Of Miss Mary Postgate, Lady McCausland wrote that she was ‘thoroughly conscientious, tidy, companionable, and ladylike. I am very sorry to part with her, and shall always be interested in her welfare.’
Miss Fowler engaged her on this recommendation, and to her surprise, for she had had experience of companions, found that it was true. Miss Fowler was nearer sixty than fifty at the time, but though she needed care she did not exhaust her attendant’s vitality. On the contrary, she gave out, stimulatingly and with reminiscences. Her father had been a minor Court official in the days when the Great Exhibition of 1851 had just set its seal on Civilisation made perfect. Some of Miss Fowler’s tales, none the less, were not always for the young. Mary was not young, and though her speech was as colourless as her eyes or her hair, she was never shocked. She listened unflinchingly to every one; said at the end, ‘How interesting!’ or ‘How shocking!’ as the case might be, and never again referred to it, for she prided herself on a trained mind, which ‘did not dwell on these things.’ She was, too, a treasure at domestic accounts, for which the village tradesmen, with their weekly books, loved her not. Otherwise she had no enemies; provoked no jealousy even among the plainest; neither gossip nor slander had ever been traced to her; she supplied the odd place at the Rector’s or the Doctor’s table at half an hour’s notice; she was a sort of public aunt to very many small children of the village street, whose parents, while accepting everything, would have been swift to resent what they called ‘patronage’; she served on the Village Nursing Committee as Miss Fowler’s nominee when Miss Fowler was crippled by rheumatoid arthritis, and came out of six months’ fortnightly meetings equally respected by all the cliques.
And when Fate threw Miss Fowler’s nephew, an unlovely orphan of eleven, on Miss Fowler’s hands, Mary Postgate stood to her share of the business of education as practised in private and public schools. She checked printed clothes-lists, and unitemised bills of extras; wrote to Head and House masters, matrons, nurses and doctors, and grieved or rejoiced over half-term reports. Young Wyndham Fowler repaid her in his holidays by calling her ‘Gatepost,’ ‘Postey,’ or ‘Packthread,’ by thumping her between her narrow shoulders, or by chasing her bleating, round the garden, her large mouth open, her large nose high in air, at a stiff-necked shamble very like a camel’s. Later on he filled the house with clamour, argument, and harangues as to his personal needs, likes and dislikes, and the limitations of ‘you women,’ reducing Mary to tears of physical fatigue, or, when he chose to be humorous, of helpless laughter. At crises, which multiplied as he grew older, she was his ambassadress and his interpretress to Miss Fowler, who had no large sympathy with the young; a vote in his interest at the councils on his future; his sewing-woman, strictly accountable for mislaid boots and garments; always his butt and his slave.
And when he decided to become a solicitor, and had entered an office in London; when his greeting had changed from ‘Hullo, Postey, you old beast,’ to Mornin’, Packthread,’ there came a war which, unlike all wars that Mary could remember, did not stay decently outside England and in the newspapers, but intruded on the lives of people whom she knew. As she said to Miss Fowler, it was ‘most vexatious.’ It took the Rector’s son who was going into business with his elder brother; it took the Colonel’s nephew on the eve of fruit-farming in Canada; it took Mrs. Grant’s son who, his mother said, was devoted to the ministry; and, very early indeed, it took Wynn Fowler, who announced on a postcard that he had joined the Flying Corps and wanted a cardigan waistcoat.
‘He must go, and he must have the waistcoat,’ said Miss Fowler. So Mary got the proper-sized needles and wool, while Miss Fowler told the men of her establishment — two gardeners and an odd man, aged sixty — that those who could join the Army had better do so. The gardeners left. Cheape, the odd man, stayed on, and was promoted to the gardener’s cottage. The cook, scorning to be limited in luxuries, also left, after a spirited scene with Miss Fowler, and took the housemaid with her. Miss Fowler gazetted Nellie, Cheape’s seventeen-year-old daughter, to the vacant post; Mrs. Cheape to the rank of cook, with occasional cleaning bouts; and the reduced establishment moved forward smoothly.
Wynn demanded an increase in his allowance. Miss Fowler, who always looked facts in the face, said, ‘He must have it. The chances are he won’t live long to draw it, and if three hundred makes him happy —’
Wynn was grateful, and came over, in his tight-buttoned uniform, to say so. His training centre was not thirty miles away, and his talk was so technical that it had to be explained by charts of the various types of machines. He gave Mary such a chart.
‘And you’d better study it, Postey,’ he said. ‘You’ll be seeing a lot of ’em soon.’ So Mary studied the chart, but when Wynn next arrived to swell and exalt himself before his womenfolk, she failed badly in cross-examination, and he rated her as in the old days.
‘You look more or less like a human being,’ he said in his new Service voice. ‘You must have had a brain at some time in your past. What have you done with it? Where d’you keep it? A sheep would know more than you do, Postey. You’re lamentable. You are less use than an empty tin can, you dowey old cassowary.’
‘I suppose that’s how your superior officer talks to you?’ said Miss Fowler from her chair.
‘But Postey doesn’t mind,’ Wynn replied. ‘Do you, Packthread?’
‘Why? Was Wynn saying anything? I shall get this right next time you come,’ she muttered, and knitted her pale brows again over the diagrams of Taubes, Farmans, and Zeppelins.
In a few weeks the mere land and sea battles which she read to Miss Fowler after breakfast passed her like idle breath. Her heart and her interest were high in the air with Wynn, who had finished ‘rolling’ (whatever that might be) and had gone on from a ‘taxi’ to a machine more or less his own. One morning it circled over their very chimneys, alighted on Vegg’s Heath, almost outside the garden gate, and Wynn came in, blue with cold, shouting for food. He and she drew Miss Fowler’s bath-chair, as they had often done, along the Heath foot-path to look at the bi-plane. Mary observed that ‘it smelt very badly.’
‘Postey, I believe you think with your nose,’ said Wynn. ‘I know you don’t with your mind. Now, what type’s that?’
‘I’ll go and get the chart,’ said Mary.
‘You’re hopeless! You haven’t the mental capacity of a white mouse,’ he cried, and explained the dials and the sockets for bomb-dropping till it was time to mount and ride the wet clouds once more.
‘Ah!’ said Mary, as the stinking thing flared upward. ‘Wait till our Flying Corps gets to work! Wynn says it’s much safer than in the trenches.’
‘I wonder,’ said Miss Fowler. ‘Tell Cheape to come and tow me home again.’
‘It’s all downhill. I can do it,’ said Mary, ‘if you put the brake on.’ She laid her lean self against the pushing-bar and home they trundled.
‘Now, be careful you aren’t heated and catch a chill,’ said overdressed Miss Fowler.
‘Nothing makes me perspire,’ said Mary. As she bumped the chair under the porch she straightened her long back. The exertion had given her a colour, and the wind had loosened a wisp of hair across her forehead. Miss Fowler glanced at her.
‘What do you ever think of, Mary?’ she demanded suddenly.
‘Oh, Wynn says he wants another three pairs of stockings — as thick as we can make them.’
‘Yes. But I mean the things that women think about. Here you are, more than forty —’
‘Forty-four,’ said truthful Mary.
‘Well?’ Mary offered Miss Fowler her shoulder as usual.
‘And you’ve been with me ten years now.’
‘Let’s see,’ said Mary. ‘Wynn was eleven when he came. He’s twenty now, and I came two years before that. It must be eleven.’
‘Eleven! And you’ve never told me anything that matters in all that while. Looking back, it seems to me that I’ve done all the talking.’
‘I’m afraid I’m not much of a conversationalist. As Wynn says, I haven’t the mind. Let me take your hat.’
Miss Fowler, moving stiffly from the hip, stamped her rubber-tipped stick on the tiled hall floor. ‘Mary, aren’t you anything except a companion? Would you ever have been anything except a companion?’
Mary hung up the garden hat on its proper peg. ‘No,’ she said after consideration. ‘I don’t imagine I ever should. But I’ve no imagination, I’m afraid.’
She fetched Miss Fowler her eleven-o’clock glass of Contrexéville.
That was the wet December when it rained six inches to the month, and the women went abroad as little as might be. Wynn’s flying chariot visited them several times, and for two mornings (he had warned her by postcard) Mary heard the thresh of his propellers at dawn. The second time she ran to the window, and stared at the whitening sky. A little blur passed overhead. She lifted her lean arms towards it.
That evening at six o’clock there came an announcement in an official envelope that Second Lieutenant W. Fowler had been killed during a trial flight. Death was instantaneous. She read it and carried it to Miss Fowler.
‘I never expected anything else,’ said Miss Fowler; ‘but I’m sorry it happened before he had done anything.’
The room was whirling round Mary Postgate, but she found herself quite steady in the midst of it.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘It’s a great pity he didn’t die in action after he had killed somebody.’
‘He was killed instantly. That’s one comfort,’ Miss Fowler went on.
‘But Wynn says the shock of a fall kills a man at once — whatever happens to the tanks,’ quoted Mary.
The room was coming to rest now. She heard Miss Fowler say impatiently, ‘But why can’t we cry, Mary?’ and herself replying, ‘There’s nothing to cry for. He has done his duty as much as Mrs. Grant’s son did.’
‘And when he died, she came and cried all the morning,’ said Miss Fowler. ‘This only makes me feel tired — terribly tired. Will you help me to bed, please, Mary? — And I think I’d like the hot-water bottle.’
So Mary helped her and sat beside, talking of Wynn in his riotous youth.
‘I believe,’ said Miss Fowler suddenly, ‘that old people and young people slip from under a stroke like this. The middle-aged feel it most.’
‘I expect that’s true,’ said Mary, rising. ‘I’m going to put away the things in his room now. Shall we wear mourning?’
‘Certainly not,’ said Miss Fowler. ‘Except, of course, at the funeral. I can’t go. You will. I want you to arrange about his being buried here. What a blessing it didn’t happen at Salisbury!’
Every one, from the Authorities of the Flying Corps to the Rector, was most kind and sympathetic. Mary found herself for the moment in a world where bodies were in the habit of being despatched by all sorts of conveyances to all sorts of places. And at the funeral two young men in buttoned-up uniforms stood beside the grave and spoke to her afterwards.
‘You’re Miss Postgate, aren’t you?’ said one. ‘Fowler told me about you. He was a good chap — a first-class fellow — a great loss.’
‘Great loss!’ growled his companion. ‘We’re all awfully sorry.’
‘How high did he fall from?’ Mary whispered.
‘Pretty nearly four thousand feet, I should think, didn’t he? You were up that day, Monkey?’
‘All of that,’ the other child replied. ‘My bar made three thousand, and I wasn’t as high as him by a lot.’
‘Then that’s all right,’ said Mary. ‘Thank you very much.’
They moved away as Mrs. Grant flung herself weeping on Mary’s flat chest, under the lych-gate, and cried, ‘I know how it feels! I know how it feels!’
‘But both his parents are dead,’ Mary returned, as she fended her off. ‘Perhaps they’ve all met by now,’ she added vaguely as she escaped towards the coach.
‘I’ve thought of that too,’ wailed Mrs. Grant; ‘but then he’ll be practically a stranger to them. Quite embarrassing!’
Mary faithfully reported every detail of the ceremony to Miss Fowler, who, when she described Mrs. Grant’s outburst, laughed aloud.
‘Oh, how Wynn would have enjoyed it! He was always utterly unreliable at funerals. D’you remember —’ And they talked of him again, each piecing out the other’s gaps. ‘And now,’ said Miss Fowler, ‘we’ll pull up the blinds and we’ll have a general tidy. That always does us good. Have you seen to Wynn’s things?’
‘Everything — since he first came,’ said Mary. ‘He was never destructive — even with his toys.’
They faced that neat room.
‘It can’t be natural not to cry,’ Mary said at last. ‘I’m so afraid you’ll have a reaction.’
‘As I told you, we old people slip from under the stroke. It’s you I’m afraid for. Have you cried yet?’
‘I can’t. It only makes me angry with the Germans.’
‘That’s sheer waste of vitality,’ said Miss Fowler. ‘We must live till the war’s finished.’ She opened a full wardrobe. ‘Now, I’ve been thinking things over. This is my plan. All his civilian clothes can be given away — Belgian refugees, and so on.’
Mary nodded. ‘Boots, collars, and gloves?’
‘Yes. We don’t need to keep anything except his cap and belt.’
‘They came back yesterday with his Flying Corps clothes’— Mary pointed to a roll on the little iron bed.
‘Ah, but keep his Service things. Some one may be glad of them later. Do you remember his sizes?’
‘Five feet eight and a half; thirty-six inches round the chest. But he told me he’s just put on an inch and a half. I’ll mark it on a label and tie it on his sleeping-bag.’
‘So that disposes of that,’ said Miss Fowler, tapping the palm of one hand with the ringed third finger of the other. ‘What waste it all is! We’ll get his old school trunk tomorrow and pack his civilian clothes.’
‘And the rest?’ said Mary. ‘His books and pictures and the games and the toys — and — and the rest?’
‘My plan is to burn every single thing,’ said Miss Fowler. ‘Then we shall know where they are and no one can handle them afterwards. What do you think?’
‘I think that would be much the best,’ said Mary. ‘But there’s such a lot of them.’
‘We’ll burn them in the destructor,’ said Miss Fowler.
This was an open-air furnace for the consumption of refuse; a little circular four-foot tower of pierced brick over an iron grating. Miss Fowler had noticed the design in a gardening journal years ago, and had had it built at the bottom of the garden. It suited her tidy soul, for it saved unsightly rubbish-heaps, and the ashes lightened the stiff clay soil.
Mary considered for a moment, saw her way clear, and nodded again. They spent the evening putting away well-remembered civilian suits, underclothes that Mary had marked, and the regiments of very gaudy socks and ties. A second trunk was needed, and, after that, a little packing-case, and it was late next day when Cheape and the local carrier lifted them to the cart. The Rector luckily knew of a friend’s son, about five feet eight and a half inches high, to whom a complete Flying Corps outfit would be most acceptable, and sent his gardener’s son down with a barrow to take delivery of it. The cap was hung up in Miss Fowler’s bedroom, the belt in Miss Postgate’s; for, as Miss Fowler said, they had no desire to make tea-party talk of them.
‘That disposes of that,’ said Miss Fowler. ‘I’ll leave the rest to you, Mary. I can’t run up and down the garden. You’d better take the big clothes-basket and get Nellie to help you.’
‘I shall take the wheel-barrow and do it myself,’ said Mary, and for once in her life closed her mouth.
Miss Fowler, in moments of irritation, had called Mary deadly methodical. She put on her oldest waterproof and gardening-hat and her ever-slipping goloshes, for the weather was on the edge of more rain. She gathered fire-lighters from the kitchen, a half-scuttle of coals, and a faggot of brushwood. These she wheeled in the barrow down the mossed paths to the dank little laurel shrubbery where the destructor stood under the drip of three oaks. She climbed the wire fence into the Rector’s glebe just behind, and from his tenant’s rick pulled two large armfuls of good hay, which she spread neatly on the fire-bars. Next, journey by journey, passing Miss Fowler’s white face at the morning-room window each time, she brought down in the towel-covered clothes-basket, on the wheel-barrow, thumbed and used Hentys, Marryats, Levers, Stevensons, Baroness Orczys, Garvices, schoolbooks, and atlases, unrelated piles of the Motor Cyclist, the Light Car, and catalogues of Olympia Exhibitions; the remnants of a fleet of sailing-ships from ninepenny cutters to a three-guinea yacht; a prep.-school dressing-gown; bats from three-and-sixpence to twenty-four shillings; cricket and tennis balls; disintegrated steam and clockwork locomotives with their twisted rails; a grey and red tin model of a submarine; a dumb gramophone and cracked records; golf-clubs that had to be broken across the knee, like his walking-sticks, and an assegai; photographs of private and public school cricket and football elevens, and his O.T.C. on the line of march; kodaks, and film-rolls; some pewters, and one real silver cup, for boxing competitions and Junior Hurdles; sheaves of school photographs; Miss Fowler’s photograph; her own which he had borne off in fun and (good care she took not to ask!) had never returned; a playbox with a secret drawer; a load of flannels, belts, and jerseys, and a pair of spiked shoes unearthed in the attic; a packet of all the letters that Miss Fowler and she had ever written to him, kept for some absurd reason through all these years; a five-day attempt at a diary; framed pictures of racing motors in full Brooklands career, and load upon load of undistinguishable wreckage of tool-boxes, rabbit-hutches, electric batteries, tin soldiers, fret-saw outfits, and jig-saw puzzles.
Miss Fowler at the window watched her come and go, and said to herself, ‘Mary’s an old woman. I never realised it before.’
After lunch she recommended her to rest.
‘I’m not in the least tired,’ said Mary. ‘I’ve got it all arranged. I’m going to the village at two o’clock for some paraffin. Nellie hasn’t enough, and the walk will do me good.’
She made one last quest round the house before she started, and found that she had overlooked nothing. It began to mist as soon as she had skirted Vegg’s Heath, where Wynn used to descend — it seemed to her that she could almost hear the beat of his propellers overhead, but there was nothing to see. She hoisted her umbrella and lunged into the blind wet till she had reached the shelter of the empty village. As she came out of Mr. Kidd’s shop with a bottle full of paraffin in her string shopping-bag, she met Nurse Eden, the village nurse, and fell into talk with her, as usual, about the village children. They were just parting opposite the ‘Royal Oak,’ when a gun, they fancied, was fired immediately behind the house. It was followed by a child’s shriek dying into a wail.
‘Accident!’ said Nurse Eden promptly, and dashed through the empty bar, followed by Mary. They found Mrs. Gerritt, the publican’s wife, who could only gasp and point to the yard, where a little cart-lodge was sliding sideways amid a clatter of tiles. Nurse Eden snatched up a sheet drying before the fire, ran out, lifted something from the ground, and flung the sheet round it. The sheet turned scarlet and half her uniform too, as she bore the load into the kitchen. It was little Edna Gerritt, aged nine, whom Mary had known since her perambulator days.
‘Am I hurted bad?’ Edna asked, and died between Nurse Eden’s dripping hands. The sheet fell aside and for an instant, before she could shut her eyes, Mary saw the ripped and shredded body.
‘It’s a wonder she spoke at all,’ said Nurse Eden. ‘What in God’s name was it?’
‘A bomb,’ said Mary.
‘One o’ the Zeppelins?’
‘No. An aeroplane. I thought I heard it on the Heath, but I fancied it was one of ours. It must have shut off its engines as it came down. That’s why we didn’t notice it.’
‘The filthy pigs!’ said Nurse Eden, all white and shaken. ‘See the pickle I’m in! Go and tell Dr. Hennis, Miss Postgate.’ Nurse looked at the mother, who had dropped face down on the floor. ‘She’s only in a fit. Turn her over.’
Mary heaved Mrs. Gerritt right side up, and hurried off for the doctor. When she told her tale, he asked her to sit down in the surgery till he got her something.
‘But I don’t need it, I assure you,’ said she. ‘I don’t think it would be wise to tell Miss Fowler about it, do you? Her heart is so irritable in this weather.’
Dr. Hennis looked at her admiringly as he packed up his bag.
‘No. Don’t tell anybody till we’re sure,’ he said, and hastened to the ‘Royal Oak,’ while Mary went on with the paraffin. The village behind her was as quiet as usual, for the news had not yet spread. She frowned a little to herself, her large nostrils expanded uglily, and from time to time she muttered a phrase which Wynn, who never restrained himself before his womenfolk, had applied to the enemy. ‘Bloody pagans! They are bloody pagans. But,’ she continued, falling back on the teaching that had made her what she was, ‘one mustn’t let one’s mind dwell on these things.’
Before she reached the house Dr. Hennis, who was also a special constable, overtook her in his car.
‘Oh, Miss Postgate,’ he said, ‘I wanted to tell you that that accident at the “Royal Oak” was due to Gerritt’s stable tumbling down. It’s been dangerous for a long time. It ought to have been condemned.’
‘I thought I heard an explosion too,’ said Mary.
‘You might have been misled by the beams snapping. I’ve been looking at ’em. They were dry-rotted through and through. Of course, as they broke, they would make a noise just like a gun.’
‘Yes?’ said Mary politely.
‘Poor little Edna was playing underneath it,’ he went on, still holding her with his eyes, ‘and that and the tiles cut her to pieces, you see?’
‘I saw it,’ said Mary, shaking her head. ‘I heard it too.’
‘Well, we cannot be sure.’ Dr. Hennis changed his tone completely. ‘I know both you and Nurse Eden (I’ve been speaking to her) are perfectly trustworthy, and I can rely on you not to say anything — yet at least. It is no good to stir up people unless —’
‘Oh, I never do — anyhow,’ said Mary, and Dr. Hennis went on to the county town.
After all, she told herself, it might, just possibly, have been the collapse of the old stable that had done all those things to poor little Edna. She was sorry she had even hinted at other things, but Nurse Eden was discretion itself. By the time she reached home the affair seemed increasingly remote by its very monstrosity. As she came in, Miss Fowler told her that a couple of aeroplanes had passed half an hour ago.
‘I thought I heard them,’ she replied, ‘I’m going down to the garden now. I’ve got the paraffin.’
‘Yes, but — what have you got on your boots? They’re soaking wet. Change them at once.’
Not only did Mary obey but she wrapped the boots in a newspaper, and put them into the string bag with the bottle. So, armed with the longest kitchen poker, she left.
‘It’s raining again,’ was Miss Fowler’s last word, ‘but — I know you won’t be happy till that’s disposed of.’
‘It won’t take long. I’ve got everything down there, and I’ve put the lid on the destructor to keep the wet out.’
The shrubbery was filling with twilight by the time she had completed her arrangements and sprinkled the sacrificial oil. As she lit the match that would burn her heart to ashes, she heard a groan or a grunt behind the dense Portugal laurels.
‘Cheape?’ she called impatiently, but Cheape, with his ancient lumbago, in his comfortable cottage would be the last man to profane the sanctuary. ‘Sheep,’ she concluded, and threw in the fusee. The pyre went up in a roar, and the immediate flame hastened night around her.
‘How Wynn would have loved this!’ she thought, stepping back from the blaze.
By its light she saw, half hidden behind a laurel not five paces away, a bareheaded man sitting very stiffly at the foot of one of the oaks. A broken branch lay across his lap — one booted leg protruding from beneath it. His head moved ceaselessly from side to side, but his body was as still as the tree’s trunk. He was dressed — she moved sideways to look more closely — in a uniform something like Wynn’s, with a flap buttoned across the chest. For an instant, she had some idea that it might be one of the young flying men she had met at the funeral. But their heads were dark and glossy. This man’s was as pale as a baby’s, and so closely cropped that she could see the disgusting pinky skin beneath. His lips moved.
‘What do you say?’ Mary moved towards him and stooped.
‘Laty! Laty! Laty!’ he muttered, while his hands picked at the dead wet leaves. There was no doubt as to his nationality. It made her so angry that she strode back to the destructor, though it was still too hot to use the poker there. Wynn’s books seemed to be catching well. She looked up at the oak behind the man; several of the light upper and two or three rotten lower branches had broken and scattered their rubbish on the shrubbery path. On the lowest fork a helmet with dependent strings, showed like a bird’s-nest in the light of a long-tongued flame. Evidently this person had fallen through the tree. Wynn had told her that it was quite possible for people to fall out of aeroplanes. Wynn told her too, that trees were useful things to break an aviator’s fall, but in this case the aviator must have been broken or he would have moved from his queer position. He seemed helpless except for his horrible rolling head. On the other hand, she could see a pistol case at his belt — and Mary loathed pistols. Months ago, after reading certain Belgian reports together, she and Miss Fowler had had dealings with one — a huge revolver with flat-nosed bullets, which latter, Wynn said, were forbidden by the rules of war to be used against civilised enemies. ‘They’re good enough for us,’ Miss Fowler had replied. ‘Show Mary how it works.’ And Wynn, laughing at the mere possibility of any such need, had led the craven winking Mary into the Rector’s disused quarry, and had shown her how to fire the terrible machine. It lay now in the top-left-hand drawer of her toilet-table — a memento not included in the burning. Wynn would be pleased to see how she was not afraid.
She slipped up to the house to get it. When she came through the rain, the eyes in the head were alive with expectation. The mouth even tried to smile. But at sight of the revolver its corners went down just like Edna Gerritt’s. A tear trickled from one eye, and the head rolled from shoulder to shoulder as though trying to point out something.
‘Cassée. Tout cassée,’ it whimpered.
‘What do you say?’ said Mary disgustedly, keeping well to one side, though only the head moved.
‘Cassée,’ it repeated. ‘Che me rends. Le médicin! Toctor!’
‘Nein!’ said she, bringing all her small German to bear with the big pistol. ‘Ich haben der todt Kinder gesehn.’
The head was still. Mary’s hand dropped. She had been careful to keep her finger off the trigger for fear of accidents. After a few moments’ waiting, she returned to the destructor, where the flames were falling, and churned up Wynn’s charring books with the poker. Again the head groaned for the doctor.
‘Stop that!’ said Mary, and stamped her foot. ‘Stop that, you bloody pagan!’
The words came quite smoothly and naturally. They were Wynn’s own words, and Wynn was a gentleman who for no consideration on earth would have torn little Edna into those vividly coloured strips and strings. But this thing hunched under the oak-tree had done that thing. It was no question of reading horrors out of newspapers to Miss Fowler. Mary had seen it with her own eyes on the ‘Royal Oak’ kitchen table. She must not allow her mind to dwell upon it. Now Wynn was dead, and everything connected with him was lumping and rustling and tinkling under her busy poker into red black dust and grey leaves of ash. The thing beneath the oak would die too. Mary had seen death more than once. She came of a family that had a knack of dying under, as she told Miss Fowler, ‘most distressing circumstances.’ She would stay where she was till she was entirely satisfied that It was dead — dead as dear papa in the late ‘eighties; aunt Mary in eighty-nine; mamma in ‘ninety-one; cousin Dick in ninety-five; Lady McCausland’s housemaid in ‘ninety-nine; Lady McCausland’s sister in nineteen hundred and one; Wynn buried five days ago; and Edna Gerritt still waiting for decent earth to hide her. As she thought — her underlip caught up by one faded canine, brows knit and nostrils wide — she wielded the poker with lunges that jarred the grating at the bottom, and careful scrapes round the brick-work above. She looked at her wrist-watch. It was getting on to half-past four, and the rain was coming down in earnest. Tea would be at five. If It did not die before that time, she would be soaked and would have to change. Meantime, and this occupied her, Wynn’s things were burning well in spite of the hissing wet, though now and again a book-back with a quite distinguishable title would be heaved up out of the mass. The exercise of stoking had given her a glow which seemed to reach to the marrow of her bones. She hummed — Mary never had a voice — to herself. She had never believed in all those advanced views — though Miss Fowler herself leaned a little that way — of woman’s work in the world; but now she saw there was much to be said for them. This, for instance, was her work — work which no man, least of all Dr. Hennis, would ever have done. A man, at such a crisis, would be what Wynn called a ‘sportsman’; would leave everything to fetch help, and would certainly bring It into the house. Now a woman’s business was to make a happy home for — for a husband and children. Failing these — it was not a thing one should allow one’s mind to dwell upon — but —
‘Stop it!’ Mary cried once more across the shadows. ‘Nein, I tell you! Ich haben der todt Kinder gesehn.’
But it was a fact. A woman who had missed these things could still be useful — more useful than a man in certain respects. She thumped like a pavior through the settling ashes at the secret thrill of it. The rain was damping the fire, but she could feel — it was too dark to see — that her work was done. There was a dull red glow at the bottom of the destructor, not enough to char the wooden lid if she slipped it half over against the driving wet. This arranged, she leaned on the poker and waited, while an increasing rapture laid hold on her. She ceased to think. She gave herself up to feel. Her long pleasure was broken by a sound that she had waited for in agony several times in her life. She leaned forward and listened, smiling. There could be no mistake. She closed her eyes and drank it in. Once it ceased abruptly.
‘Go on,’ she murmured, half aloud. ‘That isn’t the end.’
Then the end came very distinctly in a lull between two rain-gusts. Mary Postgate drew her breath short between her teeth and shivered from head to foot. ‘That’s all right,’ said she contentedly, and went up to the house, where she scandalised the whole routine by taking a luxurious hot bath before tea, and came down looking, as Miss Fowler said when she saw her lying all relaxed on the other sofa, ‘quite handsome!’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56