HotFreeBooks.com
Secret Bread
by F. Tennyson Jesse
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

And now Killigrew—before his natural time, though not so violently as had been the case with the other two old playmates. Killigrew had lived his life very thoroughly, though he had always loved not well but too wisely. Sitting there on the lonely moor amid the ruined china-clay works, with only the sounds of bird and beast breaking the still air, Ishmael seemed to himself as though suspended in a state that was neither space nor time, when independent of either he could roam the past as the present, and even the future as well. It was as though time were cut out of one long endless piece as he had often imagined it as a little boy, when he had been puzzled that it was not as easy to see forwards as backwards, and been pricked by the feeling that it was merely a forgotten faculty which at any moment hard straining, if only it lit on the right way, could regain. For the first time for many years he had a glimpse of the pattern of life instead of only the intricacies, seemingly without form, of each phase. Killigrew and, in a much less degree—but, as he now saw, hardly less keenly—Hilaria, had both so affected the web of his life, not in action, but in thought, that without them he would either have learnt different lessons or the same lessons quite differently. Even Judith, Carminow, and all the rest of the people who had impinged in greater or less degree, went to make the pattern, though not always, as with Killigrew, Hilaria, and Polkinghorne, could he see any one definite thing that they had been the means of making clear to his groping vision. For we cannot know people with even the lightest degree of intimacy without both taking from them and giving to them. Externally it may be only two or three people in life who have had the influencing of it, but each casual encounter has helped to prepare us for those people.

What Ishmael felt in regard to Killigrew at the present moment—and rightly felt, for, as he found out later, on the day the letter arrived at Cloom Killigrew had died—left a blank in his life, but more it brought home to him that, the meridian once passed, blanks were things that would increase. Children grew up, but they grew away; grandchildren would be a stay, but one must be content to be a background for them. This falling away, step by step, through life was, he saw, part of its ordered procession. And he saw too, with a deadly sureness there was no evading, that this thing he knew of Killigrew stood for another knowledge to him as well, a knowledge he had been fighting and to which he still refused to accede. The knowledge that physical decay had to be, that for him it had begun. He was still a young man as men count youth nowadays, but he knew the difference between that and the tingle of the rising sap of real youth. It was not Killigrew's death he mourned so much as the death of that self who had been Killigrew's friend.

Long now he had been accustomed to the greater sense of proportion in things mental and emotional which amounts to a greyer level of feeling; he had lived on those not unsweet flats for years. But only lately had the physical messages been flashing along to him down his nerves and muscles, and he resented them far more bitterly than anything mental or spiritual. His eyes—it might be they merely needed spectacles for close work; but he resented that almost as fiercely as the fear about them which sometimes assailed him when the pain was bad and his lids pricked and were sore—the waning capacity to stand long strain and fatigue, the waning power of physical reaction altogether.... Lately his cold bath had meant a half-hour's shivering for him instead of the instantaneous glow which showed perfect bodily response. He was a strong, healthy man who had led a healthy life, but all the same he was not the man he had been, and this night he acknowledged it. To this he had come, to this everyone must come; as a commonplace he supposed he had always known that, if he had been asked about it—even as a boy he would have agreed to that, but with the inward thought: "Not to me ... it can't...." To Nicky too it would come, though Nicky would have laughed the idea to scorn as so far off as not to be worth troubling about. Yet how quickly it came ... how terribly quickly! Life seemed to Ishmael to be a shining ribbon that was always being pulled through the fingers, inexorably fast, cling as they might.

Ishmael lifted his eyes and stared out over the darkening moor, and his attention was caught by a flicker upon the western horizon. The last line of light from the sun's setting still lingered there, so that at first it was not easy to disengage from it that flicker of brighter light which seemed vague as a candle flame in daytime. A few minutes made certainty, however, and Ishmael stared at the gathering flicker and wondered whether it were a serious fire or mere swaling. It gathered in a rose of flame that gradually lit the horizon and burnt so steadily that he knew no swaling could account for it, and, standing up, he took his bearings and decided that it must be either Farmer Angwin's buildings or ricks ablaze. Angwin was a shiftless fellow, gentle and meek, who was wont to bewail his ill-luck; here was another slice of it for him, poor man! Ishmael was too far from home to return quickly for a trap, and it would take time to put the horse in. Suddenly he decided he would make the run on foot across country, as he often had as a boy on seeing that ominous but thrilling glow gathering in the sky. He got to his feet, nimbly enough if not with suppleness; as he did so he felt a twinge in his thigh such as it had been subject to ever since a bad attack of rheumatism the winter before. He stood a moment watching the rising glow, then stretched himself. Unconsciously he was asking of limbs and muscles as to their fitness; as he drew in deep breaths of the soft air and let the tautened sinews relax again there was no alien note in the symphony of his being—all felt as sound and strong as ever; now he was standing the twinge did not bother him—he told himself that in every inch of him he was still the man he was. Yet he knew he no longer felt the twang of some divine-strung cord within that had been wont to thrill and inform the whole.

Quite suddenly, as he stood, there came to him the idea to try and see whether by physical abandon he could recapture the old frenzy, whether to the bidding of violent exercise and healthy exhaustion, to the joy of feeling covered with sweat and earth, a mere glowing animal who feels and does not think, something of what he had lost would come back to him if only for an hour.



CHAPTER III

BODIES OF FIRE

The dusk was deepening rapidly, that glow brightened every minute; Ishmael began to run. He ran on and on—it seemed to him effortlessly—and with a tingling glow rising in him that made him feel alive as he had not for long. On and on, straight as keeping that glow ahead could make his course, over the hedges, damp and clinging with dew, scattering its drops, breaking the clinging grass stems and the tangled weeds. At each wall he felt the old upleaping of power as he took it, hurling himself over cleanly in the darkness, delightfully regardless of what might be on the other side. Down marshy fields that sucked at his feet, through the pools that splashed up into his heated face, over the clumps of long grass that grew between the tiny rivulets and swayed beneath his step and would have given way with him had he not always leapt on in time with the sure-footedness of long custom. On up long dry slopes, where he ran slowly but easily, conscious of his own ease, though he could hear his deep-drawn breaths. Through patches of moorland where the bracken clung about him or the furze pricked his legs, as he was subconsciously aware without really noticing it. Once he came vaulting over a granite wall, to find himself almost on top of a blood-bull, with a ring in his nose and a curly fringe on his forehead that showed clearly in the rising moonlight. Ishmael could see, too, his wet glistening nose and dark eyes. The bull stayed still staring in astonishment, and Ishmael hit his flank gaily in passing and ran on, down a marshy bottom, over another wall and up the next slope. The glow was brighter now because he was so much nearer, but in reality it had subsided somewhat—its first fierce spurt had burnt itself out. Ishmael began to go less easily—his breath rasped a little; but his sensations were all pleasant—the pounding blood in his whole body ran sweetly, he tingled with a glow that was enjoyable beyond anything he could have imagined. He knew he must be in a deplorable condition; he could feel the sweat running down his forehead into his eyes and his shirt clinging to his body under his light coat. Up to the knees he was soaking wet, and splashed with mud higher still; his clothes were torn by the brambles, and so were his hands and face. He felt happy—happy, in spite of the news that had come to him. At that moment his run seemed to him to hold an epic quality—the physical aspect of things; the health and strength he felt coursing through him, the delightful exhaustion that he knew would follow so healthily and naturally, seemed the most important things in the world. Let all else go but this....

He slowed up to a walk as he came to Angwin's farm, passed through the dark yard, and through the gates into a field next the rickyard. It was full of folk crowded in from all the countryside. The engine from Penzance had come and was puffing and panting by the pond, sucking up water with stertorous breaths; at every gasp it rocked with its own intensity upon its wheels as it stood, sending out a pulsing shower of sparks over the muddy water.

Seven ricks had blazed that night, and still smouldered sullenly. The great grey hose played upon them; the water hissing upon the hot straw and hay, sending up clouds of steam, tinged to a fiery pallor against the moonlit night. The walls, not only of the rickyard, but of the surrounding fields were warm to the touch, for the dry furze growing along them had caught fire from the blowing sparks, so that at one time the fields had been outlined with fire. Now the furze had smouldered and died, but the smooth granite slabs were still hot to the hand, an unnatural warmth that seemed malign in those dewy fields.

Now the ricks burnt less and less fiercely; Ishmael gave a hand with the other helpers, but there was really nothing to be done. Luckily, as it was still warm weather, the livestock had all been out in the fields, so there had been no panic even when one end of the cowshed caught fire. That had been put out and the walls of the barns and out-buildings drenched again and again, and everyone was trying to comfort Johnny Angwin with pointing out how much worse it might have been.

Leaning over the low warm wall between the ricks and the next field, Ishmael recognised a couple of the artists who of late years had settled in those parts, and he caught their comments along with those of their neighbours.

"What a glorious sight!" said one of them, with a deep-drawn breath; "I've never seen anything to touch it...." A couple of farmers' wives standing by peered curiously at the speaker and his companion. "Simme them folk must be lacken' their senses," said one to the other, "carlen' a sight like this bewtiful! Lacken' their senses, sure 'nough!"

Ishmael smiled to himself, and in his mind agreed with both. "I wonder how it happened?" piped up another artist, anxious to remove a false impression of callousness. Ishmael explained that spontaneous combustion was probably the cause of the fire, and a farmer standing near volunteered his opinion that Angwin had packed his hay damp. Everyone stood a while longer, staring; the glow had gone from the smouldering ricks, and the excitement of the event began to die in the minds of the onlookers. The artist straightened himself and prepared to go. "They're out now," he said, half-regretfully, half-cheerfully. The farmer near him spoke again. "Them ricks won't be out for days and nights," he said; "they'll go on burning in their hearts. They'm naught but a body o' fire, that's what they are ... a body o' fire...."

Ishmael stayed to see Angwin and do what he could to help; then he began his walk home. He was not running now, but aware of a physical discomfort that was not mere exhaustion. He had a sharp pain in his side such as children call a stitch, but no amount of stooping to tie imaginary shoelaces would drive it away. He was glad to accept the offer of a lift home when he was overtaken by a farmer's cart, and as he was jogged along the pain grew fiercer. By the time he reached Cloom the splendid fire that had warmed him on his run had died to nothingness, and at his ashen look Georgie cried out. He allowed her to help him to bed and give him hot drinks, to scold him in her woman's way.

"Such a foolish thing to do at your age ... you might have known!" she kept on repeating. He said little, but in his own mind ran the refrain: "She doesn't understand. She's still too young...." He wondered whether women ever really did know when talking was a mere foolishness, however sensible the thing said. And again, over and over to himself, as an accompaniment even to his pain, ran: "How well worth it ...!" For he had recaptured for a magic couple of hours something he had thought left behind him, had burned with it ardently and secretly. He too had been a body of fire.

The phrase stayed, pricking at him, through the drifting veils of sleep that alternately deepened and thinned about him all night long.



CHAPTER IV

THE NEW JUDITH

For a long time Ishmael paid the price of that night raid upon his physical resources, and when he was beginning to take up work again, as usual, Nicky was off to Canada—off with the latest thing in outfits, letters of introduction, high hopes, and such excitement at thought of the new world at his feet that only at the last moment did the sorrow that because of the uncertainty of life all leave takings hold, strike him. Then—for he was a very affectionate boy—he felt tears of which he was deeply ashamed burning in his eyes; he ignored them, made his farewells briefer, and was gone.

A few days later Judith came down to pay her promised visit. Both Ishmael and Georgie drove over to meet her train, and both failed for the first startled moment to recognise her. Ishmael had an incongruous flash, during which that occasion years earlier when he had seen her and Georgie walking down that same platform towards him was the more vivid actuality.

Judith's epicene thinness had become gaunt, but it was not that so much as the colouring of her face and the fact that she was wearing pince-nez that made her an absolutely different being. This was the third time in her life that Judy was coming down to the West. Once it had been as a very young girl, full of dreams and questionings; once it had been as a woman who had already learned something of proportion; now it was as this elderly and alien person whom her friends could not connect with the Judith they had known. Not till they saw the beam of her eyes, as profound but somehow less sad than the eyes of the girl had been, did they feel it was the same Judy. The exaggerated colour on her face, the white powder and overdone rouge, embarrassed them both. Judy saw it and laughed, and when they were in the waggonnette and driving along the road she said: "You're thinking how horribly I'm made up! I can't help it. I began it and I found I couldn't leave off, and that's the truth. And of course my eye for effect has got out. But I don't think I'm generally as bad as this. It comes of having done myself up in the train."

"But, Judy—why?" asked Georgie. She was very shocked, for in those days only actresses and women no better than they should be made up their faces.

"Because I began it so as to keep looking young as long as I could, and now I no longer care about keeping young-looking I can't drop it. That's the worst of lots of habits which one starts for some one reason. The reason for it dies and the habit doesn't. I know I overdo it, but it's no good my telling myself so. And it doesn't matter much, after all."

"No," agreed Georgie, brightening; "after all, one loves ones friends just as much if they have mottled skins or a red nose in a cold wind or a shiny forehead, so why shouldn't one love them just as much when they have too much pink and white on? It looks much nicer than too little."

They both laughed and felt more like the Georgie and Judy of old days—more so than they were to again. As the days went on Georgie, whom marriage had taken completely away from the old artistic set, found herself feeling that after all she was a married woman and Judy was still only Miss Parminter.... Judy, scenting this, told her flippantly that a miss was as good as a mother, and Georgie laughed, but warned her to remember the children were in the room.... Judy was inclined to be hurt by the needless reminder, and, as she considered it foolish to be hurt and still more foolish to show it, she went out.

She found Ishmael reading in the rock garden that had been made by the stream, which ran along the dip below the house where once had been rough moorland. Now there were slopes of smooth, vividly green grass and grey boulders, among which they ran up like green pools; great clusters of brilliant rock flowers grew in bright patches over their smooth flanks. Judy sat down beside Ishmael, who closed his book.

"So you wear those?" she asked, pointing to his glasses, which he had taken off and was slipping into their case.

"Yes, I went to the oculist at Plymouth when I went up to see Nicky off. He said I had splendid sight, but wanted them for close work. I didn't know you had to wear them."

"I've known for years and years that I ought. I ought to have as a girl. I went once to an oculist, who told me if I wore them till I was forty I could then throw them away. I thought it was so like a man. I preferred to do without till forty and wear them the rest of my life."

"But haven't you injured your eyes?"

"Probably."

"It isn't all as simple as oculists think," said Ishmael, with that intuition which is generally called feminine and which had been all his life his only spark of genius. Judy looked and smiled her old smile, which charmed as much as ever even on her too-red lips.

"No," she agreed. "I remember once, after going to that oculist, I tried to wear glasses one night when I was going out with Joe. That decided me."

"What happened?"

"I was staying in lodgings at the time, in London. It was the first year I knew how I felt for him. You know about that—that I did? Yes? I was sure you did. Well, he came to take me out to dinner. The lodgings were rather horrible, though even they couldn't spoil things for me. And I was dressing in my room when he came. The sitting-room joined on to it by folding doors. I called out to him I was still dressing, but as a matter of fact I was trying to screw myself up to put the beastly things on. I remember when I went in to him I kept the shady brim of my hat rather down over my face. The sitting-room was in darkness except for what light came in from the hall gas. He said, 'Are you ready? Been beautifying?' I said, 'No, exactly the reverse. I've got my glasses on. You know I told you I had to wear them sometimes.'" Judy broke off, then went on, looking away from Ishmael.

"He said, 'Oh, Lord, take 'em off! Here, let me have a look!' He swung me round, with his hands on my shoulders, into the light from the hall gas, and I met his look. 'They might be worse, I suppose, but for goodness' sake take them off!' he said; 'you don't have to wear them, you know!' I said nothing, but broke away and went down the steps. He came after me and continued to look in the street. 'I say, you look just like your mother in them!' he went on. That was the cruellest thing he could have said, because he knew my mother ... he only did it because he did not think I really had to wear them, and he thought it would make me leave off. I told him what the oculist had said, and he said he would call on me again after I was forty. I pretended to laugh, but I was feeling like death. Later on I slipped them off, and he had the tact not to say anything when he saw what I had done. I never wore them again with him, and went over the world unable to see the things he was raving about, and having perpetually to pretend that I did and guess at the right thing to say. Now—it doesn't matter. I prefer wearing them to having blinding headaches."

"It was pretty rotten of him to let it make a difference," said Ishmael.

"No, I understand what he felt so well. I knew it myself. There is always something ridiculous about making love to a woman in glasses. It destroys atmosphere. If you're married, and either you're so one with the man that he really does love you through everything or else is so dull that he doesn't feel their ugliness, it wouldn't make a difference. But I was not married—he had not the married temperament. And you must admit that it is impossible to imagine a mistress in glasses...."

"Don't!" said Ishmael sharply.

"Don't what? Did you think I was speaking bitterly? I wasn't. There isn't a scrap of bitterness in me, I'm thankful to say. I couldn't have lived if there had been. I saw that almost at the beginning, as I did about jealousy. If you have much to be bitter and jealous about, you can't be; it would kill you. It's only the people who can indulge in a little of it who dare to. I have not been unhappy for the most part, and I wouldn't undo it, which is the great thing. You knew I had given up having times away with him years ago?"

"Yes, I wondered why."

"The thing had somehow lost something ... what is lost in marriage just the same—rapture, glow, fragrance.... And in marriage, with luck, something else comes to take its place ... domesticity, which is very sweet to a woman. Looking after him instead of being looked after—a deep quiet something. You and Georgie are getting it. But in a relation outside marriage you can't get that. You can in those extraordinary menages in France where the little mistress is so domesticated and lives with her lover for years, but that would have been as bad to him as marriage. So I thought it was best to let it all come to an end. It wasn't easy, for though I had got so that it was torture to be with him, because all the time I was feeling our dead selves between us, yet directly I was away I knew that, even though he was the man he was and I the me I had become, we were still nearer to what had been than anything else could be. But I did it. It was only when he was dying I went to Paris to him."

"And that...?"

"Oh, it was quite a success. I don't mean to be brutal, but it was. He was glad to have me, and showed it.... A deathbed is so terribly egoistic; it can't be helped, but he forgot himself more than ever before. I was touched profoundly, but all the time I saw that he was rising to the occasion without knowing it himself. Not that he was emotional; he was never that. But he showed me something deeper than he ever had before. With all his passion he was always so English, always so much the critic, in spite of his powers of enjoyment. He had always made love in caresses, never in words. Till this last time, as he was dying."

Judy was speaking in a quiet voice that sounded as though all her tears had been shed, yet they were pouring down her face, making havoc of the paint and powder, of which she was quite aware and for which she cared not at all. Ishmael thought she had never shown her triumphant naturalness, her stark candour, more finely. As on that evening when he had met her in Paradise Lane, he was conscious that they understood each other almost as well as anyone ever can understand any other human being, because they were in some respects so alike. Something quiet and incurably reserved in him—he could never have talked as bravely as she did—yet was the same as the quality in her that enabled her to bear her secret relations with Killigrew, that had enabled her to break those relations off when she thought it best. And now she seemed to have won through to some calm, he wondered what it was and how she had come to it....

"What you said about marriage," he said at last, "struck me rather. It's true. One loses something, but one finds something."

"Marriage, even the most idealistic of marriages, must blunt the edges to a certain extent," said Judy. "You may call it growing into a saner, more wholesome, view of life, or you may call it a blunting of the edges—the fact is the same. Marriage is a terribly clumsy institution, but it's the most possible way this old world has evolved. It always comes back to it after brave but fated sallies into other paths."

"Such as yours?" asked Ishmael. It was impossible to pretend to fence with honesty such as hers.

"No, not such as mine, because I cannot say I did it for any exalted reason, such as wishing to reform the world. I had no splendid ideas on mutual freedom or anything like that. I did it simply because I loved Joe and it was the only way I could have him without making him tired of me and unhappy. It had to be secret, not only because the sordidness of wagging tongues would have spoilt it so, but because my life would have been so unbearable in the world. A woman's sin is always blamed so heavily. That's a commonplace, isn't it? Yet a woman's sin should be the more forgivable. She sins because it is the man; he sins because it is a woman."

"Sin!" said Ishmael. "Don't you get to that point in life when the word 'sin' becomes extraordinarily meaningless, like the word 'time' in that chapter of Ecclesiastes where it occurs so often that when one comes to the end of the chapter 't-i-m-e' means nothing to one. Sin seems to come so often in life it grows meaningless too."

"Sin, technically speaking, does, to all but the theologian; but playing the game, doing the decent thing, not only to others, but to oneself, and keeping one's spiritual taste unspoiled, these things remain, and they really mean the same."

"I suppose they do. I like talking to you, Judy. It's not like talking to a woman, although one's conscious all the time that you are very much of a woman. But you seem to meet one on common ground."

"There's not so much difference between men and women as people are apt to think. People are always saying 'men are more this and women are more that' when really it's the case of the individual, irrespective of sex. A favourite cry is that men are more selfish. I really rather doubt it. Perhaps, if one must generalise, men are more selfish and women are more egotistical, and of the two the former is the easier vice to overcome. But all this talk of men and women, women and men, seems to me like something I was in the middle of years ago, and that now means nothing."

"What does mean anything to you now?"

"I'm not quite sure I can tell you yet," said Judy slowly; "and I don't think it would be any good to you—there'd be too much against it. What does mean anything to you, personally?"

"I don't know.... I only know that for real youth again, for perfect ease of body, I would give everything short of my immortal soul."

"Ah! then you still feel the soul's the most important?"

"Part of me does—the part of me that responds to the truth, which is going on all the time, with us if we like, without us if not, but which is surely there. It's because I know it's there, even though my longings are out of key with it, that I still say that about the soul."

They went up into the house, and that night Georgie, whether because some feminine jealousy that he talked so much with Judy was stinging at her, or whether because even without that spur she would have felt some old stirring of warmth, was sweeter to him than for long past. As he held her against him he was aware that it was not so much passion he felt as that deeper, sweeter something Judy had spoken of, and for the first time he felt free to savour it instead of half-resenting it as a loss of glamour.

This was a satisfying companionship he had of Georgie, a sweet thing without which life would have been emptier, even if it settled no problems and left untouched the lonely spaces which no human foot can range in their entirety, though in youth some one step may make them tremble throughout their shining floors.... It was good, though it was not the whole of life, and as he took it he gave thanks for the varied relationships in the world which added so to its richness, even if they could only impinge upon its outer edges.



CHAPTER V

THE PARSON'S PHILOSOPHY

That summer the Parson began to show signs of breaking up. Judith had been struck by the change in him when she came down, a change less plain to those who were seeing him often, but startlingly distinct to her who had not seen him for so long. She took up her friendship, that had begun on that evening when he had found her in the church, in the place where it had left off, and this was somewhat to the credit of both, since it transpired that during the past year Judy had been received into the Roman Catholic Church. Judith was quiet about her religion as she had been about her love. She had not accepted it in any spirit of there being nothing else left for her now in life, as the vulgar-natured would have supposed had they known her history; neither was it because, most frequent accusation of the ignorant, it appealed to the sensuous side of her. For ritual she cared as little as the Parson, and by preference she always went to low Mass instead of to a high Mass. She had found something that for her had been hitherto hidden, and Boase saw it and was glad. It was noteworthy that it was to him and not to Ishmael she spoke of it. Georgie, with all her dearness, was almost too prosperous to understand. Judy radiated an inner joy that Ishmael had not attained and that Georgie had never felt the need of. That joy had not been won until her feet had trod stranger ways than her friends at Cloom ever imagined. Often she was seized by a pang of conscience that they should admire her as a creature above everything honest and courageous ... for there was more to know of her now than her relation with Killigrew. She knew how the single-heartedness of that had absolved her in their eyes; but for what it had plunged her in they would have had less comprehension. For it was not in a nature so essentially womanly as Judith's to be content with sex-starvation once passion had been aroused in her, and the irony of it all was that she, who had not for several years awoken to stirred senses with the man she loved, was unable to stifle their urgency after she had left him.

From slight dalliance with first one man and then another, she had progressed to the greater intimacies, ashamed but unfighting. Till at last the pricking thing had begun to grow fainter and her will stronger and she was able to break away. She hid the truth and kept up the old tradition of having loved only once, partly because it was true she had not felt actual love again, but partly for vanity's sake....

It was not that she was vain of the romantic figure she seemed to her friends; it was a more deadly thing than that. She was vain of the quality of her past love. Too much had been made of it, and she would have been more than human had she succeeded altogether in escaping the temptation to visualise herself as the tragic survivor of a great passion. And to this had she come, although her love had been so real....

Ishmael never again during that visit felt quite the easy intimacy with Judy that he had touched that day by the stream, though as the next few years went on and her visits became a regular thing to look forward to there was built up between them a fabric of friendship that grew to be something unique to both. Those things which had happened to Judy had taught her every tolerance and sympathy.

They were not on the whole bad, those years that followed. Nicky, after writing more or less regularly, suddenly announced his intention of coming home again, and Ishmael was filled with a joy that no personal thing had had power to wake in him since the boy had gone. The thought of Nicky had seldom been far from him; always it was with the idea of Nicky in the forefront of his mind that he worked for Cloom. When he had first taken on the idea of Cloom as the central scheme of his life it had been for Cloom itself, or rather for the building up of an ideal Cloom which his father's conduct had shattered. Now he realised that if he had had no son to inherit after him his work would not have held the same deep significance for him, even though it was not with any conscious idea of a son that he had started on his task. Now, since Nicky's departure, he had begun to see how incomplete the whole scheme would have been without him, how incomplete it would still be if Nicky wanted to wander all his days, or if modernity and the new country over the sea should have come to mean more to him than the old. He knew by Nicky's letter that this was not so, and his heart sang within him. For days after the letter came a glamour that to his eyes the world had lost illuminated it once again.

The 'nineties, young and go-ahead as they felt to themselves, did not seem to Ishmael nearly as wonderful as the 'seventies, which had seen so much deeper changes. This world—in which people now moved so complacently talking of Ibsen and Wilde, of weird Yellow Books of which he heard from Judith, and many other things all designated as fin-de-siecle—he had seen it in the making. The very children growing up in his house, the plump little Ruth and the clever, impatient Lissa, they thought they knew so much more than he did because they had been born so much later; and so in a way they did, in as much as the younger generation always sees more truly because it has not had time to collect so many prejudices, but can come straight and fresh to setting right the problems of the world. But what Lissa and Ruth did not yet realise as he did was that the day would come when children born in the new century would look upon them with a gentle pity.

On the day the letter came from Nicky, nearly two years after he had gone away, Ishmael went over to see Boase and tell him the news. The Parson could not often get over to Cloom Manor now, but it was the highest tribute to him that not only Ishmael and Judy and Georgie, when she could spare the time, but the children too, considered a visit to the Parson in the light of a pleasure. Boase knew it and was glad—even his sturdy aloofness and self-reliance would have felt a pang at being called on for decency's sake.

Ishmael found Boase lying on the long chair in his study, that for him always held something, some smell or atmosphere of the mind, that carried him back to his childhood. He felt in the midst of the old days again at once, when he was not looking at Boase, who was grown very old, his once rather square face and blunt features having taken on a transparency of texture that was in itself ageing, while his hair, sparse about the big brow, was a creamy white like froth. Boase called to Ishmael, recognising his step, to take off his wet things in the hall, for it was raining hard, with that whole-hearted rain of the West which when it begins seems as though it could never stop again. That was a wet summer, when the stalks of the growing harvest were flattened to the earth and the corn sprouted green in the ear and the hay rotted on the ground before ever it could be carried. Ishmael had to be careful about getting wet since that night when he had run to the burning of Angwin's ricks, and he did not scorn the Parson's offer of a pair of shabby old slippers that lurked under the hall chair for just such occasions as this.

It seemed to Ishmael that if he had not been feeling such a different being himself he might have been a little boy again and time never have moved on from the days when he lived here with the Parson and did his lessons in this room. Outside the shrubs bent before the rainy wind, as they had done so many times before his childish eyes; the scrap of lawn visible between them showed as sopping and as green; the fuchsia had grown bigger; but its purple and scarlet blossoms, so straightly pendant, each held a drop of clear water at the tip, as they had ever done in weather such as this. Within the room might be a little fuller, a little smaller, whether owing to the Parson's untidiness, with which the new housekeeper could not cope as well as had old Mrs. Tippet, long dead, or whether to the shrinking that takes place in rooms after childhood is passed, Ishmael could not have told. Three walls were still lined with dusty golden-brown books that he had been wont to describe as smelling of bad milk pudding, and the shabby green tablecloth was littered with sermon paper and more books just as it had been for his lessons. He almost expected to see Vassie's golden head, no more alien from him than his own boyish dark one, bending over it as he looked.

Boase held out a thin hand to him, laying down the book he had been reading, after slipping a marker in the place. Ishmael saw it was a new book from the library. "Robert Elsmere" was the name upon its cover.

"What good thing has happened?" asked Boase, watching Ishmael's face.

"Padre, you are too clever; if you had lived a few centuries earlier you would certainly have been burned alive! Nicky is coming home."

"That is splendid news! He has been away quite long enough to be good."

"For him?"

"No, for you. You are getting stodgy, Ishmael."

Ishmael laughed, but felt rather annoyed all the same.

"What is one to do? I am growing old."

"Nonsense! Have the decency to remember that compared with me you are a young man. Wait till you are close on eighty and then see how you feel about it."

Ishmael had a quick feeling that after all he was young compared with this frail, burning whiteness, yet it seemed to him that he could never be as old as that, that then indeed life could not be worth living. Aloud he said mechanically:

"You? You are always young."

"Age does not matter when you are really old; it is only the getting old that matters," said Boase; "it is like death. No one minds being dead; it's the dying that appals. But seriously, my dear boy, what really matters is to have the quality of youth. Don't lose that."

"I'm not sure I ever had it," said Ishmael slowly, sitting down by the long chair.

"Perhaps not. You were acutely young, which is not quite the same thing. Our friend Killigrew had the quality of youth. One can say of him that he died young. I think your Nicky has that quality too. That's why he'll be so good for you."

"What about the girls? Aren't they enough to save my soul alive?"

"Oh, well, girls are never quite the same thing. A father loves his daughters if anything more than his sons, but it's as a father and not as a fellow human. You know, I've seen a good deal of Judith this summer; she's always good at coming and talking to an old man, and what interests me about her is that she keeps so fluid. I mean that she never sticks where she was. I don't want you to either. You came in the days of Ruskin and Pater and of great men politically, but I don't want you to stick there. There's no merit in being right at one time in one's life if one sticks to that rightness after it has lost its significance. You know, a stopped clock is right twice every twenty-four hours, but it's a rightness without value. Keep fluid, Ishmael. It is the only youth."

"Is that why you're reading 'Robert Elsmere'?" asked Ishmael, with a smile.

"Exactly. I'm not going to change what feeds my soul daily for what is offered me between these covers, but that's not the point. One can always discriminate, but one should always give oneself things to discriminate between."

There was a short silence, which the Parson broke. "I too have had a letter," he said, and there was something in his voice which made Ishmael aware of a portent beyond the ordinary. "From Archelaus ..." added Boase.

"From Archelaus?" echoed Ishmael. The name came upon him like the name of one dead, it seemed to him that when they spoke of Killigrew they touched more upon the living than when they mentioned Archelaus. "Why does he write?" he added; and his voice sounded harsh and dry even to his own ears, so that he felt a little shame at himself.

"He has met Nicky in Canada."

"I thought Archelaus had gone West in the States, if he were still alive at all. I was beginning to think something must have happened to him. No one has heard for so long. He took a funny idea into his head at one time to write to Georgie, whom he had never seen—queer letters, telling very little, full of sly remarks one couldn't get the rights of." Ishmael paused, waiting for the Parson to produce the letter and show it him, but Boase made no move. "It's funny Nicky never mentioned it," went on Ishmael with an odd little note that was almost jealousy in his voice....

"He says he did not tell Nicky who he was," said the Parson reluctantly. "I think there is more good in that queer, distorted creature than you think for, Ishmael. Seeing the boy seems to have roused him to old feelings of home.... He writes oddly, but in a strain that is not wholly base."

"I can't make out why he wants to write to you at all, Padre; he always hated you, blamed you so ... for the marriage and all that."

"There is not much accounting for the vagaries of a man like that. Your father thought to be ironic when he had you called Ishmael; he saw every man's hand against you—you the youngest and the one against so many. And you have made a strong, secure life for yourself and your children, and it is Archelaus who wanders...."

"Archelaus would always have wandered. He has it in his soul. Do you remember the day Killigrew was classifying men by whether they wandered or stayed at home? He was right about Archelaus then. Da Boase—you don't think I could have behaved any differently to him, do you? He wouldn't be friends. That time in the wood ... you know ... I always knew in my heart that he had hit out at me, though I was so afraid of really knowing it that I never spoke of it even to you. And then when he came home after my marriage to poor little Phoebe—he made the first advances, it's true, but I never felt happy about them, although he seemed so altered. I've reproached myself sometimes that I was glad when he went away after she died. I always hoped he wouldn't come back any more. What else could I do, Da Boase?"

"I too hope he will never come home any more," said the Parson slowly, "and yet ... if he does, try and remember, Ishmael ... not that he is your brother—that would not make things easier—but that he is not quite an ordinary man, that in him the old brutalities dormant in most of us have always been strong and that he has had nothing to counteract them. He is not quite as we are. If we cannot understand we should not judge."

Again a little silence fell. Then Ishmael said suddenly:

"What does feed your soul, Da Boase? I shouldn't have asked you that," he added swiftly. "Besides, I know. But though I know, and though I believe in it too, yet I can't yet find all I want in it."

Boase lay silent, looking out of the rainy window at the wash of green and pearly grey without. His hand caressed Ishmael's as though he had been a little boy again.

"That feeds my soul from which my soul came ..." he said slowly, "and daily the vision draws nearer to me and its reflection here strengthens even to my earthly eyes. This world is dear and sweet, but only because I know that it is not all, or even the most important part. Each day is the sweeter to me because each day I can say 'Come quickly, O Lord Jesus.' I do not need to say to you all that knowledge means."

The rain had blown away when Ishmael went home again, yet it seemed to him he went with a more anxious heart than that with which he had set out. Boase had seemed to him like someone who is almost gone already, whose frail envelope must soon be burned through, and it had come to him that no one could ever take his place. Killigrew he was missing as much now as when he died, because though he had not seen him so very often, yet Killigrew and he had each stood for something to the other that no one else could quite supply, and so his going had left a sense of loss that time did nothing to fill. But with Boase it was more than that. There was something in Ishmael which Boase had fathered and which knew and recognised its spiritual paternity. His mind had taken much colour from Killigrew, but from Boase it had taken form. He felt that that afternoon in the stuffy study he had touched something he had almost forgotten, that had slipped rather out of his life for the past years, since Nicky had been growing up: a significance, a sense of some plan of which he had caught glimpses in his youth and had since forgotten.

As he went through the wet world it seemed to him as though he were once again the same Ishmael who had so often gone this way long years ago, when the soul behind life had still intrigued him more than the manifestations of life itself. Whether it was that that afternoon in the study had awakened with sharper poignancy than ever before the remembrance of his youth, that some aspect of the room, with its musty books, its fire and the driving rain without, had awakened in him a forgotten memory of a day that had once held actual place in his life but had long since been lost, awakened it through the mere material agencies of the sense of smell and sight: or whether the Parson had touched him in some atrophied cord that had rung more freely in days gone by, the effect was the same.

As he went it was as though time had ceased to exist, as though he caught some vision of the whole pattern as one rhythmic weaving, and not isolated bits disconnected with each other. The sensation mounted to his brain and told him that time itself was a mere fashion of thought, that he was walking in some period he could not place. He remembered the day when the Neck had been cried, and it had seemed to him that the moment was so acute it could never leave off being the present and slip into the past; he remembered the first day at St. Renny when he was staring at the sunbeam and feeling that that at least would go on spell-bound for ever; he remembered that moment when, on his return to Cloom, he had gone over the fields with John-James and, looking once more on the same field, had recalled that first moment, and smiled to see how it had slipped away and was gone. He had smiled without thinking that first moment akin to the second one in which he was, whereas now he saw how the one had led to the other and both to this ... and how they were all so much one that none seemed further off than another. The word "present" lost significance in such a oneness as this. It came to him that this sense of completeness, of inevitable pattern, was what the Parson felt, what enabled him to wait so tranquilly.

Ishmael mounted the long slope and stood looking down upon Cloom, and it seemed to him the fabric of a dream. So strong upon him was the sense of loss of the time-sense that the place-sense also reeled and slipped to a different angle in his mind. He saw how in a far-off field at the crest of the further slope serried rows of washing were laid out, looking so oddly like gravestones that the surface of his mind took it for a cemetery until, pricked to a more normal consciousness, he realised that there could be no such thing there, but only a field belonging to a farm of his own. Even then it seemed to him that he was wandering in an unfamiliar country, with a something unreal about it that gave it a dreamlike quality. The sky was by now a deep slate colour; below it the yellow of the road and the green of the fields showed a bleached pallor, and on the telegraph poles that rose and dipped to the crest the china insulators looked like motionless white birds against the darkness. He went on and down to his house; but all the while he knew that this was not his real habitation, that the house Boase was building daily, stone by stone, was for him too the ultimate bourne, that house which, in some other dimension, only glimpsed here to the dazzling of the mind, is straightened by neither time nor place as we understand them. He knew it, but not yet for him did the knowledge hold any peace—rather it sent a chill of helplessness to his heart. He still wanted something in this world, and not in the next, to make the inner joy by which he lived.



CHAPTER VI

"SOMETHING MUST COME TO ALL OF US"

With autumn Boase died. Like his life, his death seemed so natural, so without any sense of strain or outrage, that it was robbed, even for the man who had loved him, of all bitterness beyond that of personal loss. He had not gone uncriticised more than can anyone; there were not a few of the country people too coarse of grain to understand a man's life could really be as his appeared, and a certain capriciousness in his own likes and dislikes, which was one of his greatest weaknesses, had made for him intolerant critics among his own class. Yet, all in all, he was as near perfection, not only in character, but in understanding, as anyone Ishmael had ever heard of—far more so than anyone he had ever met. And of later years the Parson had grown in tolerance, which always to him had been a Christian duty—though it was far from being a weak or maudlin tolerance; and he had also lost much of that individualism which had been the only thing to cloud his judgment. More than most old men he had been free from glorification of the past, though not as free as he himself imagined. Something of Ishmael had gone with Killigrew's going, but that something had hardly included much of his heart; now there was buried with the Parson, or, more truly, strove to follow him whither he had gone, a love which was as single-natured a thing as can be felt. The return of Nicky was the only thing which at all filled the emptiness in Ishmael's days.

Nicky had altered, and for the better, if, thought Ishmael, it was not the mere selfishness of the old generation which had ever made him feel Nicky needed improvement. This deepening, this added manliness, would after all have been superhuman in the boy who had gone away. Nicky had lived roughly among rough men, and he had stood the test well. He still had the delightful affectations of youth, but wore them with a better grace. He came back not only the heir and future master of Cloom, but a man who could have won his way in the world without so many acres behind him. He was full of new ideas for farming, which he had imbibed in Saskatchewan, and Ishmael, with a smile of dry amusement against himself, found he was as suspicious of them as ever John-James had been of his iron ploughs and Jersey cows. Farming being "the thing" in Canada, Nicky, who had gone away rather despising it, came back eager to try his hand.

When Ishmael had first started machinery at Cloom, beginning with a binder and going on to a steam thresher that he hired out for the harvest all around the district, the hedges had been black with folk crowding to see the wonders, just as they had when the first traction engine made its appearance in West Penwith. Yet Cornishmen, who are conservative creatures, still cling to their straight-handled scythes, although they are less convenient than those with curved handles in use up-country. Nicky had small use for customs such as this, and he poured forth ideas that would have turned John-James pale, if anything could have affected his seamed and weather-beaten countenance.

John-James was an old man now—he had aged quickly with his outdoor life; but always he refused to let Ishmael pension him off, and though as overseer he had a wage passing any paid in the county, and though he lived comfortably enough in his little cottage chosen by himself, with a tidy body who came in from the village every day to attend to his wants, he still showed all the premature ageing of the countryman. He had never married, and with age had taken many queer ways, one of them being a rooted dislike to having any woman except his sister Vassie in his house. Georgie was never allowed to cross its threshold, and he always called her "Mrs. Ruan." The two little girls he adored, and they knew he was their uncle, though with the unquestioning faith of childhood they accepted that he lived alone in a little cottage like a working man because he was eccentric and mustn't be worried to live as father did. Ishmael was very fond of this brother—as fond as John-James' rigid taciturnity would let him be. John-James' chief peculiarity was displayed always during the week's holiday he took every year; on each day of this week he would make a pilgrimage to some cemetery. A new graveyard was an unfailing magnet for him; he would spend hours there and return next year to note what new headstones had taken root. "Why on earth do you want to go and spend all your holiday in cemeteries, John-James?" Georgie had once asked him; "you'll have to be there for ever and ever some day; why do you want to go before you have to?" John-James, attired in his best broadcloth, with a bowler hat firmly fixed above his weather-beaten face, stared at her stonily "I go to the graveyards," he said at length, "because them be the only places where folks mind their own business...."

Tom had quite dropped out of the family circle made by Ishmael, Vassie, and John-James. He found the annoyance of not being received in the same circles as Ishmael and Vassie too irksome to him—who, he not unfairly considered, had done so much the best and with the greatest handicaps. The day when he came over to Cloom and found Lord Luxullyan and John-James having tea together was too much for his grasp of social values, and he straightway bought a practice in Plymouth, where he did very well and rose to be an alderman, though the gleaming eminence of mayor never was to be for him. He married the daughter of a rich draper—in "the wholesale"—and as soon as he could afford it he dropped all doubtful practices and became strictly honest in his profession.

Of all the family, Vassie, who had started out with a more defined character than the others, was the least changed. She was eminently successful—had been ever since she met Flynn and determined to marry him. She had made him a good wife, for he was one of those men who need feminine encouragement, and with all his brilliance would never have got so far without her to encourage him. He was not to be one of the great men of his day, but he had done well, having attained an Under-Secretaryship under Gladstone's last Administration, which he continued under Lord Rosebery. With the advent of the Conservative party in '95 he retired, though still only sixty, and busied himself with a small estate he had bought in Ireland, where he intended to work out his schemes for model Utopian tenancies. Vassie was irked by the change. She had carried into middle life her superabundant energy—her love of being in the eye of the world. She had no children to occupy her—her only real quarrel with life—and it did not suit her to sit in Ireland while her once flaming Dan played with model villages and made notes for his reminiscences. He had, as flaming dreamers often do, fallen onto the dreams without the fire, and, having attained a certain amount of his ideals, was better pleased to sit and look backwards over those which had not materialised than to face a losing struggle in their cause.

Vassie tried all her wiles to induce him to come to London after the first year in retirement, and at last she was able to assure him that she was not feeling well. The symptoms were but slight to begin with—a tinge of rheumatism in one leg, which annoyed without incapacitating her. The rheumatism became so fierce that the local doctor at last decided it must be neuritis, and when the pain became increasingly acute and frequent he grew alarmed and insisted on a London opinion. Vassie herself felt a pang of fear, and it was a genuine terror she carried to the grim house in Harley Street a few days later. The next week she was at Cloom.

Ishmael was shocked at the change in her. Her hair, that had still shown its old brassy hue when last he had seen her at the time of the fall of the Government, was now a faded grey—that harsh green-grey that fair hair nearly always turns to on its way to white. There were hollows under her eyes, and her full mouth looked drawn. She smiled at his shocked exclamation that he could not suppress.

"Don't look like that!" she told him. "The doctor says it's not hopeless, or wouldn't be if I'd let them operate."

"It? What is it?" asked Ishmael.

"Tuberculosis in the knee. They want me to have my leg off, and I won't. You don't want me to, do you, Ishmael? I'd rather die whole if I've got to."

He had felt all his blood rush to his head with the horror of it; his heart pounded sickeningly, a darkness swirled before his eyes. Vassie linked her arm in his and walked him up and down the lawn in front of the house; from within they could hear the steady rumble of Dan's voice as he talked to Georgie. Ishmael could not trust himself to speak. Vassie was very dear to him, though there had been few caresses between them during their lives. She stood for something to him no one else ever had, even as she did for John-James. She had never been popular with women—Phoebe had feared her, Georgie called her hard and coarse; but to men, though with all her beauty she had been very unattractive to them as far as her sex went, she meant a good deal as a friend. Judith and she were the only two of the old set who had ever been really intimate, and that was more a curious kinship between them, a mutual respect born out of the strength each recognised in the other's very different character, than anything warmer. But to Ishmael and John-James she still held the glow that for them had enwrapped her even in early days when her destiny was only clear cut in her own mind, and when her hardness, commented on by others, was to them an unknown quantity. When she turned it towards them it became strength, and it did not need caresses to tell Ishmael that what of tenderness she possessed was more for him than for anyone else in the world. She felt more his equal than she did with Dan, whom she alternately despised, with the kindly despite of a wife, and respected for qualities of brain that were beyond her practical reach. She always had to explain to Dan, to Ishmael never. She slipped her arm through his now and gave it a little hug.

"Don't worry! After all something must come to all of us," she said.

The phrase knocked at Ishmael's heart. "Something must come to all of us...." Everyone had to die of something, from some outrage on nature. There had to be some convulsion out of the ordinary course to bring it about; cases where the human machine simply ran down, as with the Parson, were rare. This horror was lying in wait for all—the manner of their leaving. It was astonishing, looked at in cold blood, that people lived and were gay and happy with this hanging over them from their birth onwards. He realised that it was this fact—that only by some disruption of the ordinary course could death come—which had always made death seem so unnatural to him. He had for a flash the feeling that every woman, however maternal, has when she knows she is to have a baby—a feeling of being caught in something that will not let one go. "Something must come to all of us...."

Her "something" had come to Vassie. She had to submit to the operation, but, though she rallied from it, no real good could be done, and the end became merely a question of time. She did not kick against the pricks, as Ishmael had done all his life; she accepted it all with a certain stoicism that was not without its grandeur, and, though she became very irritable, she had moments of greater softening than ever before. She was dying when the clouds of the coming war with the South African Republics first began to lower over the country. The Flynns were in London, for Vassie was now too ill ever to think of crossing over to Ireland again, but she suddenly took it into her head to wish to be taken down to Cloom. This was when she heard the news that Nicky, who had been a volunteer for some time, had enlisted in the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry. She had always been very attached to him, spending upon him what of thwarted motherhood she alone knew, and he for his part had responded to her rather more than he did to most people. Ishmael was wired to, and in November of '99, a month after the declaration of war, Dan brought her down with a couple of hospital nurses and she was installed in the biggest and sunniest room at Cloom.

With Nicky's absorption into the Army and Vassie's incursion hard upon the edge of her final parting Ishmael was more strangely affected than by anything that had happened merely to himself in his whole life. The approach of death for Vassie, the perpetual chance of it for Nicky, gave him the fulness of life, in so far as life means the power to feel. He had thought the loss of power to feel for himself an inevitable part of age, as it had been of the thickening and greater materialism of middle life; but now he knew that never had he been ravaged as now, because never before had he encountered fear for someone he loved.

Bitter loss, the loss of disappointment which at the time the soul tells one is worse than loss by death, he had known over Blanche; pain, anger, hardness, with his family he could not have missed; horror and remorse had both assailed him over Phoebe; natural sorrow that held no sense of outrage he had felt for the loss of Killigrew and Boase. But this was something different—this aching sense of helplessness, of a passion of protectiveness that could avail neither Vassie under his roof nor Nicky on the far veldt. He had not been of those who are insensitive to the pain of the world—rather had it held too much of his sympathies; but now, in the sublime selfishness of great personal grief, he felt he would give everything—the war, the whole rest of the world—to have Nicky back in safety. That was only at first, or when the fear was strongest; at other times his sense of proportion and knowledge of how Nicky himself would feel towards such a sentiment, brought him to a truer poise.

The war dragged on. The nation began to see that it was not to be the "walk-over" so confidently expected; disasters occurred, long sieges wore the folk at home even as those in the beleaguered towns, growls against the Government were raised, people talked of "muddling through," and every barrel-organ in the land ground out "Soldiers of the Queen" and "The Absent-minded Beggar." Then the world went mad and mafficked, felt a little ashamed of itself, and became, for the first time for years, rather usefully introspective and self-critical. And "Nicky ... Nicky ... Nicky ..." beat out every swing of the pendulum of Time at Cloom.

Between the beats of intensest feeling Ishmael would fall into the arid spaces which all deep emotion holds as a strongly-running sea holds hollows—spaces where it did not seem to matter so much after all, when in a dry far-off way he could tell himself that nothing really made any difference in life. From these hollows he came up again as a man comes floating into consciousness after chloroform—recalled by a sense of pain. He had one of these spaces just after Vassie had been buried, and all the time he was consoling Dan's frantic and noisy sorrow he was feeling a hypocrite, because, so he told himself, he really did not care. He did care, and deeply, but he was making the mistake of thinking that any grief can go the whole way, that all else in life can possibly be blotted out. True instinct told him it could not, that all of life could never fall in ashes round the head even when it was bowed in irrevocable loss; but a remnant of the conventional made him feel as though it ought to, and this made him distrust what grief he felt. His thought for Nicky, even when he was in his dry spaces, he always knew was eating at him. When, with peace, came the expectation of Nicky's return in safety, it seemed to Ishmael that never before had he known all that fatherhood meant. Cloom, the future, all that he had worked for all his life, would surely come back with Nicky.



CHAPTER VII

EARTH

"When Nicky comes home" grew to be the watchword in the household at Cloom. The two girls, clever Lissa and thoughtful Ruth, were now grown up, and far from the childish griefs of postponed drives; they had built up a very pretty legend round the figure of Nicky these three years of the war. Ruth had copied out his letters from South Africa and made a manuscript book of them, that Lissa, who was "going in" for craftsmanship, bound in khaki with the badge of the D.C.L.I. on the cover, and they gave it to their father with great pomp. All of life centred round "when Nicky comes home." He had done very well, having gained a commission and won a D.S.O., and there was talk of a public reception in Penzance for him and the rest of the local heroes.

One day Nicky came home, but with a wife, and the homecoming was consequently quite unlike everything that had been planned. The girls declared loudly that he had spoilt everything and that they had wanted him to themselves, though privately Ruth thought Marjorie very fascinating.

Marjorie was a Colonial by birth—a good-looking, vigorous modern young woman, with a rather twangy voice. She admired Cloom so much as an antique that her enthusiasm seemed somehow to belittle it. Yet there was something splendid about her—in her confidence and poise, her candour, her superb health, and the simplicity of her thoughts. Ishmael could not but think her the perfect wife for Cloom and the future of Cloom. She would bring fresh, clear blood to the old stock, which showed signs of falling on unhealth. For the first time in his thirty-odd years Nicky was in contact with someone he admired more than himself, and the result was excellent. His early discontent had settled into ambition—the limited honest ambition of the country gentleman such as Ishmael would most have wished to see in him. Canada and the war between them had carried him far from the politics of his father—as far as Ishmael had found himself from Boase long ago; and when a bye-election occurred in the division he stood for it in the Unionist interests, and won, his honours still thick upon him, even in that Radical locality. He was now growing more and more to be master of Cloom, taking an interest in it even during his inevitable absences in town, Ishmael falling into the background; for his sixty years, though vigorous within him if he took care of himself, made him suffer for any violent exertion.

He had slipped into the background—to all but Georgie. She kept pace with him, although so much younger, because in him she saw her own youth. Her children had grown up and away from her as children must, and she clung to her husband as she had not been wont to do when the practical affairs of a family had absorbed more of her attention.

Ishmael endeavoured to live up to the Parson's advice and keep fluid, and his naturally mobile nature helped him in this. Where and when he did fall short, as the inevitable prejudices of age in favour of the ways it knows arose in him, he at least could see it and smile at himself. But, following on the intense period of personal feeling he had lived through while Nicky was at the war, had come the inevitable reaction, and from that reaction, as far as the capacity for any outstanding emotion went, he was too old to recover.

He had learned the lesson of life too well, saw the whole pattern with too great clarity. This alone would have relegated him to the background, for it is the frame of mind which, when it is temperamental from the outset, makes the looker-on at life; while when it is attained it creates the person to whom other people come for sympathy and help in matters that seem to them enormously important, even while they appeal to the wider view for better proportion.

He was in the background; but he was not yet content to be there. He was content to be thought a person who could have feelings that started and ended in others—even as a young man he had worked for that; but he had not filled in his background with anything that satisfied the portion of himself, which, even if a man live for others ever so completely, still clamours for satisfaction. Every part of him that was in relation to others had adjusted, but that one spot which always answers to the self alone was merely going on from day to day as best it could. He was content to have no burning emotions, no strong longings, to be considered less important than themselves by all the younger people amongst whom he lived, but within him the voice that says "I am I ... I still want something for myself alone, some solution of the riddle, something to make up for loss of youth and beauty and strength," still stirred and muttered. Not prosperity, not children, not a wife who took step by step with him, could give this, or even help him to find out what it was. Not his memory of what the Parson had lived and died by could fill him wholly; he had not yet come to that perfect satisfaction, life was too insistent in him. Not in the next world, or in any personal contact, however intimate, in this, could the stuff of life be found. He had imagined while Nicky was away that after all he too had attained the personal fusion that most people seemed to cling to as the chief support in life, but now he knew that that way was not for him any more than for any other at the loneliest pass.

A few days after Nicky's triumphant election, when thought was once more possible at Cloom, Ishmael felt more depressed than he had for long; he had been living not so much in the valleys as upon the straight plains of late. To-day his eyes were hurting him and he could not read; there was no work crying to be done, and the heavy warm air was misted with damp that seemed to melt into the bones. He went out, shaking off Georgie's protests, and struck up the valley leading from the sea. The old mood was on him that had recurred again and again through life—the mood when nothing would satisfy but to go out alone and walk and walk and breathe in peace from earth and air. He went on, not walking fast, for the depression that was on him was not like a definite grief that urges the body to fierce exertion, and as he went it was as though he had neglected the charm too long and it was going to fail him. A blight seemed to hang upon everything, and a dread that had no form but that pressed on him grew as he went.

He came at last to the marshy bottom of the valley, where the wet and tussocky grass was set in a tangle of blackberry bushes and bracken higher than a man. A few forlorn tufts of cotton-grass still blew out in the languid breeze and the yellow stars of the cinquefoil shone from the moss, but disfigured by the dozens of evil-looking black slugs, three or four inches long, that lay motionless all over the marsh. A faint, subtle smell hung on the air, the fragrance of the dodder, that covered the gorse bushes with a fine vermilion net, studded with pale pink flowers like fat flesh-coloured flies caught in a vast red spider's web. The whole place seemed redolent of evil—the motionless glossy slugs, the deadly parasite with its curiously obscene flowers, the littered undergrowth rotting in the water, all these filled Ishmael with a suffocating sense of doom. He stayed at gaze, yet longing to get away from this steamy place, where the gorse had gone grey beneath the false embraces of the dodder.

At last he turned and climbed slowly up the valley side; when he reached the top he had to pause and lean upon a gate to get his breath. His heart was pounding in his ears. He did not look up; for a few minutes the world was dark and filled with a great roaring. Then he felt his breath coming more easily and the giddiness passed; he opened his eyes and straightened himself.

He opened them on to the wide stretch of sky that arched over the sea, and there he saw, stretched from headland to headland, one gleaming foot springing from an irradiated field, the other dying into a swirl of misty foam, a perfect arch of rainbow. It was so triumphant, so brilliant, so unexpected, that at first he stood staring, his mouth open, his whistling breath coming unheeded.

A rainbow alone in Nature always looks an alien thing—it is never part of a landscape, but the added touch which means wonder. Like snow, it is always a phenomenon. It has never lost the quality of miracle.

Far below the glowing span lay Cloom, wet grey roofs gleaming, and a dazzle of sun upon its whitewash; around the fields lay like a jewelled canopy, lighter than the sky, which still wore a deep purple-grey, against which the arch burned like fire.

As Ishmael looked the tears swam in his eyes, making the whole radiant vision reel and run together in a blaze of passionate light and colour.

As he stood there, feeling a keener joy than he could ever remember the personal having given him, all his philosophy, all his changing beliefs in what was most worth while, resolved themselves into the passionate cry: "Let beauty not die for me.... May dawn and sunset, twilight and storm, hold their thrill to the last; may the young moon still cradle magic and the old moon image peace; may the wind never fail to blow freedom into my nostrils, and the sunlight strike to my heart till I die. And if colour, light, shadow, and sound of birds' calling all fall away from my failing senses, at least let the touch of earth be sweet to my fingers and the air to my eyelids."



BOOK V

HARVEST



CHAPTER I

THE FOUR-ACRE

A little boy was riding into Cloom farmyard astride a big carthorse, whistling and beating time with a toy switch upon its irresponsive flanks. He was so small that his bare brown legs stuck straight out on either side of him, but he sat upright and clutched the dark tangled mane firmly. The horse planted his big gleaming hoofs with care, his broad haunches heaved slightly as he went, and the child swayed securely to the action. Beside the horse's arched neck walked an old man, less sure of step than the animal; the child drummed with his sandalled feet against the round sides of his steed and managed to kick the old man as he did so.

"Oh, I'm sorry, Granpa!" he said in a clear treble, laughing a little, not because he thought it was funny to have hit his grandfather, but because it was such a fine day and it was so jolly on the big horse, and he knew his grandfather would understand that he could not help laughing at everything. The old man put up his hand and laid it gently on the slim brown leg, keeping it there till the horse stopped in the middle of the yard, when he held up both his arms and the boy slipped down into them.

"Jim!" called at woman's voice from the house. "Jim! Hurry up; it's past lesson-time."

"Bother!" said Jim regretfully; "it's always lesson-time just as I'm really occupied. I wish I was a grown-up and could do what I liked."

The old man did not contradict him with a well-worn platitude, because he knew that in the way the child meant grown-ups did have a great deal of freedom.

"You wouldn't like to be as old as I am, would you, Jim?" he asked. Jim regarded him thoughtfully; evidently this was the first time he had even imagined such a thing ever being possible. He cast about in his mind to think of some answer that would not hurt his grandfather's feelings.

"Well, perhaps not quite as old as you, Granpa!" he said; "as old as Daddy; not with white hair like you—just a grown-up man."

"Jim ...!" came the voice again more insistently, and his mother appeared at the back door and stood framed in its arch of carved granite. Marjorie Ruan was still a fine young woman; her thirty-odd years sat lightly upon her. Her tanned skin and the full column of her long, bare throat gave her a look of exuberant health. She was dressed in a smart suit of white linen and her brown head was bare.

"Have you been having a ride?" she asked. "But you mustn't stop when I call you, you know! You shouldn't keep him when he ought to come, Granpa!" The grandfather remained unperturbed. He liked and admired Marjorie, but there were times when he considered her manners left something to be desired. Jim ran into the house, and Marjorie, shepherding him in with a sweeping motion of her strong, big arm, disappeared also, curved a little over him. Ishmael was left alone in the yard, stroking the velvet-soft muzzle of the waiting horse.

Ishmael made a fine figure as he stood there, a little stooped, but handsome in his thin old way, with his strongly-modelled nose and his dark hazel eyes deep-set beneath the shaggy white brows. He was clean-shaven, and the fine curve of his jaw, always rather pointed than heavy, gave a touch of the priestly which looked oddly alien with his loose Norfolk jacket and corduroy breeches and the brown leather gaiters that protected his thin old legs. His close-cropped grey head was uncovered, and he still carried it well; he looked his years, but bore them bravely, nevertheless.

"You are going to finish sowing the four-acre to-day?" he asked the man who came out from a shed leading another horse. "I shall come along myself later on. Mind you regulate the feed of the drill carefully; it's not been working quite well lately." He stood watching a moment while the man harnessed the horses to the big drill, which, standing quiescent now, was soon to rattle and clank over the ploughed and harrowed earth of the four-acre field. Then he turned, and, going through the house, went out on to the lawn, where on a long chair in the sun, carefully swathed in shawls, an old lady was lying.

"Have you everything you want, Judy?" he asked, sitting slowly down on the garden-chair beside her. She looked up at him through the large round spectacles, that gave her an air as of a fairy godmother in a play, and nodded. "Everything, thanks! Marjorie has been very good. My knitting—which I always take about with me, because I think it's only decent for an old lady to knit, not because I can do it well, for I can't; to-day's Western Morning News and yesterday's Times; and my writing-pad, if I should take it into my head to write letters, which I shan't, because, as you know, I think letters are thoroughly vicious. One of the few signs of grace about the present generation is the so-called decay of the art of letter-writing."

"Jim would agree with you. He has just had to go in to his lessons; and he thinks that letters are a lot of rot, anyway!"

"What are you doing to-day, Ishmael?"

"I am thinking of helping with the four-acre. Nicky will soon be down for the Easter recess, and then I shall be so carefully looked after I shall not get the chance to overtire myself."

"Nicky has turned out a dear boy, and good son," said Judy kindly.

"Nicky always was a dear boy—even at his most elusive. Jim is more human than Nicky was at his age, but he hasn't Nicky's charm, that something of a piskie's changeling that made Nicky so attractive. Yes, he's a 'good son,' to use your horrible expression, Judy. And Marjorie is a very good wife for him, though I must say I enjoy it when I can have the two boys, the big and the little one, to myself."

"I sometimes wonder how much you ever really liked women," said Judy.

"I have always liked them, as you call it, very much indeed. But I don't think I've ever thought of them as women first and foremost, but as human beings more or less like unto myself."

"That's where you've made your mistake. Not because they aren't—for they are—but because that destroys the mystery, and no one is keener on keeping up the idea that women are mysterious creatures, unlike men, than women themselves."

"I daresay you're right. But to look at, merely externally, I've always been able to get the mystery. They can look so that a man is afraid to touch such exquisite, ethereal creatures, all the time that they're wanting to be touched most. Georgie always used to say I never understood women."

"When she meant that you showed your understanding too clearly. Dear Georgie!"

"Yes, dear Georgie! It does seem rough luck that she should have gone the first when she was so much younger than I, doesn't it?"

"Rough luck on you, or on her, are you meaning at the moment?"

"At the moment I was meaning on her. She was so in love with life. But I suppose really on me. I might, humanly speaking, have been fairly sure that I should have had her as a companion all the last years."

"Do you find it very lonely since Ruth married her tame clergyman and Lissa went away to become a full-blown painter?"

"Doesn't it always have to be lonely? Isn't it always really? The only thing is that when we are young we have distractions which prevent us seeing it. We can cheat ourselves with physical contact that makes us think it possible to fuse with any one other human being. But it isn't. When we are our age—well, we know it's always isolated, but that it doesn't matter."

"What does matter? Those to come?"

"Yes, those to come—always them first; yet not that alone, or there would be no more value in them than in ourselves if it were always to be a vicious circle like that. Each individual soul is equally important, the old as much as the young, in the eternal scheme. It is only in the economy of this world that youth is more important than age."

"I think I can fairly lay claim to being a broadminded ''vert'" said Judith, "but of course, you know, I can't help feeling I've got something in the way of what makes things worth while that you haven't?"

"Yes, I know you do. I see you're bound to have. But of course, owing to what the Parson inculcated into me, I think I've got it too, but I quite see I can't expect you to think so."

"It's seeing the light that matters most, I think," said Judy. "We believe the same though I know I've got it, and you only think you have! But it's the thinking that is all important. The mystery to me is how anyone can be satisfied with the phenomena of this world alone as an answer to the riddle."

"It's not so much of a mystery to me. The world is so very beautiful that it can stand instead of human love, so why not, to some people, instead of Divine love also? The beauty of it is what I have chiefly lived by. It could for very long thrill me to the exclusion of everything else."

"And now?" asked Judith.

"Now? Now I am old that has been young, and still I cannot answer you that. I believe these airmen tell you of air pockets they come to, holes in the atmosphere, where their machines drop, drop.... I think I am in an air pocket, a hole between the guiding winds of the spirit ... one is too occupied in not dropping when in those holes to think of anything else. Action is the best thing, which is why I am now going to leave you to sow the four-acre."

He got up, slowly and painfully, though he stood as erect as ever once he was upon his feet. He stood a moment looking at Judith.

"Judy, d'you ever have those times when you feel something is going to happen?" he asked, "when you expect something to come round the corner, so to speak, at every moment. One so often had it in one's youth—one woke with it every morning: I don't mean that, but the expectation of some one thing that is in the air so near one that any moment it may break into actuality?"

"I never have it now, my dear, but I know what you mean. Why? Have you got it?"

"Yes."

"Is it about anything particular you are feeling it?"

"No, no; my uncanny vision doesn't go as far as that, I'm afraid."

"Dare I murmur indigestion?" she asked, with a gentle chuckle, hunching herself into her shawls.

"You may murmur, but I scorn you as a materialist and one who isn't even genuine. I go to my sowing, but you'll see if this old man is not justified of his dreams." He left her, and she watched him across the lawn with the detached affection of the old in her eyes; then she took up, not her knitting or her writing-pad, but the little book of devotions that lay in a fold of her shawl, and started to read, her lips moving slightly but soundlessly.

In the four-acre field there was a strong wind blowing that for days had been drying the turned earth to powder. The soil, so rich of hue when freshly turned, now showed a pale drab, dry and crumbling beneath the feet, while every step stirred up the fine particles and made them blow about like smoke.

Ishmael superintended the pouring of a sack of dredge-corn into the gaping maw of the drill, and the man took the rope reins, and, throwing over the lever, set the horses off, following as faithfully as might be the curve of the hedge. The sun gleamed on the glossy haunches of the horses, on the upper curve of the spidery wheels, whose faded vermilion seemed to revolve under a quivering splash of living gold that magically stayed poised, as it were, to let the wheels slip perpetually from under. The wind blew the horses' forelocks away between their ears; while about their plumy fetlocks, wreathing around the wheels and the sharp nozzles of the drill and from the heavy feet of the man who followed, rose the blown clouds of powdery soil, as though the earth were smoking at some vast sacrifice.

All the way up and down the field, back and forth, with a clanking as the lever was thrown in and out of gear for the turn at either end, this cloud went with them, blowing fine and free, encompassing them high as the horses' bellies. Ishmael watched, checked the man at the turn, and finding the corn was flowing too freely, altered the indicator, and then himself took the reins and in his turn went up and down the lines of smoking earth. And gradually, as he went, his sense of sight, and through it his brain, became gently mesmerised as the shallow furrows made by the nozzles of the drill drew themselves perpetually just before him. He could see the bright seeds dribbling into the top of the serpentine tubes, but no eye could catch their swift transit into the earth, which closed and tossed over itself in the wake of the nozzles as foam turns and throws itself about in the wake of a screw. Ishmael, his eyes on that living earth that surged so rhythmically yet with such freedom of pattern that no clod fell like another, while the dust blew back from it like spray, was soothed in exactly the same way that a man is soothed when he watches the weaving of the foam-patterns as they slip perpetually from beneath a ship.

Every year upon his farm there now came something of the joy of the gambler to Ishmael, who never sowed without feeling that it might be for the last time. Curiously enough, it never occurred to him as possible that he could die before what he had sown was grown and reaped. Every threshing over, he wondered if he should live to see another; every sowing he told himself it might be the last time he saw the earth closing over the trail of the seeds, that before another spring came round the earth might be closed over him instead, and this gave an extra keenness of appreciation to all he did and watched. Now, as he sowed, peace seemed to come to him as well as pleasure, a feeling that though sowing was always for a blind future, yet that future was as securely in the womb of the thought of God as the seeds in the womb of the earth. He walked on, up and down, till the last furrow had been sown and the seeds lay all hidden and the ruffled earth only awaited the quieting of the roller. Then he leant upon the drill and stared out over the acres that were to him as the flesh of his flesh; he bent down and crumpled a clod between his fingers for sheer joy of the feel of it.

When he straightened himself it was to see the figure of an old man he did not know coming through the gate that led from the lane into the farmyard. There was only one field intervening, and Ishmael's eyes were still very good at a distance; he could see the old man was no one from those parts. There was something outlandish, too, about the soft slouch hat and the cut of the clothes, of a slaty grey that showed up clearly amidst the earthy and green colours all around. The old man stood fumbling with the gate in his hand, then, when it swung back, he stayed staring round him as though he were looking for something he did not find. He made two or three little steps forward, then paused. Ishmael, having bidden the man see to the horses, went into the next field that gave into the yard.

The stranger looked round, saw him, hesitated again, then went forward, more surely this time, as though he had either remembered something or suddenly made up his mind. He passed through the archway into the court. Ishmael stood, his hand on the gate, staring after him, his heart thumping painfully, why, he could not or would not admit to himself. Then he, too, went on and into the court. He crossed it, went through the passage door that stood open, and on into the kitchen which lay on the left. There was no one there. He passed into the sitting-room on the right of the passage, and there he saw the old man standing by the fireplace and looking round him with an odd, bewildered air. He looked up as Ishmael came in, and their eyes met. Afterwards Ishmael realised that he had always known it was Archelaus from the moment he had seen him stand and look round him at the gate.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10     Next Part
Home - Random Browse