‘Now then, children, tea’s ready,’ she said.
Jane slipped off Philip’s knees, and they all went back to the kitchen. Sally began to lay the cloth on the long Spanish table.
‘Mother says, shall she come and have tea with you?’ she asked. ‘I can give the children their tea.’
‘Tell your mother that we shall be proud and honoured if she will favour us with her company,’ said Athelny.
It seemed to Philip that he could never say anything without an oratorical flourish.
‘Then I’ll lay for her,’ said Sally.
She came back again in a moment with a tray on which were a cottage loaf, a slab of butter, and a jar of strawberry jam. While she placed the things on the table her father chaffed her. He said it was quite time she was walking out; he told Philip that she was very proud, and would have nothing to do with aspirants to that honour who lined up at the door, two by two, outside the Sunday school and craved the honour of escorting her home.
‘You do talk, father,’ said Sally, with her slow, good-natured smile.
‘You wouldn’t think to look at her that a tailor’s assistant has enlisted in the army because she would not say how d’you do to him and an electrical engineer, an electrical engineer, mind you, has taken to drink because she refused to share her hymn-book with him in church. I shudder to think what will happen when she puts her hair up.’
‘Mother’ll bring the tea along herself,’ said Sally.
‘Sally never pays any attention to me,’ laughed Athelny, looking at her with fond, proud eyes. ‘She goes about her business indifferent to wars, revolutions, and cataclysms. What a wife she’ll make to an honest man!’
Mrs. Athelny brought in the tea. She sat down and proceeded to cut bread and butter. It amused Philip to see that she treated her husband as though he were a child. She spread jam for him and cut up the bread and butter into convenient slices for him to eat. She had taken off her hat; and in her Sunday dress, which seemed a little tight for her, she looked like one of the farmers’ wives whom Philip used to call on sometimes with his uncle when he was a small boy. Then he knew why the sound of her voice was familiar to him. She spoke just like the people round Blackstable.
‘What part of the country d’you come from?’ he asked her.
‘I’m a Kentish woman. I come from Ferne.’
‘I thought as much. My uncle’s Vicar of Blackstable.’
‘That’s a funny thing now,’ she said. ‘I was wondering in Church just now whether you was any connection of Mr. Carey. Many’s the time I’ve seen ‘im. A cousin of mine married Mr. Barker of Roxley Farm, over by Blackstable Church, and I used to go and stay there often when I was a girl. Isn’t that a funny thing now?’
She looked at him with a new interest, and a brightness came into her faded eyes. She asked him whether he knew Ferne. It was a pretty village about ten miles across country from Blackstable, and the Vicar had come over sometimes to Blackstable for the harvest thanksgiving. She mentioned names of various farmers in the neighbourhood. She was delighted to talk again of the country in which her youth was spent, and it was a pleasure to her to recall scenes and people that had remained in her memory with the tenacity peculiar to her class. It gave Philip a queer sensation too. A breath of the country-side seemed to be wafted into that panelled room in the middle of London. He seemed to see the fat Kentish fields with their stately elms; and his nostrils dilated with the scent of the air; it is laden with the salt of the North Sea, and that makes it keen and sharp.
Philip did not leave the Athelnys’ till ten o’clock. The children came in to say good-night at eight and quite naturally put up their faces for Philip to kiss. His heart went out to them. Sally only held out her hand.
‘Sally never kisses gentlemen till she’s seen them twice,’ said her father.
‘You must ask me again then,’ said Philip.
‘You mustn’t take any notice of what father says,’ remarked Sally, with a smile.
‘She’s a most self-possessed young woman,’ added her parent.
They had supper of bread and cheese and beer, while Mrs. Athelny was putting the children to bed; and when Philip went into the kitchen to bid her good-night (she had been sitting there, resting herself and reading The Weekly Despatch) she invited him cordially to come again.
‘There’s always a good dinner on Sundays so long as Athelny’s in work,’ she said, ‘and it’s a charity to come and talk to him.’
On the following Saturday Philip received a postcard from Athelny saying that they were expecting him to dinner next day; but fearing their means were not such that Mr. Athelny would desire him to accept, Philip wrote back that he would only come to tea. He bought a large plum cake so that his entertainment should cost nothing. He found the whole family glad to see him, and the cake completed his conquest of the children. He insisted that they should all have tea together in the kitchen, and the meal was noisy and hilarious.
Soon Philip got into the habit of going to Athelny’s every Sunday. He became a great favourite with the children, because he was simple and unaffected and because it was so plain that he was fond of them. As soon as they heard his ring at the door one of them popped a head out of window to make sure it was he, and then they all rushed downstairs tumultuously to let him in. They flung themselves into his arms. At tea they fought for the privilege of sitting next to him. Soon they began to call him Uncle Philip.
Athelny was very communicative, and little by little Philip learned the various stages of his life. He had followed many occupations, and it occurred to Philip that he managed to make a mess of everything he attempted. He had been on a tea plantation in Ceylon and a traveller in America for Italian wines; his secretaryship of the water company in Toledo had lasted longer than any of his employments; he had been a journalist and for some time had worked as police-court reporter for an evening paper; he had been sub-editor of a paper in the Midlands and editor of another on the Riviera. From all his occupations he had gathered amusing anecdotes, which he told with a keen pleasure in his own powers of entertainment. He had read a great deal, chiefly delighting in books which were unusual; and he poured forth his stores of abstruse knowledge with child-like enjoyment of the amazement of his hearers. Three or four years before abject poverty had driven him to take the job of press-representative to a large firm of drapers; and though he felt the work unworthy his abilities, which he rated highly, the firmness of his wife and the needs of his family had made him stick to it.