The rain tilted a little from the south-west. For the most part it fell from a grey cloud silently, but now and then the tilt increased, and a kind of sigh passed over the country as the drops lashed the walls, trees, shepherds, and other motionless objects that stood in their slanting career. At times the cloud would descend and visibly embrace the earth, to which it had only sent messages; and the earth itself would bring forth clouds --clouds of a whiter breed--which formed in shallow valleys and followed the courses of the streams. It seemed the beginning of life. Again God said, "Shall we divide the waters from the land or not? Was not the firmament labour and glory sufficient?" At all events it was the beginning of life pastoral, behind which imagination cannot travel.
Yet complicated people were getting wet--not only the shepherds. For instance, the piano-tuner was sopping. So was the vicar's wife. So were the lieutenant and the peevish damsels in his Battleston car. Gallantry, charity, and art pursued their various missions, perspiring and muddy, while out on the slopes beyond them stood the eternal man and the eternal dog, guarding eternal sheep until the world is vegetarian.
Inside an arbour--which faced east, and thus avoided the bad weather--there sat a complicated person who was dry. She looked at the drenched world with a pleased expression, and would smile when a cloud would lay down on the village, or when the rain sighed louder than usual against her solid shelter. Ink, paperclips, and foolscap paper were on the table before her, and she could also reach an umbrella, a waterproof, a walking-stick, and an electric bell. Her age was between elderly and old, and her forehead was wrinkled with an expression of slight but perpetual pain. But the lines round her mouth indicated that she had laughed a great deal during her life, just as the clean tight skin round her eyes perhaps indicated that she had not often cried. She was dressed in brown silk. A brown silk shawl lay most becomingly over her beautiful hair.
After long thought she wrote on the paper in front of her, "The subject of this memoir first saw the light at Wolverhampton on May the 14th, 1842." She laid down her pen and said "Ugh!" A robin hopped in and she welcomed him. A sparrow followed and she stamped her foot. She watched some thick white water which was sliding like a snake down the gutter of the gravel path. It had just appeared. It must have escaped from a hollow in the chalk up behind. The earth could absorb no longer. The lady did not think of all this, for she hated questions of whence and wherefore, and the ways of the earth ("our dull stepmother") bored her unspeakably. But the water, just the snake of water, was amusing, and she flung her golosh at it to dam it up. Then she wrote feverishly, "The subject of this memoir first saw the light in the middle of the night. It was twenty to eleven. His pa was a parson, but he was not his pa's son, and never went to heaven." There was the sound of a train, and presently white smoke appeared, rising laboriously through the heavy air. It distracted her, and for about a quarter of an hour she sat perfectly still, doing nothing. At last she pushed the spoilt paper aside, took afresh piece, and was beginning to write, "On May the 14th, 1842," when there was a crunch on the gravel, and a furious voice said, "I am sorry for Flea Thompson."
"I daresay I am sorry for him too," said the lady; her voice was languid and pleasant. "Who is he?"
"Flea's a liar, and the next time we meet he'll be a football." Off slipped a sodden ulster. He hung it up angrily upon a peg: the arbour provided several.
"But who is he, and why has he that disastrous name?"
"Flea? Fleance. All the Thompsons are named out of Shakespeare. He grazes the Rings."
"Ah, I see. A pet lamb."
"One of my Shepherds?"
"The last time I go with his sheep. But not the last tune he sees me. I am sorry for him. He dodged me today,"
"Do you mean to say"--she became animated--"that you have been out in the wet keeping the sheep of Flea Thompson?"
"I had to." He blew on his fingers and took off his cap. Water trickled over his unshaven cheeks. His hair was so wet that it seemed worked upon his scalp in bronze.
"Get away, bad dog!" screamed the lady, for he had given himself a shake and spattered her dress with water. He was a powerful boy of twenty, admirably muscular, but rather too broad for his height. People called him "Podge" until they were dissuaded. Then they called him "Stephen" or "Mr. Wonham." Then he said, "You can call me Podge if you like."
"As for Flea--!" he began tempestuously. He sat down by her, and with much heavy breathing told the story,--"Flea has a girl at Wintersbridge, and I had to go with his sheep while he went to see her. Two hours. We agreed. Half an hour to go, an hour to kiss his girl, and half an hour back--and he had my bike. Four hours! Four hours and seven minutes I was on the Rings, with a fool of a dog, and sheep doing all they knew to get the turnips."
"My farm is a mystery to me," said the lady, stroking her fingers.
"Some day you must really take me to see it. It must be like a Gilbert and Sullivan opera, with a chorus of agitated employers. How is it that I have escaped? Why have I never been summoned to milk the cows, or flay the pigs, or drive the young bullocks to the pasture?"
He looked at her with astonishingly blue eyes--the only dry things he had about him. He could not see into her: she would have puzzled an older and clever man. He may have seen round her.
"A thing of beauty you are not. But I sometimes think you are a joy for ever."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Oh, you understand right enough," she exclaimed irritably, and then smiled, for he was conceited, and did not like being told that he was not a thing of beauty. "Large and steady feet," she continued, "have this disadvantage--you can knock down a man, but you will never knock down a woman."
"I don't know what you mean. I'm not likely--"
"Oh, never mind--never, never mind. I was being funny. I repent. Tell me about the sheep. Why did you go with them?"
"I did tell you. I had to."
"He had to see his girl."
His eyes shot past her again. It was so obvious that the man had to see his girl. For two hours though--not for four hours seven minutes.
"Did you have any lunch?"
"I don't hold with regular meals."
"Did you have a book?"
"I don't hold with books in the open. None of the older men read."
"Did you commune with yourself, or don't you hold with that?"
"Oh Lord, don't ask me!"
"You distress me. You rob the Pastoral of its lingering romance. Is there no poetry and no thought in England? Is there no one, in all these downs, who warbles with eager thought the Doric lay?"
"Chaps sing to themselves at times, if you mean that."
"I dream of Arcady. I open my eyes. Wiltshire. Of Amaryllis: Flea Thompson's girl. Of the pensive shepherd, twitching his mantle blue: you in an ulster. Aren't you sorry for me?"
"May I put in a pipe?"
"By all means put a pipe in. In return, tell me of what you were thinking for the four hours and the seven minutes."
He laughed shyly. "You do ask a man such questions."
"Did you simply waste the time?"
"I suppose so."
"I thought that Colonel Robert Ingersoll says you must be strenuous."
At the sound of this name he whisked open a little cupboard, and declaring, "I haven't a moment to spare," took out of it a pile of "Clarion" and other reprints, adorned as to their covers with bald or bearded apostles of humanity. Selecting a bald one, he began at once to read, occasionally exclaiming, "That's got them," "That's knocked Genesis," with similar ejaculations of an aspiring mind. She glanced at the pile. Reran, minus the style. Darwin, minus the modesty. A comic edition of the book of Job, by "Excelsior," Pittsburgh, Pa. "The Beginning of Life," with diagrams. "Angel or Ape?" by Mrs. Julia P. Chunk. She was amused, and wondered idly what was passing within his narrow but not uninteresting brain. Did he suppose that he was going to "find out"? She had tried once herself, but had since subsided into a sprightly orthodoxy. Why didn't he read poetry, instead of wasting his time between books like these and country like that?
The cloud parted, and the increase of light made her look up. Over the valley she saw a grave sullen down, and on its flanks a little brown smudge--her sheep, together with her shepherd, Fleance Thompson, returned to his duties at last. A trickle of water came through the arbour roof. She shrieked in dismay.
"That's all right," said her companion, moving her chair, but still keeping his place in his book.
She dried up the spot on the manuscript. Then she wrote: "Anthony Eustace Failing, the subject of this memoir, was born at Wolverhampton." But she wrote no more. She was fidgety. Another drop fell from the roof. Likewise an earwig. She wished she had not been so playful in flinging her golosh into the path. The boy who was overthrowing religion breathed somewhat heavily as he did so. Another earwig. She touched the electric bell.
"I'm going in," she observed. "It's far too wet." Again the cloud parted and caused her to add, "Weren't you rather kind to Flea?" But he was deep in the book. He read like a poor person, with lips apart and a finger that followed the print. At times he scratched his ear, or ran his tongue along a straggling blonde moustache. His face had after all a certain beauty: at all events the colouring was regal--a steady crimson from throat to forehead: the sun and the winds had worked on him daily ever since he was born. "The face of a strong man," thought the lady. "Let him thank his stars he isn't a silent strong man, or I'd turn him into the gutter." Suddenly it struck her that he was like an Irish terrier. He worried infinity as if it was a bone. Gnashing his teeth, he tried to carry the eternal subtleties by violence. As a man he often bored her, for he was always saying and doing the same things. But as a philosopher he really was a joy for ever, an inexhaustible buffoon. Taking up her pen, she began to caricature him. She drew a rabbit-warren where rabbits were at play in four dimensions. Before she had introduced the principal figure, she was interrupted by the footman. He had come up from the house to answer the bell. On seeing her he uttered a respectful cry.
"Madam! Are you here? I am very sorry. I looked for you everywhere. Mr. Elliot and Miss Pembroke arrived nearly an hour ago."
"Oh dear, oh dear!" exclaimed Mrs. Failing. "Take these papers. Where's the umbrella? Mr. Stephen will hold it over me. You hurry back and apologize. Are they happy?"
"Miss Pembroke inquired after you, madam."
"Have they had tea?"
"I believe you knew she was here all the time. You didn't want to wet your pretty skin."
"You must not call me 'she' to the servants," said Mrs. Failing as they walked away, she limping with a stick, he holding a great umbrella over her. "I will not have it." Then more pleasantly, "And don't tell him he lies. We all lie. I knew quite well they were coming by the four-six train. I saw it pass."
"That reminds me. Another child run over at the Roman crossing. Whish--bang--dead."
"Oh my foot! Oh my foot, my foot!" said Mrs. Failing, and paused to take breath.
"Bad?" he asked callously.
Leighton, with bowed head, passed them with the manuscript and disappeared among the laurels. The twinge of pain, which had been slight, passed away, and they proceeded, descending a green airless corridor which opened into the gravel drive.
"Isn't it odd," said Mrs. Failing, "that the Greeks should be enthusiastic about laurels--that Apollo should pursue any one who could possibly turn into such a frightful plant? What do you make of Rickie?"
"Oh, I don't know."
"Shall I lend you his story to read?"
He made no reply.
"Don't you think, Stephen, that a person in your precarious position ought to be civil to my relatives?"
"Sorry, Mrs. Failing. I meant to be civil. I only hadn't-- anything to say."
She a laughed. "Are you a dear boy? I sometimes wonder; or are you a brute?"
Again he had nothing to say. Then she laughed more mischievously, and said--
"How can you be either, when you are a philosopher? Would you mind telling me--I am so anxious to learn--what happens to people when they die?"
"Don't ask me." He knew by bitter experience that she was making fun of him.
"Oh, but I do ask you. Those paper books of yours are so up-to-date. For instance, what has happened to the child you say was killed on the line?"
The rain increased. The drops pattered hard on the leaves, and outside the corridor men and women were struggling, however stupidly, with the facts of life. Inside it they wrangled. She teased the boy, and laughed at his theories, and proved that no man can be an agnostic who has a sense of humour. Suddenly she stopped, not through any skill of his, but because she had remembered some words of Bacon: "The true atheist is he whose hands are cauterized by holy things." She thought of her distant youth. The world was not so humorous then, but it had been more important. For a moment she respected her companion, and determined to vex him no more.
They left the shelter of the laurels, crossed the broad drive, and were inside the house at last. She had got quite wet, for the weather would not let her play the simple life with impunity. As for him, he seemed a piece of the wet.
"Look here," she cried, as he hurried up to his attic, "don't shave!"
He was delighted with the permission.
"I have an idea that Miss Pembroke is of the type that pretends to be unconventional and really isn't. I want to see how she takes it. Don't shave."
In the drawing-room she could hear the guests conversing in the subdued tones of those who have not been welcomed. Having changed her dress and glanced at the poems of Milton, she went to them, with uplifted hands of apology and horror.
"But I must have tea," she announced, when they had assured her that they understood. "Otherwise I shall start by being cross. Agnes, stop me. Give me tea."
Agnes, looking pleased, moved to the table and served her hostess. Rickie followed with a pagoda of sandwiches and little cakes.
"I feel twenty-seven years younger. Rickie, you are so like your father. I feel it is twenty-seven years ago, and that he is bringing your mother to see me for the first time. It is curious--almost terrible--to see history repeating itself."
The remark was not tactful.
"I remember that visit well," she continued thoughtfully, "I suppose it was a wonderful visit, though we none of us knew it at the time. We all fell in love with your mother. I wish she would have fallen in love with us. She couldn't bear me, could she?"
"I never heard her say so, Aunt Emily."
"No; she wouldn't. I am sure your father said so, though. My dear boy, don't look so shocked. Your father and I hated each other. He said so, I said so, I say so; say so too. Then we shall start fair.--Just a cocoanut cake.--Agnes, don't you agree that it's always best to speak out?"
"Oh, rather, Mrs. Failing. But I'm shockingly straightforward."
"So am I," said the lady. "I like to get down to the bedrock.-- Hullo! Slippers? Slippers in the drawingroom?"
A young man had come in silently. Agnes observed with a feeling of regret that he had not shaved. Rickie, after a moment's hesitation, remembered who it was, and shook hands with him. You've grown since I saw you last."
He showed his teeth amiably.
"How long was that?" asked Mrs. Failing.
"Three years, wasn't it? Came over from the Ansells--friends."
"How disgraceful, Rickie! Why don't you come and see me oftener?"
He could not retort that she never asked him.
"Agnes will make you come. Oh, let me introduce Mr. Wonham--Miss Pembroke."
"I am deputy hostess," said Agnes. "May I give you some tea?"
"Thank you, but I have had a little beer."
"It is one of the shepherds," said Mrs. Failing, in low tones.
Agnes smiled rather wildly. Mrs. Lewin had warned her that Cadover was an extraordinary place, and that one must never be astonished at anything. A shepherd in the drawing-room! No harm. Still one ought to know whether it was a shepherd or not. At all events he was in gentleman's clothing. She was anxious not to start with a blunder, and therefore did not talk to the young fellow, but tried to gather what he was from the demeanour of Rickie.
"I am sure, Mrs. Failing, that you need not talk of 'making' people come to Cadover. There will be no difficulty, I should say."
"Thank you, my dear. Do you know who once said those exact words to me?"
"Did she really?"
"My sister-in-law was a dear. You will have heard Rickie's praises, but now you must hear mine. I never knew a woman who was so unselfish and yet had such capacities for life."
"Does one generally exclude the other?" asked Rickie.
"Unselfish people, as a rule, are deathly dull. They have no colour. They think of other people because it is easier. They give money because they are too stupid or too idle to spend it properly on themselves. That was the beauty of your mother-- she gave away, but she also spent on herself, or tried to."
The light faded out of the drawing-room, in spite of it being September and only half-past six. From her low chair Agnes could see the trees by the drive, black against a blackening sky. That drive was half a mile long, and she was praising its gravelled surface when Rickie called in a voice of alarm, "I say, when did our train arrive?"
"I said so."
"It arrived at four-six on the time-table," said Mr. Wonham. "I want to know when it got to the station?"
"I tell you again it was punctual. I tell you I looked at my watch. I can do no more."
Agnes was amazed. Was Rickie mad? A minute ago and they were boring each other over dogs. What had happened?
"Now, now! Quarrelling already?" asked Mrs. Failing.
The footman, bringing a lamp, lit up two angry faces.
"He says we ran over a child."
"So you did. You ran over a child in the village at four-seven by my watch. Your train was late. You couldn't have got to the station till four-ten."
"I don't believe it. We had passed the village by four-seven. Agnes, hadn't we passed the village? It must have been an express that ran over the child."
"Now is it likely"--he appealed to the practical world --"is it likely that the company would run a stopping train and then an express three minutes after it?"
"A child--" said Rickie. "I can't believe that the train killed a child." He thought of their journey. They were alone in the carriage. As the train slackened speed he had caught her for a moment in his arms. The rain beat on the windows, but they were in heaven.
"You've got to believe it," said the other, and proceeded to "rub it in." His healthy, irritable face drew close to Rickie's. "Two children were kicking and screaming on the Roman crossing. Your train, being late, came down on them. One of them was pulled off the line, but the other was caught. How will you get out of that?"
"And how will you get out of it?" cried Mrs. Failing, turning the tables on him. "Where's the child now? What has happened to its soul? You must know, Agnes, that this young gentleman is a philosopher."
"Oh, drop all that," said Mr. Wonham, suddenly collapsing.
"Drop it? Where? On my nice carpet?"
"I hate philosophy," remarked Agnes, trying to turn the subject, for she saw that it made Rickie unhappy.
"So do I. But I daren't say so before Stephen. He despises us women."
"No, I don't," said the victim, swaying to and fro on the window-sill, whither he had retreated.
"Yes, he does. He won't even trouble to answer us. Stephen! Podge! Answer me. What has happened to the child's soul?"
He flung open the window and leant from them into the dusk. They heard him mutter something about a bridge.
"What did I tell you? He won't answer my question."
The delightful moment was approaching when the boy would lose his temper: she knew it by a certain tremor in his heels.
"There wants a bridge," he exploded. "A bridge instead of all this rotten talk and the level-crossing. It wouldn't break you to build a two-arch bridge. Then the child's soul, as you call it-- well, nothing would have happened to the child at all."
A gust of night air entered, accompanied by rain. The flowers in the vases rustled, and the flame of the lamp shot up and smoked the glass. Slightly irritated, she ordered him to close the window.
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