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Authors: John Cowper Powys

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BOOK: After My Fashion
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‘Chiff-chaff! chiff-chaff! chiff-chaff!' repeated the little invisible lord of the sanctuary they had invaded, giving to their encounter the winged blessing of the very Eros of the woods.

Very gently the girl released herself and a sigh of happiness that seemed beyond even the happiness of that place of enchantment rose from her lips and floated away among the leaves.

Then she nestled against him, her head bent so low that he could not see her face.

For a long space they stood thus silently together, he leaning against the gate and she leaning against him. Then with his hands on each side of her fair head he lightly lifted up her face as if it had been a delicate white flower and holding it away from him kissed her with a long silent kiss that seemed to throw so strange a trance upon them both that even after he had released her and she leaned, with her head on her hands, against that confederate gate-bar, and he rested motionless beside her, his arms about her body, they seemed like people drugged, spellbound, magnetized, ‘entoiled in woofèd fantasies'.

‘Chiff-chaff! chiff-chaff! chiff-chaff!' repeated the relentless warbler; and neither of the two to the end of their lives forgot that particular sound. It blended with the faint, relaxed, indescribably sweet languor that took possession of the maiden, and it blended with the infinitely tender if less deep emotion that filled the heart of the man.

At length she moved aside from his caresses and put up her hands against him as he tried to kiss her again.

‘Give me my hat, dearest one,' she said. ‘We must be good now. We've so much to think of. I feel as if I ought to think of everybody now, for the rest of my life. I've been so happy with you, my dear!' She surprised him by suddenly lifting up one of his hands and pressing it against her lips. The gesture touched him more than anything she had ever done. A great wave of tenderness rose up in him, so that at that moment he would have willingly marched straight to death for her sake.

But as she dropped his hand her old mocking-elf's smile flickered over her white face. ‘Poor old Robert,' she murmured. ‘Look! I've still got on his ring.'

She held up her fingers so that he might see his rival's gift. It was a simple enough matter – a little turquoise set in pearls; but Richard regarded it with gloom. It brought back to him with a rush of painful thoughts all the troublesome circumstances that hemmed them round.

‘Are you going on wearing it now?' he asked as she put on her hat
and they turned away together leaving the little chiff-chaff in possession of his leafy paradise.

‘I'm not going to take it off
today
' she answered. ‘It's unlucky to take off one ring till you've got another!' And she laughed a naughty child's laugh at his discomforted face.

Her response irritated him. It seemed the sort of thing that a well-bred girl oughtn't to say. It was a silly servant-girl remark, he thought, and he teased himself in sulky silence over it till they were halfway back through the Happy Valley. It somehow made him think of Mrs Shotover. Had that confounded old woman really corrupted the girl? Had she put coarse, common, cynical notions into her head?

Observing the effect of her words, Nelly gave way to an irresistible temptation and did what she could to make it worse. ‘How do I know,' she said, with a mocking little laugh, ‘that you won't feel quite differently tomorrow? I'd better not throw Robert away
too
quickly.'

If she had intended to wound him she certainly succeeded. His swarthy face darkened and he raised one of his brown thin hands to his mouth, an instinctive habit of his when seriously annoyed. If the gesture was caused by a desire to hide a certain ugly, cruel, revengeful curve of his lips, it hid nothing at all from her; and she went still further …

‘Robert has faith in me,' she said, ‘whatever I do and whatever I say, too. Oh you don't know what things I've said to him! And he's taken them all like the dear lamb he is. Poor old Rob! I've been a bad girl to him I'm afraid.'

‘What a wonderful mass of honeysuckle!' Richard cried in a sort of desperation, anxious to do anything to put an end to this miserable estrangement. ‘I'm going to get you some.' And he proceeded to clamber up the bank and make his way into the middle of the brushwood. He derived a savage pleasure from the nettle stings and thorn pricks through which he struggled. He felt as though in forcing his way through these obstacles towards the resplendent fragrant clusters above him he were fighting back to those delicious moments of love which her teasing had spoilt.

But how
could
she drag in that business of ‘dear old Robert' and his turquoise ring? A ‘lamb' did she call him? A confounded old tiger! But how
could
she, after kissing him like that and being
kissed, drag things down to banality and commonness and silly servant-girl superstitions? Or was she, after all, quite a different person from what he had imagined, from the Nelly he had fancied himself so fond of? Was she, really, playing the two of them off against each other and ready to take which ever seemed the more desirable catch? He was able for the moment – perhaps the thorn pricks and nettle stings helped him – to think of her thus grossly without the Feast shame; and he thought to himself how queer it was that the fact of men and women being thrilled by one another's caresses did not in the least really bring them together. They seemed indeed to pay the penalty for that momentary unity by a more absolute relapse into their separate hostile identities when the rare moment was past.

Then he thought within his heart,
But after all I love her. But this
‘love' or whatever it is, seems to have no influence upon our clashes
with each other, as fierce separate units of nature, each struggling
for its own purposes!
He derived, as men of his type do, a revengeful satisfaction from this sort of pedantic analysis.

That he could analyse the girl thus and detach himself from her so quickly after their first embrace gave him a malicious satisfaction and soothed his vanity like a costly ointment.

On the strength of it he tore and rent at the reluctant tangles of yellow and rose-pink sweetness, pulling down huge trailing sprays of it, heedless of scratches upon face and hands, and gathering it in his arms in massed confusion, all mixed up with bindweed and bryony.

From the grassy level below Nelly watched his movements. ‘Bless his heart!' she said to herself. ‘I love him! I love him! I love him! This is not a dream. This is really true. I am standing in my Happy Valley watching my man pick me honeysuckle.'

Then she thought, ‘I mustn't tease him. I won't tease him. I'll be sweet to him when he comes back. But how
could
he get so angry when he's just found out I love him? When we've just been together like that?

‘How peculiar men are! Everything seems on the surface with them – how you behave, how you look, what you say. As if it mattered what you
said
! Don't
they
ever say things by opposites? Don't
they
ever rage and stamp and scratch and bite and tease without it meaning anything at all; anything except – oh! I don't
know – a sort of stretching out of one's arms and legs, after sitting in the same position too long? No I suppose they don't. I suppose they
can't
be superficial, however much they try! I suppose their surface is the same as their depth. I suppose they're
all
surface!

‘Mrs Richard Storm. It sounds rather nice. I don't think I shall want to keep him in Littlegate. It would be lovely to have a flat in Paris. But Father can't be left. Oh how annoying it is not to be entirely alone in the world! No! Father can't be left. And I must make Robert completely understand that I really shall belong to him much more when I'm married to Richard than I am now. Because he gets on my nerves now with everything unsettled and I can't love him as much as I do really without his wanting to marry me. But when I'm married to Richard he can't want to marry me, so I shall be free to be as lovely to him as ever I like. For I won't stand it if Richard gets jealous. If he has me altogether that must be enough for him. I won't allow him to be jealous! I won't have it.'

When Richard did finally come scrambling down the bank to her side his arms were so full of honeysuckle that he looked like a moving bush.

‘Though Birnam Wood be come to Dunsinane!' cried the girl running to meet him, and with feminine mischief kissing his face through the masses of honeysuckle before he could catch hold of her. ‘Well done! How perfectly beautiful! How sweet they are – intoxicating.' She pressed a spray to her face and inhaled the heavy fragrance. ‘Oh Richard how happy I am! What a day this is. Oh! my dear, my dear—'

Her words died away, as dropping the great scented bundle at their feet, he clasped her slim form tightly to him and kissed her on the mouth, cheeks, eyelids and chin. Then, while he held her close with one arm round her body, he passed his free hand caressingly over her forehead.

‘You do really love me, sweetheart?' he said, searching half-angrily, half-tenderly, for that absolute conviction of certitude in those soft feminine eyes for which the whole human race since the beginning has sought in vain.

She answered with so passionate and clinging a kiss that it was difficult to retain the questioning mood, and with the masses of golden-pink sweetness, like an offering to them from her own
special gods of her Happy Valley, held in both their arms, they moved slowly back to where they had left their basket.

Their meal was unspoilt by any further difference. Bareheaded they sat opposite each other on a bank of thyme and milkwort; the now un-analytical Richard insisting on twisting a spray of his treasure trove round her head, and round her neck too, while in eager solemnity she untied the provisions.

They ate hungrily and happily, enjoying themselves without thought of past and future, dividing lettuce sandwiches and jam sandwiches between them with the laughing greed of lovers who can afford to play with the lower appetites, as children play with toys.

Having drunk to the very dregs the liberal bottle of milk supplied by Grace they discovered at the bottom of the basket, lying by the side of the vicar's flask of port wine, nothing less than Nelly's silver christening mug.

‘Let's christen our meeting with this!' cried the girl; and jumping to their feet they filled the little cup to the brim.

The sun shining upon the red wine made it glow like the blood of a god; and when they had both drunk of it and kissed each other ‘with purple-stained mouth', they poured out what was left as a heathen libation to the powers – whatever they might have been – who had brought about their encounter.

    

In queer unlovely places, many months after this, in sordid streets, in depressing offices, on crowded pavements, Richard Storm had many occasions to remember that moment of his life, when wreathed with honeysuckle, round head and neck and waist, this girl, the very incarnation of youthful passion, poured out the wine cup upon the earth.

Robert Canyot showed himself more of a man over the affair of Nelly's marriage than anyone who had known him would have expected. He put off for several weeks his voyage to America so that he might himself give the bride away.

Mrs Shotover denounced the whole business and refused to be present at the wedding. She was positively rude to Nelly on the subject; accusing her, in very pointed language, language more suitable to the age of Fielding than of Hardy, of having made up her mind to keep both the men. There was certainly this much justification for the old lady's wrath, that Nelly refused to give up her former fiancé's ring – the turquoise with little pearls – and wore no other except the thin golden one that proclaimed her a wedded wife.

The old woman only got one chance of giving vent completely to her feelings and that was not to Nelly but to her husband.

If she was ‘eighteenth-century' in her explicitness to the bride, she was positively ‘Elizabethan' in her outpouring to the bridegroom. Richard however was far too content with his lot at that moment to do more than lead the woman on and tease her with an exaggerated serenity.

He was as a matter of fact perfectly serene. It suited him in every respect, this devoted and very practical waiting upon her of his bride's former betrothed. It was precisely one of those situations that Richard's peculiar nature was eminently adapted to sustain with aplomb and indulgence. He felt thoroughly sorry for his defeated rival and it eased his conscience in the only way his conscience
could
-be really eased by giving him every facility to make the best of the rind, so to speak, while he enjoyed the fruit.

A man is never displeased to see his mistress adored by another when he feels she is entirely his own; and there was not the remotest shadow of doubt that Nelly was his, just then, from the top of her head to the sole of her foot. The sweetness of her complete abandonment to him during those first days was indeed the most thrilling and delicious experience he had known in his whole life – so wonderful and flawless that he felt it would be an ingratitude to the gods not to dispense in his turn as much happiness as he could.
Canyot's shadow on their pleasure would have been much worse than his real presence, for the painter seemed to have the power of reducing the pain of his loss to a minimum as long as he was not driven away and forgotten.

The truth was that neither Richard nor Nelly had the least idea of what was going on in the young man's mind. He showed no outward sign of bitterness or moroseness or jealousy.

He was gentler in the expression of his opinions, quicker-witted it almost seemed in his response to their high spirits; and there was not the least tendency on his part to take advantage of the serene indulgence with which Richard tolerated and indeed encouraged his friendship with the bride.

They were married in Littlegate church by the old naturalist, and the service that united them was the last he was permitted, as priest of the church, officially to perform.

They went down to Fogmore for seven days' honeymoon, during which time the devoted Canyot helped Grace and the old man to settle into Hill Cottage.

    

On their return from Fogmore the painter informed them that he had decided to put off his voyage to a yet further date, giving as a plausible enough reason that he would be too late now for the Philadelphia exhibition of his work, and that the New York one was not to occur till five or six weeks later.

Instead of leaving them therefore to enjoy their
vita nuova
in complete isolation the extraordinary young man proceeded quite calmly to settle down again at Wind Shuttle Farm.

This unexpected move of his was not entirely agreeable to Richard but it would have been much more disagreeable to him to have seen the least cloud on his young wife's face; and she, it appeared, was entirely pleased with the arrangement.

He could not altogether find the clue to her attitude to her old lover, but he contented himself with putting it down to Nelly's maternal instinct and her girlish desire to soften as far as was possible the boy's feeling of loss in Mrs Canyot's death.

‘She wants to “mother” him,' he said to himself. He derived a certain self-flattering moral unction from the thought that he was being singularly and unconventionally magnanimous to them both.

Thus did those golden June weeks pass by, in almost perfect
felicity, for Richard; in whatever mysterious happiness a young girl derives from the satisfaction of her heart's passion, for Nelly; and in fierce persistent wrestling with new problems of his art, for the recluse at Wind Shuttle Farm.

The only cloud upon the horizon, if it could be called a cloud, was the estrangement between Mrs Richard Storm of Hill Cottage and Mrs George Shotover of Furze Lodge. But this cloud had already broken in two rain-storms of strange language from the latter lady; there now seemed no reason to doubt that among the scanty parishioners of the newly appointed vicar of Littlegate none was more clearly marked out for an unruffled life than the daughter of John Moreton.

It was only the scurrying white-tailed rabbits and the great black-winged rooks haunting the long summer twilights between Furze Cover and Horthing Down who could have predicted any sort of evil omen upon the wind; and these could only have done it had they possessed enough superstitious intelligence to give credence to the angry mutterings of a lonely old woman, deprived by nature's tricks of the one thing she loved.

The weather continued to bestow upon the newly married couple, as the season drew on towards the longest day, its most wonderful largess of ample sunshine and cool-breathing balmy air. A few heavy showers in those moonless nights kept the light chalk soil from becoming over-dry.

In the lower pastures the lush grasses were already laid level with the ground; and the murmur of the mowing machine, like a great invisible bumble bee laden with summer spoils, made a constant background to the crooning of the doves in the massive-foliaged trees.

On the uplands the green rye was already up to the height of Nelly's waist as she went afield to gather the first red poppies, while the green barley was up to her knees and the wheat well above her ankles.

The blackbird's reedy cry was heard seldom now; its place in the feathered orchestra of the lanes and fields was taken by the thicker-throated ‘muggy' and the hot sun-burnt ecstasies of finches and buntings.

    

There was a perceptible change in the mood of Robert Canyot as the time drew near for his departure to America.

He saw less of Nelly and hardly anything of Richard.

He went out, morning after morning, for the whole day taking his lunch with him and not returning till late in the evening.

It was always to Toat Farm that he went, for he kept his precious easel-picture, now near completion, of that sluggish pond and those sombre ancient walls in the cottage of Sally-Maria's aunt. He had become a close friend of this woman, a person almost as silent as her dumb niece; and Charley Budge and Mr Priddle had grown so accustomed to his presence that they gave him their most familiar nods and ‘how-be-gettin'-on-then' as if he were an established institution like old Miss Stone or the grocer's cart from Selshurst. When it was a Sunday that he was there, there used sometimes to be quite a group of farm hands round his picture, Charley having brought Tom Rattle and Jimmy Roebuck to see ‘how 'twaren't like a common school-marm job – more like what ‘un sees in shop windies and them show places'.

And on these occasions the men in their tightly fitting, uncomfortable cloth suits, with a flower stuck in both buttonhole and cap, would poke at the picture tentatively with their sticks as though it had been Farmer Patchem's dangerous sow.

Canyot had put the very ‘body and pressure' of his soul into this picture and the rustic wonder it excited gave him more pleasure than any virtuoso's praise. He held, like Molière, that the first test of good art was that it should arrest the attention of the simplest. He had concentrated all his powers upon the reflection in the water of that rank herbage and those mossy walls, indicating as well as he could the shadowed presence there of a spirit of the spot, carrying the mind down a long dim vista of obscure memories, gathering itself, out of the colours and shapes of the moment, into a kind of eternal vision – a platonic archetype, that was more than a crumbling wall and a bank of hemlocks.

    

It was on Canyot's last Sunday in England that he presented himself soon after breakfast at Hill Cottage and bluntly asked Nelly to accompany him that day to his favourite haunt. He wanted to put the very final touches to his picture and he wanted also, so he told her, to make her acquainted with Sally-Maria, so that he should feel that the child was not left quite friendless at his departure.

His abrupt request fell like a sharply flung pebble into the smooth waters of the little
ménage
.

Richard had been enlarging upon the fact that they had not yet revisited their Happy Valley and he had secured a promise from Nelly that they should walk over there that afternoon.

He looked at her therefore very emphatically, when in their small garden, among the phloxes and sweet-williams, Canyot sprung his intrusive request. Nelly looked silently and nervously from one to another. Her mind recalled Mrs Shotover's upbraidings. Was she really, as the old woman had said, behaving as no decent girl ought to behave in ‘hanging on to two men'?

‘I'm afraid I can't, Robert,' she said; ‘you see we've arranged to go out this afternoon and take our tea out so as to give Grace a free day. I shouldn't like to disappoint Grace, you see. And if we left Richard alone she'd never let him get tea for himself. She looks after him better than I do. No, Robert, I'm afraid it's impossible.' The little invention about Grace and her ‘day out' had brought the colour to her cheeks; and the young painter did not hesitate to fix his eyes sternly and passionately upon her.

She looked tantalizingly soft and sweet, hovering there in her embarrassed hesitation.

She looked the very incarnation of English girlhood, some idyllic blending of earthiness and innocence such as might well make a jilted lover ‘grow pale and spectre-thin' with unsatisfied longing. Canyot was neither thin nor pale at that moment, however. His muscular form was very erect and straight. His tanned, corrugated face scowling gloomily at her showed no inclination to be the only sufferer that day. His empty sleeve too had its own voice in the matter. He was one of those who had left ‘something' behind in France; as he stood before her, subjecting her to the concentrated reproach of his gaze, there was that about him that made it very difficult for Nelly to hold to her decision. She felt a sudden immense pity for him and her heart nearly yielded. The freemasonry of youth was between them, adding a curious poignancy to her maternal instinct, and the very tenderness and softness of her mood just then, though due to her abandonment to Richard, made it all the more difficult for her to be hard and austere in dealing with her former lover.

‘My wife will be delighted to see your picture some other day, before you leave us,' remarked Richard, conscious for the first time since his marriage that he and Nelly were at cross-purposes.

Nelly had looked up with a quick flush when he began to speak but her eyes dropped and she bent down over the flowers when she realized the import of his words. Why couldn't he have been generous just then? She would have rewarded him for it. She would have loved him with an added love. Why couldn't men understand these things? Why must they always be so legal and exacting, when what was wanted was the impulse of self-effacement?

She kept her head bent down for a perceptible moment of embarrassing suspense, inhaling the heavy scent of the phloxes until it became a thing that was no longer a perfume at all, but a thought – a wild reckless thought in her brain.

The beauty of the yellow day-lilies against the curves of her bending figure made Canyot sigh bitterly and worked like a sort of angry fever in his blood.

‘Well,' he said, almost roughly, ‘I've got to go back anyway to Wind Shuttle to get my things. I've got to pass by here again. It's on my way. So if you change your mind look out for me. Do you understand? I'll be back in half an hour but I won't worry you if you don't want to come. I've only a week more, you know. Then I shan't trouble you any more.'

He took no notice at all of Richard's movement to open the gate for him but strode surlily off down the slope of the hill.

At that moment the little gate swung open again and the ex-priest entered.

‘What's that, Father?' cried the girl, noticing a letter in the old man's hand.

‘It's for your husband, my sweet,' remarked the naturalist. ‘I met the boy bringing it up. It came by some extra post. It's a foreign one.'

Nelly snatched the letter from him. ‘Oh! it's from Paris. I do love the French stamps. They're so much more exciting than ours. Here you are!' She handed it over to her husband who, seeing the hand it was written by, placed it unopened in his pocket.

Nelly put on her spoilt-child air at once, the air so natural to youthful twenty-two married to middle-aged forty-five.

‘Don't hide it away!' she cried. ‘Nelly wants to see it. Nelly likes foreign letters!'

Richard turned just a little bit pale. This was a most unlucky trick of the imps of chance! ‘It really wouldn't interest you, sweetheart,'
he said; ‘it's not an exciting letter. A friend of mine – not anything thrilling.'

The old man who had been watching this scene, with a shrewd interest unusual in him, now broke in. He laid his hand on his son-in-law's arm – ‘Show it to her, boy; show it to her,' he said. ‘Never keep letters away from them. They don't like it. It's a bad beginning.' And he sighed heavily, thinking of one of his own early quarrels with his dead Cecily.

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