GONE TO EARTH
by Mary Webb
[Dedication] To him whose presence is home.
Small feckless clouds were hurried across the vast untroubled sky—shepherdless, futile, imponderable—and were torn to fragments on the fangs of the mountains, so ending their ephemeral adventures with nothing of their fugitive existence left but a few tears.
It was cold in the Callow—a spinney of silver birches and larches that topped a round hill. A purple mist hinted of buds in the tree-tops, and a fainter purple haunted the vistas between the silver and brown boles.
Only the crudeness of youth was here as yet, and not its triumph—only the sharp calyx-point, the pricking tip of the bud, like spears, and not the paten of the leaf, the chalice of the flower.
For as yet spring had no flight, no song, but went like a half-fledged bird, hopping tentatively through the undergrowth. The bright springing mercury that carpeted the open spaces had only just hung out its pale flowers, and honeysuckle leaves were still tongues of green fire. Between the larch boles and under the thickets of honeysuckle and blackberry came a tawny silent form, wearing with the calm dignity of woodland creatures a beauty of eye and limb, a brilliance of tint, that few-women could have worn without self-consciousness. Clear-eyed, lithe, it stood for a moment in the full sunlight—a year-old fox, round-headed and velvet-footed. Then it slid into the shadows. A shrill whistle came from the interior of the wood, and the fox bounded towards it.
'Where you bin? You'm stray and lose yourself, certain sure!' said a girl's voice, chidingly motherly. 'And if you'm alost, I'm alost; so come you whome. The sun's undering, and there's bones for supper!'
With that she took to her heels, the little fox after her, racing down the Callow in the cold level light till they came to the Woodus's cottage.
Hazel Woodus, to whom the fox belonged, had always lived at the Callow. There her mother, a Welsh gipsy, had born her in bitter rebellion, hating marriage and a settled life and Abel Woodus as a wild cat hates a cage. She was a rover, born for the artist's joy and sorrow, and her spirit found no relief for its emotions; for it was dumb. To the linnet its flight, to the thrush its song; but she had neither flight nor song. Yet the tongueless thrush is a thrush still, and has golden music in its heart. The caged linnet may sit moping, but her soul knows the dip and rise of flight on an everlasting May morning.
All the things she felt and could not say, all the stored honey, the black hatred, the wistful homesickness for the unfenced wild—all that other women would have put into their prayers, she gave to Hazel. The whole force of her wayward heart flowed into the softly beating heart of her baby. It was as if she passionately flung the life she did not value into the arms of her child.
When Hazel was fourteen she died, leaving her treasure—an old, dirty, partially illegible manuscript-book of spells and charms and other gipsy lore—to her daughter.
Her one request was that she might be buried in the Callow under the yellow larch needles, and not in a churchyard. Abel Woodus did as she asked, and was regarded askance by most of the community for not burying her in Chrissen-ground. But this did not trouble him. He had his harp still, and while he had that he needed no other friend. It had been his absorption in his music that had prevented him understanding his wife, and in the early days of their marriage she had been wildly jealous of the tall gilt harp with its faded felt cover that stood in the corner of the living-room. Then her jealousy changed to love of it, and her one desire was to be able to draw music from its plaintive strings. She could never master even the rudiments of music, but she would sit on rainy evenings when Abel was away and run her thin hands over the strings with a despairing passion of grieving love. Yet she could not bear to hear Abel play. Just as some childless women with all their accumulated stores of love cannot bear to see a mother with her child, so Maray Woodus, with her sealed genius, her incapacity for expression, could not bear to hear the easy self-expression of another. For Abel was in his way a master of his art; he had dark places in his soul, and that is the very core of art and its substance. He had the lissom hands and cheerful self-absorption that bring success.
He had met Maray at an Eisteddfod that had been held in days gone by on a hill five miles from the Callow, called God's Little Mountain, and crowned by a chapel. She had listened, swaying and weeping to the surge and lament of his harp, and when he won the harper's prize and laid it in her lap she had consented to be married in the chapel at the end of the Eisteddfod week. That was nineteen years ago, and she was fled like the leaves and the birds of departed summers; but God's Little Mountain still towered as darkly to the eastward; the wind still leapt sheer from the chapel to the young larches of the Callow; nothing had changed at all; only one more young, anxious, eager creature had come into the towering, subluminous scheme of things. Hazel had her mother's eyes, strange, fawn-coloured eyes like water, and in the large clear irises were tawny flecks. In their shy honesty they were akin to the little fox's. Her hair, too, of a richer colour than her father's, was tawny and foxlike, and her ways were graceful and covert as a wild creature's.
She stood in the lane above the cottage, which nestled below with its roof on a level with the hedge-roots, and watched the sun dip. The red light from the west stained her torn old dress, her thin face, her eyes, till she seemed to be dipped in blood. The fox, wistfulness in her expression and the consciousness of coming supper in her mind, gazed obediently where her mistress gazed, and was touched with the same fierce beauty. They stood there fronting the crimson pools over the far hills, two small sentient things facing destiny with pathetic courage; they had, in the chill evening on the lonely hill, a look as of those predestined to grief, almost an air of martyrdom.
The small clouds that went westward took each in its turn the prevailing colour, and vanished, dipped in blood.
From the cottage, as Hazel went down the path, came the faint thrumming of the harp, changing as she reached the door to the air of 'The Ash Grove.' The cottage was very low, one-storied, and roofed with red corrugated iron. The three small windows had frames coloured with washing-blue and frills of crimson cotton within. There seemed scarcely room for even Hazel's small figure. The house was little larger than a good pigsty, and only the trail of smoke from its squat chimney showed that humanity dwelt there.
Hazel gave Foxy her supper and put her to bed in the old washtub where she slept. Then she went into the cottage with an armful of logs from the wood heap. She threw them on the open fire.
'I'm a-cold,' she said; 'the rain's cleared, and there'll be a duck's frost to-night.'
Abel looked up absently, humming the air he intended to play next.
'I bin in the Callow, and I've gotten a primmyrose,' continued Hazel, accustomed to his ways, and not discouraged. 'And I got a bit of blackthorn, white as a lady.'
Abel was well on in 'Ap Jenkyn' by now.
Hazel moved about, seeing to supper, for she was as hungry as Foxy, talking all the time in her rather shrilly sweet voice, while she dumped the cracked cups and the loaf and margarine on the bare table. The kettle was not boiling, so she threw some bacon-grease on the fire, and a great tongue of flame sprang out and licked at Abel's beard. He raised a hand to it, continuing to play with the other.
'You be fair comic-struck,' she said.
She always spoke in this tone of easy comradeship; they got on very well; they were so entirely indifferent to each other. There was nothing filial about her or parental about him. Neither did they ever evince the least affection for each other.
He struck up 'It's a fine hunting day.'
'Oh! shut thy row with that drodsome thing!' said Hazel with sudden passion. 'Look'ee! I unna bide in if you go on.'
'Ur?' queried Abel dreamily.
'Play summat else!' said Hazel, 'not that; I dunna like it.'
'You be a queer girl, 'Azel,' said Abel, coming out of his abstraction. 'But I dunna mind playing "Why do the People?" instead; it's just as heartening.'
'Canna you stop meddling wi' the music and come to supper?' asked Hazel. The harp was always called 'the music,' just as Abel's mouth-organ was 'the little music.'
She reached down the flitch to cut some bacon off, and her dress, already torn, ripped from shoulder to waist.
'If you dunna take needle to that, you'll be mother-naked afore a week's out,' said Abel indifferently.
'I mun get a new un,' said Hazel. 'It unna mend. I'll go to town to-morrow.'
'Shall you bide with yer auntie the night over?'
'I shanna look for your face till I see your shadow, then. You can bring a tuthree wreath-frames. There's old Samson at the Yeath unna last long; they'll want a wreath made.'
Hazel sat and considered her new dress. She never had a new one till the old one fell off her back, and then she usually got a second-hand one, as a shilling or two would buy only material if new, but would stretch to a ready-made if second-hand.
'Foxy'd like me to get a green velvet,' said Hazel. She always expressed her intense desires, which were few, in this formula. It was her unconscious protest against the lovelessness of her life. She put the blackthorn in water and contemplated its whiteness with delight; but it had not occurred to her that she might herself, with a little trouble, be as sweet and fresh as its blossom. The spiritualization of sex would be needed before such things would occur to her. At present she was sexless as a leaf. They sat by the fire till it went out; then they went to bed, not troubling to say good-night.
In the middle of the night Foxy woke. The moon filled her kennel-mouth like a door, and the light shone in her eyes. This frightened her—so large a lantern in an unseen hand, held so purposefully before the tiny home of one defenceless little creature. She barked sharply. Hazel awoke promptly, as a mother at her child's cry. She ran straight out with her bare feet into the fierce moonlight.
'What ails you?' she whispered. 'What ails you, little un?'
The wind stalked through the Callow, and the Callow moaned. A moan came also from the plain, and black shapes moved there as the clouds drove onwards.
'Maybe they're out,' muttered Hazel. 'Maybe the black meet's set for to-night and she's scented the jeath pack.' She looked about nervously. 'I can see summat driving dark o'er the pastures yonder; they'm abroad, surely.'
She hurried Foxy into the cottage and bolted the door.
'There!' she said. 'Now you lie good and quiet in the corner, and the death pack shanna get you.'
It was said that the death pack, phantom hounds of a bad squire, whose gross body had been long since put to sweeter uses than any he put it to in life—changed into the clear-eyed daisy and the ardent pimpernel—scoured the country on dark stormy nights. Harm was for the house past which it streamed, death for those that heard it give tongue.
This was the legend, and Hazel believed it implicitly. When she had found Foxy half dead outside her deserted earth, she had been quite sure that it was the death pack that had made away with Foxy's mother. She connected it also with her own mother's death. Hounds symbolized everything she hated, everything that was not young, wild and happy. She identified herself with Foxy, and so with all things hunted and snared and destroyed.
Night, shadow, loud winds, winter—these were inimical; with these came the death pack, stealthy and untiring, following for ever the trail of the defenceless. Sunlight, soft airs, bright colours, kindness—these were beneficent havens to flee into. Such was the essence of her creed, the only creed she held, and it lay darkly in her heart, never expressed even to herself. But when she ran into the night to comfort the little fox, she was living up to her faith as few do; when she gathered flowers and lay in the sun, she was dwelling in a mystical atmosphere as vivid as that of the saints; when she recoiled from cruelty, she was trampling evil underfoot, perhaps more surely than those great divines who destroyed one another in their zeal for their Maker.
At six the next morning they had breakfast. Abel was busy making a hive for the next summer's swarm. When he made a coffin, he always used up the bits thus. A large coffin did not leave very much; but sometimes there were small ones, and then he made splendid hives. The white township on the south side of the lilac hedge increased as slowly and unceasingly as the green township around the distant churchyard. In summer the garden was loud with bees, and the cottage was full of them at swarming-time. Later it was littered with honey-sections; honey dripped from the table, and pieces of broken comb lay on the floor and were contentedly eaten by Foxy.
Whenever an order for a coffin came, Hazel went to tell the bees who was dead. Her father thought this unnecessary. It was only for folks that died in the house, he said. But he had himself told the bees when his wife died. He had gone out on that vivid June morning to his hives, and had stood watching the lines of bees fetching water, their shadows going and coming on the clean white boards. Then he had stooped and said with a curious confidential indifference, 'Maray's jead.' He had put his ear to the hive and listened to the deep, solemn murmur within; but it was the murmur of the future, and not of the past, the preoccupation with life, not with death, that filled the pale galleries within. Today the eighteen hives lay under their winter covering, and the eager creatures within slept. Only one or two strayed sometimes to the early arabis, desultory and sad, driven home again by the frosty air to await the purple times of honey. The happiest days of Abel's life were those when he sat like a bard before the seething hives and harped to the muffled roar of sound that came from within.
All his means of livelihood were joys to him. He had the art of perpetual happiness in this, that he could earn as much as he needed by doing the work he loved. He played at flower shows and country dances, revivals and weddings. He sold his honey, and sometimes his bees. He delighted in wreath-making, gardening, and carpentering, and always in the background was his music—some new air to try on the gilded harp, some new chord or turn to master. The garden was almost big enough, and quite beautiful enough, for that of a mansion. In the summer white lilies haunted it, standing out in the dusk with their demure cajolery, looking, as Hazel said, like ghosses. Goldenrod foamed round the cottage, deeply embowering it, and lavender made a grey mist beside the red quarries of the path. Then Hazel sat like a queen in a regalia of flowers, eating the piece of bread and honey that made her dinner, and covering her face with lily pollen.
Now, there were no flowers in the garden; only the yew-tree by the gate that hung her waxen blossom along the undersides of the branches. Hazel hated the look of the frozen garden; she had an almost unnaturally intense craving for everything rich, vivid, and vital. She was all these things herself, as she communed with Foxy before starting. She had wound her hair round her head in a large plait and her old black hat made the colour richer.
'You'm nigh on thirty miles to go there and back, unless you get a lift,' said Abel.
'A lift? I dunna want never no lifts!' said Hazel scornfully.
'You'm as good a walker as John of No Man's Parish,' replied Abel, 'and he walks for ever, so they do say.'
As Hazel set forth in the sharp, fresh morning, the Callow shone with radiant brown and silver, and no presage moved within it of the snow that would hurtle upon it from mountains of cloud all night.
When Hazel had chosen her dress—a peacock blue serge—and had put it on there and then in the back of the shop, curtained off for this purpose, she went to her aunt's.
Her cousin Albert regarded her with a startled look. He was in a margarine shop, and spent his days explaining that Margarine was as good as butter. But, looking at Hazel, he felt that here was butter—something that needed no apology, and created its own demand. The bright blue made her so radiant that her aunt shook her head.
'You take after your ma, 'Azel,' she said. Her tone was irritated.
'I be glad.'
Her aunt sniffed.
'You ought to be as glad to take after one parent as another, if you were jutiful,' she said.
'I dunna want to take after anybody but myself.' Hazel flushed indignantly.
'Well! we are conceited!' exclaimed her aunt. 'Albert, don't give 'Azel all the liver and bacon. I s'pose your mother can eat as well as schoolgirls?'
Albert was gazing at Hazel so animatedly, so obviously approving of all she said, that her aunt was very much ruffled.
'No wonder you only want to be like yourself,' he said. 'Jam! my word, Hazel, you're jam!'
'Albert!' cried his mother raspingly, with a pathetic note of pleading, 'haven't I always taught you to say preserve?' She was not pleading against the inelegant word, but against Hazel.
When Albert went back to the shop, Hazel helped her aunt to wash up. All the time she was doing this, with unusual care, and cleaning the knives—a thing she hated—she was waiting anxiously for the expected invitation to stay the night. She longed for it as the righteous long for the damnation of their enemies. She never paid a visit except here, and to her it was a wild excitement. The gas-stove, the pretty china, the rose-patterned wall-paper, were all strange and marvellous as a fairy-tale. At home there was no paper, no lath and plaster, only the bare bricks, and the ceiling was of bulging sailcloth hung under the rafters.
Now to all these was added the new delight of Albert's admiring gaze—an alert, live gaze, a thing hitherto unknown to Albert. Perhaps, if she stayed, Albert would take her out for the evening. She would see the streets of the town in the magic of lights. She would walk out in her new dress with a real young man—a young man who possessed a gilt watch-chain. The suspense, as the wintry afternoon drew in, became almost intolerable. Still her aunt did not speak. The sitting-room looked so cosy when tea was laid; the firelight played over the cups; her aunt drew the curtains. On one side there was joy, warmth—all that she could desire; on the other, a forlorn walk in the dark. She had left it until so late that her heart shook at the idea of the many miles she must cover alone if her aunt did not ask her.
Her aunt knew what was going on in Hazel's mind, and smiled grimly at Hazel's unusual meekness. She took the opportunity of administering a few hometruths.
'You look like an actress,' she said.
'Do I, auntie?'
'Yes. It's a disgrace, the way you look. You quite draw men's eyes.'
'It's nice to draw men's eyes, inna it, auntie?'
'Nice! Hazel, I should like to box your ears! You naughty girl! You'll go wrong one of these days.'
'What for will I, auntie?'
'Some day you'll get spoke to!' She said the last words in a hollow whisper. 'And after that, as you won't say and do what a good girl would, you'll get picked up.'
'I'd like to see anyone pick me up!' said Hazel indignantly. 'I'd kick!'
'Oh! how unladylike! I didn't mean really picked up! I meant allegorically—like in the Bible.'
'Oh! only like in the Bible,' said Hazel disappointedly. 'I thought you meant summat real.'
'Oh! You'll bring down my grey hairs,' wailed Mrs. Prowde.
An actress was bad, but an infidel! 'That I should live to hear it—in my own villa, with my own soda cake on the cake-dish—and my own son,' she added dramatically, as Albert entered, 'coming in to have his God-fearing heart broken!'
This embarrassed Albert, for it was true, though the cause assigned was not.
'What's Hazel been up to?' he queried.
The affection beneath his heavy pleasantry strengthened his mother in her resolve that Hazel should not stay the night.
'There's a magic-lantern lecture on tonight, Hazel,' he said. 'Like to come?'
'Ah! I should that.'
'You can't walk home at that time of night,' said Mrs. Prowde. 'In fact, you ought to start now.'
'But Hazel's staying the night, mother, surely?'
'Hazel must get back to her father.'
'But, mother, there's the spare-room.'
'The spare-room's being spring-cleaned.'
Albert plunged; he was desperate and forgetful of propriety.
'I can sleep on this sofa,' he said. 'She can have my room.'
'Hazel can't have your room. It's not suitable.'
'Well, let her share yours, then.'
Mrs. Prowde played her trump-card. 'Little I thought,' she said, 'when your dear father went, that before three years had passed you'd be so forgetful of my comfort (and his memory) as to suggest such a thing. As long as I live, my room's mine. When I'm gone,' she concluded, knocking down her adversary with her superior weight of years—'when I'm gone (and the sooner the better for you, no doubt), you can put her in my room and yourself, too.'
When she had said this she was horrified at herself. What an improper thing to say! Even anger and jealousy did not excuse impropriety, though they excused any amount of unkindness.
But at this Hazel cried out in her turn:
'That he never will!' The fierce egoism of the consciously weak flamed up in her. 'I keep myself to myself,' she finished.
'If such things come to pass, mother,' Albert said, and his eyes looked suddenly vivid, so that Hazel clapped her hands and said, 'Yer lamps are lit! Yer lamps are lit!' and broke into peals of laughter. 'If such a thing comes to pass,' laboured Albert, 'they'll come decent, that is, they won't be spoken of.'
He voiced his own and his mother's creed.
At this point the argument ended, because Albert had to go back after tea to finish some work. As he stamped innumerable swans on the yielding material, he never doubted that his mother had also yielded. He forgot that life had to be shaped with an axe till the chips fly.
As soon as he had gone, Mrs. Prowde shut the door on Hazel hastily, for fear the weather might bring relenting. She had other views for Albert. In after years, when the consequences of her action had become things of the past, she always spoke of how she had done her best with Hazel. She never dreamed that she, by her selfishness that night, had herself set Hazel's feet in the dark and winding path that she must tread from that night onward to its hidden, shadowy ending. Mrs. Prowde, through her many contented years, blamed in turn Hazel, Abel, Albert, the devil, and (only tacitly and, as it were, in secret from herself) God. If there is any purgatorial fire of remorse for the hard and selfish natures that crucify love, it must burn elsewhere. It does not touch them in this world. They go as the three children went, in their coats, their hosen, and their hats all complete, nor does the smell of fire pass over them.
Hazel felt that heaven was closed—locked and barred. She could see the golden light stream through its gates. She could hear the songs of joy—joy unattained and therefore immortal; she could see the bright figures of her dreams go to and fro. But heaven was shut.
The wind ran up and down the narrow streets like a lost dog, whimpering. Hazel hurried on, for it was already twilight, and though she was not afraid of the Callow and the fields at night, she was afraid of the high roads. For the Callow was home, but the roads were the wide world. On the fringe of the town she saw lights in the bedroom windows of prosperous houses.
'My! they go to their beds early,' she thought, not having heard of dressing for dinner. It made her feel more lonely that people should be going to bed. From other houses music floated, or the savoury smell of dinner. As she passed the last lamp-post she began to cry, feeling like a lost and helpless little animal. Her new dress was forgotten; the wreath-frames would not fit under her arm, and caused a continual minor discomfort, and the Callow seemed to be half across the country. She heard a trapped rabbit screaming somewhere, a thin anguished cry that she could not ignore. This delayed her a good deal, and in letting it out she got a large bloodstain on her dress. She cried again at this. The pain of a blister, unnoticed in the morning journey, now made itself felt; she tried walking without her boots, but the ground was cold and hard.
The icy, driving wind leapt across the plain like a horseman with a long sword, and stealthily in its track came the melancholy whisper of snow.
When this began, Hazel was in the open, half-way to Wolfbatch. She sat down on the step of a stile, and sighed with relief at the ease it gave her foot. Then, far off she heard the sharp miniature sound, very neat and staccato, of a horse galloping. She held her breath to hear if it would turn down a by-road, but it came on. It came on, and grew in volume and in meaning, became almost ominous in the frozen silence. Hazel rose and stood in the fitful moonlight. She felt that the approaching hoof-beats were for her. They were the one sound in a dead world, and she nearly cried out at the thought of their dying in the distance. They must not; they should not.
'Maybe it's a farmer and his missus as have drove a good bargain, and the girl told to get supper fire-hot agen they come. Maybe they'll give me a lift! Maybe they'll say "Bide the night over?"'
She knew it was only a foolish dream; nevertheless, she stood well in the light, a slim, brow-beaten figure, the colour of her dress wan in the grey world.
A trap came swaying round the corner. Hazel cried out beseechingly, and the driver pulled the horse up short.
'I must be blind drunk,' he soliloquized, 'seeing ghosts!'
'Oh, please sir!' Hazel could say no more, for the tears that companionship unfroze.
The man peered at her.
'What in hell are you doing here?' he asked.
'Walking home-along. She wouldna let me bide the night over. And my foot's blistered in a balloon and blood on my dress.' She choked with sobs.
'What's your name?'
With an instinct of self-protection she refused to tell her surname.
'Well, mine's Reddin,' he said crossly; 'and why you're so dark about yours I don't know, but up you get, anyway.'
The sun came out in Hazel's face. He helped her up, she was so stiff with cold.
'Your arm,' she said in a low tremulous voice, when he had put the rug round her—'your arm pulling me in be like the Sunday-school tale of Jesus Christ and Peter on the wild sea—me being Peter.'
Reddin looked at her sideways to see if she was in earnest. Seeing that she was, he changed the subject.
'Far to go?' he asked.
'Ah! miles on miles.'
'Like to stop the night over?'
At last, late certainly, but no matter, at last the invitation had come, not from her aunt, but from a stranger. That made it more exciting.
'I'm much obleeged,' he said. 'Where at?'
'D'you know Undern?'
'I've heard tell on it.'
'Well, it's two miles from here. Like to come?'
'Ah! Will your mother be angry?'
'I haven't one.'
'Who be there, then?'
'Only Vessons and me.'
'Be you a gentleman, then?'
Reddin hesitated slightly. She said it with such reverence and made it seem so great a thing.
'Yes,' he said at last. 'Yes, that's what I am—a gentleman.' He was conscious of bravado.
'Will there be supper, fire-hot?'
'Yes, if Vessons is in a good temper.'
'Where you bin?' she asked next.
'You've had about as much as is good for you,' she remarked, as if thinking aloud.
He certainly smelt strongly of whisky.
'You've got a cheek!' said he. 'Let's look at you.'
He stared into her tired but vivid eyes for a long time, and the trap careered from side to side.
'My word!' he said, 'I'm in luck to-night!'
'What for be you?'
'Meeting a girl like you.'
'Do I draw men's eyes?'
'Eh?' He was startled. Then he guffawed. 'Yes,' he replied.
'She said so,' Hazel murmured. 'And she said I'd get spoke to, and she said I'd get puck up. I'm main glad of it, too. She's a witch.'
'She said you'd get picked up, did she?'
Reddin put his arm round her.
'You're so pretty! That's why.'
'Dunna maul me!'
'You might be civil. I'm doing you a kindness.'
They went on in that fashion, his arm about her, each wondering what manner of companion the other was.
When they neared Undern there were gates to open, and he admired her litheness as she jumped in and out.
In his pastures, where the deeply rutted track was already white with snow, two foals stood sadly by their mothers, gazing at the cold world with their peculiarly disconsolate eyes.
'Eh! look's the abron un! Abron, like me!' cried Hazel.
Reddin suddenly gripped the long coils that were loose on her shoulders, twisted them in a rope round his neck, and kissed her. She was enmeshed, and could not avoid his kisses.
The cob took this opportunity—one long desired—to rear, and Reddin flogged him the rest of the way. So they arrived with a clatter, and were met at the door by Andrew Vessons—knowing of eye as a blackbird, straw in mouth, the poison of asps on his tongue.
Undern Hall, with its many small-paned windows, faced the north sullenly. It was a place of which the influence and magic were not good. Even in May, when the lilacs frothed into purple, paved the lawn with shadows, steeped the air with scent; when soft leaves lipped each other consolingly; when blackbirds sang, fell in their effortless way from the green height to the green depth, and sang again—still, something that haunted the place set the heart fluttering. No place is its own, and that which is most stained with old tumults has the strongest fascination.
So at Undern, whatever had happened there went on still; someone who had been there was there still. The lawns under the trees were mournful with old pain, or with vanished joys more pathetic than pain in their fleeting mimicry of immortality.
It was only at midsummer that the windows were coloured by dawn and sunset; then they had a sanguinary aspect, staring into the delicate skyey dramas like blind, bloodshot eyes. Secretly, under the heavy rhododendron leaves and in the furtive sunlight beneath the yew-trees, gnats danced. Their faint motions made the garden stiller; their smallness made it oppressive; their momentary life made it infinitely old. Then Undern Pool was full of leaf shadows like multitudinous lolling tongues, and the smell of the mud tainted the air—half sickly, half sweet. The clipped bushes and the twisted chimneys made inky shadows like steeples on the grass, and great trees of roses, beautiful in desolation, dripped with red and white and elbowed the guelder roses and the elders set with white patens. Cherries fell in the orchard with the same rich monotony, the same fatality, as drops of blood. They lay under the fungus-riven trees till the hens ate them, pecking gingerly and enjoyably at their lustrous beauty as the world does at a poet's heart. In the kitchen-garden also the hens took their ease, banqueting sparely beneath the straggling black boughs of a red-currant grove. In the sandstone walls of this garden hornets built undisturbed, and the thyme and lavender borders had grown into forests and obliterated the path. The cattle drowsed in the meadows, birds in the heavy trees; the golden day-lilies drooped like the daughters of pleasure; the very principle of life seemed to slumber. It was then, when the scent of elder blossom, decaying fruit, mud and hot yew brooded there, that the place attained one of its most individual moods—narcotic, aphrodisiac.
In winter the yews and firs were like waving funeral plumes and mantled, headless goddesses; then the giant beeches would lash themselves to frenzy, and, stooping, would scourge the ice on Undern Pool and the cracked walls of the house, like beings drunken with the passion of cruelty. This was the second mood of Undern—brutality. Then those within were, it seemed, already in the grave, heavily covered with the prison of frost and snow, or shouted into silence by the wind. On a January night the house seemed to lie outside time and space; slow, ominous movement began beyond the blind windows, and the inflexible softness of snow, blurred on the vast background of night, buried summer ever deeper with invincible, caressing threats.
The front door was half glass, so that a wandering candle within could be seen from outside, and it looked inexpressibly forlorn, like a glow-worm seeking escape from a chloroform-box or mankind looking for the way to heaven. Only four windows were ever lit, and of these two at a time. They were Jack Reddin's parlour, Andrew Vessons' kitchen, and their respective bedrooms.
Reddin of Undern cared as little for the graciousness of life as he did for its pitiful rhapsodies, its purple-mantled tragedies. He had no time for such trivialities. Fox-hunting, horse-breeding, and kennel lore were his vocation. He rode straight, lived hard, exercised such creative faculties as he had on his work, and found it very good. Three times a year he stated in the Undern pew at Wolfbatch that he intended to continue leading a godly, righteous, and sober life. At these times, with amber lights from the windows playing over his well-shaped head, his rather heavy face looked, as the Miss Clombers from Wolfbatch Hall said, 'so chivalrous, so uplifted.' The Miss Clombers purred when they talked, like cats with a mouse. The younger still hunted, painfully compressing an overfed body into a riding-habit of some forgotten cut, and riding with so grim a mouth and such a bloodthirsty expression that she might have had a blood-feud with all foxes. Perhaps, when she rode down the anxious red-brown streak, she thought she was riding down a cruel fate that had somehow left her life vacant of joy; perhaps, when the little creature was torn piece-meal, she imagined herself tearing so the frail unconquerable powers of love and beauty. Anyway, she never missed a meet, and she and her sister never ceased their long silent battle for Reddin, who remained as unconscious of them as if they were his aunts. He was, of course, beneath them, very much beneath them—hardly more than a farmer, but still—a man.
Reddin went on his dubious and discreditable way, and the woman Sally Haggard, of the cottage in the hollow, gained by virtue of a certain harsh beauty what the ladies Clomber would have given all their wealth for.
The other inhabitant of Undern, Andrew, revolved in his own orbit, and was entirely unknown to his master. He cut the yews—the peacocks and the clipped round trees and the ones like tables—twice a year. He was creating a swan. He had spent twenty years on it, and hoped to complete it in a few more, when the twigs that were to be the beak had grown sufficiently. It never occurred to him that the place was not his, that he might have to leave it. He had his spring work and his autumn work; in the winter he ordained various small indoor jobs for himself; and in the summer, in common with the rest of the place, he grew somnolent. He sat by the hacked and stained kitchen-table (which he seldom scrubbed, and on which he tried his knife, sawed bones, and chopped meat) and slept the afternoons away in the ceaseless drone of flies.
When Reddin called him he rarely answered, and only deigned to go to him when he felt sure that his order was going to be reasonable.
Everything he said was non-committal, every movement was expostulatory. Reddin never noticed. Vessons suited his needs, and he always had such meals as he liked. Vessons was a bachelor. Monasticism had found, in a countryside teeming with sex, one silent but rabid disciple. If Vessons ever felt the irony of his own presence in a breeding stable, he never said so. He went about his work with tight disapproving lips, as if he thought that Nature owed him a debt of gratitude for his tolerance of her ways. Ruminative and critical, he went to and fro in the darkly lovely domain, with pig buckets or ash buckets or barrows full of manure. The lines of his face were always etched in dirt, and he always had a bit of rag tied round some cut or blister. He was a lonely soul, as he once said himself when unusually mellow at the Hunter's Arms; he was 'wi'out mother, wi'out father, wi'out descent.' He preferred it to the ties of family. He liked living with Reddin because they never spoke except of necessity, and because he was quite indifferent to Reddin's welfare and Reddin to his.
But to Undern itself he was not indifferent. Ties deep as the tangled roots of the bindweed, strong as the great hawsers of the beeches that reached below the mud of Undern Pool, held him to it, the bondslave of a beauty he could not understand, a terror he could not express. When he trudged the muddy paths, 'setting taters' or earthing up; when he scythed the lawn, looking, with a rose in his hat, weirder and more ridiculous than ever; and when he shook the apples down with a kind of sour humour, as if to say, 'There! that's what you trees get by having apples!'—at all these times he seemed less an individual than a blind force. For though his personality was strong, that of the place was stronger. Half out of the soil, minded like the dormouse and the beetle, he was, by virtue of his unspoken passion, the protoplasm of a poet.
Vessons took up the pose of one seeing a new patient.
'This young lady's lost her way,' Reddin remarked.
'She 'as, God's truth! But you'll find it forra I make no doubt, sir. "There's a way"' (he looked ironically at the poultry-basket behind the trap, from which peered anxious, beaky faces)—'"a way as no fowl knoweth, the way of a man with a maid."'
'Fetch the brood mares in from the lower pasture. They should have been in this hour.'
'And late love's worse than lad's love, so they do say,' concluded Vessons.
'There's nothing of love between us,' Reddin snapped.
'I dunna wonder at it!' Andrew cast an appraising look at his master's flushed face and at Hazel's tousled hair, and withdrew.
Hazel went into the elaborately carved porch. She looked round the brown hall where deep shadows lurked. Oak chests and carved chairs, all more or less dusty, stood about, looking as if disorderly feasters had just left them. In one corner was an inlaid sideboard piano.
Hazel did not notice the grey dust and the hearth full of matches and cigarette ends. She only saw what seemed to her fabulous splendour. A foxhound rose from the moth-eaten leopard-skin by the hearth as they came in. Hazel stiffened.
'I canna-d-abear the hound-dogs,' she said. 'Nasty snabbing things.'
'Best dogs going.'
'No, they kills the poor foxes.'
Hazel's face became tense. She clenched her hands and advanced a determined chin.
'Keep yer tongue off our Foxy, or I unna stay!' she said.
'My little small cub as I took and reared.'
'Oh! you reared it, did you?'
'Ah. She didna like having no mam. I'm her mam now.'
Reddin had been looking at her as thoughtfully as his rather maudlin state allowed.
He had decided that she should stay at Undern and be his mistress.
'You'll be wanting something better than foxes to be mothering one of these days,' he remarked to the fire, with a half embarrassed, half jocose air, and a hand on the poker.
'Eh?' said Hazel, who was wondering how long it would take her to learn to play the music in the corner.
Reddin was annoyed. When one made these arch speeches at such cost of imagination, they should be received properly.
He got up and went across to Hazel, who had played three consecutive notes, and was gleeful. He put his hand on hers heavily, and a discord was wrung from the soft-toned notes that had perhaps known other such discords long ago.
'Laws! what a din!' said Hazel. 'What for d'you do that, Mr. Reddin?'
Reddin found it harder than ever to repeat his remark, and dropped it.
'What's that brown on your dress?' he asked instead.
'That? Oh, that's from a rabbit as I loosed out'n a trap. It bled awful.'
'Little sneak, to let it out.'
'Sneak's trick to catchen un, so tiny and all,' replied Hazel composedly.
'Well, you'd better change your dress; it's very wet, and there's plenty here,' said he, going to a chest and pulling out an armful of old-fashioned gowns. 'If you lived at Undern you could wear them every day.'
'If ifs were beans and bacon, there's few'd go clemmed,' said Hazel. 'That green un's proper, like when the leaves come new, and little small roses and all.'
Put it on while I see what Vessons is doing.'
'He's grumbling in the kitchen, seemingly,' said Hazel.
Vessons always grumbled. His mood could be judged only by the piano or forte effects.
Hazel heard him reply to Reddin.
'No. Supper binna ready; I've only just put 'im on.'
He always spoke of all phases of his day's work in the masculine gender.
Hazel stopped buttoning her dress to hear what Reddin was saying.
'Have you some hot water for the lady?' ('The lady! That's me!' she thought.)
'No, sir, I anna. Nor yet I anna got no myrrh, aloes, nor cassher. There's nought in my kitchen but a wold useless cat and an o'erdruv man of six-and-sixty, a pot of victuals not yet simmering, and a gentleman as ought to know better than to bring a girl to Undern and ruin her—a poor innocent little creature.'
'Me again,' said Hazel. She pondered on the remark and flushed. 'Maybe I'd best go,' she thought. Yet only vague instinct stirred her to this, and all her soul was set on staying.
'Never shall it be said'—Andrew's voice rose like a preacher's—'never shall it be said as a young female found no friend in Andrew Vessons; never shall it be said'—his voice soared over various annoyed exclamations of Reddin's—'as a female went from this 'all different from what she came.'
'Shut up, Vessons!'
But Vessons was, as he would have phrased it himself, 'in full honey-flow,' and not to be silenced.
'Single she be, and single she'd ought to stay. This 'ere rubbitch of kissing and clipping!'
'But, Vessons, if there were no children gotten, the world'd be empty.'
'Let 'un be. 'Im above'll get a bit of rest, nights, from their sins.'
'Eh, I like that old chap,' thought Hazel.
The wrangle continued. It was the deathless quarrel of the world and the monastery—natural man and the hermit. Finally Vessons concluded on a top note.
'Well, if you take this girl's good name off'n her—'
Suddenly something happened in Hazel's brain. It was the realization of life in relation to self. It marks the end of childhood. She no more saw herself throned above life and fate, as a child does. She saw that she was a part of it all; she was mutable and mortal.
She had seen life go on, had heard of funerals, courtings, confinements and weddings in their conventional order—or reversed—and she had remained, as it were, intact. She had starved and slaved and woven superstitions, loved Foxy, and tolerated her father.
Girl friends had hinted of a wild revelry that went on somewhere— everywhere—calling like a hidden merry-go-round to any who cared to hear. But she had not heard. They had let fall such sentences as 'He got the better of me,' 'I cried out, and he thought someone was coming, and he let me go.' Later, she heard, 'And I thought I'd ne'er get through it when baby came.'
She felt vaguely sorry for these girls; but she realized nothing of their life. Nor did she associate funerals and illness with herself.
As the convolvulus stands in apparent changelessness in a silent rose-and-white eternity, so she seemed to herself a stationary being. But the convolvulus has budded and bloomed and closed again while you thought her still, and she dies—the rayed and rosy cup so full of airy sweetness—she dies in a day.
* * * * *
Hazel got up from her chair by the fire and went restlessly, with a rustle as of innumerable autumn leaves, to the hall door. She gazed through the glass, and saw the sad feather-flights of snow wandering and hesitating, and finally coming to earth. They held to their individuality as flakes as long as they could, it seemed; but the end came to all, and they were merged in earth and their own multitudes.
Hazel opened the door and stood on the threshold, so that snow-flakes flattened themselves on the yellow roses of her dress. Outside there was no world, only a waste of grey and white. Like leaves on a dead bird, the wrappings of white grew deeper over Undern. Hazel shivered in the cold wind off the hill, and saw Undern Pool curdling and thickening in the frost. No sound came across the outspread country. There were no roads near Undern except its own cart track; there were no railways within miles. Nothing moved except the snow-flakes, fulfilling their relentless destiny of negation. She saw them only, and heard only the raised voices in the house arguing about herself.
'I mun go,' she said, strong in her spirit of freedom, remote and withdrawn.
'I mun stay,' she amended, weak in her undefended smallness, and very tired. She turned back to the fire. But the instinct that had awakened as childhood died clamoured within her and would not let her rest.
She softly took off the silk dress, and put on her own.
She picked up the wreath-frames with a sigh and opened the door again. She would have a long, wild walk home, but she could creep in through her bedroom window, which would not latch, and she could make a great fire of dry broom and brew some tea.
'And I'll let Foxy in and eat a loaf, I will, for I'm clemmed!' she said.
She slipped out through the door that had seen so many human lives come and go. Even as she went, the door betrayed her, for Reddin, coming from the kitchen, saw her through the upper panes.
'I be going home-along,' she said, but he pulled her in and shut the door.
'Why did you want to go?'
'I'm alost in this grand place.'
'Your hair's grander than anything in the place. And your eyes are like sherry.'
'Truth on your life?'
'Yes. Now you'd better change your dress again.'
He reached down an old silver candlestick, very tarnished.
'You can go upstairs. There's a glass in the first room you come to. Then we'll have supper.'
'Sitting at the supper in a grand shining gown wi' roses on it,' said Hazel ecstatically, her voice rising to a kind of chant, 'with a white cloth on table like school-treat, and the old servant hopping to and agen like thrussels after worms.'
'Thrussel yourself!' muttered Andrew, peering in at the door. He retired again, remarking to the cat in a sour lugubrious voice, as he always did when ruffled: 'There's no cats i' the Bible.' He began to sing 'By the waters of Babylon.'
Upstairs Hazel coiled her hair, running her fingers through its bright lengths, as she had no comb, and turning in her underbodice to make it suit the low dress. Outside, his rough hair wet with snow, stood Reddin, watching her from the vantage-ground of the darkness! He saw her stand with head erect and bare white shoulders, smiling at herself in the glass. He saw her slip into the rich gown and pose delightedly, mincing to and fro like a wagtail. He noted her lissom figure and shining coils of hair.
'She'll do,' he said, and did not wonder whether he would do himself. Then he gave a smothered exclamation. She had opened the window, pushing the snowy ivy aside, and she leant out, her breast under its folds of silk resting on the snow.
She looked over his head into the immensity of night.
'Dunna let 'un take my good name, for the old feller says I'd ought to keep it,' she said. 'And let me get back to Foxy quick in the morning light, and no harm come to us for ever and ever.'
The night received her prayer in silence. Whether or not any heard but Reddin none could say.
Reddin tiptoed into the house, rather downcast. This was a strange creature that he had caught.
Vessons was still at the waters of Babylon when Hazel came down.
'Why canna he get beyond them five words?' asked Hazel. 'He allus stops and goes back like a dog on a chain.' She sang it through in her high clear voice. There was silence in the kitchen.
Reddin stared at Hazel.
'Who taught you to sing?' he asked.
'Father. He's wonderful with the music, is father.' Hazel found that in the presence of strangers her feeling for her father was almost warm. 'Playing the harp nights, he makes your flesh creep; ah! and he makes the place all on a charm, like the spinneys in May month. And he says, "Sing!" says he, and I ups and sings, and whiles I don't never know what I bin singing.'
'That I can well believe,' said Vessons.
Reddin swung round.
'What the devil are you doing here?' he asked.
'I've come to say'—Vessons' tone was dry—'as supper's burnt.'
'Ah, to a cinder.'
'How did you do that, you fool?'
'Harkening at the lady teaching me to sing.'
Reddin was furious. He knew why supper was burnt.
'Get out!' he said. 'Get out into the stable and stay there. I'll get supper myself.'
Vessons withdrew composedly. Since Hazel had offended him, he had decided that she must take care of herself.
'Couldna he bide in the house?' asked Hazel uneasily.
They fetched in bread and beer and cold meat. Her host was jubilant, and during supper, quite deferential. He had been awed by Hazel's request to the night and by her beauty. But when his hunger was satisfied, his voice grew louder and his eyes sultry.
Restraint fell between them. Looking at his face, Hazel again had an impulse for flight. When he said, 'I want to stroke that silk dress,' and came towards her, knocking the candle over as if by accident, she edged away, saying sharply:
'Dunna maul me!'
He paid no attention.
'I'll do right by you,' he said; 'I swear I will. I'll—yes, I'll even marry you to-morrow. But to-night's mine.'
It was not a question of marrying or not marrying in Hazel's eyes. It was a matter of primitive instinct. She would be her own.
He had pulled the low dress off one shoulder. She twitched it out of his hand and slipped from his grasp like a fish from a net. He was too surprised to follow at once.
'Old feller!' she called, running into the yard, 'quick! quick!' A rough grey head appeared.
'What? after the old 'un?'
'I wunna stay along of him!'
Vessons looked at her interestedly. Apparently she also was a devotee of his religion—celibacy; one who dared to go against the explicit decrees of nature.
'I think the better of you,' he said. 'So he's had his trouble for nothing,' he chuckled. 'You can have my room. You shanna say Andrew Vessons inna a man of charitable nature. Never shall you! There's a key to it.'
He led the way to his room through the back door and up the kitchen stairs.
Most people would have suffered anything rather than sleep in the room he revealed when he proudly flung the door open. He had the recluse's love of little possessions and daily comforts.
On an upturned box by the bed were his clay pipe, matches, a treacle-tin containing whisky, and some chicken-bones. He usually kept a few bones to pick at his ease. A goldfinch with a harassed air occupied a wooden cage in the window, and the mantelpiece was fitted up with white mice in home-made cages. It seemed quite a pleasant room to Hazel.
'Mind as you're very careful of all my things,' said Vessons wistfully. 'I hanna slep away from this room for nigh twenty year. That bird's ne'er slep without me. He'll miss me. He unna sing for anybody else.' He always asserted this, and the bird always belied it by singing to Reddin and any chance visitor. But Vessons continued to believe it. There are some things that it is necessary to believe; doubt of them means despair.
Vessons was conscious that he was being generous.
'You can drink a sup of whisky if you like,' he said. 'Now I'm going, afore that bird notices, or I shall never get away.'
The bird sat in preoccupied silence. He was probably thinking of the woods and seeded dandelions. He was of the fellowship to which comfort means little and freedom much. So was Hazel.
'Lock the door!' Vessons said in a sepulchral whisper from the stairs.
Hazel did so, and curled up to sleep in the creaking house, thoughtless as the white mice, defenceless as they, as little grateful to Vessons for his protection, and in as deep an ignorance of what the world could do to her if it chose.
Early next morning, while the finch still dreamed its heavy dream and the mice were still motionless balls, Hazel was awakened by a knock at the massive oak door. She ran across and opened it a crack, peering out from amid her hair like a squirrel from autumn leaves.
Vessons stood there with a pint mug of beer, which he proffered. But Hazel had a woman's craving for tea.
'If so be the kettle's boiling,' she said apologetically.
'Tay!' said Vessons. 'Laws! how furiously the women do rage after tay! I s'pose it's me as is to make it?'
'If kettle's boiling.'
'Kettle! O' course kettle's boiling this hour past. Or how would the ca'ves get their meal?'
'Well, you needna shout. You'll wake 'im.'
Fright was in her eyes, strong and inexplicable to herself.
'I mun go!' she whispered.
'Ah! You go,' said Vessons, glad that for once duty and inclination went hand in hand.
'I'll send you,' he added. 'Where d'yer live?'
'You needna be frit to tell me,' said Vessons. 'I'm six-and-sixty, and you're no more to me'—he surveyed her flushing face contemplatively—'than the wold useless cat,' he concluded.
Hazel frowned; but she wanted a promise from Vessons, so she made no retort.
'You wunna tell 'im?' she pleaded.
''Im? Never will I! Wild 'orses shanna drag it from me, nor yet blood 'orses, nor 'unters, nor cart-'orses, nor Suffolk punches!' Vessons waxed eloquent, for again righteousness and desire coincided. He did not want a woman at Undern.
'Well,' said Hazel, whispering through the crack, 'I lives at the Callow.'
'What! that lost and forgotten place t'other side the Mountain?'
'Ah! But it inna lost and forgotten; it's better'n this. We've got bees.'
'So've I got bees.'
'And a music.'
'Music? What's a music? You canna eat it.'
'And my dad makes coffins.'
'Does 'e, now?' said Vessons, interested at last. Then he bethought him of the credit of Undern. 'But you anna got a mulberry-tree,' he said triumphantly. 'Now then! I 'ave!'
He creaked downstairs.
In a few moments Hazel also went down, and drank her tea by the red fire in the kitchen, watching the frost-flowers being softly effaced from the window as if someone rubbed them away with a sponge. Snow like sifted sugar was heaped on the sill, and the yard and outbuildings and fields, the pools and the ricks, all had the dim radiance of antimony.
'Where be the road?' asked Hazel, standing on the door-step and feeling rather lost. 'How'll I find it?'
'You wunna find it.'
'Oh, but I mun!'
'D'you think Andrew Vessons'll let an 'ooman trapse in the snow when he's got good horses in stable?' queried Vessons grandly. 'I'll drive yer.'
'I'm much obleeged, I'm sure,' said Hazel. 'But wunna he know?'
'He'll sleep till noon if I let 'im,' said Andrew.
They drove off in silence, the snow muffling the plunging hoofs. Hazel looked back as the sky crimsoned for dawn. The house fronted her with a look of power and patience. She felt that it had not yet done with her. She wondered how she would feel if Reddin suddenly appeared at his window. And a tiny traitorous wish slipped up from somewhere in her heart. She watched the windows till a turn hid the house, and then she sighed. Almost she wished that Reddin had awakened.
But she soon forgot everything in delight; for the snow shone, the long slots of the rabbits and hares, the birds' tracks in orderly rows, the deep footprints of sheep, all made her laugh by their vagaries, for they ran in loops and in circles, and appeared like the crazy steps of a sleep-walker to those who had not the key of their activity. Hazel's own doings were like that; everyone's doings are like it, if one sees the doings without the motive.
Plovers wheeled and cried desolately, seeing the soft relentless snow between themselves and their green meadows, sad as those that see fate drawing thick veils between themselves and the meadows of their hope and joy.
At the foot of the Callow Hazel got out.
'Never tell him,' she said, looking up.
'Never in life,' said Vessons.
'Never tell him,' she added, 'unless he asks a deal and canna rest.'
'He may ask till Doomsday,' said Vessons, 'and he may be restless as the ten thousand ghosses that trapse round Undern when the moon's low, but I'll ne'er tell 'im.'
Hazel sighed, and turned to climb the hill.
'A missus at Undern!' said Andrew to the cob's ears as they trotted home. 'No, never will I!'
A magpie rose from a wood near the road, jibing at him. He looked round almost as if it had been someone laughing at his resolve, and repeated, 'Never will I!'
'Where's Hazel?' asked Reddin.
'Neither wild 'orses, nor blood 'orses, nor race 'orses nor cart 'orses, nor Suffolk punches—' began Vessons whose style was cumulative, and who, when he had made a good phrase, was apt to work it to death like any other artist. 'Oh, you're drunk, Vessons!' said his master.
'Shall drag it from me,' finished Vessons.
Reddin knew this was true, and felt rather hopeless. Still, he determined not to give up the search until he had found Hazel.
He inquired at the Hunter's Arms, but Vessons had been there before him, and he was met by pleasant stupidity.
Vessons was of the people, Reddin of the aristocracy, so the frequenters of the Hunter's Arms sided as one man against Reddin.
'You'll not get another bite of that apple,' said Vessons with satisfaction, when his master returned with downcast face.
'I can't stand your manners much longer, Vessons,' said he irritably.
'Gie me notice, then,' said Vessons, falling back on the well-worn formula, and scoring his usual triumph.
Reddin had the faults of his class, but turning an old servant adrift was not one of them. Vessons traded on this, and invariably said and did exactly what he liked.
When Hazel got in, her father had finished his breakfast and was busy at work.
'Brought the wreath-frames?' he asked, without looking up.
'He's jead at last. At the turn of the night. They came after the coffin but now. I'll be able to get them there new section crates I wanted. He's doing more for me, wanting a coffin, and him stiff and cold, than what he did in the heat of life.'
'Many folks be like that,' said Hazel out of her new wisdom. Neither of them reflected that Abel had always been like that towards Hazel, that she was becoming more like it to him every year.
Abel made no remark at all about Hazel's adventures, and she preserved a discreet silence.
'That little vixen's took a chicken,' said Abel, after a time; 'that's the second.'
'She only does it when I'm away, being clemmed,' said Hazel pleadingly.
'Well, if she does it again,' Abel announced, 'it's the water and a stone round her neck. So now you know.'
'We'll see if I durst.'
Hazel fled in tears to the unrepentant and dignified Foxy. Some of us find it hard enough to be dignified when we have done right; but Foxy could be dignified when she had done wrong, and the more wrong, the more dignity.
She was very bland, and there was a look of deep content—digestive content, a state bordering on the mystic's trance—in her affectionate topaz eyes.
It had been a tender and nourishing chicken; the hours she had spent in gnawing through her rope had been well repaid.
'Oh! you darlin' wicked little thing!' wailed Hazel. 'You munna do it, Foxy, or he'll drown you dead. What for did you do it, Foxy, my dear?'
Foxy's eyes became more eloquent and more liquid.
'You gallus little blessed!' said Hazel again. 'Eh! I wish you and me could live all alone by our lonesome where there was no men and women.'
Foxy shut her eyes and yawned, evidently feeling doubtful if such a halcyon place existed in the world.
Hazel sat on her heels and thought. It was flight or Foxy. She knew that if she did not take Foxy away, her renewed naughtiness was as certain as sunset.
'You was made bad,' she said sadly but sympathetically. 'Leastways, you wasn't made like watch-dogs and house-cats and cows. You was made a fox, and you be a fox, and its queer-like to me, Foxy, as folk canna see that. They expect you to be what you wanna made to be. You'm made to be a fox; and when you'm busy being a fox they say you'm a sinner!'
Having wrestled with philosophy until Foxy yawned again, Hazel went in to try her proposition on Abel. But Abel met it as the world in general usually meets a new truth.
'She took the chick,' he said. 'Now, would a tarrier do that—a well-trained tarrier? I says 'e would not'
'But it inna fair to make the same law for foxes and terriers.'
'I make what laws suit me,' said Abel. 'And what goes agen me—gets drownded.'
'But it inna all for you!' cried Hazel.
'The world wunna made in seven days only for Abel Woodus,' said Hazel daringly.
'You've come back very peart from Silverton,' said Abel reflectively— 'very peart, you 'ave. How many young fellers told you your 'air was abron this time? That fool Albert said so last time, and you were neither to hold nor to bind. Abron! Carrots!'
But it was not, as he thought, this climax that silenced Hazel. It was the lucky hit about the young fellows and the reminiscence called up by the word 'abron.' He continued his advantage, mollified by victory.
'Tell you what it is, 'Azel; it's time you was married. You're too uppish.'
'I shall ne'er get married.'
'Words! words! You'll take the first as comes—if there's ever such a fool.'
Hazel wished she could tell him that one had asked her, and that no labouring man. But discretion triumphed.
'Maybe,' she said tossing her head, 'I will marry, to get away from the Callow.'
'Well, well, things couldna be dirtier; maybe they'll be cleaner when you'm gone. Look's the floor!'
Hazel fell into a rage. He was always saying things about the floor. She hated the floor.
'I swear I'll wed the first as comes!' she cried—'the very first!'
'And last,' put in Abel. 'What'll you swear by?'
'By God's Little Mountain.'
'Well,' said Abel contentedly, 'now you've sworn that oath, you're bound to keep it, and so now I know that if ever an 'usband does come forrard you canna play the fool.'
Hazel was too wrathful for consideration.
'You look right tidy in that gownd,' Abel said. 'I 'spose you'll be wearing it to the meeting up at the Mountain?'
'Didna I tell you I'd promised you for it—to sing? They'm after me to take the music and play.'
Hazel forgot everything in delight.
'Be we going for certain sure?' she asked.
'Ah! Next Monday three weeks.'
'We mun practise.'
'They say that minister's a great one for the music. One of them sort as is that musical he canna play. There'll be a tea.'
'Eh!' said Hazel, 'it'll be grand to be in a gentleman's house agen!'
'When've you bin in a gentleman's house?'
Hazel was taken aback.
'Yesterday!' she flashed. 'If Albert inna a gent I dunno who is, for he's got a watch-chain brass-mockin'-gold all across his wescoat.'
Abel roared. Then he fell to in earnest on the coffin, whistling like a blackbird. Hazel sat down and watched him, resting her cheek on her hand. The cold snowlight struck on her face wanly.
'Dunna you ever think, making coffins for poor souls to rest in as inna tired, as there's a tree growing somewhere for yours?' she asked.
'Laws! What's took you? Measles? What for should I think of me coffin? That's about the only thing as I'll ne'er be bound to pay for.' He laughed. 'What ails you?'
'Nought. Only last night it came o'er me as I'll die as well as others.'
'Well, have you only just found that out? Laws! what a queen of fools you be!'
Hazel looked at the narrow box, and thought of the active, angular old man for whom it was now considered an ample house.
'It seems like the world's a big spring-trap, and us in it,' she said slowly. Then she sprang up feverishly. 'Let's practise till we're as hoarse as a young rook!' she cried.
So amid the hammering their voices sprang up, like two keen flames. Then Abel threw away the hammer and began to harp madly, till the little shanty throbbed with the sound of the wires and the lament of the voices that rose and fell with artless cunning. The cottage was like a tree full of thrushes.
After their twelve o'clock dinner, Abel cut holly for the wreaths, and Hazel began to make them. For the first time home seemed dull. She thought wistfully of the green silk dress and the supper in the old, stately room. She thought of Vessons, and of Reddin's eyes as he pulled her back from the door. She thought of Undern as a refuge for Foxy.
'Maybe sometime I'll go and see 'em,' she thought.
She went to the door and looked out. Frost tingled in the air; icicles had formed round the water-butt; the strange humming stillness of intense cold was about her. It froze her desire for adventure.
'I'll stay as I be,' she thought. 'I wunna be his'n.'
To her, Reddin was a terror and a fascination. She returned to the prickly wreath, sewing on the variegated holly-leaves one by one, with clusters of berries at intervals.
'What good'll it do 'im?' she asked; 'he canna see it.'
'Who wants him to see it?' Abel was amused. 'When his father died he 'ad his enjoyment—proud as proud was Samson, for there were seven wreaths, no less.'
Hazel's thoughts returned to the coming festivity. Her hair and her peacock-blue dress would be admired. To be admired was a wonderful new sensation. She fetched a cloth and rubbed at the brown mark. It would not come out. As long as she wore the dress it would be there, like the stigma of pain that all creatures bear as long as they wear the garment of the flesh.
At last she burst into tears.
'I want another dress with no blood on it!' she wailed. And so wailing she voiced the deep lament, old as the moan of forests and falling water, that goes up through the centuries to the aloof and silent sky, and remains, as ever, unassuaged.
* * * * *
Hazel hated a burying, for then she had to go with Abel to help in carrying the coffin to the house of mourning. They set out on the second day after her return. The steep road down to the plain—called the Monkey's Ladder—was a river, for a thaw had set in. But Hazel did not mind that, though her boots let in the water, as she minded the atmosphere of gloom at old Samson's blind house. She would never, as Abel always did, 'view the corpse,' and this was always taken as an insult. So she waited in the road, half snow and half water, and thought with regret of Undern and its great fire of logs, and the green rich dress, and Reddin with his force and virility, loud voice, and strong teeth. He was so very much alive in a world where old men would keep dying.
Abel came out at last, very gay, for he had been given, over and above the usual payment, glove-money and a glass of beer.
'Us'll get a drop at the public,' he said.
So they turned in there. Hazel thought the red-curtained, firelit room, with its crudely coloured jugs and mugs, a most wonderful place. She sat in a corner of the settle and watched her boots steam, growing very sleepy. But suddenly there was a great clatter outside, the sound of a horse, pulled up sharply, slipping on the cobbles, and a shout for the landlord.
'Oh, my mortal life!' said Hazel, 'it met be the Black Huntsman himself.'
'No, I won't come in,' said the rider, 'a glass out here.'
Hazel knew who it was.
'Can you tell me,' he went on, 'if there's any young lady about here with auburn hair? Father plays the fiddle.'
'He's got it wrong,' thought Hazel.
'Young lady!' repeated the landlord. 'Hawburn? No, there's no lady of that colour hereabouts. And what ladies there be are weathered and case-hardened.'
'The one I'm looking for's young—young as a kitten, and as troublesome.'
Hazel clapped her hands to her mouth.
'There's no fiddler chap hereabouts, then?'
Abel rose and went to the door.
'If it's music you want, I know better music than fiddles, and that's harps,' he said. 'Saw! saw! The only time as ever I liked a fiddle was when the fellow snabbed at the strings with his ten fingers—despert-like.'
'Oh, damn you!' said Reddin. 'I didn't come to hear about harps.'
'If it's funerals or a forester's supper, a concert or a wedding,' Abel went on, quite undaunted, 'I'm your man.'
'It might be the last,' he said.
'Wedding or bedding, either or both, I suppose,' said the publican, who was counted a wit.
Reddin gave a great roar of laughter.
'Both!' he said.
'Neither!' whispered Hazel, who had been poised indecisively, as if half prepared to go to the door. She sat further into the shadow. In another moment he was gone.
'Whoever she be,' said the publican, nodding his large head wisely, 'have her he will, for certain sure!'
All through the night, murmurous with little rivulets of snow-water, the gurgling of full troughing, and the patter of rain on the iron roof of the house and the miniature roofs of the beehives, Hazel, waking from uneasy slumber, heard those words and muttered them.
In her frightened dreams she reached out to something that she felt must be beyond the pleasant sound of falling water, so small and transitory; beyond the drip and patter of human destinies—something vast, solitary, and silent. How should she find that which none has ever named or known? Men only stammer of it in such words as Eternity, Fate, God. All the outcries of all creatures, living and dying, sink in its depth as in an unsounded ocean. Whether this listening silence, incurious, yet hearing all, is benignant or malevolent, who can say? The wistful dreams of men haunt this theme for ever; the creeds of men are so many keys that do not fit the lock. We ponder it in our hearts, and some find peace, and some find terror. The silence presses upon us ever more heavily until Death comes with his cajoling voice and promises us the key. Then we run after him into the stillness, and are heard no more.
Hazel and her father practised hard through the dark, wet evenings. She was to sing 'Harps in Heaven,' a song her mother had taught her. He was to accompany the choir, or glee-party, that met together at different places, coming from the villages and hillsides of a wide stretch of country.
'Well,' said Abel on the morning of their final rehearsal, 'it's a miserable bit of a silly song, but you mun make the best of it. Give it voice, girl! Dunna go to sing it like a mouse in milk!'
His musical taste was offended by Hazel's way of being more dramatic than musical. She would sink her voice in the sad parts almost to a whisper, and then rise to a kind of keen.
'You'm like nought but Owen's old sheep-dog,' he said, 'wowing the moon!'
But Hazel's idea of music continued to be that of a bird. She was a wild thing, and she sang according to instinct, and not by rule, though her good ear kept her notes true.
They set out early, for they had a good walk in front of them, and the April sun was hot. Hazel, under the pale green larch-trees, in her bright dress, with her crown of tawny hair, seemed to be an incarnation of the secret woods.
Abel strode ahead in his black cut-away coat, snuff-coloured trousers, and high-crowned felt hat with its ornamental band. This receded to the back of his head as he grew hotter. The harp was slung from his shoulder, the gilding looking tawdry in the open day. Twice during the walk, once in a round clearing fringed with birches, and once in a pine-glade, he stopped, put the harp down and played, sitting on a felled tree. Hazel, quite intoxicated with excitement, danced between the slender boles till her hair fell down and the long plait swung against her shoulder.
'If folks came by, maybe they'd think I was a fairy!' she cried.
'Dunna kick about so!' said Abel, emerging from his abstraction. 'It inna decent, now you're an 'ooman growd.'
'I'm not an 'ooman growd!' cried Hazel shrilly. 'I dunna want to be, and I won't never be.'
The pine-tops bent in the wind like attentive heads, as gods, sitting stately above, might nod thoughtfully over a human destiny. Someone, it almost seemed, had heard and registered Hazel's cry, 'I'll never be an 'ooman,' assenting, sardonic.
They came to the quarry at the mountain; the deserted mounds and chasms looked more desolate than ever in the spring world. Here and there the leaves of a young tree lipped the grey-white steeps, as if wistfully trying to love them, as a child tries to caress a forbidding parent.
They climbed round the larger heaps and skirted a precipitous place.
'I canna bear this place,' said Hazel; 'it's so drodsome.'
'Awhile since, afore you were born, a cow fell down that there place, hundreds of feet.'
'Did they save her?'
'Laws, no! She was all of a jelly.'
Hazel broke out with sudden passionate crying. 'Oh, dunna, dunna!' she sobbed. So she did always at any mention of helpless suffering, flinging herself down in wild rebellion and abandonment so that epilepsy had been suspected. But it was not epilepsy. It was pity. She, in her inexpressive, childish way, shared with the love-martyr of Galilee the heartrending capacity for imaginative sympathy. In common with Him and others of her kind, she was not only acquainted with grief, but reviled and rejected. In her schooldays boys brought maimed frogs and threw them in her lap, to watch, from a safe distance, her almost crazy grief and rage.
'Whatever's come o'er ye?' said her father now. 'You're too nesh, that's what you be, nesh-spirited.'
He could not understand; for the art in him was not that warm, suffering thing, creation, but hard, brightly polished talent.
Hazel stood at the edge of the steep grey cliff, her hands folded, a curious fatalism in her eyes.
'There'll be summat bad'll come to me hereabouts,' she said—'summat bad and awful.'
The dark shadows lying so still on the dirty white mounds had a stealthy, crouching look, and the large soft leaves of a plane-tree flapped helplessly against the shale with the air of important people who whisper 'Alas!'
Abel was on ahead. Suddenly he turned round, excited as a boy.
'They've started!' he cried. 'Hark at the music! They allus begin with the organ.'
Hazel followed him, eager for joy, running obedient and hopeful at the heels of life as a young lamb runs with its mother. She forgot her dark intuitions; she only remembered that she wanted to enjoy herself, and that if she was a good girl, surely, surely God would let her.
The chapel and minister's house at God's Little Mountain were all in one—a long, low building of grey stone surrounded by the graveyard, where stones, flat, erect, and askew, took the place of a flower-garden. Away to the left, just over a rise, the hill was gashed by the grey steeps of the quarries. In front rose another curve covered with thick woods. To the right was the batch, down which a road—in winter a water-course—led into the valley. Behind the house God's Little Mountain sloped softly up and away apparently to its possessor.
Not the least of the mysteries of the place, and it was tense with mystery, was the Sunday congregation, which appeared to spring up miraculously from the rocks, woods and graves.
When the present minister, Edward Marston, came there with his mother he detested it; but after a time it insinuated itself into his heart, and gave a stronger character to his religion. He had always been naturally religious, taking on trust what he was taught; and he had an instinctive pleasure in clean and healthy things. But on winter nights at the mountain, when the tingling stars sprang in and out of their black ambush and frost cracked the tombstones; in summer, when lightning crackled in the woods and ripped along the hillside like a thousand devils, the need of a God grew ever more urgent. He spoke of this to his mother.
'No, dear, I can't say I have more need of our Lord here than in Crigton,' she said. 'In Crigton there was the bus to be afraid of, and bicycles. Here I just cover my ears for wind, put on an extra flannel petticoat for frost, and sit in the coal-house for thunder. Not that I'm forgetting God. God with us, of course, coal-house or elsewhere.'
'But don't you feel something ominous about the place, mother? I feel as if something awful would happen here, don't you?'
'No, dear. Nor will you when you've had some magnesia. Martha!' (Martha was the general who came in by the day from the first cottage in the batch)—'Martha, put on an extra chop for the master. You aren't in love, are you, my dear?'
'Gracious, no! Who should I be in love with, mother?'
'Quite right, dear. There is no one about here with more looks than a brussels sprout. Not that I say anything against sprouts. Martha, just go and see if there are any sprouts left. We'll have them for dinner.' Edward looked at the woods across the batch, and wondered why the young fresh green of the larches and the elm samaras was so sad, and why the cry of a sheep from an upper slope was so forlorn.
'I hope, Edward,' said Mrs. Marston, 'that it won't be serious music. I think serious music interferes with the digestion. Your poor father and I went to the "Creation" on our honeymoon, and thought little of it; then we went to the "Crucifixion," and though it was very pleasant, I couldn't digest the oysters afterwards. And then, again, these clever musicians allow themselves to become so passionate, one almost thinks they are inebriated. Not flutes and cornets, they have to think of their breath, but fiddlers can wreak their feelings on the instrument without suffering for it.'
'I hope the gentleman that's coming to-day is a nice quiet one,' she went on, as if Abel were a pony. 'And I hope the lady singer is not a contralto. Contralto, to my mind,' she went on placidly, stirring her porter in preparation for a draught, 'is only another name for roaring, which is unseemly.' She drank her porter gratefully, keeping the spoon in place with one finger.
If she could have seen father and daughter as they set forth, hilarious, to superimpose tumult on the peace of God's Little Mountain, she would have been a good deal less placid.
It was restful to sit and look at her kind old face, soft and round beneath her lace cap, steeped in a peace deeper than lethargy. She was one of nature's opiates, and she administered herself unconsciously to everyone who saw much of her. Edward's father, having had an overdose, had not survived. Mrs. Marston always spoke of him as 'my poor husband who fell asleep,' as if he had dozed in a sermon. Sleep was her fetish, panacea and art. Her strongest condemnation was to call a person 'a stirring body.' She sat to-day, while preparations raged in the kitchen, placidly knitting. She always knitted—socks for Edward and shawls for herself. She had made so many shawls, and she so felt the cold, that she wore them in layers—pink, grey, white, heather mixture, and a purple cross-over.
When Martha and the friend who had come to help quarrelled shrilly, she murmured, 'Poor things! putting themselves in such a pother!' When, after a crash, Martha was heard to say, 'There's the cream-jug now! Well, break one, break three!' she only shook her head, and murmured that servants were not what they used to be. When Martha's friend's little boy dropped the urn—presented to the late Mr. Marston by a grateful congregation, and as large as a watering-can—and Martha's friend shouted, 'I'll warm your buttons!' and proceeded to do so, Mrs. Marston remained self-poised as a sun.
At last supper was set out, the cloths going in terraces according to the various heights of the tables; the tea-sets—willow and Coalport, the feather pattern, and the seaweed—looking like a china-shop; the urn, now rakishly dinted, presiding. People paid for their supper on these occasions, and expected to have as much as they could eat. Mrs. Marston had rashly told Martha that she could have what was left as a perquisite, which resulted later in stormy happenings.
* * * * *
From the nook on the hillside where the chapel stood, as Abel ran hastily down the slope—the harp jogging on his shoulders and looking like some weird demon that clung round his neck and possessed him—came a roar of sound. The brass band from Black Mountain was in possession of the platform. The golden windows shone comfortably in the cold spring evening, and Hazel ran towards them as she would have run towards the wide-flung onyx doors of faery.
They arrived breathless and panting in the graveyard, where the tombstones seemed to elbow each other outside the shining windows, looking into this cave of saffron light and rosy joy as sardonically as if they knew that those within its shelter would soon be without, shelterless in the storm of death; that those who came in so gaily by twos and threes would go out one by one without a word. Hazel peered in.
'Fine raps they're having!' she whispered. 'All the band's there, purple with pleasure, and sweating with the music like chaps haying.'
Abel looked in.
'Eh, dear,' he said, 'they're settled there for the neet. We'll ne'er get a squeak in. There's nought for Black Mountain Band'll stop at when they're elbow to elbow; they eggs each other on cruel, so they do! Your ears may be dinned and deafened for life, and you lost to the bee-keeping (for hear you must, or you'm done, with bees), but the band dunna care! There! Now they've got a hencore—that's to say, do it agen; and every time they get one of them it goes to their yeads, and they play louder.'
'Ah, but you play better,' said Hazel comfortingly; for Abel's voice had trembled, and Hazel must comfort grief wherever she found it, for grief implied weakness.
'I know I do,' he assented; 'but what can I do agen ten strong men?'
At the mountain, as in the world of art and letters, it seemed that the artist must elbow and push, and that if he did not often stop his honeyed utterances to shout his wares he would not be heard at all.
'Dunna they look funny!' said Hazel with a giggle. 'All sleepy and quiet, like smoked bees. Is that the Minister? Him by the old sleepy lady—she's had more smoke than most!'
'There. He's got a black coat on and a kind face, sad-like.'
'Maybe if you took an axed him, he'd marry you—when the moon falls down the chapel chimney and rabbits chase the bobtailed sheep-dog!'
'I'm not for marrying anybody. Let's go in,' said Hazel.
She took off her hat and coat, to enter more splendidly. On her head, resting softly among the coils of ruddy hair, she put a wreath of violets, which grew everywhere at the Callow; a big bunch of them was at her throat like a cameo brooch.
When she entered the band faltered, and the cornet, a fiery young man whom none could tire, wavered into silence. Edward, turning to find out what had caused this most desirable event, saw her coming up the room with the radiant fatefulness of a fairy in a dream. His heart went out to her, not only for her morning air, her vivid eyes, her coronet of youth's rare violets, but for the wistfulness that was not only in her face, but in her poise and in every movement. He felt as he would to a small bright bird that had come, greatly daring, in at his window on a stormy night. She had entered the empty room of his heart, and from this night onwards his only thought was how to keep her there.
When she went up to sing, his eyes dwelt on her. She was the most vital thing he had ever seen. The tendrils of burnished hair about her forehead and ears curled and shone with life; her eyes danced with life; her body was taut as a slim arrow ready to fly from life's bow.
Abel sat down in the middle of the platform and began to play, quite regardless of Hazel, who had to start when she could.
'Harps in heaven played for you; Played for Christ with his eyes so blue; Played for Peter and for Paul, But never played for me at all!
Harps in heaven, made all of glass, Greener than the rainy grass. Ne'er a one but is bespoken, And mine is broken—mine is broken!
Harps in heaven play high, play low; In the cold, rainy wind I go To find my harp, as green as spring— My splintered harp without a string!'
She sang with passion. The wail of the lost was in her voice. She had not the slightest idea what the words meant (probably they meant nothing), but the sad cadence suited her emotional tone, and the ideas of loss and exile expressed her vague mistrust of the world. Edward imagined her in her blue-green dress and violet crown playing on a large glass harp in a company of angels.
'Poor child!' he thought. 'Is it mystical longing or a sense of sin that cries out in her voice?'
It was neither of those things; it was nothing that Edward could have understood at that time, though later he did. It was the grief of rainy forests, and the moan of stormy water; the muffled complaint of driven leaves; the keening—wild and universal—of life for the perishing matter that it inhabits.
Hazel expressed things that she knew nothing of, as a blackbird does. For, though she was young and fresh, she had her origin in the old, dark heart of earth, full of innumerable agonies, and in that heart she dwelt, and ever would, singing from its gloom as a bird sings in a yew-tree. Her being was more full of echoes than the hearts of those that live further from the soil; and we are all as full of echoes as a rocky wood—echoes of the past, reflex echoes of the future, and echoes of the soil (these last reverberating through our filmiest dreams, like the sound of thunder in a blossoming orchard). The echoes are in us of great voices long gone hence, the unknown cries of huge beasts on the mountains; the sullen aims of creatures in the slime; the love-call of the bittern. We know, too, echoes of things outside our ken—the thought that shapes itself in the bee's brain and becomes a waxen box of sweets; the tyranny of youth stirring in the womb; the crazy terror of small slaughtered beasts; the upward push of folded grass, and how the leaf feels in all its veins the cold rain; the ceremonial that passes yearly in the emerald temples of bud and calyx—we have walked those temples; we are the sacrifice on those altars. And the future floats on the current of our blood like a secret argosy. We hear the ideals of our descendants, like songs in the night, long before our firstborn is begotten. We, in whom the pollen and the dust, sprouting grain and falling berry, the dark past and the dark future, cry and call—we ask, Who is this Singer that sends his voice through the dark forest, and inhabits us with ageless and immortal music, and sets the long echoes rolling for evermore?
The audience, however, did not notice that there were echoes in Hazel, and would have gaped if you had proclaimed God in her voice. They looked at her with critical eyes that were perfectly blind to her real self. Mrs. Marston thought what a pity it was that she looked so wild; Martha thought it a pity that she did not wear a chenille net over her hair to keep it neat; and Abel, peering up at her through the strings of the harp and looking—with his face framed in wild red hair—like a peculiarly intelligent animal in a cage, did not think of her at all.
But Edward made up for them, because he thought of her all the time. Before the end of the concert he had got as far as to be sure she was the only girl he would ever want to marry. His ministerial self put in a faint proviso, 'If she is a good girl'; but it was instantly shouted down by his other self, who asserted that as she was so beautiful she must be good.
During the last items on the programme—two vociferous glees rendered by a stage-full of people packed so tightly that it was marvellous how they expanded their diaphragms—Edward was in anguish of mind lest the cornet should monopolize Hazel at supper. The said cornet had become several shades more purple each time Hazel sang, so Edward was prepared for the worst. He was determined to make a struggle for it, and felt that though his position denied him the privilege of scuffling, he might at least use finesse—that has never been denied to any Church.
'My dear,' whispered Mrs. Marston, 'have you an unwelcome guest?'
This was her polite way of indicating a flea.
'Well, dear, there must be something preying on your mind; you have kept up such a feeling of uneasiness that I have hardly had any nap at all.'
'What do you think of her, mother?'
'The beautiful girl.'
'A pretty tune, the first she sang,' said Mrs. Marston, not having heard the others. 'But such wild manners and such hair! Like pussy stroked the wrong way. And there is something a little peculiar about her, for when she sings about heaven it seems somehow improper, and that,' she added drowsily, 'heaven hardly should do.'
Edward understood what she meant. He had been conscious himself of something desperately exciting in the bearing of Hazel Woodus—something that penetrated the underworld which lay like a covered well within him, and, like a ray of light, set all kinds of unsuspected life moving and developing there.
As supper went on Edward kept more and more of Hazel's attention, and the quiet grey eyes met the restless amber ones more often.
'If I came some day—soon—to your home, would you sing to me?' he asked.
'I couldna. I'm promised for the bark-stripping.'
Hazel looked at him pityingly.
'Dunna you know what that is?'
'I'm afraid not.'
'It's fetching the bark off'n the failed trees ready for lugging.'
'Where are the felled trees?'
'That's close here.'
Edward was deep in thought. The cornet whispered to Hazel:
'Making up next Sunday's sermon!'
But Edward turned round disconcertingly.
'As it's on your way, why not come to tea with mother? I might be out, but you wouldn't mind that?'
'Eh, but I should! I dunna want to talk to an old lady!'
'I'll stop at home,' then, he replied, very much amused, and with a look of quiet triumph at the cornet. 'Which day?'
'Wednesday week's the first.'
'Come Wednesday, then.'
'What'll the old sleepy lady say?'
'My mother,' he said with dignity, 'will approve of anything I think right.'
But his heart misgave. So far he had only 'thought right' what her conventions approved. He had seldom acted on his own initiative. She therefore had a phrase, 'Dear Edward is always right.' It was possible that when he left off his unquestioning concordance with her, she would leave off saying 'Dear Edward is always right.' So far he had not wanted anything particularly, and as it was as difficult to quarrel with Mrs. Marston as to strike a match on a damp box, there had never been any friction. She liked things, as she said, 'nice and pleasant.' To do Providence justice, everything always had been. Even when her husband died it had been, in a crape-clad way, nice and pleasant, for he died after the testimonial and the urn, and not before, as a less considerate man would have done. He died on a Sunday, which was 'so suitable,' and at dawn, which was 'so beautiful'; also (in the phrase used for criminals and the dying) 'he went quietly.' Not that Mrs. Marston did not feel it. She did, as deeply as her nature could. But she felt it, as a well-padded boy feels a whacking, through layers of convention. Now, at her age, to find out that life was not so pleasant as she thought would be little short of tragedy.
'Ah, I'll come, and I'm much obleeged,' said Hazel.
'I'll meet you at Hunter's Spinney and see you home.' Edward decided.
To this also Hazel assented so delightedly that the cornet pushed back his chair and went to another table with a sardonic laugh. But his remarks were drowned by a voice which proclaimed:
'All the years I've bin to suppers I've 'ad tartlets! To-night they wunna go round. I've paid the same as others. Tartlets I'll 'ave!'
'But the plate's empty,' said Martha, flushed and determined.
'I've had no finger in the emptying of it. More must be fetched.' Other voices joined in, and Mrs. Marston was heard to murmur, 'Unpleasant.'
Edward was oblivious to it all.
'Shall you,' he asked earnestly, 'like me to come to the Spinney?'
'Ah, I shall that!' said Hazel, who already felt an aura of protection about him. 'It'll be so safe—like when I was little, and was used to pick daisies round grandad.'
Edward knew more definitely than before the relation in which he wished to stand towards Hazel. It was not that of grandad.
Any reply he might have made was drowned by the uproar that broke forth at the cry, 'She's hidden 'em! Look in the kitchen!'
Martha's cousin—in his spare time policeman of a distant village—felt that if Martha was detected in fraud it would not look well, and therefore put his sinewy person in the kitchen doorway. Edward seized the moment, when there was a hush of surprise, to say grace, during which the invincible voice murmured:
'I've not received tartlets. I'm not thankful.'
'Mother,' Edward said, when the last unruly guest had disappeared in the wild April night, and Hazel's vivid presence and violet fragrance and young laughter had been taken by the darkness, 'I've asked Hazel Woodus to tea on Wednesday.'