BY MAY SINCLAIR
Every kind and beautiful thing on earth has been made so by some cruelty.
Saying of the Romantic
BOOK ONE Charlotte Redhead
BOOK TWO John Roden Conway
They turned again at the end of the platform.
The tail of her long, averted stare was conscious of him, of his big, tweed-suited body and its behaviour, squaring and swelling and tightening in its dignity, of its heavy swing to her shoulder as they turned.
She could stave off the worst by not looking at him, by looking at other things, impersonal, innocent things; the bright, yellow, sharp gabled station; the black girders of the bridge; the white signal post beside it holding out a stiff, black-banded arm; the two rails curving there, with the flat white glitter and sweep of scythes; pointed blades coming together, buried in the bend of the cutting.
Small three-cornered fields, clean edged like the pieces of a puzzle, red brown and pure bright green, dovetailed under the high black bar of the bridge. She supposed you could paint that.
Clear stillness after the rain. She caught herself smiling at the noise her boots made clanking on the tiles with the harsh, joyous candour that he hated. He walked noiselessly, with a jerk of bluff knickerbockered hips, raising himself on his toes like a cat.
She could see him moving about in her room, like that, in the half darkness, feeling for his things, with shamed, helpless gestures. She could see him tiptoeing down her staircase, furtive, afraid. Always afraid they would be found out.
That would have ruined him.
Oh well—why should he have ruined himself for her? Why? But she had wanted, wanted to ruin herself for him, to stand, superb and reckless, facing the world with him. If that could have been the way of it.
That road over the hill—under the yellow painted canopy sticking out from the goods station—it would be the Cirencester road, the Fosse Way. She would tramp along it when he was gone.
He must have seen her looking at the clock. Three minutes more.
Suddenly, round the bend, under the bridge, the train.
He was carrying it off fairly well, with his tight red face and his stare over her head when she looked at him, his straight smile when she said "Good-bye and Good-luck!"
And her silly hand clutching the window ledge. She let go, quick, afraid he would turn sentimental at the end. But no; he was settling down heavily in his corner, blinking and puffing over his cigar.
That was her knapsack lying on the seat there. She picked it up and slung it over her shoulder.
Cirencester? Or back to Stow-on-the-Wold? If only he hadn't come there last night. If only he had let her alone.
She meditated. She would have to wire to Gwinnie Denning to meet her at Cirencester. She wondered whether Gwinnie's mother's lumbago would last over the week-end. It was Friday. Perhaps Gwinnie had started. Perhaps there would be a wire from her at the hotel.
Going on to Cirencester when you wanted to be in Stow-on-the-Wold, what was it but a cowardly retreat? Driven out of Stow-on-the-Wold by Gibson? Not she!
Dusk at ten o'clock in the morning under the trees on the mile-long hill. You climbed up and up a steep green tunnel. The sun would be blazing at its mouth on the top. Nothing would matter. Certainly not this affair with Gibson Herbert. She could see clearly her immense, unique passion thus diminished. Surprising what a lot of it you could forget. Clean forget. She supposed you forgot because you couldn't bear to remember.
But there were days that stood out; hours; little minutes that thrilled you even now and stung.
This time, two years ago, that hot August. The day in the office when everything went wrong all at once and the clicking of her typewriter maddened him and he sent her out of his room.
The day when he kept her over-time. The others had gone and they were there by themselves, the big man in his big room and she in her den, the door open between. Suddenly she saw him standing in the doorway, looking at her. She knew then. She could feel the blood rushing in her brain; the stabbing click of the typewriter set up little whirling currents that swamped her thoughts.
Her wet fingers kept slipping from the keys. He came and took her in his arms. She lay back in his arms, crying. Crying because she was happy, because she knew.
She remembered now what he had said then. "You must have known. You must have thought of me. You must have wanted me to take you in my arms." And her answer. "No. I didn't. I didn't think of it."
And his smile. His unbelieving smile. He thought she was lying. He always thought people were lying. Women. He thought women always lied about what they wanted.
The first time. In her Bloomsbury room, one evening, and the compact they made then, sitting on the edge of the sofa, like children, holding each other's hands and swearing never to go back on it, never to go back on themselves or on each other. If it ever had to end, a clean cut. No going back on that either.
The first night, in the big, gloomy bedroom of the hotel in Glasgow. The thick, grey daylight oozing in at the window out of the black street; and Gibson lying on his back, beside her, sleeping, the sheet dragged sideways across his great chest. His innocent eyelids.
And the morning after; the happiness. All day the queer, exalted feeling that she was herself, Charlotte Redhead, at last, undeceived and undeceiving.
The day his wife came into the office. Her unhappy eyes and small, sharp-pointed face, shrinking into her furs. Her name was Effie.
He had told her in the beginning that he had left off caring for his wife. They couldn't hurt her; she didn't care enough. She never had cared. There was another fellow. Effie would be all right.
Yet, after she had seen Effie it had never been the same thing. She couldn't remember, quite, how it had been.
She could remember the ecstasy, how it would come swinging through you, making you blind and deaf to impersonal, innocent things while it lasted. Even then there was always something beyond it, something you looked for and missed, something you thought would come that never came. There was something he did. She couldn't remember. That would be one of the things you wanted to forget. She saw his thick fingers at dessert, peeling the peaches.
Perhaps his way of calling her "Poor Sharlie?" Things he let out—"I never thought I could have loved a girl with bobbed hair. A white and black girl." There must have been other girls then. A regular procession. Before he married Effie.
She could see them. Pink and gold girls, fluffy and fat; girls with red hair; brown haired girls with wide slippery mouths. Then Effie. Then herself, with her thick bobbed mane and white face. And the beautiful mouth he praised so.
Was it the disgust of knowing that you were only one of a procession? Or was it that Effie's sad, sharp face slipped between?
And the end of it. The break-down, when Effie was ill.
His hysterical cries. "My wife, Sharlie, my wife. We oughtn't to have done it....
"... I can't forgive myself, Sharlie. I've been a brute, a beast, a stupid animal....
"... When I think of what we've done to her—the little innocent thing—the awful unhappiness—I could kill myself."
"Do you mean she knows?"
"She thinks. That's bad enough. If she knew, it would kill her."
"You said she wouldn't care. You said there was another man."
"You lied, then?"
"Of course I lied. You wouldn't have come to me if I hadn't."
"You told me you didn't care for her."
He had met that with his "Well—what did you want?"
She went over and over it, turning it round and round to see if there was any sort of light it would look a bit better in. She had been going to give him up so beautifully. The end of it was to have been wonderful, quiet, like a heavenly death, so that you would get a thrill out of that beauty when you remembered. All the beauty of it from the beginning, taken up and held together, safe at the end. You wouldn't remember anything else. And he had killed it, with his conscience, suddenly sick, whining, slobbering, vomiting remorse—Turning on her.
"I can't think what you wanted with me. Why couldn't you have let me alone!"
Her own voice, steady and hard. "If you feel dirty, go and wash yourself outside. Don't try and rub it off on me. I want to keep clean."
"Isn't it a bit too late?"
"Not if you clear out at once. This minute." He called her "a cruel little devil."
She could forgive him for that. She could forgive him ending it in any beastly way he liked, provided he did end it. But not last night. To come crawling back, three months after, wanting to begin again. Thinking it was possible.
There had been nothing worse than that. Except that one dreadful minute last year when he had wanted to raise her salary—afterwards—and she had said "What for?" And their faces had turned from each other, flaming with the fire of her refusal.
What had he really thought of her? Did he think she wanted to get anything out of their passion? What could you want to get out of it, or give, but joy? Pure joy. Beauty.
At the bend of the road the trees parted. A slender blue channel of sky flowed overhead between the green tops.
If not joy, then truth; reality. The clear reality of yourself, Charlotte Redhead. Of Gibson Herbert. Even now it would be all right so long as you knew what it was and didn't lie about it.
That evening in the office when he came to her—she could remember the feeling that shot up suddenly and ran over her and shook her brain, making her want him to take her in his arms. It was that. It had never been anything but that. She had wanted him to take her, and he knew it. Only, if he hadn't come to her and looked at her she wouldn't have thought of it; she would have gone on working for him without thinking. That was what he didn't know, what he wouldn't have believed if you had told him.
She had come to the top of the hill. At the crossroads she saw the grey front of her inn, the bow window jutting, small black shining panes picked out with the clean white paint of the frame-work.
Upstairs their breakfast table stood in the window bow as they had left it. Bread he had broken on the greasy plate. His cup with the coffee he couldn't drink. Pathetic, if you hadn't remembered.
"You might as well. If it isn't you, it'll be another woman, Sharlie. If it isn't me, it'll be another man."
That was what he had thought her.
It didn't matter.
She stood at the five roads, swinging her stick, undecided.
The long line of the beeches drew her, their heads bowed to the north as the south wind had driven them. The blue-white road drew her, rising, dipping and rising; between broad green borders under grey walls.
She walked. She could feel joy breaking loose in her again, beating up and up, provoked and appeased by the strong, quick movement of her body. The joy she had gone to her lover for, the pure joy he couldn't give her, coming back out of the time before she knew him.
Nothing mattered when your body was light and hard and you could feel the ripple and thrill of the muscles in your stride.
She wouldn't have to think of him again. She wouldn't have to think of any other man. She didn't want any more of that again, ever. She could go on and on like this, by herself, without even Gwinnie; not caring a damn.
If she had been cruel—if she had wanted to hurt Effie. She hadn't meant to hurt her.
She thought of things. Places she had been happy in. She loved the high open country. Fancy sitting with Gibson in his stuffy office, day after day, for five years. Fancy going to Glasgow with him. Glasgow—
She thought: "I can pretend it didn't happen. Nothing's happened. I'm myself. The same me I was before."
Suddenly she stood still. On the top of the ridge the whole sky opened, throbbing with light, immense as the sky above a plain. Hills—thousands of hills. Thousands of smooth curves joining and parting, overlapping, rolling together.
What did you want? What did you want? How could you want anything but this for ever?
Across the green field she saw the farm. Tall, long-skirted elms standing up in a row before the sallow ricks and long grey barns. Under the loaded droop of green a grey sharp-pointed gable, topped by a stone ball. Four Scotch firs beside it, slender and strange.
She stood leaning over the white gate, looking and thinking.
Funny things, colts grazing. Short bodies that stopped at their shoulders; long, long necks hanging down like tails, pushing their heads along the ground. She could hear their nostrils breathing and the scrinch, scrinch of their teeth tearing the grass.
You could be happy living on a farm, looking after the animals.
You could learn farming. People paid.
Suddenly she knew what she would do. She would do that. It wasn't reasonable to go on sitting in a stuffy office doing work you hated when you could pack up and go. She couldn't have stuck to it for five years if it hadn't been for Gibson—falling in love with him, the most unreasonable thing of all. She didn't care if you had to pay to learn farming. You had to pay for everything you learned. There were the two hundred pounds poor dear Daddy left, doing nothing. She could pay.
She would go down to the farm now, this minute, and see if they would take her.
As she crossed the field she heard the farmyard gate open and shut.
The man came up towards her in the narrow path. He was looking at her as he came, tilting his head back to get her clear into his eyes under the shade of his slouched hat.
She called to him. "Is this your farm?" And he halted.
He smiled; the narrow smile of small, fine lips, with a queer, winged movement of the moustache, a flutter of dark down. She saw his eyes, hard and keen, dark blue, like the blade of a new knife.
"No. I wish it was my farm. Why?"
She could see now it wasn't. He was out tramping. The corner of a knapsack bulged over his right shoulder. Rough greenish coat and stockings—dust-coloured riding breeches—
But there was something about him. Something tall and distant; slender and strange, like the fir-trees.
"Because whoever's farm it is I want to see him."
"You won't see him. There isn't anybody there."
"Do you know who he is?" she said.
"No. I don't know anything. I don't even know where I am. But I hope it's Bourton-on-the-Hill."
"I'm afraid it isn't. It's Stow-on-the-Wold."
He laughed and shifted his knapsack to his left shoulder, and held up his chin. His eyes slewed round, raking the horizon.
"It's all right," she said. "You can get to Bourton-on-the-Hill. I'll show you." She pointed. "You see where that clump of trees is—like a battleship, sailing over a green hill. That's about where it is."
"Thanks. I've been trying to get there all afternoon."
"Where have you come from?"
"Stanway. The other side of that ridge."
"You should have kept along the top. You've come miles out of your way."
"I like going out of my way. I did it for fun. For the adventure."
You could see he was innocent and happy, like a child. She turned and went with him up the field.
She wouldn't go to Bourton-on-the-Hill. She would go back to the hotel and see whether there was a wire for her from Gwinnie.... He liked going out of his way.
"I suppose," he said, "there's something the other side of that gate."
"I hate to tell you. There's a road there. It's your way. The end of the adventure."
He laughed again, showing small white teeth this time. The gate fell to with a thud and a click.
"What do I do now?"
"You go north. Straight ahead. Turn down the fifth or sixth lane on your right—you'll see the sign-post. Then the first lane on your left. That'll bring you out at the top of the hill."
"Thanks. Thanks most awfully." He raised his hat, backing from her, holding her in his eyes till he turned.
He would be out of sight now at the pace he was going; his young, slender, skimming stride.
She stood on the top of the rise and looked round. He was halting down there at the bend by the grey cone of the lime kiln under the ash-tree. He had turned and had his face towards her. Above his head the battleship sailed on its green field.
He began to come back, slowly, as if he were looking for something dropped on his path; then suddenly he stopped, turned again and was gone.
There was no wire from Gwinnie. She had waited a week now. She wondered how long it would be before Gwinnie's mother's lumbago gave in and let her go.
* * * * *
She knew it by heart now, the long, narrow coffee-room of the hotel. The draped chimney piece and little oblong gilt-framed mirror at one end; at the other the bowed window looking west on to the ash-tree and the fields; the two straight windows between, looking south on to the street.
To-night the long table down the middle was set with a white cloth. The family from Birmingham had come. Father and mother, absurd pouter-pigeons swelling and strutting; two putty-faced unmarried daughters, sulking; one married one, pink and proper, and the son-in-law, sharp eyed and bald-headed. From their table in the centre they stared at her where she dined by herself at her table in the bow.
Two days. She didn't think she could bear it one day more.
She could see herself as she came down the room; her knitted silk sport's coat, bright petunia, flaming; thick black squares of her bobbed hair hanging over eyebrows and ears. And behind, the four women's heads turning on fat necks to look at her, reflected.
Gwinnie's letter was there, stuck up on the mantel-piece. Gwinnie could come at the week-end; she implored her to hang on for five days longer, not to leave Stow-on-the-Wold till they could see it together. A letter from Gibson, repeating himself.
The family from Birmingham were going through the door; fat faces straining furtively. If they knew—if they only knew. She stood, reading.
She heard the door shut. She could look in the glass now and amuse herself by the sight they had stared at. The white face raised on the strong neck and shoulders. Soft white nose, too thick at the nuzzling tip. Brown eyes straight and wide open. Deep-grooved, clear-cut eyelids, heavy lashes. Mouth—clear-cut arches, moulded corners, brooding. Her eyes and her mouth. She could see they were strange. She could see they were beautiful.
And herself, her mysterious, her secret self, Charlotte Redhead. It had been secret and mysterious to itself once, before she knew.
She didn't want to be secret and mysterious. Of all things she hated secrecy and mystery. She would tell Gwinnie about Gibson Herbert when she came. She would have to tell her.
Down at the end of the looking-glass picture, behind her, the bow window and the slender back of a man standing there.
* * * * *
She had got him clear by this time. If he went to-morrow he would stay, moving about forever in your mind. The young body, alert and energetic; slender gestures of hands. The small imperious head carried high. The spare, oval face with the straight-jutting, pointed chin. Honey-white face, thin dusk and bistre of eyelids and hollow temples and the roots of the hair. Its look of being winged, lifted up, ready to start off on an adventure. Hair brushed back in two sleek, dark wings. The straight slender nose, with the close upward wings of its nostrils (it wasn't Roman after all). Under it the winged flutter of his mouth when he smiled.
Black eyebrows almost meeting, the outer ends curling up queerly, like little moustaches. And always the hard, blue knife-blade eyes.
She knew his name the first day. He had told her. Conway. John Roden Conway.
The family from Birmingham had frightened him. So he sat at her table in the bow. They talked. About places—places. Places they had seen and hadn't seen; places they wanted to see, and the ways you could get to places. He trusted to luck; he risked things; he was out, he said, for risk. She steered by the sun, by instinct, by the map in her head. She remembered. But you could buy maps. He bought one the next day.
They went for long walks together. She found out the field paths. And they talked. Long, innocent conversations. He told her about himself. He came from Coventry. His father was a motor car manufacturer; that was why he liked tramping.
She told him she was going to learn farming. You could be happy all day long looking after animals. Swinging up on the big bare backs of cart horses and riding them to water; milking cows and feeding calves. And lambs. When their mothers were dead. They would run to you then, and climb into your lap and sit there—sucking your fingers.
As they came in and went out together the family from Birmingham glared at them.
"Did you see how they glared?"
"Do you mind?" he said.
"Not a bit."
"No more do I. It doesn't matter what people like that do. Their souls are horrible. They leave a glairy trail everywhere they go. If they were dead—stretched out on their death beds—you'd see their souls, like long, fat white slugs stretched out too, glued to their bodies.... You know what they think? They think we met each other on purpose. They think we're engaged."
"I don't care," she said. "It doesn't matter what they think."
They laughed at the silliness of the family from Birmingham. He had been there five days.
* * * * *
Gwinnie's voice drawled in slow meditative surprise.
The brooding curiosity had gone out of her face. Gwinnie's face, soft and schoolgirlish between the fawn gold bands and plaited ear bosses of her hair, the pink, pushed out mouth, the little routing nose, the thick grey eyes, suddenly turned on you, staring.
Gwinnie had climbed up on to the bed to hear about it. She sat hunched up with her arms round her knees rocking herself on the end of her spine; and though she stared she still rocked. She was happy and excited because of her holiday.
"It can't make any difference, Gwin. I'm the same Charlotte. Don't tell me you didn't know I was like that."
"Of course I knew it. I know a jolly lot more than you think, kid."
"I'm not a kid—if you are two years older."
"Why—you're not twenty-four yet.... It's the silliness of it beats me. Going off like that, with the first silly cuckoo that turns up."
"He wasn't the first that turned up, I mean. He was the third that counted. There was poor Binky, the man I was engaged to. And Dicky Raikes; he wanted me to go to Mexico with him. Just for a lark, and I wouldn't. And George Corfield. He wanted me to marry him. And I wouldn't."
"Why didn't you?"
"Because Dicky's always funny when you want to be serious and George is always serious when you want to be funny. Besides, he's so good. His goodness would have been too much for me altogether. Fancy beginning with George."
"This seems to have been a pretty rotten beginning, anyway."
"The beginning was all right. It's the end that's rotten. The really awful thing was Effie."
"Look here—" Gwinnie left off rocking and swung herself to the edge of the bed. Her face looked suddenly mature and full of wisdom. "I don't believe in that Effie business. You want to think you stopped it because of Effie; but you didn't. You've got to see it straight.... It was his lying and funking that finished you. He fixed on the two things you can't stand."
The two things. The two things.
"I know what you want. You want to kill him in my mind, so that I shan't think of him any more. I'm not thinking. I only wanted you to know."
"Does anybody else know?"
She shook her head.
"Well—don't you let them."
Gwinnie slid to her feet and went to the looking-glass. She stood there a minute, pinning closer the crushed bosses of her hair. Then she turned.
"What are you going to do with that walking-tour johnnie?"
"John—Conway? You couldn't do anything with him if you tried. He's miles beyond all that."
"The rotten things people do. The rotten things they think. You're safe with him, Gwinnie. Safe. Safe. You've only to look at him."
"I have looked at him. Whatever you do, don't tell him, Sharlie."
Charlotte sat on the top of the slope in the field below Barrow Farm. John Conway lay at her feet. The tall beeches stood round them in an unclosed ring.
Through the opening she could see the farmhouse, three ball-topped gables, the middle one advancing, the front built out there in a huge door-place that carried a cross windowed room under its roof.
Low heavy-browed mullions; the panes, black shining slits in the grey and gold of the stone. All their rooms. Hers and Gwinnie's under the near gable by the fir-trees, Mr. and Mrs. Burton's under the far gable by the elms, John's by itself in the middle, jutting out.
She could see the shallow garden dammed up to the house out of the green field by its wall, spilling trails of mauve campanula, brimming with pink phlox and white phlox, the blue spires of the lupins piercing up through the froth.
Sunday evening half an hour before milking-time. From September nineteen-thirteen to December—to March nineteen-fourteen, to June—she had been at the farm nine months. June—May—April. This time three months ago John had come.
In the bottom of the field, at the corner by the yard-gate, under the elms, she could see Gwinnie astride over the tilted bucket, feeding the calves. It was Gwinnie's turn.
She heard the house door open and shut. The Burtons came down the flagged path between the lavender bushes, leaving them to their peace before milking time.
Looking down she saw John's eyes blinking up at her through their lashes. His chest showed a red-brown V in the open neck of his sweater. He had been quiet a long time. His voice came up out of his quietness, sudden and queer.
"Keep your head like that one minute—looking down. I want your eyelids.... Now I know."
"What you're like. You're like Jeanne d'Arc.... There's a picture—the photo of a stone head, I think—in a helmet, looking down, with big drooped eyelids. If it isn't Jeanne it ought to be. Anyhow it's you.... That's what's been bothering me. I thought it was just because you had black hair bobbed like a fifteen century page. But it isn't that. It's her forehead and her blunt nose, and her innocent, heroic chin. And the thick, beautiful mouth.... And the look—as if she could see behind her eyelids—dreadful things going to happen to her. All the butchery."
"I don't see any dreadful things going to happen to me."
"No. Her sight was second sight; and your sight is memory. You never forget things.... I shall call you Jeanne. You ought to wear armour and a helmet." His voice ceased and began again. "What are you thinking of?"
"I don't know. I don't think much, ever."
She was wondering what he would think if he knew.
She wondered what the farm would be like without him. Would it be what it was last autumn and winter and in the spring before he came? But she had been happy all that time without him, even in the hard, frost-biting winter. When you had gone through that you knew the worst of Barrow Farm. It made your face coarse, though.
Joan of Arc was a peasant. No wonder she was beginning to look like her. If John went—
"John, shall you stay on here?"
"I don't know. I shall stick to farming if that's what you mean. Though it isn't what I wanted."
"What did you want?"
"To go into the Army."
"Why didn't you then?"
"They wouldn't have me. There's something wrong with my eyes.... So the land's got me instead."
"Me too. We ought to have been doing this all our lives."
"We'll jolly well have to. We shall never be any good indoors again."
"Has old Burton said anything?"
"I'm getting on. I can drive as straight a furrow as any man in Gloucestershire. I've told my father that. He detests me; but he'd say you ought to work up from the plough-tail, if you must farm. He turned all of us through his workshops before he took us into the business. He liked to see us soaked in dirt and oil, crawling on our stomachs under his engines. He'd simply love to see me here standing up to my knees in wet cow-dung."
"He won't mind your leaving him?"
"Not if I make a good thing out of this. Anyhow he knows he can't keep me off it. If I can't fight I'll farm. It's in my blood and nerves and memory. He sits there selling motor cars, but his people were fighting men. They fought to get land; they fought to keep it. My mother's people, the Rodens, were yeoman farmers. That's why my furrow's so straight."
"And that's why you came here?"
"No. That isn't why."
"Aren't you glad you came? Did you ever feel anything like the peace of it?"
"It's not the peace of it I want, Charlotte,—Jeanne, I mean. It's the fight. Fighting with things that would kill you if you didn't. Wounding the earth to sow in it and make it feed you. Ploughing, Charlotte—Jeanne. Feeling the thrust and the drive through, and the thing listing over on the slope. Seeing the steel blade shine, and the long wounds coming in rows, hundreds of wounds, wet and shining."
"What makes you think of wounds?"
"I don't know. I see it like that. Cutting through."
"I don't see it like that one bit. The earth's so kind, so beautiful. And the hills—look at them, the clean, quiet backs, smoothed with light. You could stroke them. And the fields, those lovely coloured fans opening and shutting."
"They're lovely because of what's been done to them. If those hills had been left to themselves there'd have been nothing on them but trees. Think of the big fight with the trees, the hacking through, the cutting. The trunks staggering and falling. You'd begin with a little hole in the forest like that gap in the belt on the sky-line, and you'd go on hacking and cutting. You'd go on.... If you didn't those damned trees would come up round you and jam you between their trunks and crush you to red pulp.... Supposing this belt of beeches drew in and got tighter and tighter—No. There's nothing really kind and beautiful on this earth. Except your face. And even your face—"
"Could be cruel. But it never will be. Something's happened to it. Some cruelty. Some damnable cruelty."
"What makes you think so?"
"Every kind and beautiful thing on earth, Jeanne, has been made so by some cruelty."
"That's all rot. Utter rot. You don't know what you're talking about.... It's milking time. There's Gwinnie semaphoring. Do you know old Burton's going to keep us on? He'll pay us wages from this quarter. He says we were worth our keep from the third day."
"Do you want to stay on here?"
"Very well then, so do I. That settles it."
"Get up," she said, "and come along. Gwinnie's frantic."
He sat up, bowed forwards, his hands hanging loose over his knees. She stood and looked down at him, at the arch of his long, slender back dropping to the narrow hips. She could feel the sudden crush of her breath in her chest and the sighing throb in her throat and her lips parting.
He grasped the hands she stretched out to him at arms' length. She set her teeth and pressed her feet to the ground, and leaned back, her weight against his weight, tugging.
He came up to his feet, alert, laughing at the heavy strength of her pull. As they ran down the field he still held, loosely, like a thing forgotten, her right hand.
* * * * *
Through the long June night on her bed in the room under the gable—the hot room that smelt of plaster and of the apples stored in the loft behind it—she lay thinking.
Gwinnie had turned her back, burrowing into her pillow with a final shrug of her hips. She was asleep now in her corner.
"If I were you I wouldn't think about him, Sharlie"—She knew what Gwinnie meant. But thinking was one thing and caring was another. Thinking was the antidote to caring. If she had let her mind play freely over Gibson Herbert in the beginning—But Gibson stopped her thinking, and John Conway made her think. That was the difference.
There was nothing about John that was like Gibson. Not a look, not a gesture, not the least thought in his mind. His mind was like his body, clean and cold and beautiful. Set on fire only by dreams; loving you in a dream, a dream that burned him up and left him cold to you. Cold and clean.
There were things she laid up against him, the poor dear; a secret hoard of grievances now clear to her in the darkness; she found herself turning them over and over, as if positively her mind owed his romantic apathy a grudge. Little things she remembered. Three things.
Yesterday in the hayfield, John pitching hay on to the cart, and she standing on the top of the load, flattening down the piles as he swung them up. Gwinnie came with a big fork, swanking, for fun, trying to pitch a whole haycock. In the dark of the room she could see Gwinnie's little body straining back from the waist, her legs stiffening, her face pink and swollen; and John's face looking at Gwinnie.
She shouted down at him, "Why can't you take the damned thing? She'll break her back with it." And he shouted up, "That's her look-out." (But he took it.) He didn't like Gwinnie.
That time. And the time Cowslip calved, the darling choosing the one night old Burton was away and Jim down with flu. She had to hold the lantern. Straw littered in the half-lighted shed. Cowslip swinging her bald-faced head round to you, her humble, sorrowful eyes imploring, between her groans and the convulsive heavings of her flanks. A noise between a groan and a bellow, a supreme convulsion. The dark wall, the white funnel of light from the lantern, and John's face in the flash....
But he had been sorry for Cowslip. Going out with the lantern afterwards she had found him in the yard, by the wall, bent double, shivering and retching. And she had sung out to him "Buck up, John. She's licked it clean. It's the dearest little calf you ever saw."
Pity. Pity could drag your face tight and hard, like Burton's when his mare, Jenny, died of colic.
But before that—the night they went to Stow Fair together; crossing the street at the sharp turn by the church gate, something happened. They hadn't heard the motor car coming; it was down on them before they could see it, swerving round her side of the street. He had had his hand tight on her arm to steer her through the crowd. When the car came ... when the car came ... he let go and jumped clean to the curb. She could feel the splash-board graze her thigh, as she sprang clear of it, quick, like a dog.
She was sure he jumped first. She was sure he hadn't let her go before the car came. She could see the blaze of the lamps and feel his grip slacken on her arm.
She wasn't sure. He couldn't have jumped. He couldn't have let go. Of course he hadn't. She had imagined it. She imagined all sorts of things. If she could make them bad enough she would stop thinking about him; she would stop caring. She didn't want to care.
* * * * *
"Charlotte—when I die, that's where I'd like to be buried."
Coming back from Bourton market they had turned into the churchyard on the top of Stow-hill. The long path went straight between the stiff yew cones through the green field set with graves.
"On the top, so high up you could almost breathe in your coffin here."
"I don't want to breathe in my coffin. When I'm dead I'm dead, and when I'm alive I'm alive. Don't talk about dying."
"Why not? Think of the gorgeous risk of it—the supreme toss up. After all, death's the most thrilling thing that happens."
"Don't talk about it."
"Your death then."
"Our death, Jeanne."
He turned to her in the path. His mouth was hard now, but his eyes shone at her, smiling, suddenly warm, suddenly tender.
She knew herself then; she knew there was one cruelty, one brutality beyond bearing, John's death.
John had gone away for a week.
If she could tire herself out, and not dream. In the slack days between hay-time and harvest she was never tired enough. She lay awake, teased by the rucking of the coarse hot sheet under her back, and the sweat that kept on sliding between her skin and her night gown. And she dreamed.
She was waiting in the beech ring on the top of the field. Inside the belt of the tree trunks a belt of stones grew up, like the wall of the garden. It went higher and higher and a hole opened in it, a long slit. She stuck her head through the hole to look out over the hills.
This was the watch-tower. She knew, as if she remembered it, that John had told her to go up and wait for him there; she was keeping watch for him on the tower.
Grey mist flowed over the field like water. He was down there in the field. If she went to him he would take her in his arms.
She was walking now on the highway to Bourton-on-the-Hill. At the dip after the turn shallow water came out of the grass borders and ran across the road, cold to her naked feet. She knew that something was happening to John. He had gone away and she had got to find him and bring him back. She had got to find the clear hill where the battleship sailed over the field.
Instead of the ship she found the Barrow Farm beeches. They stood in a thick ring round a clearing of grey grass and grey light. John was standing there with a woman. She turned and showed her sharp face, the colour of white clay, her long evil nose, her eyes tilted corner and the thin tail of her mouth, writhing. That was Miss Lister who had been in Gibson's office. She had John now.
Forms without faces, shrouded white women, larvae slipped from the black grooves of the beech trunks; they made a ring round him with their bodies, drew it in tighter and tighter. The grey light beat like a pulse with the mounting horror.
She cried out his name, and her voice sounded tragic and immense; sharp like a blade of lightning screaming up to the top of the sky. A black iron curtain crashed down before her and cut off the dream.
Gwinnie looked up over the crook of her knee from the boot she was lacing.
"You made no end of a row in your sleep, Sharlie."
* * * * *
She had dreamed about him again, the next night. He was walking with her on the road from the town to the Farm. By the lime kiln at the turn he disappeared. He had never been there, really.
She had gone out to look for him. The road kept on curling round like a snake, bringing her back and back to the white gate of the Farm.
When she got through the gate she stepped off the field on to the low bridge over a black canal. The long, sharp-pointed road cut straight as a dyke through the flat fields, between two lines of slender trees, tall poles with tufted tops.
She knew she was awake now because the light whitened and the wind moved in the tree tufts and the road felt hard under her feet. When she came to the village, to the long grey walls with narrow shutters, she knew John was there. He came down the street towards the canal bridge. A group of women and children walked with him, dressed in black. Dutch women. Dutch babies. She could see their overalls and high caps and large, upturned shoes very black and distinct in the white light. This was real.
They pointed their fingers and stared at her with secretive, inimical faces. Terror crept in over the street, subtle, drifting and penetrating like an odour.
John's face was happy and excited; that was how she knew him. His face was real, its happiness and excitement were real. But as he passed her it changed; it turned on her with a look she didn't know. Eyes of hatred, eyes that repudiated and betrayed her.
* * * * *
The third night; the third dream.
She had lost John and was looking for him; walking a long time through a country she could no longer see or remember. She came out of blank space to the river bridge and the red town. She could see the road switchbacking over the bridge and turning sharp and slanting up the river bank to the ramparts.
Red fortresses above the ramparts, a high red town above the fortresses, a thin red tower above the town. The whole thing looked dangerous and unsteady, as if any minute it would topple over. She knew John was there. Something awful was happening to him, and he wanted her.
When she stepped on the bridge the river swelled and humped itself up to the arch. It flooded. The bridge walls made a channel for the gush. It curled over the bank and came curving down the slant road from the ramparts, heavy and clear, like melted glass.
She climbed up and up through the water and round behind the fortress to the street at the top. She could see the thin tower break and lean forward like a red crane above the houses. She had to get to the top before the street fell down. John was shut up in the last house. She ran under the tower as it fell.
The house stood still, straight and tall. John was lying in the dark room behind the closed shutters. He wanted her. She could hear him calling to her "Jeanne! Jeanne!" She couldn't see in. She couldn't open the door.
The wall split off and leaned forward.
She woke suddenly to the tapping and splashing of the rain.
Feeding time and milking time were done; in his jutting room over the door-place John was washing and dressing for Sunday evening. He called out to her through his window, "Go up to our seat and wait for me there."
He had come back again, suddenly, that morning, a day before they had expected him.
Charlotte came out of the hot field into the cool room of the beech ring. She sniffed up the clean, sharp smell of sap from the rough seat that she and John had put up there, sawing and hacking and hammering all Sunday afternoon. Every evening when the farm work was done they would sit there together, inside the round screen of the beeches.
The farm people wouldn't disturb them; not even Mr. Burton, now, looking in, smiling the fat, benevolent smile that blessed them, and going away; the very calves were so well used to them that they had left off pushing their noses through the tree trunks and staring.
John's window faced her where she sat; she could see his head passing and passing across the black window space. To her sharp, waiting soul Barrow Farm took on a sudden poignant and foreign beauty. The house was yellow where the rain had soaked it, gold yellow like a sun-struck southern house, under the black plume of the firs, a yellow that made the sky's blue solid and thick. The grass, bright green after the rain, stretched with the tight smoothness of velvet over the slopes and ridges of the field. A stripe of darker green, where their feet had trodden down the blades, led straight as a sheep's track from the garden gate to the opening of the ring.
To think that she had dreamed bad dreams in a place like this. She thought: "There must be something wrong about me, anyhow, to dream bad dreams about John."
John was coming up the field, walking slowly, his hands thrust in his pockets, his eyes fixed steadily on a point in front of him that his mind didn't see, drawn back in some intense contemplation. He strolled into the ring so slowly that she had time to note the meditative gestures of his shoulders and chin. He stood beside her, very straight and tall, not speaking, still hiding his hands in his pockets, keeping up to the last minute his pose of indestructible tranquillity. He was so close that she could hear his breathing and feel his coat brushing her shoulder.
He seated himself, slowly, without a break in the silence of his meditation.
She knew that something wonderful and beautiful was going to happen. It had happened; it was happening now, growing more certain and more real with every minute that she waited for John to say something. If nothing changed, if this minute that she was living now prolonged itself, if it went on for ever and ever, that would be happiness enough.
If she could keep still like this for ever—Any movement would be dangerous. She was afraid almost to breathe.
Then she remembered. Of course, she would have to tell him.
She could feel the jerk and throb in John's breathing, measuring off the moments of his silence. Her thoughts came and went. "When he says he cares for me I shall have to tell him"—"This is going on for ever. If he cared for me he would have said it before now."—"It doesn't matter. He can care or not as he likes. Nothing can stop my caring."
Then she was aware of her will, breaking through her peace, going out towards him, fastening on his mind to make him care; to make him say he cared, now, this minute. She was aware of her hands, clenched and unclenched, pressing the sharp edge of the seat into their palms as she dragged back her will.
She was quiet now.
John was looking at his own loose clasped hands and smiling. "Yes," he said, "yes. Yes." It was as if he had said, "This will go on. Nothing more than this can ever happen. But as long as we live it will go on."
She had a sense almost of relief.
"You asked me why I came here. You must have known why."
"I didn't. I don't."
"Can't you think?"
"No, John. I've left off thinking. My thinking's never any use."
"If you did think you'd know it was you."
"If it wasn't you just at first it was your face. There are faces that do things to you, that hurt you when they're not there. Faces of people you don't know in the least. You see them once and they never let you alone till you've seen them again. They draw you after them, back and back. You'd commit any sin just to see them again once....
"... You've got that sort of face. When I saw you the first time—Do you remember? You came towards me over the field. You stopped and spoke to me."
"Supposing I hadn't?"
"It wouldn't have mattered. I'd have followed you just the same. Wherever you'd gone I'd have gone, too. I very nearly turned back then."
She remembered. She saw him standing in the road at the turn.
"I knew I had to see you again. But I waited two days to make sure. Then I came ...
"... And when I'd gone I kept on seeing your face. It made me come back again. And the other day—I tried to get away from you. I didn't mean to come back; but I had to. I can't stand being away from you. And yet—
"... Oh well—there it is. I had to tell you ... I couldn't if I didn't trust you."
"You tried to get away from me—You didn't mean to come back."
"I tell you I had to. It's no use trying."
"But you didn't want to come back.... That's why I dreamed about you."
"Did you dream about me?"
"Yes. Furiously. Three nights running. I dreamed you'd got away and when I'd found you a black thing came down and cut you off. I dreamed you'd got away again, and I met you in a foreign village with a lot of foreign women, and you looked at me and I knew you hated me. You wouldn't know me. You went by without speaking and left me there."
"My God—you thought I could do that?"
"I dreamed it. You don't think in dreams. You feel. You see things."
"You see things that don't exist, that never can exist, things you've thought about people. If I thought that about myself, Jeanne, I'd blow my brains out now, so that it shouldn't happen."
"That wasn't the worst dream. The third was the worst. You were in a dreadful, dangerous place. Something awful was happening, and you wanted me, and I couldn't get to you."
"No, that wasn't the worst dream. I did want you, and you knew it."
She thought: "He cares. He doesn't want to care, but he does. And he trusts me. I shall have to tell him ..."
"There's something," she said, "I've got to tell you."
* * * * *
He must have known. He must have guessed.
He had listened with a gentle, mute attention, as you listen to a story about something that you remember, that interests you still, his eyes fixed on his own hands, his clear, beautiful face dreamy and inert.
"You see," he said, "you did trust me. You wouldn't tell me all that if you didn't."
"Of course I trust you. I told you because you trusted me. I thought—I thought you ought to know. I daresay you did know—all the time."
"No. No, I didn't. I shouldn't have believed it was in you."
"It isn't in me now. It's gone clean out of me. I shall never want that sort of thing again."
"I know that." He said it almost irritably. "I mean I shouldn't have thought you could have cared for a brute like that.... But the brutes women do care for ..."
"I suppose I did care. But I don't feel as if I'd cared. I don't feel as if it had ever really happened. I can't believe it did. You see, I've forgotten such a lot of it. I couldn't have believed that once, that you could go and do a thing like that and forget about it. You'd have thought you'd remember it as long as you lived."
"You couldn't live if you remembered...."
"Oh, John, do you think it was as horrible as all that?"
His face moved, flashed into sudden passion.
"I think he was as horrible as that. He makes it horrible—inconceivably horrible."
"You've told me. He was cruel to you. And he lied and funked."
"It wasn't like him—it wasn't like him to lie and funk. It was my fault. I made the poor thing jumpy. I let him run such whopping risks. The horrible thing is thinking what I made him."
"He was a liar and a coward, Charlotte; a swine."
"I tell you he wasn't. Oh, why are we so beastly hard on each other? Everybody's got their breaking-point. I don't lie about the things he lied about; I don't funk the things he funked. But when my time comes I daresay I shall funk and lie."
"Charlotte—are you sure you don't care for him?"
"Of course I'm sure. I told you I'd forgotten all about it. This is what I shall remember all my life. Your being here, my being with you. It's the real thing."
"You wouldn't want to go back?"
"No. To that sort of thing."
"You mean with—just anybody?"
"I mean with—somebody you cared about. Could you do without it and go on caring?"
"Yes. If he could. If he could go on. But he wouldn't."
"'He' wouldn't, Charlotte. But I would.... You know I do care for you?"
"I thought you did—I mean I thought you were beginning to. That's why I told you what happened, though I knew you'd loathe me."
"I don't. I'm glad you told me. I'm glad it happened. I mean I'm glad you worked it off on him.... You got it over; you've had your experience; you know all about it; you know how long that sort of thing lasts and how it ends. The baseness, the cruelty of it ... I'm like you, Charlotte, I don't want any more of it.... When I say I care for you I mean I want to be with you, to be with you always. I'm not happy when you're not there....
"... I say, I wish you'd leave this place and come away and live with me somewhere."
"There's my farm. My father's going to give me one if I stick to this job. We could run it together. There are all sorts of jolly things we could do together.... Would you like to live with me, Charlotte, on my farm?"
"I mean—live with me without that."
"Yes; without that."
"It isn't that I don't care for you. It's because I care so awfully, so much more than anybody else could. I want to go on caring, and it's the only way. People don't know that. They don't know what they're destroying with their blind rushing together. All the delicate, exquisite sensations. Charlotte, I can get all the ecstasy I want by just sitting here and looking at you, hearing your voice, touching you—like this." His finger-tips brushed the bare skin of her arm. "Even thinking of you ...
"... And all that would go. Everything would go....
"... But our way—nothing could end it."
"I can see one thing that would end it. If you found somebody you really cared about."
"Oh that—You mean if I—It wouldn't happen, and if it did, what difference would it make?"
"You mean you'd come back?"
"I mean I shouldn't have left you."
"Still, you'd have gone to her. John, I don't think I could bear it."
"You wouldn't have to bear it long. It wouldn't last."
"Why shouldn't it?"
"Because—You don't understand, Charlotte—if I know a woman wants me, it makes me loathe her."
"It wouldn't, if you wanted her."
"That would be worse. I should hate her then if she made me go to her."
"You don't know."
"Oh, don't I!"
"You can't, if you feel like that about it."
"You say you feel like that about it yourself."
"That's because I've been through it."
"Do you suppose," he said, "I haven't?"
JOHN RODEN CONWAY
It was an hour since they had left Newhaven.
The boat went steadily, inflexibly, without agitation, cutting the small, crisp waves with a sound like the flowing of stiff silk. For a moment, after the excited rushing and hooting of the ambulance car, there had been something not quite real about this motion, till suddenly you caught the rhythm, the immense throb and tremor of the engines.
Then she knew.
She was going out, with John and Gwinnie Denning and a man called Sutton, Dr. Sutton, to Belgium, to the War. She wondered whether any of them really knew what it would be like when they got there.—She was vague, herself. She thought of the war mostly in two pictures: one very distant, hanging in the air to her right, colourless as an illustration in the papers, grey figures tumbled in a grey field, white puff-bursts of shrapnel in a grey sky: and one very near; long lines of stretchers, wounded men and dead men on stretchers, passing and passing before her. She saw herself and John carrying a stretcher, John at the head and her at the foot and Gwinnie and Dr. Sutton with another stretcher.
Nothing for her and John and Gwinnie but field work; the farm had spoiled them incurably for life indoors. But it had hardened their muscles and their nerves, it had fitted them for the things they would have to do. The things they would have to see. There would be blood; she knew there would be blood; but she didn't see it; she saw white, very white bandages, and greyish white, sallow-white faces that had no features that she knew. She hadn't really thought so very much about the war; there had been too many other things to think about. Their seven weeks' training at Coventry, the long days in Roden and Conway's motor works, the long evenings in the ambulance classes; field practice in the meadow that John's father had lent to the Red Cross; runs along the Warwickshire roads with John sitting beside her, teaching her to steer and handle the heavy ambulance car. An endless preparation.
And under it all, like a passion, like a hidden illness, their impatience, their intolerable longing to be out there.
If there had been nothing else to think about there was John. Always John. Not that you could think about him without thinking about the war; he was so thoroughly mixed up with it; you couldn't conceive him as left out of it or as leaving himself out. It had been an obsession with him, to get into it, to get into it at once, without waiting. That was why there was only four of them. He wouldn't wait for more volunteers. They could get all the volunteers they wanted afterwards; and all the cars, his father would send out any number. She suspected John of not really wanting the volunteers, of not even wanting Gwinnie and Dr. Sutton. She could see he would have liked to have gone with her alone. Queer, that so long as she had thought he would be going without her, she had been afraid; she had felt certain he would be killed or die of wounds. The one unbearable thing was that John should die. But after it had been settled that she was to go with him as his chauffeur she hadn't been afraid any more. It was as if she knew that she would keep him safe. Or perhaps all the time she had been afraid of something else. Of separation. She had had visions of John without her in another country; they were coloured, vaguely, with the horror of her dreams. It had been just that. Anyhow, she hadn't thought any more about John's dying.
It was the old man, his father, who had made her think of it now.
She could see him, the grey, kind, silent man, at the last minute, standing on the quay and looking at John with a queer, tight look as though he were sorry about something—oh, but unbearably sorry about something he'd thought or said or done. He was keeping it all in, it was a thing he couldn't speak about, but you could see it made him think John wasn't coming back again.
He had got it into his head that she was going out because of John. She remembered, before that, his kind, funny look at her when he said to John, "Mind you take care of her," and John's "No fear," and her own "That's not what he's going out for." She had a slight pang when she thought of John's father. He had been good to Gwinnie and to her at Coventry.
But as for going out because of John, whether he went or not she would have had to go, so keen that she hated those seven weeks at Coventry, although John had been there.
With every thud of the engines her impatience was appeased.
And all the time she could hear Gwinnie's light, cool voice explaining to Dr. Sutton that the British Red Cross wouldn't look at them and their field ambulance, but the Belgians, poor things, you know, weren't in a position to refuse. They would have taken almost anything.
Her mind turned to them: to Gwinnie, dressed in their uniform, khaki tunic and breeches and puttees, her fawn-coloured overcoat belted close round her to hide her knees. Gwinnie looked stolid and good, with her face, the face of an innocent, intelligent routing animal, stuck out between the close wings of her motor cap and the turned-up collar of her coat. She would go through it all right. Gwinnie was a little plodder.
She would plod through the war as she had plodded through her training, without any fear of tests.
And Dr. Sutton. From time to time she caught him looking at her across the deck. When Gwinnie's talk dropped he made no effort to revive it, but stood brooding; a square, thick-set man. His head leaned forward a little from his heavy shoulders in a perpetual short-sighted endeavour to look closer; you could see his eyes, large and clear under the watery wash of his glasses. His features, slightly flattened, were laid quietly back on his composed, candid face; the dab of docked moustache rising up in it like a strange note of wonder, of surprise.
There, he was looking at her again. But whether he looked or listened, or stood brooding, his face kept still all the time, still and sad. His mouth hardly moved as he spoke to Gwinnie.
She turned from him to the contemplation of their fellow passengers. The two Belgian boy scouts in capes and tilted caps with tassels bobbing over their foreheads; they tramped the decks, seizing attention by their gay, excited gestures. You could see that they were happy.
The group, close by her in the stern, establishing itself there apart, with an air of righteous possession: five, six, seven men, three young, four middle-aged, rather shy and awkward, on its fringe. In its centre two women in slender tailor-made suits and motor veils, looking like bored uninterested travellers used to the adventure.
They were talking to a little man in shabby tweeds and an olive-green velvet hat too small for his head. His smooth, innocent pink face carried its moustache like an accident, a mistake. Once, when he turned, she met the arched stare of small china-blue eyes; it passed over her without seeing, cold, dreamy, indifferent.
She glanced again at his women. The tall one drew you every time by her raking eyes, her handsome, arrogant face, the gesture of her small head, alert and at the same time set, the predatory poise of an enormous bird. But the other one was—rather charming. Her features had a curious, sweet bluntness; her eyes were decorations, deep-set blue in the flushed gold of her sunburn. The little man straddled as he talked to them, bobbing forward now and then, with a queer jerking movement from his hips.
She wondered what they were and decided that they were part of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, bound for Ostend.
All those people had the look that John had, of having found what they had wanted, of being satisfied, appeased. Even Sutton had it, lying on the top of his sadness, like a light. They felt precisely as she was feeling—all those people.
And through her wonder she remained aware of John Conway as he walked the deck, passing and passing in front of her.
She got up and walked with him.
The two women stared at them as they passed. One, the tall one, whispered something to the other.
"John—do my knees show awfully as I walk?"
"No. Of course they don't. Gwinnie's do. She doesn't know what to do with them."
He looked down at her and smiled.
"I like you. I like you in that cap. You look as if you were sailing fast against a head wind, as if you could cut through anything."
Their turn brought them again under the women's eyes. He took her arm and drew her aside to the rail of the boat's stern. They stood there, watching the wake boiling and breaking and thinning, a white lace of froth on the glassy green. Sutton passed them.
"What's the matter with him?" she said.
"The War. He's got it on his mind. It's no use taking it like that, Jeanne, as one consummate tragedy ... How are you feeling about it?"
"I don't think I'm feeling anything—except wanting to get there. And wanting—wanting frightfully—to help."
"Unless you can go into it as if it was some tremendous, happy adventure—That's the only way to take it. I shouldn't be any good if I didn't feel it was the most romantic thing that ever happened to me.... To have let everything go, to know that nothing matters, that it doesn't matter if you're killed, or mutilated ... Of course I want to help, but that would be nothing without the gamble. The danger."
He stopped suddenly in his turning and held her with his shining, excited eyes.
"War's the most romantic thing that ever happened ... False romance, my father calls it. Jolly little romance about him. He'll simply make pots of money out of the war, selling motors to the Government."
"It's rather—romantic of him to give us those two ambulances, and pay for us."
"Is it? Think of the kudos he gets out of it, and the advertisement for Roden and Conway, the stinking paragraphs he'll put in the papers about himself: 'His second son, Mr. John Roden Conway, is taking out two Roden field ambulance cars which he will drive himself—'Mr. John Roden Conway and his field ambulance car. A Roden, 30 horse power.' He makes me sick."
She saw again, with a renewal of her pang, the old man, the poor, kind man. Perhaps he wouldn't put the paragraphs in the papers.
"False romance. He lied. There's no such thing as false romance. Romance is a state of mind. A state of mind can't be false or true. It simply exists. It hasn't any relation to reality. It is reality, the most real part of us. When it's dead we're dead."
But it was funny to talk about it. About romance and danger. It made her hot and shy. She supposed that was because she couldn't take things in. Her fatheadedness. It was easy not to say things if you didn't feel them. The more John felt them the more he had to say them. Besides, he never said them to anybody but her. It was really saying them to himself, a quiet, secret thinking.
He stood close, close in front of her, tall and strong and handsome in his tunic, knee breeches and puttees. She could feel the vibration of his intense, ardent life, of his excitement. And suddenly, before his young manhood, she had it again, the old feeling, shooting up and running over her, swamping her brain. She wondered with a sort of terror whether he would see it in her face, whether if she spoke he would hear it thickening her throat. He would loathe her if he knew. She would loathe herself if she thought she was going into the war because of that, because of him. Women did. She remembered Gibson Herbert. Glasgow.... But this was different. The sea was in it, magic was in it and romance. And if she had to choose between John and her wounded it should not be John. She had sworn that before they started. Standing there close beside him she swore again, secretly to herself, that it should not be John.
John glanced at Sutton as he passed them.
"I'd give my soul to be a surgeon," he said. "That's what I wanted."
"You wanted to be a soldier."
"It would have been the next best thing.... Did you notice in the lists the number of Army Medical men killed and missing? Out of all proportion. That means that they're as much exposed as the combatants. More, really....
"... Jeanne—do you realise that if we've any luck, any luck at all, we shall take the same risks?"
"It's all very well for us. If it was only being killed—But there's killing."
"Of course there's killing. If a man's willing to be killed he's jolly well earned his right to kill. It's the same for the other johnnie. If your life doesn't matter a hang, his doesn't either. He's got his feeling. He's got his romance. If he hasn't—"
"Yes—if he hasn't?"
"He's better dead."
"Oh no; he might simply go slogging on without feeling anything, from a sense of duty. That would be beautiful; it would be the most beautiful thing."
"There you are, then. His duty's his romance. You can't get away from it."
But she thought: Supposing he went, loathing it, shivering, sick? Frightened. Well, of course it would be there too, simply because he went; only you would feel it, not he.
Supposing he didn't go, supposing he stuck, and had to be pushed on, by bayonets, from behind? It didn't bear thinking of.
John hadn't thought of it. He wouldn't. He couldn't see that some people were like that.
"I don't envy," he said, "the chaps who come out to soft jobs in this war."
They had found the little man in tweeds asleep behind the engine house, his chin sunk on his chest, his hands folded on his stomach. He had taken off his green velvet hat, and a crest of greyish hair rose up from his bald forehead, light and fine.
* * * * *
The sun was setting now. The foam of the wake had the pink tinge of red wine spilt on a white cloth; a highway of gold and rose, edged with purple, went straight from it to the sun.
After the sunset, land, the sunk lines of the Flemish coast.
There was a stir among the passengers; they plunged into the cabins and presently returned, carrying things. The groups sorted themselves, the Commission people standing apart with their air of arrogance and distinction. The little man in tweeds had waked up from his sleep behind the engine house, and strolled with a sort of dreamy swagger to his place at their head. Everybody moved over to the starboard side.
They stood there in silence watching the white walls and domes and towers of Ostend. Charlotte and Conway had moved close to each other. She looked up into his face, searching his thoughts there. Suddenly from somewhere in the bows a song spurted and dropped and spurted again and shot up in the stillness, slender and clear, like a rod oft white water. The Belgian boys were singing the Marseillaise. On the deck their feet beat out the thud of the march.
Charlotte looked away.
"Nothing," Charlotte said, "is going to be worse than this."
It seemed to her that they had waited hours in the huge grey hall of the Hotel-Hospital, she and Sutton and Gwinnie, while John talked to the President of the Red Cross in his bureau. Everybody looked at them: the door-keeper, the lift orderly; the ward men and nurses hurrying past; wide stares and sharp glances falling on her and Gwinnie, slanting downward to their breeches and puttees, then darting upwards to their English faces.
Sutton moved, putting his broad body between them and the batteries of amused and interested eyes.
They stood close together at the foot of the staircase. Above them the gigantic Flora leaned forward, holding out her flowers to preoccupied people who wouldn't look at her; she smiled foolishly; too stupid to know that the Flandria was no longer an hotel but a military hospital.
John came out of the President's bureau. He looked disgusted and depressed.
"They can put us up," he said; "but I've got to break it to you that we're not the only Field Ambulance in Ghent."
Charlotte said, "Oh, well, we'd no business to suppose we were."
"We've got to share our quarters with the other one.... It calls itself the McClane Corps."
"Shall we have to sleep with it?" Sutton said.
"We shall have to have it in our messroom. I believe it's up there now."
"Well, that won't hurt us."
"What'll hurt us is this. It'll be sent out before we are. McClane was here hours ago. He's been to Head Quarters."
Sutton's gloom deepened. "How do you know?"
"President says so."
They went, following the matron, up the grey, tessellated stairs; at each landing the long, grey corridors were tunnels for the passage of strange smells, ether and iodine and carbolic and the faint odour of drains, seeking their outlet at the well of the staircase.
On the third floor, at the turn of the corridor, a small vestibule between two glass doors led to a room flooded with a blond light from the south. Beyond the glass doors, their figures softened by the deep, doubled shimmer of the panes, they saw the little man in shabby tweeds, the two women, and the seven other men. This, Madame explained, was Dr. Donald McClane's Field Ambulance Corps. You could see it had thought it was the only one. As they entered they met the swoop of two beautiful, indignant eyes, a slow turning and abrupt stiffening of shoulders; the movement of the group was palpable, a tremor of hostility and resentment.
It lasted with no abatement while Madame, standing there in her gaunt Flemish graciousness, murmured names. "Mrs. Rankin—" Mrs. Rankin nodded insolently and turned away. "Miss Bartrum—" Miss Bartrum, the rather charming one, bowed, drawing the shadow of grave eyebrows over sweet eyes. "Dr. Donald McClane—" As he bowed the Commandant's stare arched up at them, then dropped, suddenly innocent, suddenly indifferent.
They looked around. Madame and her graciousness had gone. Nobody made a place for them at the two long tables set together in the middle of the room. The McClane Corps had spread itself over all the chairs and benches, in obstinate possession. They passed out through the open French windows on to the balcony.
It looked south over the railway towards the country where they thought the fighting must be. They could see the lines where the troop trains ran, going northwest and southeast, and the railway station and post office all in one long red-brick building that had a flat roof with a crenellated parapet. Grass grew on the roof. And beyond the black railway lines miles upon miles of flat open country, green fields, rows of poplars standing up in them very straight; little woods; here and there a low rise bristling and dark with trees. The fighting must be over there. Under the balcony the white street ran southeastward, and scouting cars and ammunition wagons and long lines of troops were all going that way.
While they talked they remained aware of the others. They could see McClane rubbing his hands; they heard his brief laugh that had no amusement in it, and his voice saying, "Anyhow, we've got in first."
When they came back into the room they found the tables drawn apart with a wide space between. The Belgian orderlies were removing plates and cups from one to the other, establishing under the Commandant's directions a separate mess. By tea-time two chauffeurs had added themselves to the McClane Corps.
Twelve to four. And they would have to live together nobody knew how long: as long as the war lasted.
* * * * *
That evening, in the bedroom that John shared with Sutton, they sat on two beds, discussing their prospects. Gwinnie was voluble.
"They've driven us out of our messroom with their beastliness. We shall have to sit in our bedrooms all the time."
"We'd better let the office know we're here," said Sutton, "in case we're sent for."
"Anyhow," said Charlotte, "I'm not going to bed."
John smiled. A struggling, dejected smile.
"My dear child, I've told you they're not going to send us out first."
"I don't know—" said Gwinnie.
"I do know. We shall be lucky if we get a look in when McClane's cars break down."
"That's it. Have you seen their cars? I overhauled them this morning, in the yard. They're nothing but old lorries, converted. And one of 'em's got solid tyres."
They waited. Even the McClane Corps had to wait.
* * * * *
"I don't care," said Charlotte, "how beastly they are to me, provided they leave John alone."
"What can they do?" he said. "They don't matter."
"There's such a lot of them," said Gwinnie. "It's when they're all together they're so poisonous."
"It's when they're separate," Charlotte said. "I think Mrs. Rankin does things. And there's McClane swearing he'll get us out of Belgium. But he won't!"
She didn't care. She had got used to it as she had got used to the messroom and its furnishings, the basket chairs and backless benches, the two long tables covered with white marbled American leather, the photographs of the King and Queen of the Belgians above the chimney piece. The atmosphere of hostility was thick and penetrating, something that you breathed in with the smells of ether and iodine and disinfectant, that hung about the grey, leeking corridors and floated in the blond light of the room. She could feel a secret threat in it, as if at any minute it might work up to some pitch still more malignant, some supreme disaster. There were moments when she wondered whether McClane had prejudiced the authorities against them. At first she had regarded the little man as negligible; it was the women who had fascinated her, as if they had or might come to have for her some profound importance and significance. She didn't like McClane. He straddled too much. But you couldn't go on ignoring him. His dreamy, innocent full face with its arching eyes was a mask, the mask of dangerous, inimical intentions; his profile was rough cut, brutal, energetic, you guessed the upper lip thin and hard under the hanging moustache; the lower one stuck out like a sucker. That was his real face. It showed an adhesive, exhausting will that squeezed and sucked till it had got what it wanted out of people. He could work things. So could Mrs. Rankin. She had dined with the Colonel.
Charlotte didn't care. She liked that beastliness, that hostility of theirs. It was something you could put your back against; it braced her to defiance. It brought her closer to John, to John and Gwinnie, and shut them in together more securely. Sutton she was not quite so sure about. Through all their depression he seemed to stand apart somehow by himself in a profounder discontent. "There are only four of us," he said; "we can't call ourselves a corps." You could see the way his mind was working.
Then suddenly the atmosphere lifted at one point. Mrs. Rankin changed her attitude to John. You could see her beautiful hawk's eyes pursuing him about the room. When she found him in the corridors or on the stairs she stopped him and chattered; under her breath because of the hushed wards.
He told Charlotte about it.
"That Mrs. Rankin seems inclined to be a bit too friendly."
"I haven't noticed it."
"Not with you. With Sutton and—and me."
"Well, I can't answer for Sutton, but I don't like it. That isn't what we're out here for."
They were going into the messroom together towards dinner time. Mrs. Rankin and Alice Bartrum were there alone, seated at their tables, ready. Mrs. Rankin called out in her stressed, vibrating voice across the room:
"Mr. Conway, you people ought to come in with us."
"Because there are only four of you and we're twelve. Sixteen's the proper number for a unit. Alice, didn't I say, the minute I saw Mr. Conway with that car of his, didn't I say we ought to have him?"
"Thanks. I'd rather take my orders from the Colonel."
"And I'd rather take mine from you than from McClane. Fancy coming out at the head of a Field Ambulance looking like that. Tell you what, Mr. Conway, if you'll join up with us I'll get the Colonel to make you our commandant."
Alice Bartrum opened her shadowed eyes. "Trixie—you can't."
"Can't I? I can make the old boy do anything I like."
John stiffened. "You can't make me do anything you like, Mrs. Rankin. You'd much better stick to McClane."
"What do any of us know about McClane?"
"What do you know about me?"
You could see how he hated her.
"I know you mean business."
"Don't ask me what he means."
She shrugged her shoulders violently. "Come over here and sit by me. I want to talk to you. Seriously."
She had shifted her seat and made a place for him beside her on the bench. Her flushed, handsome face covered him with its smile. You could see she was used to being obeyed when she smiled like that; when she sent that light out of her eyes men did what she wanted. All her life the men she knew had obeyed her, all except McClane. She didn't know John.
He raised his head and looked at her with cool, concentrated dislike.
"I'd rather stay where I am if you don't mind. I want to talk to Miss Redhead."
"Oh—" Mrs. Rankin's flush went out like a blown flame. Her lips made one pale, tight thread above the set square of her chin. All her light was in her eyes. They stared before her at the glass door where McClane was entering.
He came swaggering and slipped into his place between her and Alice Bartrum with his air of not seeing Mrs. Rankin, of not seeing Charlotte and John, of not seeing anything he didn't want to see. Presently he bobbed round in his seat so as to see Sutton, and began talking to him excitedly.
At the end of it Charlotte and Sutton found themselves alone, smiling into each other's faces.
"Do you like him?" she said.
"I'm not sure. All the same that isn't a bad idea of Mrs. Rankin's."
It was Sutton who tried to work it the next morning, sounding McClane.
Charlotte was in the space between the glass doors, arranging their stores in their own cupboard. McClane's stores had overflowed into it on the lower shelves. She could hear the two men talking in the room, Sutton's low, persuasive voice; she couldn't hear what he was saying.
Suddenly McClane brought his fist down on the table.
"I'll take you. And I'll take your women. And I'll take your ambulances. I could do with two more ambulances. But I won't take Conway."
"You can't tell him that."
"What can you say?"
"I can say—"
She pushed open the glass door and went in. McClane was whispering furtively. She saw Sutton stop him with a look. They turned to her and Sutton spoke.
"Come in, Miss Redhead. This concerns you. Dr. McClane wants you and Miss Denning and me to join his corps."
"And how about Mr. Conway?"
"Well—" McClane was trying to look innocent. "Mr. Conway's just the difficulty. There can't be two commandants in one corps and he says he won't take orders from me."
(Mrs. Rankin must have talked about it, then.)
"Is that what you told Dr. Sutton?"
His cold, innocent blue eyes supported him. He was lying; she knew he was lying; that was not what he had said when he had whispered.
"You don't suppose," she said, "I should leave Mr. Conway? And if I stick to him Gwinnie'll stick."
"And Dr. Sutton?"
"He can please himself."
"If Miss Redhead stays I shall stay."
"John will let you off like a shot, if you don't want to."
She turned to go and McClane called after her, "My offer remains open to you three."
Through the glass door she heard Sutton saying, "If you're right, McClane, I can't very well leave her with him, can I?"
Sutton was stupid. He didn't understand. Lying on her bed that night Charlotte made it out.
"Gwinnie—you know why McClane won't have John?"
"I suppose because Mrs. Rankin's keen on him."
"McClane isn't keen on Mrs. Rankin.... Can't you see he's trying to hoof John out of Belgium, because he wants all the glory to himself? We wouldn't do that to one of them, even if we were mean enough not to want them in it."
"He wanted Sutton."
"Oh, Sutton—He wasn't afraid of him.... When you think of the war—and think of people being like that. Jealous. Hating each other—"
* * * * *
You mightn't like Mrs. Rankin, Mrs. Rankin and McClane; but you couldn't say they weren't splendid.
Five days had passed. On the third day the McClane Corps had been sent out. (Mrs. Rankin had not dined with the Colonel for nothing.)
It went again and again. By the fifth day they knew that it had distinguished itself at Alost and Termonde and Quatrecht. The names sounded in their brains like a song with an exciting, maddening refrain. October stretched before them, golden and blank, a volume of tense, vibrating time.
Nothing for it but to wait and wait. The summons might come any minute. Charlotte and Gwinnie had begun by sitting on their drivers' seats in the ambulances standing in the yard, ready to start the very instant it came. Their orders were to hold themselves in readiness. They held themselves in readiness and saw McClane's cars swing out from the rubbered sweep in front of the Hospital three and four times a day. They stood on their balcony and watched them rush along the road that led to the battlefields southeast of the city. The sight of the flat Flemish land and the sadness of lovely days oppressed them. She felt that it must be partly that. The incredible loveliness of the days. They sat brooding over the map of Belgium, marking down the names of the places, Alost, Termonde and Quatrecht, that McClane had gone to, that he would talk about on his return, when an awful interest would impel them to listen. He and Mrs. Rankin would come in about tea-time, swaggering and excited, telling everybody that they had been in the line of fire; and Alice Bartrum would move about the room, quiet and sweet, cutting bread and butter and pretending to be unconcerned in the narration. And in the evening, after dinner, the discussion went on and on in John's bedroom. He raged against his infernal luck. If they thought he was going to take it lying down—
"McClane can keep me out of my messroom, but he can't keep me out of my job. There's room in 'the line of fire' for both of us."
"How are you going to get into it?" said Sutton.
"Same way as McClane. If he can go to Head Quarters, so can I."
"I wouldn't," Sutton said. "It might give a bad impression. Our turn'll come before long."
Gwinnie laughed. "It won't—unless Charlotte dines with the Colonel."
"It certainly mayn't," said Charlotte. "They may commandeer our cars and give them to McClane."
"They can't," said Gwinnie. "We're volunteers."
"They can do anything they choose. Military necessity."
Gwinnie was thoughtful.
"John," she said, "can I have one of the cars to-morrow afternoon?"
"Never mind. Can I?"
"You can have both the damned things if you like; they're no good to me."
The next afternoon they looked on while Gwinnie, who wore a look of great wisdom and mystery, slipped her car out of the yard into a side street and headed for the town. She came back at tea-time, bright-eyed and faintly flushed.
"You'll find we shall be sent out to-morrow."
"Oh, shall we!" John said.
"Yes. I've worked it for you."
"Me. They've seen my car."
"The whole lot of them. General Staff. First of all I paraded it all round the blessed town. Then I turned into the Place d'Armes. I kept it standing two solid hours outside the Hotel de la Poste where the blooming brass hats all hang out. In five minutes it collected a small crowd. First it was only refugees and war correspondents. Then the Colonel came out and stuck his head in at the back. He got quite excited when he saw we could take five stretcher cases.
"I showed him our tyres and the electric light, and I ran the stretchers in and out for him. He'd never seen them with wheels before.... He said it was 'magnifique'... The old bird wanted to take me into the hotel and stand me tea."
"Didn't you let him?"
"No. I said I had to stay with my car. And I took jolly good care to let him know it hadn't been out yet."
"Whatever made you think of it?"
"I don't know. It just sort of came to me."
Next afternoon John had orders to go to Berlaere to fetch wounded.
At the turn of the road they heard the guns: a solemn Boom—Boom coming up out of hushed spaces; they saw white puffs of smoke rising in the blue sky. The French guns somewhere back of them. The German guns in front southwards beyond the river.
Charlotte looked at John; he was brilliantly happy. They smiled at each other as if they said "Now it's beginning."
Outside the village of Berlaere they were held up by two sentries with rifles. (Thrilling, that.) Their Belgian guide leaned out and whispered the password; John showed their passports and they slipped through.
Where the road turned on their left into the street they saw a group of soldiers standing at the door of a house. Three of them, a Belgian lieutenant and two non-commissioned officers, advanced hurriedly and stopped the car. The lieutenant forbade them to go on.