I found a little house of stone —
A little wicked house of stone.
THE October day was brightening toward late afternoon when Leithen and I climbed the hill above the stream and came in sight of the house. All morning a haze with the sheen of pearl in it had lain on the folds of downland, and the vision of far horizons, which is the glory of Cotswold, had been veiled, so that every valley seemed as a place inclosed and set apart. But now a glow had come into the air, and for a little the autumn lawns stole the tints of summer. The gold of sunshine was warm on the grasses, and only the riot of color in the berry-laden edges of the fields and the slender woodlands told of the failing year.
We were looking into a green cup of the hills, and it was all a garden. A little place, bounded by slopes that defined its graciousness with no hint of barrier, so that a dweller there, though his view was but half a mile on any side, would yet have the sense of dwelling on uplands and commanding the world. Round the top edge ran an old wall of stones, beyond which the October bracken flamed to the skyline. Inside were folds of ancient pasture, with here and there a thorn-bush, falling to rose gardens and, on one side, to the smooth sward of a terrace above a tiny lake.
At the heart of it stood the house like a jewel well-set. It was a miniature, but by the hand of a master. The style was late seventeenth century, when an agreeable classic convention had opened up to sunlight and comfort the dark magnificence of the Tudor fashion. The place had the spacious air of a great mansion, and was furnished in every detail with a fine scrupulousness. Only when the eye measured its proportions with the woods and the hillside did the mind perceive that it was a small dwelling.
The stone of Cotswold takes curiously the color of the weather. Under thunderclouds it will be as dark as basalt; on a gray day it will be gray like lava; but in sunshine it absorbs the sun. At the moment the little house was pale gold, like honey.
Leithen swung a long leg across the stile.
’Pretty good, is n’t it?’ he said. ‘It’s pure, authentic Sir Christopher Wren. The name is worthy of it, too. It is called Fullcircle.’
He told me its story. It had been built after the Restoration by the Carteron family, whose wide domains ran into these hills. The Lord Carteron of the day was a friend of the Merry Monarch; but it was not as a sanctuary for orgies that he built the house. Perhaps he was tired of the gloomy splendor of Minster Carteron, and wanted a home of his own and not of his ancestors’ choosing. He had an elegant taste in letters, as we can learn from his neat imitations of Martial, his pretty Bucolics and the more than respectable Latin hexameters of his Ars Vivendi. Being a great nobleman, he had the best skill of the day to construct his hermitage, and thither he would retire for months at a time, with like-minded friends, to a world of books and gardens. He seems to have had no ill-wishers; contemporary memoirs speak of him charitably, and Dryden spared him four lines of encomium. ‘A selfish old dog,’ Leithen called him. ‘He had the good sense to eschew politics and enjoy life. His soul is in that little house. He only did one rash thing in his career — he anticipated the King, his master, by some years in turning Papist.’
I asked about its later history.
‘After his death it passed to a younger branch of the Carterons. It left them in the eighteenth century, and the Applebys got it. They were a jovial lot of hunting squires and let the library go to the dogs. Old Colonel Appleby was still alive when I came to Borrowby. Something went wrong in his inside when he was nearly seventy, and the doctors knocked him off liquor. Not that he drank too much, though he did himself well. That finished the poor old boy. He told me that it revealed to him the amazing truth that during a long and, as he hoped, publicly useful life he had never been quite sober. He was a good fellow and I missed him when he died. The place went to a remote cousin called Giffen.’
Leithen’s eyes as they scanned the prospect, seemed amused.
‘Julian and Ursula Giffen — I dare say you know the names. They always hunt in couples, and write books about sociology and advanced ethics and psychics— books called either “The New This or That” or “The Truth about Something or Other.” You know the sort of thing. They’re deep in all the pseudo-sciences. They’re decent souls, but you can guess the type. I came across them in a case I had at the Old Bailey — defending a ruffian who was charged with murder. I had n’t a doubt he deserved hanging on twenty counts, but there was n’t enough evidence to convict him on this one. Dodderidge was at his worst, — it was just before they induced him to retire, — and his handling of the jury was a masterpiece of misdirection. Of course, there was a shindy. The thing was a scandal, and it stirred up all the humanitarians till the murderer was almost forgotten in the iniquities of old Dodderidge. You must remember the case. It filled the papers for weeks. Well, it was in that connection that I fell in with the Giffens. I got rather to like them, and I’ve been to see them at their house in Hampstead. Golly, what a place! Not a chair fit to sit down on, and colors that made you want to howl. I never met people whose heads were so full of feathers.’
I said something about that being an odd milieu for him.
‘Oh, I like human beings, all kinds. It’s my profession to study them, for without that the practice of the law would be a dismal affair. There are hordes of people like the Giffens — only not so good, for they really have hearts of gold. They are the rootless stuff in the world to-day. In revolt against everything and everybody with any ancestry. A kind of innocent selfrighteousness — wanting to be the people with whom wisdom begins and ends. They are mostly sensitive and tender-hearted, but they wear themselves out in an eternal dissidence. Can’t build, you know, for they object to all tools, but very ready to crab. They scorn any form of Christianity, but they’ll walk miles to patronize some wretched sect that has the merit of being brand-new. “Pioneers” they call themselves — funny little unclad people adventuring into the cold desert with no maps. Giffen once described himself and his friends to me as “forward-looking,” but that, of course, is just what they are not. To tackle the future you must have a firm grip of the past, and for them the past is only a pathological curiosity. They’re up to their necks in the mud of the present — but good, after a fashion; and innocent — sordidly innocent. Fate was in an ironical mood when she saddled them with that wicked little house.’
‘Wicked’ did not seem to me to be a fair word. It sat honey-colored among its gardens with the meekness of a dove.
The sound of a bicycle on the road behind made us turn round, and Leithen advanced to meet a dismounting rider.
He was a tallish fellow, some forty years old, perhaps, with one of those fluffy blond beards that have never been shaved. Short-sighted, of course, and wore glasses. Biscuit-colored knickerbockers and stockings clad his lean limbs.
Leithen introduced me. ‘We are walking to Borrowby and stopped to admire your house. Could we have just a glimpse inside? I want Jardine to see the staircase.’
Mr. Giffen was very willing. ‘I’ve been over to Clyston to send a telegram. We have some friends for the week-end who might interest you. Won’t you stay to tea?’
He had a gentle, formal courtesy about him, and his voice had the facile intonations of one who loves to talk. He led us through a little gate, and along a shorn green walk among the bracken, to a postern which gave entrance to the garden. Here, though it was October, there was still a bright show of roses, and the jet of water from the leaden Cupid dripped noiselessly among fallen petals. And then we stood before the doorway above which the old Carteron had inscribed a line of Horace.
I have never seen anything quite like the little hall. There were two, indeed, separated by a staircase of a wood that looked like olive. Both were paved with black-and-white marble, and the inner was oval in shape, with a gallery supported on slender walnut pillars. It was all in miniature, but it had a spaciousness which no mere size could give. Also it seemed to be permeated by the quintessence of sunlight. Its air was of long-descended, confident, equable happiness.
There were voices on the terrace beyond the hall. Giffen led us into a little room on the left. ‘You remember the house in Colonel Appleby’s time, Leithen. This was the chapel. It had always been the chapel. You see the change we have made. — I beg your pardon, Mr. Jardine. You’re not by any chance a Roman Catholic?’
The room had a white paneling and, on two sides, deep windows. At one end was a fine Italian shrine of marble, and the floor was mosaic, blue and white, in a quaint Byzantine pattern. There was the same air of sunny cheerfulness as in the rest of the house. No mystery could find a lodgment here. It might have been a chapel for three centuries, but the place was pagan. The Giffens’ changes were no sort of desecration. A green baize table filled most of the floor, surrounded by chairs like a committee room. On new raw-wood shelves were files of papers and stacks of bluebooks and those desiccated works into which reformers of society torture the English tongue. Two typewriters stood on a side table.
‘It is our workroom,’ Giffen explained. ‘We hold our Sunday moots here. Ursula thinks that a week-end is wasted unless it produces some piece of real work. Often a quite valuable committee has its beginning here. We try to make our home a refuge for busy workers, where they need not idle but can work under happy conditions.’
‘“A college situate in a clearer air,” ’ Leithen quoted.
But Giffen did not respond except with a smile; he had probably never heard of Lord Falkland.
A woman entered the room, a woman who might have been pretty if she had taken a little pains. Her reddish hair was drawn tightly back and dressed in a hard knot, and her clothes were horribly incongruous in a remote manorhouse. She had bright eager eyes, like a bird, and hands that fluttered nervously. She greeted Leithen with warmth.
‘We have settled down marvelously,’ she told him. ‘ Julian and I feel as if we had always lived here, and our life has arranged itself so perfectly. My mothers’ cottages in the village will soon be ready, and the Club is to be opened next week. Julian and I will carry on the classes ourselves for the first winter. Next year we hope to have a really fine programme. And then it is so pleasant to be able to entertain one’s friends. Won’t you stay to tea? Dr. Swope is here, and Mary Elliston, and Mr. Percy Blaker — you know, the Member of Parliament. Must you hurry off? I’m so sorry. — What do you think of our workroom ? It was utterly terrible when we first came here — a sort of decayed chapel, like a withered tuberose. We have let the air of heaven into it.’
I observed that I had never seen a house so full of space and light.
‘ Ah, you notice that ? It is a curiously happy place to live in. Sometimes I’m almost afraid to feel so light-hearted. But we look on ourselves as only trustees. It is a trust we have to administer for the common good. You know, it’s a house on which you can lay your own impress. I can imagine places which dominate the dwellers, but Fullcircle is plastic, and we can make it our own as much as if we had planned and built it. That’s our chief piece of good fortune.’
We took our leave, for we had no desire for the company of Dr. Swope and Mr. Percy Blaker. When we reached the highway we halted and looked back on the little jewel. Shafts of the westering sun now caught the stone and turned the honey to ripe gold. Thin spires of amethyst smoke rose into the still air. I thought of the well-meaning, restless couple inside its walls, and somehow they seemed out of the picture. They simply did not matter. The house was the thing, for I had never met in inanimate stone such an air of gentle masterfulness. It had a personality of its own, clean-cut and secure, like a high-born old dame among the females of profiteers. And Mrs. Giffen claimed to have given it her impress!
That night, in the library at Borrowby, Leithen discoursed of the Restoration. Borrowby, of which, by the expenditure of much care and a good deal of money, he had made a civilized dwelling, is a Tudor manor of the Cotswold type, with its high-pitched narrow roofs and tall stone chimneys, rising sheer from the meadows with something of the massiveness of a Border keep.
He nodded toward the linen-fold paneling and the great carved chimney-piece.
‘In this kind of house you have the mystery of the elder England. What was Raleigh’s phrase? “High thoughts and divine contemplations.” The people who built this sort of thing lived close to another world, and thought bravely of death. It does n’t matter who they were, — Crusaders or Elizabethans or Puritans, — they all had poetry in them and the heroic and a great unworldliness. They had marvelous spirits, and plenty of joys and triumphs; but they had also their hours of black gloom. Their lives were like our weather — storm and sun. One thing they never feared — death. He walked too near them all their days to be a bogey.
‘But the Restoration was a sharp break. It brought paganism into England; paganism and the art of life. No people have ever known better the secret of bland happiness. Look at Fullcircle. There are no dark corners there. The man that built it knew all there was to be known about how to live. The trouble was that they did not know how to die. That was the one shadow on the glass. So they provided for it in a pagan way. They tried magic. They never become true Catholics — they were always pagan to the end, but they smuggled a priest into their lives. He was a kind of insurance premium against unwelcome mystery.’
It was not till nearly two years later that I saw the Giffens again. The Mayfly season was about at its close, and I had snatched a day on a certain limpid Cotswold river. There was another man on the same beat, fishing from the opposite bank, and I watched him with some anxiety, for a duffer would have spoiled my day. To my relief I recognized Giffen. With him it was easy to come to terms, and presently the water was parceled out between us.
We foregathered for luncheon, and I stood watching while he neatly stalked, rose, and landed a trout. I confessed to some surprise — first that Giffen should be a fisherman at all, for it was not in keeping with my old notion of him; and second, that he should cast such a workmanlike line. As we lunched together, I observed several changes. He had shaved his fluffy beard, and his face was notably less lean, and had the clear even sunburn of the countryman. His clothes, too, were different. They also were workmanlike, and looked as if they belonged to him — he no longer wore the uneasy knickerbockers of the Sunday golfer.
‘I’m desperately keen,’ he told me. ‘You see it’s only my second May-fly season, and last year I was no better than a beginner. I wish I had known long ago what good fun fishing was. Is n’t this a blessed place?’ And he looked up through the canopy of flowering chestnuts to the June sky.
‘I’m glad you’ve taken to sport,’ I said, ‘even if you only come here for the week-ends. Sport lets you into the secrets of the countryside.’
‘Oh, we don’t go much to London now,’ was his answer. ‘We sold our Hampstead house a year ago. I can’t think how I ever could stick that place. Ursula takes the same view. I would n’t leave Oxfordshire just now for a thousand pounds. Do you smell the hawthorn? Last week this meadow was scented like Paradise. — D’ you know, Leithen’s a queer fellow?’
I asked why.
‘He once told me that this countryside in June made him sad. He said it was too perfect a thing for fallen humanity. I call that morbid. Do you see any sense in it?’
I knew what Leithen meant, but it would have taken too long to explain.
‘I feel warm and good and happy here,’ he went on. ‘ I used to talk about living close to nature. Rot! I did n’t know what nature meant. Now — ’ He broke off. ‘By Jove, there’s a kingfisher. That is only the second I’ve seen this year. They ’re getting uncommon with us.’
‘With us.’ I liked the phrase. He was becoming a true countryman.
We had a good day, — not extravagantly successful, but satisfactory, — and he persuaded me to come home with him to Fullcircle for the night, explaining that I could catch an early train next morning at the junction. So we extricated a little two-seater from the midst of a clump of lilacs, and drove through four miles of sweetscented dusk, with nightingales shouting in every thicket.
I changed into a suit of his flannels in a room looking out on the little lake where trout were rising, and I remember that I whistled from pure lightheartedness. In that adorable house one seemed to be still breathing the air of the spring meadows.
Dinner was my first big surprise. It was admirable — plain, but perfectly cooked, and with that excellence of basic material which is the glory of a well-appointed country house. There was wine, too, which I am certain was a new thing. Giffen gave me a bottle of sound claret, and afterwards some more than decent port. My second surprise was my hostess. Her clothes, like her husband’s, must have changed, for I did not notice what she was wearing, and I had noticed it only too clearly the last time we met. More remarkable still was the difference in her face. For the first time I realized that she was a pretty woman. The contours had softened and rounded, and there was a charming well-being in her eyes, very different from the old restlessness. She looked content, infinitely content.
I asked about her mothers’ cottages. She laughed cheerfully.
‘I gave them up after the first year. They did n’t mix well with the village people. I’m quite ready to admit my mistake, and it was the wrong kind of charity. The Londoners did n’t like it — felt lonesome and sighed for the fried-fish shop; and the village women were shy of them — afraid of infectious complaints, you know. Julian and I have decided that our business is to look after our own people.’
It may have been malicious, but I said something about the wonderful scheme of village education.
‘Another relic of Cockneyism,’ laughed the lady, but Giffen looked a trifle shy.
‘ I gave it up because it did n’t seem worth while. What is the use of spoiling a perfectly wholesome scheme of life by introducing unnecessary complications? Medicine is no good unless a man is sick, and these people are not sick. Education is the only cure for certain diseases the modern world has engendered, but if you don’t find the disease, the remedy is superfluous. The fact is, I had n’t the face to go on with the thing. I wanted to be taught rather than to teach. There’s a whole world round me of which I know very little, and my first business is to get to understand it. Any village poacher can teach me more of the things that matter than I have to tell him.’
‘Besides, we have so much to do,’ his wife added. ‘There’s the house and the garden and the home farm and the property. It is n’t large, but it takes a lot of looking after.’
The dining-room was long and lowceilinged, and had a white paneling in bold relief. Through the deep windows came odors of the garden and a faint tinkle of water. The dusk was deepening and the engravings in their rosewood frames were dim, but sufficient light remained to reveal the picture above the fireplace. It showed a middle-aged man in the clothes of the later Stuarts. The plump tapering fingers of one hand held a book; the other was hidden in the folds of a flowered waistcoat. The long curled wig framed a delicate face with something of the grace of youth left to it. There were quizzical lines about the mouth, and the eyes smiled pleasantly yet very wisely. It was the face of a man I should have liked to dine with. He must have been the best of company.
Giffen answered my question.
‘That’s the Lord Carteron who built the house. No — no relation. Our people were the Applebys, who came in 1753. We’ve both fallen so deep in love with Fullcircle that we wanted to see the man who conceived it. I had some trouble getting it. It came out of the Minster Carteron sale, and I had to give a Jew dealer twice what he paid for it. It’s a jolly thing to live with.’
It was indeed a curiously charming picture. I found my eyes straying to it till the dusk obscured the features. It was the face of one wholly at home in a suave world, learned in all the urbanities. A good friend, I thought, the old lord must have been, and a superlative companion. I could imagine neat Horatian tags coming ripely from his lips. Not a strong face, but somehow a dominating one. The portrait of the long-dead gentleman had still the atmosphere of life. Giffen raised his glass of port to him as we rose from table, as if to salute a comrade.
We moved to the room across the hall which had once been the Giffens’ workroom, the cradle of earnest committees and weighty memoranda. This was my third surprise. Baize-covered table and raw-wood shelves had disappeared. The place was now half smoking-room, half library. On the walls hung a fine collection of colored sporting prints, and below them were ranged low Hepplewhite bookcases. The lamplight glowed on the ivory walls, and the room, like everything else in the house, was radiant.
Above the mantelpiece was a stag’s head — a fair eleven-pointer.
Giffen nodded proudly toward it. ‘I got that last year at Machray. My first stag.’
There was a little table with an array of magazines and weekly papers. Some amusement must have been visible in my face, as I caught sight of various light-hearted sporting journals, for he laughed apologetically. ‘You must n’t think that Ursula and I take in that stuff for ourselves. It amuses our guests, you know.’
I dared say it did, but I was convinced that the guests were no longer Dr. Swope and Mr. Percy Blaker.
One of my many failings is that I can never enter a room containing books without scanning the titles. Giffen’s collection won my hearty approval. There were the very few novelists I can read myself—Miss Austen and Sir Walter and the admirable Marryat; there was a shelf full of memoirs, and a good deal of seventeenthand eighteenthcentury poetry; there was a set of the classics in fine editions, Bodonis and Baskervilles and such like; there was much county history and one or two valuable old Herbals and Itineraries. I was certain that two years earlier Giffen would have had no use for literature except some muddy Russian oddments, and I am positive that he would not have known the name of Surtees. Yet there stood the tall octavos recording the unedifying careers of Mr. Jorrocks, Mr. Facey Romford, and Mr. Soapy Sponge.
I was a little bewildered as I stretched my legs in a very deep armchair. Suddenly I had a strong impression of looking on at a play. My hosts seemed to be automata, moving docilely at the orders of a masterful stage manager, and yet with no sense of bondage. And as I looked on, they faded off the scene, and there was only one personality — that house so serene and secure, smiling at our modern antics, but weaving all the while an iron spell around its lovers.
For a second I felt an oppression as of something to be resisted. But no. There was no oppression. The house was too well-bred and disdainful to seek to captivate. Only those who fell in love with it could know its mastery, for all love exacts a price. It was far more than a thing of stone and lime: it was a creed, an art, a scheme of life — older than any Carteron, older than England. Somewhere far back in time, in Rome, in Attica, or in an Ægean island, there must have been such places; and then they called them temples, and gods dwelt in them.
I was roused by Giffen’s voice discoursing of his books. ‘ I’ve been rubbing up my classics again,’ he was saying. ‘Queer thing, but ever since I left Cambridge I have been out of the mood for them. And I’m shockingly ill-read in English literature. I wish I had more time for reading, for it means a lot to me.’
‘There is such an embarrassment of riches here,’ said his wife. ‘The days are far too short for all there is to do. Even when there is nobody staying in the house I find every hour occupied. It’s delicious to be busy over things one really cares for.’
‘ All the same I wish I could do more reading,’ said Giffen. ‘ I’ve never wanted to so much before.’
‘But you come in tired from shooting and sleep sound till dinner,’ said the lady, laying an affectionate hand on his shoulder.
They were happy people, and I like happiness. Self-absorbed, perhaps, but I prefer selfishness in the ordinary way of things. We are most of us selfish dogs, and altruism makes us uncomfortable. But I had somehow in my mind a shade of uneasiness, for I was the witness of a transformation too swift and violent to be wholly natural. Years, no doubt, turn our eyes inward and abate our heroics, but not a trifle of two or three. Some agency had been at work here, some agency other and more potent than the process of time. The thing fascinated and partly frightened me. For the Giffens — though I scarcely dared to admit it — had deteriorated. They were far pleasanter people, I liked them infinitely better, I hoped to see them often again. I detested the type they used to represent, and shunned it like the plague. They were wise now, and mellow, and most agreeable human beings. But some virtue had gone out of them. An uncomfortable virtue, no doubt, but still a virtue; something generous and adventurous. In the earlier time, their faces had had a sort of wistful kindness. Now they had geniality — which is not the same thing.
What was the agency of this miracle? It was all around me: the ivory paneling, the olive-wood staircase, the lovely pillared hall.
I got up to go to bed with a kind of awe on me. As Mrs. Giffen lit my candle, she saw my eyes wandering among the gracious shadows.
‘Is n’t it wonderful,’she said, ‘to have found a house which fits us like a glove? No! Closer. Fits us as a bearskin fits the bear. It has taken our impress like wax.’
Somehow I did n’t think that impress had come from the Giffens’ side.
A November afternoon found Leithen and myself jogging homeward from a run with the Heythrop. It had been a wretched day. Twice we had found and lost, and then a deluge had set in which scattered the field. I had taken a hearty toss into a swamp, and got as wet as a man may be, but the steady downpour soon reduced everyone to a like condition. When we turned toward Borrowby the rain ceased, and an icy wind blew out of the east which partially dried our sopping clothes. All the grace had faded from the Cotswold valleys. The streams were brown torrents, the meadows lagoons, the ridges bleak and gray, and a sky of scurrying clouds cast leaden shadows. It was a matter of ten miles to Borrowby; we had long ago emptied our flasks, and I longed for something hot to take the chill out of my bones.
‘Let’s look in at Fullcircle,’ said Leithen, as we came out on the highroad from a muddy lane. ‘We’ll make the Giffens give us tea. You’ll find changes there.’
I asked what changes, but he only smiled and told me to wait and see.
My mind was busy with surmises as we rode up the avenue. I thought of drink or drugs, and promptly discarded the notion. Fullcircle was, above all things, decorous and wholesome. Leithen could not mean the change in the Giffens’ ways which had so impressed me a year before, for he and I had long ago discussed that. I was still puzzling over his words when we found ourselves in the inner hall, with the Giffens making a hospitable fuss over us.
The place was more delectable than ever. Outside was a dark November day, yet the little house seemed to be transfused with sunshine. I do not know by what art the old builders had planned it; but the airy pilasters, the perfect lines of the ceiling, the soft coloring of the wood seemed to lay open the house to a clear sky. Logs burned brightly on the massive steel andirons, and the scent and the fine blue smoke of them strengthened the illusion of summer.
Mrs. Giffen would have us change into dry things, but Leithen pleaded a waiting dinner at Borrowby. The two of us stood by the fireplace, drinking tea, the warmth drawing out a cloud of vapor from our clothes to mingle with the wood-smoke. Giffen lounged in an armchair and his wife sat by the teatable. I was looking for the changes of which Leithen had spoken.
I did not find them in Giffen. He was much as I remembered him on the June night when I had slept here — a trifle fuller in the face, perhaps, a little more placid about the mouth and eyes. He looked a man completely content with life. His smile came readily, and his easy laugh. Was it my fancy, or had he acquired a look of the picture in the dining-room? I nearly made an errand to go and see it. It seemed to me that his mouth had now something of the portrait’s delicate complacence. Lely would have found him a fit subject, though he might have boggled at his lean hands.
But his wife! Ah, there the changes were unmistakable. She was comely now rather than pretty, and the contours of her face had grown heavier. The eagerness had gone from her eyes and left only comfort and good humor. There was a suspicion, ever so slight, of rouge and powder. She had a string of good pearls — the first time I had seen her wear jewels. The hand that poured out the tea was plump, shapely, and well cared for. I was looking at a most satisfactory mistress of a country house, who would see that nothing was lacking to the part.
She talked more and laughed oftener. Her voice had an airy lightness which would have made the silliest prattle charming.
’We are going to fill the house with young people and give a ball at Christmas,’ she announced. ‘ This hall is simply clamoring to be danced in. You must come, both of you. Promise me. And, Mr. Leithen, it would be very nice if you brought a party from Borrowby. Young men, please. We are overstocked with girls in these parts. We must do something to make the country cheerful in winter-time.’
I observed that no season could make Fullcircle other than cheerful.
‘How nice of you!’ she cried. ‘To praise a house is to praise the householders, for a dwelling is just what its inmates make it. Borrowby is you, Mr. Leithen, and Fullcircle us.’
‘Shall we exchange?’ Leithen asked.
She made a mouth. ‘ Borrowby would crush me, but it suits a Gothic survival like you. Do you think you would be happy here?’
‘Happy?’ said Leithen thoughtfully. ‘Happy? Yes, undoubtedly. But it might be bad for my soul. — There’s just time for a pipe, Giffen, and then we must be off.’
I was filling my pipe as we crossed the outer hall, and was about to enter the smoking-room that I so well remembered, when Giffen laid a hand on my arm.
‘We don’t smoke there now,’ he said hastily.
He opened the door and I looked in. The place had suffered its third metamorphosis. The marble shrine which I had noticed on my first visit had been brought back and the blue mosaic pavement, and the ivory walls were bare. At the eastern end stood a little altar, with, above it, a copy of a Correggio Madonna.
A faint smell of incense hung in the air, and the fragrance of hothouse flowers. It was a chapel, but, I swear, it was a more pagan place than when it had been workroom or smoking-room.
Giffen gently shut the door. ‘Perhaps you may not have heard, but some months ago my wife became a Catholic. It is a good thing for women, I think. It gives them a regular ritual for their lives. So we restored the chapel, which had always been there in the days of the Carterons and the Applebys.’
‘And you?’ I asked.
He shrugged his shoulders.
‘I don’t bother much about that sort of thing. But I propose to follow suit. It will please Ursula and do no harm to anybody.’
We halted on the brow of the hill and looked back on the garden valley. Leithen’s laugh, as he gazed, had more awe than mirth in it.
‘That wicked little house! I’m going to hunt up every scrap I can find about old Tom Carteron. He must have been an uncommon clever fellow. He’s still alive down there and making people do as he did. In that kind of place you may expel the priest and sweep it and garnish it, but he always returns.’
The wrack was lifting before the wind, and a shaft of late watery sun fell on the gray walls. It seemed to me that the little house wore an air of gentle triumph.