But it was not until the girls finally came home from school, that they felt the full weight of Granny’s dear old hand on their lives. Lucille was now nearly twenty-one, and Yvette nineteen. They had been to a good girls’ school, and had had a finishing year in Lausanne, and were quite the usual thing, tall young creatures with fresh, sensitive faces and bobbed hair and young-manly, deuce-take-it manners.
“What’s so awfully BORING about Papplewick,” said Yvette, as they stood on the Channel boat watching the grey, grey cliffs of Dover draw near, “is that there are no MEN about. Why doesn’t Daddy have some good old sports for friends? As for Uncle Fred, he’s the limit!”
“Oh, you never know what will turn up,” said Lucille, more philosophic.
“You jolly well know what to expect,” said Yvette. “Choir on Sundays, and I hate mixed choirs. Boys’ voices are LOVELY, when there are no women. And Sunday School and Girls’ Friendly, and socials, all the dear old souls that enquire after Granny! Not a decent young fellow for miles.”
“Oh I don’t know!” said Lucille. “There’s always the Framleys. And you know Gerry Somercotes ADORES you.”
“Oh but I HATE fellows who adore me!” cried Yvette, turning up her sensitive nose. “They BORE me. They hang on like lead.”
“Well what DO you want, if you can’t stand being adored? I think it’s perfectly all right to be adored. You know you’ll never marry them, so why not let them go on adoring, if it amuses them.”
“Oh but I WANT to get married,” cried Yvette.
“Well in that case, let them go on adoring you till you find one that you can POSSIBLY marry.”
“I never should, that way. Nothing puts me off like an adoring fellow. They BORE me so! They make me feel beastly.”
“Oh, so they do me, if they get pressing. But at a distance, I think they’re rather nice.”
“I should like to fall VIOLENTLY in love.”
“Oh, very likely! I shouldn’t! I should hate it. Probably so would you, if it actually happened. After all, we’ve got to settle down a bit, before we know what we want.”
“But don’t you HATE going back to Papplewick?” cried Yvette, turning up her young sensitive nose.
“No, not particularly. I suppose we shall be rather bored. I wish Daddy would get a car. I suppose we shall have to drag the old bikes out. Wouldn’t you like to get up to Tansy Moor?”
“Oh, LOVE it! Though it’s an awful strain, shoving an old push-bike up those hills.”
The ship was nearing the grey cliffs. It was summer, but a grey day. The two girls wore their coats with fur collars turned up, and little chic hats pulled down over their ears. Tall, slender, fresh-faced, naïve, yet confident, too confident, in their school-girlish arrogance, they were so terribly English. They seemed so free, and were as a matter of fact so tangled and tied up, inside themselves. They seemed so dashing and unconventional, and were really so conventional, so, as it were, shut up indoors inside themselves. They looked like bold, tall young sloops, just slipping from the harbour, into the wide seas of life. And they were, as a matter of fact, two poor young rudderless lives, moving from one chain anchorage to another.
The rectory struck a chill into their hearts as they entered. It seemed ugly, and almost sordid, with the dank air of that middle-class, degenerated comfort which has ceased to be comfortable and has turned stuffy, unclean. The hard, stone house struck the girls as being unclean, they could not have said why. The shabby furniture seemed somehow sordid, nothing was fresh. Even the food at meals had that awful dreary sordidness which is so repulsive to a young thing coming from abroad. Roast beef and wet cabbage, cold mutton and mashed potatoes, sour pickles, inexcusable puddings.
Granny, who “loved a bit of pork,” also had special dishes, beef-tea and rusks, or a small savoury custard. The grey-faced Aunt Cissie ate nothing at all. She would sit at table, and take a single lonely and naked boiled potato on to her plate. She never ate meat. So she sat in sordid durance, while the meal went on, and Granny quickly slobbered her portion — lucky if she spilled nothing on her protuberant stomach. The food was not appetising in itself: how could it be, when Aunt Cissie hated food herself, hated the fact of eating, and never could keep a maidservant for three months. The girls ate with repulsion, Lucille bravely bearing up, Yvette’s tender nose showing her disgust. Only the rector, white-haired, wiped his long grey moustache with his serviette, and cracked jokes. He too was getting heavy and inert, sitting in his study all day, never taking exercise. But he cracked sarcastic little jokes all the time, sitting there under the shelter of the Mater.
The country, with its steep hills and its deep, narrow valleys, was dark and gloomy, yet had a certain powerful strength of its own. Twenty miles away was the black industrialism of the north. Yet the village of Papplewick was comparatively lonely, almost lost, the life in it stony and dour. Everything was stone, with a hardness that was almost poetic, it was so unrelenting.
It was as the girls had known: they went back into the choir, they helped in the parish. But Yvette struck absolutely against Sunday School, the Band of Hope, the Girls’ Friendlies — indeed against all those functions that were conducted by determined old maids and obstinate, stupid elderly men. She avoided church duties as much as possible, and got away from the rectory whenever she could. The Framleys, a big, untidy, jolly family up at the Grange, were an enormous standby. And if anybody asked her out to a meal, even if a woman in one of the workmen’s houses asked her to stay to tea, she accepted at once. In fact, she was rather thrilled. She liked talking to the working men, they had often such fine, hard heads. But of course they were in another world.
So the months went by. Gerry Somercotes was still an adorer. There were others, too, sons of farmers or mill-owners. Yvette really ought to have had a good time. She was always out to parties and dances, friends came for her in their motor-cars, and off she went to the city, to the afternoon dance in the chief hotel, or in the gorgeous new Palais de Danse, called the Pally.
Yet she always seemed like a creature mesmerised. She was never free to be quite jolly. Deep inside her worked an intolerable irritation, which she thought she OUGHT not to feel, and which she hated feeling, thereby making it worse. She never understood at all whence it arose.
At home, she truly was irritable, and outrageously rude to Aunt Cissie. In fact Yvette’s awful temper became one of the family by-words.
Lucille, always more practical, got a job in the city as private secretary to a man who needed somebody with fluent French and shorthand. She went back and forth every day, by the same train as Uncle Fred. But she never travelled with him, and wet or fine, bicycled to the station, while he went on foot.
The two girls were both determined that what they wanted was a really jolly social life. And they resented with fury that the rectory was, for their friends, impossible. There were only four rooms downstairs: the kitchen, where lived the two discontented maid-servants: the dark dining-room: the rector’s study: and the big, “homely,” dreary living-room or drawing-room. In the dining-room there was a gas fire. Only in the living-room was a good hot fire kept going. Because of course, here Granny reigned.
In this room the family was assembled. At evening, after dinner, Uncle Fred and the rector invariably played crossword puzzles with Granny.
“Now, Mater, are you ready? N blank blank blank blank W: a Siamese functionary.”
“Eh? Eh? M blank blank blank blank W?”
Granny was hard of hearing.
“No Mater. Not M! N blank blank blank blank W: a Siamese functionary.”
“N blank blank blank blank W: a Chinese functionary.”
“A Siamese functionary! Now what can that be?” said the old lady profoundly, folding her hands on her round stomach. Her two sons proceeded to make suggestions, at which she said Ah! Ah! The rector was amazingly clever at cross-word puzzles. But Fred had a certain technical vocabulary.
“This certainly is a hard nut to crack,” said the old lady, when they were all stuck.
Meanwhile Lucille sat in a corner with her hands over her ears, pretending to read, and Yvette irritably made drawings, or hummed loud and exasperating tunes, to add to the family concert. Aunt Cissie continually reached for a chocolate, and her jaws worked ceaselessly. She literally lived on chocolates. Sitting in the distance, she put another into her mouth, then looked again at the parish magazine. Then she lifted her head, and saw it was time to fetch Granny’s cup of Horlicks.
While she was gone, in nervous exasperation Yvette would open the window. The room was never fresh, she imagined it smelt: smelt of Granny. And Granny, who was hard of hearing, heard like a weasel when she wasn’t wanted to.
“Did you open the window, Yvette? I think you might remember there are older people than yourself in the room,” she said.
“It’s stifling! It’s unbearable! No wonder we’ve all of us always got colds.”
“I’m sure the room is large enough, and a good fire burning.” The old lady gave a little shudder. “A draught to give us all our death.”
“Not a draught at all,” roared Yvette. “A breath of fresh air.”
The old lady shuddered again, and said:
The rector, in silence, marched to the window and firmly closed it. He did not look at his daughter meanwhile. He hated thwarting her. But she must know what’s what!
The cross-word puzzles, invented by Satan himself, continued till Granny had had her Horlicks, and was to go to bed. Then came the ceremony of Goodnight! Everybody stood up. The girls went to be kissed by the blind old woman. The rector gave his arm, and Aunt Cissie followed with a candle.
But this was already nine o’clock, although Granny was really getting old, and should have been in bed sooner. But when she was in bed, she could not sleep, till Aunt Cissie came.
“You see,” said Granny, “I have NEVER slept alone. For fifty-four years I never slept a night without the Pater’s arm round me. And when he was gone, I tried to sleep alone. But as sure as my eyes closed to sleep, my heart nearly jumped out of my body, and I lay in a palpitation. Oh, you may think what you will, but it was a fearful experience, after fifty-four years of perfect married life! I would have prayed to be taken first, but the Pater, well, no I don’t think he would have been able to bear up.”
So Aunt Cissie slept with Granny. And she hated it. She said SHE could never sleep. And she grew greyer and greyer, and the food in the house got worse, and Aunt Cissie had to have an operation.
But The Mater rose as ever, towards noon, and at the mid-day meal, she presided from her arm-chair, with her stomach protruding, her reddish, pendulous face, that had a sort of horrible majesty, dropping soft under the wall of her high brow, and her blue eyes peering unseeing. Her white hair was getting scanty, it was altogether a little indecent. But the rector jovially cracked his jokes to her, and she pretended to disapprove. But she was perfectly complacent, sitting in her ancient obesity, and after meals, getting the wind from her stomach, pressing her bosom with her hand as she “rifted” in gross physical complacency.
What the girls minded most was that, when they brought their young friends to the house, Granny always was there, like some awful idol of old flesh, consuming all the attention. There was only the one room for everybody. And there sat the old lady, with Aunt Cissie keeping an acrid guard over her. Everybody must be presented first to Granny: she was ready to be genial, she liked company. She had to know who everybody was, where they came from, every circumstance of their lives. And then, when she was au fait, she could get hold of the conversation.
Nothing could be more exasperating to the girls. “Isn’t old Mrs. Saywell wonderful! She takes SUCH an interest in life, at nearly ninety!”
“She does take an interest in people’s affairs, if that’s life,” said Yvette.
Then she would immediately feel guilty. After all, it WAS wonderful to be nearly ninety, and have such a clear mind! And Granny never ACTUALLY did anybody any harm. It was more that she was in the way. And perhaps it was rather awful to hate somebody because they were old and in the way.
Yvette immediately repented, and was nice. Granny blossomed forth into reminiscences of when she was a girl, in the little town in Buckinghamshire. She talked and talked away, and was SO entertaining. She really WAS rather wonderful.
Then in the afternoon Lottie and Ella and Bob Framley came, with Leo Wetherell.
“Oh, come in!”— and in they all trooped to the sitting-room, where Granny, in her white cap, sat by the fire.
“Granny, this is Mr. Wetherell.”
“Mr. What-did-you-say? You must excuse me, I’m a little deaf!”
Granny gave her hand to the uncomfortable young man, and gazed silently at him, sightlessly.
“You are not from our parish?” she asked him.
“Dinnington!” he shouted.
“We want to go to a picnic tomorrow, to Bonsall Head, in Leo’s car. We can all squeeze in,” said Ella in a low voice.
“Did you say Bonsall Head?” asked Granny.
There was a blank silence.
“Did you say you were going in a car?”
“Yes! In Mr. Wetherell’s.”
“I hope he’s a good driver. It’s a very dangerous road.”
“He’s a VERY good driver.”
“Not a very good driver?”
“Yes! He IS a very good driver.”
“If you go to Bonsall Head, I think I must send a message to Lady Louth.”
Granny always dragged in this miserable Lady Louth, when there was company.
“Oh, we shan’t go that way,” cried Yvette.
“Which way?” said Granny. “You must go by Heanor.”
The whole party sat, as Bob expressed it, like stuffed ducks, fidgeting on their chairs.
Aunt Cissie came in-and then the maid with the tea. There was the eternal and everlasting piece of bought cake. Then appeared a plate of little fresh cakes. Aunt Cissie had actually sent to the baker’s.
The old lady gripped the arms of her chair. Everybody rose and stood, while she waded slowly across, on Aunt Cissie’s arm, to her place at table.
During tea Lucille came in from town, from her job. She was simply worn out, with black marks under her eyes. She gave a cry, seeing all the company.
As soon as the noise had subsided, and the awkwardness was resumed, Granny said:
“You have never mentioned Mr. Wetherell to me, have you, Lucille?”
“I don’t remember,” said Lucille.
“You can’t have done. The name is strange to me.”
Yvette absently grabbed another cake, from the now almost empty plate. Aunt Cissie, who was driven almost crazy by Yvette’s vague and inconsiderate ways, felt the green rage fuse in her heart. She picked up her own plate, on which was the one cake she allowed herself, and said with vitriolic politeness, offering it to Yvette:
“Won’t you have mine?”
“Oh, thanks!” said Yvette, starting in her angry vagueness. And with an appearance of the same insouciance, she helped herself to Aunt Cissie’s cake also, adding as an afterthought: “If you’re sure you don’t want it.”
She now had two cakes on her plate. Lucille had gone white as a ghost, bending to her tea. Aunt Cissie sat with a green look of poisonous resignation. The awkwardness was an agony.
But Granny, bulkily enthroned and unaware, only said, in the centre of the cyclone:
“If you are motoring to Bonsall Head tomorrow, Lucille, I wish you would take a message from me to Lady Louth.”
“Oh!” said Lucille, giving a queer look across the table at the sightless old woman. Lady Louth was the King Charles’ Head of the family, invariably produced by Granny for the benefit of visitors. “Very well!”
“She was so very kind last week. She sent her chauffeur over with a Cross-word Puzzle book for me.”
“But you thanked her then,” cried Yvette.
“I should like to send her a note.”
“We can post it,” cried Lucille.
“Oh no! I should like you to take it. When Lady Louth called last time . . .”
The young ones sat like a shoal of young fishes dumbly mouthing at the surface of the water, while Granny went on about Lady Louth. Aunt Cissie, the two girls knew, was still helpless, almost unconscious in a paroxysm of rage about the cake. Perhaps, poor thing, she was praying.
It was a mercy when the friends departed. But by that time the two girls were both haggard-eyed. And it was then that Yvette, looking round, suddenly saw the stony, implacable will-to-power in the old and motherly-seeming Granny. She sat there bulging backwards in her chair, impassive, her reddish, pendulous old face rather mottled, almost unconscious, but implacable, her face like a mask that hid something stony, relentless. It was the static inertia of her unsavoury power. Yet in a minute she would open her ancient mouth to find out every detail about Leo Wetherell. For the moment she was hibernating in her oldness, her agedness. But in a minute her mouth would open, her mind would flicker awake, and with her insatiable greed for life, other people’s life, she would start on her quest for every detail. She was like the old toad which Yvette had watched, fascinated, as it sat on the ledge of the beehive, immediately in front of the little entrance by which the bees emerged, and which, with a demonish lightning-like snap of its pursed jaws, caught every bee as it came out to launch into the air, swallowed them one after the other, as if it could consume the whole hive-full, into its aged, bulging, purse-like wrinkledness. It had been swallowing bees as they launched into the air of spring, year after year, year after year, for generations:
But the gardener, called by Yvette, was in a rage, and killed the creature with a stone.
“‘Appen tha ART good for th’ snails,” he said, as he came down with the stone. “But tha ‘rt none goin’ ter emp’y th’ bee-‘ive into thy guts.”
Last updated Saturday, May 23, 2015 at 22:23