Holm Oaks stood back but little from the road--an old manor-house, not set upon display, but dwelling close to its barns, stables, and walled gardens, like a good mother; long, flat-roofed, red, it had Queen Anne windows, on whose white-framed diamond panes the sunbeams glinted.
In front of it a fringe of elms, of all trees the tree of most established principle, bordered the stretch of turf between the gravel drive and road; and these elms were the homes of rooks of all birds the most conventional. A huge aspen--impressionable creature--shivered and shook beyond, apologising for appearance among such imperturbable surroundings. It was frequented by a cuckoo, who came once a year to hoot at the rules of life, but seldom made long stay; for boys threw stones at it, exasperated by the absence of its morals.
The village which clustered in the dip had not yet lost its dread of motor-cars. About this group of flat-faced cottages with gabled roofs the scent of hay, manure, and roses clung continually; just now the odour of the limes troubled its servile sturdiness. Beyond the dip, again, a square-towered church kept within grey walls the record of the village flock, births, deaths, and marriages--even the births of bastards, even the deaths of suicides--and seemed to stretch a hand invisible above the heads of common folk to grasp the forgers of the manor-house. Decent and discreet, the two roofs caught the eye to the exclusion of all meaner dwellings, seeming to have joined in a conspiracy to keep them out of sight.
The July sun had burned his face all the way from Oxford, yet pale was Shelton when he walked up the drive and rang the bell.
"Mrs. Dennant at home, Dobson?" he asked of the grave butler, who, old servant that he was, still wore coloured trousers (for it was not yet twelve o'clock, and he regarded coloured trousers up to noon as a sacred distinction between the footmen and himself).
"Mrs. Dennant," replied this personage, raising his round and hairless face, while on his mouth appeared that apologetic pout which comes of living with good families--"Mrs. Dennant has gone into the village, sir; but Miss Antonia is in the morning-room."
Shelton crossed the panelled, low-roofed hall, through whose far side the lawn was visible, a vision of serenity. He mounted six wide, shallow steps, and stopped. From behind a closed door there came the sound of scales, and he stood, a prey to his emotions, the notes mingling in his ears with the beating of his heart. He softly turned the handle, a fixed smile on his lips.
Antonia was at the piano; her head was bobbing to the movements of her fingers, and pressing down the pedals were her slim monotonously moving feet. She had been playing tennis, for a racquet and her tam-o'-shanter were flung down, and she was dressed in a blue skirt and creamy blouse, fitting collarless about her throat. Her face was flushed, and wore a little frown; and as her fingers raced along the keys, her neck swayed, and the silk clung and shivered on her arms.
Shelton's eyes fastened on the silent, counting lips, on the fair hair about her forehead, the darker eyebrows slanting down towards the nose, the undimpled cheeks with the faint finger-marks beneath the ice-blue eyes, the softly-pouting and undimpled chin, the whole remote, sweet, suntouched, glacial face.
She turned her head, and, springing up, cried:
"Dick! What fun!" She gave him both her hands, but her smiling face said very plainly, "Oh; don't let us be sentimental!"
"Are n't you glad to see me?" muttered Shelton.
"Glad to see you! You are funny, Dick!--as if you did n't know! Why, you 've shaved your beard! Mother and Sybil have gone into the village to see old Mrs. Hopkins. Shall we go out? Thea and the boys are playing tennis. It's so jolly that you 've come!" She caught up the tam-o'-shanter, and pinned it to her hair. Almost as tall as Shelton, she looked taller, with arms raised and loose sleeves quivering like wings to the movements of her fingers. "We might have a game before lunch; you can have my other racquet."
"I've got no things," said Shelton blankly.
Her calm glance ran over him.
"You can have some of old Bernard's; he's got any amount. I'll wait for you." She swung her racquet, looked at Shelton, cried, "Be quick!" and vanished.
Shelton ran up-stairs, and dressed in the undecided way of men assuming other people's clothes. She was in the hall when he descended, humming a tune and prodding at her shoe; her smile showed all her pearly upper teeth. He caught hold of her sleeve and whispered:
The colour rushed into her cheeks; she looked back across her shoulder.
"Come along, old Dick!" she cried; and, flinging open the glass door, ran into the garden.
The tennis-ground was divided by tall netting from a paddock. A holm oak tree shaded one corner, and its thick dark foliage gave an unexpected depth to the green smoothness of the scene. As Shelton and Antonia came up, Bernard Dennant stopped and cordially grasped Shelton's hand. From the far side of the net Thea, in a shortish skirt, tossed back her straight fair hair, and, warding off the sun, came strolling up to them. The umpire, a small boy of twelve, was lying on his stomach, squealing and tickling a collie. Shelton bent and pulled his hair.
"Hallo, Toddles! you young ruffian!"
One and all they stood round Shelton, and there was a frank and pitiless inquiry in their eyes, in the angle of their noses something chaffing and distrustful, as though about him were some subtle poignant scent exciting curiosity and disapproval.
When the setts were over, and the girls resting in the double hammock underneath the holm oak, Shelton went with Bernard to the paddock to hunt for the lost balls.
"I say, old chap," said his old school-fellow, smiling dryly, "you're in for a wigging from the Mater."
"A wigging?" murmured Shelton.
"I don't know much about it, but from something she let drop it seems you've been saying some queer things in your letters to Antonia"; and again he looked at Shelton with his dry smile.
"Queer things?" said the latter angrily. "What d' you mean?"
"Oh, don't ask me. The Mater thinks she's in a bad way--unsettled, or what d' you call at. You've been telling her that things are not what they seem. That's bad, you know"; and still smiling he shook his head.
Shelton dropped his eyes.
"Well, they are n't!" he said.
"Oh, that's all right! But don't bring your philosophy down here, old chap."
"Philosophy!" said Shelton, puzzled.
"Leave us a sacred prejudice or two."
"Sacred! Nothing's sacred, except--" But Shelton did not finish his remark. "I don't understand," he said.
"Ideals, that sort of thing! You've been diving down below the line of 'practical politics,' that's about the size of it, my boy"; and, stooping suddenly, he picked up the last ball. "There is the Mater!" Shelton saw Mrs. Dennant coming down the lawn with her second daughter, Sybil.
By the time they reached the holm oak the three girls had departed towards the house, walking arm in arm, and Mrs. Dennant was standing there alone, in a grey dress, talking to an undergardener. Her hands, cased in tan gauntlets, held a basket which warded off the bearded gardener from the severe but ample lines of her useful-looking skirt. The collie, erect upon his haunches, looked at their two faces, pricking his ears in his endeavour to appreciate how one of these two bipeds differed from the other.
"Thank you; that 'll do, Bunyan. Ah, Dick! Charmin' to see you here, at last!"
In his intercourse with Mrs. Dennant, Shelton never failed to mark the typical nature of her personality. It always seemed to him that he had met so many other ladies like her. He felt that her undoubtable quality had a non-individual flavour, as if standing for her class. She thought that standing for herself was not the thing; yet she was full of character. Tall, with nose a trifle beaked, long, sloping chin, and an assured, benevolent mouth, showing, perhaps, too many teeth--though thin, she was not unsubstantial. Her accent in speaking showed her heritage; it was a kind of drawl which disregarded vulgar merits such as tone; leaned on some syllables, and despised the final 'g'--the peculiar accent, in fact, of aristocracy, adding its deliberate joys to life.
Shelton knew that she had many interests; she was never really idle, from the time (7 A.M.) when her maid brought her a little china pot of tea with a single biscuit and her pet dog, Tops, till eleven o'clock at night, when she lighted a wax candle in a silver candlestick, and with this in one hand, and in the other a new novel, or, better still, one of those charming volumes written by great people about the still greater people they have met, she said good-night to her children and her guests. No! What with photography, the presidency of a local league, visiting the rich, superintending all the poor, gardening, reading, keeping all her ideas so tidy that no foreign notions might stray in, she was never idle. The information she collected from these sources was both vast and varied, but she never let it flavour her opinions, which lacked sauce, and were drawn from some sort of dish into which, with all her class, she dipped her fingers.
He liked her. No one could help liking her. She was kind, and of such good quality, with a suggestion about her of thin, excellent, and useful china; and she was scented, too--not with verbena, violets, or those essences which women love, but with nothing, as if she had taken stand against all meretricity. In her intercourse with persons not "quite the thing" (she excepted the vicar from this category, though his father had dealt in haberdashery), her refinement, gently, unobtrusively, and with great practical good sense, seemed continually to murmur, "I am, and you--well, are you, don't you know?" But there was no self-consciousness about this attitude, for she was really not a common woman. She simply could not help it; all her people had done this. Their nurses breathed above them in their cradles something that, inhaled into their systems, ever afterwards prevented them from taking good, clear breaths. And her manner! Ah! her manner--it concealed the inner woman so as to leave doubt of her existence!
Shelton listened to the kindly briskness with which she dwelt upon the under-gardener.
"Poor Bunyan! he lost his wife six months ago, and was quite cheerful just at first, but now he 's really too distressin'. I 've done all I can to rouse him; it's so melancholy to see him mopin'. And, my dear Dick, the way he mangles the new rose-trees! I'm afraid he's goin' mad; I shall have to send him away; poor fellow!"
It was clear that she sympathised with Bunyan, or, rather, believed him entitled to a modicum of wholesome grief, the loss of wives being a canonised and legal, sorrow. But excesses! O dear, no!
"I 've told him I shall raise his wages," she sighed. "He used to be such a splendid gardener! That reminds me, my dear Dick; I want to have a talk with you. Shall we go in to lunch?"
Consulting the memorandum-book in which she had been noting the case of Mrs. Hopkins, she slightly preceded Shelton to the house.
It was somewhat late that afternoon when Shelton had his "wigging"; nor did it seem to him, hypnotised by the momentary absence of Antonia, such a very serious affair.
"Now, Dick," the Honourable Mrs. Dennant said, in her decisive drawl, "I don't think it 's right to put ideas into Antonia's head."
"Ideas!" murmured Shelton in confusion.
"We all know," continued Mrs. Dennant, "that things are not always what they ought to be."
Shelton looked at her; she was seated at her writing-table, addressing in her large, free writing a dinner invitation to a bishop. There was not the faintest trace of awkwardness about her, yet Shelton could not help a certain sense of shock. If she--she--did not think things were what they ought to be--in a bad way things must be indeed!
"Things!" he muttered.
Mrs. Dennant looked at him firmly but kindly with the eyes that would remind him of a hare's.
"She showed me some of your letters, you know. Well, it 's not a bit of use denyin', my dear Dick, that you've been thinkin' too much lately."
Shelton perceived that he had done her an injustice; she handled "things" as she handled under-gardeners--put them away when they showed signs of running to extremes.
"I can't help that, I 'm afraid," he answered.
"My dear boy! you'll never get on that way. Now, I want you to promise me you won't talk to Antonia about those sort of things."
Shelton raised his eyebrows.
"Oh, you know what I mean!"
He saw that to press Mrs. Dennant to say what she meant by "things" would really hurt her sense of form; it would be cruel to force her thus below the surface!
He therefore said, "Quite so!"
To his extreme surprise, flushing the peculiar and pathetic flush of women past their prime, she drawled out:
"About the poor--and criminals--and marriages--there was that wedding, don't you know?"
Shelton bowed his head. Motherhood had been too strong for her; in her maternal flutter she had committed the solecism of touching in so many words on "things."
"Does n't she really see the fun," he thought, "in one man dining out of gold and another dining in the gutter; or in two married people living on together in perfect discord 'pour encourages les autres', or in worshipping Jesus Christ and claiming all her rights at the same time; or in despising foreigners because they are foreigners; or in war; or in anything that is funny?" But he did her a certain amount of justice by recognising that this was natural, since her whole life had been passed in trying not to see the fun in all these things.
But Antonia stood smiling in the doorway. Brilliant and gay she looked, yet resentful, as if she knew they had been talking of her. She sat down by Shelton's side, and began asking him about the youthful foreigner whom he had spoken of; and her eyes made him doubt whether she, too, saw the fun that lay in one human being patronising others.
"But I suppose he's really good," she said, "I mean, all those things he told you about were only--"
"Good!" he answered, fidgeting; "I don't really know what the word means."
Her eyes clouded. "Dick, how can you?" they seemed to say.
Shelton stroked her sleeve.
"Tell us about Mr. Crocker," she said, taking no heed of his caress.
"The lunatic!" he said.
"Lunatic! Why, in your letters he was splendid."
"So he is," said Shelton, half ashamed; "he's not a bit mad, really--that is, I only wish I were half as mad."
"Who's that mad?" queried Mrs. Dennant from behind the urn--"Tom Crocker? Ah, yes! I knew his mother; she was a Springer."
"Did he do it in the week?" said Thea, appearing in the window with a kitten.
"I don't know," Shelton was obliged to answer.
Thea shook back her hair.
"I call it awfully slack of you not to have found out," she said.
"You were very sweet to that young foreigner, Dick," she murmured with a smile at Shelton. "I wish that we could see him."
But Shelton shook his head.
"It seems to me," he muttered, "that I did about as little for him as I could."
Again her face grew thoughtful, as though his words had chilled her.
"I don't see what more you could have done," she answered.
A desire to get close to her, half fear, half ache, a sense of futility and bafflement, an inner burning, made him feel as though a flame were licking at his heart.
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