"My Son's Wife"
He had suffered from the disease of the century since his early youth, and before he was thirty he was heavily marked with it. He and a few friends had rearranged Heaven very comfortably, but the reorganisation of Earth, which they called Society, was even greater fun. It demanded Work in the shape of many taxi-rides daily; hours of brilliant talk with brilliant talkers; some sparkling correspondence; a few silences (but on the understanding that their own turn should come soon) while other people expounded philosophies; and a fair number of picture-galleries, tea-fights, concerts, theatres, music-halls, and cinema shows; the whole trimmed with love-making to women whose hair smelt of cigarette-smoke. Such strong days sent Frankwell Midmore back to his flat assured that he and his friends had helped the World a step nearer the Truth, the Dawn, and the New Order.
His temperament, he said, led him more towards concrete data than abstract ideas. People who investigate detail are apt to be tired at the day's end. The same temperament, or it may have been a woman, made him early attach himself to the Immoderate Left of his Cause in the capacity of an experimenter in Social Relations. And since the Immoderate Left contains plenty of women anxious to help earnest inquirers with large independent incomes to arrive at evaluations of essentials, Frankwell Midmore's lot was far from contemptible.
At that hour Fate chose to play with him. A widowed aunt, widely separated by nature, and more widely by marriage, from all that Midmore's mother had ever been or desired to be, died and left him possessions. Mrs. Midmore, having that summer embraced a creed which denied the existence of death, naturally could not stoop to burial; but Midmore had to leave London for the dank country at a season when Social Regeneration works best through long, cushioned conferences, two by two, after tea. There he faced the bracing ritual of the British funeral, and was wept at across the raw grave by an elderly coffin-shaped female with a long nose, who called him 'Master Frankie'; and there he was congratulated behind an echoing top-hat by a man he mistook for a mute, who turned out to be his aunt's lawyer. He wrote his mother next day, after a bright account of the funeral:
'So far as I can understand, she has left me between four and five hundred a year. It all comes from Ther Land, as they call it down here. The unspeakable attorney, Sperrit, and a green-eyed daughter, who hums to herself as she tramps but is silent on all subjects except "huntin'," insisted on taking me to see it. Ther Land is brown and green in alternate slabs like chocolate and pistachio cakes, speckled with occasional peasants who do not utter. In case it should not be wet enough there is a wet brook in the middle of it. Ther House is by the brook. I shall look into it later. If there should be any little memento of Jenny that you care for, let me know. Didn't you tell me that mid-Victorian furniture is coming into the market again? Jenny's old maid--it is called Rhoda Dolbie--tells me that Jenny promised it thirty pounds a year. The will does not. Hence, I suppose, the tears at the funeral. But that is close on ten per cent of the income. I fancy Jenny has destroyed all her private papers and records of her _vie intime_, if, indeed, life be possible in such a place. The Sperrit man told me that if I had means of my own I might come and live on Ther Land. I didn't tell him how much I would pay not to! I cannot think it right that any human being should exercise mastery over others in the merciless fashion our tom-fool social system permits; so, as it is all mine, I intend to sell it whenever the unholy Sperrit can find a purchaser.'
And he went to Mr. Sperrit with the idea next day, just before returning to town.
'Quite so,' said the lawyer. 'I see your point, of course. But the house itself is rather old-fashioned--hardly the type purchasers demand nowadays. There's no park, of course, and the bulk of the land is let to a life-tenant, a Mr. Sidney. As long as he pays his rent, he can't be turned out, and even if he didn't'--Mr. Sperrit's face relaxed a shade--'you might have a difficulty.'
'The property brings four hundred a year, I understand,' said Midmore.
'Well, hardly--ha-ardly. Deducting land and income tax, tithes, fire insurance, cost of collection and repairs of course, it returned two hundred and eighty-four pounds last year. The repairs are rather a large item--owing to the brook. I call it Liris--out of Horace, you know.'
Midmore looked at his watch impatiently.
'I suppose you can find somebody to buy it?' he repeated.
'We will do our best, of course, if those are your instructions. Then, that is all except'--here Midmore half rose, but Mr. Sperrit's little grey eyes held his large brown ones firmly--'except about Rhoda Dolbie, Mrs. Werf's maid. I may tell you that we did not draw up your aunt's last will. She grew secretive towards the last--elderly people often do--and had it done in London. I expect her memory failed her, or she mislaid her notes. She used to put them in her spectacle-case.... My motor only takes eight minutes to get to the station, Mr. Midmore ... but, as I was saying, whenever she made her will with _us_, Mrs. Werf always left Rhoda thirty pounds per annum. Charlie, the wills!' A clerk with a baldish head and a long nose dealt documents on to the table like cards, and breathed heavily behind Midmore. 'It's in no sense a legal obligation, of course,' said Mr. Sperrit. 'Ah, that one is dated January the 11th, eighteen eighty-nine.'
Midmore looked at his watch again and found himself saying with no good grace: 'Well, I suppose she'd better have it--for the present at any rate.'
He escaped with an uneasy feeling that two hundred and fifty-four pounds a year was not exactly four hundred, and that Charlie's long nose annoyed him. Then he returned, first-class, to his own affairs.
Of the two, perhaps three, experiments in Social Relations which he had then in hand, one interested him acutely. It had run for some months and promised most variegated and interesting developments, on which he dwelt luxuriously all the way to town. When he reached his flat he was not well prepared for a twelve-page letter explaining, in the diction of the Immoderate Left which rubricates its I's and illuminates its T's, that the lady had realised greater attractions in another Soul. She re-stated, rather than pleaded, the gospel of the Immoderate Left as her justification, and ended in an impassioned demand for her right to express herself in and on her own life, through which, she pointed out, she could pass but once. She added that if, later, she should discover Midmore was 'essentially complementary to her needs,' she would tell him so. That Midmore had himself written much the same sort of epistle--barring the hint of return--to a woman of whom his needs for self-expression had caused him to weary three years before, did not assist him in the least. He expressed himself to the gas-fire in terms essential but not complimentary. Then he reflected on the detached criticism of his best friends and her best friends, male and female, with whom he and she and others had talked so openly while their gay adventure was in flower. He recalled, too--this must have been about midnight--her analysis from every angle, remote and most intimate, of the mate to whom she had been adjudged under the base convention which is styled marriage. Later, at that bad hour when the cattle wake for a little, he remembered her in other aspects and went down into the hell appointed; desolate, desiring, with no God to call upon. About eleven o'clock next morning Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite called upon him 'for they had made appointment together' to see how he took it; but the janitor told them that Job had gone--into the country, he believed.
Midmore's relief when he found his story was not written across his aching temples for Mr. Sperrit to read--the defeated lover, like the successful one, believes all earth privy to his soul--was put down by Mr. Sperrit to quite different causes. He led him into a morning-room. The rest of the house seemed to be full of people, singing to a loud piano idiotic songs about cows, and the hall smelt of damp cloaks.
'It's our evening to take the winter cantata,' Mr. Sperrit explained. 'It's "High Tide on the Coast of Lincolnshire." I hoped you'd come back. There are scores of little things to settle. As for the house, of course, it stands ready for you at any time. I couldn't get Rhoda out of it--nor could Charlie for that matter. She's the sister, isn't she, of the nurse who brought you down here when you were four, she says, to recover from measles?'
'Is she? Was I?' said Midmore through the bad tastes in his mouth. 'D'you suppose I could stay there the night?'
Thirty joyous young voices shouted appeal to some one to leave their 'pipes of parsley 'ollow--'ollow--'ollow!' Mr. Sperrit had to raise his voice above the din.
'Well, if I asked you to stay _here_, I should never hear the last of it from Rhoda. She's a little cracked, of course, but the soul of devotion and capable of anything. _Ne sit ancillae_, you know.'
'Thank you. Then I'll go. I'll walk.' He stumbled out dazed and sick into the winter twilight, and sought the square house by the brook.
It was not a dignified entry, because when the door was unchained and Rhoda exclaimed, he took two valiant steps into the hall and then fainted--as men sometimes will after twenty-two hours of strong emotion and little food.
'I'm sorry,' he said when he could speak. He was lying at the foot of the stairs, his head on Rhoda's lap.
'Your 'ome is your castle, sir,' was the reply in his hair. 'I smelt it wasn't drink. You lay on the sofa till I get your supper.'
She settled him in a drawing-room hung with yellow silk, heavy with the smell of dead leaves and oil lamp. Something murmured soothingly in the background and overcame the noises in his head. He thought he heard horses' feet on wet gravel and a voice singing about ships and flocks and grass. It passed close to the shuttered bay-window.
But each will mourn his own, she saith,
And sweeter woman ne'er drew breath
Than my son's wife, Elizabeth ...
The hoofs broke into a canter as Rhoda entered with the tray. 'And then I'll put you to bed,' she said. 'Sidney's coming in the morning.' Midmore asked no questions. He dragged his poor bruised soul to bed and would have pitied it all over again, but the food and warm sherry and water drugged him to instant sleep.
Rhoda's voice wakened him, asking whether he would have ''ip, foot, or sitz,' which he understood were the baths of the establishment. 'Suppose you try all three,' she suggested. 'They're all yours, you know, sir.'
He would have renewed his sorrows with the daylight, but her words struck him pleasantly. Everything his eyes opened upon was his very own to keep for ever. The carved four-post Chippendale bed, obviously worth hundreds; the wavy walnut William and Mary chairs--he had seen worse ones labelled twenty guineas apiece; the oval medallion mirror; the delicate eighteenth-century wire fireguard; the heavy brocaded curtains were his--all his. So, too, a great garden full of birds that faced him when he shaved; a mulberry tree, a sun-dial, and a dull, steel-coloured brook that murmured level with the edge of a lawn a hundred yards away. Peculiarly and privately his own was the smell of sausages and coffee that he sniffed at the head of the wide square landing, all set round with mysterious doors and Bartolozzi prints. He spent two hours after breakfast in exploring his new possessions. His heart leaped up at such things as sewing-machines, a rubber-tyred bath-chair in a tiled passage, a malachite-headed Malacca cane, boxes and boxes of unopened stationery, seal-rings, bunches of keys, and at the bottom of a steel-net reticule a little leather purse with seven pounds ten shillings in gold and eleven shillings in silver.
'You used to play with that when my sister brought you down here after your measles,' said Rhoda as he slipped the money into his pocket. 'Now, this was your pore dear auntie's business-room.' She opened a low door. 'Oh, I forgot about Mr. Sidney! There he is.' An enormous old man with rheumy red eyes that blinked under downy white eyebrows sat in an Empire chair, his cap in his hands. Rhoda withdrew sniffing. The man looked Midmore over in silence, then jerked a thumb towards the door. 'I reckon she told you who I be,' he began. 'I'm the only farmer you've got. Nothin' goes off my place 'thout it walks on its own feet. What about my pig-pound?'
'Well, what about it?' said Midmore.
'That's just what I be come about. The County Councils are getting more particular. Did ye know there was swine fever at Pashell's? There _be_. It'll 'ave to be in brick.'
'Yes,' said Midmore politely.
'I've bin at your aunt that was, plenty times about it. I don't say she wasn't a just woman, but she didn't read the lease same way I did. I be used to bein' put upon, but there's no doing any longer 'thout that pig-pound.'
'When would you like it?' Midmore asked. It seemed the easiest road to take.
'Any time or other suits me, I reckon. He ain't thrivin' where he is, an' I paid eighteen shillin' for him.' He crossed his hands on his stick and gave no further sign of life.
'Is that all?' Midmore stammered.
'All now--excep''--he glanced fretfully at the table beside him--'excep' my usuals. Where's that Rhoda?'
Midmore rang the bell. Rhoda came in with a bottle and a glass. The old man helped himself to four stiff fingers, rose in one piece, and stumped out. At the door he cried ferociously: 'Don't suppose it's any odds to you whether I'm drowned or not, but them floodgates want a wheel and winch, they do. I be too old for liftin' 'em with the bar--my time o' life.'
'Good riddance if 'e was drowned,' said Rhoda. 'But don't you mind him. He's only amusin' himself. Your pore dear auntie used to give 'im 'is usual--'tisn't the whisky _you_ drink--an' send 'im about 'is business.'
'I see. Now, is a pig-pound the same thing as a pig-sty?'
Rhoda nodded. ''E needs one, too, but 'e ain't entitled to it. You look at 'is lease--third drawer on the left in that Bombay cab'net--an' next time 'e comes you ask 'im to read it. That'll choke 'im off, because 'e can't!'
There was nothing in Midmore's past to teach him the message and significance of a hand-written lease of the late 'eighties, but Rhoda interpreted.
'It don't mean anything reelly,' was her cheerful conclusion, 'excep' you mustn't get rid of him anyhow, an' 'e can do what 'e likes always. Lucky for us 'e _do_ farm; and if it wasn't for 'is woman--'
'Oh, there's a Mrs. Sidney, is there?'
'Lor, _no_!' The Sidneys don't marry. They keep. That's his fourth since--to my knowledge. He was a takin' man from the first.'
'They'd be grown up by now if there was, wouldn't they? But you can't spend all your days considerin' 'is interests. That's what gave your pore aunt 'er indigestion. 'Ave you seen the gun-room?'
Midmore held strong views on the immorality of taking life for pleasure. But there was no denying that the late Colonel Werf's seventy-guinea breechloaders were good at their filthy job. He loaded one, took it out and pointed--merely pointed--it at a cock-pheasant which rose out of a shrubbery behind the kitchen, and the flaming bird came down in a long slant on the lawn, stone dead. Rhoda from the scullery said it was a lovely shot, and told him lunch was ready.
He spent the afternoon gun in one hand, a map in the other, beating the bounds of his lands. They lay altogether in a shallow, uninteresting valley, flanked with woods and bisected by a brook. Up stream was his own house; down stream, less than half a mile, a low red farm-house squatted in an old orchard, beside what looked like small lock-gates on the Thames. There was no doubt as to ownership. Mr. Sidney saw him while yet far off, and bellowed at him about pig-pounds and floodgates. These last were two great sliding shutters of weedy oak across the brook, which were prised up inch by inch with a crowbar along a notched strip of iron, and when Sidney opened them they at once let out half the water. Midmore watched it shrink between its aldered banks like some conjuring trick. This, too, was his very own.
'I see,' he said. 'How interesting! Now, what's that bell for?' he went on, pointing to an old ship's bell in a rude belfry at the end of an outhouse. 'Was that a chapel once?' The red-eyed giant seemed to have difficulty in expressing himself for the moment and blinked savagely.
'Yes,' he said at last. 'My chapel. When you 'ear that bell ring you'll 'ear something. Nobody but me 'ud put up with it--but I reckon it don't make any odds to you.' He slammed the gates down again, and the brook rose behind them with a suck and a grunt.
Midmore moved off, conscious that he might be safer with Rhoda to hold his conversational hand. As he passed the front of the farm-house a smooth fat woman, with neatly parted grey hair under a widow's cap, curtsied to him deferentially through the window. By every teaching of the Immoderate Left she had a perfect right to express herself in any way she pleased, but the curtsey revolted him. And on his way home he was hailed from behind a hedge by a manifest idiot with no roof to his mouth, who hallooed and danced round him.
'What did that beast want?' he demanded of Rhoda at tea.
'Jimmy? He only wanted to know if you 'ad any telegrams to send. 'E'll go anywhere so long as 'tisn't across running water. That gives 'im 'is seizures. Even talkin' about it for fun like makes 'im shake.'
'But why isn't he where he can be properly looked after?'
'What 'arm's 'e doing? E's a love-child, but 'is family can pay for 'im. If 'e was locked up 'e'd die all off at once, like a wild rabbit. Won't you, please, look at the drive, sir?'
Midmore looked in the fading light. The neat gravel was pitted with large roundish holes, and there was a punch or two of the same sort on the lawn.
'That's the 'unt comin' 'ome,' Rhoda explained. 'Your pore dear auntie always let 'em use our drive for a short cut after the Colonel died. The Colonel wouldn't so much because he preserved; but your auntie was always an 'orsewoman till 'er sciatica.'
'Isn't there some one who can rake it over or--or something?' said Midmore vaguely.
'Oh yes. You'll never see it in the morning, but--you was out when they came 'ome an' Mister Fisher--he's the Master--told me to tell you with 'is compliments that if you wasn't preservin' and cared to 'old to the old understanding', is gravel-pit is at your service same as before. 'E thought, perhaps, you mightn't know, and it 'ad slipped my mind to tell you. It's good gravel, Mister Fisher's, and it binds beautiful on the drive. We 'ave to draw it, o' course, from the pit, but--'
Midmore looked at her helplessly.
'Rhoda,' said he, 'what am I supposed to do?'
'Oh, let 'em come through,' she replied. 'You never know. You may want to 'unt yourself some day.'
That evening it rained and his misery returned on him, the worse for having been diverted. At last he was driven to paw over a few score books in a panelled room called the library, and realised with horror what the late Colonel Werf's mind must have been in its prime. The volumes smelt of a dead world as strongly as they did of mildew. He opened and thrust them back, one after another, till crude coloured illustrations of men on horses held his eye. He began at random and read a little, moved into the drawing-room with the volume, and settled down by the fire still reading. It was a foul world into which he peeped for the first time--a heavy-eating, hard-drinking hell of horse-copers, swindlers, matchmaking mothers, economically dependent virgins selling themselves blushingly for cash and lands: Jews, tradesmen, and an ill-considered spawn of Dickens-and-horsedung characters (I give Midmore's own criticism), but he read on, fascinated, and behold, from the pages leaped, as it were, the brother to the red-eyed man of the brook, bellowing at a landlord (here Midmore realised that _he_ was that very animal) for new barns; and another man who, like himself again, objected to hoof-marks on gravel. Outrageous as thought and conception were, the stuff seemed to have the rudiments of observation. He dug out other volumes by the same author, till Rhoda came in with a silver candlestick.
'Rhoda,' said he, 'did you ever hear about a character called James Pigg--and Batsey?'
'Why, o' course,' said she. 'The Colonel used to come into the kitchen in 'is dressin'-gown an' read us all those Jorrockses.'
'Oh, Lord!' said Midmore, and went to bed with a book called _Handley Cross_ under his arm, and a lonelier Columbus into a stranger world the wet-ringed moon never looked upon.
* * * * *
Here we omit much. But Midmore never denied that for the epicure in sensation the urgent needs of an ancient house, as interpreted by Rhoda pointing to daylight through attic-tiles held in place by moss, gives an edge to the pleasure of Social Research elsewhere. Equally he found that the reaction following prolonged research loses much of its grey terror if one knows one can at will bathe the soul in the society of plumbers (all the water-pipes had chronic appendicitis), village idiots (Jimmy had taken Midmore under his weak wing and camped daily at the drive-gates), and a giant with red eyelids whose every action is an unpredictable outrage.
Towards spring Midmore filled his house with a few friends of the Immoderate Left. It happened to be the day when, all things and Rhoda working together, a cartload of bricks, another of sand, and some bags of lime had been despatched to build Sidney his almost daily-demanded pig-pound. Midmore took his friends across the flat fields with some idea of showing them Sidney as a type of 'the peasantry.' They hit the minute when Sidney, hoarse with rage, was ordering bricklayer, mate, carts and all off his premises. The visitors disposed themselves to listen.
'You never give me no notice about changin' the pig,' Sidney shouted. The pig--at least eighteen inches long--reared on end in the old sty and smiled at the company.
'But, my good man--' Midmore opened.
'I ain't! For aught you know I be a dam' sight worse than you be. You can't come and be'ave arbit'ry with me. You _are_ be'avin' arbit'ry! All you men go clean away an' don't set foot on my land till I bid ye.'
'But you asked'--Midmore felt his voice jump up--'to have the pig-pound built.'
''Spose I did. That's no reason you shouldn't send me notice to change the pig. 'Comin' down on me like this 'thout warnin'! That pig's got to be got into the cowshed an' all.'
'Then open the door and let him run in,' said Midmore.
'Don't you be'ave arbit'ry with _me_! Take all your dam' men 'ome off my land. I won't be treated arbit'ry.'
The carts moved off without a word, and Sidney went into the house and slammed the door.
'Now, I hold that is enormously significant,' said a visitor. 'Here you have the logical outcome of centuries of feudal oppression--the frenzy of fear.' The company looked at Midmore with grave pain.
'But he _did_ worry my life out about his pig-sty,' was all Midmore found to say.
Others took up the parable and proved to him if he only held true to the gospels of the Immoderate Left the earth would soon be covered with 'jolly little' pig-sties, built in the intervals of morris-dancing by 'the peasant' himself.
Midmore felt grateful when the door opened again and Mr. Sidney invited them all to retire to the road which, he pointed out, was public. As they turned the corner of the house, a smooth-faced woman in a widow's cap curtsied to each of them through the window.
Instantly they drew pictures of that woman's lot, deprived of all vehicle for self-expression--'the set grey life and apathetic end,' one quoted--and they discussed the tremendous significance of village theatricals. Even a month ago Midmore would have told them all that he knew and Rhoda had dropped about Sidney's forms of self-expression. Now, for some strange reason, he was content to let the talk run on from village to metropolitan and world drama.
Rhoda advised him after the visitors left that 'if he wanted to do that again' he had better go up to town.
'But we only sat on cushions on the floor,' said her master.
'They're too old for romps,' she retorted, 'an' it's only the beginning of things. I've seen what _I've_ seen. Besides, they talked and laughed in the passage going to their baths--such as took 'em.'
'Don't be a fool, Rhoda,' said Midmore. No man--unless he has loved her--will casually dismiss a woman on whose lap he has laid his head.
'Very good,' she snorted, 'but that cuts both ways. An' now, you go down to Sidney's this evenin' and put him where he ought to be. He was in his right about you givin' 'im notice about changin' the pig, but he 'adn't any right to turn it up before your company. No manners, no pig-pound. He'll understand.'
Midmore did his best to make him. He found himself reviling the old man in speech and with a joy quite new in all his experience. He wound up--it was a plagiarism from a plumber--by telling Mr. Sidney that he looked like a turkey-cock, had the morals of a parish bull, and need never hope for a new pig-pound as long as he or Midmore lived.
'Very good,' said the giant. 'I reckon you thought you 'ad something against me, and now you've come down an' told it me like man to man. Quite right. I don't bear malice. Now, you send along those bricks an' sand, an' I'll make a do to build the pig-pound myself. If you look at my lease you'll find out you're bound to provide me materials for the repairs. Only--only I thought there'd be no 'arm in my askin' you to do it throughout like.'
Midmore fairly gasped. 'Then, why the devil did you turn my carts back when--when I sent them up here to do it throughout for you?'
Mr. Sidney sat down on the floodgates, his eyebrows knitted in thought.
'I'll tell you,' he said slowly. ''Twas too dam' like cheatin' a suckin' baby. My woman, she said so too.'
For a few seconds the teachings of the Immoderate Left, whose humour is all their own, wrestled with those of Mother Earth, who has her own humours. Then Midmore laughed till he could scarcely stand. In due time Mr. Sidney laughed too--crowing and wheezing crescendo till it broke from him in roars. They shook hands, and Midmore went home grateful that he had held his tongue among his companions.
When he reached his house he met three or four men and women on horse-back, very muddy indeed, coming down the drive. Feeling hungry himself, he asked them if they were hungry. They said they were, and he bade them enter. Jimmy took their horses, who seemed to know him. Rhoda took their battered hats, led the women upstairs for hairpins, and presently fed them all with tea-cakes, poached eggs, anchovy toast, and drinks from a coromandel-wood liqueur case which Midmore had never known that he possessed.
'And I _will_ say,' said Miss Connie Sperrit, her spurred foot on the fender and a smoking muffin in her whip hand, 'Rhoda does one top-hole. She always did since I was eight.'
'Seven, Miss, was when you began to 'unt,' said Rhoda, setting down more buttered toast.
'And so,' the M.F.H. was saying to Midmore, 'when he got to your brute Sidney's land, we had to whip 'em off. It's a regular Alsatia for 'em. They know it. Why'--he dropped his voice--'I don't want to say anything against Sidney as your tenant, of course, but I do believe the old scoundrel's perfectly capable of putting down poison.'
'Sidney's capable of anything,' said Midmore with immense feeling; but once again he held his tongue. They were a queer community; yet when they had stamped and jingled out to their horses again, the house felt hugely big and disconcerting.
This may be reckoned the conscious beginning of his double life. It ran in odd channels that summer--a riding school, for instance, near Hayes Common and a shooting ground near Wormwood Scrubs. A man who has been saddle-galled or shoulder-bruised for half the day is not at his London best of evenings; and when the bills for his amusements come in he curtails his expenses in other directions. So a cloud settled on Midmore's name. His London world talked of a hardening of heart and a tightening of purse-strings which signified disloyalty to the Cause. One man, a confidant of the old expressive days, attacked him robustiously and demanded account of his soul's progress. It was not furnished, for Midmore was calculating how much it would cost to repave stables so dilapidated that even the village idiot apologised for putting visitors' horses into them. The man went away, and served up what he had heard of the pig-pound episode as a little newspaper sketch, calculated to annoy. Midmore read it with an eye as practical as a woman's, and since most of his experiences had been among women, at once sought out a woman to whom he might tell his sorrow at the disloyalty of his own familiar friend. She was so sympathetic that he went on to confide how his bruised heart--she knew all about it--had found so-lace, with a long O, in another quarter which he indicated rather carefully in case it might be betrayed to other loyal friends. As his hints pointed directly towards facile Hampstead, and as his urgent business was the purchase of a horse from a dealer, Beckenham way, he felt he had done good work. Later, when his friend, the scribe, talked to him alluringly of 'secret gardens' and those so-laces to which every man who follows the Wider Morality is entitled, Midmore lent him a five-pound note which he had got back on the price of a ninety-guinea bay gelding. So true it is, as he read in one of the late Colonel Werf's books, that 'the young man of the present day would sooner lie under an imputation against his morals than against his knowledge of horse-flesh.'
Midmore desired more than he desired anything else at that moment to ride and, above all, to jump on a ninety-guinea bay gelding with black points and a slovenly habit of hitting his fences. He did not wish many people except Mr. Sidney, who very kindly lent his soft meadow behind the floodgates, to be privy to the matter, which he rightly foresaw would take him to the autumn. So he told such friends as hinted at country week-end visits that he had practically let his newly inherited house. The rent, he said, was an object to him, for he had lately lost large sums through ill-considered benevolences. He would name no names, but they could guess. And they guessed loyally all round the circle of his acquaintance as they spread the news that explained so much.
There remained only one couple of his once intimate associates to pacify. They were deeply sympathetic and utterly loyal, of course, but as curious as any of the apes whose diet they had adopted. Midmore met them in a suburban train, coming up to town, not twenty minutes after he had come off two hours' advanced tuition (one guinea an hour) over hurdles in a hall. He had, of course, changed his kit, but his too heavy bridle-hand shook a little among the newspapers. On the inspiration of the moment, which is your natural liar's best hold, he told them that he was condemned to a rest-cure. He would lie in semi-darkness drinking milk, for weeks and weeks, cut off even from letters. He was astonished and delighted at the ease with which the usual lie confounds the unusual intellect. They swallowed it as swiftly as they recommended him to live on nuts and fruit; but he saw in the woman's eyes the exact reason she would set forth for his retirement. After all, she had as much right to express herself as he purposed to take for himself; and Midmore believed strongly in the fullest equality of the ...es.
That retirement made one small ripple in the strenuous world. The lady who had written the twelve-page letter ten months before sent him another of eight pages, analysing all the motives that were leading her back to him--should she come?--now that he was ill and alone. Much might yet be retrieved, she said, out of the waste of jarring lives and piteous misunderstandings. It needed only a hand.
But Midmore needed two, next morning very early, for a devil's diversion, among wet coppices, called 'cubbing.'
'You haven't a bad seat,' said Miss Sperrit through the morning-mists. 'But you're worrying him.'
'He pulls so,' Midmore grunted.
'Let him alone, then. Look out for the branches,' she shouted, as they whirled up a splashy ride. Cubs were plentiful. Most of the hounds attached themselves to a straight-necked youngster of education who scuttled out of the woods into the open fields below.
'Hold on!' some one shouted. 'Turn 'em, Midmore. That's your brute Sidney's land. It's all wire.'
'Oh, Connie, stop!' Mrs. Sperrit shrieked as her daughter charged at a boundary-hedge.
'Wire be damned! I had it all out a fortnight ago. Come on!' This was Midmore, buffeting into it a little lower down.
'_I_ knew that!' Connie cried over her shoulder, and she flitted across the open pasture, humming to herself.
'Oh, of course! If some people have private information, they can afford to thrust.' This was a snuff-coloured habit into which Miss Sperrit had cannoned down the ride.
'What! 'Midmore got Sidney to heel? _You_ never did that, Sperrit.' This was Mr. Fisher, M.F.H., enlarging the breach Midmore had made.
'No, confound him!' said the father testily. 'Go on, sir! _Injecto ter pulvere_--you've kicked half the ditch into my eye already.'
They killed that cub a little short of the haven his mother had told him to make for--a two-acre Alsatia of a gorse-patch to which the M.F.H. had been denied access for the last fifteen seasons. He expressed his gratitude before all the field and Mr. Sidney, at Mr. Sidney's farm-house door.
'And if there should be any poultry claims--' he went on.
'There won't be,' said Midmore. 'It's too like cheating a sucking child, isn't it, Mr. Sidney?'
'You've got me!' was all the reply. 'I be used to bein' put upon, but you've got me, Mus' Midmore.'
Midmore pointed to a new brick pig-pound built in strict disregard of the terms of the life-tenant's lease. The gesture told the tale to the few who did not know, and they shouted.
Such pagan delights as these were followed by pagan sloth of evenings when men and women elsewhere are at their brightest. But Midmore preferred to lie out on a yellow silk couch, reading works of a debasing vulgarity; or, by invitation, to dine with the Sperrits and savages of their kidney. These did not expect flights of fancy or phrasing. They lied, except about horses, grudgingly and of necessity, not for art's sake; and, men and women alike, they expressed themselves along their chosen lines with the serene indifference of the larger animals. Then Midmore would go home and identify them, one by one, out of the natural-history books by Mr. Surtees, on the table beside the sofa. At first they looked upon him coolly, but when the tale of the removed wire and the recaptured gorse had gone the rounds, they accepted him for a person willing to play their games. True, a faction suspended judgment for a while, because they shot, and hoped that Midmore would serve the glorious mammon of pheasant-raising rather than the unkempt god of fox-hunting. But after he had shown his choice, they did not ask by what intellectual process he had arrived at it. He hunted three, sometimes four, times a week, which necessitated not only one bay gelding (L94: 10s.), but a mannerly white-stockinged chestnut (L114), and a black mare, rather long in the back but with a mouth of silk (L150), who so evidently preferred to carry a lady that it would have been cruel to have baulked her. Besides, with that handling she could be sold at a profit. And besides, the hunt was a quiet, intimate, kindly little hunt, not anxious for strangers, of good report in the _Field_, the servant of one M.F.H., given to hospitality, riding well its own horses, and, with the exception of Midmore, not novices. But as Miss Sperrit observed, after the M.F.H. had said some things to him at a gate: 'It _is_ a pity you don't know as much as your horse, but you will in time. It takes years and yee-ars. I've been at it for fifteen and I'm only just learning. But you've made a decent kick-off.'
So he kicked off in wind and wet and mud, wondering quite sincerely why the bubbling ditches and sucking pastures held him from day to day, or what so-lace he could find on off days in chasing grooms and brick-layers round outhouses.
To make sure he up-rooted himself one week-end of heavy mid-winter rain, and re-entered his lost world in the character of Galahad fresh from a rest-cure. They all agreed, with an eye over his shoulder for the next comer, that he was a different man; but when they asked him for the symptoms of nervous strain, and led him all through their own, he realised he had lost much of his old skill in lying. His three months' absence, too, had put him hopelessly behind the London field. The movements, the allusions, the slang of the game had changed. The couples had rearranged themselves or were re-crystallizing in fresh triangles, whereby he put his foot in it badly. Only one great soul (he who had written the account of the pig-pound episode) stood untouched by the vast flux of time, and Midmore lent him another fiver for his integrity. A woman took him, in the wet forenoon, to a pronouncement on the Oneness of Impulse in Humanity, which struck him as a polysyllabic _resume_ of Mr. Sidney's domestic arrangements, plus a clarion call to 'shock civilisation into common-sense.'
'And you'll come to tea with me to-morrow?' she asked, after lunch, nibbling cashew nuts from a saucer. Midmore replied that there were great arrears of work to overtake when a man had been put away for so long.
'But you've come back like a giant refreshed.... I hope that Daphne'--this was the lady of the twelve and the eight-page letter--'will be with us too. She has misunderstood herself, like so many of us,' the woman murmured, 'but I think eventually ...' she flung out her thin little hands. 'However, these are things that each lonely soul must adjust for itself.'
'Indeed, yes,' said Midmore with a deep sigh. The old tricks were sprouting in the old atmosphere like mushrooms in a dung-pit. He passed into an abrupt reverie, shook his head, as though stung by tumultuous memories, and departed without any ceremony of farewell to--catch a mid-afternoon express where a man meets associates who talk horse, and weather as it affects the horse, all the way down. What worried him most was that he had missed a day with the hounds.
He met Rhoda's keen old eyes without flinching; and the drawing-room looked very comfortable that wet evening at tea. After all, his visit to town had not been wholly a failure. He had burned quite a bushel of letters at his flat. A flat--here he reached mechanically towards the worn volumes near the sofa--a flat was a consuming animal. As for Daphne ... he opened at random on the words: 'His lordship then did as desired and disclosed a _tableau_ of considerable strength and variety.' Midmore reflected: 'And I used to think.... But she wasn't.... We were all babblers and skirters together.... I didn't babble much--thank goodness--but I skirted.' He turned the pages backward for more _Sortes Surteesianae_, and read: 'When at length they rose to go to bed it struck each man as he followed his neighbour upstairs, that the man before him walked very crookedly.' He laughed aloud at the fire.
'What about to-morrow?' Rhoda asked, entering with garments over her shoulder. 'It's never stopped raining since you left. You'll be plastered out of sight an' all in five minutes. You'd better wear your next best, 'adn't you? I'm afraid they've shrank. 'Adn't you best try 'em on?'
'Here?' said Midmore.
''Suit yourself. I bathed you when you wasn't larger than a leg o' lamb,' said the ex-ladies'-maid.
'Rhoda, one of these days I shall get a valet, and a married butler.'
'There's many a true word spoke in jest. But nobody's huntin' to-morrow.'
'Why? Have they cancelled the meet?'
'They say it only means slipping and over-reaching in the mud, and they all 'ad enough of that to-day. Charlie told me so just now.'
'Oh!' It seemed that the word of Mr. Sperrit's confidential clerk had weight.
'Charlie came down to help Mr. Sidney lift the gates,' Rhoda continued.
'The floodgates? They are perfectly easy to handle now. I've put in a wheel and a winch.'
'When the brook's really up they must be took clean out on account of the rubbish blockin' 'em. That's why Charlie came down.'
Midmore grunted impatiently. 'Everybody has talked to me about that brook ever since I came here. It's never done anything yet.'
'This 'as been a dry summer. If you care to look now, sir, I'll get you a lantern.'
She paddled out with him into a large wet night. Half-way down the lawn her light was reflected on shallow brown water, pricked through with grass blades at the edges. Beyond that light, the brook was strangling and kicking among hedges and tree-trunks.
'What on earth will happen to the big rose-bed?' was Midmore's first word.
'It generally 'as to be restocked after a flood. Ah!' she raised her lantern. 'There's two garden-seats knockin' against the sun-dial. Now, that won't do the roses any good.'
'This is too absurd. There ought to be some decently thought-out system--for--for dealing with this sort of thing.' He peered into the rushing gloom. There seemed to be no end to the moisture and the racket. In town he had noticed nothing.
'It can't be 'elped,' said Rhoda. 'It's just what it does do once in just so often. We'd better go back.'
All earth under foot was sliding in a thousand liquid noises towards the hoarse brook. Somebody wailed from the house: ''Fraid o' the water! Come 'ere! 'Fraid o' the water!'
'That's Jimmy. Wet always takes 'im that way,' she explained. The idiot charged into them, shaking with terror.
'Brave Jimmy! How brave of Jimmy! Come into the hall. What Jimmy got now?' she crooned. It was a sodden note which ran: 'Dear Rhoda--Mr. Lotten, with whom I rode home this afternoon, told me that if this wet keeps up, he's afraid the fish-pond he built last year, where Coxen's old mill-dam was, will go, as the dam did once before, he says. If it does it's bound to come down the brook. It may be all right, but perhaps you had better look out. C.S.'
'If Coxen's dam goes, that means.... I'll 'ave the drawing-room carpet up at once to be on the safe side. The claw-'ammer is in the libery.'
'Wait a minute. Sidney's gates are out, you said?'
'Both. He'll need it if Coxen's pond goes.... I've seen it once.'
'I'll just slip down and have a look at Sidney. Light the lantern again, please, Rhoda.'
'You won't get _him_ to stir. He's been there since he was born. But _she_ don't know anything. I'll fetch your waterproof and some top-boots.'
''Fraid o' the water! 'Fraid o' the water!' Jimmy sobbed, pressed against a corner of the hall, his hands to his eyes.
'All right, Jimmy. Jimmy can help play with the carpet,' Rhoda answered, as Midmore went forth into the darkness and the roarings all round. He had never seen such an utterly unregulated state of affairs. There was another lantern reflected on the streaming drive.
'Hi! Rhoda! Did you get my note? I came down to make sure. I thought, afterwards, Jimmy might funk the water!'
'It's me--Miss Sperrit,' Midmore cried. 'Yes, we got it, thanks.'
'You're back, then. Oh, good!... Is it bad down with you?'
'I'm going to Sidney's to have a look.'
'You won't get _him_ out. 'Lucky I met Bob Lotten. I told him he hadn't any business impounding water for his idiotic trout without rebuilding the dam.'
'How far up is it? I've only been there once.'
'Not more than four miles as the water will come. He says he's opened all the sluices.'
She had turned and fallen into step beside him, her hooded head bowed against the thinning rain. As usual she was humming to herself.
'Why on earth did you come out in this weather?' Midmore asked.
'It was worse when you were in town. The rain's taking off now. If it wasn't for that pond, I wouldn't worry so much. There's Sidney's bell. Come on!' She broke into a run. A cracked bell was jangling feebly down the valley.
'Keep on the road!' Midmore shouted. The ditches were snorting bank-full on either side, and towards the brook-side the fields were afloat and beginning to move in the darkness.
'Catch me going off it! There's his light burning all right.' She halted undistressed at a little rise. 'But the flood's in the orchard. Look!' She swung her lantern to show a front rank of old apple-trees reflected in still, out-lying waters beyond the half-drowned hedge. They could hear above the thud-thud of the gorged floodgates, shrieks in two keys as monotonous as a steam-organ.
'The high one's the pig.' Miss Sperrit laughed.
'All right! I'll get _her_ out. You stay where you are, and I'll see you home afterwards.'
'But the water's only just over the road,' she objected.
'Never mind. Don't you move. Promise?'
'All right. You take my stick, then, and feel for holes in case anything's washed out anywhere. This _is_ a lark!'
Midmore took it, and stepped into the water that moved sluggishly as yet across the farm road which ran to Sidney's front door from the raised and metalled public road. It was half way up to his knees when he knocked. As he looked back Miss Sperrit's lantern seemed to float in mid-ocean.
'You can't come in or the water'll come with you. I've bunged up all the cracks,' Mr. Sidney shouted from within. 'Who be ye?'
'Take me out! Take me out!' the woman shrieked, and the pig from his sty behind the house urgently seconded the motion.
'I'm Midmore! Coxen's old mill-dam is likely to go, they say. Come out!'
'I told 'em it would when they made a fish-pond of it. 'Twasn't ever puddled proper. But it's a middlin' wide valley. She's got room to spread.... Keep still, or I'll take and duck you in the cellar!... You go 'ome, Mus' Midmore, an' take the law o' Mus' Lotten soon's you've changed your socks.'
'Confound you, aren't you coming out?'
'To catch my death o' cold? I'm all right where I be. I've seen it before. But you can take _her_. She's no sort o' use or sense.... Climb out through the window. Didn't I tell you I'd plugged the door-cracks, you fool's daughter?' The parlour window opened, and the woman flung herself into Midmore's arms, nearly knocking him down. Mr. Sidney leaned out of the window, pipe in mouth.
'Take her 'ome,' he said, and added oracularly:
'Two women in one house,
Two cats an' one mouse,
Two dogs an' one bone--
Which I will leave alone.
I've seen it before.' Then he shut and fastened the window.
'A trap! A trap! You had ought to have brought a trap for me. I'll be drowned in this wet,' the woman cried.
'Hold up! You can't be any wetter than you are. Come along!' Midmore did not at all like the feel of the water over his boot-tops.
'Hooray! Come along!' Miss Sperrit's lantern, not fifty yards away, waved cheerily.
The woman threshed towards it like a panic-stricken goose, fell on her knees, was jerked up again by Midmore, and pushed on till she collapsed at Miss Sperrit's feet.
'But you won't get bronchitis if you go straight to Mr. Midmore's house,' said the unsympathetic maiden.
'O Gawd! O Gawd! I wish our 'eavenly Father 'ud forgive me my sins an' call me 'ome,' the woman sobbed. 'But I won't go to _'is_ 'ouse! I won't.'
'All right, then. Stay here. Now, if we run,' Miss Sperrit whispered to Midmore, 'she'll follow us. Not too fast!'
They set off at a considerable trot, and the woman lumbered behind them, bellowing, till they met a third lantern--Rhoda holding Jimmy's hand. She had got the carpet up, she said, and was escorting Jimmy past the water that he dreaded.
'That's all right,' Miss Sperrit pronounced. 'Take Mrs. Sidney back with you, Rhoda, and put her to bed. I'll take Jimmy with me. You aren't afraid of the water now, are you, Jimmy?'
'Not afraid of anything now.' Jimmy reached for her hand. 'But get away from the water quick.'
'I'm coming with you,' Midmore interrupted.
'You most certainly are not. You're drenched. She threw you twice. Go home and change. You may have to be out again all night. It's only half-past seven now. I'm perfectly safe.' She flung herself lightly over a stile, and hurried uphill by the foot-path, out of reach of all but the boasts of the flood below.
Rhoda, dead silent, herded Mrs. Sidney to the house.
'You'll find your things laid out on the bed,' she said to Midmore as he came up. I'll attend to--to this. _She's_ got nothing to cry for.'
Midmore raced into dry kit, and raced uphill to be rewarded by the sight of the lantern just turning into the Sperrits' gate. He came back by way of Sidney's farm, where he saw the light twinkling across three acres of shining water, for the rain had ceased and the clouds were stripping overhead, though the brook was noisier than ever. Now there was only that doubtful mill-pond to look after--that and his swirling world abandoned to himself alone.
'We shall have to sit up for it,' said Rhoda after dinner. And as the drawing-room commanded the best view of the rising flood, they watched it from there for a long time, while all the clocks of the house bore them company.
''Tisn't the water, it's the mud on the skirting-board after it goes down that I mind,' Rhoda whispered. 'The last time Coxen's mill broke, I remember it came up to the second--no, third--step o' Mr. Sidney's stairs.'
'What did Sidney do about it?'
'He made a notch on the step. 'E said it was a record. Just like 'im.'
'It's up to the drive now,' said Midmore after another long wait. 'And the rain stopped before eight, you know.'
'Then Coxen's dam _'as_ broke, and that's the first of the flood-water.' She stared out beside him. The water was rising in sudden pulses--an inch or two at a time, with great sweeps and lagoons and a sudden increase of the brook's proper thunder.
'You can't stand all the time. Take a chair,' Midmore said presently.
Rhoda looked back into the bare room. 'The carpet bein' up _does_ make a difference. Thank you, sir, I _will_ 'ave a set-down.'
''Right over the drive now,' said Midmore. He opened the window and leaned out. 'Is that wind up the valley, Rhoda?'
'No, that's _it_! But I've seen it before.'
There was not so much a roar as the purposeful drive of a tide across a jagged reef, which put down every other sound for twenty minutes. A wide sheet of water hurried up to the little terrace on which the house stood, pushed round either corner, rose again and stretched, as it were, yawning beneath the moonlight, joined other sheets waiting for them in unsuspected hollows, and lay out all in one. A puff of wind followed.
'It's right up to the wall now. I can touch it with my finger.' Midmore bent over the window-sill.
'I can 'ear it in the cellars,' said Rhoda dolefully. 'Well, we've done what we can! I think I'll 'ave a look.' She left the room and was absent half an hour or more, during which time he saw a full-grown tree hauling itself across the lawn by its naked roots. Then a hurdle knocked against the wall, caught on an iron foot-scraper just outside, and made a square-headed ripple. The cascade through the cellar-windows diminished.
'It's dropping,' Rhoda cried, as she returned. 'It's only tricklin' into my cellars now.'
'Wait a minute. I believe--I believe I can see the scraper on the edge of the drive just showing!'
In another ten minutes the drive itself roughened and became gravel again, tilting all its water towards the shrubbery.
'The pond's gone past,' Rhoda announced. 'We shall only 'ave the common flood to contend with now. You'd better go to bed.'
'I ought to go down and have another look at Sidney before daylight.'
'No need. You can see 'is light burnin' from all the upstairs windows.'
'By the way. I forgot about _her_. Where've you put her?'
'In my bed.' Rhoda's tone was ice. 'I wasn't going to undo a room for _that_ stuff.'
'But it--it couldn't be helped,' said Midmore. 'She was half drowned. One mustn't be narrow-minded, Rhoda, even if her position isn't quite--er--regular.'
'Pfff! I wasn't worryin' about that.' She leaned forward to the window. 'There's the edge of the lawn showin' now. It falls as fast as it rises. Dearie'--the change of tone made Midmore jump--'didn't you know that I was 'is first? _That's_ what makes it so hard to bear.' Midmore looked at the long lizard-like back and had no words.
She went on, still talking through the black window-pane:
'Your pore dear auntie was very kind about it. She said she'd make all allowances for one, but no more. Never any more.... Then, you didn't know 'oo Charlie was all this time?'
'Your nephew, I always thought.'
'Well, well,' she spoke pityingly. 'Everybody's business being nobody's business, I suppose no one thought to tell you. But Charlie made 'is own way for 'imself from the beginnin'!... But _her_ upstairs, she never produced anything. Just an 'ousekeeper, as you might say. 'Turned over an' went to sleep straight off. She 'ad the impudence to ask me for 'ot sherry-gruel.'
'Did you give it to her,' said Midmore.
'Me? Your sherry? No!'
The memory of Sidney's outrageous rhyme at the window, and Charlie's long nose (he thought it looked interested at the time) as he passed the copies of Mrs. Werf's last four wills, overcame Midmore without warning.
'This damp is givin' you a cold,' said Rhoda, rising. 'There you go again! Sneezin's a sure sign of it. Better go to bed. You can't do any thin' excep''--she stood rigid, with crossed arms--'about me.'
'Well. What about you?' Midmore stuffed the handkerchief into his pocket.
'Now you know about it, what are you goin' to do--sir?'
She had the answer on her lean cheek before the sentence was finished.
'Go and see if you can get us something to eat, Rhoda. And beer.'
'I expec' the larder'll be in a swim,' she replied, 'but old bottled stuff don't take any harm from wet.' She returned with a tray, all in order, and they ate and drank together, and took observations of the falling flood till dawn opened its bleared eyes on the wreck of what had been a fair garden. Midmore, cold and annoyed, found himself humming:
'That flood strewed wrecks upon the grass,
That ebb swept out the flocks to sea.
There isn't a rose left, Rhoda!
An awesome ebb and flow it was
To many more than mine and me.
But each will mourn his ...
It'll cost me a hundred.'
'Now we know the worst,' said Rhoda, 'we can go to bed. I'll lay on the kitchen sofa. His light's burnin' still.'
'Dirty old cat! You ought to 'ear 'er snore!'
At ten o'clock in the morning, after a maddening hour in his own garden on the edge of the retreating brook, Midmore went off to confront more damage at Sidney's. The first thing that met him was the pig, snowy white, for the water had washed him out of his new sty, calling on high heaven for breakfast. The front door had been forced open, and the flood had registered its own height in a brown dado on the walls. Midmore chased the pig out and called up the stairs.
'I be abed o' course. Which step 'as she rose to?' Sidney cried from above. 'The fourth? Then it's beat all records. Come up.'
'Are you ill?' Midmore asked as he entered the room. The red eyelids blinked cheerfully. Mr. Sidney, beneath a sumptuous patch-work quilt, was smoking.
'Nah! I'm only thankin' God I ain't my own landlord. Take that cheer. What's she done?'
'It hasn't gone down enough for me to make sure.'
'Them floodgates o' yourn'll be middlin' far down the brook by now; an' your rose-garden have gone after 'em. I saved my chickens, though. You'd better get Mus' Sperrit to take the law o' Lotten an' 'is fish-pond.'
'No, thanks. I've trouble enough without that.'
'Hev ye?' Mr. Sidney grinned. 'How did ye make out with those two women o' mine last night? I lay they fought.'
'You infernal old scoundrel!' Midmore laughed.
'I be--an' then again I bain't,' was the placid answer. 'But, Rhoda, _she_ wouldn't ha' left me last night. Fire or flood, she wouldn't.'
'Why didn't you ever marry her?' Midmore asked.
'Waste of good money. She was willin' without.'
There was a step on the gritty mud below, and a voice humming. Midmore rose quickly saying: 'Well, I suppose you're all right now.'
'I be. I ain't a landlord, nor I ain't young--nor anxious. Oh, Mus' Midmore! Would it make any odds about her thirty pounds comin' regular if I married her? Charlie said maybe 'twould.'
'Did he?' Midmore turned at the door. 'And what did Jimmy say about it?'
'Jimmy?' Mr. Sidney chuckled as the joke took him. 'Oh, _he's_ none o' mine. He's Charlie's look-out.'
Midmore slammed the door and ran downstairs.
'Well, this is a--sweet--mess,' said Miss Sperrit in shortest skirts and heaviest riding-boots. 'I had to come down and have a look at it. "The old mayor climbed the belfry tower." 'Been up all night nursing your family?'
'Nearly that! Isn't it cheerful?' He pointed through the door to the stairs with small twig-drift on the last three treads.
'It's a record, though,' said she, and hummed to herself:
'That flood strewed wrecks upon the grass, That ebb swept out the flocks to sea.'
'You're always singing that, aren't you?' Midmore said suddenly as she passed into the parlour where slimy chairs had been stranded at all angles.
'Am I? Now I come to think of it I believe I do. They say I always hum when I ride. Have you noticed it?'
'Of course I have. I notice every--'
'Oh,' she went on hurriedly. 'We had it for the village cantata last winter--"The Brides of Enderby."'
'No! "High Tide on the Coast of Lincolnshire."' For some reason Midmore spoke sharply.
'Just like that.' She pointed to the befouled walls. 'I say.... Let's get this furniture a little straight.... You know it too?'
'Every word, since you sang it of course.'
'The first night I ever came down. You rode past the drawing-room window in the dark singing it--"And sweeter woman--"'
'I thought the house was empty then. Your aunt always let us use that short cut. Ha-hadn't we better get this out into the passage? It'll all have to come out anyhow. You take the other side.' They began to lift a heavyish table. Their words came jerkily between gasps and their faces were as white as--a newly washed and very hungry pig.
'Look out!' Midmore shouted. His legs were whirled from under him, as the table, grunting madly, careened and knocked the girl out of sight.
The wild boar of Asia could not have cut down a couple more scientifically, but this little pig lacked his ancestor's nerve and fled shrieking over their bodies.
'Are you hurt, darling?' was Midmore's first word, and 'No--I'm only winded--dear,' was Miss Sperrit's, as he lifted her out of her corner, her hat over one eye and her right cheek a smear of mud.
They fed him a little later on some chicken-feed that they found in Sidney's quiet barn, a pail of buttermilk out of the dairy, and a quantity of onions from a shelf in the back-kitchen.
'Seed-onions, most likely,' said Connie. 'You'll hear about this.'
'What does it matter? They ought to have been gilded. We must buy him.'
'And keep him as long as he lives,' she agreed. 'But I think I ought to go home now. You see, when I came out I didn't expect ... Did you?'
'No! Yes.... It had to come.... But if any one had told me an hour ago!... Sidney's unspeakable parlour--and the mud on the carpet.'
'Oh, I say! Is my cheek clean now?'
'Not quite. Lend me your hanky again a minute, darling.... What a purler you came!'
'You can't talk. 'Remember when your chin hit that table and you said "blast"! I was just going to laugh.'
'You didn't laugh when I picked you up. You were going "oo-oo-oo" like a little owl.'
'My dear child--'
'Say that again!'
'My dear child. (Do you really like it? I keep it for my best friends.) My _dee-ar_ child, I thought I was going to be sick there and then. He knocked every ounce of wind out of me--the angel! But I must really go.'
They set off together, very careful not to join hands or take arms.
'Not across the fields,' said Midmore at the stile. 'Come round by--by your own place.'
She flushed indignantly.
'It will be yours in a little time,' he went on, shaken with his own audacity.
'Not so much of your little times, if you please!' She shied like a colt across the road; then instantly, like a colt, her eyes lit with new curiosity as she came in sight of the drive-gates.
'And not quite so much of your airs and graces, Madam,' Midmore returned, 'or I won't let you use our drive as a short cut any more.'
'Oh, I'll be good. I'll be good.' Her voice changed suddenly. 'I swear I'll try to be good, dear. I'm not much of a thing at the best. What made _you_....'
'I'm worse--worse! Miles and oceans worse. But what does it matter now?'
They halted beside the gate-pillars.
'I see!' she said, looking up the sodden carriage sweep to the front door porch where Rhoda was slapping a wet mat to and fro. '_I_ see.... Now, I really must go home. No! Don't you come. I must speak to Mother first all by myself.'
He watched her up the hill till she was out of sight.