The long-drawn booming of the wind in the wood and the sobbing and moaning in the maples and oaks near the house, had made Lettie restless. She did not want to go anywhere, she did not want to do anything, so she insisted on my just going out with her as far as the edge of the water. We crossed the tangle of fern and bracken, bramble and wild raspberry canes that spread in the open space before the house, and we went down the grassy slope to the edge of Nethermere. The wind whipped up noisy little wavelets, and the cluck and clatter of these among the pebbles, the swish of the rushes and the freshening of the breeze against our faces, roused us.
The tall meadow-sweet was in bud along the tiny beach and we walked knee-deep among it, watching the foamy race of the ripples and the whitening of the willows on the far shore. At the place where Nethermere narrows to the upper end, and receives the brook from Strelley, the wood sweeps down and stands with its feet washed round with waters. We broke our way along the shore, crushing the sharp-scented wild mint, whose odour checks the breath, and examining here and there among the marshy places ragged nests of water-fowl, now deserted. Some slim young lap-wings started at our approach, and sped lightly from us, their necks outstretched in straining fear of that which could not hurt them. One, two, fled cheeping into cover of the wood; almost instantly they coursed back again to where we stood, to dart off from us at an angle, in an ecstasy of bewilderment and terror.
"What has frightened the crazy little things?" asked Lettie.
"I don't know. They've cheek enough sometimes; then they go whining, skelping off from a fancy as if they had a snake under their wings."
Lettie however paid small attention to my eloquence. She pushed aside an elder bush, which graciously showered down upon her myriad crumbs from its flowers like slices of bread, and bathed her in a medicinal scent. I followed her, taking my dose, and was startled to hear her sudden, "Oh, Cyril!"
On the bank before us lay a black cat, both hindpaws torn and bloody in a trap. It had no doubt been bounding forward after its prey when it was caught. It was gaunt and wild; no wonder it frightened the poor lap-wings into cheeping hysteria. It glared at us fiercely, growling low.
"How cruel—oh, how cruel!" cried Lettie, shuddering.
I wrapped my cap and Lettie's scarf over my hands and bent to open the trap. The cat struck with her teeth, tearing the cloth convulsively. When it was free, it sprang away with one bound, and fell panting, watching us.
I wrapped the creature in my jacket, and picked her up, murmuring:
"Poor Mrs. Nickie Ben—we always prophesied it of you."
"What will you do with it?" asked Lettie.
"It is one of the Strelley Mill cats," said I, "and so I'll take her home."
The poor animal moved and murmured and I carried her, but we brought her home. They stared, on seeing me enter the kitchen coatless, carrying a strange bundle, while Lettie followed me.
"I have brought poor Mrs. Nickie Ben," said I, unfolding my burden.
"Oh, what a shame!" cried Emily, putting out her hand to touch the cat, but drawing quickly back, like the pee-wits.
"This is how they all go," said the mother.
"I wish keepers had to sit two or three days with their bare ankles in a trap," said Mollie in vindictive tones.
We laid the poor brute on the rug, and gave it warm milk. It drank very little, being too feeble, Mollie, full of anger, fetched Mr. Nickie Ben, another fine black cat, to survey his crippled mate. Mr. Nickie Ben looked, shrugged his sleek shoulders, and walked away with high steps. There was a general feminine outcry on masculine callousness.
George came in for hot water. He exclaimed in surprise on seeing us, and his eyes became animated.
"Look at Mrs. Nickie Ben," cried Mollie. He dropped on his knees on the rug and lifted the wounded paws.
"Broken," said he.
"How awful!" said Emily, shuddering violently, and leaving the room.
"Both?" I asked.
"You are hurting her!" cried Lettie.
"It's no good," said he.
Mollie and the mother hurried out of the kitchen into the parlour.
"What are you going to do?" asked Lettie.
"Put her out of her misery," he replied, taking up the poor cat. We followed him into the barn.
"The quickest way," said he, "is to swing her round and knock her head against the wall."
"You make me sick," exclaimed Lettie.
"I'll drown her then," he said with a smile. We watched him morbidly, as he took a length of twine and fastened a noose round the animal's neck, and near it an iron goose; he kept a long piece of cord attached to the goose.
"You're not coming, are you?" said he. Lettie looked at him; she had grown rather white.
"It'll make you sick," he said. She did not answer, but followed him across the yard to the garden. On the bank of the lower mill-pond he turned again to us and said:
"Now for it!—you are chief mourners." As neither of us replied, he smiled, and dropped the poor writhing cat into the water, saying, "Good-bye, Mrs. Nickie Ben."
We waited on the bank some time. He eyed us curiously.
"Cyril," said Lettie quietly, "isn't it cruel?—isn't it awful?"
I had nothing to say.
"Do you mean me?" asked George.
"Not you in particular—everything! If we move the blood rises in our heel-prints."
He looked at her seriously, with dark eyes.
"I had to drown her out of mercy," said he, fastening the cord he held to an ash-pole. Then he went to get a spade, and with it, he dug a grave in the old black earth.
"If," said he, "the poor old cat had made a prettier corpse, you'd have thrown violets on her."
He had struck the spade into the ground, and hauled up the cat and the iron goose.
"Well," he said, surveying the hideous object, "haven't her good looks gone! She was a fine cat."
"Bury it and have done," Lettie replied.
He did so asking: "Shall you have bad dreams after it?"
"Dreams do not trouble me," she answered, turning away.
We went indoors, into the parlour, where Emily sat by a window, biting her finger. The room was long and not very high; there was a great rough beam across the ceiling. On the mantel-piece, and in the fireplace, and over the piano were wild flowers and fresh leaves plentifully scattered; the room was cool with the scent of the woods.
"Has he done it?" asked Emily—"and did you watch him? If I had seen it I should have hated the sight of him, and I'd rather have touched a maggot than him."
"I shouldn't be particularly pleased if he touched me," said Lettie.
"There is something so loathsome about callousness and brutality," said Emily. "He fills me with disgust."
"Does he?" said Lettie, smiling coldly. She went across to the old piano. "He's only healthy. He's never been sick, not anyway, yet." She sat down and played at random, letting the numbed notes fall like dead leaves from the haughty, ancient piano.
Emily and I talked on by the window, about books and people. She was intensely serious, and generally succeeded in reducing me to the same state.
After a while, when the milking and feeding were finished, George came in. Lettie was still playing the piano. He asked her why she didn't play something with a tune in it, and this caused her to turn round in her chair to give him a withering answer. His appearance, however, scattered her words like startled birds. He had come straight from washing in the scullery, to the parlour, and he stood behind Lettie's chair unconcernedly wiping the moisture from his arms. His sleeves were rolled up to the shoulder, and his shirt was opened wide at the breast. Lettie was somewhat taken aback by the sight of him standing with legs apart, dressed in dirty leggings and boots, and breeches torn at the knee, naked at the breast and arms.
"Why don't you play something with a tune in it?" he repeated, rubbing the towel over his shoulders beneath the shirt.
"A tune!" she echoed, watching the swelling of his arms as he moved them, and the rise and fall of his breasts, wonderfully solid and white. Then having curiously examined the sudden meeting of the sunhot skin with the white flesh in his throat, her eyes met his, and she turned again to the piano, while the colour grew in her ears, mercifully sheltered by a profusion of bright curls.
"What shall I play?" she asked, fingering the keys somewhat confusedly.
He dragged out a book of songs from a little heap of music, and set it before her.
"Which do you want to sing?" she asked thrilling a little as she felt his arms so near her.
"Anything you like."
"A love song?" she said.
"If you like—yes, a love song——" he laughed with clumsy insinuation that made the girl writhe.
She did not answer, but began to play Sullivan's "Tit Willow." He had a passable bass voice, not of any great depth, and he sang with gusto. Then she gave him "Drink to me only with thine eyes." At the end she turned and asked him if he liked the words. He replied that he thought them rather daft. But he looked at her with glowing brown eyes, as if in hesitating challenge.
"That's because you have no wine in your eyes to pledge with," she replied, answering his challenge with a blue blaze of her eyes. Then her eyelashes drooped on to her cheek. He laughed with a faint ring of consciousness, and asked her how could she know.
"Because," she said slowly, looking up at him with pretended scorn, "because there's no change in your eyes when I look at you. I always think people who are worth much talk with their eyes. That's why you are forced to respect many quite uneducated people. Their eyes are so eloquent, and full of knowledge." She had continued to look at him as she spoke—watching his faint appreciation of her upturned face, and her hair, where the light was always tangled, watching his brief self-examination to see if he could feel any truth in her words, watching till he broke into a little laugh which was rather more awkward and less satisfied than usual. Then she turned away, smiling also.
"There's nothing in this book nice to sing," she said, turning over the leaves discontentedly. I found her a volume, and she sang "Should he upbraid." She had a fine soprano voice, and the song delighted him. He moved nearer to her, and when at the finish she looked round with a flashing, mischievous air, she found him pledging her with wonderful eyes.
"You like that," said she with the air of superior knowledge, as if, dear me, all one had to do was to turn over to the right page of the vast volume of one's soul to suit these people.
"I do," he answered emphatically, thus acknowledging her triumph.
"I'd rather 'dance and sing' round 'wrinkled care' than carefully shut the door on him, while I slept in the chimney wouldn't you?" she asked.
He laughed, and began to consider what she meant before he replied.
"As you do," she added.
"What?" he asked.
"Keep half your senses asleep—half alive."
"Do I?" he asked.
"Of course you do;—'bos-bovis; an ox.' You are like a stalled ox, food and comfort, no more. Don't you love comfort?" she smiled.
"Don't you?" he replied, smiling shamefaced.
"Of course. Come and turn over for me while I play this piece. Well, I'll nod when you must turn—bring a chair."
She began to play a romance of Schubert's. He leaned nearer to her to take hold of the leaf of music; she felt her loose hair touch his face, and turned to him a quick, laughing glance, while she played. At the end of the page she nodded, but he was oblivious; "Yes!" she said, suddenly impatient, and he tried to get the leaf over; she quickly pushed his hand aside, turned the page herself and continued playing.
"Sorry!" said he, blushing actually.
"Don't bother," she said, continuing to play without observing him. When she had finished:
"There!" she said, "now tell me how you felt while I was playing."
"Oh—a fool!"—he replied, covered with confusion.
"I'm glad to hear it," she said—"but I didn't mean that. I meant how did the music make you feel?"
"I don't know—whether—it made me feel anything," he replied deliberately, pondering over his answer, as usual.
"I tell you," she declared, "you're either asleep or stupid. Did you really see nothing in the music? But what did you think about?"
He laughed—and thought awhile—and laughed again.
"Why!" he admitted, laughing, and trying to tell the exact truth, "I thought how pretty your hands are—and what they are like to touch—and I thought it was a new experience to feel somebody's hair tickling my cheek." When he had finished his deliberate account she gave his hand a little knock, and left him saying:
"You are worse and worse."
She came across the room to the couch where I was sitting talking to Emily, and put her arm around my neck.
"Isn't it time to go home, Pat?" she asked.
"Half past eight—quite early," said I.
"But I believe—I think I ought to be home now," she said.
"Don't go," said he.
"Why?" I asked.
"Stay to supper," urged Emily.
"But I believe——" she hesitated.
"She has another fish to fry," I said.
"I am not sure——" she hesitated again. Then she flashed into sudden wrath, exclaiming, "Don't be so mean and nasty, Cyril!"
"Were you going somewhere?" asked George humbly.
"Why—no!" she said, blushing.
"Then stay to supper—will you?" he begged. She laughed, and yielded. We went into the kitchen. Mr. Saxton was sitting reading. Trip, the big bull terrier, lay at his feet pretending to sleep; Mr. Nickie Ben reposed calmly on the sofa; Mrs. Saxton and Mollie were just going to bed. We bade them good-night, and sat down. Annie, the servant, had gone home, so Emily prepared the supper.
"Nobody can touch that piano like you," said Mr. Saxton to Lettie, beaming upon her with admiration and deference. He was proud of the stately, mumbling old thing, and used to say that it was full of music for those that liked to ask for it. Lettie laughed, and said that so few folks ever tried it, that her honour was not great.
"What do you think of our George's singing?" asked the father proudly, but with a deprecating laugh at the end.
"I tell him, when he's in love he'll sing quite well," she said.
"When he's in love!" echoed the father, laughing aloud, very pleased.
"Yes," she said, "when he finds out something he wants and can't have."
George thought about it, and he laughed also.
Emily, who was laying the table said, "There is hardly any water in the pippin, George."
"Oh, dash!" he exclaimed, "I've taken my boots off."
"It's not a very big job to put them on again," said his sister.
"Why couldn't Annie fetch it—what's she here for?" he said angrily.
Emily looked at us, tossed her head, and turned her back on him.
"I'll go, I'll go, after supper," said the father in a comforting tone.
"After supper!" laughed Emily.
George got up and shuffled out. He had to go into the spinney near the house to a well, and being warm disliked turning out.
We had just sat down to supper when Trip rushed barking to the door. "Be quiet," ordered the father, thinking of those in bed, and he followed the dog.
It was Leslie. He wanted Lettie to go home with him at once. This she refused to do, so he came indoors, and was persuaded to sit down at table. He swallowed a morsel of bread and cheese, and a cup of coffee, talking to Lettie of a garden party which was going to be arranged at Highclose for the following week.
"What is it for then?" interrupted Mr. Saxton.
"For?" echoed Leslie.
"Is it for the missionaries, or the unemployed, or something?" explained Mr. Saxton.
"It's a garden-party, not a bazaar," said Leslie.
"Oh—a private affair. I thought it would be some church matter of your mother's. She's very big at the church, isn't she?"
"She is interested in the church—yes!" said Leslie, then proceeding to explain to Lettie that he was arranging a tennis tournament in which she was to take part. At this point he became aware that he was monopolising the conversation, and turned to George, just as the latter was taking a piece of cheese from his knife with his teeth, asking:
"Do you play tennis, Mr. Saxton?—I know Miss Saxton does not."
"No," said George, working the piece of cheese into his cheek. "I never learned any ladies' accomplishments."
Leslie turned to Emily, who had nervously been pushing two plates over a stain in the cloth, and who was very startled when she found herself addressed.
"My mother would be so glad if you would come to the party, Miss Saxton."
"I cannot. I shall be at school. Thanks very much."
"Ah—it's very good of you," said the father, beaming. But George smiled contemptuously.
When supper was over Leslie looked at Lettie to inform her that he was ready to go. She, however, refused to see his look, but talked brightly to Mr. Saxton, who was delighted. George, flattered, joined in the talk with gusto. Then Leslie's angry silence began to tell on us all. After a dull lapse, George lifted his head and said to his father:
"Oh, I shouldn't be surprised if that little red heifer calved to-night."
Lettie's eyes flashed with a sparkle of amusement at this thrust.
"No," assented the father, "I thought so myself."
After a moment's silence, George continued deliberately, "I felt her gristles——"
"George!" said Emily sharply.
"We will go," said Leslie.
George looked up sideways at Lettie and his black eyes were full of sardonic mischief.
"Lend me a shawl, will you, Emily?" said Lettie. "I brought nothing, and I think the wind is cold."
Emily, however, regretted that she had no shawl, and so Lettie must needs wear a black coat over her summer dress. It fitted so absurdly that we all laughed, but Leslie was very angry that she should appear ludicrous before them. He showed her all the polite attentions possible, fastened the neck of her coat with his pearl scarf-pin, refusing the pin Emily discovered, after some search. Then we sallied forth.
When we were outside, he offered Lettie his arm with an air of injured dignity. She refused it and he began to remonstrate.
"I consider you ought to have been home as you promised."
"Pardon me," she replied, "but I did not promise."
"But you knew I was coming," said he.
"Well—you found me," she retorted.
"Yes," he assented. "I did find you; flirting with a common fellow," he sneered.
"Well," she returned. "He did—it is true—call a heifer, a heifer."
"And I should think you liked it," he said.
"I didn't mind," she said, with galling negligence.
"I thought your taste was more refined," he replied sarcastically. "But I suppose you thought it romantic."
"Very! Ruddy, dark, and really thrilling eyes," said she.
"I hate to hear a girl talk rot," said Leslie. He himself had crisp hair of the "ginger" class.
"But I mean it," she insisted, aggravating his anger.
Leslie was angry. "I'm glad he amuses you!"
"Of course, I'm not hard to please," she said pointedly. He was stung to the quick.
"Then there's some comfort in knowing I don't please you," he said coldly.
"Oh! but you do! You amuse me also," she said.
After that he would not speak, preferring, I suppose, not to amuse her.
Lettie took my arm, and with her disengaged hand held her skirts above the wet grass. When he had left us at the end of the riding in the wood, Lettie said:
"What an infant he is!"
"A bit of an ass," I admitted.
"But really!" she said, "he's more agreeable on the whole than—than my Taurus."
"Your bull!" I repeated laughing.