On the first Sunday in June, when Lettie knew she would keep her engagement with Leslie, and when she was having a day at home from Highclose, she got ready to go down to the mill. We were in mourning for an aunt, so she wore a dress of fine black voile, and a black hat with long feathers. Then, when I looked at her fair hands, and her arms closely covered in the long black cuffs of her sleeves, I felt keenly my old brother-love shielding, indulgent.
It was a windy, sunny day. In shelter the heat was passionate, but in the open the wind scattered its fire. Every now and then a white cloud broad based, blue shadowed, travelled slowly along the sky-road after the forerunner small in the distance, and trailing over us a chill shade, a gloom which we watched creep on over the water, over the wood and the hill. These royal, rounded clouds had sailed all day along the same route, from the harbour of the South to the wastes in the Northern sky, following the swift wild geese. The brook hurried along singing, only here and there lingering to whisper to the secret bushes, then setting off afresh with a new snatch of song.
The fowls pecked staidly in the farmyard, with Sabbath decorum. Occasionally a lost, sportive wind-puff would wander across the yard and ruffle them, and they resented it. The pigs were asleep in the sun, giving faint grunts now and then from sheer luxury. I saw a squirrel go darting down the mossy garden wall, up into the laburnum tree, where he lay flat along the bough, and listened. Suddenly away he went, chuckling to himself. Gyp all at once set off barking, but I soothed her down; it was the unusual sight of Lettie's dark dress that startled her, I suppose.
We went quietly into the kitchen. Mrs. Saxton was just putting a chicken, wrapped in a piece of flannel, on the warm hob to coax it into life; it looked very feeble. George was asleep, with his head in his arms on the table; the father was asleep on the sofa, very comfortable and admirable; I heard Emily fleeing up stairs, presumably to dress.
"He stays out so late—up at the Ram Inn," whispered the mother in a high whisper, looking at George, "and then he's up at five—he doesn't get his proper rest." She turned to the chicks, and continued in her whisper—"the mother left them just before they hatched out, so we've been bringing them on here. This one's a bit weak—I thought I'd hot him up a bit" she laughed with a quaint little frown of deprecation. Eight or nine yellow, fluffy little mites were cheeping and scuffling in the fender. Lettie bent over them to touch them; they were tame, and ran among her fingers.
Suddenly George's mother gave a loud cry, and rushed to the fire. There was a smell of singed down. The chicken had toddled into the fire, and gasped its faint gasp among the red-hot cokes. The father jumped from the sofa; George sat up with wide eyes; Lettie gave a little cry and a shudder; Trip rushed round and began to bark. There was a smell of cooked meat.
"There goes number one!" said the mother, with her queer little laugh. It made me laugh too.
"What's a matter—what's a matter?" asked the father excitedly.
"It's a chicken been and walked into the fire—I put it on the hob to warm," explained his wife.
"Goodness—I couldn't think what was up!" he said, and dropped his head to trace gradually the border between sleeping and waking.
George sat and smiled at us faintly, he was too dazed to speak. His chest still leaned against the table, and his arms were spread out thereon, but he lifted his face, and looked at Lettie with his dazed, dark eyes, and smiled faintly at her. His hair was all ruffled, and his shirt collar unbuttoned. Then he got up slowly, pushing his chair back with a loud noise, and stretched himself, pressing his arms upwards with a long, heavy stretch.
"Oh—h—h!" he said, bending his arms and then letting them drop to his sides. "I never thought you'd come to-day."
"I wanted to come and see you—I shan't have many more chances," said Lettie, turning from him and yet looking at him again.
"No, I suppose not," he said, subsiding into quiet. Then there was silence for some time. The mother began to enquire after Leslie, and kept the conversation up till Emily came down, blushing and smiling and glad.
"Are you coming out?" said she, "there are two or three robins' nests, and a spinkie's——"
"I think I'll leave my hat," said Lettie, unpinning it as she spoke, and shaking her hair when she was free. Mrs. Saxton insisted on her taking a long white silk scarf; Emily also wrapped her hair in a gauze scarf, and looked beautiful.
George came out with us, coatless, hatless, his waistcoat all unbuttoned, as he was. We crossed the orchard, over the old bridge, and went to where the slopes ran down to the lower pond, a bank all covered with nettles, and scattered with a hazel bush or two. Among the nettles old pans were rusting, and old coarse pottery cropped up.
We came upon a kettle heavily coated with lime. Emily bent down and looked, and then we peeped in. There were the robin birds with their yellow beaks stretched so wide apart I feared they would never close them again. Among the naked little mites, that begged from us so blindly and confidently, were huddled three eggs.
"They are like Irish children peeping out of a cottage," said Emily, with the family fondness for romantic similes.
We went on to where a tin lay with the lid pressed back, and inside it, snug and neat, was another nest, with six eggs, cheek to cheek.
"How warm they are," said Lettie, touching them, "you can fairly feel the mother's breast."
He tried to put his hand into the tin, but the space was too small, and they looked into each other's eyes and smiled. "You'd think the father's breast had marked them with red," said Emily.
As we went up the orchard side we saw three wide displays of coloured pieces of pots arranged at the foot of three trees.
"Look," said Emily, "those are the children's houses. You don't know how our Mollie gets all Sam's pretty bits—she is a cajoling hussy!"
The two looked at each other again, smiling. Up on the pond-side, in the full glitter of light, we looked round where the blades of clustering corn were softly healing the red bosom of the hill. The larks were overhead among the sunbeams. We straggled away across the grass. The field was all afroth with cowslips, a yellow, glittering, shaking froth on the still green of the grass. We trailed our shadows across the fields, extinguishing the sunshine on the flowers as we went. The air was tingling with the scent of blossoms.
"Look at the cowslips, all shaking with laughter," said Emily, and she tossed back her head, and her dark eyes sparkled among the flow of gauze. Lettie was on in front, flitting darkly across the field, bending over the flowers, stooping to the earth like a sable Persephone come into freedom. George had left her at a little distance, hunting for something in the grass. He stopped, and remained standing in one place.
Gradually, as if unconsciously, she drew near to him, and when she lifted her head, after stooping to pick some chimney-sweeps, little grass flowers, she laughed with a slight surprise to see him so near.
"Ah!" she said. "I thought I was all alone in the world—such a splendid world—it was so nice."
"Like Eve in a meadow in Eden—and Adam's shadow somewhere on the grass," said I.
"No—no Adam," she asserted, frowning slightly, and laughing.
"Who ever would want streets of gold," Emily was saying to me, "when you can have a field of cowslips! Look at that hedgebottom that gets the South sun—one stream and glitter of buttercups."
"Those Jews always had an eye to the filthy lucre—they even made Heaven out of it," laughed Lettie, and, turning to him, she said, "Don't you wish we were wild—hark, like wood-pigeons—or larks—or, look, like peewits? Shouldn't you love flying and wheeling and sparkling and—courting in the wind?" She lifted her eyelids, and vibrated the question. He flushed, bending over the ground.
"Look," he said, "here's a larkie's."
Once a horse had left a hoofprint in the soft meadow; now the larks had rounded, softened the cup, and had laid there three dark-brown eggs. Lettie sat down and leaned over the nest; he leaned above her. The wind running over the flower heads, peeped in at the little brown buds, and bounded off again gladly. The big clouds sent messages to them down the shadows, and ran in raindrops to touch them.
"I wish," she said, "I wish we were free like that. If we could put everything safely in a little place in the earth—couldn't we have a good time as well as the larks?"
"I don't see," said he, "why we can't."
"Oh—but I can't—you know we can't"—and she looked at him fiercely.
"Why can't you?" he asked.
"You know we can't—you know as well as I do," she replied, and her whole soul challenged him. "We have to consider things" she added. He dropped his head. He was afraid to make the struggle, to rouse himself to decide the question for her. She turned away, and went kicking through the flowers. He picked up the blossoms she had left by the nest—they were still warm from her hands—and followed her. She walked on towards the end of the field, the long strands of her white scarf running before her. Then she leaned back to the wind, while he caught her up.
"Don't you want your flowers?" he asked humbly.
"No, thanks—they'd be dead before I got home—throw them away, you look absurd with a posy."
He did as he was bidden. They came near the hedge. A crab-apple tree blossomed up among the blue.
"You may get me a bit of that blossom," said she, and suddenly added—"no, I can reach it myself," whereupon she stretched upward and pulled several sprigs of the pink and white, and put it in her dress.
"Isn't it pretty?" she said, and she began to laugh ironically, pointing to the flowers—"pretty, pink-cheeked petals, and stamens like yellow hair, and buds like lips promising something nice"—she stopped and looked at him, flickering with a smile. Then she pointed to the ovary beneath the flower, and said: "Result: Crab-apples!"
She continued to look at him, and to smile. He said nothing. So they went on to where they could climb the fence into the spinney. She climbed to the top rail, holding by an oak bough. Then she let him lift her down bodily.
"Ah!" she said, "you like to show me how strong you are—a veritable Samson!"—she mocked, although she had invited him with her eyes to take her in his arms.
We were entering the spinney of black poplar. In the hedge was an elm tree, with myriads of dark dots pointed against the bright sky, myriads of clusters of flaky green fruit.
"Look at that elm," she said, "you'd think it was in full leaf, wouldn't you? Do you know why it's so prolific?"
"No," he said, with a curious questioning drawl of the monosyllable.
"It's casting its bread upon the winds—no, it is dying, so it puts out all its strength and loads its boughs with the last fruit. It'll be dead next year. If you're here then, come and see. Look at the ivy, the suave smooth ivy, with its fingers in the trees' throat. Trees know how to die, you see—we don't."
With her whimsical moods she tormented him. She was at the bottom a seething confusion of emotion, and she wanted to make him likewise.
"If we were trees with ivy—instead of being fine humans with free active life—we should hug our thinning lives, shouldn't we?"
"I suppose we should."
"You, for instance—fancy your sacrificing yourself—for the next generation—that reminds you of Schopenhauer, doesn't it?—for the next generation, or love, or anything!"
He did not answer her; she was too swift for him. They passed on under the poplars, which were hanging strings of green beads above them. There was a little open space, with tufts of bluebells. Lettie stooped over a wood-pigeon that lay on the ground on its breast, its wings half spread. She took it up—its eyes were bursten and bloody; she felt its breast, ruffling the dimming iris on its throat.
"It's been fighting," he said.
"What for—a mate?" she asked, looking at him.
"I don't know," he answered.
"Cold—he's quite cold, under the feathers! I think a wood-pigeon must enjoy being fought for—and being won especially if the right one won. It would be a fine pleasure to see them fighting—don't you think?" she said, torturing him.
"The claws are spread—it fell dead off the perch," he replied.
"Ah, poor thing—it was wounded—and sat and waited for death—when the other had won. Don't you think life is very cruel, George—and love the cruellest of all?"
He laughed bitterly under the pain of her soft, sad tones.
"Let me bury him—and have done with the beaten lover. But we'll make him a pretty grave."
She scooped a hole in the dark soil, and snatching a handful of bluebells, threw them in on top of the dead bird. Then she smoothed the soil over all, and pressed her white hands on the black loam.
"There," she said, knocking her hands one against the other to shake off the soil, "he's done with. Come on."
He followed her, speechless with his emotion.
The spinney opened out; the ferns were serenely uncoiling, the bluebells stood grouped with blue curls mingled. In the freer spaces forget-me-nots flowered in nebulæ, and dog-violets gave an undertone of dark purple, with primroses for planets in the night. There was a slight drift of woodruff, sweet new-mown hay, scenting the air under the boughs. On a wet bank was the design of golden saxifrage, glistening unholily as if varnished by its minister, the snail. George and Lettie crushed the veined belles of wood-sorrel and broke the silken mosses. What did it matter to them what they broke or crushed.
Over the fence of the spinney was the hillside, scattered with old thorn trees. There the little grey lichens held up ruby balls to us unnoticed. What did it matter, when all the great red apples were being shaken from the Tree to be left to rot.
"If I were a man," said Lettie, "I would go out west and be free. I should love it."
She took the scarf from her head and let it wave out on the wind; the colour was warm in her face with climbing, and her curls were freed by the wind, sparkling and rippling.
"Well—you're not a man," he said, looking at her, and speaking with timid bitterness.
"No," she laughed, "if I were, I would shape things—oh, wouldn't I have my own way!"
"And don't you now?"
"Oh—I don't want it particularly—when I've got it. When I've had my way, I do want somebody to take it back from me."
She put her head back and looked at him sideways, laughing through the glitter of her hair.
They came to the kennels. She sat down on the edge of the great stone water trough, and put her hands in the water, moving them gently like submerged flowers through the clear pool.
"I love to see myself in the water," she said, "I don't mean on the water, Narcissus—but that's how I should like to be out west, to have a little lake of my own, and swim with my limbs quite free in the water."
"Do you swim well?" he asked.
"I would race you—in your little lake."
She laughed, took her hands out of the water, and watched the clear drops trickle off. Then she lifted her head suddenly, at some thought or other. She looked across the valley, and saw the red roofs of the Mill.
Fatalis incestusque judex
Et mulier peregrina vertit.
"What's that?" he said.
"That's a private trough," exclaimed a thin voice, high like a peewit's cry. We started in surprise to see a tall, black-bearded man looking at us and away from us nervously, fidgeting uneasily some ten yards off.
"Is it?" said Lettie, looking at her wet hands, which she proceeded to dry on a fragment of a handkerchief.
"You mustn't meddle with it," said the man in the same reedy, oboe voice. Then he turned his head away, and his pale grey eyes roved the countryside——when he had courage, he turned his back to us, shading his eyes to continue his scrutiny. He walked hurriedly, a few steps, then craned his neck, peering into the valley, and hastened a dozen yards in another direction, again stretching and peering about. Then he went indoors.
"He is pretending to look for somebody," said Lettie, "but it's only because he's afraid we shall think he came out just to look at us"—and they laughed.
Suddenly a woman appeared at the gate; she had pale eyes like the mouse-voiced man.
"You'll get Bright's disease sitting on that there damp stone," she said to Lettie, who at once rose apologetically.
"I ought to know," continued the mouse-voiced woman, "my own mother died of it."
"Indeed," murmured Lettie, "I'm sorry."
"Yes," continued the woman, "it behooves you to be careful. Do you come from Strelley Mill Farm?" she asked suddenly of George, surveying his shameful déshabille with bitter reproof.
He admitted the imputation.
"And you're going to leave, aren't you?"
Which also he admitted.
"Humph!—we s'll 'appen get some neighbours. It's a dog's life for loneliness. I suppose you knew the last lot that was here."
Another brief admission.
"A dirty lot—a dirty beagle she must have been. You should just ha' seen these grates."
"Yes," said Lettie, "I have seen them."
"Faugh—the state! But come in—come in, you'll see a difference."
They entered, out of curiosity. The kitchen was indeed different. It was clean and sparkling, warm with bright red chintzes on the sofa and on every chair cushion. Unfortunately the effect was spoiled by green and yellow antimaccassars, and by a profusion of paper and woollen flowers. There were three cases of woollen flowers, and on the wall, four fans stitched over with ruffled green and yellow paper, adorned with yellow paper roses, carnations, arum lilies, and poppies; there were also wall pockets full of paper flowers; while the wood outside was loaded with blossom. "Yes," said Lettie, "there is a difference." The woman swelled, and looked round. The black-bearded man peeped from behind the Christian Herald—those long blaring trumpets!—and shrank again. The woman darted at his pipe, which he had put on a piece of newspaper on the hob, and blew some imaginary ash from it. Then she caught sight of something—perhaps some dust—on the fireplace.
"There!" she cried, "I knew it; I couldn't leave him one second! I haven't work enough burning wood, but he must be poke——poke——"
"I only pushed a piece in between the bars," complained the mouse-voice from behind the paper.
"Pushed a piece in!" she re-echoed, with awful scorn, seizing the poker and thrusting it over his paper. "What do you call that, sitting there telling your stories before folks——"
They crept out and hurried away. Glancing round, Lettie saw the woman mopping the doorstep after them, and she laughed. He pulled his watch out of his breeches' pocket; it was half-past three.
"What are you looking at the time for?" she asked.
"Meg's coming to tea," he replied.
She said no more, and they walked slowly on.
When they came on to the shoulder of the hill, and looked down on to the mill, and the mill-pond, she said:
"I will not come down with you—I will go home."
"Not come down to tea!" he exclaimed, full of reproach and amazement. "Why, what will they say?"
"No, I won't come down—let me say farewell—'jamque Vale! Do you remember how Eurydice sank back into Hell?"
"But"—he stammered, "you must come down to tea—how can I tell them? Why won't you come?"
She answered him in Latin, with two lines from Virgil. As she watched him, she pitied his helplessness, and gave him a last cut as she said, very softly and tenderly:
"It wouldn't be fair to Meg."
He stood looking at her; his face was coloured only by the grey-brown tan; his eyes, the dark, self-mistrustful eyes of the family, were darker than ever, dilated with misery of helplessness; and she was infinitely pitiful. She wanted to cry in her yearning.
"Shall we go into the wood for a few minutes?" she said in a low, tremulous voice, as they turned aside.
The wood was high and warm. Along the ridings the forget-me-nots were knee deep, stretching, glimmering into the distance like the Milky Way through the night. They left the tall, flower-tangled paths to go in among the bluebells, breaking through the close-pressed flowers and ferns till they came to an oak which had fallen across the hazels, where they sat half screened. The hyacinths drooped magnificently with an overweight of purple, or they stood pale and erect, like unripe ears of purple corn. Heavy bees swung down in a blunder of extravagance among the purple flowers. They were intoxicated even with the sight of so much blue. The sound of their hearty, wanton humming came clear upon the solemn boom of the wind overhead. The sight of their clinging, clambering riot gave satisfaction to the soul. A rosy campion flower caught the sun and shone out. An elm sent down a shower of flesh-tinted sheaths upon them.
"If there were fauns and hamadryads!" she said softly, turning to him to soothe his misery. She took his cap from his head, ruffled his hair, saying:
"If you were a faun, I would put guelder roses round your hair, and make you look Bacchanalian." She left her hand lying on his knee, and looked up at the sky. Its blue looked pale and green in comparison with the purple tide ebbing about the wood. The clouds rose up like towers, and something had touched them into beauty, and poised them up among the winds. The clouds passed on, and the pool of sky was clear.
"Look," she said, "how we are netted down—boughs with knots of green buds. If we were free on the winds!—But I'm glad we're not." She turned suddenly to him, and with the same movement, she gave him her hand, and he clasped it in both his. "I'm glad we're netted down here; if we were free in the winds—Ah!"
She laughed a peculiar little laugh, catching her breath.
"Look!" she said, "it's a palace, with the ash-trunks smooth like a girl's arm, and the elm-columns, ribbed and bossed and fretted, with the great steel shafts of beech, all rising up to hold an embroidered care-cloth over us; and every thread of the care-cloth vibrates with music for us, and the little broidered birds sing; and the hazel-bushes fling green spray round us, and the honeysuckle leans down to pour out scent over us. Look at the harvest of bluebells—ripened for us! Listen to the bee, sounding among all the organ-play—if he sounded exultant for us!" She looked at him, with tears coming up into her eyes, and a little, winsome, wistful smile hovering round her mouth. He was very pale, and dared not look at her. She put her hand in his, leaning softly against him. He watched, as if fascinated, a young thrush with full pale breast who hopped near to look at them—glancing with quick, shining eyes.
"The clouds are going on again," said Lettie.
"Look at that cloud face—see—gazing right up into the sky. The lips are opening—he is telling us something.—now the form is slipping away—it's gone—come, we must go too."
"No," he cried, "don't go—don't go away."
Her tenderness made her calm. She replied in a voice perfect in restrained sadness and resignation.
"No, my dear, no. The threads of my life were untwined; they drifted about like floating threads of gossamer; and you didn't put out your hand to take them and twist them up into the chord with yours. Now another has caught them up, and the chord of my life is being twisted, and I cannot wrench it free and untwine it again—I can't. I am not strong enough. Besides, you have twisted another thread far and tight into your chord; could you get free?"
"Tell me what to do—yes, if you tell me."
"I can't tell you—so let me go."
"No, Lettie," he pleaded, with terror and humility. "No, Lettie; don't go. What should I do with my life? Nobody would love you like I do—and what should I do with my love for you?—hate it and fear it, because it's too much for me?"
She turned and kissed him gratefully. He then took her in a long, passionate embrace, mouth to mouth. In the end it had so wearied her that she could only wait in his arms till he was too tired to hold her. He was trembling already.
"Poor Meg!" she murmured to herself dully, her sensations having become vague.
He winced, and the pressure of his arms slackened. She loosened his hands and rose half dazed from her seat by him. She left him, while he sat dejected, raising no protest.
When I went out to look for them, when tea had already been waiting on the table half an hour or more, I found him leaning against the gatepost at the bottom of the hill. There was no blood in his face, and his tan showed livid; he was haggard as if he had been ill for some weeks.
"Whatever's the matter?" I said. "Where's Lettie?"
"She's gone home," he answered, and the sound of his own voice, and the meaning of his own words made him heave.
"Why?" I asked in alarm.
He looked at me as if to say "What are you talking about? I cannot listen!"
"Why?" I insisted.
"I don't know," he replied.
"They are waiting tea for you," I said.
He heard me, but took no notice.
"Come on," I repeated, "there's Meg and everybody waiting tea for you."
"I don't want any," he said.
I waited a minute or two. He was violently sick.
Fervens difficile bile tumet jecur"
I thought to myself.
When the sickness passed over, he stood up away from the post, trembling and lugubrious. His eyelids drooped heavily over his eyes, and he looked at me, and smiled a faint, sick smile.
"Come and lie down in the loft," I said, "and I'll tell them you've got a bilious bout."
He obeyed me, not having energy to question; his strength had gone, and his splendid physique seemed shrunken; he walked weakly. I looked away from him, for in his feebleness he was already beginning to feel ludicrous.
We got into the barn unperceived, and I watched him climb the ladder to the loft. Then I went indoors to tell them.
I told them Lettie had promised to be at Highclose for tea, that George had a bilious attack, and was mooning about the barn till it was over; he had been badly sick. We ate tea without zest or enjoyment. Meg was wistful and ill at ease; the father talked to her and made much of her; the mother did not care for her much.
"I can't understand it," said the mother, "he so rarely has anything the matter with him—why, I've hardly known the day! Are you sure it's nothing serious, Cyril? It seems such a thing—and just when Meg happened to be down—just when Meg was coming——"
About half-past six I had again to go and look for him, to satisfy the anxiety of his mother and his sweetheart. I went whistling to let him know I was coming. He lay on a pile of hay in a corner, asleep. He had put his cap under his head to stop the tickling of the hay, and he lay half curled up, sleeping soundly. He was still very pale, and there was on his face the repose and pathos that a sorrow always leaves. As he wore no coat I was afraid he might be chilly, so I covered him up with a couple of sacks, and I left him. I would not have him disturbed—I helped the father about the cowsheds, and with the pigs.
Meg had to go at half-past seven. She was so disappointed that I said:
"Come and have a look at him—I'll tell him you did."
He had thrown off the sacks and spread out his limbs. As he lay on his back, flung out on the hay, he looked big again, and manly. His mouth had relaxed, and taken its old, easy lines. One felt for him now the warmth one feels for anyone who sleeps in an attitude of abandon. She leaned over him, and looked at him with a little rapture of love and tenderness; she longed to caress him. Then he stretched himself, and his eyes opened. Their sudden unclosing gave her a thrill. He smiled sleepily, and murmured, "Allo, Meg!" Then I saw him awake. As he remembered, he turned with a great sighing yawn, hid his face again, and lay still.
"Come along, Meg," I whispered, "he'll be best asleep."
"I'd better cover him up," she said, taking the sack and laying it very gently over his shoulders. He kept perfectly still while I drew her away.