The House in Dormer Forest - Mary Webb - ebook

The House in Dormer Forest ebook

Mary Webb

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Opis

In this dense novel, the house in which the Darke family exists apparently has its own impassive but claustrophobic influence on the family, which, in turn, tied itself up too quickly in its network of special hate agreements and connections. Jasper fights against his religion, Ruby is trapped between her need for conventions and her own desires, and Peter is forced to rebel.

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Liczba stron: 390

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Contents

BOOK ONE

CHAPTER ONE: Dormer

CHAPTER TWO: The Family at Supper

CHAPTER THREE: Jasper Comes Home

CHAPTER FOUR: Night in Dormer

CHAPTER FIVE: Family Prayers

CHAPTER SIX: The Advent of Ernest

CHAPTER SEVEN: Harvest Preparations

CHAPTER EIGHT: Ernest Speaks

CHAPTER NINE: How They Went to the Keep

CHAPTER TEN: The Wedding

CHAPTER ELEVEN: Marigold’s Warning

CHAPTER TWELVE: The Grotto

CHAPTER THIRTEEN: The Beast Walk

BOOK TWO

CHAPTER FOURTEEN: The Upper Woods

CHAPTER FIFTEEN: Mr. Cantlop Comes Home

CHAPTER SIXTEEN: Peter’s Letter

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN: The Gods Assemble

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN: Jasper Breaks Pasture

CHAPTER NINETEEN: Philip Arkinstall Smiles

CHAPTER TWENTY: The Marble Christ

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE: Amber Goes to the Forest

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO: Funeral Preparations

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE: Mr. Cantlop achieves Fame

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR: A Forest Bridal

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE: Grandmother has an Inspiration

BOOK ONE

CHAPTER ONE: Dormer

Dormer Old House stood amid the remnants of primeval woodland that curtained the hills. These rose steeply on all sides of the house, which lay low by the water in the valley. This was called Oolert’s Dingle, and there were plenty of owls to justify the name. On a moonlit night, passing, high up, from side to side of the cuplike valley, they looked like breeze-blown feathers. Higher still, on the very rim of the cup, the far-travelled winds shouted across to one another, all winter, news of the world. When the bats slipped from their purlieus in the cobwebby outbuildings and climbed toward this rim, they had to ascend step after grey step of the windless air, and only attained their ambition after long flying.

From these heights, in fine weather, the house and its gardens lay open to the view, small but clear, beside the white thread that was Dormer brook. The place had been patched and enlarged by successive generations, very much as man’s ideas are altered, the result in both cases being the same–a mansion to the majority, a prison to the few. On clear evenings, when the westering sun struck up the valley and set the windows on fire, one could see the centuries in the house, like ferns in a fossil. There was the timbered black-and-white centre, once the complete house, with diamond lattices and the unassuming solidity of an Elizabethan manor; there was the small Queen Anne wing on the left–one room down and two up–built by a rich ancestor of the Darke family; there was the solemn, Georgian porch with its rounded, shell-like roof and Grecian pillars. The right wing, hideously stuccoed, consisted of one large room with many-paned sash-windows and a steep red roof, and had been built by the father of Solomon Darke, the present owner. At the back, perilously clinging to the Elizabethan farm, was an ancient cottage, which seemed to be the nucleus of the whole, and was built of stone and thatched. When the ambitious Elizabethan set about building his manor, no doubt the two bottle-glass windows of this cottage eyed him reproachfully, as a Vandal and a despiser of his ancestors. It was neglected now, and remained, weighed down by the large-leaved ivy, haunted by its whisper year after year, and used only by Enoch, the gardener, who stored apples there, and by the mice, who consumed the apples. The house, as a whole, had something of a malignant air, as of an old ruler from whom senility takes the power, but not the will, for tyranny.

All these things you could see in clear weather; but when it was misty–and mist lingered here as of inalienable right–the house was obliterated. It vanished like a pebble in a well, with all its cabined and shuttered wraths and woes, all its thunderous “thou shalt nots.’ At such times it did not seem that any law ruled in the valley except the law of the white owls and the hasty water and the mazy bat-dances. Only those who slept there night by night could tell you that the house was overspread with a spider’s-web of rules, legends and customs so complex as to render the individual soul almost helpless. It is the mass-ego that constructs dogmas and laws; for while the individual soul is, if free at all, self-poised, the mass-mind is always uncertain, driven by vague, wandering aims; conscious, in a dim fashion, of its own weakness, it builds round itself a grotesque structure in the everlastingness of which it implicitly believes. When each unit of humanity merges itself in the mass, it loses its bearings and must rely on externals. The whole effort of evolution is to the development of individual souls who will dare to be free of the architecture of crowd-morality. For when man is herded, he remembers the savage.

Round the House of Dormer stood the forest, austerely aloof. The upper woods had never known the shuddering horror of the axe, the bitter and incurable destruction of the day when gnomes of ugly aspect are let loose with flashing weapons among the haughty sons and daughters of the gods, hacking and tearing at the steadfast forms of beauty, until beauty itself seems to have crashed earthwards. Successive Darkes had threatened to fell the forest; but there was always plenty of wood from the reaping of the storms and from trees that fell from the rottenness of great age; so they had let it alone. The trees looked down upon time-shattered hulks of others in every stage of gentle decay. There were some mouldered trunks yet standing with a twig or two of green on them, especially among the yews, which must have weathered the winters of a thousand years. Others were of such antiquity that only a jagged point showed where once the leaf-shadows flickered on the wolf litters. Among these giants in their prime and in their dignified dissolution rose on all sides in supple grace the young trees and saplings. From the lissom creature that only needed the gradual massing of maturity to make its beauty perfect, down to the baby stem with two absurd, proudly-waving leaves, all took part in that slow attainment of perfection through stages of beauty on which all Nature seems intent. They stood, rank on rank, with rounded or pointed tops, their foliage sometimes heavy and solemn, as in the yew and the oak, sometimes fluffy as in the elm, or transparent and showing the sky through its traceries as in birch and larch. They seemed to peer at the house over one another’s shoulders like people looking at something grotesque, not with blame or praise, but in a kind of disdainful indifference.

For it does not seem that Nature, as some divines would have us think, was built to stage man’s miracle plays, or created as an illustration of his various religions. Nature takes no account of man and his curious arts, his weird worships, but remains dark and unresponsive, beetling upon him as he creeps, ant-like, from his momentary past to his doubtful future, painfully carrying his tiny load of knowledge. But indifference is not hampering, as interference is; therefore those that feel within them the stir of a growing soul prefer the dour laws of earth to the drag of the herd of mankind, and fly from the house of man to the forest, where the emotionless silence always seems to be gathering, as waves mount and swell, to the disclosure of a mystery.

CHAPTER TWO: The Family at Supper

The Darkes had just finished supper, the event of the day. The red woollen bell-rope still swung from Peter’s onslaught; for when, at Mrs. Darke’s morose order, “Ring for Sarah,’ he kicked his chair aside and strode across the room, he always seemed to wreak a suppressed fury on the bell-rope, and more than once the tarnished rose to which it hung had been torn from the wall.

“The room. Drat it!’ said Sarah in the kitchen, like a person proposing a toast.

Armed with a large tin tray, she burst into the dining-room. Clearing was, in her hands, a belligerent enterprise in which her usual sulky manner in the presence of her mistress gave place to more open hostility. She wrested the plates from their owners, and had been known to leave Ruby, who liked two helpings, stranded, with no plate for her last fruit stones. To-night it was Mr. Darke who cried, “Howd yer, Sarah!’ and clung to his plate.

“Don’t say “Howd yer!” like any old waggoner, Solomon!’ Mrs. Darke spoke with exasperation.

“Waggoner, Solomon!’ echoed a less irritated, thinner, more tiresome voice, that of Mrs. Darke’s mother, Mrs. Velindre.

Solomon Darke, a man of sixty, sat with his shoulders bent; his jaw, of the kind sometimes called “jowl,’ rested on his Gladstone collar and large “made’ tie. The expressionless heaviness of his face was redeemed by something of the patience of oxen, and rendered intimidating by a hint of the bull-dog in the mouth’s ferocious tenacity. It was obvious that his one idea in any crisis would be to resort to physical force. Between him and Peter sat Catherine Velindre, a distant relation who lived at Dormer as a paying guest, calling Solomon and his wife “uncle’ and “aunt’ as terms of respect. Her pointed face, her chestnut hair, demurely parted and pinned round her head in a large plait, her small and thin-lipped mouth, might have belonged to a Chaucerian nun. But her eyes were not those of a nun; they were too restless. They were peculiarly long, of the type called almond-shaped, with very little curve in them; the lids, being large and heavily-lashed, added to the air of secrecy and awareness that was Catherine Velindre’s chief expression.

In extreme contrast with Catherine were Ruby Darke, a tall, plump, pretty girl of eighteen who was sprawling across the table, and her elder sister, Amber, who was in no way a success according to Dormer standards. Her manner, when she was at ease, had charm, but it was spoilt by shyness. Her hair was of an indeterminate brown, and her complexion was ruined by ill-health, due to the perpetual chafing of the wistful mind longing for things not in Dormer.

Peter, black-eyed, silent in the presence of his parents, and–for all his twenty years–full of the sullenness of early adolescence, had the look of a creature gathered for a spring, but he was without sufficient concentration to know in what direction he wished to go or what he wanted to grasp. The air of repression which brooded over the family, putting a constraint on emotion and impulse, seemed to act as an irritant to Peter. He was vaguely aware of something inimical, as animals are, but he knew nothing about atmosphere and would have flushed scarlet if anyone had spoken to him of emotion.

Peter, Ruby, Amber and Jasper–who was not here to-night–came by their names in a curious way. Mrs. Darke had been so bored by the advent of each child (for she had married Solomon not because she loved him, but because she hated the Velindre household) that she had refused to think of any names for them. There had been many long silent conflicts when her husband sat, moody and obstinate, staring at the mute bundle in the majestic cradle which was a Darke heirloom, and saying at long intervals “Give it a name, Rachel!’

Mrs. Darke, equally obstinate, on her large sofa with its uncomfortable ornaments of carved mahogany leaves, silently tore calico. The argument, wordless on one side, always ended without a name having been found; and, though Solomon’s nerves were those of a ploughman, they at last became irritated by the harsh, regular tearing, and by that in his wife’s character which lay behind the tearing and caused it.

“What are you making, tearing so?’ he would ask angrily. And she would reply, like scissors snapping, “Binders!’

Afterwards Solomon generally took his gun and strolled towards the Rectory, which was at some distance from the church and the House of Dormer. The Rectory, a few cottages and an immense, overbearing rookery made up the village. Entering the Rector’s study with a couple of rabbits pendent in his hand, Solomon would say sheepishly:

“Give it a name, Rector!’

Now the Rector was an authority on seals and gems. Nobody knew why he had given his life to this study, but it was generally felt at Dormer that he was an honour to the village and must be known all over the world. As Mr. Mallow, the constable and chief member of the choir, said with unintentional irony, “The Rector’s got a powerful burden of learning, and he’s first in that line, no danger, for who else ever wanted to know about a stone?’

After these visits of Solomon the Rector would spend a happy morning, poring over his list of jewels, and–having dined frugally on the rabbits–would write a long, allusive letter to Solomon in beautiful pointed script. Solomon, having extracted the name from it, would light his pipe with it and say to his wife in an off-hand tone:

“What d’you think of Amber, Ruby, or Jasper?’

Whereupon Mrs. Darke said:

“That’s the Rector!’ and Solomon was very crestfallen.

Rachel Darke was grimly amused that her children should be called by the names of precious stones; but to protest would have been to upset her attitude of aloofness. Three gems headed the family, but, when the Rector suggested “Garnet’ for the fourth, Solomon rebelled and said:

“Call him Peter. It was good enough for his grandfather.’

The Rector comforted himself with the reflection that Peter, a rock, was only a jewel in the rough, and Peter had been true to this from his cradle. As Mrs. Cantlop, the Rector’s cousin, said with one of her helpless sighs, “Peter’s such a knobby baby!’ Mrs. Cantlop knew the children’s idiosyncrasies far better than Mrs. Darke did. She knew that Ruby could absorb the crudest paint from her toys and still flourish; that Amber, though an ailing child, was always ready to gurgle into laughter; that Jasper, even at the age of three, required reasons for obeying an order, and that he would, after pondering on them, behave “like a Christian lamb.’ She knew also, though neither Mrs. Darke nor Mrs. Velindre noticed it, that Catherine, from the moment of her first arrival–white-pinafored, reserved–ruled the nursery. Of all the children, Peter was most like his mother. He had the same long obstinate chin and the same smouldering black eyes.

To-night, while Sarah clattered at the sideboard, Mrs. Darke sat staring at the tablecloth, drumming on it with her long, restless fingers. She was just beyond the circle of lamp-light, and the dimness made her seem even taller than she was. Her thin lips, very pale and straight, were closed with almost painful firmness. Her forehead was covered with lines, both vertical and horizontal, and an expression of frigidity combined with exasperation made her face sinister.

Away from the table, in an arm-chair by the fire, sat Mrs. Velindre. She was grotesquely like her daughter. She had the same close-set black eyes, long pale face and lined forehead; but her eyes had no expression. If one penetrated them, there seemed to be something stealthily in wait behind them. It was like walking in a lonely wood and becoming aware of something running in and out among the trees, silent, invisible, and gradually being convinced that it is a ghost. There was a ghost hiding in Mrs. Velindre’s eyes–a cadaverous, grisly thing which had looked at her out of other people’s eyes when she was a child; slowly possessing her in womanhood; finally absorbing her whole personality–eating into it like a worm into a rotten fruit. As she sat, hour after hour, in her high, straight chair, with her white cap and black ringlets, two on each side, this ghost brooded with bat-like wings above her failing mind and endowed her with something of awe, something that proclaimed her kin to the ancient gods of vengeance and slaughter. For in her, more than in any other at Dormer, except her daughter, the herd panic, which drives man to be more cruel to his brother than are the wild beasts, held undisputed dominion. As a young woman she had known generous instincts, but now, at eighty, she could have refused without a qualm the request of a dying man, if he disagreed with her religious views. Yet she could scarcely be blamed. She had lived so long by fear and not by love, that her capacity for cruelty had grown in proportion to her capacity for panic. She had for so many years been trying to be like other people, that she was now like nothing in heaven or earth. For the more a soul conforms to the sanity of others, the more does it become insane. By continually doing violence to its own laws, it finally loses the power of governing itself. Mrs. Velindre, who was the oracle of the family, never used either intellect or intuition in giving her verdicts. She simply echoed her ancestors. If anything occurred without precedent in her tradition, she was flustered and incompetent, until she had found some text which could be made to bear on the question. Then she would give her ultimatum.

Beneath the hanging lamp, which lit the large room vaguely, the six faces, drawn in heavy chiaroscuro against the brown wall-paper, shone out dimly as from an old picture. They might have belonged to a pre-renaissance Italian family or a household newly converted to Calvinism. But though they might have belonged to any country or period, they could only, it was clear, belong to one spiritual atmosphere. Perhaps it was the weight of this atmosphere that gave the room its medieval gloom. For the kernel of medievalism was fear–of God, devils, man, and all the laws, customs and fetishes invented by man. And this antique negation seemed to find in the House of Dormer a congenial dwelling. Thick shadows clung to the ceiling like hovering night-birds, eliminating the corners and all furniture not within the lamp’s radius, obscuring detail and giving the room a measure of gloomy dignity.

“I wish Jasper would come!’ said Amber suddenly. “He’s late.’

“It would be almost better,’ said Mrs. Darke, “if Jasper never came at all.’

“Wicked! A wicked boy! Never came at all,’ muttered grandmother.

“He isn’t, grandmother!’ Amber was all on fire with wrath and love.

“Don’t contradict your elders,’ said Mrs. Darke. “It is very tiresome of Jasper, with Ernest taking the curacy here, to come home an infidel.’

“D’you mean to say we’ve got to have that fool Ernest living here?’ queried Solomon.

“I do. He is to be a paying guest.’

“Lord! The house’ll be like to bust.’

“Burst! Burst!’ corrected Mrs. Darke in exasperation.

“Burst!’ echoed grandmother from the fireside.

“Bust!’ repeated Solomon.

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