TO MY BROTHER WALTER
SHOPMAN: "You may have your choice—penny plain or twopence coloured."
SOLEMN SMALL BOY: "Penny plain, please. It's better value for the money."
"The actors are at hand, And by their show You shall know all that you are like to know." Midsummer Night's Dream.
It was tea-time in Priorsford: four-thirty by the clock on a chill October afternoon.
The hills circling the little town were shrouded with mist. The wide bridge that spanned the Tweed and divided the town proper—the Highgate, the Nethergate, the Eastgate—from the residential part was almost deserted. On the left bank of the river, Peel Tower loomed ghostly in the gathering dusk. Round its grey walls still stood woods of larch and fir, and in front the links of Tweed moved through pleasant green pastures. But where once ladies on palfreys hung with bells hunted with their cavaliers there now stood the neat little dwellings of prosperous, decent folk; and where the good King James wrote his rhymes, and listened to the singing of Mass from the Virgin's Chapel, the Parish Kirk reared a sternly Presbyterian steeple. No need any longer for Peel to light the beacon telling of the coming of our troublesome English neighbours. Telegraph wires now carried the matter, and a large bus met them at the trains and conveyed them to that flamboyant pile in red stone, with its glorious views, its medicinal baths, and its band-enlivened meals, known as Priorsford Hydropathic.
As I have said, it was tea-time in Priorsford.
The schools had skailed, and the children, finding in the weather little encouragement to linger, had gone to their homes. In the little houses down by the riverside brown teapots stood on the hobs, and rosy-faced women cut bread and buttered scones, and slapped their children with a fine impartiality; while in the big houses on the Hill, servants, walking delicately, laid out tempting tea-tables, and the solacing smell of hot toast filled the air.
Most of the smaller houses in Priorsford were very much of one pattern and all fairly recently built, but there was one old house, an odd little rough stone cottage, standing at the end of a row of villas, its back turned to its parvenu neighbours, its eyes lifted to the hills. A flagged path led up to the front door through a herbaceous border, which now only held a few chrysanthemums and Michaelmas daisies (Perdita would have scorned them as flowers for the old age), but in spring and in summer blazed in a sweet disorder of old-fashioned blossoms.
This little house was called The Rigs.
It was a queer little house, and a queer little family lived in it. Jardine was their name, and they sat together in their living-room on this October evening. Generally they all talked at once and the loudest voice prevailed, but to-night there was not so much competition, and Jean frequently found herself holding the floor alone.
David, busy packing books into a wooden box, was the reason for the comparative quiet. He was nineteen, and in the morning he was going to Oxford to begin his first term there. He had so long looked forward to it that he felt dazed by the nearness of his goal. He was a good-looking boy, with honest eyes and a firm mouth.
His only sister, Jean, four years older than himself, left the table and sat on the edge of the box watching him. She did not offer to help, for she knew that every man knows best how to pack his own books, but she hummed a gay tune to prove to herself how happy was the occasion, and once she patted David's grey tweed shoulder as he leant over her. Perhaps she felt that he needed encouragement this last night at home.
Jock, the other brother, a schoolboy of fourteen, with a rough head and a voice over which he had no control, was still at the tea-table. He was rather ashamed of his appetite, but ate doggedly. "It's not that I'm hungry just now," he would say, "but I so soon get hungry."
At the far end of the room, in a deep window, a small boy, with a dog and a cat, was playing at being on a raft. The boy's name was Gervase Taunton, but he was known to a large circle of acquaintances as "the Mhor," which, as Jean would have explained to you, is Gaelic for "the great one." Thus had greatness been thrust upon him. He was seven, and he had lived at The Rigs since he was two. He was a handsome child with an almost uncanny charm of manner, and a gift of make-believe that made his days one long excitement.
He now stood like some "grave Tyrian trader" on the table turned upside down that was his raft, as serious and intent as if it had been the navy of Tarshish bringing Solomon gold and silver, ivory and apes and peacocks. With one arm he clutched the cat and assured that unwilling voyager, "You're on the dangerous sea, me old puss. You don't want to be drowned, do you?" The cat struggled and scratched. "Then go—to your doom!"
He clasped his hands behind him in a Napoleonic manner and stood gloomily watching the unembarrassed progress of the cat across the carpet, while Peter (a fox-terrier, and the wickedest dog in Priorsford) crushed against his legs to show how faithful he was compared to any kind of cat.
"Haven't you finished eating yet, Jock?" Jean asked. "Here is Mrs. M'Cosh for the tea-things."
The only servant The Rigs possessed was a middle-aged woman, the widow of one Andrew M'Cosh, a Clyde riveter, who had drifted from her native city of Glasgow to Priorsford. She had a sweet, worn face, and a neat cap with a black velvet bow in front.
Jock rose from the table reluctantly, and was at once hailed by the Mhor and invited on to the raft.
Jock hesitated, but he was the soul of good nature. "Well, only for five minutes, remember. I've a lot of lessons to-night." He sat down on the upturned table, his legs sprawling on the carpet, and hummed "Tom Bowling," but the Mhor leaned from his post as steersman and said gravely, "Don't dangle your legs, Jock; there are sharks in these waters." So Jock obediently crumpled his legs until his chin rested on his knees.
Mrs. M'Cosh piled the tea-things on a tray and folded the cloth. "Ay, Peter," she said, catching sight of that notorious character, "ye look real good, but I wis hearin' ye were efter the sheep again the day."
Peter turned away his head as if deeply shocked at the accusation, and Mrs. M'Cosh, with the tea-cloth over her arm, regarded him with an indulgent smile. She had infinite tolerance for Peter's shortcomings.
"Peter was kinna late last night," she would say, as if referring to an erring husband, "an' I juist sat up for him." She had also infinite leisure. It was no use Jean trying to hurry the work forward by offering to do some task. Mrs. M'Cosh simply stood beside her and conversed until the job was done. Jean never knew whether to laugh or be cross, but she generally laughed.
Once when the house had been upset by illness, and trained nurses were in occupation, Jean had rung the bell repeatedly, and, receiving no answer, had gone to the kitchen. There she found the Mhor, then a very small boy, seated on a chair playing a mouth-organ, while Mrs. M'Cosh, her skirts held coquettishly aloft, danced a few steps to the music. Jean—being Jean—had withdrawn unnoticed and slipped upstairs to the sick-room much cheered by the sight of such detachment.
Mrs. M'Cosh had been eight years with the Jardines and was in many ways such a treasure, and always such an amusement, that they would not have parted from her for much red gold.
"Bella Bathgate's expectin' her lodger the morn." The tea-tray was ready to be carried away, but Mrs. M'Cosh lingered.
"Oh, is she?" said Jean. "Who is it that's coming?"
"I canna mind the exact name, but she's ca'ed the Honourable an' she's bringin' a leddy's maid."
"Gosh, Maggie!" ejaculated Jock.
"I asked you not to say that, Jock," Jean reminded him.
"Ay," Mrs. M'Cosh continued, "Bella Bathgate's kinna pit oot aboot it. She disna ken how she's to cook for an Honourable—she niver saw yin."
"Have you seen one?" Jock asked.
"No' that I know of, but when I wis pew opener at St. George's I let in some verra braw folk. One Sunday there wis a lord, no less. A shaughly wee buddy he wis tae. Ma Andra wud hae been gled to see him sae oorit."
The eyes of the Jardines were turned inquiringly on their handmaid. It seemed a strange reason for joy on the part of the late Andrew M'Cosh.
"Weel," his widow explained, "ye see, Andra wis a Socialist an' thocht naething o' lords—naething. I used to show him pictures o' them in the Heartsease Library—fine-lukin' fellays wi' black mustacheys—but he juist aye said, 'It's easy to draw a pictur', and he wouldna own that they wis onything but meeserable to look at. An', mind you, he wis richt. When I saw the lord in St. George's, I said to masel', I says, 'Andra wis richt,' I says." She lifted up the tray and prepared to depart. "Weel, he'll no' be muckle troubled wi' them whaur he's gone, puir man. The Bible says, Not many great, not many noble."
"D'you think," said Mhor in a pleasantly interested voice, "that Mr. M'Cosh is in heaven?" (Mhor never let slip an opportunity for theological discussions.) "I wouldn't care much to go to heaven myself, for all my friends are in"—he stopped and cast a cautious glance at Jean, and, judging by her expression that discretion was the better part of valour, and in spite of an encouraging twinkle in the eyes of Jock, finished demurely—"the Other Place."
"Haw, haw," laughed Jock, who was consistently amused by Mhor and his antics. "I'm sorry for your friends, old chap. Do I know them?"
"Well," said Mhor, "there's Napoleon and Dick Turpin and Graham of Claverhouse and Prince Charlie and——"
"Mhor—you're talking too much," said David, who was jotting down figures in a notebook.
"It's to be hoped," said Jean to Mrs. M'Cosh, "that the honourable lady will suit Bella Bathgate, for Bella, honest woman, won't put herself about to suit anybody. But she's been a good neighbour to us. I always feel so safe with her near; she's equal to anything from a burst pipe to a broken arm.... I do hope that landlord of ours in London will never take it into his head to come back and live in Priorsford. If we had to leave The Rigs and Bella Bathgate I simply don't know what we'd do."
"We could easy get a hoose wi' mair conveniences" Mrs. M'Cosh reminded her. She had laid down the tray again and stood with her hands on her hips and her head on one side, deeply interested "Thae wee new villas in the Langhope Road are a fair treat, wi' a pantry aff the dining-room an' hot and cold everywhere."
"Villas," said Jean—"hateful new villas! What are conveniences compared to old thick walls and queer windows and little funny stairs? Besides, The Rigs has a soul."
"Oh, mercy!" said Mrs. M'Cosh, picking up the tray and moving at last to the door, "that's fair heathenish!"
Jean laughed as the door shut on their retainer, and perched herself on the end of the big old-fashioned sofa drawn up at one side of the fire. She wore a loose stockinette brown dress and looked rather like a wood elf of sorts with her golden-brown hair and eyes.
"If I were rich," she said, "I would buy an annuity for Mrs. M'Cosh of at least L200 a year. When you think that she once had a house and a husband, and a best room with an overmantel and a Brussels carpet, and lost them all, and is contented to be a servant to us, with no prospect of anything for her old age but the workhouse or the charity of relations, and keeps cheery and never makes a moan and never loses her interest in things ..."
"But you're not rich," said Jock.
"No," said Jean ruefully. "Isn't it odd that no one ever leaves us a legacy? But I needn't say that, for it would be much odder if anyone did. I don't think there is a single human being in the world entitled to leave us a penny piece. We are destitute of relations.... Oh, well, I daresay we'll get on without a legacy, but for your comfort I'll read to you about the sort of house we would have if some kind creature did leave us one."
She dived for a copy of Country Life that was lying on the sofa, and turned to the advertisements of houses to let and sell.
"It is good of Mrs. Jowett letting us have this every week. It's a great support to me. I wonder if anyone ever does buy these houses, or if they are merely there to tantalize poor folk? Will this do? 'A finely timbered sporting estate—seventeen bedrooms——'"
"Too small," said Jock from his cramped position on the raft.
"'A beautiful little property——' No. Oh, listen. 'A characteristic Cotswold Tudor house'—doesn't that sound delicious? 'Mullioned windows. Fine suite of reception-rooms, ballroom. Lovely garden, with trout-stream intersecting'—heavenly. 'There are vineries, peach-houses, greenhouses, and pits'—what do you do with pits?" "Keep bears in them, of course," said Jock, and added vaguely—"bear baiting, you know."
"It isn't usual to keep bears," David pointed out.
"No, but if you had them," Jock insisted, "you would want pits to keep them in."
"Jock," said Jean, "you are like the White Knight when Alice told him it wasn't likely that there would be any mice on the horse's back. 'Not very likely, perhaps, but if they do come I don't choose to have them running all about.' But I agree with the White Knight, it's as well to be provided for everything, so we'll keep the pits in case of bears."
"They had pits in the Bible," said Mhor dreamily, as he screwed and unscrewed his steering-wheel, which was also the piano stool, "for Joseph was put in one."
Jean turned over the leaves of the magazine, studying each pictured house, gloating over details of beauty and of age, then she pushed it away with a "Heigh-ho, but I wish we had a Tudor residence."
"I'll buy you one," David promised her, "when I'm Lord Chancellor."
"Thank you, David," said Jean.
By this time the raft had been sunk by a sudden storm, and Jock had grasped the opportunity to go to his books, while Mhor and Peter had laid themselves down on the rug before the fire and were rolling on each other in great content.
Jean and David sat together on the sofa, their arms linked. They had very little to say, for as the time of departure approaches conversation dies at the fount.
Jean was trying to think what their mother would have said on this last evening to her boy who was going out into the world. Never had she felt so inadequate. Ought she to say things to him? Warn him against lurking evils? (Jean who knew about as much of evil as a "committed linnet"!) But David was such a wise boy and so careful. It always pinched Jean's heart to see him dole out his slender stock of money, for there never was a Jardine born who did not love to be generous.
She looked at him fondly. "I do hope you won't find it too much of a pinch, David. The worst of it is, you will be with people who have heaps of money, and I'm afraid you'll hate to feel shabby."
"It's no crime to be poor," said David stoutly. "I'll manage all right. Don't you worry. What I hate is thinking you are scrimping to give me every spare penny—but I'll work my hardest."
"I know you'll do that, but play too—every minute you can spare. I don't want you to shut yourself up among books. Try and get all the good of Oxford. Remember, Sonny, this is your youth, and whatever you may get later you can never get that back." She leaned back and gave a great sigh. "How I wish I could make this a splendid time for you, but I can't, my dear, I can't.... Anyway, nobody will have better china. I've given you six of Aunt Alison's rosy ones; I hope the scout won't break them. And your tablecloths and sheets and towels are all right, thanks to our great-aunt's stores.... And you'll write as often as you can and tell us everything, if you get a nice scout, and all about your rooms, and if cushions would be any use, and oh, my dear, eat as much as you can—don't save on food."
"Of course not," said David. "But several nights a week I'll feed in my own room. You don't need to go to Hall to dinner unless you like."
He got up from the sofa and went and stood before the fire, keeping his head very much in the air and his hands in his pockets. He was feeling that home was a singularly warm, kind place, and that the great world was cold and full of strangers; so he whistled "D'ye ken John Peel?" and squared his shoulders, and did not in the least deceive his sister Jean.
"Peter, me faithful hound," said the Mhor, hugging the patient dog. "What would you like to play at?"
Peter looked supremely indifferent.
Peter licked the earnest face so near his own.
The Mhor wiped his face with the back of his hand (his morning's handkerchief, which he alluded to as "me useful little hanky," being used for all manner of purposes not intended by the inventor of handkerchiefs, was quite unpresentable by evening) and said:
"I know. Let's play at 'Suppose.' Jean, let's play at 'Suppose.'"
"Don't worry, darling," said Jean.
The Mhor turned to Jock, who was sitting at a table with his head bent over a book. "Jock, let's play at 'Suppose.'"
"Shut up," said Jock.
"David." The Mhor turned to his last hope. "Seeing it's your last night."
David never could resist the Mhor when he was beseeching.
"Well, only for ten minutes, remember."
Mhor looked fixedly at the clock, measuring with his eye the space of ten minutes, then nodded, murmuring to himself, "From there to there. You begin, Jean."
"I can't think of anything," said Jean. Then seeing Mhor's eager face cloud, she began: "Suppose when David was in the train to-morrow he heard a scuffling sound under the seat, and he looked and saw a grubby little boy and a fox-terrier, and he said, 'Come out, Mhor and Peter.' And suppose they went with him all the way to Oxford, and when they got to the college they crept upstairs without being seen and the scout was a kind scout and liked dogs and naughty boys and he gave them a splendid supper——"
"What did he give them?" Mhor asked.
"Chicken and boiled ham and meringues and sugar biscuits and lemonade" (mentioning a few of Mhor's favourite articles of food), "and he tucked them up on the sofa and they slept till morning, and got into the train and came home, and that's all."
"Me next," said Mhor. "Suppose they didn't come home again. Suppose they started from Oxford and went all round the world. And I met a magician—in India that was—and he gave me an elephant with a gold howdah on its back, and I wasn't frightened for it—such a meek, gentle, dirty animal—and Peter and me sat on it and it pulled off cocoanuts with its trunk and handed them back to us, and we lived there always, and I had a Newfoundland pup and Peter had a golden crown because he was king of all the dogs, and I never went to bed and nobody ever washed my ears and we made toffee every day, every single day...." His voice trailed away into silence as he contemplated this blissful vision, and Jock, wooed from his Greek verbs by the interest of the game, burst in with his unmanageable voice:
"Suppose a Russian man-of-war came up Tweed and started shelling Priorsford, and the parish church was hit and the steeple fell into Thomson's shop and scattered the haddocks and kippers and things all over the street, and——"
"Did you pick them up, Jock?" squealed Mhor, who regarded Jock as the greatest living humorist, and now at the thought of the scattered kippers wallowed on the floor with laughter.
Jock continued: "And another shell blew the turrety thing off The Towers and blew Mrs. Duff-Whalley right over the West Law and landed her in Caddon Burn——"
"Hurray!" yelled Mhor.
Jock was preparing for a further flight of fancy, when Mrs. M'Cosh, having finished washing the dishes, came in to say that Thomson had never sent the sausages for Mr. David's breakfast, and she could not see him depart for England unfortified by sausages and poached eggs.
"I'll just slip down and get them," she announced, being by no means averse to a stroll along the lighted Highgate. It was certainly neither Argyle Street nor the Paisley Road, but it bore a far-off resemblance to those gay places, and for that Mrs. M'Cosh was thankful. There was a cinema, too, and that was a touch of home. Talking over Priorsford with Glasgow friends she would say, "It's no' juist whit I wud ca' the deid country—no juist paraffin-ile and glaury roads, ye ken. We hev gas an' plain-stanes an' a pictur hoose."
When Mrs. M'Cosh left the room Jock returned to his books, and the Mhor, his imagination fermenting with the thought of bombs on Priorsford, retired to the window-seat to think out further damage.
* * * * *
Some hours later, when Jock and Mhor were fast asleep and David, his packing finished, was preparing to go to bed, Jean slipped into the room.
She stood looking at the open trunk on the floor, at the shelves from which the books had been taken, at the empty boot cupboard.
Two large tears rolled over her face, but she managed to say quite gaily, "December will soon be here."
"In no time at all," said David.
Jean was carrying a little book, which she now laid on the dressing-table, and, giving it a push in her brother's direction, "It's a Daily Light," she explained.
David did not offer to look at the gift, which was the traditional Jardine gift to travellers, a custom descending from Great-aunt Alison. He stood a bit away and said, "All right."
And Jean understood, and said nothing of what was in her heart.
"They have their exits and their entrances." As You Like It.
The ten o'clock express from Euston to Scotland was tearing along on its daily journey. It was that barren hour in the afternoon when luncheon is over and forgotten, and tea is yet far distant, and most of the passengers were either asleep or listlessly trying to read light literature.
Alone in a first-class carriage sat Bella Bathgate's lodger—Miss Pamela Reston. A dressing-bag and a fur-coat and a pile of books and magazines lay on the opposite seat, and the lodger sat writing busily. An envelope lay beside her addressed to
THE LORD BIDBOROUGH, c/o KING, KING, & Co., BOMBAY.
The letter ran:
"DEAR BIDDY,—We have always agreed, you and I (forgive the abruptness of this beginning), that we would each live our own life. Your idea of living was to range over the world in search of sport, mine to amuse myself well, to shine, to be admired. You, I imagine from your letters (what a faithful correspondent you have been, Biddy, all your wandering life), are still finding zest in it: mine has palled. You will jump naturally to the brotherly conclusion that I have palled—that I cease to amuse, that I find myself taking a second or even a third place, I who was always first; that, in short, I am a soured and disappointed woman.
"Honestly, I don't think that is so. I am still beautiful: I am more sympathetic than in my somewhat callous youth, therefore more popular: I am good company: I have the influence that money carries with it, and I could even now make what is known as a 'brilliant' marriage. Did you ever wonder—everybody else did, I know—why I never married? Simply, my dear, because the only man I cared for didn't ask me ... and now I am forty. (How stark and almost indecent it looks written down like that!) At forty, one is supposed to have got over all youthful fancies and disappointments, and lately it has seemed to me reasonable to contemplate a common-sense marriage. A politician, wise, honoured, powerful—and sixty. What could be more suitable? So suitable that I ran away—an absurdly young thing to do at forty—and I am writing to you in the train on my way to Scotland.... You see, Biddy, I quite suddenly saw myself growing old, saw all the arid years in front of me, and saw that it was a very dreadful thing to grow old caring only for the things of time. It frightened me badly. I don't want to go in bondage to the fear of age and death. I want to grow old decently, and I am sure one ought to begin quite early learning how.
"'Clear eyes do dim at last And cheeks outlive their rose: Time, heedless of the past, No loving kindness knows.'
Yes, and 'youth's a stuff will not endure,' and 'golden lads and girls all must like chimney-sweepers come to dust.' The poets aren't at all helpful, for youth—poor brave youth—won't listen to their warnings, and they seem to have no consolation to offer to middle age.
"The odd thing is that up to a week or two ago I greatly liked the life I led. You said it would kill you in a month. Was it only last May that you pranced in the drawing-room in Grosvenor Street inveighing against 'the whole beastly show,' as you called it—the freak fashions, the ugly eccentric dances, the costly pageant balls, the shouldering, the striving, the worship of money, the gambling, the self-advertisement—all the abject vulgarity of it? And my set, the artistic, soulful literary set, you said was the worst of all: you actually described the high-priestess as looking like a 'decomposing cod-fish,' and added by way of a final insult that you thought the woman had a kind heart.
"And I laughed and thought the War had changed you. It didn't change me, to my shame be it said. I thought I was doing wonders posing about in a head-dress at Red Cross meetings, and getting up entertainments, and even my neverceasing anxiety about you simply seemed to make me more keen about amusing myself.
"Do you remember a story we liked when we were children, The Gold of Fairnilee? Do you remember how Randal, carried away by the fairies, lived contented until his eyes were touched with the truth-telling water, and then Fairyland lost its glamour and he longed for the old earth he had left, and the changes of summer and autumn, and the streams of Tweed and his friends?
"Is it, do you suppose, because we had a Scots mother that I find, deep down within me, that I am 'full of seriousness'? It is rather disconcerting to think oneself a butterfly and find out suddenly that one is a—what? A bread-and-butter fly, shall we say? Something quite solid, anyway.
"As I say, I suddenly became deadly sick of everything. I simply couldn't go on. And it was no use going burying myself at Bidborough or even dear Mintern Abbas; it would have been the same sort of trammelled, artificial existence. I wanted something utterly different. Scotland seemed to call to me—not the Scotland we know, not the shooting, yachting, West Highland Scotland, but the Lowlands, the Borders, our mother's countryside.
"I remembered how Lewis Elliot (I wonder where he is now—it is ages since I heard of him) used to tell us about a little town on the Tweed called Priorsford. It was his own little town, his birthplace and I thought the name sung itself like a song. I made inquiries about rooms and found that in a little house called Hillview, owned by one Bella Bathgate, I might lodge. I liked the name of the house and its owner, and I hope to find in Priorsford peace and great content.
"Having been more or less of a fool for forty years, I am now going to try to get understanding. It won't be easy, for we are told that 'it cannot be gotten with gold, neither shall silver be weighed for the price thereof.... No mention shall be made of coral and pearls: for the price of wisdom is above rubies.'
"I am going to walk on the hills all day, and in the evening I shall read the Book of Job and Shakespeare and Sir Walter.
"In one of the Jungle Books there was a man called Sir Purun Dass—do you remember? Sir Purun Dass, K.C.I.E., who left all his honours and slipped out one day to the sun-baked highway with nothing but an ochre-coloured garment and a beggar's bowl. I always envied that man. Not that I could rise to such Oriental heights. The beggar's bowl wouldn't do for me. I cling to my comforts: also, I am sure Sir Purun Dass left himself no loophole whereby he might slip back to his official position whereas I——-Well, the Politician thinks I have gone for a three months' rest cure, and at sixty one is not impatient. You will say, 'How like Pam!' Yes, isn't it? I always was given to leaving myself loopholes; but, all the same, I am not going to face an old age bolstered up by bridge and cosmetics. There must be other props, and I mean to find them. I mean to possess my soul. I'm not all froth, but, if I am, Priorsford will reveal it. I feel that there will be something very revealing about Miss Bella Bathgate.
"Poor Biddy, to have such an effusion hurled at you!
"But you'll admit I don't often mention my soul.
"I doubt if you will be able to read this letter. If you can make it out, forgive it being so full of myself. The next will be full of quite other things. All my love, Biddy.—Yours, PAM."
* * * * *
Three hours later the express stopped at the junction. The train was waiting on the branch line that terminated at Priorsford, and after a breathless rush over a high bridge in the dark Pamela and her maid, Mawson, found themselves bestowed in an empty carriage by a fatherly porter.
Mawson was not a real lady's maid: one realised that at once. She had been a housemaid for some years in the house in Grosvenor Street, and Pamela, when her own most superior maid flatly refused to accompany her on this expedition, had asked Mawson to be her maid, and Mawson had gladly accepted the offer. She was a middle-aged woman with a small brown face, an obvious toupee, and an adventurous spirit.
She now tidied the carriage violently, carefully hiding the book Pamela had been reading and putting the cushion on the rack. Finally, tucking the travelling-rug firmly round her mistress, she remarked pleasantly, "A h'eight hours' journey without an 'itch!"
"Certainly without an aitch," thought Pamela, as she said, "You like travelling, Mawson?"
"Oh yes, m'm. I always 'ave 'ad a desire to travel. Specially, if I may say so, to see Scotland, Miss. But, oh, ain't it bleak? Before it was dark I 'ad me eyes glued to the window, lookin' out. Such miles of 'eather and big stones and torrents, Miss, and nothing to be seen but a lonely sheep—'ardly an 'ouse on the 'orizon. It gave me quite a turn."
"And this is nothing to the Highlands, Mawson."
"Ain't it, Miss? Well, it's the bleakest I've seen yet, an' I've been to Brighton and Blackpool. Travelled quite a lot, I 'ave, Miss. The lydy who read me 'and said I would, for me teeth are so wide apart." Which cryptic saying puzzled Pamela until Priorsford was reached, when other things engaged her attention.
* * * * *
There was another passenger for Priorsford in the London express. He was called Peter Reid, and he was as short and plain as his name. Peter Reid was returning to his native town a very rich man. He had left it a youth of eighteen and entered the business of a well-to-do uncle in London, and since then, as the saying is, he had never looked over his shoulder; fortune showered her gifts on him, and everything he touched seemed to turn to gold.
While his mother lived he had visited her regularly, but for thirty years his mother had been lying in Priorsford churchyard, and he had not cared to keep in touch with the few old friends he had. For forty-five years he had lived in London, so there was almost nothing of Priorsford left in him—nothing, indeed, except the desire to see it again before he died.
They had been forty-five quite happy years for Peter Reid. Money-making was the thing he enjoyed most in this world. It took the place to him of wife and children and friends. He did not really care much for the things money could buy; he only cared to heap up gold, to pull down barns and build greater ones. Then suddenly one day he was warned that his soul would be required of him—that soul of his for which he had cared so little. After more than sixty years of health, he found his body failing him. In great irritation, but without alarm, he went to see a specialist, one Lauder, in Wimpole Street.
He supposed he would be made to take a holiday, and grudged the time that would be lost. He grudged, also, the doctor's fee.
"Well," he said, when the examination was over, "how long are you going to keep me from my work?"
The doctor looked at him thoughtfully. He was quite a young man, tall, fair-haired, and fresh-coloured, with a look about him of vigorous health that was heartening and must have been a great asset to him in his profession.
"I am going to advise you not to go back to work at all."
"What!" cried Peter Reid, getting very red, for he was not accustomed to being patient when people gave him unpalatable advice. Then something that he saw—was it pity?—in the doctor's face made him white and faint.
"You—you can't mean that I'm really ill?"
"You may live for years—with care."
"I shall get another opinion," said Peter Reid.
"Certainly—here, sit down." The doctor felt very sorry for this hard little business man whose world had fallen about his ears. Peter Reid sat down heavily on the chair the doctor gave him.
"I tell you, I don't feel ill—not to speak of. And I've no time to be ill. I have a deal on just now that I stand to make thousands out of—thousands, I tell you."
"I'm sorry," James Lauder said.
"Of course, I'll see another man, though it means throwing away more money. But"—his face fell—"they told me you were the best man for the heart.... Leave my work! The thing's ridiculous Patch me up and I'll go on till I drop. How long do you give me?"
"As I said, you may live for years; on the other hand, you may go very suddenly."
Peter Reid sat silent for a minute; then he broke out:
"Who am I to leave my money to? Tell me that."
He spoke as if the doctor were to blame for the sentence he had pronounced.
"Haven't you relations?"
"The hospitals are always glad of funds."
"I daresay, but they won't get them from me."
"Have you no great friends—no one you are interested in?"
"I've hundreds of acquaintances," said the rich man, "but no one has ever done anything for me for nothing—no one."
James Lauder looked at the hard-faced little man and allowed himself to wonder how far his patient had encouraged kindness.
"I think I'll go home," said Peter Reid.
"The servant will call you a taxi. Where do you live?"
Peter Reid looked at the doctor as if he hardly understood.
"Live?" he said. "Oh, in Prince's Gate. But that isn't home.... I'm going to Scotland."
"Ah," said James Lauder, "now you're talking. What part of Scotland is 'home' to you?"
"A place they call Priorsford. I was born there."
"I know it. I've fished all round there. A fine countryside."
Interest lit for a moment the dull grey eyes of Peter Reid.
"I haven't fished," he said, "since I was a boy. Did you ever try the Caddon Burn? There are some fine pools in it. I once lost a big fellow in it and came over the hills a disappointed laddie.... I remember what a fine tea my mother had for me." He reached for his hat and gave a half-ashamed laugh.
"How one remembers things! Well, I'll go. What do you say the other man's name is? Yes—yes. Life's a short drag; it's hardly worth beginning. I wish, though, I'd never come near you, and I would have gone on happily till I dropped. But I won't leave my money to any charity, mind that!"
He walked towards the door and turned.
"I'll leave it to the first person who does something for me without expecting any return.... By the way, what do I owe you?"
And Peter Reid went away exceeding sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
"It is the only set of the kind I ever met with in which you are neither led nor driven, but actually fall, and that imperceptibly into literary topics; and I attribute it to this, that in that house literature is not a treat for company upon invitation days, but is actually the daily bread of the family."—Written of Maria Edgeworth's home.
Pamela Reston stood in Bella Bathgate's parlour and surveyed it disconsolately.
It was papered in a trying shade of terra-cotta and the walls were embellished by enlarged photographs of the Bathgate family—decent, well-living people, but plain-headed to a degree. Linoleum covered the floor. A round table with a red-and-green cloth occupied the middle of the room, and two arm-chairs and six small chairs stood about stiffly like sentinels. Pamela had tried them all and found each one more unyielding than the next. The mantelshelf, painted to look like some uncommon kind of marble, supported two tall glass jars bright blue and adorned with white raised flowers, which contained bunches of dried grasses ("silver shekels" Miss Bathgate called them), rather dusty and tired-looking. A mahogany sideboard stood against one wall and was heavily laden with vases and photographs. Hard lace curtains tinted a deep cream shaded the bow-window.
"This is grim," said Pamela to herself. "Something must be done. First of all, I must get them to send me some rugs—they will cover this awful floor—and half a dozen cushions and some curtains and bits of embroidery and some table linen and sheets and things. Idiot that I was not to bring them with me!... And what could I do to the walls? I don't know how far one may go with landladies, but I hardly think one could ask them to repaper walls to each stray lodger's liking."
Miss Bathgate had not so far shown herself much inclined for conversation. She had met her lodger on the doorstep the night before, had uttered a few words of greeting, and had then confined herself to warning the man to watch the walls when he carried up the trunks, and to wondering aloud what anyone could want with so much luggage, and where in the world it was to find room. She had been asked to have dinner ready, and at eight o'clock Pamela had come down to the sitting-room to find a coarse cloth folded in two and spread on one-half of the round table. A knife, a fork, a spoon lay on the cloth, flanked on one side by an enormous cruet and on the other by four large spoons, laid crosswise, and a thick tumbler. An aspidistra in a pot completed the table decorations.
The dinner consisted of stewed steak, with turnip and carrots, and a large dish of potatoes, followed by a rice pudding made without eggs and a glass dish of prunes.
Pamela was determined to be pleased.
"How right it all is," she told herself—"so entirely in keeping. All so clean and—and sufficient. I am sure all the things we hang on ourselves and round ourselves to please and beautify are very clogging—this is life at its simplest," and she rang for coffee, which came in a breakfast-cup and was made of Somebody's essence and boiling water.
Pamela had gone to bed very early, there being absolutely nothing to sit up for; and the bed was as hard as the nether millstone. As she put her tired head on a cast-iron pillow covered by a cotton pillow-slip, and lay crushed under three pairs of hard blankets, topped by a patchwork quilt worked by Bella's mother and containing samples of the clothes of all the family—from the late Mrs. Bathgate's wedding-gown of puce-coloured cashmere to her youngest son's first pair of "breeks," the whole smelling strongly of naphtha from the kist where it had lain—regretful thoughts of other beds came to her. She felt she had not fully appreciated them—those warm, soft, embracing beds, with satin-smooth sheets and pillow-cases smelling of lavender and other sweet things, feather-light blankets, and rose-coloured eiderdowns.
She came downstairs in the morning to the bleak sitting-room filled with a distaste for simplicity which she felt to be unworthy. For breakfast there was a whole loaf on a platter, three breakfast rolls hot from the baker, and the family toast-rack full of tough, damp toast. A large pale-green duck's egg sat heavily in an egg-cup, capped, but not covered, by a strange red flannel thing representing a cock's head, which Pamela learned later was called an "egg-cosy" and had come from the sale of work for Foreign Missions. A metal teapot and water-jug stood in two green worsted nests.
Pamela poured herself out some tea. "I'm almost sure I told her I wanted coffee in the morning," she murmured to herself, "but it doesn't matter." Already she was beginning to hold Bella Bathgate in awe. She took the top off the duck's egg and looked at it in an interested way. "It's a beautiful colour—orange—but"—she pushed it away—"I don't think I can eat it."
She drank some tea and ate a baker's roll, which was excellent; then she rang the bell.
When Bella appeared she at once noticed the headless but uneaten egg, and, taking it up, smelt it.
"What's wrang wi' the egg?" she demanded.
"Oh, nothing," said Pamela quickly. "It's a lovely egg really, such a beautiful colour, but"—she laughed apologetically—"you know how it is with eggs—either you can eat them or you can't. I always have to eat eggs with my head turned away so to speak. There is something about the yolk so—so——" Her voice trailed away under Miss Bathgate's stolid, unsmiling gaze.
There was no point in going on being arch about eggs to a person who so obviously regarded one as a poor creature. But a stand must be taken.
"Er—Miss Bathgate——" Pamela began.
There was no answer from Bella, who was putting the dishes on a tray. Had she addressed her rightly?
"You are Miss Bathgate, aren't you?"
"Ou ay," said Bella. "I'm no' mairret nor naething o' that kind."
"I see. Well, Miss Bathgate, I wonder if you would mind if Mawson—my maid, you know—carried away some of those ornaments and photographs to a safe place? It would be such a pity if we broke any of them, for, of course, you must value them greatly. These vases now, with the pretty grasses, it would be dreadful if anything happened to them, for I'm sure we could never, never replace them."
"Uch ay," Bella interrupted. "I got them at the pig-cairt in exchange for some rags. He's plenty mair o' the same kind."
"Oh, really," Pamela said helplessly. "The fact is, a few things of my own will be arriving in a day or two—a cushion or two and that sort of thing—to make me feel at home, you know, so if you would very kindly let us make room for them, I should be so much obliged."
Bella Bathgate looked round the grim chamber that was to her as the apple of her eye, and sighed for the vagaries of "the gentry."
"Aweel," she said, "I'll pit them in a kist until ye gang awa'. I've never had lodgers afore." And as she carried out the tray there was a baleful gleam in her eye as if she were vowing to herself that she would never have them again.
Pamela gave a gasp of relief when the door closed behind the ungracious back of her landlady, and started when it opened again, but this time it was only Mawson.
She hailed her. "Mawson, we must get something done to this room. Lift all these vases and photographs carefully away. Miss Bathgate says she will put them somewhere else in the meantime. And we'll wire to Grosvenor Street for some cushions and rugs—this is too hopeless. Are you quite comfortable Mawson?"
"Yes, Miss. I 'ave me meals in the kitchen, Miss, for Miss Bathgate don't want to keep another fire goin'. A nice cosy kitchen it is, Miss."
"Then I wish I could have my meals there, too."
"Oh, Miss!" cried Mawson in horror.
"Does Miss Bathgate talk to you, Mawson?"
"Not to say talk, Miss. She don't even listen much; says she can't understand my 'tongue.' Funny, ain't it? Seems to me it's 'er that speaks strange. But I expect we'll be friends in time, Miss. You do 'ave to give the Scotch time: bit slow they are.... What I wanted to h'ask, Miss, is where am I to put your things? That little wardrobe and chest of drawers 'olds next to nothing."
"Keep them in the trunks," said Pamela. "I think Miss Bathgate would like to see us departing with them to-day, but I won't be beat. In Priorsford we are, in Priorsford we remain.... I'll write out some wires and you will explore for a post office. I shall explore for an upholsterer who can supply me with an arm-chair not hewn from the primeval rock."
Mawson smiled happily and departed to put on her hat, while Pamela sat down to compose telegrams.
These finished, she began, as was her almost daily custom, to scribble a letter to her brother.
"c/o Miss B. BATHGATE, HILLVIEW, PRIORSFORD, SCOTLAND.
"BIDDY DEAR,—The beds and chairs and cushions are all stuffed with cannon-balls, and the walls are covered with enlarged photographs of men with whiskers, and Bella Bathgate won't speak to me, partly because she evidently hates the look of me, and partly because I didn't eat the duck's egg she gave me for breakfast. But the yolk of it was orange, Biddy. How could I eat it?
"I have sent out S.O.S. signals for necessaries in the way of rugs and cushions. Life as bald and unadorned as it presents itself to Miss Bathgate is really not quite decent. I wish she would speak to me, but I fear she considers me beneath contempt.
"What happens when you arrive in a place like Priorsford and stay in lodgings? Do you remain seated alone with your conscience, or do people call?
"Perhaps I shall only have Mawson to converse with. It might be worse. I don't think I told you about Mawson. She has been a housemaid in Grosvenor Street for some years, and she maided me once when Julie was on holiday, so when that superior damsel refused to accompany me on this trek I gladly left her behind and brought Mawson in her place.
"She is really very little use as a maid, but her conversation is pleasing and she has a most cheery grin. She reads the works of Florence Barclay, and doesn't care for music-halls—'low I call them, Miss.' I asked her if she were fond of music, and she said, 'Oh yes, Miss,' and then with a coy glance, 'I ply the mandoline.' I think she is about fifty, and not at all good-looking, so she will be a much more comfortable person in the house than Julie, who would have moped without admirers.
"Well, at present Mawson and I are rather like Robinson Crusoe and Man Friday on the island...."
* * * * *
Pamela stopped and looked out of the window for inspiration. Miss Bathgate's parlour was not alluring, but the view from it was a continual feast—spreading fields, woods that in this yellowing time of the year were a study in old gold, the winding river, and the blue hills beyond. Pamela saw each detail with delight; then, letting her eyes come nearer home, she studied the well-kept garden belonging to her landlady. On the wall that separated it from the next garden a small boy and a dog were seated.
Pamela liked boys, so she smiled encouragingly to this one, the boy responding by solemnly raising his cap.
Pamela leaned out of the window.
"Good morning," she said. "What's your name?"
"My name's Gervase Taunton, but I'm called 'the Mhor.' This is Peter Jardine," patting the dog's nose.
"I'm very glad to know you," said Pamela. "Isn't that wall damp?"
"It is rather," said Mhor. "We came to look at you."
"Oh," said Pamela.
"I've never seen an Honourable before, neither has Peter."
"You'd better come in and see me quite close," Pamela suggested. "I've got some chocolates here."
Mhor and Peter needed no further invitation. They sprang from the wall and in a few seconds presented themselves at the door of the sitting-room.
Pamela shook hands with Mhor and patted Peter, and produced a box of chocolates.
"I hope they're the kind you like?" she said politely.
"I like any kind," said Mhor, "but specially hard ones. I don't suppose you have anything for Peter? A biscuit or a bit of cake? Peter's like me. He's always hungry for cake and never hungry for porridge."
Pamela, feeling extremely remiss, confessed that she had neither cake nor biscuits and dared not ask Miss Bathgate for any.
"But you're bigger than Miss Bathgate," Mhor pointed out. "You needn't be afraid of her. I'll ask her, if you like."
Pamela heard him cross the passage and open the kitchen door and begin politely, "Good morning, Miss Bathgate."
"What are ye wantin' here wi' thae dirty boots?" Bella demanded.
"I came in to see the Honourable, and she has nothing to give poor Peter to eat. Could he have a tea biscuit—not an Abernethy one, please, he doesn't like them—or a bit of cake?"
"Of a' the impidence!" ejaculated Bella. "D'ye think I keep tea biscuits and cake to feed dowgs wi'? Stan' there and dinna stir." She put a bit of carpet under the small, dirty boots, and as she grumbled she wiped her hands on a coarse towel that hung behind the door, and reached up for a tin box from the top shelf of the press beside the fire.
"Here, see, there's yin for yerself, an' the broken bits are for Peter. Here he comes snowkin'," as Peter ambled into the kitchen followed by Pamela. That lady stood in the doorway.
"Do forgive me coming, but I love a kitchen. It is always the nicest place in the house, I think; the shining tins are so cheerful, and the red fire." She smiled in an engaging way at Bella, who, after a second, and, as it were, reluctantly, smiled back.
"I see you have given the raider some biscuits," Pamela said.
"He's an ill laddie." Bella Bathgate looked at the Mhor standing obediently on the bit of carpet, munching his biscuit, and her face softened. "He has neither father nor mother, puir lamb, but I must say Miss Jean never lets him ken the want o' them."
"He bides at The Rigs wi' the Jardines—juist next door here. She's no a bad lassie, Miss Jean, and wonderfu' sensible considerin'.... Are ye finished, Mhor? Weel, wipe yer feet and gang ben to the room an' let me get on wi' ma work."
Pamela, feeling herself dismissed, took her guest back to the sitting-room, where Mhor at once began to examine the books piled on the table, while Peter sat himself on the rug to await developments.
"You've a lot of books," said Mhor. "I've a lot of books too—as many as a hundred, perhaps. Jean teaches me poetry. Would you like me to say some?"
"Please," said Pamela, expecting to hear some childish rhymes. Mhor took a long breath and began:
"'O take me to the Mountain O, Past the great pines and through the wood, Up where the lean hounds softly go, A whine for wild things' blood, And madly flies the dappled roe. O God, to shout and speed them there An arrow by my chestnut hair Drawn tight, and one keen glittering spear— Ah, if I could!'"
For some reason best known to himself Mhor was very sparing of breath when he repeated poetry, making one breath last so long that the end of the verse was reached in a breathless whisper—in this instance very effective.
"So that is what 'Jean' teaches you," said Pamela. "I should like to see Jean."
"Well," said Mhor, "come in with me now and see her. I should be doing my lessons anyway, and you can tell her where I've been."
"Won't she think me rather pushing?" Pamela asked.
"Oh, I don't know," said Mhor carelessly. "Jean's kind to everybody—tramps and people who sing in the street and little cats with no homes. Hadn't you better put on your hat?"
So Pamela obediently put on her hat and coat and went with her new friends down the road a few steps and up the flagged path to the front door of the funny little house that kept its back turned to its parvenu neighbours, and its eyes lifted to the hills.
In Mhor led her, Peter following hard behind, through a square, low-roofed entrance-hall with a polished floor, into a long room with one end coming to a point in an odd-shaped window, rather like the bow of a ship.
A girl was sitting in the window with a large basket of darning beside her.
"Jean," cried Mhor as he burst in, "here's the Honourable. I asked her to come in and see you. She's afraid of Bella Bathgate."
"Oh, do come in," said Jean, standing up with the stocking she was darning over one hand. "Take this chair; it's the most comfortable. I do hope Mhor hasn't been worrying you?"
"Indeed he hasn't," said Pamela; "I was delighted to see him. But please don't let me interrupt your work."
"The boys make such big holes," said Jean, picking up a damp handkerchief that lay beside her; and then with a tremble in her voice, "I've been crying," she added.
"So I see," said Pamela. "I'm sorry. Is anything wrong?"
"Nothing in the least wrong," Jean said, swallowing hard, "only that I'm so silly." And presently she found herself pouring out her troubled thoughts about David, about the lions that she feared stood in his path at Oxford, about the hole his going made in the little household at The Rigs. It was a comfort to tell it all to this delightful-looking stranger who seemed to understand in the most wonderful way.
"I remember when my brother Biddy went to Oxford," Pamela told her. "I felt just as you do. Our parents were dead, and I was five years older than my brother, and took care of him just as you do of your David. I was afraid for him, for he had too much money, and that is much worse than having too little—but he didn't get changed or spoiled, and to this day he is the same, my own old Biddy."
Jean dried her eyes and went on with her darning, and Pamela walked about looking at the books and talking, taking in every detail of this girl and her so individual room, the golden-brown hair, thick and wavy, the golden-brown eyes, "like a trout-stream in Connemara," that sparkled and lit and saddened as she talked, the mobile, humorous mouth, the short, straight nose and pointed chin, the straight-up-and-down belted brown frock, the whole toning so perfectly with the room with its polished floor and old Persian rugs, the pale yellow walls (even on the dullest day they seemed to hold some sunshine) hung with coloured prints in old rosewood frames—"Saturday Morning," engraved (with many flourishes) by T. Burke, engraver to His Serene Highness the Reigning Landgrave of Hesse Darmstadt; "The Cut Finger," by David Wilkie—those and many others. The furniture was old and good, well kept and well polished, so that the shabby, friendly room had that comfortable air of well-being that only careful housekeeping can give. Books were everywhere: a few precious ones behind glass doors, hundreds in low bookcases round the room.
"I needn't ask you if you are fond of reading," Pamela said.
"Much too fond," Jean confessed. "I'm a 'rake at reading.'"
"You know the people," said Pamela, "who say, 'Of course I love reading, but I've no time, alas!' as if everyone who loves reading doesn't make time."
As they talked, Pamela realised that this girl who lived year in and year out in a small country town was in no way provincial, for all her life she had been free of the company of the immortals. The Elizabethans she knew by heart, poetry was as daily bread. Rosalind in Arden, Viola in Illyria, were as real to her as Bella Bathgate next door. She had taken to herself as friends (being herself all the daughters of her father's house) Maggie Tulliver, Ethel Newcome, Beatrix Esmond, Clara Middleton, Elizabeth Bennet——
The sound of the gong startled Pamela to her feet.
"You don't mean to say it's luncheon time already? I've taken up your whole morning."
"It has been perfectly delightful," Jean assured her. "Do stay a long time at Hillview and come in every day. Don't let Bella Bathgate frighten you away. She isn't used to letting her rooms, and her manners are bad, and her long upper lip very quelling; but she's really the kindest soul on earth.... Would you come in to tea this afternoon? Mrs. M'Cosh—that's our retainer—bakes rather good scones. I would ask you to stay to luncheon, but I'm afraid there mightn't be enough to go round."
Pamela gratefully accepted the invitation to tea, and said as to luncheon she was sure Miss Bathgate would be awaiting her with a large dish of stewed steak and carrots saved from the night before—so she departed.
* * * * *
Later in the day, as Miss Bathgate sat for ten minutes in Mrs. M'Cosh's shining kitchen and drank a dish of tea, she gave her opinion of the lodger.
"Awfu' English an' wi' a' the queer daft ways o' gentry. 'Oh, Miss Bathgate,' a' the time. They tell me Miss Reston's considered a beauty in London. It's no' ma idea o' beauty—a terrible lang neck an' a wee shilpit bit face, an' sic a height! I'm fair feared for ma gasaliers. An' forty if she's a day. But verra pleasant, ye ken. I aye think there maun be something wrang wi' folk that's as pleasant as a' that—owre sweet to be wholesome, like a frostit tattie! ... The maid's ca'ed Miss Mawson. She speaks even on. The wumman's a fair clatter-vengeance, an' I dinna ken the one-hauf she says. I think the puir thing's defeecient!"
" ... Ruth, all heart and tenderness Who wept, like Chaucer's Prioress, When Dash was smitten: Who blushed before the mildest men, Yet waxed a very Corday when You teased the kitten."
Before seeking her stony couch at the end of her first day at Priorsford, Pamela finished the letter begun in the morning to her brother.
* * * * *
" ... I began this letter in the morning and now it is bedtime. Robinson Crusoe is no longer solitary: the island is inhabited. My first visitors arrived about 11 a.m.—a small boy and a dog—an extremely good-looking little boy and a well-bred fox-terrier. They sat on the garden wall until I invited them in, when they ate chocolates and biscuits, and the boy offered to repeat poetry. I expected 'Casabianca' or the modern equivalent, but instead I got the song from Hippolytus, 'O take me to the Mountains, O.' It was rather surprising, but when he invited me to go with him to his home, which is next door, it was more surprising still. Instead of finding another small villa like Hillview with a breakneck stair and poky little rooms, I found a real old cottage. The room I was taken into was about the nicest I ever saw. I think it would have fulfilled all your conditions as to the proper furnishing of a room; indeed, now that I think of it, it was quite a man's room.
"It had a polished floor and some good rugs, and creamy yellow walls with delicious coloured prints. There were no ornaments except some fine old brass: solid chairs and a low, wide-seated sofa, and books everywhere.
"The shape of the room is delightfully unusual. It is long and rather low-ceilinged, and one end comes almost to a point like the bow of a ship. There is a window with a window-seat in the bow, and as the house stands high on a slope and faces west, you look straight across the river to the hills, and almost have the feeling that you are sailing into the sunset.
"In this room a girl sat, darning stockings and crying quietly to herself—crying because her brother David had gone to Oxford the day before, and she was afraid he would find it hard work to live on his scholarship with the small help she could give him, afraid that he might find himself shabby and feel it bitter, afraid that he might not come back to her the kind, clear-eyed boy he had gone away.
"She told me all about it as simply as a child. Didn't seem to find it in the least odd to confide in a stranger, didn't seem at all impressed by the sudden appearance of my fashionably dressed self!
"People, I am often told, find themselves rather in awe of me. I know that they would rather have me for a friend than an enemy. You see, I can think of such extraordinarily nasty things to say about people I don't like. But this little girl treated me as if I had been an older sister or a kind big brother, and—well, I found it rather touching.
"Jean Jardine is her funny little name. She looks a mere child, but she tells me she is twenty-three and she has been head of the house since she was nineteen.
"It is really the strangest story. The father, one Francis Jardine, was in the Indian Civil Service—pretty good at his job, I gather—and these three children, Jean and her two brothers, David and Jock, were brought up in this cottage—The Rigs it is called—by an old aunt of the father's, Great-aunt Alison. The mother died when Jock was a baby, and after some years the father married again, suddenly and unpremeditatedly, a beautiful and almost friendless girl whom he met in London when home on leave. Jean offered no comment on the wisdom or the unwisdom of the match, but she told me the young Mrs. Jardine had sent for her (Jean was then a schoolgirl of fourteen) and had given her a good time in London before she sailed with her husband for India. Rather unusual when you come to think of it! It isn't every young wife who has thought on the honeymoon for schoolgirl stepdaughters, and Jean had seen that it was kind and unselfish, and was grateful. The Jardines sailed for India, and were hardly landed when Mr. Jardine died of cholera. The young widow stayed on—I suppose she liked the life and had little to bring her back to England—and when the first year of her widowhood was over she married a young soldier, Gervase Taunton. I'm almost sure I remember meeting him about—good-looking, perfect dancer, crack polo player. They seem, in spite of lack of money, to have been supremely happy for about three years, when young Taunton was killed playing polo. The poor girl broke her heart and slipped out of life, leaving behind one little boy. She had no relations, and Captain Taunton had no one very near, and when she was dying she had left instructions. 'Send my boy to Scotland. Ask Jean to bring him up. She will understand.' I suppose she had detected even in the schoolgirl of fourteen Jean's most outstanding quality, steadfastness, and entrusted the child to her without a qualm.
"So the baby of two was sent to the child of eighteen, and Jean glows with gratitude and tells you how good it was of her at-one-time stepmother to think of her! That is how she seems to take life: no suspecting of motives: looking for, therefore perhaps finding, kindness on every side. It is rather absurd in this wicked world, but I shouldn't wonder if it made for happiness.
"The Taunton child has, of course, no shadow of claim on the Jardines, but he is to them a most treasured little brother. 'The Mhor,' as they call him, is their great amusement and delight. He is quite absurdly good-looking, with great grave green eyes and a head most wonderfully set on his shoulders. He has a small income of his own, which Jean keeps religiously apart so that he may be able to go to a good school when he is old enough.
"The great-aunt who brought up the Jardines must have been an uncommon old woman. She died (perhaps luckily) just as the young Gervase Taunton came on the scene.
"It seems she always dressed in rustling black silk, sat bolt upright on the edge of chairs for the sake of her figure, took the greatest care of her hands and complexion, and was a great age. She had, Jean said, 'come out at the Disruption.' Jean was so impressive over it that I didn't like to ask what it meant. Do you suppose she made her debut then?
"Perhaps 'the Disruption' is a sort of religious tamasha. Anyway, she was frightfully religious—a strict Calvinist—and taught Jean to regard everything from the point of view of her own death-bed. I mean to say, the child had to ask herself, 'How will this action look when I am on my death-bed?' Every cross word, every small disobedience, she was told, would be a 'thorn in her dying pillow.' I said, perhaps rather rudely, that Great-aunt Alison must have been a horrible old ghoul, but Jean defended her hotly. She seems to have had a great admiration for her aged relative, though she owned that her death was something of a relief. Unfortunately most of her income died with her.
"I think perhaps it was largely this training that has given Jean her particular flavour. She is the most happy change from the ordinary modern girl. Her manners are delightful—not noisy, but frank and gay like a nice boy's. She neither falls into the Scylla of affectation nor the Charybdis of off-handness. She has been nowhere and seen very little; books are her world, and she talks of book-people as if they were everyday acquaintances. She adores Dr. Johnson and quotes him continually.
"She has no slightest trace of accent, but she has that lilt in her voice—I have noticed it once or twice before in Scots people—that makes one think of winds over heathery moorlands, and running water. In appearance she is like a wood elf, rather small and brown, very light and graceful. She is so beautifully made that there is great satisfaction in looking at her. (If she had all the virtues in the world I could never take any interest in a girl who had a large head, or short legs, or thick ankles!) She knows how to dress, too. The little brown frock was just right, and the ribbon that was tied round her hair. I'll tell you what she reminded me of a good deal—Romney's 'Parson's Daughter.'
"What a find for my first day at Priorsford!
"I went to tea with the Jardines and I never was at a nicer tea-party. We said poems to each other most of the time. Mhor's rendering of Chesterton's 'The Pleasant Town of Roundabout' was very fine, but Jock loves best 'Don John of Austria.' You would like Jock. He has a very gruff voice and such surprised blue eyes, and is fond of weird interjections like 'Gosh, Maggie!' and 'Earls in the streets of Cork!' He is a determined foe to sentiment. He won't read a book that contains love-making or death-beds. 'Does anybody marry?' 'Does anybody die?' are his first questions about a book, so naturally his reading is much restricted.
"The Jardines have the lovable habit of becoming suddenly overpowered with laughter, crumpled up, and helpless. You have it, too; I have it; all really nice people have it. I have been refreshing myself with Irish Memories since dinner. Do you remember what is said of Martin Ross? 'The large conventional jest had but small power over her; it was the trivial absurdity, the inversion of the expected the sublimity getting a little above itself and failing to realise that it had taken that fatal step over the border—those were the things that felled her, and laid her, wherever she might be, in ruins....'
"Bella Bathgate, I must tell you, remains unthawed. She hinted to me to-night that she thought the Hydropathic was the place for me—surely the unkindest cut of all. People dress for dinner every night there, she tells me, and most of them are English, and a band plays. Evidently she thinks I would be at home in such company.
"Some day I think you must visit Priorsford and get to know Miss Bathgate.—Yours,
"I forgot to tell you that for some dark reason the Jardines call their cat Sir J.M. Barrie.
"I asked why, but got no satisfaction.
"'Well, you see, there's Peter,' Mhor said vaguely.
"Jock looked at the cat and observed obscurely, 'It's not a sentimental beast either'—while Jean asked if I would have preferred it called Sir Rabindranath Tagore!"
"O, the land is fine, fine, I could buy it a' for mine, For ma gowd's as the stooks in Strathairlie."
When Peter Reid arrived at Priorsford Station from London he stood for a few minutes looking about him in a lost way, almost as if after thirty years he expected to see a "kent face" coming to meet him. He had no -notion where to go; he had not written for rooms; he had simply obeyed the impulse that sent him—the impulse that sends a hurt child to its mother. It is said that an old horse near to death turns towards the pastures where he was foaled. It is true of human beings. "Man wanders back to the fields which bred him."
After a talk with a helpful porter he found rooms in a temperance hotel in the Highgate—a comfortable quiet place.
The next day he was too tired to rise, and spent rather a dreary day in his rooms with the Scotsman for sole companion.
The landlord, a cheery little man, found time once or twice to talk for a few minutes, but he had only been ten years in Priorsford and could tell his guest nothing of the people he had once known.
"D'you know a house called The Rigs?" he asked him.
The landlord knew it well—a quaint cottage with a pretty garden. Old Miss Alison Jardine was living in it when he came first to Priorsford; dead now, but the young folk were still in it.
"Young folk?" said Peter Reid.
"Yes," said the landlord, "Miss Jean Jardine and her brothers. Orphans, I'm told. Father an Anglo-Indian. Nice people? Oh, very. Quiet and inoffensive. They don't own the house, though. I hear the landlord is a very wealthy man in London. By the way, same name as yourself, sir."
"Do I look like a millionaire?" asked Peter Reid, and the landlord laughed pleasantly and non-committally.
The next day was sunny and Peter Reid went out for a walk. It was a different Priorsford that he had come back to. A large draper's shop with plate-glass windows occupied the corner where Jenny Baxter had rolled her toffee-balls and twisted her "gundy," and where old Davy Linton had cut joints and weighed out mince-collops accompanied by wise weather prophecies, a smart fruiterer's shop now stood furnished with a wealth of fruit and vegetables unimagined in his young days. There were many handsome shops, the streets were wider and better kept, unsightly houses had been demolished; it was a clean, prosperous-looking town, but it was different.
Peter Reid (of London) would have been the first to carp at the tumbledown irregular old houses, with their three steps up and three steps down, remaining, but Peter Reid (of Priorsford) missed them. He resented the new shops, the handsome villas, the many motors, all the evidences of prosperity.
And why had Cuddy Brig been altered?
It had been far liker the thing, he thought—the old hump-backed bridge with the grass and ferns growing in the crannies. He had waded in Cuddy when he was a boy, picking his way among the broken dishes and the tin cans, and finding wonderful adventures in the dark of the bridge; he had bathed in it as it wound, clear and shining, among the green meadows outside the town, and run "skirl-naked" to dry himself, in full sight of scandalised passengers in the Edinburgh train; he had slid on it in winter. The memory of the little stream had always lain in the back of his mind as something precious—and now to find it spanned by a staring new stone bridge. Those Town Councils with their improvements!
Even Tweed Bridge had not been left alone. It had been widened, as an inscription in the middle told the world at large. He leant on it and looked up the river. Peel Tower was the same, anyway. No one had dared to add one cubit to its grey stature. It was a satisfaction to look at something so unchanging.
The sun had still something of its summer heat, and it was pleasant to stand there and listen to the sound of the river over the pebbles and see the flaming trees reflected in the blue water all the way up Tweedside till the river took a wide curve before the green slope on which the castle stood. A wonderfully pretty place, Priorsford, he told himself: a home-like place—if one had anyone to come home to.
He turned slowly away. He would go and look at The Rigs. His mother had come to it as a bride. He had been born there. Though occupied by strangers, it was the nearest he had to a home. The house in Prince's Gate was well furnished, comfortable, smoothly run by efficient servants, but only a house when all was said. He felt he would like to creep into The Rigs, into the sitting-room where his mother had always sat (the other larger rooms, the "good room" as it was called, was kept for visitors and high days), and lay his tired body on the horsehair arm-chair by the fireside. He could rest there, he thought. It was impossible, of course. There would be no horsehair arm-chair, for everything had been sold—and there was no mother.
But, anyway, he would go and look at it. There used to be primroses—but this was autumn. Primroses come in the spring.
Thirty years—but The Rigs was not changed, at least not outwardly. Old Mrs. Reid had loved the garden, and Great-aunt Alison, and Jean after her, had carried on her work.
The little house looked just as Peter Reid remembered it.
He would go in and ask to see it, he told himself.
He would tell these Jardines that the house was his and he meant to live in it himself. They wouldn't like it, but he couldn't help that. Perhaps he would be able to persuade them to go almost at once. He would make it worth their while.
He was just going to lift the latch of the gate when the front door opened and shut, and Jean Jardine came down the flagged path. She stopped at the gate and looked at Peter Reid.
"Were you by any chance coming in?" she asked.
"Yes," said Mr. Reid; "I was going to ask if I might see over the house."
"Surely," said Jean. "But—you're not going to buy it, are you?"
The face she turned to him was pink and distressed.
"Did you think of buying it yourself?" Peter Reid asked.
"Me? You wouldn't ask that if you knew how little money I have. But come in. I shall try to think of all its faults to tell you—but in my eyes it hasn't got any."
They went slowly up the flagged path and into the square, low-roofed hall. This was not as his mother had it. Then the floor had been covered with linoleum on which had stood two hard chairs and an umbrella-stand. Now there was an oak chest and a gate-table, old brass very well rubbed up, a grandfather clock with a "clear" face, and a polished floor with a Chinese rug on it.
"It is rather dark," said Jean, "but I like it dark. Coming in on a hot summer day it is almost like a pool; it is so cool and dark and polished." Mr. Reid said nothing, and Jean was torn between a desire to have her home appreciated and a desire to have this stranger take an instant dislike to it, and to leave it speedily and for ever.
"You see," she pointed out, "the little staircase is rather steep and winding, but it is short; and the bedrooms are charming—not very big, but so prettily shaped and with lovely views." Then she remembered that she should miscall rather than praise, and added, "Of course, they have all got queer ceilings; you couldn't expect anything else in a cottage. Will you go upstairs?"
Mr. Reid thought not, and asked if he might see the sitting-rooms. "This," said Jean, opening a door, "is the dining-room."
It was the room his mother had always sat in, where the horsehair arm-chair had had its home, but it, too, had suffered a change. Gone was the arm-chair, gone the round table with the crimson cover. This room had an austerity unknown in the room he remembered. It was small, and every inch of space was made the most of. An old Dutch dresser held china and acted as a sideboard; a bare oak table, having in its centre a large blue bowl filled with berries and red leaves, stood in the middle of the room; eight chairs completed the furniture.
"This is the least nice room in the house," Jean told him, "but we are never in it except to eat. It looks out on the road."
"Yes," said Peter Reid, remembering that that was why his mother had liked it. She could sit with her knitting and watch the passers-by. She had always "infused" the tea when she heard the click of the gate as he came home from school.
"You will like to see the living-room," said Jean, shivering for the effect its charm might have on a potential purchaser. She led him in, hoping that it might be looking its worst, but, as if in sheer contrariness, the fire was burning brightly, a shaft of sunlight lay across a rug, making the colours glow like jewels, and the whole room seemed to hold out welcoming hands. It was satisfactory (though somewhat provoking) that the stranger seemed quite unimpressed.
"You have some good furniture," he said.
"Yes," Jean agreed eagerly. "It suits the room and makes it beautiful. Can you imagine it furnished with a 'suite' and ordinary pictures, and draped curtains at the windows and silver photograph frames and a grand piano? It would simply be no sort of room at all. All its individuality would be gone. But won't you sit down and rest? That hill up from the town is steep."
Peter Reid sank thankfully into a corner of the sofa, while Jean busied herself at the writing-table so that this visitor, who looked so tired, need not feel that he should offer conversation.
Presently he said, "You are very fond of The Rigs?"
Jean came and sat down beside him.
"It's the only home we have ever known," she said. "We came here from India to live with our great-aunt—first me alone, and then David and Jock. And Father and Mother were with us when Father had leave. I have hardly ever been away from The Rigs. It's such a very affectionate sort of house—perhaps that is rather an absurd thing to say, but you do get so fond of it. But if I take you in to see Mrs. M'Cosh in the kitchen she will tell you plenty of faults. The water doesn't heat well, for one thing, and the range simply eats up coal, and there is no proper pantry. Your wife would want to know about these things."
"Haven't got a wife," said Peter Reid gruffly.
"No? Well, your housekeeper, then. You couldn't buy a house without getting to know all about the hot water and pantries."
"There is no question of my buying it."
"Oh, isn't there?" cried Jean joyfully. "What a relief! All the time I've been showing you the house I've been picturing us removing sadly to a villa in the Langhope Road. They are quite nice villas as villas go, but they have only tiny strips of gardens, and stairs that come to meet you as you go in at the front door, and anyway no house could ever be home to us after The Rigs—not though it had hot and cold water in every room and a pantry on every floor."
"Dear me," said Peter Reid.
He felt perplexed, and annoyed with himself for being perplexed. All he had to do was to tell this girl with the frank eyes that The Rigs was his, that he wanted to live in it himself, that if they would turn out at once he would make it worth their while. Quite simple—They were nice people evidently, and would make no fuss. He would say it now—but Jean was speaking.
"I think I know why you wanted to see through this house," she was saying. "I think you must have known it long ago when you were a boy. Perhaps you loved it too—and had to leave it."
"I went to London when I was eighteen to make my fortune."
"Oh," said Jean, and into that "Oh" she put all manner of things she could not say. She had been observing her visitor, and she was sure that this shabby little man (Peter Reid cared not at all for appearances and never bought a new suit of clothes unless compelled) had returned no Whittington, Lord Mayor of London. Probably he was one of the "faithful failures" of the world, one who had tried and missed, and had come back, old and tired and shabby, to see his boyhood's home. The tenderest corner of Jean's tender heart was given to shabby people, and she longed to try to comfort and console, but dared not in case of appearing impertinent. She reflected dismally that he had not even a wife to be nice to him, and he was far too old to have a mother.
"Are you staying in Priorsford?" she asked gently.
"I'm at the Temperance Hotel for a few days. I—the fact is, I haven't been well. I had to take a rest, so I came back here—after thirty years."
"Have you really been away for thirty years? Great-aunt Alison came to The Rigs first about thirty years ago. Do you, by any chance, know our landlord in London? Mr. Peter Reid is his name."
"I know him."
"He's frightfully rich, they say. I don't suppose you know him well enough to ask him not to sell The Rigs? It can't make much difference to him, though it means so much to us. Is he old, our landlord?"
"A man in his prime," said Peter Reid.
"That's pretty old, isn't it?" said Jean—"about sixty, I think. Of course," hastily, "sixty isn't really old. When I'm sixty—if I'm spared—I expect I shall feel myself good for another twenty years."
"I thought I was," said Peter Reid, "until I broke down."
"Oh, but a rest at Priorsford will put you all right."
Could he afford a holiday? she wondered. Even temperance hotels were rather expensive when you hadn't much money. Would it be very rash and impulsive to ask him to stay at The Rigs?
"Are you comfortable at the Temperance?" she asked. "Because if you don't much care for hotels we would love to put you up here. Mhor is apt to be noisy, but I'm sure he would try to be quiet when he knew that you needed a rest."
"My dear young lady," gasped Peter Reid. "I'm afraid you are rash. You know nothing of me. I might be an impostor, a burglar—"
Jean threw back her head and laughed. "Do forgive me, but the thought of you with a jemmy and a dark lantern is so funny."
"You don't even know my name."
"I don't," said Jean, "but does that matter? You will tell it me when you want to."
"My name is Reid, the same as your landlord."
"Then," said Jean, "are you a relative of his?"
"A connection." It was not what he meant to say, but he said it.
"How odd!" said Jean. She was trying to remember if she had said anything unbecoming of one relative to another. "Oh, here's Jock and Mhor," as two figures ran past the windows; "you must stay and have tea with us, Mr. Reid."
"But I ought to be getting back to the hotel. I had no intention of inflicting myself on you in this way." He rose to his feet and looked about for his hat. "The fact is—I must tell you—I am——"
The door burst open and Mhor appeared. He had forgotten to remove his cap, or wipe his muddy boots, so eager was he to tell his news.
"Jean," he shouted, oblivious in his excitement of the presence of a stranger—"Jean, there are six red puddock-stools at the bottom of the garden—bright red puddock-stools." He noticed Mr. Reid and, going up to him and looking earnestly into his face, he repeated, "Six!"
"Indeed," said Peter Reid.
He had no acquaintance with boys, and felt extremely ill at ease, but Mhor, after studying him for a minute, was seized with a violent fancy for this new friend.
"You're going to stay to tea, aren't you? Would you mind coming with me just now to look at the puddock-stools? It might be too dark after tea. Here is your hat."
"But I'm not staying to tea," cried the unhappy owner of The Rigs. Why, he asked himself had he not told them at once that he was their landlord? A connection! Fool that he was! He would say it now—"I only came—"
"It was very nice of you to come," said Jean soothingly. "But, Mhor, don't worry Mr. Reid. Everybody hasn't your passion for puddock-stools."
"But you would like to see them," Mhor assured him. "I'm going to fill a bowl with chucky-stones and moss and stick the puddock-stools among them and make a fairy garden for Jean. And if I can find any more I'll make one for the Honourable; she is very kind about giving me chocolates."
They were out of doors by this time, and Mhor was pointing out the glories of the garden.
"You see, we have a burn in our garden with a little bridge over it; almost no one else has a burn and a bridge of their very own. There are minnows in it and all sorts of things—water-beetles, you know. And here are my puddock-stools."
When Mr. Reid came back from the garden Mhor had firm hold of his hand and was telling him a long story about a "mavis-bird" that the cat had caught and eaten.
"Tea's ready," he said, as they entered the room; "you can't go away now, Mr. Reid. See these cookies? I went for them myself to Davidson the baker's, and they were so hot and new-baked that the bag burst and they all fell out on the road."
"Mhor! You horrid little boy."
"They're none the worse, Jean. I dusted them all with me useful little hanky, and the road wasn't so very dirty."
"All the same," said Jean, "I think we'll leave the cookies to you and Jock. The other things are baked at home, Mr. Reid, and are quite safe. Mhor, tell Jock tea's in, and wash your hands."
So Peter Reid found himself, like Balaam, remaining to bless. After all, why should he turn these people out of their home? A few years (with care) was all the length of days promised to him, and it mattered little where he spent them. Indeed, so little profitable did leisure seem to him that he cared little when the end came. Mhor and his delight over a burn of his own, and a garden that grew red puddock-stools, had made up his mind for him. He would never be the angel with the flaming sword who turned Mhor out of paradise. He had not known that a boy could be such a pleasant person. He had avoided children as he had avoided women, and now he found himself seated, the centre of interest, at a family tea-table, with Jean, anxiously making tea to his liking, while Mhor (with a well-soaped, shining face, but a high-water mark of dirt where the sponge had not reached) sat close beside him, and Jock, the big schoolboy, shyly handed him scones: and Peter walked among the feet of the company, waiting for what he could get.