For some weeks, during the latter part of November and the beginning of December, I was kept indoors by a cold. At last came a frost which cleared the air and dried the mud. On the second Saturday before Christmas the world was transformed; tall, silver and pearl-grey trees rose pale against a dim-blue sky, like trees in some rare, pale Paradise; the whole woodland was as if petrified in marble and silver and snow; the holly-leaves and long leaves of the rhododendron were rimmed and spangled with delicate tracery.
When the night came clear and bright, with a moon among the hoar-frost, I rebelled against confinement, and the house. No longer the mists and dank weather made the home dear; tonight even the glare of the distant little iron works was not visible, for the low clouds were gone, and pale stars blinked from beyond the moon.
Lettie was staying with me; Leslie was in London again. She tried to remonstrate in a sisterly fashion when I said I would go out.
"Only down to the Mill," said I. Then she hesitated a while—said she would come too. I suppose I looked at her curiously, for she said:
"Oh—if you would rather go alone——!"
"Come—come—yes, come!" said I, smiling to myself.
Lettie was in her old animated mood. She ran, leaping over rough places, laughing, talking to herself in French. We came to the Mill. Gyp did not bark. I opened the outer door and we crept softly into the great dark scullery, peeping into the kitchen through the crack of the door.
The mother sat by the hearth, where was a big bath half full of soapy water, and at her feet, warming his bare legs at the fire, was David, who had just been bathed. The mother was gently rubbing his fine fair hair into a cloud. Mollie was combing out her brown curls, sitting by her father, who, in the fire-seat, was reading aloud in a hearty voice, with quaint precision. At the table sat Emily and George: she was quickly picking over a pile of little yellow raisins, and he, slowly, with his head sunk, was stoning the large raisins. David kept reaching forward to play with the sleepy cat—interrupting his mother's rubbing. There was no sound but the voice of the father, full of zest; I am afraid they were not all listening carefully. I clicked the latch and entered.
"Lettie!" exclaimed George.
"Cyril!" cried Emily.
"Cyril, 'ooray!" shouted David.
"Hullo, Cyril!" said Mollie.
Six large brown eyes, round with surprise, welcomed me. They overwhelmed me with questions, and made much of us. At length they were settled and quiet again.
"Yes, I am a stranger," said Lettie, who had taken off her hat and furs and coat. "But you do not expect me often, do you? I may come at times, eh?"
"We are only too glad," replied the mother. "Nothing all day long but the sound of the sluice—and mists, and rotten leaves. I am thankful to hear a fresh voice."
"Is Cyril really better, Lettie?" asked Emily softly.
"He's a spoiled boy—I believe he keeps a little bit ill so that we can cade him. Let me help you—let me peel the apples—yes, yes—I will."
She went to the table, and occupied one side with her apple-peeling. George had not spoken to her. So she said:
"I won't help you—George, because I don't like to feel my fingers so sticky, and because I love to see you so domesticated."
"You'll enjoy the sight a long time, then, for these things are numberless."
"You should eat one now and then—I always do."
"If I ate one I should eat the lot."
"Then you may give me your one."
He passed her a handful without speaking.
"That is too many, your mother is looking. Let me just finish this apple. There, I've not broken the peel!"
She stood up, holding up a long curling strip of peel.
"How many times must I swing it, Mrs. Saxton?"
"Three times—but it's not All Hallows' Eve."
"Never mind! Look!——" she carefully swung the long band of green peel over her head three times, letting it fall the third. The cat pounced on it, but Mollie swept him off again.
"What is it?" cried Lettie, blushing.
"G," said the father, winking and laughing—the mother looked daggers at him.
"It isn't nothink," said David naïvely, forgetting his confusion at being in the presence of a lady in his shirt. Mollie remarked in her cool way:
"It might be a 'hess'—if you couldn't write."
"Or an 'L'," I added. Lettie looked over at me imperiously, and I was angry.
"What do you say, Emily?" she asked.
"Nay," said Emily, "It's only you can see the right letter."
"Tell us what's the right letter," said George to her.
"I!" exclaimed Lettie, "who can look into the seeds of Time?"
"Those who have set 'em and watched 'em sprout," said I.
She flung the peel into the fire, laughing a short laugh, and went on with her work.
Mrs. Saxton leaned over to her daughter and said softly, so that he should not hear, that George was pulling the flesh out of the raisins.
"George!" said Emily sharply, "You're leaving nothing but the husks."
He too was angry:
"'And he would fain fill his belly with the husks that the swine did eat.'" he said quietly, taking a handful of the fruit he had picked and putting some in his mouth. Emily snatched away the basin:
"It is too bad!" she said.
"Here," said Lettie, handing him an apple she had peeled. "You may have an apple, greedy boy."
He took it and looked at it. Then a malicious smile twinkled round his eyes,—as he said:
"If you give me the apple, to whom will you give the peel?"
"The swine," she said, as if she only understood his first reference to the Prodigal Son. He put the apple on the table.
"Don't you want it?" she said.
"Mother," he said comically, as if jesting. "She is offering me the apple like Eve."
Like a flash, she snatched the apple from him, hid it in her skirts a moment, looking at him with dilated eyes, and then she flung it at the fire. She missed, and the father leaned forward and picked it off the hob, saying:
"The pigs may as well have it. You were slow, George—when a lady offers you a thing you don't have to make mouths."
"A ce qu'il parait," she cried, laughing now at her ease, boisterously:
"Is she making love, Emily?" asked the father, laughing suggestively.
"She says it too fast for me," said Emily.
George was leaning back in his chair, his hands in his breeches pockets.
"We shall have to finish his raisins after all, Emily," said Lettie brightly. "Look what a lazy animal he is."
"He likes his comfort," said Emily, with irony.
"The picture of content—solid, healthy, easy-moving content——" continued Lettie. As he sat thus, with his head thrown back against the end of the ingle-seat, coatless, his red neck seen in repose, he did indeed look remarkably comfortable.
"I shall never fret my fat away," he said stolidly.
"No—you and I—we are not like Cyril. We do not burn our bodies in our heads—or our hearts, do we?"
"We have it in common," said he, looking at her indifferently beneath his lashes, as his head was tilted back.
Lettie went on with the paring and coring of her apples—then she took the raisins. Meanwhile, Emily was making the house ring as she chopped the suet in a wooden bowl. The children were ready for bed. They kissed us all "Good-night"—save George. At last they were gone, accompanied by their mother. Emily put down her chopper, and sighed that her arm was aching, so I relieved her. The chopping went on for a long time, while the father read, Lettie worked, and George sat tilted back looking on. When at length the mincemeat was finished we were all out of work. Lettie helped to clear away—sat down—talked a little with effort—jumped up and said:
"Oh, I'm too excited to sit still—it's so near Christmas—let us play at something."
"A dance?" said Emily.
"A dance—a dance!"
He suddenly sat straight and got up:
"Come on!" he said.
He kicked off his slippers, regardless of the holes in his stocking feet, and put away the chairs. He held out his arm to her—she came with a laugh, and away they went, dancing over the great flagged kitchen at an incredible speed. Her light flying steps followed his leaps; you could hear the quick light tap of her toes more plainly than the thud of his stockinged feet. Emily and I joined in. Emily's movements are naturally slow, but we danced at great speed. I was hot and perspiring, and she was panting, when I put her in a chair. But they whirled on in the dance, on and on till I was giddy, till the father laughing, cried that they should stop. But George continued the dance; her hair was shaken loose, and fell in a great coil down her back; her feet began to drag; you could hear a light slur on the floor; she was panting—I could see her lips murmur to him, begging him to stop; he was laughing with open mouth, holding her tight; at last her feet trailed; he lifted her, clasping her tightly, and danced twice round the room with her thus. Then he fell with a crash on the sofa, pulling her beside him. His eyes glowed like coals; he was panting in sobs, and his hair was wet and glistening. She lay back on the sofa, with his arm still around her, not moving; she was quite overcome. Her hair was wild about her face. Emily was anxious; the father said, with a shade of inquietude:
"You've overdone it—it is very foolish."
When at last she recovered her breath and her life, she got up, and laughing in a queer way, began to put up her hair. She went into the scullery where were the brush and combs, and Emily followed with a candle. When she returned, ordered once more, with a little pallor succeeding the flush, and with a great black stain of sweat on her leathern belt where his hand had held her, he looked up at her from his position on the sofa, with a peculiar glance of triumph, smiling.
"You great brute," she said, but her voice was not as harsh as her words. He gave a deep sigh, sat up, and laughed quietly.
"Another?" he said.
"Will you dance with me?"
"At your pleasure."
"Come then—a minuet."
"Don't know it."
"Nevertheless, you must dance it. Come along."
He reared up, and walked to her side. She put him through the steps, even dragging him round the waltz. It was very ridiculous. When it was finished she bowed him to his seat, and, wiping her hands on her handkerchief, because his shirt where her hand had rested on his shoulders was moist, she thanked him.
"I hope you enjoyed it," he said.
"Ever so much," she replied.
"You made me look a fool—so no doubt you did."
"Do you think you could look a fool? Why you are ironical! Ca marche! In other words, you have come on. But it is a sweet dance."
He looked at her, lowered his eyelids, and said nothing.
"Ah, well," she laughed, "some are bred for the minuet, and some for——"
"—Less tomfoolery," he answered.
"Ah—you call it tomfoolery because you cannot do it. Myself, I like it—so——"
"And I can't do it?"
"Could you? Did you? You are not built that way."
"Sort of Clarence MacFadden," he said, lighting a pipe as if the conversation did not interest him.
"Yes—what ages since we sang that!
'Clarence MacFadden he wanted to dance
But his feet were not gaited that way . . .'
"I remember we sang it after one corn harvest—we had a fine time. I never thought of you before as Clarence. It is very funny. By the way—will you come to our party at Christmas?"
"When? Who's coming?"
"The twenty-sixth.—Oh!—only the old people—Alice—Tom Smith—Fanny—those from Highclose."
"And what will you do?"
"Sing charades—dance a little—anything you like."
"And minuets—and valetas. Come and dance a valeta, Cyril."
She made me take her through a valeta, a minuet, a mazurka, and she danced elegantly, but with a little of Carmen's ostentation—her dash and devilry. When we had finished, the father said:
"Very pretty—very pretty, indeed! They do look nice, don't they, George? I wish I was young."
"As I am——" said George, laughing bitterly.
"Show me how to do them—some time, Cyril," said Emily, in her pleading way, which displeased Lettie so much.
"Why don't you ask me?" said the latter quickly.
"Well—but you are not often here."
"I am here now. Come——" and she waved Emily imperiously to the attempt.
Lettie, as I have said, is tall, approaching six feet; she is lissome, but firmly moulded, by nature graceful; in her poise and harmonious movement are revealed the subtle sympathies of her artist's soul. The other is shorter, much heavier. In her every motion you can see the extravagance of her emotional nature. She quivers with feeling; emotion conquers and carries havoc through her, for she has not a strong intellect, nor a heart of light humour; her nature is brooding and defenceless; she knows herself powerless in the tumult of her feelings, and adds to her misfortunes a profound mistrust of herself.
As they danced together, Lettie and Emily, they showed in striking contrast. My sister's ease and beautiful poetic movement was exquisite; the other could not control her movements, but repeated the same error again and again. She gripped Lettie's hand fiercely, and glanced up with eyes full of humiliation and terror of her continued failure, and passionate, trembling, hopeless desire to succeed. To show her, to explain, made matters worse. As soon as she trembled on the brink of an action, the terror of not being able to perform it properly blinded her, and she was conscious of nothing but that she must do something—in a turmoil. At last Lettie ceased to talk, and merely swung her through the dances haphazard. This way succeeded better. So long as Emily need not think about her actions, she had a large, free grace; and the swing and rhythm and time were imparted through her senses rather than through her intelligence.
It was time for supper. The mother came down for a while, and we talked quietly, at random. Lettie did not utter a word about her engagement, not a suggestion. She made it seem as if things were just as before, although I am sure she had discovered that I had told George. She intended that we should play as if ignorant of her bond.
After supper, when we were ready to go home, Lettie said to him:
"By the way—you must send us some mistletoe for the party—with plenty of berries, you know. Are there many berries on your mistletoe this year?"
"I do not know—I have never looked. We will go and see—if you like," George answered. "But will you come out into the cold?" He pulled on his boots, and his coat, and twisted a scarf round his neck. The young moon had gone. It was very dark—the liquid stars wavered. The great night filled us with awe. Lettie caught hold of my arm, and held it tightly. He passed on in front to open the gates. We went down into the front garden, over the turf bridge where the sluice rushed coldly under, on to the broad slope of the bank. We could just distinguish the gnarled old appletrees leaning about us. We bent our heads to avoid the boughs, and followed George. He hesitated a moment, saying:
"Let me see—I think they are there—the two trees with mistletoe on."
We again followed silently.
"Yes," he said, "Here they are!"
We went close and peered into the old trees. We could just see the dark bush of the mistletoe between the boughs of the tree. Lettie began to laugh.
"Have we come to count the berries?" she said. "I can't even see the mistletoe."
She leaned forwards and upwards to pierce the darkness; he, also straining to look, felt her breath on his cheek, and turning, saw the pallor of her face close to his, and felt the dark glow of her eyes. He caught her in his arms, and held her mouth in a kiss. Then, when he released her, he turned away, saying something incoherent about going to fetch the lantern to look. She remained with her back towards me, and pretended to be feeling among the mistletoe for the berries. Soon I saw the swing of the hurricane lamp below.
"He is bringing the lantern," said I.
When he came up, he said, and his voice was strange and subdued:
"Now we can see what it's like."
He went near, and held up the lamp, so that it illuminated both their faces, and the fantastic boughs of the trees, and the weird bush of mistletoe sparsely pearled with berries. Instead of looking at the berries they looked into each other's eyes; his lids flickered, and he flushed, in the yellow light of the lamp looking warm and handsome; he looked upwards in confusion and said: "There are plenty of berries."
As a matter of fact there were very few.
She too looked up, and murmured her assent. The light seemed to hold them as in a globe, in another world, apart from the night in which I stood. He put up his hand and broke off a sprig of mistletoe, with berries, and offered it to her. They looked into each other's eyes again. She put the mistletoe among her furs, looking down at her bosom. They remained still, in the centre of light, with the lamp uplifted; the red and black scarf wrapped loosely round his neck gave him a luxurious, generous look. He lowered the lamp and said, affecting to speak naturally:
"Yes—there is plenty this year."
"You will give me some," she replied, turning away and finally breaking the spell.
"When shall I cut it?"—He strode beside her, swinging the lamp, as we went down the bank to go home. He came as far as the brooks without saying another word. Then he bade us good-night. When he had lighted her over the stepping-stones, she did not take my arm as we walked home.
During the next two weeks we were busy preparing for Christmas, ranging the woods for the reddest holly, and pulling the gleaming ivy-bunches from the trees. From the farms around came the cruel yelling of pigs, and in the evening later, was a scent of pork-pies. Far-off on the high-way could be heard the sharp trot of ponies hastening with Christmas goods.
There the carts of the hucksters dashed by to the expectant villagers, triumphant with great bunches of light foreign mistletoe, gay with oranges peeping through the boxes, and scarlet intrusion of apples, and wild confusion of cold, dead poultry. The hucksters waved their whips triumphantly, the little ponies rattled bravely under the sycamores, towards Christmas.
In the late afternoon of the 24th, when dust was rising under the hazel brake, I was walking with Lettie. All among the mesh of twigs overhead was tangled a dark red sky. The boles of the trees grew denser—almost blue.
Tramping down the riding we met two boys, fifteen or sixteen years old. Their clothes were largely patched with tough cotton moleskin; scarves were knotted round their throats, and in their pockets rolled tin bottles full of tea, and the white knobs of their knotted snap-bags.
"Why!" said Lettie. "Are you going to work on Christmas eve?"
"It looks like it, don't it?" said the elder.
"And what time will you be coming back?"
"About 'alf past töw."
"You'll be able to look out for the herald Angels and the Star," said I.
"They'd think we was two dirty little uns," said the younger lad, laughing.
"They'll 'appen 'a done before we get up ter th' top," added the elder boy— "an' they'll none venture down th' shaft."
"If they did," put in the other, "You'd ha'e ter bath 'em after. I'd gi'e 'em a bit o' my pasty."
"Come on," said the elder sulkily.
They tramped off, slurring their heavy boots.
"Merry Christmas!" I called after them.
"In th' mornin'," replied the elder.
"Same to you," said the younger, and he began to sing with a tinge of bravado.
"In the fields with their flocks abiding.
They lay on the dewy ground——"
"Fancy," said Lettie, "those boys are working for me!"
We were all going to the party at Highclose. I happened to go into the kitchen about half past seven. The lamp was turned low, and Rebecca sat in the shadows. On the table, in the light of the lamp, I saw a glass vase with five or six very beautiful Christmas roses.
"Hullo, Becka, who's sent you these?" said I.
"They're not sent," replied Rebecca from the depth of the shadow, with suspicion of tears in her voice.
"Why! I never saw them in the garden."
"Perhaps not. But I've watched them these three weeks, and kept them under glass."
"For Christmas? They are beauties. I thought some one must have sent them to you."
"It's little as 'as ever been sent me," replied Rebecca, "an' less as will be."
"Why—what's the matter?"
"Nothing. Who'm I, to have anything the matter! Nobody—nor ever was, nor ever will be. And I'm getting old as well."
"Something's upset you, Becky."
"What does it matter if it has? What are my feelings? A bunch o' fal-de-rol flowers as a gardener clips off wi' never a thought is preferred before mine as I've fettled after this three-week. I can sit at home to keep my flowers company—nobody wants 'em."
I remembered that Lettie was wearing hot-house flowers; she was excited and full of the idea of the party at Highclose; I could imagine her quick "Oh no thank you, Rebecca. I have had a spray sent to me——"
"Never mind, Becky," said I, "she is excited to-night."
"An' I'm easy forgotten."
"So are we all, Becky—tant mieux."
At Highclose Lettie made a stir. Among the little belles of the countryside, she was decidedly the most distinguished. She was brilliant, moving as if in a drama. Leslie was enraptured, ostentatious in his admiration, proud of being so well infatuated. They looked into each other's eyes when they met, both triumphant, excited, blazing arch looks at one another. Lettie was enjoying her public demonstration immensely; it exhilarated her into quite a vivid love for him. He was magnificent in response. Meanwhile, the honoured lady of the house, pompous and ample, sat aside with my mother conferring her patronage on the latter amiable little woman, who smiled sardonically and watched Lettie. It was a splendid party; it was brilliant, it was dazzling.
I danced with several ladies, and honourably kissed each under the mistletoe—except that two of them kissed me first, it was all done in a most correct manner.
"You wolf," said Miss Wookey archly. "I believe you are a wolf—a veritable rôdeur des femmes—and you look such a lamb too—such a dear."
"Even my bleat reminds you of Mary's pet."
"But you are not my pet—at least—it is well that my Golaud doesn't hear you——"
"If he is so very big——" said I.
"He is really; he's beefy. I've engaged myself to him, somehow or other. One never knows how one does those things, do they?"
"I couldn't speak from experience," said I.
"Cruel man! I suppose I felt Christmasy, and I'd just been reading Maeterlinck—and he really is big."
"Who?" I asked.
"Oh—He, of course. My Golaud. I can't help admiring men who are a bit avoirdupoisy. It is unfortunate they can't dance."
"Perhaps fortunate," said I.
"I can see you hate him. Pity I didn't think to ask him if he danced—before——"
"Would it have influenced you very much?"
"Well—of course—one can be free to dance all the more with the really nice men whom one never marries."
"Oh—you can only marry one——"
"There he is—he's coming for me! Oh, Frank, you leave me to the tender mercies of the world at large. I thought you'd forgotten me, Dear."
"I thought the same," replied her Golaud, a great fat fellow with a childish bare face. He smiled awesomely, and one never knew what he meant to say.
We drove home in the early Christmas morning. Lettie, warmly wrapped in her cloak, had had a little stroll with her lover in the shrubbery. She was still brilliant, flashing in her movements. He, as he bade her good-bye, was almost beautiful in his grace and his low musical tone. I nearly loved him myself. She was very fond towards him. As we came to the gate where the private road branched from the highway, we heard John say "Thank you"—and looking out, saw our two boys returning from the pit. They were very grotesque in the dark night as the lamplight fell on them, showing them grimy, flecked with bits of snow. They shouted merrily, their good wishes. Lettie leaned out and waved to them, and they cried "'ooray!" Christmas came in with their acclamations.