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Chapter Four

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« on: July 31, 2023, 06:51:08 am »

WHEN Elizabeth Meldon came in to breakfast the next morning, she wondered why her nerves had been so unsteady the previous night. After milking the cows she felt as cheerful and hungry as usual: she liked milking and was as expert at it as Marion herself. The smell of fried tomatoes and eggs and bacon made her sniff appreciatively, and she forgot to comment on the weather when she saw that there was a letter waiting beside her plate. Malcolm studied her morosely as she opened it.

“’Morning. Foul day. Pouring all it knows how. The river’s up already.”

“Who cares?” demanded Marion, busy with a great bowl of porridge. “Elizabeth, Trant’s taking his heifers in to market and he can take you on the van if you like. Charles seems to have cleared out already. I think he must have cadged a lift on the early lorry. Father’s staying in bed for a while, too. I’m going to have a peaceful day.”

Elizabeth looked up from her letter. “Thanks awfully. This is a line from Roger Wood. He’s going to be in Lancaster to-day and asks if I can lunch with him. That’ll give me time to do some shopping, and I can come back on the Carnton bus and walk from the cross-road. I’ll be back in time to milk.”

“Never mind about that. Jem and Bob and I can do it,” replied Marion. “Come back late as you like---if you can find anyone to bring you back. Some of the farmers are sure to be in there for the cattle market, and they won’t mind giving you a lift. You can say you were looking at some cattle for me if you’re stopped by the traffic cops. I hope you’ll enjoy yourself. You deserve to after the way you’ve been working. It’ll be pretty beastly in Lancaster though, with this rain. It won’t lift to-day.”

There was silence for a moment, and then Malcolm asked, “Ever seen a fox hunt in these parts, Lisa?”

“A fox hunt? I’ve seen them hunting on Exmoor. Lord Varmoor still takes his hounds out.”

Marion and Malcolm both laughed, and the latter went on: “No. Not that sort of thing---hunting pink and whippers-in and all the frills. When the farmers go a-hunting here, they do it to kill foxes, not for fun. They assemble all the guns in the neighbourhood, enrol the rest of the population as beaters, and shoot every fox they see.”

Marion took up the tale. “Bob Moffat says there’s a big dog fox in Lawson’s Wood---he’s seen it more than once, and he’s lost some of his geese. He intends to get that fox. If you can shoot straight I’ll lend you my gun. I can’t be bothered to go myself---takes too much time. I expect Father will go, though he always curses the whole show to blazes.”

“It’s against his ethical code to let a fox be killed without hunting the poor brute and letting it be torn to pieces by hounds,” said Malcolm. “That’s sport, that is. Shooting a fox as vermin is unsporting. The only marvel to me is that something else besides foxes doesn’t get plugged at the entertainments here. You’ve never seen anything so gloriously casual as the guns here---all popping off at anything. If a bunny or a hare gets put up by the beaters---well, it’s all good for the pot and they just blaze away, every man intent on his own affairs.”

“They generally auction the foxes afterwards,” said Marion, “and give the money to the Red Cross. Some of the farmers’ wives like a fox fur. No accounting for taste. You ought to go and see it, Elizabeth, it’s quite an entertainment. When are they going to shoot, Malcolm?”

“Bob says the day after to-morrow---Trant’s arranging it with John Staple.” He turned again to Elizabeth. “They generally arrange a fox hunt before lambing-time---they shot four foxes last spring and were no end pleased with themselves. No one got plugged, but they’re bound to have a casualty some time.”

“Not they! Farmers have got more sense than you credit them with,” replied Marion briskly. “I’m all in favour of getting rid of the foxes: they’re a menace when you’re raising poultry. Malcolm, what are you going to do to-day?”

“Why this interest in my doings? D’you want me to lend a hand with something? I do bar one thing---and that’s pumping up liquid manure.”

“My dear, I’ve more sense than to ask you to have anything to do with muck,” replied Marion serenely. “It’s much too valuable to be wasted. You go along up into your loft and play around with your bee-supers. You’ll be nice and dry up there, and not in anybody’s way.”

“You seem too mighty keen on getting us all out of the way,” grumbled Malcolm, and Elizabeth put in:

“Yes, what’s the great idea, Marion? Don’t say you’re going to set-to house cleaning.”

“Not I,” replied Marion. “This house has got to wait a while before it’s cleaned. If you really want to know what I’m going to do, I’m going to have a day at accounts. We’ve been so busy all the summer that nothing’s got done in the booking line, and we shall be in a mess when the Income Tax assessment is due. Father thinks he does it all himself, but if I don’t get things sorted out he’ll never manage to get it right.”

“Ha ha!” snorted Malcolm. “I see your little idea. You’re going to work out the old man’s profits and then tell him he’d better buy you a couple of good bulls to avoid paying any more Income Tax.”

“It doesn’t work out quite that way,” said Marion placidly, “but it’s quite true that I thought I’d have a talk with Father to-day and see if we can’t come to an agreement. It seems a good opportunity. It’s too wet to do anything much outside---barring hedging, which Father never does. Charles is out apparently---that’s all to the good, because the sight of Charles lounging round the house is like a red rag to a bull to the old man----”

“And I’m out, and Malcolm’s to keep out of the way,” interpolated Elizabeth, and Marion nodded.

“That’s the idea,” she agreed. “Now all the harvest’s in it’s no use his saying to me he can’t afford things, because he not only knows the value of his hay and grain and what he’s made on milk and grazing stock this year, he knows that I know it, too. One thing about farming, it’s no use trying to be too secretive over profits, because the profits declare themselves to anybody who’s intelligent. I know how many loads of oats we’ve carted, and I’ve a good idea how they’ll work out when they’re threshed.”

Elizabeth chuckled. “Yes. I quite see all that. I believe you could make out Mr. Garth’s valuation from memory---crops, stock, and all the rest---but do you really believe you can induce him to give you a free hand to buy the beasts you want?”

“No, not give me a free hand exactly, but I think he may be more reasonable than he was last time I broached the subject. He’s got plenty of money lying idle---I know that because I know the prices he got for the last bunch of bullocks he took to market, and the in-calf heifers brought in an average £30 each. It’s silly keeping money in the bank. Money ought to earn money. Besides, what’s he saving it for? He doesn’t want to leave it to me---or to anyone else so far as I know, and he can’t live for ever.”

“Don’t tell him so. It’ll only annoy him,” said Elizabeth, and Malcolm put in abruptly----

“Talking of wills and all that, Marion, have you any idea where Richard is now, or even if he’s dead or alive?”

Marion gave a start, and turned on Malcolm with surprise in her face and brows lifted.

“Richard! What on earth made you think of him? You’ve never even seen him. He left home before you were born.”

“I know. It’s a pretty story, isn’t it---real old traditional melodrama. Do you know anything about him, Marion?”

Marion poured out another cup of tea before she answered, and Elizabeth waited for her answer with lively curiosity. How like Malcolm, she thought---both secretive and inquisitive. Remembering what he had told her the previous evening Elizabeth felt a sense of discomfort. Malcolm was hardly playing fair.

“Of course I don’t know anything about him,” Marion replied at length. “He went to Canada nearly twenty-five years ago, and nobody’s heard of him since so far as I know. Charles was talking to Father about him the other day. They were discussing the probability of his being dead---presumption of death, or something of the kind. Very stupid of them, because they’ve no reason at all to suppose he’s dead. The Garths are a long-lived race.” She paused, and then added: “I’ve always supposed he’d come back eventually.”

“Eventually?” inquired Malcolm, his voice cynical. “Meaning when the old man’s dead? How would you like it, Marion, if he did come back, and interfered with all your private schemes here?”

“I don’t know what you mean by private schemes,” retorted Marion. “If Richard comes back, I suppose he’ll farm his own land. He was a good farmer---Staple says so. I should go on just the same as I am now.”

“And say if Richard didn’t want you?” inquired Malcolm. “Say if he’s got a wife, and wants the house for themselves?”

“Oh, don’t be tiresome,” said Marion. “This supposing game is just silly. If Richard didn’t want me here, I should get him to let me one of the fell farms. I’ve thought several times lately I should like to start on my own. The trouble is I’ve no capital.”

“Seems to me you can put up some very pretty arguments to induce the old malefactor to shell out some cash,” said Malcolm. “Ask him if he’s saving his money so that Richard can have a nice spot of cash to help him along when he inherits, and then add that you’re thinking of taking a farm on your own account where you can put your ideas into practice.”

“You are an ass, aren’t you,” said Marion. “He’d get into such a dithering rage that I should lose my last chance of talking him into a reasonable frame of mind. It’s no use annoying Father if you want to manage him. Once he’s in a rage he’s hopeless.”

“Have you ever lost your temper with him?” inquired Elizabeth, and Marion nodded, a grimace on her usually calm face.

“Yes, I have, we’ve all got ghastly tempers, you know, though I generally manage to keep mine by hook or by crook. Look here, Elizabeth, if you’re going to be ready for Trant’s van, you’d better hurry up---he’ll be round quite soon. Malcolm, I don’t often ask you to keep out of the way, but if you can make yourself scarce till dinner time I shall be grateful.”

Malcolm grinned. “Right oh. Suits me all right. I don’t want to be found a job for.”

+++

Marion sat on over the breakfast table after the other two had gone. It was not often that her father came down late to breakfast, and she guessed that the wet day had given him a feeling that he could do with a rest. He never admitted to being tired, and Marion, in common with many other people, often wondered how long the old man’s superb physique would stand the strain of his activity. She knew that he had been tired the previous evening---tired to the verge of exhaustion, but she had also seen the look of grim triumph on the worn old face. If Robert Garth had been tired, he had had the satisfaction of knowing that his son Charles had been even more tired.

Marion sat studying a local paper, reading lists of forthcoming sales of stock, until the door opened and her father came into the room, moving stiffly.

“Good-morning,” she said. “I’ll go and get you a fresh pot of tea. This one’s cold. I’ve told Elizabeth to take a day off. There’s nothing much we can do outside to-day, and we’re well forward with hedging.”

Mr. Garth merely grunted and lowered himself heavily into his chair. When Marion returned with the teapot and a bowl of hot porridge, he did not bother to say thank you---and neither did she expect him to do so. She started collecting used plates and cups, saying: “I thought I’d make some of the books up to-day. Will you have time to go over those Milk Board papers some time---about the new returns?”

Again old Garth merely grunted, but his grunt was a token of assent. He then inquired: “Where’s Charles?”

“I don’t know,” replied Marion. “I haven’t seen him this morning. He said something about going in to Lancaster to do some shopping, so I expect he got a lift on the early lorry. He’s done that before.”

“Shopping, eh? Where’s he got the money to shop from? I always said that Charles had got a bit put away, for all that he pretends he hasn’t a halfpenny. Charles was born cadging.”

Marion paused in her task of clearing the table. “I don’t think he’s got any money at all,” she said quietly. “He borrowed some from me.”

“More fool you to lend it,” retorted the old man. “You’ll never see it back.”

“Obviously I shan’t, if Charles isn’t able to earn any money,” she replied; “but I’d rather lend him a few shillings myself than have him borrowing from John Staple or getting into debt anywhere they’ll give him credit. A man’s got to have some money---that’s obvious. If you would only pay him a regular wage, it’d be much more satisfactory, Father.”

“Pay him a wage? Charles? My God, he doesn’t do enough work to earn his keep.”

“I think you’re wrong there. Charles is quite useful here, and we’re short-handed enough, goodness knows. If he goes off and gets a job somewhere else, it’ll only make things harder. There’s all the ploughing to be done, remember, and Elizabeth can’t always be on the tractor. Charles is a good driver and quite a fair mechanic. It’d be worth while paying him a market wage---and you’d save the Income Tax on what you pay him.”

Old Garth pushed his porridge plate away with a snort of disgust. “So I’m to pay Charles, am I?---and to keep him as well, I suppose. You’ll be wanting me to pay Malcolm, next?”

“Not a bad idea---pay him piece-work, he’s not strong enough to work full time. It doesn’t matter about Malcolm, though. He makes a bit of money from his hives---he’s clever with bees, you know. But I don’t like all the neighbours knowing that Charles hasn’t a penny. It’s undignified. Better pay him a market wage---and then I think he’ll earn it. As it is, he’s always taking Elizabeth’s cigarettes. It’s not fair.”

“Serve her right. Oughtn’t to smoke. Filthy habit for women,” grunted the old man.

Marion lifted her laden tray. “I’ll come and find you in the office about those returns,” she replied placidly.

The old house was very quiet when Marion settled down to her accounts. Outside the wind howled and the rain beat against the windows, but indoors was no sound of voices or movement. Old Mrs. Moffat was busy in the vast stone-floored kitchen, far away from the untidy little room which Marion called the “office.” Somewhere upstairs Janey Simpson, a girl of fourteen, was “doing” the bedrooms in her own half-witted way; otherwise no one moved in the house. Marion pulled out her own private account book from the corner where she kept it hidden and pondered over the figures she had entered. She had made a very fair assessment of the farm profits for the year and she studied the figures with satisfaction: twenty-five milking cows at £38 per head, twelve calving heifers at £30, seven yearling calves, ten small calves, one hundred and sixty ewes with lambs at foot, six sows with litters, two tegs, two boars, four horses and a foal, a hundred head of poultry. Then followed crops---oats, wheat, potatoes, mangolds, swedes, kale, and seed grasses: Marion knew exactly the market value of the crops she had toiled so hard to raise and harvest. Next came implements and gear of all kinds---tractor, plough, carts, and the food stocks and fertilisers. The stock could be valued at £2,000, the crops at nearly a thousand. The market value of all the gear had appreciated during the year, though Marion was careful to make a conservative estimate in all cases. Through the list she went, considering the prices she had set against the beasts, including pigs and poultry, gear and crops. The total totted up to nearly £5,000---several hundreds of pounds higher than the previous year’s assessment. As Marion pored over her figures, her face showed set and obstinate. She had her figures, she had formulated her case, and she intended to pit her will against her father’s for the first time in her life. For years she had worked for him without being allowed any say in the policy of the farm or any share in its profits, and at long last her slowly moving nature had revolted. She wanted to have some say in the working of the farm: to buy stock using her own judgment, to be allowed to use her accumulated store of knowledge and experience. Marion knew exactly the obstinacy she would meet in her taciturn father—but she had become aware of obstinacy in herself, and she knew the strength of her case. Shortage of labour was the lever by which she meant to move the old man. “There’s me and Elizabeth and Charles and Malcolm,” she said to herself. “Without us he has only got old Moffat and Jem and himself. He couldn’t work the home farm with only them to help him---and if the land isn’t farmed properly he’ll be in trouble with the War Agricultural Committee. He knows what that means now. He’s got to be reasonable for once in his life. It’s the first time I’ve ever asked for anything---and I’m going to have it. I won’t be put off any longer, as though I were a child.”

She suddenly sat up, listening intently. She could hear old Garth’s heavy footsteps coming along the bare wooden floor of the passage, and she pushed her private account book away under some papers, where it was ready to her hand.

“Come on,” she said to herself. “I’ve been waiting for this for a long time. It had to happen---and now it’s come.”

+++

Malcolm had done just what Marion had suggested: he had gone up to a loft over the kitchen which he used for storing his bee equipment. There wasn’t any job he wanted to do so far as bee-keeping was concerned, but he was out of everybody’s way and was likely to be left undisturbed. If his father saw him in the house, Malcolm knew that old Robert Garth was likely to order him to get busy on any of the odd jobs which accumulate about a farm and are attacked on wet days: anything from cleaning out shippons or pig houses, lime washing, shifting manure, hedging and ditching and cleaning implements. Whatever the job, it would certainly not be to Malcolm’s taste. From under a pile of odd boards and fitments for his hives, Malcolm pulled out a heap of manuscript paper and began to read through his own untidy writing. He was at work on a novel, and he was endeavouring to revise his rather shapeless story and make it satisfy his own slowly-developing critical sense. He had written, as most beginners tend to do, about his own people, and the central figures in his narrative were his half-brother, Richard Garth, and their father. The happenings of the previous afternoon, when he had actually heard Richard talking to John Staple, and had seen him walking away across the fells, were still vivid in Malcolm’s mind, and as a result he felt dissatisfied with the imaginary character study he had made while Richard was nothing more than a name to him. The real Richard had had a vitality and purposefulness about him which Malcolm felt that his own fictitious character lacked. Richard in the flesh was clear-cut, hard, and determined, but there was nothing neurotic or melodramatic about him. Malcolm turned his pages discontentedly. Should he try again?---rewrite all those painfully written pages? His novel had become to Malcolm a symbol of escape. If he could get it published he could escape from an environment which he hated, from a father whom he loathed, and from whom he felt utterly alien.

He read on through the untidy pages, the already many times amended sentences, growing more and more depressed as he read. At last he put the sheets together and hid them again in the corner, and sat down listening to the dreary sound of wind and rain. He felt defeated and desolate, unable to make any effort adequate to help him to do the one thing he longed to do---to get away from this world of earth and dung and beasts into a world of thought and freedom and creative activity. He thought of Marion---arguing about the cost of a Hereford bull---and he clenched his thin nervous hands round his knees.

“Why am I so unlike them?” he asked himself. “Why, if I was born of this family and into this place, don’t I fit here----?”

Exasperation begot loneliness: he jumped up at last and made his way down the rough ladder which eventually took him into the stone-flagged dairy and on his way to the front of the house. He drew near the door of the office without any thought of Marion and her discussion with her father, until he was reminded of them by the sound of voices. Marion’s voice was clear and strong: “I’ve said all I’ve got to say, and I mean every word of it,” she said. “If you persist in your present attitude you will have no one but yourself to thank for the consequences, Father.”

Malcolm paused outside the door, and as he waited he became aware that Charles was standing in the shadows farther along the passage. Old Garth’s voice roared his reply: “Damn you! You’re threatening me, are you? You think you can frighten me into submitting to blackmail, devil take you. Get out, I say, get out and be damned to you!”

“It’s easy enough to say that, Father. The consequences aren’t going to be so easy, though. You turned Richard out, long ago----”

The sound of her voice was drowned in a crash, as of a heavy table overturned: almost simultaneously there was another crash, a reverberating report which echoed through the old house. Malcolm knew what it was---a gunshot inside the room. Sick and horrified he stood helpless, unable to move, but Charles sprang past him to the door of the office.

“Damn all!” he exclaimed, “someone’s got to do something---can’t stand and do nothing.” He flung the office door open, and Malcolm peered over his shoulder, sick with apprehension. The sight which met their eyes was in the nature of a ludicrous anti-climax. A big heavy arm-chair had been pushed back and violently overturned, upsetting a table behind it. Old Garth was on the floor, swearing with a vindictive non-stop fury and with an energy which told Charles that he could not be seriously injured. Marion stood with her back to the wall, blank surprise on her face. A gun lay across the space between the overturned table and the wall, and the room was full of cordite fumes from the shot which had just been ejected from it.

“Here, what the devil’s the matter?” asked Charles, his voice surprisingly normal. “It looks as though Marion had forgotten to unload that gun. Anyone hurt? Let me help you up, Father.”

He bent over the old man and managed to help him to his feet, and old Garth roared out: “Get out, all of you! Trying to murder me now! I’ll have the law on you, you murdering graceless fools----”

Charles turned to Marion who was trying to make herself heard. “Here, clear out---he’ll have an apoplexy. Go away and leave him to it. No use arguing now.”

“I tell you it was an accident. He knocked the gun over and it went off,” said Marion. “Do you think I’d be such a fool as to shoot him?”

“Oh, lord, get out. All that can keep,” said Charles, under cover of old Garth’s roaring imprecations.

Malcolm still stood as though transfixed. He saw that Janey Simpson had appeared, and stood gaping at the foot of the stairs, her face white and idiotic. Old Mrs. Moffat, with a saucepan in her hand, stared into the office as though to assure herself that murder had not been done.

“I can’t stand any more of this here. ’Tisn’t right,” she quavered, and Marion came out into the passage.

“It’s all right, nothing awful has happened,” she said. “Father pushed his chair over, and the gun was leaning against the table and it went off as it fell. Nothing’s the matter.”

“Nothing----Deary me, I don’t like it,” said Mrs. Moffat. “Guns shouldn’t go off, not with folks who know how to treat them. Here you, Janey, you get back to your work and don’t stand gaping there.”

“I’m goin’ ’ome, I am. Don’t like it,” quavered Janey, and fled into the shadows. Mrs. Moffat turned on her heel and walked away, and Marion suddenly leaned back against the wall, shaken by spasms of uncontrollable laughter.

Malcolm, his nerves still aquiver, caught her by the arm. “Don’t,” he begged, “don’t laugh----I can’t stand it.”

Marion pulled herself together with an effort and spoke normally, but a little breathlessly. “Oh, all right! Don’t get all het-up. Come into the sitting-room. The whole thing was so ludicrous I had to laugh---it was relief, partly. When Father fell back over the chair I thought he’d been shot.”

She walked on into the wider passage and threw open the door of the living room, and Malcolm followed her. Marion found a cigarette and lighted it, and then turned to Malcolm.

“All the same it would have been pretty grim if---if he had been shot. Somebody must have borrowed my gun and brought it into the house again still loaded, with the safety catch off.” She paused, and then faced Malcolm squarely.

“Do you know anything about it, Malcolm?” she asked. “If you did borrow that gun, you’d better say so. I know you say you hate guns, and that you won’t touch one, but somebody has been meddling with mine.”

He stood very still, looking white and stubborn. “I don’t know anything about it,” he replied. “I haven’t touched your gun.”

“Then who did?” she asked. “If I hadn’t been so busy thinking about these accounts and what I was going to say to Father, I should have noticed the way the gun was leaning against that table where he always sits. I always put my gun back in the rack---you know that.”

Malcolm was obstinately silent, and at that moment Charles came into the room.

“Whew!” he said. “You seem to have had a proper old set-to. Father’s perfectly certain you meant to shoot him.”

“When he’s thought it over he won’t think anything so idiotic,” retorted Marion. “It’s true that the gun ought not to have been loaded. One of you borrowed it and put it back in the office, forgetting to unload it. When Father jumped up in a rage he knocked his chair over and it fell against the table and jerked the gun to the ground. Of course it went off---but the whole thing was an accident. He’ll realise that when he’s recovered his temper.”

“Recovered his temper, eh? D’you realise he’s roaring all over the place that he’s going to turn you out and put the police on to you and the Lord knows what else?”

“Quite probable,” she replied calmly. “It’s been known to happen before. When it comes to milking time this evening he won’t be so anxious to have me out of the way, you’ll find. As for the police---if he likes to get them here, he can. Perhaps they’ll find out who last used my gun.”

“My God!” said Charles. “This house defeats me! After all that, do we all sit down to dinner as though nothing had happened?”

“Quite possibly,” said Marion. “I’m going to have some dinner anyway. When I’m ready to leave this house I shall do so. Not before. And the sooner somebody remembers who borrowed my gun, the better for all concerned.” With that she walked out of the room.

Charles mopped his forehead. “I don’t know,” he said. “It beats me. The whole thing’s like a lunatic asylum.”

Malcolm stood and stared out at the rain.

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