Cut and Come Again

Cut and Come Again by H.E. Bates Read Free Book Online

Book: Cut and Come Again by H.E. Bates Read Free Book Online
Authors: H.E. Bates
along the path, by the sluice and the machinery and so past the door and the mill-race to the far side of the house. A stretch of grass, once a lawn and now no more than a waste of dead grass and sedge, went down to the backwater from what she saw now was the front door.
    At the door she paused for a moment. Why was the front door open and not the back? Then she saw why. Pushing open the door she saw that it had no lock; only the rusty skeleton pattern of it remained imprinted on the brown sun-scorched paint.
    Inside, she stood still in the brick-flagged passage. It seemed extraordinarily cold; the damp coldness of the river air seemed to have saturated the place.
    Finally she walked along the passage. Her lace-up boots were heavy on the bricks, setting up a clatter of echoes. When she stopped her eyes were a little wider and almost white in the lightless passage. And again, as outside, they registered the quietness of the place, until it was broken by a voice:
    â€˜Somebody there? Who is it?’ The voice came from upstairs. ‘Who is it?’
    A silence. Alice stood still, listening with wide eyes. Then the voice again:
    â€˜Who is it?’
    â€˜Me. Alice.’
    Another silence, and then:
    â€˜Come up.’ It was a light voice, unaggressive, almost friendly. ‘Come upstairs.’
    The girl obeyed at once. The wooden stairs were steep, and carpetless. She tramped up. The banister, against which she rubbed her sleeve, was misted over with winter wetness. She could smell the dampness everywhere. It seemed to rise and follow her.
    On the top stairs she halted. ‘In the end bedroom,’ the voice called. She went at once along the wide half-light landing in the direction of the voice. The panelled doors had at one time been painted white and blue, but now the white was blue and the blue the colour of greenish water. The doors had old-fashionedlatches of iron and when she lifted the end latch she could feel the first thin leaf of rust on it ready to crumble and fall. She hesitated a moment before touching the latch, but as she stood there the voice called again and she opened the door.
    Then, when she walked into the bedroom, she was almost surprised. She had expected to see Mrs. Holland in bed. But the woman was kneeling on the floor, by the fireplace. She was in her nightgown. The gown had come unbuttoned and Alice could see Mrs. Holland’s drooping breasts. They seemed curiously swollen, as though by pregnancy, or some dropsical complaint. The girl saw that Mrs. Holland was trying to light a fire. Faint acrid paper-smoke hung about the room and stung her eyes. She could hear the tin-crackle of burnt paper. There was no flame. The smoke rose up the chimney and then, in a moment, puthered down again, the paper burning with little running sparks that extinguished themselves and then ran on again.
    â€˜I’m Alice,’ the girl said. ‘Alice Hartop.’
    She stared fixedly at the big woman sitting there with her nightgown unbuttoned and a burnt match in her hands and her long pigtail of brown hair falling forward over her shoulders almost to the depths of her breasts. Her very largeness, her soft dropsical largeness, and the colour of that thick pigtail were somehow comforting. They were in keeping with the voice she had heard, the voice which spoke to her quite tenderly again now:
    â€˜I’m so glad you’ve come, Alice, I am so glad.’
    â€˜Am I late?’ Alice said. ‘I walked.’
    Then she stopped. Mrs. Holland had burst out laughing. The girl stood vacant, at a loss, her mouth fallen open. The woman gathered her nightgown inher hands and held it tight against her breasts, as though she feared that the laughter might suddenly flow out of them like milk. And the girl stared until the woman could speak:
    â€˜In your hand! Look, look. In your hand. Look!’
    Then Alice saw. She still had the fish in her hand. She was clutching it like a

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