They were grey, descendants of the silvery things that had darted away from the monks, in the young days when the valley was lusty. The whole place was gathered in the musing of old age. The thick-piled trees on the far shore were too dark and sober to dally with the sun; the weeds stood crowded and motionless. Not even a little wind flickered the willows of the islets. The water lay softly, intensely still.
Only the thin stream falling through the millrace murmured to itself of the tumult of life which had once quickened the valley. I was almost startled into the water from my perch on the alder roots by a voice saying: He laughed, seeing me start, and looked down at me with lazy curiosity. I shall laugh when somebody jerks you awake," I replied. He smiled comfortably and put his hands over his eyes because of the light. We were silent for a long time, when he rolled over and began to poke with his finger in the bank.
Some agitated insects ran round the cluster of eggs, most of which were empty now, the crowns gone; a few young bees staggered about in uncertain flight before they could gather power to wing away in a strong course. He watched the little ones that ran in and out among the shadows of the grass, hither and thither in consternation. There he goes--no, he doesn't. They're only just out of the shells. Don't torment them into flight.
Then he examined the eggs, and pulled out some silk from round the dead larva, and investigated it all in a desultory manner, asking of me all I knew about the insects.
When he had finished he flung the clustered eggs into the water and rose, pulling out his watch from the depth of his breeches' pocket.
Are you coming in? The bankside where the grey orchard twisted its trees, was a steep declivity, long and sharp, dropping down to the garden. The stones of the large house were burdened with ivy and honeysuckle, and the great lilac bush that had once guarded the porch now almost blocked the doorway. We passed out of the front garden into the farmyard, and walked along the brick path to the back door.
We went through the large scullery into the kitchen.
The servant-girl was just hurriedly snatching the table-cloth out of the table drawer, and his mother, a quaint little woman with big, brown eyes, was hovering round the wide fireplace with a fork.
The fire wouldn't burn a bit. You shall have it in a few minutes, though. I wanted to go, but his mother insisted on my staying. As he was reading, and as it took all his mother's powers to watch the potatoes boil and the meat roast, I was left to my thoughts.
George, indifferent to all claims, continued to read. It was very annoying to watch him pulling his brown moustache, and reading indolently while the dog rubbed against his leggings and against the knee of his old riding-breeches.
He would not even be at the trouble to play with Trip's ears, he was so content with his novel and his moustache.
Round and round twirled his thick fingers, and the muscles of his bare arm moved slightly under the red-brown skin. The little square window above him filtered a green light from the foliage of the great horse-chestnut outside and the glimmer fell on his dark hair, and trembled across the plates which Annie was reaching down from the rack, and across the face of the tall clock. The kitchen was very big; the table looked lonely, and the chairs mourned darkly for the lost companionship of the sofa; the chimney was a black cavern away at the back, and the inglenook seats shut in another little compartment ruddy with firelight, where the mother hovered.
It was rather a desolate kitchen, such a bare expanse of uneven grey flagstones, such far-away dark corners and sober furniture.
The only gay things were the chintz coverings of the sofa and the arm-chair cushions, bright red in the bare sombre room; some might smile at the old clock, adorned as it was with remarkable and vivid poultry; in me it only provoked wonder and contemplation. In a little while we heard the scraping of heavy boots outside, and the father entered. He was a big burly farmer, with his half-bald head sprinkled with crisp little curls.
The rabbits has bitten them turnips down, Mother. At last she deemed the potatoes cooked and went out with the steaming pan. The dinner was set on the table and the father began to carve. George looked over his book to survey the fare, then read until his plate was handed him.
The maid sat at her little table near the window, and we began the meal. There came the treading of four feet along the brick path, and a little girl entered, followed by her grown-up sister. The child's long brown hair was tossed wildly back beneath her sailor hat. She flung aside this article of her attire and sat down to dinner, talking endlessly to her mother.
The elder sister, a girl of about twenty-one, gave me a smile and a bright look from her brown eyes, and went to wash her hands. Then she came and sat down, and looked disconsolately at the underdone beef on her plate.
Her brother re-charged his plate and continued to eat. I'll try a potato, Mother, if you can find one that's done. There--they are mixed--look at this one, it's soft enough. I'm sure they were boiling long enough. Some of my lads belong to--to--" "To the devil," suggested George, but she would not accept it from him. Her father sat laughing; her mother, with distress in her eyes, looked at her daughter, who hung her head and made patterns on the table-cloth with her finger.
Emily trifled with her dinner and said bitterly to him: This speech so tickled Mollie that she went off into a burst of laughter, much to the terror of her mother, who stood up in trembling apprehension lest she should choke. Emily was too impatient to speak to him further, and left the table. Soon the two men went back to the fallow to the turnips, and I walked along the path with the girls as they were going to school. And the way Mother humbles herself to him--! We walked on in silence, till she asked: As a matter of fact, I've sent them away.
I'm as irresponsible as a puff of wind. When I left her at the corner of the lane I felt a string of her deep reproach in my mind. I always felt the reproach when she had gone. I ran over the little bright brook that came from the weedy, bottom pond.
This speech so tickled Mollie that she went off into a burst of laughter, much to the terror of her mother, who stood up in trembling apprehension lest she should choke. My heart was beating heavily, and I felt choked.
The stepping-stones were white in the sun, and the water slid sleepily among them. One or two butterflies, indistinguishable against the blue sky, trifled from flower to flower and led me up the hill, across the field where the hot sunshine stood as in a bowl, and I was entering the caverns of the wood, where the oaks bowed over and saved us a grateful shade.
Within, everything was so still and cool that my steps hung heavily along the path. The bracken held out arms to me, and the bosom of the wood was full of sweetness, but I journeyed on, spurred by the attacks of an army of flies which kept up a guerrilla warfare round my head till I had passed the black rhododendron bushes in the garden, where they left me, scenting no doubt Rebecca's pots of vinegar and sugar.
The low red house, with it roof discoloured and sunken, dozed in sunlight, and slept profoundly in the shade thrown by the massive maples encroaching from the wood.
There was no one in the dining-room, but I could hear the whirr of a sewing-machine coming from the little study, a sound as of some great, vindictive insect buzzing about, now louder, now softer, now settling. Then came a jingling of four or five keys at the bottom of the keyboard of the drawing-room piano, continuing till the whole range had been covered in little leaps, as if some very fat frog had jumped from end to end.
The unaccustomed sound of the old piano startled me. The vocal chords behind the green-silk bosom--you only discovered it was not a bronze-silk bosom by poking a fold aside--had become as thin and tuneless as a dried old woman's. Age had yellowed the teeth of my mother's little piano, and shrunken its spindle legs. Poor old thing, it could but screech in answer to Lettie's fingers flying across it in scorn, so the prim, brown lips were always closed save to admit the duster.
Now, however, the little old-maidish piano began to sing a tinkling Victorian melody, and I fancied it must be some demure little woman, with curls like bunches of hops on either side of her face, who was touching it. The coy little tune teased me with old sensations, but my memory would give me no assistance.
As I stood trying to fix my vague feelings, Rebecca came in to remove the cloth from the table. I thought she couldn't. You can't remember her when her curls was long like a piece of brown silk.
You can't remember her when she used to play and sing, before Lettie came and your father was--" Rebecca turned and left the room.
I went and peeped in the drawing-room. Mother sat before the little brown piano, with her plump, rather stiff fingers moving across the keys, a faint smile on her lips. At that moment Lettie came flying past me, and flung her arms round mother's neck, kissing her and saying: Oh, Little Woman, we never knew you could! It was a cracked one then; the only one I had.
It was like the clinking of lustre glasses, and you look so quaint at the piano. Do play, my dear! Tell us about it, Mother. Where have you been, Cyril, that you weren't in to dinner? They were cross with me, these two women. After I had swallowed my little resentment I said: Nobody will ever be good enough for him. What can you expect when his mother has spoiled him as she has.
But I wonder you are so interested in licking him. Then she tossed her head, and all the fine hairs that were free from bonds made a mist of yellow light in the sun.
She was tall, nearly six feet in height, but slenderly formed. Her hair was yellow, tending towards a dun brown.
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