Only one traveller alighted from the 2:17 train that springtime afternoon at the tiny country station—so spick and span that it seemed to be positively preening itself in its fresh bright brown and white paint under the immense blue dome of the sky. And that passenger was Ronnie Forbes. With a comprehensive glance at his whereabouts he stuffed his book into his pocket, surrendered his ticket, passed through the ticket office and looked round outside for a cab. There, however, the only sign of life was an empty farm-cart and a bevy of sparrows engaged in a dust-bath.
He turned back, and with that nice air of assurance which residence in a select part of London so easily confers, enquired of the porter if he knew of a house called Willows. The porter was so old-fashioned that he touched his hat when he replied. He knew “Willows” well—Mrs. Cotton’s house —and he gave Ronnie ample and reiterated directions.
It lay about two and a half miles distant. You turned to your left at the sign-post after passing the “Green Man,” and then followed the lane until you came to a stone bridge over a stream, and there you were. Why, yes, a cab could be fetched from the village—about a mile in the other direction. But it was a pleasant walk if you liked walking. “And you can’t possibly miss it, sir,” he repeated yet again. It was as though here was an ardent pilgrim, and there Mecca. Whereupon Ronnie lightly waived the suggestion of a cab, and at once set out.
No rain seemed to have refreshed the white dusty road for many days past, and on a chalky soil even a plenteous fall of dew vanishes into thin mist when once the morning sun is up. But the meadows beyond the new-leafed hedges were as gay as a picture, and the dark acres of ploughland on the other side were already sheened over with the first blades of sprouting corn. Demure and urban creature though he looked in this rural scene, Ronnie went on his way rejoicing.
Nor did his footsteps flag until he had passed the rather tumbledown “Green Man,” and the incredibly old gaffer who sat with his beard and his blue-and-white mug on a bench under its motionless sign. Still, it was warm work, and as soon as a gateway, showed he came to a standstill and took off his hat. He leant both arms on the gate and looked over and in. The meadow in front of him rose in a smooth wide curve of the embosoming earth against the pure blue of the sky, and there in scattered groups stood browsing sedate old mother ewes, while others were stolidly seated in the lush young grass in the tender sunshine. How human and how stupid they looked, thought Ronnie: and how engaging!
And round about them was a host of long-legged lambs, their small inquisitive faces all turned in his direction, with sudden tremors of dangling flat woolly tails, and zigzag leapings and skippings aside in full butt of their mothers’ dugs. What adorable country! And the woods over there, a faint purple with their bare twigs, though a few were now full in their virgin young leaf. And larks too—it was impossible to say how many. It was as though each one of them had its own spiral pitch in the blue, and had only to range that airy and invisible tower to keep its walls forever echoing with song.
Ronnie took a deep breath, it was almost absurd—this combination of such a day and such an errand. None the less he had made pretty certain of fine weather before setting out. For he hadn’t the faintest notion what kind of house, and what kind of people were awaiting him. They might be perfectly awful, quite too impossible. Imagine that and a shivering leaden day together I Or again, the house might have proved to be empty. Imagine that, and rain pelting down over its abandoned porch! However, the porter had settled the question: “Mrs. Cotton’s house” —his very words. She was still there, then. But had the enquiring emphasis he had put on the name suggested something the least bit formidable? Ronnie shuddered. He did so dislike raw, unpleasant, intractable people.
What a silly expedition! It all came of this touching greed on the other side of the Atlantic for the academic; this thesis craze. But data at second hand—was that really quite proper? Ronnie was still dubious. Surely, any young zealot bent on a thesis should make his own investigation, should himself play sexton to his dead and buried subject, and with privy paw, if need be, dig it up again? It was the least one might expect of him.
Yet here was this young American friend of his—completely new, but thoroughly likeable—calmly devolving this little obligation on himself. Ronnie had agreed, of course, that James Cotton’s poems were worth the trouble. That went without saying. His work resembled no other minor poet’s of his decade—and even that was now silting down safely into the past. It was original but not new-fangled. It was poetry, that is, and had shown the clearest possible hints of an inscrutable future, a future, alas, that after the publication of that first “slender” volume, to use the reviewers’ unanimous epithet, had dwindled away into a mere pamphlet, the contents which had been luminous enough in sparks, but in general so obscure as to be almost disconcerting.
As for what might have followed the pamphlet Ronnie couldn’t for the life of him imagine. That way the com-pletest Egyptian darkness lay. Not that he knew the little of James Cotton there was to know by heart. By no means. He felt a little conscience-stricken at thought of it—just in case in an hour or two he might be called upon to pass an examination.
The truth was, of course, that in American seats of learning there are not nowadays enough themes-for-theses to go round. You can hardly see literature for the litterateurs. For that very reason it was a stroke of pure luck for his young friend to have chanced on James Cotton. Except for an article—”an appreciation”—published about nine years before in one of the heavier Reviews, James was still practically virgin ground. And what an owlish and incredible performance that had been.
Take, for example, the quiet, simple country in which Ronnie was now disporting himself. There hadn’t been a single word in the article from first to last to suggest in what delicious Blake-like surroundings the young poet had spent his childhood. This little shallow stream, for example, which was now tinkling at Ronnie’s side over its sunny stones beneath a screen of vast-boughed elms with their clanking chaffinches; and that hill over there, almost gaudy from crown to base with budded larch. It was all so rich, yet so gentle and so English.
And then, after the barest mention of Ashenham, to have asserted that the poet had gone and died in foreign parts. Byron and Shelley were exiles, of course, and so was Lan-dor. Cyril Charlton in his paper had of course been eloquence itself about that. But Trinidad I Ronnie, all alone as he was, almost burst out laughing at the sound of the syllables in his mind. A charming asphaltic island, no doubt, but if you were pulling the long and sentimental bow why not have said Tobago—which had at least a pleasing suggestion of tapioca. But Trinidad 1 Those dreadful d’s—like the slabs of a sarcophagus.
And his credulous young American friend in all his letters on the subject—and they had been plentiful—had been so emphatic about Trinidad. He had even, it seemed, entertained faint intentions of embarking for Port of Spain to look up the inscription on the tombstone. How deliciously naive. But Ronnie knew better. Wherever James Cotton had died—he wagged his cane in the air to emphasize the point—he hadn’t closed his eyes for the last time on that island. And, among other little duties, Ronnie was now well on his way to prove it.
He stayed for a moment again—there was plenty of time if he was to arrive at a polite hour—and stooping his slightly tubby figure over the warm lichenous stones of the little old bridge gazed into the amber running water beneath. Minnows. He watched them disporting themselves in their watery sun-dappled shallows, and almost subsided into a day-dream. The simple fish had reminded Ronnie that he had once been young himself, and was now, say, getting middle-aged. He smiled a little fondly at darting snout and fin, for he too in his salad days had written a little verse.
But, my hat, what an age ago it seemed, and how raw a Ronnie 1 One can’t really live in two worlds at once. But even a slightly dilettanteish interest in some other than the prosperous one Ronnie was now occupying was perhaps better than none. A faint splendour lightened his mission. Whatever else he might be, James Cotton in his own small way had been the real thing. And now Ronnie was himself going to enquire exactly how and when and where and why, and so on. A literary Sherlock Holmes.
At this, Ronnie abandoned the minnows and went on. And now the stream had left him, fa lero lero loo. It had sallied off under a low vaulted arch, danced over with reflected sunbeams, and a high stone wall flanking the lane had taken its place; an old wall too, with a worn stone coping and clumps of ivy and valerian bunching over it here and there.
A child in a pinafore with lank strands of yellow hair was approaching. When Ronnie asked for “Willows” she put her finger into her mouth, and gazing at him out of forget-me-not blue eyes, pointed mutely to a gateway not thirty yards distant. She might have come straight out of Wordsworth. Ronnie smiled at her as childlikely as he could manage, but out of a mist of misgivings.
“Don’t for Jehoshaphat’s sake write to these Cotton people,” his young American friend had implored him. “That Charlton guy seems to have been a little dubious about his reception. No wonder. He is so deadly effusive under that mincing style, and if they had any warning they, might stave you off for good. As I say, it’s quite likely there will be nobody to remember J. C. now, but please be a dear and make sure. It would be no end of a scoop if I could get really fresh first-hand stuff about him—all his little ways and wiles, a few private letters par excellence, and photographs, of course. He seems to have been a recluse even in his twenties, and who knows what queer fish may not have shared his pond. But for Heaven’s sake don’t write to them; just press the button and say you’ve come. You’ll know best, of course; and this is sheer hippopotamus talk.”
This, of course, as Ronnie had decided at the time, was all very nice and exuberant and pleasant and characteristic. But now—as, after surveying the one faint word “Willows” on the faded green paint, he pushed the gate open, and turned in on the weedy gravel path—he couldn’t help noticing that he felt a little self-conscious, even gauche. The very grass, the bead-bright moss on the pebbles hinted seclusion. Even the blackbird seemed to be surprised to see a visitor. That rather pathetic “Willows,” and this un-weeded path, and the serenity and unnoticeableness of it all —Ronnie almost then and there experienced a change of heart.
Even if one does publish a book of poems when one is scarcely out of one’s teens, i. e., even if one does scatter one’s pearls before an undiscerning public, that doesn’t exactly justify any particular porcine representative from the country of the Gadarenes’ pushing his nose in years after one has died and been buried in Trinidad—merely to pick up bits of news about one for a thesis! Good heavens, what deeds are done in thy name, O Muses!
The path wound round. The pretty shallow stream rippled into view again, and over there across a verdant meadow, not yet in the buttercup stage, stood bushed in beauty not a few crazy old pollard relics of willows, but a full-boughed bountiful grove. And a little to westward of it in the afternoon spring sun lay a smallish, low-roofed, ordinary-looking, quiet and glinting country house. Not old, but, on the other hand, not new.
Some poets have opened their eyes for the first time on the joys of Camberwell; some, on those of Chicago. Weeds may flourish, with an effort, in a gravel path. But little James Cotton had been fortunate in the place-where-he-was-born, even though there appeared to be no surplus income just now to keep it up. No actual neglect, but obviously no under-gardener. Did thick creepers make a house damp or did they keep the bricks dry? It was one of the two, but Ronnie couldn’t remember which. The pyrus japonica, with its shallow-cupped, wine-red flowers, was at any rate well worth while, and even perhaps the laurestinus.
Ronnie took it all in, though his eyes remained discreetly, downcast, just in case he was being observed from the windows. Better no appearance of boldness. And so, cane in hand, light overcoat over arm, he stepped at last into the embowered porch, and gave a vigorous tug at the twisted iron bell-pull. Its distant tinkling soon dwindled away, and except, as he fancied, for the sound of a firm but hasty footstep that had immediately followed it, only the shrillings of the skylarks overhead now broke the quiet.
Ronnie was no Miss Bronte. He was not one of those shy creatures that ring and run away. He was entirely un-alarmed at strangers. None the less as he stood waiting he was hoping solely for the best—that nobody was at home. Why not? He had enjoyed his walk. Here was the house. Let sleeping poets lie. He would have done his duty, and theses might go to the devil.
A moment after, at sight of a stiff, elderly and obviously unfriendly maidservant, he completely changed his mind. The least symptom of opposition not only decoyed him on but increased his natural suavity. He asked if this was “Willows,” and on being assured by an abrupt nod that it was, he enquired if it were still occupied by a lady, of the name of Cotton, and that being so, might he perhaps be favoured with a few minutes of her valuable time.
“Mrs. Cotton is not well enough to see visitors,” was the stony retort. And the gray eyes that continued to regard him after the narrow lips had shut again, hinted that for the word visitor he might, if he chose, substitute such a term, say, as hawker or tax-collector. But Ronnie was easily able not to feel a little piqued. He smiled, and remarked, “I am Mr. Ronald Forbes,” and at the same time drew out of his pocket-book—and presented this dragon with—a visiting card. “I wouldn’t detain Mrs. Cotton for more than a few moments,” he assured her. “It is merely to ask her kindness in regard to a matter in which I am deeply interested. And for this reason I hoped she would forgive me anything in the nature of an intrusion.”
The maid tool the card between finger and thumb. She appeared to be still hesitating whether to keep it as a trophy or to return it, when a voice out of the beyond, and apparently from the landing of the shallow staircase nearly opposite the door, decided the question.
“Show this gentleman into the drawing-room, please, Fanny. I will be with him in a few moments.”
Having proffered his hat to his enemy, who far from accepting it, did not even waste a glance on its beautiful lining, Ronnie laid it with his light overcoat on a small mahogany bench that stood beneath an engraving of one of Raphael’s masterpieces. And he stood up his cane beside it. He glanced at the barometer which hung on the “flock” crimson-papered wall on the other side, and an instant afterwards found himself in a room, his first impression of which was that he had been shown into a hot-house by mistake.
It was not only, a study in all shades of green, but even more verdant in effect than anything which spring had as yet managed to contrive on his way from the station. Ronnie had a lively eye for colour. It roved from the moss-green carpet to the curtains of green, French, flowered brocade, to the sage wall-paper, to the Victorian “easy” chairs, upholstered in a colour which in cooler circumstances would have suggested the cucumber.
But this verdure was not all artifice. In a recess near the shut small-paned window on his left stood a wooden erection of shelves, upon which pots of flowers in full bloom were banked in the utmost profusion. The whole room, a good deal longer than it was wide, its high French windows at the other end being also tight shut, though the afternoon sun swept steadily through them in a motionless cascade—smelt like some delicious fruit pie. Freesia perhaps.
Ronnie stood there in his rather prim clothes, right in the middle of it, as if he were an egg-cup under the crust of the low moulded ceiling, while portraits in oils of what he assumed to be deceased Cottons surveyed him from every wall. He was warm after his walk in this precocious spring weather, and though his reception had been a little chilly, his present haven was very much the reverse. And as he glanced from portrait to portrait he was at the same time conscious of an almost irresistible desire to giggle and more aware than ever that his dossier, so to speak, was rather on the nebulous side. Ronnie had read the poems, but not lately. He could appreciate verse with extreme rapidity; but now that the crisis was at hand, actual remembrance of outstanding specimens, and even of the precise quality of the collection, had suddenly eluded him.
Maybe this was because the low firm voice he had heard on the staircase had continued to sound on in his ear. And he was still vaguely engaged in the attempt to recover his amour propre, of which he had an ample supply, when the door by which he had entered opened, and he found himself, smile to smile, confronting a lady of substantial proportions, whom he judged to be somewhat on the other side of sixty. Her elaborately dressed hair closely fitted her square practical head. There were still traces of auburn in its gray. And out of the wide flattish face beneath, with its small square formidable nose, green-grey eyes motionlessly, examined him.
With a curt but not unfriendly nod of her head this lady referred him to a low flounced arm-chair, which splayed its short legs full in the light of the French windows, while she seated herself in a less comfortable one immediately, opposite him.
Ronnie cleared his throat, but paused.
“I understand you wished to see me” she said. “Am I right in supposing that I owe the pleasure of your visit to an interest in the writings of my, son, Mr. James Cotton?”
Ronnie’s neatly proportioned hand wandered to his necktie, and he opened his mouth to reply.
“I see,” Mrs. Cotton continued pleasantly—”I see that my supposition is the right one. Please tell me then exactly what I can do for you.”
If only, thought Ronnie, the good lady would look the other way for a moment, he might hope to make a much better show. On the contrary she sat stoically upright in her chair, her shoulders squared above her fortified bosom, her knees close together over her square-toed shoes, her whole frame encased in a primrose-coloured afternoon gown, her only adornments a cameo brooch, a thin gold chain about her neck, and a cluster of sapphires on her wedding-ring finger, while she steadily continued to hold his eyes.
“It is very kind indeed of you,” began Ronnie. “I was afraid that a visit like this from a complete stranger and without any, warning or introduction could not but seem in the nature of an intrusion. To be quite candid, Mrs. Cotton, I feared that if I wrote to you first, asking for the privilege of such an opportunity, I might be—well, misunderstood.”
“That,” was the reply, “would all depend on what you actually said in your letter.”
“Yes,” retorted Ronnie, warmly. “But then you know what letters are. Besides, as a matter of fact I have come, not on my own behalf—though, in a sense, that very much too, for I am, of course, deeply interested—but on behalf of a friend of mine, a young American, now at Ohio University. He is most anxious—”
But Mrs. Cotton had suavely interrupted him, “Almost exactly nine years have gone by, Mr. Forbes, since I have heard of anyone interested enough in my son’s writings to come all the way from London, as I see you have—let alone America—to tell me so. I receive letters now and then, but very few. But although, as I say, nine years have gone by, that particular occasion is still quite fresh in my mind. Your friend may not perhaps have seen an article which appeared about that time in The Modern Literature Review?”
“That was the very reason,” began Ronnie, but Mrs. Cotton once more intervened, almost as if she were anxious to save him even from the most candid of white lies.
“It is a relief to me that you know the article. I wonder if you would be very much surprised, Mr. Foi’bes, or whether perhaps you would think me ungracious, if I say I didn’t entirely approve of it. What are your feelings?”
The light-coloured eyes under the square brows never swerved by a hair’s breadth while Ronnie at last managed to get in his reply.
“You mean, of course,” he said, “Cyril Charlton? Well, quite candidly, Mrs. Cotton, and I can say it without disloyalty, for I haven’t the pleasure of knowing Mr. Charlton, I thought his paper was a little amateurish and superficial. He is a critic—of sorts—of course; and I have no doubt he—he meant well. But—how shall I say it?—it was so fumbling and uncertain. He didn’t seem to . . .”
“In some respects,” Mrs. Cotton interjected, rounding her eye at him as enquiringly as a robin perched on a sexton’s shovel, “in some respects hardly ‘uncertain,’ surely?” “Oh, you mean in the facts,” said Ronnie. “I mean in the facts,” said Mrs. Cotton. “I am not suggesting that Mr. Charlton was anything but perfectly polite and, if one may so say, plausible, though I use the word in no damaging sense, of course. He knew my son’s poems, I won’t say by heart, but certainly by rote. He sat where you sit now and quoted them to me. Stanza after stanza, as if they had just been dug up out of the grave, as I understand Mr. Rossetti’s were. As if I had never read a line of them myself. He was, he assured me, profoundly interested in literature, ‘profoundly.’ He was astonished, seemed quite genuinely astonished, at the thought that so few lovers of poetry—his own words—had even so much as heard of my son’s books. A rather fastidious-looking young man; with a cheek like a girl’s. I couldn’t have conceived such fluency possible. He talked and talked. That, of course, was exceedingly nice of him and, so far as it went, reassuring, but, believe me, Mr. Forbes, he almost took my breath away. I said to myself, Here is a young man whose zeal has outrun his good sense, and therefore, of course, I gave him all the help I could. Such overflowing, such shy enthusiasm—what harm could there be in that?”
Ronnie tried hard to prevent his face from showing the smallest change of expression while he hastily masticated this question. In these domestic surroundings, ordinary enough in some respects but startingly exotic in others, it was so difficult to be certain what degree of irony this rather formidable lady intended. And at whose expense? Ten years ago: yet still the very accents of that fair-haired ass of a Charlton seemed to be haunting these green recesses! Ronnie became so horribly tongue-tied at last that he felt a blush mounting up into his cheek, as he sat mutely on, seeking inspiration and finding none in the view from the French windows.
The lawn beyond had been lately mown. Its daffodils stood as motionless in their clusters as if they had been drugged by the sunshine. In a looping flash of blue a tomtit alighted for an instant on the dangling cocoanut shell in the verandah, glanced in from its blunt little head at Ronnie, and with a flutter of wing posted off again. And still he could think of nothing to say.
Meanwhile, it seemed, Mrs. Cotton rather than expecting an answer, had been steadily engaged in taking him in. Her slightly mannish and astringent voice again broke the silence.
“We have used the word ‘facts,’ Mr. Forbes,” she suavely invited him. “Tell me what—in that absurd account of my son’s early years—amused you most.”
“Quite frankly?” Ronnie, suddenly refreshed, turned quickly about and met her eyes. “Well, quite frankly, Mrs. Cotton, that he had died in Trinidad. I felt morally certain that was, well,” he shrugged his shoulders, “apocryphal.”
The rather frog-like ageing face had not faltered at this intimate reference, and Ronnie at once pressed on.
“Trinidad, first; and next, the charming little account of how while he was still only an infant in arms he used to dance in his nurse’s lap at the window during a thunderstorm and clap his hands at the lightning. It wasn’t so much the thing in itself but simply Charlton’s nambypamby way of putting it. It simply wasn’t true and had been cribbed from Coleridge, no doubt. Or was it Walter Scott? Oh, a host of things.”
What resembled a merry but not very resonant peal of bells had greeted this burst of scepticism.
“I see,” cried Mrs. Cotton, still laughing, “and why did you conclude—Trinidad?”
Ronnie had begun to breathe a little more freely again.
“Why, don’t you see, things surely, even apart from words, are true—right, I mean—only in their appropriate surroundings. The thunderstorm at the nursery window (even though he didn’t say lattice or casement) manifestly wasn’t. It wasn’t in the picture, or rather—to put it exactly opposite to that—it was just what a writer like Cyril Charlton would be bound to say, when once he had started on that kind of thing. I have noticed it again and again. In interviews especially. Politics, too. There is simply no bottom to the abyss of mere blague into which politics and journalism can sink—and above all at Election times. Oh, I think you can rely, on me in that. Indeed,”—it was a bold move Ronnie felt in the circumstances, but he risked it—”it was partly because of Charlton’s absurdities that I ventured to inflict myself upon you to-day. You see I have never met him; otherwise I should perhaps have to try to be a little more polite to him. I’m not sure. But Trinidad I It was to say the least of it so dreadfully inartistic. I almost burst out laughing at thought of it on my way from the station. Honestly I did! And what perfectly adorable country!” But Mrs. Cotton ignored the enticing compliment.
“And yet, Mr. Forbes,” she was saying, and much more thoughtfully than the truism seemed to warrant, “Trinidad or no Trinidad, I suppose we all have to die somewhere. Nor did I realize there was anything ‘inartistic’ in saying that. To me, it was merely untrue. And it was so absolutely out of the blue. Even, too, if Trinidad had been the —the scene of my son’s death, what then?” But for the life of him, Ronnie couldn’t blurt out the question that had at once offered itself. He merely went on listening.
And for a moment Mrs. Cotton watched him doing so. “But since,” she pressed on, “you have used that particular wor(l—’inartistic,’ I mean—do please enlighten me, What kind of people really enjoy Mr. Charlton’s sort of writing? It was new to me at the time; but I have noticed since that though his performance was a little sillier than most, it wasn’t very original in kind. Nowadays one has only to write a book, it seems, to make even one’s kitchen cat an animal worth adorning a newspaper with. And quite young actresses, apart from soaps and cigarettes and cosmetics and that sort of thing, are invited, almost as a matter of course apparently, by editors of newspapers who must be quite intelligent men, to air their views about marriage, or the soul, or a future life, and that sort of thing. Quite as a matter of course. Do you think it much helps?”
Ronnie gallantly met her eye. “Whom?” he said.
“Ah, whom? I was thinking myself of what is called the ‘man in the street’ and the womenfolk under his roof. But then, I suppose there have always been a few talkative sillies in the world who completely underestimate the commonsense of people in general. Or is it getting old, Mr. Forbes, that makes the sillies of one’s latter days seem a little sillier than usual? My own small view is that life may be tragic and sorrowful enough in the long run—and for the young actresses too, poor things: they’ve much to lose— but that it isn’t—well, just Trinidad and thunderstorms.”
“But surely,” Ronnie ventured, “you don’t mean to suggest Cyril Charlton meant to be as bad as all that?”
“Be fair to me, Mr. Forbes. Haven’t I already confessed that I thought him an almost fastidious-looking young man. ‘Meant to be,’ indeed! I doubt if he was conscious of so much as brushing the down off a butterfly’s wing. Yet, would you believe it, my brother, Major Win-slow, at that time in India, was inclined, though not for my son’s sake only, to take more drastic steps. It was only with the greatest difficulty that I persuaded him not to consult his lawyer.”
Yet again a curiously muffled and not quite unjangled peal of little bells sounded between the walls. Mrs. Cotton had laughed. And at sound of it a remote fiery defiant gleam had flamed up and vanished in Ronnie’s brown eye. “If I may venture to say so,” he said stoutly, “I think that course would have been as ill-advised as it would have been ineffective.”
Mrs. Cotton graciously beamed at him. “I am delighted to hear you say it,” she assured him. “Those were, I believe, almost the precise words I used in my reply to Major Win-slow. Idle nonsense of that sort, however shallow, and however false, is not libellous. And of course—whether or not after consultation, I cannot say—he came round in the end to our way of looking at it. Poor Mr. Charlton: I can see him in the witness box I But I referred to Major Win-slow only as an indication of what I suppose would be called the Philistine view of Mr. Charlton’s form of entertainment. What is more, I am entrusting these little confidences to your ear alone, simply because if we neither of us have any particular friendliness for this young man, we bear him no active ill-will either. He can be left, as they say, to stew in his own juice.” Mrs. Cotton nearly doubled her substantial shape in two as she leaned forward in her chair to insist on this vulgarism.
“You see,” she was still urging him on, “I realize that you are interested in my son’s work and that you would be far more severe to some of Mr. Charlton’s shortcomings—the artistic ones for instance, even than I should be myself: his own mother, I mean. But tell me, has this young American friend of whom you speak any intention of publishing his thesis? If so, I hope I may be allowed to see it. Or is it to be a private venture simply with a view to correcting these ridiculous mis-statements? To putting Mr. Charlton right?” For a moment or two Ronnie pondered both these questions. They seemed to be equally crucial and dangerous. Alas, however, he could hardly hear himself think, so loud were his inward execrations of the young friend in question. Merely with the intention of putting that silly precious sentimental ass of a Cyril right!—he could see the young post-graduate’s exultant grin at such an opportunity, even to the glinting gold of his exquisite “dentures.” He gave a sharp impatient tug at his hardly less exquisite West End trousering, and briskly crossed his legs.
“Publication was his intention,” he replied, “and not merely to do as you suggest.” But he wished the accents in which he had uttered the confession had not sounded as if he had plums in his mouth.
“In other words, Mr. Forbes, I am to understand, then, that your visit to me to-day is not solely with a view to the success of this young man’s university studies. You too, have come to see me, not of course on your own behalf, but in kindness to your friend, in order to glean what you can of my son’s personal and private affairs?”
The challenge was unmistakable. It rang out like a trumpet, and Ronnie could neither smile now nor reply. He moistened his lips. Though of late years more and more easily bored, he was still interested in human nature. The poet’s mother had proved to be of a type he seldom encountered even on the outskirts of his ordinary orbit. He dearly enjoyed, too, a battle of wits. But this was hardly ‘wits,’ and he was as yet uncertain exactly where he himself was likely to remain—on which side of the fence, that is. All he could blurt out at last sounded much less pacifying than he intended to make it.
“You will forgive me,” he said, “if I don’t entirely agree with you. I mean on the principle of the thing. Surely, Mrs. Cotton, the publication of a book implies that the author of it is to that degree sharing himself with the world at large. Poetry, in particular. He puts into print what he wouldn’t confide in secret even to his closest friend. It is a confessional wide as the heavens. Within certain limits, then, isn’t the world at large justified in being interested not merely in him as a writer but as a human being? I agree that this can go too far, that it usually does, in fact. Mere prying curiosity is odious. But how can one separate entirely a man from his work, and especially if one, as it were, justifies the other? Besides,” he took the fence that offered itself in one sprightly bound, “one doesn’t have to be a Paul Pry to be grateful, say, for William Shakespeare’s second-best bed.”
Mrs. Cotton smoothed down her unmodishly long skirts over her lap. She, too, paused with stooping head, as if listening, or as if her thoughts had wandered. Then once again she openly faced him.
“In a moment or two I shall be ready and perfectly willing, Mr. Forbes,” she assured him, “to answer any question you like to ask me. I won’t say that I agree either in principle or in detail with what you have said. And, though I can’t say how dreadfully ignorant it may sound, I know nothing whatever about William Shakespeare’s second-best bed. Weren’t beds very expensive in those days? I seem to have read that somewhere. But all that apart, I should like to consider you, if I may, not only as a confidant, but as a friend. That being so, first I propose to make a little private confession. Please listen to me as patiently as you can.”
All Ronnie’s native gallantry had mounted into his head at this appeal. He composed himself to listen.
“You must realize in the first place that I know very little about books and nothing whatever about poetry. I am not even a great reader; and if I were, that would be quite another question. Poetry is not in me, it is not in my family. As a child I destested it, the very, word. I was therefore made to learn as much of it as a stupid governess could make me. I see myself at this moment, with tear-stained cheeks and nose flattened to my nursery window, looking out on a world of rain and wind, and some thumbed, dogs-eared, horrid little book of poetry clutched in my grubby paw, containing not only poems, mind, definitely intended to do me good, but such famous pieces as ‘Piping down the valleys wild,’ and ‘The Assyrian came down.’ That kind of thing. Well, I hated them all with an almost physical hatred. Which merely means, I suppose, that even as a child I was of a practical and matter-of-fact turn of mind. But that, I believe, is true of most young children. As we are, so shall we be; at least in deficiency of mind: it is a dreadful consideration, Mr. Forbes. Whether interest in poetry and in works of the imagination would ever have been mine in happier circumstances I cannot say. I can only confess that it never has. My husband was precisely the opposite, and my son, spared, in his childhood at least, the thorns and thistles which the little donkey that I used to be discovered in what I was fed on, took after him.
“I have heard of mothers, Mr. Forbes, who have been jealous of the love and intimacy between a child and its father. That’s beyond my understanding. But when my husband died, I was for many years my son’s only real company. You can be delicate in spirit as well as in body —a delicacy, I mean, that is none the less the very reverse of weakness. So, you see, as time went on, he was practically compelled to confide in me. Apart from the craving to express one’s self—though that too is not in me— there is the craving to share what comes of it, afterwards. I can understand that. And though I could listen with all my heart and soul; to share I could only pretend. My son soon realized this; though I hid it from him as much as I could.
“Yet I tried—Relieve me, Mr. Forbes, I honestly, tried—to educate myself into his way of thinking. You’d be vastly amused to hear how much poetry I have read solely, with that end in view, and always with complete unsuccess.”
A sudden unbosoming smile swept over her face, like a burst of sunshine over a wheat-field at harvest. “If I go on like this,” she broke off, “you will be assuming that I think it is my confessions you are after I”
Ronnie returned this burst of sunshine as amply as he could, incredulously speculating the while how it came about that with so easy, and bountiful a field to glean Cyril Charlton had carried off so mingy a sheaf. Why, even a raw reporter . . . but Mrs. Cotton was hastening on.
“Egotist or not,” she was saying, “I toiled on at my task, and at least became more and more of an adept in realizing the force and the strain of my son’s secret idolatry. There was only one thing in the world for him—poetry. At first I believe he hadn’t the faintest desire or intention to share this craving with any other human being except his mother. That came after. But though I had fallen far short of any true appreciation, I had become aware of two things: first, that there is such a thing as poetry, and next that I had a pretty shrewd notion of what poetry isn’t.
“Poetry, Mr. Forbes, as I take it,” she waved her hand towards the window, “is all there, just waiting for us, but it won’t show itself at call or at need. One must have the mind, the sense, the spirit within—to invoke it. That I realize. It is a way of looking at things, a way of feeling about them, a way, of living. And it is, I suppose—you will let me go groping on—as inseparable, if you have that particular sense, from the world at large and everything in it as its scent is from a flower. And no more inseparable either, for just as you can extract its scent from a flower and shut it up in a bottle, so you can extract the poetry from the life around and within you and put it into words and them into a book. I am being dreadfully clumsy, dreadfully commonplace. But I believe all that as surely as a blind man believes that there is such a thing as light.
“Yet it is hidden from me, shut out from me. Try as I may, I cannot grasp or share it. On the one side my son, almost coldly conscious, I might say, of I don’t know what kind of volcanic feelings, pursuing this strange mirage, eating his heart out, never satisfied, ready to sacrifice anything, everything, for its sake; and me, just stuttering and pretending, but so far as heart and soul goes, absolutely as dumb and insensitive as a fish.
“In spite of this, he was always generosity itself to me, though I can see that if the worst came to the worst even a mother might be sacrificed on that altar. But at last, as you know, his poems were published. You will be amused to hear that I myself arranged everything, the printing, the paper, the binding—his final choice, of course. I saw the publisher, a Mr. Crown, in London, again and again, and arranged it all—expenses, advertising, commission, everything. He too, in spite of his dingy little office, seemed to be a most enthusiastic admirer of poetry, though, as I have since discovered—and here Mr. Charlton could give me surprisingly little information—he treated me on severely business principles. And quite between ourselves, Mr. Forbes, I soon began to suspect his enthusiasm also.
“The critics, on the other hand, were exceedingly kind. I don’t mean that they were more than just—how could I? They were exceedingly kind. Some thirty copies of my son’s first book, I understand, were sent to the newspapers, and about eight were sold. But I have never had any particulars. For the time being my son found a good deal of happiness in his venture. And then I think the merely practical side of it began to bother him a little. He fancied that we, that I, had been dreadfully cheated. I had gone off to Mr. Crown, I should have mentioned, without my son’s knowledge. But it wasn’t so much the money involved, it was—well, what I suppose Shakespeare meant by the words, ‘waste of spirit.’ My son was grieved and ashamed of what such things come to. He had been kept, for his own sake perhaps, too long out of the world to conceive its sense of proportion. Nevertheless, as you know, he went on writing. But with more and more difficulty. A dreadful despair seemed to have come over him. He shunned everyone.
But we know so little of what is passing in any other mind. And then—at last—well, there is no need to go into that.”
She had paused again, and the pair of them, so far as their eyes were concerned, seemed to be like two birds hovering over some morsel that neither of them had much appetite for—though it was part of God’s plenty,—and which it was hardly in the nature of things to share. Nevertheless Ronnie was conscious rather of a void than of any very definite delicacy, and he could only blink.
But the pause had come at an opportune moment. So hot and airless was the low-ceiled room in which they sat, so heavy the odour of its floral display, that but a few instants before though his gaze had remained fixed on Mrs. Cotton’s face, his glazing orbs from sheer sleepiness had actually rocked in his head. Now he was wide awake again, and he had need to be, for Mrs. Cotton was hastening on.
“To that second venture, as you may know, Mr. Forbes, the critics were less kind. They too couldn’t quite understand what my son was after, though better than I could. Could your
At this her visitor’s round and somewhat fresh-coloured face perceptibly paled. Yet again the trumpet had sounded. For a breath he hesitated, and then bolted the lump that had come into his throat. “I don’t know them well enough to say,” he said.
Mrs. Cotton turned away. “Well, I am grateful to you for that,” was her unexpected retort. But her voice had trailed off a little as if from some inward rather than physical fatigue.
“That being so, you will the more readily understand, then,” she continued, “that when after the publication of my son’s second book—which was, as a matter of fact, fated to be his last—it became clear to me that even those who knew such things were unable to follow him, to understand him and appreciate him; when I saw that so far he had absolutely failed, it was a very bitter grief to me. Not for my own sake, though what mother is not practically ambitious for her children?—but for his. I had realized, you see—and it is here that I hope you will be most patient with me and will forgive me if I repeat myself—I had realized that to some minds and to some spirits poetry is what religion is to others, the most precious, the most certain, the most wanted thing life has to give. And now that he had fallen silent I could at least realize too if only in part the affliction of that loss. Not that, because he was silent, the beauty and meaning—the divination—of life was gone too. Not that; surely not that! That would be such a lie as no Cyril Charlton even is capable of. It was still there—within him; between himself and his Maker. There is a passage I came across somewhere in a book—I don’t know its origin—but being eager and interested as I was then, it stamped itself on my memory: ‘He that has never seen this beauty must hunger for it as for all his welfare, he that has known must love and reverence it as the very beauty; he will be flooded with awe and gladness.’ Well, surely, even if it be averred that these early years were nothing but a fool’s paradise — and that I refuse to believe; and even though you may regret the folly, still you cannot deny that to my son they were a paradise. No more would I deny the hope of its continuance, though the gates should be shut forever that gave others a glimpse of it.” She paused, her small square hands clenched in her lap.
“I have finished, Mr. Forbes. As you see, I live here a quiet and retired life. I believe that no good thing in this world—since it is a world founded on divine reason—can be eventually wasted. I believe therefore that whatever there is of this infinite grace in my son’s little books will find in time its own haven, even though it be completely forgotten here on earth. Meanwhile I keep my lesson. Cyril Charlton and much else that I won’t burden you with taught me once and for all that there is a danger worse than death to this Very Beauty,’ and that it comes, not from the enemies, but from these so-called ‘lovers of poetry’—these parasites—their jealousies, their quarrels, their pretenses, their petty curiosity, their suffocating silliness. I will have none of it. I am determined—-determined that this precious ‘world-at-large’—your own words—shall leave my son and all he loved, and the dreams from which there is now no waking, at peace. His memory, himself, safe here with me; to the end.”
She had risen from her chair as she finished speaking. With hands clutched on her bodice, her small pupils glinting like semi-precious stones, she stood over poor Ronnie, and dared him to do his worst. There were tears in the eyes now challenging him, tears, he realized, not of weakness but of strength, and squeezed out of a spirit, stable as adamant, which would not swerve by an inch if the need came to stride off exulting to the stake.
And as, not apparently in any desire for air, and certainly not for retreat, but merely to conceal her feelings— and maybe from herself—Mrs. Cotton turned her back on her visitor and marched over to the French windows, Ronnie stirred awkwardly in his chair. The attitude in which he had been listening to this declamation had become rather strained. He stirred—as if he were “coming to.” And “What the devil,” he was thinking ruefully, if a little vacantly, “what the devil had he or his young American friend to do with any ‘stake.’”
The windows had been flung open to their fullest gape. The tepid April air of the garden thinned in on the boxed-up atmosphere. It pierced with its sweet earthy freshness the pent-in odours of the forced flowers. Ronnie breathed and breathed again. The drowsy cadences of a blackbird from some shrubbery out of view fell on his ear like water drops into the basin of a fountain. And then suddenly from quite near at hand resounded the sudden shrill battlecry—incredibly defiant, even formidable, for a creature so minute—of a wren.
Mrs. Cotton had paused, her hand on the window frame, only., it seemed, to regain her self-possession. She turned at last and with a gesture waved as it were all these last few confidences between them aside.
“So you see, Mr. Forbes,” she said, “now that I have said what I have said, and it has not been an easy task, I must resign the rest to you. You will forget any resentment I may have shown. But as I look back on Mr. Charlton I find it difficult to be fair to him. I really believed at the time that he at least meant well, that he had my son’s reputation at heart only and solely because he cared for poetry, whereas I myself. . . . What else can I do then but commit myself entirely into your hands? You have come this long distance. You are bound to consider your friend’s interests. I feel then I must leave you absolutely, at liberty to use your own judgment as to what shall be proclaimed on the housetops and what not. You have not supposed, at least, that I want what my son has done to be forgotten. Though its innermost secrets may be hidden from me, I can at least be aware that to other minds they may be very precious.” Her arms fell loosely to her sides. Even in youth her short, rather dumpy figure could never have been of any particular feminine grace; yet Ronnie was fated to remember that gesture. It had reminded him, absurdly enough, not of Velasquez’s “Surrender” but of a ballet dancer of Degas.
“And now,” she was almost timidly inviting him, “I hope you will stay and take tea with us—my, daughter-in-law will join us presently.”
Ronnie dutifully murmured a word or two about trains, but she tossed them aside. “You must let it be part of our compact,” she said, eyeing him almost archly but with an ironic intentness. “Meanwhile I must leave you for a moment.”
She paused at the door at which Ronnie had entered. “The picture immediately behind you,” she said, “is a portrait of James when he was a little boy of seven. It was painted by an artist—an R. A.—who is now, I believe, out of fashion. But he was not so then. The old gentleman with the pug-dog in his lap next to it (a really good picture, I have been told), is my son’s great grandfather—on my husband’s side. And in that album on the what-not you will find photographs, and some pieces of manuscript. Please look at anything that may interest you.”
A moment afterwards the door had been firmly shut behind her, the sound of her footsteps had died away, and Ronnie was alone. He sat for a few moments perfectly still, his brown eyes fixed almost gloatingly on the garden. Then a sudden shuddering yawn overtook him. He knew how sleepy, but had not noticed how physically exhausted, he was. Heavens, what a trap he had walked into . . . How amusing!
His glance strayed at last to the three-tiered galaxy of flowers on their white-painted shelves in the alcove—early geraniums, wax-like hyacinths, modest-flowering musk and, above all, the peach-like exotic freesia. Then he got up from his chair, yawned again as he turned about, took a pace or so backwards, and fixed his eyes on the portrait of the poet as a boy of seven.
The heavy gilt frame had woefully tarnished. But the brick red of the tartan kilt and plaid, and the mustard yellow of the flaxen corkscrew curls that dangled from under a glengarry about the apple-cheeked china-blue-eyed face had kept all their “pristine bloom.” If the artist had ever really had his eye on his subject he had assuredly detected no symptom of genius there. The stolid little boy that stood in the canvas looked about as intelligent as a bullfinch or a Dutch cheese. None the less—as though symbols will out—he stood armed, as if for mental fight; the point of his cross-hilted wooden toy sword pointing straight out of the picture and full in the direction of Ronnie’s stomach.
Ronnie was nothing if not critical—but less so of pictures than of elegant literature. He could easily manage to swallow “Cherry Ripe” and even “Bubbles,” but there was something in the technique of this particular painter that raised his gorge. Indeed the portrait was damnably unfair—on the part of the painter. For after all, if there was a remarkable feature in the verse that little James had lived to make obscure, it was its technical mastery. “Mental fight,” then, there must have been. “You can’t,” Ronnie adjured the child in the picture a little wearily, “you can’t build any sort of Jerusalem anywhere without it, and certainly not in that rather less green and, in places, positively unpleasant land that England had rapidly been becoming since you, my poor innocent, were seven.”
Of James’s particular Jerusalem none the less he had only the vaguest intimations. He would look it up again perhaps when he got back to London. He might even attempt to worm his way into its secret citadel. But now, anyhow, there was no need to worry about it. He was tired. Poetry of that kind is all very well while you are young and active, and the trailing clouds haven’t completely shredded off. “But heavens,” Ronnie inwardly ejaculated again, as he continued to gaze at the infant Samuel in tartan, “give me his mamma every time.” Typically English too, almost British, in her own queer way, and overwhelmingly worth writing even to America about. How his young friend would lap her up! The subtlety of it all.
The female spider was of course notorious for its voracity. They, even devoured their many husbands. Mrs. Cotton had put down, it seemed, every single card in her hand face upwards on the bright green table; and Ronnie had lost— every single trick! She had hopelessly queered his pitch. And yet, as he had sat there, transfixed by. those small glittering eyes, a warm (and rather un-Ronnie-ish) camaraderie had sprung up in his mind. Affection at first sight!
His glance drifted down from the portrait to a photograph that stood in an old leather frame on the Pembroke table immediately beneath it. He stooped and looked closer. Yes, it was obviously, a presentment of James’s mother taken at about the same date that the portrait had been painted. Square and plump and prosaic in figure even then; in a neat tight-fitting bodice and flow-away skirts, and clearly dressed for the occasion, she stood there, one well-shaped hand on a Victorian “occasional” chair, looking as straight out at the camera as her son at his R.A. And the camera had been kinder than the painter. The frank open face was smiling; there was an almost audacious sparkle of coquetry in the eyes; and Ronnie’s masculine heart amply responded to the occasion.
Indeed, he was still intent on the photograph—the album and the excellent portrait of the smiling old gentleman with the pug-dog on his lap having been completely ignored— when at the same moment he heard voices from far within, and the clink of tea-cups near at hand. When the parlourmaid entered the room with her salver he was seated on his chair again, a green-bound Moxon Tennyson in his hand, open at “Mariana,” but upside down.
In the conversation during the meal that followed—and Ronnie forgot the scone on his plate until it was stone cold —Mrs. Cotton took very little part. The two ladies sat opposite to him, while, with his back to the door, on a stiff barley-sugar-legged prie-dieu chair, he himself faced the little warrior in the portrait. In spite, however, of the hypnotic power of that infantile blue eye, Mrs. James Cotton easily held her own. She was almost embarrassingly tall and dark and flat. She was in black, and beneath her long chin showed a necklet of jet. Still, black against green is not an unpleasing contrast, and though (as Ronnie was thinking) her countenance was more sombre and equine in its contours even than the aged William Wordsworth’s, she was soon prattling away to him as if the only marvel were that circumstances had kept them apart so long.
She was enraptured and earnest and astonished and coy, all in the same breath. She assured him again and again how she adored the country and how beautiful nature was in the spring. One of her very favourite seasons of the year —everything so fresh, so green, so renewed. And yet just the same, year in, year out; so that if you closed your eyes and listened to the birds, or opened them and looked at the flowers, they might be exactly the same ones as before!
As if, Mr. Forbes, there had been no winter in between. But, of course, that couldn’t be, that was only a fancy. Besides it was just the reverse. Absolutely! What a perfectly dreadful winter they had had, to be sure; so cold, so gloomy, so protracted. “I can’t like winter, Mr. Forbes, I can’t indeed.” Besides he must remember, she cried almost with elation, “We haven’t any theatres here, or concert halls, or picture galleries. That is where London is so different to the country, and especially, in winter, and even in the spring too.” And London seemed to have been gayer than ever these last few months. So many society functions. She had read of them in the newspapers. Newspapers were a great resource, of course, though not the same as taking part in the functions themselves. Oh, no! At least not quite the same. And how the world changed.
Ronnie said, “Certainly” when the chance offered, and “But I do indeed really,” though it wasn’t in the least necessary.
“You see,” she was repeating yet again, as she peeped for the fourth time into the cream jug in case she had forgotten whether it was empty or not, “one is so removed from things hidden away here in the country, though the country, of course, as I say, is the country after all, that I sometimes positively pine to see a policeman!”
She lowered her long head, gazed out of her dark mournful eyes at him, and giggled.
And the sun was wheeling lower and lower into the west, and a thrush had followed the blackbird on to the concert platform, and the flowers in the pots were continuing to unfurl—Ronnie had seen on the movies with precisely how pertinacious and delicate a motion. But though a machine may accelerate the appearances of life, man’s consciousness is as obedient as her flowers to the pace set by Nature. A fact which Mrs. Cotton senior was herself demonstrating as she munched steadily on, her eyes never now meeting his own, her only share in this sprightly conversation an occasional nod, or “Thank you, Emma,” or a prompt hand out-held (and again and again, for Ronnie’s thirst was extreme) for his empty cup, or an impatient flick of her fingers at the crumbs in her lap.
“I was so delated to hear,” said Emma at last, “that you are an admirer of my husband’s poems.”
“Indeed and indeed I am,” cried Ronnie, in a voice that even on his own ears sounded as hollow as a tub.
“And yet, do you know, Mr. Forbes, I am sure it must be ages since I have seen any mention of him in the newspapers. But then you don’t even see Lord Tennyson’s name mentioned very, much now. Isn’t that so?”
She glanced a little uneasily at her mother-in-law, but only for a moment; her dark uncertain gaze had immediately settled on their visitor once more.
“He hasn’t been dead long enough,” said Mrs. Cotton abruptly.
“No,” Ronnie broke in with spirit, in the forlorn hope of wooing her into the talk, “that’s just the very point. I was only saying . . .”
But at this moment, though he had been conscious of no interruption, the door behind him seemed to have opened, for the two ladies had simultaneously raised and fixed their eyes on something or somebody behind him and out of his view. It must have been the parlour-maid, for though for the moment a curious transfixedness had suddenly spread over Mrs. Cotton’s features, and her daughter-in-law looked positively alarmed, as soon as the door had been as softly shut again, Emma, after yet another glance at Mrs. Cotton, had instantly begun talking away again at Ronnie with an almost galvanic zest, and apparently, with less intention than ever of waiting for his replies.
“I do so hope” she said, when Ronnie rose at last to make his adieux, “I do so hope that if you should compose anything in print about my husband, you will let me see it, Mr. Forbes. Just ‘Willows,’ Ashenham, would always find me; and I should be so very interested to hear what is being thought now about books, and things like that. For being, as I say, in the country as we are, we . . .”
Her voice trailed away. The unusually long pale lids of her aggrieved eyes had flickeringly descended, and Mrs. Cotton had at once hastened into the breach. She too had risen, and had given a decisive tug at the flowered china bell-handle beside the fireplace.
“Good-bye, Mr. Forbes,” she said, as abandoning Emma, black as a rock on the bright green of the velvet sofa, she firmly grasped his hand. “Good-bye. It has been an absorbing afternoon. And yet I’m afraid”—they had reached the door; parting was imminent, and she sighed out her regret in so low a voice it seemed it must have been intended for Ronnie’s ear alone, and his inward ear, too— “I’m afraid I have been very remiss. If only I had been a little more accustomed to being interviewed 1 No pencil, no note-book! And now it is too late. Nevertheless,” she smiled at him, “not only am I convinced you have a far better memory for such things than Mr. Charlton, but there is nothing which I feel I could not have securely—securely confided to your keeping. Or in the future either, if the need should ever come.”
The memorable voice had broken a little at these last few words, and Ronnie gazed back with all his soul into the small grey-green eyes that seemed to have darkened now that her face was no longer in the light of the window.
“Thank you very much indeed for that, Mrs. Cotton,” he cried gallantly; “you may rely on me. I will be eloquence itself!”
The stiff maidservant was already awaiting him. He seized his hat, his cane, his light overcoat, and turned; for, as he expected, Mrs. Cotton’s steady regard was still fixed on him from the drawing-room door. They exchanged what seemed to Ronnie a last swift full glance of understanding, a friendly, intent, almost intimate one. The next moment the door had been firmly closed behind him, and he was out in the open once more.
Huge billowy clouds, like enormous bolsters, had ranged themselves on the horizon beneath the infantile blue of the sky. Though the sunbright dandelions that had greeted him were now shut for the night, the bladed grass, the green-leafed willows by the water’s brim stood as if enchanted in an ocean of light and colour, and the air resounded with a mellay of song so wild and vehement that the birds that uttered it seemed to have been seized with an anguish of fear lest the dark to come should deprive them of every hope of ever singing again.
And Ronnie too was conscious of Spring-time in his blood. He stepped out buoyantly and in uncommonly high spirits. What a hotch-potch of an afternoon, and yet on the whole how novel, how odd, and how very amusing I
In less than no time he had come to the turn in the weedy drive that would take him clean out of sight even of the upper windows of the house he had left behind him. But there his self-congratulations were suddenly, interrupted. A low, clear, but mysterious hail had sounded in his rear. He wheeled about. These were not Mrs. Cotton’s now familiar tones.
No, there could be no mistaking whence the summons had come. The short, straw-hatted, neatly clad figure of a tubby little man had emerged from under the trees to his left, and was now—so extreme was his haste—almost trotting over the grass to intercept him. And Ronnie waited. Psychologists may maintain that it is humanly impossible to think of more than one thing at a time. But he knew better. Two perfectly distinct reactions had at this moment flashed through his mind. One, the vivid recollection of Tenniel’s Tweedledum and Tweedledee; the other the lightning conviction that he knew—that he seemed to have known for centuries, who precisely this little man was.
Ought he to fly? Surely, in spite of those last few words in the house, no such encounter as this had been included in the compact he had but just now signed and sealed with the poet’s mother? But it was too late. Breathless, triumphant, the little man had caught him up. Bright blue eyes of an extraordinary intensity were surveying him from beneath arched brows under the brim of the antiquated black straw hat.
“I am speaking,” the little man enquired with a charming courtesy, “to . . .?”
“My, name is Forbes,” said Ronnie.
“Ah, yes, Forbes. I was not aware of that, Mr. Forbes. Forgive me. I am kept a little in the dark. And better so, perhaps,” he smiled; “for even in a place so remote as this and with very few visitors, you never know, do you . . .?” He faltered. “At least, so I am told. But that said, or not said, as the case may be, I couldn’t let this opportunity go by without—without, as a matter of fact, asking you to accept this. At times I find them crumpled up in the grass. But what can be expected of errand boys? It is, and I hope”—he cast a furtive glance over his shoulder as he thrust a folded piece of paper that had apparently been torn from a child’s exercise book into Ronnie’s hand—”I hope you will let it be a little private matter between us—it’s in the nature of an epigram: my last.”
The candid blue eyes in the countenance on which it seemed that age had decided to leave not one disfiguring mark became a little troubled as they searched Ronnie’s smiling and aware face.
“You will agree, Mr. Forbes,” he pressed on earnestly, raising like a bishop his small white hand a little into the air, “that there are things, evidences, messages, which can be shared, though even the very meaning of the words may have become corrupted—decayed—all rotted away?”
It isn’t always that any inmate is looking out of a human eye. But at this particular moment an exceedingly alert inmate, as keenly and austerely challenging as the gaze of an angel, was confronting Ronnie from the tranquil yet troubled deeps of this little man’s stare. His ringers fluttered an instant, as if inclined to snatch back what he had given.
“I must not distrust . . . I must leave it at that, Mr. Forbes,” he said hurriedly, raised his straw hat and was gone.
Ronnie remained a moment where he was, the paper in his hand. He too glanced over his shoulder. The house was still just in sight, nestling with its willows low in the gold of the western sun. But there was too much of a glare in the sky to be sure if any of its occupants were looking out after him from the upper windows.
He went on until he had come again to the narrow stone bridge over the stream. There he unfolded the paper and scanned the four lines of tiny and almost illegible script it contained. He picked his way through them again and again; but there could be no doubt whatever at last of their intrinsic obscurity. Worse, Ronnie had grave misgivings even of the soundness of their metrical technique. Not so the writer of them, apparently, for at the foot of the four lines which had been placed with extreme care in the very middle of the sheet of paper, there sprawled a long-looped, an almost Napoleonic J. C.
Baa, baa, sang out the sheep on the other side of the green-springing hedge. But Ronnie paid no heed. He had instantly realized what a treasure for transatlantic academicism, or English either for that matter, he held in his hand. It was a fragment of holograph—of an unpublished poem—very late—in mint condition—signed with this rare and unique minor poet’s own initials I He refolded the scrap of exercise paper and placed it carefully in his pocketbook. Nor did he spend any more idle moments on the minnows in the brook beneath the bridge, but continued rapidly on his way to the railway station. Having there enquired for a later train back to London, the next being due in a few minutes, he set off for Ashenham itself.
The old woman in the little smelly village post office to whom he handed in his message to his young American friend seemed to be completely dubious as to the proper charges fixed by the Postmaster General for a cablegram to Wellspring, Ohio. Ronnie, horn-rimmed spectacles on his fastidious but rather stubby nose, helped her all he could with the infinitesimal print. To such effect indeed that he all but charged himself twice the official rate per word. But lavish telegraphing was one of his many, little weaknesses.
“Have visited Willows,” ran his ultimatum. “Immensely sorry. Nothing doing. All gone. Am emphatically convinced only course to keep exclusively to text. Strongly advise complete abandonment of the ineffable Cyril. Heaven be with you. Writing. Ronnie Forbes.”
He then withdrew J. C.’s scrap of paper from his pocket-book and slipped it without accompaniment into a stamped envelope, a little fly-blown, which the old lady supplied from a wooden drawer on the other side of the counter. On this he scribbled Mrs. Cotton’s address, and having stuck it down, himself dropped it—with a sigh, just nicely enough tinged with regret—into the little red box outside.