FICTION

Strawberry Picnic

LESLIE GORDON BARNARD September 1 1933
FICTION

Strawberry Picnic

LESLIE GORDON BARNARD September 1 1933

Strawberry Picnic

LESLIE GORDON BARNARD

SARAH was getting the strawberries ready. They were to be used with cream; dipped into the little cartons of Devonshire cream that Jane had contrived to make with repeated processes and much travail of mind. "Sarah, come and look,” she would cry. "It’s not very thick, but it will do.”

"Of course. And these berries are immense. I haven’t hulled them. We'll hold and dip, just like we did over there.”

They could never forget their English trip. It was there they had met Roddy. Sarah and Jane had rented bicycles, from a most trusting tradesman with sidewhiskers and a smile: they had hauled on brand new' "breeks,” rolled up slickers and waterproof hats into convenient bundles, packed a few necessaries in knapsacks, and set off from the rim of London traffic through riotous country lanes. Somewhere on the thrilling run from the height of Hindhead down to Bramshott almost without pedalling—Jane had picked up a bit of broken bottle in the rear tire. The air left the tire with a squiffy sort of sigh, and there they were.

And there, presently, was Roddy. He was rather fair, and they thought him English until he spoke and they exchanged the greetings of countrymen. He handed them his card, and they stood and laughed at this punctiliousness between cyclists. His face and neck were bronzed with wind and sun. He was older by several years than Sarah, but contemporary with Jane. He fixed Jane’s tire with remarkable ease, and broke Sarah’s heart. She thought she had never seen anyone so—so what she would want a man to be. The girls had lunch—"put up to take out” at the Punch Bowl Inn that stood on the rim of the Hindhead Moors, and he consented to share it. So, as it wasn’t quite lunchtime yet, they pedalled on together, toward the blue

that hung over the Longmoor Ranges. Roddy told them the ranges were over there, his face growing a little grave and old as he said it.

Sarah thought she liked him even better in that mood. She thought that when he fattened a little and acquired a touch of grey he’d look like a statesman. She didn’t mention this, being content to conjure up pictures of herself as an Ottawa hostess, smothered with congratulations on her husband’s rise to the premiership.

Jane told her she had better watch where she was riding.

Then Roddy stopped them.

"It’s queer,” he said; “all this.” And he stretched out an arm in an inclusive sweep of the gorse-ridden moors. “Everything’s gone that I used to know—parade grounds, huts, canteens, the Navy and Army Theatre, the b.f. areas with their trenches and ghastly dummies. You wonder where all the fellows are. I’m glad you kids came along; I was getting to see ghosts.”

Jane was pleased that he should class her with Sarah. Sarah said quickly:

"You’d think you were ages older. You must have enlisted from your cradle.”

"I was almost seventeen,” said Roddy.

"Infant,” snorted Sarah.

He eyed her for an instant, and she was awfully happy about it.

BUT THE ROAD held Roddy. It caught him back away from her. She wished she had been old enough then to serve as a nurse and wear a becoming uniform—smartly but with sensitive eyes so people would think, "She’s efficient, but she understands. You see that decoration’ That was...”

"Sarah,” said Jane, "can’t you see that truck coming?” There it was, of course, hooting at her. It was an army truck, and live Tommies in fatigue uniform turned and waved. Jane and Sarah waved back, but Roddy stood

looking, appearing a little startled and lost. He said at last:

“Of course. Aldershot isn’t far. I began to think I was seeing things.” And he told them of how convoys of trucks had come through sometimes, here on the Portsmouth road, heading down to the sea from London, and how one night he watched the long line of them crawl around the wind of the hill up from Witley, so evenly spaced that the headlights were like bright buttons linking together the ghostly moors on either side. But the road had seen more marching men than lorries, he said. He began to talk about the men he had known. A little rubble stood by the side of the road where the gorse was less thick.

"That may be what’s left of the Y hut,” said Roddy. "The fellows would drop in for a final cup of coffee or a few fags when the drafts were going, and we’d all come out and watch them go.”

And suddenly, at his voice, Sarah was a little afraid and not so sure of the romance she had missed; and she could see, as he went on speaking, khaki figures getting lost down the dusty road, and could hear the echoes of .men singing about a long, long, trail.

She was glad when they turned off, where a sign said "Waggoner’s Wells,” and they were pleased Roddy had suggested it because there, at the end of a short road, was quiet water and leafy beauty and a slope where one could sit comfortably and munch sandwiches and things, and the flies weren’t too awfully pesky and Roddy was fearfully funny about fanning Sarah with her straw hat.

It wasn’t there that they ate the strawberries and cream; That was later, at Cheddar, after they’d gone down seemingly into the bowels of the earth, because nobody could go to Cheddar and not see the caves; and Sarah had queer fancies that the world above would fall in on them, and the stalagmites and stalactites would come together like teeth, which wouldn’t be at all comfortable. She tried to joke about it to Roddy, and he held her arm tightly and was nice about it. But she was glad when the good air and light were theirs, and sorry for the next lot of tourists so eagerly

waiting to go down into the earth; and the strawberries tasted better than ever in the Gorge, where the cliffs carried the eye upward to the open sky. Sitting, munching sandwiches and dispossessing the flies from the food, at Waggoner’s Wells, they planned to go on together.

Jane wasn’t sure they should. Even if they all came from Montreal and Jane felt certain she knew a man who knew Roddy’s father, you couldn’t go travelling round with a strange man, putting up at the same places. Sarah asked if anybody could stop anybody else going where he or she liked on a bicycle, saying that if Roddy happened to choose the same route, what could anybody do about it? Jane gave in, because she’d do anything for Sarah, but once or twice Sarah had to make Jane tear up conscience-stricken letters home.

A FTER THE Bramshott lunch, Roddy said would they / \ mind visiting the church; and they went through a sunken road, with the trees meeting overhead, so it was like a tunnel of green and faint yellow; then through a lychgate and into the churchyard. Tombstones so old they couldn’t support themselves upright, the names undecipherable, were moss and lichen-covered, but across the well-kept grass stood row on row of upright crosses. Roddy led the way there, and even the girls took off their hats, feeling they ought to, and the warm sun felt pleasant on one’s head as one stood and looked at the names of men from back home. Somebody had put flowers in recent remembrance; the plot was beautifully kept, and the summer peace was unbroken by anything but the murmur of bees busy with the flowers.

“Some of them never even got ‘out there,’ ” said Roddy. “They never heard the guns, except in spirit.”

Jane just stood, her homely face alight, her eyes seeing far things. Roddy was erect as if at salute. But Sarah, stooping to straighten a flower that had fallen askew, dropped a few tears on it.

She stood up and turned away, ashamed of her emotion.

“It’s all right, Sarah,” said Jane, and put an arm about her.

Roddy said unsteadily:

“It’s all right, kid. You’ve left a little bit of Canada there.”

Then they went out, and Roddy told them a lot of funny things that had happened and one story about his sergeant that kept laughter with them all the way down to Liphook. After that they knew, of course, that they had to see England together. And besides, as Sarah said, what would they do if Jane punctured another tire?

TODAY, back in Canada, Jane was almost as excited about Roddy coming to visit them as Sarah was. Jane had a happy aptitude for vicarious enjoyment through Sarah. The story of Sarah was an unfailing serial for her. Sarah was not unconscious of this, but when she tried to play on it she failed miserably.

So she tried to keep any selfdramatizations to herself. It was as terrible to have Jane say,

“Don’t be silly, Sarah,” as it was good to have her say quickly, as she had in that moment of real need at Bramshott: “It’s all

right, Sarah.” No use at all to dramatize oneself this morning.

But one hardly needed to. Roddy had wired:

“On my way stop will be home in morning stop bringing important news stop plan to have picnic on mountain stop strawberries in season stop love to you and Jane.”

He always included Jane. It was as if they three had ties not to be broken, even one way.

Jane sometimes had a little pang of fear about that. Exclusion would be like—like death.

Sarah held the telegram out to Jane.

“But he doesn’t say how long he’s staying,” she said.

“Not for long,” replied Jane, “if I know Roddy.”

Roddy was quite an important man on his journal. “Jane,” cried Sarah, “let’s not miss a day. If the weather’s fine, we’ll greet him with a picnic.”

Well, the weather was fine, and Roddy had telephoned already. He was in town; he had breakfasted at the hotel and would be out as soon as he interviewed a man down town. And nothing could be better than a strawberry picnic. Sarah wondered now if she could wait until he came. Correspondence was so futile compared with Roddy in the flesh. And his letters had been brief of late. “Difficult days,” he would write, “but we’ll barge through. Yours as ever ...”

Yours as ever ! Queer how one clung to that phrase, looked for it, grew afraid if it wasn’t there now and then. The same Roddy of the Bramshott day, lonely with his ghosts on the gorse-grown moor that once was peopled, happy with his fooling over the lunch at Waggoner’s Wells, full of understanding in the churchyard that had invoked her tears, jolly with his stories of army life—the same Roddy who had taken her arm firmly in the Cheddar caves, and who afterward in the Gorge had lain on his back, stretched out on the turf, staring up at the sky beyond the cliff rims, eating interminable strawberries and laughing up at her, his lips red with the bright, luscious fruit.

“Sarah!” That was her mother. “Roddy is here.” Already? She ran out. He was standing in the hall, shaking hands. He was wearing grey flannels and a rusty brown coat.

“Roddy!”

Her mother went to the kitchen. Sarah clung to him for a

quick, ecstatic moment. Jane appeared, apron still on.

“Hullo, Janie!” he called. "Am I too early? I brought some more berries. When does the picnic party kick off?”

WENT in a cab to the mountain. Roddy insisted on the cab. The cabby entered into the spirit of the affair, flourishing a tasselled whip in the sunlight. There was a lingering coolness in the air. By and by it would be hot. Few people were on the winding roads of the mountain park. They all sat on the same seat facing forward; Roddy in the middle, Jane and Sarah on either side. The horse plodded up the steeps, but on the levels, by contrast, they seemed to be whirled along at a jolly speed. The city did not fall away from them; rather it seemed to snuggle closer under the skirts of the mountain. ' Upon thousands of flat roofs and thousands of steep roofs and scores of steeples the sharp sunlight descended. The distances were less definite, the river a little smoky, the distant hills retreating into haze. Roddy had the man stop, and bade them listen. The birds were riotous up here, yet it seemed like a tremendous, detached stillness, the rumble of the city only accentuating the isolation.

Sarah said suddenly how nice it was to think of everybody working down there while they made holiday. Jane laughed and Roddy dubbed her a selfish little beast. The cabman smiled widely over prospects of a good tip from such a merry party and drove on to the top, where they got out and, after suitably rewarding him, went afoot, carrying their parcels of food, Roddy burdened with a thermos bottle of coffee which he insisted must contain gallons. Sarah and Jane had a small argument over the exact spot, but Nature decided it for them, producing a glade sufficiently level in the middle for the cloth that Jane spread, sheltered by trees and bushes behind, but with a breath-taking declivity just ahead.

“I believe you could jump on to the roofs,” cried Sarah.

“Not till you grow wings,” laughed Roddy.

Jane kept looking at Roddy now and again— sharp, discreet little glances. There was something about him. Was it his news? Sarah said once, driving up:

“What did you mean in the telegram, Roddy—that important news bit?”

He squeezed her hand.

“By and by,” he said. “It can wait. This is a picnic.” Sarah was willing it should be. Business matters made her tired sometimes; not that she didn’t realize their importance. She wanted Roddy to progress even quicker than he had so they could be married, and then— then she had real plans for them. Some of these she shared with Jane— not the highest flights perhaps, because Jane was so sensible; everybody said how sensible she was until you got a little tired about it—but, lying in their twin beds at night, Sarah would talk and Jane would listen. Jane was a good listener. She didn’t talk much. Jane did a lot of quiet thinking and observing. She saw now in Roddy what Sarah couldn’t see. Sarah just saw Roddy being tremendously gay and happy about a picnic. Jane, watching them, felt afraid of her own insight. She wanted to be one with them.

It wasn’t until after lunch that the news broke. The cream was all gone, but a few of the strawberries were left because of Roddy bringing some.

“Repletion,” said Roddy, and sighed. ‘Tm part of the word if I ever was. You don’t mind if I smoke a pipe?”

Continued on page 37

HEY

Continued from page 19

It was a short, funny little pipe. Sarah insisted on helping him charge it, and then struck the match, kneeling before him. He grew very silent as he smoked and stared out over the city, and then he took the pipe out and something in Jane cried out: “Now it’s coming. I’m afraid of it!” And she looked at Sarah, who was nibbling a final strawberry with the air of one who relinquished a joy with a sigh of regret.

“News broadcast,” said Roddy, “I suppose I’ve got to spill it. Well, here it is. You’re looking at a gentleman of temporary leisure. I’m out of a job.”

Sarah sat up very straight, the marks of the strawberry on her lips.

“Roddy!”

“It’s true, Sarah.”

“They never—fired you?”

HE LOOKED suddenly grave, and his glance went, as if for support or understanding, to Jane.

“No,” he said soberly, “I quit.”

“You’re being funny,” said Sarah sharply, uneasily.

“I was never so serious in my life.”

Sarah’s voice was a little shrill as she said: “Roddy, are you clean crazy? In times like this?”

Jane broke in with her quiet word: “Suppose, Sarah, you let Roddy get it off his chest. Goon, Roddy.”

Roddy bit on his pipe stem. One of his heels ground a little crescent in the turf.

“Couldn’t stick it any longer,” he said. “I’m old enough at the game to know there’s got to be a lot of give and take. But news is news, not propaganda. Even headlines can distort and lie, and class-conscious editorials —either side—aren’t quite good enough these days. The Old Man looked funnily at me when I talked it over with him. ‘What’s happened to you?’ he said. He was decent enough. I told him I didn’t know; it was like —like conversion—of a sort. I told him we had to make a shot at least at integrity. He threw a barrage of newspaper history at me, but it didn’t hit anything vital.”

Roddy turned from the bleak eyes of Sarah to Jane.

“You understand, don’t you?” he appealed. “In ordinary times it seemed a bit of a game—rather good fun perhaps—with politics and parties and classes for pawns. Today—well, it seems to me that today there’s got to be a deal of clear thinking and a quiet honesty, if you know what I mean.” Jane nodded, but she wasn’t looking at him. She was looking at Sarah. Sarah’s eyes were too bright and she had begun packing things up, just as though the picnic were over. Jane said:

“What do you propose to do, Roddy?”

“I haven’t quite thought that through —yet.”

Sarah, dropping a box of remnants, straightened suddenly and swung on him : “No,” she said shrilly, “you never thought, did you? And you never thought of me. You never thought what it would mean to me. Oh, Roddy, you fool!”

• She turned, stumbled blindly through the young foliage and threw herself on a grassy bank, face down. She was out of sight of them, but they could hear her. Roddy, his face a bit grey, stood up. Jane put out a restraining hand.

“Leave her,” she said hastily. “Let her be, Roddy. I know Sarah better than you do.”

He sat down hesitantly and sucked gloomily at his pipe.

“I suppose I am a fool,” he said. “I suppose I should have told her first. But when I saw the thing so clearly, I had to act. You know, Jane, I feel I have something to say. I want to write a bit—without fetters. And I’d like to get around and talk with people. I’ve got to share the thing that’s come to me. Not argument, Jane; that’s more often the blaring of two opinionated fools. Not just propaganda ; more of a communion of soul. It’s hard to put it in

words. It’s something that has to be felt. It's got to be so deep that words can’t quite touch the spot.”

Jane looked at him. Her eyes could have told one what she was thinking. She was older than he now, though their ages were the same. She didn’t expect too much from life. And her heart was with Sarah.

“I knew you’d understand, Jane,” Roddy was saying.

Jane caught that to her almost hungrily. But she must think of Sarah.

“Yes,” she said, “I see. You and I will soon be middle-aged, Roddy. Sarah’s young. She can’t quite understand. It twists everything for her: everything she’s dreamed about. I’m thinking of her, too. Things mean so much to her.”

ODD Y was silent.

The light in Jane’s eyes was not too kindly. She had tasted blood for Sarah’s sake; and now all the years when she had been Sarah’s second self, all the years when she had lived vicariously in Sarah, came crowding to push her on.

“One would think you’d found something new,” she said.

He cried in horror:

“No. no. It’s old—old.”

Jane hardly heard him. She was pressing to her own crusade—for Sarah.

“There’s a practical side to life,” she said. “You can’t throw up everything like that— your career, your chances.”

“Jane!” he cried. “You don’t know what you’re saying; you don’t know what you’re doing.” His voice quieted. “I’m sorry. I failed at the first jump. Shouting out loud won’t do this.” He tried to smile. “I’m new at this, you know. But it’s waited nearly fifteen years for me. Jane, before I left France in ’19, I went from the Ypres salient down to Amiens, visiting all the old lines. They were beginning then to straighten things up. and at Courcelette fatigue parties were gathering the unknown dead into a j common grave. Beyond were crosses all ; over the plain like daisies in a field. I stood there in the March sunlight and swore that life could never be the same. And I forgot, Jane. I forgot. Well, I seem to have remembered again, that’s all. Don’t think it’s some damnable self-conscious nobility. But there’s a new generation—somebody’s got to tell them.”

“Lots of people are telling them,” Jane said quickly.

“A few,” said Roddy. “But not my story. Everyone has to tell his own. Even you, Jane.” His eyes suddenly challenged her. “You stood with us that day at Bramshott.”

The word seemed to unlock something in Jane; something she had been struggling to repress. She had wanted to think only of Sarah, and now she must reckon with herself. He shouldn’t have mentioned Bramshott. He shouldn’t have flung the challenge of it to her. He shouldn’t have crowded her back through the years to stand once more in the English sunlight beside the resting place of men who would not go home again and to hear his grave declaration that some of them had never heard the guns except in spirit. “You stood with us that day at Bramshott.” The reproach in Roddy’s voice! She could not bear it. But there was Sarah. Sarah’s world had fallen in.

Jane got up and began to finish packing. She collected the strawberry hulls in a paper bag. Through a thin screen of bushes she could see Sarah. Sarah was squatting there, utterly still, like a figure carved in wood. On her face were the marks of a spent sorrow. Jane put a sure interpretation upon the face. Sarah had been listening. She had heard it all. But a final word remained to be spoken.

Jane straightened herself, lifting the bag of strawberry hulls in one hand and a dis carded cake box full of remnants in the other, her eye on a refuse receptacle wired to a tree.

"Well, all I can say,” said Jane, “is that

you can’t blame Sarah if she chucks you.”

She stalked off with a crisp stride through last autumn’s leaves to dump the refuse.

Sarah came suddenly to life. She broke through the bushes and flung herself at Roddy.

"Roddy, Roddy!” she cried. “I think you’re wonderful. Jane’s a beast. Don’t believe her. What a perfect beast she was to you1”

Roddy held her to him. She ruffled his hair with her hands, kissing him a little wildly; then began to sob, caught herself at it, and sat up sternly, dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief.

“It’s all right, kid,” said Roddy.

Jane said nothing. Her work was done; she had given them back to each other. She went on with the packing. Sarah and Roddy were complete in their new understanding, their own happiness. Sarah’s eyes were glowing; her mind already full of plans. She was elevating Roddy and herself to new greatness, to a place where Jane, who was crudely practical, did not belong.

Jane shook out the tablecloth. She was an alien—cast out. Her hands were not quite steady as she tried to find the folds. She did not even look their way. She went on packing the glasses, the thermos bottle, the cutlery, and the tablecloth with its stains of strawberries and its little dried clots of cream.