by MOLLIE PANTER-DOWNES
A SMALL clock struck in the drawing room, which wore its Wednesday air of a temple swept and garnished, dedicated to callers and the cucumber sandwich and the cup of tea. Mrs. Prout had plumped the cushions, drawn the chairs in a circle which announced, We are ready, let the company enter. And every now and then, to appease the room, Laura and Stephen Marshall had a little party. Last week, for instance, the Cochranes and Bill and Honor Farleigh had come to dinner. It was the Cochranes’ last visit before they left Weakling. They were going to live in Ireland, and a good deal of the conversation was taken up with their new house. You could live like a lighting cock there, said Colonel Cochrane; you could buy a Georgian house with a decent bit of shooting for a reasonable price, as he had done, and get any amount of Irish girls out of the bog to come as maids and be glad of the chance. He was tall and grizzled; kind Mrs. Cochrane was soft and round.
“I’ve had enough of England,” he said. “You’d better clear out too, Stephen my lad, while the going’s good.”
“ I don’t know,” said Stephen, “ I think I’ll stay.” He was enjoying himself. He was fond of the Cochranes and he liked talking to Bill Farleigh. He had brought home a bottle of sherry, and the dinner was good, the silver shone, everything was as it used to be.
“Well, I’ve thought it out carefully,” said Colonel
Cochrane, “and what I feel is, why should Mary go on killing herself, slaving away here? Why not have a little comfort for our money at our age? You’ll have to bring him over, Laura,” he said, “and I’ll give him a bit of duck shooting.” But his eyes already had the exile’s wistfulness. He would be desperately lonely, sitting in the middle of the brown bog reading the London Times and the Field, and thinking of Weakling. “Let me,” he said, jumping up to remove the plates.
“Honor and I, if the worst comes to the worst, can always get top wages as a married couple,” said Bill Farleigh, expertly stacking plates at the sideboard. “I’ve timed myself washing up, and I don’t mind backing myself against a team of your Irish girls out of the bog, Colonel.”
“Let us help wash up, Laura,” said everybody when dinner was over.
“No, please,” said Laura, “do go into the drawing room and I’ll bring the coffee. Please!” Please let us go on pretending, she meant, seeing Stephen glow and expand and draw up his chair with Bill and the old man in the candlelight. What a damned bore, he had said when Honor telephoned that she was going to change, and he had groaned over hunting up a stiff shirt and finding three moth holes in his evening trousers, but now he was enjoying it. He leaned back and crossed his legs luxuriously. Laura made the coffee, surreptitiously tidying up some of the mess, and feeling slightly foolish as she tripped over her long skirts and assisted a flowing chiffon sleeve out of the sink. The silver coffee tray waited, glittering from the sardonic ministrations of Mrs. Prout, who had attacked it with a banging vigor which plainly masked the thought, Lord, how the gentry do hang on to their ways, poor souls. If it was me, it would be high tea for the lot and done with it.
Now the drawing room was empty, swept and garnished, waiting for the next bout. A bee buzzed angrily against the French window, the little clock ticked loudly on the mantelpiece next to the miniature of Victoria, a pink and white, fair-haired English baby waiting on a blue cushion to inherit the earth. It was time to start out and collect the wretched Stuffy, who had sneaked off to the gypsy’s dogs on Barrow Down. With a sense of luxury, Laura remembered that Victoria was out to tea with the Watsons, so there was no need to hurry back, positively no need to do another thing until this evening. She locked up the house again, thought, Damn! The hens and ducks, and went to mix the food in the shed, where, beside the chickenmeal bins, there were a variety of more or less junked objects out of their married life together — Stephen’s skis; Victoria’s old pram, which had been lent to various babies and was now resting; a nakedlooking bedpan which had not been required since Laura’s lying-in and had somehow anchored on a shelf here next to some old rusty mousetraps; an archery set which Stephen had once bought in a lit of absent-minded enthusiasm at a sale; the stirrup pump and the long-handled shovel for scooping up incendiaries; a tent which, years ago. they had taken with them on a camping holiday in the Dolomites; an ancient Eastern chest marked “A. Marshall “ in painted letters on its lid; and other mementoes now languishing among dust and the smell of chicken food.
THE hens lay languidly in the dusty hollows they had scratched under the elders in the paddock. They gathered themselves up in an awkward floundering movement when they saw Laura coming, and ran to meet her, throwing their heads forward in a pushing gesture like skaters taking off on a rink. Sordid, revolting creatures! Why should they be so unattractive, such obvious slave labor whose deaths did not cause one a single pang, when ducks were so charming? She picked up the duck bucket and climbed the low wire netting. Here they came waddling, shy, comic, stopping and turning on the single beady impulse, suddenly transfixed quite motionless against the buttercups as though wondering: Is this woman preparing a trap for us? But, reassured, the absurd frieze unfolded itself towards the feeding trough. There was no drake, there was no cock guarding the hens under the creamy, peppery plates of elder flowers. It was a completely female household to which Stephen returned in the evenings. Even the cat, thought Laura, even Stuffy, shivering and rolling an eye in an abandonment of boneless female hysteria. No wonder that Stephen expanded and glowed, talking to Bill Farleigh in the candlelight.
Now you’re married we wish you joy, Mrs. Prout had sung the other morning as she shoved the whining carpet sweeper back and forth over the floor, First a girl and then a boy. Ten years after a son and daughter, she had sung, puffing as she bent to gather up a rug and carry it out. into the garden. And then the triumphant climax as she began to beat the rug ferociously on the poor daisies — and now, Miss Sally, come out of the water! But such neat mathematics, thought Laura, were sometimes hard to achieve. The years slipped by, wars happened, the hens stalked alone under the elders, the ducks rolled in file, like Lely beauties riding lonely on the waves of their snowy proud bosoms, Stephen frowned over his book in the evenings, she was getting gray, dull, fixed in this trivial routine of cooking the dead slab and cleaning the dirty bath. George Porter’s calm blue eyes had delivered the final, the damning sentence. A sofa!
And suddenly, picturing herself standing so tragically clasping the empty bucket in the middle of the duck run, she burst into a fit of laughter. What a fool I am. Philip would never have made anything out of me, she thought, still smiling as she collected the duck eggs and carried them, rolling slightly at the bottom of the bucket among moist crumbs of mash, back to the shed. Her bicycle also waited there, propped up in a rack with Victoria’s. She felt the tires experimentally before wheeling the machine out into the sunshine, mounting, and riding over the weedy gravel, through the open front gate, and into the deep lane. Absurdly debonair words, she often felt, to describe the humiliating scramble and dab with the foot, the familiar rusty protest of the chain as the pedals went up and down.
She had bought the thing for a pound at the beginning of the war, when the Marshalls’ house suddenly developed all the less alluring qualities of a desert island. Ah, there’s good stuff in it yet, Mr. Jukes at the Crossways Garage had said the other day when he mended a puncture. You don’t find this quality in the nasty junk they’re turning out today, he had said, turning the bicycle upside down so that the broken green and white strings of the dress guard dangled and it looked almost humanly frail, vulnerable, an elderly female party most unsuitably standing on her head. Stephen had stared and then laughed uncontrollably when he lirst came home on leave and saw Laura sailing with dignity down the drive. Put it on the scrap heap and buy a new one, he had said not long ago. Jukes has got several decent-looking bikes down in his shop now.
But somehow Laura had not done so yet. The old bicycle groaned and grumbled, it resented going uphill, the brakes failed to hold its sudden abrupt forward plunges. But when she looked at it, she thought of it standing waiting for her, propped up in the autumn rain against the village shop or the canteen or the Food Office, and of ihe bundles it had lugged lor her, and of the pallid flicker of light which it used feebly but faithfully to throw before her as she wobbled along the lanes in the blackout. Then she would delay putting it on the scrap heap for a little longer. She rang its bell, a harsh peculiar whir, as she shot past a couple of women wheeling pushchairs and turned out of the lane into the village.
IN the window of “the shop” stood a row of glass jars. Laura braked waveringly, then with decision, and jumped oil her bicycle. There was a new jar of peppermint humbugs, on which Stephen and Victoria doted. Laura opened the door. A bell dangled and jangled from a wire. The tiny dark shop smelled like the inside of a cupboard at home in St. Pol which, for some reason, she could always close her eyes and smell at will. Varnished pine, biscuit crumbs, something vaguely sweet, something sharp as snuff, with an undertone of mice — was it that?
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Marshall,” said young Mrs. Jim.
The Trumpers’ daughter-in-law, strange Annabel, the beauty. Good Lord, Stephen had said when he came back from the village, his first look round after he got demobilized, young Jim Trumper picked himself a beauty. Poor chap, he had added, for Jim had gone down on the Prince of Wales. The Trumpers had refused to believe, they had gone on hoping, Mrs. Trumper had seen Jim alive in the cards again and again, but it was no good. The oily waters had closed over his red head all right. Among the packets of Quaker Oats, the cards of corn cures and pen nibs and cachous for the breath, the rakes and the tins of salmon and the rubbishy cotton dresses swinging gently from their hangers in the draft, stood his widow. He might never have been,
since he had left no child. Mrs. Jim’s wifehood had sunk quietly, without a cry, beneath the oily waters.
And how on earth, thought Laura (“Yes, quarter of a pound, please,” she said, feeling for the ration books in her bag), how on earth had Jim, cheerful ordinary young fellow, managed to pick himself a beauty? This beauty, among all others. How had he concealed the instinct for rightness which had steered him between all the little tuppence-colored girls, all the little cheap imitations of somebody’s hair and bosom and lips on the movies, towards this nose and brow architectural in their loveliness as a church, these Unfashionable pale folded lips? It would never be known. The oily waters had closed over the secret. Serene, Mrs. Jim stretched her round white arm for the sweet jar, pronounced “They’re nice, weighed and deliberated like a Pallas Athene masquerading among the cards of pen nibs and pink cachous.
“It’s hot today,” she said to Laura. Very hot, they settled. Not so many wasps yet. Ah, but wait for the plum time. Mechanically they exchanged a few small coins of country talk while Laura pushed Victoria’s ration book towards Mrs. Jim’s firm hand.
“Is that nut. chocolate?” she said. “Well, give me a couple of bars too. Take it off Mr. Marshall s book, will you? He does love chocolate.”
“They all do, the men,” said Mrs. Jim. She moved her lips faintly. She picked up the scissors off the counter. “Did you know I was getting married again?” she asked.
“No!” said Laura. “I am so glad. Who is it?” And suddenly she knew the answer. Of course, she thought. George Porter and Mrs. Jim. They were, as the saying goes, meant for each other. There’s prospects, George had said, staring ahead over his native heath, thinking of Annabel. She waited, smiling.
“Stanley Budge,” said Mrs. Jim, snipping carefully. “You know Mr. Budge, don’t you?” And she dropped the coupons neatly in the box.
“Oh!” said Laura blankly. She could never hide her feelings. You’re terrible, Laura, Stephen would say. No thin protective membrane stretched across her emotions, which anyone could read at will, as though they were behind glass. Luckily Mrs. Jim was looking down, exhibiting no interest.
“Of course I know Mr. Budge,” said Laura blankly.
She picked up the ration books, she stowed them away in her bag. She felt quite shockingly surprised. Before her eyes floated, in a series of distressing visions, a waxed mustache, a bowler hat, a pencil held in stubby fingers, a watch chain festooned over a stomach. Now about the little matter of the ball cock in the downstairs water closet, madam, I’ll ‘ave my plumber pop round and see to it Monday. Dab went the pencil stump to the waxed mustache, dab went a thick tongue to the pencil stump, dab went the pencil stump to Mr. Hedge’s notebook. Now about the little matter of us two getting fixed up, Mr. Rudge would say, and dab would go the waxed mustache against Mrs. Jim’s cheek. Oh horrid impossibility! But she knew that it was perfectly possible. George was the impossibility, the too neat tie-up of two beautiful beings such as one paid one and ninepence to see among cigarette smoke and wet mackintoshes and the witless libidinous whistlings of the Bridbury youths at the Palace. Thus should men be, George had stated calmly, coming out of the cottage in the splendor of high morning, the god carrying the fruit of love in his arms. But thus life is, finally and flatly pronounced Mr. Rudge in the hard, shadowless maturity of full afternoon. He licked the end of pencil, he pressed carefully down on the page in letters so thick that they shone like coal dust, recording the details of length, breadth, height. Out came his foot rule from the trouser pocket. Flick, dab, dab, and he had it. It was captured in the black notebook forever.
WHEN is it to be?” Laura asked. She simply could not utter congratulations, she would not.
“Next month. It can’t be too soon for me, I say to Stanley. Such a squash we are here”— Mrs. Jim jerked her head towards the little curtained door behind her — “now that Cyril’s home with his wife and baby, and Eflie out of the A.T.S. She and her young man are waiting to get one of the new houses. Wait, wait, nothing but wait nowadays, is it?”
She looked at Laura. Laura looked at her. A clock ticked, a bluebottle buzzed, an enormous ginger cat walked majestically into the shop and suddenly, as though his life depended on it, sat down and attacked a patch of fur behind one ear. It is all very well for you, said Mrs. Jim’s eyes coldly. You are one of the safe ones, you have a roof and a child. Your man came back. One must take what one can. One is forced to make do, to pick up the crumbs, to be sensible. And all that, the other part, is gone forever, sunk and drowned beneath the oily waters. She brushed a speck of something off the counter.
“Anyway Stanley has a house,”she said. “One point in marrying a builder, isn’t it? You should have a house.”
“He must be doing well,” said Laura.
“Oh, he is. He’s rushed off his feet.”
Yes, Mrs. Prout had said not long ago, shouting above the splash of tap water, that Hudge was doing well. Not making his money over building new houses, Hudge wasn’t — oh, no, said Mrs. Prout. But doing nicely all the same, in on this, in on that, closing the eye in the right place, opening it in the right place. Sharp, she’d say that for him. Mrs. Bellamy at Hunter’s Lodge had a new pink bathroom, though Eflie Trumper and her young man were still eating their hearts out for a place to put their good brass double bed which Mrs. Trumper had given them. Ah, Mrs. Prout had cried, wasn’t Mrs. Bellamy smart as paint too? All through the war, the food in that house you wouldn’t believe, the petrol for the car when nobody else didn’t have a drop, and the gin and stuff in the cupboard — oh, didn’t Mrs. Sparks at the Leg of Mutton open her eyes when Mrs. Prout told her, and her having to hang out the card “Not a drop left” on the saloonbar door night after night ! Look at my new pink bathroom, Mrs. Prout, had cried Mrs. Bellamy, running upstairs with her silk stockings twinkling, and goodness only knows how she managed to dress like that with the kewpongs, dressmaker’s boxes always arriving, tissue paper on the floor, no questions asked and none answered. Some people have done well out of this war and no mistake, Mrs. Prout had shouted, drawing her red hands out of the water and flopping them, like a couple of wet fishes, into the folds of the roller towel. The sharp ones, the Budges, the Bellamys, who know how to take good care of Number One. Not the poor softies like you, her kind and scornful eye had said as it surveyed Mrs. Marshall.
“Will that be all for you?” Mrs. Jim asked Laura.
“Yes, that’s all today.” She paid, she took up the little paper bag and the bars of chocolate. Mrs. Jim stood watching her from behind the counter. She stood with her arms folded in an attitude of statuesque calm. Life is terrifying and uncertain, I have chosen certainty, the intense stillness of her pose seemed to say. Possibly she was perfectly happy. Laura felt suddenly muddled, felt the color coming into her face, felt a quick impulse to say after all, “I do hope — I do wish you every sort of happiness.” Cruel and ridiculous words! Mr. Budge’s foot ride, flicking this way and that, would quickly prove them shallow, flimsy, gimerack.
“Thanks, Mrs. Marshall,” said Mrs. Jim coolly.
The bell sprang and jangled on its wire as Laura went out.
SHE felt uncomfortably hot, bicycling out of the village. Now the cottages straggled out into hedges, now came the tollgate, a squatting dwarf with surprised eyes looking down the road, and then the meadows started to spread away towards the high ridge of Barrow Down. A slight hill curved up from the meadows, shaded by the great arms of the oaks. She got off and began to push the bicycle uphill. The little bag of sweets joggled in the bicycle basket, and she thought, should she have one? This dreadful sweet tooth, this base and constant craving, while before the war she had passed marrons glaces melting in their fluted cups, sugared almonds, parterres of crystallized red and white fruit on angelica twigs, without giving them a second thought. But now, this awful craving. Stephen was the same. At home, her father hid his sweet ration in a tin in the brown snuggery, retired and ate with private greed behind the Times after lunch. It was no good. She stopped, opened the bag, and took a humbug. Behind her, clear across the meadows, the Wealding clock struck the hour, A wall began to run alongside the road, tall and stoutly built of stone and Hint. Keep out! it seemed to say, but in a couple of places Army trucks had taken no notice, had bashed gaps in it, and landed drunk and askew on the soft, slippery pine needles. The trucks had gone, but the gaping holes remained. The wall was also beginning to give up slightly on its own account, sagging slightly here, shedding stone and flint there. But this stretch of the road was deliciously cool in the damp-smelling shade of the pines and the beeches. Two wood pigeons were purring away in Mrs. Cranmer’s woods, “I love you. Lulu,” over and over, the lazy sound of summer.
Ahead was the lodge, with that bush of tiny toy roses in its little garden which Victoria always looked for when they passed in the car. Before Laura reached it, a man stepped out of the copse on the other side of the road, a dog at his heels, and stood waiting for her.
“Halloa, Laura,” he said.
“Edward! I didn’t know you were down,” she said.
She got off the bicycle and stood smiling. She felt awfully glad to see him. Edward Cranmer’s spaniel crossed the road heavily to inspect her shoes, wag his tail, and lift a soft, gummy eye, dripping with the rheum of age and good will to all men. He moved as though his feet hurt him, exactly like a gouty old man.
“We’re here for a week or two,” Edward said, “trying to straighten things out a bit. Helen is down too.”
“It’s all settled?”
“Haven’t you seen the papers today? The photograph is in them.”
No, said Laura, she had not had time to see the papers yet. But of course she had known for a long time, ever since the morning when Mrs. Prout had arrived panting, bursting with the burden of her song, the amazing theme of which was contained in the line: The Cranmers are giving up. With no more excitement could Mrs. Prout have stated that Barrow Down had stalked off in the night, taken its famous tuft of wind-bitten trees, and removed itself to the other side of the county. Oh, she would never have believed it, Mrs. Prout had cried, and needed endless cups of tea to soften her disbelief. Wealding without the Cranmers — was it possible? Instead of the family up at the Manor, something which called itself the National Trussed — so Prout had had it from Fowler, the carter, who had had it from Dummer at one of the old lady’s farms. The village hummed with it. At the Leg of Mutton they talked of nothing else. Was it a good job, was it a bad job? Some said one, some said the other. But one and all had a curious sensation, as though a stout, wall had gone and a draft was catching them in the neck. Wealding would be different, on that there was no argument.
He was just, Edward said, going up to the house for tea. Why didn’t Laura come too?
“They’d love to see you,” he said. “I was asking my mother last night how you all were.”
“Well—” She hesitated. But why not? Stuffy could wait. So they started walking together, Edward Cranmer wheeling Laura’s old bicycle for her and looking rather absurd doing so, for he was immensely tall and thin and had elegant long hands which looked as though they should be laid against furred velvet or the red robes of a court dignitary. He was not like his father, the old squire, Mrs. Prout had often said to Laura. Though he was pleasant enough, he was not a patch on old Mr. Cranmer, whose hawks and hounds, waistcoats, sharp tempers, kind dealings, and lusty hitting on the green in Wealding cricket week had become a village legend. And now Mr. Edward lived in Cambridge and wrote learned books, some said, and watched birds, Wealding children had reported, meeting him on spring evenings mooning along by the willows and the shivering reeds, his field glasses slung round his neck. Catch the old squire watching birds, except down the shiny barrel of a gun! (There had been a rare popping from the Cranmer woods, and a rare coming and going of motors and ladies’ maids and dogs every autumn in the old days, Mrs. Front had recollected as she crawled her way, exposing a glimpse of knotted blue flesh above the sagging stocking, over Laura’s bathroom floor.) But to everyone’s surprise, Mr. Edward had done well in the war, chucking up his professors and such, getting himself a couple of medals and a permanently stiff leg in North Africa.
He limped more than usual, pushing Laura’s bicycle up the drive, past the lodge where Mrs. Bunt’s canaries were making their cages quake up and down and the air shudder with their top notes. It had been hot work walking round the farms, he said, over to Dummer’s, through the chestnut plantations to Pratt’s and the rest. What did they think about it all, asked Laura.
“I think, on the whole, they’re sorry,” he said. “They like my mother, you know.”
“But she’ll still be here?”
“Oh yes, she’ll still be here. She and Aunt Sophia will go on living in the flat they’re making in the stables wing —they move in next week, probably.”
The house, he said, would be used partly as a holiday hostel, partly as an agricultural training center for boys.
“ I’m glad it’s not going to be quite dead,” he said. “It’s a good place to be young in.”
He turned his head this way and that, looking quietly at a fat pony standing swishing its tail in one of the paddocks, at the woods and the distant river, at the great bulk of the house beginning to come into sight between the dark level slats of the cedars.
“It’s the only possible thing for all these places,” he said. “I could never afford to live here even if I wanted to. You can’t imagine what a relief it is, Laura, to get it all settled.”
He leaned her bicycle against the wall near the myrt le bush, grown from the cutting of some Cranmer bride’s bouquet, he had told her once. Everything had its tradition, its story.
THERE were packing cases in the hall. Doors stood ajar on shuttered twilight, on vague shapes hanging in holland bags from the ceiling, on larger shapes muffled beneath dust sheets like groups of statuary waiting to be unveiled by a lady with a bouquet. Coming from the warmth and the buzz outside, the place struck chilly as a church. The dog’s claws tapped confidently on the oak floors ahead of them.
“That’s where your mother had her working parties,” Laura said, nodding towards a door.
“Did you come to those?” he asked absently.
“As much as I could.”
Fluff off the white wincyette, she remembered, had prickled the nose and made her sneeze. Mrs. Vyner had ripped away at one machine, Honor Farleigh at the other. They sighed, they stitched, they lifted needles towards the light filtering greenly through the high mullions. The news was bad, the news was good, Mr. Churchill had said, and the food — ah, the food! How are you getting on, Mrs. Front? Mrs. Cranmer would cry from the head of the long table where she presided, her stick against her chair, the old spaniel stinking and scratching his eczema at her feet. Nicely, madam, thank you, Mrs. Prout would reply. Radical or no, she squeezed a “madam” for Mrs. Cranmer when she turned up and sat, panting from the exertion of pedaling up the long avenue, slyly storing away nuggets of gossip in her vast bosom, shaking out the striped pajama trousers and eying the dangling legs with an awful stare which seemed to fill them. Lord, she would say later to Laura, how that old dog does smell, he ought to be put away. And the house —what a sight when you thought of it in the old days, the footman and all, and now only that old Fowler doddering round with Mrs. Bunt from the lodge. It was a nasty pull up the avenue for her heart, Mrs. Frout would say. She wouldn’t go again. But she turned up next week all right. She enjoyed it. There was something soothing about it, Laura always felt, as though they were repeating some classic pattern which went on recurring forever in different fancy dresses, the group of women sitting sewing round the lady of the house while their men were at the wars, fighting the Trojans or the Turk or the Nazis. Men must fight and women must sew of course in this war women had fought too. They had flown aeroplanes, they had been bombed on gun sights, they had struggled in the dreadful equality of icy water among drowning men. Military buttons had marched up Effie Trumper’s bosom, Air Force blue had all too insecurely disguised Mavis Porter in doublet and hose. But still the other women had sat stitching and folding, making ready, storing away, in quiet old houses like Mrs. Cranmer’s. There was something soothing about it, the ritual gesture which said, While you destroy, we build up, we stitch and fold quietly in the inner courtyard which is the true center of the house. It had been easy, in an idle moment, to picture Mrs. Cranmer’s massive chins bound round with linen bands, the long table and the striped wincyette legs and Mrs. Vyner, bending her damp-looking pale face over the Singer, all giving place to the loom and the slowly growing greens and blues and grays of the tapestry forest.
A dark old Italian mirror gleamed from a gilt frame twisted like roots under water. Laura glanced towards it, suddenly thinking uneasily of her hair, her hands. She must look a fright, and one did not, somehow, appear before Mrs. Cranmer looking a fright.
But it was too late to do anything about it. Slightly ahead of her, Edward opened a door and said “I’ve brought a visitor.” The library looked as though the electric lights were on, but it was the afternoon sunlight striking a yellow glow from gilt and calf bindings of the books towering up to the high painted ceiling. In the midst of death done up in little holland shrouds, said the room, we are in life. More dogs uncurled themselves from the rugs and flew to meet Edward. “My dear Laura,” said Mrs. Cranmer, “what a pleasant surprise!” The three ladies were already at tea. In the corner of ihe big velvet sofa, Miss Sophia Cranmer beaked like a startled old parrot, a bit of sandwich hanging like a large pdle seed from one claw. She smiled dimly. But she does not remember in the least who I am, thought Laura. The room was deliciously cool. In its beauty and dignity it denied everything — the weedy terrace outside the open windows, the packing cases, the holland bags, old Fowler boiling a kettle somewhere in the empty vast kitchens, the drive torn up by the soldiers’ lorries, change barging in through the holes in the solid old wall. Nothing is wrong, said the room. The little group round the tea table seemed to float in the rich light, huddled together like survivors on a raft.
And nothing is wrong, Mrs. Cranmer seemed to declare also as they talked. Not a word indicated that this was one of the last times that she would sit here, pouring out from the massive tea service, leaning back and looking at Laura with her amused old eyes. She spoke of everything but that. She was dressed as usual in black. When she went out, she had a way of snatching up an ancient tweed shooting cape of Mr. Cranmer’s and throwing it round her shoulders. Laura had met her one day, flapping across the fields towards one of her farms, stooping, prodding the earth familiarly with her stick, stumping on among a white and brown and piebald sea of dogs. Before she got too lame, she gardened in shocking boots and a hat like a bee skep. But at dinner parties before the war, in black velvet and diamonds, she could look like a queen.
“More tea, Sophia?” she called loudly to her sister-in-law.
“She didn’t hear,” said Helen, leaning forward and repeating the question, in her cool distinct voice, closer to old Miss Cranmer’s nodding auburn front. Then she sat back and went on talking about housing difficulties in Cambridge. Stephen thought her rather charming, Mrs. Herriot had been greatly struck when they met one day at lunch. Such perfect taste, Mrs. Herriot had thought, the neat figure, the single string of pearls, the fine hair waved back in scallop shells from the brow. Your stocking, darling, has a ladder in it, she had said briskly to Laura as she got into the ear going home. Impossible to imagine Helen untidy, ruffled, letting things boil over on the stove. She had run something in London all through the war with, everyone said, wonderful competence. But what, Laura could not help wondering, had made Edward lift his shortsighted eyes from the page, see the limp brown hair, the face so correctly pretty that one had to remember it all over again each time one saw it, and think to himself, This is the one? They had been married twelve years and had no chick, no child, only the little Chinese dog on Helen’s lap.
AH, but Mrs. Cranmer had her griefs as well as the rest, of us, had cried Mrs. Prout, who had herself lost four sons, reared four. It had seemed to afford Mrs. Prout, sighing and wheezing, a mysterious satisfaction, the idea that Mrs. Cranmer had been bowed with the common grief though she never showed it, though her voice rang clear and unfaltering, and the men said she was a caution, you couldn’t put anything past her. They were all frightened of her, Mrs. Prout said to Laura — Pratt at Lower Farm, Hummer, Stokes, the whole lot of them. But sorrow hardened some, softened others. The eldest son, Mr. Henry, had died suddenly at school, a lovely boy, everybody’s favorite. Mr. Robert had been killed out in Africa, where he went big game shooting with a party of friends. There had been two other sons who died in infancy. And now the fresh-cheeked, full-bodied Cranmer stock had dwindled and thinned into Edward, sitting there by his wife, pulling the little dog’s tawny lion locks. “I had a battle with that old scoundrel Rudge at the Weakling parish meeting over the new houses,” Mrs. Cranmer was saying, and he was laughing, teasing her. “Nonsense!” she said, laughing too, and the door opened and in came Fowler carrying a tray. From some window she must, have seen Edward and Laura, for she had brought fresh tea and sandwiches.
“Halloa, Fowler,” said Laura.
“Good afternoon, madam,” said Fowler.
She was a small, thin woman, Mrs. Cranmer’s old maid. Hiya, toots! Hiya, Miss Fowler! the Canadians used to call, grinning, when they saw her toddling down the lime avenue to have tea with her crony Mrs. Bunt at the lodge, among the yelling canaries and innumerable photographs of the Family. She had never taken any notice of their insufferable impudence, uncalled-for however far they had come to fight for anybody, she would say to Mrs. Bunt as they sat together drinking a nice cup, watched by Mr. ! Henry chubbily bestriding his first Shetland, Mr. Robert in his uniform at Sandhurst, Airs. Cranmer with a muff against an Edwardian snow scene, Mr. Cranmer on old Pericles among his hounds, and the rest. Thank goodness, she had said to Mrs. Bunt as the last singing, rowdy truckload rolled away that day, not knowing that worse was to come. Thank goodness it’s over, she had said, going off to look over Mrs. Cranmer’s evening dresses and scrutinize her sables for the moth, for would not everything now be as it used to be? Back would come the men into their brass buttons or baize aprons, back would come the girls into their print dresses. And about time, she had said to Mrs. Bunt, for her feet ached terribly, she could hardly lie in bed at night for the pains in her back. Fowler, whose job had been to mend the torn lace on the tea gown and clean ihe ruby rose with a little brush, now lay in bed and ached all over. Sometimes at night, she had told Mrs. Bunt, feeling herself creaking, listening to the house creaking and going to pieces, worrying about the falling plaster and the swaddled furniture and the damage those dratted Canadians were doing to the place — sometimes Fowler had wondered how much longer she could keep things going for Mrs. Peregrine Cranmer and Mr. Edward, who after all did not care. And it had been no good, as it turned out.
“Good afternoon, madam,” she said to that Mrs. Marshall, who had come calling without a hat, without any stockings on her long legs. She set down a plate, collected an empty one, glanced over the table. Yes, they had all they wanted. Mrs. Cranmer was laughing with Mr. Edward over something. Laugh away, then, a voice said quite wildly inside Fowler’s breast. But she went quietly out with her tray.
“You know we’re moving out this week,” Mrs. Cranmer said suddenly to Laura. She lay back, scratching the old spaniel’s ribs with the point of her stick. lie grunted with pleasure, his rheumy lit i le eye rolled upwards in ecstasy. She and Fowler, Edward, Helen, Airs. Bunt, Bunt with his hammer and nails, all of them had been working away as hard as they could go, taking Cranmer apart. A dreadful job, she said, when a house had been there so long, when so many people had saved and stored everything carefully for centuries, letters, journals, estate accounts, locks of hair, shreds of silk, sentimental rubbish of all sorts. Some of the furniture was being sold, some would go to Edward, the best of the pictures to the nation, and a few into the new abode with her and Sophia and Fowler. For instance, 1 hat — she jerked the stick towards the conversation piece above the fireplace.
“I’m glad,” Laura said, “I always loved that one.”
“Peregrine was fond of it,”Airs. Cranmer said.
The two ladies, sisters perhaps, one in sea-green satin, the other in flounces of yellow satin, conversed with the gentleman with the gun while, in the background, a little Negro boy played with a tremendous parrot in a cage. Over the three faces, blooming as though they could have downed a leg of mutton apiece without any trouble, and the grinning turbaned face of the little Negro, played the rich, soaking light of the long English afternoon, which had seemed as though it would last forever.
And the next thing would be. Airs. Cranmer said, the boys would move in.
“You won’t hear them, round in the stables wing,” Helen said, “it should be quiet.”
“I don’t mind if I do,” Airs. Cranmer said. “1 like boys. There always used to be dozens of boys round 1 he place, Edward — you and your friends, and Robert’s and Henry’s.”
“It will be like old times for you,” Helen said, “with hundreds of Edwards, darling, dozens of Roberts and Henrys.” She smiled, stroking the little Chinese dog’s ears.
“Come along and I’ll show you the flat, Laura,” Mrs. Cranmer said, groping for her stick and heaving herself out of the chair. She took Laura’s arm; Edward and Helen strolled after them. At the door Laura glanced back at Aliss Cranmer, who had been left sitting in the corner of the velvet sofa. She did not seem to notice their departure. She was staring into space, her hands folded in her lap, her head twitching now and then like a dog who dreams. Her small figure looked lost in the great glowing room, swimming in the light of the summer afternoon. The group over the fireplace gazed down at her with wcll-fcd, amiable arrogance, declaring that they were English ladies and gentlemen who would forever inherit the earth. Thus should life be, they said, the green garden and the trout rising in the river, the white hand curled against the sea-green silk, the dead wild duck dangling, the jolly little slave crouching beside the cage of the huge flaunting crimson and yellow bird. Thus will life always be, stated their healthy confident faces. But in a minute there was nobody in the room but Aunt Sophia.
LADDERS stood against the stables wall. A painter’s white coat hung on a hook, melancholy with the queer human sadness of the abandoned possession which says in a fold, or in the limp curved fingers of a dropped glove, Aou have deserted me. The workmen had gone home to tea. As Mrs. Cranmer had said, the sunlight flooded into these rooms. Her stick pointed this way and that — here the family group with the parrot, here her desk, a big one, for she still dealt with much of the estate business herself. She liked boys, her nurseries had always been strewn with lead soldiers and toy railway tracks. And she had continued to prefer, guessed Laura, the conversation of men. She missed the Canadian officers who had been stationed in the house, she said. Such interesting, fine young men, they had dined with her every Thursday, and drunk her cellar dry — heavens, how Fowler had detested them! She would still en joy going down to one of the farms and standing talking to Dummer or Stokes in the rain. She would enjoy sitting at the big solid desk, going over accounts with the bailiff. There was something masculine about her, Laura thought, the authority of one who had always been accustomed to make the decisions. She looked around, up and down, observant beneath the heavy lids.
“We shall be pretty snug here,” she said indifferently. The pigeons cooed and cooed, plushy and thick in their throats. A board creaked under her weight as she stumped down the stairs. Budge had promised, she said, to have the bath in by the end of the week. Everything waited for the bath, it was impossible to move in without that. Yet when she had first married, there was only one bathroom in the whole house, and they had managed very comfortably. “ People are cleaner today,” she said, “but I don’t know that I like them any better.”
“That old rascal Budge,” she said. He knew what he wanted, he would end by buying up all Weakling. She sounded amused. She and Budge, Laura thought with surprise, would get on very well indeed. Now about that little matter of the bath, Mr. Budge would say confidentially. He would not be scared of her, as Pratt and the rest of the men were scared, standing turning and turning their caps in their hands, looking hangdog and chapfallen. He would size her up quickly with his small bloodshot eyes, keeping a flat thumb on his foot rule as though about to measure how far he could go, to chip the surface with a grubby nail and find out if it was only veneer or the solid old stuff which, after all, he would have to admire. Like a cocky little bird, waxed, ruffling, wonderfully insolent, he would stand his ground before her. We all ’ave to wait our turns now, madam. Even Mrs. Cranmer of Cranmer Manor, owing to the admirable sideslip which the world has now taken, must wait her turn like the rest, his bloodshot little eye would say. It would satisfy some deep emotion located beneath the festooned watch chain, to remember that his father had been a bricklayer, his mother a servant girl, he had often gone hungry in his youth, but here he was rising, rising, a handsome new villa bought for himself the other day, more land being added bit by bit, and he stood on the faded Aubusson cabbage roses with his legs apart, telling Mrs. Peregrine Cranmer that she must wait her turn with the rest. And yet he would like her, he would respect her. Some urbanity which he did not quite understand, some calm but smiling obtuseness over the situation asjhe saw it, would leave him feeling vaguely as though she, after all, had done him the favor. They would part with mutual liking and heightened colors, thinking The old rascal, the old battle-axe.
Marrying that good-looking daughter-in-law of the Trumpers, so she had heard, said Mrs. Cranmer. They were out in the flagged yard, passing the empty boxes and the coach house, where a door stood ajar on canary and black paint, spidery shafts tilted upwards. And she would understand that too, felt Laura. She would never undervalue worldly success, not she. She would have no patience with Mrs. Herriot’s hyperfastidious attitude towards money, as something to be enjoyed but not mentioned, which fell naturally as the gentle dew from heaven upon the honorable recipients beneath. To Airs. Cranmer, a bargain was a bargain, and she could be shrewd as an old peasant calculating the value of a cow.
“An excellent thing,” she said reasonably. Money was not to be sneezed at. Indeed no! They had come again to the front of the house. There was no sign of Edward and Helen. Mrs. Cranmer stood for a moment, her hand resting against a mossy urn, looking silently down the broad ride towards the oddly Eastern little pyramid in the park, and beyond it to the great massive trees and the parklike English fields. Everything was so still, the clatter of some farm machine a couple of miles away sounded near.
“I always thought that if the Germans had come, I’d have had a good view from here,” Mrs. Cranmer said.
“What ages ago that seems,” Laura said.
All that summer, in memory, had seemed to he like this one day, burning, blazing. The calm, gentlemanly voice on the wireless had said this and that. Paris fell, the Germans were in Paris, and she stood with a basket picking peas, calmly picking fat green peas. Victoria ran about in a little bathing suit with an anchor embroidered on its bib, watering her own toes with a small red watering can. Everything was burning, blazing, but she stood mechanically pulling the fresh, creaking pods off the rows, thinking. I’ll hate these things all my life. But she did not. She adored them, and had frequently picked them since without a thought.
“What would have happened.?” Mrs. Cranmer mused. “ I often wonder. I suppose it would have been disastrous. But I should have liked —”
What would she have liked ? Laura wondered as she did not go on. To do something violently active, instead of sit ting at the head of the long table, crying How are you getting on, Mrs. Prout? It was possible to imagine Mrs. Cranmer in another age, directing the heating of boiling water, heaving rocks over the battlements, even stumping out herself with the troops. Yes, she would have liked that ! But she had been tied helplessly to her corner of the big decaying house, over which the German planes grumbled every night, peaceful and regular as a line of buses, scorning it, going on to drop t heir loads on the cities. She had never had even that taste of danger.
And she had sewed so atrociously at her working parties, handling the work with the awkwardness of the woman who had never in her life been asked to sew on a button, and whose tastes ran naturally to walking across turnip fields in the rain, or to getting down on all fours under a tangle of little boys on her nursery floor. But to this clumsiness, she had added a sort of fierceness of her own, frowning, jabbing the needle hack and forth as though she hated the innocent pajama coat, hated this sitting here blah-blah-ing with a pack of women while England was fighting for her life. Take this, take that, accursed fate which found me old and a woman, had flashed Mrs. Cranmer’s needle. My God, Honor Farleigh used to groan as she packed the parcels to be sent to the depot in Bridbury, this must be one of hers! We can’t — we really can’t send such a frightful — And Mrs. Vyner would roll it up and pop it in her bag, to take home and unpick and remake Mrs. Cranmer’s sampler of fury with the fates.
She stood looking at the view, unpossessively, seeming to appraise like a casual tourist who never expected to come this way again. And already the house, thought Laura, had an impersonal look. It seemed to say, I have no more secrets, I shall have no more stories. Visitors to Weakling, driving along the lower road from which one could see Cranmer standing lovely above the water meadows, would ask their host intelligently What is that? instead of Who lives there? For so obviously its personal life had ended, it would resound in future with the cheerful echoing noises of collective living, the sound of a great Amen, the clatter of forty feeding as one. Who wrote that? Laura wondered absently. She could not remember. Her mind was a rag bag, in which scraps of forgotten brightness, odd bits of purple and gold, were hopelessly mixed up with laundry lists and recipes for doing something quick and unconvincingly delicious with dried egg. You used, her mother would say reproachfully, to be so well up in things. Soon I must read some good books, she thought, I must keep awake in the evenings long enough to read some poetry again.
But when she turned back to Mrs. Cranmer, a stout old woman without beauty or grace or fashion, for some reason she began to think quite naturally in poetical images, she saw Mrs. Cranmer standing reassuring as a rock or a tower in (he frightening uncertainty of everything which could turn her stomach to black water as she bicycled along on a fine summer day. The position in Trieste clung to the wet fish skin, Stephen frowned as they sat together listening to the wireless speaking suavely of alarming things, but Mrs. Cranmer, by simply standing screwing up her eyes at a view, seemed to say, Be not afeard. How did that go? Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises — something of that kind, in her silence and the lift of her head, Mrs. Cranmer contrived to say. The fancy only lasted a second. She moved, she became once more a stout old woman limping slowly back towards the great, house which appeared to be drifting away, away, a deserted ship with its portholes blind, its chimneys smokeless, across the deep blue of the sky.
(To be concluded)