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.
Meg was at one time engaged to Maurice Vaughan, a friend of Renny’s, but a month before the marriage a foundling girl was left on the Vaughans’ doorstep. Maurice acknowledged his fault, and Meg broke the engagement. As the story opens, Penny has warned Piers against ‘nonsense’ with Pheasant, the unwanted daughter of Maurice, now grown into an appealing girl. The household shows natural but unbridled resentment when Piers and Pheasant make a runaway marriage. They are received by the family in a pungent interview, in which only Renny’s masterful hand finally establishes the rebellious couple as inhabitants of Jalna. In the meantime Eden has upset Whiteoak tradition and incurred Renny’s puzzled disgust by writing a volume of poems which has been accepted by a New York publisher.]
EDEN found that his steps made no noise on the thick rug that covered the floor of the reception room of the New York publishing firm of Cory and Parsons, so he could pace up and down as restlessly as he liked without fear of attracting attention. He was horribly nervous. He had a sensation in his stomach that was akin to hunger, yet his tliroat felt so oddly constricted that to swallow would have been impossible.
A mirror in a carved frame gave him, when he hesitated before it, a greenish reflection of himself that was not reassuring. He wished he had not got such a brazen coat, of tan in the North that summer. These New Yorkers would surely look on him as a Canadian backwoodsman. His hands as he grasped the package containing his new manuscript were almost black, it seemed to him, and no Wonder, for he had been paddling and camping among the Northern lakes for months. He decided to lay the manuscript on a table, picking it up at the last minute before he entered Mr. Cory’s private office. It had been Mr. Cory with whom he had corresponded about his poems, who had expressed himself as eager to read the long narrative poem composed that summer. For the book had been well reviewed, American critics finding an agreeable freshness and music in Eden’s lyrics. As books of poems went, it had had a fair sale. The young poet would get enough out of it, perhaps, to buy himself a new winter overcoat. He stood now, tall and slender in his loosely fitting tweeds, very Britishlooking, feeling that this solemn, luxurious room was the threshold over which he would step into the world of achievement and fame.
A door opened and a young woman entered so quietly that she was almost at Eden’s side before he was aware of her presence.
‘Oh,’ he said, starting, ‘I beg your pardon. I’m waiting to see Mr. Cory.’
‘You are Mr. Whiteoak, are n’t you?’ she asked in a tranquil voice.
He flushed red, very boyishly, under his tan.
‘Yes. I’m Eden Whiteoak. I’m the—’
Just in time he choked back what he had been about to say — that he was the author of Under the North Star. It would have been a horrible way to introduce himself — just as though he had expected the whole world to know about his book of poems.
However, she said, with a little excited catch of the breath: ‘Oh, Mr. Whiteoak, I could not resist coming to speak to you when I heard you were here! I want to tell you how very, very much I have enjoyed your poems. I am a reader for Mr. Cory, and he generally gives me the poetry manuscripts, because — well, I am very much interested in poetry.’
‘Yes, yes, I see,’ said Eden, casting about to collect his thoughts.
She went on in her low, even voice: ‘I cannot tell you how proud I was when I was able to recommend your poems to him. I have to send in adverse reports on so many. Your name was new to us. I felt that I had discovered you. Oh, dear, this is very unbusinesslike, telling you all this, but your poetry has given me so much pleasure that — 1 wanted you to know! ’
Her face flashed suddenly from gravity into smiling. Her head was tilted as she looked into his eyes, for she was below medium height. Eden, looking down at her, thought she was like some delicately tinted yet sturdy spring flower, gazing upward with a sort of gentle defiance.
He held the hand she offered in his own warm, deeply tanned one.
‘My name is Alayne Archer,’ she said. ‘Mr. Cory will be ready to see you in a few minutes. As a matter of fact he told me to have a little talk with you about your new poem. It is a narrative poem, is it not? But I did so want to tell you that I was the “discoverer” of your first!’
‘Well, then, I suppose I may as well hand the manuscript over to you at once.’
‘No. I should give it to Mr. Cory.’
They both looked down at the packet in his hand, then their eyes met and they smiled.
’Do you like it very much yourself?’ she asked. ‘Is it at all like the others?’
‘Yes, I like it — naturally,’ he answered; ‘and yes, I think it has the same feeling as the others. It was good fun writing it, up there in the North, a thousand miles from anywhere.’
‘It must have been inspiring,’ she said. ‘Mr. Cory is going to visit the North this fall. He suffers from insomnia. He will want to hear a great deal about it from you.’ She led the way toward two upholstered chairs. ‘Will you please sit down and tell me more about the new poem? What is it called ? ’
‘“The Golden Sturgeon.” Really, I can’t tell you about it. . . . You’ll just have to read it. . . . I’m not used to talking about my poetry. In my family it’s rather a disgrace to write poetry.’
They had sat down, but she raised herself in her chair, and stared at him incredulously. She exclaimed in a rather hushed voice: ‘Poetry! A disgrace!’
‘Well, not so bad as that, perhaps,’ said Eden, hurriedly. ‘But a handicap to a fellow — something to be lived down.’
‘But are they not proud of you?’
‘Y-yes. My sister is. But she does n’t know anything about poetry. And one of niv uncles. But he’s quite old. Reads nothing this side of Shakespeare.’
‘And your parents? Your mother?’ It seemed to her that he must have a mother to adore him.
‘Both dead,’ he replied, and he added: ‘My brothers really despise me for it. There is a military tradition in our family.’
She asked : ‘Were you through the War?’
‘No. I was only seventeen when peace came.’
‘Oh, how stupid I am! Of course you were too young! ’
She began then to talk about his poetry. Eden forgot that he was in a reception room of a publisher’s office. He forgot everything except his pleasure in her gracious, selfpossessed, yet somehow shy presence. He heard himself talking, reciting bits of his poems, — he had caught something of the Oxford intonation from his uncles, — saying beautiful and mournful things that would have made Renny wince with shame for him, could he have overheard.
A stenographer came to announce that Mr. Cory would see Mr. Whiteoak. They arose, and, again looking down on her, he thought he had never seen such smooth, shining hair. It was coiled about her head like bands of shimmering satin.
He followed the stenographer to Mr. Cory’s private room, anti was given a tense handshake and a tenser scrutiny by the publisher.
‘Sit down, Mr. Whiteoak,’ he said, in a dry, precise voice. ‘ I am very glad that you were able to come to New York. I and my assistant, Miss Archer, have been looking forward to meeting you. We think your work is exceedingly interesting.’
Yet his pleasure seemed very perfunctory. After a short discussion of the new poem, which Mr. Cory took into his charge, he changed the subject abruptly, and began to fire question after question about the North at Eden. How far North had he been? What supplies were needed? Particularly, what underwear and shoes? Was the food very bad?
Eden in his mind was trying to picture Mr. Cory in that environment, but he could not, and his fancy instead followed Miss Archer, with her bands of shimmering hair and her gray-blue eyes, set wide apart beneath her lovely white brow. He had begun to hate Mr. Cory, since he believed he had found out that he was only interesting to the publisher as a Canadian who knew all about the country to which his physician had ordered him.
Yet at that moment Mr. Cory was asking him almost genially to dinner at his house that night. ‘Miss Archer will be there,’ he added. ‘She will talk to you about your poetry with much more understanding than I can, but I like it. I like it very well indeed.’
And, naturally, Eden suddenly liked Mr. Cory. He suddenly seemed to discover that he was very human, almost boyish, like a very orderly grayish boy who had never been really young. But he liked him, and shook his hand warmly as he thanked him, and said he would be glad to go to dinner.
He had no friends in New York, but he spent the afternoon happily wandering about. It was a brilliant day in midSeptember. The towerlike skyscrapers and the breezy canyons of the streets fluttering bright flags — he did not know what the occasion was — exhilarated him. Life seemed very full, brimming with movement, adventure, poetry, singing in the blood, crying out to be written.
Sitting in a tearoom, the first lines of a new poem began to take form in his mind. Pushing his plate of cinnamon toast to one side, he jotted them down on the back of an envelope. A quiver of nervous excitement ran through him. He believed they were good. He believed the idea was good. He found that he wanted to discuss the poem with Alayne Archer, to read those singing first lines to her. He wanted to see her face raised to his with that look of mingled penetration and sweet enthusiasm for his genius — well, she herself had used the word once; in fact, one of the reviewers of Under the North Star had used the word, so surely he might let it slide through his own mind now and again, like a stimulating draft. Genius. He believed he had a spark of the sacred fire, and it seemed to him that she, by her presence, the support of her admiration, had the power to fan it to a leaping flame.
He tried to sketch her face on the envelope. He did not do so badly with the forehead, the eyes, but he could not remember her nose, — rather a soft feature, he guessed, — and when the mouth was added, instead of the look of a spring flower, gentle but defiant, that he had tried to achieve, he had produced a face of almost Dutch stolidity. Irritably he tore up the sketch and his poem with it. She might not be strictly beautiful, but she was not like that.
That evening, in his hotel, he took a good deal of care with his dressing. His evening clothes were well fitting, and the waistcoat, of the newest English cut, very becoming. If it had not been for that Indian coat of tan his reflection would have been very satisfying. Still, it made him look manlier. And he had a well-cut mouth. Girls had told him it was fascinating. He smiled and showed a row of gleaming teeth, then snapped his lips together. Good Lord, he was acting like a movie star! Or a dentifrice advertisement. Ogling — just that. If Renny could have seen him ogling himself in the glass he would have knocked his block off. Perhaps it were better that genius (that word again!) should be encased in a wild-eyed, unkempt person. He scowled, put on his hat and coat, and turned out the light.
Mr. Cory lived on Sixty-first Street, in an unpretentious house set between two very pretentious ones. Eden found the rest of the guests assembled except one, an English novelist who arrived a few minutes later than himself. There were Mr. Cory; his wife; his daughter, a large-faced young woman with straight black shingled hair; a Mr. Gutweld, a musician; a Mr. Groves, a banker who it was soon evident was to accompany Mr. Cory on his trip to Canada; Alayne Archer; and two very earnest middleaged ladies.
Eden found himself at dinner between Miss Archer and one of the earnest ladies. Opposite were the English novelist, whose name was Hyde, and Miss Cory. Eden had never seen a table so glittering with exquisite glass and slender, shapely cutlery. His mind flew for an instant to the dinner table at Jalna, with its huge platters and cumbersome old English plate.
‘Mr. Whiteoak,’said the earnest lady, in a richly cultivated voice, ‘I want to tell you how deeply I appreciate your poetry. You show a delicate sensitiveness that is crystal-like in its implications.’ She fixed him with her clear gray eyes and added: ‘And such an acute realization of the poignant transiency of beauty.’ Having spoken, she conveyed an exquisite silver spoon filled with exquisite clear soup unflinchingly to her lips.
‘Thanks,’ mumbled Eden. ‘Thank you very much.’ He felt overcome by shyness. Oh, God, that Gran were here! He would like to hide his head in her lap while she warded off this terrible woman with her stick. Presently Mr. Cory claimed her attention and Eden turned to Alayne Archer.
‘Speak to me. Save me,’ he whispered. ‘I’ve never felt so stupid in my life. I’ve just been asked what my new poem was about and all I could say was — “A fish”!'
She was looking into his eyes now and he felt an electrical thrill in every nerve at her nearness, and at an intangible something he saw in her eyes.
‘So you are feeling shy! I do not wonder. Still, it must be very pleasant to hear such delightful things about your poetry.'
Looking down over her face, he thought her eyelids were like a Madonna’s. He said: —
‘I tried to make a sketch of you to-day, but I tore it up — and some verses with it. You ’ll scarcely believe it, but I made you look quite Dutch.’
‘That is not so surprising,’ she answered. ‘On my mother’s side I am of Dutch extraction. I think I show it quite plainly. My face is broad and rather flat, and I have high cheek bones.'
’You draw an engaging picture of yourself, certainly.’
‘But it is quite true, is it not?’ She was smiling with a rather malicious amusement. ‘Come, now, I do look a stolid Dutch Fräulein — acknowledge it!’
He denied it stoutly, but it was true that the Dutch blood explained something about her. A simplicity, a directness, a tranquil tenacity. But with her lovely rounded shoulders, her delicately flushed cheeks, those Madonna eyelids, and that wreath of little pink and white flowers in her hair, he thought she was a thousand times more charming than any girl he had ever met.
After dinner Hyde, the novelist, sauntered up to him and said: ‘ You are the lucky dog! The only interesting woman here! Who is she?’
‘Miss Alayne Archer. She is an orphan. Her father was an old friend of Mr. Cory’s.’
‘ Does she write ? ’
‘No. She reads. She is a reader for the publishing house. It was she who — ’ But he bit that sentence off just in time. He was n’t going to tell this bulgy-eyed fellow anything more.
Hyde said: ‘Mr. Whiteoak, had you a relative in the Buffs? A red-haired chap?’
‘Yes. A brother — Renny. Did you know him?’
‘Did I know him? Rather. One of the best. Oh, he and I had a hell of a time together. Where is he now? In Canada?’
‘Yes. He farms.'
Hyde looked Eden over critically.
‘You’re not a bit like him. I can’t imagine Whiteoak writing poetry. He told me he had a lot of young brothers. The whelps, he used to call you. I should like to see him. Please remember me to him. ’
Hyde began to talk about his adventures with Renny in France. He was wound up. He seemed to forget his surroundings entirely and poured out reminiscences ribald and bloody which Eden scarcely heard. His eyes followed Alayne Archer wherever she moved. He could scarcely forbear leaving Hyde rudely and following her. He saw the eyes of Mr. Cory on him, and he saw gleaming in them endless questions about hunting in the North. He felt as though walls were closing in on him. He felt horribly young and helpless among these middleaged and elderly men. In desperation he interrupted the Englishman.
‘You said you would like to meet Miss Archer.’
Hyde looked blank, then agreed cheerfully : ‘ Yes, yes, I did.’
Eden took him over to Alayne, turning his own back firmly on the too eager huntsman.
The two shook hands.
’I have read your new book, in the proof sheets,’ Miss Archer said to Hyde, ‘and I think it is splendid. Only I object very strongly to the way you make your American character talk. I often wish that Englishmen would not put Americans into their books. The dialect they put into their mouths is like nothing spoken on land or sea.’ She spoke lightly, but there was a shadow of real annoyance in her eyes. She had plenty of character, Eden thought — she was not afraid to speak her mind. He pretended to have noticed the same thing.
The Englishman laughed imperturbably. ‘Well, it’s the way it sounds to us,’ he said. No protests could change his conception of American speech. He said to Eden: ‘Why don’t you Canadians write about Americans and see if you have better luck?’
‘ I shall write a poem about Americans,’ laughed Eden, and the glance that flashed from his eyes into Alayne’s was like a sunbeam that flashes into clear water and is held there.
Would they never be alone together? Yes, the pianist was sitting down before the piano. They melted into a quiet corner. There was no pretending. Each knew the other’s desire to escape from the rest. They sat without speaking while the music submerged them like a sea. They were at the bottom of a throbbing sea. They were hidden. They were alone. They could hear the pulsing of the great heart of life; they could feel it in their own heartheats.
He moved a little nearer to her, staring into the room straight ahead of him, and he could almost feel her head on his shoulder, her body relaxing into his arms. The waves of Chopin thundered on and on. Eden scarcely dared to turn his face toward her. But he did, and a faint perfume came to him from the wreath of little French flowers she wore. What beautiful hands lying in her lap! Surely hands for a poet’s love! God, if he could only take them in his and kiss the palms! How tender and delicately scented they would be!
The pianist was playing Debussy. Miss Cory had switched off the lights, all but a pale one by the piano. The sea was all delicate singing wavelets then. He took her hands and held them to his lips.
As he held them, his being was shaken by a throng of poems, rushing up within him, crying out to be born, touched into life by the contact of her hands.
Alayne Archer was twenty-eight years old when she met Eden Whiteoak. Her father and mother had died within a few weeks of each other during an epidemic of influenza three years before. They had left their daughter a few hundreds in the bank, a few thousands in life insurance, and an artistic stucco bungalow overlooking golf links and a glimpse of the ocean in Brooklyn. But they had left her an empty heart, from which the love that had been stored increasingly for them during twenty-five years flowed in an anguished stream after them into the unknown.
Her father had been a professor of English in a New York State college, a pedantic but gentle man who loved to impart information to his wife and to instruct his daughter, but who, in matters other than scholastic, was led by them as a little child.
Though an earnest little family who faced the problems of the day and their trips to Europe anxiously, they were often filled by the spirit of gentle fun. The gray stucco bungalow resounded with professorial gayety and the youthful response from. Alayne. She had no intimate friends of her own age. Her parents sufficed. For several years before his death Professor Archer had been engaged in writing a history of the American Revolutionary War, and Alayne had thrown herself with enthusiasm into helping him with the work of research. Her admiration had been aroused for those dogged Loyalists who had left their homes and journeyed northward into Canada to suffer cold and privation for the sake of an idea. It was glorious, she thought, and told her father so. They had argued, and he had called her laughingly, after that, his little Britisher; and she had laughed, too, but she did not altogether like it, for she was proud of being an American. Still, one could see the other person’s side of a question.
Mr. Cory had been a lifelong friend of her father’s. When Professor Archer died, he came forward at once with his assistance. He helped Alayne to dispose of the bungalow by the golf links, — those golf links where Alayne and her father had had many a happy game together, with Mother able to keep her eye on them from the upstairs sitting-room window, — looked into the state of her father’s financial affairs for her, and gave her work in reading for the publishing house of Cory and Parsons.
After the first blank grief, followed by the agony of realization, had passed, Alayne had taken a small apartment near her work, and night after night she pored over her father’s manuscript, correcting, revising, worrying her young brain into fever over some debatable point. Oh, if he had only been there to settle it for her! To explain, to elucidate his own point of view in his precise and impressive accents. In her solitude she could almost see his long, thin scholar’s hands turning the pages, and tears swept down her cheeks in a storm, leaving them flushed and hot, so that she would have to go to the window and press her face to the cool pane, or throw it open and lean out, gazing into the unfriendly street below.
The book was published. It created a good impression, and reviewers were perhaps a little kinder to it because of the recent death of the author. It was praised for its modern liberality. But a few critics pointed out errors and contradictions, and Alayne, holding herself responsible for these, suffered great, humiliation. She accused herself of laxness and stupidity. Her dear father’s book! She became so white that Mr. Cory was worried about her. At last Mrs. Cory and he persuaded her to share an apartment with a friend of theirs, Rosamund Trent, a commercial artist, a woman of fifty.
When Alayne joined Miss Trent she settled down into a sad tranquillity. She read countless manuscripts, some of them very badly typed, and the literary editor of Cory and Parsons learned to rely on her judgment, especially in books other than fiction. In fiction her taste, formed by her parents, was perhaps too conventional, too fastidious. Many of the things she read in manuscript seemed horrid to her. And they had a disconcerting way of cropping up in her mind afterward, like strange weeds that, even after they are uprooted and thrown away, appear again in unexpected places.
She would sit listening to Rosamund Trent’s good-humored chatter, her chin in her curled palm, her eyes fixed on Miss Trent’s face, yet all of her was not present in the room. Another Alayne was wandering, crying like a deserted child, through the little bungalow. Sometimes the other Alayne was different — not sad and lonely, but wild and questioning. Had life nothing richer for her than this? Reading, reading manuscripts, day in, day out; sitting at night with gaze bent on Miss Trent’s chattering face, or going to the Corys’ or some other house, meeting people who made no impression on her. Was she never going to have a real friend to whom she could confide everything — well, almost everything? Was she never — for the first time in her life she asked herself this question in grim earnest — was she never going to have a lover?
Oh, she had had admirers! Not many, for she had not encouraged them. If she went out with them she was sure to miss something delightful that was happening at home. If they came to the house they seldom fitted in with the scheme of things. Sexually she was one of those women who develop slowly — who might, under certain conditions, marry, rear a family, and never have the wellspring of her passions unbound.
When the manuscript of young Whiteoak’s book was given her to read, Alayne was in a mood of eager receptivity to beauty. The beauty, the simplicity, the splendid abandon of Eden’s lyrics filled her with a new joy. When the book appeared she had an odd feeling of possession toward it. She rather hated seeing Miss Trent’s large plump hands caressing it, — ‘Such a ducky little book, my dear!’ — and she hated to hear her read from it, stressing the most striking phrases, sustaining the last word of each line with an upward lilt of her throaty voice — ‘Sheer beauty, that bit, is n’t it, Alayne, dear?’
She felt ashamed of herself for grudging Miss Trent her pleasure in the book, but she undoubtedly did grudge it.
She rather dreaded meeting Eden for fear he would be disappointing. Suppose he were short and thickset, with beady black eyes and a long upper lip! Suppose he had a hatchet face and wore horn-rimmed spectacles!
Well, however he looked, his mind was beautiful. But she had quaked as she entered the reception room.
When she saw him standing tall and fair, with his crest of golden hair, his sensitive features, his steady but rather wistful smile, she was trembling, almost overcome with relief. He seemed to carry some of the radiance of his poetry about his own person. Those brilliant blue eyes in that tanned face! Oh, she could not have borne it had he not been beautiful!
It seemed as natural to her that they two should seek a quiet corner together, that he should, when the opportunity offered, take her hands in his and press ecstatic kisses upon them, as that two drops of dew should melt into one, or two sweet chords blend.
It seemed equally natural to her to say yes when, two weeks later, he asked her to marry him.
He had not intended to ask her that. He realized in his heart that it was madness to ask her, unless they agreed to a long engagement, but the autumn night was studded with stars, and heavy with the teasing scents of burning leaves and salt air.
His love for her was a poem. Their life together would be an exquisite, enchanted poem, a continual inspiration for him. He could not do without her. The thought of holding her intimately in his arms gave him the tender sadness of a love poem to be written . . . yet he must not ask her to marry him. He must not and — he did.
‘Alayne, my beautiful darling — will you marry me?’
‘Eden, Eden—’ She could scarcely speak, for the love that now filled her heart that had been drained empty of love almost drowned her senses. ‘Yes— I will marry you, if you want me. I want you with all my soul.’
Eden had begun the letter to Meg, telling her of his engagement, in much trepidation. But as he wrote he gained confidence, and told of Alayne’s beauty, her endearing qualities, her influential friends who would be able to do so much for him in the publishing world. And she was independent — not an heiress, not the rich American girl of fiction, still she would be a help, not a handicap to him. Meg was to believe that she was absolutely desirable.
The family at Jalna, always credulous, with imaginations easily stirred, snatched with avidity at the bare suggestion of means. They settled it among themselves that Alayne was a rich girl, and that Eden for some reason wished to depreciate her wealth.
‘He’s afraid some of us will want to borrow a few bucks,’ sneered Piers.
‘He’d have never been such a fool as to marry if the girl had not had lots of brass,’ growled Nicholas.
‘He was bound to attract some cultivated rich woman with his talents, his looks, and his lovely manners,’ said Meg, her smile of ineffable, calm sweetness curving her lips. ‘I shall be very nice to her. Who knows, she may do something for the younger boys! American women are noted for their generosity. Wakefield is delicate and he’s very attractive. Finch is—’
‘Neither delicate nor attractive,’ put in Renny, grinning; and Finch, who was wrestling in a corner with his Latin, blushed a deep pink, and gave a snort of mingled amusement and embarrassment.
Grandmother shouted: ‘When is she coming? I must wear my cream-colored cap with the purple ribbons!’
Piers said: ‘Eden always was an impulsive fool. I’ll bet he’s making a fool marriage.’ He rather hoped that Eden was, for he found it hard to endure the thought of Eden’s making a marriage which would be welcomed by the whole family while he himself was continually made to feel that he had made a mess of his life.
Meg wrote her letter to Alayne, inviting her to come to Jalna for as long as she liked. She was to consider Jalna her home. All the family were so happy in dear Eden’s happiness. Dear Grandmother sent her love. (‘Have you got that down, Meggie? That I send my love? Underline it. No mistake.’)
Alayne was deeply touched by this letter.
She took Eden up the Hudson to visit her two aunts, the sisters of her father, who lived in a house with a pinkish roof, overlooking the river. They were delighted with Alayne’s young Canadian. He had such an easy, pleasant voice, he was so charmingly deferential to them. Even while they regretted that Alayne was going away, for a time at least, they were exhilarated, elated by her bliss. They took Eden to their hearts, and, seated in their little austerely perfect living room, they asked him innumerable questions about his family.
‘Let me see, there are six of you, are n’t there? How very interesting. Just imagine Alayne having brothers and sisters! She used always to be praying for them when she was little, did n’t you, Alayne?’
‘There is only one sister,’ said Eden.
‘She wrote Alayne such a kind letter,’ murmured Miss Helen.
Miss Harriet proceeded: ‘And your elder brother went through all the terrors of the War, did he not?’
‘Yes, he was through the War,’ replied Eden, and he thought of Renny’s rich vocabulary.
‘And the brother next to you is married, Alayne tells us. I do hope his wife and Alayne will be friends. Is she about Alayne’s age? Have you known her long?’
‘She is seventeen. I’ve known her all my life. She’s the daughter of a neighbor.’ His mind flew for an instant to the reception given to Piers and Pheasant when they returned to Jalna after their marriage. He remembered the way poor young Pheasant had howled and Piers had stood holding his bleeding ear.
‘ I trust Alayne and she will be congenial. Then there are the two younger brothers. Tell us about them.’
‘Well, Finch is rather a — oh, he’s just at the hobbledehoy period, Miss Archer. We can hardly tell what he ’ll be. At present he’s immersed in his studies. Wake is a pretty little chap. You’d quite like him. He is too delicate to go to school, and has all his lessons with our rector. I’m afraid he’s very indolent, but he’s an engaging young scamp.’
‘I am sure Alayne will love him. And she will have uncles, too. I am glad there are no aunts. Yes, Alayne, we were saying only this morning we are glad there are no aunts. We really want no auntly opposition in loving you!’
‘Then,’ put in Miss Helen, ‘there is Eden’s remarkable grandmother. Ninetynine, did you say, Eden? And all her faculties almost unimpaired. It is wonderful.’
‘Yes, a regidar old—yes, an amazing old lady, Grandmother is.’ And he suddenly saw her grinning at him, the graceless ancient, with her cap askew, Boney perched on her shoulder, rapping out obscene Hindu oaths in his raucous voice. He groaned inwardly and wondered what Alayne would think of his family.
He had written asking Renny to be best man for him. Renny had replied: ‘I have neither the time, the togs, nor the tin for such a bust-up. But I enclose a check for my wedding present to you which will help to make up for my absence. I am glad Miss Archer has money. Otherwise I should think you insane to tic yourself up at this point in your career, when you seem to be going in several directions at once and arriving nowhere. However, good luck to you and my very best regards to the lady. Your aff. bro. Renny.’
The check was sufficient to pay for the honeymoon trip and to take them home to Jalna. Eden, with his head among the stars, thanked God for that.
They were married in the austerely perfect living room of Alayne’s aunts’ house on the Hudson. The Corys, Rosamund Trent, and the other friends at the wedding repast thought, and said, that they had never seen a lovelier couple.
As they motored to New York to take their train Eden said: ‘Darling, I have never met so many well-behaved people in my life. Darling, let us be wild, and half mad and delirious with joy! I’m tired of being good.’
She hugged him to her. She loved him intensely, and she longed with great fervor to experience life.
Wakefield slept late that morning, just when he had intended to be about early. When he opened his eyes he found that Renny’s head was not on the pillow next his as usual. He was not even dressing. He was gone, and Wake had the bed and the room to himself. He slept with Renny because he sometimes had a ‘bad turn’ in the night, and it was to his eldest brother he clung at such times.
He spread-eagled himself on the bed, taking up all the room he could, and lay luxuriously a few minutes rejoicing in the fact that he did not have to go to Mr. Fennel’s for lessons on this day because it had been proclaimed a holiday by Grandmother. It was the day on which Eden and his bride were expected to arrive at Jalna. Their train was to reach the city at nine that morning and Piers had already motored to fetch them the twenty-five miles to Jalna, where a great dinner was already in preparation.
The loud wheezing that preceded the striking of the grandfather’s clock in the upstairs hall now began. Wake listened. After what seemed a longer wheeze than usual the clock struck nine. The train carrying the bride and groom must at this moment be arriving at the station. Wakefield had seen pictures of wedding parties, and he had a vision of Eden traveling in a top hat and a long-tailed coat with a white flower in his buttonhole, seated beside his bride, whose face showed but faintly through a voluminous veil and who carried an immense bouquet of orange blossoms. He did wish that Meg had allowed him to go in the car to meet them. It seemed too bad that such a lovely show should be wasted on Piers, who had not seemed at all keen about meeting them.
Wake thought that he had better give his rabbit hutches a thorough cleaning, for probably one of the first things the bride would wish to inspect would be his rabbits. It would be some time before they arrived, for they were to have breakfast in town.
He began to kick the bedclothes from him. He kicked them with all his might till he had nothing over him, then he lay quite still a moment, his small dark face turned impassively toward the ceiling, before he leaped out of bed and ran to the window.
It was a day of thick yellow autumn sunshine. A circular bed of nasturtiums around two old cedar trees burned like a slow fire. The lawn still had a film of heavy dew drawn across it, and a procession of bronze turkeys, led by the red-faced old cock, left a dark trail where their feet had brushed it.
‘Gobble, gobble, gobble,’ came from the cock, and his wattles turned from red to purple. He turned and faced his hens, and wheeled before them, dropping his wings with a metallic sound.
Wake shouted from the window: ‘Gobble, gobble, gobble! Get off the lawn! I say, get off the lawn! ’
‘Clang, clang, clang,’ resounded the gobbler’s note of anger, and the hens made plaintive piping sounds.
‘I suppose you think,’ retorted Wakefield, ‘that you’re fifteen brides and a groom. Well, you’re not! You’re turkeys, and you’ll be eaten, first thing you know. The real bride and groom will eat you, so there! ’
‘ Gobble, gobble, gobble.’
The burnished procession passed into the grape arbor. Between purple bunches of grapes Wake could see the shine of plumage, the flame of tossing wattles.
It was a lovely morning! He tore off his pajamas, and, stark naked, ran round and round the room. He stopped breathless before the washstand, where the brimming basin foaming with shaving lather showed how complete had been Renny’s preparations for the bride and groom.
Wakefield took up the shaving soap and the shaving brush, and immersed the brush in the basin. He made a quantity of fine, fluffy, and altogether delightful lather. First he decorated his face, then produced a nice epaulette for each shoulder. Then he made a collar for his round brown neck. Next his two little nipples attracted him. He adorned them as if with the filling from two cream puffs. In order he decorated all the more prominent features of his small person. By twisting about before the mirror he managed to do even his back. It took most of the shaving stick, but the effect when his toilet was completed was worth all the trouble.
He stood in rapt admiration before the glass, astonished at what a little ingenuity and a lot of lather could do. He pictured himself receiving the bride and groom in this simple yet effective attire. He was sure that Alayne would think it worth while traveling all the way from New York to see a sight like this.
He was lost in revery when a smothered scream disturbed him. It was uttered by Mrs. Wragge, who stood in the doorway, one hand clapped to her mouth, the other carrying a slop pail,
‘My Gawd!’ she cried. ‘Wot an ’orrible sight! Ow, wot a turn it give me! My ’eart’s doawn in my boots and my stumick’s in the top of my ’ead!’
She was too funny, standing there, redfaced and open-mouthed. Wakefield could not refrain from doing something to her. He danced toward her, and before she realized the import of the brandished shaving brush she had a snowy meringue of lather fairly between the eyes and down the bridge of the nose.
With a scream, this time unsmothered, Mrs. Wragge dropped the pail of slops and pawed blindly at her ornate face. Meg, giving a last satisfied examination of Eden’s room, which had been prepared for the bridal pair, hurried toward the sounds of distress from her handmaiden, and, catching the little boy by the ankle just as he was disappearing under the big four-poster, dragged him forth and administered three sharp slaps.
‘There,’ she said, ‘and there, and there. As though I had n’t enough to do!’
When Wakefield descended the stairs half an hour later his expression was somewhat subdued, but he carried himself with dignity, and he was conscious of looking extremely well in his best Norfolk suit and a snowy Eton collar.
As he passed the door of his grandmother’s room he could hear her saying in a cajoling tone to Boney: ‘Say “Alayne” now, Boney! “Pretty Alayne”! Say “Alayne”! Say “Hail Columbia”!’ Then her voice was drowned by the raucous tones of Boney uttering a few choice Hindu curses.
Wakefield smiled and entered the dining room. He knew that if he rang the bell Rags would bring him a dish of porridge from the kitchen. It was an old silver bell in the shape of a little fat lady. He loved it, and handled it caressingly a moment before ringing it long and clearly.
He went to the head of the basement stairs and listened. He could hear Rags rattling things on the stove. He heard a saucepan being scraped. Nasty, sticky, dried-up old porridge! He heard Rags’s step on the brick floor approaching the stairway. Lightly he glided to the clothes cupboard and hid himself inside the door, just peeping through a narrow crack while Rags mounted the stairs and disappeared into the dining room. Wakefield smiled slyly as he glided down the stairs into the basement, leaving Rags and the porridge in the dining room alone. On the kitchen table he found a plate of cold toast and a saucer of anchovy paste. Taking a slice of toast and the anchovy paste, he trotted out of the kitchen and along the brick passage into the coal cellar. He heard Rags clattering down the kitchen stairs, muttering as he came. A window in the coal cellar stood open, and, mounted on an empty box, he found he could easily put his breakfast out on the ground and climb out after it.
He carried his toast and anchovy paste to the old carriage house, and sought a favorite retreat of his. This was a ponderous closed carriage that had been sent for to England by Grandfather Whiteoak when he and Grandmother had first built Jalna. It had a great shell-like body, massive lamps, and a high seat for the coachman. It must have been a splendid sight to see them driving out. It had not been used for many years.
Wakefield slumped on the sagging seat, eating his toast and anchovy paste with unhurried enjoyment. The fowls clucking and scratching in the straw made a soothing accompaniment to his thoughts. He thought: —
‘Now if I had my way I’d meet the brideangroom with this beautiful carriage drawn by four white horses. I’d have the wheels all done up in wreaths of roses like the pictures of carnivals in California. And a big bunch of roses for her to carry — and a trumpeter sitting on the seat beside the coachman tooting a trumpet. And a pretty little dwarf hanging on behind, with a little silver whistle to blow when the trumpeter stopped tooting. What a happy brideangroom they’d be!’
Brideangroom. Brideangroom. He liked the pleasant way those words ran together. Still, he must not linger here too long or he would not be on hand to welcome them. He decided that there was no time left for cleaning the rabbit hutches. He would go across the meadow to the road, and wait by the church corner. Then he would have a chance to meet them before the rest of the family.
He clambered out of the carriage, a cobweb clinging to his hair and a black smudge across his cheek. He set the saucer containing the remainder of the anchovy on the floor and watched five hens leap simultaneously upon it, a tangle of wings and squawks, while a rooster sidestepped about the scrimmage watching his wives with a distracted yellow eye.
He trotted across the meadow, climbed the fence, and gained the road. How happy he was! Brideangroom. Brideangroom. The pleasant words went singing through his head. A spiral of wood smoke curled upward from a mound of burning leaves in a yard across the street. A hen and her halfgrown brood scratched blithely in the middle of the road.
A car was coming. Their own car. He recognized its peculiar hiccoughing squeaks. He espied a clump of Michaelmas daisies growing by the side of the road, and he swiftly ran and plucked a long feathery spray. It was rather dusty, but still very pretty, and he stood clasping it, with an expectant smile on his face, as the car approached.
Piers, who was driving, would have gone by and left him standing there, but Eden sharply told him to stop, and Alayne leaned forward full of eager curiosity,
Wakefield mounted the running board and held the Michaelmas daisies out to her.
‘Welcome to Jalna,’ he said.
Eden had not been sorry to see his little brother waiting at the roadside with daisies for Alayne. The meeting with Piers, the breakfast in his company at the Queen’s, and the subsequent drive home had not been altogether satisfactory. Alayne had been tired and unusually quiet; Piers actually taciturn. Eden resented this taciturnity because he remembered having been very decent to Piers and Pheasant on the occasion of their humiliating return to Jalna.
Alayne gazed out over the misty blue expanse of the lake with a feeling approaching sadness. This sea that was not a sea, this land that was not her land, this new brother with the unfriendly blue eyes and the sulky mouth — she must get used to them all. They were to be hers. Ruth . . . amid the alien corn. She went over their names in her mind to prepare herself for the meeting. A tiny shudder of apprehension ran through her nerves. She put her hand on Eden’s, and gripped his fingers.
‘Cheer up, old dear,’he said. ‘We’ll soon be there.’
They had left the lake shore and were running smoothly over a curving road. A quaint old church, perched on a wooded knoll, rose before them. Then Eden’s voice saying, ‘There’s young Wake, Piers!’ And a little boy on the running board pushing flowers into her hand.
‘Welcome to Jalna,’ he said, in a sweet treble, ‘and I thought maybe you’d like these Michaelmas daisies. I’ve been waiting ever so long!’
‘Hop in,’ commanded Eden, opening the door.
He hopped in, and squeezed his slender body between theirs on the seat. Piers had not looked round. Now he started the car with a jerk.
Wakefield raised his eyes to Alayne’s face and scrutinized her closely. ‘What eyelashes!’ she thought. ‘What a darling!’ His little body pressed against her seemed the most delightful and pathetic thing. Oh, she could love this little brother! And he was delicate, too. Not strong enough to go to school. She would play with him, help to teach him! They smiled at each other. She looked across his head at Eden and formed the words ‘a darling’ with smiling lips.
‘How is everyone at home?’ asked Eden.
‘Nicely, thank you,’ said Wakefield, cheerfully. ‘Granny has had a little cough, and Boney imitates her. Uncle Ernest’s nose is rather pink from hay fever. Uncle Nick’s gout is better. Meggie eats very little, but she is getting fatter. Piers took the first prize with his bull at the Durham show. It wore the blue ribbon all the way home. Finch came out fifty-second in his Greek exam. I can’t think of any news about Pheasant and Rags and Mrs. Wragge except that they ’re there.’
Jalna looked very mellow in the golden sunlight, draped in its mantle of reddening Virginia creeper and surrounded by freshly clipped lawns. One of Wake’s rabbits was hopping about, and Renny’s two clumber spaniels were stretched on the steps. A pear tree near the house had dropped its fruit on the grass, where it lay richly yellow, giving, to the eyes of a town dweller, an air of negligent well-being to the scene. Alayne thought that Jalna had something of the appearance of an old manorial farmhouse, set among its lawns and orchards.
The spaniels lazily beat their plumed tails on the step, too indolent to rise.
‘Renny’s dogs,’ commented Eden, pushing one of them out of the way with his foot that Alayne might pass. ‘You’ll have to get used to animals. You’ll find them all over the place.’
‘That will not be hard. I have always wanted pets.’ She bent to stroke one of the silken heads.
Eden looked down at her curiously. How would she and his family get on, he wondered. Now that he had brought her home he realized suddenly that she was alien to his family. He had a disconcerting sensation of surprise at finding himself married. After all, he was not so elated as he had expected to be when Rags opened the door and smiled a self-conscious welcome.
‘Welcome ’ome, Mrs. Whiteoak,’ said Rags, with his curiously deprecating yet impudent glance. It said to Eden silently but unmistakably: ‘Ow, you may fool the family, young man, but you can’t fool me. You ’ave n’t married a heiress. And ’ow we’re to put up with another young woman ’ere Gawd only knows.’
Alayne thanked him, and at the same moment the door of the living room was opened and Meg Whiteoak appeared on the threshold. She threw her arms about Eden’s neck and kissed him with passionate tenderness. Then she turned to Alayne, her lips, with their prettily curved corners, parted in a gentle smile.
‘So this is Alayne! I hope you will like us all, my dear. We’re so happy to have you.’
Alayne found herself enfolded in a warm, plump embrace. She thought it was no wonder the brothers adored their sister (Eden had told her they did) and she felt prepared to make a sister, a confidante of her. How delightful! A real sister. She held tightly to Meg’s hand as they went into the living room, where more of the family had assembled.
It was so warm that even the low, flameless fire seemed too much; none of the windows were open. Slanting bars of sunlight penetrating between the slats of the inside shutters converged at one point, the chair where old Mrs. Whiteoak sat. Like fiery fingers they seemed to point her out as the most significant presence in the room. Yet she was indulging in one of her unpremeditated naps. Her head, topped by a large purple cap with pink rosettes, had sunk forward so that the only part of her face visible was her heavy jaw and row of too perfect under teeth. She wore a voluminous tea gown of purple velvet, and her shapely hands, clasping the gold top of her ebony stick, were heavy with rings worn for the occasion. A steady bubbling snore escaped her. The two elderly men came forward, Nicholas frowning because of the painful effort of rising, but enfolding Alayne’s hand in a warm grasp. They greeted her in mellow whispers, Ernest excusing their Mama’s momentary oblivion.
‘She must have these little naps. They refresh her — keep her going.’
‘We had better sit down,’ said Meg, ‘till she wakens and has a little talk with Alayne. Then I’ll take you up to your room, my dear. You must be tired after the journey. And hungry, too. Well, we’re going to have an early dinner.’
‘Chicken and plum tart! Chicken and plum tart!’ exploded Wakefield, and old Mrs. Whiteoak stirred in her sleep.
Uncle Nicholas covered the child’s face with his hand, and the family’s gaze was fixed expectantly on the old lady. After a moment’s contortion, however, her face resumed the calm of peaceful slumber, and everyone sat down, and conversation was carried on in hushed tones.
Alayne felt as though she were in a dream. The room, the furniture, the people, were so different from those to which she was accustomed that their strangeness made even Eden seem suddenly remote. She wondered wistfully whether it would take her long to get used to them. Yet in looking at the faces about her she found that each had a distinctive attraction for her. Or perhaps it was fascination. Certainly there was nothing attractive about the grandmother, unless it were the bizarre strength of her personality.
‘I lived in London a good many years,’ mumbled Uncle Nicholas, ‘but I don’t know much about New York. I visited it once, in the nineties, but I suppose it has changed a lot since then.’
‘Yes, I think you would find it very changed. It is changing constantly.’
Uncle Ernest whispered: ‘I sailed from there once for England. I just missed seeing a murder.’
‘Oh, Uncle Ernest, I wish you’d seen it!’ exclaimed Wakefield, bouncing up and down on the padded arm of his sister’s chair.
‘Hush, Wake,’ said Meg, giving his thigh a little slap. ‘I’m very glad he did n’t see it. It would have upset him terribly. Is n’t it a pity you have so many murders there? And lynchings, and all?’
‘They don’t have lynchings in New York, Meggie,’ corrected Uncle Ernest.
‘Oh, I forgot. It’s Chicago, is n’t it?’
Eden spoke for almost the first time. ‘Never met so many orderly people in my life as I met in New York.’
‘How nice,’ said Meg. ‘I do like order, but I find it so hard to keep, with servants’ wages high, and so many boys about, and Granny requiring a good deal of waiting on.’
The sound of her own name must have penetrated Mrs. Whiteoak’s consciousness. She wobbled a moment as though she were about to fall, then righted herself and raised her still handsome, chiseled nose from its horizontal position and looked about. Her eyes, blurred by sleep, did not at once perceive Alayne.
‘Dinner,’ she observed. ‘I want my dinner.’
‘Here are Eden and Alayne,’ said Ernest, bending over her.
‘Better come over to her,’ suggested Nicholas.
‘She will be so glad,’ said Meg.
Eden took Alayne’s hand and led her to his grandmother. The old lady peered at them unseeingly for a moment; then her gaze brightened, she clutched Eden to her, and gave him a loud, hearty kiss.
‘Eden,’ she said. ‘Well, well. So you’re back. Where’s your bride?’
Eden put Alayne forward, and she was enfolded in an embrace of surprising strength. Sharp bristles scratched her cheek, and a kiss was planted on her mouth.
‘Pretty thing,’ said Grandmother, holding her off to look at her. ‘You’re a very pretty thing. I’m glad you’ve come. Where’s Boney, now? ’ She released Alayne and looked around sharply for the parrot. At the sound of his name he flapped heavily from his ring perch to her shoulder. She stroked his bright plumage with her jeweled hand.
‘Say “Alayne,”’ she adjured him. ‘Say “Pretty Alayne”! Come, now, there’s a darling boy!’
Boney, casting a malevolent look on Alayne with one topaz eye, for the other was tight shut, burst into a string of curses.
‘Kutni! Kutni! Kutni!’ he screamed. ‘Shaitan ke khatla! Kambakht!’
Grandmother thumped her stick loudly on the floor. ‘Silence!’ she thundered. ‘I won’t have it! Stop him, Nick! Stop him!’
‘He’ll bite me,’ objected Nicholas.
‘I don’t care if he does! Stop him!’
‘Stop him yourself, Mama.’
‘Boney, Boney, don’t be so naughty! Say “Pretty Alayne” — come, now.’
‘Please don’t trouble,’ said Alayne, soothingly. ‘I think he is very beautiful, and he probably does not dislike me as much as he pretends.’
‘What’s she say?’ demanded the old lady, looking up at her sons. It was always difficult for her to understand a stranger, though her hearing was excellent, and Alayne’s slow and somewhat precise enunciation was less clear to her than Nicholas’s rumbling tones or Ernest’s soft mumble.
‘She says Boney is beautiful,’ said Nicholas, too indolent to repeat the entire sentence.
Grandmother grinned, very well pleased. ‘Ay, he’s beautiful. A handsome bird, but a bit of a devil. I brought him all the way from India seventy-three years ago. A game old bird, eh? Sailing vessels then, my dear. I nearly died. And the ayah did die. They put her overboard. But I was too sick to care. My baby Augusta nearly died, poor brat, and my dear husband, Captain Philip Whiteoak, had his hands full, You’ll see his portrait in the dining room. The handsomest officer in India. I could hold my own for looks, too. Would you think I’d ever been a beauty, eh?’
‘I think you are very handsome now,’ replied Alayne, speaking with great distinctness. ‘Your nose is really — ’
‘What’s she say?’ cried Grandmother.
Ernest murmured: ‘She says that your nose — ’
‘Ha, ha, my nose is still a beauty, eh? Yes, my dear, it’s a good nose. A Court nose. None of your retroussé, surprisedlooking noses. Nothing on God’s earth could surprise my nose. None of your pinched, sniffing, cold-in-the-head noses, either. A good reliable nose. A Court nose.’ She rubbed it triumphantly.
‘You’ve a nice-looking nose, yourself,’ she continued. ‘You and Eden make a pretty pair. But he’s no Court. Nor a Whiteoak. He looks like his poor pretty flibbertigibbet mother.’
Alayne, shocked, looked indignantly toward Eden, but he wore only an expression of tolerant boredom, and was putting a cigarette between his faintly smiling lips.
Meg saw Alayne’s look and expostulated: ‘ Grandmamma! ’
‘Benny’s the only Court among ’em,’ pursued Mrs. Whiteoak. ‘ Wait till you see Benny. Where is he? I want Benny.’ She thumped the floor impatiently with her stick.
‘He’ll be here very soon, Granny,’ said Meg. ‘He rode over to Mr. Probyn’s to get a litter of pigs.’
‘Well, I call that very boorish of him. Boorish. Boorish. Did I say “boorish”? I mean “bearish.” There’s a pun, Ernest. You enjoy a pun. “ Bearish.” Ha, ha!’
Ernest, stroked his chin and smiled deprecatingly. Nicholas laughed jovially.
The old lady proceeded with a rakish air of enjoyment. ‘Renny prefers the grunting of a sow to sweet converse with a young bride —’
‘Mama,’ said Ernest. ‘Should n’t you like a peppermint?’
Her attention was instantly distracted.
‘Yes. I want a peppermint. Fetch me my bag.’
Ernest brought a little old bead-embroidered bag. His mother began to fumble in it, and Boney, leaning from her shoulder, peeked at it and uttered cries of greed.
‘A sweet!’ he babbled. ‘A sweet! Boney wants a sweet! Pretty Alayne! Pretty Alayne! Boney wants a sweet!’
Grandmother cried in triumph: ‘He’s said it! He’s said it! I told you he could. Good Boney!’ She fumbled distractedly in the bag.
‘May I help you?’ Alayne asked, not without timidity.
The old lady pushed the bag into her hand. ‘Yes, quickly. I want a peppermint. A Scotch mint. Not a humbug!’
Grandmother and the parrot leaned forward simultaneously for the sweet when it was found, she with protruding wrinkled lips, he with gaping beak. Alayne hesitated, fearing to offend either by favoring the other. While she hesitated Boney snatched it, and with a whir of wings flew to a far corner of the room. Grandmother, rigid as a statue, remained with protruding mouth till Alayne unearthed another sweet and popped it between her lips; then she sank back with a sigh of satisfaction, closed her eyes, and began to suck noisily.
Alayne longed to wipe her fingers, but she refrained. She looked at the faces about her. They were regarding the scene with the utmost imperturbability, with the exception of Eden, who still wore his look of faintly smiling boredom. A cloud of smoke about his head seemed to emphasize his aloofness.
Meg moved closer to him and whispered: ‘I think I shall take Alayne upstairs. I’ve had new chintzes put in your room and fresh curtains, and I ’ve taken the small rug from Benny’s room and covered the bare spot on the carpet with it. I think you’ll be pleased when you see it, Eden. She’s a perfect dear.’
Meg went to Alayne and put her arm through hers. ’I know you would like to go to your room,’ she said.
The two women ascended the stairway together. When they readied Eden’s door Meg impetuously seized Alayne’s head between her plump hands and kissed her on the forehead.
When Eden came up he found Alayne arranging her toilet articles on the dressing table and humming a happy little song. He closed the door after him and came to her.
‘I’m glad you can sing,’ he said. ‘I had told you that my family were an unusual set of people, but when I saw you among them I began to fear they’d be too much for you — that you ’d get panicky, perhaps, and want to run back to New York.’
‘Is that why you were so quiet downstairs? You had an odd expression. I could not quite make it out. I thought you looked bored.’
‘I was. I wanted to have you to myself.’ He took her in his arms.
Eden was at this moment, inexplicably, two men. He was the lover, strongly possessive and protective. As opposed to this, he was the captive, restless, nervous, hating the thought of the responsibility of introducing his wife to his family, of translating one to the other in terms of restraint and affection.
She said, stroking his hair, which was like a shining metallic casque over his head: ‘Your sister — Meg —was delightful to me. She seems quite near already. And she tells me she had this room done over for me — new chintz and curtains. I am so glad it looks out over the park and the sheep. I can scarcely believe I shall have sheep to watch from my window.’
‘Let me show you my things,’ cried Eden, gayly, and he led her about the room, pointing out his various belongings from schooldays on, with boyish naïveté. He showed her the ink-stained desk at which he had written many of his poems.
‘And to think,’ she exclaimed, ‘that I was far away in New York, and you were here, at that desk, writing the poems that were to bring us together!’ She stroked the desk as though it were a living thing, and said, ‘I shall always want to keep it. When we have our own house, may we take it there, Eden?’
‘Of course.’ But he wished she would not talk about having their own house yet. To change the subject he asked, ‘Did you find Gran rather overpowering? I’m afraid I scarcely prepared you for her. But she can’t be explained. She’s got to be seen to be credible. The uncles are nice old boys.’
‘Do you think’ — she spoke hesitatingly, yet with determination — ‘that it is good for her to spoil her so? She absolutely dominated the room.’
He smiled down at her quizzically. ‘My dear, she will be a hundred on her next birthday. She was spoiled before we ever saw her. My grandfather attended to that. Quite possibly she was spoiled before ever he saw her. She probably came into the world spoiled by generations of tyrannical, hot-tempered Courts. You will just have to make the best of her.’
Alayne leaned against him, breathing deeply of the tranquil air of Indian summer that came like a palpable essence through the open window. She became aware that he was observing someone in the grounds outside. She heard the sound of a horse’s hoofs and, turning, saw a man leaning from his horse to fasten the gate behind him. Her beauty-loving eye was caught first by the satin shimmer of the beast’s chestnut coat. Then she perceived that the rider was tall and thin, that he stooped in the saddle with an air of slouching accustomedness, and, as he passed beneath the window, that he had a red sharpfeatured face that looked rather foxlike beneath his peaked tweed cap.
’ Renny,’murmured Eden, ‘back from his porcine expedition.’
‘Yes, I thought it must be Renny, though he is not like I expected him to be. Why did you not call to him? ’
He’s rather a shy fellow. I thought it might embarrass both of you to exchange your first greetings from such different altitudes.’
Alayne, listening to the muffled sound of hoofs, remarked: ‘He gives the impression of a strong personality.’
‘He has. And he’s as wiry and strong as the devil. I’ve never known him to be ill for a day. He’ll probably live to be as old as Gran.’
Gran — Gran, thought Alayne. Every conversation in this family seemed to be punctuated by remarks about that dreadful old woman.
‘And he owns all this,’ she commented. ‘It does not seem quite fair to all you others.’
‘ It was left that way. He has to educate, provide for the younger family. The uncles had their share years ago. And, of course, Gran simply hoards hers. No one knows who will get it.’
A gentle breeze played with a tendril of hair on her forehead. Eden brushed his lips against it.
‘Darling,’ he murmured, ‘do you think you can be happy here for a while?’
‘Eden! I am gloriously happy.’
‘We shall write such wonderful things — together.’
They heard steps on the graveled path that led to the back of the house. Alayne, opening her eyes, heavy with a momentary sweet languor, saw Renny enter the kitchen, his dogs at his heels. A moment later a tap sounded on the door.
‘Please,’ said Wake’s voice, ‘will you come down to dinner?’
He could not restrain his curiosity about the ‘brideangroom.’ It seemed very strange to find this young lady in Eden’s room, but it was disappointing that there were no confetti, no orange blossoms about.
Alayne put her arm around his shoulders as they descended the stairs, feeling more support from his little body in the ordeal of meeting the rest of the family than the presence of Eden afforded her. There were still Renny and the wife of young Piers.
Their feet made no sound on the thick carpet of the stairs. The noontide light falling through the colored glass window gave the hall an almost churchlike solemnity, and the appearance at the far end of old Mrs. Whiteoak emerging from her room, supported on either side by her sons, added a final processional touch. Through the open door of the dining room Alayne could see the figures of Renny, Piers, and a young girl advancing toward the table. Meg already stood at one end of it, surveying its great damask expanse as some high priestess might survey the sacrificial altar. On a huge platter already lay two rotund roasted fowls. Rags stood behind a drawn-back chair awaiting Mrs. Whiteoak. As the old lady saw Alayne and her escorts approaching the door of the dining room, she made an obviously heroic effort to reach it first, shuffling her feet excitedly, and snuffing the good smell of the roast with the excitement of an old war horse smelling blood.
‘Steady, Mama, steady,’ begged Ernest, steering her past a heavily carved hall chair.
‘I want my dinner,’ she retorted, breathing heavily. ‘Chicken—I smell chicken. And cauliflower. I must have the pope’s nose, and plenty of bread sauce.’
Not until she was seated was Alayne introduced to Renny and Pheasant. He bowed gravely, and murmured some only half-intelligible greeting. She might have heard it more clearly had her mind been less occupied with the scrutiny of him at sudden close quarters. She was observing his narrow weather-beaten face, the skin like redbrown leather merging in color into the rust-red of his hair, his short thick eyelashes, his abstracted yet fiery eyes. She observed, too, his handsome, hard-looking nose, which was far too much like his grandmother’s.
Pheasant she saw as a flowerlike young girl, a fragile Narcissus poeticus, in this robust, highly colored garden of Jalna.
Alayne was seated at Renny Whiteoak’s left, and at her left Eden, and next him Pheasant and Piers. Wakefield had been moved to the other side of the table, between his sister and Uncle Ernest. Alayne had only glimpses of him around the centrepiece of crimson and bronze dahlias, flowers which in their rigid and uncompromising beauty were well fitted to withstand the overpowering presence of the Whiteoaks.
To one accustomed to a light luncheon the sight of so much food at this hour was rather disconcerting. Alayne, looking at these enormous dinner plates mounded with chicken, bread sauce, mashed potatoes, cauliflower, and green peas, thought of little salady lunches in New York with mild regret. They seemed very far away. Even the table silver was enormous. The great knife and fork felt like implements in her hands. The saltcellars and pepper pots seemed weighted by memories of all the bygone meals they had savored. The longnecked vinegar bottle reared its head like a tawny giraffe in the massive jungle of the table.
Renny was saying in bis vibrant voice that was without the music of Eden’s: ‘I’m sorry I could not go to your wedding. I could not get away at that time.’
‘Yes,’ chimed in Meg, ‘Renny and I wanted so very much to go, but we could not arrange it. Finch had a touch of tonsillitis just then, and Wakefield’s heart was not behaving very well, and of course there is Grandmamma.’
Mrs. Whiteoak broke in: ‘I wanted to go, but I’m too old to travel. I did all my traveling in my youth. I’ve been all over the world. But I sent my love. Did you get my love? I sent my love in Meggie’s letter. Did you get it, eh?’
‘Yes, indeed,’ said Alayne. ‘We were so very glad to get your message.’
’ You’d better be. I don’t send my love to everyone, helter-skelter.’ She nodded her cap so vigorously that three green peas bounced from her fork and rolled across the table. Wakefield was convulsed by laughter. He said, ‘Bang!’ as each pea fell, and shot one of his own after them.
Renny looked down the table sharply at him and he subsided.
Grandmother was peering at her fork, shrewdly missing the peas. ‘My peas are gone,’ she said. ‘I want more peas; more cauliflower and potatoes, too.’
She was helped to more vegetables, and at once began to mould them with her fork into a solid mass.
‘Mama,’ objected Ernest mildly, ‘must you do that?’
Sasha, who was perched on his shoulder, observing that his attention was directed away from his poised fork, stretched out one furry paw and drew it toward her own whiskered lips. Ernest rescued the morsel of chicken just in time. ’Naughty, naughty,’ be said.
As though there had been no interruption, Meg continued: ‘It must have been such a pretty wedding. Eden wrote us all about it.’
By this time Renny had attacked the second fowl with his carvers. Alayne had made no appreciable inroads on her dinner, but all the Whiteoaks were ready for more.
‘Renny, did you get the pigs?’ asked Piers, breaking in on conversation about the wedding with ostentatious brusqueness, Alayne thought.
‘Yes. You never saw a grander litter. Got the nine and the old sow for a hundred dollars. I offered ninety; Probyn wanted a hundred and ten. I met him halfway.’
The master of Jalna began to talk of the price of pigs with gusto. Everyone talked of the price of pigs; and everyone agreed that Renny had paid too much.
Only the disheveled carcass of the second fowl remained on the platter. Then it was removed, and a steaming blackberry pudding and a large plum tart made their appearance.
‘You are eating almost nothing, dear Alayne,’ said Meg. ‘I do hope you will like the pudding.’
Renny was looking at Alayne steadily from under his thick lashes, the immense pudding spoon expectantly poised.
‘Thank you,’ she answered. ‘But I really could not. I will take a little of the pie.’
‘ Please don’t urge her, Meggie,’ said Eden. ‘She is used to luncheon at noon.’
‘Oh, but the pudding,’ sighed Meg. ‘It’s such a favorite of ours.’
‘I like it,’said Grandmother, with a savage grin. ‘Please give me some.'
She got her pudding and Alayne her tart, but when Meg’s turn arrived she breathed: ‘No, thank you, Penny. Nothing for me.’ And Renny, knowing of the trays carried to her room, made no remark; but Eden explained in an undertone, ‘Meggie eats nothing — at least almost nothing at the table. You’ll soon get used to that.’
Would she ever get used to them, Alayne wondered. Would they ever seem near to her — like relatives? As they rose from the table and moved in different directions she felt a little oppressed — she did not quite know whether by the weight of the dinner or by the family, which was so unexpectedly foreign to her.
Old Mrs. Whiteoak pushed her son Ernest from her, and, extending a heavily ringed hand to Alayne, commanded: ‘You give me your arm, my dear, on this side. You may as well get into the ways of the family at once.’
Alayne complied with a feeling of misgiving. She doubted whether she could efficiently take the place of Ernest. The old woman clutched her arm vigorously, dragging with what seemed unnecessary and almost intolerable weight on her. The two, with Nicholas towering above them, shuffled their way to Mrs. Whiteoak’s bedroom, where she was established before the fire by painful degrees. Alayne, flushed with the exertion, straightened her back, and stared with surprise at the unique magnificence of the painted leather bedstead, the inlaid dresser and tables, the Indian rugs and flamboyant hangings.
Mrs. Whiteoak pulled at her skirt. ‘Sit down, my girl; sit down on this footstool. Ha — I’m out o’ breath! Winded—’She panted alarmingly.
‘ Too much dinner, Mama,’said Nicholas, striking a match on the mantelpiece and lighting a cigarette. ‘If you will overeat you will wheeze.’
‘You’re a fine one to talk,’retorted his mother, suddenly getting her breath. ‘Look at your own leg, and the way you eat and swill down spirits!’
Mrs. Whiteoak leaned over Alayne, where she now sat on the footstool, and stroked her neck and shoulders with a hand not so much caressing as appraising. She raised her heavy red eyebrows to the lace edging of her cap and commented with an arch grin: —
‘A bonny body. Well covered, but not too plump. Slender, but not skinny. Meg’s too plump. Pheasant’s skinny. You’re just right for a bride. Eh, my dear, but if I was a young man I’d like to sleep with you.’
Alayne, painfully scarlet, turned her face away from Mrs. Whiteoak toward the blaze of the fire. Nicholas was comfortingly expressionless.
‘Another thing,’ chuckled Mrs. Whiteoak. ‘I’m glad you’ve lots of brass. I am indeed.’
‘Easy now,’ cried Boney. ‘Easy does it!’
At that moment Grandmother fell into one of her sudden naps. Nicholas took Alayne’s hand and drew her to her feet.
‘Come,’ he said, ‘and I’ll show you my room. I expect you to visit me often there and tell me all about New York, and I’ll tell you about London in the old days. I’m a regular fossil now, but if you’ll believe me I was a gay fellow once.’
He led the way to his room, heaving himself up the stairs by the handrailing. He installed her by the window, where she could enjoy the splendor of the autumn woods, and where the light fell over her, bringing out the chestnut tints in her hair and the pearl-like pallor of her skin. It was so long since he had met a young woman of beauty and intelligence that the contact exhilarated him, made the blood quicken in his veins. Before he realized it he was telling her incidents of his life of which he had not spoken for years. He even unearthed a photograph of his wife, in a long-trained evening gown, and showed it to her.
He presented her, as a wedding present, with a silver bowl in which he had been accustomed to keep his pipes, first brightening it up with a silk handkerchief.
‘You are to keep roses in it now, my dear,’ he said, and quite casually he put his fingers under her chin, raised her face, and kissed her.
Alayne was touched by the gift; a little puzzled by a certain smiling masterfulness in the caress.
A moment later Ernest Whiteoak appeared at the door. Alayne must now inspect his retreat. No, Nicholas was not wanted — just Alayne.
‘He intends to bore you with his melancholy annotating of Shakespeare. I warn you,’ exclaimed Nicholas.
‘Nonsense,’ said Ernest. ‘I just don’t want to feel utterly shelved. Don’t be a beast, Nick. Alayne is as much interested in me as she is in you, are n’t you, Alayne ? ’
‘She’s not interested in you at all,’retorted Nicholas, ‘but she’s enthralled by my sweet discourse, are n’t you, Alayne?
They seemed to take pleasure in the mere pronouncing of her name, using it on every occasion.
To Ernest’s room she was led then, and because of his brother’s jibe he at first would not speak of his hobby, contenting himself with showing her his water colors, the climbing rose whose yellow flowers still spilled their fragrance across his window sill, and the complacent feline tricks of Sasha. But when Alayne showed an unmistakable interest in the annotation of Shakespeare, and an unexpected knowledge of the text, his enthusiasm overflowed like Niagara in springtime.
Two hours flew by, in which they established the intimacy of congenial tastes. Ernest’s thin cheeks were flushed; his blue eyes had become quite large and bright. He drummed the fingers of one hand incessantly on the table.
So Meg found them when she came to carry Alayne away for an inspection of the house and garden. Eden was off somewhere with Renny, Meg explained, and Alayne had a sudden feeling of anger toward this brother who so arrogantly swept Eden from her side, and who was so casually polite to her himself.
Eden had told her that Renny did not like his poetry — that he did not like any poetry. She thought of him as counting endless processions of foals, calves, lambs, and young pigs, always with an eye on the market.
She would have been surprised, could she have followed him to his bedroom that night, to find how gentle he was toward little Wake, who was tossing about, unable to sleep after the excitement of the day. Renny rubbed his legs and patted his back as a mother might have done.
Wake, drowsy at last, curled up against Renny’s chest and murmured: ‘I believe I could go to sleep more quickly if we’d pretend we were somebody else, Renny, please.’
‘Do you? All right. Who shall we be? Living people or people out of the books? You say.’
Wake thought a minute, getting sleepier with each tick of Renny’s watch under the pillow; then he breathed: ‘I think we’ll be Eden and Alayne.’
Renny stifled a laugh. ‘All right. Which am I?’
Wake considered again, now deliciously drowsy, sniffing at the nice odor of tobacco, Windsor soap, and warm flesh that emanated from Renny. ‘I think you’d better be Alayne,’ he whispered.
Renny, too, considered this transfiguration. It seemed difficult, but he said resignedly: Very well. Fire away.’
There was silence for a space; then Wakefield whispered, twisting a button of Renny’s pajamas: ‘You go first, Renny. Say something.’
Renny spoke sweetly: ‘Do you love me, Eden? ’
Wake chuckled; then answered, seriously: ‘Oh, heaps. I’ll buy you anything you want. What would you like?’
‘I’d like a limousine and an electric toaster, and — a feather boa.’
‘I’ll get them all first thing in the morning. Is there anything else you’d like, my girl?’
‘M — yes, I’d like to go to sleep.’
‘Now see here, you can’t,’ objected the pseudo groom. ‘Ladies don’t pop straight off to sleep like that!’
But apparently this lady did. The only response that Wakefield could elicit was a gentle but persistent snore.
For a moment Wake was deeply hurt, but the steady rise and fall of Renny’s chest was soothing. He snuggled closer to him, and soon he too was fast asleep.
(To be continued)