THE TREE OF HEAVEN
Author of The Belfry, The Three Sisters, etc.
Frances Harrison was sitting out in the garden under the tree that her husband called an ash-tree, and that the people down in her part of the country called a tree of Heaven.
It was warm under the tree, and Frances might have gone to sleep there and wasted an hour out of the afternoon, if it hadn't been for the children.
Dorothy, Michael and Nicholas were going to a party, and Nicky was excited. She could hear Old Nanna talking to Michael and telling him to be a good boy. She could hear young Mary-Nanna singing to Baby John. Baby John was too young himself to go to parties; so to make up for that he was riding furiously on Mary-Nanna's knee to the tune of the "Bumpetty-Bumpetty Major!"
It was Nicky's first party. That was why he was excited.
He had asked her for the third time what it would be like; and for the third time she had told him. There would be dancing and a Magic Lantern, and a Funny Man, and a Big White Cake covered with sugar icing and Rosalind's name on it in pink sugar letters and eight little pink wax candles burning on the top for Rosalind's birthday. Nicky's eyes shone as she told him.
Dorothy, who was nine years old, laughed at Nicky.
"Look at Nicky," she said, "how excited he is!"
And every time she laughed at him his mother kissed him.
"I don't care," said Nicky. "I don't care if I am becited!"
And for the fifth time he asked, "When will it be time to go?"
"Not for another hour and a half, my sweetheart."
"How long," said Nicky, "is an hour and a half?"
* * * * *
Frances had a tranquil nature and she never worried. But as she sat under her tree of Heaven a thought came that made a faint illusion of worry for her mind. She had forgotten to ask Grannie and Auntie Louie and Auntie Emmeline and Auntie Edie to tea.
She had come to think of them like that in relation to her children rather than to her or to each other.
It was a Tuesday, and they had not been there since Friday. Perhaps, she thought, I'd better send over for them now. Especially as it's such a beautiful afternoon. Supposing I sent Michael?
And yet, supposing Anthony came home early? He was always kind to her people, but that was the very reason why she oughtn't to let them spoil a beautiful afternoon for him. It could not be said that any of them was amusing.
She could still hear Mary-Nanna singing her song about the Bumpetty-Bumpetty Major. She could still hear Old Nanna talking to Michael and telling him to be a good boy. That could only end in Michael being naughty. To avert naughtiness or any other disaster from her children was the end of Frances's existence.
So she called Michael to come to her. He came, running like a little dog, obediently.
* * * * *
Michael was glad that he had been sent across the Heath to Grannie's house with a message. It made him feel big and brave. Besides, it would put off the moment when Mary-Nanna would come for him, to make him ready for the party. He was not sure that he wanted to go to it.
Michael did not much like going to Grannie's house either. In all the rooms there was a queer dark-greenness and creepiness. It smelt of bird-cages and elder bushes and of Grandpapa's funeral. And when you had seen Auntie Edie's Senegal wax-bills, and the stuffed fish, and the inside of Auntie Louie's type-writer there was nothing else to see.
His mother said that Grandpapa's funeral was all over, and that the green creepiness came from the green creepers. But Michael knew it didn't. She only said things like that to make you feel nice and comfy when you were going to bed. Michael knew very well that they had put Grandpapa into the drawing-room and locked the door so that the funeral men shouldn't get at him and take him away too soon. And Auntie Louie had kept the key in her pocket.
Funerals meant taking people away.
Old Nanna wouldn't let him talk about it; but Mary-Nanna had told him that was what funerals meant. All the same, as he went up the flagged path, he took care not to look through the black panes of the window where the elder bush was, lest he should see Grandpapa's coffin standing in the place where the big table used to be, and Grandpapa lying inside it wrapped in a white sheet.
Michael's message was that Mummy sent her love, and would Grannie and Auntie Louie and Auntie Emmeline and Auntie Edie come to tea? She was going to have tea in the garden, and would they please come early? As early as possible. That was the part he was not to forget.
The queer thing was that when Michael went to see Grannie and the Aunties in Grannie's house he saw four old women. They wore black dresses that smelt sometimes of something sweet and sometimes like your fingers when you get ink on them. The Aunties looked cross; and Auntie Emmeline smelt as if she had been crying. He thought that perhaps they had not been able to stop crying since Grandpapa's funeral. He thought that was why Auntie Louie's nose was red and shiny and Auntie Edie's eyelids had pink edges instead of lashes. In Grannie's house they never let you do anything. They never did anything themselves. They never wanted to do anything; not even to talk. He thought it was because they knew that Grandpapa was still there all the time.
But outside it the Aunties were not so very old. They rode bicycles. And when they came to Michael's Father's house they forgot all about Grandpapa's funeral and ran about and played tennis like Michael's mother and Mrs. Jervis, and they talked a lot.
Michael's mother was Grannie's child. To see how she could be a child you had only to think of her in her nightgown with her long brown hair plaited in a pigtail hanging down her back and tied with a blue ribbon. But he couldn't see how the three Aunties could be Grannie's other children. They were bigger than Grannie and they had grey hair. Grannie was a little thing; she was white and dry; and she had hair like hay. Besides, she hardly ever took any notice of them except to make a face at Auntie Emmeline or Auntie Edie now and then. She did it with her head a little on one side, pushing out her underlip and drawing it back again.
Grannie interested Michael; but more when he thought about her than when she was actually there. She stood for him as the mark and measure of past time. To understand how old Grannie was you had to think backwards; this way: Once there was a time when there was no Michael; but there was Mummy and there was Daddy. And once there was a time when there was no Mummy and no Daddy; but there was Grannie and there was Grandpapa. Now there was no Grandpapa. But he couldn't think back far enough to get to the time when there was no Grannie.
Michael thought that being Grannie must feel like being God.
Before he came to the black window pane and the elder bush he had to run down the slopes and jump the gullies on his side of the Heath, and cross the West Road, and climb the other slope to Grannie's side. And it was not till you got to the row of elms on Judge's Walk that you had to go carefully because of the funeral.
He stood there on the ridge of the Walk and looked back to his own side. There were other houses there; but he knew his father's house by the tree of Heaven in the garden.
* * * * *
The garden stood on a high, flat promontory jutting out into the Heath. A brown brick wall with buttresses, strong like fortifications on a breastwork, enclosed it on three sides. From the flagged terrace at the bottom of the garden you looked down, through the tops of the birch-trees that rose against the rampart, over the wild places of the Heath. There was another flagged terrace at the other end of the garden. The house rose sheer from its pavement, brown brick like the wall, and flat-fronted, with the white wings of its storm shutters spread open, row on row. It barred the promontory from the mainland. And at the back of it, beyond its kitchen garden and its courtyard, a fringe of Heath still parted it from the hill road that went from "Jack Straw's Castle" to "The Bull and Bush." You reached it by a lane that led from the road to the Heath.
The house belonged to the Heath and the open country. It was aware of nothing but the Heath and the open country between it and Harrow on the Hill. It had the air of all the old houses of Hampstead, the wonderful air of not acknowledging the existence of Bank Holidays. It was lifted up high above the town; shut in; utterly secluded.
* * * * *
Anthony Harrison considered that he had done well when he acquired West End House for his wife Frances, and for his children, Dorothea, Michael, Nicholas and John.
Frances had said that, if he was thinking of her, he needn't buy a big place, because she didn't want one. But he might buy it for the children if he liked. Anthony had said that she had no idea of what she mightn't want, once she began to give her mind to it, and that he would like to think of her living in it after he was gone. Not that he had any intention of going; he was only thirty-six (not much older than Frances) and incurably healthy. But since his wife's attention had become absorbed in the children—to the exclusion of every other interest—he was always trying to harrow her by the suggestion. And Frances only laughed at him and told him that he was a silly old thing, and that he needn't think he was going to get round her that way.
There was no other way open for Anthony; unless he were to go bankrupt or get pneumonia or peritonitis. Frances would have been the first to acknowledge that illness or misfortune constituted a claim. And the only things he ever did get were loud, explosive colds in his head which made him a mark for derision. His business was so sound that not even a revolution or a European war could shake it. And his appearance was incompatible with his pretensions to pathos.
It would have paid him better to have been small and weedy, or lamentably fat, or to have had a bald place coming, or crow's feet pointing to grey hairs; for then there might have been a chance for him. But Anthony's body was well made, slender and tall. He had blue eyes and black-brown hair, and the look of an amiable hawk, alert, fiercely benevolent. Frances couldn't see any pathos in the kind of figure she happened to admire most, the only kind she would have tolerated in a husband. And if she had seen any pathos in it she wouldn't have married it. Pathos, she said, was all very well in a father, or a brother, or a friend, but in choosing a husband you had to think of your children; and she had wanted boys that would look like Michael and Nicholas and John.
"Don't you mean," Anthony had said, "boys that will look like me?"
"I mean," she had answered, "exactly what I say. You needn't be so arrogant."
Her arrogance had been beyond all bearing since John, the third son, had been born.
And it was Frances, after all, who had made him buy West End House for her own reasons. Both the day nursery and the night nursery had windows to the south. It was the kind of house she had always dreamed of living in, and of Michael, or Nicky living in after she and Anthony were gone. It was not more than seven minutes' walk from the bottom of the lane to the house where her people lived. She had to think about the old people when the poor dears had come up to London in order to be thought about. And it had white storm shutters and a tree of Heaven in the garden.
And, because they had both decided that they would have that house whatever happened, they began to argue and to tease each other. Anthony had said it was all right, only the tree of Heaven wasn't a tree of Heaven; it was a common ash. He was one of the biggest timber merchants in the country and he ought to know. Frances said she mightn't know much, but she did know that was the kind of tree the people down in her part of the country called a tree of Heaven. Anthony said he couldn't help that. It didn't matter what they called it. It was a common ash.
Then she told him he had no poetry in his composition. She had always dreamed of having a tree of Heaven in her garden; and he was destroying her dream. He replied that he didn't want to destroy her dream, but the tree really was an ash. You could tell by the bark, and by the leaves and by the number and the shape of the leaflets. And anyhow, that was the first he'd heard about her dream.
"You don't know," said Frances, "what goes on inside me."
She said that if any of the children developed an imagination he needn't think he had anything to do with it.
"I shan't," said Anthony. "I wouldn't have anything to do with it if I could. Facts are good enough for me. The children must be brought up to realize facts."
An ash-tree was a fact and a tree of Heaven was a fancy; unless by any chance she meant ailanthus glandulosa. (He knew she didn't.) If she wanted to know, the buds of the ash were black like ebony. The buds of the tree of Heaven were rose-red, like—like bad mahogany. Wait till the spring and look at the buds.
Frances waited till the spring and looked at the buds, and, sure enough, they were black like ebony.
Anthony also said that if they were choosing a house for the children, it was no earthly use to think about the old people. For the old people would go and the children would remain.
As if to show how right he was, Grandpapa had died early in that summer of 'ninety-five, one month after they had moved into West End House. That still left Grannie and Auntie Louie and Auntie Emmeline and Auntie Edie for Anthony to look after.
* * * * *
She was thinking of them now. She hoped that they would come early in time to see the children. She also hoped that they would go early, so that she and Anthony might have their three sets of tennis before dinner in peace.
There would be no peace if Louie and Edie wanted to play too. The one thing that Anthony could not stand was people wanting to do things they couldn't do, and spoiling them for those who could. He used to say that the sight of Louie anywhere near the tennis court put him off his stroke.
Again, the faint illusion of worry was created by the thought that this dreadful thing might happen, that Louie and Edie might want to play and that Anthony would be put off his stroke and be annoyed, and that his annoyance, his just and legitimate annoyance, would spoil the perfection of the afternoon. And as she played with the illusion it made more real her tranquillity, her incredible content.
Her hands were busy now putting decorative stitches into a frock for John. She had pushed aside a novel by George Moore and a volume of Ibsen's plays. She disliked Ibsen and disapproved of George Moore. Her firm, tight little character defended itself against every form of intellectual disturbance. A copy of the Times had fallen from her lap to her feet. Jane, the cat, had found it there, and, purring loudly, had trodden it down into a bed, and now lay on it, asleep. Frances had informed herself of the affairs of the nation.
At the bottom of her mind was the conviction (profound, because unconscious) that the affairs of the nation were not to be compared for interest with her own affairs, and an attitude of condescension, as if she honoured the Times by reading it and the nation by informing herself of its affairs; also the very distinct impression that evening papers were more attractive than morning papers. She would have admitted that they owed their attraction to the circumstance that Anthony brought them home with him in his pocket, and that in the evening she was not obliged to inform herself of what might be happening. Anthony was certain to inform her.
Not that anything ever did happen. Except strikes; and even then, no sooner did the features of the strike begin to get dramatic than they were instantly submerged in the flood of conversation that was let loose over them. Mrs. Anthony pitied the poor editors and reporters while Parliament was sitting. She saw them as rather silly, violent and desperate men, yet pathetic in their silliness, violence and desperation, snatching at divorces, and breach of promise cases, and fires in paraffin shops, as drowning men snatch at straws.
Her imagination refused to picture any end to this state of things. There would just be more speeches and more strikes, and still more speeches, going on for ever and ever at home; while foreign affairs and the British Empire went on for ever and ever too, with no connection between the two lines of sequence, and no likeness, except that both somehow went on and on.
That was Anthony's view of England's parliament and of her imperial policy; and it was Mrs. Anthony's. Politics, Anthony said, had become static; and he assured Frances that there was no likelihood that they would ever become dynamic again—ever.
Anthony's view of politics was Mrs. Anthony's view of life.
Nothing ever really happened. Things did not change; they endured; they went on. At least everything that really mattered endured and went on. So that everything that really mattered could—if you were given to looking forward—be foreseen. A strike—a really bad one—might conceivably affect Anthony's business, for a time; but not all the strikes in the world, not all the silly speeches, not all the meddling and muddling of politicians could ever touch one of those enduring things.
Frances believed in permanence because, in secret, she abhorred the thought of change. And she abhorred the thought of change because, at thirty-three, she had got all the things she wanted. But only for the last ten years out of the thirty-three. Before that (before she was Mrs. Anthony), wanting things, letting it be known that you wanted them, had meant not getting them. So that it was incredible how she had contrived to get them all. She had not yet left off being surprised at her own happiness. It was not like things you take for granted and are not aware of. Frances was profoundly aware of it. Her happiness was a solid, tangible thing. She knew where it resided, and what it was made of, and what terms she held it on. It depended on her; on her truth, her love, her loyalty; it was of the nature of a trust. But there was no illusion about it. It was the reality.
She denied that she was arrogant, for she had not taken one of them for granted, not even Dorothy; though a little arrogance might have been excusable in a woman who had borne three sons and only one daughter before she was thirty-two. Whereas Grannie's achievement had been four daughters, four superfluous women, of whom Anthony had married one and supported three.
To be sure there was Maurice. But he was worse than superfluous, considering that most of the time Anthony was supporting Maurice, too.
She had only known one serious anxiety—lest her flesh and blood should harbour any of the blood and flesh left over after Morrie was made. She had married Anthony to drive out Morrie from the bodies and souls of her children. She meant that, through her and Anthony, Morrie should go, and Dorothea, Michael, Nicholas and John should remain.
As Frances looked at the four children, her mouth tightened itself so as to undo the ruinous adoration of her eyes. She loved their slender bodies, their pure, candid faces, their thick, straight hair that parted solidly from the brush, clean-cut and shining like sheets of polished metal, brown for Dorothy, black-brown for Nicholas, red gold for Michael and white gold for John. She was glad that they were all made like that; slender and clear and hard, and that their very hair was a thing of clean surfaces and definite edges. She disliked the blurred outlines of fatness and fuzziness and fluffiness. The bright solidity of their forms helped her to her adored illusion, the illusion of their childhood as going on, lasting for ever and ever.
They would be the nicest looking children at Mrs. Jervis's party. They would stand out solid from the fluffiness and fuzziness and fatness of the others. She saw people looking at them. She heard them saying: "Who are the two little boys in brown linen?"—"They are Michael and Nicholas Harrison." The Funny Man came and said: "Hello! I didn't expect to see you here!" It was Michael and Nicholas he didn't expect to see; and the noise in the room was Nicky's darling laughter.
Music played. Michael and Nicholas danced to the music. It was Michael's body and Nicky's that kept for her the pattern of the dance, their feet that beat out its measure. Sitting under the tree of Heaven Frances could see Mrs. Jervis's party. It shimmered and clustered in a visionary space between the tree and the border of blue larkspurs on the other side of the lawn. The firm figures of Michael and Nicholas and Dorothy held it together, kept it from being shattered amongst the steep blue spires of the larkspurs. When it was all over they would still hold it together, so that people would know that it had really happened and remember having been there. They might even remember that Rosalind had had a birthday.
* * * * *
Frances had just bestowed this life after death on Mrs. Jervis's party when she heard Michael saying he didn't want to go to it.
He had no idea why he didn't want to go except that he didn't.
"What'?" said Frances. "Not when Nicky and Dorothy are going?"
He shook his head. He was mournful and serious.
"And there's going to be a Magic Lantern"—
"And a Funny Man"—
"And a Big White Cake with sugar icing and Rosalind's name on it in pink letters, and eight candles—"
"I know, Mummy." Michael's under lip began to shake.
"I thought it was only little baby boys that were silly and shy."
Michael was not prepared to contest the statement. He saw it was the sort of thing that in the circumstances she was bound to say. All the same his under lip would have gone on shaking if he hadn't stopped it.
"I thought you were a big boy," said Frances.
"So I was, yesterday. To-day isn't yesterday, Mummy."
"If John—John was asked to a beautiful party he wouldn't be afraid to go."
As soon as Michael's under lip had stopped shaking his eyelids began. You couldn't stop your eyelids.
"It's not afraid, exactly," he said.
"What is it, then?"
"It's sort—sort of forgetting things."
"I don't know, Mummy. I think—it's pieces of me that I want to remember. At a party I can't feel all of myself at once—like I do now."
She loved his strange thoughts as she loved his strange beauty, his reddish yellow hair, his light hazel eyes that were not hers and not Anthony's.
"What will you do, sweetheart, all afternoon, without Nicky and Dorothy and Mary-Nanna?"
"I don't want Nicky and Dorothy and Mary-Nanna. I want Myself. I want to play with Myself."
She thought: "Why shouldn't he? What right have I to say these things to him and make him cry, and send him to stupid parties that he doesn't want to go to? After all, he's only a little boy."
She thought of Michael, who was seven, as if he were younger than Nicholas, who was only five.
* * * * *
Nicky was different. You could never tell what Michael would take it into his head to think. You could never tell what Nicky would take it into his head to do. There was no guile in Michael. But sometimes there was guile in Nicky. Frances was always on the look out for Nicky's guile.
So when Michael remarked that Grannie and the Aunties would be there immediately and Nicky said, "Mummy, I think my ear is going to ache," her answer was—"You won't have to stay more than a minute, darling."
For Nicky lived in perpetual fear that his Auntie Louie might kiss at him.
Dorothy saw her mother's profound misapprehension and she hastened to put it right.
"It isn't Auntie Louie, Mummy. His ear is really aching."
And still Frances went on smiling. She knew, and Nicky knew that, if a little boy could establish the fact of earache, he was absolved from all social and family obligations for as long as his affliction lasted. He wouldn't have to stand still and pretend he liked it while he was being kissed at.
Frances kept her mouth shut when she smiled, as if she were trying not to. It was her upper lip that got the better of her. The fine, thin edges of it quivered and twitched and curled. You would have said the very down was sensitive to her thought's secret and iniquitous play. Her smile mocked other people's solemnities, her husband's solemnity, and the solemnity (no doubt inherited) of her son Michael; it mocked the demureness and the gravity of her face.
She had brought her face close to Nicky's; and it was as if her mouth had eyes in it to see if there were guile in him.
"Are you a little humbug?" she said.
Nicky loved his mother's face. It never got excited or did silly things like other people's faces. It never got red and shiny like Auntie Louie's face, or hot and rough like Auntie Emmeline's, or wet and mizzly like Auntie Edie's. The softness and whiteness and dryness of his mother's face were delightful to Nicky. So was her hair. It was cold, with a funny sort of coldness that made your fingers tingle when you touched it; and it smelt like the taste of Brazil nuts.
Frances saw the likeness of her smile quiver on Nicky's upper lip. It broke and became Nicky's smile that bared his little teeth and curled up the corners of his blue eyes. (His blue eyes and black brown hair were Anthony's.) It wasn't reasonable to suppose that Nicky had earache when he could smile like that.
"I'm afraid," she said, "you're a little humbug. Run to the terrace and see if Grannie and the Aunties are coming."
He ran. It was half a child's run and half a full-grown boy's.
Then Mrs. Anthony addressed her daughter.
"Why did you say his ear's aching when it isn't?"
"Because," said Dorothy, "it is aching."
She was polite and exquisite and obstinate, like Anthony.
"Nicky ought to know his own ear best. Go and tell him he's not to stand on the top of the wall. And if they're coming wave to them, to show you're glad to see them."
She knew it was dreadful before she said it. But she had warded off reproof by nuzzling against her mother's cheek as it tried to turn away from her. She saw her mother's upper lip moving, twitching. The sensitive down stirred on it like a dark smudge, a dust that quivered. Her own mouth, pushed forward, searching, the mouth of a nuzzling puppy, remained grave and tender. She was earnest and imperturbable in her truthfulness. "Whether you're glad or not you must go," said Frances. She meant to be obeyed.
Dorothy went. Her body was obedient. For as yet she had her mother's body and her face, her blunted oval, the straight nose with the fine, tilted nostrils, her brown eyes, her solid hair, brown on the top and light underneath, and on the curve of the roll above her little ears. Frances had watched the appearance of those details with an anxiety that would have surprised her if she had been aware of it. She wanted to see herself in the bodies of her sons and in the mind of her daughter. But Dorothy had her father's mind. You couldn't move it. What she had said once she stuck to for ever, like Anthony to his ash-tree. As if sticking to a thing for ever could make it right once. And Dorothy had formed the habit of actually being right, like Anthony, nine times out of ten. Frances foresaw that this persistence, this unreasoning rectitude, might, in time, become annoying in a daughter. There were moments when she was almost perturbed by the presence of this small, mysterious organism, mixed up of her body and her husband's mind.
But in secret she admired her daughter's candour, her downrightness and straightforwardness, her disdain of conventions and hypocrisies. Frances was not glad, she knew she was not glad, any more than Dorothy was glad, to see her mother and her sisters. She only pretended. In secret she was afraid of every moment she would have to live with them. She had lived with them too long. She foresaw what would happen this afternoon, how they would look, what they would say and do, and with what gestures. It would be like the telling, for the thirteenth time, of a dull story that you know every word of.
She thought she had sent them a kind message. But she knew she had only asked them to come early in order that they might go early and leave her to her happiness.
She went down to the terrace wall where Michael and Nicky and Dorothy were watching for them. She was impatient, and she thought that she wanted to see them coming. But she only wanted to see if they were coming early. It struck her that this was sad.
* * * * *
Small and distant, the four black figures moved on the slope under the Judges' Walk; four spots of black that crawled on the sallow grass and the yellow clay of the Heath.
"How little they look," Michael said.
Their littleness and their distance made them harmless, made them pathetic. Frances was sorry that she was not glad. That was the difference between her and Dorothy, that she was sorry and always would be sorry for not being what she ought to be; and Dorothy never would be sorry for being what she was. She seemed to be saying, already, in her clearness and hardness, "What I am I am, and you can't change me." The utmost you could wring from her was that she couldn't help it.
Frances's sorrow was almost unbearable when the four women in black came nearer, when she saw them climbing the slope below the garden and the lane.
Grannie took a long time crossing the lawn from the door in the lane to the tree of Heaven.
She came first. Her daughters followed, forced to her slow pace, advancing with an air of imperfect cohesion, of not really belonging to each other, as if they had been strangers associated by some accident. It had grown on them in their efforts to carry off the embarrassment of appearing as an eternal trio. Auntie Louie carried it off best. Sharp and rigid, Auntie Louie's figure never lent itself to any group. But for her black gown she really might not have belonged.
Mrs. Fleming went slowly, not because she was old, for she was only sixty, but because, though she said, and thought, that she was wrapped up in Frances and her children, she was still absorbed, fascinated by her sacred sense of bereavement. She moved as if hypnotized by her own sorrow.
To her three unmarried daughters she behaved with a sort of mystic hostility, a holy detachment and displeasure, as if she suspected them of getting over it, or of wanting to get over it if they could. But to her one married daughter and to her grand-children she was soft and gentle. So that, when they happened to be all together, her moods changed so rapidly that she seemed a creature of unaccountable caprice. One minute her small, white, dry face quivered with softness and gentleness, and the next it stiffened, or twitched with the inimical, disapproving look it had for Louie and Emmeline and Edith.
The children lifted up their pure, impassive faces to be kissed at. Old Nanna brought Baby John and put him on his grandmother's knee. Dorothy and Nicholas went off with Mary-Nanna to the party. Michael forgot all about playing with himself. He stayed where he was, drawn by the spectacle of Grannie and the Aunties. Grannie was clucking and chuckling to Baby John as she had clucked and chuckled to her own babies long ago. Her under lip made itself wide and full; it worked with an in and out movement very funny and interesting to Michael. The movement meant that Grannie chuckled under protest of memories that were sacred to Grandpapa.
"Tchoo—tchoo—tchoo—tchoo! Chuckaboo! Beautiful boy!" said Grannie.
Auntie Louie looked at her youngest nephew. She smiled her downward, sagging smile, wrung from a virginity sadder than Grannie's grief. She spoke to Baby John.
"You really are rather a nice boy," Auntie Louie said.
But Edie, the youngest Auntie, was kneeling on the grass before him, bringing her face close to his. Baby John's new and flawless face was cruel to Auntie Edie's. So was his look of dignity and wisdom.
"Oh, she says you're only rather nice," said Auntie Edie. "And you're the beautifullest, sweetest, darlingest that ever was. Wasn't she a nasty Auntie Louie? Ten little pink toes. And there he goes. Five little tootsies to each of his footsies."
She hid herself behind the Times disturbing Jane.
"Where's John-John?" she cried. "Where's he gone to? Can anybody tell me where to find John-John? Where's John-John? Peep-bo—there he is! John-John, look at Auntie Edie. Oh, he won't pay any attention to poor me."
Baby John was playing earnestly with Grannie's watch-chain.
"You might leave the child alone," said Grannie. "Can't you see he doesn't want you?"
Auntie Edie made a little pouting face, like a scolded, pathetic child. Nobody ever did want Auntie Edie.
And all the time Auntie Emmy was talking to Frances very loud and fast.
"Frances, I do think your garden's too beautiful for words. How clever of you to think of clearing away the old flower-beds. I hate flower-beds on a lawn. Yet I don't suppose I should have had the strength of mind to get rid of them if it bad been me."
As she talked Auntie Emmy opened her eyes very wide; her eyebrows jerked, the left one leaping up above the right; she thrust out her chin at you and her long, inquiring nose. Her thin face was the play of agitated nerve-strings that pulled it thus into perpetual, restless movements; and she made vague gestures with her large, bony hands. Her tongue went tick-tack, like a clock. Anthony said you-could hear Emmy's tongue striking the roof of her-mouth all thee time.
"And putting those delphiniums all together like that—Massing the blues. Anthony? I do think Anthony has perfect taste. I adore delphiniums."
Auntie Emmy was behaving as if neither Michael nor Baby John was there.
"Don't you think John-John's too beautiful for words?" said Frances. "Don't you like him a little bit too?"
Auntie Emmy winced as if Frances had flicked something in her face.
"Of course I like him too. Why shouldn't I?"
"I don't think you do, Auntie Emmy," Michael said.
Auntie Emmy considered him as for the first time.
"What do you know about it?" she said.
"I can tell by the funny things your face does."
"I thought," said Frances, "you wanted to play by yourself."
"So I do," said Michael.
"Well then, go and play."
He went and to a heavenly place that he knew of. But as he played with Himself there he thought: "Auntie Emmy doesn't tell the truth. I think it is because she isn't happy."
Michael kept his best things to himself.
* * * * *
"I suppose you're happy," said Grannie, "now you've got the poor child sent away."
Auntie Emmy raised her eyebrows and spread out her hands, as much as to say she was helpless under her mother's stupidity.
"He'd have been sent away anyhow," said Frances. "It isn't good for him to hang about listening to grown-up conversation."
It was her part to keep the peace between her mother and her sisters.
"It seems to me," said Auntie Louie, "that you began it yourself."
When a situation became uncomfortable, Auntie Louie always put her word in and made it worse. She never would let Frances keep the peace.
Frances knew what Louie meant—that she was always flinging her babies in Emmy's face at those moments when the sight of other people's babies was too much for Emmy. She could never be prepared for Emmy's moments.
"It's all very well," Auntie Louie went on; "but I should like to hear of somebody admiring Dorothy. I don't see where Dorothy comes in."
Dorothy was supposed, by the two Nannas, to be Auntie Louie's favourite. If you taxed her with it she was indignant and declared that she was sure she wasn't.
And again Frances knew what Louie meant—that she loved her three sons, Michael and Nicholas and John, with passion, and her one daughter, Dorothea, with critical affection. That was the sort of thing that Louie was always saying and thinking about people, and nobody ever paid the slightest attention to what Louie said or thought. Frances told herself that if there was one emotion that she was more free from than another it was sex jealousy.
The proof of it, which she offered now, was that she had given up Dorothy to Anthony. It was natural that he should care most for the little girl.
Louie said that was easy—when she knew perfectly well that Anthony didn't. Like Frances he cared most for his three sons. She was leaving Dorothy to Anthony so that Anthony might leave Michael and Nicholas to her.
"You might just as well say," Frances said, "that I'm in love with John-John. Poor little Don-Don!"
"I might," said Louie, "just as well."
Grannie said she was sure she didn't understand what they were talking about and that Louie had some very queer ideas in her head.
"Louie," she said, "knows more than I do."
Frances thought: Was Grannie really stupid? Was she really innocent? Was she not, rather, clever, chock-full of the secret wisdom and the secret cruelty of sex?
Frances was afraid of her thoughts. They came to her not like thoughts, but like quick rushes of her blood, partly confusing her. She did not like that.
She thought: Supposing Grannie knew all the time that Emmy was unhappy, and took a perverse pleasure in her knowledge? Supposing she was not really soft and gentle? She could be soft and gentle to her, because of her children and because of Anthony. She respected Anthony because he was well-off and efficient and successful, and had supported her ever since Grandpapa had gone bankrupt. She was proud of Frances because she was Anthony's wife, who had had three sons and only one daughter.
Grannie behaved as if her grandchildren were her own children, as if she had borne three Sons and only one daughter, instead of four daughters and only one son. Still, Frances was the vehicle of flesh and blood that carried on her flesh and blood in Michael and Nicholas and John. She respected Frances.
But Frances could remember a time when she had been unmarried like her sisters, and when Grannie had turned on her, too, that look that was half contempt and half hostility or displeasure. Grannie had not wanted her to marry Anthony, any more than she would have wanted Louie or Emmeline or Edith to marry anybody, supposing anybody had wanted to marry them. And Frances and Anthony had defied her. They had insisted on marrying each other. Frances knew that if there had been no Anthony, her mother would have despised her in secret, as in secret she despised Emmeline and Edith. She despised them more than Louie, because, poor things, they wanted, palpably, to be married, whereas Louie didn't, or said she didn't. In her own way, Louie had defied her mother. She had bought a type-writer and a bicycle with her own earnings, and by partially supporting herself she had defied Anthony, the male benefactor, Louie's manner intimated that there was nothing Frances had that she wanted. She had resources in herself, and Frances had none.
Frances persuaded herself that she admired and respected Louie. She knew that she, Frances, was only admired and respected because she had succeeded where her three sisters had failed. She was even afraid that, in moments of exasperation, Grannie used her and Anthony and the children to punish Emmy and Edie for their failure. The least she could do was to stand between them and Grannie.
It was possible that if Grannie had been allowed to ignore them and give her whole attention to Frances or Michael or Baby John, she could have contrived to be soft and gentle for an afternoon. But neither Louie nor Emmeline, nor even Edith, would consent to be ignored. They refused to knuckle under, to give in. Theirs was a perpetual struggle to achieve an individuality in the teeth of circumstances that had denied them any. Frances acknowledged that they were right, that in the same circumstances she would have done the same.
In their different ways and by different methods they claimed attention. They claimed it incessantly, Louie, the eldest, by an attitude of assurance and superiority so stiff and hard that it seemed invulnerable; Emmy by sudden jerky enthusiasms, exaltations, intensities; Edie by an exaggerated animation, a false excitement. Edie would drop from a childish merriment to a childish pathos, when she would call herself "Poor me," and demand pity for being tired, for missing a train, for cold feet, for hair coming down.
There would be still more animation, and still more enthusiasm when Anthony came home.
Frances prided herself on her power of foreseeing things. She foresaw that Anthony would come home early for his game. She foresaw the funny, nervous agony of his face when he appeared on the terrace and caught sight of Grannie and the three Aunties, and the elaborate and exquisite politeness with which he would conceal from them his emotion. She foresaw that she would say to Annie, "When the master comes tell him we're having tea in the garden, under the tree of—under the ash-tree" (for after all, he was the master, and discipline must be maintained). She foresaw the very gestures of his entrance, the ironically solemn bow that he would make to her, far-off, from the terrace; she even foresaw the kind of joke that, for the life of him, he would not be able to help making. She was so made that she could live happily in this world of small, foreseen things.
And it all happened as she had foreseen.
Anthony came home early, because it was a fine afternoon. He made the kind of joke that calamity always forced from him, by some perversion of his instincts.
"When is an ash-tree not an ash-tree? When it's a tree of Heaven."
He was exquisitely polite to Grannie and the Aunties, and his manner to Frances, which she openly complained of, was, he said, what a woman brought on herself when she reserved her passion for her children, her sentiment for trees of Heaven, and her mockery for her devoted husband.
"I suppose we can have some tennis now," said Auntie Louie.
"Certainly," said Anthony, "we can, and we shall." He tried not to look at Frances.
And Auntie Edie became automatically animated.
"I can't serve for nuts, but I can run. Who's going to play with me?"
"I am," said Anthony. He was perfect.
The game of tennis had an unholy and terrible attraction for Auntie Louie and Auntie Edie. Neither of them could play. But, whereas Auntie Louie thought that she could play and took tennis seriously, Auntie Edie knew that she couldn't and took it as a joke.
Auntie Louie stood tall and rigid and immovable. She planted herself, like a man, close up to the net, where Anthony wanted to be, and where he should have been; but Auntie Louie said she was no good if you put her to play back; she couldn't be expected to take every ball he missed.
When Auntie Louie called out "Play!" she meant to send a nervous shudder through her opponents, shattering their morale. She went through all the gestures of an annihilating service that for some reason never happened. She said the net was too low and that spoiled her eye. And when she missed her return it was because Anthony had looked at her and put her off. Still Aunt Louie's attitude had this advantage that it kept her quiet in one place where Anthony could dance round and round her.
But Auntie Edie played in little nervous runs and slides and rushes; she flung herself, with screams of excitement, against the ball, her partner and the net; and she brandished her racket in a dangerous manner. The oftener she missed the funnier it was to Auntie Edie. She had been pretty when she was young, and seventeen years ago her cries and tumbles and collisions had been judged amusing; and Auntie Edie thought they were amusing still. Anthony had never had the heart to undeceive her. So that when Anthony was there Auntie Edie still went about setting a standard of gaiety for other people to live up to; and still she was astonished that they never did, that other people had no sense of humour.
Therefore Frances was glad when Anthony told her that he had asked Mr. Parsons, the children's tutor, and young Norris and young Vereker from the office to come round for tennis at six, and that dinner must be put off till half-past eight.
All was well. The evening would be sacred to Anthony and the young men. The illusion of worry passed, and Frances's real world of happiness stood firm.
And as Frances's mind, being a thoroughly healthy mind, refused to entertain any dreary possibility for long together, so it was simply unable to foresee downright calamity, even when it had been pointed out to her. For instance, that Nicky should really have chosen the day of the party for an earache, the worst earache he had ever had.
He appeared at tea-time, carried in Mary-Nanna's arms, and with his head tied up in one of Mr. Jervis's cricket scarves. As he approached his family he tried hard not to look pathetic.
And at the sight of her little son her whole brilliant world of happiness was shattered around Frances.
"Nicky darling," she said, "why didn't you tell me it was really aching?"
"I didn't know," said Nicky.
He never did know the precise degree of pain that distinguished the beginning of a genuine earache from that of a sham one, and he felt that to palm off a sham earache on his mother for a real one, was somehow a sneaky thing to do. And while his ear went on stabbing him, Nicky did his best to explain.
"You see, I never know whether it's aching or whether it's only going to ache. It began a little, teeny bit when the Funny Man made me laugh. And I didn't see the Magic Lantern, and I didn't have any of Rosalind's cake. It came on when I was biting the sugar off. And it was aching in both ears at once. It was," said Nicky, "a jolly sell for me."
At that moment Nicky's earache jabbed upwards at his eyelids and cut them, and shook tears out of them. But Nicky's mouth refused to take any part in the performance, though he let his father carry him upstairs. And, as he lay on the big bed in his mother's room, he said he thought he could bear it if he had Jane-Pussy to lie beside him, and his steam-engine.
Anthony went back into the garden to fetch Jane. He spent an hour looking for her, wandering in utter misery through the house and through the courtyard and stables and the kitchen garden. He looked for Jane in the hothouse and the cucumber frames, and under the rhubarb, and on the scullery roof, and in the water butt. It was just possible that on a day of complete calamity Jane should have slithered off the scullery roof into the water-butt. The least he could do was to find Jane, since Nicky wanted her.
And in the end it turned out that Jane had been captured in her sleep, treacherously, by Auntie Emmy. And she had escaped, maddened with terror of the large, nervous, incessantly caressing hands. She had climbed into the highest branch of the tree of Heaven, and crouched there, glaring, unhappy.
"Damn the cat!" said Anthony to himself. (It was not Jane he meant.)
He was distressed, irritated, absurdly upset, because he would have to go back to Nicky without Jane, because he couldn't get Nicky what he wanted.
In that moment Anthony loved Nicky more than any of them. He loved him almost more than Frances. Nicky's earache ruined the fine day.
He confided in young Vereker. "I wouldn't bother," he said, "if the little chap wasn't so plucky about it."
"Quite so, sir," said young Vereker.
It was young Mr. Vereker who found Jane, who eventually recaptured her. Young Mr. Vereker made himself glorious by climbing up, at the risk of his neck and in his new white flannels, into the high branches of the tree of Heaven, to bring Jane down.
And when Anthony thanked him he said, "Don't mention it, sir. It's only a trifle," though it was, as Mr. Norris said, palpable that the flannels were ruined. Still, if he hadn't found that confounded cat, they would never, humanly speaking, have had their tennis.
The Aunties did not see Mr. Vereker climbing into the tree of Heaven. They did not see him playing with Mr. Parsons and Anthony and Mr. Norris. For as soon as the three young men appeared, and Emmeline and Edith began to be interested and emphatic, Grannie said that as they wouldn't see anything more of Frances and the children, it was no good staying any longer, and they'd better be getting back. It was as if she knew that they were going to enjoy themselves and was determined to prevent it.
Frances went with them to the bottom of the lane. She stood there till the black figures had passed, one by one, through the white posts on to the Heath, till, in the distance, they became small again and harmless and pathetic.
Then she went back to her room where Nicky lay in the big bed.
* * * * *
Nicky lay in the big bed with Jane on one side of him and his steam-engine on the other, and a bag of hot salt against each ear. Now and then a thin wall of sleep slid between him and his earache.
Frances sat by the open window and looked out into the garden where Anthony and Norris played, quietly yet fiercely, against Vereker and Parsons. Frances loved the smell of fresh grass that the balls and the men's feet struck from the lawn; she loved the men's voices subdued to Nicky's sleep, and the sound of their padding feet, the thud of the balls on the turf, the smacking and thwacking of the rackets. She loved every movement of Anthony's handsome, energetic body; she loved the quick, supple bodies of the young men, the tense poise and earnest activity of their adolescence. But it was not Vereker or Parsons or Norris that she loved or that she saw. It was Michael, Nicholas and John whose adolescence was foreshadowed in those athletic forms wearing white flannels; Michael, Nicky and John, in white flannels, playing fiercely. When young Vereker drew himself to his full height, when his young body showed lean and slender as he raised his arms for his smashing service, it was not young Vereker, but Michael, serious and beautiful. When young Parsons leaped high into the air and thus returned Anthony's facetious sky-scraper on the volley, that was Nicky. When young Norris turned and ran at the top of his speed, and overtook the ball on its rebound from the base line where young Vereker had planted it, when, as by a miracle, he sent it backwards over his own head, paralysing Vereker and Parsons with sheer astonishment, that was John.
* * * * *
Her vision passed. She was leaning over Nicky now, Nicky so small in the big bed. Nicky had moaned.
"Does it count if I make that little noise, Mummy? It sort of lets the pain out."
"No, my lamb, it doesn't count. Is the pain very bad?"
"Yes, Mummy, awful. It's going faster and faster. And it bizzes. And when it doesn't bizz, it thumps." He paused—"I think—p'raps—I could bear it better if I sat on your knee."
Frances thought she could bear it better too. It would be good for Nicky that he should grow into beautiful adolescence and a perfect manhood; but it was better for her that he should be a baby still, that she should have him on her knee and hold him close to her; that she should feel his adorable body press quivering against her body, and the heat of his earache penetrating her cool flesh. For now she was lost to herself and utterly absorbed in Nicky. And her agony became a sort of ecstasy, as if, actually, she bore his pain.
It was Anthony who could not stand it. Anthony had come in on his way to his dressing-room. As he looked at Nicky his handsome, hawk-like face was drawn with a dreadful, yearning, ineffectual pity. Frances had discovered that her husband could both be and look pathetic. He had wanted her to be sorry for him and she was sorry for him, because his male pity was all agony; there was no ecstasy in it of any sort at all. Nicky was far more her flesh and blood than he was Anthony's.
Nicky stirred in his mother's lap. He raised his head. And when he saw that queer look on his father's face he smiled at it. He had to make the smile himself, for it refused to come of its own accord. He made it carefully, so that it shouldn't hurt him. But he made it so well that it hurt Frances and Anthony.
"I never saw a child bear pain as Nicky does," Frances said in her pride.
"If he can bear it, I can't," said Anthony. And he stalked into his dressing-room and shut the door on himself.
"Daddy minds more than you do," said Frances.
At that Nicky sat up. His eyes glittered and his cheeks burned with the fever of his earache.
"I don't mind," he said. "Really and truly I don't mind. I don't care if my ear does ache.
"It's my eyes is crying, not me."
* * * * *
At nine o'clock, when they were all sitting down to dinner, Nicky sent for his father and mother. Something had happened.
Crackers, he said, had been going off in his ears, and they hurt most awfully. And when it had done cracking his earache had gone away. And Dorothy had brought him a trumpet from Rosalind's party and Michael a tin train. And Michael had given him the train and he wouldn't take the trumpet instead. Oughtn't Michael to have had the trumpet?
And when they left him, tucked up in his cot in the night nursery, he called them back again.
"It was a jolly sell for me, wasn't it?" said Nicky. And he laughed.
It seemed that Nicky would always be like that. Whatever happened, and something was generally happening to him, he didn't care. When he scaled the plaster flower-pot on the terrace, and it gave way under his assault and threw him down the steps on to the gravel walk, he picked himself up, displaying a forehead that was a red abrasion filled in with yellow gravel and the grey dust of the smashed flower-pot, and said "I don't care. I liked it," before anybody had time to pity him. When Mary-Nanna stepped on his train and broke the tender, he said "It's all right. I don't care. I shall make another." It was no use Grannie saying, "Don't care came to a bad end"; Nicky made it evident that a bad end would be life's last challenge not to care. No accident, however unforeseen, would ever take him at a disadvantage.
Two years passed and he was just the same.
Frances and Anthony agreed behind his back that Nicky was adorable.
But his peculiar attitude to misfortune became embarrassing when you had to punish him. Nicky could break the back of any punishment by first admitting that it was a good idea and then thinking of a better one when it was too late. It was a good idea not letting him have any cake for tea after he had tested the resilience of the new tyres on his father's bicycle with a penknife; but, Nicky said, it would have been more to the purpose if they had taken his steam-engine from him for a week.
"You didn't think of that, did you, Mummy? I thought of it," said Nicky.
Once he ran away over the West Heath, and got into the Leg of Mutton Pond, and would have been drowned if a total stranger hadn't gone in after him and pulled him out. That time Nicky was sent to bed at four o'clock in the afternoon. At seven, when his mother came to tuck him up and say Good-night, she found him sitting up, smiling and ready.
"Mummy," he said, "I think I ought to tell you. It isn't a bit of good sending me to bed."
"I should have thought it was, myself," said Frances. She almost suspected Nicky of insincerity.
"So it would have been," he assented, "if I didn't 'vent things. You see, I just lie still 'venting things all the time. I've 'vented three things since tea: a thing to make Daddy's bikesickle stand still with Daddy on it; a thing to squeeze corks out of bottles; and a thing to make my steam-engine go faster. That isn't a punishment, is it, Mummy?"
* * * * *
They said that Nicky would grow out of it. But two more years passed and Nicky was still the same.
And yet he was not the same. And Dorothy, and Michael and John were not the same.
For the awful thing about your children was that they were always dying. Yes, dying. The baby Nicky was dead. The child Dorothy was dead and in her place was a strange big girl. The child Michael was dead and in his place was a strange big boy. And Frances mourned over the passing of each age. You could no more bring back that unique loveliness of two years old, of five years old, of seven, than you could bring back the dead. Even John-John was not a baby any more; he spoke another language and had other feelings; he had no particular affection for his mother's knee. Frances knew that all this dying was to give place to a more wonderful and a stronger life. But it was not the same life; and she wanted to have all their lives about her, enduring, going on, at the same time. She did not yet know that the mother of babies and the mother of boys and girls must die if the mother of men and women is to be born.
Thoughts came to Frances now that troubled her tranquillity.
Supposing, after all, the children shouldn't grow up as she wanted them to?
There was Nicky. She could do nothing with him; she could make no impression on him.
There was Michael. She couldn't make him out. He loved them, and showed that he loved them; but it was by caresses, by beautiful words, by rare, extravagant acts of renunciation, inconsistent with his self-will; not by anything solid and continuous. There was a softness in Michael that distressed and a hardness that perplexed her. You could make an impression on Michael—far too easily—and the impression stayed. You couldn't obliterate it. Michael's memory was terrible. And he had secret ways. He was growing more and more sensitive, more and more wrapped up in Himself. Supposing Michael became a morbid egoist, like Anthony's brother, Bartholomew?
And there was Dorothy. She went her own way more than ever, with the absolute conviction that it was the right way. Nothing could turn her. At thirteen her body was no longer obedient. Dorothy was not going to be her mother's companion, or her father's, either; she was Rosalind Jervis's companion. She seemed to care more about little fat, fluffy Rosalind than about any of them except Nicky. Dorothy was interested in Michael; she respected his queer thoughts. It was as if she recognized some power in him that could beat her somewhere some day, and was humble before a thing her cleverness had failed to understand. But it was Nicky that she adored, not Michael; and she was bad for Nicky. She encouraged his naughtiness because it amused her.
Frances foresaw that a time would come, a little later, when Nicky and Dorothy would be companions, not Nicky and his mother.
In the evenings, coming home from the golf-links, Frances and Anthony discussed their children.
Frances said, "You can't make any impression on Nicky. There seems to be no way that you can get at him."
Anthony thought there was a way. It was a way he had not tried yet, that he did not want to try. But, if he could only bring himself to it, he judged that he could make a distinct impression.
"What the young rascal wants is a thorough good spanking," said Anthony.
Nicky said so too.
The first time he got it Nicky's criticism was that it wasn't a bad idea if his father could have pulled it off all right. But he said, "It's no good if you do it through the cloth. And it's no good unless you want to hurt me, Daddy. And you don't want. And even if you did want, badly enough to try and hurt, supposing you spanked ever so hard, you couldn't hurt as much as my earache. And I can bear that."
"He's top dog again, you see," said Frances, not without a secret satisfaction.
"Oh, is he?" said Anthony. "I don't propose to be downed by Nicky."
Every instinct in him revolted against spanking Nicky. But when Williams, the groom, showed him a graze on each knee of the pony he had bought for Frances and the children, Anthony determined that, this time, Nicky should have a serious spanking.
"Which of them took Roger out?"
"I'm sure I don't know, sir," said Williams.
But Anthony knew. He lay in wait for Nicky by the door that led from the stable yard into the kitchen garden.
Nicky was in the strawberry bed.
"Was it you who took Roger out this afternoon?"
Nicky did not answer promptly. His mouth was still full of strawberries.
"What if I did?" he said at last, after manifest reflection.
"If you did? Why, you let him down on Golders Hill and cut his knees."
"Holly Mount," said Nicky.
"Holly Mount or Golders Hill, it's all the same to you, you young monkey."
"It isn't, Daddy. Holly Mount's much the worst. It's an awful hill."
"That," said Anthony, "is why you're forbidden to ride down it. You've got to be spanked for this, Nicky."
"Have I? All right. Don't look so unhappy, Daddy."
Anthony did much better this time. Nicky (though he shook with laughter) owned it very handsomely. And Anthony had handicapped himself again by doing it through the cloth. He drew the line at shaming Nicky. (Yet—could you have shamed his indomitable impudence?)
But he had done it. He had done it ruthlessly, while the strawberries were still wet on Nicky's mouth.
And when it was all over Michael, looking for his father, came into the school-room where these things happened. He said he was awfully sorry, but he'd taken Roger out, and Roger had gone down on his knees and cut himself.
No, it wasn't on Holly Mount, it was at the turn of the road on the hill past the "Spaniards."
Anthony paid no attention to Michael. He turned on Michael's brother.
"Nicky, what did you do it for?"
"For a rag, of course. I knew you'd feel such a jolly fool when you found it wasn't me."
"You see, Daddy," he explained later, "you might have known I wouldn't have let Roger down. But wasn't it a ripping sell?"
"What are you to do," said Anthony, "with a boy like that?"
Frances had an inspiration. "Do nothing," she said. Her tranquillity refused to be troubled for long together.
"Nicky's right. It's no good trying to punish him. After all, why punish Nicky? It isn't as if he was really naughty. He never does unkind things, or mean things. And he's truthful."
"Horribly truthful. They all are," said Anthony.
"Well, then, what does Nicky do?"
"He does dangerous things."
"Nothing more dangerous than forgetting. We must punish him to make him remember."
"But it doesn't make him remember. It only makes him think us fools."
"You know what it means?" said Anthony. "We shall have to send him to school."
"Not yet," said Frances.
School was the thing in the future that she dreaded. Nicky was only nine, and they were all getting on well with Mt. Parsons. Anthony knew that to send Nicky to school now would be punishing Frances, not Nicky. The little fiend would only grin in their faces if they told him he was going to school.
It was no use trying to make impressions on Nicky. He was as hard as nails. He would never feel things.
Perhaps, Frances thought, it was just as well.
"I do think it was nice of Jane," said Nicky, "to have Jerry."
"And I do think it was nice of me," said Dorothy, "to give him to you."
Jane was Dorothy's cat; therefore her kittens were Dorothy's.
"I wouldn't have given him to just anybody."
"I know," said Nicky.
"I might have kept him. He's the nicest kitten Jane ever had."
"I know," said Nicky. "It was nice of you."
"I might want him back again."
Nicky was quiet and serious, almost humble, as if he went in the fear of losing Jerry. Nobody but Jerry and Dorothy saw Nicky in that mood.
Not that he was really afraid. Nothing could take Jerry from him. If Dorothy could have taken him back again she wouldn't have, not even if she had really wanted him. Dorothy wasn't cruel, and she was only ragging.
But certainly he was Jane's nicest kitten. Jane was half-Persian, white with untidy tabby patterns on her. Jerry was black all over. Whatever attitude he took, his tight, short fur kept the outlines of his figure firm and clear, whether he arched his back and jumped sideways, or rolled himself into a cushion, or squatted with haunches spread and paws doubled in under his breast, or sat bolt upright with his four legs straight like pillars, and his tail curled about his feet. Jerry's coat shone like black looking-glass, and the top of his head smelt sweet, like a dove's breast.
And he had yellow eyes. Mary-Nanna said they would turn green some day. But Nicky didn't believe it. Mary-Nanna was only ragging. Jerry's eyes would always be yellow.
Mr. Parsons declared that Nicky sat for whole hours meditating on Jerry, as if in this way he could make him last longer.
Jerry's life was wonderful to Nicky. Once he was so small that his body covered hardly the palm of your hand; you could see his skin; it felt soft and weak through the thin fur, sleeked flat and wet where Jane had licked it. His eyes were buttoned up tight. Then they opened. He crawled feebly on the floor after Jane, or hung on to her little breasts, pressing out the milk with his clever paws. Then Jerry got older. Sometimes he went mad and became a bat or a bird, and flew up the drawing-room curtains as if his legs were wings.
Nicky said that Jerry could turn himself into anything he pleased; a hawk, an owl, a dove, a Himalayan bear, a snake, a flying squirrel, a monkey, a rabbit, a panther, and a little black lamb of God.
Jerry was a cat now; he was two years old.
Jerry's fixed idea seemed to be that he was a very young cat, and that he must be nursed continually, and that nobody but Nicky must nurse him. Mr. Parsons found that Nicky made surprising progress in his Latin and Greek that year. What had baffled Mr. Parsons up till now had been Nicky's incapacity for sitting still. But he would sit still enough when Jerry was on his knee, pressed tight between the edge of the desk and Nicky's stomach, so that knowledge entered into Nicky through Jerry when there was no other way.
Nicky would even sit still in the open air to watch Jerry as he stalked bees in the grass, or played by himself, over and over again, his own enchanted game. He always played it in the same way. He started from the same clump in the border, to run in one long careening curve across the grass; at the same spot in the lawn he bounded sideways and gave the same little barking grunt and dashed off into the bushes. When you tried to catch him midway he stood on his hind legs and bowed to you slantwise, waving his forepaws, or rushed like lightning up the tree of Heaven, and climbed into the highest branches and clung there, looking down at you. His yellow eyes shone through the green leaves; they quivered; they played; they mocked you with some challenge, some charm, secret and divine and savage.
"The soul of Nicky is in that cat," Frances said.
Jerry knew that he was Nicky's cat. When other people caught him he scrabbled over their shoulders with his claws and got away from them. When Nicky caught him he lay quiet and heavy in his arms, pressing down and spreading his soft body. Nicky's sense of touch had been hardened by violent impacts and collisions, by experiments with jack-knives and saws and chisels and gouges, and by struggling with the material of his everlasting inventions. Through communion with Jerry it became tender and sensitive again. It delighted in the cat's throbbing purr and the thrill of his feet, as Jerry, serious and earnest, padded down his bed on Nicky's knee.
"I like him best, though," said Nicky, "when he's sleepy and at the same time bitesome."
"You mustn't let him bite you," Frances said.
"I don't mind," said Nicky. "He wouldn't do it if he didn't like me."
Jerry had dropped off to sleep with his jaws closing drowsily on Nicky's arm. When it moved his hind legs kicked at it and tore.
"He's dreaming when he does that," said Nicky. "He thinks he's a panther and I'm buffaloes."
Mr. Parsons laughed at him. "Nicky and his cat!" he said. Nicky didn't care. Mr. Parsons was always ragging him.
The tutor preferred dogs himself. He couldn't afford any of the expensive breeds; but that summer he was taking care of a Russian wolfhound for a friend of his. When Mr. Parsons ran with Michael and Nicky round the Heath, the great borzoi ran before them with long leaps, head downwards, setting an impossible pace. Michael and Dorothy adored Boris openly. Nicky, out of loyalty to Jerry, stifled a secret admiration. For Mr. Parsons held that a devotion to a cat was incompatible with a proper feeling for a dog, whence Nicky had inferred that any feeling for a dog must do violence to the nobler passion.
Mr. Parsons tried to wean Nicky from what he pretended to regard as his unmanly weakness. "Wait, Nicky," he said, "till you've got a dog of your own."
"I don't want a dog of my own," said Nicky. "I don't want anything but Jerry." Boris, he said, was not clever, like Jerry. He had a silly face.
"Think so?" said Mr. Parsons. "Look at his jaws. They could break Jerry's back with one snap."
"Could he, Daddy?"
They were at tea on the lawn, and Boris had gone to sleep under Mr. Parsons' legs with his long muzzle on his forepaws.
"He could," said Anthony, "if he caught him."
"But he couldn't catch him. Jerry'd be up a tree before Boris could look at him."
"If you want Jerry to shin up trees you must keep his weight down."
Nicky laughed. He knew that Boris could never catch Jerry. His father was only ragging him.
* * * * *
Nicky was in the schoolroom, bowed over his desk. He was doing an imposition, the second aorist of the abominable verb [Greek: erchomai], written out five and twenty times. (Luckily he could do the last fifteen times from memory.)
Nicky had been arguing with Mr. Parsons. Mr. Parsons had said that the second aorist of [Greek: erchomai] was not [Greek: erchon].
Nicky had said, "I can't help it. If it's not [Greek: erchon] it ought to be."
Mr. Parsons had replied: "The verb [Greek: erchomai] is irregular." And Nicky had retorted, in effect, that no verb had any business to be as irregular as all that. Mr. Parsons had then suggested that Nicky might know more about the business of irregular verbs if he wrote out the second aorist of [Greek: erchomai] five and twenty times after tea. As it was a particularly fine afternoon, an imposition was, Nicky admitted, a score for Mr. Parsons and a jolly good sell for him.
Mr. Parsons had not allowed him to have Jerry on his knee, or even in the room; and this, Nicky owned further, was but just. It wouldn't have been nearly so good a punishment if he had had Jerry with him.
Nicky, bowed over his desk, struggled for the perfect legibility which Mr. Parsons had insisted on, as otherwise the imposition would do him more harm than good. He was in for it, and the thing must be done honourably if it was done at all. He had only looked out of the windows twice to make sure that Boris was asleep under Mr. Parsons' legs. And once he had left the room to see where Jerry was. He had found him in the kitchen garden, sitting on a bed of fresh-grown mustard and cress, ruining it. He sat like a lamb, his forepaws crossed, his head tilted slightly backwards. His yellow eyes gazed at Nicky with a sweet and mournful innocence.
Nicky did not hear the voices in the garden.
"I'm awfully sorry, sir," Mr. Parsons was saying. "I can't think how it could have happened." Mr. Parsons' voice was thick and his face was very red. "I could have sworn the door was shut."
"Johnnie opened it," said Anthony. He seemed to have caught, suddenly, one of his bad colds and to be giving it to Mr. Parsons. They were both in their shirtsleeves, and Anthony carried something in his arms which he had covered with his coat.
The borzoi stood in front of them. His face had a look of foolish ecstasy. He stared at Mr. Parsons, and as he stared he panted. There was a red smear on his white breast; his open jaws still dripped a pink slaver. It sprayed the ground in front of them, jerked out with his panting.
"Get away, you damned brute," said Mr. Parsons.
Boris abashed himself; he stretched out his fore legs towards Mr. Parsons, shook his raised haunches, lifted up his great saw-like muzzle, and rolled into one monstrous cry a bark, a howl, a yawn.
Nicky heard it, and he looked out of the schoolroom window. He saw the red smear on the white curly breast. He saw his father in his shirt sleeves, carrying something in his arms that he had covered with his coat.
Under the tree of Heaven Dorothy and Michael, crouching close against their mother, cried quietly. Frances was crying, too; for it was she who would have to tell Nicky.
Dorothy tried to console him.
"Jerry's eyes would have turned green, if he had lived, Nicky. They would, really."
"I wouldn't have minded. They'd have been Jerry's eyes."
"But he wouldn't have looked like Jerry."
"I wouldn't have cared what he looked like. He'd have been Jerry."
"I'll give you Jane, Nicky, and all the kittens she ever has, if that would make up."
"It wouldn't. You don't seem to understand that it's Jerry I want. I wish you wouldn't talk about him."
"Very well," said Dorothy, "I won't."
Then Grannie tried. She recommended a holy resignation. God, she said, had given Jerry to Nicky, and God had taken him away.
"He didn't give him me, and he'd no right to take him. Dorothy wouldn't have done it. She was only ragging. But when God does things," said Nicky savagely, "it isn't a rag."
He hated Grannie, and he hated Mr. Parsons, and he hated God. But he loved Dorothy who had given him Jerry.
Night after night Frances held him in her arms at bed-time while Nicky said the same thing. "If—if I could stop seeing him. But I keep on seeing him. When he sat on the mustard and cress. And when he bit me with his sleep-bites. And when he looked at me out of the tree of Heaven. Then I hear that little barking grunt he used to make when he was playing with himself—when he dashed off into the bushes.
"And I can't bear it."
Night after night Nicky cried himself to sleep.
For the awful thing was that it had been all his fault. If he had kept Jerry's weight down Boris couldn't have caught him.
"Daddy said so, Mummy."
Over and over again Frances said, "It wasn't your fault. It was Don-Don's. He left the door open. Surely you can forgive Don-Don?" Over and over again Nicky said, "I do forgive him."
But it was no good. Nicky became first supernaturally subdued and gentle, then ill. They had to take him away from home, away from the sight of the garden, and away from Mr. Parsons, forestalling the midsummer holidays by two months.
Nicky at the seaside was troublesome and happy, and they thought he had forgotten. But on the first evening at Hampstead, as Frances kissed him Good-night, he said: "Shall I have to see Mr. Parsons to-morrow?"
Frances said: "Yes. Of course."
"I'd rather not."
"Nonsense, you must get over that."
"Oh, Nicky, can't you forgive poor Mr. Parsons? When he was so unhappy?"
"Do you think," he said at last, "he really minded?"
"I'm sure he did."
"As much as you and Daddy?"
"Quite as much."
"Then," said Nicky, "I'll forgive him."
But, though he forgave John and Mr. Parsons and even God, who, to do him justice, did not seem to have been able to help it, Nicky did not forgive himself.
Yet Frances never could think why the sight of mustard and cress made Nicky sick. Neither did Mr. Parsons, nor any schoolmaster who came after him understand why, when Nicky knew all the rest of the verb [Greek: erchomai] by heart he was unable to remember the second aorist.
He excellent memory, but there was always a gap in it just there.
In that peace and tranquillity where nothing ever happened, Jerry's violent death would have counted as an event, a date to reckon by; but for three memorable things that happened, one after another, in the summer and autumn of 'ninety-nine: the return of Frances's brother, Maurice Fleming, from Australia where Anthony had sent him two years ago, on the express understanding that he was to stay there; the simultaneous arrival of Anthony's brother, Bartholomew, and his family; and the outbreak of the Boer War.
The return of Morrie was not altogether unforeseen, and Bartholomew had announced his coming well beforehand, but who could have dreamed that at the end of the nineteenth century England would be engaged in a War that really was a War? Frances, with the Times in her hands, supposed that that meant more meddling and muddling of stupid politicians, and that it would mean more silly speeches in Parliament, and copy, at last, for foolish violent, pathetic and desperate editors, and breach of promise cases, divorces and fires in paraffin shops reduced to momentary insignificance.
But as yet there was no war, nor any appearance that sensible people interpreted as a sign of war at the time of Morrie's return. It stood alone, as other past returns, the return from Bombay, the return from Canada, the return from Cape Colony, had stood, in its sheer awfulness. To Frances it represented the extremity of disaster.
They might have known what was coming by Grannie's behaviour. One day, the day when the Australian mail arrived, she had subsided suddenly into a state of softness and gentleness. She approached her son-in-law with an air of sorrowful deprecation; she showed a certain deference to her daughter Louie; she was soft and gentle even with Emmeline and Edith.
Mrs. Fleming broke the news to Louie who broke it to Frances who in her turn broke it to Anthony. That was the procedure they invariably adopted.
"I wonder," Grannie said, "what he can be coming back for!" Each time she affected astonishment and incredulity, as if Morrie's coming back were, not a recurrence that crushed you with its flatness and staleness, but a thing that must interest Louie because of its utter un-likeliness.
"I wonder," said Louie, "why he hasn't come before. What else did you expect?"
"I'm sure I don't know," said Grannie helplessly. "Go and tell Frances."
Louie went. And because she knew that the burden of Morrie would fall again on Frances's husband she was disagreeable with Frances.
"It's all very well for you," she said. "You haven't got to live with him. You haven't got to sleep in the room next him. You don't know what it's like."
"I do know," said Frances. "I remember. You'll have to bear it."
"You haven't had to bear it for fourteen years."
"You'll have to bear it," Frances repeated, "till Anthony sends him out again. That's all it amounts to."
She waited till the children were in bed and she was alone with Anthony.
"Something awful's happened," she said, and paused hoping he would guess.
"I don't know how to tell you."
"Don't tell me if it's that Nicky's been taking my new bike to pieces."
"It isn't Nicky—It's Maurice."
Anthony got up and cleared his pipe, thoroughly and deliberately. She wondered whether he had heard.
"I'd no business to have married you—to have let you in for him."
"Why? What's he been up to now?"
"He's coming home."
"So," said Anthony, "is Bartholomew. I'd no business to have let you in for him."
"Don't worry, Frances. If Morrie comes home he'll be sent out again, that's all."
"At your expense."
"I don't grudge any expense in sending Morrie out. Nor in keeping him out."
"Yes. But this time it's different. It's worse."
"Because of the children. They're older now than they were last time. They'll understand."
"What if they do? They must learn," Anthony said, "to realize facts."
They realized them rather sooner than he had expected. Nobody but Louie had allowed for the possibility of Morrie's sailing by the same steamer as his letter; and Louie had argued that, if he had done so, he was bound either to have arrived before the letter or to have sent a wire. Therefore they had at least a clear five days of peace before them. Anthony thought he had shown wisdom when, the next morning which was a Wednesday, he sent Grannie and the Aunties to Eastbourne for a week, so that they shouldn't worry Frances, and when on Thursday he made her go with him for a long day in the country, to take her mind off Morrie.
They came back at nine in the evening and found Dorothy, Michael and Nicholas sitting up for them. Michael and Nicky were excited, but Dorothy looked grown-up and important.
"Uncle Morrie's come," they said.
"Dorothy saw him first—"
"Nicky let him in—"
"He hadn't got a hat on."
"We kept him in the schoolroom till Nanna could come and put him to bed."
"He was crying because he'd been to Grannie's house and there wasn't anybody there—"
"And because he'd lost the love-birds he'd brought for Auntie Emmy—"
"And because he couldn't remember which of us was dead."
"No, Mummy, nobody's seen him but us and Nanna."
"Nanna's with him now."
Uncle Morrie never accounted, even to himself, for the time he had spent between the arrival of his ship at Tilbury on Sunday morning and that Saturday afternoon. Neither could he remember what had become of his luggage or whether he had ever had any. Only the County Council man, going his last rounds in the farthest places of the Heath, came upon a small bundle tied in a blue handkerchief, a cap belonging to E.D. Boulger, of the S.S. Arizona, a cage of love-birds, and a distinct impression of a recumbent human form, on the grass together, under a young birch tree.
In the stuffy little house behind the Judge's Walk the four women lived now under male protection. When they crossed the Heath they had no longer any need to borrow Anthony from Frances; they had a man of their own. To make room for him Auntie Louie and her type-writer were turned out of their own place, and Auntie Louie had to sleep in Grannie's bed, a thing she hated. To make room for the type-writer the grey parrot was turned out of the dining-room into the drawing-room. And as Maurice couldn't stand either the noise of the type-writer or the noises of the parrot he found both the dining-room and the drawing-room uninhabitable.
Day after day Dorothy and Michael and Nicky, on the terrace, looked out for his coming. (Only extreme distance made Uncle Morrie's figure small and harmless and pathetic.) Day after day he presented himself with an air of distinction and assurance, flushed, and a little battered, but still handsome, wearing a spruce grey suit and a panama hat bought with Anthony's money. Sheep-farming in Australia—he had infinitely preferred the Cape Mounted Police—had ruined Maurice's nerves. He was good for nothing but to lounge in Anthony's garden, to ride his horses—it was his riding that had got him into the Cape Mounted Police—to sit at his table and drink his wines, and, when there was no more wine for him, to turn into Jack Straw's Castle for a pick-me-up on his way home.
And before July was out three others were added to the garden group: Bartholomew and Vera and Veronica. And after them a fourth, Vera's friend, Captain Ferdinand Cameron, home on sick leave before anybody expected him.
Frances's tree of Heaven sheltered them all.
Bartholomew, Anthony's brother, lived in Bombay and looked after his business for him in the East. He had something the matter with him, and he had come home to look after his own health. At least, Bartholomew's health was what he was supposed to be looking after; but Dorothy had heard her father say that Bartie had come home to look after Vera.
Vera was Bartie's wife and Veronica's mother. Before she became Mrs. Bartholomew Harrison she had been Frances's schoolfellow and her dearest friend. Frances Fleming had been her bridesmaid and had met Anthony for the first time at Vera's wedding, when he had fallen in love with her; and she had fallen in love with him when they stayed together in Bartholomew's house, before Bartholomew took Vera to Bombay.
Bartie had not been married ten months before he wanted to get Vera out of England; and Vera had not been in India for ten weeks before he wanted her to go back. They were always coming backwards and forwards, but they never came together. Vera would be sent home first, and then Bartie would come over in a great hurry and take her out again.
Twelve years after their marriage Veronica was born at Simla, and the coming and going ceased for three years. Then Bartie sent them both home. That time Vera had refused to travel farther westward than Marseilles. She was afraid of damp and cold, and she had got the ship's doctor to order her to the Riviera. She and Veronica had been living for two years in a small villa at Agaye.
This summer she had come to England. She was no longer afraid of damp and cold. And Bartie followed her.
Dorothy and Michael had no difficulty in remembering Vera, though it was more than six years since they had seen her; for Vera looked the same. Her hair still shone like copper-beech leaves; her face had still the same colour and the same sweet, powdery smell. And if these things had changed Frances would still have known her by her forehead that looked so broad because her eyebrows and her eyes were so long, and by her fine, unfinished, passionate mouth, by her pointed chin and by her ways.
But though her brother-in-law's ways had always been more or less disagreeable, Frances was not prepared for the shock of the renewed encounter with Bartholomew. Bartie was long and grey, and lean even when you allowed for the thickness of his cholera belt. He wore a white scarf about his throat, for his idea was that he had cancer in it. Cancer made you look grey. He, too, had the face of a hawk, of a tired and irritable hawk. It drooped between his hunched shoulders, his chin hanging above the scarf as if he were too tired or too irritable to hold it up. He behaved to Vera and Veronica as if it was they who had worried him into cancer of the throat, they who tired and irritated him.