THE SQUIRE OF NORTONSWEIR-FERRING
AT VARYING INTERVALS on the northward journey Gregory George Gordon Green (known to his intimates as “Gees”, for the most obvious reason) had stopped and got out from the Rolls-Bentley to clear the windscreen of snow which clogged the tandem wipers. Fine, powdery snow, for the most part: stuff which swirled and smoked in the bitter wind, drifted to white banks in the still shelter of walls and hedgerows, and drove off from the tarred metalling of the highway, wind-thrust, to leave the wide, blackish line along which the car advanced.
So on, until the winter afternoon dimmed a little. Not to darkness or even to dusk, but there was a change, a threat of night’s imminence. In the very first faint beginning of that change, Gees drove through a village where the whitewashed walls of old cottages appeared almost dun against the whiteness of the new-fallen snow, piled steeply against wall and hedge alike where twists of the road made a lee side. Driving slowly, glancing to either side, he came to a shed or barn of tarred weatherboarding and thatch, and saw, against the snow-scarred blackness of the boards, a yellow plaque. That is, it had been all yellow, but the driven snow had adhered to all but the upper edge. Patient enough not even to think an oath, Gees stopped, got out from the car, and went to the shed to wipe the plaque clear with his ungloved hand. He wiped just so far as to uncover the name—“NORTONSWEIR-FERRING” and the statement—“London—183 miles,” and then desisted.
He said to himself—“Yes, but—” and went back to the car. Then he saw, through the thinly-driven curtain of snow, an ancient man who approached and, each time his left foot made contact with the snow, leaned heavily on a cudgel, rather than stick, that he carried. He was about to pass the car when Gees stepped toward him.
“I want to find Nortonsweir-Ferring Hall,” he said. “Can you direct me?”
Halting, the ancient leaned on his cudgel, and looked at his questioner, and then at the car, which he saw as a mere vehicle—the grace of its lines was lost on him. He had rheumy eyes and a purple nose, and a hangman’s fringe framed his more-or-less-shaven chin. He shook his head and said—“Eh, it’s nobbut helpless,” in a tone of despair.
“The Hall is, you mean?” Gees inquired politely.
The ancient lifted his cudgel and pointed vaguely along the way he had come—the way toward which the car radiator faced. “The rud,” he explained. “Nobbut helpless f’r a moty-car. Snow. Deep.”
“That way?” Gees inquired, as politely as ever.
“Aye. Ha’f a mile—less’n ha’f a mile, an’ ye turn left off the main. First turnin’, ’tis—ye can’t mistake it. But helpless—nobbut helpless f’r a moty-car. Snow. Deep.”
“So you remarked before, I believe,” Gees said, even more politely.
“Aye. Druv by the wind. Snow. Deep. But yon’s Master Gates. He’ll tell ye. Nobbut helpless. Snow. Deep. Hi! Master Gates?”
A middle-sized, middle-aged man, clean-shaven, wearing a bowler hat and a black waterproof over his very respectable clothing—as Gees was to discover it later—had come over a stile from a footpath beyond the weatherboarded shed, and was about to go along the road in the direction to which Gees’ car pointed—that is, northward. At the call he turned about, and after a pause approached the other two.
“Yes, Collins?” he asked, and his voice was steady and tuneful—the sort of voice that would have fitted a toastmaster or the compere of a half-hour of radio drivel—“what is it?”
“Gen’l’man want the Hall,” the ancient explained.
“Not all of it,” Gees amended, rather wearily: he had driven far and, out of the car, was growing chilled. “A Mr. Reed—a Mr. Sydnor Reed. I have come from London to see him. You can keep the Hall.”
“Well, sir—I don’t know—” Gates looked at the car, and then turned momentarily to gaze along the road—“I don’t know—”
“I do,” Gees said. “Nobbut helpless. Snow. Deep.”
The ancient gave him a look of utter disgust, and went off, thudding his cudgel down and leaning heavily on it with every other step.
“The car might just do it,” Gates said doubtfully. “I am employed at the Hall, sir,” he added in explanation. “I was just going back.”
“Just so,” Gees assented. “Then, if you care to just get in—and heaven forgive me the split infinitive!—you might just direct me, and I’ll just try it. If we just make it, I’ll be just tickled to death.”
There was a slight flavour of offended dignity in the way in which Gates opened and held the driving side door for Gees to get back to his seat. Then he went round to the other side and, when Gees depressed the handle of the near-side door, took it and opened the door with “Allow me sir!” as an even more dignified remonstrance.
The Rolls-Bentley moved on. The first of the dusk dimmed the whitened landscape, now. Gates sat stiff-backed, as if unwilling to demean the pneumatic upholstering of the seat by yielding to its comfort: a glance at his still profile revealed him to Gees as the perfect serving man—a little too perfect, perhaps. So in silence they made the half-mile that the ancient had specified, and then Gates said—“You turn left here, sir.” Said it most respectfully, and with chill correctness.
Gees turned left. Turned into a tree-bordered, fenceless lane, of which the first thirty yards or so was athwart the wind. Despite the lack of bordering fences of any kind, the trees made enough of lee from the wind for snow to pile and lie, a white counterpane three feet or more in thickness. But Gees noted how eddies of the wind reached down, and as they struck the dry stuff whirled up, smokily, to settle again elsewhere. He could see some thirty yards of whiteness, and then the lane curved, so that what was beyond sight was yet to challenge. He said—“Perhaps it’s Waterloo—without Blücher,” and, dropping to second gear, revved up and charged the whiteness.
Once, in the minute that followed, Gates said—“Oomph!” as the rigidity of his backbone failed and his head made contact with the pillar of the near-side door—and his bowler hat, after the impact, was no more than a wreck. The driving wheels spun and bit as they dug down to solidity under the powdery snow—spun and bit, spun and bit, and a whiteness piled along the bonnet, with the front of the car lifted while the back sank down, and the rocking progress was like that of a light skiff in a choppy sea. Slithering, canted to a dangerous angle, Gees managed to miss a tree trunk by an inch or two, straightened—and darted to the other side of the lane to miss another tree and regain the centre of the way. His large, sinewy hands whitened at the knuckles as, gloveless, he gripped the steer-ing wheel and slanted his long body against the crazy cants of the chassis, not knowing at any second if the next would crash him into a tree trunk and end his progress.
He came to the end of it, and saw a relatively clear way beyond the bend of the lane, for now the bitter wind whipped the snow off the road surface, thinning it to inches. Gates took off his ruined hat and looked at it. He said—“Your own car, sir?” in an altered, almost admiring tone: evidently, in spite of the necessity for a new hat, he forgave everything—or felt thankful for preservation.
Gees said—“I am under that impression. I wouldn’t risk another man’s property like that without asking his permission first. And that is the Hall, eh?”
“Yes, sir. Excuse me, sir, the garages—you go round to the left and turn right at the back. I mean, sir, you would probably prefer to put the car away yourself, before seeing Mr. Reed.”
“Thank you, Gates. We will go round to the back.”
He saw, as he drove, that the Hall had originally occupied three sides of a square, with its main frontage sunk back within the two wings. Now, only one wing remained intact: the one on the left, past which he drove, was a mess of knee- to breast-high ruined walls, on which the snow failed to hide ivy: fire, or whatever had caused the ruin, had happened long ago, for now the ivy covered all away. Turning right at Gates’ direction, Gees drove into a paved yard, and then into what he recognized as an adapted stable—the drainage channels were still visible in the brick flooring. With the snow-encrusted nose of the car close against holes in the wall that marked where mangers had once been, he switched off the engine and got out.
“I’ll take you in by the back way, sir, if you don’t mind,” Gates, beside him, said. “The front entrance is almost snowed up.”
“First,” Gees observed, “I’ll see what damage has been done.”
He gave the car a careful scrutiny, ripping away the packed snow on the radiator cover with his hands until he was satisfied that forcing a way through the drifts had done no harm. Gates said—“I’ll see it all swept out for you, sir,” as the inspection concluded.