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In The Whiteoak Brothers, the Jalna household is electric with secrecy and excited expectation. It is now 1923, and while young love blossoms between Pheasant and Piers, Aunt Augusta's friend, Dilly Warkworth, arrives at Jalna and tries to snare the heart of Renny. Eden, meets a persuasive mining broker whose new venture promises miracles. One by one, Eden persuades the other Whiteoaks to part with their savings – even old Adeline.
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Liczba stron: 419
Mazo de la Roche
THE WHITEOAK BROTHERS
For my children, René and Kim, with my love
As Finch Whiteoak was dressing that morning he noticed the change in his hands. Funny he never had noticed it before. They had, suddenly it seemed, as though overnight, grown long and thin, the fingers finely articulated, the knuckles more prominent, the thumb more individual. They looked like the hands that might do something worthwhile. He grinned at the thought that he should do anything worthwhile. Then he grew sober and straightened himself. This was the first day of March, his fifteenth birthday. It was natural that he should change. He wondered if possibly he might have the beginning of a beard, but when he ran his hand over his chin it felt smooth as an egg. Certainly he was growing fast, for his jackets were short in the sleeve and his trousers in the leg. When he considered his clothes he scowled. Was he never to have a brand new suit? Always he was forced to wear those which his brother Piers had outgrown, and by the time Piers had outgrown a suit, who would want it? Not Finch. He wanted a brand new suit.
Sunday morning was the regular morning for clean underthings, but as this was his birthday he would change today. He pulled off his socks that had holes in the heels, and opening the bottom drawer of the scarred chest of drawers, of which several of the wooden knobs were missing, he discovered clean socks and underclothes as well. These last had shrunk in the washing, so that when he had forced himself into them, he felt scarcely able to move. He performed a few stretching exercises to ease the discomfort, thereby making himself such a figure of fun that his brother Piers, who had just wakened up, gave a derisive chuckle. Piers would soon be nineteen.
Finch stiffened and demanded, “What’s the matter with you?”
“Me? What d’you mean?”
“You ought to see yourself.”
Finch’s voice came out loudly. “It’s not my fault if everything’s five sizes too small for me.”
Piers answered soothingly, “Dear me, no. And it’s not your fault you’re such a funny shape. But you can’t expect me not to laugh.”
“You’d laugh,” said Finch bitterly, “at your grandmother — if you dared.”
“I have a cheerful disposition and you help me to keep the way.”
Piers raised himself on his elbow, his pink and white face suddenly serious. “You’re not being cheeky, I hope.”
There was silence from Finch, as he began to put on his shoes.
“No,” muttered Finch. He knew better than to be cheeky to Piers. Anyhow it was his birthday. He ought to be in a good mood. And perhaps Piers had a present for him. He remembered that on his last birthday Piers had given him something. What had it been? Oh, yes, a necktie, a quite decent one. It was still one of his best. He thought he would put it on this morning. It would be a sort of polite thing to do. It would remind Piers that this was his birthday. Strange that Piers had not remarked the day, because he was one who generally gave you a hard smack for every year and a terrific one “to grow on.” He glanced at his brother to see if he were noticing the tie but Piers had sunk on to his pillow again and closed his eyes. He was enjoying his Saturday freedom from school. He had that look of blissful carefreeness on his healthy face that Finch both envied and distrusted. He envied it because he knew that never could he achieve that look and he distrusted it because it sometimes was the forerunner of a teasing mood. He stood staring at Piers for a space, the tie in his hand. Then he saw that Piers had abruptly fallen asleep again, in that way he had, as though he could sleep or wake at will.
Fifteen seemed, in some way, a landmark to Finch. He felt that he was different. He was no longer a kid. There was a certain dignity attached to the fifteenth birthday. Why, in just six years more he would be of age. What would he be like then, he wondered. A very different sort of fellow from what he was today. He put back his shoulders and held himself very straight. But only for a moment. It really was too much effort the first thing in the morning.
And what a morning! An icy rain was beating on the panes, running down in dreary rivulets to form a pool on the sill. The old cedar tree close to the window looked as though it had been lifted dripping from a pool. Surely no rain could make it quite so wet. Beyond it he could see the blurred shape of the stables and the figure of a stableman running towards them. Benny, the English sheepdog, was walking tranquilly toward the house, as though he didn’t give a fig for the rain…. What a day for a birthday! And yet Finch had, deep down in him, that delicious feeling of excitement.
He poured the water in which Piers had washed his hands last night into the slop bowl. He poured fresh water from the ewer into the basin, noticing with distaste the grimy rim round its edge where the wash water had been. Now he splashed the fresh cold water over his face, passed his wet hands across his lank light-brown hair, and made a pretence of drying himself. Why the hell did Piers have to use his towel as well as his own, and drop them both on the floor? He wondered whether or not he would brush his teeth and decided against it.
He wished someone would give him new hairbrushes and a comb. Certainly these were dilapidated. He couldn’t even remember whom they had belonged to or how long he had had them, and he could remember a long way back. His hair looked nice and moist and sleek when he had finished with it but, by the time he had finished dressing, that unruly lock was out of place and falling stiffly over his forehead. He cleaned his nails, then, with an eager feeling deep inside him, went forth to meet his birthday.
At the top of the stairs he hesitated to look in at Eden, asleep on his back. Always he left his bedroom door wide open. His arms were thrown above his head, and his hair, of a bright gold, lay tossed against the pillow. There was something in the sight of Eden lying there that made Finch feel uneasy, almost sad. But then there was something sort of sad about anybody lying fast asleep. Even Eden had a look almost of humility, as though he were sorry for having been suspended from the university last term and would never, never do anything wrong again. Yet the moment his eyes were open that look would be gone, and he’d not be pleased to find Finch staring in at him. Finch wondered if Eden had a present for him.
In the passage he met his sister Meg, leading the youngest member of the family by the hand. Why should she lead as though he were a baby, when he would be seven next June? Why should she dress him and fuss over his hair and spoil him in every possible way? There were others who could do with a little more attention than they got.
“Why, Finch dear,” Meg said reproachfully, “why in the world have you put on your Sunday suit? It’s only Saturday. Did you get mixed up in the days, dear?”
He had a mind to shout back, “It’s my birthday, isn’t it? A fellow has a right to wear his best suit on his birthday, hasn’t he?” But he said nothing. He just stared at her with his mouth open.
Little Wakefield tugged at Meg’s hand. “I want my brekkus. I want my brekkus,” he said, in the whiny voice he kept especially for his sister.
“Listen, Finch.” Meg spoke in a reasoning way. “Listen, dear. I want you to go back and take off that suit. It’s been all freshly sponged and pressed. I don’t want you to get spots on it. So do, like a good boy….”
Finch turned from her and ran up the stairs. “All right,” he called back, his voice breaking in anger, “I’ll change, I’ll come down in my old rags. Don’t worry.”
Meg raised her blue eyes to him in wonder. “What a temper to get in, dear! If Renny heard you I don’t know what he’d say.”
“He’d give him a clip on the ear,” put in Wakefield, turning suddenly from a baby into a horrid small boy.
“You shut up,” called down Finch.
Now Wakefield was a real little gamin. “Shut up yourself!” he yelled.
“I will not have such rudeness from either of you,” Meg was saying. She grasped the little boy’s hand more firmly and began to descend the stairs into the hall below.
Finch fervently hoped he would not have to change his suit with Piers’s laughing eyes on him. Thankfully he saw that Eden had only been enough disturbed to make him roll over on his face. Piers was still fast asleep, one hand cradling a pink cheek. Tremblingly Finch jerked off jacket, waistcoat, and trousers. As they sank to the floor he gave them a savage kick. He was ashamed and worried by his own temper. From the clothes cupboard he got his most disreputable trousers, the ones with the paint stains on the knees, and an old grey pullover with holes in the elbows. If Meg wanted to see him shabby on his birthday he certainly would give her that pleasure. He couldn’t understand Meg. She was always after him for his untidiness, yet, when he made himself really tidy, she was after him again.
The rain was coming down harder than ever. That spot in the ceiling was beginning to leak again. He would let it leak. It would serve Meggie right, serve Piers right when he stepped into a puddle. But halfway down the stairs he thought better of it. “Gosh,” he thought, “if I was setting out to do a murder, I’d not be able to finish the job. I’d leave the fellow just half-killed.” He ran back up the stairs, emptied his wash water from the basin and placed it beneath the falling drops. He stood motionless, listening to them as they fell. At first they made almost no sound. Then as a little pool formed, they fell into it with the pleasantest sound. Not just a tinkle but a sweet cadence, like the beginning of a little tune. He stood with head bent, his long light eyes rapt in listening.
Piers opened his eyes, took one look at the basin and rolled over with a groan.
Downstairs in the dining room four of the family were at breakfast — Meg who was taking nothing but tea and a sliver of toast, young Wakefield who was making miniature canals and lakes in his plate of porridge and milk, and the two uncles, Nicholas and Ernest Whiteoak, who were eating heartily of bacon and eggs. All four raised their eyes to Finch as he appeared in the doorway. The uncles said good morning, but no one spoke of his birthday. He sank into his chair and drooped there. Nicholas and Ernest went on with a discussion of the increase in taxation in England since the war. As they had spent the greater part and by far the most enjoyable part of their lives there, even though Nicholas’s marriage to an Englishwoman had ended in divorce, their interests and their conversation turned often to London and their past pleasures. There they had spent their patrimony, their prime, returning to Jalna when their bank accounts dwindled and receiving from their younger brother, Philip, who had inherited the property, a generous and warm-hearted welcome.
Ernest was at this time just under seventy and Nicholas just over it, fine-looking men with an elegance quite unusual in these days, though Nicholas was tending more and more toward allowing his thick black hair, that was streaked with grey, to grow too long, and to being a bit careless about his cigar ashes. But Ernest was immaculate, looking, as his nephews said, always ready to go anywhere. He thought of himself as intellectual and spent a large part of his time in reading Shakespeare and books about Shakespeare, though he had a tendency to forget what he had read. Nicholas could play the piano quite well and, if he had not been too much preoccupied with other matters in his youth, might have become a very good musician. Now he had an old square piano upstairs in his bedroom and played on it almost every evening. He did not like the tone of the piano in the drawing-room so well, he said. In fact his fingers were getting somewhat stiff from arthritis and a gouty knee caused him to limp a little. But he enjoyed his food. All the Whiteoak family enjoyed their food, with the apparent exception of Meg, though even she could make a clean sweep of a tempting tray when she had it alone in her own room.
Finch helped himself from the bowl of hot porridge and poured milk over it, closely observed by Wakefield.
“What are you staring at?” demanded Finch.
Meg interposed, “Eat your porridge, darling.”
“I don’t want it.”
“Aren’t you well?” At once her voice had an anxious tone. She scrutinized his pointed, rather sallow face.
“What he needs,” said Nicholas, “is a little wholesome neglect.”
“Oh, Uncle Nicholas, you know very well that Wake could never have lived if I had not watched over him so carefully.”
“Very true indeed,” agreed Ernest.
The little boy looked languidly from one face to the other, savouring his delicacy.
A quick step sounded in the hall and the master of Jalna came into the room, followed by three dogs, two Clumber spaniels and the English sheepdog.
“The dogs!” cried Meg. “They must be dripping!”
“Not they,” returned their master. “They know that this weather isn’t fit for a dog. It’s a filthy day and no mistake.” He laid his fingers against his sister’s warm white neck for a moment, then, with a good morning to his uncles, went to his place at the head of the table, the dogs majestically ranging themselves on either side of him.
Ernest Whiteoak was of a fastidious nature. He was conscious not only of a pleasant clean smell of Windsor soap from his eldest nephew but also of a slight smell of the stables, and from the coats of the dogs their characteristic odour. He took out his handkerchief and sniffed the pure scent of Vapex from it.
Renny gave him a quick look. “A cold Uncle Ernest?”
“No, no. I just use a little Vapex on my handkerchief. As a protection. Nothing more.”
“Good.” Renny helped himself to porridge and added, “It’s a bad time for colds and, as I said, this is a filthy day.” He turned to Finch. “I guess you’re glad you don’t have to go to school. It’s Saturday, isn’t it?”
Finch longed to shout, “It’s my birthday, that’s what it is! And nobody has the decency to remember it.” But he looked glumly at his plate with a muttered assent.
His Uncle Ernest eyed him with mild disapproval.
“It is a good thing,” he said, “to form the habit in youth of getting up cheerful in the morning. I formed that habit many years ago and I have found it beneficial to my own health and to the comfort of those about me.”
“Yes, indeed, Uncle Ernest,” agreed Meg, “you are an example to everyone.”
“I’m cheerful,” piped Wakefield. “But I can’t eat this porridge. Would you like to have it, Finch?”
Finch gave him a quelling look and applied himself morosely to his own.
Nicholas wiped his drooping iron-grey moustache on an enormous linen table-napkin. “I’m glad,” he said, “that we’re on the way to spring.”
“This rain,” said Ernest, “will take away the last of the snow.”
“But if it freezes,” added Renny, “we shall have the devil of a mess.” He turned to Wakefield. “There are twin lambs in the barn this morning.”
“Oo — may I go back with you and see them?”
“Yes.” He looked fondly at his small brother. “If you eat up your breakfast.”
“Renny, do you think I might have a pony for my birthday?”
Now, thought Finch, that will remind them! Now they’ll remember that it’s my birthday.
But it didn’t. Everyone began to discuss the question of a pony for Wakefield, as though it were a matter of profound importance. Wragge, the houseman, who had been Renny’s batman in the war, had returned with him in 1919, and established himself as a permanent fixture at Jalna by marrying the cook, now brought in another dish of bacon and eggs. He was a small wiry man who imparted an air of jaunty good humour to his domestic activities. He had a pronounced cockney accent and cherished an unaffected devotion to Renny. He was familiarly called Rags.
Renny Whiteoak was at this time thirty-seven years old, tall and thin, with an elegantly sculptured head covered by dark-red wiry hair. His complexion was somewhat weather-beaten and his brown eyes had a wary look, as though thus far in his life he had encountered a fair amount of trouble and was prepared for more. His eyebrows were a salient feature of his face, quickly expressing by their contractions or upraisings, their sudden movements, as though independent of each other, his moods of anger, dismay, or jocularity. He raised them now as Eden and Piers came into the room, and glanced at his wristwatch.
“Sorry,” said Eden, bending to kiss his sister.
“But you’re not really late, dear, only your porridge will be cold.”
“Preserve me from it hot or cold. Morning, everybody.” He smiled at the faces about the table and seated himself at the left of his eldest brother, who said, while helping him to bacon and eggs —
“What I was remarking is his clothes.”
It was obvious that Eden wore jacket and trousers over his pyjamas.
“If I had appeared at table in such undress when I was a young fella,” observed Nicholas, “my father would have ordered me to leave.” He glanced with reminiscent pride at the portrait of the handsome officer in Hussar’s uniform which hung above the sideboard beside that of his wife. The dominating presence of this portrait, painted in London seventy years ago, had influenced even the second generation of Whiteoaks to be born in Canada. In their earliest years the splendour of the uniform had attracted them, and as they grew this grandfather was often pointed out to them as the model of what a British officer should be, firm in discipline, quick in decision, inexorable in justice. His gallantry had been equalled only by his strength of character. No one told them of his weaknesses which were charming.
Eden shrugged his shoulders in a new and irritating way he had, and said, “Well, he was a martinet, wasn’t he? He’d not have done for these days.”
“It is a good thing for you,” said his Uncle Ernest, “that my mother did not hear that remark.”
“I didn’t mean to be rude, Uncle Ernie, but things have changed, you know. Especially since the war.”
“For the worse,” put in Nicholas. “Where the young are concerned.”
Eden laid down his knife and fork and laughed. His blue eyes regarded his uncle across the table with ironic amusement. “Come now, Uncle Nick, were you always well-behaved?”
“I was human.”
“And so am I — very.”
“That has nothing to do with coming to breakfast in pyjamas and uncombed hair.”
“You have just remarked how things have changed.”
“Not that much.”
Renny now spoke. “Say the word, Uncle Nicholas, and I’ll see to it that he goes upstairs and dresses.”
“No, no. Let Meg decide. If she doesn’t mind …”
Eden leaned back in his chair smiling from one face to the other.
“It doesn’t matter in the least to me,” cried Meg. “Eden looks so nice no matter what he has on.”
“Thank you, Meggie darling. I should have hated to be sent upstairs to tidy myself like a little boy.” He attacked his bacon and eggs with appetite.
Finch was thinking, “How does Eden get that way? Doesn’t he mind what’s said? Or is he just so darned proud?” Yet Finch had seen Eden look blacker than he had ever seen one of his other brothers. But when Eden looked black you didn’t know what it was about. Last year, he had remained cool in the storm which had raged about him, yet Finch had heard him walking about his room in the middle of the night. Perhaps he felt things more than he showed.
Nicholas must have been thinking about that time too, for he remarked to Eden, “Of course, you’ve heard that I was sent down from Oxford.”
“Oh, yes, and you have no idea how that endears you to me.”
“Grandfather,” said Renny, his eyes full on Eden’s face, “had more money to waste than I have.”
The upbringing and education of his young half-brothers was his responsibility and a father he was to them. The smile faded on Eden’s lips. His smile always had the shadow of pain in it and now that shadow deepened before it faded. Ernest gave him a sympathetic look and began to talk of the weather, which had greatly worsened. The rain now slashed furiously on the windowpanes, making a wall between those in the room and the desolate world beyond. No one who was not forced to would venture out on this day.
More thickly buttered toast with marmalade was eaten, the huge silver teapot was replenished and emptied, while the windows trembled in their frames and down the roof poured the rain, washing away the last of the snow that lay in little ridges on the northward side. Wragge, with an air of ceremony, as though he were performing a juggling trick and showing the family something they had never before seen, opened the folding doors that led to the sitting room, grandly called the library though there was no more than a hundred books on its shelves. Nicholas, Ernest, and Eden kept their own books in their rooms. One of the shelves in this room was filled by books on the breeding of show horses, care of the horse in health and disease, a history of the Grand National, books on the judging of show horses and their training. These were only a portion of the books and magazines on the same subject which were perused by the master of the house, and many of which were in his office in the stable or littered the shelves of his clothes cupboard.
“It is cold in here,” remarked Ernest with a glance at the fireplace.
“There is an east wind.”
“If there’s an east wind,” said his brother, “the chimney would smoke.”
“The wind is from the south,” Meg declared, “right off the lake.”
“I’m positive it’s from the east,” persisted Ernest.
“If it’s from the east, the chimney will smoke like the devil,” said Renny.
“It’s from the south,” said Meg. “Finch, just go out to the porch and see if it isn’t from the south.”
Everybody looked at Finch, as though quite suddenly he had become interesting. He stared back truculently.
Why should he be chosen to go out into the wet and cold to discover which way the wind blew? And on his birthday. “It’s from the east,” he muttered. He did not want a fire lighted, for he would probably be sent to fetch wood for it. Always it was he who was sent to do unpleasant things.
“Get a move on,” ordered Renny, raising an eyebrow at him. Glumly he went to the hall and opened the front door against the blast. He stepped out into the porch and shut the door with a bang behind him.... Here was an icy cold dripping world, filled with the thunder of rain and wind. The heavy branches of the evergreen trees swayed senselessly, the bare branches of maple and birch, but dimly visible against the rain, were without meaning, as though never would life run through them again. Their sap was sunk into their roots, and their roots clung to the wet clay in fear of being torn up. Where had the birds hidden themselves? Were there perhaps, deep down in the sodden ground, flat-faced worms which knew that spring was coming? The first day of March — and his birthday and no one had thought it worth noticing! He did not care which way the wind blew. Let it blow. Let it blow the chimneys down.
The door opened, and closed. Renny was standing beside him. “What’s the matter with you, Finch?” he demanded. “How long does it take you to discover which way the wind blows?”
“It’s blowing every way,” growled Finch, standing where the rain beat full on him.
“This is a pretty way to behave — and on your birthday too.”
At last the words were out. At last the day had been mentioned. But how? In what a way? Flung at him — in rebuke. Renny too drew back, as though he wished he had not mentioned it. Doubtless he was sorry he had mentioned it, as he had no present for him. Now Renny was saying, “The wind is blowing the rain into the porch, so it’s from the south. We can have a fire. Come in.”
He took Finch by the arm, in a jocular way, and propelled him back to the library.
“The wind,” he announced, “is straight from the south. Get some logs, Finch.” He himself knelt in front of the fireplace, crumpled a newspaper and took a handful of kindling from a small battered oak chest.
Finch brought logs from the basement, labouring up the stairs with them, as though they were made of lead. Outside his grandmother’s bedroom, which was opposite the dining room, he hesitated, wondering whether or not she would remember his birthday. Well, she made a great fuss over her own. Surely she might give a thought to other people’s. As his eyes rested speculatively on the door, the rappings of her stick sounded on the bedroom floor, and she called out, “Come in!”
He could not very well go to her with his arms full of logs, yet there was that peremptory note in her voice which took for granted that you would run at her bidding. He stood still, wondering what to do.
Again she called out, and this time more sharply, “Come in!”
Holding the six logs to his breast with his left arm, the sweetness of the pine filling his nostrils, he gingerly opened the door and put his face in the opening. In the room was a different world, the world of the very old. The heavy maroon curtains were drawn across the windows, and the still air was laden with the scent of sandalwood, camphor, and hair oil. In the dimness the pale shape of the bed was visible and a night-capped head on the pillow.
“Which of you is it?” demanded the voice, old but vibrant.
“It’s Finch, Granny.”
“Well, come in and let in the light.”
“I … I can’t. I’ll come back and do it.”
“Do it now.”
“But Gran, I’ve got an armful of wood.”
“Put it down and come in.”
Finch’s voice broke on a note of anguish. “Gran, it will make a mess on your carpet and I’m supposed to take these logs to Renny for the fire.”
That was enough for her. If there was to be a tug of war over who was to be waited on first, she was ready for it.
“Put down the wood,” she ordered, and he could perceive her struggling to sit up.
He laid the logs carefully in the doorway and went to her. She was propped on one elbow. She gave a chuckle, as of pleasure in her little triumph. “Kiss me,” she said.
He put his arms about her old body in its heavy cotton nightdress that was trimmed with embroidery, and hugged her. That was what she liked from her sons and grandsons, a good hug and a hearty kiss. It seemed to put fresh life into her. She was ninety-eight years old. Her arms, surprisingly strong, held him close.
“Now open the curtains.”
“It’s an awful day, Gran. The worst sort of day you could think of for the time of year.”
“What time of year is it — I mean what date?”
“The first day of March.” Now he had drawn the curtains wide and the window streaming in freezing rain was disclosed. The bare branches of an old lilac-tree bent before the gale.
“The first of March, eh? And coming in like a raging lion. Well, well, what a day for …”
Now she was going to say it! What a day for your birthday. But she only said, “Put my pillows behind me. Prop me up.” She gave a sniff, as though she had a cold in the head.
He placed the huge feather pillows at her back, his eager eyes on her face beseeching her. My birthday, his heart pleaded, don’t forget my birthday, Gran…. But how could he expect an old woman, almost a hundred years old, to remember his birthday?
When he had her propped up he looked down into her face. He could remember it since he was little more than a baby and it had always fascinated him. The dark eyes were so alive, the nose so finely arched, there was a look of courage, of boldness, in the very structure of the face, so that toothless as she was, dominance was enthroned there. There was craft in the face too. It might have belonged to an old empress, seasoned in the intrigues of a court. Yet her realm had been Jalna. She was little known beyond the surrounding countryside. In Ireland where she had spent her youth, and in India where, in a British Military Station, she had spent the first three years of a happy marriage, she was forgotten.
“My teeth,” she now demanded, “give me my teeth.”
The two sets were in a tumbler of water on a bedside table. Finch held it in front of her while she, with a look of pleasurable anticipation, retrieved them and, with a clicking sound, put first one denture, then the other, in place.
“Good,” she said, “now —”
But her eldest grandon’s voice interrupted her. “Finch! What the devil are you doing?” he shouted.
“Oh, gosh,” groaned Finch, “the logs!”
Renny was striding down the hall. Before Finch could intercept him he was at the door of the bedroom and had stumbled over the logs and almost plunged on to the bed. Old Adeline Whiteoak held out her arms to him.
“Bless me, what an entrance,” she exclaimed. “What a clumsy fellow you are! Can’t you see where you are going?” She knew she was to blame and so smothered his explosion of anger in an embrace. She held him close while Finch gathered up the logs. She drew strength from Renny.
Finch found the fire merrily burning up the kindling and the family group at ease. Meg was knitting something for Wakefield.
“Let me put on the logs,” begged the little boy.
Finch gruffly pushed him away and built up the fire, laying the logs carefully, almost caressingly in place. The sweet scent of these pleased him. Wakefield crouched close beside him, the flames reflected in his large brown eyes. He held up his little hands to the fire. Finch had a sudden desire to hold him close. He picked him up and pressed his small body against his own, rejoicing in its weakness, finding sensuous comfort in it.
Meg beamed up at them.
Wakefield whispered, “It’s your birthday, isn’t it, Finch? I know.” He looked mischievous.
Finch quickly set him on his feet. “Forget it,” he said.
Renny appeared in the doorway. He said, in his decisive voice, “Gran’s awake, Meg. I’ve rung for her breakfast, can you go to her?”
Meg rose at once. She would be thirty-nine in a few months but already had a matronly figure and a strand of grey in her light-brown hair at the temples. She had a particularly sweet smile but a stubborn nature. She was devoted to her brother and her young half-brothers and was held up by all the neighbourhood as the model of what a sister, a niece, and a granddaughter should be.
The spaniels were stretched in front of the fire and now two other pets entered the room, passing Meg in the doorway with a supercilious air. These were Nip, a Yorkshire terrier belonging to Nicholas, and Sasha, a yellow tortoise-shell cat, which was Ernest’s. Each made straight for its owner, Nip scratching on Nicholas’s leg in a peremptory way till he was lifted to his knee; Sasha, in a graceful bound, reached Ernest’s chest and then his shoulder, rubbing her cheek on his.
“Lucky little brute,” observed Eden, stretching his supple body to its indolent length.
“This is a perfect morning for study,” said Ernest. “You should bring your books down here by the fire, boys.”
“Good idea,” agreed Piers. “I’ll race you upstairs, Eden.” As though shot from a bow both darted into the hall and up the two flights of stairs. Eden flew up so lightly, with such eager grace, it was hard to believe that only a moment ago he had been as relaxed as the cat Sasha.
Nicholas was filling his pipe, Ernest was reading aloud something from the morning paper. Renny was putting on his mackintosh, Wragge was about to carry a tray into the grandmother’s room, from where her voice and Meg’s came, amiably discussing the weather. Grandmother was saying, “It was just such a day as this when he was born. I well remember it and his mother in labour for six hours.”
Meg interrupted, “Sh-h. He’s just outside in the hall. He’ll hear you.”
At the same moment Grandmother’s parrot broke in with vigorous imprecations in Hindustani, directed, the old lady liked to think, against the weather. She exclaimed, “Poor Boney, poor Boney. How he does hate this climate — and so do I.”
Wragge’s voice came. “Your breakfast, madam.”
She said, with gusto, “Good — good — I’m ready for it too.”
Finch, whose heart had halted at mention of his birthday, now slowly mounted the stairs.
What was the matter with everybody? Why did they treat him with such indifference? On his fourteenth birthday they’d been very decent to him. What had happened? He had not been in disgrace or complained about by his schoolmasters. Yet not one present, not even one good wish, had come his way. Three times had it been spoken of and then hushed up as though it were a disgrace. Of course he knew he was not as attractive as the other boys, but what was the sense of rubbing it in? There was no sense — no sense in anything. The world was a senseless bewildering place. He wondered how he could endure it for fifty or sixty or — if he lived as long as Gran — eighty years more. But then he’d probably die young. Yes, he was pretty sure he’d die young.
He looked into the bedroom he shared with Piers. Bessie, the maid, was making the bed. Her round pink wrists and capable hands were moving above the sheets. He wanted her to say a kind word to him but she was smiling to herself — busy with her own thoughts. There was no place for him in the house or in anyone’s thoughts. He was alone — as perhaps few in the world were alone….
There was a long narrow box-room at the end of the attic, where trunks, old clothes, old magazines, old picnic hampers, birdcages, fishing tackle, and a thousand odds and ends were kept. There was the old brass-bound leather trunk where was kept the splendid uniform which his grandfather had worn. Every spring there was a ceremony when the contents of this trunk were carried to the grassy lawn at the back of the house, hung on a clothes-line, brushed and aired. The grandmother always presided over this ceremony, supported on the arm of one of her sons and ejaculating in her harsh old voice that had been one of the sweetest in Ireland, “Oh, but he was a fine-looking man! You don’t see his like nowadays. Nor even in his time. How the women stared at him! But I kept him for my own…. Is that a mothhole, Nicholas? Let me see … Thank God, no…. Let me feel the cloth in my fingers…. Ah …” And tears would roll down her cheeks.
Finch laid his hand on that trunk wherein was locked his mother’s wedding dress and veil. Who kept the key of that, he wondered. Meg, he supposed. And why had he never been shown these things? He had as much right to mourn over relics as anyone. His mother had died soon after Wakefield’s birth and she’d had a hard time at his own birth. Six hours in labour, his grandmother had said … on such a day as this…. He shuddered…. Why might he not see the things in the trunk? Why was he treated so? Downstairs this miserable day was being tolerably passed by the group about the fire, by Gran snugly eating her breakfast in bed, by Renny in the stables. Only he was the outsider. Alone … alone on his birthday … Not a present — not a good wish — not even the customary whacks on the back from Piers!
A little moth miller zigzagged past him and he all but put his hand to crush it, then changed his mind. Let it lay its eggs where it would. Let the worms produced devour what they would. They had as great a hunger as Grandmother at her tray and perhaps, in the sight of God, as much right to eat.
The rain thundered on the slope of the roof, made gurgling noises in the eaves. The roof leaked in one corner. There was the spot adjoining his own bedroom…. Let it leak. It was none of his business. Let the moth and the flood share the house between them…. In weary melancholy he lay down on the bare floor, resting his head on a canvas dunnage bag. Tears filled his eyes, and somehow he felt the better for them. He was alone. He was at the end of things. He did not care. He heard someone give a hoarse sob and wondered if it might be he….
When he woke he felt cold and stiff. The rain had somewhat lessened but the sky had darkened with its load of rain to come. The clear treble voice of his youngest brother came to him. “Finch,” he called, as he mounted the stairs. “Finch, where are you?” Timidly, as though he remembered stories of ghosts and witches, he opened the door and put his small pointed face and curly dark head inside.
“Why are you lying on the floor?” he asked in surprise.
“Because I’m not standing up and poking my nose into other people’s business.”
“Oh.” Wakefield now assumed the manner of his Uncle Ernest.
“Well, you’re wanted, my boy.”
“Who wants me?”
“Everybody. It’s dinnertime.” The family at Jalna still held to the country custom of dinner in the middle of the day and still drank tea at that meal. “Tea” itself was eaten at five o’clock and a substantial supper at eight.
“Why — why, it’s impossible.” Finch got up and stretched. “I’ve only been here a little while. I was studying and I …” No, he would not say he fell asleep.
“What were you studying? I don’t see any books.”
“Did you never hear of doing problems in your head? Well, that’s what I was doing.”
“It’s dinnertime. You’re to hurry.”
The sound of the rain was broken by the crescendo resonance of the brass gong, sounded by Wragge.
“There! Didn’t I tell you?” Wakefield jumped up and down in excitement. He ran to Finch and tugged at his hand. “Do hurry.”
“I ought to tidy myself.”
“There’s no time.”
Finch suddenly felt gentle toward the little brother. He let himself be led down the two flights of stairs to the door of the dining room. Strangely it was shut. With a flourish Wakefield opened it and shouted —
“Here he is! Here he is!”
Finch was dazed by what met his eyes. The family were assembled, standing about the table — Meg and Renny at either end — Grandmother and the two uncles on one side — Eden and Piers on the other, with his place awaiting him between Piers and Wakefield. Wakefield had run to his own chair beside Meg, on which was a thick volume of British Poets to raise him to a comfortable level. But why were they standing up waiting for him? And as for the table — surely it had not been made to look like this for him.
The yellow velour curtains had been drawn to shut out the weather. The heavy silver candelabrum had been set on the shining damask on the table. The candlelight glimmered in the eyes of the smiling family, made their smiles beautiful. Grandmother stood bent, her knuckles on the table, eager to sit down, the purple ribbons in her best cap trembling. She grinned up at Finch. “Happy birthday, you young rascal,” she called out. “Come and kiss me.”
“Happy birthday! Many happy returns of the day!” sang out his brothers, sister, and uncles.
It was almost too much. Indeed it was altogether too much — the transition from melancholy and neglect, to this warmth of kinship, this beaming acknowledgment of the day, this glory of candlelight, fruit, and little dishes of nuts and raisins, as though it were Christmas…. He stumbled over Renny’s spaniel Merlin, because his eyes were strangely blurred, and almost fell into his grandmother’s arms. The spaniel yelped and scuttled beneath the table.
“Steady, steady, old lady,” said Nicholas, supporting her. “What a clumsy fellow you are, Finch.”
The grandmother gave him a resounding kiss. His uncles slapped him on the back. Meg held out her plump arms and enfolded him. “We thought we’d give you a nice surprise, Finch, dear, by pretending we’d forgotten all about your birthday. Wasn’t it fun? It was all my idea.”
“Wonderful fun,” mumbled Finch, against her cheek.
“Now sit down and eat a good meal. You are so dreadfully thin. Then we shall have the presents.”
Wragge had placed a platter on which was a joint of beef, surrounded by Yorkshire pudding, in front of Renny, who, after testing the edge of the knife with his thumb, at once set about carving it.
“I know what you’re getting,” said Wakefield. “I wish my birthday would hurry up. June is a better time to be born in than March.”
“Attend to your food,” said Nicholas.
“I haven’t any. No fat, Renny, please.”
“Dish gravy,” put in Grandmother. “I do like dish gravy. And Yorkshire pudding.”
“There you are, Gran. You know what’s good for you.”
When it was Finch’s turn to be served, such an enormous helping was put on his plate that even he, with his growing boy’s appetite, was a little abashed. “Oh, look here, Renny, what do you think I am? A rhinoceros?”
“More like an ostrich,” Piers said.
“He’ll be better-looking as he gets older. He has the Court nose. He cannot look quite undistinguished with that,” said kindly Ernest.
“What’s that about the Court nose?” demanded Grandmother, having herself been a Court.
“Finch has it,” cried Wakefield.
She peered across the table at Finch, a bit of Yorkshire pudding clinging to her underlip. “I don’t see it,” she said.
“He’s just wiped it off,” laughed Piers. “He’s been crying.”
Grandmother retrieved the bit of pudding with her tongue. “I won’t have the nose made fun of,” she declared.
A spirited discussion on the personal appearance of both Courts and Whiteoaks ensued. Finch was forgotten. He had, for a wonder, little appetite. Even when the birthday cake, with fifteen candles, arrived, he felt no hunger for it. When he tried to blow out the candles, with one great puff, he had to make three attempts before he managed it.
“I could do better myself,” said Grandmother.
Later he was presented with a number of quite expensive gifts. The year before he had been given a bicycle. He was a lucky boy and he knew it, yet somehow the spiritual clouds of the morning were not quite shifted by the sunshine of this hour. He had been the subject of good wishes, yet could not feel as he knew he ought to feel. He stood staring out of the library window at the rain that had become only a grey drizzle. From the hall he heard the sound of the grandfather clock preparing to strike — a kind of rattling wheeze. But, before it reached the point, the black marble clock, with the gilt face, which stood on the mantelshelf in this room, gave out its musical effortless notes. One-two-three. Instantly, as though in resentment at this forestalling, the grandfather clock struck harsh and strong. The Dresden clock in the drawing-room made its sweet response. All three eager to push forward into the mystery ahead.
His sister came up behind him and clasped him about the middle, she so plump, he so thin.
She said, “I do think it was fun, don’t you, Finch, our pretending we’d forgotten all about your birthday? You really were taken in, weren’t you?”
“Sure. It was lots of fun.”
“It was all my idea.”
“It certainly was fun.”
“And you do like the fountain pen I gave you? And all the presents from the others?”
“It’s a beauty. Everything’s fine.”
“Last birthday you were given a bicycle.”
“I think you’re a lucky boy.”
“I certainly am.”
“You’ll remember this birthday.”
“You bet I shall.”
Eden did not often make a confidant of Piers, so that when he beckoned Piers to follow him into his room, shut the door after them, and asked, “Can you keep a secret?” Piers felt a glow of pleasure.
“Of course I can,” he answered.
Eden perched himself on his desk and lighted a cigarette. “I’m an idiot for telling this, but I simply can’t help it. It’s so interesting.”
“What is it?”
“Well … I know a way of making quite a lot of money … if I can get others interested.”
Piers liked money. All the young Whiteoaks liked it, but, though they lived well, there was seldom much cash available to them. Their grandmother had a fair-sized fortune, comfortably invested, but she hated to part with money. Indeed, she liked to pose as rather badly off and never dropped a hint as to whom her will would benefit. But it was usually taken for granted that Renny would be her heir. He had inherited the estate from his father, her youngest son Philip, and it was natural that she should make her home with him, as she had with his father. Indeed it had been stipulated in her husband’s will that Jalna should always provide a home for her. Nicholas and Ernest, so long as they had plenty of money to spend, had spent it in London, only returning to Jalna during the war. They were welcome doubly, for their family held them in great affection. Their brother Philip and his second wife had died within a few months of each other while Renny was with his regiment in France.
Piers now said, “I’m interested in making money. How’s it to be done?”
A smile flickered across Eden’s lips. He said, “I hadn’t thought of you. But, of course, if you’d like to invest in this thing — if you have any capital — you’re welcome to.”
Piers was disappointed. “Oh, I thought you meant me.”
“I do mean you — if you have the wherewithal.”
Piers had, during the past two years, helped with the work of the farm in his holidays, ploughing the land, learning the methods of spraying the apple orchard, grading and packing apples for shipment, as well as helping to school polo ponies. At the end of the coming term he would matriculate, quit school, and settle down to the work he loved. He strained toward the day.
He now said, “I have two hundred dollars saved.” He could not keep the pride out of his voice.
Eden looked at him in wonder. “However do you do it?” He exclaimed.
“I’ve worked pretty hard, haven’t I? All you do in your spare time is to write poetry.”
“I’m no good at physical labour.”
“Well, of course, you’re going to be a lawyer. What a life! Gosh, I’d hate it.”
Again Eden smiled. “I believe I am going to hate it too,” he said. Then his voice became confidential. “Listen, Piers. The other day I met a man named Kronk in the city. He’s a mining man and he’s one of a company who are developing a new gold mine in the north. It’s called the Indigo Lake Mine. They’ve found rich deposits there. As they are just in the early stages of this project they are interested in quite — well, what you might call insignificant shareholders — like you and me.”
Piers was astonished. “Have you got money too?”
“No, not exactly. But I should get a commission on the shares I sell. Why, look here, Piers, this Kronk told me the stock is rising so fast that he knows a man who is making ten percent on his investment and if he chose to sell out today he could double his money. But naturally he wouldn’t dream of selling.”
Piers’s prominent blue eyes were bright with the lust for gain. He asked, “How much are the shares?”
“Fifty cents each.”
“Fine! I’ll take four hundred.”
Eden gave Piers an approving smile. “Good man! I thought you would.”
Then Piers’s face fell. “What will Renny say? He’ll never let me.”
“He mustn’t know; he has nothing of the speculator in him, except in horseflesh. We must keep it dark. Then — when you have made a good fat profit, you may like to tell him.” He gave Piers a cigarette, adding, “I’m going to tackle the uncles now and see if they’d like to join in the fun.”
Piers laughed sceptically. He was feeling immensely exhilarated and mature. He said, blowing a smoke ring, “They’ll never speculate again. Uncle Ernest lost a lot of money once, didn’t he?”
“This is different. It’s absolutely safe. You should hear Mr. Kronk talk of it. He’s put everything he owns into it. And his wife too. She’s put everything she owns into it.”
Piers was now even more impressed. He asked, “How did you meet him?”
“Met him on the train. I must introduce you. He’s quite an amazing fellow. Come up from scratch. Look at this prospectus he gave me.”
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