Revil Yealmton sat in the swaying dining-car of a Nord Express train that raced westward through the Prussian plain in the dusk of an early summer day. After nearly two years of profitable business pilgrimage in the border regions of Asiatic Russia he was returning to wife and home in the English West Country. It was a house that, as a matter of fact, he had never inhabited, and yet he was looking forward to reaching it as eagerly as though it had been the hallowed dwelling place of his childhood. Old memories endeared the place to his recollection, even though they were the memories of one who had dreamed rather than of one who had experienced. In his early days, when he had lived with his parents in a prim and rather dreary cottage in a sleepy West Country village, the old gabled house at the foot of the hill had been occupied by a bachelor uncle, who had not encouraged his relatives to intrude too freely on his seclusion. From the evergreen fastness of a conveniently placed holly hedge the boy had been able to look, unobserved, on the domain with which he seldom enjoyed closer acquaintance, and in his eyes it had been a wonderful and desirable abode for mortal man. Every detail stood up in his mind now with undimmed distinctness as he sat finishing his dinner in the jolting train. There was the broad pond at the entrance, whereupon a company of drakes and ducks, mottled and ringstraked and burnished, went to and fro like a flotilla of painted merchantmen on an inland sea; there were high white gates that led into a yew-begirt garden on one side and a wide straw-yard on the other, a yard in which radiant-plumaged gamecocks led their attendant trains of hen folk in endless busy forays, and sleek, damson-hued pigs grubbed and munched and dozed the day long. And on the hillside beyond the yard there was an orchard of unspeakable delight, where the goldfinches nested in the spring, and the apples and greengages and cherries made one’s eyes ache with longing in fruit time. There were a hundred other heart-enslaving things that he remembered from his boyhood’s days, and the wonder was that the clamour of them had stood the critical test of maturing years. After his parents had passed into a pious memory he had revisited the neighbourhood with the assurance of a successful mercantile career to his credit, and had found the old uncle more humane and friendly than of yore, and the old gabled house and all that stood with it as bewitching as ever. And then, a few months later, as he had been setting out on his important eastward journey, the uncle had died and left his nephew all that earthly paradise to have and to hold. Yealmton had sent his wife to take possession, and deferred the joy of entering into his desired land until he should have seen his Russian enterprise to a successful conclusion. And now he was returning, with a riot of expectant longing in his brain, to his home — and to Thirza. But a thought kept intruding itself with unwelcome cynicism: was his wife really included in the anticipations that piled themselves so pleasantly before him?
Thirza Yealmton was what is known as a managing woman. Of such there are many that are only to be spoken of with honour and incense-burning, but Thirza was of the regrettable kind that can never realise that nature, and particularly human nature, is sometimes devised and constructed to be unmanageable, for its own happiness and its own good. Yealmton thought, with a suppressed psalm of thanksgiving at the back of his mind, of the comfortable discomfort of his last two years of travel, and of how Thirza’s presence on the scene would assuredly have entailed a distressing accompaniment of arranging and supervising and general dislocation of the accepted way of things. He knew that he was impatiently counting the slow hours that separated him from the old homestead at the foot of the hill, but he could not reassure himself that any of the impatience was honestly due to a desire to be once more in his wife’s company and within the sphere of her organising genius.
Later, when Thirza met him with the pony-cart at the small country station, Yealmton knew that his cynical self-accusation had been well founded. The anticipation still ran high in his brain and heart, none of it had found realisation in the meeting with his wife. It was unfortunate, he admitted to himself, but he was too engrossed with other crowding sensations to give the matter more than a perfunctory vote of censure. He hardly heeded Thirza’s unstemmed torrent of talk that kept pace with the rattle of pony’s hoofs, until a sentence detached itself with unpleasant distinctness.
“You will find a lot of improvements since you last saw the place.”
He jerked out the question wonderingly. It had never crossed his mind that any improvement could be desirable in the wonderland that he remembered.
“For one thing,” said Thirza, as the cart swung round a corner and brought them into view of the gates, “I’ve had that old pond at the entrance drained away; it made things damp and looked untidy.”
Yealmton said nothing, and Thirza did not see the look that came into his eyes. He remained silent, too, when his wife introduced him to a monotonous colony of white Leghorns, in wired runs, that she had substituted for the lively poultry yard of strutting, gorgon-hued game fowl that had been his uncle’s special pride.
“The miller bought most of the old stock,” she informed him: “a quarrelsome straying lot those game fowl were. I was glad to get rid of them. These ones are record layers, and I make quite a lot by their eggs. This is where the orchard was.”
She showed him a trim array of young fruit trees, planted in serried rows, in a carefully wooded enclosure.
“When they are fully grown they will yield three times the profit that the old orchard did,” she observed.
“We are not poor,” said Yealmton.
Thirza was chilled and offended; how little her husband appreciated the trouble she had been to in the matter.
“Money is always worth having,” she said sharply.
“Goldfinches used to build in the old orchard,” said Yealmton, almost to himself.
“Birds are a mistake about a garden, I think,” said Thirza: “we could have goldfinches in an aviary if you liked.”
“I would not like,” said Yealmton, shortly.
A yellow figure came down a garden path and made straight for the newcomer.
“Hullo, Peterkin,” cried Yealmton, gladly, and a golden-furred cat sprang purring into his arms.
“How funny!” said Thirza. “That cat hasn’t been seen anywhere about the place since the first week I was here; I didn’t know it was still in existence. Don’t let it come into the house,” she added; “I don’t encourage cats about a house.”
For answer Yealmton carried Peterkin into the morning-room and placed him on a broad shelf built into the ingle-nook.
“That was his throne in my uncle’s time,” he said: “It is his throne now.”
Thirza promptly decided on a four days’ headache, which was her invariable recipe whenever anyone thwarted or annoyed her. She had been known to postpone it in times of stress, such as Christmas week or a spring cleaning, but she would never forgo it altogether. For the moment she said nothing.
After dinner that evening Yealmton stood at an open window, with Peterkin purring rapturously at his side, and listened for some remembered sound that should have come to him through the dusk.
“Why aren’t the wood owls hooting?” he asked. “They always used to call from the copse about this time. All the way across Europe I’ve been longing to hear those owls singing Vespers.”
“Do you like their noise?” asked Thirza. “I couldn’t stand it. I got the local gamekeeper to shoot them. It was such a dismal noise, I think.”
“Is there any other vile thing that you have done in this dear old place?” asked Yealmton. He spoke to himself, but he asked the question aloud. Then he added: “Something dreadful must surely happen to you!”
Thirza gasped and stared at him for half a minute.
“You are over-tired with your journey,” she said at last, and went upstairs to inaugurate a headache, which, she felt, could scarcely last less than a week.
Judicious digging operations restored the pond to something like its old splendour, and a great company of ducks, mottled and ringstraked and speckled, went to and fro on its waters as though they had been doing it all their lives. A couple of young gamecocks, supplied by the sympathetic miller, made short work of the alien white cockerels that had reigned in their stead, and the local gamekeeper was warned of the dismal things that would befall him if any further owl slaughter was brought home to his account. Even the fruit paddock was induced to lose some of its nursery-garden air and to stray back toward the glory of a West Country orchard. The birds of heaven received no further discouragement, except such as was meted out to them by Peterkin in his capacity of warden of the currant bushes. And while these things were being done Yealmton and his wife waged a politely reticent warfare; it was a struggle which Thirza knew she must ultimately win, because she was fighting for existence — arranging and interfering and supervising were a necessary condition of her well-being. What she did not know, or did not understand, was that Yealmton was fighting a Holy War, and therefore could not be defeated.
As summer and autumn passed away into winter Thirza turned her managing energies in a greater degree upon the rural life of the village, where she encountered less formidable obstacles than Yealmton’s overruling opposition presented in the narrower sphere. She was not popular with the cottagers, but she had thoroughly mastered the art of being penetrating.
“I am going down to the mill-ponds,” she announced one afternoon, when a hard frost had held the land for a couple of days; “the children will be coming out of school about now. They’ve been warned not to go on the ice, and I mean to see that they don’t.”
“It can’t possibly bear yet,” said Yealmton.
“It bears at the shallow end,” said Thirza.
“Then why not let them go on the shallow end?” asked Yealmton.
“They’ve been told not to,” said Thirza; “I don’t wish to argue the matter. I mean to see that none of them go on.”
As a matter of fact the children were engrossed with a slide at the other end of the village, and Thirza had the lonely mill meadows to herself. From the orchard gate Yealmton could see her walking rapidly along the reed-fringed borders of the wide ponds, as though determined to see no adventurous urchin was enjoying a furtive slide in some hidden nook among the bushes. As he watched the dark, solitary figure moving through the desolate wintry waste his involuntary prophecy shot across his mind: “Something dreadful must surely happen to you.” And at that moment her saw something white rush out of the bushes and come flapping towards her, he saw Thirza start back, and fall on the slippery edge of the pond, and across the meadows a scream came on the frozen air. It was a long while before he could reach the spot, running at his highest speed, and when he arrived the woman was lying half under the scum of churned-up ice and slush at the pond’s edge, and something white and ghostly was stealing away through the dusk. Yealmton knew it for a wild swan, wounded by some gunner on the coast, and harbouring among the reeds till it should die; savage and weak with hunger and death-fear, but with strength enough left to do — what it had done.
The Morning Post, 6th May, 1913