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Chapter Three

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« on: July 31, 2023, 06:10:21 am »

ELIZABETH backed the last lorry load into the barn and called up to young Briggs, who was on the top of the stack.

“We’ll leave this lot here until to-morrow. It’s too dark to unload now. It’s all under cover and that’s all that matters.”

Young Briggs slithered down from the stack. “Aye, that’s right,” he said, and only his voice told of the satisfaction which his terse speech would not express.

“By gum, it’s raining,” he said, and Elizabeth laughed.

“Raining it is, and who cares. Good-night,” she called.

Leaving young Briggs to close the door of the great barn she turned towards home through the downpour. Accustomed to bad weather the rain did not trouble her at all, and as she walked she pondered over the story Malcolm had told her before they started carting. Would Richard Garth come home after all, she wondered, and if so, how would his father receive him?

“It’s a pity he’s such a bad-tempered old devil,” she said to herself. “I could admire him such a lot. He worked like a Trojan this evening, all to help John Staple. There’s something fine in him, only he’s so cussed. Of course Marion’s just like him, though she doesn’t realise it. I often wonder they don’t have one blazing row and be done with it.”

It was quite dark by the time Elizabeth reached the big house and she made her way, as usual, to the kitchen side, wondering where the others had got to. As she opened the kitchen door she heard the welcome crackle of burning sticks, and she found Marion working the bellows, with a fine blaze under the hanging kettle in the great open hearth.

“I’m going to have some tea, and some hot water to wash in after all that,” she said.

Elizabeth reached out her hand to take the bellows. “Leave that to me---you’re dog tired,” she said.

“So are you---and drenched through into the bargain,” retorted Marion. “Go and get into a dressing gown: by the time you come down the kettle will be boiling---and I’ve got a spot of rum to lace the tea with. We’d better take Malcolm a hot drink---save him from getting another of those foul colds.”

“Is he in? I saw him taking Jessie back to the stable. Aren’t you ever tired, Marion? To see you working those bellows anyone would think you were as fresh as paint. You’ve had an eighteen hour day----”

“And I’m not as young as I was. Thanks for the implication. No. I’m not tired. I just feel on top of the world. It was grand getting the oats in, just in time like that. Do go and get out of those sopping clothes, Lisa, and then come and have some tea.”

“You beat me. You’ve got more energy than all the rest of us put together,” yawned Elizabeth.

A few minutes later she came down into the kitchen again, clad in a vivid silk kimono, her fair hair brushed back, loose from its curls. Marion had closed the kitchen shutters, and lighted a big lamp which hung from a beam. In the golden light, with the wood fire roaring up the chimney, the great kitchen had a beauty all its own. Old copper and pewter gleamed against the dark oak of a huge mediaeval dresser, and the dark settles shone with the polish of age and centuries of wear. Marion had made a pot of tea and was measuring out rum into the cups when Malcolm strolled in, also in a dressing gown, an amused smile tilting his wide, mobile lips.

“Is this a sort of preliminary harvest home?” he enquired. “What a good thing the old malefactor’s gone to bed---I heard him snoring as I came down. I bet he tumbled into bed just as he was, dung-soaked breeches and boots and all. Where’s Charles? It’s not like him to be absent when there’s a free toddy obtainable.”

“He’s probably asleep, too. He was dead beat, and his hands had blistered,” said Elizabeth, lighting a cigarette.

Marion snorted. “Charles!” she exclaimed. “He’s always getting blisters: he’s frightened of hard work---that’s what’s the matter with Charles.”

“He’s a bit like a blister himself,” said Malcolm, “in fact the description just fits him.”

“Don’t be so foul,” expostulated Elizabeth, sipping her hot toddy contentedly. “I’m rather sorry for Charles. He’s lived in the tropics, got a liver, never done a hand’s turn of anything like work for twenty years, and then comes back home having lost every bean, to a life which is all hard work, plus abuse, with no trimmings and none of the luxury Charles dotes on. It’s not to be wondered at he gets blisters.”

“I never had much use for Charles,” said Marion. “He always showed a genius for avoiding the dirty jobs, even as a child. Father may be a tyrant---unreasonable old devil that he is, I’m willing to admit---but he does know how to work and he never shirks, even now, when he’s old enough to be justified in easing off. Well, well: he’s got to face up to the idea of my Hereford bull. I’m going to have a straight talk with him to-morrow.”

“Might as well save your breath,” said Malcolm, and Elizabeth yawned again as she tossed her cigarette end into the fire.

“Go to bed, children,” said Marion. “You’re both half asleep already. I’m going to have a tub by the fire. There’s nothing I enjoy more after a good day’s work.”

“Good Lord! You don’t mean you’re going to lug that ghastly great tub in here now,” protested Elizabeth, but Marion only laughed.

“I’m going to have a hot bath and wallow in it in front of the fire,” she replied. “Off you go to bed, both of you. It’ll still be raining floods in the morning, as sure as my name’s Garth. You can have a day off, Elizabeth, and get your hair washed in Lancaster for a treat.”

“Sounds good to me.”

Elizabeth yawned again as she lighted a candle and turned towards the door which led to the back stairs---her shortest route to her bedroom. Malcolm, candlestick in hand, made for the door on the opposite side of the room.

“I’ve left a book in the dining-room,” he said. “Good-night, Lisa. ’Night, Marion. Don’t go to sleep in that Heath Robinson bath.”

Elizabeth went up the worn, shallow, oak stairs, shading her candle with her hand to prevent the draught blowing it out. The wind howled round the house---and through it, as the guttering candle testified. There was a door at the top of the awkward twisting stairway, and it banged to behind her as she reached the passage which led to her room. She stood still a moment, shielding the candle flame, which flattened out into a blue flicker in the wind which came along the passage. As she stood she heard a sound ahead of her and raised the candle to throw its light along the passage. Elizabeth had steady nerves and she was accustomed to the old house, but her heart gave an unaccustomed bump. In front of her, at the farther end of the passage, she glimpsed a tall figure in a long dark coat or dressing gown. It was old Robert Garth, walking along the passage with uncertain steps, touching the wall with his hand as he walked.

“He’s walking in his sleep,” said Elizabeth to herself. She found the door handle and slipped behind the door and stood on the landing, pushing the bolt home. Somehow, she knew not why, she was afraid of meeting the old man in the narrow passage, and her heart thudded a little as she stood shading the candle with her hand. “I must buy a new battery for my torch in Lancaster to-morrow,” she said to herself. “This candle business is enough to drive anyone bats. Why are we all so antediluvian in this house?”

She waited for what seemed an interminable time, hearing nothing but the wind howling outside and the rain beating against the windows. At last she drew back the bolt, opened the door and adventured along the now empty passage. She blew out her candle when she reached her own room: the windows were not blacked out and she was too tired to bother about closing the heavy shutters and pulling the awkward curtains over them. She went to the window and stared out into the gloom, listening again. For some reason she felt wide awake and unwilling to go to bed. There came a further sound of footsteps along the passage and she braced herself as the handle of the door was turned.

“Who’s that?” she demanded.

It was Malcolm’s voice which answered. “Lisa, the old devil’s been in my room again, poking about. He’s always spying on me.”

“Oh, what does it matter, Malcolm? I saw him in the passage, he was walking in his sleep. Do go to bed, I’m dog-tired. If Marion hears you in here she’ll fuss, you know that. I sometimes wonder why on earth I go on living here. You’re enough to drive anyone mad, all of you. Go to bed, Malcolm.”

She walked across to the door, and as though with a sudden sense of compunction, she kissed him, her lips just touching his ear in the darkness. Then, with unexpected strength she seized his arm and pushed him outside into the passage, saying again, “Go to bed and don’t fuss. What we all want is a good night’s rest.”

She shot the bolt of her door, got out of her wrap and tumbled into bed, pulling the bed-clothes up round her ears to shut out the wail of the wind which howled round the house like a witches’ chorus.

Half an hour later Marion Garth went up to bed: every window and door in the old house rattled and strained in the tempest, as though the uncarpeted corridors were being patrolled by an eccentric’s army. Marion did not care. She was asleep by the time she had pulled up the bed-clothes, and it would have taken a bomb to awaken her.

Malcolm was the only person in the vast old house who bothered to black-out his window and light a lamp. He stood looking round his room with a frowning face. It was a pleasant room, despite the decrepitude of furniture and hangings. The panelling had been painted white many years ago and still retained something of lightness and elegance, and there were some fine old pieces, including a rosewood bureau, which Malcolm had contrived to collect in his own room. Generally the room gave him pleasure and a feeling of security, but to-night he scowled as he looked around and examined the papers on his bureau. As he had come upstairs to his room, Malcolm had seen his father walking along the passage, coming away from his (Malcolm’s) room. The boy had an ever present horror of being spied upon, and it was a perpetual source of anger to him that he was unable to lock the door of his room when he left it. The key had been lost years since, and Malcolm had never found any means of getting another one cut. Even his beloved bureau had no key. It was because he dreaded his father’s derision that Malcolm hated the old man to enter his room. Malcolm’s main delight was in writing, and the writing of verse satisfied him and gave him moments of rare delight to counterbalance the depression which so often overcame him. To old Robert Garth the habit of writing poetry was a species of idiocy, all too characteristic of the weakling son whose nature baffled and exasperated him. The Squire had mocked aloud when he first happened to find some lines which Malcolm had written, and the boy had never forgiven him. Ever since, he had had a dread of being spied upon, and above all Malcolm hated his father to go into his room and look at his books and papers. Standing there, intensely aware of the storm without which seemed to deprive the ancient house itself of stability or peace, Malcolm was overcome by a sense of frustration and wretchedness. In actual fact he was overtired by the evening’s work. His physique was too frail to endure physical effort without exhaustion, and his bodily weariness resulted in a nervous reaction in which everything assumed abnormal shapes. The wind and rain, the rattling panes and shutters, the lamp which flared in the draught---all these seemed ominous, and the recollection of old Robert Garth stalking along the passage had a horrific quality to the overtired boy. He remembered Elizabeth’s words---“He was walking in his sleep.” Malcolm shivered. The thought of the old man walking about the dark house had a nightmare quality to him. “I hate him! Oh Lord, how I hate him,” he said to himself.

Pulling a chest away from the wall, Malcolm shoved it against the door, because the thought of his father coming into his room terrified him. He put out the lamp at last and got into bed. Because he was physically tired he fell asleep, but the storm entered into his dreams and he tossed and groaned like an uneasy spirit while the wind howled round the ancient house.


The storm which swept down Lunesdale beat with even greater fury over the limestone heights of Ingleborough. Richard Garth, after he left John Staple, had deliberately gone out of his way to tramp over the smooth turf of the great hill. He had climbed up the slippery slope until he could see the valley stretching away to the sea, and he had stayed up there until the rain had blotted out his surroundings.

He was wet through when he reached the Wheatsheaf, and had persuaded the landlord to let him have a wood fire in his room. Sitting beside the cheerful blaze, a hot toddy in his hand, Richard meditated into the small hours, recalling his walk, pondering over the familiar land he had seen, the river, the fells, the fertile valley and woodland. Now he had seen it again he was loth to leave it, but at the back of his mind the thought of his father still rankled.

“There’s not room for him and me together,” he told himself. “When I went away I swore I’d never come back---and I was right. Some scores can’t be settled in a lifetime---but Lord, that fell side with the heather all abloom, it smelt good. There’s something about the fells a man can’t forget----”

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