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Title: Man in Chains Author: Warwick Deeping * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1500261h.html Language: English Date first posted: March 2015 Most recent update: April 2015 Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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The white field gate was open and Dr. Ghent parked his car in the green alleyway leading to the orchard. He was a short, sturdy man who somehow suggested the sea, but Stephen Ghent was other than he seemed. Solid he might be, but he had peculiarly kind blue eyes, the eyes of a man who was wise to the troubles that afflict humanity, and especially to pain.
He walked out of the green way and along the thorn hedge to another gate, a simple, slatted cottage gate. A brick-paved path led between small lawns to a little old white house with church windows, a thatched roof, and a porch with slim white pillars and a green door, Rose Hill Cottage. Green shutters were fitted to the lower windows, and a vine and wistaria were festooned about the windows, and the wistaria was in flower. Its mauve trusses seemed to emphasise the whiteness of the walls.
Dr. Ghent paused for a moment at the gate. He might be a busy man, but he had time to linger and to look when some English landscape appealed to him like an old flower picture or some precious piece of china. Rose Hill Cottage stood on a little plateau in the lap of the valley, a valley which curved gently into dim blue distances. He saw a pool edged with yellow water-flags, a pool that seemed to swell like a bubble of mercury on the tortuous thread of a meandering stream, high woods mainly of beech in brilliant leaf, the grey downs looming northwards and stumbled over with thorns, old yews, and white beams that shone like silver. The month was May, and the cuckoo was calling.
The door of Rose Hill Cottage stood open, and Stephen Ghent walked in, and laid his hat on a table in the little hall. The house was welcoming, even in its silence, an intimate tranquil silence. The doctor did not ring unnecessary bells; informality saved time, and there were few houses not glad of his presence. A cream-coloured door stood ajar, and Ghent pushed it open, to be welcomed by an empty room.
But it was a significant room, especially to a man of Ghent's understanding, a long, low sunny room, with two windows—one of them opening on the garden. It had a pleasant untidiness; it was full of books and colour, with flower pictures on the walls, and a few photos on the mantelpiece, but its singular feature was a couch by one of the windows, a couch with many cushions of contrasting colours. Beside the couch stood a big table, and upon it were books, pamphlets, writing materials, a tobacco jar, matches, a couple of pipes. Also, a tube of capsules.
Ghent moved to the couch. The room had a peculiar stillness, a monastic tranquillity, and yet it was full of something else, or it seemed so to the doctor. He picked up the tube of analgesic, and found it full. No tablets had been taken. Ghent replaced the tube, and his fingers moved to a note-book. Fresh entries had been made in it. Apple trees had been listed according to the number of their chromosomes. Diploids, Triploids, ladies of the orchard who were self sterile. Cox—that perfect apple, yet asking for other gentlemen's pollen.
Ghent smiled. Thorough fellow, Jack Cobourn, yes, in spite of chronic pain, but perhaps because of it. It took some guts for a man who had crashed as a Fighter Pilot and had a wonky spine and could not stand for twenty minutes without pain, to carry on as Cobourn was doing with his fruit-growing. Adaptations,—what! Yes, for a man who had known speed and thrills, to keep a sweet temper and an active philosophy, when his body was half bed-ridden. That was courage.
Ghent had moved to the open french window when he heard a gentle shuffling of feet, and turning about saw Euphrasia. Euphrasia wore a dark blue cotton frock, and she had eyes of the same colour. Her black hair was smoothed back like a man's from her solid, cream-coloured face, a face that could be obdurate and inscrutable to people who might be bad medicine for her master. To Ghent, Euphrasia Chalmers suggested meticulous cleanliness and stubborn integrity.
They smiled at each other. Euphrasia's smiles were for the very few. She was dumb to potential bores, and social opportunists.
'Mr. Cobourn in the orchard, Euphrasia?'
'How has he been? I never can get complaints.'
'No, sir. More pain than usual, I'm afraid.'
'Been doing too much?'
'Well, you know what he is, sir.'
The little, stocky woman stood with folded hands, looking up steadily into the doctor's face.
'It isn't only that, Dr. Ghent.'
'People—some people, tire him.'
'I rather thought you managed to—'
'Some people sneak in by the garden window, sir.'
They understood each other. Euphrasia was referring to persecuting and pestilent petticoats.
'I see. Window-crashers, Euphrasia. Not easy to control the breed. I expect I shall find Mr. Cobourn somewhere out there.'
'I think he'll be with Simon, sir.'
Dr. Ghent walked out. It was no more than a cottage garden, and rather like its master, a little pleasance of sweet simplicity, and on this day in Spring it was all that a cottage garden should be, jocund with late tulips, wallflowers and forget-me-nots, polyanthus, aubretia. Two old apple trees put their white head together like venerable ancients in conclave. The grass paths had had their first mowing, and Ghent, who was himself a gardener, paused to savour the scent and colour of the place and as he stood there a saying of John Cobourn's drifted into his consciousness.
'If you manage to be decent you'll be somewhat happy. If you are indecent you won't be happy. I can't tell you why. But it is so.'
What a simple credo, yet somehow valid, and full of a countryman's wisdom, like this unfussed, unpretentious little garden. Modernity could be so full of fuss. In creating innumerable gadgets it had also created human disharmonies, the curse of coal and a miner's life in dust and darkness, stagnant slums, suburbs stinking of social ennui.
Ghent strolled on towards a gate in a hedge of Austrian briars. His observant eyes could distinguish faint wheel marks on the turf, grass that the good Simon rolled into a snagless strip of velvet. There were no bumps or hollows in any of these track-ways, and even the oak strut between the gate-posts could offer no jarring impediment to a chair on wheels.
Ghent came to the gate and saw the orchard in full flower. Cobourn spoke of it as the orchard, but it was, in fact, a series of fruit plantations, apples, pears, plums, some of it grassed, but mostly under cultivation. The younger trees were inter-cropped with bush fruit, gooseberries, black and red currants, raspberries and logans. The picking of soft fruit was one of the jobs of which Cobourn was capable, trundling his chair from bush to bush with a large punnet in his lap, his long, sensitive fingers stripping all the berries he could reach.
Ghent came upon Simon Furze hoeing between the raspberry canes, lean, round-shouldered Furze, a fringe of greyish hair showing under his cap. Some swaggering, big-buttocked fellow might have taken Simon Furze for a weed, but he would have had his conceit chastened had he been set to work beside this crooked figure, for Furze was wire and whipcord, and more than that. Most men are lazy creatures, secretly malicious, and up to monkey tricks to fool the boss, but Furze was of other fibre, aloof, laconic, a man who licked up labour like a cold flame.
Ghent stopped to speak to him.
'Hullo, Simon; how are things?'
The man straightened, resting on his hoe. His face had a frosty look until he smiled, and he smiled at the doctor.
'Pretty good, sir.'
'Nothing to speak of, sir. The master chose well when he planted on this hill.'
Master! The word was spoken easily, and with the inevitableness of affection.
'In more ways than one, Simon. Where is he?'
'Down yonder by the bush plums.'
'Right. I'll find him.'
A broad alleyway of mown grass unfurled itself between the drifts, and Ghent came quite suddenly upon the man in the wheeled chair. It had been specially fitted with bicycle wheels and tyres to prevent vibration. Ghent saw his patient in profile, and Cobourn was so intent upon something that interested him that he did not hear the doctor. He had a pair of binoculars slung round his neck, and also that inevitable silver whistle with which he could call upon the faithful Furze if his chair got bogged and he needed help. Ghent had looked at Jack Cobourn many times, but on this May morning he saw him with a peculiar vividness, and with an insight that was more than medical. Cobourn was six feet when he stood upright, slim, fair, with a high colour, and fine features drawn more fine by pain. His head was like some Greek head on a coin. And Ghent thought, 'Yes, the essential aristocrat, English of the English in the old way, a type that seems to be passing and giving place to sallow, bun-faced, flabby young intellectuals in horn-rimmed glasses. But why? The urban, arm-chair world? Perhaps. And me no likee.'
Cobourn had raised his glasses to examine a 'Purple Pershore' some yards away, and Ghent was conscious of a pang of pity. This man had known speed and youth; he had been a famous sprinter, and now—he had to circumvent the frailties of his poor body, and Ghent, who had been a fierce and hustling scrum-half in his day, understood what these frustrations meant. Cobourn's back and legs might have failed him, but the spirit of him had striven to transcend the flesh in an age when men shrugged their shoulders and saw God as the essence of rump steak. No self-pity here.
What were those very blue eyes watching so intently? Some insect enemy? For Jack Cobourn had infinite patience. He had the leisure to sit and watch, and the live curiosity of a crippled child. Pain appeared to have quickened both the spirit and the senses. You could tell him to shut his eyes, and put an apple into his hands, and he would name it by its shape, smell, and skin texture.
Ghent was conscious of self-reproach. Was it quite fair to watch and comment upon a man like this, even though the scrutiny was tinged with affection?
'Something interesting, Jack?'
The clear profile came full face. The very blue eyes lit up. The ascetic mouth was edged with humour.
'You old snooper.'
'Not so old, my lad. What's the problem?'
Cobourn laid the glasses on his knees.
'Ever watched young plums?'
'Not much time for that. I watch tongues.'
'Tongues don't get frosted.'
'Oh, don't they. Try some of the acid idealists.'
'We had a little frost here, but no harm done. When a young plum is frosted it changes from a bright green pip to the colour of an olive, a kind of scorched green greyness. Then it goes black, or yellow, and falls off. And that is that.'
'You would have made a good doctor, Jack. So, all's well?'
'And you, my lad?'
Cobourn smiled at him
'Nothing wrong with me, Stephen.'
'The truth and nothing but the truth.'
'Oh—well—I did do—'
'A little too much standing?'
'Yes, watching flies and beetles. There are some creatures whom no one seems to have diagnosed. There is a queer, sooty beast that I can't name.'
'Why not use your glasses, or get Simon—'
Cobourn laughed; he had quite a merry laugh.
'One must stand on one's legs sometimes. Besides—'
'The fascination of the unknown.'
'Yes, you might call it that.'
Cobourn put his hands to the wheels, and turned his chair, but Ghent took charge.
'Where and whither? A look-see at something?'
'Yes. Just the end of the path. You can see all round you there. It's funny, but when I have been staring at small things, I like to have a look at the landscape.'
'Life—as a tapestry?'
'Perspective, Stephen. It helps to keep you—sane.'
They came to the end of the broad grass walk, Ghent pushing the chair, and here the turf path became a circle clear of trees, and all the valley was visible in its Spring greenness. The shingled spire of Shallon church was pale silver above the beeches; smoke rose from a village which was a veritable Jack in the Green. The Bourn threaded the water-meadows like a thread of silver silk, swelling out into the glass bubble of the pool where the yellow water-flags were in flower. The whitethorn was out, and all the delicate verdure of the spring woods in lovely contrast. The Downs were hazed with sunlight. Beyond a wood of golden oaks the Jacobean chimneys of Hazeley Manor were softly red.
The two men were silent. Then Cobourn said—'Isn't there healing in all this, Stephen?'
Ghent's face was infinitely serious.
'Yes, old man, if people could see it, or had the eyes to see it.'
'And the diagnosis is—?'
'What's becoming so obvious, Jack, save to the poor mass fools who jibber in cities. Modern man thinks himself so damned clever. He created industrialism, and it both poisoned and blinded him.'
Cobourn ran a hand over his fair hair.
'What's to be done about it?'
'God knows!' said the doctor. 'I give it up.'
Screened from the cottage by a bank of flowering shrubs and trees stood the packing and grading shed with its little office, and the thatched storage chalet in which the fruit lived until it went to market. Jack Cobourn was one of the few who took the growing of fruit with serious enthusiasm; he believed that there was a future in fruit, fruit of fine quality and colour, not the rubbish that was so prevalent in the shops of England, apples badly gathered, bruised, ungraded, with all their gloss and colour tarnished. Cobourn had begun in a small way, for he had to live on a pension and modest private income, but for the last three years he had been planting steadily, and he had room for further expansion. His motto was quality before quantity, a caption that many eugenists might have applied to humanity.
He had a market almost at his front door, the country towns of Melford and Summerhays; Covent Garden seemed superfluous. He had private patrons as well, for both they and the tradesmen knew that Rose Hill sent out no rubbish. Cobourn had been able to afford a small delivery van. His present staff consisted of Simon Furze, Tom Lucking and Mary Marner.
Mary Marner was, as she said herself, just Mary Marner. She could look in the mirror and survey her broad, plain face, and shrug humorous shoulders. Her nose was too small, her mouth too big, her hair apt to resemble rebellious straw. If she had any beauty—it was in her eyes, but a woman may not look with sufficient comprehension into her own eyes, or see them when they may be beautiful because of the beauty that they see.
Mary lodged in Shallon, with Miss Parker, who kept a little tea-house near the church. Mary was one of those lost women, an orphan, who lose themselves in some solitary job, and come to love it as one can love pleasant routine or a comfortable chair. She was large and strong with a strength which seemed to save her from the modern curse of fickleness and restlessness. She rode to Rose Hill on her cycle each morning, and was as punctual as the church clock. In rough weather she wore breeches and stockings and a man's coat, and was brown as a berry. The office was her principal concern, statistics, bills, accounts, for Cobourn kept careful records of yields, gradings, pests, temperatures, and cultivation methods. Sometimes she drove the van, and she could handle the motor-cultivator, and swing in close to the trees without deep damage to fibrous roots. She helped with the picking and the packing. In fact, she was very much maid of all work, and perhaps more indispensable than she knew.
John Cobourn trusted her in many things, and appealed to her when problems pressed.
It was—'Ah, Mary this' and 'Oh, Mary that', and she would look at him consentingly with her steady, grey-blue eyes, and feel good in being leaned upon by this frail but valiant man.
Dr. Ghent looked into the grading and packing shed on his way back to his car. He saw Mary standing by one of the big tables, unfastening bales of new punnets before stacking them away on the shelves. She was wearing an old felt hat crammed down on her corn-stalk hair, and corduroy trousers that made a certain part of her appear too prominent. Had the woman no vanity? Or was she one of those who persisted in being perversely plain, and in advertising a carnal coldness to the male? Mary and flowery frocks never seemed to harmonise.
Ghent was a tease, but there was no tang in his teasing.
'Mary, Mary, quite contrary. How do the punnets grow?'
She turned slowly to face him, and her face was that of a woman more concerned with inward mood than with man.
'They come from Wisbech, and, I believe, are made of willow.'
Ghent felt snubbed, though he doubted her intention. It was just that she was awake with her inward self and asleep to him.
'Doctors are allowed to be cheeky.'
'Are they?' said she, going on with her job.
'Sometimes, and in a good cause. Tell me one thing. You may know the answer. Are—er—sedatives much in use?'
She turned again, and her face had hardened, and Ghent was quick to observe it.
'No, not snooping,' said he. 'You do much of the shopping. You'll forgive me, but I respect my patient.'
Her face softened suddenly.
'Self-pity, my dear, is not in that man's make-up. Never can get him to whimper, even when it might help.'
She bent her head.
'No, sedatives have not been included in my shopping list.'
'Thank you, Mary. Now I know.'
There was boisterous and angry barking as Ghent started his engine. A small brown creature was dashing round and round within a few inches of the wheels, and Ghent, who had let his clutch in and taken off the hand brake, reversed the process, for there might be danger to the dog.
It was Jack Cobourn's Cairn, Rollo, and Rollo was not a lover of cars, nor could he be persuaded to enter one. Some unhappy, pup memory seemed to have remained with him. Ghent was posed. He was afraid of injuring this angry mass of fur, for Cobourn and the Cairn were inseparable, but on this particular morning Rollo had found a sunny corner and gone to sleep there.
The doctor sounded his horn, an appeal for interference, and it came in the person of Mary Marner, a suddenly flushed and tumultuous Mary who looked all arms and legs. She made a dive for the dog, caught him, and held him, still barking, against her bosom.
Ghent grinned and raised his hat to her.
'Thanks, Mary. I was stuck. Daren't move while that little fury was around.'
Mary kissed the top of the Cairn's head and he jerked his muzzle round and licked her nose.
'Poor darling, he does hate them so.'
'He might regard me as—privileged.'
The dog was quiet now. Almost he was laughing, and his eyes looked like dancing amber. Ghent took off the hand-brake and let in the clutch, and the car slid forward slowly over the grass. He had a last glimpse of the dog cuddled in Mary's bosom. And Ghent had a sudden thought—what else did she hold and hide in her broad young bosom? Anything? Man and dog, and a plain young woman?
A glance in the mirror showed him Mary moving to shut the field-gate. One arm enfolded the dog. Almost he could hear her saying accusingly, 'You left it open. You shouldn't have done. He might get out and be run over.' Ghent made a mental note of the omission, and was preparing to take the road when he heard a car coming with speed and fury. The doctor jammed on his brakes, for his front wheels had reached the edge of the grass verge.
A long red, sports car shot past at fifty, or so; Ghent knew that car and its driver.
'Bitch,' was all he said, and that was highly unprofessional. The young woman went by like a black-haired Valkyrie, head up, seeing nothing but her car's red snout, and the open road before her. She was thin, and svelte and lovely in a febrile way, with coal-black hair, and brown eyes that could be fierce. Her finger-nails were dark red, and her lips were streaks of vermilion. She came and she was gone, and Ghent sat a moment, registering inward comments.
'Yes, my young wench, you'll kill yourself or someone else one of these days, and I—shall be in at the inquest.'
Happening to glance again in his mirror he saw that Mary had closed the gate behind her. She was leaning against it, and holding the dog. Mary Marner's face was not a very expressive countenance. Ghent might have described it as solid and static, but Mary's face as seen in the mirror was arrestive and challenging. Deep and significant emotions were in conflict there.
Ghent took the road, playing the diagnostic male to that most human face.
'Gosh, how the plain do hate the lookers.'
Thus, he accused himself of cheap psychology. There might be more to it than that,—oh, very much more. Miss Sanchia Craven of Hazeley Manor was not a popular young woman, and had Cobourn's dog been on the road she might have killed him. You had to be damned careful when speed-maniacs were driving around.
Ghent rolled down circumspectly into Shallon. He found himself feeling cautious after some such incident. And in the village opposite Mr. Posnet's grocery and general utility shop he came upon the red car with the near front wing crumpled up, and a tradesman's van in like condition. The lout who drove it had pulled out without a signal, and with no glance in his mirror, and Miss Craven was giving him hell.
Stephen Ghent passed by, provoked to tacit approval and to other and sudden secret provocations. He too had suffered from the arrogant casualness of the green van and its lout driver, and he too had said things, to be answered with sauciness, but under Sanchia Craven's lash the lad was dumb.
Shallon was a peaceful village. The Bourn, hurrying here and loitering there in dark and glassy loops, might have carried the black barge of the Lady of Shalott, had it been less shallow. Tennyson is less than treacle to the young, though they might have liked his hat and his hairiness, and the unexpected cubbishness of his moods and manners. The art of one generation may be emetic to that which follows.
Stephen Ghent was a normal man, and your doctor may have to suppress the normality within him. He might misread a mood or try to rationalize it, and say, 'Don't be such an ass.' He was due to visit an old woman with an ulcerous leg, but his consciousness was brimming with the sweet provocations of warm-skinned, warm-blooded youth. What a wench was that! Man may escape temptation by smudging a picture or making of it pure Picasso.
Dr. Ghent would have made nothing of the Spaniard, or seen in those macabre expressions of the subconscious a cause for hearty mirth, for even a physician's subtlety may be limited. Ghent might understand man, or think so, and read his John Cobourn with ease, but in his diagnosing of woman he was but a crude boy, and the little world of Shallon was with him. What did they see in Sanchia Craven? A rather ravishing young vampire rushing around in a bright red car, a feverish and restless creature who provoked strange hostilities and disharmonies. Ghent, had he been more analytical, might have subscribed to certain statements. He could have supposed that Sanchia Craven did read poetry of a sort, the modern brand that suggested someone who was babbling drunk, or a car engine that was misfiring badly, bangs, stutters, and disharmony. He might have heard her saying that there was bloody little harmony or rhythm in your subconscious. The sub-self just emptied itself, or had to be sat upon like a suitcase too full of decorative undies. Ghent would have said that the only rhythm which appealed to Sanchia Craven was that of the dance floor or of a six-cylinder running glibly. If mechanical disharmonies developed she would not know how to deal with them, but would bang the brute into the nearest garage, or hail some lorry driver. Lorry drivers were always willing to oblige. As for her own interior, it might overheat or misfire, and she could throw a sex-storm or visit a psychoanalyst.
So much for facile diagnosis, flattering itself or being ultramodern and topical, but Dr. Stephen Ghent should have remembered that even a woman's looks trail back into the past. Her very heritage may be a calamity and a curse, a bewildering pattern unsortable in its tangle, manifesting in moods of clashing colours and vibrant discords. What does youth desire? It may not know, and driven by vague urges, rush hither and thither, seeking some valid self. Nor was Sanchia Craven as the world saw her, a young vampire red of lip and claw, hurrying to tear the heart out of life with blind and greedy forgers. Sanchia was a bewilderment to herself. Sometimes she felt like a beautiful disaster. That which had come to her was desired one day and spurned the next.
Yes, Ghent's was poor psychology, for Sir Thomas Craven's daughter was more sensitive than she seemed. React she did, and often against the soft core in herself. Wounded or disillusioned or bewildered, you might hide the smart, and appear pert and cynical and slangy, call all tenderness tosh, and spill cigarette ash over beauty. How can the more sensitive among the modern young in an age of disaster and disillusionment follow that naive saying: 'Know thyself'? Sanchia could say, 'What am I? Whither do I go? What do I want?' As yet no answer had come to her.
So, after castigating that poor silly lout, she drove on and up to the grey Downs, and parked her car, and sat down under a flowering thorn, and gazed like some young Cassandra at the landscape. A strange feeling of futility strove in her. Here was beauty, a beauty that could hurt and tantalise, and make yourself seem raw and crude.
Sanchia Craven was misliking herself as she sat and looked at the Surrey Hills.
Shallon village had grown without posing or taking thought, ever as a man-helped landscape can grow when there is no municipal gardener to make geometrical horror of it. No planning here, no begonias, no iron railings, no Keep off the Grass. On his good days Jack Cobourn sometimes would trundle his wheeled chair down into the village, and park himself by the lych gate of the church, or by the old stone bridge over the brook, and just sit and stare. He could count upon someone giving him a helping push back up the gentle slope to Rose Hill. Inevitably, Cobourn was a sedulous reader, especially history, when history had colour and flavour. He liked to picture this piece of England through all the centuries. Quite sure was he that a Roman Shallon had slumbered by the Bourn, and that Roman country gentlemen had grown their fruit and their flowers and milled their wheat, and gone a-hunting and perhaps made wine in this Surrey valley. Did not the memory of a vineyard linger here? but that might have been monastic. There were dark men in Shallon as well as fair men, wine as well as ale. Chaucer and his Pilgrims had come this way. So had Simon de Montfort on his march to Lewes. Shallon had its Elizabethan mood, as well as its Jacobean. It spoke too of Evelyn and Cobbett. Gentlemen in red coats, high boots and tricorn hats, had ridden through it. Up yonder Hazeley Manor had its peacocks and its great picture-gallery. John Wesley was said to have preached by Shallon Forge.
So, Cobourn liked to sit and stare, and be gossiped with, but not too seriously so. He could not escape from chatterers, his world was without play. His play had to be an imaginative game, internal, sublimated, and if some of the village children came and pattered to him, as they did, that too was play. For John Cobourn knew that he would have no children of his own, and perhaps he was sufficiently a child not to need them.
We tell tales to children, but not the kind of tales that censorious humanity indulges in at back doors and tea parties, and no one told such tales to Cobourn. In some ways he was uniquely innocent, perhaps because those about him felt protective, and saw him as a sweet-tempered and rather helpless child whom life had maimed. There can be human beauty in such kindness, and danger in it too, Eden and the Serpent. It would not have occurred to any ordinary person to put poison in a child's cup, and even crusty old Mr. Lambert, a retired inspector of the Inland Revenue, oiled his sharp tongue when speaking to the man in the wheeled chair. Old ladies loved Mr. Cobourn. They did agree in wondering why some nice girl had not made John Cobourn the business of her being. Had the dear lad ever been in love? He had, and the young gentlewoman had shed him when the war had made of him a cripple. Perhaps the bitter smart of that shallow faithlessness still lay somewhere in the limbo of his under-consciousness, for Cobourn was strangely shy of any woman under forty.
Mary Marner was twenty-eight, and sometimes feeling eight sometimes fifty-eight. Oh, but Mary Marner, that nice plain girl, just brown bread and butter, and rather stolid and aloof. No one in Shallon made a song about Mary. There was no Tennysonian ballad here, no 'Come into the garden, Maud.' Besides, look at her clothes, poor dear, 'Bags' and an opulent backside on a bike, and no lipstick, no flowery flummery. Mary did not cosset her complexion. She had none. Just a large, solid, wholemeal loaf of a face. And her hair! To complete the picture she should have worn it short like a man's.
Euphrasia, pounding into the office on her sturdy legs, let out an aggrieved appeal.
'Oh, Miss, we're out of tea.'
Could such a thing be possible?
'Yes, old Posnet's forgot it again. Though, of course, there are extenuating circumstances.'
Good phrase, that, for Euphrasia.
Mary's eyes asked, 'Such as what?'
'She's nagged the hair off him, and nagged his brains to a jelly.'
But the pitch of the problem was the shortage of tea, and could Miss Mary jump on her bike and remedy poor Mr. Posnet's lapse of memory? Mary could. She was in one of her unhappy moods when suppressed yearnings and bill-heads do not assimilate, for even plain women suffer from moods and hungers. Mary was in corduroys, and she wheeled her cycle out of the packing shed, and mounting it with the graceful casualness of a lad, went sailing down to Shallon.
She found her tea and a perturbed Mr. Posnet who looked rather like a moulting hen whom other birds harried and pecked. The tea was in her handle-basket and she was about to mount when she saw Cobourn and his wheeled chair rounding the churchyard wall. Mary stood still, grey eyes suddenly alive. Then, she turned to meet him. She could help him up the hill.
She made herself seem casual.
'Had to trundle down. They had forgotten the tea.'
She placed herself behind him, her right hand on the back of the chair, the other wheeling her cycle. Cobourn was hatless, and the light played on his fine hair. His was such a boy's head and Mary contemplated it, and the way his hair waved back from his temples, and made contact with the blue collar of his shirt. His hair needed cutting, but she did not tell him so.
'I believe we are out of lime-sulphur. You might look in the store.'
So much for romance! Lime sulphur and American Mildew upon the gooseberries!
'I will,' said she.
They were half way up the hill, and Mary putting her weight to the two machines when the red car came round a corner. Chair and bicycle were well out in the road; so was the speeding car, and its driver had to brake and run the two near-side wheels on to the grass. Mary Marner's face was suddenly and strangely fierce. She had seen the man in the wheeled chair flinch, as though that other crash had left a subconscious and sore spot in him, an open wound in his memory.
Miss Craven pulled up, swung the offside door open, and slithered out. She, too, had seen the man in the chair flinch and his face go frightened like the face of a child.
She said, 'I'm so sorry. I'm afraid I—. But you were rather out in the road.'
'So were you.'
The retort was Mary's, but Sanchia did not look at Mary Marner. Her eyes were for the man, and Cobourn's eyes were for her. His colour had come back in a sudden flush. His hands clasped the chair wheels, and Mary, glancing down at him, saw something that seemed to shock her and make her face go hard.
'The road is yours, Miss Craven. I'm afraid I'm rather a tortoise.'
She had been smiling, but the smile died away. She was looking at him intently.
'Afraid I was speeding. One does in these days. I wonder why you don't—'
She hesitated, and became aware of the way in which he was looking at her. A salute to beauty! It was her prerogative, but somehow different in this country lane.
'Why not a motor chair?'
He gave a little laugh, the laugh of a man who was confused.
'Oh, I have my own pace, you know.'
Mary was standing rigid.
She said, 'Some people hate the stink of petrol.'
Sanchia glanced at her with sudden comprehension, and Mary flushed.
'Yes, I understand that. I had just passed your orchard. It's looking lovely.'
Cobourn was gazing at her like a fascinated child, and Mary was saying, 'Liar. You never see anything. You just crash past.'
'Yes, it is rather good this year,' said the man.
Sanchia's eyes had darkened.
'I have never seen such floweriness.'
'Cuckoo,' said Mary to herself.
Cobourn began to stammer. He had suffered from word-inhibition for months after his crash.
'We—er—hope the fruit—er—will be, as good as the flower. Last year was poor.'
'Yes. Our poor old orchard is quite decrepit. Do you ever show your farm?'
'Well, no. But if you care to—look in—p-please do.'
There was a faint frown upon her warm young face. She was conscious of the other girl's persistent stare.
'Of course. We—could give you tea.'
'Thank you, so much. I'll come. Good-bye. I'm so sorry about crashing down on you.'
She turned towards her car, and Cobourn's eyes watched her. Mary was staring at the packet of tea in the handle-basket. Tea, and for her! Vainglorious little vamp! The red car slid away, and bicycle and wheeled chair went up the hill in silence. Mary's weight was heavy upon them both, so heavy that Cobourn found the wheels revolving without his adding much effort.
'You are doing too much work, Mary.'
There was a curious sheen upon his face.
Mary said nothing, but bit at her lower lip, and pushed the harder.
'Lucky you got the tea, Mary.'
'Very,' said she.
'I say, I wonder if Euphrasia has a cake?'
Mary mumbled something about Euphrasia making one if she
To John Cobourn things were good when they were lovely to the eye. Consider the flowers of the field, and the texture of fine fruit, a tray of golden Cox's faintly flushed, or Worcester Pearmain when coloured to perfection, the bloom on grapes, the carmine glow of a nectarine, Cox's Golden Drop like congealed sunlight, strawberries lying in a next of vine-leaves. There were flowers of the field that might be sinister in their beauty, Belladonna, Deadly Nightshade, Ragwort, but John Cobourn did not see them so. He had lived so much apart with lovely things that a kind of childish innocence was his. Even pain could quicken the feeling that the face of Nature was benign, perhaps because he had people about him who were kind and gentle to a man who suffered.
Spanish wine had the reputation of being hot and fiery, and there was Spanish blood in Sanchia Craven. Her grandfather had brought back a wife from Spain, with hair like a black mantilla and port wine eyes, and she had played the devil with his temper. How near to Carmen was Sanchia? She might have enjoyed a Bull Fight even to the point of seeing her pet matador gored to death. She could—perhaps—have sat in the Colosseum, and with a glowing face turned down her thumb when some wounded gladiator lay writhing on the sand.
She was an only child, and quite sufficiently so, so far as her father was concerned. Her mother had died in producing stillborn twins, and Sir Thomas had wiped his monocle and reflected that some catastrophes may be blessings in disguise. He was a bibliophile, a lean, tall, snuffy, sweetly caustic old man, who still took calomel on occasions, perhaps to ease the Spanish wine in him.
Hazeley Manor was Queen Anne, the most beautiful and balanced period in English domestic architecture. Sir Thomas also might have been Queen Anne, with Congreve and Co. as his heritage, and Addison and Steele as his contemporaries. As to the modern world he was very much the spectator, when he troubled to contemplate it. Sanchia was one of the few persons who—on occasions—compelled him to regard it. She had inherited a thousand a year from her mother.
Sir Thomas shrugged. His daughter was so healthily fickle. She seemed to collect all sorts of men, suck them dry and shed them. Very late seventeenth century. Sir Thomas did read serious, contemporary stuff, the Eugenic Journal, the more solemn weeklies, and The Times. He liked to contemplate the twentieth century scene from the terrace of Hazeley, and to scoff and chuckle, and take snuff. He had perpetuated that Georgian habit.
The library window gave upon the same terrace, and the stately landscape, and Sir Thomas, glancing up from some ancient volume which he was annotating, saw his daughter on the terrace, doing steps and using her hands as castanets. Dear, dear, that postulated a new Juan! Report had it that the Spanish grandmother had been a dancer, and it appeared that glamour had descended to bless her descendant. Sanchia was superb on her feet. She had glide, grace, suppleness, devil. She could stage an exhibition with any gigolo.
Sir Thomas left his ancient tome, removed his spectacles, stuffed the monocle in his left eye and opened the long window. He was wearing a light grey flannel suit, and an ironic expression. There were deep creases round his eyes, and other creases in half circles from nose to mouth. These wrinkles could make him look sardonic, and he was feeling so.
Yet, the father found clashes with the daughter somehow stimulating. They were flint and steel to each other, and sparks can be intriguing, especially so when they end by only going up the chimney. The terrace balustrade carried urns and statues in lead, and Sanchia was doing steps in front of a leaden cherub.
Said her father, 'May I infer that the dance is symbolic?'
The daughter snapped her fingers, and laughed at him obliquely.
'A serious approach, my dear, to the solemn farce of matrimony.'
She danced up to the figure and smacked the cherubic face.
'But even one's elders may suggest—'
'That I'm procrastinating?'
'Every year of—procrastination—'
'Oh, tosh. I shouldn't be much good in Holy Deadlock.'
She laughed, and looked at him with a gleam of affection. She liked her father, and his almost scurrilous candour. It was so much more interesting than insincerity.
'Feeling responsible, old dear? No need. I'm a wise young woman. Can't stop dancing. Does one dance with a husband?'
Sir Thomas smirked at her.
'No, one goes to bed with him. That is the convention.'
When Euphrasia heard the news, and that cake was needed for a particular person, she looked like a culinary Madame who had been asked to cook a repast for Mary Magdalene.
Her—coming to tea! Well—I never! What was the game, and did not Mr. John know?
Euphrasia did not make one of her special cakes. Had she put poison in it Mr. John might have suffered. She too went shopping and purchased a slab of grocer's cake from Mr. Posnet. It was yellow and amorphous and had neither sultanas nor currants in it. Such stuff was good enough for Hazeley.
At lunch, which he insisted on sitting up to, Mr. Cobourn looked a little flushed and strung up, or so thought Euphrasia. He was wearing his best pin-stripe suit, and his old school tie, and light blue silk socks. The Old School Tie was not exactly Sanchia. He inquired a little apologetically whether there would be scones for tea.
There would be scones, and damned stale ones at that, and Euphrasia would go easy with the butter.
Simon, passing the kitchen window on his way back to work after his lunch, was waved at with a glass-cloth. He slouched, long-legged and laconic, to the window. Euphrasia's fat little white arm pushed the lattice open.
'You're going to have a visitor. Heard who?'
'One of them fancy fellows from Mailing?'
Euphrasia might have said, 'Not bloody likely.' What she did say was, 'No, a lady to see the fruit blossom.'
That did not sound highly important. Why was Euphrasia flag-wagging him with a glass-cloth because—?
'Well, she won't waste my time, whoever she be.'
Then, Euphrasia dropped her bomb, and saw Simon's solemn face grow hard, as though she had told him that cows were among the vegetables.
'It's Miss Craven.'
Simon stared at Euphrasia.
'Her? What's she want in our place?'
'He's got his best suit on, poor dear.'
Simon rubbed his severe, lean chin.
'What she wants is spraying with ars'nic.'
Mary sat in the office, It should have been one of her orchard afternoons when she went spraying, not upon other women, but in pursuit of the prevalent pests. She could cover the orchards quickly on her long legs, and serve as Cobourn's eyes, for Furze and Chalmers, good men that they were, were prone to get stuck in routine and to look soilwards instead of upwards. Mary had learnt much from Cobourn, and read all that she could and she knew the various caterpillars, Winter Moth, March Moth, Codling Moth, but there was one particular and most pernicious pest which was on the increase, Apple Blossom Weevil. If you saw apple blossom going brown and failing to open, you would find inside the flower a dirty little cream coloured grub which had fed upon stamens and ovary and rendered the flower sterile. A whole tree could be ruined as to fruit by this pest, and it was difficult to deal with.
But Mary sat in the office, idly scribbling on a blotting-pad, for she had not been able to concentrate upon the life history of the Apple Blossom Weevil. She had a weevil in herself, a little, gnawing grub. No, she was not going out into the orchard to meet that other wench who looked through her and over her with serene casualness. If Mr. John Cobourn was such a fool, well, let him. And then she heard the car, and sat straight and rigid, frowning. She heard the Cairn barking, and his master calling him.
So, Mr. John was on his feet to welcome Circe. The stimulus of sex! Oh, damn sex, that poignant and cunning illusion. The dog's barks had changed to growls. Good for Rollo. He was not fooled by some sweet seductress. And would his master take the warning?
Voices, growls, laughter, a chorus in which Euphrasia joined. She had been called upon to collect that most ungallant Cairn and was carrying him struggling and growling into the kitchen. There Euphrasia kissed him and deposited him on the cushion of her own favourite chair.
'You've got sense, my lad. It's a pity. Well, if you didn't like the smell of her, no more did I.'
Mary sat there frowning. There was silence now, and somehow this silence tormented her more than the sound of voices. What an idiot she was! Why suffer this gnawing grub of jealousy to eat out the flower of her contentment, for content she had been? Why imagine that which might never happen? What could Hazeley Manor be to Rose Hill, and to a man, who if he stood for half an hour, was gripped by pain? And suddenly she pushed her chair back with a fierceness that made it creak, and stood up, and taking that old felt hat from a peg, walked out. That hat was her symbol. She would not play the seductress to any man, or try to suborn him with cosmetic smiles and gladdening glances. No, damn it, she would be herself, the plain self which she saw in her mirror.
The path took her past the cottage and John Cobourn's window. She heard voices, laughter. She told herself that she would not look, but look she did, one quick, brittle, sidelong stare. Cobourn was on his couch, Sanchia at the tea-table, a red-nailed hand poised over the flowery tea-pot. They even smiled at each other.
'I'm a most disgraceful host.'
'Do you really think so? What a pretty tea-pot! It's wearing a flowery frock.'
'Quite like yours.'
'Is it sugar, John?'
'Please. But I wasn't meaning sugar.'
Mary passed on, and she was less than a shadow to them. Her head was up, her grey eyes steady. How cheap of her to be tempted and to fall, and to look in at that window! She went striding down the green way, her hands stuffed into her trouser pockets. They were clenched, and the nails bit into her palms, and yet—she was hurt and wounded because her hero seemed to be just foolish flesh, like any mere sex-blind bumpkin. Oh, ye gods, could not a man like John Cobourn who had such eyes for the beauty of things, see beneath the skin of a posturing vanity?
She found Simon and Tom Lucking trying out the big wheeled sprayer for 'Petal Fall' and Arsenate of Lead. Tom Lucking was a little, rosy, puckish man like one of Snow White's dwarfs. Furze was screwing a lance to the armoured hose, and Tom was waiting at the pump. So busy were they that they were unaware of Mary Marner.
'Right'o. Give her some.'
Tom plugged away at the pump, and Simon, swinging round with the lance, shot the mist straight into Mary's face.
'Gosh! Sorry, Miss. It's only water.'
Mary laughed. The incident seemed to crack that brittle shell inside her. She took off her hat and shook it, and pulled out a handkerchief and wiped her face.
'Good thing it wasn't lead arsenate, Simon.'
'Just a try-out, Miss. She'd been plugged up with lime-sulphur.'
Tom was grinning like a gnome.
'This 'ere spraying may be all right, but what about the bees?'
Yes, that was a problem!
'Too few bees about, these days.'
'Ought to keep a skep or two. But that danged ars'nic'd do 'em in.
Mary put on her hat.
'Are you going to spray, Simon?'
Furze looked dour.
'No. Master's orders, no spraying till that there—'
Mary winced, and Tom chuckled, but not at her.
'There be 'ornets about I'm thinkin'. Shall I try her again, Sim?'
'Yes, give her a go. I bet that to-morrow there'll be a bloody wind. Sorry, Miss.'
Mary smiled at him.
'A wind with bloody fingers, Simon.'
She passed on, and reaching the circle of turf, stood there in contemplation. How lovely was this England in the spring of the year, so much lovelier than your inward self. But need that be so? Why should a flaunting skirt put her out of love with all this beauty, and the labour of her hands? This jealousy? It was but a few days old, yet so horribly raw and new. And what a confession of failure! Was it all self with her, or was she forefeeling and foreseeing pain for someone else? Yes, the old, old platitude, emotions were mixed, and stirred by two spoons, the crystal spoon of reason, and the red metal of instinct.
A group of hazels and cobs grew below the slope, and she strolled down and lay on her back under the nut trees. They were coming into leaf, and the yellow catkins had gone rusty, with their pollen blown to impregnate the minute red flowers. There would be weevils here too, and big-bud. Yes, pests were inescapable, insect and otherwise. She lay with her hands under her head, gazing at the sky through the young foliage.
Then she heard their voice.
'You are a bad lad. I thought you weren't allowed to stand too long.'
'Oh, half an hour on special occasions.'
'Well, rather so. Some people are stimulating.'
There was silence for a moment. Then the girl's voice said, 'Hallo, we can see our chimneys. They look rather well.'
'Lovely. I often look at them.'
A little laugh from Sanchia.
They did not see the girl lying under the nut trees, and she did not wish to be seen, but when their voices trailed away she crawled cautiously up the slope, and then—feeling suddenly ashamed of this sneaking posture, she stood upright, hands on hips. She could see the two figures moving along the green way, and Sanchia Craven's arm was tucked round Cobourn's, as though to support him Mary's white teeth caught her upper lip. A damned quick worker, this wench from Hazeley. Posing as compassion and the ministering angel!
Mary went wandering, here, there, anywhere, but she was listening, and presently she heard a car drive off, and she knew the sound of that car. She sat down on a tree stump and waited. Somehow she was afraid of herself and afraid of the cottage. Or had Miss Craven carried him off in her car?
Mary got up, and walked slowly back between the flowering fruit trees. There seemed to be a great silence everywhere, and through it she could hear her heart threading its beats. She came to the garden, and the grass path past his window. For a moment she hesitated, and then she took to the path, and the soft grass silenced her footsteps. She glanced in at the window, and for a second or two she stood still.
He was lying there on his couch, eyes closed, hands folded, almost like a man lying dead, but his face had not the waxlike calm of death. There were live lines of pain upon it, and the grey pallor that comes with pain. How well she knew those signs and symptoms. He had drunk too long and deep of beauty and had suffered for it. Across his legs lay the Cairn, ears down, amber eyes meeting Mary's with a mute comprehension, almost with appeal. The dog did not so much as move a tail.
Mary Marner passed on with a feeling of poignant frustration.
There was nothing that she could do, nothing that she had the right
to do. Even the dog was nearer to him than she was, a dog lying
dumb and motionless, and watching a beloved face. She flung into
the office, and her impulse was to slam the door upon herself and
her emotions, but instead she closed it silently. She sat down on
her chair, her elbows on the table, her chin cupped in her hands,
her grey eyes set in a steady stare.
Pain, a gnawing, gripping pain coming and going in spasms from the spine. John Cobourn was used to pain, and to the overcoming of it. He could lie quite still, as though listening to those pangs, while wondering whether they would grow louder or die away, and at the back of his consciousness was always the fear that the old wild anguish of earlier days might be upon him. He had put out his hand to the tube of dope, hesitated, and then left the tube untouched. No, not dope. Slowly and stubbornly he had rescued himself from surrendering to drugs. There could be cowardice in such surrender.
He had stood too long, longer than his frail back could bear, but to-day the pain was not only of the poor flesh but of the spirit. Beauty had tantalised him, a beauty that had seemed to him so good. No, not the mere sweet anguish of sex, but a hunger for loveliness and laughter and the tenderness that is beyond tears. To love, and to be helpless in loving! To know that he was a poor broken reed, or a mechanism set to a slow and hesitating rhyme.
Oh hell and heaven! Why had she come to tantalise him like lovely fruit that was beyond his reach?
His back ached. Stabs of pain shot down his legs. It seemed that life mocked him, while touching him with hot metal.
He opened his eyes at last and met the eyes of his dog. They were bright, and loving eyes. The Cairn's tail beat gently on John Cobourn's legs.
'I'm here, master.'
Cobourn put out a hand and caressed the dog.
Sanchia Craven had seen more than she had thought to see. She pulled her car up under the shade of the Hazeley woods and sat looking at the floweriness which was Rose Hill. It was no more than a white blur in the green valley, and yet somehow more than a broken man's orchard. She lit a cigarette, smoked a third of it, and then tossed it out of the open car into the grass. She was frowning, and her hands played restlessly upon the steering-wheel. Maybe strange and mysterious inward transformations accompany the organic processes in man and woman, and especially so in woman in her attitude to life and man. Some deeper urge emerges, some sublimated tenderness. No doubt the peacock spreads his tail because of the male in him, and woman with child may feel in her breasts the gentle ache of motherhood.
For what had Sanchia Craven seen with her doe's eyes, eyes of a virginal hardness? She, the lithe hedonist. She had seen a man standing at a gate, waving to her, smiling, and yet smiling with a kind of anguished poignancy. During their last minutes together she had been aware of a sudden ageing of his face, a gradual greyness, a tenuousness about the lips and nostrils. He had held himself straight; he had laughed and given her back patter for patter, but his voice had been edged with pain.
She sat and gazed, and her restless hands sank into her lap. Was it true that he could not stand for long without pain? How perfectly—bloody! Then, she was revolted by those vulgar words, she who had been so unfastidious save in the matter of clothes and cleanliness. Her sharp young face had softened. Eyes and mouth seemed touched with sudden self-shocked comprehension. He had been a speed-merchant, an athlete, and he could neither run nor dance. How damnable not to be able to dance, to let the youth in you swing out to music. A Strauss waltz might be no more than sweet, frustrating pain to him.
Sanchia shook her black hair as though mocking at herself, pressed the self-starter, and drove on. A private road, no more than a leafy lane, wound up the hill to Hazeley. The trees were yews and beeches, quick in their colour contrasts, and under the beeches bluebells were in flower. Not that Sanchia saw them. She had to watch the gyrations of the narrow road, and her mood was inward, and a strange challenge to her brittle self. The sunlight shot through the tree-shadows and played upon the car's radiator and its long red snout. Speed, speed, and she was thinking of a man who was tied to trundling a wheeled chair. Somehow the contrast provoked her, but not so crudely as it would have done a week ago.
At this same moment her father, monocle in eye, and an old vellum-bound book under his arm—Hobbes's Leviathan ascended the terrace steps leading from the formal garden. Sir Thomas had been sitting on an oak seat in a recess walled by clipped yews, and meditating—if sardonically—upon Hobbes's truculent philosophy. This Jacobean sage was provokingly modern in his theories. Duress for the crowd, pure power for the super-man. Nor had Hobbes possessed any illusions about the crowd, however youthful and impudent the crowd might be. It was an animal world, yet clicking like a mechanism to organic urges. No God here, no mysticism, no transcendental tosh. Sir Thomas had a little acid smile upon his face. Was modern youth all Hobbes?
Sir Thomas sighted something on the terrace that made him pause, a large, blond young man in loud checks, who was lounging at the end of the balustrading, and staring with blue bull's-eyes at nothing in particular. Sir Thomas paused. Yet another of his daughter's he-men—horrid breed. Sir Thomas turned and retraced his steps and moving along the lower path, made for the house that more devious way. He was in no mood to be bored by Leviathan in the person of an impudent sensualist.
Hazeley Manor was double-faced, but not so like many mortals. The terrace front with its gables and white portico strung between the two wings, had been the main façade, but in the eighteenth century the Craven of that day had added a western porch and spread a gravelled space for riders and coaches. Sir Thomas was making for the western entrance when he saw the car parked there, a semi-racing model coloured canary yellow, its tyres whitened, its metal work shining, Mr. Check Coat's chariot, and Sir Thomas could suppose that this vehicle and its owner represented the modern variant of the Regency Buck. He walked round the car, and almost he sniffed at it like some supercilious and stately old dog. Did Mr. Buck propose to carry off his daughter to—Brighton? As a matter of fact he knew the fellow's name, a preposterous and swaggering name—Harcourt Baskerville, and it suited him.
Sir Thomas made for the library. The young were not likely to penetrate there, and he would be at peace. He placed Mr. Hobbes on the desk, sat down in the padded chair, removed his eyeglass and polished it with a silk handkerchief. What—exactly—were the duties of a father in these enlightened and liberated days? Advice, interference? Quite impracticable. The young just shrugged you off into the limbo of senility.
Yet, Sir Thomas did feel somewhat responsible. This Spanish blood! It had vexed him in his own youth, and it was vexing his daughter, and yet there could be a generous glow in passion more to be valued than cold egoism, but Sir Thomas did wish that Sanchia would exercise a little more discrimination. Her taste in men appeared to be so crude and her selection was not catholic. Sir Thomas Craven had grown fastidious in his later years,
He slipped his monocle into his eye, and gathered up Hobbes, but
the Hobbesian scheme was not helpful. Sir Thomas got up and put
Leviathan away on its shelf. His glance fell upon another
book. Imitatio Christi. Yes, after all, there was something
to be said for the old Roman faith.
Sanchia swung her car into the gravelled space, and saw that other car as a sudden challenge. Harcourt! Or—rather—'Har.' She pulled up, put on her hand brake and sat still, her dark eyes on that canary-coloured chariot. Damned flashy and all that. She was not in the mood for Mr. Harcourt Baskerville.
But she did not elude the issue like her father. She slid out of her car, and turning the corner of the terrace saw the man leaning upon the balustrade, and smoking a cigar. Smelly, coarse things cigars, especially at half past five on a May evening. If a man happened to be vulgar and had an ugly mouth, a cigar made him look more so.
Sanchia walked slowly along the terrace. She was seeing two men and contrasting them. She had never seen Harcourt Baskerville as she saw him now, over-coloured, bulging with self-assurance, his fat lips sucking at that brown cigar. Rather sick-making after the scent of fruit blossom and of wallflowers. 'Har' never suffered pain, save perhaps the sulks of a hangover.
'Hallo, my lad.'
He swung around, grinning at her. He had laid the cigar on the stone coping. He was the kind of young man who would leave a cigarette alight on precious Sheraton.
She perched herself on to the balustrade, her slim legs dangling. She looked hard at him for a moment, and then past and over him. Then, she put out a hand and swept the cigar over into the rose border below.
'Here, I say—!'
'Go and fetch it, if you want to.'
He grinned, but with less arrogance.
'What's the idea? Gone sour?'
Her fingers tapped the stonework. She slouched her shoulders and looked at him with oblique disfavour.
She said, 'You look a bounder in that suit.'
'Thanks, muchly. Shall I retort?'
'Don't. My tongue is feeling—tart.'
'Suppose I said you looked it.'
Her head gave a flick.
'Oh, don't bother. Do you know, my lad, I've got a feeling that we are pretty rotten people.'
'Say, what's the matter with you? Met a tame padre or something?'
'Oh, shut up. What did you come down here for?'
'I'm just wondering.'
'So am I, but not at that.'
'Matter of fact—a binge.'
'Well, it wouldn't be with the old man, would it?'
'Hardly. He thinks you are septic.'
Baskerville gave her a blue-eyed, bulging stare.
'Look here, my lass, I can stand a good deal,—but—what the hell's the matter with you?'
She smiled up at the high, hexagonal chimneys of the house.
'Me? Don't start worrying. Not your province. Your feet are too big.'
She slid off the stone coping, glanced at the view, and her face softened, but not to him.
'Sorry, Har, if I've been snappy. Better blow off. You have plenty of pretties on tap.'
'Plenty, said he boastfully, 'and not—'
'Good-bye. I am going in.'
And she left him.
Her father, happening to look out of the west window of the
library, saw Mr. Harcourt Baskerville getting into the bucket seat
of his car. He started the engine, and rushed it into a peremptory
roar, reversed at speed, and then shot forward into the shade of
the drive. The back wheels had thrown up gravel. The yellow rump of
the machine disappeared under the trees, and Sir Thomas stroked his
forehead. There appeared to have been some anger and haste in the
young man's exit. Had Sanchia? Her father rather hoped that she
Sir Thomas was, in fact, a much happier man than he appeared to be, a serene neutrality in life's squabbles. As you grew older, and perhaps wiser, you still had beauty left to you, and the comfort of smooth living, your trees, your pictures, your books, your chair by a good fire, old wine, and if you were considerate—good service. Sir Thomas was well served, which is a tribute to a man's humanity. He was convinced that your children rarely added to the comfort of life, especially so if they were the new artificial silk, but they could supply you with surprises.
Sir Thomas Craven had his surprise that evening. He liked to wander for a while before his glass of sherry, and happening to descend the steps leading to the lower garden he saw a picture that piqued him. The lower garden possessed a very charming lily pool surrounded by a mown grass path and a belt of flowering trees and shrubs, forsythia, Pyrus Floribunda, Pyrus Purpurea, lilacs, red thorns, laburnums, flowering crabs, azaleas. Much of this loveliness was in bloom, and brilliant in the evening sunlight, but Sir Thomas's eyes were on the pool, and the figure he saw there.
Sanchia, Sanchia on her knees, bending over and gazing at her reflection in the water, nymph or Narcissus, completely still and completely part of the picture.
Her father drew back behind a cypress, and observed her, for this was a new attitude in the Sanchia tableau. A pose? No, more than a pose, for he saw her put out a hand and ruffle the still water of the pool. Broken water did not reflect a face, though it might symbolise a mood, or even an annunciation, the opening of some inward flower, the ripening of raw fruit. And Sanchia had sent that florid young man packing. Had she come by new vision?
She was still stirring the water with white fingers, and her father slipped away like a man who had surprised some woodland naiad in contemplation of self. Such otherness, if it was so, should not be disturbed. He made his way back to the library, and filled himself a glass of sherry, and sitting down looked towards a particular book, not Hobbes, but the Imitatio Christi.
Then, the door opened and his daughter walked in with a curious air of apartness.
'Hallo, my dear. Sherry?'
She crossed the room and sat in a red-cushioned window seat.
'No thanks. Got any books to lend me?'
Books! Sir Thomas' library was not exactly Spanish wine.
He said, with gentleness, 'What is the mood?'
She was tracing an invisible pattern on a window pane with a slim first finger.
'Oh, I don't seem to know—quite.'
Her father smiled as he sipped his sherry.
'Something worth while?'
'Something that doesn't smell of petrol.'
Sir Thomas's feeling was that his daughter might be in love, but not with a canary-coloured car.
John Cobourn was on his feet and so was Sanchia Craven. She had left her car in Hazeley's old blue-doored coachhouse. Cobourn was out of his wheeled chair and moving among the apple trees where withered, rusty petals showed that weevils had been at work. In the grassed plantations the herbage was lashing up with the insurgent richness of May, and these older trees retained their apple secrets, and had the laugh of man.
Simon and Tom were busy scuffling weeds, and Mary had the cultivator out on the same job, where there was a straight run for the machine Its detonations echoed down the valley, and Mary, as she swung the stilts round at the end of each drift, wondered whether the work would have been more peaceful with a pony. She was not conscious of peace within, and the explosions of the single-cylinder engine seemed to jar the disharmonies within her.
She threw the clutch out at the end of one drift, and letting the engine run, stalked long-legged between the trees. She peered; she saw that upright figure, fingers busy pulling faded flowers to fragments. She looked at her wristwatch. He had been on his feet for nearly three quarters of an hour.
Mary gave an almost male hitch to her hat, and frowned beneath its brim. She returned to her machine, which was clucking away noisily, and vibrating as it fired. Even a machine appeared to have a soul of sorts, and the thing said to her, 'What am I doing here just turning over and wasting petrol? Get on with it, young woman. The weather's just right for the job.'
Mary had her hands on the stilts when she heard a voice, Euphrasia's voice.
'Oh, there you are, Miss. I'm wanting the master. The doctor's here.'
Mary gave a jerk of the head.
'He's down there, looking for weevils.'
'Would you tell him, Miss?'
'You'd better. I've got a job to finish.'
Sanchia was in a more positive mood than Mary Marner, whose negation was her poor plain face. Sanchia fluttered under the gloom of the beeches in a flowery frock, and her questing, glowing face was like the face of some girl going to meet her lover. She had washed the red stain from her finger-nails, and her lips were softer and less vivid. Sir Thomas had observed the naturalness of those finger-nails and had enjoyed inward reflections. If his daughter was in love and had shed those more lurid decorations, what was the inference? More Imitatio Christi, and less of Bond Street and Night Clubs.
Sanchia came out and down into the sunlight of the valley. She could see Rose Hill up yonder, now dimly green and no longer flowery. She walked to music, a rhythm which was not jazz and fat cads bleating of emotions that were crudely organic. There was a young inspiration in her, though it might be warmed by Spanish wine. Life seemed worth while, eager and compassionate and tender, though there was the peril of wilfulness in it, a purpose that might break or make. She was the young enchantress somehow believing that her touch could conjure away fragility and pain, and give to a man strength and the liveness of adventure.
So, Sanchia Craven came to Rose Hill, to find the white gate open and a car parked there. She knew that car; it was Stephen Ghent's, and a sudden impulse moved her. She opened the near door of the doctor's car, slipped in, sat down in the near front seat and closed the door. She had a glimpse of her face in the driving-mirror, and she appraised it, not with the brittle vanity of yesterday, but with a questioning intentness that was strange even to herself.
Ghent, coming to his car, opened the driver's door and discovered—a problem. There was no welcoming smile in his eyes.
'Hallo, young woman.'
'Hallo, doctor,' said she.
Ghent hesitated. Then he got in and closed his door, and his hand went to the self-starter button, but her hand countered it.
'Wait a moment.'
He gave her an oblique glance that was diagnostic and vaguely hostile.
'I'm busy. What's the idea? Is this a consulting-room on wheels?'
'It may be.'
She let her hands rest on her knees, and he saw the natural colour of her finger-nails. Was that symptomatic?
'Well, go ahead.'
'I want to know about—him.'
'You mean my patient?'
'Well, Mr. John Cobourn, if you must be formal.'
'What do you want to know?'
'Indeed! And what authority have you?'
She looked him straight in the face.
'Have I to be put in the confessional?'
'Are you putting me there?'
'Perhaps I am. I want the truth.'
'Oh, you do. And supposing—?'
She was utterly smileless.
'Why be on your dignity? I—have reasons.'
'Reasons! Well, John Cobourn is a man who is crippled for life.'
'Are you sure?'
'Very sure. Need I go into details?'
She was silent. Then she said, 'You doctors don't know everything.'
He took no offence at that. He accepted her challenge.
'It is not my own one opinion. Cobourn saw half a dozen experts. There was and is nothing to be done, I'm afraid.'
He had spoken more gently, and she answered him with gentleness.
'Thank you, Dr. Stephen. Some things seem so damned cruel.
'Will he always be in pain?'
'Yes, if he tries to do too much.'
'Why is it? Can't you tell me?'
'My dear, the man had a broken back. They had to operate, and take pieces of bone away. So, you see there was a weak place in the spine. As long as the muscles hold out, he can stand without pain, but when the muscles tire, there is pressure and pain.'
She was silent for a second or two.
'Couldn't anything more be done? Doctors do get new ideas, the younger ones.'
Ghent laughed ironically.
'Thank you, my lass. Now, do you mind getting out. I'm rather busy.'
He leaned across and opened the door for her.
'And one word of warning. No monkey tricks.'
She flashed out at him.
'That's cheap of you.'
'Sorry, but I'm John Cobourn's doctor.'
She slipped out, her colour high, and her eyes shining, and Ghent closed the door. He too was faintly flushed, for a man does not change his opinion of a person in the flick of an eyelid. Miss Sanchia Craven had the reputation of being a fierce and irresponsible young exploiter of anything in trousers, and Ghent had not seen her—as her father had seen her—kneeling like a revelation to herself, beside that pool. He drove off, feeling a little nettled, and yet not at peace with himself as a doctor should be. There was something incalculable here, temperament, a situation that might be less shallow than it seemed.
'Oh, damn sex,' was his reflection. 'This seems to be the age of sex. It has become an infernal obsession.'
But somehow, such moralising did not satisfy him.
Sanchia had gone on into the garden, and informally so in that she had not taken the conventional path. It led her past a bed of peonies and iris which were in full flower, a rich and lovely pattern, colour in excelsis. She stood to look, more in the mood of the maid than of the young tigress, and the iris might have been her flower, Lilies of the Field, the Fleur de Lys. Stephen Ghent's candour had sobered her, and also provoked her. Was this country doctor's verdict final?
She passed round the white cottage with its green jalousies and came to that long window, her footsteps silenced by the grass. She saw him lying on his couch, like the figure of a young knight in stone upon a tomb, hands folded, the dog asleep at his feet. His face had serenity, radiance. It seemed to her that he could not be in pain.
Then a curious thing happened. The Cairn woke, looked up at her with amber eyes, and wagged a tail. It was a smiling and benign creature, ears flat, tail welcoming. What divination was there in the soul of a dog? They had been hostile to each other, and now were friends.
That busy tail woke John Cobourn. He may have been asleep, or he may have been day-dreaming. The effigy of youth became flesh and blood.
'Hallo,' said she softly, slipping sideways on to the sill, and putting out a hand to the dog.
Cobourn sat up, and sudden colour had come into his face.
'Little Crusty seems in a good temper.'
'You mustn't call him that.'
The dog was accepting her caresses, and continuing to wag a fluffy tail.
'Ghent has just been here.'
'Yes, I met him. Why are some doctors so final?'
'Ghent's a very sound man.'
'I know, but can't one question authority?'
Cobourn's eyes were on her face, and there was yearning in them, frustration.
'I wish one could.'
She said gently, 'So do I.'
It was at this moment that Mary turned the corner of the cottage, an open letter in her hand. She saw Sanchia and stood still. Her grey eyes were ice. Then, as though compelling herself she moved on towards the window.
'Excuse me, butting in. I have had a letter from Malling for you, Mr. Cobourn.'
Sanchia did not move, but she smiled at Mary.
'That's all right.'
Mary, with a face that looked frozen, passed the letter in to Cobourn, hesitated, turned, and strode off hands in breeches pockets. There was anger in her, bitter resentment, protest. So even his dog was being suborned by this Belle Dame Sans Merci.
Sanchia, watching that casual, striding gait, the hands stuffed into pockets, the almost aggressive waggle of that generous piece of anatomy, was wise to this other girl's feelings, but she did not gloat. Bad luck to have a face and a figure like Mary Marner's. No light, airy fairy dancing creature this, but a veritable hobbledehoy.
'Good sort, Miss Marner. Read your letter, Jack.'
But he had laid it aside.
'Just technical stuff. Yes, Mary's a pearl.'
'Yes, poor dear. I should say she is awfully efficient, but not exactly light on her feet.'
Cobourn lay back on his cushions.
'No, but she doesn't.'
He was silent, and his face looked pinched.
'Oh, never mind Some people are—'
'Why are you afraid of me, Jack?'
'Afraid of you?'
'Yes, you are. Can't we talk things out? You are young like I am.'
He smiled, but his smile had a bitter edge to it.
'Young? I'm as old as time, and a crock. One has to accommodate, keep life from bubbling up. I used to run. I used to dance. All done with, you know.'
She was frowning. Youth may be compassionate, but without the profounder comprehension of the more mature, and there was a fierceness in her compassion. Not to run, not to dance! Such frustrations could move her. Her dusky loveliness seemed to take on a more vivid quality, as though the southern blood in her had a dark intensity.
'How damnable. I love dancing.'
His head turned on the cushion. Did he divine in those few words the poignant wildness of her young self, even when it was savoured with pity?
'I'd love to see you dance.'
She sat very still. Her lips were sharp. To see her dance! With some other fellow? His spirit was strangely impersonal to her.
'But wouldn't you—?'
She bit at her lower lip, and there was a glitter in her narrowed eyes.
'Well, why not? I'd take you. There's The Blue Lagoon near Summerhays. It's quite good in its way.'
He was looking at her, and suddenly he looked away.
'Rather a poor show for you.'
'Poor? Oh, no. Let's go sometime.'
He laid a hand on the dog's head.
'You would have to put up with a wallflower.'
Sanchia Craven might have sung that half forgotten song,
'I'm in love, I'm in love,
You can see by the light in my eyes.'
She could look in her mirror and behold that light, and discover—with wonder—that this love was different. It seemed to set her alight, and to bring to fruition all manner of feelings and subtleties which the Harcourt Baskerville world had not been able to inspire. She could look in her mirror and exclaim, 'Is this—you, Sanchia? Where and how were you newly born?'
Cobourn's world was indeed a world of adaptations. Each morning Euphrasia brought him his early tea, and half an hour later she carried up a second tray, his shaving-tray, for, to save useless standing, Cobourn shaved in bed. It had become a habit and a quite skilful habit, with a little round mirror propped up on the tray. In the old days he had been a cold-tub man, but sudden changes of temperature were apt to give him pain, and Ghent had forbidden such adventures. John took a hot bath three times a week before going to bed.
Euphrasia, carrying up the shaving tray, saw the bed-room door standing open. The inference might have been obvious, and discretion indicated, and Euphrasia stood to listen, but the sounds that she heard were unexpected. Her master was in the bath-room, taking a bath. And the water was cold.
Now, what was the meaning of this? Euphrasia, oracular in the kitchen, knew that nothing was without significance, even in the behaviour of soup and coffee. If you dallied or were absent-minded, you would have boiling coffee all over the stove, or your fritters might play unpleasant tricks. Euphrasia stood holding the tray firmly pressed against her solid little tummy. Mr. Cobourn taking a cold bath, all contrary to routine and orders! Yes, now what did this signify?
Euphrasia placed the tray on the landing table and knocked at the bathroom door.
'Your shaving water, sir.'
'I've put it on the landing table.'
Euphrasia returned to her kitchen. Mr. Cobourn might be a semi-invalid, but he could not tolerate fuss, and Euphrasia was as wise in this respect as was Mary Marner. Other folk regarded Miss Chalmers as a bossy little person, but Euphrasia knew that no autocratic hands could be laid upon Mr. John Cobourn.
Well, what of it? Euphrasia set about preparing bacon and eggs, hot milk and coffee. Was the taking of a cold bath to be connected with that flamboyant young hussy? Euphrasia had a way of singing at her work, but on this June morning she did not sing. Rose Hill was a house of trays, and Euphrasia laid Mr. Cobourn's breakfast tray. Dressing was apt to tire him, and he breakfasted on his couch.
Miss Chalmers might have thought of her master as 'Mr. Up-and-Down', for that was his fate, poor dear, but if he was down in the flesh he was rarely down in the spirit. Euphrasia could ask herself if chronic pain was the creator of a most sweet temper. Simon Furze would have said that it was just character and guts.
Euphrasia cocked her head. Mr. Cobourn was coming downstairs, and he was whistling. The tune? No, not a waltz by Johann Strauss. Euphrasia knew nothing of Vienna, but she did recognise the tune, a song of the common man in the Great War: 'Pack up your troubles'. Euphrasia turned the two rashers in the frying pan, and softly whistled the same tune. To a working-woman it was good philosophy.
Euphrasia trotted in with the breakfast tray to find Mr. John standing at one of the windows.
'Morning, Euphrasia. I'll have it on the table.'
Euphrasia took one look at his face, the face of a man who indulged in a cold bath in the spirit as well as in the flesh.
'Very good, sir.'
'And if you see Miss Marner, tell her I'll be down in the office by nine.'
Euphrasia responded with another 'Very good, sir,' and returned to the kitchen, absorbed in reflection, a hand to her cheek. When a gentleman like Mr. Cobourn changed his habits, what did the transformation signify? And was transformation the right word? Euphrasia, who had been with Mr. John longer than Miss Marner, could remember another occasion when the spirit had rebelled against the frailties of the flesh, and the result had been disastrous, and six months in bed. There had been no petticoat in that adventure. Mr. Cobourn had been fed up with his disability, had got up to fight it—with 'I'm damned if I'll be a crock,' and for months, poor dear, he had been cast back into Hades.
Euphrasia heard the dog barking. That would mean that Miss Marner had arrived, for the Cairn was a creature of habit like his master, and waited for Mary at the gate. Mary's bicycle might be tolerated and welcomed; all other machines were anathema to Rollo.
Euphrasia went to the back door. It opened on the gravelled way leading to the office quarters. Mary was off her cycle and bending down to caress the dog.
'Oh, Miss Marner.'
Mary turned an absent face. Her thoughts were elsewhere, and her mood negative.
'The master says he'll be down at the office by nine.'
Mary seemed to catch some subtle implication in that simple message.
'Yes, he's had a cold bath.'
Should Euphrasia have said that? Were a gentleman's personal whims and habits to be revealed to a young woman who was in his employment? Mr. Cobourn had had a cold bath! Need so commonplace an incident have been blurted about? But Mary knew Euphrasia, and Euphrasia knew Mary. The girl with the bicycle was frowning, and her grey eyes looked frosted. Euphrasia's bald statement was far less bald than Elisha's head, and it might prove prophetic. Mary passed on, and the dog remained with Euphrasia.
Mary parked her bicycle in the green stand placed for visitors outside the white boarded building and unlocked the door. You passed through the grading and packing shed to the little office, and Mary lingered here in the great cool room, full of shadows, where the punnets on the shelves were like so many familiar faces, and the empty trays waited for their harvest. There was a great stillness here, and Mary sat down, and her face was soft and shadowy. So much of her working days had been passed here, placidly and pleasantly, and even the smell of fruit savoured her memories, the pungent odour of black currants, the rosy smell of raspberries, the tart savour of logans, the sweet musty smell of apples. Here she had found solace in the labour of her hands, and in contemplating row upon row of clean white baskets packed with colour, fruit of fine texture. And why should life go sour on you suddenly because a man had had a cold bath! She seemed to pluck herself up from the chair, square her shoulders, and stiffen her back. She passed on into the office, sat down at her desk, and with her elbows on the desk, and her chin in her hands, gazed through the window opposite at the white cottage and its garden.
She saw it as she had never seen it before, and with an inward hurt and tenderness that blurred her inward vision. It was so peaceful, and yet so poignant, the simple fortress of a man who had fought with an unkind fate and gone forth daily to do battle with his own frail self. She had watched all his courageous cunning, his machination to cheat pain and languor, the brave rhythm of a life that had to be lived in chains.
And then she saw him coming down the path with the dog at his heels. He appeared more erect than usual, braced up, stimulated. He was wearing a newish suit of greyish flannel, and a cerise-coloured tie. Always he looked clean and neat, even when in old clothes, but this morning's smartness gave her gloom. A cold bath, that sleek suit, and his gaillard air! She had forebodings.
His office chair was high backed and padded. He sat down in it. His face looked finely drawn but fresh of colour.
'We've got rather behind hand. Let's go into those Mailing figures.'
Mary pulled a basket tray towards her, and then the telephone rang. It stood by Mary's elbow.
She looked at the thing as though its black shape was frightening and sinister.
'Will you take it?'
'No, you,' said he.
The frown fled from her face. She lifted the receiver and spoke.
'Hallo, this is Rose Hill.'
Her face, as she listened, remained frownless and attentive. 'It's Mr. Pook of Melford. He's in a hole about fruit.'
'He wants to know if you could let him have fifty-eight pounds or so of green gooseberries.'
'By this afternoon. He says he can collect them.'
Cobourn was smiling.
'Tell him he can have Levellen and Lancer. Does he want them in punnets?'
'No, baskets will do. Two or three old clients want to bottle, and deliveries are short.'
'Say we will do it.'
Mary hung up the receiver as though replacing with relief something she had feared.
'That means that we shall be busy, Mary. I can do gooseberries.'
She smiled at him, and her grey eyes were luminous. 'Not too much. Shall we—?'
'Yes, let's finish with Malling. I want those figures about potash dressings.'
They were in the midst of this when the telephone rang again, and Mary went rigid in her chair.
The frown was back on Mary's forehead, and her grey eyes had lost their light.
'It's Miss Craven. She wants to speak to you.'
There was a moment's silence. His face was smileless, tense.
'Say I'm very sorry, but we are going to be frightfully busy to-day.'
Mary gave the message, listened for a second or two to some protest, and then with firm, swift fingers hung up the receiver. She was conscious of exultation. As she sorted out letters and papers and passed them to him she was moved to wonder whether cold baths and smart suits had a meaning more subtle than a salute to sex. Was it not possible that he had braced himself against the attack? She found the particular paper she needed and passed it to him.
'I got out all the figures. I thought it would save you time.'
'You are a thorough person, Mary.'
They spent the morning picking gooseberries, working close together, he taking the easy berries, she—the ones nearer the ground and in the deeps of each bush. The branches had been well thinned, a saving of scratched fingers. Mary moved his chair from bush to bush. They were thinning the fruit, not stripping it, and it was she who emptied the punnets into the big osier baskets. She glanced at his face from time to time. It might be a set and serious face, but there was no pain there, and his eyes looked happy. And she was listening; listening for the sound of a car, and some quick reaction to that curtly polite message, but the morning passed, and no car came to Rose Hill.
The sun shone on them. A cuckoo perched quite close in the oaks below, and serenaded them. Mary had a great red scratch across one wrist, and remembered not to lick it. What were thorns on such a morning as this? She hummed a tune such as a woman does when she is happy and dancing. Almost, Mary Marner looked comely.
Sir Thomas Craven was carrying his Imitatio Christi towards the red-brick garden-house at the end of the great turfed ramp which abutted upon the wall of the Hazeley fruit garden and orchard. This Georgian garden-house with its little white portico and sash windows, leaded cupola and gilded wind-vane was Hazeley's Holy of Holies, a sanctum which was sacred to the aloofness of a man with a tense temper and no illusions. When Sir Thomas closed the door of the garden house it was common knowledge that no one would disturb him. The old dog was in his kennel, and even intruding daughters might have their pretty noses snapped at.
On this summer morning Sir Thomas was feeling old, and no dog. Sex and its stimulus had departed from him, and his stomach alone remained organically active. Good wine was milk for the old. But he did retain a very positive and mordant outlook up on the world of the day, this flashy, shabby, restless world which old Cobbett would have loathed.
Sir Thomas had read somewhere that such chuckling was characteristic of sprackless old men who looked to the past instead of at the future, but he continued to chuckle when chuckling was possible. How convinced had dear old Robert Browning and the Victorians been of the positiveness of progress, and even Robert Bridges had sung of beauty. Beauty? The modern world was kicking beauty into a battered hat, and why bother about things you could not alter? The Spirit of the Age—what! New pictorial art, new music, new methods of expression. But what the devil did they express? A mere macabre interlude between two wars? Sir Thomas was foreseeing another war, a war that would put an end to the old world as he had known it. No more good wine, no more cultured leisure, no more escapes from England's foul winters to more gracious places where the sun shone. Sir Thomas was feeling sardonic. Did anyone in these days stand up to fate and say: 'Get thee behind me, Satan?' Where was the poor dear old Devil? Gone with the wind—like God.
Sir Thomas paused on the high grass walk to look down at the orchard below him. He did not see it as a tangle of worn-out trees, lichened, scabby, cankered, a mass of moribund spans, the foliage pest-riddled. Nor did he ask himself what was to be done about it. There was nothing to be done about it. The trees were old and worn out like he was. Ten years ago Sir Thomas might have planted trees, but he was beyond the planting of trees. That meant saluting the future, and Sir Thomas was cynical about the future.
What was Hazeley's future? He had no male heir. The property would go to his daughter, and the probabilities were that she would marry some fool, and Hazeley would go up the chimney. Tie it up? Well, he had done so, but if Sanchia squandered the income and got knee deep in debt, the trustees would possess a nice little problem. They would have the power to let or sell the place, and dole out the proceeds to the daughter. Sir Thomas felt for his snuff-box and took snuff. This strange old habit was supposed to clear the head, but the Craven head was feeling particularly clear and cynical. Why not take snuff? He was up to snuff, or thought so, and considered it more hygienic and rational than chewing gum, though the future might be with the Gum Chewers.
Sir Thomas sneezed and blew his large red nose on a yellow silk handkerchief. He was returning the handkerchief to his pocket when he saw something that surprised him, two figures moving among those shaggy and shabby old trees, Sanchia and Tonks, his head gardener. How the devil had a man come to be named Tonks, and what the devil were they doing there?
Sir Thomas observed them. Surely, his Sanchia was not becoming interested in the Hazeley orchard. Most probably she was suggesting the clearing away of all this senility to make room for a hard tennis court or a bathing-pool. Hazeley needed modernising, and no doubt Sanchia would spill glaring red courts and a bright blue tiled tank and other abominations about the place after his departure. Hazeley would go gay, but Sir Thomas had vetoed this passion for progress. The old dog's kennel should remain as it was until he was pulled out of it. Only a month ago he had refused to have the electric gramophone in the drawing-room replaced.
Sir Thomas passed on to the garden house, opened the white door, entered, and closed the door. The place was panelled and painted cream and furnished with chairs, table and settee in the Chippendale style, painted white. There were writing materials on the table, including a quill pen, books, a bowl of roses. Sir Thomas loved the smell of roses, and he cut them himself and arranged them in the bowl.
Here was peace, a little Georgian temple sacred to gentlemanly things, serene in its aloofness, secure from social nuisances. The garden room was forbidden to all and sundry, save to the maid who came in daily at an early hour to dust and polish. Sir Thomas sat down at the table and opened a vellum-bound book, his casual diary. Its entries were becoming very casual and caustic.
Sir Thomas read the last record, and smiled over it, a quotation from Landor:
'I strove with none, for none were worth my strife.
I warmed both hands before the fire of life.'
Yes, serene and stately egoism, but whither did it lead? To icy isolation, and supreme selfishness? One couldn't play the North Pole in a crowded community. Sir Thomas added another entry, also a quotation. 'I care for nobody, and nobody cares for me.' Well, what did such arrogance expect? Sir Thomas was not very pleased with himself or with his diary on this summer morning. If you felt sardonic and at the end of the chapter, could you flatter yourself that the Finis was bookworthy?
He put down his quill, took the bowl of roses in both hands, and held the flowers to his thin bridged nose. Was it true that when the flesh faded your spirit died with it? If that was so you might postulate—failure.
He replaced the rose bowl, and rested his head on his hands.
Almost it was the pose of prayer, of inward emptiness, and
inarticulate yearning. Oh, ye gods, has my philosophy failed me? I
am finished, just a tired old man to whom nothing seems worth
Someone was looking at him through a glass panel of the door. He had been so deeply deaf in his depression that he had not heard footsteps. His daughter stood there, looking wide-eyed at that almost tragic figure, an old man alone with himself, head down, shoulders crumpled. Poor old dear! Had she ever seen him or thought of him in that way before? She had not.
She put a hand to the handle and opened the door, and as she did so she remembered that she had come with a selfish motive. Such a realisation was new to Sanchia Craven.
'May I come in, Father?'
He was startled, both by her voice, and by that word, a word that is out of favour. Father! He sat erect, hands resting on the table.
'Yes, come in.'
'I wanted to ask you about something.'
'Well, my dear, what is it?'
She slipped round behind him and sat down on the red cushion of the white settee, and Sir Thomas waited, expecting the obvious. But even to be asked was something to a man who had felt shabby and finished, and unable to maintain the pose of gentlemanly aloofness. Sanchia was looking at his grey head with its bald centre, and at the wrinkled neck, and all the indefinable stigmata of age. How beastly to grow old, and how strange were the new moods of her own insurgent self.
'I have been looking at the old orchard.'
'Yes,' said he.
Was it to be a hard court or a bathing pool?
'It's rather a disgrace, you know.'
'Being old, my dear, may seem disgraceful.'
'Something ought to be done about it. Tonks says it should be re-planted.'
Sir Thomas sat erect. Was he hearing aright? And what in the names of all the gods was moving this restless, pretty wench to interest in orchards?
'Tonks may be right. You see, at my age some things may appear—a little superfluous.'
She sat looking at his poor, thin old neck.
'But it's our place. It has been our place for hundreds of years. I don't know why, but I have a feeling—'
Her father half-turned in his chair.
'A feeling—what? Well, it will be yours. I'll admit, Sanchia, I used to be place-proud.'
'And why not?' said she with a sudden flush of temper; 'After all, I'm Craven.'
Her father sat astonished: How incalculable were the young! Or were they? Sudden vision came like a dream in the night. He could remember the days of his own awakening, colour, perfume, mystery. Were they dead, or incredibly alive in his daughter?
'Shall I be candid, my dear?'
'I thought you were wanting a bathing pool or a couple of hard courts.'
She laughed. She was up in one swift movement. She kissed the bald patch on his head.
'I'm not—yesterday. Don't know why. Does one?'
'True. All the yesterdays are not to-morrow. So, what do you want?'
She stood smiling, and smiling at herself.
'I want you to ask John Cobourn here.'
'Yes, to advise us. I'll be candid too. He's the first man I have ever met who made me feel—cheap.'
Sir Thomas turned again, and smiled at his diary. So that was it! But John Cobourn! Sir Thomas Craven had heard of the fruit-grower, but that was all he did know.
'Very well. Shall I write to Mr. Cobourn?'
'Yes. Thank you, Father.'
John Cobourn was writing a book, though as yet it was a mere skeleton with a peculiar title: Shabby England.
Mary Marner was the only person who had some knowledge of the product, for she had been given the task of collecting certain significant data, England's productive acreage, how much was down to grass, how much was cultivated, the amount of food produced, how much was imported. Cobourn was also collecting other data, the population of various villages, especially in East Anglia, the decrease in the number of agricultural workers, and estimates of what the country population had been in the years before the Industrial Revolution.
Shabby England. What a strange title! Yet, Mary was divining the spirit that inspired the work, and the mirage it had to give.
John Cobourn might be liked, and be regarded as an inoffensive person, but let a man do that which his neighbour may be incapable of doing, and instantly he will be open to criticism, and ridicule. What, John Cobourn writing a book! How impertinent of him! When your own particular community has labelled you and set you on a shelf, it may regard any splurge into originality or distinction as an offence against mediocrity.
Mary, cycling back from Melford with a bundle of solemn books she had obtained from the Public Library, met the afternoon postman at Rose Hill gate. There was one letter, and the postman handed it over to her. Mary had glanced at it perfunctorily, but she eyed it with more prejudice as she wheeled her machine towards the office. The envelope carried the local postmark; it was of superlative quality, and its flap was decorated with a crest.
Hazeley? But the handwriting was that of a man.
Mary put her bicycle away, and carried her strapped bundle of books and the letter to John Cobourn's window. He was lying on his couch, with a pencil and writing-pad, and his face was tranquil.
'Hallo, Mary. Any luck?'
She passed in the books.
'I got old London. I don't know whether it will be of any use. And one or two others.'
'Thanks, my dear.'
'And here's a letter. I took it from the postman.'
She gave him the letter, and her desire was to linger while he opened it, and to watch his face, but that would be spying, and Mary's abrupt integrity would have none of such sneaking. She turned away.
'You might wait and see if there is any answer.'
She stood there, watching him He unfolded the sheet and read, and she fancied that his face lost its tranquillity. There was silence. Then he laid the letter on his table.
'Thanks, Mary. I'll answer it.'
When she had gone he picked up the letter, and re-read it.
'Dear Mr. Cobourn,
We have here at Hazeley an old orchard which is diseased and derelict. I am wondering whether you would come and inspect it, and advise me, of course—for a fee. I can send a car for you.
Cobourn lay considering the implications of Sir Thomas Craven's letter. Was there a hidden hand here, and the secret voice of the syren?
'Come into the garden, John,
For the black bat night has flown.'
Yet, would it not be churlish to refuse a man of Sir Thomas Craven's age and texture? Sir Thomas might be and should be country-minded, and Cobourn, with a crusade on his conscience, was thinking of Hazeley as unshabby England. A derelict orchard! Was not a half of England derilect and distressed, tumbled down into a starved grassland and neglected orchards, choked land-drains and foul ditches? Yes, his contacts were few, and Hazeley and its Craven challenged him. If Sir Thomas Craven was troubled about worn-out fruit trees he and John Cobourn might be sympatica. Yes, he would go to meet the father, and turn a blind eye upon daughterly provocation. What were apple trees to Sanchia, or a new and fruitful England? Moreover, being man, and man with passion and purpose, he may have felt innocently flattered.
He reached for a letter pad and stylo.
'Dear Sir Thomas Craven,
It is kind of you to ask me to inspect your orchard. I shall be glad to do so, and help in any way I can. My easiest time is after five o'clock, if that would suit you, on any day you choose to fix.
Will you forgive me if I say that I would prefer not to charge a fee. I happen to be an enthusiast.
When Mary Marner came with some typed letters that needed signing, he passed her the stamped envelope.
'You might post this, Mary.'
She glanced at the envelope, and her lashes flickered. Sir
Thomas Craven! What was there between Sir Thomas Craven and Rose
Hill? Cobourn was signing the letters she had brought. He told her
nothing. It did not occur to him that he had anything to tell.
Sanchia was up betimes, which was a virtue as new to her as the mood of the moment. She had a particular way of running down the oak stairs of Hazeley, forearms spread, hands open like white petals, the heels of her shoes sounding like castanets. Early she might be, but her father was before her, an open letter in one hand, a porridge spoon in the other. She kissed the top of his head, and while doing so was able to read the letter's signature.
Was John Cobourn coming?
But porridge was the thing of the moment, and a nice reticence, for the spirit of this nymph had developed a more subtle savour, the essence of a mysterious flowering. Man should not be pursued; man should pursue, even though his legs were frail. Her grandmother's portrait hung over the Sheraton sideboard, and those purple grape-like eyes seemed to look down upon this Craven beauty; there was a solemnity about the sallow Spanish face, yet, from the full lips there seemed to trickle a sagacious smile.
Sanchia sat down with her porridge. She asked no questions. Maybe she was learning that man may respond more freely when he was asked no questions. Sir Thomas' breakfast was an austere affair, porridge, dry toast and marmalade, and coffee.
He had laid the letter down on the mahogany table, but he kept glancing at it as though its spirit piqued him.
'I have heard from Cobourn.'
'Have you, Father?'
'Not a very commercial person.'
'He will come and look at the orchard.'
Sanchia spooned at her porridge.
'Yes, my dear?'
'Some people are rather shy.'
Her father gave her a shrewd yet benign look.
'Very. The invitation comes from me.'
She sat very still, staring at her plate.
Sir Thomas Craven wrote a letter and dispatched it to Rose Hill
by a gardener. If the day suited Mr. Cobourn he would send a car
for him at five o'clock. Sir Thomas's mental reservation was that
it should be his own car, not his daughter's.
Cobourn and Hazeley had never met. They had looked at each other across the valley. The closed car came for Cobourn punctually at five, and a good-tempered, broad-faced chauffeur held open the door and helped John Cobourn in. Someone had put cushions in the car. Cobourn had two sticks with him which he used when he might have to walk and stand.
The crossing of the valley was a mere matter of minutes, but the unfolding of Hazeley was like a long and lovely scroll. Parkland, set with splendid trees, sloped upwards to the high woods, and the mellow stateliness of the old red house. The great cedars were dark about it, but not too near so as to cast shadows. Hazeley was not shabby England, but an England that had grown rich and benign. Man's hand was here, as it is everywhere, and Cobourn, watching the scene, knew that the countryside was man-made, and yet with such immeasurable differences. You planted some abomination in brick and tile, or a glaring concrete box, or a cedar or a fine old farm house.
As the car covered the last loop of the road, Cobourn saw the Hazeley gardens rising in rich graciousness to the tranquil terrace. They were right, so utterly right in their interflow or their merging. An Italian might have schemed their setting, old red brick, weathered stone, clipped yews, lead, a slim cypress here and there, colour, flowerines, order in disorder. Cobourn's face had a sheen, and the sheen was there when the car pulled up, and Sir Thomas Craven came out to welcome him.
The frail old man and the frail young one took stock of each other, and maybe the liking was instant.
'It is very good of you to come, Mr. Cobourn.'
'Thank you, sir. I think the pleasure is mine.'
The chauffeur had opened the door, and taken out Cobourn's two sticks.
'Your sticks, sir.'
Sir Thomas glanced at the sticks, and the tall frail figure. There were things he had not known about John Cobourn, and they touched him.
'Have you had tea, Cobourn?'
'Yes, sir, thanks.'
Sir Thomas was wondering about those two sticks. Were John Cobourn's legs his own, or makeshifts from the Great War? Sanchia had said nothing about a man being semi-paralysed or legless. Nor did Sir Thomas ask any questions. At the end of the terrace a turfed ramp gentle in its slope led down to the orchard level. There would be no steps.
'I think we will go this way.'
Sir Thomas, sensitive when the door of his inward self was opened, saw John Cobourn like a pale flame blown forward by the wind of courage, while his lower limbs were shackled and lagged behind the spirit of him. The clear, clean profile, and the eyes that were so alive, and that stilted walk. It seemed that Cobourn had to think of his legs as he used them.
'It isn't far, Cobourn.'
'That's all right, sir. I can manage. My own legs, if poor ones.'
He smiled at his host.
'The war, Cobourn?'
'Yes, a crash. Got shot down. It was a lucky let-off.'
Sir Thomas was thinking, 'A good lad this. An unusual lad. Now, I wonder—.'
And he rubbed his chin.
So, they came to the old orchard and John Cobourn saw it incipiently dead, shaggy, diseased, fruitless, and it was hardly necessary for Sir Thomas to ask a question.
'Nothing to be done about it, Cobourn?'
'I'm afraid not, sir. Too old and sick for regrafting.'
'Logs for the winter fire?'
'Just that, sir. Grubbing and replanting in refreshed soil. It would be worth while.'
Sir Thomas nodded.
'Trees are always worth while.'
'You have me, Cobourn.'
'I did not mean that, sir.'
'Thank you. One plants for pride, not for a person.'
'Exactly, sir. But you would understand that.'
Cobourn did examine some of the old trees more closely, as a morphologist might examine an exhibit, but with more sympathy and imagination. Caterpillar, canker, American Blight, lichen and moss, and what not. The orchard could produce all the ills of the text-book, and yet these old trees were trees, nameless according to modern nomenclature, yet veterans who had set their blossom and borne their fruit, and now they were due to die.
He turned to Sir Thomas.
'I'm afraid I'm always a little sentimental about old trees, sir.'
'And yet, in old days heroes were given the funeral pyre.'
'Apple wood has a fragrance.'
Sir Thomas was liking this frail man more and more.
'Could you give me a planting list?'
'Yes. Do you want quick returns, sir?'
'That's what the modern world asks for.'
'Well, we could compromise.'
'I might like to see some fruit.'
'You will. Half the ground planted with bush apples on No. 9 stock, the rest—standards on 22.'
'I'll leave it to you, Cobourn.'
If J. C. could feel a little sentimental about old trees, there was someone watching who could find sentiment in the occasion. Two fine clipped yews stood behind the garden-house, and a girl was posed there. She was smiling. A new significance had wrapped itself about the figure of man.
Sir Thomas Craven and Cobourn were walking back towards the grass ramp, and it seemed to the elder man that the young one had lost his erectness and was leaning more heavily on his sticks. They climbed the ramp to the terrace, and Cobourn paused there. He wanted to look, but he was beginning to feel warnings of pain.
'It's all very lovely, sir. Would you mind if I sat down for a minute or two?'
Sir Thomas was moved.
'Sorry, Cobourn. Of course. Let's try the garden-house.'
Sanchia fled. There were steps leading down to the walled fruit garden from the terrace end beyond the garden-house. This meeting between the two men was for her a shadow-show, and if she might cease from being a shadow, that was not yet. Neither Sir Thomas nor Cobourn had seen her, and Sir Thomas opened the white, glazed door, and with significant courtesy stood aside for Cobourn to enter.
'Try the settee.'
John Cobourn's smile was receptive. He laid his sticks on a chair, and sat down on the red cushion. Sir Thomas lifted a chair and placed it in front of him.
'Put your feet up, Cobourn. I had sciatica once, and I know.'
'Thank you, sir.'
'A touch of pain makes the whole world kin. Like a whisky?'
'You are being very kind, sir. I'm afraid I keep on the water-wagon.'
Sir Thomas turned his desk-chair and sat down. He was beginning to divine in the younger man a sweet austerity, character, courage.
'My sanctum, this. It is good to have a place to escape to. That raises a question of ethics.'
Cobourn was sitting relaxed
'Is peace un-ethical?'
'My dear fellow, I suppose that depends. When you escape from pain, for instance.'
'It's a game I have to play with life.'
Sir Thomas nodded, felt for his snuff-box and refrained. 'Takes some playing, I expect. And yet, you manage to do things.'
'One must. Besides—'
He hesitated. Almost he looked shy.
'I'm a bit of a fanatic, sir.'
'Oh, the country scene as it was and as it might be. Of course you have read Cobbett, sir.'
'That old warrior was utterly right, as I see things. We have lost touch with natural things, the sanity of the soil. Industrialism, like Hercules, has lifted us off the ground. That may sound obvious and topical, but it's true.'
Sir Thomas was silent for a second or two, and the lines on his face had deepened.
'I agree, Cobourn. And in some ways I've been a backslider.'
'I should say not, sir, with your gardens.'
'Gardens? Personal aesthetics. Is that quite enough? I am beginning to wonder.'
Cobourn smiled at him. He was feeling happy and at ease.
'Well, you are planting young trees, sir.'
'Might not one plant more than that?'
Sanchia was at a window, a window that commanded the high grass walk and the garden house. She was kneeling on the window seat, her face between her hands. Those two appeared to have settled down together over yonder. Was that significant? Should she wander down to them, and assume innocence?
Someone opened the door.
'Oh, there you are, Miss.'
Sanchia swung round.
'What is it, Maisie?'
'A Mr. Hiscocks, Miss. He has come by car.'
And Sanchia said, 'Damn!'
Mr. Edward Hiscocks, or Eddie, was or had been one of her devotees, a slouching weed of a fellow with a wet mouth, blob eyes, and too much money. He was the sort of lad who gurgled 'Her-her-her' to everything, even if the thing was not funny. Eddie appeared to find all life funny. Whatever handle you pulled he made fatuous and moist noises.
'Damn!' said Sanchia.
She whisked off the window seat.
'Did you tell him I was in, Maisie?'
'Why, yes, Miss.' For Sanchia had always been in to most things in trousers.
'Well, go and tell Mr. Hiscocks you thought I was in, but that you can't find me.'
'Say I must have gone out.'
Maisie departed on her adventure in mendacity. She, as a girl, was not piqued by Mr. Hiscocks. He looked like a wet infant who had lengthened but never grown up. And Sanchia opened another window, a window that was blind to the garden-houses and slipped out over the sill. Would that fool Eddie linger? Well, no matter. She had resigned from the Hiscocks academy, and even if the idiot loitered, he would not find her.
Hazeley was a house of many doors, but Sanchia had not needed a door for her exit, and while Eddie Hiscocks, complete with blue beret which made his head look even more infantile, was slouching up and down the main terrace, Sanchia had escaped by the covered passage running east of the base court. Eddie had a new car to show her, but Eddie was a little shy of the 'Old Man', for Sir Thomas could bite, and did not respond to 'Her-her-hers.'
Sanchia made for the steps leading to the terrace, the clipped yews and the garden-house. She climbed them slowly, with a casual grace and an air of idle innocence which was not all pose. Eve had become the wayward nymph, even in her gestures and her drapery, and purged of some of the ruthlessness of youth. Love was becoming a mystery.
She reached the back of the garden-house and paused to lean upon the balustrading. She could hear the two voices, intimate and friendly, and suggesting that two men had found each other. And Sanchia smiled with a glimmer of sly tenderness.
For, suddenly she was wise, profoundly wise. She would not show herself. Maybe she had spread her Calypso carpet, but she would not dance upon it. She would suffer John Cobourn to be assimilated through her father, for John Cobourn could resist that which he might fear.
She watched them pass side by side along the high grass walk, Cobourn carrying his sticks. Age had not tired youth with exactions. They were continuing in easy, intimate conversation, and Sanchia raced back by the way she had come, and slipped through the open windows. Was that ass of an Eddie still hanging around? Edward Hiscocks would be no tribute to her new mood and its manifestations.
She passed through the house and into her father's library. She could see the Hazeley car waiting to carry Cobourn back to Rose Hill, and beside it a bright blue contraption shaped like a torpedo. Mr. Hiscocks was in conversation with her father's chauffeur, and the chauffeur was looking bored.
Sanchia sat down in her father's chair. She was secure here, for Eddie was no book-fellow.
Sir Thomas Craven and John Cobourn had strolled together across the terrace, and Cobourn was looking at the Hazeley garden. He and his host had come together upon books and among his rarities Sir Thomas possessed books which Cobourn needed, Jethro Tull and Young and Richard Jefferies.
'I can lend you them, Cobourn.'
'It's very good of you, sir. I'll take great care of them. By the way, who was responsible for the garden layout? It makes me think of the Villa d'Este, except for its floweriness.'
Sir Thomas produced his snuff box, and once more he refrained.
'My grandfather, with additions—by myself.'
'The floweriness was yours, sir?'
'Am I to take that as a compliment? According to the moderns I should be a damned sweet-stuff merchant.'
'If you paint a tree, sir, and make it a tree, you are photographic. If it looks like a sort of green tassel with a temperature, it is great art.'
'You make me feel quite young, Cobourn.'
Sanchia, chin on hands, could not see these two, but she had her eyes on Eddie. Eddie had strolled to the corner of the house, and suddenly he did a rapid right about and a swift slouch towards his car. Mr. Hiscocks had seen the Old Man, and rebounded from the chance of contact. He got into his blue machine, started the engine and buzzed off Sanchia's lips curled, but her laughter was inward and silent. What in the name of all the Brooklands Heroes had she seen in Eddie Hiscocks? How had she tolerated him? The lad had not even the guts to stay and her-her-her Sir Thomas.
The inference was obvious. Her father and John Cobourn were making for the Hazeley car. She could sit in her father's chair and watch them, and feel secured in her part of the silent nymph. Designing female indeed! Not on your life. There was a new young subtlety in her Spanish glances.
But it was to be otherwise. Sanchia heard voices, not distant, garden voices; they were in the house; they were in the hall; they were drifting towards the library. Sanchia sat straight and rigid, her hands resting on the table's edge. Should she go through the window? But Sandys was there, and her young dignity would not stoop before Sandys. She was caught, for all her cleverness, but might not the situation be saved? What of that old play—'She Stoops to Conquer'? There were books on the table, and Sanchia snatched at one, and opened it. She had in her hands the Imitatio Christi.
The door opened. Both men saw her posed there, holding the book, and the sudden slant of her surprised eyes. The studious nymph caught reading. Sir Thomas smiled, and felt again for his snuff-box. Oh, sly wench! Cobourn's face was the face of a man who was secretly afraid.
Sanchia stood up.
'Sorry. I'm in the way.'
She smiled at her father, and she smiled at John Cobourn with a suggestion of innocent shyness.
'It's all right, my dear. Mr. Cobourn is borrowing a few books.'
She hesitated, looked at John Cobourn, and dropped sudden eyes and lashes. Her self-consciousness should be his. She passed round the two men, and demurely closed the door.
Sir Thomas, strolling to the table, glanced at the open book. Well, well!
'Ever read that, Cobourn?'
Cobourn moved up as though his legs had gone stiff.
'The Imitatio Christi? No, sir, I haven't.'
Mary was in the office, typing some pages of the Cobourn book. It was the prelude to the country concerto, a challenge to contemporary cynicism, and as Mary tapped the keys her lips moved with the words. She was working over-time and from mixed motives, for, in putting John Cobourn's paragraphs into print, she felt herself part of him and his crusading anger. Anger? Yes, there was anger in his prose, he—who was so sweet of temper. The English peasant and craftsman had been exiled from their own soil. Mary glanced now and again at the office clock. Twenty-one minutes past six. He had been a long time at Hazeley. Had they made him do too much and tired himself into pain? Would he come back in Sir Thomas Craven's car or in that hated red chariot?
Twenty-three minutes past six. Mary's face went suddenly flat and weary. Her hands dropped. She sat staring at nothing in particular. Then she left an unfinished sheet in the machine, picked up the cover and put it in place. Better to cover some things up, than to betray yourself. And suddenly she was seized by a kind of panic. She wanted to get away before he might return—with that other girl. She crammed on her hat, locked up the office, seized her bicycle, and wheeling it past the kitchen window, dropped the key on Euphrasia's table.
'I've locked up.'
Euphrasia was sitting solemnly darning socks.
'Good night, Miss.'
Mary was dumb.
She had reached the gate when she heard the car, and she stood still, her hands gripping hard on the handles. Was she to be confronted? And then she saw the car, that black and conventional saloon. Her hands relaxed, for John Cobourn was alone.
Sandys was out and opening a door.
'Shall I carry in the books, sir?'
'Thanks, I can manage.'
'But your sticks, sir.'
'Oh, yes, my sticks.'
Mary had parked her cycle against the fencing. She opened the gate, and her face too was open.
'I'll take the books.'
'Hallo, Mary. Still here.'
'Yes, some typing.'
She took the bundle of books from him, and held the gate open. Sandys gave Cobourn his sticks.
'Good night, sir.'
Sandys did not expect a tip from him or want it. Sandys's sister had married a Furze, and the working world of Hazeley knew what manner of man John Cobourn was. Sandys touched his cap to him.
Mary was looking at the titles of the books. These solemn volumes were obviously Sir Thomas's and not his daughter's. Jethro Tull. Quaint old name, a period name like the England it had served. She was aware of Cobourn leaning on his sticks. He tired so quickly and so easily.
'I'll carry them in for you.'
'Quite a walking library, Mary.'
'Sir Thomas Craven is a what-do-you call it.'
'Bibliophile, my dear, if you mean that, but much more than that. I am going to plan his new orchard.'
Mary was sorry for that. Sir Thomas might be—Oh, yes. But just where would that pestilent petticoat come flaunting in? Meanwhile there were barkings from the kitchen, and Euphrasia had to leave her chair and let the dog rush out to welcome man.
Cobourn lay on his couch with the dog on a chair beside him. He felt relaxed and at ease both in the flesh and in the spirit. Sir Thomas Craven's books were on his table, and a mental picture of Hazeley and its master happily in his consciousness. Old England—that, gracious and calm and lovely, a centre point about which the country scene had revolved, the gentleman, the craftsman, the yeoman and the peasant, diverse yet complete in the sanctity of the soil. Cobourn picked up Jethro Tull, read a few passages, smiled and laid the book back on the table. The Cairn wagged a tail. 'I'm here, master,' and Cobourn let his hand rest on the dog's head. Dog and man could be together always.
But that moribund orchard? New trees, new fruit. Cobourn reached for a writing pad and pencil, and set to work on a planting list, apples for the table, apples for the kitchen, apples in August, apples in June, if a storage cellar was available. Beauty of Bath, Gladstone, Worcester Pearmain, old Keswick Codlin, Ellison's Orange, Lord Derby, Cox, Laxton's Superb, Monarch, Waggoner, Crawley Beauty, Lane's Prince Albert, Bramley Seedling, Bismarck, Barnack Beauty, and perhaps Blenheim. Ancient and historic breeds—many of these, but holding their own in fertility, texture and flavour. The young experts might despise Keswick Codlin and Prince Bismarck, but Cobourn had found them the most consistent of croppers and good pollinators. True, the Codlin did not keep, but Bismarck held the record for keeping in the experimental underground cell which Cobourn had had built for such tests.
He laid the list aside, and Rollo crept into his lap, and lay gazing bright-eyed at his master. Could anything be more loving than the eyes of a dog, and the Cairn had beautiful eyes. A woman's eyes? And Cobourn closed his own eyes, and was conscious of a double feeling of yearning and frustration. Sanchia Craven. Could he see the daughter differently in having come close to the father? This warm, vital, glowing girl. Had he misread her, and the vibrant temper of her youth? But how impossible! He lay with closed eyes, trying to see her as he wished to see her, even though the vision might be wounding to his manhood. Not for him were dancing eyes and dancing feet, Vienna Nights, or those paroxysms of delight and tenderness. And suddenly he felt infinitely sad.
Sanchia was sitting before her mirror, considering her face,
lips, eyes, forehead, and the fashion of her hair. Could coiffeurs
be moulded to a mood? Should lip-stick be abandoned? She shook her
black shingle loose, picked up a comb, and tried to persuade that
insurgent mane to sleek itself into more Madonna-like curves. Could
not this sable nimbus be made to look more virginal? It might. She
would have to buy some of that cream which men used, to produce a
gleaming and polished suavity. She smiled at herself and watched
her own eyes. Yes, that was the way she would look at him and to
him. She wanted to look at him in that way, with a kind of innocent
languor, a young girl marvelling at the manliness of unique
Her father was holding a glass of dark sherry up to the light before savouring the bouquet. Veritable wine from Jerez this, which had lived in the Hazeley cellar for many years. 'Wine, Women and Song'. Wine remained in life's category, women had passed from it, and much of the day's music was alien to Sir Thomas Craven. Moreover, he did confess to a sweetish taste in music, if he loathed it in wine, Chopin, and Strauss, and that operetta of Noel Coward's Bitter Sweet. Sir Thomas put his nose and then his lips to the glass, an old glass with a twisted stem. Fine, mature stuff this, and did women mature like wine? Hum, sometimes, but the trouble was that the arrival of inward maturity might coincide with the loss of looks. Barsac ladies, pah! Over-sweet white wine that sickened your morals.
Sir Thomas sipped his sherry. Now, what of this daughter of his? Was Sanchia proud red wine? And was she—? Well, who could tell? Even wild young wenches might be piqued by compassionate contrasts. Very likeable fellow, Cobourn. Oh yes, and much more than that. A singular and arrestive person who could be enthusiastic in an age that said, 'Oh, hell, what does anything matter?' Certain things mattered to this frail fellow, and mattered supremely. To Sir Thomas he had the added significance of being a gentleman. Gentlemen might continue to be good currency in a world of gabble and politics and plunder, a world that produced cads in highly coloured cars.
The door opened and Sanchia drifted in, and her father, appraising her over his wineglass, was aware of provocative changes. His daughter had sleeked down her black hair, and it framed a face of delicate pallor, like a face in some Italian sacred picture. Her lips had lost their vividness. Her frock was the simplest of things, and primrose coloured. Primrose? Sir Thomas remembered certain lines of Wordsworth's. His daughter had, in the vulgar parlance, gone Madonna.
'Some sherry, my dear?'
'No, thank you, Father.'
She glided doucely to a window-seat, sat down, and gazed out into the garden. Sir Thomas saw her in profile, and the transformation was challenging, lily pallor, drooping shoulders, suave hair and neck. How much of this was stagecraft, how much—annunciation?
Should he be actual? Was she provoking realism in mysticism? He felt for his snuff-box, and put it back again.
'Interesting fellow, Cobourn.'
She remained quite still, as though she had not heard him. Sir Thomas drank more sherry.
'I'm glad you brought him here.'
One hand stroked the red cushion.
'Don't you think him rather—tragic?'
Tragic! Sir Thomas considered the suggestiveness of that word.
'Well, I don't know. Plenty of will-force. He seems to have adapted.'
Her hand continued to stroke the cushion.
'Must he be like that—always? Doctors are not always right.'
Rose Hill was picking raspberries—'Norfolk Giant', Cobourn, Mary, and two women helpers—when the Cairn, who had been lying on the grass way, pricked his ears and fluffed up his hair. The dog was very quick of hearing, and a car had passed along the lane and stopped at the white gate. None of the pickers between the wired rows had noticed it, not even Mary Marner. She was working close to Cobourn, who was combining fruit-gathering with observation. The raspberry beetle had been very prevalent the previous year, and the opening flowers had been dressed with derris, and Cobourn was looking for maggots in the fruit and finding none. Good man, Simon. He had been thorough with the powder-blower.
Voices. Mary was the first of the pickers to hear them, for Mary, somehow, was always on the alert. Men's voices, the cheerful cackle of Tom Lucking, and a gentleman's voice that was strange to her. She straightened, looked.
Sir Thomas Craven! Mary knew him by sight. She turned quickly to John Cobourn.
'Sir Thomas Craven.'
Cobourn had been bending to pick some of the berries on the lower trusses. He straightened, and the punnet on his knees slid sideways. Mary made a grab at it, and saved it from spilling its fruit upon the soil.
He put his hands to the wheels of his chair, and turned it so as to face his visitor.
'Good morning, sir.'
'Good morning, Cobourn. I'm afraid I'm interfering.'
'Not at all, sir. I have your planting list ready. It's in the cottage if you care to see it.'
Mary was head down, picking fast and listening. She glanced over a shoulder and saw Cobourn rising from his chair.
'Don't get up, my dear fellow,' said Sir Thomas.
Cobourn stood erect, smiling at him.
'I'm not always a sitter-down.'
Mary caught her hat on a cane and had it pulled awry. She righted it with an impatient gesture. Was Sir Thomas Craven alone, or had he—? The two women helpers were taking it easy, and watching the two men.
Sir Thomas looked at the fruit.
'What is the breed, Cobourn?'
'Norfolk Giant, sir.'
'It looks it.'
'Not so well flavoured as Lloyd George.'
Sir Thomas looked amused.
'Yes, sir, as a matter of fact he is. I have been to Churt. It's a good show.'
'I must go there sometime,' said Sir Thomas.
They strolled off together towards the cottage, with the orchard alleyways running left and right like miniature avenues. The soil was a fine tilth and almost weedless, and Sir Thomas could compare these clean young trees with their polished bark with the scraggy moss-grown veterans of Hazeley. An efficient show, this. Cobourn might be a semi-invalid, but Sir Thomas Craven had never seen an orchard in such good fettle.
'I suppose you spray, Cobourn?'
'Oh, yes, sir.'
'No moss or lichen.'
'That is winter-wash, sir.'
'I ought to know more about these things. Too much bookishness, not enough garping.'
'Just eyes, sir. When I began I didn't see half the things I see now.'
They were close to the garden fence of cleft chestnut, and Cobourn's last words might have been prophetic. One of his passions was Delphiniums, and he had been raising hybrids for the last two or three years, and just beyond the fence these blue spines were crowded in a border of specially enriched soil. As yet most of the plants were nameless and awaiting selection or rejection, but it was not these flowers which took the laughter out of Cobourn's eyes, and made him flinch. He saw a girl's figure among the blue spines, Sanchia in a cream coloured frock, and looking like a young Madonna among the lilies, dark hair draped about a pale forehead. She was touching the flowers, slipping a finger into the blue trumpets, childlike, unaware of other presences, or so it seemed to Cobourn.
He had his hand on the gate. Sir Thomas had taken out his snuff-box, and he did not refrain. A hearty sneeze broke the silence, and his daughter's head rose on its white throat.
But she looked at John Cobourn. Her dark eyes were douce and mysterious, dreamy, childish eyes. A little smile flickered about her lips.
'What lovely flowers.'
Cobourn opened the gate, and Sir Thomas passed through, but Cobourn hesitated as though his legs had lost the power of movement.
'Did you raise them?'
Slowly, and with a suggestion of conscious effort, he passed through the gate and closed it. Sanchia's hand was raised to a particular flower; she might have been putting a light to a candle. It was a spike of azure blue with a mauve centre, vivid, and almost metallic in its coloured sheen.
'I like this one best. What's its name?'
Cobourn moistened dry lips.
'No name at present.'
'What a pity.'
He was looking at her and not at the flower spike.
'Shall we christen it?'
'Why not Sanchia Craven?'
She gave him a sudden glimmer of the eyes.
'Oh, I'd like that.'
His eyes answered hers.
'Do you know that you have chosen my favourite?'
Sir Thomas was watching them with a curiosity that was not quizzical. How serious were these glamorous glances? John Cobourn might be frail of body, but the spirit of him was taut, and upright, and he might take some romances with fanatical seriousness. Moreover, Sir Thomas had a feeling that John Cobourn was head-back to the occasion, and that a part of him resisted, and was afraid. Sir Thomas tucked his handkerchief away. And what if the business should be serious? All that Sir Thomas could say was that this gentleman fruit-farmer was preferable to the Baskervilles and Hiscocks and their ilk. But, damn it, how could a vigorous wench like Sanchia mate with a man who could not run or dance, or stand for an hour without pain?
Cobourn turned suddenly to the father.
'Shall we go and look at that planting list, sir?'
'By all means, Cobourn.'
Sanchia was standing quite still among those blue, mauve, white and purple spikes, looking with curious intensity at her particular flower. She let the men go, nor did her eyes follow them. Her hands hung limp. There was a dark inwardness in her stare. Nor did she move until the two men had vanished, and then, with a sudden gesture, she drew the flower spike to her lips, and from that moment all this petalled colour was a torch lighting them both towards tragedy.
She wandered idly about the place, touching things as a child touches them, casually and without consciousness. All her young self was turned inward. The Sanchia of yesterday seemed lost in the past. But an inward cry was gathering in her like some deep emotion waiting for a voice to give it life. It came to her as she wandered down the broad grass way between the apple trees, and saw his empty chair, and the women picking fruit. The voice became articulate. Anger and compassion were struggling together within her.
'Oh, I could break that chair. I could make him well. I want him well. I want him—'
Sir Thomas was folding up Cobourn's planting list.
'May I keep it?'
'Of course, sir.'
'I'll have to put in an order. Who would you suggest?'
'Oh, there are good growers. If you could see your own trees.'
'I'm not much of a judge.'
'Take your head-gardener, sir.'
Sir Thomas looked sardonic.
'Tonks knows everything that ever was and ever will be.'
'And would class me as an amateur?'
'Yes. Better leave Tonks in the graveyard of the Know-Alls.'
'As you please, sir.'
They found Sanchia sitting in the driving-seat of her car, waiting for her father. From somewhere came the barking of a dog, for the Cairn had been shut out of the garden, and was protesting against this exclusion. Sir Thomas got in beside his daughter, and Cobourn closed the door, but Sanchia did not start her engine. Man should come to her and stand beside her door, and come he did, head up, eyes looking at her as though he feared to look.
Her dark eyes were wide open to his, steady and with the relentlessness of young love. She put out a hand, and still looking up at him, felt for and touched the starter button. The engine came to life.
'I'll let you know, Cobourn, about going to the grower.'
Sanchia took off the brake, got into gear, and let in the clutch. She was still looking at him; she smiled as the car glided to the gate. Her last glimpse left her with a feeling that there was something stricken about his face, a sudden stark greyness. Was he in pain, poor darling? She swung the car out into the road, and with an inward flare of rebellious feeling rushed it into fierce acceleration.
Her father's head jerked backwards.
'Careful, young woman. This isn't Brooklands.'
For quite a minute after the car had gone Cobourn stood there with that rigid, stricken look. Then, the dog's barking came to him. He went very slowly round the cottage and past the delphiniums to the hand-gate. He let the dog through. Again he stood still, looking at the blue spike that they had named.
The Cairn was pawing his legs.
'I'm here, master.'
His master seemed to have forgotten him, and his master's face was strange and far away.
A magnificent melancholy may be comforting in music, and it can bring the moonlight down into the woods and upon the waters, but in a working world it is but a frost, congealing life's tissues. Cobourn returned to his fruit-picking and his wheeled chair, to find the three women heads down, Mary at work a little apart from the others. For Mary had heard the other two cackling, and Mary was angry.
'She'd get hold of anything in trousers, she would.'
'And she won't do him no good, poor gentleman.'
Poor gentleman indeed! And how the common maid sprang to conclusions like a rat-trap baited with scandal. Mary was aware of Cobourn's return, but she kept her head and shoulders down, and picked fiercely and with speed, but there was anger in her fingers. She found herself breaking off stalks instead of separating the berries from thin canes of pith. Such picking was no good. It would mean going over the fruit before it went to market. She steadied herself. 'Take it easy. Do your job, you fool. Don't let that damned wench get under your skin.'
Suddenly her head went up. Cobourn was close to her on the other side of the row. He was on his feet, silently picking fruit. She snatched a glance at his face, and something in her flinched. His face was like grey stone, set, sharpened into an inward stare. He was seeing the red fruit, and plucking it mechanically, and with a kind of bitter industry, but it seemed to her that his essential self was elsewhere.
She knew that grey look. It spelled pain, physical pain, and perhaps heart-pain—but what could you do about it? Just nothing, John Cobourn being John Cobourn. He could not tolerate emotional fuss, and he despised self-pity. Mary was dumb, head down, fingers busy. She had a feeling that he was pushing himself against pain, clasping it, defying it, and all because—Oh, damn sex and its illusions!
Had he become aware of her at last?
'Any idea how much we have?'
'I'll see. Pook wanted thirty pounds.'
The white punnets with their rich fruit were laid out on the grass walk, and she went and counted them. They were two-pound punnets. Thirteen. Well, another five minutes' picking into the last baskets would finish the job, and John Cobourn could go in and lie flat.
'Twenty-six, and four nearly full.'
But he went on picking with the assiduity of a self-compelling wilfulness. Mary hesitated. Then, she put a hand over the canes.
'Give me yours. I'll finish.'
He did not so much as look at her.
'No, my job.'
It happened on the Monday. Hazeley rang up Rose Hill to ask if it would be convenient for Mr. John Cobourn to drive over to the grower. Yes, this same day. Sir Thomas Craven's voice said that they could take a luncheon basket with them, and that Cobourn could lunch in the car.
'Yes, I can manage, sir. Very thoughtful of you.'
'I'll send a car for you at eleven. Will that do?'
'Yes, I'll be ready.'
Sanchia came for him. Sandys had found a flat tyre on her father's car, and was changing a wheel, and fitting a fresh inner tube. Cobourn was in the office, dictating some letters to Mary, when he saw Mary's head lift and her eyes go hard.
'Miss Craven, sir.'
Cobourn turned in his chair, and saw Sanchia in the doorway, Sanchia in yellow, with her black hair sleeked about her ears, a strangely solemn creature.
'I've come for you. Sandys has had tyre trouble.'
Mary was frowning and biting the end of her pencil. Tyre trouble might be symbolical, and Mary was hating herself for feeling such a suspicious and spiteful jade. Why let jealousy turn you into a hag? She glanced at John Cobourn's face, and saw it all young and ardent. Oh, hell!
He was on his feet. His hat and sticks lay on the table.
'Would Sir Thomas like to put it off?'
Her dark eyes were douce.
'No. I just came to save time. Sandys will have put things right in half an hour.'
Mary was left staring at the empty and open doorway, for neither of them had remembered to shut the office door. She bit her pencil, for a picture remained with her, one brief glimpse of Sanchia's hand slipping under John Cobourn's arm, and of the way they had looked at each other. Mary got up and shut the door with unnecessary emphasis, and with the horrid consciousness that those two were lovers.
Sanchia did not go with her father and John Cobourn.
Cobourn, comfortably cushioned beside Sir Thomas Craven, saw and felt the great grey Downs with him all that summer day. There was old England, Chaucer country, and a horsed litter might have been carrying some wounded knight to the shrine of St. Thomas at Canterbury. Somehow, he could not say why, Cobourn was feeling sleek and good. He was going into Kent to see apple trees with Sanchia's father, and Sanchia's father was more than at ease with him. They talked, and of country things and the country scene, of England as it had been, was, and might be, and here their view-points differed. Sir Thomas was looking to the past, and not to the future, a future that promised to be sinister and alien. He saw it as a flimsy, artificial, mass-produced mess, like the new urban splurges, a jerry-built culture that any world cataclysm might bring crashing'. Finance, economics, and no food! Sir Thomas saw it as Cobbett would have seen it, and loathed it, and spat scornfully over his horse's head. Cobourn might see it in the same way, but with the eyes of a man who did not live in the past. He believed that all this horror of a factory world might yet be halted, and perhaps turned back. The thing was to strive and do, and preach the sweet sanity of the soil.
Sir Thomas Craven listened to him with benign tolerance. The crested hills of Surrey were behind them, that rich man's county, yet retaining here and there a lovely wildness. Millions had been spent upon Surrey gardens, parks and woodlands, a Surrey that was scenic, and almost foodless. Now, they were passing through starved and shabby grassland, with hardly any cattle to be seen. Sir Thomas, who knew his France and Belgium and his Denmark, could marvel at a country that let its soil go to waste and its agriculture tumble into bankruptcy. One day this England might wake from the industrial dream, to find itself with an empty belly.
'Well, what would you do about it, Cobourn?'
His question was kindly sardonic.
'Try and open people's eyes.'
Open people's eyes! Could one give sight to the blind?
'Not easy, Cobourn. Postulate an earthquake. And it might be too late.'
'It might be. That's the tragedy.'
'A fool's tragedy. As I see it the country sense is dead in England.'
'I hope not, sir. It might be revived. We might yet get back to the older way of living.'
'They call that inertia.'
'There is a good inertia of the soil. When it rests and is fed. Our English soil is shabby and starved. We had the best husbandry in the world, sir.'
'Yes, my dear fellow, and we are killing off the husbandmen. You would like to see the yeoman back.'
'I would. And thousands of small farms and holdings. Not a factory farm.'
'The factory poisons the spirit with the illusion of a material efficiency. The soil and the soil-man have souls. The countryman is a person, with a strong back and pride. The job isn't just finance. I grow fruit because I love it and the good growing of it. The job comes first, profit second.'
'So you allow profit?'
'Of course, sir. The labourer is worthy of his pay. I would like
to see England as Cobbett wished to see it, rich with property,
rich with a peasantry owning its soil.'
It was a happy and a business day in that it showed them rows of young fruit trees, growth, productivity, promise. Cobourn found a kindred spirit to gossip with. They chose their trees. They lunched by the roadside under the shade of an oak, with a bottle of Medoc to warm the stomach. Cobourn had felt no pain. Could that be prophetic?
Sir Thomas was one of those comfortable souls who take a nap after lunch. He asserted that one of the few joys left to the old was bed and the sweet business of falling asleep. Once more you became like a very small child happy in organic simplicities. He did not snooze by the roadside, but he did fall asleep in his corner of the limousine, and Cobourn smiled upon him and thought to see the daughter in the father.
No physical resemblance was very evident, and Cobourn fell into other ways of thinking Heredity might play strange tricks, and the genies work out peculiar patterns, but assuredly the daughter of a Craven should be somewhat Hazeley. For Cobourn was seeing Sanchia as Hazeley, instinct with a ripe young dignity, a creature of temperament and finish, essentially convincing in her loveliness. Surely, there was loveliness within? He suffered himself to dream beside the sleeping sire, while Kent vanished, and the Surrey hills rolled up against the sky.
Sir Thomas woke about twenty miles from home,
'Bless me, I've been asleep! I apologise, Cobourn.'
Cobourn smiled at him.
'Old wine, sir, and—'
'An old fellow.'
'I was not meaning that.'
'Well, a good cup of tea, Cobourn. Tea is a kind of universal. You'll stay to tea?'
'Thank you, sir. I'd love to.'
Sir Thomas left them alone together in that very stately room. He had letters to write, or pretended that he had, for, if his daughter might have been plunder to the Harcourt Baskerville world, she was secure with Cobourn. This very stately room had three tall windows opening upon the terrace, early sash-windows with their small panes. Its walls were Jacobean in pattern, vine leaves, grapes, birds, flowers in red and green, purple and blue. Its floor was old parquet partly covered with Persian rugs. Its furniture had the polish and patina of a hundred years. Two great porcelain jars held rose leaves and lavender, and to Cobourn the colour and perfume of it all were—well—Sanchia Craven. He sat in one of the two modern arm-chairs, she on a tuffet close to him, so close that he could delight in all the lovely texture of her youth.
'Not a bit.'
Her eyes were soft; her black hair had a sheen. She sat with face upturned, dreamy, tender. Then some wayward impulse stirred in her. The room contained one modern mechanism, a cabinet gramophone, for Sir Thomas loved music, and liked to suit it to his mood. Sanchia rose, glided to the cabinet, glanced at the record, and started the disc revolving. Maybe, she had been wise before the event, and that there was subtlety in her choice. A song.
'Why do I love you?
Why do you love me?'
She did not utter a word. There was a polished space between the
rugs, and she danced a few steps there, singing the song in a soft
murmur. Cobourn watched her, and the song sang in his blood.
Suddenly she stood still, gazing full at him with languorous eyes.
She came back to the tuffet. A moment later her hand held one of
his. And the voices sang, and asked for them that exultant and
Mary Marner heard the car just when she was locking up the office, and the machine had not the decorous purr of a limousine. For a moment she hesitated, head down, eyes narrowed. But why funk the issue? She collected her cycle, passed the kitchen window, and dropped the key on Euphrasia's table.
'Good night, Miss.'
'Good night. Tell Mr. Cobourn I've locked up.'
She was turning the corner of the cottage where a blue-berried vine trailed over a rustic arch when she saw the two figures. They were passing away from her towards the garden, nor had she been seen. Cobourn's arm was across Sanchia's shoulders, and her arm about his waist.
Mary's face went white and crumpled. There was a tragic voice in her that did not cry out alone for self. She wheeled her machine out of the white gate and past that fatal car. Dear God, what good could come to him from this bewitchment?
The psychologists tell us that 'I can' is stronger than 'I will' and that emotion, especially so profound emotion, may supply an urge that can transcend the frailties of the flesh. Could love do that which doctors and dope had failed to do, banish pain, give him back resilience and enduring strength, banish a disability that might be less final than he had believed?
That tumultuous message came to him and he fell.
'Oh, John, do let me take you to The Blue Lagoon. I want to sing—I want to dance. It's all so lovely.'
He said, 'I'll come. My show. I haven't worn a black tie for a thousand years. I hope there is no moth in it.' He was speaking from his couch, but sitting up and smiling.
'I'll fetch you. Say to-night?'
'Yes, to-night's the night.'
'You need not dance, darling.'
'I might try. My knees may be a little rusty.'
He hung up the receiver. She had called him darling.
Euphrasia, busy bottling loganberries, heard the parlour bell ring. That was a rare event, but Euphrasia said: 'Drat it', not because she did not like answering bells, but for the simple reason reason that she had arrived at the most ticklish part of the bottling process. It so happened that Mary was in view and Euphrasia hailed her.
'Oh, Miss Mary, the master's rung his bell, and I don't want to leave my syrup. Could you go?'
Mary went, round by the cottage to his window.
'Euphrasia's bottling fruit. She asked me to come.'
He looked at her with eyes that did not seem to see her as a person.
'Never mind. I wanted to tell Euphrasia that I shall be out to-night.'
'I'll tell her.'
'I wondered whether she would look and see if I have a clean dress shirt.'
Mary's lips looked pinched.
'I'll tell her that, too.'
Euphrasia was busy sealing a row of jars.
'Mr. Cobourn will be out to-night.'
Euphrasia glanced at Mary.
'Out? Well, I can get in—'
At this, Euphrasia's concentration seemed to fail her.
'A clean shirt? Well, I suppose so. He won't want it this very minute, will he?'
Euphrasia was frowning and her lower lip was tucked in.
'That'll be Hazeley, I reckon. He's quite thick with the old man—'
She paused, and her silence added—'and with that there sly
young wench,' but Mary had turned away, and was mooching head-down
towards the office.
John Cobourn's bedroom window overlooked the orchards, those rows and rows of green pavilions, the tented field of his enterprise. He saw them in their winter lacework, in blossom time, and in the jewelled season of their fruiting, gold and rose and russet and emerald green, spangled trees or sometimes suggesting a million little lanterns. He was standing at the window now, and smiling, not at his orchards, but at black trousers spread over his hands. No moth had been at them, and that was an omen; life might not be either rust or decay.
How long was it since he had worn these trousers? Umpteen years. Not since—Oh well, why look back when the exultant urge was forward? The importance of being mothless! His love was in a laughing mood, a reckless and happy temper, and he was conscious of a lightness of both body and spirit. She had called him 'darling'; he was going to dance with her, yes, even if it had to be on dope. The touch of her hand and the lustre of those dark eyes would make even pain part of the sweet anguish of loving, an added poignancy, a passionate provocation.
He dressed. He looked at himself in a wardrobe mirror. Was this slim man John Cobourn, tall and taut in these unfamiliar clothes? The jacket was slightly creased, but did that matter? He had found a pair of evening shoes which were not without lustre. His waistcoat bulged a little, and he tightened the buckle. This garment belonged to the days when he had weighed over twelve stone.
He went downstairs, feeling light and gay. Had his body been fooling him all these years? Had the doctors been wrong? Had the illusion of pain and of palsy been no more than illusions, to be put to flight by this most actual and lovely inspiration? He came to the foot of the stairs and was confronted by Euphrasia, a woman who could not help but stare at this figure of a man. What a transformation, and what a comely lad he looked!
'Will you be late, sir?'
'I'll take the key, Euphrasia. Go to bed.'
Her moon face still wondered at him. Was there good or evil in all this?
He turned into the parlour, and stood by the couch table. Had a mysterious voice said, 'Take up your bed and walk'? He filled his cigarette case, picked up a box of matches. And then his eyes fell upon the tube of sedative. Should he take it? No, let the adventure be utter and dopeless.
The Cairn came running into the room, to gaze with wondering eyes at his master. He sniffed at those unfamiliar trousers. Did they smell of moth-ball? Cobourn bent down and laid a hand on the dog's head.
'Yes, new trousers, my lad.'
There was a sharp lifting of the dog's head. The brown body whirled round with sharp barking. The Cairn had heard her car, and rushed out into the hall.
Cobourn picked up a light overcoat and white scarf. He called to Euphrasia.
'Better take the dog in with you.'
Euphrasia gathered up a protesting Rollo. It was his duty to bark, and his right to stand on his own four feet.
'He can't stand interference.'
Euphrasia kissed the dog's head, and watched John Cobourn go out
to meet—his destiny.
The Blue Lagoon was a pleasant place. Whether it had been named after the novel, or come to life as the product of a commercial fancy, it had both colour and a past. The Blue Lagoon had been one of those old country mills whose stones had ground and given full wheatmeal to the world about it, only to be done to death and left derelict by Big Business. An imaginative and enterprising couple had bought the mill, adapted it, added a bathing pool and those contrasts in colour demanded by the new world, but they had had the wisdom to preserve the past. The place lay under the Downs, brown with old tiles and silver grey with oak shingles. The old hoist remained, and the mill-wheel minus its paddles, and a timber bridge straddled the millrace.
You could hear the water rushing past, and providing an under-chant to the music of the small orchestra. You dined and danced in a great chamber of brick and beams and curved black braces where the mill-stones had once made other music. The lights were all electric candle lamps and softly screened and dimmed.
Sanchia turned her car into the little car-park. She sat a moment, gazing. A lad was poised on the high diving-board of the pool, his nakedness catching the evening sunlight. Some of the doors of the blue dressing-cubicles were open, others shut, like notes in a blue symphony. Laughter and splashing came from the pool.
She had driven quietly for her, and she turned douce eyes upon him. She did not ask, 'Do you like it?' or drop any of those slips of slang with which the young of those days debunked sentiment, the disillusioned children of a disillusioned age...
She opened her door.
'Shall we go in?'
He was smiling.
'No, let's sit a moment. It's rather good. These people had some sense.'
For, he was seeing the old mill in a dual part, a symbol of the seasons, seed-sowing and harvest, and still lovely and significant even in fancy dress. Had the Romans been here? Probably. And maybe it had become a manor-mill with all the produce of the open fields gathered to it in great wains. First, the flails thudding on the threshing floors, and then the stones grinding, after the sacks had twirled up on the old hoist. The Surrey of those days had been no mere playground, but a live land garnering the fruits of the earth.
'What do you see, John?'
That was quick of her, and he gave her a quick smile.
'All sorts of things. What used to be and isn't. I happen to be made that way.'
She nodded and touched his knee.
'Why shouldn't you be made that way? We don't all come nit of
the same drawer.'
The Blue Lagoon knew Miss Sanchia Craven, and appraised her new partner with interest and perhaps with some cynical surprise. No gigolo or beefy bounder, this. They had been assigned a corner table by a lattice window, and a very sophisticated waitress came to submit the menu and the wine-list. The orchestra was in a huddle on the dais at the other end of the long room, four sallow young men very much dinner jacketed, and all wearing tortoiseshell spectacles. The violinist was softly plucking strings and leaning over to swap with the pianist. They called themselves 'The Blue Birds', but a more apposite title might have been 'The Owls.'
As yet there were but three other couples in the room, four young things, and a fat man who was fiftyish and had attached to himself a blatant blonde. Gentlemen might prefer blondes, but the fat man became interested in Sanchia, for Sanchia could make most blondes look faded.
Cobourn was scanning the wine-list. Cocktails, yes, gin and Italian and a bottle of Veuve Cliquot-1920. They bent their heads together over the menu, and the sophisticated waitress observed them with a suggestion of callous curiosity. It would appear that Miss Craven had collected a fellow who looked the gentleman, and gentlemen were becoming few and far between.
Cobourn announced their selection, and the waitress scribbled on
a pad. Soup, roast duck and green peas, Pêche-Melba, and a
savoury. Sanchia had extracted a cigarette case from a gold bag.
The thing matched her frock. The waitress noticed that Miss
Craven's fingernails were no longer the colour of blood.
The Blue Lagoon supplied a kind of joyless joy that has become somewhat universal. If you were very young, or in the ferocious forties and bored with it, or sensual and senile, such shows may have their provocation, yet the Mill House did possess a charming décor of its own, and for Cobourn the occasion was exceptional. He was in love, and he was warm with wine, and in his younger days he had confessed with self-teasing candour, that wine had the effect of making him foolishly affectionate. More people arrived, and the orchestra came to life, and ceased from its secret quizzing of the guests. They began with a Fox Trot, the pianist bouncing up and down on his stool, the drummer delivering himself of a perpetual and spectacled grin. Yet, the strange thing was that Cobourn was alive to but one atmosphere, one field of consciousness. He was in love; he was feeling young again, and yet instinct with other frustrations.
Sanchia looked over her wine glass at Cobourn. She was wondering. Yes, just what was she wondering? She had been here with Harcourt Baskerville and Eddie Hiscocks, but then it had been different. Were her feet moving to the music? Yes and no. She met a fat man's appreciative glance as he repassed their table. She glanced at that other face. Yes, this occasion was utterly otherwise.
Cobourn was speaking.
'Don't you want to dance?'
She smoothed her hair.
'No, not much.'
She gave him a loving look, and shook her head.
'No, not to-night. I'm quite happy.'
'You're rather wonderful. Supposing—?'
'I asked you to dance, would you?'
She appeared to consider the challenge.
'I might, but not—'
Cobourn rose from his chair.
Their parts were reversed on this summer night. A new gentleness appeared to have been born in her. She shook her head at him.
'No, sit down, Jack. I'm not going to.'
He sat down again. He was flushed and bright of eye. The occasion challenged him. Not for years had he known the stimulus of wine, and it was added to that more poignant and passionate urge.
'Won't you let me try?'
Again she shook her head. He made to refill her glass and gently she pushed the bottle aside. A sudden wisdom had come to her. This man who had led so ascetic a life was drinking of things that were wildly new to him.
'Tell me all about it, John. You never have.'
'What do you want to know?'
'How it happened to you, poor dear.'
His face seemed to go brittle. Tell her of that on a night such as this! Smashed metal, fire, a helpless body dragged to safety, anguish, months in bed, the slow and bitter struggle to escape from palsy. No. He was not the John Cobourn of those tragic days. He was young; he felt fit to dance. Dear God, he wanted to take up the challenge of the music.
All that followed might have been chronicled by Jean, the sophisticated waitress. She had quick eyes, and she was interested in Miss Sanchia Craven and her unexpected partner. The gentleman was looking flushed; he had drunk more than half the bottle. He was leaning on the table, gazing into Miss Craven's face. Some tender argument was in progress. Jean's impression was that the gentleman had drunk too much; he wanted to dance, and Miss Craven was surprisingly non-consenting.
A waltz, 'I'll see you again'. Cobourn was on his feet, fastening the button of his dinner jacket. Miss Craven hesitated, looked at him with a kind of loving reproachfulness. She rose. They drifted off together and Jean watched them. Yes, the gentleman could dance. There was a tense suavity in his movements, style. His eyes were on Miss Craven's face. It was a look that said, 'You are the most wonderful and exquisite thing in all the world.'
The music stopped. People clapped for an encore. Miss Craven's
partner was clapping. She had turned towards their table, but he
caught her arm. She hesitated, surrendered.
Jean, depositing two Pêche-Melbas on a table, turned and found herself close to Miss Craven and her partner. She saw the gentleman's face, and was startled. It was a different face; it looked pinched; its colour had gone; it had a greyness. The waitress's eyes followed the couple. The gentleman's figure had sagged; he had lost all style: his feet seemed to fumble.
Too much liquor? The Blue Lagoon had to take cognizance of such cases. Prestige—the conventions.
The waltz was over. Miss Craven and her partner went to their table. It appeared to Jean that the gentleman sat down hurriedly as though not sure of his legs. His face looked lined and grey.
Miss Craven was watching him with an anxious frown. The gentleman turned. He had felt in a pocket, and withdrawn an empty and a frustrated hand.
Jean crossed to the table.
'Bring me a brandy.'
'Very good, sir.'
She went, but with an ulterior purpose. The gentleman had drunk too much. He had the face of a man who was going to be sick. Brandy? Not likely. Jean contacted the male proprietor.
'A gentleman has asked for brandy. I think he has had too much already.'
The proprietor looked worried.
'Say we are out of brandy, Jean. I'll slip in and have a look.'
'I think it would be as well, sir.'
Jean returned to find Miss Craven and her partner standing. She was putting on her scarf. The gentleman's figure had a peculiar rigidity, as though he was compelling himself to stand erect. She slipped a hand under his arm.
'Ask Mr. Samson to post me the bill.'
'Very good, Miss.'
They passed slowly across the dance floor, and the waitress noticed that the gentleman's feet slithered flatly over the polished boards. Amused and appraising glances followed them. Someone winked. There were comprehending smiles. If a fellow couldn't carry his liquor—!
She helped him into the car. Perhaps, for the first time in her life, she was feeling hot compassion and self-reproach.
'It is all my fault, John. I'm—so—sorry.'
'No. I'm the fool. I ought to have known.'
He seemed to grind out the words through gritted teeth.
'Haven't you anything on you for the pain?'
'No. I thought I'd get through without it.'
She switched on the lights. She had a feeling that he had wedged himself into his corner and was trying to control himself and keep still. She started the engine, got into gear, and drove carefully out of the car park. The tarred surface of the main road was slightly ridged where the Mill House track joined it, and even this faint jar made his muscles contract.
'I'll get you home quickly, darling.'
He was silent.
Pain, furious, stabbing pain, but there was other pain within him, humiliation, a sense of despair. He had set out upon this love-adventure, and he had crashed. He was no good, useless in loving, useless to any woman, useless to this girl who had lit the flame in him. Futile fool! He must have looked drunk to all those casual strangers. What an exhibition! And he had felt gay, and almost a match for her. Oh, God, this pain! The movement of the car set it throbbing. He stiffened himself in his corner, and pressed his feet against the floor-boards.
She had let the hood down on this summer night, and an implacable and callous moon shone upon them. Moonlight and mystery, the mystery of man's emergence, the mystery of pain. She had known no pain, save the pangs normal to woman, and her new compassion was edged with anger. Why should he have such pain? Why should it come between them? There was revolt in her, bitter protest. But to him she was all gentleness. Never had she driven so carefully.
'Nearly home, darling. Shall I ring up for you?'
His face looked bleached in the moonlight.
He made a twisted movement in his corner.
'No. I'll just lie flat and take something.'
'Have you anybody to help?'
'Oh, I can manage.'
There was silence, and her eyes watched the road. Tree shadows fell across it, and darkened both their faces. Once and once only did she hear him make a sound like a sighing groan. It sent a spasm of pity and anger through her.
So, they came to the white gate of Rose Hill, and she stopped the car and got out to open the gate. She would drive in as near to the cottage as she could, but Cobourn had opened his door. Stiffly and slowly he got his legs out, and stood, one hand resting on the door.
She turned to find him there.
'Oh, John, you shouldn't.'
'I can manage.'
She put an arm about him. One of his hands was fumbling for a key. She felt his body rigid, strung-up for the last effort.
'I'll come in with you.'
'No, you mustn't. I'll manage.'
'Oh, but I want to.'
'Don't, my dear. Don't ever come here again.'
Those words of his shocked her, for there was the anguish of defeat in them.
'Oh, darling, You don't mean—?'
He was groping for the keyhole and suddenly he turned his white face to her.
'May I kiss you, just once?'
They clung together, and their lips met. She felt a kind of shudder go through him. Then, gently but with a kind of finality he put her from him.
'Go now. I may have hurt you enough. It can't be, Sanchia. I'm not worth while.'
'Please go. Let's leave it at this. I can't—'
He was leaning against the door. He had found the lock, and the key slipped into it. The door swung open, and he staggered in.
'But John, darling—'
He closed the door on her and locked it.
Euphrasia was awake, and the dog lay curled up on her bed. He gave three sharp barks and was silent, and his silence seemed to question those slow footsteps on the stairs. Euphrasia listened. Mr. Cobourn was home early. She heard him open his door and close it. He was leaning against it in the darkness.
'Oh, my God, I ought to have died to-night.'
He turned on the light and glanced with a kind of starved look at the table by his bed. Yes, the stuff was there. He opened the tube, shook the whole contents into his palm, stared at it, hesitated. Should he? No, not that sort of cowardice. He sifted the tablets back into the tube, until two were left, re-corked and replaced the tube, and going to the shelf where water-bottle and glass were waiting, he filled it, clapped the tablets into his mouth, and gulped water.
He undressed with a kind of furious haste, flinging those poor carnival clothes from him. In three minutes he was in bed, lying flat, his arms spread like a man who had been racked and was exhausted.
Pain,—but that other pain!
Why had he kissed her?
Sanchia, with head-lights glaring to outface the callous and sardonic moon, drove recklessly to Hazeley. The old Sanchia and the new were in conflict. She had been ravaged, hurt, and such pain was new to her, and six months ago she would have lashed out at life. Oh, damn and blast! But this tumultuous tenderness, this raw compassion lay in her lap like a helpless child. He had kissed her, clasped her, and put her away from him.
'Never come here again.'
What rot! No, the old slapdash lingo was not valid. She had been shocked by that crucified cry, and its bitter implications. She was not for him, nor he for her. He was wedded to futility, a wheeled chair, and their coming together was nothing but a tragic incident.
She rebelled. What, give him up? Poor darling, now that he needed her? Not on your life! She put the car away, locked the heavy doors, and stood looking at the moon. Same old moon, but how different. It seemed to have a white and anguished face. She wandered round the house to the terrace and resting her hands on the stone coping of the balustrade looked at the serene landscape. How still it was, asleep, silent. Was he asleep? Could he sleep? She felt herself flinching with a pain that was both hers and his.
Euphrasia knocked at John Cobourn's door.
'Your early tea, sir.'
A toneless voice answered her, the voice of a man who had been but half roused from a drugged sleep.
'Your tea, sir.'
'Oh, come in.'
Cobourn, in his haste to get into bed, had left the blind and curtains undrawn, and the morning sun shone in upon him. Euphrasia saw a tousled head, heavy eyes, a blanched face. No happy waking, this; with a dual pain to ravage him.
'Thank you, Euphrasia.'
He shut his eyes, and his face shocked her. She slid the tray on to his bedside table.
'Can you manage, sir?'
'Yes. I'm staying in bed for a bit.'
'Very good, sir. I'll bring your breakfast up.'
He opened his drugged eyes to the light.
'You might pull down the blind, Euphrasia.'
'I will, sir.'
She left him, closing the door gently, a hand to her cheek. She was wise as to what had happened. That reckless adventure had been disastrous. Drat that young woman! Should she phone to Dr. Ghent? Yes, later. And on the stairs she met Rollo the Cairn galloping up to greet his master.
'No, my lad, not just now.'
She picked the dog up and carried him down with her.
Cobourn lay flat, eyes closed, with the tea-tray untouched. His mouth felt sour and dry; his head ached; there was a grinding pain in his back.
Why had he kissed her?
He turned sideways, reached for the tray, and with a wobbling hand drew it on to the bed. The movement hurt him. The tube of dope lay there to tempt and tantalise him. Dope? How utter had been his failure! He uncorked the tube, and dropped two tablets on to the tray. Cramped and in pain he filled the cup, drank, washed down the tablets and lay back. Euphrasia's neat slices of bread and butter he left untouched.
Euphrasia was looking and feeling bothered. Should she ring up the doctor without consulting her master? Euphrasia procrastinated. She would wait until Miss Marner came and put the problem to her.
Euphrasia was arraying rashers of bacon in the frying-pan when the telephone rang in Mr. Cobourn's parlour. Drat the thing! Who could be ringing up at eight o'clock in the morning? Euphrasia padded off to answer the telephone.
'Is that Rose Hill?'
Euphrasia pulled a face. That young wench at Hazeley!
'Can I speak to Mr. Cobourn?'
'He's in bed.'
There was a moment's silence. Then the voice said, 'This is Miss Craven speaking. Will you tell Mr. Cobourn I shall be coming to see him later.'
Euphrasia moistened her lips.
'Mr. Cobourn's staying in bed, Miss.'
The voice said, 'Kindly give him my message,' and Hazeley hung up.
Euphrasia returned to her frying-pan. Should she give the master Miss Craven's message? Well, if she did not, the young woman might come bustling in and exhaust him. The message could wait until she carried up Mr. Cobourn's breakfast. Nor was it to be delivered, for Euphrasia found him sleeping heavily. Well, perhaps he was better left sleeping. Euphrasia departed with both trays, and made Mr. Cobourn's breakfast hers. No use wasting good bacon.
She waited for Mary Marner.
Mary had ridden up the long hill from Shallon with a problem and a late breakfast inside her. She had overslept herself after a wakeful night, and had had to hurry the meal. She reached the white gate out of breath and frowning. Yes, she could not stay on here; she would go.
A pedal jarred against the gate-post as she wheeled her machine in, and Mary said damn. Such clumsiness was part of her inward inco-ordination. She was passing the kitchen window when Euphrasia hailed her.
'Oh, Miss Mary.'
Both her voice and her face were sulky. She did not want contact or conversation with anybody.
'Mr. Cobourn's in bed.'
Why shouldn't Mr. Cobourn be in bed after a late night?
'Ought I to send for the doctor?'
Mary had almost passed the window and she swung her machine round.
'Why? Is he—?'
'The old troubles, Miss. He shouldn't have—'
Mary was frowning, and there was significance in that frown. So that was it. Miss Sanchia Craven had put him on the rack, and Mary exulted. But how damned mean of her!
'The old pain, Euphrasia?'
'Yes, Miss. He was asleep when I last went up. Taken those tablets. Maybe it will teach him—'
Mary's eyes were set in a hard stare. She was hating herself for being glad.
'Yes, I'd phone, Euphrasia.'
'Would you do it, Miss?'
'No, you'd better, I think.'
'Miss Craven rang up. Said she was coming.'
Mary's head gave a jerk.
'Better get Dr. Ghent before she comes.'
Stephen Ghent was lighting his post-breakfast cigarette when the message came in. He took it in person, and with some seriousness. Yes, he would be at Rose Hill before ten. Euphrasia was ready for him, a Euphrasia who had poked her head into Cobourn's room and found him heavily asleep.
'What's all this, Euphrasia?'
Ghent threw his gloves into his hat, and rested his arms on the back of a chair.
'The master was out last night, sir.'
'Somewhere with Miss Craven, sir. I think it was that place called The Blue Lagoon. He'd put on his evening clothes.'
Ghent looked grim.
'Is that so. And this morning?'
'The old trouble, sir, I'm afraid. He was asleep the last time I looked in. I think he had taken those tablets.'
'What time did he get home?'
'It must have been about twelve, sir. Miss Craven drove him home.'
Ghent straightened. Had John Cobourn been dancing, and playing 'the moth to the flame'? And that young woman had—
'I'll go up, Euphrasia.'
'Yes, sir. Miss Craven rang up a little while ago. She's coming.'
'Oh, is she! You keep her out of the house, Euphrasia, until I see how things are.'
Ghent climbed the stairs, slowly and with the deliberation of a man deep in thought. Noiselessly he opened Cobourn's door, slipped inside, and looked at the figure in the bed. Then he crossed the room and raised the blind. Cobourn was sleeping with his arms spread, but somehow not with the relaxation and the peace of natural sleep, and Ghent glanced sharply at the table beside the bed. He saw the glass tube and picked it up. Tablets had been taken from it, and the doctor's face seemed to darken.
Ghent laid his fingers gently on Cobourn's wrist, and felt the sleeping man's pulse, and so light was his touch that Cobourn did not wake. Yes, a doped sleep, this, and perhaps a merciful one. Ghent watched Cobourn's breathing, and then stood looking at the sleeping face. There is a subtlety in sleep, and Ghent had learnt to differentiate the natural from the drugged, organic tranquillity from a doped stupor. The drug had damped down Cobourn's pain, but his face looked pinched under his tousled hair.
Ghent moved softly to the door, and then—returning—picked up the glass tube, shook out two tablets on to the table, replaced the cork, and pocketed the tube. He paused in the doorway, to observe the sleeping man, and then closed the door. He was descending the stairs when he heard the distant barking of a dog, and Euphrasia's voice in the hall below.
'Miss Craven, sir. She's just getting out of her car.'
'Right, Euphrasia. Mr. Cobourn is to see no one until I give permission. Lock the door after me.'
'Very good, sir.'
'I'll see Miss Craven.'
The two cars stood cheek by jowl, the professional black and the roistering red, but there was nothing of the roisterer in the red car's mistress. So, Ghent was here before her, and the doctor might prove no friend, but Sanchia went forward to the inevitable clash with a new young dignity.
'Good morning, Dr. Ghent. I'm so glad I've caught you.'
Ghent did not raise his hat. He looked at her curiously as he pulled on his gloves.
'My patient's asleep. No disturbance permitted.'
She did not flash out at him, but spoke with restraint and quiet gentleness.
'My fault, in a way, and yet not quite all mine.'
'Yes, you think me a mere vamp. I'm not. He wanted to dance, poor dear, and I didn't like to flout him.'
'My dear young lady, don't you—'
'Please don't "dear young lady" me. I wanted to help, and I may have been wrong. You see, I care.'
Ghent's blue eyes bulged a little. What transformation was this, and how much sincerity inspired it? Ghent was posed, and she went on speaking.
'No, I won't crash in, if you don't wish it. But I want you to tell me—'
'My patient's in bed and asleep. I did not wake him. I want him to go on sleeping.'
Suddenly she smiled.
'Of course. I understand. But I want to see him presently. He was so unhappy last night—when the pain came on. I have reasons of my own, Dr. Stephen.'
Ghent was accustomed to say that nothing in life should surprise you, especially so where the major appetites were concerned, but Sanchia Craven appeared to be an exception. Youth might be raw and red, but youth was capable of sudden passions, sudden generosities, and after all Sanchia Craven was a darned pretty girl, and Ghent was human.
He had opened the door of his car, but he reclosed it, and turned to her.
'You wanted to ask me something?'
'Yes, I asked you before, but I was suspect. I was rather a young bitch till I came to know him.'
'That's very frank of you.'
'Well, you thought me that. Tell me, can't anything be done? He's like a man in chains. And yet, for some hours last night he had no pain.'
'An abnormal stimulus, perhaps. But when his muscles tired the result was—'
'I know. He could hardly stand, poor darling.'
They looked each other straight in the eyes.
'I think I know what you want to ask me. Perhaps I can grant you the right to ask it. A second opinion.'
She nodded at him.
'Yes. That's sporting of you, Dr. Ghent. Caring gives one a right, doesn't it?'
'And may I see him presently?'
Ghent looked at her steadily.
'If he—asks to see you.'
He saw her lashes flicker. Had she delved deep enough into the self of a man like Cobourn? Maybe she had not.
'Of course he will want to see me.'
Ghent smiled at her.
'Let us leave it at that.'
Cobourn slept till the middle of the morning.
Consciousness came back to him with a sense of flouting languor. He had no pain, no physical pain, but the inward awakening was one of profound and desperate depression. His mouth was sour, and so was life with the sudden sharp anguish of memory, poignancies that had the smart of some exquisite and disastrous dream. Why had he been such a fool? That poor ass—his body—had been ridden beyond its strength.
Turning his head on the pillow he saw that somebody had tidied up those carnival clothes and laid them on a chair. A tinge of bitter humour quivered in him. Moth could do its damnedest in the future, or Furze could make a scarecrow of those black togs, a scarecrow that might be a warning to his master.
Mary was at the kitchen window, a worried Mary. Miss Craven's car had gone, but the work of the day asked questions.
'Is he awake yet?'
Euphrasia did not know. The doctor's orders had been that Mr. Cobourn should sleep it out.
'Fruit's wanted. New people. They are asking us to quote a price.'
Euphrasia hovered. She might go up and see if Mr. Cobourn was awake. And then they heard a car, and looked at each other. Euphrasia pulled a face.
'It's that there young woman.'
Mary, biting a finger, went to the corner of the house, and came back frowning.
Euphrasia looked stubborn.
'Let her ring. The doctor said he wasn't to be disturbed.'
Mary turned to go.
'That won't stop her. You see.'
'But about the fruit, Miss?'
'I'll ring up and tell them Mr. Cobourn's out, and that I'll let them know later.'
The bell rang just as Mary reached the office. She did not hear it, but Euphrasia, hand to cheek, wondered if an unwelcoming silence would be sufficient to rebuff the lady. The dog had rushed out barking into the hall, and was sniffing and scratching at the front door. Tactless of Rollo! Euphrasia shrugged and chose positive action. She went to the door, picked up the dog and carried him swearing and struggling into the kitchen.
'You stay there, my lad. You may have woken your poor master.'
Euphrasia returned to the front door, turned the key, opened the door and stood in obdurate and enigmatic silence.
'Oh, good morning, Miss Chalmers.'
Miss Chalmers indeed! Which was it, saccharine or sugar? Euphrasia remained dumb.
'I saw Dr. Ghent before he left. He said I might see Mr. Cobourn later. Is he awake yet?'
Euphrasia set her chin. A very polite young lady—this, and all of a sudden.
'I don't know, Miss.'
She held the doorway like a stubborn sack on short and uncompromising legs.
'Would you go and see? I'll wait in the sitting-room.'
Euphrasia hesitated. Well, it was Mr. Cobourn's affair. If he was awake he could make his own choice.
'I'll go and see if—'
'Thank you, Miss Chalmers.'
Euphrasia drew back and allowed this new Eve to enter, and Euphrasia could suppose that Eve had played the sweet angel in tempting Adam to his undoing, but even Euphrasia had to admit that the Miss Craven of to-day was not the Miss Craven of yesterday. Could it be that—? Well, why not? If ever there was a gentleman fit to be lord John Cobourn was that gentleman. Euphrasia plodded up the stairs as though sudden new problems had been laid upon her shoulders. Hazeley was in love with Rose Hill! All sorts of things were possible, but Euphrasia did not welcome them. She might be 'Miss Chalmers' to-day, but what would she be to-morrow?
Her fat little fist remained poised six inches from the bedroom door. She hesitated. Would there be a tragic finality in the message she was carrying?
'Well, here goes.'
She knocked. She heard a creaking sound, and then his voice.
'Hallo. Who is it?'
'I've been asleep. What time is it, Euphrasia?'
'About half past eleven, sir. Miss Craven is here, and wanting to see you.'
There was silence, a long and pregnant silence. Then his voice said:
'Please tell her I'm not up to seeing anyone. I'm staying in bed.'
'Very good, sir. Miss Marner wanted to see you about something, people wanting fruit.'
This time the response was immediate.
'Tell Mary I will see her in half an hour. Can you bring me some hot water for shaving, Euphrasia?'
Euphrasia descended the stairs, digesting the implications of this brief conversation. Mr. Cobourn would not see Miss Craven, but he would see Miss Marner. Well, well, well! And what was to be inferred? That he did not want Miss Craven in his bedroom, but that he did not object to Mary? Possibly. Nor did Euphrasia fall for the obvious. Miss Marner was plain brown bread, Miss Craven hot toddy.
Euphrasia toddled into the parlour to find Sanchia sitting on John Cobourn's couch. Her dark eyes were without sparkle.
'I'm sorry, Miss, but Mr. Cobourn isn't feeling up to seeing anybody. He's staying in bed.'
Miss Craven rose slowly to her feet.
'I'm sorry. Perhaps, to-morrow.'
Sanchia walked head in air past the little figure in blue and to
Euphrasia her face was an enigma.
A jug of hot water was placed inside Mr. Cobourn's door, and Euphrasia went across to the office to give Mary Marner his message.
'He'll see you, Miss, in half an hour, about those people.'
Mary, sucking a pencil, wanted to ask a question which could not be asked, but Euphrasia answered it.
'She's gone. He wouldn't see her.'
Mary bit hard on her pencil, and felt an exultant throbbing
Mary Marner had a most strange feeling as she sat with pencil and pad beside John Cobourn's bed, that she was sitting beside the bed of a man who had been long and desperately ill. He had a look of brittle fragility, hair shining like fine wire, face pinched and thin, eyes vaguely afraid. He sat propped up against pillows and a blue cushion from a chair, hands lying prone upon his thighs. Mary had been shocked by the ravaged look of him, and provoked by it, and while she scribbled notes she was asking herself a bitter question. Had one night's pain done this to him, or was it the work of woman? Had there been an emotional crash that had brought him so low in one summer night?
Yet, he gave her directions calmly, and with an air of self-contained austerity. Pain had not clouded his consciousness. On the contrary it might have made of it luminous ice.
'You've got those figures, Mary?'
'Say that the Coxes will be graded. And about the Worcesters and Ellison's Orange. They needed thinning. Will you remind Simon?'
'Yes. And I wish you would have a look at Dynham's Industry. I thought I noticed red margins in the leaves, and a good deal of defoliation.'
'It might mean magnesium starvation.'
There was a pause, and then he said, 'I want to write a letter. You might bring me some paper and an envelope and my fountain pen.'
It fell to Mary Marner to post that letter for him at Shallon's village office, and the letter was addressed to Miss Sanchia Craven. Was Mary tempted to open it? She was, and so fiercely so that she carried it with her into Miss Parker's Elizabethan cottage and up the funny old stairs to her bedroom. Miss Parker had gone whimsy over Ye Olde Tea House, and she herself was the one modern antique in Shallon, but whimsiness did not extend to Mary's bedroom, and she sat down on a brass-knobbed bed, the knobs of which were battered and crooked and seemed to leer at her. The letter lay on the blue bedspread, a little patch of whiteness, and Mary looked at it. What wouldn't she give to know what he had written. It might be easy to open that letter, for the flap of the envelope gaped at one corner. Or she could destroy it. She sat all huddled up, tense and tempted.
Suddenly she was on her feet.
'You filthy slut. Go and post it.'
She slumbered down the stairs in a fury of self-scorn, and out into Miss Parker's little whimsy garden with its box-edging and bird-bath and petunias. A horrid gnome in a red peaked cap squatted on a stone pedestal. He seemed to grin at her. He might have cocked snooks at frail woman.
'Blast you,' said Mary.
She went striding across the village green to the shop which supplied groceries, postage stamps and postal orders. She slipped the letter into the mouth of the red box, and glancing at the enamelled plate, saw that she had caught the last post. She faced about, stuffed her hands into her breeches pockets, put her head back, whistled. The gnome on his pedestal was waiting for her.
'Sacks to you, you grinning old dotard.'
The letter lay on the Hazeley breakfast-table. Sir Thomas had glanced at it and passed to his porridge. He had recognised the handwriting, for it was the same script that had listed his new fruit trees. So they were writing to each other! Sir Thomas Craven's father might have conceived it his duty to ask solemn questions and demand candour, but Sir Thomas back was less stiff and self-assured than that of his predecessor. He could remember being put in the confessional box, and how he had lied to the examiner. Sir Thomas had discretion. On some occasions it was better to leave life alone.
Moreover, if his daughter had to marry she might do worse than marry John Cobourn. He was not likely to run away from her, or indulge in capers of infidelity, and some very positive women rather liked a man who had to be cared for. Would Sanchia ask for children? Sir Thomas rubbed his nose, and apologised to the pruderies for reflecting that John Cobourn might be quite efficient in bed.
Then his daughter glided in, kissed the top of his head, saw the letter and pounced on it. She read it while playing with her porridge. Her father made a pretence of reading the morning paper, but he got the impression that his daughter's face had gone dim and small and thin. Her eyes set themselves in a dark stare. Her silence was stifled emotion.
For Cobourn had written:
'I'm no use. Please don't see me again. It hurts too much, and God forbid that I should hurt you.'
Sanchia did not take her car. She walked in sunlight and in shadow, somehow conscious of the summer day and the green spaces, yet feeling that she had a burning wound within her. Surrender? How was it possible? Those poignant words of his had passed beyond mere passion. She wanted to give as well as to take.
She came to Rose Hill. She passed round the cottage. No one saw her; even the dog was mute. She found the parlour window open and climbed in. She stood a moment, looking at his couch and table, his pipes and books, and tobacco jar. It might have been the room of a man who was dead.
Moving noiselessly she reached the stairs and climbed them. Which was his door? A sudden sound prompted her, a sound like a book falling to the floor. She put a hand to the handle, opened the door, entered, to see him groping for the book that had slipped off the bed.
She closed the door, picked up the book and held it out to him. Her face was glowing, her eyes tender.
He ignored the book. His face looked stark, set to express that which might flare up in him, anger, fear, a tumultuous desire.
'Didn't you get my letter?'
Smiling a strange, inward smile she laid the book on the bedside table.
'My dear, then, why?'
She had gained the cliff edge and knew it, and that she would go over it, and he with her.
'That's why I came. Don't you understand?'
'But, Sanchia, darling—'
'You can't stop me loving you. Nothing can stop it, nothing.'
She seemed to bend like a dark flower over-weighted by summer rain. He looked at her with a kind of blanched fear, a fear that was momentary. His face seemed to grow young, and flushed and reckless. His arms went out and up.
'Oh, my God—I—'
She was down beside him, clinging close, and the scent and the warmth and the strength of her were tempestuous. They lay mouth to mouth, his hands clasping her dark head.
When Sir Thomas Craven heard the news—or that part of the news which could be released to him—he could do no more than say yes to it, and marvel. This radiant child had come back to take him by the arm and lead him to his garden-house.
'John and I are engaged.'
She did not tell him the whole story, or how she had captured and bound her man with physical bonds that to him would possess a moral sanction. Having overthrown in her young passion his integrity she had made it a captive in her cause. As her father had inferred John Cobourn was wholly bedworthy and therefore more interesting and adequate. Sanchia had escaped by the way she had entered, unheard and unseen, while the dog had slept and Euphrasia had been concentrating upon bottling fruit. Sir Thomas did not take snuff, but he stroked his Georgian nose, and realised that a modern father had to make the best of a queer business.
'Have you considered—er—the future, my dear?'
'You mean, darling?'
'A man in the late thirties, somewhat—er—unfit.'
Sanchia sat and sleeked herself in the memories of other fitnesses.
'Oh, yes. I'm going to help him. I don't believe all that old Ghent says.'
'No, not completely. I want him to see a man in town. A nerve specialist. You remember, darling, when you had neuritis?'
Sir Thomas remembered it very well.
'You mean, Sir Hector Hazzard?'
Her father looked at the well-polished toes of his brown shoes. Sir Hector Hazzard? Humph! Sir Thomas had more than a suspicion that nature herself had effected a cure and had passed the credit to that eminent physician. As a neurologist and a psychologist Sir Hector had a considerable reputation, but Sanchia's father had been less impressed than he should have been by Sir Hector's technique and his superfine manners. There had been too much suavity, and too much mumbo jumbo, and had Sir Thomas been completely candid he might have confessed that he had described Sir Hector to himself as a luxury product for the wealthy, and something of a highly qualified humbug.
'I would like to ask Stephen Ghent. He's very sound.'
'I have asked him.'
'Oh, well, it can do no harm, my dear. I shall like to have a talk to John.'
'He wants to talk to you.'
'I expect he does. No time like the present.'
His daughter kissed his high bald forehead.
'You are a pet. I'll drive you over to-morrow. John's rather busy to-day—with fruit.'
Sir Thomas smiled down his nose.
'I suppose he will continue—?'
'Of course. And he's writing a book. I'm going back to help him pick fruit.'
'And write the book?'
'No, but I could help to get it published.'
What an amazing thing was youth! Sanchia picking fruit! Well, falling in love was a sudden and a surprising business, but the problem was how not to fall out of it. Sir Thomas Craven went for a long walk, and meditated upon nature, the psychology of sex, and the hereditary tendencies of the Craven breed. He had confessed in secret for a long time that he wanted to see his daughter married, but the prospect of this surprising alliance posed him. He sat down in the heather on Marplot Hill, and filled a pipe and looked at the landscape. Bell heather in flower, and midnight pines and dim blue distances and a cloudless sky, all very lovely like your first love affair; but love affairs could be like the English weather, excessively dreary, and disappointing. 'Oh, to be in love'—or 'Oh—to be in England.' The poet had been out of England, and Sir Thomas was not in love. God forbid! His first passion had been for a pretty servant girl when up at Cambridge, and had ended abruptly after eager intimacies at night on the grass of Parker's Piece. The wench had been too familiar with the technique, and familiarity can breed contempt.—Sir Thomas lit his pipe. Did his daughter see anything at the moment but a passionately appealing male? Sanchia fruit-farming? Sanchia playing Ceres in November and January, when the winter's nose runs like some rather unclean old man's? Sanchia sitting by a conventional fireside, darning socks or reading a Who Dun It? Sanchia's dancing feet stuck in domestic mud? Ye Gods, the picture was not convincing, save in its more sombre colours! Sanchia belonged to an age of speed, of hitting something, of rushing hither and thither without getting anywhere in particular. She was Mayfair and Monte Carlo, and Spanish Wine and Jazz, a sparking-plug to explode the male. Sir Thomas was no creature of illusions, and yet—
Yes, life was all 'Ifs' and 'Yets', and it was a waste of time and tissue to attempt advising the young. They had to take their headers, and the cuffings of reality. But—Cobourn? Cobourn had a mind, and he was a person. Surely the fellow could not have gone so sex-soft as not to see that the future might not be all raspberry cream and roses?
Yes, he must have a heart to heart talk with Cobourn.
But Sir Thomas did not know that the episode of Parker's Piece
had been replayed with more passion and plenitude in a cottage
Hazeley found Rose Hill picking early apples for market, 'Beauty of Bath', and 'Gladstone'. Sanchia had been warned that the morning was not hers, and her father's first contact was with a plain and abrupt young woman in grey flannel trousers and a green shirt who was loading a bushel basket of fruit on to a two-wheeled barrow.
'Good morning. Is Mr. Cobourn about?'
The young woman was not friendly. She dumped the basket on the barrow, and did not look at Sir Thomas when she spoke to him.
'You'll find him down there.'
Sir Thomas strolled on, and the young woman followed him, but keeping her distance and her sullen aloofness. Paid pickers were at work, and Cobourn was watching them, sitting in his wheeled chair, for one or two of the women were strangers, and Cobourn was stringent in his harvest technique. The English could be such casual people, ready to shake a bough and bring the fruit to earth or tear spur and apple off in one rough grab, and then bruise the fruit by dropping into basket or pail. Half the apples in England arrived in the shops with bruises upon them, and a bruised apple was both a disgrace and not worth storing, for it would not keep. These early dessert apples were testing trees; they were not meant for keeping, but the proper picking of them was educative.
Cobourn's hands were resting on the arms of his chair, and if his eyes were watchful they were without distress. Sir Thomas had a glimpse of him before Cobourn realised his presence, and Cobourn did not look like a man overborne by some emotional problem.
'Well, my lad.'
The fair head turned quickly, but the blue eyes were clear and steady.
He stood up, erect and braced. He could smile, but Sir Thomas somehow got the impression that the younger man was reacting to a potent stimulus.
'Sit down, Cobourn.'
'I'm all right, sir. Perhaps you would like—?'
Sir Thomas Craven nodded and glanced at the pickers.
'I can leave them to it. They are doing the job as it should be done.'
They turned and walked back to the cottage, two men conscious of mutual tension. Each of them was confronting a problem, and the problem had to be shared, but not completely so. There were certain realities that caused Cobourn to feel qualms, realities which could not be divulged to a father. Sir Thomas sat down in an arm-chair, Cobourn on his couch. Both of them filled pipes.
'You will forgive me, my lad, if I am a realist.'
Cobourn's eyes were watching his own fingers.
'Of course, sir. These things just happen, and their happening may be their only justification.'
Sir Thomas struck a match and held it to the pipe bowl.
'I have no ethical objection, John. That may sound priggish. But you have not known my daughter long.'
'True, sir, but long enough—to—'
'Quite. What I want to say is, that I have known her longer than you have.'
There was a sudden severity in the younger man's eyes.
'Perhaps with a difference, sir.'
'That may be. A man can be carried off his feet.'
'Or set on his feet.'
Sir Thomas gave him a sharp but kindly glance. Would Cobourn prove a fanatic in his loving?
'Is that how you feel, John?'
'I do. I have been given something I never thought to have. I have to live to it, rise to it. Maybe I can.'
'I would wish you well in that, John. But—'
'You object to me?'
'No, no. What I feel is that there might be some recklessness.'
'There is, sir. I take the risk, for both of us.'
Sir Thomas removed his pipe and stared at it.
'I see. In spite of—temperament and certain limitations?'
'I may overcome those limitations. I presume you mean—mine, sir.'
Sanchia's father gave him a whimsical and half deprecating smile.
'No, as a matter of fact I didn't. Sanchia is—er—rather young, and impulsive, and—er—'
He found himself fumbling. The younger man seemed so sure of the situation. John Cobourn might have a weak back, but you could not budge him when his mind was made up.
'Fact is, Cobourn, I want you both to be happy.'
'Thank you, sir. Sanchia has given me something I have never had before, a kind of new life-spirit. But there is one thing I will promise you.'
'You may think this an experiment. I accept it as such, and if I go down, Sanchia won't go down with me. I promise you that.'
'You mean, John?'
'I'll set her free. I have no thought of being a mollusc, or of sucking the blood of someone I love.'
So this adventure was to be a crusade in which man mounted the horse of a new endeavour, and with shining face rode out to conquer the cripple in himself. Sir Thomas was moved. The adventure might seem mad, and yet, in spite of the wise men, it could be a challenge to mere negation.
'My dear lad, may it be all that you and I wish it to be. Speaking as man to man, I shall welcome you as a son-in-law.'
'Thank you, sir. You can trust me.'
'I think I can.'
Sanchia was waiting for her father, and Sir Thomas found it easier to talk to his daughter, perhaps because he felt her to be the more reckless and wilful of the pair. Had she faced up to all the possibilities, the stark realities of mating with a man who was, in some ways, not quite a man? What of her potentialities, her temperament, her way of living? And Sir Thomas did emphasise the fact that John Cobourn was an unusual person, and that what might be an incident to mediocre men might be disastrous to a creature who was so fine drawn.
'If you hurt him, my dear, it may hurt, not as it might hurt a coarser fellow.'
Sanchia sat on the white settee with its old gold and green brocade, her eyes looking black and swimming in a strangely serene face. Serene she seemed and still, and this stillness puzzled her father. She had been so much the Restless Nymph that this more placid poise was an enigma. Was she laughing in secret at the patriarch and the pedagogue? Yet, Sir Thomas could sense no laughter behind those dusky eyes. Yes, daughters could be mysterious. And there she sat in silence, with folded hands, and the air of young madonna whom God had touched. Sanchia among the saints! Sir Thomas began to fidget.
'Forgive me, my dear, if—'
'I know what John is.'
'Well, that will—'
'Yes, of course it will. I believe that I can give him something he has not had.'
Sir Thomas nodded. How sure these young things seemed of the situation.
'Don't try and drive him too hard, Sanchia.'
Her smile was sudden and confident.
'Should I? Would I? We know what we are going to try and do together, everything that can be tried.'
'I see,' said her father.
Shallon had its sensation, and the village made much of it and talked it into tatters. Many people who were incapable of ordering their own affairs with neatness and efficiency were very ready to sit in judgement upon the affairs of others. Yet, not all the gossip was unkind, and Miss Parker of Ye Olde Tea-House, became lyrical to Mary Marner.
'So romantic, so—so—'
Romantic? My hat! Mary pushed a table roughly to one side, and all the crockery jiggled.
She wanted to say, 'Don't be such a fool.'
Miss Parker looked pained. What was the matter with Mary?
'I think it's wonderful.'
Mary jerked a plate into place.
'You wait six months and see. I'd like a boiled egg.'
Miss Parker thought she rather looked like one.
'My dear, love is—so—healing.'
Mary was thinking, 'I can't stand this sort of stuff: I'll chuck it. I don't want to see her make a mess of him.'
'Did you say a boiled egg, my dear?'
'I did. Make it two.'
Miss Parker stared at her. Really, Miss Marner was in a most unkempt mood. If her manner continued such—she—Miss Parker—would have to ask her to go elsewhere. Ye Olde Shoppe was so essentially refined.
Stephen Ghent was not pleased, but he was careful to hide all displeasure. Let Cobourn try his luck in Harley Street at the hands of Sir Hector Hazzard. Yet Ghent was not happy about the affair, for, at the back of every doctor's mind may be the doubt whether diagnosis and treatment have been final and adequate. Dr. Ghent's own feeling about it was that John Cobourn was trying to play Icarus, and that he was preparing for a disastrous crash.
Sir Thomas Craven also had his doubts, so much so that he paid a visit to his London club, and from it rang up Sir Hector Hazzard. He managed to make contact with the great man, and Sir Hector was all suavity and discretion when he understood that the fellow at the other end of the phone was a baronet and an old patient. Yes, he could manage to see Sir Thomas Craven at five o'clock, and Sir Thomas took a taxi. He did not want his chauffeur to know that he had visited Harley Street.
Sir Hector was a black and white gentleman, tall, distinguished, with a cream-cheese skin, and very fine hands. His brown eyes had a way of going black if anything peeved him. He had a deliberate and beautifully balanced voice which could express all that a favoured physician might wish to convey, and he cultivated an air of cultured candour, which irreverent and ribald rivals described as Hector's Silk Shirt. He was a good listener, and that was part of his charm, and he listened to Sanchia's father with benign attention, and jotted down some notes in a case-book.
'When may I expect your daughter and her fiancé?'
'Any day. They haven't arranged an appointment?'
'Not yet. May I ask you a rather delicate question?'
'Is Mr. John Cobourn persona grata so far as you are concerned?'
'Absolutely so. Gentleman fruit-farmer, and a fellow who is, in some ways, exceptional. We have the new world with us, Hazzard.'
'Quite so, quite so.'
'I think my daughter is the problem. She is obsessed with the idea that the case is curable.'
'Well, so it may be. How long ago—?'
'A crash in the last war. Fractured spine—or something. Cobourn cannot stand for long without pain.'
Sir Hector twiddled a pen.
'That, too, might be an obsession. The problem of pain is peculiarly interesting. A neurasthenic can create his own pain.'
'I have had the most curious cases that began with some injury which left what one might describe as a psychological scar. Such a trauma can produce an obsession.'
'What you people describe as functional.'
'Exactly. It is quite possible that your daughter may be right. Mr. Cobourn may be suffering from a kind of mental scar which can be skinned over. Some exceptional stimulus, plus the confidence engendered by a hopeful diagnosis, might—er—produce surprising results.'
Sir Thomas stroked his nose.
'I hope it may be so. A most likeable fellow, Cobourn. Not a word about my—er—butting in.'
'You can rely on my discretion.'
Sir Thomas Craven was driven back to his Club, irked by the feeling that though Harley Street might be a veritable temple of discretion, it might take far too suave a view of human disharmonies. Neurasthenic, indeed! Had Sir Hector Hazzard ever experienced the sensation of red hot needles jabbing at your bronchial plexus? In theory, yes, but Sir Thomas's feeling about it was that Sir Hector Hazzard's secret self reposed upon a soft bed of bland cynicism. Just an impression, no doubt, but Sanchia's father had a flair for sizing up human interiors. Sir Hector Hazzard would be the soul of discretion, but as a physician he had left Sir Thomas with the impression that he was all exterior, cold sunlight shining into an empty room.
'Damn it,' thought Sir Thomas. 'I hope that between them they
won't make a worse mess of poor Cobourn. And if they do? Well,
that's on the knees of the gods.'
The Hazeley limousine backed decorously into the grass recess by the white gate, at ten o'clock on a summer morning. It carried cushions, a luncheon basket, light rugs, and a glowing Sanchia. The Cairn was barking on the other side of the fence, and when Sanchia came to the gate he growled. What a welcome, what an omen!
She chided him reproachfully.
'Dear, dear, dear, darling, what a fuss! You ought to be kissing hands.'
But the gruffness continued as he escorted her up the path, to be pounced on by Euphrasia who was in secret sympathy with his surliness. Cobourn came to the door, wearing a light overcoat and a sanguine face. The incident of The Blue Lagoon had not been repeated, and he had begun to question its significance Had it been the result of too much stimulant of the baser sort, even though the juice of the grape had been culled in a vintage year?
'I apologise for the dog.'
'Poor darling, he is so possessive.'
She was in a sanguine, glowing mood, nor was she conscious that the Cairn's vicious virtue might be hers.
Cobourn appeared to contemn too much cushion. Love was singing a song beside him, and holding his hand. 'You are going to be man again. I wish it, I will it. Therefore it shall be.' Man may be a hotch-potch and a patchwork, but when fine emotion glows in him all life seems generous and good. There are those who argue that pain ripens the soul, and others who claim that pain sours it, and as in life's journey the Half-Way House is the safest of human habitations. John Cobourn found the world delectable and sweet, and the illusion of hope was with him.
So, the good Sandys drove at a sedate speed, taking the new
Sir Hector Hazzard's receptionist appeared in the doorway.
John rose, and Sanchia with him, but he gave her an appealing glance. It said, 'I'd better have it out alone.'
Sanchia smiled at him, nodded.
'Good luck, John.'
She sat down to turn the pages of the Bystander, and on one of its social pages discovered Mr. Harcourt Baskerville dining and dancing, and perhaps wenching at a Mayfair Hotel. He was sucking a cigar and smiling, bulbous-eyed, at a brunette. Fat young cad! Sanchia abandoned the magazine and went to stand by the window. The good Sandys was in his seat, reading the Daily Mail. The sun was shining on the upper stories of the houses opposite, but below they were smoky gloom.
Sir Hector and Cobourn were facing each other.
'Now, Mr. Cobourn, please give me a brief and candid history of your case.'
Cobourn smiled at him.
'Just a crash in the war, sir, and a broken back. Low down. They managed to make a job of it, but I'm a partial crock. Can't stand for long without pain.'
'Is it always so?'
'Well, it varies a little. I have good days and bad days.'
Sir Hector's eyes sharpened.
'That is significant. Does weather make any difference?'
'Yes, I think it does. Damp and wind. I'm best in a dry northeaster and a heat wave.'
'That is important. You are quite sure?'
Sir Hector wrote in his case-book.
'Please go behind that screen and undress, Mr. Cobourn.' Cobourn went.
Sir Thomas Craven may have mistrusted Sir Hector's humanism, and misliked his cold suavity, but there was no doubt about Hazzard's acumen, especially so when he was interested. Physicians, like plutocrats, may suffer from boredom, and there were times when Sir Hector Hazzard was bored by the patients who poured in on him, idle people many of them who had overtaxed their tummies. Some were sick because they were bored, and others bored because they were sick, and could not indulge in furious organic egoism like young men in their prime. But this Cobourn fellow was different, an interesting and provocative case that might cause the halo of the healer to shine, and people to talk. 'Everybody had given him up, but Sir Hector Hazzard was not everybody.'
So, John Cobourn lay prone, and felt those cool, suave hands travelling up and down his back.
'That's the place, is it not?'
'Now, move gently. That's right. I suppose you were X-rayed?'
'We will have you X-rayed again. Now, just twist your body gently. Excellent. I take it that when you get pain, it begins at that spot.'
'Down your legs?'
Cobourn was told to lie on his back, and the examination continued on reflexes, etc, tactile sense, muscle-tone. Sir Hector was more and more interested. He listened to heart and lungs.
'I take it that you are quite normal, save for your back?'
'Quite, I think, sir.'
'No headaches, no eye trouble?'
'No. My sight is pretty good.'
'You can dress now. Have you anyone with you?'
'Yes, my fiancée, Miss Craven.'
'If you like—she can come in.'
'Thank you, sir.'
'I suppose you have had no active treatment, Mr. Cobourn, for quite a long time?'
'Nothing, sir, but an occasional dose of dope.'
Sir Hector Hazzard collected porcelain, pictures and first editions, and he had an artist's appreciation of a comely woman. Moreover, he had a most appreciative audience as he sat in his desk chair, very much at his ease, and with lucid deliberation gave John and Sanchia a rendering of the case. He was careful to impress upon them the significance of an X-ray examination, but for the moment he could sum up his immediate impressions. There appeared to be a good deal of thickening about the old injury, a matting of tissues that might be fibrosed. Fibrosis could involve muscles and nerves, and constitute a chronic spot of soreness, and if neglected give rise to acute pain.
He watched their faces, young faces that seemed too warm to his words, for there was hope in them. Cobourn's eyes had a bright eagerness, Sanchia's an almost laughing lustre. Was not the great man going to prove her right? Poor John's case had been neglected.
'Please understand,' said the suave voice, 'that my diagnosis is provisional. If the X-ray bears it out, then—we can go on to treatment. I shall advise massage, a supporting belt, gentle exercises, and injections.'
He put his fingers together and smiled upon them.
'There is a great deal in the will to be well, Mr. Cobourn, and I think I can divine—a certain stimulus.'
Sanchia laughed, and looked at John. A pleasant flash of humour, this!
'I will try and provide it, Sir Hector.'
He looked at her appreciatively.
'I should assure that the stimulus will be quite adequate.'
For John Cobourn it had been a painless day. Was this a happy omen, an opening of a door? As they drove through Hyde Park, with Sandys's broad red neck suggesting a tower of health and of attention to business, she leaned over to him and put an arm about his neck.
'Darling, isn't it wonderful?'
He kissed her, but there was a part of him that doubted. Could it be true? Were they hoping for too much? To fail her now would be too bitter.
'We're not sure yet, Sanchia.'
She swung back into her corner, and holding his head, looked at him with dark and dewy eyes.
'I feel it is going to be good. Ghent was wrong. He is the sort that takes too much for granted.'
'Oh, I feel so sure.'
It had been arranged that Cobourn should go into a London nursing home for a week for X-raying, observation, and tentative treatment. Sir Hector would see to everything. Expensive, yes, but what was money at such a time. As to the farm, Mary and Simon Furze would carry on; Mary was wise as to the routine. So, they came to Rose Hill, where Euphrasia gave them tea in the garden, and the Cairn was persuaded to lie in Sanchia's lap. The world about them had a gracious serenity. The very apples were love-apples, a light in the green foliage.
When Sanchia had left him Cobourn strolled round to the office. He found Mary there, hunched over a table with her hands over her ears in an attitude that suggested frowning concentration. Mary was in the throes of making a decision and of forcing herself and her 'courage into announcing it. She could not stand any more of this romantic business, and of watching a man making a sex-fool of himself.
She had not heard him. She gave a jerk of the head, and her hands fell away from her ears, but she did not look at him. She grabbed a pencil.
'I have to go into a nursing home for a week. I know that you and Simon will carry on. You can do it.'
She played with the pencil. Should she blurt out the confession? 'Sorry, I'm leaving you.' She fumbled, hesitated, funked the issue.
'Thank you, Mary. It's good to have someone reliable behind one.'
When he left her she burst into tears, tears of mixed emotions. Anger, anger against herself was dominant. She struck her mouth with her clenched fist.
'You damned slush-merchant! He only has to whistle and you play the sentimental bitch. Why didn't you tell him?'
She had struck herself so fiercely that her mouth was bleeding. She dabbed at it with a handkerchief. So, he was going into a nursing home. What did that mean? She sat staring at the red mark on her handkerchief. Obviously, he had been persuaded, poor dear idiot, into being vetted by some enterprising gentleman in town. And what would Dr. Ghent say to that?
Did she think or hope that any doctor-man could give that poor back of his youth and strength? She did not believe it, and—shameful truth—she did not hope for it.
Reliable? He had spoken of her as reliable.
Sanchia found her father reading in the garden-house, the light falling upon his high, bald forehead. He looked up at her; he removed his reading glasses, and saw her glowing and triumphant young face.
So, Sir Hector Hazzard had appeared as the magician. Obviously so. Sir Thomas closed his book. It was an instinctive gesture, fragrant of finality like the flowers on his garden-room table.
'Verdict good, my dear?'
She came and sat sideways on the table.
'Very good. I think it's what I thought. John's case has been neglected.'
Sir Thomas raised his eyebrows.
'Better not say that to Ghent.'
'I won't. Ghent has taken too much for granted.'
'And just what is the great man's verdict?'
'Old adhesions, fibrosis, causing the pain. John is going into a nursing-home for X-ray and observation.'
Her father nodded solemnly.
'I hope Sir Hector is right.'
'I feel he is right. He was frightfully thorough and kind.'
'And how is John feeling about it?'
'Oh, wonderful, poor darling.'
John Cobourn was admitted to a nursing home where he occupied a back room on the third floor, and the charge was fifteen guineas a week, with early morning tea calculated as an extra at one and sixpence a time. The room was hideous, the floor covering brown linoleum, the bed a narrow, iron, surgical contraption. There was no running water, no key in the door, and no bolt to it. The atmosphere of the Home was autocratic and austere, like the person and spirit of the proprietress, an ex-hospital matron of Scotch extraction, sandy, spectacled, and somehow suggesting a ginger cat.
John Cobourn was put to bed and kept in bed. From the very first day he felt home-sick, with nothing visible through the blank window but the backs of other houses. He could not see the sky. The diet was dull and indifferently served. To visit a certain place of sanitation Cobourn had to traverse a draughty corridor, and the ordeal—being so possibly public—invited constipation. His nurse was a little Irish girl with Irish eyes who appeared to be the one live and luscious creature in the whole establishment. The Sister in charge was long and bony and colourless, autocratic and abrupt, who waggled her behind when she walked, and wore an incipient moustache.
On the second day Cobourn was taken to an address in Welbeck Street to be X-rayed. Sir Hector Hazzard attended the ceremony. Cobourn, who was more than capable of walking the short distance, was personally conducted under orders by his Irish nurse.
It amused him. He was out in the air with a pretty girl, and Sanchia was driving up to see him every day. She brought him nectarines and peaches, caresses and the glow of adventure.
'What's the idea, Nurse? Are they afraid that I might run away, or sneak into a pub?'
'It's our routine, Mr. Cobourn.'
'Mind you, I'm not quarrelling with it.'
She gave him a coy glance.
'I hope not. It's nice to be out in the air.'
John Cobourn got the impression that both Sir Hector and the
radiologist were pleased with what they observed on the screen and
the photographic plates. Final judgement was reserved until the
pictures were developed and read.
Many cars passed up and down the street, and Cobourn lay and listened for a particular car. He could recognise its voice, for Sanchia had a trick of giving the engine a gust of acceleration before switching off, and three gentle toots on the horn. It said, 'Hooray, darling, I'm here.'
She crashed through the conventions of the establishment, and would not be halted, but raced up the stairs and into John Cobourn's room.
'Darling, any news yet?'
Her embraces were tumultuous. What, no bolt or key on the door? Did it matter?
'I expect to hear to-day.'
'It's going to be good. I feel it in my blood.'
She sat up suddenly and slipped off the narrow bed. Someone had knocked, and such discretion was necessary.
The Irish nurse looked in on them.
'Sir Hector Hazzard is coming up in half a minute.'
'Thank you, Nurse.'
Sanchia sat down demurely in the solitary arm-chair.
'I'm staying, Nurse. Sir Hector can turn me out.'
But the eviction was not necessary. Sir Hector came in like a suave and benign god, and looked at them with paternal approval.
'Well, Cobourn, the verdict is good. The photographs confirm my diagnosis. Much fibrositic thickening, and no spinal trouble, save, of course, the old lesion.'
Cobourn looked flushed. His eyes passed from Sir Hector to Sanchia.
'That means, sir, that I may be capable of leading a normal sort of life?'
'I believe so. Now, we can begin treatment. I am writing to Dr. Ghent.'
Sanchia seemed about to speak, but she refrained.
'I shall want you to come up once a fortnight for injections. Can you manage that?'
Sanchia said, 'Of course he can.'
'I want you to have massage, and to be measured for a surgical belt. Support for the muscles. Meanwhile we want to get those muscles toned up.'
'I see, sir. May I say how grateful—'
'Thanks, my dear fellow. I am more than glad to be able to speak so hopefully.'
Sanchia was on her feet.
'You don't mind, Sir Hector, if—'
'Go ahead,' said he.
She kissed John Cobourn, and turned to the physician, her eyes mischievous.
'I feel like—doing the same to you, Sir Hector.'
Sir Hector laughed.
'I should not object.'
Stephen Ghent read the great man's letter, and looked not a little grim over it. Sir Hector Hazzard wrote with tact and courtesy, and yet his very suavity made Ghent feel like a small boy being patted on the head by a very superior master. Sir Hector gave his considered opinion with admirable clarity, and invited Dr. Ghent's cordial co-operation.
'Judging by the X-ray pictures and my experience of such cases, I believe that much of Mr. Cobourn's pain and disability are due to fibrotic conditions.'
Ghent jabbed at the butter dish with a knife, for he and his wife were at breakfast. Stephen Ghent had a hot temper, and a professional pride that could feel possessive, and Cobourn had been a pet patient for many years. Moreover, he knew that this suave letter did inform him that in the expert's opinion more could be done for John Cobourn that the country doctor had thought possible.
Margaret Ghent, placidly wise, gave her husband a considering look. What was there in that letter that had upset him?
'More coffee, dear?'
Ghent passed his cup. He cultivated a loyal reticence in his practice, but this case was different.
'It's about John. That young wench carried him up to London, and I have been told off.'
'Oh, quite graciously so. Harley Street thinks that I might have done more. Well, I stick to my own opinion.'
His blue eyes were pugnacious.
'I have watched John for years. If they are going to mess him about they may smash him. How on earth he managed to fall for that young vamp—'
Yes, Steevie was very much upset, like a scrum-half who was being baulked of the ball by a supercilious and sneering opponent. To Margaret Ghent he was so much the boy, warm hearted and unsubtle, and loveable. She passed him his cup, and being wise, left him to cool down, which he did.
'Sorry, Madge. Oughtn't to let go like this. Most unprofessional.'
He grinned, and put Sir Hector's letter in his pocket.
'Reaction—part professional conceit—part humanity. I'm fond of old John. He has made such a plucky fight of it. I don't want him messed up.'
'Of course you don't. Some things are so incalculable.'
'I don't mean your diagnosis. A girl and a man when something happens.'
'It doesn't make sense,' said her husband. 'Young Sanchia falling for him and he for her.'
'Sex doesn't make sense, dear.'
'No, damn it. It may make for tragedy.'
Ghent's first visit was to Rose Hill, and he made it smilingly like a man who could take a punch, and at Rose Hill he came upon Mary and Simon Furze loading baskets of apples and punnets of plums on to the light van. They were working in characteristic silence, a silence that had significance, and Mary, hugging a bushel basket, gave Ghent a perfunctory good morning.
'Mr. Cobourn back yet?'
Mary answered him over an enigmatic shoulder.
'Yes, in the cottage.'
Stephen Ghent passed on.
The football field and boxing-gloves had taught Stephen Ghent that if the other fellow had hurt you, the thing was to grin at him and hide the hurt. Cobourn, resting on his couch, saw the familiar figure at his window, and a smiling face, which was good, for John Cobourn was feeling a little guilty.
'Hallo, my lad.'
'Hallo, Stephen. The very man I wanted to see. Come in.'
Ghent entered by the garden window, threw his hat and gloves into a chair, and extracted a cigarette case. It was so essential that the occasion should feel informal. Cobourn was looking on edge, and sensitively strung up.
'I wanted to explain things to you.'
'Is it necessary, old man?'
'Yes, You see—I had to. I mean—'
Ghent sat down on the foot of the couch and smiled at him affectionately.
'Why bother? I understand. You had to have a second chance. Yes, I've heard from Hazzard. I'll help in any way I can.'
Cobourn's face cleared.
'You always were a sportsman, Stephen. I have been feeling rather rotten about this, but Sanchia was so—'
'Quite, my dear chap. It's her urge and her right. I'm ready to co-operate. If I have been wrong—'
'Don't say that. You've been such a good friend. But I have to take this chance.'
'Of course. Hazzard has told me what he wants to do with you. He says that he can delegate part of the job to me. There's quite a good masseur at Mayford, a blind fellow.'
'And I'm to try a belt, a surgical belt.'
'Yes. Hazzard wants to give you the first lot of injections, then I'll carry on.'
Cobourn held out a hand.
'You do me good, Stephen. I never thought this would happen to me.'
Then, like men who had passed some danger-point together, they spoke of other things, impersonal matters, and were at ease. Ghent reeled off his latest funny story, and Cobourn laughed, and found comfort in laughter. He was laughing when Mary came to the window.
'Excuse me, Mr. Cobourn.'
'What is it, Mary?'
'We are loaded up. Do I take cash?'
'No. Needn't bother. Book it.'
Ghent was observing Mary Marner's face. It was not the face of a woman who felt well with herself. Something was sick and angry in Mary Marner.
'Well, I must get along, old man. I'll see the masseur, and tell him what we want. His wife drives him round.'
'Thanks, ever so much, for everything.'
Ghent gave him a boyish grin, and went forth upon the morning's round.
The van had gone, but before the doctor had started his engine another car drove in and blocked the way. Ghent sat staring, like a man envisaging an unpleasant crisis. Hazeley! Well, just as well to get it over. Cobourn had put him in the right and easy mood. He opened the door as Sanchia opened hers. They met and confronted each other between the bonnets of the two cars.
'Are you very fed up with me, Dr. Stephen?'
'I? Not a bit. Do I look it?'
She smiled on him with disarming softness.
'No. Please don't be hard on us. You see, it means so much.'
'Quite. I've just seen John. I'll co-operate in every way I can.'
'Thank you for that. I want to ask you—'
'Sir Hector is so hopeful. I want—everything—for John. Just tell me how you feel about it.'
Ghent's face lost its boyish look.
'That's not easy. I rather thought—Well, never mind, the proof of the pudding will be—'
'It can't hurt him?'
Ghent looked her straight in the face.
'I can't promise that. I hope to God it won't.'
It was said of Frederick Milsom that he had marvellous hands and little else, which was unjust to this casualty of the Great War, for in the darkness of his sightless world the masseur had found silence more soothing than chatter. A thin, dark, gentle creature, he had come to love his work, and to bring to it intuitions and tactile cunning that were exceptional. He had an astounding knack of finding his way about, and it was known that after the first two visits to a strange house he could steer himself through it without guidance. Psychologists deny any sixth sense to the blind, but Milsom's hearing and his sense of orientation were acute. He might touch pieces of furniture on his first visits, and he seemed to memorise them, and to construct some sightless pattern that was beyond Blind Man's Buff.
His wife, a little woman with a primrose face, drove him round in a small two-seater car. She had a particularly happy face, perhaps because she possessed as much of the man she loved as it was possible for a woman to claim. They were inseparable, and in a sense her eyes were his. If he could smell the mayflower in bloom she could see it with him and for him.
Stephen Ghent had given the masseur a description of John Cobourn's case. Harley Street had diagnosed fibrosis, old adhesions, and loss of muscle tone, and massage was to be part of the treatment.
'Go easy, Fred, and see what your hands feel. No need to prompt you though.'
Frederick Milsom got the impression that Ghent was a doubting Thomas
So these two casualties of the Great War met, the blind man and man whose back had been broken, and were drawn to each other. John, lying prone, felt those gentle hands exploring his spine and was soothed by them. Strange how a particular human touch could instill confidence. And Milsom did not chatter.
'Any tenderness, sir?'
'Just one place.'
'Yes, you've got it.'
Milsom could claim considerable experience in the handling of post-war lesions and disabilities. He had been told what his hands should find in different cases, and his blindness had sharpened his tactile memory. He had learnt to recognise certain features and to differentiate them, and perhaps with more precision than a medical man. He was hands, hands that were concerned, like a musician's, with the notes of the human body, and especially so in the matter of discords.
'Has that always been the place, sir?'
'Yes. When I get pain it radiates from there.'
Milsom was silent, but his fingers continued to be gently discerning.
'Tell me if I hurt you.'
'I will. Go ahead.'
'You may get a reaction after the first treatment.'
Sanchia was in and out as though Rose Hill was becoming hers, or as Euphrasia put—'Like one of them dragon-flies shooting about all over the place.' Euphrasia was not welcoming the prospect of being presented with a mistress, but she was consoled by a solid cynicism. Miss Craven would not finish the course; this sentimental show was the obsession of the moment; she would be over the hedge like a wild filly. Euphrasia tried to talk the situation over with Mary Marner, but Mary had a shut-up face these days, and an attention to business that was fiercely morose.
Sanchia would dash in with, 'Any pain, darling? No. How splendid!'
Assuredly, reality was proving Sanchia right. She drove with him up to London where Sir Hector expressed himself pleased with Cobourn's case, and plugged a sterilised needle into his arm.
'You should get a reaction, Cobourn, or a series of reactions. Don't worry. That will be normal.'
Sir Thomas, observing the case with compassionate discretion, wondered whether his daughter had discovered a super-doll's house and a docile doll. There might be danger in her passionate playfulness. Children tired of toys.
Sanchia picked fruit with them, but her activities had to be watched, and Mary was given one opportunity of correcting Miss Craven. Worcester Pearmain's were still on the market, but any apple that was highly coloured was pickable so far as Sanchia was concerned. Mr. Milsom was with John, a John whose face was pinched with pain. He had shrugged over it.
'Just what Sir Hector had expected. It's supposed to be all to the good.'
Sanchia had dashed out into the orchard. Apples needed. Well, that would be easy. Baskets were lying about, and she appropriated one, and was seen by Mary beginning ravages upon a drift of Bismarcks. Mary went across.
'Sorry, Miss Craven, not those.'
'Oh, what's wrong?'
'Those are Bismarcks, not Worcesters.'
'Does it matter?'
'Well, rather so. Try one.'
Sanchia set her teeth into a red apple, and spat. She looked just like a voracious child.
'Quite so,' and Mary was as acid as the apple. 'Late variety, keepers.'
'They look ripe.'
'Yes,' said Mary, 'just like some flappers. You know the sort.'
The girls exchanged sudden sharp glances. Tart person, this Miss Marner. She might become superfluous.
'Are you an authority on flappers—as well as apples?'
Mary's retort was instant. 'I may know when they are a bit crude.'
Sanchia still had the bitten apple in her hand. She tossed it to Mary, who did not attempt to catch it.
'Passed to you, Miss Marner.'
Mary turned away, and Bismarck was left lying.
Simon Furze had been watching and listening, and Simon grinned. Two Eves and an apple, and the Serpent to be postulated. If Miss Marner thought that men were blind fools—! But Miss Marner knew her job, and appeared to have had the best of the argument. Yet Hazeley might play hell with other things than apples.
Mary returned to the Worcesters, Sanchia to the cottage. She passed the window and saw that the masseur was still there. She passed on, but she heard ominously significant words.
'I think I will leave off, sir. Too much tenderness.'
Sanchia paused to listen.
'Yes, it's damned sore this morning. Sir Hector Hazzard said it might be.'
A minute or two later she was with him, sitting on his couch while he lay flat and rested. He was looking pinched about the nose and mouth, and his eyes betrayed emotional distress.
'Yes, a bit.'
'But that's what Sir Hector expected. It means that they are on the right track.'
He made himself smile at her, and tried not to fidget.
'Take some dope. I'll get you some water.'
'No, not dope.'
'Why not? It's only temporary.'
'No, rather cowardly.'
She did not understand that one of his secret dreads was that he might become a slave to a drug. She had suffered so little pain, and to her the taking of a sedative was a rare event and utterly without importance, but Cobourn had forged for himself a suit of armour, and it might be as brittle as glass. Even her tenderness was impetuous and vibrant, while Cobourn's battle had been a defensive fight. Reinforcements should be kept in reserve.
'Does it upset you, darling?'
'Not good for tummy and morale. I keep it for really bad times, and then it is a blessing.'
'You are so good about it. But, darling, all that is going to be finished with. I feel so sure.'
He smiled at her, and tried to keep still. Would she have been
so sanguine had she suffered from a knot of pain in her back?
Frederick Milsom was sitting in his car, and his blind face looked troubled. His wife had started the engine, and had switched it off again when he had said, 'Wait a moment. I'm bothered about this case.' Sanchia's red car was parked beside them, and without provocation to a woman who had that which many women failed to enjoy.
'I'd like to see Ghent.'
'Shall I drive there?'
'We might find him in And I could wait.'
Stephen Ghent was out, and Mrs. Milsom parked her car outside the red brick Georgian house with its fanlight and great white door, for Ghent was expected home in half an hour. Margaret Ghent, back from the morning's shopping, saw the Milsom car and recognised it. Would they not come and wait, and perhaps sit in the garden? Milsom had a peculiar feeling for gardens, turf under your feet; and invisible flowers somehow present in your consciousness. He was given a chair under the shade of a Camperdown Elm, while the two women went wandering, for they were happy with each other and enjoyed the same simple philosophy.
Ghent, back from a round, saw from his consulting-room window Milsom under the green umbrage of the elm's umbrella, and was moved to inward interrogation. What was the trouble? What could be the trouble? Cobourn? Possibly.
He went out and Milsom heard his footfalls on the grass, and turned his face towards the doctor.
'Hallo, Fred. Something bothering you?'
'Yes. I wanted to see you, sir, about the case.'
'Well, go ahead.'
Ghent squatted on the grass like a boy, and pulled out a cigarette case.
'No, thanks, sir. I thought it best to stop treatment this morning.'
'Too much reaction?'
'Not only that. I'm not happy about the condition. I know you will—'
'That's all right, Fred. Not feeling pompous and professional. What is more, I'm not too happy either. What do your hands say?'
Milsom's blind face caught the light that filtered through the foliage, and it was both dark and light.
'I have had a number of these spinal cases, and Mr. Cobourn's is rather an exception. I can't say that I feel much in the way of thickening. The vertebra; are in position, but, of course, rigid where the fracture occurred. I have a feeling that what Sir Hector Hazzard took to be fibrosis is muscle tension. There seems to be some wasting of the lumbar muscles.'
He paused, his face turned towards Ghent with an air of gentle diffidence.
'I seem to be talking a lot.'
'No, go on, Fred. I'm interested.'
'My feeling about the case is that it is due to pressure. Directly Mr. Cobourn's muscles tire, he sags and there is pressure on the spinal nerves. The tender spot is always there.'
Ghent nodded. 'That has always been my reading of the case.'
'Just so, Fred. We may be wasting our time, and poor Cobourn's hopes. But he wanted his chance. Are you wise as to the provocation?'
'Exactly. The adventure of being a new man. The business has bothered me.'
Milsom was silent for some seconds, and his sensitive hands were restless.
'I'm not keen on telling him. It's my business, and yet it isn't. Perhaps it would be kinder to let him realise the truth himself. That is, if we are right.'
This particular word dominated Cobourn's consciousness. It was not political, although he was a reactionary in his feeling for Mother Earth. He believed in dung and not in chemicals. Hermes and humour! A vast stack of farmyard manure decorated a near-by corner, and it was being added to and the fresh dung, piled to mellow, scented the air. The breeze of the moment carried the odour to the cottage. To Cobourn it had always been a wholesome and prophetic smell, but now it did not associate itself with Sanchia.
And pain. It was ascribed to reaction. Sir Hector Hazzard appeared to be pleased with it; he had found the offending spot. These flares were to be expected on certain days with varying rhythm, and they might persist for fifteen days after each dig with a needle. Sir Hector was displaying a disinclination to delegate the vaccine treatment to Dr. Stephen Ghent. G.P.'s were stolid fellows, without proper subtlety or experience in the delicate technique of the more advanced methods. They did not know how to vary the dose, or adapt it to the patient's responses.
So, every fortnight Sanchia drove John to Harley Street, and Sir Hector, with bland finality, administered the injection, and spoke soothingly and reassuringly. Cobourn might have to be worse before he was better. The massage was proving a little painful, was it? No matter. They were attacking the lesion, and some soreness was inevitable while the fibrositic grit was being dispersed.
The red car glided to the white gate after one of these visits to town, and a gentle south-west breeze blew the reek of sour dung into Sanchia's nostrils.
'Darling, what a noisome smell! What is it?'
'Fresh manure, I'm afraid. I have to buy it in bulk.'
He felt both surprised and apologetic. Was it possible for anyone who lived in the country not to know and appreciate that productive and satisfying smell?
'Why do you keep it so near?'
Yes, that might have to be altered.
'Well, it's convenient for carting and spreading. I'll find another place.'
Tea was ready for them in the garden, but Sanchia suggested a transference to the parlour. That very fresh manure appeared to contain some exceedingly rampant ingredients.
'Sorry, darling,' said he. 'Let's shut the windows.'
He was tired and in pain, and suddenly alive to the significance of this smell and its impact upon a hyper-sensitive young woman. Was her nausea significant? Was his madness persuading him to try and mate with a girl who, in her lovely sophistications, was so flowery and urban? And yet flowers did not object to a dressing of organic humus.
He said, 'I'll try and have it moved. The new stuff seems more aggressive than usual. The smell goes off, you know.'
'Does it?' said she with an air of absent vagueness.
They had tea, and Sanchia smoked a cigarette with her tea, and kept savouring the perfume of tobacco. Cobourn lit a pipe, and remembered that Sir Hector had forbidden too much nicotine. Yet, a pipe was consoling.
Sanchia had a restless air. She got up and turned on the gramophone, and puckishly it produced dance music. She spread her hands and moved to the lilt of it. She had not danced for weeks.
And suddenly Cobourn felt a poignant distress, like a spasm of prophetic pain.
Ye Gods, how could he live to the tempo of this vibrant, vivid girl?
It was one of those superb September days when a mellow month confesses to the year's vagaries and lays a golden and reassuring hand upon the earth's forehead. Moreover, Cobourn had had two days without pain, in spite of gentle massage and manipulation, and this serene September gave him a tentative vision of what might be. Hitherto Sanchia had driven him with delicacy, but after a mile or two her rhythm changed. She began to speed, take corners recklessly, accelerate fiercely past other cars. Cobourn, glancing at her perfect profile, found there a tight-lipped, dark-eyed concentration.
Restlessness? The sudden impression came to him with disturbing implications. Was it a mood of the day or the moment or a reaction? Fatal word! He had come to mistrust it.
At a blind bend a cyclist wobbled over towards the crown of the road. She swerved, cut past, and cursed him.
'Do you want to be killed, you damned fool?'
Cobourn winced. She might have been some harsh young stranger, impatient with the arrogance of youth, lovely to look at, but sour and saucy within.
She spoke. 'Some of these idiots deserve to be smashed up.'
He was silent, and suddenly unhappy.
Harley Street ran like a dark canal after the sunlit hills of Surrey. It was packed with cars, and Sanchia, having dropped Cobourn at the doctor's, drove off tight-lipped to park elsewhere. She had said, 'I've a spot of shopping to do. Pick you up later, darling', and almost the 'darling had suggested an after-thought. The lure of Bond Street was upon her. She found a place for her red car in Berkeley Square.
Cobourn sat in the solemn waiting-room, but he eschewed the magazines and papers. He was conscious of a sense of insincerity, of emotional unrest, vague forebodings. It might be a disastrous business, this love adventure. Were the chains to be with him still, and was Sanchia resenting them?
The white-smocked receptionist came for him, and emotionally she appeared as colourless as her exterior, a perfunctory person, like a vague voice at the end of a telephone. Depression and doubt went with Cobourn into the great man's room. Hector looked at him, hard-eyed. Sir Hector had been ruffled by some professional impertinence.
'Well, Mr. Cobourn, how are we?'
Cobourn hesitated. There was a limpness about him, and Sir Hector was in a mood to resent limpness in a patient.
'Not for two or three days, sir.'
Why this tenseness, this flatness of voice?
'Good. I think, Mr. Cobourn, some candour is indicated.'
Cobourn stared like a sensitive boy who had not expected a scolding.
'Candour, sir? Well, of course—'
'The mental attitude is of supreme importance. I have been wondering, Mr. Cobourn, whether you are sufficiently cooperative.
'You mean, sir?'
'The will to be well. Don't think me unsympathetic, but my feeling is that you are undertoned, and not making the effort that is necessary. A little neurasthenic.'
Cobourn managed to smile.
'You mean that I am coddling myself?'
'I would not put it quite so crudely. A proper mental attitude is what I suggest. The urge to take a few risks, activities.'
The thin smile had left Cobourn's eyes and lips.
'I think I understand, sir. I ought to try myself out.'
'Try—not tire. A dose of cheerful self-suggestion. You see, you have made rather a habit of taking things lying down.'
'No, no, but a little too much carefulness.'
'I will think it over, sir.'
He spent half an hour sitting by the waiting-room window, feeling that he had been diagnosed as a weakling, and resenting it. Sanchia was late in returning; she had become involved with frocks. And while he waited for her and wandered and felt sore over the situation, the man in him discovered an angry restlessness. Was Sir Hector right? Had his disability become an obsession? Was it up to him to smash that obsession, or attempt to do it? If he failed to make the effort might he not lose Sanchia?
He saw the red car slide into view, and she had to pull across to the offside to park outside Sir Hector Hazzard's. There was just enough space for her to do it, and she accomplished it with perfect precision and without fluster. Cobourn walked out of the doctor's waiting-room with the quick challenge of her competent youth provoking him.
She had the near door open, and one graceful leg thrust out. Her face had regained its deceptive softness.
'Hallo, sorry to be late.'
Cobourn's eyes were the eyes of a lover.
'It is lovely to wait for some people. A new hat, I gather.'
Her eyes became laughing eyes.
'Yes. Got intrigued. Like it?'
She drew her leg in and closed the door, and he walked round to the far door. She opened it for him.
'What news, darling?'
He slipped into the seat beside her, and closed the door.
'Hazzard wants me to—let go. He thinks I'm fit for it. I am.'
'Oh, darling, how splendid!'
She kissed him.
Mary Marner waited, sitting on her office chair, her elbows on the table, her tocs tucked round the legs of the chair. Her solid chin was cupped in her hands, and her twisted, stark pose was part of the mental and emotional conflict she had endured. But she was through with it, oh yes, she was through with it. These jealous flares were too degrading. She would tell him she was leaving at the end of a month.
Mary heard their voices as they came round the cottage, and her muscles became yet more taut and rigid. Her teeth caught her lower lip.
'Not the old mill-house,' said he.
'No, darling. I know another one, The Great Adventure.'
'It sounds splendiferous. Just where?'
'The other side of Melford. Old country house. Shall I reserve?'
'No, my privilege. I suppose they are on the telephone?'
'To-morrow it shall be, darling.'
Mary waited, fiercely rigid. She heard the car leave, and then the sound of his footsteps. He came into the office looking flushed and gay, hands in pockets, head up.
'Well, Mary, anything wanted?'
She dropped her arms from the table.
'Yes, Mr. Cobourn, I want to speak to you about something.'
'I am leaving you in a month's time.'
The gaiety went out of him. He gave a startled stare and sat down opposite her.
'I'm sorry, Mary. Anything wrong?'
'Oh, no. I want a change. I'll stay till most of the apples are in.'
'You will be a loss to us. I'm sorry I did not realise that—'
She gave a flick of the head.
'Oh, women are like that, you know. I have an old friend in London who wants me to join her. Secretarial Agency.'
He was looking bothered, and it hurt her.
'Yes. You have worked pretty hard here, Mary. I suppose—six months' holiday wouldn't—?'
'No, I'm afraid not. I think it is much better when one gets restless—'
'Yes, I understand. You have been rather tied down here. I ought to have—'
She squared her shoulders.
'No, no fault of yours. Sometimes one can't help being ripe for a change.'
'Quite so. I shall miss you.'
'Oh, you will easily get someone else.'
He rose slowly, with a sudden suggestion of tiredness. He had lost all his gaiety.
'Perhaps, but no one so reliable as you have been. Well, I wish you luck, Mary.'
She watched him go out, head down, shoulders slack, and her face
went crumpled. Reliable! Always that prosaic word! Oh, damn, why
had she hurt him? She started up, shook her halo of hair, sat down
again. It was no use. Much better for her to go, and escape feeling
bitter and degraded.
Cobourn lay on his couch, with the dog on his knees. Mary's decision had shocked him. He had delegated so much to her, relied upon her with such confidence. And just why? Oh, well, he could suppose that women were temperamental, and sometimes in a fever for new experiences, and Mary was young. But it was going to be damned difficult to replace her.
The Cairn wagged a tail and looked at him with loving eyes. Did not the master know that other people?* In the matter of Mary Marner John Cobourn was less wise than his dog.
[* ebook editor's note: This sentence reads as it appears in the paper book.]
But he had to telephone to The Great Adventure. How challenging was that title! A telephone directory lay on his table. He gathered it and looked up The Great Adventure. He sat up, and unhitched the receiver, and called the exchange. He was put through to the house of destiny.
A high-pitched and supercilious voice answered him 'Who was it speaking? Mr. John—What? Coldbun?—Oh—Cobourn. Yes, a table for two to-morrow evening? Yes, we think we can manage that. A good table? All our tables are good.'
Cobourn hung up. The voice of The Great Adventure had been thin, metallic and unfriendly. Why did so many of the English imply that by accepting your custom they were conferring a favour? The dreadful complacency of a suburban, semi-snob world! His thoughts reverted to Mary. Maybe he would find himself employing a conceited young wench with a throaty voice and pale china-blue eyes who would patronise him, a young woman who would utter some such cushy remark as: 'Don't be so crude.'
And he had been spending a lot of money, more than he could afford. Well, if strength came to him, it would be worth it, but Mary's defection had deflated him.
A car pulled in and stopped by the white gate, and Stephen Ghent passed round the cottage to the office to look in on Mary. She had her head down, and was writing a letter to her friend of the Secretarial Agency, a self-scolding, unhappy letter. Could Rachel arrange for her to join her both in the Agency and in digs near her in Canonbury Square?
'Hallo, Mary. John in?'
She raised defiant eyes to him for an instant.
'Yes, in the cottage.'
Stephen Ghent left her to her letter, for her eyes had betrayed her, Mary had been crying, and a woman in a self-angry mood was best left alone.
The doctor found Cobourn lying on the couch, with his hands under his head. The dog jumped down with laughing eyes, and put his paws against Ghent's legs. A physician and a friend were needed here, for the master was unhappy.
'Well, old man, how's life?'
Cobourn's eyes lacked lustre. He looked a tired man.
'I have been given a scolding.'
Ghent patted the dog and sat down.
'A scolding? And why?'
'Hazzard thinks I'm a bit neurasthenic, not co-operating.'
'Oh, does he! And what's the prescription?'
'More guts. I'm to try myself out.'
Ghent bent down and caressed the Cairn.
'"No time to reason why. Only to do or die." That's how the old tag went, in the rough. I'm not much of a poet.'
Cobourn gave him a brittle smile.
'That's rather the idea. I have had a bit of a shock, Stephen.'
'Mary is leaving me. If you know of a sound young woman.'
Ghent kept his head down, and scuffled the dog's hair.
'I had no idea that she was tired of the job. I suppose women get like that.'
Ye Gods, how innocent a man could be! Ghent had diagnosed Mary Marner's devotion long ago and Sanchia Craven had turned it to bitter aloes.
'Yes, women get restless, John.'
'Mary was so—reliable. Somehow I looked on her as a fixture.'
Ghent wanted to say 'Oh, my dear man, never take a woman for granted. She may throw a fit just when you don't expect it. And reliable? A girl might regard that as an insult.'
But he refrained. Cobourn's tired mood had infected him. He had a feeling that John Cobourn must be left to break himself or make himself, and a crash seemed the more likely of the two.
Cobourn saw a harvest moon staring at him over the black shoulder of a wooded hill. Euphrasia, taking the dog out for his nightly business, watched both dog and moon, and saw on the implacable cold face of the satellite an ominous smirk. She spoke curtly to the dog who was in an errant mood.
'You come in, young man. Yes, your master's gone out in a white waistcoat. He'd be better in bed,' and Euphrasia sniffed, and added, 'And all by his poor self.'
Mary Marner, standing at a garden gate, looked at the luminary, and felt a pale pang stab through her. If she had been in that other girl's place, with a lovers' moon flooding life with a still, white splendour? Yes, if? But all such dreams were sentimental fudge, both ridiculous and bitter.
Simon Furze, stalking round-shouldered out of the King's Head, and full of beer and politics, glared at the luminary. For the moment Simon was feeling that way about things. He had had the worst of an argument, and Rose Hill had gone soggy.
Cobourn looked at the moon and at the face of the girl beside him. His fingers, feeling in a pocket, touched a glass tube. Strange association of ideas. The moon might be dope, like a great white capsule floating in the sky, advertising the modern obsession. He withdrew the hand from his pocket with a sudden flinching gesture. Would an anodyne be necessary on a night such as this?
The Great Adventure was not The Blue Lagoon, but a large white Victorian mansion set up on a hill, and somehow suggesting an austere spinster who had been provoked by economic pressure towards promiscuity. It glared at the moon, and the moon glared back at it, and sneered, 'Think yourself Venus! You've got no hips.' Ugly iron gates stood open, and a circuitous and jejune avenue climbed between chestnut trees to the solemn house. It looked neither great nor gay. There were other cars parked in the broad, gravel space, and Sanchia backed hers into a vacant place.
'Feeling good, darling?'
'Very,' said he, trying to feel as gay as he wished to be.
They climbed seven steps under a portentous portico into a lounge that was full of glare and chatter and cocktail glasses. Faces that were too animated appraised them. A figure rose and twiddled a hand.
It was Mr. Eddie Hiscocks.
Miss Craven was not pleased. She gave the young man a casual flick of the head and passed him by without introducing him to Cobourn. Mr. Hiscocks giggled, 'Her, her, her,' and returned to his party, quite unrebuffed. Being stupid English he was saved from many shames and disasters by his crassness.
'Who's who?' asked a flabby young man in spectacles.
'Sanchy Craven, old Craven's girl.'
'A bit horty-torty.'
Mr. Hiscocks giggled.
Miss Craven had found a table comfortably distant from the Hiscocks crowd.
'One of the world's worst nit-wits. Like to get rid of your things, John? I'll order. What's yours?'
'Oh, just a Martini.'
Cobourn left her, not much pleased with the Adventure's atmosphere. He handed in his coat and scarf to a pert young woman with a snaky head of hair. A waiter came to Sanchia's table. She ordered a Martini and a White Lady.
Mr. Hiscocks, piqued by his party's innuendos, came across to Sanchia's table.
'Say, may I have a dance later?'
She looked past him with serene aloofness.
'Go away, you idiot.'
Mr. Hiscocks giggled.
'You are peevish to-night.'
When they entered the dining-room with its central dance-floor, an Italian head-waiter conducted them to the worst table in the room. It was close to the serving-door, remote and obscure, and barricaded off from the dance-floor by a row of other tables. Sanchia looked at the table; she looked at the head-waiter; she looked at John, and Cobourn reacted.
'I rang up and reserved a table.'
'What name, sir?'
The head-waiter consulted a list.
'I haven't got your name down, sir.'
Cobourn began to redden.
'Let me look. What's this?'
'Coldburn, sir. If—'
'Yes, I expect that is it. The lady had trouble in getting the name.'
'Well, this is your table, sir.'
Sanchia's eyes were beginning to glitter. She intervened.
'You are new here, I think.'
'I want the manager.'
The head-waiter hovered, but she cut him short.
'I shall be much obliged if you will fetch Mr. Mumby. Tell him Miss Craven of Hazeley Manor is here.'
She had her way. A fat and cheerful little man appeared. He was suave, obliging, apologetic.
'Oh, Miss Craven, of course, a misunderstanding. Will you and the gentleman accept a table by the dance-floor?'
The table was accepted.
Musical Comedy, and not very pleasant at that! Other people had listened to the argument, and though the new couple had sailed to success, Cobourn was feeling hot about the ears, for he had a temper. It was Sanchia who had fought the trivial battle and won it. He drew his chair back, and stood while the Queen seated herself. A lean and mordant young man at the next table was looking amused, and Cobourn caught that ironic smirk. His blue eyes outstared the other fellow's.
He beckoned to the Italian.
'The wine list.'
Curtness produced courtesy. The man brought the wine list, and before scanning it Cobourn asked a question.
'Why do you people always try to palm off the worst table on patrons?'
The answer came pertly, 'Somebody must use it, sir.'
'I think you mean nobodies, or does it mean the production of a tip?'
This time the man was mute, and Sanchia gave Cobourn a vivid smile.
'A bottle of Heidseck 21.'
'Very good, sir.'
'And send our waiter.'
'He is coming, sir.'
'Damned dago,' said Sanchia when the Italian had left them. It was not a propitious beginning, and Cobourn was remembering that night at The Blue Lagoon. The dance orchestra took their places, and so did Mr. Hiscocks' party, a very noisy party, and they were at the next table. Musical Comedy, and not too happily so! Cobourn, feeling sensitive and hostile to the place's atmosphere, found Sanchia's eyes darkly questioning.
He made himself smile at her.
She raised her glass.
'Here's to us.'
They drank, looking into each other's eyes.
Pain, sudden and disillusioning pain! The first stab of it shocked him into anger against his frail self. Was every celebration to be wrecked and embittered by it? He would fight it off, conceal it. His hand dipped into a pocket, eased out a cork, and shook white pellets into his palm. He glanced at Sanchia, and her eyes were not on him for the moment. With a quick gesture he put his hand to his mouth, and slipped three tablets between his lips. An overdose, but did it matter, for he was revolted by the thought that once again he was to fail her. She had not seen the movement of his hand. She raised her eyes and smiled at him.
'Can you dance, darling?'
It seemed to him that his very senses were sharpened to a brittle alertness by this dreaded pain. He became too conscious of the party at the next table, their noisiness, their interfering glances. He and Sanchia were being watched. He met the vapid and cheeky eyes of young Hiscocks, and gave the young man a stare that made him look elsewhere. The dance-band had started up with a clattering, cacophonic fox-trot, and this modern music was like the jarring discords of pain, machinery that needed oiling, sand in its tissues. He had washed the dope down with champagne. It should bring him ease, poise, fluidity.
He saw Sanchia's hands making little movements. Did this ghastly stuff set her feet vibrating?
She looked at him, and he forced a smile.
'Bad stuff. Let's wait for something better.'
Her dark eyes narrowed. Oh, this anguish of provocation! Why had he come? But, God damn it, he would go through with it.
She was pouring out coffee for him, and he was watching her hands and smoking a cigarette when the figure appeared at their table. The orchestra was banging away, and mooing like a disgruntled cow in a badly sprung truck. Cobourn glanced up quickly, and met the vapid blue eyes of the young man from the next table. He was looking cheeky, for the party had a bet on the chances of his butting in.
'Excuse me, sir, do you mind if I ask Miss Craven to dance?'
Sanchia's head rose swiftly. She glanced at Cobourn, and passed him his coffee cup. He looked at it and not at her, and his face had lost its colour.
'By all means, if she wishes to.'
Sanchia's face sharpened. She hesitated, and then rose in one swift movement. Eddie Hiscocks grinned at her. He had won the lady and a fiver.
Cobourn watched them. By some puckish chance the orchestra changed its tune to one of the older and more savoury songs from a Show. Other couples were up, but Cobourn's eyes were on Sanchia and her partner. Young Hiscocks was good on his feet, and they combined excellently, and as Cobourn watched them he saw in this casual lad all that he was not, all that youth needed.
This very simple revelation came to him with a sudden gust of pain. Wasn't the dope going to work? What was he doing here? He could not dance like that lad; he could not live like that lad. He could not play up to a young girl's tempo.
There was an encore, a Strauss waltz, and the room went whirling. A feeling of confusion attacked him. Was he—? He was conscious of sudden panic. What if he were to crash, and make a dreadful exhibition of himself as he had done at that other place?
This panic mood overwhelmed him He must get out of this place, away from all these anonymous faces. He pushed his chair back, rose, skirted round the dancers and out of the door. Sanchia, absorbed in waltzing, did not see him slip out. He collected his coat and hat and went out into the moonlight and the sweet solitude. The night air was fresh and good. He found his car, opened the door and got in.
It did not occur to him that he had done a questionable thing, deserted his partner in the face of the crowd, or if it did occur to him, the consciousness was blurred by a more significant decision. He had recanted. He had come to the inevitable choice. The pain in his back felt dulled, but it was like the aching core of a final abnegation.
Sanchia saw the empty table. Mr. Hiscocks was grinning.
'Your fellah seems to have done a bunk.'
Her face went fierce.
'Shut up,' and she cast him off.
She sat down and lit a cigarette. John's absence might be explained by the claims of nature. She waited, conscious of the loud curiosity of the next table. Surely, John could not have made such a desperate fool of her? She sat there for ten minutes, and her young face lost all its softness.
Then she rose, deliberately, with brittle dignity. She walked slowly across the dance floor, head up, eyes glittering. Down the steps she went. Could he be in the car? Was he in pain? But would any pain justify his leaving her alone to ridicule?
She crossed to the car. She saw a dim shape within. She opened the door.
'So, you are here?
Her voice was hard, and he winced.
'No good, Sanchia. I felt—I wonder if you will go and settle. Here's my wallet. I'm sorry.'
'All right. You've made me look—'
She took his wallet and slammed the door. In five minutes she was back. She got in, started her engine.
'I suppose you want to go home?'
'Yes. It's no good, my dear.'
She drove him home at speed and in ominous silence.
Rose Hill Cottage's windows were dark, but the moonlight lit up the path. So, for the moment, did the headlights of her car. She had not left her seat or spoken to him, for her young anger still smothered all compassion. The beams of light swung sideways as she backed the car away from the white gate, and Cobourn, fumbling with the key, felt a sudden darkness about him. He was trembling, and there was a stark urgency in his inco-ordinate haste, for the pain was upon him, and he was conscious of nausea. He found the lock, and opened the door, and heard the barking of a dog. For a moment he paused, turned, saw those swinging rays of light as she straightened out the car for the homeward journey. The beams shone along the road, lighting up the hedges, and a sudden sense of desolation overwhelmed him. She had not given him one gentle word.—But why should she? He had given her nothing but frustration. Oh, fool, thinking that love was possible in his crippled world! He slammed the door after him, and in the darkness groped for the switch. He found himself staggering against the wall, and his legs felt like wax. Oh, to be flat, to relax, to forget! Forget? Was that possible?
He did not hear her car stop fifty yards up the road. She flung out of it, and returned, her young face bleak in the moonlight. She opened the white gate and came to the cottage door. She tried it, but the lock was a Yale, and the door defied her. For the moment she hesitated, and then she turned away, hands clenched, face set. She had been rather a beast to him. Well, to-morrow it might be different. But at the white gate she was checked by yet another gust of remorse and compassion, and she saw that a lower window was still alive, for, Cobourn, under the dreadful pressure of increasing pain, had left the hall light on and staggered for the stairs. He was hauling himself up, step by step, panting like a shipwrecked man who had climbed out of the sea after being dashed and bruised upon the rocks. The light from below was sufficient to guide him to his door. He opened it, closed it, switched on the light and then floundered down upon the bed.
He gave a little, half-stifled groan.
'Oh, my God!'
Sitting there, he managed to peel off his coat. He tossed it towards a chair, but it slithered to the floor, and he left it lying there. His fingers fumbled at tie and collar, and only those who have experienced extreme pain can understand the furious haste of such undressing. There is panic in it, a kind of animal urge to escape into some warm corner where the agonised body has to make no further effort. There is a finality in such prostration, surrender, assuagement—even though the pain may persist and wring the vitals, but Cobourn could not carry the business to an end. He rid himself of shirt and trousers and then gave up. His pyjamas remained unfolded under his pillow.
He was lying flat, cold and shivering in the grip of this flaring pain when he heard a voice, her voice. It came from the garden, and suddenly he realised that he had not switched off the light.
With a gust of almost savage anguish he made himself writhe out
of bed, cross the floor, and turn off the light. He plunged back
into bed. He did not hear her voice again, but the dog was
All the world of Rose Hill knew that Miss Marner was leaving, and Miss Marner's secret motives were more patent than she suspected, but when a worried Euphrasia sought out Mary in the office, two women were somewhat frank with each other.
'Oh, Miss, I wish you'd speak to Mr. Cobourn.'
'Yes, his door's locked. He didn't take his tea in, and his voice sounds funny.'
'Better phone for Dr. Ghent.'
'He's touchy about worrying the doctor. I wish you'd come and speak to him. Maybe—'
Mary was abrupt with Euphrasia.
'Why should I? It's not my business. He would not thank me for butting in.'
Euphrasia looked shocked. Hard wenches these younger women.
'Well, I did think, Miss, that you—'
'I'll do my own thinking, Euphrasia, thank you.'
'Very good, Miss. It all comes of him gadding out with that—.'
'Sorry, I'm busy. Better go and ring up the doctor.'
Euphrasia retired upon her dignity.
'I will. If you're not worried, I—am.'
Sir Thomas Craven was one of those punctual people whom the young describe as fusspots. At half-past eight he expected hot coffee on the breakfast table, and his attention to the correctness of clocks was meticulous. The Hazeley staff forgave him these exactitudes, perhaps because he had other humanities, and did not question good living in the kitchen, but his daughter treated all meals as movable feasts, and the maid who had to tidy up Miss Craven's bedroom supposed that all young gentlewomen were casual as to clothes and etceteras.
Sir Thomas did not contend that the cult of the clock was a virtue. Old men looked backwards and had no flair for the future. Was that true? Sir Thomas might have argued the point. He could have contended that a regular rhythm saved tissue and temper, and that though you might appear static, the serenity of wisdom may simulate stasis. Old eyes still had their windows, and the past might continue to possess significance for the future.
Sir Thomas, arriving in the dining-room at twenty-five minutes past eight, found his daughter standing at one of the tall windows. Peculiar punctuality this—after a festive night! Sir Thomas went to pick up his letters, and to wonder as he did so whether the night had been so festive. His daughter, as a study in still life, was just a little unusual, for Sanchia was the very essence of movement. Even when posed in a chair she suggested some mobile thing that had settled for an instant upon a branch or a flower.
Her father did not ask her the obvious question, 'Had a good show, my dear?' What was obvious to him was that something was wrong with his daughter's morning. Frustration and emotional complexities were in the air. He sat down in his chair and proceeded to open his letters.
The slitting of envelopes and the crackle of paper appeared to exasperate her. She turned, looked at him, and then threw up the lower sash and flounced out upon the terrace. Her father had not been blind to the method and momentum of her exit. Old men should not be coldly calm, and open letters when youth is in a ferment.
Sir Thomas considered a bill from his garage. Somebody had been using much petrol. Well, those jaunts to London and Harley Street, and elsewhere. Had Sir Hector proved a false prophet? The maid came in with the breakfast tray, and Sir Thomas rose to help himself to porridge. He was sitting down with it when youth reappeared at the window.
'Breakfast is in, my dear.'
Breakfast, porridge, when the soul of her was seething! Did old people ever feel anything? She stepped in over the window-sill. Sir Thomas was stirring milk and sugar into his porridge.
'I want to talk.'
Her father raised a patient face. This meal was not going to be a feast of peace.
'Something wrong, my dear? Sit down and tell me.'
'I can't sit. It's all too—bloody.'
How universal was that adjective! It appeared to be applicable to world crises, the weather, and injured noses. And yet, he had a feeling that this sex-storm was more than sanguinary. His old stomach seemed to divine the impact of some rather disastrous problem.
'Sir Hector has let us down. John's worse. And I—was a beast to him.'
Astonishing candour! How serious was this business going to be? And perhaps—how boring, like unsettled weather when you were seventy and hoping to enjoy a last, tranquil Spring.
Sanchia was standing over him as though he was the culprit to be scolded; and her father, who liked his meal in peace and not served up in shreds of raw emotion, felt irritated.
'Sit down, my dear, sit down. What happened?'
'Oh, just another crash. We made fools of ourselves, and then—'
'There is no sin in mere foolishness.'
She ignored the soothing platitude, and sat down, but not to eat or drink.
'You don't understand, Pater. I have never wanted a man as I want John. Oh, yes, I'm quite shameless. Old Hazzard is a fake and a humbug. He has made things worse, but if I have to marry a man in bed, I'll marry him.'
Sir Thomas ceased from spooning porridge. This was Spanish Craven with a vengeance.
'Hadn't you better have some breakfast?'
'I don't want anything to eat.'
Her father looked at her tense young face. Almost, it was the face and head of a Medusa, and the impression shocked him. Sex might be incorrigible, but what kind of madness was this?
He sighed. Youth could be so exhausting.
'And what does John feel about it?'
'He's too damned self-effacing.'
'I see. Not sufficiently sacrificial. But is not John's point of view somewhat valid?'
She gave a fierce flick of the head.
'Noble fellow, and all that. But I'm the person to decide. I want him, and I'll have him.'
Her father groaned in secret.
'I wish you'd have some breakfast, my dear. You can't rush life
in this way. Sorry to be so normal. You see, I'm rather old.'
Euphrasia had been on the watch, and she opened the door to Dr. Ghent.
'I'm glad you've come, sir.'
She took his hat and gloves, and Ghent gave one glance at her solid, loyal face.
'The old trouble?'
'Yes, only worse, sir, I'm afraid. He went out—'
Ghent nodded. So there had been another crash.
He went with deliberation up the stairs like a man considering a problem before its various complexities might be put to him. This midsummer madness, an intoxicating wench, and the quest of the physically impossible. He heard the Cairn barking, and thought—
'Well—lots of us could learn from dogs.'
He knocked, and a quiet voice answered his knock.
'Who is it?'
'The unbeloved physician, my lad.'
Cobourn was sitting up, with the dog on his knees. He was smiling. He had shaved, he had tidied up his cast clothes. And Stephen Ghent was conscious of surprise, for he sensed a calm austerity here, a sweet sanity, the resolution of a man who had washed and shaved. The dog was off the bed, and pawing Ghent's legs, and the doctor bent down and caressed him.
'Well, my lad, how's life?'
Ghent gave him a quick look and took a chair.
'Do you want to be vetted?'
Cobourn's smile was there.
'No, just a confession. In the vulgar tongue, I have been just a bloody fool.'
Ghent was silent for a moment. The dog was back on the bed, and Cobourn's hand rested on his head.
'You know just how and why. Tantalus and the grapes. Yes, I made a damned fool of myself and of her last night. No need to explain. I have closed the book.'
Ghent's eyes were full of shrewd affection.
'No more Hazzard?'
'No, my dear man, and no more hazards. I'm a cracked crock, and I know it.'
Sanchia Craven did not know all that her father knew about the Craven heritage and the emotional exaggerations that were inherent in it. When a Craven woman loved she seemed to love immoderately, without rhyme or reason, and with a sometimes tragic recklesssnes. Yes, there were things that Sanchia did not know, things about her mother and her grandmother, some of them shabby in their scheme. Sir Thomas had suffered in secret certain humiliations, and had concealed them and even condoned them, perhaps because soiled linen did not hang graciously on a gentleman's clothes-line. And now, he was seeing the mother in the daughter, save that the daughter's wildness had a far less sordid inspiration. Sanchia had gone mad over a man who was both more and less than normal man, whereas her mother—Sir Thomas took snuff and let that most unpleasant and elemental memory explode in a violent sneeze.
But what would the issue be? Sir Thomas was worried. Sanchia was not quite sane, or so intoxicatedly sane that cold facts were mere spicules of metal tossed into a human furnace. Was he exaggerating? Did the old flesh freeze in panic? This obsession might pass, but it had to shed its own shadow.
Obviously, the thing to do was to consult with Cobourn, or rather to discover whether John Cobourn was as mad as his daughter. A delicate business, and not to be dressed up in authority. You could not say to a man like Cobourn, 'Well, you see, the women in our family are apt to go crazy on sex. My daughter has a most unpractical passion for you, but be warned. It might all pass in a month or a year, and if you were tied to each other that could only mean tragedy. I am sorry to have to talk to you like this about my own daughter, but I am concerned for both of you. Had you been a fit man I'll confess that I should have welcomed marriage. Sanchia's taste in men has been—well—just a little raw, and you might have educated her.'
Yes, a delicate business, and Sir Thomas fondled his nose and procrastinated. He did not ask for yet another tragedy, or more skeletons in the Craven cupboard, and Cobourn might handle the problem in his own way, a gentleman's way.
When Sanchia had read the letter which was delivered by hand at Hazeley—Furze had cycled over with it—she sat and stared out of her window.
'Please do not see me again. It will be better so. I cannot take, my dear, that which I cannot give. In the years to come you will understand.'
Oh, noble fellow! Magnanimous idiot! Understand? Of course she understood. It was he who was persisting in being blindly generous. She became tempestuous. That was the peculiar feature in the emotional make-up of the Craven women; being ruthlessly in love, when thwarted, they lost their tempers.
Sanchia went for her car. She found Sandys servicing it, and that was an added grievance; she was more than curt with him.
'Get her going. I'm in a hurry.'
'I'm draining the engine sump, Miss.'
'Damn it. Shove the plug in and fill her up!'
The chauffeur shrugged and humoured her. He watched her drive off and supposed that someone was in for trouble.
Euphrasia, doing out the parlour while Mr. Cobourn was a'bed, heard the protesting roar of a car's engine. The beastly thing had been misfiring, and Sanchia had cursed it and Sandys, and as though to show the mechanism that she was mistress of it and of her fate, she had raced it at full throttle outside Rose Hill's white gate.
John Cobourn, lying reading in bed, also heard that racing engine, a sound so significant that he put his book aside and sat up. Who was responsible for that discord, a lout reversing a van in the Rose Hill gateway, or—? Horrid juxtaposition, a lout or love! His impulse was to spring out of bed and lock his door, but that would be playing craven to a Craven. If it was Sanchia, a Sanchia who had reacted to his letter? He took the book back on his knees and waited, conscious of a dread that chilled and stiffened him. Ye gods, was he to suffer a love-scene after the desperate renunciation he had suffered and surmounted?
The cottage door was locked, but Sanchia was not deterred by such barriers. Euphrasia, shaking up the cushions of Mr. Cobourn's couch, became suddenly aware of a presence, Miss Craven at the open window. Euphrasia stood clasping a cushion to her solid bosom.
'Mr. Cobourn upstairs?'
'Yes, Miss, but—'
Sanchia moved from window to garden door. It was not locked and she swept in, past a dumbly protesting Euphrasia, who felt as helpless as the cushion that she clasped.
'Doctor's orders, Miss, are—'
That fierce young face might have said—'Damn all doctors.' She walked past Euphrasia without word or look, and Euphrasia stood like Lot's wife. The woman in her knew that some women are inevitable.
Euphrasia listened; she could not help but listen to the two voices up above. Now fancy a young lady rushing into a gentleman's bedroom and making a scene there! Euphrasia was still clasping the cushion as though she needed support, for the two voices were in clashing contrast. There was a calm gentle coldness about the man's, but the other voice attacked, growing more and more tenderly tempestuous. There were other sounds, like the creaking of a bed. Well—really! Had that young hawk of a woman pounced upon her victim? And what was to be done about it?
Then, there were sounds like weeping, and John Cobourn's voice still coldly gentle, like a deliberate hand putting passion aside. It neither pleaded nor protested. It seemed to utter words that were quiet and final.
'It can't be, my dear. My mind's made up. For God's sake go and forget.'
Sudden footsteps, the opening and closing of a door, someone
storming down the stairs. Euphrasia stood stock still, clasping the
cushion. It seemed to her that some wild spirit was raging out of
the house. She heard the engine of the car come to life like an
angry and resentful creature sharing in a young woman's
Mary Marner paused by the orchard gate, a basket of apples under her arm. She had heard a car reversed with fury into the road, and then forced forward at full throttle. There was the sudden angry barking of a dog, and then a yelp of anguish. For a second or so Mary stood still, gripping her basket of fruit.
Silence. The car had stopped, its engine dead, and with a sudden movement Mary put down her basket, and ran for the white gate. Good God, had the car crushed a dog, and was it his dog, his beloved Rollo?
She flung the gate open and came to the corner of the hedge. The red car stood slewed across the grass verge, and Mary saw the other girl kneeling on the grass, holding a brown thing in her arms. Mary went white, white as paper. Her blue eyes flared. She strode over the grass, her hands clenched, teeth set. There might be anguish of remorse in the droop of that kneeling figure, but Mary was without pity. She stood and looked down at the dead dog.
Sanchia's head rose with a jerk.
'He ran at my car. Oh, how frightful!'
Mary's bleached face was pitiless.
'Yes, that seems to be your job, killing things. Now, you will have to tell him.'
'Oh, please—I can't—'
She held up the brown body to Mary like some tragic offering.
'Please take him. I'm—'
Mary looked at the dead dog, and her eyes softened. She bent and took the Cairn into her bosom.
'Poor darling. He did love life, and—'
'Don't, I can't bear it.'
'Oh, yes, you can. You've got to. You're like your beastly car, a curse to everybody.'
And suddenly the face of the kneeling girl flared into fury.
'How dare you speak to me like this, you—you—'
Mary did not appear to hear her. She had her lips to the dead dog's head. Sanchia scuffled to her feet. She was shaking. Her face was suddenly wet and crumpled with tears of remorse and fury.
'Listen to me, young woman—'
Mary ignored her, and Sanchia became darkly dumb. She saw the other girl turn and walk away, carrying the dead Cairn, and suddenly many things were revealed to Sir Thomas Craven's daughter as she watched that implacable, square-shouldered figure move towards the white gate. This other woman was her merciless enemy because she too loved John Cobourn. She carried death in her arms; she would carry that dead dog to him, and say, 'See what she has done.' Sanchia had covered her mouth with a hand. The hand fell. She called to Mary.
'Wait. I'll go and tell him. Miss Marner, don't you hear me?'
But Mary was through the gate, and she let it clang to after her. The dead dog was warm in her bosom, his body crushed but his head untouched. That wench could scream at her, for Sanchia had lost all self-control, and her head and face were those of a Medusa. Mary walked on with squared shoulders, conscious of a dreadful complex of emotions, sorrow, exultation, triumph. This should sound an explicit to all illusion. Let that young bitch wax hysterical.
Sanchia was through the gate, and confronting both of them stood Euphrasia, shocked, wide-eyed, dumb. Mary looked at the dog, and then at Euphrasia.
'He's not dead, Miss?'
'Yes, poor darling. She killed him.'
Sanchia was close to them, Craven at its wildest.
'Give him to me. I'll tell him.'
Mary stiffened and held the dead dog out to Euphrasia. Her fingers tingled with some prophetic impulse. Euphrasia was weeping. She took the dog from Mary, and as she did so Mary felt a hand upon her shoulder.
The big girl swung round. She struck, and not with an open hand, and all her hate and anger were in the blow. Sanchia's face seemed to go blank. She staggered back and Mary waited for the reaction. It did not come, or not as Mary Marner had expected. The other girl's face crumpled like a stricken child's. She put both hands to it as though covering some shameful stigma.
'You needn't have done that to me.'
Mary had followed Euphrasia into the cottage. She closed the
door as the other girl turned and walked a little unsteadily
towards the gate.
Euphrasia sat on a chair in the hall with the dead dog in her lap. Her tears dropped upon the brown body. Mary stood by the window, listening and watching the gate, her right fist still clenched, the knuckles reddened. She heard the engine of the car come to life, and its detonations died away into the distance.
Mary turned and looked at Euphrasia, and Euphrasia looked at Mary. What was to be done? Who would take the news to him?
'I can't do it, Miss,' sobbed Euphrasia.
Mary put her reddened knuckles to her lips.
'I'll tell him.'
'Thank you, Miss. Just look at the poor darling. I'll never forgive myself.'
'Because I let him get out.'
'It wasn't your fault, dear. I suppose I oughtn't to have hit that—'
She bit her lower lip, and turned towards the stairs.
Euphrasia watched her go. Ought she to tell Mary that Mr. Cobourn had suffered one stormy scene, and that he might be in no mood, poor dear, for such sorrowful tidings? Euphrasia's right hand was smoothing the dead dog's fur. No, let Mary go and tell him; it had to be gone through with, and the dog's tragedy might help to shatter an illusion. Mary was half way up the stairs, and she paused for a second or two, gripped by a sudden self-accusation. Was she disinterested, or carrying a dose of poison, something that should help to sour and kill an obsession? No, she was not disinterested. There were tremors of fierce exultation in her.
She came to his door and knocked.
'Who is it?'
His voice sounded sharp and unwelcoming.
She opened the door three inches.
'I—I'm afraid I have some bad news. Rollo has been run over.' There was silence for a second or two, but she heard him move in bed.
'Run over. Is he badly hurt?'
'I'm afraid he's—'
He was sitting up in bed, his face bleached and stark. 'Was it Miss Craven's car?'
Again there was a short silence. She heard the bed creak. He was on his feet.
'I'll dress and come down, Mary. She might have spared me
Euphrasia had laid the dead dog on a chair in John Cobourn's parlour, and feeling there was death in the house, she had pulled down the blinds. Mary had gone to the office, and meeting Simon Furze with a half-bushel basket of apples under each arm, she gave him the news.
'I'm afraid we shall be wanting a spade, Simon. Rollo's dead.'
'Yes, Miss Craven killed him with her car.'
Furze looked grim.
'Does the master know?'
'Yes, I had to tell him.'
'Pity she doesn't kill herself and have done with it. Whereabouts will the master want him put?'
'I don't know yet, Simon.'
Euphrasia had the kitchen door open, and she heard John Cobourn come down the stairs, and cross the hall into the parlour. He stood a moment, looking at the dead dog, and his face twitched and his eyes went blurred. He put out a hand and touched the Cairn's head. Then, he seemed to become conscious of the lowered blinds, and he went and raised them. Light, more light, on this most unhappy dog. He stood there looking into the garden, and gradually his face become strangely calm and austere. What folly had been his!
Opening the garden door he went to the tool shed, and met Simon there, Simon with a spade.
'I'll take it, Simon.'
'It be a bad business, sir. Where be you wanting—?'
'My job, Simon.'
Furze passed him the spade, gave one half-furtive look at Cobourn's face, and turned away. The simple man in him understood that his master wished to be alone.
Cobourn walked back into the garden. He looked about him, and made his choice. The dog should lie close to his window, in between two rose bushes, and so he set to work and dug a little trench. His body knew no pain, but the heart of him was heavy. The little creature who had been so alive and loving and joyous was to lie there in the cold earth.
No one saw the burying. Cobourn wrapped the Cairn in a rug, carried him to the grave, and kneeling, laid him gently in the grave. For a minute or two he remained kneeling, and then his courage failed him. He got on his feet, and with blurred eyes, walked towards the out-buildings.
'Simon, are you there?'
Furze came to the door of a shed.
'I can't finish it, Simon. Do it for me. He's in the rose bed.'
Simon swung off without looking at his master, and Mary, who had heard those poignant words, bit at her red knuckles.
Sandys both heard and saw the return of the red car. It passed the entrance of the old base-court at speed, like a red shuttle shooting from grey pillar to grey pillar. It had gone upon its journey with its brown hood down, but now the hood was up. Sandys had had one swift glimpse of a pale profile, and two hands upon the steering wheel, and he had rushed out, blue-eyed and scared. Was the young lady mad to bring the car in as though she had a five mile hill before her? Could she pull up without charging the terrace wall and crashing through and over?
But stop she did, with a grievous complaining of tyres and of brakes, and a skid that sent the gravel flying. Sandys saw a door swing open and an amber-frocked figure flash out almost like a flame blown from under the brown hood. Sir Thomas Craven's daughter dashed for the portico and the great white doors. She vanished like a yellow leaf scudding with a gust of wind.
Well, well, why such tumultuous haste? Sandys did consider a vulgar and very natural explanation, some organic urge. He rubbed his chin, and his ears told him that Miss Sanchia had left her engine running, and not just ticking over. He went and throttled it down, glanced at the tyres, and then supposed that he had better put the car away. He did so.
Sanchia was racing up the stairs. Half way up the second flight she saw a figure on the landing, one of the maids, and for a moment she paused, and then climbed on and past the girl who stood and stared with exasperating stolidity. Damned, gaping fool! Safe in her room she locked the door, and sank down on her bed, panting, her hands pressed to her breasts. Emotions had been torn to tatters. She felt both over-strung and exhausted.
She sat there for some minutes, getting her heart quieted, and recovering self-control. Then she rose and went slowly and deliberately to her dressing-table, sat down on the stool and looked at herself in her mirror. To be smacked in the face by a wench like Mary Marner? Yes, her right cheek and the lower lid were swollen, stigmata of anger and of shame.
But the inward bruises were more desolating. He had put her away from him, and she had killed his dog. He must know by now. What was he feeling, thinking? Oh, hell, not that she had played the sadist and crushed that little creature wilfully under her wheels. She let out a sudden sob. Idiot, what was the use of tears? She snatched at a powder pot and began to powder her face. Would there be bruising, humiliating markings to explain? Perhaps not. If there were—oh—well—she would have to invent some story. But what?
Her hands trailed in her lap. The anger seemed to go out of her. For the first time in her life she had been hurt and thrashed. Hadn't she the guts to go through with things?—She would have to see him again. She must see him again. She could not let that dreadful thing pass without telling him of her innocence and her remorse. Poor darling, he had so loved that dog.
Presently she rose, and moving with a kind of vagueness, rang the bell. She waited. She heard footsteps, a knock.
'Did you ring, Miss?'
'Yes, I have a bad headache. I am going to lie down. Tell Sandys to put the car away.'
'I will, Miss. Shall I bring up lunch?'
'No. I've taken some aspirin. I'll just lie down.'
Sir Thomas, coming in from a country walk, saw that the luncheon table had been laid for one. Was Sanchia out? He was not happy about his daughter. A glass of sherry seemed to be indicated, and he had the decanter in his hand when a maid came in with a tray.
'Miss Sanchia out, Norah?'
'No, sir, lying down. A bad headache.'
Sir Thomas replaced the decanter after filling his glass. Was it
headache or heart-ache?
Mary Marner sat in the office, ravaged by two conflicting impulses; to go and to stay. She too had received her over-dose of emotion, and in some such state no woman is normal. To hurt herself she may hurt others whom it should be hateful to hurt, and Mary was not loving herself in loving too profoundly. What a day! His dog was dead, and she had let the jealous beast in herself strike another girl in the face, and already Mary was ashamed of that blow. What a lout's gesture! She squirmed in her chair, and gnawed the end of her pen, and read and re-read the letter she had written.
'I feel that I am a failure here. I have been feeling this for a long time. One can't work as one should when one feels like that. It is better that I should go and take another job.'
Suddenly, she tore the sheet to shreds, and stuffing the pieces into the office stove, put a match to them. She could not leave such cowardly bunk behind her. Better—in the vulgar tongue—to do a bunk and be grossly honest about it, and smack her own face in doing that which devastated her. He might think her a graceless rotter, or he might not even think about it. Rend your heart, and not your garments! Mary locked up the office, left the key on Euphrasia's window-sill, and wheeled her cycle out through the white gate. She did not look back. She was too inwardly torn and dishevelled to look back. She would wire to Maria Mannering that very evening.
Self pity was in the air, that most human frailty, compelling two young women to move in opposite directions, but, about tea time, Sanchia, curled up on her bed, felt the need for action. She rose and rang the bell, and crossing to her mirror, looked at her reflection. Bruising, disfigurement? She drew a quick breath of relief. That she-lout's fist had left scarcely any blemish, a faint swelling over the right cheek-bone, but no discolouring of the skin. Oh, blessed omen! She put her lips to the mirror and kissed the reflection of her own mouth.
A maid knocked at the door.
'You might bring me some tea.'
Sanchia sat at her window, secretly smiling, a woman
surrendering to the illusion that her lips and eyes and arms could
recover all that she had feared was lost.
No one saw her set forth upon that last pilgrimage. It was about an hour before sunset, and she went by way of the garden into the park. Then a woodland path would take her to the valley road, and so to Rose Hill. It was a green and tranquil world, soothing sunlight on the trees and grassland, and the woods lying in a profound stillness that matched her purpose. She was sweet, warm wax, and he should melt to her mood.
So, she came to the place where her car had struck the Cairn. There were wheel scars on the grass, and she stood a moment, her eyes poignant, her face soft with remorse. No one saw her pass in by the white gate and round the cottage to his window. The evening sunlight lay upon the garden and its flowers, and warmed the little mound of earth under which the dead dog lay, but John Cobourn's window was in the shadow. She walked towards it and saw him lying there, eyes closed, hands folded. He might have been asleep or dead.
His eyes opened; he turned a startled head. Her instant impression was one of fear, shrinking.
'Oh, darling I had to come.'
He did not move, but lay looking at her, and his face seemed to harden into a resolute coldness.
'Need you have come?'
She flinched, drew a sharp breath, and suddenly she knelt down with her hands and forehead on the window-sill.
'I had to. I've been torn in pieces. To have done that to you—'
He was silent. Then he said, 'Look; he is buried just there behind you.'
She turned, looked, saw the little mound with flowers on it, and her face went wounded. She put her head down on the sill.
'Can't you forgive me?'
His face was white and set. He put out a hand and let it rest upon her head.
'I forgive. But listen, Sanchia. Something else died with my dog, an illusion, a foolishness. Other things are dead. I lie here like an old man who looks at life as it was, many many years ago. All else is finished.'
Her shoulders jerked; she raised her head.
'You can't say this to me.'
'I do say it. There is nothing else to be said. You and I are not for each other. That's final, as final as the death of my dog.'
'But darling, I—'
He had withdrawn his hands. He closed his eyes, and refolded his hands.
'I do not want to see you again. We should only torment each other. I want to forget. I shall forget, and so will you.'
She sat back on her heels, her hands on the window-sill. He was lying so still and cold like a man who was dead, eyes closed, hands folded.
'Darling, you can't mean this. It's too—too—'
He did not speak or move, and suddenly she understood that she could not rouse him. She laid her hand across her mouth as though stifling some bitter cry. In killing his dog had she killed the thing she loved? She got to her feet, her eyes fixed upon his frozen face.
'I—never thought. You're being cruel to me.'
His lips moved, but his eyes remained closed.
'No, kind. Some day you will thank me for this. I do not wish to look at you again.'
She wheeled round with sudden fierceness, held her breath, saw the dog's grave, and felt desolate and dumb. The wild words that had come to her lips were not uttered.
'Then I'll go. I'll never come here again.'
'Good-bye, my dear. I'm glad that—this—is over.'
Sir Thomas was smoking a pipe on the terrace, watching the moon rise, and wondering about his daughter. Sanchia had not appeared for dinner, and her room was empty, and her father was worried. Had this love affair gone awry? Well, it was sufficiently mad to go anywhere, but Sir Thomas was troubled by the knowledge that the Craven women were victims of the grand passion. He pulled at his pipe and confronted the moon. She was supposed to be feminine, and though a subsidiary, yet she moved the tides and humoured lovers. Cold, serene old luminary, gazing with equal impartiality upon stricken fields and slaughter, and harvest sheaves, and water-lilies afloat, and autumn woods and wandering Jews. Moonlight and midsummer madness. Yet, Sir Thomas Craven found the moon sympatica in the negative and benign cynicism of his failing years. If she was there she was there, and her presence was a portrait of philosophy. She did not tantalise you like the English sun, who, though considered male and positive, behaved like some temperamental wench, and challenged you to guess whether the day would be sour and sulky or just a little radiant.
Sir Thomas turned his head. He had caught a small sound like that made by a shoe striking stone. The terrace steps? Yes, someone was ascending those steps. He saw a figure come into view, his daughter. She looked neither to the right hand nor to the left, but swept like some tempestuous ghost across the stone paving. Haste, an immoderate, blind urge, emotion translated into movement. She vanished into the shadows of the portico, and Sir Thomas sat frowning and biting hard on his pipe.
Now, what was the significance of the day's shadow-play? He was not at all happy about it.
Peace and no aching back.
John Cobourn woke to the sun shining upon his window, and the consciousness that sweet sanity had returned to him. Pain there was, poignant pain, the thought of that grave among the roses, and the knowledge that a little live and loving creature had gone from the house. But the intoxication of sex had somehow departed from him, leaving, in place of wine, ice-cold water clear and crystal.
Should he get another dog? Not immediately. That would be graceless to the memory of the one he had lost.
But, no longer would he have to force himself to a fevered tempo, exhaust his frail body, and know frustration and distress. The sweet anguish of sex would die away. Youth would not tantalise him, but like some serene and mature old man he could live among his flowers and fruit, and inhale the savour of the soil.
Yes, apple harvest, all those richly laden trees waiting for the careful hands, his, Mary's, Simon's. Mary? Good girl Mary, so reliable and unprovocative. He heard Euphrasia on the stairs, with his early morning tea, and shortbread made in Euphrasia's kitchen. Back to work, back to the old rhythm. Thank God for growth, effort, and sanity.
'Your tea, sir.'
Euphrasia had swollen eyes. She had been weeping in the night for Rollo.
'What a punctual person you are, Euphrasia.'
'I try to be, sir.'
'I'm getting up. Tell Simon we'll pick to-day. Worcesters and Keswick, and Ellison. Good day for picking.'
'Very good, sir.'
At eight o'clock Euphrasia sought out Simon.
'The master's coming out to-day. Apple picking. Better tell Miss Marner.'
Furze smiled one of his rare smiles.
'I'll have the baskets ready.'
Cobourn was breakfasting when Simon came to the kitchen window.
'Miss Marner isn't here.'
'Oh. She's so punctual.'
'Well, the office is locked up.'
'Maybe there's a reason.'
But at nine o'clock no Mary had appeared.
Euphrasia was not worried. Miss Marner was as regular as the church clock, and if the clock was prevaricating there would be a good reason, but Euphrasia went to Mr. Cobourn and found him lying, smoking.
'Miss Marner isn't here yet, sir. Simon wants to know if he should start picking.'
'Yes. I hope Mary hasn't had a fall off her bike. Better ring up the Tea-House, Euphrasia.'
Euphrasia did so, and received a shock. Miss Marner had left Shallon that morning by an early train, yes, with luggage.
Well, well, well! Assuredly these wenches were giving poor Mr. Cobourn a hell of a time. One had gone into hysterics over him in his bedroom and then killed his dog; the other had sneaked off without so much as a word of apology or warning. Miss Marner too! Just in the middle of apple-gathering. What was the world coming to? And Miss Marner had been here four years come Michaelmas. Euphrasia slumped on a chair and let herself go with gusto. These wenches!—What—in the name of God and the Prophets had sent Mary Marner scooting off in this graceless and ungrateful fashion? Euphrasia blew her nose and gave up the problem. Surely Miss Marner hadn't got into trouble down in the village, and had decamped to hide the horrid scandal?
Furze appeared at the window.
'She ain't turned up yet.'
Euphrasia enjoyed the sensation she was about to cause. 'She's not turning up.'
'What d'you mean, not turning up?'
'She's gone off and taken her things with her. I don't know what's come to these young women.'
Furze grinned sardonically.
'Wanting the moon, I guess. A nice time to go gallivanting off, with all the apples and pears to be picked. Does the master know?'
'No, poor gentleman. As though he hadn't enough trouble. These young women want a good smacking.'
John Cobourn, opening the parlour door, heard the two voices, and called to Euphrasia.
'Is that Simon?'
Euphrasia gave Furze a look and went to speak with her master.
'Tell him I'll be out in ten minutes. I'll have my chair. And tell him to ask Miss Marner to bring any letters across. I suppose she is here now?'
'No, sir, Miss Marner's left us.'
'Well, sir, the lady where she lodged says Miss Marner caught a very early train and took her things with her.'
Cobourn looked flabbergasted.
'Extraordinary. Oh, perhaps someone is ill. She left no message?'
'There will be a letter. Miss Marner is not the kind of girl to let us down like this.'
'I hope not, sir.'
'Of course not. Mary has always been so—reliable.'
So, John Cobourn and Simon and Tom set about apple gathering,
Cobourn picking the easy fruit, his men dealing with the apples
that needed step-ladders. It was silent labour, for both men could
sense their master's sadness and depression. Worry, worry, worry,
grief and frustration. The dog had gone, and love had gone, and
Mary was most inexplicably a deserter. Who would drive the van? Who
would deal with accounts and correspondence? Life seemed to have
got itself into a tragic tangle. And all that morning he was in and
out of his wheeled chair, doing a little picking, and then resting,
because pain kept troubling him, pain of the spirit and pain of the
flesh. Even the colour and lustre of the fruit failed to give him
pleasure, fruit that would show no bruises. Cobourn had always been
insistent upon careful picking, especially so when apples were of
high quality. It was a matter of conscience, and in so many cases
the English lacked that conscience. Or was it that they had no real
country sense of feeling for beauty, and did not care?
Someone else was suffering from the pricks of conscience, and was refusing with stubbornness to recognise them, or regard them as valid. Mary Marner, seated in the corner of a third class carriage, and watching the country become submerged in the hygienic ugliness of suburbia. Mary's jaw was set. She could tell herself that she too was to be urban, and that she had done with stodging over sticky soil and sodden grass, and getting her hands frozen for a man who regarded her as implacably reliable. Would he miss her? Well, let him miss her. He would miss her less than he missed his dog. Mary was in a loutish and awkward mood, and like her striding legs. She was bound for Mona Jordan's digs in Canonbury Square; she would park her belongings there, and go forth to find her friend in Southampton Row.
Mary took a taxi. Oh, yes, she was in funds, having put money by, and her expenditure upon flummeries and aids to beauty had been nil. Mr. Cobourn owed her a month's salary, but that could be a sop to sweeten bad manners. In the taxi she did confess that she had behaved without grace, and having confessed it, stuffed it away like a crumpled handkerchief upon which she had shed silly tears. Damn all men! They were fools who just fell for a cinema face.
The taxi arrived in the pleasantly shabby atmosphere of Canonbury Square. Mary bundled out and said 'Wait a minute.' She rang the bell beside the particular door; it was holly green with polished brass fittings, and a maternal person, fat in a flowery overall, answered the bell.
'Oh, I'm Miss Marner. I wired Miss Jordan. Was she able to fix me up?'
The fat and flowery lady smiled upon her.
'Yes. We happened to have an empty bedroom.'
'Good business,' and Mary swaggered off to pay the taxi-man and hump in her belongings. Swagger and a nonchalant casualness were indicated.
Her room was on the top floor, overlooking the square, and Mary opened the window and appraised her new environment. Rather pleasant and Georgian and solid; the old houses had friendly faces like that of the plump landlady who had welcomed her. No cycling here in the raw dark of winter mornings, no exacting man, no reliability expected save speed and precision as a stenographer. Mary withdrew from the window, and began to unpack and put her things away in a fumed oak chest of drawers and a white-wood wardrobe. The bed looked comfortable and was covered with a loud pink bed-spread. Mary reminded herself that her shorthand was rather rusty and needed polishing up.
What next? She would take a tram or bus and report to Mona in Southampton Row. They could go out to lunch together. Mary did not look at herself in the wardrobe mirror, or appreciate the stuffiness of her clothes and hat. She was in brown, a toneless brown, and her hat was of the jockey-cap order. Obviousness and utility were parts of the picture.
Miss Mona Jordan had built up a flourishing secretarial agency in Southampton Row, which did much to save the renascent Bloomsbury. She was three years older than Mary, and all that Mary was not, a black and white young woman with a classic profile and a somewhat chilly charm. Her complexion was all cream, her voice pleasant, her clothes smart. Men liked her, perhaps because she was both good to look at and reassuringly aloof. She made no demands upon sentiment. She might have been a suave and nicely coloured piece of confectionery fresh from the refrigerator.
Mary found Mona Jordan dictating letters in her private room. The young person was dismissed, and Mona and Mary kissed, casually, as though sealing a convention. Mary sat down in the young person's chair, Mona at her desk. They surveyed each other.
'Well, Rags, why—this—suddenness?'
Rags! The old nickname had rudeness and affection, but it made Mary flinch So, she straddled her legs, and shoved out her chin.
'Oh, just fed up. Wanted a change. Can you give me a job?'
'It was a promise, my dear.'
'I know, but I'm a bit rusty.'
Miss Jordan surveyed her consideringly. Rusty? Yes, the word was applicable to other things. And fed-upness? Not so long ago Mary had been solidly ecstatic about a life on the land.
'We are quite full of work. Distinguished clients and all that. And how's the poor old cripple?'
'Oh, not too good. Making an ass of himself.'
She fidgeted, and Miss Jordan observed her discomfort.
'Me? Good Lord, no.'
Mary was frowning, and suddenly she blurted out a half truth.
'Afraid I've rather left him in the lurch. Men can become too damned exacting.'
'If you let them,' said her friend, suspecting other
disharmonies, but leaving them unexplored for the moment.
Cobourn was not one of those growers who sold their fruit on the trees, and submitted to the activities of the purchaser's pickers, with resulting damage to fruit and fruit spurs. The baskets were full and due for delivery, but neither Simon nor Tom could drive the van and Cobourn was in a quandary. On some of his good days he had driven the van as far as the village, and this was one of the occasions when guts were needed. Moreover, he was bothered about Mary and her sudden desertion, and the good lady of Ye Olde Tea-Shoppe might be able to tell him something.
'Load up, Simon. I'll drive.'
Furze looked dubious.
'It's Melford, sir.'
'I know. You come with me. I'll stuff a cushion in the seat.'
So, the brown baskets with their polished and coloured fruit were loaded into the green van, and Cobourn went for a cushion. The tube of dope lay on his table and he was tempted, but a sudden revolt against the stuff was instant in him. As he faced about he saw the dog's grave, and sorrow and tenderness sent him striding. Dope? The stuff had become associated in his consciousness with those bitter Sanchia nights, and with his dog's death. Surely he could transcend pain, and stiffen himself against adventitious assuagements? No use letting your tuning go slack, and your secret self flounder into self-pity.
Cobourn settled himself in the driver's seat and Simon climbed in beside him. The drive to Shallon was easy, coasting in neutral down the hill. They pulled up outside the Tea-Shoppe and Cobourn went in to speak with the lady. She was polishing tables in the tea-room.
'Good morning. My name is Cobourn. Did Miss Marner leave a letter behind her?'
The lady had a grievance against Mary, and she passed it to John Cobourn.
'No, Mr. Cobourn. I must say I was surprised at the way Miss Marner has behaved. She has been with me all these years, and then walks out at an hour's notice. May I ask—?'
'Did you discharge her?'
'I? No, she left us without any warning, and for no reason that I know of.'
'Most extraordinary,' said the lady. 'No sense of obligation. I have always been kind to her, and now I have an empty room on my hands.'
'She must have had some reason of her own, nothing to do with either of us. I always found her so reliable.'
'You never know with these young women,' and the lady smiled with acid significance.
'Do you happen to know her new address?'
'I know nothing.'
Cobourn returned to the van, and took the road for Melford. About a mile from the village he heard a car hooting behind him, and looking in his mirror, saw that familiar red car. He pulled to the near side, and Sanchia passed him at fifty. She did not glance at the green van; she was no more than a passing profile.
Cobourn's face went bleak. Had she recognised the van? Perhaps not, or if she had she would have supposed that Mary Marner was the driver. But he was conscious of a sudden inward smart. That speeding car was something of a symbol.
He did not glance at Furze. They sat beside each other in
Back at Rose Hill, with the old pain beginning to vex him, he put the van away, and walking round the cottage, paused by the dog's grave. The little home seemed empty to him, empty and sad. No welcoming barks, no sustaining hands. Why had Mary left him like this, and so heartlessly just when he needed human help? His face looked pinched and grey. He went to lie down on his couch, and there was no little creature to jump up on his lap and look at him with loving, loyal eyes.
Sir Thomas Craven was worried.
Moods, moods, moods; a young woman, who was sombre of eye and fiercely dumb, or who flashed head in air upon the human scene and made you think of Greek tragedy. Ask a question, and you might be waved off like some pestilent beggar.
Oh these sex obsessions, the intoxication of the senses! When the cup was broken and the wine was spilled upon the steps of Love's temple young women flew into rages, or sulked, or took to a multitude of cocktails, and drove cars like creatures possessed. Sir Thomas went regularly to bed, for sleep is one of the few solaces left to the old, but Sir Thomas did not sleep. He lay and listened and fidgeted, and turned the bed lamp on and off, or tried to pass the time with a Who Dun It. His daughter was out; she was out most nights of the week. He would hear her car come roaring up the hill at any sort of hour.
Why the devil couldn't the wench spit it out?
'John and I have had a row. It's off. A bit up in the air? Yes, I am. Feeling rotten about it.'
Yes, better such crude candour than this silent, turgidly suffering wench who loomed over you like a thunderstorm that could not break.
Sir Thomas Craven was pretty sure that things had gone wrong. Well, wasn't that inevitable? How could two such creatures be expected to assimilate? But since his daughter told him nothing, and meals had become pregnant with emotional indigestion, Sir Thomas took his hat and his courage and walked to Rose Hill. Cobourn might be more communicative.
He was, for these two men were gentlemen and gentle with each other. Sir Thomas looked tired and bothered, and Cobourn happened to be in pain.
'I'm glad you've come, sir. I wanted to have a talk with you and explain.'
'Just as you feel about it, Cobourn. I have not come demanding explanations.'
Thank you, sir. It was I who broke it off.'
'So it is off, my lad?'
'Didn't you know?'
Sir Thomas smiled resignedly.
'No. Just inference. I gathered that—er—something had happened.'
'I could not go on with it. I'm a crock, and the whole business was full of frustration, and not fair to your daughter. How could it be?'
Sir Thomas, looking out of the window, saw the little mound of soil among the rose bushes. Was something buried there? Yes, and he missed a presence in the cottage. No dog.
'I am sorry, Cobourn. May I confess that the women of our family are apt to be a little tempestuous. Had things been otherwise—Well, let us leave it at that. I realise that you are right. By the way—'
He paused, and Cobourn saw that he was looking at the dog's grave.
'Your dog. I hope—'
'Yes, he was run over and killed.'
'I'm sorry, my dear lad. I know what that can mean.'
But Cobourn did not tell him who had killed the Cairn.
A September evening, not serene and splendid, but grey and draughty and depressed. Sir Thomas Craven, coming in from the garden, met his daughter in the hall. She was wearing her furs, and an impudent and unhappy face, eyebrows plucked and pencilled, her hair very much dressed. She appeared to resent this confrontation. Old gentlemen should not arrive like question-marks upon adventure's doorstep.
Sir Thomas's eyes met his daughter's, but it was the father's glance which fell, outstared by defiant youth.
How obvious! Sanchia was pulling on her gloves.
'Yes, meeting Har in town.'
Harcourt Baskerville! So, she had reverted to the Baskerville world, and confident cads about town. Sir Thomas was not pleased.
'That fellow. Sometimes, my dear—'
'Oh, stow it, pater. You take snuff; I'm up to it.'
She gave a flick of the head and swept past him, lovely to the eye, but not lovely in mood or language. Sir Thomas's shoulders drooped. He stood and watched her go, and was assailed by a queer premonition. Crude youth in revolt, hurrying to drown a memory in London's flesh-pots, dinner and drinks and dancing, and with a fellow who—Sir Thomas heard her car drive off, and he wandered into the library, and sat down, feeling old and utterly ineffectual.
Strange words came to him, and startled him.
'Sometimes death is better than—'
Affairs with obese young bulls like Harcourt Baskerville.
The red car pulled up outside No. 11, Punt Street, W. It was God knows what hour, and the street was empty and asleep. Two car doors opened, and the man who emerged went quickly round the car's tail to assist his partner across the pavement. She needed help; she giggled and let out a hiccough.
'Oh, Har. I'm squiffy.'
She was. He had an arm round her. He felt in a white waistcoat pocket for a latchkey, and found the keyhole with ease and precision. His face was turgid and flushed, but he was sober, most sinisterly sober.
'In we go, my lass.'
'Ups a daisy.'
She giggled again, and he closed the door carefully, and in the half darkness crushed her to him.
'Gosh, you smell sweet. Up we go.'
He carried her up the stairs, his face growing more flushed and turgid, and into a sitting-room, and laid her on a couch. Then he went softly to close the door like a man preparing for some final act.
A police constable patrolling, saw a young woman dash out of a door, and disappear with an air of dishevelled haste into the waiting car. She switched on the headlights, and started the engine, and the machine went off like a gust of wind. The constable watched it. By force of habit he memorised its number. These bright young things did crash around at all hours. Yes, crash was the word. The car took the corner into the main thoroughfare at speed, swinging on to the offside with complete recklessness. Well, that was that!
Somewhere at some early hour a lorry laden with market produce met the red car on a lonely road, but that was not quite the manner of their meeting. A car, a doctor's car, was parked on the left of the road, from the lorry-driver's point of view, and the right of way belonged to the approaching car, but that, in another sense, was not the lorry-driver's point of view. Among his intimates he was known as 'Sulky Sam', a nasty-faced brute with an endemic grievance which had shaped itself into political hate and dreadful driving in relation to any private car. He was the sort of fellow who snarled when an argument arose, 'We're not bloody toffs. We 'ave to work for our livin'.' So, the red car and the lorry headed for that narrow space, the right of the road was the car's, but not according to Sulky Sam. He did not slow up, but drove straight for the gap between the parked car and the opposite verge. Brakes squealed, but the girl in the car was not in a normal mood. She took to the grass, but the lorry struck the offside of the car, and at the very same moment Sanchia's front wheels hit a water-gully and a low bank. The car hesitated and shuddered for a second, and then turned a somersault, crashing into the ditch.
The lorry-driver accelerated and drove away.
People in the cottage across the road heard the crash. The doctor had just delivered the cottager's wife of a very whole and hearty male child, when the father, who had rushed out into the garden, shouted up the stairs.
'Doctor, there's been a smash.'
The child was in the capable hands of an experienced friend, and the after-birth had come away. The doctor was in his shirt sleeves, and about to wash his hands, and when he heard that appeal he went down as he was.
'What happened, Tom?'
'A car in the ditch, sir, upside down.'
They crossed the road to where the red car lay with its wheels in the air. The weight of the chassis had crushed the hood. Both men had shocked faces.
'There's a girl inside, sir.'
The doctor tried the doors, but they were jammed
'Let's try and right her, Tom.'
Each took a wheel, and together they managed to heave the car over on its side, but the jammed doors still baulked them. The doctor could see a huddled figure, blood and broken glass.
'God, get a knife, Tom. We'll have to try and slit the hood.'
The man dashed for the cottage and returned with a carving knife. He passed it to the doctor who slashed and rent the hood and side-screens.
'Pull here, now. We can get a hold on the door. Now, then, together.'
They managed to force the off door open, and the doctor bent down and looked at Sanchia. She was lying in a huddle, and he drew her out, and together they laid her on the grass verge. The doctor kneeled down.
'Poor kid,' said the man, 'she looks pretty bad.'
'She's dead,' said the doctor, 'broken neck, I'm afraid.'
Sir Thomas Craven was breakfasting when the police car climbed the hill to Hazeley. Sir Thomas heard it and knew that it was not his daughter's car. He also knew that Sanchia had spent the night elsewhere, for he had looked into her room and found it empty and the bed unslept in.
'A police inspector from Melford wants to see you, sir.'
Sir Thomas felt his old stomach tighten. Bad news, of course, but how bad would it be?
'Show him in, Norah.'
Sir Thomas rose from his chair to meet the policeman, and Sir Thomas noticed that the big man carried in his hand a silk bag, Sanchia's.
'Sit down, Inspector. Have you had any breakfast?'
'Yes, sir, thank you.'
'Bad news for me, I'm afraid.'
'I'm afraid so, sir. Do you recognise this bag?'
'My daughter's, I think.'
'That makes identification certain, sir. She had an accident.'
Sir Thomas nodded.
'Better tell me the worst, Inspector.'
'I'm sorry, sir, she's—'
Shallon heard the news the same morning, but it did not reach Rose Hill until the afternoon, and was brought to Euphrasia by the baker's roundsman. Miss Craven had been killed in her car on her way back from London.
Euphrasia did not throw up her hands, or burst into tears. She stood leaning on the kitchen window-sill, a little stout figure in blue with the afternoon sunlight picking out the grey in her black hair. Who would tell him? Would the news be more devastating to him than the death of his dog? And all this had happened in two or three weeks, with Mary deserting her post without a letter or a word. Euphrasia was shocked. What a strange thing was life! You went on placidly and happily for years, and then the Devil seemed to leap upon the stage with flaming torch and bloody dagger. Euphrasia believed in the Devil, an ink-black Satan with a furious and leering face.
She was still standing there hesitating when she heard the telephone ringing. Mr. Cobourn was out with the men, and Euphrasia went to answer the telephone. She picked up the receiver as though it too could be a thing of evil.
'Is that Rose Hill?'
It was a gentleman's voice, hard and deliberate.
'Is Mr. Cobourn in?'
'He's out in the orchard, sir.'
'Will you please tell him that Sir Thomas Craven wishes to speak to him.'
'I will, sir.'
Euphrasia drew a breath of pity and relief. Poor gentleman, he sounded very calm, but gentlemen were made that way, or assumed such proud reticence. Well, Sir Thomas would tell Mr. Cobourn, and the horrid business would not be hers, for, though the common mind may gloat over the blurting out of bad news, Euphrasia had no heart for the hurting of John Cobourn. She went forth into the autumn sunlight, for the weather had changed its temper, and looked with grave eyes upon the peaceful scene, three men gathering apples. Mr. Cobourn was out of his chair, and his head was in the sunlight. Poor man, it might soon be in the shadow.
'The phone, sir. Sir Thomas Craven wants to speak to you.'
His face did not change.
'All right, Euphrasia.'
She let him go, and waited to speak to Simon, and Simon, when he heard the news, pulled off his hat, and smoothed his hair. Was it a salute to tragedy? He put an apple into the basket, and stared.
'Somehow, Phrasie, she was made to die that way, poor wench.'
His face was hard, but his eyes smiled.
'She was like one of those red dawns that mean trouble for somebody.'
Cobourn had taken up the receiver.
'Hallo, is that you, sir?'
'Yes, Cobourn, I felt I ought to tell you. Sanchia was killed last night in a motoring accident. Nothing to be said. Goodbye.'
Cobourn stood quite still, his face like a dead face. That calm, brief voice seemed to have left a disastrous silence behind it. Sanchia—dead! Had she—? It did not seem credible. He hung up the receiver, and leaned against the wall, eyes shut, but inwardly seeing the vivid and poignant loveliness of her. A sudden infinite sadness possessed him, the sadness of a man who could not suffer more emotion, and who felt dark water and disaster under his feet.
Euphrasia, returning, saw him standing by the dog's grave, and she did not take that path, but skirted round the cottage to her kitchen. Two dead creatures, a dog and a girl, and he had loved them both, but so differently. The dog had given him comfort and comradeship, the girl—ecstasy and anguish, more pain than pleasure, and yet, knowing her dead, a wounded tenderness rent him.
Stooping, he picked up the posy of flowers on the Cairn's grave,
put it to his lips, and replaced it on the little mound.
'Vale, both of you. Those whom I love die.'
An inquest upon Miss Sanchia Craven was held at The King's Head,
Melford, and the witnesses included Mr. Harcourt Baskerville, the
last person who had seen her alive. To do him justice Mr.
Baskerville had been shocked into candour, a careful candour that
considered a woman's reputation and the atmosphere of a hectic
night. To have had a girl in your arms and then to hear that she
had been killed! That wasn't sport. Mr. Baskerville stated that he
and Miss Craven had dined and danced together; yes, she had left
rather late. Sober and capable of driving? Oh, most certainly so.
Miss Craven had been an expert driver. The cottager and the doctor
were the other witnesses. The cottager believed that he had heard a
van or lorry on the road just before the crash, but he could not
give any facts. The driver of the lorry did not come forward, nor
was he traced.
John Cobourn read the account of the inquest in the local paper, and with mixed feelings. Can a man be jealous of the sex affairs of a woman who is dead? Sanchia had been out with a man, and had left him in the small hours, and Cobourn was conscious of nausea and self-accusation. Had she cared? Had this night adventure been part of their mutual madness? Had he so hurt her that she had gone wild, and in her wildness met death?
Sanchia was buried at Shallon, not in the Craven grave, but in a quiet corner of the churchyard's extension. John Cobourn was not present, but he heard the church bell tolling, and he sat alone under one of the original apple trees of Rose Hill, a vast veteran which was nameless and a hundred years old. It carried some scattered fruit, and as Cobourn sat there a solitary apple fell with a soft thud upon the grass.
It was as though the old tree had spoken.
'So the fruit falls, and seasons come and go, and in that apple of mine there might be life were its seeds planted. Take heart, O man. There is an inevitableness about all things. Your little squirmings and sorrows are of no account. Destiny is as cold and as dead as the moon.'
Cobourn rose and picked up the fallen apple. Was it a symbol of Eve? Had the old tree spoken in dropping that rosy apple at his feet?
About six o'clock that evening he had a visitor, Sir Thomas Craven. Cobourn took him out to the seat under the same tree. Sir Thomas had an old man's face, gentle and somehow dim. He had trouble in getting out his words.
'I—I—er—wanted to talk to someone, Cobourn, someone who knew her, and had understanding. It has been a great shock to me. When you have bred a child you feel so guilty.'
Cobourn's eyes were gentle.
'I too feel guilty.'
'You, my dear lad?'
'Maybe I hurt her. I wanted to save her from the impossible. I have been wondering and worrying whether the hurt—'
Sir Thomas nodded.
'That we shall never know. What you did was for the best.'
'Sometimes one gets the feeling, sir, that what man does may not matter. We are just pieces in a pattern, a jigsaw. Some other force, emotionless and impersonal, the thing we call Fate, puts us in our places.'
Sir Thomas looked sorrowful.
'It may be so. But that takes away responsibility, and makes integrity a farce.'
Cobourn was silent, but Sanchia's father talked, and he talked of things that he had never confessed to any other living person, calmly, redoubtably, as though easing his secret soul. And Cobourn listened, and was moved, profoundly moved. This old man's confessional went to his vitals.
Sir Thomas had made an end when the tree dropped yet another apple. Sir Thomas looked at it and uttered one word.
The one person who remained in ignorance of the tragedy was Mary Marner, a Mary who was taking a refresher course in shorthand, as well as speeding up her typing and finding her fingers vaguely unwilling. Typing at Rose Hill had been a leisurely business, with a rhythm that was of the soil, and Mary's inward self may have been in sympathy with her fingers. The first work upon which she happened to be engaged was a book by a Bloomsbury Leftish Highbrow, and Mary thought it muck, but not the good muck that invigorates the soil. She lunched and tea'd at an A.B.C. or a Lyons, walked home for the sake of exercise, stared in shop windows, went to a cinema twice a week, and was less entertained there than she should have been.
Mary missed the news, though it splurged in the evening press 'Baronet's Daughter Killed in Car Crash', and was recorded minutely in more dignified papers. Mary was not a press addict, and the evening paper obsession and the B.B.C. news were not hers. Nor was Mona Jordan a snapper up of snippets. She did read the account of Miss Craven's death, but casually so, and without associating it with Mary Marner's corner of Surrey. Miss Jordan was interested for the moment mainly in her friend's face and clothes. Both had gone strangely shabby and devitalised and needed renovating. Life appeared to have gone flat in Mary.
Mona Jordan was one of those women who dressed for herself and not for men. She was fastidious, even in the choosing of her staff, and her young ladies were not permitted to be either startling or blousy. Mona Jordan had antipathies that could be as vivid as some of the nauseas suffered by men. She could not abide that very English product, the sandy-haired, bespectacled, gooseberry-eyed, pinched-mouthed virgin, tinned refinement, desiccated and sterile. She called them 'Prinsters', and to Miss Jordan Mary appeared to be developing in that direction.
Which was absurd, and inefficient. Mary had been a jolly kid. She had fine arms, and a Juno bust and legs. Her hair might be rather like seaweed, and her face too solid, but what it needed was lighting up, colour and animation. Mary had gone stale. She was stale brown bread instead of Pêche Melba, and Mona Jordan was puzzled and intrigued. Now, why? What exactly had happened in peaceful, woodland Shallon? Had there been man, unenlightened man, some fellow who had taken all the sparkle out of Mary?
Miss Jordan had met Cobourn but once, on a day spent with her friend in the country, and she had described him to herself as a celibate lamb. Not a provocative type unless his appeal was to the protective and the maternal in woman. Mona Jordan considered these qualities over-written, the products of Victorian sentimentality, and being somewhat hard and handsome she had played with men yet never been fooled by them. Such obvious creatures! But was it not possible that Mary had conceived a protective passion for that frail creature, John Cobourn, only to discover that he accepted her as a horticultural adjunct, and that Mary had gone sterile. No pollen, no fruit. There were deeps in Mary, profundities of the flesh and of the spirit that might become soured and turgid when their urges were unsatisfied.
Miss Jordan played with the problem. With indirect approach she tried to challenge some confession. They had been to an Islington Picture House to see a picture—the theme of which had been stolen from a novel, and it told a somewhat macabre story of life on the land. The hero, nagged to madness by his wife because he was failing to make his farm pay, shot her after she had poisoned his dog. The novelist had made the wife shoot the husband, but the film folk had inverted the story, and made a ridiculous and grim mess of it, even to showing the hero harvesting a vast wheat field with a scythe.
Following the broad pavement of Upper Street, Mona took her friend's arm.
'Rather a macabre show. Not encouraging to the young who have ideas about the land.'
'Oh, just Hollywood tosh,' said Mary.
'English—not U.S.A., my dear.'
'Well, anyway it was tosh. You'd think life on the land was 101 A.D. And making a fellow cut a fourteen acre field with a scythe.'
'Aren't scythes used these days?'
'In odd corners, and by ancient men. Even our grass orchards were machine cut. I used to do it.'
'Find it boring?'
Mona felt Mary go stiff.
'Boring, no. Nice rhythm, and the smell of the grass, and the trees all around you.'
Then, she shut her mouth upon sudden silence, as though conscious of having given herself away.
'I thought you were rather fed up, my dear.'
Mary gave a little sniff.
'Oh, in bits. Some people take too much for granted.'
Mona Jordan let the subject lapse. So, it would appear that life on the land had not been all muck and misery, but that some other disharmony had developed.
Had John Cobourn asked for too little or too much, or asked for it in the wrong way?
Dr. Ghent had read in a monograph on melancholia that November is the suicide month in more northerly climes, when leaves fall and days grow dim, and the work of the year is over, and man's vitality sinks with the sap.
This particular November chose to be a most poisonous month. It rained perpetually, or if it did not rain there was frost and fog. The colour seemed to go out of the world in one swift blaze, leaving the winter woods like the burnt-out skeleton of a pantomime scene. Ghent got a stiff neck driving to an emergency case at three in the morning, and for most of the month his cervical spine had grit in it, causing him to curse when he raised his head from his pillow.
Ghent was visiting Hazeley, and Sir Thomas was his patient, a difficult patient, not because of his ailment, but because of the lack of desire to be well. The works were running down, and the mainspring had lost its temper. Harsh human happenings can cut and mark the end of a cycle; there is a freezing pause, and the curve sinks fast.
On a particular morning Ghent found Sir Thomas in the orchard watching his men planting young trees. The baronet's prodigious nose was decorated with a dewdrop, and his hands were stuffed into his overcoat pockets. He smiled at the doctor, and his smile and his eyes were softly sardonic.
'How's the neck, Stephen?'
'Isn't it my business to ask questions, sir?'
'Good. Planting trees is a—'
'A silly business, at my age.'
Ghent smiled back at him
'Noblesse oblige. Gentlemen plant trees; cads cut them down. It's a good gesture.'
'I suppose so. By the way, seen our friend Cobourn lately?'
'Not for two or three weeks.'
Sir Thomas removed the dewdrop.
'I'm afraid he is rather under the weather, poor lad.'
Dr. Ghent, responding to the suggestion, drove from Hazeley to Rose Hill. His neck was hurting, especially so when he had to turn his head in reversing the car. A healer is not supposed to suffer from pain or depression, and Ghent fought both as he had fought aggressive 'Rugger' opponents in the mud and rain. Funny business, life! Here was an old man wilting because a young wench had got herself killed, and so saved him much heart-burn and worry. But wasn't that a rather cynical reflection? Ghent eased his car past a dung-cart that was claiming more than its share of the road. The man in charge was mooching drearily beside the horse. Ghent may have felt like cursing his neck, but he did not curse the carter, having some sympathy with distributors of dung. A dull and a dirty job, not conducive to intellectual aliveness, or to the curiosity that climbs towards invention. Let the highbrows complain of the lack of culture among the men who laboured with their hands. Aesthetics were for the few who had leisure and could use that leisure. The soil had a culture of its own, and any bright young scribbler might find that intellectual prigging could be chastened by a day at clearing ditches or forking dung, and so return to his chair less sure that all pens were mightier than a labourer's hands.
Sir Thomas Craven's trouble was Pruritus, an old man's itch, and yet Ghent had no doubt but that it had been produced by an emotional shock. The skin and the soul of man are in intimate sympathy, and Ghent could remember a fellow student who had suffered from an attack of psoriasis before every examination, and an unmarried gentleman of forty who developed facial rosacia whenever a new curate came to the parish. Illicit blushes and flushes! The white gate of Rose Hill confronted him, an austere and very clean gate, and yet—Well, how was John Cobourn getting over that strange and tragic obsession? What form would his emotional pruritus take, if any? A dog, and a girl both dead in a month, and the faithful Mary in flight from a man who had regarded her as a reliable robot. Ghent looked at the grey landscape and decided to turn his car before going in to see John Cobourn.
He rang the bell, and was met by Euphrasia, a Euphrasia who was glad to see him. She took his coat and hat.
'Well, Euphrasia' and Ghent glanced at the parlour door, 'how's the world going?'
Euphrasia also glanced at her master's door, and gave a shake of the head.
'I think he is lying down, Doctor,' and she lowered her voice. 'He would do too much, getting the fruit in.'
'Any word from Miss Marner?'
'Not a word, sir.'
'Anybody in her place?'
'No, Doctor. It's all being too much for him.'
Ghent nodded at her and crossed the little hall to John Cobourn's door, knocked, turned the handle and put on a cheerful face.
'Can I come in?'
'Hallo. Yes, come in, Doc.'
'Thought I would just look in. Nothing professional. Beast of a day. Euphrasia tells me the apples are in.'
Cobourn was lying on his couch with his head on a cushion, and he was not lying like a man merely stretched at his ease. To Ghent the attitude suggested the slackness of surrender, a weariness that was emotional, melancholy, November gloom. There was a fire burning in the grate, but it was a depressed fire, sulky and flameless. Ghent went and squatted before it and taking the poker stirred up its vitals.
'How has the back been, old man?'
Cobourn eluded so direct a question.
'I rather think of selling out. Don't feel able to cope with things.'
Ghent squatted and warmed his hands.
'Don't be an ass. You have got Novemberitis, and I have a stiff neck. What would you do without Rose Hill?'
'I don't quite know.'
'A bath chair and Bournemouth. Ye gods! You have made this place, and you can't rot on it. Finance all right?'
'Yes, and we have had a good crop and sold it well.'
'Good. Fact is, John, you have been doing too much. Why not another dog? I know of a jolly little Cairn pup.'
'I'll think about it. I'm still sore about the other one.'
'I know, my dear chap. I wept when I had to put my old bull-terrier away. Men working all right?'
'They are good chaps.'
'Well, why not get some more help?'
There was silence, and Ghent squatted, conscious of being on sensitive ground. Cobourn might well be feeling sore on the subject of women.
'Another girl to do the office stuff for you, and—'
The voice from the couch had a ready answer.
'I don't think I want any more petticoats about the place.'
Stephen Ghent left it at that, but with mental reservations as to Cobourn's hostility towards the sex. That might be understandable, since it had become evident to all the neighbourhood that Sanchia Craven had been killed after a festive night with a man. That must have soured the bitter-sweetness of a memory. And then that good ass Mary taking to her heels at the very moment when the emotional moment might have been hers! Ghent could have smacked Mary Marner's ample posterior. Poor Cobourn needed mothering and wifing, if the woman had plenty of bosom and comfortable arms.
Ghent had a few words with Euphrasia, and more words with Simon
Furze whom he found ploughing with the light tractor. Furze
throttled the machine down, and standing between the stirs, looked
steadfastly at the doctor. Yes, John Cobourn had been doing too
much, and doing it like a man who had sought to drug himself with
Fog, veritable old-time London fog, with a tinge of yellow in it. Mary Marner, and Miss Jordan, passing along Upper Street, were each in a monosyllabic mood. Mary was looking and feeling a little yellow; she had a fog-face. Too much sitting about was not suiting her after the activities and healthinesses of Rose Hill.
Mona Jordan diverged towards a shop window. Upper Street might not be Mayfair, but it could display clothes that were far less fusty than Mary's. Mary showed no interest. She hovered from one foot to the other, and stared cow-eyed at the traffic.
'That's rather chic,' said the voice of the temptress.
'Well, look, my dear, that flowery thing.'
Mary looked but perfunctorily so.
'Which? That one?'
'Much too soppy.'
Her friend gave her a cozening look.
'I think it would suit you.'
'Me? Don't be silly.'
Miss Jordan smiled at the window.
'Well, if we are being frank, you look like a rag-bag these days.' Mary took no offence, but looked stubborn.
'Not interested in frocks.'
To Miss Jordan the diagnosis was obvious. A woman who was not interested in frocks or in her personal appearance was—in the human sense—a sick woman. Something very wrong inside, secret disharmony, matter for a psycho-analyst. But Mona Jordan did not consider that an expert was needed. For some reason Mary Marner was out of love with herself, perhaps because the sweet passion for some other person had been thwarted. There was nothing wrong with Mary's work at the office, but something was wrong with the essential self of Mary.
Mona Jordan might criticise a friend's décor, but she had no desire to interfere with her emotions or her morals. To many an elderly soul who may confront the new world with some honesty and intelligence the younger generation displays a tolerance and a sense of reality that are refreshing and sometimes disconcerting. Serious old gentlemen may deplore what they describe as the loss of Victorian discipline, and the lapse of respect for property and the conventions. The new world has a new staging and a clarified atmosphere. It may appear at times to be a little cynical and disillusioned, the attributes of a period of transition when the immortal snake is shedding its old skin, and perhaps feeling a little raw and naked. There is indeed a kind of nakedness about the young which is advertised even by their clothes, garments of a new freedom. One human scene follows another, and the elders sitting in the stalls may be a little shocked and puzzled by the new stagecraft and its implications. The old comfortable world has lost its cushions, a world that was comfortable for the few, and limited for the many. The younger generation has opened its eyes to social phenomena which appear to it to be unsocial, and which the older generation took for granted.
So, Miss Jordan did not preach, she planted a seed and let it germinate. Life should fructify on its own roots and not be coerced by vigorous and egotistical old ladies who spend their energies in cultivating charity, a charity from which the essential humanism may be lacking.
At Canonbury Square Mona Jordan was the recipient of a number of letters, and not business letters, for no less than three men were trying to persuade her into matrimony. Mary received never a letter, for her rather distant relations were distant in other ways, and Mary could not help looking a little longingly at her friend's correspondence. London can be a lonely vastness crammed with strangers, the country more intimate and friendly, and Mona would laugh over some of her letters, and chatter to Mary.
'Here's Robert again. Poor dear old Robert. He is going bald, and I don't like baldness in a man.'
Mary munched toast. John Cobourn had fine hair. Yet she did not suspect Mona of wilful and sly provocation. Mona was not rubbing it in. What Mary needed was a dose of feminine emulation, Vitamin something or other, Eve's apple.
One morning Mary had a letter. It came from an ancient aunt who spent her life in improving occasions. Mona saw her chance.
'How's Shallon getting on?'
Mary continued to munch toast.
'I haven't the faintest idea. This is Aunt Eliza.'
'Sorry. I thought it smelt of apples.'
Mary was silent, frowning.
'Don't you ever hear from the old place?'
'No. I don't want to.'
'My dear, that seems rather—'
'Well, they don't know my address.'
Mona assumed surprise.
'Do you mean to say that you didn't leave any address?'
'Oh, shut up,' said Mary, 'mind your own business.'
There was pique in the retort and more than pique. Mona smiled to herself over her eggs and bacon. Obviously, most obviously, something had happened down yonder, and Mary had panicked or flounced off in emotional anger.
But the seed had been planted, and watered by vague yearnings and urban boredom, and it sprouted. The cultivator would be out at Rose Hill, turning up sweet brown soil; apples would be looked over in the store, fragrant greasy apples. Pruning knives and shears would be at work, and later the wheeled sprayer would be shrouding the trees in grey mist. Grease bands would be looked to, logs sawn on wet or frosty days, and bracken spread over tender plants. The life on the land went on, an assuaging and creative life.
Mary was provoked. She sat down one evening and wrote to Euphrasia. It was a somewhat stilted letter, and it made no apologies, and asked no questions. Mary just said that she was in business, and she wished Euphrasia a happy Christmas, but she did give her address.
Uphrasia's letters were few and far between, and she put on solemn spectacles for the reading of them, and Mary's letter gave her a solemn face. Euphrasia, having read it twice, let it lie in the white hollow of her fat little lap, and removed her glasses. No need for spectacles in conning this particular case. That which lay behind it all stuck out like a lout's lower lip.
Mary did not mention Mr. Cobourn. Mary said she was in business. Mary wished Euphrasia a happy Christmas. And why had Mary written at all? Not to say that she was sorry, but to provoke a reply from Euphrasia. Yes, that was it. Mary was ashamed of her disgraceful flitting, and was shy of bringing man into the picture. Mary wanted news, and to recover contact. News? But had not the silly wench heard of the Craven tragedy? Surely she must have seen an account of it in the papers?
Euphrasia sat down complete with spectacles that evening, and with heavy breathing and a very solemn face indited a reply to Canonbury Square. Euphrasia also addressed frank asides to herself. 'Don't be a nasty cat. If anything comes of anything don't spill her saucer of milk. Besides, she's a good girl, only a bit of a fool, and you've been a bit of a fool in your time. Think of the escape you had, with that bit of fever wanting to get into the house. Nice life you'd have had, or the chance of looking for another place, and at your age. You be human, Miss Euphrasia Chalmers.'
Should she tell Mr. Cobourn of Mary's letter? Anything to cheer up the poor gentleman, but Miss Marner's letter could not be described as a tonic, so Euphrasia did not say to him—'I've heard from Miss Marner. She's in business in London.' Business—indeed! Euphrasia was a little critical of young women who appeared to be afraid of the scullery and the kitchen and who thought themselves superior when they put on town frocks, manicured their fingers, and tapped away at typewriters. All this schooling made snobs.
Euphrasia's letter lay on the Jordan-Marner breakfast table. Mary glanced at the post-mark, and gave a little gulp. She did not open the letter in public, but put in away for secret and private perusal. Mona saw and said nothing. Mary was scared, which was good.
The letter travelled to Southampton Row, and back again to Canonbury Square, and was opened that evening in Mary's bedroom. She sat on her bed, with her legs wide apart, and her face screwed up, for Euphrasia's letter was a bombshell. Emotions exploded with it.
Mr. Cobourn had not been at all well. He had been working too much, trying to drive the van and to cope with all the office work. Additional help? Well, under certain circumstances Mr. Cobourn might be shy of engaging unreliable young persons who left you in the lurch in the middle of the apple harvest. Mary wriggled. Euphrasia was being unpleasantly frank in a conversational manner just as though Mary was a fellow gossip. And then of course Miss Craven's death had upset him. Mary thrust her legs out and stared stupefied at those words. Sanchia Craven dead! She read on. Of course Miss Marner must have seen the news in the paper how Miss Craven had been killed in a road accident driving back from London. Not that Euphrasia had credited the romance with any permanent value but Mr. Cobourn had been engaged to Miss Craven though Euphrasia had gathered that Mr. Cobourn had broken it off.
Mary laid the letter in her lap, and sat upright, her hands pressing hard upon the bed. Her lips moved, repeating in silence inward words.
'You bloody fool!'
She appeared at the evening meal in a mood of absence and distraction. She ate too fast, clattered with her knife and fork like a hen pecking at food remnants in a bowl. She stirred her tea vigorously; it might have been glue. She had nothing to say, and was uncomfortably mute. Yes, Mary was very much upset about something. The morning's letter? Most probably.
'Care to go to a show?'
Mary dropped her lashes.
'No, going to bed. I have a hell of a headache.'
'Call it heart-ache, my dear,' said Mona to herself, lighting a cigarette.
Mary went to her bed, but not to sleep until sheer emotional weariness had its way with her. Time is supposed to cure lovesickness, but in Mary's case it had produced other pains, and Euphrasia's letter had been like a rough hand peeling the dressing off an unhealed wound.—Oh, what a selfish ass she had been, a veritable she-lout, clumsy with jealousy! And he was tiring himself out, and in pain because two deaths had wounded him, and she had played the jealous coward.
What could she do? How could she explain anything? Confess to mean envy and hatred and animal impulse? She was not sorry for herself; she could have smitten her own face as she had struck that other face. Even the memory of that blow hurt her, and in the strange world of remorse she found herself pitying the woman whom she had hated. The revulsion in her was complete, a transformation that revived the woman, even in her visualising of the past. She saw her Shallon self with cruel vividness, a she-lout in breeches, striding about, a veritable hobbledehoy, ungraceful and ungracious, clumsy, slangy. How else could he have seen her save as a kind of she-man in trousers, he who was so sensitive to beautiful things? Even the apple-blossom should have made her wiser and taught the essential otherness of Eve.
Mary made a terrible mess of her typing next day. She was at work on the poems of a very new and unknown poet, and the product was so snack-bar and ejaculatory that Mary's blunders might have been part of the poetical eccentricity. Her punctuation stuttered. She became exasperated with herself and the bard, so much so that she marched into Mona's room, and deposited the manuscript in her friend's desk.
'I can't manage this stuff. It gives me the jitters.'
Mona smiled up at her.
'All right. I'll give it to Corah. Why not go to the Zoo, and
have a chat with the monkeys?'
Loyalty is one of the most rare and precious of virtues and Simon Furze possessed that virtue. There was in this lean, laconic, round-backed countryman an integrity that could salute and serve other integrity, and salute and serve it with affection. Furze would have said in his simple way that John Cobourn was a good man and did good things, that he had never been caught in a mean act, and that he had eyes and hands and profound knowledge. And Simon Furze was troubled. A voice was telling him that the master was finished. Now Simon had been something of a wanderer before coming to Rose Hill; he had served sundry masters, respected some of them, but loved none. John Cobourn was different; he had a lovely understanding of men and of the country scene, and the sacred qualities of the soil. He neither starved nor exploited his men or his soil. Furze was worried. He did not want to lose a master or a place both of which had won his loyalties. He had taken root at Rose Hill.
Furze did not talk to Tom Lucking of his forebodings, for Tom was too much of a cheerful gossip, but he did talk to Euphrasia.
'I don't like the look of him. He don't seem to have no heart for anything.'
Euphrasia agreed. It was sad to see the master so down and spiritless.
'Maybe it's the winter.'
'We've had other winters, and he wasn't like this—I reckon the dog's death, and that there wench's death, hurt him more than he'd ever allow.'
'Yes, poor dear. And then, Miss Marner—'
'That was a dirty trick she played on us.'
Euphrasia looked judicial.
'There may be more to that than you know, Simon Furze.'
'Maybe there is, but she shouldn't have done it.'
Furze watched his master like a dog. He was ready to trundle the wheeled chair anywhere when the weather was possible, but hard frosts or rain made sitting in a chair a sorry business. John Cobourn was rarely on his feet these winter days. During other winters he had set to with the pruning shears, and done light jobs, but now he had become a sitter. His face had thinned and aged, and his eyes had lost their liveness.
'Sure,' said Furze to himself, 'he looks at things like a man who's dying inside, and won't see another fruiting.'
Early in the new year Sir Thomas Craven had a stroke. It left him able to mumble only a few words, and paralysed in one arm and leg. To Ghent, who attended him, he would bring forth a most peculiar phrase, 'Sorry to procrastinate', and there was profound significance in the saying. For Ghent had a feeling that in some strange way Hazeley had become a happy house, and that an old man found it good to be dying. Sir Thomas could scribble a few words with one hand, and for Ghent he pencilled a puckish message.
'Don't try to mend the old crock. Old crocks may be glad to be broken at the well.'
Sir Thomas did not procrastinate for long. He died in his sleep, and his face had a smile on it, and had lost its twisted smirk. Ghent, when he looked at him, felt that all benign old gentlemen should die in this way, like an apple falling in the fullness of time.
'Sentimental, I suppose, but, damn it, where would one be without sentiment?'
John Cobourn, hearing the news, lay with his eyes closed, and was moved to envy an old man who had fallen asleep. He too was feeling old, as old as the winter, and there seemed to be no foretaste of Spring in him. Life could be too full of pain and frustration. Always, so far as his body was concerned, the winter was a bad season, and there were days when he could stand only for a few minutes, but to suffer in spirit might be more devastating than to suffer in the flesh, and to bear both seemed beyond him. There is a kind of climacteric in man's life, and to John Cobourn it had come prematurely, a crisis that may end in new strength and inspiration, or in defeat, cynicism, surrender. There was no cynicism in John Cobourn's mood. He was like a very sick child that needed mothering.
Stephen Ghent was nonplussed. There seemed to be so little that
a physician could do in such a crisis. Tonics? Pooh! The whole
pharmacopia could not help a man whose inward self had wilted. His
patient had lost all interest in that which had piqued him. He lay
supine, in body and soul.
One morning Ghent found Cobourn with a manuscript lying on his lap. It was the half-completed book which should have been Cobourn's confession of faith. He had been reading it like a man reading old love letters, with a wincing incredibility over their emotional flavour, emotion that was dead.
'What have you got there, old man?'
'Oh, just something I had been writing.'
'Yes, and country things.'
'Good idea. I'd like to read it.'
'I'm afraid it is sentimental rubbish. I'm not going on with it.'
'Haven't the energy or the desire.'
Ghent picked up the manuscript in its brown holder.
'I'd like to read it. You know country things pretty well, my lad. I'll play critic.'
'I'm afraid it will bore you.'
Ghent sat down that evening to read 'The Country Scene'. Part of it had been typed by Mary Marner, and the rest was written in Cobourn's neat script. Stephen Ghent had not much time for literary matters; the daily papers and professional journals filled most of his leisure, but he had a feeling for simplicity and sincerity and the country scene, as a plain man saw it. Bored? He was not. This was reality, the sweet sanity of the soil, the fruits of the earth, labour and love set down in pleasant prose. Damn it, here was the real John Cobourn. Such a book as this should not be derelict, but be completed. If Cobourn could recover the spirit of the work, then, indeed, he would be saved.
Certain passages remained in the doctor's consciousness, like the pictures they had painted, ploughland almost purple under the after-glow, the sheen of April grass in the self-same light, the shabbiness of March, the Year's Rag Bag as Cobourn called it, the gleam on fruit trees when the buds began to swell, pear and apple blossom, a great wild gean in flower on the edge of a high wood. Cobourn had much to say about birds. He accused the tits of being the most mischievous and destructive members of the feathered world. The little brutes were lovely and had got themselves swathed in sentiment, but they could be a feathered nuisance to the grower of fruit. And that gaudy pest the jay! Most people knew its raucous squawk, but how many of them had heard and could recognise the liquid endearments of the jay when making love? Ghent could not.
Cobourn had some scathing things to say on the urbanites who expected cheap fruit. Did the dwellers in cities know anything of the labour involved in the life of an apple tree, the experimental work upon stocks, grafting, the shaping of the tree, planting, pruning, grease banding, spraying, thinning the fruit if necessary, picking, storing, grading, packing for the market? And one damned Spring frost could nullify a year's care and labour, and land you in economic distress. Cheap fruit indeed, for ignorant, careless people.
Ghent was troubled by the last paragraph. It had been written recently, or so he surmised, and it sounded a note of pessimism.
'I feel that I am wasting my time upon this country crusade. The old world is dead, the craftsman dying. We shall see no more smiths and wheelwrights, millers and cabinet-makers, bell-founders and weavers. The individual is becoming lost in the mass. Even the apple tree—as an individual—is becoming standardised. We shall be expected to grow and market about six varieties, and all the various virtues of fecundity will pass. When one reads and thinks of the old French horticulture, the rich and lovely variousness of the older word, one is moved to sadness and regret. Our orchards may become like standardised building estates.
'I sometimes wonder whether Thomas Hardy foresaw all this. Also, I am moved to wonder whether his pessimism was not justified. We may be the helpless victims of an impersonal and inexorable fate. Things happen whether we will them or not; we become involved in tragedies that mock our futile planning.
'Strange, mad moods descend upon man, some kind of cosmic insanity. I have seen war. The world may become but a herd of Gadarene swine.'
Ghent closed the manuscript, and sat in deep thought. Was the life of a healer of no account? Had not life itself powers of self-healing?
After three days of angry procrastination, Mary made herself to reply to Euphrasia's letter. She said that she was sorry to hear of Mr. Cobourn's illness, and sorry she was, and beginning to admit it with fierce self-scorn. She said that she had been shocked by the news of Miss Craven's fatal accident, and that too was true, for Mary Marner's hard shell had cracked. A new compassion was vibrant in her. Then came the pregnant part of her letter. She confessed to Euphrasia that she would not have left Shallon, or left in such haste, had she known that Mr. Cobourn was fated to suffer such trouble.
When Mary had written this she fell into a panic mood of self-abasement and humility. She tore up the letter. What a cheap slut she was to write in this way to a servant. And yet, Euphrasia was not quite a servant, but a plain woman who did her job and enjoyed her piece of gossip, and sometimes was out of temper. 'Oh, you snob!' said Mary, for Euphrasia was good country home-baked bread. She did not turn sour on her job, or run away from it, or feel put upon or unappreciated. Such a woman was made of human stuff, and could endure, and remain loyal, just like a tree that could be bent in winter but stuck to the soil and its roots.
What did Mary do but burst into tears and blow her nose and rewrite the letter, and with more feeling and less self-anger. She went out and posted it, and met her friend, a friend who was not blind to blobby eyes and red eyelids.
Sob-stuff? Sob-stuff was quite out of fashion save on the Films. Mona Jordan and Mary walked back together, making casual conversation, until Mona Jordan uttered a challenge.
'Why don't you spit it out, my dear?'
Miss Jordan slipped her latchkey into the lock. As a matter of fact Mary had forgotten hers.
'You know perfectly well. Southampton Row is not being a success. Come up to my room, and let's have it out.'
Mary blew her nose once more.
'I've been a fatuous fool.'
'Never a fool—never wise.'
'Yes, but one may mess things up, and then—'
They were climbing the stairs, Mona leading.
'Mr. Cobourn married yet?'
'No. The girl who—'
'Mooched off and left him?'
'No, got killed in a car smash. I don't think it would have been any good, anyhow.'
Miss Jordan opened her door.
'Squat on the bed and tell me about it.'
Mary sat down on her friend's bed, knees together, hands clasped, shoulders squared. She was conscious of a revolt against slang and casualness. She wanted to be woman, aware of the loveliness of life and of loving, and once more mated to the doing of simple and essential things. There could be a dignity in the country scene, old verities, immortal beauties. This London world could be so cheap and trashy, or insincere and exhibitionist like Bloomsbury poetry and the new art. These precious young posers did not know their job. Mary was thinking of a world in which real things were done, and of the man who did them. She could love them as he loved them, and in loving them give him that which her raw young self had grudged.
She became a creature of new candour and of competence.
'Yes, I may as well tell the truth. I was in love with John, and when that other girl—I behaved like a she-lout and a coward. I feel ashamed now, but not ashamed to confess.'
Mona Jordan was sitting before her mirror. She turned on her stool and looked at her friend, a Mary who had become strangely different. Mary's face had softened. She looked almost comely, and Mona Jordan had her inspiration. Mary was woman, and needed womanly décor, and the cult of things feminine.
Mona's voice was gentle. It had shed its smartness and its slang.
'Thank you, my dear. What you want is life, not a typewriter.'
Mary sat very still.
'But one can't go back.'
'After all that? I couldn't face it.'
'I think you could. Why not take a day off?'
'I'll think it over.'
Miss Jordan turned again to her mirror, and looked, not without satisfaction, at her hair, eyebrows, lips, complexion. She could suppose that life on the land was not all lipstick and pretty-pretties, but Mary had been too thoroughly rustic in her boots and breeches and mannish hair and hats. The French idea was to be commended, six days of working utility, and on the seventh a sudden flowery femininity, silk stockings and sex. What kind of seventh day for Mary could one produce with attention to detail and the help of decorative art? And could Mary be persuaded? She was such a creature of stubborn honesty that she might insist upon going into the country like the Mary of old, capable, reliable, unintoxicating.
'I wish you would let me do something, my dear.'
Mary looked suspicious.
'Take your décor in hand.'
'Yes, you have never given yourself a chance.'
Euphrasia sat by the kitchen fire, spectacles on nose, reading Miss Marner's letter, and her blue eyes goggled over it. Well, well, well, Miss Mary had come down from the clouds and fallen upon Euphrasia's neck! Miss Marner was hating London and herself, and wanting to come back to Shallon. Not that she said so, but Euphrasia could read between the lines, and Euphrasia considered all the possibilities, and considered them with solid solemnity. Supposing? Euphrasia sucked a finger. Yes, Miss Mary would be a pleasant presence in the house, and easy to get on with, and if it did happen so—Moreover, the Rose Hill world was becoming more and more depressed. The poor master was like a plant with the wilt, always lying about, hardly going out, mostly in pain, and taking more dope. Euphrasia kept a troubled eye on the glass tubes beside his bed and couch.
Should she tell him of Miss Mary's letter? Would that be quite fair to Miss Marner? Yet, it might cheer him up to know that Mary Marner was bitterly sorry for her tempestuous leaving. The reason was obvious, oh—so very obvious. Euphrasia was still debating the problem when the front door bell rang, and Euphrasia went to answer it.
Dr. Ghent, Dr. Ghent with a brown parcel in his hand! Euphrasia's face was welcoming. Dr. Ghent was a man who did you good by looking at you.
'Well, Euphrasia, how are things?'
'Not too good, sir.'
'He doesn't seem to have any heart in him for anything, sir.'
She took the doctor's coat and hat and Ghent went to Cobourn's door. He opened it softly upon a dimness, curtains half drawn, grey light simmering in, a fire burning. John Cobourn appeared to be asleep. But he was not asleep, and there was languor in the way he turned his head. His eyes were two dark hollows.
'Hallo. Brought back your book. It is the best thing I have read for years.'
Was there some brightening of that thin face? There was, but momentarily so. Cobourn's face was so thin that Ghent might have described it as two profiles stuck together.
'Glad you like it. I thought it rather wind on the heath, brother.'
'Rot! It makes me think of Richard Jefferies and old Gilbert White.'
Cobourn smiled faintly.
'Administering a tonic or dope?'
'Look here, Jack, you have got to finish that book.'
'Can't be done, my dear chap. The virtue has gone out of me.'
'Wait till the Spring comes. You're suffering from "Winteritis".'
Ghent remained chatting for ten minutes, and in his wilfully cheerful style trying to rouse some reaction in John Cobourn, but Cobourn made him think of a very old man who was content to lie abed or sit by the fire warming his lean shanks.
Euphrasia was waiting for the doctor, and she had a letter in her hand. She inclined her head meaningly towards her master's door, and Ghent followed her into the kitchen.
'I've had a letter from Miss Marner, sir. She's sorry she left us.'
Ghent did not ask to read the letter, nor did Euphrasia offer it to him.
'Good, reliable Mary. I think I know why she left. And you may have guessed it, Euphrasia.'
'It's an idea, Euphrasia. If Mary—Well, never mind.'
Ghent had been about to say that if Mary had been more like a good old fragrant cabbage-rose she might have filled the part, but breeches and hay-bind hair*! She was not the blessed damsel who could warm the senile melancholy out of man.
[* ebook editor's note: "hay-bind" is the word
which appears in the paper book.]
Mary Marner was looking in shop-windows, nor were they mere winsome windows, or wholly lingerie and modiste. Mary was looking at carpets and brocades, printed linen and cretonne, cushions, china, furniture, for, like many women when they came to maturity, she was desiring a home of her own. She had never had one. Canonbury Square was an improvisation, clean and comfortable, but not hers to cherish and enjoy. Even the bedspread was hired, and the pillows not quite personal. So, Mary looked in shop windows, and in her wholesome covetousness offered a prophetic smack to those Extremists who regard all personal possessions as an insult to Envy. Mary, having grown up with improvisations, had no appetite for Communal Living, that obsession of urgist ladies who would compel all other women's husbands to be scrap-fed and comfortless.
But Mary had her other problem to face. She had received another letter from Euphrasia. Euphrasia had said that she was sure that Miss Marner would be welcome were she to pay Shallon a visit. Yes, poor Mr. Cobourn was no better, pain and depression. They were very worried about Mr. John.
Mary's mood was that of Hamlet. To be or not to be?
When Mary had made her decision, and confessed it to her friend, Mona Jordan said, 'Wait a week.'
Mary stuck out her chin.
'I'd like to get it over.'
'Don't do that, my dear.'
'Stick your chin out. I'm going to take you in hand. Got any money?'
'Yes, quite a bit, but—'
'No "buts". "But" has been your trouble, my dear. You are going to have your hair waved by my particular man. You are going to buy a fur coat, and a flowery hat and the right sort of frock, and new silk stockings, and shoes, not brogues. And I, in person, am going to attend to your face.'
Mary gave a little self-conscious laugh.
'I'm not a looker.'
'My dear lass, you have never made the best of yourself. What you need is—glow.'
'Yes, just that, more colour, more sparkle. You want to look as if you thought life lovely, and you'll be lovely. A woman who is just porridge and doesn't try—will never be anything else but porridge and—without the sugar.'
Mary looked coy. She did not stick her chin out, for the secret self of Mary Marner was piqued by the proposition. Glow? Could she glow? Yes, inwardly, and Mona was proposing to illuminate the outer shell. Well, why not dare the experiment? If she could be just a little in love with herself she might have more to give to someone else, and that someone might see her differently.
'All right, I'll let you try. But—'
'There you go again. What you want, my dear, is more devil and a dose of vanity.'
Mary and Mona Jordan did not do their shopping in Upper Street. Mona had a friend and admirer, who also was a client, who was in 'Furs', and other commodities. Mary's fur coat was black caracul, and it cost her a third of what it would have cost in the West End. Marcel, Miss Jordan's hair-expert, surveyed Mary's head with Gallic horror, politely veiled, but was provoked into professional ardour. Something electric had to be done with this yellow thatch, and Monsieur Marcel gave three hours to it, and performed something of a miracle, for, when Mary looked in the glass and saw the masterpiece she was like a virgin to whom the Angel of the Lord had appeared. Her shock of hair had become a soft, waving fleece about and above an astonished and appreciative face.
Miss Jordan chose Mary's frocks and hats. A soft blue woollen dress simply made with fullness in front and long sleeves to hide ugly wrists. A blue, turned-up hat with coque feathers at the side showing the pretty hair and bringing out good points in her profile.
Art, cosmetic art! Mona took Mary into her bedroom and sat her down, and set to work. A little less eyebrow, some lipstick, but not applied too lavishly, and a delicate tinting of the cheeks. Mary sat facing the light, but Mona had hung towels over the mirrors. She stood back now and again to contemplate the picture.
'Not so bad. Now put that frock on.'
When Mary had donned it, she stood like an awkward and self-conscious flapper, confronting an audience.
'How do I look?' asked her eyes.
Mona Jordan smiled at her. The transformation was most promising.
'Don't stand like that. Relax.'
Mary slackened shoulders and knees, and Mona nodded. She saw a new Mary, comely in a large and buxom way, glowing, quaintly coy, but full of colour and appeal, a comfortable and a gracious creature.
'Good business. Now you can look. Try the long mirror.'
She whisked the towel from it, and Mary stood and stared, almost incredulously, like a wondering child. Her eyes said 'Is that really me?'
Mona let out a little laugh.
'Pretty good, what? Now then, what comes next?'
Mary was mute.
'No answer. Well, I'll tell you. You've got to feel sleek and saucy inside, like you look outside. Make it a matter of temperament. Choose your style. Feel happy inside and look happy. Be comfortable and warm and strong. If I were a sick man—'
And suddenly Mary fell upon her friend and kissed her. Miss Jordan laughed and kissed her in return.
'That's it, absolutely. Comfortable glow and a sense of soft
warmth. I'm pleased with my pupil. I pass you as fit.'
Mary wrote a letter, and it was to John Cobourn. She made her confession of failure, that is to say she asked to be forgiven for behaving as she had done like a graceless and ungrateful slut. She said that she had been greatly worried at the time by some personal problem, and that she now realised that she had not been quite responsible for her actions. But that was in the past. She had found work in London with an old friend, though it was not quite the life she wished for. She was coming down to Shallon one day to look up a few friends, and might she walk up to Rose Hill and see Euphrasia?
Cobourn was not moved to any deep emotion by the letter. Nor was he a man who bore malice, and he was too devitalised to respond to emotion. Poor Mary! Probably she had suffered some affair of the heart, and subsequent frustration. She was not the kind of girl to provoke romance.
John Cobourn replied unemotionally to her letter. He said that he was sure that Euphrasia would be glad to see her, and that as for any misunderstandings over her leaving he was ready to regard them as obsolete. To Euphrasia, when she brought in his tea, he gave the news:
'Mary Marner is coming down one day to see you.'
'Yes, and some friends at Shallon.'
And Euphrasia thought, 'Coo, are you still as blind, my dear, as
March can be a murderous month, especially so in its early phases, but Mary's day happened to be one of those bland occasions when the lion lies down and suns himself. It was to be an experimental day, and not spent thriftily, and Mary drove to Waterloo in a taxi and travelled first class. Mona Jordan had held a dress parade before breakfast and had discovered in Mary a charming amplitude and a provoking coyness.
'You'll do, my dear. Hold that expression.'
Mary looked out of the window, and saw Surrey cease to be bricks and mortar, and hygienic utility, or futility. The Downs were grey, the trees bare, but there was a purpling of the birches, and Scotch Firs and Spruces had a dark green glossiness. The sunlight lay upon the landscape, and as Mary gazed at it she was moved to strange yearnings, and to fear. Was she making a dreadful fool of herself? Would the day's happenings send her back to Canonbury Square like a shamed small girl who had been a failure at a party?
Shallon railway station was a mile or more from the village, and since Shallon possessed no taxis, Mary set out on foot. As the familiar valley opened up before her she was conscious of poignant emotion, hesitancies, doubts. Why had she played the jealous fool and run away from this lovely scene, country that was in her blood? The sun had strength, and she had stopped to unbutton her fur coat when she heard a car behind her, and Mary stood on the grass verge to let it pass.
But the car pulled up. A window was lowered, and a voice asked, 'Can I give you a lift?'
Mary's new face smiled upon the motorist, and then grew coy.
'Well, I'm damned!' said the voice. 'Why, it's Mary.'
Ghent opened the door, and his blue eyes stared. Mary it was, but a different Mary. Ghent had an eye for a comely wench, and this surprising vision provoked him. Fur coat, pretty hat, a colourful frock showing, lambent hair, and a face that glowed.
'You look in pretty good shape, my dear.'
Mary's lashes flickered.
'I feel it.'
Mary was taken into the doctor's car, and in more subtle measure. Shallon was less than half a mile away, but the doctor dawdled. He was taking in Mary in other and masculine ways, and asking himself questions, though he had the wisdom to put no direct questions to Mary.
'Liking London, Mary?'
'Not much. I thought I would take a day off and see a few people.'
'I am sure they will be glad to see you. By the way, where shall I drop you?'
'Oh, anywhere in the village.'
'Ye Olde Tea Shoppe?'
'Yes, that will do. I am going to see Miss Parker.'
Ghent wondered whether she was going elsewhere, and if there was any helpful significance in her visit and in her transformation. A fine, sonsie wench this, with a face that seemed to have come into flower. Art was not to be despised. Oh, no sir! Ghent dropped Mary outside the gate of the thatched house with its whimsy garden, and as she smiled and thanked him the man and the physician in him concocted a prescription. This young woman with her strong arms and buxom bosom—Mary was using scent—might be the perfumed angel capable of ministering to a frail man-child like Cobourn. More than the whole Pharmacopoeia—my good sir. Mary looked strong enough to carry John Cobourn upstairs and downstairs and into salvation chamber.
'Now, I wonder,' thought Ghent as he drove on, but wondering was as far as the situation would take him.
Mary opened the garden gate of the Tudor house and looked up at the lattice that had been hers. Windows opening upon flowers! She was in a sentimental mood and enjoying it, as she had enjoyed the appraising and appreciative surprise in Dr. Ghent's eyes. Had she, in truth, become a looker? Well, thank God for Mona Jordan and the art of feminine décor. She had become a graded apple, self-conscious Eve. And how would Miss Parker react?
The sandy severity of some Scotch ladies! Miss Parker was tall and bony, with a formidable nose and pale lashes, and she surprised you with a silly wee voice. Miss Parker was polishing the glass tops of her tables, and when the door let in Mary she was not welcoming.
'Not open yet.'
And then her ground-glass eyes set in a stare, and she stood straight and severe.
'Dear me, Miss Marner!'
Mary smiled at her and sat down on one of the Windsor chairs.
'Yes. Just down for the day. How nice the place looks.'
Miss Parker remained severe. She did not approve of aids to beauty, and Mary was flaunting femininity. Moreover, Miss Marner had behaved most ungratefully, and she had not the right to express radiance. Mary was conscious of her fur coat being appraised. How could a young woman of Mary's position afford such luxuries? The inference was obvious.
'Do you still serve morning coffee?'
'May I have some? I started very early.'
Miss Parker glanced severely at the grandfather-clock.
'At a quarter past eleven. It is not yet eleven. May I say, Miss Marner, that I consider your leaving—'
Mary rose smiling from her chair.
'I know. You must have thought me a casual sort of beast. I was, and I'm sorry. Well, I had better be getting along.'
Miss Parker gave a flick of the duster, and allowed Mary to reach the door, After all, the girl had apologised, and Miss Parker felt propitiated. Moreover, Miss Parker was interested. This transformation was very intriguing, and Shallon could be deplorably dull in winter, and there had been no exciting and human happenings since Miss Craven's death. Miss Parker relented, for she was ripe for a gossip; and the little gnomes in the garden were wagging their beards.
'I think I might manage some coffee in ten minutes.'
Mary faced about.
'How kind of you. I'd love it.'
'Well, sit down, my dear.'
Mary sat down, and Scotland, having exercised the proprieties, sent John Knox packing, and became wee and bonny. After all, she and Mary Marner had been friends, and Miss Parker succumbed to wholesome curiosity, and presented Mary with buttered scones as well as coffee.
Mary's innocence was not such that she did not divine Miss Parker's interest in her affairs. She was being explored, and Mary assumed an air of bright candour, and let Miss Parker hear about Mona Jordan, Southampton Row and Canonbury Square. She painted a pretty picture of herself as a contented partner in a flourishing secretarial agency. Hence, of course, the fur coat and the décor.
'One has to meet people, you know. All sorts of people. We have quite a number of distinguished authors on our books.'
Mary, having erected a screen of confidential candour, took the initiative, and put Miss Parker through her paces. How was the vicar, and poor old Miss Gentry? Yes, Dr. Ghent had given her a lift. What a jolly person! And that tragic business of Miss Craven. Mary had heard no details, and Miss Parker supplied them. Rumour had it that poor Miss Craven had been a little intoxicated. Terrible business! She had been dining and dancing in town, yes, and her man friend had been called to give evidence at the inquest. A gentleman named Harcourt Baskerville. A tragic and shabby affair. It had killed poor Sir Thomas.
Mary listened, but she asked no questions. She did not show any interest in Mr. John Cobourn's health. In fact, she did not mention him. Yes, she might be going up to see Euphrasia, if she had the time. Could Miss Parker give her lunch? Yes? That would be splendid.
The profundities and the simplicities may be very near together, and when a man is sick within, his self may grow shallow, even in its reflections. For many years John Cobourn had fought a fight of some significance, and created for himself a particular philosophy, a nature growth yet somewhat removed from nature. Have not Saints and Seers howled despairingly over the importunities of sex? For the truth is that normal man cannot live unsexed, even as many men cannot live without God. Cobourn's life had been celibate until that which he had put to sleep had been made to flare and to burn itself out into grey ash and frustration.
He would have said that he was like an old man at the end of his road, empty of faith and of natural urges, and looking cold-eyed at finality. Even the simple and lovely things of his own particular world now failed to move him. Whatever Ghent might say, John Cobourn had developed an obsession, that he was the victim of a slow paralysis. His wretched back was failing him. His legs felt futile. He lay about and saw himself as a creature becoming bed-ridden.
The winter was passing, and to Cobourn March always had been a month of movement and expectation. Almond blossom out, and the plum buds swelling, and the brittle chances of the Spring to be faced. No man can forecast what April and May will bring, drought or too much rain, or brilliant days and cruel frosty nights, when the sun opens the apple blossom for the nights to slay it. Rose Hill was not a frost-hole, and yet Cobourn had known one or two disastrous Springs when nine-tenths of the fruit-crop had been ruined, bracken blackened, and the sweet chestnut foliage scorched. He had experimented with orchard stoves and found the method unsatisfactory. The problem was to keep your warmth where it was wanted. The warm air drifted, and the cold sneaked in. A clean tilth was supposed to help in permitting radiation from a warmed soil.
Simon Furze had always observed in his master a certain eagerness and tension at this period of the year. The great gamble with nature was on, those critical weeks when the weather could be beneficent or cruel. Furze was weather-wise in a countryman's way. He had seen his master up early and out late, watching the sky and the wind, and reading or setting his thermometers. His eyes had seemed more blue and alive in the Spring. He would be restless before cold, clear nights. They promised peril.
But this Spring was different. John Cobourn was apathetic; he appeared to have surrendered to the inevitableness of nature's ruthless indifference. There was no fight in him. He lay on his couch behind a closed window. His tours of inspection were brief and perfunctory. His eyes did not see that which they had been so careful to see. And Furze noticed things about his master which shocked him. John Cobourn was careless about his clothes and there were days when his chin went unshaven.
Furze shook his head over such symptoms. When a real gentleman like Mr. Cobourn went slack in such ways, he was no longer John Cobourn, but a man profoundly sick. Furze held some primitive beliefs. He might have said that Sanchia Craven had brought the Devil into Rose Hill, not the Devil of violent acts, but of defeat and degeneration and despair. The proud spirit had gone out of John Cobourn. He was a creature of strange languor, who had lost the will to live and the joy in creating. To Simon Furze the future looked lamentable.
Nor was John Cobourn ever seen in the village, and Shallon missed him and his wheeled chair. People may gossip and gossip kindly, and tactless cronies blurted out remarks to Simon Furze over their evening beer.
'He be a sick man, Simon, a very sick man. I seed him t'other day out in the lane, and he never seed me.'
Furze was laconic.
'Maybe he didn't.'
'Well, I said to myself I did, that man's got dead eyes. He bean't long for this world.'
Furze was silent, but his Gossip persisted.
'Sort of fuddled too, he looked.'
'What d'you mean?'
'What I said, fuddled like.'
Furze looked fierce.
'It's you who be fuddled.'
Mary Marner came to the white gate, and resting her arms upon it, gazed at the familiar scene. How things could hurt you, and move you to mysterious anguish and poignant exultation! This gate was like a symbol of fate, or a simple structure giving pause to your breathing and your heart-beats, because so many significant things had happened here. That red car and tempestuous youth, the death-cry of a dog, her own agonies of jealousy. She looked at the white house with its dark thatch, and lattice windows, and let her chin rest upon her crossed hands. Was she afraid? She was. Now that her crisis was so near, she felt like funking it.
Should a strong young woman of eight-and-twenty shake at the knees? Mary gave a toss of the head, and then had to readjust her saucy hat. She opened the gate, and fell unconsciously into her mannish stride; her confrontation of an emotional crisis reverted to type. She did not ring the bell, but walked round to the kitchen window, and surprised Euphrasia kneading up something in a bowl.
Surprise it was. Euphrasia stood there with doughy hands pendant over the pudding bowl.
'Why, bless me, if it isn't Miss Marner!'
She put a hand to the window latch and pushed the casement open, and her fingers left a white mark upon the metal.
'Well, it is good to see you.'
Mary's eyes glimmered.
'And you, Euphrasia.'
Euphrasia's eyes were expressing pleasant and profound surprise.
'Why, you do look well.'
'I feel it.'
'Come in, Miss Mary. What a lovely coat! It suits you it does.'
Mary moved towards the back door, and Euphrasia, wiping her hands on her apron, questioned that movement. Why the back door? And what had happened to Miss Marner? She had come into bloom like an apple tree.
Euphrasia sucked a first finger, a gesture of hers when something puzzled her. Had Miss Marner found a gentleman in London? She looked like it, but then Euphrasia bit gently at her finger, and frowned over the problem. She met Mary at the kitchen door.
'Come in, Miss. Do you mind the kitchen?'
Mary smiled at her.
'I always loved your kitchen.'
'I'm making the master a sultana pudding.'
'That sounds comfortable.'
'Well, you make yourself comfortable in my old arm-chair.' Mary sat down, and then Euphrasia asked her a question.
'You'll see the master, won't you?'
Mary's face seemed to stiffen.
'I don't know whether he will want to see me.'
Euphrasia returned to her pudding bowl. She was conscious of a sense of tension. Here was Miss Mary all dressed up and different, and somehow looking scared. Well, she might have reason for that, but the master was not a man to scare one these days, poor dear. And exploring the emotional flavour of the case, she sucked her finger again, only to remember that a sucked finger should not go into a pudding.
'Bless me, I'm forgetting things.'
The cryptic remark found Mary staring at the kitchen range. If one could forget certain things! She moved uneasily in her chair.
'How is he?'
Euphrasia squared her shoulders.
'Now you have asked me something! If I were you, Miss, I'd see
Euphrasia Chalmers often wondered how she had been so wise in her deceit, for deceit it had been, and shrewd disloyalty, but Euphrasia had had her justification. She had dared to lie, and to lie with good will and compassion, because a quick feeling about things was active in her. Miss Mary was scared of facing Mr. Cobourn, and Mr. Cobourn—poor dear—might be scared of being seen by Miss Marner in his melancholy state. So, Euphrasia had closed the kitchen door on Mary, and crossing the hall had held a little imaginative conversation with herself outside the master's door. After all, an old woman could be sly and motherly in a good cause. Then Euphrasia had returned to the kitchen and Miss Mary.
'The master would like to see you,' which conceivably was true and might be argued on its merits.
Mary had risen and stood hesitant, with a hand to her cheek.
'I'm afraid, Euphrasia.'
'Nonsense, my dear. Just a word of warning. You'll find a change in him. Well, you'll see.'
And what did Mary see when she opened John Cobourn's door? A man lying on a couch in the shadow, dressed in shapeless and stained grey flannel trousers, and an old brown pullover, his soft shirt open at the neck. He wore no tie. His hair looked shabby, his face colourless and pinched. He was lying with his eyes closed, and in that moment something happened to Mary Marner. Was this prostrate, dreary and half-dressed figure—John Cobourn's? She caught and held her breath, shocked by the almost squalid change in him. Even the room had a stuffiness.
She saw his eyes open. They did not brighten, and had lost their intelligence. He looked at her as though she was not recognisable.
'Who is it?'
Mary was conscious of her heart beating hard and fast, but the fear had gone out of her.
'It's Mary. I have come down to see friends.'
Somehow it hurt her to look at him, unshaven, careless of his clothes, a creature of surrender and defeat. Her compassion wanted action. This stuffy room, and miserable fire! Some impulse made her take off her hat. She pulled up the blind, opened a window, and then kneeled down to stimulate the fire. There was a kind of anguished anger in her. She had left him to become like this.
The man on the couch watched her as a sick child might watch a nurse. His face was hazed with a languid wonder. The silence ravaged her. It had to come alive.
'I've been to see Miss Parker. Yes, I started early. Isn't the country looking lovely?'
She rose from her knees, and made herself face him.
'I haven't been to see the orchard yet. I found Euphrasia making a pudding.'
How blank it all sounded, and she was wanting to say so many other things.
He was looking at her wide-eyed.
'Is it Mary?'
'Of course it's Mary.'
His eyes closed.
'I had pain. Took something. I'm afraid I'm rather stupid.'
'Is there pain now?'
She was trembling, and trying to stiffen herself against almost uncontrollable impulses. Then, she became aware of his eyes looking at her again, more intelligently, and with wonder.
'You look different.'
She gave a little laugh that might have been a sob.
'I am different.'
She was conscious of being explored, and the exploration contained incredulity.
Then he said a thing that ravaged her.
'London must suit you. You look so well, Mary. I'm glad.'
He held out a hand. Hers met it.
'I'm glad too, but it isn't London.'
'No, you see—'
He looked at her with sudden, sorrowful comprehension.
'Yes, I have.'
His hand fell away from hers and lay limply on the couch. He closed his eyes, and his face looked a dead face. Again there was silence, a silence that ravaged her. It was he who broke it.
'You may like to look round, Mary. You will find Simon. I'm afraid I'm not up to coming with you.'
She rose from her chair.
'Yes, I'd like to. Please don't worry about me.'
He smiled vaguely.
'I'm glad things have gone well with you in London.'
Mary paused by the kitchen door. She had remembered to retrieve her hat.
'Oh, Euphrasia, I am going to see Simon.'
Euphrasia turned from her pudding bowl, and her eyes were appraising.
'How did you—?'
Mary's face seemed to flinch.
'It's rather dreadful. Has he been like that long?'
'Yes, poor dear gentleman. No heart for anything.'
Mary went out with those words haunting her. Her first visit was to the office. The sun was shining in, but the familiar room gave her a feeling of utter emptiness. The table, papers and ledgers were dusty, the typewriter covered. These simple symbols of defeat hurt her.
She closed the door and went in search of Furze, and found him hoeing round the fruit trees. He looked at her with peculiar hostility, and he did not salute her.
'Morning. Bit of a stranger, aren't you?'
He blurted out the words, and his eyes took note of her fur coat and her make-up.
'Yes, Simon. You're not liking me.'
He went on with his hoeing, round-backed and surly.
'No business of mine.'
She understood that he despised her.
'Yes,' and he did not look at her.
'I made a mistake.'
He grunted, and jabbed at the weeds, and understanding his stubbornness, she left him.
Mary wandered over the whole farm and purposefully so, and her verdict was that it had suffered with its master. The best of men need supervision and discipline, and are apt to slacken effort, perhaps unconsciously so, when there are no eyes to see, and no brain to organise and plan. Mary observed many things that Cobourn would not have tolerated in his more active days, weedy corners left uncleaned, a strawberry bed that was a disgrace, logans whose last year's canes had not been cut out, the manure heap not covered against rain. Granted that Simon and Tom had had more to do, and her own labour had been lacking, there were sins of omission here that angered her and much of her anger was against herself. But what was woman's verdict upon man when the woman was a shrewd and conscientious worker? That he was a messy and untidy beast, that he was subject to lapses into a dead-eyed casualness, and did not see what he did not want to see. His text could be—'That'll do; that's good enough.' But Mary's impression was reinforced when she looked into the machine and tool sheds. The motor-cultivator had filthy wheels; the tools, spades, forks, hoes etc. were not hung up as they should be, but stacked in untidy piles, and most of them were rusty. An unclean spade was a tool John Cobourn had not tolerated.
She had a few words—friendly words—with Euphrasia before returning to Shallon. Euphrasia's kitchen was as it had always been, and Mary said so.
'You keep up your standard, Phrasie. Men don't.'
Euphrasia beamed, and expressed certain opinions about men, and then qualified them.
'I don't mean him, poor dear. What with the pain and his poor weak back, I used to wonder—'
'How he carried on?'
'Yes, but too much may be too much.'
Mary was fastening her fur coat.
'Don't be surprised, Phrasie, if anything happens.'
'No, in other ways. You'll see.'
Mary walked down to Shallon with an open and tranquil face. She had obeyed one impetuous impulse, now she would obey another, but with far more steadfastness and courage. Miss Parker had lunch ready for her, cold tongue and trifle, and hot coffee, and Mary took off her fur coat and picked up her knife and fork.
'May I ask you something, Miss Parker?'
'Would you take me in again?'
'You mean board you?'
Miss Parker's austere face was crimped with astonishment.
'Why, well, yes I might. Does that mean—?'
Mary smiled up at her.
'Yes. I'm not such a fool as I used to be. One does learn things about one's self and about other people. I shan't let you down again.'
Miss Parker sat down abruptly on one of the hard chairs.
'Yes, I think I could. Does this mean that Mr. Cobourn wants you back?'
Mary's lashes were lowered.
'He knows nothing about it. I don't want him to know yet. Things have gone rather crooked up there.'
Miss Parker was not so austere that she could not see the light.
'Oh, well, I think I can manage, my dear.'
'Thank you,' said Mary.
Miss Jordan had been dealing with a tiresome client, an elderly gentleman who took his potency with great seriousness, and produced erudite books upon Economics. It was not that Miss Jordan's typist had got the gentleman's figures wrong; it was the professor who desired to alter Miss Jordan's figure. He had proposed to her on three occasions and Mona Jordan had made this last one final. She had said that he need not take this rebuff as a personal affront, for she was prejudiced against marriage, and was much too bossy to be any man's mistress.
Afterwards, she sat at her desk and smoked a cigarette and meditated. How was Mary getting on? And Marriage? It could be a messy business, and the lustful conceit of her elderly admirer had both amused and repelled her. Fancy going to bed with—that! For Mona Jordan's celibacy was the product of a supreme fastidiousness, and as yet—no man had persuaded her to smirch it. Moreover, she valued her independence and her success, and if ever she were to surrender to a man certain unique qualities would be essential.
But Mary? Mary was different, and Mona Jordan savoured the smoke of her cigarette, and wondered how Mary's adventure had prospered. She might lose a partner, but Mary would gain sweet scope for that which was inherent in her. Dear old Mary, striding about in breeches, and suddenly transformed into the role of Eve. Mona smiled at her cigarette smoke. She had done a good job on Mary. She had turned Mary into perfumed sentiment.
Miss Jordan had finished her office tea, signed letters, and was preparing for Canonbury Square when Mary appeared, a determined, buxom Mary whose hat had gone slightly awry. That too was an indication. Mary walked round the desk and kissed her friend with emphasis, a veritable Phoebe kiss. She unbuttoned her coat, and stood by the gas fire.
'Sorry. I'm going to leave you.'
Mona opened her cigarette case.
'No thanks, dear.'
'Omens good. Sorry, but not because they're good.'
Mary was frowning, her eyes set in a blue stare.
'I'm going back.'
'No. He knows nothing about it.'
Mona twisted the wheel of her lighter, and the little flame leaped up.
'Your own initiative.'
'Yes. I saw him. It hurt. He's—No, I can't tell you.'
'No need, my dear. I think I understand. It's a rescue.'
Mary put her head down on the mantelshelf.
'Yes. It made me feel ashamed. I'm just going back without saying anything. I've got to face it, take the risk.'
'Some risks, my dear, are worthwhile. I haven't faced up to mine
yet. Perhaps I never shall.'
One of the possessions Mary had abandoned in Shallon was her bicycle. She had said that she would not need the damned thing in London, and her machine was waiting for her in Miss Thomson's garden shed. She left it there. She would walk to Rose Hill, and the decision was significant, a shedding of breeches and mechanisms. Imagine Eve pedalling into Eden on a cycle, and God in the shadows, a dubious yet discriminating God. Even the Serpent might have been nonplussed, wondering how man would react to a casual creature who came sweating into paradise on wheels.
Mary walked, and Mary was the Spring. The sun shone upon lambent hair, and a colourful frock. Yes, attention to hair would be necessary, and beyond the skill of Shallon, but there was a fellow in Medworth who could play the artist. Shallon saw the new Mary, and wondered, and drew quite simple conclusions. Miss Marner had returned to her job, but judging by appearances that job would not be permanent.
Mary was looking a little flushed, nature as well as art. She came to the white gate and saw an early plum in flower, waving a snowy flag at her. 'Hallo, young woman! Well, good luck. We can't help ourselves, you know. The fate of fruit trees is to flower. The fate of women should be to love.' Mary nodded at the tree. Nature spoke to you if you had the ears to listen.
Mary opened the gate and walked in, along a track that needed
weeding, and past clumps of narcissi waving at her like spectators
watching a royal progress. The two Pyrus floribunda were
green with bursting buds, and near them an almond was shedding its
petals. Mary avoided the cottage, and went direct to the office. It
was unlocked and empty, and its silence and emptiness were
appealing. She hung up her coat and hat, found a duster in a
drawer, and proceeded to flick and wipe the dusty faces of familiar
friends, the typewriter, the telephone, the inkstand, ledgers,
books, the tables and chairs Then she sat down in her predestined
place. She found a tray full of correspondence, and she sorted out
the letters and read them. Whether they had been dealt with she
could not say, but one or two of them were suggestive in that they
reminded Mr. Cobourn that no answer to their communication of March
the So and So had not been replied to. Moreover, there were a
number of bills that had not been paid.
Simon Furze paused at his master's window, a bothered Furze. Ten loads of manure were due from Fox Farm, and they had not been delivered, perhaps because the last consignment had not been paid for, and Furze was out of derris, and lime sulphur. The motor cultivator was giving trouble, and needed an overhaul before the work of the year grew urgent.
Furze saw John Cobourn lying there, and Furze rapped on the window.
'May I have a word, sir?'
Cobourn turned with an air of languor, put out a hand, but could not reach the catch.
'What is it, Simon?'
His voice came muffled. Almost it was peevish. Furze put his face close to the window.
'We be wanting the dung for mulching.'
'Haven't you got it?'
'No, sir. Maybe—'
'Oh, yes, I forgot. I haven't sent a cheque. I'll do it sometime.'
Strange, baffling inertia! Furze scratched his chin.
'Sorry to worry you sir, but we be out of derris and lime sulphur.'
'Order them, Simon.'
'Very good, sir.'
Furze did not mention the cultivator. A fouled engine could be cleaned, but a man who was sick in body and soul might be beyond an overhaul. A new sparking-plug and new piston-rings needed! Furze slouched off towards the office, shoulders depressed, big bony hands pendant. He was not much of a penman, but he could make out an order for derris and lime sulphur. But how long could Rose Hill survive with the heart of it out of action?
Furze pushed open the office door, and stood staring. At the table sat Miss Marner, bright of face and bright of hair, a colourful Miss Marner, red of lip and smilingly serene. She was sorting papers.
'Well, Simon, anything I can do?'
Furze stood holding on to the door, and goggling at her. His dumbness was complete, and to Mary he suggested some grizzled anthropoid ape, who, for the first time, beheld woman.
'It's good to be back, Simon.'
His big feet gritted on the boards. He closed the door.
'Back? For good, Miss?'
'I hope so. It will depend, of course—'
'And he doesn't know?'
She nodded at him, and smiled.
'I expect he will have to find out, in his own time and way. Keep it secret, Simon, please.'
And suddenly his grim face broke into a grin.
'Surely. He needs a bit of a surprise, he does. Gosh, and he'll get it.'
'So may I.'
'Well, here goes, Miss. We're out of derris and lime sulphur, and the cultivator wants overhauling.'
'Right, I'll put in an order at once. Let's see, Fowlers of Medford used to service for us.'
'I'll ring them up and ask them to collect it.'
Furze's grin became something more subtle and benign. Almost he winked at Mary, and when he had closed the office door on her, he raised a rampant thigh, and slapped it thrice with emphasis.
Gosh, the master had a dose of medicine waiting for him!
Simon Furze kept his promise. In passing his master's window he found it open, and Cobourn standing there like a man who was on his feet for the first time after weeks in bed. He had not shaved, and the texture of his skin had lost its delicacy and looked shabby, and his eyes were dulled. His fingers were fumbling at a shirt button, and to Furze they were no more than white twigs.
'We've put in the order, sir.'
Cobourn did not question or divine the implications of the plural. He gazed vaguely at the Spring sky, a bounteous blueness with white clouds sailing. A blackbird was singing, and suddenly there came into John Cobourn's eyes a gleam of yearning and of pain. A bird's song, and glowing buds, and here and there a film of green. Something seemed to stir in him, the eternal joy and mystery of the Spring.
'I think I will come out and look round, Simon.'
'Shall I get your chair, sir?'
'No, I'll stroll.'
'Very good, sir. By the way, the cultivator needs an overhaul. We're phoning Fowlers.'
Cobourn did not appear to hear him. A little, wincing smile had come to his eyes and lips. In the past he had fought self-pity, but the jocund spirit of the young year both mocked and tantalised him. He was like an old man looking at youth, a youth that passed him by unnoticed.
Furze pushed his cap back and scratched his head. The master had gone moony, but that should be somebody else's affair.
'Things are looking good, sir.'
Cobourn heard him this time, and his eyes lost their vagueness.
'Plenty of flower buds, Simon?'
'Plenty, sir. You come and see.'
Cobourn went out into the hall, and put on a muffler and coat, for he had taken to coddling himself, and March sunshine and March shade could give you fierce contrasts. Furze was waiting, and Cobourn came to the parlour's garden door. He was hatless, and his eyes looked grey instead of blue. Furze opened the door for him, and watched his master's movements as a nurse might watch those of a child learning to walk. Cobourn's back was bent, and he moved in a queer stiff way, not lifting his feet, but letting them brush the ground.
'Where would you like to go, sir?'
'The young bush apples, Simon.'
'They're looking a treat, sir. That there winter spray does clean 'em up, and gives 'em a polish.'
They passed out of the garden gate to the broad grass trackway between the drifts, Cobourn still moving in that stiff-kneed, stilted way, as though his legs were brittle. And Furze was wondering. Had Miss Mary come back too late?
'The office must be in a tangle, Simon.'
'I'll go down there presently and try and straighten a few things out.'
Furze glanced at him quickly and with a sharp, blue-eyed stare. Well, it would have to happen sometime, like a kid blowing a dandelion puff, 'This day, next day, never.'
Cobourn turned aside towards the young trees. Clean and open-hearted they were, and well set with spaces. Cobourn touched them, and smiled. Soon the green buds would swell and become pink-tipped. Then, they would open, white flushed with rose, and show the pale gold antlers.
'Shall we be lucky, Simon?'
Furze answered him with sudden, inspired emphasis
'It's going to be a lucky year, sir. I feel it in my bones.'
Mary, glancing out of the office window, saw him, and went white. He was coming slowly down the path with that stiff-kneed, stilted movement of the legs, his arms hanging like the arms of some wooden figure pinned to the body. There was no alertness of the eyes. They might have been focussed on some distant object. For a moment or two Mary sat rigid, afraid as she had never known fear before. Then, she moved her chair sideways to face the typewriter; a sheet of paper was ready in it, and her fingers played upon the keys. Cobourn had passed out of sight, but she knew that he must be close to the door.
He was. He had paused there with abrupt surprise, and his face had lost its deadness. Someone typing? The familiar clatter was like a ghost sound. Who could be in there? He stood hesitant, staring at the door. Then he put out a deliberate hand and opened it.
She raised her head, and her hands sank into her lap.
'Yes. I'm just typing an order.'
He had closed the door and was leaning against it, head retracted, eyes strangely glazed. He saw her as in a kind of mist, the familiar Mary in her allotted place, and yet incredibly different even in her jocund reality. She was smiling but it was not an effortless smile. The moment was as poignant to her as it was to him.
'What are you doing here?'
His voice sounded small and ghostlike.
'I want to work here if you'll let me.'
She saw his face go bleached. He clutched at his collar, and sagged sideways with peculiar slowness. His knees gave under him. She thrust her chair back, and was up with one swift movement. John Cobourn was going to faint.
Mary was too late to catch him before he crumpled on the floor. She bent down and drew his body clear of the office door; she opened the door. Her face was the face of the original Mary, the face that had confronted a temperamental tractor, determined, tight-lipped, but her eyes were different. Should she call for help? Not she. She slipped her strong arms under him and lifted, and got his head upon her shoulder. His arms and legs dangled, but so thin was he that she felt like a big nurse carrying a frail boy.
Euphrasia, sallying forth to pick parsley, saw the strange sight and stood open-mouthed, clutching her bosom. Mary and man, Mary with a glowing and triumphant face, eyes looking down into that other face.
'God bless me, Miss, what has happened?'
'He fainted. Open the door, Euphrasia; yes, his door.'
Euphrasia padded along the path, mute and compliant. She opened the garden door and Mary carried John Cobourn in. She laid him easily and gently upon his couch, but just before she did so his eyes opened. He looked at her, felt her strong arms bearing him up and the warmth and scent of her bosom.
'Mary. What happened?'
'You just fainted.'
He smiled at her like a child.
'How strong you are.'
John Cobourn lay with a cushion under his head, relaxed and tranquil, watching Mary attending to a moribund fire. She had turned up her sleeves, and he was conscious of her strong and ruddy arms, her fine neck, and hair that glowed. A profound sense of peace pervaded him, like the perfume of her when she had bent over him holding a cup of strong coffee which Euphrasia had brewed.
She turned on her knees.
'Yes, Mr. Cobourn.'
He smiled at her, and humour had returned to his smile.
'Is that necessary?'
Her eyes lit up.
'Such formality? Can't I be John?'
She turned again to the fire.
'You could. I've got to ask you something.'
'I was a silly, selfish idiot. I'd like to work here again. Can you—?'
'I wasn't thinking that.'
Cobourn's fingers explored his chin. Why hadn't he shaved?
'I think I'll get up now. I feel rather squalid. Can you forget that, my dear?'
She rose from her knees, and came and stood beside him.
'Some things are never squalid, except, perhaps, the nasty things we think and feel inside us.'
He was looking up at her.
'How pretty you look. No, that's not the right word. Much too cheap. You've done your hair differently.'
'Yes, I have. It used to be rather—'
'I'd like to touch it. May I?'
She gave a little tender laugh, and bent to him, and he touched her hair with shy fingers.
'Thank you, my dear.'
'I think I ought to get back to the office, John.'
'Yes, and I'm going up to shave.'
In the Spring of the year and in the world of fruit there are many things to do, pests to be watched for, trees to be sprayed, weather reports listened to, young weeds to be suppressed. There is excitement in the air, both delight and anxiety. Will all the loveliness of plum and cherry, pear and apple come to naught because nights of casual frost scorch the blossom? John Cobourn's eyes had come back to him, and with them he had Mary's. He had been sick and dull of vision, but once again the sparkle was there, the acuteness, the delight in mysterious detail. Why was the blossom of a Worcester Pearmain paler than a Cox or a Laxton's Superb? Why was not such and such a tree spurring as it should do? Were those curled leaves on the plums because of aphis? Had birds stripped the gooseberry buds? Were any stocks suckering? A strawberry plant was wilting there. That suggested the gross white cockchafer grub. Dig it up and give the brute to the hens who would mill for it. Look out for the first caterpillars, green or brown looper. Watch out for cherry slug, or big bud on the nuts and black currants.
Stephen Ghent, finding the front door of Rose Hill open, walked forthrightly into Cobourn's parlour. Good old ward-parlour! The room was empty, the sunlight shining in, and on the table by the couch the doctor saw the manuscript of John Cobourn's book. He picked it up, sat down on the couch and read.
'There is healing in herbs, and the growing of things. I was a sick man, and the sanity of the soil has rescued me.'
Ghent indulged in a benignant grin, and in inward comment.
'Yes, my dear lad, and something else. A girl in a flowery frock, a girl with fine arms and a heart to match.'
Ghent read on.
'How the green of the year comes suddenly and yet with a mysterious stealth. Its variance is infinite. I look at green contours, and sunlit alleyways, and a tumult of foliage flooding here and there. My window of a morning shows me mystery, sunlight on the spires of the larches, the gold of oaks. With what do we see all this? Eyes? But the vision is in ourselves. The brain is no mere mirror. That which our senses accept must be the sublimation of other realities. Let us be children, wondering, wide-eyed children, not complacent, over-confident prigs.'
Ghent laid the manuscript aside and sat in contemplation. Yes, John Cobourn's vision had returned to him. That which he had put upon paper was also part of the healer's art, for man was a spirit, not a mechanism, and God might manifest in the physician.
Ghent strolled out. He passed Simon and Tom busy with the wheeled sprayer, and the rhythm of the pump, and the misty cloud from the lance saluted the season of petal-fall. Ghent passed on, paused, and contemplated a sentimental picture. Sentimental? No, by the Gods, it was just what it should be.
Mary and John Cobourn were standing close to a bush plum tree, and Mary was holding up a twig for him to see the little green eggs of the fertile fruit. Oh, but more than that. Mary had a big and buxom arm about John Cobourn's body, and her arm was his support. He had a human stay beside him, a prop, succour, and Ghent smiled, and waited.
Still linked together they passed on to another tree, and stood outlined against the landscape, green and blue hazed, a deep valley and misty hills. The chimneys of Hazeley showed above the trees like red fingers raised in a blessing, for Hazeley had surrendered to a new heritage. It was becoming a country club and hotel. Now, Stephen Ghent was not only a busy doctor, but a man with a load of mischief, and he walked on, clearing his throat with emphasis, and laughing up his professional sleeve.
Mary's head turned. She looked over her own shoulder and John Cobourn's, and saw the doctor, and there was neither coyness nor shame in her. She was head in air, mistress of her world, jocund and serene.
'It's Dr. Ghent.'
She swung John Cobourn round with a gentle sweep of the arm. They did not separate, but stood linked together, for Cobourn's arm went round Mary's waist. His smile was edged with mischief.
'Hallo, my lad'.'
Ghent was commenting inwardly on Mary's frock. It combined utility with grace and colour. No more breeches, no more hobnailed boots. He grinned benignly at them both.
'How's the patient?'
'Stephen, like to make a guess? You've been our best friend.'
'A diagnosis, what?'
'You can call it that.'
'Congratulations, both of you. Yes, and Mary is blushing.'
'I'm not,' said she.
Cobourn glanced sideways at her.
'She has consented to support a crock.'
Mary pouted her lips at him.
'You're not and never will be. Will he, Dr. Ghent?'
Ghent nodded at her.
'Wise woman, great girl. Say, may I be best man?'
John Cobourn pulled up his bedroom blind on the morning of the fifteenth of May, and saw—not frost and flattened flowers and disaster, but a soft grey sky and the tops of the trees gently moving. Rain coming from the west, blessed rain to swell the fruit, and laugh away the leaves. The period of peril had passed, and there was promise of a halcyon year.
He stretched himself and felt good, for not only was rain coming, but it was his birthday. And what would they do on this particular day, he and Mary?
Yes, he and Mary. The blindness of man could be incredible, and
you might stand and stare at the fool which had been yourself, and
strew flowers on the grave of immoderate illusion. But Mary was no
illusion, nor were those tranquil trees whose little lamps would be
lit, blush cherries, and the purple of plums, pears green and gold,
apples flushing towards maturity.
Cobourn took a cold bath, shaved, dressed and went downstairs. He heard Euphrasia crooning to herself in the quiet house. The breakfast table was laid, and upon it stood an iced cake decorated with a forest of little candles. Cobourn smiled at it, and then got the feeling of something that he missed. He turned to the window, and saw a dog's grave, a little green mound with flowers upon it. Mary had placed the flowers there.
Voices in the kitchen, women's voices, and Euphrasia's in particular crooning over something and making baby talk.
'Oh, the little darling. Isn't he a pet. Popsy-wopsy-wopsy. Look at his lovely eyes.'
What now? Who had lovely eyes? Cobourn had sat down to his breakfast when he heard those sentimental sounds. And then Mary came in with a brown pup in her arms and cuddling against her bosom, a small, wheat-eared Cairn with large and liquid eyes.
Cobourn stood up, and looked at the pup and his wife that was to be.
'Birthday present, John.'
Cobourn put out a hand to the dog, but the small thing was shy of him and shrank into Mary's bosom.
'He's so young,' said she.
Gently Cobourn laughed.
'Wise pup. He knows a good place. Did you—?'
'Yes, from the woman who breeds them at Medworth. He has a pedigree five miles long.'
'Any name, yet?'
'Does that go with a pedigree?'
'Yes, why not? William and Mary. Quite historic.'
He kissed her, and the dog gave a whimper. Cobourn laughed.
'No you don't, young man. Am I to be cut out by a Bill?'
'Do take him. He has to get used to you.'
She passed the small thing to her man, and Cobourn sat down with
the dog and caressed him. The dog appeared to accept the
substitution. He licked one of Cobourn's hands.
Mary, having written a letter to Mona Jordan, and stamped it, looked at the ring on her finger. Sapphires and diamonds, and soon there would be a hoop of gold.
To Mona she had said, 'It's to be on June 21st. I'm so happy. You'll be my bridesmaid, won't you, dear? I only want one. And to think that I was such a beast to him! But isn't it lovely to be wanted.'
A year ago Mary Marner might have thought such a letter sentimental, but not now. She put the ring to her lips and glowed over it. Then, a sudden impulse to run wild in the sunshine seized her. She went out among the fruit trees, stepping like some jocund nymph, and letting her hands swing and flutter. So, it happened that she came to a row of fair cherries and saw something that might have been unexciting to the multitude. She went closer, looked carefully at a particular tree, and clapped her hands together.
Cobourn, sitting in his wheeled chair after half an hour's light hoeing, saw her coming down the broad grass way between the drifts.
'Oh, John, what do you think?'
'All sorts of things,' said he.
'Bradbourne Black is setting fruit. It's never done it before.'
And Cobourn laughed.
'That's an omen. Oh, wise tree!'
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