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THEY AND I (chapter3)

2006-09-08 21:22


    It was the cow that woke me the first morning. I did not know it was our cow——not at the time. I didn't know we had a cow. I looked at my watch; it was half-past two. I thought maybe she would go to sleep again, but her idea was that the day had begun. I went to the window, the moon was at the full. She was standing by the gate, her head inside the garden; I took it her anxiety was lest we might miss any of it. Her neck was stretched out straight, her eyes towards the sky; which gave to her the appearance of a long-eared alligator. I have never had much to do with cows. I don't know how you talk to them. I told her to "be quiet," and to "lie down"; and made pretence to throw a boot at her. It seemed to cheer her, having an audience; she added half a dozen extra notes. I never knew before a cow had so much in her. There is a thing one sometimes meets with in the suburbs——or one used to; I do not know whether it is still extant, but when I was a boy it was quite common. It has a hurdy-gurdy fixed to its waist and a drum strapped on behind, a row of pipes hanging from its face, and bells and clappers from most of its other joints. It plays them all at once, and smiles. This cow reminded me of it—— with organ effects added. She didn't smile; there was that to be said in her favour.

    I hoped that if I made believe to be asleep she would get discouraged. So I closed the window ostentatiously, and went back to bed. But it only had the effect of putting her on her mettle. "He did not care for that last," I imagined her saying to herself, "I wasn't at my best. There wasn't feeling enough in it." She kept it up for about half an hour, and then the gate against which, I suppose, she had been leaning, gave way with a crash. That frightened her, and I heard her gallop off across the field. I was on the point of dozing off again when a pair of pigeons settled on the window-sill and began to coo. It is a pretty sound when you are in the mood for it. I wrote a poem once——a simple thing, but instinct with longing——while sitting under a tree and listening to the cooing of a pigeon. But that was in the afternoon. My only longing now was for a gun. Three times I got out of bed and "shoo'd" them away. The third time I remained by the window till I had got it firmly into their heads that I really did not want them. My behaviour on the former two occasions they had evidently judged to be mere playfulness. I had just got back to bed again when an owl began to screech. That is another sound I used to think attractive——so weird, so mysterious. It is Swinburne, I think, who says that you never get the desired one and the time and the place all right together. If the beloved one is with you, it is the wrong place or at the wrong time; and if the time and the place happen to be right, then it is the party that is wrong. The owl was all right: I like owls. The place was all right. He had struck the wrong time, that was all. Eleven o'clock at night, when you can't see him, and naturally feel that you want to, is the proper time for an owl. Perched on the roof of a cow-shed in the early dawn he looks silly. He clung there, flapping his wings and screeching at the top of his voice. What it was he wanted I am sure I don't know; and anyhow it didn't seem the way to get it. He came to this conclusion himself at the end of twenty minutes, and shut himself up and went home. I thought I was going to have at last some peace, when a corncrake——a creature upon whom Nature has bestowed a song like to the tearing of calico-sheets mingled with the sharpening of saws——settled somewhere in the garden and set to work to praise its Maker according to its lights. I have a friend, a poet, who lives just off the Strand, and spends his evenings at the Garrick Club. He writes occasional verse for the evening papers, and talks about the "silent country, drowsy with the weight of languors." One of these times I'll lure him down for a Saturday to Monday and let him find out what the country really is——let him hear it. He is becoming too much of a dreamer: it will do him good, wake him up a bit. The corncrake after awhile stopped quite suddenly with a jerk, and for quite five minutes there was silence.

    "If this continues for another five," I said to myself, "I'll be asleep." I felt it coming over me. I had hardly murmured the words when the cow turned up again. I should say she had been somewhere and had had a drink. She was in better voice than ever.

    It occurred to me that this would be an opportunity to make a few notes on the sunrise. The literary man is looked to for occasional description of the sunrise. The earnest reader who has heard about this sunrise thirsts for full particulars. Myself, for purposes of observation, I have generally chosen December or the early part of January. But one never knows. Maybe one of these days I'll want a summer sunrise, with birds and dew-besprinkled flowers: it goes well with the rustic heroine, the miller's daughter, or the girl who brings up chickens and has dreams. I met a brother author once at seven o'clock in the morning in Kensington Gardens. He looked half asleep and so disagreeable that I hesitated for awhile to speak to him: he is a man that as a rule breakfasts at eleven. But I summoned my courage and accosted him.

    "This is early for you," I said.

    "It's early for anyone but a born fool," he answered.

    "What's the matter?" I asked. "Can't you sleep?"

    "Can't I sleep?" he retorted indignantly. "Why, I daren't sit down upon a seat, I daren't lean up against a tree. If I did I'd be asleep in half a second."

    "What's the idea?" I persisted. "Been reading Smiles's 'Self Help and the Secret of Success'? Don't be absurd," I advised him. "You'll be going to Sunday school next and keeping a diary. You have left it too late: we don't reform at forty. Go home and go to bed." I could see he was doing himself no good.

    "I'm going to bed," he answered, "I'm going to bed for a month when I've finished this confounded novel that I'm on. Take my advice," he said——he laid his hand upon my shoulder——"Never choose a colonial girl for your heroine. At our age it is simple madness."

    "She's a fine girl," he continued, "and good. Has a heart of gold. She's wearing me to a shadow. I wanted something fresh and unconventional. I didn't grasp what it was going to do. She's the girl that gets up early in the morning and rides bare-back——the horse, I mean, of course; don't be so silly. Over in New South Wales it didn't matter. threw in the usual local colour——the eucalyptus- tree and the kangaroo——and let her ride. It is now that she is over here in London that I wish I had never thought of her. She gets up at five and wanders about the silent city. That means, of course, that I have to get up at five in order to record her impressions. I have walked six miles this morning. First to St. Paul's Cathedral; she likes it when there's nobody about. You'd think it wasn't big enough for her to see if anybody else was in the street. She thinks of it as of a mother watching over her sleeping children; she's full of all that sort of thing. And from there to Westminster Bridge. She sits on the parapet and reads Wordsworth, till the policeman turns her off. This is another of her favourite spots." He indicated with a look of concentrated disgust the avenue where we were standing. "This is where she likes to finish up. She comes here to listen to a blackbird."

    "Well, you are through with it now," I said to console him. "You've done it; and it's over."

    "Through with it!" he laughed bitterly. "I'm just beginning it. There's the entire East End to be done yet: she's got to meet a fellow there as big a crank as herself. And walking isn't the worst. She's going to have a horse; you can guess what that means.——Hyde Park will be no good to her. She'll find out Richmond and Ham Common. I've got to describe the scenery and the mad joy of the thing."

    "Can't you imagine it?" I suggested.

    "I'm going to imagine all the enjoyable part of it," he answered. "I must have a groundwork to go upon. She's got to have feelings come to her upon this horse. You can't enter into a rider's feelings when you've almost forgotten which side of the horse you get up."

    I walked with him to the Serpentine. I had been wondering how it was he had grown stout so suddenly. He had a bath towel round him underneath his coat.

    "It'll give me my death of cold, I know it will," he chattered while unlacing his boots.

    "Can't you leave it till the summer-time," I suggested, "and take her to Ostend?"

    "It wouldn't be unconventional," he growled. "She wouldn't take an interest in it."

    "But do they allow ladies to bathe in the Serpentine?" I persisted.

    "It won't be the Serpentine," he explained. "It's going to be the Thames at Greenwich. But it must be the same sort of feeling. She's got to tell them all about it during a lunch in Queen's Gate, and shock them all. That's all she does it for, in my opinion."

    He emerged a mottled blue. I helped him into his clothes, and he was fortunate enough to find an early cab. The book appeared at Christmas. The critics agreed that the heroine was a delightful creation. Some of them said they would like to have known her.

    Remembering my poor friend, it occurred to me that by going out now and making a few notes about the morning, I might be saving myself trouble later on. I slipped on a few things——nothing elaborate——put a notebook in my pocket, opened the door and went down.

    Perhaps it would be more correct to say "opened the door and was down." It was my own fault, I admit. We had talked this thing over before going to bed, and I myself had impressed upon Veronica the need for caution. The architect of the country cottage does not waste space. He dispenses with landings; the bedroom door opens on to the top stair. It does not do to walk out of your bedroom, for the reason there is nothing outside to walk on. I had said to Veronica, pointing out this fact to her:

    "Now don't, in the morning, come bursting out of the room in your usual volcanic style, because if you do there will be trouble. As you perceive, there is no landing. The stairs commence at once; they are steep, and they lead down to a brick floor. Open the door quietly, look where you are going, and step carefully."

    Dick had added his advice to mine. "I did that myself the first morning," Dick had said. "I stepped straight out of the bedroom into the kitchen; and I can tell you, it hurts. You be careful, young 'un. This cottage doesn't lend itself to dash."

    Robina had fallen down with a tray in her hand. She said that never should she forget the horror of that moment, when, sitting on the kitchen floor, she had cried to Dick——her own voice sounding to her as if it came from somewhere quite far off: "Is it broken? Tell me the truth. Is it broken anywhere?" and Dick had replied: "Broken! why, it's smashed to atoms. What did you expect?" Robina had asked the question with reference to her head, while Dick had thought she was alluding to the teapot. In that moment, had said Robina, her whole life had passed before her. She let Veronica feel the bump.

    Veronica was disappointed with the bump, having expected something bigger, but had promised to be careful. We had all agreed that if in spite of our warnings she forgot, and came blundering down in the morning, it would serve her right. It was thinking of all this that, as I lay upon the floor, made me feel angry with everybody. I hate people who can sleep through noises that wake me up. Why was I the only person in the house to be disturbed? Dick's room was round the corner; there was some excuse for him. But Robina and Veronica's window looked straight down upon the cow. If Robina and Veronica were not a couple of logs, the cow would have aroused them. We should have discussed the matter with the door ajar. Robina would have said, "Whatever you do, be careful of the stairs, Pa," and I should have remembered. The modern child appears to me to have no feeling for its parent.

    I picked myself up and started for the door. The cow continued bellowing steadily. My whole anxiety was to get to her quickly and to hit her. But the door took more finding than I could have believed possible. The shutters were closed and the whole place was in pitch darkness. The idea had been to furnish this cottage only with things that were absolutely necessary, but the room appeared to me to be overcrowded. There was a milking-stool, which is a thing made purposely heavy so that it may not be easily upset. If I tumbled over it once I tumbled over it a dozen times. I got hold of it at last and carried it about with me. I thought I would use it to hit the cow——that is, when I had found the front-door. I knew it led out of the parlour, but could not recollect its exact position. I argued that if I kept along the wall I should be bound to come to it. I found the wall, and set off full of hope. I suppose the explanation was that, without knowing it, I must have started with the door, not the front-door, the other door, leading into the kitchen. I crept along, carefully feeling my way, and struck quite new things altogether——things I had no recollection of and that hit me in fresh places. I climbed over what I presumed to be a beer-barrel and landed among bottles; there were dozens upon dozens of them. To get away from these bottles I had to leave the wall; but I found it again, as I thought, and I felt along it for another half a dozen yards or so and then came again upon bottles: the room appeared to be paved with bottles. A little farther on I rolled over another beer-barrel: as a matter of fact it was the same beer- barrel, but I did not know this. At the time it seemed to me that Robina had made up her mind to run a public-house. found the milking-stool again and started afresh, and before I had gone a dozen steps was in among bottles again. Later on, in the broad daylight, it was easy enough to understand what had happened. I had been carefully feeling my way round and round a screen. I got so sick of these bottles and so tired of rolling over these everlasting beer- barrels, that I abandoned the wall and plunged boldly into space.

    I had barely started, when, looking up, I saw the sky above me: a star was twinkling just above my head. Had I been wide awake, and had the cow stopped bellowing for just one minute, I should have guessed that somehow or another I had got into a chimney. But as things were, the wonder and the mystery of it all appalled me. "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" would have appeared to me, at that moment, in the nature of a guide to travellers. Had a rocking-horse or a lobster suddenly appeared to me I should have sat and talked to it; and if it had not answered me I should have thought it sulky and been hurt. I took a step forward and the star disappeared, just as if somebody had blown it out. I was not surprised in the least. I was expecting anything to happen.

    I found a door and it opened quite easily. A wood was in front of me. I couldn't see any cow anywhere, but I still heard her. It all seemed quite natural. I would wander into the wood; most likely I should meet her there, and she would be smoking a pipe. In all probability she would know some poetry.

    With the fresh air my senses gradually came back to me, and I began to understand why it was I could not see the cow. The reason was that the house was between us. By some mysterious process I had been discharged into the back garden. I still had the milking-stool in my hand, but the cow no longer troubled me. Let her see if she could wake Veronica by merely bellowing outside the door; it was more than I had ever been able to do. I sat down on the stool and opened my note-book. I headed the page: "Sunrise in July: observations and emotions," and I wrote down at once, lest I should forget it, that towards three o'clock a faint light is discernible, and added that this light gets stronger as the time goes on.

    It sounded footling even to myself, but I had been reading a novel of the realistic school that had been greatly praised for its actuality. There is a demand in some quarters for this class of observation. I likewise made a note that the pigeon and the corncrake appear to be among the earliest of Nature's children to welcome the coming day; and added that the screech-owl may be heard, perhaps at its best, by anyone caring to rise for the purpose, some quarter of an hour before the dawn. That was all I could think of just then. As regards emotions, I did not seem to have any.

    I lit a pipe and waited for the sun. The sky in front of me was tinged with a faint pink. Every moment it flushed a deeper red. I maintain that anyone, not an expert, would have said that was the portion of the horizon on which to keep one's eye. I kept my eye upon it, but no sun appeared. I lit another pipe. The sky in front of me was now a blaze of glory. I scribbled a few lines, likening the scattered clouds to brides blushing at the approach of the bridegroom. That would have been all right if later on they hadn't begun to turn green: it seemed the wrong colour for a bride. Later on still they went yellow, and that spoilt the simile past hope. One cannot wax poetical about a bride who at the approach of the bridegroom turns first green and then yellow: you can only feel sorry for her. I waited some more. The sky in front of me grew paler every moment. I began to fear that something had happened to that sun. If I hadn't known so much astronomy I should have said that he had changed his mind and had gone back again. I rose with the idea of seeing into things. He had been up apparently for hours: he had got up at the back of me. It seemed to be nobody's fault. I put my pipe into my pocket and strolled round to the front. The cow was still there; she was pleased to see me, and started bellowing again.

    I heard a sound of whistling. It proceeded from a farmer's boy. I hailed him, and he climbed a gate and came to me across the field. He was a cheerful youth. He nodded to the cow and hoped she had had a good night: he pronounced it "nihet."

    "You know the cow?" I said.

    "Well," he explained, "we don't precisely move in the sime set. Sort o' business relytionship more like——if you understand me?"

    Something about this boy was worrying me. He did not seem like a real farmer's boy. But then nothing seemed quite real this morning. My feeling was to let things go.

    "Whose cow is it?" I asked.

    He stared at me.

    "I want to know to whom it belongs," I said. "I want to restore it to him."

    "Excuse me," said the boy, "but where do you live?"

    He was making me cross. "Where do I live?" I retorted. "Why, in this cottage. You don't think I've got up early and come from a distance to listen to this cow? Don't talk so much. Do you know whose cow it is, or don't you?"

    "It's your cow," said the boy.

    It was my turn to stare.

    "But I haven't got a cow," I told him.

    "Yus you have," he persisted; "you've got that cow."

    She had stopped bellowing for a moment. She was not the cow I felt I could ever take a pride in. At some time or another, quite recently, she must have sat down in some mud.

    "How did I get her?" I demanded.

    "The young lydy," explained the boy, "she came rahnd to our plice on Tuesday——"

    I began to see light. "An excitable young lady——talks very fast—— never waits for the answer?"

    "With jolly fine eyes," added the boy approvingly.

    "And she ordered a cow?"

    "Didn't seem to 'ave strength enough to live another dy withaht it."

    "Any stipulation made concerning the price of the cow?"

    "Any what?"

    "The young lady with the eyes——did she think to ask the price of the cow?"

    "No sordid details was entered into, so far as I could 'ear," replied the boy.

    They would not have been——by Robina.

    "Any hint let fall as to what the cow was wanted for?"

    "The lydy gives us to understand," said the boy, "that fresh milk was 'er idea."

    That surprised me: that was thoughtful of Robina. "And this is the cow?"

    "I towed her rahnd last night. I didn't knock at the door and tell yer abaht 'er, cos, to be quite frank with yer, there wasn't anybody in."

    "What is she bellowing for?" I asked.

    "Well," said the boy, "it's only a theory, o' course, but I should sy, from the look of 'er, that she wanted to be milked."

    "But it started bellowing at half-past two," I argued. "It doesn't expect to be milked at half-past two, does it?"

    "Meself," said the boy, "I've given up looking for sense in cows."

    In some unaccountable way this boy was hypnotising me. Everything had suddenly become out of place.

    The cow had suddenly become absurd: she ought to have been a milk- can. The wood struck me as neglected: there ought to have been notice-boards about, "Keep off the Grass," "Smoking Strictly Prohibited": there wasn't a seat to be seen. The cottage had surely got itself there by accident: where was the street? The birds were all out of their cages; everything was upside down.

    "Are you a real farmer's boy?" I asked him.

    "O' course I am," he answered. "What do yer tike me for——a hartist in disguise?"

    It came to me. "What is your name?"

    "'Enery——'Enery 'Opkins."

    "Where were you born?"

    "Camden Tahn."

    Here was a nice beginning to a rural life! What place could be the country while this boy Hopkins was about? He would have given to the Garden of Eden the atmosphere of an outlying suburb.

    "Do you want to earn an occasional shilling?" I put it to him.

    "I'd rather it come reggler," said Hopkins. "Better for me kerrickter."

    "You drop that Cockney accent and learn Berkshire, and I'll give you half a sovereign when you can talk it," I promised him. "Don't, for instance, say 'ain't,'" I explained to him. "Say 'bain't.' Don't say 'The young lydy, she came rahnd to our plice;' say 'The missy, 'er coomed down; 'er coomed, and 'er ses to the maister, 'er ses . . . ' That's the sort of thing I want to surround myself with here. When you informed me that the cow was mine, you should have said: 'Whoi, 'er be your cow, surelie 'er be.'"

    "Sure it's Berkshire?" demanded Hopkins. "You're confident about it?" There is a type that is by nature suspicious.

    "It may not be Berkshire pure and undefiled," I admitted. "It is what in literature we term 'dialect.' It does for most places outside the twelve-mile radius. The object is to convey a feeling of rustic simplicity. Anyhow, it isn't Camden Town."

    I started him with a shilling then and there to encourage him. He promised to come round in the evening for one or two books, written by friends of mine, that I reckoned would be of help to him; and I returned to the cottage and set to work to rouse Robina. Her tone was apologetic. She had got the notion into her head that I had been calling her for quite a long time. I explained that this was not the case.

    "How funny!" she answered. "I said to Veronica more than an hour ago: 'I'm sure that's Pa calling us.' I suppose I must have been dreaming."

    "Well, don't dream any more," I suggested. "Come down and see to this confounded cow of yours."

    "Oh," said Veronica, "has it come?"

    "It has come," I told her. "As a matter of fact, it has been here some time. It ought to have been milked four hours ago, according to its own idea."

    Robina said she would be down in a minute.

    She was down in twenty-five, which was sooner than I had expected. She brought Veronica with her. She said she would have been down sooner if she had not waited for Veronica. It appeared that this was just precisely what Veronica had been telling her. I was feeling irritable. had been up half a day, and hadn't had my breakfast.

    "Don't stand there arguing," I told them. "For goodness' sake let's get to work and milk this cow. We shall have the poor creature dying on our hands if we're not careful."

    Robina was wandering round the room.

    "You haven't come across a milking-stool anywhere, have you, Pa?" asked Robina.

    "I have come across your milking-stool, I estimate, some thirteen times," I told her. I fetched it from where I had left it, and gave it to her; and we filed out in procession; Veronica with a galvanised iron bucket bringing up the rear.

    The problem that was forcing itself upon my mind was: did Robina know how to milk a cow? Robina, I argued, the idea once in her mind, would immediately have ordered a cow, clamouring for it——as Hopkins had picturesquely expressed it——as though she had not strength to live another day without a cow. Her next proceeding would have been to buy a milking-stool. It was a tasteful milking-stool, this one she had selected, ornamented with the rough drawing of a cow in poker work: a little too solid for my taste, but one that I should say would wear well. The pail she had not as yet had time to see about. This galvanised bucket we were using was, I took it, a temporary makeshift. When Robina had leisure she would go into the town and purchase something at an art stores. That, to complete the scheme, she would have done well to have taken a few practical lessons in milking would come to her, as an inspiration, with the arrival of the cow. I noticed that Robina's steps as we approached the cow were less elastic. Just outside the cow Robina halted.

    "I suppose," said Robina, "there's only one way of milking a cow?"

    "There may be fancy ways," I answered, "necessary to you if later on you think of entering a competition. This morning, seeing we are late, I shouldn't worry too much about style. If I were you, this morning I should adopt the ordinary unimaginative method, and aim only at results."

    Robina sat down and placed her bucket underneath the cow. "I suppose," said Robina, "it doesn't matter which——which one I begin with?"

    It was perfectly plain she hadn't the least notion how to milk a cow. I told her so, adding comments. Now and then a little fatherly talk does good. As a rule I have to work myself up for these occasions. This morning I was feeling fairly fit: things had conspired to this end. I put before Robina the aims and privileges of the household fairy as they appeared, not to her, but to me. I also confided to Veronica the result of many weeks' reflections concerning her and her behaviour. I also told them both what I thought about Dick. I do this sort of thing once every six months: it has an excellent effect for about three days.

    Robina wiped away her tears, and seized the first one that came to her hand. The cow, without saying a word, kicked over the empty bucket, and walked away, disgust expressed in every hair of her body. Robina, crying quietly, followed her. By patting her on her neck, and letting her wipe her nose upon my coat——which seemed to comfort her——I persuaded her to keep still while Robina worked for ten minutes at high pressure. The result was about a glassful and a half, the cow's capacity, to all appearance, being by this time some five or six gallons.

    Robina broke down, and acknowledged she had been a wicked girl. If the cow died, so she said, she should never forgive herself. Veronica at this burst into tears also; and the cow, whether moved afresh by her own troubles or by theirs, commenced again to bellow. I was fortunately able to find an elderly labourer smoking a pipe and eating bacon underneath a tree; and with him I bargained that for a shilling a day he should milk the cow till further notice.

    We left him busy, and returned to the cottage. Dick met us at the door with a cheery "Good morning." He wanted to know if we had heard the storm. He also wanted to know when breakfast would be ready. Robina thought that happy event would be shortly after he had boiled the kettle and made the tea and fried the bacon, while Veronica was laying the table.

    "But I thought——"

    Robina said that if he dared to mention the word "household-fairy" she would box his ears, and go straight up to bed, and leave everybody to do everything. She said she meant it. Dick has one virtue: it is philosophy. "Come on, young 'un," said

    Dick to Veronica. "Trouble is good for us all." "Some of us," said Veronica, "it makes bitter." We sat down to breakfast at eight-thirty.

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