Colonel Julian and Other Stories (2 page)

He felt nervous and warm as he drove down into the town on Saturday afternoon. Now, if there were replies, he felt that he would not know quite what to do.

In the front office of the newspaper the girl smiled and
leaned back and stretched one hand back to the box-number pigeon-holes.

‘Two,' she said. ‘There may be more yet.'

He stood with the envelopes in his hands, not speaking and not really looking at them.

‘I hope they're nice,' the girl said. ‘What you want.'

‘Yeh.'

He still stood there, looking at her as if he had something on his mind.

‘Eh,' he said. ‘Eh——'

‘Yes?'

‘You open 'em,' he said. ‘You read 'em for me.'

‘Oh! no,' she said. ‘I wouldn't want to.'

‘Yeh,' he said. ‘Go on.' He gave the envelopes back to her. ‘You see, I ain't all that much of a reader.'

He looked at her and waited. He liked her small, blonde, kind face. She had neat and friendly hands. He gazed at them steadily as she opened the first envelope.

‘This one's from a girl at Thorpe.'

‘Yeh?'

‘She says she's twenty-nine. She's been a general maid and she can cook and make butter, and she's always wanted to be on a farm and she likes the country. She says “I'm lonely, too, and I'll do anything I can if you think I'll do to make things go properly. I don't say I'm all that strong, but I'm willing and that's everything so please write if favourable. Yours respectfully.” Her name's Annie Moore,' the girl said.

‘Yeh, yeh.' He thought of something. ‘Ain't they a photograph?'

‘No. No photograph.'

‘What would you say?'

‘Well,' the girl said, ‘twenty-nine sounds fishy. They're always twenty-nine if they're over thirty, and they're always thirty-nine if they're over forty.'

‘Says she ain't over strong, too?'

‘Yes.'

‘Don't sound much good.'

‘Shall we look at the other?' she said. She began to open the envelope, and he could see that there was a photograph
this time. The girl stood looking at it for a moment and then she held it slowly out to him. He, too, stood looking at it. The face in the photograph was rather broad and perhaps a little heavy about the eyes and lips, and her fair hair was brushed sideways and smooth across her forehead.

‘She writes a sensible letter,' the girl said, but he was still looking at the photograph and he hardly listened as she went on. ‘She's twenty-six and she says honestly she's never been near a farm, but she's always worked hard and she can learn. She says she's living with friends and if you think it's any good she'll be free Sunday evening, and you can call to see her at this address, 12 Denmark Street, and you can take her out to the farm. She says any time between six and seven. Her name's Edna. Edna Johnson.'

He had heard only vaguely what had been said, and now he looked up. He felt that the photograph was living and that, in a sense, the decision had been made.

‘She sounds better,' the girl said.

‘Yeh. Lot better.'

‘Sounds honest, that's something.'

He was looking at the photograph again, at the broad, strong face and the smooth, strong hair. In a heavy kind of way it was a beautiful sort of face, but it was not so much about that that he cared. It was the word ‘honest' that now rose above the rest of his impressions and took control of his mind. Honesty and strength—that was what he wanted. Somebody who would help and take a fair share of work and trouble, the good with the bad. Somebody he could trust.

In the evening sun the shadow of the walnut tree lay on the dull stone house, darkening the grey frames of the windows that had not been painted for years. It lay across the surface of the pond crusted by duckweed. It was heavy on rusted harrows lying deep in nettles by the barn, and on empty tarred pig-sties made long ago of barrel slats, and on junk littered and forgotten under the broken roofs of faggot hovels. It seemed to subdue everything except one thing: Edna Johnson's light-yellow hair.

You heard people say that a photograph could be faked to tell you anything, to make people look different from what
they really were, but as he walked round the farm and across the fields where the blackberry flowers smothered all the hedges now and the wheat was rising heavy and dark in the sultry weather, Tom Richards would think again and again of how little faked this girl's photograph was. Her face was strong and heavy and her arms were bare up to the shoulders. Her mouth, as in the photograph, was rather big, but when she smiled her teeth were clean and hard against the broad, soft lips. And above all, as in the photograph, there was the impression of honesty. He felt it now in the way she looked at him: above all, in the way she talked.

‘So you've got no pigs now?' she said.

‘No, I give 'em up.'

‘No sheep either?'

‘No, this ain't extra good sheep land.'

‘Just the hens and cows and the two horses?'

‘Yeh. That's all.'

‘Well, I don't know much about farming,' she said, ‘but where's your money come from?'

‘Milk mostly. Milk and wheat. Git some good crops o' wheat.'

‘I've always lived in towns,' she said. ‘You know that, don't you?'

‘Yeh.' She had an easy, straightforward way of talking, and sometimes he did not know what to say in answer. ‘You wan' see the house?' he said at last, and she said yes, she would.

He knew there was nothing much he could say about the house and he hardly spoke as he showed her the smoke-darkened kitchen, with the dirty Valor oil-stove in one corner, where he did his own cooking and washing and most of his eating; the parlour, with the glazetiled grate and the wallpaper so old and sun-faded that the pattern was now as faint as a water-mark; the three bedrooms with the big, high brass bedsteads, the white toilet services set out nakedly on marble washstands, the family photographs on the walls, the old-fashioned tasselled valences on the beds, and the long ivory-coloured curtains of lace at the paintless windows. In one of the bedrooms he saw her pause and look out of the window, across fields that stretched for a mile or so without another house. The room smelled old and airless after the heat of
the day. Suddenly she went to the window and tried to open it; but years before, perhaps when it had last been painted, the woodwork had stuck and he could not remember it ever having been opened. After struggling for a moment she seemed to realize the hopelessness of it too, and gave it up and stood away and said: ‘Let's go downstairs.'

As they went downstairs he thought it best that they should sit in the parlour. It was never used, but it seemed right. That, too, smelled airless and dead, the air stale with sun-warmed dust. On the mantelpiece stood a pair of pink glass vases filled with stalks of brown bullrushes that many years before had been gathered by his mother from the pond. If you touched them they crumbled into fine brown dust. Behind the vases hung a mirror that twisted the reflection of the faces that looked into it, and immediately in front of it stood a white marble clock that did not go. It had always seemed to him a nice clean little parlour and at Christmas-time, when he brought in logs for the fire, it was warm and pleasant. But now he was not happy. He began to realize at last that the honesty of the girl, if it were really the kind of honesty he hoped and thought it was, must make her at last get up and go out of the dead, airless, dusty little parlour and not come back again.

From the moment when, down in the town, he had seen her come out of the house, hatless, her fair hair brushed smooth and her three-quarter-length navy coat unbuttoned so that her cream frock showed tight over her rather big body, he had been nervous. Now, as he sat on the chair near the window and watched the evening light streaming across the room, making her blonde skin seem fairer than ever and her light hair even lighter in tone, he felt sick because of the sense of growing failure. Perhaps he should have told Emmett. Together they might have cleaned the place up a bit. He thought suddenly of his mother, slipshod, rooted in old careless ways, and he felt that the place belonged to and smelled of the dead.

‘Well, I don't know what you think,' he said. ‘I know it ain't over-smart. But I'm so short-handed.'

She did not speak.

‘It ain't a very big farm,' he said. ‘Perhaps it ain't so big as you thought it'd be.'

She was not looking at him, but she seemed to be listening, as though perhaps she was impressed not so much by what he was saying as by the simple, anxious tone of his voice.

‘Well,' she said at last, and then she stopped.

He felt he knew what she was going to say, and before she could speak again he began to talk quite quickly. He said, ‘I got a little money. I don't want you to think I ain't. Mum left sixty-odd pound and there's some of it still in sovereigns and some more in old War Savings Certificates. Then I got thirty or forty in the bank. I ain't touched that for a good while. Then Emmett owes me seventy-odd. I don't want you to think I ain't got nothing, see? I can pay. I'll pay twenty-five shillings.'

‘Who's Emmett?'

‘He takes my milk.'

‘He owes all that? Seventy-odd for milk?'

‘Yeh. Allus owes like that.'

‘Always?' she said. ‘You let him?'

‘Yeh,' he said. ‘You see, I ain't very much good at figures.'

She did not speak. She sat with her face resting on one hand, looking at the pattern of the cheap grey lino on the floor. The skin of her hands and face and neck was creamy and warm and she had fine golden hairs on the backs of her rather broad hands. He knew now that whether she came or not something must happen. He felt tightened up inside himself, tense and yet unsteady because he liked her.

‘You see, I can't do it all myself,' he said. ‘Cooking and washing-up and cleaning. I can't do it. That's why the place looks so bad. It wants a thorough doin'. It ain't had one since Mum died.'

‘Got any sisters?' she said.

‘No.'

‘Any aunts or anybody?'

‘No. Well, I got an aunt and a cousin over at Stanstead. But they never come near.'

‘Nobody at all?'

‘Nobody,' he said.

She seemed to think it over a little longer, still with her face in her hands and her eyes on the floor. ‘Things'd have to be changed,' she said at last, ‘if I came.'

‘I know,' he said. ‘I know they'd have to be changed. Changed a lot. I know.'

‘All right.' She got up at last and ran her hands down the front of her body, smoothing her dress. ‘All right,' she said. ‘As long as you know.'

It still seemed unreal to him when she arrived next day, carrying a suitcase. She came by bus as far as the turnpike and he picked her up there in the car and drove her across the field-track between stone walls that were golden-crested now with stonecrop in flower. She asked him at the house what time he reckoned for dinner, and he said: ‘Any time. I gen'lly have it standing up. In my hands,' and she said: ‘You get on with whatever it is you're doing and I'll call you when it's ready.'

He still had fifteen rows to hoe in the mangel field and he spent the rest of the morning there. About noon, on normal days, he went back to the house and cut himself a lump of bread and cheese and boiled a kettle on the Valor for tea. Sometimes he spread Worcester sauce on the bread. The paper didn't come till Emmett brought it in the afternoons. All he could do when it came was look at the pictures and while eating there was nothing for him to do but stare into space, absently breaking bits of bread for the two black cats that rubbed against his boots.

Today when he went into the kitchen, not waiting for her to call, he saw that something had happened. The girl was not there. The Valor had been cleaned and polished and was standing in a different place, near the window. Two chairs had been brought in from the parlour and in the centre of the kitchen stood the parlour table, a round, walnut pedestal, laid with a white cloth. He was still staring at it when she came into the room.

‘The worm's in the leg,' she said. ‘Bad. I thought we'd better use it.'

‘Yeh, but how'd you move it?'

‘The top comes off. Is bacon and eggs all right for your dinner? It's all I could find.'

‘Yeh, yeh.'

‘When does the butcher call? And we're almost out of bread.'

‘They don't neither of 'em come. They won't bring the vans across the fields.'

‘You mean nobody comes? Butcher, baker, grocer—nobody?'

‘Emmett brings everything,' he said. ‘Paper, bread, grocery, meat when I want it. Stuff from the station.'

‘Emmett must be wonderful,' she said.

They sat at the table and ate the bacon and eggs she had cooked. The food was good and rich and fatty, so that he could dip his bread in the plate. She was wearing a blue pinafore without sleeves and her bare upper arms were strong and white. They did not talk much. She said she was sorry there was no pudding, but tomorrow she would make him one. Today it was clearing up the place that worried her. What pudding did he like?

‘Well,' he said, ‘it's bin a middlin' long wild since I tasted a bake pudden.'

‘All right,' she said. ‘As long as you don't go saying it's not like your mother used to make.'

‘Mum?' he said. ‘She couldn' cook. Onion clangers, that's what we used to live on.'

‘Will you come back for your tea?' she said.

‘I don't know as I care,' he said, ‘either one way or th' other.'

‘Well, I do,' she said. ‘I got work here.' She stretched her arms back over her head, as if a little tired. ‘But I'll get your tea if you want it. And when you want it. You're the boss.'

‘All right,' he said. ‘All right. About five.'

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