fire. The woods had been bare when she had last seen Billy, but with a purple light in them, and a hard swelling of buds under the bark. She had said good-by to Billy under an ash tree, where the buds were like goats' feet.
"You'll let me know what happens—where you go and what you do."
But she had not let him know and she did not think he had really expected it. He knew she could not write. When she was sure there was a baby coming she had thought of asking someone to write for her, but she had given up the idea. None of her own people would write such a letter to a gorgio, and she was ashamed and afraid of going to strangers. In the infirmary one of the nurses had offered to write for her, but she had shaken her head. What could Billy do now for his son? He must stay at home and work for his father and marry a gorgio woman. That had been explained to her months ago by his father and by her own. That was why they had had to part and must remain parted. All she could ever have of Billy was his son.
The weight of that son seemed to be growing greater and greater in her arms. He was such a tiny baby that it seemed incredible he could be so heavy, dragging her arms down out of her shoulders, so that her whole body seemed to drag with them, down and down toward the ground. She sat for a while by the roadside and rested, but she had not liked to stay long, for she was afraid of missing her people at Copthorne. She had risen and trudged on again, till at last she found herself laboring up the hilly street of Lewes. She knew that Lewes was not far from where Billy lived, but she never thought of going to look for him at Sheddingfold. She did not really expect him to be there, for in her world people never stayed long in one place, and she would have been terrified at the mere chance of meeting his parents and seeing their pale, gorgio eyes stare coldly at his son. So she carried the baby further and further from his father, plodding out of the town towards Barcombe Mills.
Just beyond the Floodwaterings her strength again failed her, and this time she fell asleep under the hedge. When she awoke she was being lifted up and a strange woman was holding her baby in her arms. She had screamed and struggled, and then collapsed in an overwhelming weakness. Voices reassured her with promises of food and safety. She was taken into the kitchen of a cottage and her baby was put into her arms again. Apparently she had been sleeping in the hedge for hours, till the people of the cottage found her. They were a middle-aged couple and not overfond of gypsies, but the baby had made an irresistible appeal to the woman's heart. They kept Serena with them for a week, during which they gave her every care and kindness. In some ways the Bulverhythe Infirmary had not been so good at its job as old Leonora Boswell, and she was in need not only of rest but of medical attention.
When she was well enough to set out again, Mrs. Scrattage seemed reluctant to part with little John, who had improved noticeably under her care.
"If you ever want a home for him, think of us. I've taken foster children before, having never had none of my own, and am well recommended. If you find you can't manage with him where you go, I'll take him gladly and not ask you more than you can pay."
The idea of parting with her child had then seemed impossible to Serena; but at the end of another year she was feeling differently. She had missed her people at Copthorne and had followed them all the way to Warninglid, where her father received her with blows. As she had feared, he hated and despised the Christian son, and she had spent a miserable twelvemonth in his camp, enduring his ill-treatment and doing her best for poor little John, who ailed continually under the hardships of gypsy life. It had seemed a blessed release when a young man of the Rossarmescros or Hearns offered to marry her romanly. He would not, however, take the child, and Serena—tempted by the chance of escape from her father and aware that her son would never thrive in surroundings so alien to half his blood—remembered Mrs. Scrattage. The offer still held good and after some treaty little John was handed over with a lump sum of thirty pounds, willingly paid by the bridegroom.
Serena was married in roman fashion by the fire, with much feasting but without clergy. Soon afterwards she and her husband left her father's people and traveled away by themselves to join a company of the Hearns in Lincolnshire. For several years they journeyed in the east and north, even crossing the Cheviots into the country of the tinkers, as the Scottish gypsies are called. A daughter was born to them at Wooler and died at Moffat, and soon afterwards Hearn decided to come south again, to the country round Guildford and Haslemere. Here they stayed till his death four years later, moving round the Surrey commons. Serena gave birth to another daughter, who again only lived a few months. But whatever happened or wherever they went she never forgot Billy.
He lived in the secret hearth of her memory, where the fire never goes out and love cannot grow cold. He lived there as she had last seen him, young, dark and handsome, his mouth full of good white teeth, his eyes bright and burning. As a result she did not know him when they accidentally met in Lewes a few months after her husband's death. He had known her immediately and when she found that this swarthy, thickset stranger, with his grizzled hair and broken smile was really her Billy, after a moment's revulsion the past ran back and clothed him. Once more he became her angel, and at the end of a month she married him gladly—this time in a church.
It was not till after the wedding that she told him about their son. John's image had not survived in her heart like Billy's—she had lost him in the other children she had borne. But now that she had Billy again she began to think of John. She thought of him even when she knew there was another child on the way. Rumbeam, meeting him as it were for the first time in his wife's story, felt no acute desire to see him and certainly did not want the reproach of his illegitimacy to darken their marriage. However, he accompanied her when she went to seek out the foster parents, who, it proved had been dead some years. John, a tall red-faced lout of eighteen, was earning his living rather precariously as a casual laborer and courting without much hope the young woman in whose mother's house he lodged. He had guessed that he had no right to the name of Scrattage, but he knew nothing of his own history until his father and mother appeared with the offer they had agreed on.
They could not acknowledge him publicly as their son—and luckily his long Saxon face, inherited from some earlier Rumbeam, betrayed no relationship to either—but they would provide for him if he would come and make his home near them and work under his father. The provision turned out to be no more than a wage of twenty-five shillings a week; but the certainty of this (with a cottage) made marriage possible. For a time all three were satisfied—Serena because she had found her son, Rumbeam because he had found a cheap workman, and John because he had found a regular job.
After a time the bargain began to look less good to all of them. Serena found that she was never to recapture that tender love of her first-born which had sweetened the bitterness of motherhood all those years ago. He had lived too long without her and brought into their new relationship a grim uncouthness which offended her roman tastes. He accepted her, indeed he was fond of her, and she was fond of him and more and more anxious to have justice done to him as she saw how Tiger was growing up. But she would have liked him different—less of a gorgio in his ways; she was afraid of his bustling house-proud wife, who made Creakers Cottage too clean to live in and silently despised her husband's kindred.
As for John, he soon saw that he was being exploited, but for various reasons he accepted the situation. His work though badly paid was queerly congenial. He was his father's son in a love of junk—scrap—rubbish—all the jetsam that most men despise. Creakers yard was to him a treasure house, where he was never tired of searching and sorting, and his life's ambition was to become a dealer in a big way. As time passed, too, he had acquired a certain hold over Rumbeam. His work might be humble, but it was confidential. He knew a lot about his father's private affairs—more than the old man would like anyone else to know. Lately he had used this knowledge as a means to improve his situation, both now and in the future; but as he worked and plotted his sense of grievance grew. He felt more deeply outraged now than when he had first realized the disadvantages of his position, over twenty years ago.
Rumbeam was the last to feel he had made a bad bargain. He had found John an excellent workman—industrious, reliable and dumb. Though there was no affection or comradeship between them, he had come in a queer way to trust him and had only lately discovered that John was keeping his secrets only that he might—not to mince words—blackmail him when the proper moment came. Now he saw that he would have to give him the thousand pounds he asked for and Creakers yard as well as Creakers Cottage. He really had no other choice; for though he could not tell how many of his crooked dealings John was aware of, it would be easy to smash him with only a few. His Inland Revenue frauds alone had reached a considerable total in the course of twenty-five years, and there was also, as John had indelicately hinted, at least one matter which would not bear investigation by the fire insurance companies.
No—there was no getting out of it; he was sunk. And he must be thankful that he was sunk for no more than some collapsing property and a thousand pounds. Suppose John had demanded all the Denniker houses he was building now . . . it was lucky that even in blackmail he had mean ideas.
At midnight Ellis Hurland sat in her bedroom, writing to her husband.
I'm leaving here sooner than I expected—probably tomorrow or the day after. You'll find me at home when you get back—won't that be nice for you? The weather is glorious, but this isn't really a house for a long visit. It's uncomfortable and badly run, and Paula and her daughter (who is an odious child) are always nagging the old man to have things different. I don't know which is worse—the way or the things they criticize. He's an old pet, but he still wants the world as it used to be forty or fifty years ago; and as he can't get it he just turns his back on it as it is now and lets it roll past him. So I shall say I simply have to be back for Noel's first night—which has luckily been shifted to the eighteenth—and get off home. It'll be nice to sleep on a post-Victorian mattress. . . .
She put down her pen, feeling guilty. It was all true and yet she was lying. She was lying about Fred, hiding him of whom she used to be so proud. That was what she had come to, in spite of her efforts, and she did not know how she could do otherwise. It was too late now to tell Bruce about it all. At the beginning she might have done so, for not only did Bruce see himself as a man of the world but their relations were almost without possessiveness; the situation might even have amused him. But now he would resent her plotting and secrecy; he would be angry, not so much because of what she had done as because she had not told him she was doing it. He would feel she had made a fool of him and never forgive her—at least not till he had paid her out.
She stood up and went over to the uncurtained window. The room behind her was lit by petrol gas, which had been the wonder of the neighborhood in 1904. Her window lay in a huge greenish oblong on the blackness of the garden. At first it was all that she could see, for the moon had set some hours ago; but gradually her eyes discerned the prick of starlight over Shiprods Hill. The great block of the hill was one with the darkness of the lawns and fields below, but along the edge of it a border of stars shone dimly in the haze of the summer night.
As her eyes rested in the darkness, she could feel the night stirring her other senses. There was a mysterious air upon her skin, an air that seemed scarcely to move and yet was felt; and into her nostrils crept the scent of hay—the breath of some invisible field. A rustling caught her ears as the trees whispered languidly in the heat. She bowed her head to her arms upon the sill, and suddenly felt tears scalding her hidden face. Her senses, particularly her sense of smell, were taking her back to a night she wished to forget. Twelve years ago she had sat at a window in summer, with a very different room behind her and a different country in the dark below, but in her nostrils that same sweet scent of hay.
She had been waiting for Fred to come upstairs after finishing his Pernod on the terrace at the other side of the hotel. They were on their honeymoon—not the first night but a much better night when they knew each other well. She remembered how as she sat there—wrapped in a chiffon negligee that had delighted her, and also a little frightened her when Fred bought it for her in Paris—a sudden blessed awareness of him, away from her in the dark, had broken over her like a wave. Until then there had been queer reserves, reluctances, alarms, in her thoughts of Fred. She was very young and much of her was still in bud. But now suddenly, filling her as the scent of hay filled the night, had come a sense of her union with him, of their oneness. She belonged to him as she belonged to herself, they were parts of the same being, so that without him she was not even herself. This union was not a physical thing, for it did not require his touch or even his presence. Sitting away from her, invisible, sipping his drink, perhaps not even thinking of her, he was still a part of her; together they formed one life. The sense of this came to her in a sort of mystical intuition, a consciousness which she had been unable to formulate and had therefore been bound to lose. But it had been real—it had happened; she saw that more clearly than ever, now, when the past was repeating itself in sorrowful parody.
Here she sat at her bedroom window, and there, somewhere in the darkness near her, was Fred. But her awareness of him now should be no more than her awareness of anyone else in that house. They were separate beings; though how complete she had only just begun to ask. How much of herself had come away when they were torn apart? . . . No, not torn—"torn" was too strong and credible a word. Their unity had not been torn or broken by any exterior force. It had merely dissolved; they had drifted away from each other, or rather moved away in petty jerks of impatience, disappointment and pride.
As she looked back on it all now there seemed no single, outstanding reason for their separation. The fact that he had fallen in love with another woman was not enough. He would not have fallen in love with Victoria if he had not already turned away from Ellis—if Ellis had not turned away from him. The cause of their parting lay in themselves; Victoria and Bruce were only its results and public signature.
They had come back from their honeymoon in all the resolve and excitement of a new friendship. Marriage had made them friends as they had not been in the faltering days before it; and the months enriched their friendship as they passed, with an accumulation of new experiences, joint discoveries, private jokes, jobs and possessions shared . . . our house, our car, our dog—as much a part of marriage as the marriage bed.
Their home was in the country—at Breadwardine in Shropshire, where Fred had a little property inherited from his father. He was also a member of a very old firm of solicitors, Malkinson and Freeland, with which his family had been connected for more than a hundred years. Their offices were in Shrewsbury, and Fred usually went in to the town on business four or five days a week. His circumstances allowed him more independence and spare time than many a young married man could hope for, and he and Ellis lived through some golden months of work and play before she discovered that she did not really like living in the country.
Her love of it, in fact, was a holiday love. She and Fred had gone for long walks together and eaten bread and cheese in village inns. She had been enchanted by the climbing, tumbling lanes of the Welsh border, by the way the mountains grew out of the fields and held the farmsteads in their hollows, by the old churches, the old castles, the old houses, the old towns, the old stories. But she had not cared for the social life of her neighborhood, for the petty exchanges of tea and tennis, the universal talk of gardening, the activity of women's institutes and village halls.
It had been disconcerting to find that Fred did not share her dislike. If he did not enjoy these things, at least he accepted them—indeed regarded them as normal and essential. There was so great a resemblance between him and herself, their tastes and their ideas as distinct from their opinions, that this divergence seemed a blemish, a difference to be removed or anyway reduced by argument. Before her marriage Ellis had always lived in London, and when she began to feel as if her second winter in Shropshire would never end, it seemed to her both natural and sensible to go to stay with her people in their Chelsea home. Fred had made no objection to her going—in fact he had seemed to understand the need for it—but he had not been pleased when the visit prolonged itself till the end of March. In fact they had quarreled about it on her return. So long an absence must be due to something more than the mere need of change or the claims of a family. It implied a criticism of the way he lived and the people he liked to know. She did not really like what he liked and he resented it.
It all seemed very trivial as she looked back on it now, but at the time it had devastated them. The friendship at the bottom of their marriage had proved itself as insecure as any other foundation. Because they were friends they had demanded dangerous and impossible things of each other. They had demanded an identity of tastes and interests; they had been unable to feel content, as so many couples do, to walk in separate ways, on parallel lines that neither diverge nor meet. So a single point of difference became a point of conflict, and the rest had followed from that.
She sometimes wondered how differently things would have happened if there had been children to give their marriage less delicate a base. But she believed that Fred had really been sincere in his continued protests that her childlessness made no difference to him. She herself had longed desperately for children, and her disappointment and wretchedness after the gynecologist's final verdict had brought them together for a time, just when they had begun to drift apart. Fred had been all comfort and tenderness, and passion had renewed itself in pity. Nevertheless she thought that his children were now the strongest link between him and Victoria.
Perhaps indeed his sudden infatuation for Victoria Temple had been a subconscious recognition of the potential mother in her. She was a big fair woman, the heiress of a neighboring Worcestershire family and a colorless part of country life. Anyone more unlike Ellis it would be difficult to imagine and in falling in love with her he had seemed to spurn the whole structure of their marriage, to humiliate her not only with a different woman but with a different standard of life.
She had been horror-struck and incredulous. She had never imagined, even in their bitterest moments, that he would forsake her. She had thought, no doubt presumptuously, that he would rather quarrel with her than kiss anyone else. When she saw her mistake, the anger and jealousy that consumed her were all the more destructive because they had mental as well as physical causes. Pride took her and swung her into a total perversity of action.
He had begged her not to "stand in his way," and pride had made her agree without hesitation. Rather than plead with him, or argue with him, or suggest that he should wait for a while before making his final decision, she would see the whole fabric of the last five years topple over and be lost. She even in a braggart fit offered to let him divorce her, so that his own life would be less violently broken up.
"You won't be able to go on living at Breadwardine if I'm the petitioner. Much better let people think I've gone off the rails. No one round here really approves of me, you know, so they won't be so very surprised. And they'll be simply delighted when you marry a nice girl like Victoria Temple." She had hoped there was no malice in her voice.
"My dear girl," he had exclaimed, "what can you think of me? Surely you don't believe I'd do a thing like that. No; both Victoria and I realize that we must face the music, and we will. I don't think it will be so very bad. I'll go to some tough solicitors who specialize in divorce, and it'll all be fixed up on conventional lines, with a hotel bill and a hired corespondent. I'm sure all our real friends will understand. Victoria's people quite accept the situation."
Ellis was left with the thought that county families had changed very much since she was a girl.
But Fred was right. There had been a flare-up, of course, but it had soon died down. An obviously arranged divorce, followed at a decent interval by his marriage to a girl of good family, was a scandal only in a very limited and local sense; especially as the divorcing wife had never really "belonged" to her husband's environment. Indeed Ellis thought it probable that most people imagined Fred had been chivalrously sacrificing himself in her interests and that she was really the guilty party. Her marriage to Bruce Hurland the novelist, which took place actually before Fred's marriage to Victoria Temple, gave substance to this view. Fred sold his house at Breadwardine and moved over the border into Worcestershire, to be near his wife's people. Their children were born and their marriage must seem to the outer world more of a marriage than the one that had gone before it.
Ellis's marriage to Bruce Hurland had been partly an escape, partly a gesture. She liked him, he amused her, and he represented as big a change as Victoria represented to Fred. By marrying him before the door was finally shut, while there was yet a chance, though a remote one, that Fred and Victoria might change their minds about each other, she snapped her fingers at the earthquake which had shattered her life.
The same spirit determined her to make this new venture a success. Pride, this time her friend, forbade any indulgence in regret, any comparisons between the old life and the new.
Indeed in some ways the new life was more to her taste than the old, because more varied, more exciting. Bruce, though not particularly successful as a novelist, was well-to-do and knew a number of interesting people. He was fond of travel and Ellis strewed her dead love's ashes over most of Europe and America.
She came to take an entirely detached view of her first marriage. It was an experiment which had succeeded up to a point and failed for a definite reason. In some ways it had been more satisfactory than her present union, in others less so. No doubt her memory crabbed Fred, made him appear the typical provincial husband, a man who would bore her if she were to meet him again.
She met him again—suddenly and surprisingly—at the house of her old school friend Paula Summers, whose acquaintance she had remade after a lapse of years; and even bigger than the shock of meeting him was the shock of finding him as intelligent and congenial as she had found him in the past. After they had recovered from the first jolt, she found herself talking to him with some of her old eagerness, and telling him her news as she used to tell him after a day's separation, asking to hear his, enjoying his conversation. He talked to her quite openly about Victoria and the children. He was happy, he said, and pleased to find her so. Neither of them felt any revival of love or regret. It was simply their old friendship that had stepped out of the past and claimed them.
The next day he rang her up and asked her out to lunch. Bruce was away; which she regretted now, for if he had been there she would certainly have told him about her meeting Fred again and the event would not have detached itself so dangerously from the rest of her life. Over their luncheon she and Fred had grown a bit sentimental and perhaps a little too communicative.
"It's grand meeting you again, Ellis, and being able to tell you all this."
"Yes, Fred. Our talk seems real, somehow. I don't know how it is, but so many of the talks I have with people now don't seem real—not in the sense that this is."
"It's because we're the same kind of person and see things from the same point of view. Our mistake was making that a basis for marriage."
She did not tell him—in fact she had forgotten then—that their friendship had started after their marriage, not before it.
"I'm very happy with Victoria," he continued. "She's a splendid wife, but I never want to talk to her in the same way I used to talk to you. And a funny thing is this, whenever any crisis or problem arises and I've got to think things out, I find myself wanting to talk to you about it. In fact I do talk to you—ask you things in my head and hear you answer. I've solved a lot of problems that way."
"How very surprising!" she crumbled her bread, embarrassed for a moment and yet pleased. She had not known that she still lived with him.
"No, it's not surprising when you think of how things were—how we always used to discuss things with each other. I can't discuss things with Victoria in the same way. She's got a different sort of mind."
"Oh, just ordinary matters of policy that crop up in the home or in business. Shall I put down Danby—that's the boy—for Eton, or would it be better to send him somewhere more democratic? That's just an example."
"And did I say you were to put him down for Eton?"
He smiled at her.
"Well, as a matter of fact you were against it."
"You're quite right. I am. Send him somewhere more useful."
"Have you anywhere to suggest?"
"You know I'm not keen on public schools—anyway, not the kind you have to be put down for in your cradle."
"It doesn't really commit you to anything."
"I know. But I don't like the system. Now some of these new places they're starting . . . I imagine that a boy who goes to one of them isn't up against the wall of tradition that would smash his individuality in other places."
They talked on for a time, arguing agreeably; for even in the past they had allowed each other a difference of opinion—it was only their different likes and dislikes that had caused friction. When they separated Fred had said:
"We must meet again."
"Do you often come to town?"
"Very seldom"—grinning—"as you know."
"Couldn't you and Victoria come up for a bit in the spring?"
He said quickly:
"I'm not letting Victoria in on this."
"She wouldn't understand. It simply wouldn't do—believe me."
Ellis found herself thinking that after all it might be better not to tell Bruce.
Later on, however, she told Paula; who at once suggested that both Fred and Ellis should come on a visit to Sheddingfold.
"I don't see why you shouldn't see more of each other, if you want to. After all, in a way you're still husband and wife."
"My dear, what a terrible thought."
"In the sight of God, I mean."
"Oh, well . . ."
She laughed but she was still feeling shocked; though she would not let Paula know it for worlds, she felt more shocked and distressed than she had felt at any time since the divorce. For it was true—meeting Fred again was not like meeting an old friend or a former lover. There was a bond between them—she felt it and could not deny it; nor could she rid herself of the idea that they had rights over each other. When they met in town as they did whenever Fred could make a pretense of business to get him there—she could not feel either furtive or dishonest. Bruce and Victoria were a sort of outside interference that she had a right to ignore.
Fred had been pleased with Paula's suggestion that they should stay at Sheddingfold.
"It'll make things much easier. I nearly always go off somewhere on my own when Victoria takes the children to the sea in June or July. We stop at home all August, when places are crowded, and then go away for our own holiday in September. I could easily get down to Sussex for a week. Victoria's heard about Sir Charles and she knows he's a widower, so she won't think it odd that she hasn't been invited. She'll think it a sort of stag holiday. I shan't tell her of course that Paula is there—let alone you, Ellis dear."
He seemed perfectly happy about Victoria—as he could never in like circumstances have been happy about Ellis.
So he and she had joined the family at Sheddingfold and had gone for a great many walks and talks, enjoying themselves with each other so much that they accepted Paula's invitation to repeat the visit next year. It certainly was better than meeting in town. The fortnight—for the week had doubled itself—was a change and restoration. It had given them opportunities which no amount of talk over a luncheon table could possibly give. They had been able to slip back into some of the best moments of their lost companionship. They talked to each other freely and consulted each other on the problems of their separate lives. She soon came to know all about Fred's new house, Victoria and the children, her people and all the social activities of a place she had never seen. She consulted him about Bruce's money affairs—which he would not attend to himself—discussed the advisability or otherwise of moving from a house into a flat, and told him all about the queer, amusing or boring people she had met on the verges of literature. They had both gone back to their respective partners feeling refreshed and redisposed for them; for though they liked each other they had no real wish to return to the past. Their friendship seemed better apart from the stresses of married life. Ellis had never liked Fred so much as during those days of cool, friendly intercourse, uncomplicated by possession.
The next visit had been nearly as good; in fact it had seemed quite as good at the time, though she saw now that things must have been different. Fred had exclaimed: "We'll make this an annual affair," and she had agreed, in spite of a private anxiety. During that autumn and winter her relations with Bruce had begun to deteriorate. No doubt she had been unconsciously comparing him with Fred; but in some ways he really was impossible—selfish, artificial, a man of straw. Only a queer mixture of tenacity and detachment was keeping their marriage afloat, and she began to wish that there had been more of these virtues in her marriage to Fred, which she saw now had been a marriage much better worth preserving.
Moreover, in the course of that second visit to Sheddingfold, Fred had confided to her that there had been a time, just after the decree nisi, when he and Victoria both felt uncertain of each other and might have drawn back if she had not rushed into her defiant marriage with Bruce.
"However, it's turned out all right; so I won't say any more about it."
Nor would she. But she had thought about it, often since then; and when she came back to Sheddingfold this year, the comfort of their renewed friendship was already waning. Like the rain beating its way through a badly repaired roof, regret had come back into her heart.
If only she had brought the same determination and patience to her first marriage as she had brought to her second, she and Fred would not now be meeting like a pair of guilty lovers. She saw now that this experiment must fail. Something had happened which had destroyed all its safety and pleasantness. A seed had germinated . . . sown last year? The year before?—She could not tell. But she dared not let it grow to bright flower and bitter fruit.
Nor could she long endure to be with Fred secretly and Bruce openly. She would rather never see Fred at all. He made her feel ashamed—not of being with him but of hiding him. Bruce would have made a better secret—he was just the sort of man one keeps for a secret. But Fred belonged to all the open, honest things of life, to sanctioned love and public loyalties, to social stabilities, to common and friendly occupations. . . . And now he was sharing all these with another woman, while she, his wife, who used to share them with him, was drifting and dancing to the piping of a playboy. At last she saw how hopelessly she was lost. She felt like a traveler who has missed the strong comfort of the road and finds himself wandering in lonely paths on the empty shores of a sea over which night must fall. . . . Yes, she saw the night coming. She was thirty-four. How much longer could she dance to a playboy's tune?
An hour had passed. She still sat at the window, her elbows on the sill, her chin in her hands. The scent of hay had become a part of her breathing, unnoticed now, and the memories it had sent wandering on their track had come round again to the present moment. Nothing in the garden stirred and the mists had hidden the stars over Shiprods Hill. The night seemed darker than ever—nothing visible except her window on the lawn.
Then suddenly another light, another window, flashed up beside it not far away. Somebody else was unable to sleep and had drawn back the curtains; she could see a head and shoulders blocked like her own on the oblong of greenish radiance stretched upon the dark. Her heart hurried its beat, for she knew that this other watcher must be Fred. The light could come from no other room than his at the end of the passage. Paula Summers slept at the opposite end, beyond Sir Charles, and Nan's room was at the other side of the house. This window must be the window of the Yellow Room, which Fred occupied. Besides, that was a man's silhouette against the light—Fred's . . . she could see his outline plainly, even the untidiness of his hair.
She suddenly realized that if she could see him he could see her too and, springing up, she dragged the heavy curtains across the window and turned with a little gasp into the room. She felt startled and unsure, her mind full of new questions: Why was not Fred asleep? He never used to have bad nights. What was keeping him awake? Perhaps their conversation in the water garden had disturbed him more than she thought. After all, he had been as well pleased as she with this adventure—better pleased, in fact, for with him there had been no complications of regret. He would hate not to be able to see her again or to write to her. He would miss her abominably; and he did not know the true reason for her going away . . .
She suddenly said to herself: I must stop thinking; and turned to the bed. At the same time there was a knock at the door.
"Who's there?" But she knew.
"Don't come in."
The handle turned.
"I said: don't come in."
He stood just inside the door, his hand still on the knob.
"Don't be angry with me, Ellis. I couldn't stay arguing in the passage—I'd have wakened somebody."
"You could have gone away."
"I couldn't. I want to speak to you."
"Can't you wait till tomorrow?"
"No—I've been awake for hours, worrying about you. So I really don't see why I shouldn't come in and talk to you. After all, we used to be husband and wife."
She knew he did not mean to be heartless; and for some reason she could not say: "That makes it all the worse—it's worse for me to sit talking to you in my bedroom than it would be if you had never gone to bed with me and wakened up beside me." So all she said—stiffly—was: "All right," and sat down.
He stood for a moment looking at her. His dressing-gowned figure with the rumpled hair was heartbreakingly familiar, in spite of a dressing gown she had never seen before.
"Won't you sit down?"
"I was looking at you. You're more beautiful than ever. You seem to have got younger somehow."
"Well, I haven't. Please tell me what you want."
"Don't be so short with me. I only want to talk things over . . . Ellis, I feel you were disappointed and upset with me this afternoon."
"My dear Fred . . ."
"I know you were, and I can't bear you to go away feeling like that. I can't bear you to go away at all . . ."
"It's the only thing to be done."
She felt a growing weariness. She had not spent the night in sorrowful decision only to be brought back to the hopeless argument of the afternoon.
"Surely we settled that hours ago," she continued. "We decided that it's too risky for us to be together here now that we've met those Cannings."
"But you're angry with me. You think I've failed you and you don't ever want to see me again."
"That isn't true. I do . . . I do . . ." her voice faltered. The weakness of the small hours was upon her, sinking her into tears. She took refuge in a sudden gabble: "I do want to see you. I shall always want to see you. I'd rather go on with this if it could be managed; but it can't. We've both too much to lose. So I must go away."
"But why? Or rather I mean can't we both go? That's another thing I've been thinking of. I can't see why we shouldn't both go and finish our time together in some out-of-the-way place where nobody knows us."
For a moment she wondered if at any time she could have expressed the unspoken longing of the afternoon. But she was sure that she had not. This longing of Fred's must be his own; unless, indeed, he had caught it from her, as in the past they had caught ideas and emotions from each other. The sudden conception of his mind in tune with hers did not help her tears.
"Ellis, I believe you're crying."
"No . . .
"But you are. My dear, you don't want this to end any more than I do. And it mustn't end—all we've got to do is to change it. I quite see now that it won't do to go on coming here and I dare say we'd better clear out at once, before we've a chance of meeting those people again. But there's no earthly reason why we should either of us go home . . . and another year we'll meet in another place—a different place each year, so that people won't talk. We've made a mistake, trying to be so respectable—and of course it was easier this way, too; but now I definitely think the other way is safer, as well as pleasanter. It'll be lovely being together without all the Sheddingfold family around."
During this speech she had found time to control her tears, and to settle her thoughts a little. She saw the afternoon's craving, now that he had expressed it, as a definite plunge toward disaster. Whatever happened, she must not go away alone with Fred. It would be unbearable—it would be outrageous. They could not spend a week or even a day alone together on the terms they were on now without betraying their married past—indeed they had already betrayed it by this experiment. She felt a sort of desperate anger rising. She began to speak, then suddenly found that she could not give him her true reason for not going away with him. He must accept another.
"Fred, you don't know what you're talking about. Just think it over and realize what might happen. This afternoon you were upset because you thought that gossip about us might reach Victoria—that she might come to hear that we were staying here together, quite respectably, as guests of Sir Charles. What on earth would she think if she heard of us staying alone at the same inn? She'd be perfectly justified in imagining anything."
"But she wouldn't hear. Why should she? It's coming to the same place again and again and meeting the neighbors that's made all the trouble. If we went, say, to some quiet fishing inn in Scotland . . ."
"We might meet someone who knew us, and then it would be a hundred times worse."
He looked disappointed.
"It seems to me," he said slowly, "that in spite of all you've said, you're less willing to take risks than I am."
She still wore her mask.
"I've had time to think things over."
"So have I—that's just it. I've been thinking things over for hours, and I see that we simply can't do without each other now we've met again."
"Why can't we? I ask you—what do we really mean to each other now? We're both married to people we like, and you have your children. Why do we still want to go on seeing each other? We shouldn't. We don't need to."
Misery had suddenly made her shrill. She stood up and went over to the dressing table, where she saw her own face looking strangely frantic. She stood with her back to him, so that he should not see it, nor its reflection. He said:
"But we do need to. I can't bear the thought of your going away and my never seeing you again. I simply can't let you go. You're my friend."
"I have no right to be."
"My dear girl . . . surely in these days nobody questions the right of a man and woman to be friends."
"Not when they've once been husband and wife."
He made no reply, and in the mirror she saw his face look suddenly grave. It struck her that her words might have exposed the situation. He took his cigarette case out of the pocket of his dressing gown, and helped himself to a cigarette; then just as he was going to light it, changed his mind and put it back. She thought: He's remembered that he used to be very particular about not smoking in my bedroom—she said:
"Please smoke, Fred. I don't mind a bit."
He took out his case once more and handed it to her; but she shook her head.
"No, thank you."
Still he did not speak. Then when he had lit a cigarette and inhaled it, he cried suddenly:
"But, Ellis, what are we to do?"
The atmosphere had changed. Now at last they were talking about the same thing.
"We can't do anything. It's too late."
"Oh, my dear, how I wish . . ."
She must not let him say it, and her words broke up the words she longed to hear.
"Do be reasonable, Fred, and realize how much you've got. You've got Victoria and you've got the children. You don't need me at all—now."
"But I do need you. I was a fool to let you go."
The words had been said, but they brought her no relief, even though she thought he believed them—or, rather, thought that he thought he believed them. She mumbled:
"It's too late . . ." and suddenly found herself crying openly.
"Ellis, my sweet . . ."
She had sunk down upon her dressing stool, her head bowed, her hands fumbling for her handkerchief. Almost at once she felt his arms come round her.
"Ellis, my sweet."
"But I must. This shows . . . this proves it. You can't go . . . we still belong to each other."
She tried to push him away; or rather she thought she ought to try, but she could not force her resolution. Fred's arms once more around her after all these years . . . it was unbelievable; and yet she felt as if she had never been out of them. Nor could she feel any shame or prick of wrong-doing. This was her proper place—she alone had a right to be here in his embrace. Victoria and Bruce were changelings. This was her husband and he belonged to her as she belonged to him. Their efforts to keep apart had failed because they should never have been parted.
He was lifting her hair, lifting it off her ears, so that he might kiss them. It was his own once-familiar personal caress, and she did not even ask herself how much he had practiced it on Victoria. This was the first time since their meeting again that there had been any bodily contact between them, except a casual touch and now it seemed as if they could never let each other go. She was still crying, but her weakness was only physical. In her mind there was a sort of triumph and conquest, for at last she had broken free—or been dragged free—from the ruin of her past life, from all the false and evil things that had divided them.
It was not till he lifted her face from his shoulder and laid his mouth on hers that she realized she was still murmuring: "Don't, Fred."
The dawn was almost daylight. For an hour Ellis had been watching it grow from a cold white line between the curtains to a spreading assault of light, which flashed its sword upon the mirror and the polished surfaces of the furniture and drove the shadows into the corners of the room. For some time it had shown her with growing clearness Fred's face upon the pillow close to her own. She was glad that she had wakened early, so that she could lie and look at him.
But she must not lie and look too long. The light was sunshine now and the curtained room a warm chiaroscuro of brown and gold. She slipped out of bed and pulled the curtains back, so that the sun should wake Fred. But he did not move; he lay with his cheek on his hand, his lips parted, looking young enough to be the boy she had married more than twelve years ago.
She went back to bed and leaned over him.
"Fred," she murmured softly.
He opened his eyes. For a moment they gazed at her in a sort of sleepy comfort; then they clouded with a bewilderment that to her joy was followed by delight.
"Ellis, my angel, my queen . . ."
They kissed with grateful tenderness.
"Darling," she said, with her lips still close to his, "I hate having to drive you away, but I daren't let you lie here too long."
"What time is it?"
"Just after five."
"Then I can stay at least another hour."
"Remember that they're country servants and get up early."
"I'll be surprised if they get up as early as all that. Besides, I don't care. We're husband and wife and I don't mind who knows it."
A qualm of happiness went through her, so that she laughed.
"It really wouldn't do, my sweet. It would be a difficult thing to explain to Gladys just at the moment."
"She'll have to know someday, so she may as well know at once."
Happiness took so sharp an edge that it was almost fear. What did he mean? What was he planning? After last night there was only one thing that he could mean and plan. After last night they could not give each other up, still less could they give themselves to a secret intrigue. She saw that they were committed to openness and honor; but she found it hard to believe that he saw it too. Probably he had not given the situation any real thought since it changed.
"Fred, my darling, do you realize what you're saying? We belong to each other, but we belong to other people too. What are we going to do about it?"
He sat up suddenly and flung his arms round her.
"After this," he said, "I belong only to you."
"But have you thought about—about Victoria?"
"If I have to choose between Victoria and you, I see now it must be you."
"But—but the children . . ."
She would not let herself evade the children, though it seemed queer that she should have to remind him of them.
"They're more Victoria's than mine," he said firmly. "Children of that age always do belong to the mother more than to the father. I shan't lose them, either . . . I'll have access to them—I'll be able to see as much of them as I want. Then when they're grown up they'll be free to come and see me if they choose, and they'll be worth much more to me than they are now."
She was bewildered. Yesterday he had said that it was the children who mattered most. Yesterday he had seemed all theirs—so little hers. Now he seemed to be leading her away from them with a resolution more determined than her own.
"Then, are you," she said in a small voice, "are you thinking about a divorce?"
"I'm afraid there's no other way for us but to marry each other again. Do you think Bruce will refuse?"
"No—I don't. I don't think he'd want to keep me if he knew how things are. And I don't think he'd mind much, either. But Victoria . . ."
"She'll mind, of course—but not terribly. She'll have the children, and they're what matter most to her."
"Don't they matter to you?"
She really must get him to face these children.
"I've told you exactly what I feel about them."
"But, Fred, are you sure?"
She was beginning to feel easier, but she would not accept his new confidence till she had proved it, for both their sakes.
"When we were talking down in the water garden," she pressed, "you didn't seem to mind my going away as much as I minded it myself. You gave me a feeling that I wanted you more than you wanted me."
"Which is just the feeling you gave me, my loveliest wife."
"Did I?—How could I? I wanted you so much to mind my going away."
"Then you should have set about it differently. But you were all hard and jolly—you didn't give me a chance."
She almost laughed to think she could have appeared like that to him.
"But, Fred, tell me truly—did you then, or at any time since we've been here together, wish that we could go back to each other again?"
"Of course I've wished it. Or rather, to be honest, I've wished we'd never been such fools as to separate. But I never let myself think of it much. You seemed so sure of yourself as you were."
"Oh, my dear . . . what strangers we've been to each other!"
He took her in his arms again, drawing her back to the pillows, where she hid her face in the hollow of his shoulder.
"That's all over now," he said stroking her hair, and she felt as if she had escaped from death.
Later on they discussed the future.
"I've told Paula I must go tomorrow."
"Did you tell her why?"
"Not really—only about the Cannings. I still think I'd better go."
"Yes, I think so too. And I'll come with you."
"Oh, Fred . . ."
"Of course I will. Bruce won't be home for another fortnight, and we can't do anything about telling him and Victoria till then. I don't want to tell Victoria before you tell Bruce."
"But I think you ought to go straight to her and tell her everything and I'll wire Bruce and tell him to come home at once. It isn't fair to let either of them go on any longer without knowing what's happened."
He looked crestfallen.
"I can't see that it'll make things any worse for them if they go on in ignorance for another week."
"It will, if they ever find out—and they may find out—that we could have told them earlier. We mustn't run the risk. We've a duty towards them—we owe them both a great deal."
She felt that at all costs she must save her new happiness from the corruption of dishonesty and ingratitude. There was not much that she and Fred could do for Bruce and Victoria now, but all that they could possibly do they owed them in honor and charity.
"Whichever way things turn out," she continued, "we've treated them abominably."
"Yes, I suppose we have."
"Of course we have—we've made them the victims of our pride and stupidity; and the only thing we can do now is not to let them suffer more than is absolutely unavoidable. I've got a new plan. You shall leave tomorrow instead of me; I shall tell Paula what's happened—I know I can trust her. I'll stop on here for a few days longer, till Bruce comes home; and then later on you and I can meet in London and settle the future."
"You mean I'm to go straight to Victoria at Bude?"
"I think you ought to."
He looked gloomy.
"Oh, my angel, don't make things so difficult. Can't we have a few days' honeymoon together first? After all, we've always been married to each other in the eyes of the Church. Some people would say we had been living in sin with Bruce and Victoria."
"I know, and that's why we must be so careful. It would humiliate them unspeakably if we treated them like that."
He said ruefully:
"I suppose you're right. But it's very hard. I feel I need more of you to back me up for the scene with Victoria. What'll I do if she refuses to divorce me?"
"She won't refuse."
"No . . . on the whole, I don't think she will—as long as she keeps the children. They're first with her—always."
She looked down at him earnestly. Memory and the undazzled skeptic in her heart compelled her to say:
"Fred, are you really quite sure that you can live without the children?"
"I shan't have to live without them. I've told you all that. You don't have to worry about me and the children. In fact I don't mind saying that it will be a relief to find myself in a home where they don't always come first . . ." then possibly reading scandal in her eyes: "It's you and you only that I want now, my sweetest, loveliest woman. We're going to have a perfect life together—much better than anything that's past. We're older now and wiser, we see what fools we've been, and what's more, we've learned how absolutely bloody life is without each other."
She wondered exactly how long it had taken him to discover that those quiet, domestic years with Victoria and the children had been absolutely bloody. But she was tired of her own questions. She would not doubt her happiness any longer. She had him back in her arms again, her Fred, her husband, her dear only child, and all the mistakes of the past stood guard over the future's promises.
THe first week of September saw the completion of the first house on the Denniker Garden Estate. It stood in the midst of the quagmire created by Scrattage's feet as he puddled round it—four squat pink walls supporting a roof of whitish gray asbestos; the door and window frames were scarlet, owing to a job lot of that color having turned up at a builders' sale in Lewes. Passers-by stared at it in amazement, tempered in certain cases, it must be confessed, with admiration; for it looked bright and cheerful and a nice change from all those old-fashioned, tumble-down houses in Sheddingfold. But the majority viewed it with sheer horror, and for their castigation Rumbeam had blazoned on the door two metal figures-50.
"Reckon we'll start that end and build back to number one," he said to Scrattage. Number Fifty proclaimed his contempt of all those efforts to wreck his scheme that were being made by Mus' Canning and the Squire on the District Council; also of the protest meeting which Mus'Canning, in despair at the slow march of things, was organizing in Redmile. Secretly, however, he would be glad, when he had crowned his work with Number One. He knew enough of mankind to realize that in Canning he had a determined and resourceful foe. Already he had gained a certain advantage on the Town Planning Committee by persuading the Squire to offer the whole of the manor land as a private open space. There was no saying but that he mightn't be able some day to push Limbourne into a corner; and a public meeting, with chaps from London to speak at it, might influence some of Rumbeam's friends on the council, especially as Canning was not putting it about that the Denniker Garden Estate would drive money out of the district instead of bringing it in.
This last maneuver Rumbeam regarded as particularly sinister; he had hoped that the opposition would base itself entirely on agricultural and aesthetic grounds. But evidently Canning was too sharp for that; for here he was asking everyone—how much is the sort of man who buys (probably on a mortgage) a £400 bungalow going to spend in comparison with the man in the £3,000 house whom he'll drive away? It was a question likely to move powerfully those hearts to whom the loss of so many acres of wheat was a matter of indifference. Besides, Rumbeam hoped to sell some of the more lightly zoned fields to Blazier of Lewes, and didn't want an idea of that kind put into his head till he had paid a high price for them.
"Reckon we mun git along a bit sharper wud Forty-nine," he said to Scrattage, as they plotted Fifty's cesspool three yards from its front windows.
"I can't go no quicker than I can," grumbled John. "If you want a house built in less than two months you mun speak to Tiger about it."
"It's up to you to see as Tiger does his work präaperly. I can't go standing over 'un all day. My job's to travel aräound after the stuff, and yourn's to kip an eye on Tiger."
"So I do; and every day I see him go off to his dinner at twelve and come back at two, and then pack up for good at half-past four, saying as he only took half an hour off for his dinner."
Old Rumbeam looked distressed.
"Surelye he'd never act so ordinary."
"He does," said John briefly.
"Then, as I've töald you, it's your job to see as he doesn't."
"He won't take no notice of me."
"Nor of me, neither; for he'll know I'm only going by wot you've said."
"Then you mun stick around and watch him here. He works when you're on the place; but the minute you're gone he's off after Nan Chasepool."
Old Rumbeam spluttered.
"Now döan't you start telling me that tale about he's being arter Nan Chasepool."
"Reckon it's true."
"I'll never believe it. He'd have more sense. I'll never think 'un such a fool as to chase arter that rubbidge when he could marry a fine gal wud five thousand päounds and a farm coming to her."
John shook his head.
"He'll never marry Gloria Crouch."
Old Rumbeam's cheeks darkened under their stubble.
"He wöan't? I tell 'ee, if he döan't, I'll know the reason why."
"The reason why is that no decent girl 'ull look at him if he goes on the way he's going."
For a moment Rumbeam was perturbed, but the next came the reassuring conviction that it was only jealousy which made John say such things. Perhaps he had hopes of doing his brother out of still more of his inheritance.
"I döan't believe you, John, and you've no call to spik so of Tiger. He's a good lad in his heart and you can't prove none of that stuff you're saying about him and Nan Chasepool."
John muttered something incomprehensible.
"I've spoken to 'un more'n once about her, and he's told me he's never done more'n meet her at the pub."
Again John muttered inaudibly.
"'A done, do, wud your mumbling and rumbling," cried his father. "If you've aught to say as you can prove, say it out; if not, höald your tongue."
A growl as of distant thunder came from Scrattage as he walked away.
A very few days after this conversation, an inspiration came to old Rumbeam. Instead of building each house singly and completely—an operation which could not take less than two months, even if Scrattage worked like lightning, which was most improbable—why not just run up the walls and put on the roof and leave the interiors to be finished later? At that rate he would get the ground covered before the council could interfere; and as surely, once they were up, he could not be made to take the places down, he could then finish them at his leisure. He did not anticipate any trouble with the few by-laws that already existed, for the plans of Number Fifty had been passed by the authorities and he did not propose to vary them.
So enamored was he of this stratagem that he became reckless and engaged supplementary labor in the shape of Albert Neave, an out-of-work bricklayer from the neighboring hamlet of Sicklehatch, who for the sake of a delicate wife expecting her first baby was willing to work for him at tenpence an hour.
"Now, Tiger," he addressed his son. "You wöan't think this means you can please yourself as to your time off. I'm täaking on Neave so as I can scramble up fifty houses afore the council's Town Planning Scheme gits past; and though many's the friend I've gotten up there in Redmile, I döan't reckon to block it for more'n two year."
"If I work two years on this job I'll be dead at the end of it," said Tiger.
"Not you, my boy. You'll do valiant, wud Neave and Scrattage at your side, and the thought in your head of the terrifying fortune as 'ull come to you from this here very work. I've had over a dozen answers to that advertisement I put in the Mid-Wales Guardian."
It was Rumbeam's custom to advertise his houses in the local journals of remote parts of Britain, as he found that if he did so the purchasers often did not trouble to view the property before buying it.
Tiger said loftily:
"I can't possibly work any harder than I'm working now."
"You can täake an hour for your dinner instead of two," snapped Rumbeam, irritated by his son's lack of enthusiasm for his inheritance, "and stop on the job as long as Scrattage, instead of clearing off at half-past four."
"Someone's been telling lies. I never take more than an hour for the dinner interval, and I've often worked till it was dark."
"It's you that's telling lies. I know for certain sure as you're only working half the time, and t'other half you're spannelling aräound wud Nan Chasepool."
He had drawn his bow at an angry venture; but the next moment he seemed to see the arrow sticking in Tiger's heart.
"It's a lie," shouted his son. "I've told you before this that I never associate with her. Why won't you believe me?"
"Because I reckon there wouldn't be all this talk about you if you hadn't done summat to start it."
"What talk? Who's been talking?"
In his voice there was a shrill note of alarm.
"I wöan't mention no names," said Rumbeam, feeling that John's would not carry much weight, "but I've bin töald by some as should ought to know, that you work short hours so as you can go arter Nan Chasepool."
"And I tell you it's a lie. I haven't done more than exchange a few words with her when I met her at the Lamb. I explained all that to you when you first mentioned the subject. This last time she's been down I haven't seen her at all."
"I döan't believe you."
"But it's true."
"If it's true, why do you look so ordinary? You look like a scared rabbit. I tell 'ee, Tiger, I'll never forgive you if you spile your chances wud Gloria Crouch by mucking about wud Nan Chasepool. When were you last at Shallowbed?"
Old Rumbeam was taken aback.
"Yes," continued Tiger, suddenly aggressive, "I went there last night, and the previous night, and I was there two nights last week. When you accuse me of forsaking my work, does it never occur to you that I go to see Gloria Crouch?"
"No," said his father. "I can't say as it does. And I met Crouch last week, and he never said näun about your having bin there. I believe you're still lying."
Tiger turned pale.
"I'm not—I'm not. If you don't believe me, ask her—ask her and see."
"I will ask her," said old Rumbeam, "this here very night."
Tiger turned green.
Shallowbed Farm was the last in the parish, some of its fields running over the borders of Sicklehatch. It belonged to the flat country between the downs and the Weald, a thriving place of water meadows and a herd of Jersey cattle. Old Crouch had always done well and had family money at the back of him, though, true to south-country tradition, he did not display his wealth in any particular elegance of building, clothes or furniture. The house was the same mixed huddle of roofs and walls that it had been in his father's time, with the front door opening into the orchard and the back door into the farmyard. His wife and daughters, however, "sat" in the dining room instead of in the kitchen, and it was there that they received Tiger Rumbeam when he arrived, hot, frightened, angry, at the close of the afternoon.
They were a pleasant looking rather than a good-looking family. The three daughters must have weighed nearly forty stone between them, and their mother's figure spoke of still heavier things to come. Gloria had a broad, pale, placid face, set in a tumble of chestnut hair. Her ankles were abnormally thick, and if forced to save his life by marrying one of the family, Tiger would have preferred either of her sisters. But his father's policy dictated the heiress, and Gloria had already inherited four thousand pounds from a rich aunt, with the prospect of Shallowbed itself when her father died.
"Hullo, Tiger, you are a stranger," greeted Mrs. Crouch. "Had your tea?"
"Yes, thank you."
He had not had any tea, but he did not want Mrs. Crouch to make it for him. He was in the strange, unprecedented position of wanting to be left alone with Gloria.
"You look tired," continued the matron. "I expect you're working too hard for this hot weather."
"The weather is atrocious," said Tiger, "and the work most exhausting."
"Poor boy. Have a drop of gooseberry wine."
But even this improvement on a cup of tea must be rejected, for Mrs. Crouch would make a social occasion of it and keep them all sitting together for hours, while every minute was precious. Not that she was normally reluctant—in fact she had sometimes shown herself too eager—to leave him alone with her daughter; but she took for granted that he had come to spend the evening, little knowing the urgency of the next half hour.
"Thank you very much, I'm sure, but I must decline that also. I shall have to go home very shortly. I—I came to see Gloria on a—a matter of private importance."
The Crouches all looked surprised and gratified.
"You mean you want the girls and me to go out and leave you two young people together," said the mother archly.
"If you wouldn't mind. That is—I'd be much obliged—"he suddenly realized where he was landing himself and floundered wildly—"if you'd retire just while I ask her something—nothing of any importance except to myself. In fact . . ." He broke off, dark with blushes.
"Oh, don't worry yourself, my boy," said Mrs. Crouch. "It's time that Greta and Norma helped me grade the eggs. Then we'll see about a nice little bit of hot supper."
"I don't think it will be feasible . . ." began Tiger, but his reply was lost in the noise they made as they creaked out, with sundry giggles and backward glances. Gloria was giggling too, and it was all very awkward. Tiger felt that the only thing to do with the next ten minutes was to get them over as quickly as possible. He began desperately.
"I hope you haven't formed any misconception. I asked to speak to you privately because I want your help."
She looked disappointed.
"Yes. I was hoping I could make so bold as to prevail with you to back me up with my father. I mean, he may be coming here this evening to ask you if I was here last night, as I told him I was under pressure of circumstances. I should be grateful if you would give an affirmative reply."
"But you weren't here—you haven't been here for a fortnight," said Gloria none too pleasantly.
"I know; but under pressure of circumstances I told my father that I was—last night and the previous night, as well as two nights last week. I know it's regrettable, but it couldn't be helped, and I hoped that I might be able to persuade you to . . ."
"Tell a lie."
He liked neither her look nor her voice as she said that.
"No—not a lie; just to back me up so as he thinks I was here when I said I was."
"I don't know what you call that if it isn't a lie."
Tiger became anxious; she was reacting badly, and it struck him that he might be employing the wrong technique. He left his chair and came over to sit on the arm of hers.
"Wouldn't you do a little thing like that for me?"
But she was apparently unmoved.
"Why should I? What have you ever done for me that I should put myself out to oblige you?"
"Aren't I your boy friend?" asked Tiger in a wheedling voice.
"Fine sort of boy friend, who doesn't come near me for a fortnight and then asks me to tell lies to cover up his going out with another girl."
This really was outrageous and Tiger felt most indignant.
"How can you say such a thing! I haven't been out with another girl. I don't go out with girls. I work much too hard."
"Then why haven't you been here for so long?"
It was difficult to answer this offhand and Tiger played for time. Rather reluctantly he filled his arm with her thick waist.
"Does it seem such a very long time, Glory dear?"
She was melting. His touch was succeeding where his tongue had failed. He could feel her response, even through the bones of her stays.
"It seemed a terrible long time," she said plaintively, "and then when you came and asked to see me alone I hoped . . ."
"I'd have come if it had been feasible, but it wasn't. You've no idea how hard I've been working, day and night, not a moment's rest, not a moment to myself. My father's a regular slave driver."
"Poor boy," she said quite tenderly, and he was going to encourage her still further with a kiss when he suddenly felt her stiffen.
"But if you're working for your father, he must know it. There can't be any need for me to tell him you were here on those nights—unless you weren't working, unless you'd gone off somewhere . . ."
Tiger could have cried. Directly the situation seemed to be straightening itself out it changed and coiled itself up again.
"Where had you gone?" asked Gloria tearfully. "Why do you want him to think you were with me? I'll never believe you weren't with another girl."
"I wasn't—indeed, I wasn't. Oh, Gloria, you must believe me." Desperately he summoned all his resources. "It's only because I'm so very, very fond of you . . ."
" . . . that you don't come to see me?"
He wished she wouldn't answer smart like that. For a girl of her size she was sometimes much too quick.
"I want to come and see you—I'd come and see you every day if it was feasible. But the fact is—" a sudden flood of improvisation rushed over him and he began to swim strongly in it—"the fact is, Gloria dear, that it hurts me to be always accepting your Ma's hospitality like I am, without ever being able to repay. It may be silly of me, but I have my pride and if only I could afford it I'd like to take you out to restorongs and cinemas so that your Ma shouldn't always have the burden of entertaining me. I know she doesn't grudge me anything but it hurts me not being able to take you out like other chaps take out their girls. My father won't pay me any wages. I'm penniless except for his charity and I tell you it wounds my pride something horrible. So I thought that if only I could find a job and get sufficient wages, then I should be free and independent; and that's what I've been doing these nights when I told him I was with you. I've been out and about the place, looking for a job. I couldn't tell him what I was really doing because he'd have been offended. I was looking for a job—so that I should have money to spend on you. So you see that I was speaking the truth when I said it was because I'm so very fond of you. It's most distressing to be fond of a girl and have no money and no hopes of any till your father dies, which mayn't be till she's gone and married someone else."
He had been successful. Gloria lay back in his arms, soothed and sleek. Her large gray eyes, fixed intently on his face, looked almost trustful.
"Have you found anything at all likely?"
He shook his head.
"There's nothing much doing and a great deal of unemployment about. I expect it'll be a long time before I can find a job with sufficient wages for us to marry on." He felt that he could safely commit himself as far as that. "You see my point, don't you, darling? And you'll try and make things easier for me—for us—by telling my father if he calls that I was here last night, and the previous night, and Tuesday and Wednesday nights last week. If he finds out what I was really doing it may ruin everything. You'll tell him, won't you?" and he deepened persuasion with a kiss.
"Yes, I'll tell him. But, Tiger, it isn't really necessary for you to find a job for us to marry."
His blood ran cold. What was coming next? He said hurriedly:
"Of course I couldn't marry you without a penny."
"How much would it have to be—the salary, I mean?"
"It couldn't be less than four or five pounds a week, and I'm afraid there's precious little going at that round here or anywhere."
Gloria said nothing for a few moments, and Tiger hoped that he had discouraged her. But when she spoke he realized that her silence had been due only to arithmetic.
"But Tiger, I've got money of my own and I've just been working it out. Aunt Bessie left me four thousand pounds, as I expect you've heard, and it brings in, the way it's invested, just under two hundred and fifty pounds a year. Now Dad said that when I married he'd give me another thousand—just to make me really worth having." She giggled coyly. "We could put that in a mortgage paying in six per cent, which would bring in another sixty pounds a year. Add sixty to two hundred and forty and it makes three hundred; divide three hundred by fifty-two . . . I can't work it right out, but I know it brings in more than five pounds a week."
"But that would be your money, not mine, and my pride forbids . . ."
"I don't see why it need, if I don't mind. Besides, I expect your father would give you something for yourself. He's very rich, isn't he?"
"Yes, he is; but I'm certain he won't give me any money—not while he's alive."
"Oh, I'm sure he would. I'll tell you a little secret. My dad told me that your dad told him that nothing would ever please him better than to see us married. Besides, even if he doesn't give you anything, I've just been telling you that I've enough for both. If you really love me you oughtn't to be too proud to take it, especially as you'll have plenty of your own someday."
Tiger was speechless; improvisation had failed. Some men might feel flattered to have a rich girl so eager to marry them; but the only emotion Gloria's persistence aroused in him was a desperate fear. The situation seemed to be closing in on him, and in his own language, his heart was another's; no flattery could cajole him, no money bribe him from his Nan, with her sharp tongue and empty pockets. His only hope lay in the truth of the old proverb about taking horses to the water. He might be forced in his own immediate interests to become engaged to Gloria Crouch, but he did not believe that any power on earth could compel him to marry her. This thought sustained him when an instant later the door opened and Mrs. Crouch walked into the room.
"Now what about . . . Oh, naughty!"
Tiger struggled in vain to change his position. Gloria still clung to the arm that he had rashly passed round her waist, and she was too heavy to struggle with except on the most embarrassing lines. Directly she saw her mother she clinched the situation by hiding her face in his bosom.
"Well, I'm sure . . ." rallied Mrs. Crouch.
"We're only engaged," said Tiger hastily.
"You silly boy—what did you think I thought you were?—married already? Ha! Ha! An engagement will do very well for a start. Gloria, your dad will be pleased—I'll have him sent for immediately. Norma, dear—" calling into the passage—"run and fetch your dad—he's in the Dutch barn. Greta, you fetch the bottle of port that's in the back kitchen cupboard. This is much too good news for gooseberry wine."
The Lamb Inn was a licensed house of imperturbable respectability, standing in the heart of Sheddingfold village, next the church. There on summer evenings a slow company drank beer and played darts and talked over local news till closing time dispersed it. Nan Chasepool in its midst was like a poll parrot in a pigeon loft. Her voice was so much louder than those of the regular customers that their gentle murmurings seemed in comparison very like silence, and her vivid sports clothes bore the same relation to their earth-colored suits as her green sports car bore to their farm wagons and market Fords.
The company eyed her with disfavor, which was due not so much to any personal objection (though she was disliked in the village by everyone over twenty-five) as a general reaction to this new habit of the gentry of visiting the pubs. For generations the country people had been used to having their pubs to themselves, using them as clubs and debating societies and cheerful refuges from their damp and overcrowded homes. The presence of those who had no such need of them was regarded as an unwarranted interference with democratic rights. The Lamb at Sheddingfold had not been so seriously invaded as the Crown at Dollock Mill or the Cups at Sicklehatch, for Nan was the sole troubler of its peace and her visits were only occasional; but whenever she came she was unwelcome, and this evening especially so, as the company had been talking about her just before she arrived.
"I wonder how she'll take it," said Muddle, the Rector's man.
"I don't suppose she'll care," said Mr. Coleman of the Stores. "Why should she care? He's dirt compared to the likes of her, for all the money he'll have when the old boy's dead."
"All the same, no woman likes to be changed for another."
"I'll never believe," said Coggin, a laborer at Magreed Farm, "as there's bin any changing. She döan't give a row of pins for Tiger Rumbeam. All she's done has bin to talk to 'un säum as she talks to the other lads, and being most part a diddicoy, he answers her back more in her own style. But I'll never believe as she'd ever think of doing what Gloria Crouch has done."
"Maybe not," said Muddle, "but I'll lay she's gone middling near it—and past it in some ways."
"Now, you've no call to say a thing like that," said an elderly man called Glatting, "I don't think more of her than most people, but she's the Squire's granddaughter, and we've no right to say against her things as we can't prove."
"Ted Smole saw her wud 'un in Brighton a fortnight ago."
"That äun't proving. He may have mäade a mistake, or they may have met accidental like."
"They wur in the Regent Cinema, and wotever you say it sims queer to me as the Squire's granddaughter should go to the pictures wud the rag-and-bone man's son."
"I tell you Smole may have mäade a mistake."
"He says there wur no mistake about it—he saw her car outside in the car park, too."
The argument was becoming heated when the subject of it suddenly walked into the bar. Immediately every tongue was still. Eight pairs of disapproving eyes followed her as she walked up to the counter, followed by an unknown man, who looked like a Jew to those who had any idea of what Jews looked like outside Bible picture books.
"Good evening everybody—good evening, Joe," to the landlord, Joe Drigsell. "Now what'll you have, Rowley?"
"Oh, the same as usual," said Rowley, and Nan ordered two double whiskies.
She seemed in a cheerful mood, so either she hadn't heard about Tiger Rumbeam or she didn't care. She leaned against the bar, and called out greetings to those of the company whom she knew—greetings which were very churlishly received and scantily returned.
"Tiger been in?" she asked the landlord.
"Then he'll be coming soon, I suppose. I thought we should have found him here already," she said to her companion. "He's generally here by now—but perhaps he hasn't been able to escape. I hope you're not in a hurry."
"As long as I catch my train."
"Oh, he'll be here long before it's time for that. He's pretty regular at the Lamb, isn't he, Joe?"
"Yes, he is, most times."
He did not add, "but I doubt if he'll come tonight," for that would be giving useful information.
"Then we'd better hang on a bit. I don't want you to miss him, Rowley. I think you'll find a lot of meat on that bone."
The company listened with pricked-up ears, but though Nan and Rowley talked to each other in ringing voices for about three quarters of an hour, its curiosity was left unsatisfied. They were talking about films. Everyone knew Nan Chasepool was mad about films and was trying to make the Squire sell Ruffets, the only decent farm he had left, so that she could start a film company and make, she said, a lot of money. After a time it dawned upon the listeners that Rowley must be someone of importance in this scheme, but why he should be wanting to see, or she should be wanting him to see, Tiger Rumbeam was a mystery unsolved by the conversation.
Two more double whiskies were consumed by each of the conversationalists, but, to the private disappointment of the beer drinkers, without the slightest effect on their sobriety. Then Rowley looked at his watch.
"It's after seven. I really must be getting off."
"I'll run you into Redmile. Damn that bloke. I thought he always dropped in here of an evening. Sure you can't wait?"
"No—I've a date with Percy at the Ambassadors. We'll fix up something later—there's no immediate hurry. I haven't seen Eglantine yet. I'll have to sound her about him, you know."
"I should think she'd eat him. But never mind; as you say, it can all be settled later. But I thought that as you were down here you might as well see him in his proper setting, so to speak."
"I've seen the setting, anyway. Splendid yokelry, this is. We might get some shots in here, don't you think?"
"It wouldn't be a bad idea."
"And local extras?"
"Pick up any number, I should say . . . Look here, you boys, if Tiger Rumbeam comes in tonight, tell him I brought in Mr. Fitzmaurice who especially wanted to see him, but couldn't wait."
There was a noncommittal rumbling. No one was going to tell Nan Chasepool that Tiger Rumbeam would not be here tonight, nor any night for a considerable time, because he was engaged to Gloria Crouch. Let her find out for herself, was the thought in every heart.
Actually she found out the next morning. Sam Wildgoose knew that there was a feeling against giving any local news to the gentry, especially those gentry, like Miss Nan, who did not really belong to the place. But it was virtually impossible for him to keep such a plum to himself; and when she met him in the drive and enquired very good-naturedly after his arm, which, he told her, was coming off the panel next week, he could not resist tagging on to his reply:
"Tiger Rumbeam's engaged to marry Gloria Crouch."
If Nan had been the sort of young woman Sheddingfold approved of, she might have rewarded him with a fit of hysterics or a burst of tears. Being herself, she made no signals that he could recognize. Her hard little face looked only a trifle harder as she asked:
"Who told you that?"
"Joe Muddle told me last night, and I had it again from Tom Polder this morning. They both say old Rumbeam was giving it out himself at Redmile Market yesterday. As pleased as Punch, he was, about it."
"She's got money, hasn't she?"
"Reckon she has. Her auntie what died a year ago had a shop in Brighton, and she left two thousand pounds to each of the Crouch girls, except Gloria, and she give her four; and old Crouch said as he'd make it five if she married to please him and give her the chief part of Shallowbed into the bargain when he's gone."
"What sort of girl is she? Is she attractive?"
But she had asked Sam a question he could not answer. He could have given Nan minute information as to Gloria Crouch's possessions, relations, and the principal events in her life, but he was unable to formulate a moral or aesthetic opinion, such as was here involved. He stammered, looked sheepish, and finally mumbled:
"I dunno. Reckon he thinks so."
"But would you take her with five thousand pounds?"
"No!" cried Sam aghast. "I'm marrying Doll Chantler at Christmas."
"But if you weren't?"
Such a state of affairs was beyond Sam's imagination.
"Reckon I don't never think of other girls."
"Well, I hope for Doll's sake it lasts," scoffed Nan, and stalked away.
She stalked to the garage and fetched out her car, driving it to the hole in the hedge which formed the entrance of the Denniker Garden Estate. The distance was very little greater than she had already walked to the garage, but Nan would have regarded it as outrageous to walk a hundred yards along a public highway. It was the first time that she had ever visited Tiger at his work, but his defection to Gloria Crouch had swept away together her need for secrecy and his claim to her consideration.
However, no Tiger was to be seen. A big, oafish-looking man was building a pink wall, but his only assistant was certainly not Tiger Rumbeam. She asked if he was anywhere about, and her inquiry was followed by a silence so prolonged that it seemed as if both the toilers must be deaf and dumb. Neave, of course, did not dare speak while Scrattage remained silent, and Scrattage had to spend a certain amount of time considering how far it would be expedient to disclose Tiger's whereabouts. Finally and reluctantly he said:
"He's gone to dinner."
Scrattage mumbled and slapped down a brick. Nan wasted on him a stare of utter contempt and walked back to her car.
She was now thoroughly angry. If she had not been angry she would have been miserable, anxious, humiliated and other things she despised. Her heart was not quite as hard as her face and there was in it a peculiarly soft spot for Tiger Rumbeam. She might tease him and she might bully him, but privately she loved him and had taken for granted that he loved her even more. Besides, he had an important part to play in the scheme which was absorbing all her faculties and energies at the present moment. He was the very boy they wanted for Fitzmaurice Films, which could not afford to buy stars, so had to make them. If he married Gloria Crouch he was ruined for film purposes as well as for others more private. There was also no chance left of Rowley Fitzmaurice's acquiring capital out of the fortune which both rumor and Tiger asserted he would one day inherit from his father. What had possessed him to betray so suddenly and heartlessly both his love and his ambition? They had spent the evening together only three days ago, and he had been exactly as usual, in fact if anything more loving and more inclined to dwell on the fame and fortune they would share with Fitzmaurice Films. . . . Had his father found out about them and was he wet enough to be bullied into marrying his father's choice? Nan knew very well that the old man had been urging him for some time to marry Gloria Crouch, but Tiger had always talked of her and the whole idea with scorn. Perhaps that had been empty bragging—or gypsy perfidy . . . after all, he was half a gyppo—more than half some people said.
Raging thus within herself, Nan came to the Creakers, which from motives of discretion she had hitherto avoided. She wondered if she would meet his parents there. She did not care—she felt utterly reckless; in fact she would enjoy giving him away. For whatever reason he had acted, he had acted, at best, stupidly, at worst, abominably. She would make him suffer for it.
At a first glance the Creakers looked deserted. Nan edged her car into the yard between a heap of old bricks and a broken-down tram. She looked round her with an amazement that almost amounted to awe. What an inconceivable junk heap . . . Was this really how the old chap had made his money?—this and his squalid building estates? A heap of rusty window frames pointed to a connection between the two. Creakers Cottage itself, with its sagging roof, patched walls and bulging windows, looked like another and larger rubbish heap. She knocked at the door, and after a time heard footsteps approaching—furtively. The next moment a sound made her look down at the letter box, (which, set askew in the starting boards, hinted at superior origins in Bulverhythe or Brighton) to meet the stare of a single big, black eye.
"Tiger!" she shouted. "Let me in at once."
The door opened and Nan had her second burst of amazement. The exterior of Creakers Cottage had not prepared her for the smell of furniture cream and beeswax in the passage, for the smooth, shining stretch of spotlessly clean linoleum, for the well-washed green paint of the doors and skirting boards and for a large walnut hatstand, glittering with furniture polish and entirely hatless.
It was all so unexpected that she fumbled.
"Hullo," she said weakly.
"Oh, Nan," cried Tiger, shutting the door. "Let me explain everything."
She had recovered herself.
"You'll be clever if you can."
"I can, and I was wanting to see you, but it all happened so quickly—No, don't go in there—" as she moved to what looked like the open door of the parlor—"come into the kitchen."
"Why should I come into the kitchen?" said Nan, who immediately suspected Gloria Crouch of being in the parlor. "What manners you've got!" and she marched into a room which looked as if it had been furnished by a mathematician but was otherwise empty.
"We generally sit in the kitchen—it's much more comfortable," said Tiger.
"Oh, but I like this room," said Nan, recklessly spoiling Mrs. Scrattage's diagram of chairs as she sat down.
Tiger shuffled in anxiously and sat on the edge of a music stool. Nan was pleased to see that she obviously had him at a disadvantage. Perhaps Gloria Crouch was somewhere else in the house, with her escape cut off by the open parlor door. But in that case, why had he made no attempt to shut it?
"Well, tell me what's happened," she said, "and why you've played us all such a bloody trick."
"No other course was open to me," said Tiger, "but it's all right—indeed it is. I'm engaged to her, but I shan't marry her. It's only till we've got things straightened out a bit and I can show myself in my true colors."
"If you ask me, you have shown yourself in your true colors," said Nan bitterly.
"Oh, don't please, Nan dear, talk to me like that. If only you'll listen I'll explain myself. Let me begin at the beginning and tell you everything."
"Right. You get going," said Nan, taking out a cigarette.
Tiger looked alarmed. "Please, don't. They'll smell the smoke and find out you've been here."
"Won't your mother let you smoke in the parlor? You are a good boy—obey both your father and mother, don't you?"
"It isn't Ma—it's Mrs. Scrattage. She'd notice at once if we'd used any of the rooms besides the kitchen."
Nan decided that the situation had nothing to do with Gloria Crouch, and beyond that wasn't worth understanding.
"Come along then," she said indifferently and slouched into the kitchen, which proclaimed itself with a smell of stew.
"No fear of Daddy and Mummy coming home?"
"No. Dad's at Lewes Market and Ma's gone into Seaford. She leaves my dinner for me on the fire. Do you mind if I partake?"
"No. Partake away. In a hurry to go and see Gloria?"
"Oh, please let me explain. I can explain everything."
"Good for you. But get started, for heaven's sake."
"Well, it was like this. Dad had been hearing rumors about us sometime ago, but I was able to convince him that they were unfounded. But the day before yesterday he seemed to have heard some more, and started rowing me for working short hours and saying that I was doing it on your account. So I said that on the contrary I was going to see Gloria Crouch, and when he didn't believe me I said ask her and see, not thinking that he would, but he said he'd go and ask her that very night. Well, as you may imagine, I was nonplused. The only feasible thing to do seemed to get over there first and warn her that he was coming and tell her to say I'd been. I'd hoped she'd be willing to collaborate, but she wasn't. She said it was all a lie and why should she help me tell lies to my father? So I said it was because I loved her and had been looking round in my spare time for a job so as I should be able to marry her, but of course I didn't want my father to know, as he would have considered it an aspersion on him. Then she said it didn't matter about a job, because she had four thousand pounds of her own and her dad had promised her another thousand if she married to please him. Then her ma came in . . ."
" . . . and you were caught."
"Yes," said Tiger simply.
"And well you deserved it, you silly fish. Why on earth couldn't you have thought of something better than that?"
"I tell you I was nonplused."
"You shouldn't be nonplused so easily. You should have stood up to your father and told him that you'll damn well do what you like with your spare time."
"But he'd guessed that I was spending it with you."
"A little guessing does no harm. He can't have any actual proof. We've been far too careful."
"I'm not so sure. I believe he does know—something."
"Even if he does, he can't eat you; but Gloria Crouch can. Your film career is ruined just when it looked like starting, my beautiful boy."
"What do you mean?"
"I saw Rowley yesterday, and he's found a chap who's got more money than he knows what to do with and feels he'd like to put some of it into Fitzmaurice Films. Rowley came down here to tell me about it and talk things over, and I took him round to the Lamb in hopes of meeting you there. But you didn't turn up and now this morning I hear you're going to marry Gloria Crouch."
"But I'm not going to marry her. It's only a subterfuge. I shall get out of it as soon as it's feasible."
"You won't find it so feasible to get out as to get in, you poor mutt. What do you propose to do—walk up to her and tell her it's off?"
"I'll work things so as she'll break it off herself," said Tiger gallantly.
"You'll have to work hard. Besides, if you're so afraid of your father that you propose to a girl just to keep him quiet, how do you think he'll take it if the engagement fizzles out?"
"I'm not afraid of my father, but he holds the purse strings."
He had at last explained himself. Nan fell silent. Her large, light, slightly protruding eyes roved round the room.
"Got anything to drink in the house?"
"No. We never drink at home. Oh, Nan—you do understand me, don't you?"
He pushed aside his plate, carefully wiped his mouth and came over to where she was sitting. To his intense joy she did not repulse him, but let him sit down beside her and take her into his arms.
"Oh, Nan, Nan, dear little Nan . . . You know I love nobody but you."
"I must say you have a queer way of showing it."
Tiger showed her in a less equivocal fashion.
"You do understand me now, pet. Say that you do. I'm only acting for our mutual advantage. I mean, if I seriously upset my father he may make a new will and tie up my money so as I only get a few pounds a week. He's threatened to do it."
"If you jilt Gloria Crouch he may cut you out altogether."
"But if she jilts me and I appear inconsolable . . ."
"For God's sake don't try to be any cleverer than you've been already, or you'll find yourself walking up the aisle. If you love me, write yourself down a mug and let me think of something."
"Oh, if only you could . . ."
"You've made it exceedingly difficult. No hope, I suppose, of getting your dad to settle anything on you, just because you've been a good boy and proposed to the Crouch?"
"Not unless I actually marry her."
"That won't do, then . . . It's a pity, because if only you could lay your hands on, say, a couple of thousand pounds, you might become a director of Fitzmaurice Films and cry hoots to your father."
"Gloria has four thousand pounds of her own."
"Then why in God's name don't you get hold of it?"
"I don't see how I can, unless, as I said before, I marry her."
"But it's been done. One's always reading of women who've parted with their all to some plausible scoundrel."
Tiger shook his head.
"Gloria wouldn't. She's not the bighearted sort—she wouldn't trust me."
"Then I can't see what you can do—unless you're willing to risk everything just for a part in the show and a decent salary."
Tiger cried astonishingly:
"I'd risk everything if I could marry you."
"Me!" Nan looked surprised—even astounded.
"Yes, Nan. I love you and I want to marry you. I've always wanted to marry you; but how can I when I haven't even a weekly wage? If Fitzmaurice will engage me at a regular salary and you'll marry me on it, I don't really care what my father does about his money. Anyhow I don't think he'd cut me off altogether, as he's no one else to leave it to. He's more likely to tie me up, so as I can't get more than a few pounds a week. But if you'll run the risk of that . . ."
"Hold hard, my boy. Not so fast. I won't say I'll marry you, as that doesn't seem to me to come into the picture; but I'm pretty sure I could get you a part—some sort of a part."
"With a regular salary."
"Of course. If Rowley takes you he'll pay you. But he'd have to see you first."
"When is he coming down again?"
"I haven't an idea. I shall be in town myself all next week—you couldn't run up there, I suppose?"
Tiger hesitated. Such a plan seemed reckless to the point of desperation, but if Fitzmaurice could really be prevailed on to engage him he would be independent of the consequences.
"If I get a part, will you marry me?"
"No. Of course not. I'm not going to marry anybody on five pounds a week, which is the most you can expect for a start. The point is, do you or do you not want to go on the films? Because if you do, you'll have to start right now. Rowley will probably go into production at once."
"Of course I want to go on the films."
He wanted it more than ever. For the sake of a salary that would make him immediately and really independent of his father—and to Tiger five pounds was a very different sum from what it was to Nan—he was willing to risk the distant future, which by the time it arrived would probably have been wiped out by the dazzling personal and financial triumphs of Mr. Tiger Romany.
"Of course I want to go on the films. And one day when I'm rich and famous will you marry me?"
"For God's sake stop harping on that subject or I'll walk right out and have nothing more to do with you. The point to consider isn't what you're going to do when you're rich and famous but what you're going to do next week. If you want to go on the films you must come up to town and meet Rowley Fitzmaurice. Can't you say you're going to some market or other?"
"I never go to markets. That's Dad's part of the work."
"Then can't you pick on a day when he's gone to one some way off, and just scram?"
Tiger shook his head.
"Scrattage would know I was gone."
"Scrattage?—he's that tough chap working in the Denniker, isn't he? How much does he matter?"
"He matters a lot when he tells tales of me to Dad. But I could tell him I was going out for the day with Gloria."
"And then have your dad go and ask her if it was true."
There was a silence, during which Nan hummed a few bars of Mendelssohn's Wedding March.
Tiger began reluctantly: "It doesn't really seem feasible . . ." when Nan suddenly took him by the hair with both her hands and dragged his face to hers for a long, hard kiss.
"I've got it, big boy—I've got it. You must take Gloria up to London for the day and lose her there. She's sure to want to do some shopping and you can say you want a haircut and fix to meet her somewhere, and then not turn up. Afterwards you can make out that it was all her fault, and that she'd gone to the wrong place. Does she know London well?"
"She's been there sometimes, just as I have. But I can't say that either of us knows it well."
"That'll make it all the easier. Say you'll meet her at the Maison Lyons in Oxford Street, and then pretend afterwards that you didn't know there was more than one. Rowley and I will be at Tim's Bar in Shepherd Market, and you can get straight into a taxi and drive there. Then when he's seen you, you can be run down to Shepherd's Bush for a test shot and pretend that you spent the afternoon tearing round after Gloria."
"I shall have to find her again before I go home. I daren't go home without her."
"Oh, she'll go back to the station in the end. Of course if there's a real row and she throws you over, so much the better. You'll be fixed with Rowley by then."
"I'm sure I hope I shall," said Tiger, feeling that Nan's scheme was much madder and more dangerous than any of his own.
"Oh, you will—I tell you it's a snip. Don't worry. I'll fix all the details for you."
Tiger sat thoughtfully. The prospect was still entrancing; if he succeeded he would be able to snap his fingers at his father, at Gloria Crouch—he might even be able in some glorious final fade-out to marry Nan. But he could not believe that such a dangerous plan would materialize without involving him in some dire catastrophe.
"What day were you thinking of for this to happen?"
"Well . . . we must give you time to make a proper date with the Crouch. Say Wednesday next week. You can come up by the 9.45, and I'll be waiting for you at Tim's at 11.30. But I'll write as soon as I've fixed up things with Rowley and give you final instructions."
"For heaven's sake don't write to me. They'd suspect something at once if I got a letter."
"Oh, Lord, how difficult you make things by the extraordinary way you live. Well, I shall have to see you again before I go—that's all. What about tomorrow evening at the Crown? Can you be there at six?"
"Better say half-past five. I must be back here by seven, as we're all three going over to have supper with Gloria."
"The hell you are—what a date! Never mind; I'll pick you up at the corner and we'll go to the Bell or the George or somewhere. That's fixed then—I must get off now."
"There's no hurry. It's too late for me to go and see Gloria."
"You and Gloria are not the only people in the world. I want to get home for a bite of something myself, after watching you wolfing here for the last half hour."
"Oh, Nan—you really don't have to go. You can stay with me just a little longer, can't you? . . . I love you so." His arms came round her again. "Dear little pussycat Nan. . ."
Scrattage withdrew his eye from the keyhole in disgust.
He had not heard very much of the conversation; as he came into the passage his ears were caught by the sound of his own name: "Scrattage would know I was gone."
"I've got it, big boy—I've got it!" Nan had cried the next moment, and then she had propounded a scheme for losing Gloria Crouch in London while Tiger met Nan Chasepool and someone called Rowley at some place called Tim's Bar for some purpose that remained mysterious but suggested no good intentions towards the lady of his father's choice. Scrattage began to wish that he had come in before his dinner instead of afterwards, but comforted himself with the thought that he had found out all he wanted to know. Tiger Rumbeam and Nan Chasepool were still as thick as ever and were hatching some plot in which Tiger's betrothal to Miss Crouch had doubtless been an early move. If only he could get hold of the boy's father and show him the guilty pair . . . John had not forgiven Rumbeam for disbelieving him when he had first told the tale of Tiger's aberrations. But the old man was far away and would probably not accept anybody's unsupported word as evidence against his favorite. Perhaps the lady would leave some trace behind—a hairpin or a handkerchief . . . never would he forget the scene Mrs. Scrattage had created when she discovered what she swore (most unjustly and untruly) was a strange hairpin in their bedroom. Scrattage brought his eye back to the keyhole in hopes of seeing something fall. The couple on the kitchen sofa were tearing themselves apart.
"Well, I must go," said Nan, "and so must you. See you tomorrow at Dollock Mill."
"At Dollock Mill."
And that was all they said before they walked out together—without leaving (as his investigations proved) a single trace.
Just as they were going it had occurred to him that he might burst in and confront them, demanding a high price for his silence. But he was not accustomed to doing anything except after long consideration—or he would have arrived earlier at the Creakers—and the process had barely begun before the opportunity had passed. Besides, he did not really want to sell his silence to anyone except old Rumbeam. He was the man who ought to pay. Exactly how he was to be made to pay for Tiger's misdoings was not at present clear, but Scrattage had very little doubt that a time would come when his knowledge of them could be used to his own advantage. He had always been a hoarder of information, which like a true miser he valued most when it lay safely locked up in his own breast. Moreover, he was well aware that this particular treasure was incomplete; before he could risk spending it he must add to it both by way of matter and of proof. He was ignorant of the nature of the plans Nan and Tiger were making and he was still without any evidence beyond his own word which had already, he told himself resentfully, been doubted. There was nothing for it but to try to find out a little more.
Till nearly the end of the next day he brooded over the idea of going to Dollock Mill, to try the effect of some more listening. But he realized all the time that he had very little chance of success. There was nowhere for him to listen unseen, and if he were seen he would be at once suspected. The Crown at Dollock Mill was not his usual pub—indeed he very seldom went to pubs at all. Neither Nan nor Tiger would utter a single useful word in his hearing.
Time and the opportunity passed once more. Now there was nothing for him to do but to observe Tiger's actions. Nan Chasepool had gone back to London.
If he did not know what he already knew, he would still have seen something highly suspicious in his brother's behavior. Tiger worked diligently if not enthusiastically his full eight-hour day, and went off every evening to sit with Gloria Crouch at Shallowbed Farm. Old Rumbeam loudly proclaimed his satisfaction.
"He's a good boy, John, and you can't never say as he äun't. I know you had some tejus ordinary notions about 'un, but you mun see now as you wur mistäaken."
"I see wot I see."
"You see a young feller as only had to fall in love to settle down."
A diplomat would have bided his time, but though normally inclined to bide, John was too deeply provoked to be diplomatic.
"I don't reckon he's in love with her. It's her money he's after—and so are you."
Fortunately old Rumbeam was not sure whether he had been insulted or commended.
"I'm unaccountable glad for the boy to be marrying a gal wud five thäousand päounds, but I döan't reckon fur him to look at it that way räound."
"He'd never fall in love with a girl like Gloria Crouch."
"I döan't see why not. Sims to me she's a goodhearted sort of girl, and a sight better looking than Nan Chasepool."
"You once said he never thought of Nan Chasepool," replied John, coming surprisingly close to repartee.
"And I say it still. I'll never believe he ever thought of her, though you've bin trying to prove it agäunst 'un. If he ever thought of Nan Chasepool, why is he marrying Gloria Crouch?"
Scrattage said nothing.
"You're jealous," continued his father, "larmentable jealous; and you've no cause to be. I've done well by you, John. I mun have paid you close on three thäousand päounds in wäages since I fust took you on."
John said something about three thousand pounds spreading out a bit thin over twenty-five years.
"There you are! Always muttering—there äun't no pleasing you. Tiger mutters because he döan't get no wäages at arl; so you äun't got no cause to be jealous. Unless—" old Rumbeam suddenly conceived a joke and anticipated it with a growl of laughter—"unless you're jealous about Gloria Crouch."
Scrattage took no notice of the pleasantry.
"I can't see wot else you'd be jealous about. Why, even after I'm dead you'll be doing almost as well as he."
"I reckon Tiger 'ull do better than a thousand pounds and some rubbish."
"That's wot you asked for."
"Maybe I did—to start myself off. But I could do with more than that. If you gave me twice as much I reckon I'd still be a whole fortune below Tiger."
Old Rumbeam looked very indignant, and a little alarmed.
"Now you äun't a-going to start all that over agäaun—because I tell you plain as you wöan't git näun by it."
John mumbled something to the effect that if Gloria Crouch knew what he knew she wouldn't look at Tiger.
"I döan't care wot you know," said his father, gathering courage from the vagueness of the threat, "you döan't know näun that you can prove."
This was unfortunately true.
"I tell you," continued the old man, "as you can't upset Tiger wud Gloria Crouch. He's courting her uncommon fierce. Every evening he goes and sets over at Shallowbed, as I know from my own eyes and Crouch's; and he asked me only Friday if he could have a day off to täake her up to London to buy wedding stuff."
"Which day is he going?"
"Next Wednesday. It's a cheap day."
"That's your day for Lodderslane Fair."
"Wot if it is? I döan't work on the houses, and you'll still have Neave. Tiger's being off a day wöan't mäake a tur'ble lot of difference. It's natural for the girl to want to buy her stuff in London, and it's natural for the boy to want to go wud her."
John held his tongue.
"You äun't got no cause to mutter. But you've got the habit—that's wot it is. You're an awkward, muttering sort of chap and you've got the habit."
And old Rumbeam walked off, leaving Scrattage in silent incubation of an astounding and terrific plan.
Autumn had stolen into London like a thief. Even in the treeless streets one could know that summer was gone; and in those streets where trees civilize the shops and houses the pavements were dingied with fallen leaves. The quality of the sunshine seemed to have changed and become thin; shadows had lost depth and darkness. Yet there was heat in the air, which was full of the pant and labor of traffic, a roaring shell. Autumn in London had none of that spicy coolness it brings to the fields, where it had not yet come.
As she walked through the wilting day Ellis Hurland felt a pang of longing for the country she had left two months ago. It was not like her to regret the country, but at that moment—in Victoria Grove, with the pavement hot under her shoes and the parched laburnum and wygelia sagging their dusty leaves over the garden walls—she had in her mind a vision that was almost pain of the Sheddingfold downs rising clear into the wind, and all the wide blue ocean of the sky a-sail with ships of cloud. It was odd, she thought immediately, that her heart should go out to that country rather than to that other where so much more of her life had been spent. No doubt because it was nearer . . . nearer and dearer . . . dearer to Ellis because nearer to London . . . she smiled unsurely—if she and Fred lived in the country (and he would be miserable if they did not) it had better be within easy reach of London. Then a source of contention would be removed. But she was not afraid of contention . . . what was she afraid of? Was it of not being able to get even as far as that? . . . She switched her mind away and emptied it. Whereat she instantly became aware of a small green sports car outside the door of Number Ninety-nine.
Damn! That meant Nan was at home. Ellis had thought she was in the country. It would be a bore having her around while she talked to Paula. Not that she had anything particular to say to Paula . . . but Nan was a blight on their revived acquaintance. It was a relief when, on being shown into the small white drawing room, she found that Nan was not there and that only two glasses stood beside the sherry decanter.
"Hullo, darling—you're looking fine."
Paula kissed her and they sat down.
"I see Nan's back," said Ellis.
"Yes, but she's got a date for lunch, so we shan't see much of her. She turned up quite unexpectedly this morning to see a man about a dog or something. I'd thought she wasn't coming till next week. Will you have sherry or a cocktail?"
"I'll have sherry, please. She seems to have spent a lot of time at Sheddingfold this summer."
"Yes, there must be some attraction down there—some boy friend she daren't show the family. I can't believe that she's still wasting her time trying to get money out of Father."
Ellis had always admired Paula's magnificent detachment from her daughter.
"It's sensible of you not to worry about her."
"I—worry! What earthly good would it do if I did? She's just got to go on till something stops her."
"I expect she'll be all right. She's only twenty-two, isn't she? She's sure to marry and settle down."
There was a pause during which the two women's eyes met; then they smiled.
"That's a good one," said Paula, "—from you. But it's just the sort of thing I might have said myself. What a sweet, old-fashioned pair we are. 'Marry and settle down'—you'd think we'd done it."
"I wonder why we didn't. Our mothers did, and that wasn't so very long ago."
"Long enough for them to have felt that marriage was the end—I mean a final state. When you and I married we knew we could get out of it if we wanted to, so a time came when we did. But when our mothers married divorce was only for outsiders. Even if it was you who did the divorcing, life for a divorced woman simply wasn't worth while."
"So you grinned and bore your marriage as the least of two evils."
"Quite; and probably in the end grinned more than you bore. You see," she continued, lighting a cigarette from the stub of the one she had just smoked (she was not a chain smoker, but she could not talk without a cigarette in her mouth), "it worked both ways. The husbands had to make the best of things just as much as the wives. They were both in it together and couldn't get out, and as a result they had to be more careful than we ever troubled to be. By the way, have you heard from Bruce?"
"No. I didn't expect him to write. He knows I'm going ahead and will let him hear as soon as anything's fixed."
"I'm glad he's being so amiable."
"I always thought he would. He never really loved me."
Again their eyes met and they smiled, but this time without much merriment for they were no longer smiling at themselves.
"Do you think he wants to marry anyone else?" asked Paula.
"No, I don't. But I think he'll enjoy feeling he can if he wants to. He's going to have a much better life—according to his ideas—than he ever had with me."
"And what about you?"
"The same, I hope."
Paula looked at her out of her sad, slanting eyes.
"The whole thing seems odd and dangerous to me. Are you sure it will work out all right, Ellis my lamb?"
"Why shouldn't it?"
"Oh . . . only that—looking at it from my point of view—it would be more difficult for me to go back to Dory (if he wasn't dead, poor darling) than to start life again with someone unknown."
"Perhaps . . . yes . . . in your case. But I feel that I'm more like what you were saying our mothers were. If Fred and I had been married thirty or forty years ago, I expect we'd now be living together perfectly happily. We'd have got over the awkward time and found out that we really loved each other, without all the fuss and misery of separating and marrying someone else. Certainly he'd never have looked at Victoria if divorce had meant to him what it meant to his father. Fred's quite conventional really."
"I know. But the snag is that he has met Victoria and has been living with her for seven years—longer than he's lived with you. You've made things far more difficult for yourselves than they were for your parents."
For a moment they both said nothing. Ellis could feel a doubt lying like a stone at the bottom of her heart, but it was not a new weight dropped by Paula's words.
"When is he coming to see you?" asked her friend.
"Next week—on Wednesday."
"He's taken his time."
"I know it seems like it. But things have been very difficult for him."
"You bet they have. Victoria would see to that. Still, I think he might have moved quicker."
"One of the children was ill—he couldn't leave her."
"He'll have to get used to the children being ill without him."
"Oh, yes . . . but this happened just at the wrong time. I quite see his point of view—he had to stay."
She was using with Paula the defenses she had used with herself; she felt a definite relief when her friend seemed to accept them.
"I suppose the next thing will be that you'll go away together and Bruce and Victoria will lodge their petitions."
"Yes; it's the best way of doing it, though it seems queer and unnatural, somehow, to be running away with one's own husband."
"You mean that it's generally done 'from' him. Well, I hope you'll find it an improvement. I shall watch you with interest."
Ellis was silent. She was beginning to feel irritated, and tried to think of something to say which should take the conversation away from Fred. She felt relieved when the next moment a maid opened the door and announced: "Lunch is served."
Nan came into the dining room just as they were sitting down.
"Hullo, Ellis," she said.
Ellis felt almost a grandmother as she pictured herself going out to luncheon at Nan's age—with a carefully chosen and tilted hat, a gown lit up by one or two good pieces of jewelry, white gloves, neat handbag and high-heeled shoes. Nan was hatless, gloveless, sleeveless, stockingless and all but shoeless, for the colored thongs of her sandals gave a generous view of vermilion-tipped toes. Her brief gown was simple and smart and her hair had an exquisite sleekness, but the bag under her arm was a huge, unshapely, luggage-like affair, to judge by which she carried very much more than she was wearing.
"Hullo," said Ellis. "How are things?"
"Oh, not too bad."
She helped herself to an olive out of one of the hors d'oeuvre dishes on the table.
"Where are you going, Nan?" asked Paula.
"What a fascination that place has for you. When you and I were young, Ellis, we expected our men friends to take us to the Savoy or the Berkeley or at least the Ivy. Nan's favorite rendezvous is a back-street pub with a dining room frequented by taxi drivers."
Nan took another olive.
"That's a lie. There isn't a taxi driver on the place."
"Then you and your friends have driven them out, and I think it's very selfish of you. It's just the sort of place they like to go to."
"With a French cook noted for her sole Marguéry and chicken à la Marengo? Mother, you don't know a thing."
"I suppose I mustn't ask whom you're lunching with?"
"Don't be arch, darling. I'm lunching with Twiggy."
"Yes; the poor blighter's desperately anxious for a job with Fitzmaurice Films." She picked up a fork and spiked a sardine. "Ellis, did Mother tell you that Fitzmaurice Films have got a backer at last?"
"No; she didn't. I congratulate you. Does this mean you're going to start production?"
"That's just what nobody knows. Rowley doesn't think that he'll put up more than ten thousand, and that's hardly enough for a good start. I suppose, Ellis, you haven't got a few thousand pounds lying about that you'd like to invest in an absolute snip and cert?"
"Don't be silly, Nan," said Paula crossly. "You show what a child you really are when you talk like that. With all the big American companies producing in millions, how can you expect to do anything with even as much as twenty thousand pounds?"
"Because," said Nan, thrusting her fork into a stuffed egg, "we're not competing with the big American companies. We're all out for art and British production. Rowley believes and I believe that there's a future for really sound films that don't use their costs as an anesthetic to dope the public, in the hope that it won't know what it's suffering. We're going to have reasonable stories instead of fairy tales, magnificent photography (Rowley's got a wizard boy whom nobody's ever heard of) and no stars."
"And you imagine that all the Paramounts and Plazas will show films like that?"
"No; but all the Curzons and Academies will. Our object is to have a Curzon or an Academy in every town."
"You have a hope."
"We have. I don't say we'll make our fortunes, but we'll run a chance of making our names and a good income, which will be a pleasant change for some of us."
"And shall we see you on the screen, Nan?" asked Ellis.
"Me!" Nan looked at her contemptuously as she swallowed a prawn. "Lord, no! My face is all right for everyday use, but on the screen it looks like broken victuals. I see to the financial and production side of things. But we've got a poppet of a girl and a treat of a boy who'll beat Hollywood to ribbons if they can only act."
"Acting seems important."
"It's not so important on the screen as looking and moving. That's why I tell Rowley he'll be a fool if he takes an actor chap some woman's pushing on to him. He'll be full of all the old stage tricks and spoil the show."
Paula interrupted her.
"Don't you think you'd better go and get started—that is if you haven't already eaten all you want off this table."
"Right. But I've still room for a mouthful or two; I don't want to be too hungry, and I hope Twiggy isn't, as I'm paying."
"Yes. Twiggy hasn't got a bean."
She walked out, leaving Ellis and Paula feeling like old-fashioned Christmas cards.
Ellis lived in Hereford Square, in a miniature London house with trees behind it and a Square garden in front. On hot days the back door stood open, so that, coming in at the front, one looked through the hall into a green shade. She was glad that the hot weather had lasted till the day of Fred's coming to town. He was lunching with her in her own home, and she wanted him to see the little house at its best. It was her own—Bruce had had no share in its possession—and now that he was gone, taking advantage of their rupture to join a party of friends traveling in Eastern Europe, she pondered the idea of keeping it as a town house for herself and Fred. It was a bit extravagant as a pied-à-terre, but she would probably be able to let it furnished for part of the year, and she would not have to be so careful of money now that she was free of Bruce and his wild spendings. Fred had always been careful and sensible about money; he had more, too, now, than when they had been together—some family money had come in.
Of course there would be alimony for Victoria and the children . . . her comfortable planning broke up on the jarring thought. She did not like being reminded of Victoria even by her own heart. But for Victoria she and Fred would probably be away in the country somewhere together now. The little girl had been ill, but she had got well—there was no real reason for Fred to have been fixed immovably in Worcestershire throughout August. And now he was coming only for the day; this was the preliminary meeting to discuss plans which ought to have been discussed six weeks ago. Within a fortnight of leaving Sheddingfold she had settled her affairs with Bruce and had expected him to do the same with Victoria. Instead of which he had allowed himself to be argued or pleaded into continuous delays. He was not, she thought, a weak character, though more impulsive than herself, so the only conclusion to draw was either that Victoria was exceptionally strong-willed or, more unpalatably, that his heart was divided.
She could not quite shake off Paula's words . . . "The snag is that he's been living with her seven years—longer than he's lived with you." In seven years a complete new man can be built up, a new organism of cells, certainly a whole new set of habits and allegiances which in such a moment would assert their power. Fred loved his children—she could not accept his own, earlier dissipations of that fact—and his children were Victoria's.
Perhaps she had made a mistake in letting him go back to them—in urging him to go back. If she had kept him with her she would at least have been able to spare him many conflicts and herself many anxieties. But she still felt that she had done right not to grab her happiness with such greedy indifference to another woman's grief. She still believed what she had said then to Fred about the debt they owed to Bruce and Victoria. Bruce had been easily paid off; he and she had long ceased to care for each other and he had been almost glad to be able to start on a separate course with so little trouble or dishonor. But Victoria . . . that was a totally different affair . . . a young wife and mother, still loving her husband, even if deeply absorbed in her children . . . she saw no fallen barrier or lifted yoke, but on the contrary a slow, starving exposure. Ellis and Fred would not deserve their happiness—happiness of so high a kind and quality—if they did not consider her in every way; and now it was both unfair and unhumane to blame him for those surrenders which, though they must upset the calculations of the present moment, could make no real difference to the future's total sum.
These were Ellis's thoughts as she waited for Fred—not sitting quietly in her drawing room, but moving restlessly about it, pushing chairs, plucking curtains, twitching flowers, watching the clock. Why doesn't he come? The train must have been late. Oh, how I wish he would come. Until he does I shan't be able to forget Victoria . . . Perhaps at the last moment she's persuaded him not to come . . . Ah, here he is.
There was movement in the hall, the sound of footsteps on the miniature flight of stairs, the opening of the door and "Mr. Malkinson," in a maid's trained, toneless voice; then as the door closed his arms about her and the smell of his coat and skin and hair, so different from the smell of Bruce's, as he held her and kissed her. "Darling, darling Fred—how lovely to see you at last."
"Yes, I'm afraid I'm a bit late; but there seemed to be a traffic block every few yards."
That wasn't what I meant, but never mind. "I've made you a cocktail, Fred. You remember that you used to like my cocktails?"
"Yes, indeed. And after Mrs. Noven's . . . the last time we had cocktails together they were Mrs. Noven's."
She smiled at him over the top of her glass, pleased to add even one little private joke to the stock of their new lives.
She asked him: "How do you like my house?"
"I think it's charming."
"I'm wondering if it would be a great extravagance to keep it on. I don't suppose we shall be much in London, but it would be nice to feel one had a place like this to go to instead of a hotel or a service flat. And I could probably let it for part of the year."
"Yes, perhaps you could."
He spoke dully, as if she had raised a point he disagreed with but did not wish to argue.
"Of course we're going to live in the country," she continued, as he said no more, "but you'd probably rather live at some distance from town; in which case we'd want to have some sort of a place in it."
It was a pity he had come so late, for Ellis's cook was punctual and had no idea of keeping back lunch in order to allow them to enjoy their cocktails. It was announced before he could reply, and once they were in the dining room any sort of intimate conversation was difficult. It seemed to Ellis a chilling thought that to her servants her husband was a stranger. She imagined that they roughly guessed the situation between her and Bruce, but she did not think that they connected Fred with it in any way. The time would come when she would have to tell them about him, but she would not do that till the future was something more than an outline. Today he was just an unknown man visiting the house for the first time.
It may have been partly for this reason that lunch seemed a formal, self-conscious affair. She and Fred spoke the merest generalities— indeed there were times when she had to work to keep the conversation from flagging. She had spent a great deal of thought and trouble on planning the meal but, though her cook had not failed her, she felt relieved when it was over and they could go back to the drawing room, where the arrival of coffee heralded an afternoon to themselves.
"I hope you didn't mind coming here, Fred," she said as soon as they were alone. "During lunch it occurred to me that it might have been better if we'd gone out somewhere. I mean, we could have talked more freely in a restaurant."
"Would you like to go anywhere now?" he asked. "Shall I ring for a taxi and take you for a drive in the park?"
"Oh, no. It wouldn't be much easier to talk in a taxi than it was in the dining room. We're all right now. Rose won't be coming in again."
She was astonished at his suggestion that the present moment was the one to break.
"We haven't seen each other since we were at Sheddingfold," she continued. "We've got a lot to talk about."
"I'm glad you found Bruce so easy."
"Yes; poor Bruce . . . He really isn't quite a grown-up person. All his adult reactions seem to go into his novels, which is why, I suppose, so few people read them. I really think he's quite glad to be on the loose again."
"He's lucky—you're both lucky."
Again that fiat, resoundless voice.
"No doubt we are," she said, "in this respect, anyhow. I gather by your voice that you don't consider yourself lucky."
"Not in that way—how can I be? Victoria's extremely fond of me."
"Fonder than you thought? Than you allowed for?"
"It's hard to say. I knew she'd be upset—worse than upset—brokenhearted, even. But it's difficult to imagine things beforehand exactly as they happen, and I must say I was taken aback . . . Of course the whole thing came at an awkward moment, with poor little Sarah being so ill and Victoria actually thinking I'd got wind of it and had come down to Cornwall on her account. It was damned hard—having to undeceive her."
"It must have been." She felt intensely sorry for him, as she had felt when it all happened. But it seemed to her that the letter in which he had first told her about it had been more cheerful than the voice in which he told her now. The circumstance was evidently gaining in weight and sorrow. "Sarah's made a very good recovery, hasn't she?"
"Oh, yes. But she took a long time about it—we were both very anxious; and while she was so ill I couldn't possibly come up to town, even for a day."
Ellis had a brief, disquieting vision of Fred and Victoria together at the bedside of their sick child. She said resolutely:
"I know and I quite understand. But you've come at last."
She smiled as she spoke and held out her hand.
He took it, as she meant he should, and drew her by it into his arms, as she meant he should.
"Oh, Ellis, my sweetest darling, it's all been hell."
She had not meant him to say that.
"My poor love . . . I know. But didn't you think it would be? Weren't you prepared for what's happened?"
"I've told you that I wasn't."
"But I mean apart from accidents such as Sarah's illness? You surely didn't expect Victoria to let you go without a struggle?"
"Victoria hasn't struggled at all—she's been marvelous."
Ellis felt a shock.
"In what way has she been marvelous?" she asked stiffly, watching his face rather than listening to his voice as he replied:
"In lots of ways. She hasn't refused to divorce me, for one thing. I never really thought she would; but she might have. And she's never reproached me or made a scene. She's cried, of course . . . But she's told me that the only thing she cares about is my happiness."
What a queer, priggish way he was talking . . . He never used to talk like that—it must be something he had picked up from Victoria, who had obviously worked hard on him during the two months he had been at home. In some ways he seemed more hers now than he had seemed at Sheddingfold. Ellis shrank from the thought of his going back to her tonight. If she could only make him stay. . . .
"Victoria," she said almost jauntily, "must have less to worry about than most women whose husbands ask for a divorce. I mean it must be easier for her to let you come back to me than to let you go to someone who might be nothing but a mistake and a passing infatuation."
"But she says that makes it more difficult. I mean . . . well, you must see that it makes it more humiliating. If I'd simply taken a fancy to somebody I'd only just met, people might say I had a changeable disposition and that no woman could expect to keep me for long. But leaving her to go back to the woman I was married to before I knew her makes it look as if she hadn't been at all successful as my second wife."
"I see," said Ellis slowly. That aspect of the situation had not occurred to her before, but she saw now that it was one which might more easily occur to Victoria. "It's one way of looking at it, anyhow. Of course, if she wants to explain you as a human butterfly, you've failed her badly. But, on the other hand, if what she really wants is your happiness . . ."
"I don't doubt for a moment that she wants it. But the trouble there is that she knows that at one time you and I were making each other very unhappy. And that worries her—she's afraid."
"Oh . . ."
His arms were still round her, but she did not seem to feel them.
"Fred," she cried, sharply. "You're not worried, are you?—you're not afraid?"
"No, of course not. Don't be absurd, darling. I'm only telling you what Victoria thinks. But I wish—oh, how I wish—"
"What?" as he faltered.
"That we'd never been such fools as to separate all those years ago. That was our mistake; and look at the misery it's brought—to others and to ourselves."
"Yes, I know. We were fools—and worse. But, Fred, we've got to be realistic about this. We made a mistake, but it's waste of time now to regret it. Our job is to put it right. I wish we could do that without making anyone else unhappy . . ."
"I know. That's the terrible part of it all. But—"
She broke off, tangled in shame. She couldn't say "Why shouldn't Victoria suffer what I've suffered?" So after a pause she said rather lamely: "She'll get over it. She'll marry again."
"It'll be difficult with a couple of kids."
"I don't believe it. She's attractive and well-to-do and well-connected . . ."
In her heart was a clear pool of memory in which she saw him reflected as he had been at Sheddingfold, when he had lightly and ruthlessly dismissed Victoria, her claims and sufferings. They had been sitting up together then in her bed, and for a moment she asked herself if it was passion that had made Victoria seem so small. But passion had been the flower rather than the root of their marriage, and unless in this matter too he had changed very much during the last seven years she did not believe that it would have swayed him beyond the limit of his reasonable wishes . . . But then the whole evidence pointed to the fact that he had changed. She was a fool if she deluded herself about that. While he had been with her those three times at Sheddingfold he had been very much her Fred, taking a holiday from the Fred that was Victoria's—from the personality which had grown out of their life together, which must necessarily be of a very different shape from that developed by his life with a very different woman. It was quite possible that Fred was now less rational, more easily swayed by his passions than he had been then. . . . A darkness of disappointment and anxiety settled over her, for now her mistake seemed less retrievable, more out of reach of all save her regrets, than it had seemed a few hours ago.
"Fred," she said, "we aren't helping anyone by talking like this. We must settle things now and get it over."
"Why, yes, dear; of course. That's what I've come for."
She leaned back in his arms so that she could look into his eyes and said boldly:
"Must you go back to Worcestershire tonight?"
"Yes, I must—definitely."
"Ellis—you know. You know that matters aren't in a state when I can leave home yet. I've only come to talk things over—as we planned."
"Quite. But we planned it all two months ago. This meeting was to have taken place a week or a fortnight after our leaving Sheddingfold."
He said wearily:
"I really can't go into all that again."
"I don't want to go into it." There must be in her voice either a sharpness or a shake and in self-defense she chose sharpness. "But it seems to me that we've already had all the waiting we can stand—I don't want to start on a fresh round of delays."
"There needn't be any delays, once we've got things planned out. But we haven't really discussed them yet."
"Do they need so much discussion?"
"You thought at one time that they did, and I still think so. I can't go off, leaving everything at home unsettled. I want to put my house in order first, so that they can carry on without me. Victoria trusted me when she agreed to my coming up to see you to talk things over. I can't possibly let her down. Besides, there are the children. They're expecting me home tomorrow."
She thought to herself: and there were Victoria and the children last time we were together, when you were begging me to go away with you at once. It was I who thought of them then—not you. She said:
"Indeed I haven't."
"Then your methods have. When we were at Sheddingfold your idea was to go away with me first and put your house in order afterwards."
"And very rightly you prevented my doing such a heartless thing."
"I wish I hadn't."
"Ellis! How can you say that? You know you don't mean it. And I really don't understand why you're so upset. I'm only asking you to let things run on a little longer."
"May I ask how long?"
"Only till about the end of this month. Victoria is arranging for the children to go to a little nursery school as soon as the autumn term begins. That'll take their minds off my going away—they won't miss me so much."
She fought for calmness; but her misery and irritation were so great that she had difficulty in keeping back her tears.
"Fred, listen to me . . . this is more important than you think. It seems . . . I can't help feeling . . . that you don't understand what the situation really is. You're risking our happiness for reasons which aren't good enough. I know it's hard for you to leave your children, but it doesn't help either you or them to be continually putting it off like this. It's got to happen. I mean, you and I must go away together before either Bruce or Victoria can bring an action for divorce."
"That's another point I want to discuss. Victoria has begged me to arrange things so that you don't appear as corespondent."
Ellis sprang to her feet. Irritation changed to anger so quickly that she nearly choked.
"Fred—you can't mean that! You can't allow it. It's outrageous."
"I didn't say that I was going to allow it, but I promised Victoria I'd discuss it with you. I can quite understand her point of view. If she cites my former wife as corespondent there'll be the devil of a stunt in the newspapers, and as I've already explained, it's much more painful for her to lose me to you than to some woman unknown. If I just fix up an ordinary divorce, as we did before, her friends may never know that I've married you again, and if they do—"
"—they may think that I took pity on you after you'd been thrown out by Victoria. And may I ask you if I'm to do the same about Bruce?"
"I imagine you wouldn't have much difficulty if you wanted to bring an action against him."
"But I don't want to. I've an objection to asking a man to compromise himself to suit my convenience."
Her voice failed her, and in spite of her efforts she finished the sentence on a sob.
"My darling Ellis, don't be so upset. I didn't say I was going to do it but that it was a point I promised to talk over with you."
"If you'd only thought it over you'd realize it couldn't be talked over . . . it's a preposterous idea. Don't you see that it would keep us apart for another year at least? You and I couldn't go away together if an action was being brought against you with another corespondent. No, if Victoria makes you do this, we'll have to keep apart till at least she's got her decree nisi . . ."
She could restrain her tears no longer. Her disappointment had become disillusion, almost despair.
"My sweetheart, my darling, don't cry." He drew her down again beside him and as on that earlier occasion when she had wept, his fondling touch came on her hair. "Don't cry, sweet Ellis. Victoria won't make me do anything. She can't. I was only trying to explain her point of view."
"But you shouldn't. You must have seen that it was a point of view I could not accept . . ."
"My sweetest, don't let's quarrel."
No, don't let's quarrel for heaven's sake. The only thing to do now is to make him, come away with me at once.
"I'm sorry, Fred, but I'm upset—I can't help it. I'm so disappointed . . . it's plain that you don't feel about things as I do—as I thought you did. If you really wanted us to be together again you'd see that it would be easier for everyone—for you, for me, for Victoria and the children—if it happened at once. There's no sense or kindness in dragging things out like this. You'll save Victoria a lot of misery if you act unexpectedly and get the parting over. If you'll face things, I'm quite ready to go away with you now—tomorrow—tonight."
He shook his head.
"I can't. It would be mean and cruel of me to go off like that without a word. Ellis, darling, you must let me do this my own way. I simply daren't pile up regrets for the future."
Without speaking she slipped from his arms and stood up. She felt calm now—calm and frozen.
"You're quite right," she said. "We've got between us enough regrets of every sort to make us feel chary of adding to their number. Oh, why did I ever let you go to that woman? She's changed you; she's made you into another creature—I don't care what you say. We couldn't ever be happy together now, because you're not the man you used to be—not the man I loved. You'd certainly better go back to her and stay with her till she lets you go, which will be never."
"You're only saying that because you're angry."
She was looking away from him, out of the window to where a little crab-apple tree burned unexpectedly in the Square garden. The fruit glowed like candle flames among the boughs and the darkness of the planes hung over it like a Christmas night. As she gazed at it her quietness deepened. Sorrow took possession of her heart and held it in a desperate tranquillity.
"I'm not angry," she said. "At least, not angry with you. If I'm angry with anyone I'm angry with myself—because I was too proud to fight for you."
"Oh, Ellis," he said in a different voice, "why didn't you fight?"
"I've told you. I was so proud that not only did I refuse to fight Victoria but I rushed away and married Bruce, so that you—you both—everyone—should know how little I cared."
"If you hadn't married Bruce I should have asked you to come back to me."
"Yes, I know . . . and it would have been all right then, because you were still yourself—the man I married. But now it's too late."
"My sweet one, don't say that." He stood up and came over to her, drawing her away from the window; back into his arms. "I shall never love anyone as I love you. You may say I've changed, but I haven't—not in that way. Whatever happens I shall always feel that we're still husband and wife."
"I daresay . . . but—oh, Fred, can't you see it's all hopeless? Victoria and the children mean more to you now than I do and if we went away together they would only come between us and bring us to a second crash."
"Are you telling me that you don't want to come away with me?"
"Not unless we go tonight."
He dropped his arms.
"Then it is hopeless—but it's your own doing, making conditions that I've told you are impossible. Ellis, I don't believe you really love me after all."
He stepped back from her as if she had pushed him.
"Do you really mean that?"
"Why not? I'd better mean it, hadn't I? Oh, Fred, what's the use of going on like this—watching you pulled first one way then the other? I don't blame you—I've told you so. You're in a far more painful and complicated position than I am, and it's largely my own fault—I put you there. So let's accept the fact that the mistake we made seven years ago was too fundamental ever to be set right. The best thing seems to be to go ahead and make the best we can of the future."
"Does that mean you want to go back to Bruce?"
Her calmness nearly broke up into splinters of unhappy laughter.
"No—it doesn't. Bruce and I are best apart. I've been lucky in that way—when I made new ties they were like those ribbons of spun sugar that decorate the sweet trays in restaurants . . . But, Fred, your ties are real, tough rope, and I can't take you like that—bound to another woman and her children, or even only to her children. And now," forcing on with the lighter note, "it's time you went back into bondage. You've got less than an hour to get to the station."
"But, Ellis, I can't go like this—leaving everything in such a mess between us. Surely you don't mean that I'm not to see you again? Whatever happens, we must go on meeting. I can come up to town next week—"
"No, Fred; that was another mistake. A husband and wife can't be on those terms. We tried it, and you see what happened—we were taken in and caught. Since we can't be everything to each other we must be nothing."
"Nothing!" he cried. "Haw dreadful it sounds! What a terrible word!"
She answered, following her thoughts:
"You've got your children."
"But what about you? What have you got?"
Bitterness had come into her voice for the first time and he said reproachfully:
"My dear, you make me feel a cad."
"Why should you? I've told you that none of it's your fault."
"But it is. I was just as much to blame as you for mucking up our marriage—more to blame, because I fell for Victoria. If I hadn't done that we'd probably still be together now. Oh, Ellis, how I wish . . . I tell you I'd give everything I possess, even the children, to be able to go back to those days and start again."
She smiled wearily.
"My dear, I expect every single human being has got a time he'd like to go back to and make a better job of if he could. But there's no good thinking and talking about it—the past isn't ours any longer. The only time we've got to do any jobs in is the future, so we'd better get on with that. You've got plenty to think of and plan for. I hope your children will make you very happy."
"I can't be happy if you're unhappy."
"I shan't be unhappy—I promise you that much."
"But you were so tragic a moment ago—you said you'd got nothing."
"I shouldn't have said that—it was stupid of me; but I was feeling melodramatic . . . And now, Fred, you really must go or you'll miss your train. I'm going to order a cab."
She knew that the interview was ending as Victoria had meant it to end. But that was not the point. The point was that it was ending as Fred, though probably without knowing it, had hoped. There was no use struggling any more, for the thing she had been struggling for no longer existed—it had dropped down the drain of the years and was lost. Her battle was useless because seven years too late. She picked up the telephone and ordered a taxi from the nearest rank. He stood behind her without moving or speaking, but when she put down the receiver he said:
"I must see you again—just once. Oh, Ellis, please let me."
"No—not even once. We should only begin all over again and I couldn't bear it. Be a wise man and go while I'm not holding on."
As her eyes met his she could not help smiling, but immediately turned them away, for they burned with tears.
"I'll ring for Rose, to bring your hat and see you out. I'd rather not go down to the front door."
"May I kiss you?"
"I—I'd rather not; but—"
She could not refuse him, nor herself. As his arms came round her she longed to die in them, and as their lips met she seemed to be dead. She could feel nothing—neither sensation nor emotion, passion nor grief—and the driving up of the taxi to the house sounded louder, more urgent, than his voice murmuring: "I shall always love you."
The maid was suddenly at the door and they parted awkwardly.
"I've heaps of time—it won't take more than a quarter of an hour to get to Paddington."
"I hope you'll have a pleasant journey."
Neither of them said good-by.
The morning express from Bulverhythe to London did not stop at Redmile, which was the nearest station to Sheddingfold; so those inhabitants who wished to take advantage of Wednesday's cheap trip to town were obliged to travel by road as far as Lewes. This had a deterrent effect, for with the perversity that sometimes directs rural traffic, the Bulverhythe to Lewes bus ran in the opposite direction at that time of day. It was possible to take the bus and catch the train at Bulverhythe, but that involved another three and sixpence on the fare. The hire of a car to Lewes was five shillings, so those without transport of their own generally solved the problem by stopping at home and despising London.
John Scrattage had always despised London. He had been there twice—once to give evidence against a builder who was being sued by old Rumbeam for providing defective material (an action which, being won by the plaintiff, seriously undermined Sheddingfold's belief in British justice) and once to visit the Wembley Exhibition. These two visits he considered gave him an exhaustive knowledge of the city and a more substantial right than most men to call it a miserable place.
His decision to visit it yet a third time stirred up in his heart mixed emotions of contempt and excitement. The place might be miserable but the journey to it was adventurous and the conditions of travel most complicated. His idea was to shadow Tiger Rumbeam and Nan Chasepool and find out exactly what plot they were hatching at that place called Tim's Bar. It seemed a desperate enterprise, but his only possible course if he was really to acquire a fresh weapon in his armory against old Rumbeam and—a point of ever-increasing urgency—vindicate the truth of his suspicions. He wasn't going to be called a liar by the biggest one in England. He'd prove he was right and get paid for it too. Unless old Rumbeam paid cash—"no more of your last wills and testaments this time," muttered John—there wasn't a chance of his precious Tiger's ever marrying Gloria Crouch. John would go straight to her father with the full, substantiated story of her betrothed and Nan Chasepool . . . but he suspected that the old man would pay anything within reason rather than let that happen. After all, Gloria Crouch had five thousand pounds, so it would be worth paying, say, one thousand not to lose her . . . Of Tiger, the lover in some senses of both these women, John scarcely thought at all. He had no special grudge against his brother, who had never seemed to exult unduly in his position. But his father owed him the price of many years' humiliation; he had already got some of it back, but the debt was still very far from paid.
His chief trouble was the need for secrecy. Neither his father nor his wife must know of his trip to town, which would have, moreover, to be hidden from the laborer Albert Neave, to say nothing of his fellow-travelers—Tiger Rumbeam and Nan Chasepool. Of the first three, his father was both the most important and the most easily disposed of. He was off to market, anyway, and at Lodderslane which was half across the county. He would be leaving home before it was time for anyone else to start, and on his return would find nothing unusual; for John had decided, partly from expediency but not entirely without regard to thrift, to take a half-day excursion only.
His wife would have to be lied to—a proceeding he regretted, twenty-five years with the Rumbeams, father and son, having given him a distaste for it. But there would be no limits to her conjectures if she saw him setting out in his Sunday clothes, so he decided to tell her that he was going into Bulverhythe to have a tooth out. One of his few remaining teeth had been troubling him for some time, so the story would carry conviction and would moreover also serve for Albert Neave. The delay of his return till the afternoon could be explained by his having missed the morning bus. Of course the tooth would still be in his head, but its position at the back would not make this obvious and he would moreover have a new and excellent excuse for keeping his mouth shut.
With regard to the actual journey, he would escape detection by taking the train from Bulverhythe (which would also cover the dentist story). Tiger and Gloria were to be driven into Lewes by her father, and if Scrattage traveled in the first coach, which was generally filled up at Bulverhythe, he would be able to note their position on the platform and secrete himself in the corridor till they had entered the train. He was not likely to see more of them till he watched them leave it at Victoria. He was in some uncertainty as to whether he should follow them and note exactly what steps Tiger took to get rid of his lady love, or whether he should make straight for the address which Nan Chasepool had given. He was inclined towards the latter course—Shepherd Market had a reassuring sound for the nervous countryman—but decided to await the inspiration of the moment.
Having disposed of these obstacles, he found himself almost looking forward to the trip, which would not only break the monotony of life—and deep in his heart, under all the silence and the hard work, he found life bitterly monotonous—but would add to his importance with those who thought themselves his superiors. He had for long had an increasing power over his father, but now it seemed as if this might be suddenly swelled to triumph. It was triumph rather than money that he wanted. His commercial ambitions had been satisfied to the full by the bequest of Creakers' yard and its treasury of junk. But he would enjoy forcing old Rumbeam to the agony of a fresh parting—ready money this time. He had not yet made up his mind what he would do with it—it was the pangs rather than the fruits of parturition that interested him—but it gave to the distant prospect a glow that warmed and cheered his immediate view.
Oddly enough, when Wednesday came, the only person who saw him go was the only one he had left out of his calculations—his mother. His father he had not seen that morning, his wife had accepted with almost too great an indifference (for it might have been true) his story of the aching tooth, and Albert Neave had been dealt with summarily the evening before. It was rather disconcerting, as he walked to the bus stop at Dollock Mill, to hear behind him the sound of trotting hoofs and be overtaken by his mother in her high cart.
"Where are you going, John? Would you like a ride?"
"I'm going for the bus."
He was forced to stop and look up into her face, which sixty years had not wrinkled so much as spun over with a web of small lines, making her skin like the skin of a russet apple in the March apple loft.
"Why are you dressed up so fine?"
He was wearing a blue serge suit and a bowler hat.
"I'm going to the dentist in Bulverhythe, to have a tooth out."
"Oh, poor John."
Her black eyes lingered on him compassionately, and he felt ashamed of his lie.
"I can drive you as far as Redmile," she continued, "I'm going that way."
"Thank you; but I mustn't be late. The bus will do it in half the time."
"You want to get there quickly?"
He thought of asking her not to tell his father she had seen him, but realized at once that the tooth story would serve till the triumphal moment when he could cast pretense aside and wield the truth as a bludgeon. While he hesitated she said:
"Don't be too hard on your father, John."
He was startled.
"What are you talking about?"
"Nothing that I know of; but it's a thought that's come to me about him and you."
He wondered if she had been reading his thoughts, as she read the thoughts of people whose fortunes she told at fairs. He said uneasily:
"Why should I be hard on him?"
"I've a fear you may be wanting him to pay you more than he owes. I've worked for you so that he should pay you what he owes, and now it's all written out in his will. But I fear you may try to get more."
"Don't you fear nothing," he mumbled. "I shan't ask him for more than he owes."
"That's right, John. You act to please me. Your father maybe has deserved badly of you, but he hasn't deserved worse. He's your father and he was a fine boy once."
Further speech, which would have been embarrassing, was luckily spared him by the sudden appearance of the bus at the end of the lane. He had to run for it.
Tim's Bar, at the Curzon Street end of Shepherd Market, had started as a modest tavern frequented by lorry drivers and taximen. Its discovery by a section of young Mayfair had, with the help of a few gossip writers and at least one popular novelist, spread its fame to Kensington and beyond. It was now always full of everybody but the people for whom it had been originally intended.
The present proprietor was a foreigner who had prudently acquired it just as the social change-over began, and had added to its attractions an upstairs dining room where the less impecunious of his customers (for, still prudent, he allowed no signed bills) could enjoy his wife's excellent cuisine bourgeoise. The bar itself he had redecorated in a style that parodied its earlier splendors of mirrors and plush; but it was always so full of smoke that few people noticed any change. From where Nan Chasepool sat in her alcove you could scarcely see the opposite wall.
"Who's that man?" she asked Rowley Fitzmaurice.
"I don't know. Never seen him before."
"I have, but I can't think where."
She stared so hard at Scrattage's bowler hat and blue serge suit that he hastily snatched his pint of bitter from the counter and hurried with it to the furthest corner of the room, from which, of course, it was impossible for him to overhear a word of her conversation.
"I wonder where Tiger's got to," she said. "I thought he'd be here before this."
"Train may have been late."
"Or he may have failed to shake off his girl—damn her. I hope to God he hasn't made a fool of himself in some way. It would be just like him to turn up too late to be shot this afternoon."
"By the way, Rory's shots have come in and they're damn good."
"I don't believe it. That man moves like a hippopotamus."
"Which makes him look impressive on the screen. Nearly everyone moves too quickly. There's a lot to be said for the old-style actor."
"There's nothing to be said for him," Nan angrily gulped her whisky, "and anyway this one's much too old; he wouldn't pass for less than thirty even on the stage, and on the screen he'll look a bad fifty. He's full of mannerisms, too—they all are. That's why Hollywood won't touch 'em."
"I thought your idea was that Hollywood should learn their job from us."
"So it is; but we'll have to find something better to teach them than merely how to get a laugh in the wrong place."
Rowley became irritable.
"You talk as if we could do as we damn well liked. The whole point is that Vera's putting up two thousand pounds for him."
"We've already got ten thousand. Is it really worth wrecking the show for two more?"
"He won't wreck the show. I tell you he isn't at all bad—a little coaching and he'll soon pick up his stuff. Damn it all, it isn't as if your boy knew a thing."
"No, but my boy's a looker, and he was born for the part."
"How you do go on about that part. We needn't start with the Caravan scenario."
"We'll be fools if we don't. It's got romance, drama, sex appeal and a big chance for the photographer, which is what we mostly want. There's a whale of a part for Eglantine, and the gypsy's actor-proof. All you want is the right looker, and I've found him."
"Couldn't he put up some money?"
"'Fraid not. His father's rolling, but would have a fit apparently if his bright boy went in for the pictures. But as we've already got Emmerson's stuff I should think we could manage—for a start anyway."
"We can manage—I'm not saying we can't. But the more we have the better we'll do, and Vera's giving us a chance."
"To hell with Vera."
At that moment Tiger Rumbeam suddenly appeared inside the revolving door.
"Hi! Tiger!" Nan waved a welcome with her glass.
He came over and sat down beside her on the plush sofa.
"How did you get here?"
"By taxi, like you said."
"And the girl?"
"Left her at Swan and Edgar's."
"That's right. I expect she'll turn up at the station in time to catch your train. Now meet Mr. Rowland Fitzmaurice—Rowley, meet Mr. Tiger Romany."
While they were talking John Scrattage had emerged from his corner, and with an eye fixed warily upon them advanced on the counter for another bitter. It was a pretext for sitting down in a new seat close enough to overhear at least some of their conversation, relying on a convenient piece of drapery to hide him from Tiger's more likely recognition. But while he was moving gingerly towards it his doom fell. Nan shouted in a voice that must have been heard by half the bar:
"Who is that chap? I know I've seen him somewhere."
Tiger looked round and immediately became rigid, while his eyes popped like marbles.
"Scrattage," he said, in a strangled voice.
"What!—your father's man? What on earth is he doing here?"
"Dad must have sent him to spy on us."
Nan stiffened her back.
"This wants looking into. You must have given yourself away, you silly fool."
"Before heaven I swear—"
"You needn't waste time on that. Something's got to be done at once."
"I'd better go."
"Not you! Stay where you are and leave him to me. Hi! Scrattage!"
For a moment Scrattage looked as agonized as Tiger. He sat staring and clutching his glass.
"Come over here," shouted Nan. "Young master wants you."
Almost everyone in the bar was staring at him now. Scrattage looked and felt as if he had been turned to stone.
Rowley Fitzmaurice relieved the tension by going over to him and saying:
"Come along, old chap, the lady would like you to come and join us at her table."
Scrattage tottered across and sank down on the plush sofa, where he immediately drank off his beer.
"That's right. And now, what'll you have? Rowley, fetch us a round of whiskies."
Neither Scrattage nor Tiger said a word; they sat stiff and glaring while Rowley fetched the drinks. It would be difficult to say which was more utterly overwhelmed by the situation.
"I didn't expect to see you here, you know," continued Nan brightly. "I knew Tiger was coming up for the day with his girl friend, and as he expected to have a lot of time on his hands while she did her shopping, I suggested that he should join Mr. Fitzmaurice and me for a drink before taking her out to lunch."
Luckily Fitzmaurice had arrived with the whiskies, and both men seized their glasses as if they had been ropes flung to their drowning hands.
"That's right, Tiger—drink up," said Nan. "You mustn't keep Gloria waiting. Rowley will give you a lift as far as Oxford Street. That's where you're meeting her, isn't it?"
"Yes," said Tiger hoarsely.
"Then you'd better be off at once. Sorry to have seen so little of you."
Fitzmaurice stood up and his eye met Nan's in perfect understanding. But Tiger was convulsed.
"Nan," he gasped, "I must speak to you—in private."
She glared at him.
"Hold your tongue," she whispered, "and go with Rowley. He'll see to it all."
"See to what?"
"To your being shot, you fool. (Wait just a moment, Mr. Scrattage; I must go to the door with these lads and see if my car's there. I shan't be long.) Rowley's going to drive you down to Shepherd's Bush in my car and get some shots of you. Meanwhile I'll settle Scrattage."
"You can't. My father must have found out something about us."
"You bet he has, and I'll find out what he's found out."
"Oh, do be careful."
"Don't make me laugh."
She pushed him towards the car, where Fitzmaurice already sat in the driver's seat, and went back into the bar.
Sheer desperation had made Scrattage drink up his whisky while she was away. Never in any of his dim visualizings of the way things might go wrong had he pictured anything half so terrible as this. To be sitting with these strange people in a pub which was quite unlike any pub he knew—being crowded with hatless young women with long, crimson nails—was an experience pertaining to nightmare. Tiger had seemed his only friend, and now, Tiger was gone and he was alone with the longest and bloodiest nails in the room. Just before she returned he had felt an impulse to bolt wildly into the street. But she had blocked the doorway and now she was back and smiling at him, and ordering him another whisky.
"Is this your first visit to town?"
The whisky had so far loosened Scrattage's tongue that he was able to utter his first word.
"But perhaps it's your first visit to this part of it."
"Yes." Then suddenly smelling escape: "I come to see the market. I mun go now."
"Oh, wait till you've had another drink. It'll be here in a minute. There isn't any hurry. I don't suppose that the market's been working for a hundred years at least."
John felt as if his last friend had betrayed him, and reached desperately for the whisky, which arrived at that moment.
Nan had ordered a double this time, and with the foundation of its predecessor and two pints of beer to build on, it had the effect of making Scrattage lose at least some of his craving to be instantly blotted out. By the time he had swallowed half of it, this comfort had ceased to be merely negative. He had only very seldom drunk whisky before and the glow it put into him soon extended even to his surroundings.
This was quite a new sort of place, not like any of those old pubs at home; he reckoned even the Britannia at Bulverhythe wasn't in the same class. It was something for a fellow to be in a place like this. He reckoned his father wouldn't be allowed inside. Even if he had a suit of best clothes, which he hadn't, he'd look such an ordinary old sweep that he'd never be let past the door . . . and how he'd buzz round and round in that door—worse than his son, John Scrattage. And here he was, John Scrattage, sitting and drinking whisky with Sir Charles Wakeham's granddaughter. Who in Sheddingfold had ever done as much as that?
The answer came too quickly: Tiger Rumbeam. Immediately he was forced back on the purpose of his visit and its apparent failure—for how was he to overhear a conversation between Nan and Tiger when Tiger had been whisked away to some other part of the London forest? However, his mind, now tingling unprecedentedly with its new stimulant, suggested for the first time that there were other ways of finding out things besides listening to conversation. He realized this just as Nan said:
"Mr. Rumbeam must find it difficult to spare both you and Tiger on the same day. You're doing a building job for him, aren't you?"
"He doesn't know I'm here."
"Oh, doesn't he? . . . It wasn't he who sent you to look at the market?"
"I thought perhaps he'd sent you to keep an eye on young master."
Nan was beginning to wonder how many whiskies she would have to buy him before she could really get him to talk, when he suddenly turned scarlet and blurted out:
"I come to find out what you and him are up to."
"Good God! What made you think we were up to anything?"
"I heard you and him talking about how he was to come here and get shut of Gloria Crouch."
"Ah—ha!" Nan was grateful for so much enlightenment. "You were gumshoeing us that day at Creakers Cottage, were you?"
"I wanted to find out what you and him were up to."
"And have you found out?"
"No. How can I find out nothing when you send him off like that?"
"You haven't the faintest idea where he's gone?"
"No. Save as I reckon it ain't to meet Gloria Crouch."
"And may I ask what business any of it is of yours?"
Scrattage felt a jolt and grabbed his whisky.
"I mun know what he's after."
"I don't see why you mun at all, unless his father's set you to spy on him. I believe you've been lying and that his father's at the bottom of all this."
"No he ain't. I tell you his father's got nothing to do wud it. His father wouldn't so much as believe as him and you wur thick together. He wouldn't täake my word, so I said I'd give him better than my word; and I come along to Creakers and see you setting together as thick as cream. But you didn't leave nothing for me to prove it by."
Nan brooded. She saw that she would have to buy him another whisky, but decided that it would probably pay her to do so. She wanted to find out just as much from Scrattage as he wanted to find out from her, and judging by results already achieved a third round would give her the final advantage. She made the familiar signal to the counter.
"You heard me telling him to take a taxi to Tim's Bar, so you trailed us here to get more proof."
"And to find out what you were up to."
"I've gathered that."
The whisky was set before them and Nan took a thoughtful sip. Then she offered him her cigarette case.
"Only gaspers, I'm afraid."
Scrattage, who normally smoked Woodbines, felt flattered and was encouraged to further speech.
"There's one thing I want to know," he said, "and that's where Tiger's gone."
"To meet Gloria Crouch."
"I'll never believe it. You fixed him to lose her."
"He may have thought better of that."
"I reckon he wouldn't have come here if he had."
Nan had an inspiration.
"Look here," she said, "let's get this settled. There are things you want to know and things I want to know. I'll undertake to answer your questions if you'll answer mine. I'll play fair by you if you'll play fair by me."
Scrattage considered this offer, which seemed a good one to his englamored state.
"Fair's fair," he commented.
"Well then—you tell me why, if old Rumbeam has nothing to do with all this, you're trailing Tiger. Have you a grudge against him?"
"Or against me?"
(Heavens, thought Nan, it's cost me nine shillings to get as far as this.)
"Then why are you doing it?"
"To get even with his dad."
"I see—or rather, I don't see at all. How does sleuthing Tiger get you even with his father?"
"Because he'll have to pay me to hold my tongue."
So that was what it was all about.
"Oh—ho. Blackmail, is it?"
Scrattage was disconcerted by such a word, and anxious to vindicate himself in the eyes of one whom he was beginning to see in a distinctly rosy light.
"I'd never call it blackmail. I've a right to the money."
"He owes it to you?"
"Yah!" shouted Scrattage, the whisky suddenly operating on his last line of defense. "He, owes it to me good and proper for the way he's treated me ever since I was born. First he forgets all about me and then he comes and takes advantage of my being poor, and then he takes care I shan't be nothing else. He's swindled me for twenty-five year, and I've had enough. It's my turn now. I've fixed it so as he leaves me a thousand pounds and his rubbish when he dies; but what's that to him? He wöan't be there to feel it. I want him to pay when he can feel it hurt; and if I go to him and prove as Tiger's still carrying on with you even though he's engaged to Gloria Crouch, reckon he'll have to pay me another thousand pounds to hold my tongue till he's married her and she can't go back on him."
Nan sighed with relief. She had not quite followed the whole of his speech, but she realized that at last she was beginning to get her money's worth.
"Good God . . . is he as set as all that on Tiger's marrying Gloria Crouch?"
"Surelye. She's got four thousand pounds of her own, and 'ull have a thousand more when she marries and most of Shallowbed when the old man dies. Tiger 'ull be richer than ever. And now—" suddenly swimming dawn the golden tide back to the gates of his release—"you tell me whur he's got to."
"Tiger," said Nan generously, "has gone to the studios of the Fitzmaurice Film Company at Shepherd's Bush to be tested as a screen actor. That was the whole purpose of his coming to town today."
Scrattage stared at her with his mouth open.
"You're telling me as he's to be a film star?"
"If he photographs well he may get a part—though not the part he ought to have. They'll probably give that to a ham actor who'll wreck it but who can put some money into the show. He has friends who are willing to pay two thousand pounds to get him on the screen . . . Do you think you could get two thousand out of Tiger's father?"
She had spoken her first sentence without any thought of the last. Suddenly the idea had come to her: why shouldn't she join with Scrattage in making old Rumbeam pay for his son's big chance?
"I bet that he's just as good for two—or even three-thousand as he is for one," she elaborated, "so it seems a pity to let him get off with less than he can afford to pay. You squeeze two thousand out of him—or, say, two thousand five hundred, so as to go one better than old Rory—and put it into Fitzmaurice Films, and Rowley will be only too glad to give Tiger the part; and in five years you'll be a rich man."
"How'll I be a rich man if I give away the money?"
"You won't be giving it away. You'll be investing it in a perfectly sound company that will pay you eight per cent on it—which will come to nearly two hundred a year. Then in a very short time, if you want to, you'll be able to sell out at a huge profit. If I had two thousand pounds—or five—or ten—I'd put it all into Fitzmaurice Films."
Scrattage was beginning to feel giddy in this new atmosphere of high finance, which he did not altogether approve of.
"It ain't the money I care about. All I want is to get even with him."
"Well, won't you be getting even with him if you make him pay out two or three thousand pounds and then use the money to start Tiger as a screen actor? It'll make him mad. Tiger has refused to ask him for a penny, knowing how mad he'd be at the bare idea. He'll mind it ever so so much more than if you just spent the money on drink and girls."
Scrattage stiffened at such a totally undeserved insinuation.
"I tell you," urged Nan, "it's an absolute snip, and 'ull do us all good. You'll make a lot of money—you could even be a director if you liked—Tiger will get his start, and I'll at least have the satisfaction of having saved the part from Rory Bellingham. Everybody will be pleased except old Rumbeam, and that's what you want, isn't it?"
"I dunno," said Scrattage. "I don't see why I should spend good money on Tiger."
"You won't be spending good money on Tiger. I've explained all that." She leaned her forehead against her hand in a passing weariness. "Tiger's got nothing to do with it really. It's only that if you make it a condition that he's given the lead in Gypsy Moon, I'll help you get the money out of his father. After all, you can't just go and ask him for it. You've got to tell your tale and you've got to prove it. That's why you came here today, but you're no better off than when you started. You can tell him that you've seen me and Tiger together and that you've spoken to me here and I've told you all about Tiger's going on the films; but you've nothing but your word for it, and it doesn't follow that he'll take that."
This was only too true.
"You've no proof whatever," she continued, "nothing but your word against mine and Tiger's, and you bet we'd use ours to some purpose."
Scrattage shuffled his feet.
"I don't understand," he said. "I don't see how you can help me prove nothing."
"I can give you the evidence. If you went to old Rumbeam with a letter written by me to Tiger, an extremely hot letter, pulsing with passion and all that, and said he'd dropped it and you'd picked it up and that you'd show it to Gloria Crouch if he didn't give you three thousand pounds in cash. . . ."
The Redmile Rural District Council did not meet in August. So many of the members were either holiday-making or receiving holiday-makers that it was difficult to get a good assembly. For the same reason committees and subcommittees were also in abeyance. It was always therefore with a certain feeling of refreshment that the council met in September. The stale routine of the year had been broken, and often concerns that had stodged up every meeting since Christmas were found to have marvelously removed themselves from the agenda, while others had made an advance towards settlement which would have taken six months of bureaucratic procedure.
Tony Canning was therefore not entirely surprised to find that the situation regarding the Town Planning Scheme and Shiprods Farm had changed materially during the interval. He had come away from the July meeting thoroughly disheartened and prepared to see Shiprods torn to pieces by old Rumbeam in the course of the next twelvemonth. It had seemed impossible to move either the Colonels or the Farmers with an effective desire to save it from destruction. The Colonels had been concentrating all their anxieties on Shiprods Hill and openly declaring their willingness to sacrifice a few mere fields to its preservation, while the Farmers had talked as if the "development" of the Denniker field were an inevitable consequence of its proximity to the village and almost a moral duty.
But now a change had been worked, not by any effort or argument of his, nor even by the Squire's offer of the manor lands as a private open space in perpetuity, but by old Rumbeam himself, bringing home to both sides the full extent of the threatened devastation. Number Fifty had been a sermon in asbestos tiles. The Colonels shrieked that only a very few more such houses and it would not matter if a factory were built on the top of Shiprods Hill; while even the most sanguine of the Farmers could hardly expect an influx of prosperity from the multiplication of so much squalor.
When the debate on town planning began, Tony found that the meeting was his. He was too diplomatic to say "I told you so" or "What did you expect?" but he could not suppress certain smug feelings of self-satisfaction as he listened to speeches that, when they contained anything besides indignation, merely repeated arguments that he himself had used two months ago.
"If the Denniker field is to be developed at all," said the chairman Colonel Portlemouth, "—and as it adjoins the village it might be impossible to save it entirely—it should be a decent type of building that will look well beside the really fine old houses for which Sheddingfold is famous. The closer it is to the village, the more it invites comparison."
"Then we shall have to alter the zoning," said Mrs. Sadler, the member for Sicklehatch, "as zoned in the present scheme, he's free to build fifty houses in the field, so they're hardly likely to be of a very good type. People who can afford a good style house don't as a rule care to live six to the acre."
At this a cry arose among the councilors, many of whom had imagined that Number Fifty ignored town planning altogether.
"Yes, he's well within the scheme as at present formulated," said Mr. Roberts the clerk. "We could get him, perhaps, on the type and quality of the building—insist on clay tiles and proper damp courses—and we could possibly drive him out of business over drains and water supply. But under the present scheme he has a right to his fifty bungalows."
After that it was not difficult to get the zoning altered to two houses to the acre. Some councilors would have reduced it to one, but it was thought that if the revolution were too violent it might give Rumbeam a just grievance to lay before the Ministry. The rest of the farm, however, received more drastic treatment, and Canning found at least a sympathetic hearing for his suggestion that the seventy acres next the house should share the immunity of Shiprods Hill and be zoned as agricultural land, on which no building was to be allowed except for agricultural purposes.
"This will give me better news for the old man than I had in July," he thought as he drove home to Hodshaves. He and Betsy were dining with Sir Charles at the manor that evening.
For another old man the news was not so good. Limbourne, who on the District Council represented old Rumbeam rather than his electoral parish of Maddersham, called at the Creakers to tell him of his failure to block this new development of the Town Planning Scheme. Actually his efforts had not amounted to much, for the changed temper of the meeting had cowed him into ineffectiveness. He liked to feel that behind his obstruction lay the dead weight of the Farmers, and when these had withdrawn their opposition he had given up the fight and taken refuge in a sulky silence.
Old Rumbeam looked stricken.
"It's that old Squire wud his 'open private pläace' and that Mus' Canning wot döan't belong here anyway. Do you mean to say as nobody tried to stop it?"
"Not Dawes of Moonhill?"
"No; he was the one who was saying nobody with cash enough to buy an old railway car would live in a house like the one you've built."
Limbourne was giving vent to some of the spleen he had been forced to repress at the council meeting.
"Oh ho—he's wrong there. I've sold that house already for five hunderd päounds."
"That's what Derridge of Singehurst was talking about. He said you put adverts in the Welsh papers and got suckers to buy who'd never seen the places and hadn't enough money to pay for 'em; but by your system of mortgages you got the cash and kept the house as well, and it was only the chap himself who went bust, owing all the local tradesmen."
Old Rumbeam looked deeply injured.
"Wot call had he to go and say that? It äun't true, and if he goes on saying it I'll have the law of 'un. He's jealous, that's wot he is; and he's angry because I wouldn't buy his tiddy liddle snape for my building—under water half the year it is and no good to nobody."
"I'm thinking that when this scheme goes through there won't be any more building on snips and snapes. Why, even a first-class site like the Denniker will be ruined."
"When do you reckon the scheme 'ull git through?"
"Well, unless some of the fellers change their minds it'll be through by Christmas. Properly made up with it they all are now."
"Christmas! I wõan't have more'n a dozen houses up by then."
"And that'll be three more than you're allowed under the scheme if some of the nobs have their way. There's a strong one-to-the-acre party in the council."
It struck him that he might as well have the credit for stopping something.
"I'll go to the Ministry," said Rumbeam, "that's what I'll do—I'll go to the Ministry."
But he knew in his heart that he would not go to any ministry. There was no ministry before which he could possibly lay a full, or even a partial, statement of his affairs without a strong probability that it would lead to prosecution.
"I'll go to the Ministry," he repeated and walked into the house.
He felt disappointed—almost shocked. He had not expected the matter to take this turn. Number Fifty had seemed to him much as other houses—a roof and four walls, two chimneys, half-a-dozen windows and a door. What more could anybody want? As for the four pink blotches that marked the sites of Numbers Forty-nine to Forty-six, he only wished that there were more than four . . . why hadn't John got on quicker? . . . John was turning lazy . . . and Tiger and Neave—what good were they? He'd have to think about taking on more labor. After all, the dole was fifteen and sixpence for a single man, so if he paid twenty-five shillings a week, anyone should be thankful. . .
Pondering this philanthropic scheme, he came into the kitchen, where his wife had just taken the supper out of the oven.
"He's gone to supper at Crouch's."
"Um—he's lucky that she's forgiven him."
"Yes—he's lucky. I shouldn't have forgiven him," and Serena Rumbeam gave her tittering gypsy laugh, "losing the poor girl in London city—I wonder she ever found herself again."
"She'd a tongue in her head and money in her purse—she hadn't no need to terrify the poor boy so. But it wur a larmentable business. I never thought he'd be such a fool and I dõan't see näun to laugh at," for she was still giggling into the corner of her apron.
"I laugh when I think of Gloria Crouch waiting for Tiger in the grand eating shop and Tiger never coming and her being too scared to eat alone."
"Then you're a hem bad-feeling woman," snapped Rumbeam. "You should ought to be sorry for the poor gal and sorry your son should be such a tedious fool. He came nigh to losing her for good and all. She wur crying all the way höame."
He must release on the Gloria Crouch affair some of the rage and anxiety which had been roused in him by the threat to his designs on Shiprods Farm. He never talked to Serena about his business. She disliked bricks and mortar and hated seeing them appear in green places; and she was totally indifferent as to how much money he made or lost. If he were to leave her quite unprovided for at his death, she would not really mind. And if he had not loved her so much he would have done so; for the capital sum that was to produce five pounds a week would have made an important addition to the fortune that was to carry his name and riches beyond the gates of death. He had actually given her a piece of his immortality.
So as he did not care to grumble to her about the District council he grumbled to her about Tiger and Gloria Crouch till supper was over and she went to bed. It was only a quarter past seven, but already the September dusk had folded Shiprods Hill into the sky and Serena always liked if possible to lie down with the day. The crockery was left on the table for Mrs. Scrattage to clear and wash up the next morning. Only a space was cleared for old Rumbeam to sit at his accounts—a proceeding for which the private hours of darkness were as necessary as for sleep.
He had been working about half an hour and the twilight had closed up right round him and his lamp, when the door suddenly opened and Scrattage came in.
"Hullo," said Rumbeam gruffly. "Wot do you want?"
"I want a private word with you."
"And I wud you, cöame to that. You've heard as how the council's chäanged the zoning of the Denniker?"
"Well, they have. Down to two houses they've brung it, and Limbourne says by next month it'll be one. You'll have to hurry, John, and git some more foundations laid."
"I can't go quicker than I can."
"But you can go a sight quicker than you do. If I'd bin working I reckon I'd have scrambled up a dozen walls by this time and got the roofs on into the bargain. But you've no heart in it—why, you begin to täake time off as bad as Tiger."
"I only took the morning off to have a tooth out."
"I reckon your tooth could have waited to come out till you came off the job."
John mumbled inaudibly.
"But it's as I'm saying—you've lost heart. You döan't sim to care if the Squire and Mus' Canning täake the bread out of our mouths. I paid three thäousand päounds for Shiprods Farm, honest as the day; and now they start to cheat me out of it. But you döan't care. As long as you can puddle aräound and call it working—"
"I've found this."
He was holding a letter in his hand.
"Wot is it?"
"A letter from Nan Chasepool to Tiger."
The conversation had changed so suddenly that for a moment old Rumbeam was at a loss.
"W-wot-w-wen-w-were?" he stammered.
"I found it here, on the kitchen floor when I came in at dinner time. He mun have dropped it."
He held out the letter to Rumbeam, who examined the envelope with suspicion. It was addressed in a large sprawling hand to "Mr. Tiger Rumbeam, Creakers Cottage, Sheddingfold," but had not been through the post.
"Wot fur did she want to write to Tiger? Have you looked inside?"
"Wot does she say?"
"You read it yourself and see."
Old Rumbeam commonly wore spectacles, not on his nose, but in a sort of wreath round his forehead. There was one pair for reading and another for more distant sight. When he wanted to study anything he considered really important he pulled dawn both pairs over his eyes together.
When he had adjusted his spectacles he took the sheet out of the envelope—carefully, so as not to leave thumb-marks on it. The note paper was engraved with the Sheddingfold Manor address but the letter was undated.
The writer had lost no time in coming to grips with her subject.
Darling, darling Tiger,
This is to tell you again that I love you. I love you and think of you always. And I dream of you too—that I can feel your arms round me and your kisses on my mouth. Oh, when shall we meet again? It would be better than nothing if you could manage another trip to London, but I suppose you couldn't come alone and it would rouse suspicion if you got rid of that fat fool a second time. It seems wicked that you should have to marry her, just because she has money and I have none. But I've felt so much happier about it ever since you promised me that it should make no difference to our love. Sweetheart, I close my eyes and feel your darling, daring kisses. Ever your true lover
This astounding communication did not reach old Rumbeam all at once. He had considerable difficulty in reading Miss Chasepool's handwriting, and the two pairs of glasses changed places more than once before he came to the end of it; and even then it seemed impossible that he had really seen what he thought he had.
"John," he said in a faint voice. "You've read it?"
"Wot do you mäake of it?"
"I make as I was speaking the truth when I said he was still thick with her."
"Though you disbelieved me and wouldn't take my word."
Old Rumbeam said nothing. John too savored his triumph in silence.
After a while:
"So he lost her that time on purpose."
"I reckon so."
"I'd never have thought it of the boy. I never thought he had it in him to carry on so ordinary. And as for her—she's a wicked piece and deserves me to go straight to the Squire wud her letter. Aye—that's wot I'll do before I'm an hour older."
This was not what Scrattage had intended. Apart from other considerations, he did not want to get Miss Chasepool into trouble. Nan was not a popular character outside her own small, rather sinister set—most of the inhabitants of Sheddingfold detested her; but ever since that meeting in Tim's Bar she had enjoyed without knowing or caring the devotion of John Scrattage's rather withered heart. She had given him a glamorous hour in a marble bar, a number of expensive drinks, and a definite feeling of triumph which seemed to grow brighter rather than dimmer as the mists of the past closed round it. The episode hung like a lamp in his memory, a golden globe in which he and she sat together in comfort and glory. He could not bear the thought of that lamp being darkened by his unconscious betrayal of the friendly hand that had lit it.
"Look here," he said, "you can't do that."
"Why not? It's the präaper thing. Her grandfather mun see how she's behaving and stop her running after my boy. I'll never believe that all this äun't her doing more'n hisn. He's unaccountable mäade up wud Gloria Crouch."
"That's not so!" cried John angrily. "He don't care two old straws about Gloria Crouch. You give me back that letter."
Old Rumbeam did not move. He stood with the letter in his hand, his brow, under its restored wreath of spectacles, corrugated with silent thought.
"You give me back that letter," repeated John.
"'At that I wöan't. It äun't yourn."
"Nor yourn. It's Tiger's."
Old Rumbeam, still thoughtful, put the letter into his pocket.
"Give it to me—it's mine—I found it."
John nearly screamed as he realized how things were going. He saw, too late, that he had blundered and that his blunder might prove fatal to all his and Miss Chasepool's schemes. His mind strove confusedly with plans for retrieving it. For a moment he thought of attacking Rumbeam and wresting the letter from him by main force. But the old chap was tough as an ape and John himself suffered from long-standing rupture. In a rough and tumble he would certainly get the worst of it.
"Give it to me back, just for a moment—I want to look at something," he almost pleaded.
But old Rumbeam did not move.
"Why should I give it to you? It äun't your letter. You've näun to do wud it now you've shown it to me. Unless of course," he chuckled, "you want to show it to Gloria Crouch. Maybe you think you'd like to do another li'l spot of blackmail. Ho! ho! But if that's your notion I've got beforehand wud you, John Scrattage."
John began to mumble wildly.
"This letter concern's me, and me only," continued Rumbeam, slapping his pocket. "Tiger's my son, and it's my pläace to protect him from designing females. If you'd other ideas you can thing agäun. I'm täaking this here letter to the Squire."
Life had never treated Scrattage especially well, but not till now had he ever guessed it could be as cruel as this. Still mumbling wildly he turned and almost ran out of the house.
The sun had left the sky, to set invisibly behind a wall of stratus cloud, down which his passage could be traced by gleeds and embers of crimson light. The glow was reflected in the north, where the downs humped animal shapes behind Lewes, and in the east where it was held in the fogs that hung feathers from the meadow crown of the Weald. All the earth seemed to be burning at the rims, above which the first stars shook on the zenith like drops of water.
Neither Tony nor Betsy Canning spoke much as they drove through this cold fire to Sheddingfold. There was a scent of stubble in the air, and Betsy thought pleasantly of her harvested fields. Tony too was thinking of harvests—harvests to come on Shiprods Farm, which he had feared might never see another reaping. The stubble-sweet air was cold, for the fields were cold, breathing a cold, moist breath of dew-soaked straw and clay. The fields were as cold as the painted sun that hung for a moment below the clouds and then dipped under the world.
The Palladian front of Sheddingfold Manor held all that was left of the light as the Cannings drove up to it. A faintly shining ghost, it stood against the bulk of Shiprods Hill. Just beyond the columns of the porch a small sports car crouched in the darkness. Both Tony and Betsy groaned.
"So she's here."
It was the common effect of Nan Chasepool's car on arriving visitors.
"She went away only a few days ago. She's done nothing but rush up and down all this summer," said Betsy. "I wander what she's after."
"The old man's money, I expect," said Tony grimly.
In the drawing room they found not only Nan and her grandfather, but Mr. Longslow, whose night it was for dining at the manor.
"Quite a party, aren't we?—delightful," murmured the Squire, with an uneasy glance at Gladys Cumber, who was expressing her disapproval of his hospitality by making all the noise she could with her feet and as little as possible with her mouth.
"Mr. and Mrs. Candle," she announced without parting her lips.
Tony, who would rather be Candle than de Canynge, was annoyed to see the Rector, and Betsy had to summon all her affection and respect for the old man to show any cordiality in her greeting to Nan Chasepool, who lounged against the mantelpiece in a crimson sweater and gray flannel skirt, the rest of the company being dressed in polite if reluctant support of their host's dinner jacket.
There was one advantage, however, gained by Nan's presence and that was an excellent cocktail, made by herself. This not only removed some of the company's disgust with one another, but softened the rigors of a dinner in which Mrs. Noven had expressed her own personal contempt of the occasion. Even Mr. Longslow felt able to digest her chicken pie. There was also a certain exhilaration due to the unexpected triumph of the Town Planning party in the council.
"There's a chance now," said Canning, "that we may get it through before old Rumbeam's quite covered the Denniker with houses."
"He's working very swiftly, though," said Mr. Longslow with a shudder. "When I say swiftly, I mean of course swiftly by local standards. Actually all he's building now is foundations. Tell me, how does friend de Rumbeam stand if he has laid out fifty sites by the time the Town Planning Scheme is passed?"
"He won't be able to finish more than seventeen houses, unless the zoning's changed again."
"That'll be bad enough," said Betsy. "Whatever you may do and whatever happens, he will have murdered a field."
"Yes, but he probably won't be able to murder more than that one," said Tony. "If we zone the farmhouse and seventy acres as agricultural land, and the rest at, say, one house to five acres, it won't pay him to build any more. He'll probably sell all the rest of the fields with the house for as big a price as he can get, and Shiprods will become a farm again."
"It's more likely, I'm afraid, to be bought by well-to-do gentlefolk retiring to the country, who'll spend thousands on 'restoring' the house and will let the land all go to ruin, with the pleasant idea that they're improving the scenery."
"Oh, come, my dear Betsy, retired gentlefolk sometimes manage a bit of farming."
"And they often have more to spend on it than working farmers," said Sir Charles. Then he sighed deeply. "How I wish I could buy back Shiprods Farm."
By common consent everyone glared at Nan Chasepool, who was quietly eating her dinner and ignoring a conversation in which she apparently took no interest.
"You'll have done it a good service, sir," said Canning, "by making the Manor lands a private open space. That was a gesture which impressed the council very much and helped turn the tide in our favor."
"What about the meeting, de Canynge?" asked Mr. Longslow. "You can have the parish hall on either the twenty-fifth or the twenty-seventh. I've just been looking at the dates. But perhaps you won't want to hold a meeting now the situation has improved so much."
"Oh, I shan't take any irons out of the fire. You never know what the council may do next; and anyway I don't want to lose an opportunity of lamming into the people round here that the purpose of an agricultural district is neither to provide picturesque scenery nor sites for houses but food for the nation."
"Which already buys its food much more cheaply abroad," said Mr. Longslow. "I foresee the day when agriculture in this country will be nothing but the expensive hobby of the idle rich."
"Unless there is another war," said Canning.
"Thanks. I'd rather every field in Sheddingfold was bought up by old Rumbeam."
"Every time I see a field bought up by Rumbeam and his kind I feel more certain that war must come."
"I fail to see the connection."
Mr. Longslow spoke crossly—partly because he disliked the idea of war, and partly because he had just bitten on a hard, unknown substance in Mrs. Noven's savory.
"I'll never believe we could be such fools a second time," said Sir Charles, his mouth weakening into lines of obstinacy. "Besides, who are we going to fight with? The Italians would never dare take us on in addition to all their other adventures, and I'm sure that Hitler wants peace for Germany even more than we want it for this country."
"Could Mr. Rumbeam speak to Sir Charles?"
Gladys Cumber's ringing tones expressed her pleasure in interrupting the conversation rather than any change of heart.
"Speak of the devil—" said Betsy Canning.
"Where is he?" asked the Squire.
"In your study."
"Tell him I'll come in a few moments. I wonder what he wants," he said as soon as she was gone.
"I suppose he's heard about the way things went at the meeting this afternoon. His pal Limbourne probably called in with the bad news."
"But I'm not on the council. Officially it's no affair of mine."
"He probably knows you have influence behind the scenes; and he's the sort of man who would always rather work from behind than in front."
As Canning spoke he noticed that Nan Chasepool's face had lost its expression of bored indifference. He asked himself if it were possible that she could know of old Rumbeam's business, and decided that it was not. The change must be due to some change in those private thoughts which had been occupying her all during dinner. And yet, now he came to think of it, he remembered a story of her having been seen driving Tiger Rumbeam in her car along the Lewes road . . .
"I wonder what he wants," the Squire repeated.
"Would you like me to interview him for you?" asked Canning, feeling that anyone so old and gentle as Sir Charles should not be exposed to anyone so old and tough as Rumbeam. "If he's come about the town planning I have all the facts."
"Thank you very much, but I think I'd better do it myself—I'll send for you if there's any way you can help us. And if you'll all excuse me, I think I'll go now and get him disposed of. Nan, my dear, perhaps you'd kindly take our guests into the drawing room and I'll join you as soon as I've got rid of him."
In the drawing room Nan appeared decidedly restless and ill at ease. She switched on the wireless, and then switched it off because it was giving a talk on beetles. She then turned on her portable gramophone and played two records from Saunders of the River. She then went back to the wireless and tuned in to Radio Normandie which was broadcasting greetings to the members of its English Birthday Club; and when this was switched off by common entreaty she produced from somewhere out of the ether a cracked record playing Ravel's Bolero.
Canning now felt sure that she knew something about old Rumbeam's visit. Impossible as it might seem that it could concern her in any way, she evidently had a guilty conscience about it. He watched her with interest and some sadistic enjoyment; her exposure would delight him.
Actually he was quite wrong. Nan had no idea that her plan had miscarried or that Scrattage had so woefully failed her. She was not even aware that old Rumbeam had yet seen her note to Tiger; for she had arranged with Scrattage that it was not to be shown him till late on the evening of her arrival, and how was she to know that with Scrattage "late" was somewhere around seven-thirty? Even if she had known she still would have seen nothing alarming in the old man's visit, for she had taken for granted that the threat of exposure to the Crouches would make him hold his tongue outside his own home. He certainly would not dare go to her grandfather with the story.
Her uneasiness, which was real enough, was due to a fear that this untimely call might clash with her own engagements. She had a date with Tiger at half-past nine, a date which it was most important that she should keep, for Tiger as yet knew nothing of her conspiracy with Scrattage. Apart from the fact that she had had little or no opportunity to tell him about it, for he had come back from the Fitzmaurice Studios only just in time to catch his train, she had decided that ignorance was best for him till the trick was won. He would be sure, she told herself, to get into a flat spin at once if he knew anything about the plan; so he had far better know nothing till it was too late for him to mess things up. She had arranged to meet him at the Crown at Dollock Mill just at the time when she imagined that Scrattage would be getting busy with his father.
Now it looked as if she might have some difficulty in slipping off. She would have somehow to dispose of these maddening people, unless her grandfather came back quickly to take charge of his own party. She had no social inhibitions but she was fond of the old man and anxious for other reasons to avoid offending him and making her visits more unwelcome than they already might be. The situation made her a restless and malevolent hostess, prowling irritably between the radio and the gramophone and feverishly handing and smoking cigarettes.
The door opened, bringing not release but a welcome interruption.
"Miss Nan's wanted on the telephone."
"Right—excuse me a moment, won't you?"
The telephone at Sheddingfold was in the hall, an awkward position for people like Nan, who had been forced by it to the highest peaks of elision. Tonight, however, there was no danger of her being overheard in her grandfather's study, where two old men's voices droned incessantly, or in the drawing room, where she had left the gramophone playing a Duke Ellington record.
The voice at the other end of the line was Rowley's.
"That you, Nan? Look here, we've had those shots of your curly-headed boy."
Nan had a moment of elation, which she chastened before it could be expressed.
"You said that about old Rory's."
"I know. But this is different. You were quite right; your bloke's the cat's pajamas. He looks the part and he moves it—just as you said."
"Then what are you going to do about him?"
"Offer it to him, of course. I suppose he'll take it."
Again Nan suppressed an impulse to rejoice. She said casually:
"I don't suppose there's any doubt of that. What will Vera say?"
"Vera?—Oh, yes, I understand . . . Well, I've been rather clever about that. When I saw how good your Tiger boy was I ran round to her and suggested that Rory should play Gregory Marsden. It's a part that could be written up a lot and would suit an older man. I made out to Vera that it would give him a much better chance than the gypsy of stealing the show, and she was quite agreeable; so we've still got her two thousand."
"That's what I think. Of course if your chap's father would cough up too, it would be all the better; but now we can afford to take him without a dowry, so to speak."
Nan's thoughts dwelt lovingly on Scrattage, no doubt engaged at that very moment in making old Rumbeam cough up.
"I might be able to do something about him—the father, I mean."
"Oh, might you?—that's good news. Do you think he'd give us another two thousand?"
"I'm not sure; but we've been talking the matter over, and I think it's just possible."
"Perhaps now we're giving his boy a part he may like the idea of becoming a director . . . I know you'll get the stuff out of him if you can."
"Oh, I've hopes," said Nan.
"And what about Tiger? Shall you be seeing him soon?"
"Tonight, I expect."
"Then you can tell him that we're very pleased with the shots—Walley was raving, and said he could make anything out of that boy if he's given a free hand—and he'd better run up and see me tomorrow."
"That's rather short notice. Things take a lot of arranging at this end."
"Well, I want to get going as soon as possible, so don't let him wait too long. Walley wants to see him again, and of course he'll have to be put through his paces quite a lot before he's really fit for the job . . . and there's all the publicity stuff—have you thought of that?"
"Rather early, isn't it?"
"Percy thinks it's time to start. He's had some pars about Eglantine out already and would like to begin on Master Tiger. Splendid name, by the way—Tiger Romany; eat the suburbs."
"What sort of contract are we giving him?"
Nan, though she had no money in the business, considered herself the brains of it, and always spoke of it as "we."
"Well, that depends . . . we shall want him for two years, anyway; but I can't promise him the lead all through. It depends on what he does with the Moon. As for his salary, you might say we'll offer him ten pounds a week as a start—"
"He's probably expecting a hundred. He reads the Cine-Goer."
"Then it's time he learned he's not in Hollywood. Of course if his father would put some cash into the show we might be able to manage a little more . . ."
"I'll see what can be done about that."
The Duke Ellington record was finished, and Nan became aware of a possible audience in the drawing room.
"Look here, I must ring off now, but I'll 'phone you again tomorrow. What time?"
"Oh, between nine and ten . . ."
"Sure. Good-by," and she rang off.
As she hung up the receiver, she noticed how loud the voices in her grandfather's study had suddenly become. The two old men seemed almost to be shouting at each other.
It was some time since the Squire had seen old Rumbeam and when his eye rested on the squalid figure huddling in his own comfortable friendly armchair, he felt a shock of repulsion. The room smelt vaguely of dustbins and Sir Charles's first action on entering it was to open the window.
"Good evening," he said as he did so, and, not wishing to appear discourteous, added, "getting a bit close now the wind's gone dawn."
"Surelye. But I reckon we shall have frost tonight."
"Maybe—though it's early days yet."
Silence fell for a moment. Then Rumbeam said:
"I reckon you're wondering wot I've come about."
Sir Charles certainly was wondering, but did not like to say so.
"I wöan't kip you long," continued the old man. "I'm a plain man, and I can't afford to waste words."
He had rehearsed this opening on his way to the manor, but had made no attempt to imagine Sir Charles's reply, which was entirely surprising.
"Go on. I like to hear a Sussex voice. You speak the way everyone did when I was young."
"Well . . ." he floundered a bit. "I fear wot I've to say comes a bit awkward. I'm a father, Sir Charles, and you're a grandfather."
It was the Squire's turn to be surprised.
"I—I don't quite follow you. Have you come to speak to me about your son?"
"Aye, and about your granddaughter."
Sir Charles's voice was suddenly defensive and lofty.
"Surelye—Miss Nan Chasepool."
"I don't see what she can possibly have to do with your son."
"Aye, but I reckon she has—a sight too much to do wud him. You read that," and Nan's hard-worked letter was held out under the Squire's nose. He would have taken it, but Rumbeam, who feared having his own trick played on him, would not let it go.
"No, if you'll excuse me, sir; I'll kip hold of 'un."
Sir Charles, having adjusted his monocle, had caught sight of the opening words: "Darling, darling Tiger . . ."
"Where did you find this?"
"On the floor at home. The boy mun have dropped it."
Sir Charles leaned back in his chair, feeling faint and shocked. The letter followed him at the end of old Rumbeam's shabby arm.
"Read it, Squire—read the whole of it."
"I don't want to. I can see what it's about."
"Howsumever you mun read it. It's only right as you should know how she carries on."
Shuddering with distaste, Sir Charles allowed his eyes to travel over the well-thumbed page.
"I'm very sorry, Rumbeam."
"So am I, sir. My boy's going to be married on the sixteenth of next month." He had spontaneously but determinedly fixed the date of Tiger's wedding. "He's marrying Crouch of Shallowbed's daughter, as good a girl as ever wore shoes. And I tell you, sir, I täake it very much amiss as your granddaughter should be laying out for 'un the way she is, and writing 'un letters of this sort when he's on the brink of matrimony."
His last words also belonged to rehearsal, but again their effect did not.
"It seems to me," said Sir Charles, once more using his lofty tone, "that your son is not in a fit state to be married next month, apart from anything my granddaughter may or may not have done. She would not write like this if the affair were entirely on her side, and whatever steps I may take I think you would be wise—that Miss Crouch would be wise—to postpone the wedding, if not to cancel it altogether."
"The boy wants nothing better than to marry Gloria Crouch if only your gal 'ud let him be. But she's forever pestering and terrifying him, and I reckon she mäakes him say a tedious lot of stuff he döan't mean, just to please her. He'd marry Gloria tomorrow if she'd let him alone."
"Have you suspected anything between them before you saw this letter?"
"I've more than once had a notion as things wurn't as they should ought to be; but I've never bin able to lay my hand on anything till now."
The Squire shook his head.
"I assure you, Rumbeam, that I'm as shocked as you are by my granddaughter's behavior. All I refuse to accept is that she and she only is to blame—the letter, I think, disposes of any such idea. But nothing alters the fact that I'm deeply sorry for you and ashamed of her."
He covered his eyes with a long, thin hand as his thoughts provided him with the explanation of Nan's frequent visits. She had been coming down to Sheddingfold, not because she wanted to see him, or the house, or the place, but because she was carrying on a hectic flirtation with Tiger Rumbeam, whom Sir Charles did not consider nearly good enough for Gloria Crouch. He had always suspected that Nan was rotten, but he had not been prepared for this. He could not cope with it. Paula must take her in hand—he would pack her off to Paula and forbid her the house for some time to come. That was the only way in which he could deal with the situation.
He stood up.
"Thank you, Rumbeam. I know you meant to act for the best in showing me this letter, and I promise you that my granddaughter shall leave this house tomorrow and shall not return till the circumstances are altered—either for her or for your son. All I ask you is that before you go you'll let me destroy her letter."
He had, without knowing it, reached the climax of the interview. Old Rumbeam put his hand behind his back.
"Naw; I reckon that letter's my property."
His tone and expression had changed, and Sir Charles was now on ground that he had never trodden before in all his long experience of Sheddingfold and its ways.
"But why should you want to keep it?" he asked rather shakily. "No useful purpose can be served by that. Such things are best forgotten."
"Aye, that's true. But this'll täake some forgetting—breaking in and spoiling a good boy's marriage the way she's done. She's your granddaughter and fatherless, but you döan't sim to have ridden her wud any sort of rein. I reckon I've you to blame as much as her fur wot's happened."
Sir Charles had recovered himself and was feeling angry. He considered that he had been very sympathetic and forbearing with old Rumbeam, suppressing his disgust at Nan's low tastes in love and altogether behaving as if there were nothing against the association but Tiger's plighted troth.
"You've nothing to gain by rudeness," he said coldly. "I've told you I'm sorry and I should hope you were too."
"All I'm telling you is as you äun't going to git out of it as easy as all that—just by saying you're sorry. You mun do something to prove it."
"What do you expect me to do? Do you want me to see Crouch? . . ." It dawned upon him that there might have been trouble at Shallowbed. "Or," his voice freezing as another more contemptible explanation occurred to him, "are you suggesting some form of compensation?"
"I'm suggesting we mäake a bargain over this. I'm willing to do my share if you'll do yourn. I'll hand you over the letter if you'll agree to hold back that town planning on the council until I've gotten my houses up."
Sir Charles was startled, disgusted and a trifle contemptuous.
"I'm afraid you've come to the wrong man for blackmail. I'm not a councilor and it's quite out of my power either to suppress or encourage any schemes the council may bring forward."
"Maybe you äun't on the council, but I reckon you've gotten a good half of it in your pocket-and that Mus' Canning as is doing all the harm, he's here in this very house tonight, as I can see by his car outside. You tell him that if he goes on as he's bin doing he'll have your name ruined and your granddaughter the talk of the pläace."
"So you're threatening me."
"I'm telling you as there's a way you and me can git on together very well; and there's no sense your saying as you can't do nothing, for we both know as you've only to täake back your offer of an open private place and git Mus' Canning to stop all his meetings and terrifications on the council and let chaps lik me earn their living. That's all I'm asking."
"Moderation itself." Contempt and anger had made Sir Charles almost sarcastic. "But has it never occurred to you that if you let others see this letter of my granddaughter's it will certainly put an end to every chance of your son's marrying Miss Crouch?"
"I'd sooner he didn't marry her than that I didn't git my houses up. If he marries her, he döan't git more than five thousand päounds, but I reckon the houses are worth fifteen thousand at the very least."
It was characteristic of old Rumbeam to vary his normal duplicity with an almost disarming frankness, but Sir Charles was not disarmed.
"You're nothing but a scoundrel," he shouted. "Coming here to threaten and blackmail me."
"There äun't no blackmail in it. I äun't asking for money."
"No, but you're trying to make it out of me—and my honor—and my granddaughter's good name . . ."
It was at this point that Nan Chasepool walked into the room.
Though her ways of showing it were often obscure, Nan was very fond of her grandfather. He stood in her life for those solid, kindly things that belonged to the dim first years of it and had been lost. Though she made him, like everybody else, a cog in the wheel of her various schemes of business and pleasure, she was careful not to maltreat him more than was absolutely necessary, and she very much resented anyone else maltreating him at all. So when she had heard his voice, usually so slow and gentle, raised in a sudden angry shout, she had run quickly down the passage to the study door, arriving just in time to hear old Rumbeam say "There äun't no blackmail in it . . ." and then Sir Charles's reply that ended with: "my granddaughter's good name."
Till that very moment she had imagined that the shouting was about local affairs, which she knew had a mysterious power to raise passion and heighten voices; but when she heard what her grandfather said she realized that old Rumbeam's visit must be due to causes that were very much her personal concern, perhaps even to some unforeseen miscarriage of her plot with Scrattage. So without waiting to make further conjectures, she opened the door and walked boldly in.
"Hullo," she said. "You two quarreling?"
Both old men stared at her with a consternation that was almost guilty. Sir Charles, though knowing he must shortly go through a painful scene with her, was totally unprepared to have it staged so abruptly—without any chance of rehearsal on his part and with the unwelcome audience of old Rumbeam. As for the latter, he was appalled. Nan Chasepool from her dandelion head to her poppy-tipped toes was a being so entirely outside life and experience as he knew them, that she could not have discomposed him more if she had come from another world. He might despise her in private and speak contemptuously of her to Scrattage and the Squire, but on her sudden appearance he was too deeply embarrassed to utter a sound. It was Sir Charles who, unwillingly, was forced to make the explanations.
"Mr. Rumbeam has called to see me on a matter that concerns you, Nan. I hadn't meant to speak to you about it till he had gone, but now you've come in I must tell you that he's just shown me a letter—a disgraceful letter—which you've written to his son."
Nan had already caught sight of the letter in old Rumbeam's grubby paw, and guessed that the worst had befallen her scheme. Had Scrattage double-crossed her? . . . She turned fiercely on his master:
"How did you get hold of that?"
The old man found his voice—rather croakily.
"I picked 'un up off the floor at the Creakers. Tiger mun have dropped 'un."
"Give it to me, please."
She held out her hand, but Rumbeam thrust his still further behind his back.
"Give it to me—it's my property."
"'At that it äun't, miss. I keeps 'un."
His nerve had begun to recover under a returning sense of power. But its relapse was immediate and complete. The idea of personal assault had been rejected by Scrattage and had not even occurred to Sir Charles, but to Nan it was the only solution of her present difficulties. In a moment she had leaped upon him, snatched the letter out of his hand and torn it to fragments. He was too completely overcome by surprise and outrage to make any attempt at self-defense, but stood gasping in an atmosphere that still seemed to reek of powder, brilliantine and Cinquième Nuit.
"So," she said, "that's that."
"Nan," said her grandfather in a voice made faint by the conflict of censure and gratitude.
"Better light the fire," said she, tossing the fragments into the grate, "so that there's no chance of Gladys finding the bits tomorrow morning. And anyhow, Gaffer, you shouldn't be without a fire on a cold night like this."
She struck a match and the flame of the dry kindling roared up the chimney. Old Rumbeam still stood shocked and silent, but Sir Charles was himself again.
"That's the best place for it, certainly," he said. "I'm horrified to think that you could have written such a letter to a man who's engaged to another woman. It's a secondary matter that by so doing you very nearly put us both into the hands of an unscrupulous blackmailer. I'm disgusted with you."
"And I'm disgusted with you, Gaffer, if you think I meant that letter seriously. Do you imagine that it's the sort of love letter I usually write?"
"I have never allowed my imagination to dwell on the subject," said Sir Charles witheringly.
"Well, then, I owe it to myself to tell you that it isn't. That letter had a string tied to it. It was written for a special purpose."
The two old men stared at her.
"What purpose could it possibly have?" asked her grandfather.
For a moment Nan hesitated, while her mind worked, desperately, collecting the broken pieces of her scheme so that at least something should be made out of them. "That letter," she said, "was meant for Gloria Grouch."
"Gloria Crouch . . ." repeated Sir Charles. "What are you talking about?"
"My idea was to make her break off her engagement with Tiger Rumbeam. He never wanted to marry her—he was bullied into it by his father and committed himself without meaning to. I was trying to get him out of it."
Old Rumbeam gasped and his complexion darkened.
"So you've bin plotting wud Tiger . . ."
"Not at all. Tiger hasn't seen the letter—he doesn't even know that it was written."
"Then—then—how did Scrattage come to pick it up at the Creakers?"
So Scrattage was still in the story . . . Nan hesitated as to how much further she should involve him, but decided that—as she knew nothing of the part he had really played and was now on the whole inclined to think that he had not deliberately let her down—she had better ignore him.
"I thought you said it was you who picked it up," she said coolly. "But never mind who did that—I must have been the one who dropped it. I called in to see Tiger on business and I was getting some stuff out of my bag . . . a good thing Tiger himself didn't see it. It might have put ideas into his head."
During the conversation Rumbeam had been slowly recovering his wits, and remembering the original purpose of his interview with the Squire. That purpose was largely thwarted by this female's violence, but he still had it in his power to make things uncomfortable—especially for her.
He plunged in fighting.
"And may I ask what business you called to see my boy about? It looks hem queer to me to have a young lady of quality lik yourself calling on a workingman's son. And I mäake so bold as to say I döan't believe in none of your business, and I döan't believe in none of the lies you've bin telling about that letter. You've led my poor boy into bad ways and now you're trying to smash up his marriage wud a decent gal. And I täake it unaccountable amiss of you—aye, and of your grandfather too. And even if you've bin ordinary and low enough to terrify that letter out of me, you äun't a-done wud it yet, nor wud me, neither—neither of you."
The worst of the situation, as far as Nan could see it, was the necessity to think and speak at the same time. She had never expected this development, and all the time one part of her mind was seeking a way out of the mess another part was busy conjecturing how she had ever got into it. This put her at a disadvantage, and the best thing to do seemed to bring the interview to an end as quickly as possible, even with a smash that would stun all three of them. She decided forthwith to pull down the pillars of the Rumbeam underworld about their heads.
"My business with your son," she said boldly, "was to get him a job as a screen actor. He's worth something better than to live down here making money for you by sweating all day at your ghastly hovels. So I've just arranged with Fitzmaurice Films to give him a part in their new production at ten pounds a week."
The effect of this announcement was immediate. Rumbeam opened his mouth to speak, but no words came, while the inky blood crept up his face.
"Of course," continued Nan, "that makes it all the more impossible and ridiculous that he should marry a girl like Gloria Crouch; and as you'd bullied him into the engagement and he hadn't the guts to get himself out of it, I took a hand—that's all. So I'm afraid there's no blackmail for you anywhere and I think you'd better go home."
Old Rumbeam emitted a long wheezy gasp.
"Tiger on the films . . . you've bin fixing a thing like that . . . and me not knowing . . ."
His head suddenly fell forward on his chest.
"He's ill," said Sir Charles quickly.
"No, I öun't." He heaved himself out of his chair. "I'm well enough . . . only a bit swimmy . . . wud all this terrification. Never in all my days have I had to do wud such a female . . . I döan't care how much you're the Squire's granddaughter—you're naught but an ordinary cow . . . and I'll säave my boy from you. I'm going höame."
Neither Nan nor her grandfather moved or spoke as old Rumbeam walked with a rolling gait towards the door. He opened it after a little fumbling, and soon they heard his hobnailed boots on the polished floor of the hall, then at last the roar and explosion of his starting car.
"Well," said Nan, "he's gone, anyway."
She spoke jauntily, but something about her had changed, just as something in the atmosphere of the room had changed.
"He's gone," said Sir Charles, "and now he's gone I'd like to know how much you told him was the truth, and how much was lies."
Nan shuffled her foot.
"A good bit of it was true. I've got Tiger a job all right with Fitzmaurice Films."
"And has the whole of your association with him down here been for business purposes?"
Nan lifted her eyes for the clear, direct gaze that precedes a lie. But when they met her grandfather's she dropped them.
"Well, I don't know . . . I'm very fond of old Tiger and I wanted to help him do better for himself. I don't know if you've ever seen him, Gaffer, but he's a very different chap from his father."
There was silence for a moment, then Sir Charles said: "I want you to tell me the truth. Have you been carrying on a flirtation with Tiger Rumbeam?"
"I suppose most people would call it that."
"I see. And were you speaking the truth about that letter? Was it really written with no other view than to make Crouch's girl give him up?"
"Well, not exactly . . . But it's perfectly true about its being a fake and Tiger not having ever seen it."
"Then why was it written?"
"Because . . . Oh, damn it all—I wanted money to get Tiger on the films, and the best way seemed to get it out of his father. I thought that if someone threatened to show the letter to Gloria Crouch . . . but all that part of the scheme went wrong and I don't know exactly what happened."
"But your idea was to blackmail Rumbeam."
"Yes, and I don't think anyone who knows him would blame me for that. I never thought he'd get things round so that he could blackmail you."
Sir Charles again fell silent. He stood with his back to the fire, looking down at the faded carpet. Nan opened her mouth to continue her explanations, but found disconcertingly that she did not know what to say. Nothing more that she could say would make her appear less contemptible in the eyes of this old man who had been good to her. Finally it was he who spoke.
"I've been pleased to welcome you here whenever you chose to come, under the impression that your visits gave you pleasure and also that they might denote some affection for me. Now I find that you have merely used this house for your convenience, so that you could carry on a flirtation with a most undesirable young man and blackmail his father. I have often been saddened by the thought that your ideas of decorum and good behavior were so very different from mine, but I never thought you capable of anything so shameful as this. So I'm sure you will understand me when I say that this is the last visit you will pay me for a considerable time and that it will end tomorrow."
Nan would never have believed anyone who had told her that she could listen to a speech like that without a hard-suppressed convulsion of laughter, and the intention of guying it afterwards to the Twiggies, Rowleys and Walleys who were her friends. She could never have imagined herself standing before her grandfather with downcast eyes and a head that very nearly hung, while her throat swallowed on something hard which certainly was not laughter.
"Grandfather," she began, "I didn't mean . . . I mean I'm fond of you really—I wasn't only making use . . . and it's quite true about Tiger wanting to get out of his engagement to Gloria Crouch. I didn't lie about that."
"That will do," he said quietly. "I'll ring up your mother and tell her you'll be home tomorrow morning."
But Nan had recovered herself enough to think and to act. At all costs she must put an end to this ghastly situation, in which she was flapping like a fish out of water. It must not be carried through into the next day . . . or perhaps even repeated tomorrow morning . . . At the same time the hall clock striking half-past nine reminded her of even greater urgencies and entanglements.
"Thank you, but I'd rather go tonight. My car's outside. I'll go at once. Gladys can pack my things and send them after me. I didn't bring much more than a toothbrush."
"Don't be silly, my dear. You can't drive up alone in the dark."
"Oh, yes, I can—I've done it dozens of times—I'd much rather. I must go."
In her mind was a picture of Tiger, all innocent and unaware of what had happened, waiting for her at Dollock Mill. Something must be done immediately . . .
"I'm going now," she repeated, and rushed out of the room. A moment later she was out of doors, where her familiar spirit, the little green car, crouched in the darkness waiting for her.
Two hours later, when the remains of his broken dinner party had finally scattered, and the old man sat alone, still too deeply distressed and shaken to wish to go to bed, the telephone rang suddenly through the silent house.
Did that mean that Nan had already reached London? It seemed impossible; also Paula had said that whatever happened she would not ring up again till tomorrow morning. He picked up the receiver . . . the voice at the other end of the line was not hers.
"Is that Sheddingfold Manor?"
"Yes. Sir Charles Wakeham speaking."
"Oh, Sir Charles, I'm so sorry to disturb you at this time of night—I put in the call ages ago . . . this is Ellis Hurland."
He had an immediate sensation of relief. Here was somebody outside the squalid range of tonight's doings—a woman he liked, who did the sort of things he liked. Paula had told him that she was going to remarry Fred Malkinson . . . perhaps she was ringing him up about that . . . after all, it had been settled in his house.
"Good evening . . ."
"It's very sweet of you to call it evening; and I feel encouraged to ask you a favor . . ."
"Anything I can do . . . I'll be delighted."
"Well, I was wondering if you'd be so very kind as to let me come down and stay with you for a few days."
He was surprised, for Paula had said that she was shortly going away with Fred.
"My dear, I'm overjoyed. Is Fred coming too?"
"No—only me." Silence hung for a moment. "Are you sure that it will be quite convenient?"
She had never come to Sheddingfold except in summer; it would be strange having her now in the chilling, shrinking days—and without Fred. But he would enjoy it; she would talk pleasantly and kindly and make him forget that disgraceful scene with old Rumbeam and with Nan. He would feel too that here was somebody visiting him for his place and his company.
"It will be the greatest pleasure to have you," he said. "I'm only afraid that you may find things very dull down here. I shall be quite alone."
"I shall like that."
Something in her voice gave him a sudden concern for her.
"You're not—you haven't been ill, have you?"
"Oh, no; I'm perfectly well. But I'm rather tired. I shall love to stay for a few days quietly with you. When may I come?"
"Whenever you like—the sooner the better. Come tomorrow."
"Thank you so much. You are kind. I'll come by the afternoon train, if that suits."
"It suits very well; and you'll find Wildgoose driving the car. He's started work again."
Unlike Nan, she always took an interest in local affairs . . .
"You must be glad to have him back."
"Oh, yes . . . it makes things easier."
He formed a resolution to drive in to Redmile with Wildgoose and welcome her at the station.
"I won't keep you any longer now," she said. "Thank you a thousand times for having me. When I see you I'll tell you exactly how much your kindness means. Good night now, and forgive me for disturbing you."
She rang off; but a vision of her still lay like balm in his mind over the inflamed image of Nan.
The next morning Paula rang up to announce that her daughter had reached home shortly after midnight.
". . . and she had the perfectly incredible crust to bring the boy friend with her."
"Good heavens! You don't mean she brought Tiger Rumbeam?"
"That's just exactly what she did, and demanded that I should put him up for the night. Father, did you know anything about it?"
"Nothing—absolutely nothing. She dashed off wildly—just as I told you—I couldn't stop her. She must have met him on the road. Er—what did you do about him, my dear?"
"Well, I couldn't turn him out, as it was nearly one o'clock and he had nowhere to go, and seemed quite remarkably frightened of everything and everybody. So I got Nan to make him up a bed on the smoking-room sofa and trusted that I shouldn't find this morning that he'd gone off with the spoons."
"I've never heard that Tiger Rumbeam was dishonest," said Sir Charles earnestly.
"Have you ever seen him?"
"Oh, certainly—quite often, in the distance. He's a good-looking boy."
"Well, to me he looks rather like an Abyssinian warrior in a fifty-shilling suit. Nan's got him a leading part with that wretched film company of hers."
"So I understood from her."
"She took him off to the studio at Shepherd's Bush this morning, and mercifully they're going to find him lodgings somewhere in those parts. But, Father, I really am worried. She won't say she isn't going to marry him."
"Oh, my dear . . . she surely never would do that."
"Nan would do anything; and she says he's going to be a famous film star and worth thousands. To do her justice, I don't think she'd have him if he wasn't both; but I don't want her to hang on to such a detrimental—my only hope for her is that she'll take the fancy of some strong silent man who'll beat her every day."
Sir Charles hesitated . . .
"Can't you do anything about her, Paula?"
"No, Father, nothing. It's too late."
For a moment silence stretched on the line between them; then Paula said:
"Well, anyhow you owe her something. Her clearing out like that has given you a visitor you'll like much better."
"You mean Ellis Hurland?"
"Yes; she was in here with me when I got your telephone call, and directly she heard Nan had been thrown out of Sheddingfold she made up her mind to run down there. She can't bear Nan."
"I shall be delighted to see her. But I thought she was going away with Fred Malkinson."
"No, that's all off."
"What! . . ." he was startled and disappointed. He had liked to think of the romance that had been remade in his house. "Isn't she going to marry him?"
"No—when they came to look into it, they found it wouldn't work. In other words wife number two wouldn't let go."
"I'm sorry . . . poor Ellis . . ."
"Yes, it was a smack for her; but she ought to have known that you can't go back to the beginning again like that. If it's a mistake to cry over spilt milk, it's even sillier to try and scoop it up; and if I'd thought she'd attempt it I should never have asked her and Fred Malkinson down to Sheddingfold."
"What about Bruce Hurland?—is she going back to him?"
"I don't suppose so—but you must ask her yourself. She really hasn't told me much. And now I must ring off. Good-by, Father, and please forget all about that wretched Nan. I oughtn't to have let her plague you."
Sir Charles put back the receiver with a sigh. He felt too old to be so often disappointed.
Ellis caught sight of his tall stooping figure as the train slowed into Redmile station. She had been touched by the eagerness of his welcome—touched and a little comforted. Her coming down to Sheddingfold had been an impulse, roused only partly by the news that Nan no longer had the freedom of the house. The telephone conversation at Paula's had given her a thirst for Sir Charles's dignified, old-fashioned ways, as well as compassion for him in his affronted loneliness. She thought that Paula had treated him badly, allowing Nan to make a convenience of him and largely neglecting him herself. She also felt that to be with him, to talk to him, to interest herself in his affairs would do more to calm the turmoil of her own life than any further escape . . . "Why don't you go abroad?" Paula had said. "The Ibbetsons are just off to Brioni."
But people had always meant more than places to Ellis. Otherwise, perhaps, she would not have felt urged to go back to a place where two and a half months ago she had found such a short-lived happiness. She feared the ghosts of Sheddingfold no more than she fixed her hopes of consolation on its fields and skies. She was going to be with an old man whom she liked and respected, who moreover had succeeded in keeping his past about him still, in ways and ideas and friends. He wore the past like some lovely cloak, a graceful garment—he had neither dropped it behind him nor foolishly rushed back to find it after it was lost.
These thoughts were with her when, the social pleasantness of the drive over, she found herself alone in the big spare bedroom. They smothered the creeping pain that came as she looked down on the bed where once she thought her life had been remade. The rich crowding of the furniture, its solid perfection (how smoothly the old drawers slipped in and out of the tallboy as she put away her clothes), the depth and sheen of the huge old-fashioned curtains, the cheerfulness of the many pictures against the somber exuberance of the embossed wallpaper, all seemed in spite of the lack of space or arrangement to have a beauty of their own—like the beauty of a crammed flower bed. Her bedroom in Hereford Square, with its "off-white" hangings and quiltings seemed pale and precious by comparison, a passing fashion—today's interior decorator's triumph, tomorrow's Tottenham Court Road window display.
It was only six o'clock. She need not yet attire herself in the old-fashioned panoply of evening dress that courtesy required of her in this house. She sat down in one of the unwieldy and not too comfortable armchairs drawn up on either side of the empty, black-leaded grate; and her eyelids drooped over her thoughts. She could think them more calmly now—the protest, the rebellion, the madness of them was dying away; but the ache and the smart remained—the ache belonging to her disappointment, her loneliness and her regrets, the smart of her humiliation, of Victoria's triumph and Paula's disillusioned commentary. She would be glad to have the old man's kindness; he would not despise her attempt to rewrite the past, and her regrets would flatter him . . . "if only I had been brought up with your ideas, none of this would have happened . . ." He wouldn't even say to her, as Paula had said: "If you had to dig things up you might at least have held on to them . . . since you'd got him back I can't understand why you let him go . . ."
Her thoughts fell into a sort of daze, which sometimes came upon them like sleep—a sleep in which her body remained awake, though resting in immobility, but her mind and her heart slept, thoughtless, painless. So far was her state from a true sleep that she automatically watched the clock and roused herself at seven, and yet so near that she was surprised to find that in the interval the room had settled itself into dusk.
She stood up and in the absence of Gladys Cumber, prolonged almost into defiance, she lit the gas jets by the mantelpiece and over the dressing table. The little green flames popped explosively, and the high window, which had been a tower of light, darkened suddenly into the wall.
The evening unrolled in the true Sheddingfold manner. As neither Nan nor Paula was present there were no cocktails, nor even sherry. Ellis felt sure that Sir Charles would have offered them if he had remembered, but he was all the happier for having forgotten them. In his young days sherry was served with the soup.
He apologized for the deficiencies of Mrs. Noven's cooking, but, without his daughter or granddaughter to contradict him, he accepted those deficiencies as the common lot of all in these sad modern times.
"When I was a boy, all the most promising girls came to learn cooking in our kitchen. My mother had a waiting list of kitchenmaids; and my wife always had plenty of choice. Now there's not a kitchenmaid to be had for any money. Would you believe it—the girls would rather go into hairdressers' shops in Bulverhythe?"
Ellis encouraged him to talk as he liked, listening patiently, even opening the way to some old stories that she knew he loved to tell.
After dinner they sat in the drawing room—to her regret, as it was not a room she cared for and she knew that he would have sat in his study had she not been there. But his old-fashioned ideas would be outraged by such informality—the only place to entertain a woman was the drawing room; so they sat on huge, heavy chairs covered by slippery chintzes, with an almost heatless fire muttering between them under the velvet galloons of the mantelpiece. Only the two nearest of the lights were lit, so the fireside was like a little room, like one of those small scenes that are lit up in the corner of a darkened stage while the big scene is being set. Ellis felt enclosed in the mixed light, and a sense of retirement and intimacy encouraged her to talk about her own affairs, which till then they both seemed to have avoided.
"It is good of you to let me come suddenly like this."
"My dear, I'm delighted to have you—always that."
"But I might have given you longer notice . . . only I happened to be there when Paula was speaking to you on the 'phone, and at once I thought—" she couldn't say: Sheddingfold is free of Nan—"at once I thought how lovely it would be to find myself with you in the country again for a few days . . . you see, I've had rather a bad time lately. I've said good-by to Fred."
He was silent; then she heard him murmur:
"You'd heard—Paula said she'd told you—that we were to marry again?"
"Yes—she told me that."
"When we were here together in July it seemed to work out that way for both of us, but when we met again in town we found that there were difficulties that we hadn't really faced up to. It wasn't so difficult for me to get out of my second marriage, but Fred was in a totally different position. He had two children . . ." She broke off, suddenly angry though she could not tell why.
"Yes, of course . . . that must have made things hard for him."
"Especially as his wife was determined to work the situation for all she was worth. I suppose I can't blame her for refusing to let him go—it's what I ought to have done myself in the first place, years ago—but she made such a song about wanting only his happiness . . . and I know that in spite of everything he'd be happier with me; because he and I belong to each other, while he and she are only held together by outside things . . . Do you mind my talking to you like this?"
It had struck her that he looked uneasy.
"No, no . . . tell me what happened."
"Oh, nothing's happened—really. We're only back where we used to be before we met at Paula's; except that I've definitely cut away from Bruce . . . the thing that really happened, happened seven years ago when I divorced Fred. And I mustn't think about it any longer—it demoralizes me. There's nothing more demoralizing than regretting mistakes one's made and can't undo. Life isn't like knitting—you can't pick up the stitch you dropped seven rows back. I tried and failed. Paula says I was a fool to try."
She had begun to talk freely and to feel the release of free speech. In a moment's pause she wondered if she was being entirely kind in talking like this to an old man who lived in such a different world. But the relief was too great for her to forego it on a speculation. He was allowing her to conduct her own post-mortem; whereas Paula had put in her scalpel here and there, making her feel a bungler.
"I seem always to have stood in my own way . . . even after Fred and I had separated I could have had him back between the decree nisi and the decree absolute if I hadn't been eaten up with pique and pride, so that I married Bruce at the first opportunity. You see, Victoria isn't really his sort—he fell in love with her only because he thought I didn't want him."
"But he was married to you." Sir Charles spoke with the sudden shrillness of an old man's indignation. "He had no business to fall in love with her, no matter what he thought about you."
Ellis looked at him sadly, though she smiled.
"You mustn't think that our marriage was like yours. We both married with the ideas of our generation about marriage and divorce. I don't mean that we ever consciously thought of separating—not till things got difficult—but there was always that possibility at the back of our minds. So when the strain came, we snapped; and yet we were very unhappy about it—we weren't like the next generation, who come even bigger croppers than we do, but don't seem to feel it." She thought of Nan, buccaneering her way through life, apparently as incapable of regret as she was of foreboding. "We were both miserable and hurt, and turned to other people to comfort us and salve our pride."
"I'm surprised at his second wife's parents allowing her to marry a divorced man. I understand that she comes of a good family."
"She does, but I imagine that she's the sort of woman who always manages to get her own way. And our divorce was very respectable . . . I think everyone thought that Fred had nobly sacrificed himself to let me bring the petition when things ought to have been the other way round."
"That was disgraceful. I'm surprised at Fred. He's the son of a very old friend of mine . . . that's why I was glad to have him here . . ."
His long thin hands looked green in the petrol light as they clenched and unclenched on the arms of his chair. She began to wish that she had never started the conversation—he could not understand her and was only agitating himself. Yet she must not let him blame Fred.
"I don't suppose he had any idea of what people were saying and thinking. He had let me bring the petition—he refused to have things the other way round, though I suggested it—and he had seen me get married even before he did."
"I was glad to have him here," repeated the old man, "and you, too. I enjoyed your visits. Paula thought it would be pleasant for you to meet once a year like that. But I'd never have let him come if I'd known he would behave like a cad."
"But he didn't behave like a cad. Oh, do let me explain what happened . . ." She would change the subject as soon as she could, but she must persevere till she had made things plain. She had never expected him to take sides like this, but now she came to think of it, that was what his generation always did. None earlier than her own could produce the detachment which, after all, she had resented in Paula. . . . "When he was here with me at Sheddingfold he wanted us to go away together at once. But I wouldn't do it, because I thought it would hurt Victoria too much; so I made him go straight to her and tell her all about it. He went to where she was staying in Cornwall and found one of the children ill; that gave him a bad start and gave her an advantage. Then when the child recovered she still worked hard. She's a strong-willed woman and has changed him in some ways—not for the better. He had planned to come to London and talk things over with me as soon as he had seen her, but for one reason or another he didn't come till last week . . . and then I saw that he was in two minds—he wasn't the same as he had been here. Then he had been prepared to give up the children in order to come back to me, but last week I saw that they meant more to him than I did. I really don't think you can blame him for that. He had never seemed to mind our not having children when we were together, but now he knows what it is to have them . . . and anyway children do—must—make a very great difference when it's a question of divorce."
"But he might have thought of all that when you and he were down here. He had no business to ask you to go back to him—at once or any other time—to break up your marriage and then—" he groped for what he imagined was the language of her generation, "and then let you down."
"My marriage wasn't much of a marriage—and Fred hasn't let me down. It was I who ended things."
"You wouldn't have done that if you hadn't seen he wanted them ended—you couldn't have done it, for he wouldn't have let you. . . ."
"Perhaps not . . ." She shook her head when she remembered how for at least twenty-four hours after their parting she had lived in a queer, perversely piteous hope that he would not accept its finality—that she would suddenly find him on her doorstep, come to declare that rather than lose her he would lose everything else.
"I'm not saying," she continued, "that if he had been strong and determined he couldn't have got out of the mess. But then if he'd been strong and determined he'd never have got into it—nor should I. I'm just as much to blame as he is. We've both made mistakes—mistakes which we can't get out of because they've involved so many other people besides ourselves—even people who weren't born when we made them."
She felt her voice thickening and swallowed hard. She must not cry before the old man, who had already noticed her distress, for he was saying rather tremulously:
"Perhaps my daughter—perhaps I was unwise to invite you both here together, knowing the circumstances. But—"
"Oh, no—you mustn't bring yourself into it. You're not to blame. You've been kindness itself—you couldn't guess how things would turn out. And I've had so much happiness from these visits and from making your acquaintance . . . I hope that from now on you'll look on me as a friend."
"I will—I certainly will . . . anything I can do to make up . . . I hope you will regard this house as open to you whenever you choose to come."
"I shall indeed; thank you so much. But I shall probably go away for a time now—right away. I have friends in America—in Charleston. Have you ever been over there?"
"No; I've never been out of Europe."
"I'm sure you would love Charleston. It belongs to a past that's quite different from our past here in Sheddingfold. No Doomsday stuff—an eighteenth century colonial past shadowed by a nineteenth century war. . . ."
She had changed the subject and the atmosphere seemed to lighten in their fireside cave. She had looked forward to unburdening herself to him, to receiving from him the sympathy and understanding that seemed to belong to his gentle, courtly nature. But now she realized that he was too old, too frail to bear the load of her troubles—she had only distressed and agitated him. He would never really enjoy her company if she came to him full of confidences, for he belonged to an age which did not make them, to a generation whose hearts were like their furniture—disguising heaviness with a polished surface and a pattern of pretty flowers.
Sir Charles Wakeham's morning paper was The Times. His father had taken it in and his grandfather, so its appearance on the breakfast table belonged to the established, immutable order of things. The Times, needless to say, did not contain the news that convulsed the parish of Sheddingfold before the next day's sun had been up many hours. Humbler subscribers to a humbler press found in their morning paper an astonishing paragraph, illustrated by an even more astonishing photograph and captioned: "Rising Star."
Fitzmaurice Films go into production next week with their great new romantic drama Gypsy Moon, the leading part in which will be played by Mr. Tiger Romany, whose name has hitherto been unknown to cine-goers. Mr. Romany is a "find" of Fitzmaurice Films. Only a few weeks ago he was wandering round the countryside with a tribe of gypsies, sleeping under the stars and singing by the campfire those wonderful throbbing melodies that will delight the audiences of Gypsy Moon. A romantic rumor couples his name with that of the well-known socialite Miss Nan Chasepool, daughter of the late Theodore Chasepool of Hill Street, Mayfair.
"Now, Sam," said Mrs. Wildgoose, "don't you go telling Sir Charles about what you've seen."
"Lor, look at Tiger," was her son's reply.
Tiger certainly looked remarkable, both familiar and unfamiliar. His hair was wilder than anyone at Sheddingfold had ever seen it, and there seemed to be a sort of light behind it that made it look like mist. Round his neck was a spotted handkerchief, and huge circular earrings hung from his ears.
"He's wearing his new suit," said Sam, "but I reckon it döan't look much, the way he's fixed hisself. Coo . . . look at his hair."
"Now, you heard what I said—not a word to Sir Charles."
"He's bound to know sooner or later. Not that I want to say nothing to him about it."
"One mercy is that it hasn't printed anything about Miss Paula—just given the father's name; and he's dead and can't feel the shame of it."
"I never knew as Tiger could sing," said Sam thoughtfully.
"Doesn't follow that he can. It mayn't be true, that bit—after all, it isn't true about him wandering around with the gypsies. He doesn't so much as drive out in his mother's cart."
"Then how's he going to delight the audiences like it says?"
"Oh, there'll be someone else singing the songs. They have a separate sound box, you know, for the noises." Mrs. Wildgoose spoke with the voice of superior knowledge: Her son was unimpressed. He sniggered.
"I see meself paying sixpence to watch ole Tiger pretending to sing on the pictures. Well, well, I mun go now and git my coat on. Sir Charles wants to be druv out with Mis' Hurland."
"Remember what I said, Sam—not a word to Sir Charles."
But it was true that Sam had no inclination to tell the Squire. The two people whose reactions he in common with many others was most anxious to witness were old Rumbeam and Gloria Crouch. No one knew much about the former—he had gone off to market at Uckfield, and Scrattage wasn't talking—but before the end of the morning it was generally reported that the latter had not been left to hear of her lover's dereliction from the daily press, but had received a letter from Tiger himself, in which he told her that their marriage was not feasible, because his life was henceforward to be devoted to his art.
"I reckon she was prepared for that by his going away," said Muddle the Rector's man.
"Taken away, you mean," said Coggin from Magreed. "Joe Coleman saw her car outside the Crown at Dollock Mill, and she scarce stopped for him to get in, they was off so fast."
That day the bar at the Lamb Inn was nearly full during the dinner hour, usually a quiet time, with one or two of the older men drowsing through the wireless news. Today the voice of the radio announcer rose through a babble of others very differently modulated—the only voice to which nobody listened.
"They say she created alarming when she heard he hadn't slept at home," said Tom Polder of the garage.
"Who's 'she'?" asked Muddle. "Gloria or Nan?"
"Döan't you git so free wud your names," scolded old Glatting. "You'd never dare call neither of 'em aught to her face but Miss."
"I mean Gloria Crouch, of course," said Polder. "Poor girl; he's treated her in a terrible awkward way."
"But I reckon she döan't mind so much now she's heard he's gone on the pictures," said Ted Smole of Hodshaves, "she's not the sort of girl as 'ud have anything to do wud picture people, nor her dad neither."
The views of the bar on a screen actor's career were not those of the world at large.
"And wot about his dad?" asked Coggin. "I'll lay he's in a präaper terrification about it all."
"I asked John Scrattage if he knew anything," said Muddle, "but he wouldn't answer me."
"Why's Tiger gone and called hisself Romany instead of Rumbeam?" asked Coggin.
"Maybe it was to spare the old man's feelings," said Arthur Wigsell, a simple youth who worked in Coleman's Stores.
"Not he," said Coggin scornfully. "Tiger 'ud never want to spare his dad; and I doubt if the old chap has any feelings to speak of."
"I reckon," said Muddle, "as he took the name of Romany because he thought it sounded better than Rumbeam, and I'm not sure as it doesn't."
"It means gypsy," said Tom Polder, "and I must say I'm surprised at Tiger calling hisself that way. If I was half a diddicoy I'd never call attention to it like that. Seems kind of shameless to me."
"And all that stuff about going around wud the pikeys."
"You'd think by wot the paper said that he was proud of it—if it was true, that is."
"Tiger's acted terrible," said old Glatting, "and I reckon Miss Gloria Crouch is well shut of him. I'm surprised at her ever taking up wud a chap lik Tiger. He's only done wot you might expect of him."
"Nan Chasepool's got him now," said Smole, "got him for good and all, simmingly."
"Maybe she thinks he'll make his fortune," said Coggin.
The whole bar laughed uproariously.
"He's more like to lose it," said Polder. "I doubt if the old chap 'ull leave him his money now he's been and gone and done a thing like that."
"I wonder who he'll leave it to," said Coggin, "if he döan't leave it to Tiger."
Speculations on the Rumbeam fortune were not confined to the bar of the Lamb Inn. Away in Redmile, at the top of the old house known as Loose Hall, Mr. Abel Finch sat and waited for what he expected to come. It did not come for a couple of days, but on the second afternoon the telephone bell rang and a wheezy voice asked for an appointment the next morning.
"Ten o'clock, Mr. Rumbeam? Yes, that'll suit me fine. Yes, yes . . . I'll have the will ready."
"It's what I thought," he said to his son. "He wants to alter his will."
"I wonder what he'll do with it."
"I don't suppose he knows. We'll talk it over, anyway. I've got some ideas," and he chuckled.
"Young Tiger 'ull be pretty mad when he wakes up and finds he's lost his dad's money."
"I don't suppose he cares. He's a queer chap—as all this goes to prove. But old Rumbeam mayn't mean to cut him out altogether—he may only want to tie things up a bit."
"I bet he hasn't made all that money to give Nan Chasepool her fling."
"I bet not." Abel Finch shook his head. "I feel sorry for the old chap. He's not everybody's meat, but I can't help liking him, and I can see what he's after. All this must have been a terrible shock to him, and I'm not surprised he wants to do something about it."
When, the next morning, his client came grunting and wheezing up the stairs, Mr. Finch felt a renewed access of sympathy. The old man looked tired and ill, and there was a dark suffusion about his cheeks and eyelids. Though panting for breath, he evidently felt cold, for he went straight to the fire which the lawyer, who loved heat and stuffiness, had lighted against the chills of an autumn day, and held out his grimy hands to it.
"Good morning, Mr. Rumbeam. Cold for the time of year, isn't it? However, we'll warm up in here when the sun comes round."
He had acquired the habit of making conversation during the first few moments of any interview, for his stairs had generally robbed even his more active clients of speech.
"I've got your will all ready. Want a codicil written, do you?"
Old Rumbeam spoke with difficulty:
"Haven't you heard? . . . about Tiger? . . ."
"Yes, I saw it in the paper. Bad business. I expected you to want to do something about it. Feel you'd like to tie up his money, I suppose."
Rumbeam shook his head. Once more, as he sat hunched in the office chair, with his big head swaying on his shoulders, he had the look of a grotesque china figure.
"I döan't want him never to have none of my money—not a penny of it."
"But isn't that . . . I mean it's punishing yourself as well as him, isn't it?"
He felt no call to defend Tiger and it did not really matter to him what the old man did with his money, but he—perhaps alone—had some idea of what Tiger's inheritance meant to him. No almshouse or dogs' home inscribed with his name and virtues would be quite the same extension of old Rumbeam beyond the grave. It seemed a cruelty that he should be robbed of this comfort by his son's treachery and the rapacity—for that was the motive Finch had decided on—of Nan Chasepool.
"You could tie the money up," he continued, "so that he couldn't give a penny of it to anyone you don't approve of."
But the big head shook on the slumped shoulders.
"I döan't want to tie it up. I döan't want him to have it. I'm shut of Tiger."
There was silence for a few moments in the little hot room, into which the sun was beginning to creep over the dip of the gable, to lay its finger on the dust.
Finch knocked his empty pipe against the grate and then proceeded to fill it.
"You've thought all this well over, I suppose."
"Surelye. Since it happened I've thought of näun else, and I see how all through he's mocked me and he's lied to me. I wur set on his mäaking a match wud Crouch's gal, and he acted as if he wur unaccountable mäade up wud her and wanted to please me. Now seemingly thur never wur nothing in it. He's bin and double-crossed me. He's lied to me and played a dirty game all räound. He döan't even seem to want my money."
Old Finch ruminatively stuffed his pipe.
"Have you heard from him since he went away?"
"Surelye. I had a letter the säum marnun that piece wur in the päaper. He töald me as he wurn't going to marry Gloria Crouch because he'd bestowed his affections elsewhere—that wur how he put it—and wur going to devote the rest of his life to his art . . . urrr-rr-ch," and old Rumbeam looked as if he might be sick.
Finch was silent, puffing hard at his pipe, from which a stinking, choking cloud now rose to hang in the sunshine.
"You must do as you please," he said.
"Reckon that's wot I'm doing. I tell you, I'm shut of Tiger. I'd never lie quiet in my grave if I thought any of my stuff wur in his hands."
"You mean to cut him off with a shilling, then?"
"Aye, that's it."
"Well, one comfort is that the Chasepool isn't likely to take him without the money. He'll be out of her claws, anyway."
"She's a dirty bitch," said old Rumbeam, with such a concentrated vehemence of hate and rage that, little as he expected him to like Miss Chasepool; Finch was startled.
"And so say all of us . . ." Then he added after a pause: "Well, Mr. Rumbeam, since you've decided to disinherit the boy, have you any idea who you'd like to have the money?"
The old man shook his head mournfully.
"That's the worst of it. There's only his mother and John Scrattage. His mother döan't care for money and wouldn't use it, and John—he's already had some off me and I reckon he wouldn't be sorry to have more, but I've no fancy for leaving my money away from my name. That money's me after I'm gone—it's Billy Rumbeam and it goes agäunst me to think of it as John Scrattage. I feel I'd sooner leave it all to build a monument."
"A monument? . . ."
"Surelye—wud my name on. Once or twice since it all happened I've thought the best I cud do 'ud be to put up a gurt fine monument of marble wud my name on it in gold—lik the monument I've heard tell there is in London, wud stairs inside."
Mr. Finch blinked on a luxurious vision of Sheddingfold's reactions to such a use of the Rumbeam fortune. But he was a practical man, and felt bound to suggest an alternative.
"Wouldn't it be better to build a home or something like that? I mean there might be difficulties about the monument . . . But if you built and endowed, say, a home for orphans—the Rumbeam Home for Orphans. How does that sound?"
"I döan't like orphans," said old Rumbeam simply.
"Well, then . . ." Finch hesitated. In spite of the emoluments it would bring his firm, he disliked the idea of an impersonal bequest. For most of his life he had been handling the private and rather shady affairs of human beings, and it would be a disappointment to him if this one, as private as any and shadier than most, were sublimated into a charitable corporation. He looked sharply at his client.
"Have you ever thought of legitimizing Scrattage?"
"I'm asking you—John Scrattage? Have you ever thought of legitimizing him under the recent act?"
Old Rumbeam stared, and the darkness on his cheeks and eyelids spread a little.
"Wot mäakes you—why should you—how do you know John Scrattage is my son?"
"We country lawyers know a lot of things, Mr. Rumbeam. But don't upset yourself—we also know how to keep a secret."
"Well, I'd never thought . . . I'd mäade sure that no one but our three selves knew that. Why, even Tiger döan't know it—so how can you know?"
But Abel Finch was not going to tell him.
"I've never said a word about it to you till now, but it seems to me that a good way out for you would be to legitimize John Scrattage and make him your heir."
"But how can I do that?"
"Quite easily. You go to the registrar of the parish where he was born, tell him the circumstances, and say that you want to legitimize the birth. It will cost you five shillings."
For some moments old Rumbeam stared at him, in silence.
"Why did I never hear none of this before?"
"The act has only just been passed, and it's only natural that a man like yourself, who doesn't perhaps read the newspapers very closely, shouldn't have heard about it. Certainly I'd never have mentioned the subject to you if it hadn't cropped up like this. But now the more I think of it the more it seems the best thing to do. You legitimize Scrattage—he becomes your eldest son and the obvious inheritor of your fortune."
"Do he täake my name?"
"Certainly. He'll have as good a right to it as Tiger."
"Um . . ." the old man hesitated. "Sims queer to me, considering his mother and I wurn't married when he wur born. Not that it wur any fault of ourn."
"That's just it. The law is made for a case like yours—young people prevented by their families from marrying when they ought to have done so. It's been Church law for centuries, and now the state has weighed in with it as a very practical reform."
Old Rumbeam again fell silent, but there was a gleam in his eye.
"I mun spik to his mother about it," he said after a while.
"Of course; but I don't suppose she'll have any objection—John always was her favorite son."
Rumbeam stared at him sharply, as if to ask: How did you know that? All he said was:
"It might come hard on her if it was known about John."
"No reason why it should. She could be out of the district before the will was made public, and anyway I expect she'd rather John had the money."
"Well, I'll ask her. I'd never do a thing lik that agäunst her, but I begin to reckon it's as you say—John better täake my name and have my money. I döan't say he's always acted right and präaper by me—" he scowled as memory disconcertingly presented him with at least one attempt at blackmail—two if you counted that letter of Nan Chasepool's, and he was increasingly of the opinion that you could count it—"I döan't say as he hasn't sometimes acted turble ordinary, but he's acted better than Tiger. And he's my eldest son. If the law says so, then I reckon it is so, and the Missus wöan't lose nothing by it no more'n I shall."
"It's likely too that John will take much more interest in your business than Tiger ever would have done."
"Surelye. I'd left John the rubbidge, but the building wur Tiger's, and Lord knows wot he'd have mäade of it."
"Not much, I should think. His interests, as we see now, are scarcely in that line. John's much more likely to do well—he may die worth even half as much again as you left him. He's a very thrifty man."
This could not be gainsaid and old Rumbeam began to look both happier and healthier than he had looked when he arrived.
"I mun spik to his mother," he repeated, but in his voice there was little doubt of the result of the interview.
"And now," said Mr. Finch, "I'd like a word with you about the Denniker Estate. I hear we're likely to have trouble with the council, but I've got one or two little notions that may help us . . ." and he pulled out a map.
As the day wore on, old Rumbeam felt better and better pleased with Mr. Finch's plan. By the time he was back at the Creakers it had become something more than a way out of his difficulties—it was a definite improvement on the original state of affairs. John Scrattage, in spite of certain drawbacks and limitations which were growing mistier in the spreading rose-glow of his father's hopes, was a better man than Tiger—one more likely to carry on the business of Rumbeam and Son in a manner pleasing to its founder. It is true that he would not be able to add to his fortune by a prosperous marriage, but he was far likelier than Tiger to increase it by the more humdrum means of hard work and economy, and far less likely—indeed most unlikely—to lose any of it in entanglements with socialites.
Rumbeam was helped in this change of heart by the fact that though up till now Tiger had been the favorite son, he had been the favorite only because he was the heir and not the heir because he was the favorite. Now that the old man's indignation and Mr. Finch's resource had supplanted him by John in his father's will, John automatically supplanted him in his father's heart. On his way home, he paused to beam on him. He could not tell or even hint at his secret till he had consulted his wife, but so high was the mounting tide of affection for his heir presumptive that he felt the urge even now to let some of it spill over.
"Well, John—how's the work going?"
He forgot that he had not spoken to John since the rather unpleasant affair of Nan Chasepool's letter. In his anger and grief over the younger son he had deliberately shunned his elder brother.
John, who had not forgotten, and suspected a trap, mumbled something that sounded like:
"I go as quick as I can."
"Well, Mus' Finch he thinks we needn't let that council have things all its own way. He's got ready some valiant stuff for Limbourne at the next meeting and I shouldn't wonder if we dudn't git the zoning raised after all. How's Neave gitting on?"
John would commit himself to no audible opinion of Neave.
"Well, I'm hoping to see a quick way out of all our troubles. And now I mun git höame, or your mother 'ull have gone to bed before I can have a word wud her."
Indeed he found Serena in the act of leaving the kitchen with the sun.
"Döan't go yit, Missus. I've summut to say—to ask you."
She paused reluctantly on the threshold and then came back and sat down at the table, smiling at him.
"You look happier, poor Billy."
"Yes, I'm happier. I've had a piece of news given me today that's mäade me happier."
"News about Tiger?"
"Aye, you can call it that, though it präaperly belongs to his brother John. Wot 'ud you say, Missus, to having an elder son, John Rumbeam?"
She shook her head, on which the hair was still black and sleek as jet.
"I don't understand."
"Well, I've bin to see Mus' Finch, and he says as it wöan't cost us more'n five shillun to have John Scrattage mäade my son-and-heir instead of Tiger. Seemingly thur's a law bin passed special for it . . ."
"To make John your son-and-heir?"
"No, no, woman—to put all natural sons on the right side of the blanket. Mus' Finch has mäade it clear . . . it's a law that's just bin passed to mäake all natural children lawful, whose parents have married sinst. You only go to the registry office and pay five shillun to have the birth altered. All I've got to do is to go to the registry office where John was born and pay five shillun, and John Scrattage becomes John Rumbeam and gits all my money."
"And that's made you happy?"
"Surelye. I'd never let Tiger have my money after the larmentable way he's acted, but I shouldn't die easy if it didn't go to a son who bears my name. Now I can leave it all to John—if you've no objection."
"Why should I have any objection?"
"Well, it'll have to come out as soon as I'm gone as John is our son, and folkses 'ull know he mun have bin born out of wedlock."
Serena shook her head with a faint smile.
"It was all very long ago."
"You döan't mind, then?"
"I don't mind."
"That's good of you, Missus."
Her smile deepened.
"I don't expect it will make any difference to me. I shall be traveling . . . But I can see that it is making you happy to think of it, so I'm pleased that you should do what you like best."
"But you're pleased too, äun't you, that John should be our lawful eldest son? He always wur your favorite, as I've long known."
"I loved him very much when he was a little baby."
"And many's the time you've told me that he should have more money. You've sat in that very chair terrifying me to give him five hunderd päound as well as the house and rubbidge. For all you say you döan't care about money, you've täaken uncommon care to git some out of me for John."
"I was sorry that Tiger should have so much and John so little. It didn't seem right, as he was the eldest son."
"But he wur born out of wedlock, as I've töald you a'dunnamany times. You never simmed to täake no account of that."
"Well, now you say the law doesn't either."
"Not now—but it did when John wur born." His satisfaction beamed out suddenly in his eyes and smile. "Furst time I've ever thought well of the law—thought it wur thur fur anything säave to mäake trouble. Thur mun be somebody in this country after all wot understands a father's heart."
Serena suddenly laughed.
"Wot you laughing at?"
"It seems funny to me."
"Do it? Well . . ." He felt huffed for a minute, but no longer. The law and his wife were both too good for any resentment.
"Well, I reckon one chap 'ull be pleased to hear all this, and that chap's John Scrattage. I'll call aräound and tell him about it when I've had my supper."
Serena's eyes, which till then had been laughing at him, filled with a sudden cloud of anxiety.
"I think I'd stay at home if I were you, Billy. You look tired. John can wait for his news till tomorrow."
"The news is too good to keep till tomorrow and I feel as good as the news. I own as I felt mortal tired an hour ago, but I feel valiant now. I'll pop around and tell 'un as soon as I've had my supper."
"I'd rather you didn't go."
He patted her shoulder.
"Now döan't you be a silly old woman, vrothering after me. I'll not sleep until I've töald John Scrattage he's going to be John Rumbeam. I'd have töald him already, but I wouldn't say ought till I'd seen you, Missus, and mäade sure as you didn't mind."
Her voice rose in shrillness.
"Why should I mind? What difference does it make to me what folk say about me after you're gone? When you're gone, Billy, my heart will be too sad and sorrowful to mind anything."
Her eyes swam with tears, and old Rumbeam again patted her shoulder, but more disapprovingly. He was shocked at this invasion by grief of what he had hitherto regarded as a matter of business only.
John Scrattage lived in a small, very old house set back in a field about half a mile from the Creakers. The lower story was of flint, the upper hung with tiles of so warm and glowing a red that it burned even through the starlight. The chimneys rose each side of it like pricking ears, and behind it the roof sloped nearly to the ground.
The upper windows were alight, which made old Rumbeam fear that John might already have gone to bed. But evidently only Mrs. Scrattage had retired upstairs, for the door opened a few inches in almost immediate answer to his knock.
"That you, John? I've come aräound to spik a word wud you."
John's welcome moved discouragingly from surprise to annoyance. He opened the door, however, another two inches, and old Rumbeam squeezed through into the kitchen. It was many months, in fact years, since he had been inside the Scrattage home, which did not look so very different from the Creakers. Mrs. Scrattage's way with a house was apparent in a spotless order from which, in her own residence, there was no escape even in the kitchen. Two highly polished chairs were precisely set on either side of the duck's nest grate, in which even the fire burned neatly and sent sedate reflections to dance in a shining row of dish covers on the wall. Supper had been cleared away and a small cloth with a lace edging spread diagonally over the well-scrubbed table. The floor was of brick, but John was in his stockinged feet all the same.
Old Rumbeam sat down uninvited on one of the chairs and wiped his forehead. He felt tired, in spite o£ the fact that he had come by car—tired, but still cheerful.
"Well, John, I reckon you're hem surprised to see me this time of night, but I've gotten some news that I wouldn't kip from you even so long as tomorrow marnun. John, you've heard all about your brother?"
"I reckon that wur a tur'ble business—nigh broke my heart. I couldn't spik a word to you about it, not till now . . . John, I misjudged you over that boy. I thought you wur miscalling him out of jealousy and trying to put me agäunst him. I see now as you wur right. He's bin crooked and low and ordinary all the time. You knew him better than I did."
John looked a little more amiable.
"I'm glad to hear you say it."
"Aye, I say it. I believe in being handsome. I say I've bin in the wrong and you've bin in the right over Tiger. I say you're a better son to me than he is. The question now is wot am I to do wud my money?"
"My money. I reckon I äun't going to let Tiger have none of it to spend on that Chasepool bitch."
"She's a sight too good for Tiger."
"Wot!" Though his opinion of Tiger was not high, old Rumbeam was amazed that such a point of view could exist. "John Scrattage, you mun have täaken leave of your senses. You know nothing about Nan Chasepool."
"Maybe I know as much about her as I did about Tiger."
"Döan't talk such stuff. Wot can you know about her, seeing as you've never spoken to her in your life. I have—I saw her up at the Squire's the other evenun, and I tell you she's näun but a miserable ordinary bitch wot should ought to be in prison for—" he pulled up. John must not hear the ignominious tale. "You're talking wot you döan't know nothing about," he finished on a more chastened note.
"I know enough to see as she's throwing herself away on an ordinary chap like Tiger."
Old Rumbeam's face darkened as anger squeezed his heart, but he made an effort and recovered himself. This was to be a friendly, even affectionate interview, and he was not going to spoil it and upset his blood pressure by quarreling over such a detail as the comparative "ordinariness" of Tiger and Nan.
"I wöan't täake no notice of you, John, for I know you're only arguring lik that to be contrary. I've cöame here prepared to be a kind father to you."
John gave him a look of the deepest suspicion.
"Aye, that's it," continued the old man, "for more'n forty year you've bin my son, but things wur fixed up so as I couldn't do much about it. I'm sorry, but you know how it all wur—I couldn't help it. Tiger was my lawful son born in lawful wedlock, so it wur only präaper as he should have my money."
"He cared nothing about you and your money neither."
"I know—it's all very larmentable."
"I wish you'd tell me," said John, "why you're so uncommon pleased."
"Pleased! Wot mäakes you think I'm pleased?"
"Everything about you. One 'ud think you'd lost sixpence and found a shilling."
"And so I have. That's just about wot I've done. I've lost my younger son, but I've found his elder brother."
"Oh, a—done do wud all that and tell me wot you want."
John's voice was almost shrill with annoyance and fear; for he was now convinced that by some undiscernible means the tables had been turned and old Rumbeam had come to blackmail him.
"I döan't want nothing," said his father irritably, "säave you to listen to wot I say. John, you're acting tedious old-fashioned. It's you who should ought to be pleased."
Old Rumbeam was again feeling angry. The interview was not going at all as he had expected . . . But he remembered that as yet he had given John no hint of the good tidings he had to tell. Earlier encounters might have made him distrustful, and apart from that his imagination could never be expected to hold such a golden hope as was now to be offered him.
"My boy"—had he ever called John that before? As he said the words he was struck by their incongruity; John with his lined face and pepper-and-salt quiff looked nearly as old as himself. Nevertheless he repeated proudly: "My boy, let's stop arguring and talk plain. I've come here to tell you that I mean to leave my fortune to you instead of Tiger."
"Wot, all of it!"
"All of it, säave the li'l bit I've left your mother."
Even now John did not look pleased.
"On what conditions?"
"On no conditions. I've lost Tiger, but as I've said before I've still got you, and you're my eldest son."
"I've been that from the start."
"Surelye; but as I wur telling you I couldn't do nothing about it because you wurn't born in wedlock."
"And wot's happened to change that?"
In spite of his growing exasperation with his legatee, old Rumbeam smiled. The question was rhetorical but the answer was practical and involved an explanation he enjoyed making. Every time he repeated it he felt the growth of a subconscious conviction that the Law, till now a perverse and resourceful enemy, had become and would henceforth remain a trusted and trusting friend.
"A gurt lot's happened," he began, "though I reckon it wurn't for you to know, no more than it wur fur me. But this marnun I went to see Mus' Finch about Tiger, and he töald me as there's bin a law passed to mäake all natural childern lawful if their parents has wed since. All I've got to do is to go to the registry office at the pläace whur you wur born and pay five shillun to have you mäade my lawful eldest son, John Rumbeam."
For a few moments there was complete silence. The fire flickered on with its prime dance on the dish covers, a grandfather clock ticked invisibly from a shadowed corner, a little wind piped under the door and babbled through a crack near the chimney. The room seemed full of a cheerful murmur, as if its inanimate contents congratulated its owner on his good fortune. But the owner himself sat wooden and silent on his chair, as if he were part of it—a kitchen centaur.
Old Rumbeam began to feel uneasy.
"Well, John—wot do you say to that?"
He had to repeat his question before the answer came.
"I say I'd sooner be found dead in a muddy ditch."
This time it was John who had to repeat what he had said.
"I say I'd sooner be found dead in a muddy ditch."
The words came at old Rumbeam like a blow. They seemed to knock the breath out of him, and his voice was the quavering voice of a very old man as he asked:
"Are—are—you telling me you döan't want my money?"
"Nat if it means dragging me out as your son."
There was another busy silence in the little room. The old man fought for calmness. It made him feel ill to feel as angry as he felt now. His heart was thumping and rattling like the engine of a broken car.
"But if your mother döan't mind . . ."
"That's naught to do with it. You haven't treated her the way you've treated me; and anyway she's got to bear the stink of you and I haven't."
"That's no way to spik to your father."
"Maybe not, but you've asked for it."
"You're mäaking me feel tur'ble awkward . . . you should ought to be more careful what you say to a man lik me, wud blood-pressers banging lik a smithy in the top of his head."
"I don't care nothing about your blood-pressers. You deserve to feel awkward, acting the way you do. First you say there's no conditions and then you say I'm to call myself John Rumbeam, as if that wurn't a shocking condition fur any decent man. If I wur called John Rumbeam all the world 'ud know I'm your son . . . and I'd be ashamed . . . I'd sooner live without a penny säave wot I earn than let it be known you're my father."
The tide of old Rumbeam's anger was surging in dark blood against his temples, as he tried to answer these incredible words. He spluttered, began an indignant protest that lost him his breath, an argument that disappeared in sudden blankness . . . then found himself repeating:
"Are you telling me you döan't want my money?"
"Nat at that price."
"You—you'll be sorry for this."
If at those words John saw a threat to his already secured inheritance, to the yard and buildings and junk heaps of the Creakers, he showed no sign of weakening. Rather it seemed that the lines on his long face grew more obstinate.
"I don't care what you say. You can do as you like with your own; though I can make things hard for you if you try to go back on what you've promised me. I've still got a tongue in my head, and I don't care what nobody knows about you as long as it ain't that you're my father."
Old Rumbeam's head was a roaring, banging smithy now, and his own voice seemed to burst into it like a shout from someone outside.
"You low-down, ordinary, miserable rascal."
John's voice came faintly through the noise of the smithy. He might have been speaking from a great way off.
"If you knew what folks say about you, you'd understand. Why, I'd sooner starve than be known around the place as your son. Many's the time I've pitied Tiger and hugged myself to think that whatever I was nobody knew nothing about it. I've got my pride, I tell you, and I don't care what the law can do for five shillings."
"John . . ." Old Rumbeam's voice came faintly too. He was beginning to feel very queer . . . The noise in his head had suddenly ceased. He could hear the clock ticking and the ticks were breaths an hour apart. Why couldn't he breathe properly? Why did so much of his life flow between every breath that after he had said good-by to Serena on that lonely road by Fraysland Wood, he was unable to breathe again till he had met her again at Lewes Market and taken her hand and heard her say after a long pause: "Billy . . .
He gasped, and then suddenly his life seemed to flow back into John Scrattage's kitchen as if poured out of space into a little cup; and he was sitting by the fire breathing faster than the clock and feeling angry and grieved and frightened.
"John," he began again, "you're acting out of spite."
"If I am, I've good cause for it. You've treated me rotten from before I was born, and now you come asking a favor . . ."
"A favor! . . . a favor to täake my money . . ."
"A favor to take your name with any money. Hullo! What's the matter?"
Old Rumbeam's face had changed, and his head fell sideways on his shoulder. Then, as if the additional weight had overbalanced him, he toppled out of his chair and lay in a shabby, dirty heap—like one of his own heaps of rags and rubbish—on the scoured bricks of Mrs. Scrattage's floor.
"Hi!" shouted John. "Hi! Missus!"
Old Rumbeam heard the shout and knew that a hand was fumbling with his collar . . . the room seemed full of footsteps and voices, but he did not know if minutes had passed or hours or days. He had stopped breathing, but that did not distress him because he knew that the clock was breathing for him. He could hear great, rattling, snoring breaths, drawing up all the air there was in the room and letting it out again. Then suddenly the breaths ceased. A great hand seemed to come down like a weight on his heart, and over the edge of death a beloved voice cried: "He's gone . . . oh, Billy . . . Billy. . . ."
The village of Sheddingfold was disappointed to find that there was to be no inquest on old Rumbeam. Apparently he had been under a doctor's care for some time and the doctor had expected the very thing that had happened, so no inquiry was needed. Another disappointment was the contents of his will, which left everything to his son Tiger, save for an annuity secured to his widow and a substantial bequest to "my faithful employee, John Scrattage." It was all very ordinary and uninteresting, except that Tiger's recent escapade should by rights have robbed him of his inheritance—speculation varied as to whether he owed his good luck to his father's obstinate affection or to the probability that there had not been enough time to alter the will.
The true history of the matter, the hopes and changes of the last three days of old Rumbeam's life, were locked up in two very safe chests. Mr. Finch and John Scrattage both attended the funeral and held their hats in front of their faces while Mr. Longslow committed the body of "our dear brother here departed" to the dust and ashes which had been its main interest and source of wealth for seventy squalid years . . . "in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord . . . who shall change our vile body, so that it may be like unto His glorious body . . ."
Mr. Longslow threw an uneasy glance at the small party at the graveside; but none of it seemed to have been struck by any sense of the incongruous, so after a pause he continued rather reluctantly:
"I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Write. From henceforth blessed are the dead which die in the Lord; Even so, saith the Spirit, for they rest from their labours."
The widow was not at the funeral. Rumor credited her with the mystery of a real and bitter grief; but it was not that only which kept her at home. While the others were away and the house stood empty it was necessary for her to do what her own beliefs and the customs of her race ordained. Clergymen and undertakers might send out her dear one on his last journey with nothing but a coffin and a shroud, but she knew that he would want a plate to eat off, a cup to drink from, clothes to wear, and a bed to sleep on when the strange new day was done.
So she made a bonfire in a distant corner of the yard, and heaped on it his bedding and his most presentable suit of clothes, with the ceremonially broken cup and platter and all the coins she had been able to find in his shabby old purse—for who knew what he might not have to pay for on the road he had taken? According to full rites, she should also have burned his car, as being his nearest approach to a caravan, but as that was impracticable she took comfort in the thought that it would never be driven by anybody else. Only its owner had been able to make it go and even Tom Polder had failed to drive it away from the Scrattages' door. It had been towed to its last resting place in Creakers yard, to make a notable addition to John Scrattage's treasury of junk, until its breaking-up should release it once more to carry its master on his new road.
By the time the funeral party had come back, the bonfire, smothered in dead leaves, did not look so very different from other autumn bonfires; and if a smell of charred rags hung over the place in spite of the burning leaves, that was too familiar a smell in Creakers yard to rouse any comment. Nor did the tidiness and stillness of the house attract attention, for Mrs. Scrattage was among those returning to it, as now to her own, and to the geometrically laid tea on the parlor table which had hitherto carried nothing but the weight of its own polish. It was only when they sat down to eat and drink and still Serena did not come, that it occurred to John to go and look in the shed where she kept her horse and cart. They were both gone, and though the party talked as if she was sure to come back in time to hear the reading of the will, she did not do so. With very little more than she had given her beloved to take on his last journey, she had set out, a gypsy breaking camp, on her secret, lonely way.
Neither of her sons was really sorry that she had gone. Not only had she brought grief to an occasion which did not seem to warrant it, but she had also, without a word, made each one separately and secretly feel guilty of his father's death. If Tiger had not run away to London with Nan Chasepool, the old man would be alive today, as he would be if John had consented to step into Tiger's shoes: Each son must feel responsible for his mother's sorrow without being able to share it, for neither in his heart could do anything but rejoice that old Rumbeam had not lived long enough to alter his will. Both in their different ways were very well pleased with their bequests. Tiger now had command of what seemed to him unlimited money—money that he would use to further the two darling objects of his heart, his success on the films and his courtship of Nan Chasepool—while John looked forward less ambitiously to many years of secure content, puttering among the rubbish heaps of Creakers yard, which by the judicious outlay of his thousand pounds should in due course become mountains.
Tiger's inheritance was naturally the one of most interest to Sheddingfold. What would he do with it?—Sell it or swell it by devious trading as his father had done? Sell it probably and spend the money on Nan Chasepool. He made one or two appearances in the district during the course of the next few weeks, driving round with Mr. Finch, visiting Shiprods Farm, Chant Stream, Quiddlewell, and other parts of his kingdom. He came for the day trip only, returning to London by the evening train (first class it was said) and looking unlike both the old Tiger and the Tiger of the picture papers. He wore a beautiful new suit that clipped his waist and made him seem tall and willowy, and his hair was sleeked down in shining ridges that made Sheddingfold's best perms look inadequate.
In course of time the news went through the countryside that the Rumbeam property was all to be sold. This caused a flutter on the District Council, for who would buy Shiprods Farm, the only part of it entirely "undeveloped"? A rather depressed-looking family from Machynlleth were already in occupation of Number Fifty on the Denniker Estate, enduring a series of misfortunes which the village contemplated with sadistic detachment; but neither John Scrattage nor Albert Neave had worked on the other numbers for a single day after old Rumbeam's death. Their unfinished walls rose from the meadow's green in much the same way as the ruins of more deserving houses in the district would rise after the aerial battles of the world war had been waged over their roofs.
If only the whole of Shiprods Farm could be sold to some prosperous farmer and the place restored—but for Number Fifty—to its original integrity . . . While the council, inspired by Canning, argued feverishly over the revolutionary idea of zoning the whole farm as agricultural land, Sir Charles Wakeham received a letter that surprised him very much.
It was from Messrs. Finch and Son of Redmile, and on behalf of Mr. Thomas Rumbeam of Luxuriant Mansions, Baker Street, it invited him to purchase the field known as the Denniker at ten pounds an acre.
"Canning, my dear boy . . . what does it mean?"
Tony shook his head as he studied the offer.
"I really don't know—but seeing who it comes from, I'm afraid there must be a string tied to it."
The phrase brought a memory—painful but now suddenly hopeful—into Sir Charles's thoughts.
"I wonder if my granddaughter has anything to do with it."
"You mean she may have influenced the young man?"
"I think it possible . . . I mean she's fond of me—I know she is, in spite of everything; and she may have wanted to make things up to me after . . ."
"Well, let's hope it's that. You can always investigate."
Investigations proved Sir Charles to be right. Not that Nan's hand in the business was ever declared, but the offer proved indeed to have no string tied to it. Tiger Rumbeam was definitely giving the Squire a chance to buy back his much injured property at something below local agricultural rates, and including the ruins in anticipation of Numbers Forty-nine to Forty-six but necessarily excluding Number Fifty, which must stand for as long as it would stand, which would not be for ever, as a monument to a very different sort of old man. A row of poplars planted just outside the garden fence would effectually screen it from the manor, even if it added to the difficulties of the owners by destroying their vegetable patch with its roots. It may appear surprising that Mr. Finch should have agreed to the transaction, but it must be remembered that he had the whole of the Rumbeam estate to dispose of in the interests of a young man who was far from inheriting his father's financial alertness, and no doubt made up to himself lavishly on the swings of Chant Stream, Quiddlewell, Stumblehole and other hopeful places what he had lost on this single roundabout of Shiprods Farm.
For ninety pounds old Sir Charles was to be able to look out of his study window and see nothing that need remind him that the good old days were gone.
Nan had had some difficulty in achieving her atonement, for Tiger had tried to make conditions—not because he really cared what happened to this single part of his richly complicated inheritance, but because he could not resist such a good opportunity of securing what he wanted more than anything but had not as yet even been promised. His romance had been archly hinted at in several of the cheaper newspapers, but there had been neither public announcement nor private commitment, and Nan was neither more nor less free with her favors than she had always been, allowing him considerable privileges but always giving him the impression that she would prefer a drink. So when she casually suggested that if he really loved her he would make her grandfather what would be virtually the present of a field worth several thousand pounds, he had retorted that if she really loved him she would not keep him hanging about any longer but would let him announce their approaching marriage in The Times.
"You see, it isn't as if it wasn't perfectly feasible. I've got ten pounds a week on the top of Dad's money. We could take a nice little house out somewhere by Denham or Uxbridge, and I could have my own car and run up to the studio every day. Or I could keep on the flat—or take a bigger one. Do you know, Nan darling, that when Finch has settled up all my affairs I shall be able to buy at least half Fitzmaurice Films?"
"If you're as rich as all that, you can easily afford to let Gaffer have the Denniker at cost price."
They were together in a secluded part of the Fitzmaurice Studios, far from the set where inferior performers in Gypsy Moon were rehearsing for the twentieth time a campfire scene which was afterwards cut out. A forest of baroque pillars soared around them—a bargain set acquired from a newly bankrupt film company and stored for future enterprises. At their feet, standing about nine inches high, was the main street of a village.
"It isn't so easy as all that. Old Finch will make bloody hell about it." Under the influence of the studio, Tiger's language was more nearly approaching that in common use.
"He can't stop you from doing what you like with what's yours."
"I don't know. There are one or two syndicates."
"Probably only your father and old Finch, and quite illegal if not actually criminal. You can easily put on the screw. I'm only asking for the one field—the bit which he can see and which upsets him every time he sees it. I don't suppose he minds so much about the rest, especially as now it isn't likely to be built on."
The baroque forest shook all round them as Tiger seized her in his arms.
"I'll do anything you like if only you'll promise to marry me."
"I've told you I'm not going to promise that."
"But you told your mother that you weren't going to promise not to marry me."
"I'm not promising anybody anything, one way or the other."
"But, Nan, all this uncertainty is bad for my art."
"On the contrary, my bright boy, there's nothing better for art than uncertainty. You're finished once you know all the answers."
"I only want one answer."
"Well, you've had it. I've told you before this that if in five years' time you're rich and famous, I may marry you if I haven't already married anyone else."
"You're being damned unfair."
"I mean, if I do this thing for you, you might do something for me."
Nan disengaged herself.
"So that's how it is, is it? And have I done nothing for you already? Tiger Romany, how did you get here? How much of all this would you ever have had if it hadn't been for me?"
"I'd have had my father's money and I guess it would have bought, the rest."
"I doubt it; and but for me your father would probably still be alive. And you'd have been married weeks ago to a fat girl with thick ankles. You'd never have got yourself out of that jam without me. On the top of everything else I've saved you from a life of misery with Gloria Crouch; so you needn't be so damned ungrateful."
"What's the good of my not marrying Gloria Crouch if I can't marry you?"
"We aren't the only two girls in the world."
"You are—for me . . . at least you are, if you take my meaning . . . I mean the only one . . ."
"You silly fool," said Nan affectionately.
Straddling Main Street, Tiger attempted once more to take her in his arms, but she pushed him off.
"No, don't start making passes at me again. If you're going to be mean with your money I'm going to be mean about something else."
"Oh, Nan, don't be so cruel."
"Don't be so mean."
"I'm not mean. Nobody could say I'm mean about money."
"You are if you can't go without a two hundred per cent profit on one little field. Let Gaffer have the Denniker at a price he can afford to pay, and you shall drive me down to Burford Bridge when you come off the set tonight."
Tiger tripped over the Anchor Inn and kicked the post office into the churchyard.
"Do you really mean that? My dearest, loveliest, sweetest little Nan . . . To hell with everything but you and me. Your grandfather can have his bloody field. . . ."
It had always been Sir Charles's custom to attend the first spring meeting of Redmile Races. He was not a racing man, but this first race of the year had been a social solemnity for as long as he could remember. When he was a boy his father and mother had taken house parties to it and his wife had kept up the tradition in its full splendor—with a wagonette and baskets of aspicked food and iced champagne. Since the war the festival had diminished; it had been impossible to entertain so many or so well. But Sir Charles had always gone to the spring meeting, taking a few friends and greeting others on the course. Almost alone in a gathering of tweeds and Homburgs, he wore a morning suit and gray top hat, but the wagonette had long ago sunk into the moraine of old Rumbeam's yard, while the aspic and champagne had degenerated into tongue sandwiches and lager beer.
In spite of these changes, Sir Charles still regarded the occasion as a treat. This year particularly he had looked forward to it, as by a happy chance it coincided with Ellis Hurland's return from America. She had been in the States for nearly six months and had promised to spend a few days at Sheddingfold on her way back to town. The rest of the house party consisted of no one more unexpected than his daughter and her family, but even they had a special significance this year, for it was Nan's first visit since her banishment, an unofficial acceptance of her unacknowledged contrition. Paula was also accompanied by Max her husband, a man his father-in-law saw very seldom but would have been content to see even less. There was only just room for the five of them with Wildgoose in the big slow Austin that drove them westward through an April shower.
By the time they reached the racecourse on the shoulder of Magreed Down the rain had ceased. Little feathers and wings of cloud drifted over a luminously clear blue sky, stroking the green of the hillside with gentle shadows. The watery clearness of it all spoke of more showers to come, and Sir Charles's umbrella must accompany his top hat into the enclosure. The rest of the company suggested a more recent attitude towards the weather with tweeds and mackintoshes.
The Cannings had already arrived, and Tony had news which he was anxious to impart, as it would add to the old man's enjoyment of his day.
"I've just heard from Morrison—the letter came by this morning's post. He says he's made inquiries and Notworthy's a genuine farmer—not a financier or a builder in disguise. Apparently he's done very well in the Chagford district."
"Then why is he coming here?" asked Sir Charles a little mournfully. "Nobody does well here. Except," he added courteously, "your wife."
"Apparently there's a number of reasons—Devon doesn't suit his wife's health and he's got a daughter married and come to live near Seaford. But what's chiefly got him, I understand, is his interest in Southdowns. He sees in Shiprods the makings of a first-class sheep farm."
"That's what it always was, of course," said Sir Charles eagerly. "The name means 'sheep clearing,' and some of the first sheep in this part of England must have been run on its land. When I was a boy old Glatting's father had it and kept a lovely flock, but when he died and Chantler took over he went in more for arable—and of course there's some first class arable land too."
"Let's hope that Notworthy will restore it to all its glory. I believe he's thought of very highly as a farmer in his present place."
Sir Charles sighed.
"It's a pity he's a stranger. Notworthy . . . that's a Devon name. I like to have the old Sussex names around me."
"Well, there's plenty of those still left."
"Yes, the folk in these parts seem to sink more than they go away. Look at the Wi]dgooses . . . What is it, Paula, my dear?"
"I only wanted to tell you that Ellis and I think we'll go and have a stroll round. There's nothing happening before the two-thirty."
Her husband, who was the sort of man who would know his way blindfold about any racecourse in England, had already wandered off; and the four women had been left to one another's rather uncongenial company.
"Let's go to the Tote," said Ellis. "I've had a tip from Wildgoose for the first race."
"I don't believe in Wildgoose's fancies," said Paula, "he let me down badly last year. But I was five pounds up all the same, thanks to a gypsy fortuneteller. I had a double on a horse she gave me and it came off."
"What luck. Do you think she'll be here again this year?"
"I expect so. We might go and have a look, anyway. There's always a sort of fair on the edge of the course, though it doesn't really get going till the races are over. This is the dullest meeting in England, but Father wouldn't miss it for worlds."
"It's nice to see something so typically English after six months in America."
"Yes, of course." She glanced at her friend as they strolled together over the turf. "But it's done you good being there. I can see that."
"Oh, it has . . . it's snapped me out of quite a lot of things. I shall probably go back again in the autumn."
"No—to New York. I was a month in New York this time, but I want to be there longer."
Paula gave her another glancing look.
"Meeting people?—going places?"
"Anyone in particular?"
Ellis did not answer, but something in her look made Paula say:
"My dear, what a mercy. It's the only cure."
"Oh . . . but I don't mean that." She hesitated before she said more. Paula had always been so different from herself in outlook and in the values she set on things. "I haven't met anyone—at least, not anyone in particular. It's only that for about the first time in my life I've got interested in something."
"You mean something apart from someone?"
"That's rather dull, isn't it?"
"I was afraid you'd think it was. That's why I didn't want to tell you why I'm hoping to get back over there. But I don't really see why I should hide things up like this. The fact is that when I was in New York I met some people who are running what they call Friendship Houses in the worst parts of the city. They've been started by a woman who used to be a Communist, but became a Catholic and opened these places as sort of guesthouses to the very poorest. No one is sent away and everyone is received as a guest and a friend. There's a lot of trades union stuff in it too—but it's the personal side of it that gets me at the moment. When I told you I was going places and meeting people, I meant that I was going down to the Bowery and meeting what the newspapers call the New York underworld."
"Well, I suppose you got a kick out of that."
"I certainly did. But that isn't why—" She broke off. She did not want to sound priggish. "It made me feel," she said rather awkwardly, "that I've always been such a selfish person."
"My dear, don't say such things. They're dispiriting. If you're selfish, what about me?"
"You aren't so bad as I am, because you've got Max and Nan to take it out of you. I've got nobody."
"That's a sad comment on both married and single life. But seriously, Ellis, don't get a bee in your bonnet about selfishness. You'd better marry again."
"Thanks; I'm not to be had a third time."
"You sound bitter."
"I am bitter—because I'm selfish. I'll get worse if I can't turn outwards to something outside myself; and that's what I've found in New York."
"It seems a long way to go to find it."
"You didn't think it too far to go to find a man."
"Well, there you are, darling. I daresay you're right and I only hope you'll be happy. Perhaps my gypsy will be able to give you a line on that as well as on the racing."
They were now on the fairground, which evidently did not expect its life to start till later. Shooting galleries, swings and merry-go-rounds were all in process of erection by shirt-sleeved men. Women were setting out stalls and at the same time attending to children and clotheslines in a background village of tents and caravans.
"Do you see your gypsy?" asked Ellis.
"Wait a moment while I look round . . . It doesn't matter if it's not the actual one. They're all pretty clever at this sort of thing."
A woman was standing between two carts and smiled at them as they drew near.
"Is that the one?" said Ellis in a low voice.
"So near that it makes no difference. They all look exactly alike to me."
"Good afternoon, lady," said the gypsy. "Would you like me to tell you what's going to win the first race?"
"Yes, very much," said Paula smiling. "I believe you tipped me a winner last year."
"I always tip winners, lady—I know nothing about anything else. And if you give me a shilling I'll read your hand as well and tell your fortune. You've got a lucky face."
Paula laughed and held out her hand.
"I'm glad to hear it. Do your best for me."
The gypsy who was tall and slim, might have been a young woman but for her skin which was covered with a web of small lines, and her eyes which were as old as Chanctonbury Ring across the valley. She held Paula's hand without looking at it and asked for the shilling. Paula gave it to her.
"If you put a shilling on Green Hat for the Selling Plate you'll win a pound. But remember, with you it's always third time lucky. I see the letter S and a lot of sorrow and care, but it's in the past or soon will be." Her eyes were on Paula's face, not so much looking at it as drawing something out of it. "There's someone you love giving you a lot of trouble. You've had money troubles, but there's money coming to you—from the country, though you'll spend it in the town. Most of your life will be passed in the town, but your luck all comes out of the country and it's coming soon. You understand men better than they understand you, you think more kindly than you speak. Your lucky color's green and your stone's a diamond. Thank you, lady."
"That's not much for a shilling."
"It's all of it true, lady," said the gypsy. "You've had your money's worth—especially if you put a bob on Green Hat as I told you."
"Well, we'll see. Ellis, it's your turn now . . . Hullo, Nan."
Nan had strolled up and was watching them with a smile of bored amusement.
"I had to escape from that woman. She was talking about sheep. Are you getting tips or having your fortunes told?"
"Both," said Ellis. She held out her hand to the gypsy with a shilling in it. "What have you got for me?"
"Hopscotch for the three-thirty. You've made some long journeys and I see you crossing the water many times. I see only one man in your life; there's the letter F and the letter B, both very close to you but not to each other. I see two children, but I don't think they're yours. Your happiness comes from far away and soon there's going to be a very great change in your life. I see unhappiness all round you, but it isn't yours. An elderly man is very fond of you. Your second thoughts are always best. Blue's your lucky color and your stone's a sapphire."
Ellis and Paula looked at each other.
"You've made some lucky guesses," said Paula to the gypsy.
"I expect she knows who you are and all about you," said Nan. "Now try me."
She thrust out her hand, the short, strong fingers with their crimson tips spreading in a freedom that was almost defiance. Serena Rumbeam looked at the hand and then into her eyes.
"Mad Queen for the last race. I see you working among big lights; it's night, but as bright as day—there are high buildings and a number of people. . ." She stopped and faltered. Perhaps she saw Nan Chasepool driving her A.F.S. Canteen too far into the front line when London burned on a December night. When she spoke again her voice had become the usual gypsy whine. "A dark man comes from abroad, but there's a fair one you like better. I see a stranger and a very pleasant trip. Letter C. You'll always have good health. Your color's yellow and your stone's a pearl."
"Not so good," said Nan, taking her hand away.
"She didn't seem to get you at all," said Ellis as they walked back towards Sir Charles and the Cannings.
"I thought she would, at the beginning, with her big lights . . . it might have been Fitzmaurice Studios. Then she fell off and gave me all the professional stuff. But she was quite smart about you, Ellis. She must know who you are."
"That isn't likely, considering how little I've ever been in these parts; and it's my first visit to Redmile Races."
"She was smart about me too," said Paula, "but not so smart."
"She's much more likely to know about you."
"I hope she knows about the horses," said Nan. "I shall have a double on Mad Queen. The rest will have to wait. In four or five years' time we'll know how right she was about that."