The year burst into glory to usher us forth out of the valley of Nethermere. The cherry trees had been gorgeous with heavy out-reaching boughs of red and gold. Immense vegetable marrows lay prostrate in the bottom garden, their great tentacles clutching the pond bank. Against the wall the globed crimson plums hung close together, and dropped occasionally with a satisfied plunge into the rhubarb leaves. The crop of oats was very heavy. The stalks of corn were like strong reeds of bamboo; the heads of grain swept heavily over like tresses weighted with drops of gold.
George spent his time between the Mill and the Ram. The grandmother had received them with much grumbling but with real gladness. Meg was re-installed, and George slept at the Ram. He was extraordinarily bright, almost gay. The fact was that his new life interested and pleased him keenly. He often talked to me about Meg, how quaint and naïve she was, how she amused him and delighted him. He rejoiced in having a place of his own, a home, and a beautiful wife who adored him. Then the public-house was full of strangeness and interest. No hour was ever dull. If he wanted company he could go into the smoke-room, if he wanted quiet he could sit with Meg, and she was such a treat, so soft and warm, and so amusing. He was always laughing at her quaint crude notions, and at her queer little turns of speech. She talked to him with a little language, she sat on his knee and twisted his mustache, finding small unreal fault with his features for the delight of dwelling upon them. He was, he said, incredibly happy. Really he could not believe it. Meg was, ah! she was a treat. Then he would laugh, thinking how indifferent he had been about taking her. A little shadow might cross his eyes, but he would laugh again, and tell me one of his wife's funny little notions. She was quite uneducated, and such fun, he said. I looked at him as he sounded this note. I remembered his crude superiority of early days, which had angered Emily so deeply. There was in him something of the prig. I did not like his amused indulgence of his wife.
At threshing day, when I worked for the last time at the Mill, I noticed the new tendency in him. The Saxtons had always kept up a certain proud reserve. In former years, the family had moved into the parlour on threshing day, and an extra woman had been hired to wait on the men who came with the machine. This time George suggested: "Let us have dinner with the men in the kitchen, Cyril. They are a rum gang. It's rather good sport mixing with them. They've seen a bit of life, and I like to hear them, they're so blunt. They're good studies though."
The farmer sat at the head of the table. The seven men trooped in, very sheepish, and took their places. They had not much to say at first. They were a mixed set, some rather small, young, and furtive looking, some unshapely and coarse, with unpleasant eyes, the eyelids slack. There was one man whom we called the Parrot, because he had a hooked nose, and put forward his head as he talked. He had been a very large man, but he was grey, and bending at the shoulders. His face was pale and fleshy, and his eyes seemed dull sighted.
George patronised the men, and they did not object. He chaffed them, making a good deal of demonstration in giving them more beer. He invited them to pass up their plates, called the woman to bring more bread and altogether played mine host of a feast of beggars. The Parrot ate very slowly.
"Come Dad," said George "you're not getting on. Not got many grinders——?"
"What I've got's in th' road. Is'll 'ae ter get em out. I can manage wi' bare gums, like a baby again."
"Second childhood, eh? Ah well, we must all come to it," George laughed.
The old man lifted his head and looked at him, and said slowly:
"You'n got ter ower th' first afore that."
George laughed, unperturbed. Evidently he was well used to the thrusts of the public-house.
"I suppose you soon got over yours," he said.
The old man raised himself and his eyes flickered into life. He chewed slowly, then said:
"I'd married, an' paid for it; I'd broke a constable's jaw an' paid for it; I'd deserted from the army, an' paid for that: I'd had a bullet through my cheek in India atop of it all, by I was your age."
"Oh!" said George, with condescending interest, "you've seen a bit of life then?"
They drew the old man out, and he told them in his slow, laconic fashion, a few brutal stories. They laughed and chaffed him. George seemed to have a thirst for tales of brutal experience, the raw gin of life. He drank it all in with relish, enjoying the sensation. The dinner was over. It was time to go out again to work.
"And how old are you, Dad?" George asked. The Parrot looked at him again with his heavy, tired, ironic eyes, and answered:
"If you'll be any better for knowing—sixty-four."
"It's a bit rough on you, isn't it," continued the young man, "going round with the threshing machine and sleeping outdoors at that time of life? I should 'a thought you'd 'a wanted a bit o' comfort——"
"How do you mean, 'rough on me'?" the Parrot replied slowly.
"Oh, I think you know what I mean," answered George easily.
"Don't know as I do," said the slow old Parrot. "Well, you haven't made exactly a good thing out of life, have you?"
"What d'you mean by a good thing? I've had my life, an' I'm satisfied wi' it. Is'll die with a full belly."
"Oh, so you have saved a bit?"
"No," said the old man deliberately, "I've spent as I've gone on. An' I've had all I wish for. But I pity the angels, when the Lord sets me before them like a book to read. Heaven won't be heaven just then."
"You're a philosopher in your way," laughed George.
"And you," replied the old man, "toddling about your back-yard, think yourself mighty wise. But your wisdom 'll go with your teeth. You'll learn in time to say nothing."
The old man went out and began his work, carrying the sacks of corn from the machine to the chamber.
"There's a lot in the old Parrot," said George, "as he'll never tell."
"He makes you feel, as well, as if you'd a lot to discover in life," he continued, looking thoughtfully over the dusty straw-stack at the chuffing machine.
After the harvest was ended the father began to deplete his farm. Most of the stock was transferred to the "Ram." George was going to take over his father's milk business, and was going to farm enough of the land attaching to the Inn to support nine or ten cows. Until the spring, however, Mr. Saxton retained his own milk round, and worked at improving the condition of the land ready for the valuation. George, with three cows, started a little milk supply in the neighbourhood of the Inn, prepared his land for the summer, and helped in the public-house.
Emily was the first to depart finally from the Mill. She went to a school in Nottingham, and shortly afterwards Mollie, her younger sister, went to her. In October I moved to London. Lettie and Leslie were settled in their home in Brentwood, Yorkshire. We all felt very keenly our exile from Nethermere. But as yet the bonds were not broken; only use could sever them. Christmas brought us all home again, hastening to greet each other. There was a slight change in everybody. Lettie was brighter, more imperious, and very gay; Emily was quiet, self-restrained, and looked happier; Leslie was jollier and at the same time more subdued and earnest; George looked very healthy and happy, and sounded well pleased with himself; my mother with her gaiety at our return brought tears to our eyes.
We dined one evening at Highclose with the Tempests. It was dull as usual, and we left before ten o'clock. Lettie had changed her shoes and put on a fine cloak of greenish blue. We walked over the frost-bound road. The ice on Nethermere gleamed mysteriously in the moonlight, and uttered strange half-audible whoops and yelps. The moon was very high in the sky, small and brilliant like a vial full of the pure white liquid of light. There was no sound in the night save the haunting movement of the ice, and the clear tinkle of Lettie's laughter.
On the drive leading to the wood we saw someone approaching. The wild grass was grey on either side, the thorn trees stood with shaggy black beards sweeping down, the pine trees were erect like dark soldiers. The black shape of the man drew near, with a shadow running at its feet. I recognised George, obscured as he was in his cap and his upturned collar. Lettie was in front with her husband. As George was passing, she said, in bright clear tones:
"A Happy New Year to you."
He stopped, swung round, and laughed.
"I thought you wouldn't have known me," he said.
"What, is it you George?" cried Lettie in great surprise—"Now, what a joke! How are you?"—she put out her white hand from her draperies. He took it, and answered, "I am very well—and you—?" However meaningless the words were, the tone was curiously friendly, intimate, informal.
"As you see," she replied laughing, interested in his attitude—"but where are you going?"
"I am going home," he answered, in a voice that meant "have you forgotten that I too am married?"
"Oh, of course!" cried Lettie. "You are now mine host of the Ram. You must tell me about it. May I ask him to come home with us for an hour, mother?—It is New Year's Eve, you know."
"You have asked him already," laughed mother.
"Will Mrs. Saxton spare you for so long?" asked Lettie of George.
"Meg? Oh, she does not order my comings and goings."
"Does she not?" laughed Lettie. "She is very unwise. Train up a husband in the way he should go, and in after life——. I never could quote a text from end to end. I am full of beginnings, but as for a finish——! Leslie, my shoe-lace is untied—shall I wait till I can put my foot on the fence?"
Leslie knelt down at her feet. She shook the hood back from her head, and her ornaments sparkled in the moonlight. Her face with its whiteness and its shadows was full of fascination, and in their dark recesses her eyes thrilled George with hidden magic. She smiled at him along her cheeks while her husband crouched before her. Then, as the three walked along towards the wood she flung her draperies into loose eloquence and there was a glimpse of her bosom white with the moon. She laughed and chattered, and shook her silken stuffs, sending out a perfume exquisite on the frosted air. When we reached the house Lettie dropped her draperies and rustled into the drawing-room. There the lamp was low-lit, shedding a yellow twilight from the window space. Lettie stood between the firelight and the dusky lamp glow, tall and warm between the lights. As she turned laughing to the two men, she let her cloak slide over her white shoulder and fall with silk splendour of a peacock's gorgeous blue over the arm of the large settee. There she stood, with her white hand upon the peacock of her cloak, where it tumbled against her dull orange dress. She knew her own splendour, and she drew up her throat laughing and brilliant with triumph. Then she raised both her arms to her head and remained for a moment delicately touching her hair into order, still fronting the two men. Then with a final little laugh she moved slowly and turned up the lamp, dispelling some of the witchcraft from the room. She had developed strangely in six months. She seemed to have discovered the wonderful charm of her womanhood. As she leaned forward with her arm outstretched to the lamp, as she delicately adjusted the wicks with mysterious fingers, she seemed to be moving in some alluring figure of a dance, her hair like a nimbus clouding the light, her bosom lit with wonder. The soft outstretching of her hand was like the whispering of strange words into the blood, and as she fingered a book the heart watched silently for the meaning.
"Won't you take off my shoes, darling?" she said, sinking among the cushions of the settee. Leslie kneeled again before her, and she bent her head and watched him.
"My feet are a tiny bit cold," she said plaintively, giving him her foot, that seemed like gold in the yellow silk stocking. He took it between his hands, stroking it:
"It is quite cold," he said, and he held both her feet in his hands.
"Ah, you dear boy!" she cried with sudden gentleness, bending forward and touching his cheek.
"Is it great fun being mine host of 'Ye Ramme Inne?'" she said playfully to George. There seemed a long distance between them now as she sat, with the man in evening dress crouching before her putting golden shoes on her feet.
"It is rather," he replied, "the men in the smoke room say such rum things. My word, you hear some tales there."
"Tell us, do!" she pleaded.
"Oh! I couldn't. I never could tell a tale, and even if I could—well——"
"But I do long to hear," she said, "what the men say in the smoke room of 'Ye Ramme Inne.' Is it quite untellable?"
"Quite!" he laughed.
"What a pity! See what a cruel thing it is to be a woman, Leslie: we never know what men say in smoke rooms, while you read in your novels everything a woman ever uttered. It is a shame! George, you are a wretch, you should tell me. I do envy you——."
"What do you envy me, exactly?" he asked laughing always at her whimsical way.
"Your smoke room. The way you see life—or the way you hear it, rather."
"But I should have thought you saw life ten times more than me," he replied.
"I! I only see manners—good manners and bad manners. You know 'manners maketh a man.' That's when a woman's there. But you wait awhile, you'll see."
"When shall I see?" asked George, flattered and interested.
"When you have made the fortune you talked about," she replied.
He was uplifted by her remembering the things he had said.
"But when I have made it—when!"—he said sceptically,—"even then—well, I shall only be, or have been, landlord of 'Ye Ramme Inne.'" He looked at her, waiting for her to lift up his hopes with her gay balloons.
"Oh, that doesn't matter! Leslie might be landlord of some Ram Inn when he's at home, for all anybody would know—mightn't you, hubby, dear?"
"Thanks!" replied Leslie, with good humoured sarcasm.
"You can't tell a publican from a peer, if he's a rich publican," she continued. "Money maketh the man, you know."
"Plus manners," added George, laughing.
"Oh they are always there—where I am. I give you ten years. At the end of that time you must invite us to your swell place—say the Hall at Eberwich—and we will come—' with all our numerous array.'"
She sat among her cushions smiling upon him. She was half ironical, half sincere. He smiled back at her, his dark eyes full of trembling hope, and pleasure, and pride.
"How is Meg?" she asked. "Is she as charming as ever—or have you spoiled her?"
"Oh, she is as charming as ever," he replied. "And we are tremendously fond of one another."
"That is right!—I do think men are delightful," she added, smiling.
"I am glad you think so," he laughed.
They talked on brightly about a thousand things. She touched on Paris, and pictures, and new music, with her quick chatter, sounding to George wonderful in her culture and facility. And at last he said he must go.
"Not until you have eaten a biscuit and drunk good luck with me," she cried, catching her dress about her like a dim flame and running out of the room. We all drank to the New Year in the cold champagne.
"To the Vita Nuova!" said Lettie, and we drank smiling:
"Hark!" said George, "the hooters."
We stood still and listened. There was a faint booing noise far away outside. It was midnight. Lettie caught up a wrap and we went to the door. The wood, the ice, the grey dim hills lay frozen in the light of the moon. But outside the valley, far away in Derbyshire, away towards Nottingham, on every hand the distant hooters and buzzers of mines and ironworks crowed small on the borders of the night, like so many strange, low voices of cockerels bursting forth at different pitch, with different tone, warning us of the dawn of the New Year.