Lettie was wedded, as I had said, before Leslie lost all the wistful traces of his illness. They had been gone away to France five days before we recovered anything like the normal tone in the house. Then, though the routine was the same, everywhere was a sense of loss, and of change. The long voyage in the quiet home was over; we had crossed the bright sea of our youth, and already Lettie had landed and was travelling to a strange destination in a foreign land. It was time for us all to go, to leave the valley of Nethermere whose waters and whose woods were distilled in the essence of our veins. We were the children of the valley of Nethermere, a small nation with language and blood of our own, and to cast ourselves each one into separate exile was painful to us.
"I shall have to go now," said George. "It is my nature to linger an unconscionable time, yet I dread above all things this slow crumbling away from my foundations by which I free myself at last. I must wrench myself away now——"
It was the slack time between the hay and the corn harvest, and we sat together in the grey, still morning of August pulling the stack. My hands were sore with tugging the loose wisps from the lower part of the stack, so I waited for the touch of rain to send us indoors. It came at last, and we hurried into the barn. We climbed the ladder into the loft that was strewn with farming implements and with carpenters' tools. We sat together on the shavings that littered the bench before the high gable window, and looked out over the brooks and the woods and the ponds. The tree-tops were very near to us, and we felt ourselves the centre of the waters and the woods that spread down the rainy valley.
"In a few years," I said, "we shall be almost strangers."
He looked at me with fond, dark eyes and smiled incredulously.
"It is as far," said I, "to the 'Ram' as it is for me to London—farther."
"Don't you want me to go there?" he asked, smiling quietly.
"It's all as one where you go, you will travel north, and I east, and Lettie south. Lettie has departed. In seven weeks I go.—And you?"
"I must be gone before you," he said decisively.
"Do you know——" and he smiled timidly in confession, "I feel alarmed at the idea of being left alone on a loose end. I must not be the last to leave——" he added almost appealingly.
"And you will go to Meg?" I asked.
He sat tearing the silken shavings into shreds, and telling me in clumsy fragments all he could of his feelings:
"You see it's not so much what you call love. I don't know. You see I built on Lettie,"—he looked up at me shamefacedly, then continued tearing the shavings—"you must found your castles on something, and I founded mine on Lettie. You see, I'm like plenty of folks, I have nothing definite to shape my life to. I put brick upon brick, as they come, and if the whole topples down in the end, it does. But you see, you and Lettie have made me conscious, and now I'm at a dead loss. I have looked to marriage to set me busy on my house of life, something whole and complete, of which it will supply the design. I must marry or be in a lost lane. There are two people I could marry—and Lettie's gone. I love Meg just as well, as far as love goes. I'm not sure I don't feel better pleased at the idea of marrying her. You know I should always have been second to Lettie, and the best part of love is being made much of, being first and foremost in the whole world for somebody. And Meg's easy and lovely. I can have her without trembling, she's full of soothing and comfort. I can stroke her hair and pet her, and she looks up at me, full of trust and lovingness, and there is no flaw, all restfulness in one another——"
Three weeks later, as I lay in the August sunshine in a deck-chair on the lawn, I heard the sound of wheels along the gravel path. It was George calling for me to accompany him to his marriage. He pulled up the dog-cart near the door and came up the steps to me on the lawn. He was dressed as if for the cattle market, in jacket and breeches and gaiters.
"Well, are you ready?" he said standing smiling down on me. His eyes were dark with excitement, and had that vulnerable look which was so peculiar to the Saxtons in their emotional moments.
"You are in good time," said I, "it is but half past nine."
"It wouldn't do to be late on a day like this," he said gaily, "see how the sun shines. Come, you don't look as brisk as a best man should. I thought you would have been on tenterhooks of excitement. Get up, get up! Look here, a bird has given me luck"—he showed me a white smear on his shoulder.
I drew myself up lazily.
"All right," I said, "but we must drink a whisky to establish it."
He followed me out of the fragrant sunshine into the dark house. The rooms were very still and empty, but the cool silence responded at once to the gaiety of our sunwarm entrance. The sweetness of the summer morning hung invisible like glad ghosts of romance through the shadowy room. We seemed to feel the sunlight dancing golden in our veins as we filled again the pale liqueur.
"Joy to you—I envy you to-day."
His teeth were white, and his eyes stirred like dark liquor as he smiled.
"Here is my wedding present!"
I stood the four large water-colours along the wall before him. They were drawings among the waters and the fields of the mill, grey rain and twilight, morning with the sun pouring gold into the mist, and the suspense of a midsummer noon upon the pond. All the glamour of our yesterdays came over him like an intoxicant, and he quivered with the wonderful beauty of life that was weaving him into the large magic of the years. He realised the splendour of the pageant of days which had him in train.
"It's been wonderful, Cyril, all the time," he said, with surprised joy.
We drove away through the freshness of the wood, and among the flowing of the sunshine along the road. The cottages of Greymede filled the shadows with colour of roses, and the sunlight with odour of pinks and the blue of corn flowers and larkspur. We drove briskly up the long, sleeping hill, and bowled down the hollow past the farms where the hens were walking with the red gold cocks in the orchard, and the ducks like white cloudlets under the aspen trees revelled on the pond.
"I told her to be ready any time," said George—"but she doesn't know it's to-day. I didn't want the public-house full of the business."
The mare walked up the sharp little rise on top of which stood the "Ram Inn." In the quiet, as the horse slowed to a standstill, we heard the crooning of a song in the garden. We sat still in the cart, and looked across the flagged yard to where the tall madonna lilies rose in clusters out of the alyssome. Beyond the border of flowers was Meg, bending over the gooseberry bushes. She saw us and came swinging down the path, with a bowl of gooseberries poised on her hip. She was dressed in a plain, fresh holland frock, with a white apron. Her black, heavy hair reflected the sunlight, and her ripe face was luxuriant with laughter.
"Well, I never!" she exclaimed, trying not to show that she guessed his errand. "Fancy you here at this time o' morning!"
Her eyes, delightful black eyes like polished jet, untroubled and frank, looked at us as a robin might, with bright questioning. Her eyes were so different from the Saxton's: darker, but never still and full, never hesitating, dreading a wound, never dilating with hurt or with timid ecstasy.
"Are you ready then?" he asked, smiling down on her.
"What?" she asked in confusion.
"To come to the registrar with me—I've got the licence."
"But I'm just going to make the pudding," she cried, in full expostulation.
"Let them make it themselves—put your hat on."
"But look at me! I've just been getting the gooseberries. Look!" she showed us the berries, and the scratches on her arms and hands.
"What a shame!" he said, bending down to stroke her hand and her arm. She drew back smiling, flushing with joy. I could smell the white lilies where I sat.
"But you don't mean it, do you?" she said, lifting to him her face that was round and glossy like a blackheart cherry. For answer, he unfolded the marriage licence. She read it, and turned aside her face in confusion, saying:
"Well, I've got to get ready. Shall you come an' tell Gran'ma?"
"Is there any need?" he answered reluctantly.
"Yes, you come an tell 'er," persuaded Meg.
He got down from the trap. I preferred to stay out of doors. Presently Meg ran out with a glass of beer for me.
"We shan't be many minutes," she apologised. "I've on'y to slip another frock on."
I heard George go heavily up the stairs and enter the room over the bar-parlour, where the grandmother lay bed-ridden.
"What, is it thaïgh, ma lad? What are thaïgh doin' 'ere this mornin'?" she asked.
"Well A'nt, how does ta feel by now?" he said.
"Eh, sadly, lad, sadly! It'll not be long afore they carry me downstairs head first——"
"Nay, dunna thee say so!—I'm just off to Nottingham—I want Meg ter come."
"What for?" cried the old woman sharply.
"I wanted 'er to get married," he replied.
"What! What does't say? An' what about th' licence, an' th' ring, an ivrything?"
"I've seen to that all right," he answered.
"Well, tha 'rt a nice'st un, I must say! What's want goin' in this pig-in-a-poke fashion for? This is a nice shabby trick to serve a body! What does ta mean by it?"
"You knowed as I wor goin' ter marry 'er directly, so I can't see as it matters o' th' day. I non wanted a' th' pub talkin'——''
"Tha 'rt mighty particklar, an' all, an' all! An' why shouldn't the pub talk? Tha 'rt non marryin' a nigger, as ta should be so frightened—I niver thought it on thee!—An' what's thy 'orry, all of a sudden?"
"No hurry as I know of."
"No 'orry——!" replied the old lady, with withering sarcasm. "Tha wor niver in a 'orry a' thy life! She's non commin' wi' thee this day, though."
He laughed, also sarcastic. The old lady was angry. She poured on him her abuse, declaring she would not have Meg in the house again, nor leave her a penny, if she married him that day.
"Tha can please thysen," answered George, also angry.
Meg came hurriedly into the room.
"Ta'e that 'at off—ta'e it off! Tha non goos wi' 'im this day, not if I know it! Does 'e think tha 'rt a cow, or a pig, to be fetched wheniver 'e thinks fit. Ta'e that 'at off, I say!"
The old woman was fierce and peremptory.
"But gran'ma!——" began Meg.
The bed creaked as the old lady tried to rise.
"Ta'e that 'at off, afore I pull it off!" she cried.
"Oh, be still Gran'ma—you'll be hurtin' yourself, you know you will——"
"Are you coming Meg?" said George suddenly.
"She is not!" cried the old woman.
"Are you coming Meg?" repeated George, in a passion.
Meg began to cry. I suppose she looked at him through her tears. The next thing I heard was a cry from the old woman, and the sound of staggering feet.
"Would ta drag 'er from me!—if tha goos, ma wench, tha enters this 'ouse no more, tha 'eers that! Tha does thysen my lady! Dunna venture anigh me after this, my gel!"—the old woman called louder and louder. George appeared in the doorway, holding Meg by the arm. She was crying in a little distress. Her hat with its large silk roses, was slanting over her eyes. She was dressed in white linen. They mounted the trap. I gave him the reins and scrambled up behind. The old woman heard us through the open window, and we listened to her calling as we drove away:
"Dunna let me clap eyes on thee again, tha ungrateful 'ussy, tha ungrateful 'ussy! Tha'll rue it, my wench, tha'll rue it, an' then dunna come ter me——"
We drove out of hearing. George sat with a shut mouth, scowling. Meg wept awhile to herself woefully. We were swinging at a good pace under the beeches of the churchyard which stood above the level of the road. Meg, having settled her hat, bent her head to the wind, too much occupied with her attire to weep. We swung round the hollow by the bog end, and rattled a short distance up the steep hill to Watnall. Then the mare walked slowly. Meg, at leisure to collect herself, exclaimed plaintively:
"Oh, I've only got one glove!"
She looked at the odd silk glove that lay in her lap, then peered about among her skirts.
"I must 'a left it in th' bedroom," she said piteously.
He laughed, and his anger suddenly vanished.
"What does it matter? You'll do without all right."
At the sound of his voice, she recollected, and her tears and her weeping returned.
"Nay," he said, "don't fret about the old woman. She'll come round to-morrow—an' if she doesn't, it's her lookout. She's got Polly to attend to her."
"But she'll be that miserable——!" wept Meg.
"It's her own fault. At any rate, don't let it make you miserable"—he glanced to see if anyone were in sight, then he put his arm round her waist and kissed her, saying softly, coaxingly: "She'll be all right to-morrow. We'll go an' see her then, an' she'll be glad enough to have us. We'll give in to her then, poor old Gran'ma. She can boss you about, an' me as well, tomorrow as much as she likes. She feels it hard, being tied to her bed. But to-day is ours, surely—isn't it? To-day is ours, an' you're not sorry, are you?"
"But I've got no gloves, an' I'm sure my hair's a sight. I never thought she could 'a reached up like that."
George laughed, tickled.
"No," he said, "she was in a temper. But we can get you some gloves directly we get to Nottingham."
"I haven't a farthing of money," she said.
"I've plenty!" he laughed. "Oh, an' let's try this on."
They were merry together as he tried on her wedding ring, and they talked softly, he gentle and coaxing, she rather plaintive. The mare took her own way, and Meg's hat was disarranged once more by the sweeping elm-boughs. The yellow corn was dipping and flowing in the fields, like a cloth of gold pegged down at the corners under which the wind was heaving. Sometimes we passed cottages where the scarlet lilies rose like bonfires, and the tall larkspur like bright blue leaping smoke. Sometimes we smelled the sunshine on the browning corn, sometimes the fragrance of the shadow of leaves. Occasionally it was the dizzy scent of new haystacks. Then we rocked and jolted over the rough cobblestones of Cinderhill, and bounded forward again at the foot of the enormous pit hill, smelling of sulphur, inflamed with slow red fires in the daylight, and crusted with ashes. We reached the top of the rise and saw the city before us, heaped high and dim upon the broad range of the hill. I looked for the square tower of my old school, and the sharp proud spire of St. Andrews. Over the city hung a dullness, a thin dirty canopy against the blue sky.
We turned and swung down the slope between the last sullied cornfields towards Basford, where the swollen gasometers stood like toadstools. As we neared the mouth of the street, Meg rose excitedly, pulling George's arm, crying:
"Oh, look, the poor little thing!"
On the causeway stood two small boys lifting their faces and weeping to the heedless heavens, while before them, upside down, lay a baby strapped to a shut-up baby-chair. The gim-crack carpet-seated thing had collapsed as the boys were dismounting the curb-stone with it. It had fallen backwards, and they were unable to right it. There lay the infant strapped head downwards to its silly cart, in imminent danger of suffocation. Meg leaped out, and dragged the child from the wretched chair. The two boys, drenched with tears, howled on. Meg crouched on the road, the baby on her knee, its tiny feet dangling against her skirt. She soothed the pitiful tear-wet mite. She hugged it to her, and kissed it, and hugged it, and rocked it in an abandonment of pity. When at last the childish trio were silent, the boys shaken only by the last ebbing sobs, Meg calmed also from her frenzy of pity for the little thing. She murmured to it tenderly, and wiped its wet little cheeks with her handkerchief, soothing, kissing, fondling the bewildered mite, smoothing the wet strands of brown hair under the scrap of cotton bonnet, twitching the inevitable baby cape into order. It was a pretty baby, with wisps of brown-gold silken hair and large blue eyes.
"Is it a girl?" I asked one of the boys—"How old is she?"
"I don't know," he answered awkwardly, "We 've 'ad 'er about a three week."
"Why, isn't she your sister?"
"No—my mother keeps 'er,"—they were very reluctant to tell us anything.
"Poor little lamb!" cried Meg, in another access of pity, clasping the baby to her bosom with one hand, holding its winsome slippered feet in the other. She remained thus, stung through with acute pity, crouching, folding herself over the mite. At last she raised her head, and said, in a voice difficult with emotion:
"But you love her—don't you?"
"Yes—she's—she's all right. But we 'ave to mind 'er," replied the boy in great confusion.
"Surely," said Meg, "Surely you don't begrudge that. Poor little thing—so little, she is—surely you don't grumble at minding her a bit——?"
The boys would not answer.
"Oh, poor little lamb, poor little lamb!" murmured Meg over the child, condemning with bitterness the boys and the whole world of men.
I taught one of the lads how to fold and unfold the wretched chair. Meg very reluctantly seated the unfortunate baby therein, gently fastening her with the strap.
"Wheer's 'er dummy?" asked one of the boys in muffled, self-conscious tones. The infant began to cry thinly. Meg crouched over it. The 'dummy' was found in the gutter and wiped on the boy's coat, then plugged into the baby's mouth. Meg released the tiny clasping hand from over her finger, and mounted the dog cart, saying sternly to the boys:
"Mind you look after her well, poor little baby with no mother. God's watching to see what you do to her—so you be careful, mind."
They stood very shamefaced. George clicked to the mare, and as we started threw coppers to the boys. While we drove away I watched the little group diminish down the road.
"It's such a shame," she said, and the tears were in her voice, "—A sweet little thing like that——"
"Ay," said George softly, "there's all sorts of things in towns."
Meg paid no attention to him, but sat woman-like thinking of the forlorn baby, and condemning the hard world. He, full of tenderness and protectiveness towards her, having watched her with softening eyes, felt a little bit rebuffed that she ignored him, and sat alone in her fierce womanhood. So he busied himself with the reins, and the two sat each alone until Meg was roused by the bustle of the town. The mare sidled past the electric cars nervously, and jumped when a traction engine came upon us. Meg, rather frightened, clung to George again. She was very glad when we had passed the cemetery with its white population of tombstones, and drew up in a quiet street.
But when we had dismounted, and given the horse's head to a loafer, she became confused and bashful and timid to the last degree. He took her on his arm; he took the whole charge of her, and laughing, bore her away towards the steps of the office. She left herself entirely in his hands; she was all confusion, so he took the charge of her.
When, after a short time, they came out, she began to chatter with blushful animation. He was very quiet, and seemed to be taking his breath.
"Wasn't he a funny little man? Did I do it all proper?—I didn't know what I was doing. I'm sure they were laughing at me—do you think they were? Oh, just look at my frock—what a sight! What would they think——!" The baby had slightly soiled the front of her dress.
George drove up the long hill into the town. As we came down between the shops on Mansfield Road he recovered his spirits.
"Where are we going—where are you taking us?" asked Meg.
"We may as well make a day of it while we are here," he answered, smiling and flicking the mare. They both felt that they were launched forth on an adventure. He put up at the "Spread Eagle," and we walked towards the market-place for Meg's gloves. When he had bought her these and a large lace scarf to give her a more clothed appearance, he wanted dinner.
"We'll go," he said, "to an hôtel."
His eyes dilated as he said it, and she shrank away with delighted fear. Neither of them had ever been to an hôtel. She was really afraid. She begged him to go to an eating house, to a café. He was obdurate. His one idea was to do the thing that he was half-afraid to do. His passion—and it was almost intoxication—was to dare to play with life. He was afraid of the town. He was afraid to venture into the foreign places of life, and all was foreign save the valley of Nethermere. So he crossed the borders flauntingly, and marched towards the heart of the unknown. We went to the Victoria Hôtel—the most imposing he could think of—and we had luncheon according to the menu. They were like two children, very much afraid, yet delighting in the adventure. He dared not, however, give the orders. He dared not address anybody, waiters or otherwise. I did that for him, and he watched me, absorbing, learning, wondering that things were so easy and so delightful. I murmured them injunctions across the table and they blushed and laughed with each other nervously. It would be hard to say whether they enjoyed that luncheon. I think Meg did not—even though she was with him. But of George I am doubtful. He suffered exquisitely from self consciousness and nervous embarrassment, but he felt also the intoxication of the adventure, he felt as a man who has lived in a small island when he first sets foot on a vast continent. This was the first step into a new life, and he mused delightedly upon it over his brandy. Yet he was nervous. He could not get over the feeling that he was trespassing.
"Where shall we go this afternoon?" he asked.
Several things were proposed, but Meg pleaded warmly for Colwick.
"Let's go on a steamer to Colwick Park. There'll be entertainments there this afternoon. It'll be lovely."
In a few moments we were on the top of the car swinging down to the Trent Bridges. It was dinner time, and crowds of people from shops and warehouses were hurrying in the sunshine along the pavements. Sunblinds cast their shadows on the shop-fronts, and in the shade streamed the people dressed brightly for summer. As our car stood in the great space of the market place we could smell the mingled scent of fruit, oranges, and small apricots, and pears piled in their vividly coloured sections on the stalls. Then away we sailed through the shadows of the dark streets, and the open pools of sunshine. The castle on its high rock stood in the dazzling dry sunlight; the fountain stood shadowy in the green glimmer of the lime trees that surrounded the alms-houses.
There were many people at the Trent. We stood awhile on the bridge to watch the bright river swirling in a silent dance to the sea, while the light pleasure-boats lay asleep along the banks. We went on board the little paddle steamer and paid our "sixpence return." After much waiting we set off, with great excitement, for our mile-long voyage. Two banjos were tumming somewhere below, and the passengers hummed and sang to their tunes. A few boats dabbled on the water. Soon the river meadows with their high thorn hedges lay green on our right, while the scarp of red rock rose on our left, covered with the dark trees of summer.
We landed at Colwick Park. It was early, and few people were there. Dead glass fairy-lamps were slung about the trees. The grass in places was worn threadbare. We walked through the avenues and small glades of the park till we came to the boundary where the race-course stretched its level green, its winding white barriers running low into the distance. They sat in the shade for some time while I wandered about. Then many people began to arrive. It became noisy, even rowdy. We listened for some time to an open-air concert, given by the pierrots. It was rather vulgar, and very tiresome. It took me back to Cowes, to Yarmouth. There were the same foolish over-eyebrowed faces, the same perpetual jingle from an out-of-tune piano, the restless jigging to the songs, the same choruses, the same escapading. Meg was well pleased. The vulgarity passed by her. She laughed, and sang the choruses half audibly, daring, but not bold. She was immensely pleased. "Oh, it's Ben's turn now. I like him, he's got such a wicked twinkle in his eye. Look at Joey trying to be funny!—he can't to save his life. Doesn't he look soft——!" She began to giggle in George's shoulder. He saw the funny side of things for the time and laughed with her.
During tea, which we took on the green verandah of the degraded hall, she was constantly breaking forth into some chorus, and he would light up as she looked at him and sing with her, sotto voce. He was not embarrassed at Colwick. There he had on his best careless, superior air. He moved about with a certain scornfulness, and ordered lobster for tea off-handedly. This also was a new walk of life. Here he was not hesitating or tremulously strung; he was patronising. Both Meg and he thoroughly enjoyed themselves.
When we got back into Nottingham she entreated him not to go to the hotel as he had proposed, and he readily yielded. Instead they went to the Castle. We stood on the high rock in the cool of the day, and watched the sun sloping over the great river-flats where the menial town spread out, and ended, while the river and the meadows continued into the distance. In the picture galleries, there was a fine collection of Arthur Melville's paintings. Meg thought them very ridiculous. I began to expound them, but she was manifestly bored, and he was half-hearted. Outside in the grounds was a military band playing. Meg longed to be there. The townspeople were dancing on the grass. She longed to join them, but she could not dance. So they sat awhile looking on.
We were to go to the theatre in the evening. The Carl Rosa Company was giving "Carmen" at the Royal. We went into the dress circle "like giddy dukes," as I said to him, so that I could see his eyes dilate with adventure again as he laughed. In the theatre, among the people in evening dress, he became once more childish and timorous. He had always the air of one who does something forbidden, and is charmed, yet fearful, like a trespassing child. He had begun to trespass that day outside his own estates of Nethermere.
"Carmen" fascinated them both. The gaudy, careless Southern life amazed them. The bold free way in which Carmen played with life startled them with hints of freedom. They stared on the stage fascinated. Between the acts they held each other's hands, and looked full into each other's wide bright eyes, and, laughing with excitement, talked about the opera. The theatre surged and roared dimly like a hoarse shell. Then the music rose like a storm, and swept and rattled at their feet. On the stage the strange storm of life clashed in music towards tragedy and futile death. The two were shaken with a tumult of wild feeling. When it was all over they rose bewildered, stunned, she with tears in her eyes, he with a strange wild beating of his heart.
They were both in a tumult of confused emotion. Their ears were full of the roaring passion of life, and their eyes were blinded by a spray of tears and that strange quivering laughter which burns with real pain. They hurried along the pavement to the "Spread Eagle," Meg clinging to him, running, clasping her lace scarf over her white frock, like a scared white butterfly shaken through the night. We hardly spoke as the horse was being harnessed and the lamps lighted. In the little smoke room he drank several whiskies, she sipping out of his glass, standing all the time ready to go. He pushed into his pocket great pieces of bread and cheese, to eat on the way home. He seemed now to be thinking with much acuteness. His few orders were given sharp and terse. He hired an extra light rug in which to wrap Meg, and then we were ready.
"Who drives?" said I.
He looked at me and smiled faintly.
"You," he answered.
Meg, like an impatient white flame stood waiting in the light of the lamps. He covered her, extinguished her in the dark rug.