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The Golden Calf: A Novel, a novel by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 24. 'Fruits Fail And Love Dies And Time Ranges'

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Brian found Wimperfield duller as a place of residence after Sir Reginald's death; or it may be that he found London gayer, and his professional duties more absorbing. It was not often that his wife and mother-in-law were gratified by any public notification of his engagements; but now and then the name of Mr. Wendover appeared as junior counsel in some insignificant case, and Lady Palliser, who read the _Times_ and _Post_, diligently apprised Ida of the fact.

'You see Brian is getting on quite nicely,' she said approvingly, 'and by-and-by when he has plenty of work, you will have a small house in town, I suppose--somewhere about Belgravia--and only come to Wimperfield for your holidays.'

Fanny Palliser had never left off compassionating Ida for her frequent separation from her husband. She had never divined that Ida was happier in Brian's absence than when he was with her. The wife had so borne herself that her husband should not be put to shame by her indifference. She lived the larger half of her life apart from him; but Lady Palliser and her gossips believed that in so doing the young couple sacrificed inclination to prudence. So soon as they could afford to maintain a town house they would have one.

It was midsummer weather, and the rose garden at Wimperfield, that garden which had been Ida's own peculiar care for the last four years, the garden which she had improved and beautified with every art learned from that ardent rose-worshipper Aunt Betsy, was glorious with its first blooms. Sir Reginald Palliser had been dead a year and a half, but Ida still wore black gowns, and the widow had in no wise mitigated the severity of her weeds. The two women had lived peaceably and affectionately together ever since the baronet's death, leading a quiet but not unhappy life, the placid monotony of their existence agreeably varied by frequent intercourse with the family at Kingthorpe.

The only changes at The Knoll were of a gentle domestic character. No cloud of trouble had darkened that happy household. Bessie had become a brisk, business-like little matron, dividing her cares between her yearling baby and her husband's parish; troubled, like Martha, about many things, but only in such a manner as women of her temperament like to be troubled. Reginald had begun his University career as an undergraduate of Balliol, and talked largely about Professor Jowett, and Greek. Horatio was still a Wintonian. The Colonel had grown a little stouter, and his wife was too polite to cultivate a slimness which might have seemed a reproach to her husband's comfortable figure. Blanche was 'out,' a development of her being which meant that she was occasionally invited to a friendly dinner-party with her father and mother, that her clothes cost three times as much as they had cost while she was 'in,' that she had ideas about blue china and sunflowers, lamented the shabbiness of The Knoll drawing-room and the general untidiness of the household, and that she abandoned herself to despondency whenever there was a long interval between one garden party and another. The child Eva had become exactly what Blanche had been four years ago. Urania was still Urania Rylance, just a shade more self-opinionated, and more conscious of the inferiority of her fellow-creatures. These innate instincts had been ripened and developed by several London seasons, and were now accompanied by a flavour of sourness which was meant for wit. She had not been without offers, but there had been no offer tempting enough to induce her to abandon her privileges as Dr. Rylance's daughter. She had an idea that her marriage would be the signal for Dr. Rylance to take unto himself a second wife; and she was disinclined to give that signal. The more anxious her father seemed to dispose of her in the marriage market, the more tenaciously she clung to the privileges of spinsterhood.

'I hope you are not in a hurry to get rid of me, father,' she said at breakfast one morning, when Dr. Rylance urged the claims of a cultured youth in the War Office.

'No, my dear; I don't think I have shown any undue haste. This is your fifth London season.'

I hope you do not call my intermittent glimpses of town a season,' sneered Urania.

'I have you here as often and as long as I can,' answered her father, becoming suddenly stony of countenance, 'and I take you out as much as I can. Mr. Fitz Wilson has seven hundred a year. I could give you--say three; and surely with a thousand a year two young people might live in very good style--even in these pretentious days.'

'No doubt. But I don't care for Mr. Fitz Wilson, and I care still less for the kind of style which can be maintained upon a thousand a year,' replied Urania, with the air of a duchess. 'That would mean a small house 011 the skirts of Regent's Park, or a flat in the Marylebone Road, I suppose--and no carriage.'

'Marry whom you please, my love, and when you please,' said her father; 'but remember that time is not standing still with any of us.'

There had been no change at the Abbey in the years which were gone since Brian Walford claimed his bride, except that the new schools had been built under Colonel Wendover's superintendence. The old house still resembled the palace of the sleeping beauty; except that trustworthy servants took care of it, and kept moths, spiders, mice, and all such small deer at a distance. The owner of the mansion was still absent, roaming about somewhere in Northern India, as it was supposed; but his letters were few and far between. His kindred at Kingthorpe were accustomed to think of him as a wanderer in far-away places, and gave themselves very little anxiety about him. To have been anxious once would be to be anxious always, since a traveller's risks are manifold, and there is never a year when the eager spirit of some valiant explorer is not quenched in sudden death. Brian Wendover had been away so long that people had left off talking about him; and it seemed a natural condition for the Abbey to be tenantless--a capital place for picnics and afternoon teas. The Wendovers of The Knoll took all their visitors there as a matter of course--played tennis on the lawn between the goodly old cedars; and Blanche, who was of a much more enterprising disposition than her sister Bessie, had tried her hardest to induce Mrs. Wendover to give a ball in the old refectory.

Ida and her husband were strolling about the rose-garden in the quiet hour after luncheon, while Lady Palliser dozed over her knitting-needles in her favourite chair by the long French window. Brian had come to Wimperfield somewhat unexpectedly, while the London season was still at its height, and all the law courts in full swing. He came home invalided, and wanting rest and care: but he refused to consult the family doctor, a general practitioner born and bred in the adjacent village,--clever, sagacious, homely in dress and manners, and, in the opinion of Lady Palliser, a tower of strength. She liked a fatherly doctor.

'What is the use of seeing old Fosbroke when I have had the best advice in London?' Brian said, peevishly, when urged by his mother-in-law to take advice from the family doctor. 'I know exactly what ails me--nervous exhaustion, an over-worked brain, and that kind of thing. I suppose it is a natural consequence of modern civilisation: men's brains have to go at express speed in order to keep pace with the average intelligence of the time.'

'If you had only a better appetite!' sighed Lady Palliser, who had been distressed at seeing her son-in-law send away plate after plate, with its contents hardly touched.

'I wouldn't mind having a bad appetite if I could sleep, said he; 'it's insomnia that tells upon a fellow.'

Brian did not enter into the causes of this dire malady, which had begun with long nights given to dissipation--not to gross pleasures or vulgar companions, but to a semi-intellectual dissipation: wit, fun, copious talk about all things between heaven and earth, in the society of artists, actors, journalists, Bohemians of all the arts. To the man who begins by doing without sleep there sometimes comes a day when sleep will refuse to answer to his bidding. He has acquired the habit of perpetual wakefulness. The sleep-mechanism of the brain is out of gear. It will go for half-an-hour, perhaps, or for a few minutes, in spasmodic jerks: and then it stops all at once, as if the machinery had gone wrong.

So it was with Brian. Those festive nights given over to the feast of reason and the flow of soul--not to riot or drunkenness, but to the half-unconscious consumption of much brandy and soda--nights in which the atmosphere seemed charged with wit and wisdom as with mental electricity--nights in which a young man, able to talk smartly upon any given topic, was carried away by the consciousness of his power, and thought himself a god.

Brian was a member of all those joyous clubs--the night flowers of the club world, which unfold their petals in the small hours, when the playhouses are shut, and the lights have been extinguished in all sober households. There was no offence in any of these institutions, and they offered a fine intellectual arena, afforded a splendid training for literary youth: but to a man who loved them too well they meant a shattered constitution.

Brian had come to Wimperfield in the hope that quiet and country air would bring back sleep to his eyelids and steadiness to his nerves; but he had been there a week, and his hand was no steadier, his nights were no less wakeful. He fancied himself growing weaker day by day, and although the great authority in Harley Street had strictly forbidden any stimulant except one glass of stout with his mutton chop at luncheon, Brian, who was quite unable to eat the chop, found it impossible to lunch without plenty of dry sherry, or to dine without champagne, and after dinner drank a good deal of that fine old port which had been laid down by old Sir Vernon Palliser in forty-seven.

Ida was very kind and gentle to her husband at this time, seeing that he was really in need of her tenderness. She devoted herself to his amusement, walked with him, rode with him, drove with him; but although he was grateful, he was not happy. A terrible depression of mind, broken by flashes of hilarity, had taken possession of him. The London physician had told him frankly that his nerves were shattered, but that all would be well with him if he left off all stimulants, ate chops and steaks, and lived in the open air; but as yet he had been unable to cope with the most diminutive chop, or to exist for three hours without stimulants. Even those rides and drives with Ida seemed a weariness to him, and he would have escaped them if he could.

This afternoon he paced the rose-garden listlessly by Ida's side, smoking a cigarette--that cigarette which was rarely absent from his lips.

'Are you sure your London doctor does not object to your smoking so much?' Ida asked presently, noting the languid uncertainty of the fingers which held the cigarette.

'I am not sure about anything. I told him I could not live without tobacco, and he said I might smoke two or three cigarettes in the course of the day--'

'Oh, Brian, and you smoke--'

'Two or three dozen! Not quite so bad as that, eh? But no doubt I do go considerably outside the medico's mark. I could no more exist by line and rule in that way than I could fly. No, if I am to die of tobacco and late hours, I am doomed.'

'But there is no such thing as being doomed; every man is his own master--he can mould his life as he likes.'

'Can he? That depends upon the man. I am not going into the mystery of fate and free will. There is the question of temperament--hereditary instinct. If I cannot have intellectual society--new ideas--variety--I must die. I could not lead the life you live here--not life, but stagnation.'

'I have the books I love, this dear park, and all the lovely country round us--horses--dogs--and some very pleasant neighbours: and I try to do a little good in my generation.'

'All very well; but you are as much out of the world as if you were in the centre of Africa. I could not exist under such conditions. Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay. This to me would be as bad as Cathay. But now I suppose you are going to be perfectly happy, now that your brother is coming home.'

'Yes. I am always happy, when I have him--he is more and more companionable every day of his life.'

Vernon was expected that afternoon. He was coming home for a summer holiday, just when summer was at her loveliest He was not bound by public school rules, or obliged to wait for the stereotyped watering-place season. The Jardines were to bring him over this afternoon, and were to stay at Wimperfield for a couple of days. Ida glanced towards the avenue every now and then, expecting to catch a glimpse of the approaching carriage between the leafy elms.

Brian strolled by her side with a listless air, smoking, and murmuring a few words now and then for courtesy's sake. He had very little to say to his wife. She did not care for the things he cared for, or understand the kind of life he lived. She loved books, the books which are for all time; he was a mere skimmer of books and reviews--mostly reviews; and he cared only for new books, new ideas, new theories, new paradoxes. His cleverness was the cleverness of the daily press--the floating froth upon the sea of knowledge. He liked to talk to a man of his own stamp, with whom he could argue upon equal terms; but not to a woman who had steeped her mind in the wisdom and poetry of the past.

He stifled a yawn every now and then, in that half-hour of waiting, longing to go back to the dining-room and refresh his parched lips with the contents of a syphon dashed with brandy. He had given his own orders to the butler, and the spirit stand was always on the sideboard ready for his use. The butler had made a note of the brandy which was dribbled away in this desultory form of refreshment, and had made up his own mind as to Mr. Wendover's habits; but it is a servant's duty to hold his peace upon such matters.

At last there came the sound of wheels, and Ida flew round to the portico to receive her guests, Brian following at his leisure. The slender figure in the black gown reminded Brian of those old days by the river--the tranquil October afternoons--the clear light--the placid water--a gray river under a gray sky, with a lovely line of yellow light behind the tufted willows. How happy he had been in those days!--caring nothing for the future--bent on winning this girl at any price--laughing within himself at her delusion--trusting to his own merits as an ample set-off against his empty purse when he should stand revealed as the wrong Brian.

Things had gone fairly enough with him since then. He had had plenty of pleasure; a good deal of money, though not half enough; and very little work. And yet he felt that his life was a failure--and he was languid and old before his time. An idle life had exhausted him sooner than other men are exhausted by a hard-working career. He knew of men at the Bar who had lived hard and worked like galley slaves, and who yet retained all the fire and freshness of youth.

The guests had alighted by the time Brian reached the portico, and Vernon was in his sister's arms. She held him away from her, to show him to her husband--a thin fair-haired boy of eleven, in a gray highland kilt and jacket, like a gillie--fresh rosy cheeks, bright blue eyes.

'Hasn't he grown, Brian I and isn't he a darling?' she asked, hugging him again.

'He is a jolly little fellow, and he shall go out shooting with me as soon as there is anything to shoot.'

'We can fish,' said Vernon; 'there's plenty of trout; but you don't look strong enough to throw a fly. My rod's ever so heavy,' he added, with a flourish of his arm.

That weakness and languor which was obvious even to the boy, was still more apparent to Mr. and Mrs. Jardine. Bessie had not seen her cousin since Christmas, when he and Ida had spent a couple of days at Kingthorpe.

'Oh, Brian,' she exclaimed, 'have you been ill? Nobody told me anything.'

'I have had no illness worth telling about; but I have not been in vigorous health. London life takes too much out of a man.'

'Then you should not live in London. You ought to be out all day, roaming about on those pine-clad hills yonder--"hangers," I think you call them in these parts.'

'Yes,' answered Ida, 'we are very proud of our hangers; but Brian is not able to walk much just yet.'

Bessie was full of concern for Brian after this. She devoted herself to him in the interval before dinner, and left Ida free to roam about the garden with Vernie. She remembered how he had always been her favourite cousin. She had been angry with him for allowing that foolish practical joke of hers to take so fixed and fatal a form; but now she saw him wan and broken-looking she was prepared to forgive him everything.

'You must take care of yourself, Brian,' she said, when they were sitting side by side in one of the drawing-room windows, while Lady Palliser dispensed afternoon tea.

'I am taking care of myself; I am here for that purpose; but it is dreary work.'

'What! dreary work to live in this lovely place, and with such a sweet wife! But I know you never liked the country.'

'I frankly detest it.'

'And you miss the intellectual society to which you are accustomed in London--literary men--poets--playwrights. How delightful it must be to know the men who write books!'

'They are not always the pleasantest people in the world. I never cared much for your deep-thinker--the man who believes he is sent into the world to promulgate his own particular gospel. But the men who write for newspapers--critics, humourists--they are jolly fellows enough.'

'And you have glorious nights at your clubs, don't you? We had a friend of John's with us the other day who had met you at some literary club near the Strand. Do you ever sing comic songs now?'

'Sometimes, after midnight. One does not feel moved to that kind of thing till the small hours.'

'Ah!' sighed Bessie, 'our only idea of the small hours is getting up at four, to be ready for a five o'clock service. But I don't think the small hours agree with you, Brian. You are looking ten years older than when you were at Kingthorpe last summer.'

'Better wear out than rust out,' said Brian.

After dinner Vernie was eager for an exploration of the village, and Blackman's Hanger, the wild, pine-clad hill which sheltered the village from north-east winds and the salt breath of a distant sea.

Ida was ready to go with him, and the Jardines, always tremendous walkers, were equally anxious for a ramble; but Brian was much too languid for evening walks.

'I'll stay and smoke my smoke and talk to the Mater,' he said, always contriving to keep on pleasant terms with Lady Palliser; 'I hate bats, owls, twilight, and all the Gray's Elegy business.'

'But you stop such a time over your cigar,' said the widow. 'Last night I sat for an hour waiting tea for you. I like company over my cup of tea.'

'To-night you shall have the advantage of intellectual society,' said Brian. 'I will come and dribble out my impressions of the last _Contemporary Review,_ which I dozed over between breakfast and luncheon.'

Brian stayed in the dining-room, dimly lighted by two hanging moderator lamps, while the soft shades of evening were just beginning to steal over the landscape outside. He had his favourite pointer for company--the last Sir Vernon's favourite, a magnificent beast, and of almost human intelligence, and he had plenty of wine in the decanters before him--choice port and claret, which had been set on the table in honour of the Jardines, who had hardly touched it. He had his cigarette case and his own thoughts, which were idle as the smoke-wreaths which went curling up to the ceiling, light as the ashes of his tobacco.

Out of doors the evening was divine. Vernon was delighted to be frisking about upon his patrimonial soil. The five years he had lived at Wimperfield seemed the greater half of his life--seemed, indeed, almost to have absorbed and blotted out his former history. He remembered very little of the shabbier circumstances of his babyhood, and had all the feelings of a boy born in the purple, to whom it was natural to be proprietor of the landscape, and to patronise the humbler dwellers on the soil.

Blackman's Hanger was a rugged ridge of hill above the village of Wimpertield. They lingered here to listen to the nightingales, and to admire the sunset; and then, when the glow above the western horizon was changing from golden to deepest crimson, they all went down into the village, where lights were beginning to glimmer faintly in some of the cottages.

Wimperfield was a snug primitive settlement, consisting of about five-and-twenty habitations, not one of which had been built within the last century, a general shop, a bakery, and three public-houses, a fact which shows that the brewing interests were well protected in this part of the world. One of village taverns, a dingy old low-browed cottage, with a pile of out-buildings which served for stable, piggery, or anything else, and about half an acre of garden, stood a little way aloof from the village, and on the skirt of the copse that clothed the sloping steep below Blackman's Hanger. There was a piece of waste land in front of this inn which served as the theatre for such itinerary exhibitors, Cheap Jacks, and Bohemians of all kinds who took quiet little Wimperfield in the course of their perambulations.

Here to-night in the dusk, there stood a covered cart of the pedler order and Vernon, who had been walking on in front with Mr. Jardine, rushed back to his sister to say that there was a Cheap Jack in front of the 'Royal Oak.'

'Oh, he has been there for a long time--ever since the beginning of the year,' said Ida; 'he is quite an institution.'

'What's an institution?' asked Vernon.

'Something fixed and lasting, don't you know. I believe he does no end of good among the villagers--doctoring them, and advising them, and helping them when they are ill or out of work; but he has a very churlish way with the gentry. Mr. Mason, our curate, says the man always reminds him of the Black Dwarf, except that he is not so ugly, nor deformed in any way.'

'Then he can't be like the Black Dwarf,' said Vernon, who knew almost all Sir Walter's novels, his sister having read Shakespeare, Scott, and Dickens to him for hours on end, during the long winter evenings at Wimperfield.

'Does he live in that cart always?' asked Bessie.

'Not always; he has taken possession of that dilapidated cottage upon the Hanger, which used to be occupied by Lord Pontifex's gamekeeper, and I believe he oscillates between the cart and the cottage. I have hardly seen him, for he is such a morose personage that he always hides when any of the gentry approach his hut.'

'Sulks in his tent, like Achilles,' said Mr. Jardine.

They were on the edge of the little patch of green by this time. The cart--painted a lively yellow, and with a little window on each side--stood in the middle of the green, backed by a clump of tall elms. There was a little crowd in front of the cart, and a man with a black beard and a red fez cap was discoursing in a deep, sonorous voice to the assembly--descanting, with seeming fluency, upon a picture which he held in his hand, his tawny, gipsy-like face only half shown by the flame of a flaring naphtha lamp, and his features rendered grotesque by the play of lights and shadows. The party from the park, however, had very little opportunity for seeing what manner of man he was; for no sooner did he catch sight of Mr. Jardine's tail hat over the circle of rustic heads, than he flung the engraving he had been exhibiting inside the cart, extinguished his lamp, wished his audience an abrupt good night, and shut the door of his dwelling upon the outside world.

The rustics gave him a round of applause before they dispersed. The women and children moved towards the village; the men and lads lingered a little on the green, irresolute, and then slowly gravitated to the 'Royal Oak,' touching their hats as they passed the gentlefolks. Mr. Jardine stopped one of the men midway.

'A curious customer that,' he said, looking towards the cart.

'Yes, sir, so he be; but rale right down clever.'

'Was he trying to sell you that picture?'

'No, sir; him don't often sell things to we; sometimes him do--knives, and comforters, and corderoy waistcoats, and flannel shirts, and such like, and oncommon good they be, too, and oncommon cheap. He wor givin' we a bit of a lecture loike, on lions and tigers, and ryenosed-horses, and such-loike beasts, and on they queer creatures wot lived before the flood. Lord! there was one beast with a long neck, and paddles for swimmin' with, as made we all ready to bust with laughin' when him showed us the pictur' of his skeleton.'

'Does he often give you a lecture of that kind?'

'Yes, sir; him do lecture we about all manner o' things--flowers, and ferns, and insects--kindness to hanimals--hinstinct in dogs--Lord knows what; but he have a way of makin' it all go down--much better nor parson; and ha allus gets a good laugh out o' we. And when there's any on us ill, or out o' work, then Cheap Jack be a real good friend, and very ready with the brass.'

'But can he afford to help you? is he so much better off than you are?'

'Well, sir, you see him haven't got no missus nor young 'uns, and I fancy him's got a few pounds saved in a old stocking. Him don't drink, nayther--not so much as a mug o' beer.'

'Is he a native of these parts?'

'Lor no, sir, turn's a furriner; why, his skin's as brown as a berry!'

'Is he a gipsy, do you think?'

'I ain't sure o' that, but him can talk their patter; and when the gipsies come this way him and them is as thick as thaves.'

'I see--half a gipsy and half a foreigner, and altogether a rover, I suppose. Well, I'm glad he gives you a little instruction and amusement now and then, and I hope he'll find the way to keep you out of the public-house,' said Mr. Jardine.

'Why, you see, parson, a man must have his mug o' beer; but it's summot to the good if he don't sit down over it and make it three or four mugs o' beer. There ain't been so much sitting down since Cheap Jack corned among us.'

'Isn't that a desolate hovel up on the hill where he lives sometimes?'

'It was oncommon deserlate till Cheap Jack took it in hand there ain't a owl in the wood that would have liked to live in it; but Jack hammers a bit of wood here, and a plank there, and a bit o' matting up agen the walla, and puta in a stove from Petersfield, and makes it as snug as a burd's nest. I've smoked many a pipe with him alongside that stove, and drank many a cup o' coffee. That's Jack's drink--not a drain o' beer or sperrits ever goes inside o' he.'

'That accounts for the money in the stocking,' said Bessie.

The rustic shook his head dubiously.

'Him ain't got no childer,' he said. 'It's them as makes the coin go.'

'I wish he'd come out again and go on lecturing,' exclaimed Vernon, with an aggrieved air. 'I do so want to hear him.'

'Oh, but him won't show the end of his nose now you're here, Sir Vernon,' answered the rustic. 'Him can't abide gentlefolks. Parson ha' tried his hardest to get round he, but Jack shuts the door in parson's face. Him don't want nothing of 'em, and don't want their company.'

'A natural corollary,' said Mr. Jardine, laughing. 'But I'm afraid your friend is a desperate radical.'

'Well, I don't know, sir. Him don't speak hard agen the Queen; him don't want to do away with soldiers and sailors, like grocer down street; and though Jack don't go to church, Jack reads his Bible, and holds by his Bible. I fancy as some rich gentleman must ha' done he a great injury once upon a time, and that it turned he agen the breed.'

'Very like the Black Dwarf,' said Mr. Jardine to Ida. 'I daresay I shall hear of your playing the part of Isabella Vere, and interviewing this half-savage, half-Christian recluse. But do you mean to tell me that he has lived here six months, within a mile and a half of your house, and you have never seen him?'

'It is a fact. You had a specimen of his manners just now. Whenever I have passed his cottage he has shut the door or the window in my face, if he happened to be standing at either. To Mr. Mason he has been absolutely rude.'

'It isn't every man who appreciates the privilege of being interviewed by a parson,' said John Jardine.

'Oh, Jack,' cried Bessie! 'all your people love to see you at their doors.'

'Yes, they are a sociable lot. That comes from living on Salisbury Plain, far from the madding crowd.'

After this they went home, watching the golden summer moon rise above the pine-clad Hanger as they went. They found Lady Palliser nodding in her arm-chair in front of the low tea table, the teapot still intact. It was ten o'clock, but Brian had not come in to talk to her after her tea. John Jardine went in quest of him, and found him in the dining-room, mooning over his wine. He murmured a vague excuse about feeling too tired to talk to anybody, and then bade Mr. Jardine good night, and vent up to his room; not to sleep, but to fling the window wide open, and lean his elbows on the sill, and stare out into the exquisite summer night, the leafy wood, the moon-kissed crest of the hill, in a half-dreamy, half-hysterical state of mind.

'I begin to think I am like Swift, and shall go first at top,' he said to himself; 'this quiet life is killing; and yet if I was to go back I should be worse. The nights in Elm Court, when I went home alone after a glorious evening, were devilish. _

Read next: Chapter 25. 'My Seed Was Youth, My Crop Was Endless Cake'

Read previous: Chapter 23. 'All Our Life Is Mixed With Death'

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