At dinner time the father announced to us the exciting fact that Leslie had asked if a few of his guests might picnic that afternoon in the Strelley hayfields. The closes were so beautiful, with the brook under all its sheltering trees, running into the pond that was set with two green islets. Moreover, the squire's lady had written a book filling these meadows and the mill precincts with pot-pourri romance. The wedding guests at Highclose were anxious to picnic in so choice a spot.
The father, who delighted in a gay throng, beamed at us from over the table. George asked who were coming.
"Oh, not many—about half a dozen—mostly ladies down for the wedding."
George at first swore warmly; then he began to appreciate the affair as a joke.
Mrs. Saxton hoped they wouldn't want her to provide them pots, for she hadn't two cups that matched, nor had any of her spoons the least pretence to silver. The children were hugely excited, and wanted a holiday from school, which Emily at once vetoed firmly, thereby causing family dissension.
As we went round the field in the afternoon turning the hay, we were thinking apart, and did not talk. Every now and then—and at every corner—we stopped to look down towards the wood, to see if they were coming.
"Here they are!" George exclaimed suddenly, having spied the movement of white in the dark wood. We stood still and watched. Two girls, heliotrope and white, a man with two girls, pale green and white, and a man with a girl last.
"Can you tell who they are?" I asked.
"That's Marie Tempest, that first girl in white, and that's him and Lettie at the back, I don't know any more."
He stood perfectly still until they had gone out of sight behind the banks down by the brooks, then he stuck his fork in the ground, saying:
"You can easily finish—if you like. I'll go and mow out that bottom corner."
He glanced at me to see what I was thinking of him. I was thinking that he was afraid to meet her, and I was smiling to myself. Perhaps he felt ashamed, for he went silently away to the machine, where he belted his riding breeches tightly round his waist, and slung the scythe strap on his hip. I heard the clanging slur of the scythe stone as he whetted the blade. Then he strode off to mow the far bottom corner, where the ground was marshy, and the machine might not go, to bring down the lush green grass and the tall meadow sweet.
I went to the pond to meet the newcomers. I bowed to Louie Denys, a tall, graceful girl of the drooping type, elaborately gowned in heliotrope linen; I bowed to Agnes D'Arcy, an erect, intelligent girl with magnificent auburn hair—she wore no hat and carried a sunshade; I bowed to Hilda Seconde, a svelte, petite girl, exquisitely and delicately pretty; I bowed to Maria and to Lettie, and I shook hands with Leslie and with his friend, Freddy Cresswell. The latter was to be best man, a broad shouldered, pale-faced fellow, with beautiful soft hair like red wheat, and laughing eyes, and a whimsical, drawling manner of speech, like a man who has suffered enough to bring him to manhood and maturity, but who in spite of all remains a boy, irresponsible, lovable—a trifle pathetic. As the day was very hot, both men were in flannels, and wore flannel collars, yet it was evident that they had dressed with scrupulous care. Instinctively I tried to pull my trousers into shape within my belt, and I felt the inferiority cast upon the father, big and fine as he was in his way, for his shoulders were rounded with work, and his trousers were much distorted.
"What can we do?" said Marie; "you know we don't want to hinder, we want to help you. It was so good of you to let us come."
The father laughed his fine indulgence, saying to them—they loved him for the mellow, laughing modulation of his voice:
"Come on, then—I see there's a bit of turning-over to do, as Cyril's left. Come and pick your forks."
From among a sheaf of hayforks he chose the lightest for them, and they began anywhere, just tipping at the swaths. He showed them carefully—Marie and the charming little Hilda—just how to do it, but they found the right way the hardest way, so they worked in their own fashion, and laughed heartily with him when he made playful jokes at them. He was a great lover of girls, and they blossomed from timidity under his hearty influence.
"Ain' it flippin' 'ot?" drawled Cresswell, who had just taken his M. A. degree in classics: "This bloomin' stuff's dry enough—come an' flop on it."
He gathered a cushion of hay, which Louie Denys carefully appropriated, arranging first her beautiful dress, that fitted close to her shape, without any belt or interruption, and then laying her arms, that were netted to the shoulder in open lace, gracefully at rest. Lettie, who was also in a closefitting white dress which showed her shape down to the hips, sat where Leslie had prepared for her, and Miss D'Arcy reluctantly accepted my pile.
Cresswell twisted his clean-cut mouth in a little smile, saying:
"Lord, a giddy little pastoral—fit for old Theocritus, ain't it, Miss Denys?"
"Why do you talk to me about those classic people—I daren't even say their names. What would he say about us?"
He laughed, winking his blue eyes:
"He'd make old Daphnis there,"—pointing to Leslie—"sing a match with me, Damoetas—contesting the merits of our various sheperdesses—begin Daphnis, sing up for Amaryllis, I mean Nais, damn 'em, they were for ever getting mixed up with their nymphs."
"I say, Mr. Cresswell, your language! Consider whom you're damning," said Miss Denys, leaning over and tapping his head with her silk glove.
"You say any giddy thing in a pastoral," he replied, taking the edge of her skirt, and lying back on it, looking up at her as she leaned over him. "Strike up, Daphnis, something about honey or white cheese—or else the early apples that'll be ripe in a week's time."
"I'm sure the apples you showed me are ever so little and green," interrupted Miss Denys; "they will never be ripe in a week—ugh, sour!"
He smiled up at her in his whimsical way:
"Hear that, Tempest—'Ugh, sour!'—not much! Oh, love us, haven't you got a start yet?—isn't there aught to sing about, you blunt-faced kid?"
"I'll hear you first—I'm no judge of honey and cheese."
"An' darn little apples—takes a woman to judge them; don't it, Miss Denys?"
"I don't know," she said, stroking his soft hair from his forehead with her hand whereon rings were sparkling.
"'My love is not white, my hair is not yellow, like honey dropping through the sunlight—my love is brown, and sweet, and ready for the lips of love.' Go on, Tempest—strike up, old cowherd. Who's that tuning his pipe?—oh, that fellow sharpening his scythe! It's enough to make your backache to look at him working—go an' stop him, somebody."
"Yes, let us go and fetch him," said Miss D'Arcy. "I'm sure he doesn't know what a happy pastoral state he's in—let us go and fetch him."
"They don't like hindering at their work, Agnes—besides, where ignorance is bliss——" said Lettie, afraid lest she might bring him. The other hesitated, then with her eyes she invited me to go with her.
"Oh, dear," she laughed, with a little mowe, "Freddy is such an ass, and Louie Denys is like a wasp at treacle. I wanted to laugh, yet I felt just a tiny bit cross. Don't you feel great when you go mowing like that? Father Timey sort of feeling? Shall we go and look! We'll say we want those foxgloves he'll be cutting down directly—and those bell flowers. I suppose you needn't go on with your labours——"
He did not know we were approaching till I called him, then he started slightly as he saw the tall, proud girl.
"Mr. Saxton—Miss D'Arcy," I said, and he shook hands with her. Immediately his manner became ironic, for he had seen his hand big and coarse and inflamed with the snaith clasping the lady's hand.
"We thought you looked so fine," she said to him, "and men are so embarrassing when they make love to somebody else—aren't they? Save us those foxgloves, will you—they are splendid—like savage soldiers drawn up against the hedge—don't cut them down—and those campanulas—bell-flowers, ah, yes! They are spinning idylls up there. I don't care for idylls, do you? Oh, you don't know what a classical pastoral person you are—but there, I don't suppose you suffer from idyllic love——" she laughed, "—one doesn't see the silly little god fluttering about in our hayfields, does one? Do you find much time to sport with Amaryllis in the shade?—I'm sure it's a shame they banished Phyllis from the fields——"
He laughed and went on with his work. She smiled a little, too, thinking she had made a great impression. She put out her hand with a dramatic gesture, and looked at me, when the scythe crunched through the meadow-sweet.
"Crunch! isn't it fine!" she exclaimed, "a kind of inevitable fate—I think it's fine!"
We wandered about picking flowers and talking until teatime. A manservant came with the tea-basket, and the girls spread the cloth under a great willow tree. Lettie took the little silver kettle, and went to fill it at the small spring which trickled into a stone trough all pretty with cranesbill and stellaria hanging over, while long blades of grass waved in the water. George, who had finished his work, and wanted to go home to tea, walked across to the spring where Lettie sat playing with the water, getting little cupfuls to put into the kettle, watching the quick skating of the water beetles, and the large faint spots of their shadows darting on the silted mud at the bottom of the trough.
She glanced round on hearing him coming, and smiled nervously: they were mutually afraid of meeting each other again.
"It is about teatime," he said.
"Yes—it will be ready in a moment—this is not to make the tea with—it's only to keep a little supply of hot water."
"Oh," he said, "I'll go on home—I'd rather."
"No," she replied, "you can't because we are all having tea together: I had some fruits put up, because I know you don't trifle with tea—and your father's coming."
"But," he replied pettishly, "I can't have my tea with all those folks—I don't want to—look at me!"
He held out his inflamed, barbaric hands.
She winced and said:
"It won't matter—you'll give the realistic touch."
He laughed ironically.
"No—you must come," she insisted.
"I'll have a drink then, if you'll let me," he said, yielding.
She got up quickly, blushing, offering him the tiny, pretty cup.
"I'm awfully sorry," she said.
"Never mind," he muttered, and turning from the proffered cup he lay down flat, put his mouth to the water, and drank deeply. She stood and watched the motion of his drinking, and of his heavy breathing afterwards. He got up, wiping his mouth, not looking at her. Then he washed his hands in the water, and stirred up the mud. He put his hand to the bottom of the trough, bringing out a handful of silt, with the grey shrimps twisting in it. He flung the mud on the floor where the poor grey creatures writhed.
"It wants cleaning out," he said.
"Yes," she replied, shuddering. "You won't be long," she added, taking up the silver kettle.
In a few moments he got up and followed her reluctantly down. He was nervous and irritable.
The girls were seated on tufts of hay, with the men leaning in attendance on them, and the manservant waiting on all. George was placed between Lettie and Hilda. The former handed him his little egg-shell of tea, which, as he was not very thirsty, he put down on the ground beside him. Then she passed him the bread and butter, cut for five-o'clock tea, and fruits, grapes and peaches, and strawberries, in a beautifully carved oak tray. She watched for a moment his thick, half-washed fingers fumbling over the fruits, then she turned her head away. All the gay teatime, when the talk bubbled and frothed over all the cups, she avoided him with her eyes. Yet again and again, as someone said: "I'm sorry, Mr. Saxton—will you have some cake?"—or "See, Mr. Saxton—try this peach, I'm sure it will be mellow right to the stone,"—speaking very naturally, but making the distinction between him and the other men by their indulgence towards him, Lettie was forced to glance at him as he sat eating, answering in monosyllables, laughing with constraint and awkwardness, and her irritation flickered between her brows. Although she kept up the gay frivolity of the conversation, still the discord was felt by everybody, and we did not linger as we should have done over the cups. "George," they said afterwards, "was a wet blanket on the party." Lettie was intensely annoyed with him. His presence was unbearable to her. She wished him a thousand miles away. He sat listening to Cresswell's whimsical affectation of vulgarity which flickered with fantasy, and he laughed in a strained fashion.
He was the first to rise, saying he must get the cows up for milking.
"Oh, let us go—let us go. May we come and see the cows milked?" said Hilda, her delicate, exquisite features flushing, for she was very shy.
"No," drawled Freddy, "the stink o' live beef ain't salubrious. You be warned, and stop here."
"I never could bear cows, except those lovely little highland cattle, all woolly, in pictures," said Louie Denys, smiling archly, with a little irony.
"No," laughed Agnes D'Arcy, "they—they're smelly,"—and she pursed up her mouth, and ended in a little trill of deprecatory laughter, as she often did. Hilda looked from one to the other, blushing.
"Come, Lettie," said Leslie good-naturedly, "I know you have a farmyard fondness—come on," and they followed George down.
As they passed along the pond bank a swan and her tawny, fluffy brood sailed with them the length of the water, "tipping on their little toes, the darlings—pitter-patter through the water, tiny little things," as Marie said.
We heard George below calling "Bully—Bully—Bully—Bully!"—and then, a moment or two after, in the bottom garden: "Come out, you little fool—are you coming out of it?" in manifestly angry tones.
"Has it run away?" laughed Hilda, delighted and we hastened out of the lower garden to see.
There in the green shade, between the tall gooseberry bushes, the heavy crimson peonies stood gorgeously along the path. The full red globes, poised and leaning voluptuously, sank their crimson weight on to the seeding grass of the path, borne down by secret rain, and by their own splendour. The path was poured over with red rich silk of strewn petals. The great flowers swung their crimson grandly about the walk, like crowds of cardinals in pomp among the green bushes. We burst into the new world of delight. As Lettie stooped, taking between both hands the gorgeous silken fulness of one blossom that was sunk to the earth. George came down the path, with the brown bull-calf straddling behind him, its neck stuck out, sucking zealously at his middle finger.
The unconscious attitudes of the girls, all bent enraptured over the peonies, touched him with sudden pain. As he came up, with the calf stalking grudgingly behind, he said:
"There's a fine show of pyeenocks this year, isn't there?"
"What do you call them?" cried Hilda, turning to him her sweet, charming face full of interest.
"Pyeenocks," he replied.
Lettie remained crouching with a red flower between her hands, glancing sideways unseen to look at the calf, which with its shiny nose uplifted was mumbling in its sticky gums the seductive finger. It sucked eagerly, but unprofitably, and it appeared to cast a troubled eye inwards to see if it were really receiving any satisfaction,—doubting, but not despairing. Marie, and Hilda, and Leslie laughed, while he, after looking at Lettie as she crouched, wistfully, as he thought, over the flower, led the little brute out of the garden, and sent it running into the yard with a smack on the haunch.
Then he returned, rubbing his sticky finger dry against his breeches. He stood near to Lettie, and she felt rather than saw the extraordinary pale cleanness of the one finger among the others. She rubbed her finger against her dress in painful sympathy.
"But aren't the flowers lovely!" exclaimed Marie again. "I want to hug them."
"Oh, yes!" assented Hilda.
"They are like a romance—D'Annunzio—a romance in passionate sadness," said Lettie, in an ironical voice, speaking half out of conventional necessity of saying something, half out of desire to shield herself, and yet in a measure express herself.
"There is a tale about them," I said.
The girls clamoured for the legend.
"Pray, do tell us," pleaded Hilda, the irresistible.
"It was Emily told me—she says it's a legend, but I believe it's only a tale. She says the peonies were brought from the Hall long since by a fellow of this place—when it was a mill. He was brown and strong, and the daughter of the Hall, who was pale and fragile and young, loved him. When he went up to the Hall gardens to cut the yew hedges, she would hover round him in her white frock, and tell him tales of old days, in little snatches like a wren singing, till he thought she was a fairy who had bewitched him. He would stand and watch her, and one day, when she came near to him telling him a tale that set the tears swimming in her eyes, he took hold of her and kissed her and kept her. They used to tryst in the poplar spinney. She would come with her arms full of flowers, for she always kept to her fairy part. One morning she came early through the mists. He was out shooting. She wanted to take him unawares, like a fairy. Her arms were full of peonies. When she was moving beyond the trees he shot her, not knowing. She stumbled on, and sank down in their tryst place. He found her lying there among the red pyeenocks, white and fallen. He thought she was just lying talking to the red flowers, so he stood waiting. Then he went up, and bent over her, and found the flowers full of blood. It was he set the garden here with these pyeenocks."
The eyes of the girls were round with the pity of the tale and Hilda turned away to hide her tears.
"It is a beautiful ending," said Lettie, in a low tone, looking at the floor.
"It's all a tale," said Leslie, soothing the girls.
George waited till Lettie looked at him. She lifted her eyes to him at last. Then each turned aside, trembling.
Marie asked for some of the peonies.
"Give me just a few—and I can tell the others the story—it is so sad—I feel so sorry for him, it was so cruel for him——! And Lettie says it ends beautifully——!"
George cut the flowers with his great clasp knife, and Marie took them, carefully, treating their romance with great tenderness. Then all went out of the garden and he turned to the cowshed.
"Good-bye for the present," said Lettie, afraid to stay near him.
"Good-bye," he laughed.
"Thank you so much for the flowers—and the story—it was splendid," said Marie, "—but so sad!"
Then they went, and we did not see them again.
Later, when all had gone to bed at the mill, George and I sat together on opposite sides of the fire, smoking, saying little. He was casting up the total of discrepancies, and now and again he ejaculated one of his thoughts.
"And all day," he said, "Blench has been ploughing his wheat in, because it was that bitten off by the rabbits it was no manner of use, so he's ploughed it in: an' they say with idylls, eating peaches in our close."
Then there was silence, while the clock throbbed heavily, and outside a wild bird called, and was still; softly the ashes rustled lower in the grate.
"She said it ended well—but what's the good of death—what's the good of that?" He turned his face to the ashes in the grate, and sat brooding.
Outside, among the trees, some wild animal set up a thin, wailing cry.
"Damn that row!" said I, stirring, looking also into the grey fire.
"It's some stoat or weasel, or something. It's been going on like that for nearly a week. I've shot in the trees ever so many times. There were two—one's gone."
Continuously, through the heavy, chilling silence, came the miserable crying from the darkness among the trees.
"You know," he said, "she hated me this afternoon, and I hated her——"
It was midnight, full of sick thoughts.
"It is no good," said I. "Go to bed—it will be morning in a few hours."