William Morris Archive


She turned to them as she heard the sound of their footsteps, and got up from her chair to greet them. She was a woman of not more than thirty-six; much taller than her daughter, of looser make, and most certainly beautiful, but little like her daughter. Her hair was abundant, dark and crisped; she had great soft brown eyes, and a large mouth with full lips. She was thin now, and her face looked worn but not unhappy; but the principal expression on it was one of kindness—that expression of yearning softness that expects its full reward of affection, and indicates an exacting and rather restless heart.

A pleasant look of welcome lighted up her face now, as she took John's hand and fairly wrung it.

‘O, John'' she said, 'I am so glad to see you! I've been thinking of you so much these days past, and how lonely you dear boys must have been all this time since you came home—I'm so glad to see you.'

There was a visible tone of sympathetic pity in her voice that rather embarrassed John, who felt as strong and happy as a lad need do. He reddened and said: ‘O, thankyou, Mrs Mason—we’re getting on all right now, but I can tell you we were frightened about Arthur. The poor chap didn’t sleep for days and days, and it's upset all one’s fun this last holidays of mine. I say, I’ve brought you some fish—perch. ' And therewith he unslung his basket and poured his catch out onto the grass.

'Poor things!' said Mrs Mason. 'I hope you won’t care about fishing when you’re a few years older, John.'
‘Well,’ he said, ‘fish never look very much alive—do they, Clara? She had been standing a little behind him, with a thoughtful look on her face, but stepped forward when the fish fell on the grass, and said now:

‘They’re very pretty; I like to see them, and they certainly don’t look very much alive now. Well, mother, suppose you say thankyou for the fish, and ask John to have something to eat, and he can tell us all about Arthur while he’s having his dinner.’

‘O, I’m ashamed of myself, me a farmer and all! But you know, we’ve just done our dinner, and I’m afraid I’m like other people, and when I fell hungry I feel as if everybody else must be so too, and the same if I’m glad, or sorry, or dull.’

John made a mighty effort, and he said with a great blush:

‘No, I am sure you are not a bit like other people, Mrs Mason, so kind as you are.’

‘Ah, my dear,’ she said, ‘sometimes I think the kindness of people like me may bring on dreadful things; I mean to say, when one’s kind because one wants other people to be kind to one.’

He stammered at his own boldness as he answered:

‘Why, if you make it like that, nobody does anything except because he likes it. I mean to say, even people who have given up most to please other people—but then, they’re all the better people, to be pleased by what’s good rather than by what is bad.’

They had all three talked themselves into the oak parlour by now; John, perhaps, with a feeling not very pleasant of not being listened to, which made him very silent now.
It was a beautiful old room, deliciously cool in that hot afternoon, the lowest sweeping boughs of the limes brushing the window at one end, a bay tree pruned away from the little side window which looked into the farmyard. The furniture was none of it modern, and there was a big old sideboard of earlier date than the house. A little spindle-legged table by the window was half covered up with Clara's work, innocent­looking portions of a dress she was making for herself, and the other half was cleared for that letter of hers; and the pen was still in the inkstand. On another table—a rough piece of carpentry—was a bowl of goldfish, and in the middle of the room there stood a big table with bulgy legs. An old chintz­covered sofa, and square armchairs, and half-a-dozen queer bandy-legged chairs of Queen Anne's time, completed the furniture of the room. The dark-panelled walls were decorated with six old engravings of William III's London and Westminster, framed in old black frames, and with (these latter hanging on each side of the mantelpiece) two tolerably good engravings from Italian pictures, which the taste of the late farmer had introduced.
Again, the room, like the outside of the house, looked full of quiet, happy life; and apart from the neatness and cleanness of everything, the signs of the occupations of the two beautiful women scattered about it no doubt helped the impression which clung about the whole house, that though old, and handsome in decoration and picturesque in outline, it had never been built for anything different from what it was. Everything was what was thought fit for a rich farmer of that passed day, and everything had grown onto the place as naturally as the growth of the big limes and walnuts the old dead landreve had planted for the first tenant.
John sat down, dazed with the hot sun, and familiar with the room as he was, it had a strange look of interest that day; and again he felt that feeling of something going to happen, and his heart beat in an excited way.
Clara had left them at the door, but presently he heard footsteps and the musical jingling of glasses, and he noted her foot, setting the door left ajar fully open, and there she stood with a tray for his benefit, heavy enough. He jumped up, feeling awkward still, and hurried to take it from her. She showed no coquetry in letting him take it, for it was heavy enough, as aforesaid, but gravely helped him to get it into order on the table; and he fell to without any pressing, and with good will enough, as well he might, for everything was of the freshest, from his own schoolboy appetite to the crisp lettuces.

The elder lady sat busy over her work meantime, and asking him little matters of parish gossip, and he ought to have been getting at his ease long enough ago. The bees never ceased their music, the fowls cackled in the farmyard, there came now and again the distant sound of wheels from the road and it seemed that, even if these had been silent, there would have been a musical murmur about that marks the high tide of a bright summer's day; but he felt restless and uneasy, and wondered why Clara didn't talk, for she was wandering up and down the room restlessly, now taking up her work and picking the threads out of the  unfinished seams, now sitting down in the window-seat and reaching a hand to the clematis that hung over it, now dipping the tip of her fingers into the goldfish glass and them coming up to her mother as if she were going to speak. A great grey cat jumped through the open window and came purring and rubbing against her, but got a very careless acknowledgement from her; so John eyed her, till he began to answer Mrs Mason rather at random, for he thought in himself that she too was waiting for something to happen, as he felt he was, or might

They were all three silent now. John had done his eating, and had drawn back his chair, and was absently enough playing with the cat. At last Clara sat down, and pulling a clematis flower to pieces with her fingers laid before her on the table, broke the silence by saying:

‘What was it you said just now, John, about going into business? Will you have to go up to London?’

‘Dear me, child, how you made me start!’ said her mother. ‘What is it, Master John? I thought we shouldn't lose you. You always seemed so fond of the country here.'

'Well, Mrs Mason,' said he, 'I have no choice as to going somewhere, unless I take the living after my father; and you wouldn't have me waiting for his shoes, though I—though you don't like him, Mrs Mason. Besides, I shall like it. Why should you think me different from other young men who want to see the world, and get on?'

'Well' said she 'I have always thought you and Master Arthur very different from other lads—there, I mustn’t make you blush by saying "much better". And we're such childish ignorant people here that I'm half afraid you will forget us. How hard it is when things change, and people, without any fault on either side, forget each other!  Do you know, I wish you and Arthur were older, just as I have wished of late that Clara were my sister, instead of my daughter—and then there wouldn't be so much chance of a different set of hopes and wishes separating us.'

'Well,' he said, 'I don't want to boast, but I don't think I shall change much; and as for going away, I know that I shall often enough long to be back, but somehow I think it isn't bad for people to be apart for a bit, so that they may have something else to think of than themselves and each other; and sometimes lately—' He stopped himself, and reddened, as his custom was when he got talking or indeed thinking much about his feelings.

'What, John?' said she.

'O nothing,' he said. 'I can't express myself properly.' And that was true; yet there was something more than a vague thought in his head; a feeling that he was half ashamed, half afraid of had fallen on him at whiles lately, of discontent and hopelessness—of emptiness in the summer country about him.

'Well,' she said, 'I see what it is, John, you want some good excuse for explaining your being so glad of getting away from us to new people, and I don't see who is to blame you. Well, I should be more disappointed if Arthur were going instead—don't mean to be unkind,' she said hurriedly, ‘only I think he is the softest-hearted of you two.'

'But when are you going, John?' broke in Clara.

'Not till after Christmas,' he said. 'It's to be in a Russian merchant's house—and now you know as much about it as I do ... except that, Mrs Mason, you don't know how much I shall miss you all.'

'There, I didn't mean anything,' she said. 'Only—I'll tell you the truth—was so vexed to hear that you were going that I was ill-tempered, and fell on the nearest, and that was you. So you'll forgive me? And come and see us often this holidays? With Arthur, when he can go about again? Can you come often, now?

'Yes,' he said. 'Father's gone away for some months. But that reminds me—Arthur will soon be about again, and we want you to take us to Ruddywell Court, and let us give Clara and you a pull on the river, and have a picnic on that little eyot in the river. Please come.'

Clara looked up, grown joyous suddenly, and said:

'O, when shall we go, mother?  I do so want to see the beautiful old house again, and that room with the red bed in it, don't you know?—that Arthur and I liked so much and you didn't, John.'                                                             

'I daresay I shall like it this time,' he said. 'When shall we go, Mrs Mason? Arthur will be about and quite able to go in ten days' time.'

'O, I shall be as pleased to go as any of you,' she said, brightening up. 'I'll let you know in a couple of days, Master John, when I can manage it. There's not much to do this time of year. '

The afternoon was getting on by this time, and for the last ten minutes there had been the sound of cows lowing by the farmyard; and in this pause Mrs Mason seemed to catch the sound, and said—'There, now, the cows will be milked in a few minutes. I'm sure you're not too much of a man to drink a syllabub, Master John.' And without waiting for an answer she hurried out of the room, to get the necessary foundation for that pastoral delicacy.

So the young folk were left alone, and eyed each other rather shyly at first, till John said:

'Father's given Arthur such a good new Arabian Nights—not like the old one, you know—a new translation. Would you like to have a volume?'

'Oh, I should!' she said. 'I do so love tales—but here's an idea, John, bring a volume the day we go to Ruddywell, and let someone read aloud in the eyot. I don't like swallowing my stories so greedily as you boys do. When I get something I like, I like time and place to go with it.'

'Well, I know,' he said. 'I sometimes wonder if I shall have read all the good books before I die. How dull it will be! But I'm not such a bookworm as Arthur. I remember when we were all little, reading in this very room one snowy day, about Christmastime; and he and I read our books wallowing about on the floor, while you read solemnly in the inlaid chair at the table, with your sugarplums handy; but I got tired first, and then you, and then we both bullied Arthur for reading in the twilight, by the firelight—don't you remember?'

'Yes,' she said,  'so well, that I think I can see myself looking up and watching the great snow-flakes growing less and less visible as the light faded. Surely,' she said after a pause, 'we three have been the happiest children that ever lived.'

'What a sweet voice you've got, Clara,' he said suddenly. 'I mean, when you talk.'

She blushed, and laughed merrily, and it was indeed sweet to hear; then she said:

'That's the first time you've ever said anything of that kind to me, John, so I don't wonder at your blushing at it.'

He was blushing with a vengeance, but he laughed too, and said:

'This is the first time I ever saw you blush, Clara, I do believe—so you're no better than I am.'

Then they were both silent a while, until she said, gravely now:

'It's strange we should both have remembered that time so distinctly, isn't it? and be talking about it like old people. I wonder if perhaps in years to come we shall remember this afternoon; the sunniest day in the year, and all so cool and dim in here—and hark, John, the cows just let into the farmyard, and mother here with the green dragon bowl coming—looking so fresh and handsome.'

'What's that, Clara?' said Mrs Mason, colouring up too.

'About people suddenly remembering little scraps of time gone by, mother.'

'Ah, child, I hope you'll never wish you could forget everything but today.'

'No, no, I should never wish that,' she said. 'Whatever happened to me, I should wish to keep it all. But please, mother, don't look as if you were going to cry.'

And she went up to her and began fondling her, John standing by, half pleased, half embarrassed, and with a strange feeling that had gathered over him amid Clara's talk, as if he had got a pain or some great pleasure, which yet set him longing so much for something still greater that it was a pain.

'I'm an old fool,' quoth Mrs Mason, 'not to remember that nobody's griefs are interesting to anybody but themselves. Come along, I'm going to milk one of them myself, under the big walnut tree. Come and get in the hay first, Clara.'

She had indeed put a clean big cooking-apron over her silk dress, which was somewhat showier than one would have expected a farmer to wear, even one as rich as she was. Out they went all three, Clara talking merrily about the milking, and the cows, and her pony, and her pet lamb that was grown an unwieldy great wether now, and John rather looking as if it were all a play got up for his special pleasure; and so to the big barn, with its cool dusky depths, where, with her dress tucked up, she jumped lightly over the quarterboard; John following, amid huge admiration of her ankles.

Continue to Chapter 11

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