Engelsk B heeeeeeeeelp,
what is the theme, and the message?
Before she reached the house Dr. Hennis, who was also a special constable, overtook her in his car.
‘Oh, Miss Postgate,’ he said, ‘I wanted to tell you that that accident at the “Royal Oak” was due to Gerritt’s stable tumbling down. It’s been dangerous for a long time. It ought to have been condemned.’
‘I thought I heard an explosion too,’ said Mary.
‘You might have been misled by the beams snapping. I’ve been looking at ’em. They were dry-rotted through and through. Of course, as they broke, they would make a noise just like a gun.’
‘Yes?’ said Mary politely.
‘Poor little Edna was playing underneath it,’ he went on, still holding her with his eyes, ‘and that and the tiles cut her to pieces, you see?’
‘I saw it,’ said Mary, shaking her head. ‘I heard it too.’
‘Well, we cannot be sure.’ Dr. Hennis changed his tone completely. ‘I know both you and Nurse Eden (I’ve been speaking to her) are perfectly trustworthy, and I can rely on you not to say anything—yet at least. It is no good to stir up people unless—’
‘Oh, I never do—anyhow,’ said Mary, and Dr. Hennis went on to the county town.
After all, she told herself, it might, just possibly, have been the collapse of the old stable that had done all those things to poor little Edna. She was sorry she had even hinted at other things, but Nurse Eden was discretion itself. By the time she reached home the affair seemed increasingly remote by its very monstrosity. As she came in, Miss Fowler told her that a couple of aeroplanes had passed half an hour ago.
‘I thought I heard them,’ she replied, ‘I’m going down to the garden now. I’ve got the paraffin.’
‘Yes, but—what have you got on your boots? They’re soaking wet. Change them at once.’
Not only did Mary obey but she wrapped the boots in a newspaper, and put them into the string bag with the bottle. So, armed with the longest kitchen poker, she left.
‘It’s raining again,’ was Miss Fowler’s last word, ‘but—I know you won’t be happy till that’s disposed of.’
‘It won’t take long. I’ve got everything down there, and I’ve put the lid on the destructor to keep the wet out.’
The shrubbery was filling with twilight by the time she had completed her arrangements and sprinkled the sacrificial oil. As she lit the match that would burn her heart to ashes, she heard a groan or a grunt behind the dense Portugal laurels.
‘Cheape?’ she called impatiently, but Cheape, with his ancient lumbago, in his comfortable cottage would be the last man to profane the sanctuary. ‘Sheep,’ she concluded, and threw in the fusee. The pyre went up in a roar, and the immediate flame hastened night around her.
‘How Wynn would have loved this!’ she thought, stepping back from the blaze.
By its light she saw, half hidden behind a laurel not five paces away, a bareheaded man sitting very stiffly at the foot of one of the oaks. A broken branch lay across his lap—one booted leg protruding from beneath it. His head moved ceaselessly from side to side, but his body was as still as the tree’s trunk. He was dressed—she moved sideways to look more closely—in a uniform something like Wynn’s, with a flap buttoned across the chest. For an instant, she had some idea that it might be one of the young flying men she had met at the funeral. But their heads were dark and glossy. This man’s was as pale as a baby’s, and so closely cropped that she could see the disgusting pinky skin beneath. His lips moved.
‘What do you say?’ Mary moved towards him and stooped.
‘Laty! Laty! Laty!’ he muttered, while his hands picked at the dead wet leaves. There was no doubt as to his nationality. It made her so angry that she strode back to the destructor, though it was still too hot to use the poker there. Wynn’s books seemed to be catching well. She looked up at the oak behind the man; several of the light upper and two or three rotten lower branches had broken and scattered their rubbish on the shrubbery path. On the lowest fork a helmet with dependent strings, showed like a bird’s-nest in the light of a long-tongued flame. Evidently this person had fallen through the tree. Wynn had told her that it was quite possible for people to fall out of aeroplanes. Wynn told her too, that trees were useful things to break an aviator’s fall, but in this case the aviator must have been broken or he would have moved from his queer position. He seemed helpless except for his horrible rolling head. On the other hand, she could see a pistol case at his belt—and Mary loathed pistols. Months ago, after reading certain Belgian reports together, she and Miss Fowler had had dealings with one—a huge revolver with flat-nosed bullets, which latter, Wynn said, were forbidden by the rules of war to be used against civilised enemies. ‘They’re good enough for us,’ Miss Fowler had replied. ‘Show Mary how it works.’ And Wynn, laughing at the mere possibility of any such need, had led the craven winking Mary into the Rector’s disused quarry, and had shown her how to fire the terrible machine. It lay now in the top-left-hand drawer of her toilet-table—a memento not included in the burning. Wynn would be pleased to see how she was not afraid.
She slipped up to the house to get it. When she came through the rain, the eyes in the head were alive with expectation. The mouth even tried to smile. But at sight of the revolver its corners went down just like Edna Gerritt’s. A tear trickled from one eye, and the head rolled from shoulder to shoulder as though trying to point out something.
‘Cassée. Tout cassée,’ it whimpered.
‘What do you say?’ said Mary disgustedly, keeping well to one side, though only the head moved.
‘Cassée,’ it repeated. ‘Che me rends. Le médicin! Toctor!’
‘Nein!’ said she, bringing all her small German to bear with the big pistol. ‘Ich haben der todt Kinder gesehn.’
The head was still. Mary’s hand dropped. She had been careful to keep her finger off the trigger for fear of accidents. After a few moments’ waiting, she returned to the destructor, where the flames were falling, and churned up Wynn’s charring books with the poker. Again the head groaned for the doctor.
‘Stop that!’ said Mary, and stamped her foot. ‘Stop that, you bloody pagan!’
The words came quite smoothly and naturally. They were Wynn’s own words, and Wynn was a gentleman who for no consideration on earth would have torn little Edna into those vividly coloured strips and strings. But this thing hunched under the oak-tree had done that thing. It was no question of reading horrors out of newspapers to Miss Fowler. Mary had seen it with her own eyes on the ‘Royal Oak’ kitchen table. She must not allow her mind to dwell upon it. Now Wynn was dead, and everything connected with him was lumping and rustling and tinkling under her busy poker into red black dust and grey leaves of ash. The thing beneath the oak would die too. Mary had seen death more than once. She came of a family that had a knack of dying under, as she told Miss Fowler, ‘most distressing circumstances.’ She would stay where she was till she was entirely satisfied that It was dead—dead as dear papa in the late ‘eighties; aunt Mary in eighty-nine; mamma in ‘ninety-one; cousin Dick in ninety-five; Lady McCausland’s housemaid in ‘ninety-nine; Lady McCausland’s sister in nineteen hundred and one; Wynn buried five days ago; and Edna Gerritt still waiting for decent earth to hide her. As she thought—her underlip caught up by one faded canine, brows knit and nostrils wide—she wielded the poker with lunges that jarred the grating at the bottom, and careful scrapes round the brick-work above. She looked at her wrist-watch. It was getting on to half-past four, and the rain was coming down in earnest. Tea would be at five. If It did not die before that time, she would be soaked and would have to change. Meantime, and this occupied her, Wynn’s things were burning well in spite of the hissing wet, though now and again a book-back with a quite distinguishable title would be heaved up out of the mass. The exercise of stoking had given her a glow which seemed to reach to the marrow of her bones. She hummed—Mary never had a voice—to herself. She had never believed in all those advanced views—though Miss Fowler herself leaned a little that way—of woman’s work in the world; but now she saw there was much to be said for them. This, for instance, was her work—work which no man, least of all Dr. Hennis, would ever have done. A man, at such a crisis, would be what Wynn called a ‘sportsman’; would leave everything to fetch help, and would certainly bring It into the house. Now a woman’s business was to make a happy home for—for a husband and children. Failing these—it was not a thing one should allow one’s mind to dwell upon—but—
‘Stop it!’ Mary cried once more across the shadows. ‘Nein, I tell you! Ich haben der todt Kinder gesehn.’
But it was a fact. A woman who had missed these things could still be useful—more useful than a man in certain respects. She thumped like a pavior through the settling ashes at the secret thrill of it. The rain was damping the fire, but she could feel—it was too dark to see—that her work was done. There was a dull red glow at the bottom of the destructor, not enough to char the wooden lid if she slipped it half over against the driving wet. This arranged, she leaned on the poker and waited, while an increasing rapture laid hold on her. She ceased to think. She gave herself up to feel. Her long pleasure was broken by a sound that she had waited for in agony several times in her life. She leaned forward and listened, smiling. There could be no mistake. She closed her eyes and drank it in. Once it ceased abruptly.
‘Go on,’ she murmured, half aloud. ‘That isn’t the end.’
Then the end came very distinctly in a lull between two rain-gusts. Mary Postgate drew her breath short between her teeth and shivered from head to foot. ‘That’s all right,’ said she contentedly, and went up to the house, where she scandalised the whole routine by taking a luxurious hot bath before tea, and came down looking, as Miss Fowler said when she saw her lying all relaxed on the other sofa, ‘quite handsome!’