The Novel on Blue Paper - Chapter 6
IN THE GARDEN—OLD JACK'S STORY
John ran into the tool-house and took up a garden fork, preparatory to going off to the melon-ground where the worm populated old dung-heaps were. For some strange reason, that moment and the half-hour were one of the unforgotten times of his life; and in after days he could never smell the mixed scent of a tool-house, with its bast mats and earthy roots and herbs, in a hot summer evening, without that evening, with every word spoken and gesture made, coming up clear into his memory. It struck on him as he came out of the tool-house again into the glow of the evening; and all his boyish visions of the great water-lily leaves spreading over the perch holes, vanished and left him with that vague feeling of disappointment in life past, yet hope of life to come, the expectant longing for something sweet to come, heightened rather than chastened by the mingled fear of something as vague as the hope, that fills our hearts so full in us at whiles, killing all commonplace there, making us feel as though we were on the threshold of a new world, one step over which (if we could only make it) would put life within our grasp. What is it? Some reflex of love and death going on throughout the world, suddenly touching those who are ignorant as yet of the one, and have not learned to believe in the other?
He passed slowly over the grass, growing dewy now, and still moving mechanically towards the melon ground entered a walk that led to the walled kitchen garden, and which, being covered over with thick clipped yew trees, was very nearly dark now. Just as he was reaching out his hand to the latch of the door it opened suddenly, and he started back with a queer sound of terror one would not have expected to come from the strong, healthy-looking youth. It was his father, who stopped a moment, startled too, it seemed, and looked at him, and then walked on again swiftly.
John passed on into the kitchen garden with his heart still beating violently, and a sense of shame upon him. It was much too dark for him to see his father's face in that moment; but he had fancied a look of disgust, and almost hatred, in it.
Anyhow, it was a relief to come into the light that yet was over the sweet-smelling abundant garden, and strip the first white currant bough of its fruit; more of a relief still to hear a heavy tread close before him, mingled with the squeak of a pair of stiff corduroy breeches, and presently he met, with a smiling face, the undergardener and cow-boy—so-called, for he was near sixty years old at least.
'Going after brandlings, Master John?' said he. 'I've got you a lot well scoured, because I guessed you'd be too busy with Master Arthur, and Mrs Hadow told me you'd be going fishing about as now.'
Therewith he put the bait-box in John's hand, and they both walked back together, the breeches performing with great regularity, till the boy said:
'Shall you be going to Leaser Farm on the way, Master John?'
'Perhaps, Jack,' said he, conscious that he was blushing in the dusk.
'Give my duty to the old missus if you do, and little Miss. I'm told she asked you why I didn't come up and see her hayhome time, and that. She's a kind woman, is Mrs Mason. Lord, that was a pleasant house to be at; sometimes I wish to God I hadn't married; not but what Master's a good master too,' he added hastily, and then, after a pause, a little awkwardly perhaps:
'It's a year since I saw Miss Clara.'
'So you told me yesterday, Jack,' said the lad.
'Who do you think'll marry her, sir?'
'Bless us, Jack, what a queer question to ask me!'
'Well, it'll break her mother's heart if anything ill comes to her. And they're a drowsy lot hereabout—drink and sleep and dodder about, I can't think anybody about here's good enough for her.'
'Ha, I know you come from Wiltshire, Jack, and despise us butter-makers, eh? Well, Clara shall go on a journey to your chalky Paradise, and bring away a moonraker.'
'I don't know what you mean, Master John,' said the cowboy with a grin. 'But Miss Clara's father was as learned as a parson, and almost as sour, begging your pardon, sir.'
'How did he get on with father, Jack?'
'Well,' said the cow-boy, 'it ain't exactly the sort of thing to talk about to you; but I think if Mr Mason hadn't died of cholera, one or other of them must have busted; they couldn't live together in a twenty mile ring—I'm a-going down towards the cowhouse, Master John—they did hate each other so. I daresay you've heard tell that Mr Mason wasn't right about his religion—not exactly a Dissenter, you know, but thought there was no Bible, nor miracles, nor nothing; and so he didn't come to church, and you know I daresay somehow that put the parson's back up, though—no offence, Master John—but folk say the parson would be best pleased if the church were to walk off to London, so that nobody mightn't come to it. Well, there was a many things went on a twixt and atween—mongst others, a row about your going there, you and Master Arthur, when you was little, and the nurse sent away for taking you there, and she believed to be a little drunk, Master John. And that was about the time I came to your honoured father. And I'll tell you no lies, but I must say that I think it was because I was under a cloud up at Leaser that parson took me in—for that damned thief Jenkins, a porridge-faced Welshman, he said I took the oats. A man with a wife and family to say that! That was just before I was married, sir, and I often wish I'd got his head under my spade, I do.
Well, I shouldn't tell you, only you must remember that your father was as soured as might be, because Mr Mason had given you and Master Arthur half-a-crown apiece that day.'
'Yes, I remember, Jack,' said the lad, 'though I was only about nine then. It was a big tip for a farmer to give such a little chap.'
'Ah, he was always a liberal man, was Mr Mason. Well, you know I was with your father then, sir, and he came down the peach-walk of a hot day of June, swearing more than I thought to hear a parson swear. And if I don't lie, he said as he passed by me: ''I'll find something for him to do with his half-crowns.'' And then—you know, you're rather young to know about things like that—but Kitty Churchill, at the post office, she fathered her child at Mr Mason, and my wife's sister, who was still at Leaser, she said there was a fine row there. Anyhow, next day down comes Mrs Mason to the rectory, and she goes and gives your father a bit of her mind—for I'll tell you right out, Master John, it was in everybody's mouth that the parson had set Miss Kitty on to that business. Well, you know the housemaid, she told my wife that she listened at the door, and Mrs Mason, she was proud and stiff, and talked beautiful, and your father roared, and made a noise—and this is what she heard her say: ''Mr Risley, if my husband likes to make love to every girl in the village, he has a full right to it, if I let him. And let me tell you,'' says she, ''that if he was to do what he would be hanged for, he would be a better man than you, who haven't the spirit to do either right or wrong." She's a good woman, she is; and if I had a-taken the oats, I'd work on anything short of a treadmill, to pay her back. But I ask your pardon, Master John, I haven't got anything to say against your father. Beside, you'll have heard this often enough before.'
'Well, some of it, perhaps, Jack, but not in quite the same way. I say, I must get back, it's getting quite dark. It's going to be fine to-morrow, isn't it?'
'Why, you won't burst yourself eating all you catch, Master John. The water's as low as low.'
'Never mind, Jack,' he said. 'I'll give you everything I catch above two pounds. Just take the fork home, will you.'
And he went off whistling from the garden into the field from which they had come, just as the low moon was yellowing through the windless summer night, in which the nightingales were beginning to sing now. One may easily imagine that his nervous, sentimental mood had vanished before the gardener's talk.
Yet so it was, that it didn't pain him much to hear his father spoken of so. At any rate, that thought wasn't the uppermost in his mind, as he startled the blackbirds out of their roosts in the thick leaves. Nay, whatever there was of sordid about the story had slipped off him, and left a pleasant feeling of life active and full of incidents, and of change going on about him, with I know not what of sweeter, of sweetest, lurking behind it all; and the little pleasures lying ready to his hand, they also were so keenly felt, so full of their own beauty; how happy he was, as he strode out into the light that, the just lit-up house threw over the dewy lawn! Strong, and happy, and full of life—what should touch him, or harm him?