THE Vaughans were the first to arrive: Meggie, a little plumper, a little more exuberantly the wife and mother; Maurice, a trifle grayer, his masculinity a trifle more muffled. Meg clasped Finch to her. Oh, the lovely depth of that bosom! He was never taken to it but he wished he might burrow into its tender depths and remain forever enfolded there. She gave him three kisses on the mouth, and put a packet into his hand. ‘ With our love and many, many good wishes.’ Wake crowded up beside him to see. It was a white evening scarf of heavy silk. ‘Oh, thanks,’ Finch murmured; and Maurice shook him by the hand.
Maurice had been warned on the way by his wife not to make any reference to Finch’s inheritance, but he could not resist saying, ‘Well, enjoy it while you’re young!’ And his glance did not indicate the scarf.
Meg caressed Wakefield, remarked his delicate looks, and went up to Alayne’s room to lay off her things. The men stood about with the conciliatory air worn by them in the presence of female antagonisms. They knew that Meggie and Alayne disliked one another, that there was no love lost between Meggie and Pheasant. They would be glad when other guests arrived.
They soon arrived in a stream. The Fennels: the rector, thickset, beaming, his hair and beard tidier than was usual even on Sundays; George, resembling him; Mrs. Fennel, long-backed, hatchet-faced, with eyes always searching for a vacant seat into which she might drop; Tom, resembling her. Next, the two Miss Laceys, whose late father had been a retired Admiral, and the elder of whom had been after Nicholas forty-seven years ago. After these Miss Pink, the organist, prematurely aged by being rushed, year in and year out, through the hymns and psalms by the combined impetuosity of the Whiteoaks at a speed which she thought little short of blasphemous. She was in a flurry at exposing her shoulders in a seldom-worn evening gown, and had veiled them by a scarf, though they were, in truth, the best part of her. These were the old, old friends and neighbors.
Considerably later, and from town, came the Leighs. They were mere acquaintances to the rest of the family, but Finch thought of Arthur Leigh as his best friend. Mother and daughter in their sheathlike gowns of delicate green had the appearance of sisters. Finch could scarcely wait to have Arthur alone that he might tell him of his contemplated trip, with all the more eagerness because Arthur himself had spoken of spending that summer in England.
The party was now complete except for two people. These were neighbors, living in a small, rather isolated house, but comparative strangers. About a year and a half before, Antoine Lebraux had brought his wife and daughter from Quebec and acquired this place with the object of going into the breeding of silver foxes. He had been in the Civil Service, and, his health having broken down, he was advised to turn to an outdoor life. His wife had discovered this small and neglected property for sale. Lebraux, with the enthusiasm of his race, had thrown himself heart and soul into the new life. Reliable parent foxes had been bought, and he had read every book obtainable on the subject of their breeding and care.
Renny had met and liked Lebraux. He had ridden over frequently to see how the foxes were progressing. The first litters were admirable. The change of climate had done Lebraux good, and his malady had shown signs of improvement. But good luck did not follow in good luck’s train. His most valuable vixen had somehow dug her way out and was never seen again. The later litters were weakly, a vixen died; then, when fresh stock had been bought in the hope of raising the stamina, thieves had broken in and stolen the best of them. The bodies of the foxes had been found less than a mile away, stripped of their pelts.
All this told on the health of Lebraux. He had become so irritable that Renny’s heart had gone out to his wife and daughter. When Lebraux had at last been confined to the house he had begged Renny to come to him as often as possible. He could forget his sense of disappointment, of failure, of impending disaster, in Renny’s presence. I like you! ’ he had often exclaimed. ‘ I like you to be near me. You and I have an appreciation of the fine and sensitive things of life.’ Renny had never been told this before, and it pleased him. And so they had talked of horses and foxes and women.
Lebraux had taken to drinking brandy. He had had uncontrollable outbreaks of despair, during which he would threaten to do away with himself. Only the presence of Renny would calm him. Often Mrs. Lebraux had sent her young daughter all the way to Jalna with a note for Renny, begging him to go to her help. When, in January, Lebraux had died, Renny had spent half his time in the house.
It had been Renny’s idea to invite the mother and daughter, an idea that had not met with much favor from the rest of the family. But Renny had his way. The poor woman had never been anywhere since her husband’s death, and the little girl would keep Wake in countenance.
If Mrs. Leigh and Ada had looked like sisters as they entered the drawing-room, Mrs. Lebraux and little Pauline seemed of no relation to each other. Mrs. Lebraux had a blonde, hardy, wholesome look, was the daughter of a Newfoundlander who had made a good deal of money in the fisheries and somehow lost it, and she resembled him. Pauline was like Lebraux, a thin, dark child of fifteen, in white, with the promise of some beauty. Her parents had met on the toboggan slide by the Château Frontenac, and had precipitately slid into matrimony.
It was an odd, mixed party, Alayne thought, as they filed in to dinner. It was the first time she had entertained since her marriage, and she was rather wrought up over it, fearful lest all should not go well. But she need not have had any apprehension on that score. Where there were Whiteoaks gathered, there was no danger of dullness. The family were all talking at once, as a garden of hardy flowers might burst into vigorous bloom at the first encouragement of the sun. A festive occasion, the prospect of a good dinner with plenty to drink after it, was sun enough for them. Ernest took in Mrs. Leigh; Nicholas, his old flame, Miss Lacey; Vaughan, Mrs. Fennel; Finch, Ada Leigh; Renny, Mrs. Lebraux, with the others distributing as congenially as possible down to the two youngest, who came last, smiling gravely at each other, she half a head taller than he.
Whatever Mrs. Wragge’s faults might be, it would never be said of her that she was not a good cook. Fowls, under her hand, shed their earthly plumage and turned into glistening forms of celestial sweetness. Her vegetables were drained at the critical moment, the pastry was light. Only her pudding was heavy, and there was no pudding to-night. Wakefield could scarcely credit his own senses when he saw all the best china and silver on the table at once. Things that usually lived in cabinets, behind glass, were now on the table looking as though they were used every day. Several wineglasses were clustered at each place, even his own and Pauline’s.
‘Have you ever been to anything like this before?’ he asked her, trying to feel not too important.
‘No. Is n’t it lovely?’ She smiled, and he thought how prettily her lip curled from her little white teeth. He noticed her long white hands, then stared at her mother across the table.
‘You don’t look a bit like your mother,’ he remarked, settling his chin above his Eton collar.
‘No, I look like my daddy.’ She stopped eating and withdrew into herself, a look of sad remoteness shadowing her small face.
‘My father,’ he observed, looking hard at her, ‘died before I was born.’
She was startled into regarding him with an almost fearful interest. ‘Did he really? I did n’t know they could. I always thought you had to have both father and mother when you were born.’
‘I did n’t. My father was dead and my mother died when. I was born.’
She breathed, ‘How awful for you!’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I’m what is called a posthumous child. I think it has preyed on my mind. I think it is what has made me so delicate. I’m not able to go to school, you know. I go to Mr. Fennel for lessons, but I have n’t been for weeks because of the weather.’
‘I wish I could go to him, too. That would be nice, would n’t it?’
He looked dubious.
‘Yes — but you’re a Catholic, are n’t you ? ’
She nodded. ‘But Mother is n’t. I don’t believe she’d mind. Do you think he’d have me?’
‘Well, he might. If you’d promise not to try to convert me or anything. He’d not like to risk that.’
‘Oh, I’d promise!’
Around the table, conversation flowed easily. Alayne, perhaps, was less at ease than the others. She was so anxious that things should go well, especially because of the Leighs. Rags was a constant irritation to her. His shabby trigness, his air of anxiety over the two hired maids, his bending over Renny to whisper to him with an expression of portentous significance. And why did Renny grin up at him in that way? She did wish that Renny would n’t talk to Rags at mealtime. Rags seemed always to be hovering behind his chair like an evil genius, and Renny never looked more like his grandmother than when he was grinning up at Rags. What was he saying to that Mrs. Lebraux? She strained her ears to catch the words.
He was saying, ‘Well, I’ll be very grateful if you will let me have the use of your stable. I could keep two horses there. We’re terribly short of room, as it is.’
Mr. Fennel, on the other side of Mrs. Lebraux, joined in. ‘I am glad to hear that you are staying on in your house, Mrs. Lebraux. I do hope you are comfortable.’
She turned her round, pale-lashed eyes on him. ‘Comfortable! No, I’m not very comfortable. But I’m getting along somehow. . . .’
Then Ernest’s musical voice came to Alayne. He was saying to Mrs. Leigh, ‘Yes, I’m doing a work on Shakespeare. I’ve been working on it for many years now. One can’t hurry with that sort of thing. But I do feel that the result will be . . .’
How the Whiteoaks loved to talk, she thought. From all about her their voices came, and yet their plates were the first to be swept clean of each course. They seldom asked a question. They took their world as they found it, without curiosity. Only Piers and Miss Pink, whom he had taken in, did not trouble to speak, but were devoting themselves to the business of eating and drinking. She lived alone, and her great economy was food. Now she had allowed her gauze scarf to slide from her shoulders, for even it had seemed to impede her progress toward repletion. Piers was drinking a good deal. His lips were taking on that sweet mysterious curve they had when he was becoming oblivious of his surroundings, and only wished to be left alone that he might give his full attention to the pleasant phenomenon that was taking place inside him.
There was champagne. Nicholas had seen to that. Rags could not have been more solemn about the drawing of the corks if he had bought and paid for it out of his own savings. Something intangible but vital drew them all nearer each other. The fingers of their spirits touched.
Mr. Fennel rose, glass in hand, to propose Finch’s health. Finch saw it coming, and drooped closer to Ada Leigh for support. His hour had struck. He was twenty-one and Mr. Fennel was going to propose his health.
The confusion of voices sank into a gentle sigh. All eyes, made brighter or dreamier by wine, were turned on the rector — all eyes with the exception of Piers’s, which were looking into a tranced and pleasing space. Mr. Fennel said: —
‘What I am about to do is very agreeable to me. That is to propose the health of a member of this household who to-day has reached the estate of manhood. It is not easy for me to believe this, because it seems only a few years ago that I held him in my arms at the font and baptized him in the church his grandfather had built. His grandfather had built the church in what was at that time a sparsely settled community. He established there the religion of his fathers. And his descendants have never failed in their support of that church. At Jalna he established a family which preserves to-day the traditions of a fine old English family, as few families do in these times of standardization and irreverence for tradition. . . . The memory of his devoted wife — whose presence I seem to feel among us to-night — will long remain fresh in the minds of all who knew her. Her faults — for none of us are perfect — were far outshone by her virtues.
. . . This member of her family who has just attained the age of twenty-one — an age that seems quite unbelievably fresh and glowing to me — has been the companion of my sons all his life. With them he has run in and out of the rectory a thousand times on the mysterious quests of boyhood. In their room they have held with him innumerable conferences on the mysterious business of youth. He has enlivened many an evening for us with his music. We have known him in many moods, but none of us have ever known him to do a cruel or shabby thing. I wish him well from the bottom of my heart. I know you will all join me in this. I give you the toast — Finch Whiteoak! ’
Mr. Fennel sat down with the unruffled air of a man who had just as lief make a speech as not.
Finch crouched between Ada Leigh and his sister-in-law Alayne with the air of a man to whom the making of a speech would be a task of appalling torture. The heads of those about him swam toward him goggle-eyed like goldfish in a round glass bowl. There was clapping of hands, glasses clinked. The glass of the bowl shivered into splinters, and Finch was left gasping, looking piteously like a stranded goldfish himself, trying to rise to his feet.
Ada Leigh smiled soft encouragement. She said, ‘It will be all right. Just anything that comes into your head — now!’ She touched his arm with an impelling gesture.
Renny’s voice came down the table, metallic and commanding. ‘Up you get, Finch!’ and others added jovially, ‘Speech, speech! ’
But it was Alayne who got him to his feet. Her father and her grandfathers had been New England professors, monitors of the young. Out of the background of their authority, her blue-gray eyes looked dominantly into his, saying, ‘Rise and give tongue! ’ Her fingers clutched his under the tablecloth so tightly that it hurt. He twisted his own about them as he spoke.
How different this was from doing a part in a play! Then, in velvet cloak or in vagabond tatters, he could abandon himself to the portrayal of another’s moods. But now he was simply his naked self, and a dozen words were harder to get out than a torrent of talk on the stage. He heard his voice with a curious kind of croak in it.
‘It’s frightfully good of you —all. I never had such nice things said about me before — in all my life — and I don’t quite know what to do about it. Mr. Fennel and Mrs. Fennel could n’t possibly have been kinder to me if I’d been their own son — and, of course, everyone present — has been the same —’
‘Hear, hear,’ said Piers, without moving his lips.
‘I can’t tell you how much I am enjoying — this occasion,’ he continued, looking the picture of despair. ‘If I should live to be as old as my grandmother —’
‘You’ll never do it,’ interrupted Piers, without any appearance of having spoken.
Renny threw Piers a fiery look.
‘I’d never forget this dinner — and — I do most heartily —’ here his voice broke — ‘thank you. I hope no one here will ever be sorry that — sorry that —’ Good Lord, what was he about to say? Sorry that what? Oh, yes, sorry that Gran had left him her money. But he could n’t say that, — it would be horrible, — but what could he say? ‘Hope no one here will ever live to be sorry —’ he stammered, and sought the ruddy sunrise of Piers’s face for inspiration — ‘be sorry —’
‘That we let you live till you were twenty-one,’ supplied Piers, without seeming to utter a word.
There was a burst of hilarious applause. The hero of the occasion sat down.
He took a gulp of champagne.
‘You did splendidly,’ whispered Ada Leigh, and Alayne squeezed his fingers before she uncurled hers from them. He was flushed, and happily conscious that he might have done worse. He had been delighted at the burst of applause and laughter, though he could not quite recall what he had said that was so witty.
The rugs had been taken up in the drawing-room and hall and the floor waxed, but it was late before anyone suggested that they dance. It was George Fennel who sat down at the piano, very square, very upright, his hands drawing insidious sweetness from the keys. The latest dances from the world of jazz were tossed by George as invitation to this mixed company, some of whom still danced in the style of forty years ago. And how gallantly they responded to the invitation! Nicholas and Ernest with the two Miss Laceys, with whom they had danced the quadrille, the polka, and the schottische on this very floor when they were young men and girls. Mr. Fennel had Pheasant tightly clasped to him, his beard now and again tickling her bare shoulder. Like a captive bird she cast wistful glances at her mate, wishing she might fly down the room with him, in long graceful strides, their bodies as one. And there he was dancing with Miss Pink, who was quite old enough to be his mother!
Miss Pink had been afraid she could not do it. But when once Piers had got hold of her she found that she could, and not only that, but she wished she might go on doing it forever. As for Piers, he scarcely knew whom he was dancing with — old or young, skillful or amateurish, it did not signify. She had been at hand when his forceful body had responded to the inexorable call of the dance.
Alayne was dancing with graceful Arthur Leigh. Wakefield had almost more than he could cope with in Meggie’s solid frame. Meg had an eye on Maurice and Mrs. Leigh, who seemed to her to be dancing altogether too well.
Finch had been going to ask Ada Leigh to dance, but had turned away as he saw Tom Fennel loping toward her. He must not be selfish at his own party. With whom would he dance, then? He looked rather vaguely about the room. There was Mrs. Fennel in a comfortable chair near the fire, with a dish of crystallized fruit beside her. And in the farthest corner, on the settee, was Mrs. Lebraux in her black dress, with Renny keeping her company, his back half turned to the dancers. And staring into the cabinet of curios from India was the Lebraux child, her skirt too short, her legs too long, and the back of her head looking as though it needed combing. Her hair stuck out in thick black tufts, giving her an odd, elfin look.
He went to her and said, ‘Would you like to dance, Pauline?’
She turned quickly and looked at him searchingly, as though wondering whether or no she would like to dance with him. Then she went sedately to her mother and bent over her. She came back smiling and put her hand into Finch’s.
‘It’s all right. Both Mother and Mr. Whiteoak say to dance.’ Her face lit up and she moved her shoulders as though eager to begin.
She was so thin that she felt like nothing more than a wand in Finch’s arms, yet there was a wild strength in her movements. He thought she was like a little breeze-blown boat tugging at its anchor. The music was swift, even feverish, for this second dance, but not swift enough for her. He bent to look into her face. He could not tell where the beauty was, but he was satisfied that it was there or would be there.
‘You’re going to stay on here, are n’t you?’ he asked.
‘Yes — if we can make it pay.’
‘The fox farming, you mean?’
‘Yes. And we may go into poultry, too.’
‘Are n’t you afraid the foxes will eat the poultry?
‘That shows how much you know about it! They’re kept absolutely separate.’
‘It will mean a lot of work.’
‘ We don’t mind that, if only we can make it pay.’ Her slender body seemed to tighten with resolve. She swayed and dipped and turned like a bird, he thought. And she had a hard time before her, he was afraid. He would like to help them if he only knew how to go about it. This having of so much money opened up new channels to one, gave one a troubling sense of responsibility toward one’s fellows.
‘Mother and I do all the housework,’ she was saying, ‘dishwashing, sweeping, and everything. She does outdoor work, too. She’s awfully strong.’
‘Do you really?’ He was astonished, for he had never seen his sister do anything but take care of herself; and Alayne and Pheasant were very much the same, except that Pheasant looked after Mooey, and that none too well, he thought.
Pauline and her mother left early. Then the Leighs, with a long motor ride before them. Somehow or other the Fennels packed the Miss Laceys and Miss Pink into their car. The Vaughans were the last to go.
‘And I really don’t care very much about trusting myself to him in a car, the way he is,’ Meg said.
Renny looked his brother-in-law over.
‘ He ’ll be all right after a breath of fresh air,’ he assured her. ‘I ’ll open the window.’
Maurice watched this move for his revivification with interest. As soon as the window was opened he started the car, and it sped across the lawn, scraping the end of an ice-covered garden seat, and on three wheels gained the drive.
Nicholas was declaiming in the drawing-room.
‘I might never have had gout in my life, I was so free from it to-night. As lively as a three-year-old.’
‘And I,’ said Ernest, ‘never thought of my dinner again. And I ate everything!’
‘Mrs. Leigh,’ declared Nicholas, ‘is the prettiest woman of her age I have seen in years.’
‘But that daughter of hers!’ cried Pheasant. ‘I can’t stand her. She takes care to let you know her gown comes from Paris.’
‘Yes,’ agreed Alayne; ‘and she referred to London as “my London”!’
‘Still,’ protested Ernest, balancing himself on the balls of his feet, ‘they are a charming family, the Leighs. And really intellectual.’
‘I don’t agree,’ said Alayne. ‘To me they seem very superficial.’
‘To me too!’ cried Pheasant.
Finch interrupted, hurt for his friend’s sake. ‘Not Arthur. Arthur’s absolutely sound.’
‘I’d like to give him a sound hiding,’ observed Renny, lighting his pipe, ‘and knock some of the effeminacy out of him.’
Alayne said, ‘It was rather a nuisance Mrs. Lebraux not dancing. It kept one of the best dancers always at her side entertaining her.’
Neither Nicholas nor Ernest had sat by Mrs. Lebraux, consequently they felt a little irritated by this remark.
Ernest said, ‘I talked to her for a moment, but she scarcely took the trouble to answer. I can’t say I admire her.’
‘I should n’t have minded sitting by her for a bit,’ said Nicholas, ‘but she seemed not to lack attention.’ He looked at Renny.
Renny looked back. ‘Someone had to be decent to the poor woman. The girls were awfully cool to her.’
‘I scarcely know her,’ said Alayne.
‘That is no reason why you should be cool to her,’ returned Renny.
‘She’s one of those women,’ asserted Pheasant, sagaciously, ‘who don’t care a bit about other women. She’s simply mad about men! ’
‘How unjust you are,’ said Renny. ‘She’s been in great trouble. She only liked to talk to me because she is used to me. I’ve been a friend of Lebraux.’
Piers said, ‘ I should n’t mind the looks of her so much if only she’d darken her eyelashes and touch her hair up so it would be all one color.’
Renny turned on him angrily. ‘She’d never do anything to her hair. She’s not that sort. She never thinks of her personal appearance.’
His wife and his sister-in-law looked at him scornfully.
‘Well, she spent about ten minutes on her face in the dressing-room!’ cried Pheasant.
‘Dear me,’ said Ernest, ‘what was she doing to it?’
‘ Wiping her tears away,’ suggested Piers.
‘Tears!’ scoffed Pheasant. ‘Mrs. Patch, who helped nurse Mr. Lebraux, told Mrs. Wragge that they quarreled half the time and the other half they did n’t speak.’
‘You’ve little to do,’ said Renny, ‘to be gossiping with the servants about Mrs. Lebraux.’
‘I was n’t gossiping. She just told me. And besides, you often repeat things that Rags tells you.’
The master of Jalna gripped his pipe and drew back his lips from his teeth. He could think of nothing to say, so he glared at her.
‘She looks healthy,’ said Nicholas.
‘Such crude health lacks charm for me,’ said Ernest.
‘Renny only danced once this evening,’ observed Pheasant, ‘ and that was with her child.#&8217;
‘I had hoped,’ said Alayne slowly, ‘that no one had noticed that.’
‘Heigho!’ said Piers, in an endeavor to imitate his grandmother. ‘I want something more to eat. I want it right away.’
His Uncle Ernest looked at him reprovingly. ‘Is it possible, Piers, that you are mimicking my mother?’
‘Oh, no,’ answered Piers, innocently. ‘Not consciously, at any rate. But I was thinking, just a moment ago, how much she would have enjoyed to-night, and I suppose the thought of her stayed in my head.’
He led the way to the dining room and got a decanter of whiskey and a siphon of soda water from the sideboard. He sat down by the table, which had been cleared and reduced to its normal size. Nicholas, Ernest, and Finch followed him.
The moon was sinking. Its last rays were shining into the dining room. Its light was enough for the business they had in hand there. Nicholas, unmindful of gout, had given himself up to it. Ernest, unmindful of indigestion, had given himself up to it. Piers, forgetful of wifely admonition, had given himself up to it. Finch, mindful of his new estate, entered heart and soul into it. The decanter and the siphon, with amber and cold white lights in their respective parts, moved slowly around the table. The moonlight blotted age out of two faces and stamped age into two, so that the quartette appeared to be all of one age, and that was ageless.
Finch said, ‘I wish one of you would tell me what it was I said that was so funny. They were making such a row when I sat down that it knocked it clean out of my head.’
‘I can’t remember,’ answered Nicholas, ‘but I know it was damned witty. In fact, I’ve never heard a better after-dinner speech.’
‘Nor I agreed Ernest. ‘Just the right amount of sentiment mixed with real wit. It’s a special talent in itself, this afterdinner speaking.’
‘I thought the rector spoke very well,’ said Finch, judicially.
‘Yes, he spoke very well. But you were better. I only wish I could remember just what it was you said at the last.’
‘Something about the joy of living,’ suggested Piers.
‘Well, that’s not very new,’ said Finch, rather disappointed.
‘Seems to be new to you!’
‘Life,’ said Nicholas, ‘is experience.’
‘I don’t agree,’ said Ernest. ‘I think life is work.’
Finch half-filled his glass with Black and White and aimed a squirt of soda at it. ‘I think, just among ourselves, that I may say that my aim is to live an unselfish life.’
‘ You could n’t have a better,’ commended Ernest. ‘From my own experience I know that bringing happiness to others brings happiness to one’s self.’
‘I’m in dead earnest,’ said Finch. ‘I want to do something for each one of you, and that’s a fact. Uncle Nick and Uncle Ernie, if I were to invite you to come on a trip with me to England at my expense, would you accept?’
‘ Delighted to accept,’ answered Nicholas instantly.
Ernest reached across the table and took Finch’s hand and shook it. ‘Dear boy — dear boy —’ was all he could say.
‘It’s settled then, is it? You two are coming with me to visit Aunt Augusta?’
Ernest squeezed the hand he held, the hour, his condition, the invitation, filling him with an almost overwhelming emotion. Nicholas accepted airily, as though he were bestowing a favor.
‘I will take you to some of my old haunts in London,’ he promised, straightening his shoulders and drawing his chin against his collar.
Both uncles then began to talk about the years they had spent in England, repeating, at first, incidents that the nephews had heard before, but as the night drew on, and as the decanter emptied, drawing from remote places in their memories events unrecalled in years, like forgotten birds’ nests dragged forth from an old belfry, or rusty anchors drawn up from the deep.
Some of these memories were disgraceful, and in the telling of them the two elders became more and more youthful, breaking into sudden uncontrolled laughter, their speech falling into the catchwords of their day. The young men, on the contrary, grew graver and more judicial with each glass, looking as though they did not quite approve of the levity of the others, Finch even going to the length once of giving some sound advice. In order that he might hurt no one’s feelings he addressed the advice to the siphon in a kind of chant, and when no one gave any heed to him he shed a few unnoticed tears.
But, when the moment came when sing they must, he was ready. Ernest, who loved very old songs, ballads, madrigals, and the like, began ‘Sumer is icumen in,’ in his still excellent voice. A tenor, a lusty barytone, and a bass joined in, with
Grows the seed, and blows the mead,
And springs the wood anew.
The ewe is bleating for her lamb;
Lows for her calf the cow.’
The bleating and the lowing, so loud and mellow, brought a fifth member of the family on the scene. This was Renny, clad in dressing gown and slippers. He stared at the revelers with ironical amusement.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘you’re a lovely-looking lot!’
The moon was gone, and the dawn creeping in showed them wan and disheveled in their evening clothes.
‘You’ll wake the women and the kids,’ he said. ‘They’ve been asleep for hours. Don’t you think you’ve had enough?’
‘I’ve made serious decision,’ said Finch.
‘To go to bed.’
Since the day Finch had announced his intention of going no more to the University, Renny, after his first outburst, had been cold toward him. Piers, on the other hand, had been warmer than ever before. But neither one would give him any advice about his money. If he approached Renny with, ‘I say, George Fennel thinks I ought to invest something in New York stocks and not be satisfied with such a low rate of interest,’ Renny would shrug and say, ‘It’s none of my business. Do as you like with it.’ And he would turn away.
If Finch sounded Piers on the same subject, Piers would laugh and say, ‘You’re going to have the time of your young life, are n’t you?’ And if Finch persisted he might add, ‘Well, George ought to know something about it — he’s in the business. I should think it would be rather fun to speculate a bit.’
Finch felt like a half-fledged bird suddenly pushed from the nest. After being constantly supervised in his spending, ordered here and there, sometimes tyrannized over, this sudden thrusting on him of responsibility bewildered him, skimmed the cream of his pleasure in his inheritance.
It was as though they had formed a conspiracy against him. His uncles never referred to the money in his presence. It was as though they said, ‘By hook or crook he got what we should have had. Now let us see what he will do with it.’
He had been almost frightened when the bank book had been put into his hand, when he had interviewed the bank manager and been shown the list of Gran’s solid and conservative investments. But George had scoffed at them. George had said that, aided by one versed in the fluctuations of the market, Finch might with ‘speculation ’ double his fortune.
Alayne realized something of his bewilderment, his loneliness. They had several long talks. She felt anxiety at the thought of his giving up old Adeline’s safe investments for more spectacular ones, on the advice of George Fennel. Yet, like Finch, she was carried away by the thought that he might greatly increase his capital by careful speculation. George had offered some tempting suggestions, and she had heard from American friends who had made large sums of late. Renny and Piers, the two uncles, Maurice Vaughan, were children, she thought, in matters of business. To be sure, the first two exhibited a certain shrewdness in their own province, but she had seen and heard so much of mismanagement at Jalna; there was no use in consulting them. And added to their incompetence was their disinclination even to speak of Finch’s inheritance. They shied at the mention of it, as skittish horses will shy at their own gatepost.
Alayne took her own small capital, left her by her father, out of the government stocks where it had been invested, and bought Universal Autos with it.
When the stock began to rise steadily she could not resist telling Finch what she had done, and after that it was impossible for her to restrain him. But she made him tell Renny of the project. ‘Invest it as you like,’ Renny said, curtly. ‘I don’t know anything about stocks. I’ve never had anything to invest.’ Finch knew that it was not jealousy that made Renny curt, but anger that he should have, at the instant of attaining his majority, refused to return to the University. This prompt refusal had symbolized, to Renny, the rejection by Finch of all further authority, of supervision by him as head of the clan.
How bitter Meg Vaughan would be, Alayne thought, if Finch were to lose even a small amount of money by following her example. Meg had always regarded her as an interloper, and to have some tangible injury to lay at Alayne’s door would give her real satisfaction. Finch must go, therefore, and talk the matter over with the Vaughans.
He found his sister covering a cushion with new cretonne in a design of tulips and delphiniums. Her white hands moved softly above it like two plump pigeons in a gay bit of garden. She wore a pink and white chintz cap in Quakerish shape, which, she fancied, gave her the appearance of being hard at work. Vaughan, who made no pretense of working, lay stretched on a sofa reading a book on fox breeding. Since Lebraux had died, and there was a good chance that Mrs. Lebraux would give it up, he had entertained thoughts of buying her stock himself.
‘Well, Finch dear,’ exclaimed Meg, ‘so you thought you would come to see me! It’s about time. When I think how little I see of my brothers it makes me quite sad.’ She held up her smooth face expectantly. ‘Now tell me just what is going on at home. Getting ready for the trip, I suppose. To think that I have never been across to the Old Country, and now you — at your age! Able to travel as luxuriously as you like. And Uncle Nick and Uncle Ernest at their age! And all their expenses paid. And here are Maurice and I with the mortgage falling due!’
‘Oh, well,’ growled Vaughan, ‘it can be renewed.’
It was not an auspicious moment, Finch thought, for asking advice about his own investments. He pulled at his lip doubtfully, then made up his mind not to broach the subject.
After a silence Meg said, wistfully, ‘I suppose you would not care to take over the mortgage yourself?’
Finch stared, startled. ‘Me? I’ve never thought about it.’
‘Of course not.’ She looked into his eyes, smiling at his boyishness. ‘But mortgages are a good investment, are n’t they, Maurice?’
‘I wish I owned a few,’ answered Maurice.
‘What interest do you pay?’ asked Finch.
‘Seven per cent.’
‘Great Scott! I get only four per cent on some of mine!’
‘How much happier I should feel,’ cried Meg, ‘if you held the mortgage in place of the old wretch who does!’
‘ There would be no need for sentiment to enter into it, on Finch’s side,’ put in Vaughan quickly. ‘This is a valuable property. And bound to be more valuable. Look at the old Paige place that the Golf Club bought.’
Finch asked, nervously, ‘What is the mortgage?’
‘Fifteen thousand. At seven per cent — one thousand and fifty a year — paid half yearly.’
Meg sighed, ‘And the old wretch is so detestable always!’
‘Why?’ asked Finch.
‘Oh — I don’t know —’
Maurice interrupted her. ‘Meggie’s too critical. He has rough manners; that’s all that’s really wrong. He’s not such a bad old fellow.’ Maurice dropped the book from his crippled hand and it fell to the floor. Meg frowned as he bent to pick it up.
Finch felt a glow of affection toward them as a couple, quite apart from his brotherly love for Meg. ‘I’ll do it!’ he exclaimed. ‘I’ll take the mortgage over. But, look here, I’ll not accept seven per cent. It’s exorbitant. I’ll not take more than five.’
‘You darling!’ cried Meg. She made as if to rise and go to him, but even in a moment of emotion such as this the effort was too great. Instead she said again, ‘You darling!’ and held out her arms to him.
Finch crossed to her rather shamefacedly. He did not want to be thanked. But it was wonderful, this doing things for people and benefiting himself at the same time.
Again Meg embraced him, pressed her plump lips on his. ‘I don’t believe we’ll tell the others a thing about it,’ she said. ‘I do like privacy about my own affairs, don’t you?’
‘Rather,’ said Finch.
They made all the arrangements, and when they were complete Finch sought advice on the subject of the New York stock. Meg and Maurice threw themselves into the discussion of it with enthusiasm. He would be a fool, they said, not to take advantage of such an opportunity.
‘If Alayne,’ said Meg, ‘is going into it, you’re safe. I never knew a more calculating person. To me she’s the very embodiment of shrewdness.’
‘She was n’t very shrewd when she married Eden,’ observed Maurice.
‘Maurice, how can you say such a thing! If ever she showed shrewdness it was then! Who was she? Nobody! He took her out of an office and brought her to Jalna — to a life of ease. He made a Whiteoak of her!’
‘He nearly broke her heart,’ said Finch.
‘Hearts like hers are n’t so easily broken! They’re too calculating. For my part I think she had her eye on Renny from the first. Poor lamb, he had n’t a chance against her! ’
The two men sighed simultaneously in the effort of picturing the red fox Renny as a helpless lamb.
Talking to Piers that afternoon, Finch could not forbear dropping a hint about the taking over of the mortgage on Vaughanlands. Piers was curious, and after binding him to secrecy Finch told all. Piers thought it a very good thing for both parties. ‘But mind you make them toe the mark with the payments,’ he advised. ‘Maurice is more than a little slack in money matters. He owed me for two years for a Jersey bull he bought, and I only got the money lately by keeping right after him.'
Finch felt a little depressed at the prospect of keeping right after Maurice. The responsibility of wealth was beginning to weigh on him. He said, ‘You’ve never told me what you would like in the way of a present. It would please me awfully to give you something. I hate not dividing things up a bit.’
‘Oh, I’ll think it over’ — and Piers turned away.
Finch strode after him. ‘You’re not going to get out of it like this. Just tell me something you’d really like.’
‘I’ve got everything I need.’
‘But there must be something.’ He went on complainingly, ‘I don’t know what’s the matter with you chaps! You’d think the money was tainted — you’re so shy of it!’
Piers stopped, and turned to Finch. ‘Well, if you want to make me a present that won’t break you, buy me a new motor car. The old one is literally falling to pieces, and as long as the engine has a kick in it Renny won’t buy a new one.’
‘Good!’ cried Finch. ‘I’m awfully glad you thought of that. And Pheasant will enjoy it, too. Shall we go in to-morrow and choose one?’
Piers made short work of choosing a car. He knew exactly what he wanted, down to the smallest detail. How amazing, Finch thought, to know all that when you had had no earthly prospect of getting a new car!
They had taken the train to town and come home in the car. It would be hard to say which of them enjoyed the drive most — Finch, sitting with folded arms, feeling, he could not have told why, rather like a self-made man, rich enough at last to indulge in the pleasure of philanthropy; or Piers, with a small, set grin on his face.
They talked little on the way, but, by the time they reached Jalna, Finch had promised to reshingle the barn for Piers, and to build him an up-to-date piggery. It was understood that Piers was to repay the cost of this when he was able.
Everyone came out of the house to admire the new car. Pheasant and Mooey danced round it. He must be lifted into it and must sit with his little hands on the wheel. Pheasant put her arm about Alayne. ‘You must share it, too. The old car is a disgrace.’ Nicholas and Ernest were delighted at the thought of driving in such style to the train on their departure. There was nothing cheap about the car. It was a beauty, they agreed. But Wakefield was dubious.
‘I don’t believe,’ he said, ‘that my grandmother would approve. She never liked the old car. She thought buying it was a great waste of money.’
Piers answered, ‘She’s not here to worry over changes, and as for you, you shan’t ride in it, just for being cheeky.’
‘Still, I don’t think Gran would like her money to be spent on motor cars.’
‘Would you like your seat warmed?’
‘No.’ He edged away.
‘Well, shut up, then!’
As they reached the garage they saw Renny standing in the door of the stable. When he saw the new car he turned sharply away and disappeared.
At dinner, in the face of his forbidding expression, no one referred to the purchase. Only Wakefield, in every pause, made some pensive remark relating to the likes and dislikes of his grandmother.
The day of leaving drew inexorably near. Then it dallied in a spell of heavy rainfall, seeming unreal and far off. Then it rushed upon them, giving them scarcely time for their last preparations.
The three who were going away took dinner at the Vaughans’. Meggie could not bear to part with them till tea time. When they returned to Jalna the new car was before the door, the hand luggage already placed in it. Everything was in a rush now.
Renny had not come in to tea. Finch asked, rather anxiously, where he was. Ernest explained, ‘He said good-bye to Nicholas and me before we went to Meggie’s. He said he might not be in to tea.’
‘But he did not tell me good-bye,’ stammered Finch. ‘Surely he would not let me go away without seeing me?’
‘Surely not!’ Ernest looked much concerned. ‘But there is no time for hunting him up. We must leave as soon as we have had our tea.’
‘I don’t want any tea!’ Finch set down his cup and rushed out of the house. He had a sense of panic.
Running toward the stables, he saw Wright in the act of backing the old car into the garage. He hesitated and Wright called out, ‘If you’re looking for Mr. Whiteoak, sir, he’s over at Mrs. Lebraux’s.’
Finch halted. ‘Wright, what’s the best time you can make to drive me there and back?’
‘I can get you there in five minutes, sir.’
Finch clambered into the car. He must see Renny! The others would just have to wait for him if lie were late. There was plenty of time for catching the train. . . .
The place Antoine Lebraux had rented for his venture into fox breeding comprised about twenty acres, a wooden house painted a dingy white, a small stable, a poultry house, and the fragile outbuildings Lebraux had added. Finch pressed the electric bell twice without answer. Then he saw, stuck above it askew, a card with the words ‘Out of order.’ He knocked loudly. The minutes flew while he waited for some response, then a step sounded in the passage and a bolt was drawn. Good Lord, was Renny locked in there? The door opened and Pauline Lebraux stood on the threshold. She looked half frightened at seeing him. She wore a black serge dress of scanty cut, and this, with her long black legs and dense dark hair standing out about her face, made her look strangely fragile and pathetic. On her arm she carried, like an infant, a sickly fox cub wrapped in flannel. Its bright eyes peered out at Finch with an expression abnormally intelligent. Her appearance was so singular to Finch that he forgot for a moment what his errand was.
‘I’m going away,’ he said.
He thought a shadow darkened her face, but she only smiled a little and said, ‘Won’t you come in?’
‘Thanks, but I must n’t. I’m in a rush to catch the train. I came to see if Renny is here.’
‘Yes. He’s with mother. Helping her with the foxes.’
Finch hastened to the back of the house. He heard voices in the little stable. How could he go there and call Renny’s name, as though he were a child? He had a feeling of hot anger against Renny. He had a mind to return to Jalna without seeing him. But he had been seen from within. Renny appeared in the doorway, then came slowly toward him.
‘Looking for me?’ he asked.
‘Did you suppose I’d go away without saying good-bye?’ blazed Finch.
‘How was I to know what you’d do? You do what you like.’
Finch was aghast. Was this the way they were going to part? If it were, it would spoil his trip. If he missed his train, if he missed the boat, he would stay here till he’d wrung something better than this taciturn coldness from Renny.
‘What have I done? Why are you treating me like this?’
‘Watch out! Mrs. Lebraux is in there — she’ll hear you.’
‘I’m missing my train, do you know that? Yet you won’t say a friendly word to me! God, we might never meet again!’
‘I hate saying good-bye.’
‘But you said good-bye to Uncle Nick and Uncle Ernie. Why not me?’
‘That’s just it. I did n’t so much mind saying good-bye to them.’
Finch’s eyes searched the lean red face before him. If that was the truth — and Renny was not a liar, and he was frightfully queer about some things — Oh, perhaps it was not so bad after all! Perhaps Renny did n’t hate him — why, Renny had always kissed him when they parted, like a father! He looked into Renny’s eyes, his face suddenly contorted in an effort to keep from crying. He put out his hand.
Renny took it and drew Finch toward him. He bent and kissed him in the old way. Finch sniffed the familiar smell of stable on him. A load rolled from his heart.
At Jalna he found the others in varying degrees of perturbation at his delay. Ernest was almost in despair, not able to keep still for a moment. Nicholas, solidly settled in the car, was uttering wrathful ejaculations. Pheasant was distraught. Piers said that it was almost more than he could do to keep his hands off him. Wakefield had brought out a pair of binoculars the better to watch for him, though the road was quite hidden from the drive by trees. It w as one of the moments when Alayne felt that the Whiteoaks were almost beyond bearing. With a controlled expression she stood holding Mooey in her arms. Mooey was dubiously sucking his thumb, only taking it from his mouth at intervals to say, ‘ I’m not f’ightened.’
They caught the train, and that was all. The porter had barely disposed of their luggage, Piers had barely shaken hands all round, Pheasant kissed all round and exclaimed, ‘Oh, how I wish I were going too!’ when she and Piers had to get off. They stood on the platform together as the train drew out, their young faces upturned, she blowing a kiss to the three at the w indow, he bareheaded, a smile, in which there was a shadow of boyish envy of the adventurers, softening his face.
Augusta had dressed herself with even more care than usual on this afternoon. She arranged with even greater exactitude her hair, still worn in the fashion of Queen Alexandra, that curled fringe upon which her nephews had so often speculated, going to the length of making bets with each other as to whether it was her own and natural in color, her own and dyed, or a transformation. Not one of them had ever found out. And if her brothers knew, they loyally kept the knowledge to themselves.
She surveyed herself in the long glass in her bedroom with inward satisfaction, but if an onlooker had been present he would have supposed that her reflection met with her complete disapprobation. She drew in her chin, stiffening the back of her neck, and widened her eyes into an expression of surprised offense. But this aspect was as natural to her as one of bold dominance had been to her mother. Her gaze appeared to be a defense against the object upon which she turned it, as old Adeline’s had been one of challenging curiosity.
Augusta was little changed since her mother’s death. She had, in truth, improved in appearance.
The last visit to Jalna, which had been prolonged to three years, had been something of a strain for her, enduring, as she had, the old lady’s caprices and quips at her expense, and continually expecting that so long delayed death. The lively commotion of the household had also been rather exhausting to a woman herself long past seventy. The return to the serenity of her own house, where there were none to contradict her without running the risk of losing their situations, and nothing more exciting than the misbehavior of maids, was a benefit to her health.
So, with inward satisfaction and outward disdain, she put the finishing touches to her toilette, noted her still shapely shoulders and the unimpaired arch of her Court nose. Her complexion had always been bad, so in that respect she had had nothing to lose.
She went the rounds of the rooms prepared for her brothers and nephew, saw that the ewers were full of fresh water, clean towels on the racks, and sniffed the pleasant scent of lavender from the bed linen.
She descended to the drawing-room, where the tea table, an hour late in agreement with the arrival of the train, had just been arranged by the parlor maid, Ellen. Would there be enough scones? Was one square of honey in the comb sufficient? She remembered Finch’s appetite, how she had always tried to put flesh on him and failed. Well, at any rate there was plenty of bread and butter, and the fruit cake was unusually deep.
She went to a window and looked across the spring greenness of the lawn and park to where she could see the road climbing upward from the village. Only one vehicle was in sight — the cart of Jim Johnson, the carrier, returning after one of his two weekly trips to Exhampton. She waited there a few minutes, but she could not be quiet for long. She was too restlessly awaiting the arrival. It would be so nice to see them.
A week ago she had had everything ready to receive them when a telegram had come to say that they were remaining another seven days in London. It was so like Nicholas to have sent it at the last minute. He and Ernest had not been to visit her since her husband’s death. On their last visit they had quite tired out Sir Edwin by talking so much, and being so late to meals, and disagreeing with him, as he said to her afterward, on every subject he brought up. Well, he was safely at rest in the family vault now, and the years had made her brothers more amenable.
As for Finch, he was now her favorite nephew. Eden had been once, because of his charm, his good manners, his talents; but he was behaving altogether too badly. She loved Renny, but he had inherited several of Mamma’s most regrettable traits. Piers was a splendid young fellow, but sometimes surly and with quite rough manners, caused, she supposed, by association with grooms and laborers. Wakefield was a darling and quite companionable for his years, but there was something about Finch that made her feel almost maternal.
She began to be really annoyed at the lateness of the arrival of her relatives. She sat down by the table, however, and held herself together. The firelight (an unnecessary extravagance, for the afternoon was still warm) played over the folds of her black satin dress and maliciously accentuated a dark mole on her left cheek.
A step sounded in the hall and a small spare woman appeared in the doorway. She was Mrs. Thomas Court, Augusta’s cousin by marriage. Her husband had been a son of old Adeline’s youngest brother. She had lived, since her marriage, in Ireland, but had remained in all respects English, as Augusta was inherently English though brought up in Canada. She advanced into the room in a quick, jerky walk like a little wound-up figure. Her hair, dragged back from the forehead, vied with Augusta’s in purplish darkness. She had a complexion even more sallow, but she brightened it with two spots of rouge, and her dress, though ornate and old-fashioned, was sprightly. Her features were small, her light gray eyes intense, and the expression of her thin-lipped mouth one of unyielding conceit. Mingled with these qualities was a kind of jaunty good humor. She walked straight to the window, with a side glance at the tea table.
Outdoors a shadow had fallen.
‘Is it raining?’ asked Augusta.
‘Just beginning to spot,’ replied Mrs. Court, her eyes on the paved terrace.
‘I wish it would rain. The flowers need it.’
‘ I hope it does n’t. Dry weather agrees with me much better. It suits my ear.’
‘How is your ear?’
‘Going chug-chug, the same as ever.’
Augusta deepened her contralto tones. ‘Dear me, how very irritating!’
Mrs. Court wheeled and stared at her. ‘Irritating does n’t express it at all; it’s maddening.’
She advanced, with a businesslike air and squeaking boots, to the tea table. She pointed with a knuckly forefinger at the plate of scones. ‘ Give me one of those and a cup of tea, and I’ll carry them to my room. Relations don’t want outsiders poking noses into their reunions.’
‘I have n’t rung for the tea yet. And your leaving us is quite unnecessary.’
‘Very well.’ She sat down on an unyielding chair with buttoned-in upholstery. ‘But you’ll not be able to make so free with each other.’
‘There is no need to make free,’ said Augusta, rather stiffly.
Mrs. Court played a tattoo on the floor with her heels. ‘It makes me jumpy,’ she explained, ‘to go so long without my tea.’
Augusta regarded her with disapproval. ‘Where is Sarah?’ she asked, in order to take her cousin’s mind off her stomach.
Mrs. Court tattooed harder than ever. ‘Out in the rain. The girl’s mad. She quite likes to get wet. And when the sun is shining she’s as likely as not moping in the house. I call her Mole. My pet Mole.’ She wagged her head, in recognition of her own wit.
‘She is a very sweet girl,’ said Augusta, ‘mole or no mole. And I only hope she and Finch will make friends.’
‘No boy of twenty-one will ever give a second thought to her. She’s too quiet. Boys like romps. Sometimes I call her Mouse, my pet Mouse.’
Augusta was listening to a sound outside. ‘Here is the car!’ she cried, and hurried to meet them.
Mrs. Court squeaked, with even more alacrity, to the bell cord and gave it a tug.
‘Bring in the tea,’ she said to the maid, ‘and we’d better have an extra pot.’ She stood stock-still then, in the corner, watching the embraces of the family.
Augusta turned to her at last. ‘Oh, you have rung for tea! Now you must come and speak to my brothers and nephew. Of course you remember Nicholas and Ernest.’
They shook hands, recalling how the last time they had met had been in London during the Coronation ceremonies of King George.
‘Dear Edwin was alive then,’ said Augusta.
‘Thomas was alive, too,’ said Mrs. Court, not to be outdone.
They settled about the tea table, and Augusta noted how well her brothers looked, but she was a little disappointed in Finch’s appearance. He had the same half-starved look. It was rather hard to reflect that this lanky youth was the possessor of her mother’s fortune, when it would have graced so well Ernest’s courtly presence. Not a large fortune, but how important in a family of such restricted means! Yet when Finch, sitting close beside her on a chair too low for him, gave her one of his affectionate looks, her heart warmed toward him and she plied him with buttered scones. She gave him more tea, and he whispered, ‘I say, where’s the girl?’
Augusta looked mysterious. ‘She’s like you; she’s devoted to Nature. She forgets all about her meals!’
‘That’s a lot like me!’ And he helped himself to more honey.
I hope,’ he added, ‘that she does n’t look like her mother.’
‘But they’re talking to her, one in each ear. She could n’t possibly hear me.’
‘That is her aunt by marriage. Sarah is an orphan and has been brought up by Mrs. Court. I must tell you about her father later.’
A shower was now beating against the panes. As though coming directly out of it, Sarah Court appeared in the doorway and came slowly toward the group about the tea table.
What had Finch expected? An impetuous Irish girl, late for tea because she liked being out in the wet? A curly-haired sprite, dancing in with rain-dappled cheeks? A sturdy, matter-of-fact young person? Whatever he had vaguely expected, it was certainly not this.
She came with a long, slow gait that imparted almost no motion to the upper part of her body. That part, held with an erectness unknown to the present generation, moved like the torso of a statue carried on a float. Her dark dress was open at the throat, but buttoned tightly down the front with the effect, of an old-fashioned basque, having also the effect of that garment in a short continuation below the waist. Her skirt was too long for fashion, and was arranged at the back in a manner suggestive of a bustle. Her arms were held rigidly at her sides; her hands had an extraordinary pallor. This pallor was equaled in the profile turned toward Finch. Her black hair was brushed back from her high forehead in glossy smoothness, and worn in a heavy braided coil at the nape.
Finch stood staring at her, unable to detach his mind. She came to him, however, holding out her hand. Even as they shook hands he did not see her. His consciousness was occupied in the attic at Jalna. He saw himself in the lumber room on a rainy day, crouching by the window, absorbed in old copies of Punch taken from a toppling dust-covered pile that year by year increased, for none were ever thrown away. He was looking at the picture of a Victorian drawing-room in which a whiskered gentleman was bowing over the hand of a lady. Other ladies were standing by.
They were all alike, and each and all bore a striking resemblance to Sarah Court.
That was it! She was like a drawing by Du Maurier.
He was so relieved by the discovery that he smiled delightedly at her. She smiled back, and he saw how the thin, delicate lips parted, showing unexpectedly small, even teeth. He thought he had never seen an upper lip so short, a chin so jutting.
Mrs. Court was saying, ‘Well, Mole! So you’ve come out, now that the sun is gone!’
Sarah Court’s lips closed tightly. She fixed her eyes on a ring with a large green stone which she began nervously to twist on her forefinger.
Her aunt leaned forward, as though she would pry under the lowered lids.
‘Well, Mouse! Quiet as ever?’ She turned to Ernest.
‘I call her Mouse, she’s so silent. It’s very irritating to me when I’ve no other companion.’
Nicholas said, ‘Many years ago there was a girl we called Mouse. She was a ballet dancer.’
‘Was she quiet?’ asked Mrs. Court.
‘No, she was rather noisy. But she’d a peaky little face, and small bright eyes.’
‘I enjoy a good ballet,’ said Mrs. Court,
‘ but I ’ve no pleasure in the Russian ballet. I hate Russian music. It’s nothing but a fantastic noise compared with Bach, or Handel, or Mozart. When Sarah begins to do the rough-and-tumble of it on her fiddle I get out of the room. It gives me the fidgets.’ And she played a tattoo with her heels to show how really fidgety she could become.
She turned to Finch. ‘We must get you playing. We’ll make a musical time of it.’
She talked of music she had heard in the principal capitals of Europe. ‘But I can’t afford to travel now,’ she said. ‘I just stick at home in Ireland, Mouse and I make our own music. Don’t we, Mouse?’
How ludicrous, Finch thought, to call that remote-looking girl Mouse! He got up his courage and said, ‘You play the violin awfully well, I expect.’
Her aunt had received no answer to her question and had apparently expected none, for she continued to talk without hesitating; but Sarah turned to Finch with a peculiar smile, with a certain elfish mischief in it, and answered, ‘You’ll know that when you hear me.’
It was the first time he had heard her say more than a monosyllable. Her voice, he thought, was the very distillation of sweetness, all the more noticeable following, as it did, the gruff tones of her aunt. And it had a muted sound, as though a secret being within her spoke for her. He tried to draw her into conversation, but he was awkward and she was either shy or aloof.
He was glad to escape into the garden when the others went to their rooms. Lyming Hall was an unpretentious house of no particular period, but its gardens, lawns, and park were kept in excellent order. Augusta was proud of the commanding view over the countryside. The fact that there were no large landowners about and few people of wealth gave her a pleasant feeling of superiority.
Finch wandered among the flower beds, discovered the tennis court, the rosary, and walked down the drive, which sloped steeply, to the gate. There was a small gabled lodge half hidden in roses, so much like a picture of a little English house that Finch had to grin with delight as he looked at it. He turned away when he saw a woman in the door and cut across a corner of the park to where he could see the stable.
He found the kitchen garden — strawberries under netting, and gooseberries like eggs. He came upon a door in a wall, almost hidden in ivy, and pushed it open. He found himself in a walled flower garden.
He went up and down the box-bordered paths, a lanky figure filled with the joy of being alive in that warm sweet-scented enclosure. He squatted to look into Canterbury bells. He held moss roses in his hand. He put his long nose to the very earth to smell the mignonette. The pear trees, trained against the wall, were beautiful to him. At that moment the orchard of pear trees at Jalna, which carelessly covered the ground with golden fruit every fall, seemed a poor thing. He could not decide which roses were the most beautiful — the newly opened ones, their inner petals still resisting the fingers of the sun, or those at that mysterious moment of perfection just before they fade and fall, when they seem to be offering their essence in a final surrender so complete as to have something of delicate vehemence in it.
When Ellen showed him his room he was glad to find that its windows overlooked the walled garden. There was a can of hot water, and his clothes were laid out ready for him on the bed. He felt very happy. He had had no idea it would be so nice at Aunt Augusta’s. He wished that Mrs. Court and her niece were not there, so that they might be just a family party. . . . Still, after all, Sarah Court was his cousin. But how strange and unapproachable she was! And she had a baffling charm for him. As he stood looking out of the window his thoughts, like curious birds, hovered about her.
He was still looking down into the garden, where a violaceous shadow had tempered all the brightness, when a light tap sounded on the door. Augusta’s voice asked, ‘Are you dressed, dear? May I come in?’ jj
He threw open the door and stood guiltily before her.
‘I say, Aunt, I’m awfully sorry! I have n’t begun to dress; I’ve just been staring into the garden. You should n’t have given me a room with a window overlooking it.’
She sailed with kindly majesty into the room.
‘I am so glad you like it,’ said Augusta; but she spoke abstractedly. She went back to the door, closed it, then sat down on the settee at the foot of the bed. She had on a black dinner dress and wore her old-fashioned jewelry that was beginning to be fashionable again. She raised her large eyes to Finch’s face and said, in a tone almost tragic, ‘Finch, I am in great trouble.’ Her voice sounded a barytone depth.
The thought of anyone’s being in trouble terrified him. He was used to trouble, Heaven knew, but his hair seemed to rise at the mere mention of it. ‘Oh — what’s up, Aunt?’
‘Eden,’ she boomed, ‘is sitting on the doorstep.’
He had an instant mental picture of Eden, rather down-at-heel but debonair, with that insolent, veiled smile of his, lounging on the door sill.
‘That girl,’ proceeded Augusta, ‘is with him.’
So Eden and Minny were both sitting on the doorstep! He could only get out, ‘Well, well.’
But his look of consternation was sufficient to satisfy his aunt of his sympathy.
‘They are,’ she said, ‘living in the lodge.’
The lodge! And he had walked down to it not an hour before! Perhaps the woman he had seen in the doorway was Minny.
‘But how did they get there?’ he asked.
‘By effrontery. As they get everywhere. You know I am attached to Eden. I cannot help being attached to Eden. But to have him come and sit on my doorstep, when I have Mrs. Court and Sarah in the house, is too much.’
‘But how did they come there? And when?’ Life seemed one long surprise for him. Now he asked himself, as he had asked about so many things, Can this be true?
Augusta said, ‘They have been there a week. Eden turned up a month ago alone. She was somewhere in the offing, awaiting her chance to creep on to my doorstep. He told me that he was completely out of funds, and he asked me if he might not come and live at the lodge. I told him that the widow of the late lodge keeper lived there alone. She paid me no rent, but I had been very fond of him, and after his death I let her live on there. She often came and helped about the house. Now what do you suppose Eden’s remark was after I had told him all this? His remark was, “Can’t you turn the widow out? ” Did you ever hear of anything more cold-blooded?’
‘It was terrible,’ agreed Finch.
‘It. was barbarous; not only the words, but the way he uttered them. Just a casual, “Can’t you turn the widow out?” As though it were the turning of a hen out of a coop. I spoke impressively to him. I said, “Eden, I never thought that I should live to see the day that a Whiteoak and a Court would suggest that a widow be turned out of doors. Whatever our faults may have been, we have been benevolent.”’
‘What did he say to that?’
‘He said nothing. He just gave that rather tired smile of his and began to talk about his poetry. He does write really beautiful poetry, you know.’
‘And what then?’
‘After he’d had tea he went away. What was my astonishment, in less than a fortnight, when the widow’s daughter, who lives in Plymouth, Wrote to her mother asking her to come to Plymouth to live. She is going to have another child, and takes in lodgers, so it was altogether too much for her.’
‘And did the widow go?’
‘She went. And she had only been gone two days when Eden sauntered into the garden, where I was cutting roses, and said, “Well, we’ve settled in.” “Settled in!” I almost shouted it. “Who has settled in?” “Me and Minny,” he said. Just like that, without grammar or consideration. Then he said, “We heard the widow had got out, so we ’ve moved in.” I shouted, “ You’ve moved into the lodge! You?” And he said, “Yes, Minny and me.” And there they’ve remained.’
‘What are you going to do about it?’
‘I don’t know, I’m sure. I thought perhaps you could help me. I’m afraid that if I tell your uncles they may be too severe with him. He is such a sweet boy. Clever, like you — only so much more —’ She hesitated.
‘Yes, I know,’ said Finch.
‘I should n’t mind in the least their occupying the lodge for a time, if only they were married, though Minny does look very odd since she’s taken to painting her ears.’
‘Painting her ears!’
‘Yes. She puts a dab of paint on the lobe of each ear. I suppose it’s living in France.’
‘Well, well,’ said Finch again. He felt as though life were really crowding too furiously on him. He asked, ‘Do the people about here know that they are not married?’
‘ No one knows but Mrs. Court. We have, so far, kept the fact of their existence from Sarah. Her aunt is very particular about Sarah’s acquaintances.’
‘She is rather a strange girl, Aunt Augusta.’
‘You will not think her so strange when you are used to her. . .’
(To be continued)
- The first installment of this novel appeared in the April number. A brief synopsis of the opening chapters is to be found in the Contributors’ Column. — EDITOR↩