It was a mile nearer through the wood. Mechanically, Syson turned up by the forge and lifted the field-gate. The blacksmith and his mate stood still, watching the trespasser. But Syson looked too much a gentleman to be accosted. They let him go in silence across the small field to the wood.
There was not the least difference between this morning and those of the bright springs, six or eight years back. White and sandy- gold fowls still scratched round the gate, littering the earth and the field with feathers and scratched-up rubbish. Between the two thick holly bushes in the wood-hedge was the hidden gap, whose fence one climbed to get into the wood; the bars were scored just the same by the keeper's boots. He was back in the eternal.
Syson was extraordinarily glad. Like an uneasy spirit he had returned to the country of his past, and he found it waiting for him, unaltered. The hazel still spread glad little hands downwards, the bluebells here were still wan and few, among the lush grass and in shade of the bushes.
The path through the wood, on the very brow of a slope, ran winding easily for a time. All around were twiggy oaks, just issuing their gold, and floor spaces diapered with woodruff, with patches of dog- mercury and tufts of hyacinth. Two fallen trees still lay across the track. Syson jolted down a steep, rough slope, and came again upon the open land, this time looking north as through a great window in the wood. He stayed to gaze over the level fields of the hill-top, at the village which strewed the bare upland as if it had tumbled off the passing waggons of industry, and been forsaken. There was a stiff, modern, grey little church, and blocks and rows of red dwellings lying at random; at the back, the twinkling headstocks of the pit, and the looming pit-hill. All was naked and out-of-doors, not a tree! It was quite unaltered.
Syson turned, satisfied, to follow the path that sheered downhill into the wood. He was curiously elated, feeling himself back in an enduring vision. He started. A keeper was standing a few yards in front, barring the way.
"Where might you be going this road, sir?" asked the man. The tone of his question had a challenging twang. Syson looked at the fellow with an impersonal, observant gaze. It was a young man of four or five and twenty, ruddy and well favoured. His dark blue eyes now stared aggressively at the intruder. His black moustache, very thick, was cropped short over a small, rather soft mouth. In every other respect the fellow was manly and good-looking. He stood just above middle height; the strong forward thrust of his chest, and the perfect ease of his erect, self-sufficient body, gave one the feeling that he was taut with animal life, like the thick jet of a fountain balanced in itself. He stood with the butt of his gun on the ground, looking uncertainly and questioningly at Syson. The dark, restless eyes of the trespasser, examining the man and penetrating into him without heeding his office, troubled the keeper and made him flush.
"Where is Naylor? Have you got his job?" Syson asked.
"You're not from the House, are you?" inquired the keeper. It could not be, since everyone was away.
"No, I'm not from the House," the other replied. It seemed to amuse him.
"Then might I ask where you were making for?" said the keeper, nettled.
"Where I am making for?" Syson repeated. "I am going to Willey- Water Farm."
"This isn't the road."
"I think so. Down this path, past the well, and out by the white gate."
"But that's not the public road."
"I suppose not. I used to come so often, in Naylor's time, I had forgotten. Where is he, by the way?"
"Crippled with rheumatism," the keeper answered reluctantly.
"Is he?" Syson exclaimed in pain.
"And who might you be?" asked the keeper, with a new intonation.
"John Adderley Syson; I used to live in Cordy Lane."
"Used to court Hilda Millership?"
Syson's eyes opened with a pained smile. He nodded. There was an awkward silence.
"And you - who are you?" asked Syson.
"Arthur Pilbeam - Naylor's my uncle," said the other.
"You live here in Nuttall?"
"I'm lodgin' at my uncle's - at Naylor's."
"Did you say you was goin' down to Willey-Water?" asked the keeper.
There was a pause of some moments, before the keeper blurted: "I'M courtin' Hilda Millership."
The young fellow looked at the intruder with a stubborn defiance, almost pathetic. Syson opened new eyes.
"Are you?" he said, astonished. The keeper flushed dark.
"She and me are keeping company," he said.
"I didn't know!" said Syson. The other man waited uncomfortably.
"What, is the thing settled?" asked the intruder.
"How, settled?" retorted the other sulkily.
"Are you going to get married soon, and all that?"
The keeper stared in silence for some moments, impotent.
"I suppose so," he said, full of resentment.
"Ah!" Syson watched closely.
"I'm married myself," he added, after a time.
"You are?" said the other incredulously.
Syson laughed in his brilliant, unhappy way.
"This last fifteen months," he said.
The keeper gazed at him with wide, wondering eyes, apparently thinking back, and trying to make things out.
"Why, didn't you know?" asked Syson.
"No, I didn't," said the other sulkily.
There was silence for a moment.
"Ah well!" said Syson, "I will go on. I suppose I may." The keeper stood in silent opposition. The two men hesitated in the open, grassy space, set around with small sheaves of sturdy bluebells; a little open platform on the brow of the hill. Syson took a few indecisive steps forward, then stopped.
"I say, how beautiful!" he cried.
He had come in full view of the downslope. The wide path ran from his feet like a river, and it was full of bluebells, save for a green winding thread down the centre, where the keeper walked. Like a stream the path opened into azure shallows at the levels, and there were pools of bluebells, with still the green thread winding through, like a thin current of ice-water through blue lakes. And from under the twig-purple of the bushes swam the shadowed blue, as if the flowers lay in flood water over the woodland.
"Ah, isn't it lovely!" Syson exclaimed; this was his past, the country he had abandoned, and it hurt him to see it so beautiful. Woodpigeons cooed overhead, and the air was full of the brightness of birds singing.
"If you're married, what do you keep writing to her for, and sending her poetry books and things?" asked the keeper. Syson stared at him, taken aback and humiliated. Then he began to smile.
"Well," he said, "I did not know about you . . ."
Again the keeper flushed darkly.
"But if you are married - " he charged.
"I am," answered the other cynically.
Then, looking down the blue, beautiful path, Syson felt his own humiliation. "What right HAVE I to hang on to her?" he thought, bitterly self-contemptuous.
"She knows I'm married and all that," he said.
"But you keep sending her books," challenged the keeper.
Syson, silenced, looked at the other man quizzically, half pitying. Then he turned.
"Good day," he said, and was gone. Now, everything irritated him: the two sallows, one all gold and perfume and murmur, one silver- green and bristly, reminded him, that here he had taught her about pollination. What a fool he was! What god-forsaken folly it all was!
"Ah well," he said to himself; "the poor devil seems to have a grudge against me. I'll do my best for him." He grinned to himself, in a very bad temper.