A SUNDAY AFTERNOON IN JUNECategory: Land + People
…So Slim went on towards Willow End, walking jauntily, but with some haste past the quarry cottage, and keeping an eye fixed on the garden gate. He heard the bark of a black retriever that his father had bought at Leatherbridge a few weeks ago.
“Lie down, will yer, lie down!”
Slim felt the familiar furtive feeling sweep over him at the sound of Sam WetherelPs bullying blare of a voice. He hurried on past the month of the quarry, disowning any inclination he had felt to show off his new clothes before his father.
Willow End was a green and placid place hidden away among dim green meadows. It lay along the bank of a brook where marsh marigolds blazed in spring, and the purple willowherb and loosestrife in late summer and autumn. Brown water-rats swam in the brook, and lived in the overhanging banks amid the roots of the willows. These tristful trees grew by hundreds about the sleepy meadows, letting their grey-green locks wave in the wind when it blew strongly down the valley. Here and there were aspen groves that would break out into sudden, perturbed mutterings on the stillest day in summer. Westwards the towers of Pool Castle could be seen black and strange against the sunset.
There wTere cattle in the meadows, fat, glossy, somnolent beasts who stood under the willows and whisked their tails to ward off the flies. Many of the fields were all tawny and purple with the ripening hay and the wind would send waves sweeping over the long grass.
Willow End itself was a chain of queer cottages strung along a curve of the brook. Some were thatched; others tiled and blazoned with lichens and stonecrops. They were sleepy, small-eyed cottages that seemed to meditate among flowers, for the folk at Willow End were fond of their gardens. In spring the old black soil would be covered with anemones, polyanthuses, hyacinths, tulips, and white alyssum, as with sleek and gorgeous damasks. Roses were — just roses. The herbaceous stuff grew rich and strong, blue delphiniums in noble spires, phloxes the colour of plumjuice and of milk. Sleepy, dewy growth seemed everywhere. Willow End had laid itself down in a valley, and let the green foam come plashing against its walls and windows.
An uneasy self-consciousness showed itself in Slim by the time he reached the aspen wood at the western end of the hamlet. He stopped to dust his boots, and seemed concerned about his tie. The brook touched the road here, in the shape of a shallow pool, and Slim took advantage of this Venus’ mirror. He bent over his own reflection in the water, took off his cap, dipped a hand and plastered his hair. The lad’s elaborate carefulness suggested that the romantic spirit had only waited for its opportunity. Slim’s vernal splendour had begun to blossom in three short weeks. The Marchants’ cottage was the first on the left as one came from Ashhurst. It had a thorn hedge, white palings in front of the little flower garden, drying-posts, lattices, and a green front door. It was a fat old apple-woman of a cottage, big-bosomed and comely. Its little grey eyes looked at Slim and twinkled from behind a big rose bush and a couple of trimmed yews.
Slim made a call upon his courage. He was hesitating with his hand on the gate in the white fence when he saw a pink thing moving just above the top of the thorn hedge. This pink thing fascinated Slim, and he stood and stared at it as a pious young Jew might have stared at a miraculous flame rising from a burning bush.
“My word — !”
He heard a sound of laughter, and a white figure appeared round the end of the thorn hedge.
“Why if it isn’t young Wetherell! What are you doing down here at Willow End?”
Slim tapped the fence with his cane. He was conscious of a pair of mischievous eyes that romped all over him from cap to trousers. Miss Ida Merchant took note of every detail — at her leisure. And to Slim it seemed a marvellous and incredible thing that he should be standing within two yards of Ida Marchant on a Sunday afternoon in June. But why it should be so marvellous and so strange, he was at a loss to say.
Now, the girl was on tip-toe with curiosity, but she showed none of her eagerness to Slim. She had heard sensational rumours concerning him, that he had broken his father’s head, and been-taken into the stables at Furze Hall. The noisy newness of Slim’s clothes proved that some phenomenal thing had happened.
“Come for a walk,” said Slim, gruff with nervousness.
“Yes. Why not?”
She laughed at him.
“Suppose I’m going for a walk with somebody else.”
“But you ain’t; are you?”
Miss Marchant resented the insinuation that she was unbesought by multitudes of males.
“I only go out as a great favour. There are such a lot of silly chaps who worry a girl so.”
“Of course,” said Slim. “I’d count myself lucky. I’ve come all the way down from Ashhurst.”
Slim had lost all his cunning in the presence of his beloved. He was a shorn Samson. He laid his heart bare before Miss Ida Marchant and let her strike where she would.
“Well, I might go as far as Burnt Barn.”
Slim made haste to open the gate.
“It be a rare fine day,” he said.
“That’s news, isn’t it!” quoth the girl.
They started off side by side between the sleepy cottages, Miss Marchant silent and demure, with not a single dimple in action. The afternoon was hot and drowsy, and no one seemed in the mood to hang over garden gates and gossip. Sloth possessed Willow End. Even a dog lying near the old pump by the Meeting House got up and scratched himself languidly when necessity bit too fiercely into his skin. There were no loungers on the bench under the big chestnut by the inn.
Miss Marchant had opened a pink sunshade, and she was wearing white cotton gloves. Slim looked askance at this splendour, and a blight of shyness fell upon him. He twiddled his cane, glanced at the girl’s demure profile out of the corner of one eye, and tried to think of something to say. This decent, sedate, Sabbath silence oppressed him. He would have given sixpence to have heard Ida Marchant break into a giggle,
“Cutting hay yet?”
Slim felt, “Oh — drat it!” His own ineffectualness annoyed him. Had . he dressed with such nicety, and trudged all the way from Ashhurst in order to make fatuous remarks about hay! He must make an effort to break the spell.
“Well, how are you Ida?”
“I’m very well, thank you, Slim.”
“That’s all right.”
“Yes. My appetite couldn’t be better.”
Slim glanced at her suspiciously, but her face was as serious as the Meeting House door.
They took the field path that began at the “kissing gate” beyond the Forge, and their way lay across meadows. The long, purple-headed grasses were very still, and the only movement was the movement of winged things that hummed and fluttered. Slim knocked off daisy heads with his stick. The pink sunshade still suggested queenliness and the height of fashion. The silence was becoming abominably oppressive.
A queer brown-backed cottage with its chimney all askew, peered at them over a high thorn hedge. The air became suddenly full of the nasal bleating of an accordion. Then, like a cork out of a bottle, a woman’s voice burst into song, the opening note sounding like the yell of a huckster shouting in an alley.
“Jesus loves me —”
It was an emphatic, fierce, and assertive scream, with the accordion wheezing and sneering furiously.
Slim caught Ida Merchant’s eyes, and went off into hysterical gurgles. The voice broken his spell of shyness.
“My word — does He!”
“Ssht — you bad —”
“Jesus loves her! Oh, I say! What about —”
The hymning yells broke, and diverged into mere mundane declamation.
“Cissy — Cissy, you dirty little devil — you come out o’that there ditch, or Г11 smack yer!”
Slim whispered with an air of incredulous awe. “And Jesus loves her!”
Ida Marchant gave him a buffet with her sunshade.
“Shut up. Don’t be blasphemous.”
“I wasn’t. Who be it? My, what a squealer!”
“Only Sally Soames. She’s got a voice.”
“No, reely! She sits among the cabbiges, and warbles! If I were — you know who — ”
“Slim, stop it. Behave yourself.”
“Don’t you see the fun of it?”
Miss Ida did. They went on with splutterings of laughter. As for that “dirty little devil” Cissy, she must have ascended out of the ditch, for the voice flew up again into a thrilling yell.
The spell of Slim’s shyness had been broken. Ida Marchant’s pink sunshade had pushed his cap askew. He readjusted it, and then began to talk…
(From Fox Farm by W. Deeping)