Peter Reid quite shone through the meal. He remembered episodes of his boyhood, forgotten for forty years, and told them to Jock and Mhor, who listened with most gratifying interest. He questioned Jock about Priorsford Grammar School, and recalled stories of the masters who had taught there in his day.
Jean told him about David going to Oxford, and about Great-aunt Alison who had "come out at the Disruption"—about her father's life in India, and about her mother, and he became every minute more human and interested. He even made one or two small jokes which were received with great applause by Jock and Mhor, who were grateful to anyone who tried, however feebly, to be funny. They would have said with Touchstone, "It is meat and drink to me to see a clown."
Jean watched with delight her rather difficult guest blossom into affability. "You are looking better already," she told him. "If you stayed here for a week and rested and Mrs. M'Cosh cooked you light, nourishing food and Mhor didn't make too much noise, I'm sure you would feel quite well again. And it does seem such a pity to pay hotel bills when we want you here."
Hotel bills! Peter Reid looked sharply at her. Did she imagine, this girl, that hotel bills were of any moment to him? Then he looked down at his shabby clothes and recalled their conversation and owned that her mistake was not unjustifiable.
But how extraordinary it was! The instinct that makes people wish to stand well with the rich and powerful he could understand and commend, but the instinct that opens wide doors to the shabby and the unsuccessful was not one that he knew anything about: it was certainly not an instinct for this world as he knew it.
Just as they were finishing tea Mrs. M'Cosh ushered in Miss Pamela Reston.
"You did say I might come in when I liked," she said as she greeted Jean. "I've had tea, thank you. Mhor, you haven't been to see me to-day."
"I would have been," Mhor assured her, "but Jean said I'd better not. Do you invite me to come to-morrow?"
"There, Jean," said Mhor. "You can't un-vite me after that."
"Indeed she can't," said Pamela. "Jock, this is the book I told you about.... Please, Miss Jean, don't let me disturb you."
"We've finished," said Jean. "May I introduce Mr. Reid?"
Pamela shook hands and at once proceeded to make herself so charming that Peter Reid was galvanised into a spirited conversation. Pamela had brought her embroidery-frame with her, and she sat on the sofa and sorted out silks, and talked and laughed as if she had sat there off and on all her life. To Jean, looking at her, it seemed impossible that two days ago none of them had beheld her. It seemed—absurdly enough—that the room could never have looked quite right when it had not this graceful creature with her soft gowns and her pearls, her embroidery-frame and heaped, bright-hued silks sitting by the fire.
"Miss Jean, won't you sing us a song? I'm convinced that you sing Scots songs quite perfectly."
Jean laughed. "I can sing Scots songs in a way, but I have a voice about as big as a sparrow's. If it would amuse you I'll try."
So Jean sat down to the piano and sang "Proud Maisie," and "Colin's Cattle," and one or two other old songs.
"I wonder," said Peter Reid, "if you know a song my mother used to sing—'Strathairlie'?"
"Indeed I do. It's one I like very much. I have it here in this little book." She struck a few simple chords and began to sing: it was a lilting, haunting tune, and the words were "old and plain."
"O, the lift is high and blue, And the new mune glints through, On the bonnie corn-fields o' Strathairlie; Ma ship's in Largo Bay, And I ken weel the way Up the steep, steep banks o' Strathairlie.
When I sailed ower the sea, A laddie bold and free, The corn sprang green on Strathairlie! When I come back again, It's an auld man walks his lane Slow and sad ower the fields o' Strathairlie.
O' the shearers that I see No' a body kens me, Though I kent them a' in Strathairlie; An' the fisher-wife I pass, Can she be the braw lass I kissed at the back o' Strathairlie? O, the land is fine, fine, I could buy it a' for mine, For ma gowd's as the stooks in Strathairlie; But I fain the lad would be Wha sailed ower the saut sea When the dawn rose grey on Strathairlie."
Jean rose from the piano. Jock had got out his books and had begun his lessons. Mhor and Peter were under the table playing at being cave-men. Pamela was stitching at her embroidery. Peter Reid sat shading his eyes from the light with his hand.
Jean knelt down on the rug and held out her hands to the blazing fire.
"It must be sad to be old and rich," she said softly, almost as if she were speaking to herself. "It is so very certain that we can carry nothing out of this world.... I read somewhere of a man who, on every birthday, gave away some of his possessions so that at the end he might not be cumbered and weighted with them." She looked up and caught the gaze of Peter Reid fixed on her intently. "It's rather a nice idea, don't you think, to give away all the superfluous money and lands, pictures and jewels, everything we have, and stand stripped, as it were, ready when we get the word to come, to leap into the beyond?"
Pamela spoke first. "There speaks sweet and twenty," she said.
"Yes," said Jean. "I know it's quite easy for me to speak in that lordly way of disposing of possessions, for I haven't got any to dispose of."
"Then," said Pamela, "we are to take it that you are ready to spring across any minute?"
"So far as goods and gear go; but I'm rich in other things. I'm pretty heavily weighted by David, and Jock, and Mhor."
Then Peter Reid spoke, still with his hand over his eyes.
"Once you begin to make money it clings. How can you get rid of it?"
"I'm saving up for a bicycle," the Mhor broke in, becoming aware that the conversation turned on money. "I've got half a crown and a thru-penny-bit and fourpence-ha'penny in pennies: and I've got a duster to clean it with when I've got it."
Jean stroked his head. "I don't think you'll ever be overburdened with riches, Mhor, old man. But it must be tremendous fun to be rich. I love books where suddenly a lawyer's letter comes saying that someone has left them a fortune."
"What would you do with a fortune if you got it?" Peter Reid asked.
"Need you ask?" laughed Pamela. "Miss Jean would at once make it over to David and Jock and Mhor."
"Oh, well," said Jean, "of course they would come first, but, oh, I would do such a lot of things! I'd find out where money was most needed and drop it on the people anonymously so that they wouldn't be bothered about thanking anyone. I would creep about like a beneficent Puck and take worried frowns away, and straighten out things for tired people, and, above all, I'd make children smile. There's no fun or satisfaction got from giving big sums to hospitals and things—that's all right for when you're dead. I want to make happiness while I'm alive. I don't think a million pounds would be too much for all I want to do."
"Aw, Jean," said Mhor, "if you had a million pounds would you buy me a bicycle?"
"A bicycle," said Jean, "and a motor and an aeroplane and a Shetland pony and a Newfoundland pup. I'll make a story for you in bed to-night all about what you would have if I were rich."
"And Jock, too?"
Being assured that Jock would not be overlooked Mhor grabbed Peter round the neck and proceeded to babble to him about bicycles and aeroplanes, motors and Newfoundland pups.
Jean looked apologetically at her guests.
"When you're poor you've got to dream," she said. "Oh, must you go, Mr. Reid? But you'll come back to-morrow, won't you? We would honestly like you to come and stay with us."
"Thank you," said Peter Reid, "but I am going back to London in a day or two. I am obliged to you for your hospitality, especially for singing me 'Strathairlie.' I never thought to hear it again. I wonder if I might trouble you to write me out the words."
"But take the book," said Jean, running to get it and pressing it into his hands. "Perhaps you'll find other songs in it you used to know and like. Take it to keep."
Pamela dropped her embroidery-frame and watched the scene.
Mhor and Peter stood looking on. Jock lifted his head from his books to listen. It was no new thing for the boys to see Jean give away her most treasured possessions: she was a born "Madam Liberality."
"But," Peter Reid objected, "it is rather a rare book. You value it yourself."
"Of course I do," said Jean, "and that is why I am giving it to you. I know you will appreciate it."
Peter Reid took the book as if it was something fragile and very precious. Pamela was puzzled by the expression on his face. He did not seem so much touched by the gift as amused—sardonically amused.
"Thank you," he said. And again, "Thank you!"
"Jock will go down with you to the hotel," Jean said, explaining, when the visitor demurred, that the road was steep and not very well lighted.
"I'll go too," said Mhor, "me and Peter."
"Well, come straight back. Good-bye, Mr. Reid. I'm so glad you came to see The Rigs, but I wish you could have stayed...."
"Is he an old friend?" Pamela asked, when the cavalcade had departed.
"I never saw him before to-day. He once lived in this house and he came back to see it, and he looks ill and I think he is poor, so I asked him to come and stay with us for a week."
"My dear child, do you invite every stranger to stay with you if you think he is poor?"
"Of course not. But he looked so lonely and lost somehow, and he doesn't seem to have anyone belonging to him, and I was sorry for him."
"And so you gave him that song-book you value so much?"
"Yes," said Jean, looking rather ashamed. "But," she brightened, "he seemed pleased, don't you think? It's a pretty song, 'Strathairlie,' but it's not a pukka old one—it's early Victorian."
"Miss Jean, it's a marvel to me that you have anything left belonging to you."
"Don't call me Miss Jean!"
"Jean, then; but you must call me Pamela."
"Oh, but wouldn't that be rather familiar? You see, you are so—so—"
"Stricken in years," Pamela supplied.
"No—but—well, you are rather impressive, you know. It would be like calling Miss Bathgate 'Bella' to her face. However—Pamela—"
"For 'tis a chronicle of day by day."
About this time Jean wrote a letter to David at Oxford. It is wonderful how much news there is when people write every other day; if they wait for a month there is nothing that seems worth telling.
" ... You have been away now for four days, and we still miss you badly. Nobody sits in your place at the table, and it gives us such a horrid bereaved feeling when we look at it. Mhor was waiting at the gate for the post yesterday and brought your letter in in triumph. He was particularly interested in hearing about your scout, and has added his name to the list he prays for. You will be glad to hear that he has got over his prejudice against going to heaven. It seems it was because someone told him that dogs couldn't go there, and he wouldn't desert Micawber—Peter, in other words. Jock has put it right by telling him that the translators of the Bible probably made a slip, and Mhor now prays earnestly every night: 'Let everyone in The Rigs go to heaven,' hoping thus to smuggle in his dear companion.
"It is an extraordinary thing, but almost the very minute you left Priorsford things began to happen.
"I told you in the note I wrote the day you left that Bella Bathgate's lodger had arrived and that I had seen her, but I didn't realise then what a difference her coming would make to us. I never knew such a friendly person; she comes in at any sort of time—after breakfast, a few minutes before luncheon, for tea, between nine and ten at night. Did I tell you her name is Pamela Reston, and her brother, who seems to be ranging about India somewhere, is Lord Bidborough ('A lord-no-less,' as Mrs. M'Cosh would say). She calls him Biddy, and seems devoted to him.
"Although she is horribly rich and an 'honourable,' and all that sort of thing, she isn't in the least grand. She never impresses one with her opulence as, for instance, Mrs. Duff-Whalley does. Her clothes are beautiful, but so much a part of her personality that you never think of them. Her pearls don't hit you in the face as most other people's do. Because she is so unconscious of them, I suppose. I think she is lovely. Jock says she is like a greyhound, and I know what he means—it is the long, swift, graceful way she has of moving. She says she is forty. I always thought forty was quite old, but now it seems to me the very prettiest age. Age doesn't really matter at all to people who have got faces and figures and manners like Pamela Reston. They will always make whatever age they are seem the perfect age.
"I do wonder what brings her to Priorsford! I rather think that having been all her life so very 'twopence coloured' she wants the 'penny plain' for a change. Perhaps that is why she likes The Rigs and us. There is no mistake about our 'penny-plainness'—it jumps to the eye!
"I am just afraid she won't stay very long. There are so many pretty little houses in Priorsford, and so many kind and forthcoming landladies, it was bad luck that she should choose Hillview and Bella Bathgate. Bella is almost like a stage-caricature of a Scotswoman, so dour she is and uncompromising and she positively glories in the drab ugliness of her rooms. Ugliness means to Bella respectability; any attempt at adornment is 'daft-like.'
"Pamela (she has asked me to call her that) trembles before her, and that makes Bella worse. She wants someone to stand up to her, to laugh at her grimness; she simply thinks when Pamela is charming to her that she is a poor creature.
"She is charming to everyone, this lodger of Bella's. Jock and Mhor and Mrs. M'Cosh are all at her feet. She brings us books and papers and chocolates and fruit, and makes us feel we are conferring the favour by accepting them. She is a real charmer, for when she speaks to you she makes you feel that no one matters to her but just you yourself. And she is simple (or at least appears to be); she hasn't that Now-I-am-going-to-be-charming manner that is so difficult to bear. It is such fun talking to her, for she is very—pliable I think is the word I want. Accustomed to converse with people who constantly pull one up short with an 'Ah, now I don't agree,' or 'There, I think you are quite wrong,' it is wonderfully soothing to discuss things with someone who has the air of being convinced by one's arguments. It is weak, I know, but I'm afraid I agree with Mrs. M'Cosh, who described a friend as 'a rale nice buddy. She clinks wi' every word ye say.'
"I am thinking to myself how Great-aunt Alison would have dreaded Pamela's influence. She would have seen in her the personification of the World, the Flesh, and the Devil—albeit she would have been much impressed by her long descent: dear Aunt Alison.
"All the same, Davie, it is odd what an effect one's early training has. D'you remember how discouraged G.-A. Alison was about our levity—especially mine? She once said bitterly that I was like the ell-woman—hollow—because I laughed in the middle of the Bible lesson. And how antiquated and stuffy we thought her views, and took pleasure in assuring ourselves that we had got far beyond them, and you spent an evening tea-less in your room because you said you would rather be a Buddhist than a Disruption Worthy—do you remember that?
"Yes, but Great-aunt Alison had builded better than she knew. When Pamela laughs 'How Biblical!' or says in her pretty, soft voice that our great-aunt's religion must have been a hard and ugly thing, I get hot with anger and feel I must stick unswervingly to the antiquated views. Is it because poor Great-aunt isn't here to make me? I don't know.
"Mhor is really surprisingly naughty. Yesterday I heard angry shouts from the road, and then I met Mhor sauntering in, on his face the seraphic expression he wears when some nefarious scheme has prospered, and in his hand the brass breakfast kettle. He had been pouring water on the passers-by from the top of the wall. 'Only,' he explained to me, 'on the men who wore hard black hats, who could swear.'
"I told him the police would probably visit us in the course of the afternoon, and pointed out to him how ungentleman-like was his behaviour, and he said he was sorry; but I'm afraid he will soon think of some other wickedness.
"He thinks he can do anything he hasn't been told not to do, but how could I foresee that he would want to pour water on men with hard black hats, capable of swearing?
"I had almost forgotten to tell you, an old man came yesterday and wanted to see over the house. You can imagine what a scare I got—I made sure he wanted to buy it; but it turned out that he had lived at The Rigs as a boy, and had come back for old sake's sake. He looked ill and rather shabby, and I don't believe life had been very good to him. I did want to try and make up a little, but he was difficult. He was staying at the Temperance, and it seemed so forlorn that he should have no one of his own to come home to. He didn't look as if anybody had ever made a fuss of him. I asked him to stay with us for a week, but he wouldn't. I think he thought I was rather mad to ask him, and Pamela laughed at me about it.... She laughs at me a good deal and calls me a 'sentimentalist.' ...
"There is the luncheon bell.
"We are longing for your letter to-morrow to hear how you are settling down. Mrs. M'Cosh has baked some shortbread for you, which I shall post this afternoon.
"Love from each of us, and Peter.—Your
"Is this a world to hide virtues in?"
"You should never wear a short string of beads when you are wearing big earrings," Pamela said.
"But why?" asked Jean.
"Well, see for yourself. I am wearing big round earrings—right. I put on the beads that match—quite wrong. It's a question of line."
"I see," said Jean thoughtfully. "But how do you learn those things?"
"You don't learn them. You either know them, or you don't. A sort of instinct for dress, I suppose."
Jean was sitting in Pamela's bedroom. Pamela's bedroom it was now, certainly not Bella Bathgate's.
The swinging looking-glass had been replaced by one which, according to Pamela, was at least truthful. "The other one," she complained, "made me look pale green and drowned."
A cloth of fine linen and lace covered the toilet-table which was spread with brushes and boxes in tortoiseshell and gold, quaint-shaped bottles for scent, and roses in a tall glass.
A jewel-box stood open and Pamela was pulling out earrings and necklaces, rings and brooches for Jean's amusement.
"Most of my things are at the bank," Pamela was saying as she held up a pair of Spanish earrings made of rows of pearls. "They generally are there, for I don't care a bit about ordinary jewels. These are what I like—odd things, old things, things picked up in odd corners of the world, things that have a story and a meaning. Biddy got me these turquoises in Tibet: that is a devil charm: isn't that jade delicious? I think I like Chinese things best of all."
She threw a string of cloudy amber round Jean's neck and cried, "My dear, how it becomes you. It brings out all the golden lights in your hair and eyes."
Jean sat forward in her chair and looked at her reflection in the glass with a pleased smile.
"I do like dressing-up," she confessed. "Pretty things are a great temptation to me. I'm afraid if I had money I would spend a lot in adorning my vile body."
"I simply don't know," said Pamela, "how people who don't care for clothes get through their lives. Clothes are a joy to the prosperous, a solace to the unhappy, and an interest always—even to old age. I knew a dear old lady of ninety-four whose chief diversion was to buy a new bonnet. She would sit before the mirror discarding model after model because they were 'too old' for her. One would have thought it difficult to find anything too old for ninety-four."
Jean laughed, but shook her head.
"Doesn't it seem to you rather awful to care about bonnets at ninety-four?"
"Not a bit," said Pamela. She was powdering her face as she spoke. "I like to see old people holding on, not losing interest in their appearance, making a brave show to the end.... Did you never see anyone use powder before, Jean? Your eyes in the glass look so surprised."
"Oh, I beg your pardon," said Jean, in great confusion, "I didn't mean to stare—" She hastily averted her eyes.
Pamela looked at her with an amused smile.
"There's nothing actively immoral about powdering one's nose, you know, Jean. Did Great-aunt Alison tell you it was wrong?"
"Great-aunt Alison never talked about such things," Jean said, flushing hotly. "I don't think it's wrong, but I don't see that it's an improvement. I couldn't take any pleasure in myself if my face were made up."
Pamela swung round on her chair and laid her hands on Jean's shoulders.
"Jean," she said, "you're within an ace of being a prig. It's only the freckles on your little unpowdered nose, and the yellow lights in your eyes, and the way your hair curls up at the ends that save you. Remember, please, that three-and-twenty with a perfect complexion has no call to reprove her elders. Just wait till you come to forty years."
"Oh," said Jean, "it's absurd of you to talk like that. As if you didn't know that you are infinitely more attractive than any young girl. I never know why people talk so much about youth. What does being young matter if you're awkward and dull and shy as well? I'd far rather be middle-aged and interesting."
"That," said Pamela, as she laid her treasures back in the box, "is one of the minor tragedies of life. One begins by being bored with being young, and as we begin to realise what an asset youth is, it flies. Rejoice in your youth, little Jean-girl, for it's a stuff will not endure.... Now we'll go downstairs. It's too bad of me keeping you up here."
"How you have changed this room," said Jean. "It smells so nice."
"It is slightly less forbidding. I am quite attached to both my rooms, though when Mawson and I are both here together I sometimes feel I must poke my arms out of the window or thrust my head up the chimney like Bill the Lizard, in order to get room. It is a great disadvantage to be too large for one's surroundings."
The parlour was as much changed as the bedroom.
The round table with the red-and-green cover that filled up the middle of the room had been banished and a small card-table stood against the wall ready to be brought out for meals. A Persian carpet covered the linoleum and two comfortable wicker-chairs filled with cushions stood by the fireside. The sideboard had been converted into a stand for books and flowers. The blue vases had gone from the mantelshelf and two tall candlesticks and a strip of embroidery took their place. A writing-table stood in the window, from which the hard muslin curtains had been removed; there were flowers wherever a place could be found for them, and new books and papers lay about.
Jean sank into a chair with a book, but Pamela produced some visiting-cards and read aloud:
"MRS. DUFF-WHALLEY. MISS DUFF-WHALLEY.
THE TOWERS, PRIORSFORD.
"Who are they, please? and why do they come to see me?"
Jean shut her book, but kept her finger in as if hoping to get back to it soon, and smiled broadly.
"Mrs. Duff-Whalley is a wonderful woman," she said. "She knows everything about everybody and simply scents out social opportunities. Your name would draw her like a magnet."
"Why is she called Duff-Whalley? and where does she live? I'm frightfully intrigued."
"As to the first," said Jean, "there was no thought of pleasing either you or me when she was christened—or rather when the late Mr. Duff-Whalley was christened. And I pointed out the house to you the other day. You asked what the monstrosity was, and I told you it was called The Towers."
"I remember. A staring red-and-white house with about thirty bow-windows and twenty turrets. It denies the landscape."
"Wait," said Jean, "till you see it close at hand. It's the most naked, newest thing you ever saw. Not a creeper, not an ivy leaf is allowed to crawl on it; weather seems to have no effect on it: it never gets to look any less new. And in summer it is worse, for then round about it blaze the reddest geraniums and the yellowest calceolarias and the bluest lobelias that it's possible to imagine."
"Ghastly! What is the owner like?"
"Small, with yellowish hair turning grey. She has a sharp nose, and her eyes seem to dart out at you, take you all in, and then look away. She is rather like a ferret, and she has small, sharp teeth like a ferret. I'm never a bit sure she won't bite. She really is rather a wonderful woman. She hasn't been here very many years, but she dominates everyone. At whatever house you meet her she has the air of being hostess. She welcomes you and advises you where to sit, makes suitable conversation and finally bids you good-bye, and you feel yourself murmuring to her the grateful 'Such a pleasant afternoon,' that was due to the real hostess. She is in constant conflict with the other prominent matrons in Priorsford, but she always gets her own way. At a meeting she is quite insupportable. She just calmly tells us what we are to do. It's no good saying we are busy; it's no good saying anything. We walk away with a great district to collect and a pile of pamphlets under one arm.... Her nose is a little on one side, and when I sit and look at her presiding at a meeting I toy with the thought that someone goaded to madness by her calm persistence had once heaved something at her, and wish I had been there to see. Really, though, she is rather a blessing in the place; she keeps us from stagnation. I read somewhere that when they bring tanks of cod to this country from wherever cod abound, they put a cat-fish in beside them, and it chases the cod round all the time, so that they arrive in good condition. Mrs. Duff-Whalley is our cat-fish."
"I see. Has she children?"
"Three. A daughter, married in London—Mrs. Egerton-Thomson—a son at Cambridge, and a daughter, Muriel, at home. I think it must be very bad for the Duff-Whalleys living in such a vulgar, restless-looking house."
Pamela laughed. "Do you think all the little pepper-pot towers must have an effect on the soul? I doubt it, my dear."
"Still," said Jean, "I think more will be expected at the end from the people who have all their lives lived in and looked at lovely places. It always worries me, the thought of people who live in the dark places of big cities—children especially, growing up like 'plants in mines that never saw the sun.' It is so dreadful that sometimes I feel I must go and help."
"What could you do?"
"That's what common sense always asks. I could do nothing alone, but if all the decent people tried their hardest it would make a difference.... It's the thought of the cruelty in the world that makes me sick. It's the hardest thing for me to keep from being happy. Great-aunt Alison said I had a light nature. Even when I ought to be sad my heart jumps up in the most unreasonable way, and I am happy. But sometimes it feels as if we comfortable people are walking on a flowery meadow that is really a great quaking morass, and underneath there is black slime full of unimagined horrors. A paragraph in the newspaper makes a crack and you see down: women who take money for keeping little babies and allow them to die, men who torture: tales of horror and terror. The War made a tremendous crack. It seemed then as if we were all to be drawn into the slime, as if cruelty had got its fangs into the heart of the world. When you knelt to pray at nights you could only cry and cry. The courage of the men who grappled in the slime with the horrors was the one thing that kept one from despair. And the fact that they could laugh. You know about the dying man who told his nurse some joke and finished, 'This is the War for laughs.'"
Pamela nodded. "It hardly bears thinking of yet—the War and the fighters. Later on it will become the greatest of all sagas. But I want to hear about Priorsford people. That's a clean, cheerful subject. Who lives in the pretty house with the long ivy-covered front?"
"The Knowe it is called. The Jowetts live there—retired Anglo-Indians. Mr. Jowett is a funny, kind little man with a red face and rather a nautical air. He is so busy that often it is afternoon before he reads his morning's letters."
"What does he do?"
"I don't think he does anything much: taps the barometer, advises the gardener, fusses with fowls, potters in the garden, teaches the dog tricks. It makes him happy to feel himself rushed, and to go carrying unopened letters at tea-time. They have no children. Mrs. Jowett is a dear. She collects servants as other people collect prints or old china or Sheffield plate. They are her hobby, and she has the most wonderful knack of managing them. Even now, when good servants seem to have become extinct, and people who need five or six are grubbing away miserably with one and a charwoman, she has four pearls with soft voices and gentle ways, experts at their job. She thinks about them all the time, and considers their comfort, and dresses them in pale grey with the daintiest spotted muslin aprons and mob caps. It is a pleasure to go to the Jowetts for a meal, everything is so perfect. The only drawback is if anyone makes the slightest mark on the cloth one of the silver-grey maids brings a saucer of water and wipes it off, and it is apt to make one nervous. I shall never forget going there to a children's party with David and Jock. Great-aunt Alison warned us most solemnly before we left home about marking the cloth, so we went rather tremblingly. There was a splendid tea in the dining-room with silver candlesticks and pink shades, and lovely china, and a glittering cloth, and heaps of good things to eat—grown-up things like sandwiches and rich cakes, such as we hardly ever saw. Jock was quite small and loved his food even more than he does now, dear lamb. A maid handed round the egg-shell china—if only they had given us mugs—and as she was putting down Jock's cup he turned round suddenly and his elbow simply shot it out of her hand, and sent it flying across the table. As it went it spattered everything with weak tea and then smashed itself against one of the candlesticks.
"I wished at that moment that the world would come to an end. There seemed no other way of clearing up the mess. I was so ashamed, and so sorry for my poor Jock, I couldn't lift my eyes, but Mr. Jowett rose to the occasion and earned my affection and unending gratitude. He pretended to find it a very funny episode, and made so many jokes about it that stiffness vanished from the party, and we all became riotously happy. And Mrs. Jowett, whose heart must have been wrung to see the beautiful table ruined at the outset, so mastered her emotion as to be able to smile and say no harm had been done.... You must go with me and see Mrs. Jowett, only don't tell her anything in the very least sad: she weeps at the slightest provocation."
"Tell me more," said Pamela—"tell me about all the people who live in those houses on the hill. It's like reading a nice Cranfordy book."
"But," Jean objected, "we're not in the least like people in a book. I often wonder why Priorsford is so unlike a story-book little town. We're not nearly interested enough in each other for one thing. We don't gossip to excess. Everyone goes his or her own way. In books people do things or are suspected of doing things, and are immediately cut by a feverishly interested neighbourhood. I can't imagine that happening in Priorsford. No one ever does anything very striking, but if they did I'm sure they wouldn't be ostracised. Nobody would care much, except perhaps Mrs. Hope, and she would only be amused."
"Have you noticed a whitewashed house standing among trees about half a mile down Tweed from the bridge? That is Hopetoun, and Mrs. Hope and her daughter live there."
Jean nodded her head like a wise mandarin. "You must meet Mrs. Hope. To describe her is far beyond my powers."
"I see. Well, go on with the houses on the hill. Who lives in the one at the corner with the well-kept garden?"
"The Prestons. Mr. Preston is a lawyer, but he isn't much like a lawyer in appearance—not yellow and parchmenty, you know. He's a good shot and an ardent fisher, what Sir Walter would have called 'a just leevin' man for a country writer.' There are several daughters, all musical, and it is a very hospitable, cheerful house. Next the Prestons live the Williamsons. Ordinary nice people. There is really nothing to say about them.... The house after that is Woodside, the home of the two Miss Speirs. They are not ordinary. Miss Althea is a spiritualist. She sees visions and spends much of her time with spooks. Miss Clarice is a Buddhist. Their father, when he lived, was an elder in the U.F. Church. I sometimes wonder what he would say to his daughters now. When he died they left the U.F. Church and became Episcopalians, then Miss Clarice found that she couldn't believe in vicarious sacrifice and went over to Buddhism. She took me into her bedroom once. There was a thick yellow carpet, and a bed with a tapestry cover, and almost no furniture, except—is it impious to call Buddha furniture?—a large figure of Buddha with a lamp burning before it. It all seemed to me horribly unfresh. Both ladies provide much simple amusement to the townsfolk with their clothes and their antics."
"I know the Speirs type," said Pamela. "Foolish virgins."
"Next to Woodside is Craigton," went on Jean, "and there live three spinsters—the very best brand of spinsters—the Duncans, Miss Mary, Miss Janet, and Miss Phemie. I don't know what Priorsford would do without these good women. Spinsters they are, but they are also real mothers in Israel. They have time to help everyone. Benign Miss Mary is the housekeeper—and such a housekeeper! Miss Janet is the public one, sits on all the Committees. Miss Phemie does the flowers and embroiders beautiful things and is like a tea-cosy, so soft and warm and comfortable. Somehow they always seem to be there when you want them. You never go to their door and get a dusty answer. There is the same welcome for everyone, gentle and simple, and always the bright fire, and the kind, smiling faces, and tea with thick cream and cake of the richest and freshest.... You know how some people beg you to visit them, and when you go they seem to wear a surprised look, and you feel unexpected and awkward? The Duncans make you feel so pleased with yourself. They are so unselfishly interested in other people's concerns; and they are grand laughers. Even the dullest warm to something approaching wit when surrounded by that appreciative audience of three. They don't talk much themselves, but they have made of listening a fine art."
"Jean," said Pamela, "do you actually mean to tell me that everybody in Priorsford is nice? Or are you merely being charitable? I don't know anything duller than your charitable person who always says the kind thing."
Jean laughed. "I'm sorry, but I'm afraid the Priorsford people are all more or less nice. At least, they seem so to me, but perhaps I'm not very discriminating. You will tell me what you think of them when you meet them. All these people I've been telling you about are rich people, 'in a large way,' as Priorsford calls it. They have all large motor-cars and hothouses and rich things like that. Mrs. M'Cosh says Priorsford is a 'real tone-y wee place,' and we do fancy ourselves a good deal. It's a community largely made up of women and middle-aged retired men. You see, there is nothing for the young men to do; we haven't even mills like so many of the Tweedside towns."
"Will people call on me?" Pamela asked. "Is Priorsford sociable?"
Jean pursed up her mouth in an effort to look worldly wise. "I think you will find it sociable, but if you had come here obscure and unknown, your existence would never have been heard of, even if you had taken a house and settled down. Priorsford hardly looks over its shoulder at a newcomer. Some of the 'little' people might call and ask you to tea—the kind 'little' people—but—"
"Who do you call the 'little' people?"
"All the people who aren't 'in a large way,' all the dwellers in the snug little villas—most of Priorsford in fact." Jean got up to go. "Dear me, look at the time! The boys will be home from school. May I have the book you spoke of? Priorsford would be enraged if it heard me calmly discussing its faults and foibles." She laughed softly. "Lewis Elliot says Priorsford is made up of three classes—the dull, the daft, and the devout."
Pamela, looking for the book she wanted to lend to Jean, stopped and stood still as if arrested by the name.
"Yes, of Laverlaw. D'you know him, by any chance?"
"I used to know a Lewis Elliot who had some connection with Priorsford, but I thought he had left it years ago."
"Our Lewis Elliot inherited Laverlaw rather unexpectedly some years ago. Before that he was quite poor. Perhaps that is what makes him so understanding. He is a sort of distant cousin of ours. Great-aunt Alison was his aunt too—at least, he called her aunt. It will be fun if he turns out to be the man you used to know."
"Yes," said Pamela. "Here is the book, Jean. It's been so nice having you this afternoon. No, dear, I won't go back with you to tea. I'm going to write letters. Good-bye. My love to the boys."
But Pamela wrote no letters that evening. She sat with a book on her knee and looked into the fire; sometimes she sighed.
"I have, as you know, a general prejudice against all persons who do not succeed in the world."—JOWETT OF BALLIOL.
Mrs. Duff-Whalley was giving a dinner-party. This was no uncommon occurrence, for she loved to entertain. It gave her real pleasure to provide a good meal and to see her guests enjoy it. "Besides," as she often said, "what's the use of having everything solid for the table, and a fine house and a cook at sixty pounds a year, if nobody's any the wiser?"
It will be seen from this remark that Mrs. Duff-Whalley had not always been in a position to give dinner-parties; indeed, Mrs. Hope, that terror to the newly risen, who traced everyone back to their first rude beginnings (generally "a wee shop"), had it that the late Mr. Duff-Whalley had begun life as a "Johnnie-a'-things" in Leith, and that his wife had been his landlady's daughter.
But the "wee shop" was in the dim past, if, indeed, it had ever existed except in Mrs. Hope's wicked, wise old head, and for many years Mrs. Duff-Whalley had ruffled it in a world that asked no questions about the origin of money so obviously there.
Most people are weak when they come in contact with a really strong-willed woman. No one liked Mrs. Duff-Whalley, but few, if any, withstood her advances. It was easier to give in and be on calling and dining terms than to repulse a woman who never noticed a snub, and who would never admit the possibility that she might not be wanted. So Mrs. Duff-Whalley could boast with some degree of truth that she knew "everybody," and entertained at The Towers "very nearly the highest in the land."
The dinner-party I write of was not one of her more ambitious efforts. It was a small and (with the exception of one guest) what she called "a purely local affair." That is to say, the people who were to grace the feast were culled from the big villas on the Hill, and were not "county."
Mrs. Duff-Whalley was an excellent manager, and left nothing to chance. She saw to all the details herself. Dressed and ready quite half an hour before the time fixed for dinner, she had cast her eagle glance over the dinner-table, and now sailed into the drawing-room to see that the fire was at its best, the chairs comfortably disposed, and everything as it should be. Certainly no one could have found fault with the comfort of the room this evening. A huge fire blazed in the most approved style of grate, the electric light (in the latest fittings) also blazed, lighting up the handsome oil-paintings that adorned the walls, the many photographs, the china in the cabinets, the tables with their silver treasures. Everywhere stood vases of heavy-scented hothouse flowers. Mrs. Duff-Whalley approved of hothouse flowers; she said they gave a tone to a room.
The whole room glittered, and its mistress glittered with it as she moved about in a dress largely composed of sequins, a diamond necklace, and a startling ornament in her hair.
She turned as the door opened and her daughter came into the room, and looked her carefully up and down. She was a pretty girl dressed in the extreme of fashion, and under each arm she carried a tiny barking dog.
Muriel was a good daughter to her mother, and an exemplary character in every way, but the odd thing was that few people liked her. This was the more tragic as it was the desire of her heart to be popular. Her appearance was attractive, and strangers usually began acquaintance with enthusiasm, but the attraction rarely survived the first hour's talk. She was like a very well-coloured and delightful-looking apple that is without flavour. She was never natural—always aping someone. Her enthusiasms did not ring true, her interest was obviously feigned, and she had that most destroying of social faults, she could not listen with patience, but let her attention wander to the conversation of her neighbours. It seemed as if she could never talk at peace with anyone for fear of missing something more interesting in another quarter.
"You look very nice, Muriel! I'm glad I told you to put on that dress, and that new way of doing your hair is very becoming." One lovable thing about Mrs. Duff-Whalley was the way she sincerely and openly admired everything that was hers. "Now, see and do your best to make the evening go. Mr. Elliot takes a lot of amusing, and the Jowetts aren't very lively either."
"Is that all that's coming?" Muriel asked.
"I asked the new Episcopalian parson—what's his name?—yes—Jackson—to fill up."
"You don't often descend to the clergy, mother."
"No, but Episcopalians are slightly better fitted for society than Presbyterians, and this young man seems quite a gentleman—such a blessing, too, when they haven't got wives. Dear, dear, I told Dickie not to send in any more of that plant—what d'you call it?" (It was a peculiarity of Mrs. Duff-Whalley that she never could remember the names of any but the simplest flowers.) "I don't like its perfume. What was I saying? Of course, I only got up this dinner on the spur of the moment, so to speak, when I met Mr. Elliot in the Highgate. He comes and goes so much you never know when he's at Laverlaw; if you write or telephone he's always got another engagement. But when I met him face to face I just said, 'Now, when will you dine with us, Mr. Elliot?' and he hummed and hawed a bit and then fixed to-night."
"Perhaps he didn't want to come," Muriel suggested as she snuggled one of the small dogs against her face. "And did it love its own mummy, then, darling snub-nose pet?"
Her mother scouted the idea.
"Why should he not want to come? Do put down those dogs, Muriel. I never get used to see you kissing them. A good dinner and everything comfortable, and you to play the piano to him taught by the best masters—he's ill to please. And he's not very well off, though he does own Laverlaw. It's the time the family has been there that gives him the standing. I must say, he isn't in the least genial, but he gets that from his mother. A starchier old woman I never met. I remember your father and I were staying at the Hydro when old Elliot died, and his son was killed before that, shooting lions or something in Africa, so this Lewis Elliot, who was a nephew, inherited. We thought we would go and ask if by any chance they wanted to sell the place, so we called in a friendly way, though we didn't know them, of course. It was old Mrs. Elliot we saw, and my word, she was cold. As polite as you like, but as icy as the North Pole. Your father had some vulgar sayings I couldn't break him off, and he said as we drove out of the lodge gates, 'Well, that old wife gave us our heads in our laps and our lugs to play wi'.'"
"Why, mother!" Muriel cried, astonished. Her mother was never heard to use a Scots expression and thought even a Scots song slightly vulgar.
"I know—I know," said Mrs. Duff-Whalley hastily. "It just came over me for a minute how your father said it. He was a very amusing man, your father, very bright to live with, though he was too fond of low Scots expressions for my taste; and he would eat cheese to his tea. It kept us down, you know. I've risen a lot in the world since your father left us, though I miss him, of course. He used to laugh at Minnie's ideas. It was Minnie got us to send Gordon to an English school and then to Cambridge, and take the hyphen. Your father had many a laugh at the hyphen, and before the servants too! You see, Minnie went to a high-class school and made friends with the right people, and learned how things should be done. She had always assurance, had Minnie. The way she could order the waiters about in those grand London hotels! And then she married Egerton-Thomson. But you're better-looking, Muriel."
Muriel brushed aside the subject of her looks.
"What made you settle in Priorsford?" she asked.
"Well, we came out first to stay at the Hydro—you were away at school then—and your father took a great fancy to the place. He was making money fast, and we always had a thought of buying a place. But there was nothing that just suited us. We thought it would be too dull to be right out in the country, at the end of a long drive—exclusive you know, but terribly dreary, and then your father said, 'Build a house to suit ourselves in Priorsford, and we'll have shops and a station and everything quite near.' His idea was to have a house as like a hydropathic as possible, and to call it The Towers. 'A fine big red house, Aggie,' he often said to me, 'with plenty of bow-windows and turrets and a hothouse off the drawing-room and a sweep of gravel in front and a lot of geraniums and those yellow flowers—what d'you call 'em?—and good lawns, and a flower garden and a kitchen garden and a garage, and what more d'you want?' Well, well, he got them all, but he didn't live long to enjoy them. I think myself that having nothing to do but take his meals killed him. I hear wheels! That'll be the Jowetts. They're always so punctual. Am I all right?"
Muriel assured her that nothing was wrong or lacking, and they waited for the guests.
The door opened and a servant announced, "Mr. and Mrs. Jowett."
Mrs. Jowett walked very slowly and delicately, and her husband pranced behind her. It might have been expected that in their long walk together through life Mr. Jowett would have got accustomed to his wife's deliberate entrances, but no—it always seemed as if he were just on the point of giving her an impatient push from behind.
She was a gentle-looking woman with soft, white hair and a pink-and-white complexion—the sort of woman one always associates with old lace. In her youth it was said that she had played the harp, and one felt that the "grave, sweet melody" would have well become her. She was dressed in pale shades of mauve, and had a finely finished look. The Indian climate and curries had affected Mr. Jowett's liver, and made his temper fiery, but his heart remained the sound, childlike thing it had always been. He quarrelled with everybody (though never for long), but people in trouble gravitated to him naturally, and no one had ever asked him anything in reason and been refused; children loved him.
Mr. Jackson, the Episcopalian clergyman, followed hard behind the Jowetts, and was immediately engaged in an argument with Mr. Jowett as to whether or not choral communion, which had recently been started and which Mr. Jowett resented, as he resented all new things, should be continued.
"Ridiculous!" he shouted—"utterly ridiculous! You will drive the people from the church, sir."
Then Mr. Elliot arrived. Mrs. Duff-Whalley greeted him impressively, and dinner was announced.
Lewis Elliot was a man of forty-five, tall and thin and inclined to stoop. He had shortsighted blue eyes and a shy, kind smile. He was not a sociable man, and resented being dragged from his books to attend a dinner-party. Like most people he was quite incapable of saying No to Mrs. Duff-Whalley when that lady desired an answer in the affirmative, but he had condemned himself roundly to himself as a fool as he drove down the glen from Laverlaw.
Mrs. Duff-Whalley always gave a long and pretentious meal, and expected everyone to pay for their invitation by being excessively bright and chatty. It was not in the power of the present guests to be either the one thing or the other. Mrs. Jowett was pensive and sweet, and inclined to be silent; her husband gave loud barks of disagreement at intervals; Mr. Jackson enjoyed his dinner and answered when spoken to, while Lewis Elliot was rendered almost speechless by the flood of talk his hostess poured over him.
"I'm very sorry, Mr. Elliot," she remarked in a pause, "that the people I wanted to meet you couldn't come. I asked Sir John and Lady Tweedie, but they were engaged—so unfortunate, for they are such an acquisition. Then I asked the Olivers, and they couldn't come. You would really wonder where the engagements come from in this quiet neighbourhood." She gave a little unbelieving laugh. "I had evidently chosen an unfortunate evening for the County."
It was trying for everyone: for Mr. Elliot, who was left with the impression that people were apt to be engaged when asked to meet him; for the Jowetts, who now knew that they had received a "fiddler's bidding," and for Mr. Jackson, who felt that he was only there because nobody else could be got.
There was a blank silence, which Lewis Elliot broke by laughing cheerfully. "That absurd rhyme came into my head," he explained. "You know:
"'Miss Smarty gave a party, No one came. Her brother gave another, Just the same.'"
Then, feeling suddenly that he had not improved matters, he fell silent.
"Oh," said Mrs. Duff-Whalley, rearing her head like an affronted hen, "the difficulty, I assure you, is not to find guests but to decide which to select."
"Quite so, quite so, naturally," murmured Mr. Jackson soothingly; he had laughed at the rhyme and felt apologetic. Then, losing his head completely under the cold glance his hostess turned on him, he added, "Go ye into the highways and hedges and compel them to come in."
Mrs. Jowett took a bit of toast and broke it nervously. She was never quite at ease in Mrs. Duff-Whalley's company. Incapable of an unkind thought or a bitter word, so refined as to be almost inaudible, she felt jarred and bumped in her mind after a talk with that lady, even as her body would have felt after bathing in a rough sea among rocks. Realising that the conversation had taken an unfortunate turn, she tried to divert it into more pleasing channels.
Turning to Mr. Jackson, she said: "Such a sad thing happened to-day. Our dear old dog, Rover, had to be put away. He was sixteen, very deaf and rather cross, and the Vet. said it wasn't kind to keep him; and of course after that we felt there was nothing to be said. The Vet. said he would come this morning at ten o'clock, and it quite spoilt my breakfast, for dear Rover sat beside me and begged, and I felt like an executioner; and then he went out for a walk by himself—a thing he hadn't done since he had become frail—and when the Vet. came there was no Rover."
"Dear, dear!" said Mr. Jackson, helping himself to an entree.
"The really dreadful thing about it," continued Mrs. Jowett, refusing the entree, "was that Johnston—the gardener, you know—had dug the grave where I had chosen he should lie, dear Rover, and—you have heard the expression, Mr. Jackson—a yawning grave? Well, the grave yawned. It was too heartrending. I simply went to my room and cried, and Tim went in one direction and Johnston in another, and the maids looked too, and they found the dear doggie, and the Vet.—a most obliging man called Davidson—came back ... and dear Rover is at rest."
Mrs. Jowett looked sadly round and found that the whole table had been listening to the recital.
Few people have not loved a dog and known the small tragedy of parting with it when its all too short day was over, and even the "lamentable comedy" of Mrs. Jowett's telling of the tale made no one smile.
Muriel leant forward, genuinely distressed. "I'm so frightfully sorry, Mrs. Jowett; you'll miss dear old Rover dreadfully."
"It's a beastly business putting away a dog," said Lewis Elliot. "I always wish they had the same lease of life as we have. 'Threescore and ten years do sum up' ... and it's none too long for such faithful friends."
"You must get another, Mrs. Jowett," her hostess told her bracingly. "Get a dear little toy Pekinese or one of those Japanese what-do-you-call-'ems that you can carry in your arms: they are so smart."
"If you do, Janetta," her husband warned her, "you must choose between the brute and me. I refuse to live in the same house with one of those pampered, trifling little beasts. If we decide to fill old Rover's place I suggest that we get a rough-haired Irish terrier." He rolled the "r's" round his tongue. "Something robust that can bark and chase cats, and not lie all day on a cushion, like one of those dashed Chinese ..." His voice died away in muttered thunder.
Again Mrs. Duff-Whalley reared her head, but Muriel interposed, laughing. "You mustn't really be so severe, Mr. Jowett. I happen to possess two of the 'trifling beasts,' and you must come and apologise to them after dinner. You can't imagine more perfect darlings, and of course they are called Bing and Toutou. You won't be able to resist their little sweet faces—too utterly darling!"
"Shan't I?" said Mr. Jowett doubtfully. "Well, I apologise. Nobody likes to hear their dog miscalled.... By the way, Jackson, that's an abominable brute of yours. Bit three milk-girls and devastated the Scotts' hen-house last week, I hear."
"Yes," said Mr. Jackson. "Four murdered fowls they brought to me, and I had to pay for them; and they didn't give me the corpses, which I felt was too bad."
"What?" said Mrs. Duff-Whalley, deeply interested. "Did you actually pay for the damage done and let them keep the fowls?"
"I did," Mr. Jackson owned gloomily, and the topic lasted until the fruit was handed round.
"I wonder," said Mrs. Jowett to her hostess, as she peeled a pear, "if you have met a newcomer in Priorsford—Miss Reston? She has taken Miss Bathgate's rooms."
"You mean the Honourable Pamela Reston? She is a daughter of the late Lord Bidborough of Bidborough Manor, Surrey, and Mintern Abbas, Oxfordshire, and sister of the present peer: I looked her up in Debrett. I called on her, feeling it my duty to be civil to a stranger, but it seems to me a very odd thing that a peer's daughter would care to live in such a humble way. Mark my words, there's something shady about it. As likely as not, she's an absconding lady's-maid—but a call commits one to nothing. She was out anyway, so I didn't see her."
"Oh, indeed," said Mrs. Jowett, blushing pink, "Miss Reston is no impostor. When you have seen her you will realise that. I met her yesterday at the Jardines'. She is the most delightful creature, so charming to look at, so wonderfully graceful—"
"I think," said Lewis Elliot, "that that must be the Pamela Reston I used to know. Did you say she was living in Priorsford?"
"Yes, in a cottage called Hillview, next to The Rigs, you know," Mrs. Jowett explained. "Mhor made friends with her whenever she arrived, and took her in to see Jean. You can imagine how attractive she found the whole household."
"The Jardines are very unconventional," said Mrs. Duff-Whalley, "if you call that attractive. Jean doesn't know how to keep her place with people at all. I saw her walking beside a tinker woman the other day, helping her with her bundle; and I'm sure I've simply had to give up calling at The Rigs, for you never knew who you would have to shake hands with. I'm sorry for Jean, poor little soul. It seems a pity that there is no one to dress her and give her a chance. She's a plain little thing at best, but clothes might do wonders for her."
"There I totally disagree," shouted Mr. Jowett. "Jean, to my mind, is the best-looking girl in Priorsford. She walks so well and has such an honest, jolly look. I'm glad there's no one to dress her and make an affected doll of her.... She's the kind of girl a man would like to have for a daughter."
"But what," asked Mrs. Duff-Whalley, "can Miss Reston have in common with people like the Jardines? I don't believe they have more than L300 a year, and such a plain little house, and one queer old servant. Miss Reston must be accustomed to things so very different. We must ask her here to meet some of the County."
"The County!" growled Mr. Jowett. "Except for Elliot here, and the Hopes and the Tweedies and the Olivers, there are practically none of the old families left. I tell you what it is—"
But Mrs. Duff-Whalley had had enough for the moment of Mr. Jowett's conversation, so she nodded to Mrs. Jowett, and with an arch admonition to the men not to stay too long, she swept the ladies before her to the drawing-room.
"I will the country see Where old simplicity, Though hid in grey, Doth look more gay Than foppery in plush and scarlet clad."
THOMAS RANDOLPH, 1605-35.
A letter from Pamela Reston to her brother.
" ... It was a tremendous treat to get your budget this morning after three mails of silence. I got your cable saying you were back before I knew you contemplated going, so I never had to worry. I think the War has shaken my nerves in a way I hadn't realised. I never used to worry about you very much, knowing your faculty of falling on your feet, but now I tremble.
"Sikkim must be marvellous, and to try an utterly untried route was thrilling, but what uncomfortable times men do give themselves! To lie in a tiny tent in the soaking rain with your bedding crawling with leeches, 'great, cold, well-nourished fellows.' Ugh! And yet, I suppose you counted the discomforts as nothing when you gazed at Everest while yet the dawn 'walked tiptoe on the mountains' (will it ever be climbed, I wonder!), and even more wonderful, as you describe it, must have been the vision from below the Alukthang glacier, when the mists slowly unveiled the face of Pandim to the moon....
"And I shall soon hear of it all by word of mouth. It is the best of news that you are coming home. I don't think you must go away again without me. I have missed you dreadfully these last six months.
"Besides, you ought to settle at home for a bit now, don't you think? First, your long exploring expedition and then the War: haven't you been across the world, away long enough to make you want to stay at home? You are one of the very worst specimens of an absentee landlord.... After profound calculations I have come to the conclusion that you will get two letters from me from Priorsford before you leave India. I am sending this to Port Said to make sure of not missing you. You will have lots of time to read it on board ship if it is rather long.
"Shall I meet you in London? Send me a wire when you get this. What I should like to do would be to conduct you personally to Priorsford. I think you would like it. The countryside is lovely, and after a week or two we could go somewhere for Christmas. The Champertouns have asked me to go to them, and of course their invitation would include you. They are second or third cousins, and we've never seen them, but they are our mother's people, and I have always wanted to see where she was brought up. However, we can settle all that later on....
"I feel myself quite an old resident in Priorsford now, and have become acquainted with some of the people—well-to-do, hospitable, not at all interesting (with a few exceptions), but kind.
"The Jardines remain my great interest. What a blessing it is when people improve by knowing—so few do. I see the Jardines once every day, sometimes oftener, and I like them more every time I see them.
"I've been thinking, Biddy, you and I haven't had a vast number of people to be fond of. There was Aunt Eleanor, but I defy anyone to be fond of her. Respect her one might, fear her we did, but love her—it would have been as discouraging as petting a steam road-roller. We hadn't even a motherly old nurse, for Aunt Eleanor liked machine-made people like herself to serve her. I don't think it did you much harm, you were such a sunny-tempered, affectionate little boy, but it made me rather inhuman.
"As we grew up we acquired crowds of friends and acquaintances, but they were never like real home-people to whom you show both your best and your worst side, and who love you simply because you are you. The Jardines give me that homey feeling.
"The funny thing is I thought I was going to broaden Jean, to show her what a narrow little Puritan she is, bound in the Old Testament thrall of her Great-aunt Alison—but not a bit of it. She is very receptive, delighted to be told about people and clothes, cities, theatres, pictures, but on what she calls 'serious things' she is an absolute rock. It is like finding a Roundhead delighting in Royalist sports and plays, or a Royalist chanting Roundhead psalms—if you can imagine an evangelical Royalist. Anyway, it is rather a fine combination.
"I only wish I could help to make things easier for Jean. I have far more money than I want; she has so little. I'm afraid she has to plan and worry a good deal how to clothe and feed and educate those boys. I know that she is very anxious that David should not be too scrimped for money at Oxford, and consequently spends almost nothing on herself. A warm coat for Jock; no evening gown for Jean. David finds that he must buy certain books and writes home in distress. 'That can easily be managed,' says Jean, and goes without a new winter hat. She and Mrs. M'Cosh are wonders of economy in housekeeping, and there is always abundance of plain, well-cooked food.
"I told you about Mrs. M'Cosh? She is the Jardines' one servant—an elderly woman, a widow from Glasgow. I like her way of showing in visitors. She was a pew-opener in a church at one time, which may account for it. When you ask if Jean is in, she puts her head on one side in a considering way and says, 'I'm no' juist sure,' and ambles away, leaving the visitor quite undecided whether she is intended to remain on the doorstep or follow her in. I know now that she means you to remain meekly on the doorstep, for she lately recounted to me with glee of another caller, 'I'd went awa' up the stair to see if Miss Jean wis in, an' whit d'ye think? When I lukit roond the wumman wis at ma heels.' The other day workmen were in the house doing something, and when Mrs. M'Cosh opened the door to me she said, 'Ye see the mess we're in. D'ye think ye should come in?' leaving it to my better nature to decide.
"She is always serene, always smiling. The great love of her life is Peter, the fox-terrier, one of the wickedest and nicest of dogs. He is always in trouble, and she is sorely put to it sometimes to find excuses for him. 'He's a great wee case, is Peter,' she generally finishes up. 'He means no ill' (this after it has been proved that he has chased sheep, killed hens, and bitten message-boys); 'he's juist a wee thing playful.'
"Peter attends every function in Priorsford—funerals, marriages, circuses. He meets all the trains and escorts strangers to the objects of interest in the neighbourhood. He sees people off, and wags his tail in farewell as the train moves out of the station.
"He and Mhor are fast friends, and it is an inspiring sight to see them of a morning, standing together in the middle of the road with the whole wide world before them, wondering which would be the best way to take for adventures. Mhor has had much liberty lately as he has been infectious after whooping-cough, but now he has gone back to the little school he attends with some twenty other children. I'm afraid he is a very unwilling scholar.
"You will be glad to hear that Bella Bathgate (I'm taking a liberty with her name I don't dare take in speaking to her) is thawing to me slightly. It seems that part of the reason for her distaste to me was that she thought I would probably demand a savoury for dinner! If I did ask such a thing—which Heaven forbid!—she would probably send me in a huge pudding dish of macaroni and cheese. Her cooking is not the best of Bella.
"She and Mawson have become fast friends. Mawson has asked Bella to call her Winifred, and she calls Miss Bathgate 'Beller.'
"Miss Bathgate spends any leisure moments she has in doing long strips of crochet, which eventually become a bedspread, and considers it a waste of time to read anything but the Bible, the Scotsman and the Missionary Magazine (she is very keen on Foreign Missions), but she doesn't object to listening to Mawson's garbled accounts of the books she reads. I sometimes overhear their conversations as they sit together by the kitchen fire in the long evenings.
"'And,' says Mawson, describing some lurid work of fiction, 'Evangeline was left shut up in the picture-gallery of the 'ouse.'
"'D'ye mean to tell me hooses hev picture-galleries?' says Bella.
"'Course they 'ave—all big 'ouses.'
"'Juist like the Campbell Institution—sic a bother it must be to dust!'
"'Well,' Mawson goes on, 'Evangeline finds 'er h'eyes attracted—'
"Again Bella interrupts. 'Wha was Evangeline? I forget aboot her.'
"'Oh, don't you remember? The golden-'aired 'eroine with vilet eyes.'
"'I mind her noo. The yin wi' the black hair was the bad yin.'
"'Yes, she was called 'Ermione. Well, Evangeline finds 'er h'eyes attracted to the picture of a man dressed like a cavalier.'
"'I don't rightly know,' Mawson confesses. 'Kind of a fancy dress, I believe, but anyway 'er h'eyes were attracted to the picture, and as she fixed 'er h'eyes on it the h'eyes in the picture moved.'
"'Oh, murder!' says Bella, much thrilled.
"'You may say it. Murder it was, h'attempted murder, I should say, for of course it would never do to murder the vilet-h'eyed 'eroine. As it 'appened ...' and so on ...
"One of the three months gone! Perhaps at the beginning of the year I shall have had more than enough of it, and go gladly back to the fleshpots of Egypt and the Politician.
"It is a dear thing a little town, 'a lovesome thing, God wot,' and Priorsford is the pick of all little towns. I love the shops and the kind, interested way the shopkeepers serve one: I have shopped in most European cities, but I never realised the full delight of shopping till I came to Priorsford. You can't think what fun it is to order in all your own meals, to decide whether you will have a 'finnan-haddie' or a 'kipper' for breakfast—much more exciting than ordering a ball gown.
"I love the river, and the wide bridge, and the old castle keeping watch and ward, and the pends through which you catch sudden glimpses of the solemn round-backed hills. And most of all I love the lights that twinkle out in the early darkness, every light meaning a little home, and a warm fireside and kindly people round it.
"To live, as you and I have done all our lives, in houses where all the difficulties of life are kept in oblivion, and existence runs on well-oiled wheels is very pleasant, doubtless, but one misses a lot. I love the nearness of Hillview, to hear Mawson and B.B. converse in the kitchen, to smell (this is the most comfortable and homely smell) the ironing of clean clothes, and to know (also by the sense of smell) what I am going to have for dinner hours before it comes.
"Of course you will say, and probably with truth, that what I enjoy is the newness of it, that if I knew that my life would be spent in such surroundings I would be profoundly dissatisfied.
"I dare say. But in the meantime I am happy—happy in a contented, quiet way that I never knew before.
"It is strange that our old friend Lewis Elliot is living near Priorsford, at a place called Laverlaw, about five miles up Tweed from here. Do you remember what good times we used to have with him when he came to stay with the Greys? That must be more than twenty years ago—you were a little boy and I was a wild colt of a girl. I don't think you have ever seen much of him since, but I saw a lot of him in London when I first came out. Then he vanished. Some years ago his uncle died and he inherited Laverlaw. He came to see me the other day, not a bit changed, the same dreamy, unambitious creature—rather an angel. I sometimes wonder if little Jean will one day go to Laverlaw. It would be very nice and fairy-tale-ish!"
"You that are old," Falstaff reminds the Chief Justice, "consider not the capacities of us that are young."
One afternoon Jean called for Pamela to take her to see Mrs. Hope.
It was a clear, blue-and-white day, with clouds scudding across the sky, and a cold, whistling wind that blew the fallen leaves along the dry roads—a day that made people walk smartly and gave the children apple-red cheeks and tangled curls.
Mhor and Peter were seated on The Rigs garden wall as Pamela and Jean came out of Hillview gate. Peter wagged his tail in recognition, but Mhor made no sign of having seen his sister and her friend.
"Aren't you cold up there?" Pamela asked him.
"Very cold," said Mhor, "but we can't come down. We're on sentry duty on the city wall till sundown," and he shaded his eyes with his hand and pretended to peer into space for lurking foes.
Peter looked wistfully up at him and hunched himself against the scratched bare knees now blue with cold.
"When the sun touches the top of West Law," said Jean, pointing to a distant blue peak, "it has set. See—there.... Now run in, sonny, and tell Mrs. M'Cosh to let you have some currant-loaf for tea. Pamela and I are going to tea at Hopetoun."
"Aw," said Mhor, "I hate when you go out to tea. So does Jock. So does Peter. Look out! I'm going to jump."
He jumped and fell prostrate, barking his chin, but no howl came from him, and he picked himself up with dignity, merely asking for the loan of a handkerchief, his own "useful little hanky," as he explained, having been used to mop up a spilt ink-bottle.
Fortunately Jean had a spare handkerchief, and Pamela promised that on her return he should have a reel of sticking-plaster for his own use, so, battered but content, he returned to the house, Peter remaining behind to investigate a mole-heap.
"What a cheery day for November," Pamela remarked as they took the road by Tweedside. "Look at that beech tree against the blue sky, every black twig silhouetted. Trees are wonderful in winter."
"Trees are wonderful always," said Jean. "'Solomon spake of trees'—I do wonder what he said. I suppose it would be the cedars of Lebanon he 'spake' of, and the hyssop that grows in the walls, and sycamores, but he would have been worth hearing on a rowan tree flaming red against a blue September sky. Look at that newly ploughed field so softly brown, and the faded gold of the beech hedge. November is a cheery time. The only depressing time of the year to me is when the swallows go away. I can't bear to see them wheeling round and preparing to depart. I want so badly to go with them. It always brings back to me the feeling I had as a child when people read Hans Andersen to me—the storks in The Marsh King's Daughter, talking about the mud in Egypt. Imagine Priorsford swallows in Egypt!... As the song says:
"'It's dowie at the hint o' hair'st At the way-gaun o' the swallow.'"
"What a lovely sound Lowland Scots has," said Pamela. "I like to hear you speak it. Tell me about Mrs. Hope, Jean. I do hope we shall see her alone. I don't like Priorsford tea-parties; they are rather like a foretaste of eternal punishment. With no choice you are dumped down beside the most irrelevant sort of person, and there you remain. I went to return Mrs. Duff-Whalley's call the other day, and fell into one. Before I could retreat I was wedged into a chair beside a woman whom I hope I shall never see again. She was one of those bleak people who make the thought of getting up in the morning and dressing quite insupportable. I don't think there was a detail in her domestic life that she didn't touch on. She told me all her husband could eat and couldn't eat; she called her children 'little tots,' and said she couldn't get so much as a 'serviette' washed in the house. I thought nobody talked of serviettes outside Wells and Arnold Bennett. Mrs. Duff-Whalley rescued me in the nick of time before I could do anything desperate, and then she cross-examined me as to my reasons for coming to Priorsford."
Jean laughed. "What a cheery afternoon! But it will be all right to-day. Mrs. Hope never sees more than one or two people at a time. She is pretty old, you see, and frail, though she has such an extraordinary gift of being young. I do hope you will like each other. She has an edge to her tongue, but she is an incomparable friend. The poor people go to her in flocks, and she scolds them roundly, but always knows how to help them in the only wise way. Her people have been in Priorsford for ages; she knows every soul in the place, and is vastly amused at all the little snobberies that abound in a small town. But she laughs kindly. Pretentious people are afraid of her; simple people love her."
"Am I simple, Jean?"
Jean laughed and refused to give an opinion on the subject, beyond quoting the words of Autolycus—"How blessed are we that are not simple men."
They were in the Hopetoun Woods now, and at the end of the avenue could see the house standing on a knoll by the river, whitewashed, dignified, home-like.
"Talk to Mrs. Hope about the view," Jean advised "She is as proud of the Hopetoun Woods as if she had made them. Isn't it a nice place? Old and proud and honourable—like Mrs. Hope herself."
"Are there sons to inherit?"
Jean shook her head. "There were three sons. Mrs. Hope hardly ever talks about them, but I've seen their photographs, and of course I have often been told about them—by Great-aunt Alison, and others—and heard how they died. They were very clever and good-looking and well-liked—the kind of sons mothers are very proud of, and they all died imperially, if that is an expression to use. Two died in India, one—a soldier—in one of the Frontier skirmishes: the other—an I.C.S. man—from over-working in a famine-stricken district. The youngest fell in the Boer War ... so you see Mrs. Hope has the right to be proud. Aunt Alison used to tell me that she made no moan over her wonderful sons. She shut herself up for a short time, and then faced the world again, her kindly, sharp-tongued self. She is one of those splendid people who take the slings and arrows thrown at them by outrageous fortune and bury them deep in their hearts and go on, still able to laugh, still able to take an interest. Only, you mustn't speak to her of what she has lost. That would be too much."
"Yes," said Pamela. "I can understand that."
She stopped for a minute and stood looking at the river full of "wan water from the Border hills," at the stretches of lawn ornamented here and there by stone figures, at the trees thrawn with winter and rough weather, and she thought of the three boys who had played here, who had lived in the whitewashed house (she could see the barred nursery windows), bathed and fished in the Tweed, thrown stones at the grey stone figures on the lawn, climbed the trees in the Hopetoun Woods, and who had gone out with their happy young lives to lay them down in a far country.
Mrs. Hope was sitting by the fire in the drawing-room, a room full of flowers and books, and lit by four long windows. Two of the windows looked on to the lawns, and the stone figures chipped by generations of catapult-owning boys; the other two looked across the river into the Hopetoun Woods. The curtains were not drawn though the lamps were lit, for Mrs. Hope liked to keep the river and the woods with her as long as light lasted, so the warm bright room looked warmer and brighter in contrast with the cold, ruffled water and the wind-shaken trees outside.
Mrs. Hope had been a beautiful woman in her day, and was still an attractive figure, her white hair dressed high and crowned with a square of lace tied in quaint fashion under her chin. Her black dress was soft and becoming to her spare figure. There was nothing unsightly about her years; she made age seem a lovely, desirable thing. Not that her years were so very many, but she had lived every minute of them; also she had given lavishly and unsparingly of her store of sympathy and energy to others: and she had suffered grievously.
She kissed Jean affectionately, upbraiding her for being long in coming, and turned eagerly to Pamela. New people still interested her vividly. Here was a newcomer who promised well.
"Ah, my dear," she said in greeting, "I have wanted to know you. I'm told you are the most interesting person who ever came to this little town."
Pamela laughed. "There I am sure you have been misled. Priorsford is full of exciting people. I expected to be dull, and I have rarely been so well amused."
Mrs. Hope studied the charming face bent to her own. Her blue eyes were shrewd, and though she stood so near the end of the way she had lost none of her interest in the comings and goings of Vanity Fair.
"Is Priorsford amusing?" she said. "Well" (complacently), "we have our points. As Jane Austen wrote of the Misses Bingley, 'Our powers of conversation are considerable—we can describe an entertainment with accuracy, relate an anecdote with humour, and laugh at our acquaintances with spirit.'"
"Laugh!" Jean groaned. "Pamela, I must warn you that Mrs. Hope's laughter scares Priorsford to death. We speak her fair in order that she won't give us away to our neighbours, but we have no real hope that she doesn't see through us. Have we, Miss Augusta?" addressing the daughter of the house, who had just come into the room.
"Ah," said Mrs. Hope, "if everyone was as transparent as you, Jean."
"Oh, don't," Jean pleaded. "You remind me that I am quite uninteresting when I am trying to make believe that I am subtle, or 'subtile,' as the Psalmist says of the fowler's snare."
"Absurd child! Augusta, my dear, this is Miss Reston."
Miss Hope shook hands in her gentle, shy way, and busied herself putting small tables beside her mother and the two guests as the servant brought in tea. Her life was spent in doing small services.
Once, when Augusta was a child, someone asked her what she would like to be, and she had replied, "A lady like mamma." She had never lost the ambition, though very soon she had known that it could not be realised. It was difficult to believe that she was Mrs. Hope's daughter, for she had no trace of the beauty and sparkle with which her mother had been endowed. Augusta had a long, kind, patient face—a drab-coloured face—but her voice was beautiful. She had never been young; she was born an anxious pilgrim, and now, at fifty, she seemed infinitely older than her ageless mother.
Pamela, watching her as she made the tea, saw all Augusta's heart in her eyes as she looked at her mother, and saw, too, the dread that lay in them—the dread of the days that she must live after the light had gone out for her.
During tea Mrs. Hope had many questions to ask about David at Oxford, and Jean was only too delighted to tell every single detail.
"And how is my dear Jock? He is my favourite."
"Not the Mhor?" asked Pamela.
"No. Mhor is 'a'body's body.' He will never lack for admirers. But Jock is my own boy. We've been friends since he came home from India, a white-headed baby with the same surprised blue eyes that he has now. He was never out of scrapes at home, but he was always good with me. I suppose I was flattered by that."
"Jock," said Jean, "is very nearly the nicest thing in the world, and the funniest. This morning Mrs. M'Cosh caught a mouse alive in a trap, and Jock, while dressing, heard her say she would drown it. Down he went, like an avalanche in pyjamas, drove Mrs. M'Cosh into the scullery, and let the mouse away in the garden. He would fight any number of boys of any size for an ill-treated animal. In fact, all his tenderness is given to dumb animals. He has no real liking for mortals. They affront him with their love-making and their marriages. He has to leave the room when anything bordering on sentiment is read aloud. 'Tripe,' he calls it in his low way. Do you remember his scorn of knight-errants who rescued distressed damsels? They seemed to him so little worth rescuing."
"I never cared much for sentiment myself," said Mrs. Hope. "I wouldn't give a good adventure yarn for all the love-stories ever written."
"Mother remains very boyish," said Augusta. "She likes something vivid in the way of crime."
"And now," said her mother, "you are laughing at an old done woman, which is very unseemly. Come and sit beside me, Miss Reston, and tell me what you think of Priorsford."
"Oh," said Pamela, drawing a low chair to the side of her hostess, "it's not for me to talk about Priorsford. They tell me you know more about it than anyone."
"Do I? Well, perhaps; anyway, I love it more than most. I've lived here practically all my life, and my forbears have been in the countryside for generations, and that all counts. Priorsford ... I sometimes stand on the bridge and look and look, and tell myself that I feel like a mother to it."
"I know," said Pamela. "There is something very appealing about a little town: I never lived in one before."
"But," said Mrs. Hope, jealous as a mother for her own, "I think there is something very special about Priorsford. There are few towns as beautiful. The way the hills cradle it, and Peel Tower stands guard over it, and the links of Tweed water it, and even the streets aren't ordinary, they have such lovely glimpses. From the East Gate you look up to the East Law, pine trees, grey walls, green terraces; in the Highgate you don't go many yards without coming to a pend with a view of blue distances that takes your breath, just as in Edinburgh when you look down an alley and see ships tacking for the Baltic.... But I wish I had known Priorsford as it was in my mother's young days, when the French prisoners were here. The genteel supper-parties and assemblies must have been vastly entertaining. It has changed even in my day. I don't want to repeat the old folks' litany, 'No times like the old times,' but it does seem to me—or is it only distance lending enchantment?—that the people I used to know were more human, more interesting; there was less worship of money, less running after the great ones of the earth, certainly less vulgarity. We were content with less, and happier."
"But, Mrs. Hope," said Pamela, laying down her cup, "this is most depressing hearing. I came here to find simplicity."
"You needn't expect to find it in Priorsford. We aren't so provincial as all that. I just wish Mrs. Duff-Whalley could hear you. Simplicity indeed! I'm not able to go out much now, but I sit here and watch people, and I am astonished at the number of restless eyes. So many people spend their lives striving to keep in the swim. They are miserable in case anyone gets before them, in case a neighbour's car is a better make, in case a neighbour's entertainments are more elaborate.... Two girls came to see me this morning, nice girls, pretty girls, but even my old eyes could see the powder on their faces and their touched-up eyes. And their whole talk was of daft-like dances, and bridge, and absurdities. If they had been my daughters I would have whipped them for their affected manners. And when I think of their grandmother! A decent woman was Mirren Somerville. She lived with her father in that ivy-covered cottage at our gates, and she did sewing for me before she married Banks. She wasn't young when she married. I remember she came to ask my advice. 'D'you care for him, Mirren?' I asked. 'Well, mem, it's no' as if I were a young lassie. I'm forty, and near bye caring. But he's a dacent man, and it's lonely now ma faither's awa, an' I'm a guid cook, an' he would aye come in to a clean fireside.' So she married him and made a good wife to him, and they had one son. And Mirren's son is now Sir John Banks, a baronet and an M.P. Tuts, the thing's ridiculous.... Not that there's anything wrong with the man. He's a soft-tongued, stuffed-looking butler-like creature, with a lot of that low cunning that is known as business instinct, but he was good to his mother. He didn't marry till she died, and she kept house for him in his grand new house—the dear soul with her caps and her broad south-country accent. She managed wonderfully, for she had great natural dignity, and aped nothing. It was the butler killed her. She could cope with the women servants, but when Sir John felt that his dignity required a butler she gave it up. I dare say she was glad enough to go.... 'Eh, mem, I am effrontit,' she used to say to me if I went in and found her spotless kitchen disarranged, and I thought of her to-day when I saw those silly little painted faces, and was glad she had been spared the sight of her descendants.... But what am I raging about? What does it matter to me, when all's said? Let the lassies dress up as long as they have the heart; they'll have long years to learn sense if they're spared.... Miss Reston, did you ever see anything bonnier than Tweed and Hopetoun Woods? Jean, my dear, Lewis Elliot brought me a book last night which really delighted me. Poems by Violet Jacob. If anyone could do for Tweeddale what she has done for Angus I would be glad...."