Edward Benson.

Thorley Weir

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For a long time he worked on in one absorbed pulsation, and was just beginning to feel that his arm was momentarily unable to continue without some pause for rest, when an interruption unlooked for and for the moment inexplicable occurred. A faint continued scratching, not impatient but entreating, came at the door, and rightly rejecting the first idea that had presented itself to him, that the indomitable parlour-maid, suddenly brought low, besought admittance, Charles opened to the intruder. A big golden collie stood outside, who sniffed at him with doubt and hesitancy, and then deciding that he was harmless, came softly by, and established himself on the sofa. Established there in the haven where it would be, it thumped gently with its tail, as a signal of gratitude.

Charles stood with the open door in his hand a moment, but it seemed impossible to continue drawing into the passage, so to speak, and with a tremor of anticipation in his wicked young heart, he closed it again. A parlour-maid could remove a writing-pad, but it might easily require someone with greater authority to entice away that other possession. Then before going back to his work, he tested the friendliness of his visitor, and finding he was welcome, spent a minute in stroking its ears, and received as thanks a rather dry hot nose thrust into his hand. Clearly the dog was not well, and with that strange canine instinct, was grateful for the expression of even a stranger's sympathy. Then it lay down with muzzle on its outstretched paws, and eyes wide-open and suffering and puzzled. Charles went back to his canvas, but he expected further interruptions now.

In a little while they began. Through the open window on the side towards the river, where he had drawn down the blind, he heard a footstep on the gravel path below, a whistle, and then a voice calling "Buz!" Buz heard too, for he pricked a languid ear, and just moved a languid tail, but did not feel equal to a more active recognition. Again and once again Buz was whistled for and called, and it seemed to Charles that he was in the position of an unwilling accomplice, who had better turn King's evidence. So as quietly as he could, he pulled up the blind and looked out. Below on the grass stood Buz's mistress, and perhaps the whisper of the blind had caught her listening ear, for on the moment she looked up, and saw Charles at the window.

"I beg your pardon," he said, "but I was shown up here, and I think it must be Buz who asked to come in. He is lying on the sofa."

There was a sudden surprise in the girl's face: it might only be due to being thus addressed by a stranger from the upper storey. But as a matter of fact, it was not a stranger quite who addressed her: she perfectly recognised him, though the surprise was there.

"Oh, thank you," she said. "I will come up to fetch him."

Charles stood there waiting, with his blood somehow strangely a-tingle and alert. It seemed to him as if this had all happened before, yet he could not remember what happened next.

But it all seemed very natural. Then he heard her quick step on the stairs and she entered.

She smiled at him rather remotely but not without friendliness, and certainly without embarrassment.

"Thank you so much," she said. "I could not find him. Buz, dear, come along."

She stood in the doorway, with head already half-turned to leave the room again, just as in the hundred-year old portrait of her. Buz tattooed languidly with his tail.

"I'm afraid he is not very well," said Charles, with the sense of taking a plunge. "His nose is hot and dry."

"I'm afraid so. The dogs always think of this room as their sick-room if they don't feel what's called The Thing. Buz, come along."

Buz thought not.

"But won't you leave him here?" said Charles.

Joyce came a couple of steps into the room.

"Oh, I hardly like to," she said. "Won't he disturb you?"

"Not an atom. Do leave him if he feels like stopping. He doesn't object to me."

That last sentence won Joyce's heart: it was easy to reach it through her dogs. But she detached herself from Charles again, as it were, and went up to her ailing dog.

"Buz, darling, I'm so sorry," she said. "You can stop here if you like. Not quite well? Oh, I'm afraid not well at all."

She bestowed a kiss on Buz's head, who wrinkled puzzled eyebrows at her. It appeared she could not help him, and he did not understand… Then she turned to Charles again.

"Please forgive my interrupting you," she said. "And weren't you painting below Thorley Weir a week ago? Yes: I thought it was you."

Before he had time for more than the bare affirmative, she had left the room again. And all the way downstairs she mingled with compassion for Buz, a wonder why she had felt as if she could not help asking that, although she was perfectly certain it was he.

It was characteristic of Charles that he flew to his drawing again, for that expressed his feelings better than any mooning reverie would have helped him to do. He must draw, he must draw, just as an eager young horse must run, to give outlet to the life that rejoices in its limbs. Besides, each moment of industry brought him nearer to the painting of the face and the half turned neck. But before he began again, with Buz's permission, he kissed the top of his flat golden head, and went to his work with a heightened colour, feeling a little ashamed of himself.

Perhaps an hour passed, while from the house came no sound at all nor any from the room where Charles worked, except the scrape of his charcoal, and the rather quick uneasy breathing of the dog. Then came an interruption which did not excite him in the least, for he had not forgotten the manner of access peculiar to the parlour-maid.

"Will you be working here this afternoon, sir, Mr. Wroughton wants to know," she said. "And if so will you take some lunch?"

Charles' foolish heart leaped.

"I should be delighted to," he said.

Again silence descended. Then, with a heart that leaped down again, he heard a subdued clink on the stairs. It was even so – then re-entered the parlour-maid with a neat tray on which was set an adequate and austere refreshment. And as Charles ate his excellent cold mutton and rather stringy French beans, he grinned largely at his mental picture of himself as the prisoner in solitary confinement, who might take exercise in the prison yard when he wanted to smoke. But Buz shared his confinement, and the apparition of Buz's mistress was not unknown. By and by he would take his exercise… And then again the glory of the Reynolds portrait, the exquisite satisfaction, too, of being able to see, from his studies in the National Gallery, the manner of its doing, and the knowledge that he could, owing to his long and careful practice, put on the paint somewhat in that manner, swallowed up his entire consciousness again.

A gong sounded from below, and Buz from mere force of habit, knowing this was dinner-time, got off his sofa, before he realized that dinner was of no use to him. He went but a few steps towards the door, then turned, and sat down in front of Charles, seeking his eyes with his own, mournful, not understanding, mutely beseeching to know what was the matter, asking him to help. Charles tried to convey comfort, and Buz acknowledged his efforts by a few heavy sighs breathed into his caressing hands. Then walking stiffly and painfully he went back on to his sofa again. But Charles felt as if he had been taken into the poor beast's confidence: Buz had enlisted him to give such aid as was possible.

The room had grown very hot in the last hour with the unflecked outpouring of the sun on its roof, and Charles thought with a touch of not more than secondary rapture of the cool liquid embrace of his weir. But a more primary ecstasy was in the foreground, and putting aside his charcoal, he could not resist getting out his paints and rioting with loaded brushfuls over the expanse of the faded blue of the sky that toned into pale yellow above the low horizon to the right of the picture. On the left rose a thick grove of dark serge-clad trees against which was defined that exquisite head, and to which there pointed that beckoning hand. Who was the unseen to whom she beckoned with that gracious gesture, yet a little imperious? To what did she beckon him? Perhaps only – and that would be the best of all – to a saunter through the twilight woods with her alone, away from such crowds as might be supposed to throng the stone terrace, seen glimmeringly to the front of the picture, to a talk, sitting on the soft moss, or on some felled tree-trunk, in low voices, as befitted the quietness of the evening hour, to an hour's remission from the gabble and gaiety of the world. Or was it he, the unseen onlooker, who had asked her to give him half an hour … he had something he wanted to tell her – Charles could picture him in his satin coat and knee breeches, stammering a little, a little shy – something for her ear alone…

Then the mere quality of the splendid work struck and stung him afresh. What depth of clear and luminous twilight was tangled among the trees that cast tides of long shadows, clear as running water over the lawn! The grass had been painted first, and the shadow laid over it… It was impossible not to daub in some of that. No one had ever seen quite as Reynolds saw, not quite so simply and comprehensively. And then suddenly despair benumbed his fingers: it would be a profanity, were it not so grotesque to think of copying such a wonder. And at that Charles became aware that both hand and eye were thoroughly and deservedly tired. Also that he had a searching and imperative need for tobacco. It was decidedly time to seek the prison yard.

The sun had ceased pouring in at the window when he had raised the blind to turn King's evidence with regard to Buz, and now a cooler breeze suggestive of the coming of evening sauntered in. It was this perhaps that had refreshed the sick dog, for when Charles opened the door Buz shambled off the sofa and followed him downstairs. There was no difficulty about finding the way into the garden, for it lay straight in front of him at the foot of the stairs, and still seeing no signs of life, he crossed the lawn and walked on a grass path down between two old yew hedges, Buz still at his heels, towards the river. Then turning a corner he stopped suddenly.

On a low chair sat a very old lady. Suitably to this hot day she was dressed in a little print gown, with a linen sunbonnet, and looked exactly like the most charming of Kate Greenaway's gallery. She was employed, without the aid of spectacles, on a piece of fine needlework that looked rather like baby-linen but was probably for her own embellishment; Joyce, full length on the ground, was reading to her.

She instantly dropped her work. Never, in all her life, had she failed to make herself agreeable to a good-looking young man, and she was not going to begin now. Joyce had half-raised herself also and gave Charles a half smile of welcome, which she augmented into a most complete one when she saw Buz.

"Buz, dear!" she said.

Lady Crowborough did not quite say "Charles, dear," but she easily might have if she had known his name.

"Joyce, introduce him to me," she said.

Joyce looked at Charles, raising her eyebrows, and quite taking him into the confidence of her smile and her difficulty.

"It's the – " she nearly said "boy," but corrected herself – "it's the gentleman who is copying the Reynolds, granny," she said. Then to Charles, "May I introduce you to Lady Crowborough."

Lady Crowborough held out her little smooth thin hand.

"Charmed to see you," she said. "Of course, I knew what my silly granddaughter has told me. Such a to-do as we've had settling where you were to paint, and where to stow all Joyce's bits of things, and what not."

Charles had excellent manners, full of deference, and void of embarrassment.

"And my name's Lathom," he said, as he shook hands.

"Well, Mr. Lathom, and so you've come out for a breath of air," continued the vivacious old lady. "Get yourself a chair from the tent there, and sit down and talk to us. Only go quietly, else you'll wake up my son, who's having a nap there, and that'll cause him indigestion or perspiration or a sinking, or I don't know what. Perhaps Joyce had better get it for you: she won't give him a turn, if he happens to wake."

"Oh, but I couldn't possibly – " began Charles.

"Well, you can go as far as the tent with her, while she pops round the corner and carries a chair off, and then you can take it from her. But mind you come back and talk to us. Or if you want to be useful you can go to the house and tell them I'm ready for tea, and I'll have it here. Ring the first bell you see, and keep on ringing till somebody comes. The whole lot of them go to sleep here after lunch. Such a pack of nonsense! What's the night for, I say. And then instead of dropping off at the proper time, they lie awake and say a great buzzing, or a dog barking, or a grasshopper sneezing prevented their going to sleep."

Charles went swiftly on his errand, and accomplished it in time to join Joyce outside the tent and take the chair from her. Already the comradeship which naturally exists between youth and maiden had begun sensibly to weave itself between them: in addition Charles had been kind to Buz and seemed to understand the significance of dogs.

"It was good of you to let my poor Buz stop with you," she said. "He has adopted you, too, for he came out when you came, didn't he?"

"Yes: I hope he feels better. What's the matter?"

"I don't know, and the vet doesn't know, and the poor lamb himself doesn't know. He's old, poor dear, and suffers from age, perhaps like most old people, except darling Grannie. I shall send for the vet again if he doesn't mend."

They had come within earshot of Lady Crowborough, who was profoundly indifferent to the brute creation. She preferred motors to horses, mousetraps to cats, and burglar-alarms to dogs. She was equally insensitive to the beauties of inanimate nature, though her intense love, contempt, and interest for and in her fellow creatures quite made up for these other deficiencies.

"Now you're talking about your dog, Joyce," she said. "I'm sure I wish he was well with all my heart, but if his life's going to be a burden to him and you, I say, put the poor creature out of his pain. A dab of the stuff those murderers use in the East End and the thing's done. I say the same about human beings. Let the doctors do the best they can for them, but if they're going to be miserable and a nuisance to everybody, I should like to put them out of their pain, too. Give 'em time to get better in, if they're going to get better, but if not snuff them out. Much more merciful, isn't it, Mr. Lathom? I hope they'll snuff me out before I'm nothing but a mass of aches and pains, but they haven't got the sense, though I daresay they'll so stuff me up with drugs and doctor's stuff that I shall die of the very things that were meant to cure me."

Joyce giggled.

"Darling Granny!" she said. "You wouldn't like it if I came to you one morning and said, 'Drink it down, and you'll know no more.'"

"Well, I'm not a nuisance yet with rheumatics and bellyache," observed Lady Crowborough. "Lor', the medicine your father takes would be enough to sail a battleship in, if he'd collected it all, instead of swilling it, and much good it's done him, except to give him a craving for more. Why, when I was his age, a good walk, and leave your dinner alone if you didn't want it, was physic enough. But I've no patience with all this talk about people's insides. It's only those who haven't got an inside worth mentioning, who mention it. And did you come all the way back from your tent in the heat, Mr. Lathom, to go on painting this afternoon?"

"Oh, no," said Charles, "they very kindly sent me a tray up with some lunch on it."

"And you sat there all by yourself, mum as a mouse, and ate up your tray?" she asked. "You don't do that again, mind! You come and talk to me at lunch to-morrow. I never heard of such a thing! Joyce, my dear, pour out tea for us. I want my tea and so does Mr. Lathom. I warrant he got nothing for lunch but a slice of cold mutton and a glass of sarsaparilla if your father had the ordering of it. Now I hear you live in a tent, Mr. Lathom? Tell us all about it. Ain't you frightened of burglars?"

"There's nothing to steal except a tin kettle and me," said Charles.

"Well, that makes you more comfortable, no doubt. Joyce, my dear, it's no use giving me this wash. Put some more tea in, and stir it about, and let it stand. I like my tea with a tang to it. And your tent doesn't let the rain in? Not that I should like to sleep in a tent myself. I like my windows closed and my curtains drawn. You can get your air in the daytime. The outside air is poison to me, unless it's well warmed up in the sun. But I should like to come and see your tent."

She regarded Charles with strong approval: he was certainly very good to look upon, strong and lean and clear-skinned, and he had about him that air of manners and attentiveness which she missed in the youth of to-day. He sat straight up in his chair when she talked to him and handed her exactly what she wanted at the moment she wanted it.

"Ah, but do come and see it," he said. "Mayn't I give you and Miss Wroughton tea there some afternoon? I promise you it shall be quite strong."

"To-morrow," said Lady Crowborough with decision. "I'll go in the punt for once, and Joyce shall push me along."

Charles excused himself soon after, in order to get another hour of his work, and he was scarcely out of earshot when Lady Crowborough turned to Joyce.

"Well, my dear," she said. "I don't know what you've done, but I've fallen in love with that young man. And to think of him having his lunch all alone, as if he was your father's corn-cutter or hairdresser. When Philip awakes, he shall know what I think about such rubbish! Where's my cup? I don't want to tread on it as I did yesterday. Why, Mr. Lathom's put it back on the table for me!"

"I think he's a dear," said Joyce. "And he was so nice to poor Buz."

"Don't begin again about your dog now," said Lady Crowborough, "though I daresay Mr. Lathom has been most attentive to him and no wonder."

With which rather Delphic utterance, she picked up her needlework again, while a smile kept breaking out in chinks, as it were, over her face. For though she liked presentable young men to be attentive to her, she liked them also to be attentive to any amount of their contemporaries. Young men did not flirt enough nowadays to please her: they thought about their insides and that silly Scotch golf. But she had noticed the change of expression in Charles' respectful eyes when he looked at Joyce. She liked that look. It was many years since she had seen it directed to her, but she kept the pleasantest recollection of it, and welcomed the sight of it as directed at another. And in her opinion, Joyce well deserved to have a handsome young fellow looking at her like that, she, so strictly dieted on the somewhat acid glances of her father. A little judicious flirtation such as Lady Crowborough was quite disposed to encourage, would certainly brisken the house up a bit. At present, in spite of her own presence there, it seemed to have no more spring in it than unleavened bread.

Next day, according to the indisputable orders of Lady Crowborough, Charles had taken his lunch with the family, and though Philip Wroughton had thought good to emphasize the gulf which must exist between his family and a young man who copied their portraits for them, by constantly using the prefix "Mr." when he spoke to Charles, the meal had gone off not amiss. Irrespective of Lady Crowborough there was the inimitable lightness of youth flickering round it, a lightness which Joyce by herself felt unable to sustain, but which instinctively asserted itself when a little more of the proper mixture was added. Afterwards Charles had paddled back to his encampment in order to prepare for his visitors, and soon after, while Philip slept the sleep of the dyspeptic, his daughter and mother left in the manner of a riverside Juliet and a very old nurse, to go to what Lady Crowborough alluded to as "the party." She had dressed herself appropriately in a white linen frock with little rosebud sprigs printed on it, and an immense straw hat with a wreath of rose to embellish it. She had a horror of the glare off the water, which might cause her to freckle, and wore a thick pink veil, which, being absolutely impenetrable, served the additional purpose of keeping the poisonous air away from her. Her whole evergreen heart rejoiced over this diversion, for not only was she going to have tea with her handsome young man – "my new flirt," as she daringly called him – but, having had a good go of flirtation herself, she was prepared to encourage the two young people to advance their intimacy. Most of all she hoped that they would fall in love with each other, and was then prepared to back them up, for she had guessed in the twinkling of an eye that Craddock had Philip's consent in paying attentions to Joyce, and with her sympathies for youth so keen, and her antipathy for middle-age so pronouncedly contemptuous, she altogether recoiled from the idea of Joyce ever having anything to do "with that great white cream-cheese" as she expressed it to herself. She found the cream-cheese agreeable enough at lunch and dinner to give her the news of the town, and a "bit of tittle-tattle" in this desert of a place, but she had no other use for him, either for herself or her granddaughter.

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