E-text prepared by Harry Graham Liston
"Tea is ready, Bernard," said Laura Clowes, coming in from the garden.
It was five o'clock on a June afternoon, but the hall was so dark that she had to grope her way. Wanhope was a large, old-fashioned manor-house, a plain brick front unbroken except in the middle, where its corniced roof was carried down by steps to an immense gateway of weathered stone, carved with the escutcheon of the family and their Motto: FORTIS ET FIDELIS. Wistarias rambled over both sides, wreathing the stone window-frames in their grape-like clusters of lilac bloom, and flagstones running from end to end, shallow, and so worn that a delicate growth of stonecrop fringed them, shelved down to a lawn.
Indoors in the great hall it was dark because floor and staircase and wall and ceiling were all lined with Spanish chestnut-wood, while the windows were full of Flemish glass in purple and sepia and blue. There was nothing to reflect a glint of light except a collection of weapons of all ages which occupied the wall behind a bare stone hearth; suits of inlaid armour, coats of chainmail as flexible as silk, assegais and blowpipes, Bornean parangs and Gurkha kukris, Abyssinian shotels with their double blades, Mexican knives in chert and chalcedony, damascened swords and automatic pistols, a Chinese bronze drum, a Persian mace of the date of Rustum, and an Austrian cavalry helmet marked with a bullet-hole and a stain.
Gradually, as her eyes grew used to the gloom Laura found her way to her husband's couch. She would have liked to kiss him, but dared not: the narrow mocking smile, habitual on his lips, showed no disposition to respond to advances. Dressed in an ordinary suit of Irish tweed, Bernard Clowes lay at full length in an easy attitude, his hands in his pockets and his legs decently extended as Barry, his male nurse, had left them twenty minutes ago: a big, powerful man, well over six feet in height, permanently bronze and darkly handsome, his immense shoulders still held back so flat that his coat fitted without a wrinkle—but a cripple since the war.
Laura Clowes too was tall and slightly sunburnt, but thin for her height, and rather plain except for her sweet eyes, her silky brown hair, and—rarer gift!—the vague elegance which was a prerogative of Selincourt women. She rarely wore expensive clothes, her maid Catherine made most of her indoor dresses, and yet she could still hold her own, as in old days, among women who shopped in the Rue de la Paix. This afternoon, in her silk muslin of the same shade as the trail of wistaria tucked in where the frills crossed over her breast, she might have gone astray out of the seventeenth century.
"Tea is in the parlour," said Mrs. Clowes. "Shall I wheel you round through the garden? It's a lovely day and the roses are in their perfection, I counted eighty blooms on the old Frau Karl. I should like you to see her."
"I shouldn't. But you can drag me into the parlour if you like," said Bernard Clowes—a grudging concession: more often than not he ate his food in the hall. His wife pushed his couch, which ran on cycle wheels and so lightly that a child could propel it, into her sitting-room and as near as she dared to the French windows that opened without step or ledge on the terrace flagstones and the verdure of the lawn. Out of doors, for some obscure reason, he refused to go, though the garden was sweet with the scent of clover and the gold sunlight was screened by the milky branches of a great acacia. Still he was in the fresh air, and Laura hastily busied herself with her flowered Dresden teacups, pretending unconsciousness because if she had shown the slightest satisfaction he would probably have demanded to be taken back. Her mild duplicity was of course mere make believe: the two understood each other only too well: but it was wiser to keep a veil drawn in case Bernard Clowes should suddenly return to his senses. For this reason Laura always spoke as if his choice of a coffined life were only a day or two old. Had he said—as he might say at any moment—"Laura, I should like to go for a drive," Laura would have been able without inconsistency to reply, "Yes, dear: what time shall I order the car?" as though they had been driving together every evening of their married life.
"What have you been doing today?" Clowes asked, sipping his tea and looking out of the window. He had shut himself up in his bedroom with a headache and his wife had not seen him since the night before.
"This morning I motored into Amesbury to change the library books and to enquire after Canon Bodington. I saw Mrs. Bodington and Phoebe and George—,"
"Their son in the Navy, don't you remember? The Sapphire is in dry dock—"
"How old is he?"
"Nineteen," said Mrs. Clowes.
"Oh. Go on."
"I don't remember doing anything else except get some stamps at the post office. Stay, now I come to think of it, I met Mr. Maturin, but I didn't speak to him. He only took off his hat to me, Bernard. He is seventy-four."
"Dull sort of morning you seem to have had," said Bernard Clowes.
"What did you do after lunch?"
"With a great want of intelligence, I strolled down to Wharton to see Yvonne, but she was out. They had all gone over to the big garden party at Temple Brading. I forgot about it—"
"Why weren't you asked?"
"I was asked but I didn't care to go. Now that I am no longer in my first youth these expensive crushes cease to amuse me." Bernard gave an incredulous sniff but said nothing. "On my way home I looked in at the vicarage to settle the day for the school treat. Isabel has made Jack Bendish promise to help with the cricket, and she seems to be under the impression that Yvonne will join in the games. I can hardly believe that anything will induce Yvonne to play Nuts and May, but if it is to be done that energetic child will do it. No, I didn't see Val or Mr. Stafford. Val was over at Red Springs and Mr. Stafford was preparing his sermon."
"Have you written any letters?"
"I wrote to father and sent him fifty pounds. It was out of my own allowance. He seems even harder up than usual. I'm afraid the latest system is not profitable."
"I should not think it would be, for Mr. Selincourt," replied Bernard Clowes politely. "Monte Carlo never does pay unless one's pretty sharp, and your father hasn't the brains of a flea. Was that the only letter you wrote?"
"Yes—will you have some more bread and butter?"
"And what letters did you get?" Clowes pursued his leisured catechism while he helped himself daintily to a fragile sandwich. This was all part of the daily routine, and Laura, if she felt any resentment, had long since grown out of showing it.
"One from Lucian. He's in Paris—"
"No one, so far as I know," Laura replied, not affecting to misunderstand his jibe. Lucian Selincourt was her only brother and very dear to her, but there was no denying that his career had its seamy side. He was not, like her father, a family skeleton—he had never been warned off the Turf: but he was rarely solitary and never out of debt. "Poor Lucian, he's hard up too. I wish I could send him fifty pounds, but if I did he'd send it back."
"What other letters did you have?"
Mrs. Clowes had had a sheaf of unimportant notes, which she was made to describe in detail, her husband listening in his hard patience. When they were exhausted Laura went on in a hesitating voice, "And there was one more that I want to consult you about. I know you'll say we can't have him, but I hardly liked to refuse on my own imitative, as he's your cousin, not mine. It was from Lawrence Hyde, offering to come here for a day or two."
"Lawrence Hyde? Why, I haven't seen or heard of him for years," Clowes raised his head with a gleam of interest. "I remember him well enough though. Good-looking chap, six foot two or three and as strong as a horse. Well-built chap, too. Women ran after him. I haven't seen him since we were in the trenches together."
"Yes, Bernard. Don't you recollect his going to see you in hospital?"
"So he did, by Jove! I'd forgotten that. He'd ten days' leave and he chucked one of them away to look me up. Not such a bad sort, old Lawrence."
"I liked him very much," said Laura quietly.
"Wants to come to us, does he? Why? Where does he write from?"
"Paris. It seems he ran across Lucian at Auteuil—"
"Let me see the letter."
Laura give it over. "Calls you Laura, does he?" Clowes read it aloud with a running commentary of his own. "H'm: pleasant relationship, cousins-in-law. . . 'Met Lucian . . . chat about old times'—is he a bird of Lucian's feather, I wonder? He wasn't keen on women in the old days, but people change a lot in ten years . . . 'Like to come and see us while he's in England . . . run over for the day'—bosh, he knows we should have to put him up for a couple of nights! . . . 'Sorry to hear such a bad account of Bernard'—Very kind of him, does he want a cheque? Hallo! 'Lucian says he is leading you a deuce of a life.' Upon my word!" He lowered the letter and burst out laughing—the first hearty laugh she had heard from him for many a long day. Laura, who had given him the letter in fear and trembling and only because she could not help herself, was exceedingly relieved and joined in merrily. But while she was laughing she had to wink a sudden moisture from her eyelashes: this glimpse of the natural self of the man she had married went to her heart. "Is it true?" he said, still with that friendly twinkle in his eyes. "Do I lead you the deuce of a life, poor old Laura?"
"I don't mind," said Laura, smiling back at him. She could have been more eloquent, but she dared not. Bernard's moods required delicate handling.
"He's a cool hand anyhow to write like that to a woman about her husband. But Lawrence always was a cool hand. I remember the turn-up we had in the Farringay woods when I was twelve and he was fourteen. He nearly murdered me. But I paid him out," said Bernard in a glow of pleasurable reminiscence. "He was too heavy for me. Old Andrew Hyde came and dragged him off. But I marked him: he was banished from his mother's drawingroom for a week—not that he minded that much . . . Aunt Helen was a pretty woman. Gertrude and I never could think why she married Uncle Andrew, but I believe they got on all right, though she was a big handsome woman—a Clowes all over—while old Andrew looked like any little scrub out of Houndsditch. Never can tell why people marry each other, can you?" Bernard was becoming philosophical. I suppose if you go to the bottom it's Nature that takes them by the scruff of the neck and gives them a gentle shove and says 'More babies, please.' She doesn't always bring it off though, witness you and me, my love.— But I say, Laura, I like the way you handed over that letter! Thought it would do me good, didn't you? Look here, I can't have my character taken away behind my back! You tell him to come and judge for himself."
"You'll get very tired of him, Berns," said Laura doubtfully. "You always say you get sick of people in twenty-four hours: and I can't take him entirely off your hands—you'll have to do your share of entertaining him. He's your cousin, not mine, and it'll be you he comes to see."
"I shan't see any more of him than I want to, my dear, on that you may depend," said Bernard with easy emphasis. "If he invites himself he'll have to put with what he can get. But I can stand a good deal of him. Regimental shop is always amusing, and Lawrence will know heaps of fellows I used to know, and tell me what's become of them all. Besides, I'm sick to death of the local gang and Lawrence will be a change. He's got more brains than Jack Bendish, and from the style of his letter he can't be so much like a curate as Val is." Val Stafford was agent for the Wanhope property. "Oh, by George!"
"What's the matter?"
Bernard threw back his head and grinned broadly with half shut eyes. "Ha, ha! by Gad, that's funny—that's very funny. Why, Val knows him!"
"Knows Lawrence? I never heard Val mention his name."
"No, my love, but one can't get Val to open his lips on that subject. Lawrence and I were in the same battalion. He was there when Val got his ribbon."
"Really? That will be nice for Val, meeting him again."
"Oh rather!" said Bernard Clowes. "On my word it's a shame and I've half a mind . . .. No, let him come: let him come and be damned to the pair of them! Straighten me out, will you?" He was liable like most paralytics to mechanical jerks and convulsions which drove him mad with impatience. Laura drew down the helplessly twitching knee, and ran one firm hand over him from thigh to ankle. Her touch had a mesmeric effect on his nerves when he could endure it, but nine times out of ten he struck it away. He did so now. "Go to the devil! How often have I told you not to paw me about? I wish you'd do as you're told. What do you call him Lawrence for?"
"I always did. But I'll call him Captain Hyde if you like—"
"'Mr.,' you mean: he's probably dropped the 'Captain.' He was only a 'temporary.'"
"For all that, he has stuck to his prefix," said Laura smiling. "Lucian chaffed him about it. But Lawrence was always rather a baby in some ways: clocked socks to match his ties, and astonishing adventures in jewellery, and so on. Oh yes, I knew him very well indeed when I was a girl. Mr. and Mrs. Hyde were among the last of the old set who kept up with us after father was turned out of his clubs. I've stayed at Farringay."
"You never told me that!"
"I never thought of telling you. Lawrence hasn't been near us since we came to Wanhope and I don't recollect your ever mentioning his name. You see I tell you now."
"How old were you when you stayed at Farringay?"
"Twenty-two. Lawrence and I are the same age."
"And you knew him well, did you?"
"We were great friends," said Mrs. Clowes, tossing a lump of sugar out of the window to a lame jackdaw. She had many such pensioners, alike in a community of misfortune. "And, yes, Berns, you're right, we flirted a little—only a little: wasn't it natural? It was only for fun, because we were both young and it was such heavenly weather—it was the Easter before war broke out. No, he didn't ask me to marry him! Nothing was farther from his mind."
"Did he kiss you?"
Laura slowly and smilingly shook her head. "Am I, Yvonne?"
"But you liked the fellow?"
"Oh yes, he was charming. A little too much one of a class, perhaps: there's a strong family likeness, isn't there, between Cambridge undergraduates? But he was more cultivated than a good many of his class. We used to go up the river together and read —what did one read in the spring of 1914? Masefield, I suppose, or was it Maeterlinck? Rupert Brooks came with the war. Imagine reading 'Pelleas et Melisande' in a Canadian canoe! It makes one want to be twenty-two again, so young and so delightfully serious." It was hard to run on while the glow faded out of Bernard's face and a cold gloom again came over it, but sad experience had taught Laura that at all costs, under whatever temptation, it was wiser to be frank. It would have been easier for the moment to paint the boy and girl friendship in neutral tints, but if its details came out later, trivial and innocent as they were, the economy of today would cost her dear tomorrow, Her own impression was that Clowes had never been jealous of her in his life. But the pretence of jealousy was one of his few diversions.
"I dare say you do wish you were twenty-two again," he said, delicately setting down his tea cup on the tray—all his movements, so far as he could control them, were delicate and fastidious. "I dare say you would like a chance to play your cards differently. Can't be done, my, girl, but what a good fellow I am to ask Lawrence to Wanhope, ain't I? No one can say I'm not an obliging husband. Lawrence isn't a jumping doll. He's six and thirty and as strong as a horse. You'll have no end of a good time knitting up your severed friendship .. 'Pon my word, I've a good mind to put him off. . I shouldn't care to fall foul of the King's Proctor."
"Will you have another cup of tea before I ring"
"No, thanks . . . Do I lead you the deuce of a life, Lally?"
"You do now and then," said his wife, smiling with pale lips.
"It isn't that I'm sensitive for myself, because I know you don't mean a word of it, but I rather hate it for your own sake. It isn't worthy of you, old boy. It's so—so ungentlemanly."
"So it is. But I do it because I'm bored. I am bored, you know. Desperately!" He stretched out his hand to her with such haggard, hunted eyes that Laura, reckless, threw herself down by him and kissed the heavy eyelids. Clowes put his arm round her neck, fondling her hair, and for a little while peace, the peace of perfect mutual tenderness, fell on this hard-driven pair. But soon, a great sigh bursting from his breast, Clowes pushed her away, his features settling back into their old harsh lines of savage pain and scorn.
"Get away! get up! do you want Parker to see you through the window? If there's a thing on earth I hate it's a dishevelled crying woman. Write to Lawrence. Say I shall be delighted to see him and that I hope he'll give us at least a week. Stop. Warn him that I shan't be able to see much of him because of my invalid habits, and that I shall depute you to entertain him. That ought to fetch him if he remembers you when you were twenty-two."
Laura was neither dishevelled nor in tears: perhaps such scenes were no novelty to her. She leant against the frame of the open window, looking out over the sunlit garden full of flowers, over the wide expanse of turf that sloped down to a wide, shallow river all sparkling in western light, and over airy fields on the other side of it to the roofs of the distant village strung out under a break of woody hill.
"Are you sure you want him? He used to have a hot temper when he was a young man, and you know, Berns, it would be tiresome if there were any open scandal."
"Scandal be hanged," said Bernard Clowes. "You do as you're told." His wife gave an almost imperceptible shrug of the shoulders as if to disclaim further responsibility. She was breathing rather hurriedly as if she had been running, and her neck was so white that the shadow of her sunlit wistaria threw a faint lilac stain on the warm, fine grain of her skin. And the haggard look returned to Bernard's eyes as he watched her, and with it a wistfulness, a weariness of desire, "hungry, and barren, and sharp as the sea." Laura never saw that hunger in his eyes. If he spared her nothing else he spared her that.
"You do as I tell you, old girl," his harsh voice had softened again. "There won't be any row. Honestly I'd like to have old Lawrence here for a bit, I'm not rotting now. He had almost four years of it—almost as long as I had. I'll guarantee it put a mark on him. It scarred us all. It'll amuse me to dine him and Val together, and make them talk shop, our own old shop, and see what the war's done for each of us: three retired veterans, that's what we shall be, putting our legs under the same mahogany: three old comrades in arms." He gave his strange, jarring laugh. "Wonder which of us is scarred deepest?"
WANHOPE and Castle Wharton—or, to give them their due order, Wharton and Wanhope, for Major Clowes' place would have gone inside the Castle three times over—were the only country houses in the Reverend James Stafford's parish. The village of Chilmark—a stone bridge, crossroads, a church with Norman tower and frondlike Renaissance tracery, and an irregular line of school, shops, and cottages strung out between the stream and chalky beech-crested hillside occupied one of those long, winding, sheltered crannies that mark the beds of watercourses along the folds of Salisbury Plain. Uplands rose steeply all along it except on the south, where it widened away into the flats of Dorsetshire. Wharton overlooked this expanse of hunting country: a formidable Norman keep, round which, by gradual accretion, a dwelling-place had grown up, a history of English architecture and English gardening written in stone and brick and grass and flowers. One sunny square there was, enclosed between arched hedges set upon pillars of carpenters' work, which still kept the design of old Verulam: and Yvonne of the Castle loved its little turrets and cages of singing birds, and its alleys paved with burnet, wild thyme, and watermints, which perfume the air most delightfully, not passed by as the rest, but being trodden upon and crushed.
Wanhope also, though modest by comparison, had a good deal of land attached to it, but the Clowes property lay north up the Plain, where they sowed the headlands with red wheat still as in the days of Justice Shallow. The shining Mere, a tributary of the Avon, came dancing down out of these hills: strange pastoral cliffs of chalk covered with fine sward, and worked by the hands of prehistoric man into bastions and ramparts that imitated in verdure the bold sweep of masonry.
Mr. Stafford was a man of sixty, white-haired and of sensitive, intelligent features. He was a High Churchman, but wore a felt wideawake in winter because when he bought it wideawakes were the fashion for High Churchmen. In the summer he usually roved about his parish without any hat at all, his white curls flying in the wind. He was of gentle birth, which tended to ease his intercourse with the Castle. He had a hundred a year of his own, and the living of Chilmark was worth 175 pounds net. So it may have been partly from necessity that he went about in clothes at which any respectable tramp would have turned his nose up: but idiosyncrasy alone can have inspired him to get the village tailor to line his short blue pilot jacket with pink flannelette. "It's very warm and comfortable, my dear," he said apologetically to his wife, who sat and gazed at him aghast, "so much more cosy than Italian cloth."
On that occasion Mrs. Stafford was too late to interfere, but as a rule she exercised a restraining influence, and while she lived the vicar was not allowed to go about with holes in his trousers. After her death Mr. Stafford mourned her sincerely and cherished her memory, but all the same he was glad to be able to wear his old boots. However, he had a cold bath every morning and kept his hands irreproachable, not from vanity but from an inbred instinct of personal care. Yvonne of the Castle, who spoke her mind as Yvonne's of the Castle commonly do, said that the fewer clothes Mr. Stafford wore the better she liked him, because he was always clean and they were not.
Mr. Stafford had three children; Val, late of the Dorchester Regiment, Rowsley an Artillery lieutenant two years younger, and Isabel the curate, a tall slip of a girl of nineteen. They were all beloved, but Val was the prop of the family and the pride of his father's heart. Invalided out of the Army after six weeks' fighting, with an honourable distinction and an irremediably shattered arm, he had been given the agency of the Wanhope property, and lived at home, where the greater part of his three hundred a year went to pay the family bills. Most of these were for what Mr. Stafford gave away, for the vicar had no idea of the value of money, and was equally generous with Val's income and his own.
Altogether Mr. Stafford was a contented and happy man, and his only worry was the thought, which crossed his mind now and then, that Chilmark for a young man of Val's age was dull, and that the Wanhope agency led nowhere. If Val had been an ambitious man! But Val was not ambitious, and Mr Stafford thanked heaven that this pattern son of his had never been infected by the vulgar modern craze for money making. His salary would not have kept him in luxury in a cottage of his own, but it was enough to make the vicarage a comfortable home for him; and, so long as he remained unmarried, what could he want more, after all, than the society of his own family and his kind country neighbours?
Rowsley, cheerfully making both ends meet in the Artillery on an allowance from his godmother, was off his father's hands. Isabel? Mr. Stafford did not trouble much about Isabel, who was only a little girl. She was a happy, healthy young thing, and Mr. Stafford was giving her a thoroughly good education. She would be able to earn her own living when he died, if she were not married, as every woman ought to be. (There was no one for Isabel to marry, but Mr. Stafford's principles rose superior to facts.) Meantime it was not as if she were running wild: that sweet woman Laura Clowes and the charming minx at the Castle between them could safely be left to form her manners and see after her clothes.
One summer afternoon Isabel was coming back from an afternoon's tennis at Wharton. Mrs. Clowes brought her in the Wanhope car as far as the Wanhope footpath, and would have sent her home, but Isabel declined, ostensibly because she wanted to stretch her legs, actually because she couldn't afford to tip the Wanhope chauffeur. So she tumbled out of the car and walked away at a great rate, waving Laura farewell with her tennis racquet. Isabel was a tall girl of nineteen, but she still plaited her hair in a pigtail which swung, thick and dark and glossy, well below her waist. She wore a holland blouse and skirt, a sailor hat trimmed with a band of Rowsley's ribbon, brown cotton stockings, and brown sandshoes bought for 5/11-3/4 of Chapman, the leading draper in Chilmark High Street. Isabel made her own clothes and made them badly. Her skirt was short in front and narrow below the waist, and her sailor blouse was comfortably but inelegantly loose round the armholes. Laura Clowes, who had a French instinct of dress, and would have clad Isabel as Guinevere clad Enid, if Isabel had not been prouder than Enid, looked after her with a smile and a sigh: it was a grief to her to see her young friend so shabby, but, bless the child! how little she cared—and how little it signified after all! Isabel's poverty sat as light on her spirits as the sailor hat, never straight, sat on her upflung head.
Isabel knew every one in Chilmark parish. Pausing before a knot of boys playing marbles: "Herbert," she said sternly, "why weren't you at school on Sunday?" Old Hewett, propped like a wheezy mummy against the oak tree that shaded the Prince of Wales's Feathers, brought up his stiff arm slowly in a salute to the vicar's daughter. "'Evening," said Isabel cheerfully, "what a night for rheumatics isn't it?" Hewitt chuckled mightily at this subtle joke. "'Evening, Isabel," called out Dr. Verney, putting up one finger to his cap: he considered one finger enough for a young lady whom he had brought into the world. Isabel knew every one in Chilmark and every one knew her. Such a range of intensive acquaintance is not so narrow as people who have never lived in a country village are apt to suppose.
Past the schoolhouse, past the wide stone bridge where Isabel loved to hang over the parapet watching for trout—but not tonight, for it was late, and Isabel after a "company tea" wanted her supper: by a footpath through the churchyard, closely mown and planted with rosebushes: and so into the church, where, after dropping a hurried professional curtsey to the altar, she set about her evening duties. Isabel called herself the curate, but she did a good deal which is not expected of a curate, such as shutting windows and changing lesson-markers, propping up the trebles when they went astray in the pointing of the Psalms, altering the numbers on the hymn-board, writing out choir papers, putting flowers in the vases and candles in the benediction lights, playing the organ as required and occasionally blowing it. . . . Before leaving the church she fell on her knees, in deference to Mr. Stafford and the text by the door, and said a prayer. What did she pray? "O Lord bless this church and all who worship in it and make father preach a good sermon next Sunday. I wish I'd been playing with Val instead of Jack, we should have won that last set if Jack hadn't muffed his services. . . . Well, this curate was only nineteen."
And then, coming out into the fading light, she locked the north door behind her and went off whistling like a blackbird, if a blackbird could whistle the alto of Calkin's Magnificat in B flat. . . . Five minutes climbing of the steep brown floor of the beechwood, and she was out on uplands in the dying fires of day. It had been twilight in the valley, but here the wide plain was sunlit and the air was fresh and dry: in the valley even the river-aspens were almost quiet, but here there was still a sough of wind coming and going, through the dry grass thick set with lemon thyme and lady's slipper, or along the low garden wall where red valerian sprouted out of yellow stonecrop.
A wishing gate led into the garden, and Isabel made for an open window, but halfway over the sill she paused, gazing with all her soul in her eyes across the vicarage gooseberry bushes. That grey suit was Val's of course, but who was inside the belted coat and riding breeches? "Rows-lee!" sang out Isabel, tumbling back into the garden with a generous display of leg. The raiders rose up each holding a handful of large red strawberries melting ripe, and Isabel, pitching in her racquet on a sofa, ran across the grass and enfolded her brother in her arms. Rowsley, dark and slight and shrewd, returned her hug with one arm, while carefully guarding his strawberries with the other—"You pig, you perfect pig!" wailed Isabel. "I was saving them for tea tomorrow, Laura's coming and I can't afford a cake. Oh joy, you can buy me one! How long can you stay?"
"Over the week end: but I didn't come to buy you cakes, Baby. I haven't any money either. I came because I wanted you to buy me cakes."
"O well never mind, I'll make one," Isabel joyously slipped her hand through Rowsley's arm. "Then I can get the flour from the baker and it won't cost anything at all—it'll go down in the bill. Well give me one anyhow, now they're picked it would be a pity to waste them." She helped herself liberally out of Val's hand. "Now stop both of you, you can't have any more."
She linked her other arm in Val's and dragged her brothers out of the dangerous proximity of the strawberry beds. Val sat down on a deck chair, one leg thrown over the other, Rowsley dropped at full length on the turf, and Isabel doubled herself up between them, her arms clasped round her knees. "How's the Old Man?" she asked in friendly reference to Rowsley's commanding officer. "Oh Rose, I knew there was something I wanted to ask you. Will Spillsby be able to play on the Fourth?" Spillsby, a brother subaltern and a famous bat, had twisted his ankle at the nets, and Rowsley in his last letter had been uncertain whether he would be well enough to play the Sappers at the annual fixture.
Happily Rowsley was able to reassure his young sister: the ankle was much better and Spillsby was already allowed to walk on it. Isabel then turned her large velvet eyes—gazelle eyes with a world of pathos in their velvet gloom on her elder brother. "Coruscate, Val," she commanded. "You haven't said anything at all yet. We should all try to be bright in the home circle. We cannot all be witty, but-Ow! Rowsley, if you pull my hair I shall hit you in the—in the place where the Gauls fined their soldiers if they stuck out on parade. Oh, Val, that really isn't vulgar, I found it in Matthew Arnold! Their stomachs, you know. They wouldn't have fined you anyhow. You look fagged, darling— are you?"
"Not so much fagged as hungry," said Val in his soft voice. "It's getting on for nine o'clock and I was done out of my tea. I went in to Wanhope, but Laura was out, and Clowes was drinking whisky and soda. I cannot stand whisky at four in the afternoon, and Irish whisky at that. There'll be some supper going before long, won't there?"
"Not until half past nine because Jimmy has his Bible class tonight." Jimmy was Mr. Stafford: and perhaps a purist might have objected that Mrs. Clowes and Yvonne Bendish had not done all they might have done to form Isabel's manners. "I'm so sorry, darling," she continued, preparing to leap to her feet. "Shall I get you a biscuit? There are oatmeals in the sideboard, the kind you like, I won't be a minute—"
"Thanks very much, I'd rather wait. Did you see Mrs. Clowes today? Clowes said she was at the Castle."
"So she was, sitting with Mrs. Morley in an angelic striped cotton. Mrs. Morley was in mauve ninon and a Gainsborough hat. Yvonne says Mr. Morley is a Jew and made his money in I. D. B.'s, which I suppose are some sort of stocks?" Neither of her brothers offered to enlighten her, Rowsley because he was feeling indolent, Val because he never said an unkind word to any one. Isabel, who was enamoured of her own voice flowed on with little delay: "If he really is a Jew, I can't think how she could marry him; I wouldn't. Mrs. Morley can't be very happy or Laura wouldn't go and talk to her. Laura is so sweet, she always sits with people that other people run away from. Oh Val, did Major Clowes tell you their news?" Isabel might refer to her father as Jimmy and to Rowsley's commander as the Old Man, but she rarely failed to give Bernard Clowes his correct prefix.
"No—is there any?"
"Only that they have some one coming to stay with them. Won't he have a deadly time?" Isabel glanced from Val to Rowsley in the certainty of a common response. "Imagine staying at Wanhope! However, he invited himself, so it's at his own risk. Perhaps he's embarrassed like you, Rose, and wants Laura to feed him. It's rather fun for Laura, though—that is, it will be, if Major Clowes isn't too hopeless."
Strange freemasonry of the generations! Mr. Stafford's children loved him dearly and he was wont to say that there were no secrets at the vicarage, yet they lived in a conspiracy of silence, and even Val, who was mentally nearer to his father's age, would have been loth to let Mr. Stafford know as much as Isabel knew about Wanhope. It was assumed that Val's job was the very job Val wanted. Mr. Stafford had indeed a suspicion that it was not all plain sailing: Bernard Clowes retained just so much of the decently bred man as to be courteous to his wife before a mere acquaintance, but the vicar came and went at odd hours, and he observed now and then vague intimations—undertones from Bernard himself, an uncontrollable shrinking on Laura's part, an occasional hesitation or reluctance in Val—which hinted at flying storms. But Val, the father supposed, could make allowance for a cripple: Bernard was so much to be pitied that no man would resent an occasional burst of temper! And there his children left him. The younger generation can trust one another not to interfere, but when the seniors strike in, with their cut and dry precedents and rule of thumb moralities, who knows what mischief may follow? Elder people are so indiscreet!
"It's a cousin of Major Clowes," Isabel continued, "but they haven't met for years and years—not since the war. Laura knows him too, she met him before she was married and liked him very much indeed. She's looking forward to it—that is, she would be if she had spirit enough to look forward to anything."
"Clowes never said a word to me about it," remarked Val.
"Didn't he?" Isabel unfolded herself and stood up. "That means he is going to be tiresome. I must run now, it's five past nine. Which will you both have, cold beef or eggs?"
"Oh, anything that's going," said Val.
"Eggs," said Rowsley, "not less than four. Without prejudice to the cold beef if it's underdone. Hallo!"
"What's the matter with your skirt?"
"Nothing," said Isabel shortly. She screwed her head over her shoulder in a vain endeavour to see her own back. "It's perfectly all right."
"It would be, on a scarecrow." Isabel stuck her chin up. "Have you been over to the Castle in that kit, Baby? Well, if Yvonne won't give you some of her old clothes, you might ask the kitchenmaid."
"The kitchenmaid has more money than I have," said Isabel cheerfully. "Is it so very bad? It's clean anyway, I washed and ironed it myself."
"It looks very nice and so do you," said Val. Isabel eyed him with a softened glance: one could rely on Val to salve one's wounded vanity, but, alas! Val did not know home-made from tailor-made. Reluctantly she owned to herself that she had more faith in Rowsley's judgment. "It seems rather short though," Val added. "I suppose you will have to go into long frocks pretty soon, won't you, and put your hair up?"
"Oh bother my hair and my dresses!" said Isabel with a great sigh. "I will pin my hair up when I get some new clothes, but how can I when I haven't any money and Jim hasn't any money and neither of you have any money? Don't you see, idiot," this was exclusively to Rowsley, "when I pin my hair up I shall turn into a grown up lady? And then I shall have to wear proper clothes. At present I'm only a little girl and it doesn't signify what I wear. If any one will give me five pounds I'll pin my hair up like a shot. Oh dear, I wonder what Yvonne would say if Jack expected her to outfit herself for five pounds? I do wish some one would leave me 10,000 pounds a year. Get up now, you lazy beggar, come and help me lay the supper. It's Fanny's evening out."
She pulled Rowsley to his feet and they went off together leaving Val alone on the lawn: good comrades those two, and apparently more of an age, in spite of the long gap between them, than Rowsley and Val, who was the eldest by only eighteen months. And Val sat on alone, while stains of coral and amber faded out of the lavender sky, and a rack of sea clouds, which half an hour ago had shone like fiery ripples, dwindled away into smoke—mist —a mere shadow on the breast of the night. Stars began to sparkle, moths and humming cockchafers sailed by him, a chase of bats overhead endlessly fell down airy precipices and rose in long loops of darkling flight: honeysuckle and night-scented stock tinged with their sweet garden perfume the cool airs from the moor.
Val lit a cigarette, a rare indulgence. If cigarettes grew on gooseberry bushes Val would have been an inveterate smoker, but good Egyptians were a luxury which he could not often afford The Wanhope agency was ample for his needs, though underpaid as agencies go: but there was Rowsley, always hard up, uncomplaining, but sensitive, as a young fellow in his position is sure to be, and secretly fretting because he could not do as other men did: and there was Isabel, for whom Val felt the anxiety Mr. Stafford ought to have felt, and was trying to make the provision Mr. Stafford ought to have made: and then there was the vicar himself, who laid out a great deal of money in those investments for which we are promised cent per cent interest, but upon a system of deferred payment.
Tonight however Val lit a cigarette, and then a second, to the surprise of Isabel, who saw the red spark on the lawn. She thought her brother must be tired, and perhaps it really was the long day without food that made him so restless in mind and so uneasy. Bernard Clowes had been more than usually cranky that afternoon. Even the patient Val had had thoughts of throwing up his job when the cripple made him go through his week's accounts, scrutinizing every entry and cross-examining him on every transaction in such a tone as the head of a firm might employ to a junior clerk suspected of dishonesty. It was Bernard's way: it meant nothing: but it was irksome to Val, especially when he could not soothe himself by dropping into Laura's quiet parlour for a cup of tea. Yet his irritation would not have lingered through a cigarette if Isabel's news had not revived it. This cousin of Bernard's! Val had not much faith in any cousin of Bernard Clowes: nor in the kindness of life.
Val was a slight, fair, pleasant-looking man of eight or nine and twenty, quiet of movement, friendly-mannered and as inconspicuous as his own rather worn grey tweeds: one of a class, till he raised his eyes: and then? There was something strange in Val's eyes when they were fully raised, an indrawn arresting brilliance difficult to analyse: imaginative and sympathetic, as if he were at home in dark places: the quality of acceptance of pain.
Adepts in old days knew by his eyes a man who had been on the rack. Stafford had been racked: and by the pain that is half shame, the keenest, the most lacerating and destructive of wounds. He had suffered till he could suffer no more, and tonight in the starlit garden he, suffered still, without hope, or rebellion, or defence.
Indoors Rowsley and Isabel, with the rapidity of long use, laid the cloth, and Isabel fetched cold beef from the larder and butter and eggs from the dairy, while Rowsley went down the cellar with a jug and a candle and drew from the cask a generous allowance of beer. "Come along in, old Val," said Isabel, reappearing at the open window, "You and Rose are both famishing and I'm not," this was a pious fiction, "so you can begin and I'll wait for Jimmy. I dare say he's gone wandering off somewhere and won't be in till ten."
Val came across the dark, cool lawn and climbed over the window sill. A shabby room, large and low: a faded paper, grey toning to blue: a carpet of faded roses on a grey ground: the shaded Dresden lamp and roselit supper table shining like an island in a pool of shadow, and those two beloved heads, both so dark and smooth and young, tam cara capita! Neither of them suspected that Val was unhappy. His feeling for them was more fatherly than fraternal, and Rowsley, strange to say, fell in with Val's attitude, coming to his brother for money as naturally as most young men go to their parents. Val sat at the head of the table because Mr. Stafford could not carve. "There!" said Isabel, giving him his plate. "Mustard? I've just made it so you needn't look to see if it's fresh. Watercress: I picked it myself. Lettuce. Cream and vinegar and sugar. Beer. Now do you feel happy? Lord love you, dear, I like to see you eat."
She sat on the arm of Mr. Stafford's mahogany chair. "What time do you want breakfast? Seven o'clock? Major Clowes wouldn't come down at seven if he were your agent. Can you get back to tea tomorrow? Laura may bring the cousin up to tea with her and she wants him to meet you."
"Very good of her. Why?"
"Oh, because he was in the Army too and all through the war. He went out with the first hundred thousand. He's much older than you are—the same age as Laura. Oh, wait a minute!" exclaimed Isabel in the tone in which a Frenchwoman says Tenez. I forgot. She thinks you must have met him, Val."
"Possibly," said Val.
"Was he in the Dorchesters?" asked Rowsley—much more interested than his brother, no doubt because he was not so hungry as Val, who was giving all his attention to his supper.
"No, in the Winchesters," said Isabel. "Do I mean the Winchesters, Val? What was Major Clowes' old regiment?"
"Clowes was in the Wintons."
Isabel nodded. "Then so was the cousin. And Laura says he was out there when the Wintons were in the next bit of trench north of the Dorchesters. He was there when—when you were wounded." Such was Val Stafford's modesty that in the family circle it was not in etiquette to refer in other terms to that famous occasion.
"I don't remember any fellow named Clowes and I never knew Bernard Clowes had a cousin out there," said Val, mixing himself a salad.
"Oh, his name isn't Clowes. It's Ryde or Pride or something like that. I'm sorry to be so vague, but Jack Bendish and Yvonne and Mrs. Morley were all talking at once. Lawrence Pied—Fried—"
"Yes, that's it! Then you really do remember him?"
"Er—yes. Is that lamp smoking, Rowsley? You might turn it down a trifle, I can't reach."
"Let me, let me?— What was he like?"
"Who—Hyde? Oh," said Val vaguely, "he was like the rest of us —very tired."
"Tired?" echoed Isabel with a blank face, "but, Val darling, he couldn't have been only tired! What should you think he was like when he wasn't tired?"
"That is a question I have occasionally asked myself," Val answered with his faint indecipherable smile. "My dear child, I only saw him once or twice. He was a senior captain and commanded his company. I was a very junior lieutenant."
"Still he was there at the time," reflected Isabel. "O Rose! if he's anything like nice, which is almost past praying for in Major Clowes' cousin, let's beguile him into the gooseberry bushes and make him tell us all about it! Val is very dear to his family, but no one, however tenderly attached to him, could call him a brilliant raconteur. Now Mr. Hyde won't have any modest scruples. Val, if there is a slug in that lettuce I wish you would say so. It would hurt my feelings less than for you to sit looking at it in a stony silence. Was he good-looking?"
"Possibly he might be," said Val, "when he scraped the dirt off." After a moment he added, "He was very decent to me."
"Was he? Then he was nice?"
"Gnat," said Rowsley from the middle of his third egg. Isabel rounded him indignantly.
"I'm not gnatting! I'm not asking Val anything about himself, am I? Val can't possibly mind telling me about another man in another regiment. You eat your eggs, there's a good boy, before they get cold.— Laura says the Dorchesters dined the Winchesters once when they were in billets. Was that when you and Mr. Hyde were there?"
"Captain Hyde," Val corrected his young sister. "Yes, we both graced the festive board. It was too festive for me. We had Buszard's soup and curried chicken and real cream, and more champagne than was good for us. But it was not on that occasion that Hyde was so decent to me. The day I—the day Dale went down—" Rowsley nodded to him as he raised his glass of beer to his lips—"thank you, Rose.— As I was saying, that evening I ran across Hyde between the lines. The Dorsets and Wintons had gone over the top together, and he had been left behind with a bullet in his chest. I was done to the world, but he had some brandy left and shared it with me. If it had not been for Hyde I should never have brought Dale in."
"Well, I've never heard that before," said Rowsley to his fourth egg.
Isabel was silent, and her eyes in the shadow of a momentary gravity were the eyes of a woman and not of a child. She raised them to look out at the evening sky, indigo blue against the lamplit interior, or faintly primrose in the west, and wondered for the thousandth time why it was still such an effort to Val to refer to his brief military experience. Soft country noises came in, peaceful and soothing: the short shrill shriek of a bat, the rustle of a branch of rose-leaves moving like a hand over the window panes, a faint breathing of wind from the moor. Surely the scar of war ought to be healed by now! Isabel kept these thoughts to herself: young as she was, her solitary life—for a woman alone among men is always to some extent solitary—had trained her to a clear perception of what had better not be said.
"When is Hyde coming?" asked Val, going on with his salad.
"Tomorrow, didn't you hear me say Laura is going to bring him here to tea? He's staying at his own place, Farringay—I think from the way Laura spoke it is what one calls a place—and they expect him by the morning train. Laura's to meet him in the car."
"Did you ask her to bring him in to tea," said Rowsley, frowning over the marmalade jar, "when Val is safe to be out and you didn't know I should be here?"
"Yes: oughtn't I to have?"
"Is there anything else you would like to speak to me about?" said Isabel after a pregnant silence. "Dear Rowsley, you seem determined to look after my manners and morals! I asked him to please Laura. She's nervous of Major Clowes. Jack and Yvonne are coming too."
"Oh I don't see that it signifies," said Val. Mrs. Clowes wouldn't have accepted if it weren't all right. I don't see that you or I need worry if she doesn't. Isabel is old enough to pour out tea for herself. In any case, as it happens, you'll be here if I'm not, and I dare say Jimmy will look in for ten minutes."
"You are sweet, Val," said Isabel gratefully.
"Oh I don't say Rowsley's not right! Prigs generally are: and besides now I come to think of it, Laura did look faintly amused when I asked her. But these stupid things never occur to me till afterwards! After all, what am I to do? I can't manufacture a chaperon, and it would be very bad for the parish if the vicar never entertained. And it's not as if Captain Hyde were a young man; he's thirty-six if he's a day."
When the sea retreats after a storm one finds on the beach all sorts of strange flotsam. Bernard Clowes was a bit of human wreckage left on the sands of society by the storm of the war. When it broke out he was a second lieutenant in the Winchester Regiment, a keen polo player and first class batsman who rarely opened a book. He was sent out with the First Division and carried himself with his usual phlegmatic good humour through almost four years of fighting from Mons to Cambrai.
In the March break-through he had his wrist broken by a rifle-bullet and was invalided home, where he took advantage of his leave to get married, partly because most of the men he knew were already married, and partly to please his sister. There were no other brothers, and Mrs. Morrison, a practical lady, but always a little regretful of her own marriage with Morrison's Boot and Shoe Company, recommended him with the family bluntness to arrange for an olive branch before the Huns got him.
Laura, a penniless woman two years his senior and handicapped by her disreputable belongings, was not the wife Gertrude Morrison would have chosen for him: still it might have been worse, for Laura was well-born and personally irreproachable, while Clowes, hot-blooded and casual, was as likely as not to have married a chorus-girl. If any disappointment lingered, Gertrude soothed it by trying over in her own mind the irritation that she would be able to produce in Morrison circles: "Where he met her? Oh, when she was staying with her married sister at Castle Wharton . . . .Yvonne, the elder Selincourt girl, married into the Bendish family."
Bernard did not care a straw either for the paternal handicap or for the glories of the Wharton connection. He took his love-affair as simply as his cricket and with the same bold confidence. Laura was what he wanted; she would fit into her surroundings at Wanhope as delicately as an old picture fits into an old frame, and one could leave her about—so he put it to himself—without fear of her getting damaged. When Tom Morrison, shrewd business man, dropped a hint about the rashness of marrying the daughter of a scamp like Ferdinand Selincourt, Bernard merely stared at him and let the indiscretion go in silence. He can scarcely be said to have loved his bride, for up to the time of the wedding his nature was not much more developed than that of a prize bull, but he considered her a very pretty woman, and his faith in her was a religion.
So they were married, and went to Eastbourne for their honeymoon: an average match, not marked by passion on either side, but destined apparently to an average amount of comfort and good will. They had ten gay days before Laura was left on a victoria platform, gallantly smiling with pale lips and waving her handkerchief after the train that carried Bernard back to the front.
Five months later on the eve of the Armistice he was flung out of the service, a broken man, paralysed below the waist, cursing every one who came near him and chiefly the surgeons for not letting him die. No one ever desired life more passionately than Bernard desired death. For some time he clung to the hope that his mind would wear his body out. But his body was too young, too strong, too tenacious of earth to be betrayed by the renegade mind.
There came a day when Clowes felt his youth welling up in him like sap in a fallen tree: new energy throbbed in his veins, his heart beat strong and even, it was hard to believe that he could not get off his bed if he liked and go down to the playing fields or throw his leg over a horse. This mood fastened on him without warning in a Surbiton hospital after a calm night without a sleeping draught, when through his open window he could see green branches waving in sunlight, and hear the cries of men playing cricket and the smack of the driven ball: and it was torture. Tears forced their way suddenly into Bernard's eyes. His nurse, who had watched not a few reluctant recoveries, went out of the room. Then his great chest heaved, and he sobbed aloud, lying on his back with face unhidden, his wide black eyes blinking at the sweet pale June sky. No chance of death for him: he was good for ten, twenty, fifty years more: he could not bear it, but it had to be borne. He tried to pull himself up: if he could only have reached the window! But the arms that felt so strong were as weak as an infant's, while the dead weight of his helpless legs dragged on him like lead. The only result of his struggle was a dreadful access of pain. Reaction followed, for he had learnt in his A B C days not to whimper when he was hurt, and by the time the nurse returned Clowes had scourged himself back to his usual savage tranquillity. "Can I have that window shut, please?" he asked, cynically frank. "I used to play cricket myself."
Laura Clowes in this period went through an experience almost equally formative. Two years older than Bernard, she was also more mature for her years and had developed more evenly, and from the outset her engagement and marriage had meant more to her then to Bernard, because her girlhood had been unhappy and they provided a way of escape. Her sister Yvonne had met Jack Bendish at a race-meeting and he had fallen madly in love with her and married her in a month in the teeth of opposition. That was luck—heaven-sent luck, for Yvonne on the night before her marriage had broken down utterly and confessed that if Jack had not saved her she would have gone off with the first man who asked her on any terms, because she was twenty-nine and sick to death of wandering with her father on the outskirts of society. Subsequently Yvonne had after a hard fight won a footing at Wharton for herself and her sister, and there Laura had met Clowes, not such a social prize as Jack, but rich and able to give his wife an assured position. She was shrewd and realized that in himself he had little to offer beyond a handsome and highly trained physique and a mind that worked lucidly within the limits of a narrow imagination but she was beyond all words grateful to him, and he fascinated her more than she realized.
The ten days at Eastbourne opened her eyes. Bernard enjoyed every minute of them and was exceedingly pleased with himself and proud of his wife, but for Laura they were a time of heavy strain. Innocent and shy, she had feared her husband, only to discover that she loved him better than he was capable of loving her. Laura was not blind. She understood Bernard and all his limitations, the dangerous grip that his passions had of him, his boyish impatience, his wild-bull courage, and his inability to distinguish between a wife and a mistress: she was happiest when he slept, always holding her in his arms, exacting even in sleep, but so naively youthful in the bloom of his four and twenty summers, and, for the moment, all her own. She loved him "because I am I—because you are you," and her tenderness was edged with the profound pity that women felt in those days for the men who came to them under the shadow of death. It was her hope that the strong half-developed nature would grow to meet her need. It grew swiftly enough: in the forcing-house of pain he soon learned to think and to feel: but the change did not lead him to his wife's heart.
Laura had married a man of a class and apparently normal to a fault: she found herself united now to incarnate storm and tempest. The first time she saw him at Surbiton, he drove her out in five minutes with curses and insult. Why? Laura, wandering about half-stunned in the visitors' room, had no idea why. She stumbled against the furniture: she looked at the photographs of Windermere and King's College Chapel and the Nursing Staff on the walls: she took up Punch and began to read it. Laura was no dreamer, she had never doubted that her husband would rather have the use of his legs again than all the feminine devotion in the world, but she had hoped to soothe him, perhaps for a little while to make him forget: it had not crossed her mind that her anguish of love and service would be rejected. Enlightenment was like folding a sword to her breast.
By and by his nurse came down to her, a young hard-looking woman with tired eyes. She had little comfort to give, but what she gave Laura never forgot, because it was the truth without any conventional or sentimental gloss. "You're having a bad time with him, aren't you?" she said, coldly sympathetic. "It won't last. Nothing lasts. You mustn't think he's left off caring for you. I expect he was very fond of you, wasn't he? That's the trouble. Some men take invalid life nicely and let their wives fuss over them to their hearts' content, but Major Clowes is one of those tremendously strong masculine men that always want to be top dog. Besides, you're young and pretty, if you don't mind my saying so, and you remind him of what he's done out of . . . Twenty-four, isn't he? Don't give way, Mrs. Clowes, you've a long road before you; these paralysis cases are a frightful worry, almost as bad for the friends as they are for the patient; but if you play up it'll get better instead of worse. He'll get used to it and so will you. One gets used to anything."
Even so: time goes on and storms subside. Bernard Clowes came out of the hospital and he and his wife settled down on friendly terms after all. "It's not what you bargained for when you married me," said the cripple with his hard smile. "However, it's no good crying over spilt milk, and you must console yourself with the fact that there's still plenty of money going. But I wish we'd had a little more time together first." He pierced her with his black eyes, restless and fiery. "I dare say you would have liked a boy. So should I. Nevermind, my girl, you shan't miss much else."
Wanhope, the family property, was buried deep in Wiltshire, three or four miles from a station. Laura liked the country: Wanhope let it be, then: and Wanhope it was, with the additional advantage that Yvonne was at Castle Wharton within a stroll. Laura liked a wide house and airy rooms, a wide garden, plenty of land, privacy from her neighbours: all this Wanhope gave her, no slight relief to a girl who had been brought up between Brighton and Monte Carlo. The place was too big to be run without an agent? No drawback, the agent: on the contrary, Clowes looked out for a fellow who would be useful to Laura, a gentleman, an unmarried man, who would be available to ride with her or make a fourth at bridge—and there by good luck was Val Stafford ready to hand. Born and reared in the country, though young and untrained, Val brought to his job a wide casual knowledge of local conditions and a natural head for business, and was only too glad to squire Laura in the hunting field. For Laura must hunt: as Laura Selincourt she had hunted whenever she was offered a mount, and she was to go on doing as she had always done. Laura would rather not have hunted, for the freshness of her youth was gone and the strain of her life left her permanently tired, and she pleaded first expense, then propriety. "Don't be a damned fool," replied Bernard Clowes. So Laura went riding with Val Stafford.
"Come in," said Major Clowes in a rasping snarl, and Laura came into her husband's room and stumbled over a chair. The windows were shuttered and the room was still dark at eleven o'clock of a fine June morning. Laura, irrepressibly annoyed, groped her way through a disorder of furniture, which seemed, as furniture always does in the dark, to be out of place and malevolently full of corners, and without asking leave flung down a shutter and flung up a window. In a field across the river they were cutting hay, and the dry summer smell of it breathed in, and with it the long rolling whirr of a haymaking machine and its periodical clash, most familiar of summer noises. And the June daylight lit up the gaunt body of Bernard Clowes stretched out on a water mattress, his silk jacket unbuttoned over his strong, haggard throat. "Really, Berns," said Laura, flinging down a second shutter, "I don't wonder you sleep badly. The room is positively stuffy! I should have a racking headache if I slept in it."
"Well, you don't, you see," Bernard replied politely. "Stop pulling those blinds about. Come over here." Laura came to him. "Kiss me," said Clowes, and she laid her cool lips on his cheek. Clowes received her kiss passively: even Laura, though she understood him pretty well, never was sure whether he made her kiss him because he liked it or because he thought she did not like it.
"Where are you off to now?" asked Clowes, pushing her away: "you look very smart. I like that cotton dress. It is cotton, isn't it?" he rubbed the fabric gingerly between his finger and thumb. "Did Catherine make it? That girl is a jewel. I like that gipsy hat too, it's a pretty shape and it shades your eyes. I call that sensible, which can't often be said for a woman's clothes. You have good eyes, Laura, well worth shading, though your figure is your trump card. I like these fitting bodices that give a woman a chance to show what shape she is. All you Selincourt women score in evening gowns. Yvonne has a topping figure, though she's an ugly little devil. She has an American complexion and her eyes aren't as good as yours. Where did you say you were going?"
"To the station to meet Lawrence. I promised to fetch him in the car."
"Lawrence? So he's due today, is he? I'd forgotten all about him. And you're meeting him? Oh yes, that explains the dress and hat, I thought you wouldn't have put them on for my benefit."
"Dear, it's only one of the cotton frocks I wear every day, and I couldn't go driving without a hat, could I?"
"Can't conceive why you want to go at all." Laura was silent. "If Lawrence must be met, why can't Miller go alone?" Miller was the chauffeur. "Undignified, I call it, the way you women run after a man nowadays. You think men like it but they don't."
Laura wondered if she dared tell him not to be silly. He might take it with a grin, in which case he would probably relent and let her go: or—? The field of alternative conjecture was wide. In the end Laura, whose knee was still aching from her adventure with the chair, decided to chance it. But—perhaps because they were suffused with irritation—the words had no sooner left her lips than she regretted them.
"I won't have it." Bernard's heavy jaw was clenched like a bloodhound's. "It's not decent running after Hyde while I'm tied here by the leg. I won't have you set all the village talking. There's the Times on my table. Stop. Where are you going?"
"To ring the bell. It's time Miller started. You don't want your cousin to find no one there to meet him—not even a cart for his luggage."
"He can walk. Do him good: and Miller can fetch the luggage afterwards. You do as I tell you. Take the Times. Sit down in that chair with your face to the light and read me the leading articles and the rest of the news on Page 7. Don't gabble: read distinctly if you can—you're supposed to be an educated woman, aren't you?"
Poor Laura had been looking forward to her drive. She had taken some innocent pleasure in choosing the prettiest of her morning dresses, a gingham that fell into soft folds the colour of a periwinkle, and in rearranging the liberty scarf on her drooping gipsy straw, and in putting on her long fringed gauntlets and little country shoes. Her husband's compliments made her wince, Jack Bendish had eyes only for his wife, Val Stafford's admiration was sweet but indiscriminate: but she remembered Lawrence as a connoisseur. And worse than the sting of her own small disappointment were the breaking of her promise to Lawrence, the failure in hospitality, in common courtesy.
And for the thousandth time Laura wondered whether it would not have been better for Bernard, in the long run, to defy his senseless tyranny. He was at her mercy: it would have been easy to defy him. Easy, but how cruel! A trained nurse would have made short work of Bernard's whims, he would have been washed and brushed and fed and exercised and disregarded—till he died under it? Perhaps. It was safer at all events to let him go his own way. He could never hope to command his regiment now: let him get what satisfaction he could out of commanding his wife! She would have preferred a form of sacrifice which looked less like fear, but there was little sentiment in Bernard, and love must not pick and choose. For it was love still, the old inexplicable fascination: in the middle of one of his tirades, when he was at his most wayward, she would lose herself in the contemplation of some small physical trait, the scar of a burn on his wrist or the tiny trefoil-shaped birthmark on his temple, as if that summed up for her the essence of his personality, and were more truly Bernard Clowes then his intemperate insignificance of speech. . . . Even when others suffered for it she yielded to Bernard, because she loved him and because he suffered so infinitely worse than they.
For denial maddened him. He raised himself on his arm, crimson with anger, his chest heaving under the thin silken jacket which defined his gaunt ribs—"Sit down, will you, damn you?" Because Laura believed that she and she only stood between her husband and despair, she yielded and began to read out the Times leader in a voice that was perfectly gentle and placid.
Bernard sank back and watched her like a cat after a mouse. He was under no delusion: he knew she was not cowed or nervous, but that the spring of her devotion was pity—pity ever fed anew by his dreadful helplessness: and it was this knowledge that drove him into brutality. The instincts of possession and domination were strong in him, and but for the accident that wrenched his mind awry he would probably have made himself a king to Laura, for, once her master, he would have grown more gentle and more tender as the years went by, while Laura was one of those women who find happiness in love and duty: not a weak woman, not a coward, but a humble-minded woman with no great opinion of her own judgment, who would have liked to look up to father, brother, sister, husband, as better and wiser than herself. But in his present avatar he could not master her: and Clowes, feeling as she felt, seeing himself as she saw him, came sometimes as near madness as any man out of an asylum. He was not far off it now, though he lay quiet enough, with not one grain of expression in his cold black eyes.
The 11:39 pulled up at Countisford station, and Lawrence Hyde got out of a first class smoking carriage and stood at ease, waiting for his servant to come and look after him. "There'll be a car waiting from Wanhope, Gaston—"
"Zere no car 'ere, M'sieu—ze man say."
"What, no one to meet me?" Evidently no one: there were not half a dozen people on the flower-bordered platform, and those few were country folk with bundles and bags. Lawrence strolled out into the yard, hoping that his servant's incorrigibly lame English might have led to a misunderstanding. But there was no vehicle of any kind, and the station master could not recommend a cab. Countisford was a small village, smaller even than Chilmark, and owed the distinction of the railway solely to its being in the flat country under the Plain. "But you don't mean to say," said Lawrence incredulous, "that I shall have to walk?"
But it seemed there was no help for it, unless he preferred to sit in the station while a small boy on a bicycle was despatched to Chilmark for the fly from the Prince of Wales's Feathers; and in the end Lawrence went afoot, though his expression when faced with four miles of dusty road would have moved pity in any heart but that of his little valet. Hyde was one of those men who change their habits when they change their clothes. He did not care what happened to him when he was out of England, following the Alaskan trail in eighty degrees of frost, or thrashing round the Horn in a tramp steamer, but when he shaved off his beard, and put on silk underclothing and the tweeds of Sackville Street, he grew as lazy as any flaneur of the pavement. Gaston however was not sympathetic. He was always glad when anything unpleasant happened to his master.
Leaving Gaston to sit on the luggage, Lawrence swung off with his long even stride, flicking with his stick at the bachelor's buttons in the hedge. He could not miss his way, said the station master: straight down the main road for a couple of miles, then the first turning on the left and the first on the left again. Some half a mile out of Countisford however Lawrence came on a signpost and with the traveller's instinct stopped to read it:
WINCANTON 8 M. CASTLE WHARTON 3 1/2 M. CHILMARK 3 M.
So ran the clear lettering on the southern arm. Eastwards a much more weatherbeaten arm, pointing crookedly up a stony cart track, said in dim brown characters: "CHILMARK 2 M." Plainly a short cut over the moor! Better stones underfoot than padded dust: and Lawrence struck uphill swiftly, glad to escape from the traffic of the London road. But he knew too much about short cuts to be surprised when, after climbing five hundred feet in twice as many yards—for the gradients off the Plain are steep—he found himself adrift on the open moor, his track going five ways at once in the light dry grass.
He halted, leaning on his stick. He was on the edge of the Plain: below him stretched away a great half-ring of cultivated country, its saliencies the square tower of a church jutting over a group of elms, or the glint of light on a stream, or pale haystacks dotted round the disorderly yard of a grange—the tillage and the quiet dwellings of close on a thousand years. On all this Lawrence Hyde looked with the reflective smile of an alien. It touched him, but to revolt. More than a child of the soil he felt the charm of its tranquillity, but he felt it also as an oppression, a limitation: an ordered littleness from which world-interests were excluded. He was a lover of art and a cosmopolitan, and though the lowland landscape was itself a piece of art, and perfect in its way, Hyde's mind found no home in it. Yet, he reflected with his tolerant smile, he had fought for it, and was ready any day to fight for it again—for stability and tradition, the Game Laws, the Established Church, and the rotation of crops. He was the son of an English mother and had received the training of an Englishman. A rather cynical smile, now and then, at the random and diffident ways of England was the only freedom he allowed to the foreign strain within him.
And when he looked the other way even this faint feeling of irritation passed off, blown away by the wind that always blows across a moor, thin and sweet now, and sunlit as the light curled clouds that it carried overhead through the profound June blue. Acres upon acres of pale sward, sown all over with the blue of scabious and the lemon-yellow of hawkweed, stretched away in rolling undulations like the plain of the sea; dense woods hung massed on the far horizon, beech-woods, sapphire blue beyond the pale silver and amber, of the middle distance, and under them a puff of white smoke from a passing train, or was it the white scar of a quarry? He could not be sure across so many miles of sunlit air, but it must have been smoke, for it dissolved slowly away till there was no gleam left under the brown hillside. Here too was stability, permanence: the wind ruffling the grass as it had done when the Normans crossed their not far distant Channel, or rattling over hilltops through leather-coated oak groves which had kept their symmetry since their progenitors were planted by the Druids. Here was nothing to cramp the mind: here was the England that has absorbed Celt, Saxon, Fleming, Norman, generation after generation, each with its passing form of political faith: the England of traditional eld, the beloved country.
In the meanwhile Lawrence had to find Chilmark. He had neither map nor compass and was unfamiliar with the lie of the land, but, mindful of the station master's directions to go south and turn twice to the left, he shaped a course south-east and looked for a shepherd to ask his way of. At present there were no shepherds to be seen and no houses; here and there a trail of smoke marked some hidden hamlet, sunk deep in cup or cranny, but which was Chilmark he could not tell. Down went the track, plunging towards a stream that brawled in a wild bottom: up over a rough hillside ruby-red with willowherb: then down again to a pool shaded by two willows and a silver birch, and lying so cool and solitary in its own cloven nook, bounded in every direction by half a furlong of chalky hillside, that Lawrence was seized with a desire to strip and bathe, and sun himself dry on the brilliant mossy lawn at its brink. But out of regard for the Wanhope lunch hour he walked on, following a trickle of water between reeds and knotgrafis, till in the next winding of the glen he came on a house: only a labourer's cot, two rooms below and one above, but inhabited, for smoke was coming out of the chimney. Lawrence turned up a worn thread of path and knocked with his stick at the open door.
It was answered by a tall young girl with a dirty face, wearing a serge skirt pinned up under a dirty apron. The house was dirty too: the smell of an unwashed, unswept interior came out of it, together with the wailing of a fretful baby. "I've missed my way on the moor," said Lawrence, inobtrusively holding his handkerchief to his nose. "Can you direct me to Chilmark?"
"Do you mean Chilmark or Castle Wharton? Oh Dorrie, don't cry!" She lifted the babe on her arm and stood gazing at Lawrence in a leisured and friendly manner, as if she wondered who he were. "It isn't far, but it's a long rambling village and there are any number of paths down. And if you want the Bendishes—" Evidently she thought he must want the Bendishes, and perhaps Lawrence's judgment was a little bribed by her artless compliment, for at this point he began to think her pretty in an undeveloped way: certainly she had lovely eyes, dark blue under black lashes, which reminded him of other eyes that he had seen long ago—but when? He could not remember those wistful eyes in any other woman's face.
"I'm making for Wanhope—Major Clowe's house."
"Oh, but then you must be Captain Hyde," exclaimed Miss Stafford: "aren't you? that Mrs. Clowes was expecting."
"My name is Hyde. No one met me at the station" in spite of himself Lawrence could not keep his grievance out of his voice "so, as there are no cabs at Countisford, I had to walk."
"Oh! dear, how sad: and on such a hot day too! You'll be so tired." Was this satire? Pert little thing! Lawrence was faintly amused—not irritated, because she was certainly very pretty: what a swan's throat she had under her holland blouse, and what a smooth slope of neck! But for all that she ought to have sirred him.
"So you know Mrs. Clowes, do you?" He said with as much politeness as a little girl deserves who has lovely eyes and a dirty face. It had crossed his mind that she might be one of the servants at Wanhope: he knew next to nothing of the English labouring classes, but was not without experience of lady's maids.
"Yes, I know her," said Isabel. She hung on the brink of introducing herself—was not Captain Hyde coming to tea with her that afternoon?—but was deterred by a very unusual feeling of constraint. She was not accustomed to be watched as Hyde was watching her, and she felt shy and restless, though she knew not why. It never entered her head that he had taken her for Dorrie Drury's sister. She was dressed like a servant, but what of that? In Chilmark she would have remained "Miss Isabel" if she had gone about in rags, and it would have wounded her bitterly to learn that she owed the deference of the parish rather to her rank as the vicar's daughter, who visited at Wanhope and Wharton, than to any dignity of her own. In all her young life no one had ever taken a liberty with Isabel. And, for that matter, why should any one take a liberty with Dorrie Drury's sister? Isabel's father would not have done so, nor her brothers, nor indeed Jack Bendish, and she was too ignorant of other men to know what it was that made her so hot under Hyde's eyes. "But you'll be late for lunch. Wait half a minute and I'll run up with you to the top of the glen."
Lawrence watched her wrap her charge carefully in a shawl, and fetch milk from the dresser, and coax till Dorrie turned her small head, heavy with the cares of neglected babyhood, sideways on the old plaid maud and began to suck. Apparently he had interrupted the scrubbing of the kitchen floor, for the tiles were wet three quarters of the way over, and on a dry oasis stood a pail, a scrubbing brush, and a morsel of soap. Among less honourable odours he was glad to distinguish a good strong whiff of carbolic.
Isabel meanwhile had recovered from her little fit of shyness. She pulled off her apron and pulled down her skirt (it had been kilted to the knee), rinsed her hands under a tap, wiped her face with a wet handkerchief, and came out into the June sunshine bareheaded, her long pigtail swinging between drilled and slender shoulders. "Yours are London boots," she remarked as she buttoned her cuff. "Do you mind going over the marsh?"
"Not at all."
"Not if you get your feet wet?" Lawrence laughed outright. "But it's a real marsh!" said Isabel offended: "and you're not used to mud, are you? You don't look as if you were." She pointed down the glen, and Lawrence saw that some high spring, dammed at its exit and turned back on itself, had filled the wide bottom with a sponge of moss thickset with flowering rush and silken fluff of cotton grass. "There's no danger in summertime, the shepherds often cross it and so do I. Still if you're afraid—"
"I assure you I'm not afraid," said Lawrence, looking at her so oddly that Isabel was not sure whether he was angry or amused. Nor was Lawrence. She had struck out of his male vanity a resentment so crude that he was ashamed of it, ashamed or even shocked? He was not readily shocked. A pure cynic, he let into his mind, on an easy footing, primitive desires that the average man admits only behind a screen. Yet when these libertine fancies played over Isabel's innocent head they were distasteful to him: as he remembered once, in a Barbizon studio, to have knocked a man down for a Gallic jest on the Queen of Heaven although Luke's Evangel meant no more to him than the legend of Eros and Psyche. But one can't knock oneself down—more's the pity!
"Oh, all right," said Isabel impatiently. He was watching her again! "But do look where you're going, this isn't Piccadilly. You had better hold my hand."
Lawrence was six and thirty. At eighteen he would have snatched her up and carried her over: at thirty-six he said: "Thanks very much," touched the tips of her fingers, let them fall. . . . Unfortunately however he weighed more than Isabel or the shepherds, and, half way across, the green floor quietly gave way under him: first one foot immersed itself with a gentle splash and then the other—"Oh dear" said Isabel, seized with a great disposition to laugh. Lawrence was not amused. His boots were full of mud and water and he had an aching sense of injured dignity. The bog was not even dangerous: and ankle-deep, calf-deep, knee-deep he waded through it and got out on the opposite bank, bringing up a cloud of little marsh-bubbles on his heels. Isabel would have given all the money she had in the world—about five shillings to go away and laugh, but she had been well brought up and she remained grave, though she grew very red.
"I am so sorry!" she faltered, looking up at Lawrence with her beautiful sympathetic eyes (one must never say I told you so). "I never thought you really would go in. You must be very heavy! Oh! dear, I'm afraid you've spoilt your trousers, and it was all my fault. Oh! dear, I hope you won't catch cold. Do you catch cold easily?"
"Oh no, thanks. Do you mind showing me the way to Wanhope?"
Isabel without another word took the steep hillside at a run. In her decalogue of manners to refuse an apology was an unpardonable sin. How differently Val would have behaved! Val never lost his temper over trifles, and if anything happened to make him look ridiculous he was the first to laugh at himself. At this time in her life Isabel compared Val with all the other men she met and much to his advantage. She forgot that Lawrence was not her brother and that no man cares to be made ridiculous before a woman, or rather she never thought of herself as a woman at all.
She pointed east by south across the Plain. "Do you see that hawk hovering? Carry your eye down to the patch of smoke right under him, in the trees: those are the Wanhope chimneys. If you go straight over there till you strike the road, it will bring you into Chilmark High Street. Go on past Chapman the draper's shop, turn sharp down a footpath opposite the Prince of Wales's Feathers, cross the stream by a footbridge, and you'll be in the grounds of Wanhope."
"Thank you," said Lawrence, "your directions are most precise." He had one hand in his pocket feeling among his loose silver: tips are more easily given than thanks, especially when one is not feeling grateful, and he was accustomed to pay his way through the world with the facile profusion of a rich man. Still he hesitated: if he had not the refined intuition that would have made such a blunder impossible to Val Stafford, he had at all events enough intelligence to hesitate. There is a coinage that is safer than silver, and Lawrence thought it might well pass current (now that she had washed her face) with this fair schoolgirl of sixteen, ruffled by sun and wind and unaware of her beauty. He would not confess to himself that the prospect of Isabel's confusion pleased him.
He bent his head, smiling into Isabel's eyes. "You're a very kind little girl. May I—?"
"No," said Isabel.
The blood sprang to her cheek, but she did not budge, not by a hair's breadth. "I beg your pardon," said Lawrence, standing erect. He had measured in that moment the extent of his error, and he cursed, not for the first time, his want of perception, which his ever-candid father had once called a streak of vulgarity. Defrauded of the pleasure he had promised himself from the contact of Isabel's smooth cheek, he grew suddenly very tired of her. Young girls with their trick of attaching importance to trifles are a nuisance!
He forced a smile. "I beg your pardon, I had no idea— I see you're ever so much older than I thought you were. Some day I shall find my way up here again and you must let me make my peace with a box of chocolates." He raised his hat—he had not done so when she opened the door—and swung off across the moor, leaving the vicar's daughter to go back and scrub Mrs. Drury's floor as it had never been scrubbed before in its life. The honours of the day lay with Isabel, but she was not proud of them, and her face flamed for the rest of the morning. "You're worse than Major Clowes!" she said violently to the kitchen tap.
"How do?" Bernard Clowes was saying an hour later. "So good of you to look us up."
Lawrence, coming down from his own room after brushing his muddy clothes, met his cousin with a good humoured smile which covered dismay. Heavens, what a wreck of manhood! And how chill it struck indoors, and how dark, after the June sunshine on the moor! Delicately he took the hand that Clowes held out to him— but seized in a grip that made him wince. Clowes gave his curt "Ha ha!"
"I can still use my arms, Lawrence. Don't be so timid, I shan't break to pieces if I'm touched. It's only these legs of mine that won't work. Awkward, isn't it? But never mind that now, it's an old story. You had a mishap on the moor, the servants tell me? Ah! while I think of it, let me apologize for leaving you to walk from the station. Laura, my wife, you know, forgot to send the car. By the by, you know her, don't you? She says she met you once or twice before she married me."
Like most men who surrender to their temperaments, Lawrence was as a rule well served by his intuitions. Now and again they failed him as with Isabel, but when his mind was alert it was a sensitive medium. He dropped with crossed knees into his chair and glanced reflectively at Bernard Clowes, heu quantum mutatus. . . . When the body was wrecked, was there not nine times out of ten some corresponding mental warp? Bernard's fluent geniality struck him as too good to be true—it was not in Bernard's line: and why translate a close friendship into "meeting once or twice"? Was Bernard misled or mistaken, or was he laying a trap?—Not misled: the Laura Selincourt of Hyde's recollection was not one to stoop to petty shifts.
"'Once or twice?'" Lawrence echoed: "Oh, much oftener than that! Mrs. Clowes and I are old friends, at least I hoped we were. She can't be so ungracious as to have forgotten me?"
"She seems to have, doesn't she?" Bernard with his inscrutable smile let the question drop. "Just touch that bell, will you, there's a good fellow? So sorry to make you dance attendance— Hallo, here she is!"
Laura had been waiting in the parlour, under orders not to enter till the bell rang. She had heard all, and wondered whether it was innocence or subtlety that had walked in and out of Bernard's trap. She remembered Hyde was much like other fourth-year University men except that he was not egotistical and not shy: he had altered away from his class, but in what direction it was difficult to tell: there was no deciphering the pleasant blankness of his features or the conventional smile in his black eyes.
"I haven't seen you for fourteen years," she said, giving him her hand. "Oh Lawrence, how old you make me feel!"
"Shall I swear you haven't changed? It would be a poor compliment."
"And one I couldn't return. I shouldn't have known you, unless it were by your likeness to Bernard."
"Am I like Bernard?" said Lawrence, startled.
"That's a good joke, isn't it?" said Clowes. "But my wife is right. If I were not paralysed, we should be a good bit alike."
Under the casual manner, it was in that moment that Hyde saw his cousin for what he was: a rebel in agony. There was a tragedy at Wanhope then, Lucian Selincourt had not exaggerated. Though Lawrence was not naturally sympathetic, he felt an unpleasant twinge of pity, much the same as when his dog was run over in the street: a pain in the region of the heart, as well defined as rheumatism. In Sally's case, after convincing himself that she would never get on her legs again, he had eased it by carrying her to the nearest chemist's: the loving little thing had licked his hand with her last breath, but when the brightness faded out of her brown eyes, in his quality of Epicurean, Lawrence had not let himself grieve over her. Unluckily one could not pay a chemist to put Bernard Clowes out of his pain! "This is going to be deuced uncomfortable," was the reflection that crossed his mind in its naked selfishness. "I wish I had never come near the place. I'll get away as soon as I can."
Then he saw that Bernard was struggling to turn over on his side, flapping about with his slow uncouth gestures like a bird with a broken wing. "Let me—!" Laura's "No, Lawrence!" came too late. Hyde had taken the cripple in his arms, lifting him like a child: "You're light for your height," he said softly. He was as strong as Barry and as gentle as Val Stafford. Laura had turned perfectly white. She fully expected Clowes to strike his cousin. She could hardly believe her eyes when with a great gasp of relief he flung his arm round Hyde's neck and lay back on Hyde's shoulder. "Thanks, that's damned comfortable—first easy moment I've had since last night," he murmured: then, to Laura, "we must persuade this fellow to stop on a bit. You're not in a hurry to get off, are you, Lawrence?"
"Not I. I'll stay as long as you and Laura care to keep me."
"I and Laura, hey?"
Bernard's flush faded: he slipped from Hyde's arm.
"H'm, yes, you're old friends, aren't you? Met at Farringay? I'd forgotten that." He shut his eyes. "And Laura's dying to renew the intimacy. It's dull for her down here. Take him into the garden, Lally. You'll excuse me now, Lawrence, I can't talk long without getting fagged. Wretched state of things, isn't it? I'm a vile bad host but I can't help it. At the present moment for example I'm undergoing grinding torments and it doesn't amuse me to make conversation, so you two can cut along and disport yourselves in any way you like. Give Lawrence a drink, will you, my love? . . . . Oh no, thanks, you've done a lot but you can't do any more, no one can, I just have to grin and bear it. Laura, would you mind ringing for Barry? I'm not sure I shall show up again before dinner-time. It's no end good of you, old chap, to come to such a beastly house. . ."
He pursued them with banal gratitude till they were out of earshot, when Lawrence drew a deep breath as if to throw off some physical oppression. Under the weathered archway, down the flagged steps and over the lawn. . . . How still it was, and how sweet! The milk-blooms in the spire of the acacia were beginning to turn faintly brown, but its perfume still hung in the valley air, mixed with the honey-heavy breath of a great white double lime tree on the edge of the stream. There were no dense woods at Wanhope, the trees were set apart with an airy and graceful effect, so that one could trace the course of their branches; and between them were visible hayfields from which the hay had recently been carried, and the headlands of the Plain—fair sunny distances, the lowlands bloomed over with summer mist, the uplands delicately clear like those blue landscapes that in early Italian pictures lie behind the wheel of Saint Catherine or the turrets of Saint Barbara.
"A sweet pretty place you have here. I was in China nine weeks ago. Everlasting mud huts and millet fields. I must say there's nothing to beat an English June."
"Or a French June?" suggested Laura, her accent faintly sly. "Lucian said he met you at Auteuil."
"Dear old Lucian! He seemed very fit, but rather worried about you, Laura—may I call you Laura? We're cousins by marriage, which constitutes a sort of tie. Besides, you let me at Farringay."
"Farringay. . . . What a long while ago it seems! I can't keep up any pretence of juvenility with you, can I? We were the same age then so we're both thirty-six now. Isn't it strange to think that half one's life is over? Mine doesn't seem ever to have begun. But you wouldn't feel that: a man's life is so much fuller than a woman's. You've been half over the world while Berns and I have been patiently cultivating our cabbage patch. I envy you: it would be jolly to have one's mind stored full of queer foreign adventures and foreign landscapes to think about in odd moments, even if it were only millet fields."
"I've no ties, you see, nothing to keep me in England. Come to think of it, Bernard is my nearest male relative, since my father died five years ago."
"I heard of that and wanted to write to you, but I wasn't sure of your address"
"I was in Peru. They cabled to me to come home when he was taken ill, but I was up country and missed it. The first news I had was a second cable announcing his death. It was unlucky."
"For both of you," said Laura gently, "if it meant that he was alone when he died." Sincere herself, Mrs. Clowes exacted from her friends either sincerity or silence, and her sweet half-melancholy smile pierced through Hyde's conventional regrets. He was silent, a little confused.
They were near the river now, and in the pale shadow of the lime tree Laura sat down on a bench, while Hyde threw himself on a patch of sunlit turf at her feet. Most men of his age would have looked clumsy in such an unbuttoned attitude, but Hyde was an athlete still, and Laura, who was fond of sketching, admired his vigorous grace. She felt intimate with him already: she was not shy nor was Lawrence, but this was an intimacy of sympathy that went deeper than the mere trained ease of social intercourse: she could be herself with him: she could say whatever she liked. And, looking back on the old days which she had half forgotten, Laura remembered that she had always felt the same freedom from constraint in Hyde's company: she had found it pleasant fourteen years ago, when she was young and had no reserves except a natural delicacy of mind, and it was pleasant still, but strange, after the isolating adventure of her marriage. Perhaps she would not now have felt it so strongly, if he had not been her husband's cousin as well as her friend.