There was a children’s party in progress on the sloping wide lawn facing the estate of Mr Teyte and easily visible from there despite the high hedge. A dozen school-aged children, some barely out of the care and reach of their nursemaids, attended Mrs Aveline’s birthday party for her son Rupert. The banquet or party itself was held on the site of the croquet grounds, but the croquet set had only partially been taken down, and a few wickets were left standing, a mallet or two lay about, and a red and white wood ball rested in the nasturtium bed. Mr Teyte’s Jamaican gardener, bronzed as an idol, watched the children as he watered the millionaire’s grass with a great shiny black hose. The peonies had just come into full bloom. Over the greensward where the banquet was in progress one smelled in addition to the sharp odour of the nasturtiums and the marigolds, the soft perfume of June roses; the trees have their finest green at this season, and small gilt brown toads were about in the earth. The Jamaican servant hardly took his eyes off the children. Their gold heads and white summer clothing rose above the June verdure in remarkable contrast, and the brightness of so many colours made his eyes smart and caused him to pause frequently from his watering. Edna Gruber, Mrs Aveline’s secretary and companion, had promised the Jamaican a piece of the ‘second’ birthday cake when the banquet should be over, and told him the kind thought came from Mrs Aveline herself. He had nodded when Edna told him of this coming treat, yet it was not the anticipation of the cake which made him so absent-minded and broody as it was the unaccustomed sight of so many young children all at once. Edna could see that the party had stirred something within his mind for he spoke even less than usual to her today as she tossed one remark after another across the boundary of the privet hedge separating the two large properties.
More absent-minded than ever, he went on hosing the peony bed until a slight flood filled the earth about the blooms and squashed onto his open sandals. He moved off then and began sprinkling with tempered nozzle the quince trees. Mr Teyte, his employer and the owner of the property which stretched far and wide before the eye with the exception of Mrs Aveline’s, had gone to a golf tournament today. Only the white maids were inside his big house, and in his absence they were sleeping most of the day, or if they were about would be indifferently spying the Jamaican’s progress across the lawn, as he laboured to water the already refreshed black earth and the grass as perfectly green and motionless as in a painted backdrop. Yes, his eyes, his mind were dreaming today despite the almost infernal noise of all those young throats, the guests of the birthday party. His long black lashes gave the impression of having been dampened incessantly either by the water from the hose or some long siege of tears.
Mr Teyte, if not attentive or kind to him, was his benefactor, for somehow that word had come to be used by people who knew both the gardener and the employer from far back, and the word had come to be associated with Mr Teyte by Galway himself, the Jamaican servant. But Mr Teyte, if not unkind, was undemonstrative, and if not indifferent, paid low wages, and almost never spoke to him, issuing his commands, which were legion, through the kitchen and parlour maids. But once when the servant had caught pneumonia, Mr Teyte had come unannounced to the hospital in the morning, ignoring the rules that no visits were to be allowed except in early evening, and though he had not spoken to Galway, he had stood by his bedside a few moments, gazing at the sick man as if her were inspecting one of his own ailing riding horses.
But Mrs Aveline and Edna Gruber talked to Galway, were kind to him. Mrs Aveline even ‘made’ over him. She always spoke to him over the hedge every morning, and was not offended or surprised when he said almost nothing to her in exchange. She seemed to know something about him from his beginnings, at any rate she knew Jamaica, having visited there three or four times. And so the women – Edna and Mrs Aveline – went on speaking to him over the years, inquiring of his health, and of his tasks with the yard, and so often bestowing on him delicacies from their liberal table, as one might give tidbits to a prized dog which wandered in also from the great estate.
The children’s golden heads remained in his mind after they had all left the banquet table and gone into the interior of the house, and from thence their limousines had come and taken them to their own great houses. The blonde heads of hair continued to swim before his eyes like the remembered sight of fields of wild buttercups outside the great estate, stray flowers of which occasionally cropped up in his own immaculate greensward, each golden corolla as bright as the strong rays of the noon sun. And then the memory came of the glimpsed birthday cake with the yellow centre. His mouth watered with painful anticipation, and his eyes again filled with tears.
The sun was setting as he turned off the hose, and wiped his fingers from the water and some rust stains, and a kind of slime which came out from the nozzle. He went into a little brick shed, and removed his shirt, wringing wet, and put on a dry one of faded pink cotton decorated with a six-petalled flower design. Ah, but the excitement of those happy golden heads sitting at a banquet – it made one too jumpy for cake, and their voices still echoed in his ears a little like the cries of the swallows from the poplar trees.
Obedient, then, to her invitation, Galway, the Jamaican gardener, waited outside the buttery for a signal to come inside, and partake of the birthday treat, bemusing however, about the party and all the young children, the sounds of their gaiety, their enormous, vitality, lung power, their great appetites, the happy other sounds of silverware and fine china being moved about, added to which had been the song of the birds now getting ready to settle down to the dark of their nests, a kind of memory, a heavy nostalgia had come over him, recollection deep and far-off weighted him down without warning like fever and profound sickness. He remembered his dead loved ones . . . How long he had stood on the back steps he could not say, until Edna suddenly laughing as she opened the door on him, with flushed face, spoke: ‘Why, Galway, you know you should not have stood on ceremony . . . Of all people, you are the last who is expected to hang back . . . Your cake is waiting for you . . .’
He entered and sat in his accustomed place where so many times past he was treated to dainties and rewards.
‘You may wonder about the delay,’ Edna spoke more formally today to him than usual. ‘Galway, we have, I fear, bad news . . . A telegram has arrived . . . Mrs Aveline is afraid to open it . . .’
Having said this much, Edna left the room, allowing the swinging door which separated the kitchen from the rest of the house to close behind her and then continue its swing backwards and forwards like the pendulum of a clock.
Galway turned his eyes to the huge white cake with the yellow centre which she had expressly cut for him. The solid silver fork in his hand was about to come down on the thick heavily-frosted slice resting sumptuously on hand-painted china. Just then he heard a terrible cry rushing through the many rooms of the house and coming, so it seemed, to stop directly at him and then cease and disappear into the air and the nothingness about him. His mouth became dry, and he looked about like one who expects unknown and immediate danger. The fork fell from his brown calloused muscular hand. The cry was now repeated if anything more loudly, then there was a cavernous silence, and after some moments, steady prolonged hopeless weeping. He knew it was Mrs Aveline. The telegram must have brought bad news. He sat on looking at the untasted cake. The yellow of its centre seemed to stare at him.
Edna now came through the swinging door, her eyes red, a pocket handkerchief held tightly in her right hand, her opal necklace slightly crooked. ‘It was Mrs Aveline’s mother, Galway . . . She is dead . . . And such a short time since Mrs Aveline’s husband died too, you know . . .’
Galway uttered some words of regret, sympathy, which Edna did not hear, for she was still listening to any sound which might try to reach her from beyond the swinging door.
At last turning round, she spoke: ‘Why, you haven’t so much as touched your cake . . .’ She looked at him almost accusingly.
‘She has lost her own mother . . .’ Galway said this after some struggle with his backwardness.
But Edna was studying the cake. ‘We can wrap it all up, the rest of it, Galway, and you can have it to sample at home, when you will have more appetite.’ She spoke comfortingly to him. She was weeping so hard now she shook all over.
‘These things come out of the blue,’ she managed to speak at last in a neutral tone as though she was reading from some typewritten sheet of instructions. ‘There is no warning very often as in this case. The sky itself might as well have fallen on us . . .’
Edna had worked for Mrs Aveline for many years. She always wore little tea aprons. She seemed to do nothing but go from the kitchen to the front parlour or drawing room, and then return almost immediately to where she had been in the first place. She had supervised the children’s party today, ceaselessly walking around, and looking down on each young head, but one wondered exactly what she was accomplishing by so much movement. Still, without her, Mrs Aveline might not have been able to run the big house, so people said. And it was also Edna Gruber who had told Mrs Aveline first of Galway’s indispensable and sterling dependability. And it was Galway Edna always insisted on summoning when nobody else could be found to do some difficult and often unpleasant and dirty task.
‘So Galway, I will have the whole ”second” cake sent over to you just as soon as I find the right box to put it in . . .’
He rose as Edna said this, not having eaten so much as a crumb. He said several words which hearing them come from his mouth startled him as much as if each word spoken had appeared before him as letters in the air.
‘I am sorry . . . and grieve for her grief . . . A mother’s death . . . It is the hardest loss.’
Then he heard the screen door closing behind him. The birds were still, and purple clouds rested in the west, with the evening star sailing above the darkest bank of clouds as yellow as the heads of any of the birthday children. He crossed himself.
Afterwards he stood for some time in Mr Teyte’s great green backyard, and admired the way his gardener’s hands had kept the grass beautiful for the multi-millionaire, and given it the endowment of both life and order. The wind stirred as the light failed, and flowers which opened at evening gave out their faint delicate first perfume, in which the four-o’clocks’ fragrance was pronounced. On the ground near the umbrella tree something glistened. He stooped down. It was the sheepshears, which he employed in trimming the ragged grass about trees and bushes, great flower beds, and the hedge. Suddenly, stumbling in the growing twilight he cut his thumb terribly on the shears. He walked dragging one leg now as if it was his foot which he had slashed. The gush of blood somehow calmed him from his other sad thoughts. Before going inside Mr Teyte’s great house, he put the stained sheepshears away in the shed, and then walked quietly to the kitchen and sat down at the lengthy pine table which was his accustomed place here, got out some discarded linen napkins, and began making himself a bandage. Then he remembered he should have sterilized the wound. He washed the quivering flesh of the wound in thick yellow soap. Then he bandaged it and sat in still communion with his thoughts.
Night had come. Outside the katydids and crickets had begun an almost dizzying chorus of sound, and in the far distant darkness tree frogs and some bird with a single often repeated note gave the senses a kind of numbness.
Galway knew who would bring the cake – it would be the birthday boy himself. And the gardener would be expected to eat a piece of it while Rupert stood looking on. His mouth now went dry as sand. The bearer of the cake and messenger of Mrs Aveline’s goodness was coming up the path now, the stones of gravel rising and falling under his footsteps. Rupert liked to be near Galway whenever possible, and like his mother wanted to give the gardener gifts, sometimes coins, sometimes shirts, and now tonight food. He liked to touch Galway as he would perhaps a horse. Rupert stared sometimes at the Jamaican servant’s brown thickly-muscled arms with a look almost of acute disbelief.
Then came the step on the back porch, and the hesitant but loud knock.
Rupert Aveline, just today aged thirteen, stood with outstretched hands bearing the cake. The gardener accepted it immediately, his head slightly bowed, and immediately lifted it out of the cake box to expose it all entire except the one piece which Edna Gruber had cut in the house expressly for the Jamaican, and this piece rested in thick wax paper separated from the otherwise intact birthday cake. Galway fell heavily into his chair, his head still slightly bent over the offering. He felt with keen unease Rupert’s own speechless wonder, the boy’s eyes fixed on him rather than the cake, though in the considerable gloom of the kitchen the Jamaican servant had with his darkened complexion all but disappeared into the shadows, only his white shirt and linen trousers betokening a visible presence.
Galway lit the lamp, and immediately heard the cry of surprise and alarmed concern coming from the messenger, echoing in modulation and terror that of Mrs Aveline as she had read the telegram.
‘Oh, yes, my hand,’ Galway said softly, and he looked down in unison with Rupert’s horrified glimpse at his bandage – the blood having come through copiously to stain the linen covering almost completely crimson.
‘Shouldn’t it be shown to the doctor, Galway?’ the boy inquired, and suddenly faint, he rested his hand on the servant’s good arm for support. He had gone very white. Galway quickly rose and helped the boy to a chair. He hurried to the sink and fetched him a glass of cold water, but Rupert refused this, continuing to touch the gardener’s arm.
‘It is your grandmother’s death, Rupert, which has made you upset . . .’
Rupert looked away out the window through which he could see his own house in the shimmery distance; a few lamps had been lighted over there, and the white exterior of his home looked like a ship in the shadows, seeming to move languidly in the summer night.
In order to have something to do and because he knew Rupert wished him to eat part of the cake, Galway removed now all the remaining carefully wrapped thick cloth about the birthday cake and allowed it to emerge yellow and white, frosted and regal. They did everything so well in Mrs Aveline’s house.
‘You are . . . a kind . . . good boy,’ Galway began with the strange musical accent which never failed to delight Rupert’s ear. ‘And now you’re on your way to being a man,’ he finished.
Rupert’s face clouded over at this last statement, but the music of the gardener’s voice finally made him smile and nod, then his eyes narrowed as they rested on the bloodstained bandage.
‘Edna said you had not tasted one single bite, Galway,’ the boy managed to speak after a struggle to keep his own voice steady and firm.
The gardener, as always, remained impassive, looking at the almost untouched great cake, the frosting in the shape of flowers and leaves and images of little men and words concerning love, a birthday and the year 1902.
Galway rose hurriedly and got two plates.
‘You must share a piece of your own birthday cake, Rupert . . . I must not eat alone.’
The boy nodded energetically.
The Jamaican cut two pieces of cake, placed them on large heavy dinner plates, all he could find at the moment, and produced thick solid silver forks. But then as he handed the piece of cake to Rupert, in the exertion of his extending his arm, drops of blood fell upon the pine table.
At that moment, without warning, the whole backyard was illuminated by unusual irregular flashing lights and red glares. Both Rupert and Galway rushed at the same moment to the window, and stared into the night. Their surprise was, if anything, augmented by what they now saw. A kind of torchlight parade was coming up the far greensward, in the midst of which procession was Mr Teyte himself, a bull-necked short man of middle years. Surrounded by other men, his well-wishers, all gave out shouts of congratulation in drunken proclamation of the news that the owner of the estate had won the golf tournament. Suddenly his pals raised Mr Teyte to their shoulders, and shouted in unison over the victory.
Listening to the cries growing in volume, in almost menacing nearness as they approached closer to the gardener and Rupert, who stood like persons besieged, the birthday boy cautiously put his hand in that of Galway.
Presently, however, they heard the procession moving off beyond their sequestered place, the torchlights dimmed and disappeared from outside the windows, as the celebrators marched toward the great front entrance of the mansion, a distance of almost a block away, and there, separated by thick masonry, they were lost to sound.
Almost at the same moment, as if at some signal from the disappearing procession itself, there was a deafening peal of thunder, followed by forks of cerise lightning flashes, and the air so still before it rushed and rose in furious elemental wind. Then they heard the angry whipping of the rain against the countless panes of glass.
‘Come, come, Rupert,’ Galway admonished, ‘your mother will be sick with worry.’ He pulled from a hook an enormous mackintosh, and threw it about the boy. ‘Quick, now, Rupert, your birthday is over . . .’