EDEN was pathetic. He was like a capricious child, weak and tyrannical. He could not in those first weeks bear Alayne out of his sight. There was so much to be done for him that only she could do to his satisfaction. The young Scotch girl came every day to help; their meals were carried to them in covered dishes by Rags, from the house. But Alayne must move his hammock from place to place, following the sun; she must make his eggnogs, his sherry jelly, read to him, sit with him at night by the hour when he could not sleep, encourage and restrain him. Like a child, he was sweetly humble on occasion. He would catch her skirt, hold it, and say, brokenly, ‘I don’t deserve it. You should have left me to die’; or, ‘If I get better, Alayne, I wonder if you coidd love me.’
She was endlessly patient with him, but her love was dead, as his was, in truth, for her. A tranquillity born of the knowledge that all was over between them gave them assurance. The mind of each was free to explore its own depths, to see its own reflection in the lucent pool of summer. Eden, with his invincible desire for beauty, read poems in the opening scroll of violets, tiny orchids, hooked fern fronds, that covered the woodland. He read them in the interlacing pattern of leaves, branches, the shadows of flying birds.
In all these Alayne read passion. She thought only of Renny.
She had seen little of him, and then only in the presence of Eden or others of the family. She had several times taken tea with old Mrs. Whiteoak and Augusta. On all occasions the talk was of Eden’s health. He was improving. Almost from the first Alayne had been convinced that his illness was not to be fatal. He was responding to rest and good food. She could imagine his life in New York. But how weak he was! She wished there were more sunshine for him. June was windless, and sometimes they felt suffocated under the lush greenness that enclosed them. Fiddler’s Hut was half hidden by a twisted creeper that shadowed the small-paned windows. It seemed impossible to keep Eden in the sunlight for more than half an hour without the necessity of moving him.
Weeks ago she had asked Renny if something might not be done to let in air and sunshine. Nothing had yet been done. Enough that he had brought Eden back to Jalna. It would require effort to rouse him to further action. The family now took it for granted that Eden would recover.
She had left him in a comfortable chair, a glass of milk at his elbow, a book in his hand. A splash of sunlight, of a richness suggesting autumn rather than June, gave the effect of his being a figure in a tableau, as she looked back. This effect was heightened by the pensive immobility of his attitude, and by the, one might almost think, conscious pose of his hands and beautifully modeled head. She had come near to touching his hair in a passing caress, as she had left. She was glad now that she had not. She went down the moist path, past the spring, overgrown with wild honeysuckle, and followed it swiftly, as it rose into the wood.
High in the pines she heard the plaintive notes of a mourning dove. Here and there rose the towering pallid bole of a silver birch, shining as though from an inner light. The notes of the mourning dove were drowned by the rapid thudding of a horse’s hoofs. Alayne drew out of sight behind a massive, moss-grown trunk. She peered out to see who the rider might be. It was Pheasant, riding bareheaded astride a slender Western pony. They passed in a flash — padding hoofs, flying mane, great shining eyes, and, above, little white face and tumbled dark hair. Alayne called her name, but the girl did not hear, and in a moment was gone beyond a curve.
It was Alayne’s first glimpse of Pheasant since her return. She felt a quick outgoing of warmth toward her. Poor, wild, sweet. Pheasant, married so young to Piers! If she had not known her, she would have taken that flying figure on horseback for a boy.
She followed the path, now in the full blaze of sunshine. The woods about were no longer pine, but oaks and birch and maple. In every hollow were gay gatherings of wood lilies, white and purplish pink, and through all the trees sounded the ring of bird song. An oriole flashed. She caught the blue of a jay’s swift wing and thought she saw, but was not sure, a scarlet tanager. Then again came the hoof beats. Pheasant was returning. Alayne trembled, looking down on the path, where in the dust lay the little hoofprints.
Pheasant was beside her. She had leaped from her horse. His breathing sounded, quick and passionate. His velvet nose was introduced between the faces of the two girls.
‘ Alayne! ’
Their eyes embraced, their hands touched; they wavered, laughing, then kissed. The horse, puzzled, flung back his head, shaking his bridle.
‘ Let’s sit down in the wood,* cried Pheasant. ‘How splendid our meeting like this! Away from all the family, you know. Those people. Well, we’re different, after all, you and I. We can’t talk the same, be ourselves, when they’re all about us.’ And she added, quaintly, ‘I think you’re noble, Alayne! But how can I tell you what I think? I’ll never forget how beautiful you were to me. And now you’ve come back to nurse Eden!’
They sat down among the trees. The grass was long and so tender that it seemed to have grown in a day. The horse began to crop, petulantly jerking up, with a sidewise movement of the head, great succulent mouthfuls. Pheasant sat with her back against a young oak.
On her white forehead, above the pale oval of her face, a lock of dark hair lay like a half-opened fan. Alayne thought that she had never seen such beautiful brown eyes. Pheasant’s mouth was small and she opened it little when she spoke, but when she laughed, which was seldom, she opened it wide, showing her white teeth.
‘Is n’t life a funny tangle?’ she said. ‘It would take a lot of untangling to straighten us, would n’t it, Alayne?’
’Does it bear talking about? Had n’t we better just talk of you and me?’
‘I suppose so. But perhaps God is trying to untangle it all, or perhaps it is just that we are becoming more mellow with age. Do you think, perhaps, that we are becoming more mellow with age, Alayne?'
’I think,’ said Alayne, ‘that you’re an adorable child. They tell me that you’re a mother, but I can’t believe it.’
‘Wait till you see Mooey! He’s simply wonderful. Not so fat as Meg’s baby, but such a look in his eyes! It quite frightens me. Still, I don’t believe there’s any truth in the saying that the good die young. . . . I should n’t look on old Mrs. Whiteoak — Gran — as specially good, should you? Not that I should insinuate that she’s ever been immoral, — Heaven forbid that I should east a stone at anyone, — but 1 think she’s been cynical, rather than pious, all her long life, don’t you?’
‘I do. And I should not worry about Mooey dying young if I were you. . . . Tell me, Pheasant, who is this Miss Ware? Meg brought her along once when she came with some shortcake for Eden. She seems a strange sort of girl. English, is n’t she?’
‘Yes. She’s a sort of companion to Meg, and she’s nice to me. She’s mad about men. I actually have to keep my eye on her when Piers is about.’ . . . She plucked nervously at the grass, and added, ‘Meg wants to marry her to Renny.’
What were the birds in the tree tops doing? What strange happening had taken place among the inhabitants of the burrows underground? Through all the woodland was an inexplicable stir. Alayne felt it run along the ground, up the tree trunks, along the branches into the leaves, which strangely began to flutter. Had a shadow fallen across the sky? What had the child been saying?
Meg, with her stupid stubbornness of purpose, had set out to marry Renny to this woman whom she had chosen — for what purpose? She saw Renny, with his air of mettle. She saw Minny Ware, her narrow, strangely colored eyes laughing above her high cheek bones, her wide red mouth smiling, her thick white neck. She heard that full, rich voice, that effortless, ringing laugh.
She forced herself to speak steadily. ‘And Renny — does he take kindly to the idea?’
Pheasant frowned. ‘How can one tell about Renny? He thinks, “This is a fine filly.” Well, he ’s a judge of good horseflesh! Last night all of us went over to Jalna. Minny played and sang. Renny seemed to hang about the piano a good deal. Everybody fell in love with her singing. The uncles could n’t keep their eyes off her, and, if you’ll believe me, Gran actually pinched her on the thigh! She was a success. But Renny ’ll never marry her. He won’t marry anyone. He’s too aloof.’
At these last words, Alayne felt a sharp pang, and withal a sickly sense of comfort, as of the sun shining dimly through mist.
As though aware of the presence of concentrated emotion, the horse ceased cropping, raised his head, and looked startled. Pheasant went to him and took the bridle in her hand. ‘He’s getting a bit restless,’ she said. ‘And I must go. I promised not to be long away.’
They walked along the path together, Pheasant leading the horse.
When they entered the pine wood they met Minny Ware, pushing a perambulator in which sat Meg’s infant, Patience. Minny wore a very short dress of vivid green, and a wide, drooping hat, fit for a garden party.
‘Oh, hallo,’ she exclaimed, with her London accent. ‘The fashionable world goes a-walking, eh?’ She turned, tilting the perambulator on its back wheels and surveying Alayne from under the brim of her hat.
‘How do you like the weather?’ she asked. ‘Glorious, eh? I’ve never seen so much sunshine in all my life.’
‘At Fiddler’s Hut the foliage is too dense. We don’t get nearly enough sunshine.’ Alayne’s voice was cold and distant. She could scarcely conceal her antagonism for this full-blooded girl. She felt that beside her she looked colorless, listless.
‘How is your husband?’ asked Minny Ware. ‘ Better, I hope. It must be rotten to have anything wrong with one’s lungs. I believe mine are made of India rubber.’ The full, effortless laugh gushed forth. She looked ready to burst into song.
‘Thank you,’ returned Alayne rigidly. ‘He is getting better.’
Minny Ware went on blithely, ‘Mr. Whiteoak was suggesting to me that I go over one day and sing to him. He thought it might cheer him up. Do you think he’d like it?’
‘I dare say he would.’ But there was no note of encouragement in her voice.
Patience was making bubbly noises and holding up her hands toward the horse.
Pheasant laughed. ‘She’s a perfect Whiteoak! Look at her — she’s asking to get into the saddle.’
With a swift movement of her white bare arm, Minny lifted the child and swung her to the horse’s back, and supported her there. ‘How’s that, ducky?’ she gurgled. ‘Nice old gee-gee?’ She clapped the horse on the flank.
‘For God’s sake, be careful, Minny!’ cried Pheasant. ‘He’s nervous.’ She patted him soothingly.
‘Is he?’ laughed Minny. ‘He seems a docile little beast. Does n’t she look a lamb on horseback ? ’
Patience indeed looked charming, the downy brown hair on her little head blown, her eyes bright with excitement. She clutched the rein in her tiny hands and cooed in ecstasy.
‘She’s a perfect Whiteoak,’ averred Pheasant again, with solemnity.
Alayne did not think she cared for babies, especially Meg’s baby. Perhaps it was that she did not understand them, had had nothing to do with them in her life. For something to say she admired the grace of the horse.
Minny Ware took the baby in her arms. She pressed her full red mouth to its soft cheek. ‘Music and babies,’ she murmured, through the kiss. ‘They’re the soul and body of life, are n’t they? I could n’t get on without them. In England I always had a baby about, looking after it for one of my father’s sick parishioners.’
Alayne saw Minny as a symbolic figure — a song on her moist red lips, a baby against her swelling breast. Songs and babies — an endless procession from her vigorous body. With a fresh pang, she saw her as Renny’s wife, singing to him, bearing his children. Minny was revealed to be a fit mate for one of the Whiteoaks. One whose formidable physical strength and spiritual acquiescence could be welded into their circle, She saw herself as a disparate being; an alloy that never could be merged; a bird brooding on a strange nest, crying to a mate to whom her voice would ever be alien.
She slipped her finger into the child’s tender palm. The little hand closed about her finger and drew it toward the inquisitive mouth.
Pheasant sprang to the saddle with casual accustomedness. Horse and rider disappeared behind a bend in the path.
The two young women walked on together. When they reached the point where Alayne must turn into the narrow footpath leading to Fiddler’s Hut, Minny Ware said, ‘Shall I come one day, then, and sing?’
‘Yes, do,’ answered Alayne. After all, Eden might like her singing. He had n’t much to amuse him, shut in among the trees. He must get tired of reading and being read to.
It was July when at last Renny came. A dim day after a week of intense heat. When they looked out in the morning, their little woodland world had been shrouded in an unearthly fog. Thin films of vapor covered the abnormally large leaves, gathering at the tips and forming clear drops. The seething summer life of the wood was silent, apparently in a deep languor after the restless activity of the past week. The visits from those at the house had become rarer, either because of the heat and lassitude of the month of July or because they were absorbed by some new interweaving of the threads of the pattern that was being woven at Jalna. Eden and Alayne were left very much to themselves, spending drowsy days, cut off by his illness and her shrinking from meetings with the family.
She felt apathetic now. They might go on like this forever, passing their days in that green shade, their nights in fantastic dreams. She was startled, almost afraid, when, on this morning, she saw Renny’s figure detach itself from the mist which lay thick under the orchard trees and which had made his body appear to be but another trunk, and emerge into the path. She saw that he wore a loose white shirt and riding breeches, but he carried in one hand some implement and in the other a long trailing piece of vetch, covered with little purple flowers.
He moved with such energy along the path, seemed so unoppressed by the humid air and the fog, that she fancied it moved aside for him, was lightened and dispersed at his approach.
Eden had actually been trying to write. He raised his eyes from the pad that lay on his knee and, like Alayne, looked almost startled toward the door, as Renny stood there.
An expression of embarrassment made the elder brother’s features appear less carved than usual. He knew that he had been remiss, even heartless, but he had, since their return, a feeling of shy avoidance toward them. Although Alayne had come only to nurse Eden, to will him back to health, and then again part from him, she seemed now to belong to him. She must not be sought out, brooded on, hungered for, with a pain as for something one could never possess. Renny had retired, with an almost animal fatalism, to wait for events to turn out as they would. He was watchful. His instincts were invincible. He was conscious of the presence of those two in the very air he breathed, in the earth beneath his feet. Yet the summer might have passed without his going to them, had not Augusta that morning drawn his attention to the unusual growth of the vine that covered the porch, to the great size of the geranium leaves in the beds, to the difficulty of keeping down weeds in the garden, and to the need for cutting the lawn. All these evidences of rank growth drove him to inspect the still ranker growth at Fiddler’s Hut. Those two might almost be enclosed now by such a hedge as enclosed the Sleeping Palace.
As he passed through the orchard he had noticed a clump of purple vetch, wound and curled about itself into a great mound, beautiful, showing through the mist. He had detached a long strand of this and brought it to Alayne. It hung dangling from his hand, almost touching the doorsill. His spaniels appeared on either side of him.
Eden was pathetically glad to see him. His face broke into a boyish smile, and he exclaimed, ' You, at last, Renny! I thought you’d forgotten me! How long do you think it is since you were here?’
' Weeks, I know. I’m ashamed. Rut I ’ve been — ’
‘For God’s sake, don’t say you’ve been busy! What must it be like to be busy! I’ve forgotten!’
‘Did you ever know?’ Renny came in and stood beside him. The dogs entered also, with great dignity, their plumed legs and bellies dripping from the wet grass. ‘Shall I turn them out?’ he asked Alayne. ‘I’m afraid they’re making tracks on the floor.’
‘No, no!’ objected Eden. ‘I like them. How fine they look! And you, too, Renny. Doesn’t he, Alayne?’ The dogs went to him and sniffed his thin hands.
‘He looks as he always does,’ Alayne said, coldly. Now that he stood before her, he whom her whole being had ached to see, she felt antagonism for his vigor, his detachment. How little he cared for Eden, for her, for anyone but himself!
His brown eyes were on her face. He moved toward her, half shyly, and offered the vetch.
‘I picked this,’ he said, ‘in the orchard. Funny stuff. A weed — but pretty. I thought you might like it.’
‘We have so few growing things about us,’ said Eden.
Alayne took the vetch. Their hands touched. Deliberately she had manœuvred so that they must touch. She must feel the torment of that contact. . . . The vine clung to her hands as she put it into a vase.
When she drew them away it still clung, was dragged from the vase, its tendrils seeming to feel for her fingers.
She sat down by the window. Renny took a chair beside Eden, and looked him over critically. ‘You’re getting stronger,’ he observed. ‘Drummond’ — the family doctor — ‘says you’re improving steadily. He thinks you’ll be almost recovered by fall.’
‘Silly old blighter!’ exclaimed Eden. ‘He has n’t seen me for weeks!’
‘There is nothing to do but continue the treatment. You ’re getting the best of care.’
‘Everyone avoids me,’ continued Eden. ‘One would think I had the plague! The only one who comes is Wakefield, and I must send him away. If it were n’t for Rags, I should n’t know what is going on in the house.’
‘What has he been telling you?’ asked Renny, quickly.
‘Nothing in particular, excepting that Piers and his wife are home again. I suppose Meggie could n’t put up with them any longer.’
Both Renny and Alayne wondered how he could bring himself to repeat that bit of news. There was surely no shame in him. She looked out of the window, and Renny down at his boots. After a silence he began to talk, in a desultory fashion. News of his stables, news of the family. The uncles and Aunt Augusta stuck to the house pretty much because of the heat. Gran was well. Word had just come that Finch had passed his examinations. He was a happy boy. They’d make something of him yet!
At last he rose. ‘Now what about this greenery? I’ve shears and a saw here, and if you’ll show me what you want cut down —’
‘You go with him, Alayne,’ said Eden. ‘It’s so beastly foggy out. I’ll stop here and see if I can do anything with this.’
Renny glanced at the pad on Eden’s knee. What was written looked like poetry. Good Lord, was he at it again! Renny had hoped that his illness might have cured him of this other disability. But no, while Eden lived he would make verse, and trouble.
Outside, the fog still enveloped the woodland, delicate and somnolent. The pale moonlike sun scarcely illumined it. The drip of moisture from leaves mingled with the muted murmur of the spring.
‘It’s rather a strange morning,’ said Alayne, ‘to have chosen for cutting things. It will be hard to know what the effect will be.’ She thought, ‘We are alone, shut in by the fog. We might be the only two on earth.’
‘Yes,’ he agreed, in an equally matter-offact tone. ‘It’s a queer morning. The branches seem to spring out from nowhere. However, that won’t prevent their being lopped off.’ He thought, ‘Her face is like a white flower. I wonder what she would say if I were to kiss her. The little hollow of her throat would be the place.’
She looked about her vaguely. What was it she wanted him to do? The path, yes. ‘This path,’ she said, ‘should be widened. We get so wet.’
He followed it with his eyes. Safer than looking at her. ‘I’d need a scythe for that. I’ll send one of the men around this afternoon and he’ll cut down all that growth. Now I’ll thin out these long branches.’
Before long, boughs, heavy with their summer growth, lay all around. And all about green mounds of low-growing things: dogwood, with its waxen berries; elderberry, its fruit just going red; sumach, the still green plumes of which were miniature trees in themselves; aconite, still in flower; and long graceful trailers of the wild grape. Wherever Renny strode, in his heavy boots, tender growths lay crushed. His dogs ran here and there, chasing into cover the squirrels and rabbits she had tried to tame. Symbolic of him, she thought, in one of those waves of antagonism which would ride close upon the waves of her love.
‘No more,’ she exclaimed, at last. ‘I’m afraid to think how it will all look when the sun comes out.’
‘Much better,’ he assured her. He stopped and lighted a cigarette. His expression became one of gravity. ‘ I must tell you the real reason why the uncles and aunt have not been to see you. You’re sure Rags has said nothing to Eden?’
‘Nothing.’ She was startled. She feared some strange development of the situation.
He went on. ‘We’ve been worried’ — he knitted his brow and inhaled the smoke deeply — ‘about my grandmother.’
His grandmother! Always that imposing, sinister, deplorable old figurehead of the Jalna battleship!
‘Yes? Is she not so well?’
He returned, irritably, ‘She’s quite well. Perfectly well. But — she’s given us all a bad fright, and now she’s behaving in — well, a very worrying fashion. I thought Eden had better not be told.’
Alayne stared at him, mystified beyond words.
‘Pretended she was dying. Staged a regular deathbed scene. Good-byes and all. It was awful. You could n’t believe how well she did it.’
Alayne could believe anything of old Adeline.
‘Tell me about it.’
‘Don’t repeat any of this to Eden,’
‘Certainly I will not.’
‘It gave us a terrible fright. I had come in rather late. About one o’clock, I think. I had just put on the light in my bedroom. Wakefield was awake. He said he could n’t sleep because moonlight was coming into the room and the cupboard door stood ajar. It worried him. He wanted me to look into the cupboard, to make sure there was nothing there. I did, to please him. Just as I stuck my head into it a loud rapping came from below. Gran beating on the floor with her stick. The kid squeaked, he was so nervous. I left him and ran dowm to her room. Aunt Augusta called out, “Are you going to Mamma, Renny? I don’t see how she can be hungry, at this hour!” Well, in her room there was the night light, of course. I could see her sitting up in bed, clutching her throat. She said, “Renny, I’m dying. Fetch the others.” You can imagine my feelings.’
‘Yes. It was terrifying.’
‘Rather. I asked her where she felt the worst, and she only gave a sort of gurgle. Then she got out, “My children— I want to tell them good-bye. Every one. Bring them.” I got some brandy from the dining room and managed to give her a swallow of that. I propped her up on the pillows. The parrot kept biting at me, as if he did n’t want anyone near her. Then I went to the telephone, and Drummond promised to be over immediately. Then I ran upstairs. Got them all up. Finch from the attic. Little Wake. God, they were a whitelooking lot!’
‘And she was only pretending?’
‘She had us all going. We crowded about the bed. She put her arms around each one in turn. I thought, “That’s a pretty strong hug.” And she’d something to say to each. A kind of message. Tears were running down Uncle Ernest’s face. Wake was sobbing. She had us all going.’ The red of his face deepened as he recalled the scene.
‘Then the doctor came. Pulled down her eyelid. Felt her pulse. He said, “You’re not dying!” And she said, “I feel better now. I’d like something to eat.” The next morning she told us that she’d been lying awake and she’d got an idea she’d like to know just how badly we’d feel if we thought she was dying.’
Alayne said, through tight lips, ‘I hope she was satisfied.’
‘She must have been. We were a sorry sight. . . . And if you’d seen us trailing back to bed! Hair on end. Nightclothes. We were figures of fun, I can tell you!’
‘It was abominably cruel of her.’
‘Perhaps. But a good one on us. And, I guess, a great satisfaction to her.’
‘You were sufficiently harrowed!’
‘If only you could have seen us!’
She smiled in rather bitter amusement. ‘I think I begin to understand you.’
‘We’re easy to understand — when you know us.’
‘But we are friends — are n’t we?’
‘Are we? I don’t believe I can manage that.’
‘Don’t you think of me, then, in a friendly way?’
‘Me? Friendly? Good God, Alayne! And you call Gran tormenting!'
‘Well — about her. You spoke of some odd behavior.’ She was a fool to get on dangerous ground with him. Better talk about old Adeline.
He went on, frowning, ‘The trouble is this. Ever since that night she’s always wanting to see her lawyer. Has him out every few days. It must be a plague for him. And it makes things tense at Jalna.
I don’t worry about her will. But I know the uncles are worrying. And one can’t help wondering. I suppose you know that she’s going to leave everything she has in a lump sum to one of us. I suppose everyone is really wondering just how sorrowful he looked that night. Rather wishes he had the chance to do it over again. You remember I told you that Uncle Ernest cried. I believe Uncle Nick thinks that Uncle Ernest feels rather cocky about that, and wishes he could have dug up a tear or two.’ He gave one of his sudden staccato laughs.
‘If it comes to that,’ she said, ironically, ‘Wakefield cried, too.’
‘And Mooey! Did I tell you he was down, too? The old dear missed him. She looked around and said, “Somebody’s not here! It’s the baby. My great-grandson. Fetch the baby down!” Pheasant flew upstairs and brought Mooey. If you’ll believe me, the little devil simply howled. And now Piers and Pheasant are hopeful about him!’ This time his laughter reached Eden’s ears.
He appeared in the doorway of the cottage. The fog was really dispersing. He stood, after all this lopping of branches, in a bath of vague sunlight.
‘What’s the joke? You might tell it to me.’
Alayne called back, ‘It is n’t really a joke. Just something Renny finds amusing. How did you get on?’
‘I’ve done it!’
‘ Done what ? ’ asked Renny.
Alayne answered, ‘Finished what he was writing. Did n’t you notice that he was writing?’
‘Oh, yes. A poem. I suppose that’s a good sign.’ He forced his features into a grin of approbation.
‘Splendid.’ As they drew near to the young poet she said, ‘I’m so glad, Eden. Is it good ? ’
‘I’ll read it. No, I’ll wait till Renny’s gone. I say, what a shambles you’ve made of the place!’
Renny looked disappointed. ‘When it’s been raked over it will look better. Shall I trim this Virginia creeper now?’
‘No. I like a little privacy,’
‘But you’ve said a hundred times — ’ cried Alayne.
‘My good girl, never remind a person of temperament what he’s said a hundred times.’
‘But it’s dreadful to have that vine clinging round you!'
‘No, it is n’t. It makes me feel like a sturdy oak.’
Renny examined the vine critically. ‘I think he’s right. It would be a pity to touch it. It’s always looked just like that.’
‘But,’ Alayne protested, ‘everything in the cottage is damp!’
The brothers agreed that the vine had nothing to do with the dampness.
A figure was approaching along the path. It was Minny Ware, in a vivid blue dress. She carried a bowl of jelly mounded with whipped cream.
‘I’ve had such a time to find my way,’she said. ‘It’s the first time I’ve been in this direction by myself. I had n’t realized how large the estate is. Mrs. Vaughan sent this.’
‘Not so large as it once was,’ observed Renny, gloomily.
Alayne took the jelly and wondered what she would do with Miss Ware. Eden seemed rather pleased with her.
‘Come in,’ he said, ‘and let’s look at you. We’ll pretend you’re a bit of blue sky.’
They went into the cottage. Minny Ware seated herself in a wicker chair by the open door. Eden’s remark had made her radiant. Renny sat on a bench, holding the collars of his dogs. Alayne disappeared into the kitchen, carrying the bowl of jelly. She did not want to be in the room with the girl.
Minny Ware, elated at being left alone with the two men, exclaimed, ‘Is n’t this atmosphere the most depressing!’
‘You don’t look depressed,’ said Eden, his eyes absorbing the freshness of her cheeks and lips, the gayety of her gown.
‘It’s weather to make a man virtuous,’said Renny.
This remark evoked a gush of laughter from Minny, effortless as an oriole’s song.
Eden continued to be pleased with her. He said, I wonder if you are too depressed to sing to me. You promised to, you know.’
Minny Ware thought she could n’t, was sure she would disgrace herself by trying to sing on such a morning as this, but after some persuading she threw back her head, clasped her hands before her, in the attitude of a good child, and sang three little English songs. Alayne remained in the kitchen. Covertly she watched the three through a crack of the door. She saw Renny’s intent gaze on the throbbing white throat, the full bosom. She saw Eden’s appraising eyes also fixed on the girl, who appeared to have forgotten their presence. The first song was of a country lover and his lass, with a touch of Devon dialect in the refrain. The second song told of little birds in springtime innocently building their nest. The third — yes, the third was a lullaby. This she softly crooned, her ripe lips parted hi a smile. She remembered the presence of the brothers and, as she finished, her eyes sought theirs. She seemed timidly to ask for approbation.
The last long-drawn sweet note had been too much for one of the spaniels. He raised his muzzle and gave vent to a deep howl.
’Did he hate it so?’ asked Minny Ware, looking askance at the dog.
‘Down, Merlin,’ said Renny. ‘He’s like his master. He’s not musical.’
Her face fell. ‘I thought the other night you enjoyed it.’
‘I enjoyed this, too. But you sang more passionate things the other night. Isuppose something else in me was appealed to then.’
‘Oh, I love passionate music!’ She spoke with abandon. ‘I only sang these simple little things to please your brother, as he’s not well.’
‘Thank you,’ said Eden with gravity. ‘That was nice of you.’
‘Oh, now you’re laughing at me!’ she cried, and filled the room with her laughter.
Alayne came in and sat down on a stiffbacked grandfather’s chair. She felt icy before this exuberance. Only with the two spaniels, held by their collars, did she feel any sense of companionship in the room.
When Eden and she were alone, she said, ‘If your sister thinks she will bring that to pass, she is mistaken. He hates her. I could see it in his eyes.’
‘How clever you are!’ he cried. ‘You can read him like a book, can’t you?’ His glance was full of merriment.
While Eden and Alayne were struggling for his renewed health at Fiddler’s Hut, the family group were living in a morbid complicity of emotions, the two strongest of these being fear and jealousy. Since old Adeline had, as Renny put it, staged her own deathbed scene, they apprehended, one and all, that this sudden interest of hers in her final act was but the foreshadow of the spectre itself. The thought of it hung over them like a pall. The idea that she should pass from their midst was unbelievable. . . . Captain Philip Whiteoak had died; young Philip and his two wives had died; several infant Whiteoaks had passed away in that house; but that the involved pattern Adeline had woven in and out of those rooms, round about their lives, could be shattered was incredible.
If she was aware of any change in the atmosphere, she made no sign. She seemed in even better health than usual, and ate with increasing gusto, in preparation, it seemed to them, for the chill fast approaching. Neither did they talk to each other of what was in their minds, but of other things they talked even more than usual. Augusta, Nicholas, and Ernest sought out each other more frequently in their rooms. They discussed their pets, Nip, Sasha, and her kitten, their amazing sagacity. They grouped themselves, with chirrups and tweets, about the cage of Augusta’s canary. Forced cheerfulness sapped their energy. They were like people watching each other for symptoms of some disease which it was necessary, for their peace of mind, to ignore. Each one discovered, with grim satisfaction, the symptoms he sought in the others, and believed he had successfully hidden his own.
Augusta had little hope of gain for herself. She was passionately desirous that Ernest should be the heir. Nicholas thought that they plotted against him, and he feared Renny more than the two of them together. And Augusta and Ernest feared Renny and thought he plotted against them. And Renny believed that all his three elders were plotting against him. Even Mooey, Piers’s infant son, became an object of suspicion. Had not his greatgrandmother demanded that Mooey be brought to her? Was she not always pushing bits of biscuit and peppermints into his hand? And she was always exclaiming, ‘Bring my great-grandson to me! I want to kiss him — quick.’
Mooey laughed every time he saw his great-grandmother. To certain of the family his laughter sounded sinister.
Wakefield, with the shrewdness of a child living among grown-up folk, was conscious of the air of dread and suspicion that had crept into every corner of the house, even to the basement, where the Wragges discussed the situation from every angle. They quarreled bitterly over it, for Wragge was of the opinion that the peppery and taciturn master of Jalna should inherit, while Mrs. Wragge, whose bias in favor of primogeniture was strong, thought that Nicholas should be his mother’s heir. Nicholas too was in the habit of giving her little presents of money, when she ‘ did ’ his room.
Wakefield soon discovered that his elders were troubled when he hung about his grandmother’s neck and whispered in her ear. This gave him an agreeable sense of power. He began to lavish delicate attentions on her.
One day he announced that he was making a special prayer for her each night.
Ha!’ she cried. ‘Praying for me, eh? What is it that you say?’
‘It depends,’ he replied, his palms together between his bare knees, ‘on what sort of day you’ve had. If your appetite’s been not so good, I pray that it may be better. If it’s been good, I pray for lemon tart next day. If you’ve been worked up into a rage, I pray that you may have more consideration shown you to-morrow.’
‘The darling!’ exclaimed his grandmother. ‘Oh, the precious darling! Praying for his old Gran!’ And she made a habit of asking him each morning what his prayer for her had been the night before.
She took to giving him quite valuable things. One stormy afternoon when he was bored, she opened the door of the Indian cabinet, containing the ivory, ebony, jade, and lapis lazuli curios which he always longed to play with, but must not touch, and filled his two hands with things which she said he was to keep. Her sons and daughter were genuinely alarmed.
‘Mamma!’ chided Augusta. ‘You must be crazy! ’
‘Mind your business, Lady Bunkley!' retorted old Adeline. ‘I’ll give away my bed if I choose, or my head. I tell you, this child is the apple of my eve/
Nicholas and Ernest emerged from cover and conferred with each other in the open. They came to the conclusion that Meg and Renny were putting the child up to it. Wakefield’s face continued to be a mask of piety, but there was a secret little smile on his lips.
Finch, scarcely noticed by the family once their rejoicing over his return had subsided, was only an observer of this drama. Tension was relaxed for him, not increased. The strain of examinations was over. He had passed. Not gloriously, — he had come near the tail end of the candidates, — but passed, nevertheless. It was as though an aching tooth were drawn. He could look at his dog-eared textbooks without a sinking at the heart.
It was beautiful to him to spend these hot summer days in the country. He imagined with horror what they must be in New York. Yet there were moments when he remembered with a strange regret the lights in the harbor at night, the interesting foreign faces one met in the streets, the kindness that had been shown him at Cory and Parsons. He would wonder vaguely if he had missed something by coming home with Uncle Ernest, something he could never have again — a chance to get on in the world, to be respected instead of sneered at or just tolerated. But this was home, and here was music. Twice a week he went to the city and had music lessons. Two hours daily he was allowed to practise on the old square piano in the drawingroom. It was not enough, and he would have made up the deficiency by some extra practice on the piano at Vaughanlands but for an unsurmountable shyness of Minny Ware. Her presence in that house took all the virtue out of his playing. Her laughter frightened him. He felt that she regarded him as a curiosity.
On the occasions when she came to Jalna he felt certain that she was making up to Renny, and he felt certain that Meg approved. Unbearable if those two were to marry. He could n’t stand that laughing, slant-eyed girl in the house. If only Renny and Alayne might be married! He was deeply conscious of their love for each other. He would have liked to talk with Alayne these days, of life and art, and the meaning of both. In Alayne he felt a stability, a clarity, which he craved for himself, but he could not go to see her because of Eden.
One day, when he was sent to the rectory on a message, Mr. Fennel questioned him about his music. When Finch told him that he was dissatisfied with the amount of practising he got, the rector offered to let him practise on the church organ, and gave him a key so that he might let himself into the church at any time. This was the beginning of a new happiness. Miss Pink, the organist, finding him rather baffled by the organ, offered to help him for a while each week after choir practice. Soon he wrung from the old organ music so passionate that Miss Pink quite tingled when she heard it, and wondered if it were quite right to draw such sounds from a church organ.
Finch went more and more frequently to the church to play. At first he went only in the daytime, then was captivated by the mystery of playing in the twilight, and at last, wandering along the road one night in the moonlight, he was seized by the desire to play in the church by night. He climbed the long flight of steps to the churchyard, passed through the glimmering gravestones and in at the portal. Outside it was sultry. Warm dust had lain thick on the road, but in here there was a coolness as of death and the austere presence of God. Finch had never been alone in the church at night before, and he felt the Presence there in the moonlight as he never felt it when people sat in the pews and Mr. Fennel moved about in the chancel.
On that first night he played little. He sat with his long hands on the keys, searching his heart, trying to find out, if he could, what was in it of good and evil. Now its depths seemed less turgid than usual. He looked into it and saw a white light glimmering. God living in him. Not to be beaten down. The white light, pointed like a flame, quivered, drew upward. Sank, writhed as though in agony. He brooded over his heart, trying to discover its secret.
Once, returning home past midnight, he let himself in at the side door of the house and was just passing his grandmother’s room when her voice called, ‘Who is there? Come here, please.’
Finch hesitated. He had a mind to steal up the stairs without answering. He did not want her to know that he had been out till that hour. She might get to watching him. Questions might he asked. Still, she might really need someone. Worst of all, she might be about to stage another deathbed scene. That would be appalling.
As he hesitated, she called again, sharply, ‘Who’s there? Come quickly, please!’
Finch opened the door of her room and put his head inside. By the night light he could see her propped up on her two pillows, her nightcap shadowing her eyes, her old mouth sunken. But her expression was inquiring rather than anxious; her hands were clasped with resignation on the coverlet.
He felt suddenly tender toward her. He asked, ‘Want a drink, Grannie, dear? Anything I can do?’
‘Ha, it’s you, is it, Finch? Well, well, you don’t often visit, me at this hour. You don’t often visit me at all. I like boys about me. Come and sit you down. I want to be talked to.’
He came to the bedside and looked down at her. She took his hand and pulled him close, and closer till she could kiss him.
‘Ha!’ she said. ‘Nice smooth young cheek! Now sit here on the bed and be a nice boy. You are a nice boy, are n’t you?’
‘I don’t think anyone has ever called me a nice boy, Gran.’
’I do. I do. I call you a very nice boy. If anybody says you ’re not a nice boy he’ll hear from me. I won’t have it. I say you ’re a very nice boy. You ’re a pretty boy, too, in this light, with your lock hanging over your forehead and your eyes bright. You’ve got an underfed, aye, a starved look. But you’ve got the Court nose, and that’s something to go on. Life will never down you altogether when you’ve got that nose. You’re not afraid of life, are you?’ She peered up at him, with so understanding a look in her deep old eyes that Finch was startled into saying, ‘Yes, I am. I’m awfully afraid of it.’
She reared her head from the pillow. ‘Afraid of life! What nonsense. A Court afraid of life! I won’t have it. You must n’t be afraid of life. Take it by the horns. Take it by the tail. Grasp it where the hair is short. Make it afraid of you. That’s the way I did. Do you think I’d have been here talking to you this night — if I’d been afraid of life? Look at this nose of mine. These eyes. Do they look afraid of life? And my mouth — when my teeth are in — it’s not afraid either!’
He sat on the side of the bed, stroking her hand. ‘You’re a wonderful woman, Gran. You’re twice the man I ’ll ever be.’
She peered up at him. ‘Don’t get ideas in your head,’ she said, sternly.
‘I’m no good. Gran.’
Her voice became harsh, but her eyes were kind. ‘None of that, now! What have I been telling you? Piers has been knocking you around. I heard about it.’
He reddened. ‘I landed him a good one in the face.’
‘You did, eh? Good for you! H’m. . . . Boys fighting. Young animals. My brothers used to fight, I can tell you. In County Meath. Take their jackets off and at it! Father used to pull their hair for it. Ha!’
Her eyes closed, her hand relaxed. She fell into a doze.
Finch looked at her lying there. So near to death. A year or two at the most, surely. And how full of courage she was! Courage and a good digestion — she’d always had both. And in what good stead they had stood her! Even in her sleep she was impressive — not pathetic, lying there, toothless, with her nightcap over one eye. He tried to absorb some of her courage into himself. He fancied it might be done. Here alone with her at night in her stronghold.
A gust came down the chimney and the night light flickered. Boney, perched on the head of the bed, stirred, and made a clucking noise in his sleep. Finch thought it would be best for him to go, while she slept. He was withdrawing his hand, but her fingers closed on it. She opened her eyes.
‘Ah,’ she muttered, ‘I was thinking. I did n’t doze. Don’t tell me I dozed. I like a spell of thinking. It sets me straight.’
‘Yes, Gran, I know. But it’s not good for you to lose so much sleep. You’ll be tired to-morrow.’
‘Not a bit of it. If I’m tired, I’ll stop here and rest. It’s the family that makes me tired, fussing over me. Fuss, fuss, fuss, ever since that night.’ She looked at him quizzically. ‘You remember the night I nearly died?’
He nodded. He hoped she was n’t going to try anything like that again.
She saw anxiety in his eyes and said, ‘Don’t worry. I shan’t do that again. It might be boy and wolf. They might n’t come running when I’d really need them. But they fuss, Finch, because I have Patton out. I like to see my lawyer. I keep thinking up little bequests for old friends — Miss Pink — the Lacey girls — even old Hickson and other folks in the village.’ A shrewd gleam came into her eyes. ‘I suppose you’re not worrying about who I’m going to leave my money to, eh?’
‘Don’t curse! Too much God and hell and bloody about this house. I won’t have it.’
‘All right, Gran.’
‘I’m going to give you a present,’ she said.
‘Oh no. Gran, please don’t!’ he exclaimed, alarmed.
‘Why not, I’d like to know?’
‘ They ’d all say I’d been sucking up to you.’
‘Let me hear them! Send anyone that says that to me.’
‘Well, please let it be something small, that I can hide.’
‘Hide my present! I won’t have it! Stick it up! Put it in full view! Invite the family to come and look at it! If anyone says you ’re sucking up send him to me. I ’ll take the crimp out of him!’
‘Very well, Gran.’
Her old eyes roved about the room. ‘I’ll tell you what I’m going to give you. I’m going to give you that porcelain figure of Kuan Yin — Chinese goddess. Very good. Good for you to have. She’s not afraid of life. Lets it pass over her. You ’re no fighter. You ’re musical. Better let it pass over you. But don’t let it frighten you. Fetch her over here, and mind you don’t drop her!’
He had seen the porcelain figure all his life, standing on the mantelpiece, amid a strange medley of bowls, vases, and boxes — Eastern and English, ancient and Victorian. It was so crowded on the mantelpiece that he felt reasonably hopeful that the little goddess would not be missed by the family. He lifted her gently from the spot where she had stood for more than seventy years, and carried her to his grandmother. The old hands stretched out toward the delicate figure, closed round it eagerly.
‘Look in her face! What do you see?’
He knitted his brow, his face close to the porcelain oval of the statuette’s. ‘Something very deep and calm. ... I — I can’t quite make it out.’
‘Well, well, take it along. You’ll understand some day. Good night, child; I’m tired. . . . Wait—do you often prowl about like this?’
‘What do you do?’
‘You won’t tell on me, Gran?’
‘Come, come, I’m over a hundred. Even a woman can learn to keep her mouth shut in that time!’
He said, almost in a whisper, ‘I go to the church, and play the organ.’
She showed no surprise. ‘And you ’re not afraid alone there at night, with all the dead folk outside?’
‘Ah, you ’re a queer boy! Music, always music with you. Well, a church is an interesting place once you get the parson and the people out of it. Real music can get in then, and a real God! Nothing flibbertigibbet about religion then.’
She was very tired; her voice had become a mumble; but she made a last effort and said, ‘I like your coming in like this. My best sleep is over by midnight — just catnaps after that. Night’s very long. I want you, every time you’ve been at the church, to come for a chat afterward. Does me good. Come right in — I ’ll be awake.’ And as she said the word ‘awake’ she fell asleep.
And so these strange night meetings began. Night after night, week after week, Finch crept out of the house, had his hours of happiness, of faunlike freedom, and crept in again. He never failed to go to her room, and always she was awake, waiting for him. Her eyes, under their rust-red brows, fixed on him eagerly, as he glided in and drew the door to behind him. He looked forward to the meetings as much as she. Bizarre assignations they were, between the centenarian and a boy of nineteen. Like secret lovers, they avoided each other in the presence of the family, fearing that some intimate look, some secret smile, might betray their intimacy. Finch came to know her, to understand the depths of her, sometimes mordant, sometimes touchingly tender, as he was sure no other member of the household understood her. She no longer seemed old to him, but ageless, like the Chinese porcelain goddess she had given him. Sometimes, in the beam of the night light, propped in her richly painted bed, she looked beautiful to him, a rugged reclining statue carved by some sculptor who expressed in it his dreams of an indomitable soul.
One night in August, she startled him by asking abruptly, ‘Well, boy, whom shall I leave my money to?’
‘Oh, don’t ask me that, Gran! That’s for you to sav.’
‘I know. But, just supposing you were in my place, whom would you leave it to?' Remember, it’s going in one lump sum to somebody. I won’t have my bit of money cut up like a cake! Right or wrong, my mind’s fixed on that. Now then, Finch, who’s to get it, eh?’
‘Well,’ he answered with sudden determination and even a look of severity on his lips, ‘I should say, since you ask me, that there’s only one person who really deserves to have it!'
‘Yes? Which one?’
‘ Renny! ’
‘Renny, eh? That’s because he’s your favorite.’
‘Not at all. I was putting myself in your place, as you told me to.’
‘Then because he’s head of the house?’
‘No, not that. If you can’t see, I can’t tell you.’
‘Of course you can. Why?’
‘Very well. You ’ll be annoyed with me, though.’
‘No, I shan’t. Out with it!’
‘Well, Renny’s always hard up. He’s brought up the lot of us. He’s had Uncle Nick and Uncle Ernie living here for years. Ever since I can remember. You’ve always made your home with him. He likes having you. It would n’t be like home to him if you were n’t here. And he likes having the uncles and Aunt Augusta. But, just the same, he’s at his wit’s end sometimes to know where to dig up money enough to pay wages, and butcher bills, and the vet, and all that.’
She was regarding him steadfastly. ‘You can be plain-spoken,’ she said, ‘when you like. You’ve a good forthright way with you, too. I can’t see eye to eye with you on every point, but I’m glad to know what you think. And I’m not angry with you.’ She began to talk of something else.
She did not bring up the subject again, but talked to him of her past, recalling the days when she and her Philip were young together, and even went back to the days of her girlhood in County Meath. Finch learned to pour out to her his thoughts, as he had never done to anyone before, and probably never would again with such unrestraint. When at last he would steal up to his room, something of her would be still with him in the figure of Kuan Yin, standing on his desk.
Old Adeline was being dressed for tea by Augusta. That is, she was having her hair tidied, her best cap with the purple ribbon rosettes put on, and her box of rings displayed before her. She had felt a little tired when she waked from her afternoon nap, so she had had Augusta put a peppermint drop into her mouth, and she mumbled this as she looked over her rings. She chose them with especial care, selecting those of brilliant contrasting stones, for the rector was to be present, and she knew that he disapproved of such a show of jewels on such ancient hands, or indeed on any hands.
Augusta stood patiently holding the box, looking down her long nose at her mother’s still longer one curved in pleasurable speculation. Adeline chose a ring — a fine ruby, set round with smaller ones. She was a long time finding the finger on which she wore it, and putting it on. The box trembled slightly in Augusta’s hand. Her mother bent forward, fumbled, discovered her emerald ring, and put it on.
She put on six rings, a cameo bracelet, and a brooch containing her Philip’s hair. She turned then to the mirror, adjusted her cap, and scrutinized her face with one eyebrow cocked.
‘You look nice and bright this afternoon, Mamma,’ said Augusta.
The old lady shot an upward glance at her. ‘I wish I could say the same for you,’ she returned.
Augusta drew back her head with an offended air and surveyed her own reflection. Really, Mamma was very short with one! It took a lot of patience. . . .
Adeline stretched out her ringed hand and took the velvet-framed photograph of her Philip from the dresser. She looked at it for some moments, kissed it, and set it in its place.
‘What a handsome man Papa was!’ said Augusta, and surreptitiously wiped the picture with her handkerchief.
‘He was. Put the picture down.'
‘Indeed, all our men are good-looking!’
‘Aye, we’re a shapely lot. I’m ready. Fetch Nick and Ernest.’
Her sons were soon at her side, Nicholas walking less heavily than usual because his gout was not troubling him. They almost lifted her from her chair. She took an arm of each and said over her shoulder to Augusta, ‘Bring the bird along. Poor Boney, he’s dull to-day.’
The little procession moved along the hall so slowly that it seemed to Augusta, carrying the bird on his perch, that they were only marking time. But they were really moving, and at last had shuffled their way to where the light fell full upon them through the colored glass window.
‘Rest here a bit,’ said their mother. ‘I’m tired.’ She was tall, but looked a short woman between her sons, she was so bent.
She glanced up at the window. ‘I like to see the light coming through there,’ she observed. ‘It’s very pretty.'
They were in the drawing-room, and she was established in her own chair, with Boney on his perch beside her. Mr. Fennel rose, but he gave her time to recover her breath before coming forward to take her hand and inquire after her health.
‘I’m quite well,’ she said. ‘Don’t know what it is to have any pain, except a little wind on the stomach. But Boney’s dull. He has n’t spoken a word for weeks. D’ ye think he’s getting old?’
Mr. Fennel replied, guardedly, ‘Well, he may be getting a little old.’
Nicholas said, ‘He’s moulting. He drops his feathers all over the place.’
Finch had come up behind them, and Augusta handed him a cup of tea. ‘Take this to my mother,’ she said, ‘and then come back for the crumpets and honey.’
Crumpets and honey! Finch’s mouth watered. He wondered if he should ever get over this feeling of being ravenous. And yet he was so thin! He felt discouraged about himself. He wished his aunt would not send him about with tea. He invariably slopped it.
Old Adeline watched him with pursed mouth as he drew an occasional table to her side and set her tea on it. Her greed equaled his own. Her hands, trembling a little, poured what tea had slopped into the saucer back into the cup, raised the cup to her lips, and drank gustily. The rings flashed on her shapely hands. Mr. Fennel marked them with disapproval.
His voice came muffled through his curly brown beard. ‘ Well, Finch, and how goes the practising?’
‘Very well, thank you, sir,’ mumbled Finch.
‘The other night I was in my garden quite late. About eleven o’clock. I was surprised to hear the organ. You are quite welcome to use it in the daytime, you know.’ Gentle reproof was in his tone.
‘I rather like the practising at night, sir, if you don’t mind.’
His eyes moved from Mr. Fennel’s beard to his grandmother’s face. They exchanged a look of deep complicity, like two conspirators. Her gaze was clear. The tea had revived her.
She said, setting down the empty cup, ‘I like the boy to practise at night. Night’s the time for music —for love. . . . Afternoon’s the time for tea — sociability. . . . Morning’s the time for — er — tea. Another cup, Finch. Is there nothing to eat?’
Pheasant appeared with tea for Mr. Fennel, and Piers with the crumpets and honey. He was in white flannels.
‘Ah,’ observed the rector, ‘it is nice to see you looking cool, Piers! You looked pretty hot the last time I saw you.’
‘Yes, that was a hot spell. Things are easing off now. Late August, you know. The crops are in. Small fruit over. Apples not begun.’
‘But there is always the stock, eh?’
‘Yes, always the stock. I don’t get much time for loafing. But this is Pheasant’s birthday, and I’m celebrating it by a day off and a clean suit.’
‘Her birthday, is it?’ said Mr. Fennel. ‘I wish I had known! I would have brought some offering, if only a nosegay.’
Grandmother blinked rapidly, smacking the honey on her lips. ‘Pheasant’s birthday, eh? Why was n’t I told? Why was it kept from me? I like birthdays. I’d have given her a present.’ She turned toward Meg, Maurice, and Itenny, who had just come into the room. ‘Did you know, my dears, that we’re having a birthday party? It’s Pheasant’s birthday, and we ’re all dressed up for it. Look at the rector! Look at Piers! Look at me! Are n’t we trig?’ She was all alive. She grinned at them, with the malicious and flashing grin for which the Courts had been famous.
Meg approached her and dropped a kiss on her forehead. ‘I had heard nothing of any birthday,’ she said, coldly.
‘Maurice,’ exclaimed Grandmother then, ‘have n’t you brought a birthday present for your daughter? Are you going to neglect old Baby just because new Baby’s on the scene?’
Maurice slouched forward somewhat sheepishly. ‘I must do something about it,’ he said.
Pheasant’s little face was scarlet with embarrassment. She surveyed the family with the startled, timid gaze of a young wild thing.
‘She’s blessed,’ said Piers glumly,‘for she expects nothing.’
His grandmother absorbed this saying. ‘H’m,’ she said. She swallowed a piece of crumpet, and then added, ‘It’s the unexpected that happens. She’s going to get a present. And from me!’
A chill of apprehension fell on the company.
Mr. Fennel, feeling it, observed, ‘There’s nothing so pleasant, I think, as an unexpected present.’ But even to himself his words sounded lame.
Old Adeline finished her crumpet with dispatch, drank another cup of tea. Then she demanded, ‘How old are you?’
‘Twenty.’ Despite Renny’s encouraging look, the word came in a whisper.
‘Twenty, eh? Sweet and twenty! I was twenty once — ha! “Come and kiss me, sweet and twenty! Youth’s a stuff will not” — what was it? My old memory’s gone. Come here, my dear!’
Pheasant went to her, trembling.
Adeline spread out her hands, palms down, and examined her rings. Meg, with unaccustomed agility, sprang to her side. ‘Granny, Granny,’ she breathed, ‘don’t do anything rash! A bit of lace. A little money to buy herself something pretty. But not — not —’ She caught her grandmother’s hands in hers and drew the jeweled fingers against her own plump breast.
‘Mamma,’ said Ernest, ‘this excitement is very bad for you.’
‘Bring the backgammon board,’ said Nicholas. ‘ She likes a game of backgammon after tea.’
‘I’ve not finished my tea,’ rapped out his mother. ‘I want cake. Not that white wishy-washy cake. Fruit cake.’
Never was fruit cake so swiftly, so passionately, produced. She selected a piece, laid it on her plate, and, as though there had been no interruption, again spread out her hands, palms downward.
She shot a glance at Meg, kneeling by her side.
‘Get up, Meggie,’ she said, brusquely but not unkindly. ‘ You’ve nothing to be humble about.’ But Meg still knelt, her hands to her breast, her eyes jealously guarding the rings.
With a decisive movement, Adeline removed from the third finger of her right hand the ring of glowing rubies. She took the girl’s thin brown hand in hers and put it on her middle finger. She looked up into her face, smiling. ‘Give you color, my dear. Give you heart. Nothing like a ruby. . . . I’ll try some of that pale cake now.’
Pheasant stood transfixed, reverently holding the brilliantly decorated hand in the hand that wore only her wedding ring. Her eyes were starry.
‘Oh,’ she half-whispered, ‘how lovely! What beauties! Oh, you darling Gran!’
Piers was at her side, sturdy, defiant, all aglow.
‘Splendid!’ exclaimed Renny. ‘Let me see how it looks on your little paw!’
But Wakefield intervened, took her hand, and fluttered his long lashes, examining the stones. He said, judicially, ‘You’ve got a fine ring there, my girl. I hope you take care of it,’
Meg still knelt, her eyes damp, her hands clenched. ‘It’s unjust,’ she gasped. ‘It’s unfair to me and my child!’
Renny put his hands under her arms and heaved her to her feet. He whispered vehemently into her ear, ‘Don’t make a show of yourself, Meggie! Remember, Mr. Fennel’s here.’ Inwardly he thanked God for the presence of Mr. Fennel. It had certainly saved them from a terrible scene. She relaxed against his shoulder.
The rector himself was wishing that the tea party had been more placid. He observed, pulling at his beard, ‘I always think that an unexpected present is the most delightful.’ He could not resist adding, ‘And jewels are so beautiful on young hands.’
Adeline appeared not to have heard. She finished her cake, eating the moist crumbs from her saucer with a spoon. But after a little she extended her bereft right hand toward him, with a flourish, and said, ‘You don’t think they suit my old hands, eh?’
He knew how to mollify her.
‘I have never seen hands,’ he said, ‘better shaped for the wearing of rings.’
She clasped them on her stomach and surveyed the scene before her. There was trouble in the air, and she had brewed it. She had, directly or indirectly, made almost every being in the room. The pattern of the room was centrifugal, and she was the arch designer, the absolute centre. She felt complacent, firm, and strong. She fixed her eyes on Renny, and gave him a waggish nod. She knew he did not mind young Pheasant’s having the ruby. He grinned back at her.
Nicholas said, ‘A game of backgammon will divert her.’
Ernest looked dubious. ‘The last time I played with her she was n’t very clear about it.’
‘Never mind. She must be diverted. She’s in the mood to give presents all round. I don’t know what has come over her.’
He found the backgammon board, and the velvet bag containing the dice and dice boxes. He said to Wakefield, hovering near, ‘Ask your Grandmamma and the parson if they will play backgammon. Place the small table between them.’
‘Yes, Uncle Nick.’
The little boy flew away, held whispered conversations, flew back.
‘I’ve placed the table, and the parson, and Gran. They said they were nothing loath.’
Finch said, ‘He made that last up. They did n’t put it in those fool words.’
‘You are odious, Finch,’ retorted Wake. He adored his Aunt Augusta’s vocabulary and had no self-consciousness in employing it.
The opponents were facing each other. Bearded, untidy Mr. Fennel; gorgeous, ancient Adeline.
‘I’m black,’ she said.
Very well, he was white. The men were placed on the tables. The dice were thrown.
‘Deuce!' from the parson.
‘Trey!’ from Grandmother.
They made their moves. The dice rattled. The emeralds on her left hand winked.
‘Quatre!’ She pronounced it ‘cater.’
The dice were shaken; the players pondered; the men were moved.
‘ Ace! ’
The game proceeded. Her head was as clear as ever it had been. Her eyes were bright. She fascinated Finch. He stood behind Mr. Fennel’s chair watching her. Sometimes their eyes met, and always there was that flash between them, that complicity of conspirators. ‘ Afraid of life! ’ her eyes said. ‘A Court afraid? Watch me!’
He watched her. He could not look away. Across the chasm of more than eighty years their souls met, touched fingers, touched lips.
One by one she got her men home. One by one she took them from the board. She had won the first game!
‘A hit!” she cried, striking her hands together. ’A hit!’
‘Well played, my grandmother!’ cried Wakefield, patting her on the back.
Finch’s eyes sought hers, found them, held them. She felt suddenly tired. She was very tired, but very happy.
‘You have me badly beaten,’ said Mr. Fennel, stroking his beard.
‘Ah, yes. I’m in good form to-day,’ she mumbled. ‘Very good form — to-night.’
Boney shuffled on his perch, shook himself, gaped. Two bright feathers were loosened, and sank slowly to the floor.
Mr. Fennel stared at him.
‘He does n’t talk now, eh?'
‘No,’ she answered, craning her neck so as to see the bird. ’He does n’t talk at all. Poor Boney! Poor old Boney! Does n’t talk at all. Does n’t say curse words, and does n’t say love words. Silent as the grave, hey, Boney?’
‘Shall we have another game?’ asked Mr. Fennel.
‘Another game? Yes, I’d like another game, I’m white!’
Mr. Fennel and Wakefield exchanged glances.
‘But, Gran,’ cried Wakefield, ‘you were black before!’
‘Black! Not a bit of it! I’m white.’
Mr. Fennel changed the men, giving her the white ones.
The men were placed. The dice shaken. The game proceeded.
‘ Cinq! ’
‘ The Doublet! ’
But her head was no longer clear. She fumbled for her men, and could not have got through the game had not Wakefield, leaning on her shoulder, helped her.
She was beaten, but she did not know it.
‘A double game!’ she said, triumphantly. ‘A double game! Gammon!’
The rector smiled indulgently.
Finch felt himself sinking beneath a cloud.
‘But, my grandmother,’ cried Wakefield, ‘you’re beaten! Don’t you know when you’re beaten?’
‘Me beaten? Not a bit of it. I won’t have it! I’ve won.’ She was staring straight ahead of her into Finch’s eyes. ‘Gammon!’
Mr. Fennel began gathering up the men. ‘Another game?’ he asked. ‘You may make it backgammon, this time.’
She did not answer.
Wakefield nudged her shoulder. ‘Another game, Gran?’
‘I’m afraid she’s a little tired,’ said Mr. Fennel.
But she was still smiling, looking straight into Finch’s eyes. Her eyes were saying to him, ‘A Court afraid? A Court afraid of death ? Gammon! ’
Again Boney shook himself, and another feather fluttered to the floor.
Nicholas had risen to his feet, and was looking across the room. Suddenly he shouted, ‘Mother!’
They were all on their feet, except Wakefield, who still hung on her shoulder, realizing nothing.
Her head sank.
Finch watched them as they gathered about her, raising her head, holding smelling salts to her long nose, forcing brandy between her blanched lips, wringing their hands, being frightened, half-demented. He had seen her spirit, staunch and stubborn, leave the body. He knew it was futile to try to recall it.
Boney watched the scene with one detached yellow eye, apparently unmoved, but when they carried her to the sofa and laid her on it, he left his perch with a distracted tumble of wings and fluttered on to her prostrate body, screaming, ‘Nick! Nick! Nick!’ It was the first time he had ever been known to utter a word of English.
He was with difficulty captured and taken to her bedroom, where he took his position on the head of the bed and relapsed into stoical silence.
Piers telephoned for the doctor. Meg was sobbing in Augusta’s arms. Ernest sat beside the table, his head buried in his arms across the backgammon board. Pheasant had flown upstairs to her bedroom to bedew the ruby ring with tears. Nicholas drew a chair to his mother’s side and sat with his shoulders bent, staring blankly into her face. The rector dropped his chin into his beard and murmured a short prayer over the body, stretched out so straight that the feet, in black slippers, projected over the end of the sofa. Again she looked a tall woman.
Mr. Fennel was about to close the eyes. The heavy lids resisted. Renny caught his arm.
‘Don’t close her eyes! I won’t believe she’s dead! She can’t have died like that!’
He put his hand inside her tea gown and felt her heart. It was still. He brought a mirror and held it before her nostrils. Its bright surface was undimmed. But he would not have her eyes closed.
Soon Dr. Drummond came and pronounced her dead, and himself closed her eyelids.
Ernest rose then and came to her, trembling. He stroked her face, and kissed it, sobbing, ‘Mamma. . . . Mamma.’ But Nicholas sat motionless as a statue.
Renny could not stay in that house. He would go to Fiddler’s Hut and tell Eden and Alayne what had happened. He flung out through the side door into the grassy yard where the old brick oven stood. A waddling procession of ducks cocked their roguish eyes at him; Mrs. Wragge and the kitchenmaid peered after him with curiosity from a basement window. Galloping colts in the paddock came whimpering to the fence as he hurried past. Red and white cows in the pastme, heavy-uddered, turned their tolerant gaze after him. He entered the orchard. The days were already shortening. The red sun showed between the black trunks of the trees. He noticed that all colors were intensified into a sombre brightness. Little rosy mushrooms were rosetted here and there in the lush grass. The orchard fence was smothered in goldenrod.
Between the orchard and the ‘old orchard’ lay a field of potatoes. Old Binns was digging them and laying them in shallow ridges on the black loam. In that long day he had done perhaps a half-day’s work. He leaned on his spade and shouted, ‘Hi! Mr. Whiteoak! Hi!’
‘What do you s’pose be here now?’
‘Blight. Blight be here.’
Renny threw up his hand.
‘Put down that spade!’ he shouted. ‘No more work here to-day!’ He strode on.
No spade should stir the surface of the land she had loved. That land must lie quiet, mourning for her to-day, and tomorrow, and the next day.
Old Binns watched Renny disappear into the glowing density of the old orchard. He was aghast. Never in his life before had he had such an order. He must be going to lose his job! He thrust his spade deep into the soil. Feverishly he thrust and grubbed for the potatoes. He kept muttering angrily to himself, ‘Blight be here, anyhow. Dang him!’
As Renny neared the cottage he heard the spring talking secretly among the grasses. Doors and windows stood open, but there was no sound of voices. He went to the front door and looked in. Alayne was writing at a table, and Eden lay on the sofa, a cigarette between his lips and a book dropping from his hand. His face and body had filled out, his cheeks were brown, but Alayne looked pale and more slender. They had not heard Renny come up, and to him the room and its occupants, in the intense sunset glow, appeared unreal as in a tableau. It seemed unreal, fantastic, that they should be sitting unmoved, aware of nothing.
He made some incoherent sound, and, as though a spell had been broken, they both looked up. The pallor of Alavne’s cheeks, which had seemed intensified by the reddish light, appeared now to be touched into flame. Eden smiled, and his smile froze. He started up.
‘Renny! What’s the matter?’
Alayne too rose.
lie tried to speak to them, but no words would come. He stood silent, leaning against the doorpost, his face contorted into a forbidding grimace.
The two stood petrified, until Eden got out, ‘For God’s sake, Renny, speak to us! Tell us what’s wrong?’
He looked at them, filled with a strange antagonism for them, and then he said, harshly, ‘She’s dead. . . . Gran. ... I thought I should let you know.’
Avoiding their eyes, his face still contorted, he turned hastily down the path and disappeared into the pine woods.
(To be continued)
- A brief synopsis of the preceding chapters of the novel will be found in the Contributors’ Column. — EDITOR↩