Authors: Ivy Compton-Burnett
“Well, Buttermere, This is a day that is good to live and breathe in, that makes a man feel in his prime. Standing here in front of my house, I feel as young as when I moved into it thirty years ago, in the year eighteen hundred and fifty-nine. What aged man would you take me to be, as I step as it were casually into your view?” Sir Godfrey Haslam stepped, though hardly in this manner, through the window of his dining-room, and stood to face or to pass his butler's scrutiny. “I'll wager not fifty-six. But that is what I am. Six-and-fifty the month before last. Well, what would you say, Buttermere?”
“Good-morning, Sir Godfrey,” Buttermere said.
“Three years and ten months under sixty! What some people would call an elderly man. Well, in later middle life would be the general verdict. But I don't feel anywhere near so far run down my course. I hope every man of that age feels as I do. I hope you do, Buttermere?”
“My circumstances have been at variance, Sir Godfrey,” said Buttermere, continuing the duties that had brought him to what he was.
“Shine or shade seems to tip the scales one way or the other,” said Sir Godfrey, frowning at the delicate balance of his life. “Well, I daresay it is the same with most of us. Up and down.”
Buttermere stood with his back to the light, in illustration of his own experience.
Sir Godfrey Haslam, a fair, solid man, with kind, shallow eyes, indefinite Saxon features, and a genial and casual bearing, turned to the window and surveyed the English meadow and moorland that he had chosen, since he had had to choose, for the setting of his days. His butler, a
man of the same build and age, with a large, hairless face and head, and a small group of features roughly arranged towards the centre of the former, could only give a glance in the same direction, and put more energy into his present employment of drawing breath. Both men looked as if they had led an easy life, the master, as was natural, as if he had led the easier.
“I feel a different man when the sun is at work. I feel proud of my home, of my wife, of my sons and my daughter, my menservants and my maidservants, and the stranger that is within my gate. I take a satisfaction in my possessions.” The speaker's glance at his portraits confirmed his contented spirit, as his father, when causing them to be made, had relied upon his own experience that early struggling leads to ultimate success. “And in my dear old parents who look down on me from their frames, as if they were glad to see me set up in a different way from themselves. Ah, I remember their gladness. Nothing to be ashamed of in my heritage, Buttermere, in a useful little fortune and title earned by providing people with things they need, by putting at their hand what sufficed unto them. I should blush for myself if I blushed for it.”
“Yes, Sir Godfrey,” said Buttermere in a voice of rejoinder.
“You see I talk to you as a friend, Buttermere,” said Sir Godfrey, sensing that this tone was called for. “Twenty-five years you have been about us, and that gives a man a right to be treated as a friend, doesn't it?”
“Thank you, Sir Godfrey,” Buttermere said, in a manner that did not testify to these dealings.
“I believe you would prefer a stand-offish aristocrat for a master,” said Sir Godfrey, taking no credit for the soundness of his belief.
“I am satisfied, thank you, Sir Godfrey.”
“Anyone down yet?” said the master, with an expression of pricked-up ears.
“Her ladyship is on the way, Sir Godfrey.”
“Oh, her ladyship is first this morning,” said Sir Godfrey going to the door with a firm tread and a suggestion of outstretched arms. “Well, my Harriet, well, my dear! And how did you sleep?”
“You know I do not sleep in these days, Godfrey. It is monotonous for you always to ask the question, and for me always to answer it.”
Lady Haslam came into the room with a dragging step, a short, dark woman, with worn, firm features, a heavy jaw and unhappy brown eyes, looking much older than her husband, although of his age.
“Oh, but I meant, how much sleep did you get? I meant, did you have any sort of night at all? You know what was in my mind, as well as I know myself.”
“Yes, I know, my dear.”
“Oh, come, come, my dear girl. You must have some kind of rest, or you couldn't be all day about with us all. You are never withdrawn for a moment. I mean, we never have to do without you. Don't make a point of misunderstanding me. Don't come downstairs with that express intention.”
Harriet was of better family than Godfrey, and had brought a darker heritage in her older blood. She had worn early in nerves and brain, with others of an inbred race, and an intense religious and family life bore heavily on her feebleness.
When her children entered, she searched their faces with hungry eyes, and returned their greeting with a passionate embrace.
Her second son, Jermyn, was a serious young man of twenty-four, who combined in his looks the best points of both his parents, and whose Christian name had been given him because it was his mother's surname, a reason seemingly valid only for a younger son, since it had not been applied to his elder brother. Her daughter, Griselda, was a handsome, unstable-looking girl a year or two younger, whose wide grey eyes continually sought her mother's, and
never seemed at rest. The youngest son, Gregory, was an overgrown, featureless youth of twenty, with prominent, colourless eyes and at first sight no expression. The eldest son observed a custom of being late.
“Well, we are all here,” said Godfrey, with a note of anticipation. “You are all with us, Buttermere?”
“All but Cook, Sir Godfrey,” said Buttermere, choosing to disclose that duty detained one member of the household, in spite of, or rather because of its being a daily circumstance.
“Oh, well, we are all here,” said Godfrey, causing Griselda to smile at Jermyn. “The eleventh Chapter of Corinthians, the fourteenth verse!”
Godfrey came of dissenting stock, and was used to religious officiation on the part of the head of the house. He had taken his father's mantle on his own shoulders with a willingness that had grown to zeal. Harriet was religious enough to care only for the fundamentals of her faith. She accepted and respected him in this character, setting it above his other side, in which preference she was joined by himself. He read in an emphatic, satisfied voice, which he raised and dropped without regard to the words, and then laid the book aside and fell on his knees, when his example was followed by his household.
“O Lord,” he exclaimed, in tones of respect and admonition, that somehow indicated the words with capitals, “Thou seest us gathered before Thee at Thy altar, at the beginning of our day, a simple family seeking Thy grace to bring us through it, sinful indeed in word and thought, yet without sin in Thy sight. For faith can remove mountains, and that faith is ours. Keep our three sons, the young men going forth, rejoicing in their youth, to the daily temptations that are its joy and snare. Keep our daughter, the solace of our age, the companion of her father's prime; hold her in Thy keeping. Keep our servants, those who are with us to do Thy work of ministering. And those who need especial strength, to carry them
over the ground trodden so often that it has become hard, who find a strain in the trivial round, the common task, give to these Thy protection for their frail and gallant spirit. Bless my wife and all of us, and bind us all together with the great, unbreakable bond of family love and fellowship.”
To these and other injunctions, though not laid upon themselves, the family gave an ear, Harriet with simple acceptance of the sphere which showed her husband strong and wise. Harriet and Godfrey had questioned their religion as little as the accepted shape of the earth they trod.
The service concluded with the Lord's Prayer, in which the household spoke for themselves, Godfrey's tones being apparently designed to suppress the sudden arbitrariness. Buttermere's voice on the words, “as we forgive those who trespass against us,” suggested the suppliant's general frame of mind.
“Well, now, breakfast!” said Godfrey, receiving his world on secular terms. “Now a good breakfast to make up for the bad night, Harriet. Don't stand about loafing, you two boys. Good-morning, all of you. How is Father's girl to-day?”
“Quite well,” said Griselda, giving him a startled smile, and leaning towards her mother.
“Mother, how did you sleep?”
“Not at all, my sweet one. Never mind, as long as you slept well.”
Griselda held her eyes down, and Jermyn strolled to the table.
“Well, bad news of the night?” he said with a deliberate ease.
“There is no news, dear, but not in the sense that no news is good news. It must certainly be no news to you by now, and you speak as if you were reconciled to it.”
“Oh, now, Harriet, now you are making a mistake,” said her husband in a manner of making a last effort before yielding to fate. “We keep all our sympathy for you, but,
as you say, it is not news to us now. Nor is it to you, my poor girl. Gregory, don't stand there, kicking your feet like a child.”
Gregory took his place by his mother, and looked into her face with simple affection.
“Well, how did you employ the night watches, since you had them at your disposal ?”
“In pacing up and down the corridors, my son,” said his mother in a soothed and gentle tone, and with almost a light of humour in her eye over words ominous to any other ear. “I knew I shouldn't wake any of you. You all sleep so soundly.” Even this was not a reproach to Gregory. “I don't feel so wrought up as I generally do after a night without sleep.”
“Oh, come, come, that is a good word, Harriet. Come, that is a brave speech,” cried Godfrey. “Now we shall have a better day. You will have a better day. You will be able to amuse yourself a little.”
“Amuse myself? Shall I, Godfrey? It has taken all my effort for years to get through the day, and to face the night, the night!” Harriet dropped her voice and bent her head as much in suffering as in the acting of exasperation, and Jermyn rose to the demand.
“What an offensive thing to say, Father! What worse insult than to be accused of amusing oneself? Amusing oneself, when life is but toil and duty!”
“I wish it were that for you, my son,” said Harriet. “And for me, how I wish it were just that, just toil and duty!”
“That sounds to your credit. We are proud of you,” said Griselda.
“Proud of her? Yes, we are,” said Godfrey loudly. “We are proud of her for the high mettle that keeps her up and doing as if she had the toughness the rest of us have. Ah, we have cause for pride.”
Harriet raised her eyes to her husband's in mingled affection and despair.
“Who is proud of whom?” said the eldest son of the house, a gaunt young man of twenty-eight, as much like his mother as was allowed by age and sex and human difference. “Good-morning to you all.”
“Ah, good-morning, my dear boy,” said Godfrey, leaning back with eyes full of affection, as his son disregarded the summons of Harriet's glance and went straight to his seat. “We wish you a good-morning indeed.”