The village of Disham lies somewhere on the rolling piece of cultivated ground in the neighborhood of Lincoln, not so far inland but that a sound, bringing rumors of the sea, can be heard on summer nights or when the winter storms fling the waves upon the long beach. So large is the church, and in particular the church tower, in comparison with the little street of cottages which compose the village, that the traveler is apt to cast his mind back to the Middle Ages, as the only time when so much piety could have been kept alive. So great a trust in the Church can surely not belong to our day, and he goes on to conjecture that every one of the villagers has reached the extreme limit of human life. Such are the reflections of the superficial stranger, and his sight of the population, as it is represented by two or three men hoeing in a turnip-field, a small child carrying a jug, and a young woman shaking a piece of carpet outside her cottage door, will not lead him to see anything very much out of keeping with the Middle Ages in the village of Disham as it is to-day. These people, though they seem young enough, look so angular and so crude that they remind him of the little pictures painted by monks in the capital letters of their manuscripts. He only half understands what they say, and speaks very loud and clearly, as though, indeed, his voice had to carry through a hundred years or more before it reached them. He would have a far better chance of understanding some dweller in Paris or Rome, Berlin or Madrid, than these countrymen of his who have lived for the last two thousand years not two hundred miles from the City of London.
The Rectory stands about half a mile beyond the village. It is a large house, and has been growing steadily for some centuries round the great kitchen, with its narrow red tiles, as the Rector would point out to his guests on the first night of their arrival, taking his brass candlestick, and bidding them mind the steps up and the steps down, and notice the immense thickness of the walls, the old beams across the ceiling, the staircases as steep as ladders, and the attics, with their deep, tent-like roofs, in which swallows bred, and once a white owl. But nothing very interesting or very beautiful had resulted from the different additions made by the different rectors.
The house, however, was surrounded by a garden, in which the Rector took considerable pride. The lawn, which fronted the drawing-room windows, was a rich and uniform green, unspotted by a single daisy, and on the other side of it two straight paths led past beds of tall, standing flowers to a charming grassy walk, where the Rev. Wyndham Datchet would pace up and down at the same hour every morning, with a sundial to measure the time for him. As often as not, he carried a book in his hand, into which he would glance, then shut it up, and repeat the rest of the ode from memory. He had most of Horace by heart, and had got into the habit of connecting this particular walk with certain odes which he repeated duly, at the same time noting the condition of his flowers, and stooping now and again to pick any that were withered or overblown. On wet days, such was the power of habit over him, he rose from his chair at the same hour, and paced his study for the same length of time, pausing now and then to straighten some book in the bookcase, or alter the position of the two brass crucifixes standing upon cairns of serpentine stone upon the mantelpiece. His children had a great respect for him, credited him with far more learning than he actually possessed, and saw that his habits were not interfered with, if possible. Like most people who do things methodically, the Rector himself had more strength of purpose and power of self-sacrifice than of intellect or of originality. On cold and windy nights he rode off to visit sick people, who might need him, without a murmur; and by virtue of doing dull duties punctually, he was much employed upon committees and local Boards and Councils; and at this period of his life (he was sixty-eight) he was beginning to be commiserated by tender old ladies for the extreme leanness of his person, which, they said, was worn out upon the roads when it should have been resting before a comfortable fire. His elder daughter, Elizabeth, lived with him and managed the house, and already much resembled him in dry sincerity and methodical habit of mind; of the two sons one, Richard, was an estate agent, the other, Christopher, was reading for the Bar. At Christmas, naturally, they met together; and for a month past the arrangement of the Christmas week had been much in the mind of mistress and maid, who prided themselves every year more confidently upon the excellence of their equipment. The late Mrs. Datchet had left an excellent cupboard of linen, to which Elizabeth had succeeded at the age of nineteen, when her mother died, and the charge of the family rested upon the shoulders of the eldest daughter. She kept a fine flock of yellow chickens, sketched a little, certain rose-trees in the garden were committed specially to her care; and what with the care of the house, the care of the chickens, and the care of the poor, she scarcely knew what it was to have an idle minute. An extreme rectitude of mind, rather than any gift, gave her weight in the family. When Mary wrote to say that she had asked Ralph Denham to stay with them, she added, out of deference to Elizabeth’s character, that he was very nice, though rather queer, and had been overworking himself in London. No doubt Elizabeth would conclude that Ralph was in love with her, but there could be no doubt either that not a word of this would be spoken by either of them, unless, indeed, some catastrophe made mention of it unavoidable.
Mary went down to Disham without knowing whether Ralph intended to come; but two or three days before Christmas she received a telegram from Ralph, asking her to take a room for him in the village. This was followed by a letter explaining that he hoped he might have his meals with them; but quiet, essential for his work, made it necessary to sleep out.
Mary was walking in the garden with Elizabeth, and inspecting the roses, when the letter arrived.
“But that’s absurd,” said Elizabeth decidedly, when the plan was explained to her. “There are five spare rooms, even when the boys are here. Besides, he wouldn’t get a room in the village. And he oughtn’t to work if he’s overworked.”
“But perhaps he doesn’t want to see so much of us,” Mary thought to herself, although outwardly she assented, and felt grateful to Elizabeth for supporting her in what was, of course, her desire. They were cutting roses at the time, and laying them, head by head, in a shallow basket.
“If Ralph were here, he’d find this very dull,” Mary thought, with a little shiver of irritation, which led her to place her rose the wrong way in the basket. Meanwhile, they had come to the end of the path, and while Elizabeth straightened some flowers, and made them stand upright within their fence of string, Mary looked at her father, who was pacing up and down, with his hand behind his back and his head bowed in meditation. Obeying an impulse which sprang from some desire to interrupt this methodical marching, Mary stepped on to the grass walk and put her hand on his arm.
“A flower for your buttonhole, father,” she said, presenting a rose.
“Eh, dear?” said Mr. Datchet, taking the flower, and holding it at an angle which suited his bad eyesight, without pausing in his walk.
“Where does this fellow come from? One of Elizabeth’s roses—I hope you asked her leave. Elizabeth doesn’t like having her roses picked without her leave, and quite right, too.”
He had a habit, Mary remarked, and she had never noticed it so clearly before, of letting his sentences tail away in a continuous murmur, whereupon he passed into a state of abstraction, presumed by his children to indicate some train of thought too profound for utterance.
“What?” said Mary, interrupting, for the first time in her life, perhaps, when the murmur ceased. He made no reply. She knew very well that he wished to be left alone, but she stuck to his side much as she might have stuck to some sleep-walker, whom she thought it right gradually to awaken. She could think of nothing to rouse him with except:
“The garden’s looking very nice, father.”
“Yes, yes, yes,” said Mr. Datchet, running his words together in the same abstracted manner, and sinking his head yet lower upon his breast. And suddenly, as they turned their steps to retrace their way, he jerked out:
“The traffic’s very much increased, you know. More rolling-stock needed already. Forty trucks went down yesterday by the 12.15—counted them myself. They’ve taken off the 9.3, and given us an 8.30 instead—suits the business men, you know. You came by the old 3.10 yesterday, I suppose?”
She said “Yes,” as he seemed to wish for a reply, and then he looked at his watch, and made off down the path towards the house, holding the rose at the same angle in front of him. Elizabeth had gone round to the side of the house, where the chickens lived, so that Mary found herself alone, holding Ralph’s letter in her hand. She was uneasy. She had put off the season for thinking things out very successfully, and now that Ralph was actually coming, the next day, she could only wonder how her family would impress him. She thought it likely that her father would discuss the train service with him; Elizabeth would be bright and sensible, and always leaving the room to give messages to the servants. Her brothers had already said that they would give him a day’s shooting. She was content to leave the problem of Ralph’s relations to the young men obscure, trusting that they would find some common ground of masculine agreement. But what would he think of HER? Would he see that she was different from the rest of the family? She devised a plan for taking him to her sitting-room, and artfully leading the talk towards the English poets, who now occupied prominent places in her little bookcase. Moreover, she might give him to understand, privately, that she, too, thought her family a queer one—queer, yes, but not dull. That was the rock past which she was bent on steering him. And she thought how she would draw his attention to Edward’s passion for Jorrocks, and the enthusiasm which led Christopher to collect moths and butterflies though he was now twenty-two. Perhaps Elizabeth’s sketching, if the fruits were invisible, might lend color to the general effect which she wished to produce of a family, eccentric and limited, perhaps, but not dull. Edward, she perceived, was rolling the lawn, for the sake of exercise; and the sight of him, with pink cheeks, bright little brown eyes, and a general resemblance to a clumsy young cart-horse in its winter coat of dusty brown hair, made Mary violently ashamed of her ambitious scheming. She loved him precisely as he was; she loved them all; and as she walked by his side, up and down, and down and up, her strong moral sense administered a sound drubbing to the vain and romantic element aroused in her by the mere thought of Ralph. She felt quite certain that, for good or for bad, she was very like the rest of her family.
Sitting in the corner of a third-class railway carriage, on the afternoon of the following day, Ralph made several inquiries of a commercial traveler in the opposite corner. They centered round a village called Lampsher, not three miles, he understood, from Lincoln; was there a big house in Lampsher, he asked, inhabited by a gentleman of the name of Otway?
The traveler knew nothing, but rolled the name of Otway on his tongue, reflectively, and the sound of it gratified Ralph amazingly. It gave him an excuse to take a letter from his pocket in order to verify the address.
“Stogdon House, Lampsher, Lincoln,” he read out.
“You’ll find somebody to direct you at Lincoln,” said the man; and Ralph had to confess that he was not bound there this very evening.
“I’ve got to walk over from Disham,” he said, and in the heart of him could not help marveling at the pleasure which he derived from making a bagman in a train believe what he himself did not believe. For the letter, though signed by Katharine’s father, contained no invitation or warrant for thinking that Katharine herself was there; the only fact it disclosed was that for a fortnight this address would be Mr. Hilbery’s address. But when he looked out of the window, it was of her he thought; she, too, had seen these gray fields, and, perhaps, she was there where the trees ran up a slope, and one yellow light shone now, and then went out again, at the foot of the hill. The light shone in the windows of an old gray house, he thought. He lay back in his corner and forgot the commercial traveler altogether. The process of visualizing Katharine stopped short at the old gray manor-house; instinct warned him that if he went much further with this process reality would soon force itself in; he could not altogether neglect the figure of William Rodney. Since the day when he had heard from Katharine’s lips of her engagement, he had refrained from investing his dream of her with the details of real life. But the light of the late afternoon glowed green behind the straight trees, and became a symbol of her. The light seemed to expand his heart. She brooded over the gray fields, and was with him now in the railway carriage, thoughtful, silent, and infinitely tender; but the vision pressed too close, and must be dismissed, for the train was slackening. Its abrupt jerks shook him wide awake, and he saw Mary Datchet, a sturdy russet figure, with a dash of scarlet about it, as the carriage slid down the platform. A tall youth who accompanied her shook him by the hand, took his bag, and led the way without uttering one articulate word.
Never are voices so beautiful as on a winter’s evening, when dusk almost hides the body, and they seem to issue from nothingness with a note of intimacy seldom heard by day. Such an edge was there in Mary’s voice when she greeted him. About her seemed to hang the mist of the winter hedges, and the clear red of the bramble leaves. He felt himself at once stepping on to the firm ground of an entirely different world, but he did not allow himself to yield to the pleasure of it directly. They gave him his choice of driving with Edward or of walking home across the fields with Mary—not a shorter way, they explained, but Mary thought it a nicer way. He decided to walk with her, being conscious, indeed, that he got comfort from her presence. What could be the cause of her cheerfulness, he wondered, half ironically, and half enviously, as the pony-cart started briskly away, and the dusk swam between their eyes and the tall form of Edward, standing up to drive, with the reins in one hand and the whip in the other. People from the village, who had been to the market town, were climbing into their gigs, or setting off home down the road together in little parties. Many salutations were addressed to Mary, who shouted back, with the addition of the speaker’s name. But soon she led the way over a stile, and along a path worn slightly darker than the dim green surrounding it. In front of them the sky now showed itself of a reddish-yellow, like a slice of some semilucent stone behind which a lamp burnt, while a fringe of black trees with distinct branches stood against the light, which was obscured in one direction by a hump of earth, in all other directions the land lying flat to the very verge of the sky. One of the swift and noiseless birds of the winter’s night seemed to follow them across the field, circling a few feet in front of them, disappearing and returning again and again.
Mary had gone this walk many hundred times in the course of her life, generally alone, and at different stages the ghosts of past moods would flood her mind with a whole scene or train of thought merely at the sight of three trees from a particular angle, or at the sound of the pheasant clucking in the ditch. But to-night the circumstances were strong enough to oust all other scenes; and she looked at the field and the trees with an involuntary intensity as if they had no such associations for her.
“Well, Ralph,” she said, “this is better than Lincoln’s Inn Fields, isn’t it? Look, there’s a bird for you! Oh, you’ve brought glasses, have you? Edward and Christopher mean to make you shoot. Can you shoot? I shouldn’t think so—”
“Look here, you must explain,” said Ralph. “Who are these young men? Where am I staying?”
“You are staying with us, of course,” she said boldly. “Of course, you’re staying with us—you don’t mind coming, do you?”
“If I had, I shouldn’t have come,” he said sturdily. They walked on in silence; Mary took care not to break it for a time. She wished Ralph to feel, as she thought he would, all the fresh delights of the earth and air. She was right. In a moment he expressed his pleasure, much to her comfort.
“This is the sort of country I thought you’d live in, Mary,” he said, pushing his hat back on his head, and looking about him. “Real country. No gentlemen’s seats.”
He snuffed the air, and felt more keenly than he had done for many weeks the pleasure of owning a body.
“Now we have to find our way through a hedge,” said Mary. In the gap of the hedge Ralph tore up a poacher’s wire, set across a hole to trap a rabbit.
“It’s quite right that they should poach,” said Mary, watching him tugging at the wire. “I wonder whether it was Alfred Duggins or Sid Rankin? How can one expect them not to, when they only make fifteen shillings a week? Fifteen shillings a week,” she repeated, coming out on the other side of the hedge, and running her fingers through her hair to rid herself of a bramble which had attached itself to her. “I could live on fifteen shillings a week—easily.”
“Could you?” said Ralph. “I don’t believe you could,” he added.
“Oh yes. They have a cottage thrown in, and a garden where one can grow vegetables. It wouldn’t be half bad,” said Mary, with a soberness which impressed Ralph very much.
“But you’d get tired of it,” he urged.
“I sometimes think it’s the only thing one would never get tired of,” she replied.
The idea of a cottage where one grew one’s own vegetables and lived on fifteen shillings a week, filled Ralph with an extraordinary sense of rest and satisfaction.
“But wouldn’t it be on the main road, or next door to a woman with six squalling children, who’d always be hanging her washing out to dry across your garden?”
“The cottage I’m thinking of stands by itself in a little orchard.”
“And what about the Suffrage?” he asked, attempting sarcasm.
“Oh, there are other things in the world besides the Suffrage,” she replied, in an off-hand manner which was slightly mysterious.
Ralph fell silent. It annoyed him that she should have plans of which he knew nothing; but he felt that he had no right to press her further. His mind settled upon the idea of life in a country cottage. Conceivably, for he could not examine into it now, here lay a tremendous possibility; a solution of many problems. He struck his stick upon the earth, and stared through the dusk at the shape of the country.
“D’you know the points of the compass?” he asked.
“Well, of course,” said Mary. “What d’you take me for?—a Cockney like you?” She then told him exactly where the north lay, and where the south.
“It’s my native land, this,” she said. “I could smell my way about it blindfold.”
As if to prove this boast, she walked a little quicker, so that Ralph found it difficult to keep pace with her. At the same time, he felt drawn to her as he had never been before; partly, no doubt, because she was more independent of him than in London, and seemed to be attached firmly to a world where he had no place at all. Now the dusk had fallen to such an extent that he had to follow her implicitly, and even lean his hand on her shoulder when they jumped a bank into a very narrow lane. And he felt curiously shy of her when she began to shout through her hands at a spot of light which swung upon the mist in a neighboring field. He shouted, too, and the light stood still.
“That’s Christopher, come in already, and gone to feed his chickens,” she said.
She introduced him to Ralph, who could see only a tall figure in gaiters, rising from a fluttering circle of soft feathery bodies, upon whom the light fell in wavering discs, calling out now a bright spot of yellow, now one of greenish-black and scarlet. Mary dipped her hand in the bucket he carried, and was at once the center of a circle also; and as she cast her grain she talked alternately to the birds and to her brother, in the same clucking, half-inarticulate voice, as it sounded to Ralph, standing on the outskirts of the fluttering feathers in his black overcoat.
He had removed his overcoat by the time they sat round the dinner-table, but nevertheless he looked very strange among the others. A country life and breeding had preserved in them all a look which Mary hesitated to call either innocent or youthful, as she compared them, now sitting round in an oval, softly illuminated by candlelight; and yet it was something of the kind, yes, even in the case of the Rector himself. Though superficially marked with lines, his face was a clear pink, and his blue eyes had the long-sighted, peaceful expression of eyes seeking the turn of the road, or a distant light through rain, or the darkness of winter. She looked at Ralph. He had never appeared to her more concentrated and full of purpose; as if behind his forehead were massed so much experience that he could choose for himself which part of it he would display and which part he would keep to himself. Compared with that dark and stern countenance, her brothers’ faces, bending low over their soup-plates, were mere circles of pink, unmolded flesh.
“You came by the 3.10, Mr. Denham?” said the Reverend Wyndham Datchet, tucking his napkin into his collar, so that almost the whole of his body was concealed by a large white diamond. “They treat us very well, on the whole. Considering the increase of traffic, they treat us very well indeed. I have the curiosity sometimes to count the trucks on the goods’ trains, and they’re well over fifty—well over fifty, at this season of the year.”
The old gentleman had been roused agreeably by the presence of this attentive and well-informed young man, as was evident by the care with which he finished the last words in his sentences, and his slight exaggeration in the number of trucks on the trains. Indeed, the chief burden of the talk fell upon him, and he sustained it to-night in a manner which caused his sons to look at him admiringly now and then; for they felt shy of Denham, and were glad not to have to talk themselves. The store of information about the present and past of this particular corner of Lincolnshire which old Mr. Datchet produced really surprised his children, for though they knew of its existence, they had forgotten its extent, as they might have forgotten the amount of family plate stored in the plate-chest, until some rare celebration brought it forth.
After dinner, parish business took the Rector to his study, and Mary proposed that they should sit in the kitchen.
“It’s not the kitchen really,” Elizabeth hastened to explain to her guest, “but we call it so—”
“It’s the nicest room in the house,” said Edward.
“It’s got the old rests by the side of the fireplace, where the men hung their guns,” said Elizabeth, leading the way, with a tall brass candlestick in her hand, down a passage. “Show Mr. Denham the steps, Christopher.... When the Ecclesiastical Commissioners were here two years ago they said this was the most interesting part of the house. These narrow bricks prove that it is five hundred years old—five hundred years, I think—they may have said six.” She, too, felt an impulse to exaggerate the age of the bricks, as her father had exaggerated the number of trucks. A big lamp hung down from the center of the ceiling and, together with a fine log fire, illuminated a large and lofty room, with rafters running from wall to wall, a floor of red tiles, and a substantial fireplace built up of those narrow red bricks which were said to be five hundred years old. A few rugs and a sprinkling of arm-chairs had made this ancient kitchen into a sitting-room. Elizabeth, after pointing out the gun-racks, and the hooks for smoking hams, and other evidence of incontestable age, and explaining that Mary had had the idea of turning the room into a sitting-room—otherwise it was used for hanging out the wash and for the men to change in after shooting—considered that she had done her duty as hostess, and sat down in an upright chair directly beneath the lamp, beside a very long and narrow oak table. She placed a pair of horn spectacles upon her nose, and drew towards her a basketful of threads and wools. In a few minutes a smile came to her face, and remained there for the rest of the evening.
“Will you come out shooting with us to-morrow?” said Christopher, who had, on the whole, formed a favorable impression of his sister’s friend.
“I won’t shoot, but I’ll come with you,” said Ralph.
“Don’t you care about shooting?” asked Edward, whose suspicions were not yet laid to rest.
“I’ve never shot in my life,” said Ralph, turning and looking him in the face, because he was not sure how this confession would be received.
“You wouldn’t have much chance in London, I suppose,” said Christopher. “But won’t you find it rather dull—just watching us?”
“I shall watch birds,” Ralph replied, with a smile.
“I can show you the place for watching birds,” said Edward, “if that’s what you like doing. I know a fellow who comes down from London about this time every year to watch them. It’s a great place for the wild geese and the ducks. I’ve heard this man say that it’s one of the best places for birds in the country.”
“It’s about the best place in England,” Ralph replied. They were all gratified by this praise of their native county; and Mary now had the pleasure of hearing these short questions and answers lose their undertone of suspicious inspection, so far as her brothers were concerned, and develop into a genuine conversation about the habits of birds which afterwards turned to a discussion as to the habits of solicitors, in which it was scarcely necessary for her to take part. She was pleased to see that her brothers liked Ralph, to the extent, that is, of wishing to secure his good opinion. Whether or not he liked them it was impossible to tell from his kind but experienced manner. Now and then she fed the fire with a fresh log, and as the room filled with the fine, dry heat of burning wood, they all, with the exception of Elizabeth, who was outside the range of the fire, felt less and less anxious about the effect they were making, and more and more inclined for sleep. At this moment a vehement scratching was heard on the door.
“Piper!—oh, damn!—I shall have to get up,” murmured Christopher.
“It’s not Piper, it’s Pitch,” Edward grunted.
“All the same, I shall have to get up,” Christopher grumbled. He let in the dog, and stood for a moment by the door, which opened into the garden, to revive himself with a draught of the black, starlit air.
“Do come in and shut the door!” Mary cried, half turning in her chair.
“We shall have a fine day to-morrow,” said Christopher with complacency, and he sat himself on the floor at her feet, and leant his back against her knees, and stretched out his long stockinged legs to the fire—all signs that he felt no longer any restraint at the presence of the stranger. He was the youngest of the family, and Mary’s favorite, partly because his character resembled hers, as Edward’s character resembled Elizabeth’s. She made her knees a comfortable rest for his head, and ran her fingers through his hair.
“I should like Mary to stroke my head like that,” Ralph thought to himself suddenly, and he looked at Christopher, almost affectionately, for calling forth his sister’s caresses. Instantly he thought of Katharine, the thought of her being surrounded by the spaces of night and the open air; and Mary, watching him, saw the lines upon his forehead suddenly deepen. He stretched out an arm and placed a log upon the fire, constraining himself to fit it carefully into the frail red scaffolding, and also to limit his thoughts to this one room.
Mary had ceased to stroke her brother’s head; he moved it impatiently between her knees, and, much as though he were a child, she began once more to part the thick, reddish-colored locks this way and that. But a far stronger passion had taken possession of her soul than any her brother could inspire in her, and, seeing Ralph’s change of expression, her hand almost automatically continued its movements, while her mind plunged desperately for some hold upon slippery banks.