With spring came trouble. The Saxtons declared they were being bitten off the estate by rabbits. Suddenly, in a fit of despair, the father bought a gun. Although he knew that the Squire would not for one moment tolerate the shooting of that manna, the rabbits, yet he was out in the first cold morning twilight banging away. At first he but scared the brutes, and brought Annable on the scene; then, blooded by the use of the weapon, he played havoc among the furry beasts, bringing home some eight or nine couples.
George entirely approved of this measure; it rejoiced him even; yet he had never had the initiative to begin the like himself, or even to urge his father to it. He prophesied trouble, and possible loss of the farm. It disturbed him somewhat, to think they must look out for another place, but he postponed the thought of the evil day till the time should be upon him.
A vendetta was established between the Mill and the keeper, Annable. The latter cherished his rabbits:
"Call 'em vermin!" he said. "I only know one sort of vermin—and that's the talkin sort." So he set himself to thwart and harass the rabbit slayers.
It was about this time I cultivated the acquaintance of the keeper. All the world hated him—to the people in the villages he was like a devil of the woods. Some miners had sworn vengeance on him for having caused their committal to gaol. But he had a great attraction for me; his magnificent physique, his great vigour and vitality, and his swarthy, gloomy face drew me.
He was a man of one idea:—that all civilisation was the painted fungus of rottenness. He hated any sign of culture. I won his respect one afternoon when he found me trespassing in the woods because I was watching some maggots at work in a dead rabbit. That led us to a discussion of life. He was a thorough materialist—he scorned religion and all mysticism. He spent his days sleeping, making intricate traps for weasels and men, putting together a gun, or doing some amateur forestry, cutting down timber, splitting it in logs for use in the hall, and planting young trees. When he thought, he reflected on the decay of mankind—the decline of the human race into folly and weakness and rottenness. "Be a good animal, true to your animal instinct," was his motto. With all this, he was fundamentally very unhappy—and he made me also wretched. It was this power to communicate his unhappiness that made me somewhat dear to him, I think. He treated me as an affectionate father treats a delicate son; I noticed he liked to put his hand on my shoulder or my knee as we talked; yet withal, he asked me questions, and saved his thoughts to tell me, and believed in my knowledge like any acolyte.
I went up to the quarry woods one evening in early April, taking a look for Annable. I could not find him, however, in the wood. So I left the wildlands, and went along by the old red wall of the kitchen garden, along the main road as far as the mouldering church which stands high on a bank by the road-side, just where the trees tunnel the darkness, and the gloom of the highway startles the travellers at noon. Great trees growing on the banks suddenly fold over everything at this point in the swinging road, and in the obscurity rots the Hall church, black and melancholy above the shrinking head of the traveller.
The grassy path to the churchyard was still clogged with decayed leaves. The church is abandoned. As I drew near an owl floated softly out of the black tower. Grass overgrew the threshold. I pushed open the door, grinding back a heap of fallen plaster and rubbish and entered the place. In the twilight the pews were leaning in ghostly disorder, the prayer-books dragged from their ledges, scattered on the floor in the dust and rubble, torn by mice and birds. Birds scuffled in the darkness of the roof. I looked up. In the upward well of the tower I could see a bell hanging. I stooped and picked up a piece of plaster from the ragged confusion of feathers, and broken nests, and remnants of dead birds. Up into the vault overhead I tossed pieces of plaster until one hit the bell, and it "tonged" out its faint remonstrance. There was a rustle of many birds like spirits. I sounded the bell again, and dark forms moved with cries of alarm overhead, and something fell heavily. I shivered in the dark, evil-smelling place, and hurried to get out of doors. I clutched my hands with relief and pleasure when I saw the sky above me quivering with the last crystal lights, and the lowest red of sunset behind the yew-boles. I drank the fresh air, that sparkled with the sound of the blackbirds and thrushes whistling their strong bright notes.
I strayed round to where the headstones, from their eminence leaned to look on the Hall below, where great windows shone yellow light on to the flagged court-yard, and the little fish pool. A stone staircase descended from the graveyard to the court, between stone balustrades whose pock-marked grey columns still swelled gracefully and with dignity, encrusted with lichens. The staircase was filled with ivy and rambling roses—impassable. Ferns were unrolling round the big square halting place, half way down where the stairs turned.
A peacock, startled from the back premises of the Hall, came flapping up the terraces to the churchyard. Then a heavy footstep crossed the flags. It was the keeper. I whistled the whistle he knew, and he broke his way through the vicious rose-boughs up the stairs. The peacock flapped beyond me, on to the neck of an old bowed angel, rough and dark, an angel which had long ceased sorrowing for the lost Lucy, and had died also. The bird bent its voluptuous neck and peered about. Then it lifted up its head and yelled. The sound tore the dark sanctuary of twilight. The old grey grass seemed to stir, and I could fancy the smothered primroses and violets beneath it waking and gasping for fear.
The keeper looked at me and smiled. He nodded his head towards the peacock, saying:
"Hark at that damned thing!"
Again the bird lifted its crested head and gave a cry, at the same time turning awkwardly on its ugly legs, so that it showed us the full wealth of its tail glimmering like a stream of coloured stars over the sunken face of the angel.
"The proud fool!—look at it! Perched on an angel, too, as if it were a pedestal for vanity. That's the soul of a woman—or it's the devil."
He was silent for a time, and we watched the great bird moving uneasily before us in the twilight.
"That's the very soul of a lady," he said, "the very, very soul. Damn the thing, to perch on that old angel. I should like to wring its neck."
Again the bird screamed, and shifted awkwardly on its legs; it seemed to stretch its beak at us in derision. Annable picked up a piece of sod and flung it at the bird, saying:
"Get out, you screeching devil! God!" he laughed. "There must be plenty of hearts twisting under here,"—and he stamped on a grave, "when they hear that row."
He kicked another sod from a grave and threw at the big bird. The peacock flapped away, over the tombs, down the terraces.
"Just look!" he said, "the miserable brute has dirtied that angel. A woman to the end, I tell you, all vanity and screech and defilement."
He sat down on a vault and lit his pipe. But before he had smoked two minutes, it was out again. I had not seen him in a state of perturbation before.
"The church," said I, "is rotten. I suppose they'll stand all over the country like this, soon—with peacocks trailing the graveyards."
"Ay," he muttered, taking no notice of me.
"This stone is cold," I said, rising.
He got up too, and stretched his arms as if he were tired. It was quite dark, save for the waxing moon which leaned over the east.
"It is a very fine night," I said. "Don't you notice a smell of violets?"
"Ay! The moon looks like a woman with child. I wonder what Time's got in her belly."
"You?" I said. "You don't expect anything exciting do you?"
"Exciting!—No—about as exciting as this rotten old place—just rot off—Oh, my God!—I'm like a good house, built and finished, and left to tumble down again with nobody to live in it."
He laughed bitterly, saying, "Come and sit down."
He led me off to a seat by the north door, between two pews, very black and silent. There we sat, he putting his gun carefully beside him. He remained perfectly still, thinking.
"Whot's up?" he said at last, "Why—I'll tell you. I went to Cambridge—my father was a big cattle dealer—he died bankrupt while I was in college, and I never took my degree. They persuaded me to be a parson, and a parson I was.
I went a curate to a little place in Leicestershire—a bonnie place with not many people, and a fine old church, and a great rich parsonage. I hadn't overmuch to do, and the rector—he was the son of an Earl—was generous. He lent me a horse and would have me hunt like the rest. I always think of that place with a smell of honeysuckle while the grass is wet in the morning. It was fine, and I enjoyed myself, and did the parish work all right. I believe I was pretty good.
A cousin of the rector's used to come in the hunting season—a Lady Crystabel, lady in her own right. The second year I was there she came in June. There wasn't much company, so she used to talk to me—I used to read then—and she used to pretend to be so childish and unknowing, and would get me telling her things, and talking to her, and I was hot on things. We must play tennis together, and ride together, and I must row her down the river. She said we were in the wilderness and could do as we liked. She made me wear flannels and soft clothes. She was very fine and frank and unconventional—ripping, I thought her. All the summer she stopped on. I should meet her in the garden early in the morning when I came from a swim in the river—it was cleared and deepened on purpose—and she'd blush and make me walk with her. I can remember I used to stand and dry myself on the bank full where she might see me—I was mad on her—and she was madder on me.
We went to some caves in Derbyshire once, and she would wander from the rest, and loiter, and, for a game, we played a sort of hide and seek with the party. They thought we'd gone, and they went and locked the door. Then she pretended to be frightened and clung to me, and said what would they think, and hid her face in my coat. I took her and kissed her, and we made it up properly. I found out afterwards—she actually told me—she'd got the idea from a sloppy French novel—the Romance of A Poor Young Man. I was the Poor Young Man.
We got married. She gave me a living she had in her parsonage, and we went to live at her Hall. She wouldn't let me out of her sight. Lord!—we were an infatuated couple—and she would choose to view me in an aesthetic light. I was Greek statues for her, bless you: Croton, Hercules, I don't know what! She had her own way too much—I let her do as she liked with me.
Then gradually she got tired—it took her three years to be really glutted with me. I had a physique then—for that matter I have now."
He held out his arm to me, and bade me try his muscle. I was startled. The hard flesh almost filled his sleeve.
"Ah," he continued, "You don't know what it is to have the pride of a body like mine. But she wouldn't have children—no, she wouldn't—said she daren't. That was the root of the difference at first. But she cooled down, and if you don't know the pride of my body you'd never know my humiliation. I tried to remonstrate—and she looked simply astounded at my cheek. I never got over that amazement.
She began to get souly. A poet got hold of her, and she began to affect Burne-Jones—or Waterhouse—it was Waterhouse—she was a lot like one of his women—Lady of Shalott, I believe. At any rate, she got souly, and I was her animal—son animal—son boeuf. I put up with that for above a year. Then I got some servants' clothes and went.
I was seen in France—then in Australia—though I never left England. I was supposed to have died in the bush. She married a young fellow. Then I was proved to have died, and I read a little obituary notice on myself in a woman's paper she subscribed to. She wrote it herself—as a warning to other young ladies of position not to be seduced by plausible "Poor Young Men."
Now she's dead. They've got the paper—her paper—in the kitchen down there, and it's full of photographs, even an old photo of me—"an unfortunate misalliance." I feel, somehow, as if I were at an end too. I thought I'd grown a solid, middle-aged-man, and here I feel sore as I did at twenty-six, and I talk as I used to.
One thing—I have got some children, and they're of a breed as you'd not meet anywhere. I was a good animal before everything, and I've got some children."
He sat looking up where the big moon swam through the black branches of the yew.
"So she's dead—your poor peacock!" I murmured.
He got up, looking always at the sky, and stretched himself again. He was an impressive figure massed in blackness against the moonlight, with his arms outspread.
"I suppose," he said, "it wasn't all her fault."
"A white peacock, we will say," I suggested.
"Go home by the top road, will you!" he said. "I believe there's something on in the bottom wood."
"All right," I answered, with a quiver of apprehension.
"Yes, she was fair enough," he muttered.
"Ay," said I, rising. I held out my hand from the shadow. I was startled myself by the white sympathy it seemed to express, extended towards him in the moonlight. He gripped it, and cleaved to me for a moment, then he was gone.
I went out of the churchyard feeling a sullen resentment against the tousled graves that lay inanimate across my way. The air was heavy to breathe, and fearful in the shadow of the great trees. I was glad when I came out on the bare white road, and could see the copper lights from the reflectors of a pony-cart's lamps, and could hear the amiable chat-chat of the hoofs trotting towards me. I was lonely when they had passed.
Over the hill, the big flushed face of the moon poised just above the treetops, very majestic, and far off—yet imminent. I turned with swift sudden friendliness to the net of elm-boughs spread over my head, dotted with soft clusters winsomely. I jumped up and pulled the cool soft tufts against my face for company; and as I passed, still I reached upward for the touch of this budded gentleness of the trees. The wood breathed fragrantly, with a subtle sympathy. The firs softened their touch to me, and the larches woke from the barren winter-sleep, and put out velvet fingers to caress me as I passed. Only the clean, bare branches of the ash stood emblem of the discipline of life. I looked down on the blackness where trees filled the quarry and the valley bottoms, and it seemed that the world, my own home-world, was strange again.
Some four or five days after Annable had talked to me in the churchyard, I went out to find him again. It was Sunday morning. The larch-wood was afloat with clear, lyric green, and some primroses scattered whitely on the edge under the fringing boughs. It was a clear morning, as when the latent life of the world begins to vibrate afresh in the air. The smoke from the cottage rose blue against the trees, and thick yellow against the sky. The fire, it seemed, was only just lighted, and the wood-smoke poured out.
Sam appeared outside the house, and looked round. Then he climbed the water-trough for a better survey. Evidently unsatisfied, paying slight attention to me, he jumped down and went running across the hillside to the wood. "He is going for his father," I said to myself, and I left the path to follow him down hill across the waste meadow, crackling the blanched stems of last year's thistles as I went, and stumbling in rabbit holes. He reached the wall that ran along the quarry's edge, and was over it in a twinkling.
When I came to the place, I was somewhat nonplussed, for sheer from the stone fence, the quarry-side dropped for some twenty or thirty feet, piled up with unmortared stones. I looked round—there was a plain dark thread down the hillside, which marked a path to this spot, and the wall was scored with the marks of heavy boots. Then I looked again down the quarry-side, and I saw—how could I have failed to see?—stones projecting to make an uneven staircase, such as is often seen in the Derbyshire fences. I saw this ladder was well used, so I trusted myself to it, and scrambled down, clinging to the face of the quarry wall. Once down, I felt pleased with myself for having discovered and used the unknown access, and I admired the care and ingenuity of the keeper, who had fitted and wedged the long stones into the uncertain pile.
It was warm in the quarry: there the sunshine seemed to thicken and sweeten; there the little mounds of overgrown waste were aglow with very early dog-violets; there the sparks were coming out on the bits of gorse, and among the stones the colt-foot plumes were already silvery. Here was spring sitting just awake, unloosening her glittering hair, and opening her purple eyes.
I went across the quarry, down to where the brook ran murmuring a tale to the primroses and the budding trees. I was startled from my wandering among the fresh things by a faint clatter of stones.
"What's that young rascal doing?" I said to myself, setting forth to see. I came towards the other side of the quarry: on this, the moister side, the bushes grew up against the wall, which was higher than on the other side, though piled the same with old dry stones. As I drew near I could hear the scrape and rattle of stones, and the vigorous grunting of Sam as he laboured among them. He was hidden by a great bush of sallow catkins, all yellow, and murmuring with bees, warm with spice. When he came in view I laughed to see him lugging and grunting among the great pile of stones that had fallen in a mass from the quarry-side; a pile of stones and earth and crushed vegetation. There was a great bare gap in the quarry wall. Somehow, the lad's labouring earnestness made me anxious, and I hurried up.
He heard me, and glancing round, his face red with exertion, eyes big with terror, he called, commanding me:
"Pull 'em off 'im—pull 'em off!" Suddenly my heart beating in my throat nearly suffocated me. I saw the hand of the keeper lying among the stones. I set to tearing away the stones, and we worked for some time without a word. Then I seized the arm of the keeper and tried to drag him out. But I could not.
"Pull it off 'im!" whined the lad, working in a frenzy.
When we got him out I saw at once he was dead, and I sat down trembling with exertion. There was a great smashed wound on the side of the head. Sam put his face against his father's and snuffed round him like a dog, to feel the life in him. The child looked at me:
"He won't get up," he said, and his little voice was hoarse with fear and anxiety.
I shook my head. Then the boy began to whimper. He tried to close the lips which were drawn with pain and death, leaving the teeth bare; then his fingers hovered round the eyes, which were wide open, glazed, and I could see he was trembling to touch them into life.
"He's not asleep," he said, "because his eyes is open—look!"
I could not bear the child's questioning terror. I took him up to carry him away, but he struggled and fought to be free.
"Ma'e 'im get up—ma'e 'im get up," he cried in a frenzy, and I had to let the boy go.
He ran to the dead man, calling "Feyther! Feyther!" and pulling his shoulder; then he sat down, fascinated by the sight of the wound; he put out his finger to touch it, and shivered.
"Come away," said I.
"Is it that?" he asked, pointing to the wound. I covered the face with a big silk handkerchief.
"Now," said I, "he'll go to sleep if you don't touch him—so sit still while I go and fetch somebody. Will you run to the Hall?"
He shook his head. I knew he would not. So I told him again not to touch his father, but to let him lie still till I came back. He watched me go, but did not move from his seat on the stones beside the dead man, though I know he was full of terror at being left alone.
I ran to the Hall—I dared not go to the Kennels. In a short time I was back with the squire and three men. As I led the way, I saw the child lifting a corner of the handkerchief to peep and see if the eyes were closed in sleep. Then he heard us, and started violently. When we removed the covering, and he saw the face unchanged in its horror, he looked at me with a look I have never forgotten.
"A bad business—an awful business!" repeated the squire. "A bad business. I said to him from the first that the stones might come down when he was going up, and he said he had taken care to fix them. But you can't be sure, you can't be certain. And he'd be about half way up—ay—and the whole wall would come down on him. An awful business, it is really; a terrible piece of work!"
They decided at the inquest that the death came by misadventure. But there were vague rumours in the village that this was revenge which had overtaken the keeper.
They decided to bury him in our churchyard at Greymede under the beeches; the widow would have it so, and nothing might be denied her in her state.
It was a magnificent morning in early spring when I watched among the trees to see the procession come down the hillside. The upper air was woven with the music of the larks, and my whole world thrilled with the conception of summer. The young pale wind-flowers had arisen by the wood-gale, and under the hazels, when perchance the hot sun pushed his way, new little suns dawned, and blazed with real light. There was a certain thrill and quickening everywhere, as a woman must feel when she has conceived. A sallow tree in a favoured spot looked like a pale gold cloud of summer dawn; nearer it had poised a golden, fairy busby on every twig, and was voiced with a hum of bees, like any sacred golden bush, uttering its gladness in the thrilling murmur of bees, and in warm scent. Birds called and flashed on every hand; they made off exultant with streaming strands of grass, or wisps of fleece, plunging into the dark spaces of the wood, and out again into the blue.
A lad moved across the field from the farm below with a dog trotting behind him,—a dog, no, a fussy, black-legged lamb trotting along on its toes, with its tail swinging behind. They were going to the mothers on the common, who moved like little grey clouds among the dark grose.
I cannot help forgetting, and sharing the spink's triumph, when he flashes past with a fleece from a bramble bush. It will cover the bedded moss, it will weave among the soft red cow-hair beautifully. It is a prize, it is an ecstasy to have captured it at the right moment, and the nest is nearly ready.
Ah, but the thrush is scornful, ringing out his voice from the hedge! He sets his breast against the mud, and models it warm for the turquoise eggs—blue, blue, bluest of eggs, which cluster so close and round against the breast, which round up beneath the breast, nestling content. You should see the bright ecstasy in the eyes of a nesting thrush, because of the rounded caress of the eggs against her breast!
What a hurry the jenny wren makes—hoping I shall not see her dart into the low bush. I have a delight in watching them against their shy little wills. But they have all risen with a rush of wings, and are gone, the birds. The air is brushed with agitation. There is no lark in the sky, not one; the heaven is clear of wings or twinkling dot——.
Till the heralds come—till the heralds wave like shadows in the bright air, crying, lamenting, fretting forever. Rising and falling and circling round and round, the slow-waving peewits cry and complain, and lift their broad wings in sorrow. They stoop suddenly to the ground, the lapwings, then in another throb of anguish and protest, they swing up again, offering a glistening white breast to the sunlight, to deny it in black shadow, then a glisten of green, and all the time crying and crying in despair.
The pheasants are frightened into cover, they run and dart through the hedge. The cold cock must fly in his haste, spread himself on his streaming plumes, and sail into the wood's security.
There is a cry in answer to the peewits, echoing louder and stronger the lamentation of the lapwings, a wail which hushes the birds. The men come over the brow of the hill, slowly, with the old squire walking tall and straight in front; six bowed men bearing the coffin on their shoulders, treading heavily and cautiously, under the great weight of the glistening white coffin; six men following behind, ill at ease, waiting their turn for the burden. You can see the red handkerchiefs knotted round their throats, and their shirt-fronts blue and white between the open waistcoats. The coffin is of new unpolished wood, gleaming and glistening in the sunlight; the men who carry it remember all their lives after the smell of new, warm elm-wood.
Again a loud cry from the hill-top. The woman has followed thus far, the big, shapeless woman, and she cries with loud cries after the white coffin as it descends the hill, and the children that cling to her skirts weep aloud, and are not to be hushed by the other woman, who bends over them, but does not form one of the group. How the crying frightens the birds, and the rabbits; and the lambs away there run to their mothers. But the peewits are not frightened, they add their notes to the sorrow; they circle after the white, retreating coffin, they circle round the woman; it is they who forever "keen" the sorrows of this world. They are like priests in their robes, more black than white, more grief than hope, driving endlessly round and round, turning, lifting, falling and crying always in mournful desolation, repeating their last syllables like the broken accents of despair.
The bearers have at last sunk between the high banks, and turned out of sight. The big woman cannot see them, and yet she stands to look. She must go home, there is nothing left.
They have rested the coffin on the gate posts, and the bearers are wiping the sweat from their faces. They put their hands to their shoulders on the place where the weight has pressed.
The other six are placing the pads on their shoulders, when a girl comes up with a jug and a blue pot. The squire drinks first, and fills for the rest. Meanwhile the girl stands back under the hedge, away from the coffin which smells of new elm-wood. In imagination she pictures the man shut up there in close darkness, while the sunlight flows all outside, and she catches her breast with terror. She must turn and rustle among the leaves of the violets for the flowers she does not see. Then, trembling, she comes to herself, and plucks a few flowers and breathes them hungrily into her soul, for comfort. The men put down the pots beside her, with thanks, and the squire gives the word. The bearers lift up the burden again, and the elm-boughs rattle along the hollow white wood, and the pitiful red clusters of elm-flowers sweep along it as if they whispered in sympathy—"We are so sorry, so sorry——"; always the compassionate buds in their fulness of life bend down to comfort the dark man shut up there. "Perhaps," the girl thinks, "he hears them, and goes softly to sleep." She shakes the tears out of her eyes on to the ground, and, taking up her pots, goes slowly down, over the brooks.
In a while, I too got up and went down to the mill, which lay red and peaceful, with the blue smoke rising as winsomely and carelessly as ever. On the other side of the valley I could see a pair of horses nod slowly across the fallow. A man's voice called to them now and again with a resonance that filled me with longing to follow my horses over the fallow, in the still, lonely valley, full of sunshine and eternal forgetfulness. The day had already forgotten. The water was blue and white and dark-burnished with shadows; two swans sailed across the reflected trees with perfect blithe grace. The gloom that had passed across was gone. I watched the swan with his ruffled wings swell onwards; I watched his slim consort go peeping into corners and under bushes; I saw him steer clear of the bushes, to keep full in view, turning his head to me imperiously, till I longed to pelt him with the empty husks of last year's flowers, knap-weed and scabius. I was too indolent, and I turned instead to the orchard.
There the daffodils were lifting their heads and throwing back their yellow curls. At the foot of each sloping, grey old tree stood a family of flowers, some bursten with golden fulness, some lifting their heads slightly, to show a modest, sweet countenance, others still hiding their faces, leaning forward pensively from the jaunty grey-green spears; I wished I had their language, to talk to them distinctly.
Overhead, the trees, with lifted fingers shook out their hair to the sun, decking themselves with buds as white and cool as a water-nymphs breasts.
I began to be very glad. The colts-foot discs glowed and laughed in a merry company down the path; I stroked the velvet faces, and laughed also, and I smelled the scent of black-currant leaves, which is full of childish memories.
The house was quiet and complacent; it was peopled with ghosts again; but the ghosts had only come to enjoy the warm place once more, carrying sunshine in their arms and scattering it through the dusk of gloomy rooms.