Colonel Julian and Other Stories (4 page)

He did not ask her to work in the fields. She came sometimes of her own accord into the hayfields and turned a row or two with a rake, and then all at once she would say perhaps, ‘Well, this won't do, I must be getting back. I've got some cheese-cakes and a pie in the oven,' and as she dropped her rake and went back to the house between green-golden rows and cocks of hay he would not even remember that he had once wanted, above all, a woman who would work in the fields with him. It did not seem to matter now. What mattered, and what he could not yet understand, was that he had this woman, a woman who had cleaned the house from top to bottom as if it had been her own, had taken down the old rotting curtains from the worm-eaten mahogany poles, had revolutionized the food and the furniture, had worked from six in the morning to past darkness without ever seeming to want anything except food and sleep in return, a woman who above all could see the value of money and properly kept accounts and a daily check on the eggs and the milk and not least a check on Emmett.

And sometimes, without attaching much importance to it, he would see Emmett watching her, with a strange look, as she went back across the hayfield. His small eyes would move up and down, from her shoes to her hair, partly as if he hated her and could not understand her, partly as if he were attracted.

One afternoon Tom was loading hay alone, and Emmett did not come out into the field. Even in the shade of the oaks
the heat was heavy. Flies settled like clusters of berries on the eyes of the horse, which fretted and would not stand. Tom cut a bough or two of ash to stick in the bridle, but the horse remained fretful and at last he took a light load back to the farm, partly in order to see where Emmett was.

As he led the horse into the yard and halted it under the walnut tree he could hear voices. They were again the voices of Edna and Emmett, but it was mainly Emmett who was talking.

‘Think of you? I'll bloody soon tell you what I think of you.'

‘You will.'

‘Pushin' your nose in here. Interferin'. Me and Tom got on together all right afore you come nosin' in!'

‘You mean you got on all right,' Edna said. ‘Owing nearly a hundred pounds for milk and God knows what else for eggs you never counted. Never a single proper account between the two of you, but always you on the right side.'

‘That's his lookout.'

‘Yes, and what a lookout. Because he can't read or write. Because he's honest and trusts folks and expects them to trust him. Because he works hard and tries to be decent. But that's no reason why you should try to take the skin off his back. Don't you ever think about anything else but what you can get out of folks?'

‘If I do it's my business,' Emmett said. ‘What's it got to do wi' you? You ain't married to him. You ain't no relation. You ain't nobody. In fact, it's a damn funny thing you come out here at all. Damn funny. I ain't bottomed it yet.'

‘Who asked you to bottom it?' Edna said. ‘All you want to learn to do is pay up and act decent and mind your own business.'

‘Is it? Well, I ain't so sure! I think it's a damn funny thing you come out here. And I'll git to know the reason. I'll——'

‘You better shut up now,' Edna said, ‘before you get to know something you won't forget in a hurry.'

‘Who from? Who from?' Emmett said. He suddenly came out of the barn backwards, shouting: ‘Who from? I tell you I'll git to know! You ain't here for nothing, that's a sure bloody thing. I'll git to know!'

In the first week of August trees of early unnamed apples began to ripen in the garden at the back of the house, where no one had ever gathered them for years. ‘We allus call 'em harvest pippins,' Tom said. ‘Sour as hogs' wash.'

‘Don't you ever gather them?' the girl said.

‘They allus come just at harvest and we never got time. Wheat's more consequence 'n apples.'

‘Well, it may be. But all the same, I can't stand by and see good apples rot on the tree.'

In the first ten days of August she gathered forty bushels of apples. There was a warm odour of fruit in the house whenever he came in out of the hot sun. At the end of the ten days she made him drive in to market. They loaded twenty sacks of apples into the trailer, and that afternoon, in the covered auction market, the apples made half a crown a bushel. ‘Five pounds,' she said. ‘Was it worth it?'

‘Well,' he said. ‘Well.'

‘I'll do the same with the damsons and the walnuts and that tree of stewing pears.'

‘If anybody'd give me five pounds I wouldn't ha' believed it.'

‘Well, now you've got five pounds.'

‘No,' he said. ‘No. That I ain't. That's your own. You earned that.'

‘You put it under the mattress,' she said. ‘You'll need it soon enough.'

‘No,' he said. ‘No. It's yourn. You have it.'

‘Put it under the mattress, I said.'

‘You got to have some of it,' he said. ‘Buy yourself something—buy yourself a present.'

‘No really,' she said.

‘I want you to,' he said. ‘I want to give you that.'

She smiled. ‘All right. If it's not too much there is something I want. If it's not too much, I want a new dress.'

‘It ain't too much,' he said. ‘You go and get it while I have a look round.'

‘No,' she said. ‘If you're paying for it you're coming with me.'

He sat for nearly an hour on the upstairs floor of the dress-shop, watching her come out of the dressing cubicles wearing
first one new dress and then another. He sat with his large hands on his knees, embarrassed because of the shop-girl, not knowing whether he liked the dresses because, for a long time, one seemed very like another. At last Edna came out of the cubicle wearing a light-blue silk that was smooth on her hips and breast. Her brown-gold arms and her face were lit up by the clean blue colour and he knew suddenly it was the one he wanted her to have.

‘I'll just go and change it,' she said, ‘and then choose a pair of stockings and we can go home.'

‘Keep it on,' he said. ‘Keep it on. I like to see it.'

‘All right,' she said. ‘Just till we get home.'

It was early evening when they drove back to the farm. Emmett was loading the milk-churns into the three-wheeler and the girl, seeing him, walked straight into the house, not speaking. Tom drove the car under the shed beyond the barn and then stopped to speak for a few moments with Emmett, who was sitting at the driving-wheel of the car. He told him how the apples had sold for five pounds, and after a few minutes Emmett drove away.

After Emmett had gone, Tom went into the house. The kitchen was empty. He called the girl, saying, ‘Are you there?' He had never used her name. She did not answer and he went to the foot of the stairs and called again. There was no reply, and after a moment he went upstairs.

The door of her bedroom was open a little. He pushed it fully open with one hand and went in. As he saw her he stopped. She had taken off the new dress and was standing by the bed, in the evening sunlight, in her skirt. She smiled without speaking. He could see the brown edge of sunburn on her neck and shoulders and the deep hollow of her breasts that were cream above the edge of her pink skirt and below the brown rim of sun. He said something about wanting to see her in the new dress. She smiled again and let him put his hands on her bare warm shoulders. ‘I've put it away,' she said. ‘You'll just have to see me as I am.'

He stood for a moment looking down at her, sick and trembling. Her body, alight with the evening sun, was very warm, as if with reflected sun.

‘I like you,' he said at last. ‘God, I like you.'

‘I like you,' she said. ‘I always have. I shouldn't have come unless I did.'

‘You're going to stop here?' he said. ‘You ain't going now?'

‘Going?' she said. ‘What makes you think that? I'm not going.'

‘I just wanted to know. I just wanted to be sure.'

She opened her arms and stretched them upward until they held him. He could feel the soft pressure of her firm, strong breasts against his body and the steady tenderness of the palms of her warm hands on his face.

‘It's just as sure now as anything ever is.'

From that moment he relied on her completely. He could not imagine the little farm, isolated, ill-managed, almost derelict, with its fruit that no one ever gathered and its grey windows that no one ever painted, as it had been before she came. He could not imagine how he had managed for food, why he had never bought oil and flour in quantity, why milk and eggs had never been checked, how above all he had managed to endure the loneliness of the shabby grey house where no one but Emmett ever called. As he lay awake at night he heard sometimes the tender sound of walnut leaves brushed by light wind against the roof of the house above his window, and the voice of a late corncrake calling from across the wheat field that was now growing whiter with ripeness every day. They were no longer sounds that emphasized the solitude of the place, but were like the beats in the pulse of his entire happiness. He heard, too, the nearer sounds with a different emotion, the house no longer a hollow shabby shell occupied by himself and a stranger. He was excited by their familiarity. He heard the creaks of the loose floor-boards as the girl undressed for the night, and he thought of her sunburned body as it must be when she uncovered it in the candlelight or the summer darkness. He lay thinking of it until at last it was possible to lie there no longer without her. One night he waited until the sounds of her undressing had ceased, and when at last nothing but the wind lightly moving the walnut leaves broke the silence he got up and went into her room. It was not really dark, and in the hot August twilight she was lying on
the bed with nothing but a single white sheet over her outstretched body. As he moved towards her she curved her body out of its calm immobility. He saw her eyes shining very faintly and her bare arms stretched themselves above her head. She did not speak; but somehow he knew quite well that she had been waiting for him to come.

From that time they began to live as if they were married, living and sleeping together, and even, now, sometimes going out together. On a market day, or perhaps on Saturday evenings, she put on the new blue dress and they drove down into the town. As harvest came on she came out into the wheat field and helped to bond or shock or carry the sheaves. From the top of the load of wheat he would look down on her upturned face, browner now than the wheat itself, and see in it the impression of something that had never diminished since the day he had first seen her photograph: the impression of honesty going beyond anything he had ever known. Behind all the tenderness and love he felt in an increasing way a great sense of trust in her. He did not ask and now did not want to know why she had ever come out to the farm. It was enough that she was there, enough simply that he could take her as she was.

He was troubled only by one thing. He did not want Emmett there any longer. He was tired of the voice talking though the hot harvest afternoons about horses and horse-racing, tired of Emmett owing money, tired above all, of that strange look, a sort of reflective hatred, with which Emmett watched her sometimes as she moved about the farm.

‘I'm going to get things straightened up and finished with Emmett,' he told her.

‘I don't think I would,' she said. ‘Not yet. He still owes fifty or sixty pounds milk money.'

‘Yeh, and he'll keep on owing it.'

‘No, he won't,' she said. ‘I've got twenty pounds or more out of him now. I'll get the rest. In time.'

‘But I don't want him here. Hanging about the place. Spying, talking horses. He can pay and get out. If he don't pay he can still get out, and we'll let the money go.'

‘You want that money,' she said. ‘You know you do.'

‘Not as bad as all that.'

‘But bad enough. He promised me twenty-five pounds by the twentieth of the month. I'd better see what I can do.'

On the following afternoon she went alone to talk to Emmett in the barn. The cows were restless in the fly-clouded heat of the afternoon. Sunlight came in bright hot spears through the cracks in the dark roof and lay on the straw and milk-sprinkled dung of the floor.

‘Money,' Emmett said. ‘The way you talk anybody might think I were made o' money.'

‘You had the milk and you had the eggs,' she said. ‘It's time you paid something and you're going to pay something.'

‘I ain't in no hurry,' Emmett said.

‘How do you think we run the place?' she said. ‘How do you think we pay bills? On fresh air?'

‘We,' Emmett said, ‘we?'

‘Yes, we,' she said. ‘What's wrong about that?'

‘Nothing,' Emmett said. ‘Nothing. Only some git money one way and some git it another.'

He was carrying a bucket of milk and now he set it down. His hands, dirty at the nail rims, were damp with milk as he put them on her shoulders. ‘Come on,' he said. ‘You know. Make out you don't know.'

‘Shut up,' she said.

‘Come on, Edna,' he said.

‘Will you shut up?' she said. ‘Will you?'

‘Ah, come on,' Emmett said.

‘Will you take your hands off me before I smash your face in?' she said. ‘Will you? Will you?'

‘Now, Edna——'

She hit him full in the face with one hand, and they stood for a moment facing each other without a word. Then Emmett spoke.

‘Funny way for a married woman t'act,' he said. ‘Cuss me if it ain't.'

‘What did you say?' she said.

‘Married,' Emmett said. ‘That's what I said. You're married and you bin married a long time.'

‘All you're fit for,' she said, ‘is sneaking and spying and betting and listening to dirty gossip! That's all you're fit for!'

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