THE COMING OF GUINEVERE
James Canterton was camping out in the rosery under the shade of a white tent umbrella.
It was a June day, and beyond the fir woods that broke the bluster of the south-west winds, a few white clouds floated in a deep blue sky. As for the rosery at Fernhill, no Persian poet could have found a more delectable spot in which to dream through the hours of a scented day, with a jar of purple wine beside him. An old yew hedge, clipped square, closed it in like a wall, with an opening cut at each corner where paths paved with rough stones disappeared into the world without. These four broad, grey paths, the crevices between the stones planted with purple aubretia and star-flowered rock plants, met in the centre of the rosery, where a sundial stood on a Gothic pillar. Next the yew hedge were rambling roses trained upon the trunks of dead fir trees. Numberless little grey paths branched off from the main ones, dividing up the great square court into some two score rose beds. And this June day this secret, yew-walled garden flamed with a thousand tongues of fire. Crimson, old rose, coral pink, blush white, damask, saffron, blood red, snow, cerise, salmon, white, orange, copper, gold, all the colours seemed alive with light, the rich green of the young foliage giving a setting of softness to the splendour of the flowers.
James Canterton was the big, placid, meditative creature needed for such a rose garden. He had a table beside him, and on it a litter of things—notebooks, a tobacco tin, an empty wine glass, a book on the flora of China, two briarwood pipes, and a lens set in a silver frame. He was sitting with his feet within a foot of a rose bush planted in a corner of one of the many beds, a mere slip of a tree that was about to unfold its first flower.
This rose, Canterton’s latest creation, had four buds on it, three tightly closed, the fourth on the eve of opening. He had christened the new rose “Guinevere,” and there was a subtle and virginal thrill about Guinevere’s first flowering, the outer petals, shaded from coral to amber, beginning to disclose a faint inwardness of fiery gold. Canterton had sat there since eight in the morning, for he wanted to watch the whole unfolding of the flower, and his vigil might continue through most of the morrow. He would be down in the rosery when the dew glistened on the petals, nor would he leave it till the yellow rays of the horizontal sun poured over the yew hedge, and made every flower glow with a miraculous brilliance.
Canterton’s catalogues were to be found in most well-to-do country houses, and his art had disclosed itself in many opulent gardens. A rich amateur in the beginning, he had chosen to assume the broader professional career, perhaps because his big, quiet, and creative brain loved the sending forth of rich merchandise, and the creation of beauty. As a searcher after new plants he had travelled half over the globe—explored China, the Himalayas, California, and South Africa. He was famous for his hybridisation of orchids, an authority on all trees and flowering shrubs, an expert whose opinions were valued at Kew. It was beauty that fired him, colour and perfumes, and at Fernhill, in this Surrey landscape, he had created a great nursery where beautiful things were born. As a trader, trading the gorgeous tints of azaleas and rhododendrons, or the glaucous stateliness of young cedars, he had succeeded as remarkably as he had succeeded as an artist. South, east, and west his work might be studied in many a garden; architects who conceived for the wealthy advised their patrons to persuade Canterton to create a setting.
His success was the more astonishing, seeing that those who set out to persuade their fellow men not only to see beauty, but to buy it, have to deal with a legion of gross fools. Nor would anyone have expected the world to have paid anything to a man who could sit through a whole day watching the opening bud of a new rose. Canterton was one of the family of the big, patient people, the men of the microscope and the laboratory, who discover great things quietly, and remain undiscovered by the apes who sit and gibber at a clown on a stage.
Canterton had picked up one of his pipes, when a maidservant appeared in one of the arches cut in the yew hedge. She sighted the man under the white umbrella and made her way towards him along one of the stone paths.
“The mistress sent me to find you, sir.”
“She wants to speak to you, sir.”
“I am busy for the moment.”
The maid hid an amused sympathy behind a sedate manner.
“I’ll tell Mrs. Canterton you are engaged, sir.”
And she showed the practical good sense of her sympathy by leaving him alone.
Canterton stretched out his legs, and stared at Guinevere over the bowl of his empty pipe. His massive head, with its steady, deep-set, meditative eyes, looked the colour of bronze under the shade of the umbrella. It was a “peasant’s” head, calm, sun-tanned, kind, with a simple profundity in its expression, and a quiet imaginativeness about the mouth. His brown hair, grizzled at the temples, had a slight curl to it; his teeth were perfect; his hands big, brown, yet finely formed. He was the very antithesis of the city worker, having much of the large purposefulness of Nature in him, never moving jerkily, or chattering, or letting his eyes snap restlessly at motes in the sunlight. A John Ridd of a man, yet much less of a simpleton, he had a dry, kind sparkle of humour in him that delighted children and made loud talkers feel uneasy. Sentimental people said that his eyes were sad, though they would have been nearer the truth if they had said that he was lonely.
Canterton filled his pipe, keeping a humorously expectant eye fixed on one particular opening in the yew hedge. There are people and things whose arrival may be counted on as inevitable, and Canterton was in the act of striking a match when he saw his wife enter the rosery. She came through the yew hedge with that characteristic scurry of hers suggesting the indefatigable woman of affairs in a hurry, her chin poking forward, the curve of her neck exaggerating the intrusive stoop of her shoulders.
Gertrude Canterton was dressed for some big function, and she had chosen primrose, the very colour that she should not have worn. Her large black hat with its sable feather sat just at the wrong angle; wisps of hair straggled at the back of her neck, and one of her gloves was split between the fingers. Her dress hinted at a certain fussy earnestness, an impatience of patience before mirrors, or perhaps an unconscious contempt for such reflectors of trifles. She was tall, narrow across the shoulders, and distinguished by a pallid strenuousness that was absolutely lacking in any spirit of repose. Her face was too big, and colourless, and the nose too broad and inquisitive about the nostrils. It was a face that seemed to grow larger and larger when she had talked anyone into a corner, looming up, white, and earnest and egotistical through a fog of words, the chin poking forward, the pale eyes set in a stare. She had a queer habit of wriggling her shoulders when she entered a room full of people, a trick that seemed strange in a woman of so much self-conceit.
“James! Oh, there you are! You must know how busy I am!”
Canterton lit his pipe.
“You are the busiest woman I know.”
“It’s a quarter to three, and I have to open the fête at three. And the men are not up at the house. I told Lavender——”
“Yes, no doubt. But we happen to be very busy here.”
His wife elevated her eyebrows.
“James, do you mean to say——”
“The men are not going.”
“But I told Lavender——”
He looked at her with an imperturbable good humour that knew perfectly well how to hold its own.
“Lavender comes to me for instructions. There are some things, Gertrude, that you don’t quite understand. It is now just ten minutes to three.”
The wife shrugged her shoulders over the hopelessness of this eccentric male. For the moment she was intensely irritated, being a woman with a craze for managing everybody and everything, and for striking the dominant note in the community in which she happened to live.
“Well, I think it is abominable——”
“Making me look foolish, and keeping these men at work, when I had arranged for them to go to the fête. The whole neighbourhood will be represented. We have made a particular effort to get all the working people——”
Canterton remained genial and undisturbed.
“I think I told you that more than half the men are Radicals.”
“All the more reason for getting into touch with them.”
“Voluntarily, perhaps. The men were needed here.”
“But I had seen Lavender——”
“I don’t want to hurry you, but if you are to be there at three——”
She jerked her head, twitching her black hat farther off her forehead.
“Sometimes you are impossible. You won’t interest yourself in life, and you won’t let others be interested.”
“I’m not quite so bad as that, Gertrude. I am no good at social affairs. You have the genius for all that.”
“Exactly. But even in the matter of helping things on. Well, it is no use talking to you. I promised Lady Marchendale that I would be on the platform by three.”
“You haven’t much time.”
“No, I haven’t.”
She let him see that she despaired of his personality, and walked off towards the house, a long, thin, yellow figure, like a vibrating wire that was always a blurr of egotistical energy. She was angry, with the pinched and cold anger of a thin-natured woman. James was impossible, only fit to be left like a great bear among his trees and shrubs. Besides he had made her look a fool. These sixty men were to have followed her carriage, an impressive body of retainers tramping after her into Lady Marchendale’s grounds.
Neither Guinevere the rose, nor the purpose of Canterton’s day had been so much as noticed. He was always busy watching something, studying the life cycle of some pest, scanning the world of growth in the great nursery, and Gertrude Canterton was not interested in flowers, which meant that she was outside the world of her husband’s life. These two people, though living in the same house, were absolute strangers to each other. The book of their companionship had been closed long ago, and had never been reopened. The great offence had arisen when James Canterton had chosen to become the professional artist and trader. His wife had never forgiven him that step. It had seemed so unnecessary, so vulgar, so exasperatingly irrational to a woman who was essentially a snob. From that time Gertrude Canterton had begun to excuse her husband to the world, to shrug her shoulders at him as an eccentric creature, to let her friends understand that Canterton was one of those abnormal people who are best left alone in their own peculiar corner. She never understood him, and never attempted to understand him, being too busy with her multifarious publicities to grasp the bigness and the beauty of this quiet man’s mind.
Gertrude Canterton had a restless passion for managing things and people, and for filling her life with a conviction that she was indispensable. Her maternal instinct seemed to have become a perverted passion for administration. She was a Guardian of the Poor, Dame President of the local Primrose League Habitation, Secretary of the Basingford Coal and Clothing Club, Treasurer of the District Nurses Fund, an enthusiastic National Service Leaguer, on the committee of a convalescent home for London children that had been built within three miles of Basingford, a lecturer on Eugenics, a strenuous advocate of the Red Cross campaign, also a violent anti-Suffragist. She had caught a whole collection of the age’s catch-cries, and used them perpetually with eager emphasis. “The woman’s place is the home.” “We must begin with the children.” “Help, but not pauperisation.” “The Ideal of the Empire.” “The segregation of the unfit.” She wanted to manage everybody, and was tacitly disliked by everybody, save by a select few, who considered her to be a remarkable and a very useful woman.
At three minutes past three Gertrude Canterton was on the platform in the marquee in Lady Marchendale’s grounds, and making the short speech with which she was to open the Primrose League fête. Short speeches did not accord with Gertrude Canterton’s methods of persuasion. She always had a very great deal to say, enjoyed saying it, and never paused to wonder whether people wanted to listen to her opinions. She spoke for twenty minutes in her thin and metallic voice, eagerly and earnestly, and keeping up that queer, sinuous wriggling of the trunk and shoulders that had made some wag christen her “The Earnest Eel.”
The country crowd was bored after the first five minutes. Lord Parallax was to speak later, and the people had grown too accustomed to listening to Mrs. Canterton. There were a number of children sandwiched in among their elders, children who became either vacantly depressed or assertively restless. The real fun of the day was waiting, the roundabout, the races, the mugs of tea, and the buns.
Two men in flannel suits and Panama hats stood just outside the marquee doorway.
“Up at the house, playing croquet with Grace Abercorn. I promised to fetch him, when the star turn was due. They’ll think he has just rushed down from town by motor.”
“Listen to the indefatigable woman.”
“You know, she might be doing some sort of ultra-subtle Maud Allan business, if you put her in beads.”
“My dear chap!”
“Fifteen minutes already, and we expected three. It is no use trying to stop her. She’s like a soda water bottle with the cork out. You can’t do anything till all the gas has escaped.”
“I’ll just go down and see how the Sports Committee are getting along. Oh, by the way, I’ve booked you and Ethel for our houseboat at Henley.”
“Thanks. I’ll remember.”
On the lawn below Lady Marchendale’s terrace garden Lord Parallax was flirting with a clever and audacious little woman in grey and silver. Ostensibly they were playing croquet, while old Percival Kex, Esq., sat in a French cane chair under the lime tree, and quizzed Parallax when he came within range.
“Well, will you take my bet, or not?”
“Don’t talk at the critical moment, sir. This game turns on the Suffrage question.”
“Here, Gracie, do you hear him trying to shirk my challenge?”
Miss Abercorn trailed her mallet towards the lime tree. Percival Kex was a character, with his tin-plate face, bold head, and eyes like blackberries. His tongue fished in many waters, and his genial cynicism was infinitely refreshing.
“I have wagered Parallax six sevenpenny insurance stamps that he won’t escape the Wriggling Lady.”
“My dear sir, how can I, when——”
“Wait a moment. One handshake, six smiles, and three minutes’ conversation will be allowed. After that you have got to keep clear, and I bet you you won’t.”
“Kex, I always lay myself out to be bored at these functions. That is why I am playing croquet, and attempting to get some compensation.”
“Who’s to snatch at that feather, Gracie, you or I? I suppose it is yours.”
“Hallo, here’s Meryon! I’m due on the boards.”
“Miss Abercorn, I desire you to come and act as time-keeper, and to hold the stakes.”
Percival Kex won his six insurance stamps without much difficulty. Parallax made his oration, and when the audience had dispersed, he became the immediate victim of Mrs. Canterton’s enthusiasms. They paraded the grounds together, Parallax polite, stiff, and full of a disastrous disgust; Gertrude Canterton earnestly vivadous, poking her chin at him, and exerting all her public charm. Parallax was considered to be a great personality, and she insisted upon his being interesting and serious, giving him every opportunity to be brilliant upon such subjects as Welsh Disestablishment, the inadequacy of the Navy, and the importation of pork from China. She kept him for more than an hour, introduced him to numberless honest souls who were content with a shake of the hand, insinuated in every way that she knew that he was a very great man, but never suspected that he wanted to play croquet.
Parallax detached himself at last, and found Kex and Miss Abercorn having tea under the lime tree in that secluded corner where none of the Leaguers penetrated.
“By George, Kex, I’ve never been taken so seriously in my life! Let me see—where am I? I think I got bogged in Tariff Reform.”
“We thought we would come and have tea, Parallax. We saw you were too occupied.”
“Kex, you are an old scoundrel. Why didn’t you rescue me when you had won your bet?”
“Sir, I am not a hero.”
“Is there a whisky and soda to be had? Oh, here’s a servant. Bring me a whisky and soda, will you?”
He sat down and looked reproachfully at Miss Abercorn.
“I suppose it would never occur to such a woman that a man might want to play croquet?”
“Croquet, Parallax! My dear fellow, think of the Empire, and——”
“Hang the Empire. Here’s my whisky.”
“Don’t you think you had better make sure of it by going and drinking it in the shrubbery? She may follow you up to see what you’ve got to say on Eugenics.”
“Miss Abercorn, will you protect me? Really, I have had too much Minerva.”
“That apple! I always had a lot of sympathy with Paris. I think he was a particularly bright young man.”
“One word, Kex: has the lady a husband?”
“Thank God, and Heaven help him!”
Categories: English Literature