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Authors: A. J. Cronin

The Judas Tree

BOOK: The Judas Tree
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Contents
A. J. Cronin
The Judas Tree

Born in Cardross, Scotland, A. J. Cronin studied at the University of Glasgow. In 1916 he served as a surgeon sub-lieutenant in the Royal Navy Volunteers Reserve, and at the war's end he completed his medical studies and practiced in South Wales. He was later appointed to the Ministry of Mines, studying the medical problems of the mining industry. He moved to London and built up a successful practice in the West End. In 1931 he published his first book,
Hatter's Castle
, which was compared with the work of Dickens, Hardy and Balzac, winning him critical acclaim. Other books by A. J. Cronin include:
The Stars Look Down
,
The Citadel
,
Three Loves
,
The Green Years
,
Beyond This Place
, and
The Keys of the Kingdom
.

Part One
Chapter One

The autumn morning was so brilliant that Moray, judiciously consulting the rheostat thermometer outside his window, decided to breakfast on the balcony of his bedroom. He had slept well: for an ex-insomniac six hours was a reassuring performance: the sun shone warm through his Grieder silk robe, and Arturo had, as usual, prepared his tray to perfection. He poured his Toscanini coffee – kept hot in a silver Thermos – anointed a fresh croissant with mountain honey, and let his eye wander, with all the rich, possessive pleasure of a discoverer. God, what beauty! On the one hand, the Riesenberg, rising to the blue sky with heaven-designed symmetry above green, green grasslands lightly peppered with little ancient red-roofed peasant chalets; on the other, the gentle slopes of Eschenbrück, orchards of pear, apricot and cherry; in front, to the south, a distant ridge of snowy Alp and beneath, ah yes, beneath the plateau of his property lay the Schwansee, beloved lake of so many, many moods, sudden, wild and wonderful, but now glimmering in peace, veiled by the faintest skein of mist, through which a little white boat stole silently, like … well, like a swan, he decided poetically.

How fortunate after long searching to find this restful, lovely spot, unpolluted by tourists, yet near enough the town of Melsburg to afford all the advantages of an efficient and civilised community. And the house, too, built with precision for a famous Swiss architect, it was all he could have wished. Solid rather than striking perhaps, yet stuffed with comfort. Think of finding chauffage à mazout, built-in cupboards, tiled kitchen, a fine long salon for his pictures, even the modem bathrooms demanded by his long sojourn in America! Drinking his orange juice, which he always reserved for a final bonne bouche, a sigh of satisfaction exhaled from Moray, so blandly euphoric was his mood, so sublimely unconscious was he of impending disaster.

How should he spend his day? – as he got up and began to dress he reviewed the possibilities. Should he telephone Madame von Altishofer and go walking on the Teufenthal? – on such a morning she would surely want to exercise her weird and wonderful pack of Weimaraners. But no, he was to have the pleasure of taking her to the Festival party at five o'clock – one must not press too hard. What then? Run into Melsburg for golf? Or take out the boat and join the fishermen who were already hoping for a run of felchen in the lake? Yet somehow his inclination lay towards gentler diversions and finally he decided to look into the question of his roses which, suffering from a late frost, had not fully flowered this summer.

He went downstairs to the covered terrace. Laid out beside the chaise longue he found his mail and the local news sheet – the English papers and the Paris
Herald Tribune
did not arrive until the afternoon. There was nothing to disturb him in his letters, each of which he opened with a curious hesitation, a reluctant movement of his thumb – strange how that ridiculous phobia persisted. In the kitchen Arturo was singing:

‘La donna è mobile …
Sempre un' amabile …
La donna è mobile …
E di pensier!'

Moray smiled; his butler had irrepressible operatic tendencies – it was he who had chosen the blend of coffee once favoured by the maestro on a visit to Melsburg – but he was a cheerful, willing, devoted fellow and Elena, his wife, though stupendous in bulk, had proved a marvellous if temperamental cook. Even in his servants he was decidedly lucky … or was it merely luck, he asked himself mildly, moving out upon the lawn with pride. In Connecticut, with its stony soil and unconquerable crab grass, he had never had a proper lawn, at least nothing such as this close-cropped velvet stretch. He had made it, determinedly, uprooting a score of aged willow stumps, when he took over the property.

Flanking this luscious turf, a gay herbaceous border ran, following a paved path that led to the lily pond, where golden carp lay motionless beneath the great sappy pads. A copper beech shaded the pond, and beyond was the Japanese garden, a rocky mount, vivid with quince, dwarf maples, and scores of little plants and shrubs with Latin names defying the memory.

The further verge of the lawn was marked by a line of flowering bushes, lilac, forsythia, viburnum, and the rest, which screened the vegetable garden from the house. Then came his orchard, laden with ripe fruits: apple, pear, plum, damson, greengage – in an idle moment he had counted seventeen different varieties, but he owned to having cheated slightly, including the medlars, walnuts, and large filberts which grew in great abundance at the top of the slope, surrounding the dependence, a pretty little chalet, which he had converted to a guest house.

Nor must he forget his greatest botanical treasure: the great gorgeous Judas tree that rose high, high above the backdrop of mountain, take and cloud. It was indeed a handsome specimen with a noble spreading head, covered in spring with heavy purplish flowers that appeared before the foliage. All his visitors admired it and when he gave a garden party it pleased him to display his knowledge to the ladies, omitting to reveal that he had looked it all up in the
Encyclopaedia Britannica.
‘Yes,' he would say, ‘it's the
Cercis siliquastrium
… the family of
Leguminasae
… the leaves have an agreeable taste, and in the East are often mixed with salad. You know, of course, the ridiculous popular tradition. In fact Arturo, my good Italian, who is amusingly superstitious, swears it's unlucky and calls it
l'albero dei dannati'
– here he would smile, translating gracefully, ‘the tree of lost souls.'

But now he discovered Wilhelm, his gardener, who admitted seventy years and was seventy-nine at least, nipping buds by the cucumber frame. The old man had the face of the aged Saint Peter and the obduracy of a cavalry sergeant. It took tact even to agree with him, but he had proved his worth in knowledge and labour, his one drawback an embarrassing, if useful, propensity for making water on the compost heap. Straightening his green baize apron, he removed his hat and greeted Moray with a grimly impassive:

‘Grüss Gott.'

‘Die Rosen, Herr Wilhelm,' said Moray diplomatically. ‘Wollen wir diese ansehen?'

Together they went to the rose garden where, once the old man had scattered blame in all directions, the number of new varieties required was discussed and determined. As Wilhelm departed, a delightful diversion occurred. Two diminutive figures, the children of the village piermaster, aged seven and five, were observed breasting the steep path with that breathless speed and importance which denoted the delivery of an invoice; Suzy, the senior, clutched the yellow envelope, while Hans, her brother, carried book and pencil for the receipt. They were the most attractive, bright-eyed children, already smiling, glowing actually, in anticipation of the ritual he had established. So, after glancing at the invoice – it was, as expected, from Frankfurt, confirming the arrival of two cases of the special 1955 Johannisberger – he shook his head forbiddingly.

‘You must be punished for being such good children.'

They were giggling as he led them to their favourite tree, a noble Reine Claude loaded with yellow plums. He shook a branch and when a rain of juicy fruit descended they burst into shrieks of laughter, scrambling down the slope, pouncing on the ripe rolling plums.

‘Danke, danke vielmals, Herr Moray.'

Only when they had filled their pockets did he let them go. Then he looked at his watch and decided to be off.

In the garage, adjacent to the chalet, he chose to take the sports Jaguar. For one who had attained the age of fifty-five and had from choice retired to a life of leisure and repose, such a vehicle might possibly have been judged too racy, the more so since hs other two cars, the Humber estate wagon and a new Rolls Silver Cloud – obviously, he favoured the British marque – were notably conservative. Yet he felt, and looked, he had often been told, far far younger than his years: his figure was slim, his teeth sound and even, he had kept his hair without a thread of grey, and in his smile, which was charming, he had retained an extraordinarily attractive quality, spontaneous, almost boyish.

At first his road ran through the pasture land, where soft-eyed, brown cows moved cumbrously, clanging the great bells strapped about their necks, bells which had descended through many generations. In the lower fields men, and women too, were busy with the eternal cycle of the grass. Some paused in their scything to lift a hand in greeting, for he was known, and liked, no doubt because of his kindness to the children, or perhaps because he had taken pains to interest himself in all the local junketings. Indeed, the rustic weddings, made dolorous by the final sounding of the Alpenhorn, the traditional processions, both religious and civil, even the brassy discords of the village band, which had come to serenade him on his birthday … all these amused and entertained him.

BOOK: The Judas Tree
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