As the wooded hills closed about me I stood up in the car to take the bearings of that great Down whose ringed head is a landmark for fifty miles across the low countries. I judged that the lie of the country would bring me across some westward running road that went to his feet, but I did not allow for the confusing veils of the woods. A quick turn plunged me first into a green cutting brimful of liquid sunshine, next into a gloomy tunnel where last year’s dead leaves whispered and scuffled about my tyres. The strong hazel stuff meeting overhead had not been cut for a couple of generations at least, nor had any axe helped the moss-cankered oak and beech to spring above them. Here the road changed frankly into a carpeted ride on whose brown velvet spent primrose-clumps showed like jade, and a few sickly, white-stalked blue-bells nodded together. As the slope favoured I shut off the power and slid over the whirled leaves, expecting every moment to meet a keeper; but I only heard a jay, far off, arguing against the silence under the twilight of the trees.
Still the track descended. I was on the point of reversing and working my way back on the second speed ere I ended in some swamp, when I saw sunshine through the tangle ahead and lifted the brake.
It was down again at once. As the light beat across my face my fore-wheels took the turf of a great still lawn from which sprang horsemen ten feet high with levelled lances, monstrous peacocks, and sleek round-headed maids of honour—blue, black, and glistening—all of clipped yew. Across the lawn—the marshalled woods besieged it on three sides—stood an ancient house of lichened and weather-worn stone, with mullioned windows and roofs of rose-red tile. It was flanked by semi-circular walls, also rose-red, that closed the lawn on the fourth side, and at their feet a box hedge grew man-high. There were doves on the roof about the slim brick chimneys, and I caught a glimpse of an octagonal dove-house behind the screening wall.
Here, then, I stayed; a horseman’s green spear laid at my breast; held by the exceeding beauty of that jewel in that setting.
“If I am not packed off for a trespasser, or if this knight does not ride a wallop at me,” thought I, “Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth at least must come out of that half-open garden door and ask me to tea.”
A child appeared at an upper window, and I thought the little thing waved a friendly hand. But it was to call a companion, for presently another bright head showed. Then I heard a laugh among the yew-peacocks, and turning to make sure (till then I had been watching the house only) I saw the silver of a fountain behind a hedge thrown up against the sun. The doves on the roof cooed to the cooing water; but between the two notes I caught the utterly happy chuckle of a child absorbed in some light mischief.
The garden door—heavy oak sunk deep in the thickness of the wall—opened further: a woman in a big garden hat set her foot slowly on the time-hollowed stone step and as slowly walked across the turf. I was forming some apology when she lifted up her head and I saw that she was blind.
“I heard you,” she said. “Isn’t that a motor car?”
“I’m afraid I’ve made a mistake in my road. I should have turned off up above—I never dreamed——” I began.
“But I’m very glad. Fancy a motor car coming into the garden! It will be such a treat——” She turned and made as though looking about her. “You—you haven’t seen any one, have you—perhaps?”
“No one to speak to, but the children seemed interested at a distance.”
“I saw a couple up at the window just now, and I think I heard a little chap in the grounds.”
“Oh, lucky you!” she cried, and her face brightened. “I hear them, of course, but that’s all. You’ve seen them and heard them?”
“Yes,” I answered. “And if I know anything of children one of them’s having a beautiful time by the fountain yonder. Escaped, I should imagine.”
“You’re fond of children?”
I gave her one or two reasons why I did not altogether hate them.
“Of course, of course,” she said. “Then you understand. Then you won’t think it foolish if I ask you to take your car through the gardens, once or twice—quite slowly. I’m sure they’d like to see it. They see so little, poor things. One tries to make their life pleasant, but——” she threw out her hands towards the woods. “We’re so out of the world here.”
“That will be splendid,” I said. “But I can’t cut up your grass.”
She faced to the right. “Wait a minute,” she said. “We’re at the South gate, aren’t we? Behind those peacocks there’s a flagged path. We call it the Peacock’s Walk. You can’t see it from here, they tell me, but if you squeeze along by the edge of the wood you can turn at the first peacock and get on to the flags.”
It was sacrilege to wake that dreaming house-front with the clatter of machinery, but I swung the car to clear the turf, brushed along the edge of the wood and turned in on the broad stone path where the fountain-basin lay like one star-sapphire.
“May I come too?” she cried. “No, please don’t help me. They’ll like it better if they see me.”
She felt her way lightly to the front of the car, and with one foot on the step she called: “Children, oh, children! Look and see what’s going to happen!”
The voice would have drawn lost souls from the Pit, for the yearning that underlay its sweetness, and I was not surprised to hear an answering shout behind the yews. It must have been the child by the fountain, but he fled at our approach, leaving a little toy boat in the water. I saw the glint of his blue blouse among the still horsemen.
Very disposedly we paraded the length of the walk and at her request backed again. This time the child had got the better of his panic, but stood far off and doubting.
“The little fellow’s watching us,” I said. “I wonder if he’d like a ride.”
“They’re very shy still. Very shy. But, oh, lucky you to be able to see them! Let’s listen.”
I stopped the machine at once, and the humid stillness, heavy with the scent of box, cloaked us deep. Shears I could hear where some gardener was clipping; a mumble of bees and broken voices that might have been the doves.
“Oh, unkind!” she said weariedly.
“Perhaps they’re only shy of the motor. The little maid at the window looks tremendously interested.”
“Yes?” She raised her head. “It was wrong of me to say that. They are really fond of me. It’s the only thing that makes life worth living—when they’re fond of you, isn’t it? I daren’t think what the place would be without them. By the way, is it beautiful?”
“I think it is the most beautiful place I have ever seen.”
“So they all tell me. I can feel it, of course, but that isn’t quite the same thing.”
“Then have you never?——” I began, but stopped abashed.
“Not since I can remember. It happened when I was only a few months old, they tell me. And yet I must remember something, else how could I dream about colours? I see light in my dreams, and colours, but I never see them. I only hear them just as I do when I’m awake.”
“It’s difficult to see faces in dreams. Some people can, but most of us haven’t the gift,” I went on, looking up at the window where the child stood all but hidden.
“I’ve heard that too,” she said. “And they tell me that one never sees a dead person’s face in a dream. Is that true?”
“I believe it is—now I come to think of it.”
“But how is it with yourself—yourself?” The blind eyes turned towards me.
“I have never seen the faces of my dead in any dream,” I answered.
“Then it must be as bad as being blind.”
The sun had dipped behind the woods and the long shades were possessing the insolent horsemen one by one. I saw the light die from off the top of a glossy-leaved lance and all the brave hard green turn to soft black. The house, accepting another day at end, as it had accepted an hundred thousand gone, seemed to settle deeper into its rest among the shadows.
“Have you ever wanted to?” she said after the silence.
“Very much sometimes,” I replied. The child had left the window as the shadows closed upon it.
“Ah! So’ve I, but I don’t suppose it’s allowed. . . . Where d’you live?”
“Quite the other side of the county—sixty miles and more, and I must be going back. I’ve come without my big lamp.”
“But it’s not dark yet. I can feel it.”
“I’m afraid it will be by the time I get home. Could you lend me some one to set me on my road at first? I’ve utterly lost myself.”
“I’ll send Madden with you to the cross-roads. We are so out of the world, I don’t wonder you were lost! I’ll guide you round to the front of the house; but you will go slowly, won’t you, till you’re out of the grounds? It isn’t foolish, do you think?”
“I promise you I’ll go like this,” I said, and let the car start herself down the flagged path.
We skirted the left wing of the house, whose elaborately cast lead guttering alone was worth a day’s journey; passed under a great rose-grown gate in the red wall, and so round to the high front of the house which in beauty and stateliness as much excelled the back as that all others I had seen.
“Is it so very beautiful?” she said wistfully when she heard my raptures. “And you like the lead-figures too? There’s the old azalea garden behind. They say that this place must have been made for children. Will you help me out, please? I should like to come with you as far as the cross-roads, but I mustn’t leave them. Is that you, Madden? I want you to show this gentleman the way to the cross-roads. He has lost his way but—he has seen them.”
A butler appeared noiselessly at the miracle of old oak that must be called the front door, and slipped aside to put on his hat. She stood looking at me with open blue eyes in which no sight lay, and I saw for the first time that she was beautiful.
“Remember,” she said quietly, “if you are fond of them you will come again,” and disappeared within the house.
The butler in the car said nothing till we were nearly at the lodge gates, where, catching a glimpse of a blue blouse in a shrubbery, I swerved amply lest the devil that leads little boys to play should drag me into child-murder.
“Excuse me,” he asked of a sudden, “but why did you do that, Sir?”
“The child yonder.”
“Our young gentleman in blue?”
“He runs about a good deal. Did you see him by the fountain, Sir?”
“Oh, yes, several times. Do we turn here?”
“Yes, Sir. And did you ’appen to see them upstairs too?”
“At the upper window? Yes.”
“Was that before the mistress come out to speak to you, Sir?”
“A little before that. Why d’you want to know?”
He paused a little. “Only to make sure that—that they had seen the car, Sir, because with children running about, though I’m sure you’re driving particularly careful, there might be an accident. That was all, Sir. Here are the cross-roads. You can’t miss your way from now on. Thank you, Sir, but that isn’t our custom, not with——”
“I beg your pardon,” I said, and thrust away the British silver.
“Oh, it’s quite right with the rest of ’em as a rule. Good-bye, Sir.”
He retired into the armour-plated conning tower of his caste and walked away. Evidently a butler solicitous for the honour of his house, and interested, probably through a maid, in the nursery.
Once beyond the signposts at the cross-roads I looked back, but the crumpled hills interlaced so jealously that I could not see where the house had lain. When I asked its name at a cottage along the road, the fat woman who sold sweetmeats there gave me to understand that people with motor cars had small right to live—much less to “go about talking like carriage folk.” They were not a pleasant-mannered community.
When I retraced my route on the map that evening I was little wiser. Hawkin’s Old Farm appeared to be the survey title of the place, and the old County Gazetteer, generally so ample, did not allude to it. The big house of those parts was Hodnington Hall, Georgian with early Victorian embellishments, as an atrocious steel engraving attested. I carried my difficulty to a neighbour—a deep-rooted tree of that soil—and he gave me a name of a family which conveyed no meaning.
A month or so later—I went again, or it may have been that my car took the road of her own volition. She over-ran the fruitless Downs, threaded every turn of the maze of lanes below the hills, drew through the high-walled woods, impenetrable in their full leaf, came out at the cross-roads where the butler had left me, and a little further on developed an internal trouble which forced me to turn her in on a grass way-waste that cut into a summer-silent hazel wood. So far as I could make sure by the sun and a six-inch Ordnance map, this should be the road flank of that wood which I had first explored from the heights above. I made a mighty serious business of my repairs and a glittering shop of my repair kit, spanners, pump, and the like, which I spread out orderly upon a rug. It was a trap to catch all childhood, for on such a day, I argued, the children would not be far off. When I paused in my work I listened, but the wood was so full of the noises of summer (though the birds had mated) that I could not at first distinguish these from the tread of small cautious feet stealing across the dead leaves. I rang my bell in an alluring manner, but the feet fled, and I repented, for to a child a sudden noise is very real terror. I must have been at work half an hour when I heard in the wood the voice of the blind woman crying: “Children, oh, children, where are you?” and the stillness made slow to close on the perfection of that cry. She came towards me, half feeling her way between the tree-boles, and though a child, it seemed, clung to her skirt, it swerved into the leafage like a rabbit as she drew nearer.
“Is that you?” she said, “from the other side of the county?”
“Yes, it’s me from the other side of the county.”
“Then why didn’t you come through the upper woods? They were there just now.”
“They were here a few minutes ago. I expect they knew my car had broken down, and came to see the fun.”
“Nothing serious, I hope? How do cars break down?”
“In fifty different ways. Only mine has chosen the fifty-first.”
She laughed merrily at the tiny joke, cooed with delicious laughter, and pushed her hat back.
“Let me hear,” she said.
“Wait a moment,” I cried, “and I’ll get you a cushion.”
She set her foot on the rug all covered with spare parts, and stooped above it eagerly. “What delightful things!” The hands through which she saw glanced in the chequered sunlight. “A box here—another box! Why you’ve arranged them like playing shop!”
“I confess now that I put it out to attract them. I don’t need half those things really.”
“How nice of you! I heard your bell in the upper wood. You say they were here before that?”
“I’m sure of it. Why are they so shy? That little fellow in blue who was with you just now ought to have got over his fright. He’s been watching me like a Red Indian.”
“It must have been your bell,” she said. “I heard one of them go past me in trouble when I was coming down. They’re shy—so shy even with me.” She turned her face over her shoulder and cried again: “Children! Oh, children! Look and see!”
“They must have gone off together on their own affairs,” I suggested, for there was a murmur behind us of lowered voices broken by the sudden squeaking giggles of childhood. I returned to my tinkerings and she leaned forward, her chin on her hand, listening interestedly.
“How many are they?” I said at last. The work was finished, but I saw no reason to go.
Her forehead puckered a little in thought. “I don’t quite know,” she said simply. “Sometimes more—sometimes less. They come and stay with me because I love them, you see.”
“That must be very jolly,” I said, replacing a drawer, and as I spoke I heard the inanity of my answer.
“You—you aren’t laughing at me,” she cried. “I—I haven’t any of my own. I never married. People laugh at me sometimes about them because—because —”
“Because they’re savages,” I returned. “It’s nothing to fret for. That sort laugh at everything that isn’t in their own fat lives.”
“I don’t know. How should I? I only don’t like being laughed at about them. It hurts; and when one can’t see. . . . I don’t want to seem silly,” her chin quivered like a child’s as she spoke, “but we blindies have only one skin, I think. Everything outside hits straight at our souls. It’s different with you. You’ve such good defences in your eyes—looking out—before any one can really pain you in your soul. People forget that with us.”
I was silent, reviewing that inexhaustible matter—the more than inherited (since it is also carefully taught) brutality of the Christian peoples, beside which the mere heathendom of the West Coast nigger is clean and restrained. It led me a long distance into myself.
“Don’t do that!” she said of a sudden, putting her hands before her eyes.
She made a gesture with her hand.
“That! It’s—it’s all purple and black. Don’t! That colour hurts.”
“But how in the world do you know about colours?” I exclaimed, for here was a revelation indeed.
“Colours as colours?” she asked.
“No. Those Colours which you saw just now.”
“You know as well as I do,” she laughed, “else you wouldn’t have asked that question. They aren’t in the world at all. They’re in you—when you went so angry.”
“D’you mean a dull purplish patch, like port-wine mixed with ink?” I said.
“I’ve never seen ink or port-wine, but the colours aren’t mixed. They are separate—all separate.”
“Do you mean black streaks and jags across the purple?”
She nodded. “Yes—if they are like this,” and zigzagged her finger again, “but it’s more red than purple—that bad colour.”
“And what are the colours at the top of the—whatever you see?”
Slowly she leaned forward and traced on the rug the figure of the Egg itself.
“I see them so,” she said, pointing with a grass stem, “white, green, yellow, red, purple, and when people are angry or bad, black across the red—as you were just now.”
“Who told you anything about it—in the beginning?” I demanded.
“About the colours? No one. I used to ask what colours were when I was little—in table-covers and curtains and carpets, you see—because some colours hurt me and some made me happy. People told me; and when I got older that was how I saw people.” Again she traced the outline of the Egg which it is given to very few of us to see.
“All by yourself?” I repeated.
“All by myself. There wasn’t any one else. I only found out afterwards that other people did not see the Colours.”
She leaned against the tree-bole plaiting and unplaiting chance-plucked grass stems. The children in the wood had drawn nearer. I could see them with the tail of my eye frolicking like squirrels.
“Now I am sure you will never laugh at me,” she went on after a long silence. “Nor at them.”
“Goodness! No!” I cried, jolted out of my train of thought. “A man who laughs at a child—unless the child is laughing too—is a heathen!”
“I didn’t mean that of course. You’d never laugh at children, but I thought—I used to think—that perhaps you might laugh about them. So now I beg your pardon. . . . What are you going to laugh at?”
I had made no sound, but she knew.
“At the notion of your begging my pardon. If you had done your duty as a pillar of the state and a landed proprietress you ought to have summoned me for trespass when I barged through your woods the other day. It was disgraceful of me—inexcusable.”
She looked at me, her head against the tree trunk—long and steadfastly—this woman who could see the naked soul.
“How curious,” she half whispered. “How very curious.”
“Why, what have I done?”
“You don’t understand . . . and yet you understood about the Colours. Don’t you understand?”
She spoke with a passion that nothing had justified, and I faced her bewilderedly as she rose. The children had gathered themselves in a roundel behind a bramble bush. One sleek head bent over something smaller, and the set of the little shoulders told me that fingers were on lips. They, too, had some child’s tremendous secret. I alone was hopelessly astray there in the broad sunlight.
“No,” I said, and shook my head as though the dead eyes could note. “Whatever it is, I don’t understand yet. Perhaps I shall later—if you’ll let me come again.”
“You will come again,” she answered. “You will surely come again and walk in the wood.”
“Perhaps the children will know me well enough by that time to let me play with them—as a favour. You know what children are like.”
“It isn’t a matter of favour but of right,” she replied, and while I wondered what she meant, a dishevelled woman plunged round the bend of the road, loose-haired, purple, almost lowing with agony as she ran. It was my rude, fat friend of the sweetmeat shop. The blind woman heard and stepped forward. “What is it, Mrs. Madehurst?” she asked.
The woman flung her apron over her head and literally grovelled in the dust, crying that her grandchild was sick to death, that the local doctor was away fishing, that Jenny the mother was at her wits’ end, and so forth, with repetitions and bellowings.
“Where’s the next nearest doctor?” I asked between paroxysms.
“Madden will tell you. Go round to the house and take him with you. I’ll attend to this. Be quick!” She half-supported the fat woman into the shade. In two minutes I was blowing all the horns of Jericho under the front of the House Beautiful, and Madden, in the pantry, rose to the crisis like a butler and a man.
A quarter of an hour at illegal speeds caught us a doctor five miles away. Within the half-hour we had decanted him, much interested in motors, at the door of the sweetmeat shop, and drew up the road to await the verdict.
“Useful things cars,” said Madden, all man and no butler. “If I’d had one when mine took sick she wouldn’t have died.”
“How was it?” I asked.
“Croup. Mrs. Madden was away. No one knew what to do. I drove eight miles in a tax cart for the Doctor. She was choked when we came back. This car ’d ha’ saved her. She’d have been close on ten now.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I thought you were rather fond of children from what you told me going to the cross-roads the other day.”
“Have you seen ’em again, Sir—this mornin’?”
“Yes, but they’re well broke to cars. I couldn’t get any of them within twenty yards of it.”
He looked at me carefully as a scout considers a stranger—not as a menial should lift his eyes to his divinely appointed superior.
“I wonder why,” he said just above the breath that he drew.
We waited on. A light wind from the sea wandered up and down the long lines of the woods, and the wayside grasses, whitened already with summer dust, rose and bowed in sallow waves.
A woman, wiping the suds off her arms, came out of the cottage next the sweetmeat shop.
“I’ve be’n listenin’ in de back-yard,” she said cheerily. “He says Arthur’s unaccountable bad. Did ye hear him shruck just now? Unaccountable bad. I reckon t’will come Jenny’s turn to walk in de wood nex’ week along, Mr. Madden.”
“Excuse me, Sir, but your lap-robe is slipping,” said Madden deferentially. The woman started, dropped a curtsey, and hurried away.
“What does she mean by ‘walking in the wood’?” I asked.
“It must be some saying they use hereabouts. I’m from Norfolk myself,” said Madden. “They’re an independent lot in this county. She took you for a chauffeur, Sir.”
I saw the Doctor come out of the cottage followed by a draggle-tailed wench who clung to his arm as though he could make treaty for her with Death. “Dat sort,” she wailed—“dey’re just as much to us dat has ’em as if dey was lawful born. Just as much—just as much! An’ God he’d be just as pleased if you saved ’un, Doctor. Don’t take it from me. Miss Florence will tell ye de very same. Don’t leave ’im, Doctor!”
“I know. I know,” said the man, “but he’ll be quiet for a while now. We’ll get the nurse and the medicine as fast as we can.” He signalled me to come forward with the car, and I strove not to be privy to what followed; but I saw the girl’s face, blotched and frozen with grief, and I felt the hand without a ring clutching at my knees when we moved away.
The Doctor was a man of some humour, for I remember he claimed my car under the Oath of Aesculapius, and used it and me without mercy. First we convoyed Mrs. Madehurst and the blind woman to wait by the sick-bed till the nurse should come. Next we invaded a neat county town for prescriptions (the Doctor said the trouble was cerebro-spinal meningitis), and when the County Institute, banked and flanked with scared market cattle, reported itself out of nurses, for the moment we literally flung ourselves loose upon the county. We conferred with the owners of great houses—magnates at the ends of overarching avenues whose big-boned womenfolk strode away from their tea-tables to listen to the imperious Doctor. At last a white-haired lady sitting under a cedar of Lebanon and surrounded by a court of magnificent Borzois—all hostile to motors—gave the Doctor, who received them as from a princess, written orders which we bore many miles at top speed, through a park, to a French nunnery, where we took over in exchange a pallid-faced and trembling Sister. She knelt at the bottom of the tonneau telling her beads without pause till, by short cuts of the Doctor’s invention, we had her to the sweetmeat shop once more. It was a long afternoon crowded with mad episodes that rose and dissolved like the dust of our wheels; cross-sections of remote and incomprehensible lives through which we raced at right angles; and I went home in the dusk, wearied out, to dream of the clashing horns of cattle; round-eyed nuns walking in a garden of graves; pleasant tea-parties beneath shaded trees; the carbolic-scented, grey-painted corridors of the County Institute; the steps of shy children in the wood, and the hands that clung to my knees as the motor began to move.
I had intended to return in a day or two, but it pleased Fate to hold me from that side of the county, on many pretexts, till the elder and the wild rose had fruited. There came at last a brilliant day, swept clear from the south-west, that brought the hills within hand’s reach—a day of unstable airs and high filmy clouds. Through no merit of my own I was free, and set the car for the third time on that known road. As I reached the crest of the Downs I felt the soft air change, saw it glaze under the sun; and, looking down at the sea, in that instant beheld the blue of the Channel turn through polished silver and dulled steel to dingy pewter. A laden collier hugging the coast steered outward for deeper water and, across copper-coloured haze, I saw sails rise one by one on the anchored fishing-fleet. In a deep dene behind me an eddy of sudden wind drummed through sheltered oaks, and spun aloft the first dry sample of autumn leaves. When I reached the beach road the sea-fog fumed over the brickfields, and the tide was telling all the groins of the gale beyond Ushant. In less than an hour summer England vanished in chill grey. We were again the shut island of the North, all the ships of the world bellowing at our perilous gates; and between their outcries ran the piping of bewildered gulls. My cap dripped moisture, the folds of the rug held it in pools or sluiced it away in runnels, and the salt-rime stuck to my lips.
Inland the smell of autumn loaded the thickened fog among the trees, and the drip became a continuous shower. Yet the late flowers—mallow of the wayside, scabious of the field, and dahlia of the garden—showed gay in the mist, and beyond the sea’s breath there was little sign of decay in the leaf. Yet in the villages the house doors were all open, and bare-legged, bare-headed children sat at ease on the damp doorsteps to shout “pip-pip” at the stranger.
I made bold to call at the sweetmeat shop, where Mrs. Madehurst met me with a fat woman’s hospitable tears. Jenny’s child, she said, had died two days after the nun had come. It was, she felt, best out of the way, even though insurance offices, for reasons which she did not pretend to follow, would not willingly insure such stray lives. “Not but what Jenny didn’t tend to Arthur as though he’d come all proper at de end of de first year—like Jenny herself.” Thanks to Miss Florence, the child had been buried with a pomp which, in Mrs. Madehurst’s opinion, more than covered the small irregularity of its birth. She described the coffin, within and without, the glass hearse, and the evergreen lining of the grave.
“But how’s the mother?” I asked.
“Jenny? Oh, she’ll get over it. I’ve felt dat way with one or two o’ my own. She’ll get over. She’s walkin’ in de wood now.”
“In this weather?”
Mrs. Madehurst looked at me with narrowed eyes across the counter.
“I dunno but it opens de ’eart like. Yes, it opens de ’eart. Dat’s where losin’ and bearin’ comes so alike in de long run, we do say.”
Now the wisdom of the old wives is greater than that of all the Fathers, and this last oracle sent me thinking so extendedly as I went up the road that I nearly ran over a woman and a child at the wooded corner by the lodge gates of the House Beautiful.
“Awful weather!” I cried, as I slowed dead for the turn.
“Not so bad,” she answered placidly out of the fog. “Mine’s used to ’un. You’ll find yours indoors, I reckon.”
Indoors, Madden received me with professional courtesy, and kind inquiries for the health of the motor, which he would put under cover.
I waited in a still, nut-brown hall, pleasant with late flowers and warmed with a delicious wood fire—a place of good influence and great peace. (Men and women may sometimes, after great effort, achieve a creditable lie; but the house, which is their temple, cannot say anything save the truth of those who have lived in it.) A child’s cart and a doll lay on the black-and-white floor, where a rug had been kicked back. I felt that the children had only just hurried away—to hide themselves, most like—in the many turns of the great adzed staircase that climbed statelily out of the hall, or to crouch at gaze behind the lions and roses of the carven gallery above. Then I heard her voice above me, singing as the blind sing—from the soul:—
|In the pleasant orchard-closes.|
And all my early summer came back at the call.
In the pleasant orchard-closes,|
God bless all our gains say we—
But may God bless all our losses,
Better suits with our degree.
She dropped the marring fifth line, and repeated—
|Better suits with our degree!|
I saw her lean over the gallery, her linked hands white as pearl against the oak.
“Is that you—from the other side of the county?” she called.
“Yes, me from the other side of the county,” I answered, laughing.
“What a long time before you had to come here again.” She ran down the stairs, one hand lightly touching the broad rail. “It’s two months and four days. Summer’s gone!”
“I meant to come before, but Fate prevented.”
“I knew it. Please do something to that fire. They won’t let me play with it, but I can feel it’s behaving badly. Hit it!”
I looked on either side of the deep fireplace, and found but a half-charred hedge-stake with which I punched a black log into flame.
“It never goes out, day or night,” she said, as though explaining. “In case any one comes in with cold toes, you see.”
“It’s even lovelier inside than it was out,” I murmured. The red light poured itself along the age-polished dusky panels till the Tudor roses and lions of the gallery took colour and motion. An old eagle-topped convex mirror gathered the picture into its mysterious heart, distorting afresh the distorted shadows, and curving the gallery lines into the curves of a ship. The day was shutting down in half a gale as the fog turned to stringy scud. Through the uncurtained mullions of the broad window I could see valiant horsemen of the lawn rear and recover against the wind that taunted them with legions of dead leaves.
“Yes, it must be beautiful,” she said. “Would you like to go over it? There’s still light enough upstairs.”
I followed her up the unflinching, wagon-wide staircase to the gallery, whence opened the thin fluted Elizabethan doors.
“Feel how they put the latch low down for the sake of the children.” She swung a light door inward.
“By the way, where are they?” I asked. “I haven’t even heard them to-day.”
She did not answer at once. Then, “I can only hear them,” she replied softly. “This is one of their rooms—everything ready, you see.”
She pointed into a heavily-timbered room. There were little low gate tables and children’s chairs. A doll’s house, it’s hooked front half open, faced a great dappled rocking-horse, from whose padded saddle it was but a child’s scramble to the broad window-seat overlooking the lawn. A toy gun lay in a corner beside a gilt wooden cannon.
“Surely they’ve only just gone,” I whispered. In the failing light a door creaked cautiously. I heard the rustle of a frock and the patter of feet—quick feet through a room beyond.
“I heard that,” she cried triumphantly. “Did you? Children, oh, children, where are you?”
The voice filled the walls that held it lovingly to the last perfect note, but there came no answering shout such as I had heard in the garden. We hurried on from room to oak-floored room; up a step here, down three steps there; among a maze of passages; always mocked by our quarry. One might as well have tried to work an unstopped warren with a single ferret. There were bolt-holes innumerable—recesses in walls, embrasures of deep slitten windows now darkened, whence they could start up behind us; and abandoned fireplaces, six feet deep in the masonry, as well as the tangle of communicating doors. Above all, they had the twilight for their helper in our game. I had caught one or two joyous chuckles of evasion, and once or twice had seen the silhouette of a child’s frock against some darkening window at the end of a passage; but we returned empty-handed to the gallery, just as a middle-aged woman was setting a lamp in its niche.
“No, I haven’t seen her either this evening, Miss Florence,” I heard her say, “but that Turpin he says he wants to see you about his shed.”
“Oh, Mr. Turpin must want to see me very badly. Tell him to come to the hall, Mrs. Madden.”
I looked down into the hall whose only light was the dulled fire, and deep in the shadow I saw them at last. They must have slipped down while we were in the passages, and now thought themselves perfectly hidden behind an old gilt leather screen. By child’s law, my fruitless chase was as good as an introduction, but since I had taken so much trouble I resolved to force them to come forward later by the simple trick, which children detest, of pretending not to notice them. They lay close, in a little huddle, no more than shadows except when a quick flame betrayed an outline.
“And now we’ll have some tea,” she said. “I believe I ought to have offered it you at first, but one doesn’t arrive at manners, somehow, when one lives alone and is considered—h’m—peculiar.” Then with very pretty scorn, “would you like a lamp to see to eat by?”
“The firelight’s much pleasanter, I think.” We descended into that delicious gloom and Madden brought tea.
I took my chair in the direction of the screen, ready to surprise or be surprised as the game should go, and at her permission, since a hearth is always sacred, bent forward to play with the fire.
“Where do you get these beautiful short faggots from?” I asked idly. “Why, they are tallies!”
“Of course,” she said. “As I can’t read or write I’m driven back on the early English tally for my accounts. Give me one and I’ll tell you what it meant.”
I passed her an unburnt hazel-tally, about a foot long, and she ran her thumb down the nicks.
“This is the milk-record for the home farm for the month of April last year, in gallons,” said she. “I don’t know what I should have done without tallies. An old forester of mine taught me the system. It’s out of date now for every one else; but my tenants respect it. One of them’s coming now to see me. Oh, it doesn’t matter. He has no business here out of office hours. He’s a greedy, ignorant man—very greedy or—he wouldn’t come here after dark.”
“Have you much land then?”
“Only a couple of hundred acres in hand, thank goodness. The other six hundred are nearly all let to folk who knew my folk before me, but this Turpin is quite a new man—and a highway robber.”
“But are you sure I sha’n’t be —?”
“Certainly not. You have the right. He hasn’t any children.”
“Ah, the children!” I said, and slid my low chair back till it nearly touched the screen that hid them. “I wonder whether they’ll come out for me.”
There was a murmur of voices—Madden’s and a deeper note—at the low, dark side door, and a ginger-headed, canvas-gaitered giant of the unmistakable tenant farmer type stumbled or was pushed in.
“Come to the fire, Mr. Turpin,” she said.
“If—if you please, Miss, I’ll—I’ll be quite as well by the door.” He clung to the latch as he spoke, like a frightened child. Of a sudden I realised that he was in the grip of some almost overpowering fear.
“About that new shed for the young stock—that was all. These first autumn storms settin’ in . . . but I’ll come again, Miss.” His teeth did not chatter much more than the door latch.
“I think not,” she answered levelly. “The new shed—m’m. What did my agent write you on the 15th?”
“I—fancied p’r’aps that if I came to see you—ma—man to man like, Miss—but——”
His eyes rolled into every corner of the room, wide with horror. He half opened the door through which he had entered, but I noticed it shut again—from without and firmly.
“He wrote what I told him,” she went on. “You are overstocked already. Dunnett’s Farm never carried more than fifty bullocks—even in Mr. Wright’s time. And he used cake. You’ve sixty-seven and you don’t cake. You’ve broken the lease in that respect. You’re dragging the heart out of the farm.”
“I’m—I’m getting some minerals—superphosphates—next week. I’ve as good as ordered a truck-load already. I’ll go down to the station to-morrow about ’em. Then I can come and see you man to man like, Miss, in the daylight. . . . That gentleman’s not going away, is he?” He almost shrieked.
I had only slid the chair a little further back, reaching behind me to tap on the leather of the screen, but he jumped like a rat.
“No. Please attend to me, Mr. Turpin.” She turned in her chair and faced him with his back to the door. It was an old and sordid little piece of scheming that she forced from him—his plea for the new cowshed at his landlady’s expense, that he might with the covered manure pay his next year’s rent out of the valuation after, as she made clear, he had bled the enriched pastures to the bone. I could not but admire the intensity of his greed, when I saw him out-facing for its sake whatever terror it was that ran wet on his forehead.
I ceased to tap the leather—was, indeed, calculating the cost of the shed—when I felt my relaxed hand taken and turned softly between the soft hands of a child. So at last I had triumphed. In a moment I would turn and acquaint myself with those quick-footed wanderers. . . .
The little brushing kiss fell in the centre of my palm—as a gift on which the fingers were, once, expected to close: as the all faithful half-reproachful signal of a waiting child not used to neglect even when grown-ups were busiest—a fragment of the mute code devised very long ago.
Then I knew. And it was as though I had known from the first day when I looked across the lawn at the high window.
I heard the door shut. The woman turned to me in silence, and I felt that she knew.
What time passed after this I cannot say. I was roused by the fall of a log, and mechanically rose to put it back. Then I returned to my place in the chair very close to the screen.
“Now you understand,” she whispered, across the packed shadows.
“Yes, I understand—now. Thank you.”
“I—I only hear them.” She bowed her head in her hands. “I have no right, you know—no other right. I have neither borne nor lost—neither borne nor lost!”
“Be very glad then,” said I, for my soul was torn open within me.
She was still, and I went back to my sorrow and my joy.
“It was because I loved them so,” she said at last, brokenly. “That was why it was, even from the first—even before I knew that they—they were all I should ever have. And I loved them so!”
She stretched out her arms to the shadows and the shadows within the shadow.
“They came because I loved them—because I needed them. I—I must have made them come. Was that wrong, think you?”
“I—I grant you that the toys and—and all that sort of thing were nonsense, but—but I used to so hate empty rooms myself when I was little.” She pointed to the gallery. “And the passages all empty. . . . And how could I ever bear the garden door shut? Suppose——”
“Don’t! For pity’s sake, don’t!” I cried. The twilight had brought a cold rain with gusty squalls that plucked at the leaded windows.
“And the same thing with keeping the fire in all night. I don’t think it so foolish—do you?”
I looked at the broad brick hearth, saw, through tears I believe, that there was no unpassable iron on or near it, and bowed my head.
“I did all that and lots of other things—just to make believe. Then they came. I heard them, but I didn’t know that they were not mine by right till Mrs. Madden told me——”
“The butler’s wife? What?”
“One of them—I heard—she saw—and knew. Hers! Not for me. I didn’t know at first. Perhaps I was jealous. Afterwards, I began to understand that it was only because I loved them, not because——. . . Oh, you must bear or lose,” she said piteously. “There is no other way—and yet they love me. They must! Don’t they?”
There was no sound in the room except the lapping voices of the fire, but we two listened intently, and she at least took comfort from what she heard. She recovered herself and half rose. I sat still in my chair by the screen.
“Don’t think me a wretch to whine about myself like this, but—but I’m all in the dark, you know, and you can see.”
In truth I could see, and my vision confirmed me in my resolve, though that was like the very parting of spirit and flesh. Yet a little longer I would stay since it was the last time.
“You think it is wrong, then?” she cried sharply, though I had said nothing.
“Not for you. A thousand times no. For you it is right. . . . I am grateful to you beyond words. For me it would be wrong. For me only. . . .”
“Why?” she said, but passed her hand before her face as she had done at our second meeting in the wood. “Oh, I see,” she went on simply as a child. “For you it would be wrong.” Then with a little indrawn laugh, “and, d’you remember, I called you lucky—once—at first. You who must never come here again!”
She left me to sit a little longer by the screen, and I heard the sound of her feet die out along the gallery above.