The Red House/Chapter 9
I HAVE been writing like a man milliner. I have found no manly tale to set forth—only a record of domesticity almost florid in its decorative detail. Let the accomplished specialist in obscure psychology seek, and find if he can, the reason. For me, let me only say that had Chloe written it the tale had been far otherwise. Chloe would have dwelt, at strenuous length, on my encounter with the coal-man who refused to carry sacks down our cellar stairs. Had he contented himself with a courteous refusal, my sympathies, I own, would have been with him, for the stairs are mediæval in their uncompromising inconvenience, their gratuitous dangerousness.
But the coal-man did not stop at that, and when I came on the scene Chloe, with tears of pure rage in her eyes, and in the low, sweet voice that is always lowest and sweetest when she is most furious, was ordering him out. And he was explaining, in detail, what he would be if he would go before he was ready. So I turned him out. Chloe would have made an epic of this.
I suppose cutting down dead trees is manly work, and I certainly did that. Also I sawed them into lengths proportioned to the wood-basket. But Chloe always sat on the bough to keep it steady, so sawing cannot count as mere man's work. Rabbit-catching sounds manly enough, but Chloe was in that too, more or less. The incident which led to the rabbiting was, however, my show entirely, and I confess to a certain pride in it. My presence of mind, as well as my dramatic ability, was called into play, and I was pleased with myself on both counts.
I was wandering in the orchard at dusk one evening, pushing through the long grass and nettles, and trying to fix in my memory the way of the growing of apple-boughs for the ghost's next illustration. The mists of October drifted like wraiths among the trees, and the scent of wet earth had mingled with itself the perfume of sadness and regret and memory. In spring the wet earth smells of hope and joy and the green future. I had stood in contemplation for some moments before the golden-pippin tree, and was really beginning to know its gnarled face by heart, when I heard a scratch and a squeak, and a voice said, “Got 'im!”
I moved cautiously round my tree. In the open space beyond the orchard the wild rabbits have made their burrows, and here, grouped round one of the rabbit-holes, were two men, three dogs, a boy, and several ferrets—the last in bags.
I was still unseen. I reflected. If I called on these rabbit-thieves to surrender, they would probably decline to do so on any terms. Indeed, why should they? There were six of them, not counting the ferrets, and I was only one. That was the point. If I had only been three—or even two! Could I not be two, or even three? How could it be done? Arithmetic is a difficult branch of science. I reflected again. The men had killed the rabbit, replaced the net over the hole, and resumed their several stations at the mouths of other burrows. The dusk was falling fast. I crept away for a dozen yards. Then, assuming the gruffest voice at my command, and rolling my r's to the highest pitch, I cried out: “George! Fred! Dick!” and faintly answering in a tone I hoped would seem to come from a distance, I voiced a couple of shrill, “Yes, sirs”; then with my stick I beat madly on the underbushes and, rushing forward, shouted in the voice of my uncle's old Scotch gardener:
“Heck, lads; forrard wi' ye! We've gotten the rogues the noo!”
Had one of the rogues been a Scot—but, no, all were good Deptford-bred ruffians. As I neared them, shouting, “Come on, my lads—come on!” my rogues fled incontinently, followed by their boy and their dogs, leaving to me, as prize, fifteen rabbit-nets, five ferrets in bags, and one in a burrow. This last came out presently, creeping like a yellow snake, and looking round with bright eyes and ever-moving head for his master. I captured him, collected the nets and the bagged ferrets, and went back, chuckling, to Chloe. A well-worn trick, but a good one—a relic of the old smuggling days, a preventive-officer's stratagem. I deserve no credit for it, but I do think I did the voices well.
This is all by way of prelude to our rabbiting. We housed our ferrets in the stable and hung the nets in the kitchen. And it was Jim who suggested, one Saturday afternoon when the October sun was burnishing the coppery leaves of our beeches, and gilding the little quivering hearts that hang from the silver birch, that we should “have some sport.” Bates was invited to join; this seemed, as Yolande said, only his due as a professional ferret. Our tenant came with him. Yolande declined to join the glad throng.
“I think it's cruel,” she said, shortly.
“But you eat rabbit-pie,” objected Chloe.
“Yes, and I eat mutton chops. But I'm not a butcher.”
“It's very exciting sport,” said our tenant. “And we shall probably catch nothing.”
“Then doesn't that make your sport silly in fact as well as cruel in aspiration?”
“Do come!” he said. “You can sit in your favorite apple-tree with a volume of moral stories, and cheer us on by your presence and your disapprobation.”
So Yolande established herself in the low, forked bough of the apple-tree with a volume of Ruskin. “As near to moral stories as I can get,” she told our tenant. But she sat with her pretty back towards the scene of our sport, and refused even to turn her head and look at us.
Chloe, in spite of my warnings, was eagerly anxious to help. She was more deft than any of us in staking the nets over the holes, and she handled the ferrets lovingly, because they loved her, and that was because she always fed them.
We had no dogs and no guns, and I felt guiltily unsportsmanlike. At last all was ready; each of us crouched by his appointed rabbit-hole. I put in the handsomest ferret; he disappeared, and we waited results in silence. Now and then we bent our heads to listen in quite a professional manner, as though we had been real poachers, for some sound of what might be happening underground. And nothing whatever seemed to be happening. We grew cramped, and changed our positions. Yolande heard the movement and called out, with insolent triumph, “Any sport?” Indignantly we all said, “Hush!” and the weary work of listening began again. Then, suddenly, just as hope had died in every breast, there was a rustle underground, a scamper-rush, a piteous little scream of horror and fear, and a small, fat gray rabbit bolted out of the earth into the net over the hole where Chloe watched. She had it in her arms in an instant. Its feet were caught in the net, but as she held it it ceased to struggle, and lay paralyzed against her bodice.
“Let me kill it, mum,” said Bates.
“Or would you like to, mum?” asked Jim, kindly. “It was your rabbit, so it was! You just hold it up by the ears like this, and hit it a crack 'longside o' the head with the edge of your hand—so—”
But Chloe had fled, still clasping the rabbit, and leaving us to look helplessly at each other.
“Ladies are no good at sport,” said Bates, philosophically. “It's their tender hearts, bless them—”
“Missus 'll let it loose in the garden, I shouldn't wonder,” said Jim, in gloom.
“Better luck next time,” said the tenant, cheerfully.
I left them to recover the ferret and arrange another siege. I found Chloe by the white-parlor fire stroking the rabbit, as it lay panting and wretched on her knee.
“Well, spoil-sport?” I said.
“Oh, Len, how could you—how could you let me? You knew what it would be like! Oh, did you hear it scream? It was like a little, little baby that some one was hurting! Don't go back to them. Promise me you'll never, never, never hunt rabbits again!”
I shrugged my shoulders.
“I told you you wouldn't like it,” I said.
“I know, but you ought to have beaten me and locked me up, rather than let me go! I didn't know, poor, poor little rabbity! I didn't know!”
“What are you going to do with it?”
“Keep it, of course,” she said, opening her eyes.
“Wouldn't it be happier if we let it loose again in the orchard?”
“For some other ferret to go after? Never! Fancy running for your life with a long, crawling horror coming after you in the black dark, all cruel teeth and claws, and just when you think you are safe, and see the safe, green, light world outside where you can run and hide, you rush into a net and get beaten to death! You must give away the ferrets! You must! I won't bear it!”
I shrugged my shoulders again. “Anyway,” I said, “the rabbit is slowly dying of fright in your arms. He doesn't know when he is well off.”
I got a basket and some cabbage leaves. We shut in the rabbit and watched him through the cracks of the basket till we saw him recover enough to nibble.
“Now,” she said, ”if you care the least bit about me you'll go straight back to those hateful people and tell them to stop. Yolande was quite right. She nearly always is.”
I admitted that in this case Yolande had chosen the better part.
“And don't bring those hateful ferrets back. I don't want ever to see them again.”
“But what am I to do with them?”
“I don't care,” said Chloe, with almost a sob; ”anything—give them away, drown them, strangle them.”
“Oh, Chloe! Chloe!” I said, “your own little ferrets that have eaten out of your hand and climbed round your neck? Drown them? Strangle them? Never! I will advertise them in the Bazar and Mart in exchange for goldfish or anything useful, and Bates shall keep them till I find a purchaser.”
“All right,” she said, impatiently, “only go now. Go! Or they'll have killed another.”
They had killed three. The soft, fluffy bodies lay side by side on the brown turf, and even as I came upon the scene there was a rustle and a scream—I thought of Chloe, and I hated to hear it—and next moment Yolande—yes, Yolande herself—rose from beside the hole with a live rabbit struggling in her hands among meshes of net.
“Here,” she said, gently disengaging its helpless little feet from the netting and holding it tip tenderly by the ears, “you kill it, Jim. I think you do it quicker than the others. And that makes four.” She turned her back on the executioner and met my eyes.
“Yolande,” I cried, “this cruel sport—”
“It's not really cruel,” she protested, “and it's very exciting. I'd rather die like that myself than die slowly of starvation when I got too old to go out after my food. That's the end of wild animals, you know, if we don't eat them. Isn't it?” She appealed almost abjectly from me to the tenant, who said, “That's so!” And I knew she was rehearsing those arguments by which he had drawn her down from her apple-tree to share in the sport.
“I'm very sorry,” I said, “but the sport is now over. My wife decrees a reprieve to the rabbits, and banishes the ferrets. Bates, I wish you'd cart them off and get rid of them somehow.”
The sporting party exchanged blank glances. Yolande's was the only comment.
“Well!” she said.
Jim and Bates collected the ferrets in a silence full, I knew, of disparaging reflections on woman's folly.
Yolande and the tenant stood a moment talking before they strolled off together, and I heard him asking her why she should not ride out on her bicycle with him to see some coursing—only a thirty-mile ride.
“But I don't think I do approve of it, really,” she was saying, “not when I'm cool and collected and in my right mind—”
“But you will not be cool and collected when you see the first hare get up. You will be wild with excitement. You'll forget everything else.”
“I don't know that I want to.”
“Yes, you do; you don't want to cultivate nerves. If you don't like sport—well, it's simple enough, and half the best women there are don't, either. If you do like it—well, you do, and so do the other half of the best women in the world. That's all there is to it. And you do like sport. Look here, if I could get a man to take on my work for Tuesday, we could start early, say about nine. Do say you will.”
I did not hear what she said, for they had strolled off down the path that leads to the moat, and when next I saw them they were engineering the leaky punt under the middle arch of the old bridge. Yolande in her blue cloth and fox fur was standing in an inch and a half of water, and hanging on to a muddy punt-pole; the tenant was instructing her.
Yolande! I shrugged my shoulders for the third time that day, and I went in to my wife. She was sitting by the fire in the beech-wood rocking-chair, singing low to herself; the song sounded like “Bye, baby bunting.” I suppose the rabbit put it into her head.
I never regretted that rabbit. In three days it was perfectly tame; in a week it played with the cats and sat up on the hearth-rug, unconcernedly washing its face. At the end of a fortnight it flopped after Chloe, in and out, up-stairs and down-stairs, like a small and very plump kangaroo. When the cats grew too catty in their play the rabbit would turn round and use his deadly hind foot. They presently learned to respect this, and the rabbit was master of the hearth-rug.
Yolande went to see that coursing, I believe, though she never spoke to Chloe of it. And she listened to tales of tigers from the tenant—more tales, and less convincing, than I should have thought any Girton girl could have borne. She also learned to take rose-cuttings, and did it without gloves. I looked on in a frenzy of annoyance, which I hid, even—indeed, most of all—from Chloe. The tenant is a man of ideas—but I never heard him talk anything but the visible—concrete to Yolande. I felt a horrid suspicion that he thought her a bit of a prig, and that he was actually daring to try to “form her”; the audacity took my breath away. But Yolande was placid, and seemed to breathe without effort.
Mindful of that scorned suggestion of my wife's on the night of the first dinner-party at the cottage, I looked straight before me and cultivated an air of seeing nothing. I sometimes wondered whether Yolande imagined that we did not see anything, or whether she knew we saw anything, and did not care, or whether she really believed that there was nothing to see. She had arranged, as usual, to personally conduct three model young persons on a winter tour through the art treasures of Italy, and her going was fixed for the week after Christmas. She had some private pupils, and went up to struggle with them two or three times a week, but for the most part she was with us. And I was glad to have her—first, because she is ever a sight for sore eyes, and secondly, because I began to see that I did not want either to give up my ghost-fathered pencil-work, nor yet, for some obscure reason which I can't even indicate, to confess to Chloe that it was not Yolande, but I, who had tinkered her drawings. My own work, my writing, grew less and less important to me—only the Weekly Wilderness still commanding the service of habit.
The curious change whose initial throes I had felt when first we came to the Red House had worked in Chloe and in me, till now, while the house was usually tidy to distraction, Chloe's wardrobes and chests were in the wildest confusion.
“I know,” she said one day, when I opened a drawer and silently confronted her with a swollen mass of lace, ribbons, handkerchiefs, scarfs, bead necklaces, letters, collars, wristbands, brass-headed nails, and the long-lost hammer, all inextricably tangled up with the ball of twine I had been looking for—“I know. You see, it is so important to keep the house tidy—and I do tidy up.”
“You do, indeed,” I said, fishing up from the bottom of the drawer the penknife that I had missed since last Tuesday week.
“Oh, I am so sorry. But I do forget so where things are.”
“Now, I don't. I never tidy up, but I always know where to find my pencils, and I'm never in any doubt as to where I put the India rubber.”
“What do you want with India rubber, anyhow?” she asked, and I trembled for my secret.
“I meant that you are,” I said, feebly.
“Perhaps,” she said, “if you would tidy up a little sometimes, I could keep the insides of things tidier. Let's have a grand clearing up now, this instant minute, and then I really will try! I must learn to be tidy, Len, before I'm too old to learn anything.”
We did have a grand clearing up, beginning with that corner drawer. When all was neat—the scarfs folded, the ribbons rolled, the handkerchiefs restored to the historic handkerchief-case—I tried the other drawer. It was locked.
“Oh, that's tidy,” she hastily assured me.
“What's in it?” I asked, idly.
“Oh, nothing much—only little things. I'll show you some day when we've nothing to do but to be kind to each other. Now we'll go and clear out the sideboard cupboards and all the rest of it.”
We did. We found many things—the lost corkscrew and the button-hook and the Nineteenth Centuries that were missing. It took us all day, and when it was done there was a place for nearly everything, and everything that had a place was in it. The residue loomed hateful on a tray in the hall—odd stoppers, screws, knobs, handles of knives, curtain rings—all the litter that has no place and that one cannot bear to throw away. We looked at it in despair. Then I caught up the tray.
“Come, light of my eyes,” I cried, exulting; “there is only one thing that we need—a lumber-room.
We toiled joyously to the top of the house, I with the tray and Chloe with the little copper coal-scuttle whose broken handle we meant to get mended when we could afford it. We chose a fair-sized room, out of the many disused ones, opened the shutters, and dumped down our treasures on the floor. Our old tendency to furnish one room at the expense of another came irresistibly upon us, and we ransacked the house, carrying off to the lumber-room everything we could possibly not want. The house looked very bare when we had done, and for weeks I found myself toiling up those stairs in search of some necessary for one of us which the other had confiscated as “rubbish”—but we certainly had a most impressive lumber-room.
“And now,” said my wife, looking round with pride, “clearing up will be simply a pleasure.”
Yolande was severe as ever when she came back from watching a foot-ball match at the Rectory Field, and found us, very dirty and very happy, resting on the stairs.
“Dear Babes in the Wood,” she said, “did they invent a new, pretty game to waste their time on?”
“I'd rather waste my time at a game I can play than one I can only look on at,” said I, severely. “Sit down; there are plenty of stairs.”
“Thank you. As to games, c'est selon,” she said, unfastening her furs. “By-the-way, before I go to southern climes I should like to render an account of my stewardship. I'll write it down. Give me a pencil, somebody, and the back of an envelope.”
She wrote busily for some time, then handed the paper to Chloe, who took it in her little grimy hand and read aloud:
“SUCCESSES AND FAILURES OF AN AMATEUR AGENT
“1. Getting one good servant to keep her situation by letting her keep her husband in it.
“2. Letting cottage to ferret at £15 a year.
“3. Getting the Prosser rat turned out.
“4. Letting other cottage for £35.
“5. Dyeing fruit-thief (a failure).
“6. Letting garden and orchard to market gardener for £20 a year and as much fruit and vegetables as you require.
“Yolande, you never have!”
She rose and bowed. “Go on,” she said; and Chloe, merely pausing to embrace her, went on:
“7. Letting small cottage to foreman of market gardener for £17 a year.
“Oh, Yolande, this is too much! You really are a genius! And only one failure.”
“And that was half a success,” said I. “Oh, Yolande, what a glorious baking of beautiful pies! And yet you said you would never have a finger in any pie again.”
“I can't help it,” she pleaded. ”I was born to it. Give me another envelope—no, not one with so many post-marks—and I'll make a brief financial statement.”
She scribbled again. This is what she wrote:
By 1 ferret's rent £15
" 1 large cottage rent 35
" 1 small " " 17
" 1 garden 20
" 1 uncle deceased 200
Stories, output and price estimated on past 6 months 160
Illustrations on past 3 months 187
“There's your yearly income! How's that for high?” she asked, flashing a glance of triumph at us.
We had known well enough that our income was increasing, that we no longer had, as Chloe said, to look all round every shilling. We had told Yolande, gleefully, the amount of every check we had received. But we had kept no accounts. She had.
We all three fell into each other's arms, or something very like it.
“You shall have that book of Beardsley drawings for a Christmas present, Len,” said my wife, “and Yolande shall have a gold horseshoe brooch with turkisses in it, as becomes a sporting lady.”
“It wouldn't become a bailiff and house agent,” said Yolande.
“Never mind. You shall have a bangle with a double dangling heart—ours—and an inscription inside that would get you a situation anywhere. And Chloe shall have—” I stopped.
“A very beautiful present, indeed. Something we never thought we'd have. No, I won't tell you. It's going to be a surprise.”
Yolande had taken off her veil, folded it very carefully, and driven three little turquoise-headed pins through it. Now she said, “I'm beginning to think that surprises are the best things in life—especially when one surprises one's self.”
“Have you surprised yourself lately?” Chloe asked, picking up the rabbit by its ears. It had followed her, as usual.
“Very much.” I held my breath. The very cigarette trembled in my dusty fingers. Could it be that already that tenant had taught Yolande to be surprised at herself? A sigh of relief broke from me as she went on: “I am absolutely astounded—and charmed too, of course—at my own cleverness. But all this is a swan-song. I shall have my finger in no more pies—for good or ill. My career of usefulness is at an end. Henceforth I shall be a female fogy; never a pie shall be the worse nor the better for me. I shall cram young geese. No more and no less. Mark my words, I have gone up like the rocket, and like the stick I shall come down—if I have not already.” She took off her hat, and twisted the blue velvet and fur in her hands. “Mine is indeed a dark and terrible lot!” she said, smiling brilliantly at us. Then without more words she withdrew.
Chloe sighed, not sadly: “Poor, dear Yolande! I do really believe she doesn't know what is the matter with her.”
“And what is?” I ventured.
“Make your own diagnosis.”
“What is the matter with her?”
“Oh, nothing! Len.”
“I think I'm glad.”
“What about her?”
“Oh, don't be tiresome!”
“What, do words fail you in a crisis? Mine are at flood.”
“No, don't! You know what I mean.”
“I understand you to mean that you rejoice to see Othello's occupation gone. You are glad that your friend has renounced her dearest pastime and will finger her neighbors' pies no more.”
“Dog in the manger!” said my wife.
“No,” I said, eagerly. “I'm almost sure that I'm not quite sorry.”
“Why should you be?”
“Because I see,” I answered, slowly, “what you mean me to see—whether she knows it or not, she'll soon be baking her own pies.”
“Yes,” said Chloe; “she'll understand then.”
“Yes,” said I; “one understands many things when one bakes at home.”