SEBASTIAN BLIGH sat on a Saratoga trunk in the hall smoking a meditative cigarette. A village child in a pink bonnet looked in at the open door with a primitive curiosity that had nothing of offence about it. The survey was largely critical. A herd of red cows came slowly along, carrying that faint suggestive perfume of cowslips with them. Bligh felt all these things rather than saw them. He had the dual faculty of the novelist for thinking and feeling at the same time. He would have described all this with a vivid slash or two of his pen. One of the great charms of his work had been its atmosphere.
Had been! And he was only thirty-four! It was because of the "had been" that he was down here at Marborough pledged to a year in the heart of the country, under a vow to early nights and the simple life in the open air. It was practically a sentence of twelve months' imprisonment to him, but it was either that or a more dread punishment--the scourge of insanity. It was the old story of brilliant work done at express speed, contracts hurried on for the sake of the money that Bligh wasted so needlessly in the gay society where he had his reputation for a wit to live up to. There had been sleepless nights, of course; the growing insomnia and the insidious drug prescribed by a fashionable physician. It was the kind of thing that Sebastian Bligh did not care to think about.
It was his wife who had insisted upon him going to see Moore in Harley Street. And the famous nerve specialist had spoken very freely indeed.
"Get out of it at once," he said. "Go into the country for a year. If you don't, you will be in a lunatic asylum in six months. There is no more to be said."
"What really is the matter with me, doctor?" Bligh asked.
"Well, mainly conceit," the great man said coolly. "You are too ambitious to shine. You are not content to do so through your books, much as they take it out of you. You have an ambition to be regarded as a brilliant talker; you like to be asked to big houses, to shine in your orbit. The consequence is that you are making a mess of everything. Go into the country with your wife. I suppose you never realised that she is far too good for you--far wiser and more sensible than you arc. Go away, and at the end of a year give us your best. No reputation could stand another story like your last. And you know it."
Bligh did know it. He had vainly tried to blind himself to the faults of that last volume of his. And now he had something far more serious to think of. He was to go away and do nothing for a time. He was to take a house in the heart of the country, to lead the simple life.
He had no money, as usual. He was not fit to attempt a further contract. He poured all this truth out on his wife--the first time he had confided in her for two years. He had to stand there before Nell and confess himself a failure. That she had suffered all this time in solitude and neglect had not occurred to him. All he knew now was that he was leaning on her sympathy, he had told his troubles at the club, and the men had said it was "hard lines." They yawned in his face. Sebastian was a "back number"; he was "played out." In imagination he could hear them saying this after he had gone. And yet Nell's smile was sweet and tender, her blue eyes were dewy with sympathy and love. She seemed to be glad. Resentfully, Bligh asked the reason.
"I'll not tell you now," Nell smiled. "You are not in what you call a receptive condition. Later on, perhaps, when we have been in the country six months."
"How are we going to get there, Childie? I can't work, and I have no money."
Nell's face flushed. It was a long time since Sebastian had called her by that pet name. He was coming back to her now in his troubles as a child comes back to its mother.
"I have thought of all that," she said. "Dr. Moore told me last week what he was going to order you. The Saintons are going to Australia for a year. Their cottage at Marborough was going to be shut up, and I more or less asked for it. Mrs. Sainton wants to sell the place now that they have come into that Australian money. She gave me the option of it as it stands for £1,000 furnished. Sebastian, it is the most lovely place! I was down there one day last summer. We can have it for £1 a week. And we can let this flat for £4 a week for a year easily. The Marshalls would jump at it. I went to your lawyers to-day and asked them to lend me £300 on our furniture. They arc ready to do that. By living quietly we shall be able to give you the year's holiday you so sorely need."
Bligh let it go at that. Really, he had no idea that Ellen was so capable! She thought of everything, managed everything, saved him from all worry and anxiety. The men at the club hoped that it would be "all right." Meanwhile, they found the prospects of the forthcoming Australian cricket team more interesting. In a dim way, Bligh began to sec what a fool he had been!
All the same, he dreaded the prospect of the change. His nerves were shaken. He could not rest. Would it be possible for him to put up with the dull monotony of the country? He would find the people impossible, of course: there would be no intellectual intercourse. The cottage would stink of paraffin in crazy lamps, the bath would be a thing of penny numbers. Still--
He sat in the hall of Barn House smoking his cigarette. Two neat maids in black and white were bustling about the place cheerfully under the direction of his wife. The cab which had met them at the station a mile and a half away had been provided with rubber tyres! In a recess was a window of old stained glass, blue and purple and orange, with the mellow flood of the April sunshine pouring through it. The pallid rays lay across a polished oak floor. There was warmth, refinement, atmosphere! And here, too, on a shelf was one of the latest things in the way of a telephone! By the side of it was a framed card with the names and numbers of the local shopkeepers. One of them was the library. With a sudden whimsical humour Bligh called up the bookseller. There were two volumes of poetry and a novel that he was anxious to sec. Could he have them sent to Barn House? What subscription--"
"Paid by Mrs. Sainton to the end of the year, sir," a pleasant voice said. "Mr. Dobson's new work we will send round this evening. Mr. Seaman's book has just gone out. The new novel of Mr. Wells comes with our papers this evening. To-morrow, sir? Certainly, with the morning papers. Will you kindly say what paper you require, sir? Oh, yes, the papers are delivered by breakfast time, sir."
Bligh smiled as he put the receiver back on the telephone. He was curious to see the village in the heart of the country where the last books were received the day after publication. He did not know what a rich resident population the place boasted. The country was all very well for poets and descriptive writers, but he had never properly appreciated it. Still, as a boy--
What had he done eventually with that collection of birds' eggs? And what was that bird outside in the hedgerow singing with a deep contralto note clear as a bell? He had known at one time. . . . The old oak hall was full of wistful shadows: Rembrandt would have loved to paint it. Really, there was a charm about the cottage, after all. Bligh hoped that lamps would not spoil it. He wondered where he could wash his hands. Nell was busy with the two maids upstairs. He could hear her singing as blithely as the blackbird outside. Some people liked this kind of thing. Here was a long passage with irregular steps. There were some nice prints on the panelled walls, an oak chest or two, some quaint blue china. Really the house was well furnished--not extravagantly, but in perfect taste and keeping with the age and flavour of it. Bligh opened a door at the end of the passage. Here was a bath-room with white tiles, a bath of porcelain with hot and cold water, a lavatory basin--everything absolute and complete! By the side of the looking glass was a gas-bracket in hammered copper. Bligh put a match to it, and the inverted mantle flamed white and clear. Then it came to him presently that there was gas all over the house. The water was clean and sparkling and evidently had been taken off from the main. What manner of place was Marborough?
The mellow note of a gong floated through the house, and Bligh found his way down to the drawing-room. Here were the same panelled walls, with a few good pictures on them. In one corner was an upright grand piano with the last model of an Angelus attached. The bread-and-butter looked inviting. There were two brown eggs in a little silver stand.
"It seems rather absurd," Nell laughed; "but I fancied an egg. I only had an apology for a lunch, and this air is so invigorating. Would you like to try one?"
Bligh thought not. He wandered across to the window and looked out. The beauty of the prospect almost staggered him. He had all the artistic temperament, all the glad eye for beauty in any form that goes with the creative faculty. He was looking over miles of undulating country to the calm silent line of the downs beyond. There was something singularly wistful and peaceful in those purple hills. Right away from the window the trees were one mass of living, trembling green. The feathery tracery of the birches, the tasselled emerald jewellery of the larches, appealed to him and touched him.
He stood there for a long time in silence.
"That's grand," he said. "Grand. I wish that I had--"
He broke off suddenly. Nell Bligh watched him with a touch of moisture in her eyes. Surely the charm she had hoped for was beginning to work already.
"Upon my word," Bligh said, with a half laugh, "I fancy I could tackle one of those eggs. We never see them with that ivory creaminess in London. And look at that butter!"
He ate his egg. The trim maid came with more bread-and-butter. Outside the choir invisible sang to the glory of the setting sun. There was a fragrance of violets somewhere. In some vague way they reminded Bligh of Piccadilly. He had seen Piccadilly the other day hard and glaring and dusty under the cold gleam of the sun and an east wind. Why did people shut themselves up in London just when--But this was a traitorous thought, and Bligh promptly suppressed it. "We must be very high above the sea here," he said.
"Nine hundred feet," Nell explained. "Where the hills slope down to the south is Beachy Head. You can see the sea from here sometimes, they tell me. Now isn't it a charming place? And isn't it a dear little house? I think I could be very happy here."
"I believe that you are happy now," Bligh smiled.
"Oh, I am. I love the country so. I wonder if you have forgotten that I was brought up in it? Of course, I don't want to hurt your feelings, dear, but--"
"I dare say I shall get used to it in time," Bligh said magnanimously. "I'll put up with it for your sake, Nell. I've thought a good deal too much about myself. I can see now that I have been neglecting you, dear. And when this trouble came upon me there was nobody else who cared. When I told them at the club they yawned in my face. Perhaps--but we shall sec. What is the garden like? Funny thing that I should be interested in a garden."
"The garden is a dream," Nell cried enthusiastically. "I should need the eloquence of Claude Melnotte to describe it to you. Only it is a very different garden from the one pictured to Pauline. But come and see it for yourself. I wonder if there is ever a month so lovely anywhere as a genial April in England?"
Bligh passed along a flagged passage, through a greenhouse filled with ferns, on to a terrace one mass of brilliant rock plants in full sheets of white and blue and mauve blossoms. The garden sloped away down with great masses of daffodils and narcissus on either side. The arabis and alyssum were in yellow and white glory that was all their own. Here were the wide herbaceous borders showing their first spikes of green, and beyond this the currant trees bursting into flower. Behind these again were the apples and pears--ivory white and pink-tinged pyramids of bloom.
"It is certainly very beautiful," Bligh said after a long pause.
"It brings the tears to your eyes," Nell said, with a catch in her voice. "I always think that you feel much nearer God in the country. You seem to see His band in everything. . . . But come a bit further this way, Sebastian. Now look at that Isn't it exquisite?"
She indicated a small orchard with a hand that shook a little. Here were fruit trees all a tender whisper of trembling green, flushed with white and pink like carmine embroidery, and in the grass between were daffodils and narcissus growing by the hundred. There were wide beds dotted about here and there that would be a mass of lupins later on. The whole was enclosed by a high formal yew hedge that gave to the picture the one quiet touch, the suggestion of medievalism that it needed.
"You ought to appreciate all this," Nell said. "A man like you, who thinks so highly of Austin Dobson, should simply revel in it."
"Upon my word, I believe I do," Bligh laughed. "I suppose that is the kitchen garden beyond the yew hedge? There ought to be old-fashioned flowers in the borders and an avenue of filbert trees down the centre. And so there is, . . . This is one of Dobson's gardens. Dendy Sadler should come here, and Marcus Stone. Upon my word, I begin to feel glad that we came, Nell."
Bligh had forgotten all about himself for the moment. The raw edge of his nerves was toning down. There were a thousand things here to see and admire. Here was a summer-house, thatched with heather, where he had made up his mind to work later on. The windows were framed with roses; a blackbird on the summit was singing his hymn to the setting sun. Already in his mind Bligh was beginning to frame a story with the place for a setting. The inspiration of it was thrilling him to his very finger-tips. Not for years had he felt like that in London. There latterly he had had to thrash his brain, to force himself to it. Now the plot was unrolling itself like a panorama. He talked it over with Nell logically and eagerly. He had never given her his literary confidence before. She hung on his arm lovingly; there was a happy flush on her face.
"Wait a bit." she suggested. "Give yourself time, my dear boy."
"Oh. I am going to." Bligh exclaimed. "No breathless haste for me. For the whole year that we are down here I I am not going to send a single line to a magazine or a publisher. I shall do everything that I have to do carefully and conscientiously, and put it aside till the year is up. Then I shall be able to read it calmly and critically. My best shall go and the rest shall be destroyed. Those fellows in the club shall see what I can do when I take my time."
"If you act in that way." Nell said, with a happy little laugh, "at the end of the year you will not mind what the club says. But you will let me see it, won't you?"
Bligh magnanimously conceded the point. He was mildly surprised to find how wise and far-seeing his wife was. He had the grace to be just a little ashamed of himself. But Nell appeared to heed none of these things. She talked on happily and contentedly. She was going, just for a special treat, to give Bligh a salmon steak for dinner. Oh. yes, all those luxuries could be found in the village. The shops were quite good, There were so many great houses in the neighbourhood; a rich colony had settled here since the era of the motor had dawned. And did not Sebastian think that this was a delightful cottage? If they could only buy it, if only for the summer residence and the occasional week-ends? The price was ridiculously cheap.
Bligh pondered over this till he fell asleep. Usually he sat up till past one. To-night before eleven he was strangely sleepy--not heavy and restless, but delightfully drowsy. He might possibly get a good night's rest for once. He closed his eyes. A bird outside was piping with clear notes like running water. Sebastian wondered if it was a nightingale, or possibly--possibly--
When he awoke again it was nearly seven in the morning. His head was singularly clear. He was conscious of a marvellous elasticity in his limbs. Outside the sun was shining brilliantly, and the birds were in full song.
Bligh splashed about in his bath whistling. He came back to breakfast ravenously hungry, and full of the fact that he had found a cuckoo's egg in a sparrow's nest.
"I've been all round by the golf links." he explained. "Talk about a view! This is lovely, but it isn't in it with the prospect from the terrace of the golf house! And such greens they've got! I've seen nothing like them since I was at Sandwich and Deal five years ago. I think I'll take up golf again, Nell. If I can get my energy back, I'll certainly do so."
Nell smiled happily. It needed no far vision to sec that everything was coming her way. She was going to get her husband back again. The old happiness that she had planned and schemed for was returning. Sebastian wandered off presently with his pipe after a breakfast that had been in itself a source of wonder. He returned a little later on to inquire if there was a mowing machine anywhere. The tennis court needed cutting. He worked hard till every inch of grass was cut; his eye was clear, his forehead wet with moisture. He boasted presently, like a boy that he was not in the least tired. All the evening he passed with deepest interest over one of Sutton's seed catalogues. He would make those borders still more gay with flowers, he was going to have the finest peas and potatoes in Marborough. But the next day he had an inspiration, and he shut himself up in the heather-thatched summer-house and wrote. From that time, on all through the summer, he wrote steadily for three hours a day.
He was loyal to his vow. He wrote his long or short stories and corrected them, after which he put them away in a drawer and absolutely refused to look at them again. But he allowed Nell to read them, and was surprised at the astuteness of her criticism. They were not the showy criticisms of the club either; they were deeper than that. They sat together sometimes in the summer evenings and talked of books. Nell's prayers were being answered at last.
There was plenty to do in the garden. The roses had more than answered expectations; the dahlias were a delight, the tall phloxes were coming on now, the daisies were in their prime; and there was not a gardener in the place who could show a better collection of vegetables than Bligh. During the whole of the time he had never been near London. He spoke with contempt of the fools who chained themselves to town when they might be in the country. Nell laughed.
"Oh, I know what you mean." he said, with a slight flush on his face. "My dear, you arc far wiser than I. I came here because my doctor ordered me to come. You came because you knew that it was the right thing. And I am another man. I am a happy man, too. And I owe it all to you."
Nell thrilled. There was no mistaking the ring of sincerity in her husband's voice.
"I was a fool," he went on, "a fool! I came down here hating the place and the thought of coming. It seemed to me that Moore was sending me into penal servitude. And look at the result! Childie, I've got to love this place. The house has become part of myself. If I had the money I would buy it to-morrow, and be quite content to spend the rest of my life here. But I have no money, and I dare say, when the Saintons come back, they will sell the place over our heads. I should like--Botheration! I quite forgot to trench up the celery bed! Is there time before dinner?"
It was small wonder, then, that Nell smiled happily as she went about the house, and that she could listen contentedly enough to Sebastian when he talked about the progress of his golf. He was never tired or discontented now. Nothing seemed to trouble him, except the wasted years, and the knowledge that he had not the necessary money to buy Barn House. Perhaps, at the end of the year, when he came to look through the work that he had done, he might make a valuation and place the same in the hands of his agent. But to realise would take time, and before the money began to come in the place might be gone. Sebastian sowed his seeds and made his beds as if he were here for years to come. Naturally, he had the sanguine temperament.
The nights were drawing in now, chill and cold. The chrysanthemums were coming into bloom. But there was plenty to do in the greenhouse, and the golf was progressing satisfactorily. There were misty days and days of rain and fog, and when these came Nell trembled for the success of her scheme. Sebastian was a man of mood and temperament; at any time he might say that he could not stand it any longer. He did not complain, however; he made his own pleasures. He would not listen to the suggestion of a few days in London in the flat which was now empty for the moment.
"I'd much rather not, Nell." he said. "The fact is, I'm giving fiction a rest, and I'm on a series of papers after the style of Richard Jcfferies. I shall publish them later on in book form. You know that Richard Jeffcries lived here for some years. I have been over all the ground that is described in his books. It's wonderful what secrets Nature has for you, even at this time of the year, if only you study her carefully. December is a most interesting month here, if you take it the right way. By the way, have those sea-kale pots come yet?"
All this was honey of Hybla to Nell. The critical time was past now, and the heart of a man had been born again. The spring of the year came, and presently the aconite began to peep through the ground, and the snowdrops to nod in the shady borders. Then the buds on the trees began to swell again, and the daffodils in the orchard showed bloom. Sebastian contemplated this with a sigh. They were his children, so to speak.
"Another month and we shall part company, I suppose." he said. "It seems very hard after the way we have worked in the garden. And what a lovely April it has been again this year! I suppose we shall have to look for some other place close by. But it won't be the same as Barn House. I dare say it is only a sentiment, but then the world is governed by sentiment! Nell, do you think that you could persuade the Saintons to let us go on for another year? They ought to be back in London any time now."
"Would you feel leaving the place so much?" Nell asked.
"Childie, I feel that I was born here," Sebastian said. "I was born here in a way. If I could only buy the place! What a perfect evening it is, to be sure!"
"Would you really like to have the house?" Nell asked.
"Would I?" Bligh drew a deep breath. "I would prefer it to any place in the world. I have come into being here. I am a man again. And I believe that I have been doing better work lately than I have ever done before. To-morrow we have been here a year. Heavens! what a difference it has made to me. Everything here appears to be mine. At least, all the flowers do. I wanted to sec how that new rock garden was going to turn out. I wonder what they would say at the club if they heard me talk like this? And when we first had to come here I was angry because you were glad. Now I can sec how wise you arc and how foolish am I! Still, I dare say there are other places."
"Come outside and sec the sunset." Nell said. "Come and admire those wonderful new daffodils of ours. I have something to say to you. I have a confession to make."
It was wonderfully still and peaceful there; the pears and apples were flushed with bloom. The promise of a fair summer lay before them.
"What is it?" Sebastian asked. "What have you been doing, Nell?"
"Well, I have been robbing you," Nell said with an unsteady laugh. "You told me six months ago that my literary judgment was as good as anybody's that you knew. After that I went to that old chest where you keep your papers and read your stories again. For six months I have been picking them out, the long and short ones as they come. And they arc all just as good as they were in the old early days. I sent them to your agent, and they arc all sold. I could keep my secret because you never see a magazine or a review--you said that you would not look at anything of the kind for a whole year. I read all your letters, and kept back those I did not want you to see. And all this time the money has been accumulating at the bank--over £2,000 altogether. The other day, when I was in London, I saw Mrs. Sainton's agent, and I made him an offer for this house as it stands. He had been advised as to the promise the Saintons made, and he had power to close. So I bought it. The deeds will be signed this week, and all you have to do is to write a cheque for £1,000. Of course, all this is was wrong on my part, but I couldn't help it. The idea appealed to me so much that it was not to be resisted. You arc annoyed with me, of course."
Sebastian was silent for a long time. Nell waited anxiously for him to speak.
"Say it again." he asked. "Tell the story once more! Did ever a man have a wife like you since the world began? And I used to neglect you, to treat you as a plaything! I have written and said some hard things about women in the past. Never again, Nell, never again. And so you have done the thing for me. My work--"
"Is better than ever. All the editors say so. Your agent says so. They are asking for more. You could not help doing good work here."
Sebastian took his wife on his arm and kissed her. This was the hour of her triumph. The hour she had dreamed of a year ago. And it had all come true. Her husband, with his strong, brown, handsome face, was true; his kisses were true; the tender green on the trees was true. And all this was theirs till the end came. The tears came in her eyes.
"I am so glad that you arc not angry," she whispered.
"Angry!" Sebastian laughed. "Angry! Oh, my dear, my dear!"
A blackbird sang on the swaying branch of white lilac, the sun was on the daffodils. And the song of the bird was like the music that was in the hearts of both of them.