[WHEN Captain Philip Whiteoak and Adeline Court were married in India in 1848, they were the most brilliant couple in their military station. But the inheritance of property in Canada prompted Philip to sell his commission and bring his wife and infant daughter Augusta to Ontario. A great stone manor house was built and a thousand acres of wilderness transformed into the semblance of an English park. ‘ Jalna’ the estate is called, after the military station where the couple first met. The story is of the present time. Adeline, her husband long since dead, is an indomitable old woman, eagerly on the verge of completing a full century of life. She has two surviving sons, themselves old men: Nicholas, whose wife left him for a young army officer, and Ernest, a bachelor. A third son, Philip, is dead. His two marriages embarrassed the declining estate with six children. From the first marriage came Meg, the only girl, and Renny, now master of the cohesive little Whiteoak clan. From the second came Eden and Piers, now in the twenties, Finch, sixteen, and Wakefield, nine. As the story opens, Eden has fractured Whiteoak tradition by writing a volume of poems which has been accepted by a New York publisher. The event is the theme of animated family discussion in picturesque scenes at the dinner table and in the rooms of Nicholas and Ernest. Renny is disgusted with Eden for giving up his legal study for poetry; he threatens Eden that by autumn he must make up his mind to enter business or help with the estate. Piers, whose taste is for farming, baits the poet with sarcasm, but brings down upon his own head the warning that there must be no ‘nonsense’ with Pheasant, a girl whose existence has been a cause of distress to the Whiteoaks. The story proceeds from this point.]
IT was almost dark when Piers crossed the lawn, passed through a low wicket gate in the hedge, and pressed eagerly along a winding path that led across a paddock where three horses were still cropping the new grass. The path wandered then down into the ravine; became, for three strides, a little rustic bridge; became a path again — still narrower — that wound up the opposite steep, curved through a noble wood, and at last, by a stile, was wedded to another path that had been shaped for no other purpose but to meet it on the boundary between Jalna and the land belonging to the Vaughans.
Down in the ravine it was almost night, so darkly the stream glimmered amid the thick undergrowth and so close above him hung the sky, not yet pricked by a star. As he climbed up the steep beyond, it was darker still, except for the luminous shine of the silver birches that seemed to be lighted by some secret beam within. A whippoorwill darted among the trees catching insects, uttering, each time it struck, a little throaty cluck, and showing a gleam of white on its wings. Then suddenly, right over his head, another whippoorwill burst into its loud, lilting song.
When he reached the open wood above he could see that there was still a deep red glow in the west, and the young leaves of the oaks had taken a burnished look. The trees were lively with the twittering of birds seeking their rest, their love-making over for the day — his just to begin.
His head was hot and he took off his cap to let the cool air fan it. He wished that his love for Pheasant were a calmer love. He should have liked to stroll out with her in the evenings, just pleasantly elated, taking it as a natural thing — as natural as the life of these birds — to love a girl and be loved by her. But it had come upon him suddenly, after knowing her all his life, like a
storm that shook and possessed him. As he hurried on through the soft night air, each step drawing him nearer to the stile where Pheasant was to meet him, he tormented himself by picturing his disappointment if she were not there. He saw, in his fancy, the stile, bare as a waiting gallows, mocking the sweet urge that pressed him. He saw himself waiting till dark night and then stumbling back to Jalna filled with despair because he had not held her in his arms. . . . What was it that had overtaken them both that day when, meeting down in the ravine, she had been startled by a water snake and had caught his sleeve and pointed down into the stream where it had disappeared? Bending over the water, they had suddenly seen their two faces reflected in a still pool, looking up at them not at all like the faces of Piers and Pheasant who had known each other all their days. The faces reflected had had strange, timid eyes and parted lips. They had turned to look at each other. Their own lips had met.
Remembering that kiss, he began to run across the open field toward the stile.
She was sitting on it, waiting for him, her drooping figure silhouetted against the blur of red in the west. He slackened his pace as soon as he saw her, and greeted her laconically as he came up.
‘Hullo, Piers! I’ve been waiting quite a while.’
‘I could n’t get away. I had to stop and admire a beastly cow Renny bought at Hobbs’s sale to-day.’
He climbed to the stile and sat down beside her. ‘It’s the first warm evening, is n’t it?’ he observed, not looking at her. ‘I got as hot as blazes coming over. I was n’t letting the grass grow under my feet, I can tell you.’ He took her hand and drew it against his side. ‘Feel that.’
‘Your heart is beating rather hard,’ she said, in a low voice. ‘Is it because you hurried or because — ’ She leaned against his shoulder and looked into his face.
It was what Piers had been waiting for, this moment when she should lean toward him. Not without a sign from her would he let the fountain of his love leap forth. Now he put his arms about her and pressed her to him. He found her lips and held them with his own. The warm fragrance of her body made him dizzy. He was no longer strong and practical. He wished in that moment that they two might die thus happily clasped in each other’s arms in the tranquil spring night.
‘I can’t go on like this,’ he murmured. ‘We simply must get married.’
‘Remember what Renny has said. Are you going to defy him? He’d be in a rage if he knew we were together here now.’
‘Renny be damned! He’s got to be taught a lesson. It’s time he was taught that he can’t lord it over everyone. He’s spoiled, that’s the trouble with him. I call him the Rajah of Jalna.’
‘After all, you have the right to say who you will marry, even if the girl is beneath you, have n’t you?’
He felt a sob beneath her breast; her sudden tears wet his cheek.
‘Oh, Pheasant, you little fool,’ he exclaimed. ‘You beneath me! What rot!’
‘Well, Renny thinks so. All your family think so. Your family despise me.’
‘My family may go to the devil. Why, after all, you’re a Vaughan. Everybody knows that. You’re called by the name.’
‘Even Maurice looks down on me. He’s never let me call him Father.’
‘He deserves to be shot. If I had ever done what he did, I’d stand by the child. I’d brave the whole thing out!’
‘Well, he has, in a way. He’s kept me. Given me his name.’
‘His parents did that. He’s never liked you or been really kind to you.’
‘He thinks I’ve spoiled his life.’
‘With Meggie, you mean. Picture Meg and Maurice married!’ He laughed and kissed her temple, and, feeling her silky brow touch his cheek, he kissed that, too.
She said: ‘I can picture that more easily than I can our own marriage. I feel as though we should go on and on, meeting and parting like this forever. In a way, I think I’d like it better, too.’
‘Better than being married to me? Look here, Pheasant, you’re just trying to hurt me! ’
‘No, really. It’s so beautiful, meeting like this. All day I’m in a kind of dream, waiting for it; then after it comes the night, and you ’re in the very heart of me all night.’
‘What if I were beside you?’
‘It could n’t be so lovely. It could n’t. Then in the morning, the moment I waken,
I am counting the hours till we meet again. Maurice might not exist. I scarcely see or hear him.’
‘Dreams don’t satisfy me, Pheasant. This way of living is torture to me. Every day as the spring goes on it’s a greater torture. I want you — not dreams of you.’
‘Don’t you love our meeting like this?’
‘Don’t be silly! You know what I mean.’ He moved away from her on the stile and lighted a cigarette. ‘Now,’ he went on, in a hard, businesslike tone, ‘let us take it for granted that we’re going to be married. We are, are n’t we? Are we going to be married, eh?’
‘Yes. — You might offer me a cigarette.’
He gave her one and lighted it for her.
‘Very well. Can you tell me any reason for hanging back? I’m twenty, you’re seventeen. Marriageable ages, eh?’
‘Too young, they say.’
‘Rot. They would like us to wait till we’re too decrepit to creep to this stile. I’m valuable to Renny. He’s paying me decent wages. I know Renny. He’s goodnatured at bottom for all his temper. He’d never dream of putting me out. There’s lots of room at Jalna. One more would never be noticed.’
‘Meg does n’t like me. I’m rather afraid of her.’
‘Afraid of Meggie! Oh, you little coward! She’s gentle as a lamb. And Gran always liked you. I’ll tell you what, Pheasant, we ’ll stand in with Gran. She has a lot of influence with the family. If we make ourselves pleasant to her there ’s no knowing what she may do for us. She’s often said that I am more like my grandfather than any of the others, and she thinks he was the finest man that ever lived.’
‘ What about Renny? She’s always talking about his being a perfect Court. Anyhow, I expect her will was made before we were born.’
‘Yes, but she’s always changing it or pretending that she does. Only last week she had her lawyer out for hours, and the whole family was upset. Wake peeked in at the keyhole and he said all she did was feed the old fellow peppermints. Still, you can never tell.’ He shook his head sagaciously and then heaved a gusty sigh. ‘One thing is absolutely certain. I can’t go on like this.
I ’ve either got to get married or go away. It’s affecting my nerves. I scarcely knew what I was eating at dinner to-day, and such a hullabaloo there was over this book of Eden’s. Good Lord! Poetry! Think of it! And at tea time Finch had come home with a bad report from one of his masters and there was another row. It raged for an hour.’
But Pheasant had heard nothing but the calculated cruelty of the words ‘go away. She turned toward him a frightened, wideeyed face.
‘Go away! How can you say such a thing? You know I’d die in this place without you!’
‘How pale you’ve got,’ he observed, peering into her face. ‘Why are you turning pale? Surely it woidd n’t matter to you if I went away. You could go right on dreaming about me, you know.’
Pheasant burst into tears and began to scramble down from the stile. ‘If you think I’ll stop here to be tortured!’ she cried, and began to run from him.
‘Yet you expect me to stay and be tortured!’ he shouted.
She ran into the dusk across the wet meadow, and he sat obstinately staring after her, wondering if her will would hold out till she reached the other side. Already her steps seemed to be slackening. Still her figure became less clear. What if she should run on and on till she reached home, leaving him alone on the stile with all his love turbulent within him? The mere thought of that was enough to make him jump down and begin to run after her, but even as he did so he saw her coming slowly back, and he clambered again to his seat just in time to save his dignity.
She stopped within ten paces of him.
‘Very well,’ she said, in a husky voice, ‘I’ll do it.’
He was acutely aware of her nearness in every sensitive nerve, but he puffed stolidly at his cigarette a moment before he asked gruffly: —
‘ When ? ’
‘ Whenever you say.’ Her head drooped and she gave a childish sob.
‘Come here, you little baggage,’ he ordered peremptorily.
But when he had her on the stile again a most delicious tenderness took possession of him, and withal a thrilling sense of power. He uttered endearments and commands with his face against her hair.
All the way home he was full of lightness and strength, though he had worked hard that day. Halfway down the steep into the ravine a branch of an oak projected across the path above him. He leaped up and caught it with his hands, and so hung aloof from the earth that seemed too prosaic for his light feet. He swung himself gently a moment, looking up at the stars that winked at him through the young leaves. A rabbit ran along the path beneath, quite unaware of him. His mind was no longer disturbed by anxiety, but free and exultant. He felt himself one with the wild things of the wood. It was spring and he had chosen his mate.
When he crossed the lawn he saw that the drawing-room was lighted. Playing cards, as usual, he supposed. He went to one of the French windows and looked in. By the fire he could see a table drawn up, at which sat his grandmother and his uncle Ernest playing at draughts. She was wrapped in a bright green-and-red plaid shawl, and wearing a much-beribboned cap. Evidently she was beating him, for her teeth were showing in a broad grin and a burst of loud laughter made the bridge players at the other table turn in their chairs with looks of annoyance. The long, aquiline face of Uncle Ernest drooped wistfully above the board. On the blackened walnut mantelpiece Sasha lay curled beside a china shepherdess, her gaze fixed on her master with a kind of ecstatic contempt.
At the bridge table sat Renny, Meg, Nicholas, and Mr. Fennel, the rector. The faces of all were illumined by firelight, their expressions intensified: Nicholas, sardonic, watchful; Renny, frowning, puzzled; Meg, sweet, complacent; Mr. Fennel, pulling his beard and glowering.
Poor creatures, all, thought Piers, as he let himself in at the side door and softly ascended the stair — playing their little games, their paltry pastimes, while he played the great game of life!
A light showed underneath Eden’s door.
More poetry, more paltry pastime. Had Eden ever loved? If he had, he’d kept it well to himself. Probably he only loved his Muse. His Muse — ha! ha! He heard Eden groan. So it hurt, did it, loving the pretty Muse? Poetry had its pain, then! He gave a passing thump to the door.
‘Want any help in there?’
’ You go to hell,’ rejoined the young poet, ‘unless you happen to have a rag about you. I’ve upset the ink.’
Piers poked his head in at the door.
‘My shirt is n’t much better than a rag,’ he said. ‘I can let you have that.’
Eden was mopping the stained baize top of the desk with blotting paper. On a sheet of a writing pad was neatly written what looked like the beginning of a poem.
‘I suppose you get fun out of it,’ remarked Piers.
‘More than you get from chasing a girl about the wood at night.’
‘Look here, you’d better be careful!’ Piers raised his voice threateningly, but Eden smiled and sat down at his desk once more.
It was uncanny, Piers thought, as he went on to his room. However had Eden guessed? Was it because he was a poet? He had always felt, though he had given the matter but little thought, that a poet would be an uncommonly unpleasant person to have in the house, and now they had a full-fledged one at Jalua. He did n’t like it at all. The first bloom of his happy mood was gone as he opened the door into his bedroom.
He shared it with sixteen-year-old Finch. Finch was now humped over his Euclid, an expression of extreme melancholy lengthening his already long, sallow face. He had been the centre of a whirlpool of discussion and criticism all tea time, and the effect was to make his brain, never quite under his control, completely unmanageable. He had gone over the same problem six or seven times and now it meant nothing to him, no more than a senseless nursery rhyme. He had stolen one of Piers’s cigarettes to see if it would help him out. He had made the most of it, inhaling slowly, savoring each puff, retaining the stub between his bony fingers till they and even his lips were burned, but it had done no good. When he heard Piers at the door he had dropped the stub, a mere crumb, to the floor and set his foot on it.
Now he glanced sullenly at Piers out of the corners of his long, light eyes.
Piers sniffed. ‘H’m. Smoking, eh? One of my fags, too, I bet. I’ll just thank you to leave them alone, young man. Do you think I can supply you with smokes? Besides, you’re not allowed.’
Finch returned to his Euclid with increased melancholy. If he could not master it when he was alone, certainly he should never learn it with Piers in the room. That robust, domineering presence would crush the last spark of intelligence from his brain. He had always been afraid of Piers. All his life he had been kept in a state of subjection by him. He resented it, but he saw no way out of it. Piers was strong, handsome, a favorite. He was none of these things. And yet he loved all his family, in a secret, sullen way — even Piers, who was so rough with him. Now, if Piers had been some brothers, one might ask him to give one a helping hand with the Euclid. Piers had been good at the rotten stuff. But it would never do to ask Piers for help. He was too impatient, too intolerant of a fellow who got mixed up for nothing.
’I’d thank you,’ continued Piers, ‘to let my fags, likewise my handkerchiefs, socks, and ties, alone. If you want to pinch other people’s property, pinch Eden’s. He’s a poet and probably does n’t know what he has.’ He grinned at his reflection in the glass as he took off his collar and tie.
When Piers had divested himself of all his clothes he threw open the window. A chill night wind rushed in. Finch shivered as it embraced him. He wondered how Piers stood it on his bare skin. It fluttered the pages of a French exercise all about the room. There was no use in trying — he could not do the problem.
Piers, in his pajamas now, jumped into bed. He lay staring at Finch with bright blue eyes, whistling softly. Finch began to gather up his books.
‘All finished?’ asked Piers, politely. ‘You got through in a hurry, did n’t you?’
‘I’m not through,’ bawled Finch. ‘Do you imagine I can work with a cold blast like that on my back and you staring at me in front? It just means I’ll have to get up early and finish before breakfast.’
Piers became sarcastic. ‘You’re very temperamental, are n’t you? You ’ll be writing poetry next. I dare say you’ve tried it already. Do you know, I think it would be a good thing for you to go down to New York in the Easter holidays and see if you can find a publisher.’
‘Shut up,’ growled Finch, ‘and let me alone.’
Piers was very happy. He was too happy for sleep. It would ease his high spirits to bait young Finch. He lay watching him speculatively while he undressed his long, lanky body. Finch might develop into a distinguished-looking man. There was something arresting even now in his face, but he had a hungry, haunted look, and he was uncomfortably aware of his long wrists and legs. He always sat in some ungainly posture, and, when spoken to suddenly, would glare up, half defensively, half timidly, as though expecting a blow. Truth to tell, he had had a good many, some quite undeserved.
Piers regarded his thin frame with contemptuous amusement. He offered pungent criticisms of Finch’s prominent shoulderblades, ribs, and various other portions of his anatomy. At last the boy, trembling with anger and humiliation, got into his nightshirt, turned out the light, and Scrambled over Piers to his place next the wall. He curled himself up with a sigh of relief. It had been a nervous business scrambling over Piers. He had half expected to be grabbed by the ankle and put to some new torture. But he had gained his corner in safety. The day, with its miseries, was over. He stretched out his long limbs.
They lay still, side by side, in the peaceful dark. At length Piers spoke in a low, accusing tone.
‘You did n’t say your prayers. What do you mean by getting into bed without saying your prayers ? ’
Finch was staggered. This was something new. Piers, of all people, after him about prayers! There was something ominous about it.
‘I forgot,’ he returned, heavily.
‘Well, you’ve no right to forget. It’s an important thing at your time of life to pray long and earnestly. If you prayed more and sulked less, you’d be healthier and happier.’
‘Rot. What are you givin’ us?’
‘I’m in dead earnest. Out you get and say your prayers.’
‘You don’t pray yourself,’ complained Finch, bitterly. ‘You have n’t said prayers for years.’
‘That’s nothing to you. I’ve a special compact with the devil, and he looks after his own. But you, my little lamb, must be separated from the goats.’
‘Oh, let me alone,’ growled Finch. ‘I’m sleepy. Let me alone.’
‘Get up and say your prayers.’
‘Oh, Piers, don’t be a —’
‘Be careful what you call me. Get out.’
‘Shan’t.’ He clutched the blankets desperately, for he feared what was coming.
‘You won’t get up, eh? You won’t say your prayers, eh? I’ve got to force you, eh? ’
With each question Piers’s strong fingers sought a tenderer spot in Finch’s anatomy.
‘Oh — oh — oh — Piers — please — let me up! Ow — eee — eeeF With a last terrible squeak Finch was out on the floor. He stood rubbing Ids side cautiously. Then he almost blubbered: ‘What do you want me to do, anyway?’
‘ I want you to say your prayers properly. I’m not going to have you start being lax at your age. Down on your knees.’
Finch dropped to his knees on the cold floor. Kneeling by the bedside in the pale moonlight, he was a pathetic young figure. But the sight held no pathos for Piers.
‘Now, then,’ he said, ‘fire away.’
Finch pressed has face against his clenched hands.
‘Why don’t you begin?’ asked Piers, rising on his elbow, and speaking testily.
‘I—I have begun,’ came in a muffled voice.
‘I can’t hear you. How do you expect the Almighty to hear you if I can’t? Speak up.’
‘I c-can’t! I won’t!'
‘You shall. Or you’ll be sorry.’
In the stress of the moment, all Finch’s prayers left him, as earlier all his Euclid had done. In the dim chaos of his soul only two words of supplication remained.
‘Oh, God,’ he muttered hoarsely, and, because he could think of nothing else and must pray or be abused by that devil Piers, he repeated the words again and again in a hollow, shaking voice.
Piers lay listening blandly. He thought Finch the most ridiculous duffer he had ever known. He was a mystery Piers would never fathom. Suddenly he thought: ‘I’m fed up with this,’ and said: —
‘Enough, enough! It’s not much of a prayer you’ve made, but still you ’ve a nice, intimate way with the Almighty. You’d make a good Methodist of the Holy Roarer variety.’ He added, not unkindly, ‘Hop into bed now.’
But Finch would not hop. He clutched the counterpane and went on sobbing, ‘Oh, God!’ The room was full of the presence of the Deity to him, now wearing the face of the terrible, austere Old-Testament God, now, miraculously, the handsome, sneering face of Piers. Only a rap on the head brought him to his senses. He somehow got his long body back into bed, shivering all over.
Eden threw the door open. ‘One might as well,’ he complained in a high voice, ‘live next door to a circus. You ’re the most disgusting young . . .’ and he delivered himself of some atrocious language. He interrupted himself to ask, cocking his head, ‘Is he crying? What’s he crying for?’
‘Just low-spirited, I expect,’ replied Piers, in a sleepy voice.
‘What are you crying for, Finch?’
‘Let me alone, can’t you?’ screamed Finch, in a sudden fury. ‘ Y’ou let me alone! ’
‘I think he’s sniveling over his report. Renny was up in the air about it,’ said Piers.
‘Oh, is that it? Well, study will do more than sniveling to help that.’ And Eden disappeared as he had come.
The two brothers lay in the moonlight. Finch was quiet save for an occasional gulp. Piers’s feelings toward him were magnanimous now. He was such a helpless young fool. Piers thought it rather hard that he had been born between Eden and Finch. Wedged in between a poet and a fool. What a sandwich! Of a certainty he was the meaty part.
His thoughts turned to Pheasant. She was of never-failing interest to him — her pretty gestures, her reckless way of throwing her heart open to him, her sudden withdrawals, the remoteness of her profile. He could see her face in the moonlight as though she were in the room with him. Soon she would be, instead of snuffling young Finch! He loved her with every inch of his body. He alone of all the people in Jalna knew what real love was. Strange that, being absorbed by love as he was, he should have time to play with young Finch and make him miserable. No denying that there lurked a mischievous devil in him. Then, too, he had suffered so much anxiety lately that to have everything settled, to be certain of having his own way, made him feel like a young horse suddenly turned out into the spring pastures, ready to run and kick, and bite his best friend from sheer high spirits.
Poor old Finch! He gave the bedclothes a jerk over Finch’s protruding shoulder and put his arm around him.
Two weeks later Pheasant awakened one morning at sunrise. She could not sleep because it was her wedding day. She jumped out of bed and ran to the window to see whether the heavens were to smile on her.
The sky was radiant as a golden sea, and just above the sun a cloud shaped like a great red whale floated as in a dream. Below her window, shutting in the lawn, the cherry orchard had burst into a sudden perfection of bloom. The young trees stood in snowy rows like expectant young girls awaiting their first communion. A cowbell was jangling down in the ravine.
Pheasant leaned across the sill, her cropped brown hair all on end, her nightdress falling from one slim shoulder. She was happy because of the gay serenity of the morning, because the cherry trees had come into bloom for her wedding day; yet she was depressed, because it was her wedding day and she had nothing new to wear. Besides, she would have to go to live at Jalna, where nobody wanted her except Piers.
She was to meet him at two o’clock. He had borrowed a car, and they were to drive to Steed to be married. This was outside Mr. Fennel’s parish. Then they were to go to the city for the night, but they must be back at Jalna the next day because Piers was anxious about the spring sowing. What sort of reception would the family at Jalna give them? They had been kind always, but would they be kind to her as Piers’s wife? Still, Piers would take care of her. She would face the world with him at her side.
She drummed her white fingers on the sill, watching the sun twinkle on her engagement ring, which thus far she had dared to wear only at night. She thought of that blissful moment when each had stared into the other’s face, watching love flower there like the cherry tree bursting into bloom. She would love him always, let him cuddle his head against her shoulder at night, and go into the fields with him in the morning. She was glad he had chosen the land as his job, instead of one of the professions. She was too ignorant to be the wife of a learned young man. To Piers she could unfold her childish speculations about life without embarrassment.
For the hundredth time she examined the few clothes she had laid in an immense shabby portmanteau for her wedding journey: her patent-leather shoes and her one pair of silk stockings, a pink organdy dress, really too small for her, four handkerchiefs, — well, she had plenty of them, at least, and one never knew when one might shed tears, — a nightdress, and an India shawl that had been her grandmother’s. She did not suppose she would need the shawl, — she had never worn it except when playing at being grown up, but it helped to make a more impressive trousseau, and it might be necessary to have a wrap at dinner in the hotel, or if they went to the opera. She felt somewhat cheered as she replaced them and fastened the spongy leather straps; after all, they might have been fewer and worse!
She got out her darning things and mended, or rather puckered together, a large hole in the heel of the brown stockings she was to wear on the journey. She mended the torn buttonholes of her brown coat, sprinkled a prodigious amount of cheap perfume over the little brown dress that lay in a drawer ready to put on, and found herself chilled, for she had not yet dressed.
She hastily put on her clothes, washed her face, and combed her hair, staring at herself in the glass. She thought dismally: ‘Certainly I am no beauty. Nannie has trimmed my hair badly. I’m far too thin, and I have n’t at all that sleek look becoming in a bride. No one could imagine a wreath of orange blossoms on my head. A punchinello’s cap would be more appropriate. Ah, well, there have been worselooking girls led to the altar, I dare say.’
Maurice Vaughan was already at the table, eating sausages and fried potatoes. He did not say good-morning, but he put some of the food on a plate and pushed it toward her. Presently he said: ‘Jim Martin is coming with a man from Brancepeth today. Have Nannie put the dinner off till one. We’ll be busy.’
Pheasant was aghast. She was to meet Piers at two. How should she get away in time? And if she did not turn up for dinner Maurice might make inquiries, get suspicious. Her hands shook as she poured her tea. She could not properly see the breakfast things.
Maurice stared at her coldly. ‘Did you hear what I said?’ he asked. ‘What’s the matter with you this morning?’
‘I was busy thinking. Yes, you want dinner at two, I heard.’
‘I said one o’clock. I’d better give the order myself, if you have n’t the wit.’
Pheasant regained her self-possession.
‘How easily you get out of temper,’ she said, coolly. ‘Of course I’ll remember. I hope Mr. Martin will be soberer than he was the last time he was here. He put a pickle in his tea instead of sugar, and slept all evening, I remember, in his chair.’
‘I dare say you don’t. You were pretty far gone yourself.’
Vaughan burst out laughing. The audacities of this only half-acknowledged young daughter of his amused him. Yet, perversely, when she was meek and eager to please he was often unkind to her, seeming to take pleasure in observing how she had inherited a capacity for suffering equal to his own.
Maurice Vaughan was the grandson and the only male descendant of the Colonel Vaughan whose letters had persuaded Philip Whiteoak to remove westward from Quebec. He was an only child, who had come to his parents late in life. He had been too gently reared, and had grown into a heavily built, indolent, arrogant youth, feeling himself intellectually above all his associates, even Renny Whiteoak, whom he loved. At twenty lie nourished the illusion that he would become a great man in the affairs of his country with no effort on his part. At twenty-one he became engaged to Meg Whiteoak, charmed by that ineffably sweet smile of hers and her drowsy quiescence toward himself. The parents of the two were almost beside themselves with pleasure.
Meggie would not be hurried. A year’s engagement was proper, and a year’s engagement she would have. Maurice, idle and elegant, attracted the attention of a pretty, sharp-featured village girl, Elvira Gray. She took to picking brambleberries in the wood where Maurice slouched about with his gun, the same wood where Piers and Pheasant now met. Maurice, while he waited impatiently for Meg, was comforted by the love of Elvira.
A month before the marriage was to take place, a tiny bundle containing a baby was laid one summer night on the Vaughans’ doorstep. Old Mr. Vaughan, awakened by its faint cry, went downstairs in bis slippers, opened the front door, and found the bundle, on which a note was pinned, which read: —
‘Maurice Vaughan is the father of this baby. Please be kind to it. It has n’t harmed no one.’
Mr. Vaughan fell in a faint on the steps and was found, lying beside the baby, by a farm laborer who read the note and quickly spread the news. The child was carried into the house, and the news of its arrival to Jalna.
As proper in the heroine of such a tragedy, Meg locked herself in her room and refused to see anyone. She refused to eat. Maurice, after a heart-rending morning with his parents, during which he acknowledged everything, went and hid himself in the wood.
It was found that Elvira, an orphan, had disappeared.
Meg’s father, accompanied by his brothers, Nicholas and Ernest, went to thrash out the matter with Mr. Vaughan. They were quite twenty years younger than he, but they all raged around the poor distracted man at once, in true Whitcoak fashion. Still, in spite of their outraged feelings, they agreed that the engagement was not to be broken, that the marriage must take place at the appointed time. A home could be found for the baby. They drove back to Jalna, after having had some stiff drinks, feeling that everything had been patched up, and it would be a lesson to the young fool, though rather rough on Meggie.
Meggie could not be persuaded to leave her room. Trays of food placed outside her door were left untouched. One night, after four days of misery, young Maurice rode over to Jalna on his beautiful chestnut mare. He threw a handful of gravel against Meggie’s window and called her name. She made no answer. He repeated it with tragic insistence. Finally Meg appeared in the bright moonlight, framed as a picture by the vine-clad window. She sat with her elbow on the sill and her chin on her palm, listening while he, standing with the mare’s bridle over his arm, poured out his contrition. She listened impassively, with her face raised moonward, till he had done, and then said: ‘It is all over. I cannot marry you, Maurice. I shall never marry anyone.’
Maurice could not and would not believe her. He was unprepared for such relentless stubbornness beneath such a sweet exterior. He explained and implored for two hours. He tlirew himself on the ground and wept, while the mare cropped the grass beside him.
Renny, whose room was next Meg’s, could bear it no longer. He flew downstairs to Maurice’s side and joined his supplications to his friend’s in rougher language. Nothing could move Meggie. She listened to the impassioned appeals of the two youths with tears raining down her pale cheeks; then, with a final gesture of farewell, she closed the window.
Meggie was interviewed by each of her elders in turn. Her father, her uncles, her young stepmother, — who had hoped so soon to be rid of her! — all exercised their powers of reasoning with her.
Meggie emerged from her retirement pale but tranquil. Her life suffered little outward derangement from this betrayal of her affections. However, she cared less for going out with other young people, and spent many hours in her bedroom. It was at this time that she acquired the habit of eating almost nothing at the table, getting ample nourishment from agreeable little lunches carried to her room. She became more and more devoted to her brothers, pouring out on them a devotion with which she sought to drown the image of her lover.
Maurice never again came nearer to Jalna than its stables. The friendship between him and Renny still endured. Together they went through the hardships of the War years later. When Pheasant was three years old, Mr. and Mrs. Vaughan died within the year, and she was left to the care of an unloving young father, whom she could already call Maurice. Misfortune followed close upon bereavement. Mining stocks in which nearly all of the Vaughan’s money was invested became worthless, and Maurice’s income declined from ten thousand a year to less than two. He made something from breeding horses, but as Pheasant grew up she never knew what it was to have two coins to rub together or attractive garments with which to clothe her young body. The thousand acres bought from the government by the first Vaughan had dwindled to three hundred. Of these only fifty lay under cultivation. The rest were in pasture and massive oak woods. The ravine that traversed Jalna narrowly spread into a valley through Vaughanlands, ending in a shallow basin in the middle of which stood the house, with hanging shutters, sagging porch, and mossgrown roof.
The one servant now kept was an old Scotchwoman, Nannie, who spoke but rarely, and then in a voice scarcely above a whisper. Beside Jalna, teeming with loud-voiced, intimate, inquisitive people, Vaughanlands seemed but an echoing shell, the three who dwelt there holding aloof in annihilating self-absorption.
Dinner at one, instead of half past twelve as usual, threw Pheasairt ’s plans into confusion. She felt suddenly weak, defenseless, insecure. She felt afraid of herself. Afraid that she would suddenly cry out to Maurice : ‘ I’m going to run away to be married at half past one! Dinner must be at the regular time!'
Instead of this she said meekly: ‘Oh, Maurice, I’m afraid I’ll have to take my dinner at half past twelve. I ’ve an appointment with the dentist in Steed at two o’clock.’
She wondered why she had said that, for she had never been to a dentist in her life. She did not know the name of one.
‘ What are you making appointments with the dentist for?’ he growded. ‘ What’s the matter with your teeth?’
‘I’ve been troubled by toothache lately,’ she said, truthfully, and he remembered an irritating smell of liniment about her at odd times.
They went on with their breakfast in silence; she, a wave of relief sweeping over her at the absence of active opposition, drinking cup after cup of strong tea; he, thinking that after all it were better the child should not be at the table with the two men who were coming. Martin had a rough tongue. But then, what was the use of trying to protect Pheasant? She was her mother’s daughter and he had had no respect for her mother, and he had very little for himself, her father. All the beastly allegations current about the countryside against him since his first mishap were not true, but they had damaged his opinion of himself, his dignity. He knew he was considered a rip, and always would be, even when the patch of white coming above one temple spread over his whole head.
As for Pheasant, she was filled by sudden unaccountable compassion for him. Poor Maurice! To-morrow morning, and all the mornings to come, he would be eating breakfast alone. To be sure they seldom spoke, but still she was there beside him; she carried his messages to Nannie; she poured his tea; and she had always gone with him to admire the new colts. Well, perhaps, when she was not there, he would be sorry that he had not been nicer to her!
When Maurice had swallowed the last mouthful of tea, he rose slowly and went to the bow window, which, being shadowed by a verandah, gave only a greenish half light into the room.
He stood with his back toward her and said: ‘Come here.’
Pheasant started up from her chair, all nerves. What was he going to do to her? She had a mind to run from the room. She gasped: ‘What do you want?’
‘ I want you to come here.’
She went to his side with an assumed nonchalance.
‘You seem to be playing the heavy father this morning,’ she said.
‘I want to see that tooth you’re talking about.’
‘I was n’t talking about it. It’s you who are talking about it. I only said I was going to have it filled.’
‘Please open your mouth,’ he said, testily, putting his hand under her chin.
She prayed, ‘Oh, God, let there be a large hole in it,’ and opened her mouth so widely that she looked like a young robin beseeching food.
‘H’m,’ growled Maurice. ‘It should have been attended to some time ago.’ He added, giving her chin a grudging stroke: ‘You’ve pretty little teeth. Get the fellow to fix them up properly.’
Pheasant stared. He was being almost loving. At this late hour! He had stroked her chin — given it a little dab with his fingers, anyway. She felt suddenly angry with him. The idea of getting demonstratively affectionate with her at this late hour! Making it harder for her to leave him.
‘Thanks,’ she said. ‘I’ll be a beauty if I keep on, shan’t I?’
He answered seriously: ‘You ’re too skinny for beauty. But you’ll fill out. You’re nothing but a filly.’
‘This is the way fillies show their pleasure,’ she said, and rubbed her head against his shoulder. ‘I wish I could whinny! But I can bite.’
‘I know you can,’ he said, gravely. ‘You bit me when you were five. And I held your head under the tap for it.’
She was glad he had reminded her of that episode. It would be easier to leave him after that.
He went into the hall and took his hat from a peg.
‘Good-bye,’ she called after him.
She watched him go along the path toward the stables, filling his pipe, walking with his peculiar, slouching, hangdog gait. She threw open the window and called after him: ‘Oh, hullo, Maurice!’
‘Yes?’ he answered, half wheeling.
‘ Oh — good-bye! ’
‘Well — I’ll be—’ she heard him mutter, as he went on.
He must think her a regular little fool. But, after all, it was a very serious goodbye. The next time they met — if ever they met again — she would be a different person. She would have an honorable name — a name with which she could face the world. She would be Mrs. Piers Whiteoak.
He had arrived on the very tick of two. She had been there twenty minutes earlier, very hot, but pale from excitement and fatigue; she had jogged — sometimes breaking into a run — for nearly half a mile, lugging the heavy portmanteau. She had been in a state of panic at the approach of every vehicle, thinking she was pursued. Three times she had fled to the shelter of a group of wayside cedars to hide while a wagon lumbered or a car sped by.
Piers stowed the portmanteau in the back of the car, and she flung herself into the seat beside him. He started the car — a poor old rattletrap, but washed for the occasion — with a jerk. He looked absurdly Sundayish in his rigid best serge suit, with an expression rather more wooden than exultant.
‘They needed this car at home to-day,’ he said. ‘I’d a hard time getting away.’
‘So had I. Maurice was having two guests to dinner, and it had to be later, and he wanted me there to receive them.’
‘H’m. Who were they?’
‘A Mr. Martin. And another man. Both horse breeders.’
‘ Receive them! Good Lord! You do say ridiculous things!’ She subsided into her corner, crushed. Was this what it was like to elope? A taciturn, soap-shining lover in a bowler hat who called one ridiculous just at the moment when he should have been in an ecstasy of daring and protective love!
‘I think you’re very arrogant,’ she said.
‘Perhaps I am,’ he agreed, letting the speed out. ‘I can’t help it if I am,’ he added, not without complacence. ‘It’s in the blood, I expect.’
She took off her hat and let the wind ruffle her hair. Road signs rushed past, black-and-white cattle in fields, cherry orchards in full bloom, and apple orchards just coming into bud.
He remarked: ‘Gran said at dinner that I need disciplining. You’ll have to do it, Pheasant.’ He looked around at her, smiling, and seeing her with her hair ruffled, her eyes shining, he added: ‘You precious darling!’
He snatched a kiss, and Pheasant put her hand on the wheel beside his. They both stared at the hand, thinking how soon the wedding ring must outshine the engagement ring in importance. They experienced a strange mixture of sensations, feeling at the same moment like runaway children (for they had both been kept down by their elders) and like tremendous adventurers, not afraid of anything in this shining spring world.
They were married by the rector of Steed, a new man who had barely heard the names of their families, with perhaps a picturesque anecdote attached. Piers was so sunburnt and solid that he looked like nothing but an ordinary young countryman, and Pheasant’s badly cut dress and cheap shoes transformed her young grace into coltish awkwardness. He hoped they would come regularly to his church, he said, and he gave them some very good advice, in the cool vestry. When they had gone and he examined the fee which Piers had given him in an envelope, he was surprised at its size, for Piers was determined to carry everything through as a Whiteoak should.
As they flew along the road which ran like a trimming of white braid on the brown shore that skirted the lake, Piers began to shout and sing in an ecstasy of achievement.
‘We’re man and wife!’ he chanted. ‘Man and wife! Pheasant and Piers! Man and wife!’
He stopped the wagon of a fruit vender and bought oranges, of which Pheasant thrust sections into his mouth as he drove, and ate greedily herself, for excitement made them thirsty. As they neared the suburbs of the city she threw the rinds into the ditch and scrubbed her lips and hands on her handkerchief. She put on her hat and sat upright, her hands in her lap, feeling that everyone who met them must realize that they were newly married.
Piers had spoken for rooms in the hotel which the Whiteoaks had frequented for three generations. He had not been there very much himself — a few times to dinner in company with Renny, twice for birthday treats as a small boy with Uncle Nicholas.
Now on his wedding day he had taken one of the best bedrooms with bath adjoining. His blood was all in his head as the clerk gave a surreptitious smile and handed the key to a boy. The boy went lopsidedly before them to the bedroom, lugging the antiquated portmanteau. All the white closed doors along the corridor made Pheasant feel timid. She fancied there were ears against all the panels, eyes to the keyholes. What if Maurice should suddenly pounce out on them? Or Renny? Or terrible Grandmothcr Whiteoak ?
When they were alone in the spacious, heavily furnished hotel bedroom, utterly alone with only the deep rumble of the traffic below to remind them of the existence of the world, a sudden feeling of frozen dignity, of aloofness from each other, took possession of them.
He said: ‘Not a bad room, eh? Think you’ll be comfortable here?’ And he added, almost challengingly: ‘It’s one of the best rooms in the hotel, but — if there’s anything you’d like different—’
‘Oh, no. It’s nice. It ’ll do nicely, thank you.’
Could they be the young runaway couple who had raced along the lake-shore road, singing and eating oranges?
‘There’s your bag,’ he said, indicating the ponderous portmanteau.
‘Yes,’ she agreed. ‘I’ve got the bag all right.’
‘I wonder what we’d better do first,’ he said, staring at her. She looked so strange to him in this new setting that he felt as though he were really seeing her for the first time.
‘What time is it?’
' Half past five.’
She noticed then that the sun had disappeared behind a building across the street, and that the room lay in a yellowish shadow7. Evening wms coming.
‘Had n’t you better send the telegrams?’ she said.
‘ I expect I had. I ’ll go down and do that, and see that we’ve a table reserved; and, look here, should n’t you like to go to the theatre to-night?’
Pheasant was thrilled at that. ‘Oh, I’d love the theatre! Is there something good on?’
‘I’ll find out, and get tickets, and you can be changing. Now about those telegrams. How would it do if I just sent one to Renny, something like this: “Pheasant and I married. Home to-morrow. Tell Maurice.” Would that be all right?’
‘No,’ she said, firmly. ‘Maurice must have a telegram all to himself, from me. Say, “Dear Maurice — ”’
‘Good Lord! You can’t begin a telegram, “Dear Maurice.” It is n’t done. Tell me what you w’ant to say and I’ll put it in the proper form.’
Pheasant spoke in an incensed tone: ‘See here, is this your telegram or mine? I’ve never written a letter or sent a telegram to Maurice in my life, and I probably never shall again. So it’s going to begin “Dear Maurice.’”
‘All right, my girl. Fire away.’
‘Say, “Dear Maurice. Piers and I are married. Tell Nannie. Yours sincerely, Pheasant.” That will do.’
biers could not conceal his mirth at such a telegram, but he promised to send it, and after giving her body a convulsive squeeze, and receiving a kiss on the sunburnt bridge of his nose, he left her.
She was alone. She was married. All the old life was over and the new just beginning. She went to the dressing table and stood before the three-sectioned mirror. It was wonderful to see her own face there, from all sides at once. She felt that she had never really seen herself before — no wonder her reflection looked surprised. She turned this way and that, tilting her head like a pretty bird. She took off her brown dress and stood enthralled by the reflection of her charms in knickers and little white camisole. She turned on the electric light, and made a tableau with her slender milky arms upraised and her eyes half closed. She wished she could spend a long time playing with these magical reflections, but Piers might come back and find her not dressed.
A bell in some tower struck six.
She saw that her hands needed washing and hoped there would be soap in the bathroom. She gasped when she had pressed the electric button and flooded the room with a hard white light. The fierce splendor of it dazzled her. At home there was a bathroom with a bare floor on which stood an ancient green tin bath, battered and disreputable. The towels were old and fuzzy, leaving bits of lint all over one’s body, and the cake of soap was always like jelly, because Maurice would leave it in the water. Here were glistening tile and marble, nickel polished like new silver, an enormous tub of virgin whiteness, and a row of towels fit only for a bride. ‘And, by my halidom,’ she exclaimed, for she was devoted to Sir Walter Scott, ‘I am the bride!’
She locked herself in and took a bath, almost reverently.
Her hair was sleekly brushed and she was doing up her pink-and-white dress when Piers arrived. He had sent off the telegrams (and not neglected the ’Dear’ for Maurice!) and had got orchestra seats for a Russian vaudeville. He took her to the Ladies’ Drawing Room and set her in a white-and-gold chair, where she waited while he scrubbed and beautified himself.
They were at their own table in a corner where they could see the entire dining room; rows and rows of white-clothed tables, glimmering with silver, beneath shaded lights; a red-faced waiter with little dabs of whisker before his ears, who took a fatherly interest in their dinner.
Piers ordered the dinner. Delicious soup. A tiny piece of fish with a strange sauce. Roast chicken. Asparagus. Beautiful but rather frightening French pastries — one hardly knew how to eat them. Strawberries like dissolving jewels. (' But where do they come from, Piers, at this time of year?’) Such dark coffee. Little gold-tipped cigarettes, specially bought for her. The scented smoke circled about their heads, accentuating their isolation.
Four men at the table next them did not seem able to keep their eyes off her. They talked earnestly to each other, but their eyes, every now and again, would slide toward her, and sometimes, she was sure, they were talking about her. The odd thing was that the consciousness of their attention did not confuse her. It exhilarated her, gave her a certainty of poise and freedom of gesture she otherwise would not have had.
She had carried the gold-embroidered India shawl that had been her grandmother’s down to dinner, and when she became aware that these four dark men were watching her, speculating about her, some instinct, newly awakened, told her to put the shawl about her shoulders, told her that there was something about the shawl that suited her better than the little pinkand-white dress. She held it closely about her, sitting erect, looking straight into Piers’s flushed face, but she was conscious of every glance, every whisper from the four at the next table.
When she and Piers passed the men on their way out, one of them was brushed by the fringe of her shawl. His dark eyes were raised to her face, and he inclined his head toward the shawl as though he sought the light caress from it. He was a man of about forty. Pheasant felt that the shawl was a magic shawl, that she floated in it, that it bewitched all it touched. Her small brown head rose out of its gorgeousness like a sleek flower.
The Russian company was a new and strange experience. It opened the gates of an undreamed-of and exotic world. She heard the ‘Volga Boat Song’ sung in a purple twilight by only dimly discerned foreign seamen. She heard the ragings and pleadings in a barbarous tongue when a savage crew threw their captain’s mistress overboard because she had brought them ill luck. The most humorous acts had no smile from her. They were enthralling, but never for a moment funny. The moon-faced showman, with his jargon of languages, had a dreadful fascination for her, but she saw nothing amusing in his patter. To her he was the terrifying magician who had created all this riot of noise and color. He was a sinister man, at whom one gazed breathlessly, gripping Piers’s hand beneath the shawl. She had never been in a theatre before. And Piers sat, brown-faced, solid, smiling steadily at the stage, and giving her fingers a steady pressure.
As they passed through the foyer, there was a dense crowd that surged without haste toward the outer doors. Pheasant pressed close to Piers, looking with shy curiosity into the faces about her. Then someone just behind her took her wrist in his hand, and slid his other hand lightly along her bare arm to beneath the shoulder, where it rested a moment in casual caress, then was withdrawn.
Pheasant trembled all over, but she did not turn her head. She knew without looking that the hand had been the hand of the man whose head she had brushed with her shawl. When she and Piers reached the street she saw the four men together lighting cigarettes, just ahead.
She felt old in experience.
It was only a short distance to the hotel. They walked among other laughing, talking people, with a great full moon rising at the end of the street, and with the brightness of the electric light giving an air of garish gayety to the scene. Pheasant felt that it must last forever. She could not believe that to-morrow it would be all over, and they would be going back to Jalna, facing the difficulties there.
From their room there was quite an expanse of sky visible. Piers threw the window open and the moon seemed then to stare in at them.
They stood together at the window, looking up at it.
‘The same old moon that used to shine down on us in the wood,’ Piers said.
‘It seems ages ago.’
‘Yes. How do you feel? Tired? Sleepy?’
‘Not sleepy. But a little tired.’
‘Poor little girl.’
He put his arms about her and held her close to him. His whole being seemed melting into tenderness toward her. At the same time his blood was singing in his ears, the song of possessive love.
The car moved slowly along the winding driveway toward the house. The driveway was so darkened by closely ranked balsams that it was like a long, greenish tunnel, always cool and damp. Black squirrels flung themselves from bough to bough, their curving tails like glossy notes of interrogation. Every now and again a startled rabbit showed its downy brown hump in the long grass. So slowly the car moved, the birds scarcely ceased their jargon of song at its approach.
Piers felt horribly like a schoolboy returning after playing truant. He remembered how he had sneaked along this drive, heavy-footed, knowing he would ‘catch it,’ and how he had caught it, at Renny’s efficient hands. He slumped in his seat as he thought of it. Pheasant sat stiffly erect, her hands clasped tightly between her knees. As the car stopped before the broad wooden steps that led to the porch, a small figure appeared from the shrubbery. It was Wakefield, carrying in one hand a fishing rod and in the other a string from which dangled a solitary perch.
‘Oh, hullo,’ he said, coming over the lawn to them. ‘We got your telegram. Welcome to Jalna!’
He got on to the running board and extended a small fishy hand to Pheasant.
‘Don’t touch him,’ said Piers. ‘He smells beastly.’ Wakefield accepted the rebuff cheerfully.
‘I like the smell of fish myself,’ he said pointedly to Pheasant. ‘And I forgot that some people don’t. Now Piers likes the smell of manure better because working with manure is his job. He’s used to it. Granny says that one can get used —'
‘Shut up,’ ordered Piers, ‘and tell me where the family is.’
‘I really don’t know,’ answered Wakefield, flapping the dead fish against the door of the car, ‘because it’s Saturday, you see, and a free day for me. I got Mrs. Wragge to put me up a little lunch — just a cold chop and a hard-boiled egg, and a lemon tart and a bit of cheese, and — ’
‘For heaven’s sake,’ said Piers, ‘stop talking and stop flapping that fish against the car. Run in and see what they ’re doing! I’d like to see Renny alone.’
‘Oh, you can’t do that, I’m afraid. Renny’s over with Maurice this afternoon. I expect they’re talking over what they will do to you two. It takes a lot of thought and talk, you see, to arrange suitable punishments. Now the other day Mr. Fennel wanted to punish me and he simply could n’t think of anything to do to me that would make a suitable impression. Already he’d tried —’
Piers interrupted, fixing Wakefield with his eye: ‘Go and look in the drawing-room windows. I see firelight there. Tell me who is in the room.’
‘All right. But you’d better hold my fish for me.’
Wakefield lightly mounted the steps, put His face against the pane, and stood motionless a space.
Pheasant saw that the shadows were lengthening. A cool, damp breeze began to stir the shaggy grass of the lawn, and the birds ceased to sing.
Piers said: ‘ I’m going to throw this thing away.’
‘Oh, no,’ said Pheasant, ‘don’t throw the little fellow’s fish away!’ A nervous tremor ran through her, more chill than the breeze. She almost sobbed: ‘Ugh, I’m so nervous!’
‘Poor little kid,’ said Piers, laying his hand over hers. His owm jaws were rigid, and his throat felt as though a hand were gripping it. The family had never seemed so formidable to him. He saw them in a fierce phalanx bearing down on him, headed by Grandmother ready to browheat — abuse him. He threw back his shoulders, and drew a deep breath. Well — let them! If they were unkind to Pheasant, he would take her away. But he did not want to go away. He loved every inch of Jalna. He and Benny loved the place as none of the others did. That was the great bond between them. Piers was very proud of this fellowship of love for Jalna between him and Renny.
‘Confound the kid,’ he said. ‘What is he doing ? ’
‘He’s coming,’ said Pheasant.
Wakefield descended the steps importantly.
‘They’re having tea in the parlor just as though it were Sunday,’ he announced. ‘A fire lighted. It looks like a plate of Sally Lunn on the table. Perhaps it’s a kind of wedding feast. I think we’d better go in. I’d better put my fish away first, though.’
Piers and Pheasant went slowly up the steps and into the house. Piers drew aside the heavy curtains that hung before the double doors of the drawing-room and led her into the room that seemed very full of people.
There were Grandmother, Uncle Nicholas, Uncle Ernest, Meg, Eden, and young Finch, who was slumped on a beaded ottoman, devouring seedcake. He grinned sheepishly as the t7o entered, then turned to stare at his grandmother, as though expecting her to lead the attack.
But it was Uncle Nicholas who spoke first. He lifted his moustache from his teacup and raised his massive head, looking rather like a sardonic walrus. He rumbled:
‘By George, this is nothing more than I expected. But you pulled the wool over Benny’s eyes, you young rascal.’
Meg broke in, her soft voice choked with tears:—
‘Oh, you deceitful, unfeeling boy! I don’t sec how you can stand there and face us! And that family — Pheasant — I never spoke to you about it, Piers — I thought you’d know how I’d feel about such a marriage!’
‘Hold your tongues!’ shouted Grandmother, who so far had only been able to make inarticulate sounds of rage. ‘Hold your silly tongues, and let me speak.’ The muscles in her face were twitching, her terrible brown eyes were burning beneath her shaggy brows. She was sitting directly in front of the fire, and her figure in its brilliant tea gown was illumined with a hellish radiance. Boney, sitting on the back of her chair, glowed like an exotic flower. His beak was sunken on his puffed breast, and he spread his feathers to the warmth in apparent oblivion of the emotion of his mistress.
‘Come here!’ she shouted. ‘Come over here in front of me! Don’t stand like a pair of ninnies in the doorway! ’
‘Mama,’ said Ernest, ‘don’t excite yourself so. It’s bad for you. It’ll upset your insides, you know.’
‘My insides are better than yours,’ retorted his mother. ‘I know how to look after them.’
‘ Come closer, so she won’t have to shout at you,’ ordered Uncle Nicholas.
‘Up to the sacrificial altar,’ adjured Eden, who lounged near the door. His eyes laughed up at them as they passed toward Mrs. Whiteoak’s chair. Pheasant gripped Piers’s coat in icy fingers. She cast an imploring look at Nicholas, who had once given her a doll and remained a kind of god in her eyes ever since, but he only stared down his nose, and crumbled the bit of cake on his saucer. If it had not been for the support of Piers’s arm, she felt that she must have sunk to her knees, she trembled so.
‘Now,’ snarled Grandmother, when she had got them before her, ‘are n’t you ashamed of yourselves?’
‘No,’ answered Tiers, stoutly. ‘We’ve only done what lots of people do. Got married on the quiet. We knew the whole family would get on their hind feet if we told them, so we kept it to ourselves, that’s all.’
‘And do you expect’ — she struck her stick savagely on the floor — ‘ do you expect that I shall allow you to bring that little bastard here? Do you understand what it means to Meg? Maurice was her fiancé and he got this brat — ’
‘Mama!’ cried Ernest.
‘Easy, old lady,’ soothed Nicholas.
Finch exploded in sudden, hysterical laughter.
Meg raised her voice. ‘Don’t stop her! It’s true.’
‘Yes, what was I saying? Don’t dare to stop me! This brat — this brat — he got her by a slut —'
Piers bent over her, glaring into her fierce old face.
‘Stop it!’ he shouted. ‘Stop it, I say!’
Boney was roused into a sudden passion by the hurricane about him. He thrust his beak over Grandmother’s shoulder, and, riveting his cruel little eyes on Piers’s face, he poured forth a stream of Hindu abuse.
‘Shaitan! Shaitan ka bata! Shaitan ka butcka! Piakur! Piakur! Jab kutr!’
This was followed by a cascade of mocking, metallic laughter, while he rocked from side to side on the back of Grandmother’s chair.
It was too much for Pheasant. She burst into tears, hiding her face in her hands. But her sobs could not be heard for the cursing of Boney; and Finch, shaking from head to foot, added his hysterical laughter.
Goaded beyond endurance, his sunburnt face crimson with rage, Piers caught the screaming bird by the throat and threw him savagely to the floor, where he lay, as gayly colored as painted fruit, uttering strange coughing sounds.
Grandmother was inarticulate. She looked as though she would choke. She tore at her cap and it fell over one ear. Then she grasped her heavy stick. Before anyone could stop her (if indeed they had wished to stop her) she had brought it with a resounding crack on to Piers’s head.
‘Take that,’ she shouted, ‘miserable boy!’
At the instant that the stick struck Piers’s head, the door from the hall was opened and Renny came into the room, followed by Wakefield, who, behind the shelter of his brother, peered timidly yet inquisitively at the family.
All faces turned toward Renny, as though his red head were a sun and they sun-gazing flowers.
‘This is a pretty kettle of fish,’ he said.
‘He’s abusing Boney,’ wailed Grandmother. ‘Poor dear Boney! Oh, the young brute ! Flog him, Renny! Give him a sound flogging!’
‘No! No!’ screamed Pheasant.
Nicholas heaved himself about in his chair, and said: ‘He deserved it. He threw the bird on the floor.’
‘Pick poor Boney up, Wakefield dear,’said Ernest. ‘Pick him up and stroke him.’
Except his mistress, Boney would allow no one but Wakefield to touch him. The child picked him up, stroked him, and set him on his grandmother’s shoulder.
Grandmother, in one of her gusts of affection, caught him to her and pressed a kiss on his mouth. ‘Little darling,’ she exclaimed. ‘Gran’s darling! Give him a piece of cake, Meg.’
Meg was crying softly behind the teapot. Wakefield went to her, and, receiving no notice, took the largest piece of cake and began to devour it.
Renny had crossed to Piers’s side and was staring at his head.
‘His ear is bleeding,’ he remarked. ‘You should n’t have done that, Granny!’
‘He was impudent to her,’ said Ernest.
Eden cut in: ‘Oh, rot! She was abusing him and the girl horribly.’
Grandmother thumped the floor with her stick.
‘I was n’t abusing him! I told him I would n’t have that girl in the house!
I told him she was a brat, and so she is.
I told him — bring me more tea — more tea — where’s Philip? Philip, I want tea!’ When greatly excited she often addressed her eldest son by his father ’s name.
‘For God’s sake, give her some tea,’ growled Nicholas. ‘Make it hot.’
Ernest carried a cup of tea to her, and straightened her cap.
‘More cake,’ she demanded. ‘Stop your sniveling, Meggie.’
‘Grandmother,’ said Meg, with melancholy dignity, ‘I am not sniveling. And it is n’t much wonder if I do shed tears considering the way Piers has acted.’
‘I’ve settled him,’ snorted Grandmother. ‘Settled him with my stick. Ha!’
Piers said, in a hard voice: ‘Now, look here, I’m going to get out. Pheasant and I don’t have to stop here. We only came to see what sort of reception we’d get. Now we know, and we’re going.’
‘Just listen to him, Renny!’ said Meg. ‘He’s lost all his affection for us, and it seems only yesterday that he was a little boy like Wake.’
‘Heaven knows whom Wakefield will take up with,’ said Nicholas. ‘The family’s running to seed.’
‘Will you have some tea, Renny?’ asked Meg.
‘No, thanks. Give the girl some. She’s awfully upset.’
‘I don’t want tea!’ cried Pheasant, looking wildly at the hostile faces about her. ‘I want to go away! Piers, please, please, take me away!’ She sank into a wide, stuffed chair, drew up her knees, covered her face with her hands, and sobbed loudly.
Meg spoke, with cold yet furious chagrin.
‘ If only he could send you home, and have done with you! But here you are, bound fast to him. You’d never rest till you’d got him — bound fast. I know your kind.’
Nicholas put in: ‘They don’t wait till they’re out of pinafores — that kind.’
Eden cried: ‘Oh, for God’s sake!'
But Piers’s furious voice drowned him out: ‘Not another word about her! I won’t stand another word!’
Grandmother screamed: ‘You’ll stand another crack on the head, you young whelp!’ Crumbs of cake clung to the hairs on her chin. Wake regarded them, fascinated. Then he blew on them, trying to blow them off.
Finch uttered hysterical croaking sounds.
‘Wakefield, don’t do that,’ ordered Uncle Ernest, ‘or you’ll get your head slapped! Mama, wipe your chin.’
Meg said: ‘To think of the years I’ve kept aloof from the Vaughans! I’ve never spoken to Maurice since that terrible time. None of them have set foot in this house. And now his daughter — that child — the cause of all my unhappiness — brought here to live as Piers’s wife!’
Piers retorted: ‘Don’t worry, Meg. We’re not going to stay.’
‘The disgrace is here forever,’ she returned bitterly, ‘ if you go to the other end of the earth.’ Her head rested on her hand, supported by her short plump arm. Her sweetly curved lips were drawn in at the corners, in an expression of stubborn finality. ‘You’ve finished things. I was terribly hurt at the very beginning of my life. I’ve tried to forget. Your bringing this girl here has renewed all the hurt. Shamed me, crushed me. I thought you loved me, Piers — ’
‘Oh, Lord, can’t a man love his sister and another too?’ exclaimed Piers, regarding her intently, with scarlet face, cut to the heart, for he loved her.
‘No one who loved his sister could love the daughter of the man who had been so faithless to her.’
‘And besides,’ put in Nicholas, ‘you promised Renny you’d give the girl up.’
‘Oh, oh,’ cried Pheasant, sitting up in her chair. ‘Did you promise that, Piers?’
‘No, I did n’t.’
Nicholas roared: ‘Yes, you did! Renny told me you did!’
‘I never promised. Be just, now, Renny! I never promised, did I?’
‘No,’ said Renny. ‘He did n’t promise. I told him to cut it out. I said there’d be trouble — ’
‘ Trouble — trouble — trouble,’ moaned Grandmother. ‘I’ve had too much trouble. If I did n’t keep my appetite, I’d be dead. Give me more cake, someone. No — not that kind — devil’s cake. I want devil’s cake!’ She took the cake that Ernest brought her, bit off a large piece, and snortled through it: ‘ I hit the young whelp a good crack on the head! ’
‘Yes, Mama,’ said Ernest. Then he inquired patiently, ‘Must you take such large bites?’
‘I drew the blood!’ she cried, ignoring his question, and taking a still larger bite. ‘I made the lad smart for his folly!’
‘You ought to be ashamed, Gran,’ said Eden, and the family began to argue noisily as to whether she had done well or ill.
Renny stood looking from one excited face to another, feeling irritated by their noise, their ineffectuality, yet, in spite of all, bathed in an immense satisfaction. This was his family. His tribe. He was head of his family. Chieftain of his tribe. He took a very primitive, direct, and simple pleasure in lording it over them, caring for them, being badgered, harried, and importuned by them. They were all of them dependent on him except Gran, and she was dependent, too, for she would have died away from Jalna. And, besides the fact that he provided for them, he had the inherent quality of the chieftain. They expected him to lay down the law; they harried him till he did. He turned his lean red face from one to the other of them now, and prepared to lay down the law.
The heat of the room was stifling; the fire was scarcely needed, yet now, with sudden fever, it leaped and crackled on the hearth. Boney, having recovered from Piers’s rough handling, was crying in a head-splitting voice, ‘Cake! Cake! Devil cake!’
‘For God’s sake, somebody give him cake,’ said Renny.
Little Wake snatched up a piece of cake and held it toward Boney, but just as the parrot was at the point of taking it he jerked it away. With flaming temper, Boney tried three times, and failed to snatch the morsel. He flapped his wings and uttered a screech that set the blood pounding in the ears of those in the room.
It was too much for Finch. He doubled up on his footstool, laughing hysterically; the footstool slipped (or did Eden’s foot push it?) and he was sent sprawling on the floor.
Grandmother seized her cane and struggled to get to her feet.
‘Let me at them!’ she screamed.
‘Boys! Boys!’ cried Meggie, melting into sudden laughter. This was the sort of thing she loved. ‘Rough-house’ among the boys, and she sitting solidly, comfortably in her chair, looking on.
She laughed, but in an instant she was lachrymose again, and averted her eyes from the figure of Finch stretched on the floor.
Renny was bending over him. He administered three hard thumps on the boy’s bony, untidy person and said: ‘Now get up and behave yourself.’
Finch got up, red in the face, and skulked to a corner. Nicholas turned heavily in his chair and regarded Piers.
‘As for you,’ he said, ‘you ought to be flayed alive for what you’ve done to Meggie.’
‘Never mind,’ Piers returned. ‘I’m getting out.’
Meg looked at him scornfully. ‘You’d have to go a long way to get away from scandal — I mean, to make your absence really a help to me — to all of us.’
Piers retorted: ‘Oh, we’ll go far enough to please you. We’ll go to the States, perhaps.’ The ‘perhaps’ was mumbled on a hesitating note. His own voice announcing that he would go to a foreign country, far from Jalna, and the land he had helped to grow things on, the horses, his brothers, had an appalling sound.
‘What does he say?’ asked Grandmother, roused from one of her sudden dozes. Boney had perched on her shoulder and cuddled his head against her long, flat cheek. ‘What’s the boy say?’
Ernest answered: ‘ He says he ’ll go to the States.’
‘The States! A Whiteoak go to the States! A Whiteoak a Yankee! No, no, no. It would kill me. He must n’t go! Shame — shame on you, Meggie, to drive the poor boy to the States! You ought to be ashamed of yourself! Oh, those Yankees! First they take Eden’s book and now they want Piers himself. Oh, don’t let him go!’ She burst into loud sobs.
Renny’s voice was raised, but without excitement.
‘Piers is not going away — anywhere.
He’s going to stay right here. So is Pheasant. The girl and he are married. I presume they’ve lived together. There’s no reason on earth why she should n’t make him a good wife — ’
Meg interrupted: ‘Maurice has never forgiven me for refusing to marry him. He has made this match between his daughter and Piers to punish me. He’s done it. I know he’s done it.’
Piers turned to her. ‘ Maurice has known nothing about it.’
‘How can you know what schemes were in his head?’ replied Meg. ‘He’s simply been waiting his chance to thrust his brat into Jalna.’
Piers exclaimed: ‘Good God, Meggie! I did n’t know you had such a wicked tongue! ’
‘ No back chat, please! ’ rejoined his sister.
Renny’s voice, with a vibration from the chest which the family knew foreboded an outburst if he were opposed, broke in: —
‘I have been talking the affair over with Maurice this afternoon. He is as upset about it as we are. As for his planning the marriage to avenge himself on you, Meg, that is ridiculous! Give the man credit for a little decency — a little sense — why, your affair with him was twenty years ago! Do you think he’s been brooding over it ever since? And he was through the War, too! He’s had a few things to think of besides your cruelty, Meggie!’
He smiled at her. He knew how to take her. And she liked to have her ‘cruelty’ referred to. Her beautifully shaped lips curved a little, and she said, with almost girlish petulance: ‘What’s the matter with him, then? Everyone agrees that there’s something wrong with him.’
‘Oh, well, I don’t think there is very much wrong with Maurice, but if there is, and you are responsible, you should n’t be too hard on him, or on this child, either. I told Piers that if he went on meeting her there’d be trouble, and there has been, has n’t there? Lots of it. But I’m not going to drive him away from Jalna. I want him here, and I want my tea, terribly. Will you pour it out, Meggie?’
Silence followed his words, broken only by the snapping of the fire and Grandmother’s peaceful, bubbling snores. Nicholas took out his pipe and began to fill it from his pouch. Sasha leaped from the mantelpiece to Ernest’s shoulder and began loudly to purr, as though in opposition to Grandmother’s snores. Wakefield opened the door of a cabinet filled with curios from India, with which he was not allowed to play, and stuck his head inside. ‘Darling, don’t,’ said Meg, gently.
Renny, the chieftain, had spoken. He had said that Piers was not to be cast out from the tribe, and the tribe had listened and accepted his words as wisdom. All the more readily because not one of them wanted to see Piers cast out, even though they must accept with him an unwelcome addition to the family. Not even Meg. In truth, Renny was more often the organ of the family than its head. They knew beforehand what he would say in a crisis, and they excited, harried, and goaded him till he said it with great passion. Then, with apparent good grace, they succumbed to his will.
Renny dropped into a chair with his cup of tea and a piece of bread and butter. His face was redder than usual, but he looked with deep satisfaction at the group about him.
He had quelled the family riot. They depended on him, from savage old Gran down to delicate little Wake. They depended on him to lead them. He looked at Pheasant, sitting upright in the big chair, her eyes swollen from crying, but eating her tea like a good child. She was one of them now. His own. Their eyes met, and she gave a little watery, pleading smile. Renny grinned at her encouragingly.
Rags had come in and Meg was ordering a fresh pot of tea.
This was the Whiteoak family as it was when Alayne Archer came into their midst from New York.
(To be continued)