“Archer,” said Mrs. Flanders with that tenderness which mothers so often display towards their eldest sons, “will be at Gibraltar to-morrow.”
The post for which she was waiting (strolling up Dods Hill while the random church bells swung a hymn tune about her head, the clock striking four straight through the circling notes; the glass purpling under a storm-cloud; and the two dozen houses of the village cowering, infinitely humble, in company under a leaf of shadow), the post, with all its variety of messages, envelopes addressed in bold hands, in slanting hands, stamped now with English stamps, again with Colonial stamps, or sometimes hastily dabbed with a yellow bar, the post was about to scatter a myriad messages over the world. Whether we gain or not by this habit of profuse communication it is not for us to say. But that letter-writing is practised mendaciously nowadays, particularly by young men travelling in foreign parts, seems likely enough.
For example, take this scene.
Here was Jacob Flanders gone abroad and staying to break his journey in Paris. (Old Miss Birkbeck, his mother’s cousin, had died last June and left him a hundred pounds.)
“You needn’t repeat the whole damned thing over again, Cruttendon,” said Mallinson, the little bald painter who was sitting at a marble table, splashed with coffee and ringed with wine, talking very fast, and undoubtedly more than a little drunk.
“Well, Flanders, finished writing to your lady?” said Cruttendon, as Jacob came and took his seat beside them, holding in his hand an envelope addressed to Mrs. Flanders, near Scarborough, England.
“Do you uphold Velasquez?” said Cruttendon.
“By God, he does,” said Mallinson.
“He always gets like this,” said Cruttendon irritably.
Jacob looked at Mallinson with excessive composure.
“I’ll tell you the three greatest things that were ever written in the whole of literature,” Cruttendon burst out. “‘Hang there like fruit my soul.’” he began. . . .
“Don’t listen to a man who don’t like Velasquez,” said Mallinson.
“Adolphe, don’t give Mr. Mallinson any more wine,” said Cruttendon.
“Fair play, fair play,” said Jacob judicially. “Let a man get drunk if he likes. That’s Shakespeare, Cruttendon. I’m with you there. Shakespeare had more guts than all these damned frogs put together. ‘Hang there like fruit my soul,’” he began quoting, in a musical rhetorical voice, flourishing his wine-glass. “The devil damn you black, you cream-faced loon!” he exclaimed as the wine washed over the rim.
“‘Hang there like fruit my soul,’” Cruttendon and Jacob both began again at the same moment, and both burst out laughing.
“Curse these flies,” said Mallinson, flicking at his bald head. “What do they take me for?”
“Something sweet-smelling,” said Cruttendon.
“Shut up, Cruttendon,” said Jacob. “The fellow has no manners,” he explained to Mallinson very politely. “Wants to cut people off their drink. Look here. I want grilled bone. What’s the French for grilled bone? Grilled bone, Adolphe. Now you juggins, don’t you understand?”
“And I’ll tell you, Flanders, the second most beautiful thing in the whole of literature,” said Cruttendon, bringing his feet down on to the floor, and leaning right across the table, so that his face almost touched Jacob’s face.
“‘Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle,’” Mallinson interrupted, strumming his fingers on the table. “The most ex-qui-sitely beautiful thing in the whole of literature. . . . Cruttendon is a very good fellow,” he remarked confidentially. “But he’s a bit of a fool.” And he jerked his head forward.
Well, not a word of this was ever told to Mrs. Flanders; nor what happened when they paid the bill and left the restaurant, and walked along the Boulevard Raspaille.
Then here is another scrap of conversation; the time about eleven in the morning; the scene a studio; and the day Sunday.
“I tell you, Flanders,” said Cruttendon, “I’d as soon have one of Mallinson’s little pictures as a Chardin. And when I say that . . . ” he squeezed the tail of an emaciated tube . . . “Chardin was a great swell. . . . He sells ‘em to pay his dinner now. But wait till the dealers get hold of him. A great swell — oh, a very great swell.”
“It’s an awfully pleasant life,” said Jacob, “messing away up here. Still, it’s a stupid art, Cruttendon.” He wandered off across the room. “There’s this man, Pierre Louys now.” He took up a book.
“Now my good sir, are you going to settle down?” said Cruttendon.
“That’s a solid piece of work,” said Jacob, standing a canvas on a chair.
“Oh, that I did ages ago,” said Cruttendon, looking over his shoulder.
“You’re a pretty competent painter in my opinion,” said Jacob after a time.
“Now if you’d like to see what I’m after at the present moment,” said Cruttendon, putting a canvas before Jacob. “There. That’s it. That’s more like it. That’s . . . ” he squirmed his thumb in a circle round a lamp globe painted white.
“A pretty solid piece of work,” said Jacob, straddling his legs in front of it. “But what I wish you’d explain . . . ”
Miss Jinny Carslake, pale, freckled, morbid, came into the room.
“Oh Jinny, here’s a friend. Flanders. An Englishman. Wealthy. Highly connected. Go on, Flanders. . . . ”
Jacob said nothing.
“It’s THAT— that’s not right,” said Jinny Carslake.
“No,” said Cruttendon decidedly. “Can’t be done.”
He took the canvas off the chair and stood it on the floor with its back to them.
“Sit down, ladies and gentlemen. Miss Carslake comes from your part of the world, Flanders. From Devonshire. Oh, I thought you said Devonshire. Very well. She’s a daughter of the church too. The black sheep of the family. Her mother writes her such letters. I say — have you one about you? It’s generally Sundays they come. Sort of church-bell effect, you know.”
“Have you met all the painter men?” said Jinny. “Was Mallinson drunk? If you go to his studio he’ll give you one of his pictures. I say, Teddy . . . ”
“Half a jiff,” said Cruttendon. “What’s the season of the year?” He looked out of the window.
“We take a day off on Sundays, Flanders.”
“Will he . . . ” said Jinny, looking at Jacob. “You . . . ”
“Yes, he’ll come with us,” said Cruttendon.
And then, here is Versailles. Jinny stood on the stone rim and leant over the pond, clasped by Cruttendon’s arms or she would have fallen in. “There! There!” she cried. “Right up to the top!” Some sluggish, sloping-shouldered fish had floated up from the depths to nip her crumbs. “You look,” she said, jumping down. And then the dazzling white water, rough and throttled, shot up into the air. The fountain spread itself. Through it came the sound of military music far away. All the water was puckered with drops. A blue air-ball gently bumped the surface. How all the nurses and children and old men and young crowded to the edge, leant over and waved their sticks! The little girl ran stretching her arms towards her air-ball, but it sank beneath the fountain.
Edward Cruttendon, Jinny Carslake, and Jacob Flanders walked in a row along the yellow gravel path; got on to the grass; so passed under the trees; and came out at the summer-house where Marie Antoinette used to drink chocolate. In went Edward and Jinny, but Jacob waited outside, sitting on the handle of his walking-stick. Out they came again.
“Well?” said Cruttendon, smiling at Jacob.
Jinny waited; Edward waited; and both looked at Jacob.
“Well?” said Jacob, smiling and pressing both hands on his stick.
“Come along,” he decided; and started off. The others followed him, smiling.
And then they went to the little cafe in the by-street where people sit drinking coffee, watching the soldiers, meditatively knocking ashes into trays.
“But he’s quite different,” said Jinny, folding her hands over the top of her glass. “I don’t suppose you know what Ted means when he says a thing like that,” she said, looking at Jacob. “But I do. Sometimes I could kill myself. Sometimes he lies in bed all day long — just lies there. . . . I don’t want you right on the table”; she waved her hands. Swollen iridescent pigeons were waddling round their feet.
“Look at that woman’s hat,” said Cruttendon. “How do they come to think of it? . . . No, Flanders, I don’t think I could live like you. When one walks down that street opposite the British Museum — what’s it called? — that’s what I mean. It’s all like that. Those fat women — and the man standing in the middle of the road as if he were going to have a fit . . . ”
“Everybody feeds them,” said Jinny, waving the pigeons away. “They’re stupid old things.”
“Well, I don’t know,” said Jacob, smoking his cigarette. “There’s St. Paul’s.”
“I mean going to an office,” said Cruttendon.
“Hang it all,” Jacob expostulated.
“But you don’t count,” said Jinny, looking at Cruttendon. “You’re mad. I mean, you just think of painting.”
“Yes, I know. I can’t help it. I say, will King George give way about the peers?”
“He’ll jolly well have to,” said Jacob.
“There!” said Jinny. “He really knows.”
“You see, I would if I could,” said Cruttendon, “but I simply can’t.”
“I THINK I could,” said Jinny. “Only, it’s all the people one dislikes who do it. At home, I mean. They talk of nothing else. Even people like my mother.”
“Now if I came and lived here —-” said Jacob. “What’s my share, Cruttendon? Oh, very well. Have it your own way. Those silly birds, directly one wants them — they’ve flown away.”
And finally under the arc lamps in the Gare des Invalides, with one of those queer movements which are so slight yet so definite, which may wound or pass unnoticed but generally inflict a good deal of discomfort, Jinny and Cruttendon drew together; Jacob stood apart. They had to separate. Something must be said. Nothing was said. A man wheeled a trolley past Jacob’s legs so near that he almost grazed them. When Jacob recovered his balance the other two were turning away, though Jinny looked over her shoulder, and Cruttendon, waving his hand, disappeared like the very great genius that he was.
No — Mrs. Flanders was told none of this, though Jacob felt, it is safe to say, that nothing in the world was of greater importance; and as for Cruttendon and Jinny, he thought them the most remarkable people he had ever met — being of course unable to foresee how it fell out in the course of time that Cruttendon took to painting orchards; had therefore to live in Kent; and must, one would think, see through apple blossom by this time, since his wife, for whose sake he did it, eloped with a novelist; but no; Cruttendon still paints orchards, savagely, in solitude. Then Jinny Carslake, after her affair with Lefanu the American painter, frequented Indian philosophers, and now you find her in pensions in Italy cherishing a little jeweller’s box containing ordinary pebbles picked off the road. But if you look at them steadily, she says, multiplicity becomes unity, which is somehow the secret of life, though it does not prevent her from following the macaroni as it goes round the table, and sometimes, on spring nights, she makes the strangest confidences to shy young Englishmen.
Jacob had nothing to hide from his mother. It was only that he could make no sense himself of his extraordinary excitement, and as for writing it down —-
“Jacob’s letters are so like him,” said Mrs. Jarvis, folding the sheet.
“Indeed he seems to be having . . . ” said Mrs. Flanders, and paused, for she was cutting out a dress and had to straighten the pattern, “ . . . a very gay time.”
Mrs. Jarvis thought of Paris. At her back the window was open, for it was a mild night; a calm night; when the moon seemed muffled and the apple trees stood perfectly still.
“I never pity the dead,” said Mrs. Jarvis, shifting the cushion at her back, and clasping her hands behind her head. Betty Flanders did not hear, for her scissors made so much noise on the table.
“They are at rest,” said Mrs. Jarvis. “And we spend our days doing foolish unnecessary things without knowing why.”
Mrs. Jarvis was not liked in the village.
“You never walk at this time of night?” she asked Mrs. Flanders.
“It is certainly wonderfully mild,” said Mrs. Flanders.
Yet it was years since she had opened the orchard gate and gone out on Dods Hill after dinner.
“It is perfectly dry,” said Mrs. Jarvis, as they shut the orchard door and stepped on to the turf.
“I shan’t go far,” said Betty Flanders. “Yes, Jacob will leave Paris on Wednesday.”
“Jacob was always my friend of the three,” said Mrs. Jarvis.
“Now, my dear, I am going no further,” said Mrs. Flanders. They had climbed the dark hill and reached the Roman camp.
The rampart rose at their feet — the smooth circle surrounding the camp or the grave. How many needles Betty Flanders had lost there; and her garnet brooch.
“It is much clearer than this sometimes,” said Mrs. Jarvis, standing upon the ridge. There were no clouds, and yet there was a haze over the sea, and over the moors. The lights of Scarborough flashed, as if a woman wearing a diamond necklace turned her head this way and that.
“How quiet it is!” said Mrs. Jarvis.
Mrs. Flanders rubbed the turf with her toe, thinking of her garnet brooch.
Mrs. Jarvis found it difficult to think of herself to-night. It was so calm. There was no wind; nothing racing, flying, escaping. Black shadows stood still over the silver moors. The furze bushes stood perfectly still. Neither did Mrs. Jarvis think of God. There was a church behind them, of course. The church clock struck ten. Did the strokes reach the furze bush, or did the thorn tree hear them?
Mrs. Flanders was stooping down to pick up a pebble. Sometimes people do find things, Mrs. Jarvis thought, and yet in this hazy moonlight it was impossible to see anything, except bones, and little pieces of chalk.
“Jacob bought it with his own money, and then I brought Mr. Parker up to see the view, and it must have dropped —” Mrs. Flanders murmured.
Did the bones stir, or the rusty swords? Was Mrs. Flanders’s twopenny-halfpenny brooch for ever part of the rich accumulation? and if all the ghosts flocked thick and rubbed shoulders with Mrs. Flanders in the circle, would she not have seemed perfectly in her place, a live English matron, growing stout?
The clock struck the quarter.
The frail waves of sound broke among the stiff gorse and the hawthorn twigs as the church clock divided time into quarters.
Motionless and broad-backed the moors received the statement “It is fifteen minutes past the hour,” but made no answer, unless a bramble stirred.
Yet even in this light the legends on the tombstones could be read, brief voices saying, “I am Bertha Ruck,” “I am Tom Gage.” And they say which day of the year they died, and the New Testament says something for them, very proud, very emphatic, or consoling.
The moors accept all that too.
The moonlight falls like a pale page upon the church wall, and illumines the kneeling family in the niche, and the tablet set up in 1780 to the Squire of the parish who relieved the poor, and believed in God — so the measured voice goes on down the marble scroll, as though it could impose itself upon time and the open air.
Now a fox steals out from behind the gorse bushes.
Often, even at night, the church seems full of people. The pews are worn and greasy, and the cassocks in place, and the hymn-books on the ledges. It is a ship with all its crew aboard. The timbers strain to hold the dead and the living, the ploughmen, the carpenters, the fox-hunting gentlemen and the farmers smelling of mud and brandy. Their tongues join together in syllabling the sharp-cut words, which for ever slice asunder time and the broad-backed moors. Plaint and belief and elegy, despair and triumph, but for the most part good sense and jolly indifference, go trampling out of the windows any time these five hundred years.
Still, as Mrs. Jarvis said, stepping out on to the moors, “How quiet it is!” Quiet at midday, except when the hunt scatters across it; quiet in the afternoon, save for the drifting sheep; at night the moor is perfectly quiet.
A garnet brooch has dropped into its grass. A fox pads stealthily. A leaf turns on its edge. Mrs. Jarvis, who is fifty years of age, reposes in the camp in the hazy moonlight.
“ . . . and,” said Mrs. Flanders, straightening her back, “I never cared for Mr. Parker.”
“Neither did I,” said Mrs. Jarvis. They began to walk home.
But their voices floated for a little above the camp. The moonlight destroyed nothing. The moor accepted everything. Tom Gage cries aloud so long as his tombstone endures. The Roman skeletons are in safe keeping. Betty Flanders’s darning needles are safe too and her garnet brooch. And sometimes at midday, in the sunshine, the moor seems to hoard these little treasures, like a nurse. But at midnight when no one speaks or gallops, and the thorn tree is perfectly still, it would be foolish to vex the moor with questions — what? and why?
The church clock, however, strikes twelve.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01