The Apple Tree
“The Apple-tree, the singing, and the gold.”
On their silver-wedding day Ashurst and his wife were motoring along the outskirts of the moor, intending to crown the festival by stopping the night at Torquay, where they had first met. This was the idea of Stella Ashurst, whose character contained a streak of sentiment. If she had long lost the blue-eyed, flower-like charm, the cool slim purity of face and form, the apple-blossom colouring, which had so swiftly and so oddly affected Ashurst twenty-six years ago, she was still at forty-three a comely and faithful companion, whose cheeks were faintly mottled, and whose grey-blue eyes had acquired a certain fullness.
It was she who had stopped the car where the common rose steeply to the left, and a narrow strip of larch and beech, with here and there a pine, stretched out towards the valley between the road and the first long high hill of the full moor. She was looking for a place where they might lunch, for Ashurst never looked for anything; and this, between the golden furze and the feathery green larches smelling of lemons in the last sun of April-this, with a view into the deep valley and up to the long moor heights, seemed fitting to the decisive nature of one who sketched in water-colours, and loved romantic spots. Grasping her paint box, she got out.
“Won’t this do, Frank?”
Ashurst, rather like a bearded Schiller, grey in the wings, tall, long-legged, with large remote grey eyes which sometimes filled with meaning and became almost beautiful, with nose a little to one side, and bearded lips just open-Ashurst, forty-eight, and silent, grasped the luncheon basket, and got out too.
“Oh! Look, Frank! A grave!”
By the side of the road, where the track from the top of the common crossed it at right angles and ran through a gate past the narrow wood, was a thin mound of turf, six feet by one, with a moorstone to the west, and on it someone had thrown a blackthorn spray and a handful of bluebells. Ashurst looked, and the poet in him moved. At cross-roads-a suicide’s grave! Poor mortals with their superstitions! Whoever lay there, though, had the best of it, no clammy sepulchre among other hideous graves carved with futilities-just a rough stone, the wide sky, and wayside blessings! And, without comment, for he had learned not to be a philosopher in the bosom of his family, he strode away up on to the common, dropped the luncheon basket under a wall, spread a rug for his wife to sit on-she would turn up from her sketching when she was hungry-and took from his pocket Murray’s translation of the “Hippolytus.” He had soon finished reading of “The Cyprian” and her revenge, and looked at the sky instead. And watching the white clouds so bright against the intense blue, Ashurst, on his silver-wedding day, longed for-he knew not what. Mal-adjusted to life-man’s organism! One’s mode of life might be high and scrupulous, but there was always an undercurrent of greediness, a hankering, and sense of waste. Did women have it too? Who could tell? And yet, men who gave vent to their appetites for novelty, their riotous longings for new adventures, new risks, new pleasures, these suffered, no doubt, from the reverse side of starvation, from surfeit. No getting out of it-a mal-adjust-ed animal, civilised man! There could be no garden of his choosing, of “the Apple-tree, the singing, and the gold,” in the words of that lovely Greek chorus, no achievable elysium in life, or lasting haven of happiness for any man with a sense of beauty-nothing which could compare with the captured loveliness in a work of art, set down for ever, so that to look on it or read was always to have the same precious sense of exaltation and restful inebriety. Life no doubt had moments with that quality of beauty, of unbidden flying rapture, but the trouble was, they lasted no longer than the span of a cloud’s flight over the sun; impossible to keep them with you, as Art caught beauty and held it fast. They were fleeting as one of the glimmering or golden visions one had of the soul in nature, glimpses of its remote and brooding spirit. Here, with the sun hot on his face, a cuckoo calling from a thorn tree, and in the air the honey savour of gorse-here among the little fronds of the young fern, the starry blackthorn, while the bright clouds drifted by high above the hills and dreamy valleys-here and now was such a glimpse. But in a moment it would pass-as the face of Pan, which looks round the comer of a rock, vanishes at your state. And suddenly he sat up. Surely there was something familiar about this view, this bit of common, that ribbon of road, the old wall behind him. While they were driving he had not been taking notice-never did; thinking of far things or of nothing-but now he saw! Twenty-six years ago, just at this time of year, from the farmhouse within half a mile of this very spot he had started for that day in Torquay whence it might be said he had never returned. And a sudden ache beset his heart; he had stumbled on just one of those past moments in his life, whose beauty and rapture he had failed to arrest, whose wings had fluttered away into the unknown; he had stumbled on a buried memory, a wild sweet time, swiftly choked and ended. And, turning on his face, he rested his chin on his hands, and stared at the short grass where the little blue milkwort was growing… And this is what he remembered.
On the first of May, after their last year together at college, Frank Ashurst and his friend Robert Garton were on a tramp. They had walked that day from Brent, intending to make Chagford, but Ashurst’s football knee had given out, and according to their map they had still some seven miles to go. They were sitting on a bank beside the road, where a track crossed alongside a wood, resting the knee and talking of the universe, as young men will. Both were over six feet, and thin as rails; Ashurst pale, idealistic, full of absence; Garton queer, round-the-comer, knotted, curly, like some primeval beast. Both had a literary bent; neither wore a hat. Ashurst’s hair was smooth, pale, wavy, and had a way of rising on either side of his brow, as if always being flung back; Garton’s was a kind of dark unfath-omed mop. They had not met a soul for miles.
“My dear fellow,” Garton was saying, “pity’s only an effect of self-consciousness; it’s a disease of the last five thousand years. The world was happier without.”
Ashurst, following the clouds with his eyes, answered:
“It’s the pearl in the oyster, anyway.”
“My dear chap, all our modem unhappiness comes from pity. Look at animals, and Red Indians, limited to feeling their own occasional misfortunes; then look at ourselves-never free from feeling the toothaches of others. Let’s get back to feeling for nobody, and have a better time.”
“You’ll never practise that.”
Garton pensively stirred the hotch-potch of his hair.
“To attain full growth, one mustn’t be squeamish. To starve oneself emotionally’s a mistake. All emotion is to the good-enriches life.”
“Yes, and when it runs up against chivalry?”
“Ah! That’s so English! If you speak of emotion the English always think you want something physical, and are shocked. They’re afraid of passion, but not of lust-oh, no!-so long as they can keep it secret.”
Ashurst did not answer; he had plucked a blue flower, and was twiddling it against the sky. A cuckoo began calling from a thorn tree. The sky, the flowers, the songs of birds! Robert was talking through his hat! And he said:
“Well, let’s go on, and find some farm where we can put up.” In uttering those words, he was conscious of a girl coming down from the common just above them. She was outlined against the sky, carrying a basket, and you could see that sky through the crook of her arm. And Ashurst, who saw beauty without wondering how it could advantage him, thought: ‘How pretty!’ The wind, blowing her dark frieze skirt against her legs, lifted her battered peacock tam-o’-shanter; her greyish blouse was worn and old, her shoes were split, her little hands rough and red, her neck browned. Her dark hair waved untidy across her broad forehead, her face was short, her upper lip short, showing a glint of teeth, her brows were straight and dark, her lashes long and dark, her nose straight; but her grey eyes were the wonder-dewy as if opened for the first time that day. She looked at Ashurst-perhaps he struck her as strange, limping along without a hat, with his large eyes on her, and his hair flung back. He could not take off what was not on his head, but put up his hand in a salute, and said:
“Can you tell us if there’s a farm near here where we could stay the night? I’ve gone lame.”
“There’s only our farm near, sir.” She spoke without shyness, in a pretty soft crisp voice.
“And where is that?”
“Down here, sir.”
“Would you put us up?”
“Oh! I think we would.”
“Will you show us the way?”
He limped on, silent, and Garton took up the catechism.
“Are you a Devonshire girl?”
“Ah! I thought you were a Celt; so it’s not your farm?”
“My aunt’s, sir.”
“And your uncle’s?”
“He is dead.”
“Who farms it, then?”
“My aunt, and my three cousins.”
“But your uncle was a Devonshire man?”
“Have you lived here long?”
“And how d’you like it after Wales?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“I suppose you don’t remember?”
“Oh, yes! But it is different.”
“I believe you!”
Ashurst broke in suddenly:
“How old are you?”
“And what’s your name?”
“This is Robert Garton, and I am Frank Ashurst. We wanted to get on to Chagford.”
“It is a pity your leg is hurting you.”
Ashurst smiled, and when he smiled his face was rather beautiful.
Descending past the narrow wood, they came on the farm suddenly-a long, low, stone-built dwelling with casement windows, in a farmyard where pigs and fowls and an old mare were straying. A short steep-up grass hill behind was crowned with a few Scotch firs, and in front, an old orchard of apple trees, just breaking into flower, stretched down to a stream and a long wild meadow. A little boy with oblique dark eyes was shepherding a pig, and by the house door stood a woman, who came towards them. The girl said:
“It is Mrs. Narracombe, my aunt.”
“Mrs. Narracombe, my aunt,” had a quick, dark eye, like a mother wild-duck’s, and something of the same snaky turn about her neck.
“We met your niece on the road,” said Ashurst; “she thought you might perhaps put us up for the night.”
Mrs. Narracombe, taking them in from head to heel, answered:
“Well, I can, if you don’t mind one room. Megan, get the spare room ready, and a bowl of cream. You’ll be wanting tea, I suppose.”
Passing through a sort of porch made by two yew trees and some flowering-currant bushes, the girl disappeared into the house, her peacock tam-o’-shanter bright thwart that rosy-pink and the dark green of the yews.
“Will you come into the parlour and rest your leg? You’ll be from college, perhaps?”
“We were, but we’ve gone down now.”
Mrs. Narracombe nodded sagely.
The parlour, brick-floored, with bare table and shiny chairs and sofa stuffed with horsehair, seemed never to have been used, it was so terribly clean. Ashurst sat down at once on the sofa, holding his lame knee between his hands, and Mrs. Narracombe gazed at him. He was the only son of a late professor of chemistry, but people found a certain lordliness in one who was often so sublimely unconscious of them.
“Is there a stream where we could bathe?”
“There’s the strame at the bottom of the orchard, but sittin’ down you’ll not be covered!”
“Well, ’tis about a foot and a half, maybe.”
“Oh! That’ll do fine. Which way?”
“Down the lane, through the second gate on the right, an’ the pool’s by the big apple tree that stands by itself. There’s trout there, if you can tickle them.”
“They’re more likely to tickle us!”
Mrs. Narracombe smiled. “There’ll be the tea ready when you come back.”
The pool, formed by the damming of a rock, had a sandy bottom; and the big apple tree, lowest in the orchard, grew so close that its boughs almost overhung the water; it was in leaf, and all but in flower-its crimson buds just bursting. There was not room for more than one at a time in that narrow bath, and Ashurst waited his turn, rubbing his knee and gazing at the wild meadow, all rocks and thorn trees and field flowers, with a grove of beeches beyond, raised up on a flat mound. Every bough was swinging in the wind, every spring bird calling, and a slanting sunlight dappled the grass. He thought of Theocritus, and the river Cherwell, of the moon, and the maiden with the dewy eyes; of so many things that he seemed to think of nothing; and he felt absurdly happy.
During a late and sumptuous tea with eggs to it, cream and jam, and thin, fresh cakes touched with saffron, Garton descanted on the Celts. It was about the period of the Celtic awakening, and the discovery that there was Celtic blood about this family had excited one who believed that he was a Celt himself. Sprawling on a horsehair chair, with a hand-made cigarette brib-bling from the comer of his curly lips, he had been plunging his cold pin-points of eyes into Ashurst’s and praising the refinement of the Welsh. To come out of Wales into England was like the change from China to earthenware! Frank, as a d-d Englishman, had not of course perceived the exquisite refinement and emotional capacity of that Welsh girl! And, delicately stirring in the dark mat of his still wet hair, he explained how exactly she illustrated the writings of the Welsh bard Morgan-ap-Something in the twelfth century.
Ashurst, full length on the horsehair sofa, and jutting far beyond its end, smoked a deeply-coloured pipe, and did not listen, thinking of the girl’s face when she brought in a relay of cakes. It had been exactly like looking at a flower, or some other pretty sight in Nature-till, with a funny little shiver, she had lowered her glance and gone out, quiet as a mouse.
“Let’s go to the kitchen,” said Garton, “and see some more of her.”
The kitchen was a white-washed room with rafters, to which were attached smoked hams; there were flower-pots on the window-sill, and guns hanging on nails, queer mugs, china and pewter, and portraits of Queen Victoria. A long, narrow table of plain wood was set with bowls and spoons, under a string of high-hung onions; two sheepdogs and three cats lay here and there. On one side of the recessed fireplace sat two small boys, idle, and good as gold; on the other sat a stout, light-eyed, red-faced youth with hair and lashes the colour of the tow he was running through the barrel of a gun; between them Mrs. Narracombe dreamily stirred some savoury-scented stew in a large pot. Two other youths, oblique-eyed, dark-haired, rather sly-faced, like the two little boys, were talking together and lolling against the wall; and a short, elderly, cleanshaven man in corduroys, seated in the window, was conning a battered journal. The girl Megan seemed the only active creature-drawing cider and passing with the jugs from cask to table. Seeing them thus about to eat, Garton said:
“Ah! If you’ll let us, we’ll come back when supper’s over,” and without waiting for an answer they withdrew again to the parlour. But the colour in the kitchen, the warmth, the scents, and all those faces, heightened the bleakness of their shiny room, and they resumed their seats moodily.
“Regular gipsy type, those boys. There was only one Saxon-the fellow cleaning the gun. That girl is a very subtle study psychologically.”
Ashurst’s lips twitched. Garton seemed to him an ass just then. Subtle study! She was a wild flower. A creature it did you good to look at. Study!
Garton went on:
“Emotionally she would be wonderful. She wants awakening.”
“Are you going to awaken her?”
Garton looked at him and smiled. ‘How coarse and English you are!’ that curly smile seemed saying.
And Ashurst puffed his pipe. Awaken her! This fool had the best opinion of himself! He threw up the window and leaned out. Dusk had gathered thick. The farm buildings and the wheel-house were all dim and bluish, the apple trees but a blurred wilderness; the air smelled of wood-smoke from the kitchen fire. One bird going to bed later than the others was uttering a half-hearted twitter, as though surprised at the darkness. From the stable came the snuffle and stamp of a feeding horse. And away over there was the loom of the moor, and away and away the shy stars which had not as yet full light, pricking white through the deep blue heavens. A quavering owl hooted. Ashurst drew a deep breath. What a night to wander out in! A padding of unshod hoofs came up the lane, and three dim, dark shapes passed-ponies on an evening march. Their heads, black and fuzzy, showed above the gate. At the tap of his pipe, and a shower of little sparks, they shied round and scampered. A bat went fluttering past, uttering its almost inaudible “chip, chip.” Ashurst held out his hand; on the upturned palm he could feel the dew. Suddenly from overhead he heard little burring boys’ voices, little thumps of boots thrown down, and another voice, crisp and soft-the girl’s putting them to bed, no doubt; and nine clear words: “No, Rick, you can’t have the cat in bed”; then came a skirmish of giggles and gurgles, a soft slap, a laugh so low and pretty that it made him shiver a little. A blowing sound, and the glim of the candle which was fingering the dusk above, went out; silence reigned. Ashurst withdrew into the room and sat down; his knee pained him, and his soul felt gloomy.
“You go to the kitchen,” he said; “I’m going to bed.”
For Ashurst the wheel of slumber was wont to turn noiseless and slick and swift, but though he seemed sunk in sleep when his companion came up, he was really wide awake; and long after Garton, smothered in the other bed of that low-roofed room, was worshipping darkness with his upturned nose, he heard the owls. Barring the discomfort of his knee, it was not unpleasant-the cares of life did not loom large in night watches for this young man. In fact he had none; just enrolled a barrister, with literary aspirations, the world before him, no father or mother, and four hundred a year of his own. Did it matter where he went, what he did, or when he did it? His bed, too, was hard, and this preserved him from fever. He lay, sniffing the scent of the night which drifted into the low room through the open casement close to his head. Except for a definite irritation with his friend, natural when you have tramped with a man for three days, Ashurst’s memories and visions that sleepless night were kindly and wistful and exciting. One vision, specially clear and unreasonable, for he had not even been conscious of noting it, was the face of the youth cleaning the gun; its intent, stolid, yet startled uplook at the kitchen doorway, quickly shifted to the girl carrying the cider jug. This red, blue-eyed, light-lashed, tow-haired face stuck as firmly in his memory as the girl’s own face, so dewy and simple. But at last, in the square of darkness through the uncurtained casement, he saw day coming, and heard one hoarse and sleepy caw. Then followed silence, dead as ever, till the song of a blackbird, not properly awake, adventured into the hush. And, from staring at the framed brightening light, Ashurst fell asleep.
Next day his knee was badly swollen; the walking tour was obviously over. Garton, due back in London on the morrow, departed at midday with an ironical smile which left a scar of irritation-healed the moment his loping figure vanished round the comer of the steep lane. All day Ashurst rested his knee, in a green-painted wooden chair on the patch of grass by the yew-tree porch, where the sunlight distilled the scent of stocks and gillyflowers, and a ghost of scent from the flowering-currant bushes. Beautifically he smoked, dreamed, watched.
A farm in spring is all birth-young things coming out of bud and shell, and human beings watching over the process with faint excitement feeding and tending what has been born. So still the young man sat, that a mother-goose, with stately cross-footed waddle, brought her six yellow-necked grey-backed goslings to strop their little beaks against the grass blades at his feet. Now and again Mrs. Narracombe or the girl Megan would come and ask if he wanted anything, and he would smile and say: “Nothing, thanks. It’s splendid here.” Towards tea-time they came out together, bearing a long poultice of some dark stuff in a bowl, and after a long and solemn scrutiny of his swollen knee, bound it on. When they were gone, he thought of the girl’s soft “Oh!”-ofher pitying eyes, and the little wrinkle in her brow. And again he felt that unreasoning irritation against his departed friend, who had talked such rot about her. When she brought out his tea, he said:
“How did you like my friend, Megan?”
She forced down her upper lip, as if afraid that to smile was not polite. “He was a funny gentleman; he made us laugh. I think he is very clever.”
“What did he say to make you laugh?”
“He said I was a daughter of the bards. What are they?”
“Welsh poets, who lived hundreds of years ago.”
“Why am I their daughter, please?”
“He meant that you were the sort of girl they sang about.”
She wrinkled her brows. “I think he likes to joke.
“Would you believe me, if I told you?”
“Well, I think he was right.”
And Ashurst thought: ‘You are a pretty thing!’
“He said, too, that Joe was a Saxon type. What would that be?”
“Which is Joe? With the blue eyes and red face?”
“Yes. My uncle’s nephew.”
“Not your cousin, then?”
“Well, he meant that Joe was like the men who came over to England about fourteen hundred years ago, and conquered it.”
“Oh! I know about them; but is he?”
“Garton’s crazy about that sort of thing; but I must say Joe does look a bit Early Saxon.”
That “Yes” tickled Ashurst. It was so crisp and graceful, so conclusive, and politely acquiescent in what was evidently Greek to her.
“He said that all the other boys were regular gipsies. He should not have said that. My aunt laughed, but she didn’t like it, of course, and my cousins were angry. Uncle was a farmer-farmers are not gipsies. It is wrong to hurt people.”
Ashurst wanted to take her hand and give it a squeeze, but he only answered:
“Quite right, Megan. By the way, I heard you putting the little ones to bed last night.”
She flushed a little. “Please do drink your tea-it is getting cold. Shall I get you some fresh?”
“Do you ever have time to do anything for yourself?”
“I’ve been watching, but I haven’t seen it yet.”
She wrinkled her brows in a puzzled frown, and her colour deepened.
When she was gone, Ashurst thought: ‘Did she think I was chaffing her? I wouldn’t for the world!’ He was at that age when to some men “Beauty’s a flower,” as the poet says, and inspires in them the thoughts of chivalry. Never very conscious of his surroundings, it was some time before he was aware that the youth whom Garton had called “a Saxon type” was standing outside the stable door; and a fine bit of colour he made in his soiled brown velvet-cords, mussy gaiters, and blue shirt; red-armed, red-faced, the sun turning his hair from tow to flax; immovably stolid, persistent, unsmiling he stood. Then, seeing Ashurst looking at him, he crossed the yard at that gait of the young countryman always ashamed not to be slow and heavy-dwelling on each leg, and disappeared round the end of the house towards the kitchen entrance. A chill came over Ashurst’s mood. Clods? With all the good will in the world, how impossible to get on terms with them! And yet-see that girl! Her shoes were split, her hands rough; but-what was it? Was it really her Celtic blood, as Garton had said? – she was a lady bom, a jewel, though probably she could do no more than just read and write!
The elderly, clean-shaven man he had seen last night in the kitchen had come into the yard with a dog, driving the cows to their milking. Ashurst saw that he was lame.
“You’ve got some good ones there!”
The lame man’s face frightened. He had the upward look in his eyes which prolonged suffering often brings.
“Yeas: they’m praaper buties; gude milkers tu.”
“I bet they are.”
‘”Ope as yure leg’s better, zurr.”
“Thank you, it’s getting on.”
The lame man touched his own: “I know what ‘tes, meself; ‘tes a main worritin’ thing, the knee. I’ve a-‘ad mine bad this ten year.”
Ashurst made the sound of sympathy which comes so readily from those who have an independent income, and the lame man smiled again.
“Mustn’t complain, though-they mighty near ‘ad it off.”
“Yeas; an’ compared with what ’twas, ‘tes almost so gude as nu.”
“They’ve put a bandage of splendid stuff on mine.”
“The maid she picks et. She’m a gude maid wi’ the flowers. There’s folks zeem to know the healin’ in things. My mother was a rare one for that. ‘Ope as yu’ll zune be better, zurr. Goo ahn, therr!”
Ashurst smiled. “WT the flowers!” A flower herself
That evening, after his supper of cold duck, junket, and cider, the girl came in.
“Please, auntie says-will you try a piece of our May-day cake?”
“If I may come to the kitchen for it.” “Oh, yes! You’ll be missing your friend.” “Not I. But are you sure no one minds?” “Who would mind? We shall be very pleased.” Ashurst rose too suddenly for his stiff knee, staggered, and subsided. The girl gave a little gasp, and held out her hands. Ashurst took them, small, rough, brown; checked his impulse to put them to his lips, and let her pull him up. She came close beside him, offering her shoulder. And leaning on her he walked across the room. That shoulder seemed quite the pleasantest thing he had ever touched. But he had presence of mind enough to catch his stick out of the rack, and withdraw his hand before arriving at the kitchen.
That night he slept like a top, and woke with his knee of almost normal size. He again spent the morning in his chair on the grass patch, scribbling down verses; but in the afternoon he wandered about with the two little boys Nick and Rick. It was Saturday, so they were early home from school; quick, shy, dark little rascals of seven and six, soon talkative, for Ashurst had a way with children. By four o’clock they had shown him all their methods of destroying life, except the tickling of trout; and, with breeches tucked up, lay on their stomachs over the trout stream, pretending they had this accomplishment also. They tickled nothing, of course, for their giggling and shouting scared every spotted thing away. Ashurst, on a rock at the edge of the beech clump, watched them, and listened to the cuckoos, till Nick, the elder and less persevering, came up and stood beside him.
“The gipsy bogle zets on that stone,” he said.
“What gipsy bogle?”
“Dunno; never zeen ‘e. Megan zays ‘e zets there;
an’ old Jim zeed ‘e once. ‘E was zettin’ there naight afore our pony kicked-in father’s ‘ead. ‘E plays the viddle.”
“What tune does he play?”
“What’s he like?”
‘”E’s black. Old Jim zays ‘e’s all over ‘air. ‘E’s a praaper bogle. ‘E don’ come only at naight.” The little boy’s oblique dark eyes slid round. “D’yu think ‘e might want to take me away? Megan’s feared ofe’.”
“Has she seen him?”
“No. She’s not afeared o’ yu.”
“I should think not. Why should she be?”
“She zays a prayer for yu.”
“How do you know that, you little rascal?”
“When I was asleep, she said: ‘God bless us all, an’ Mr. Ashes.’ I yeard ‘er whisperin’.”
“You’re a little ruffian to tell what you hear when you’re not meant to hear it!”
The little boy was silent. Then he said aggressively:
“I can skin rabbets. Megan, she can’t bear skinnin’ ’em. I like blood.”
“Oh! you do; you little monster!”
“A creature that likes hurting others.”
The little boy scowled. “They’m only dead rabbets, what us eats.”
“Quite right. Nick. I beg your pardon.”
“I can skin frogs, tu.”
But Ashurst had become absent. “God bless us all, and Mr. Ashes!” And puzzled by that sudden inaccessibility, Nick ran back to the stream where the giggling and shouts again uprose at once.
When Megan brought his tea, he said:
“What’s the gipsy bogle, Megan?”
She looked up, startled.
“Surely you don’t believe in ghosts?”
“I hope I will never see him.”
“Of course you won’t. There aren’t such things. What old Jim saw was a pony.”
“No! There are bogles in the rocks; they are the men who lived long ago.”
“They aren’t gipsies, anyway; those old men were dead long before gipsies came.”
She said simply: “They are all bad.”
“Why? If there are any, they’re only wild, like the rabbits. The flowers aren’t bad for being wild; the thorn trees were never planted-and you don’t mind them. I shall go down at night and look for your bogle, and have a talk with him.”
“Oh, no! Oh, no!”
“Oh, yes! I shall go and sit on his rock.”
She clasped her hands together: “Oh, please!”
“Why! What does it matter if anything happens to me?”
She did not answer; and in a sort of pet he added:
“Well, I daresay I shan’t see him, because I suppose I must be off soon.”
“Your aunt won’t want to keep me here.”
“Oh, yes! We always let lodgings in summer.”
Fixing his eyes on her face, he asked:
“Would you like me to stay?”
“I’m going to say a prayer for you to-night!”
She flushed crimson, frowned, and went out of the room. He sat, cursing himself, till his tea was stewed. It was as if he had hacked with his thick boots at a clump of bluebells. Why had he said such a silly thing? Was he just a towny college ass like Robert Garton, as far from understanding this girl?
Ashurst spent the next week confirming the restoration of his leg, by exploration of the country within easy reach. Spring was a revelation to him this year. In a kind of intoxication he would watch the pink-white buds of some backward beech tree sprayed up in the sunlight against the deep blue sky, or the trunks and limbs of the few Scotch firs, tawny in violent light, or again, on the moor, the gale-bent larches which had such a look of life when the wind streamed in their young green, above the rusty black underboughs. Or he would lie on the banks, gazing at the clusters of dog-violets, or up in the dead bracken, fingering the pink, transparent buds of the dewberry, while the cuckoos called and yaffles laughed, or a lark, from very high, dripped its beads of song. It was certainly different from any spring he had ever known, for spring was within him, not without. In the daytime he hardly saw the family; and when Megan brought in his meals she always seemed too busy in the house or among the young things in the yard to stay talking long. But in the evenings he installed himself in the window seat in the kitchen, smoking and chatting with the lame man Jim, or Mrs. Narracombe, while the girl sewed, or moved about, clearing the supper things away. And sometimes, with the sensation a cat must feel when it purrs, he would become conscious that Megan’s eyes-those dew-grey eyes-were fixed on him with a sort of lingering soft look which was strangely flattering.
It was on Sunday week in the evening, when he was lying in the orchard listening to a blackbird and composing a love poem, that he heard the gate swing to, and saw the girl come running among the trees, with the red-cheeked, stolid Joe in swift pursuit. About twenty yards away the chase ended, and the two stood fronting each other, not noticing the stranger in the grass-the boy pressing on, the girl fending him off. Ashurst could see her face, angry, disturbed; and the youth’s-who would have thought that red-faced yokel could look so distraught! And painfully affected by that sight, he jumped up. They saw him then. Megan dropped her hands, and shrank behind a tree-trunk; the boy gave an angry grunt, rushed at the bank, scrambled over and vanished. Ashurst went slowly up to her. She was standing quite still, biting her lip-very pretty, with her fine, dark hair blown loose about her face, and her eyes cast down.
“I beg your pardon,” he said.
She gave him one upward look, from eyes much dilated; then, catching her breath, turned away. Ashurst followed.
But she went on; and taking hold of her arm, he turned her gently round to him.
“Stop and speak to me.”
“Why do you beg my pardon? It is not to me you should do that.”
“Well, then, to Joe.”
“How dare he come after me?”
“In love with you, I suppose.”
She stamped her foot.
Ashurst uttered a short laugh. “Would you like me to punch his head?”
She cried with sudden passion:
“You laugh at me-you laugh at us!”
He caught hold of her hands, but she shrank back, till her passionate little face and loose dark hair were caught among the pink clusters of the apple blossom. Ashurst raised one of her imprisoned hands and put his lips to it. He felt how chivalrous he was, and superior to that clod Joe-just brushing that small, rough hand with his mouth! Her shrinking ceased suddenly; she seemed to tremble towards him. A sweet warmth overtook Ashurst from top to toe. This slim maiden, so simple and fine and pretty, was pleased, then, at the touch of his lips! And, yielding to a swift impulse, he put his arms round her, pressed her to him, and kissed her forehead. Then he was frightened-she went so pale, closing her eyes, so that the long, dark lashes lay on her pale cheeks; her hands, too, lay inert at her sides. The touch of her breast sent a shiver through him. “Megan!” he sighed out, and let her go. In the utter silence a blackbird shouted. Then the girl seized his hand, put it to her cheek, her heart, her lips, kissed it passionately, and fled away among the mossy trunks of the apple trees, till they hid her from him.
Ashurst sat down on a twisted old tree growing almost along the ground, and, all throbbing and bewildered, gazed vacantly at the blossom which had crowned her hair-those pink buds with one white open apple star. What had he done? How had he let himself be thus stampeded by beauty-pity-or-just the spring! He felt curiously happy, all the same; happy and triumphant, with shivers running through his limbs, and a vague-alarm. This was the beginning of-what? The midges bit him, the dancing gnats tried to fly into his mouth, and all the spring around him seemed to grow more lovely and alive; the songs of the cuckoos and the blackbirds, the laughter of the yaffles, the level-slanting sunlight, the apple blossom which had crowned her head-! He got up from the old trunk and strode out of the orchard, wanting space, an open sky, to get on terms with these new sensations. He made for the moor, and from an ash tree in the hedge a magpie flew out to herald him.
Ofman-at any age from five years on-who can say he has never been in love? Ashurst had loved his partners at his dancing class; loved his nursery governess; girls in school-holidays; perhaps never been quite out of love, cherishing always some more or less remote admiration. But this was different, not remote at all. Quite a new sensation; terribly delightful, bringing a sense of completed manhood. To be holding in his fingers such a wild flower, to be able to put it to his lips, and feel it tremble with delight against them! What intoxication, and-embarrassment! What to do with it-how meet her next time? His first caress had been cool, pitiful; but the next could not be, now that, by her burning little kiss on his hand, by her pressure of it to her heart, he knew that she loved him. Some natures are coarsened by love bestowed on them; others, like Ashurst’s, are swayed and drawn, warmed and softened, almost exalted, by what they feel to be a sort of miracle.
And up there among the tors he was racked between the passionate desire to revel in this new sensation of spring fulfilled within him, and a vague but very real uneasiness. At one moment he gave himself up completely to his pride at having captured this pretty, trustful, dewy-eyed thing! At the next he thought with factitious solemnity: ‘Yes, my boy! But look out what you’re doing! You know what comes of it!’
Dusk dropped down without his noticing-dusk on the carved, Assyrian-looking masses of the rocks. And the voice of Nature said: “This is a new world for you!” As when a man gets up at four o’clock and goes out into a summer morning, and beasts, birds, trees stare at him and he feels as if all had been made new.
He stayed up there for hours, till it grew cold, then groped his way down the stones and heather roots to the road, back into the lane, and came again past the wild meadow to the orchard. There he struck a match and looked at his watch. Nearly twelve! It was black and unstirring in there now, very different from the lingering, bird-befriended brightness of six hours ago! And suddenly he saw this idyll of his with the eyes of the outer world-had mental vision of Mrs. Narracombe’s snake-like neck turned, her quick dark glance taking it all in, her shrewd face hardening; saw the gipsy-like cousins coarsely mocking and distrustful; Joe stolid and furious; only the lame man, Jim, with the suffering eyes, seemed tolerable to his mind. And the village pub!-the gossiping matrons he passed on his walks; and then-his own friends-Robert Garton’s smile when he went off that morning ten days ago; so ironical and knowing! Disgusting! For a minute he literally hated this earthy, cynical world to which one belonged, willy-nilly. The gate where he was leaning grew grey, a sort of shimmer passed before him and spread into the bluish darkness. The moon! He could just see it over the bank behind; red, nearly round-a strange moon! And turning away, he went up the lane which smelled of the night and cow-dung and young leaves. In the strawyard he could see the dark shapes of cattle, broken by the pale sickles of their horns, like so many thin moons, fallen ends-up. He unlatched the farm gate stealthily. All was dark in the house. Muffling his footsteps, he gained the porch, and, blotted against one of the yew trees, looked up at Megan’s window. It was open. Was she sleeping, or lying awake perhaps, dis-turbed-unhappy at his absence? An owl hooted while he stood there peering up, and the sound seemed to fill the whole night, so quiet was all else, save for the never-ending murmur of the stream running below the orchard. The cuckoos by day, and now the owls-how wonderfully they voiced this troubled ecstasy within him! And suddenly he saw her at her window, looking out. He moved a little from the yew tree, and whispered: “Megan!” She drew back, vanished, reappeared, leaning far down. He stole forward on the grass patch, hit his shin against the green-painted chair, and held his breath at the sound. The pale blur of her stretched-down arm and face did not stir; he moved the chair, and noiselessly mounted it. By stretching up his arm he could just reach. Her hand held the huge key of the front door, and he clasped that burning hand with the cold key in it. He could just see her face, the glint of teeth between her lips, her tumbled hair. She was still dressed-poor child, sitting up for him, no doubt! “Pretty Megan!” Her hot, roughened fingers clung to his; her face had a strange, lost look. To have been able to reach it-even with his hand! The owl hooted, a scent of sweetbriar crept into his nostrils. Then one of the farm dogs barked; her grasp relaxed, she shrank back.
“Good-night, sir!” She was gone! With a sigh he dropped back to earth, and sitting on that chair, took off his boots. Nothing for it but to creep in and go to bed; yet for a long while he sat unmoving, his feet chilly in the dew, drunk on the memory of her lost, half-smiling face, and the clinging grip other burning fingers, pressing the cold key into his hand.
He awoke feeling as if he had eaten heavily overnight, instead of having eaten nothing. And far off, unreal, seemed yesterday’s romance! Yet it was a golden morning. Full spring had burst at last-in one night the “goldie-cups,” as the little boys called them, seemed to have made the field their own, and from his window he could see apple blossoms covering the orchard as with a rose and white quilt. He went down almost dreading to see Megan; and yet, when not she but Mrs. Narracombe brought in his breakfast, he felt vexed and disappointed. The woman’s quick eye and snaky neck seemed to have a new alacrity this morning. Has she noticed?
“So you an’ the moon went walkin’ last night, Mr. Ashurst! Did ye have your supper anywheres?”
Ashurst shook his head.
“We kept it for you, but I suppose you was too busy in your brain to think o’ such a thing as that?”
Was she mocking him, in that voice of hers, which still kept some Welsh crispness against the invading burr of the West Country? If she knew! And at that moment he thought: ‘No, no; I’ll clear out. I won’t put myself in such a beastly false position.’
But, after breakfast, the longing to see Megan began and increased with every minute, together with fear lest something should have been said to her which had spoiled everything. Sinister that she had not appeared, not given him even a glimpse of her! And the love poem, whose manufacture had been so important and absorbing yesterday afternoon under the apple trees, now seemed so paltry that he tore it up and rolled it into pipe spills. What had he known of love, till she seized his hand and kissed it! And now-what did he not know? But to write of it seemed mere insipidity! He went up to his bedroom to get a book, and his heart began to beat violently, for she was in there making the bed. He stood in the doorway watching; and suddenly, with turbulent joy, he saw her stoop and kiss his pillow, just at the hollow made by his head last night. How let her know he had seen that pretty act of devotion? And yet, if she heard him stealing away, it would be even worse. She took the pillow up, holding it as if reluctant to shake out the impress of his cheek, dropped it, and turned round.
She put her hands up to her cheeks, but her eyes seemed to look right into him. He had never before realised the depth and purity and touching faithfulness in those dew-bright eyes, and he stammered:
“It was sweet of you to wait up for me last night.”
She still said nothing, and he stammered on:
“I was wandering about on the moor; it was such a jolly night. I-I’ve just come up for a book.”
Then, the kiss he had seen her give the pillow afflicted him with sudden headiness, and he went up to her. Touching her eyes with his lips, he thought with queer excitement: ‘I’ve done it! Yesterday all was sud-den-anyhow; but now-I’ve done it!’ The girl let her forehead rest against his lips, which moved downwards till they reached hers. That first real lover’s kiss-strange, wonderful, still almost innocent-in which heart did it make the most disturbance?
“Come to the big apple tree to-night, after they’ve gone to bed. Megan-promise!”
She whispered back: “I promise.”