HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF
First published in Great Britain by Collins 1930
Copyright © 1930 Rosalind Hicks Charitable Trust. All rights reserved.
Cover by © HarperCollins 2017
Agatha Christie asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
A catalogue copy of this book is available from the British Library.
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins.
Source ISBN: 9780008131449
Ebook Edition © June 2017 ISBN: 9780007535002
To the Memory of My Best and Truest Friend My Mother
It was the opening night of London’s new National Opera House and consequently an occasion. Royalty was there. The Press were there. The fashionable were there in large quantities. Even the musical, by hook and by crook, had managed to be there—mostly very high up in the final tier of seats under the roof.
The musical composition given was The Giant, a new work by a hitherto unknown composer, Boris Groen. In the interval after the first part of the performance, a listener might have collected the following scraps of conversation.
‘Quite divine, darling.’ ‘They say it’s simply the—the—the—latest!! Everything out of tune on purpose … And you have to read Einstein in order to understand it …’ ‘Yes, dear, I shall tell everyone it’s too marvellous. But privately, it does make one’s head ache!’
‘Why can’t they open a British Opera House with a decent British composer? All this Russian tomfoolery!’ Thus a peppery colonel.
‘Quite so,’ drawled his companion. ‘But you see, there are no British composers. Sad, but there it is!’
‘Nonsense—don’t tell me, sir. They just won’t give them a chance—that’s what it is. Who is this fellow Levinne? A dirty foreign Jew. That’s all he is!’
A man nearby, leaning against the wall, half concealed by a curtain, permitted himself to smile—for he was Sebastian Levinne, sole owner of the National Opera House, familiarly known by the title of the World’s Greatest Showman.
He was a big man, rather too well covered with flesh. His face was yellow and impassive, his eyes beady and black, two enormous ears stood out from his head and were the joy of caricaturists.
The surge of talk eddied past him …
‘Decadent—morbid … neurotic … childish …’
Those were critics.
‘Devastating … too divine … marvellous, my dear …’
Those were women.
‘The thing’s nothing but a glorified revue.’ ‘Amazing effects in the second part, I believe. Machinery, you know. This first part “Stone” is only a kind of introduction. They say old Levinne has simply gone all out over this. Never been anything like it.’ ‘Music’s pretty weird, isn’t it?’ ‘Bolshy idea, I believe. Noise orchestras, don’t they call them?’
Those were young men, more intelligent than the women, less prejudiced than the critics.
‘It won’t catch on. A stunt, thath all.’ ‘Yet, I don’t know—there’s a feeling for this Cubist thtuff.’ ‘Levinne’s shrewd.’ ‘Dropth money deliberately thometimes—but getth it back.’ ‘Cost …?’ The voices dropped, hushed themselves mysteriously as sums of money were mentioned.
Those were members of his own race. Sebastian Levinne smiled.
A bell rang—slowly the crowd drifted and eddied back to their seats.
There was a wait, filled with chattering and laughter—then the lights wavered and sank. The conductor mounted to his place. In front of him was an orchestra just six times as large as any Covent Garden orchestra and quite unlike an ordinary orchestra. There were strange instruments in it of shining metal like misshapen monsters, and in one corner an unaccustomed glitter of crystal. The conductor’s baton was stretched out—then fell and immediately there was a low rhythmic beating as of hammers on anvils—every now and then a beat was missed—lost—and then came floating back taking its place out of turn, jostling the others.
The curtain rose …
At the back of a box on the second tier Sebastian Levinne stood and watched.
This was no opera, as commonly understood. It told no story, featured no individuals. Rather was it on the scale of a gigantic Russian ballet. It contained spectacular effects, strange and weird effects of lighting—effects that were Levinne’s own inventions. His revues had for long been proclaimed as the last word in sheer spectacular sensation. Into this, more artist than producer, he had put the whole force of his imagination and experience.
The prologue had represented Stone—Man’s infancy.
This—the body of the work—was a supreme pageant of machinery—fantastic, almost awful. Power houses, dynamos, factory chimneys, cranes, all merging and flowing. And men—armies of men—with Cubist robot faces—defiling in patterns.
The music swelled and eddied—a deep sonorous clamour came from the new strangely shaped metal instruments. A queer high sweet note sounded above it all—like the ringing of innumerable glasses …
There was an Episode of Skyscrapers—New York seen upside down as from a circling aeroplane in the early dawn of morning. And the strange inharmonious rhythm beat ever more insistently—with increasing menacing monotony. It drew on through other episodes to its climax—a giant seeming steel erection—thousands of steel faced men welded together into a Giant Collective Man …
The Epilogue followed immediately. There was no interval, the lights did not go up.
Only one side of the orchestra spoke. What was called in the new modern phrase ‘the Glass’.
Clarion ringing notes.
The curtain dissolved into mist … the mist parted … the sudden glare made one wish to shield one’s eyes.
Ice—nothing but ice … great bergs and glaciers … shining …
And on the top immense pinnacle a little figure—facing away from the audience towards the insufferable glare that represented the rising of the sun …
The ridiculous puny figure of a man …
The glare increased—to the whiteness of magnesium. Hands went instinctively to eyes with a cry of pain.
The glass rang out—high and sweet—then crashed—and broke—literally broke—into tinkling fragments.
The curtain dropped and the lights rose.
Sebastian Levinne with an impassive face received various congratulations and side hits.
‘Well, you’ve done it this time, Levinne. No half measures, eh?’
‘A damned fine show, old man. Blessed if I know what it’s all about, though.’
‘The Giant, eh? That’s true, we live in an age of machinery all right.’
‘Oh, Mr Levinne, it’s simply too frightening for words! I shall dream of that horrid steel giant.’
‘Machinery as the Giant that devours, eh? Not far wrong, Levinne. We want to get back to Nature. Who’s Groen? A Russian?’
‘Yes, who’s Groen? He’s a genius whoever he is. The Bolshevists can boast they’ve produced one composer at last.’
‘Too bad, Levinne, you’ve gone Bolshy. Collective Man. Collective Music too.’
‘Well, Levinne, good luck to you. Can’t say I like this damned caterwauling they call music nowadays, but it’s a good show.’
Almost last came a little old man, slightly bent, with one shoulder higher than the other. He said with a very distinct utterance:
‘Like to give me a drink, Sebastian?’
Levinne nodded. This little old man was Carl Bowerman, the most distinguished of English musical critics. They went together to Levinne’s own sanctum.
In Levinne’s room they settled down in two arm-chairs. Levinne provided his guest with a whisky and soda. Then he looked across at him inquiringly. He was anxious for this man’s verdict.
Bowerman did not reply for a minute or two. At last he said slowly:
‘I am an old man. There are things in which I take pleasure—there are other things—such as the music of today—which do not give me pleasure. But all the same I know Genius when I meet it. There are a hundred charlatans—a hundred breakers down of tradition who think that by doing so they have accomplished something wonderful. And there is the hundred and first—a creator, a man who steps boldly into the future—’
He paused, then went on.
‘Yes, I know genius when I meet it. I may not like it—but I recognize it. Groen, whoever he is, has genius … The music of tomorrow …’
Again he paused, and again Levinne did not interrupt, but waited.
‘I don’t know whether your venture will succeed or fail. I think succeed—but that will be mainly because of your personality. You have the art of forcing the public to accept what you want them to accept. You have a talent for success. You’ve made a mystery about Groen—part of your press campaign, I suppose.’
He looked at Sebastian keenly.
‘I don’t want to interfere with your press campaign, but tell me one thing—Groen’s an Englishman, isn’t he?’
‘Yes. How did you know, Bowerman?’
‘Nationality in music is unmistakable. He has studied in the Russian Revolutionary school, yes—but—well, as I said, nationality is unmistakable. There have been pioneers before him—people who have tried tentatively the things he has accomplished. We’ve had our English school—Holst, Vaughan Williams, Arnold Bax. All over the world musicians have been drawing nearer to the new ideal—the Absolute in Music. This man is the direct successor of that boy who was killed in the war, what was his name? Deyre—Vernon Deyre—He had promise.’ He sighed. ‘I wonder, Levinne, how much we lost through the war.’
‘It’s difficult to say, sir.’
‘It doesn’t bear thinking of. No, it doesn’t bear thinking of.’ He rose. ‘I mustn’t keep you. You’ve a lot to do, I know.’ A faint smile showed on his face. ‘The Giant! You and Groen have your little joke all to yourselves, I fancy. Everyone takes it for granted the Giant is the Moloch of Machinery—They don’t see that the real Giant is that pigmy figure—man. The individualist who endures through Stone and Iron and who though civilizations crumble and die, fights his way through yet another Glacial Age to rise in a new civilization of which we do not dream …’
His smile broadened.
‘As I grow older I am more and more convinced that there is nothing so pathetic, so ridiculous, so absurd, and so absolutely wonderful as Man—’
He paused by the doorway, his hand on the knob.
‘One wonders,’ he said, ‘what has gone to the making of a thing like the Giant? What produces it? What feeds it? Heredity shapes the instrument—environment polishes and rounds it off—sex wakens it … But there’s more than that. There’s its food.
‘Fee, fie, fo fum,
I smell the blood of mortal man
Be he alive or be he dead
I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.
A cruel giant, genius, Levinne! A monster feeding on flesh and blood. I know nothing about Groen, yet I’d swear that he’s fed his Giant with his own flesh and blood and perhaps the flesh and blood of others too … Their bones ground to make the Giant’s bread …
‘I’m an old man, Levinne. I have my fancies. We’ve seen the end tonight—I’d like to know the beginning.’
‘Heredity—environment—sex,’ said Levinne slowly.
‘Yes. Just that. Not that I have any hopes of your telling me.’
‘You think I—know?’
‘I’m sure you know.’
There was a silence.
‘Yes,’ said Levinne at last, ‘I do know. I would tell you the whole story if I could—but I cannot. There are reasons …’
He repeated slowly: ‘There are reasons …’
‘A pity. It would have been interesting.’
‘I wonder …’
There were only three people of real importance in Vernon’s world: Nurse, God and Mr Green.
There were, of course, the nursemaids. Winnie, the present one, and behind her Jane and Annie and Sarah and Gladys. Those were all the ones that Vernon could remember, but there were lots more. Nursery maids never stayed long because they couldn’t get on with Nurse. They hardly counted in Vernon’s world.
There was also a kind of twin deity called Mummy-Daddy mentioned by Vernon in his prayers and also connected with going down to dessert. They were shadowy figures, rather beautiful and wonderful—especially Mummy—but they again did not belong to the real world—Vernon’s world.
The things in Vernon’s world were very real indeed. There was the drugget on the nursery floor, for instance. It was of green and white stripes and rather scrubbly to bare knees and in one corner of it was a hole which Vernon used surreptitiously to make bigger by working his fingers round in it. There were the nursery walls where mauve irises twined themselves interminably upwards round a pattern that was sometimes diamonds and sometimes, if you looked at it long enough, crosses. That seemed very interesting to Vernon and rather magical.
There was a rocking horse against one wall, but Vernon seldom rode on it. There was a basket-work engine and some basket-work trucks which he played with a good deal. There was a low cupboard full of more or less dilapidated toys. On an upper shelf were the more delectable contents that you played with on a wet day or when Nurse was in an unusually good temper. The Paint Box was there and the Real Camel Hair Brushes and a heap of illustrated papers for Cutting Out. In fact, all the things that Nurse said were ‘that messy she couldn’t abear them about’. In other words, the best things.
And in the centre of this realistic nursery universe, dominating everything, was Nurse herself. Person No. 1 of Vernon’s Trinity. Very big and broad, very starched and crackling. Omniscient and omnipotent. You couldn’t get the better of Nurse. She knew better than little boys. She frequently said so. Her whole lifetime had been spent looking after little boys (and incidentally little girls too, but Vernon was not interested in them) and one and all they had grown up to be a Credit to her. She said so and Vernon believed her. He had no doubt that he also would grow up to be a Credit to her, though sometimes it didn’t seem likely. There was something awe-inspiring about Nurse, but at the same time infinitely comfortable. She knew the answer to everything. For instance, Vernon propounded the riddle about the diamonds and the crosses on the wallpaper.
‘Ah, well!’ said Nurse, ‘there’s two ways of looking at everything. You must have heard that.’
And as Vernon had heard her say much the same to Winnie one day, he was soothed and satisfied. On the occasion in question, Nurse had gone on to say that there were always two sides to a question and in future Vernon always visualized a question as something like a letter A with crosses creeping up one side of it and diamonds going down the other.
After Nurse there was God. God was also very real to Vernon mainly because he bulked so largely in Nurse’s conversation. Nurse knew most things that you did, but God knew everything, and God was, if anything, more particular than Nurse. You couldn’t see God, which, Vernon always felt, gave him rather an unfair advantage over you, because he could see you. Even in the dark, he could see you. Sometimes when Vernon was in bed at night, the thought of God looking down at him through the darkness used to give him a creepy feeling down the spine.
But on the whole, God was an intangible person compared with Nurse. You could conveniently forget about him most of the time. That was, until Nurse lugged him deliberately into the conversation.
Once Vernon essayed revolt.
‘Nurse, do you know what I shall do when I’m dead?’
Nurse, who was knitting stockings, said: ‘One, two, three, four, there now, I’ve dropped a stitch. No, Master Vernon, I’m sure I don’t.’
‘I shall go to Heaven—I shall go to Heaven—and I shall go right up to God—right up to him I shall go, and I shall say: “You’re an ’orrible man and I ’ate you!”’
Silence. It was done. He had said it. Unbelievable, unparalleled audacity! What would happen? What awful punishment terrestrial or celestial would descend upon him? He waited—breathless.
Nurse had picked up the stitch. She looked at Vernon over the top of her spectacles. She was serene—unruffled.
‘It’s not likely,’ she remarked, ‘that the Almighty will take any notice of what a naughty little boy says. Winnie, give me those scissors, if you please.’
Vernon retired crestfallen. It was no good. You couldn’t down Nurse. He might have known.
And then there was Mr Green. Mr Green was like God in that you couldn’t see him, but to Vernon he was very real. He knew, for instance, exactly what Mr Green looked like—of middle height, rather stout, a faint resemblance to the village grocer who sang an uncertain baritone in the village choir, bright red cheeks and mutton chop whiskers. His eyes were blue, a very bright blue. The great thing about Mr Green was that he played—he loved playing. Whatever game Vernon thought of, that was just the game that Mr Green loved to play. There were other points about him. He had, for instance, a hundred children. And three others. The hundred, in Vernon’s mind, were kept intact, a joyous mob that raced down the yew alleys behind Vernon and Mr Green. But the three others were different. They were called by the three most beautiful names that Vernon knew: Poodle, Squirrel and Tree.
Vernon was, perhaps, a lonely little boy, but he never knew it. Because, you see, he had Mr Green and Poodle, Squirrel and Tree to play with.
For a long time Vernon was undecided as to where Mr Green’s home was. It came to him quite suddenly that of course Mr Green lived in the Forest. The Forest had always been fascinating to Vernon. One side of the Park bordered on it. There were high green palings and Vernon used to creep along them hoping for a crack that would let him see through. There were whisperings and sighings and rustlings all along, as though the trees were speaking to each other. Half-way down there was a door, but alas, it was always locked, so that Vernon could never see what it was really like inside the Forest.
Nurse, of course, would never take him there. She was like all nurses and preferred a good steady walk along the road, and no messing your feet up with them nasty damp leaves. So Vernon was never allowed to go in the Forest. It made him think of it all the more. Some day he would take tea there with Mr Green. Poodle and Squirrel and Tree were to have new suits for the occasion.
The nursery palled on Vernon. It was too small. He knew all there was to know about it. The garden was different. It was really a very exciting garden. There were so many different bits of it. The long walks between the clipped yew hedges with their ornamental birds, the water garden with the fat goldfish, the walled fruit garden, the wild garden with its almond trees in spring time and the copse of silver birch trees with bluebells growing underneath, and best of all the railed-off bit where the ruins of the old Abbey were. That was the place where Vernon would have liked to be left to his own devices—to climb and explore. But he never was. The rest of the garden he did much as he liked in. Winnie was always sent out with him but since by a remarkable coincidence they always seemed to encounter the second gardener, he could play his own games unhindered by too much kind attention on Winnie’s part.
Gradually Vernon’s world widened. The twin star, Mummy-Daddy, separated, became two distinct people. Daddy remained nebulous, but Mummy became quite a personage. She often paid visits to the nursery to ‘play with my darling little boy’. Vernon bore her visits with grave politeness, though it usually meant giving up the game that he himself was engaged upon and accepting one which was not, in his opinion, nearly so good. Lady visitors would sometimes come with her, and then she would squeeze Vernon tightly (which he hated) and cry:
‘It’s so wonderful to be a mother! I never get used to it! To have a darling baby boy of one’s very own.’
Very red, Vernon would extricate himself from her embrace. Because he wasn’t a baby boy at all. He was three years old.
Looking across the room one day, just after a scene like the above, he saw his father standing by the nursery door with sardonic eyes, watching him. Their eyes met. Something seemed to pass between them—comprehension—a sense of kinship.
His mother’s friends were talking.
‘Such a pity, Myra, that he doesn’t take after you. Your hair would be too lovely on a child.’
But Vernon had a sudden feeling of pride. He was like his father.
Vernon always remembered the day that the American lady came to lunch. To begin with, because of Nurse’s explanations about America which, as he realized later, she confused with Australia.
He went down to dessert in an awe-stricken state. If this lady had been at home in her own country, she would be walking about upside down with her head hanging down. Quite enough, this, to make him stare. And then, too, she used odd words for the simplest things.
‘Isn’t he too cute? See here, honey, I’ve gotten a box of candy for you. Won’t you come and fetch it?’
Vernon came gingerly; accepted the present. The lady clearly didn’t know what she was talking about. It wasn’t candy, but good Edinburgh Rock.
There were two gentlemen there also, one the husband of the American lady. This one said:
‘Do you know half a crown, my boy, when you see it?’
And it presently turned out that the half-crown was to be for his very own to keep. Altogether it was a wonderful day.
Vernon had never thought very much about his home. He knew that it was bigger than the Vicarage, where he sometimes went to tea, but he seldom played with any other children or went to their homes. So it came to him with a shock of wonder that day. The visitors were taken all over the house, and the American lady’s voice rose ceaselessly.
‘My, if that isn’t too wonderful. Did you ever see such a thing? Five hundred years, you say? Frank, listen to that. Henry the eighth—if it isn’t just like listening to English history. And the Abbey older still, you say?’
They went everywhere, through the long picture gallery where faces strangely like Vernon’s with dark eyes set close together and narrow heads looked out from the painted canvas arrogantly or with cold tolerance. There were meek women there in ruffs or with pearls twisted in their hair—the Deyre women had done best to be meek, married to wild lords who knew neither fear nor pity—who looked appraisingly at Myra Deyre, the last of their number, as she walked beneath them. From the picture gallery they went to the square hall, and from there to the Priest’s Chamber.
Vernon had been removed by Nurse long since. They found him again in the garden feeding the goldfish. Vernon’s father had gone into the house to get the keys of the Abbey ruins. The visitors were alone.
‘My, Frank,’ said the American lady. ‘Isn’t it too wonderful? All these years. Handed down from father to son. Romantic, that’s what I call it, just too romantic for anything. All these years. Just fancy! How is it done?’
It was then that the other gentleman spoke. He was not much of a talker, so far Vernon had not heard him speak at all. But he now unclosed his lips and uttered one word—a word so enchanting, so mysterious, so delightful that Vernon never forgot it.
‘Brumagem,’ said the other gentleman.
And before Vernon could ask him (as he meant to do) what that marvellous word meant, another diversion occurred.
His mother came out of the house. There was a sunset behind her—a scene painter’s sunset of crude gold and red. Against that background Vernon saw his mother—saw her for the first time—a magnificent woman with white skin and red gold hair—a being like the pictures in his fairy book, saw her suddenly as something wonderful and beautiful.
He was never to forget that strange moment. She was his mother and she was beautiful and he loved her. Something hurt him inside, like a pain—only it wasn’t a pain. And there was a queer booming noise inside his head—a thundering noise that ended up high and sweet like a bird’s note. Altogether a very wonderful moment.
And mixed up with it was that magic word Brumagem.
Winnie the nursemaid was going away. It all happened very suddenly. The other servants whispered together. Winnie cried. She cried and cried. Nurse gave her what she called a Talking To and after that Winnie cried more than ever. There was something terrible about Nurse, she seemed larger than usual and she crackled more. Winnie, Vernon knew, was going away because of Father. He accepted that fact without any particular interest or curiosity. Nursemaids did sometimes go away because of Father.
His mother was shut in her room. She too was crying. Vernon could hear her through the door. She did not send for him and it did not occur to him to go to her. Indeed he was vaguely relieved. He hated the noise of crying, the gulping sound, the long-drawn sniffs, and it always happened so close to your ears. People who were crying always hugged you. Vernon hated those kind of noises close to his ears. There was nothing in the world he hated more than the wrong sort of noise. It made you feel all curled up like a leaf in your middle. That was the jolly part about Mr Green. He never made the wrong kind of noise.
Winnie was packing her boxes. Nurse was in with her—a less awful Nurse now—almost a human Nurse.
‘Now you let this be a warning to you, my girl,’ said Nurse. ‘No carryings on in your next place.’
Winnie sniffed something about no real harm.
‘And no more there wouldn’t be, I should hope, with Me in charge,’ said Nurse. ‘A lot comes, I daresay, of having red hair. Red-haired girls are always flighty, so my dear mother used to say. I’m not saying you’re a bad girl. But what you’ve done is unbecoming. Unbecoming—I can’t say more than that.’
And, as Vernon had often noticed after using this particular phrase, she proceeded to say a good deal more. But he did not listen, for he was pondering on the word Unbecoming. Becoming, he knew, was a thing you said about a hat. Where did a hat come in?
‘What’s unbecoming, Nurse?’ he asked later in the day.
Nurse, with her mouth full of pins, for she was cutting out a linen suit for Vernon, replied.
‘Little boys going on asking foolish questions,’ said Nurse, with the deftness of a long professional career behind her.
That afternoon Vernon’s father came into the nursery. There was a queer furtive look about him—unhappy and defiant. He winced slightly before Vernon’s round interested gaze.
‘I’m going to London. Goodbye, old chap.’
‘Are you going to London because you kissed Winnie?’ inquired Vernon with interest.
His father uttered the kind of word that Vernon knew he was not supposed to hear—much less ever repeat. It was, he knew, a word that gentlemen used but little boys didn’t. So great a fascination did that fact lend it, that Vernon was in the habit of sending himself to sleep by repeating it over to himself in company with another forbidden word. The other word was Corsets.
‘Who the devil told you that?’
‘Nobody told me,’ said Vernon after reflecting a minute.
‘Then how did you know?’
‘Didn’t you, then?’ inquired Vernon.
His father crossed the room without answering.
‘Winnie kisses me sometimes,’ remarked Vernon. ‘But I didn’t like it much. I have to kiss her too. The gardener kisses her a lot. He seems to like it. I think kissing’s silly. Should I like kissing Winnie better if I was grown up, Father?’
‘Yes,’ he said deliberately. ‘I think you would. Sons, you know, sometimes grow up very like their fathers.’
‘I’d like to be like you,’ said Vernon. ‘You’re a jolly good rider. Sam said so. He said there wasn’t your equal in the county and that a better judge of horse flesh never lived.’ Vernon brought out the latter words rapidly. ‘I’d rather be like you than Mummy. Mummy gives a horse a sore back. Sam said so.’
There was a further pause.
‘Mummy’s gotaheadacheanlyingdown,’ proceeded Vernon.
‘Have you said goodbye to her?’
‘Are you going to? Because you’ll have to be quick. That’s the dogcart coming round now.’
‘I expect I shan’t have time.’
Vernon nodded wisely.
‘I daresay that would be a good plan. I don’t like having to kiss people when they’re crying. I don’t like Mummy kissing me much anyway. She squeezes too hard and she talks in your ear. I think I’d almost rather kiss Winnie. Which would you, Father?’
He was disconcerted by his father’s abrupt withdrawal from the room. Nurse had come in a moment before. She stood respectfully aside to let the master pass, and Vernon had a vague idea that she had managed to make his father uncomfortable.
Katie, the under-housemaid, came in to lay tea. Vernon built bricks in the corner. The old peaceful nursery atmosphere closed round him again.
There was a sudden interruption. His mother stood in the doorway. Her eyes were swollen with crying. She dabbed them with a handkerchief. She stood there theatrically miserable.
‘He’s gone,’ she cried. ‘Without a word to me. Without a word. Oh, my little son. My little son.’
She swept across the floor and gathered Vernon in her arms. The tower, at least one storey higher than any he had ever built before, crashed into ruins. His mother’s voice, loud and distraught, burrowed into his ear.
‘My child—my little son—swear that you’ll never forsake me—swear it—swear it—’
Nurse came across to them.
‘There, Ma’am, there, Ma’am, don’t take on so. You’d better get back to bed. Edith shall bring you a nice cup of hot tea.’
Her tone was authoritative—severe.
His mother still sobbed and clasped him closer. Vernon’s whole body began to stiffen in resistance. He could bear it a little while longer—a very little while longer—and he’d do anything Mummy wanted if only she’d let go of him.
‘You must make up to me, Vernon—make up to me for the suffering your father has caused me—Oh, my God, what shall I do?’
Somewhere, in the back of his mind, Vernon was aware of Katie, silent, ecstatic, enjoying the scene.
‘Come along, Ma’am,’ said Nurse. ‘You’ll only upset the child.’
The authority in her voice was so marked this time that Vernon’s mother succumbed to it. Leaning weakly on Nurse’s arm, she allowed herself to be led from the room.
Nurse returned a few minutes later very red in the face.
‘My,’ said Katie, ‘didn’t she take on? Regular hysterics—that’s what they call it! Well, this has been a to do! You don’t think she’ll do a mischief to herself, do you? Those nasty ponds in the garden. The Master is a one—not that he hasn’t a lot to put up with from Her. All them scenes and tantrums—’
‘That’ll do, my girl,’ said Nurse. ‘You can get back to your work, and under-servants discussing a matter of this kind with their betters is a thing that I’ve never known take place in a gentleman’s house. Your mother ought to have trained you better.’
With a toss of her head, Katie withdrew. Nurse moved round the nursery table, shifting cups and plates with unwonted sharpness. Her lips moved, muttering to herself.
‘Putting ideas into the child’s head. I’ve no patience with it …’
A new nursemaid came, a thin white girl with protruding eyes. Her name was Isabel, but she was called Susan as being ‘more suitable’. This puzzled Vernon very much. He asked Nurse for an explanation.
‘There are names that are suitable to the gentry, Master Vernon, and names that are suitable for servants. That’s all there is to it.’
‘Then why is her real name Isabel?’
‘There are people who when they christen their children set themselves up to ape their betters.’
The word ape had a distracting influence on Vernon. Apes were monkeys. Did people christen their children at the zoo?
‘I thought people were christened in church.’
‘So they are, Master Vernon.’
Very puzzling—why was everything so puzzling? Why were things more puzzling than they used to be? Why did one person tell you one thing and another person something quite different?
‘Nurse, how do babies come?’
‘You’ve asked me that before, Master Vernon. The little angels bring them in the night through the window.’
‘Don’t stammer, Master Vernon.’
‘Amenkun lady who came—she said I was found under a gooseberry bush.’
‘That’s the way they do with American babies,’ said Nurse serenely.
Vernon heaved a sigh of relief. Of course! He felt a throb of gratitude to Nurse. She always knew. She made the unsteady swaying universe stand still again. And she never laughed. His mother did. He had heard her say to other ladies, ‘He asks me the quaintest questions. Just listen to this. Aren’t children funny and adorable?’
But Vernon couldn’t see that he was funny or adorable at all. He just wanted to know. You’d got to know. That was part of growing up. When you were grown up you knew everything and had gold sovereigns in your purse.
The world went on widening.
There were, for instance, uncles and aunts.
Uncle Sydney was Mummy’s brother. He was short and stout and had rather a red face. He had a habit of humming tunes and of rattling the money in his trouser pockets. He was fond of making jokes, but Vernon did not always think his jokes very funny.
‘Supposing,’ Uncle Sydney would say, ‘I were to put on your hat? Hey? What should I look like, do you think?’
Curious, the questions grown up people asked! Curious—and also difficult, because if there was one thing that Nurse was always impressing upon Vernon, it was that little boys must never make personal remarks.
‘Come now,’ said Uncle Sydney perseveringly. ‘What should I look like? There—’ he snatched up the linen affair in question and balanced it on top of his head. ‘What do I look like—eh?’
Well, if one must answer, one must. Vernon said politely and a little wearily:
‘I think you look rather silly.’
‘That boy of yours has no sense of humour, Myra,’ said Uncle Sydney to his mother. ‘No sense of humour at all. A pity.’
Aunt Nina, Father’s sister, was quite different.
She smelt nice, like the garden on a summer’s day, and she had a soft voice that Vernon liked. She had other virtues—she didn’t kiss you when you didn’t want to be kissed, and she didn’t insist on making jokes. But she didn’t come very often to Abbots Puissants.
She must be, Vernon thought, very brave, because it was she who first made him realize that one could master The Beast.
The Beast lived in the big drawing-room. It had four legs and a shiny brown body. And it had a long row of what Vernon had thought when he was very small, to be teeth. Great yellow shining teeth. From his earliest memory, Vernon had been fascinated and terrified by The Beast. For if you irritated The Beast, it made strange noises, an angry growling or a shrill angry wail—and somehow those noises hurt you more than anything in the world could, they hurt you right down in your inside. They made you shiver and feel sick, and they made your eyes sting and burn, and yet by some strange enchantment, you couldn’t go away.
When Vernon had stories read to him about dragons, he always thought of them as like The Beast. And some of the best games with Mr Green were where they killed The Beast—Vernon plunging a sword into his brown shining body whilst the hundred children whooped and sang behind.
Now that he was a big boy—he knew better, of course. He knew that The Beast’s name was Grand Piano, and that when you deliberately attacked its teeth that was called ‘playingthepiano!’ and that ladies did it after dinner to gentlemen. But in his inmost heart, he was still afraid and dreamt sometimes of The Beast pursuing him up the nursery stairs—and he would wake up screaming.
In his dreams The Beast lived in the Forest, and was wild and savage, and the noises it made were too terrible to be borne.
Mummy sometimes did ‘playingthepiano’ and that Vernon could just bear with difficulty. The Beast, he felt, would not really be waked up by what she was doing to it. But the day Aunt Nina played was different.
Vernon had been conducting one of his imaginary games in a corner. He and Squirrel and Poodle were having a picnic and eating lobsters and chocolate éclairs.
His Aunt Nina had not even noticed that he was in the room. She had sat down on the music stool and was playing idly.
Fascinated, Vernon crept nearer and nearer. Nina looked at last to see him staring at her, the tears running down his face and great sobs shaking his small body. She stopped.
‘What’s the matter, Vernon?’
‘I hate it,’ sobbed Vernon. ‘I ’ate it. I ’ate it. It hurts me here.’ His hands clasped his stomach.
Myra came into the room at that minute. She laughed.
‘Isn’t it odd? That child simply hates music. So very queer.’
‘Why doesn’t he go away if he hates it?’ said Nina.
‘I can’t,’ sobbed Vernon.
‘Isn’t it ridiculous?’ said Myra.
‘I think it’s rather interesting.’
‘Most children are always wanting to strum on the piano. I tried to show Vernon “Chopsticks” the other day, but he wasn’t a bit amused.’
Nina remained staring at her small nephew thoughtfully.
‘I can hardly believe a child of mine can be unmusical,’ said Myra in an aggrieved voice. ‘I played quite difficult pieces when I was eight years old.’
‘Oh, well!’ said Nina vaguely. ‘There are different ways of being musical.’
Which, Myra thought, was so like the silly sort of thing the Deyre family would say. Either one was musical and played pieces, or one was not. Vernon clearly was not.
Nurse’s mother was ill. Strange unparalleled nursery catastrophe. Nurse, very red-faced and grim, was packing with the assistance of Susan Isabel. Vernon, troubled, sympathetic, but above all interested, stood nearby, and out of his interest, asked questions.
‘Is your mother very old, Nurse? Is she a hundred?’
‘Of course not, Master Vernon. A hundred indeed!’
‘Do you think she is going to die?’ continued Vernon, longing to be kind and understand.
Cook’s mother had been ill and died. Nurse did not answer. Instead she said sharply:
‘The boot-bags out of the bottom drawer, Susan. Step lively now, my girl.’
‘Nurse, will your mother—’
‘I haven’t time to be answering questions, Master Vernon.’
Vernon sat down on the corner of a chintz-covered ottoman and gave himself up to reflection. Nurse had said that her mother wasn’t a hundred, but she must, for all that, be very old. Nurse herself he had always regarded as terribly old. To think that there was a being of superior age and wisdom to Nurse was positively staggering. In a strange way it reduced Nurse herself to the proportions of a mere human being. She was no longer a figure secondary only to God himself.
The Universe shifted—values were readjusted. Nurse, God, and Mr Green—all three receded, becoming vaguer and more blurred. Mummy, his father, even Aunt Nina—seemed to matter more. Especially Mummy. Mummy was like the princesses with long beautiful golden hair. He would like to fight a dragon for Mummy—a brown shiny dragon like The Beast.
What was the word—the magic word? Brumagem—that was it—Brumagem. An enchanting word! The Princess Brumagem! A word to be repeated over to himself softly and secretly at night at the same time as ‘Damn’ and ‘Corsets’.
But never, never, never must Mummy hear it—because he knew only too well that she would laugh—she always laughed, the kind of laugh that made you shrivel up inside and want to wriggle. And she would say things—she always said things, just the kind of things you hated. ‘Aren’t children too funny?’
And Vernon knew that he wasn’t funny. He didn’t like funny things—Uncle Sydney had said so. If only Mummy wouldn’t—
Sitting on the slippery chintz he frowned perplexedly. He had a sudden imperfect glimpse of two Mummies. One, the princess, the beautiful Mummy that he dreamt about, who was mixed up for him with sunsets and magic and killing dragons—and the other—the one who laughed and who said, ‘Aren’t children too funny?’ Only, of course, they were the same …
He fidgeted and sighed. Nurse, flushed from the effort of snapping to her trunk, turned to him kindly.
‘What’s the matter, Master Vernon?’
‘Nothing,’ said Vernon.
You must always say ‘Nothing.’ You could never tell. Because, if you did, no one ever knew what you meant …
Under the reign of Susan Isabel, the nursery was quite different. You could be, and quite frequently were, naughty. Susan told you not to do things and you did them just the same! Susan would say: ‘I’ll tell your mother.’ But she never did.
Susan had at first enjoyed the position and authority she had in Nurse’s absence. Indeed, but for Vernon, she would have continued to enjoy it. She used to exchange confidences with Katie, the under-housemaid.
‘Don’t know what’s come over him, I’m sure. He’s like a little demon sometimes. And him so good and well behaved with Mrs Pascal.’
To which Kate replied:
‘Ah! she’s a one, she is! Takes you up sharp, doesn’t she?’ And then they would whisper and giggle.
‘Who’s Mrs Pascal?’ Vernon asked one day.
‘Well, I never, Master Vernon! Don’t you know your own Nurse’s name?’
So Nurse was Mrs Pascal. Another shock. She had always been just Nurse. It was rather as though you had been told that God’s name was Mr Robinson.
Mrs Pascal! Nurse! The more you thought of it, the more extraordinary it seemed. Mrs Pascal—just like Mummy was Mrs Deyre and Father was Mr Deyre. Strangely enough Vernon never cogitated on the possibility of a Mr Pascal. (Not that there was any such person. The Mrs was a tacit recognition of Nurse’s position and authority.) Nurse stood alone in the same magnificence as Mr Green, who, in spite of the hundred children (and Poodle, Squirrel and Tree), was never thought of by Vernon as having a Mrs Green attached to him!
Vernon’s inquiring mind wandered in another direction. ‘Susan, do you like being called Susan? Wouldn’t you like being called Isabel better?’
Susan (or Isabel) gave her customary giggle.
‘It doesn’t matter what I like, Master Vernon.’
‘People have got to do what they’re told in this world.’
Vernon was silent. He had thought the same until a few days ago. But he was beginning to perceive that it was not true. You needn’t do as you were told. It all depended on who told you.
It was not a question of punishment. He was continually being sat on chairs, stood in the corner, and deprived of sweets by Susan. Nurse, on the other hand, had only had to look at him severely through her spectacles with a certain expression on her face, and anything but immediate capitulation was out of the question.
Susan had no authority in her nature, and Vernon knew it. He had discovered the thrill of successful disobedience. Also, he liked tormenting Susan. The more worried and flustered and unhappy Susan got, the more Vernon liked it. He was, as was proper to his years, still in the Stone Age. He savoured the full pleasure of cruelty.
Susan formed the habit of letting Vernon go out to play in the garden alone. Being an unattractive girl, she had not Winnie’s reasons for liking the garden. And besides, what harm could possibly come to him?
‘You won’t go near the ponds, will you, Master Vernon?’
‘No,’ said Vernon, instantly forming the intention to do so.
‘You’ll play with your hoop like a good boy?’
The nursery was left in peace. Susan heaved a sigh of relief. She took from a drawer a paper-covered book entitled The Duke and the Dairymaid.
Beating his hoop, Vernon made the tour of the walled fruit garden. Escaping from his control, the hoop leapt upon a small patch of earth which was at the moment receiving the meticulous attentions of Hopkins, the head gardener. Hopkins firmly and authoritatively ordered Vernon from the spot, and Vernon went. He respected Hopkins.
Abandoning the hoop, Vernon climbed a tree or two. That is to say, he reached a height of perhaps six feet from the ground, employing all due precautions. Tiring of this perilous sport, he sat astride a branch and cogitated as to what to do next.
On the whole, he thought of the ponds. Susan having forbidden them, they had a distinct fascination. Yes, he would go to the ponds. He rose, and as he did so, another idea came into his head, suggested by an unusual sight.
The door into the Forest was open!
Such a thing had never happened before in Vernon’s experience. Again and again he had secretly tried that door. Always it was locked.
He crept up to it cautiously. The Forest! It stood a few steps away outside the door. You could plunge straightway into its cool green depths. Vernon’s heart beat faster.
He had always wanted to go into the Forest. Here was his chance. Once Nurse came back, any such thing would be out of the question.
And still he hesitated. It was not any feeling of disobedience that held him back. Strictly speaking, he had never been forbidden to go in the Forest. His childish cunning was all ready with that excuse.
No, it was something else. Fear of the unknown—of those dark leafy depths. Ancestral memories held him back …
He wanted to go—but he didn’t want to go. There might be Things there—Things like The Beast. Things that came up behind you—that chased you screaming …
He moved uneasily from one foot to the other.
But Things didn’t chase you in the daytime. And Mr Green lived in the Forest. Not that Mr Green was as real as he used to be. Still, it would be rather jolly to explore and find a place where you would pretend Mr Green did live. Poodle, Squirrel, and Tree would each have houses of their own—small leafy houses.
‘Come on, Poodle,’ said Vernon to an invisible companion. ‘Have you got your bow and arrow? That’s right. We’ll meet Squirrel inside.’
He stepped out jauntily. Beside him, plain to Vernon’s inner eye, went Poodle, dressed like the picture of Robinson Crusoe in his picture book.
It was wonderful in the Forest—dim and dark and green. Birds sang and flew from branch to branch. Vernon continued to talk to his friend—a luxury he did not dare to permit himself often, since someone might overhear and say, ‘Isn’t he too funny? He’s pretending he’s got another little boy with him.’ You had to be so very careful at home.
‘We’ll get to the Castle by lunch time, Poodle. There are going to be roasted leopards. Oh! Hullo, here’s Squirrel. How are you, Squirrel? Where’s Tree?’
‘I tell you what. I think it’s rather tiring walking. I think we’ll ride.’
Steeds were tethered to an adjacent tree. Vernon’s was milk white, Poodle’s was coal black—the colour of Squirrel’s he couldn’t quite decide.
They galloped forward through the trees. There were deadly dangerous places, morasses. Snakes hissed at them and lions charged them. But the faithful steeds did all their riders required of them.
How silly it was playing in the garden—or playing anywhere but here! He’d forgotten what it was like, playing with Mr Green and Poodle, Squirrel and Tree. How could you help forgetting things when people were always reminding you that you were a funny little boy playing make believe.
On strutted Vernon, now capering, now marching with solemn dignity. He was great, he was wonderful! What he needed, though he did not know it himself, was a tom-tom to beat whilst he sang his own praises.
The Forest! He had always known it would be like this, and it was! In front of him suddenly appeared a crumbling moss-covered wall. The wall of the Castle! Could anything be more perfect? He began to climb it.
The ascent was easy enough really, though fraught with the most agreeable and thrilling possibilities of danger. Whether this was Mr Green’s Castle, or whether it was inhabited by an Ogre who ate human flesh, Vernon had not yet made up his mind. Either was an entrancing proposition. On the whole he inclined to the latter, being at the moment in a warlike frame of mind. With a flushed face he reached the summit of the wall and looked over the other side.
And here there enters into the story, for one brief paragraph, Mrs Somers West who was fond of romantic solitude (for short periods), and had bought Woods Cottage as being ‘delightfully remote from anywhere and really, if you know what I mean, in the very heart of the Forest—at one with Nature!’ And since Mrs Somers West, as well as being artistic, was musical, she had pulled down a wall, making two rooms into one and had thus provided herself with sufficient space to house a grand piano.
And at the identical moment that Vernon reached the top of the wall, several perspiring and staggering men were slowly propelling the aforesaid grand piano towards the window since it wouldn’t go in by the door. The garden of Woods Cottage was a mere tangle of undergrowth—wild Nature, as Mrs Somers West called it. So that all Vernon saw was The Beast! The Beast, alive and purposeful, slowly crawling towards him, malign and vengeful …
For a moment he stayed rooted to the spot. Then, with a wild cry, he fled. Fled along the top of the narrow crumbling wall. The Beast was behind him, pursuing him … It was coming, he knew it. He ran—ran faster than ever—His foot caught in a tangle of ivy. He crashed downwards—falling—falling—
Vernon woke, after a long time, to find himself in bed. It was, of course, the natural place to be when you woke up, but what wasn’t natural, was to have a great hump sticking up in front of you in the bed. It was whilst he was staring at this that someone spoke to him. That someone was Dr Coles, whom Vernon knew quite well.
‘Well, well,’ said Dr Coles, ‘and how are we feeling?’
Vernon didn’t know how Dr Coles was feeling. He himself was feeling rather sick and said so.
‘I daresay, I daresay,’ said Dr Coles.
‘And I think I hurt somewhere,’ said Vernon. ‘I think I hurt very much.’
‘I daresay, I daresay,’ said Dr Coles again—not very helpfully, Vernon thought.
‘Perhaps I’d feel better if I got up,’ said Vernon. ‘Can I get up?’
‘Not just now, I’m afraid,’ said the doctor. ‘You see, you’ve had a fall.’
‘Yes,’ said Vernon. ‘The Beast came after me.’
‘Eh? What’s that? The Beast? What Beast?’
‘Nothing,’ said Vernon.
‘A dog, I expect,’ said the doctor. ‘Jumped at the wall and barked. You mustn’t be afraid of dogs, my boy.’
‘I’m not,’ said Vernon.
‘And what were you doing so far from home, eh? No business to be where you were.’
‘Nobody told me not to,’ said Vernon.
‘Hum, hum, I wonder. Well, I’m afraid you’ve got to take your punishment. Do you know, you’ve broken your leg, my boy?’
‘Have I?’ Vernon was gratified—enchanted. He had broken his leg. He felt very important.
‘Yes, you’ll have to lie here for a bit—and then it will mean crutches for a while. Do you know what crutches are?’
Yes, Vernon knew. Mr Jobber, the blacksmith’s father, had crutches. And he was to have crutches! How wonderful!
‘Can I try them now?’
Dr Coles laughed.
‘So you like the idea? No, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait a bit. And you must try and be a brave boy, you know. And then you’ll get well quicker.’
‘Thank you,’ said Vernon politely. ‘I don’t think I do feel very well. Can you take this funny thing out of my bed? I think it would be more comfortable then.’
But it seemed that the funny thing was called a cradle, and that it couldn’t be taken away. And it seemed, too, that Vernon would not be able to move about in bed because his leg was all tied up to a long piece of wood. And suddenly it didn’t seem a very nice thing to have a broken leg after all.
Vernon’s underlip trembled a little. He was not going to cry—no, he was a big boy and big boys didn’t cry. Nurse said so—and then he knew that he wanted Nurse—wanted her badly. He wanted her reassuring presence, her omniscience, her creaking, rustling majesty.
‘She’ll be coming back soon,’ said Dr Coles. ‘Yes, soon. In the meantime, this Nurse is going to look after you—Nurse Frances.’
Nurse Frances moved into Vernon’s range of vision and Vernon studied her in silence. She too, was starched and crackling, that was all to the good. But she wasn’t big like Nurse—she was thinner than Mummy—as thin as Aunt Nina. He wasn’t sure—
And then he met her eyes—steady eyes, more green than grey, and he felt, as most people felt, that with Nurse Frances things would be ‘all right’.
She smiled at him—but not in the way that visitors smiled. It was a grave smile, friendly but reserved.
‘I’m sorry you feel sick,’ she said. ‘Would you like some orange juice?’
Vernon considered the matter and said he thought he would. Dr Coles went out of the room and Nurse Frances brought him the orange juice in a most curious-looking cup with a long spout. And it appeared that Vernon was to drink from the spout.
It made him laugh, but laughing hurt him, and so he stopped. Nurse Frances suggested he should go to sleep again, but he said he didn’t want to go to sleep.
‘Then I shouldn’t go to sleep,’ said Nurse Frances. ‘I wonder if you can count how many irises there are on that wall? You can start on the right side, and I’ll start on the left side. You can count, can’t you?’
Vernon said proudly that he could count up to a hundred.
‘That is a lot,’ said Nurse Frances. ‘There aren’t nearly as many irises as a hundred. I guess there are seventy-nine. Now what do you guess?’
Vernon guessed that there were fifty. There couldn’t, he felt sure, possibly be more than that. He began to count, but somehow, without knowing it, his eyelids closed and he slept …
Noise … Noise and pain … He woke with a start. He felt hot, very hot and there was a pain all down one side. And the noise was coming nearer. It was the noise that one always connected with Mummy …
She came into the room like a whirlwind, a kind of cloak affair she wore swinging out behind her. She was like a bird—a great big bird, and like a bird, she swooped down upon him.
‘Vernon—my darling—Mummy’s own darling—What have they done to you?—How awful—how terrible—My child!’
She was crying. Vernon began to cry too. He was suddenly frightened. Myra was moaning and weeping.
‘My little child. All I have in the world. God, don’t take him from me. Don’t take him from me! If he dies, I shall die too!’
There was crisp command in the voice rather than appeal.
‘Please don’t touch him. You will hurt him.’
‘Hurt him? I? His mother?’
‘You don’t seem to realize, Mrs Deyre, that his leg is broken. I must ask you, please, to leave the room.’
‘You’re hiding something from me—tell me—tell me—will the leg have to be amputated?’
A wail came from Vernon. He had not the least idea what amputated meant—but it sounded painful—and more than painful, terrifying. His wail broke into a scream.
‘He’s dying,’ cried Myra. ‘He’s dying—and they won’t tell me. But he shall die in my arms.’
Somehow Nurse Frances had got between his mother and the bed. She was holding his mother by the shoulder. Her voice had the tone that Nurse’s had had when speaking to Katie, the under-housemaid.
‘Mrs Deyre, listen to me. You must control yourself. You must!’ Then she looked up. Vernon’s father was standing in the doorway. ‘Mr Deyre, please take your wife away. I cannot have my patient excited and upset.’
His father nodded—a quiet understanding nod. He just looked at Vernon once and said: ‘Bad luck, old chap. I broke an arm once.’
The world became suddenly less terrifying. Other people broke legs and arms. His father had hold of his mother’s shoulder, he was leading her towards the door, speaking to her in a low voice. She was protesting, arguing, her voice high and shrill with emotion.
‘How can you understand? You’ve never cared for the child like I have. It takes a mother—How can I leave my child to be looked after by a stranger? He needs his mother … You don’t understand—I love him. There’s nothing like a mother’s care—everyone says so.’
‘Vernon darling—’ she broke from her husband’s clasp, came back towards the bed. ‘You want me, don’t you? You want Mummy?’
‘I want Nurse,’ sobbed Vernon. ‘I want Nurse …’
He meant his own Nurse, not Nurse Frances.
‘Oh!’ said Myra. She stood there quivering.
‘Come, my dear,’ said Vernon’s father gently. ‘Come away.’
She leant against him, and together they passed from the room. Faint words floated back into the room.
‘My own child, to turn from me to a stranger.’
Nurse Frances smoothed the sheet and suggested a drink of water.
‘Nurse is coming back very soon,’ she said. ‘We’ll write to her today, shall we? You shall tell me what to say.’
A queer new feeling surged over Vernon—a sort of odd gratitude. Somebody had actually understood …
When Vernon, later, was to look back upon his childhood, this one period was to stand out quite clearly from the rest. ‘The time I broke my leg’ marked a distinct era.
He was to appreciate, too, various small incidents that were accepted by him at the time as a matter of course. For instance, a rather stormy interview that took place between Dr Coles and his mother. Naturally this did not take place in Vernon’s sick room, but Myra’s raised voice penetrated closed doors. Vernon heard indignant exclamations of ‘I don’t know what you mean by upsetting him … I consider I ought to nurse my own child … Naturally I was distressed—I’m not one of these people who simply have no heart—no heart at all. Look at Walter—never turned a hair!’
There were many skirmishes, too, not to say pitched battles fought between Myra and Nurse Frances. In these cases Nurse Frances always won, but at a certain cost. Myra Deyre was wildly and furiously jealous of what she called ‘the paid Nurse’. She was forced to submit to Dr Cole’s dictums, but she did so with a bad grace and with an overt rudeness that Nurse Frances never seemed to notice.
In after years Vernon remembered nothing of the pain and tedium that there must have been. He only remembered happy days of playing and talking as he had never played and talked before. For in Nurse Frances, he found a grown up who didn’t think things ‘funny’ or ‘quaint’. Somebody who listened sensibly and who made serious and sensible suggestions. To Nurse Frances he was able to speak of Poodle, Squirrel and Tree, and of Mr Green and the hundred children. And instead of saying ‘What a funny game!’ Nurse Frances merely inquired whether the hundred children were girls or boys—an aspect of the matter which Vernon had never thought of before. But he and Nurse Frances decided that there were fifty of each, which seemed a very fair arrangement.
If sometimes, off his guard, he played his make-believe games aloud, Nurse Frances never seemed to notice or to think it unusual. She had the same calm comfortableness of old Nurse about her, but she had something that mattered far more to Vernon, the gift of answering questions—and he knew, instinctively, that the answers were always true. Sometimes she would say: ‘I don’t know that myself,’ or ‘You must ask someone else. I’m not clever enough to tell you that.’ There was no pretence of omniscience about her.
Sometimes, after tea, she would tell Vernon stories. The stories were never the same two days running—one day they would be about naughty little boys and girls, and the next day they would be about enchanted princesses. Vernon liked the latter kind best. There was one in particular that he loved, about a princess in a tower with golden hair and a vagabond prince in a ragged green hat. The story ended up in a forest and it was possibly for that reason that Vernon liked it so much.
Sometimes there would be an extra listener. Myra used to come in and be with Vernon during the early afternoon when Nurse Frances had her time off, but Vernon’s father used sometimes to come in after tea when the stories were going on. Little by little it became a habit. Walter Deyre would sit in the shadows just behind Nurse Frances’ chair, and from there he would watch, not his child, but the storyteller. One day Vernon saw his father’s hand steal out and close gently over Nurse Frances’ wrist.
And then something happened which surprised him very much. Nurse Frances got up from her chair.
‘I’m afraid we must turn you out for this evening, Mr Deyre,’ she said quietly. ‘Vernon and I have things to do.’
This astonished Vernon very much, because he couldn’t think what those things were. He was still more puzzled when his father got up also and said in a low voice:
‘I beg your pardon.’
Nurse Frances bent her head a little, but remained standing. Her eyes met Walter Deyre’s steadily. He said quietly:
‘Will you believe that I am really sorry, and let me come tomorrow?’
After that, in some way that Vernon could not have defined, his father’s manner was different. He no longer sat so near Nurse Frances. He talked more to Vernon and occasionally they all three played a game—usually Old Maid for which Vernon had a wild passion. They were happy evenings enjoyed by all three.
One day when Nurse Frances was out of the room, Walter Deyre said abruptly:
‘Do you like that Nurse of yours, Vernon?’
‘Nurse Frances? I like her lots. Don’t you, Father?’
‘Yes,’ said Walter Deyre, ‘I do.’
There was a sadness in his voice which Vernon felt.
‘Is anything the matter, Father?’
‘Nothing that can be put right. The horse that gets left at the post never has much chance of making good—and the fact that it’s the horse’s own fault doesn’t make matters any better. But that’s double Dutch to you, old man. Anyway, enjoy your Nurse Frances while you’ve got her. There aren’t many of her sort knocking about.’
And then Nurse Frances came back and they played Animal Grab.
But Walter Deyre’s words had set Vernon’s mind to work. He tackled Nurse Frances next morning.
‘Aren’t you going to be here always?’
‘No. Only till you get well—or nearly well.’
‘Won’t you stay always? I’d like you to.’
‘But you see, that’s not my work. My work is to look after people who are ill.’
‘Do you like doing that?’
‘Yes, very much.’
‘Well, you see, everyone has some particular kind of work that they like doing and that suits them.’
‘Oh, yes, she has. Her work is to look after this big house and see that everything goes right, and to take care of you and your father.’
‘Father was a soldier once. He told me that if ever there was a war, he’d go and be a soldier again.’
‘Are you very fond of your father, Vernon?’
‘I love Mummy best, of course. Mummy says little boys always love their mothers best. I like being with Father, of course, but that’s different. I expect it’s because he’s a man. What shall I be when I grow up, do you think? I want to be a sailor.’
‘Perhaps you’ll write books.’
Nurse Frances smiled a little.
‘Perhaps about Mr Green, and Poodle and Squirrel and Tree.’
‘But everyone would say that that was silly.’
‘Little boys wouldn’t think so. And besides, when you grow up, you will have different people in your head—like Mr Green and the children, only grown up people. And then you could write about them.’
Vernon thought for a long time, then he shook his head.
‘I think I’ll be a soldier like Father. Most of the Deyres have been soldiers, Mummy says. Of course you have to be very brave to be a soldier, but I think I would be brave enough.’
Nurse Frances was silent a moment. She was thinking of what Walter Deyre had said of his small son.
‘He’s a plucky little chap—absolutely fearless. Doesn’t know what fear is! You should see him on his pony.’
Yes, Vernon was fearless enough in one sense. He had the power of endurance, too. He had borne the pain and discomfort of his broken leg unusually well for so young a child.
But there was another kind of fear. She said slowly after a minute or two:
‘Tell me again how you fell off the wall that day.’
She knew all about The Beast, and had been careful to display no ridicule. She listened now to Vernon and as he finished she said gently:
‘But you’ve known for quite a long time, haven’t you, that it isn’t a real Beast? That it’s only a thing made of wood and wires.’
‘I do know,’ said Vernon. ‘But I don’t dream it like that. And when I saw it in the garden coming at me—’
‘You ran away—which was rather a pity, wasn’t it? It would have been much better to have stayed and looked. Then you’d have seen the men, and would have known just what it was. It’s always a good thing to look. Then you can run away afterwards if you still want to—but you usually don’t. And Vernon, I’ll tell you something else.’
‘Things are never so frightening in front of you as they are behind you. Remember that. Anything seems frightening when it’s behind your back and you can’t see it. That’s why it’s always better to turn and face things—and then very often you find they are nothing at all.’
Vernon said thoughtfully: ‘If I’d turned round I wouldn’t have broken my leg, would I?’
‘I don’t mind having broken my leg very much. It has been very nice having you to play with.’
He thought Nurse Frances murmured ‘Poor child’ under her breath, but that, of course, was absurd. She said smiling:
‘I’ve enjoyed it too. Some of my ill people don’t like to play.’
‘You really do like playing, don’t you?’ said Vernon. ‘So does Mr Green.’
He added rather stiffly, for he felt shy:
‘Please don’t go away very soon, will you?’
But as it happened, Nurse Frances went away much sooner than she might have done. It all happened very suddenly, as things in Vernon’s experience always did.
It started very simply—something that Myra offered to do for Vernon and that he said he would rather have done by Nurse Frances.
He was on crutches now for a short and painful time every day, enjoying the novelty of it very much. He soon got tired, however, and was ready to go back to bed. Today, his mother had suggested his doing so, saying she would help him. But Vernon had been helped by her before. Those big white hands of hers were strangely clumsy. They hurt where they meant to help. He shrank from her well-meant efforts. He said he would wait for Nurse Frances who never hurt.
The words came out with the tactless honesty of children, and in a minute Myra Deyre was at white heat.
Nurse Frances came in two or three minutes later to be received with a flood of reproach.
Turning the boy against his own mother—cruel—wicked—They were all alike—everyone was against her—She had nothing in the world but Vernon and now he was being turned against her too.
So it went on—a ceaseless stream. Nurse Frances bore it patiently enough without surprise or rancour. Mrs Deyre, she knew, was that kind of woman. Scenes were a relief to her. And hard words, Nurse Frances reflected with grim humour, can only harm if the utterer is dear to you. She was sorry for Myra Deyre for she realized how much real unhappiness and misery lay behind these hysterical outbursts.
It was an unfortunate moment for Walter Deyre to choose to enter the nursery. For a moment or two he stood surprised, then he flushed angrily.
‘Really, Myra, I’m ashamed of you. You don’t know what you’re saying.’
She turned on him furiously.
‘I know what I’m saying well enough. And I know what you’ve been doing. Slinking in here every day—I’ve seen you. Always making love to some woman or other. Nursemaids, hospital nurses—it’s all one to you.’
He was really angry now. Myra Deyre felt a throb of fear. But she hurled her last piece of invective.
‘You’re all alike, you hospital nurses. Flirting with other women’s husbands. You ought to be ashamed of yourself—before the innocent child too—putting all sorts of things into his head. But you’ll go out of my house. Yes, you’ll go right out—and I shall tell Dr Coles what I think of you.’
‘Would you mind continuing this edifying scene elsewhere?’ Her husband’s voice was as she hated it most—cold and sneering. ‘Hardly judicious in front of your innocent child, is it? I apologize, Nurse, for what my wife has been saying. Come, Myra.’
She went—beginning to cry—weakly frightened at what she had done. As usual, she had said more than she meant.
‘You’re cruel,’ she sobbed. ‘Cruel. You’d like me to be dead. You hate me.’
She followed him out of the room. Nurse Frances put Vernon to bed. He wanted to ask questions but she talked of a dog, a big St Bernard, that she had had when she was a little girl and he was so much interested that he forgot everything else.
Much later that evening, Vernon’s father came to the nursery. He looked white and ill. Nurse Frances rose and came to where he stood in the doorway.
‘I don’t know what to say—how can I apologize—the things my wife said—’
Nurse Frances replied in a quiet matter-of-fact voice.
‘Oh, it’s quite all right. I understand. I think, though, that I had better go as soon as it can be arranged. My being here makes Mrs Deyre unhappy, and then she works herself up.’
‘If she knew how wide of the mark her wild accusations are. That she should insult you—’
Nurse Frances laughed—not perhaps very convincingly.
‘I always think it’s absurd when people complain about being insulted,’ she said cheerfully. ‘Such a pompous word, isn’t it? Please don’t worry or think I mind. You know, Mr Deyre, your wife is—’
Her voice changed. It was grave and sad.
‘A very unhappy and lonely woman.’
‘Do you think that is entirely my fault?’
There was a pause. She lifted her eyes—those steady green eyes.
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘I do.’
He drew a long breath.
‘No one else but you would have said that to me. You—I suppose it’s courage in you that I admire so much—your absolute fearless honesty. I’m sorry for Vernon that he should lose you before he need.’
She said gravely:
‘Don’t blame yourself for things you needn’t. This has not been your fault.’
‘Nurse Frances.’ It was Vernon, eagerly from bed. ‘I don’t want you to go away. Don’t go away, please—not tonight.’
‘Of course not,’ said Nurse Frances. ‘We’ve got to talk to Dr Coles about it.’
Nurse Frances left three days later. Vernon wept bitterly. He had lost the first real friend he had ever had.
The years from five to nine remained somewhat dim in Vernon’s memory. Things changed—but so gradually as not to matter. Nurse did not return to her reign over the nursery. Her mother had had a stroke and was quite helpless and she was obliged to remain and look after her.
Instead, a Miss Robbins was installed as Nursery Governess. A creature so extraordinarily colourless that Vernon could never afterwards even recall what she looked like. He must have become somewhat out of hand under her regime for he was sent to school just after his eighth birthday. On his first holidays he found his cousin Josephine installed.
On her few visits to Abbots Puissants, Nina had never brought her small daughter with her. Indeed her visits had become rarer and rarer. Vernon, knowing things without thinking about them as children do, was perfectly well aware of two facts. One, that his father did not like Uncle Sydney but was always exceedingly polite to him. Two, that his mother did not like Aunt Nina and did not mind showing it.
Sometimes, when Nina was sitting talking to Walter in the garden, Myra would join them and in the momentary pause that nearly always followed, she would say:
‘I suppose I’d better go away again. I see I’m in the way. No, thank you, Walter’ (this in answer to a protest, gently murmured). ‘I can see plainly enough when I’m not wanted.’
She would move away, biting her lip, nervously clasping and unclasping her hands, tears in her brown eyes. And, very quietly, Walter Deyre would raise his eyebrows.
One day, Nina broke out:
‘She’s impossible! I can’t speak to you for ten minutes without an absurd scene. Walter, why did you do it? Why did you do it?’
Vernon remembered how his father had looked round, gazing up at the house, then letting his eyes sweep far afield to where the ruins of the old Abbey just showed.
‘I cared for the place,’ he said slowly. ‘In the blood, I suppose. I didn’t want to let it go.’
There had been a brief silence and then Nina had laughed—a queer short laugh.
‘We’re not a very satisfactory family,’ she said. ‘We’ve made a pretty good mess of things, you and I.’
There was another pause and then his father had said:
‘Is it as bad as that?’
Nina had drawn in her breath with a sharp hiss, she nodded.
‘Pretty well. I don’t think, Walter, that I can go on much longer. Fred hates the sight of me. Oh! we behave very prettily in public—no one would guess—but, my God, when we’re alone!’
‘Yes, but, my dear girl—’
And then, for a while, Vernon heard no more. Their voices were lowered, his father seemed to be arguing with his aunt. Finally his voice rose again.
‘You can’t take a mad step like that. It’s not even as though you cared for Anstey. You don’t.’
‘I suppose not—but he’s crazy about me.’
His father said something that sounded like ‘Social Ostriches’. Nina laughed again.
‘That? We’d neither of us care.’
‘Anstey would in the end.’
‘Fred would divorce me—only too glad of the chance. Then we could marry.’
‘Walter on the social conventions! It has its humorous side!’
‘Women and men are very different,’ said Vernon’s father drily.
‘Oh! I know—I know. But anything’s better than this everlasting misery. Of course at the bottom of it all is that I still care for Fred—I always did. And he never cared for me.’
‘There’s the kid,’ said Walter Deyre. ‘You can’t go off and leave her.’
‘Can’t I? I’m not much of a mother, you know. As a matter of fact I’d take her with me. Fred wouldn’t care. He hates her as much as he hates me.’
There was another pause, a long one this time. Then Nina said slowly:
‘What a ghastly tangle human beings can get themselves into. And in your case and mine, Walter, it’s all our own fault. We’re a nice family! We bring bad luck to ourselves and to anyone we have anything to do with.’
Walter Deyre got up. He filled a pipe abstractedly, then moved slowly away. For the first time Nina noticed Vernon.
‘Hallo, child,’ she said. ‘I didn’t see you were there. How much did you understand of all that, I wonder?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Vernon vaguely, shifting from foot to foot.
Nina opened a chain bag, took out a tortoiseshell case and extracted a cigarette which she proceeded to light. Vernon watched her, fascinated. He had never seen a woman smoke.
‘What’s the matter?’ said Nina.
‘Mummy says,’ said Vernon, ‘that no nice woman would ever smoke. She said so to Miss Robbins.’
‘Oh, well!’ said Nina. She puffed out a cloud of smoke. ‘I expect she was quite right. I’m not a nice woman, you see, Vernon.’
Vernon looked at her, vaguely distressed.
‘I think you’re very pretty,’ he said rather shyly.
‘That’s not the same thing,’ Nina’s smile widened. ‘Come here, Vernon.’
He came obediently. Nina put her hands on his shoulders and looked him over quizzically. He submitted patiently. He never minded being touched by Aunt Nina. Her hands were light—not clutching like his mother’s.
‘Yes,’ said Nina. ‘You’re a Deyre—very much so. Rough luck on Myra, but there it is.’
‘What does that mean?’ said Vernon.
‘It means that you’re like your father’s family and not like your mother’s—worse luck for you.’
‘Why worse luck for me?’
‘Because the Deyres, Vernon, are neither happy nor successful. And they can’t make good.’
What funny things Aunt Nina said! She said them half laughingly, so perhaps she didn’t mean them. And yet somehow—there was something in them that, though he didn’t understand, made him afraid.
‘Would it be better,’ he said suddenly, ‘to be like Uncle Sydney?’
‘Much better. Much better.’
‘But then,’ he said slowly, ‘if I was like Uncle Sydney—’
He stopped, trying to get his thoughts into words.
‘If I was Uncle Sydney, I should have to live at Larch Hurst—and not here.’
Larch Hurst was a stoutly built red brick villa near Birmingham where Vernon had once been taken to stay with Uncle Sydney and Aunt Carrie. It had three acres of superb pleasure grounds, a rose garden, a pergola, a goldfish tank, and two excellently fitted bathrooms.
‘And wouldn’t you like that?’ asked Nina, still watching him.
‘No!’ said Vernon. A great sigh broke from him, heaving his small chest. ‘I want to live here—always, always, always!’
Soon after this, something queer happened about Aunt Nina. His mother began to speak of her and his father managed to hush her down with a sideways glance at himself. He only carried away a couple of phrases: ‘It’s that poor child I’m so sorry for. You’ve only got to look at Nina to see she’s a bad lot and always will be.’
The poor child, Vernon knew, was his cousin Josephine whom he had never seen, but to whom he sent presents at Christmas and duly received them in return. He wondered why Josephine was ‘poor’ and why his mother was sorry for her, and also why Aunt Nina was a bad lot—whatever that meant. He asked Miss Robbins, who got very pink and told him he mustn’t talk about ‘things like that’. Things like what? Vernon wondered.
However, he didn’t think much more about it, till four months later, when the matter was mentioned once more. This time no one noticed Vernon’s presence—feelings were running too high for that. His mother and father were in the middle of a vehement discussion. His mother, as usual, was vociferous, excited. His father was very quiet.
‘Disgraceful!’ Myra was saying. ‘Within three months of running away with one man to go off with another. It shows her up in her true light. I always knew what she was like. Men, men, men, nothing but men!’
‘You’re welcome to any opinion you choose, Myra. That’s not the point. I knew perfectly how it would strike you.’
‘And anyone else too, I should think! I can’t understand you, Walter. You call yourself an old family and all that—’
‘We are an old family,’ he put in quietly.
‘I should have thought you’d have minded a bit about the honour of your name. She’s disgraced it—and if you were a real man you’d cast her off utterly as she deserves.’
‘Traditional scene from the melodrama, in fact.’
‘You always sneer and laugh! Morals mean nothing to you—absolutely nothing.’
‘At the minute, as I’ve been trying to make you understand, it’s not a question of morals. It’s a question of my sister being destitute. I must go out to Monte Carlo and see what can be done. I should have thought anyone in their senses would see that.’
‘Thank you. You’re not very polite, are you? And whose fault is it she’s destitute, I should like to know? She had a good husband—’
‘At any rate, he married her.’
It was his father who flushed this time. He said, in a very low voice:
‘I can’t understand you, Myra. You’re a good woman—a kind, honourable, upright woman—and yet you can demean yourself to make a nasty mean taunt like that.’
‘That’s right! Abuse me! I’m used to it. You don’t mind what you say to me.’
‘That’s not true. I try to be as courteous as I can.’
‘Yes. And that’s partly why I hate you—you never do say right out. Always polite and sneering—your tongue in your cheek. All this keeping up appearances—why should one, I should like to know? Why should I care if everyone in the house knows what I feel?’
‘I’ve no doubt they do—thanks to the carrying power of your voice.’
‘There you are—sneering again. At any rate I’ve enjoyed telling you what I think of your precious sister. Running away with one man, going off with a second—and why can’t the second man keep her, I should like to know? Or is he tired of her already?’
‘I’ve already told you, but you didn’t listen. He’s threatened with galloping consumption—has had to throw up his job. He’s no private means.’
‘Ah! Nina brought her pigs to a bad market that time.’
‘There’s one thing about Nina—she’s never been actuated by motives of gain. She’s a fool—a damned fool or she wouldn’t have got herself into this mess. But it’s always her affections that run away with her common sense. It’s the deuce of a tangle. She won’t touch a penny from Fred. Anstey wants to make her an allowance—she won’t hear of it. And mind you, I agree with her. There are things one can’t do. But I’ve certainly got to go and see to things. I’m sorry if it annoys you, but there it is.’
‘You never do anything I want! You hate me! You do this on purpose to make me miserable. But there’s one thing. You don’t bring this precious sister of yours under this roof while I’m here. I’m not accustomed to meeting that kind of woman. You understand?’
‘You make your meaning almost offensively clear.’
‘If you bring her here, I go back to Birmingham.’
There was a faint flicker in Walter Deyre’s eyes, and suddenly Vernon realized something that his mother did not. He had understood very little of the actual words of the conversation though he had grasped the essentials. Aunt Nina was ill or unhappy somewhere and Mummy was angry about it. She had said that if Aunt Nina came to Abbots Puissants, she would go back to Uncle Sydney at Birmingham. She had meant that as a threat—but Vernon knew that his father would be very pleased if she did go back to Birmingham. He knew it quite certainly and uncomprehendingly. It was like some of Miss Robbins’ punishments like not speaking for half an hour. She thought you minded that as much as not having jam for tea, and fortunately she had never discovered that you didn’t really mind it at all—in fact rather enjoyed it.
Walter Deyre walked up and down the room. Vernon watched him, puzzled. That his father was fighting out a battle in his own mind, he knew. But he couldn’t understand what it was all about.
‘Well?’ said Myra.
She was rather beautiful just at that moment—a great big woman, magnificently proportioned, her head thrown back and the sunlight streaming in on her golden red hair. A fit mate for some Viking seafarer.
‘I made you the mistress of this house, Myra,’ said Walter Deyre. ‘If you object to my sister coming to it, naturally she will not come.’
He moved towards the door. There he paused and looked back at her. ‘If Llewellyn dies—which seems almost certain, Nina must try to get some kind of a job. Then there will be the child to think of. Do your objections apply to her?’
‘Do you think I want a girl in my home who will turn out like her mother?’
His father said quietly: ‘Yes or no would have been quite sufficient answer.’
He went out. Myra stood staring after him. Tears stood in her eyes and began to fall. Vernon did not like tears. He edged towards the door—but not in time.
‘Darling—come to me.’
He had to come. He was enfolded—hugged. Fragments of phrases reiterated in his ears.
‘You’ll make up to me—you, my own boy—you shan’t be like them—horrid, sneering. You won’t fail me—you’ll never fail me—will you? Swear it—my boy, my own boy.’
He knew it all so well. He said what was wanted of him—yes and no in the right places. How he hated the whole business. It always happened so close to your ears.
That evening after tea, Myra was in quite another mood. She was writing a letter at her writing table and looked up gaily as Vernon entered.
‘I’m writing to Daddy. Perhaps, very soon, your Aunt Nina and your cousin Josephine will come to stay. Won’t that be lovely?’
But they didn’t come. Myra said to herself that really Walter was incomprehensible. Just because she’d said a few things she really didn’t mean …
Vernon was not very surprised, somehow. He hadn’t thought they would come.
Aunt Nina had said she wasn’t a nice woman—but she was very pretty …
If Vernon had been capable of summing up the events of the next few years, he could best have done it in one word—Scenes! Everlasting and ever recurring scenes.
And he began to notice a curious phenomenon. After each scene his mother looked larger and his father looked smaller. Emotional storms of reproach and invective exhilarated Myra mentally and physically. She emerged from them refreshed, soothed—full of good will towards all the world.
With Walter Deyre it was the opposite. He shrank into himself, every sensitive fibre in his nature shrinking from the onslaught. The faint polite sarcasm that was his weapon of defence never failed to goad his wife to the utmost fury. His quiet weary self-control exasperated her as nothing else could have done.
Not that she was lacking for very real grounds of complaint. Walter Deyre spent less and less time at Abbots Puissants. When he did return his eyes had baggy pouches under them and his hand shook. He took little notice of Vernon, and yet the child was always conscious of an underlying sympathy. It was tacitly understood that Walter should not ‘interfere’ with the child. A mother was the person who should have the say. Apart from supervising the boy’s riding, Walter stood aside. Not to do so would have roused fresh matter for discussion and reproach. He was ready to admit that Myra had all the virtues and was a most careful and attentive mother.
And yet he sometimes had the feeling that he could give the boy something that she could not. The trouble was that they were both shy of each other. To neither of them was it easy to express their feelings—a thing Myra would have found incomprehensible. They remained gravely polite to each other.
But when a ‘scene’ was in progress, Vernon was full of silent sympathy. He knew exactly how his father was feeling—knew how that loud angry voice hurt the ears and the head. He knew, of course, that Mummy must be right—Mummy was always right, that was an article of belief not to be questioned—but all the same, he was unconsciously on his father’s side.
Things went from bad to worse—came to a crisis. Mummy remained locked in her room for two days—servants whispered delightedly in corners—and Uncle Sydney arrived on the scene to see what he could do.
Uncle Sydney undoubtedly had a soothing influence over Myra. He walked up and down the room, jingling his money as of old, and looking stouter and more rubicund than ever.
Myra poured out her woes.
‘Yes, yes, I know,’ said Uncle Sydney, jingling hard. ‘I know, my dear girl. I’m not saying you haven’t had a lot to put up with. You have. Nobody knows that better than I do. But there’s give and take, you know. Give and take. That’s married life in a nutshell—give and take.’
There was a fresh outburst from Myra.
‘I’m not sticking up for Deyre,’ said Uncle Sydney. ‘Not at all. I’m just looking at the whole thing as a man of the world. Women lead sheltered lives and they don’t look at these things as men do—quite right that they shouldn’t. You’re a good woman, Myra, and it’s always hard for a good woman to understand these things. Carrie’s just the same.’
‘What has Carrie got to put up with, I should like to know?’ cried Myra. ‘You don’t go off racketing round with disgusting women. You don’t make love to the servants.’
‘N-no,’ said her brother. ‘No, of course not. It’s the principle of the thing I’m talking about. And mind you, Carrie and I don’t see eye to eye over everything. We have our tiffs—why sometimes we don’t speak to each other for two days on end. But bless you, we make it up again, and things go on better than before. A good row clears the air—that’s what I say. But there must be give and take. And no nagging afterwards. The best man in the world won’t stand nagging.’
‘I never nag,’ said Myra tearfully, and believed it. ‘How can you say such a thing?’
‘Now don’t get the wind up, old girl. I’m not saying you do. I’m just laying down general principles. And remember, Deyre’s not our sort. He’s kittle cattle—the touchy sensitive kind. A mere trifle sets them off.’
‘Don’t I know it,’ said Myra bitterly. ‘He’s impossible. Why did I ever marry him?’
‘Well, you know, Sis, you can’t have it both ways. It was a good match. I’m bound to admit it was a good match. Here you are, living in a swell place, knowing all the County, as good as anybody short of Royalty. My word, if poor old Dad had lived, how proud he’d have been! And what I’m getting at is this—everything’s got its seamy side. You can’t have the halfpence without one or two of the kicks as well. They’re decadent, these old families, that’s what they are—decadent, and you’ve just got to face the fact. You’ve just got to sum up the situation in a businesslike way—advantages, so and so. Disadvantages ditto. It’s the only way. Take my word for it, it’s the only way.’
‘I didn’t marry him for the sake of “advantages” as you call it,’ said Myra. ‘I hate this place. I always have. It’s because of Abbots Puissants he married me—not for myself.’
‘Nonsense, Sis, you were a jolly pretty girl—and still are,’ he added gallantly.
‘Walter married me for the sake of Abbots Puissants,’ said Myra obstinately. ‘I tell you I know it.’
‘Well, well,’ said her brother. ‘Let’s leave the past alone.’
‘You wouldn’t be so calm and cold-blooded about it if you were me,’ said Myra bitterly. ‘Not if you had to live with him. I do everything I can think of to please him—and he only sneers and treats me like this.’
‘You nag him,’ said Sydney. ‘Oh, yes, you do. You can’t help it.’
‘If only he’d answer back! If he’d say something—instead of just sitting there.’
‘Yes, but that’s the kind of fellow he is. You can’t alter people in this world to suit your fancy. I can’t say I care for the chap myself—too la-di-da for me. Why, if you put him in to run a concern it would be bankrupt in a fortnight! But I’m bound to say he’s always been very polite and decent to me. Quite the gentleman. When I’ve run across him in London he’s taken me to lunch at that swell club of his and if I didn’t feel too comfortable there that wasn’t his fault. He’s got his good points.’
‘You’re so like a man,’ said Myra. ‘Carrie would understand! He’s been unfaithful to me, I tell you. Unfaithful!’
‘Well, well,’ said Uncle Sydney with a great deal of jingling and his eyes on the ceiling. ‘Men will be men.’
‘But Syd, you never—’
‘Of course not,’ said Uncle Sydney hastily. ‘Of course not—of course not. I’m speaking generally, Myra—generally, you understand.’
‘It’s all finished,’ said Myra. ‘No woman could stand more than I’ve stood. And now it’s the end. I never want to see him again.’
‘Ah!’ said Uncle Sydney. He drew a chair to the table and sat down with the air of one prepared to talk business. ‘Then let’s get down to brass tacks. You’ve made up your mind? What is it you do want to do?’
‘I tell you I never want to see Walter again!’
‘Yes, yes,’ said Uncle Sydney patiently. ‘We’re taking that for granted. Now what do you want? A divorce?’
‘Oh!’ Myra was taken aback. ‘I hadn’t thought—’
‘Well, we must get the thing put on a business-like footing. I doubt if you’d get a divorce. You’ve got to prove cruelty, you know, as well, and I doubt if you could do that.’
‘If you knew the suffering he’s caused me—’
‘I daresay. I’m not denying it. But you want something more than that to satisfy the law. And there’s no desertion. If you wrote to him to come back, he’d come, I suppose?’
‘Haven’t I just told you I never want to see him again?’
‘Yes, yes, yes. You women do harp on a thing so. We’re looking at the thing from a business point of view now. I don’t think a divorce will wash.’
‘I don’t want a divorce.’
‘Well, what do you want, a separation?’
‘So that he could go and live with that abandoned creature in London? Live with her altogether? And what would happen to me, I should like to know?’
‘Plenty of nice houses near me and Carrie. You’d have the boy with you most of the time, I expect.’
‘And let Walter bring disgusting women into this very house, perhaps? No, indeed, I don’t intend to play into his hands like that!’
‘Well, dash it all Myra, what do you want?’
Myra began to cry again.
‘I’m so miserable, Syd, I’m so miserable. If only Walter were different.’
‘Well, he isn’t—and he never will be. You must just make up your mind to it, Myra. You’ve married a fellow who’s a bit of a Don Jooan—and you’ve got to try and take a broadminded view of it. You’re fond of the chap. Kiss and make friends—that’s what I say. We’re none of us perfect. Give and take—that’s the thing to remember—give and take.’
His sister continued to weep quietly.
‘Marriage is a ticklish business,’ went on Uncle Sydney in a ruminative voice. ‘Women are too good for us, not a doubt of it.’
‘I suppose,’ said Myra in a tearful voice. ‘One ought to forgive and forgive—again and again.’
‘That’s the spirit,’ said Uncle Sydney. ‘Women are angels and men aren’t, and women have got to make allowances. Always have had to and always will.’
Myra’s sobs grew less. She was seeing herself now in the role of the forgiving angel.
‘It isn’t as if I didn’t do everything I could,’ she sobbed. ‘I run the house and I’m sure nobody could be a more devoted mother.’
‘Of course you are,’ said Uncle Sydney. ‘And that’s a fine youngster of yours. I wish Carrie and I had a boy. Four girls—it’s a bit thick. Still as I always say to her: “Better luck next time, old girl.” We both feel sure it’s going to be a boy this time.’
Myra was diverted.
‘I didn’t know. When is it?’
‘How is Carrie?’
‘Suffering a bit with her legs—swelled, you know. But she manages to get about a fair amount. Why, hallo, here’s that young shaver. How long have you been here, my boy?’
‘Oh, a long time,’ said Vernon. ‘I was here when you came in.’
‘You’re so quiet,’ complained his uncle. ‘Not like your cousins. I’m sure the racket they make is almost too much to bear sometimes. What’s that you’ve got there?’
‘It’s an engine,’ said Vernon.
‘No, it isn’t,’ said Uncle Sydney. ‘It’s a milk cart!’
Vernon was silent.
‘Hey,’ said Uncle Sydney. ‘Isn’t it a milk cart?’
‘No,’ said Vernon. ‘It’s an engine.’
‘Not a bit of it. It’s a milk cart. That’s funny, isn’t it? You say it’s an engine and I say it’s a milk cart. I wonder which of us is right?’
Since Vernon knew that he was, it seemed hardly necessary to reply.
‘He’s a solemn child,’ said Uncle Sydney turning to his sister. ‘Never sees a joke. You know, my boy, you’ll have to get used to being teased at school.’
‘Shall I?’ said Vernon, who couldn’t see what that had to do with it.
‘A boy who can take teasing with a laugh, that’s the sort of boy who gets on in the world,’ said Uncle Sydney and jingled his money again, stimulated by a natural association of ideas.
Vernon stared at him thoughtfully.
‘What are you thinking about?’
‘Nothing,’ said Vernon.
‘Take your engine on the terrace, dear,’ said Myra.
‘Now I wonder how much that little chap took in of what we were talking about?’ said Sydney to his sister.
‘Oh, he wouldn’t understand. He’s too little.’
‘H’m,’ said Sydney. ‘I don’t know. Some children take in a lot—my Ethel does. But then she’s a very wide awake child.’
‘I don’t think Vernon ever notices anything,’ said Myra. ‘It’s rather a blessing in some ways.’
‘Mummy?’ said Vernon later. ‘What’s going to happen in June?’
‘In June, darling?’
‘Yes—what you and Uncle Sydney were talking about.’
‘Oh! that—’ Myra was momentarily discomposed. ‘Well, you see—it’s a great secret—’
‘Yes?’ said Vernon eagerly.
‘Uncle Sydney and Aunt Carrie hope that in June they will have a dear little baby boy. A boy cousin for you.’
‘Oh,’ said Vernon, disappointed. ‘Is that all?’
After a minute or two, he said:
‘Why are Aunt Carrie’s legs swelled?’
‘Oh, well—you see—she has been rather over-tired lately.’
Myra dreaded more questions. She tried to remember what she and Sydney had actually said.
‘Do Uncle Sydney and Aunt Carrie want to have a baby boy?’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘Then why do they wait till June? Why don’t they have it now?’
‘Because, Vernon, God knows best. And God wants them to have it in June.’
‘That’s a long time to wait,’ said Vernon. ‘If I were God I’d send people things at once, as soon as they wanted them.’
‘You mustn’t be blasphemous, dear,’ said Myra gently.
Vernon was silent. But he was puzzled. What was blasphemous? He rather thought that it was the same word Cook had used speaking of her brother. She had said he was a most—something—man and hardly ever touched a drop! She had spoken as though such an attitude was highly commendable. But evidently Mummy didn’t seem to think the same about it.
Vernon added an extra prayer that evening to his usual petition of ‘God bless Mummy and Daddy and makemeagooboy armen.’
‘Dear God,’ he prayed. ‘Will you send me a puppy in June—or July would do if you are very busy.’
‘Now why in June?’ said Miss Robbins. ‘You are a funny little boy. I should have thought you would have wanted the puppy now.’
‘That would be blamafous,’ said Vernon and eyed her reproachfully.
Suddenly the world became very exciting. There was a war—in South Africa—and Father was going to it!
Everyone was excited and upset. For the first time, Vernon heard of some people called the Boers. They were the people that Father was going to fight.
His father came home for a few days. He looked younger and more alive and a great deal more cheerful. He and Mummy were quite nice to each other and there weren’t any scenes or quarrels.
Once or twice, Vernon thought, his father squirmed uneasily at some of the things his mother said. Once he said irritably:
‘For God’s sake, Myra, don’t keep talking of brave heroes laying down their lives for their country. I can’t stand that sort of cant.’
But his mother had not got angry. She only said:
‘I know you don’t like me saying it. But it’s true.’
On the last evening before he left, Vernon’s father called to his small son to go for a walk with him. They strolled all round the place, silently at first, and then Vernon was emboldened to ask questions.
‘Are you glad you’re going to the war, Father?’
‘Is it fun?’
‘Not what you’d call fun, I expect. But it is in a way. It’s excitement, and then, too, it takes you away from things—right away.’
‘I suppose,’ said Vernon thoughtfully, ‘there aren’t any ladies at the war?’
Walter Deyre looked sharply at his son, a slight smile hovering on his lips. Uncanny, the way the boy sometimes hit the nail on the head quite unconsciously.
‘That makes for peace, certainly,’ he said gravely.
‘Will you kill a good many people, do you think?’ inquired Vernon interestedly.
His father replied that it was impossible to tell accurately beforehand.
‘I hope you will,’ said Vernon, anxious that his father should shine. ‘I hope you’ll kill a hundred.’
‘Thank you, old man.’
‘I suppose,’ began Vernon and then stopped.
‘Yes?’ said Walter Deyre encouragingly.
‘I suppose—sometimes—people do get killed in war.’
Walter Deyre understood the ambiguous phrase.
‘Sometimes,’ he said.
‘You don’t think you will, do you?’
‘I might. It’s all in the day’s work, you know.’
Vernon considered the phrase thoughtfully. The feeling that underlay it came dimly to him.
‘Would you mind if you were, Father?’
‘It might be the best thing,’ said Walter Deyre, more to himself than to the child.
‘I hope you won’t,’ said Vernon.
His father smiled a little. Vernon’s wish had sounded so politely conventional. But he did not make the mistake Myra would have done, of thinking the child unfeeling.
They had reached the ruins of the Abbey. The sun was just setting. Father and son looked round and Walter Deyre drew in his breath with a little intake of pain. Perhaps he might never stand here again.
‘I’ve made a mess of things,’ he thought to himself.
‘If I am killed, Abbots Puissants will belong to you. You know that, don’t you?’
Silence again. So much that he would have liked to say—but he wasn’t used to saying things. These were the things that one didn’t put into words. Odd, how strangely at home he felt with that small person, his son. Perhaps it had been a mistake not to have got to know the boy better. They might have had some good times together. He was shy of the boy—and the boy was shy of him. And yet somehow, they were curiously in harmony. They both of them disliked saying things—
‘I’m fond of the old place,’ said Walter Deyre. ‘I expect you will be too.’
‘Queer to think of the old monks—catching their fish—fat fellows—that’s how I always think of them—comfortable chaps.’
They lingered a few minutes longer.
‘Well,’ said Walter Deyre, ‘we must be getting home. It’s late.’
They turned. Walter Deyre squared his shoulders. There was a leave taking to be got through—an emotional one if he knew Myra—and he rather dreaded it. Well, it would soon be over. Goodbyes were painful things—better if one made no fuss about them, but then of course Myra would never see it that way.
Poor Myra. She’d had a rotten deal on the whole. A fine-looking creature, but he’d married her really for the sake of Abbots Puissants—and she had married him for love. That was the root of the whole trouble.
‘Look after your mother, Vernon,’ he said suddenly. ‘She’s been very good to you, you know.’
He rather hoped, in a way, that he wouldn’t come back. It would be best so. Vernon had his mother.
And yet, at that thought, he had a queer traitorous feeling. As though he were deserting the boy …
‘Walter,’ cried Myra, ‘you haven’t said goodbye to Vernon.’
Walter looked across at his son, standing there wide-eyed.
‘Goodbye, old chap. Have a good time.’
That was all. Myra was scandalized—had he no love for the boy? He hadn’t even kissed him. How queer they were—the Deyres. So casual. Strange, the way they had nodded to each other, across the width of the room. So alike …
‘But Vernon,’ said Myra to herself, ‘shall not grow up like his father.’
On the walls around her Deyres looked down and smiled sardonically …
Two months after his father sailed for South Africa, Vernon went to school. It had been Walter Deyre’s wish and arrangement, and Myra, at the moment, was disposed to regard any wish of his as law. He was her soldier and her hero, and everything else was forgotten. She was thoroughly happy at this time. Knitting socks for the soldiers, urging on energetic campaigns of ‘white feather’, sympathizing and talking with other women whose husbands had also gone to fight the wicked, ungrateful Boers.
She felt exquisite pangs parting with Vernon. Her darling—her baby—to go so far away from her. What sacrifices mothers had to make! But it had been his father’s wish.
Poor darling, he was sure to be most terribly homesick! She couldn’t bear to think of it.
But Vernon was not homesick. He had no real passionate attachment to his mother. All his life he was to be fondest of her when away from her. His escape from her emotional atmosphere was felt by him as a relief.
He had a good temperament for school life. He had an aptitude for games, a quiet manner and an unusual amount of physical courage. After the dull monotony of life under the reign of Miss Robbins, school was a delightful novelty. Like all the Deyres, he had the knack of getting on with people. He made friends easily.
But the reticence of the child who so often answered ‘Nothing’ clung to him. Except with one or two people, that reticence was to go through life with him. His school friends were people with whom he shared ‘doing things’. His thoughts he was to keep to himself and share with only one person. That person came into his life very soon.
On his very first holidays, he found Josephine.
Vernon was welcomed by his mother with an outburst of demonstrative affection. Already rather self-conscious about such things, he bore it manfully. Myra’s first raptures over, she said:
‘There’s a lovely surprise for you, darling. Who do you think is here? Your cousin Josephine, Aunt Nina’s little girl. She has come to live with us. Now isn’t that nice?’
Vernon wasn’t quite sure. It needed thinking over. To gain time, he said:
‘Why has she come to live with us?’
‘Because her mother has died. It’s terribly sad for her and we must be very, very kind to her to make up.’
‘Is Aunt Nina dead?’
He was sorry Aunt Nina was dead. Pretty Aunt Nina with her curling cigarette smoke.
‘Yes. You can’t remember her, of course, darling.’
He didn’t say that he remembered her perfectly. Why should one say things?
‘She’s in the schoolroom, darling. Go and find her and make friends.’
Vernon went slowly. He didn’t know whether he was pleased or not. A girl! He was at the age to despise girls. Rather a nuisance having a girl about. On the other hand, it would be jolly having someone. It depended what the kid was like. One would have to be decent to her if she’d just lost her mother.
He opened the schoolroom door and went in. Josephine was sitting on the window-sill swinging her legs. She stared at him and Vernon’s attitude of kindly condescension fell from him.
She was a squarely built child of about his own age. She had dead black hair cut very straight across her forehead. Her jaw stuck out a little in a determined way. She had a very white skin and enormous eyelashes. Although she was two months younger than Vernon, she had the sophistication of twice his years—a kind of mixture of weariness and defiance.
‘Hallo,’ she said.
‘Hallo,’ said Vernon rather feebly.
They went on looking at each other, suspiciously, as is the manner of children and dogs.
‘I suppose you’re my cousin Josephine,’ said Vernon.
‘Yes, but you’d better call me Joe. Everyone does.’
There was a pause. To bridge it, Vernon whistled.
‘Rather jolly, coming home,’ he observed at last.
‘It’s an awfully jolly place,’ said Joe.
‘Oh! do you like it?’ said Vernon, warming to her.
‘I like it awfully. Better than any of the places I’ve lived.’
‘Have you lived in a lot of places?’
‘Oh, yes. At Coombes first—when we were with Father. And then at Monte Carlo with Colonel Anstey. And then at Toulon with Arthur—and then a lot of Swiss places because of Arthur’s lungs. And then I went to a convent for a bit after Arthur died. Mother couldn’t be bothered with me just then. I didn’t like it much—the nuns were so silly. They made me have a bath in my chemise. And then after Mother died, Aunt Myra came and fetched me here.’
‘I’m awfully sorry—about your mother, I mean,’ said Vernon awkwardly.
‘Yes,’ said Joe, ‘it’s rotten in a way—though much the best thing for her.’
‘Oh!’ said Vernon, rather taken aback.
‘Don’t tell Aunt Myra,’ said Joe. ‘Because I think she’s rather easily shocked by things—rather like the nuns. You have to be careful what you say to her. Mother didn’t care for me an awful lot, you know. She was frightfully kind and all that—but she was always soppy about some man or other. I heard some people say so in the hotel, and it was quite true. She couldn’t help it, of course. But it’s a very bad plan. I shan’t have anything to do with men when I grow up.’
‘Oh!’ said Vernon. He was still feeling very young and awkward beside this amazing person.
‘I liked Colonel Anstey best,’ said Joe reminiscently. ‘But of course Mother only ran away with him to get away from Father. We stayed at much better hotels with Colonel Anstey, Arthur was very poor. If I ever do get soppy about a man when I grow up, I shall take care that he’s rich. It makes things so much easier.’
‘Wasn’t your father nice?’
‘Oh! Father was a devil—Mother said so. He hated us both.’
Joe wrinkled her straight black brows in perplexity.
‘I don’t quite know. I think—I think it was something to do with me coming. I think he had to marry Mother because she was going to have me—something like that—and it made him angry.’
They looked at each other—solemn and perplexed.
‘Uncle Walter’s in South Africa, isn’t he?’ went on Joe.
‘Yes. I’ve had three letters from him at school. Awfully jolly letters.’
‘Uncle Walter’s a dear. I loved him. He came out to Monte Carlo, you know.’
Some memory stirred in Vernon. Of course, he remembered now. His father had wanted Joe to come to Abbots Puissants then.
‘He arranged for me to go to the convent,’ said Joe. ‘Reverend Mother thought he was lovely—a true type of high-born English gentleman—such a funny way of putting it.’
They both laughed a little.
‘Let’s go out in the garden. Shall we?’ said Vernon.
‘Yes, let’s. I say, I know where there are four different nests—but the birds have all flown away.’
They went out together amicably discussing birds’ eggs.
To Myra, Joe was a perplexing child. She had nice manners, answered promptly and politely when spoken to, and submitted to caresses without returning them. She was very independent and gave the maid told off to attend to her little or nothing to do. She could mend her own clothes and keep herself neat and tidy without any outside urging. She was, in fact, the sophisticated hotel child whom Myra had never happened to come across. The depths of her knowledge would have horrified and shocked her aunt.
But Joe was shrewd and quick-witted, well used to summing up the people with whom she came in contact. She refrained carefully from ‘shocking Aunt Myra’. She had for her something closely akin to a kindly contempt.
‘Your mother,’ she said to Vernon, ‘is very good—but she’s a little stupid too, isn’t she?’
‘She’s very beautiful,’ said Vernon hotly.
‘Yes, she is,’ agreed Joe. ‘All but her hands. Her hair’s lovely. I wish I had red gold hair.’
‘It comes right down below her waist,’ said Vernon.
He found Joe a wonderful companion, quite unlike his previous conception of ‘girls’. She hated dolls, never cried, was as strong if not stronger than he was, and was always ready and willing for any dangerous sport. Together they climbed trees, rode bicycles, fell and cut and bumped themselves, and in the summer holidays took a wasps’ nest together, with a success due more to luck than skill.
To Joe, Vernon could talk and did. She opened up to him a strange new world, a world where people ran away with other people’s husbands and wives, a world of dancing and gambling and cynicism. She had loved her mother with a fierce protective tenderness that almost reversed the roles.
‘She was too soft,’ said Joe. ‘I’m not going to be soft. People are mean to you if you are. Men are beasts anyway, but if you’re a beast to them first, they’re all right. All men are beasts.’
‘That’s a silly thing to say, and I don’t think it’s true.’
‘That’s because you’re going to be a man yourself.’
‘No, it isn’t. And anyway I’m not a beast.’
‘No, but I daresay you will be when you’re grown up.’
‘But, look here, Joe, you’ll have to marry someone some day, and you won’t think your husband a beast.’
‘Why should I marry anyone?’
‘Well—girls do. You don’t want to be an old maid like Miss Crabtree.’
Joe wavered. Miss Crabtree was an elderly spinster who was very active in the village and who was very fond of ‘the dear children’.
‘I shouldn’t be the kind of old maid Miss Crabtree is,’ she said weakly. ‘I should—oh! I should do things. Play the violin, or write books, or paint some marvellous pictures.’
‘I hope you won’t play the violin,’ said Vernon.
‘That’s really what I should like to do best. Why do you hate music so, Vernon?’
‘I don’t know. I just do. It makes me feel all horrible inside.’
‘How queer. It gives me a nice feeling. What are you going to do when you grow up?’
‘Oh, I don’t know. I’d like to marry someone very beautiful and live at Abbots Puissants and have lots of horses and dogs.’
‘How dull,’ said Joe. ‘I don’t think that would be exciting a bit.’
‘I don’t know that I want things to be very exciting,’ said Vernon.
‘I do,’ said Joe. ‘I want things to be exciting the whole time without ever stopping.’
Joe and Vernon had few other children to play with. The Vicar, whose children Vernon had played with when he was younger, had gone to another living, and his successor was unmarried. Most of the children of families in the same position as the Deyres lived too far away for more than a very occasional visit.
The only exception was Nell Vereker. Her father, Captain Vereker, was agent to Lord Coomberleigh. He was a tall stooping man, with very pale blue eyes and a hesitating manner. He had good connections but was inefficient generally. His wife made up in efficiency for what he lacked. She was a tall commanding woman, still handsome. Her hair was very golden and her eyes were very blue. She had pushed her husband into the position he held, and in the same way she pushed herself into the best houses of the neighbourhood. She had birth, but like her husband, no money. Yet she was determined to make a success of life.
Both Vernon and Joe were bored to death by Nell Vereker. She was a thin pale child with fair straggly hair. Her eyelids and the tip of her nose were faintly tinged with pink. She was no good at anything. She couldn’t run and she couldn’t climb. She was always dressed in starched white muslin and her favourite games were dolls’ tea-parties.
Myra was very fond of Nell. ‘Such a thorough little lady,’ she used to say. Vernon and Joe were kindly and polite when Mrs Vereker brought Nell to tea. They tried to think of games she would like, and they used to give whoops of delight when at last she departed, sitting up very straight beside her mother in the hired carriage.
It was in Vernon’s second holidays, just after the famous episode of the wasps’ nest that the first rumours came about Deerfields.
Deerfields was the property adjoining Abbots Puissants. It belonged to old Sir Charles Alington. Some friends of Mrs Deyre’s came to lunch and the subject came up for discussion.
‘It’s quite true. I had it from an absolutely authentic source. It’s been sold to these people. Yes—Jews. Oh, of course—enormously wealthy. Yes, a fancy price, I believe. Levinne, the name is. No, Russian Jews, so I heard. Oh, of course quite impossible. Too bad of Sir Charles, I say. Yes, of course, there’s the Yorkshire property as well and I hear he’s lost a lot of money lately. No, no one will call. Naturally.’
Joe and Vernon were pleasurably excited. All titbits about Deerfields were carefully stored up. At last the strangers arrived and moved in. There was more talk of the same kind.
‘Oh, absolutely impossible, Mrs Deyre … Just as we thought … One wonders what they think they are doing … What do they expect? … I daresay they’ll sell the place and move away. Yes, there is a family. A boy. About your Vernon’s age, I believe …’
‘I wonder what Jews are like,’ said Vernon to Joe. ‘Why does everyone dislike them? We thought one boy at school was a Jew, but he eats bacon for breakfast, so he can’t be.’
The Levinnes proved to be a very Christian brand of Jew. They appeared in church on Sunday, having taken a whole pew. The interest of the congregation was breathless. First came Mr Levinne—very round and stout, tightly frock-coated—an enormous nose and a shining face. Then Mrs—an amazing sight. Colossal sleeves! Hour glass figure! Chains of diamonds! An immense hat decorated with feathers and black tightly curling ringlets underneath it. With them was a boy rather taller than Vernon with a long yellow face, and protruding ears.
A carriage and pair was waiting for them when service was over. They got into it and drove away.
‘Well!’ said Miss Crabtree.
Little groups formed, talking busily.
‘I think it’s rotten,’ said Joe.
She and Vernon were in the garden together.
‘Do you mean the Levinnes?’
‘Yes. Why should everyone be so horrid about them?’
‘Well,’ said Vernon, trying to be strictly impartial, ‘they did look queer, you know.’
‘Well, I think people are beasts.’
Vernon was silent. Joe, a rebel by force of circumstances, was always putting a new point of view before him.
‘That boy,’ continued Joe. ‘I daresay he’s awfully jolly, even though his ears do stick out.’
‘I wonder,’ said Vernon. ‘It would be jolly to have someone else. Kate says they’re making a swimming pool at Deerfields.’
‘They must be frightfully, frightfully rich,’ said Joe.
Riches meant little to Vernon. He had never thought about them.
The Levinnes were the great topic of conversation for some time. The improvements they were making at Deerfields! The workmen they had had down from London!
Mrs Vereker brought Nell to tea one day. As soon as she was in the garden with the children, she imparted news of fascinating importance.
‘They’ve got a motor car.’
‘A motor car?’
Motor cars were almost unheard of then. One had never been seen in the Forest. Storms of envy shook Vernon. A motor car!
‘A motor car and a swimming pool,’ he murmured.
It was too much.
‘It’s not a swimming pool,’ said Nell. ‘It’s a sunk garden.’
‘Kate says it’s a swimming pool.’
‘Our gardener says it’s a sunk garden.’
‘What is a sunk garden?’
‘I don’t know,’ confessed Nell. ‘But it is one.’
‘I don’t believe it,’ said Joe. ‘Who’d want a silly sort of thing like that when they could have a swimming pool?’
‘Well, that’s what our gardener says.’
‘I know,’ said Joe. A wicked look came into her eyes. ‘Let’s go and see.’
‘Let’s go and see for ourselves.’
‘Oh, but we couldn’t,’ said Nell.
‘Why not? We can creep up through the woods.’
‘Jolly good idea,’ said Vernon. ‘Let’s.’
‘I don’t want to,’ said Nell. ‘Mother wouldn’t like it, I know.’
‘Oh, don’t be a spoilsport, Nell. Come on.’
‘Mother wouldn’t like it,’ repeated Nell.
‘All right. Wait here, then. We won’t be long.’
Tears gathered slowly in Nell’s eyes. She hated being left. She stood there sullenly, twisting her frock between her fingers.
‘We won’t be long,’ Vernon repeated.
He and Joe ran off. Nell felt she couldn’t bear it.
‘Wait for me. I’m coming too.’
She felt heroic as she made the announcement. Joe and Vernon did not seem particularly impressed by it. They waited with obvious impatience for her to come up with them.
‘Now then,’ said Vernon, ‘I’m leader. Everyone to do as I say.’
They climbed over the Park palings and reached the shelter of the trees. Speaking in whispers under their breath they flitted through the undergrowth, drawing nearer and nearer towards the house. Now it rose before them, some way ahead to the right.
‘We’ll have to get farther still and keep a bit more uphill.’
They followed him obediently. And then suddenly a voice broke on their ears, speaking from a little behind them to the left.
‘You’re trethpassing,’ it said.
They turned—startled. The yellow-faced boy with the large ears stood there. He had his hands in his pockets, and was surveying them superciliously.
‘You’re trethpassing,’ he said again.
There was something in his manner that awoke immediate antagonism. Instead of saying, as he had meant to say, ‘I’m sorry,’ Vernon said, ‘Oh!’
He and the other boy looked at each other—the cool measuring glance of two adversaries in a duel.
‘We come from next door,’ said Joe.
‘Do you?’ said the boy. ‘Well, you’d better go back there. My father and mother don’t want you in here.’
He managed to be unbearably offensive as he said this. Vernon, unpleasantly conscious of being in the wrong, flushed angrily.
‘You might manage to speak politely,’ he said.
‘Why should I?’ said the boy.
He turned as a footstep sounded coming through the undergrowth.
‘Is that you, Sam?’ he said. ‘Just turn these trespassing kids off the place, will you?’
The keeper who had stepped out beside him grinned and touched his forehead. The boy strolled away, as though he had lost all interest. The keeper turned to the children and put on a ferocious scowl.
‘Out of it, you young varmints! I’ll turn the dogs loose on you unless you’re out of here in double quick time.’
‘We’re not afraid of dogs,’ said Vernon haughtily, as he turned to depart.
‘Ho, you’re not, h’aren’t you? Well, then, I’ve got a rhinoHoceras here and I’m-a going to loose that this minute.’
He stalked off. Nell gave a terrified pull at Vernon’s arm.
‘He’s gone to get it,’ she cried. ‘Oh! hurry—hurry—’
Her alarm was contagious. So much had been retailed about the Levinnes that the keeper’s threat seemed a perfectly likely one to the children. With one accord they ran for home. They plunged in a bee-line, pushing their way through the undergrowth. Vernon and Joe led. A piteous cry arose from Nell.
‘Vernon—Vernon—Oh! do wait. I’ve got stuck—’
What a nuisance Nell was! She couldn’t run or do anything. He turned back—gave her frock a vigorous pull to free it from the brambles with which it was entangled (a good deal to the frock’s detriment) and hauled her to her feet.
‘Come on, do.’
‘I’m so out of breath. I can’t run any more. Oh! Vernon, I’m so frightened.’
Hand in hand he pulled her along. They reached the Park palings, scrambled over …
‘We-ell,’ said Joe, fanning herself with a very dirty linen hat. ‘That was an adventure.’
‘My frock’s all torn,’ said Nell. ‘What shall I do?’
‘I hate that boy,’ said Vernon. ‘He’s a beast.’
‘He’s a beastly beast,’ agreed Joe. ‘We’ll declare war on him. Shall we?’
‘What shall I do about my frock?’
‘It’s very awkward their having a rhinoceros,’ said Joe thoughtfully. ‘Do you think Tom Boy would go for it if we trained him to?’
‘I shouldn’t like Tom Boy to be hurt,’ said Vernon.
Tom Boy was the stable dog—a great favourite of his. His mother had always vetoed a dog in the house, so Tom Boy was the nearest Vernon had got to having a dog of his own.
‘I don’t know what Mother will say about my frock.’
‘Oh, bother your frock, Nell. It’s not the sort of frock for playing in the garden, anyway.’
‘I’ll tell your mother it’s my fault,’ said Vernon impatiently. ‘Don’t be so like a girl.’
‘I am a girl,’ said Nell.
‘Well, so is Joe a girl. But she doesn’t go on like you do. She’s as good as a boy any day.’
Nell looked ready to cry, but at that minute they were called from the house.
‘I’m sorry, Mrs Vereker,’ said Vernon. ‘I’m afraid I’ve torn Nell’s frock.’
There were reproaches from Myra, civil disclaimers from Mrs Vereker. When Nell and her mother had gone, Myra said:
‘You must not be so rough, Vernon, darling. When a little girl friend comes to tea, you must take great care of her.’
‘Why have we got to have her to tea? We don’t like her. She spoils everything.’
‘Vernon! Nell is such a dear little girl.’
‘She isn’t, Mother. She’s awful.’
‘Well, she is. I don’t like her mother either.’
‘I don’t like Mrs Vereker much,’ said Myra. ‘I always think she’s a very hard woman. But I can’t think why you children don’t like Nell. Mrs Vereker tells me she’s absolutely devoted to you, Vernon.’
‘Well, I don’t want her to be.’
He escaped with Joe.
‘War,’ he said. ‘That’s what it is—war! I daresay that Levinne boy is really a Boer in disguise. We must plan out our campaign. Why should he come and live next door to us, and spoil everything?’
The kind of guerilla warfare that followed occupied Vernon and Joe in a most pleasurable fashion. They invented all kinds of methods of harassing the enemy. Concealed in trees, they pelted him with chestnuts. They stalked him with pea-shooters. They outlined a hand in red paint and crept secretly up to the house one night after dark, and left it on the doorstep with the word ‘Revenge’ printed at the bottom of the sheet of paper.
Sometimes their enemy retaliated in kind. He, too, had a pea-shooter and it was he who laid in wait for them one day with a garden hose.
Hostilities had been going on for nearly ten days when Vernon came upon Joe sitting on a tree stump looking unusually despondent.
‘Hallo, what’s up? I thought you were going to stalk the enemy with those squashy tomatoes Cook gave us.’
‘I was. I mean I did.’
‘What’s the matter, Joe?’
‘I was up a tree and he came right by underneath. I could have got him beautifully.’
‘Do you mean to say you didn’t?’
‘Why ever not?’
Joe’s face became very red, and she began to speak very fast.
‘I couldn’t. You see, he didn’t know I was there, and he looked—oh, Vernon! he looked so awfully lonely—as though he were simply hating things. You know, it must be pretty beastly having no one to do things with.’
Vernon paused to adjust his ideas.
‘Don’t you remember how we said it was all rotten?’ went on Joe. ‘People being so beastly about the Levinnes, and now we’re being as beastly as anyone.’
‘Yes, but he was beastly to us!’
‘Perhaps he didn’t mean to be.’
‘No, it isn’t. Look at the way dogs bite you if they’re afraid or suspicious. I expect he just expected us to be beastly to him, and wanted to start first. Let’s be friends.’
‘You can’t be in the middle of a war.’
‘Yes, you can. We’ll make a white flag, and then you march with it and demand a parley, and see if you can’t agree upon honourable terms of peace.’
‘Well,’ said Vernon, ‘I don’t mind if we do. It would be a change, anyway. What shall we use for a flag of truce—my handkerchief or your pinafore?’
Marching with the flag of truce was rather exciting. It was not long before they encountered the enemy. He stared in complete surprise.
‘What’s up?’ he said.
‘We want a parley,’ said Vernon.
‘Well, I’m agreeable,’ said the other boy, after a moment’s pause.
‘What we want to say is this,’ said Joe. ‘If you’ll agree, we’d like to be friends.’
They looked from one to the other.
‘Why do you want to be friends?’ he asked suspiciously.
‘It seems a bit silly,’ said Vernon. ‘Living next door and not being friends, doesn’t it?’
‘Which of you thought of that first?’
‘I did,’ said Joe.
She felt those small jet black eyes boring into her. What a queer boy he was. His ears seemed to stick out more than ever.
‘All right,’ said the boy. ‘I’d like to.’
There was a minute’s embarrassed pause.
‘What’s your name?’ said Joe.
There was just the faintest lisp, so little as hardly to be noticed.
‘What a funny name. Mine’s Joe and this is Vernon. He’s at school. Do you go to school?’
‘Yes. I’m going to Eton later.’
‘So am I,’ said Vernon.
Again a faint tide of hostility rose between them. Then it ebbed away—never to return.
‘Come and see our swimming pool,’ said Sebastian. ‘It’s rather jolly.’
The friendship with Sebastian Levinne prospered and throve apace. Half the zest of it lay in the secrecy that had to be adopted. Vernon’s mother would have been horrified if she had guessed at anything of the kind. The Levinnes would certainly not have been horrified—but their gratification might have led to equally dire results.
School time passed on leaden wings for poor Joe, cooped up with a daily governess, who arrived every morning, and who subtly disapproved of her outspoken and rebellious pupil. Joe only lived for the holidays. As soon as they came, she and Vernon would set off to a secret meeting-place where there was a convenient gap in a hedge. They had invented a code of whistles and many unnecessary signals. Sometimes Sebastian would be there before time—lying on the bracken—his yellow face and jutting out ears looking strangely at variance with his knickerbocker suit.
They played games, but they also talked—how they talked! Sebastian told them stories of Russia—they learnt of the persecution of Jews—of Pogroms! Sebastian himself had never been in Russia, but he had lived for years amongst other Russian Jews and his own father had narrowly escaped with his life in a Pogrom. Sometimes he would say sentences in Russian to please Vernon and Joe. It was all entrancing.
‘Everybody hates us down here,’ said Sebastian. ‘But it doesn’t matter. They won’t be able to do without us because my father is so rich. You can buy everything with money.’
He had a certain queer arrogance about him.
‘You can’t buy everything,’ objected Vernon. ‘Old Nicoll’s son has come home from the war without a leg. Money couldn’t make his leg grow again.’
‘No,’ admitted Sebastian. ‘I didn’t mean things like that. But money would get you a very good wooden leg, and the best kind of crutches.’
‘I had crutches once,’ said Vernon. ‘It was rather fun. And I had an awfully nice nurse to look after me.’
‘You see, you couldn’t have had that if you hadn’t been rich.’
Was he rich? He supposed he was. He’d never thought about it.
‘I wish I was rich,’ said Joe.
‘You can marry me when you grow up,’ said Sebastian, ‘and then you will be.’
‘It wouldn’t be nice for Joe if nobody came to see her,’ objected Vernon.
‘I wouldn’t mind that a bit,’ said Joe. ‘I wouldn’t care what Aunt Myra or anybody said. I’d marry Sebastian if I wanted to.’
‘People will come and see her then,’ said Sebastian. ‘You don’t realize. Jews are frightfully powerful. My father says people can’t do without them. That’s why Sir Charles Alington had to sell us Deerfields.’
A sudden chill came over Vernon. He felt without putting the thought into words that he was talking to a member of an enemy race. But he felt no antagonism towards Sebastian. That was over long ago. He and Sebastian were friends—somehow he was sure they always would be.
‘Money,’ said Sebastian, ‘isn’t just buying things. It’s ever so much more than that. And it isn’t only having power over people. It’s—it’s being able to get together lots of beauty.’
He made a queer un-English gesture with his hands.
Конец ознакомительного фрагмента.