William Morris Archive


This brought the time to the end of June. There had been broken, stormy weather for nearly a week, and all the farm people went to bed the night before with fears about the weather, Mrs Mason being at least as eager as the others. The day dawned with a heavy mist, and would have looked unpromising enough to an unweatherwise person, but John was none such, and announced joyfully that they were going to have a wonderful day; as, indeed, it turned out, for the mist was clearing even from the low ground about Leaser Farm as the brothers drove their phaeton into the orchard, and stopped before the little green railings, where the two women stood ready dressed in the doorway, not to lose time.

'My, you're not as well as I expected to see you, Master Arthur,' said Mrs Mason, as they all stood together beside the carriage; and indeed, Arthur was pale and trembling, and stood leaning with one hand on the carriage after Clara's kiss, and rather timid welcome.

The two brothers looked for the moment different enough, for John’s face was flushed through its sunburn amid his ruddy-brown hair, and yet his brows were knitted anxiously; while Arthur was smiling with the look of a sick person who has suddenly got a great pleasure.

'O, it's nothing,' he said. 'I shall be all right when we are going through the air again.'

Mrs Mason turned into the house for a glass of wine, while Clara looked rather grave. Said she:

'Are you quite sure you can go, Arthur?'

'O dear yes,' he said. 'The doctor said it would do me good, didn't he, Jack?'

He made half a step forward as he spoke, and touched her sleeve with his hand, and then let it slip onto hers. She held it quite simply and kindly, and her eyes were fixed on him with a tender and anxious look that made the poor lad forget everything else. They did not notice that John turned away to the horse's head. But when in a moment Mrs Mason came out of the house with the glass of wine, Arthur drew his hand away rather hastily, and flushing, so that Mrs Mason cried:

'Why, what ails you? You two haven't been quarrelling in this minute, have you?'

Arthur laughed, though rather awkwardly. Clara flushed too, but still looked steadily at him, and with that John was come back to the carriage door in high spirits. A big handled basket with a white cloth was handed by the red-cheeked, black-haired maid into the driver's seat; John nodded to her and shook hands with her and jumped up into his place without ceremony, leaving the three others to help themselves into the inside, where Arthur was set, despite his politeness, leaning back in the roomy back seat, with Mrs Mason discreetly sitting by him, and Clara opposite her mother.

So off they went, John turning round to talk in extra merry ways, and answered at first by Mrs Mason only; but soon, as they drove through the now bright sun and the fragrant shadow of the high hedges and lanes, all awkwardness wore off the other two as well, and they all seemed as happy as might be.

The two women were clad as for merrymaking, and both gracefully enough; the mother in black silk, with an Indian shawl over her, a sort of heirloom of her mother's; the daughter also in a dress whose material came out of the chest on the landing at home. It was an India muslin, soft and fine, with a little sprig worked over it in floss silk. Over this she had nothing but a delicately assorted shaded scarf; at her throat was a brooch, made of a faint miniature of some long­dead ancestor of her father's (a red-coated, crested-helmed militia man), set in a coppery gold frame, and a thin chain of the same material was over her neck. These were her own private treasure, but her mother had lent her for the occasion an old-fashioned bracelet of thin chains of Genoese gold, clasped with a clasp of the same fashion as the ring on her finger, described before; and she wore it on her left wrist, so much whiter than her hands, from which she had pulled the gloves now, rather still as though she were committing an impropriety.

When she first got in she had a bunch of beautiful cabbage­roses in her hand, which she held in her hand for some time, looking at Arthur all the while, yet with a strange faraway look in her lowlying eyes, as though she did not see him. But that melted away in a while into mere tender kindness and she reached out to him, and put it into his hands, saying:

'I meant them for you. They are the last we shall have.'

So they drove merrily enough by roads running along the side of the hills, till, after going down a steep descent, they came over to a little village scattered about a goose green; and then, turning round a corner, came upon the ancient garden wall, over-topped with fig-trees and mulberries, of Ruddywell Court. They stopped before the great Queen Anne iron gates presently, and Arthur and the two ladies got down there, and walked slowly up to the beautiful old yew-hedged garden toward the front of the house, while John drove off to stable his horse at the Sun, which lay nearer to the river.

The house was too much like other fine Elizabethan houses to need any particular description, so one need only say that it was among the completest, though not the largest, existing of its kind. Being received by the housekeeper, they sat down in the cool, deserted-looking hall and waited for John, who came back presently, and they were soon all four wondering, each in his or her own way, at the show things. Arthur and Clara both got very eager over the pictures, though to most people there would have been nothing very interesting about them, as they were some few bad copies of well-known Italian masters, or endless portraits (some not genuine), some dull works of fourth-rate painters of such things, and three naif queer productions of the Holbein and Janet school; these latter, all boastfully calling themselves works of the first master, were hung in the room with the red beds which Clara spoke of the other day, to which they came presently.

The place was all full of old furniture, tapestry and armour, some of it really remarkable. They enjoyed themselves hugely among all these magnificences. The housekeeper was a friend of Mrs Mason's, so they were not trotted through at the usual rate, but sat about in special corners, and handled everything at their pleasure. Arthur's eyes sparkled with pleasure, and he did the talking for almost the whole company, for he was really somewhat versed in archaeological lore, and could tell scraps of stories from old chronicles, and the like. John had got rather silent now, but made little jokes from time to time, which rather jarred on both his brother and Clara. She, for her part, kept close by Arthur, listening with real pleasure to his talk, taking care that he should have the best seat when they halted, and following him to the window when he went there to enjoy the deep green garden.

So at last they came to the room with red beds which was called Queen Elizabeth's room, and was hung with tapestry of an earlier date than the present house; in which knights and ladies were walking and playing amid a faded grey garden, populous with pheasants and rabbits. A great red­hung bed was in the darkest corner, and a smaller one of the same material and colour beside it. A suit of bright steel armour was in the other corner, and on the wall were the three pictures in question—two handsome bearded men in slouched hats, and a wonderfully ugly, big-nosed lady in a rich dress, holding a pink in her fingers.

The one deeply-recessed window looked over the corner of an orchard onto wide flat meads, and a flashing river beyond. The sun had gone from that side of the house now, and the room as shadowed room has on a hot day. So, when they had looked at the pictures and tapestry and embroidered coverlets, Arthur sat down somewhat wearily, and Mrs Mason said:

'Don't you think you had better rest a bit here, Master Arthur, before dinner? You won't last out till the end of the day if you are not careful of yourself.'

Arthur demurred, and Mrs Mason was just going to speak again when Clara said:

'Do stay and rest, Arthur, and I'll stop with you. I'm rather tired, too.'

The burly housekeeper smiled, for she had seen that Mrs Mason was going to offer to stay behind, and she wasn't over-sorry to be rid of Arthur's (to her) stupendous lore, so that she might have her say, and didn't want to lose the chance of talking to her friend; so she said:

'Yes, you two young ones and solemn ones stay, if anybody must, for I know you are on the look-out for ghosts and romantic matter, and if one could see a ghost at noontide I am sure I should come to this room to look for it.'

So they passed on, John talking merrily to the housekeeper, and left the two there—Arthur sitting in a big chair near the corner, and Clara near him, her dainty fresh skirts brushing against the old hard armour. Almost without looking, he was conscious that she had laid her left hand on the breastplate, and even though he half saw it, he began to dream about it, as his way was about everything, to make it something different from what it was. All the morning as he talked he imagined her thoughts about him, and had changed her clinging kindness into heaven knows what dream of singlehearted passion; and now as she stood silent there, and he sat trembling and afraid to break the sweetness of being alone with her, he imagined her in like case; and now she turned her head a little, and their eyes met—hers so tender and compassionate, for she saw a worn, anxious look in his face.

'Are you very tired, dear?' she said in a sweet low voice. It thrilled through him with inexpressible sweetness, for she had not yet used so soft a word to him. His face lighted up as he shook his head, and reaching out his hand, touched the sleeve of her left arm, and then, as before, let his hand fall down onto her palm, that yielded passively to him while a look like surprise came into her face. He noticed it, despite his dreaming, and began to talk hurriedly, without losing her hand, though.

'Wouldn't you like to know all about the old fellow that wore it, Clara? How he went to and fro, and who the people were he was fond of?'

'Yes,' she said, 'though I suppose people were dull and stupid then like they are now, when they fall in love, and are happy and unhappy—and write poetry, too. I've never seen any old books of that time, Arthur.'

'There are some old chronicles at home,’ he said. I don’t know why I've never lent them to you. You see, when we three have been together lately, we have been busy talking about things going on. Besides, I wasn't sure that you could read them easily without someone to help. Let me come over and read pieces to you this summer, out in the garden.'

'Yes, do,' she said.

'You know,' he went on, 'one has fits of not caring for fishing and shooting a bit, and then I get through an enormous lot of reading—and then again one day one goes out, and down to the river, and looks at the eddies and then suddenly one thinks of all that again. And then another day, when one has one's rod in one's hand, one looks up and down the field, or sees the road slowly winding along, and I can't help thinking of tales going on amongst it all, and long so much for more and more books—don 't you know?'

'Well,' she said, 'one day goes so much like another with me'—and she gave a little unconscious sigh—'and women have so much less of stirring things to look forward to than men. And yet I won't say that I don't make tales to myself too.'

She blushed scarlet as she spoke, and Arthur felt the hand he was nursing tighten on his a little. His heart leaped at it, and again, what tales he told himself!' He was silent as he watched the colour fading out of her face again, and at last he said with a great effort:

'Clara, you get more and more beautiful every day. There! I never said a word about that before, and if you're not angry, I'm glad I said it now.'

If he expected to see the blush come into her face again, he was disappointed. She only looked at him with such serious eyes, as she answered:

'Why should I be angry, Arthur? I'm pleased, because I think you know about such things, and people about here don't much, I fancy. And though I don't I should set my heart on it much, I can't help being pleased at being—being well-looking.'

'You're a great deal more than that,' he said. 'I hope we—you will be happy, for somehow beautiful people so often seem to be unhappy.'

‘O,' she said, with a real merry laugh, 'don't say such unlucky things, for' (she did colour again a little here) 'I've heard Mother say that you were like to turn out the handsomest of the two—there! are you angry?' she said, laughing again, for his face was scarlet. 'Besides', she said, gravely and rather primly, 'people are always happy when they do what is right.'

He laughed out at this, and said:

'Ill luck for me, Miss Clara, who don't do a twentieth part of what I ought, and never shall—come, I know you don't believe that?'

'I don't know,' she said, turning towards the armour again. She had gently drawn her hand away for a minute or two. 'Tell us, Arthur, could a man like that have walked about our house?'

'No,' he said, 'don't you remember the date? This fellow is as old, almost, as the chancel of our church. There's a brass just like him in the floor.'

He rose as he spoke, and took the halberd out of the mailed hand, and lowered the blade of it for her to see the engraved ornament on it. She drew to it with a pleased smile as he began to talk about it, and tell her what the figures meant. Her face was so near his that he felt her breath upon it, and was as happy as might be; and as he moved to put it back in its place, the look of surprise came into her face, unnoted by him.

He led her to the window-seat, on which he knelt while she leaned forward by him. Then they talked about the day, and how delightful it would be upon the river, till suddenly the voices and footsteps of the returning party were heard, and Arthur loosed her hand, and turned with a start to meet them. If he had looked at her face, he would have seen something like trouble in it now; and would certainly not have put it down to the right cause.

As for Clara, she greeted them with:

'Arthur's quite rested now, mother.'

'Yes, whoever else is tired,' quothe the housekeeper, grinning.

'O, we're not tired,' said Mrs Mason, simply not seeing the cunning old lady's grin, or noticing her emphasis; though, if we must say the truth, she would not have been greatly distressed if she had seen lovemaking going on between the two, after her first qualm of fear at the parson's violence of indignation and brutality, and of doubt as to whether John would not have made the better lover.

Well, they walked slowly back through the corridors and cool dark rooms, happily enough, all of them; the young ones full of eager life, made miraculous by vague dreams for the future; dreams that were shared, more or less, by Mrs Mason amid the regrets of her widowhood, for she, whose sweet and kindly feelings hardly included passion, as her dreamy and vague mind hardly included reason, found her failing interest in contemplating the future of her daughter's heart, whom she loved tenderly, scarcely remembering, maybe, that she was her daughter.

Continue to Chapter 14

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