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Authors: Gerald Bullet

The Elderbrook Brothers

BOOK: The Elderbrook Brothers
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Spring Fevers

The Luck of the Game


A World Made Safe

Book One Seedtime
§ 1

One bright morning towards the end of Queen Victoria's long life Joe Elderbrook suddenly decided to send his youngest boy to Keyborough. It was a frivolous decision, the effect of several converging causes; for if Lucy Pringle had not gone to keep house for her widowed Uncle Ned during the school holidays, if Joe had not run across her on two successive market days, and if her eyes had been a little less bright, her voice a little less agreeably reminiscent of he didn't know what, young Felix's schooling would have ended where it had begun, in Upmarden village, at the drab little school attended still by brother Guy, and till recently by Matthew as well.

Joe's mind made up, there was no moving him. He was that sort of man. There was resolution in the square cut of his face, stubbornness in the poise of his stocky figure, and an almost alarming vitality in his abrupt barking speech. Usually it was a genial bark, but you could hardly avoid wondering what it would sound like in anger. He wore sidewhiskers, like his father and his grandfather before him; and, again like them, his face in repose had that look of gravity and moral purpose which one associates nowadays with pictures of Victorian statesmen and which Landseer imparted to his portraits of dogs. His blackness, except for copious eyebrows, was now, in advanced middle age, plentifully sprinkled with grey; but there was no sign of approaching baldness and the hairs fringing his ears seemed to put any such idea to derision. This sturdy, hirsute father of three sons and two daughters (Faith seventeen, Nancy four years younger) had had no schooling worth mentioning. He could read and write, but much preferred not to do either; and it was said that he could reckon quicker on his ten fingers than your college chaps could do with pencil and paper. He was not a fool, and he was not the man to take overmuch notice
of a woman. His business on market days was to buy and sell and get the better of his neighbours, not to stand gaping at pretty wenches half his age. But this niece of Ned Welsh's—there was something abort her. It wasn't just that she was smart and trim, with a fine bit of colour whipped into her cheeks by the January air: he'd seen a hundred such and not looked twice at them. It was just that there was … something about her. He couldn't give it a name, and didn't try to.

Girls as pretty as Ned Welsh's niece get used to being stared at; and Lucy Pringle seemed not in the least disturbed by his sharp, smiling, perhaps slightly impudent glances. He admired her composure.

‘Good morning to you, Mr Elderbrook,' said Ned Welsh.

‘And to you, Mr Welsh,' said Elderbrook.

‘Let me introduce my niece. Miss Pringle. Mr Elderbrook.'

‘How do, Miss Pringle? Nice day if the rain keeps off.' To show his sense of the occasion, and to prolong the conversation, he hitched his thumbs in the armholes of his waistcoat and planted his feet more squarely on the ground. ‘Young lady a stranger to these parts?'

‘Pretty nigh,' said her uncle. ‘She's not far from a Londoner, isn't Lucy, She's come to look after me for a week or two.'

‘Work cut out,' said Elderbrook genially.


‘Tidy-sized job, Miss Pringle, keeping your uncle in order. Never mind, Ned: I won't tell all I know.'

‘I'm used to handling difficult children,' said Miss Pringle demurely.

‘She's been teaching in a school,' Ned Welsh explained, smiling vaguely because he was thinking of something else and had not quite grasped the pleasantry. ‘Well … we'll be moving along. Good marketing, neighbour.'

The second encounter occurred the very next week. In the interval he had given little or no conscious thought to the girl, but once or twice her image had flashed across his mind when
he was thinking of other things, and seeing her again gave him an unexpected shock of pleasure. She was a smart young woman, there was no doubt of it; and her ready greeting persuaded him—he didn't need much persuasion—that she, for her part, had taken a liking to him. He was pleased and flattered, but had no intention of making heavy weather about it. He was no godlier than other men, but he had a busy life, and temptation would have had to come to his very doorstep before he would take serious notice of it.

This time the talk somehow touched on education.

‘Eddication is one thing,' said Elderbrook, expounding the law and the prophets, ‘and schooling's another.'

At this pronouncement, Miss Pringle put on her considering cap. And very well it suited her.

‘Now take me,' said Elderbrook, carried away by his theme. ‘All the schooling
ever had was from a widow woman name of Truefoot. She was blind in one eye and hard of hearing in the other,' he went on, with waggish complacency, ‘and a bit of reading and writing was all she taught me. Am I the worse for it? Well, maybe I am. But I've managed, I've managed. You can size up a heifer without knowing French, I believe.'

‘Ah, but you're the exception, Mr Elderbrook,' said Miss Pringle earnestly.

‘That's right,' said her uncle. ‘Exceptions take care of themselves. See here, Mr Elderbrook. You wouldn't want your sons not to have a better chance than you did, would you? You're looking after that, I'll lay.'

Miss Pringle smiled triumphantly. ‘Of course he is!'

Her complacency was almost maternal; and Elderbrook, basking in its undeserved warmth, was at a loss to know how he could keep up his end of the argument without losing her manifest good opinion.

‘As to that,' he said slowly, ‘you're wrong and you're right. My eldest lad's to be a farmer like myself. He's that now, truth be told, and shaping well, though I says so. So—what
was good enough for me was good enough for him. Village school—the three R's. Same with Guy, my second. He's twelve now, is Guy. He gives a hand in the fields, and has done since he was a littl'un; but he still wastes time with copybooks and such.' At this point in his recital Elderbrook cocked an eye at Miss Pringle to see how she was taking it. Her rising eyebrows, her imperfectly disguised disappointment, propelled him into a decision which he had had in mind for some twenty-five seconds. ‘But Felix, my youngest,' he said, in an off-hand manner, ‘I'm sending him to Keyborough next term. Just to please his mother, you know,' he added, with a wink. ‘You know what mothers are!'

§ 2

Mercestershire, or Mershire,' at the time of our story, had some reason to think itself the most English of all English counties; but it was part of its character that it seldom took stock of itself at all, being too much occupied in being—quite unselfconsciously—what it was. Some, however, might have claimed for it, and no doubt did, that while belonging geographically neither to the north nor to the south, it had acquired, by contagion with immigrants from those extremities, the best qualities of both, while retaining its own central virtues. It mingled the aggressive vigour of the north with the more easygoing southern humour, and the result was precisely what you would expect, a temperament shrewd, goodnatured, neither too hard nor too soft, and endowed with an instinct to avoid excess. In physical appearance, too, Mershire was peculiarly English: in the growing ugliness of its one industrial city, as in the lush greenness of its undulating meadowland, its white narrow lanes, its hedgerows, its barns and haystacks and small grey churches and red gables, and above all, as throughout all the best of rural England, in the impression its appearance gave you of being accidental, the result of nature's collaboration with men who, working
always to useful ends, created beauty unawares. Standing on a spur of the Mercester Hills called Saffron Ridge, and facing south-west, you would have seen, laid out before you, almost the whole of the great undulating plain that constituted the larger and fairer part of Mershire, a patchwork of green and varying browns, showing here and there, when the sun shone, a trickle of gold running through a meadow, with sometimes the shadow of a cloud going like a ghost over the land. That pleasant patchwork, though of man's making, was itself a work of nature; for it was made haphazard, not by one man but by many, and with no thought beyond utility.

Upmarden Farm, which sixty years ago Joe Elderbrook's father had taken over from a man who had sadly neglected it, would have looked like a child's toy farm from the vantage-point of Saffron Ridge: the house hidden by trees, except for a section of time-weathered sloping roof; the yard, the orchard, the barns and cotes and byres, all reduced to dimensions measurable in inches on the many-coloured map of one's vision, the generous undulations of Oxenlcas, where sheep were now herded, being all contained in a triangular green slip, with Robertswood, which was a wood no longer, curving round it on two sides. Through the orchard ran a broad, slow-moving brook, tributary of a river where generations of men had brought their beasts to water. In the days before chemical dipping had become the rule, this orchard brook had been dammed up on occasion, and the sheep driven down to have their fleeces washed. By now a special sheep-dip had been constructed; but the new festival resembled the old, especially in the matter of noise and laughter. From this high point, when the sunlight struck the brook's surface from a propitious angle, the glint of the water was like steel, and you could almost—if you were Felix—hear the clash of swords. On dull days, and at a nearer view, that water was another kind of mystery, cold, dark, living, never still. For a boy its fascination was endless. It was always itself yet never quite the same; it was a part of the intricate pattern of water that encompassed the earth; it flowed
away, undiminishing, to the wide world beyond Upmarden Farm, and its small sound was the voice of the orchard, and of quietness.

Seen from a sufficient distance, and in the context of a larger landscape, the life of these Elderbrooks among their flocks and herds had a simple pastoral beauty, a virgilian charm; but not one of them, parents or children, saw it so. The women, living in a daily routine of housework and dairywork, making and mending, had no impulse to pause and take stock of their situation—unless perhaps Emily sometimes did so, waking untimely in the small grey hours, and wondering, for the briefest moment, where this or that turn in the road might have led her, had she followed it, and what the future might hold for Guy, for Felix, yes and for Matthew too, though Matthew's destiny seemed to be already as firmly fixed, by paternal edict, as anything could be. As for the boys themselves, they had much in common: the Elderbrook voice, the Elderbrook notion of what was and what wasn't funny, and other family qualities too subtle for statement. But there, you would have said, the resemblance ended. No question but that each had his own notion of what he hoped for in life, though he might have been hard put to it to define it, even for himself. Matthew, the eldest, was the least articulate; but because he was their senior, with the tradition of authority behind him, his brothers, superficially quicker in the uptake, were never tempted to the folly of thinking him a fool. Matthew, newly promoted to manhood, which in Joe Eldcrbrook's world was equivalent to a sentence of hard labour, was not sorry to have said goodbye to Mr Cowlin the village schoolmaster, and he positively rejoiced in his new-found privilege of scrambling out of bed at a bleak morning hour to help Kendrick with the milking. The pull of the bed was strong; but stronger still was Matthew's ambition to become the best and fastest milker in the county. His father had already warned him that he would one day be a master-farmer, either here or elsewhere. ‘Now see here, boy— Kendrick's been handling cows for forty years. But you're
my son, see? And you must learn to do it better than him.' Matthew had wit enough not to take the injunction too literally, in his heart of hearts; but that didn't prevent his resolving to achieve the impossible perfection. ‘Be a gennelman if you fancy it, Matt,' said Joe, on another moralizing occasion. ‘It'll please your mother,' he added, with an enigmatic grimace. ‘Ay—you can be a gennelman and you can be a farmer too. But don't be a gennelman farmer: that sort was the ruin of this place before my dad came along. Took him three seasons to get Robertswood clean, it did. And not a fence nor a gate on the place that didn't need looking to. Boy and man I've done every job you can find in the farmer's year, thanks to my old dad. Never, said he, never ask a man of yours to do anything you couldn't as well or better do yourself, whether it's ploughing or hedging or physicking a sick animal. That was what my old man said to me, Matt; and there's sound sense in it, you can take my word.' Matthew was willing enough to take his father's word: the more so because the maxim in question ran parallel with his own consuming desire to try his hand at everything on the farm and make himself a master of the craft. There was not a syllable of conscious poetry in Matthew; everyone thought of him, and justly, as the practical one; it was this shrewdness, this sometimes comical practicality, that most endeared him to his father. Nevertheless, since his ambitions were not in any significant degree mercenary, there was perhaps a touch of the sublime in the ardour with which he pursued his chosen path, a path chosen for him, in the first instance, by another.

BOOK: The Elderbrook Brothers
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