The Trees of Pride eBook: Page2

G. K. Chesterton (1999)

a gooddeal more to be said about him, for he was a very acute and cultivatedgentleman; but those two facts would, perhaps, cover most of the others.Storing his mind like a museum with the wonder of the Old World, but alllit up as by a window with the wonder of the New, he had fallen heir tosome thing of the unique critical position of Ruskin or Pater, andwas further famous as a discoverer of minor poets. He was a judiciousdiscoverer, and he did not turn all his minor poets into major prophets.If his geese were swans, they were not all Swans of Avon. He had evenincurred the deadly suspicion of classicism by differing from hisyoung friends, the Punctuist Poets, when they produced versificationconsisting exclusively of commas and colons. He had a more humanesympathy with the modern flame kindled from the embers of Celticmythology, and it was in reality the recent appearance of a Cornishpoet, a sort of parallel to the new Irish poets, which had brought himon this occasion to Cornwall. He was, indeed, far too well-mannered toallow a host to guess that any pleasure was being sought outside his ownhospitality. He had a long standing invitation from Vane, whom he hadmet in Cyprus in the latter's days of undiplomatic diplomacy; and Vanewas not aware that relations had only been thus renewed after the critichad read Merlin and Other Verses, by a new writer named John Treherne.Nor did the Squire even begin to realize the much more diplomaticdiplomacy by which he had been induced to invite the local bard to lunchon the very day of the American critic's arrival.

  Mr. Paynter was still standing with his gripsack, gazing in a tranceof true admiration at the hollowed crags, topped by the gray, grotesquewood, and crested finally by the three fantastic trees.

  "It is like being shipwrecked on the coast of fairyland," he said,

  "I hope you haven't been shipwrecked much," replied his host, smiling."I fancy Jake here can look after you very well."

  Mr. Paynter looked across at the boatman and smiled also. "I am afraid,"he said, "our friend is not quite so enthusiastic for this landscape asI am."

  "Oh, the trees, I suppose!" said the Squire wearily.

  The boatman was by normal trade a fisherman; but as his house, built ofblack tarred timber, stood right on the foreshore a few yards from thepier, he was employed in such cases as a sort of ferryman. He was a big,black-browed youth generally silent, but something seemed now to stinghim into speech.

  "Well, sir," he said, "everybody knows it's not natural. Everybodyknows the sea blights trees and beats them under, when they're only justtrees. These things thrive like some unholy great seaweed that don'tbelong to the land at all. It's like the--the blessed sea serpent got onshore, Squire, and eating everything up."

  "There is some stupid legend," said Squire Vane gruffly. "But come upinto the garden; I want to introduce you to my daughter."

  When, however, they reached the little table under the tree, theapparently immovable young lady had moved away after all, and it wassome time before they came upon the track of her. She had risen, thoughlanguidly, and wandered slowly along the upper path of the terracedgarden looking down on the lower path where it ran closer to the mainbulk of the little wood by the sea.

  Her languor was not a feebleness but rather a fullness of life, likethat of a child half awake; she seemed to stretch herself and enjoyeverything without noticing anything. She passed the wood, into the grayhuddle of which a single white path vanished through a black hole. Alongthis part of the terrace ran something like a low rampart or balustrade,embowered with flowers at intervals; and she leaned over it, lookingdown at another glimpse of the glowing sea behind the clump of trees,and on another irregular path tumbling down to the pier and theboatman's cottage on the beach.

  As she gazed, sleepily enough, she saw that a strange figure was veryactively climbing the path, apparently coming from the fisherman'scottage; so actively that a moment afterwards it came out between thetrees and stood upon the path just below her. It was not only a figurestrange to her, but one somewhat strange in itself. It was that of aman still young, and seeming somehow younger than his own clothes, whichwere not only shabby but antiquated; clothes common enough in texture,yet carried in an uncommon fashion. He wore what was presumably a lightwaterproof, perhaps through having come off the sea; but it was held atthe throat by one button, and hung, sleeves and all, more like a cloakthan a coat. He rested one bony hand on a black stick; under the shadowof his broad hat his black hair hung down in a tuft or two. His face,which was swarthy, but rather handsome in itself, wore somethingthat may have been a slightly embarrassed smile, but had too much theappearance of a sneer.

  Whether this apparition was a tramp or a trespasser, or a friend of someof the fishers or woodcutters, Barbara Vane was quite unable to guess.He removed his hat, still with his unaltered and rather sinister smile,and said civilly: "Excuse me. The Squire asked me to call." Here hecaught sight of Martin, the woodman, who was shifting along the path,thinning the thin trees; and the stranger made a familiar salute withone finger.

  The girl did not know what to say. "Have you--have you come aboutcutting the wood?" she asked at last.

  "I would I were so honest a man," replied the stranger. "Martin is, Ifancy, a distant cousin of mine; we Cornish folk just round here arenearly all related, you know; but I do not cut wood. I do not cutanything, except, perhaps, capers. I am, so to speak, a jongleur."

  "A what?" asked Barbara.

  "A minstrel, shall we say?" answered the newcomer, and looked up at hermore steadily. During a rather odd silence their eyes rested on eachother. What she saw has been already noted, though by her, at any rate,not in the least understood. What he saw was a decidedly beautiful womanwith a statuesque face and hair that shone in the sun like a helmet ofcopper.

  "Do you know," he went on, "that in this old place, hundreds of yearsago, a jongleur may really have stood where I stand, and a lady mayreally have looked over that wall and thrown him money?"

  "Do you want money?" she asked, all at sea.

  "Well," drawled the stranger, "in the sense of lacking it, perhaps, butI fear there is no place now for a minstrel, except nigger minstrel. Imust apologize for not blacking my face."

  She laughed a little in her bewilderment, and said: "Well, I hardlythink you need do that."

  "You think the natives here are dark enough already, perhaps," heobserved calmly. "After all, we are aborigines, and are treated assuch."

  She threw out some desperate remark about the weather or the scenery,and wondered what would happen next.

  "The prospect is certainly beautiful," he assented, in the sameenigmatic manner. "There is only one thing in it I am doubtful about."

  While she stood in silence he slowly lifted his black stick like a longblack finger and pointed it at the peacock trees above the wood. And aqueer feeling of disquiet fell on the girl, as if he were, by thatmere gesture, doing a destructive act and could send a blight upon thegarden.

  The strained and almost painful silence was broken by the voice ofSquire Vane, loud even while it was still distant.

  "We couldn't make out where you'd got to, Barbara," he said. "This ismy friend, Mr. Cyprian Paynter." The next moment he saw the stranger andstopped, a little puzzled. It was only Mr. Cyprian Paynter himself whowas equal to the situation. He had seen months ago a portrait of the newCornish poet in some American literary magazine, and he found himself,to his surprise, the introducer instead of the introduced.

  "Why, Squire," he said in considerable astonishment, "don't you know Mr.Treherne? I supposed, of course, he was a neighbor."

  "Delighted to see you, Mr. Treherne," said the Squire, recovering hismanners with a certain genial confusion. "So pleased you were able tocome. This is Mr. Paynter---my daughter," and, turning with a certainboisterous embarrassment, he led the way to the table under the tree.

  Cyprian Paynter followed, inwardly revolving a puzzle which had takeneven his experience by surprise. The American, if intellectually anaristocrat, was still socially and subconsciously a democrat. It hadnever crossed his mind that the poet should be counted lucky to knowthe squire and not the squ
ire to know the poet. The honest patronage inVane's hospitality was something which made Paynter feel he was, afterall, an exile in England.

  The Squire, anticipating the trial of luncheon with a strange literaryman, had dealt with the case tactfully from his own standpoint. Countysociety might have made the guest feel like a fish out of water; and,except for the American critic and the local lawyer and doctor, worthymiddle-class people who fitted into the picture, he had kept it as afamily party. He was a widower, and when the meal had been laid out onthe garden table, it was Barbara who presided as hostess. She had thenew poet on her right hand and it made her very uncomfortable. She hadpractically offered that fallacious jongleur money, and it did not makeit