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This work is in the Canadian public domain, but may be under copyright in some countries. If you live outside Canada, check your country's copyright laws. If the book is under copyright in your country, do not download or redistribute this file.Title: The Happy Tree [published in England in 1950 as The Treasures of the Snow]
This ebook was produced by: Andrew Templeton
In a drear-nighted December Too happy, happy tree, Thy branches ne'er remember Their green felicity. The north cannot undo them, With a sleety whistle through them; Nor frozen thawings glue them From budding at the prime ... KEATS, "Stanzas"
This story is published in England under the title of "The Treasures of the Snow"
Some of the oldest country in England is to be found in the parish of Leasan, in the district known as the Moat. Here the small, ancient fields are crowded among woods with longer histories than the chestnut plantations that cover most of the Kent and Sussex border. The farms too are small and crowded, and their names bring back those Saxon settlers who built and plowed on the shores of the great estuary which is now the valley of the River Tillingham.
In Moat Wood stands a ruin dissolved by time, which from a few feet away looks like a bramble brake. This is all that survives of the Saxon grange that preceded the Norman manor, some farms of which are still the freehold of Moat Place. The Place itself is now a Georgian house, standing square and solid at the crossroads, nearly opposite the Catherine Wheel. Between it and the wood lies a sheet of water, which is all that is left of the old moat.
It is dark, for the oaks lean over it so steeply that they sometimes touch their own reflections, and spring fed to such a depth that it never runs dry. The high banks and the black shadows and the depths combine to declare that it is very old water, older than the fields, older than the woods, older than the first human life that settled on its banks and made of it a moat to keep the wolves away.
Kemp Silverden loved that piece of water. He had loved it ever since he had first looked down into it as a small child clinging to his father's hand. Its depths and shadows had never scared him, because at that very first sight the sun had sunk a golden shaft through the trees and his father had shown him a moorhen's nest and four little chicks which had darted away like mice into the reeds when their mother called them. There was a forest of reeds between the water and the road, and they were different from any others in the country of the Moat—they were smaller and more fragile. Often Kemp used to wonder why they were so much slighter than the reeds in other ponds, and when he was a child he asked questions about them. He was told it was because they had been there so long, or just because it happened that way. Nobody seemed to care, and when he grew older he did not care either, and stopped asking.
But he loved the reeds, and when ever a drought made the water's edge firm enough to stand on he would gather some to take home. His mother had liked to set them in a drawing-room vase with tousled heads of pampas, and Joan had been pleased when first he brought them to her in her little sitting room at Moat Place. Every time he passed the water he thought of his visits to her in the gloaming light, when he had finished his work on the farm and she had finished hers in the schoolroom. He had gone up every evening at the same stage of dusk, so his memories of courtship were fixed in twilight—sometimes with a queer gleam on the water from the sky, like a dropped cloth, sometimes with the reflection of a little papery moon. More than once as he passed the old Moat he would think that those evenings had been the happiest he had spent with Joan—happier than those later evenings at Eggs Hole, when as man and wife they sat beside the fire without anything to say to each other.
Passing the Moat this evening he stopped and looked down into it, but he did not think of Joan. Thoughts of her had lately become infrequent, and sometimes blurred with thoughts of other women—Rose Artlett, Alice Candelin. At this moment he was not thinking of women at all, but of the weather. He thought: It will freeze tonight.
The water was as still as the air above it, and both in air and water he seemed to smell the frost. It did not often freeze in the country of the Moat, where the prevalent winds were from the southwest and the weather came from the sea. But it would freeze tonight. Already crystals were forming in the invisible breath of the earth. He knew as the birds and the rabbits knew—breathing, feeling, smelling. But he also knew as a man knows—observing the fiery windless edges of the sky and the glittering jig of the high stars.
His mind went down the hill to Eggs Hole. Reg Gratwick could be trusted to see that all was safe. It had been Reg's idea rather than his to bring in Duchess from the field last week—he had said you never could trust the weather after Christmas, and anyway it was damp for the poor old girl, and if they did not grudge her her life at four and twenty, why should they grudge her a morsel of hay? The sheep should do well in a frost—it was wet not cold that got them into coughs and fluke—and Werner Kraus would be sure to cover up any clamps he had opened and put sacking over the pump and the root-slicing machine. Werner was a good boy and it was difficult to see why he should have been born a German.
Kemp moved away from the water. His train of thought had brought him to his usual decision. His farm was safe, so he would call in at the Catherine Wheel. It would shorten the long evening that otherwise he would have to spend alone, and though the meal that Mrs. Wood had left for him in the oven would be more than a bit dry, that did not matter if he could go to bed directly after it instead of fidgeting about and pretending he did not miss a woman in the house.
The Catherine Wheel stood at the throws, a hundred yards west of the entrance to Moat Place, and at least a mile from the village where the pub was called the Lamb. Custom had lately been drifting from the Lamb to the Wheel. The Lamb had changed hands, which nobody liked, and the new landlord, a tall, thin, dismal chap from some London suburb, had done nothing to make himself popular. He said he had come into the country to rest, and seemed angry when his bar was full; and he had put up the price of all the snacks on the counter, saying that if agricultural wages had gone up since the beginning of the war from thirty-five shillings to four pounds, farm laborers could well afford an extra penny for a sandwich or a sausage roll.
At the Catherine Wheel prices had not gone up, except of course for beer. Mr. Artlett would have scorned to take advantage like that. He knew that if his customers had more money than they used to have they liked to put it away against the hard times that no one could feel sure would not come back, as they came back after every war. But then Mr. Artlett had been, so to speak, born on the place. His father had worked Moat Farm for Mr. Crosby and his sister's husband had it at this very day. He knew all the farmers and the farm hands, he had known their fathers and would know their sons.
Kemp liked Mr. Artlett, and one reason why he was calling in at the Wheel on his way home instead of coming up after supper was that he found the bar more pleasant when it was uncrowded and he could have a quiet chat over the counter. Mr. Artlett's daughter Rose would be there too and he enjoyed talking to her as much as to her father. She was small and brown, with very curly hair. During the war she had been in the A.T.S. People said she need not have gone, being essential to her widowed father in his home and in his business, but it had been too much for her when Kemp had married Joan. He did not believe that. She had never shown any signs of being in love with him before his marriage, and now, ever since her return, she was casually friendly, full of jokes and tales, just the sort of girl he liked to talk to.
"Good evening, Kemp. You're early. We've only just opened."
"I've been over to Kitchenhour and thought I'd call in on my way back."
"You've never been to Kitchenhour on foot."
"Why not? It isn't above two miles and my old bus is playing me up something terrible. I'll take her in to Joe's after the week end, but he's too busy to do anything now, and I'd sooner walk by myself than have to push her."
This was all to Mr. Artlett, but he grinned at Rose who nodded to him from where she was polishing glasses. He would have moved toward her with his pint of bitter if at that moment the door had not opened and Candelin come in.
Kemp's secret name for Ronald Candelin was "the preposterous man." Preposterous had been a favorite word of his mother's—he could remember her using it equally to describe a person or a pudding. It seemed to fit Candelin better than anything he had heard her use it for—it was a word made to his measure.
He was a big broad man with a thick neck supporting a head that seemed flung back in a perpetual challenge. His clothes were "fancy"—that is to say in summer he wore open-necked blue shirts and in winter a corduroy suit with a huge spotted handkerchief knotted round his throat instead of a collar. He had a curious, cultured voice, rather like an announcer's at the B.B.C., and he always spoke as if he was giving a wireless talk or reading the news.
Nobody liked him at the Catherine Wheel—not because of the way he talked but because of the things he said. He was full of notions about agriculture and would lay down the law for an hour on end to chaps who had been farming when he was in his mammy's arms. He was all for returning to what he called the good old ways, never using machinery—only horses and hands. He did not even approve of using hired labor; he believed in family farming, and meant to employ only his three sons when they were old enough. Till then he had to rely on Ernie Cloute, and everyone knew that if it hadn't been for Ernie, Stunts Farm would have gone bust at the end of the first year. Even with Ernie he was making a bad job of the place, which he had bought in 1945—when the country of the Moat had been "opened" to foreigners after five years of being a Restricted Area. It was galling to have to listen to him spouting away without apparently an idea of what a fool he was. Kemp Silverden resented his coming in tonight. He did not usually turn up so early, for he liked a bigger audience than was to be found just after opening time.
"'Good evening," he said in his fluent, braying voice—"you don't often see me before supper and I haven't come to stay—only to use the telephone, if not disagreeable to mine host. But of course a pint of brown ale will be refreshing after my struggle with the wonders of civilization, ha—ha."
The Artletts smiled in the courtesy of their trade. Kemp made a face over the edge of his glass and Rose's smile turned into a giggle as Candelin disappeared into the passage, where the telephone was.
"Heard of a purchaser for Stunt's, I shouldn't wonder," she said.
"Um," said her father, "he won't find that come so easy as he seemed to think last night."
"Find what?—a purchaser?" asked Kemp, putting down his glass.
"Yes. Didn't you know he's up for sale?"
"No—not I. Did he tell you?"
"Last night he was telling us from eight o'clock till closing time. You weren't here, but I wonder it isn't all over the parish."
"Maybe it is, but I've been at home on the place all day till I had to go to Kitchenhour. They hadn't heard about it there. When is he going?"
"As soon, he says, as he can find another place."
"He'll have to sell Stunts first," said Rose, "or he won't have the money."
"Do you know where he's going to?" asked Kemp. "I mean, would it be anywhere else round here?"
As he spoke, he became aware of the change in his voice, the eagerness that shook it. And his hand holding his glass shook a little too. He was surprised at himself.
"No, no," answered Mr. Artlett. "It won't be anywhere hereabouts. He's moving into the shires. You should have heard what he had to say about these parts. Some of the chaps couldn't keep their faces straight."
"I'm sorry—" said Kemp, "I'm sorry for his wife."
"It won't make any difference to her. She doesn't come from here."
"But having her life mucked up by his ignorance—" his hand closed into a fist beside his glass.
"Hush," said Rose, "he's coming back."
Candelin's huge presence in its ridiculous clothes seemed to fill more of the room than it actually occupied.
"Ah," he said, rubbing his hands; "here we are back in the right surroundings. A pint, please, Artlett—a pint of nutbrown. Have one with me—" he added, turning suddenly to Kemp.
"Thanks very much, but I must be getting back. I've a—I must get back before it's dark. Good evening," and he was out in the lane where the sky was already as dark as the trees.
He walked a few steps toward the turn of the road and felt ashamed of himself. He had not acted properly. It had been rude to dash out like that after Candelin's offer of a drink. Even though he disliked him. . . . But it was not dislike that had driven him out. After all, he had often put up with him for hours on end and got a kick out of laughing at him afterward. No, his thoughts had rushed out at Candelin like savage dogs because he was scared and upset at the news of his going away. He did not want him to go. He did not want the preposterous man to leave the country of the Moat.
He was distressed at this shameful discovery. It was not like him to feel this way. A year ago he'd have said it wasn't possible. A year ago he would have been furious had anyone suggested he could not face the thought of seeing no more of Alice Candelin. It is true that a year ago Joan had been dead only three months, but the passing of time, though perhaps it made it less wrong to stop thinking of Joan, did not make it right to think of a married woman—a woman, too, who strange as it might seem was happily married, for Mrs. Candelin supported her husband in all his ridiculous notions. If he worked the farm without machinery, so she ran the house without electricity, though the grid went across their fields. She didn't even use paraffin for cooking, but a wood fire, and her clothes were hand woven—she had shown him her loom.
It was he Kemp Silverden who was being a preposterous man—feeling lost and sick at the thought of her going away. What had happened to him? What had done it to him?—She hadn't. She'd never been anything but quietly friendly. Well, he'd better stop thinking of her any more. Lately perhaps he had been thinking of her too much—allowing his mind to drift about her as he worked or walked alone. He would stop all that. And as she was going away it would soon be over. Just as well she was going, as things were. Otherwise he might have got silly about her. Now he could easily pull himself up.
His body took its attitude from his mind, and he walked with squared shoulders along the road to Barline.
Here the country begins to fall into the valley of the River Tillingham. The lane dips and winds through steep woods—Moat Wood, Ellen's Wood and Cold Wood. Beside it runs a little stream, sometimes a murmur in the ditch, sometimes a voice in the wood. When he came to Barline corner Kemp always listened for the Eggs Hole brook, and on a dark winter's night like this he looked for it too, flashing his torch on the surface of the road till he found the overflow. In autumn and winter it always overflowed and nobody did anything about it. These little old lanes were right away from the main road. They were used only by a few farmers and farm hands and were not worth spending money on in times like these.
The overflow was only a thin trickle. He could have walked on it without wetting more than the soles of his boots. Tonight as he looked at it he wondered if it was thin enough to freeze. It had frozen in the winter of 1940. . . . Would they ever have a winter like that again? In 1940 his father had been alive, and he had not had to worry about the farm, but he would worry now. The south was not used to frost and snow, and suffered from them when they came more than the northern and eastern shires that knew them well.
The frost was coming—he could smell it in the air, feel it on his face and on the backs of his hands. For days now the temperature had been falling and the barometer rising. That meant frost without snow. No harm in that at the end of January—frost without snow. Snow made things hard for the tegs and heifers in the fields, used up the hay and cake, starved the birds that were the destroyers of next season's blights. Frost on the other hand cleaned the ground, killed the insects. . . . As Kemp walked down the hill he thought resolutely about frost and snow, tightening up his mind, so that no sorrowful, disgraceful thoughts could creep in.
Eggs Hole was not quite at the bottom of the hill. The road had still another fifty feet to drop to the Tillingham marshes when on the right of it a farm drive led away into the hollow where hundreds of years ago some Saxon had found shelter for himself and his cattle. There was one more farm below Eggs Hole, none other than Candelin's, with some of the best marsh pasture in the county if only the fool would use it properly. . . . But he was thinking of frost and snow. If there was ever a lot of snow Eggs Hole could be cut off more quickly than any other farm in the district. The drive was awkward, he acknowledged that. Much longer than the average farm drive, it was so badly laid that nine years ago his father had put down two cement wheel tracks. These were now cracked and sinking, making things worse than ever. But it was difficult to get hold of all that amount of cement—he would never do it now.
Cement . . . he was trying to think about cement as he came to the house. It was an old house, though not so old as its name—tile hung and weathered by the sea wind, a sturdy rosy place, with a lichened roof rising steeply above it for half, at least, its height from the ground. In the middle of the roof was a huge chimney, growing up through the house like a tree. The far-off people who had built the house knew that the hills behind it would make the chimney smoke, so they had built it high. But it still smoked when the wind came from the north.
The little hills fell steeply to Eggs Hole, bringing down the woods. The tongue of Moat Wood ran right into the home field: the drive gate was only a mile from the crossroads, from Moat Place and the Catherine Wheel, but Kemp always felt very far away. Perhaps it was being such a distance from the road . . . or down in a hole like this, where sounds were muffled and his only open view was to the Tillingham marshes. But often when he came home at night he had a feeling of being alone in the world, a feeling he disliked so much that sometimes he would stay at home just to avoid the misery of coming back. He had not yet got used to the empty house.
Tonight all was darkness and silence. There was not even a wind to move the cowls of the oasts. His footsteps rang in the frosty night, and the falling latch of the garden gate was like a bell. He walked up the little flagged path to the door. There was no light in the house. He had often asked Mrs. Wood to leave one on if he was still out when she went home, but she very seldom did so, as she was convinced that electricity would sooner or later set the house on fire.
His father had had it installed from the grid, and he was thankful for it now. A touch of his finger and the familiar passage sprang into color and light around him, two more clicks and the dining room and the kitchen had come alive. He went into the kitchen which was warm and had a smell of hot crust. Mrs. Wood must have baked him a pie, or was it only a baker's meat pie she had warmed up? He opened the oven door and took it out. There were some potatoes too, in their jackets as he liked them, but very much overdone. Indeed his whole supper was rather cindery. Mrs. Wood was no cook. But even if she was, could one expect an appetizing meal when she had to cook it a couple of hours before it was eaten? It was now nearly half-past six and she left at five—he suspected that when he was away from home she left even earlier. Why couldn't he get someone to "live in"? He might advertise for a housekeeper, but that often led to embarrassments. . . . People would say he ought to get married again, but there was no one around here he wanted to marry, since he could not marry Alice Candelin.
There he was again at that nonsense. As if, even if she weren't married to somebody else, she would make him a suitable wife—or, better put it this way, he would make her a suitable husband. A wife who read poetry and foreign books, who listened to symphony concerts, who believed in old-fashioned things like candlelight, who wove stuff for her clothes and looked so different from every other women he knew . . . what had he and she in common, even if there had been no Ronald Candelin?
He had done something like it once before with Joan, and had realized afterward that he had made a mistake. Joan had been sweet and good, but she had been too "different" from him, though not so different as Alice. That difference had attracted him before their marriage, but repelled him afterward. That was how it would happen again—if it could happen. He was lucky that it couldn't. But he must stop thinking.
He put his supper on a tray and carried it into the dining room, where a cloth was laid over half the table. A fire was burning, but the room struck cold—it felt shut up, unlived in, and smelled of furniture and curtain stuff. He had half a mind to take his tray back into the kitchen, but decided to stay where he was. He always had his meals in the dining room. As for the cold, that was in the night outside—just as well he did not mean to turn out again. It was good to be at home, in a well-built, well-furnished house, lit with electric light and full of the things he had always known. He would eat his supper quickly, then turn on the wireless and light his pipe.
Kemp Silverden had been named after his mother's family. She came from Smarden, where the Kemps had owned for many years a small estate. They were highly esteemed in their countryside and some had thought that she stooped when she married Tom Silverden of Eggs Hole, a farm of no more than two hundred acres, which he had bought when Moat Place sold off its outlying farms in the slump following Lloyd George's Land Act. Her sister had married a doctor with a good practice in Worthing and her younger brother was high up in the Burma police. She might have done better for herself—so her friends thought.
But Margery Silverden did not seem to regret her choice, nor did she claim to be different from any other working farmer's wife. She worked hard in the house, in the dairy and in the chicken yard. She was friendly with the wives on other farms, and Kemp's childhood had been gay with parties that began with games and a generous tea for the children and ended, when darkness fell and the outdoor work was done, with card playing and a supper for their fathers and mothers.
It was not perhaps surprising that in the course of the years she drifted away from her family. At first there had been occasional expeditions over the Kentish border to the family home at Ramstile, and some of the happiest hours of Kemp's boyhood had been spent following his Uncle Laurence's gun through the woods of Haffenden Quarter, or watching in reverent silence his rod hanging over the Medway. But Uncle Laurence died before Kemp was thirteen, and as he died unmarried, and as no one else in the family wanted to live at Ramstile, the yeoman history of the Kemps came to an end. Already the Worthing uncle and aunt had moved to Wimpole Street and become, as his mother remarked in one of her rare resentments, "too grand for us to know"; and when the letters from Burma ceased on the younger brother's death, there seemed nothing of Kemp left but her son's name.
In spite of his name Kemp took after his father, though he did not know till he was nearly grown up that his father and mother were such very different people. All through his childhood and early boyhood they had seemed two halves of the same person—doing different sorts of work, it is true, but otherwise living the same life, having the same friends, and to all appearances liking the same things. They were both parts of the solid, single life of the farm, they were two sides of that other solid, single life which was his own. He had been surprised and a little dismayed when he found out that though they walked, as it were, hand in hand, each had another hand and that hand was empty.
He had found out about his mother first. He must have been nearly sixteen when she was taken ill with pleurisy and pneumonia, and though she soon got over the worst of it, had to spend many days in bed. She did not feel inclined to sew, so she asked for books and had soon read through Eggs Hole's supply, most of which she had brought with her when she married.
"Could you get me a book from the library?" she asked her husband on market day. And he had immediately taken out a three months' subscription at Boots and brought her back a book by a writer called John Galsworthy. She had finished it by the next evening, and as market day came only once a week, there was a difficulty about fresh supplies. Neither Kemp nor his father read books even when they were—as seldom happened—too ill to go out of doors. But they sympathized with what they could not understand and both set out to borrow from their neighbors.
The result was a surprising collection of books, ranging from ancient Sunday-school prizes in ornate covers with their edges still uncut, through well-read copies of Dickens, Buchan and Edgar Wallace, back to gilt immaculacy in the World's Classics. To Kemp's surprise his mother seemed best pleased with the last—"I haven't read any of these," she said, "since I was a girl."
Then one day he came into her room and found her crying. He was astonished, shocked and frightened. He had never seen his mother cry.
"Mother! Mother! What's happened? Are you worse?"
"No, dear—it's only this book."
He looked angrily at the book she was holding.
"What is it? Let me take it away."
"No, no—" she clutched it to her, "I like it. I don't know why I'm crying. Perhaps . . ."
She broke off, and he saw what she was reading. It was poetry.
"May I look?"
With a last sob she handed it to him, and he read:
In a drear-nighted December Too happy, happy tree, Thy branches ne'er remember Their green felicity. The north cannot undo them, With a sleety whistle through them; Nor frozen thawings glue them From budding at the prime . . .
"But, Mother—it's nonsense. I never read anything so silly. What is there to cry about?"
She wiped her eyes and smiled at him.
"It's I who'm silly. I suppose it's because I'm not well and because it's so long since I read any poetry."
"You mustn't read any more if it makes you cry."
"It isn't that. It's—" She looked at him with the clear look which always came into her eyes when she wanted to teach him something, either about his homework or about any of the little chores with which he helped her in the house. "It's only that I used to read a lot of poetry when I was a girl."
"But why should that make you cry now?"
She crumpled her forehead, as if she herself was trying to understand something.
"It's—it's like going back to a house where one used to live long ago."
"But why," he persisted, "should that make you cry?"
"One does," said his mother, "when the house is empty."
He moved uneasily, fingering the flowery counterpane.
"Kemp," she said quickly, "don't tell your father I've been crying. It would upset him. He wouldn't understand."
"If you're unhappy he ought to know."
"I'm not unhappy. You don't understand either, but you've caught me at it, so I've had to try to explain. Let's be sensible now."
He looked at her and they both smiled, ending the confusion of speech.
When she was well again all the books she had borrowed were given back, and he never saw her reading—not even while she still had her library subscription. She said she had no time to read.
He did not know about his father's empty hand till his mother was dead, so there was no question of his having to keep a secret from her as he had kept one from his father. And his father's secret, as might have been expected, was quite simple and straightforward. Kemp understood it at once.
He was now grown up and working on the farm for his keep and a share of the profits. They employed two men besides and there were two girls in the house. This was remarkable for the bad years of the 1930's and Kemp knew that it was his father's doing entirely, all due to his own hard work and sound farming. He admired him enormously. His father was not an educated man—it had been to his mother he had always turned when in trouble with his work at school—but he knew everything outside book learning. His job was part of a wider knowledge in which all his faculties seemed to share. His ears were so sharp that he could hear a bat's cry in the dusk, his eyes so keen that he could see in the dark like a cat. He could do anything with any animal, he could tell the weather for weeks ahead, he never forgot a road he had once ridden.
Kemp had longed to grow up like him, but knew now that he would never attain the full stature of his accomplishments. His mother had said, "It's because you've been educated out of them. If you'd gone to the elementary school you'd probably have been just like him. But it was he himself who wanted you sent to the grammar school. He said he wanted you to have a better start than he had."
So Kemp had accepted some dying memories of history, geography and mathematics in exchange for the full lore of the fields and woods and skies. Neither his memory nor his senses were as good as his father's, but they were good for all that, and as he reckoned his parents had done well by him and given him a first-rate start in life he was suitably grateful.
His mother's death was a great sorrow, and his father's suffering almost as hard to bear as her loss. A bad bout of influenza had settled on her lungs and she had died within a week. Tom Silverden reproached himself because he feared the dampness of the house had had something to do with the turn her illness had taken. For years he had been meaning to have a damp course put in, but there was always something that seemed more urgent to do to the barns and lodges, and as the house had been three hundred years without a damp course he had thought it could wait.
"And so it could, that had nothing to do with it," said Kemp firmly, comforting him. "None of the old places round here have damp courses and people don't die in 'em more than anywhere else. Why, Mrs. Fagge at Tillingham had the flu at the same time as Mother, and she's all right, though the water there's over the boards in places."
"Ah, but your mother's different. She's used to something better."
Kemp answered that his mother had surely got used to Eggs Hole after living there twenty-seven years. But his father only shook his head. For him her life had shut up like a fan and all he saw was the well-built, well-furnished house where he had wooed her and her grave in Leasan churchyard. Kemp realized with a pang that his father had grown old. He was sixty-nine, but he had never seemed old till now.
He devoted himself to his father, trying hard to be the companion his mother had been. They had always worked together but not often played. On the rare jaunts Tom Silverden had taken, his wife had always accompanied him—in the trap or in the car, to the sea or to the town. They both enjoyed going to the pictures, though as the nearest cinema was in Hastings, ten miles away, they did not go very often. One day in August, about six months after her death, Kemp suggested that they should drive in to see a Tom Mix film that was showing at the Regal. But his father did not seem to like the idea.
"I don't know as I care about it much—I'd sooner wait and go to the cricket."
"The cricket!—what cricket?"
"Hastings cricket week. I haven't been for eight and twenty years."
Kemp was astonished. He had not known that his father took the smallest interest in cricket. He himself did not play—football was his game—and to his knowledge his father had never looked on at a single match.
"Just as you like, Dad. But I never knew you cared for cricket."
"I used to be unaccountable made up with it when I was your age—never missed a match on Vinehall green"—Tom Silverden was not a Leasan man, but had come from the neighboring village of Vinehall—"and every year I'd manage so as to get a couple of days at the cricket in Hastings, even if it meant my working bank holidays to pay 'em back."
"What made you give it up? Why, Dad, you could have gone every year for the whole week since you became your own master."
"Your mother didn't care about it."
"But that needn't have stopped you going."
His father looked at him with eyes that seemed to ask for understanding for the thoughts he found difficult to put into words.
"Kemp," he said, "you talk like an unmarried man."
"Well, that's just what I am, Dad, I'm afraid."
"When you're married," said his father slowly, "you'll find you can't go taking your wife where she don't enjoy herself, and you can't enjoy yourself when she ain't there, neither. So if there's anything you like doing that she don't—and maybe it works t'other way round as well—you change over to something else."
"But how did you find out she didn't like watching cricket?"
He thought to himself: she'd never have told you if she'd known you enjoyed it.
"It was right back before I'd properly begun to think of her. She said cricket bored her silly or some such, and wouldn't even go to the Canterbury week. I courted her with my eyes open."
He sighed as his mind lingered in those bright places across the border.
Kemp said cheerfully:
"Right, Dad. We'll go to Hastings, then, for the cricket week."
"I don't know as I can manage to leave the place every day for a whole week, but we might go and see the finish between Sussex and Yorkshire."
They went, and Kemp found to his surprise that in this matter of watching cricket he was his father's son. Taking for granted that, as it was not his own game, he would find it uninteresting, he had seldom attended village matches and had never seen first-class cricket in his life. It was a new experience to sit in the sunshine watching the play of men like Tate and Warner, discussing it with his father—who though he had given up going to matches had evidently not given up his study of the game—marking the score on his card, feeling that the honor of his country was at stake. The sun moved round the cricket ground and appeared in the windows of the little houses opposite, the shadows of the players ran across the field, the ball cracked for the last time and the game ended in a draw.
"I'm afraid it was a bit dull for you," said Tom Silverden as they came away. "Pity it should end in a draw the first time like this."
"Oh, I've enjoyed myself fine. Don't you worry, Dad."
He spoke from his heart. He had never known till then what it was to be soothed and excited at the same time, both interested and relaxed. So this was what his father had missed through twenty-eight years of marriage. . . . He was glad that no mistaken loyalty to his wife's memory had preserved him in self-denial. He determined to be his companion at every first-class cricket match within reach—he would make his father teach him all there was to know about the game, so that they could talk cricket to each other . . . it was sad that the season was so nearly over.
The next year they were able to see some good playing at Brighton and Tunbridge Wells, but they never saw another Hastings cricket week. Before it could start, war had broken out, and it seemed to Kemp a shocking thing that the first bombs dropped on Hastings were dropped on the Cricket Ground.
He was not called up. He belonged already to another army, as necessary to England as the armies of Dunkirk and El Alamein. During those war years he worked as he had never worked before. The old slow, comfortable ways of farming were over. Pastures had to be turned into plows, bad lands had to be broken in—for the first time wheat was grown in the Turzel field and the Star—new crops such as flax and new ideas such as autumn calving had to be tried in the teeth of opposition from every farm hand over forty. At the same time farming was made almost a schoolmaster's job with forms to be filled in and letters to be written to a newly created enemy called the War Agricultural Committee, known locally as the War Ag.
Kemp grappled with this side of the business himself—it was quite beyond his father. The old man worked out of doors through daylight. He spared neither himself nor his men, and Kemp sometimes feared he would break up under it all. There could now be no afternoons off for watching cricket, even if there had been any cricket to watch. Instead the two of them would sometimes stand and watch the battle that roared and rumbled over their heads through the second half of 1940. But they had not much time even for that, and more commonly they bowed their backs over their work, ignoring the whines and groans of diving planes and the occasional thud of bombs which shook the earth they tilled. Early in 1942 Tom Silverden began to fail and died of an embolism toward the end of the year. He left Eggs Hole and its warfare to his son, and Kemp carried on, feeling unutterably lonely and forsaken. While his father was alive something of his mother seemed to have lingered with him, but now there was nothing left of either of them save the son who mourned them both.
He felt loneliest in the house, so he kept out of doors all he could. Certainly there was plenty to do on the farm, for the labor position grew more and more difficult as the months went by and the young men were called up in spite of the claims of agriculture. Luckily in Reg Gratwick he had an excellent cowman, trained by his father from a boy and now safely over military age. But his subordinates were always changing. A third hand was needed now Tom Silverden was dead, and as nobody could be had he found himself driven into bad ways of farming that would have shocked his father and that his own conscience deplored.
Thanks to guaranteed markets and prices he was making money. Eggs Hole's overdraft had been paid off during Tom Silverden's time, and the farm's accounts now showed an actual profit. But what was the good of it, as he had nothing to spend it on? The place needed doing up, but there was neither the labor nor the materials for such a thing. He could not possibly spare the time for a holiday, even if there were anywhere he wanted to go. He went up to the Catherine Wheel most evenings and the chaps there said he ought to get married.
"You ought to get married, Kemp," said Mr. Artlett, "then you wouldn't be so lonely."
"You ought to get married," said Mr. Crouch of Barline, "and then you'd know how to spend your money."
"Or someone else would know how to spend it for you," said Joe Green of Hammonds.
"The right sort of girl," said Mr. Artlett, "would be able to do up the place for you quite a lot. Rose has painted our back room and covered the chairs and sofa with some stuff she got in Hastings. You wouldn't know it now, it's so smart."
"You ought to get married," said Mr. Fagge of Tillingham. "You ought to get married and have a honeymoon."
"That would be easy, wouldn't it?" said Kemp, "seeing I can't leave the place for half a day."
But for all that he was married by Christmas.
He met his wife at a dance, which was remarkable, for he very seldom went to dances. He went to this one only because it had been organized by the National Fire Service of which Reg Gratwick was a part-time member, and he had bought a ticket to oblige him. Even then he had not meant to go, but at the Catherine Wheel that night he found that Joe Green also had a ticket and they went round to the Parish Hall together just for a look-in.
They seemed about the only two not in uniform—either a soldier's or a fireman's—so they did not think of trying for partners until they saw two girls sitting down. One was Shirley Boorman from Moat Farm, the other was Joan Riddell, nursery governess at the Place. Neither of them knew her, but they knew Shirley, and as both the girls looked rather forlorn they went up and spoke to them.
They had not meant to do more than their duty in a couple of dances. But when the hall closed and the company scattered into the black lanes they were still with their partners. Joe walked with Shirley and Kemp with Joan, for thus after some alternations they had divided. At Moat Place he had turned in with her at the gate, leaving the others to go on to the farm. She had murmured something about being "all right now," but he had taken no notice and had not said good-by till they were on the doorstep. Then they had kissed each other in a sort of bewilderment.
After that shyness had taken possession even of his thoughts. He had not let himself think of her the next day while he worked or even while he sat alone, though he was aware of her all the time on the edge of his mind, waiting for him to think of her, to do something about her, to invite her to another dance. She seemed to be pleading "think of me"—he hardly knew why he shut his mind against her and kept her out. It was with a queer sense of release that after a few days he read a note from her, a stiff formal little note suggesting that "he and his friend" should join her and her friend at another dance in the Parish Hall next Wednesday.
This time there was nothing casual about the occasion. He had his hair cut at the barber's in Rye, dressed himself in his best suit and even put Eau de Cologne on his handkerchief. He felt strangely tensed and excited. Was this being in love? He had never even thought himself in love before. Was he in love now? How could he be in love with a girl he had seen only once, of whom he knew nothing more than that she was the governess at Moat Place—someone probably quite different from himself. Was she even pretty? He could hardly remember her face, but her kiss came back to him as he walked through the cool dark night. It was on his mouth with the soft air.
When they came to the hall and had fumbled their way in through the black-out, she was sitting opposite the door. She looked as she had looked on that other night—a little forlorn; but directly she saw him she became a different girl. It was then that he knew for certain that he loved her—when he saw her change so suddenly at the sight of him. He thought she was pretty too—he no longer doubted that, any more than his love. Her face was pale and there were deep shadows under her eyes, but her mouth was soft and eager and her hair had golden lights in it like sunshine in a cloud. This time there was no change of partners. He danced with her all the evening, and when the dance was over he walked out into the lanes alone in her sweet company.
After that things moved quickly. Dances were no longer needful to bring them together. She told him that he might visit her at Moat Place, and he went up most evenings after his day's work. The Catherine Wheel saw no more of him that autumn. Indeed he did not start going there regularly again till nearly six months after they were married.
They were married on December 14th, in Leasan Church, for she had no relations of her own whose house she could be married from. She was an orphan, the only child of a Dover tradesman, who had had her trained as an elementary school teacher. She had worked a while in the Council School at Gillingham, but her health had broken down, and after a long, exhausting illness, during which Kemp gathered she had been thrown almost entirely on the tender mercies of public institutions, she had been glad to take a post as nursery governess at Moat Place. Mr. and Mrs. Crosby had liked her and had become her very good friends. It was Mr. Crosby himself—on leave from Italy—who gave her away when she married Kemp, and little Charmian and Luke Crosby were her attendants. There was no honeymoon, because even in winter Kemp could not leave his farm. Neither could there be in wartime any refurnishing or redecoration of the old house, such as is due to a bride.
So they settled down among his parents' well-worn furniture and household goods, and in a very few months Kemp saw that she hated it all. She made valiant efforts to hide her growing disillusion, but he loved her too well not to see through her pretenses. She did not really understand country life—it had been all very well at Moat Place, but at Eggs Hole it was difficult and disappointing. She hated housework, and he could see that those social occasions which his mother had made so successful and which he had hoped to revive only wearied and bored her. She had nothing in common with his friends.
At first he had thought that like his mother she missed another side of life. He had taken out a library subscription for her and even bought her books, but to his surprise Joan did not care for reading. She listened a great deal to the wireless and she sewed and knitted for the child they expected in November, but she did not seem to have any interests beyond that. She loved him—in fact as the months passed they seemed to love each other more, because it was only in their love-making that they felt really together. He knew this was wrong. His parents had shown him that even in a happy marriage there are some things that a husband and wife have to renounce and leave outside, but in his marriage there was too much outside.
They were both eagerly looking forward to the birth of the child, and he told himself that when it came all would be well. No doubt much of her present mood was due to her pregnancy and when that was over she would become normal and happy again. But things happened differently. The baby—a boy—was born at seven months and died a few hours after birth. Joan was desperately ill.
Kemp grieved even more for her sake than for his own. He went to see her in the nursing home almost drunk with pity. He tried to take her in his arms, to tell her that all his love was hers forever—and she repulsed him, thrust him away with all her feeble, feverish strength.
"Go—go away—don't touch me—don't let me see you. I hate you! I hate you!" and her face had been the face of an enemy.
Of course they told him she was delirious, and he half believed them, but no more than half. When he went again she was quiet—she even smiled. But when he kissed her, she shuddered. That was worse than her repulse. And even worse was the next occasion when she lifted her face to his—bravely.
Something had happened. Something had changed and broken in her. The doctor told him that this was sometimes the case after a difficult confinement—he called it a pathological aversion, and thought it would pass. But he advised Kemp not to have her back at Eggs Hole for a while. She should go right away when she left the nursing home and have a complete change of surroundings.
But where could she go? She had no relations and he had none. Where could he send her? The war was over now, so he could not take advantage as he might have done earlier of the local evacuation scheme. He could not bear the thought of her going away alone among strangers. He puzzled his head for a while, made plans and inquiries, all to no purpose.
Then suddenly she brought his puzzling to an end by dying quietly one night of certain possible but unexpected complications. Kemp knew nothing about it till the next morning, for Eggs Hole was not on the telephone. It was not till he went into Rye for his daily visit to the nursing home that the news was broken to him.
At first it seemed as if he had never known grief before. His father's and his mother's deaths had been natural, the quiet, fitting completion of the pattern of their lives. They were old—their work was done—they had had their full share of life and love and happiness; and though he missed them he could not but feel glad that they had been spared the miseries of a slow decline, of an outstayed welcome in the world. But Joan's death should never have happened—it fitted into no pattern, it was a blemish, a mistake, a robbery—and his heart rebelled against it.
The country of the Moat was sorry for him. This was the third time in seven years that he had seen the earth in Leasan churchyard open and swallow someone he loved. At the Catherine Wheel they shook their heads and said he would never get over it.
Then suddenly they saw that he had done so. He had got over it and was his old self again. He saw it too and felt surprised. He felt surprised and a little ashamed to find in himself a growing lightness of heart. It was a lightness he had not felt since the first weeks of his marriage. For the first time since then he was free of anxiety and perplexity about another person. Poor little Joan. She had made him unhappy because he knew she was unhappy and he could do nothing about it. Could he have done anything if she had lived? He doubted it now. The odds would have been still more heavily against him. At about that time they sang in church: "Our soul is escaped even as a bird out of the snare of the fowler," and he thought of Joan. Perhaps her death was part of the pattern after all.
So bit by bit he lifted himself up and shook himself and began to enjoy his life again—the simple, ordinary, daily things which during the last months of marriage had nearly lost their savor. He worked hard, ate heartily and fought with the district council about bomb damage to his oasts, met his friends at market and called in most days at the Catherine Wheel. The only thing he could not get used to was the empty house.
It had never been completely empty before. After his father's death there had been the housekeeper they had engaged when his mother died and the girl who worked under her. These two had been called up just after his marriage and he had engaged two girls under seventeen to work for Joan. These had had to leave when they reached the call-up age and since the end of the war the situation instead of getting better had got worse. He was thankful now to have Mrs. Wood, wife of the teamster at Barline, who came every day from ten till five. This meant he had to get his own breakfast and eat his supper alone.
Most evenings he walked up after supper to the Catherine Wheel and stayed till closing time, on others—especially in winter, when work and daylight ended together—he would go there, as he had today, soon after the bar opened and eat his supper just before going to bed. But this time he had spoiled everything by running away from Candelin. He was sorry for it now. If he had stayed, almost certainly the preposterous man would have gone home to his own supper, leaving him to chat comfortably with the Artletts. He would not have had to sit alone like this, thinking about the dear ones who used to be his company and driving away the thought of Alice Candelin.
He looked at the clock. It was just going to strike seven—too early to go to bed. He felt wide awake and restless. What should he do? He drew his chair up to the fire, which burned bright with frost, and turned on the wireless. An orchestra crashed into the room, making him somehow feel more lonely and unnatural than if he had sat in silence, so he turned it off again. The silence, the stillness of the frost, seemed to press up round the house.
Should he go and write that letter he must get off sometime to the War Ag? No—his training and instincts were against letter writing except on Sunday. Sunday morning was the time for writing letters and filling in forms—he would not attempt that sort of work now, when he was tired and in need of relaxation. He wanted company and pleasant talk, such as he could always find at the Catherine Wheel, such as he could have had tonight if he had not bolted.
Then suddenly he thought to himself: Why not go back there now? It was only ten minutes past seven and he could be up at the crossroads by the half hour. That would give him over two hours before closing time—longer than he generally spent there. And he need not be afraid of meeting Candelin, who would have gone home long ago. He sprang to his feet. That was what he would do, then. He whistled a tune as he took his overcoat off its peg.
He was still whistling as he walked up the hill, and the tune and the sound of his footsteps rang so loud against the frost that he felt like someone making a noise in a house where everyone is asleep. The woods and the fields slept in a windless silence. The air prickled with cold, but it was a different cold from the cold of the house, which had a damp and cheerless quality. Eggs Hole had always been damp, he was used to it, he accepted it—but he really must do something about it someday . . . that damp course . . . he fixed his thoughts on the damp course as earlier he had fixed them on the weather.
He would not have to hold them there longer than the door of the Catherine Wheel. As soon as that was open he could release them and let them mingle with the dozen small streams that would be flowing round the topics of the day. Already, in spite of his walk uphill, he was cold enough to think comfortably of the log fire that would be burning in the saloon bar. He opened the door and felt a sudden rush of warmth, but the brightness of the fire was hidden by a burly figure standing in front of it.
"Hullo—ullo—ullo," brayed Candelin.
The sight of him had barely time to fill Kemp with surprise and annoyance before another sight turned both into a queer mixture of delight and dismay. At the side of the fire, leaning over it with her long hands folded together and hung between her knees, her face a movement of light and darkness, sat Alice Candelin. She looked round as he came forward into the room and smiled at him.
His heart turned over.
"So you're still here," he said to Candelin and blushed at his own ineptitude. "Good evening," he said unnaturally to Alice.
Her greeting was lost in her husband's voice.
"No, no—not still here. This is a return visit—like your own. Farming doesn't give me the leisure it seems to give some people—leisure to sit in the pub from five till ten. I went home this evening very soon after you did and supped like an honest farmer on my own ham. But we've just packed off our three boys to school after their apparently endless holidays, so to celebrate her liberation I've brought the missus with me."
He always referred to Alice as "the missus," thinking it a more suitable term for the wife of an honest farmer than "my wife" or "Mrs. Candelin." It matched the corduroy suit and tankard of brown ale, and made some of the other farmers grin. Kemp could see them grinning at each other now over their glasses, and he felt as if Candelin had exposed her to them by his silliness.
Ignoring him almost angrily, he asked her what she would take.
"No, no, no," cried Candelin, "this round is on me. I asked you before, you know, but you had to dash off. Now what will you have?"
Kemp flushed. He did not want the preposterous man to stand him a drink, but he could not refuse without churlishness or an argument that would only increase his own irritation. So with as good a grace as he could manage he chose a bitter.
"And you, my dear?—another glass of sack?"
Kemp saw some more grins, and this time even a nudge. His fist clenched slowly, but the next minute he pulled himself up. He had no right to be angry. Candelin was a fool, but there was nothing really offensive in his folly, and the grins and nudges of men like Green and Crouch and Fagge were only the grins and nudges of other fools who would jeer at anything outside the narrow limits of their own notions. Candelin was at least good natured—he had failed to take offense at Kemp's early incivility, which would have touched off most people, and he was doing well by his wife. Sherry cost three shillings a glass—he was giving her a treat. When he had spoken to her, too, his voice had grown soft with kindness. He was a kind husband and if Kemp really loved her he should be pleased to know that he treated her well and made her happy. If he wasn't pleased he was nothing but a dirty dog.
He had forced his anger round so completely against himself that he was able to lift his glass and say "cheers" in a voice that was almost cordial.
"Cheers," boomed Candelin. Then with a smile he dropped his great hand to Alice's shoulder—"How's that, my dear? Is it to your liking?"
"Yes, it's very good indeed." She looked up at him but did not smile, and the compass needle of Kemp's anger trembled as it occurred to him that perhaps she resented such a public caress. Or was he only putting his own feelings into her heart?
She moved her shoulder under the hand—or so it appeared to Kemp, whose anger at once was nor'-nor'-east against Candelin. He looked at him to see if he had noticed anything, but apparently he had not, for both the smile and the hand remained in their respective situations.
"She's a wonderful little woman, Silverden, and deserves the best we can give her. You can't think how hard she's worked all these holidays with those wretched brats. 'Pon my word I sometimes envy you chaps that haven't got any—no idea what work is till you have a few useless mouths to feed."
The bar was silent with disapproval. Kemp scarcely felt his own hurt, knowing it so much felt for him.
One or two of the more indignant customers found their tongues.
"I thought," said Mr. Moon, keeper of the general stores in Leasan, "that you was bringing them up to work your place for you, so as you won't have to employ farm hands."
"Certainly. That's my idea—the family farm. If only we'd more of 'em we shouldn't have all this trouble about wages and labor."
"Three unpaid workers," said Fagge, "think of that."
"What happens if they don't fancy it?" said Crouch of Barline. "Suppose they want to go into business or something?"
"Oh, they'll never want that—not after the upbringing they'll have had. Their whole life is organized at present with a view to the future I've planned for them. Even sending them away to school isn't only to relieve the missus. By associating farm life with holidays you start a complex of ideas through which the farm becomes identified with all they like best and most look forward to. I often wonder why you chaps don't do more of such conditioning. Why do so many of your children leave the land? It's a thing that could be avoided by attending to some elementary rules of psychology. My boys' whole upbringing, as I've said, is planned with a view to conditioning them for farm life."
"Plow fodder," said Mr. Moon, and looked round the bar to show he had said something smart.
Fagge said gruffly:
"I don't see it. Stands to reason that if a chap does well he'll want to put his boys into something better than he was in himself, and if he does badly his boys 'ull want something different."
"How many farmers," grumbled Homard of Dew Farm, "can afford to send their 'wretched brats' away to boarding school? It's chaps with private means who come and farm for fun. . . ."
Candelin seemed now to realize that the opinion of the bar was against him, but his good humor in no wise abated. Advancing into the midst of the company he beamed upon it as he asked:
"And what could be better fun than farming?"
"A lot of things," said Crouch.
"Almost everything," said Homard.
"Oh, come, come, you don't mean that? What made you chaps take up farming?"
"To get off military service," said Joe Green.
"Ha! Ha!—you can't make me swallow that one. I happen to know that I'm the only man in the bar who wasn't already farming when the war started. And I know that one of you at least is farming his father's farm."
"Poor Kemp," said Crouch, "he was conditioned."
Kemp would almost have felt sorry for Candelin had he shown more signs of being aware of the resentment behind this splutter of witticisms. But evidently he had little idea of his own unpopularity. With his mug of ale in one hand, his pipe in the other, he stood preposterously in the middle of the room and spouted.
"The fact is, of course, that round here there isn't any real husbandry. I came to farm in Sussex because I understood that, the farms being small, the land was really cultivated. But what do I find? I find that for centuries it has been no more than scratched—the soil instead of being rich and loamy with centuries of care and compost is still almost virgin clay—"
"Clay'll come up through anything," interjected Crouch, but he was swept aside.
"One reason I've decided to leave this district is that I want to go where the land is loved. My eldest boy will not be old enough to leave school for some years yet and till we can start work as a family unit I shall have to employ hired labor. For that I must have a husbandman. All I've got now is a hireling—a hireling whose heart is not in his work, who understands nothing of the deeper secrets of the soil, whose methods are all in the worst style of past superstition and present inefficiency. . . ." As one man the eyes of the company turned to the hatch between the private and the public bars, in which was framed a bunch of listening faces including Ernie Cloute's. . . . "So, much as I like this countryside and many as are the friends I've made here, I've decided to move to a place where husbandry is better understood."
"And where do you expect to find that?" asked Boorman, Mr. Artlett's brother-in-law.
"Lincolnshire," exploded Candelin. "The soil of Lincolnshire will grow two crops where the soil of East Sussex will grow only one. A man can live off the land in Lincolnshire."
"Because," said Fagge, "when this land here was being cultivated the land in Lincolnshire was under the sea."
"It's all machines in Lincolnshire," said Homard.
"On the big farms, yes—I grant you. But I'm not proposing to buy a big farm. I shall look for a farm of the same size as the one I have now, about a hundred and fifty acres. No doubt there they'll call it a small holding. Ha! Ha! Ha! But every acre will be good land, the land that a man and his family can live off as well as on—not only a home but a shop. Why should our wives have to go out shopping and stand in queues when everything they need can be produced at home?"
At this the eyes of the room moved to Alice Candelin, still sitting quietly by the fire in her hand-woven dress. Red with fury, Kemp stepped out of the audience and sat down beside her.
"I'm sorry you're going," he said.
"Yes, I'm sorry too. I've enjoyed my two years in Sussex."
He wondered how much she had listened to her husband's harangue. There was a faint rose tint on the milk of her smooth skin, but it might have been the firelight. He sat for a while in silence, not knowing what to say.
"Have you any idea when you'll be leaving?" he asked at length.
"It all depends on how soon we can find another place. My husband has set his heart on Lincolnshire"—had she really not been listening? or did she choose to assume he hadn't heard?—"but I expect that if the conditions there are as good as we've been told they are we'll have some difficulty in finding a suitable farm."
"I'm afraid you will," he said, meaning "I hope . . ."
Silence fell back on them, and now it had acquired a curious ease—the ease he always felt in her company. He wondered if she felt it too, but he could not tell, for she always sat so quietly. There was about her, he thought, all the beauty of a perfect stillness. He knew that some men did not admire her. Not only was her skin without color and her black hair without curl (she wore it in two plaits round her head like a crown) but her general unlikeness to the local women and girls amounted almost to a criticism. Rose Artlett, for instance, looked blousy and overblown beside her.
The fire and the silence and her sweet still face . . . they seemed one thing, a thing that ought to last forever, instead of only a moment, a moment that would pass, that was already broken, as Candelin boomed. . . .
. . . "All you farmers scrambling for hired machines, plows, reapers, haymakers, every type of noisome machinery, and your laborers nothing but mechanics—garage hands—smelling of oil and petrol instead of soil and sweat. . . ."
There was a laugh and Kemp said hurriedly:
"Do all your boys go to the same school?"
"Yes, they go to Post Hill—the co-ed place, you know."
"My mother's brother—my uncle—went to Uppingham."
"Oh, did he? My husband's people would have liked us to send Jerry there now he's old enough. But we thought it rather stuffy."
Kemp was surprised to find that she was so little impressed by Uppingham. He drew a long bow at a venture.
"But my father went to the National School in Vinehall."
Her looks warmed. "How splendid! Then I suppose he really learned something."
"I can't say he really learned much—not book learning that is. He told me he spent most of his time making the ink."
"Making the ink," she seemed amused, "how do you make ink?"
"They used to mix powder and water—red and green and blue ink they had. And I suppose my father, not being over good at his books, was the one they chose for the mixing. But my mother always said he learned a lot through not being taught."
"How nicely you put it. What sort of things did he learn?"
"Oh, all about all that's alive. I wish I knew half as much as he did. He saw things I've never seen and most likely never shall see—just through knowing where to look for them. Once he saw two crested grebes doing their courting on what we call the Cold Ponds—over by Cold Wood, you know, toward Grandturzel. They dance together breast to breast, rearing up out of the water like swans. I wish I'd seen it."
Her eyes were upon him, full of pleasure.
"So do I. It must have been beautiful to watch. Please tell me more about the things your father used to know. I suppose he was an authority on the weather."
"Oh, most farmers know about the weather—it's part of their job—but I reckon Dad knew more than most. When the wireless said one thing and Dad another you could take it Dad was right. The weather here is different from the rest of the south—we get it mostly from France."
"Do you ever get snow?"
"Not often—not nowadays, that is. But Dad used to say they had some terrible winters when he was a boy."
She said dreamily:
"I should like to see this country under snow."
He was beginning to find their talk as easy as their silence, but rather wondered that she should be interested in anything so commonplace. He knew that she was fond of books and reading, that she had been to College. . . . It seemed queer that she should enjoy talking to a plain, half-educated farmer, about country things like birds and the weather. Yet it was obvious that she did enjoy it—she had not lost her quietness, but it had become animated, interested, friendly. . . . Could it be that she found in the sound of his voice the same sort of pleasure that he found in hers, that anything he said to her was interesting just as anything she said to him must be? His heart raced. . . . Hitherto his concern had been only his own thoughts of her—it had not occurred to him that she too might have her thoughts of him, thoughts that she drove away as a rule but, like him, could not drive away now that they sat and talked together.
"What have I said?" she asked. "I've made you blush. Is it anything dreadful?"
"No, no"—he did not know what she had said—"it's the fire."
He drew back from it and from her. He was ashamed of himself. What would he think of next? Then like a bucket of cold water over him came the idea that perhaps she had been talking to drown the sound of Candelin's voice. A woman might well want to avoid hearing her husband exposing himself, and perhaps the more she loved him the more she would want not to hear. . . . Kemp stood up. Whichever way his thoughts took him they made him ashamed.
"I think I must be pushing off home."
"But it's just on ten. It'll be 'time' in a minute. Wait and we can all walk home together."
Kemp stood petrified. That would be terrible—Candelin on one side, Alice on the other, one side of his heart full of hate and jealousy, the other side full of longing and love.
How could he ever walk like that down the hill? He must do something to prevent it. But what could he do except run away a second time? He had begun to repeat: "I must" when Artlett's voice cut into his, louder than usual to drown Candelin.
"Drink up, gentlemen, please. It's ten o'clock."
There was a shuffle of feet and pushing back of chairs. Candelin's voice was submerged in the noise of the company getting on its feet. Alice stood up, groping for her wrap and Kemp was forced to stay and help her find it. It had fallen behind the settle, but as he was about to put it round her it was taken out of his hand.
"Thank you, Silverden. Alice my dear, the curfew sends us home to bed, with room still in our bellies for good ale. A monstrous regiment which I fear will be the same in Lincolnshire as in Sussex. Now wrap yourself up well against the cold."
Standing, Alice was nearly as tall as Kemp and her cloak made her look more than her actual height. It was a big cloak, which she wore with an end flung over one shoulder like a Spanish bullfighter's. But though it was made of a heavy woolen material it struck him as too loosely woven for real warmth.
"A fine frosty night," boomed Candelin as the door opened on a skyful of winking, flashing stars. "I'm afraid the lane will be slippery, dear. You had better take an arm of each of us.
"It won't be slippery," said Kemp, "the surface is quite dry."
But Alice's hand lay already between his arm and his heart.
The next day he woke rather later than usual from a deep sleep. Many men, he knew, would have stayed awake all night, but he had never slept better. He was glad. There was no sense in lying awake. If you did not sleep you could not work—any more than if you did not eat. He had heard that men in love could neither sleep nor eat; in which case he was not in love at all. . . . But that was nonsense. He was in love all right. The only doubt, the only question now, was what Alice felt for him. Till last night it had never been a question—he had taken for granted that it was nothing. But last night for the first time he had wondered.
It would be hard to say what had made him wonder. He could not fix on anything she had done or said. It was only that he could not believe that the perfect ease and happiness he had felt in her company were his alone. Something from each of them must have mingled in that cup to make it so intoxicating.
Yet the next moment he was asking himself how, if she felt as he did, she could have suggested their walking home together, and through all those twenty minutes of frost and stars never once withdrawn her hand from his heart. Surely she could not have borne it if she had loved him. He had hardly been able to bear it—the touch of her body, the sound of her feet had been an agony he would have brought to an end if he had had the power. She could not feel as he did.
Then he went hot and cold, for it struck him that the difference between their feelings might not lie between loving and not loving but between their ideas of love. She might not think it a strange and dreadful thing to love a man who was not her husband, she might not feel she ought to struggle with the thought of him as he had struggled with the thought of her. He had never heard her good name questioned, and she and Candelin passed locally for a happy couple, but he knew that she had "notions." The vicar's wife had complained of something she said in a talk to the Women's Institute, and neither she nor Candelin ever went to church. Kemp did not go often, but he firmly believed everything that was taught there, whereas the Candelins, he understood, did not. They might not believe in the Ten Commandments, and if that was so there was nothing to stop her falling in love with a man who was not her husband—at least to his way of thinking. Candelin, even if she was fond of him and he was good to her, must exasperate her daily if she had any sense. And she had sense—she was a woman of taste and sense. How could she ever have married him? It had happened some years ago and perhaps she regretted it now. All this did not mean of course that she was in love with Kemp Silverden, but it went to show that if she did happen to fall in love with him she might not see it in the same way as he did.
His mind went back to the moment when, standing at Eggs Hole gate, they had said good night. She had taken her hand from his arm, but hadn't there been some small pressure first? He could almost swear that the light, soft living thing which had tormented him for a mile had grown for a moment warm and heavy on his sleeve. Then they had shaken hands, and again hers had lingered or seemed to linger.
Or had it been his own longing that had misled him? How dared he think of her in this way?—accusing her, slighting her honor. . . . What had become of him? This was worse both in shame and agony than anything that had gone before.
In desperate fairness to her he tried to recapture every detail of those last moments on the hill above Stunts Farm. Candelin had said:
"Oh, don't let's say good night. Come on with us, Silverden. There's some bottled beer at home—I won't call it ale, but we can mull it on the fire."
What had Alice said? Nothing much. She had hardly spoken all the way to Eggs Hole. But who could speak with Candelin braying across her about croftings and compost.
He had refused his offer a shade too abruptly, more like a man repelling an attack than declining a friendly invitation. She had said then:
"Come some other day—some evening when you're not going up to the Catherine Wheel. Come to us instead. Just drop in."
And perhaps find Candelin out? His tongue had felt huge and dry as he mumbled something noncommittal.
It was then that they had shaken hands and hers had lingered. Or was it he who had held it too long?
Oh, damn all this. It was like trying to make something out of cobwebs. He was not used to fiddling about in his mind. But he could not help it. He felt he had to know. Did she love him? Till he knew that he would tie and untie cobwebs and count straws. Though even if he knew, it would make no difference. She was going away. In a few months' time she would be gone and he would never see her again. And a damned good thing that would be—a damned good thing.
He was alone in her company while he shaved and dressed and made himself an early cup of tea, but he had not expected to have her still with him in the cow lodge when he went in there to join Reg Gratwick. It was a shock to find Reg bursting with the news he himself had heard last night at the Catherine Wheel.
"That's right—I'll get on the tractor soon as I've done my milking. Have you heard that Mus' Candelin's putting up Stunts for sale?"
"Yes, I heard it last night at the Wheel."
"I had it in the afternoon from Ernie Cloute. He came around to know if we'd any roots to spare for them tegs of his'n, his clamp having started to rot all along of his boss's notions. And he says to me—'We're up for sale,' he says. 'Not on the boards but at Wright & Stutchley's. And it'll be on the boards as soon as he's found somewhere to go. He's looking for a place in the shires.'"
"He can't buy another place till he's sold this one, and he won't find that easy, seeing the state it's in."
"He'll sell it all right. Anyone can sell any sort of a place these days, and if he can't it won't make no difference. He's got a pot of money."
Kemp was surprised. He had never thought that Candelin was entirely dependent on his farming, but he had certainly not imagined him rich. Considered as a rich man he was more preposterous than ever—living and making his wife live in that miserable way when he had enough money to make everything easy and comfortable for her. Then it occurred to him that Reg's pot of money might be within the literal teapot bounds of local hoarding.
"He'll want pots and pots," he said, "if he's going to buy a place in Lincolnshire. The land there goes sometimes at a thousand pounds an acre, I'm told."
"Coo," said Reg. "Well, all I know is that Stunts was bought for him by his mother, and she died last year and left half her money to him and half to his sister."
Farmers' gossip was always more limited than other men's. Kemp had never heard of Candelin's mother before.
"And there's Miz Candelin's father," continued Reg, "he's a big Boffin at Oxford and they say that when he dies, and he ain't likely to live long, he'll cut up like a Christmas cake. Oh there's a pot of money in that farm. It aŁn't for want of money he's making such a mess of it. But I reckon that's why he's leaving—he's ashamed of what folk say around here."
"I don't think he knows or cares what folk say. He thinks he's the only farmer in these parts who knows anything about farming."
Reg's belly laugh rumbled as he moved over from Lily to Primrose with his stool and pail. "Well, Ernie says Miz Candelin don't want to go. She's properly made up with these parts, she is, and don't hold at all with their leaving. Ernie says she was crying about it the other day, but he didn't sim to care. He said he was going where all the workers was husbands, same as he said at the Wheel last night. Ernie says he's always like that—always out for his own way even if she cries. Ernie likes Miz Candelin. Ernie reckons . . . why, if that aŁn't Werner showed up at last."
The German had just come into the doorway.
"Sorry—late," he said, "but cold makes the bus not start. We wait half an hour."
Kemp greeted him almost affectionately. He liked Werner, and today he was doubly welcome as an interruption.
"What do you think of this weather?" he asked.
"I like it. It is like home."
"I reckon it'll snow," said Reg, "by the end of the week."
"I like snow."
"Then," said Reg, "you can have all that comes. I can't do with it myself—nasty stuff, holding everything up and soaking worse than rain. But maybe it pleases some chaps who'd sooner not do any work."
This was a most unfair aspersion on the industrious Werner, and inspired, as Kemp knew, not so much by international enmity as by the jealousy which every loyal farm hand feels for anyone else who works for his master.
"Come along, Werner," he said, "we'll go and see to the tegs while Reg finishes here."
The sun had just risen—without warmth, and almost, it seemed, without light. There was only color in the huge, red, rayless disk that had climbed up over the woods and now hung low above them, curiously matched by the paper moon sinking in the west. Between them the sky was the color of flax, though the rims glowed, as at dusk, without threat. The cold was almost visible in the colors of the sky. Werner shivered and blew on his hands.
"Let's go in and get a bite of something hot before we start," said Kemp. "It'll be colder than ever down in the snapes."
Werner had said he liked the cold, but his pleasure in it must be largely made up of memories. In his shoddy battle dress he was ill equipped to withstand its present rigor. His face brightened at Kemp's invitation.
"Yes, ver' nice, ver' kind," he said.
It was the first time in the three months he had worked at Eggs Hole that he had been inside the house. Kemp felt a little ashamed of this now. It wasn't the poor chap's fault that he'd been born a Jerry, and he was only a boy, too young to think of the rights and wrongs of things when he was called up to join the Afrika Korps. Nevertheless he had hung back from the idea of asking for German labor when local supplies ran out. It was only when Fagge and Crouch and Homard and all the others did it and said what good workers the Jerries were that he had sent in his application to the War Ag. And then it had been some weeks before he and Werner could talk in anything but signs. Kemp had thought the German very slow to learn English, and even now he could not talk it well.
"Good 'ouse," he said looking round him.
Kemp always had his breakfast in the kitchen, and it was always the same breakfast of coffee (made from coffee essence) and boiled eggs. He would rather have eaten bacon and drunk tea, but the latter was too tightly rationed to be drunk more than twice a day, and as the country of the Moat had never been considered a good country for pigs the only local farmer who kept them was Candelin.
"Ver' good," said Werner, burying his nose in the cup. "I like English tea." Then he lifted his broad young smiling face and added:
"You heard Stunts Farm is to sell."
This was almost more than Kemp could bear. He had thought he was safe with Werner.
"Yes, I've heard. But how on earth did you hear?"
"The kamerads talk about it last night."
"None of you work for Candelin, do you?"
"No—no work. But four go there for Christmas. Mr. and Mrs. Candelin ask us go to a beautiful party."
That year the prisoners had been allowed to accept Christmas invitations and Kemp had himself thought of asking Werner. But he had been unable to face the ordeal of a dinner cooked by himself (for Mrs. Wood's own private merrymakings would prevent her coming to Eggs Hole) and shared with a man who at the time knew barely a dozen words of English. In the end he had been asked out by so many friends that he had eaten no less than four Christmas dinners in other people's houses. Werner he understood had gone somewhere, but it was not till today that he knew where.
"Mr. Candelin ver' good man," said Werner.
"Surely," said Kemp and was vexed because he said it unwillingly.
"He ask us with nowhere to go and he send a taxi for us and give us beautiful dinner. Mrs. Candelin cook a beautiful dinner with hen. I like Mrs. Candelin too. She is beautiful. She look like German lady."
"No!" cried Kemp.
"Yes—way she have the hair. In—what you say—twizzes—twists—"
"Plaits, we say. How well you're doing with your English now. You've learned a lot since Christmas."
"I have a book, a vocabulary. Mrs. Candelin give it to me for Christmas present off Christmas tree."
"Do you find English a difficult language?"
"Not to read—only to say. I cannot say much yet. Perhaps someday I go to Mrs. Candelin and ask her to be teacher. She talk German well, and they have Christmas candle and Christmas tree like at home. They have three sons in happy family. I like Mr. and Mrs. Candelin."
"If you've finished we ought to be getting started."
"I finish," said Werner with a longing look at the loaf.
"Take a slice with you and we'll be off."
They went out, Kemp taking him round by the front door, so that Reg should not know he had been in the house.
That night Kemp did not go up to the Catherine Wheel. He sat doggedly at home, reading instructions from the Ministry, casting accounts, filling in returns and application forms, eating his supper and listening to the wireless. The weather forecast was "very cold in the southeast," but the snow did not come till Friday. On Thursday it threatened with a strange quality of sunshine, and toward evening there appeared over Udimore Ridge those big, loose, flouncy clouds known in the country of the Moat as Hastings Ladies. These always meant rain, but today their flounces were dirty yellow instead of dirty white, and the barometer as well as the thermometer was falling. The next morning Kemp looked out and saw the ribs of the Palster field sticking up through the snow.
He stood at the window for some minutes watching the few flakes that still eddied after the main fall. Snow always gave him a queer, foreign feeling, as if he had been transported to another country. The fields and woods looked strange, even though this morning the whiteness was only partial. The meadow hills around Eggs Hole seemed almost as high as mountains, and the woods were like the shadows on the moon. He opened the window for a moment, then slammed it to with a shudder as he felt the wind bite him. It was a long time since he had known it as cold as this. The thermometer must be right down to where it was in 1940.
He dressed in his thickest clothes before going down to interview a grumbling Reg. The weather might have waited till they had plowed the Star field. They had finished the Palster and the Turzel and had only the Star left. The weather might have waited for the Star. Kemp urged that the snow was not quite bad enough to stop the tractor, and for half the morning he and Reg and Werner relieved each other at the bucking wheel. But when the snow came on again at about eleven o'clock they had to own themselves beat. The Star must wait for a thaw.
The three of them spent the rest of the day with the stock. The cows were in for the winter, of course, but there were still some young heifers out grazing, and keg thought it best to bring these down from the Quarter field to the little Cob meadow in the lee of Moat Wood. Here was a stack they could pull at and a lodge where they could shelter if things got worse. The sheep they decided to leave out for the present. They were in the low fields by the lane and neither Kemp nor even Reg expected the weather to get worse.
"I wonder," said Reg, as he buttoned on his mackintosh before going home, "I wonder if it's snowing in Lincolnshire."
"I reckon it is. The weather comes from the nor'east."
"Then he'll have got it too."
"Who'll have got it?—do you mean Candelin?"
"Surelye. Aun't he there now?"
"I didn't know it."
"He went off yesterday to see some farm over by Sowerby—Scoresby—something like that. I thought maybe you'd have heard."
"How could I have heard? I haven't been off the place since Tuesday."
But he said to himself: I'll be off tonight.
He did not care how hard it snowed. He had kept away from the Wheel because he did not want to meet Candelin or Candelin's wife, but now there was not the smallest chance of meeting either of them. He was over a hundred miles away and she would never go out in such weather, even if he was there. In ordinary circumstances Kemp would not have gone out himself, but he was determined not to spend another lonely evening at Eggs Hole.
He had spent only two, but those two already seemed to stretch into infinity. How he wished that he were better company for himself. He was a little ashamed of being so dependent on other people. But then he was not used to living alone—only since Joan's death had he had to put up with it. Some chaps would say he ought to marry again, but the thought of that was unbearable—though not, he acknowledged ruefully, because of Joan.
During those two long, dragging evenings he had considered all sorts of ways of giving himself some company. He might get hold of a dog. There had been no dog at Eggs Hole since old Nellie died, and people said dogs were company, though he had never thought of using them for that. His father had not held with dogs as pets—said it spoiled them for other purposes—and as a child Kemp had always been a little afraid of the surly specimens tied up in the yard. Still, he ought to look out for another yard dog, seeing that he was off the place most evenings. . . . But that wasn't what he wanted. He wanted a dog for when he stayed at home—a dog to sit at his feet and wag its tail and make him forget he was lonely and in love with another man's wife. What sort of a dog would that be?
Or he might have Werner to live on the farm, as some of the prisoners did at other places. There was one at Barline and one at Hammonds and both Mr. Crouch and Joe Green said they were clean, pleasant chaps and wonderfully handy in the house. But somehow he could not see himself living with Werner, any more than he could see himself living with a dog. Besides, now there was not any real need for it. Candelin was away and he would soon be gone for good. Then Kemp would spend all his evenings up at the Catherine Wheel and be no more lonely than Alice's going must leave him, no matter who lived in his house.
At the Wheel tonight he was greeted as an adventurer. The Sussex man does not like snow and many who lived nearer to the crossroads than he had stayed at home.
"Hullo, Kemp," said Mr. Artlett. "Who'd have thought to see you here tonight?"
"You look like a snow man," said Rose; "take off your coat before it all soaks through."
Kemp walked up to the fire, rubbing his hands. The bar was nearly empty—only Boorman was there, and Mr. Wilcox the chauffeur-gardener at Moat Place. His eyes moved to the corner where Alice had sat on Tuesday night, and she was almost sitting there, with her hands stretched out to the flames and her gray dress flowing round her feet.
She was so real to him that for a moment it seemed as if Mr. Boorman must have seen her too when he said:
"I wonder if Candelin's bought his farm."
"He'd never buy it as quick as all that," said Mr. Wilcox, "why, he hadn't set eyes on it till yesterday."
"You've got to snap up those places quick if you want them," said Mr. Artlett.
"Surely he wouldn't settle anything," said Mr. Wilcox, "till she's seen it too?"
"Don't you believe it," said Mr. Boorman. "She has no say in the matter at all. She's got to go where she's taken."
Kemp went up to Rose, who was standing at the other end of the counter.
"Got any whisky?"
"Just a drop."
"Then make it a double if you possibly can. I feel I want something to warm me after the walk."
"It must have been miserable. I wonder you came out."
"I got tired of sitting alone."
Rose gave him his whisky, and pushed the siphon toward him with a plate of bacon rinds.
"Try these—I've toasted them over the fire and they're nice and crisp. We're always pleased to see you, Kemp, but why didn't you come yesterday or on Wednesday when it was fine? Then perhaps you wouldn't have minded staying at home tonight."
"Oh," mumbled Kemp, "it wasn't really so bad. The road's sheltered by woods the whole way up."
Rose said nothing, but began to polish glasses. The silence of the snow seemed to have come into the bar. He had never known the place so quiet, and it was not only because it was nearly empty. Four or five people could make a lot of noise if they chose. But now under the voices you felt all the time the stillness of the muffled night. Sometimes the voices would cease, and the room would fill with all the windless silence of the snow. For the first time Rose seemed to have nothing to say to him and he had nothing to say to Rose.
Candelin did not come back till Monday, and Kemp did not see him for some days afterward. There was still so much snow about, though it had ceased falling, that most farm work was impossible, and as it was not the sort of weather for turning out at nights, farmers—Candelin among them—chose to have their drinks in the morning. Kemp still went up after dark, so avoided meeting him, but he heard about his doings all the same.
He had not bought his farm. There was a lot wrong with it apparently and a wicked price was being asked. However, he had gone about the place and had interviewed agents in Lincoln, Scunthorpe, Norwich and Woodbridge, for he seemed to think that Norfolk and Suffolk would do as well for him as Lincolnshire.
Kemp's feelings wavered between dread and relief—or rather between two dreads. He dreaded the Candelins going and he dreaded their staying. It seemed to him now that, in spite of all his efforts, Candelin might find nothing to suit him and that he would stay where he was. But what good would that be? He could not spend the whole year dodging him. And as for her—he would be happier without this longing to see her, to talk to her, to sit beside her, knowing all the while that he must not. He did not want to see Candelin and he must not see Alice. So it was certainly better that they should go away.
Yet how was he to live without the secret hope, the hidden chance, of their meeting? Even though it was a week since he had spoken to her there was always the chance that he might suddenly catch sight of her—standing at the crossroads waiting for a bus, buying stamps at the post office or filling her shopping basket at Moon's Store, or plowing in her mackintosh and Wellingtons through the snowy ruts of the lane. There was even comfort in the thought of her only half a mile away. He knew her surroundings at Stunts and could picture her there—in the house, in the yard, in the fields. He still seemed to hold something of her in his knowledge of the place, but in a strange place she would become a stranger.
In all this the snow was his enemy. He might have thought of her less if he could have gone about the country or done his ordinary day's work on the farm. You could not think of anything while you were driving a tractor, not even of Alice—not while your guts were being shaken to a jelly and your ears smashed with hell's own racket. Or he might have started to repair the oasts. The stuff was there, where the builders had left it before Christmas, and he and Reg and Werner might easily have managed the job between them if it hadn't been for the weather. But the weather had made it impossible to do much beyond milking and feeding. And the roads were really too bad for him to take his old car out on market days. It was many years since the snow had lain so long, and he disliked it—even apart from the trouble it made on the farm and in his thoughts.
The country of the Moat was now completely buried. No fertile ribs rose through the shroud of the Palster field. Moat Wood, Ellen's Wood and Cold Wood were sinister broken masses of white and brown, while to the south, Udimore Ridge seemed to have come nearer and its slopes to have grown alien with black and white farms Kemp hardly recognized apart from their old colors. Sometimes the sky was clear, with an icy wind and red, bitter sunsets. Sometimes it was thick with yellow swags of cloud from which more snow would fall—more and more snow.
The snow was still lying thick when Candelin went away again, though it was some days since there had been any fall. He had stayed at home so long that Kemp was inclined more than ever to the idea that he might not after all leave Stunts Farm. In spite of their different timetables he had encountered him more than once at the Catherine Wheel, and had heard from his own mouth the tale of his struggle across three shires in the early days of the snow. It seemed odd that he should choose an even worse spell of weather for his next excursion. The thermometer had dropped to depths unknown in the country of the Moat, the lanes were corrugated channels of ice, and the overflow of the Eggs Hole brook had shrunk to bubbles under frozen scales.
There was, too, the further complication of the weather having become a national disaster, with rows in Parliament and the press, the closing down of factories and cutting down of train services and people listening on the wireless to the weather forecast in much the same way as during the war they had listened to the news.
"You'll have a rough journey," said Fagge to Candelin. "When do you start?"
"First thing tomorrow morning."
"I doubt if the bus 'ull be running before midday."
"Oh, I'm not depending on the bus. I've ordered friend Adis from the garage. He's got chains, and it'll take something worse than any weather we've had up till now to stop him."
He was standing characteristically in the middle of the bar, his pipe in one hand, his mug in another, looking larger than ever in all the extra waistcoats, pullovers and pants he (in common with everyone else) was wearing under the corduroy suit. Though the night was far bleaker than the first night of the snow, with an east wind shrieking down all the funnels of the lanes, there were more customers drinking at the Catherine Wheel than there had been then. Everyone was tired of staying at home, and in certain cases fuel had run out, making Mr. Artlett's apparently inexhaustible supply of logs a public service. Someone asked Candelin if that was why he had come.
"Ha! Ha! Ha! Thought I'd left the missus to shiver at home while I toasted myself up here? No, no, we've got a good fire. In fact we're better off than many of you chaps with your newfangled notions, for we don't have to worry about the electricity cuts. I came up here just to make merry with you all before I go away. This morning I was too busy, getting everything in order on the farm. My missus will be in charge while I'm away, and I don't want her to have any trouble if I can help it."
"What about Ernie Cloute?" asked Homard. "Won't he be there?"
"Oh, he'll be there all right. But she's in charge. She knows how I like things done."
Kemp saw winks being exchanged. He asked:
"How long will you be away?"
"I can't tell you exactly. I go first of all to Lincoln, where I stop at the jolly Red Lion and look at four or five places in the vicinity. Then I go to Boston—two farms near there. Then I go for a night to Holt in Norfolk. Then, if I haven't fixed, and I don't suppose I shall till I've seen the lot, I'll move to Norwich. The agents there have given me at least half a dozen addresses. I may even go into Suffolk. I've heard of two places near Woodbridge and one at Stowmarket."
"Sort of Grand Tour, ain't it?" said Crouch.
"Well, I can't be always popping off, just to look at one place which may turn out to be a dud. So, having been had that way once, I waited till I had a sheaf of them and then planned my route."
"I'll be surprised," said Fagge, "if you get anywhere at all in this weather."
"Oh, I'll get about all right. Ha! Ha! Don't you worry. I never mind the weather and it's better for me to be away when there's nothing doing on the farm. Things are only ticking over now, so it's all right for me to leave them to the missus and Cloute. Otherwise I couldn't trust him to work on my lines, and though she understands farming, it's theory only. She hasn't got the muscle for a land girl."
"It's all very well to talk of nothing doing and ticking over," grumbled Fagge, "but you can't have nothing doing on a farm. When you've got to do nothing then it all comes to nothing. If this government stays in much longer I'll give up farming."
The conversation had veered suddenly to politics, but it was all part of the baiting of Candelin, one of whose enormities was that he had voted Labor at the last election, while everyone else in the bar—in the two bars, for the public bar was even more conservative than the private—had voted Tory.
"Ha! Ha! You're one of those who hold the government responsible for the weather?"
The jibe was not entirely fanciful—so automatic had been the local attribution of every form of catastrophe to the Labor Cabinet. By a simple association of ideas the weather had become inextricably a part of the administration of the country, and Candelin—preposterously good humored as ever with his pint pot and pipe—had to stand the heckling of farmers whose farms were at a standstill, whose winter plows had not been begun, whose stock was deteriorating, whose machinery had seized up, whose roofs were leaking, whose pipes were frozen, whose wives were short of fuel, whose children had not been able to go to school for days, whose farm hands had to be paid four pounds a week for standing and grumbling.
Kemp listened awhile, half in contempt, half in entertainment. Then the clock struck nine and he decided to go home. Things were not very amusing, and if he waited till closing time he might have to walk back with Candelin. So he sneaked up to the counter and paid his reckoning, said good night to the Artletts, nodded to one or two chaps who caught his eye, and slipped out undiscerned by everyone else.
The wind was so strong that it blew him almost into a run. In a very few minutes he was at the corner where the lane begins its swoop into the valley, and here the shelter of the woods crept round him and made him think for the first time of stopping to light his pipe.
The woods were noisy with wind—boughs rattled and scraped against roaring undertones. For certain sure, thought Kemp, there's more snow coming. Even in the lee of the woods the wind blew his lighter out, and after one or two vain attempts he struck a match. He had just succeeded in lighting his pipe when he thought he heard someone coming along the road. There was more ice than snow lying, so it was possible to hear footsteps even in the roar of the wind. Was it anyone, he wondered, from the Catherine Wheel? The only two in the bar whose homeward journey lay with his were Crouch and Candelin.
He'd better move on. He had left early on purpose to avoid having to walk home with Candelin, and though of course it might be only Crouch or someone from Starvecrow or Dinglesden who had not been at the Wheel, he would not take the risk. So he plunged on down the hill, walking as fast as the treacherous surface would allow. Then suddenly he heard his name called:
"Silverden!—half a mo' . . ."
He could not pretend not to hear, the wind was a friend to the preposterous man, blowing both him and his voice along to the brow of the hill. Nor did he want to behave uncouthly a second time. Though he disliked Candelin, he was Alice's husband; and only a dirty dog—such as he hoped he was not more often than now and then—would regard that as an additional incitement to rudeness. So very unwillingly he waited.
Candelin came up, blowing like a steer, and enlarged still further by an enormous ulster.
"I never saw you go till you'd gone," he panted.
"I didn't want to disturb the company. I thought you were staying."
"Oh, no. I'd always meant to get back early tonight—as soon as those chaps would let me go. . . . It's my last night at home, you see."
Kemp mumbled something.
"I don't like leaving home—especially in this weather, but there it is, and with luck I might be back next week."
"Had any offers for Stunts?"
"No, I don't expect any yet. It isn't officially up for sale—can't sell it till I'm definitely fixed with a new place. It doesn't do to get caught between homes nowadays, and it isn't as if I'll have the slightest difficulty in selling when the time comes. The farm is in splendid heart."
Kemp stared at him through the dark wind. Did he mean or know what he was saying?
"That's one of the things I wanted to speak to you about. I'd be grateful if you'd drop in and have a look at the place now and then while I'm away. It isn't easy for a woman to manage alone, and I don't entirely trust Cloute—he may insist on doing things his own way once I'm not there to stop him. Your land marches with mine and it wouldn't be difficult for you to drop in now and then, just to see how things are getting on."
Kemp opened his mouth, then shut it without speaking.
"I know that you don't agree with all my ideas on farming, but I've often thought you were more in sympathy with me than some of the others."
Kemp's mouth opened again in a gape of astonishment.
"I'm what some people call a rural purist," ran on Candelin, "that is I believe in a natural life. These substitutes for nature called machines, this engorgement of unnatural light and heat which is now giving the country so much trouble"—Dear Lord, thought Kemp, he's off again and this time I can't get away from him. I've got to listen—"All this would be impossible in a genuinely rural community"—such as you expect to find in Lincolnshire?—"Now of course I know you use a tractor on your farm and electricity in your house, but I also know that unlike many round here you really love the land. I know too that you despise those dreadful synthetic recreations that have taken the place of the village fair and the summer tree"—what on earth's a summer tree?—"unlike some of your neighbors, you aren't perpetually going into the town to pick up your pleasures in the streets. You find, like your ancestors, all you need in your village inn—"except when they've run out of beer—"and that is why I'm going to ask something more of you than to keep an eye on the farm. Even though my wife will have plenty to occupy her while I'm away, she's bound to feel lonely now and then. Like me, she enjoys a visit to the tavern but she's very shy and wouldn't care to go alone, even if such a thing weren't liable to be misunderstood by ill-disposed people. So it would be kind of you sometimes to act as her escort"—and do you think the ill-disposed people wouldn't misunderstand that?—"of course if the weather's very bad she wouldn't want to go, and in that case I hope that you, being her nearest neighbor would drop in for a drink and a chat. Our efforts to brew our own ale not having been entirely successful, we have laid in a stock of—"
Here Candelin suddenly disappeared. Lost in the throes of his own speech he had omitted to look where he was going and now lay flat on his back on the frozen overflow of the Eggs Hole brook, which at this point was nearly half across the road.
Kemp's first reaction was a gutter-snipe impulse to laugh. That bubbling kettle of talk had boiled over into a silence that now seemed as ridiculous as its noise, and the talker lay staring up into the beam of Kemp's torch with a look of grotesque bewilderment. However he did not laugh. Instead he held out his hand to help Candelin to his feet.
"Are you hurt?"
"Oh, no—I'm quite all right. But how did it happen?"
"You walked on a sheet of ice. Just here the brook's half way across the road."
"Ah, yes, so I see. I didn't look where I was going. But I can't think why this brook hasn't been put into a culvert if it's liable to overflow. It's destroying the surface of the lane."
"It runs through a culvert down by my place. Up here it's allowed to be natural." He could not resist this rather feeble sally, which Candelin as usual took in good part.
"Ha! Ha! you got me there. Silly of me not to have brought my lantern."
They walked on, Kemp flashing his torch occasionally over the vagaries of the road. He thought that Candelin was a little shaken. He was a big man and must have fallen heavily. But he would not acknowledge that he was hurt—"Maybe a bruise or two to show for it later, but that's all." His flow of talk, however, was noticeably subdued, and Kemp had the chance of himself uttering a word now and then—enough to keep the conversation off the subject of Alice and her entertainment.
She had not been mentioned again by the time they had reached the beginning of Eggs Hole drive. Here they stopped and Kemp half-expected to be asked to go on to Stunts Farm, but the invitation did not come. He thought to himself, He wants to be alone with her tonight.
The pain of his jealousy was like a sudden branding. He could still feel it as Candelin said:
"And you won't forget your promise about cheering up the missus."
"I—I—" he hadn't promised anything. He wouldn't promise. "I'll see that she's all right—that the place is all right. You can trust Cloute. I'll have a word with him—" Doesn't he think, doesn't he see I'm in love with her? that he's practically inviting me to take advantage of him while he's away? He deserves anything that might come to him. . . . Oh, the fool, the silly, damned bloody fool—"Good night."
He was determined not to go anywhere near Alice. He was sorry for her if she was lonely, but he could not rid himself of the idea that she must be happier alone than with Candelin. Besides, surely she had some women friends to come and see her. Of course Stunts Farm was isolated, especially in weather like this, and he did not suppose that, like his mother, she was friendly with the women on the farms around. . . . Was she friendly with the vicar's wife or had their association ended with that unsuccessful talk at the Women's Institute? . . . or Mrs. Crosby . . . did the Candelins know the Crosbys? They didn't seem quite up the same street . . . or surely if she really hated being alone she could have a woman friend from somewhere else to stay with her . . . not that in this sort of weather you could really ask anyone to leave home and stay at a place like Stunts. . . . His mind searched hard for suitable friends for her and was distressed because he could not find them. He did not like the thought of her being lonely. But he was determined not to go and see her.
He felt so sheltered by this determination that it was a real shock two afternoons later to see her getting off the bus outside the Catherine Wheel. He had just come back from Rye market in his car. The going was difficult without chains, but he had a lot of stuff to bring home and anyhow the buses were not convenient. More snow had fallen. From the ridge by Dew Farm he had seen the powdered roofs of Rye against a cloud that looked a regular bag of snow. Now the first flakes of a new storm were drifting round Alice as she stood at the throws, a rather desolate figure, with her shopping basket and a sack of something which she was struggling to heave across her shoulder.
It would be an impossible cruelty to drive past her, leaving her to walk. He did not even consider it. He stopped the car at once and offered her a lift.
"Oh, thank you—thank you."
Her face had quickened at the sight of him—like Joan's face against the wall in that dance room long ago—but it might easily have been from relief at not having to walk home. He helped her into the car with her basket and her sack which he saw was full of potatoes. What had Candelin been doing with his yields that his wife had to buy potatoes?
"Just in time," she said with a smile. "I think it's going to snow harder than ever."
He mumbled something out of a new embarrassment which had fallen upon him suddenly and tied his tongue.
He was silent for the whole of their drive together. He had nothing to say, or rather his speech was choked by the things he must not say. This was very different from those other times when he had felt so much at ease in her company. And she too seemed to find silence best on this occasion, for she sat beside him without speaking—he could not even see her face under her hood. Once and only once he looked round at her, to find that she had looked round at the same moment. Their eyes met suddenly and seemed to speak.
The road was bad and he had to drive slowly, but even so it was only a few minutes before they reached Stunts Farm. Now all he had left was the farm drive. . . . Now they were at the house, with its Caen stone walls and mass of creepers that should have been cleared away. . . . Now he had stopped the car, thinking of her only, and she was saying:
"Thank you so much. I'm so very grateful."
She had climbed out of the car while he still sat there stricken and oafish at the wheel. She had taken her basket and was lifting her sack when he came to his senses.
"Let me carry that. Where do you want it taken?"
"Into the scullery, if you don't mind. I've been lucky enough to get hold of some potatoes."
Lucky! He could have spat.
"Ours didn't do well this year—they rotted in clamp. I think we should have let Cloute have his own way over that."
"Cloute's a good man."
"That's always been my idea, but my husband doesn't agree. He'd get rid of Cloute if he could find anyone else."
"Well, he'll be rid of him soon, when he leaves these parts—when you both leave."
She looked sad.
"I hate the thought of leaving. I like it here. This place is old—no, I don't mean the house"—as he looked up at the rafters—"I mean the country—the fields and the lanes. It's an old country—our ways are right here. They won't be right in East Anglia."
"Your husband thinks they will."
"I know. He's tired of Sussex, and disappointed, too. He talks as if he's pleased with himself, but he isn't really—not underneath. He knows he's been a failure, and he doesn't know why, so he blames the place and wants to go somewhere else. But it will be the same wherever we go."
He was surprised to hear her talk like this. At other times she had talked as if she thought about everything in the same way as Candelin. Now he began to wonder . . . and wondering brought him back to another question—a question which he had been trying not to ask himself for weeks.
"I must get off home."
They had put the potatoes in the scullery and were back in the kitchen which, unlike the kitchens of the other farms Kemp knew, was also the main living room of the house. There was no kitchen range, but a big wood fire with a spit hanging over it and a settle drawn up close. The kitchen table was of oak and there were oak chairs and an oak dresser with blue and white plates and a row of pewter mugs. Against the far wall stood her loom and her spinning wheel. He wondered where she did her cooking.
"I must get off home."
She did not seem to have heard him the first time, but now she quickly said:
"But I must."
"Oh, no. . . ." For a moment he thought she spoke out of the same sort of heart as his, but then at once she added in a perfectly natural voice—"after your kindness in driving me home I can't let you go till I've given you something to keep the cold out. I'm going to mull some ale."
She smiled at him.
"Don't tell me you haven't heard of mulled ale."
"I've heard of it, but I've never drunk any. Reckon it went out when my father was a boy."
"I'm going to make some now, according to a recipe I found in an old book."
She had taken a long-handled pot off the dresser and was warming it in the ashes under the logs. He was interested, and his interest relaxed the tension that had been spoiling this precious time. He watched her pour the ale into the mulling pot, and stir in spices with some spoonfuls of brandy. He doubted if his father had ever drunk anything like this, but it would be a good, warming, comfortable drink all the same.
Then suddenly he remembered his car.
"Will you excuse me while I go out and cover up the radiator? I'm afraid she'll never start if she gets cold."
"You go, and I'll have something really good for you when you come back."
He slipped out. After the warmth of the kitchen the cold pinched his throat. The frozen snowflakes pricked his face like thorns—he had never known it so cold. Then as he gathered up a couple of sacks and his old rug to cover the bonnet, something suddenly challenged him. He suddenly thought—I'd better clear out at once—start the car and go. This is my chance.
It was almost a panic, against all sense, against all decency, for he could not possibly go off like this. If he did he would never be able to see her again. And a good job too. He knew that. But he could not do it—he could not bolt in that cowardly, mannerless way, even to save himself—to save them both. With his teeth chattering he swaddled the car and went in again.
"How cold you look."
She spoke almost anxiously as he walked up to the fire. "You look absolutely frozen. You're shivering."
Scarcely knowing what he did, he held out his hand. For a moment he thought she was going to put hers into it, but instead she turned away and picked up a pewter mug.
"Here, take that. It'll warm you."
The situation was like one of those old ague fevers there used to be on the marsh—now hot, now cold. At one moment they would both be tense, strained, conscious—both of them, he was sure of it—the next they would be quite natural and ordinary again. He swallowed some mouthfuls of ale, and it was good, slackening the strain on his nerves.
"Come and sit by the fire," said Alice.
She pointed to the settee and they both sat down.
"How do you like your drink?"
"Very much indeed."
"You wouldn't get anything as good as that at the pub—not these days."
"Oh, I dunno . . . they've got most things up there." Kemp was loyal to the Artletts. But he did not want to seem disparaging. "I reckon, though, it's some years since they had anything like this."
"I don't really know what they have. I very seldom go to the Catherine Wheel." She leaned forward for the mulling pot and tipped some more into his mug. "My husband says he asked you to take me with you there sometimes while he's away."
Ten minutes ago her words would have chilled him, but now he was proof against them. The warmth of the ale was in his heart. He only thought what a fool Candelin was and wondered if she thought the same.
"I'd be pleased to take you up there any day," he said, "or anywhere else you'd like to go."
"To tell you the truth I'd much rather stay at home in this weather. But I hope you didn't mind my husband asking you to do a thing like that."
"Why should I mind?"
"Well, some men would. They don't want to be burdened with a female when they go to the pub."
How could you ever be anything but a comfort and a delight? The words were close to his thoughts, but he did not quite say them. He managed to say instead:
"I hope that wasn't why you said you didn't want to go."
"Oh, no. I'd much rather sit talking here than up there among a lot of farmers' legs."
"Among their legs . . . you talk as if you were a little dog."
"Well, that's how I feel when I sit by the fire and they're all standing round me, and if any one of them wants to speak to me—or rather, thinks he ought to speak to me—he stoops, just as if he was going to pat a dog."
It's safer that way, thought Kemp and nearly said so. Was it the snow or the ale that had brought his thoughts so much closer to his tongue? He would certainly feel safer standing up. He would not come here again. He would go to the Wheel, with or without her, and drink cold, thin bitter, and if she was there he would stoop down and speak to her as if she was a little dog.
She reached again for the mulling pot.
"No thanks—no more."
"That's all there is. We must finish it."
"Honest, I've had enough."
"Enough!" her eyes grew large and mocked him. "You talk as if you thought it would go to your head."
"Well, it might."
"To a Sussex farmer's head! It couldn't possibly. If it could it would already have gone to mine and I'm cold sober."
"I don't mean that."
But he could not tell her what he really meant, even if he had been quite sure himself. All he could think of was a rather unfortunate remark about its not agreeing with his stomach.
"Well, really. . . ." again that large—eyed mocking, "times have changed. Your father's stomach would have stood a gallon of this."
"There wouldn't have been brandy in his."
"Perhaps not in your father's. But in your grandfather's, plenty—brought by the Gentlemen from Romney Marsh at dead of night. How shocked he'd be to think of his grandson's stomach failing at a pint!"
Kemp wished he had not mentioned his stomach, which was as good as ever.
"You think the old days were best?" he asked, to turn the conversation.
"In some ways I think people were much healthier and happier when they lived more naturally."
"Like the gypsies." It was his turn to mock a little.
"No, no—of course not, but depending on their own hands instead of on machines and making beautiful things themselves instead of buying ugly, shoddy things in the shops."
He was disappointed. "So you think the same as your husband, after all."
She looked at him rather awkwardly.
"Why 'after all'? Surely it's natural for a wife to think like her husband."
"Reckon it is. But from something you said a while ago I took it that you didn't."
"Well, I do." She spoke almost angrily. "We've been working together ever since we married. I helped him start his land movement, and we ran a farming community for three years in the Cotswolds. We'd be running it now if people hadn't ratted on us, and of course the war made a lot of difficulties. . . . So we decided to come out on our own and start a family farm. I know it's impossible to live absolutely consistently nowadays, but at least we can show our neighbors that a full, satisfying life can be lived without machinery or electricity or depending on everything from the shops."
Then, thought Kemp, it's a pity you can't grow your own potatoes.
"Oh, I know," she said, as if she had read his thoughts, "that we haven't always been able to practice what we preach. The trouble is partly that this is the first time we've been on our own, without a community to back us. We're caught up in the disabilities of the people round us."
Everything she said was precious to him, even if it was nonsense—the same nonsense, moreover, that Candelin talked at the pub. What she said sounded quite different from what he said, even though it was the same. Besides, he felt quite sure that she didn't really mean half of it. She was talking to bolster herself up. She had said Candelin did that, and she was doing it now, but not for the same reason as Candelin. She was talking for the same reason that he, Kemp, found it difficult to talk at all.
"Don't you see? . . ." he had quite missed her last sentence, but she turned to him as if she expected an answer. He did not know what to say. Her long hand lay like a lily on the bench between them. He wanted to say "Alice" and touch her hand.
"Don't you see?"
"Yes, I see."
"You don't—you haven't been listening."
Again he didn't know what to say. He said "Alice," and touched her hand.
That was all and it was not very much, but it made a lot of difference. After that they spoke as they thought, instead of using words as if they were stones to dam a stream. The only difference between their words and their thoughts was that they did not say much.
At first all she said was "Kemp."
He took her hand and laid it between his own. Now that he held it he could feel that it was rougher than it looked. Oh, Alice. . . .
He leaned toward her and they kissed slowly and rather solemnly. Then she laughed a little.
"Funny! I've never thought of you as thinking of me—not till a few minutes ago, when you came in from covering up your car."
"I should have gone away then."
"No. No." They kissed again.
"How long have you been thinking of me, Alice?"
"Ever since we first met—at that auction at Ellenwhorne. Don't you remember?"
Incredible as it seemed, he had forgotten. He remembered the auction and the tires he had bought for his tractor, but he did not remember that it was there he had first met Alice.
"I always thought it was at the Catherine Wheel."
"No, Kemp—that was afterward. Don't you remember? We were standing, Ronald, you and I on the edge of the ring. We had only just come here and he wanted to bid for a chicken house, but they hadn't shown them yet. They were showing harness, and he spoke to you, and you offered him a cigarette, and then you saw me and offered me one and I said I didn't smoke, and then we talked for a bit. You must remember."
"Yes, I remember now. But you don't mean you've been thinking of me ever since then?"
"But not in this way?"
"But why?" It seemed a miracle.
"Well, I don't know exactly. . . . I liked your face, I suppose. I still do—" She took it between her hands and kissed it.
"No one could call me handsome."
"But you look nice. You looked nice then and you spoke in a nice way. You were friendly when other people weren't"—that must have been, thought Kemp, because I didn't know Candelin—"besides, you must remember that up till then I'd met mostly farmers of our own sort, members of our community. The Cotswold farmers never had much to do with us. They didn't like us any more than the farmers do round here."
But that was no reason at all for a married woman to fall in love, just because a man was friendly at an auction. She must already have been fed up with Candelin.
"You seemed to like us," she continued, "and you were a real farmer, and—and—" her voice faltered, "a real man." Instead of just a preposterous man? . . . That was it, then. Her love for her husband had failed before that meeting. He had come along just when her heart was empty. All he said was:
"You kept it very quiet. I'd no idea you ever thought of me—not until a short time ago. . . . Then sometimes I wondered."
"I'm a married woman with a family. You didn't expect me to give myself away, did you? Especially as I'd no idea that you cared about me. When did you start?"
He shook his head.
"I dunno. It came on gradual."
"You kept it pretty quiet too."
"I was fighting it all the time."
"And so was I."
They were not fighting now. They were at peace. They sat by the fire side by side and hand in hand, like some old married couple, at ease in silence together. Round them the room darkened from the white light of the snow into the red light of the fire. The windows were growing dark, the corners had disappeared, and the ceiling was a formless movement of shadows. They no longer saw round them the kitchen of Stunts Farm, but a private place which was their own.
It was Alice who spoke first.
"Kemp," she said in a small voice, "I want you to understand. Ronald has always been kind to me. It's not his fault. . . . It's mine. I should never have married him."
He wished she had not spoken, but he answered her tenderly.
"You shouldn't blame yourself. You must have been very young."
"I was only twenty, and I was infatuated with his ideas. I still believe in some of them, but, I see how wrongheaded and obstinate he is in many ways. Of course that isn't why. . . . I mean lots of wives see through their husbands and love them just the same. But I don't think I ever loved him—not really . . . and he's so dreadfully overwhelming . . . he makes me feel half dead. . . . And now he wants to take me away." She turned to him suddenly like a child and hid her face on his shoulder. He took her in his arms.
It was the first time he had held her really close, felt her small bones through their too thin covering, and the pulsing life of her heart. His own heart beat suffocatingly as love and anger broke against each other. He loved her, he hated Candelin, he must take her away from Candelin, he must have her for himself.
"Oh how I love you," he cried. "Oh how I love you."
"Not more than I love you. . . . Oh, Kemp, I can't go away. You mustn't let him take me."
"I shan't. I promise. It's I who'll take you away."
Their peace was shattered now and for the first time there was hunger in their kisses. He kissed her again and again, till her face was bright with a flush which did not come off the fire. The big plait round her head broke loose; she lost her crown and had only tumbling hair like other women. He kissed her hair and her eyes and her mouth and her cheeks and her throat. He knew he must stop kissing her, but he could not stop. . . .
There was a loud knock at the door.
They sprang apart and sat rigidly at different ends of the settle. They had forgotten there was anyone else in the world.
"Who's that?" asked Kemp. Before he had time to think he was afraid it might be Candelin come suddenly home.
"Cloute, I suppose"—she had twisted her plait round her head again and was smoothing back her hair under it—"he must want to see me before he goes off."
He had forgotten the time as well as everything else, and the room was so dark that one would think it was later than five o'clock. But the hands of his wristwatch pointed only to seven minutes past.
"Shall I go and see what he wants?" His car was outside the door, so there was no good pretending he wasn't there—if he had ever wanted to pretend.
"He'd better come in. I expect he wants to speak to me. But give me time to light the lamp."
Kemp went to the farmhouse door and opened it. Cloute stood outside, his bicycle beside him and a sack over his head and shoulders.
"Oh, it's you, Mus' Silverden. I saw your car outside, so I came to say that Reg wants a word wud you before he goes off."
"I'll be round in five minutes. I drove Mrs. Candelin home from the bus stop as the weather was so bad."
"Tur'ble, ain't it? I saw Reg at dinnertime and I reckon he's pestered by that red heifer of yourn—thinks she wants drenching."
"He's got the stuff all right."
"Aye, he's got it, but he'd like you to see her first."
"I'll go round at once." He looked at the waving, whirling snow behind Ernie. "You won't let the weather stop you coming here tomorrow." He was appalled by a sudden thought of Alice, deprived of her only help, and forced to struggle alone against overwhelming odds.
"Lord, no, Mus' Silverden. No weather 'ull ever stop me: and I don't live more'n five fields away. I shan't bring my bike, though."
"No, Ernie, come on your legs and God bless you. You're the right chap for here, as I've often told your master."
"Thank you, Mus' Silverden. We'll do a bit better here, I reckon, now he's away."
He pushed off into the curtain and almost immediately disappeared. Kemp went back to Alice.
"I must go, my darling. Reg wants me at Eggs Hole. But I'll come back tomorrow."
"Come and spend the evening with me. I'll cook a supper for you. It'll make me happy all day, thinking of that."
"I wish I could stay now. But I've got to go back and see to my place."
"Of course you have. Your man's there waiting for you, and there's no good anyone knowing about us before they must."
Her words gave him a little chill, but he would not stop to think of them.
"Good night, my lovely, darling girl," the lamp was behind him as he held her in his arms, and saw all the beauty of her face in the streaming light. "You're the loveliest thing on earth. I shall dream of you all night."
"I doubt if I'll be able to return the compliment, for I don't expect I'll go to sleep at all."
"Not at all! Oh, my darling," he was shocked, "you mustn't lie awake because of me."
"I shall think of you every minute and enjoy it."
"No, no. Promise me to have a good night's rest."
"How funny and sweet you are. . . . I'll do my best."
"That's right. Count sheep."
She began to laugh.
"Indeed not! I'm not going to waste my thoughts on sheep. Do you ever jump over gates?"
"Not often, but you can think of me doing it a thousand times if it helps you to go to sleep." He laughed too, for he felt easy again, even though they were saying good-by. "I really must be off, or poor Reg won't get home tonight. Don't come with me to the door. It's too cold, and I may be some little time starting the car."
"Take care of yourself."
"You bet I shall."
"And you'll be round again tomorrow?"
"Yes, at about this time."
Then they kissed like a long-married couple, quietly and with great loving-kindness.
The storm raged all night. A white spray tossed against the windows, and in every crack and corner of the house the wind wailed, piped, roared, and rumbled. This was worse than anything that the weather had done since the great freeze started. Kemp did not go out again that evening. He had had some difficulty in getting the car up the drive, where the snow was already beginning to drift. If he drove up to the Wheel he might never get home, and he was certainly not going anywhere on foot in such weather.
Besides, he felt armed for once against his own company. When he shut his eyes he could feel as if Alice were with him still. Her touch lingered on his skin and he could smell the sweetness of hers. Her voice was in the murmuring of the fire and in the undertones of the wind. When he ate he did not taste Mrs. Wood's stringy, rancid stew, but the delicious meal Alice would cook for him tomorrow and they would eat together.
He scarcely thought at all. He was feeling only—all heart, all love, all happiness. Moreover, the east wind and the snow had combined with his emotions to make him drowsy. He nearly fell asleep in his chair, and went to bed early, wondering if he would dream of her. He very seldom dreamed.
He did not dream tonight, but instead he had an experience still more unfamiliar. At about three o'clock he woke up suddenly and lay awake till it was time to get up. He lay there listening to the wind, turning his body and turning his pillow, while his mind, which had kept so quiet till then, sawed up thoughts like logs and tossed them out in heaps of questions.
For the first time since he left Alice he saw the future as stretching farther than tomorrow night. He saw a future in which something more must be planned than a meal. It was his and Alice's future—they would be together. That was settled, that was certain, that was right. But things would have to be done, unhappy things, things from which in this lonely hour of wind and darkness his soul recoiled.
Candelin would come back and he would have to be told. Perhaps Kemp did not mind the thought of that as much as he ought to have minded. But there would be rows, arguments, scandal. . . . Then something would have to be done about Alice, a home provided until the divorce was through and he could marry her. Had she relations or friends she could go to or would they all be against her over this? He thought of the Big Boffin at Oxford and wondered how he would feel about her being divorced so that she could marry a Sussex farmer.
And what about Eggs Hole? Could he bring her to live at Eggs Hole after they were married or would he have to move somewhere else? In the country of the Moat there were strong feelings against divorce—normally he had them himself. But he was not quite sure how strong they would be if the outraged husband were Candelin. Certainly if (impossible thought) he had fallen in love with Mrs. Homard or Mrs. Fagge, he would not have been able to show his face in the district for the rest of his life. But Candelin was so unpopular that Kemp could by no means feel sure that a certain favor might not be shown the man who made a cuckold of him.
Would that favor extend to Alice? This question was more difficult to answer. She was not popular, either—she was not understood. Of course there was no comparison between her unpopularity and Candelin's, but she was nonetheless a "foreigner," someone different from her neighbors, a strange bird that is pecked at by the flock, especially by the women. He thought that probably the men would be all right, but he could not feel sure of the women.
He would have to take her away. There was nothing for it. Deeply as he loved Eggs Hole, and much as he longed for his children to have it after him as he had had it after his father, he would have to give it up, make a new home in some place where their story was not known. Did he love her enough for that? Yes, he loved her enough for that, without question. But it would hurt him all the same.
Then there were her boys. What about her boys?
They had not spoken of them yesterday, they had spoken only of themselves. But no doubt she had thought of them after he was gone. She loved her boys, and they were fine boys too. He had not seen much of them, but enough to know that they were fine boys. Besides, their mother would love them even if they were not fine boys. They were her children, whom she had borne, nursed, fed and cared for. How could she let them go?
But would she be allowed to keep them? He did not know much about these things, but he was pretty sure that Candelin would be given the custody of the children. Of course there were men who let themselves be divorced by their wives on a faked charge, but he did not think Candelin would do that, nor did he want to ask him to—not even him. Candelin would be particularly anxious to keep his boys—his plow fodder. . . . No doubt Alice would be allowed to see them occasionally, but no more. If she married Kemp they would be hers no longer.
But they would have children of their own who would take their places in her heart. . . . He did not feel so confident about this. A child is not like a dog or a horse whose place can be taken by another dog or another horse. Even if she and Kemp had children they would not be Jon, Jeremy and Louis. He felt himself on the edge of something here that he did not understand. But he understood enough to know that here was involved more than in all his other questions. He loved her and more than anything in the world he wanted to make her happy. But could she be happy without her children? and if he took her from her children, would he not be making her more unhappy than she was now with Candelin? It was a terrible thought, and rather than dwell on it he jumped out of bed and began to dress.
They would talk things over tonight. . . . She no doubt had been thinking too. She had said she expected to lie awake, and of course she was more used to thinking than he was. But if she, like him, had been asking herself questions, he hoped that, unlike him, she had found the answers.
He had to break the ice on his jug before he could wash. But when he looked out of the window he saw that the snow had stopped, though the wind was still a noisy fiddler round the lane. There's more to come, he thought. The dawn had broken in angry scars out of a swollen cloud, and a red light moved over the snow which had swept the drive into the smoothness of the home field. There was nothing but snow in the world. It was on the roofs, on the trees and on the fields and in the sky. Close to the house he saw a big drift piled up against the yard wall and hanging over the top like the crest of a wave. He and Reg and Werner would have to set to work and do a bit of clearing or the place would get snowbound.
He went downstairs, boiled some water for shaving and made himself some tea. Reg might not arrive on time on a day like this, and as for Werner, the bus would almost certainly make slow work of the narrow, drifted lanes. So he had better get the milking started.
All this was good in a way. When he had so much to do he could not think—at least he hoped he couldn't. He did not remember ever having lived through a winter in which thinking had been so painful and he had had to think so much. His mother's illness and death, and his father's, had hurt him badly and wounded him close to the heart, but they had not forced him to think, to plan, contrive, try to understand himself, ravel things out. Even when he had felt unhappy with Joan he had not thought about it much. What was there about Alice that brought so many thoughts into his mind?
He was thinking even now, while he milked the cows. It was easy, natural work and did not take up all his mind—stand over, Dreamy—so he was free to think and wonder what she was thinking. Was she really prepared to give up everything for his sake? And had he any right to ask her? And if she did and they started a new life together somewhere else, would she never regret it? Would she be unhappy or would she be like Joan? . . . Lord! he had nearly sent the pail over then. What was he doing? Clumsy! Primrose next. . . .
Either the milk singing into the pail had prevented him hearing footsteps or his mind had been too full of cares to notice them, for he did not know that Reg had come till he saw a pair of legs beside him in the light of the hurricane lamp.
"Oh, here you are. What's it like on the road?"
"Tur'ble. The Jerry bus is stuck on Thunders Hill, close by Shovell's place. They're digging it out. I reckon he won't be here till it's time to go away again."
"There must be some pretty bad drifts by now. I could hardly get up the drive yesterday and it's snowed a lot since then. We'd better start clearing as soon as we've done in here.
"We shan't be able to clear much," said Reg with somber relish—"not just the two of us."
"I reckon Werner 'ull be here before long. And we'll get out the snowplow—the one my father had made in 1940."
"And what's to stop us mending it? All it wants is a new piece fixed across. We'll have it out and look at it. It's in the old west lodge."
He spoke cheerfully, for he felt almost lighthearted now Reg had come. He might be able to work and think anxious thoughts, but he could not think them while he talked about something quite different. Reg had never known his master so talkative as he was that morning.
One by one the strength of Eggs Hole assembled in spite of the snow. An hour after Reg, Werner walked in, plastered white and soaking wet but with such a grin you'd think his face had frozen into it. Then not so long afterward Mrs. Wood was taking off her gum boots in the kitchen and adding her coat to the steaming garments hung over the boiler.
She had hot tea and cocoa going all the morning for the three men who could not keep warm even when hard at work. Kemp helped Reg get out the snowplow and find the necessary wood for its repair. Then he and Werner took their spades to clear the yard and make paths from the house to the various lodges. Before they were half done the snow came on again.
"I knew it would," said Reg.
"How are you getting on with that plow?"
"Not much use to us now, it won't be."
"Oh, come on, Reg. If the three of us take it down to the road and back we'll get the drive clear, and maybe it won't pile up again so heavy. I want to go out tonight."
"I reckon it's coming on worse than ever. You'll have to stay at home."
But Kemp was not going to do that for all the snow in the sky.
"Hurry up, Reg, and get it fixed."
All Reg said was:
"She's calling you."
Mrs. Wood had appeared in the kitchen doorway.
"A lady to see you, Mr. Silverden."
"A lady!" he repeated vacantly, while his mind jumped ahead.
"It's Mrs. Candelin, from Stunts."
First his mind had jumped, now it was his heart. He felt that his face must show the tumult, and put his hand over it, fiddling with his cap.
"I've put her in the drawing-room."
"Right. I'll come in a moment."
Why had Alice come? There must be something . . . something must have happened. Perhaps Candelin had come back. Or perhaps, like him, she had been thinking. . . .
He hurried to put an end to his uncertainty, kicking off his Wellingtons on the step and shuffling into a dreadful pair of old slippers he kept just inside the door. Normally he would have wanted to go up and tidy himself before he met her, but now he could not wait. He must know what had happened—he must know why she was here, walking up through the snow on this terrible morning. The snow had muffled her footsteps, or he might have heard her come. As he walked round to the front of the house he saw her tracks on the home field. Reg and Werner had both forked aside some yards back for the barns and lodges. Her footsteps went alone—her solitary path to him. He noticed that at one spot she had missed the buried drive and come her own way to the garden gate. Oh, Alice, why have you come?
As he opened the drawing-room door it struck him that she might have come because she was impatient, longed to see him and could not wait for tonight. The thought gave him a sudden cheerfulness as he walked into the room.
"My darling. . . ."
She stood there all wrapped up, in dungarees and Wellingtons, with a man's overcoat on her back and a scarf round her head. Anyone more totally different from the graceful, trailing Alice of last night it would be hard to imagine.
"Kemp, I had to come. I must speak to you."
She clung to him as they kissed and he felt her shivering.
"Lovey, you're cold."
He looked round the room in concern. It struck colder than outside. Mrs. Wood might regard the drawing-room of Eggs Hole as a proper reception room for visitors—and indeed it was never used for anything else—but she ought to have considered the weather today. It must have been at least a year since a fire was lit, and the window was very seldom opened, with the result that the old-fashioned furniture and ornaments seemed to hang as if they were suspended in a solution of almost solid cold. There were streaks of damp on the green wallpaper and blotches of damp on the family photographs, and over all hung a miasma of damp plaster and textiles which might have been the smell of the cold itself. Kemp remembered Alice's kitchen, with its warmth, space, and order, and wished he had a better room to invite her to.
"You mustn't stay in here," he said, "it's much too cold. Let's go into the kitchen."
"Isn't your woman in there?"
"Yes, but I'll ask her to go out."
"You can't do that. She might suspect something."
At the word "suspect" he had a sudden feeling of ugliness, the same that had assailed him when yesterday she had said something like it about Reg.
"She won't," he said, "and anyhow she'll have to know someday."
"No," said Alice. "She won't ever have to know. That's why I've come."
"Why. . . ."
"I've come to tell you that we've made a mistake. We can't go on."
He stared at her and stammered.
"Wh—what do you mean?"
"Oh, Kemp, can't you see? We lost our heads yesterday."
"I didn't lose mine."
"Yes, you did, we both did. We forgot everything but ourselves and behaved as if there wasn't anyone else in the world."
Her eyes suddenly swam with tears and a splinter of ice seemed to run into Kemp's heart.
"Surely—" he began, but she wouldn't let him speak.
"I can't break up my home and leave my children. That's what it boils down to. I must have been mad or drunk last night. If I went away with you I should lose my boys—my three boys. I love them, Kemp. I love them terribly. I couldn't have lived without them all these years, and I can't desert them now. So there's no good going on with things."
They were dreadful words, and though in the darkness of night he had imagined them, now that they were said he could not believe them.
"But we can find a way—"
"No, we can't. I lay awake all last night trying to find a way, but I couldn't, because there isn't one."
"There must be a way, if you still love me."
"Of course I love you"—she spoke almost angrily—"that's why I've come up here to tell you—at once—so that you shouldn't go on hoping."
"Then aren't I to come tonight?"
"No, of course you mustn't come tonight. If we're wise we won't see each other again after this."
Too confused and shaken for speech, he tried to take her in his arms, but this time she would not let him.
"No, we must be sensible. I shouldn't have let you kiss me last night, but I was so happy it made me silly."
"We were both happy. Why can't we go on being happy? I simply won't believe there isn't a way."
"I tell you I could never be happy without my children."
"Not if you had mine?"
She shook her head in silence.
"But are you sure your husband would want—I mean, if you married me—that he'd want to keep the boys?" But of course he knew she was sure.
"Yes, he'd want to keep them. They mean a lot to him. He'd never let them go, and he'd think I hadn't a right to them, as indeed I shouldn't have."
Kemp said nothing. It seemed as if he had never known dismay and desolation until now.
She continued: "I've told you I love my boys, and I couldn't give them up—not even for you. You don't know them—you've hardly ever met them—and even if you did know them I daresay you wouldn't understand what I feel. But please don't try to persuade me any more—you can't change me and it only tears my heart in two. I love you—there's nothing I said yesterday that I want to take back—but I love them too and they have the first claim on me."
"You love them more than you love me."
It was a spontaneous outburst of jealousy, of which he felt ashamed even before she answered.
"It isn't the same. I love you for my own sake, for what you give me, but I love them for themselves, for what I can give them. They depend on me. They're at a difficult age and their father gets impatient with them—they might have a very bad time if I wasn't there."
"Is that your reason? Are you afraid he'll bully them?"
"It's only partly my reason. The whole thing's much more than that."
Again he found he could say nothing.
"So, my dear," she continued in a steadier voice, "let's face it. We must forget all about last night. It was a mistake, a fit of madness. But fortunately there isn't much harm done. Nobody but ourselves knows anything about it, and I shall be going away soon, so it ought to be easy for us to carry on as if nothing had happened."
Easy! What was she talking about? He felt almost angry with her.
"Don't talk like that. You've told me I don't understand but it's you who don't understand. You don't seem to have any idea of what this means to me. When you say it ought to be easy for us. . . . It isn't—it's impossible."
"If we've cared for each other all these weeks—all these months in fact—and never showed anything. . . ."
"But don't you see? It's all different now."
"The only difference is that we know—about each other, I mean."
"But that's everything. Before I knew you loved me I was only thinking about you. Now I feel I belong to you, and if you won't have me—"
He bit off the sentence. He was within a word or two of railing at her.
"I know, Kemp, and I'm sorry. I realize what I've done, and I can't expect you to forgive me. I should never have let it happen, for I might have known—I must have known at the bottom of my heart—that it couldn't come to anything. But for a moment I was so happy that I couldn't think."
"I wish," he said bitterly, "that you hadn't started thinking now."
"What good would it have done us if I hadn't? We should still have to think someday. I suppose we could have drifted on till Ronald came back, but then it would have been too risky. . . .
"Don't talk like that. That isn't how I love you at all. I want to marry you, to have you here, or in a much better place—as my wife. I want to look after you and make you happy."
"You can't, my dear. That's all about it."
"Then if I can't—"
He did not know what he was going to say. He turned away from her. Something was choking him and his hands were shaking. Only half aware of what he did, he struck a match and set light to the fold of pink paper that, with a handful of fir cones, decorated the empty fireplace. The little flame crackled up and automatically they held out their chilled hands to it. Then in another moment it had sunk and died.
"Sorry," said Kemp. "I'll get some sticks."
"Don't bother. I must be going now."
"Oh, no—you can't go yet."
His heart froze at the thought that when she went it would mean good-by forever. He might not even see her again.
"I must go, and there's no use talking any longer. We're only saying the same thing over and over again."
"But you can't rush away like this. We haven't settled anything."
She looked at him sadly.
"My dear, we have. Believe me."
"Oh, Alice. . . ." He hardly knew what he wanted to say. His thoughts were clogged with pain. "Oh, my lovely darling. . . ."
"Kemp, please don't."
"But we can't say good-by like this. I must—you must let me come tonight."
"No, no—for heaven's sake. I couldn't bear any more of this."
"But we may have thought of something by then."
"I've been thinking all night. I'm worn out with thinking. There's nothing more left to think about—or to talk about. Oh, please, Kemp, don't make things more difficult for me. Please let me go."
He looked out at the white flakes tossing across the window.
"You can't possibly go in this."
"Why not? I came."
"But it's getting worse."
"It'll get much worse if I stay. Everything will get worse."
"Then let me go with you as far as the road."
"No—please. . . . I'll be quite all right. It's only a little way."
"But the drive's sure to be drifted over."
"That doesn't matter. It isn't deep. I got through quite easily when I came. Please let me go alone. I couldn't bear to have you with me."
He suddenly felt ashamed of himself. He was pestering her.
"Very well—if you don't want me. . . ."
"It isn't that I don't want you."
She gave him a slow, unreal smile, and her face under the shadow of her wet scarf and draggled hair was like the snow itself, white and frail. As he looked at her his numbed heart came painfully alive. He was moved with pity and compunction. He had no right to add to her misery by making all this fuss. He must help her instead, help her all he could.
"All right, then, you shall go. Forgive me for acting like this."
"My darling Kemp. . . ." The tears in her eyes seemed hard and bright like ice—ice tears on a snow face, and his snow queen going away into the snow.
"It's I who ought to ask to be forgiven," she said more calmly. "I've led you up the garden path. But I've told you why I didn't think. Please say you forgive me, and forget me as soon as you can."
"I'll never forget you."
"Oh yes, you will, if you try. When you say you won't it means you won't try. Promise me that you'll try."
He mumbled, to please her:
"And to forgive me too"—she was moving toward the door.
"That doesn't come into it. It's me—" But he would help her to go, since it was what she wanted. He was holding the door open.
They were in the passage—without having kissed. It was too late now, for the kitchen door was open and he could see Mrs. Wood moving to and fro across it. He did not really mind, because if they kissed now they would think of other kisses, and that would be hell. Alice put her hand on the knob of the front door.
"Allow me. . . ." That was for Mrs. Wood.
"Thank you—" he had lifted the latch.
"Good-by"—the doorway framed a dreadful ghostly world of tossing white.
"Good-by"—she had vanished into it like a ghost.
Hardly knowing what he did, he walked into the kitchen.
"You look cold," said Mrs. Wood.
"Yes—it's terrible in there, in that drawing-room. Why isn't there a fire laid?"
"I didn't know you were expecting company."
"I wasn't," he said softly. He was full of a queer, mounting anger which would vent itself on anyone handy. He had better go out.
"Shall I go and lay it now?" she asked.
"No, don't trouble. I don't suppose anyone will be calling again before midsummer."
He was putting on his coat and Wellingtons as he spoke. He would feel better out of doors. The snow was sweeping into the yard, smudging the tracks he and Werner had made only an hour ago. Reg had finished mending the plow.
"But I can't see no sense in taking it down the drive—not in this."
No, there was no sense, as he wouldn't be going out tonight and nothing else mattered.
"Stands to reason—" began Reg, evidently prepared for an argument. But Kemp cut in:
"Better leave it, then."
Reg looked rather taken aback by so much sweet reasonableness, but countered handsomely that he did not think the weather could last, not at this rate.
Kemp did not much care whether it did or didn't. His anger had sunk into apathy. The farm pond in its grip of ice was the parallel of his mind. And as he must clear a space at the side of the pond for the ducks to swim in, so he must clear a space on the edge of his real thoughts for the common duties of the day. For the rest of that morning he puddled about the place, seeing that the lodges were watertight and shutting up the stock, there was nothing out now except the sheep—keeps from Wheelsgate Farm on Romney Marsh—and as they were in the low fields next the lane, with shelter available, Reg was against bringing them up to the farmstead.
"They'll do better on their own—sheep always do."
"I dunno," said Kemp, "they're sometimes uncommon bad at looking after themselves."
"But they can't get off the low ground, seeing that the gates are shut, and there's the old lodge standing in the corner. We haven't room for them up here."
"Right you are, then. Leave 'em till tomorrow, anyhow."
He did not always let Reg have his own way like that, but today he did not care about anything, even about the sheep. Moreover, the heaviness of his mind was passing into his body. There was a new strain about the morning's work, even about talking to Reg and Werner, so that he longed for the dinner hour, when he could rest and be alone.
"I've cooked that little rabbit for you," said Mrs. Wood, "and then if there's any left I can hash it up for your supper. You won't mind having it twice, will you?"
"No, not at all."
Sometimes in the past when he had felt lonely he had been sorry that the days were gone when a farmer sat down to eat with his men. It had seemed all wrong that he should be sitting in the superior solitude of the dining room while Reg and Werner ate their packed lunches among the hay of the Dutch barn and Mrs. Wood ate hers in the kitchen. But now he was glad to be alone, that there was no one to watch him eat. If he could eat. . . . But of course he could eat. He was ravenous. Could anything ever happen to him that would make him lose his appetite?
Was he the only chap, he wondered, whose stomach took no messages from his heart? Alice had spoiled his night's rest, but she could not spoil his dinner. As he tucked into the stew and mopped up the gravy with hunks of bread, he felt quite ashamed of himself. But the food did him good, in spite of his shame in eating it. His heart began to move again—it was like the springs breaking after the ice had gone. Feelings of mind and body were so much alike that at first he could hardly tell them apart, but after sitting there for a while with the whisper of the fire behind him, and in front of him, beyond the window, the wavering curtain of the snow, he knew that it was not only his body which had begun to relax.
If only instead of cold water he could have a drink of that warm ale which Alice had given him yesterday. He could almost feel the comfort of it in his throat—in his heart-in his head. . . . That was, of course, what had started all the trouble. Not that he or she had been in any sense "on the wrong side," as they say. But it had loosened both their tongues. . . . They had said things which had had afterward to be unsaid, and that had been very hard indeed—harder than not saying them.
He was thinking again, and thinking less painfully. All the morning he had dreaded thought as he might dread the thaw of a frozen pipe, but now he was thinking again and his heart had not burst. He certainly was most unlike a hero in a picture. . . . He looked at his empty plate, then at the empty dish, and shook his head.
"Bless me!" cried Mrs. Wood as she brought him in his cup of tea, "if you haven't gone and eaten the whole lot!"
"Well, it's hungry weather."
"But what am I going to give you tonight?"
"Anything you like, as long as it's something warm."
She went out mumbling about a tin of corned beef and some folks being greedy.
He drank up his tea and went out. Reg and Werner had both gone to the Pot field to cut kale. It would need the two of them to cut it and bring it back through the snow. There was not much left for him to do about the farm. He carried more hay into the stable where Duchess stood sagging in the haze of her own breath. Then he put some more roots through the mangel slicer and prepared the fowls' mash. He kept about a dozen sex-linked Leghorn and Light Sussex, who normally scratched on the midden, but were now shut into their house. In spite of the cold, four of the hens had laid, and he took the eggs into the kitchen, where he was surprised and rather annoyed to find Mrs. Wood already dressed up to go home.
"I can't stay any longer or I shan't get back."
"That's nonsense. It's all right for anyone on foot and you don't live far away."
"Quite far enough in this weather. I only hope I'll be here tomorrow."
"But you must come!" he cried. "I can't be left with no one to see to the house."
"I'll have to see what it's like in the morning. If it goes on like this all night, the snow'll be up to my neck in the deep parts."
"I'm going to ask Reg to take a spade home with him, so as he can dig his way through any drifts there may be tomorrow. If you follow close on him you can't fail to get here easily."
"Well, I'll see what my husband says."
This was her way of ending a discussion and Kemp suspected that Charley Wood had not been consulted half as often as he had been invoked. As he went back into the yard he could not help remembering the fuss he had made about Alice going home some four hours earlier, when the state of things was infinitely better. Alice . . . what was she doing now in that old stone house scarcely ten fields away? He pictured her in the kitchen, in the red light of the fire, with the polished oak and the pewter shining round her . . . what was she doing? was she cooking? was she spinning? was she thinking?
He hoped she did not think he was angry with her. He had been angry for a moment, but only for a moment, and only because he was miserable. He was miserable now, but he was no longer angry. He could not be angry with her for doing what she had done, what all along at the bottom of his heart he had expected her to do. It had been his own thoughts that she had brought him through the snow that morning.
They had been thinking together, though ten fields apart. They had been thinking the same thoughts. But his thoughts had blown about loosely in his mind, whereas she had shaped hers into a decision. A cruel decision—cruel for him, that is. He saw now, almost against his will, that for her it was less cruel than if she had decided the other way.
The cruelty had lain in forcing her to decide, and he had done that. . . . Oh, Alice, forgive me. I won't pester you any more. I love you. I want you—but I love you more than I want you. If you can't be happy with me I don't want to have you. I couldn't bear to see you looking like Joan. . . . But if I love a woman why the hell can't I ever make her happy? Why is it always like this?
He was within a moment of pitying himself when Reg and Werner suddenly appeared to scatter his thoughts with a regular horseload of kale. The farm was now well stocked against the siege of the snow—hay and straw and roots and grain and green meat—he only hoped the house was half as well provisioned, but that did not matter so much. By the time he had helped spread the kale on the floor of the oast barn the February afternoon was already darkening into an early twilight under clouds that seemed almost to rest on the tops of the woods. Werner said:
"I must go. The bus will not come here. They tell me I must go to it in the village."
"Very well, go then. I hope we see you tomorrow."
"Yes, you will see me. Good day."
He started off, swallowed up at twenty yards, and Kemp and Reg set to the milking. When that was done there did not seem any reason why Reg should not go too. He had some way to walk to his cottage just below Barline and there was little at Eggs Hole left for him to do. So he went off carrying his spade, with which he was to dig his way to work in the morning.
That last glimpse of him disappearing into the riddle of dusk and snow had a strange effect on Kemp. He felt as if he had been locked up—shut into some prison where he must stay till morning. He was alone with his animals—but they were company, and for some minutes he hung about the yard, unwilling to go indoors. But the animals did not seem to want him. All were bedded, all were fed, there was nothing left for him to do among them.
Then he remembered the sheep in the low fields . . . he would go and have a look at them. It would be an excuse for not going into the empty house, and he would take down some thatched hurdles. He was sure they needed shelter, even on the low ground.
The night was falling as fast as the snow. Some childish feeling made him run back to the house and switch on a number of lights, so that on his return he would not have to walk into darkness. But the cheerful beam could follow him no further than the first hedge, and it was lucky that he could have found the way with his eyes shut, because his own eyelids could scarcely have blinded him more than these icy particles stabbing his face. With difficulty he lugged his raft of hurdles through the snow, which had already been swept by the wind into waves and ridges. From it rose a frozen, flying mist—this was a real blizzard, and no mistake. He wondered if Reg had taken a look at the sheep when he found how bad the weather really was.
There they were, dark, dirty blobs in the prevailing whiteness, each modeled with a darker outline where its breath had melted the snow round its head. Silly fools who did not know how to look after themselves, just as he had said, they had all drifted up the wind to the highest, wintriest part of the field, and were now huddled on the windward side of the hedge which was the only reason they had not wandered higher still.
He fixed the hurdles into a sort of fold. It was not as good protection as they could have found for themselves at the bottom of the field, but he could not drive them down there singlehanded. He would make Reg help him tomorrow. Then for a few moments he stood trying to count the sheep in the gathering dusk. There should be forty altogether, but he could make out only twenty-nine. Perhaps after all some of them had had sense enough to remain on the low ground. There was a lodge standing close to the half-buried hedge that marked the deepest pit of Eggs Hole drive. The missing bunch might be there, sheltering in it or behind it, though from what he knew of sheep he did not think it likely.
But he had better go and see, so he walked on toward the bottom of the field, sinking out of the wind, which became only a roar among the distant woods. The daylight was nearly gone—he would have a business getting home out of this. He stumbled over some mangels that the snow had buried and cursed Reg, forgetting that he himself had come down here only because he did not want to go into the house. Reg was a good man at his job, but he did not consider that his job included lookering sheep. Neither Kemp nor his father had been able to make him really interested in them—probably because Eggs Hole had no flock of its own, only winter keeps from the marsh.
Then just before he reached the bottom he caught sight of a little group of tegs huddled in the corner made by the lane hedge and the hedge cutting into it from the Palster field. Well, there they were, and there he had better leave them. He did not think they would do too badly, as the gound was low, and he certainly was not going to start herding them by himself in the dark.
He turned round to plow his way back up the field when he heard a voice. It came on an eddy of wind, but it was not the wind's voice, nor a sheep's. It said "Hi!"
"Hullo!" he called back.
He thought it must come from the lodge and wondered if Cloute had come over and got in there by any chance. The voice was so battered by the weather that he could not tell if it were man's or woman's.
"Hi!" it came again. Then with a new shrillness, "Help!"
It was a woman's voice, and as for hours he had thought only of one woman, he suddenly found himself flushing hot in spite of the icy web over his skin. Stunts Farm was not many fields away—its land marched with his. Could Alice have wandered over here and now be sheltering in the lodge, too much afraid of the storm and darkness to go home? It was not likely—probably he would find only some piky woman. Nevertheless he began to run.
He ran thumping and sliding through the soft snow.
"I'm coming," he called.
He wished he had brought his torch so that he could know who it was before his slower eyes had cleared the darkness. But somehow he seemed to know before he saw.
"Alice!" he cried, "what are you doing here?"
She was sitting on the floor of the lodge like a little girl with her legs stuck out in front of her, but her face was old with a look he had not seen on it before.
"What's happened? How did you get here?"
"I—I've hurt my foot. I tried to go down the drive, b-but I couldn't—I couldn't get through . . . so I went into the field, and I put my foot in a rabbit hole, I suppose it was."
"You've been here since this morning!" he exclaimed in horror.
"Y-yes. I've been here for hours and hours and hours. I—I thought I'd have to stay here all night. I thought no one would ever c-come."
She was crying almost angrily, as if it had been all his fault.
"Well it's a piece of luck I came down to see to my tegs: Which foot is it?"
"This one, but you can't see anything because of my boot. Don't touch it—"
She nearly screamed, and he remembered a cat he had released some months ago from a rabbit wire—how he had had to wrap his coat round his arm because in its pain and panic it tore his hand.
"I won't touch it—I won't hurt you. But I must get you out of this."
"I'll carry you up to the house. It's only three fields away."
"You can't—not through all this snow."
"Of course I can. Don't be afraid. I won't hurt you."
But she moaned and shrank away from him as he stooped toward her.
"Here, put your arm round my neck. Now be a brave girl—" This was not a way he had ever talked to her before and something about it must have been compelling, because with no more ado she did as he said. He put one arm round her waist, the other under her knees and lifted her up. "There you are."
He had said and done all this entirely without self-consciousness. Her plight, her need of him and his power to help her had done away with all those yearnings and failings of the spirit which had once made it almost impossible for him to walk down the lane with her hand under his arm. He carried her up the field aware of almost nothing but the snow in his face and the snow under his feet. When in the next field his arms began to ache with a weight he had scarcely noticed at the start, he stopped and shifted her very carefully, very cautiously, with no more emotion than if he had been carrying an injured lamb.
"Kemp, I'm too heavy for you."
"Not a bit. I'd carry twice your weight."
"How'll I get home?"
"We'll think of that later. I must get you up to my place first."
"Lord, what a fool I was! I should have let you come with me. But—" the word hovered on a brink neither of them looked over. "What time is it now?"
"Near six, I reckon."
He said no more till they were out of the driving snow, right up against the door of the house.
"You've got a free arm—could you turn the handle, do you think?"
She turned it and the next minute they were in the hall. He was thankful then for the childish impulse which had made him leave the lights on—the house seemed friendly, its brightness welcomed them. He carried her into the kitchen, which was warm as well as bright, and seated her very carefully in the only easy chair.
"Oh, Kemp—thank you so much."
She looked round her, sighing with relief, and his heart gladdened. He knew now that all the time he had been terrified of falling with her, of stumbling in a rabbit hole or over some object buried in the snow.
"I hope I didn't hurt your foot."
"No, indeed, you were most clever and careful. I hope I didn't break your back."
She was nearly laughing.
"I told you I could carry twice your weight."
He saw that she was sitting awkwardly with her injured foot off the ground.
"Wait a minute." He ran into the drawing-room, snatched up a cushion and a silly bead footstool, and arranged them both in front of her. "Put your foot up on this."
She did so, very gingerly.
"What shall I do about my boot? Can we possibly get it off?"
He shook his head.
"I don't think so. We'll have to cut it."
"What, destroy my only pair of Wellingtons—bought on a permit from the War Ag! Oh, can't you get it off without cutting it?"
"No, I can't," he said stoutly, "not without hurting you something terrible. And you can buy Wellingtons without a permit now."
"Very well, then—if you must."
He tried not to hurt her, using the very sharpest kitchen knife, but though he was strong and neathanded he did not altogether succeed. She moaned a little as the last shreds of boot and stocking fell away.
"It looks horrible—" turning away her head.
It certainly looked bad. Barely the shape of a leg and foot remained in the dark swelling.
"Do you think it's broken?" she asked next, as he scanned it silently, pursing his mouth.
"I couldn't say. Shouldn't think so, but you'd better have the doctor see it."
"The first thing I must do," she said desperately, "is get home."
"No, the first thing you must do is to have a cup of tea. You must be starved with cold—and other ways too. Why," his horror mounting, "you can't have had any dinner."
"I don't want any dinner. But I should love a cup of tea—if it doesn't delay us too much."
"The water's always hot there at the back of the stove. Besides, where's the hurry?"
"Well, look—" she turned her head toward the uncurtained window, where the snow was rushing through the light from the room, not falling, but rushing, up, down, backward, forward, sideways and across. "If we wait much longer we shan't be able to make it. I suppose we'll go in your car?"
"Well, yes," said Kemp, but with sudden misgiving, "I doubt if I could carry you all that way."
"Of course you couldn't. I expect the car will do it all right."
He said nothing to that, for he was not so sure. He would have to try, of course, but when he thought of the condition of the drive he rather wondered if they could ever make Stunts Farm. What would happen if they broke down? . . . Well, if they broke down near Stunts he would have to carry her the rest of the way, and if they broke down this end he would have to carry her back here, that was all.
Meanwhile he must do all he could to make her comfortable and prevent her catching cold. While they waited for the kettle to boil he fetched a blanket from upstairs and wrapped it round her injured foot. Then he helped her take off her big coat and hung it to dry on the boiler.
"You're very handy," she said.
"I'm used to doing things for myself."
"Haven't you a woman here?"
"Only by day. She went home hours ago." He suddenly thought of something. "You've nobody at Stunts."
"I've got Cloute. He'll be there tomorrow morning."
"But what use is he? Can he do anything in the house?"
"He can do the fire and things like that, and I expect he'll fetch and carry for me if I can't move about."
"But tonight—you'll never manage alone."
"I will if you help me. Just help me with a few things and I'll be all right—and Cloute will come tomorrow."
"Can he cook?"
"If I can't manage the cooking, there's plenty of ham, and a cold pie. I tell you I'll be all right."
He saw that she was determined to get back to Stunts, and of course the only alternative to her going home was her staying where she was. Her firmness showed him that she had realized this and wanted at all risks to avoid it, but he did not think she quite understood what the risks were. However, he would do his best. He did not want her stranded at Eggs Hole any more than she did. Alice here, shut up with him alone in the house all night and for goodness knows how much longer . . . no, no. After all that had happened it couldn't be borne—it couldn't even be thought of. At all costs he must get her home, and then he would send Mrs. Wood to her first thing tomorrow. All he said was:
"The kettle's boiling."
He made tea for them both—he was nearly as glad of a cup as she was—and when they had drunk it he went to fetch his car. It was an ancient Riley, which had been very good in its day, but was now long past it. He greatly doubted its performance tonight, but he would not make too much of his difficulties even to himself, for he was in a state that came disturbingly near being frightened. He had all the countryman's dislike of the unfamiliar and unpredictable, doubled with the southerner's recoil from ice and snow. Now he was to plunge into the depths of an unknown world, or rather of a well-known world made strange by a strange element. He was facing a kind of sorcery and he did not like it, especially as he did not face it with a free arm but burdened with a precious helpless thing which he must save before he saved himself.
Alice had seemed much revived by the tea, but as he went to carry her out he thought her face had fallen back into its haggard lines. The sight of it made him say what till now he had shrunk from thinking.
"Look here. Do you really think we should go? Hadn't you better stay where you are tonight and I'll take you home in the morning."
She cried out almost fretfully, "How can I stay?"
"You may have to. I mayn't be able to get the car down the drive, in which case you'll have to come back. Is it worth trying?"
"Yes, we must try. I must get back."
He could not argue, for he was still afraid of his thoughts, and anyway the last word lay with the weather. He had brought round the car to the kitchen entrance, so it was not difficult to carry her out and settle her with a couple of blankets on the back seat. He noticed, however, that the lodges at the far end of the yard were quite invisible, though they could not be more than fifty paces off. He switched on the headlights and drove slowly forward into what might have been the interior of a burst feather mattress. For a moment he thought he could not find the yard entrance, the next he had all but grazed a post as they drove through it.
For its first quarter mile the drive of Eggs Hole ran through open fields. In normal weather it was plainly marked by its two cement wheel tracks, and even under the snow it had been made visible by the ruts and footprints of farm traffic. But the last few hours had blotted out all signs, and Kemp drove blindly, with comfort only in the thought that the frozen top spit of the field would not let him through. The snow was in a light, powdery state, which though it did not ball under his wheels flew up before them and froze on the windshield. At the end of a hundred yards his windshield wiper stuck. He did not want to have to stop the car on this uncertain ground, but as he could see absolutely nothing he was forced to do so.
"I should have wiped the glass with a raw potato," he said as he got out. "However, it's too late now."
"What's it like?" asked Alice.
"Like?"—he laughed—"Like nothing on earth."
"Where are we?"
"On the high ground just above the house. I think I'm in a line for the first gate, but I can't see."
They crawled on, the wind leaping and whimpering round them. Through all the cracks in the ancient body of the car it whistled like a boy whistling through his teeth. You could almost hear a tune.
"I'm afraid," he said, "this bus is a bit draughty. Are you all right?"
"Quite all right," but he thought the words chattered a little.
Then suddenly a hedge came looming up at them, so close that the outlying brambles scratched his mudguard. Damn! He had missed the gate. Where was it? left or right? He peered out through the fan his wiper had cut on the windshield and saw in the beam of the headlights a holly bush all frosted and sparkling like a Christmas tree. All was well—he knew now where he was. He had only to reverse and make a small turn to the left . . . thank heaven there was no stock in the fields and the gate was open.
They crawled over another field. It was not till it reached the valley that the drive became an ordinary farm lane and ran between hedges. Here would be the drifts—the real trouble. Alice had said she had been unable to get through as far back as this morning and though Reg had probably got through later with his spade it did not follow that Kemp would be able to do so with his car. If he failed and had to take Alice back home with him, how would they manage? The question ran through his brain without any following emotion. He was too intent on what he was doing to feel much. His mind and body were a single thing, a weapon in man's primitive war against the weather. He had no thoughts or energies apart.
He did think, however, as they dipped into the low ground: If we stick here I must take her back to the house—we shall have to be well along the road before I can feel sure of reaching her place either on foot or in the car. The drive was the worst part of the whole trip. How often his father had said it needed remaking and he had said the same, but nothing had ever been done, because it was so long and would cost too much. Well, now he had to pay for his economies. He would not mind if Alice did not have to pay too. He asked his old question:
"Are you all right?"
And she asked hers:
"Where are we?"
"Just coming to the low part of the drive. Both Reg and Werner must have been along here a couple of hours ago, but it's snowed a lot since then."
"Are the drifts worse?"
She raised herself to look, stiffening anxiously, and then suddenly they were in darkness as the headlights disappeared into the snow.
"Seems they are," he said with a forced laugh, and threw his gear into reverse. The wheels spun as he had expected.
"What's happened? We're stuck."
It was a silly, useless thing to say, but he felt it was his fault they had run into the drift, as he had thought they were at least twenty yards short of what must be their actual position. The snow had evidently filled the whole width of the gap between the hedges. How far the obstacle extended he could not say, but that it piled to the hedge top was clear, for the whole front of the car was buried. He saw only darkness, with the faint smear of his lights under the snow.
Again he tried to reverse, and this time the car moved, slipped, jolted, and then stood with racing wheels. He forced open the door and climbed out into the snow with the spade which he had carried for such emergencies ever since the big freeze started. She asked:
"Can you dig a way through?"
"I'm afraid not. But I'll get up into the field and see what it's like from the top."
Standing up in the wind he was just able to see that the drive was blocked for about fifteen yards. He would never get the car through that. There was nothing for it but to go back to the house. He was a fool to have started.
"Sorry"—again that insufficient word—"we shall have to go back. We'll never make the road through this."
He had expected a protest, lamentations, but those few minutes she had been alone must have daunted her, for she said very little. He scarcely heard that little, being now absorbed in the difficult task of backing and then turning the car. It took him a long time, for he had to dig down almost to the soil before the wheels would bite. However, it was done at last and they were moving slowly back toward the house.
He knew that he was lucky, and in spite of the difficulties ahead he felt a certain satisfaction. If he had had to leave the car stuck in the snow all night, that most likely would have been the end of it. At least he had saved his bus. Moreover, the journey back at once began to be less strange and terrifying than the journey out. He knew where he was going and what he would find. The tracks made by his coming had not yet been rubbed out, and it seemed—though this might have been the effect of a new direction—that the storm had abated a little. There was no longer the same blinding fury of snow and the wind's pipe was less shrill.
As he went through the last gateway and saw before him the lighted windows of the house, his satisfaction took a new turn. For the first time in months he felt as if he were coming home. It might have been the prospect of shelter from the storm, but he did not think it was that—or not that only. It had more to do with Alice on the seat behind him. . . . All sorts of problems and anxieties lay hid in the next few hours, but at least he was not returning to an empty house and a lonely evening. For once the lighted windows of Eggs Hole were no deception, no mark of emptiness and loneliness within, but the eyes of well-known, well-loved rooms welcoming him home.
That night was the beginning of a dream. Looking back on it he was to see a dream spreading like a pool over the frontiers of February and March, drowning them in a strangeness which made them as unlike ordinary nights and days as the snow-covered woods and meadows round Eggs Hole were unlike the woods and meadows that he knew.
At the time it was not like a dream at all, or rather it had the quality of many dreams and seemed more vivid than waking. At first he was most concerned with practical affairs. Alice must be made comfortable, rested, tended and fed. Having settled her as well as he could by the kitchen fire, with the kettle on to boil again, he ran up to what used to be his parents' room. It was the warmest and driest in the house, being over the kitchen, but except for his year of married life he had never occupied it, preferring the small room that had been his from boyhood and held no memories but his own.
Now he went into his mother's room, laid a fire of fir cones, shavings and small logs, and made up the bed. As a son he had learned to be handy, and during his brief spell of marriage the difficulty of finding adequate help had brought him into the orbit of certain tasks. But as a cook he was helpless, and while he smoothed the sheets and heaped on the blankets he thought rather anxiously of the meal with which Alice must somehow be provided. In spite of what she said she was probably starved with hunger as well as with cold.
Of course there was whatever Mrs. Wood had left in the oven, but though it might do well enough for him he didn't imagine that Alice would find it eatable. Mrs. Wood was no cook, and today she had been resentful of the extra task put upon her by his eating in one meal what she had intended for two. She had probably sunk below her own worst efforts. He made a face at her as he ran downstairs to fill the ancient "stone" hot-water bottle his mother had always used.
"When I've put this in the bed I'm going to make a bran poultice for your foot," he said to Alice.
"How kind and how clever you are. Who taught you these things?"
"The bedmaking and that I learned when we couldn't get proper servants during the war. The poultice making comes in with my ordinary work."
"Poultices for cows?"
"Will it do for me?"
"Why not? We're all made the same, I reckon. I've had my old Duchess with her hock all swelled up like yours, and the bran poultice brought it down in no time to nothing."
"Let's hope it does the same for me. But oughtn't I to see a doctor? There may be something broken."
He looked at her, shaking his head.
"I don't see how a doctor's to get here in this weather—not tonight. We couldn't get out, so it stands to reason he can't get in. However, maybe when you're comfortable in bed I could dig my way through to the road and get up to the Catherine Wheel. Then I could phone him and see what he says."
But Alice did not fancy that.
"No, no—please don't leave me. You might never get back, and, as you say, the doctor couldn't possibly get here tonight. I'll be all right until tomorrow, and the snow may have stopped by then."
"I'll have Reg here anyhow to clear a way through. Old Reg will come whatever the weather."
"And then I must get back home."
"We'll see when the time comes."
"But I must. Oh, can't you see that I must?"
She was becoming agitated again, sitting forward and gripping the arms of her chair. He watched her face and thought suddenly: It isn't ourselves she's afraid of, being alone together—it's Candelin. He said:
"Look here, nobody's going to see any harm in your being here, considering you've been hurt and it's impossible to get anything on wheels either into or out of the place."
"But if it's possible to move me tomorrow I must go."
"If it's possible to move you, of course you shall go. But if you can't be moved you'll have to stay."
He noticed that his voice was rough. He was angry. The shadow of the preposterous man had fallen across an evening which he had unexpectedly begun to find cozy.
"I'm sorry," he said more gently, "but there's no sense in worrying about your husband. He can't say anything, not really. There's nothing for him to mind. It's lucky you're not still lying out in that barn."
"I know—he can't possibly think . . . he can't possibly mind. . . . But I wish you had a housekeeper or someone here."
"I have one and she'll be here tomorrow."
"If I can't get home, would she stay?—sleep in?"
"It seems silly, but I don't think Ronald would make a fuss if there was somebody else in the house."
"I don't see why he should make a fuss even if there isn't. He himself asked me to look after you while he was away, which is just what I'm doing."
She laughed feebly.
"I doubt if he'd like you to carry it as far as that."
"But hang it all. . . ." He swallowed the rest. His anger was returning and he did not want it back. Neither did he want to waste time arguing about Candelin. He saw how deep was her fear of losing, even of shaking, her married life, and yesterday's hour at Stunts Farm now seemed an hour of madness. Yet he could feel the delight of that fool's holiday reaching through all the pain and turmoil to grace this very moment.
"Let's forget him," he said urgently. "Let's forget him—just for tonight."
The memory must have reached her too, for she smiled and said:
"I have forgotten him. I shan't think about him again till tomorrow."
"That's right. And now I'm going to run upstairs with this hot bottle, and then I'll fix your poultice while the bed's warming. Next it'll be your supper."
"What are you giving me for supper?"
The corners of his mouth went down.
"That's just the trouble. Mrs. Wood always leaves something in the oven, but often it isn't always so nice, and tonight I'm afraid it's only some corned beef she's hotted up."
He opened the oven door and looked in. In a deep dish was a tinful of corned beef mashed up with a few spoonfuls of Worcester sauce.
"It doesn't smell very good," said Alice.
"No, it's nothing grand." He shook his head. It was not good enough for her, but the smell she despised had made him feel ravenously hungry. "It'll do well enough for me. But what about you?"
"I don't want much. Have you got any eggs?"
"Yes, I've got a nice lot of eggs."
"Do you think you could make an omelet?"
Kemp stared at her, aghast.
"An omelet?—me? I'd never manage that."
She laughed at his horrified face.
"I'd show you how if I really felt I wanted it enough. But to tell you the truth, I don't. All I want is to go to bed as quick as possible. So if you would let me have just an egg beaten up in a glass of milk—"
"But that won't be enough for you, not after having had no dinner."
"It will be enough," she said with serious firmness. "I'm tired and with all this inflammation I oughtn't to eat much. Give me that, please Kemp—there's a dear—and let me go to bed."
Something in the friendliness and intimacy of her voice brought his strange comfort to a point of sweetness.
The bran poultice did Alice's foot some good, but not as much as he had hoped. There was still a lot of inflammation the next morning, and they both agreed that Kemp must ring up the doctor. He did not know whether they were equally agreed that she could not go home.
He feared she had a touch of fever. Her eyes were a little too bright and he had never seen her cheeks so deep in color. She said it was only the warmth of the room.
"I've got a little cold, that's all. Don't worry about me. If I was really feverish I shouldn't have slept so well."
He knew that she had slept well, for he had seen her asleep. The wonders of that strange night had been crowned by a visit to her room. He had not gone to bed for some time after she had. Fatigue and agitation had passed into a comfortable drowsiness, and after eating Mrs. Wood's deplorable supper he had fallen asleep in his chair by the fire, and had not wakened till nearly two in the morning.
He was considerably startled, and for a moment could not remember where he was or what had happened. Then it all came back in a sudden rush of memory and emotion. His heart beat him awake, and he sat up trembling with the thought that he had lost Alice forever but that tonight she was here in his house, that she could never belong to him but was at this moment asleep in the room over his head, that after a short while they would never see each other again but that for this night they were shut up here together, prisoners of the snow.
In all the confusion of grief and blessedness he stood up and went over to the window, drawing back the curtains. The silence had prepared him to find that the storm had ceased, but he was surprised to see the sky clear and full of huge stars, in whose light the snow itself almost seemed to shine. A queer radiance hung over the white-roofed barns and the meadow hills beyond them. He supposed that it came from the sky, but all the countryside seemed full of it. Standing there he had the feeling that he was looking out on a new world, a world that had not been there yesterday, a world which the snow had created, specially created, for him and Alice.
He must have woken up in two stages, for only at this second turning of his thoughts to Alice did he feel awake in his ordinary, practical, workaday self. The emotions of the first stage now seemed a little extravagant and unreal as if they had still formed part of a dream.
He began his usual preparations for bed, making sure that the fire was out and the lights were switched off, but not troubling to lock up anything. His father had never locked up, and tonight was certainly not a night to expect thieves. Nor was it a night to put the cat out. The big black neuter that he always said was worth twenty pounds because, it would tackle a full-sized rat, remained for the first time undisturbed in the drawer it had chosen as a bed. "You behave yourself, that's all," said Kemp to a watchful green eye.
He ran upstairs and the sound of his own footsteps made him once more aware of the silence that bound the night. He stood for a moment, gazing at the door behind which Alice slept. Had he disturbed her? He suddenly felt a noisy, clumsy lout. With his hand on the doorknob, he leaned his head against the wood and listened. He could not hear a sound. It was then that he went in. Almost without knowing it he had opened the door and crept into the room.
He stood at first with his sight confused. The room was not entirely dark. He had made up the fire before he left her and there was still a faint red glow in the arch of the fireplace. She was, moreover, one of those who choose to sleep with the curtains undrawn. Through the blindless window the dazzle of the stars was clear, a suffused radiance that with the dazzle of the snow made a sort of cloud in the room—a cloud of light upon darkness. Still the darkness prevailed, and he could not see her till he moved out of the light he was blocking from the passage. Then a slide of gold followed him into the room and on its edge he saw her lying asleep, her dark hair flowing against the whiteness of the pillow. He made a movement to shut the door, fearing that the light from it was too bright and might wake her. Then he realized that if she woke it would be better for her to find the door open than shut upon them both. He would watch her a moment longer and then go out.
She was breathing gently, and he felt pleased to think she must be really warm, for her arm in his own pajama sleeve (rolled back on its too great length) lay out on the counterpane. She looked comfortable and happy—a tide of love for her surged up in his heart and all but reached his eyes. He could have wept for love of her sleeping there. Then he crept out, shutting the door very gently, and went down the passage to his own room, where he fell sound asleep directly he was stretched upon the bed.
He woke early to find a day as cold and as still as the night, and was downstairs making tea for himself and Alice before any of the Eggs Hole workers arrived. The first, as he had foretold, was Reg. He came before his usual time, having started an hour earlier in view of the difficulties ahead. He had decided not to dig his way through the big drift in the farm drive, but had come in at a field gate higher up the hill, just below Ellen's Wood. With his spade he had made a path across two fields for himself and his successors, fixing a notice on the gate, WERNER AND MRS. WOOD THIS WAY. But his hopes of them did not run high.
"They won't come, you mark my words," he said.
"I hope they will," said Kemp, "especially Mrs. Wood." Then seeing that such an extraordinary inversion needed explaining, he told Reg all that had happened last night.
His reward was about the only expression of astonishment and concern he had ever seen on his henchman's face.
"Well, you don't tell me. . . . Miz Candelin in the house . . . fancy that, now. How'll we get her away?"
"After breakfast I'll go up to the Wheel and phone the doctor. I'll want you and Werner to take your spades and the plow and get the drive clear somehow. The snow isn't all that hard and you'll get it done if you really jump to it."
"Werner won't come, you mark my words."
"If he doesn't, I'll help you myself, but I think he will."
But Werner arrived so late that Kemp had begun to think that Reg was right.
"The bus takes two hours to drive to Leasan," he apologized, "and tomorrow if like this it will not drive at all. Tomorrow is Saturday and not worth driving for half a day."
Kemp had forgotten they were at the end of the week.
"Did you see anything of Mrs. Wood?" he asked anxiously.
"No, I did not see her."
"Mark my words," said Reg, "she won't come."
Kemp feared that this was only too likely. Her manner yesterday had presaged one of her periodical fits of absenteeism, and the weather had given her a better excuse than usual. He determined, however, to call and see her on his way to the throws. Meanwhile he would not tell Alice of his fears. When he took her up her breakfast he explained that his "help" did not arrive till much later in the morning.
She was sitting up in bed, with her hair neatly arranged in its usual braids. The fire burned cozily and looking round the room he was not displeased with its air of comfort. He had found his mother's ivory brush and comb, and laid them out for her on the dressing table, with an old-fashioned cutglass bottle which his father had once told him had been in the family a hundred years.
"When I go out," he said, "I'll call at your place and collect some things for you if you can let me have a list of what you want."
"Oh, Kemp. . . ." She put down her cup of tea—he had been unable to persuade her to take more for breakfast than tea and toast—"Oh, Kemp. . . ."
"Well, we'd better face it. I doubt if the doctor will let you go home with your foot like that."
"My foot isn't really bad. I've been up in the room and it doesn't feel any worse."
He shook his head.
"You look to me as if you had a bit of a temperature."
"I've told you that I've got a cold—which is hardly surprising after what happened yesterday."
"That's just it. You've had a terrible time and you don't know yet how much harm it's done you. Anyway the doctor must see you before you move."
"But will he be able to get here—to this house?"
"He'll get here all right. If the drive isn't clear he can leave his car in the road and walk across the fields by Reg's path."
"Well, I think I'd rather wait till he's seen me before I send for my things."
Kemp knew that the preposterous man was in her thoughts though he had not yet come into the conversation.
"Look here," he said, "I must go down to Stunts this morning without fail. I must see Cloute for one thing. What does he think all this time, with you away?"
It was queer that she did not seem to have thought of Cloute.
"I don't suppose he's worrying—he mayn't know I'm not in the house. He doesn't always come in, and some days when I go shopping I don't come back till after he's left."
"He must have missed you by this time. I'll have to see him—if only to make sure he carries on. Does he come Sundays?"
"He does, now Ronald's away."
"And don't you pay him tomorrow?"
"Why, yes, of course. I'd forgotten. . . . Perhaps you'd better go. I'll tell you just where to find the money, and if the post has been—"
"You make me a list and I'll see to everything."
When he set out half an hour later the sun was shining and the sky was blue. He walked through a dazzling, winking world that hurt his eyes with its bright surfaces and made every breath a smart. The shapes of hills and meadows seemed to have changed again with the new colors and distances were revised in terms of white and blue. Underfoot the going was not so bad as he had expected, though his Wellingtons slid a little on the glaze of Reg's path. It was easier to walk at the side of it, among the footprints of those others whom the fine weather had allowed to resume their normal lives.
Every now and then, beside his boot would lie the curious treble slot of a rabbit, or the little fans of a bird's feet, with the flurry of its wings beside them as it rose in flight. Once across his path looped the single, self-contained trail of a cat, who puts his hind and fore paws always in the same print, and close to the hedge he crossed the tracks of Mus' Reynolds himself, on his way from Moat Wood to hunt the hunters.
When he came to the lane he found more footprints human and animal, but no tracks of wheels. The spiral of the road on the hillside, between the woods, was like a descending river, white in the sunshine and blue where the shadows lay: It looked so white, so blue, so clear, that he could not bring himself to walk on it, but chose the verge where Reg and Werner's boots had already clumped a path.
He walked up the hill in a great silence. Even the voice of the Eggs Hole brook was still. Hitherto, though the overflow had long been frozen to the surface of the road, he had often heard the voice of the main streams chattering in the woods. But now that too was locked in silence. He wondered what the thermometer had stood at last night.
His first call was at the lower of two semidetached cottages standing on a bank just above Cold Wood. Behind them the brown tracery of the chestnut poles was curiously tufted with white. The wood seemed full of flowers—strange, tall, shapeless flowers, without leaves, lifted only upon stalks. The cottages themselves were white, hooded and splashed with snow, with great icicles hanging from their eaves over windows blind with frost.
He knocked at the door, which was opened by an unfriendly looking girl of twelve.
"Hullo, Shirley. Not at school?"
"Haven't been for two days. The bus hasn't come."
"Can I speak to your mother?"
"No. She's in bed."
"Oh . . . what's the matter? Is she ill?"
"She's got a cold."
Kemp felt thoroughly discomfited.
"Oh, dear . . . that's awkward . . . do you think . . . ? No, look here, can you give her a message?"
"Tell her Mr. Silverden called and would be glad if she could come to Eggs Hole as soon as she feels equal to it. Tell her there's been an accident at my place—a lady hurt herself, and I've had to give her a bed in the house. So I must have someone. I'm sorry to bother her, but I can't manage by myself. Of course I don't want her to come before she's well . . ." his voice trailed off, discouraged by the hopelessness of the situation and the unhelpful face of the child. "Think you can tell her that?"
"I'll call again sometime to ask how she's getting on."
The door shut.
In deep discouragement he plodded up the hill. What was he to do now? He could not think of anyone to take Mrs. Wood's place, nor did he think he could manage without anyone. He was handy enough in some ways—Alice herself had remarked on that—but he could not undertake all the work of the house, all the cleaning and polishing and sweeping and dusting and washing up, to say nothing of the cooking. The house which sheltered Alice Candelin should be immaculate, all shining comfort. He might muddle through by himself, but not with her. His heart swelled suddenly with resentment against Mrs. Wood. He did not believe she had a cold at all—she had shown no signs of one yesterday—but was only lazy, or had got boozed up last night. . . . Well, whatever the reason was she did not mean to come, and he did not think his message would make the smallest difference, even if the child remembered to give it.
He had reached the top of the hill, where a flurry of wind met him, blowing up the snow in a white sail. Was the storm getting up again? His heart sank still lower. What should he do if even Reg did not come tomorrow? But there was really no fear of that.
He went into the Wheel, where the bar was empty.
"Morning, Mr. Artlett. Can I go through and phone?"
"Why, Kemp, of course you can. Glad to see you. How did you manage last night? Terrible, wasn't it?"
"Reckon it was. We're all snowed up still and I must get hold of the doctor."
"Doctor! Been an accident?"
"Yes." He hesitated. "Mrs. Candelin sprained her ankle in one of my fields yesterday. Lucky I found her before it was dark, but I couldn't get her home. I tried in the car, but the drive's all drifted up, so I had to make her as comfortable as I could at my place."
"And have you got her away now?"
"No, she's still there, and I want the doctor. I put her on a bran poultice last night, but it doesn't seem to have done the job. He ought to see her."
Mr. Artlett whistled.
"Sounds bad. . . . But you go and phone, Kemp, and see what the doctor says."
The call was answered by the doctor's wife. Her husband had already started on his rounds, but she knew where to get hold of him and would give him the message. He would probably call sometime in the afternoon. Yes, she would tell him about the drive.
Kemp came back into the bar moderately satisfied.
"It's the best I can do," he said gloomily.
"Don't you worry any more," said Mr. Artlett. "I know Mrs. Millar. If she says he'll come he'll come."
"But I don't know what I'm to do about Mrs. Candelin. It isn't likely that the doctor will let her be moved, and Mrs. Wood hasn't come today."
"Hasn't she? That makes it awkward. Better take something for it, Kemp. What'll you have? The bar's open."
"A pint of bitter, please."
As Mr. Artlett moved to the tap, Rose came in from the back room.
"Good morning, Kemp. You're our first customer today. How do you like this weather?"
"Kemp's in a fix," said her father. "He's got Mrs. Candelin laid up at his place with a sprained ankle. He came up here to phone the doctor."
"Good heavens, Kemp! How did it happen?"
"She came over about some trouble she'd had at Stunts, and on her way back she twisted her foot in a rabbit hole. The snow was too bad for me to get her home."
"And to top all, Mrs. Wood hasn't come today," finished Mr. Artlett. "He's got everything to do himself."
Rose's mouth set in a line of action, and she reached for the gin.
"Best have a dog in that ale."
"Thanks. I don't mind if I do."
The strain slackened as they all grinned at the familiar crack.
"Was she here last night?" asked Kemp.
"Who? Mrs. Candelin?"
"No, Mrs. Wood. They said at her cottage that she had a cold, but I wondered if she'd been drinking."
"No, she wasn't here. Scarcely anyone at all was here last night—only Ted Boorman and Mr. Wilcox and a man with a lorry who'd lost his way to Hastings. I reckon Mrs. Wood's more likely to have caught cold than had too much to drink."
"I was hoping it was drink," said Kemp. "She might get over it quicker."
"Is there no one else you can find to come in?"
"I can't think of anyone—at least not that lives near, or I might have asked Mrs. Willard. . . . It's the cooking that queers me. I don't know enough about it even when I'm alone, and with a lady like her I shouldn't dare to begin. And there's other things too. . . . There's the bathroom. I reckon she'll want a bath. I took her in a can of hot water this morning, and now bless me if I haven't remembered I never emptied it away—"
Rose burst out laughing.
"Kemp, you should see your face. You look as if you'd done a murder. I bet Mrs. Candelin isn't all that particular. I know for a fact they haven't a bathroom at all at Stunts—her old man doesn't approve of plumbing, and all their water comes in buckets. She'll think herself a duchess if she gets it in a can.
"All the same it's terrible awkward not having a woman in the house."
He looked so dejected that Rose became serious.
"Maybe we can think of somebody."
"Maybe the doctor 'ull have her moved to hospital," said Mr. Artlett.
But Rose shook her head.
"Not unless it's something really serious—the hospitals haven't the beds for slight cases. Besides, how's she to get there in this snow?"
"The Eggs Hole drive's all drifted up," said her father.
"Oh, I don't suppose you have a chance of getting rid of her," continued Rose, "not for a day or two. But I'll tell you what I'll do. Dad doesn't have his dinner till the bar closes, so I'll pop down myself and put you straight and cook up something for you both. There aren't likely to be more customers this morning than Dad can manage, and I'll be back in time to fry some fish."
"Oh, Rose—" this was real kindness, "but you can't possibly come down to Eggs Hole in this weather. It's not fit for you to be out."
"Nonsense. I'll put on my dungarees and my army overcoat, and I'll do fine. You walked up, so I reckon I can walk down."
"But I'm a man."
"So you are! And I'm only a woman. But somehow I think I'll be able to get down to Eggs Hole and back again without anyone having to pick me up and carry me. You wait while I change my things. I shan't be a minute."
"She'll do the job for you," Mr. Artlett nodded approvingly, "uncommon handy in the house, she is. You'll find she'll do more than Mrs. Wood in half the time."
"Well, I must say I'm grateful."
"Don't be grateful. She enjoys it. She'd do anything for you, Kemp."
"It's the weather I don't like. I've a notion it's coming over bad again."
"I don't think it will—the sky's too good. Have another pint."
Kemp had another pint, this time without a "dog." Before he had finished it Rose was back, wearing her A.T.S. overcoat, dyed brown, with a yellow scarf over her head. She carried a basket.
"I've brought a few things, just in case. . . . It's quite all right—they're out of Uncle Harry's parcel from Australia. He sends every month and extra at Christmas. We've had three separate lots already this year, so it's really more than we can use."
"I bet it isn't."
"I bet it is, and I bet too that with all this happening you'll have forgot all about your Sunday meat, and 'ull find you've nothing at all in the house."
"Mr. Ovenden sends without my ordering, but I don't get much, having only one book."
His eye had fallen on a gay tin labeled Steak and Kidney Pudding and had become as bright as the tin.
"Maybe Mr. Ovenden won't be able to get to your place now the drive's blocked up. Here's steak and kidney and some stuff they call camp pie. It's very good."
"It makes my mouth water just to see the labels."
They set out, Kemp carrying the basket. This was very different from the last time he had walked from the Catherine Wheel down to Eggs Hole with a woman beside him. On this occasion there was no hand upon his arm, no trouble in his heart. They swung along side by side, a foot apart, the wind blowing the skirts of their greatcoats and the ends of their scarves ahead of them as it rushed them to the hill's brow. Rose had no scruples about trampling the white course of the lane. She marched down the middle of it, as sure footed as he. It was only when they came to the fields that she said, "Go ahead, King Wenceslaus, and I'll tread in your footsteps." Already the wind had swept the snow over his earlier track.
He did not stay at Eggs Hole longer than it took to tell Alice what was happening. He thought she looked less comfortable, and felt glad he had another woman in the house, even if only for an hour. Alice, he knew, wanted someone who would stay to satisfy her husband's ideas of propriety, but this was not the side of the business that worried him. He knew that no one in the country of the Moat would lift a voice in criticism or even in discussion of the situation, beyond wishing him speedily rid of what it must regard as a shocking encumbrance.
His own attitude toward that encumbrance was changing hourly. At first he had been as frightened and reluctant as Alice herself. The idea of her being snowbound at his place for any length of time had deeply disturbed both his heart and his imagination. But in actual experience things were working out very much less alarmingly than he had expected. The situation was practical rather than emotional. The wild disturbance that she had created in his thoughts and senses had been lost in a multitude of household preoccupations and homely cares, as if all the excitement of love already lay behind them and in its place was only an established domesticity.
On his way to Stunts his thoughts were centered less on her than on her needs—what she had asked him to fetch and what he must say to Cloute. Until he had seen the doctor he could have no idea how long she would be at Eggs Hole, for he did not think she was fit to go home and manage for herself even if Reg and Werner should succeed in clearing the drive by nightfall.
This he saw, when he came to where they were digging, was most unlikely.
"It needs six men here," said Reg, "not two. And mark my words, it's coming back."
Kemp looked at the sky, and there, low down, on the edge of the blue, was a row of Hastings Ladies.
"It doesn't look too good. Mr. Artlett thinks it will hold, but I'm not so sure. The wind's getting up again."
"Maybe Werner and I can clear a path if it keeps off till tonight, but not nothing for cars. They'll have to stay in the road."
"That'll be all right. I've warned the doctor."
He went on his way, scrambling up into the field and then through a spiled gap in the hedge into the lane. Here for the first time he saw wheel tracks—probably some tradesman's van had dared the hill. It was nearly twelve o'clock; he would arrive at Stunts just as Ernie Cloute knocked off for his dinner. He met him in the drive.
"I was coming for you, Mus' Silverden. Don't know what to think. As far as I can see Miz Candelin aŁn't bin home since yesterday."
"And I was coming to tell you all about it. . . . Let's go up to the house."
Cloute's reaction to his story was not unlike Reg's, except that he obviously pitied Alice more than he pitied Kemp.
"Well, I never . . . fancy that now . . . that's tur'ble, that is. When do you think she'll be about again?"
"I couldn't say. The doctor hasn't seen her yet?"
"And her up at your place! She'll want to get back, for certain sure."
"She does, but I don't think for a moment that he'll let her move just yet."
"Well, I never . . . and there was I yesterday wondering where she'd gone in all that weather. I came this morning as I said I would, snow or no snow, and I didn't go indoors till it struck the last half-hour, being busy with the tegs and the heifers and then that silly pig. . . . I went in and the fire was out. I called about the house a bit and then I went upstairs and her bed hadn't never been slept in all night. I tell you I was scared, thinking maybe she'd had something awkward happen to her in the snow. I couldn't think what to do for a moment. Then I thought I'd pop over to Eggs Hole and ask you or Reg about it."
The drive at Stunts was very unlike the drive at Eggs Hole. The snow had done no worse to its sheltered furlong than cover it some inches deep. There were wheel tracks right up to the house and Cloute told him that the butcher had called.
"He's brought her meat, and Sam Piper came yesterday with the bread."
"I'll take them back with me. We may need them to see us over the week end."
"Miz Wood's at your place, I reckon."
"Not she. She's chosen to spend just this very day in bed. Says she's got a cold. But Rose Artlett's very kindly run down to see to Mrs. Candelin."
"Will she cook your dinner for you?"
"She will today. I don't know about tomorrow."
"I hope she cooks it tomorrow too. Miz Candelin's uncommon particular as to cooking. She'd never eat anything you made, nor Miz Wood neither."
"Well, she may have to," said Kemp with a roughness that was not meant for Alice. "But so far all she'll take is an egg beaten up in milk."
"Dear, dear. That's bad. She must be feeling ordinary. I'm glad your hens lay, though. These here seem to have packed up for the time being. Plymouth Rocks, they're called and I told Mus' Candelin when he bought 'em that they aŁn't the right sort for these parts. Light Sussex—stands to reason that's a Sussex hen—and Rhode Island, or maybe a cross between the two. But none of your foreign rubbish that's only fit for the shires."
They had come into the hall passage and Kemp saw a couple of letters lying on the table.
"Those came yesterday," said Ernie. "Tom Chantler hasn't got here yet today. Maybe he won't come—not if it's only penny stamps."
As Kemp picked up the letters he noticed that the postmark of one of them was Lincoln. He wondered how Alice would feel about it. He had half a mind not to take it back to her. He did not want her to be bothered or upset by the preposterous man, even at a two-hundred-mile range.
However, a moment's reflection decided him to give it to her. Candelin might be writing to announce his speedy return, in which case something would have to be done, though Kemp could not at the moment think what. So he pocketed both letters before going upstairs to search for the various articles Alice had asked him to bring back.
It felt strange to go upstairs in her house and walk into rooms he had never entered before, but which all seemed to hold something of her, something that made them different from other rooms he knew. He was used to rooms full of furniture, most of it modern, though with one or two old pieces. Here it was all old pieces—he wondered where they had come from. Surely it could not all be inherited, like the other old chests, old tallboys and fiddle-back chairs he knew. It stood uncrowded in the low-pitched rooms, where the plain whitewashed walls seemed to reflect the snow light. He was a little surprised at his own pleasure in these white expanses, these empty spaces, but their simple, austere beauty was like the beauty of Alice herself. His heart missed a beat as he walked into her bedroom.
Here were woven curtains in soft, easy colors that matched the bedspread. He wondered if she had woven them on her loom—they had the look of it. The bed was a big four-poster, but he would not look at it, for he could not see her in it without Candelin.
He looked in the drawers and cupboards where she had told him to find the things she wanted. Her nightgown, dressing gown and bedroom slippers were herself indeed, and he felt the tears come into his eyes as he handled their softness. Oh, Alice, Alice! Why is it just by accident that I'm doing this? None of this is any real concern of mine. I'm like someone counting someone else's money. I'm like poor Werner slaving away to grow things he mayn't eat though he's ever so hungry. . . . He made a sudden resolve to give Werner some eggs for his tea.
After he had packed her personal things in a suitcase, he went downstairs to the storeroom and larder. She had told him where to find tea and coffee and sugar, and though there were no eggs there was ham and a sausage pie. With these and the stuff he had at home there would be plenty for the week end—if only he could get somebody to cook for him. He remembered Ernie's words: "She'd never eat anything you made, nor Miz Wood neither," and though he did not take them literally he felt that they covered tastes and distastes as unlike his own as the rooms at Stunts were unlike the rooms at Eggs Hole.
Cloute enlarged on the subject as he went out.
"Haven't you got none of those dried herbs she has in the storeroom? You'll want 'em. She's unaccountable set on having herbs cooked with everything—precious herbs she calls them. That old sorrel down by the bean rows is a precious herb, and so is the fennel and the chervil and the thyme. I'd have pulled up the lot if she hadn't warned me. I tell you she's a great hand at cooking. If she wasn't I'd be sorry for her, because her old man thinks he knows everything too. He's always bringing in stuff for her to do something with. She gets so tired she can hardly stand. But you can see what's on the pantry shelves and judge for yourself. Stillroom, she calls it. All those pickles! My!"
Kemp fetched the herbs but was unable to take anything more bulky, as already his trug was full.
"I'll pop down again tomorrow, if the doctor says she can't be moved."
"Well, I'm sure I hope he'll let her out soon. She won't be happy till she gets back among her own things."
"Have you any message you want me to give her about the farm?"
But Ernie's respect for his mistress's acquirements did not extend beyond the stillroom.
"She don't know nothing about farming, so I don't tell her nothing. It's the best way."
When he came back to Eggs Hole, Kemp found Rose Artlett preparing to leave.
"I've heated up the steak and kidney pudding and left it in the oven for you in a covered basin. Don't keep it there too long."
"What about Mrs. Candelin? She'd never eat that."
"Oh, no. I've given her a boiled egg with a glass of milk and some bread and butter."
"Is that what she wanted?"
"No, she wanted an omelet. But I told her all I knew about omelets was that you couldn't make them without breaking eggs. She didn't see that one. She said, 'You can't make anything with eggs unless you break them. There's no way of cooking them in their shells.' So I boiled her one, just to learn her different."
Kemp found himself resenting what seemed a criticism of his precious one's ability to see a joke.
"She knows a lot about cooking," he said sternly.
"You're telling me. What have you got there?" She examined the contents of the basket. "The ham 'ull do for your supper, and I'll be down again tomorrow and cook that meat. Then you can eat it cold on Sunday. I'm sorry, but I can't come then. Dad could never stand for a cold dinner on Sunday, and I've got my Sunday school class as well."
"It's very good of you to come at all. I'm truly grateful, indeed I am. I don't know what I should have done without you."
"Oh, you'd have managed all right. But I'm glad to come, more than glad. I'll be down tomorrow about the same time as today—maybe a little earlier."
Again he said, "Thank you."
She looked round her, rather wistfully he thought.
"I should have liked to tidy up things more. But I've done my best. That Mrs. Wood of yours can't have washed down your floors for months. I'll have a go at them tomorrow, but I really must be off now."
She took her big coat off the peg on the door.
"But will you be all right? Can you walk back by yourself?"
"I'll be all right. You needn't be afraid you'll find me lying about with a sprained ankle when you go to looker the stock. I'll be home in twenty minutes."
She went out and he went upstairs.
By this time the sunshine was in Alice's room. It lay in two warm squares, one on the floor, the other on the bed. The windows might have been closed against a summer's day, so great was the brightness that filled them. It was only when you dropped your gaze to the white hills under the blue sky that you met winter, the strange foreign winter of the snow.
Alice was sitting up in bed. She had finished her egg and was drinking her glass of milk. Her eyes over the brim of it smiled anxiously at Kemp.
"I've brought your things," he said.
"Thank you so much. Did you find them quite easily?"
"Oh, yes—quite. And here are two letters."
Her smile vanished as she took them from him and tore open the one with the Lincoln postmark. He watched her face as she read it. At first he could see that she was anxious, even scared, but as she read her brow became smooth and the lines of her mouth relaxed.
"That's all right," she said after a time. "Ronald hasn't found anything in the Lincoln neighborhood. He's moving on to Peterborough—he must be there already—and then he'll go to Norwich. He says I'm not to expect him back till the end of next week."
"Oh. . . ."
"I never thought any of the Lincoln places likely to suit him, but he would go there first. The most hopeful addresses seem to be around Norwich. I wonder why he's going to Peterborough. It wasn't a part of his original plan. But I suppose he heard something while he was at Lincoln. He always talks to people he meets in pubs and picks up a lot of information that way."
She seemed positively lighthearted. It confused Kemp. He could not imagine why she was so pleased. What difference did it make that Candelin was not coming home till the end of next week? Surely it was not the mere respite. . . . He himself felt glad that he did not mean to come back immediately—that he would not have to go down to Stunts Farm tonight or tomorrow morning to explain what had happened. But he was resigned to the fact that he would be home soon, and only hoped he would not take the matter as hard as Alice expected.
"Are you afraid of him?"
He could not help asking her that, though he did not want to talk about the preposterous man now any more than he had wanted to three hours ago.
"I'm not afraid of him, but I am of the fusses he makes. He'd make a terrible fuss if he came home suddenly and found me up here. Now I'm sure to be home by the end of next week—"
"But what difference will that make? He'll hear about it just the same."
"It will make all the difference in the world, if I feed him the facts in the way I know he can take them. I'll treat the whole thing lightly, of course—make a joke of it."
So Alice made jokes even if she did not always see them. . . . This time it was Kemp who saw nothing to laugh at.
Late in the afternoon the doctor came, plodding up from the road, where he had left his car, just as a new flurry of snow boiled out of a little cloud that had blown suddenly over the woods. He was a comparatively new arrival in the district and this was the first time he had been to Eggs Hole. Kemp would rather have had old Dr. Fennel, who had brought him into the world and been not only a physician but a friend during the sad times which had begun with his mother's death and ended with Joan's. But Dr. Fennel had retired a year ago, and everyone said this man was very clever and up-to-date in his notions. He took him up to Alice's room, then waited in the kitchen till he heard him come downstairs.
"How is she? What do you think of her?"
He could not keep the quake out of his voice, but the doctor evidently put it down to nothing more than anxiety to be rid of a troublesome guest.
"I expect you want to know how soon she'll be able to go home. All this must be exceedingly awkward for you. Well, I've told her I see no reason why she shouldn't be about by the middle of next week. There aren't any bones broken and the inflammation seems to be going down. I've told her to keep on with the hot fomentations and I've given her some penicillin tablets. They ought to settle the cold too."
"You think it's only a cold?"
"That's all—a natural consequence of her exposure yesterday. The chest's quite clear and the temperature only one degree above normal. She'll be all right as long as she keeps quiet and warm. I'll ask the district nurse to call."
Kemp helped the doctor into his duffel coat.
"I'm sorry you've had to walk such a way, but my drive's all drifted up with snow; and it doesn't look as if I'd get it clear for some time yet. The weather seems like it's coming on again."
"It certainly does, and there's one comfort—I don't suppose you could have got Mrs. Candelin home even if I'd thought her fit to go."
"What should she have to eat?"
"Anything she fancies, or that you can provide, I should say. I'll be around again on Monday. Cheerio till then."
And off he went—very unlike Dr. Fennel.
The day seemed now to have forgotten its drink of blue. The Hastings Ladies had climbed up out of the south and the dusk was full of their dragging veils. Reg and Werner had stopped working on the drive, or rather, Kemp surmised, Reg had stopped, so Werner had had to stop too. He did not altogether blame his man, for it was more than likely that his efforts would be wasted by another heavy fall. Reg, moreover, suffered from an internal rupture which he imagined to be a secret carefully hidden from his employer, but which Kemp knew made digging or any heavy work impossible for more than a few hours. He sent him to see to the stock and called Werner indoors. He had not forgotten the promise he had made him that morning in his heart.
"Would you like some eggs?"
"Please. Can you spare?"
"Yes, the hens aren't doing badly. I can let you have four, and I'll hardboil them, so that you can take them with you when you go."
"Please, I do it."
"You can cook them yourself?"
"Yes. Oh, Yes."
The confident way in which he spoke impressed Kemp, with whom boiling eggs was an adventure that might easily turn into an accident. It suddenly occurred to him to ask:
"Can you make an omelet?"
"Yes. Oh, yes."
Again that careless confidence, so unlike the Werner of the fields and the farmyard, who was only the hard-working, obedient prisoner of war.
"Then will you show me how?"
Werner looked surprised.
"I show you?"
"Yes, please. Mrs. Candelin has twice asked for an omelet, and neither I nor the lady who was here in the morning can make it."
Werner still looked surprised.
"It is very easy."
"Then you show me. You can eat it afterward."
"But I will want butter, and herbs."
Herbs! That was good.
"I have some. I brought some herbs today from Stunts Farm."
He fetched the herbs and the butter, while Werner heated the frying pan.
"Look. I can show you the French way. The lady will like it better than German."
Kemp watched him with interest and some bewilderment as he set to work.
"How is it that you know so much? I thought that in Germany only the women did the cooking—cooking, church and children, you know."
"In Germany I work in a restaurant. I make many omelets."
Kemp looked at him with a new interest. Somehow he had never thought of Werner being anywhere or doing anything before the war. He had just sprung into being at its end, a tragic convenience, complete with seedy uniform and grotesque p.o.w. patches.
"Did you like the work?"
"Very much. I am second cook. See now, I break the eggs."
"That's the only thing I know about an omelet."
Funny how no one but himself and Rose seemed to see that joke. Werner did not even smile.
"Must break eggs. One—two—three—four. Now salt and pepper. So. Now milk. So. Now—how say? I hit with a fork."
Kemp watched the process very carefully. It seemed quite easy. He would make Alice an omelet tonight. It did not take long either. In less than five minutes Werner was sitting at the table eating it with a look of utter beatitude on his face.
"It looks good."
"I make one for you now?"
"No, no. I've plenty for my tea. I'll keep the eggs for Mrs. Candelin."
Werner rose from the table.
"Thank you for your kindness. Now I wash up." His eyes rested not only on the things he himself had used, but on the unwashed dinner crocks in the sink. "I wash up all."
Certainly these Jerries were handy. A pity he had to go away tonight.
Yet Kemp was not really sorry he had to go. When he, and later Reg, vanished into the weaving obscurity of the snow he had none of his usual feeling of being forsaken by human company. In ordinary circumstances he would have turned back slowly and reluctantly into the house, or lingered outside over some task specially undertaken to keep him out of its emptiness. He thought of how last night he had gone down to looker the tegs, leaving the windows alight behind him. Because of that escape he needed none now. He would turn in, wash and tidy himself up, and then sit down and rest and talk to the human being whose company was the sweetest and dearest in the world.
It was like being married, and the pang came when he thought how short that married life would be—till the middle of next week at the furthest. Then he would be his old single self again, lonely in the house, eating a lonely meal and then going out to spend the rest of the evening at the pub. He sighed. It seemed hard that he should be allowed only a taste of what was so sweet. . . . But he would not complain—it was a taste that he might have missed. He ought to be thankful for it and take care that nothing happened to turn it to bitterness. He went upstairs.
Alice was still in her cheerful mood.
"Well, everyone gone home, Reg and your German? Had your tea?"
He had brought her up hers an hour ago.
"No. I was just going to make it. I thought I'd come up first and see how you're getting on."
"I'm fine. I'm ever so much better. The doctor says I'll soon be home again."
Then she met his eyes and saw his hurt in them.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean it that way. But I've tried to explain about Ronald."
"For the Lord's sake let's stop talking about him."
"All right, I will. But it isn't only him—it's you and me. Our being snowed up together like this. . . . Don't you see that it's the worst possible thing that could have happened to us now? We'd made a clean break, and here we are shut up in the same house like husband and wife. It'll be a terrible strain on both of us."
"Is that what you feel about it?" he said slowly. "It's not what I feel."
"What do you feel?"
"Well, it's like this. I don't know how to explain exactly, but it's like the days I used to go somewhere for a treat—a picnic or a party, it didn't matter what. Well, you knew it wouldn't last forever, but you enjoyed every minute of it while it lasted. See what I mean?"
"But tell me, my dear—I don't quite understand—what is there so much to enjoy?"
"Us being here together. Us here in the same house, with each other to talk to, the way I've longed to be with you all these months. I know it's only a part of what I wanted and I know it's got to end. But while it lasts it gives me something I've never had before."
She seemed unable to say more, and he was just going to say he must go down and get his tea when she added:
"I believe you really do love me."
"What do you think?" he cried roughly. "What do you think?"
"I mean you have the real thing—the real unselfish love that a man so seldom has for a woman."
"I'm not so sure of that."
"What aren't you sure of? That a man so seldom feels it or that you do?"
Seeing that she wanted to talk, he sat down on his mother's old red armchair, where she had sat every night to read her portion from the Bible before getting into bed.
"I don't know what other men feel," he said, "but I know what I do, and I'm getting something for myself out of this."
"What—besides a lot of fuss and trouble?"
"Well, for one thing I'm not lonely any more. I've been terrible lonely in this house—just couldn't bear to be in it sometimes. But now I'm not lonely any more. I've got company. But it's better than that. I've someone here I love. Even if you're not with me I feel it. When I'm downstairs I think there's someone I love upstairs, and when I'm outdoors I think there's someone I love indoors. It makes me happy, it makes me feel at home in a way I never did when you weren't here.
"But that wouldn't be enough for most men. It isn't companionship they want—it's possession. They see you only as a part of themselves and their belongings, even though they profess to discuss their ideas with you."
He wished she would not talk about "most men" when she meant only one. A faint resentment blew in her direction. She confused him with her talk—there were tricks in it. He used to love to talk to her—he recalled that evening at the Catherine Wheel when they had sat together by the fire and talked about his father. But this was different, talking like this about themselves and their feelings, with Candelin always hovering in the background. It made him fear—almost believe—that she must really love him.
"Look here," he said, "this is what I mean. When men came home on leave during the war they enjoyed themselves even though they knew it was only for a short time. Why can't we be like that? Why shouldn't we get all the happiness we can out of this little time together? It may be a lot."
She looked at him rather curiously. "Do I quite understand?"
"I know I'm not much good at explaining things"—he had tried so hard to make it clear. "What don't you understand?"
"Well, Kemp, I love you better than I know you. In fact, I hardly know you at all. With most men this could mean only one thing."
He stared at her. There she was again with her "most men," but this time she did not mean Candelin. As her meaning thrust slowly home he blushed scarlet and his thoughts dissolved in molten indignation.
"You can't think that!" he cried. "You can't think that!"
"I've told you I don't know you."
"But you must know that I love you. You can't think I'd treat you like a slut."
"You put it rather strongly. But I understand you now."
He said nothing. He still, felt shaken as he watched her there—lying in his mother's bed, fragile, hurt. . . . What did she imagine? What did she take him for? But no doubt he had spoken badly: He was not used to expressing himself on such matters. And he must not forget that they lived in different worlds. Conceivably in her world men—"most men," in fact—treated women like sluts. She could not know that in his world a slut was a slut and the woman you loved was the woman you honored. She could not know how horrible it would be for him to have his memories of her join certain other memories. As she had said, she did not know him; and he did not know her—it worked that way too. They loved each other but they did not know each other. A sudden air of strangeness and coldness blew into the room, as if the window had been opened to the east wind and the scudding snow.
He stood up.
"I think I'll go down and get my tea."
Her hand was stretched out to him from the bed.
"Kemp, forgive me. Don't be hurt. It isn't our fault we don't really know each other—and now perhaps we shall. We've got the chance, anyway. You're quite right. We shall be silly if we don't make the most of these few days together. I was afraid it might make it more difficult for us to say good-by in the end, but now I don't think it will—not if we're sensible."
He said, "I don't care if it does."
"Then go down and get your tea and do all your little jobs. Then later on you can come up again and talk to me while I have my supper."
"I've got a surprise for you tonight."
"It's for your supper."
"Then I'd better start getting hungry right away."
He hoped she was not very hungry, as he stirred. What exactly had Werner done? It had all seemed so simple at the time. You broke the eggs and you made the omelet. He had broken four into a bowl, just like Werner, but when he poured them into the pan nothing had happened, except that they seemed to burn. He stirred vigorously. But they were sticking to the pan. Why? Was it too hot? He moved it to the side of the fire, but they still stuck. Oh dear, oh dear. What had happened? Why couldn't he do what Werner had done so easily? They were turning black now, and there was a smell. . . .
In despair he stopped stirring, and scratched his head. He would have to go up and ask her what to do. It was a terrible disappointment. He had meant to give her a surprise.
He carried the frying pan upstairs and knocked at the door.
"Come in," said Alice.
Her voice did not come from quite the usual place, and when from the doorway he got his first sight of the bed, it was empty. He looked round the door, and there she was at the dressing table, wearing her soft dressing gown, and plaiting her hair. She turned her face to him in the frame of her lifted arms.
"What is it, Kemp?"
He forgot about the frying pan in his hand. She looked so intimately beautiful, sitting there and looking at him like that. It hurt him in the same way as it had hurt him at Stunts to go into her bedroom and handle her personal things; so he spoke gruffly.
"You shouldn't be up. You'll make your foot worse."
"My foot's all right. I'm resting it on a stool."
She wrinkled her nose and he remembered the frying pan.
"I'm sorry, but something's gone wrong. I was making you an omelet."
"Oh, Kemp, how sweet of you. Let me see."
He brought the pan as near her as he dared.
"Werner showed me how. I thought I knew."
"You poor darling! What have you done?"
"I broke the eggs into a bowl just like he did, and put them in the pan. But they seemed to burn."
"Did you put any butter in the pan?"
"Why, no. I didn't. Did he?"
"He must have—or drippings or fat of some kind. You can't make an omelet without that."
As well as without breaking eggs. . . . Now he came to think of it, he could remember Werner saying he'd want some butter. That was it, then—the eggs had burned because there was no grease in the pan. And now he had no more eggs. What was he to do? What could he give her for her supper?
"Could you possibly eat this?"
"No, Kemp, not possibly."
Then she burst out laughing.
He stared at her in amazement. What was she laughing at? It was not at him for there was no mockery in her laughter. She seemed really amused. She thought it funny to have burned an omelet and spoiled her supper. He could not understand. She saw nothing to laugh at in a joke, but she could laugh at a catastrophe like this.
"Oh, Kemp, don't look so solemn. It doesn't matter in the least. I'm feeling so much better that I don't mind what I have for supper—I could eat anything."
"But there aren't any more eggs."
"Never mind. I don't want eggs. You said you'd brought back some ham. I'll have that."
"But you'd asked for an omelet—you'd asked Rose, and she couldn't make you one. So I asked Werner to show me how, so as to give you a surprise."
Her face was serious again, and she turned it away from him. But he could see it in the mirror—the mouth was working. He thought she was going to speak, but she said nothing.
"I know the sort of things I eat aren't what you're used to, so I wanted to try to make you something you'd like."
"You still can," she said brightly, facing round at him again. "If you've got any cheese in the house and can spare some butter, you can make me a cheese fondue. I'd enjoy that."
"How do you make it?"
"Bring the things up here, and I'll show you how. This fire will do quite well—in fact you could make it over hot water. Now this is what you'll want. . . ."
"Well," asked Rose, "how did you get on yesterday?"
"Fine. I cooked her supper."
"You cooked it, Kemp! What did she have?"
"A cheese fondue."
"What on earth's that?"
"Cheese and butter and milk. You beat 'em up together and it goes all creamy. Then you put it on toast."
"Sounds like Welsh rabbit to me."
For some reason Kemp resented this homely turn given to his creation.
"It wasn't a bit like it," he said untruthfully.
"Well, it's news—you learning to cook. Dad 'ull be tickled to death when I tell him. Where did you make the thing? Upstairs at her fire?"
"That's right-up in her room."
"Well, I never.... Fancy you a cook! I wonder if she'll teach you anything more. Maybe she doesn't like the kind of things I cook—wants something more fancy. I'm surprised, though, she didn't show you how to make an omelet instead of the cheese thing."
Kemp said nothing, and for the first time felt glad that Werner was not coming today.
Though he did not come, others did. Reg of course turned up at his usual time—nothing would keep him away—and not so very long after him the district nurse arrived. She had meant to come the day before, she said, but the weather had been too bad for her to get round. Now that she was here Kemp felt very glad to have her, as he could not help worrying about Alice's untended state. It was all very well to say that at Stunts Farm she had no luxuries and few conveniences. Things were different at Eggs Hole. Unlike the preposterous man, Kemp had no ax to grind on her discomfort, and anyhow she was ill and in need of all he could give her in the way of tenderness and care. When Joan had been ill there were things that he had done for her which he would have liked to do for Alice, but since that must not be he would have others do them. They should not be left undone.
Mrs. Wood did not come. He had not really expected her. She would justify her cold by staying away till Monday. He did not much care, now that he had the nurse and Rose Artlett. Rose was a better cook than Mrs. Wood. What a grand smell she was making with the roast meat for dinner! He could hardly wait till it was ready.
He had spent a hungry morning, helping Reg clear away the snow from the yard and the part of the drive nearest the house. The main drift they must leave till the weather helped them with a thaw. Already, last night, the temperature had risen ten degrees, but had then dropped again, so that half-melted surfaces had frozen and picks were necessary to break them up. But the snow which had fallen heavily during most of the night was now coming more fitfully, in a thin spin-drift, of which as much was blowing up from the fields as blowing down from the sky.
"The wireless says it'll clear tonight," said Rose, pulling a brown hood over her hair as she prepared to go. "Shall we see you up at the Wheel?"
He shook his head.
"I don't like to leave her."
"But she spends most of her time alone at Stunts Farm. She won't mind that."
"She's ill now—she oughtn't to be left."
"I'd never call her ill. She's got a bit of a cold, and she's sprained her ankle. But she's getting along all right. Do come, Kemp. We miss you when you're not there."
He suddenly felt annoyed with her for trying to persuade him. She was heartless.
"How would you like it if you were laid up at a strange place and couldn't move about or do anything for yourself and then they left you to shift while they went to the pub?"
"I'd be jolly grateful to whoever had taken me in and was looking after me, and I'd be only too glad for them to get away for a bit and enjoy themselves."
A word pricked him.
"I'm jolly grateful to you," he said, "for coming down here and doing all this. Don't think I'm ungrateful if I don't come up tonight. I do appreciate what you've done and thank you with all my heart."
"I'm sure you're very welcome," she said sedately as she turned away.
Reg always went home at twelve on Saturday, and generally Kemp felt sad to see him go. From Saturday's dinnertime till Monday's milking he would be alone on the farm. As a rule he spent such time as he had left over from his work in visiting friends and sitting at the Catherine Wheel. Often there was plenty to do and he was busy, but often too, and too often, he had nothing but the routine jobs of milking and feeding, and the empty hours yawned at him.
Today his man's departure was almost a relief. Instead of a feeling of loneliness he had a feeling of enclosure, of comfortable enclosure with someone he loved. No matter what Monday might bring, he had the gift of this week end with Alice. He and she could look forward to forty-eight hours of each other's company. As he walked into the house, the snow, which was falling more steadily now, seemed no longer a threat but a promise. It promised that for forty-eight hours time should stand still, and he and Alice should live together in a long-drawn present moment, in which they need never think of the future and could forget the past. Whistling he went upstairs.
He found her writing letters. The bed was strewn with them. When he took her up her breakfast she had asked him for paper and envelopes, but he had never expected her to write more letters in a morning than he wrote in a month. She laughed when she saw his astonished face.
"It's the best way to spend a day in bed. I always tell my friends that if they don't hear from me they may be sure I'm well, for it's only when I'm ill that I've time to write letters."
"Are all these letters to your friends?"
"Yes, nearly all of them. Don't you ever write to your friends?"
"All my friends live round here. I don't have to write. When I write it's mostly ordering or selling stuff, or else it's to the War Ag. What about posting these?"
"That was what I was going to ask you. Your nearest postbox would be the same as ours, up at the crossroads. I used generally to give my letters to the tradesmen to post, but perhaps no one will call this afternoon."
He shook his head.
"Mr. Ovenden was along with my meat yesterday and he brought the bread too as Sam Piper was afraid of his van on the hill. But if you like I'll post them for you."
"You, Kemp. Will you be going out?"
"I'd better pop over to Stunts, just to see how Cloute's getting on, and then it won't hurt me to walk up to the postbox."
She made a face at herself. He was used to that face now, a sort of chiding look with a crease of her brow and a shake of her head.
"It's funny how I keep on forgetting Stunts Farm and Cloute. You'd think I belonged here."
"And so you do—for now," he said stoutly.
"I seem to be playing the part almost too well. You, on the other hand, have to look after both places."
"I'm not looking after Stunts"—not at any price, he thought—"but there's no harm in my having a word with Cloute every day, just in case there's anything he wants—or you want."
"But it's going to be horrible out in the snow. Look how dark it's getting."
It was true that while they talked, the midday room had filled with shadows, and now a heavy, brownish sky seemed to lean on the windows, down which the snowflakes draggled, melting against the glass. A month ago Kemp would have disliked the idea of going out into so strange and sinister a world. But now that world had become a normal part of winter.
"I don't mind," he said. "I've got used to it. I'll start directly after dinner, so as to be back before it's dark."
"It's dark now," she said, and it seemed to him that her eyes had the round, frightened look of a child's.
"I won't leave you," he said tenderly, "if it's like this."
He moved to the bedside and leaned over her.
"Are you afraid?"
"Yes," she said, but he knew by some instinct that she was no longer talking of the snow.
He straightened his back and moved away. He had come too near.
The snow was falling less thickly as he walked up the hill to the postbox, and the sky was broken into wells of light. In spite of the white fields and the freezing cold there was a feeling of lightness in the air, and he wondered if at last the big freeze was really ending. After all, the month was March, a month when in other years the woods were blooming with purple light, when the buds were swelling and the birds singing. Spring came early in the country of the Moat. It should be here now. It was here. Behind all this it waited, ready to pour itself over the earth directly the foreign snow had moved away. He could feel it in himself—buoyant, hopeful, restless. . . . Even though spring must take away the treasures of the snow he felt its welcome already in his heart, which was full of a queer joyfulness, independent of Alice, belonging only to himself.
The postbox was set in the wall of Moat Place. Kemp dug in his pocket for her letters. Here they were—two pocketsful. What a heap! What a lot of people she must know! He suddenly caught himself wondering if she had written to her husband. No doubt she had, in answer to the letter he had brought her yesterday. Why should he feel so outraged at the idea of her writing from his house to the preposterous man? He did, though. . . . She should have kept him out of her mind just for this week end.
But perhaps she hadn't written and he was worrying himself for nothing. He glanced at the letters in his hand. He could easily find out if she had—he had only to look through the addresses. . . . He hesitated, then decided not to know. What did it matter? What difference did it make? Even if there was no letter for Candelin it would not alter the fact that he would be back in a few days and that Alice would be with him again, returned like the countryside to her normal life and season. If on the other hand there was a letter for him he could not get it before Monday, while Kemp would be with her in half an hour, with her for as long as the bad weather lasted or she was well enough to walk home. Till then they were together and after that they never could be. A letter made no difference at all.
As he turned away from the postbox, he noticed a gleam, not of sunlight but of that queer white lightness which hung in shafts from the thinning sky and now hung behind the fir trees of Moat Place. He remembered the water where the strange reeds grew, the reeds he had picked for his mother and then for Joan: He would pick some for Alice and take them home. She would admire their fragile shapes—they were quite unlike the reeds of the Tillingham marshes or of the meadow ponds. He had not picked any since Joan died.
It was easy to pick them now, for the surface of the old moat was as hard as stone. He did not have to go plunging round the edges. The little reeds were balled with snow, they shared the uncanny white flowering of the woods. But so faint was the life of these flowers that they faded under his breath as he leaned over them, and as he carried them carefully down the hill the warmth of his body broke them into moisture. Alice would not see them in their strange new beauty, but only as his mother and Joan had seen them. He wondered now if she would admire them so much.
"Look what I've brought you."
"Oh, Kemp . . ." she held out her hands, "what lovely little bulrushes." She laid a plushy head against her cheek. "It's like a kitten's paw."
"I thought maybe you'd like to have them. I used to pick them regular every season for my mother, and then afterward I picked them for Joan."
"Joan?—that was your wife."
He nodded. It was the first time he had mentioned Joan—almost the first time he had thought of her since Alice came. Queer that this other woman in the house had never reminded him of Joan. When she lay in the bed where he and Joan had slept he never thought of them there, but of his father and mother. This was his mother's room, not Joan's.
"I must have seen her," said Alice, "but I wouldn't have known who she was. What was she like?"
He did not know what to say. "She—she had light brown hair."
"Have you a picture of her that you could show me?"
Why on earth did she want to see Joan?
"I dunno that I have—not a proper photograph, only some snaps of her and me taken with other people."
"Don't bother now, but sometime I should like to see them."
The question was now too big not to be asked.
"Why! Because I'm interested in her. And if you want to know why I'm interested in her, it's because I'm interested in you. Everyone who's ever belonged to you is interesting to me, especially the woman you chose and loved."
He did not know what to say, because with him it was all so different. He did not want to hear about the people Alice loved—he was jealous of them. He said awkwardly:
"I'll go down and fetch my album. There'll be some pictures of her in that."
"Any time will do."
"No, no. I'll go now, and get a vase to fix these rushes in. Then I must leave you for a bit while I do the milking."
The drawing-room—a cold green pond after the warm red room—was the place to find both the album and the vase. He hurried out as soon as he had them, for in the cold and failing light memories hung like weeds. Upstairs in the warm red room he could forget that it was not so long ago that he and Alice had said good-by, or so far ahead that they would say it again. He gave her the album to look at while he put the reeds in water.
"There ought to be some pampas grass with them."
"Oh, no, Kemp. They look just right like that—clear against their shadows on the wall. You don't want to mess them up with anything else. They're exquisite—miniature—delicate—what's the word I want?"
"There's a word the old people round here sometimes say. I've heard my father say it. Dentical—it means something that's small and pretty."
"Dentical! That's the perfect word for these reeds—the same meaning as dainty without the vulgarity. Oh, why don't people talk like that now?"
"They've learned better ways of talking, or so they think."
"'Or so they think,'" she repeated scornfully. "Kemp, you must learn to talk like your father."
He shook his head.
"He aŁn't here to teach me."
"Ah, but while you thought of him, for a moment you spoke as he did. You said 'aŁn't' and your whole voice warmed and widened. I hope you will often think of him."
"I often do."
"Did your mother talk like him?"
"Oh, no—she was quite different. She was educated."
"That's what I thought. I've always thought your mother must have been quite different from your father. Because there are two different people in you, Kemp. Did you know it?"
"I know no more than one. And I'm in no ways like my mother. She liked books."
"And you don't like them?"
"I'd never read a book if I could help it."
For some reason Alice seemed pleased.
"Oh, Kemp, isn't it queer?"
"That we're so different, yet we love each other so much. It makes it seem a bigger sort of love."
"If we were married we'd be like my father and mother."
But she shook her head at that.
"No, somehow I don't think we should. There are different ways of being different. Was Joan different?"
He was surprised to find they had come back to Joan. He had quite forgotten her.
"Yes. She was educated too. She'd been trained as a schoolteacher."
Alice turned over the pages of the album on her knee.
"Is this Joan?"
"Yes, that's her. It was taken over at Scragoak—the first meet after the war."
"I remember. I was there."
"You were there! I never saw you."
"There was a big crowd and we didn't know each other then, even by sight. What a waste it seems."
"I reckon there's a lot of time we wasted like that."
"Not while Joan was alive. You wouldn't have looked at me while she was."
He blushed deeply as a denial rose to his lips and died there. It was true; awkward and disappointing as his marriage had been in several ways, he would not have looked at another woman while Joan was alive.
"She died soon after you came into the country," he said.
It was queer and rather distressing, this talk about Joan. Alice did not mind it the way he minded talking about Candelin. Was it because Joan was dead or because she saw Joan as a part of himself and therefore as a part of her love for him? If he could only see Candelin as a part of Alice would he—
"Kemp, what are you laughing at?"
He could not speak. He was choking with laughter.
"What on earth can be the joke?"—and he remembered that his last sentence had begun "she died. . . ." It sobered him.
"I was only thinking of your husband."
"But why. . . . I'd no idea he amused you. In fact I thought quite the reverse. What's suddenly made him so funny?"
"I was only wondering if I could ever feel about him the same as you say you feel about Joan. I mean, could I ever feel he was part of my love for you?"
"And that's what made you laugh? Well, well. . . . My dear, Joan's dead and he's alive. We don't grudge the dead what they've had, poor things."
He looked grave. His heart was full of sorrow and pity for Joan.
That night the snow stopped falling, as Rose and the wireless had said it would, and the sky became a mass of lustrous stars. Kemp and Alice watched them from a darkened room. She had wanted to see them when he told her the sky was clear, so he had drawn back the curtain and snapped off the light. Only the firelight kept the room still red, but it was not bright enough to spoil their view of the huge black sky that they watched together. Nor was it bright enough for them to see each other's faces as they talked about the stars.
Alice seemed to know a lot about them. She pointed out constellations he had never seen and used names he had never heard. He on the other hand was able to tell her a few things she did not know. She did not know that the seven stars next the Pole were called Jack and his Wagon or that the big sign that swung above the Dog Star was the Kite. He could guess that she was smiling as she said:
"Your heaven's a Sussex heaven. Mine is Greek."
"I hope we don't go to two different heavens when we die."
She did not speak, and for a while they sat in silence. The darkness of the room and a growing sense of smallness as he watched the great turning sky made him long to get as close to her as possible. He slid out of his chair and sat down on the floor beside her bed, watching the stars with his head on a level with her hand.
Her hand hung down close to his face and the next moment he laid his cheek against it. The darling softness of her skin lay like silk under the roughness of his. She did not take her hand away and the touch of it comforted him. But he was not close enough to her yet to bear the stars. He wanted to touch her inmost heart, to lean against her mind, to find her living thoughts warm under his as his cheek now felt her hand.
"Alice, when we're both dead, we may be together for always—at last."
He could not come closer to her than with those words, which he would have felt awkward and embarrassed to speak in daylight.
"Oh, Kemp, do you really believe that?"
"Why not? If husbands and wives and parents and children meet again in heaven, why shouldn't other people who've loved each other but not been able to make a go of it?"
"Then you believe in a future life?"
"'Naturally' doesn't seem the right word here."
"Oh, I dunno . . . its natural for a beast to die and end like that, but our nature's different, and I reckon it's our nature to go on."
"Oh, Kemp—if I could think it. . . ."
"But don't you?"
"No," she said shortly, "no."
He felt shocked. He wanted to get up and draw the curtains and shut out the stars. They frightened him now. Instead of doing that he turned his face on her hand and pressed his mouth against it, kissing it frantically for comfort and closeness. Since she had taken away her mind, so that when his own had leaned on it, it had fallen into a void, he must keep her hand, hold it, kiss it, comfort himself with her warm, living hand.
"What is it, my dear?" she asked him.
But he could not tell her. He could only go on kissing her hand.
The next moment she said:
"Switch on the light, Kemp. I think we've done enough stargazing."
He turned on the light and the stars and his strange, terrified thoughts vanished together.
Sunday was the day from which Kemp for various reasons had expected most. Normally it was the most difficult day of the week, for he was quite alone. Reg did not come, except sometimes during haymaking or harvest, and Mrs. Wood was uncertain, since the cooking of his Sunday dinner always seemed to be in conflict with the claims of hers. He did all the work of the place, and spent such time as he had left either at the Catherine Wheel or at the houses of his friends. He was always thankful when he got into bed and knew that Sunday was over and would not come again for another week.
But now everything was different. The snow had changed this Sunday as surely as it had changed the countryside. Like the fields the day looked strange and lovely. He would not be alone. Or rather, he would be alone with Alice. They would be alone together—it was their day. He felt all the strangeness and loveliness of that.
But there was one rule to keep—they must not think of other days. They must keep themselves rigorously shut up in this one day, as if it were a little cave in which they sheltered together from the storm before going their separate ways. Only a few days ahead—perhaps even tomorrow—lay their last good-by. But they must not think of that, or of the things that belonged to it, such as the morning's rising temperature which might mean a thaw. When Kemp took the milk churns across the fields for the milk lorry to collect at the blocked drive gate, he found the surfaces much worse than yesterday, not because there was more snow but because there was less. In places it lay in mere scales and wafers over sodden grass. The wheels of his cart went crashing through. . . . It would be the same in the drive, holes forming in the drifts, enlarging into caverns, arches falling, a mountain slowly sinking, a way made clear at last.
But though he knew all this was happening, he was determined not to think of it before he must. He would not watch the sky for silver light or count the holes in the meadow's lace, for even if it thawed tonight he still had today. He only hoped that Alice felt the same as he did. The happiness the snow had brought was as fragile as the snow and as liable as the snow to melt away.
The first test of it came with the district nurse, soon after breakfast. There was nothing to disturb him in her coming, for she belonged to the changed order of things, but she said as she went away:
"Don't you worry, Mr. Silverden. She'll soon be able to go home."
"It depends on the weather. Looks like a thaw to me, and if you can get your drive clear and she keeps improving, she might be able to go tomorrow."
"The doctor's coming tomorrow."
"Well, you'll have to see what he says, of course. But I should think he'd let her go, that is, if you can take her in your car. She's able to move her foot already—the swelling's nearly gone; and her cold's cleared up. Wonderful thing, that penicillin."
"Yes, wonderful." It was mean to be so downhearted at the thought of Alice getting better. But he could feel the day melting round him like the snow. He wished the nurse would go away before she had robbed him of any more of it.
"I shan't come again tomorrow," she said. "It's a difficult place to get to and she doesn't really need me any more. She ought to be able to manage for herself; and that'll help you too, I reckon, for she tells me you've no one coming in today. If you'll allow me to say so, Mr. Silverden, I think you've put up a grand show and I bet she's grateful. There aren't many gentlemen living alone who'd have done so much for her and done it so well."
Kemp did not know what to say to that.
At last the nurse was gone and he could go back into the house and hide in it from the slow changes of earth and air. It was not actually thawing yet, but there was a certain amount of evaporation in a warmer atmosphere, and the sun had dug the clouds with pits of light, through which it sometimes poured a watery gleam. There was a pool of sunshine on the floor of Alice's room as he went in.
She was not in bed. She was sitting up in his mother's red armchair.
"Oh, Kemp, what is the weather going to do?"
He could not be sure on which side her anxiety lay.
"I can't say for certain. If the sky clears the freeze may come back tonight. But I don't think it's going to clear. Those clouds look to me like rain."
"Shall you listen to the wireless weather report?"
He shook his head.
"My father always said they were nothing to go by. Our weather comes here from France. Besides, I'd much rather not know."
"Kemp, don't be an ostrich, hiding your face in the sand—in the snow, rather."
"Just today," he pleaded. "It may be our last."
She said tenderly:
"You little boy."
There was a new sort of fuel for jealousy in the tenderness of her voice. Was that how she spoke to her own little boys? For the first time his jealousy rose against them. After all, he had more reason to be jealous of them than of their father.
"You don't want to be here at all," he said sulkily—like a little boy. "You'll be glad to get away."
"Well, you're glad to be getting better so fast."
"Aren't you glad too?"
"No." Then suddenly he grew up and said, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean that."
"I know what you mean and you're quite right. It doesn't do for us to think too much of the things that are going to bring this good time to an end."
"Then you do think it's a good time?"
"My darling, of course I do. It's wonderful being here with you like this, and now we're going to have a really happy day. The first thing I shall do is to come downstairs."
"You oughtn't to do that."
"It won't hurt me. The nurse said I should start using my foot a little. Besides, I'm tired of lying in bed."
"But you're nice and warm in here. The house is bitter cold."
It was silly and selfish of him, he knew, but he did not want her to come downstairs. To see her moving about the house would be like watching the snowdrifts melt in the drive—both were part of the same process of final separation.
"It won't be cold in the kitchen," she said. "I can sit in the kitchen with my foot on a stool, the same as I sat on the first night. Please, Kemp, let me have my own way—for a change."
They were within a word of the preposterous man, and if he said any more that word would be spoken. So he made no further attempt to persuade her.
She came downstairs with the help of a stick and his arm. She still wore the protection of her weakness—once more he found that her dependence on him had purged his senses. Probably he would never feel again the tumult which her voice had once roused in him. Even last night when he had kissed her hand so wildly and so fondly, his emotion had been nearly bodiless. It was quite bodiless now. We are indeed in heaven. Or are we only dead?
Apart from the necessary excursions for feeding and milking he spent the rest of the day indoors. He did not go over to Stunts—Cloute had promised to be there and would do all the better for being left to himself. Nor was there anything that Alice wanted fetched, as she was going home so soon. . . . So he stayed indoors, where he had plenty to do—beds to make, rooms to tidy, meals to prepare, crocks to wash up—low currency in payment for the high privilege of being alone with her. Being indoors, moreover, was the best way of stopping himself watching the weather, and though he had to watch the almost hourly improvement in her health and spirits he told himself firmly that he was glad to watch that. Of course he was glad.
"Kemp," she said soon after they had come downstairs, "shall I show you how to make an omelet?"
"Why not? I'm so much better that I feel quite hungry. Let's have an omelet for our elevenses."
"Werner showed me," he said humbly, "but I forgot."
"Well, perhaps you'll remember if I show you."
He certainly would. He would remember all his life how an omelet was made. But he did not suppose he would ever make another after she was gone. Under her direction he broke the eggs and put plenty of butter into the pan, and the omelet turned out just right, she said. But after all the talk there had been he personally was disappointed. He found it a most unsatisfying dish, neither tasty nor filling. It wasn't in his line of cookery at all.
They had just finished eating it when she said:
"You look uncomfortable, sitting up like that. Can't we be cozy together with an armchair each?"
"I might fetch one from the drawing-room."
"Or we might sit there."
"Sit in the drawing-room!"
She began to laugh.
"Don't look so shocked. A lot of people do it."
What was she laughing at this time? The most puzzling thing about her was her laughter.
"I sit there when I've company."
"And aren't I company? . . . No, I know what you mean. But did you never sit there with Joan?"
"Never. We sat mostly in the dining room."
"I'd rather sit in the kitchen than the dining room. But I think you ought to have a nice drawing-room to sit in—with an aspidistra."
She seemed to be laughing at him now. He did not know what to make of it.
"I haven't got an aspidistra. And you don't ever sit in the drawing-room."
"Our house is different. I use my kitchen as a living room. But then I haven't got a daily help crashing about in it. If I had I certainly shouldn't sit there. Do let's go and sit in the drawing-room today."
"But why . . . anyway, you can't sit there. It's colder than outdoors."
"That's just it, Kemp. It wants living in badly. Why not go and light a fire at once, and we'll sit there after dinner. All it wants is warmth and ventilation."
He knew she was right there, but he did not want to sit in the drawing-room for all that. "I don't like it," he said doggedly.
"Why not? It's a very nice room. Of course it wants doing up—two coats of cream distemper and the furniture sorted out. Then it would look very nice indeed. It has good proportions and a pleasant view. I was thinking what a good room it was the other day, when I was in there waiting for you."
Had she been able to think about a thing like that?
"That's just it," he cried.
She suddenly looked serious.
"You mean because of what we said to each other in there?"
He nodded, for he could not speak—the memory of that half-hour in the drawing-room was like a cold hand laid over his mouth.
"My dear," she said gravely, "if that's your reason it's a bad one. You're letting the place get haunted. I can't go away and leave you with ghosts in the house."
"I reckon you'll have to. There'll be nothing but ghosts here when you're gone."
"Now, Kemp, you're not to say that. You know we agreed not to talk about my going away."
He grinned at her.
"Who started it?"
"Well"—with a laugh in her eye—"perhaps I did. But I didn't mean to talk about it except as it concerns us now. If I've made that drawing-room a bad room, all the more reason why we should sit there today and put another set of memories into it—some really nice ghosts. You and I must sit in the drawing-room like an old married couple and have a pleasant, friendly, cozy evening there. We must forget about everything else. This is a Sunday without a Monday, or any sort of week. It hasn't got a week before or after it. It's just today."
"All right," he said. "I'll go and light the fire."
But lighting the fire was only a minor engagement in the reoccupation of the drawing-room, though an exceedingly difficult one. He was glad that he had plenty of logs, for it took many trugfuls of them to get the thing going. To make this room really warm, thought Kemp, you'd have to burn it down. But rather to his surprise, it was warm by teatime.
"I told you it was a good room," said Alice.
It was certainly a very different one. Under her direction he had shifted quite a lot of furniture. She had made him move out most of the chairs, and he had stood them in the outer kitchen, which had not been used since his parents died. Today it looked like a furniture store, stacked with chairs and stools and small tables that Alice said must be put away.
"But what am I to do with them?" he asked. "They can't stand here forever."
"Sell them. You'd get a good price for them now. Or you might give some of them away as wedding presents to young married couples who can't buy enough new furniture for their homes."
"But if you think them ordinary, others might too."
"It isn't so much them as their numbers that are 'ordinary,' darling Kemp. You want some space in your drawing-room."
There was unquestionably space there now, too much, he thought. The room looked bare, though it still contained things that she said ought to go if only they weren't too big to be moved singlehanded. Also the pictures were still thick on the walls, for when he had taken some of them down they had revealed such blotches and discolorations that she changed her mind and told him to put them back again. He remembered the clear spaces and shadowy whiteness of Stunts Farm and thought it might be the walls which made the drawing-room still look unlike the rooms he had seen there.
Alice, however, seemed pleased with the changes she had made.
"That's a really nice old chest, now you've given people a chance to see it. And that's beautiful china on the mantelpiece—real Staffordshire, I'm certain."
"My mother brought it with her from her home. It belonged to her family."
"Then I'm glad we've separated it from all that rubbish and put it where it shows up well. Now we can sit by the fire and look at it. And when you distemper the walls, you must take out that Edwardian grate and make a brick fireplace with an oak shelf for the china."
He looked away, so that she would not see what he thought of this idea. Another, almost as disconcerting, was that they should have tea out of his mother's Coleport tea set.
"I'd never dare."
"But it's a shame," she said, "to keep it shut up in that hideous cabinet. Beautiful things should be for daily use."
"They'll be broken for sure in the washing up."
"No, they won't, for I'll wash them up myself."
"I'd never let you do that."
"It isn't the sort of work you ought to do."
"But, my dear . . ." she looked at him in astonishment. "It's the sort of work I'm always doing."
He knew it was, and he could not explain why all his thoughts of her were fixed in idleness.
"It's not the work I'd have let you do," he mumbled.
"But that's nonsense. You'd have had to. If that's what you feel, it's a mercy—" she twisted the sentence into—"Let me wash up your Coleport china. It'll be a treat to wash up anything so lovely."
He saw that he was being silly.
"All right—if you'll let me dry."
"Of course I shall—the husband's privilege, though not always availed of. This is going to be a real Darby and Joan Sunday."
Certainly the Goleport china was more worthy of the day than the utility and chipped "export rejects" to which most of his domestic crockery had been reduced. He and Alice sat by the fire together drinking tea out of the shadows of an old English countryside. On Kemp's cup was a picture of Tintern Abbey, on Alice's a cave in Derbyshire. They had eggs for tea and a pile of buttered toast, for Alice was as hungry now as before she had been reluctant to eat. He tried not to notice her appetite, just as he tried not to notice the weather.
There was just a moment, however, when he was forced to notice the weather. Sometime after darkness had fallen and he had drawn the heavy green curtains over the window they heard a whispering sound. At first he thought it was the fire, but after a time he realized that it came from outside. It seemed to be all round the house—something whispering, with every now and then a small tinkle and patter.
. . . "My God!" he cried, "it rains!"
"You said that in just the same voice as you might have said 'My God! the house is on fire.'"
Well, the two things weren't so very unlike, as it happened.
"I'm surprised. I'd never have thought the weather had changed enough for rain."
He drew back the curtain, but could see nothing outside—only the lights of the room on the dark pane. With some difficulty he pushed up the rotting sash and put his head out. The night was void and shapeless, for the stars were hidden and the moon would not rise for some hours yet. He could feel the rain falling on his head and hands, chill as ice, but undoubtedly rain. The wind was roaring away in the trees at the back of the house.
"Queer," he said, as he drew back his head out of the nights cold mouth, "the wind's still in the east."
"Why is it queer?"
"You don't usually get rain with an east wind—not in this sort of weather. That's the wind which has brought all the snow."
"'The east wind doth blow and we shall have snow.' Well, perhaps we shall later on."
Yes, there was always a chance that the rain might turn to snow. Hope would not be dead till tomorrow morning.
"Hark," he said, "I can hear the church bells. That wind's certainly from the east."
She listened to the frail sounds creeping through the meshes of wind and rain. Sometimes the bells seemed quite near, sometimes almost in another world.
"Do you think anybody will go to church this evening?"
"Not more than a few, I reckon—folks living near."
"Kemp, do you ever go to church?"
"Not as often as I used—only sometimes."
"Why did you stop going?"
"Well . . . I couldn't say for certain. But I reckon it's mostly because my work gets in the way."
"It isn't that you've stopped believing the things that are taught there?"
"Dear me, no. I'd never do that."
"Lots of people have, you know."
Then he remembered that she never went to church, and he did not know what to say. He disliked talking about this sort of thing. But his silence only gave her a chance to go on.
"When I was a child I used to be taken to church and I hated it. I knew my parents didn't really believe in those things, nor any of their friends. I made up my mind I'd stop going as soon as I was old enough and I told myself that if I ever had any children of my own they shouldn't go. If they wanted to be religious after they were grown up, they could, but they shouldn't be forced into it as children."
"Don't none of your boys go to church, then?" Kemp was shocked.
"No. I'm leaving them free to make their own choice when they're older."
"But don't they have to go now they're at school?"
"I don't send them to that sort of school."
Kemp was horrified.
"Do you mean they're being brought up as heathens?"
"They're being brought up as civilized people. If they want any sort of religion later on they can have it."
"But how can they know what religion is if they don't have anything to do with it? How can they know what's right and wrong if they've never learned?"
"But they have. It's ridiculous to think that what's right and wrong is known only by religious people."
She spoke with a certain heat and he could feel his own temperature rising. He wished he had gone more regularly to church, so that he would know better how to defend what was taught there. His father and mother had always gone regularly, and his father had carried round the bag at evening service every Sunday. The memory seemed to take him right back into the strength and doggedness of his Saxon inheritance. He might have been one of the very last defenders of the Moat.
"Stands to reason," he said, talking like Reg, "you can't know what's right and wrong unless you've been taught the Ten Commandments."
"There's such a thing as a moral code. It varies at different periods and with different civilizations, but it sets just as high a standard as anything in religion."
Her eyes were bright now and her cheeks pink, just as they had been that first night when he had been so afraid she had a fever. She made him think of a woman preacher he had once heard, up at the old chapel by Bannister's Town. He had gone there one night with some other chaps, just to hear what Mr. Moon's sister could do. She called herself a lady evangelist and had a chapel of her own over in Kent. Standing there in the pulpit, her head held high, her eyes flashing and a bright red stain on each cheek, she had not been so unlike Alice at the present moment. He remembered wondering if she had had a glass of something before she stepped into the pulpit. But there was no drink in Alice's words—only heathen nonsense.
"I'll never believe," he cried, "that people who don't have any religion can live as good lives as those who do."
"How can you say such a thing! I've never noticed at any time that religion makes the smallest difference in human behavior. It gilds the pill, of course, which makes it easier for some people to swallow, but the results are the same. Look at you and me, for instance."
"What about us?"
"You believe in religion and I don't, but we're reacting in exactly the same way to the present situation. In fact, if anything, I'm being the more moral of the two; for I was the one who decided that it would be wrong for us to go on and snatch our happiness at the expense of other people's."
Kemp would not let that pass.
"You chose what you wanted most. If you married me you'd lose your boys. You had to choose between your boys and me. I'd no one else to choose, so I just went ahead till you stopped me."
"But I did want you, Kemp—I still want you. It's only that I've my duty toward my sons. I must do all I can to justify the fact that I've brought them into the world. I can't just push them on one side and go out for what I want myself. They didn't ask to be born—they weren't consulted."
Kemp thought he had never heard such nonsense. He wished she would not talk it and tried in vain to think of something that would stop or change the conversation. But no ideas came, so on she went with her lifted chin and flushing cheeks—the image of the Reverend Miss Moon.
"If you look into your mind you'll see it was much the same with you. You realized that if you persuaded me to leave my home and run away with you I should never be really happy, so you let me go. It shows how unselfishly you love me, but it has nothing to do with religion."
"I never said that it had. I never set out to be a religious man, but I don't like to hear those things talked against. They're good things, and if you bring up your boys without them you're doing them much more harm than if you ran away and married me."
"How can you talk such rubbish? My sons will lead much better lives if they're not brought up in a stuffy atmosphere of mystery and taboo."
She was quite angry now and so was he.
"All right. They're yours and you can bring 'em up as you like, but you can't kid me with the idea that you've given me up because of a moral code or any such nonsense. You've chucked me because you love them better and want them more, as you've a right to. It's a right I respect. What I don't like is your pretending it's something else."
"I'm not pretending and I never chucked you. How can you be so unfair? Before we'd planned a single thing I came to tell you we couldn't go on. I—I didn't even wait for you to come to me. I rushed up here—through the snow—hence all this," and she gave a high, forced laugh, which suddenly and amazingly changed to tears.
What had he done? He had made her cry. That was the end of their perfect day. Scrambling out of his chair, he knelt beside her and tried to pull down her hands, which she held in front of her face as she rocked to and fro.
"Don't—don't—my darling, don't cry. My darling, forgive me. I should never have said all that and it isn't true. You've always been good to me—always. Forgive me."
"You don't understand," she moaned, "you don't understand."
No, perhaps he didn't. It all seemed so queer and confusing. . . .
"Maybe I don't," he said, "but I love you."
"Oh, Kemp. . . ."
She had let him draw her hands away and he could see the tears hanging in her eyes and behind them, very small, his own face looking at him as it were out of her sorrow.
"My precious, lovely girl. . . . I love you. Say you love me."
"I love you," she said in an odd, faltering sort of voice.
"Then say you forgive me. Don't cry any more. I could kick myself from here to Hastings for upsetting you like this. I've spoiled our day."
"Oh, no. . . ."
"I have—by making you cry."
She pulled his handkerchief out of his breast pocket and wiped her eyes.
"I shan't cry any more. I'm silly. You didn't say anything worse than I said to you."
"But we've quarreled."
"And what if we have? It only makes us seem more like an old married couple. It's all part of the game."
The game . . . but he could not let himself be upset by a word. It was only a word—a word in her language, which was a language he knew he did not always understand.
"Oh, Alice. . . ." he smiled at her ruefully, and she smiled back. Their faces were still very close. "Oh, Alice. . . ." Their faces were too close. But suddenly hers was turned away.
She was looking toward the window.
Another strange sound was moving round the house.
"I don't know what it is. It can't be the rain. It rattles."
"A window somewhere?"
"No, it's the weather, all right"—the weather which had both started and ended their rather strange conversation. "I'll look out and see what I can see."
But again he could see nothing, either from the window or from the front or the back door. The night was black and though the rain had not turned to snow the wind bit like ice. From everywhere seemed to come that ghostly rattle. The air was full of a sort of clatter and chatter. He had never heard anything like it before.
"It seems to be in the trees," he said as he came back into the room, "but I can't see a thing."
"It's uncanny. It makes me think of bones—skeletons dancing. . . ."
"I reckon it's the branches of the trees rubbing together in the wind. But I've never heard them make a noise like that."
"I tell you what it is—all the old people who've lived at Eggs Hole ever since it was built have come to pay us a visit and have joined hands and are dancing round the house."
Kemp thought: They'd have been more welcome if they'd let me kiss you first. Then he thought: Maybe they came just at the right moment.
The fit was over now, and the evening sinking comfortably from its emotional and controversial heights, finished on a practical level. They had supper—another cheese fondue for Alice, plenty of ham for Kemp and plenty of sausage pie. Then Alice asked him:
"Who mends your socks?"
"Mrs. Wood, I reckon, when she has the time."
"She hasn't been here for days. I'm sure there's some mending I could do."
But that was an even more incongruous picture of her than washing up.
"I couldn't bear to see you do it."
"My dear man, I'm always mending socks. What extraordinary ideas you have about me. Run upstairs and see if you can't find me some of yours."
So he found her one or two good pairs that had very small holes in them, and they finished the evening, sitting each side of the fire almost silently, he with his pipe, she with her darning, as if they had been married for years.
Kemp always slept late on Monday. To make up for having had all the work of the place to do on Sunday he left the milking on Monday morning to Reg and Werner entirely. Often he did not wake till seven or half-past, but if habit prevailed and he woke at his usual hour, he was just as pleased to lie lazily enjoying the sensation of the work going on without him and a day that was already well begun.
This particular Monday he woke around seven from a disturbing dream. He did not often dream, but that early morning, just before waking, he dreamed that he had died and gone to heaven, which was a queer snowy place, most unlike his waking ideas of it. Right into his dream had crept the comfort of knowing that now forever he would be with Alice. But when he went to look for her she was not there. His mother's room was empty, and the kitchen with the chair where she had sat. Then in his dream he remembered that yesterday he and she had made the drawing-room comfortable and had sat in it together, so he went to look for her there—only to find Joan. She was sitting by the fire, and she said "it's getting warmer. There's a thaw. Can't you hear the rain?" He could hear the rain falling, making a great noise as it fell, like bones rattling. In shock and misgiving he awoke.
His first sensation was relief. It's only a dream. Alice had not gone away, she was still close to him, asleep in his mother's room. But for all that the dream left an unpleasant taste of reality, with an added strangeness of fear and discomfort which was not in reality yet.
He lay there, his body warm and lazy, his mind much otherwise. From behind the thick curtains the daylight was fanning into the room. He tried to read the day in the light. The sun must be up now—was it shining? He could hear no rain, but was it falling silently? Or had it turned to snow, the old familiar snow, the generous friend, the giver of gifts, blocking roads, enclosing farms, shutting lovers into the same house?
He got out of bed and padded across the room. He thought it seemed colder again. When he pulled back the curtain, what should he find? Green or white? He felt unwilling to know, and told himself sharply that it made no difference. Now that Reg and Werner were both here again they would get the drive clear, snow or no snow. So don't be a fool, Kemp Silverden. He pulled back the curtain.
Then for a moment or two he stood silently staring. His eyes were fixed on the glass tree. It was a thing he had never seen before, though he had seen it every day. The big oak in the hedge of the home field had been since childhood a familiar sight from his window. By this time he knew its shape, its frame of boughs and twigs, almost by heart. He had thought he knew it too in every dress, from April's silk to November's sackcloth. He had seen it trimmed with snow, an ermine edge to every branch, with tassels hanging over the field. But today the tree was glass, pure glass. There was no adornment but a complete transformation. It stood a glass skeleton against a cloud, white against black, so fragile that the wind must surely break it in a moment, break it up completely, leave no tree.
He stared. Then he saw that the hedge beneath was also glass, sprays of glass, glass spines soaring with the ash or bunching on the thorn. Reg had apparently laid along glass benders bound with glass withes. It did not shine because there was no sun, but it was transparent, translucent, fragile as the tree. He almost waited for the whole thing to break up in slivers. Down in the garden it was the same—glass, nothing but glass. Yet here was a difference, for you could see the dark leaves of the laurel and the ivy under their sheathes—the leaves of the box hedge too, not roughly glazed but each leaf a single perfection of light and darkness.
Never in all his life and experience of the vagaries of the weather had he seen anything like this—so beautiful and strange. It was something entirely new even in this winter's fantastic repertory. He had become used, as it were, to the unfamiliar, but this was the unknown. He could only gaze at it in silent wonder while his mind slowly accustomed itself to the dreamlike unreality of all he saw. Then his first thought came—I must tell Alice. We must look at this together.
He dressed quickly and ran down to the kitchen to wash and shave, for, much as he longed to show her the marvel and sure as he was that at any moment it must melt away, he would not appear before her unshaven. All the time he cast anxious glances through the window. He saw her view now—what she would see from her bedroom. The barns and stacks were still hooded with white, but the sides of the stacks were like brushes, each straw a separate bristle of glass. Beyond them the orchard, which many times this winter had been as white as May, was white again, but with a difference; for the trees no longer carried the cold blossom but had themselves been woven into a silver web, which trailed beyond them over Moat Wood and Ellen's Wood, right up to the dark sky.
None of this had dissolved when he saw it through the staircase window. He knocked at Alice's door, scarcely able to wait for her to say "Come in," and felt childishly disappointed when he found that she was already out of bed, standing in her dressing gown beside the window.
"Kemp," she said immediately, "what is it?"
"I reckon it's last night's rain frozen on the trees. I've never seen anything like it."
"Nor have I—nor anything so beautiful. It's like an enchantment."
"I wish you hadn't seen it before I came. I wanted to show it to you."
She smiled at him.
"My dear! . . ."
"This must have been why the branches made such a rattle last night. The wind was blowing them. It's still enough now."
"Still as glass."
They looked out together at the glass world.
Would that glass world shut them in as securely as the old snow world? It was the question he asked himself but would not ask Alice. There had always been the possibility, though not the certainty, that she might go today. Monday was a day he could not count on, unless those glass walls were stronger than they looked.
He found Reg and Werner in the yard when he went out after breakfast, so apparently it was easier to move about in a glass world than a snow one, for they had both arrived in good time and had finished their milking. The fact was, as Reg explained, that the rain had not frozen below a foot from the ground. The ice was entirely the wind's work and on the ground itself there was a thaw, with the grass patches that yesterday's sun had sown in the meadows widening their green. He asked about the drive—had Reg seen if the big drift was still there?
"Aye, he's there, but he's nšun but a riddle now. We'll have him out of the way by evening."
Kemp made no comment. Perhaps he had been a fool to hope that he and Alice might still be safe within walls of glass. He asked instead if Reg had ever seen anything like this before.
"No, never I haven't, not in all my days. Nor has nobody else. I called around on old Mus' Piper on my way here, on purpose to ask, and he'd never seen nor heard the like of it and he's ninety-three. He says it's unnatural."
"It won't do the trees any good if it stays. But I reckon it's bound to melt soon."
"I aŁn't so sure of that. I broke off this twig ten minutes ago and pulled the wood out of it, but the case aŁn't melted yet"—and he showed Kemp a perfect little glass tube. "It'll snap some of the boughs for certain sure. Up at the throws they've got birds sitting freezed to the telegraph wires. Werner saw them from the bus."
"Did you ever see anything like this, Werner?" asked Kemp.
"Yes, often before, at home," said Werner, spoiling it all.
Reg looked at him severely.
"Well, it aŁn't the sort of thing we expect in this country. Maybe it's come from Germany. It'll do more damage than the doodlebugs."
Further strictures were prevented by the arrival of Tom Chantler with the letters. He said he had wheeled his bike right up the drive—it wasn't possible for cars yet, but you could walk up the middle. No, the letters weren't for Mr. Silverden but for Mrs. Candelin. He had heard she was at Eggs Hole and it would save him the half mile to Stunts Farm, which was at the end of his round.
Kemp took the letters, and this time he was not so strong-minded as he had been at the postbox. He glanced through them, and there sprawled the preposterous writing of the preposterous man on an envelope as blue as his summer shirt. Well, what did it matter? Alice was going anyhow. If she did not go today she would go tomorrow. He would take the letters up to her at once.
As he went through the garden he broke off a glass leaf and laid it at the top of the pile. It had not even begun to melt when he entered the room.
"Kemp, how beautiful! Let's—oh, here's a letter from Ronald. I must see what he says. He may be coming home earlier."
She tore the envelope and Kemp broke the leaf, taking the green laurel out of its sheath and holding the glass laurel on the palm of his hand, perfect even to the veins. It was still there when Alice had finished reading her letter.
"He's coming home on Thursday and wants me to order the taxi to meet him. When do you think I shall be able to get home, Kemp? Today?"
He found that he was going to fight for today.
"The drive won't be clear before the evening."
"I could go then."
"What's the sense of going after dark? You couldn't do anything to get the place straight—not with your sort of lighting." There was a small fling at Candelin in that. "Besides, you haven't seen the doctor yet. We must wait and hear what he says."
"I'd forgotten all about the doctor. It shows how much better I feel. All right, we'll wait till he's been before we decide. Now listen, Kemp. He's found a place."
He thought she was still talking about the doctor.
"Ronald—he's found a farm."
"Yes, a hundred acres near Horncastle, with a good house and buildings. Vacant possession on Lady Day."
So soon, so soon. . . . And she didn't seem to mind. She was cheerful, almost one might say, relieved. Perhaps after all that had happened she no longer felt unwilling to leave the country of the Moat. Well, no doubt she was right and he was a fool to feel suddenly so bereft. He tried to say something but could not manage it. Instead he stood staring silently at his clenched hand in which a glass leaf had turned to water.
That was a day of traffic at Eggs Hole. Tom Chantler had not been gone a quarter of an hour before Mrs. Wood arrived—to Kemp's surprise, for on consideration he had decided that she would not turn up for some days yet.
"Well, here I am. Sorry I couldn't come before, but I've had a shocking cold."
"Then I'm afraid this isn't a good day for you to be out."
"Oh, it's not so bad as it looks, and I didn't like to leave you any longer—not with Mrs. Candelin in the house. Proper shake-up it must have been for you."
"So you've heard all about it?"
"Yes, Wood heard it up at the Wheel and how Rose Artlett's been doing for you. You don't want to be going on with that."
So she had come to stop it, and he could not tell her how much better he liked Rose's cooking.
"Well, I'm very glad to see you," he said lamely, becoming aware that he was very sorry indeed.
She could see through the door into the outer kitchen.
"What's all this?"
"Oh . . ." he had forgotten the stacked tables and chairs. "Mrs. Candelin and I—Mrs. Candelin thought it would be a good notion if we turned out the drawing-room."
"The drawing-room!" She stared at him. "Turned it out!—what for?"—and her face added, "you must be crazy."
He followed her down the passage.
"Mrs. Candelin thought it would be improved if the furniture was a little thinned out."
"Um. . . ." She stood in the doorway and flung the accusation, "You've been sitting in here."
"Yes, Mrs. Candelin felt so much better that she thought she'd like to come downstairs, and she—I mean I—didn't quite fancy sitting in the kitchen. . . ."
"When's she going?"
"I hope!—before she turns your house right upside down."
At that moment Rose Artlett walked in and there were fresh exclamations of surprise and dismay.
"I don't like it, Kemp. I suppose it's high class and artistic and all that, but I don't like it. It looks so bare."
"Might be the workhouse," said Mrs. Wood.
But Rose was not asking for her support.
"I'm glad you've had a fire in it, however. I always thought it was bad for the room never to have the fire lit."
Mrs. Wood came back at her.
"That's all very well if you haven't got to save fuel."
"Well, you haven't—not here. There's plenty of logs. This room ought to have a fire in it and be aired and dried out once a week."
There were evidently three different female opinions on the proper care and keeping of the drawing-room. Mrs. Wood looked as if she was going to say something very rude when, to Kemp's relief, Rose forestalled her with:
"How've you been getting on with the cooking? Any more wonderful fancy dishes?"
"Well, she showed me how to do the chops a different way. I can't remember what she called it, but there was a lot of herbs and vegetables."
"A chop's a chop," asserted Mrs. Wood.
"If I'd done 'em," said Rose, "they'd have been fried and smothered in onions. You'd have liked that, wouldn't you, Kemp?"
Yes, he would. He could feel his mouth water just at the thought.
"They were very good, though, all the same."
"Well, you won't be wanting me any more," said Rose.
Kemp might have told her that he liked her cooking best of all—her plain, good, tasty cooking, with lots of filling stuff in the way of potatoes and dumplings. But he could not bring himself to say anything that seemed to reflect on Alice. Mrs. Wood evidently took his hesitation as a testimonial.
"No, he'll be having one of my nice stews today, with the Sunday leftovers. I bet you missed my stews, Mr. Silverden, while I was away."
"I should have missed them still more if it hadn't been for Rose. She's been a wonderful help." He turned to her, "There's no good my trying to tell you how grateful I am."
"No there isn't. And I'll push off now, as I expect Dad could do with me in the bar. So long, Kemp. Oh, by the way, how's Mrs. Candelin? When is she going home?"
"She's much better and I reckon she'll go home tomorrow."
"That's good news. Good-by for now and we'll look forward to seeing you up at the Wheel tomorrow evening."
She went out, followed by a snort from Mrs. Wood.
"Sidy sort of piece she's turned into. I'm glad you don't have to depend on her any more, sir, and I'll lay the drawing-room fire, so as you can sit there again this evening if Mrs. Candelin fancies it."
Kemp felt bewildered. In one sentence she had called him sir and offered to lay the drawing-room fire. What was she getting at? Surely she didn't think he would or could take on Rose as his housekeeper instead of her. Then suddenly he thought: Maybe she's scared I'll marry her and she'll lose the job that way. Well, let her think it if it makes her look after me better.
"Thank you," he said, "and then you will please make the stew—and put plenty of herbs in it."
He never thought she would put the herbs in, but she did. In fact she put in so many that Alice could hardly eat the stew and it certainly tasted queer. They had their dinner in the dining room. It was the first time they had eaten together in there and for most of the meal Alice was looking round her, asking whose were the photographs on the wall and telling him how she would like to rearrange the furniture.
He could not tell her the names of half the people in the photographs. Many of them belonged to his mother's family, he thought. Alice said they ought to go, because they were faded and obviously meant nothing to him. He explained to her that they meant a lot, because they were his parents' friends and relations and had been there as long as he could remember. He did not expect to convince her, but when she gave him one of her sudden tender smiles, he knew that he had.
"You must take no notice of me, Kemp. I'm always trying to change your rooms about. It's none of my business really and I don't believe you think I've improved them in the least.
"Yes, I do. I think it's been a great idea to dry out the drawing room. Rose Artlett was uncommon pleased when she heard we had a fire in it last night."
"Has she been here, then? I suppose she didn't know that Mrs. Wood was back."
"No, she didn't know."
"She's been a good friend to you, Kemp, over this. Is she in love with you?"
He felt awkward.
"I'll never believe it."
"But you look as if you thought some people did."
"Well, one or two did hint. . . . But that was before she went into the A.T.S. She'd never have gone if she'd been in love."
"On the contrary. Love's always been a good reason for joining the army—at least with men it has, and I don't see why the same shouldn't go for women."
"I'll never believe it."
Alice was going to say something further when from the window they saw the doctor walking up to the front door.
"Hullo, here he is," said Alice. "I wonder what he'll say about me. He'll think he's worked a marvelous cure. Not that he can ever have thought very badly of me, or he'd have called before this."
She stood up and went to the door without her stick, as if she wanted to show how well she could walk. She reached the door just as Mrs. Wood opened it.
"The doctor to see you, mum, and I've put him in the drawing-room. The fire's lit," she added triumphantly.
Alice went out and Kemp waited. He felt nervous, just as he had when he waited before, but then it had been for a different reason. Then he had been afraid that the doctor would find her very ill, with broken bones and inflamed lungs. Now he was afraid that the doctor would say she was quite well and able to go home as soon as the drive was clear. He knew that she was very much better, but there was just a chance that the improvement was not so great as he and she and the nurse thought. The doctor might think she ought to lie up a bit longer—till Wednesday perhaps. There was still hope and that hope was the measure of his fear.
Soon both were ended. He heard the drawing-room door open and went out into the passage. Alice and the doctor were there.
"How is she, doctor?"
"Doing fine. Grand stuff that penicillin—cure anything from toothache to pneumonia."
"And he says I can go home tomorrow," said Alice.
At least tomorrow was not today.
"I said I thought you might if you took care. But there's still some discoloration and tenderness, though the swelling's gone. You mustn't overdo things."
Kemp smiled wanly. Once more he helped the doctor on with his duffel coat and watched him go, wishing he were Dr. Fennel. The old doctor would not have given Alice penicillin. He would have prescribed something out of a bottle, and Kemp would have bowed his head into the eastern assault and struggled up to his surgery in Leasan Street to fetch it; and Alice would have got well, but not so soon. She had got well too soon. He wished now that she had been longer about it—not in danger, of course, or in pain, but cozily convalescent, lying upstairs in his mother's bed, in the warm red room. It seemed to him now that their happiest hours had been spent in that room, when she lay in bed and he sat by the fire and the red light danced on the walls and the stars shone through the window.
"Kemp, what are you thinking of? You look miserable."
"I'm thinking about your going home tomorrow."
"My dear . . . he says I can, and I must."
"I think you ought to stay till Wednesday—or even Thursday morning."
"I couldn't possibly. I've the place to get straight. Besides, it's better for us both that I should go."
Well, perhaps it was. But he said:
"I'm sure he thinks you ought to lie up for another day or two. It's only that he didn't like—"
"To wish me on you any longer. Darling Kemp, how you are misunderstood. But I must go back all the same."
"But how will you manage? He said you weren't to overdo things. Most likely he's got no idea that you've all the house to look after and no one to help you. I'm sure he wouldn't let you go if he knew that."
"I'll manage all right. I'll get Cloute to help me with the heavy things."
"But—" Then an idea came to him. "I tell you what I'll do. I'll send Mrs. Wood down with you and you can keep her as long as you like."
He noticed that she seemed relieved.
"But you'll never manage without her."
"I'll manage all right. There's plenty of food in the house, and Werner can cook. He used to work in a restaurant."
"Well, it would be a help . . ." she hesitated, "if she doesn't mind."
"Oh, she won't mind—" and I don't care if she does, he thought—she'll have to go. "She'll enjoy poking round somebody else's house for a change. You'll have to keep an eye on her, but she works very well if you do that. My trouble is that I'm out most of the time."
"All the same I don't like taking her from you."
"It's what I want and you must let me do it."
He smiled, for he felt comforted by the thought that he had been able to make things easier for her. He almost forgot that the chief thing he had made easier was her leaving him.
Contrary to expectations the glass world lived all day. At noon it had still been there, for in spite of the gold and silver sky the sun did not shine and the air remained cold. White trees and white woods shone out of the dusk and gleamed faintly through the darkness before the moon. All the inhabitants of the Moat were agreed that this was the end of the great freeze, though on the length of its final, most remarkable stage, opinions were divided.
Werner, the only authority, said it would not last long, but his information was at a discount, because, as both Reg and Ernie solemnly agreed, England was not Germany. It would stay long enough to break all the trees and spoil the chestnut totts, and probably damage next season's fruit crop, as this was a time when the sap should be rising if things weren't unnatural. Reg went off home full of vague forebodings for tomorrow—forebodings which Kemp would not allow himself to use as the foundations of a new building of hope.
He and Alice spent their last evening very much as they had spent the one before, sitting together by the fire in the drawing room. But it was not the same. The walls of glass were not the same as the walls of snow—they saw through them quite plainly. They could no longer pretend that they were shut off from the outer world, from their own separated lives. They saw things as they really were and spoke of them freely—a little too freely, Kemp sometimes thought.
"Kemp, you must marry again."
How could she say such a thing to him? He looked at her reproachfully, but she only repeated:
"Kemp, you must marry again."
"Don't speak of it. If I can't have you I don't want anyone."
"Now, that's silly. You're quite a young man. You surely don't propose to live alone for the rest of your life."
He gazed at her, sitting in the firelight, as he had so often seen her—most of his memories of her would be in firelight—with the shifting sparks in her eyes and her braided crown of hair detaching itself on one side from the shadows behind it and on the other from the whiteness of her face. She wore her dressing gown—the soft veiling lines that belonged to her like the firelight—and her long, thin, lovely hands were folded on her lap. As he gazed at her he hated all other women.
"I'll never marry."
"You're talking nonsense, and if I really believed you I'd be miserable, for I'd think I'd spoiled your life. Of all the men I know you are the best fitted to be happy in marriage. The fact that your first wasn't very happy only means that you didn't choose the right person."
She had startled him out of his reluctance to talk about marriage.
"What makes you think I wasn't happy with Joan?"
"All sorts of things you said and didn't say. I think you weren't happy—you weren't at your ease. I'm sure you loved her, but she wasn't the right sort of person for you."
He gazed at her, still wondering how she knew.
"Of course you were very young," she continued, "and you're still young, so it's quite right you should be looking round for another woman to make you happy. You thought you had found her when you found me."
"I had found her," he cried. "I wasn't looking for her, but I'd found her."
"No, Kemp," she said firmly, "you hadn't found her. I could never make you happy—not really. I'd be much more difficult to live with even than Joan."
"How can you say such a thing? You've made me perfectly happy all these days we've been together. It's been like heaven. Don't tell me you haven't felt that too."
"I have felt it. It's been heaven, Kemp. But only because it couldn't last. If it could last we should soon be making each other unhappy. We're too unlike."
"I'll never believe that. I know we don't think the same about quite a lot of things, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be happy together. It's nice to argue sometimes. That was part of my trouble with Joan. We never seemed to have anything to say to each other, and I like talking."
"It isn't only talk."
"What is it, then? Nothing that need stop us getting on together. My father and mother were two quite different sorts of people. She came from a good family and had been to a good school, and he was just a tenant, farmer's son who'd been taught at the National. But you couldn't have found a happier couple. My father said to me—he said just this very thing—that in marriage there's always something you've got to give up to the other one. In his case it was watching cricket, which she couldn't abide, and with her I reckon it was reading books and poetry, which she never had time for. But they didn't neither of them so much as grumble about it."
"I know, Kemp, and there are thousands like them. But they're not you and me. The difference between us goes deeper than cricket, or even books and poetry. You don't know me, really—don't know me at all. You've only seen the best side of me. Believe me, there's another side and you wouldn't like it."
"I don't believe you. I don't believe there could be anything in you that I wouldn't like. I know we've all got our weak points, but if you could put up with mine I certainly could put up with yours and only love you better."
She laughed rather uneasily.
"We're talking as if this was more than of academic interest. We can't ever be married, so it's rather a waste of time to argue whether we should be happy together or not. What I'm trying to make you see is that you mustn't stay single just because you can't have me. You must marry again and next time you must marry to please your father."
"What on earth do you mean by that?"
"Well, I've told you that there are two different people in you—your mother and your father. When you married Joan you did it to please your mother's side. She didn't belong to this neighborhood and she'd had a different sort of upbringing. It was the same when you met me—I was a stranger, someone from outside, someone with something of your mother's tastes and education, though in my case with many extra twists and turns. Next time you must choose somebody who lives in these parts, somebody as honest and practical and knowledgeable and goodhearted as your father."
"She'll take some finding."
"Not if you look straight ahead and don't go stargazing."
"Well, don't let's talk about it any more. It only pesters me."
But there didn't seem much else to talk about. The words dropped between them and grew cold, like embers falling from a grate.
The next morning Kemp woke suddenly from a deep sleep. For a moment his eyelids fought with the light. The room seemed full of swords, stabbing between the curtains, shining in the glass. He must have overslept. The sun should not be up before him at this time of year.
He sprang out of bed, his mind still muddled with sleep but concerned for his lateness and for the sunshine that told him no miracle had happened to shut him and Alice into a new security. He pulled back the curtains with one hand while he grabbed his trousers with the other, asking himself at the same time if the glass world was still there or if it had dissolved before he woke.
It was still there, but it had changed. The oak in the hedge was still no earthly tree and the hedge no earthly hedge, but the cold austerity of the ice was gone, and the whole thing danced and burned with color, as the sun's rays made a prism of it. Before his eyes colored stars were born, rainbows flashed and faded, sparks ran to and fro. He stood there gazing, and in his heart was a new, troubling sensation. As a rule he did not think much about the beauty of things he saw. He took his countryside for granted, loving it as one loves a familiar face, without caring whether it is beautiful or not. But this new transformation was something beyond anything he had seen yet and it moved him deeply. As he watched it he was almost afraid, as if he had discovered a strange, unknown quality in the objects of his daily view. He turned away his eyes in a queer embarrassment.
Then, looking down, he saw Alice. She stood on the doorstep below his window, gazing into the prism. By contrast she looked solid and earthy, all the more because she was now fully dressed and wearing the overcoat and dungarees in which she had come to Eggs Hole all those mornings ago. In a moment or two he savored the tenderness with which one watches a darling who is unconscious of one's presence. Then, before tenderness could pass into pain, something must have intimated his presence at the window, for she looked up and smiled. She shouted some words and he opened the window to hear her better. In rushed an air which was at last the air of spring.
"It's like being inside a rainbow."
"You ought never to have got up so early."
"Nor you so late."
"I'll be down in a minute."
And so he was—hurrying to his work. But she would not let him pass.
"Kemp, it's just too marvelous. Have you ever heard those lines:
In a drear-nighted December, Too happy, happy tree, Thy branches ne'er remember Their green felicity.
I wonder if Keats had seen anything like this when he wrote them."
"I seem to have heard them before somewhere, but to me they don't make sense. Any way it isn't night—it's morning, and it isn't December—it's March."
"You're hardly a poet, are you, my dear? But isn't this a happy tree to look so bright and gay when it's frozen hard? It's lovelier now than it ever was 'budding at the prime,' so it doesn't need to remember any 'green felicity.' I'll take that as a good omen for us both."
"I don't see where we come in."
"We'll be like that tree. We shan't remember."
"But I want to remember. I'll always remember."
"Then you'll never be happy. Look at that tree—why should it be happier than you? 'Too happy, happy tree, thy branches ne'er remember their green felicity.' I tell you that tree's a good omen. And here's another. We're saying good-by in a rainbow."
"I don't believe in none of it," he said angrily, "omens, poems, rainbows and all that."
He edged away from her toward the cow lodge. Her words had darkened the colors of the world.
When the time came to leave Eggs Hole their departure was more prosaic and perfunctory than he would have thought possible. For one thing, Mrs. Wood went with them, for another, all his faculties were concentrated on driving the car over the difficult road. Lights still danced in and out of the glass trees and hedges, but the ground was a mass of slush over slippery ice. There were no drifts, but the car wallowed and skidded in the melting ruts, and his relief on arriving at the door of Stunts Farm was as great as he had expected his despair to be.
He carried Alice's suitcase into the kitchen, where Cloute had already lighted the fire. The room was warm and welcoming, and he felt again that sense of peaceful space which she had tried (in vain as he saw now) to reproduce at Eggs Hole.
"Well, here we are, Kemp. Thank you so much."
Her words in front of Mrs. Wood were conventionally polite.
"You'll be all right?"
"Yes, of course. Mrs. Wood will do all the hard work for me, won't you, Mrs. Wood? I shall just sit with my foot on a stool and order you about."
Kemp wondered if her cheerfulness was forced, or if her relief at getting home ahead of Candelin had really wiped out the anguish of parting. Whichever it was, he could not say good-by to her like this. It might be the last time he would ever see her—if she left Stunts Farm as soon as he expected. It would be an outrage to part as strangers. Mrs. Wood must be removed for the farce to cease.
"Where are you starting?" he asked, "upstairs?"
There was a flash of the old understanding between them as she said:
"Yes—if Mrs. Wood will go up, I'll come in a few minutes. The bed will need airing, so please, Mrs. Wood, will you change the sheets? You'll find a clean pair in the big press at the head of the stairs. I'll stay here to boil the kettle to fill the warming pan. We despise hot-water bottles in this house," she said lightly to Kemp, "but our consistency doesn't quite run to heating the bed with coals."
He said nothing as he filled the kettle from one of the buckets which the preposterous man compelled her to use instead of a tap. Then he sat down opposite her beside the fire. Only while the kettle boils. . . .
"When do you think you'll be leaving?"
"I don't know. We get the new place on quarter day, but we'll hardly be ready to leave here by then."
He suddenly realized that he did not even know the name of the new place.
"Where is it you're going?"
"It's called Hokeby Farm, near Spalding—you don't mean to write, do you?" she added as he repeated the address.
"I'm not much good at letters."
"And anyhow we'd better not write. If you love me, you'll forget me. I'm going to forget you as fast as I can."
If you love me, you'll forget me . . . so he could not say "I never will."
"We should take a lesson from the snow," she continued, smiling. "It comes and it seems to change everything. Then it goes and you can't even see where it has been. You had better be going now, my dear."
"The kettle hasn't boiled."
"Is that your clock? Very well, then—stay till it boils. It's beginning to sing."
"I want you to be happy," he said hoarsely, "and take care of yourself—now, I mean, as well as always. Don't wear yourself out and do too much."
"I shall be happy—in my own way—and I promise you to take care."
"Keep Mrs. Wood just as long as you like."
"I'll keep her till Thursday. I'll be perfectly all right then and it'll only fuss Ronald if she's here when he arrives. But, my dear, I'm most grateful to you for letting her come, and I only hope you won't be too uncomfortable without her."
He was trying to say something conventional when the kettle boiled.
"There, your clock has struck. You must go now."
They both stood up.
"Please kiss me," he said to her, "please."
She hesitated, seemed inclined to refuse, then lifted her face. They kissed, not with the tenderness of their first kiss or with the kindness of their last, but hungrily, sadly, hopelessly. When at last she drew away he almost wished they had not kissed at all.
For the rest of the day Kemp heard the small sounds round him as one hears distant music played without relevance in another room. On the drive home there was a constant pattering on the roof of the car as it brushed the ice off the laneside twigs. Back at the farm icicles cracked and clinked, and every gust of wind brought a musical fall from the trees. The ice did not drip—it fell tinkling to the ground. At the foot of every tree and at the bottom of every wall lay the broken glass. You could pick up a glass stick and look into it to see the tiny pipe where a twig had been, or hold the transparency of a broken leaf between your eye and the sun.
Reg said, "It thaws. We shall have the floods soon." Werner grinned and said, "Fine day." The hens crooned as once more they scuffed the midden heap, and the tegs bleated and the heifers lowed across widening pastures. While high in an oak which yesterday had been a perchless frame a missel thrush called the spring.
But closer, in his heart, was deadness and winter. The notes of life were like blows struck on a hollow shell—ringing because it is empty. He ate, he worked, he talked, he planned, but all the time he was going out of that room at Stunts Farm, walking away from Alice with stiff, unnatural steps. He had forced himself to turn and walk away, to drive away his car. He was still moving away from her, the day's unwilling passenger, each hour taking him further and further into the blankness of her loss.
It was five o'clock and Reg and Werner had gone home. The empty house stood gaping behind him, all the more desolate because it held the mockery of her presence in the changes she had made. He would get Mrs. Wood to put the drawing room back into its former state. Nothing should remain of her—she should vanish like the snow.
He set about finishing his various jobs on the farm. Then he would eat a quick supper and go up to the Wheel. He wasn't going to stay here to be miserable. The resolution gave him a sort of relief, though he felt no pleasure in the thought of company. It was something to do, it would take him away from the empty house, and in returning to the old routine he had a queer feeling of escape. . . . He could not tell from what, but certainly as he walked up the hill the last few days seemed to hold him less tightly and hurt him less.
The cold had not returned with the dark, and the small voices of the thaw had become louder and more numerous. Sounds of water had succeeded sounds of ice. As he walked up the hill he could hear the chatter of brooks, the gulp of springs, the murmur of ditches, while round his feet ran streams of melted snow. Even that hard white hill was softening and flowing with the rest of the world. Above him in the sky the stars had lost their hard glitter and hung smudged and soft over the woods, while in the air was the soft, sweet-smelling coldness of water—so different from the hard, bitter coldness of the frost.
The bar of the Catherine Wheel felt suffocating as he walked in. They evidently had not yet matched their fires with the new weather. It was nearly a week since he had been to the place at night—his last visit had been on Friday morning. There it was, as it had always been, with much the same people in it—Artlett and Rose, of course, and Fagge, and Green, and Crouch and Homard, all the usual lot, standing about with their pints and half-pints and reducing life to normal with their conversation.
"Hullo, Kemp" . . . "What's been happening to you all this time?" . . . "Welcome stranger." They greeted him and fell back into their talk about the weather. "This really is the thaw, I reckon" . . . "Maybe now we'll have floods" . . . "They've got them all over the shires according to the wireless" . . . "Good thing the Catchment Board finished their job on the Marsh before this started, or we'd be swamped too."
Kemp passed through their voices as he had passed through the small voices of the thaw, and went and leaned against the counter.
"Pint of bitter, please."
Till he had asked he had not noticed if Mr. Artlett or Rose was standing just there to serve him. Now he saw it was Rose.
"Hullo, Kemp. Nice to see you here again. Got rid of your lodger?"
"That's a mercy. I was so afraid she might think better of it and decide she was more comfortable being waited on hand and foot at Eggs Hole than managing for herself at Stunts."
"She had to get back."
Something in the way he spoke made Rose glance shrewdly at him.
"You sound sorry."
A sudden anger moved him against her denseness—the denseness of everybody. Why should everybody think that Alice—sweet, lovely Alice—must or could ever be a burden to him?
"I am sorry."
Rose's glance became a stare. "You liked having her!"
"Well ... it all goes to show. . . ." She was still looking at him. "Kemp!"
"What about it?" he said truculently.
"You look—you sound—you sound as if you were—you might be in love with her."
He had his drink in him now. "Well, so I am."
"So I am," he blustered. "And why shouldn't I be? Why should you all take for granted that I don't like her and am glad to get rid of her? She's the most beautiful woman I've ever seen, and the cleverest and the sweetest and the kindest."
Rose said nothing and at once he realized that he had said too much. It would be dreadful if his love for Alice became the gossip of a public house. All the things she feared might happen to her then—and through his fault.
"Don't tell anyone," he said awkwardly.
"No, I won't. I promise. And look here, Kemp—I'm sorry I spoke in that joking sort of way. I'd never have done it if I'd known."
"You couldn't possibly have known."
"No, I couldn't. No one could have thought for a moment. . . . Kemp, she's married."
"You're telling me."
"Does she know?"
He nodded. Rose moved along the counter, picked up a duster and began to wipe it, though there was nothing to wipe. Neither of them spoke till she stood opposite him again.
"Then. . . ."
"Oh, nothing's happened. She loves her boys and won't leave them. She's going away soon. He's found a farm near Spalding in Lincolnshire."
Rose moved down the counter again with her duster.
"Well," she said when she came back, "I can only say again I'm sorry I spoke as I did."
"Don't be sorry. You couldn't possibly know."
"Have another bitter."
"Thanks, I will."
She filled his glass.
"I've put a dog in it—and it's on me. Please. . . . You must let me do it, Kemp, after all this."
It had done him good to talk to Rose, and he was quite sure she would not tell anyone, not even her father. Something in him had found release, and he turned away from her to mix with the others feeling equal to anything they might say about Alice. But they did not say much. Their main interest was the weather—what would happen next, whether there would be floods, how soon it would be safe to plow. There was the usual yarning about other winters and prognostications of the sort of summer to be expected this year. It was all sensible, comfortable talk, men's talk, farmers' talk, and he enjoyed hearing it again after so long an interval. He stayed till time was called and went home in better spirits than he would have thought possible when he arrived.
The thaw was becoming noisy now and there was almost a rush of water down the hill. When he came to Eggs Hole gate he could hear a roaring which was the Eggs Hole brook, swollen almost to field level by the melting snow. The night seemed extra dark, because there were no white fields to throw back what little light shook down from the sky. The snow had ceased to cover the world, but only patched it where the shadows had been.
A little of his comfort had been lost on the lonely walk home, but a little of it went with him into the house to meet its emptiness. He went to bed at once, hoping that sleep might keep the tiny spark alive or even fan it with a dream.
But no dreams came, or rather no dreams with any shape or memory to leave behind them. He woke feeling tired and languid, as if something in him had melted with the snow. Drawing back the curtains, he looked out on a world in flux. The snow was there, but now only in shreds, leaving the fields queerly scored and striated with discolored pasture. The meadow hills between the farm and the village had lost their white enlargement and become small again. Soon all the world would have flowed back into its original shapes and colors.
He went downstairs and the day passed, full of jobs indoors and out, as he coped on one side with the absence of Mrs. Wood and on the other with the rising floods. The Eggs Hole brook was threatening to become a pond. "That old bridge of ours," said Reg, "has more than he can swaller"—and for most of the morning they were digging an escape for the water, before the drive was swamped. If only Alice had stayed two days longer she might have found herself a prisoner again. . . . He tried not to think of her, so near him at Stunts Farm, to wonder what she was doing, what she was thinking, what she was feeling. He pushed her out of his mind every time she came into it, which was every moment, and peered anxiously through the day toward the evening, using it as a telescope to see the bar at the Catherine Wheel, the jolly company, the relaxing talk with Rose.
At last it was evening, and he was there, drinking his beer and talking, though the talk had enlarged itself in a way that did not suit him. No doubt through Mrs. Wood, the knowledge of Candelin's new farm at Hokeby had been spread abroad, and many were the comments and the conjectures and painful the humorous sallies that the matter provoked.
"I wonder how much money he's dropped down the drain over farming," said Fagge.
"More money than any drain of his would hold, I reckon," grinned Homard. "Cloute says he hasn't got a foot that ain't choked, unless it's cracked."
"He'll be flooded out for certain sure," gloated Joe Green. "We'll see his furniture floating down the Tillingham—the removal men will have to fish for it."
"Maybe he'll let it go down to Rye and finish the journey by sea."
"Ha! Ha! Ha!"
Kemp turned away to Rose. He smiled at her and she smiled, but their talk did not work out as comfortably as last night.
"I feel for you, Kemp, but it would never have done."
"Why wouldn't it have done?"
"Well, for one thing, she's married."
"And is there no such thing as divorce?"
"Not for people like you."
"Because you don't really hold with it, for one thing. If it was anyone else you'd say it was terrible. Which is what everyone here would say. Oh, Kemp, think of the terrible, ordinary things they'd say about you."
They were both leaning over the counter, his right shoulder almost touching hers, his mouth so close to her ear that his words moved a curl to and fro as he spoke. It struck him they must look like a pair of lovers whispering together and he drew back a little.
"I'd have taken her right away," he said. "We'd have started a new life together in a new place."
"And you'd have missed your friends and your old home all the time and she'd have missed her children. You'd both have been miserable."
"No, we shouldn't—not if we had each other."
"I bet you would."
"Well, there's no use arguing about it now, seeing she wouldn't do it."
"No, she had more sense than you."
He felt hurt.
"You're not very sympathetic tonight. It's plain to see you've never been in love."
"Just as well I haven't if it means mussing up right and wrong."
"Now you're talking like a Sunday school teacher."
"That's what I am, so no harm if I talk like it."
From the other end of the counter Mr. Artlett broke into the conversation.
"You two sound like you're quarreling."
"No, we're only arguing," said Rose.
Kemp put his mouth back closer to the curl.
"She's going away with that bragging fool to the shires in a very few weeks, so don't be cross with me."
"I'm not cross with you—never was."
"But you're glad she's going."
"You'll be glad when she's gone. It 'ull be better and easier for you when she's far away."
Then the door opened and Candelin walked in.
The bar received him in gaping silence. There was none of the "Welcome, Stranger," that had greeted Kemp, nor did anyone ask him what had brought him home some twenty-four hours before he was expected.
"Well, this is good," he said rubbing his hands, characteristically unaware of any coldness in his reception. "Good to be back at the old local—even though it won't be my local any more after next month. I've found the place I wanted."
After a pause Fagge said:
"So we've heard."
"Heard already, have you? That's quick work. I didn't fix it up till last Friday and I haven't told anyone yet but the missus. I expect she told someone up at the shop-for she hasn't been round here, not since I went away. Silverden, you've failed lamentably as her esquire. You promised me you'd bring her up here at least one evening, and she tells me you haven't taken her out once."
The silence seemed to multiply itself by the number of people who were holding their tongues.
"But I'm going to stand you a drink all the same, for you've amply atoned for any lack of gallantry as an escort by giving her the loan of your housekeeper for these two days she's been hobbled. My missus—" he informed the company at large, "twisted her foot a couple of days ago—nothing very much, but enough to make housework difficult. Our kind friend hears of it, and sends down his housekeeper to help her. Friend Silverden, what'll you take?"
Kemp was almost incapable of speech. But as his normal reaction to such an emergency was to stare into his tankard he found in due time the words, "Another bitter, please."
"And what about everyone else? I'm standing drinks all round tonight, for I've had wonderful luck. I've found a real good place, the very place I wanted. So let's drink to it, all of us."
There were confused murmurs. Some wanted to refuse, but did not know how, and their stammerings were lost in a general mumble of "the same again."
Mr. Artlett as a good landlord recovered his senses.
"We were a bit surprised to see you tonight, Mr. Candelin. We thought you weren't coming back till tomorrow."
"Well, that had been my intention until this morning, when I found there was no reason for my staying away any longer, as most of the business relating to the deal has to be done in London. So I wired home and turned up this afternoon."
"And you've found a nice little place?"
"A very nice little place, just two miles from Spalding, but right off the main road and away from traffic. And it's a place that's been"—he leaned forward and mouthed the words to the assembly—"compost-farmed for the last five years."
"What does that mean?" asked Crouch with a parody of innocence.
"It means that for five years that land's been properly fed. And in return it's giving crops you'd never get off the starved clays round here. Are those drinks ready? . . . Thank you, Miss Rose. Then here's to Hokeby Farm. Drink with me, gentlemen, please."
Everyone drank, swallowing slowly to postpone the difficulties of speech. One or two murmured "Cheers," but most were silent. Then Fagge opened with:
"How many acres?"
"Small-holding," grinned Crouch.
"That's what it is—for Lincolnshire. Some of the farms there run to over two thousand acres, but on the other hand it is possible in that part of the world to live off a small farm. I can grow more stuff on half what I've got there than on the whole of what I've got here. Last year that land carried maize, oats, wheat, flax and potatoes as well as feeding twenty head of sheep, six dairy cows and two pigs."
As they were drinking at his expense nobody openly expressed the prevalent disbelief. But Fagge asked:
"Why is the present owner giving up?"
"The district doesn't suit his wife. It's rather a bleak spot, and of course this winter it's been simply terrible."
"How about your wife?" asked Crouch.
"Oh, she'll like it fine. She's strong and hardy. By the way, I gathered from her that you've had a shocking time down here this last week end—much worse than anything in East Anglia."
"Yes," said Joe Green, "it was pretty bad."
"On Monday," said Rose, her voice breaking abnormally into the closed circle of males, "everything you could see was turned to ice. The rain froze on the trees. It was pretty—like glass."
The unwonted feminine echoes seemed to drag a pause after them. All heads were turned to where she stood behind the counter. Then Candelin gave her a little bow:
"Beautiful, no doubt."
"Terrible, I thought," said Fagge. "Not a tree in my orchard but what has a broken bough. Any fruit?" he asked Candelin.
"One acre only—next the house."
The conversation closed up again round Hokeby Farm. The main curiosity was how much he had paid for it, though that only led to one less easily satisfied as to how he had found the money.
"The land round there 'ull fetch almost any price. I was lucky to get mine at no more than two hundred and forty the acre. But directly the chap knew I was meaning to run it as a family farm he just jumped at my offer. What he wanted to avoid in a purchaser, he said, was commercialism or incompetence. It was plain to see I was guiltless of the first crime, and after we'd had a good long crack together about farming ideals I could see I'd pretty well acquitted myself of the second. In the end he was practically begging me to take the place."
The audience listened in huge delight, convinced that Candelin had at last been meted out his doom. Only Kemp stood aside, hardly listening. His mind was too busy with his thoughts—even to take in the details of a folly that might involve Alice in its consequences. Indeed there were no follies but her own. What did she mean by not telling her husband about her adventure at Eggs Hole? For, quite plainly, she had not told him. He was completely unaware that Kemp's succor had extended to more than the loan of Mrs. Wood. Was it that she had not had a chance to tell him yet? He tried to calculate times and opportunities. Candelin had returned the same afternoon . . . but that would have given her plenty of time to tell him anything she wanted. . . . He knew that she had had some sort of an accident . . . "two days ago"—just to cover the presence of Mrs. Wood—he could hardly believe it.
Of course there was just the chance that among all his booming and bragging about himself and his farm she had hardly been able to get in a word of her own news. As he listened to Candelin's voice rolling like a traction engine over the other voices in the bar he realized the difficulties of interruption. Perhaps just when she had begun to give him the whole story he had said, "I must go up to the Wheel and tell the boys there about Hokeby," and she had put off the account to a more favorable time. She had always insisted that he would need careful handling—she might mean to tell him everything at leisure tomorrow.
He hugged this solution to him just because there was no other—at least none that did not reflect on Alice's common sense and integrity. It would not do for more than the moment, but at least it could go home with him tonight and let him sleep in his bed instead of lying awake and worrying. The future would soon reveal anything that Candelin knew. Meanwhile he was sick and tired of the whole business, and decided to go home. If he waited he might have to walk down the hill with the preposterous man, and though he knew that some men smarter than he might make that an occasion to find out more or even to attempt an explanation of their own he did not, at least tonight, feel equal to such a course. He was not afraid of any indiscreet revelations being made in his absence. The bar had already shown him that it shared his reticence, if also, doubtless, his bewilderment. So he whispered to Rose, "I'm going—I'm tired of this," and slid out into a night full of windy darkness and random shots of rain.
All that night the wind roared and the rain thrashed across the country of the Moat. On the hillside Moat Wood, Ellen's Wood and Cold Wood bellowed like the sea. Branches that had cracked under their moldings of ice came crashing from the trees or even blew away like ripped sails. The ground became a mess of fallen twigs, and from the roofs of barns and houses tiles that the frost had fingered loose slid over the eaves. The yard of Eggs Hole was strewn with broken tiles in the morning.
But Kemp slept through it all and was rather surprised to see the wreckage when he woke. Still more surprising, perhaps, was that he had slept through that other commotion—the one in his mind. He was grateful for this power of sleep. Thanks to it he felt equal to the new day, not only in its meteorological aspects but in others even more unquiet.
The wind still blew hard, but the rain had stopped, and as he looked out at the tossing green world he had for the first time a sense of deliverance from the snow. Nothing of it now remained—not a single line in a furrow, not one smear at the edge of a field. Soon even its discolorations would be gone. That foreign invasion was over, and here was the country that he knew—windy and shaggy and shaken, but once more his own. When he opened the window the air was full of the shouting strength of spring.
He began to whistle, then stopped as if ashamed. But he thought: Why shouldn't I whistle? It's better than thinking of those two at Stunts Farm. So he whistled while he finished dressing, but more defiantly.
The work on the Eggs Hole brook had been done so well that, in spite of the night's downpour, there was now no danger of floods.
"Mus' Candelin has something to thank us for," said Reg. "If we hadn't let out some of that old brook before it reached him he'd have been swamped, for he aŁn't got nothing down there that 'ud stop the water."
"He's got the Tillingham on his other side. Do you think that might swamp him?"
"No, for that aŁn't none of his draining. That's the Catchment Board's. I hear he's paid a check for five thousand pounds' deposit on his new place."
Kemp was used to having his evenings at the Catherine Wheel finished for him by Reg when he had left early.
"Heard when he's going there?" he asked, smoothing as well as he could the anxiety out of his voice.
"Well, he's got it from this next quarter day, but I don't see how he's to move till he's had his sale."
"Any idea when that's to be?"
"He's fixing it with the agents tomorrow. Going to Vinehall Market, he said he was, and he'll see Mr. Wright. He thinks it's going to be early next month, but there aŁn't time—they all told him that. He said he was sending his wife over to the new place, as soon as he'd got possession, with most of the furniture."
Kemp told himself that would be best, though it sounded dreary for Alice. He wondered if he would see her again before she left.
"Queer," said Reg, "her not telling him she'd been snowed up here."
Kemp started. Somehow he had not expected Reg to mention that subject.
"Laid up," was his futile correction.
"Snowed up and laid up," amended Reg, "from Thursday to Tuesday and all the village knows it. But she hasn't told him."
"Maybe she has, but he didn't listen—you know how he talks. Or maybe he hasn't given her a chance to begin."
"Well, if she hasn't told him," said Reg, "I'm not going to. But it seems a pity you shouldn't have the credit for looking after her all that while, and I think it's pretty ordinary for her not to have told him, so as he could thank you for it as he should ought."
"She may have told him and, if not, she still may. If she doesn't I hope nobody else will. She knows him better than we do. He's a queer chap and might take it queer."
"I don't see how he could, whichever way you look at it. But don't let it pester you, Mus' Silverden. Stands to reason we chaps aŁn't going to waste our tongues telling him what his own wife dŲan't want him to know."
And with these few kind words he withdrew to see to his milking.
Kemp was pestered all the same. He wanted to know how much Candelin knew and was determined to find out. Sometimes it seemed incredible that Alice should not have told him—later, if not at once. She could not know what Kemp knew about the local reticence. If she had not told Candelin she was a fool. He felt almost angry with her. He remembered her terror of being found at Eggs Hole, and wondered now if all along she had meant to concoct some story. Her husband's premature return might have caught her unprepared with it, and she had waited. . . . But it would be folly to wait too long. Reg and his friends might not like to waste their tongues, but they were not the only people who could talk. The doctor, the tradespeople, Cloute . . . well, Cloute he supposed came in with the chaps at the Catherine Wheel. He would not say anything. But there was Mrs. Wood. . . . Kemp half-thought of asking her to hold her tongue for the present, but on consideration the request seemed too ugly. It suggested there was something to hide, and as she had been at work only for one day of Alice's stay, she might not know that there was nothing. Nothing? . . . he blushed faintly. Technically there was nothing between him and Alice, but no one could say they had nothing to hide. Perhaps it was that consciousness that had kept her silent. . . . For the first time his integrity seemed to fail him and he had a feeling of guilt toward the preposterous man.
Well, no doubt the evening would show him something. He would go up to the Catherine Wheel, partly because he did not want to sit at home, but mainly because, whether Candelin was there or not, a visit must bring some sort of enlightenment. He did not want him to be there, he did not want to meet him and hoped to get his information at secondhand. But he would risk meeting him rather than remain in ignorance any longer.
It was as well that he had formed this resolution, for he ran right into him at the entrance to the bar. Candelin was coming out, dressed for the thaw in a flapping overcoat and open-necked shirt. Seen in the last fierce plunge of light that marked the sunset, he looked monstrous, a caricature of himself, and Kemp involuntarily stepped back, but too late to prevent the other gripping his arm.
"Hullo-ullo-ullo. So here you are, friend Silverden. I was afraid I'd missed you. You disappeared last night—I'd thought we might walk home together."
Kemp mumbled something.
"But you've heard my news. We leave for Hokeby this quarter day. At least Alice does. I shall have to stay behind for the sale, I suppose. I want to fix that up as soon as possible. Now I've got the new place I want to be off."
"Reckon you do."
"I shall go to Vinehall tomorrow and see Wright. Maybe I'll take some of my stuff along with me. Might do better with some things on a market sale."
Kemp moved his arm, but the grip did not relax. On the contrary, he felt himself being pulled toward the road.
"Look here, why don't you come home with me? I can give you as good a drink as anything you'll get inside the pub. My missus is first class at mulling ale. Come along and try some."
"Thanks—thanks.... But I—I've got one or two things I must see Artlett about and some of the other chaps." He smiled feebly. "Business, you know."
"Oh, yes—business, business—always business. But we must have a little pleasure sometimes too. My missus 'ull be disappointed if you don't come and spend an evening with us before we go."
Kemp murmured something about "Some other day."
"Well, let it be some day soon, that's all, for we'll have to start clearing out before long. I tell you what I'll do—I'll ask the missus. . . . You might have a bite of supper with us. She's a famous cook. Any day next week all right for you?"
Kemp heard himself saying "Thank you." His brain seemed to have stopped working, or rather to have concentrated on his removal from Candelin's detaining hand. He was free now, saying good night. Good night. Good night. Good night . . . a bitter, please.
"Hullo, Kemp," cried Fagge. "Was that Candelin you were saying good night to?"
"Yes. I met him as I came in."
"Remember to inquire after his wife's foot?" asked Joe Green.
There was a rumble of laughter round the bar.
"No, I clean forgot."
"Well, you needn't run after him. I can tell you. She doesn't even limp now—she's forgotten all about it, he says."
"Seems like it," giggled somebody.
"I can't make out why she's never told him," said Homard. "Does she think he'll think there was something up between her and Kemp?"
"He's a difficult sort of man," said Mr. Wilcox, the chauffeur at Moat Place. "He might take it the wrong way."
"I don't see what way he could take it," said Fagge, "except as a kind and neighborly action."
"He might take it any way, though," said Mr. Moon, "if she doesn't tell him and he finds out."
"He's sure to find out sooner or later," said Homard.
"Who's going to tell him?" asked Crouch.
The conversation languished, being no doubt merely a repetition of what had been said before Kemp's entrance. Only he could have given it a new lease, and he did not choose to. Instead he fell back from the ring of talkers and sought refuge with Rose. But Rose was not providing a refuge tonight.
"Kemp," she said in a low voice, "she'll have to tell him."
"I don't see how she can now. She's let it go too far."
"But it'll be much worse if he finds out."
"He won't find out if nobody talks."
"But they will talk. It's all very well for the chaps here to say they won't. I daresay they won't. They like thinking they know something he doesn't. But it isn't only them—everybody knows. And any day anyone may tell him the lot. Then he'll think there was something to hide. Kemp, you must make her tell him or tell him yourself."
"I'm not going to tell him."
"Then you must make her do it."
"How can I?"
"Write her a letter. Tell her all I've been telling you."
"I could never do that."
"Why not? It's the only thing to do."
"I could go and see her."
"No, don't do that. You'd much better keep out of the way. Besides, you'd never get a chance of talking to her in private. He'd be popping in and out the whole time. If you take my advice you'll write her a letter and tell her exactly what I've told you. Tell her you're shocked to find he doesn't know and it'll get you into trouble if ever he finds out, as he's sure to do sooner or later. Tell her not to be so silly."
"That's all very well. But it'll be hard for her to say anything now, as she's let it go so long."
He could not help taking Alice's part against Rose, though he agreed with every word she said. He could allow no one else to say the things that he thought.
"But you've got yourself to think of, Kemp. It isn't going to do you any good if he finds out she spent a week end at your place that he'd never heard of. Especially as she's given him to understand that she had her accident only two or three days ago."
"I can't think why she told him that."
"Oh, just to make it seem a small affair, as she couldn't pretend she'd had Mrs. Wood for more than two days. I tell you, Kemp, I know something about liars, having been in the army, and she's a damn bad one."
"That's a good sign, anyway."
"When you're as bad as that it's best not to be a liar at all."
Kemp was angry with her. She had been unsympathetic and she had criticized Alice. He could not forgive her.
"Well, I'm going home," he said, banging down his glass.
"But you've only just come."
"I've been here long enough. None of this is any help to me."
"Oh, Kemp. . . ."
But he hardened his heart. "Good night," he said gruffly.
"You ain't going, Kemp, are you?" . . . "You haven't been in the place ten minutes" . . . "What about a game of darts?" . . .
Their friendly voices followed him out into the wet and lonely night.
When he saw that it was raining hard, in cold, steady rods, he half-thought of going back. But it was only the hesitation of a moment. To go back might give Rose an idea that he was not really offended by what she had said and that this deliberate, outspoken criticism of his loved one could be forgiven as easily as those earlier remarks made in ignorance. He did not like quarreling with Rose, but she must mind her p's and q's. She had no right to say Alice was silly, knowing that he loved her. . . . She had been sympathetic at first, even though she obviously did not understand all that he felt and suffered. . . . But now she was critical—of Alice, and of him too it appeared.
He plunged on, with the cold rods beating his face and hiding his next footstep. The snow had been gentler than this. And when he got home the fire would be out and the house cold, for he had counted on staying at the Wheel till closing time and then going straight to bed. What time was it now? As he flashed his torch on his wrist watch the water ran down his arm. Only half-past seven. What was he going to do till bedtime? Again he thought of turning back.
But his mind had recovered some of the clearness it had lost in irritation, and he knew that he would not be at a loss for something to do when he got home. He had gone up to the Wheel on purpose to find out if Alice had or had not told Candelin. Well, he had found out—his object was fulfilled. And now he must do something about it. He had never meant to let the matter slide, in spite of all he had said to Rose. He had meant to do something about it, though he had not quite decided what. Now he saw that he would have to write to Alice and tell her straight that she must let Candelin know what had happened. It was Rose's advice, but it was the only possible thing to do. Rose had said he oughtn't to go to see her, and perhaps she was right—all things considered, perhaps he had better not.
He would write. He had half-thought of doing so before Rose said anything. "Tell her not to be so silly." That was what she had said—she hadn't said that she was silly. But it came to the same thing and she shouldn't have said it. He would be very careful what he wrote. He would tell Alice her husband was sure to find out, so she had better tell him—or he might think they had something to hide. . . . Well, they had, hadn't they?
He wished his mind would not take these twists just when he was getting things settled. But there had lately been moments when he could not hide from himself the conviction that if Candelin knew everything about those few days he would feel as outraged as if Kemp and Alice had made a proper cuckoo of him. For three days they had tried to pretend that he did not exist. If he could have persuaded her, she would never have gone back to him, and the reason he had failed was not that she loved her husband but that she loved her sons and could not trust her husband to look after them.
All this meant that the simple process of telling the truth was hedged about with so many concealments that one false step might lead to trouble. So it was hardly surprising that she had shrunk from it. She would have to be very careful what she said—better treat the whole matter as a joke. . . . But it would be difficult to pass it off so lightly that he would not wonder why she had never mentioned it before. I hurt my foot more seriously than you think—I did it on the Thursday of last week and it was on Kemp Silverden's land. Luckily he found me and took me up to the house and sent for the doctor. The snow was too bad for me to get home. How long was I there? . . . Let me see—I stayed till Tuesday morning, when it thawed enough for him to drive me back. . . . Would all that sound convincing?
Well, it might have if she had told him at once—sometime on the night of his return—I had such an adventure while you were away. . . . But at this date, at forty-eight hours' range, it certainly sounded odd. However she put it, it would seem like a confession, something held back for a favorable opportunity. Even Candelin could not have talked so incessantly since his return that she could say he hadn't given her a chance.
He felt his anger reviving against Rose for having laid this burden on his beloved. She knew nothing of her home conditions, of her difficulties with the preposterous man. Perhaps she was mistaken, and it was better, after all, to say nothing. Neither of the bars, private or public, would waste their tongues on Candelin. Rose had been right when she said they enjoyed knowing something that he didn't. They didn't like him and when you didn't like a man in the country of the Moat you didn't tell him anything—even things like sales and prices or the weather forecast. You just shut up like a clam, and Kemp could trust that clam not to open for twice the time that was likely to elapse before both the Candelins were safely out of the district.
But the talk was not only in the bars. There were the shops—the tradesmen who had visited Stunts Farm and heard all about it from Cloute and the tradesmen who had visited Eggs Hole and heard all about it from Reg. There was the postman who had brought her letters to Eggs Hole to save time and trouble. And there were their wives. Wives would talk and husbands could not stop them. Then in addition there were the doctor and the nurse, who would send the gossip round on another level. And there was always Mrs. Wood—and even poor Werner. . . . Things had been known to get round through the Jerry bus. . . .
He reached Eggs Hole firmly back in his decision that something must be done, and determined to set about it at once. The kitchen fire was out, but the room was still warm, so he fetched out his pen and his bottle of ink and a few sheets of writing paper and sat down at the table.
Then his mind went completely blank. He had a difficult letter to write. He had to persuade Alice to do a thing she had decided not to do and which would take a bit of doing. He could not for the life of him think what to say. He had never written that sort of letter before. He seldom wrote letters at all, and when he did they were on business: "Dear Sir, I am writing to ask your price per 100 spiles" . . . "Dear Sir, as to the plowing up of the field marked 103 on the map" . . . "Dear Mr. Crouch, please find enclosed my bill for the load of roots" . . . Even that gave him a lot of trouble. As for this . . . he sucked his pen, and thought of Alice scribbling away as she lay in bed, throwing letter after letter on the heap. His mother had written a letter from time to time, but in this respect he knew that he was his father's son. His father had never written a letter except on business, and even then would generally send just a bill: "Dung—4/—" or put the money in an envelope, "Potatoes—please find cash (17/6)." Those of course were the days before the War Ag had turned unwilling farmers into scribes. It had certainly taught Kemp how to write a letter, but not unfortunately the sort of letter he had to write now. He did not even know how to begin.
How plain and bald it looked, how unworthy of their happiness and intimacy. He would have liked to begin "My darling," "My sweetheart," "My lovely one" . . . but he had no right. It must just be plain dear Alice.
I am writing to say—
Again he sucked his pen and this time got a mouthful of ink. He spat it into the embers.
I am writing to say you must tell your husband about last week end.
But that was too abrupt, and sounded worse than it was, if ever Candelin should see the letter. He decided to make a rough draft and started again.
I take up my pen to write you a few lines as I do not think you have told your husband about your accident here. He seems to think you had it at home and were not here at all. Well, he ought to know.
Another pause, in which he vainly sought for words that would not come. How was he to convince her? He felt cold and tired and sleepy. He would like to go to bed and forget it all. Instead of which he had to put it into words.
If he does not know someone is sure to tell him, and then he will think you are hiding something from him.
And so you are, of course. He crossed out the last line and wrote:
He will think things are worse than they were.
But that was not really an improvement—the first line was best. He had better write in pencil, then he could rub out more easily. He started again:
—think you are hiding something from him.
But why give a reason? She would know what the reason was. "Then he will be angry" had better come out too. He was back at "Someone is sure to tell him." Oh, damn!
The reason he must give her was the reason she must give Candelin:
Someone is sure to tell him and then he will wonder why you did not tell him before.
Would that convince her?—persuade her to do something she had decided not to do? He felt doubtful. He had better make it a personal appeal.
I am asking this for my own sake as well as yours, as I would not like him to think. . . .
He wrote on for a few minutes, then decided he had better end the letter as he was only saying the same things over again. He would make a fair copy and then go to bed. His head was aching and spinning, and he seemed to have been sitting at that table for hours. Yet when he had written the letter out in his largest clearest handwriting it seemed only a very short one.
I take up my pen to write you a few lines as I do not think you have told your husband about your accident here. He seems to think you had it at home and were not here at all. Well, he ought to know. If you do not someone is sure to tell him and then he will wonder why you did not tell him before. I am asking this for my own sake as well as yours, as I would not like him to think I was that sort of man. So please tell him all about it and how you had the doctor and the nurse and went home as soon as you were able.
He was a little uncertain how to end. Did "Yours sincerely" match "Dear Alice"? Or should it be "Yours very sincerely"? Both were ridiculous and inadequate, but he must end it somehow and there was always the chance that Candelin might see the letter—she might even show it to him as a part of her way out of her difficulties. But in that case wouldn't he object to the "Dear Alice"? Until he went away she would have been only "Dear Mrs. Candelin," and he might guess that the more familiar term was the fruit of his absence. Oh, hang it all! He would have to copy out the whole letter over again and begin "Dear Mrs. Candelin."
But he couldn't—he wouldn't do that. He just wasn't going to write any more. And it was a bad letter, anyway—"I would not like him to think I was that sort of man" . . . what a thing to say! And nothing that he had written was likely to persuade her to do anything she did not want to do. Rose ought to have known that he couldn't write letters. He could not write down the things he was thinking—things he could probably say quite easily if he had the chance. If only he could see her—just for a minute. . . .
Then into his mind flashed Candelin's announcement that he was going to Vinehall Market tomorrow. That would leave the coast clear—he would not always be "popping in and out," as Rose had said. Alice would be alone at Stunts tomorrow, and it was nonsense to say he ought to keep out of her way. He had to see her if he was to do anything about this and he must do something. He would see her and put things plainly to her, and between them they would find some way of clearing up the mess. And now he would burn up this damned letter he could not write. There was just enough heat in the ashes to consume the labors of more than an hour.
The next morning he woke with a new feeling of anticipation. At first it just floated loose in his mind, a pleasant change from the earlier wakings of that week. Then it focused itself in the thought that today he would see Alice, and only after he had watched that thought sparkling for some moments did he become aware of its doubtful sediment. He was going to see Alice, to talk to her, to hear her voice, to let his heart slide once more into the quietude of her presence. . . . No, that was not really what he was going to do. He was going to argue with her, to get tough with her. Nevertheless, as he shaved and dressed and set about the business of the day, he could not quite rid himself of that first thought, and it was with him all the morning until he started out, and it did not leave him even on his way to Stunts Farm. Try as he would, he could not lose it, shut off its sparkling peace.
He had chosen the hour after dinner for his visit. There was just a chance that Candelin might decide to have his dinner at home and not go to market till the afternoon. The morning was the best time, but Candelin could not be trusted to know that, and as his principal object was to see the auctioneer he might, if he did not want to spend the whole day at Vinehall, have picked on the afternoon as the easiest time to catch him.
There was also the fact that his return, though an unwelcome interruption, would not make things so awkward as if he had not started. Kemp did not want to find him there, yarning and braying, perhaps even pestering him to stay to dinner. But if he came back he would be only too embarrassingly delighted to find the visitor and it would be easy enough to trump up some reason for the visit.
One good reason was flowing past the house as he drew near. The waterlogged drive was being persuaded by Cloute to ooze into a channel he had dug across the front approach, so as to divert it from the cellars. Stunts Farm had always been liable to flooding but the floods in the past had come from the Tillingham, now dug and disciplined by the Catchment Board. This was Candelin's own private flood, due to blocked drains, and Cloute's face was very sour as he lifted it to see who was coming.
"Nice mess you're in here," said Kemp. "Is the boss at home?"
Cloute spat into the water.
"Naw. He's gone in his old shandle trap to market to see Mr. Wright. Left me here with all this. Not that it makes much difference whether he goes or not when it comes to work. He'll have a valiant time in Lincolnshire. From what I hear of it, he'll be drowned if it's wet, and if it's fine his topsoil will blow off into the sea."
"And serve him right, is what you mean to say. Well, as he's not here I'd better see the missus. Is she at home?"
"Aye, she's at home."
"Then afterward I might give you a hand."
"Naw, Mus' Silverden. Don't you waste your time on us."
Kemp knocked at the door, Candelin having removed the doorbell as an anachronism. He tried in vain to keep his heart from jumping when Alice opened it.
She started too, and he thought she turned pale, but immediately she recovered herself.
"Hullo. . . . Come in."
It was not till she had shut the door that she said:
"What's brought you here? Has anything happened?"
"Yes it has—I want to talk to you."
He had to go straight to the point or he could not have said anything at all. But she seemed a little surprised at his abruptness. She opened the kitchen door and they went in. The room was full of sunshine and a pleasant smell of baking. There was a workbox and some sewing on the table, and the chairs were pushed about in homely disorder. It all looked totally different from that other afternoon of snow and darkness.
"Sit down, Kemp."
He sat down on one of the scattered chairs—not beside the fire for that would have been too much like last time. She offered him a cigarette, but he shook his head.
"We've got to talk," he said desperately, "and we've got to talk straight—before your husband comes home."
"Kemp, you sound angry with me. What is it?"
"I'm not angry—only a bit upset. It's this—I've been twice to the Wheel since he came home and I've met him both times, and he doesn't seem to know a thing about last week end."
The words came out with a rush, and he would have liked to get them back and speak again more slowly and more tenderly. He saw the color climbing her cheeks as she searched for a reply.
"Forgive me," he said, "I didn't mean to speak so rough. But all this is pestering me. Why didn't you tell him? It's going to be awkward now."
"I don't see why he should ever know."
"But he's sure to know. Someone's sure to tell him."
"If they'd been going to tell him, they'd have told him already, wouldn't they?"
"No—not as I reckon. The chaps at the Wheel won't say anything—I'll answer for that. But they aren't the only ones. The whole village knows about it, and if the men don't talk the women will."
She looked uneasy.
"What makes you think the whole village knows?"
"Well, there was the butcher called—and the baker—and the postman. To say nothing of the doctor and the nurse and Mrs. Wood. Do you think they're never going to say a word? It's something to talk about—something interesting—your accident and your being snowed up at Eggs Hole. They don't see any harm in it, but that's all the more reason why one or another of them should mention it to your husband. Maybe Tom Chantler 'ull meet him and ask him how you are, or Sam Piper or Mrs. Wood."
"Well, he knows I've hurt my foot."
"Does he know you've had the doctor to it? What's more likely than that someday he'll run into the doctor?"
She laughed uncertainly.
"That might be awkward. But I don't think Ronald's the least likely to meet him—I doubt if he even knows him by sight. He's not the man for doctors, and we've all kept pretty healthy since we've been here."
"It isn't only the doctor"—but he could not go through all the people in the parish, just to let her knock them off as sources of information. She was being obstinate and he could be obstinate too. "What I want to know is why you didn't tell him yourself."
"Because I didn't see any need to. He would have been very much annoyed and—"
"How could he? It wasn't your fault."
"It was—at least he'd say so. He'd say I shouldn't have gone to Eggs Hole in all that snow. He'd say it was my fault entirely."
"But he wouldn't know why you'd gone."
"I should hope not! But he'll be quite angry enough without that. Kemp, you don't know him. You've no idea of the fuss he can make about trifles; and my being snowed up at your house for a whole week end, without a single other person to play propriety, wouldn't seem a trifle to him, I assure you—even without suspecting anything worse."
"Then—then you never meant to tell him?"
"Yes I did. I was going to tell him directly he came back, but that sort of thing wants leading up to and he didn't give me a chance. In the first place he came back at practically no notice—even ordered his own taxi from the garage, so that I knew nothing till I got a wire just before he arrived. Then you can imagine how full he'd be of his new place and never stop talking about it. . . . Of course he could see that I was limping, but—"
"Why did you tell him you'd hurt your foot only two days ago?"
"I didn't. I told him I'd had Mrs. Wood for the last two days, and he put two and two together and made five. I'd meant to give him all the details after supper, when he'd worked the new farm out of his system, but then he suddenly announced he was going up to the local to spread the glad news, and I knew it was no use beginning. I thought he'd be sure to hear it up there, and I'd prepared all sorts of explanations for the time he came home. Then when I found he'd heard nothing I took for granted that he never would. After all, we shan't be here much longer."
"You'll be here long enough for someone to tell him."
"It seems natural to think that if men don't talk in a pub they won't talk anywhere else."
"But it isn't just the men—those men, that is. Up at the Wheel it's mostly all farmers who know each other, and—" he chose the words carefully, "your husband's upset some of them by talking against their ways, so they'd never treat him as they would one of themselves. He comes up and he spouts—talks about this new farm of his, and all they do is wink at one another and pull his leg. As soon as they found he didn't know a thing about your being at Eggs Hole, they started making a sort of joke of it. They'd never tell him now because they like to think they know something he doesn't. But up in the village it's different. For one thing, they don't know he doesn't know."
She made an impatient movement.
"Oh, Kemp, how complicated and ridiculous all this is."
"You're right there."
"You think it's my fault."
"Well, if you'd told him that first night when he came back from the Wheel. . . . You might have said 'did they tell you about what happened to me at Eggs Hole?' or something of that sort in a joking way."
"It's all very well to say that now, but I considered it carefully at the time and decided to let sleeping dogs lie."
"They won't lie—and you'll have to tell him something before anybody else does."
"I can't—it's too late now. If I tell him now he'll think there's more behind it, and so there is."
"That's always been the trouble. But it wouldn't have mattered so much if you'd told him at once."
"Oh, Kemp, do stop teasing me. I didn't tell him and I had my reasons. I may have made a mistake, but it's too late to do anything about it now."
"Then what will you say if he hears it anywhere?"
"I'll deny it, of course."
He gaped at her.
"But you can't."
"Why not? I can easily say that whoever told him made a mistake and thought that because I had my accident in one of your fields, I was laid up at your place. I can say that the reason I never told him my foot was so bad was that I didn't want to worry him."
"Oh. . . . And how'll you say you managed while you were down here by yourself? Who looked after you?"
"The district nurse . . . and the doctor too, if you like. I tell you my husband's not a parish visitor—he doesn't go round meeting the doctor and the nurse."
Kemp fought a growing sense of despair.
"But Cloute—" he stammered, "he knows you weren't here."
"Oh, Cloute. . . . I've settled Cloute. He knows exactly what to say."
So this was the story she had been cooking up—the story she had probably always meant to tell. She was not so unprepared as he had thought. For a moment he could not speak, anger and distress combining to choke him. Then he burst out:
"And what about me?"
"Oh, Kemp, surely you wouldn't let me down. Besides, you're in it too."
He found then that he was standing. He could not remember when he had left his chair, but he was standing now beside the table, looking down at her as she sat with her hands—her lovely peaceful hands—twisting together in her lap, and her white face flushing like a stormy cloud.
"I tell you," he said slowly, "I'm not in on this. If he asks me any questions I'll tell him the truth."
"What an extraordinary man you are."
"Because I'm not going to join you in cooking up a story that anyone can bust."
"You haven't the slightest hesitation in asking me to leave him forever—him and his home and his children—break up everything—and go away with you; and yet you won't tell him a little white lie that's going to save him as well as all the rest of us a great deal of trouble."
"It's not going to save anybody any trouble. I tell you it's a story a child could bust."
"That's your reason then—you're afraid of being found out."
She seemed to be trying to provoke him. He swallowed his anger.
"I'm not going to be caught lying over a thing like that. There's nothing I did then that I want to hide."
"Oh, no—nothing of course. You wouldn't mind him knowing how you sat with me for hours in my bedroom—"
"—Of course not. You were ill and I was looking after you."
"—How you held my hand, how you held me in your arms, how you kissed me, how you tried to make me come away with you. . . ."
This was not the quarrel they had had on Sunday, but something altogether more fundamental and more sinister. He had swallowed his anger, but he could not digest it. It was fermenting—fermenting with his love, making a terrible poison.
"That doesn't come into it," he said thickly.
"Oh, yes it does. And what is more to the point—it might come out."
"Then you'll have yourself to thank for it. If you'd told the truth at the start—the plain truth, I mean—about your accident, we shouldn't be in this fix. It's just as Rose said. She said, 'When you're as bad at lying as that it's best not to lie at all.'"
"She said that, did she? She knows all about me?"
"She knows you haven't told your husband—they all know."
"Is that all she knows?"
He could not answer.
"That's it!" she cried. "You tell the whole story to a sympathetic female, and then you say it'll be all my fault if it leaks out. This will be her great chance. She loves you. She hates me. She'll give us away at the first opportunity—and you'll say it's my fault."
"Rose won't give anyone away. She's all to be trusted."
"No woman is to be trusted when she has a chance of doing down her rival. Kemp, if Ronald finds out—finds out everything—it'll be your fault."
"Don't talk a lot of nonsense."
He was trembling with anger, and mixed with the anger was the poisonous fermentation of love. . . . As he stood above her, looking down at the white foreshortened column of her throat he felt a sudden urge to seize it, kiss it, bite it, squeeze it. . . . Oh, God. . . . he had never felt this before—never with anyone. No touch of hers, no word, no quarrel or kiss had brought about such a congestion of every sense and faculty. He stood motionless, while the sweat broke slowly over him. Then suddenly the frenzy passed—at a sound.
Alice jumped up.
"There he is. He's back early. Keep your head, Kemp—keep your head."
He was looking toward the door as if he meant to run for it. She could not know what he wanted to run from.
"He'll be glad to see you," she continued, "so play up. Only last night he was saying we must ask you to supper."
Kemp stood still. For the first time he welcomed the arrival of the preposterous man.
"Hullo, dear," said Alice gaily, "we've got a visitor."
"So I see."
Something in Candelin's voice struck cold. Kemp glanced at her involuntarily, but she looked away.
"Mr. Silverden came down to ask if he could help us with our flooding," she said, hitting at a venture his own pretense. Candelin made no reply. He took off his overcoat and put it on a chair.
"Had a good day?" asked Alice.
It was time somebody else spoke, and Kemp said:
"I'd better be getting back. There doesn't seem anything more I can do."
"Don't go," said Candelin. "I want to speak to you."
He heard Alice gasp.
"There's a matter I want to discuss with my wife, but as it concerns you too, you had better stay and spare me the trouble and annoyance of calling on you later."
"Ronald, what on earth—"
Kemp wished she was not there. She hampered him. The lies she had told, that she meant to tell, that she wanted him to tell, all seemed to get between him and the situation. He knew now of course that at Vinehall Market Candelin had heard what he had always expected him to hear. Someone had quite innocently given him the tale of last week's doings, and Kemp had a feeling that if only they had been alone together he could have dealt with him and cleared the matter up. But as things were he dared not open his mouth.
"When I heard," continued Candelin, ignoring Alice and still addressing Kemp, "when I heard that my wife had spent four or five days at your house last week I did not realize that I should so—so conveniently find you in my home when I came back to it. I had forgotten the adage about what the mice will do when the cat's away."
Kemp turned crimson.
"I told you why I came here."
"My wife did—but no doubt you concocted that story between you, as you did the other."
"What story?" cried Alice frantically. "There's no story. What are you talking about?"
Candelin stood in the middle of the room and seemed to fill it entirely. As he watched him Kemp felt his breath come short as if the wall of that gigantic chest had been squeezed against his. He realized that he was seeing now a man whom Alice knew better than he—the man she was afraid of. Certainly there was the same overwhelming quality in his indignation as there had been in his affability.
"There are two stories," he thundered, "the one you told me and the one I've just been told at Vinehall—by Wright who took for granted that I already knew all about it. From him I gathered that the accident you treated so lightly was really quite serious and involved you being laid up for several days—not here but at Silverden's place. I understand that you sprained your ankle in one of his fields and that he looked after you till you were well enough to come home. A kind and neighborly action—if only it hadn't been covered up by subterfuges and lies."
"Ronald, you misunderstood him—he didn't mean—"
"No," interrupted Kemp, determined to break out of this net, "he didn't mean anything you could possibly object to. Everyone round here knows what happened. Mrs. Candelin twisted her foot on my land, that day the snow was so bad, and as I couldn't possibly get her home because of the drifts I did my best for her up at my place till she was able to leave. That's the story and everybody knows it."
He would not look at Alice. He could feel her anger, hear it in her breathing. But he could not help it. He was not going to stand beside her and lie against her husband and the whole neighborhood, and he was only too thankful that his wits had not failed him and that he had been able to escape before she had caught him with an actual statement. There was a brief silence, then Candelin said:
"If everybody knows the story, why didn't I hear it till this afternoon?"
"Maybe you haven't been around much."
"I've been twice to the pub—surely I'd have heard it there if it wasn't being deliberately kept hidden from me. I mentioned my wife's accident—I'm pretty sure I did. I spoke of it to you, Silverden, and you said nothing. If everything was innocent and above board, why was it covered up?"
He did not know what to say. He could not say: we were waiting to see if she meant to tell you; though that was the truth. At last he mumbled, "It wasn't covered up. We were only waiting for you to speak first."
"Why should you have waited? I'd have thought common civility would have prompted you to inquire. The truth was, of course, that you didn't want me to know."
Alice broke in:
"I'd have told you, Ronald—told you everything if you'd given me the chance. But you were so full of Hokeby . . . you couldn't think or speak of anything else. It wasn't of any real importance, and there were so many other things to think of—so much to do—all the excitement of leaving this place . . . really in the end I forgot all about it."
"And Cloute? Did he forget all about it? You'd think he'd have made some reference to a thing like that—if you hadn't prevented him."
"I don't suppose he thought it worth mentioning."
He looked at her in silence, and Kemp felt pretty sure that this was not the first time he had caught her lying.
"Well," he said, "that's as may be. But all I can say is that it's a damned queer business. While I'm away from home my wife has an accident, and when I get back no one tells me a word about it until I go into the next parish, where the conspiracy of silence seems to have failed—"
"Ronald, there's no conspiracy. Why will you imagine these things? It's not like you to be suspicious."
"It's you who've made me suspicious with your lies and evasions—you and Silverden. And isn't it a suspicious circumstance that I should find him here this afternoon? Many's the time I've asked him to come, but he's always refused, until today—when he knows I'm off the premises."
"He didn't. How could he know?"
"He did, because I told him. I told him I was going to Vinehall to see Wright about the auction. So he knew he had a clear field if he wanted to see you to concoct a story—or for any other purpose. By the way, what were you doing on his place when you had your fall?"
"I'd gone to ask him for some hay. You told me I could rely on him as a good neighbor, so as we were running out of fodder I thought I'd see if he could let me have some hay. Then I was silly enough to take a shortcut home across the fields. It was snowing like hell."
"Then why didn't you send Cloute? I was not aware we were short of fodder—when I left there was almost a month's supply. But if through some mismanagement you were running short, it was Cloute's business to go for it—not yours."
"I—I didn't think."
"You seem not to have thought of a great many things."
All this time Kemp had been trying to find something to say. He was ashamed of standing there silent, but everything he thought of saying would only make matters worse. At every turn he was cut off by some pretense, some concealment, some reservation that must not be cross-examined. He felt like a hen running up and down before a piece of wire netting, seeing the other side through the obstacle but unable to reach it, making frantic dives and dashes.
But he must say something. If he left their defense any longer to Alice she might take it so deep into the coils that they would never be able to get out again. Somehow he must get it into his own hands and see what he could do with it. He couldn't worry any more about what she wanted Candelin to know and what she didn't. He must be ruthless and ignore her if he was to do anything effective. They were in a bad enough way, Lord knew, with all they had to hide, but at least there was some truth that he could tell and he had better tell it before she made that also unavailing.
"Look here," he began.
They both looked at him, in some surprise, as if they had forgotten all about him. For him too the sound of his own voice seemed to break a spell. He cleared his throat and went on.
"Look here—you'd better get this right, even though maybe you won't like what I'm going to say. Mrs. Candelin didn't tell you about being laid up at my place because she was scared of you. She thought you'd be angry—she thought you'd take it the wrong way—if you heard she'd been alone at Eggs Hole all that time. There was plenty of people coming and going during the day, but I couldn't get anyone at nights, as my housekeeper was away ill, and she thought it would upset you. When she found that no one had told you at the Wheel, she thought maybe no one ever would, so she said nothing. But if she hadn't been frightened of you she'd have told you all about it."
"She has no reason whatever to be frightened of me, unless she has a guilty conscience."
"Ronald, I swear—Ronald, you mustn't say such things. Ronald, I've never been anything but your devoted wife! swear it."
Kemp felt slightly sick as he saw her throw her arms round Candelin and weep against the wall of his chest. He loosened her arms and pushed her gently away.
"You needn't carry on like that. I haven't the slightest intention of starting divorce proceedings, if that's what you're afraid of. But I'm quite sure there's more in this than what you've told me. You've both of you told me lies, and that naturally makes me suspicious of what I can't check. If your consciences were clear we shouldn't have had these subterfuges. You can't have felt at ease in your own minds, and no doubt you hoped that as I was giving up this place I might leave this neighborhood before the story could reach me. The louts at the pub held their tongues and waited, I suppose, to see which way the joke was going."
Kemp saw Alice open her mouth and plunged ahead of her.
"They were waiting to see if Mrs. Candelin meant to tell you or not. They guessed she was scared of you and left her to do things her own way. But no one thought any harm of her being with me. Why, Rose Artlett came down every day and cooked our dinner for us."
"Yes, she knew I hadn't any help, so she came down and cooked. She'd never have done it if she'd thought there was anything up."
For the first time Candelin seemed impressed. Kemp had not expected to find Rose so immediately effective as a guarantee of his respectability.
"You mean to tell me that Rose Artlett came down every day and cooked your meals?"
"Yes, Ronald," broke in Alice. "She came every day and did everything for me. She made my bed and set my room to rights and did all the things a woman ought to do about the house. I was laid up, you know, and couldn't do anything for myself. Directly I could move I insisted on going home."
"If that's the truth, I wonder you told me so many lies."
"It is the truth. Ask Rose herself—she'll tell you. She knows there's nothing to hide. And she wouldn't have done even half what she did if she'd had the smallest doubt in her mind about us. Why, she's practically engaged to Mr. Silverden."
Kemp reddened with anger.
"I aŁn't engaged to no one," he cried furiously, "but Rose is a respectable girl and wouldn't have come near the place if she'd thought there was any funny business going on. And now if you'll excuse me I think I'll be off home. I've had enough of being here."
He walked toward the door without looking at Alice. Candelin said:
"Yes, you'd better go. I'm sorry I can't thank you for what you did for my wife, but you've made that impossible."
Then his face changed—whitened, twisted.
"Get out," he roared. "Get to hell out of here. Don't ever let me see you again."
Kemp stood still. His first impulse was to swing round and give the preposterous man the answer he deserved. Then he saw that impulse as just another dive at the wire netting. . . . Candelin, for once, was not being preposterous—he was in the right. He had every right to speak like that to the man who had tried to break up his home. The fact that his suspicions were only vague did not rob him of that right. There was nothing Kemp could say or do about it. So he marched out of the room, hoping that he looked dignified, but doubting.
That evening he took his car and drove into Hastings. He could not face an evening alone at home, but neither did he want to go up to the Wheel and risk meeting Candelin. Nor would he go anywhere else in the neighborhood, even Rye, for fear that Candelin in a fit of righteous wrath had changed his pub.
So he went where no one knew him, had some drinks at the Castle Hotel, and two games of billiards with two total strangers. Then he had some more drinks—not enough to make him tight but enough to make him sleepy—and drove home with all his hopes fixed on forgetfulness.
He slept heavily but not well, and realized when he woke in the morning that he must have drunk more than he thought, for he had a headache and a bad taste in his mouth. Except for an occasional "dog" in his bitter, he seldom took spirits, but he had drunk whisky last night. It did not help him now to face a day which seemed likely to be one of the most miserable in his life.
Outwardly no day could be more cheerful. The wind had dropped and the sky was a quiet blue pasturage for little clouds like lambs. Their shadows moved over a countryside which was already beginning to forget the withering of the snow. As Kemp sat at breakfast, drearily sucking down the tea which was all he could swallow that morning, he saw in the garden a crocus pushing up through the dingy grass like a point of light; while the tree that stood beyond the garden wall—the same tree that he could see from his bedroom window—now showed a faint thickening of its lines, especially at the terminals. You could not say that it was budding yet, but it soon would bud. The sap was rising and the tree would soon be green. . . . "Too happy, happy tree."
He still remembered the lines. She had repeated them twice, so he remembered them, and now for the first time they meant something.
Too happy, happy tree, Thy branches ne'er remember Their green felicity—
If only he could forget his white felicity. . . . It did not much matter if the tree remembered or not, for it was not, like him, remembering something that could never come again. The poet did not seem to realize that it would go on being green every year. But Kemp's white felicity was gone forever. Even in nature it might never come back, and in his heart it certainly never would. Alice had made that impossible—she had spoiled it all, she had dirtied and trampled the snow. Those happy days which he had hoped to remember all his life—the happiest days he had ever known—days when he had been happy and had thought he made a darling woman happy . . . all he wanted now was to forget them. When he looked back he saw nothing but a game—a mug's game, and he had been the mug.
He did not now believe that she had ever really loved him—not as he loved her. It was not only her lies that made him disbelieve, though when you heard a woman lie like that you couldn't help doubting everything she said. Nor was it only that those ugly moments had shown him a side of her he had never seen before—after all, she had warned him that he didn't really know her and that there was another side of her which he would not like so much. But somehow the way she had carried on made him think she hadn't been as indifferent to Candelin as she had made out. He could see her still—clinging to him, crying out to him that she had never been anything but his devoted wife. Well, that didn't square with some of the things she had said to Kemp. She had been lying to one or the other of them, and though the words might be even the deeds were not. The deeds pointed to the preposterous man.
His memory licked back over those days like a flame, charring and blackening all it found. She must have been just plain fed up with him all the time. Maybe at the start, down at Stunts, she had been ready for a little fun—after all that mulled ale with the brandy in it. But when she came to think things over and had realized that he meant to take her away—from her boys, from her husband—then she began to think they had gone too far. She had got herself into a mess without meaning it, and then had scrambled out as best she could, using her boys as an excuse, so as not to hurt his pride. It must have been terrible for her when the weather shut her up with him like that at Eggs Hole. She must have been miserable the whole time, desperate to get home at the first chance. Only Kemp had been happy—a deluded mug. She had done her best to hide her real feelings, but if he hadn't been such a sucker he'd have seen then what he saw now.
He hid his face in his hands, grinding himself into his misery. Alice's looks and words seemed to flash up in the darkness, all meaning something quite different from what he had thought at the time. Oh, if only the snow had not shut them up together like that—if only he could have taken her home through the drifts and had nothing worse to remember her by than their parting. . . .
The minutes passed and he did not move. Then suddenly he heard a sound as if someone was in the room. He started and looked round. There in the doorway behind him stood Werner.
For a moment embarrassment made him motionless and dumb. He was horrified to have been caught at such a moment and did not know what to say or what to do.
"Hullo," he said weakly. "What do you want?"
To his surprise Werner did not go away, as he would have done in his place. He came forward into the room and stood beside him.
"I am sorry," he said, "very sorry."
Kemp mumbled something about not feeling well.
"Please," said Werner, "you grieve for your wife."
This was a new embarrassment. How on earth was he to keep up the pretense of grieving for Joan? He tried to say something adequate.
"Don't worry about me," was all he could think of. "I'm all right." Then, "Why did you come in? Has anything happened?"
"Nothing. Only I see you through the window."
The very reason, most men would say, for keeping out. Kemp felt a curious mixture of irritation and compunction. Then, as he looked at him standing there in his coarse, shapeless clothes, he saw in his eyes something that touched his heart with a warmer, friendlier feeling.
"It's very good of you," he said awkwardly, "to feel for me so much."
"I feel for you," said Werner, "because I too grieve for my wife.
He was startled right out of his embarrassment, for he had no idea that Werner was a married man. He had always looked upon him as a boy, too young to be married. He said:
"You must have married very young."
"Eight years ago when I am twenty."
He did not look twenty-eight, but that might be due to his fresh complexion and extreme fairness. He fumbled in his pocket and took out a dilapidated wallet, which he opened to show Kemp the photograph of a pretty, plump young woman with a baby in her arms and a little blond girl at her side.
"Are those your children?"
Kemp looked at him, trying to get used to the idea of Werner as a husband and father. Then a new thought struck him.
"Your wife—is—is she still alive?"
"I do not know. I hear nothing."
"Nothing of the children?"
"But—but how's that? Can't you write home? Doesn't anybody write to you?"
Werner shook his head.
"My home is in Silesia. The Russians have come and taken everyone away. I hear nothing since I come to England."
"But surely—can't someone find out for you where they are? What's happened to them? Surely the camp commandant—"
"Herr Commandant try, the Pope try—all try but none is to be found."
Kemp was speechless.
"That is why," continued Werner, "I understand when you grieve for your wife."
"For God's sake," said Kemp roughly, "don't think that I feel anything like what you do. My wife's been dead for more than a year. It's all over and done with—" he broke off, for he could not say, It's another man's wife I'm grieving for now. "I wish I could do something," he finished lamely.
Another shake of the blond head.
"Nothing to do."
"Maybe when you're repatriated. . . ."
"I do not know. I do not think I shall go home. Our village is gone and all the people. Perhaps I shall stay here."
There seemed no good going on with the conversation. Kemp could not say to Werner the sort of thing that Werner had said to him. He would have liked to, but the words simply would not come. Instead, he made a sudden sweep of his arm toward the breakfast table.
"Sit down and have a bite."
"Yes, of course you may. There's plenty here and I'm not hungry."
A sudden grin restored the old Werner.
"Please. I have breakfast today, but I like another. One breakfast good, two breakfasts better."
He sat down and Kemp pushed over the bread, the butter, and the ham that Alice had left behind her.
"Here, you finish all that."
Then he muttered something that even he himself did not understand and walked out of the room.
Strangely enough, he felt better after that. For some mysterious reason Werner had done him good. He really was a surprising chap. Only think of his being a husband and father—a father without children and a husband without a wife. . . . Poor Werner! Kemp felt so sorry for him that for a time at least he stopped being sorry for himself. What chance had Werner of being happy? As he did not know if his wife was alive or dead he could never marry again even if he wanted to—at least Kemp supposed not. He would always be lonely. . . . Poor boy—no, not poor boy—poor man, for he was nearly the same age as Kemp. . . . That morning he actually thought more about Werner than he thought about Alice.
He was still thinking about him when twelve o'clock cast its old shadow of a week end's loneliness. How would it be if Werner was like those Jerries at Hammonds and Barline and lived on the place? . . . Then he need not always feel that sinking of the heart which came when his two men walked off together, leaving him alone. He had thought of this before, but had always felt shy of it as a definite plan. Now he did not feel so shy. Somehow after this morning's conversation Werner seemed less like a Jerry. . . . His English had certainly improved—he would be someone to talk to, and always on the place, so that there would be no more coming back to an empty house. Besides, Kemp felt sorry for him. Poor devil! He would like to be able to do something for him—to fill him up with good farm food instead of the muck he was given at the camp, and save him from having to depend on other Jerries for company.
He went to where he was cleaning his spade before going off, and stood for a while watching him.
"Look here," he said. "How would you like to be billeted here if I can fix it?"
"I like it very much."
"Well, I'll see what I can arrange. I could do with a man living on the place."
"Please, I should like to come."
"I'll fix it then with the War Ag. I expect it will be all right."
"I can be useful in the house. I can cook—make you good things—Vienna Schnitzel."
Lately there seemed to have been a run of outlandish dishes.
"Calf. A young calf beaten up with choice herbs."
"Oh . . . good."
He seemed to hear Rose say, "A nice chop fried and smothered in onions" . . . how much nicer Rose's cooking was than all these foreign notions . . . and how much more good it would do him to talk to Rose than to any Jerry, however grateful and kindhearted. . . . But for the first time the thought of Rose brought pain with it.
He knew why, of course. He had been gruff with her that last night he had been up at the Wheel. Because she had spoken plainly he had taken offense and walked out, though she had only meant to give him good advice. He must have hurt her feelings very badly.
He would go up tonight and be nice to her. He owed her that, not only to make up for his rudeness but because without knowing it, she had been useful to him. It was her attendance on him and Alice that had impressed Candelin and made him accept their version of the story. If only Alice had not told that senseless lie about him and Rose. . . . She had done it, of course, to impress Candelin still more—make him think that something more than her respectability guaranteed theirs. But it would have done a lot of harm if it had got about—it would have upset Rose very much had it reached her ears. . . . He felt thankful that no one was likely to spread it further.
Yes, he would go up to the Wheel. He could not stay away any longer on Candelin's account. To avoid him publicly was to proclaim his private humiliation. Of course if he was there he would not speak to him and that might cause unpleasantness in Mr. Artlett's pub, but he did not think he would be there. It was impossible to tell how his mind would work about all this, but on the whole Kemp thought he would show his displeasure with the customers by ceasing to go to the Wheel during the short time he remained in the district. He would go to the Lamb, or to the Plow at Udimore, or he might not go to any pub at all, but drink mulled ale at home—the bastard. . . .
Ever since yesterday his thoughts of Candelin had ended in an explosion. He had always disliked him, always been exasperated by him, but it was not till yesterday that he had really hated him. Until yesterday Candelin had not put him definitely in the wrong—indeed at one time things seemed to be going the other way round. But yesterday Candelin had made him feel small—"get to hell out of here" . . . and he had had to go because to have turned round and punched his head would have been the act of a righteous man falsely accused. Oh, if only he could have bashed Candelin, then he would not be hating him now. But he had not had the moral right to bash Candelin, so he had better stop thinking about him and think of somebody who did not make him feel so bad.
This could only mean Werner, for everyone else seemed either to have hurt him or been hurt by him. It had been a mistake to stop thinking of Werner. He would do something about him too. He would sit down and write a letter to the War Ag, asking to have him as a billeted farm hand. That was the sort of letter he could write, and perhaps writing it would help wash out the memory of that other letter which he couldn't.
The letter was written without too much trouble, and he posted it that evening when he went up to the Catherine Wheel. Being Saturday night he expected to find the place full, and it was crowded. In the private bar you could scarcely move and the noise that came from beyond the hatch proclaimed the public to be full too.
"Hullo, Kemp" . . . "Hullo, here he is!" . . .
Nearly everybody shouted, and he was surprised, for he had been there only two nights ago. Then somebody said, "Pity you missed last night."
"What happened last night?"
But he half-guessed, even before the laughter, that it was something to do with Candelin.
"Oh, boy," said Crouch, "it was as good as the pictures."
"You should ought to have been here," said Joe Green, "for it had a lot to do with you."
The laughter rumbled again, with echoes beyond the hatch. But Kemp was staring at the counter, where Mr. Artlett stood alone.
"Rose not here?" he asked. It was unusual for her to be away on a Saturday night, when business was always heavy.
"She's gone to her cousin's wedding—Jess Artlett, over at Strood. She's getting married to a steward on the British Airways European run."
"Oh . . . she doesn't often leave you alone on Saturdays."
"No, and she hadn't meant to this time—said Jess could get married without her. Then yesterday she changed her mind."
"She missed last night too," said Joe. "Pity that the two of you should miss it. For it was fine, I can tell you—never saw such a performance."
"Well. . . ." A lot of people began to talk at once, but finally Crouch got possession of the narrative.
"There was a fair lot of people here for Friday night. Mr. Fagge he was here and Mr. Boorman and Joe and all the regulars, and Mr. Wilcox from the Place, and Mr. Sivyer from Dinglesden, though it wasn't his usual night, and quite a lot more. I suppose there was about a dozen of us altogether and the public much the same. And it was going on for nine o'clock when in he walks—"
"In he walks—" said Homard, "like this."
Roars of approval greeted the illustration.
"I think he must have had some," said Crouch. "He had the look of it. He'd been somewhere first."
"He certainly had nothing here," said Fagge.
"No, wouldn't touch a drop. When Mr. Artlett said, 'Your usual, Mr. Candelin?' he just stared at him and rolled his eyes."
"He was a proper picture."
"Well, as I was saying," resumed the commentator, raising his voice, "in he walks, and somebody said good evening, and then the balloon goes up."
"He looked like a balloon—one that's just going to burst."
"More like a swelling frog."
Crouch's voice cleaved the laughter.
"He says, 'there's been talk about me in this pub, and I've come to tell you you're a set of damned liars.' Well, I reckon we were all surprised, and nobody said a word, so he went on. I couldn't make out at first what it was all about, for seemingly he was just as angry with us for saying nothing about his wife's being at Kemp's as he was with us for knowing it. He said we were a conspiracy of silence and Lord knows what all. Then some of the chaps began to laugh and that just made him mad."
"He seemed to think we were laughing at his wife," said Mr. Boorman. "Never struck him it was he who was being funny."
"He said his wife was Caesar's wife," said Mr. Moon. "I haven't seen the picture, so I don't know what he meant."
"He meant she mustn't be spoken against—he said so; and he had a notion we'd been talking against her, as if she and Kemp had been having a French week end instead of the poor chap being landed with her and not knowing what to do."
"Snowed up for days with Julius Caesar's wife."
"That's it, and of course we told him. Mr. Moon did most of the talking, for he didn't seem to laugh as much as the others. But then he says if that was all we thought it was, why didn't we mention it to him, like, when he came in? And that queered us a bit, for we guessed the poor lady had her own reasons for not telling him about it."
"I'm sorry for her," said Joe Green. "I've been sorry for her ever since yesterday."
"Fair caution he must be to live with," said Mr. Boorman, "creating and terrifying like that over nothing, and taking her away into the shires on the top of it all."
"Thank heaven for that," said Mr. Artlett. "I couldn't do with any more of him here after last night."
"Kemp," said Joe, "aren't you sorry you missed it?"
Kemp smiled feebly.
"What happened next? Did he say any more?"
"No, nothing—only the same things over again. His wife must not be spoken against and we were a set of twerps. Then I reckon he got tired, so he finished and went out—home, I suppose, for it was too near ten o'clock to go anywhere else."
"When's he clearing out?" asked Homard, "for good, I mean."
"Someone at Vinehall was saying that the sale's to be on April the fifteenth—that he's fixed it with Wright. But I believe she's moving into the new place as soon as they get possession."
"Sending her out of harm's way, eh? Kemp, we'd no notion you was that sort of chap."
"Oh, I'm a public danger—best lock up all your wives."
He looked anxiously at his face in the wall mirror to see if it was turning red.
"Think there'll be anything worth buying at the sale?" asked somebody when the laughter had subsided.
"No, nothing at all," said Crouch. "He hadn't got no machinery to speak of—didn't hold with it."
"Did all his plowing with them two old rickety horses," said Joe Boorman. "My, but he must have had some shindies with the War Ag."
"Nearly took him over at one time, I believe. But they'd lost such a tur'ble lot of money over Peascod's place that they were scared of doing it again."
"Talking of machines," said Fagge, "how long do you think it will be before the ground's fit for a tractor?"
"Well, if this weather holds. . . ." "Some of the high ground ain't too bad" . . . "I'm starting mine on Monday if there's no rain between this and then" . . . "So am I, but then it's contract—I wouldn't for choice. . . ."
The conversation slid safely off the Candelins and occupied itself with tractors and the chances of spring sowing. Kemp joined in perfunctorily. He was not really interested, for his mind was full of other things. Among these at first Alice predominated, but after a while he began to think of Rose. He wished she were here tonight, for he wanted to talk to her—partly because he wanted to say something nice and friendly after having been so abrupt, partly because he hoped she might be able to give him a little more of the comfort she had given him on that first occasion. Then the question shot into his mind: When is she coming back? Perhaps she isn't coming back tonight.
It must be answered, so he sidled toward the counter and asked Mr. Artlett when he expected her home.
"By the last bus—gets in about eleven. Her auntie wanted her to stay over the week end, but she's got a date on Sunday. Besides, she wouldn't miss cooking our Sunday dinner, specially as we've got pork this week—a whole leg it is, our share from the Pig Club."
"Will she be here tomorrow evening?"
"No, she's got a date—going in to the pictures at Hastings."
"Leaving you alone again?"
"We don't get so many on Sunday night."
Kemp moved away. The scale of the day's trouble and alleviation seemed definitely to have dropped on the trouble side. Even Rose had failed him now.
All the way home his mind labored. It was odd of Rose to have cleared out like this. Had she done it on purpose—on purpose to avoid him after Thursday night? Well, he didn't think he'd been as rude as all that. But Mr. Artlett had said she had never meant to go to that wedding and then had suddenly changed her mind . . . and there was this date on Sunday. It wasn't like Rose to have dates. Not that she wasn't the sort of girl a man would enjoy taking out, but she didn't often meet that sort of man. The men who came to the Catherine Wheel were mostly middle aged and married—Kemp and Joe Green were the youngest. It was a sort of farmers' club and the young men who weren't farmers didn't care for it—thought it dull. He hadn't seen any young chaps at the Wheel for quite a time. But of course Rose must know lots of boys outside it. Who could be taking her to Hastings tomorrow? Was it young Fagge? or Lenny Crouch? or Mr. Moon's boy?—he worked in the shop, so she must often meet him. Or perhaps it was someone he had never heard of—someone she had known when she was in the army. He might be staying at Hastings. . . . Anyway it was none of Kemp's business, and she was bound to be back in the bar before long, so he'd get his chance to apologize—if he still wanted it.
He was walking up the drive now, hurrying just because his feet wanted to drag, to delay the moment of his entering the dark, empty house. How dull and ordinary it all looked in its tranquil wash of starlight, without the magic of the snow. He opened the door quickly and hurried in, clicking on the light. The inside looked dull too—the very emptiness was dull. Alice had said she didn't want to leave him in a haunted house, and had done mad things to prevent it, like rearranging the drawing room. But it wasn't that which had robbed him of her ghost. Oh, how he wished that he had her ghost to greet him now instead of this emptiness and dullness.
He switched on the staircase light and more emptiness became visible. The light seemed to bring emptiness as it were ahead of him from switch to switch. Now for the first time he was sorry that his father had put in the electric light. If he had carried a candle through the house it would have been a little companion to light his feet instead of the hard, bright showman of empty passages and empty rooms. It was just as well that he had thought of having Werner billeted on the place. Not that a Jerry, however decent, could be much of a companion. . . . What would he have said, way back in the war years, if anyone had told him that one day he would be depending for companionship on a Jerry? . . . Oh, what has happened to me and my house? . . .
He was so anxious to get to bed that he just tore off his clothes and left them lying in a heap. As a rule he undressed very carefully, shaking and folding each garment, for clothes these days must be taken care of. But tonight he might have been stripping hops. . . . And now at last, thank goodness, he was ready for bed, and the next click of the switch would bring darkness.
He felt better in the morning. He nearly always did, except when he had a hangover, and last night, for all its aggravations, had not given him that. He had not perhaps slept as soundly as usual, for he had had dreams, but they were pleasant dreams, and their fading colors blended with the sunshine to give him a pleasant waking. In his mind lingered a happy house with rooms full of people—talk and laughter seemed to hang on the fringes of the new day. Part of his comfort might be due to the fact that he had not dreamed of Alice. There had been a time when he longed to dream of her, but now he was afraid of it. He was not sure which Alice he might dream of.
He went downstairs and did the milking. He was more thoughtful now. Colors were being followed by shapes in his mind, and the shapes were less attractive than the colors. Clear among them was the thought that Rose would not be at the Catherine Wheel tonight, and the thought that he wanted desperately to talk to her again—not for her sake, not to apologize (that was only a camouflage), but for his own sake, to be comforted. He wanted to be set up again in his own esteem, which only a woman could do. Perhaps he did not deserve it, but he did not think he had fallen altogether to the depths his feelings suggested. Rose would give him a notion of himself that was less humiliating, yet at the same time might be true.
Would she be in the bar this morning? He doubted it. There wasn't usually much business on Sundays and she preferred to spend the time in the kitchen, cooking the dinner. In that case he would have to live on as he was till Monday evening. It was an uncomfortable prospect—the huge empty day stretching before him, the day on which even Reg did not come. What should he do with himself? What should he do to stop himself thinking about himself? He seemed to take up so much of his own thoughts now that Alice was driven out of them—Alice and the preposterous man. . . . All the space they used to occupy was now full of Kemp Silverden—Kemp Silverden pitying himself and despising himself. He did not like it. He must snap out of it somehow.
He went in and got his breakfast. Should he try his hand at some more cooking? But he did not really fancy cooking and Mrs. Wood would most likely be in to see to his chops. Of course there were lots of things he could do on the farm, but it would be working alone, and that meant more thinking. . . . He might pop round after dinner and see Joe Green. That was a good idea. And in the morning he would make some thatched hurdles and risk the thinking. He did not mind so much if it was not to go on all day. Anyhow he would try not to think about himself, but about the farm. Tomorrow he felt pretty sure they would be able to get the tractor out. He did not expect the fine weather to turn off, and there was a useful, drying wind. It came once more from the east, but it was no longer a winter wind. There was south in it instead of north and that was why the sound of the church bells came more faintly than last Sunday.
He stood in the yard beside the straw stack, listening to the bells. It was not altogether a happy sound for him. He liked the church bells—they were the familiar music of his Sundays, washing over the fields in tides of sound that ebbed and flowed with the wind. But now one Sunday seemed to have put all the others out of tune. Till last Sunday the bells had carried echoes of old, happy days—walks to church with his parents, Christmas morning and the Herald Angels, Easter morning with rafts of primroses on all the sills, harvest Thanksgiving and the pageantry of wheat and apples, the excited flutter of a wedding, the solemn stroke of a funeral knell, even the practice ringing that had sometimes rung and sung a little boy to sleep. . . . Now all they made him think of was him and Alice arguing over things he did not like to talk about.
He blushed. He had taken sides against her and spoken up for the Ten Commandments, but when it came to keeping them he had not put up a better show than she had. "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife. . . ." Of course, though he believed in these things, he was not really in a good position to defend them, because, as he had told her, he did not often go to church. It wouldn't be a bad idea to start going again. It might help him put himself back in the right. There wasn't often anything to stop him and there wouldn't be anything at all if he had Werner on the place. Werner, he understood, was a Catholic, which meant that he too would want to go to church. But Catholics for some reason always went in the morning, whereas the evening was Kemp's favorite time. He liked the evening service best—the prayer about lightening our darkness and the hymns about the ending of the day and about being kept safe till morning light. . . . He would go this very evening. Why not? He could just as well leave the farm to go to church as to go to the Catherine Wheel, and there would be no reason for going to the Wheel tonight, as Rose would not be there, but in Hastings keeping her date.
Rose would go to church in the morning. She always went to church in the morning because of the Sunday school. She never missed. If he went this morning instead of this evening he would see her there, and he might be able to walk home with her afterward and talk to her then. As the thought rushed into his mind he looked at his watch. It was ten minutes past ten. Could he make it? He would not have to shave, as he had already done that, but he would have to change into his best suit—he could not go to church in what he was wearing. And if he wanted to walk home with Rose he could not take the car—he would have to go on foot. It would be a bit of a scramble. Was it worth it? Yes, it was. He must have a word with her—he could not live through another two days without that—and this was his only chance. Now that the snow was gone he could take the shortcut through the woods, and if he was a bit late it wouldn't matter all that much.
He ran into the house. It did not take him more than a few minutes to change his suit and have a look round the place to make sure it could be left for no longer than if he was going to the pub. This time his way out was through the back, across the little Cob meadow among his grazing heifers and over the broken stile he had not crossed since the weather closed the way through the woods.
There was a good-sized clearing lane going all the way up the hill and hitting the Rye to Leasan road just beyond Moat Place. The snow and gales had beaten down the chestnut boughs across it, but after a while he found it and went up it in long, loping strides. It was some months since he had been in the woods, and he was glad to hear their rustling sounds again and sniff their moist smells. The snow had rotted down the dead leaves into a pungent, fertile mold, through which already the spring had thrust some promises—the primal twin leaf, which was the beginning of all the green things upon the earth and still gives the same start to the thistle and the lily, the cockle and the corn.
He had come to the clearing where the ruins of the Old Place stood, and paused for a moment to take off his hat and wipe his forehead. It was actually warm enough to make him sweat, and now in the clearing the sunshine was all round him with the jangle of the bells. The bells no longer seemed to come from far away but to be a part of the sunshine pouring down on the chestnuts totts and the stones of the Old Place. As sound and sunshine mingled all the wood might have been shouting for joy to be rid of the snow.
Then suddenly the peal stopped and the five-minutes bell began. He had better hurry or he would be later even than he must. He left the clearing and the Old Place, and in two minutes was out on the road—just opposite the big, hilly field that Mr. Boorman had said he meant to sow with flax this year. He hurried on and the five-minutes bell became the half-hour chimes at about the same moment as the road became Leasan Main Street. He passed the forge and Mr. Moon's shop and the Lamb Inn and then through the lich gate into the black bower of two great yew trees.
Just outside the shadow lay his parents' grave, with the marble headstone his father had chosen when his mother died, and close beside them the grave of poor little Joan. He felt uneasy—it seemed odd to be going to church by himself. He had never been to church alone before. Would everyone turn round and stare at him as he came in?
A few did, but not many, and he slipped into a pew at the back, making as little noise as possible. The church was not very full and the uncrowded pews gave him a clear view of Rose as she sat with her Sunday school children. She was right in the front row, so she would not see him till she came out—unless she looked round.
But she did not look round. Being a teacher, he supposed she had to behave. He thought she looked very nice in her blue coat and hat, and wondered what she would wear this evening for her date.
The service followed its familiar course, taking him back to the days when his father and not Mr. Moon had come round with the bag. Mr. Dunk still played the organ and many of the tunes were the same, and the choir sang loudly, so that it was easy to join in. They sang all about the works of the Lord. "O all ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord: praise him and magnify him forever. . . . O ye Frost and Cold bless ye the Lord. . . . O ye Ice and Snow bless ye the Lord. . . . O all ye Green Things upon the earth. . . ." It seemed specially right after the sort of weather they'd been having.
Yes, he was glad he had come. But he was glad too when it was time to go out and stand in the porch waiting for Rose. The porch smelled faintly of church, but it also smelled of the green things growing on the graves in the churchyard. A few people greeted him as he stood there: "Hullo, Kemp, don't often see you here mornings" . . . "Hullo, Mr. Silverden, managed to get over?" . . . "Good morning, Kemp—nice to see you" . . . "Some change in the weather since last Sunday—eh?" . . . When would she come? Was she ever coming? One or two children ran out—she must have kept them back for something. Here she was at last. "Why, Kemp, this is a surprise."
They were walking home together. She had pleasantly agreed and nobody else had joined them. Now the last of the congregation had been left behind or had dribbled into their houses. He and Rose were alone in a lane where the hedges would soon be in bud and the banks in flower.
"How early the spring's come this year," she said. "A week ago this was snow and ice."
"It isn't really early—we're getting on well into March. It was the cold weather stayed so long. All this was stemmed up behind it."
"I suppose that's what makes me notice it so much," she said primly.
She seemed determined to talk about things like the weather. She wasn't giving him his chance. He made a bid to switch the conversation.
"I hear you're going in to Hastings tonight."
"That's right. Lily Dunk wants to see Lana Turner, and Sunday's the only day she can manage now she goes out to work."
"Oh . . . and where's the film? At the Gaiety?"
"No—at the Regal."
"Is it just you and Lily going?"
"Just me and Lily." She threw him one of her old mischievous looks. "Want to come with us?"
"Er—no." Lily Dunk was not the sort of girl he fancied for a three-cornered date. "I'm not much of a one for pictures. I was only wondering—"
"—If we're able to take care of ourselves?"
"No. . . ." He really did not know what he had been wondering. He only knew that the time had come to say suddenly:
"Rose, I'm sorry for the way I spoke the other night."
"Oh, that wasn't anything, Kemp. I hope you haven't been worrying about that."
"Well, not exactly worrying . . . but I didn't ought to have been so abrupt with you. You were only trying to help me."
"Yes, I was trying to help you, but I guess I said all the wrong things."
"You were giving me good advice. I wish I'd taken it."
Rose looked at him shrewdly.
"About writing to Alice—not going to see her."
She was silent a moment.
"You went to see her?"
"Yes. I tried to write first. I was more than an hour trying to write a letter, but it didn't seem to come."
"I expect that was because you wanted to see her all the time."
He tried not to mind her saying that.
"Well, I did my best, but I might have done better, as the saying is. You see it's like this. I'm not used to writing that sort of letter—the kind you have to be very careful about and not say the wrong thing or anything that could be read different from the way you wrote it. I think a lot, Rose—I'm a chap who's always thinking. But I'm awkward when it comes to words, and when it comes to writing them down I'm terrified."
"I understand, Kemp—I really do. When I said write a letter, I didn't think how difficult it would be. I ought to have, for I'm terrible at writing letters myself. I'm sure I couldn't have done it. How did you manage to see her? Wasn't Mr. Candelin around?"
"No—he'd gone to Vinehall Market. He'd told me he was going, so I knew the coast was clear."
The question shot into his mind: If he hadn't told me, should I have been able to write that letter after all?
"Then what happened?—that is, don't tell me if you don't want to, but I thought perhaps you did."
"I do—honest, I do. It was like this. I couldn't make her see that she'd have to tell him before he found out for himself. I just couldn't make her see it. She said it was too late to say anything, and I allow it wouldn't have been easy."
"But what did she mean to do about it? Nothing?"
"Nothing. She said he wouldn't find out—not before they went away from here, and if anyone did happen to spill the beans she had a story ready. Then in he walks, having heard all about it at Vinehall."
"Yes, I knew he'd heard. He came into Dad's bar and created—one of the nights I wasn't there. But he never said anything about what you've told me. I'd no idea you'd met him like that. What did he say when he found you there?"
"Of course he thought I'd come for no good reason."
"And I bet he made a scene."
"He made a proper terrification—ordered me right off the place, the basket. And of course she was angry with me too, because I wouldn't let her tell her story, but jumped in ahead with the truth."
"You were right there."
"Maybe I was. But—" he glanced at her sidelong, "I wish I'd written that letter."
"Well, take it this way, Kemp. Even if you had written the letter you couldn't have posted it till next morning and it wouldn't have arrived till after he'd found out everything."
"But at least I shouldn't have been there."
"And that would have been something, of course. But I bet he'd have come over to see you and done his stuff at your place."
"Yes, he said he would. But she wouldn't have been there. . . ."
He stopped and looked at her. They were at the top of the hill now, just coming to the old moat. Rose stopped too.
"That was the terrible part," he said. "You see—I love her."
Rose looked away. He wondered if he was making an ass of himself, but decided to go on.
"I love her," he repeated, "but it wasn't till then that I knew she had never loved me."
"What makes you think that?"
They were standing in the empty lane. To go on would bring them to the throws, with all the traffic of Moat Place, Moat Farm and the Catherine Wheel. They had better stay where they were till they had finished talking. Instinctively they moved to the pales which separated the road from the water with the little reeds. Leaning over them, with their backs to the road, they looked down into the mirror of the moat.
"I've been thinking it over," he said in a low voice, as if they were in the bar, leaning over the counter and keeping themselves private in a crowd. "I've been thinking it over and now I've got it clear. She never really loved me. She was taken with me and maybe she was ready for a bit of fun. But she'd no notion of anything serious. That's what makes me feel so bad."
"You're only guessing."
"No. I'm not. I'm going by the things she said and did—the way she came tearing up to my place that morning. . . . I was going down to hers in the evening, but she wouldn't wait for that. She just had to get rid of me. All the talk about giving me up for the sake of her boys was only to let me out. . . ." He looked away, in case the blurring of the mirror was visible in his eyes. "There was I lying awake for hours that night, planning how I could fix the whole thing—divorce, marriage, a new place, our own kids, everything—and she was lying awake at the same time wondering what sort of a mess she had got into and how she could get out of it."
The mirror was clear again now, and he could see white clouds floating into it among the reeds. He kept his eyes fixed on it, and it seemed almost as if he were speaking to it rather than to Rose as he continued:
"So she came up to Eggs Hole through that terrible weather and told me a yarn about not being able to give up her boys. She wouldn't listen to anything I said. So we said good-by, and you know what happened afterward."
He thought Rose was trying to see his face, but he determinedly looked away from her.
"That was the worst part," he said, "that was the part which really hurt me."
"Her playing me up like that—pretending she was happy with me, when all the time she was longing to get away."
"She was afraid he might come home suddenly and find she wasn't there. She said something to me about it."
"Yes, I know all that. But there was something else too—at least I thought there was. I thought," continued Kemp to the reeds, "that she felt about that time together the same as I did. You see we'd done everything we could to get her home—it wasn't our fault we were snowed up like that. So it seemed to me there was nothing wrong in making the most of it. Why shouldn't we be happy? I said. Here's three or four days together that we never looked for—why shouldn't we enjoy them? There she was lying in bed with me getting her meals for her, just as I might have done if she'd been my wife. . . . Everything I did for her made me happy. It doesn't sound much, but it's all I've ever had of her—that I'll ever have—so if it wasn't real. . . ."
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Rose's hand move toward his on the rail, but she did not touch it.
"So if it wasn't real," he repeated in a steadier voice, "I've never had anything."
"Of course it was real, Kemp. It must have been real if you felt like that."
"Not if she didn't feel the same. I thought she felt the same as I did about it—that she was as happy as I was. But now I see she was only pretending—playing a sort of game. She couldn't get away, so she had to make the best of it and play up to my fancies. Maybe she thought she owed it to me for looking after her."
"I don't see why she should have been thinking in that way. It seems to me that you're looking back and seeing things in a bad light because of what happened afterward. It doesn't follow that because she told lies to her husband that she was telling them all the time. Anyway, it's hard to believe that she was pretending all that for so long and you never suspected anything."
"I dunno. Most men are fools and I certainly am."
"You aren't such a fool as not to see through a woman who was play-acting for four days, and I don't believe she was. She was scared of what her husband would say if he knew, but from what you've told me I can't make her out at all if she wasn't as happy as you were during those four days and as sorry when they ended."
This time Kemp really looked at Rose, for it was odd of her to talk like this. It almost seemed as if she was trying to persuade him that Alice had really loved him, that whatever she had lied about it was not that. Which proved, of course—if proof were needed—that Alice had been wrong when she said that Rose was in love with him herself. He looked at her, but her face was turned away. He saw only the curls under her hat.
"I'm not so sure," he said. "When I look back I somehow can't believe that if she'd really loved me and been happy with me she'd have done and said quite all the things she did then and afterward. She was taken with me, as I said before, but she didn't want anything serious, so to let me down gently she made that excuse about her boys and tried to pretend that she loved me a little."
"I don't really see why you keep on calling her boys an excuse. That sort of thing is often the only reason why a lot of women stick to their husbands. No doubt she's had enough of him—he must be a terror to live with—but she loves her children and she won't leave them—not for anyone. I can understand that."
"Do you think she loves him too?"
"I wouldn't know. Maybe she does a bit, just because he's their father. Anyway there's nothing odd in her making do with him for their sakes. That's why she lost her head and told lies when she thought the truth might upset him. She's acted like a fool, but that doesn't mean she never loved you."
Kemp's mind went back to those days and looked them over in the light of Rose's words, which seemed kinder than his memory. After some silent pondering he said:
"But sometimes I thought she was saying things to put me off."
"Well, she might have, seeing that nothing was to come of it. She wouldn't want you to be always thinking of her and making yourself unhappy."
He was silent again while he thought this over. Then he said:
"It's queer. I once had the same sort of idea myself."
"Well, it's natural, isn't it? If you love a person the first thing you want is for them to be happy, and if they can't be happy with you the only thing is to do your best to make them happy without you."
They were looking into each other's faces now.
"You've made me feel much happier, Rose."
"And I'm glad—so very glad—you don't disapprove of me."
"I never said I didn't disapprove."
"Oh, but—" he was disappointed, "I thought you understood."
"Maybe I do—in a way. I understand how you want to feel that she really loved you and was as happy being with you as you were with her. . . . But I'm glad that it stopped where it did—that this is the end and that soon she'll have gone right away and you'll be able to be yourself again. As I told you days ago, when you first told me, none of this is really like you."
"I know. But these things get started."
"Yes, they do—and then they lead to all sorts of trouble. You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs."
He looked at her sharply, but this time it wasn't a joke.
"And you can't," she continued, "fall in love with somebody who's married to somebody else without breaking up somebody's home, to say nothing of somebody's heart."
"Well, no one can say I've broken up her home. That's just the same as it always was, and soon, thank goodness, she'll have moved it somewhere else."
"And what about the heart?"
"I certainly haven't broken hers."
"Yours is the one I was thinking of."
But instead of answering her he cried, "I just can't abide omelets."
She looked startled.
"What on earth's the matter with you now? What have omelets got to do with it?"
"She was always trying to make me eat them—and that cheese thing. . . . Werner's the same—all out for something foreign. But what I like is a nice steak fried and smothered in onions."
"So do I if it comes to that. And that reminds me"—she looked at her watch—"if we stand talking any longer Dad won't get his Sunday dinner. Are you coming?"
He hesitated, reluctant to lose her company.
"Maybe I ought to be getting back. Will you be in the bar?"
"No, I'll be in the kitchen—cooking. Now here's an idea, Kemp. Why don't you stay and have a bite with us? It won't be steak and onions, but I've got a prime leg of pork, and we'll have baked potatoes and sage and onion stuffing and apple sauce. You can talk to Dad in the bar till it's ready."
"I—er. . . ."
"You'll be home by three o'clock. Surely your place won't fall down before then."
No, it won't. But even if it would. . . .
"Thank you, Rose. I'll be pleased to come."
They turned away from the moat with the little reeds and walked toward the crossroads and the inn.