He lay staring at the withy binders of his thatch; the grass was infinitely green; his view embraced four counties; the roof was supported by six small oak sapling-trunks, roughly trimmed and brushed from above by apple boughs. French crab-apple! The hut had no sides.
The Italian proverb says: He who allows the boughs of trees to spread above his roof, invites the doctor daily. Words to that effect. He would have grinned, but that might have been seen.
For a man who never moved, his face was singularly walnut-coloured; his head, indenting the skim-milk white of the pillows should have been a gipsy's, the dark, silvered hair cut extremely close, the whole face very carefully shaven and completely immobile. The eyes moved, however, with unusual, vivacity, all the life of the man being concentrated in them and their lids.
Down the path that had been cut in swathes from the knee-high grass, and came from the stable to the hut, a heavy elderly peasant rolled in his gait. His over-long, hairy arms swung as if he needed an axe or a log or a full sack to make him a complete man. He was broad-beamed, in cord breeches, very tight in the buttock; he wore black leggings, an unbuttoned blue waistcoat, a striped flannel shirt, open at the perspiring neck, and a square, high hat of black felt.
"Want to be shifted?"
The man in the bed closed his eyelids slowly.
"Ave a droper cider?"
The other again similarly closed his eyes. The standing man supported himself with an immense hand, gorilla-like, by one of the oaken posts.
"Best droper cider ever I tasted," he said. "Is Lordship give me. Is Lordship sester me: 'Gunning,' e ses, ... 'the day the vixen got into keeper's coop enclosure ...' "
He began and slowly completed a very long story, going to prove that English noble landlords preferred foxes to pheasants. Or should! English landowners of the right sort.
Is Lordship would no more ave that vixen killed or so much as flurried, she being gravid like than.... Dreadful work a gravid vixen can do among encoops with pheasant poults.... Have to eat fer six or seven, she have! All a-growing.... So is Lordship sester Gunning....
And then the description of the cider.... Ard! Thet cider was arder than a miser's art or'n ole maid's tongue. Body it ad. Strength it ad. Stans to reason. Ten year cider. Not a drop was drunk in Lordship's ouse under ten years in cask. Killed three sheep a week fer his indoor and outdoor servants. An three hundred pigeons. The pigeon-cotes is a hundred feet high, an the pigeons' nesteses in oles in the inside walls. Clap-nests a ole wall at a go an takes the squabs. Times is not what they was, but is Lordship keeps on. An always will!
The man in the bed—Mark Tietjens—continued his own thought.
Old Gunning lumbered slowly up the path towards the stable, his hands swinging. The stable was a tile-healed, thatched affair, no real stable in the North Country sense—a place where the old mare sheltered among chickens and ducks. There was no tidiness amongst South Country folk. They hadn't it in them, though Gunning could bind a tidy thatch and trim a hedge properly. All-round man. Really an all-round man; he could do a great many things. He knew all about fox-hunting, pheasant-rearing, wood-craft, hedging, dyking, pig-rearing and the habits of King Edward when shooting. Smoking endless great cigars! One finished, light another, throw away the stub....
Fox-hunting, the sport of kings with only twenty per cent. of the danger of war! He, Mark Tietjens, had never cared for hunting; now he would never do any more; he had never cared for pheasant-shooting. He would never do any more. Not couldn't; wouldn't. From henceforth.... It annoyed him that he had not taken the trouble to ascertain what it was Iago said, before he had taken Iago's resolution.... From henceforth he never would speak word.... Something to that effect: but you could not get that into a blank verse line.
Perhaps Iago had not been speaking blank verse when he had taken his, Mark Tietjens', resolution.... Took by the throat the circumciséd dog and smote him.... Good man, Shakespeare! All-round man in a way, too. Probably very like Gunning. Knew Queen Elizabeth's habits when hunting; also very likely how to hedge, thatch, break up a deer or a hare or a hog, and how to serve a writ and write bad French. Lodged with a French family in Crutched Friars or the Minories. Somewhere.
The ducks were making a great noise on the pond up the hill. Old Gunning in the sunlight lumbered between the stable-wall and the raspberry canes, up-hill. The garden was all up-hill. He looked across the grass up at the hedge. When they turned him round he looked down-hill at the house. Rough, grey stone!
Half-round, he looked across the famous four counties; half round, the other way on, he could see up the grass-slope to the hedge on the roadside. Now he was looking up-hill across the tops of the hay-grass, over the raspberry canes at the hedge that Gunning was going to trim. Full of consideration for him, they were, all the lot of them. For ever thinking of developing his possible interests. He didn't need it. He had interests enough.
Up the pathway that was above and beyond the hedge on a grass-slope went the Elliott children, a lanky girl of ten, with very long, corn-coloured hair, a fat boy of five, unspeakably dirty. The girl too long and thin in the legs and ankles, her hair limp. War-starvation in early years.... Well, that was not his fault. He had given the nation the transport it needed; they should have found the stuff. They hadn't, so the children had long, thin legs and protruding wrists on pipe-stem arms. All that generation!... No fault of his. He had managed the nation's transport as it should be managed. His department had. His own Department, made by himself from junior temporary clerk to senior permanent official, from the day of his entrance thirty-five years before to the day of his resolution never more to speak word.
Nor yet stir a finger. He had to be in this world, in this nation. Let them care for him; he was done with them.... He knew the sire and dam of every horse from Eclipse to Perlmutter. That was enough for him. They let him read all that could be read about racing. He had interests enough!
The ducks on the pond up the hill continued to make a great noise, churning boisterously the water with their wings and squawking. If they had been hens there would have been something the matter—a dog chasing them. Ducks did not signify; they went mad, contagiously. Like nations and all the cattle of a county.
Gunning, lumbering past the raspberry canes, took a bud or so and squeezed the pale things between finger and thumb, then examined his thumb. Looking for maggots, no doubt. Pale green leaves the raspberry had; a fragile plant amongst the robuster rosaceæ. That was not war-starvation but race. Their commissariat was efficient enough, but they were presumably not gross feeders. Gunning began to brush the hedge, sharp, brushing blows with his baggin hook. There was still far too much bramble amongst the quickset; in a week the hedge would be unsightly again.
That was part of their consideration again! They kept the hedge low so that he should be amused by passers-by on the path, though they would have preferred to let it grow high so that the passers-by should not see into the orchard.... Well, he had seen passers-by. More than they knew.... What the hell was Sylvia's game? And that old ass Edward Campion's?... Well, he was not going to interfere. There was, however, undoubtedly something up!... Marie Léonie—formerly Charlotte!—knew neither of them by sight, though she had undoubtedly seen them peering over the hedge!
They—it was more of their considerateness—had contrived a shelf on the left corner-post of his shelter. So that birds should amuse him! A hedge-sparrow, noiseless and quaker-grey, ghostlike, was on this shelf. A thin, under-vitalized being that you never saw. It flitted, hiding itself deep in hedge-rows. He had always thought of it as an American bird: a voiceless nightingale, thin, long, thin-billed, almost without markings as becomes a bird that seldom sees the sun but lives in the twilight of deep hedges. American because it ought to wear a scarlet letter. He only knew of Americans because of a book he had once read—a woman like a hedge-sparrow, creeping furtive in shadows and getting into trouble with a priest.
This desultory, slim bird, obviously Puritan, inserted its thin bill into the dripping that Gunning had put on the shelf for the tom-tits. The riotous tom-tit, the bottle-tit, the great-tit, all that family love dripping. The hedge-sparrow obviously did not; the dripping on that warmish June day had become oleaginous; the hedge-sparrow, its bill all greased, mumbled its upper and lower mandible but took no more dripping. It looked at Mark's eyes. Because these regarded it motionlessly, it uttered a long warning note and flitted, noiseless, into invisibility. All hedge things ignore you whilst you move on and do not regard them. The moment you stay still and fix your eyes on them they warn the rest of the hedge and flit off. This hedge-sparrow no doubt had its young within earshot. Or the warning might have been just co-operative.
Marie Léonie, née Riotor, was coming up the steps and then the path. He could hear her breathing. She stood beside him, shapeless in her long pinafore of figured cotton, and breathed heavily, holding a plate of soup and saying:
"Mon pauvre homme! Mon pauvre homme! Ce qu'ils ont fait de toi!"
She began a breathless discourse in French. She was of the large, blond, Norman type; in the middle forties, her extremely fair hair very voluminous and noticeable. She had lived with Mark Tietjens for twenty years now, but she had always refused to speak a word of English, having an invincible scorn for both language and people of her adopted country.
Her discourse poured on. She had set the little tray with the plate of reddish-yellowish soup on a flat shelf of wood that turned out on a screw from underneath the bed; in the soup was a shining clinical thermometer that she moved and regarded from time to time, beside the plate a glass syringe, graduated. She said that Ils—They—had combined to render her soup of vegetables uneatable. They would not give her navets de Paris but round ones, like buttons; they contrived that the carrots should be pourris at their bottom ends; the leeks were of the consistency of wood. They were determined that he should not have vegetable soup because they wanted him to have meat juice. They were anthropophagi. Nothing but meat, meat, meat! That girl!...
She had always in the Gray's Inn Road had Paris turnips from Jacopo's in Old Compton Street. There was no reason why you should not grow navets de Paris in this soil. The Paris turnip was barrel-shaped, round, round, round like an adorable little pig till it turned into its funny little tail. That was a turnip to amuse you; to change and employ your thoughts. Ils—he and she—were incapable of having their thoughts changed by a turnip.
Between sentences she ejaculated from time to time:
"My poor man! What they have made of you!"
Her volubility flowed over Mark like a rush of water over a grating, only a phrase or so now and then coming to his attention. It was not unpleasant; he liked his woman. She had a cat that she made abstain from meat on Friday. In the Gray's Inn Road that had been easier, in a large room decorated with innumerable miniatures and silhouettes representing members of the Riotor family and its branches. Mme Riotor mère and Mme Riotor grand'mère too had been miniature painters, and Marie Léonie possessed some astonishingly white statuary by the distinguished sculptor Monsieur Casimir-Bar, a lifelong friend of her family who had only never been decorated because of a conspiracy. So he had a great contempt for decorations and the decorated. Marie Léonie had been accustomed to repeat the voluminous opinions of Monsieur Casimir-Bar on the subject of decorations at great length on occasion. Since he, Mark, had been honoured by his sovereign she had less frequently recited them. She admitted that the democracy of to-day had not the sterling value that had distinguished democrats of the day of her parents, so it might be better to caser oneself—to find a niche amongst those whom the State distinguished.
The noise of her voice, which was deep-chested and not unpleasing, went on. Mark regarded her with the ironic indulgence that you accord to a child, but indeed, when he had been still in harness, it had rested him always to come home to her as he had done every Thursday and Monday, and not infrequently on a Wednesday when there had been no racing. It had rested him to come home from a world of incompetent imbeciles and to hear this brain comment on that world. She had views on virtue, pride, downfalls, human careers, the habits of cats, fish, the clergy, diplomats, soldiers, women of easy virtue, Saint Eustachius, President Grévy, the purveyors of comestibles, custom-house officers, pharmacists, Lyons silk weavers, the keepers of boarding-houses, garotters, chocolate-manufacturers, sculptors other than M. Casimir-Bar, the lovers of married women, housemaids.... Her mind, in fact, was like a cupboard, stuffed, packed with the most incongruous materials, tools, vessels and debris. Once the door was opened you never knew what would tumble out or be followed by what. That was restful to Mark as foreign travel might have been—only he had never been abroad except when his father, before his accession to Groby, had lived in Dijon for his children's education. That was how he knew French.
Her conversation had another quality that continually amused him: she always ended it with the topic with which she had chosen to begin. Thus, to-day having chosen to begin with navets de Paris, with Paris turnips she would end, and it amused him to observe how on each occasion she would bring the topic back. She might be concluding a long comment on ironclads and have to get back suddenly to custards because the door-bell rang while her maid was out, but accomplish the transition she would before she answered the bell. Otherwise she was frugal, shrewd, astonishingly cleanly and healthy.