I found a good deal of difference in Leslie since his marriage. He had lost his assertive self-confidence. He no longer pronounced emphatically and ultimately on every subject, nor did he seek to dominate, as he had always done, the company in which he found himself. I was surprised to see him so courteous and attentive to George. He moved unobtrusively about the room while Lettie was chattering, and in his demeanour there was a new reserve, a gentleness and grace. It was charming to see him offering the cigarettes to George, or, with beautiful tact, asking with his eyes only whether he should refill the glass of his guest, and afterward replacing it softly close to the other's hand.
To Lettie he was unfailingly attentive, courteous, and undemonstrative.
Towards the end of my holiday he had to go to London on business, and we agreed to take the journey together. We must leave Woodside soon after eight o'clock in the morning. Lettie and he had separate rooms. I thought she would not have risen to take breakfast with us, but at a quarter-past seven, just as Rebecca was bringing in the coffee, she came downstairs. She wore a blue morning gown, and her hair was as beautifully dressed as usual.
"Why, my darling, you shouldn't have troubled to come down so early," said Leslie, as he kissed her.
"Of course, I should come down," she replied, lifting back the heavy curtains and looking out on the snow where the darkness was wilting into daylight. "I should not let you go away into the cold without having seen you take a good breakfast. I think it is thawing. The snow on the rhododendrons looks sodden and drooping. Ah, well, we can keep out the dismal of the morning for another hour." She glanced at the clock—"just an hour!" she added. He turned to her with a swift tenderness. She smiled to him, and sat down at the coffee-maker. We took our places at table.
"I think I shall come back to-night," he said quietly, almost appealingly.
She watched the flow of the coffee before she answered. Then the brass urn swung back, and she lifted her face to hand him the cup.
"You will not do anything so foolish, Leslie," she said calmly.
He took his cup, thanking her, and bent his face over the fragrant steam.
"I can easily catch the 7:15 from St. Pancras," he replied, without looking up.
"Have I sweetened to your liking Cyril?" she asked, and then, as she stirred her coffee she added, "It is ridiculous Leslie! You catch the 7.15 and very probably miss the connection at Nottingham. You can't have the motor-car there, because of the roads. Besides, it is absurd to come toiling home in the cold slushy night when you may just as well stay in London and be comfortable."
"At any rate I should get the 10.30 down to Lawton Hill," he urged.
"But there is no need," she replied, "there is not the faintest need for you to come home to-night. It is really absurd of you. Think of all the discomfort! Indeed I should not want to come trailing dismally home at midnight, I should not indeed. You would be simply wretched. Stay and have a jolly evening with Cyril."
He kept his head bent over his plate and did not reply. His persistence irritated her slightly.
"That is what you can do!" she said. "Go to the pantomime. Or wait—go to Maeterlinck's 'Blue Bird.' I am sure that is on somewhere. I wonder if Rebecca has destroyed yesterday's paper. Do you mind touching the bell, Cyril?" Rebecca came, and the paper was discovered. Lettie carefully read the notices, and planned for us with zest a delightful programme for the evening. Leslie listened to it all in silence.
When the time had come for our departure Lettie came with us into the hall to see that we were well wrapped up. Leslie had spoken very few words. She was conscious that he was deeply offended, but her manner was quite calm, and she petted us both brightly.
"Good-bye dear!" she said to him, when he came mutely to kiss her. "You know it would have been miserable for you to sit all those hours in the train at night. You will have ever such a jolly time. I know you will. I shall look for you to-morrow. Good-bye, then, Good-bye!"
He went down the steps and into the car without looking at her. She waited in the doorway as we moved round. In the black-grey morning she seemed to harbour the glittering blue sky and the sunshine of March in her dress and her luxuriant hair. He did not look at her till we were curving to the great, snow-cumbered rhododendrons, when, at the last moment he stood up in a sudden panic to wave to her. Almost as he saw her the bushes came between them and he dropped dejectedly into his seat.
"Good-bye!" we heard her call cheerfully and tenderly like a blackbird.
"Good-bye!" I answered, and: "Good-bye Darling, Good-bye!" he cried, suddenly starting up in a passion of forgiveness and tenderness.
The car went cautiously down the soddened white path, under the trees.
I suffered acutely the sickness of exile in Norwood. For weeks I wandered the streets of the suburb, haunted by the spirit of some part of Nethermere. As I went along the quiet roads where the lamps in yellow loneliness stood among the leafless trees of the night I would feel the feeling of the dark, wet bit of path between the wood meadow and the brooks. The spirit of that wild little slope to the Mill would come upon me, and there in the suburb of London I would walk wrapt in the sense of a small wet place in the valley of Nethermere. A strange voice within me rose and called for the hill path; again I could feel the wood waiting for me, calling and calling, and I crying for the wood, yet the space of many miles was between us. Since I left the valley of home I have not much feared any other loss. The hills of Nethermere had been my walls, and the sky of Nethermere my roof overhead. It seemed almost as if, at home, I might lift my hand to the ceiling of the valley, and touch my own beloved sky, whose familiar clouds came again and again to visit me, whose stars were constant to me, born when I was born, whose sun had been all my father to me. But now the skies were strange over my head, and Orion walked past me unnoticing, he who night after night had stood over the woods to spend with me a wonderful hour. When does day now lift up the confines of my dwelling place, when does the night throw open her vastness for me, and send me the stars for company? There is no night in a city. How can I lose myself in the magnificent forest of darkness when night is only a thin scattering of the trees of shadow with barrenness of lights between!
I could never lift my eyes save to the Crystal Palace, crouching, cowering wretchedly among the yellow-grey clouds, pricking up its two round towers like pillars of anxious misery. No landmark could have been more foreign to me, more depressing, than the great dilapidated palace which lay forever prostrate above us, fretting because of its own degradation and ruin.
I watched the buds coming on the brown almond trees; I heard the blackbirds, and I saw the restless starlings; in the streets were many heaps of violets, and men held forward to me snowdrops whose white mute lips were pushed upwards in a bunch: but these things had no meaning for me, and little interest.
Most eagerly I waited for my letters. Emily wrote to me very constantly:
"Don't you find it quite exhilarating, almost intoxicating, to be so free? I think it is quite wonderful. At home you cannot live your own life. You have to struggle to keep even a little apart for yourself. It is so hard to stand aloof from our mothers, and yet they are only hurt and insulted if you tell them what is in your heart. It is such a relief not to have to be anything to anybody, but just to please yourself. I am sure mother and I have suffered a great deal from trying to keep up our old relations. Yet she would not let me go. When I come home in the evening and think that I needn't say anything to anybody, nor do anything for anybody, but just have the evening for myself, I am overjoyed.
"I have begun to write a story——"
Again, a little later, she wrote:
"As I go to school by Old Brayford village in the morning the birds are thrilling wonderfully and everything seems stirring. Very likely there will be a set-back, and after that spring will come in truth.
"When shall you come and see me? I cannot think of a spring without you. The railways are the only fine exciting things here—one is only a few yards away from school. All day long I am watching the great Midland trains go south. They are very lucky to be able to rush southward through the sunshine.
"The crows are very interesting. They flap past all the time we're out in the yard. The railways and the crows make the charm of my life in Brayford. The other day I saw no end of pairs of crows. Do you remember what they say at home?—'One for sorrow.' Very often one solitary creature sits on the telegraph wires. I almost hate him when I look at him. I think my badge for life ought to be—one crow——."
Again, a little later:
"I have been home for the week-end. Isn't it nice to be made much of, to be an important cherished person for a little time? It is quite a new experience for me.
"The snowdrops are full out among the grass in the front garden—and such a lot. I imagined you must come in the sunshine of the Sunday afternoon to see them. It did not seem possible you should not. The winter aconites are out along the hedge. I knelt and kissed them. I have been so glad to go away, to breathe the free air of life, but I felt as if I could not come away from the aconites. I have sent you some—are they much withered?
"Now I am in my lodgings, I have the quite unusual feeling of being contented to stay here a little while—not long—not above a year, I am sure. But even to be contented for a little while is enough for me——."
In the beginning of March I had a letter from the father:
"You'll not see us again in the old place. We shall be gone in a fortnight. The things are most of them gone already. George has got Bob and Flower. I have sold three of the cows, Stafford, and Julia and Hannah. The place looks very empty. I don't like going past the cowsheds, and we miss hearing the horses stamp at night. But I shall not be sorry when we have really gone. I begin to feel as if we'd stagnated here. I begin to feel as if I was settling and getting narrow and dull. It will be a new lease of life to get away.
"But I'm wondering how we shall be over there. Mrs. Saxton feels very nervous about going. But at the worst we can but come back. I feel as if I must go somewhere, it's stagnation and starvation for us here. I wish George would come with me. I never thought he would have taken to public-house keeping, but he seems to like it all right. He was down with Meg on Sunday. Mrs. Saxton says he's getting a public-house tone. He is certainly much livelier, more full of talk than he was. Meg and he seem very comfortable, I'm glad to say. He's got a good milk-round, and I've no doubt but what he'll do well. He is very cautious at the bottom; he'll never lose much if he never makes much.
"Sam and David are very great friends. I'm glad I've got the boy. We often talk of you. It would be very lonely if it wasn't for the excitement of selling things and so on. Mrs. Saxton hopes you will stick by George. She worries a bit about him, thinking he may go wrong. I don't think he will ever go far. But I should be glad to know you were keeping friends. Mrs. Saxton says she will write to you about it——."
George was a very poor correspondent. I soon ceased to expect a letter from him. I received one directly after the father's.
"My Dear Cyril,
"Forgive me for not having written you before, but you see, I cannot sit down and write to you any time. If I cannot do it just when I am in the mood, I cannot do it at all. And it so often happens that the mood comes upon me when I am in the fields at work, when it is impossible to write. Last night I sat by myself in the kitchen on purpose to write to you, and then I could not. All day, at Greymede, when I was drilling in the fallow at the back of the church, I had been thinking of you, and I could have written there if I had had materials, but I had not, and at night I could not.
"I am sorry to say that in my last letter I did not thank you for the books. I have not read them both, but I have nearly finished Evelyn Innes. I get a bit tired of it towards the end. I do not do much reading now. There seems to be hardly any chance for me, either somebody is crying for me in the smoke room, or there is some business, or else Meg won't let me. She doesn't like me to read at night, she says I ought to talk to her, so I have to.
"It is half-past seven, and I am sitting ready dressed to go and talk to Harry Jackson about a young horse he wants to sell to me. He is in pretty low water, and it will make a pretty good horse. But I don't care much whether I have it or not. The mood seized me to write to you. Somehow at the bottom I feel miserable and heavy, yet there is no need. I am making pretty good money, and I've got all I want. But when I've been ploughing and getting the oats in those fields on the hillside at the back of Greymede church, I've felt as if I didn't care whether I got on or not. It's very funny. Last week I made over five pounds clear, one way and another, and yet now I'm as restless, and discontented as I can be, and I seem eager for something, but I don't know what it is. Sometimes I wonder where I am going. Yesterday I watched broken white masses of cloud sailing across the sky in a fresh strong wind. They all seemed to be going somewhere. I wondered where the wind was blowing them. I don't seem to have hold on anything, do I? Can you tell me what I want at the bottom of my heart? I wish you were here, then I think I should not feel like this. But generally I don't, generally I am quite jolly, and busy.
"By jove, here's Harry Jackson come for me. I will finish this letter when I get back.
"——I have got back, we have turned out, but I cannot finish. I cannot tell you all about it. I've had a little row with Meg. Oh, I've had a rotten time. But I cannot tell you about it to-night, it is late, and I am tired, and have a headache. Some other time perhaps——
The spring came bravely, even in south London, and the town was filled with magic. I never knew the sumptuous purple of evening till I saw the round arc-lamps fill with light, and roll like golden bubbles along the purple dusk of the high road. Everywhere at night the city is filled with the magic of lamps: over the river they pour in golden patches their floating luminous oil on the restless darkness; the bright lamps float in and out of the cavern of London Bridge Station like round shining bees in and out of a black hive; in the suburbs the street lamps glimmer with the brightness of lemons among the trees. I began to love the town.
In the mornings I loved to move in the aimless street's procession, watching the faces come near to me, with the sudden glance of dark eyes, watching the mouths of the women blossom with talk as they passed, watching the subtle movements of the shoulders of men beneath their coats, and the naked warmth of their necks that went glowing along the street. I loved the city intensely for its movement of men and women, the soft, fascinating flow of the limbs of men and women, and the sudden flash of eyes and lips as they pass. Among all the faces of the street my attention roved like a bee which clambers drunkenly among blue flowers. I became intoxicated with the strange nectar which I sipped out of the eyes of the passers-by.
I did not know how time was hastening by on still bright wings, till I saw the scarlet hawthorn flaunting over the road, and the lime-buds lit up like wine drops in the sun, and the pink scarves of the lime-buds pretty as louse-wort a-blossom in the gutters, and a silver-pink tangle of almond boughs against the blue sky. The lilacs came out, and in the pensive stillness of the suburb, at night, came the delicious tarry scent of lilac flowers, wakening a silent laughter of romance.
Across all this, strangely, came the bleak sounds of home. Alice wrote to me at the end of May:
"Cyril dear, prepare yourself. Meg has got twins—yesterday. I went up to see how she was this afternoon, not knowing anything, and there I found a pair of bubs in the nest, and old ma Stainwright bossing the show. I nearly fainted. Sybil dear, I hardly knew whether to laugh or to cry when I saw those two rummy little round heads, like two larch cones cheek by cheek on a twig. One is a darkie, with lots of black hair, and the other is red, would you believe it, just lit up with thin red hair like a flicker of firelight. I gasped. I believe I did shed a few tears, though what for, I don't know.
"The old grandma is a perfect old wretch over it. She lies chuckling and passing audible remarks in the next room, as pleased as punch really, but so mad because ma Stainwright wouldn't have them taken in to her. You should have heard her when we took them in at last. They are both boys. She did make a fuss, poor old woman. I think she's going a bit funny in the head. She seemed sometimes to think they were hers, and you should have heard her, the way she talked to them, it made me feel quite funny. She wanted them lying against her on the pillow, so that she could feel them with her face. I shed a few more tears, Sybil. I think I must be going dotty also. But she came round when we took them away, and began to chuckle to herself, and talk about the things she'd say to George when he came—awful shocking things, Sybil, made me blush dreadfully.
"Georgie didn't know about it then. He was down at Bingham, buying some horses, I believe. He seems to have got a craze for buying horses. He got in with Harry Jackson and Mayhew's sons—you know, they were horse dealers—at least their father was. You remember he died bankrupt about three years ago. There are Fred and Duncan left, and they pretend to keep on the old business. They are always up at the Ram, and Georgie is always driving about with them. I don't like it—they are a loose lot, rather common, and poor enough now.
"Well, I thought I'd wait and see Georgie. He came about half-past five. Meg had been fidgeting about him, wondering where he was, and how he was, and so on. Bless me if I'd worry and whittle about a man. The old grandma heard the cart, and before he could get down she shouted—you know her room is in the front—'Hi, George, ma lad, sharpen thy shins an' com' an' a'e a look at 'em—thee'r's two on 'em, two on 'em!' and she laughed something awful.
"''Ello Granma, what art ter shoutin' about?' he said, and at the sound of his voice Meg turned to me so pitiful, and said:
"' He's been wi' them Mayhews."
"'Tha's gotten twins, a couple at a go ma lad!' shouted the old woman, and you know how she gives squeal before she laughs! She made the horse shy, and he swore at it something awful. Then Bill took it, and Georgie came upstairs. I saw Meg seem to shrink when she heard him kick at the stairs as he came up, and she went white. When he got to the top he came in. He fairly reeked of whisky and horses. Bah, a man is hateful when he reeks of drink! He stood by the side of the bed grinning like a fool, and saying, quite thick:
"' You've bin in a bit of a 'urry, 'aven't you Meg. An' how are ter feelin' then?'
"'Oh, I'm a' right,' said Meg.
"'Is it twins, straight?' he said, 'wheer is 'em?'
"Meg looked over at the cradle, and he went round the bed to it, holding to the bed-rail. He had never kissed her, nor anything. When he saw the twins, asleep with their fists shut tight as wax, he gave a laugh as if he was amused, and said:
"' Two right enough—an' one on 'em red! Which is the girl, Meg, the black un?'
"'They're both boys,' said Meg, quite timidly.
"He turned round, and his eyes went little.
"'Blast 'em then!' he said. He stood there looking like a devil. Sybil dear, I did not know our George could look like that. I thought he could only look like a faithful dog or a wounded stag. But he looked fiendish. He stood watching the poor little twins, scowling at them, till at last the little red one began to whine a bit. Ma Stainwright came pushing her fat carcass in front of him and bent over the baby, saying:
"'Why, my pretty, what are they doin' to thee, what are they?—what are they doin' to thee?'
"Georgie scowled blacker than ever, and went out, lurching against the wash-stand and making the pots rattle till my heart jumped in my throat.
"'Well, if you don't call that scandylos——!' said old Ma Stainwright, and Meg began to cry. You don't know, Cyril! She sobbed fit to break her heart. I felt as if I could have killed him.
"That old gran'ma began talking to him, and he laughed at her. I do hate to hear a man laugh when he's half drunk. It makes my blood boil all of a sudden. That old grandmother backs him up in everything, she's a regular nuisance. Meg has cried to me before over the pair of them. The wicked, vulgar old thing that she is——"
I went home to Woodside early in September. Emily was staying at the Ram. It was strange that everything was so different. Nethermere even had changed. Nethermere was no longer a complete, wonderful little world that held us charmed inhabitants. It was a small, insignificant valley lost in the spaces of the earth. The tree that had drooped over the brook with such delightful, romantic grace was a ridiculous thing when I came home after a year of absence in the south. The old symbols were trite and foolish.
Emily and I went down one morning to Strelley Mill. The house was occupied by a labourer and his wife, strangers from the north. He was tall, very thin, and silent, strangely suggesting kinship with the rats of the place. She was small and very active, like some ragged domestic fowl run wild. Already Emily had visited her, so she invited us into the kitchen of the mill, and set forward the chairs for us. The large room had the barren air of a cell. There was a small table stranded towards the fireplace, and a few chairs by the walls; for the rest, desert spaces of flagged floor retreating into shadow. On the walls by the windows were five cages of canaries, and the small sharp movements of the birds made the room more strange in its desolation. When we began to talk the birds began to sing, till we were quite bewildered, for the little woman spoke Glasgow Scotch, and she had a hare lip. She rose and ran toward the cages, crying herself like some wild fowl, and flapping a duster at the warbling canaries.
"Stop it, stop it!" she cried, shaking her thin weird body at them. "Silly little devils, fools, fools, fools!!" and she flapped the duster till the birds were subdued. Then she brought us delicious scones and apple jelly, urging us, almost nudging us with her thin elbows to make us eat.
"Don't you like 'em, don't you? Well eat 'em, eat 'em then. Go on Emily, go on, eat some more. Only don't tell Tom—don't tell Tom when 'e comes in,"—she shook her head and laughed her shrilling, weird laughter.
As we were going she came out with us, and went running on in front. We could not help noting how ragged and unkempt was her short black skirt. But she hastened around us, hither and thither like an excited fowl, talking in her high-pitched, unintelligible manner. I could not believe the brooding mill was in her charge. I could not think this was the Strelley Mill of a year ago. She fluttered up the steep orchard bank in front of us. Happening to turn round and see Emily and me smiling at each other she began to laugh her strident, weird laughter saying, with a leer:
"Emily, he's your sweetheart, your sweetheart Emily! You never told me!" and she laughed aloud.
We blushed furiously. She came away from the edge of the sluice gully, nearer to us, crying:
"You've been here o' nights, haven't you Emily—haven't you?" and she laughed again. Then she sat down suddenly, and pointing above our heads, shrieked:
"Ah, look there"—we looked and saw the mistletoe. "Look at her, look at her! How many kisses a night, Emily?—Ha! Ha! kisses all the year! Kisses o' nights in a lonely place."
She went on wildly for a short time, then she dropped her voice and talked in low, pathetic tones. She pressed on us scones and jelly and oat-cakes, and we left her.
When we were out on the road by the brook Emily looked at me with shamefaced, laughing eyes. I noticed a small movement of her lips, and in an instant I found myself kissing her, laughing with some of the little woman's wildness.