George was very anxious to receive me at his home. The Ram had as yet only a six days licence, so on Sunday afternoon I walked over to tea. It was very warm and still and sunny as I came through Greymede. A few sweethearts were sauntering under the horse-chestnut trees, or crossing the road to go into the fields that lay smoothly carpeted after the hay-harvest.
As I came round the flagged track to the kitchen door of the Inn I heard the slur of a baking tin and the bang of the oven door, and Meg saying crossly:
"No, don't you take him Emily—naughty little thing! Let his father hold him!"
One of the babies was crying.
I entered, and found Meg all flushed and untidy, wearing a large white apron, just rising from the oven. Emily, in a cream dress, was taking a red-haired, crying baby from out of the cradle. George sat in the small arm-chair, smoking and looking cross.
"I can't shake hands," said Meg, rather flurried. "I am all floury. Sit down, will you——" and she hurried out of the room. Emily looked up from the complaining baby to me and smiled a woman's rare, intimate smile, which says: "See, I am engaged thus for a moment, but I keep my heart for you all the time."
George rose and offered me the round arm-chair. It was the highest honour he could do me. He asked me what I would drink. When I refused everything, he sat down heavily on the sofa, frowning, and angrily cudgelling his wits for something to say—in vain.
The room was large and comfortably furnished with rush-chairs, a glass-knobbed dresser, a cupboard with glass doors, perched on a shelf in the corner, and the usual large sofa whose cosy loose-bed and pillows were covered with red cotton stuff. There was a peculiar reminiscence of victuals and drink in the room; beer, and a touch of spirits, and bacon. Teenie, the sullen, black-browed servant girl came in carrying the other baby, and Meg called from the scullery to ask her if the child were asleep. Meg was evidently in a bustle and a flurry, a most uncomfortable state.
"No," replied Teenie, "he's not for sleep this day."
"Mend the fire and see to the oven, and then put him his frock on," replied Meg testily. Teenie set the black-haired baby in the second cradle. Immediately he began to cry, or rather to shout his remonstrance. George went across to him and picked up a white furry rabbit, which he held before the child:
"Here, look at bun-bun! Have your nice rabbit! Hark at it squeaking!"
The baby listened for a moment, then, deciding that this was only a put-off, began to cry again. George threw down the rabbit and took the baby, swearing inwardly. He dandled the child on his knee.
"What's up then?—What's up wi' thee? Have a ride then—dee-de-dee-de-dee!"
But the baby knew quite well what was the father's feeling towards him, and he continued to cry.
"Hurry up, Teenie!" said George as the maid rattled the coal on the fire. Emily was walking about hushing her charge, and smiling at me, so that I had a peculiar pleasure in gathering for myself the honey of endearment which she shed on the lips of the baby. George handed over his child to the maid, and said to me with patient sarcasm:
"Will you come in the garden?"
I rose and followed him across the sunny flagged yard, along the path between the bushes. He lit his pipe and sauntered along as a man on his own estate does, feeling as if he were untrammeled by laws or conventions.
"You know," he said, "she's a dam rotten manager."
I laughed, and remarked how full of plums the trees were.
"Yes!" he replied heedlessly—"you know she ought to have sent the girl out with the kids this afternoon, and have got dressed directly. But no, she must sit gossiping with Emily all the time they were asleep, and then as soon as they wake up she begins to make cake——"
"I suppose she felt she'd enjoy a pleasant chat, all quiet," I answered.
"But she knew quite well you were coming, and what it would be. But a woman's no dam foresight."
"Nay, what does it matter!" said I.
"Sunday's the only day we can have a bit of peace, so she might keep 'em quiet then."
"I suppose it was the only time, too, that she could have a quiet gossip," I replied.
"But you don't know," he said, "there seems to be never a minute of freedom. Teenie sleeps in now, and lives with us in the kitchen—Oswald as well—so I never know what it is to have a moment private. There doesn't seem a single spot anywhere where I can sit quiet. It's the kids all day, and the kids all night, and the servants, and then all the men in the house—I sometimes feel as if I should like to get away. I shall leave the pub as soon as I can—only Meg doesn't want to."
"But if you leave the public-house—what then?"
"I should like to get back on a farm. This is no sort of a place, really, for farming. I've always got some business on hand, there's a traveller to see, or I've got to go to the brewers, or I've somebody to look at a horse, or something. Your life's all messed up. If I had a place of my own, and farmed it in peace——"
"You'd be as miserable as you could be," I said.
"Perhaps so," he assented, in his old reflective manner. "Perhaps so! Anyhow, I needn't bother, for I feel as if I never shall go back—to the land."
"Which means at the bottom of your heart you don't intend to," I said laughing.
"Perhaps so!" he again yielded. "You see I'm doing pretty well here—apart from the public-house: I always think that's Meg's. Come and look in the stable. I've got a shire mare and two nags: pretty good. I went down to Melton Mowbray with Tom Mayhew, to a chap they've had dealings with. Tom's all right, and he knows how to buy, but he is such a lazy careless devil, too lazy to be bothered to sell——"
George was evidently interested. As we went round to the stables, Emily came out with the baby, which was dressed in a new silk frock. She advanced, smiling to me with dark eyes:
"See, now he is good! Doesn't he look pretty?"
She held the baby for me to look at. I glanced at it, but I was only conscious of the near warmth of her cheek, and of the scent of her hair.
"Who is he like?" I asked, looking up and finding myself full in her eyes. The question was quite irrelevant: her eyes spoke a whole clear message that made my heart throb; yet she answered.
"Who is he? Why, nobody, of course! But he will be like father, don't you think?"
The question drew my eyes to hers again, and again we looked each other the strange intelligence that made her flush and me breathe in as I smiled.
"Ay! Blue eyes like your father's—not like yours——"
Again the wild messages in her looks.
"No!" she answered very softly. "And I think he'll be jolly, like father—they have neither of them our eyes, have they?"
"No," I answered, overcome by a sudden hot flush of tenderness. "No—not vulnerable. To have such soft, vulnerable eyes as you used makes one feel nervous and irascible. But you have clothed over the sensitiveness of yours, haven't you?—like naked life, naked defenceless protoplasm they were, is it not so?"
She laughed, and at the old painful memories she dilated in the old way, and I felt the old tremor at seeing her soul flung quivering on my pity.
"And were mine like that?" asked George, who had come up.
He must have perceived the bewilderment of my look as I tried to adjust myself to him. A slight shadow, a slight chagrin appeared on his face.
"Yes," I answered, "yes—but not so bad. You never gave yourself away so much—you were most cautious: but just as defenceless."
"And am I altered?" he asked, with quiet irony, as if he knew I was not interested in him.
"Yes, more cautious. You keep in the shadow. But Emily has clothed herself, and can now walk among the crowd at her own gait."
It was with an effort I refrained from putting my lips to kiss her at that moment as she looked at me with womanly dignity and tenderness. Then I remembered, and said:
"But you are taking me to the stable George! Come and see the horses too, Emily."
"I will. I admire them so much," she replied, and thus we both indulged him.
He talked to his horses and of them, laying his hand upon them, running over their limbs. The glossy, restless animals interested him more than anything. He broke into a little flush of enthusiasm over them. They were his new interest. They were quiet and yet responsive; he was their master and owner. This gave him real pleasure.
But the baby became displeased again. Emily looked at me for sympathy with him.
"He is a little wanderer," she said, "he likes to be always moving. Perhaps he objects to the ammonia of stables too," she added, frowning and laughing slightly, "it is not very agreeable, is it?"
"Not particularly," I agreed, and as she moved off I went with her, leaving him in the stables. When Emily and I were alone we sauntered aimlessly back to the garden. She persisted in talking to the baby, and in talking to me about the baby, till I wished the child in Jericho. This made her laugh, and she continued to tantalise me. The holly-hock flowers of the second whorl were flushing to the top of the spires. The bees, covered with pale crumbs of pollen, were swaying a moment outside the wide gates of the florets, then they swung in with excited hum, and clung madly to the fury white capitols, and worked riotously round the waxy bases. Emily held out the baby to watch, talking all the time in low, fond tones. The child stretched towards the bright flowers. The sun glistened on his smooth hair as on bronze dust, and the wondering blue eyes of the baby followed the bees. Then he made small sounds, and suddenly waved his hands, like rumpled pink holly-hock buds.
"Look!" said Emily, "look at the little bees! Ah, but you mustn't touch them, they bite. They're coming!" she cried, with sudden laughing apprehension, drawing the child away. He made noises of remonstrance. She put him near to the flowers again till he knocked the spire with his hand and two indignant bees came sailing out. Emily drew back quickly crying in alarm, then laughing with excited eyes at me, as if she had just escaped a peril in my presence. Thus she teased me by flinging me all kinds of bright gages of love while she kept me aloof because of the child. She laughed with pure pleasure at this state of affairs, and delighted the more when I frowned, till at last I swallowed my resentment and laughed too, playing with the hands of the baby, and watching his blue eyes change slowly like a softly sailing sky.
Presently Meg called us in to tea. She wore a dress of fine blue stuff with cream silk embroidery, and she looked handsome, for her hair was very hastily dressed.
"What, have you had that child all this time?" she exclaimed, on seeing Emily. "Where is his father?"
"I don't know—we left him in the stable, didn't we Cyril? But I like nursing him, Meg. I like it ever so much," replied Emily.
"Oh, yes, you may be sure George would get off it if he could. He's always in the stable. As I tell him, he fair stinks of horses. He's not that fond of the children, I can tell you. Come on, my pet—why, come to its mammy."
She took the baby and kissed it passionately, and made extravagant love to it. A clean shaven young man with thick bare arms went across the yard.
"Here, just look and tell George as tea is ready," said Meg.
"Where is he?" asked Oswald, the sturdy youth who attended to the farm business.
"You know where to find him," replied Meg, with that careless freedom which was so subtly derogatory to her husband.
George came hurrying from the out-building. "What, is it tea already?" he said.
"It's a wonder you haven't been crying out for it this last hour," said Meg.
"It's a marvel you've got dressed so quick," he replied.
"Oh, is it?" she answered—"well, it's not with any of your help that I've done it, that is a fact. Where's Teenie?"
The maid, short, stiffly built, very dark and sullen looking, came forward from the gate.
"Can you take Alfy as well, just while we have tea?" she asked. Teenie replied that she should think she could, whereupon she was given the ruddy-haired baby, as well as the dark one. She sat with them on a seat at the end of the yard. We proceeded to tea.
It was a very great spread. There were hot cakes, three or four kinds of cold cakes, tinned apricots, jellies, tinned lobster, and trifles in the way of jam, cream, and rum.
"I don't know what those cakes are like," said Meg. "I made them in such a fluster. Really, you have to do things as best you can when you've got children—especially when there's two. I never seem to have time to do my hair up even—look at it now."
She put up her hands to her head, and I could not help noticing how grimy and rough were her nails.
The tea was going on pleasantly when one of the babies began to cry. Teenie bent over it crooning gruffly. I leaned back and looked out of the door to watch her. I thought of the girl in Tchekoff's story, who smothered her charge, and I hoped the grim Teenie would not be driven to such desperation. The other child joined in this chorus. Teenie rose from her seat and walked about the yard, gruffly trying to soothe the twins.
"It's a funny thing, but whenever anybody comes they're sure to be cross," said Meg, beginning to simmer.
"They're no different from ordinary," said George, "it's only that you're forced to notice it then."
"No, it is not!" cried Meg in a sudden passion: "Is it now, Emily? Of course, he has to say something! Weren't they as good as gold this morning, Emily?—and yesterday!—why they never murmured, as good as gold they were. But he wants them to be as dumb as fishes: he'd like them shutting up in a box as soon as they make a bit of noise."
"I was not saying anything about it," he replied.
"Yes, you were," she retorted. "I don't know what you call it then——"
The babies outside continued to cry.
"Bring Alfy to me," called Meg, yielding to the mother feeling.
"Oh, no, damn it!" said George, "let Oswald take him."
"Yes," replied Meg bitterly, "let anybody take him so long as he's out of your sight. You never ought to have children, you didn't——"
George murmured something about "to-day."
"Come then!" said Meg with a whole passion of tenderness, as she took the red-haired baby and held it to her bosom, "Why, what is it then, what is it, my precious? Hush then pet, hush then!"
The baby did not hush. Meg rose from her chair and stood rocking the baby in her arms, swaying from one foot to the other.
"He's got a bit of wind," she said.
We tried to continue the meal, but everything was awkward and difficult.
"I wonder if he's hungry," said Meg, "let's try him."
She turned away and gave him her breast. Then he was still, so she covered herself as much as she could, and sat down again to tea. We had finished, so we sat and waited while she ate. This disjointing of the meal, by reflex action, made Emily and me more accurate. We were exquisitely attentive, and polite to a nicety. Our very speech was clipped with precision, as we drifted to a discussion of Strauss and Debussy. This of course put a breach between us two and our hosts, but we could not help it; it was our only way of covering over the awkwardness of the occasion. George sat looking glum and listening to us. Meg was quite indifferent. She listened occasionally, but her position as mother made her impregnable. She sat eating calmly, looking down now and again at her baby, holding us in slight scorn, babblers that we were. She was secure in her high maternity; she was mistress and sole authority. George, as father, was first servant; as an indifferent father, she humiliated him and was hostile to his wishes. Emily and I were mere intruders, feeling ourselves such. After tea we went upstairs to wash our hands. The grandmother had had a second stroke of paralysis, and lay inert, almost stupified. Her large bulk upon the bed was horrible to me, and her face, with the muscles all slack and awry, seemed like some cruel cartoon. She spoke a few thick words to me. George asked her if she felt all right, or should he rub her. She turned her old eyes slowly to him.
"My leg—my leg a bit," she said in her strange guttural.
He took off his coat, and pushing his hand under the bed-clothes, sat rubbing the poor old woman's limb patiently, slowly, for some time. She watched him for a moment, then without her turning her eyes from him, he passed out of her vision and she lay staring at nothing, in his direction.
"There," he said at last, "is that any better then, mother?"
"Ay, that's a bit better," she said slowly.
"Should I gi'e thee a drink?" he asked, lingering, wishing to minister all he could to her before he went.
She looked at him, and he brought the cup. She swallowed a few drops with difficulty.
"Doesn't it make you miserable to have her always there?" I asked him, when we were in the next room. He sat down on the large white bed and laughed shortly.
"We're used to it—we never notice her, poor old gran'ma."
"But she must have made a difference to you—she must make a big difference at the bottom, even if you don't know it," I said.
"She'd got such a strong character," he said musing, "—she seemed to understand me. She was a real friend to me before she was so bad. Sometimes I happen to look at her—generally I never see her, you know how I mean—but sometimes I do—and then—it seems a bit rotten——"
He smiled at me peculiarly, "—it seems to take the shine off things," he added, and then, smiling again with ugly irony—"She's our skeleton in the closet." He indicated her large bulk.
The church bells began to ring. The grey church stood on a rise among the fields not far away, like a handsome old stag looking over towards the inn. The five bells began to play, and the sound came beating upon the window.
"I hate Sunday night," he said restlessly.
"Because you've nothing to do?" I asked.
"I don't know," he said. "It seems like a gag, and you feel helpless. I don't want to go to church, and hark at the bells, they make you feel uncomfortable."
"What do you generally do?" I asked.
"Feel miserable—I've been down to Mayhew's these last two Sundays, and Meg's been pretty mad. She says it's the only night I could stop with her, or go out with her. But if I stop with her, what can I do?—and if we go out, it's only for half an hour. I hate Sunday night—it's a dead end."
When we went downstairs, the table was cleared, and Meg was bathing the dark baby. Thus she was perfect. She handled the bonny, naked child with beauty of gentleness. She kneeled over him nobly. Her arms and her bosom and her throat had a nobility of roundness and softness. She drooped her head with the grace of a Madonna, and her movements were lovely, accurate and exquisite, like an old song perfectly sung. Her voice, playing and soothing round the curved limbs of the baby, was like water, soft as wine in the sun, running with delight.
We watched humbly, sharing the wonder from afar.
Emily was very envious of Meg's felicity. She begged to be allowed to bathe the second baby. Meg granted her bounteous permission:
"Yes, you can wash him if you like, but what about your frock?"
Emily, delighted, began to undress the baby whose hair was like crocus petals. Her fingers trembled with pleasure as she loosed the little tapes. I always remember the inarticulate delight with which she took the child in her hands, when at last his little shirt was removed, and felt his soft white limbs and body. A distinct, glowing atmosphere seemed suddenly to burst out around her and the child, leaving me outside. The moment before she had been very near to me, her eyes searching mine, her spirit clinging timidly about me. Now I was put away, quite alone, neglected, forgotten, outside the glow which surrounded the woman and the baby.
"Ha!—Ha-a-a!" she said with a deep throated vowel, as she put her face against the child's small breasts, so round, almost like a girl's, silken and warm and wonderful. She kissed him, and touched him, and hovered over him, drinking in his baby sweetnesses, the sweetness of the laughing little mouth's wide, wet kisses, of the round, waving limbs, of the little shoulders so winsomely curving to the arms and the breasts, of the tiny soft neck hidden very warm beneath the chin, tasting deliciously with her lips and her cheeks all the exquisite softness, silkiness, warmth, and tender life of the baby's body.
A woman is so ready to disclaim the body of a man's love; she yields him her own soft beauty with so much gentle patience and regret; she clings to his neck, to his head and his cheeks, fondling them for the soul's meaning that is there, and shrinking from his passionate limbs and his body. It was with some perplexity, some anger and bitterness that I watched Emily moved almost to ecstasy by the baby's small, innocuous person.
"Meg never found any pleasure in me as she does in the kids," said George bitterly, for himself.
The child, laughing and crowing, caught his hands in Emily's hair and pulled dark tresses down, while she cried out in remonstrance, and tried to loosen the small fists that were shut so fast. She took him from the water and rubbed him dry, with marvellous gentle little rubs, he kicking and expostulating. She brought his fine hair into one silken up-springing of ruddy gold like an aureole. She played with his tiny balls of toes, like wee pink mushrooms, till at last she dare detain him no longer, when she put on his flannel and his night-gown and gave him to Meg.
Before carrying him to bed Meg took him to feed him. His mouth was stretched round the nipple as he sucked, his face was pressed close and closer to the breast, his fingers wandered over the fine white globe, blue veined and heavy, trying to hold it. Meg looked down upon him with a consuming passion of tenderness, and Emily clasped her hands and leaned forward to him. Even thus they thought him exquisite.
When the twins were both asleep, I must tiptoe upstairs to see them. They lay cheek by cheek in the crib next the large white bed, breathing little, ruffling breaths, out of unison, so small and pathetic with their tiny shut fingers. I remembered the two larks.
From the next room came a heavy sound of the old woman's breathing. Meg went in to her. As in passing I caught sight of the large, prone figure in the bed, I thought of Guy de Maupassant's "Toine," who acted as an incubator.