Autumn set in, and the red dahlias which kept the warm light alive in their bosoms so late into the evening died in the night, and the morning had nothing but brown balls of rottenness to show.
They called me as I passed the post-office door in Eberwich one evening, and they gave me a letter for my mother. The distorted, sprawling handwriting perplexed me with a dim uneasiness; I put the letter away, and forgot it. I remembered it later in the evening, when I wished to recall something to interest my mother. She looked at the handwriting, and began hastily and nervously to tear open the envelope; she held it away from her in the light of the lamp, and with eyes drawn half closed, tried to scan it. So I found her spectacles, but she did not speak her thanks, and her hand trembled. She read the short letter quickly; then she sat down, and read it again, and continued to look at it.
"What is it mother?" I asked.
She did not answer, but continued staring at the letter. I went up to her, and put my hand on her shoulder, feeling very uncomfortable. She took no notice of me, beginning to murmur: "Poor Frank—Poor Frank." That was my father's name.
"But what is it mother?—tell me what's the matter!"
She turned and looked at me as if I were a stranger; she got up, and began to walk about the room; then she left the room, and I heard her go out of the house.
The letter had fallen on to the floor. I picked it up. The handwriting was very broken. The address gave a village some few miles away; the date was three days before.
"My Dear Lettice:
"You will want to know I am gone. I can hardly last a day or two—my kidneys are nearly gone.
"I came over one day. I didn't see you, but I saw the girl by the window, and I had a few words with the lad. He never knew, and he felt nothing. I think the girl might have done. If you knew how awfully lonely I am, Lettice—how awfully I have been, you might feel sorry.
"I have saved what I could, to pay you back. I have had the worst of it Lettice, and I'm glad the end has come. I have had the worst of it.
"Good-bye—for ever—your husband,
I was numbed by this letter of my father's. With almost agonised effort I strove to recall him, but I knew that my image of a tall, handsome, dark man with pale grey eyes was made up from my mother's few words, and from a portrait I had once seen.
The marriage had been unhappy. My father was of frivolous, rather vulgar character, but plausible, having a good deal of charm. He was a liar, without notion of honesty, and he had deceived my mother thoroughly. One after another she discovered his mean dishonesties and deceits, and her soul revolted from him, and because the illusion of him had broken into a thousand vulgar fragments, she turned away with the scorn of a woman who finds her romance has been a trumpery tale. When he left her for other pleasures—Lettie being a baby of three years, while I was five—she rejoiced bitterly. She had heard of him indirectly—and of him nothing good, although he prospered—but he had never come to see her or written to her in all the eighteen years.
In a while my mother came in. She sat down, pleating up the hem of her black apron, and smoothing it out again.
"You know," she said, "he had a right to the children, and I've kept them all the time."
"He could have come," said I.
"I set them against him, I have kept them from him, and he wanted them. I ought to be by him now—I ought to have taken you to him long ago."
"But how could you, when you knew nothing of him?"
"He would have come—he wanted to come—I have felt it for years. But I kept him away. I know I have kept him away. I have felt it, and he has. Poor Frank—he'll see his mistakes now. He would not have been as cruel as I have been——"
"Nay, mother, it is only the shock that makes you say so."
"This makes me know. I have felt in myself a long time that he was suffering; I have had the feeling of him in me. I knew, yes, I did know he wanted me, and you, I felt it. I have had the feeling of him upon me this last three months especially . . . I have been cruel to him."
"Well—we'll go to him now, shall we?" I said.
"To-morrow—to-morrow," she replied, noticing me really for the first time. "I go in the morning."
"And I'll go with you."
"Yes—in the morning. Lettie has her party to Chatsworth—don't tell her—we won't tell her."
"No," said I.
Shortly after, my mother went upstairs. Lettie came in rather late from Highclose; Leslie did not come in. In the morning they were going with a motor party into Matloch and Chatsworth, and she was excited, and did not observe anything.
After all, mother and I could not set out until the warm tempered afternoon. The air was full of a soft yellowness when we stepped down from the train at Cossethay. My mother insisted on walking the long two miles to the village. We went slowly along the road, lingering over the little red flowers in the high hedge-bottom up the hillside. We were reluctant to come to our destination. As we came in sight of the little grey tower of the church, we heard the sound of braying, brassy music. Before us, filling a little croft, the Wakes was in full swing.
Some wooden horses careered gaily round, and the swingboats leaped into the mild blue sky. We sat upon the stile, my mother and I, and watched. There were booths, and cocoanut shies and round-abouts scattered in the small field. Groups of children moved quietly from attraction to attraction. A deeply tanned man came across the field swinging two dripping buckets of water. Women looked from the doors of their brilliant caravans, and lean dogs rose lazily and settled down again under the steps. The fair moved slowly, for all its noise. A stout lady, with a husky masculine voice invited the excited children into her peep show. A swarthy man stood with his thin legs astride on the platform of the roundabouts, and sloping backwards, his mouth distended with a row of fingers, he whistled astonishingly to the coarse row of the organ, and his whistling sounded clear, like the flight of a wild goose high over the chimney tops, as he was carried round and round. A little fat man with an ugly swelling on his chest stood screaming from a filthy booth to a crowd of urchins, bidding them challenge a big, stolid young man who stood with folded arms, his fists pushing out his biceps. On being asked if he would undertake any of these prospective challenges, this young man nodded, not having yet attained a talking stage:—yes he would take two at a time, screamed the little fat man with the big excrescence on his chest, pointing at the cowering lads and girls. Further off, Punch's quaint voice could be heard when the cocoanut man ceased grinding out screeches from his rattle. The cocoanut man was wroth, for these youngsters would not risk a penny shy, and the rattle yelled like a fiend. A little girl came along to look at us, daintily licking an ice-cream sandwich. We were uninteresting, however, so she passed on to stare at the caravans.
We had almost gathered courage to cross the wakes, when the cracked bell of the church sent its note falling over the babble.
"One—two—three"—had it really sounded three! Then it rang on a lower bell—"One—two—three." A passing bell for a man! I looked at my mother—she turned away from me.
The organ flared on—the husky woman came forward to make another appeal. Then there was a lull. The man with the lump on his chest had gone inside the rag to spar with the solid fellow. The cocoanut man had gone to the "Three Tunns" in fury, and a brazen girl of seventeen or so was in charge of the nuts. The horses careered round, carrying two frightened boys.
Suddenly the quick, throbbing note of the low bell struck again through the din. I listened—but could not keep count. One, two, three, four—for the third time that great lad had determined to go on the horses, and they had started while his foot was on the step, and he had been foiled—eight, nine, ten—no wonder that whistling man had such a big Adam's apple—I wondered if it hurt his neck when he talked, being so pointed—nineteen, twenty—the girl was licking more ice-cream, with precious, tiny licks—twenty-five, twenty-six—I wondered if I did count to twenty-six mechanically. At this point I gave it up, and watched for Lord Tennyson's bald head to come spinning round on the painted rim of the round-abouts, followed by a red-faced Lord Roberts, and a villainous looking Disraeli.
"Fifty-one——" said my mother. "Come—come along."
We hurried through the fair, towards the church; towards a garden where the last red sentinels looked out from the top of the holly-hock spires. The garden was a tousled mass of faded pink chrysanthemums, and weak-eyed Michaelmas daisies, and spectre stalks of holly-hock. It belonged to a low, dark house, which crouched behind a screen of yews. We walked along to the front. The blinds were down, and in one room we could see the stale light of candles burning.
"Is this Yew Cottage?" asked my mother of a curious lad.
"It's Mrs. May's," replied the boy.
"Does she live alone?" I asked.
"She 'ad French Carlin—but he's dead—an she's letten th' candles ter keep th' owd lad off'n 'im."
We went to the house and knocked.
"An ye come about him?" hoarsely whispered a bent old woman, looking up with very blue eyes, nodding her old head with its velvet net significantly towards the inner room.
"Yes——" said my mother, "we had a letter."
"Ay, poor fellow—he's gone, missis," and the old lady shook her head. Then she looked at us curiously, leaned forward, and, putting her withered old hand on my mother's arm, her hand with its dark blue veins, she whispered in confidence, "and the candles 'as gone out twice. 'E wor a funny feller, very funny!"
"I must come in and settle things—I am his nearest relative," said my mother, trembling.
"Yes—I must 'a dozed, for when I looked up, it wor black darkness. Missis, I dursn't sit up wi' 'im no more, an' many a one I've laid out. Eh, but his sufferin's, Missis—poor feller—eh, Missis!"—she lifted her ancient hands, and looked up at my mother, with her eyes so intensely blue.
"Do you know where he kept his papers?" asked my mother.
"Yis, I axed Father Burns about it; he said we mun pray for 'im. I bought him candles out o' my own pocket. He wor a rum feller, he wor!" and again she shook her grey head mournfully. My mother took a step forward.
"Did ye want to see 'im?" asked the old woman with half timid questioning.
"Yes," replied my mother, with a vigorous nod. She perceived now that the old lady was deaf.
We followed the woman into the kitchen, a long, low room, dark, with drawn blinds.
"Sit ye down," said the old lady in the same low tone, as if she were speaking to herself:
"Ye are his sister, 'appen?"
My mother shook her head.
"Oh—his brother's wife!" persisted the old lady.
We shook our heads.
"Only a cousin?" she guessed, and looked at us appealingly. I nodded assent.
"Sit ye there a minute," she said, and trotted off. She banged the door, and jarred a chair as she went. When she returned, she set down a bottle and two glasses with a thump on the table in front of us. Her thin, skinny wrist seemed hardly capable of carrying the bottle.
"It's one as he'd only just begun of—'ave a drop to keep ye up—do now, poor thing," she said, pushing the bottle to my mother and hurrying off, returning with the sugar and the kettle. We refused.
"'E won't want it no more, poor feller—an it's good, Missis, he allers drank it good. Ay—an' 'e 'adn't a drop the last three days, poor man, poor feller, not a drop. Come now, it'll stay ye, come now." We refused.
"'T's in there," she whispered, pointing to a closed door in a dark corner of the gloomy kitchen. I stumbled up a little step, and went plunging against a rickety table on which was a candle in a tall brass candlestick. Over went the candle, and it rolled on the floor, and the brass holder fell with much clanging.
"Eh!—Eh! Dear—Lord, Dear—Heart. Dear—Heart!" wailed the old woman. She hastened trembling round to the other side of the bed, and relit the extinguished candle at the taper which was still burning. As she returned, the light glowed on her old, wrinkled face, and on the burnished knobs of the dark mahogany bedstead, while a stream of wax dripped down on to the floor. By the glimmering light of the two tapers we could see the outlined form under the counterpane. She turned back the hem and began to make painful wailing sounds. My heart was beating heavily, and I felt choked. I did not want to look—but I must. It was the man I had seen in the woods—with the puffiness gone from his face. I felt the great wild pity, and a sense of terror, and a sense of horror, and a sense of awful littleness and loneliness among a great empty space. I felt beyond myself as if I were a mere fleck drifting unconsciously through the dark. Then I felt my mother's arm round my shoulders, and she cried pitifully, "Oh, my son, my son!"
I shivered, and came back to myself. There were no tears in my mother's face, only a great pleading. "Never mind, mother—never mind," I said incoherently.
She rose and covered the face again, and went round to the old lady, and held her still, and stayed her little wailings. The woman wiped from her cheeks the few tears of old age, and pushed her grey hair smooth under the velvet network.
"Where are all his things?" asked mother.
"Eh?" said the old lady, lifting up her ear.
"Are all his things here?" repeated mother in a louder tone.
"Here?"—the woman waved her hand round the room. It contained the great mahogany bedstead naked of hangings, a desk, and an oak chest, and two or three mahogany chairs. "I couldn't get him upstairs; he's only been here about a three week."
"Where's the key to the desk?" said my mother loudly in the woman's ear.
"Yes," she replied—"it's his desk." She looked at us, perplexed and doubtful, fearing she had misunderstood us. This was dreadful.
"Key!" I shouted. "Where is the key?"
Her old face was full of trouble as she shook her head. I took it that she did not know.
"Where are his clothes? Clothes" I repeated pointing to my coat. She understood, and muttered, "I'll fetch 'em ye."
We should have followed her as she hurried upstairs through a door near the head of the bed, had we not heard a heavy footstep in the kitchen, and a voice saying: "Is the old lady going to drink with the Devil? Hullo, Mrs. May, come and drink with me!" We heard the tinkle of the liquor poured into a glass, and almost immediately the light tap of the empty tumbler on the table.
"I'll see what the old girl's up to," he said, and the heavy tread came towards us. Like me, he stumbled at the little step, but escaped collision with the table.
"Damn that fool's step," he said heartily. It was the doctor—for he kept his hat on his head, and did not hesitate to stroll about the house. He was a big, burly, red-faced man.
"I beg your pardon," he said, observing my mother. My mother bowed.
"Mrs. Beardsall?" he asked, taking off his hat.
My mother bowed.
"I posted a letter to you. You are a relative of his—of poor old Carlin's?"—he nodded sideways towards the bed.
"The nearest," said my mother.
"Poor fellow—he was a bit stranded. Comes of being a bachelor, Ma'am."
"I was very much surprised to hear from him," said my mother.
"Yes, I guess he's not been much of a one for writing to his friends. He's had a bad time lately. You have to pay some time or other. We bring them on ourselves—silly devils as we are.—I beg your pardon."
There was a moment of silence, during which the doctor sighed, and then began to whistle softly.
"Well—we might be more comfortable if we had the blind up," he said, letting daylight in among the glimmer of the tapers as he spoke.
"At any rate," he said, "you won't have any trouble settling up—no debts or anything of that. I believe there's a bit to leave—so it's not so bad. Poor devil—he was very down at the last; but we have to pay at one end or the other. What on earth is the old girl after?" he asked, looking up at the raftered ceiling, which was rumbling and thundering with the old lady's violent rummaging.
"We wanted the key of his desk," said my mother.
"Oh—I can find you that—and the will. He told me where they were, and to give them you when you came. He seemed to think a lot of you. Perhaps he might ha' done better for himself——"
Here we heard the heavy tread of the old lady coming downstairs. The doctor went to the foot of the stairs.
"Hello, now—be careful!" he bawled. The poor old woman did as he expected, and trod on the braces of the trousers she was trailing, and came crashing into his arms. He set her tenderly down, saying, "Not hurt, are you?—no!" and he smiled at her and shook his head.
"Eh, doctor—Eh, doctor—bless ye, I'm thankful ye've come. Ye'll see to 'em now, will ye?"
"Yes—" he nodded in his bluff, winning way, and hurrying into the kitchen, he mixed her a glass of whisky, and brought one for himself, saying to her, "There you are—'twas a nasty shaking for you."
The poor old woman sat in a chair by the open door of the staircase, the pile of clothing tumbled about her feet. She looked round pitifully at us and at the daylight struggling among the candle light, making a ghostly gleam on the bed where the rigid figure lay unmoved; her hand trembled so that she could scarcely hold her glass.
The doctor gave us the keys, and we rifled the desk and the drawers, sorting out all the papers. The doctor sat sipping and talking to us all the time.
"Yes," he said, "he's only been here about two years. Felt himself beginning to break up then, I think. He'd been a long time abroad; they always called him Frenchy." The doctor sipped and reflected, and sipped again, "Ay—he'd run the rig in his day—used to dream dreadfully. Good thing the old woman was so deaf. Awful, when a man gives himself away in his sleep; played the deuce with him, knowing it." Sip, sip, sip—and more reflections—and another glass to be mixed.
"But he was a jolly decent fellow—generous, open-handed. The folks didn't like him, because they couldn't get to the bottom of him; they always hate a thing they can't fathom. He was close, there's no mistake—save when he was asleep sometimes." The doctor looked at his glass and sighed.
"However—we shall miss him—shan't we, Mrs. May?" he bawled suddenly, startling us, making us glance at the bed.
He lit his pipe and puffed voluminously in order to obscure the attraction of his glass. Meanwhile we examined the papers. There were very few letters—one or two addressed to Paris. There were many bills, and receipts, and notes—business, all business.
There was hardly a trace of sentiment among all the litter. My mother sorted out such papers as she considered valuable; the others, letters and missives which she glanced at cursorily and put aside, she took into the kitchen and burned. She seemed afraid to find out too much.
The doctor continued to colour his tobacco smoke with a few pensive words.
"Ay," he said, "there are two ways. You can burn your lamp with a big draught, and it'll flare away, till the oil's gone, then it'll stink and smoke itself out. Or you can keep it trim on the kitchen table, dirty your fingers occasionally trimming it up, and it'll last a long time, and sink out mildly." Here he turned to his glass, and finding it empty, was awakened to reality.
"Anything I can do, Madam?" he asked.
"No, thank you."
"Ay, I don't suppose there's much to settle. Nor many tears to shed—when a fellow spends his years an' his prime on the Lord knows who, you can't expect those that remember him young to feel his loss too keenly. He'd had his fling in his day, though, ma'am. Ay—must ha' had some rich times. No lasting satisfaction in it though—always wanting, craving. There's nothing like marrying—you've got your dish before you then, and you've got to eat it." He lapsed again into reflection, from which he did not rouse till we had locked up the desk, burned the useless papers, put the others into my pockets and the black bag, and were standing ready to depart. Then the doctor looked up suddenly and said:
"But what about the funeral?"
Then he noticed the weariness of my mother's look, and he jumped up, and quickly seized his hat, saying:
"Come across to my wife and have a cup of tea. Buried in these dam holes a fellow gets such a boor. Do come—my little wife is lonely—come just to see her."
My mother smiled and thanked him. We turned to go. My mother hesitated in her walk; on the threshold of the room she glanced round at the bed, but she went on.
Outside, in the fresh air of the fading afternoon, I could not believe it was true. It was not true, that sad, colourless face with grey beard, wavering in the yellow candle-light. It was a lie,—that wooden bedstead, that deaf woman, they were fading phrases of the untruth. That yellow blaze of little sunflowers was true, and the shadow from the sun-dial on the warm old almshouses—that was real. The heavy afternoon sunlight came round us warm and reviving; we shivered, and the untruth went out of our veins, and we were no longer chilled.
The doctor's house stood sweetly among the beech trees, and at the iron fence in front of the little lawn a woman was talking to a beautiful Jersey cow that pushed its dark nose through the fence from the field beyond. She was a little, dark woman with vivid colouring; she rubbed the nose of the delicate animal, peeped right into the dark eyes, and talked in a lovable Scottish speech; talked as a mother talks softly to her child.
When she turned round in surprise to greet us there was still the softness of a rich affection in her eyes. She gave us tea, and scones, and apply jelly, and all the time we listened with delight to her voice, which was musical as bees humming in the lime trees. Though she said nothing significant we listened to her attentively.
Her husband was merry and kind. She glanced at him with quick glances of apprehension, and her eyes avoided him. He, in his merry, frank way, chaffed her, and praised her extravagantly, and teased her again. Then he became a trifle uneasy. I think she was afraid he had been drinking; I think she was shaken with horror when she found him tipsy, and bewildered and terrified when she saw him drunk. They had no children. I noticed he ceased to joke when she became a little constrained. He glanced at her often, and looked somewhat pitiful when she avoided his looks, and he grew uneasy, and I could see he wanted to go away.
"I had better go with you to see the vicar, then," he said to me, and we left the room, whose windows looked south, over the meadows, the room where dainty little water-colours, and beautiful bits of embroidery, and empty flower vases, and two dirty novels from the town library, and the closed piano, and the odd cups, and the chipped spout of the teapot causing stains on the cloth—all told one story.
We went to the joiner's and ordered the coffin, and the doctor had a glass of whisky on it; the graveyard fees were paid, and the doctor sealed the engagement with a drop of brandy; the vicar's port completed the doctor's joviality, and we went home.
This time the disquiet in the little woman's dark eyes could not dispel the doctor's merriment. He rattled away, and she nervously twisted her wedding ring. He insisted on driving us to the station, in spite of our alarm.
"But you will be quite safe with him," said his wife, in her caressing Highland speech. When she shook hands at parting I noticed the hardness of the little palm;—and I have always hated an old, black alpaca dress.
It is such a long way home from the station at Eberwich. We rode part way in the bus; then we walked. It is a very long way for my mother, when her steps are heavy with trouble.
Rebecca was out by the rhododendrons looking for us. She hurried to us all solicitous, and asked mother if she had had tea.
"But you'll do with another cup," she said, and ran back into the house.
She came into the dining-room to take my mother's bonnet and coat. She wanted us to talk; she was distressed on my mother's behalf; she noticed the blackness that lay under her eyes, and she fidgeted about, unwilling to ask anything, yet uneasy and anxious to know.
"Lettie has been home," she said.
"And gone back again?" asked mother.
"She only came to change her dress. She put the green poplin on. She wondered where you'd gone."
"What did you tell her?"
"I said you'd just gone out a bit. She said she was glad. She was as lively as a squirrel."
Rebecca looked wistfully at my mother. At length the latter said:
"He's dead, Rebecca. I have seen him."
"Now thank God for that—no more need to worry over him."
"Well!—He died all alone, Rebecca—all alone."
"He died as you've lived," said Becky with some asperity.
"But I've had the children, I've had the children—we won't tell Lettie, Rebecca."
"No 'm." Rebecca left the room.
"You and Lettie will have the money," said mother to me. There was a sum of four thousand pounds or so. It was left to my mother; or, in default to Lettie and me.
"Well, mother—if it's ours, it's yours."
There was silence for some minutes, then she said, "You might have had a father——"
"We're thankful we hadn't, mother. You spared us that."
"But how can you tell?" said my mother.
"I can," I replied. "And I am thankful to you."
"If ever you feel scorn for one who is near you rising in your throat, try and be generous, my lad."
"Well——" said I.
"Yes," she replied, "we'll say no more. Sometime you must tell Lettie—you tell her."
I did tell her, a week or so afterwards.
"Who knows?" she asked, her face hardening.
"Mother, Becky, and ourselves."
"Then it's a good thing he is out of the way if he was such a nuisance to mother. Where is she?"
Lettie ran to her.