An old yellow van–the Comet–came jolting along the edge of the downs and shaking its occupants together like peas in a bladder. The bride and bridegroom did not mind this much; but the Registrar of Births, Deaths, and Marriages, who had bound them in wedlock at the Bible Christian Chapel two hours before, was discomforted by a pair of tight boots, that nipped cruelly whenever he stuck out his feet to keep his equilibrium.
Nevertheless, his mood was genial, for the young people had taken his suggestion and acquired a copy of their certificate. This meant five extra shillings in his pocket. Therefore, when the van drew up at the cross-roads for him to alight, he wished them long life and a multitude of children with quite a fatherly air.
“You can’t guess where I’m bound for. It’s to pay my old mother a visit. Ah, family life’s the pretty life–that ever I should say it!”
They saw no reason why he should be cynical, more than other men. And the bride, in whose eyes this elderly gentleman with the tight boots appeared a rosy winged Cupid, waved her handkerchief until the vehicle had sidled round the hill, resembling in its progress a very infirm crab in a hurry.
As a fact, the Registrar wore a silk hat, a suit of black West-of-England broadcloth, a watch-chain made out of his dead wife’s hair, and two large seals that clashed together when he moved. His face was wide and round, with a sanguine complexion, grey side-whiskers, and a cicatrix across the chin. He had shaved in a hurry that morning, for the wedding was early, and took place on the extreme verge of his district. His is a beautiful office–recording day by day the solemnest and most mysterious events in nature. Yet, standing at the cross-roads, between down and woodland, under an April sky full of sun and south-west wind, he threw the ugliest shadow in the landscape.
The road towards the coast dipped–too steeply for tight boots–down a wooded coombe, and he followed it, treading delicately. The hollow of the V ahead, where the hills overlapped against the pale blue, was powdered with a faint brown bloom, soon to be green–an infinity of bursting buds. The larches stretched their arms upwards, as men waking. The yellow was out on the gorse, with a heady scent like a pineapple’s, and between the bushes spread the grey film of coming blue-bells. High up, the pines sighed along the ridge, turning paler; and far down, where the brook ran, a mad duet was going on between thrush and chaffinch–“Cheer up, cheer up, Queen!” “Clip clip, clip, and kiss me–Sweet!”–one against the other.
Now, the behaviour of the Registrar of Births, Deaths, and Marriages changed as he descended the valley. At first he went from side to side, because the loose stones were sharp and lay unevenly; soon he zig-zagged for another purpose–to peer into the bank for violets, to find a gap between the trees where, by bending down with a hand on each knee and his head tilted back, he could see the primroses stretching in broad sheets to the very edge of the pine-woods. By frequent tilting his collar broke from its stud and his silk hat settled far back on his neck. Next he unbuttoned his waistcoat and loosened his braces; but no, he could not skip–his boots were too tight. He looked at each tree as he passed. “If I could only see”–he muttered. “I’ll swear there used to be one on the right, just here.”
But he could not find it here–perhaps his memory misgave him–and presently turned with decision, climbed the low fence on his left, between him and the hollow of the coombe, and dropped into the plantation on the other side. Here the ground was white in patches with anemones; and as his feet crushed them, descending, the babel of the birds grew louder and louder.