by H. E. BATES
FROM the calm of her place under the acacia tree, on the swinging canopy seat, Mrs. Fairfax listened with growing impatience to the loud chock of croquet, balls cracking the silence of afternoon, each stroke like the chime of a wooden clock setting off peals of senseless and exhausting laughter. She did not know how anyone, even the young, could be so energetic or so furiously amused in the three o’clock heat of July.
“Children — please! Couldn’t you please? Melanie! — Fay! — couldn’t you please shout a little less? It sounds like a madhouse — please!”
She supposed that if they could hear her they were taking no notice. Or if they were taking no notice it was because of that old habit of hers of calling them children when they were nineteen and twenty.
“Fay—don’t shriek like that.! I won’t have that shrieking. Melanie — stop her!”
She thought there was nothing so irritating in girls as shrieking. It was worse too because the shrieking sounded like something disembodied, terribly pointless. She was cut off from the main lawn of the house by a semicircular bank of azaleas and guelder-rose, so that she could not see the figures of her daughters and the three young men. She did not think she had ever been allowed to shriek like that as a girl. It irritated her exactly as if someone had started to fire off rockets in midafter noon.
“I shall have to stop it. I shall go and speak to them. I won’t have that sort of thing.”
Then she remembered that going to speak to them would be awkward because she had suggested croquet herself. She had remembered, after lunch, the old croquet box in the stable loft. It struck her as being just the sort of quiet and companionable game that did not require energy on hot afternoons and she thought that perhaps it would keep them out of mischief.
For the same reason she had invited three young men to lunch instead of two. That was also companionable. She wanted her daughters to have companions. She was not after all so very old herself, not so very far removed from the time when those things filled your head. But children grew up so quickly. They flashed through childhood. They whisked through adolescence into young womanhood and you did not know where you were. You felt you did not know at times what was best for them.
before lunch Melanie for instance had made a great fuss about wearing a dress from last summer. Mrs. Fairfax thought it an enchanting dress; she thought it made her daughter look like a young fresh flower. There was something budlike and tender about it but lhe child had suddenly thrown an exhausting tantrum up in her bedroom and said she wouldn’t be seen dead in it for her or anybody.
“You will wear it and like it,” Mrs. Fairfax said. “Don’t be so tiresome. It fits just as well as ever. You haven’t grown a scrap.”
“Fay has a new one on. You bought it for her. If Fay can, why can’t I?”
“Fay’s that much older than you. She’s grown out of hers. That’s why.”
It ended in a strange thing happening and she supposed it was that which had begun her irritation. Melanie had not come down to lunch in the fresh, flowerlike dress that Mrs. Fairfax liked so much and thought was so right for her. She had put on the last thing for a scorching summer day. It was a shining bottle-green dress of Fay’s that was too severe at the neck and far too drawn-in at the waist, and until she saw it Mrs. Fairfax had not realized how alarmingly and fully her child had grown. The girl had done her hair differently too, in a high severe style that made her look, Mrs. Fairfax thought, old and false and sophisticated.
Then Fay appeared in a dress that, at first, Mrs. Fairfax did not recognize. She became aware only slowly of its uneasy familiarity. It was not until she was actually sitting at the lunch table that she grasped that this was the new dress: the white summer organdy that had been so fresh and youthful with its wide crinkled collar and cuffs to match. Now it had a broad black velvet waistband and the collar had been taken away, leaving all the soft wide shoulders bare.
In perplexed annoyance Mrs. Fairfax remembered she had chosen the dress herself. It was young and sweet for Fay, who was after all only a month over twenty. Now it looked — it was rather difficult to say — indelicate somehow — perhaps not exactly indelicate; there was rather something aggressive and obvious about it, something uneasily willful about the nakedness that should not have been there.
She was so upset that she looked severely at Fay and said, “Don’t go out into the sun without putting something on your shoulders, child. You’ll suffer for it if you don’t. You burn so easily.”
“I never burn. I’ve never burned in my life,” Fay said.
“There’s always a first time. You don’t want to be sick, child, do you? It’s terribly hot today.”
After lunch she said to Mr. Fairfax, who had a pipe in one hand and a paper in the other and was kicking off his shoes in the bedroom with relief before lying on the bed, “Did you notice Fay’s dress ?“
“What about it?” he said. “Isn’t it the one she always wears?”
“She’d taken the collar off.”
“Well, I can hardly blame her,” he said, and began laughing with short puffing froglike grunts at the joke he made. “I wanted to take mine off. And would have done for two pins.”
“You never notice anything,” she said. “I don’t believe you’d notice if they turned black, would you ? ”
“I did notice,” Mr. Fairfax said. “I thought they both looked stunning and I don’t wonder the boys are after them.”
“I suppose that’s all you ever think about,” she said.
That was why she had taken her book and her spectacles and gone off alone to sit under the reclusive calm of the acacia tree, irritated about things and not realizing, until the wooden chock of croquet balls began to scrape more and more harshly on her nerves, how vulgar the sound of shrieking could be in the hot still afternoon.
“You really must stop it!” she said. She lifted her voice at last in a spurt of anger, “Can’t you play quietly for a change?”
Then she realized, slowly, and at first with unbelief, that there was not a sound in the afternoon. The air above the tall acacia tree was not strong enough to quiver the smallest leaves. Coming down so suddenly, after the shrieking and the laughter, the silence had a creepiness about it. She actually heard a bird scratching at dry earth, among summer-burned leaves, under the bushes of guelderrose, a small obsessional sound of tiny claws searching in shadow that awoke in her, almost before she was aware of it, new sources of irritation.
Now what had happened? Now where had everyone disappeared to? Now what were they up to?
For some moments she listened for the sound of laughter and felt alone, then deserted, without it. She missed the shrieking figures and wondered if, in silence, they were up to mischief. It was the surest thing when children were quiet.
In uneasiness she tried to peer first over, then half under, the canopy seat, searching for the movement of figures through the lower branches of the shrubbery of acacia and guelder-rose. But it was no use; there was nothing there to see. She lay back comfortlessly on the cushions, staring up at the hot blue sky quivering above the acacia tree, listening again. She supposed it was stupid to fret about these things, but she could not help thinking that there was something ominous about a silence created so abruptly out of pandemonium. All the time, the bird continued its creepy clawing among withered leaves, the sound giving the whole afternoon a queer sort of secrecy that she mistrusted —exactly as if things were going on behind her back.
She wondered again what on earth they were doing — and then in a flash she remembered Melanie’s tightened dress and the bare, inviting shoulders of Fay. A vision of startling events in the shade of remote trees flashed through her mind, sending the blood wobbling through her veins in repeated stabs of panic. She knew that that was what her husband would call a flap, but she could not help flapping when she thought of such things. And she wished suddenly that the children were children again — undeveloped, uninviting, uncomplicated, and all that sort of thing. When they were younger, she thought, you did not suffer for them half so much.
It was in a final effort towards calmness, towards being rational, that she lay full length on the seat. The toes of her shoes clung to her feet by the tips and presently one of them fell off, dropping down on the lawn, as she moved on the canopy.
A moment or two later she was aware of an increasing mistrust of the silence of afternoon. The creeping sound of the bird in its obsessional scratching among leaves seemed to be growing louder.
It seemed also to be coming nearer. And suddenly she was aware of it under the very corner of the canopy. She saw that it belonged to the tousled dark head of a young man who was crawling almost underneath her on his hands and knees.
“Oh! my God,” he said.
He was already holding her shoe in his hand.
“I’m terribly sorry, Mrs. Fairfax,” he was saying, and as he opened his mouth, astonished, almost, shocked, she noticed quickly how handsome the level lines of his teeth were. They were quite perfectly placed between the wide bronze-red opening of the lips, she thought.
“What on earth are you supposed to be doing?” she said.
“I thought you were Fay,” he said.
“What ever made you think I was Fay?”
“You’re such a lot like her,” he said, “and I thought she came this way.”
He began to try to put the shoe on the canopy seat without her noticing it and she said, “What were you going to do if I was Fay?” and then smiled in a clumsy effort of friendliness because the question was, after all, she thought, perfectly stupid.
“Oh! we’re having a game,” he said. “It’s a sort of treasure game. You have to find so many things in a given time.”
“Such as shoes,” she said.
“A shoe was one.”
“And what else?”
Perhaps because he was still kneeling on the grass, perhaps because both her feet were now shoeless, he seemed more embarrassed than ever. “Oh! a clothespin,” he said, and he hesitated so much before the next of his things that she had suddenly an idea he was making them up. “Then a collar stud. That was for the girls.”
“Oh! it was different for the girls, was it?”
“It has to be,” he said. “It’s more fun.”
“You look terribly hot,” she said. “It would do you much more good to rest. How far had you got? What had you foundi”
“I’d got the clothespin and the shoe — well, I thought I had,” he said, and again she saw the smile, perfect and handsome in the startling whiteness of its expanse between dark lips.
She did not know if young men were really any better looking these days than they used to be, but suddenly she drew her feet up towards her and said, “Wouldn’t you like to sit down on the canopy? You look so hot and uncomfortable down there.”
“Oh! I don’t want to disturb you —”
“Not disturbing. Sit down and cool off a bit.”
He sat down and began almost at once, unconsciously, with regular motions of one foot, to swing the canopy up and down.
After some moments of that sensation, so delicious and soothing that she wanted to shut her eyes, she said, “You didn’t finish telling me what the girls had to find.”
“We’re really not supposed to know,” he said. “That’s the idea. The other side doesn’t know what you’re after.”
“Then how did you know about the collar stud”
“That was the first, thing Fay got from me,” he said.
The swinging of the canopy made the top of the acacia tree rock with heady gentleness against the sky. The sensation it woke in her body, the thinnest of thrills down through an exquisitely delicate central vein, reminded her of a swing on which she had played, under a big crusty pear tree, as a child.
At first you don’t go very high, she thought, and then you want to go higher and higher — higher and higher all the time, until —
“I’d forgotten what you were saying,” she said. “Oh! yes I know — you wore telling me the next thing Fay had to find.”
“Oh! it was a hit silly.”
He did not answer and immediately she was aware of his swinging the canopy more strongly, out of sheer nervousness this time. She looked at his dark fare and saw it averted and she suddenly felt, as she was often fond of saying, intrigued. Her mind gave an excited ripple and she said, “I believe you daren’t tell me.”
“Well, it isn’t that. It’s, well — you know how stupid things sound—”
“Oh! I’m quite grown up.”
In a new spasm of nervousness he swung the canopy higher, so that she felt an almost painful need to laugh. The prancing gaiety of the sound she made, though quite small, was enough to make him laugh too, and he said, “Well, if you must know, it was a hair off my chest —”
“Oh! what a thing to think of!” She began laughing in spite of herself, partly because under the sensation of the swinging canopy she could not control it, partly as a small protection against being shocked. She supposed she really ought to have been shocked at something like that, but in an odd way the swinging of the canopy lifted the sensation of shock and bore it far away.
“And who ever thought of that?” she said.
“I think it was Melanie.”
The swing of the canopy was so strong, reminding her so much in its double sensation of soothing and excitement of her pear-tree swing as a child, that she could not even be shocked at the thought of Melanie.
“And what about the rest of the things you had to find?”
“Most of them sound stupid too.”
She felt him give the canopy a new and deliberate push with his foot; but this time, she thought, not through nervousness — rather defiantly, with a touch of cooler abandonment, instead.
“A shoe was one. Then there were one or two silly things — the clothespin, then a buckle. Then a strap, any sort of strap. Then something white. Then something silk —”
What a stupid game, she thought. It sounded quite crazy. She wanted to ask him if they had points and how you knew when one side had won, but she asked instead, “What were you doing for the silk one?”
“I thought you’d say that,” she said, “I knew you’d say that — ”
Under the small, thrilling sensation of the swinging canopy she was laughing quite openly now, not so much amused as in sheer exhilaration. Higher and higher, she thought, all the time higher and higher, as she had done when a child, until you were one, as it were, with the sky, until —
“Hadn’t you better get your stocking?" she said.
“Oh! I’ve had it now,” he said. “They’ll have been too fast for me.”
“You mean you’ve lost?”
She felt she almost heard him give an inward groan about something as he shoved forward with his foot, swinging the canopy hard, his eyes fixed on the ground without a smile.
“Oh! nonsense,” she said. “You can’t have done. You don’t know how difficult the others found it. You may win yet.”
“Well, it isn’t exactly winning—”
“Oh! you must win,” she said. “Take my shoe —”
A start of exhilaration drove away the last of her reticence. She felt a long vein of laughter start deep down in her body and ripple up through her throat.
“Here, you can take this too —”
He turned in time to see her rolling down her stocking, slipping it swiftly over her foot.
“Oh! no, Mrs. Fairfax. I don’t, really—”
“Go on!” she said. “Take it. Start running. Get there—”
“I think it’s too late —”
“Oh! don’t be silly, it’s never too late,” she said.
With a thrill she threw the stocking at him. He caught it clumsily in both hands as he got up from the canopy and she said, “And the shoe too! Don’t forget the shoe!”
The sudden motion of his reluctant body as he got up, taking shoe and stocking with him, gave the canopy its final swing. It swung her, this time, higher than ever, and in that delicious moment she did not look after him. She looked up instead at the sky and at the swaying acacia tree, laughing to herself and letting the canopy swing to its long rest, thinking:
“What a nice boy. How silly to be playing that game,” and then, as the canopy swung less and less, “Dying, dying, dying down,” in the same blissful way she remembered as a child.
It was only when the canopy was nearly motionless that she remembered to put out her foot and start it swinging again. The grass was cool on the naked sole of her foot. The boughs of the acacia tree seemed to sway in exact time with her body. The shade of the tree embalmed her exquisitely, alone but no longer deserted, and out in the hot still sunlight there was now a new sound of voices, hunting for their treasure.