- CHAPTER XIII
|<< chapter 12||< prologue|
BECCA was sitting in the garden of the Rectory at St. Ives in October, 1914. At her feet, on that patch of grass which grew rank in the shade, were newspapers; all of them read in a hurry and flung excitedly aside: they bore that look. In her arms was a baby. It was very young and it had a fluff of thick black hair on its soft little helpless head. This head was somnolent near her golden neck. The October day was hot; her throat was bare and her arms showed through the sleeves of her blouse. Behind her was the fuchsia bush with its red frail bells, behind that, the window open, was Kenneth's study, in a great disorder.
The room looked much as it had done on that June morning in 1854 when John Trewhella prepared to fly in haste, because he had murdered Curnow.
Becca could hear the beating of waves at Clodgy and she could hear a slow bell ringing from Towednack.
Buttifant coming across the fields from Hellesvean and opening the garden gate, thought that he had never seen anything more appealing than the look of this ruddy-headed yellow - skinned young woman sitting there with her baby. She presented a figure which belongs to all the ages. When she saw him, the | | 303 glad, friendly colour ran into her cheeks; but she did not stir.
"You! What a delightful surprise!" she held out her hand and leaned carefully forward. "The Commander and your mother are not at Carbis Bay are they?"
"No. They are in London. I came to see you and John-Andrew. I wanted to see you; felt I must."
"How nice! Johnny will be so glad; he wants a man to talk to. I," Becca's laugh ran out of her in sheer mirth, "would be content—just making love and being silly about the baby. A man wants more and wants it different. Does he?"
She spoke without a touch of mournfulness. She was amply happy; that was plain. From a queer gawky girl, she had grown into a grandly formed, placid wife and mother. She was at once vivid and placid; that was the wonder of Becca. Buttifant expressed it to himself this way.
Becca's virility and her flaming sense of life, had from the first made a complete conquest of him. Her egoism carried everything before it. Here we were, as a nation, in an early state of martial upheaval; yet Becca only asked for John-Andrew's worship and for a patter of nonsense over the baby. She made you forget the astonishment of war; she drove you gaudily into the domesticities.
Buttifant sat himself on the grass. He sat with his knees hunched and his arms round them; looking white, small and compressed.
"Do men want more than that?" he lifted his brows. "I wouldn't."| | 304
"I don't believe you would." Becca looked down at him. "But then poor Jane——"
She broke off, seeing his face change; it blotched and wavered.
"I'm sorry," she said. "What a great, happy, clumsy beast I am!"
"Don't be sorry. I've been to Highgate. I went to see her grave. I went straight from there to Paddington and came to Cornwall."
"You shouldn't have gone. Where's the good?" Becca was impatient with him; as happy people living in the broad sunlight are.
"I shan't do it again," Buttifant said meekly." Not for a long while; perhaps not at all."
His voice, throughout, had been weighted with meaning, but Becca never noticed. She was beaming at her baby. Yet she was not the ordinary plump young mother—there was something more than sheer maternity to those slant-wise, wicked dark eyes of hers. Little petals! He had always thought of them that way. Plenty of weeping for Becca somehow, somewhere. He felt sure of it.
He shut his own eyes, he very gently rocked himself, as he sat on the grass in the scented shade, listening to the sea and listening to the church bell that rang from Towednack.
"The contrast," he said," between this and Highgate Cemetery! All the paths there have been newly gravelled—at least I thought so. All the stones have been scraped; men are sweeping up each leaf as it falls. Such order! Jane must be delighted."
"Don't dwell on it," said Becca. "No doubt Jane is better off. We are taught to look at it that way. | | 305 Mr. Buttifant—do look at my son's hands. John-Andrew the Second's hands!"
She detached one tiny paw from her neck where it lay, drew it to her lips and kissed it.
"Real finger-nails," she said triumphantly. "I kiss them a thousand times."
"They're nice little hands." Buttifant regarded them. "Wonder what they'll grow up to do! Aren't you glad they're not big enough to hold a——"
"Weapon!" Becca's face stirred from its maternal repose. 'Yes, I am. Yet it must be wonderful to give a son for your country."
"I can't make my mother see that," said Buttifant meaningly.
"Mr. Buttifant!" Her voice, so he thought, was like Jane's. "You haven't enlisted?"
"I have. It's what I came down to say."
"Oh!" Becca became more stirred. "And Gabriel Best has gone. And Kenneth's going to be an Army Chaplain. He volunteered at once. Just look at his study," she jerked her red head back. "Did you ever see such a mess? I don't mind Kenneth going at all, nor did I mind Gabriel—much. But I don't want to lose you."
She looked at Buttifant radiantly.
"You are," she added and holding out her hand, "such a brick! Go on living, go on doing water colours."
Then she laughed.
Buttifant took her hand and held it. They understood each other. They always would, because they had the knack of love. They were thinking of Jane in her tidy grave at Highgate. Becca said,
"If she had lived, you wouldn't have gone?"| | 306
"Very likely not. Yet I don't know. Perhaps this war is the bigger thing. You don't know till you have to choose."
"John-Andrew mustn't choose," said Becca sharply.
"What mustn't I choose?"
John-Andrew came quietly through the long window of the study. He put his lean brown hand on his wife's head. When he touched her she flung up her face in hearty, yet shy response and, stooping, he kissed her strong chin.
Buttifant watched them. With John-Andrew, caress had already become merely a respectable habit, with Becca it remained new, and, in a sense, stolen.
"Johnny! You came like a ghost! Kenneth's study is a ghostly place. You see Mr. Buttifant sitting there don't you?"
"I see him," John-Andrew shook hands with Buttifant, then squatted down on the grass by his side, "but I see you first."
It was a pretty turn but quite mechanical. Buttifant watched. John-Andrew had preserved the form of his courting days but it was no longer symbolic.
"How jolly of you to turn up, Buttifant! I wonder I didn't meet you at the station. I've been down to see if they've put out any more placards about the war. Anything fresh happened?"
"Yes it has, Johnny. Mr. Buttifant has enlisted; that ought to have a placard to itself."
John-Andrew's face had conveyed to Buttifant a steady sadness, but now it changed. It became the distraught face of that John-Andrew who had lived in Gray's Inn upon the earnings of Jane.| | 307
"You've enlisted!" he stared blankly at Buttifant. "My God! That's a way out."
He smartly slapped his friend's leg.
"A way out!"
Becca said this. Her husband met her dark eyes.
"This way out!" he said with a rapid gesture of his arm, stretching it and pointing. "I've seen signposts in my time, darling, and this is one."
Kenneth had a bracket clock with a pretty chime in the study. It now struck! Becca instantly gathered her baby together and stood up. It was past feeding time. She suddenly thought of nothing else.
"Don't let Johnny get too excited about the war," she said warningly to Buttifant, then went away.
What wonderful ways women had with a baby! Little devout gestures, dovelike movements. It came to them naturally, as swimming came to ducks. All Buttifant's passionate tenderness for women stirred. He watched Becca go into the house, passing through Kenneth's study with its distraught and broken look of tumbled papers and disordered furniture.
He was alone with John-Andrew. They sat hunched together on the long grass in the shade; with sea breaking, with a bell ringing. How demented John-Andrew had been just before his breakdown about Jane's typewriting bell! There was nothing demented about him now—save for that moment when he had violently said, "My God."
Absolute sanity sat upon his face and steady sadness. Yet he broke out, as Buttifant sat speculating upon him.
"Why did Becca come to the Nursing Home? Why couldn't she have left me alone?"| | 308
So that was it! He had this glorious Becca with their child; yet he was not satisfied. He had his fortune and his reputation as the author of Cackle Street. He was not satisfied. What more did he want then?
Buttifant was silent, sad and contemptuous. Some men got everything, yet they grizzled! If he—now—could have stepped into a garden—and found Jane sitting there with a baby! And come behind and put his hand on her round fawny-coloured head! And kissed that good-tempered face with the pale eyes that steadfastly refused to talk! If he could have clone that. And it was—never. For Jane was dead. He was fresh from the stony coldness, from the awful order, of her grave and of all the other graves.
"If Becca had left me alone," John-Andrew dropped his voice, he looked backward into the tumbled study, "just a week or two longer, I should have told you everything. I should have persuaded you that what I said was true. For I did murder Jane. You can believe it or not."
"I don't believe it and neither do you. Cut Jane's throat. Of course you didn't."
"I didn't cut her throat." John-Andrew seemed confused. "But there is Cackle Street."
"Cackle Street took it out of you more than you suppose. I don't wonder: it is stupendously clever, Vaguener."
"I suppose it is." John-Andrew was cold, he was grudging; his little eyes, dark and sly, looked obstinately out to sea. "I shall never finish the other play. I've got plenty to live on. I've written and told Branch so. He took it very well; he's | | 309 made pots out of me, confound him. I never cared for Branch."
"I wouldn't hurry about another play," said Buttifant soothingly.
He was profoundly relieved to hear that John-Andrew had dropped the idea of this second play. It was shocking drivel. John-Andrew had read it to him since he came out of the Nursing Home.
"There has been," John-Andrew looked steadily seawards, his face was like a cold drizzle, a day sulkily set in wet, "such an utter lack of glory about everything I've done. I'm soulless, I'm cold. I'll go to the war. I'll get killed. They may stick up over me, 'Here lies a chap who'd got no soul.' "
"Soulless, cold!" Buttifant could only echo him. "Why the tenderness and the poignancy, the vigour and fire of Cackle Street——"
"Oh curse Cackle Street," shouted John-Andrew.
Buttifant was far from cursing this transcendent play. Quotations from it danced in his head, scenes from it moved before his eyes. He had seen it performed many times. His enthusiasm for it reflected his love for Jane. Cackle Street's source was her soul; but Buttifant would never know this.
John-Andrew was sitting with his hands before his face. Buttifant had seen him sit that way before.
"I was religious once or thought I was," a desolate voice came through those slightly parted fingers, "yet I never denied myself, I only wanted to express myself, to satisfy and content myself—and the rest of the world might be damned for all I cared. I wasn't like that dear old prig and duffer Kenneth. He's slaved over this unresponsive parish and now he's | | 310 going off to the war to expend himself—probably uselessly—on another ungrateful rôle. Then there's Becca——"
"Ah, Becca!" said Buttifant reverently.
John-Andrew took his hands from his face.
"Making love was wonderful—while it lasted," he said solemnly. "I thought I'd found the thing I wanted. I'm always thinking of myself; it's just me, just me—me. I didn't care what she wanted or what she felt. I didn't give her a thought. Marvellous days, those courting days. I remember one night on the hills above Towednack and—by the way—you hear that bell ringing? There is a bell isn't there?"
"Yes, there's a bell, right enough."
"Of course there is." John-Andrew sounded relieved. "Old Mrs. Polmeor is to be buried to-day. Becca told me so at lunch time. Then we got married and went to London to live and then I got bored; the spirit went out of it, the reality died: the thing—the joy you know—the thing I thought I'd found—made a face at me. That's all. It was the same with religion and the same when I took to writing. Now it is the same with Becca and the boy. Poor little beggar! I hope he won't have such a proud stomach—of the emotions—as his father." John-Andrew laughed wildly. He got up, straggling on to unsteady feet.
"My God," he burst out again, and looking down at Buttifant," I'll go to the war. I'll enlist, as you've done."
"You might do worse." Buttifant met his frenzied glance. "You'll have your nose against the real thing at last. But you have—her—to think of."| | 311
He could hear Becca very softly singing in an upper room—the veriest little buzz of a humming; nothing more. He could hear her even footfall on the floor. She was getting the boy to sleep.
Poor little Becca! Her time to cry would surely come.
John-Andrew shook his sleek head. "I shan't think of her. When did I ever think of anybody? My dear old man, you leave me to manage Becca."
He looked haggard yet enlightened. He had sprung a fresh hope. He would enlist. Yes! War for him: and so find peace.
"I'll see you later on," said Buttifant, rising suddenly, "she'll be coming down presently."
"Tea's at four." John-Andrew sounded sane as Buttifant strolled towards the gate.
Becca returned to the garden soon after. She sat down by her husband; she took his limp arm and laughing, playing, settled it round her waist.
"I've got him off to sleep, Johnny. You wouldn't like to come upstairs and look?"
"Not now," John-Andrew's voice was tired and gentle, "I'll see him before I go."
"Before you go! Where? Not into the town on the chance of more old silly newspapers, darling; because we can't make the war wag faster than it does. It is awful, this war." Becca's voice deepened. "It is beginning to take even me by the throat, although I'm so deliciously happy. Mother's upstairs crying and going through Kenneth's things. It seems almost an outrage to be happy when everybody is miserable. And fancy Mr. Buttifant enlisting. His mother must be broken-hearted. She adores him."| | 312
"A decent mother," said John-Andrew austerely, "would be glad to see him go."
"And a decent wife?" Becca stuck her flaming head wickedly under his chin. "Would she be glad?"
John-Andrew lifted her head. With an implied weariness, he shoved her softly away. Becca's caresses began to stifle him. They shocked him.
She sat up. He had his arm round her waist—since she had put it there; he held her hand fast. This was his own caress; tense and it hurt her. That grip of his hurt her very much. She grew whiter but she never moved. John-Andrew must always do whatever he liked with her.
Suddenly his whole body seemed to slip; he became universally limp, he ducked his head and laid it in her wide, soft lap. His arm was drawn from her waist, her hand that he had wrung and pinched was free. He had his mouth at her skirt and his nervous clawing fingers. He was kneeling distractedly in the long grass.
"Let me go to the war, Becca. Don't hold me back. Let me kill if I can't create." He was fierce and broken.
"Create! But Johnny, there is Cackle Street."
They were hurling it at him, stuffing it down his throat. This was to be his punishment; they would choke him with Jane's play. Paper and not a rope would hang him!
He said to Becca, as he had said to Buttifant, "Curse Cackle Street."
"It was too much for you." Becca stroked his satin-sleek black head. "You have never quite recovered from the strain."| | 313
She was looking at the sea and thinking of ships that were crossing it: ships that carried away the men, leaving their women alone. Yet her man she had.
"I can't let you go, I won't. And he can't let you go and he won't," she said passionately.
She was crying violently; her tears tickled John-Andrew's jaw, as they pattered on his head, then trickled sideways.
"Don't go, Johnny, don't go. We are so happy."
He lifted up his face. She had never seen anything so grim. John-Andrew turned her joy to stone.
"I can't be happy if I don't go, Becca. Dreadful things may happen if I don't go. For his sake, for all our sakes—for God's sake—let me go. It is our only chance."
He wailed at her.
She surveyed all the bewilderment of agony upon his pinched yellow face. She had not wiped her own face. It remained wet and her little crooked dark eyes were lurid. She said after a long time—and through that time John-Andrew continued to stare at her in his new terrible way:
"Yes—you go. I don't know what you mean, but—go!"
John-Andrew blundered up, he dragged her with him, he encompassed her in his arms. They clung and hung together, not speaking; shaking, crying both of them. Rebecca Polmeor's funeral-bell rang at intervals through the sweet, salt, sun-laden air.
John-Andrew began to fling kisses upon his wife's neck, upon the lobes of her little ears.| | 314
"Becca! Yes—I'll go."
He said this, then he let her loose, he pushed her coldly into her chair. He had no further use for her.
She said hysterically:
"You plump me down in this garden chair as if you were putting an angel on a throne. Reverently—but in a hurry. As if you didn't want me any more."
"You are an angel," he stood over her, "but they are no good at the war. So—putting it that way—I don't want you any more. I'm done with you."
He spoke thoughtfully. His look at her was new.
She was wiping her eyes and realising all her coming woe.
He turned away aloof and radiant.
"I'll go and find Buttifant," he said, speaking over his shoulder and hurrying towards the garden gate.
Becca watched him. He went trotting after Buttifant. Only Buttifant mattered: for he expressed the essence of soldier. Whatever jump the war took, she had lost John-Andrew.
|<< chapter 12||< prologue|