During the falling of the leaves Lettie was very wilful. She uttered many banalities concerning men, and love, and marriage; she taunted Leslie and thwarted his wishes. At last he stayed away from her. She had been several times down to the mill, but because she fancied they were very familiar, receiving her on to their rough plane like one of themselves, she stayed away. Since the death of our father she had been restless; since inheriting her little fortune she had become proud, scornful, difficult to please. Difficult to please in every circumstance; she, who had always been so rippling in thoughtless life, sat down in the window sill to think, and her strong teeth bit at her handkerchief till it was torn in holes. She would say nothing to me; she read all things that dealt with modern women.
One afternoon Lettie walked over to Eberwich. Leslie had not been to see us for a fortnight. It was a grey, dree afternoon. The wind drifted a clammy fog across the hills, and the roads were black and deep with mud. The trees in the wood slouched sulkily. It was a day to be shut out and ignored if possible. I heaped up the fire, and went to draw the curtains and make perfect the room. Then I saw Lettie coming along the path quickly, very erect. When she came in her colour was high.
"Tea not laid?" she said briefly.
"Rebecca has just brought in the lamp," said I.
Lettie took off her coat and furs, and flung them on the couch. She went to the mirror, lifted her hair, all curled by the fog, and stared haughtily at herself. Then she swung round, looked at the bare table, and rang the bell.
It was so rare a thing for us to ring the bell from the dining-room, that Rebecca went first to the outer door. Then she came in the room saying:
"Did you ring?"
"I thought tea would have been ready," said Lettie coldly. Rebecca looked at me, and at her, and replied:
"It is but half-past four. I can bring it in."
Mother came down hearing the clink of the tea-cups.
"Well," she said to Lettie, who was unlacing her boots, "and did you find it a pleasant walk?"
"Except for the mud," was the reply.
"Ah, I guess you wished you had stayed at home. What a state for your boots!—and your skirts too, I know. Here, let me take them into the kitchen."
"Let Rebecca take them," said Lettie—but mother was out of the room.
When mother had poured out the tea, we sat silently at table. It was on the tip of our tongues to ask Lettie what ailed her, but we were experienced and we refrained. After a while she said:
"Do you know, I met Leslie Tempest."
"Oh," said mother tentatively, "Did he come along with you?"
"He did not look at me."
"Oh!" exclaimed mother, and it was speaking volumes; then, after a moment, she resumed:
"Perhaps he did not see you."
"Or was it a stony Britisher?" I asked.
"He saw me," declared Lettie, "or he wouldn't have made such a babyish show of being delighted with Margaret Raymond."
"It may have been no show—he still may not have seen you."
"I felt at once that he had; I could see his animation was extravagant. He need not have troubled himself, I was not going to run after him."
"You seem very cross," said I.
"Indeed I am not. But he knew I had to walk all this way home, and he could take up Margaret, who has only half the distance."
"Was he driving?"
"In the dog-cart." She cut her toast into strips viciously. We waited patiently.
"It was mean of him, wasn't it mother?"
"Well, my girl, you have treated him badly."
"What a baby! What a mean, manly baby! Men are great infants."
"And girls," said mother, "do not know what they want."
"A grown-up quality," I added.
"Nevertheless," said Lettie, "he is a mean fop, and I detest him."
She rose and sorted out some stitchery. Lettie never stitched unless she were in a bad humour. Mother smiled at me, sighed, and proceeded to Mr. Gladstone for comfort; her breviary and missal were Morley's Life of Gladstone.
I had to take a letter to Highclose to Mrs. Tempest—from my mother, concerning a bazaar in process at the church. "I will bring Leslie back with me," said I to myself.
The night was black and hateful. The lamps by the road from Eberwich ended at Nethermere; their yellow blur on the water made the cold, wet inferno of the night more ugly.
Leslie and Marie were both in the library—half a library, half a business office; used also as a lounge room, being cosy. Leslie lay in a great armchair by the fire, immune among clouds of blue smoke. Marie was perched on the steps, a great volume on her knee. Leslie got up in his cloud, shook hands, greeted me curtly, and vanished again. Marie smiled me a quaint, vexed smile, saying:
"Oh, Cyril, I'm so glad you've come. I'm so worried, and Leslie says he's not a pastry cook, though I'm sure I don't want him to be one, only he need not be a bear."
"What's the matter?"
She frowned, gave the big volume a little smack and said:
"Why, I do so much want to make some of those Spanish tartlets of your mother's that are so delicious, and of course Mabel knows nothing of them, and they're not in my cookery book, and I've looked through page upon page of the encyclopedia, right through 'Spain,' and there's nothing yet, and there are fifty pages more, and Leslie won't help me, though I've got a headache, because he's frabous about something." She looked at me in comical despair.
"Do you want them for the bazaar?"
"Yes—for to-morrow. Cook has done the rest, but I had fairly set my heart on these. Don't you think they are lovely?"
"Exquisitely lovely. Suppose I go and ask mother."
"If you would. But no, oh no, you can't make all that journey this terrible night. We are simply besieged by mud. The men are both out—William has gone to meet father—and mother has sent George to carry some things to the vicarage. I can't ask one of the girls on a night like this. I shall have to let it go—and the cranberry tarts too—it cannot be helped. I am so miserable."
"Ask Leslie," said I.
"He is too cross," she replied, looking at him.
He did not deign a remark.
"Will you Leslie?"
"Go across to Woodside for me?"
"A recipe. Do, there's a dear boy."
"Where are the men?"
"They are both engaged—they are out."
"Send a girl, then."
"At night like this? Who would go?"
"I shall not ask her. Isn't he mean, Cyril? Men are mean."
"I will come back," said I. "There is nothing at home to do. Mother is reading, and Lettie is stitching. The weather disagrees with her, as it does with Leslie."
"But it is not fair——" she said, looking at me softly. Then she put away the great book and climbed down.
"Won't you go, Leslie?" she said, laying her hand on his shoulder.
"Women!" he said, rising as if reluctantly. "There's no end to their wants and their caprices."
"I thought he would go," said she warmly. She ran to fetch his overcoat. He put one arm slowly in the sleeve, and then the other, but he would not lift the coat on to his shoulders.
"Well!" she said, struggling on tiptoe, "You are a great creature! Can't you get it on, naughty child?"
"Give her a chair to stand on," he said.
She shook the collar of the coat sharply, but he stood like a sheep, impassive.
"Leslie, you are too bad. I can't get it on, you stupid boy."
I took the coat and jerked it on.
"There," she said, giving him his cap. "Now don't be long."
"What a damned dirty night!" said he, when we were out.
"It is," said I.
"The town, anywhere's better than this hell of a country."
"Ha! How did you enjoy yourself?"
He began a long history of three days in the metropolis. I listened, and heard little. I heard more plainly the cry of some night birds over Nethermere, and the peevish, wailing, yarling cry of some beast in the wood. I was thankful to slam the door behind me, to stand in the light of the hall.
"Leslie!" exclaimed mother, "I am glad to see you."
"Thank you," he said, turning to Lettie, who sat with her lap full of work, her head busily bent.
"You see I can't get up," she said, giving him her hand, adorned as it was by the thimble. "How nice of you to come! We did not know you were back."
"But!" he exclaimed, then he stopped.
"I suppose you enjoyed yourself," she went on calmly.
Snap, snap, snap went her needle through the new stuff. Then, without looking up, she said:
"Yes, no doubt. You have the air of a man who has been enjoying himself."
"How do you mean?"
"A kind of guilty—or shall I say embarrassed—look. Don't you notice it mother?"
"I do!" said my mother.
"I suppose it means we may not ask him questions," Lettie concluded, always very busily sewing.
He laughed. She had broken her cotton, and was trying to thread the needle again.
"What have you been doing this miserable weather?" he enquired awkwardly.
"Oh, we have sat at home desolate. 'Ever of thee I'm fo-o-ondly dreēaming'—and so on. Haven't we mother?"
"Well," said mother, "I don't know. We imagined him all sorts of lions up there."
"What a shame we may not ask him to roar his old roars over for us," said Lettie.
"What are they like?" he asked.
"How should I know? Like a sucking dove, to judge from your present voice. 'A monstrous little voice.'"
He laughed uncomfortably.
She went on sewing, suddenly beginning to sing to herself:
"Pussy cat, Pussy cat, where have you been?
I've been up to London to see the fine queen:
Pussy cat, Pussy cat, what did you there——
I frightened a little mouse under a stair."
"I suppose," she added, "that may be so. Poor mouse!—but I guess she's none the worse. You did not see the queen, though?"
"She was not in London," he replied sarcastically.
"You don't——" she said, taking two pins from between her teeth. "I suppose you don't mean by that, she was in Eberwich—your queen?"
"I don't know where she was," he answered angrily.
"Oh!" she said, very sweetly, "I thought perhaps you had met her in Eberwich. When did you come back?"
"Last night," he replied.
"Oh—why didn't you come and see us before?"
"I've been at the offices all day."
"I've been up to Eberwich," she said innocently.
"Yes. And I feel so cross because of it. I thought I might see you. I felt as if you were at home."
She stitched a little, and glanced up secretly to watch his face redden, then she continued innocently,
"Yes—I felt you had come back. It is funny how one has a feeling occasionally that someone is near; when it is someone one has a sympathy with." She continued to stitch, then she took a pin from her bosom, and fixed her work, all without the least suspicion of guile.
"I thought I might meet you when I was out——" another pause, another fixing, a pin to be taken from her lips—" but I didn't."
"I was at the office till rather late," he said quickly.
She stitched away calmly, provokingly.
She took the pin from her mouth again, fixed down a fold of stuff, and said softly:
"You little liar."
Mother had gone out of the room for her recipe book.
He sat on his chair dumb with mortification. She stitched swiftly and unerringly. There was silence for some moments. Then he spoke:
"I did not know you wanted me for the pleasure of plucking this crow," he said.
"I wanted you!" she exclaimed, looking up for the first time, "Who said I wanted you?"
"No one. If you didn't want me I may as well go."
The sound of stitching alone broke the silence for some moments, then she said deliberately:
"What made you think I wanted you?"
"I don't care a damn whether you wanted me or whether you didn't."
"It seems to upset you! And don't use bad language. It is the privilege of those near and dear to one."
"That's why you begin it, I suppose."
"I cannot remember——" she said loftily.
He laughed sarcastically.
"Well—if you're so beastly cut up about it——"
He put this tentatively, expecting the soft answer. But she refused to speak, and went on stitching. He fidgeted about, twisted his cap uncomfortably, and sighed. At last he said:
"Well—you—have we done then?"
She had the vast superiority, in that she was engaged in ostentatious work. She could fix the cloth, regard it quizzically, rearrange it, settle down and begin to sew before she replied. This humbled him. At last she said:
"I thought so this afternoon."
"But, good God, Lettie, can't you drop it?"
"And then?"—the question startled him.
"Why!—forget it," he replied.
"Well?"—she spoke softly, gently. He answered to the call like an eager hound. He crossed quickly to her side as she sat sewing, and said, in a low voice:
"You do care something for me, don't you, Lettie?"
"Well,"—it was modulated kindly, a sort of promise of assent.
"You have treated me rottenly, you know, haven't you? You know I—well, I care a good bit."
"It is a queer way of showing it." Her voice was now a gentle reproof, the sweetest of surrenders and forgiveness. He leaned forward, took her face in his hands, and kissed her, murmuring:
"You are a little tease."
She laid her sewing in her lap, and looked up.
The next day, Sunday, broke wet and dreary. Breakfast was late, and about ten o'clock we stood at the window looking upon the impossibility of our going to church.
There was a driving drizzle of rain, like a dirty curtain before the landscape. The nasturtium leaves by the garden walk had gone rotten in a frost, and the gay green discs had given place to the first black flags of winter, hung on flaccid stalks, pinched at the neck. The grass plot was strewn with fallen leaves, wet and brilliant: scarlet splashes of Virginia creeper, golden drift from the limes, ruddy brown shawls under the beeches, and away back in the corner, the black mat of maple leaves, heavy soddened; they ought to have been a vivid lemon colour. Occasionally one of these great black leaves would loose its hold, and zigzag down, staggering in the dance of death.
"There now!" said Lettie suddenly.
I looked up in time to see a crow close his wings and clutch the topmost bough of an old grey holly tree on the edge of the clearing. He flapped again, recovered his balance, and folded himself up in black resignation to the detestable weather.
"Why has the old wretch settled just over our noses," said Lettie petulantly. "Just to blot the promise of a sorrow."
"Your's or mine?" I asked.
"He is looking at me, I declare."
"You can see the wicked pupil of his eye at this distance," I insinuated.
"Well," she replied, determined to take this omen unto herself. "I saw him first."
"'One for sorrow, two for joy,
Three for a letter, four for a boy,
Five for silver, six for gold,
And seven for a secret never told.'
"—You may bet he's only a messenger in advance. There'll be three more shortly, and you'll have your four," said I, comforting.
"Do you know," she said, "it is very funny, but whenever I've particularly noticed one crow, I've had some sorrow or other."
"And when you notice four?" I asked.
"You should have heard old Mrs. Wagstaffe," was her reply. "She declares an old crow croaked in their apple tree every day for a week before Jerry got drowned."
"Great sorrow for her," I remarked.
"Oh, but she wept abundantly. I felt like weeping too, but somehow I laughed. She hoped he had gone to heaven—but—I'm sick of that word 'but'—it is always tangling one's thoughts."
"But, Jerry!" I insisted.
"Oh, she lifted up her forehead, and the tears dripped off her nose. He must have been an old nuisance, Syb. I can't understand why women marry such men. I felt downright glad to think of the drunken old wretch toppling into the canal out of the way."
She pulled the thick curtain across the window, and nestled down in it, resting her cheek against the edge, protecting herself from the cold window pane. The wet, grey wind shook the half naked trees, whose leaves dripped and shone sullenly. Even the trunks were blackened, trickling with the rain which drove persistently.
Whirled down the sky like black maple leaves caught up aloft, came two more crows. They swept down and clung hold of the trees in front of the house, staying near the old forerunner. Lettie watched them, half amused, half melancholy. One bird was carried past. He swerved round and began to battle up the wind, rising higher, and rowing laboriously against the driving wet current.
"Here comes your fourth," said I.
She did not answer, but continued to watch. The bird wrestled heroically, but the wind pushed him aside, tilted him, caught under his broad wings and bore him down. He swept in level flight down the stream, outspread and still, as if fixed in despair. I grieved for him. Sadly two of his fellows rose and were carried away after him, like souls hunting for a body to inhabit, and despairing. Only the first ghoul was left on the withered, silver-grey skeleton of the holly.
"He won't even say 'Nevermore'," I remarked.
"He has more sense," replied Lettie. She looked a trifle lugubrious. Then she continued: "Better say 'Nevermore' than 'Evermore.'"
"Why?" I asked.
"Oh, I don't know. Fancy this 'Evermore.'"
She had been sure in her own soul that Leslie would come—now she began to doubt:—things were very perplexing.
The bell in the kitchen jangled; she jumped up. I went and opened the door. He came in. She gave him one bright look of satisfaction. He saw it, and understood.
"Helen has got some people over—I have been awfully rude to leave them now," he said quietly.
"What a dreadful day!" said mother.
"Oh, fearful! Your face is red, Lettie! What have you been doing?"
"Looking into the fire."
"What did you see?"
"The pictures wouldn't come plain—nothing."
He laughed. We were silent for some time.
"You were expecting me?" he murmured.
"Yes—I knew you'd come."
They were left alone. He came up to her and put his arm around her, as she stood with her elbow on the mantelpiece.
"You do want me," he pleaded softly.
"Yes," she murmured.
He held her in his arms and kissed her repeatedly, again and again, till she was out of breath, and put up her hand, and gently pushed her face away.
"You are a cold little lover—you are a shy bird," he said, laughing into her eyes. He saw her tears rise, swimming on her lids, but not falling.
"Why, my love, my darling—why!"—he put his face to her's and took the tear on his cheek:
"I know you love me," he said, gently, all tenderness.
"Do you know," he murmured. "I can positively feel the tears rising up from my heart and throat. They are quite painful gathering, my love. There—you can do anything with me."
They were silent for some time. After a while, a rather long while, she came upstairs and found mother—and at the end of some minutes I heard my mother go to him.
I sat by my window and watched the low clouds reel and stagger past. It seemed as if everything were being swept along—I myself seemed to have lost my substance, to have become detached from concrete things and the firm trodden pavement of everyday life. Onward, always onward, not knowing where, nor why, the wind, the clouds, the rain and the birds and the leaves, everything whirling along—why?
All this time the old crow sat motionless, though the clouds tumbled, and were rent and piled, though the trees bent, and the window-pane shivered with running water. Then I found it had ceased to rain; that there was a sickly yellow gleam of sunlight, brightening on some great elm-leaves near at hand till they looked like ripe lemons hanging. The crow looked at me—I was certain he looked at me.
"What do you think of it all?" I asked him.
He eyed me with contempt: great featherless, half winged bird as I was, incomprehensible, contemptible, but awful. I believe he hated me.
"But," said I, "if a raven could answer, why won't you?"
He looked wearily away. Nevertheless my gaze disquieted him. He turned uneasily; he rose, waved his wings as if for flight, poised, then settled defiantly down again.
"You are no good," said I, "you won't help even with a word."
He sat stolidly unconcerned. Then I heard the lapwings in the meadow crying, crying. They seemed to seek the storm, yet to rail at it. They wheeled in the wind, yet never ceased to complain of it. They enjoyed the struggle, and lamented it in wild lament, through which came a sound of exultation. All the lapwings cried, cried the same tale, "Bitter, bitter, the struggle—for nothing, nothing, nothing,"—and all the time they swung about on their broad wings, revelling.
"There," said I to the crow, "they try it, and find it bitter, but they wouldn't like to miss it, to sit still like you, you old corpse."
He could not endure this. He rose in defiance, flapped his wings, and launched off, uttering one "Caw" of sinister foreboding. He was soon whirled away.
I discovered that I was very cold, so I went downstairs.
Twisting a curl round his finger, one of those loose curls that always dance free from the captured hair, Leslie said:
"Look how fond your hair is of me; look how it twines round my finger. Do you know, your hair—the light in it is like—oh—buttercups in the sun."
"It is like me—it won't be kept in bounds," she replied.
"Shame if it were—like this, it brushes my face—so—and sets me tingling like music."
"Behave! Now be still, and I'll tell you what sort of music you make."
"Like the calling of throstles and blackies, in the evening, frightening the pale little wood-anemones, till they run panting and swaying right up to our wall. Like the ringing of bluebells when the bees are at them; like Hippomenes, out-of-breath, laughing because he'd won."
He kissed her with rapturous admiration.
"Marriage music, sir," she added.
"What golden apples did I throw?" he asked lightly.
"What!" she exclaimed, half mocking.
"This Atalanta," he replied, looking lovingly upon her, "this Atalanta—I believe she just lagged at last on purpose."
"You have it," she cried, laughing, submitting to his caresses. "It was you—the apples of your firm heels—the apples of your eyes—the apples Eve bit—that won me—hein!"
"That was it—you are clever, you are rare. And I've won, won the ripe apples of your cheeks, and your breasts, and your very fists—they can't stop me—and—and—all your roundness and warmness and softness—I've won you, Lettie."
She nodded wickedly, saying:
"All—she admits it—everything!"
"Oh!—but let me breathe. Did you claim everything?"
"Yes, and you gave it me."
"Not yet. Everything though?"
"But—now you look——"
"Did I look aside?"
"With the inward eye. Suppose now we were two angels——"
"Oh, dear—a sloppy angel!"
"Well—don't interrupt now—suppose I were one—like the 'Blessed Damosel.'"
"With a warm bosom——!"
"Don't be foolish, now—I a 'Blessed Damosel' and you kicking the brown beech leaves below thinking——"
"What are you driving at?"
"Would you be thinking—thoughts like prayers?"
"What on earth do you ask that for? Oh—I think I'd be cursing—eh?"
"No—saying fragrant prayers—that your thin soul might mount up——"
"Hang thin souls, Lettie! I'm not one of your souly sort. I can't stand Pre-Raphaelities. You—You're not a Burne-Jonesess—you're an Albert Moore. I think there's more in the warm touch of a soft body than in a prayer. I'll pray with kisses."
"And when you can't?"
"I'll wait till prayer-time again. By Jove, I'd rather feel my arms full of you; I'd rather touch that red mouth—you grudger!—than sing hymns with you in any heaven."
"I'm afraid you'll never sing hymns with me in heaven."
"Well—I have you here—yes, I have you now."
"Our life is but a fading dawn?"
"Liar!—Well, you called me! Besides, I don't care; 'Carpe diem', my rosebud, my fawn. There's a nice Carmen about a fawn. 'Time to leave its mother, and venture into a warm embrace.' Poor old Horace—I've forgotten him."
"Then poor old Horace."
"Ha! Ha!—Well, I shan't forget you. What's that queer look in your eyes?"
"What is it?"
"Nay—you tell me. You are such a tease, there's no getting to the bottom of you."
"You can fathom the depth of a kiss——"
"I will—I will——"
After a while he asked:
"When shall we be properly engaged, Lettie?"
"Oh, wait till Christmas—till I am twenty-one."
"Nearly three months! Why on earth——"
"It will make no difference. I shall be able to choose thee of my own free choice then."
"But three months!"
"I shall consider thee engaged—it doesn't matter about other people."
"I thought we should be married in three months."
"Ah—married in haste——. But what will your mother say?"
"Say! Oh, she'll say it's the first wise thing I've done. You'll make a fine wife, Lettie, able to entertain, and all that."
"You will flutter brilliantly."
"No—you'll be the moth—I'll paint your wings—gaudy feather-dust. Then when you lose your coloured dust, when you fly too near the light, or when you play dodge with a butterfly net—away goes my part—you can't fly—I—alas, poor me! What becomes of the feather-dust when the moth brushes his wings against a butterfly net?"
"What are you making so many words about? You don't know now, do you?"
"No—that I don't."
"Then just be comfortable. Let me look at myself in your eyes."
"Narcissus, Narcissus!—Do you see yourself well? Does the image flatter you?—Or is it a troubled stream, distorting your fair lineaments."
"I can't see anything—only feel you looking—you are laughing at me.—What have you behind there—what joke?"
"I—I'm thinking you're just like Narcissus—a sweet, beautiful youth."
"It would be dangerous. You'd die of it, and I—I should——"
"Be just like I am now—serious."
He looked proudly, thinking she referred to the earnestness of her love.
In the wood the wind rumbled and roared hoarsely overhead, but not a breath stirred among the saddened bracken. An occasional raindrop was shaken out of the trees; I slipped on the wet paths. Black bars striped the grey tree-trunks, where water had trickled down; the bracken was overthrown, its yellow ranks broken. I slid down the steep path to the gate, out of the wood.
Armies of cloud marched in rank across the sky, heavily laden, almost brushing the gorse on the common. The wind was cold and disheartening. The ground sobbed at every step. The brook was full, swirling along, hurrying, talking to itself, in absorbed intent tones. The clouds darkened; I felt the rain. Careless of the mud, I ran, and burst into the farm kitchen.
The children were painting, and they immediately claimed my help.
"Emily—and George—are in the front room," said the mother quietly, for it was Sunday afternoon. I satisfied the little ones; I said a few words to the mother, and sat down to take off my clogs.
In the parlour, the father, big and comfortable, was sleeping in an arm-chair. Emily was writing at the table—she hurriedly hid her papers when I entered. George was sitting by the fire, reading. He looked up as I entered, and I loved him when he looked up at me, and as he lingered on his quiet "Hullo!" His eyes were beautifully eloquent—as eloquent as a kiss.
We talked in subdued murmurs, because the father was asleep, opulently asleep, his tanned face as still as a brown pear against the wall. The clock itself went slowly, with languid throbs. We gathered round the fire, and talked quietly, about nothing—blissful merely in the sound of our voices, a murmured, soothing sound—a grateful, dispassionate love trio.
At last George rose, put down his book—looked at his father—and went out.
In the barn there was a sound of the pulper crunching the turnips. The crisp strips of turnip sprinkled quietly down onto a heap of gold which grew beneath the pulper. The smell of pulped turnips, keen and sweet, brings back to me the feeling of many winter nights, when frozen hoof-prints crunch in the yard, and Orion is in the south; when a friendship was at its mystical best.
"Pulping on Sunday!" I exclaimed.
"Father didn't do it yesterday; it's his work; and I didn't notice it. You know—Father often forgets—he doesn't like to have to work in the afternoon, now."
The cattle stirred in their stalls; the chains rattled round the posts; a cow coughed noisily. When George had finished pulping, and it was quiet enough for talk, just as he was spreading the first layers of chop and turnip and meal—in ran Emily, with her hair in silken, twining confusion, her eyes glowing—to bid us go in to tea before the milking was begun. It was the custom to milk before tea on Sunday—but George abandoned it without demur—his father willed it so, and his father was master, not to be questioned on farm matters, however one disagreed.
The last day in October had been dreary enough; the night could not come too early. We had tea by lamplight, merrily, with the father radiating comfort as the lamp shone yellow light. Sunday tea was imperfect without a visitor; with me, they always declared, it was perfect. I loved to hear them say so. I smiled, rejoicing quietly into my teacup when the Father said:
"It seems proper to have Cyril here at Sunday tea, it seems natural."
He was most loath to break the delightful bond of the lamp-lit tea-table; he looked up with a half-appealing glance when George at last pushed back his chair and said he supposed he'd better make a start.
"Ay," said the father in a mild, conciliatory tone, "I'll be out in a minute."
The lamp hung against the barn-wall, softly illuminating the lower part of the building, where bits of hay and white dust lay in the hollows between the bricks, where the curled chips of turnip scattered orange gleams over the earthen floor; the lofty roof, with its swallows' nests under the tiles, was deep in shadow, and the corners were full of darkness, hiding, half hiding, the hay, the chopper, the bins. The light shone along the passages before the stalls, glistening on the moist noses of the cattle, and on the whitewash of the walls.
George was very cheerful; but I wanted to tell him my message. When he had finished the feeding, and had at last sat down to milk, I said:
"I told you Leslie Tempest was at our house when I came away."
He sat with the bucket between his knees, his hands at the cow's udder, about to begin to milk. He looked up a question at me.
"They are practically engaged now," I said.
He did not turn his eyes away, but he ceased to look at me. As one who is listening for a far-off noise, he sat with his eyes fixed. Then he bent his head, and leaned it against the side of the cow, as if he would begin to milk. But he did not. The cow looked round and stirred uneasily. He began to draw the milk, and then to milk mechanically. I watched the movement of his hands, listening to the rhythmic clang of the jets of milk on the bucket, as a relief. After a while the movement of his hands became slower, thoughtful—then stopped.
"She has really said yes?"
"And what does your mother say?"
"She is pleased."
He began to milk again. The cow stirred uneasily, shifting her legs. He looked at her angrily, and went on milking. Then, quite upset, she shifted again, and swung her tail in his face.
"Stand still!" he shouted, striking her on the haunch. She seemed to cower like a beaten woman. He swore at her, and continued to milk. She did not yield much that night; she was very restive; he took the stool from beneath him and gave her a good blow; I heard the stool knock on her prominent hip bone. After that she stood still, but her milk soon ceased to flow.
When he stood up, he paused before he went to the next beast, and I thought he was going to talk. But just then the father came along with his bucket. He looked in the shed, and, laughing in his mature, pleasant way, said:
"So you're an onlooker to-day, Cyril—I thought you'd have milked a cow or two for me by now."
"Nay," said I, "Sunday is a day of rest—and milking makes your hands ache."
"You only want a bit more practice," he said, joking in his ripe fashion. "Why George, is that all you've got from Julia?"
"H'm—she's soon going dry. Julia, old lady, don't go and turn skinny."
When he had gone, and the shed was still, the air seemed colder. I heard his good-humoured "Stand over, old lass," from the other shed, and the drum-beats of the first jets of milk on the pail.
"He has a comfortable time," said George, looking savage. I laughed. He still waited.
"You really expected Lettie to have him," I said.
"I suppose so," he replied, "then she'd made up her mind to it. It didn't matter—what she wanted—at the bottom."
"You?" said I.
"If it hadn't been that he was a prize—with a ticket—she'd have had——"
"You!" said I.
"She was afraid—look how she turned and kept away——"
"From you?" said I.
"I should like to squeeze her till she screamed."
"You should have gripped her before, and kept her," said I.
"She—she's like a woman, like a cat—running to comforts—she strikes a bargain. Women are all tradesmen."
"Don't generalise, it's no good."
"She's like a prostitute——"
"It's banal! I believe she loves him."
He started, and looked at me queerly. He looked quite childish in his doubt and perplexity.
"She'd 'a loved me better," he muttered, and turned to his milking. I left him and went to talk to his father. When the latter's four beasts were finished, George's light still shone in the other shed.
I went and found him at the fifth, the last cow. When at length he had finished he put down his pail, and going over to poor Julia, stood scratching her back, and her poll, and her nose, looking into her big, startled eye and murmuring. She was afraid; she jerked her head, giving him a good blow on the cheek with her horn.
"You can't understand them," he said sadly, rubbing his face, and looking at me with his dark, serious eyes.
"I never knew I couldn't understand them. I never thought about it——till. But you know, Cyril, she led me on."
I laughed at his rueful appearance.