THE ROADCategory: Land + People
…England in May on a day when the bees found the cherry blossom very white and sweet in the sunshine, an England that was full of those faint perfumes that eschew the high roads. Bonthorn lit .a pipe, - and lying at ease in his deck-chair, felt himself part of the place and its loveliness. Yew End. The coral arils of the yew. The lane going up past his holly hedge to the secret meadows of Beech Farm. A green cleft under the blue sky and the white clouds. The long, golden buds of the beeches unfolding millions of emerald fans. High woods with bluebells thick in them and glimmering wind-flowers, and steep, grassy slopes brilliant with broom. Hedges ready to break into the blossom of the thorn, a fragrance that the wild honeysuckle would repeat. Bracken crooking through. The misty willows and murmuring aspens where the stream ran down to the Mill House. The great cediars of Stella Lacey, and its Scotch pines red-throated to the sunset. Birds. The complex confederation of the grasses, poas, fescues, foxtails. And behind him that funny old white cottage, with its green shutters, vines, roses, glycine, a low, lovable cottage, sitting rather like some white bird deep in a green nest. In the hall a clock went tick-tock as though it understood the relativity of time. The rooms had a kind of exquisite, faded dimness. [...]
Some thrush’s variant and over the grass the footsteps of Martha coming to clear away the tea. She had a quiet voice and quiet movements. She seemed to fit into his lonely life like a shadow into the hollow of a hedge.
She made a remark as she folded up the cloth, and it was to the effect that the London-Lignor road was noisier than usual. Bonthorn had not noticed it, but he supposed that it could be so.
“So long as they don’t come up our lane.”
Mrs Martha patted the cloth.
“No, we shouldn’t want them up here, should we? And us not daring to let the dog out of the gate. But I can remember that road on a Sunday, a few lads on bikes with bunches of flowers tied to the handlebars, and people going to church.” Bonthorn echoed her.
“People going to church! How strange!”
She tucked the cloth over an arm and picked up the tray.
“Sort of makes one feel old, sir. Not getting the feel of all these new things.”
“Yes, the feel of them. Need one?”
“But that road! Funny — the notions that come into one’s head. One used to walk on a road. There’s that story in the Bible about the legion of swine —”
“Not swine, Martha.”
Softly he laughed, and she remained there for a moment with the tray.
“Well, I tell you one thing, sir, that place down there is the new sort of church.”
“You mean the Mill House?”
“Sure-ly. Goings-on. Blue tables with pink cloths.”
“Yes, pink is provocative, Martha.”
“And yellow umbrellas, and a loud-speaker shouting, and all those young women and lads. If they serve one tea on a Sunday they serve a hundred. That’s Sunday.”
She made a kind of clucking noise and departed with the tray, and Bonthorn sat and listened to the distant discords of the London-Lignor road. It did not disturb him; it was too far away; in fact it seemed to emphasize the secrecy and the seclusion of his own celibate corner. Almost, it was like the hum of another planet, or some heated-meteoric phenomenon that would pass and burn itself out. [...]
Mrs Robinia Buck, being the Widow of one of His Majesty’s Civil Servants might have mounted the Lion and the Unicorn over the doorway of the Mill House at Monks Lacey. Honi soit qui mal У pense. Mrs Buck’s daughters, long-legged, comely young women, were too healthily modern to wear such a text upon their garters.
Black and purple. The colours blended well with the Misses Buck, who were both dark young women, and unlike their mother who was one of those neutral tinted persons about whom Nature had not been able to make up her mind, but the dominance of Buck had settled the inheritance by giving darkness to the daughters. As for the Mill House, it had ceased to be old English and to grind corn. A wheel had turned here when the monks of Stella Lacey had seen to it that their tenants carried their corn to be ground here at a price.
Now, there were other wheels, wire, steel disc and artillery, thousands upon thousands of wheels whirling to and fro along the black road. A hundred yards beyond the hedge a white notice-board warned the world:
YE OLD MILL HOUSE
Lunches. Teas. Petrol.
Robinia had been responsible for the “Ye”. Rhoda’s touch had persuaded the petrol pump to colour itself purple. Rachel, a little less Buckish than her sister, administered the flowers.
But on a Whit-Sunday with the sun shining! Two young women in black dresses and stockings and purple aprons rushing to and fro with trays, circulating among tables, growing at times a little short-tempered, and venting it upon each other.
“0, get out of my way!”
“Don’t be so touchy.”
They would meet outside the serving-hatch opening into the kitchen through which Robinia and a cottage girl, hired for the day, thrust trays upon which the china was white and purple. Rhoda was more strenuous than Rachel, more full of adjectival verve and colloquial back-chat. There were moments when Rachel dreamed and would lose herself in a passing contemplation of the water and the willows. There was in her a quality that her more vivid sister lacked. Her young audacity was tempered by sudden shadows of mystery, moments of indecision, by wonder at things. Her reactions were more sensitive and subtle than Rhode’s. Her face, slightly Mongolian, with high cheek-bones and nose broadening at the nostrils, sustained, with its large expressive mouth and brown eyes set rather wide under a low, straight forehead, a sensuous and pleasant appetite for life.
“Ceylon or China, please?”
The two girls differed in their asking of that question. Rhoda put it aggressively as though no person who possessed a car of any horse-power would deign to drink the washy, vapid decoction of Cathay. Rachel asked it more sympathetically and with the suggestion that particular people might have sensitive palates. Even in personal poise and the carrying of trays two sisters maintained their contrasts. Rachel had more lissom, sinuous movements. Rhoda strode, back well hollowed, and shoulders squared.
On this Sunday in the spring of the year, with a mild heat-wave confounding the weather forecast, the world was a world of wheels and of little tables. Cars were strung along the grass, and the old mill-yard was full of them. There were tables under the big chestnut tree by the bridge whose huge green canopy made the yellow umbrellas on the flagged space outside the Mill House look like trivial toadstools. The tea-room itself, cool and spacious, with its old beams browned, held all that it could carry. There was a faint haze over the river and the meadows, and the water ran like melted glass between the willows.
Rachel was not very well that day, but when your livelihood depends upon seizing the busy hour and rushing hither and thither with plates of bread and butter and cake and trays of crockery, the failings of the flesh have to be discounted. The day had brought a tempest of teas. People seemed a little impatient and very thirsty.
«Miss — hot water.”
Half the tables demanded additional hot water.
“Yes, in a minute.”
An impatient fellow with two dressy young women in tow, and a Bentley waiting in the yard, kept glancing at a wrist-watch.
Rachel tried to skid round him for there is an art in avoiding the overself-important.
“Yes, in a minute —”
“We’ve been sitting there twenty minutes. We want tea.”
He was emphatic, and he did not contradict him. He might have been static there for hours for all she knew. The day and its devoir were a little blurred to her, a moving mosaic of tables and yet more tables, of people who looked so alike, of bodies insinuated into pull-overs and jumpers, of heads in hats and without hats. It was one of those days when every table was a sort of impatient, white eye waiting to catch hers. The world on wheels was not a patient world. It had to work its way in the Sunday queue some fifty miles or so to some suburb. She was conscious of the noise of the road. It roared and clattered and detonated. It seemed to surge so close to the white posts and chairs in front of the Mill House grounds. The Georgian bridge was hog-backed and rather narrow. Everybody hooted there. Klaxons gulped. There were screams, trumpetings.
Someone pushed a chair back unexpectedly, and caught her foot. A tray crashed. A blue shoulder shrank in angry protest.
“Damn — !”
“I’m most awfully sorry —
Milk on crepe-de-chine! And the wearer truculent.
“You’ve spoilt my frock.”
“I’m most awfully sorry. Someone pushed a chair. If you’ll come inside —”
She felt a little dizzy, confused. What did you do for milk on crepe-de-chine? The stain might have been ink, for she was conscious of spots of blackness.
“If you’ll come inside —”
The retort was tart.
“No, thanks. I’ll have it cleaned and send you the bill. You’ve got too many tables here. Not room to move.”
A nice lad in a blue-and-white pull-over helped her with the debris. She went in rather unsteadily, passing Rhoda striding out with a tray in either hand, and looking as though she was going to confront the world and flout it.
“Mother’s calling. See — will you?”
The coolness of the old stone building welcomed her, But here were more tables, more faces, a beckoning hand or two.
She heard Mrs Binnie’s voice like a bit of bunting flapping in distress.
“Rachel! Rachel —!”
What next? Were they .out of milk as on that disastrous day last year? If you could keep a cow as you kept a petrol pump and just turn a handle!
She diverged towards the kitchen with the dishevelled tray. Someone tweaked her skirt. She was aware of a small child crying quietly at the table.
“A glass of milk, Miss.”
“Don’t be so silly, Gertie. Father won’t bring you out again.”
A small voice bleated: ‘Ts tired. I want t’go home.”
Again the voice of Mrs. Binnie: “Rachel, Rhoda —”
She found herself in the kitchen, and observing the hired girl sucking a bleeding finger. There was a dab of blood on the girl’s chin. A knife and a load of bread on a dresser suggested an explanation.
Mrs Binnie, looking as though she had been fighting a heath-fire on a hot day, uttered a wailing protest.
“Mary’s cut her finger. Bread and butter. We’re three plates behind. For God’s sake — girl —”
Rachel stood for an instant quite still. Qualms, blood, bread, that stolid young woman sucking a knuckle! The world became a blackness. The unfortunate tray suffered a second crash. She fainted.
(From The Road by W. Deeping)