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Chapter Two

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« on: July 31, 2023, 05:46:43 am »

GARTHMERE Hall stood on the hillside a few hundred yards above the River Lune, the parkland and pastures sloping down to the river and the village. The latter was situated just above the river pastures, a tiny cluster of houses half hidden by trees. The Hall was mediaeval in origin, but succeeding generations had altered it again and again. It was in part great house, in part farm house. Most of the mullioned windows dated from early Jacobean times, as did the great hall with its minstrels’ gallery, but a new wing had been built in Queen Anne’s reign, with fine large rooms facing the southern sun, and more window space than in the earlier parts of the building. It was in this south wing that the Garth family lived, leaving the gloomy mediaeval main block, with its complexity of small rooms and passages, to the rats and mice and bats which had claimed it for their own.

It was in the “parlour” that the Garths assembled for a meal which was described as tea, though its time varied from five o’clock to seven, and its fare was more substantial than that of many an urban dining table. The parlour was a lofty room of Queen Anne period, its walls covered with the wide panelling of that date, its open fireplace having a richly ornate overmantel of carven stone in which the heraldic bearings of mediaevalism were involved with elaborate decoration of late Renaissance tradition. Malcolm Garth described it as a nightmare in stone, but most of the Garths took it for granted as an essential part of the house, concerning which criticism simply did not arise. The room had long windows facing south, and a french window gave access to what had been a formal garden in other days. It now boasted a fine crop of onions. The furniture of the parlour was a medley of styles and periods, consistent only in the sense that every chair and table and piece was of good craftsmanship and beautiful wood. The long oak table and chairs were such as would be found in many a Lancashire farm house; there were oak dower chests of sixteenth century origin, and a huge Jacobean sideboard, richly carved. There were roomy armchairs with tall backs and winged side pieces, their tapestry covers faded to a pale monochrome which harmonised well with the worn oak floor and walls, and one or two rosewood bookcases of Chippendale design were filled with ancient leather-backed books seen through gold trellised glass-panelled doors.

On that sunny September afternoon when Richard Garth had met John Staple on the fell side, the Garths met for tea at five o’clock, and sat round the long oak table. They were a curious party---a medley, like the furniture of the room, but they also had a character in common---they had all been working on the land, and they had come in from the fields in their working clothes. Old Robert Garth sat at the head of the table, grim, silent, a grand figure of an old man with his still massive shoulders, shaggy white head, great beaked nose, and deep-set smouldering blue eyes. Opposite him, at the farther end, was his daughter Marion, with a huge teapot of Georgian silver before her. Marion was forty-five, a tall, broad-shouldered, deep-chested woman, her white hair cropped short, and brushed back hard from her sunburnt forehead. She wore a short-sleeved shirt and whipcord breeches, in defiance of her father’s outspoken disgust with such a costume. Marion looked what she was---a hard-working farmer, but neither cropped hair, roughened hands, nor a “stable boy’s livery”---to quote her father---robbed her of a dignity and poise which were ingrained, and had the same ineffaceable quality as the beauty of the worn wood on which her elbows rested. To her right sat a young woman in Land Army uniform---Elizabeth Meldon. She was distantly related to the Garths, and Marion had asked her to come to work at Garthmere during the war. The Squire had expressed both derision and disgust at the idea of having a girl to do farm labourer’s work, but he had found little reason to complain of Elizabeth’s ability: she could milk the cows, “muck-out” the shippon, drive a tractor, and work in the fields with skill and endurance. Tall and slim, her fair hair curled in the modern manner, Elizabeth looked an anachronism in that old room among the silent Garth family. She was defiantly modern, and beautiful at that, and her freshness made a striking contrast to Marion’s worn, stubborn, unyielding dignity. Opposite Elizabeth sat Charles Garth, he who had recently returned from Malaya, a big, gaunt, sun-dried fellow, whose grey hair was receding on the temples, his face furrowed with heavy lines.

The sun streamed in through the wide windows, its beams dancing on the heavy silver tea set, showing even more plainly that it was sadly in need of polishing. The china was a medley which included some valuable plates, a few cups of Crown Derby, two of them without handles, the remainder of the china being the hideous white “utility” stuff of wartime manufacture. There was a ham in front of the Squire, boiled eggs, home-made butter and jam, tomatoes and salad, and bowls of ripe pears and plums. Elizabeth Meldon was peeling a pear, and Marion replenishing her tea cup when another person came in and joined the party by way of the french window. This was Malcolm, the son of Robert Garth’s second marriage. He was a tall, slim lad who walked with a limp: in contrast to the tanned skins of the others, Malcolm’s face had the rather sallow pale skin which never tans. His eyes were dark, set under whimsical tilted black brows, and a lock of dark hair fell untidily over his forehead. He was dressed in grey flannel trousers, old and baggy, and a blue shirt open at the neck, with rolled-up sleeves, showing his long, thin arms. He went and pulled up a chair next to Elizabeth, who smiled at him with understanding friendly grey eyes. The Squire pushed back his chair and scowled as he enquired,

“And where have you been wasting your time when everyone else has been working?”

Malcolm’s face gave a slight twitch, but he replied with cool imperturbability, “In a place and manner of no interest to anybody else.”

The Squire snorted. “God knows how I came by such a mannerless whelp,” he grunted, and he pushed his chair back noisily and got up and stamped across to the door, walking heavily and banging the door to behind him.

“For these and all his other mercies----” murmured Malcolm, as he reached out his hand for a tomato, and Elizabeth inquired, “How are the bees?”

“Oh, not too bad: there’s lashings of honey for them to get, but it’s too windy up there. Bees don’t like wind.”

Marion poured out another cup of tea and passed it across to Malcolm. “Oh, did you go along the river?” she asked him. “Has John Staple carted that last field of oats yet? He’d still got some uncarted yesterday---in the freshly-ploughed bit by the long holm.”

“I didn’t notice,” replied Malcolm, and Elizabeth laughed.

“Don’t you ever notice anything when you’re out?” she inquired. “Staple has still got about three acres uncarted. It ought to be dry now, after this good wind to-day.”

Marion looked across at her thoughtfully. “Yes. It’d be dry now---and the glass is falling. It is going to rain again, soon. What about lending Staple a hand this evening? The moon’s nearly full, and if four of us went we could help him to get it in in a few hours.”

Charles Garth groaned aloud. “Damn all, Marion, haven’t we sweated enough this harvest? It was bad enough getting our own crops in, without doing a boy scout touch helping other people---and there’ll be all those blasted potatoes and swedes to be lifted soon.”

Before Marion had time to reply, Elizabeth cut in: “John Staple helped us with our hay crop,” she said. “If he hadn’t it would still be soaking in the dales. Of course we’ll turn out and help him this evening. I’ll take the lorry and Malcolm can take Jessie and the cart.” (Jessie was a stout old mare.)

“Good,” said Marion. “I’ll ring Staple up and ask him if he’d like a hand. He’d never ask for help, but he won’t refuse it, if we offer neighbour-like, so to speak. I’m sure Father will come---even though Charles is too tired.”

Charles scowled. “I’ve done a full day’s work to-day, and I’ve no use for all this blasted altruism. Staple shouldn’t have planted oats on land liable to flood. Any fool could see that holm land would flood if the river came up.”

“You’re a born fool, Charles,” said Marion. “You’ve got a lot to learn before you’re fit to live in the country. Put your feet up and take your ease---if you’ve got the nerve. You’re not the only person who’s done a full day’s work to-day, and you know it.” She turned to Elizabeth. “I’ll ring through to Staple. You and Malcolm can get the lorry and cart out in about ten minutes. He’s got one cart down there, and the Briggses will be helping. Staple will tell us who he’d like at the barn----”

She went out, and Elizabeth offered Charles a Woodbine from a crumpled packet she drew out of her breeches pocket. “You’d better come too,” she said. “Better sore hands than a sore head.”

Charles took the cigarette with a wry grin. “All right---but this farming’s a bloody business,” he grumbled. “I’d rather be in the infantry and that’s saying a lot.”

Malcolm had gone out of the french window, and Elizabeth stopped a moment to listen to Charles’s grumbling.

“It’s nothing but a dog’s life, sweating from morning till night,” he went on, “and for whose benefit, I ask you? Marion works like a farm labourer---all to swell the old man’s bank balance. He won’t even let her have money to spend on the farm or to improve the stock. Take this Hereford bull she’s been so keen on buying. She’ll never get it, because the old man won’t pay for it, and yet she’s been slaving to get his harvest in for him. I’m damned if I can see why she does it. What does she get out of it?”

“She gets a satisfaction which you can’t understand,” said Elizabeth. “Marion’s a born farmer. She really cares about the land.”

Charles snorted. “She cares about her stock, too---but she’ll never get the parsimonious old devil to pay for a decent bull or modernise those mediaeval shippons.” He got up and characteristically took the last cigarette out of Elizabeth’s packet. The latter watched him quite good-humouredly: she knew Charles. He was mean, but he was also very hard up and Elizabeth was a little sorry for him, even while she despised him.

+++

The project of Marion’s Hereford bull was always cropping up as a subject of conversation at Garthmere. Marion was passionately interested in farming, and the war had given her her first opportunity to introduce modern methods on the home farm. Her father, an uncompromising traditionalist who resisted any innovation on principle, had been forced by wartime regulations to break with traditional methods. He had had to plough up pasture, swearing and fulminating the while; he had had to plant oats and root-crops, to make returns, to fill in forms, to submit to inspection, to use artificial fertilisers. Marion, her heart rejoicing, bought Farming papers, attended meetings organised by the War Agricultural Committee and even acquired a wireless set (paid for out of her carefully hoarded “egg-money”) and listened to farming broadcasts with the most profound attention. She wanted to improve the stock on the home farm, and to do so she needed better beasts to breed from. The topic of Marion’s Hereford bull had become almost a by-word at Garthmere Hall. Elizabeth had told Marion of an experiment made by an enterprising Exmoor farmer who had crossed his black Galloway grazing cattle with a Hereford strain: the consequence had been to increase greatly the weight of the beef cattle, and the crossbred calves appeared as shaggy little black beasts with white Hereford faces. Marion was greatly attracted by the originality of this idea; she wanted to get a Hereford bull to serve her black-polled cattle---“Pollies” as they were called in the north country. She also wanted a good Friesian bull to improve her milking herd.

The let and hindrance which stood in the way of her ambitions was not now lack of means. Farming was paying better than at any time in Marion’s experience: old Robert Garth had a sound bank balance for once, and no one knew it better than Marion. She had the data to assess the value of his stock and crops, but no means to induce the obstinate old man to spend money on further improving his stock.

Throughout her hard-working days Marion brooded on the same subject---how to induce her father to invest his money profitably in valuable stock.

Elizabeth Meldon studied her Garth kinsfolk with a cool dispassionate judgment. She saw the grim obstinacy of old Robert, for ever setting his face against any change: the energy and optimism of Marion, intent on learning new methods of farming and developing the land to its greatest fertility. In addition to the tug of war between Marion and her father was the constant irritation of the two ill-assorted brothers---Charles from Malaya, accustomed to native labour and as many cocktails as he cared to swallow, and Malcolm who was by nature more a poet than a farmer. “Never such a family of incompatibles,” said Elizabeth.

Nevertheless, throughout the long summer days the family had toiled together, first at the hay crop, then at harvest; Marion never seemed to tire. Old Garth worked grimly, using a lifetime’s skill to counterbalance his failing strength. Charles worked---sore against his will. His father saw to it that Charles did not live at home without working for his living. Finally Malcolm---physically a weakling, but with the keenest brain of the family, working in fits and starts, striving against physical incapacity with a courage which only Elizabeth realised and admired. Elizabeth Meldon was a modern young woman---but her heart often ached over Malcolm.

+++

While Charles had been grumbling to Elizabeth and Marion had been having a word with John Staple about carting the oats, Malcolm had gone outside into the mellow sunshine and wandered over to the low stone wall which separated the one time formal garden from what had been park land---now used in part for grazing, in part ploughed for root-crops. To the right was the old orchard whose neglected trees had carried a heavy crop this year. Some of the apples had been picked, but many lay where they had fallen---there had been no time and no labour to harvest them. Malcolm cocked his ear and listened to Charles’s querulous voice. After a moment or two Malcolm intervened and called Elizabeth.

“Lisa! Lisa! Someone’s left the orchard gate open and the cows have got in.”

This statement brought Elizabeth running out to join him. On one melancholy occasion the cows had got into the orchard and “swined away at the apples” as old Moffat put it, and the result had been colic in the milking herd.

“Who ever left the gate open? I do think it’s too bad,” cried Elizabeth as she ran to join Malcolm. A moment later she looked across at the orchard.

“Oh, Malcolm, you are a liar! The gate isn’t open at all---- Why did you say it was?”

“Because I wanted to talk to you, and the only thing which was certain to bring you was the thought of something wrong with the cows.” He laughed, and took her arm for a moment and drew her towards the orchard gate. The neglected old trees were laden with fruit---plums, damsons, and apples weighing the branches almost to the ground.

“This fruit ought to be picked,” said Elizabeth, her smooth brow furrowing in thought.

“Oh damn the fruit, and the farm and all of it!” he exclaimed petulantly. “Can’t you forget it for one moment even? Lisa, darling, such a queer thing happened to-day. I was up on the fell yonder---I went to look at the bees, and then went to sleep in the lee of the wall. Heather’s lovely stuff to sleep on. I woke up because somebody was talking just the other side of the wall. It was John Staple---I knew his voice at once---but there was another voice I didn’t know. I lay and listened, too lazy to get up---and then I suddenly realised who it was who was talking. It was Richard. Do you know who Richard is?”

“Richard? Marion’s brother, you mean?”

“Yes. My half-brother---you know. The eldest of us. The old man kicked him out years ago, before I was born, when he married Mary Ashthwaite. She died out in Canada, and Richard’s never been home again since.”

“Heavens! Is he coming here to stay?” Elizabeth’s eyes were wide as she spoke.

“Not he! You should have heard him cursing the old man! It just warmed the cockles of my heart. No. Richard’s not coming here. He’d got a yearning to see this part of the country again. He’s doing a tramp over Ingleborough way before he goes back to sea again. He’s in the Merchant Navy, sailing in the Atlantic convoys. He didn’t want them to know about his being here---the family I mean. He’s a big tough---I rather liked the look of him, what I could see of him. I had an impulse to go over to Ingleborough and put up at the same Inn. He’s going to stay the night at the Wheatsheaf, and then tramp on into Sleydale. I should rather like to get to know him---but I felt too lazy to tramp and I can’t be bothered to hitch-hike.”

Elizabeth had picked a scarlet apple and was crunching it thoughtfully. “Are you going to tell the others---Marion and Charles---about seeing him?”

“Not I! Why should I? I heard him ask John Staple not to say anything, so I’m not going to butt in. I had to tell you, though. I always want to tell you things.”

She chewed her apple thoughtfully. “It is queer, Malcolm,” she said. “I’ve heard about Richard, of course. I think Marion liked him---but your father won’t have his name mentioned. It’s rather funny. It was only the other day Charles was talking to Marion about Richard. Charles said he believed he was dead, because he hadn’t been heard of for years and years.”

“A sell for Charles, then, because Richard’s very much alive. He’s heir to this place, of course---only he doesn’t seem to want it. He does hate the old man---just like I do.”

“I’ve told you before not to say things like that to me,” she replied. “I simply can’t understand a family like yours; you’re always at loggerheads. If I didn’t like Marion so much, I don’t think I could stand staying here.”

“Lisa! What about me?”

“Oh, you----” her face softened. “I know, Malcolm, I’m not being horrid---not really---but I can’t bear it when you start this hymn of hate business. It’s horrible.”

“All right. I won’t talk about it, and Lisa---I wrote something for you up there in the heather. It’s not much good, but it’s for you, from me---- I’m going to put it under your pillow, and you can read it when you go to bed. Will you?”

“Yes, you know I will. I always love your verse, Malcolm. Look, there’s Charles calling us. We’d better go and get the cart and lorry out.”

“Oh damn!” groaned Malcolm. “The land seems a sort of taskmaster, always demanding, always this urgency of toil and sweat---- Why, oh why----”

“Because we live by the land,” retorted Elizabeth. “Harvest time is urgent. We don’t grow crops in order to let them rot in the fields. Come on---I love carting, it’s fun.”

+++

Green Holm was a great stretch of land just above the level of the flood plane. It was the first year it had grown grain and the crop was a heavy one, as though all the fertility begot of years of grazing had been turned to account when the old pasture was ploughed up. There had been fifteen acres of oats on Green Holm, most of which had been carted before the weather broke. Now only three acres remained to be brought into the great barn where Staple was housing his oat crop. Three acres and a falling barometer: when Staple saw the contingent of helpers from the home farm he knew the job would be finished that evening, for he had enough labour to create the endless chain which is the ambition of all farmers at harvest. With kindling eyes Staple deployed his forces: Elizabeth had brought the lorry. Staple himself mounted it while Elizabeth and Marion tossed the hattocks up to him. Young Briggs was in the barn to unload. Malcolm led the cart, into which old Mr. Garth and old Briggs tossed with the rhythmic unhurried skill of old hands, and finally there was Jem Moffat with a second cart and Charles to load. As one load was completed it was taken to the barn and an empty cart brought back to the field. As the sun went down and the long northern twilight spread greyly over the great stretch of level land there was never a pause or a break in the work: in order to keep the sequence going and to avoid breaks everybody had to work steadily, ignoring weariness or thirst: tossing rhythmically the harvesters worked on and as the clouds came up and the wind moaned louder from the west the great stretch of land was cleared of its last loads. The moon was waxing and shone high in the sky after sunset but at length the clouds blotted it out and as Elizabeth turned the lorry with its last load the rain storm burst over the valley—not a slight shower but a heavy, steady fall which gave promise of a night’s rain. John Staple chuckled to himself when he felt the first cold drops: he was just securing the last lorry load. “Aye, it can rain now and no harm done,” he said to Marion, and she laughed back.

“It’s a grand feeling to have got the whole lot in, John Staple. Towns folk never understand the feeling of urgency which makes us work and sweat to get the crops in. Even Charles, who was brought up on the land, can’t see why we want to work all the evening to get the stuff carried. Well, it can rain as much as it likes now.”

Staple clambered down from the lorry. “Aye. Thanks to you I needn’t bother about the weather to-morrow,” he said. “Happen I’d better get the beasts up from the dales. The river’ll rise before morning.”

Elizabeth had driven the lorry off to the barn, and Malcolm had already started home with the cart. As Staple made off to round up his beasts, whistling to his dog to follow, Marion trudged across the stubble making for home. She was tired, her arms aching from the effort of tossing the hattocks, her legs weary from a long day’s work. Darkness was deepening swiftly now, as the moon was blotted out and indigo clouds piled up to the zenith. Her shirt was soon wet through and the driving rain blew in her eyes half-blinding her, but Marion was contented as she trudged uphill in the gloom, aware of a deep-seated satisfaction at a job well done.

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