He has left Mary to walk home alone in the last of the light that fades, with the year, earlier each afternoon.
This time last year he would have worked while the light lasted and then set out to meet her. Not because she was afraid – there was nothing and no-one for her to fear – but for the pleasure of her company. The pleasure of walking with her in the twilight. Of hearing the drowsy squeaks and squawks of nesting birds, the idle, overhead calls of soaring gulls, the scufflings of animals setting out to hunt or settling for the night. Sounds overlaid by the background noises of the sea, the folding-over of waves against the shingle, the splash of surf against the rocks, the gurgle of movements in the gullies or, on wilder nights, the crash and roar that drowned out those other sounds and drove the pair of them towards the warmth and shelter of their cottage.
This year is different. This year Mary walks home, every day, on her own, no matter how late, or dark or wet it might be and Orion does not, it seems, notice whether she is there or not.
Orion, who retreats instead as the light fades into his upstairs room where he lights his candles and draws, as Henry has instructed him, what he sees around him.
Draws… the edge of the table, scratched and stained but with the grain of the wood still visible, with the roughly-sharpened point of a pencil laid across it. The web of a spider, decorated with minute flies, caught by the candlelight in the corner of the room as it shifts in the draught from the window. The hooded iron fireplace with its pattern of twisted leaves …
And now the child is not there.
Perhaps, because Henry has promised to paint him and will do so far better than Orion can ever do, he has retreated back into the shadows and Orion is, for the moment at least, free.
Immersed in his work he has not heard Mary return until she calls. Nor has he realised how much time has passed, although, apart from a last remaining streak of gold above the western hillside, it is almost completely dark outside and one of his two candles, burnt to a stump, gives out more smoke than light.
The smell of Mary’s stew, however, catches at his nostrils as he opens the door at the foot of the stairs and reminds him that he is hungry.
“Tha’ smells proper.”
He speaks to her back as she stands stirring the pan and she doesn’t answer.
It is the same stew as last night’s – swede and potato with a few grains of barley and made with a boiled knuckle of bacon from Mrs Roscrow, who has realised without being told that they are in difficulties, and they eat in a silence broken only by the hiss and spitting of logs in the hearth.
When they have finished she brings in a rolled suet pudding, stuffed with slices of the small green apples from the tree in the lane and too sour to be enjoyed. It is, however, filling and, although Mary eats little, Orion eats with what enthusiasm he can manage.
He has had, throughout the meal, a feeling inside him that he is unable at first to recognise. A tension that starts in his chest and works itself down to settle in his stomach where it remains, along with the weight of the swede, the potato and the suet crust.
It is not until he breaks the silence by thanking Mary for the meal that he remembers where and when he has felt it before.
It was at home, in Quarry Place, when his mother was in one of her black moods.
Ida was always noisy, he remembers, when she was angry, slamming the kettle onto the range, thumping at pastry as if it had insulted her, crashing pans with loud exclamations so that the house was filled with her violence. Mary, however, is not one to clatter pans or raise her voice, but something about her this evening disturbs him; something about which, as with his mother, he dare not ask.
Moving to his chair beside the fire, which burns sullenly from the damp wood scavenged from the shore and which has not had time to dry out, he wishes, all the same, that he might dare – or might find some way of making things better.
Mary, scouring dirty dishes and putting them to drain, stares into the darkness of the yard and the stars rising over the darker shapes of the outhouses and remembers her work with Mrs Roscrow this morning, picking over bowls of currants and raisins and putting them to soak in a mix of tea and brandy, ready for tomorrow’s making of the puddings. Not for this Christmas – those have been stacked for months in the outside pantry – but for Christmas of next year. Also in the pantry is the fine goose, slaughtered yesterday, in addition to which Mrs Roscrow has spoken of a raised pie, a ham and a brace of woodcock…
While she and Orion, Mary wonders, will eat what? Yet more swede and potato stew or a couple of pasties made from potato and herbs?
Or should they kill one of the chickens who have almost, with the cold weather, stopped laying? In which case there will be fewer eggs than ever next year.
This time last year, she thinks, wringing her cloth into the sink, Orion sold leeks and winter cabbages at market and brought home a leg of pork and dried fruit and nuts for a cake. This time last year they had a cosy Christmas, just the two of them, which was the way they wanted it.
This year she has no idea what either of them wants.
“Awright are ‘ee midear?”
There he was again. Mr Drage. Standing in the back doorway, a large pollack laid out on a cloth in the basket over his arm. “My, tha’ smells proper,” he added before she had time to reply. “Lucky souls. ‘Avin’ you cook for them.”
“They pays me.” Ida, busy preparing the vegetables to go with her beef pudding, had no time to chat. Nor any need of pollock. “I din’ order no fish,” she added.
He seemed unmoved by her lack of friendliness.
“I d’know that. I thought ‘ee might like it to take ‘ome. I went out with the boat las’ night. “Tha’ll do Ida Goss,” I thought when we landed this beauty. “‘E’ll cook up lovely and she’s just the one to do it.”
Ida bowed to the inevitable and stepped aside to allow him into the kitchen. Just the one, he meant, to cook it for him to share. For it was a good-sized fish. Too much for one person and who else would she share it with? Lifting the big teapot she filled him a mug, added milk and watched as he put out an arm for the sugar bowl.
“Piece o’ cake?” She reached with resignation for the tin.
This was happening too often she thought, pulling irritably at the leaves of the cabbage she was inspecting for snails as he sucked loudly at his tea. Twice last week and now again, arriving late in the afternoon and generally with an offering of some kind. Generally, of course, fish but last Thursday it had been two lamb cutlets, swapped, she imagined, with Mr Dunning the butcher who was partial, apparently, to a nice, fresh mackerel.
Thrusting the cabbage leaves into a pan of salted water with a bit of bicarbonate of soda to keep their green, she started to peel the carrots. It was gone half past five and Mr Polmear and the Jenkins men would be back from the station any minute. The soup was ready, the stew was simmering, the potatoes boiling and the carrots peeled. Afterwards there was milk pudding and stewed apple but once the meat course was served Ida would be free to go home.
With Mr Drage and his pollock, she supposed, in the little cart that would be waiting outside.
“I’m all be’ind with supper,” she lied, as an excuse for not joining him at the table and, having chopped the carrots into much smaller rings than usual, carried the bowl into the scullery, where Annie Richards grinned and muttered to herself as she scrubbed unnecessarily at the wooden draining board.
If only Annie were less half-witted, she thought, as she drained the carrots into the sink, she could have stayed and talked to her but Annie‘s communications with other people never amounted to more than a long drawn-out ‘Ai-is’ – a fact of which Mr Drage was quite well aware – and there was no avoiding him.
Back in the kitchen he was starting on his third slice of cake. He would dearly like, he remarked, another cup of tea if she could spare one.
“Then you must go.” Ida poured tea inattentively, slopping it onto her pan of cabbage. “Mrs Opie could be down any minute. She d’like to keep an eye on things.”
Mr Drage gave something approaching a giggle. An unlikely sound, coming from so prominent a belly.
“Don’ she like ‘ee to ‘ave followers then?” He smirked across the top of his tea cup. “I’ll give ‘ee a ride down ‘ome,” he added, stuffing the last of the cake into his mouth and heaving himself to his feet. “Trap’s outside. I’ll go keep Jacky company ‘till you’re ready.”
Jacky was his pony, an elderly, obedient beast and used to waiting, untethered, on his rounds. Ida, saying nothing, put the carrots on to boil and resigned herself to the inevitable.
“Don’ your Edith mind you missing supper?”
The pollock – it was her favourite fish, as she had once told him – had been delicious, she had to admit. Mr Drage – she was supposed to call him Arnold but the word caught in her throat – had eaten almost three quarters but it was a big fish and plenty left for her. He was now, after several slices of saffron cake embarking on his fourth cup of tea. His round face was scarlet with repletion and every so often he placed his hand below his overhanging stomach and let out a loud belch.
“Pardon me,” he said each time and it was after one of these explosions that Ida asked about his sister.
“Oh she’s only too glad for me to eat out.” He beamed as if he were doing the absent Edith a favour. “She don’ eat more’n enough to keep a bird alive ‘erself. Besides she’s too taken up with chapel work.”
Ida thought of Edith Drage, a tall, pale, bony woman, as different in looks from her corpulent brother as it was possible to get and a stalwart of the chapel, always at bible classes or prayer meetings, leading the plain sewing classes for young girls or visiting the sick or those who had fallen away in their attendance.
“She was asking after you.” Mr Drage mind was also on his sister. “She asked if you was coming to the bazaar Saturday.”
“I may do, later on. I d’still ‘ave to go work.”
Ida had, in fact, every intention of going to the chapel bazaar, which was one of the big events of the year, for which every working party since Easter had been engaged on embroidering tablecloths, sewing aprons or nightgowns, fabricating needle-cases and spill-holders, knitting bed socks, scarfs and bed jackets… For which every woman had, since the autumn, been making jams and bottling fruits and, for the past week, baking cakes and pies.
Ida, who had promised a fruit cake and a batch of scones, wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
“I’ll come and fetch ‘ee home then. Save ‘ee walking all that way.”
She considered the offer. Which was a tempting one.
Mrs Jenkins, who for all her objections to religious fol-de-rollery, was not an unsympathetic woman, had already said she should leave early that day. The family had their main meal at midday on a Saturday and there was no reason why Mrs Opie shouldn’t manage the family’s tea as she had so often done when ‘the boys’ were young. (Mrs Opie often spoke of these teas and Ida suspected the family would be treated to something she referred to as ‘eggie toasts’ or bowls of bread and milk laced with honey. Which perhaps the Jenkins men would not mind, although Mr Polmear, who had a hearty appetite, would probably prefer Ida’s ham and egg pie.)
No matter. Ida’s duties would be finished around midday, which left plenty of time to get to the chapel for the bazaar – but, after a morning’s cooking and the walk home, she would be tired. Whereas if she rode in Mr Drage’s trap…
“Thank ‘ee kindly.” She stood up to refill the kettle. “I’d be glad of that.”
Standing beside the sink, she stared out into the back yard. It was dark out there – of course it was, at this time of night and this time of the year – and yet there seemed, tonight, to be something especially dense and depressing about the darkness.
He collected Mrs Graves in a hansom, having decided, after some thought, that she might prefer the theatre to an exhibition.
Her sons, Archie and Francis, home from Marlborough, joined him in the drawing room while he waited for their mother. Archie had spent the preceding term cultivating his moustache, although on such a fair boy it was quite hard to distinguish, and his brother obviously derived great pleasure from mocking him. Otherwise they reminisced cheerfully about their stay in Falmouth and seemed already to be looking forward to the next summer.
“They talk of little else,” Mrs Graves spreads her skirt to her satisfaction as they settle into the cab, “but their trips in the Flamingo. And their friendship with you. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Of course not. They are charming boys – it was a pleasure to take them out.”
And in spite of the circumstances – the stuffy interior of the cab on this close-to-freezing evening, where the smell of old leather, the damp flanks of the horse and the body odours of past passengers is not completely masked by the musky tones of his companion’s scent, the noises of the surrounding omnibuses, cabs and cars mingling with the yells of street vendors, the scrape of hooves and sudden neighing of a startled horse, the sideways lurching, an abrupt halt in the press of traffic around the Marble Arch and an equally abrupt thrust forwards as their driver sees a gap in the road ahead… In spite of all this Henry is rounding Pendennis Point at the helm of Flamingo, tacking into a salt-tasting wind which tears against his face and sends up sprays of drenching foam. Bright sunlight glances off the waves and lights the white tower of St Anthony lighthouse to port. To starboard are the woody slopes of Pendennis topped by its rounded castle and ahead of him is the sunlit expanse of Falmouth bay…
What is it Mrs Graves is saying, her words obscured by the sounds around him and the sounds inside his head? Something about her gratitude. Something about dear Archie. How good it has been for him to be in the company of a man like Henry. Archie, who has suffered particularly from the lack of a father’s influence…
Henry, to whom words, in normal circumstances, come easily, is not sure what he should – or what he can – say, being not entirely sure what he has heard. On their left is Burlington House, he hears himself remark, after what may have been an inappropriately lengthy silence. Several of his paintings have been exhibited there, he adds.
Mrs Graves accepts the change of subject and asks, although she knows perfectly well, what play they are to see.
“Harry! How delightful! I heard you were in town but you have been hiding yourself from society.” Lizzie Carnoustie, resplendent in gold satin, hair piled so high that Henry felt sorry for anyone seated behind her and with an extremely valuable-looking gold clasp around her elegant neck, called out as he and Mrs Graves left their box during the first interval. Her escort – not Harry Carnoustie, who was probably playing bezique or some equally dreary game at his dreary club, but an elegant young man unknown to Henry – paused in the act of pouring her champagne.
“Walter Robartes,” Lizzie announced casually. “And this, dear Walt, is my dearest friend Harry Tuke, the famous artist, of whom…” Suddenly aware that Mrs Graves was not simply a passing member of the audience, she came to an abrupt halt.
“May I introduce my friend Mrs Pamela Graves.” Henry had to smile at her confusion. “Lady Elizabeth Carnoustie.”
Lizzie was never embarrassed for long. She was also thrilled to find Henry with, as she put it later to her uninterested husband, ‘the most delightful woman in the world. Perfect for darling Harry.’
“Greatly doubt it.” Carnoustie glanced up from his newspaper long enough to pronounce judgement. “Fellow bats for the other side, don’t ‘e?”
“Don’t be disgusting darling.” Lizzie tapped irritatingly against his paper with her fan.“In any case I’ve invited them both to dine on the twenty fourth. It will make the party up to a dozen, which is such a comfortable number, don’t you think?”
Her husband, who considered a comfortable number for any social gathering to be, at the most, two, made no further comment.
When Elsie wrote that her health was so much improved that she and William would come to Redruth for Christmas Faith went straight to the guest bedroom and placed fresh hot water jars in the bed to air it. Looking around, she wondered how she might cheer what was, inevitably, a gloomy room.
The walls, once white, had taken on a yellow tinge. The great, dark wardrobe which stood beside the window cut out almost a quarter of the daylight, whilst the dressing table, its high mirrors flanked by the wooden candle-holders that had never, to Faith’s knowledge, actually held candles, effectively cut out most of the rest. A vast, mahogany chest of drawers loomed, tomb-like, at the far end of the room and the bed, with its tall, iron rails dominated the central area.
Pictures, she thought, might make a difference; a rug or two on the floor would make the room look – and sound – more comfortable and some pretty curtains, such as her mother had in her bedroom, would be an improvement on the dark green drapes that had faded along the folds to an unpleasant shade of gingerish-brown.
“I was wondering,” she asked her father as they chewed their way through the leek and potato pie Mrs Badcock had offered for their supper, “if we might get some new curtains made for the guest bedroom. Before Elsie and William arrive,” she added, as he looked up in surprise. “The old ones seem very shabby.”
Her father wiped his moustache with his napkin.
“Those curtains went up in Ninety Four,” he commented. (For a man who appeared to take little interest in his home he had a remarkable ability to remember such facts.) “They can hardly be said to need replacing. Besides the room is rarely used.”
“But now that Elsie and William are expected…” Eagerness made her bolder. “And later… when the child…” But now her courage deserted her. Her father was not an unkind man, she was well aware of that, but when he looked across at her from under his heavy white eyebrows it was hard not to be afraid. And perhaps she should not have spoken of the coming child. It was not, after all, a subject he had ever mentioned. Just as he had made no mention of John’s marriage.
“Neither Elsie nor William will expect luxuries.” He pressed his fork into an unyielding piece of pastry crust and Faith knew the conversation was at an end.
And she need not have worried, she thought eight days later, as she read Elsie’s latest letter. William felt that the journey would be too much for her. Parts of the road from Falmouth were still very poor and the uneven surface might be dangerous in her condition. He was also concerned that the sulfurous fumes around Redruth might be harmful, both to her and the child.
‘Sometime next year you must visit us,’ her letter concluded. ‘Our house is small but you will be welcome.’
Squeezing the letter into a ball, as she tried to hold back her tears, she wondered that Elsie should have so quickly forgotten how impossible this would be.
Visiting Falmouth was one more lost dream.
The bazaar was held in the Polytechnic Hall, decorated for the festive season with swags of red ribbon, bunches of fir and hanging clusters of silver-painted cones. The stalls, laden with food and fancy goods, were surrounded by eager customers and on the stage the Falmouth Silver Band played well-loved tunes.
It felt strange to arrive with what she supposed might be described as an escort and Ida was conscious that she and Mr Drage, whom she must remember to call Arnold, were objects of interest, particularly to the women.
The minister’s wife, for example, glanced casually in their direction and then looked again – head thrust forward, squinting her eyes to get a better view. Others whispered behind raised hands and Ida saw one sister tug at her husband’s arm to attract his attention as they passed.
Self-conscious – she was a shy woman in spite of her appearance – she found herself turning towards a stall selling embroidered sachets of lavender and examining them as if she had never seen such things before. It was not until Mr Drage – Arnold – suggested that they should find a cup of tea, that she dared turn away and allowed him to pilot her towards the side of the hall where small tables were set out with refreshments. Here, with a cup of tea and a fancy cake decorated in an alarming shade of pink icing, she did her best to regain control. Her cheeks must be, she thought, as brightly coloured as the icing and she could feel her chest struggling against her stays. Which was, she told herself, ridiculous. She was a respectable woman – a widow. Why should she not sit down to tea in a public place with a respectable man?
But this, she realised, was not the problem. She was not blushing because she was afraid of people’s disapproval but because they would, almost certainly, thoroughly approve. They might even, although Wesleyan Methodists were not given to such enthusiasm, be delighted at such an obviously suitable match.
Arnold Drage was known as a warm man, a decent man and a reasonably regular chapel-goer. And Ida was, she was well aware, pitied for her unfortunate marriage and admired for her diligence. The chapel might well anticipate with interest the prospect of a union between two people who would be a comfort to each other in their declining years.
“Proper job!” Arnold slurped greedily at his tea then licked his lips. “Not so good at yours mind,” he added quickly, misinterpreting the expression on Ida’s face. “Oh no. Nowhere near as good.” He licked his lips again and turned his attention to his cake.
On the stage the band struck up Guide Me Oh Thou Great Jehovah.
“Pilgrim through this barren land,” Arnold murmured through the crumbs.”I am weak but Thou art …” His cake, as he drew breath, went the wrong way and he collapsed into a fit of coughing and spluttering, mostly drowned out by the crescendo of trumpets.
“Bread of heaven, bread of he-e-ven, feed me till I want no more…”
Almost everyone in the hall was singing now. As if, Ida thought, they were at a rugby match.
“Feed me till I-I want no more…” they roared as Arnold, red-faced, continued coughing and she reached across to thump him, not very sympathetically, on the back. The buttons on his waistcoat, she noticed, were strained across his large chest as though they might fly off across the room and never be found. His heavy jowls, reddened from the razor and now bright scarlet from coughing, shook above the confines of his collar and he beat his great hands with their swollen fingers against the tight-packed thighs of his dark trousers.
Ida wondered, as the fit subsided and he reached for his tea cup, what it would be like to have charge of that waistcoat, that collar, those trousers…. that man. Who might – judging from his high colour and shortness of breath – not last that long, in which case she would be, once again, a respectable widow – but widow this time of the owner of a thriving and profitable business…
Which was no way, she told herself – almost speaking aloud from the strength of her feelings – to be thinking. If she was intending to venture again into matrimony, it must be because she loved the man and not because he might leave her well-provided on his death.
And she did not, she thought, watching him take a large handkerchief from his pocket and wipe it across his face and forehead, love Arnold Drage.
Which she must tell him before matters went any further.
It was late, close on midnight, with a newly-waning moon laying a silver path across the bay. A calm night, with just one Helford fishing boat a mile or so offshore showing up dark and still on water where ripples shimmered like small fish in the moonglow. A few thin clouds trailed like gauze across a sky littered with stars and Orion, who knew only the obvious constellations – the Plough, the Great Bear and his namesake, the Hunter – wished, as he stared up at them, that he knew more.
He must ask Henry, he thought, who knew so much, but meanwhile he was not out here to star-gaze and, huddling himself into his heavy oilskin, he started off down the lane, dark between the hedgerows, in the direction of the big field further down the coast.
There were rabbits in that field; dozens of them and before now he had thought little about them other than the need to keep them off his crops. Town boy that he was, he had never considered catching them for food and it was only a passing comment from one of Farmer Roscrow’s farmhands that had brought the idea into his head. His wife preferred rabbit meat to any other, he’d said, and he regularly set traps for them.
Orion wasn’t setting any traps, disliking the thought of the suffering they must cause, even though Thomas had pointed out that dead was dead and it made no difference how the creature got there. Instead he had armed himself with a stout stick, chosen from several he had found propped against the wall in one of his outhouses, as though they might have been intended for just this purpose, which he grasped in his hand as he strode down the lane and used to brush out of his way the overhanging brambles and the spiders’ webs strung between them.
As he neared the stile into the field – stone slabs projecting at intervals up the side of the hedge – he moved more slowly and quietly and saw, as he reached the top, the field spread out before him in the moonlight and the dark, hunched shapes of several dozen rabbits cropping the grass.
Crouching, he watched as they moved from one tussock to another. Occasionally some sound – a rustling in the undergrowth, a bird call from the wooded area inland and, once, the splashing of a larger than usual wave against the rocks below the cliffs – caused them to pause in their nibbling, raise heads to listen, even, in the case of a few younger animals, to scuttle into a burrow but mostly they ate, unsuspecting and undisturbed.
He was not going to enjoy this. For some reason it seemed worse to kill these peaceful, fur-covered creatures than it did to smash the head of a fresh-caught fish against the rocks – in spite of the fact that these same peaceful, fur-covered creatures had eaten much of his last winter’s cabbage crop. On the other hand, he must somehow get some meat for Mary to cook for their Christmas meal.
Stealthily he clambered down the slab steps and into the field. As he brushed against an outcrop of nettles one of the nearer rabbits twitched its ears, briefly, nose raised, stopped chewing but then continued. Orion, hardly daring to breathe, crouched, felt the stings of last summer’s nettles against his face and prepared to wait.
It was a long wait. Clouds gathered themselves into dark mounds behind which the moon hid for minutes at a time before sailing back out into the silver grey wastes of sky to light the field and the cropping rabbits. Each time it disappeared Orion strained his eyes to make out the greater darkness of their small, humped bodies against the lesser darkness of the field, worrying that they might finish feeding and return to their burrows.
It was also cold. There was little breeze but the damp was settling into the grass and the hedgerow and he felt his face start to ache as if from a bad tooth whilst his toes and fingers retained so little feeling that it seemed doubtful he would be able to move at all, let alone quickly. An insect scrambled through his hair and across his face and he dared not move his hand to brush it away and it was almost a pleasure to taste against his chilled lips the warm snot from his dripping nose.
Another period of darkness and now he heard and felt the wind blowing in off the sea, shaking the dry leaves in the hedge and finding its way in through the cuffs and neck of his coat. How long, as it got colder, would the rabbits stay? And would any of them, before this happened, venture close enough for him to capture one?
He was shivering now, from the chill but also from fear of his intentions, and then, as he attempted to hunch himself soundlessly but more firmly into his coat, he saw a rabbit, one of the larger ones, moving closer to his part of the hedge.
Raising its head and seeing a thicker patch of weeds just inches in front of Orion, it took a few huddled hops towards him and settled back to feed, well within his reach, as, mouth wide with terror and excitement, he clenched one numbed hand around his club, pressed the other against the ground and, arching his aching back, flung himself violently forward, smashing the club wildly and randomly in the direction of the little animal.
He was not prepared for the shriek that tore into the silence. Nor for the stampede of a hundred rabbits dashing for the safety of their burrows. Nor for his own sense of horror as he sprawled on the soaking grass, gasping and breathless as if he had been running for his own life.
“Whatever’ve you got there?”
Mary had been asleep when he got home and hung his rabbit in the outhouse, hoping that by the morning it would have stopped dripping blood. Next day, Christmas Eve, while Mary was up at the farm, he took it out into the yard to inspect it.
It was a mess, he could see that, its fur matted with dried blood, caught up with scraps of twig and grass, eyes bulging outwards and horribly glazed, mouth set in a ghastly grin to show the large, vicious-looking, blood-stained teeth.
He couldn’t present it to Mary like this but it was hard, as he turned the stiff and heavy body in his hands, to work out what he should do with it. Boning and skinning a fish was one thing – something he had done so often that it required no thought – but this creature, with its fouled fur and milky eyes, was a different matter.
Which was when Mary, back earlier than he expected, came into the yard.
“‘S a rabbit.” Although that much is, perhaps, obvious. “I caught it last night. I thought we could eat it Christmas day.”
“You caught it? You mean you set a trap…?”
Mary sets down her basket and stares at the bloody carcass.
“No. I went up the big field along the path. It’s full of ‘em at night. I waited ‘til one came close an’…” He stops, uncertain how to describe the actual killing.
‘I fell on it,’ would be nearest to the truth but sounds too clumsy. “I hit’n with that stick,” he says instead and points to the club which leans where he left it last night against the outhouse wall, stained, he notices, dark brown with dried blood. “It was ‘orrible,” he says, giving up on pretence. “I shan’t never do nothin’ like that again.”
They stand facing each other, as he holds the battered little corpse between them. The more he looks at it; the more he feels its stiff, cold fur against his skin; the more sick he feels; the more he wants to fling it away from him and forget all about it.
They can eat swede and potato again tomorrow and the next day and he won’t care.
It is the first time she has called him this for weeks – months even. Since before…
For all this time they have spoken – when they have spoken – as if they are strangers. For all this time they have hardly touched each other – sometimes it has seemed that they hardly look at one another – and now Mary is reaching out her hand, calling him by the pet name he hasn’t heard for so long that his throat starts to close.
“‘E’s a mess.” He stares at the little corpse, still dangling from his hands. “I ‘an’t never… I’m sorry,” he says, without knowing what he is sorry for as Mary takes the rabbit and holds it up as if she might be considering buying it in a butcher’s shop.
“‘E ought’ve been skinned before ‘e went stiff.” She speaks calmly, as a matter of fact, and when he hears the sob he thinks at first it must have come from himself. Then, looking across, he sees Mary’s reddened eyes and the tears running down her cheeks and, as she grabs the hem of her apron and drags it to her face, dropping the blood-stained rabbit into the mud, he puts out his arms and draws her against him.
He feels her body heave and shudder against his and then they are weeping together – but not just, he realises with a jolt of pain that is almost joyful, for the dead animal that lies on the ground between them but for the dead child who lies buried beneath it.
Lizzie Carnoustie’s dinner for a select few, followed by a dance and supper for, as her husband sourly observed, ‘half of London’, was one of the season’s most coveted invitations – an occasion to which Henry was no stranger but always as a suitable bachelor escort for one of Lizzie’s unattached female friends. This time his invitation included a card for Mrs Pamela Graves and he would have been quite relieved not to attend. This was not, however, possible, without grave discourtesy to both ladies and he was not a discourteous man.
He could, of course, have feigned illness but lying – apart from the inconvenience of keeping up the pretence – was an indulgence his Quaker upbringing would not allow him. He might no longer believe in God but he still believed in decent behaviour towards his fellow men – and women – and so, on December 24th, he dressed with gloomy resignation and, concerned as ever about his appearance, more than usual care.
He must be cautious, he told himself, fixing, with some difficulty, a stud into a new collar. He must be polite and considerate but careful not to arouse expectations in either his hostess or Mrs Graves, whom he valued as a vibrant, thoughtful and interesting friend with whose ideas he had much in common and for whom he wished nothing but good – but with whom he had no intention of entering into any more serious relationship.
“You look charming,” he told her as they descended to the cab, but refrained from commenting on her splendidly-dressed hair, sapphire ear-rings or the coat of deep blue velvet over a lace and satin gown that was almost certainly new for the occasion. On the short drive to Park Lane he kept the discussion to general matters – the king’s delight in wearing uniforms, the increasing number of motor cars on the streets, the prospect of a freeze in the new year… More personal matters, including their respective plans for the Christmas period, were best avoided.
The dinner was enjoyable – more so than he had allowed himself, in his anxiety, to expect – and Mrs Graves acquitted herself well, showing an informed interest in the issues du jour – Mr Chamberlain’s views on tariff reform and the eternal problem of ‘what might be done about the poor’ – and taking to task her neighbour, the solid conservative William Craigforth, when he suggested that educating girls beyond the age of fourteen was a waste of money and might even cause them physical harm,
Knowing her views on the subject Henry, sitting opposite her at the table, waited with some trepidation for her tirade but was relieved – and amused – when she listened politely until Craigforth had finished and then asked, with an air of innocent interest, what evidence he had for his assertions.
“Because it has always seemed to me…” She spoke clearly but without raising her voice, “that it might actually cause more harm to a young lady to be confined to her home with little opportunity to improve her mind and extend her interests.”
“Her interests, my dear, should be her home and her family – especially her children, when she has them.” Craigforth’s cheeks, naturally florid, reddened still further. His wife, a mouse-like soul, never disagreed with him and he was not used to having to justify his beliefs. “That is the first duty of any woman.”
“ A duty she would surely perform more satisfactorily if she were well educated and able to pass on her knowledge to her family?” Mrs Graves spoke mildly but Henry saw a tightening of her lips which suggested irritation. “And what about those women forced by circumstances to earn their own living? Surely it is better for them to have other opportunities than the hard – even degrading – ones they have at present?”
“Absolutely! You speak my thoughts entirely, Mrs Graves!” Lizzie Carnoustie,
at the head of the table, had been listening to her words rather than her neighbour’s. “Do you wish our brains to shrivel away and die from lack of use, my dear William? Or less fortunate women to be forced to become factory workers – or ladies of the night – when, with more education, they might work in an office or even teach in school? Surely,” she asked, when the howls of delighted laughter had died down, “you would not deny them this?”
Craigforth’s face darkened to an unbecoming shade of purple and he attacked his braised veal with some venom as Mrs Graves turned to her other neighbour with a remark about the charm of the decorations in Messrs. Fortnum and Mason’s windows.
“You have made a friend.”
Gentlemen, at Lizzie’s dinners, rarely lingered over their port and Henry and others joined the ladies in the drawing room after about twenty minutes, although Lord Carnoustie and William Craigforth remained at the dining table, perhaps to complain about women who appeared not to know their place. Pamela Graves, as Henry entered the room, was deep in conversation with Lizzie Carnoustie, who moved away, as he approached, to consult with her butler.
“Oh Lady Carnoustie is delightful.” She turned to him, her cheeks flushed with pleasure. Becomingly flushed, he noted. She would make a pleasing subject for a portrait. “Did you know she spent two years at Somerville College in Oxford? She only left in order to marry Lord Carnoustie.”
“A strange decision.” Henry had heard Lizzie speak of her time at Oxford – the cocoa parties, river parties, cycling parties… Had she never done any work? he had once asked and was assured that the work was the best part of Oxford life. She had never felt so alive and so stimulated in her life, before or since. “But perhaps he was more exciting in those days.”
Lord Carnoustie chose this moment to enter the room, his round face with its sagging jowls above a short neck, swamped almost entirely by his stiff collar, as dull-looking and lacking in life as ever. Pamela, glancing at him, put up her fan to conceal her smile, and then looked back at Henry, her eyes – very deep blue, against the blue of her gown, he could not help noticing – alight with amusement.
“I am sure,” she said eventually, looking demurely downwards, “he has many admirable qualities.” As she gurgled with barely suppressed laughter Henry let out one of his loudest guffaws, causing the man behind him to choke into his coffee.
“Thank you for a wonderful evening.” The cab stops outside Mrs Graves’ house where a light glows over the doorway, and in the window of her upstairs drawing room. “Janet will be waiting with cocoa and biscuits but I have whisky or brandy if you would prefer.”
“You are very kind but…” But he would, he realises, be glad to come inside for a glass of whisky or brandy. It has been a delightful evening and he has greatly enjoyed her company. He has even danced with her and – Lizzie’s parties being famous for their country dances as well as the more formal ones – derived some amusement from watching her dancing the Gay Gordons with Hamish Jamieson in his flying kilt.
And it is Christmas morning – they have passed late revellers in the streets, together with more soberly-dressed church-goers making their staid way home from some watch-night service – and thoughts of Lizzie Carnoustie’s exploits at Somerville have awakened in him memories of his own student days at the Slade. Suddenly it seems depressingly sober and middle-aged simply to return to his mother’s house in Hanwell and retire to bed.
“That would be delightful.” He pays off the cab driver with a handsome, Christmas tip. “But I must not stay long.”