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Authors: R. F. Delderfield

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‘Will ’ee tak’ tea now?’ she said, as though she had been a polite hostess welcoming a guest and he said he would and squatted on a truss of bracken, balancing himself on his heels. Sitting in that posture, with the candlelight flickering over his dark hair and strong features he looked a little like an Arab pondering a purchase and she said, handing him tea, ‘Youm sad, Ikey boy; be ’ee off outalong tomorrow?’ He said this was so and that he would be outalong much longer than usual for they were sending him across the sea. This did not frighten her but it must have astonished her for she uttered the low hissing sound she used to express surprise.

‘Across the sea?’ she repeated. ‘Baint ’ee scared?’

‘No,’ he said, ‘I baint scared but I’m mumpish, mumpish to be leavin’ ’ee so long.’

‘Aw giddon,’ she said, carelessly, ‘you’ll be back zoon enough, dornee mope along o’ that!’ and she sidled up to him and tweaked his ear. He seized her then with an urgency he had never used, not even when he was drunk on his mother’s hedgerow wine, throwing her across his knees and covering her face with kisses so that she laughed and pretended to resist and they rolled sideways into the bracken, their shadows dancing a crazy pattern on the wall. Then, breathlessly, she freed herself and said, ‘Wait on, boy! Dornee rush zo! Tiz dark now, so why dornee stay the night zince youm going? Tiz mild too and us’ll be snug if I mends the fire!’

He said, for once not using the brogue, ‘I can’t stay, Hazel; it’s my last night and they’ll expect me to dinner,’ but he made no effort to go and she was puzzled by his sudden listlessness. ‘I don’t like leaving you and that’s a fact,’ he added and she smiled for he had never previously committed himself so deeply, ‘I don’t like to think what might happen to you up here alone with me thousands of miles away. Dammit, you can’t even read a letter I could write! Why the devil won’t you go and live in the Dell, at least until I get back again?’

He had suggested this many times, just as he had urged her to return to Miss Willoughby’s school and learn to read and write, but tonight she saw that he meant it and his sudden concern baffled her.

‘Now whyfore should harm come to me up yer?’ she demanded. ‘ ’Er never has, has ’er?’

‘No,’ he admitted, ‘it never has, and I suppose you can look after yourself for if you can’t, who can?’

‘I likes it yer,’ she said, doggedly, ‘so yer I stay ’till I dies!’

do you like it so much, Hazel? Tell me, if you can.’

‘Because I can zee what goes on,’ she said, but then he saw that she was teasing him and that this was not the real reason, and said, ‘That isn’t why! I don’t mind about you being here by day, it’s sleeping out that matters.’

‘Aye,’ she said, now looking at him slyly, ‘but mebbe I stay on because ’o you!’

‘Because of me? But I only get up here once in a blue moon!’

‘Ah,’ she said, ‘that’s zo but when I’m yer
always along o’ me in a manner o’ speakin’. Do ’ee mind that, now?’

He minded it well enough and it filled him with a tenderness that no words, in or out of the brogue, could convey. He put his arm round her and drew her close so that they sat there with their backs to the shelving wall, her head on his breast as he stroked her tumbling mass of hair. They sat thus for so long that he thought she was asleep and presently the candle guttered and went out but as though to replace it a sliver of moonlight crept into the cave. Time passed and neither of them moved but when, shifting slightly to glance at his luminous watch, he saw that it was already long past dinner-time, she stirred and said, plaintively, ‘Youm tumble mumpish tonight, Ikey! Dornee want me no more?’ and he took her face between his hands and said, ‘I’ll always want you, Hazel, wherever I am and I’ll always come back to you, don’t ever forget that! I’ll always come back!’ It seemed to satisfy her for she brightened up at once, saying cheerfully, ‘Well then yer us be an’ tomorrow you’ll be outalong zo tiz no use frettin’, be it? Us best make the most of it, Ikey-boy!’

Her philosophy, thus expressed, boosted his spirits for he thought, ‘They all call her “mazed” but she’s more sense than any one of us! She doesn’t live by the week or the day but by the hour, so that’s how I’ll think of her, always!’ and he pulled her down and would have taken possession of her with the impatience he usually displayed when time was short, but tonight a subtle difference entered into their relationship; after the first moment or so it was she who led, as though she realised he was the one standing in need of comfort.

It was after ten o’clock when he kissed her for the last time and, taking his lantern, went out along the track to the north end of the mere and home by the long but less overgrown route, approaching Shallowford from the east. He slipped in by the yard door and up the backstairs to change his clothes and when he came down to the library he found Paul and Claire waiting up but they did not ask him where he had been, or why he was so late, remembering that he was almost twenty-one and might well have some private good-byes to say in the Valley. In fact they had laid a wager on the subject, over dinner, Paul betting that Ikey was mildly interested in the eldest Eveleigh girl, Claire wagering that Deborah Eveleigh was not Ikey’s type and suggesting that his fancy had strayed over the county border during his summer furlough and fixed on the daughter of a retired cavalry major called Ella Stokes, who lived at Brandon Chase or the next village on.

‘It’s a damned long walk in the dark,’ Paul said, when ten o’clock struck, ‘so you’ve lost your money, old girl!’

‘Not so long at his age, and with the prospect of three years pig-sticking and polo playing in the company of men,’ she said. ‘In any case, don’t you dare question him unless he volunteers information!’

‘Not me,’ he told her chuckling, ‘I know that much about Ikey!’

He apologised for missing dinner when he came at last but he did not explain where he had been, except to say, off-handedly, that he had lost track of time. Claire, kissing him good night, noticed that he still looked a little wan and decided that the bet would be null and void, for he had almost certainly been mooching around in his own company all evening and this did not surprise her. If she had been exchanging Shallowford for India it was what she might have done.

Chapter Two


eith Horsey’s wooing of Rachel Eveleigh was progressing but at such a pedestrian pace that sometimes Rachel would lie awake for hours wondering how to bring him to the boil. It was almost two years since she had correctly assessed the worth of Sydney Codsall and, miraculously it seemed at the time, switched to Keith who had undoubted possibilities as a swain but whose technique was even more cumbersome than Sydney’s, although for very different reasons. Sydney had held off because he had no intention of committing himself, whereas Keith was clearly enslaved but was so humble about it that it had taken him nearly twelve months (spaced by absences at Oxford) to reach the hand-holding stage. Now that the fine weather had arrived, and they could take long walks together in the cool of the evening, she had managed to apply the spur once or twice but the entries in the diary she kept recorded only three kisses and two of them were hardly more than pecks in the region of the right ear. It was depressing to compare her recent experience with those of her pre-Sydney period, when, in the company of Debbie, her sister, she had attended harvest suppers and an occasional hop in the Coombe Bay Village Institute. Here she had had the greatest difficulty in extricating herself from bucolic embraces without crossing the line that might have led to a thrashing from father, endless nagging from mother, a shotgun wedding and a life-sentence in a tied cottage behind one of the farms. Faced, however, with Keith’s abject humility Rachel sometimes wished that the Devil his father was always preaching about would take fleeting residence in his son, just long enough to enable her to turn temptation to permanent advantage.

It was not to be, however. Keith must have imbibed so many warnings against the lusts of the flesh that he was more or less inoculated against the Devil’s wiles, for even when their fingers touched he trembled and began to stutter, and once, when he was helping her over a stile and her dress had caught on a briar to expose about two inches of shin, he had blushed the colour of a ripe plum and they walked all the way home unlinked.

Reviewing the situation as it was when he came home for the summer vacation in June, 1913, Rachel concluded that she could only hope for an appreciable advance if something dramatic occurred during one of their silent evening rambles, something calculated to galvanise him into action and precipitate his suit by involuntary personal contact. She visualised a number of bizarre situations—Keith throwing his arms about her to shield her from a falling bough, Keith clasping her to him in defiance of Honeyman’s prize bull, or, better still, Keith lifting her dripping wet from Sorrel and attempting artificial respiration on the bank. In the event she was not required to set the stage for any of these occurrences.

It happened on a warm June evening as they were moving round the shoulder of the great escarpment north-west of the mere, using the overgrown path above the hill where the Shallowford badgers had their sets. Their walk had been even more uneventful than usual for the ground was rough over most of the route and for the last two miles they had been walking in Indian file, with Keith ahead, beating a passage through the brambles. Like most countrybred girls Rachel took the glories of nature for granted. Woods, ferns, wildflowers and brambles were to her little more than a growth on what might be converted into arable land and she was sorry now that she had agreed to turn off the sunken lane that ran a half-circle behind the Big House. Since he had returned home a few days earlier she had been growing desperate. Stile after stile had been negotiated and she had seen any number of available logs to sit upon but he had passed every spot where, on such an evening as this, and under a bronze and heliotrope sunset, lovers might have been tempted to linger. She finally made up her mind to try the simplest of all, a stumble and a sprained ankle, that would encourage him to stop and perhaps try a little gentle massage, for by now Rachel was convinced that only close physical contact would give her a sporting chance of casting a net from which he, as a parson’s son, could hardly escape with honour. She did not expect miracles but a miracle was unnecessary, a little patting and probing would do the trick and a proposal would almost certainly follow, particularly if she prescribed the areas where the patting was done. And then, just as she was looking for a suitable briar to entrap her foot, the Valley mating gods took a hand and a low, choked cry issued from a gorse thicket within a few yards of the path. They both stopped, surprised, and a little alarmed to hear such a sound in such a place, and he said, seeking corroboration, ‘That was human! Somebody is hurt in there!’ and although the cry had sounded human common sense told her that it was far more likely to be the moan of an animal caught in a trap and she said as much. ‘Squire has forbidden the use of steel traps on the estate,’ he said. ‘I’ll push through and see!’ and he barged through the gorse that grew close against the summit of a large, flat-topped rock on the crest of the slope.

She did not follow for the gorse was dense and she was wearing her Sunday stockings. She sensed, however, that a crisis in their relationship had arrived, or was on the point of arriving and was therefore partially prepared for his re-emergence within a matter of seconds with an expression of terror on his face. She had never seen so much horror in a man’s eyes, or a face more tense and blanched and cried, ‘What
it, Keith? What’s in there?’ and he gibbered, ‘It’s . . . it’s a
a gggirl! She’s . . . she’s . . . there’s a bbbaby coming!’ and for a moment she thought he was going to faint. Then a second cry came from the base of the rock and another and another, each louder and more pitiful than the other, so that Rachel rushed past him and dived through the gorse to find that it screened a small, shallow cave, evidently the hideout of a tramp or gypsy, for there was a burned-out fire and a few trumpery utensils scattered about. Beyond the fire, close against the wall was a girl, her knees drawn up and her single garment, a faded dress, rucked up level with her breasts. Her matted hair tumbled as she heaved and when her mouth was not open in a yell her teeth were clamped over her lip.

Rachel recognised her at once as Hazel Potter, the half-crazed postscript of the Potter tribe and a glance told her that Keith, unbelievably, was right and that the poor little wretch was indeed giving birth to a child, for the baby’s head was already showing and it seemed to Rachel, who had witnessed the birth of innumerable foals and calves, that labour was about half-way through and progressing rapidly before her eyes. She had inherited courage from her father and any amount of common sense from her mother, so that even before the shock had receded she knew what she must do and also what Keith must do if he could keep his nerve. She dived back through the bushes and seizing him by the shoulders shook him as though he had been a troublesome child.

‘Listen!’ she shouted, ‘listen, and then do exactly what I say! Are you listening?
you?’ and when he nodded, his head wobbling on his long, thin neck, she went on, ‘It’s Hazel Potter and she
having a baby! I’ll have to stay and help but you must go for the lady doctor as fast as you can. Don’t go the shortest way but across the stream to Sam Potter’s cottage and send his wife here to help me—tell her to bring towels and a sheet and . . . and string and scissors, can you remember? Then take Sam’s pony, ride on to the Lodge and guide the lady doctor back here.’

She was agreeably surprised to see that he pulled himself together at once and repeated her instructions like a recitation. Then he set off at a long, loping run, disappearing round the bend in the track while she ran back through the bushes and flung herself on her knees beside the girl, looking wildly around for something approximate to a bed and rejecting the pile of sacks in favour of a great truss of freshly-cut bracken bundled against the wall. She saw the kettle beside the almost extinct fire and would have crawled across to revive it by blowing on the embers had not Hazel, at that moment, clutched her with both hands as her mouth opened in another fearful yell. Then she understood that everything else would have to wait, that her immediate presence as someone to cling to for as long as the ordeal lasted, was more important than water or bedding or linen, so she wriggled in a half-circle that brought her in a position where Hazel’s head could rest on her lap and Hazel’s hands could retain their grip on her wrists and in this way she rode out the girl’s successive heaves, pouring out such words of comfort as she could invent while the climax mounted and mounted until there was no interval between the spasms that touched off the girl’s cries.

She was never able to recall how long they were alone before Joannie Potter arrived. It might have been twenty minutes, or an hour, or even longer before Rachel saw the child lying there and Hazel’s grip on her wrists relaxed, so that she was able to shift her position and spill the truss of lean bracken across the floor, dragging some of it under the girl’s shoulders, then scrambling round to revive the fire. The water in the iron kettle was still warm and in one of the cave’s recesses she found the deep earthenware bowl that Hazel used for baking. She cleaned it as best she could, using strips torn from her petticoat and half-resting the squirming little creature on her knee sponged it from head to foot with her best cotton blouse. She had no means of separating mother and child, for although there was a large wooden-handled knife among the utensils its blade was rusted and she remembered that Jamieson, the Valley vet, had impressed upon them the importance of using clean instruments. It did occur to her to hold the blade in the fire but she shrank from this and anyway it did not seem to matter for the terrible urgency had ceased with the girl’s cries. She was still making sounds of distress, long, whistling gasps, like a cider-sodden harvester asleep in the hay but her big brown eyes followed Rachel’s every movement and noting this Rachel said, softly, ‘It’s a boy, Hazel! I think he’s all right!’ The girl twisted herself to look at the child but even this small effort exhausted her and she slumped back on the bracken while Rachel, now using the hem of her petticoat, tied the cord tightly in two places about twelve inches apart as she had seen Jamieson do in the byre at Four Winds. When the water had been changed and the baby sponged again it looked, Rachel thought, more like a baby and less like a slimy pink monkey. It let out a single yell and its tiny feet pressed feebly against Rachel’s knee, so that she forgot her terrible anxiety in a surge of achievement, wondering again whether or not to use the knife to cut the cord but again rejecting the idea from motives of hygiene. Instead she cradled the baby against her soiled skirt and with her left hand tore off another strip of material from her petticoat, using it to wash Hazel’s face and the lower parts of her body. The girl spoke, suddenly, her voice seeming hardly to belong to her after all those cries:

‘Where’s ’er tu?’ she demanded. ‘Where’s The Boy?’ and Rachel, surprised that she should have remembered Keith’s fleeting appearance in the cave, said that he had gone for Joannie Potter, who would be here any moment and also the lady doctor, who would come as soon as Keith Horsey guided her here. Hazel received this information thoughtfully, lying back with her eyes fixed on the roof of the cave and Rachel noticed that her breathing was slowly returning to normal and that she seemed, miraculously, little the worse for the ordeal. Then, as the light in the cave waned, they heard someone call from the path and Rachel shouted, ‘In here—through the bushes under the rock!’ and Joannie Potter appeared clutching an armful of bedding and towelling and with barely a glance at the baby began to make a couch at the back of the cave, spreading the sacks as a base for heaped-up bracken. The little cave seemed very crowded now and Rachel realised that Joannie was very much out of breath, so much so that it was minutes before she could gasp, ‘You’ve washed the mite? ’Twas warmish, I ’ope?’ and Rachel told her the kettle had contained lukewarm water and that the baby, a boy, had cried out within a moment or two of birth. Joannie paused in her work of doubling the blankets. ‘ ’Er baint crying now an’ her should be! Turn un over, an’ give un a smack or two!’ and Rachel, smiling now, began to turn the child face down and then remembered that the cord was uncut.

BOOK: Post of Honour
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