There was an attractive girl named Joan staying at the rectory when I got home for the next vacation. She was unconventional enough to flirt quite openly with a couple of eligible young officers who were stationed with the regiment in Birr. I liked her myself, and spent a lot of my time with her. She had brought a repeating rifle with her, and we used to go shooting at birds and rabbits in the six acres of wooded land surrounding the rectory. I did not realize it, but I had become so interested in this young lady that I was neglecting my mother. One afternoon it was raining too hard to go out so we pulled up the carpet in the hall and started the phonograph and Joan and I danced. My mother was in the drawing-room embroidering, and it did not occur to me to ask her to dance with me. After an hour or so my father passed through the hall and went into the drawing-room. When he came out I was changing the record on the phonograph and he said:
"Go and ask your mother to dance."
"She can't dance," I said starting the machine for another dance with Joan.
"Do as I tell you," he said.
I left Joan reluctantly and went into the drawing-room.
"Want to dance, Mumsy?" I asked in a voice that lacked enthusiasm.
She did not answer.
"Mumsy," I said again, "want to dance with me?"
She only shook her head and then I saw she was crying and knew at once she had overheard my thoughtless remark.
"I didn't mean it, Mumsy, really I didn't," I said, and threw my arms about her.
"Go and play in the dining-room, dear," she said to my brother. He picked up his toys and left us alone.
"You don't know how badly I've been feeling for days," she said. "After looking forward to having you with me for all these weeks, now that you're here, I never see you except at meal times."
I felt so ashamed I could not say anything. And suddenly I realized how little Joan meant to me.
"I'm sorry, Mumsy, and I'll never dance with Joan again, I said,
"No, no, I want you to enjoy yourself," she said, "but I don't want you to forget you have a mother who loves you."
I slipped to my knees beside her:
"And I love you, Mumsy sweetheart, more than anyone in the world—more than Daddy."
She put her hand over my lips. "You mustn't say that," she said, and dried her eyes. "Come and dance with me," I said. She did not want to at first, but I took both her hands and drew her from her chair. I put on the Chocolate Soldier waltz and she danced with me and danced better than Joan, and after it was over we went for a walk in the woods which were carpeted with clumps of narcissus, and daffodils. Under a leaning white-thorn tree where the woodquests built every year there was a bench, and we sat down there, holding hands.
"You know, darling, I haven't been feeling so well lately. Perhaps that's why I'm so sensitive, and I do want you to have a good time. But it was hard after waiting so long to have you with me again not to...not to...."
She began to cry again. I know what she was going to say, and I cried a little myself and held her very close to me.
"I'm not going shooting with Joan any more," I said.
"Oh, yes, you must go," she said. "I want you to have a good time."
"Then I'll go with you," I said.
"No, darling, I don't like shooting and I hate to see those birds killed for no reason."
"Well, whether we go shooting or not," I said, "I'm going to stay with you."
And then we went back to the house.
I refused Joan's invitation to shoot the next morning, saying I was going to help my mother who was gardening. Joan was surprised and a little huffed; but she went shooting alone. My mother was happy to have me with her, and I weeded flower beds while she planted stakes with name tags on them behind some young rose bushes and tied up their drooping shoots. At lunch Joan was distant, and once when I spoke to her, she barely answered me. I touched my mother's foot under the table and we had our little smile between ourselves.
At the end of the week Joan left, and I was glad, because it was unpleasant not to be on good terms with her. After that things went along smoothly almost till the end of the holidays.
As the commencement of another school term approached, I became sullen and preoccupied. I hated the thought of going back, for even though my days of abject misery had passed, the memories of all I had endured were still fresh in my mind,—and there were always the prefects. The day before my departure, for some reason, so trivial I cannot remember it, I quarreled with my mother. I do remember, though, that I sulked all day, and the next morning got on the outsidecar to drive to the station after kissing her in the most perfunctory way.
Halfway down the drive, well out of earshot of the house, I turned suddenly. I was certain she had just spoken to me. Her voice was low and close to my ear:
"Leave me like that...how could you?"
A chill went down my spine. I leaned over and grabbed the reins from the driver and pulled up the horse.
When I got back to the house I found her leaning against the window in her room, very pale, her eyes closed. She opened them with a start when I put my arms around her, and looked at me a little bewildered....
"I couldn't let you leave me that way now...all your life...you would have regretted," she said.
And then I knew that she had really spoken to me on the driveway. I drew her over to the armchair near the fireplace and sank on my knees beside her. She took my face in her hands, looking into my eyes as though she were searching in them for something. Once or twice her lips moved but no sound came from them. And then her hands slipped down and she said:
"May God make a brave upright man of my son."
And when she said that I became afraid, for there was on her face an expression I had never seen there before. I took her hands and held them tightly in mine for a long time....And in the years to come it was always like this I saw her; and like this I see her now with the love in her eyes, and on her lips the trace of a smile...the sweetheart!...And then she turned away so I would not see her trying to stop the tears that were trying to come, and though she said no word I knew what she was thinking, and I began to cry, kissing her hands and her cheeks. And I said, as though answering something she had said:
"No, no, Mumsy, you'll be all right, and when I come back next time...."
She drew me very close to her and pressed her face to my own:
"Whenever you are in trouble remember the words I marked in the little Testament," she said: "Whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do...."
"I will," I said.
And then she got up slowly, still holding me in her arms; but she was not looking at me, and I knew she was praying for me. And she sighed and said:
"Go now, darling, and God bless and keep you."
And I went, and as I drove away I could see her standing at the window, and I waved to her, and it seemed to me that she was stretching out her arms to me.