Glad as Agnes was when her lover returned for lunch, she was at the same time rather dismayed: she knew that Mrs. Failing would not like her plans altered. And her dismay was justified. Their hostess was a little stiff, and asked whether Stephen had been obnoxious.
"Indeed he hasn't. He spent the whole time looking after me."
"From which I conclude he was more obnoxious than usual." Rickie praised him diligently. But his candid nature showed everything through. His aunt soon saw that they had not got on. She had expected this--almost planned it. Nevertheless she resented it, and her resentment was to fall on him.
The storm gathered slowly, and many other things went to swell it. Weakly people, if they are not careful, hate one another, and when the weakness is hereditary the temptation increases. Elliots had never got on among themselves. They talked of "The Family," but they always turned outwards to the health and beauty that lie so promiscuously about the world. Rickie's father had turned, for a time at all events, to his mother. Rickie himself was turning to Agnes. And Mrs. Failing now was irritable, and unfair to the nephew who was lame like her horrible brother and like herself. She thought him invertebrate and conventional. She was envious of his happiness. She did not trouble to understand his art. She longed to shatter him, but knowing as she did that the human thunderbolt often rebounds and strikes the wielder, she held her hand.
Agnes watched the approaching clouds. Rickie had warned her; now she began to warn him. As the visit wore away she urged him to be pleasant to his aunt, and so convert it into a success.
He replied, "Why need it be a success?"--a reply in the manner of Ansell.
She laughed. "Oh, that's so like you men--all theory! What about your great theory of hating no one? As soon as it comes in useful you drop it."
"I don't hate Aunt Emily. Honestly. But certainly I don't want to be near her or think about her. Don't you think there are two great things in life that we ought to aim at--truth and kindness? Let's have both if we can, but let's be sure of having one or the other. My aunt gives up both for the sake of being funny."
"And Stephen Wonham," pursued Agnes. "There's another person you hate--or don't think about, if you prefer it put like that."
"The truth is, I'm changing. I'm beginning to see that the world has many people in it who don't matter. I had time for them once. Not now." There was only one gate to the kingdom of heaven now.
Agnes surprised him by saying, "But the Wonham boy is evidently a part of your aunt's life. She laughs at him, but she is fond of him."
"What's that to do with it?"
"You ought to be pleasant to him on account of it."
"Why on earth?"
She flushed a little. "I'm old-fashioned. One ought to consider one's hostess, and fall in with her life. After we leave it's another thing. But while we take her hospitality I think it's our duty."
Her good sense triumphed. Henceforth he tried to fall in with Aunt Emily's life. Aunt Emily watched him trying. The storm broke, as storms sometimes do, on Sunday.
Sunday church was a function at Cadover, though a strange one. The pompous landau rolled up to the house at a quarter to eleven. Then Mrs. Failing said, "Why am I being hurried?" and after an interval descended the steps in her ordinary clothes. She regarded the church as a sort of sitting-room, and refused even to wear a bonnet there. The village was shocked, but at the same time a little proud; it would point out the carriage to strangers and gossip about the pale smiling lady who sat in it, always alone, always late, her hair always draped in an expensive shawl.
This Sunday, though late as usual, she was not alone. Miss Pembroke, en grande toilette, sat by her side. Rickie, looking plain and devout, perched opposite. And Stephen actually came too, murmuring that it would be the Benedicite, which he had never minded. There was also the Litany, which drove him into the air again, much to Mrs. Failing's delight. She enjoyed this sort of thing. It amused her when her Protege left the pew, looking bored, athletic, and dishevelled, and groping most obviously for his pipe. She liked to keep a thoroughbred pagan to shock people. "He's gone to worship Nature," she whispered. Rickie did not look up. "Don't you think he's charming?" He made no reply.
"Charming," whispered Agnes over his head.
During the sermon she analysed her guests. Miss Pembroke-- undistinguished, unimaginative, tolerable. Rickie--intolerable. "And how pedantic!" she mused. "He smells of the University library. If he was stupid in the right way he would be a don." She looked round the tiny church; at the whitewashed pillars, the humble pavement, the window full of magenta saints. There was the vicar's wife. And Mrs. Wilbraham's bonnet. Ugh! The rest of the congregation were poor women, with flat, hopeless faces--she saw them Sunday after Sunday, but did not know their names-- diversified with a few reluctant plough-boys, and the vile little school children row upon row. "Ugh! what a hole," thought Mrs. Failing, whose Christianity was the type best described as "cathedral." "What a hole for a cultured woman! I don't think it has blunted my sensations, though; I still see its squalor as clearly as ever. And my nephew pretends he is worshipping. Pah! the hypocrite." Above her the vicar spoke of the danger of hurrying from one dissipation to another. She treasured his words, and continued: "I cannot stand smugness. It is the one, the unpardonable sin. Fresh air! The fresh air that has made Stephen Wonham fresh and companionable and strong. Even if it kills, I will let in the fresh air."
Thus reasoned Mrs. Failing, in the facile vein of Ibsenism. She imagined herself to be a cold-eyed Scandinavian heroine. Really she was an English old lady, who did not mind giving other people a chill provided it was not infectious.
Agnes, on the way back, noted that her hostess was a little snappish. But one is so hungry after morning service, and either so hot or so cold, that he would be a saint indeed who becomes a saint at once. Mrs. Failing, after asserting vindictively that it was impossible to make a living out of literature, was courteously left alone. Roast-beef and moselle might yet work miracles, and Agnes still hoped for the introductions--the introductions to certain editors and publishers--on which her whole diplomacy was bent. Rickie would not push himself. It was his besetting sin. Well for him that he would have a wife, and a loving wife, who knew the value of enterprise.
Unfortunately lunch was a quarter of an hour late, and during that quarter of an hour the aunt and the nephew quarrelled. She had been inveighing against the morning service, and he quietly and deliberately replied, "If organized religion is anything--and it is something to me--it will not be wrecked by a harmonium and a dull sermon."
Mrs. Failing frowned. "I envy you. It is a great thing to have no sense of beauty."
"I think I have a sense of beauty, which leads me astray if I am not careful."
"But this is a great relief to me. I thought the present day young man was an agnostic! Isn't agnosticism all the thing at Cambridge?"
"Nothing is the 'thing' at Cambridge. If a few men are agnostic there, it is for some grave reason, not because they are irritated with the way the parson says his vowels."
Agnes intervened. "Well, I side with Aunt Emily. I believe in ritual."
"Don't, my dear, side with me. He will only say you have no sense of religion either."
"Excuse me," said Rickie, perhaps he too was a little hungry,--"I never suggested such a thing. I never would suggest such a thing. Why cannot you understand my position? I almost feel it is that you won't."
"I try to understand your position night and day dear--what you mean, what you like, why you came to Cadover, and why you stop here when my presence is so obviously unpleasing to you."
"Luncheon is served," said Leighton, but he said it too late. They discussed the beef and the moselle in silence. The air was heavy and ominous. Even the Wonham boy was affected by it, shivered at times, choked once, and hastened anew into the sun. He could not understand clever people.
Agnes, in a brief anxious interview, advised the culprit to take a solitary walk. She would stop near Aunt Emily, and pave the way for an apology.
"Don't worry too much. It doesn't really matter."
"I suppose not, dear. But it seems a pity, considering we are so near the end of our visit."
"Rudeness and Grossness matter, and I've shown both, and already I'm sorry, and I hope she'll let me apologize. But from the selfish point of view it doesn't matter a straw. She's no more to us than the Wonham boy or the boot boy."
"Which way will you walk?"
"I think to that entrenchment. Look at it." They were sitting on the steps. He stretched out his hand to Cadsbury Rings, and then let it rest for a moment on her shoulder. "You're changing me," he said gently. "God bless you for it."
He enjoyed his walk. Cadford was a charming village and for a time he hung over the bridge by the mill. So clear was the stream that it seemed not water at all, but some invisible quintessence in which the happy minnows and the weeds were vibrating. And he paused again at the Roman crossing, and thought for a moment of the unknown child. The line curved suddenly: certainly it was dangerous. Then he lifted his eyes to the down. The entrenchment showed like the rim of a saucer, and over its narrow line peeped the summit of the central tree. It looked interesting. He hurried forward, with the wind behind him.
The Rings were curious rather than impressive. Neither embankment was over twelve feet high, and the grass on them had not the exquisite green of Old Sarum, but was grey and wiry. But Nature (if she arranges anything) had arranged that from them, at all events, there should be a view. The whole system of the country lay spread before Rickie, and he gained an idea of it that he never got in his elaborate ride. He saw how all the water converges at Salisbury; how Salisbury lies in a shallow basin, just at the change of the soil. He saw to the north the Plain, and the stream of the Cad flowing down from it, with a tributary that broke out suddenly, as the chalk streams do: one village had clustered round the source and clothed itself with trees. He saw Old Sarum, and hints of the Avon valley, and the land above Stone Henge. And behind him he saw the great wood beginning unobtrusively, as if the down too needed shaving; and into it the road to London slipped, covering the bushes with white dust. Chalk made the dust white, chalk made the water clear, chalk made the clean rolling outlines of the land, and favoured the grass and the distant coronals of trees. Here is the heart of our island: the Chilterns, the North Downs, the South Downs radiate hence. The fibres of England unite in Wiltshire, and did we condescend to worship her, here we should erect our national shrine.
People at that time were trying to think imperially, Rickie wondered how they did it, for he could not imagine a place larger than England. And other people talked of Italy, the spiritual fatherland of us all. Perhaps Italy would prove marvellous. But at present he conceived it as something exotic, to be admired and reverenced, but not to be loved like these unostentatious fields. He drew out a book, it was natural for him to read when he was happy, and to read out loud,--and for a little time his voice disturbed the silence of that glorious afternoon. The book was Shelley, and it opened at a passage that he had cherished greatly two years before, and marked as "very good."
"I never was attached to that great sect
Whose doctrine is that each one should select
Out of the world a mistress or a friend,
And all the rest, though fair and wise, commend
To cold oblivion,--though it is the code
Of modern morals, and the beaten road
Which those poor slaves with weary footsteps tread
Who travel to their home among the dead
By the broad highway of the world,--and so
With one sad friend, perhaps a jealous foe,
The dreariest and the longest journey go."
It was "very good"--fine poetry, and, in a sense, true. Yet he was surprised that he had ever selected it so vehemently. This afternoon it seemed a little inhuman. Half a mile off two lovers were keeping company where all the villagers could see them. They cared for no one else; they felt only the pressure of each other, and so progressed, silent and oblivious, across the land. He felt them to be nearer the truth than Shelley. Even if they suffered or quarrelled, they would have been nearer the truth. He wondered whether they were Henry Adams and Jessica Thompson, both of this parish, whose banns had been asked for the second time in the church this morning. Why could he not marry on fifteen shillings a-week? And be looked at them with respect, and wished that he was not a cumbersome gentleman.
Presently he saw something less pleasant--his aunt's pony carriage. It had crossed the railway, and was advancing up the Roman road along by the straw sacks. His impulse was to retreat, but someone waved to him. It was Agnes. She waved continually, as much as to say, "Wait for us." Mrs. Failing herself raised the whip in a nonchalant way. Stephen Wonham was following on foot, some way behind. He put the Shelley back into his pocket and waited for them. When the carriage stopped by some hurdles he went down from the embankment and helped them to dismount. He felt rather nervous.
His aunt gave him one of her disquieting smiles, but said pleasantly enough, "Aren't the Rings a little immense? Agnes and I came here because we wanted an antidote to the morning service."
"Pang!" said the church bell suddenly; "pang! pang!" It sounded petty and ludicrous. They all laughed. Rickie blushed, and Agnes, with a glance that said "apologize," darted away to the entrenchment, as though unable to restrain her curiosity.
"The pony won't move," said Mrs. Failing. "Leave him for Stephen to tie up. Will you walk me to the tree in the middle? Booh! I'm tired. Give me your arm--unless you're tired as well."
"No. I came out partly in the hope of helping you."
"How sweet of you." She contrasted his blatant unselfishness with the hardness of Stephen. Stephen never came out to help you. But if you got hold of him he was some good. He didn't wobble and bend at the critical moment. Her fancy compared Rickie to the cracked church bell sending forth its message of "Pang! pang!" to the countryside, and Stephen to the young pagans who were said to lie under this field guarding their pagan gold.
"This place is full of ghosties, "she remarked; "have you seen any yet?"
"I've kept on the outer rim so far."
"Let's go to the tree in the centre."
"Here's the path." The bank of grass where he had sat was broken by a gap, through which chariots had entered, and farm carts entered now. The track, following the ancient track, led straight through turnips to a similar gap in the second circle, and thence continued, through more turnips, to the central tree.
"Pang!" said the bell, as they paused at the entrance.
"You needn't unharness," shouted Mrs. Failing, for Stephen was approaching the carriage.
"Yes, I will," he retorted.
"You will, will you?" she murmured with a smile. "I wish your brother wasn't quite so uppish. Let's get on. Doesn't that church distract you?"
"It's so faint here," said Rickie. And it sounded fainter inside, though the earthwork was neither thick nor tall; and the view, though not hidden, was greatly diminished. He was reminded for a minute of that chalk pit near Madingley, whose ramparts excluded the familiar world. Agnes was here, as she had once been there. She stood on the farther barrier, waiting to receive them when they had traversed the heart of the camp.
"Admire my mangel-wurzels," said Mrs. Failing. "They are said to grow so splendidly on account of the dead soldiers. Isn't it a sweet thought? Need I say it is your brother's?"
"Wonham's?" he suggested. It was the second time that she had made the little slip. She nodded, and he asked her what kind of ghosties haunted this curious field.
"The D.," was her prompt reply. "He leans against the tree in the middle, especially on Sunday afternoons and all the worshippers rise through the turnips and dance round him."
"Oh, these were decent people," he replied, looking downwards-- "soldiers and shepherds. They have no ghosts. They worshipped Mars or Pan-Erda perhaps; not the devil."
"Pang!" went the church, and was silent, for the afternoon service had begun. They entered the second entrenchment, which was in height, breadth, and composition, similar to the first, and excluded still more of the view. His aunt continued friendly. Agnes stood watching them.
"Soldiers may seem decent in the past," she continued, "but wait till they turn into Tommies from Bulford Camp, who rob the chickens."
"I don't mind Bulford Camp," said Rickie, looking, though in vain, for signs of its snowy tents. "The men there are the sons of the men here, and have come back to the old country. War's horrible, yet one loves all continuity. And no one could mind a shepherd."
"Indeed! What about your brother--a shepherd if ever there was? Look how he bores you! Don't be so sentimental."
"But--oh, you mean--"
"Your brother Stephen."
He glanced at her nervously. He had never known her so queer before. Perhaps it was some literary allusion that he had not caught; but her face did not at that moment suggest literature. In the differential tones that one uses to an old and infirm person he said "Stephen Wonham isn't my brother, Aunt Emily."
"My dear, you're that precise. One can't say 'half-brother' every time."
They approached the central tree.
"How you do puzzle me," he said, dropping her arm and beginning to laugh. "How could I have a half-brother?"
She made no answer.
Then a horror leapt straight at him, and he beat it back and said, "I will not be frightened." The tree in the centre revolved, the tree disappeared, and he saw a room--the room where his father had lived in town. "Gently," he told himself, "gently." Still laughing, he said, "I, with a brother-younger it's not possible." The horror leapt again, and he exclaimed, "It's a foul lie!"
"My dear, my dear!"
"It's a foul lie! He wasn't--I won't stand--"
"My dear, before you say several noble things, remember that it's worse for him than for you--worse for your brother, for your half-brother, for your younger brother."
But he heard her no longer. He was gazing at the past, which he had praised so recently, which gaped ever wider, like an unhallowed grave. Turn where he would, it encircled him. It took visible form: it was this double entrenchment of the Rings. His mouth went cold, and he knew that he was going to faint among the dead. He started running, missed the exit, stumbled on the inner barrier, fell into darkness--
"Get his head down," said a voice. "Get the blood back into him. That's all he wants. Leave him to me. Elliot!"--the blood was returning--"Elliot, wake up!"
He woke up. The earth he had dreaded lay close to his eyes, and seemed beautiful. He saw the structure of the clods. A tiny beetle swung on the grass blade. On his own neck a human hand pressed, guiding the blood back to his brain.
There broke from him a cry, not of horror but of acceptance. For one short moment he understood. "Stephen--" he began, and then he heard his own name called: "Rickie! Rickie!" Agnes hurried from her post on the margin, and, as if understanding also, caught him to her breast.
Stephen offered to help them further, but finding that he made things worse, he stepped aside to let them pass and then sauntered inwards. The whole field, with concentric circles, was visible, and the broad leaves of the turnips rustled in the gathering wind. Miss Pembroke and Elliot were moving towards the Cadover entrance. Mrs. Failing stood watching in her turn on the opposite bank. He was not an inquisitive boy; but as he leant against the tree he wondered what it was all about, and whether he would ever know.
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