It was a mile nearer through the wood. Mechanically, Syson turned up by the forge and lifted the field-gate. The blacksmith and his mate stood still, watching the trespasser. But Syson looked too much a gentleman to be accosted. They let him go in silence across the small field to the wood.
There was not the least difference between this morning and those of the bright springs, six or eight years back. White and sandy-gold fowls still scratched round the gate, littering the earth and the field with feathers and scratched-up rubbish. Between the two thick holly bushes in the wood-hedge was the hidden gap, whose fence one climbed to get into the wood; the bars were scored just the same by the keeper's boots. He was back in the eternal.
Syson was extraordinarily glad. Like an uneasy spirit he had returned to the country of his past, and he found it waiting for him, unaltered. The hazel still spread glad little hands downwards, the bluebells here were still wan and few, among the lush grass and in shade of the bushes.
The path through the wood, on the very brow of a slope, ran winding easily for a time. All around were twiggy oaks, just issuing their gold, and floor spaces diapered with woodruff, with patches of dog-mercury and tufts of hyacinth. Two fallen trees still lay across the track. Syson jolted down a steep, rough slope, and came again upon the open land, this time looking north as through a great window in the wood. He stayed to gaze over the level fields of the hill-top, at the village which strewed the bare upland as if it had tumbled off the passing waggons of industry, and been forsaken. There was a stiff, modern, grey little church, and blocks and rows of red dwellings lying at random; at the back, the twinkling headstocks of the pit, and the looming pit-hill. All was naked and out-of-doors, not a tree! It was quite unaltered.
Syson turned, satisfied, to follow the path that sheered downhill into the wood. He was curiously elated, feeling himself back in an enduring vision. He started. A keeper was standing a few yards in front, barring the way.
"Where might you be going this road, sir?" asked the man. The tone of his question had a challenging twang. Syson looked at the fellow with an impersonal, observant gaze. It was a young man of four or five and twenty, ruddy and well favoured. His dark blue eyes now stared aggressively at the intruder. His black moustache, very thick, was cropped short over a small, rather soft mouth. In every other respect the fellow was manly and good-looking. He stood just above middle height; the strong forward thrust of his chest, and the perfect ease of his erect, self-sufficient body, gave one the feeling that he was taut with animal life, like the thick jet of a fountain balanced in itself. He stood with the butt of his gun on the ground, looking uncertainly and questioningly at Syson. The dark, restless eyes of the trespasser, examining the man and penetrating into him without heeding his office, troubled the keeper and made him flush.
"Where is Naylor? Have you got his job?" Syson asked.
"You're not from the House, are you?" inquired the keeper. It could not be, since everyone was away.
"No, I'm not from the House," the other replied. It seemed to amuse him.
"Then might I ask where you were making for?" said the keeper, nettled.
"Where I am making for?" Syson repeated. "I am going to Willey-Water Farm."
"This isn't the road."
"I think so. Down this path, past the well, and out by the white gate."
"But that's not the public road."
"I suppose not. I used to come so often, in Naylor's time, I had forgotten. Where is he, by the way?"
"Crippled with rheumatism," the keeper answered reluctantly.
"Is he?" Syson exclaimed in pain.
"And who might you be?" asked the keeper, with a new intonation.
"John Adderley Syson; I used to live in Cordy Lane."
"Used to court Hilda Millership?"
Syson's eyes opened with a pained smile. He nodded. There was an awkward silence.
"And you--who are you?" asked Syson.
"Arthur Pilbeam--Naylor's my uncle," said the other.
"You live here in Nuttall?"
"I'm lodgin' at my uncle's--at Naylor's."
"Did you say you was goin' down to Willey-Water?" asked the keeper.
There was a pause of some moments, before the keeper blurted: "I'm courtin' Hilda Millership."
The young fellow looked at the intruder with a stubborn defiance, almost pathetic. Syson opened new eyes.
"Are you?" he said, astonished. The keeper flushed dark.
"She and me are keeping company," he said.
"I didn't know!" said Syson. The other man waited uncomfortably.
"What, is the thing settled?" asked the intruder.
"How, settled?" retorted the other sulkily.
"Are you going to get married soon, and all that?"
The keeper stared in silence for some moments, impotent.
"I suppose so," he said, full of resentment.
"Ah!" Syson watched closely.
"I'm married myself," he added, after a time.
"You are?" said the other incredulously.
Syson laughed in his brilliant, unhappy way.
"This last fifteen months," he said.
The keeper gazed at him with wide, wondering eyes, apparently thinking back, and trying to make things out.
"Why, didn't you know?" asked Syson.
"No, I didn't," said the other sulkily.
There was silence for a moment.
"Ah well!" said Syson, "I will go on. I suppose I may." The keeper stood in silent opposition. The two men hesitated in the open, grassy space, set around with small sheaves of sturdy bluebells; a little open platform on the brow of the hill. Syson took a few indecisive steps forward, then stopped.
"I say, how beautiful!" he cried.
He had come in full view of the downslope. The wide path ran from his feet like a river, and it was full of bluebells, save for a green winding thread down the centre, where the keeper walked. Like a stream the path opened into azure shallows at the levels, and there were pools of bluebells, with still the green thread winding through, like a thin current of ice-water through blue lakes. And from under the twig-purple of the bushes swam the shadowed blue, as if the flowers lay in flood water over the woodland.
"Ah, isn't it lovely!" Syson exclaimed; this was his past, the country he had abandoned, and it hurt him to see it so beautiful. Woodpigeons cooed overhead, and the air was full of the brightness of birds singing.
"If you're married, what do you keep writing to her for, and sending her poetry books and things?" asked the keeper. Syson stared at him, taken aback and humiliated. Then he began to smile.
"Well," he said, "I did not know about you . . ."
Again the keeper flushed darkly.
"But if you are married--" he charged.
"I am," answered the other cynically.
Then, looking down the blue, beautiful path, Syson felt his own humiliation. "What right have I to hang on to her?" he thought, bitterly self-contemptuous.
"She knows I'm married and all that," he said.
"But you keep sending her books," challenged the keeper.
Syson, silenced, looked at the other man quizzically, half pitying. Then he turned.
"Good day," he said, and was gone. Now, everything irritated him: the two sallows, one all gold and perfume and murmur, one silver-green and bristly, reminded him, that here he had taught her about pollination. What a fool he was! What god-forsaken folly it all was!
"Ah well," he said to himself; "the poor devil seems to have a grudge against me. I'll do my best for him." He grinned to himself, in a very bad temper.
The farm was less than a hundred yards from the wood's edge. The wall of trees formed the fourth side to the open quadrangle. The house faced the wood. With tangled emotions, Syson noted the plum blossom falling on the profuse, coloured primroses, which he himself had brought here and set. How they had increased! There were thick tufts of scarlet, and pink, and pale purple primroses under the plum trees. He saw somebody glance at him through the kitchen window, heard men's voices.
The door opened suddenly: very womanly she had grown! He felt himself going pale.
"You?--Addy!" she exclaimed, and stood motionless.
"Who?" called the farmer's voice. Men's low voices answered. Those low voices, curious and almost jeering, roused the tormented spirit in the visitor. Smiling brilliantly at her, he waited.
"Myself--why not?" he said.
The flush burned very deep on her cheek and throat.
"We are just finishing dinner," she said.
"Then I will stay outside." He made a motion to show that he would sit on the red earthenware pipkin that stood near the door among the daffodils, and contained the drinking water.
"Oh no, come in," she said hurriedly. He followed her. In the doorway, he glanced swiftly over the family, and bowed. Everyone was confused. The farmer, his wife, and the four sons sat at the coarsely laid dinner-table, the men with arms bare to the elbows.
"I am sorry I come at lunch-time," said Syson.
"Hello, Addy!" said the farmer, assuming the old form of address, but his tone cold. "How are you?"
And he shook hands.
"Shall you have a bit?" he invited the young visitor, but taking for granted the offer would be refused. He assumed that Syson was become too refined to eat so roughly. The young man winced at the imputation.
"Have you had any dinner?" asked the daughter.
"No," replied Syson. "It is too early. I shall be back at half-past one."
"You call it lunch, don't you?" asked the eldest son, almost ironical. He had once been an intimate friend of this young man.
"We'll give Addy something when we've finished," said the mother, an invalid, deprecating.
"No--don't trouble. I don't want to give you any trouble," said Syson.
"You could allus live on fresh air an' scenery," laughed the youngest son, a lad of nineteen.
Syson went round the buildings, and into the orchard at the back of the house, where daffodils all along the hedgerow swung like yellow, ruffled birds on their perches. He loved the place extraordinarily, the hills ranging round, with bear-skin woods covering their giant shoulders, and small red farms like brooches clasping their garments; the blue streak of water in the valley, the bareness of the home pasture, the sound of myriad-threaded bird-singing, which went mostly unheard. To his last day, he would dream of this place, when he felt the sun on his face, or saw the small handfuls of snow between the winter twigs, or smelt the coming of spring.
Hilda was very womanly. In her presence he felt constrained. She was twenty-nine, as he was, but she seemed to him much older. He felt foolish, almost unreal, beside her. She was so static. As he was fingering some shed plum blossom on a low bough, she came to the back door to shake the table-cloth. Fowls raced from the stackyard, birds rustled from the trees. Her dark hair was gathered up in a coil like a crown on her head. She was very straight, distant in her bearing. As she folded the cloth, she looked away over the hills.
Presently Syson returned indoors. She had prepared eggs and curd cheese, stewed gooseberries and cream.
"Since you will dine to-night," she said, "I have only given you a light lunch."
"It is awfully nice," he said. "You keep a real idyllic atmosphere--your belt of straw and ivy buds."
Still they hurt each other.
He was uneasy before her. Her brief, sure speech, her distant bearing, were unfamiliar to him. He admired again her grey-black eyebrows, and her lashes. Their eyes met. He saw, in the beautiful grey and black of her glance, tears and a strange light, and at the back of all, calm acceptance of herself, and triumph over him.
He felt himself shrinking. With an effort he kept up the ironic manner.
She sent him into the parlour while she washed the dishes. The long low room was refurnished from the Abbey sale, with chairs upholstered in claret-coloured rep, many years old, and an oval table of polished walnut, and another piano, handsome, though still antique. In spite of the strangeness, he was pleased. Opening a high cupboard let into the thickness of the wall, he found it full of his books, his old lesson-books, and volumes of verse he had sent her, English and German. The daffodils in the white window-bottoms shone across the room, he could almost feel their rays. The old glamour caught him again. His youthful water-colours on the wall no longer made him grin; he remembered how fervently he had tried to paint for her, twelve years before.
She entered, wiping a dish, and he saw again the bright, kernel-white beauty of her arms.
"You are quite splendid here," he said, and their eyes met.
"Do you like it?" she asked. It was the old, low, husky tone of intimacy. He felt a quick change beginning in his blood. It was the old, delicious sublimation, the thinning, almost the vaporizing of himself, as if his spirit were to be liberated.
"Aye," he nodded, smiling at her like a boy again. She bowed her head.
"This was the countess's chair," she said in low tones. "I found her scissors down here between the padding."
"Did you? Where are they?"
Quickly, with a lilt in her movement, she fetched her work-basket, and together they examined the long-shanked old scissors.
"What a ballad of dead ladies!" he said, laughing, as he fitted his fingers into the round loops of the countess's scissors.
"I knew you could use them," she said, with certainty. He looked at his fingers, and at the scissors. She meant his fingers were fine enough for the small-looped scissors.
"That is something to be said for me," he laughed, putting the scissors aside. She turned to the window. He noticed the fine, fair down on her cheek and her upper lip, and her soft, white neck, like the throat of a nettle flower, and her fore-arms, bright as newly blanched kernels. He was looking at her with new eyes, and she was a different person to him. He did not know her. But he could regard her objectively now.
"Shall we go out awhile?" she asked.
"Yes!" he answered. But the predominant emotion, that troubled the excitement and perplexity of his heart, was fear, fear of that which he saw. There was about her the same manner, the same intonation in her voice, now as then, but she was not what he had known her to be. He knew quite well what she had been for him. And gradually he was realizing that she was something quite other, and always had been.
She put no covering on her head, merely took off her apron, saying, "We will go by the larches." As they passed the old orchard, she called him in to show him a blue-tit's nest in one of the apple trees, and a sycock's in the hedge. He rather wondered at her surety, at a certain hardness like arrogance hidden under her humility.
"Look at the apple buds," she said, and he then perceived myriads of little scarlet balls among the drooping boughs. Watching his face, her eyes went hard. She saw the scales were fallen from him, and at last he was going to see her as she was. It was the thing she had most dreaded in the past, and most needed, for her soul's sake. Now he was going to see her as she was. He would not love her, and he would know he never could have loved her. The old illusion gone, they were strangers, crude and entire. But he would give her her due--she would have her due from him.
She was brilliant as he had not known her. She showed him nests: a jenny wren's in a low bush.
"See this jinty's!" she exclaimed.
He was surprised to hear her use the local name. She reached carefully through the thorns, and put her fingers in the nest's round door.
"Five!" she said. "Tiny little things."
She showed him nests of robins, and chaffinches, and linnets, and buntings; of a wagtail beside the water.
"And if we go down, nearer the lake, I will show you a kingfisher's . . ."
"Among the young fir trees," she said, "there's a throstle's or a blackie's on nearly every bough, every ledge. The first day, when I had seen them all, I felt as if I mustn't go in the wood. It seemed a city of birds: and in the morning, hearing them all, I thought of the noisy early markets. I was afraid to go in my own wood."
She was using the language they had both of them invented. Now it was all her own. He had done with it. She did not mind his silence, but was always dominant, letting him see her wood. As they came along a marshy path where forget-me-nots were opening in a rich blue drift: "We know all the birds, but there are many flowers we can't find out," she said. It was half an appeal to him, who had known the names of things.
She looked dreamily across to the open fields that slept in the sun.
"I have a lover as well, you know," she said, with assurance, yet dropping again almost into the intimate tone.
This woke in him the spirit to fight her.
"I think I met him. He is good-looking--also in Arcady."
Without answering, she turned into a dark path that led up-hill, where the trees and undergrowth were very thick.
"They did well," she said at length, "to have various altars to various gods, in old days."
"Ah yes!" he agreed. "To whom is the new one?"
"There are no old ones," she said. "I was always looking for this."
"And whose is it?" he asked.
"I don't know," she said, looking full at him.
"I'm very glad, for your sake," he said, "that you are satisfied."
"Aye--but the man doesn't matter so much," she said. There was a pause.
"No!" he exclaimed, astonished, yet recognizing her as her real self.
"It is one's self that matters," she said. "Whether one is being one's own self and serving one's own God."
There was silence, during which he pondered. The path was almost flowerless, gloomy. At the side, his heels sank into soft clay.
"I," she said, very slowly, "I was married the same night as you."
He looked at her.
"Not legally, of course," she replied. "But--actually."
"To the keeper?" he said, not knowing what else to say.
She turned to him.
"You thought I could not?" she said. But the flush was deep in her cheek and throat, for all her assurance.
Still he would not say anything.
"You see"--she was making an effort to explain--"I had to understand also."
"And what does it amount to, this understanding?" he asked.
"A very great deal--does it not to you?" she replied. "One is free."
"And you are not disappointed?"
"Far from it!" Her tone was deep and sincere.
"You love him?"
"Yes, I love him."
"Good!" he said.
This silenced her for a while.
"Here, among his things, I love him," she said.
His conceit would not let him be silent.
"It needs this setting?" he asked.
"It does," she cried. "You were always making me to be not myself."
He laughed shortly.
"But is it a matter of surroundings?" he said. He had considered her all spirit.
"I am like a plant," she replied. "I can only grow in my own soil."
They came to a place where the undergrowth shrank away, leaving a bare, brown space, pillared with the brick-red and purplish trunks of pine trees. On the fringe, hung the sombre green of elder trees, with flat flowers in bud, and below were bright, unfurling pennons of fern. In the midst of the bare space stood a keeper's log hut. Pheasant-coops were lying about, some occupied by a clucking hen, some empty.
Hilda walked over the brown pine-needles to the hut, took a key from among the eaves, and opened the door. It was a bare wooden place with a carpenter's bench and form, carpenter's tools, an axe, snares, straps, some skins pegged down, everything in order. Hilda closed the door. Syson examined the weird flat coats of wild animals, that were pegged down to be cured. She turned some knotch in the side wall, and disclosed a second, small apartment.
"How romantic!" said Syson.
"Yes. He is very curious--he has some of a wild animal's cunning--in a nice sense--and he is inventive, and thoughtful--but not beyond a certain point."
She pulled back a dark green curtain. The apartment was occupied almost entirely by a large couch of heather and bracken, on which was spread an ample rabbit-skin rug. On the floor were patchwork rugs of cat-skin, and a red calf-skin, while hanging from the wall were other furs. Hilda took down one, which she put on. It was a cloak of rabbit-skin and of white fur, with a hood, apparently of the skins of stoats. She laughed at Syson from out of this barbaric mantle, saying:
"What do you think of it?"
"Ah--! I congratulate you on your man," he replied.
"And look!" she said.
In a little jar on a shelf were some sprays, frail and white, of the first honeysuckle.
"They will scent the place at night," she said.
He looked round curiously.
"Where does he come short, then?" he asked. She gazed at him for a few moments. Then, turning aside:
"The stars aren't the same with him," she said. "You could make them flash and quiver, and the forget-me-nots come up at me like phosphorescence. You could make things wonderful. I have found it out--it is true. But I have them all for myself, now."
He laughed, saying:
"After all, stars and forget-me-nots are only luxuries. You ought to make poetry."
"Aye," she assented. "But I have them all now."
Again he laughed bitterly at her.
She turned swiftly. He was leaning against the small window of the tiny, obscure room, and was watching her, who stood in the doorway, still cloaked in her mantle. His cap was removed, so she saw his face and head distinctly in the dim room. His black, straight, glossy hair was brushed clean back from his brow. His black eyes were watching her, and his face, that was clear and cream, and perfectly smooth, was flickering.
"We are very different," she said bitterly.
Again he laughed.
"I see you disapprove of me," he said.
"I disapprove of what you have become," she said.
"You think we might"--he glanced at the hut--"have been like this--you and I?"
She shook her head.
"You! no; never! You plucked a thing and looked at it till you had found out all you wanted to know about it, then you threw it away," she said.
"Did I?" he asked. "And could your way never have been my way? I suppose not."
"Why should it?" she said. "I am a separate being."
"But surely two people sometimes go the same way," he said.
"You took me away from myself," she said.
He knew he had mistaken her, had taken her for something she was not. That was his fault, not hers.
"And did you always know?" he asked.
"No--you never let me know. You bullied me. I couldn't help myself. I was glad when you left me, really."
"I know you were," he said. But his face went paler, almost deathly luminous.
"Yet," he said, "it was you who sent me the way I have gone."
"I!" she exclaimed, in pride.
"You would have me take the Grammar School scholarship--and you would have me foster poor little Botell's fervent attachment to me, till he couldn't live without me--and because Botell was rich and influential. You triumphed in the wine-merchant's offer to send me to Cambridge, to befriend his only child. You wanted me to rise in the world. And all the time you were sending me away from you--every new success of mine put a separation between us, and more for you than for me. You never wanted to come with me: you wanted just to send me to see what it was like. I believe you even wanted me to marry a lady. You wanted to triumph over society in me."
"And I am responsible," she said, with sarcasm.
"I distinguished myself to satisfy you," he replied.
"Ah!" she cried, "you always wanted change, change, like a child."
"Very well! And I am a success, and I know it, and I do some good work. But--I thought you were different. What right have you to a man?"
"What do you want?" she said, looking at him with wide, fearful eyes.
He looked back at her, his eyes pointed, like weapons.
"Why, nothing," he laughed shortly.
There was a rattling at the outer latch, and the keeper entered. The woman glanced round, but remained standing, fur-cloaked, in the inner doorway. Syson did not move.
The other man entered, saw, and turned away without speaking. The two also were silent.
Pilbeam attended to his skins.
"I must go," said Syson.
"Yes," she replied.
"Then I give you 'To our vast and varying fortunes.'" He lifted his hand in pledge.
"'To our vast and varying fortunes,'" she answered gravely, and speaking in cold tones.
"Arthur!" she said.
The keeper pretended not to hear. Syson, watching keenly, began to smile. The woman drew herself up.
"Arthur!" she said again, with a curious upward inflection, which warned the two men that her soul was trembling on a dangerous crisis.
The keeper slowly put down his tool and came to her.
"Yes," he said.
"I wanted to introduce you," she said, trembling.
"I've met him a'ready," said the keeper.
"Have you? It is Addy, Mr Syson, whom you know about.--This is Arthur, Mr Pilbeam," she added, turning to Syson. The latter held out his hand to the keeper, and they shook hands in silence.
"I'm glad to have met you," said Syson. "We drop our correspondence, Hilda?"
"Why need we?" she asked.
The two men stood at a loss.
"Is there no need?" said Syson.
Still she was silent.
"It is as you will," she said.
They went all three together down the gloomy path.
"'Qu'il était bleu, le ciel, et grand l'espoir,'" quoted Syson, not knowing what to say.
"What do you mean?" she said. "Besides, we can't walk in our wild oats--we never sowed any."
Syson looked at her. He was startled to see his young love, his nun, his Botticelli angel, so revealed. It was he who had been the fool. He and she were more separate than any two strangers could be. She only wanted to keep up a correspondence with him--and he, of course, wanted it kept up, so that he could write to her, like Dante to some Beatrice who had never existed save in the man's own brain.
At the bottom of the path she left him. He went along with the keeper, towards the open, towards the gate that closed on the wood. The two men walked almost like friends. They did not broach the subject of their thoughts.
Instead of going straight to the high-road gate, Syson went along the wood's edge, where the brook spread out in a little bog, and under the alder trees, among the reeds, great yellow stools and bosses of marigolds shone. Threads of brown water trickled by, touched with gold from the flowers. Suddenly there was a blue flash in the air, as a kingfisher passed.
Syson was extraordinarily moved. He climbed the bank to the gorse bushes, whose sparks of blossom had not yet gathered into a flame. Lying on the dry brown turf, he discovered sprigs of tiny purple milkwort and pink spots of lousewort. What a wonderful world it was--marvellous, for ever new. He felt as if it were underground, like the fields of monotone hell, notwithstanding. Inside his breast was a pain like a wound. He remembered the poem of William Morris, where in the Chapel of Lyonesse a knight lay wounded, with the truncheon of a spear deep in his breast, lying always as dead, yet did not die, while day after day the coloured sunlight dipped from the painted window across the chancel, and passed away. He knew now it never had been true, that which was between him and her, not for a moment. The truth had stood apart all the time.
Syson turned over. The air was full of the sound of larks, as if the sunshine above were condensing and falling in a shower. Amid this bright sound, voices sounded small and distinct.
"But if he's married, an' quite willing to drop it off, what has ter against it?" said the man's voice.
"I don't want to talk about it now. I want to be alone."
Syson looked through the bushes. Hilda was standing in the wood, near the gate. The man was in the field, loitering by the hedge, and playing with the bees as they settled on the white bramble flowers.
There was silence for a while, in which Syson imagined her will among the brightness of the larks. Suddenly the keeper exclaimed "Ah!" and swore. He was gripping at the sleeve of his coat, near the shoulder. Then he pulled off his jacket, threw it on the ground, and absorbedly rolled up his shirt sleeve right to the shoulder.
"Ah!" he said vindictively, as he picked out the bee and flung it away. He twisted his fine, bright arm, peering awkwardly over his shoulder.
"What is it?" asked Hilda.
"A bee--crawled up my sleeve," he answered.
"Come here to me," she said.
The keeper went to her, like a sulky boy. She took his arm in her hands.
"Here it is--and the sting left in--poor bee!"
She picked out the sting, put her mouth to his arm, and sucked away the drop of poison. As she looked at the red mark her mouth had made, and at his arm, she said, laughing:
"That is the reddest kiss you will ever have."
When Syson next looked up, at the sound of voices, he saw in the shadow the keeper with his mouth on the throat of his beloved, whose head was thrown back, and whose hair had fallen, so that one rough rope of dark brown hair hung across his bare arm.
"No," the woman answered. "I am not upset because he's gone. You won't understand . . ."
Syson could not distinguish what the man said. Hilda replied, clear and distinct:
"You know I love you. He has gone quite out of my life--don't trouble about him . . ." He kissed her, murmuring. She laughed hollowly.
"Yes," she said, indulgent. "We will be married, we will be married. But not just yet." He spoke to her again. Syson heard nothing for a time. Then she said:
"You must go home, now, dear--you will get no sleep."
Again was heard the murmur of the keeper's voice, troubled by fear and passion.
"But why should we be married at once?" she said. "What more would you have, by being married? It is most beautiful as it is."
At last he pulled on his coat and departed. She stood at the gate, not watching him, but looking over the sunny country.
When at last she had gone, Syson also departed, going back to town.