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The History of Sir Richard Calmady: a Romance . Malet, Lucas, 1852–1931.
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page: 76

CHAPTER X

THE BIRDS OF THE AIR TAKE THEIR BREAKFAST

ORMISTON’S first sensation on re‐entering his sister’s room was one of very sensible relief. For Katherine leaned back against the pink, brocade cushions in the corner of the sofa, with the baby sleeping peacefully in her arms. Her colour was more normal too, her features less masklike and set. The cloud which had shadowed the young man’s mind for nearly a fortnight lifted. She knew—therefore, he argued, the worst must be over. It was an immense gain that this thing was fairly said. Yet, as he came nearer and sat down on the sofa beside her, Ormiston, who was a keen observer both of horses and women, became aware of a subtle change in Katherine. He was struck—he had never noticed it before—by her likeness to her—and his—father, whose stern, high‐bred, clean‐shaven face and rather inaccessible bearing and manner impressed his son, even to this day, as somewhat alarming. People were careful not to trifle with old Mr. Ormiston. His will was absolute in his own house, with his tenants, and in the great iron‐works—almost a town in itself—which fed his fine fortune. While from his equals—even from his fellow‐members of that not over‐reverent or easily impressible body, the House of Commons—he required and received a degree of deference such as men yield page: 77 only to an unusually powerful character. And there was now just such underlying energy in Katherine’s expression. Her eyes were dark, as a clear, midnight sky is dark, her beautiful lips compressed, but with concentration of purpose not with weakness of sorrow. The force of her motherhood had awakened in Katherine a latent, titanic element. Like “Prometheus Bound,” chained to the rock, torn, her spirit remained unquelled. For good or evil—as the event should prove—she defied the gods.

And something of all this—though he would have worded it very differently in the vernacular of passing fashion—Ormiston perceived. She was unbroken by that which had occurred, and for this he was thankful. But she was another woman to her who had greeted him in pretty apology an hour ago. Yet, even recognising this, her first words produced in him a shock of surprise.

“Is that horse, the Clown, still at the stables?” she asked.

Ormiston thrust his hands into his pockets, and, sitting on the edge of the sofa with his knees apart, stared down at the carpet. The mention of the Clown always cut him, and raised in him a remorseful anger.—Yes she was like his father, going straight to the point, he thought. And, in this case, the point was acutely painful to him personally. Ormiston’s moral courage had been severely taxed, and he had a fair share of the selfishness common to man. It was all very well, but he wished to goodness she had chosen some other subject than this. Yet he must answer.

“Yes,” he said; “Willy Taylor has been leading the gallops for the two‐year‐olds on him for the last month.”—He paused. “What about the Clown?”

“Only that I should be glad if you would tell Chifney he must find some other horse to lead the gallops.”

Ormiston turned his head. “I see—you wish the horse sold,” he said, over his shoulder.

Katherine looked down at the sleeping baby, its round head, crowned by that delicious crest of silky hair, cuddled in against her breast. Then she looked in her brother’s eyes full and steadily.

“No,” she answered. “I don’t want it sold. I want it shot—by you, here, to‐night.”

“By Jove!” the young man exclaimed, rising hastily and standing in front of her.

Katherine gazed up at him, and held the child a little closer to her breast.

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“I have been alone with my baby. Don’t you suppose I see how it has come about?” she asked.

“Oh, damn it all!” Ormiston cried. “I prayed at least you might be spared thinking of that.”

He flung himself down on the sofa again—while the baby clenching its tiny fist, stretched and murmured in its sleep—and bowed himself together, resting his elbows on his knees and his chin in his hands.

“I’m at the bottom of it. It’s all my fault,” he said. “I am haunted by the thought of that day and night, for, if ever one man loved another, I loved Richard. And yet if I hadn’t been so cursedly keen about the horse all this might never have happened. Oh! if you only knew how often I’ve wished myself dead since that ghastly morning. You must hate me, Kitty. You’ve cause enough. Yet how the deuce could I foresee what would come about?”

For the moment Katherine’s expression softened. She laid her left hand very gently on his bowed head.

“I could never hate you, dear old man,” she said. “You are innocent of Richard’s death. But this last thing is different.”—Her voice became fuller and deeper in tone. “And whether I am equally innocent of his child’s disfigurement, God only knows—if there is a God, which perhaps, just now, I had better doubt, lest I should blaspheme too loudly, hoping my bitter words may reach His hearing.”

Yet further disturbed in the completeness of its comfort, as it would seem, by the seriousness of her voice, the baby’s mouth puckered. It began to fret. Katherine rose and stood rocking it, soothing it—a queenly, young figure in her clinging grey and white draperies, which the instreaming sunshine touched, as she moved, to a delicate warmth of colour.

“Hush, my pretty lamb,” she crooned—and then softly yet fiercely to Ormiston:—“You understand, I wish it. The Clown is to be shot.”

“Very well,” he answered.

“Sleep—what troubles you, my precious,” she went on. “I want it done, now, at once.—Hush, baby, hush.—The sun shall not go down upon my wrath, because my wrath shall be somewhat appeased before the sunset.”

Katherine swayed with a rhythmic motion, holding the baby a little away from her in her outstretched arms.

“Tell Chifney to bring the horse up to the square lawn, here, right in front of the house.—Hush, my kitty sweet.—He is to bring the horse himself. None of the stable boys or helpers are page: 79 to come. It is not to be an entertainment, but an execution. I wish it done quietly.”

“Very well,” Ormiston repeated. He hesitated, strong protest rising to his lips, which he could not quite bring himself to utter. Katherine, the courage and tragedy of her anger, dominated him as she moved to and fro in the sunshine soothing her child.

“You know it’s a valuable horse?” he remarked, at last, tentatively.

“So much the better. You do not suppose I should care to take that which costs me nothing? I am quite willing to pay.—Sleep, my pet, so—is that better?—I do not propose to defraud—hush, baby darling, hush—Richard’s son of any part of his inheritance. Tell Chifney to name a price for the Clown, an outside price. He shall have a cheque to‐morrow, which he is to enter with the rest of the stable accounts.—Now go, please. We understand each other clearly, and it is growing late.—Poor honey love, what vexes you?—You will shoot the Clown, here, before sunset. And, Roger, it must lie where it falls to‐night. Let some of the men come early to‐morrow, with a float. It is to go to the kennels.”

Ormiston got up, shaking his shoulders as though to rid himself of some encumbering weight. He crossed to the fire‐place and kicked the logs together.

“I don’t half like it,” he said. “I tell you I don’t. It seems such a cold‐blooded butchery. I can’t tell if it’s wrong or right. It seems merciless. And it is so unlike you, Kitty, to be merciless.”

He turned to her as he spoke, and Katherine—her head erect, her eyes full of the sombre fire of her profound alienation and revolt—drew her hand slowly down over the fine lawn and lace of the baby’s long, white robe, and held it flat against the soles of the child’s hidden feet.

“Look at this,” she said. “Remember, too, that the delight of my life has gone from me, and that I am young yet. The years will be many—and Richard is dead. Has much mercy been shown to me, do you think?”

And the young man seeing her, knowing the absolute sincerity of her speech, felt a lump rise in his throat. After all, when you have acted hangman to your own sister, as he reasoned, it is but a small matter to act slaughterman to a horse.

“Very well,” he answered, huskily enough. “It shall be as you wish, Kitty. Only go back to the sofa, and stay there, please. If I think you are watching, I can’t be quite sure of page: 80 myself. Something may go wrong, and we don’t want a scene which will make talk. This is a business which should be got through as quickly and decently as possible.”

The sun was but five minutes high and no longer brightened the southern house‐front, though it spread a ruddy splendour over the western range of gables, and lingered about the stacks of slender, twisted chimneys, and cast long, slanting shadows across the lawns and carriage drives, before Lady Calmady’s waiting drew to a close. From the near trees of the elm avenue, and from the wood overhanging the pond below the terraced kitchen‐gardens, came the singing of blackbirds and thrushes—whether raised as evening hymn in praise of their Creator, or as love‐song each to his mate, who shall say? Possibly as both, since in simple minds—and that assuredly is matter for thankfulness—earthly and heavenly affections are bounded by no harsh dividing line. The chorus of song found its way in at the windows of Katherine’s room—fresh as the spring flowers which filled it, innocent of hatred and wrong as the face of the now placid baby, his soft cheeks flushed with slumber, as he nestled in against his mother’s bosom.

Indeed a long time had passed. Twice Denny had looked in and, seeing that quiet reigned, had noiselessly withdrawn. For Katherine, still physically weak, drained, moreover, by the greatness of her recent emotion, her senses lulled to rest by the warm contact and even breathing of the child, had sunk away into a dreamless sleep.

The questioning neigh of a stallion, a scuffle of horse hoofs, footsteps approaching round the corner of the house, passing across the broad, gravelled, carriage sweep and on to the turf, aroused her. And these sounds were so natural, full of vigorous outdoor life and the wholesome gladness of it, that for a moment she came near repentance of her purpose. But then feeling, as he rested on her arm, her baby’s shortened, malformed limbs, and thinking of her well‐beloved dying, maimed and spent, in the fulness of his manhood, her face took on that ashen pallor again and all relenting left her. There was a satisfaction of wild justice in the act about to be consummated. And Katherine raised herself from the pink, brocade cushions and sat erect, her lips parted in stern excitement, her forehead contracted in the effort to hear, her eyes fixed on the wide, carven, ebony bed and its embroidered hangings. The poor Hart had, indeed, ceased to pasture in reposeful security before the quaint pavilion, set—for its passing refreshment—in the midst of the Forest of This Life. Now it fled, desperate, by crooked, tangled ways, over page: 81 rocks, through briars, while Care, the Leopard, followed hard behind.

First Roger Ormiston’s voice reached her in brief direction, and the trainer’s in equally brief reply. The horse neighed again—a sound strident and virile, the challenge of a creature of perfect muscle, hot desire, and proud, quick‐coursing blood. Afterwards, an instant’s pause, and Chifney’s voice again—“So‐ho—my beauty—take it easy—steady there, steady, good lad”—and the slap of his open hand on the horse’s shoulder straightening it carefully into place. While, behind and below all this, in sweet incongruous undertone of uncontrollable joy, arose the carolling of the blackbirds and thrushes praising, according to their humble powers, God, life, and love.

Finally, as climax of the drama, the sharp report of a pistol, ringing out in shattering disturbance of the peace of the fair spring evening, followed by a dead silence, the birds all scared and dumb—a silence so dead, that Katherine Calmady held her breath, almost awed by it, while the hissing and crackling of the little flames upon the hearth seemed to obtrude as an indecent clamour. This lasted a few seconds. Then the noise of a plunging struggle and the muffled thud of something falling heavily upon the turf.

Dr. Knott had been up all night. But his patient, Lord Denier’s second coachman, would pull through right enough, so he started on his homeward journey in a complacent frame of mind. He reckoned it would save him a couple of miles, let alone the long hill from Farley Row up to Spendle Flats, if on his way back from Grimshott he went by Brockhurst House. It is stretching a point, he admitted, to drive under even your neighbour’s back windows at five o’clock in the morning. But the doctor being himself unusually amiable, was inclined to accredit others with a like share of good temper. Moreover, the natural man in him cried increasingly loudly for food and bed.

John Knott was not given to sentimental rhapsodies over the beauties of nature. Like other beauties she had her dirty enough moods, he thought. Still, in his own half‐snarling fashion, he dearly loved this forest country in which he had been born and bred, while he was too keen a sportsman to be unobservant of any aspect of wind and weather, any movement of bird or beast. With the collar of his long, drab driving‐coat turned up about his ears, and the stem of a well‐coloured, meerschaum pipe between his teeth, he sat huddled together in the high, swinging gig, with Timothy, the weasel‐faced, old groom, by his side, while the pageant of the opening day unfolded itself page: 82 before his somewhat critical gaze. He noted that it would be fine, though windy. In the valley, over the Long Water, spread beds of close, white mist. The blue of the upper sky was crossed by curved winrows of flaky, opalescent cloud. In the east, above the dusky rim of the fir woods on the edge of the high‐lying tableland, stretched a blinding blaze of rose‐saffron, shading through amber into pale primrose‐colour above. The massive house‐front, and the walls fencing the three sides of the square enclosure before it, with the sexagonal, pepper‐pot summer‐houses at either corner, looked pale and unsubstantial in that diffused, unearthly light. At the head of the elm avenue, passing through the high, wrought‐iron gates and along the carriage drive which skirts the said enclosure,—the great, square grass plot on the right hand, the red wall of the kitchen‐gardens on the left,—Dr. Knott had the reins nearly jerked out of his hand. The mare started and swerved, grazing the off wheel against the brickwork, and stopped, her head in the air, her ears pricked, her nostrils dilated showing the red.

“Hullo, old girl, what’s up? Seen a ghost?” he said, drawing the whip quietly across the hollow of her back.

But the mare only braced herself more stiffly, refusing to move, while she trembled and broke into a sudden sweat. The doctor was interested and looked about him. He would first find out the cause of her queer behaviour, and give her a good dressing down afterwards if she deserved it.

The smooth, slightly up‐sloping lawn was powdered with innumerable dewdrops. In the centre of it, neck outstretched, the fine legs doubled awkwardly together, the hind quarters and barrel rising, as it lay on its side, in an unshapely lump, grey from the drenching dew, was a dead horse. Along the top of the farther wall a smart and audacious party of jackdaws had stationed themselves, with much ruffling of grey, neck feathers, impudent squeakings and chatter. While a pair of carrion crows hopped slowly and heavily about the carcass, flapping up with a stroke or two of their broad wings in sudden suspicion, then settling down again nearer than before.

“Go to her head, Timothy, and get her by as quietly as you can. I’ll be after you in a minute, but I’m bound to see what the dickens they’ve been up to here.”

As he spoke Dr. Knott hitched himself down from off the gig. He was cramped with sitting, and moved forward awkwardly, his footsteps leaving a track of dark irregular patches upon the damp grass. As he approached, the jackdaws flung themselves gleefully upward from the wall, the sun glinting on their glossy page: 83 plumage as they circled and sailed away across the park. But the crow, who had just begun work in earnest, stood his ground notwithstanding the warning croak of his more timid mate. He grasped the horse’s skull with his claws, and tore away greedily at the fine skin about the eye‐socket with his strong, black beak.

“How’s this, my fine gentleman, in too much of a hurry this morning to wait for the flavour to get into your meat?” John Knott said, as the bird rose sullenly at last. “Got a small hungry family at home, I suppose, crying ‘give, give.’ Well, that’s taught better men than you, before now, not to be too nice, but to snatch at pretty well anything they can get.”

He came close and stood looking meditatively down at the dead racehorse—recognised its long, white‐reach face, the colour and make of it, while his loose lips worked with a contemptuous yet pitying smile.

“So that’s the way my lady’s taken it, has she?” he said presently. “On the whole I don’t know that I’m sorry. In some cases much benefit unquestionably is derivable from letting blood. This shows she doesn’t mean to go under, if I know her, and that’s a mercy, for that poor, little beggar, the baby’s sake.”

He turned and contemplated the stately facade of the house. The ranges of windows, blind with closed shutters and drawn curtains, in the early sunshine gave off their many panes a broad dazzle of white light.

“Poor, little beggar,” he repeated, “with his forty thousand a year and all the rest of it. Such a race to run and yet so badly handicapped!”

He stooped down, examined the horse, found the mark of the bullet.

“Contradictory beings, though, these dear women,” he went on. “So fanciful and delicate, so sensitive you’re afraid to lay a finger on them. So unselfish, too, some of them, they seem too good for this old rough and tumble of a world. And yet touch ’em home, and they’ll show an unscrupulous savagery of which we coarse brutes of men should be more than half ashamed. God Almighty made a little more than He bargained for when He made woman. She must have surprised Him pretty shrewdly, one would think, now and then since the days of the apple and the snake.”

He moved away up the carriage drive, following Timothy, the sweating, straining mare, and swinging gig. The carrion crow flapped back, with a croak, and dropped on the horse’s skull page: 84 again. Hearing that bodeful sound the doctor paused a moment, knocking the ashes out of his pipe, and looked round at the bird and its ugly work set as foreground to that pure glory of the sunrises and the vast and noble landscape, misty valley, dewy grassland, far‐ranging hillside crowned with wood.

“The old story,” he muttered, “always repeating itself! And it strikes one as rather a wasteful, clumsy contrivance, at times. Life forever feeding on death—death forever breeding life.”

Thus ended the Clown, own brother to Touchstone, racehorse of merry name and mournful memory, paying the penalty of wholly involuntary transgressions. From which ending another era dated at Brockhurst, the most notable events of which it is the purpose of the ensuing pages duly to set forth.

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