If I only knew more about women than I do—if I only knew anything about them at all—I might be able to understand the vagarious indetermination of the lady who is contemplating the occupation of a little house quite close to me here in the country.
But I know nothing about the sex—well, next to nothing. That is as near to the truth as a man will get on this subject. His next to nothing, in fact, is next to the truth. And so, with this open confession of ignorance, I can explain nothing about this lady. I can only tell you all the funny things she does.
There is this house to let. Well, it is less than a house. An agent, flourishing his pen over the book of orders to view, would call it a maisonette—what is more, he would be right. It is a little house—a little, tiny house. The view from the balcony round the top of it is beautiful; but from inside, I doubt if you can see anything at all. I have never been inside, but that is what I imagine.
Now, the strange thing about this lady’s attraction for it is that she has occupied it once before. There her children were brought up. From there they were sent out into the world upon that hazardous journey of fortune: that same journey in quest of the golden apple for which the three sons have always set forth, ever since the first fairy tale was written. And so the little house is filled with recollections for her.
She remembers—I have heard her speak of it—the day when Dicky, the youngest boy, fell out from one of the windows. Not a long fall, but it was the devil and all to carry him back into the house. She did not say it was the devil and all. I say it for her, because I know when she was telling it, that was the way she wanted to put it. But a woman can look a little phrase like that, which is so much better than saying it.
She remembers also the day when they had nothing in the house to eat and she, saying such things to her husband as God has given him memory for the rest of his life, had to go out and scrape together whatever she could find. It was a cold day. There was snow on the ground. Snow in the beginning of May! Heaven only knows how she managed. But she succeeded.
There is that about women. They will get food for their children, even when famine is in the land, or they will die. I know that much about them. They have died in Ireland.
Well, all these things she remembers; things which, softened by time, are no doubt pleasant memories ere this. And yet she cannot make up her mind. Where she has been since they went away, I do not know. Travelling, I imagine. But here she is back once more, doubtless worrying the life out of the house agent, who is continually being jostled in the balance of thinking he has, then thinking he has not, let a very doubtful property.
Every morning she comes and looks over the old place. I suppose she is staying in the neighbourhood. From every side she views it and all the while she talks to herself. Now, women do this more than you would think. They do it when they are going to bed at night. They do it when they are getting up in the morning. It always seems as if there were some one inside them to whom they must tell the truth, because, I believe, they are the most truthful beings in the world—to themselves.
Only yesterday, when she thought she was absolutely alone, I heard her saying—
“You wouldn’t like it, you know, once you were fixed up there again. It’s out of the way, of course, quiet, but you wouldn’t like it.”
And then, having told herself the truth, she began immediately to contradict it.
Why they do this is more than I can tell you. The only people who can tell the truth, they seemingly dislike it more than any one else. A man loves the truth, lives for it, dies for it, but seldom tells it. With a woman it is just the opposite, and I cannot for the life of me tell you why.
“You’d be a fool if you took it,” she said to herself as she went away to the house agent’s. “You don’t know who you’ll have for neighbours. They might be disgusting people.”
I followed her to the house agent’s, and this, if you please, was the first question she put to him—
“What sort of people do you think’ll take the house over the way?”
I pitied the house agent from the bottom of my heart, because how on earth could he know? Yet upon his answer hung all his chances of letting. I thought he replied very cleverly.
“They’re sure to be good people,” said he; “we only get the best class round here.”
And then, just listen to her retort—
“But you can’t tell,” said she. “What’s the good of pretending you know. It might be a butcher and his family. You couldn’t stop them if they wanted the house.”
The agent leaned back in his chair, then leaned forward over his desk, turning over pages and pages of a ledger.
“Well, will you take an order to view this one?” said he. “Same rent—a little more accommodation.”
“No, I don’t want to see any more,” she replied. “This is the one I like best.”
“Well, would you like to settle on that?” said the agent. “I’ll write to the landlord to-night.”
“I’ll let you know to-morrow,” said she.
For three weeks she has gone on just like this.
And it is still to let, that little house in the bowl of my old apple tree. But every morning she comes just the same and, sitting on the topmost branch, she chatters to herself incessantly for half an hour, as starlings and women do—for she is a lady starling. I shall be curious to know when she makes up her mind, but, knowing nothing about women and less than nothing about starlings, I cannot say when or what it will be.
She thanked God, she told me, that she had never been married.
She was quite old—well, quite old? Can you ever say that of a woman? Women are quite old for five years, but that is all. They are quite old between the ages of thirty-five and forty. Then, if God has given them a heart and they have taken advantage of the gift, youth comes back again. It is not the youth under the eyes, perhaps; it is the youth in the eyes. It is not the youth around the lips; it is the youth of the words that issue from them.
Between thirty-five and forty a woman is trying to remember her youth and forget her age. That makes her quite old—quite, quite old. After that—well, I have said, it rests with God and her.
So Miss Taviner was not quite old. She was quite young. She was sixty-three. Her eyes twinkled, even when she thanked God for her spinsterdom.
“You’ve got,” said I, “a poor opinion of men.”
“’Tisn’t my opinion—’tis my mother’s,” said she.
I felt there was nothing to be said to that. It would have been unseemly on my part—who have only just found my own youth—to disagree with an opinion of such long standing.
You must understand that Miss Taviner could never have been beautiful. God may have meant her to be; I don’t know anything about that. I am only aware how Nature interfered. For when she was young—a child not more, I think, than six—she was struck by lightning, paralysed for a time, and, when she recovered, her eyes were at loggerheads. They looked every way but one.
But I like her little shrivelled face, nevertheless. It is crafty, perhaps. She looks as if she counts every apple on the trees in her old garden. Why shouldn’t she? She has a poor opinion of men. Besides, the apples at Beech House Farm—where her father lived and his father before him—those apples are part of the slender income by which she manages to cling to the old home. Who could blame her for counting them? I don’t even blame her for having the cunning look of it in her eyes.
No—I suppose, though I do like her face, it is because I haven’t got to love it. Possibly that is why she has so poor an opinion of men. Some man found that he could not love her face and broke his faith with her. At least, I thought that then. Some heartless wretch has jilted her, I thought—taught her to love, and then caught sight of a prettier pair of eyes. I must admit he need not have been on the lookout for them.
“But,” said I presently, when these ideas had passed away, “don’t you admit men have their uses?”
“None!” she said emphatically.
“Then why,” I asked, “do you hang up that old top hat of your father’s on a peg in the kitchen, so that the first tramp, as you open the door to him, may see it?”
“So that he’ll think I’ve got a man in the house, I suppose,” she replied.
“That’s why you have a couple of glasses and a whiskey bottle on the table in the evening?”
“Then a man is useful,” said I, “as far as his hat is concerned?”
She winked her crooked eyes at me and she said, “Yes, so long as there isn’t a head inside of it.”
I laughed. “Then really,” I concluded, “you do hate men?”
“I suppose I do,” said she.
I thought I was going to hear of her little romance with its pitiable ending.
But no, she merely shrugged her shoulders, stuck an old tam-o’-shanter on her head, and went out to see if the gardener was doing his fair share of work.
I might never have thought of this again, but it chanced that I bought from her, amongst her old relics of the family property, a mahogany box, with brass lock and brass handle. Inlaid, it was, round the edge of the lid. Quite a handsome thing. She had lost its key. It was locked and, seeing that she did not want to go to the expense of getting a key made, she sold it to me.
I got a key made. I opened it. It was empty, but for one thing. There was a letter at the bottom. It is unquestionable that I had no right to read it. It is also unquestionable that I did.
“My dear Miss Taviner,” it ran, “these evenings that it is so light they may be playing cricket on the green. Shall we meet at the Cross beyond the forge?—Yrs. in haste, Henry Yeoman.”
“That’s the man,” said I to myself. “He was ashamed of being seen with her even then. No wonder she has a poor opinion of men.” My anger went out to Henry Yeoman on the spot.
But I did him an injustice. For, inquiring at the forge, which I happened to pass some days later, I stopped and asked the smith about him.
“Henry Yeoman,” said he, “why he’s left these parts nigh fifteen years. He’s gone to live at Reading.”
“Is he married?” I asked.
“Yes; married Miss Taviner.”
“Yes; sister of her down at Beech House Farm.”
“Never knew she had a sister,” said I.
“Yes. Oh, she had three; all married, they are.”
“Why did she never marry?” I asked, for then I knew the letter was not to her.
“Why?” He tapped the anvil with his hammer and he laughed a bass accompaniment to its ring. “Because no one ’ud ever look at her, I suppose.”
I saw it then. I saw why she had so poor opinion of men. I saw why she thanked God she had never married.
No man had ever taught her what love was. No man had ever even jilted her. No wonder she hated them. No wonder she counted her apples.
BELLWATTLE AND THE LAWS OF NATURE
BELLWATTLE AND THE LAWS OF NATURE
BELLWATTLE AND THE LAWS OF NATURE
It is not mine to distinguish between the laws of God and the laws of Nature. This is a distinction peculiar to Bellwattle.
It would be difficult to give precise definition to her conception of the subtle and imaginary line which divides the two, but, so far as I can grasp it, it would seem to be this: The laws of God determine those things which happen despite themselves and to the confusion of all Bellwattle’s pre-conceived opinions. When, for example, a caterpillar, in its hazardous struggle for existence, eats into the heart of her favourite rosebud, that is, for Bellwattle, one of the laws of God.
Now, the laws of Nature are quite different to this. The laws of Nature—so Bellwattle, I fancy, would tell you—command those things which happen of their own accord and to the satisfaction of all Bellwattle’s pre-conceived anticipations. When, for example, a rose tree bears a thousand blossoms from May to the end of December; when the peas are ready to pick in the first week in June, and the delphiniums have grown yet another inch when, every morning, she steps out into the garden to look at them—these are, for Bellwattle, the orderly workings of the laws of Nature.
I see her point. I sympathise with her distinction and I wish—oh, how I wish!—that I could think as she does. For it is a fixed idea with her. Nothing will shake it. And I have never met any one whose appreciation of Nature is as great as hers.
Only the other day—so Cruikshank, her husband, tells me—they came across a wild flower in one of the hedges. In blossom and general appearance it bore so close a relation to Shepherd’s Needle that at first sight of it, he dubbed it straight away. On closer examination it was found that there were no needles; neither could it be Shepherd’s Purse, for there were no purses.
“Perhaps it’s a Shepherd’s Needle gone wrong?” suggested Bellwattle, and Cruikshank tells me he left it at that. The sublime conception of it was beyond the highest reaches of his imagination.
On another occasion, when I had the honour to accompany her on her walk, we heard the raucous note of a bird from somewhere away in the meadows.
“I bet you don’t know what that is!” said I, to test her knowledge; but she answered quite easily—
“It’s a partridge.”
“No,” said I, a little disappointed at her mistake, “that’s a pheasant.”
“Oh, the same thing,” said Bellwattle, unperturbed.
“Of course; they both begin with a P,” said I.
And then she looked at me out of the corner of her eyes and blinked. I thank God I did not smile. She would never have believed in me again.
But it is when Bellwattle puts out her gentle hand to help Nature in her schemes that I think she is most lovable of all. This is the way with all true women when they love Nature for Nature’s sake. In fact, it sometimes seems to me, when I watch Bellwattle forestalling God at every turn, that she is Eve incarnate, the mother of all living. For to see her in the garden and the country, you would feel that she almost believes she has suffered the labours of maternity for every single thing that lives, from the first snowdrop opening its eyes to the spring to the last little tremulous calf, with its quaking knees, which the old cow in the farmyard presents to our neighbour over the way.
“The poor wee mite,” she says, and she gives it the tips of her fingers with which to ease its toothless gums.
But sometimes, as woman will, she carries this motherdom to excess. You may aid Nature to a point. Men do it in their pre-eminently practical way, which has science for the dry heart of it. Watch them pruning rose trees. I believe they take a positive pleasure in the knife. I am perfectly sure Bellwattle’s garden would be a forest of briars were it not that Cruikshank keeps locked within a little drawer a knife with a handle of horn, which he takes out in the month of March, when Bellwattle goes to pay a visit to her mother up in town. In fact, the visit is arranged for that purpose.
“I suppose it has to be done,” she says, packing her trunk. “But it seems a silly business to me that you should have to cut the arms and legs off a thing before it can grow properly. They bore roses last year. Why not this?”
But where Nature needs no aid, there is Bellwattle ready with her ever-helping hand. She constitutes herself in the capacity of nurse to all the birds in the garden.
Only this spring a linnet built its nest in the yew tree that grows in our hedge. In an unwise moment Cruikshank informed her of it. She ran off at once and counted the eggs. Five there were. She had seen eggs before, but these were the most beautiful that any bird had ever laid in its life.
From that moment she became so fussy and excitable that Cruikshank was at a loss to know what to do with her.
“She’ll drive the bird away,” said Cruikshank to me.
“Well, tell her so,” said I.
“She simply said, ‘The bird must know that I don’t mean to do any harm.’”
“No doubt she’s right,” said I. “I don’t suppose there’s an animal in the whole of creation that doesn’t recognise the maternal instinct when it sees it.”
That was all very well while there were only eggs to be reckoned with. But when one morning Bellwattle went to the nest and found five black little heads, like five little Hottentots grown old and grizzled, with shrivelled tufts of grey hair, there was no containing her.
She clapped her hands. She danced up and down and—
“Oh, the dears!” she cried. “Oh, the little dears! I must give them something to eat. What will they eat?”
I looked at Cruikshank. I had come round that morning to count his rosebuds with him—a weakness of his to which he always succumbs. He tells me it is the only way he can justify his use of the knife. I looked at him and he looked at me.
“This is going too far,” he whispered. “Can’t we put a stop to it?”
“Leave it to me,” said I, and Bellwattle, hearing our whispers, turned round and stared at us.
“What is it?” she asked.
“We were talking,” said I.
“Yes, but what about?”
She was fired with suspicion.
“We were wondering the best thing you could feed them with.”
Suspicion fell from her.
“What do you think?” she asked. “Would corn be any good?”
Cruikshank blew his nose.
“A little bit solid,” he said dubiously.
“You can’t do better than give them the same as their mother does,” I suggested.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“Small worms,” I replied, and I watched her face; “those little thin, red, raw ones.”
She walked away, saying nothing. She hates worms. Well, naturally—every woman does.
Cruikshank laid an appreciative hand on my shoulder.
“That’s done it,” he said. “I was afraid she’d go worrying about till she made the poor little beast desert, but that’s done it.”
I was not so sure myself. Therefore it surprised me not at all the next morning when, arriving unexpectedly in the garden, I came upon her unawares, carrying at arm’s length two little wriggling worms. There was an expression on her face which will live in my memory for ever. I concealed myself behind a tree and watched. I could see nothing, but this is what I heard—
“Oh, you funny little mites! Bless your little hearts! Here, take it—take it! Open your mouth, you silly! Not so wide—not so wide. Well, if you all sit up like that you’ll fall out, you know. Lie down, you silly little fools; lie down! lie down! Now shut your mouth on it and you’ll find it. Shut your mouth!”
And so on and so on, till my laughter gave me away.
“Were you listening all the time?” she asked.
I nodded my head.
“So was the mother linnet,” said I, “up in that lilac tree. What do you think she’ll do now? She’ll think you’ve been trying to kill them.”
“No, she won’t,” said Bellwattle. “I left a big worm on the edge of the nest for her, so that she’ll know I’ve been feeding them.”
But something worse than that happened. With all this attention paid to that which by every law of Nature should have been kept a dead secret, the attention of Bellwattle’s cat was attracted to the spot. Next morning the nest was found empty and one of those brown little Hottentots hung dangling in the branches.
Bellwattle came running down the garden, wringing her hands, the tears glittering in her eyes, her lips quivering as she told us what had happened.
“That comes of meddling with Nature,” began Cruikshank, but I stopped him very quickly.
“If you stop her tears and make her angry,” I whispered, “she’ll never forgive you. Let her cry; it’s the way women learn.”