Ebb and Flow

A short story by
Eva Anstruther
 
Originally published in
Harper's New Monthly Magazine
(volume 89 - issue 530) July 1894.
 
2001 - all rights reserved.

"It was my father's wish. When he died, I felt bound in honour to go on with it," he said.

He was a well-made man, clean-shaven, young. She looked up at him with puzzled shadows between her eyebrows.

"It's a strange idea," she said, slowly. "Tell me more about it. I don't quite understand."

She was like a wood-pigeon - soft and gray and gentle-voiced.

They stood by the library window in the slanting sunlight. Somewhere in the cool recesses of the room behind, a woman of uncertain age sat writing. She was acting hostess for her nephew - a silent, comfortable presence, of little account.

The girl had come as a passing guest, and tomorrow was going home to her own people.

It was the glorious evening of a glorious day. Outside, the garden glowed with colour; beyond that the river, and beyond again the park sloping upwards; long shadows from the clumps of trees stretching upon the grass. There was a tremulous stillness over the world. From the river a faint white mist was rising.

"How strange it seems! Tell me more." she repeated. "They lived here once, these people, you say."

"It was theirs as it is now mine. That family owned it for close on five hundred years. For many generations back they were the great people of the land."

"But your people came from about here too originally?"

"My grandfather broke the stones to mend their roads."

"And now it is different."

"Now it is different."

"How did it come to pass? What happened?"

"Nothing much. They went under, we came up: they were forced to sell, my father pleased to buy - that is the whole history in a word."

She looked up to him in silence.

"It was somewhere in the forties they turned out, and then the place was let for the summer to different tenants for a long time, and got absolutely out of repair; it was going to rack and ruin when my father came over from Australia and bought it seven years ago."

"Seven years ago, and it was theirs for generations," she repeated, half to herself. There was a great pity in her voice.

He understood what was passing through her mind.

"My father felt just as you do. It troubled him to feel that he was here and not another; and yet what could one do! If he had not bought the estate some other stranger with money would have done so. He used to say the old place felt incomplete without some of the old family about. All he touched, whether in business or otherwise, he tried to leave as complete and perfect as it could be made, and though he restored the house and garden to exactly what they had been in the old days, he felt he had failed somewhere. Then suddenly one day he lit upon the almshouse idea."

"It was quite original, surely?"

"Yes, it came to him like a kind of inspiration. For a long time he kept silence about it, and we could none of us imagine why he was so interested in the restoration of the old ruined dower-house. You see it there among the trees at the top of the park. Then by chance it all came out, and we found he was spending an extraordinary amount of time and money, searching all the world over to find the man who had once owned the property."

"And he found him?

"Found him at last, him and his wife, hidden away in some wretched slum. They had sunk very low indeed; disappeared beneath the surface altogether. They were glad enough to come and live in the almshouse, surrounded by what had once been their own park. There they dream their life away quite peacefully."

"How strange it seems."

"Once the passion for collecting people had taken hold of him, he grew as keen about it as he used to be about collecting china or gems. He and old Sir Simon would spend hours together reconstructing the past, and wondering how they could gather together the relics of old families who had once lived in this and the neighbouring counties and had fallen from their high estate. My father made me promise to go on with it after his time."

"And you have done as he wished?"

"Yes, I went on collecting, and the result is that among the dozen old people in that almshouse there are no less than four men who owned the big places about here in the first half of the century. Two of them have got their wives with them, and one his sister."

She looked out over the park dreamily. "It's bewildering; it sounds like some old, old story doesn't it? I want to think - to understand it."

"Come and let me show it to you," he said. His eyes rested on her as on some very sweet and gracious thing.

The window opened out on to a flight of stone steps guarded on either side by trails of climbing roses in full bloom. The two passed down and out into the garden. The cool breath of evening was creeping into the summer air. Together they went along the steep edge of the bowling-green, under the dark arch of ancient yew, with the green bird carved out on the top, past the stone sun-dial, and along the grass path down the centre of the kitchen-garden, out into the park beyond. Neither spoke; a spell of silent beauty rested upon them and upon all the land.

They struck across the park through the long cool grass. The world was a dream-world of light and colour - a world of those two alone. They came to a cart track, once an old highway, with an avenue of beech treech on either side. Tall daisies grew in the disused ruts, and the stones were hidden in moss.

Prickly, brown husks lay scattered about; she picked up a few, searching for the polished three-cornered nuts which were hidden within.

In one place was a gap where two great trunks had fallen in some by-gone storm. The smooth gray trunks of their erstwhile neighbours framed as in a picture the fields and woods beyond, quiet in the glow of sunset.

Not a human creature had come within sight or hearing since they left the house. The dream-world was there for them alone - for him and for her.

The road got steeper, then wound round to the right, and before them, in a vista, stood the old stone dower-house, with its carved doorway and high mullioned windows.

An old man, gray and frail like a shadow, came down slowly towards them, but passed by with unseeing eyes. As he passed he spoke aloud to himself in the quavering voice of age. He too was in a dream-world - a world of the past. The girl looked at him with wondering pity as he wandered on.

"That is old Lord Abery," her guide explained. "He came into a property heavily mortgaged, and immediately began to build a palace for himself. It stands unfinished now; no one has ever lived there yet. He was Lord Lieutenant of his county when he was young. For the last ten years he has been a pauper. We found him quite by chance. Trouble has made him childish."

They watched his figure disappear among the beech trees, and then turned and went towards the house.

Under the gateway the girl shrank back a little. "Isn't it cruel to force ourselves upon them because we have the power? They cannot like it," she said, hesitatingly.

"We will go straight into the musicians' gallery, if you wish," he answered; "there you can see without being seen."

He led the way. She followed, up a little winding stair. Feet long since motionless had worn down the edges of the steps into little slanting hollows.

The gallery was long and in deep shadow. Below, the hall, stone flagged and panelled, with a great window at the further end. On the walls, portraits - perhaps a dozen.

"These are the pictures of all these people when they were young," he said, gently, "as far as we could get them together. That and that are the same."

He pointed to a sallow-faced, trembling old man opposite and then to the picture above his head, of a young fellow in uniform of scarlet and gold lace, arrogant with youth. The girl shivered and drew back; but the scene had a fascination for her, and she looked down again.

"That little shrivelled-up old woman in gray, with the mob-cap, who seems blind, is her picture here?"

He pointed to a head over the fireplace. A sparkling, brilliant face laughed out mockingly from the oval frame.

"Lady Margaret Meldrum is her name. She was a great beauty in her day, and was left a widow very young. At one time she was engaged to a Prime Minister; but it was broken off suddenly, no one quite knew why, and she never married again."

Again the girl shivered.

"Why does she sit there alone in a far corner?"

"Some story of the past we do not know, I believe. She has only been here a short time, but none of the other women will speak to her. They know more than we do."

"They knew each other, then, these people, in the days gone by?"

"They danced and feasted and played together through many a summer, when their world was young. Lean over; you can hear them talk."

She bent over and listened to the knot of men and women beneath her.

" ... and that year it was quite a small Drawing-room. I had my gown over from Paris; it matched the emeralds in my tiara ... The Princess sent for me, and confided the whole story to me ... I had bad luck on the turf all through that year; you recollect at the Derby what happened about ... I saw him last at the ball at Comtesse d'Amalfi's, I remember. I mean the one at which the chandelier came down ... We had all the people on the estate up at a tenants' dinner that night ... The Duke of Grandwater was staying with us for the agricultural show; it was the year before he married Lady Susan. Of course you know the story about ..."

The girl drew back. "Is it always this?" she said, and her voice shook a little.

"Always. The time between is dead to them."

"Who are those two sitting so silently hand in hand beside the window? They seem different to the rest. They are old and fragile and faded, and their faces are full of sadness and yet" - and her voice sank to a breath - "they look like happy lovers, who, knowing, understand."

"That is Sir Simon and that his wife. Every evening they sit there side by side, and look out through the window, across the stretch of park, down upon the home they loved and lost in the days when they were young ..."

Even as from the musicians' gallery they watched, twilight crept into the hall, and with the twilight silence ...

Past and present and future mingled in the dream-world as they passed out again into the shadowy park and down the long beech avenue ... And through the gap between the trees the young moon, with the old moon in her arms, looked down upon them silently.