That same evening at nine o'clock, sitting over the last glass of a pint of port, Mr. Barter felt an irresistible longing for enjoyment, an impulse towards expansion and his fellow-men.
Taking his hat and buttoning his coat--for though the June evening was fine the easterly breeze was eager--he walked towards the village.
Like an emblem of that path to God of which he spoke on Sundays, the grey road between trim hedges threaded the shadow of the elm-trees where the rooks had long since gone to bed. A scent of wood-smoke clung in the air; the cottages appeared, the forge, the little shops facing the village green. Lights in the doors and windows deepened; a breeze, which hardly stirred the chestnut leaves, fled with a gentle rustling through the aspens. Houses and trees, houses and trees! Shelter through the past and through the days to come!
The Rector stopped the first man he saw.
"Fine weather for the hay, Aiken! How's your wife doing-a girl? Ah, ha! You want some boys! You heard of our event at the Rectory? I'm thankful to say----
From man to man and house to house he soothed his thirst for fellowship, for the lost sense of dignity that should efface again the scar of suffering. And above him the chestnuts in their breathing stillness, the aspens with their tender rustling, seemed to watch and whisper: "Oh, little men! oh, little men!"
The moon, at the end of her first quarter, sailed out of the shadow of the churchyard--the same young moon that had sailed in her silver irony when the first Barter preached, the first Pendyce was Squire at Worsted Skeynes; the same young moon that, serene, ineffable, would come again when the last Barter slept, the last Pendyce was gone, and on their gravestones, through the amethystine air, let fall her gentle light.
The Rector thought:
'I shall set Stedman to work on that corner. We must have more room; the stones there are a hundred and fifty years old if they're a day. You can't read a single word. They'd better be the first to go.'
He passed on along the paddock footway leading to the Squire's.
Day was gone, and only the moonbeams lighted the tall grasses.
At the Hall the long French windows of the dining-room were open; the Squire was sitting there alone, brooding sadly above the remnants of the fruit he had been eating. Flanking him on either wall hung a silent company, the effigies of past Pendyces; and at the end, above the oak and silver of the sideboard, the portrait of his wife was looking at them under lifted brows, with her faint wonder.
He raised his head.
"Ah, Barter! How's your wife?"
"Doing as well as can be expected."
"Glad to hear that! A fine constitution--wonderful vitality. Port or claret?"
"Thanks; just a glass of port."
"Very trying for your nerves. I know what it is. We're different from the last generation; they thought nothing of it. When Charles was born my dear old father was out hunting all day. When my wife had George, it made me as nervous as a cat!"
The Squire stopped, then hurriedly added:
"But you're so used to it."
Mr. Barter frowned.
"I was passing Coldingham to-day," he said. "I saw Winlow. He asked after you."
"Ah! Winlow! His wife's a very nice woman. They've only the one child, I think?"
The Rector winced.
"Winlow tells me," he said abruptly, "that George has sold his horse."
The Squire's face changed. He glanced suspiciously at Mr. Barter, but the Rector was looking at his glass.
"Sold his horse! What's the meaning of that? He told you why, I suppose?"
The Rector drank off his wine.
"I never ask for reasons," he said, "where racing-men are concerned. It's my belief they know no more what they're about than so many dumb animals."
"Ah! racing-men!" said Mr. Pendyce. "But George doesn't bet."
A gleam of humour shot into the Rector's eyes. He pressed his lips together.
The Squire rose.
"Come now, Barter!" he said.
The Rector blushed. He hated tale-bearing--that is, of course, in the case of a man; the case of a woman was different--and just as, when he went to Bellew he had been careful not to give George away, so now he was still more on his guard.
"No, no, Pendyce."
The Squire began to pace the room, and Mr. Barter felt something stir against his foot; the spaniel John emerging at the end, just where the moonlight shone, a symbol of all that was subservient to the Squire, gazed up at his master with tragic eyes. 'Here, again,' they seemed to say, 'is something to disturb me!'
The Squire broke the silence.
"I've always counted on you, Barter; I count on you as I would on my own brother. Come, now, what's this about George?"
'After all,' thought the Rector, "it's his father!' "I know nothing but what they say," he blurted forth; "they talk of his having lost a lot of money. I dare say it's all nonsense. I never set much store by rumour. And if he's sold the horse, well, so much the better. He won't be tempted to gamble again."
But Horace Pendyce made no answer. A single thought possessed his bewildered, angry mind:
'My son a gambler! Worsted Skeynes in the hands of a gambler!'
The Rector rose.
"It's all rumour. You shouldn't pay any attention. I should hardly think he's been such a fool. I only know that I must get back to my wife. Good-night."
And, nodding but confused, Mr. Barter went away through the French window by which he had come.
The Squire stood motionless.
To him, whose existence was bound up in Worsted Skeynes, whose every thought had some direct or indirect connection with it, whose son was but the occupier of that place he must at last vacate, whose religion was ancestor-worship, whose dread was change, no word could be so terrible. A gambler!
It did not occur to him that his system was in any way responsible for George's conduct. He had said to Mr. Paramor: "I never had a system; I'm no believer in systems." He had brought him up simply as a gentleman. He would have preferred that George should go into the Army, but George had failed; he would have preferred that George should devote himself to the estate, marry, and have a son, instead of idling away his time in town, but George had failed; and so, beyond furthering his desire to join the Yeomanry, and getting him proposed for the Stoics' Club, what was there he could have done to keep him out of mischief? And now he was a gambler!
Once a gambler always a gambler!
To his wife's face, looking down from the wall, he said:
"He gets it from you!"
But for all answer the face stared gently.
Turning abruptly, he left the room, and the spaniel John, for whom he had been too quick, stood with his nose to the shut door, scenting for someone to come and open it.
Mr. Pendyce went to his study, took some papers from a locked drawer, and sat a long time looking at them. One was the draft of his will, another a list of the holdings at Worsted Skeynes, their acreage and rents, a third a fair copy of the settlement, re-settling the estate when he had married. It was at this piece of supreme irony that Mr. Pendyce looked longest. He did not read it, but he thought:
'And I can't cut it! Paramor says so! A gambler!'
That "crassness" common to all men in this strange world, and in the Squire intensified, was rather a process than a quality--obedience to an instinctive dread of what was foreign to himself, an instinctive fear of seeing another's point of view, an instinctive belief in precedent. And it was closely allied to his most deep and moral quality--the power of making a decision. Those decisions might be "crass" and stupid, conduce to unnecessary suffering, have no relation to morality or reason; but he could make them, and he could stick to them. By virtue of this power he was where he was, had been for centuries, and hoped to be for centuries to come. It was in his blood. By this alone he kept at bay the destroying forces that Time brought against him, his order, his inheritance; by this alone he could continue to hand down that inheritance to his son. And at the document which did hand it down he looked with angry and resentful eyes.
Men who conceive great resolutions do not always bring them forth with the ease and silence which they themselves desire. Mr. Pendyce went to his bedroom determined to say no word of what he had resolved to do. His wife was asleep. The Squire's entrance wakened her, but she remained motionless, with her eyes closed, and it was the sight of that immobility, when he himself was so disturbed, which drew from him the words:
"Did you know that George was a gambler?"
By the light of the candle in his silver candlestick her dark eyes seemed suddenly alive.
"He's been betting; he's sold his horse. He'd never have sold that horse unless he were pushed. For all I know, he may be posted at Tattersalls!"
The sheets shivered as though she who lay within them were struggling. Then came her voice, cool and gentle:
"All young men bet, Horace; you must know that!"
The Squire at the foot of the bed held up the candle; the movement had a sinister significance.
"Do you defend him?" it seemed to say. "Do you defy me?"
Gripping the bed-rail, he cried:
"I'll have no gambler and profligate for my son! I'll not risk the estate!"
Mrs. Pendyce raised herself, and for many seconds stared at her husband. Her heart beat furiously. It had come! What she had been expecting all these days had come! Her pale lips answered:
"What do you mean? I don't understand you, Horace."
Mr. Pendyce's eyes searched here and therefor what, he did not know.
"This has decided me," he said. " I'll have no half-measures. Until he can show me he's done with that woman, until he can prove he's given up this betting, until--until the heaven's fallen, I'll have no more to do with him!"
To Margery Pendyce, with all her senses quivering, that saying, "Until the heaven's fallen," was frightening beyond the rest. On the lips of her husband, those lips which had never spoken in metaphors, never swerved from the direct and commonplace, nor deserted the shibboleth of his order, such words had an evil and malignant sound.
He went on:
"I've brought him up as I was brought up myself. I never thought to have had a scamp for my son!"
Mrs. Pendyce's heart stopped fluttering.
"How dare you, Horace!" she cried.
The Squire, letting go the bed-rail, paced to and fro. There was something savage in the sound of his footsteps through the utter silence.
"I've made up my mind," he said. "The estate----"
There broke from Mrs. Pendyce a torrent of words:
"You talk of the way you brought George up! You--you never understood him! You--you never did anything for him! He just grew up like you all grow up in this-----" But no word followed, for she did not know herself what was that against which her soul had blindly fluttered its wings. "You never loved him as I do! What do I care about the estate? I wish it were sold! D'you think I like living here? D'you think I've ever liked it? D'you think I've ever----" But she did not finish that saying: D'you think I've ever loved you? "My boy a scamp! I've heard you laugh and shake your head and say a hundred times: 'Young men will be young men!' You think I don't know how you'd all go on if you dared! You think I don't know how you talk among yourselves! As for gambling, you'd gamble too, if you weren't afraid! And now George is in trouble----"
As suddenly as it had broken forth the torrent of her words dried up.
Mr. Pendyce had come back to the foot of the bed, and once more gripped the rail whereon the candle, still and bright, showed them each other's faces, very changed from the faces that they knew. In the Squire's lean brown throat, between the parted points of his stiff collar, a string seemed working. He stammered:
"You--you're talking like a madwoman! My father would have cut me off, his father would have cut him off! By God! do you think I'll stand quietly by and see it all played ducks and drakes with, and see that woman here, and see her son, a--a bastard, or as bad as a bastard, in my place? You don't know me!"
The last words came through his teeth like the growl of a dog. Mrs. Pendyce made the crouching movement of one who gathers herself to spring.
"If you give him up, I shall go to him; I will never come back!"
The Squire's grip on the rail relaxed; in the light of the candle, still and steady and bright--his jaw could be seen to fall. He snapped his teeth together, and turning abruptly, said:
"Don't talk such rubbish!"
Then, taking the candle, he went into his dressing-room.
And at first his feelings were simple enough; he had merely that sore sensation, that sense of raw offence, as at some gross and violent breach of taste.
'What madness,' he thought, 'gets into women! It would serve her right if I slept here!'
He looked around him. There was no place where he could sleep, not even a sofa, and taking up the candle, he moved towards the door. But a feeling of hesitation and forlornness rising, he knew not whence, made him pause irresolute before the window.
The young moon, riding low, shot her light upon his still, lean figure, and in that light it was strange to see how grey he looked-- grey from head to foot, grey, and sad, and old, as though in summary of all the squires who in turn had looked upon that prospect frosted with young moonlight to the boundary of their lands. Out in the paddock he saw his old hunter Bob, with his head turned towards the house; and from the very bottom of his heart he sighed.
In answer to that sigh came a sound of something falling outside against the door. He opened it to see what might be there. The spaniel John, lying on a cushion of blue linen, with his head propped up against the wall, darkly turned his eyes.
'I am here, master,' he seemed to say; 'it is late--I was about to go to sleep; it has done me good, however, to see you;' and hiding his eyes from the light under a long black ear, he drew a stertorous breath. Mr. Pendyce shut-to the door. He had forgotten the existence of his dog. But, as though with the sight of that faithful creature he had regained belief in all that he was used to, in all that he was master of, in all that was--himself, he opened the bedroom door and took his place beside his wife.
And soon he was asleep.
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