ALAYNE and Eden were in their own room. He was at his desk, and she standing beside him. He began searching through a box of stamps for a stamp that was not stuck to another one. He was mixing them up thoroughly, partially separating one from another, then in despair throwing them back into the box, in such disorder that she longed to snatch them from him and set them to rights, if possible; but she had learned that he did not like his things put into order. He had been helping Renny to exercise two new saddle horses, and he smelled of the stables. The smell of horses was always in the house; dogs were always running in and out, barking to get in, scratching at doors to get out. Their muddy footprints were always in evidence in November.
‘Here’s a letter from New York to say they’ve got the proofs all right,’ observed Eden. ‘They think the book will be ready by the first of March. Do you think that is a good time?’
‘Excellent,’ said Alayne. ‘Is the letter from Mr. Cory?’
‘Yes. He sends his regards to you. Says lie misses you awfully. They all do. And he’s sending you a package of new books to read.’
Alayne was delighted. ‘Oh, I am so glad! I am hungry for new books. When I think how I used literally to wallow in them! Now the thought of a package of new ones seems wonderful.’
‘What a brute I am!’ exclaimed Eden. ‘I never think of anything but my damned poetry. Why did n’t you tell me you had nothing to read? Why don’t you simply jump on me when I’m stupid? Here you are, cooped up at Jalna with no amusements, while it streams November rain, and I lose myself in my idiotic imaginings!’
‘I am perfectly happy, only I don’t see a great deal of you. You were in town three days last week, for instance, and you went to that football match with Renny and Piers one day.’
‘I know, I know. It was that filthy job I was looking after in town.’
‘That did not come to anything, did it?’
‘No. The hours were too beastly long. I’d have had no time for my real work at all. What I want is a job that will only take a part of my time. Leave me some leisure. And the pay not too bad. A chap named Evans, a friend of Renny’s, who has something to do with the Department of Forestry, is going to do something for me, I’m pretty sure. He was overseas with Renny, and he married a relative of the Prime Minister.’
‘What is the job?’
Eden was very vague about the job. Alayne had discovered that he was very vague about work of any kind except his writing, upon which he could concentrate with hot intensity,
‘Eden, I sometimes wish you had gone on with your profession. You would at least have been sure of it. You would have been your own master —'
‘Dear,’ he interrupted, ‘wish me an ill that I deserve — trample on me — crush me — be savage — but don’t wish I were a member of that stuffy, stultifying, atrophying profession! It was Meggie who put me into it, when I was too young and weak to resist. But when I found out the effect it was having on me — thank God, I had the grit to chuck it! My darling, just imagine your little white rabbit spending his young life nosing into all sorts of mouldy lawsuits, and filthy divorce cases, and actions for damages to the great toe of a grocer by a motor driven by the president of the Society for the Suppression of Vice! Think of it!’ He rumpled his fair hair and glared at her. ‘Honestly, I should n’t survive the strain a week.’
Alayne took his head to her breast and stroked it in her soft, rather sedate fashion.
‘Don’t, darling! You make me feel a positive ogre!’
Eden had at last detached a stamp. He held it against his tongue and then stuck it upside down on his letter.
Watching him, Alayne had a sudden and dispassionate vision of him as an old man, firmly established at Jalna, immovable, contented, without hope or ambition, just like Nicholas and Ernest. She saw him gray-headed, at a desk, searching for a stamp, licking it, fixing it, fancying himself busy. She felt desperately afraid.
‘Eden,’ she said, still stroking his bright head, ‘ have you been thinking of your novel lately? Have you perhaps made a tiny beginning?’
He turned on her, upsetting the box of stamps and giving the inkpot such a jar that she was barely able to save it.
‘You’re not going to start bothering me about that, are you?’ Rich color flooded his face. ‘Just when I’m fairly swamped with other things! I hope you’re not going to begin nagging at me, darling, because I can’t wangle the right sort of job on the instant. I could n’t bear that. ’
‘Don’t be silly,’ returned Alayne. ‘I have no intention of nagging. I am only wondering if you are still interested in the novel. ’
‘Of course I am! But, my dear lady, a man can’t begin a tremendous piece of work like that without a lot of thought. When I begin it I ’ll let you know. ’ He took up his fountain pen and vigorously shook it. He tried to write, but it was empty.
‘Isn’t it appalling,’ he remarked, ‘how the entire universe seems after one sometimes? Just before you came in, that shelf over there deliberately hit me on the head as I was getting a book from the bookcase.
I dropped the book, and when I picked it up the sharp corner of the dresser bashed me on the other side of the head. Now’ my pen’s empty, and there is scarcely any ink!’
‘Let me fill it for you,’ said Alayne. ‘I think there is enough ink.’
She filled it, kissed the bumped head, and left him.
As she descended the stairs, she had a glimpse of Piers and Pheasant in a deep window seat on the landing. They had drawn the shabby mohair curtains before them, but she saw that they were eating a huge red apple, bite about, like children.
The front door was standing open, and Renny was in the porch talking to a man whom Alayne knew to be a horse dealer. He was a heavy-jowled man with a deep, husky voice and little shrewd eyes. A rawblast, smelling of the drenched countryside, rushed in at the open door. The feet of the two men had left muddy tracks in the hall, and one of the clumber spaniels was critically sniffling over them. The other spaniel was humped up in the doorway biting himself ferociously just above the tail. In the sullen twilight of the late afternoon she could not distinguish Renny’s features, but she could see his weatherbeaten face close to the dealer’s, as they talked lovingly together.
After all, she thought, he was little better than a horse dealer himself. He spent more time with his horses than he did with his family. Half the time he did not turn up at meals, and when he did appear, riding through the gate on his bony gray mare, his shoulders drooping and his long back slightly bent, as likely as not some strange and horsy being rode beside him.
And the devastating fascination he had for her! Beside him Eden upstairs at his desk seemed nothing but a petulant child. And yet Eden had bright and beautiful gifts which Renny had neither the imagination nor the intellect to appreciate!
Rags’s face, screwed up with misery, appeared around a doorway at the back of the hall.
‘My word, wot a draft!’ she heard him mutter. ‘It’s enough to blow the tea things off the tr’y.’
‘I will shut the door, Wragge,’ she said, kindly. But, regarding her offer with cold criticism as she stepped over the long plumed tail of a spaniel, she came to the conclusion that she had made it for the sole reason that she might stand in the doorway an instant with the gale blowing her, and be seen by Renny. After all, she did not quite escape the plumed tail. The high heel of her shoe pinched it sharply, and the spaniel gave an outraged yelp of pain. Renny peered into the hall with a snarl. Someone had hurt one of his dogs. His rough red eyebrows came down over his beak of a nose.
’I was going to close the door,’ explained Alayne, ‘and I stepped on Flossie’s tail.’
‘Oh,’ said Renny, ‘I thought perhaps Rags had hurt her.’
The horse dealer’s little gray eyes twinkled at her through the gloom.
She tried to close the door, but the other spaniel humped himself against it. He would not budge. Renny took him by the scruff and dragged him into the porch.
‘Stubborn things, ain’t they?’ remarked the horse dealer.
‘Thanks, Renny,’ said Alayne. She closed the door, and found herself, not alone in the hall, but out in the porch with the men.
Renny turned a questioning look on her. Now why had she done that? The wind was whipping her skirt against her legs, plastering her hair back from her forehead, spattering her face with raindrops. Why had she done such a thing?
‘Well,’ observed the horse dealer, ‘I must be off. Mrs. Crowdy, she ’ll have it in for me if I’m late to supper.’
He and Renny made some arrangement to meet at Mistwell the next day, and he drove off in a noisy Ford car.
They were alone. A gust of wind shook the heavy creeper above the porch and sent a shower of drops that drenched their hair. He fumbled for a cigarette and with difficulty lighted it.
‘I felt that I had to have the air,’ she said. ‘I have been in all day.’
‘I suppose it does get on your nerves.’
‘You must have hated my coming out in the middle of your conversation with that man. I do not think I ever did anything quite so stupid before.’
‘It did n’t matter. Crowdy was just going. But are you sure you won’t take cold? Shall I get you a sweater out of the cupboard?’
‘No. I am going in.’ But she stood motionless, looking at the sombre shapes of the hemlocks that were being fast engulfed by the approaching darkness.
Was she in his arms — the rough tweed of his sleeve against her cheek — his lips pressing hers — his kisses torturing her, weakening her? No, he had not moved from where he stood. She was standing alone at the edge of the steps, the rain spattering her face as though with tears. Yet, so far as she was concerned, the embrace had been given, received. She felt the ecstasy, the relaxation, of it.
He stood there immobile, silhouetted against the window of the library, which had been, at that moment, lighted behind him.
Then his voice came as though from a long way off.
‘What is it? You are disturbed about something.’
‘No, no. I am all right.’
‘Are you? I thought you had come out here to toll me something.’
‘No, I had nothing to tell you. I came because — I cannot explain — but you and that man made a strange sort of picture out here, and I moved out into it unconsciously.’ She realized with an aching relief that he had not guessed the trick her senses had played her. He had only seen her standing rigid at the top of the wind-swept steps.
A long-legged figure came bounding along the driveway, leaped on to the steps, and almost ran against her. It was Finch back from school. He was drenched. He threw a startled look at them and moved toward the door.
‘Oh, Finch, you are wet!’ said Alayne, touching his sleeve.
‘That’s nothing,’ he returned gruffly.
‘Well,’ muttered Renny, ‘you had better change into dry things and do some practising before tea.’
His tone, abstracted and curt, was unlike his usual air of indolent authority. Finch knew that he was expected to move instantly, but he could not force his legs to carry him into the house. There was something in the porch, some presence, something between those two that mesmerized him. His soul seemed to melt within him, to go out through his chest gropingly toward theirs; his body a helpless shell propped there on two legs, while his soul crept out toward them, fawning about them like one of the spaniels — one of the spaniels on the scent of something strange and beautiful.
‘You’re so wet, Finch,’ came distantly in Alayne’s voice.
And then in Renny’s: ‘Will you do what I tell you! Get upstairs and change.’
Finch peered at them, dazed. Then, slowly, his soul skulked back into his body like a dog into its kennel. Once more his legs had life in them. ‘Sorry,’ he muttered, and half stumbled into the house.
Meg was coming down the stairway, and Rags had just turned on the light in the hall. ‘How late you are!’ she exclaimed. ‘Oh, what a muddy floor! Finch, is it possible you brought all that mud in? One would think you were an elephant. Will you please take it up, Wragge, at once before it gets tramped in? How many times have I told you to wipe your boots on the mat outside, Finch?’
She was at the foot of the stairs now. She kissed him, and he rubbed his cheek, moist with rain, against hers, warm and velvety. ‘M-m,’ they breathed, rocking together.
‘I’ve got to do some practising,’ said Finch.
‘No, dear,’ replied his sister firmly. ‘You can’t practise now. It’s time for tea.’
’But look here,’ cried Finch, ‘I shan’t get any practice to-night, then. I’ve a lot of lessons to do!’
‘You should n’t be so late coming home. That’s one reason I did n’t want you to have such an expensive teacher. It’s so worrying when there’s no opportunity for practising. But of course Alayne would have it.’
’Darn it all!’ bawled Finch. ‘Why can’t I practise in peace?’
‘Finch, go upstairs this instant and change into dry things.’
The door of Gran’s room opened and Uncle Nick put his head out. ‘What’s this row about? Mama is sleeping.’
‘It’s Finch. He is being very unruly.’ Meg turned her round sweet face toward Nicholas.
‘Finch, you ought to be ashamed of yourself,’ said he. ‘And all the money which is being spent on your music! Get upstairs with you. You deserve to have your ears cuffed.’
Finch, with his ears as red as though they had already had the cuffing, slunk up the stairs. Piers and Pheasant, still on the window seat, had drawn the curtains tightly across, so that they were effectually concealed except for the outline of their knees, and their feet, which projected under the edge. Finch, after a glance at the feet, was reasonably sure of their owners. What a lot of fun everyone had but himself! Snug and dry before warm fires, or petting in corners.
The books from New York were held in the Customhouse in the city. The day when the official card arrived informing Alayne of this the country was so submerged in cold November rain that a trip into town to get them seemed impossible. Alayne, with the despair of a disappointed child, wandered about the house, looking out of first one window and then another, gazing in helpless nostalgia at dripping hemlocks like funeral plumes, then at the meadows where the sheep huddled, next at the blurred wood that dipped to the wet ravine, and last, from a window in the back hall, on to the old brick oven, and the clothes drier, and a flock of draggled, rowdy ducks. She thought of New York, and her life there, of her little apartment, of the publishing house of Cory and Parsons, the reception room, the offices, the packing rooms. It all seemed like a dream. The streets with their cosmopolitan throngs; faces seen and instantly lost; faces seen more closely and remembered for a few hours — the splendid and terrible onward sweep of it! The image of every face here was bitten into her memory — even the faces of the farm laborers, of Rags, of the grocer’s boy and the fishmonger.
How quiet Jalna could be! It lay under a spell of silence sometimes for hours. Now, in the hall, the only sound was the steady licking of a sore paw by the old sheep dog, and the far-away rattle of coals in the basement below. What did the Wragges do down there in the dim half-light? Quarrel
— recriminate — make it up? Alayne had seen Wragge, a moment ago, glide through the hall and up the stairs with a tray to Meg’s room. Oh, that endless procession of little lunches! Why could not the woman eat a decent meal at the table? Why this air of stale mystery? Why this turgid storing up behind all these closed doors? Grandmother: Boney — India — crinolines
— scandal — Captain Whiteoak! Nicholas: Nip — Loudon — whiskey — Millicent — gout! Ernest: Sasha — Shakespeare — old days at Oxford — debts! Meggie: broken hearts — bastards — little lunches — cozy plumpness!
And all the rest of them, getting their rooms ready for their old age — stuffy nests where they would sit and sit under the leaky roof of Jalna till at last it would crash in on them and obliterate them!
She must get Eden away from here before the sinister spell of the house caught them and held them forever. She would buy a house with her own money and still have enough left to keep them for a year or two
— until he could make a living from his uncongenial work.
Above all she must not be in the house with Renny Whiteoak. She no longer concealed from herself the fact that she loved him. She loved him as she had never loved Eden — as she had not known that she was capable of loving anyone. A glimpse of him on his bony gray mare would make her forget whatever she was doing. His presence in the dining room or drawingroom was so disturbing to her that she began to think of her feelings as dangerously unmanageable.
Mrs. Wragge laboriously climbed the stairs from her domain and appeared in the hall. ‘Please, Mrs. Whiteoak,’ she said, ‘Mr. Renny ’as sent word from the stables as he’s goin’ into town by motor this afternoon and if you’ll send the card from the Customs back by Wright he says he’ll get them books from the States. Or was it boots? Bless me, I’ve gone and forgot! And there’s nothink throws ’im into a stew like a herror in a message!’
‘It was books,’ said Alayne, ‘I will run up to my room and find the notice. Just come to the foot of the stairs and I’ll throw it down to you,’
The thought of having the books that evening exhilarated her. She flew up the stairs.
Eden was not writing as she expected, but emptying the books out of the secretary and piling them on the bed.
‘Hullo!’ he exclaimed. ‘See what a mess I’m in! I’m turning out all these old books. There are dozens and dozens I never look at. Taking up room. Old novels. Old Arabian Nights. Even old schoolbooks. And Boys’ Own. Wake may have those.’
What a state the bed was in!
‘Eden, are you sure they are not dusty?’
‘Dusty! I’ll bet they have not been dusted for five years. Look at my hands!’
‘Oh, dear! Well, never mind. Renny’s motoring into town and he will get the books from the Customs. Oh, wherever is that card? I know I left it on the desk, and you have heaped books all over it! Really, Eden, you are the most untidy being I have ever known!’
They argued, searching for the card, which was at last unearthed in the wastepaper basket. In the meantime the car had arrived at the door, and Mrs. Wragge was panting up the stairs with another message.
‘He says he’s late already, ’m, and will you please send the card. He says it’s not half bad out, if you’d like a ride to town. But indeed, ’m, I should n’t go if I was you, for Mr. Renny, he drives like all possessed, and the ’ighway will be like treacle.’
‘Great idea!’ cried Eden. ‘We’ll both go. Eh, Alayne? It’ll do us good. I’ve been working like the devil. I can stir up Evans about the job, and you can do a little shopping. We’ll have tea at The George and be home in time for supper. Will you do it, Alayne?’
Alayne would. Anything to be free for a few hours from the cramped and stubborn air of Jalna.
If Renny were disappointed at the appearance of Eden he did not show it. Husband and wife clambered, raincoated, into the back seat under the dripping curtains. The wet boughs of the hemlocks swept the windows as they slid along the drive.
The highway was almost deserted. Like a taut wet ribbon it stretched before them, to their left alternate sodden woods, fields, and blurred outlines of villages; to their right the gray expanse of the inland sea, and already, on a sandy point, a lighthouse sending its solitary beam into the mist.
Alayne was set down before a shop. ‘Are you sure you’ve plenty of money, dear?’ — and a half-suppressed grin from Renny. Eden was taken to the Customhouse, and then the elder Whiteoak went about his own strange business among legginged, swearing hostlers, and moistsmelling straw, and beautiful, satin-coated creatures who bit their mangers and stamped in excess of boredom.
Alayne bought a bright French scarf to send to Rosamund Trent — ‘just to show her that we have some pretty things up here’; two new shirts for Eden — a surprise; a box of sweets for Gran and another, richer, larger one for the family; a brilliant smock that she could not resist for Pheasant; and some stout woolen stockings for herself.
She found Eden and Renny waiting for her in the lobby of an upstairs tearoom. They chose a table near the crackling fire. In a corner on the floor Eden heaped Alayne’s purchases on top of the package of books. Alayne’s eyes gloated over them as they lay there. While they waited for their order, she told what she had bought and for whom, except the shirts, which were to be a surprise.
‘And nothing for me?’ pleaded Eden, trying to take her foot between his thicksoled boots.
‘Wait and see.’ She sent a warm, bright look toward him, trying to avoid Renny’s dark gaze.
‘Nor me?’ he asked.
‘Ha,’ said Eden, ‘there’s nothing for you.’ And he pressed Alayne’s foot.
‘What is that you have?’ asked Renny, looking down his nose at Alayne’s cake and ice cream.
‘You seem to forget,’ she replied, ‘that I am an American, and that I have n’t tasted our national sweet for months.’
‘I wish you would let me order an egg for you,’ he returned, seriously. ‘It would be much more staying.’
Eden interrupted: ‘Do you know, brother Renny, you smell most horribly horsy?’
‘No wonder. I’ve been embracing the sweetest filly you ever saw. She’s going to be mine, too. What a neck! What flanks! And a hide like brown satin!’ He stopped dipping a strip of toast into the yolk of an egg to gaze ecstatically into space.
Alayne gave way. She stared at him, drank in the sight of the firelight on his carved, weather-beaten face, lost herself in the depths of his unseeing eyes.
‘Always horses — never girls,’ Eden was saying rather thickly, through jam. ‘I believe you dream o’ nights of a wild mane whipping your face, and a pair of dainty hoofs pawing your chest. What a bedfellow, eh, brother Renny?’ His tone was affectionate, and yet touched by the patronage of the intellectual toward the man who is interested only in active pursuits.
‘I can think of worse,’ said Renny, grinning.
Safe from the wind and rain, the three talked, laughed, and poured amber cups of tea from fat green pots.
‘By the way,’ said Eden, ‘Evans wants me to stop in town all night. There is a man named Brown he wants me to meet. ’
‘Anything doing yet?’ asked Renny.
Eden shook his head. ‘Everything here is dead in a business way. The offices positively smell mouldy. But Evans says there’s bound to be a tremendous improvement in the spring. ’
‘Why?’ asked Alayne.
‘I really don’t know. Evans did n’t say. But these fellows have ways of telling.’
‘Oh, yes,’ agreed Renny, solemnly. ‘They know.’
Little boys, thought Alayne, that’s what they are — nothing but little boys where business, city business, is concerned! Believing just what they’re told. No initiative. I know five times as much about business as they.
‘So,’ went on Eden, ‘if you don’t mind trusting yourself to Renny, old lady, I’ll stop the night here and see this man.
You ’ll just have to chuck those books back into the bookcase, and I’ll look after them to-morrow. Too bad I left them all over the place. ’
‘Oh, I’ll manage.’ But she thought: He does n’t care. He knows that I shall have to handle a hundred dusty books, that the bed is all upset, — they are even on the chairs and dresser, — and he ’ll never give it a second thought. He’s selfish. He’s as self-centred as a cat.
As Eden was putting her into the car he whispered: ‘ Our first night apart. I wonder if we’ll be able to sleep.'
‘It will seem strange,’ she returned.
He pushed his head and shoulders into the dimness inside and kissed her. The rain was slashing against the car. Her parcels were heaped on the seat beside her.
‘Keep the rug about you. Are you warm? Now your little paw.’ He cuddled it against his cheek. ‘Perhaps you would sooner have sat in the front seat with Renny. ’ She shook her head and he slammed the door, just as the car started.
They were off, through the blurred, streaming streets, nosing their way through the heavily fumbling traffic. Then out of the town. Along the shore, where a black cavern indicated the lake and one felt suddenly small and lonely. Why did he not speak to her? Say something ordinary and comforting.
They were turning into a lane, so narrow that there was barely room for the motor to push through. Renny turned toward her.
‘I have to see a man in here. I shan’t be more than five minutes. Do you mind?’
‘Of course not.’ But she thought: He asks me if I mind after we are here. If that is n’t like the Whiteoaks! Of course I mind. I shall perfectly hate sitting here in the chill dark alone in this lashing rain. But he does not care. He cares nothing about me. Possibly forgets — everything — just as he promised he would — and I cannot forget — and I suffer.
He had plunged into the darkness and was swallowed as completely as a stone dropped into a pool. She snuggled her chin into the fur about her neck and drew the rug closer. Then she discovered that he had left the door open. He did not care whether she was wet or chilled to the bone.
She could have whimpered — indeed she did make a little whimpering sound as she leaned over the seat and clutched at the door. She could not get it shut. She sank back and again pulled the rug closer. It was as though she were in a tiny house in the woods alone, shut in by the echoing walls of rain. Suppose that she lived in a tiny house in the woods alone — with Renny — waiting for him now to come home to her. Oh, God, why could she not keep him out of her thoughts! Her mind was becoming like a hound, always running, panting, on the scent of Renny — Renny, Reynard the Fox!
She and Eden must leave Jalna, have a place of their own, before she became a different being from the one he had married. Even now she scarcely recognized herself — a desperate, gypsy, rowdy something was growing in her, the sedate daughter of Professor Knowlton C. Archer.
He was getting into the car. From the black, earthy-smelling void into which he had dropped he as suddenly reappeared, sinking heavily into the seat and banging the door after him.
‘Was I long?’ he asked in a muffled tone. ‘I’m afraid I was more than five minutes.’
‘It seemed long.’ Her voice sounded faint and far away.
‘I think I’ll have a cigarette before we start.’ He fumbled for his case, then offered it to her.
She took one and he struck a light. As her face was illumined be looked into it thoughtfully.
‘I was thinking, as I came down the lane, that if you were n’t the wife of Eden I should ask you if you would like to be my mistress. ’
The match was out, and again they were in darkness.
‘A man might cut in on another man that way,’ he went on, ‘but not one’s brother — one’s half-brother. ’
‘Don’t you recognize sin?’ she asked, out of the faint smoke cloud that veiled her head.
‘No, I don’t think I do. At least, I’ve never been sorry for anything I’ve done. But there are certain decencies of living. You don’t really love him, do you?’
‘No, I just thought I did.’
‘And you do love me?’
‘It’s rotten hard luck. I’ve been fighting against it, but I’ve gone under. ’ He continued on a note of ingenuous wonder. ‘And to think that you are Eden’s wife! What hopelessly rotten luck! ’
She was thinking: If lie really lets himself go and asks me that, I shall say yes. That nothing matters but our love — better throw decency to the winds than have this tumult inside one. I cannot bear it. I shall say yes.
Life in a dark full tide was flowing all about them. Up the lane it swept, as between the banks of a river. They were afloat on it, two leaves that had come together and were caught. They were submerged in it, as the quivering reflections of two stars. They talked in low, broken voices. When had he first begun to love her? When had she first realized that all those exultant, expectant moods of hers were flaring signals from the fresh fire that was now consuming her? But he did not again put into words his desire for her. He who had all his life ridden desire as a galloping horse now took for granted that in this deepest love he had known he must keep the whip hand of desire. She who had lived a life of self-control was now ready to be swept away in amorous acquiescence, caring for nothing but his love.
At last, mechanically he moved under the wheel and let in the clutch. The car moved slowly backward down the sodden lane, lumbered with elephantine obstinacy through the long grass of the ditch, and slid then, hummingly, along the highway.
They scarcely spoke until they reached Jalna, except when he said over his shoulder: ‘Should you care to ride? This new mare is just the thing for you. She’s very young, but beautifully broken, and as kind as a June day. You’d soon learn.’
‘But didn’t you buy her as a speculation?’
‘ Well — I’m going to breed from her. ’
‘ If you think I can learn — ’
‘I should say that you would ride very well. You have the look of it — a good body.’
The family were at supper. Meg ordered a fresh pot of tea for the late comers.
‘Could we have coffee instead?’ asked Renny. ‘ Alayne is tired of your everlasting tea, Meggie. ’
Nicholas asked; ‘What books did they send? I should n’t mind reading a new novel. I ’ll have a cup of that coffee when it comes. Where did you get rid of Eden? Are n’t you cold, child?’
His deep eyes were on them with a veiled expression, as though behind them he were engaged in some complicated thinking.
‘Evans wanted him to stay in town,’ answered Renny, covering his cold beef with mustard.
As Nicholas and Ernest separated for the night Nicholas said in his growling undertone: ‘Did you notice anything about those two?’
Ernest had been blinking, but now he was alert at once. ‘No, I did n’t. And yet, now I come to think of it — What d’ ye mean, Nick?’
‘They’re gone on each other. No doubt about that. I ’ll just go in with you a minute and tell you what I noticed.’
The two stepped softly into Ernest’s room, closing the door after them.
Renny, in his room, was sitting in a shabby leather armchair, with a freshly filled pipe in his hand. This particular pipe, this chair, were sacred to his last smoke before going to bed. He did not light up now, however, but sat with the comfort of the smooth bowl in the curve of his hand, brooding, with the bitterness of hopeless love, on the soft desirability of the loved one. This girl. This wife of Eden’s. The infernal cruelty of it! It was not as though he loved her only carnally, as he had other women. He loved her protectingly, tenderly. He wanted to keep her from hurt. His passion, which in other affairs had burst forth like a flamboyant red flower without foliage, now reared its head almost timidly through tender leaves of protectiveness and pure affection.
There she lay in the next room alone. Not only alone, but loving him. He wondered if she had already surrendered herself to him in imagination. No subtle vein of femininity ran through the stout fabric of his nature that might have made it possible for him to imagine her feelings. To him she was a closed book in a foreign language.
There she lay in the next room alone. He had heard her moving about in her preparation for bed. She had seemed to be moving things about, and he had remembered Eden’s saying something about emptying out the bookcase. The blasted fool! Leaving her to handle a lot of heavy books. He had thought of going in to do it for her, but he had decided against that. God knows what might have come of it — alone together in there — the rain on the roof — the old moss-grown roof of Jalna pressing above them, all the passions that had blazed and died beneath it dripping down on them, pressing them together.
There she lay in the next room alone. He pictured her in a fine embroidered shift, curled softly beneath the silk eider down like a kitten, her hair in two long honeycolored braids on the pillow. He got up and moved restlessly to the door, opened it, and looked out into the hall. A gulf of darkness there. And a silence broken only by the low rumble of Uncle Nick’s snore and the rasping tick of the old clock. God! Why had Eden chosen to stay away to-night?
Wakefield stirred on the bed, and Renny closed the door and came over to him. He opened his eyes and smiled sleepily up at him. ‘Renny — a drink.’
He filled a glass from a carafe on the washstand and held it to the child’s mouth. Wake raised himself on his elbow and drank contentedly, his upper lip magnified to thickness in the water. He emptied the glass and threw himself back on the pillow, wet-mouthed and soft-eyed.
‘Coming to bed, Renny?’
‘Had your smoke?’
‘M-m. I don’t smell it.’
‘I believe I’ve forgotten it.’
‘Funny. I say, Renny, when you get into bed will you play we’re somebody else? I’m nervous.’
’Rot. You go to sleep.’
‘Honestly. I’m as nervous as anything. Feel my heart.’
Renny felt it. ‘It feels perfectly good to me.’ He pulled the clothes about the child’s shoulders and patted his back. ‘One would think you were a hundred. You’re more trouble than Gran.’
A muffled tread sounded in the hall and a low knock on the door. Renny opened it on Rags, sleep-rumpled but important.
‘Sorry to disturb you, sir, but Wright is downstairs. ’E’s just come in from the stible and ’e says Cora’s colt ’as took a turn for the worse, sir, and would you please ’ave a look at it.’
Rags spoke with the bright eagerness of hired help who have bad news to tell.
This was bad indeed, for Cora was a new and expensive purchase.
‘Oh, curse the luck,’ growled Renny, as he and Wright, with coat collars turned up, hurried through the rain, which was now only a chill drizzle, toward the stable.
‘Yes, indeed, sir,’ said Wright. ‘It’s pretty hard luck. I was just going to put the light out and go to bed, when I saw she was took bad. She’s just been nursed, too, and we’d give her a raw egg, but she sort of collapsed and waved her head about, and I thought I’d better fetch you. She’d seemed a bit stronger to-day, too.’
Down in the stable it was warm and dry. The electric light burned clearly — lamps in the house, electricity in the stables at Jalna — and there was a pleasant smell of new hay. The foal lay on a bed of clean straw in a loose box. Its dam, in the adjoining stall, threw yearning and troubled glances at it over the partition. Why was not its tender nose pressing and snuffling against her? Why, when it suckled, did it pull so feebly, with none of those delicious buntings and furious pullings which, instinct told her, were normal and seemly?
Renny pulled off his coat, threw it across the partition, and knelt beside the foal. It seemed to know him, for its great liquid eyes sought his face with a pleading question in them. Why was it thus? Why had it been dropped from warm indolent darkness into this soul-piercing light? What was it? And along what dark, echoing alley would it soon have to make its timid way alone?
Its head, large and carved, was raised above its soft furry body; its stiff foal’s legs looked all pitiful angles.
‘Poor little baby,’ murmured Renny, passing his hands over it, ‘poor little sick baby.’
Wright and Dobson stood by, reiterating the things they had done for it. Cora plaintively whinnied and gnawed the edge of her manger.
‘ Give me the liniment the vet left,’said Renny. ‘Its legs are cold.’
He filled his palm with the liquid and began to rub the foal’s legs. If only warmth and strength could pass from him into it! By Judas, he thought, perhaps there’s some fiery virtue in my red head!
He sent the two men to their beds, for he wanted to look after the foal himself, and they must have their sleep.
He rubbed it till his arms refused to move, murmuring encouragements to it — foolish baby talk: ‘Little colty’; ‘Poor little young ’un’; ‘Does she feel ’ittle bit better then?’ and ‘Cora’s baby girl!’
Comforting noises came from other stalls — soft blowings through wide, velvety nostrils; deep, contented sighs; now and again a happy munching as a wisp of left-over supper was consumed; the deep sucking in of a drink. He took a turn through the passages between the stalls, sleepy whinnies of recognition welcoming him. In the hay-scented dusk he caught the shine of great liquid eyes, a white blaze on a forehead, a white star on a breast, or the flash of a suddenly tossed mane. God, how he loved them, these swift and ardent creatures! ‘Shall I ever see the foal standing tall and proud in her box like one of these?’
He went back to her.
Cora had lain down, a dark hump in the shadow of her skill. In her anxiety she had kicked her bedding into the passage, and lay on the bare floor.
The foal’s eyes were half closed, but when Renny put his hand on its tawny flank they flew wide open, and a shiver slid beneath his palm. He felt its legs. Warmer. He was going to save it! He was going to save it!
It wanted to rise. He put his arms about it. ‘There — up she comes — now!’ It was on its feet, its eyes blazing with courage, its neck ridiculously arched, its legs stiffly braced. Clattering her hoofs, Cora rose, whinnying, and looked over the partition at her offspring. It answered her with a little grunt, took two wavering steps, then, as if borne down by the weight of its heavy head, collapsed again on the straw. ‘Hungry. Hungry. Poor old baby’s hungry! She’s coming, Cora! Hold on, pet.’ He carried the colt to its dam and supported it beneath her.
Oh, her ecstasy! She quivered from head to foot. She nozzled it, slobbering, almost knocking it over. She nozzled Renny, wetting his hair. She bit him gently on the shoulder. ‘Steady on. Steady on, old thing! Ah, the baby’s got it! Now for a meal! ’
Eagerly it began to suck, but had scarcely well begun when its heart failed it and it turned its head petulantly away. Cora looked at Renny in piteous questioning. The foal hung heavy in his arms. He carried it back, and began the rubbing again. It dozed. He dozed, his face glistening with sweat under the electric light.
But another light was penetrating the stable. Daylight, pale and stealthy as a cat, creeping through the straw, gliding along the cobweb-hung beams, penetrating delicately into the blackest corners. Impatient whinnies were flung from stall to stall. Low, luscious ‘moos’ answered from the byre. The orchestra of cocks delivered its brazen salute to the dawn. The stallion’s blue-black eyes burned in fiery morning rage, but the little foal’s eyes were dim.
Renny bent over it, felt its legs, looked into its eyes. ‘Oh, that long, long, lonely gallop ahead of me,’ its eyes said. ‘To what strange pasture am I going?’
Wright came clattering down the stairs, his broad face anxious. ‘How’s the wee foal, sir?’
‘It’s dying, Wright.'
‘Ah, I was afraid we could n’t save her. Lord, Mr. Whiteoak, you should n’t have stopped up all night! When I saw the light burning I was sure you had and I came straight over.’
Cora uttered a loud, terrified whinny.
The two men bent over the foal.
‘It’s gone, Wright.’
‘Yes, sir. Cora knows.'
‘Go in and quiet her. Have it taken away. God, it came suddenly at the last.'
The rain was over. A mild breeze had blown a clear space in the sky. It was of palest blue, and the blown-back clouds, of pearl and amethyst, were piled up one on another like tumbled towers. Behind the wet boles of the pines a red spark of sunrise burned like a torch.
Renny pictured the soul of the foal, strong-legged, set free, galloping with glad squeals toward some celestial meadow, its eyes like stars, its tail a flaming meteor, its flying hoofs striking bright sparks from rocky planets. ’What a blithering ass I am! Worse than Eden — writing poetry next. All her foals — and theirs — generations of them — lost.’
He went in at the kitchen door, and found young Pheasant, a sweater over her nightdress. She was sitting on the table eating a thick slice of bread and butter.
‘Oh, Renny, how is the little colt? I wakened before daylight and I could n’t go to sleep again for thinking of it, and I got so hungry and I came down as soon as it was light enough to get something to eat, and I saw the light under your door and I was sure it was worse. Wake called to me and he said Wright, had come for you.'
‘Yes, Wright came.'
He went to the range and held his hands over it. He was chilled through. She studied him out of the sides of her eyes. He looked aloof, unapproachable, but after a moment he said gently: ‘Make me a cup of tea, like a good kid. I’m starved with the cold in that damned stable. The kettle’s singing.’
She slid from the table and got the kitchen teapot, fat, brown, shiny, with a nicked spout. She dared not ask him about the colt. She cut some fresh bread and spread it, thinking how strange it was to be in the kitchen at this hour with Renny, just like Rags and Mrs. Wragge.
Renny sat down by the table. His thin, highly colored face looked worn. Straws clung to his coat. His hands, which he had washed at a basin in the scullery, looked red and chapped. To Pheasant, suddenly, he was not imposing, but pathetic. She bent over him, putting her arm around his shoulders.
‘Is it dead?’ she whispered.
He nodded, scowling. Then she saw that there were tears in his eyes. She clasped him to her, and they cried together.
Early in December, Augusta, Lady Buckley, came from England to visit her family. It would probably, unless her mother proposed to live forever, be the last Christmas the ancient lady would be on earth. At any rate, Augusta said in her letter, it would be the last visit to them in her own lifetime, for she felt herself too old to face the vagaries of ocean travel.
‘She has said that on each of her last three visits,’observed Nicholas. ‘She makes as many farewells as Patti. I’ll wager she lives to be as old as Mama.’
‘Never!’ interrupted his mother, angrily. ‘Never! I won’t have it! She’ll never live to see ninety.’
‘Augusta is a handsome woman,’said Ernest. ‘She has a dignity that is never seen now. I remember her as a dignified little thing when we were in shoulder knots.'
‘ She always has an offended air,’ returned Nicholas. ‘She looks as though something had offended her very deeply in early infancy and she had never got over it.’
Mrs. Whiteoak cackled. ‘That’s true, Nick. It was on the voyage from India, when I was so sick. Your papa had to change her under things and he stuck her with a safety pin, poor brat! ’
The brothers laughed callously, and each squeezed an arm of the old lady. She was such an entertaining old dear. They wondered what they should ever do without her. Life would never be the same when she was gone. They would realize then that they were old, but they would never quite realize it while she lived.
They were taking her for her last walk of the season. This always occurred on a mild day in December. After that she kept to the house till the first warm spring day.
She invariably went as far as the wicket gate in the hedge beside the drive, a distance of perhaps fifty yards. They had arrived at the gate now, and she had put out her hands and laid them on the warm and friendly surface of it. They shook a good deal from the exertion, so that a tremor ran through her into the gate and was returned like a flash of secret recognition. Those three had stood together at that gate nearly seventy years before, when she was a lovelyshouldered young woman with auburn ringlets and they two tiny boys in green velvet suits with embroidered cambric vests, and cockscombs of hair atop their heads.
They stood leaning against the gate without speaking, filled for the moment with quaint recollections, enjoying the mild warmth of the sun on their backs. Then Ernest: ‘Shall we turn back, Mama?’
Her head was cocked. ‘No. I hear horses’ hooves.’
‘She does, by gad,’ said Nicholas. ;You have better ears than your sons, Mama.’
Renny and Alayne were returning from a ride. Like soft thunder the sound of their galloping swept along the drive. Then horses and riders appeared, the tall, bony gray mare and the bright chestnut, the long, drooping, gray-coated figure of the man and the lightly poised, black-habited girl.
‘Splendid!’ cried Nicholas. ‘Isn’t she doing well, Ernie?’
‘One would think she had ridden all her life.’
‘She’s got a good mount,’ observed Renny, drawing in his horse and throwing a look of pride over the chestnut and his rider.
Alayne’s eyes were bright with exhilaration. In riding she had found something which all her life she had lacked — the perfect outdoor exercise. She had never been good at games, had never indeed cared for them, but she had taken to riding as a waterfowl to the pond. She had gained strength physically and mentally, and had learned to love a gallop over frozen roads, against a bitter wind, as well as a canter in the temperate sun.
Renny was a severe master. Nothing but a good seat and a seemly use of the good hands nature had given her satisfied him. But when at last she rode well, dashing along before him, bright wisps of hair blown from under her hat, her body light as a bird’s against the wind, he was filled with a voluptuous hilarity of merely living. He could have galloped on and on behind her, swift and arrogant, to the end of the world.
Sometimes Eden and Pheasant and Piers rode with them, and once they were joined by Maurice Vaughan, to Pheasant’s childlike delight. It was on this occasion that Eden’s horse slipped on the edge of a cliff above the lake, and would have taken him to the bottom had not Renny caught the bridle and dragged horse and rider to safety. He had pushed Piers and Maurice aside to do this, as though with a fierce determination to save Eden himself. Did he covet the satisfaction, Alayne wondered afterward, of risking his life to save Eden’s, to make up to him for winning the love of his wife, or was it only the arrogant, protective gesture of the head of the family?
Now at any time the bitterness of winter would descend on them. The rides would be few.
‘Watch me,’ cried Grandmother. ‘I’m going back to the house now. This is my last walk till spring. Ha — my old legs feel wobbly! Hold me up, Nick. You’re no more support than a feather bolster!’
The three figures shuffled along the walk, scarcely seeming to move. The horses dropped their heads and began to crop the dank grass of December.
‘You’ve no idea,’ said Renny, ‘how much the old lady and the two old boys mean to me! ’
His grandmother had reached the steps. He Waved his riding crop and shouted: ‘Well done! Bravo, Gran! Now you’re safe till spring, eh?’
‘Tell them,’ wheezed Gran to Nicholas, ‘that when they’ve put their nags away they’re to come and kiss me.’
‘ What does she say?’ shouted Renny.
Nicholas rumbled: ‘She wants to be kissed.’
When they had installed their mother in her favorite chair, he said in a heavy undertone to Ernest: ‘Those two are getting in deeper every day. Where’s it going to end ? Where are Eden’s eyes?’
‘Oh, my dear Nick, you imagine it. You always were on the lookout for that sort of thing. I’ve seen nothing. Still, it’s true that there is a feeling. Something in the air. But what can we do? I’d hate to interfere with an affair of Renny’s. Besides, Alayne is not that sort of girl.’
‘They’re all that sort. Show me the woman who would n’t enjoy a love affair with a man like Renny, especially if she were snatched up from a big city and hidden away in a sequestered hole like Jalna. I ’d be tempted to have one myself if I could find a damsel decrepit enough to fancy me!’
Ernest took up a newspaper and glanced at the date. ‘The seventeenth. Just fancy! Augusta will arrive in Montreal to-morrow. I expect the poor thing has had a terrible passage. She always chooses such bad months for crossing.’ He wanted to change the subject. It upset his digestion to talk about the affairs of Renny and Alayne. Besides, he thought that Nicholas exaggerated the seriousness of it. They might be rather too interested in each other, but they were both too sensible to let the interest go to dangerous lengths. He looked forward to seeing Augusta — he and she had always been congenial.
Lady Buckley arrived two days later. She was like a table set for an elaborate banquet at which the guests would never arrive. Her costume was intricate, elegant, with the elegance of a bygone day, unapproachable. No one would ever dare to rumple her with a healthy hug. Even old Mrs. Whiteoak held her in some awe, though behind her back she made ribald and derisive remarks about her. She resented Augusta’s title, pretended that she could not recall it, and had always spoken to her acquaintances of ‘my daughter, Lady Buntley — or Bunting — or Bantling.’
Augusta wore her hair in the dignified curled fringe of Queen Alexandra. It was scarcely gray, though whether through the kindness of nature or art was not known. She wore high collars fastened by handsome brooches. She had a long, tapering waist, and shapely hands and feet, the latter just showing beneath the hem of her rather full skirt. That air of having never recovered from some deep offense, of which Nicholas had spoken, was perhaps suggested by the poise of her head, which always seemed to be drawn back as though in recoil. She had strongly arched eyebrows, dark eyes, become somewhat glassy from age, the Court nose in a modified form, and a mouth that nothing could startle from its lines of complacent composure. She was an extremely wellpreserved woman, who, though she was older than Nicholas or Ernest, looked many years younger.
Since it was her fate to have been born in a colony, she was glad it had been India and not Canada. She thought of herself as absolutely English, refuting as an unhappy accident her mother’s Irish birth.
She was most favorably impressed by Alayne. She was pleased by a certain delicate sobriety of speech and bearing that Alayne had acquired from much association with her parents.
‘She is neither hovdenish nor pert, as so many modern girls are,’ she observed to her mother, in her deep, well-modulated voice.
‘Got a good leg on her, too,’ returned the old lady, grinning.
Lady Buckley and Alayne had long conversations together. The girl found beneath the remote exterior a kind and sympathetic nature. Lady Buckley was fond of all her nephews, but especially of the young boys. She would tell old-fashioned stories, some of them unexpectedly blood-curdling, to Wakefield by the hour. She would sit very upright beside Finch while he practised his music lesson, composedly praising and criticizing, and the boy seemed to like her presence in the room. She endeared herself to Alayne by being kind to Pheasant. ‘Let us ignore her mother’s birth,’ she said, blandly. ‘Her father is of a fine old English military family, and, if her parents were not married — well, many of the nobility spring from illegitimate stock. I quite like the child.’
It was soon evident that Meg resented her aunt’s attitude toward Piers’s marriage, her admiration for Alayne, and her influence over Finch and Wakefield. She first showed her resentment by eating even less than formerly at the table. It would have been a marvel how she kept so sleek and plump had one not known of those tempting secret trays carried to her by Rags, who, if he were loyal and devoted to anyone on earth, was loyal and devoted to Miss Whiteoak.
She then took to sitting a great deal with her grandmother with the door shut against the rest of the family, and a blazing fire on the hearth. The old lady thrived on the scorching air and gossip. There was nothing she enjoyed more than ‘hauling Augusta over the coals’ behind her back. To her face she gave her a grudging respect.
Since Augusta approved of Finch’s music lessons it was inevitable that his practising should prove a torture to the old lady. ‘Gran simply cannot stand those terrible scales and chromatics,’ Meg said to Renny. ‘Just at the hour in the day when she usually feels her brightest her nerves are set on edge. At her age it’s positively dangerous. ’
‘ If the boy were taking lessons from Miss Pink,’ retorted Renny, bitterly, ‘the practising would n’t disturb Gran in the least.’
‘Why, Renny, Gran never objected to his taking from Mr, Oliver! It doesn’t matter to her whom he takes from, though certainty Miss Pink would never have taught him to hammer as he insists on doing. ’
‘No, she would have taught him to tinkle out little tunes with no more pep than a toy music box. If the youngster is musical, he’s going to be properly taught. Alayne says he’s very talented. ’
The words were scarcely out before he knew he had made a fatal mistake in quoting Alayne’s opinion. He saw Meg’s face harden, he saw her lips curl in a cruel little smile. He floundered. ‘Oh, well, anyone can see that he’s got talent. I saw it long ago. That is why I chose Mr, Oliver.’
She made no reply for a moment, but still smiled, her soft blue eyes searching his. Then she said: ‘I don’t think you realize, Renny, how strange your attitude toward Alayne is becoming. You have almost a possessive air. Sometimes I think it would be better if Eden had never brought her here. I’ve tried to like her, but —’
‘Oh, my God,’said Renny, wheeling, and beginning to stride away. ‘You women make me sick! There’s no peace with you! Imagine the entire family by the ears because of a kid’s music lessons!’ He gave a savage laugh.
Meg, watching him flounder, was aware of depths she had only half suspected.
’It’s not that. It’s not that. It’s the feeling that there’s something wrong — some sinister influence at work. From the day Eden brought the girl here I was afraid.’
‘Afraid of what?’
‘Afraid of something in her. Something fatal and dangerous. First she wormed her way —’
‘Wormed her way! Oh, Meggie, for heaven’s sake!’
‘Yes, she did! She literally wormed her way into the confidence of the uncles. Then she captivated poor Finch. Just because she told him he was musical he is willing to practise till he’s worn out and Grannie is ill. Then she turned Wake against me. He won’t mind a thing I say! And now you, Renny! But this is dangerous. Different. Oh, I ’ve seen it coming! ’
He had recovered himself. ‘Meggie,’ he said, stifling her in a rough tweed hug, ‘if you would ever eat a decent meal — you know, you literally starve yourself — and ever go out anywhere for a change, you would n’t get such ideas into your head. They’re not like you. You are so sane, so well balanced. None of us has as sound a head as you. I depend on you in every way. You know that.’
She collapsed, weeping on his shoulder, overwhelmed by his primitive masculine appeal. But she was not convinced. Her sluggish nature was roused to activity against the machinations of Alayne and Lady Buckley.
That evening when Finch went to the drawing-room to practise he found the piano locked. He sought Renny in the harness room of the stable. ‘Look here,’ he burst out, almost crying, ‘what do you suppose? They’ve gone and locked me out. I can’t practise my lesson. They’ve been after me for a week about it and now I’m locked out.’
Renny, pipe in mouth, continued to gaze in whole-souled admiration at a new russet saddle.
‘Renny,’ bawled Finch, ‘don’t you hear? They’ve locked me out of the drawingroom.’
Renny made sympathetic noises against the stem of his pipe and continued to gaze at the saddle. Finch drove his hands into his pockets and slumped against the door jamb. He felt calmer now. Renny would do something, he was sure, but he dreaded a row with himself the centre of it.
At last the elder Whiteoak spoke. ‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do, Finch. I’ll ask Vaughan if you may practise on his piano. I’m sure he would n’t mind. The housekeeper ’s deaf, so her nerves won’t be upset.
I’ll have the piano tuned. It used to be a good one. Then you’ll be quite independent.’
Soon young Finch might be seen plunging through the ravine on the dark December afternoons to the shabby, unused drawingroom of Vaughanlands. He brought new life to the old piano, and it, like land that had lain fallow for many years, responded joyfully to his labor, and sent up a stormy harvest of sound that shook the prismed chandelier.
Often he was late for the evening meal, and would take what he could get in the kitchen from Mrs. Wragge. Several times Maurice Vaughan asked him to have his supper with him, and Finch felt very much a man, sitting opposite Maurice with a glass of beer beside him, and no question about his smoking.
Maurice always managed to bring the conversation around to Meggie. It was difficult for Finch to find anything pleasant to tell about her in these days, but he discovered that Maurice was even more interested to hear of her cantankerousness than her sweetness. It seemed to give him a certain glum satisfaction to know that things were at sixes and sevens with her.
Finch had not been so happy since he was a very little fellow. He had perhaps never been so happy. He discovered in himself a yearning for perfection in the interpretation of his simple musical exercises which he had never had in his Latin translations or his math. He discovered that he had a voice. All the way home, through the black ravine, he would sing, sometimes at the top of his lungs, sometimes in a tender, melancholy undertone.
But how his school work suffered! His report at the end of the term was appalling. As Eden said, he out-Finched himself. In the storm that followed, his one consolation was that a large share of the blame was hurled at Renny. However, that did him little good in the end, for Renny turned on him, cursing him for a young shirker, and threatening to stop the lessons altogether.
Aunt Augusta and Alayne stood by him, but with caution. Augusta did not want her visit to become too unpleasant, and Alayne had come to regard her position in the house as a voyageur his difficult progress among treacherous rocks and raging rapids. She could endure it till the New Year, when Eden was to take a position in town which Mr. Evans had got for him, and no longer.
Christmas came. Books for Alayne from New York, with a chastely engraved card enclosed from Mr. Cory. More books and a little framed etching from the aunts up the Hudson. An overblouse, in which she would have frozen at Jalna, from Rosamund Trent. Alayne carried them about, showing them, and then laid them away. They seemed unreal.
There were no holly wreaths at Jalna. No great red satin bows. But the banister was twined with evergreens, and a sprig of mistletoe was suspended from the hanging lamp in the hall. In the drawing-room a great Christmas tree towered toward the ceiling, bristling with the strange fruit of presents for the family, from Grandmother down to little Wake.
A rich hilarity drew them all together that day. They loved the sound of each other’s voices; they laughed on the least provocation; by evening the young men showed a tendency toward horseplay. There was a late dinner dominated by the largest turkey Alayne had ever seen. There was a black and succulent plum pudding with brandy sauce. There were native sherry and port. The Fennels were there; the two daughters of the retired admiral; and lonely little Miss Pink, the organist. Mr. Fennel proposed Grandmother’s health in a toast so glowing with metaphor and prickling with wit that she suggested that if he were three sheets in the wind on Sunday he would preach a sermon worth hearing. The admiral’s daughters and Miss Pink were flushed and steadily smiling in the tranced gayety induced by wine. Meg was soft and dimpled as a young girl.
A great platter of raisins smothered in flaming brandy was carried in by Rags, wearing the exalted air of an acolyte. The raisins were placed on the table in the midst of the company. Tortured blue flames leaped above them, quivering, writhing, and at last dying into quickrunning ripples. Hands, burnished like brass, stretched out to snatch the raisins: Wake’s, with its round, child’s wrist; Finch’s, bony and predatory; Piers’s, thick, muscular; Grandmother’s, dark, its hooklike fingers glittering with jewels — all the grasping, eager hands and the watchful faces behind them, illuminated by the flare, Gran’s eyes like coals beneath her beetling red brows.
Pheasant’s hands fluttered like little brown birds. She was afraid of getting burned. Again and again the blue flames licked them and they darted back.
‘You are a little silly,’ said Renny. ‘Make a dash for them, or they’ll be gone! ’
She set her teeth and plunged her hand into the flames. ‘Oh — oh, I ’m going to be burned! ’
‘You’ve only captured two,’ laughed Eden, on her other side, and laid a glossy cluster on her plate.
Renny saw his hand slide under the table and cover hers in her lap. His eyes sought Eden’s and held them a moment. They gazed with narrowed lids, each seeing something in the other that startled him. Scarcely was this unrecognized something seen when it was gone, as a film of vapor that changes for a moment the clarity of the well-known landscape and shows a scene, obscure, even sinister. The shadow passed and they smiled, and Eden withdrew his hand.
Under the mistletoe Mr. Fennel — Grandmother having been carefully steered that way by two grandsons — caught and kissed her, his beard rough, her cap askew.
Uncle Ernest, a merry gentleman that night, caught and kissed Miss Pink, who most violently became Miss Scarlet!
Tom Fennel caught and kissed Pheasant. ‘Here now, Tom, you fathead, cut that out!’ from Piers.
Finch, seeing everything double after two glasses of wine, caught and kissed two white-shouldered Alaynes. It was the first time she had worn an evening dress since her marriage.
Nicholas growled to Ernest: ‘Did you ever see a hungry wolf? Look at Renny glowering in that corner! Isn’t Alayne lovely to-night?’
‘Everything’s lovely,’ said Ernest, rocking on his toes. ‘Such a nice Christmas!’
They played charades and dumb crambo.
To see Grandmother — inadvertently shouting out the name of the syllable she was acting — as Queen Victoria, and Mr. Fennel as Gladstone!
To see Meg as Mary, Queen of Scots, with Renny as executioner, all but cutting off her head with the knife with which he had carved the turkey!
To see Alayne, as the Statue of Liberty, holding a bedroom lamp on high (’Look out, Alayne, don’t tilt it so! You’ll have the house on fire!’), and Finch as a hungry immigrant!
You saw the family of Jalna at their happiest in exuberant play.
Even when the guests were gone and the Whiteoaks getting ready for bed, they could not settle down.
Ernest, in shirt and trousers, prowled through the dim hallway, a pillow from his bed in one hand. He stopped at Benny’s door. It was ajar. He could see Renny winding his watch, Wake sitting up in bed chattering excitedly.
Ernest hurled the pillow at Renny’s head. Renny staggered, bewildered by the unexpected blow, and dropped his watch.
‘By Judas,’ he said, ‘if I get you!’ With his pillow he started in pursuit.
‘A pillow fight! A pillow fight!’ cried Wake, and scrambled out of bed.
Ernest had got as far as his brother’s room. ‘Nick,’ he shouted, in great fear, ‘save me!’
Nicholas, his gray mane on end, was up and into it. Piers, like a bullet, sped down the hall. Finch, dragged from slumber, had barely reached the scene of conflict when a back-handed blow from Eden’s pillow laid him prostrate.
Nicholas’s room was a wreck. Up and down the passage the combatants surged. The young men forgot their loves, their fears, their jealousies, the two elderly men their years, in the ecstasy of physical, halfnaked conflict.
‘Boys! Boys!’ cried Meg, drawing aside her chenille curtain.
‘Steady on, old lady!’ — and a flying pillow drove her into retreat.
Pheasant appeared at her door, her short hair all on end. ‘May I play, too?’ she cried, hopping up and down.
‘Back to your hole, little hedgehog!’ said Renny, giving her a feathery thump as he passed.
Renny was after Nicholas, who had suddenly become cognizant of his gout and could scarcely hobble. Piers and Finch were after Renny. They cornered him, and Nicholas, from being the well-nigh exhausted quarry, became the aggressor, and helped to belabor him.
Eden stood at the top of the stairs, laughingly holding off little Wake, who was manfully wielding a long old-fashioned bolster. Ernest, with one last hilarious fling in him, stole forth from his room and hurled a solid sofa cushion at the pair.
It struck Eden on the chest. He backed, missed his footing, and fell. Down the stairs he went crashing, with a noise that aroused Grandmother, who began to rap the floor with her stick.
‘What’s up? What have you done?’ asked Renny.
‘My God, I’ve knocked the lad downstairs! What if I’ve killed him!’
The brothers streamed helter-skelter down the stairs.
‘Oh, those bloody stairs!’ groaned Eden. ‘I’ve twisted my leg. I can’t get up.’
‘Don’t move, old fellow.’ They began to feel him all over.
The women emerged from their rooms.
’I have been expecting an accident,’ said Augusta, looking more offended than usual,
‘Oh, whatever is the matter?’ cried Alayne.
Ernest answered, wringing his hands: ‘Can you ever forgive me, Alayne? Piers says I’ve broken Eden’s leg.’
Six weeks had passed, and Eden was still unable to leave his room. Besides a broken leg he had got a badly wrenched back. However, after the first suffering was over, he had not had such a bad time. It was almost with regret that he had heard the hearty red-faced doctor say this morning that he would soon be as fit as ever. It had been rather jolly lying here, being taken care of, listening to the complaints of others about the severity of the weather, the depth of the snowdrifts, and the impossibility of getting anywhere with the car. The inactivity of body had seemed to generate a corresponding activity of mind. Never had he composed with less effort. Poetry flowed through him in an exuberant crystal stream. Alayne had sat by his couch and written the first poems out for him, in her beautiful, legible hand, but now he was able to sit up with a pad on his knee and scrawl them in his own way — decorating the margins with fancifid sketches in illustration.
Alayne had been a dear through it all. She had nursed him herself, fetching and carrying from the basement kitchen to their room without complaint, though he knew he had been hard to wait on in those first weeks. She had looked abominably tired. Those brick basement stairs were no joke. Her face seemed to have grown broader, flatter, with a kind of Teutonic patience in it that made him remember that her mother had been of Dutch extraction, several generations ago; but still it was there, the look of solidity and patience. A benevolent, tolerant face it might become in later life — but plainer, certainly.
She must have been disappointed, too, at his inability to take the position got for him by Mr. Evans, at the New Year. Though she had not said much about it, he knew that she was eager to leave Jalna and have a house of their own. He had refused to let her put her money into the buying of one, but he had agreed that, he paying the rent from his salary, she might buy the furniture. She had talked a good deal about just how she would furnish it. When his log was paining, and he could not sleep, it was one of her favorite ways of soothing him; to stroke his head and furnish each of the rooms in turn. She had chosen the furniture for his workroom with great care, and also that for his bedroom and hers. He had been slightly aggrieved that she spoke of separate rooms, though upon reflection he had decided that it would be rather pleasant to be able to scatter his belongings all over his room without the feeling that he was seriously disturbing her. She was too serious, and that was a fact. She had a way of making him feel like a naughty boy. That had been charming at first, but often now it irritated him.
There was something strange about her of late. Remote, inward-gazing. He hoped and prayed she was n’t going to be mopy. A mopy wife would be disastrous to him — weigh on his spirits most dreadfully.
She had slept on the couch in their room during the first weeks after the accident when he had needed a good deal of waiting on at night. Later she had taken all her things and moved to a big low-ceiled room in the attic. She spent hours of her time there now. Of course, all he had to do was to ring the little silver bell at his side and she came flying down the stairs to him, but he could not help wondering what she did up there all alone. Not that he wanted her with him continually, but he could not forgive her for seeking solitude. He was really very happy. He was well except for a not unpleasant feeling of lassitude. He had also a feeling of exquisite irresponsibility and irrelevance. This interval in his life he accepted as a gift from the gods. It was a time of inner development, of freedom of spirit, of ease from the shackles of life.
He had scarcely felt the chafing of those shackles yet, and he did not want to feel them. He should have been a lone unicorn stamping in inconsequent gayety over sultry Southern plains, leaving bonds to tamer spirits.
He was just thinking this, and smiling at the thought, when Pheasant came into the room. She was carrying a plate of little red apples, and she wore the vivid smock bought for her by Alayne.
‘Meggie sent you these,’ she said, setting the plate beside him. ‘As a matter of fact, I think you eat too much. You’re not as slim as you were.’
‘Well, it’s a wonder I’m not thin,’ he returned with some heat. ‘God knows I’ve suffered!’ He bit into an apple, and continued: ‘You’ve never had any real sympathy for me, Pheasant.’
She looked at him, astonished.
‘Why, I thought I’d been lovely to you! I’ve sat with you, and listened to your old poetry, and told you what a wonder you are. What more do you want?’
He reclined, drumming his fingers on the afghan that lay over him, a faint smile shadowing rather than lighting his face.
She examined his features and then said darkly: ‘You’re too clever, that’s what’s the matter with you.’
‘ My dear little Pheasant, don’t call me by such a horrid word! I’m not clever. I’m only natural. You’re natural. That is why we get on so famously. ’
‘We don’t get on,’ she returned, indignantly. ‘Uncle Ernest was saying only the other day what a pity it is you and I quarrel so much. ’
‘He’s an old ninny.’
‘You ought to be ashamed to say that. He has done everything in his power to make up to you for hurting you. He has read to you by the hour. I don’t think he’ll ever get over the shock of seeing you hurtle downstairs with his pillow on top of you. ’
‘I agree with you. It was the most exhilarating thing that has happened to him in years. He looks ten years younger. To have knocked an athletic young fellow downstairs and broken his leg! Just when he began to feel the feebleness of old age creeping on! Why, he’s like a young cockerel that’s saluted the dawn with its first crow.’
‘I think you’re sardonic.’
‘And I think you’re delicious. I especially admire your wisdom, and that little tuft of hair that stands up on your crown. But I do wish you’d put it down. It excites me.’
She passed her hand over it.
‘Do you know,’ he said, ‘that you pass your hand over your head exactly as I do. We have several identical gestures. I believe our gesture toward life is the same.’
‘I think your greatest gift,’ she said, stiffly, ‘is flattery. You know just how to make a woman pleased with herself.’
She was such a ridiculous little child, playing at being grown up, that he could scarcely keep from laughing at her. Neither could he keep the tormenting image of her from his mind when she was away from him. He lay back on the pillow and closed his eyes.
Outside, the snow-covered lawns and fields, unmarked by the track of a human being, stretched in burnished, rosy whiteness toward the sunset. The pines and hemlocks, clothed in the sombre grandeur of their winter foliage, threw shadows of an intense, translucent blueness.
When he opened his eyes and turned toward her she was gazing out on this scene. He thought there was a frightened look in her eyes. A faint sound of music came from Uncle Nick’s room. He was playing his piano, as he often did at this hour.
‘ Pheasant. ’
‘You look odd. Rather frightened.’
‘I’m not a bit frightened.’
‘Not of me, of course. But of yourself?’
‘Yes, I am rather frightened of myself, and I don’t even know why. I believe it’s that wild-looking sky. In a minute it will be dark and so cold — you’ll need a fire here. ’
‘I am on fire, Pheasant.’
He found her hand and held it. Then he asked: ‘Do you think Alayne loves me any more?’
‘No, I don’t think she does. And you don’t deserve it — her love, I mean. ’
‘I don’t believe I ever had it. It was my poetry she loved, not me. Do you think she loves — Renny?’
She stared at him, startled. ‘I’d never thought of that! Perhaps she does.’
‘A nice mix-up.’
‘Well, I should not blame Alayne. Here she is, pitchforked into this weird family, with a husband who is absolutely devoted to himself, and a most remarkable-looking and affectionate brother-in-law.’
‘Remarkable-looking and affectionate! Heavens, what a description! ’
‘I think it’s a very good description.’
‘Well, I suppose Renny is remarkable — but affectionate! That scarcely describes making love to another man’s wife. I don’t believe Alayne would fall for him unless he did make love to her. But affectionate! I can’t get over that.’
‘How would you describe your holding my hand? That’s affectionate, is n’t it?’
He took her other hand and laid both hands on his breast. ‘I shan’t mind about anything,’ he said, ‘if you will only care for me. ’ He drew her closer, his face stained by the afterglow that transformed the matterof-fact room into a strange and passionate retreat.
Pheasant began to cry. ‘Don’t,’ she implored. ‘Don’t do that! It’s what I’ve been afraid of. ’
‘You care for me,’ he whispered. ‘Oh, my darling little Pheasant! Say that you do — just once. Kiss me, then — you know you want to. It’s what you’ve been dreading — but — desiring, too, my dearest. There’s nothing to be afraid of in life — nothing to be ashamed of. Just be your precious self.’
She flung herself against him, sobbing.
She did not know whether or not she loved him, but she knew that the room had a sultry fascination for her, that the couch where Eden lay was the centre of all her waking thoughts, that his eyes, blazing in the afterglow, compelled her to do as he willed.
She hated Piers for being absorbed in his cattle, seeing nothing of her temptation, not saving her from herself, as he should have done. He knew that she was not like other young girls of his class. She had bad, loose blood. He should have watched her, been hard with her, as Maurice had been. His idea was to make a ‘pal’ of his wife. But she was not that sort of wife. He should have known, oh, he should have known — saved her from herself, from Eden!
As she wept against Eden’s shoulder, her tears became no longer the warm tears of surrender, but the tears of black anger against Piers, who had not saved her.
(To be concluded)
- A synopsis of the preceding chapters will be found in the Contributors’ Column. — THE EDITORS↩