It was indeed an eventful morning. Trouble began with Mary suddenly discovering that she had lost her copy of "Alice in Wonderland" and rushing to Jeremy's box and upsetting all Jeremy's things to see whether it were there. Jeremy objected to this with an indignation that was scarcely in the sequel justified, because Mary found the book jammed against the paint-box and a dry walnut nestling in its centre. She cried and protested and then suddenly, with the disgusting sentimentality that was so characteristic of her, abandoned her position altogether and said that Jeremy could have it, and then cried again because he said he didn't want it.
Then Jeremy had to put everything back into the box again, and in the middle of this Hamlet ran off with the red-checked Miss Noah between his teeth and began to lick the blue off her dress, looking up at the assembled company between every lick with a smile of the loveliest satisfaction. Then, when the box was almost closed, it was discovered by a shocked and virtuous Helen that Jeremy had left out his Bible.
"There'll be one there," said Jeremy in an angry agitated whisper, hoping to escape the attention of Miss Jones.
"What's that, Jeremy dear?" said Miss Jones.
"Oh, fancy, Miss Jones!" said Helen. "He's taking all his dirty old toys and even his old clown, and he's leaving out his Bible."
"I'm not!" cried Jeremy, taking it and trying to squeeze it down between three walnuts and the toy pistol.
"Oh, Jeremy clear, that's not the way to treat your Bible. I'll give you some paper to wrap it up in, and you'd better take the things out again and put it in at the bottom of the box." Yes, obviously he would not be ready in time.
The matter of Hamlet and the "lead" was also very exhausting. Hamlet had never, in all his days, been tied to anyone or anything. Of course no one could tell what had been his history before he came strolling on to the Cole horizon, and it may be that once as a very small puppy he had been tied on to something. On the whole, that is probable, his protests on this occasion being of a kind so vehement as to argue some reminiscences behind them. Mrs. Cole had bought a beautiful "lead" of black leather; of course he had already a collar studded with little silver nails, and the point was very simply to fasten the "lead" on to the collar. Jeremy had been promised that he should conduct Hamlet, and it had seemed, when the promise had been made, as though it would be a very simple thing to carry out. Hamlet no sooner saw the cord than he began his ingenious protests, sitting up and smiling at it, suddenly darting at the recumbent Miss Noah and rushing round the room with her, finally catching the "lead" itself in his teeth and hiding with it under Miss Jones's skirt.
The result was that Tom Collins's bus arrived when no one in the schoolroom was in the least prepared for it. Then what confusion there was! Mrs. Cole, looking strange in her hat and veil, as though she were dressed up for a play, came urging them to hurry, "because Father was waiting." Then Hamlet tied himself and his "lead" round the leg of the table; then Mary said in her most tiresome manner, apropos of nothing at all, "You do love me, Jeremy, don't you?" just at the moment when he was trying to unlace Hamlet, and her lip began to tremble when he said, "Oh, don't bother," so that he was compelled to add "Of course I do"; then Father came running up the stairs with "Really, this is too disgraceful. We shall miss that train!"
Then Uncle Samuel appeared, looking so queer that Jeremy was compelled to stare at him. Jeremy had seen very little of Uncle Samuel during these last months. He had hoped, after that wonderful adventure of the Christmas Pantomime, that they were going to be friends, but it had not been so. He had been away somewhere, in some strange place, painting, and then, on his return, he had hid himself and his odd affairs away in some corner of the house where no one saw him. He had had his life and Jeremy had had his.
Nevertheless Jeremy was delighted to see him. It would be fun to have him at Cow Farm with his squashy brown hat, his fat cheeks, his blue painting smock, and his short legs with huge boots. He was different, in some way, from all the rest of the world, and Jeremy, even at that early stage of his education, already perceived that he could learn more from Uncle Samuel than from any other member of the family.
Now he put his head in through the door and said: "Well, you kids, aren't you ready? It's time!" Then, seeing Miss Jones, he said: "Good morning," and bolted like a rabbit. Even then Jeremy noticed that he had paint on his fingers, and that two of his waistcoat buttons were unfastened.
Then down in the hall what confusion there was! Boxes here, there and everywhere. Mother, Father, Aunt Amy, Uncle Samuel, and, most interesting of all, Barbara and the new nurse. The new nurse was called Mrs. Pateham, and she was stout, red-cheeked, and smiling. The bundle in white called Barbara was, most happily, sleeping; but Hamlet barked at Mrs. Pateham, and that woke Barbara, who began to cry. Then Collins came in with his coat off, and the muscles swelling on his shoulders, and handled the boxes as though they were paper, and the cook, and Rose, and William, the handy-boy, and old Jordan, the gardener, and Mrs. Preston, a lady from two doors down, who sometimes came in to help, all began to bob and smile, and Father said: "Now, my dear. Now, my dear," and Hamlet wound himself and his lead round everything that he could see, and Helen fussed and said: "Now, Jeremy," and Miss Jones said: "Now, children," and last of all Collins said: "Now, mum; now, sir," and then they all were bundled into the bus, with the cart and the luggage coming along behind.
The drive through the streets was, of course, as lovely as it could be; not in the least because anyone could see anything—that was hindered by the fact that the windows of the bus were so old that they were crusted with a kind of glassy mildew, and no amount of rubbing on the window-panes provided one with a view—but because the inside of the bus was inevitably connected with adventure—partly through its motion, partly through its noise, and partly through its lovely smell. These were, of course, Jeremy's views, and it can't definitely be asserted that all grown-up people shared them. But whenever Jeremy had ridden in that bus he had always been on his way to something delightful. The motion, therefore, rejoiced his heart, although the violence of it was such that everyone was thrown against everyone else, so that Uncle Samuel was suddenly hurled against the bonnet of Miss Jones, and Helen struck Aunt Amy in the chest, and Jeremy himself dived into his sister Barbara. As to the smell, it was that lovely well-known one that has in it mice and straw, wet umbrellas and whisky, goloshes and candle-grease, dust and green paint! Jeremy loved it, and sniffed on this occasion so often that Miss Jones told him to blow his nose. As to the noise, who is there who does not remember that rattle and clatter, that sudden, deafening report as of the firing of a hundred firearms, the sudden pause when every bolt and bar and hinge sighs and moans like the wind or a stormy sea, and then that sudden scream of the clattering windows, when it is as though a frenzied cook, having received notice to leave, was breaking every scrap of china in the kitchen? Who does not know that last maddened roar as the vehicle stumbles across the last piece of cobbled road—a roar that drowns, with a savage and determined triumph, all those last directions not to forget this, that, and the other; all those inquiries as to whether this, that, and the other had been remembered? Cobbles are gone now, and old buses sleep in deserted courts, and Collins, alas, is not. His youngest son has a motor-garage, and Polchester has asphalt—sic transit gloria, mundi.
Jeremy, clutching his green box with one hand and Hamlet's lead with the other, was in an ecstasy of happiness. The louder the noise, the rocking motion, the stronger the smell, the better. "Isn't it lovely?" he murmured to Miss Jones during one of the pauses.
It may be that it was at this moment that Uncle Samuel finally made up his mind about Jeremy. In spite of his dislike, even hatred of children, he had been coming slowly, during the last two years, to an affection for, and interest in, his nephew that was something quite new to his cynical, egoistic nature. It had leapt into activity at Christmas time, then had died again. Now as, flung first into his sister's bony arms, then on to the terrified spectacles of his niece Mary, he tried to recover himself, he was caught and held by that picture of his small nephew, seated, solid and square, in his blue sailor suit, his bare knees swinging, his hand clutching his precious box with an energy that defied Fate itself to take it from him, his mouth set, his eyes staring, radiant with joy, in front of him.
On arrival at the station it was found that the one o'clock to Liskane was "just about due," so that there was no time to be lost. They had to rush along under the great iron dome, passing by the main line, disregarding the tempestuous express from Truxe that drew up, as it were disdainfully, just as they passed, and finding the modest side line to Liskane and St. Lowe. Here there was every kind of excitement for Jeremy. Anyone who has any kind of passion for observation must have discovered long ago that a side line has ever so much more charm and appeal about it than a main line. A main line is scornful of the station in whose heart it consents for a moment to linger, its eyes are staring forward towards the vast cities who are impatiently awaiting it; but a side line has its very home here. So much gossip passes from day to day above its rails (and gossip that has for its circumference five green fields, a country road, and a babbling brook), that it knows all its passengers by heart.
To the people who travel on a side line, the train itself is still something of a wonder. How much more was that true thirty years ago. On this especial line there were only two stations-Liskane and St. Lowe, and, of a certainty, these stations would not even now be in existence were it not that St. Lowe was a fishing centre of very great importance. The little district that comprehended St. Lowe, Garth in Roselands, Stoep in Roselands, Lucent-Polwint, Rafiel, and all the smaller hamlets around them, was fed by this line; but, even so, the little train was never crowded. Tourists did not, and even now do not, go to Polwint and St. Lowe because "they smell so fishy," nor to Rafield "because it's too far from the railway," nor to the Roseland valleys "because there's nothing to see there.", May these reasons hold good for many years to come!
Today there were three farmers in brown leggings, with pipes, and thick knotted walking-sticks, two or three women with baskets, and a child or so, and an amiable, absent-minded clergyman in a black cloth so faded that it was now green, reading The Times, and shaking his head over it as he stumbled up and down the platform. One of the farmers had a large, woolly sheep-dog, who, of course, excited Hamlet to a frenzy. Jeremy, therefore, had his time fully occupied in checking this; but he had, nevertheless, the opportunity to observe how one of the farmers puffed the smoke out of his cheeks as though he were an engine; how one of the women, with a back as broad as a wall, had red stockings; and how the clergyman nearly fell on to the railway-line every time he turned round, and only saved himself from disaster by a miracle. The train arriving at last, they all climbed into it, and then had to wait for a hot, grilling half-hour whilst the engine made up its mind that it was worth its while to take all the trouble to start off again.
"An hour late, upon my word," said Mr. Cole angrily, when at last, with a snore and a heave, and a grunt and a scream, they started. "It's really too bad. I shall have to complain," which, as everyone present knew, he had not the slightest intention of doing. In Jeremy's carriage there were his father, his mother, Uncle Samuel, himself, Mary, and, of course, Hamlet. Hamlet had never been, in a train before, and his terror at the way that the ground quivered under him was pitiful to see. He lay first under the seat, trying to hold himself tightly together, then, when that failed, he made startled frenzied leaps on to laps (the lead had been removed for the time), finally he cowered up into the corner behind Uncle Samuel, who seemed to understand his case and sympathised with it. Whenever the train stopped (which, being a Glebeshire train, it did continually), he recovered at once his savoir-faire, asserted his dignity, gazed through the windows at the fields and cows as though he owned them all, and barked with the friendly greeting of comrade to comrade whenever he saw another dog.
The next thing that occupied Jeremy's attention was lunch. Many people despise sandwiches and milk out of beer-bottles and bananas and seed-cake. Jeremy, of course, did not. He loved anything eaten out of paper, from the ice-cream sold by the Barney man in Polchester Square (only once did he secure some) down to the frills that there are round the tail of any self-respecting ham. But the paper on this journey to Rafield! There was nothing in the world to touch it. In the first place you spread newspaper on your knees, then there was paper under the sandwiches (chicken), and more paper under the sandwiches (beef), and still more under the sandwiches (egg); there was paper round the seed-cake, and, most wonderful of all, paper round the jam-puffs. Jam-puffs with strawberry jam eaten in the odour of ginger-beer and eggshells! Is it possible for life at its very best to hold more? He kept his jam-puff so long as he could, until at last Mr. Cole said: "Now, my boy! Finish it up—finish it up. Paper out of the window-all neat and tidy; that's right!" speaking in that voice which Jeremy hated, because it was used, so especially, when cod-liver oil had to be taken. He swallowed his puff in a gulp, and then gazed out of the window lamenting its disappearance.
"Did you like it?" whispered Mary hoarsely.
"You've got some jam on the side of your nose," said Jeremy.
He was sitting next to his father, who had the corner seat, and he now devoted all his energies to prevent himself from falling asleep against his father's leg. But the ginger-beer, the glazed and shining fields beyond the window, the little blobs of sunlight that danced upon the floor of the carriage, the scents of food and flowers, and the hot breeze, the hum of the train, and the dancing of the telegraph wires—all these things were against him. His head began to nod and then to jump back with a sudden terrible spring as though an evil demon pulled it with a rope from behind, the carriage swelled like a balloon, then dwindled into a thin, straight line. The strangest things happened to his friends and relations. His mother, who was reading The Church Family Newspaper, developed two faces and a nose like a post, and Uncle Samuel, who had, in harsh reality, two chins, seemed to be all folds and creases like a balloon when it is shivering down into collapse. Jeremy fought with these fantasies; the lines on the newspaper doubled and redoubled, vanished and sprang to life again. He said: "I will not," and, instantly, his head on the soft part of his father's thigh, was asleep.
In his dreams he was riding on a cloud all pink and gold, and behind came a row of shining, white clouds fluffy like bales of wool wrapped round lighted lanterns. His cloud rose and fell, rose and fell, and a voice said in his ear: "All is well! All is well! You can go on like this for ever. There will be jam-puffs soon, and ice-cream, and fish-cakes, and you can go to China this way whenever you like."
And he said: "Can't I take Hamlet with me?"
And the voice answered: "Hamlet is with you already," and there, behold, was Hamlet sitting on the pink cloud with a stiff gold collar round his neck, wagging his tail. And then the voice shouted so loudly that Jeremy jumped off the pink cloud in his astonishment: "Liskane! Liskane! Liskane!" and Jeremy jumped and fell and fell—right into his father's lap, with someone crying in his ear: "Wake up, Jeremy! We're there! We're there!"
His first thought was for his green box, which was, he found, safely and securely in his hand. Then for Hamlet, who was, he saw with horror, already upon the platform, the lead trailing behind him like a neglected conscience, his burning eyes piercing his hair in search of another dog, whom he smelt but could not see.
Jeremy, rushing out of the train, seized the lead, scolded his recovered property, who wore an expression of injured and abandoned innocence, and looked about him. Yes, this was Liskane—wonderful, marvellous, magical Liskane! To the bored and cynical adult Liskane may easily appear to be one of the ugliest, most deserted stations in the whole of Europe, having nothing on either side of it save barren grey fields that never grow grass but only stones and bottles, with its single decoration—a heavy iron bridge that crosses the rails and leads up to the higher road and the town of Liskane. Ugly enough, but to Jeremy, on this summer afternoon, the gate to a sure and certain Paradise.
Although his family were fussing around him, Barbara crying, Mr. Cole saying: "Four, Five, Six... But where's the black box? Your black box, Amy... Six, Seven... But there should be Eight... Seven..." and Mrs. Cole saying: "And there's my brown bag. The little one with the black handle," and Helen saying. "OO, was it adidums, then Nandy-Pandy, Nandy-Pandy..." and Miss Jones: "Now, Mary! Now, Jeremy! Now, Helen!"; although this was going on just as it always had gone on, his eyes were searching for the wagonette. Ah, there it was! He could just see the top of it beyond the iron bridge, and Jim, the man from the Farm, would be coming down to help with the boxes; yes, there he was crossing the bridge now, with his red face and broad shoulders, and the cap on the side of his head, just as he always wore it. Jeremy recognised him with a strange, little choking sensation. It was "coming home" to him, all this was—the great event of his life, and as he looked at the others he realised, young as he was, that none of them felt it as he did, and the realisation gave him a strange feeling, half of gratification, half of loneliness. He stood there, a little apart from the rest of them, clutching his box, and holding on to Hamlet's lead, feeling so deeply excited that his heart was like a hard, cold stone jumping up and down, bump, bump, behind his waistcoat.
"That's Jim! That's Jim!" he whispered in a hoarse gasp to Miss Jones.
"Now mind, dear," she answered in her kindly, groping voice. "You'll be falling on to the rail if you aren't careful."
It strangely annoyed him that his father should greet Jim just as though he were some quite ordinary man in Polchester. He himself waited in a strange agitation until Jim should notice him. The man turned at last, bending down to pick up a box, saw him, touched his cap, smiling a long, crooked smile, and Jeremy blushed with happiness. It was the first recognition that he had had from the farm, and it pleased him.
They all moved up to the higher road. Uncle Samuel, coming on at the last, in a dreamy, moody way, stopping on the bridge to look down at the railway-line, and then suddenly saying aloud:
"Their minds are full of the number of boxes, and whether they'll get tea, and who's to pay what, and 'How badly I want a wash!' and already to-morrow they'll be wondering whether they oughn't to be getting home to Polchester. All sham! All sham!"
He wasn't speaking to Jeremy, but to himself. However, Jeremy said: "Did you see Jim, Uncle?"
"No, I did not."
"He's fatter and redder than last year."
"I shouldn't wonder."
"Are you going to paint, Uncle?"
"Oh, just lines and circles."
Jeremy paused, standing for a moment, and looked puzzled. Then he said:
"Do you like babies, Uncle Samuel?"
"No, I do not."
"Not even Barbara?"
"I don't, too... Why don't you paint cows and houses like other people, Uncle Samuel? I heard Father say once that he never knew what your pictures meant."
"That's why I paint them."
"So that your father shan't know what they mean."
Although he did not understand this any more than he understood his uncle, Jeremy was pleased with this conversation. It had been, somehow, in tone with the place and the hour; it had conveyed to him in some strange fashion that his uncle cared for all of this rather as he himself cared. Oh! he liked Uncle Samuel!
He had hoped that he might have sat on the box next to Jim, but that place was now piled up with luggage, so he was squeezed in between his mother and Mrs. Patcham, with Hamlet, very uncomfortable, between his knees. They drove off down the high road, the hot smell of the grass came to his nostrils, the sun blazed down upon them, turning the path before them into gleaming steel, and the high Glebeshire hedges, covered with thin powder, rose on both sides above them, breaking once and again to show the folding valleys, and the faint blue hills, and the heavy, dark trees with their thick, black shadows staining the grass.
The cows were clustered sleeping wherever they could find shadow; faintly sheep-bells tinkled in the distance, and now and then a stream, like broken glass, floated, cried, and was gone. They drove into a dark wood, and the sun scattered through the trees in pieces of gold and shadowy streams of arrowed light. The birds were singing, and whenever the hoofs of the horses and the wheels turned onto soft moss or lines of grass, in the sudden silence the air was filled with birds' voices. That proved that it must now be turning to the evening of the day; the sun was not very high above the wood, and the sea of blue was invaded by a high galleon of cloud that hovered with spreading sail, catching gold into its heart as it moved. They left the wood, crossed the River Garth, and came out on to moorland. Here, for the first time, Jeremy smelt the sea; the lanes had been hot, but here the wind blew across the moor, with the smell of sea-pinks and sea-gulls in it. The grass was short and rough; the soil was sand. On the horizon was the grey, melancholy tower of a deserted mine. Some bird flew with swiftly driving wings, crying as it went. The smell of the moor was as fresh as though the foot of man had never crossed it—deserted, but not alone; bare, but not empty; uninhabited, but peopled; silent, but full of voices.
Jeremy's excitement grew. He knew now how every line of the road would be. They left the moor and were on the road leading to Rafield. These were the days before they built the road from Liskane wide enough for motor-cars and other horrible inventions. Thirty years ago the way was so narrow that the briars and ferns brushed your face as you passed, and you could reach out your hand and pluck snap-dragons and dandelions and fox-gloves. Many roads twisted in and out upon one another; the corners were so sharp that sometimes the wagonette seemed to hang upon one wheel as it turned. Still no sight of the sea, but the smell of it now was everywhere, and sometimes at a sudden bend there would come a faint beat, beat upon the ear with something rhyming and measured in it, like the murmur of a sleeping giant.
They came to the bend where the hill suddenly dips at a fearful angle down into Rafield. Here they turned to the right, deep between edges again, then through a little copse, and then, as though with a whisk of the finger, right on to Cow Farm itself.
It was an old square house, deep red brick, with crooked chimneys, and a stone court in front of it. To either side of the court there were barns. Behind the house thick trees, clouded with green, showed. In the middle of the court was a pump, and all about the flagged stones pigeons were delicately walking. As they drove up, the pigeons rose in a wheeling flight against the sky now staining faintly with amber; dogs rushed barking from the barns; a haycart turned the comer, its wheels creaking, and four little children perched high on the top of the hay. Then the hall-door opened, and behold Mrs. Monk, Mr. Monk, and, clustering shyly behind, the little Monks.
In the scene that followed Jeremy was forgotten. He did not know what it was that made him hang behind the others, but he stood beside the wagonette, bent down and released Hamlet, and then waited, hiding under the shadow of the cart. His happiness was almost intolerable; he could not speak, he could not move, and in the heart of his happiness there was a strange unhappiness that he had never known before. The loneliness that he had felt at Liskane Station was intensified, so that he felt like a stranger who was seeing his father, or his mother, or aunt, or sisters for the first time. Everything about him emphasised the loneliness: the slow evening light that was stealing into the sky, the sound of some machine in the farm-house turning with a melancholy rhythmic whine, a voice calling in the fields, the rumble of the sea, the twittering of birds in the garden trees, the bark of a dog far, far away, and, through them all, the sense that the world was sinking down into silence, and that all the sounds were slipping away, like visitors hurrying from the park before the gates are shut; he stood there, listening, caught into a life that was utterly his own and had no share with any other. He looked around and saw that they were all going into the house, that Jim and Mr. Monk were busy with the boxes, and that no one was aware of him. He knew what he wanted.
He slipped across the court, and dropped into the black cavernous hole of the farther barn. At first the darkness stopped him; but he knew his way, found the steps that led up to the loft, and was soon perched high behind a little square window that was now blue and gold against the velvety blackness behind him. This was his favourite spot in all the farm. Here, all the year, they stored the apples, and the smell of the fruit was thick in the air, sweet and strong, clinging about every fibre of the place, so that you could not disturb a strand nor a stone without sending some new drift of the scent up against your nostrils. All the year after his first visit, Jeremy had been longing to smell that smell again, and now he knelt up against the window, drinking it in. With his eyes he searched the horizon. From here you could see the garden with the sun-dial, the fields beyond, the sudden dip with the trees at the edge of it bent crossways by the wind, and there, in such a cup as one's hands might form, just beyond, was the sea...
He stared as though his eyes would start from his head. Behind him was the cloudy smoke of the apple-scent; in front of him the sun was sinking towards the dark elms. Soon the trees would catch the sun and hide it; the galleon cloud that had been over them as they drove was new banked in red and gold across the horizon; birds slowly, lazily fled to their homes.
He heard someone call, "Jeremy! Jeremy!" With a last gaze he saw the blue cup turn to gold, the sun reached the tops of the elms; the fields were lit with the glitter of shining glass, then, even as he watched, they were purple, then grey, then dim like smoke.
Again the voice called "Jeremy!" He slipped from the window, found the little stair, ran across the dusky court and entered the house.
CHAPTER IX. THE AWAKENING OF CHARLOTTE
Towards the end of the first fortnight's stay at Cow Farm it was announced that very shortly there would be a picnic at Rafiel Cove.
Jeremy had been waiting for this proclamation; once or twice he had asked whether they were going to the Cove and had been told "not to bother," "all in good time," and other ridiculous elderly finalities, but he knew that the day must come, as it had always come every year. The picnic at Rafield was always the central event of the summer. And he had this year another reason for excited anticipation—the wonderful Charlotte Le Page was to be present. Until now Jeremy had never taken the slightest interest in girls. Mary and Helen, being his sisters, were necessities and inevitabilities, but that did not mean that he could not get along very easily without them, and indeed Mary with her jealousies, her strange sulky temper and sudden sentimental repentances was certainly a burden and restraint. As to the little girls in Polchester, he had frankly found them tiresome and stupid, thinking of themselves, terrified of the most natural phenomena and untruthful in their statements. He had been always independent and reserved with everyone, and bud never, in all his life, had a close friend, but there had been, especially of late, boys with whom it had been amusing to spend an hour or two, and since his fight with the Dean's Ernest he had thought that it would be rather interesting to make a further trial of strength with whomsoever...
Girls were stupid, uninteresting, conceited and slow. He never, in all his life, wanted to have anything to do with girls. But Charlotte Le Page was another matter. She had, in the first place, become quite a tradition in the Cole family. She was the daughter of a wealthy landowner, who always spent his holidays in Rafiel. She and her very beautiful, very superior mother had been seen on many occasions by the Coles driving about the Glebeshire roads in a fine and languid manner, a manner to which the Coles knew, very well, they themselves could never attain. Then Mrs. Cole had called, and Mrs. Le Page and Charlotte had come to tea at Cow Farm. This had been a year ago, when Jeremy had been only seven; nevertheless, he had been present during the first part of the ceremony, and Charlotte had struck him as entirely amazing.
He had simply gazed at her with his mouth open, forgetting all his good manners. She was at this time nine or ten years of age but very small and, as they say of the most modern kind of doll, "perfect in every particular." She had wonderful hair of a bright rippling gold; her cheeks were pink and her eyes were blue, and she was so beautifully dressed that you could not take in details but must simply surrender yourself to a cloudy film of white or blue, with everything so perfectly in its place that it seemed to the rough and ready Jeremy quite unearthly. Of course she had to be very careful how she walked, when she sat down, in what way she moved her hands and feet, and how she blew her nose. It was wonderful to see her do these things, she did them so naturally and yet always with a sense of an effort overcome for the good of humanity. Her mother never ceased to empty praises at her feet, appealing to visitors with: "Isn't Charlotte too lovely to-day?" or "Really, Mrs. Cole, did you ever see anything like Charlotte's hair?" or "Just a moment, Mrs. Cole, I'm sure you've never seen such hands and feet on any human being before!"—and it was impossible to tell whether or no Charlotte was moved by these praises, because she never said anything at all. She was almost completely silent, and once, at the tea-gathering in Cow Farm, when she suddenly said: "I'm tired, Mama," Jeremy nearly jumped from his chair, so astonished he was.
Jeremy had, during the year that intervened between that visit and this, sometimes thought of Charlotte, and he had looked back upon her, not as a little girl but as something strange, fantastic, wonderfully coloured, whom it would be interesting to see again. He wondered why Mary and Helen could not be like that, instead of running about and screaming and becoming red in the face. He said once to Mary that she should imitate Charlotte, and the scene that followed was terrible. Mary, from that moment, hated Charlotte with an overpowering hatred.
Here this year they were again. Mrs. Le Page with her long neck, her beautiful pearl ear-rings, her pale watery eyes and her tapering fingers; Charlotte just as before, silent, beautiful and precious. There was again a tea-party at Cow Farm, and on this occasion Jeremy was asked to show Hamlet. But Hamlet behaved badly, trying to jump upon Charlotte's white frock and soil her blue ribbons. Charlotte screamed exactly as a doll screams when you press it in the stomach, and Hamlet was so deeply astonished at the unexpected noise that he stopped his bad behaviour, sat on his hind legs, and gazed up at her with an anxious wondering expression. In spite of this unfortunate incident, the visit went off well, and Mrs. Cole said that she had never seen anything so lovely as Charlotte, and Mrs. Le Page said, "No, had anyone ever?" and Charlotte never turned a hair. The final arrangement was that there should be a picnic and soon, because "Mr. Le Page has to return to Warwickshire to look after the Estate—so tiresome, but I've no doubt it's all going to wrack and ruin without him."
After the picnic had been arranged the Coles were, frankly, a little uneasy. The family of Le Page was not the easiest in the world to entertain, and the thought of a whole day with Mr. Le Page, who was a very black, very silent gentleman and looked as though he were always counting sums over in his head, was truly alarming. Moreover, in the ordinary way, a picnic, which depended so entirely for its success on the weather, was no great risk, because the Coles were indifferent to rain, as all true Glebeshire people must be. But that the Le Pages should be wet was quite another affair; the thought of a dripping Mrs. Le Page was intolerable, but of a dripping Charlotte quite impossible; moreover, the plain but excellent food—pasties, saffron cake, apples and ginger beer—enjoyed by the Coles seemed quite too terrestrial for the Le Pages. Mrs. Le Page and ginger beer! Charlotte and pasties!... nevertheless, the invitation had been given and accepted. The Coles could but anxiously inspect the sky...
There was another reason why Jeremy looked forward to the picnic with impatience. A funny old lady, named Miss Henhouse, who lived near Cow Farm in a little cottage all by herself, called sometimes upon the Coles and told them stories about the people and the place, which made them "sit up in their chairs." She was an old lady with sharp eyes, a black moustache and a double chin, wore an old shabby bonnet, grey mittens and large shoes which banged after her as she walked. She leant on a cane with a silver knob to it, and she wore a huge cameo brooch on her breast with a miniature of herself inside it. She was what is called in novels "a character." There was no one who knew so much about Rafiel and its neighbourhood; she had lived here for ever, her father had been a friend of Wellington's and had known members of the local Press Gang intimately. It was from her that Jeremy heard, in detail, the famous story of the Scarlet Admiral. It was, of course, in any case, a well-known story, and Jeremy had often heard it before, but Miss Henhouse made it a new, a most vivid and realistic thing. She sat forward in her chair, leaning on her silver-headed cane, her eyes staring in front of her, her two chins bobbing, gazing, gazing as though it all had happened before her very nose.
How one night outside Rafiel Cove there was a terrible storm, and on the morning afterwards a wonderful, smiling calm, and how the village idiot, out for his early morning stroll, saw a splendid ship riding beyond the Cove, a ship of gold with sails of silk and jewelled masts. As he watched, from the ship a boat pushed out, and then landed on the sand of the Cove a wonderful company in cocked hats of gold lace, plush breeches of red, and shoes with diamond buckles. The leader of them was a little man with a vast cocked hat and a splendid sword all studded with jewels. The fool, peering over the hedge, saw him give orders to his men, and then walk, alone, up the little winding path, to the cliff-top. Straight up the path he came, then right past the fool himself, standing at last upon the turnip field of Farmer Ede, one of the greatest of the farmers of those parts. And here he waited, staring out to sea, his arms crossed, his eyes very fierce and very, very sad. Then a second time from the golden ship a boat pushed out, cutting its way through the glassy sea—and there landed on the beach a young man, very beautiful, in a suit of blue and gold, and he, without a glance at the waiting sailors, also slowly climbed the sea-path, and at last he too reached Farmer Ede's turnip field. Then he and the Scarlet Admiral bowed to one another, very beautifully, very sadly, and very, very fiercely. As the sun rose high in the sky, as the cows passed clumsily down the lane behind the field so the fool, with eyes staring and heart thumping, saw these two fight a duel to the death. There could be no question, from the first, how it would end. The beautiful young man in his fine blue suit and his white cambric shirt had despair upon his face. He knew that his hour had come. And the eyes of the Scarlet Admiral were ever sadder and ever fiercer. Then, with a sudden move, a little turn of his agile body, the Scarlet Admiral had the young man through the breast. The young man threw up his arms and cried; and as the Scarlet Admiral withdrew his sword, dripping with blood from his body, the young man fell backwards over the cliff into the sea. Then the Scarlet Admiral wiped his sword on the grass and, slowly and sadly, walked down the cliff-path even as he had walked up. He joined his men, they found their boat, pushed out to their ship, and even as they landed upon her she had disappeared. A moment later the fool saw the parson of Rafiel Church coming round the corner for his morning bathe, and two minutes afterwards nothing human was to be seen save the naked limbs of the parson and his little bundle of black clothes lying neatly upon a stone. Then the fool ran all the way home to his mother who was a widow, and sat and cried and cried for the beautiful young man who had been slain, nor would he eat, nor taste the excellent Rafiel beer, and he pined away, and at last he died, first telling this history to his mother, who, like all widows, was a garulous woman and loved a good story...
Impossible to imagine with what life and fire old Miss Henhouse gave this history. You could see with your own eyes the golden ship, the diamond buckles of the Scarlet Admiral, the young man's sad eyes, the parson's black clothes. When she had finished it seemed to Jeremy that it must have been just so. She told him that now on a summer morning or evening the Scarlet Admiral might still be seen, climbing the cliff-path, wiping his sword upon the grass, gazing out with sad eyes to sea. Jeremy swore to himself that on the next occasion of visiting the Cove he would watch... he would watch-but to no single human being would he speak anything of this.
This was the second reason why he had looked forward so eagerly to the sea-picnic.
The day arrived, and it was marvellously fine—one of those days in August when heat possesses the world and holds it tranced and still, but has in the very strength of its possession some scent of the decay and chill of autumn that is to follow so close upon its heels. There was no breeze, no wind from the sea, only a sky utterly without cloud and a world without sound.
Punctually at eleven of the morning the splendid Le Page equipage arrived at Cow Farm. Splendid it was! A large wagonette, with a stout supercilious fellow on the box who sniffed at the healthy odours of the farm and stared haughtily at Mrs. Monk as though she should be ashamed to be alive. The Coles had provided a small plump "jingle" with a small plump pony, their regular conveyance; the pony was Bob, and he would not go up hills unless persuaded with sugar, but Jeremy loved him and would not have ridden behind any other steed in the whole world. How contemptuously the big black horses of the wagonette gazed down their nostrils at Bob, and how superbly Mrs. Le Page, sitting very upright under her white sunshade, greeted Mrs. Cole!
"Dear Mrs. Cole. Such a hot morning, isn't it? Lovely, of course, but so hot."
"I'm afraid," Jeremy heard his mother say, "that your carriage will never get down the Rafiel Lane, Mrs. Le Page. We hoped you'd come in the dog-cart. Plenty of room..."
Superb to witness the fashion in which Mrs. Le Page gazed at the dog-cart.
"For all of us?... Dear Mrs. Cole, I scarcely think—And Charlotte's frock..."
Then Jeremy turned his eyes to Charlotte. She sat under a miniature sunshade of white silk and lace, a vision of loveliness. She was a shimmer of white, a little white cloud that had settled for a moment upon the seat of the carriage to allow the sun to dance upon it, to caress it with fingers of fire, so to separate it from the rest of the world for ever as something too precious to be touched. Jeremy had never seen anything so lovely.
He blushed and scraped his boots the one against the other.
"And this is Jeremy?" said Mrs. Le Page as though she said: "And this is where you keep your little pigs, Mr. Monk?"
"Yes," said Jeremy, blushing.
"Charlotte, you know Jeremy. You must be friends."
"Yes," said Charlotte, without moving. Then Jeremy tumbled into the stern gaze of Mr. Le Page who, arrayed as he was in a very smart suit of the whitest flannels, looked with his black beard and fierce black eyebrows like a pirate king disguised.
"How are you?" said Mr. Le Page in a deep bass voice.
"Very well, thank you," said Jeremy.
To tell the truth, Mrs. Cole's heart sadly misgave her when she saw the Le Page family all sitting up so new and so bright in their new and bright carriage. She thought of the simple preparations that had been made—the pasties, the saffron buns and the ginger beer; she looked around her at the very plain but useful garments worn by her family, her husband in faded grey flannel trousers and a cricketing shirt, Helen and Mary in the simplest blue cotton, and Jeremy in his two-year-old sailor suit. She had intended to bring their bathing things in a bundle, but now she put them aside. It was obvious that the Le Pages had no intention of bathing. She sighed and foresaw a difficult day ahead of her.
It was evident that the Le Pages did not intend to come one step farther into Cow Farm than was necessary.
"Dear Mrs. Cole, on a hot day—how can you endure the smells of a farm... such a charming farm, too, with all its cows and pigs, but in this weather... Charlotte darling, you don't feel the heat? No? Hold your sun-shade a little more to the right, love. That's right. She was not quite the thing last night, Mrs. Cole. I had some doubts about bringing her, but I knew you'd all be so disappointed. She's looking rather lovely to-day, don't you think? You must forgive a mother's partiality... Oh, you're not bringing that little dog, are you? Surely—"
Jeremy, who had from the first hated Mrs. Le Page, forgot his shyness and brought out fiercely:
"Of course he's coming. Hamlet always goes everywhere with us."
"Hamlet!" said Mr. Le Page in his deep bass voice.
"What a strange name for a dog!" said Mrs. Le Page in tones of vague distrust.
At last it was settled that one member of the Cole party should ride with the Le Pages, and Mary was selected. Poor Mary! inevitably chosen when something unpleasant must be done. To-day it was especially hard for her, because she entertained so implacable a hatred for the lovely Charlotte and looked, it must be confessed, so plain and shabby by the side of her. Indeed, to any observer with a heart it must have been touching to see Mary driven away in that magnificent black carriage, staring with agonised hostility in front of her through her large spectacles, compelled to balance herself exactly between the magnificent sunshade of Mrs. Le Page and the smaller but also magnificent sunshade of the lovely Charlotte. Mrs. Cole, glancing in that direction, may have felt with a pang that she would never be able to make her children handsome and gay as she would like to do—but it was certainly a pang of only a moment's duration.
She would not have exchanged her Mary for a wagon-load of Charlottes.
And Jeremy, bumping along in the jingle, also felt the contrast. Why could not Mary wear her straw hat straight, and why must she have elastic under her chin? Why did she look so cross and so stupid? Why did she bother him so with her worries? Charlotte would never worry him. She would just sit there, looking beautiful, with her golden hair, and blue eyes and pink cheeks. Next week was to be Miss Jones's birthday, and in preparation for this he had bought for her in Polchester a silver thimble. He wondered whether he would not give Charlotte this thimble instead of Miss Jones. He could give Miss Jones some old thing he would find somewhere, or he would go out and pick for her some flowers. She would be pleased with anything. He wondered what Charlotte would say when he gave her the thimble. She would like it, of course. She would smile. She would open her eyes and look at him. Fortunately he had the thimble even now in his pocket. He had bought it when he was wearing this same suit. Yes, he would give it to her. As he decided this he looked at Miss Jones guiltily, but she was making such odd faces as she squinted to escape from the sun that he did not feel ashamed.
They came to that steep hill just beyond Garth woods, and Bob, of course, refused to move. The superb Le Page affair dashed past them, shouted something at them, and disappeared over the brow of the hill. The last thing to be seen of them were the fierce despairing eyes of the imprisoned Mary. A strange sensation of relief instantly settled upon the Coles. For a moment they were alone; they began slowly to walk up the hill, dragging with them the reluctant Bob. About them was peace, absolute and unstained. The hard glitter of the day shone upon the white road, but behind them the wood was dark and cool, a green cloud against the sky. Behind the steep hedges the harvesters were moving. In the air a lark was singing, and along the ditch at the road side a tiny stream tumbled. And beyond these sounds there was a vast tranquil silence.
The Coles moved up the hill very slowly, only Hamlet racing ahead to find spots of shadow where he might lie down and pant. They would not confess to themselves that this promised to be the happiest moment of their day. They went bravely forward.
On the bend of the hill the Le Pages were waiting for them. What Mrs. Cole had foreseen had in truth occurred. The Le Page carriage would not go down the Rafiel Lane. No, it would, not... Nothing would induce it to.
"James," said Mrs. Le Page to her stout and disdainful attendant.
"Nothing, ma'am," said James.
"Dear me, dear me," said Mrs. Le Page. "Well then, we must walk," said the deep despairing voice of the Pirate King.
And walk they did.
That walk was, as Mrs. Cole afterwards said, "a pity," because it destroyed the Le Page tempers when the day was scarcely begun. Mr. Le Page was, it was quickly descried, not intended for walking. Strong and fierce though he seemed, heat instantly crumpled him up. The perfect crease of his white trousers vanished, his collar was no longer spotless, little beads of perspiration appeared almost at once on his forehead, and his black beard dripped moisture. Mrs. Le Page, with her skirts raised, walked as though she were passing through the Valley of Destruction; every step was a risk and a danger, and the difficulty of holding her skirts and her sunshade at the same time, and of seeing that her shoes were not soiled and her hat not caught by an offending bough gave her face an expression of desperate despair.
There was, unfortunately, one spot very deep down in the lane where the ground was never dry even in the height of the hottest summer.
A little stream ran here across the path, and the ground on either side was soft and sodden. Mrs. Le Page, struggling to avoid an overhanging branch, stepped into the mud; one foot stuck there, and it needed Mr. Cole's strong arm to pull her out of it.
"Charlotte! Charlotte!" she cried. "Don't let Charlotte step into that! Mr. Cole! Mr. Cole! I charge you—my child!" Charlotte was conveyed across, but the damage was done. One of Mrs. Le Page's beautiful shoes was thick with mud.
When, therefore, the party, climbing out of the Lane, came suddenly upon the path leading down to the Cove, with the sea, like a blue cloud in front of them, no one exclaimed at the view. It was a very beautiful view—one of the finest of its kind in the United Kingdom, the high rocks closing in the Cove and the green hills closing in the rocks. On the hill to the right was the Rafiel Old Church, with its graveyard that ran to the very edge of the cliff, and behind the Cove was a stream and a green orchard and a little wood. The sand of the Cove was bright gold, and the low rocks to either side of it were a dark red—the handsomest place in the world, with the water so clear that you could see down, far down, into green caverns laced with silver sand. Unfortunately, at the moment when the Coles and their friends beheld it, it was blazing in the sun; soon the sun would pass and, during the whole afternoon, half of it at least would lie in shadow, but the Le Pages could not be expected to think of that.
The basket was unloaded from the jingle and carried down to the beach by Mr. Cole and Jim. Jeremy, finding himself at the side of the lovely Charlotte, was convulsed with shyness, the more that he knew that the unhappy Mary was listening with jealous ears. Charlotte, walking like Agag, "delicately," had a piteous expression in her eyes as though she were being led to the torture.
Jeremy coughed and began: "We always come here every year. Don't you like it?"
"Yes," she said miserably.
"And we paddle and bathe. Do you like bathing?"
"Going into the sea?"
"Oh, no! Mother says I mustn't, because it'll hurt my hair. Do you like my hair?"
"Yes," said Jeremy, blushing at so direct an invitation to compliment.
"Mother says I've got to be very careful of my hair because it's my chief beauty."
"Yes," said Jeremy.
"I have a maid, Alice, and she brushes a whole hour every morning and a whole hour every evening."
"Don't you get very tired?" asked Jeremy. "I know I should."
"Mother says if you have such beautiful hair you must take trouble with it," Charlotte gravely replied.
Her voice was so like the voice of a parrot that Jeremy's grandmother had once possessed that it didn't seem as though a human being was speaking at all. They were near the beach now and could see the blue slipping in, turning into white bubbles, then slipping out again.
"Do you like my frock?" said Charlotte.
"Yes," said Jeremy.
"It was bought in London. All my clothes are bought in London."
"Mary's and Helen's aren't," said Jeremy with some faint idea of protecting his sisters. "They're bought in Polchester."
"Mother says," said Charlotte, "that if you're not pretty it doesn't matter where you buy your clothes."
They arrived on the beach and stared about them. It became at once a great question as to where Mrs. Le Page would sit. She could not sit on the sand which looked damp, nor equally, of course, on a rock that was spiky and hard. What to do with her? She stood in the middle of the beach, still holding up her skirts, gazing desperately about her, looking first at one spot and then at another.
"Oh, dear, the heat!" she exclaimed. "Is there no shade anywhere? Perhaps in that farm-house over there..." It was probable enough that no member of the Cole family would have minded banishing Mrs. Le Page into the farmhouse, but it would have meant that the whole party must accompany her. That was impossible. They had come for a picnic and a picnic they would have.
Mrs. Cole watched, with growing agitation, the whole situation. She saw from her husband's face that he was rapidly losing his temper, and she had learnt, after many experiences, that when he lost his temper he was capable of anything. That does not mean, of course, that he ever was angry to the extent of swearing or striking out with his fists—no, he simply grew sadder, and sadder, and sadder, and this melancholy had a way of reducing to despair all the people with whom he happened to be at the time.
"What does everyone say to our having lunch now?" cried Mrs. Cole cheerfully. "It's after one, and I'm sure everyone's hungry."
No one said anything, so preparations were begun. A minute piece of shade was found for Mrs. Le Page, and here she sat on a flat piece of rock with her skirts drawn close about her as though she were afraid of rats or crabs. A tablecloth was laid on the sand and the provisions spread out—pasties for everybody, egg-sandwiches, seed-cake, and jam-puffs—and ginger beer. It looked a fine feast when it was all there, and Mrs. Cole, as she gave the final touch to it by placing a drinking glass containing two red rose-buds in the middle, felt proud of her efforts and hoped that after all the affair might pass off bravely. But alas, how easily the proudest plans fall to the ground.
"I hope, Alice, you haven't forgotten the salt!"
Instantly Mrs. Cole knew that she had forgotten it. She could see herself standing there in Mrs. Monk's kitchen forgetting it. How could she? And Mrs. Monk, how could SHE? It had never been forgotten before.
"Oh, no," she said wildly. "Oh, no! I'm sure I can't have forgotten it."
She plunged about, her red face all creased with anxiety, her hat on one side, her hands searching everywhere, under the tablecloth, in the basket, amongst the knives and forks.
"Jim, you haven't dropped anything?"
"No, mum. Beggin' your pardon, mum, the basket was closed, so to speak—closed it was."
No, she knew that she had forgotten it.
"I'm so sorry, Mrs. Le Page, I'm afraid—"
"My dear Mrs. Cole! What does it matter? Not in the least, I assure you. In this heat it's impossible to feel hungry, isn't it? I assure you I don't feel as though I could touch a thing. A little fruit, perhaps—an apple or a peach—"
Fruit? Why hadn't Mrs. Cole brought fruit? She might so easily have done so, and she had never thought about it. They themselves were rather tired of fruit, and so—
"I'm afraid we've no fruit, but an egg-sandwich—"
"Eggs need salt, don't you think? Not that it matters in the very least, but so that you shouldn't think me fussy. Really, dear Mrs. Cole, I never felt less hungry in my life. Just a drop of milk and I'm perfectly satisfied."
"Jeremy shall run up to the farm for the milk. You don't mind, Jeremy dear, do you? It's only a step. Just take this sixpence, dear, and say we'll send the jug back this afternoon if they'll spare one."
Jeremy did mind. He was enjoying his luncheon, and he was gazing at Charlotte, and he was teasing Hamlet with scraps—he was very happy. Nevertheless, he started off.
So soon as he left the sands the noise of the sea was shut off from him, and he was climbing the little green path up which the Scarlet Admiral had once stalked.
Suddenly he remembered—in his excitement about Charlotte he had forgotten the Admiral. He stood for a moment, listening. The green hedge shut off the noise of the sea—only above his head some birds were twittering. He fancied that he heard footsteps, then that beyond the hedge something was moving. It seemed to him that the birds were also listening for something. "Well, it's the middle of the afternoon, anyway." He thought to himself, "He never comes there—only in the morning or evening," but he hurried forward after that, wishing that he had called to Hamlet to accompany him. It was a pleasant climb to the farm through the green orchard, and he found at the farm door an agreeable woman who smiled at him when she gave him the milk. He had to come down the hill carefully, lest the milk should be spilt. He walked along very happily, humming to himself and thinking in a confused summer afternoon kind of manner of Charlotte, Hamlet, Mrs. Le Page and himself. "Shall I give her the thimble or shan't I? I could take her to the pools where the little crabs are. She'd like them. I wonder whether we're going to bathe. Mrs. Le Page will look funny bathing..." Then he was in the green lane again, and at once his discomfort returned to him, and he looked around his shoulder and into the hedges, and stopped once and again to listen. There was no sound. The birds, it seemed, had all fallen to sleep. The hedges, he thought, were closer about him. It was very hot here, with no breeze and no comforting sound of the sea. "I wonder whether he really does come," he thought. "It must be horrid to see him—coming quite close." And the thought of the Fool also frightened him. The Fool with his tongue out and his shaking legs, like the idiot who lived near the Cathedral at home. At the thought of this Jeremy suddenly took to his legs and ran, covering the top of his jug with his hand; then, when he came out on to the strip of grass that crossed the top of the beach, he stopped, suddenly ashamed of himself. Scarlet Admirals! Scarlet Admirals! How could there be Scarlet Admirals in a world that also contained so blazing a sun, so blue a sea, and the gorgeous realities of the Le Page family. He arrived at the luncheon party hot and proud and smiling, so cheerful and stolid and agreeable that even Mrs. Le Page was compelled to say, "Really, Mrs. Cole, that's a very nice little boy of yours. Come here, little Jeremy, and talk to me!" How deeply he hated being called "little Jeremy" only Mary and Helen knew. Their eyes flew to his face to see how he would take it. He took it very well. He sat down beside Mrs. Le Page, who very gracefully and languidly sipped at her glass of milk.
"How old are you, Jeremy dear?" she asked him.
"Eight," he answered, wriggling.
"What a nice age! And one day you'll go to school?"
"And what will you be when you're a man?"
"Oh, I don't know. I'll be a soldier, perhaps."
"Oh, I'm sure you wouldn't like to be a soldier and kill people."
"Yes, I would. There's lots of people I'd like to kill."
Mrs. Le Page drew her skirts back a little.
"How horrible! I'm sure your mother wouldn't like to hear that."
But Mr. Cole had caught the last words of the dialogue and interrupted with:
"But what could be finer, Mrs. Le Page, than the defence of one's country? Would you have our young lads grow up faint-hearted and fail their Motherland when she calls? What can be finer, I say, than to die for Queen and country? Would not every mother have her son shed his blood for liberty and freedom?... No, Jeremy, not another. You've had quite enough. It would indeed be a disheartening sight if we elders were to watch our sons and grandchildren turning their swords into ploughshares—"
He was interrupted by a shrill cry from Mrs. Le Page:
"Charlotte, darling, do hold your sunshade up. All the left side of your face is exposed. That's better, dear. I beg your pardon, Mr. Cole."
But Mr. Cole was offended.
"I hope no son of mine will ever show himself a faint heart," he concluded severely.
The luncheon, in fact, had been a most dismal failure. The Coles could fling their minds back to luncheons on this same beach that had been simply riotous successes. What fun they had had! What games! What bathes? Now the very sight of Mr. Le Page's black beard was enough. Even Jeremy felt that things were wrong. Then he looked at Charlotte and was satisfied. There she sat, straight and stiff, her hands on her lap, her hair falling in lovely golden ripples down her back, her gaze fixed on distance. Oh! she was beautiful! He would do whatever she told him; he would give her Miss Noah and the apple tree; he would—A sound disturbed his devotions. He turned. Both Mr. and Mrs. Le Page were fast asleep.
"Children," whispered Mrs. Cole, "very quietly now, so that you don't disturb anyone, run off to the farther beach and play. Helen, you'll see that everything is all right, won't you?"
It was only just in time that Jeremy succeeded in strangling Hamlet's bark into a snort, and even then they all looked round for a moment at the sleepers in the greatest anxiety. But no, they had not been disturbed. If only Mr. Le Page could have known what he resembled lying there with his mouth open! But he did not know. He was doubtless dreaming of his property.
The children crept away. Charlotte and Jeremy together. Jeremy's heart beat thickly. At last he had the lovely creature in his charge. It was true that he did not quite know what he was going to do with her, and that even now, in the height of his admiration, he did wish that she would not walk as though she were treading on red-hot ploughshares, and that she could talk a little instead of giving little shivers of apprehension at every step.
"I must say," he thought to himself, "she's rather silly in some ways. Perhaps it wouldn't be fun to see her always."
They turned the corner round a projecting finger of rock, and a new little beach, white and gleaming, lay in front of them.
"Well," said Jeremy, "here we are. What shall we play?"
There was dead silence.
"We might play pirates," he continued. "I'll be the pirate, and Mary can sit on that rock until the water comes round her, and Charlotte shall hide in that cave—"
There was still silence. Looking about him, he discovered from his sisters' countenances that they were resolved to lend no kind of assistance, and he then from that deduced the simple fact that his sisters hated Charlotte and were not going to make it pleasant for her in any way if they could help it. Oh! it was a miserable picnic! The worst that he'd ever had.
"It's too hot to play," said Helen loftily. "I'm going to sit down over there."
"So am I," said Mary.
They moved away, their heads in the air and their legs ridiculously stiff.
Jeremy gazed at Charlotte in distress. It was very wicked of his sisters to go off like that, but it was also very silly of Charlotte to stand there so helplessly. He was beginning to think that perhaps he would give the thimble to Miss Jones after all.
"Would you like to go and see the pool where the little crabs are?" he asked.
"I don't know," she answered, her upper lip trembling as though she were going to cry. "I want to go home with Mother."
"You can't go home," he said firmly, "and you can't see your mother, because she's asleep."
"I've made my shoes dirty," she said, looking down at her feet, "and I'm so tired of holding my sunshade."
"I should shut it up," Jeremy said without any hesitation. "I think it's a silly thing. I'm glad I'm not a girl. Do you have to take it with you everywhere?"
"Not if it's raining. Then I have an umbrella."
"I think you'd better come and see the crabs," he settled. "They're only just over there."
She moved along with him reluctantly, looking back continually to where her mother ought to be.
"Are you enjoying yourself?" Jeremy asked politely.
"No," she said, without any hesitation, "I want to go home."
"She's as selfish as anything," he thought to himself. "We're giving the party, and she ought to have said 'Yes' even if she wasn't."
"Do you like my dog?" he asked, with another effort at light conversation.
"No," she answered, with a little shiver. "He's ugly."
"He isn't ugly," Jeremy returned indignantly. "He isn't perhaps the very best breed, but Uncle Samuel says that that doesn't matter if he's clever. He's better than any other dog. I love him more than anybody. He isn't ugly!"
"He is," cried Charlotte with a kind of wail. "Oh! I want to go home."
"Well, you can't go home," he answered her fiercely. "So you needn't think about it."
They came to the little pools, three of them, now clear as crystal, blue on their surface, with green depths and red shelving rock.
"Now you sit there," he said cheerfully. "No one will touch you. The crabs won't get at you."
He looked about him and noticed with surprise where he was. He was sitting on the farther corner of the very beach where the Scarlet Admiral had landed with his men. It was out there beyond that bend of rock that the wonderful ship had rode, with its gold and silk, its jewelled masts and its glittering board. Directly opposite to him was the little green path that led up the hill, and above it the very field—Farmer Ede's field!
For a long, long time they sat there in silence. He forgot Charlotte in his interest over his discovery, staring about him and watching how quickly the August afternoon was losing its heat and colour, so that already a little cold autumnal wind was playing about the sand, the colours were being drawn from the sky, and a grey web was slowly pulled across the sea.
"Now," he said cheerfully at last, to Charlotte, "I'll look for the crabs."
"I hate crabs," she said. "I want to go home."
"You can't go home," he answered furiously. "What's the good of saying that over and over again? You aren't going yet, so it's no use saying you are."
"You're a horrid little boy," she brought out with a kind of inanimate sob.
He did not reply to that; he was still trying to behave like a gentleman. How could he ever have liked her? Why, her hair was not so much after all. What was hair when you come to think of it? Mary got on quite well with hers, ugly though it was. She was stupid, stupid, stupid! She was like someone dead. As he searched for the crabs that weren't there he felt his temper growing. Soon he would lead her back to her mother and leave her there and never see her again.
But this was not the climax of the afternoon.
When he looked up from gazing into the pool the whole world seemed to have changed. He was still dazzled perhaps by the reflection of the water in his eyes, and yet it was not altogether that. It was not altogether because the day was slipping from afternoon into evening.
The lazy ripple of the water as it slutched up the sand and then broke, the shadows that were creeping farther and farther from rock to rock, the green light that pushed up from the horizon into the faint blue, the grey web of the sea, the thick gathering of the hills as they crept more closely about the little darkening beach... it was none of these things.
He began hurriedly to tell Charlotte about the Scarlet Admiral. Even as he told her he was himself caught into the excitement of the narration. He forgot her; he did not see her white cheeks, her mouth open with terror, an expression new to her, that her face had never known before, stealing into her eyes. He told her how the Fool had seen the ship, how the Admiral had landed, then left his men on the beach, how he had climbed the little green path, how the young man had followed him, how they had fought, how the young man had fallen. What was that? Jeremy jumped from his rock. "I say, did you hear anything?"
And that was enough for Charlotte. With one scream, a scream such as she had never uttered in her life before, sue turned, and then, running as indeed she had never run before, she stumbled, half fell, stumbled, finally ran as though the whole world of her ghosts was behind her. Her screams were so piercing that they may well have startled, the villagers of Rafiel.
Jeremy followed her, but his mind was not with her. Was he going to see something? What was it? Who was it?
Then the awful catastrophe that finished the afternoon occurred. Turning the corner of the rock, Charlotte missed her footing and fell straight into a pool. Jeremy, Mary and Helen were upon her almost as she fell. They dragged her out, but alas! what a sight was there! Instead of the beautiful and magnificent Charlotte there was a bedraggled and dirty little girl.
But also, instead of an inanimate and lifeless doll, there was at last a human being, a terrified soul.
The scene that followed passes all power of description. Mrs. Le Page wailed like a lost spirit; Mr. Le Page was so rude to Mr. Cole that it might confidently be said that those two gentlemen would never speak to one another again. Mrs. Cole, dismayed though she was, had some fatalistic consolation that she had known from the first that the picnic would be a most dreadful failure and that the worst had occurred; there was no more to come.
Everyone was too deeply occupied to scold Jeremy. They all moved up to the farm, Charlotte behaving most strangely, even striking her mother and crying: "Let me go! Let me go! I don't want to be clean! I'm frightened! I'm frightened!"
Jeremy hung behind the others. At the bottom of the little lane he stood and waited. Was there a figure coming up through the dusk? Did someone pass him? Why did he suddenly feel no longer afraid, but only reassured and with the strangest certainty that the lane, the beach, the field belonged to him now? He would come there and live when he grew up. He would come often. Had the Scarlet Admiral passed him? If not the Scarlet Admiral, then the other.
The sea picnic had, after all, been not quite a misfortune.
Jeremy had been made free of the land.
And Charlotte? Charlotte had been woken up, and never would go to sleep again.
CHAPTER X. MARY
Mary Cole had been, all her life, that thing beloved of the sentimental novelist, a misunderstood child. She was the only misunderstood member of the Cole family, and she was misunderstood, as is very often the case, in a large measure because she was so plain. Had she been good-looking as Helen, or independent as Jeremy, she would have either attracted the world in general, or have been indifferent as to whether she attracted it or not. As it was, she longed to attract everyone, and, in truth, attracted nobody. She might have found consolation in books or her own highly-coloured imaginations had it not been for the burning passions which she formed, at a very early age, for living people. For some years now her life had centred round her brother Jeremy. Had the Coles been an observant family they might, perhaps, have found some pathos in the way in which Mary, with her pale sallow complexion, her pear-shaped face with its dull, grey eyes, her enormous glasses, her lanky colourless hair, and her thin, bony figure, gazed at her masculine and independent brother.
Uncle Samuel might have noticed, but he was occupied with his painting. For the rest they were not observant. Mary was only seven years of age, but she had the capacity for being hurt of a person of thirty. She was hurt by everything and everybody. When somebody said: "Now, Mary, hurry up. You're always so slow," she was hurt. If Helen told her that she was selfish, she was hurt, and would sit wondering whether she was selfish or no. If Mrs. Cole said that she must brush her hair more carefully she was hurt, and when Jeremy said anything sharp to her she was in agony. She discovered very quickly that no one cared for her agonies. The Coles were a plain, matter-of-fact race, and had the day's work to finish. They had no intention of thinking too much of their children's feelings. Thirty years ago that was not so popular as it is now. Meanwhile, her devotion to her brother grew with every month of her life. She thought him, in all honesty, the most miraculous of all human beings. There was more in her worship than mere dog-like fidelity. She adored him for reasons that were real and true; for his independence, his obstinacy, his sense of fun, his sudden, unexpected kindnesses, his sudden helplessness, and above all, for his bravery. He seemed to her the bravest hero in all history, and she felt it the more because she was herself compact of every fear and terror known to man. It was not enough for her, the ordinary panic that belongs to all human life at every stage of its progress. She feared everything and everybody, and only hid her fear by a persistent cover of almost obstinate stupidity, which deceived, to some extent, her relations, but never in any degree herself. She knew that she was plain, awkward and hesitating, but she knew also that she was clever. She knew that she could do everything twice as fast as Jeremy and Helen, that she was often so impatient of their slow progress at lessons that she would beat her foot on the ground in a kind of agonised impatience. She knew that she was clever, and she wondered sometimes why her cleverness did not give her more advantage. Why, for instance, should Helen's good looks be noticed at once by every visitor and her own cleverness be unnoticed? Certainly, on occasions, her mother would say: "And Mary? I don't think you've met Mary. Come and say, how do you do, Mary. Mary is the clever one of the family!" but it was always said in a deprecating, apologetic tone, which made Mary hang her head and hate both herself and her mother.
She told herself stories of the times when Jeremy would have to depend entirely upon the splendour of her brains for his delivery from some horror—death, torture or disgrace. At present those times were, she was bound to confess to herself, very distant. He depended upon no one for anything; he could not be said to need Mary's assistance in any particular. And with this burning desire of hers came, of course, jealousy. There are some happy, easy natures to whom jealousy is, through life, unknown. They are to be envied. Jealousy in a grown-up human being is bad; in a child it is terrible. Had you told Mrs. Cole—good mother though she was—that her daughter Mary, aged seven, suffered tortures through jealousy, she would have assured you that it was not, in reality, jealousy, but rather indigestion, and that a little medicine would put it right.
Mary was quite helpless. What is a child to do if she is jealous? Other children do not understand her, her elders laugh at her. Mary, with a wisdom greatly beyond her years, realised very quickly that this was some sort of horrible disease, with which she must wrestle alone. Above all, she must never allow Jeremy to know anything about it. He was, of course, sublimely unaware of the matter; he knew that Mary was silly sometimes, but he attributed that to her sex; he went on his way, happily indifferent whether anyone cared for him or no...
Mary suffered agonies when, as sometimes happened, Jeremy sat with his arm round Helen's neck and his cheek up against hers. She suffered when, in a mood of tempestuous affection to the whole world, he kissed Miss Jones. She even suffered when he sat at his mother's feet whilst she read "The Dove in the Eagle's Nest," or "Engel the Fearless."
Most of all, however, she suffered over Hamlet. She knew that at this present time Hamlet was the one creature for whom Jeremy passionately cared. He loved his mother, but with the love that custom and habit has tamed and modified, although since Mrs. Cole's illness in the early summer he had cared for her in a manner more demonstrative and openly affectionate. Nevertheless, it was Hamlet who commanded Jeremy's heart, and Mary knew it. Matters were made worse by the undoubted truth that Hamlet did not care very much for Mary—that is, he never gave any signs of caring, and very often walked out of the room when she came into it. Mary could have cared for the dog as enthusiastically as Jeremy—she was always sentimental about animals—but now she was shut out from their alliance, and she knew that when she came up to them and began to pat or stroke Hamlet, Jeremy was annoyed and Hamlet's skin wriggled in a kind of retreating fashion under her fingers. Wise people will say that it is impossible for this to be a serious trouble to a child. It was increasingly serious to Mary.
Jeremy was not, perhaps, so tactful as he might have been. "Oh bother, Mary!" he would say. "You've gone and waked Hamlet up!" or "Don't stroke Hamlet that way, Mary; he hates it!" or "No, I'm going for a walk with Hamlet; we don't want anyone!" Or Hamlet himself would suddenly bark at her as though he hated her, or would bare his teeth and grin at her in a mocking, sarcastic way that he had. At first, as an answer to this, she had the ridiculous idea of herself adopting an animal, and she selected, for this purpose, the kitchen cat, a dull, somnolent beast, whose sleek black hair was furtive, and green, crooked eyes malignant. The cat showed no signs of affection for Mary, nor could she herself honestly care for it. When she brought it with her into the schoolroom, Hamlet treated it in a scornful, sarcastic fashion that was worse than outrageous attack. The cat was uncleanly, and was speedily banished back into the kitchen. Mary's jealousy of Hamlet then grew apace, and with that jealousy, unfortunately, her secret appreciation of his splendours. She could not help admitting to herself that he was the most attractive dog in the world. She would look at him from under her spectacles when she was supposed to be reading and watch him as he rolled, kicking his legs in the air, or lay stretched out, his black wet nose against his paws, his eyes gleaming, his gaze fixed like the point of a dagger raised to strike, upon some trophy, or enemy, or spoil, or sat, solemn and pompous, like the Lord Mayor holding a meeting, as Jeremy said, up against his master's leg, square and solid as though he were cut out of wood, his peaked beard supercilious, his very ears at a patronising angle; or, as Mary loved best of all to see him, when he was simply childish, playing, as though he was still a new-found puppy, with pieces of paper or balls of string, rolling and choking, growling, purring, staggering and tumbling. At such times, again and again, her impulse would be to go forward and applaud him, and then, the instinct that she would be checked by Jeremy stayed her.
She knew very well that Jeremy realised nothing of this. Jeremy was not given to the consideration of other people's motives—his own independence saved him from anxiety about others. He had the English characteristic of fancying that others must like and dislike as he himself liked and disliked. Of sentiment he had no knowledge whatever.
As this year grew towards summer Mary had the feeling that Jeremy was slipping away from her. She did not know what had happened to him. In the old days he had asked her opinion about many things; he had scorned to enjoy the long stories that she had told him—at any rate, he had listened to them very politely—and he had asked her to suggest games or to play with his toys. Now as the summer drew near, he did none of these things. He was frankly impatient with her stories, never asked her advice about anything, and never played with her. Was he growing very conceited? Was it because he was going to school, and thought himself too old for his sisters? No, he did not seem to be conceited—he had always been proud, but never conceited. It was rather as though he had lately had thoughts of his own, almost against his will, and that these had shut him off from the people round him.
Then, when their mother was so ill and Barbara made her startling appearance Jeremy kept more to himself. He never talked about his mother's illness, as did the others, and yet Mary knew that he had been more deeply concerned than any of them. She had been miserable, of course, but to Jeremy it had been as though he had been led into a new world altogether; Helen and she were still in their old places, and Jeremy had left them.
At last just before they all moved to Cow Farm Mary made a silly scene. She had not intended to make a scene. Scenes seemed to come upon her, like evil birds, straight out of the air, to seize her before she knew where she was, to envelop and carry her up with them; at last, when all the mischief was done, to set her on her feet again, battered, torn and bitterly ashamed. One evening she was sitting deep in "Charlotte Mary," and Hamlet, bunched up against his master's leg, stared at her. She had long ago told herself that it was ridiculous to mind what Hamlet did, that he was not looking at her, and, in any case, he was only a dog—and so on.
But to-night she was tired, and had read so long that her head ached—Hamlet was laughing at her, his eyes stared through his hair at her, cynically, superciliously, contemptuously. His lip curled and his beard bristled. Moved by a sudden wild impulse she picked up "The Chaplet of Pearls" and threw it at him. It hit him (not very severely), and he gave the sharp, melodramatic howl that he always used when it was his dignity rather than his body that was hurt. Jeremy looked up, saw what had happened, and a fine scene followed. Mary had hysterics, stamped and screamed and howled. Jeremy, his face white, stood and said nothing, but looked as though he hated her, which at that moment he undoubtedly did. It was that look which more than anything else in the world she dreaded.
She made herself sick with crying; then apologised with an abjection that only irritated him the more; finally remembered the smallest details of the affair long after he had forgotten all about it.
During the first weeks at Cow Farm Mary was happy. She had then many especial private joys, such as climbing into one of the old apple trees behind the house and reading there, safe from the world, or inventing for herself wonderful adventures out of the dark glooms and sunlit spaces of the orchard, or creeping about the lofts and barns as though they were full of the most desperate dangers and hazards that she alone had the pluck and intelligence to overcome. Then Mrs. Monk was kind to her, and listened to her imaginative chatter with a most marvellous patience. Mary did not know that, after these narrations, she would shake her head and say to her husband: "Not long for this world, I'm thinking, poor worm...not long for this world."
Then, at first Jeremy was kind and considerate. He was so happy that he did not mind what anyone did, and he would listen to Mary's stories quite in the old way, whistling to himself, not thinking about her at all perhaps, really, but very patient. After the first fortnight he slipped away from her again—and now more than ever before. He went off for long walks with Hamlet, refusing to take her with them; he answered her questions so vaguely that she could see that he paid her no attention at all; he turned upon her and rent her if she complained. And it was all, she was sure, that horrible dog. Jeremy was always with Hamlet now. The free life that the farm gave them, no lessons, no set hours, no care for appearances, left them to choose their own ways, and so developed their individualities. Helen was now more and more with her elders, was becoming that invaluable thing, "a great help to her mother," and even, to her own inexhaustible pride, paid two calls with Mrs. Cole on the wives of neighbouring farmers. Then, Barbara absorbed more than ever of Helen's attention, and Mary was not allowed to share in these rites and services because "she always made Barbara cry."
She was, therefore, very much alone, and felt all her injuries twice as deeply as she had felt them before. Hamlet began to be an obsession with her. She had always had a habit of talking to herself, and now she could be heard telling herself that if it were not for the dog, Jeremy would always be with her, would play with her, walk with her, laugh with her as he used to do. She acquired now an awkward habit of gazing at him with passionate intensity. He would raise his eyes and find the great moon-faced spectacles fixed upon him with a beseeching, reproachful glare in the light of them. This would irritate him intensely. He would say:
"You'll know me next time, Mary."
She would blush crimson and then, with trembling mouth, answer:
"I wasn't looking."
"Yes, you were."
"No, I wasn't."
"Of course, you were—staring as though I were an Indian or Chinaman. If my face is dirty, say so."
"It isn't dirty."
"You're always so cross."
"I'm not cross—only you're so silly—"
"You usen't always to say I was silly. Now you always do—every minute."
"So you are." Then as he saw the tears coming he would get up and go away. He didn't mean to be unkind to her; he was fond of her—but he hated scenes.
"Mary's always howling about something now," he confided to Helen.
"Is she?" Helen answered with indifference. "Mary's such a baby."
So Mary began to attribute everything to the dog. It seemed to her then that she met the animal everywhere. Cow Farm was a rambling building, with dark, uneven stairs, low-ceilinged rooms, queer, odd corners, and sudden unexpected doors. It seemed to Mary as though in this place there were two Hamlets. When, in the evening she went to her room, hurrying through the passages for fear of what she might see, stumbling over the uneven boards, sniffling the mice and straw under the smell of her tallow candle, suddenly out of nowhere at all Hamlet would appear scurrying along, like the White Rabbit, intent on serious business.
He came so softly and with so sudden a flurry and scatter when she did hear him that her heart would beat for minutes afterwards, and she would not dare that night to search, as she usually did, for burglars under her bed, but would lie, quaking, hot and staring, unable to sleep. When at last dreams came they would be haunted by a monstrous dog, all hair and eyes, who, with padding feet, would track her round and round a room from which there was no escape. Hamlet, being one of the wisest of dogs, very quickly discovered that Mary hated him. He was not a sentimental dog, and he did not devote his time to inventing ways in which he might placate his enemy, he simply avoided her. But he could not hinder a certain cynical and ironic pleasure that he had of, so to speak, flaunting his master in her face. He clung to Jeremy more resolutely than ever, would jump up at him, lick his hands and tumble about in front of him whenever Mary was there, and then suddenly, very straight and very grave, would stare at her as though he were the most devout and obedient dog in the place. Indeed, he bore her no malice; he could afford to disregard the Marys of this world, and of women in general he had a poor opinion. But he loved to tease, and Mary was an easy prey. He had his fun with her.
After the affair of the sea-picnic, Jeremy was for some time under a cloud. It was felt that he was getting too big for anyone to manage. It was not that he was wicked, not that he kept bad company with the boys on the farm, or was dishonest, or told lies, or stole things—no, he gave no one that kind of anxiety—but that he was developing quite unmistakably a will of his own, and had a remarkable way of doing what he wanted without being actually disobedient, which was very puzzling to his elders. Being a little in disgrace he went off more than ever by himself, always appearing again at the appointed time, but telling no one where he had been or what he had been doing. His father had no influence over him at all, whilst Uncle Samuel could make him do whatever he wanted—and this, as Aunt Amy said, "was really a pity."
"It's a good thing he's going to school in September," sighed his mother. "He's getting out of women's hands."
Mary longed with feverish longing to share in his adventures. If only he would tell her what he did on these walks of his. But no, only Hamlet knew. Perhaps, if he did not go with the dog he would go with her. When this idea crept into her brain she seized it and clutched it. That was all he wanted—a companion! Were Hamlet not there he would take her. Were Hamlet not there... She began to brood over this. She wandered... She considered. She shuddered at her own wickedness; she tried to drive the thoughts from her head, but they kept coming.
After all, no one need know. For a day or two Jeremy would be sorry and then he would forget. She knew the man who went round selling dogs—selling dogs and buying them.
She shuddered at her wickedness.
The last days of August came, and with them the last week of the holiday. Already there was a scent of autumn in the air, leaves were turning gold and red, and the evenings came cool and sudden, upon the hot summer afternoons. Mary was not very well; she had caught a cold somewhere, and existed in the irritating condition of going out one day and being held indoors the next. This upset her temper, and at night she had nightmares, in which she saw clouds of smoke crawling in at her window, snakes on the floor, and crimson flames darting at her from the ceiling. It was because she was in an abnormal condition of health that the idea of doing something with Hamlet had gained such a hold upon her. She considered the matter from every point of view. She did not want to be cruel to the dog; she supposed that after a week or two he would be quite happy with his new master, and, in any case, he had strolled in so casually upon the Cole family that he was accustomed to a wandering life.
She did not intend that anyone should know. It was to be a deep secret all of her own.
Jeremy was going to school in September, and before then she must make him friendly to her again. She saw stretching in front of her all the lonely autumn without him and her own memories of the miserable summer to make her wretched. She was an extremely sentimental little girl.
As always happens when one is meditating with a placated conscience a wicked deed, the opportunity was suddenly offered to Mary of achieving her purpose. One morning Jeremy, after refusing to listen to one of Mary's long romances, lost his temper.
"I can't stop," he said. "You bother and bother and bother. Aunt Amy says you nearly make her mad."
"I don't care what Aunt Amy says," Mary on the edge of tears replied.
"Hamlet and I are going out. And I'm sick of your silly old stories." Then he suddenly stopped and gazed at Mary, who was beginning, as usual, to weep.
"Look here, Mary, what's been the matter with you lately? You're always crying now or something. And you look at me as though I'd done something dreadful. I haven't done anything."
"I—never—said you—had," Mary gulped out. He rubbed his nose in a way that he had when he was puzzled.
"If it's anything I do, tell me. It's so silly always crying. The holidays will be over soon, and you've done nothing but cry."
"You're—never—with me—now," Mary sobbed.
"Well, I've been busy."
"You haven't. You can't be busy all—by yourself."
"Oh, yes, you can." He was getting impatient. "Anyway, you might let Hamlet and me alone. You're always bothering one of us."
"No, I'm not." She choked an enormous sob and burst out with: "It's always Hamlet now. I wish he'd never—come. It was much nicer before."
Then he lost his temper. "Oh, you're a baby! I'm sick of you and your nonsense," he cried, and stamped off.
In Mary's red-rimmed eyes, as she watched him go, determination grew.
It happened that upon the afternoon of that same day Miss Jones announced that she would take Mary for a walk; then, just as they passed through the farm gates, Hamlet, rushing out, joined them. He did not often honour them with his company, despising women most especially when they walked, but to-day his master was busy digging for worms in the vegetable garden, and, after a quarter of an hour's contemplation of this fascinating occupation, he had wandered off in search of a livelier game. He decided to join Miss Jones; he could do what he pleased, he could amuse himself with her ineffectual attempts to keep him in order, and he could irritate Mary; so he danced along, with his tail in the air, barking at imaginary rats and poking his nose into hedges.
Mary, with a sudden tightened clutching of the heart, realised that her hour was upon her. She felt so wicked as she realised this that she wondered that the ground didn't open up and swallow her, as it had done with those unfortunate people in the Bible. But no, the world was calm. Little white milky clouds raced in lines and circles across the sky, and once and again a leaf floated from a tree, hung for a moment suspended, and then turned slowly to the ground. The hedges were a dark black-green, high and thick above the dusty road; there had been no rain for weeks. Truly a stable world. Mary, glaring at Fate, wondered how it could be so.
Miss Jones, who was happy and optimistic to-day, talked in a tenderly reminiscent tone of her youth. This vein of reminiscence Mary, on her normal day, loved. To-day she did not hear a word that Miss Jones said.
"I remember my mother saying so well to my dear brother: 'Do what you like, my boy. I trust you.' And indeed Alfred was to be trusted if ever a boy was. It is a remarkable thing, but I cannot remember a single occasion of dishonesty on Alfred's part. 'A white lie,' he would often say, 'is a lie, and a lie is a sin—white or black, always a sin'; and I remember that he would often put mother to a serious inconvenience by his telling callers that she was in when she had wished it to be said that she was not at home. He felt it his serious duty, and so he told Mother. 'Don't ask me to tell a lie, Mother,' I remember his saying. 'I cannot do it.'"
"Like George Washington," said Mary, suddenly catching the last words of Miss Jones's sentence.
"He was like many famous characters in history, I used to think. Once I remember reading about Oliver Cromwell... 'Where is that dog? Hamlet! Hamlet! Perhaps he's gone after the sheep. Ah! there he is! Hamlet, you naughty dog!'"
They were approaching one of their favourite pieces of country—Mellot Wood. Here, on the wood's edge, the ground broke away, running down in a field of corn to a little green valley with clustered trees that showed only their heads, so thickly embedded were they, and beyond the valley the sea. The sea looked quite close here, although it was in reality four miles distant. Never was such a place as this view for light and shadow. The clouds raced like the black wings of enormous birds across the light green valley, and the red-gold of the cornfield was tossed into the haze and swept like a golden shadow across the earth, bending back again when the breeze had died. Behind Mellot Wood was Mellot Farm, an old eighteenth-century house about which there was a fine tragic story with a murder and a ghost in it, and this, of course, gave Mellot Wood an additional charm. When they arrived at the outskirts of Mellot Wood Mary looked about her. It was here, on the edge of the Rafiel Road that skirted the wood, that she had once seen the dog-man eating his luncheon out of a red pocket-handkerchief. There was no sign of him to-day. All was silent and still. Only the little wood uttered little sighs of content beneath the flying clouds. Hamlet, tired with his racing after imaginary rabbits, walked quietly along by Mary's side. What was she to do? She had once again the desperate feeling that something stronger than she had swept down upon her and was forcing her to do this thing. She seemed to have no will of her own, but to be watching some other commit an act whose dangerous wickedness froze her heart. How could she? But she must. Someone was doing it for her.