"We play billiards here on Sunday, but you would think it wrong to do so."
"But to-day is not Sunday."
"No, I was only speaking in a general way. Yet I often wonder how you can feel satisfied with the protection your Church affords you against the miseries and trials of the world. A Protestant, you know, may believe pretty nearly as little or as much as he likes, whereas in our church everything is defined; we know what we must believe to be saved. There is a sense of security in the Catholic Church which the Protestant has not."
"Do you think so? That is because you do not know our Church," replied Kitty, who was a little astonished at this sudden outburst. "I feel quite happy and safe. I know that our Lord Jesus Christ died on the Cross to save us, and we have the Bible to guide us."
"Yes, but the Bible without the interpretation of the Church is ... may lead to error. For instance..."
John stopped abruptly. Seized with a sudden scruple of conscience he asked himself if he, in his own house, had a right to strive to undermine the faith of the daughter of his own friend.
"Go on," cried Kitty, laughing, "I know the Bible better than you, and if I break down I will ask father." And as if to emphasise her intention, she hit her ball which was close under the cushion as hard as she could.
John hailed the rent in the cloth as a deliverance, for in the discussion as to how it could be repaired, the religious question was forgotten.
But if he were her lover, if she were going to be his wife, he would have the right to offer her every facility and encouragement to enter the Catholic Church—the true faith. Darkness passes, and the birds are carolling the sun, flowers and trees are pranked with aerial jewellery, the fragrance of the warm earth flows in your veins, your eyes are fain of the light above and your heart of the light within. He would not jar his happiness by the presence of Mrs Norton, even Kitty's presence was too actual a joy to be home. She drew him out of himself too completely, interrupted the exquisite sense of personal enchantment which seemed to permeate and flow through him with the sweetness of health returning to a convalescent on a spring day. He closed his eyes, and his thoughts came and went like soft light and shade in a garden close; his happiness was a part of himself, as fragrance is inherent in the summer time. The evil of the last days had fallen from him, and the reaction was equivalently violent. Nor was he conscious of the formal resignation he was now making of his dream, nor did he think of the distasteful load of marital duties with which he was going to burden himself; all was lost in the vision of beautiful companionship, a sort of heavenly journeying, a bright earthly way with flowers and starlight—he a little in advance pointing, she following, with her eyes lifted to the celestial gates shining in the distance. Sometimes his arms would be thrown about her. Sometimes he would press a kiss upon her face. She was his, his, and he was her saviour. The evening died, the room darkened, and John's dream continued in the twilight, and the ringing of the dinner bell and the disturbance of dressing did not destroy his thoughts. Like fumes of wine they hung about him during the evening, and from time to time he looked at Kitty.
But although he had so far surrendered himself, he did not escape without another revulsion of feeling. A sudden realisation of what his life would be under the new conditions did not fail to frighten him, and he looked back with passionate regret on his abandoned dreams. But his nature was changed, abstention he knew was beyond his strength, and after many struggles, each of which was feebler than the last, he determined to propose to Kitty on the first suitable occasion.
Then came the fear of refusal. Often he was paralysed with pain, sometimes he would morbidly allow his thoughts to dwell on the moment when he would hear her say, it was impossible, that she did not and could not love him. The young grey light of the eyes would be fixed upon him; she would speak her sorrow, and her thin hands would hang by her side in the simple attitude that was so peculiar to her. And he mused willingly on the long meek life of grief that would then await him. He would belong to God; his friar's frock would hide all; it would be the habitation, and the Gothic walls he would raise, the sepulchre of his love....
"But no, no, she shall be mine," he cried out, moved in his very entrails. Why should she refuse him? What reason had he to believe that she would not have him? He thought of how she had answered his questions on this and that occasion, how she had looked at him; he recalled every gesture and every movement with wonderful precision, and then he lapsed into a passionate consideration of the general attitude of mind she evinced towards him. He arrived at no conclusion, but these meditations were full of penetrating delight. Sometimes he was afflicted with an intense shyness, and he avoided her; and when Mrs Norton, divining his trouble, sent them to walk in the garden, his heart warmed to his mother, and he regretted his past harshness.
And this idyll was lived about the beautiful Italian house, with its urns and pilasters; through the beautiful English park, with its elms now with the splendour of summer upon them; in the pleasure grounds with their rosary, and the fountain where the rose leaves float, and the wood-pigeons come at eventide to drink; in the greenhouse with its live glare of geraniums, where the great yellow cat, so soft and beautiful, springs on Kitty's shoulder, rounds its back, and purring, insists on caresses; in the large clean stables where the horses munch the corn lazily, and look round with round inquiring eyes, and the rooks croak and flutter, and strut about Kitty's feet. It was Kitty; yes, it was Kitty everywhere; even the blackbird darting through the laurels seemed to cry Kitty.
To propose! Time, place, and the words he should use had been carefully considered. After each deliberation, a new decision had been taken: but when he came to the point, John found himself unable to speak any one of the different versions he had prepared. Still he was very happy. The days were full of sunshine and Kitty, and he mistook her light-heartedness for affection. He had begun to look upon her as his certain wife, although no words had been spoken that would suggest such a possibility. Outside of his imagination nothing was changed; he stood in exactly the same relation to her as he had done when he returned from Stanton College, determined to build a Gothic monastery upon the ruins of Thornby Place, and yet somehow he found it difficult to realise that this was so.
One morning he said, as they went into the garden, "You must sometimes feel a little lonely here ... when I am away ... all alone here with mother."
"Oh dear no! we have lots to do. I look after the pets in the morning. I feed the cats and the rooks, and I see that the canaries have fresh water and seed. And then the bees take up a lot of our time. We have twenty-two hives. Mrs Norton says she ought to make five pounds a year on each. Sometimes we lose a swarm or two, and then Mrs Norton is so cross. We were out for hours with the gardener the other day, but we could do no good; we could not get them out of that elm tree. You see that long branch leaning right over the wall; well it was on that branch that they settled, and no ladder was tall enough to reach them; and when Bill climbed the tree and shook them out they flew right away."
"Shall I, shall I propose to her now?" thought John. But Kitty continued talking, and it was difficult to interrupt her. The gravel grated under their feet; the rooks were flying about the elms. At the end of the garden there was a circle of fig trees. A silent place, and John vowed he would say the word there. But as they approached his courage died within him, and he was obliged to defer his vows until they reached the green-house.
"So your time is fully occupied here."
"And in the afternoon we go out for drives; we pay visits. You never pay visits; you never go and call on your neighbours."
"Oh, yes I do; I went the other day to see your father."
"Ah yes, but that is only because he talks to you about Latin authors."
"No, I assure you it isn't. Once I have finished my book I shall never look at them again."
"Well, what will you do?"
"Next winter I intend to go in for hunting. I have told a dealer to look out for a couple of nice horses for me."
Kitty looked up, her grey eyes wide open. If John had told her that he had given the order for a couple of crocodiles she could not have been more surprised.
"But hunting is over now; it won't begin again till next November. You will have to play lawn tennis this summer."
"I have sent to London for a racquet and shoes, and a suit of flannels."
"Goodness me.... Well, that is a surprise! But you won't want the flannels; you might play in the Carmelite's habit which came down the other day. How you do change your mind about things!"
"Do you never change your mind, Kitty?"
"Well, I don't know, but not so suddenly as you. Then you are not going to become a monk?"
"I don't know, it depends on circumstances."
"What circumstances?" said Kitty, innocently.
The words "whether you will or will not have me" rose to John's lips, but all power to speak them seemed to desert him; he had grown suddenly as weak as melting snow, and in an instant the occasion had passed. He hated himself for his weakness. The weary burden of his love lay still upon him, and the torture of utterance still menaced him from afar. The conversation had fallen. They were approaching the greenhouse, and the cats ran to meet their patron. Sammy sprang on Kitty's shoulder.
"Oh, isn't he a beauty? stroke him, do."
John passed his hand along the beautiful yellow fur. Sammy rubbed his head against his mistress' face, her raised eyes were as full of light as the pale sky, and the rich brown head and the thin hands made a picture in the exquisite clarity of the English morning,—in the homeliness of the English garden, with tall hollyhocks, espalier apple trees, and one labourer digging amid the cabbages. Joy crystal as the morning itself illumined John's mind for a moment, and then faded, and he was left lonely with the remembrance that his fate had still to be decided, that it still hung in the scale.
One evening as they were walking in the park, shadowy in the twilight of an approaching storm, Kitty said:
"I never would have believed, John, that you could care to go out for a walk with me."
"And why, Kitty?"
Kitty laughed—her short sudden laugh was strange and sweet. John's heart was beating. "Well," she said, without the faintest hesitation or shyness, "we always thought you hated girls. I know I used to tease you, when you came home for the first time; when you used to think of nothing but the Latin authors."
"What do you mean?"
Kitty laughed again.
"You promise not to tell?"
This was their first confidence.
"You told your mother when I came, when you were sitting by the fire reading, that the flutter of my skirts disturbed you."
"No, Kitty, I'm sure you never disturbed me, or at least not for a long time. I wish my mother would not repeat conversations, it is most unfair."
"Mind you, you promised not to repeat what I have told you. If you do, you will get me into an awful scrape."
The conversation came to a pause. Presently Kitty said, "But you seem to have got over your dislike to girls. I saw you talking a long while with Miss Orme the other day; and at the Meet you seemed to admire her. She was the prettiest girl we had here."
"No, indeed she wasn't!"
"Who was, then?"
Kitty looked up; and there was so much astonishment in her face that John in a sudden access of fear said, "We had better make haste, the storm is coming on; we shall get wet through."
They ran towards the house. John reproached himself bitterly, but he made no further attempt to screw his courage up to the point of proposing. His disappointment was followed by doubts. Was his powerlessness a sign from God that he was abandoning his true vocation for a false one? and a little shaken, he attempted to interest himself in the re-building of his house; but the project had grown impossible to him, and he felt he could not embrace it again, with any of the old enthusiasm at least, until he had been refused by Kitty. There were moments when he almost yearned to hear her say that she could never love him. But in his love and religious suffering the thought of bringing a soul home to the true fold remained a fixed light; he often looked to it with happy eyes, and then if he were alone he fell on his knees and prayed. Prayer like an opiate calmed his querulous spirit, and having told his beads—the great beads which hung on his prie-dieu—he would go down stairs with peace in his heart, and finding Kitty, he would ask her to walk with him in the garden, or they would stroll out on the tennis lawn, racquet in hand.
One afternoon it was decided that they should go for a long walk. John suggested that they should climb to the top of Toddington Mount, and view the immense plain which stretches away in dim blue vapour and a thousand fields.
You see John and Kitty as they cross the wide park towards the vista in the circling elms,—she swinging her parasol, he carrying stiffly his grave canonical cane. He still wears the long black coat buttoned at the throat, but the air of hieratic dignity is now replaced by, or rather it is glossed with, the ordinary passion of life. Both are like children, infinitely amused by the colour of the grass and sky, by the hurry of the startled rabbit, by the prospect of the long walk; and they taste already the wild charm of the downs, seeing and hearing in imagination its many sights and sounds, the wild heather, the yellow savage gorse, the solitary winding flock, the tinkling of the bell-wether, the cliff-like sides, the crowns of trees, the mighty distance spread out like a sea below them with its faint and constantly dissolving horizon of the Epsom Hills.
"I never can cross this plain, Kitty, without thinking of the Dover cliffs as seen in mid Channel; this is a mere inland imitation of them."
"I have never seen the Dover cliffs; I have never been out of England, but the Brighton cliffs give me an idea of what you mean."
"On your side—the Shoreham side—the downs rise in a gently sloping ascent from the sea."
"Yes, we often walk up there. You can see Brighton and Southwick and Worthing. Oh! it is beautiful! I often go for a walk there with my friends, the Austen girls—you saw them here at the Meet."
"Yes, Mr Austen has a very nice property; it extends right into the town of Shoreham, does it not?"
"Yes, and right up to Toddington Mount, where we are going. But aren't you a little tired, John? These roads are very steep."
"Out of breath, Kitty; let's stop for a minute or two." The country lay below them. They had walked three miles, and Thornby Place and its elms were now vague in the blue evening. "We must see one of these days if we cannot do the whole distance."
"What? right across the downs from Shoreham to Henfield?"
"Well, it is not more than eight miles; you don't think you could manage it?"
"I don't know, it is more than eight miles, and walking on the downs is not like walking on the highroad. Father thinks nothing of it."
"We must really try it."
"What would you do if I were to get so tired that I could not go back or forward?"
"I would carry you."
They continued their climb. Speaking of the Devil's Dyke, Kitty said—
"What! you mean to say you never heard the legend? You, a Sussex man!"
"I have lived very little in Sussex, and I used to hate the place; I am only just beginning to like it."
"And you don't like the Jesuits any more, because they go in for matchmaking."
"They are too sly for me, I confess; I don't approve of priests meddling in family affairs. But tell me the legend."
"Oh, how steep these roads are. At last, at last. Now let's try and find a place where we can sit down. The grass is full of that horrid prickly gorse."
"Here's a nice soft place; there is no gorse here. Now tell me the legend."
"Well, I never!" said Kitty, sitting herself on the spot that had been chosen for her, "you do astonish me. You never heard of the legend of St Cuthman."
"No, do tell it to me."
"Well, I scarcely know how to tell it in ordinary words, for I learnt it in poetry."
"In poetry! In whose poetry?"
"Evy Austen put it into poetry, the eldest of the girls, and they made me recite it at the harvest supper."
"Oh, that's awfully jolly—I never should have thought she was so clever. Evy is the dark-haired one."
"Yes, Evy is awfully clever; but she doesn't talk much about it."
"Do recite it."
"I don't know that I can remember it all. You won't laugh if I break down."
THE LEGEND OF ST CUTHMAN.
"St Cuthman stood on a point which crowns The entire range of the grand South Downs; Beneath his feet, like a giant field, Was stretched the expanse of the Sussex Weald. 'Suppose,' said the Saint,''twas the will of Heaven To cause this range of hills to be riven, And what were the use of prayers and whinings, Were the sea to flood the village of Poynings: 'Twould be fine, no doubt, these Downs to level, But to do such a thing I defy the Devil!' St Cuthman, tho' saint, was a human creature, And his eye, a bland and benevolent feature, Remarked the approach of the close of day, And he thought of his supper, and turned away. Walking fast, he Had scarcely passed the First steps of his way, when he saw something nasty; 'Twas tall and big, And he saw from its rig 'Twas the Devil in full diabolical fig. There were wanting no proofs, For the horns and the hoofs And the tail were a fully convincing sight; But the heart of the Saint Ne'er once turned faint, And his halo shone with redoubled light. 'Hallo, I fear You're trespassing here!' Said St Cuthman, 'To me it is perfectly clear, If you talk of the devil, he's sure to appear!' 'With my spade and my pick I am come,' said old Nick, 'To prove you've no power o'er a demon like me. I'll show you my power— Ere the first morning hour Thro' the Downs, over Poynings, shall roll in the sea.' 'I'll give you long odds,' Cried the Saint, 'by the gods! I'll stake what you please, only say what your wish is.' Said the devil, 'By Jove! You're a sporting old cove! My pick to your soul, I'll make such a hole, That where Poynings now stands, shall be swimming the fishes.' 'Done!' cried the Saint, 'but I must away I have a penitent to confess; In an hour I'll come to see fair play— In truth I cannot return in less. My bet will be won ere the first bright ray Heralds the ascension of the day. If I lose!—there will be the devil to pay!' He descended the hill with a firm quick stride, Till he reached a cell which stood on the side; He knocked at the door, and it opened wide,— He murmured a blessing and walked inside. Before him he saw a tear-stained face Of an elderly maiden of elderly grace; Who, when she beheld him, turned deadly pale, And drew o'er her features a nun's black veil. 'Holy father!' she said, 'I have one sin more, Which I should have confessed sixty years before! I have broken my vows—'tis a terrible crime! I have loved you, oh father, for all that time! My passion I cannot subdue, tho' I try! Shrive me, oh father! and let me die!' 'Alas, my daughter,' replied the Saint, 'One's desire is ever to do what one mayn't, There was once a time when I loved you, too, I have conquered my passion, and why shouldn't you? For penance I say, You must kneel and pray For hours which will number seven; Fifty times say the rosary, (Fifty, 'twill be a poser, eh?) But by it you'll enter heaven; As each hour doth pass, Turn the hour glass, Till the time of midnight's near; On the stroke of midnight This taper light, Your conscience will then be clear.' He left the cell, and he walked until He joined Old Nick on the top of the hill. It was five o'clock, and the setting sun Showed the work of the Devil already begun. St Cuthman was rather fatigued by his walk, And caring but little for brimstone talk, He watched the pick crash through layers of chalk. And huge blocks went over and splitting asunder Broke o'er the Weald like the crashing of thunder. St Cuthman wished the first hour would pass, When St Ursula, praying, reversed the glass. 'Ye legions of hell!' the Old Gentleman cried, 'I have such a terrible stitch in the side!' 'Don't work so hard,' said the Saint, 'only see, The sides of your dyke a heap smoother might be.' 'Just so,' said the Devil, 'I've had a sharp fit, So, resting, I'll trim up my crevice a bit.' St Cuthman was looking prodigiously sly, He knew that the hours were slipping by. 'Another attack! I've cramp at my back! I've needles and pins From my hair to my shins! I tremble and quail From my horns to my tail! I will not be vanquished, I'll work, I say, This dyke shall be finished ere break of day!' 'If you win your bet, 'twill be fairly earned,' Said the Saint, and again was the hour-glass turned. And then with a most unearthly din The farther end of the dyke fell in; But in spite of an awful rheumatic pain The Devil began his work again. 'I'll not be vanquished!' exclaimed the old bloke. 'By breathing torrents of flame and smoke, Your dyke,' said the Saint, 'is hindered each minute, What can one expect when the Devil is in it?' Then an accident happened, which caused Nick at last To rage, fume, and swear; when the fourth hour had passed, On his hoof there came rolling a huge mass of quartz. Then quite out of sorts The bad tempered old cove Sent the huge mass of stone whizzing over to Hove. He worked on again, till a howl and a cry Told the Saint one more hour—the fifth—had gone by. 'What's the row?' asked the Saint, 'A cramp in the wrist, I think for a while I had better desist.' Having rested a bit he worked at his chasm, Till, the hour having passed, he was seized with a spasm. He raged and he cursed, 'I bore this at first, The rheumatics were awful, but this is the worst.' With awful rage heated, The demon defeated, In his passion used words that can't be repeated. Feeling shaken and queer, In spite of his fear, At the dyke he worked on until midnight drew near. But when the glass turned for the last time, he found That the head of his pick was stuck fast in the ground. 'Cease now!' cried St Cuthman, 'vain is your toil! Come forth from the dyke! Leave your pick in the soil! You agreed to work 'tween sunset and morn, And lo! the glimmer of day is born! In vain was your fag, And your senseless brag.' Dizzy and dazed with sulphureous vapour, Old Nick was deceived by St Ursula's taper. 'The dawn!' yelled the Devil, 'in vain was my boast, That I'd have your soul, for I've lost it, I've lost!' 'Away!' cried St Cuthman, 'Foul fiend! away! See yonder approaches the dawn of day! Return to the flames where you were before, And molest these peaceful South Downs no more!' The old gentleman scowled but dared not stay, And the prints of his hoofs remain to this day, Where he spread his dark pinions and soared away. At St Ursula's cell Was tolling the bell, And St Cuthman in sorrow, stood there by her side. 'Twas over at last, Her sorrows were past, In the moment of triumph St Ursula died. Tho' this was the ground, There never were found The tools of the Devil, his spade and his pick; But if you want proof Of the Legend, the hoof- Marks are still in the hillock last trod by Old Nick."
"Oh! that is jolly. Well, I never thought the girl was clever enough to write that. And there are some excellent rhymes in it, 'passed he' rhyming with 'nasty,' and 'rosary' with 'poser, eh;' and how well you recite it."
"Oh, I recited it better at the harvest supper; and you have no idea how the farmers enjoyed it. They know the place so well, and it interested them on that account. They understood it all."
John sat as if enchanted,—by Kitty's almost childish grace, her enthusiasm for her friend's poem, and her genuine enjoyment of it; by the abrupt hills, mysterious now in sunset and legend; by the vast plains so blue and so boundless: out of the thought of the littleness of life, of which they were a symbol, there came the thought of the greatness of love.
"Won't you cross the poor gipsy's palm with a bit of silver, my pretty gentleman, and she will tell you your fortune and that of your pretty lady?"
Kitty uttered a startled cry, and turning they found themselves facing a strong, black-eyed girl. She repeated her question.
"What do you think, Kitty, would you like to have your fortune told?"
Kitty laughed. "It would be rather fun," she said.
She did not know what was coming, and she listened to the usual story, full by the way of references to John—of a handsome young man who would woo her, win her, and give her happiness, children, and wealth.
John threw the girl a shilling. She withdrew. They watched her passing through the furze. The silence about them was immense. Then John spoke:
"What the gipsy said is quite true; I did not dare to tell you so before."
"What do you mean, John?"
"I mean that I am in love with you, will you love me?"
"You in love with me, John; it is quite absurd—I thought you hated girls."
"Never mind that, Kitty, say you will have me; make the gipsy's words come true."
"Gipsies' words always come true."
"Then you will marry me?"
"I never thought about marriage. When do you want me to marry you? I am only seventeen?"
"Oh! when you like, later on, only say you will be mine, that you will be mistress of Thornby Place one day, that is all I want."
"Then you don't want to pull the house down any more."
"No, no; a thousand times no! Say you will be my wife one of these days."
"Very well then, one of these days...." "And I may tell my mother of your promise to-night?... It will make her so happy."
"Of course you may tell her, John, but I don't think she will believe it."
"Why should she not believe it?"
"I don't know," said Kitty, laughing, "but how funny, was it not, that the gipsy girl should guess right?"
"Yes, it was indeed. I wanted to tell you before, but I hadn't the courage; and I might never have found the courage if it had not been for that gipsy."
In his abundant happiness John did not notice that Kitty was scarcely sensible of the importance of the promise she had given. And in silence he gazed on the landscape, letting it sink into and fix itself for ever in his mind. Below them lay the great green plain, wonderfully level, and so distinct were its hedges that it looked like a chessboard. Thornby Place was hidden in vapour, and further away all was lost in darkness that was almost night.
"I am sorry we cannot see the house—your house," said John as they descended the chalk road.
"It seems so funny to hear you say that, John."
"Why? It will be your house some day."
"But supposing your Church will not let you marry me, what then...."
"There is no danger of that; a dispensation can always be obtained. But who knows.... You have never considered the question.... You know nothing of our Church; if you did, you might become a convert. I wish you would consider the question. It is so simple; we surrender our own wretched understanding, and are content to accept the Church as wiser than we. Once man throws off restraint there is no happiness, there is only misery. One step leads to another; if he would be logical he must go on, and before long, for the descent is very rapid indeed, he finds himself in an abyss of darkness and doubt, a terrible abyss indeed, where nothing exists, and life has lost all meaning. The Reformation was the thin end of the wedge, it was the first denial of authority, and you see what it has led to—modern scepticism and modern pessimism."
"I don't know what it means, but I heard Mrs Norton say you were a pessimist."
"I was; but I saw in time where it was leading me, and I crushed it out. I used to be a Republican too, but I saw what liberty meant, and what were its results, and I gave it up."
"So you gave up all your ideas for Catholicism...."
John hesitated, he seemed a little startled, but he answered, "I would give up anything for my Church..."
"That is not required."
"And did it cost you much to give up your ideas?"
John raised his eyes—it was a look that Balzac would have understood and would have known how to interpret in some admirable pages of human suffering. "None will ever know how I have suffered," he said sadly. "But now I am happy, oh! so happy, and my happiness would be complete if.... Oh! if God would grant you grace to believe...."
"But I do believe. I believe in our Lord Christ who died to save us. Is not that enough?"
Like Juggernaut's car, Catholicism had passed over John's mind, crushing all individualism, and leaving it but a wreck of quaking mysticism. Twenty times a day the spectre of his conscience rose and with menacing finger threatened him with flames and demons. And his love was a source of continual suffering. How often did he ask himself if he were surrendering his true vocation? How often did he beg of God to guide him aright? But these mental agitations were visible to no one. He preserved his calm exterior and the keenest eye detected in him only an ordinary young man with more than usually strict business habits. He had appointments with his solicitor. He consulted with him, he went into complex calculations concerning necessary repairs, and he laid plans for the more advantageous letting of the farms.
His mother encouraged him to attend to his business. Her head was full of other matters. A dispensation had to be obtained; it was said that the Pope was more than ever opposed to mixed marriages. But no objection would be made to this one. It would be madness to object.... A rich Catholic family at Henfield—nearly four thousand a-year—must not be allowed to become extinct. Thornby Place was the link between the Duke of Norfolk and the So and So's. If those dreadful cousins came in for the property, Protestantism would again be established at Thornby Place. And what a pity that would be; and just at a time when Catholicism was beginning to make headway in Sussex. And if John did not marry now he would never marry; of that she was quite sure.
As may be imagined, these were not the arguments with which Mrs Norton sought to convince the Rev. William Hare; they were those with which she besieged the Brompton Oratory, Farm Street, and the Pro-Cathedral. She played one off against the other. The Jesuits were nettled at having lost him, but it was agreeable to learn that the Carmelites had been no less unfortunate than they. The Oratorians on the whole thought he was not in their "line"; and as their chance of securing him was remote, they agreed that John would prove more useful to the Church as a married man than as a priest. A few weeks later the Papal sanction was obtained.
The clause concerning the children affected Mr Hare deeply, but he was told that he must not stand in the way of the happiness of two young people. He considered the question from many points of view, but in the meantime Mrs Norton continued to deluge Kitty with presents, and to talk to everybody of her son's marriage. The parson's difficulties were thereby increased, and eventually he found he could not withhold his consent.
And as time went on, John seemed to take a more personal delight in life than he had done before. He forgot his ancient prejudices if not his ancient ideals, and, as was characteristic of him, he avoided thinking with any definiteness on the nature of the new life into which he was to enter soon. His neighbours declared he was very much improved; and there were dinner parties at Thornby Place. One of his great pleasures was to start early in the morning, and having spent a long day with Kitty, to return home across the downs. The lofty, lonely landscape, with its lengthy hills defined upon the flushes of July, came in happy contrast with the noisy hours of tennis and girls; and standing on the gently ascending slopes, rising almost from the wicket gate of the rectory, he would wave farewells to Kitty and the Austins. And in the glittering morning, grey and dewy, when he descended these slopes to the strip of land that lies between them and the sea, he would pause on the last verge where the barn stands. Squire Austin's woods are in front, and they stretch by the town to the sleepy river with its spiderlike bridge crossing the sandy marshes. The church spire and roofs show through each break in the elm trees, and higher still the horizon of the sea is shimmering.
The rectory is rich brown brick and tiles. About it there is an ample farmyard. Mr Hare has but the house and an adjoining field, the three great ricks are Mr Austin's; the sunlight is upon them, and through the long shadows the cart horses are moving with the drays; and now a hundred pigeons rise and are seen against the green velvet of the elms, and one bird's wings are white upon the white sea.
Mr Hare is sitting in the verandah smoking, Kitty is attending to her birds.
"Good morning, John," she cried, "but I can't shake hands with you, my hands are dirty. Do you talk to father, I haven't a moment. There is such a lot to do. You know the Miss Austins are coming here to early dinner, and we have two young men coming from Worthing to play tennis. The court isn't marked yet."
"I will help you to mark it."
"Very well, but I am not ready yet."
John lit a cigar, and he spoke of books to Mr Hare, whom he considered a gross Philistine, although a worthy man. The shadows of the Virginia creeper fell on the red pavement, and Kitty's light voice was heard on the staircase. Presently she appeared, and lifting the trailing foliage, she spoke to him. She took him away, and the parson watched the white lines being marked on the sward. He watched them walk by the iron railing that separated Little Leywood from Leywood, the Squire's house. They passed through a small wooden gate into a bit of thick wood, and so gained the drive. Mr Austin took John to see the horses, Kitty ran to see the girls who were in their room dressing. How they chattered as they came down stairs, and with what lightness and laughter they went to Little Leywood. Their interests were centred in John, and Kitty took the foremost place as an engaged girl. After dinner young men arrived, and tennis was played unceasingly. At six o'clock, tired and hot with air and exercise, all went in to tea—a high tea. At seven John said he must be thinking of getting home; and happy and glad with all the pleasant influences of the day upon them, Kitty and the Miss Austins accompanied him as far as the farm gate.
"What a beautiful walk you will have, Mr Norton; but aren't you tired? Seven miles in the morning and seven in the evening!"
"But I have had the whole day to rest in."
"What a lovely evening! Let's all walk a little way with him," said Kitty.
"I should like to," said the elder Miss Austin, "but we promised father to be home for dinner. The one sure way of getting into his black books is to keep his dinner waiting, and he wouldn't dine without us."
"Well, good-bye, dear," said Kitty, "I shall walk as far as the burgh."
The Miss Austins turned into the rich trees that encircle Leywood, Kitty and John faced the hill. They were soon silhouettes, and ascending, they stood, tiny specks upon the pink evening hours. The table-land swept about them in multitudinous waves; it was silent and solitary as the sea. Lancing College, some miles distant, stood lonely as a lighthouse, and beneath it the Ada flowed white and sluggish through the marshes, the long spine of the skeleton bridge was black, and there, by that low shore, the sea was full of mist, and sea and shore and sky were lost in opal and grey. Old Shoreham, with its air of commerce, of stagnant commerce, stood by the sea. The tide was out, the sea gates were dry, only a few pools flashed silver amid the ooze; and the masts of the tall vessels,—tall vessels aground in that strange canal or rather dyke which runs parallel with and within a few yards of the sea for so many miles,—tapered and leaned out over the sea banks, and the points of the top masts could be counted. Then on the left hand towards Brighton, the sea streamed with purple, it was striped with green, and it hung like a blue veil behind the rich trees of Leywood and Little Leywood, and the trees and the fields were full of golden rays.
The lovers stood on a grassy plain; sheep were travelling over the great expanses of the valleys; rooks were flying about. Looking over the plain you saw Southwick,—a gleam of gables, a gleam of walls,—skirting a plantation; and further away still, Brighton lay like a pile of rocks heaped about a low shore.
To the lovers life was now as an assortment of simple but beautiful flowers; and they passed the blossoms to and fro and bound them into a bouquet. They talked of the Miss Austins, of their flirtations, of the Rectory, of Thornby Place, of Italy, for there they were going next month on their honeymoon. The turnip and corn lands were as inconceivable widths of green and yellow satin rolling through the rich light of the crests into the richer shadow of the valleys. And there there was a farm-house surrounded by buildings, surrounded by trees,—it looked like a nest in its snug hollow; the smoke ascended blue and peacefully. It was the last habitation. Beyond it the downs extend, in almost illimitable ranges ascending to the wild golden gorse, to the purple heather.
We are on the burgh. The hills tumble this way and that; below is the great weald of Sussex, blue with vapour, spotted with gold fields, level as a landscape by Hobbema; Chanctonbury Ring stands up like a gaunt watcher; its crown of trees is pressed upon its brow, a dark and imperial crown.
Overhead the sky is full of dark grey clouds; through them the sun breaks and sheds silver dust over the landscape; in the passing gleams the green of the furze grows vivid. If you listen you hear the tinkling of the bell-wether; if you look you see a solitary rabbit. A stunted hawthorn stands by the circle of stone, and by it the lovers were sitting. He was talking to her of Italy, of cathedrals and statues, for although he now loves her as a man should love, he still saw his honeymoon in a haze of Botticellis, cardinals, and chants. They stood up and bid each other good-bye, and waving hands they parted.
Night was coming on apace, a long way lay still before him, and he walked hastily; she being nearer home, sauntered leisurely, swinging her parasol. The sweetness of the evening was in her blood and brain, and the architectural beauty of the landscape—the elliptical arches of the hills—swam before her. But she had not walked many minutes before a tramp, like a rabbit out of a bush, sprang out of the furze where he had been sleeping. He was a gaunt hulking fellow, six feet high.
"Now 'aven't you a copper or two for a poor fellow, Missie?"
Kitty started from him frightened. "No, I haven't, I have nothing ... go away."
He laughed hoarsely, she ran from him. "Now, don't run so fast, Missie, won't you give a poor fellow something?"
"I have nothing."
"Oh, yes you 'ave; what about those pretty lips?"
A few strides brought him again to her side. He laid his hand upon her arm. She broke her parasol across his face, he laughed hoarsely. She saw his savage beast-like eyes fixed hungrily upon her. She fainted for fear of his look of dull tigerish cruelty. She fell....
When shaken and stunned and terrified she rose from the ground, she saw the tall gaunt figure passing away like a shadow. The wild solitary landscape was pale and dim. In the fading light it was a drawing made on blue paper with a hard pencil. The long undulating lines were defined on the dead sky, the girdle of blue encircling sea was an image of eternity. All now was the past, there did not seem to be a present. Her mind was rocked to and fro, and on its surface words and phrases floated like sea weed.... To throw her down and ill-treat her. Her frock is spoilt; they will ask her where she has been to, and how she got herself into such a state. Mechanically she brushed herself, and mechanically, very mechanically she picked bits of furze from her dress. She held each away from her and let it drop in a silly vacant way, all the while running the phrases over in her mind: "What a horrible man ... he threw me down and ill-treated me; my frock is ruined, utterly ruined, what a state it is in! I had a narrow escape of being murdered. I will tell them that ... that will explain ... I had a narrow escape of being murdered." But presently she grew conscious that these thoughts were fictitious thoughts, and that there was a thought, a real thought, lying in the background of her mind, which she dared not face, which she could not think of, for she did not think as she desired to; her thoughts came and went at their own wild will, they flitted lightly, touching with their wings but ever avoiding this deep and formless thought which lay in darkness, almost undiscoverable, like a monster in a nightmare.
She rose to her feet, she staggered, her sight seemed to fail her. There was a darkness in the summer evening which she could not account for; the ground seemed to slide beneath her feet, the landscape seemed to be in motion and to be rolling in great waves towards the sea. Would it precipitate itself into the sea, and would she be engulphed in the universal ruin? O! the sea, how implacably serene, how remorselessly beautiful; green along the shore, purple along the horizon! But the land was rolling to it. By Lancing College it broke seaward in a soft lapsing tide, in front of her it rose in angry billows; and Leywood hill, green, and grand, and voluted, stood up a great green wave against the waveless sea.
"What a horrible man ... he attacked me, ill-treated me ... what for?" Her thoughts turned aside. "He should be put in prison.... If father knew it, or John knew it, he would be put in prison, and for a very long time.... Why did he attack me?... Perhaps to rob me; yes, to rob me, of course to rob me." The evening seemed to brighten, the tumultuous landscape to grow still, To rob her, and of what?... of her watch; where was it? It was gone. The happiness of a dying saint when he opens arms to heaven descended upon her. The watch was gone ... but, had she lost it? Should she go back and see if she could find it? Oh! impossible; see the place again—impossible! search among the gorse—impossible! Horror! She would die. O to die on the lonely hills, to lie stark and cold beneath the stars! But no, she would not be found upon these hills. She would die and be seen no more. O to die, to sink in that beautiful sea, so still, so calm, so calm—why would it not take her to its bosom and hide her away? She would go to it, but she could not get to it; there were thousands of men between her and it.... An icy shiver passed through her.
Then as her thoughts broke away, she thought of how she had escaped being murdered. How thankful she ought to be—but somehow she is not thankful. And she was above all things conscious of a horror of returning, of returning to where she would see men and women's faces ... men's faces. And now with her eyes fixed on the world that awaited her, she stood on the hillside. There was Brighton far away, sparkling in the dying light; nearer, Southwick showed amid woods, winding about the foot of the hills; in front Shoreham rose out of the massy trees of Leywood, the trees slanted down to the lawn and foliage and walls, made spots of white and dark green upon a background of blue sea; further to the right there was a sluggish silver river, the spine of the skeleton bridge, a spur of Lancing hill, and then mist, pale mist, pale grey mist.
"I cannot go home", thought the girl, and acting in direct contradiction to her thoughts, she walked forward. Her parasol—where was it? It was broken. The sheep, how sweet and quiet they looked, and the clover, how deliciously it smelt.... This is Mr Austin's farm, and how well kept it is. There is the barn. And Evy and Mary, when would they be married? Not so soon as she, she was going to be married in a month. In a month. She repeated the words over to herself; she strove to collect her thoughts, and failing to do so, she walked on hurriedly, she almost ran as if in the motion to force out of sight the thoughts that for a moment threatened to define themselves in her mind. Suddenly she stopped; there were some children playing by the farm gate. They did not know that she was by, and she listened to their childish prattle unsuspected. To listen was an infinite assuagement, one that was overpoweringly sweet, and for some moments she almost forgot. But she woke from her ecstacy in deadly fear and great pain, for coming along the hedgerow the voice of a man was heard, and the children ran away. And she ran too, like a terrified fawn, trembling in every limb, and sick with fear she sped across the meadows. The front door was open; she heard her father calling. To see him she felt would be more than she could bear; she must hide from his sight for ever, and dashing upstairs she double locked her door.
The sky was still flushed, there was light upon the sea, but the room was dim and quiet. The room! Kitty had seen it under all aspects, she had lived in it many years: then why does she look with strained eyes? Why does she shrink? Nothing has been changed. There is her little narrow bed, and her little bookcase full of novels and prayer-books; there is her work-basket by the fireplace, by the fireplace closed in with curtains that she herself embroidered; above her pillow there is a crucifix; there are photographs of the Miss Austins, and pictures of pretty children cut from the Christmas Numbers on the walls. She starts at the sight of these familiar objects! She trembles in the room which she thought of as a haven of refuge. Why does she grasp the rail of the bed—why? She scarcely knows: something that is at once remembrance and suspicion fills her mind. Is this her room?
The thought ended. She walked hurriedly to and fro, and as she passed the fuchsia in the window a blossom fell.
She sat down and stared into dark space. She walked languidly and purposelessly to the wardrobe. She stopped to pick a petal from the carpet. The sound of the last door was over, the retiring footfall had died away in the distance, the last voice was hushed; the moon was shining on the sea. A lovely scene, silver and blue; but how the girl's heart was beating! She sighed.
She sighed as if she had forgotten, and approaching her bedside she raised her hands to her neck. It was the instinctive movement of undressing. Her hands dropped, she did not even unbutton her collar. She could not. She resumed her walk, she picked up a blossom that had fallen, she looked out on the pale white sea. There was moonlight now in the room, a ghastly white spot was on the pillow. She was tired. The moonlight called her. She lay down with her profile in the light.
But there were smell and features in the glare—the odour was that of the tramp's skin, the features—a long thin nose, pressed lips, small eyes, a look of dull liquorish cruelty. And this presence was beside her; she could not rid herself of it, she repulsed it with cries, but it came again, and mocking, lay on the pillow.
Horrible, too horrible! She sprang from the bed. Was there anyone in her room? How still it was! The mysterious moonlight, the sea white as a shroud, the sward so chill and death-like. What! Did it move? Was it he? That fearsome shadow! Was she safe? Had they forgotten to bar up the house? Her father's house! Horrible, too horrible, she must shut out this treacherous light—darkness were better....
* * * * *
The curtains are closed, but a ray glinting between the wall and curtain shows her face convulsed. Something follows her: she knows not what, her thoughts are monstrous and obtuse. She dares not look round, she would turn to see if her pursuer is gaining upon her, but some invincible power restrains her.... Agony! Her feet catch in, and she falls over great leaves. She falls into the clefts of ruined tombs, and her hands as she attempts to rise are laid on sleeping snakes—rattlesnakes: they turn to attack her, and they glide away and disappear in moss and inscriptions. O, the calm horror of this region! Before her the trees extend in complex colonnades, silent ruins are grown through with giant roots, and about the mysterious entrances of the crypts there lingers yet the odour of ancient sacrifices. The stem of a rare column rises amid the branches, the fragment of an arch hangs over and is supported by a dismantled tree trunk. Ages ago the leaves fell, and withered; ages ago; and now the skeleton arms, lifted in fantastic frenzy against the desert skies, are as weird and symbolic as the hieroglyphics on the tombs below.
And through the torrid twilight of the approaching storm the cry of the hyena is heard.
Flowers hang on every side,—flowers as strange and as gorgeous as Byzantine chalices; flowers narrow and fluted and transparent as long Venetian glasses; opaque flowers bulging and coloured with gold devices like Chinese vases, flowers striped with cinnamon and veined with azure; a million flower-cups and flower chalices, and in these as in censers strange and deadly perfumes are melting, and the heavy fumes descend upon the girl, and they mix with the polluting odour of the ancient sacrifices. She sinks, her arms are raised like those of a victim; she sinks overcome, done to death or worse in some horrible asphyxiation.
And through the torrid twilight of the approaching storm the cry of the hyena is heard. His claws are upon the crumbling tombs.
The suffocating girl utters a thin wail. The vulture pauses, and is stationary on the white and desert skies. She strives with her last strength to free herself from the thrall of the great lianas, and she falls into fresh meshes.... The claws are heard amid the ruins, there is a hirsute smell; she turns with terrified eyes to plead, but she meets only the dull liquorish eyes, and the breath of the obscene animal is on her face.
Then she finds herself in the pleasure grounds of Thornby Place. There are the evergreen oaks, there is the rosary flaring all its wealth of red, purple, and white flowers, there is the park encircled by elms, there is the vista filled in with the line of the lofty downs. For a moment she is surprised, and fails to understand. Then she forgets the change of place in new sensations of terror. For across the park something is coming, she knows not what; it will pass her by. She watches a brown and yellow serpent, cubits high. Cubits high. It rears aloft its tawny hide, scenting its prey. The great coiling body, the small head, small as a man's hand, the black beadlike eyes shine out upon the intoxicating blue of the sky. The narrow long head, the fixed black eyes are dull, inexorable desire, conscious of nothing beyond, and only dimly conscious of itself. Will the snake pass by the hiding girl? She rushes to meet it. What folly! She turns and flies.
She takes refuge in the rosary. It follows her, gathering its immense body into horrible and hideous heights. How will she save herself? She will pluck roses, and build a wall between her and it. She collects huge bouquets, armfuls of beautiful flowers, garlands and wreaths. The flower-wall rises, and hoping to combat the fury of the beast with purity, she goes to where beautiful and snowy blossoms grow in clustering millions. She gathers them in haste; her arms and hands are streaming with blood, but she pays no heed, and as the snake surmounts one barricade, she builds another. But in vain. The reptile leans over them all, and the sour dirty smell of the scaly hide befouls the odorous breath of the roses. The long thin neck is upon her; she feels the horrid strength of the coils as they curl and slip about her, drawing her whole life into one knotted and loathsome embrace. And all the while the roses fall in a red and white rain about her. And through the ruin of the roses she escapes from the stench and the coils, and all the while the snake pursues her even into the fountain. The waves and the snake close about her.
Then without any transition in place or time, she finds herself listening to the sound of rippling water. There is an iron drinking cup close to her hand. She seems to recognise the spot. It is Shoreham. There are the streets she knows so well, the masts of the vessels, the downs. But suddenly something darkens the sunlight, the tawny body of the snake oscillates, the people cry to her to escape. She flies along the streets, like the wind she seems to pass. She calls for help. Sometimes the crowds are stationary as if frozen into stone, sometimes they follow the snake and attack it with sticks and knives. One man with colossal shoulders wields a great sabre; it flashes about him like lightning. Will he kill it? He turns and chases a dog, and disappears. The people too have disappeared. She is flying now along a wild plain covered with coarse grass and wild poppies. When she glances behind her she sees the outline of the little coast town, the snake is near her, and there is no one to whom she can call for help. But the sea is in front of her, bound like a blue sash about the cliff's edge. She will escape down the rocks—there is still a chance! The descent is sheer, but somehow she retains foothold. Then the snake drops, she feels his weight upon her, and both fall, fall, fall, and the sea is below them....
* * * * *
With a shriek she sprang from the bed, and still under the influence of the dream, rushed to the window. The moon hung over the sea, the sea flowed with silver, the world was as chill as an icicle.
"The roses, the snake, the cliff's edge, was it then only a dream?" the girl thought. "It was only a dream, a terrible dream, but after all only a dream!" In her hope breathes again, and she smiles like one who thinks he is going to hear that he will not die, but as the old pain returns when the last portion of the deceptive sentence is spoken, so despair came back to her when remembrance pierced the cloud of hallucination, and told her that all was not a dream—there was something that was worse than a dream.
She uttered a low cry, and she moaned. Centuries seemed to have passed, and yet the evil deed remained. It was still night, but what would the day bring to her? There was no hope. Abstract hope from life, and what blank agony you create!
She drew herself up on her bed, and lay with her face buried in the pillow. For the face was beside her: the foul smell was in her nostrils, and the dull, liquorish look of the eyes shone through the darkness. Then sleep came again, and she lay stark and straight as if she were dead, with the light of the moon upon her face. And she sees herself dead. And all her friends are about her crowning her with flowers, beautiful garlands of white roses, and dressing her in a long white robe, white as the snowiest cloud in heaven, and it lies in long straight plaits about her limbs like the robes of those who lie in marble in cathedral aisles. And it falls over her feet, and her hands are crossed over her breast, and all praise in low but ardent words the excessive whiteness of the garment. For none sees but she that there is a black spot upon the robe which they believe to be immaculate. And she would warn them of their error, but she cannot; and when they avert their faces to wipe away their tears, the stain might be easily seen, but when they turn to continue the last offices, folds or flowers have mysteriously fallen over the stain, and hide it from view.
And it is great pain to her to feel herself thus unable to tell them of their error, for she well knows that when she is placed in the tomb, and the angels come, that they will not fail to perceive the stain, and seeing it they will not fail to be shocked and sorrowful,—and seeing it they will turn away weeping, saying, "She is not for us, alas, she is not for us!"
And Kitty, who is conscious of this fatal oversight, the results of which she so clearly foresees, is grievously afflicted, and she makes every effort to warn her friends of their error: but in vain, for there appears to be one amid the mourners who knows that she is endeavouring to announce to them the black stain, and this one whose face she cannot readily distinguish, maliciously and with diabolical ingenuity withdraws attention at the moment when it should fall upon it.
And so it comes that she is buried in the stained robe, and she is carried amid flowers and white cloths to a white marble tomb, where incense is burning, and where the walls are hung with votive wreaths and things commemorative of virginal life and its many lovelinesses. But, strange to say, upon all these, upon the flowers and images alike there is some small stain which none sees but she and the one in shadow, the one whose face she cannot recognise. And although she is nailed fast in her coffin, she sees these stains vividly, and the one whose face she cannot recognise sees them too. And this is certain, for the shadow of the face is sometimes stirred by a horrible laugh.
The mourners go, the evening falls, and the wild sunset floats for a while through the western Heavens; and the cemetery becomes a deep green, and in the wind that blows out of Heaven, the cypresses rock like things sad and mute.
And the blue night comes with stars in her tresses, and out of those stars a legion of angels float softly; their white feet hang out of the blown folds, their wings are pointed to the stars. And from out of the earth, out of the mist, but whence and how it is impossible to say, there come other angels dark of hue and foul smelling. But the white angels carry swords, and they wave these swords, and the scene is reflected in them as in a mirror; and the dark angels cower in a corner of the cemetery, but they do not utterly retire.
And then the tomb is opened, and the white angels enter the tomb. And the coffin is opened, and the girl trembles lest the angels should discover the stain she knew of. But lo! to her great joy they do not see it, and they bear her away through the blue night, past the sacred stars, even within the glory of Paradise. And it is not until one whose face she cannot recognize, and whose presence among the angels of Heaven she cannot comprehend, steals away one of the garlands of white with which she was entwined, that the fatal stain becomes visible. The angels are overcome with a mighty sorrow, and relinquishing their burden, they break into song, and the song they sing is one of grief; and above an accompaniment of spheral music it travels through the spaces of Heaven; and she listens to its wailing echoes as she falls, falls,—falls past the sacred stars to the darkness of terrestrial skies,—falls towards the sea where the dark angels are waiting for her; and as she falls she leans with reverted neck and strives to see their faces, and as she nears them she distinguishes one into whose arms she is going; it is, it is—the...
* * * * *
"Save me, save me!" she cried; and bewildered and dazed with the dream, she stared on the room, now chill with summer dawn; the pale light broke over the Shoreham sea, over the lordly downs and rich plantations of Leywood. Again she murmured, it was only a dream, it was only a dream; again a sort of presentiment of happiness spread like light through her mind, and again remembrance came with its cruel truths—there was something that was not a dream, but that was worse than the dream. And then with despair in her heart she sat watching the cold sky turn to blue, the delicate bright blue of morning, and the garden grow into yellow and purple and red. There lay the sea, joyous and sparkling in the light of the mounting sun, and the masts of the vessels at anchor in the long water way. The tapering masts were faint on the shiny sky, and now between them and about them a face seemed to be. Sometimes it was fixed on one, sometimes it flashed like a will o' the wisp, and appeared a little to the right or left of where she had last seen it. It was the face that was now buried in her very soul, and sometimes it passed out of the sky into the morning mist, which still heaved about the edges of the woods; and there she saw something grovelling, crouching, crawling,—a wild beast, or was it a man?
She did not weep, nor did she moan. She sat thinking. She dwelt on the remembrance of the hills and the tramp with strange persistency, and yet no more now than before did she attempt to come to conclusions with her thought; it was vague, she would not define it; she brooded over it sullenly and obtusely. Sometimes her thoughts slipped away from it, but with each returning, a fresh stage was marked in the progress of her nervous despair.
So the hours went by. At eight o'clock the maid knocked at the door. Kitty opened it mechanically, and she fell into the woman's arms, weeping and sobbing passionately. The sight of the female face brought infinite relief; it interrupted the jarred and strained sense of the horrible; the secret affinities of sex quickened within her. The woman's presence filled Kitty with the feelings that the harmlessness of a lamb or a soft bird inspires.
"But what is it, Miss, what is it? Are you ill? Why, Miss, you haven't taken your things off; you haven't been to bed."
"No, I lay down.... I have had frightful dreams—that is all."
"But you must be ill, Miss; you look dreadful, Miss. Shall I tell Mr Hare? Perhaps the doctor had better be sent for."
"No, no; pray say nothing about me. Tell my father that I did not sleep, that I am going to lie down for a little while, that he is not to expect me down for breakfast."
"I really think, Miss, that it would be as well for you to see the doctor."
"No, no, no. I am going to lie down, and I am not to be disturbed."
"Shall I fill the bath, Miss? Shall I leave hot water here, Miss?"
"Bath.... Hot water...." Kitty repeated the words over as if she were striving to grasp a meaning which was suggested, but which eluded her. Then her face relaxed, the expression was one of pitiful despair, and that expression gave way to a sense of nausea, expressed by a quick contraction of the eyes.
She listened to the splashing of the water, and its echoes were repeated indefinably through her soul.
The maid left the room. Kitty's attention was attracted to her dress. It was torn, it was muddy, there were bits of furze sticking to it. She picked these off, and slowly she commenced settling it: but as she did so, remembrance, accurate and simple recollection of facts, returned to her, and the succession was so complete that the effect was equivalent to a re-enduring of the crime, and with a foreknowledge of it, as if to sharpen its horror and increase the sense of the pollution. The lovely hills, the engirdling sea, the sweet glow of evening—she saw it all again. And as if afraid that her brain, now strained like a body on the rack, would suddenly snap, she threw up her arms, and began to take off her dress, as violently as if she would hush thought in abrupt movements. In a moment she was in stays and petticoat. The delicate and almost girlish arms were disfigured by great bruises. Great black and blue stains were spreading through the skin.
Kitty lifted up her arm: she looked at it in surprise; then in horror she rushed to the door where her dressing gown was hanging, and wrapped herself in it tightly, hid herself in it so that no bit of her flesh could be seen.
She threw herself madly on the bed. She moved, pressing herself against the mattress as if she would rub away, free herself from her loathed self. The sight of her hand was horrible to her, and she covered it over hurriedly.
The maid came up with a tray. The trivial jingle of the cups and plates was another suffering added to the ever increasing stress of mind, and now each memory was accompanied by sensations of physical sickness, of nausea.
She slipped from the bed and locked the door. Again she was alone. An hour passed.
Her father came up. His footsteps on the stairs caused her intolerable anguish. On entering the house she had hated to hear his voice, and now that hatred was intensified a thousandfold. His voice sounded in her ears false, ominous, abominable. She could not have opened the door to him, and the effort required to speak a few words, to say she was tired and wished to be left alone, was so great that it almost cost her her reason. It was a great relief to hear him go. She asked herself why she hated to hear his voice, but before she could answer a sudden recollection of the tramp sprang upon her. Her nostrils recalled the smell, and her eyes saw the long, thin nose and the dull liquorish eyes beside her on the pillow.
She got up and walked about the room, and its appearance contrasted with and aggravated the fierceness of the fever of passion and horror that raged within her. The homeliness of the teacups and the plates, the tin bath, painted yellow and white, so grotesque and so trim.
But not its water nor even the waves of the great sea would wash away remembrance. She pressed her face against the pane. The wide sea, so peaceful, so serene! Oblivion, oblivion, O for the waters of oblivion!
Then for an hour she almost forgot; sometimes she listened, and the shrill singing of the canary was mixed with thoughts of her dead brothers and sisters, of her mother. She was waked from her reveries by the farm bell ringing the labourers' dinner hour.
Night had been fearsome with darkness and dreams, but the genial sunlight and the continuous externality of the daytime acted on her mind, and turned vague thoughts, as it were, into sentences, printed in clear type. She often thought she was dead, and she favoured this idea, but she was never wholly dead. She was a lost soul wandering on those desolate hills, the gloom descending, and Brighton and Southwick and Shoreham and Worthing gleaming along the sea banks of a purple sea. There were phantoms—there were two phantoms. One turned to reality, and she walked by her lover's side, talking of Italy. Then he disappeared, and she shrank from the horrible tramp; then both men grew confused in her mind, and in despair she threw herself on her bed. Raising her eyes she caught sight of her prayer-book, but she turned from it moaning, for her misery was too deep for prayer.
The lunch bell rang. She listened to the footsteps on the staircase; she begged to be excused, and she refused to open the door.
The day grew into afternoon. She awoke from a dreamless sleep of about an hour, and still under its soothing influence, she pinned up her hair, settled the ribbons of her dressing gown, and went downstairs. She found her father and John in the drawing-room.
"Oh, here is Kitty!" they exclaimed.
"But what is the matter, dear? Why are you not dressed?" said Mr Hare. "But what is the matter.... Are you ill?" said John, and he extended his hand.
"No, no, 'tis nothing," she replied, and avoiding the outstretched hand with a shudder, she took the seat furthest away from her father and lover.
They looked at her in amazement, and she at them in fear and trembling. She was conscious of two very distinct sensations—one the result of reason, the other of madness. She was not ignorant of the causes of each, although she was powerless to repress one in favour of the other. Both struggled for mastery and for the moment without disturbing the equipoise. On the side of reason she knew very well she was looking at and talking to her dear, kind father, and that the young man sitting next him was John Norton, the son of her dear friend, Mrs Norton; she knew he was the young man who loved her, and whom she was going to marry, marry, marry. On the other side she saw that her father's kind benign countenance was not a real face, but a mask which he wore over another face, and which, should the mask slip—and she prayed that it might not—would prove as horrible and revolting as—
But the mask John wore was as nothing, it was the veriest make believe. And she could not but doubt now but that the face she had known him so long by was a fictitious face, and as the hallucination strengthened, she saw his large mild eyes grow small, and that vague dreamy look turn to the dull liquorish look, the chin came forward, the brows contracted ... the large sinewy hands were, oh, so like! Then reason asserted itself; the vision vanished, and she saw John Norton as she had always seen him.
But was she sure that she did? Yes, yes—she must not give way. But her head seemed to be growing lighter, and she did not appear to be able to judge things exactly as she should; a sort of new world seemed to be slipping like a painted veil between her and the old. She must resist.
John and Mr Hare looked at her.
John at length rose, and advancing to her, said, "My dear Kitty, I am afraid you are not well...."
She strove to allow him to take her hand, but she could not overcome the instinctive feeling which, against her will, caused her to shrink from him.
"Oh, don't come near me, I cannot bear it!" she cried, "don't come near me, I beg of you."
More than this she could not do, and giving way utterly, she shrieked and rushed from the room. She rushed upstairs. She stood in the middle of the floor listening to the silence, her thoughts falling about her like shaken leaves. It was as if a thunderbolt had destroyed the world, and left her alone in a desert. The furniture of the room, the bed, the chairs, the books she loved, seemed to have become as grains of sand, and she forgot all connection between them and herself. She pressed her hands to her forehead, and strove to separate the horror that crowded upon her. But all was now one horror—the lonely hills were in the room, the grey sky, the green furze, the tramp; she was again fighting furiously with him; and her lover and her father and all sense of the world's life grew dark in the storm of madness. Suddenly she felt something on her neck. She put her hand up ...
And now with madness on her face she caught up a pair of scissors and cut off her hair: one after the other the great tresses of gold and brown fell, until the floor was strewn with them.
A step was heard on the stairs; her quick ears caught the sound, and she rushed to the door to lock it. But she was too late. John held it fast.
"Kitty, Kitty," he cried, "for God's sake, tell me what is the matter!"
"Save me! save me!" she cried, and she forced the door against him with her whole strength. He was, however, determined on questioning her, on seeing her, and he passed his head and shoulders into the room. His heart quailed at the face he saw.
For now had gone that imperceptible something which divides the life of the sane from that of the insane, and he who had so long feared lest a woman might soil the elegant sanctity of his life, disappeared forever from the mind of her whom he had learned to love, and existed to her only as the foul dull brute who had outraged her on the hills.
"Save me, save me! help, help!" she cried, retreating from him.
"Kitty, Kitty, what do you mean? Say, say—"
"Save me; oh mercy, mercy! Let me go, and I will never say I saw you, I will not tell anything. Let me go!" she cried, retreating towards the window.
"For Heaven's sake, Kitty, take care—the window, the window!"
But Kitty heard nothing, knew nothing, was conscious of nothing but a mad desire to escape. The window was lifted high—high above her head, and her face distorted with fear, she stood amid the soft greenery of the Virginia creeper.
"Save me," she cried, "mercy, mercy!"
"Kitty, Kitty darling!"
* * * * *
The white dress passed through the green leaves. John heard a dull thud.
And the pity of it! The poor white thing lying like a shot dove, bleeding, and the dreadful blood flowing over the red tiles....
Mr Hare was kneeling by his daughter when John, rushing forth, stopped and stood aghast.
"What is this? Say—speak, speak man, speak; how did this happen?"
"I cannot say, I do not know; she did not seem to know me; she ran away. Oh my God, I do not understand; she seemed as if afraid of me, and she threw herself out of the window. But she is not dead ..."
The word rang out in the silence, ruthlessly brutal in its significance. Mr Hare looked up, his face a symbol of agony. "Oh, dead, how can you speak so ..."
John felt his being sink and fade like a breath, and then, conscious of nothing, he helped to lift Kitty from the tiles. But it was her father who carried her upstairs. The blood flowed from the terrible wound in the head. Dripped. The walls were stained. When she was laid upon the bed, the pillow was crimson; and the maid-servant coming in, strove to staunch the wound with towels. Kitty did not move.
Both men knew there was no hope. The maid-servant retired, and she did not close the door, nor did she ask if the doctor should be sent for. One man held the bed rail, looking at his dead daughter; the other sat by the window. That one was John Norton. His brain was empty, everything was far away. He saw things moving, moving, but they were all so far away. He could not re-knit himself with the weft of life; the thread that had made him part of it had been snapped, and he was left struggling in space. He knew that Kitty had thrown herself out of the window and was dead. The word shocked him a little, but there was no sense of realisation to meet it. She had walked with him on the hills, she had accompanied him as far as the burgh; she had waved her hand to him before they walked quite out of each other's sight. They had been speaking of Italy ... of Italy where they would have spent their honeymoon. Now she was dead! There would be no honeymoon, no wife. How unreal, how impossible it all did seem, and yet it was real, yes, real enough. There she lay dead; here is her room, and there is her book-case; there are the photographs of the Miss Austins, here is the fuchsia with the pendent blossoms falling, and her canary is singing. John glanced at the cage, and the song went to his brain, and he was horrified, for there was no grief in his heart.
Had he not loved her? Yes, he was sure of that; then why was there no burning grief nor any tears? He envied the hard-sobbing father's grief, the father who, prostrate by the bedside, held his dead daughter's hand, and showed a face wild with fear—a face on which was printed so deeply the terror of the soul's emotion, that John felt a supernatural awe creep upon him; felt that his presence was a sort of sacrilege. He crept downstairs. He went into the drawing-room, and looked about for the place he had last seen her in. There it was.... There. But his eyes wandered from the place, for it was there he had seen the startled face, the half mad face which he had seen afterwards at the window, quite mad.
On that sofa she usually sat; how often had he seen her sitting there! And now he would not see her any more. And only three days ago she had been sitting in the basket chair. How well he remembered her words, her laughter, and now ... now; was it possible he never would hear her laugh again? How frail a thing is human life, how shadow-like; one moment it is here, the next it is gone. Here is her work-basket; and here the very ball of wool which he had held for her to wind; and here is a novel which she had lent to him, and which he had forgotten to take away. He would never read it now; or perhaps he should read it in memory of her, of her whom yesterday he parted with on the hills,—her little puritan look, her external girlishness, her golden brown hair and the sudden laugh so characteristic of her.... She had lent him this book—she who was now but clay; she who was to have been his wife. His wife! The thought struck him. Now he would never have a wife. What was there for him to do? To turn his house into a Gothic monastery, and himself into a monk. Very horrible and very bitter in its sheer grotesqueness was the thought. It was as if in one moment he saw the whole of his life summarised in a single symbol, and understood its vanity and its folly. Ah, there was nothing for him, no wife, no life.... The tears welled up in his eyes; the shock which in its suddenness had frozen his heart, began to thaw, and grief fell like a penetrating rain.
We learn to suffer as we learn to love, and it is not to-day, nor yet to-morrow, but in weeks and months to come, and by slow degrees, that John Norton will understand the irreparableness of his loss. There is a man upstairs who crouches like stone by his dead daughter's side; he is motionless and pale as the dead, he is as great in his grief as an expression of grief by Michael Angelo. The hours pass, he is unconscious of them; he sees not the light dying on the sea, he hears not the trilling of the canary. He knows of nothing but his dead child, and that the world would be nothing to give to have her speak to him once again. His is the humblest and the worthiest sorrow, but such sorrow cannot affect John Norton. He has dreamed too much and reflected too much on the meaning of life; his suffering is too original in himself, too self-centred, and at the same time too much, based on the inherent misery of existence, to allow him to project himself into and suffer with any individual grief, no matter how nearly it might be allied to him and to his personal interest. He knew his weakness in this direction, and now he gladly welcomed the coming of grief, for indeed he had felt not a little shocked at the aridness of his heart, and frightened lest his eyes should remain dry even to the end.
Suddenly he remembered that the Miss Austins had said that they would call to-morrow early for Kitty, to take her to Leywood to lunch.... They were going to have some tennis in the afternoon. He too was expected there. They must be told what had occurred. It would be terrible if they came calling for Kitty under her window, and she lying dead! This slight incident in the tragedy wrung his heart, and the effort of putting the facts upon paper brought the truth home to him, and lured and led him to see down the lifelong range of consequences. The doctor too, he thought, must be warned of what had happened. And with the letter telling the sad story in his hand, and illimitable sorrow in his soul, he went out in the evening air. It was just such an evening as yester evening—a little softer, a little lovelier, perhaps; earth, sea, and sky appeared like an exquisite vision upon whose lips there is fragrance, yet in whose eyes a glow of passion still survives.
The beauty of the last hour of light is upon that crescent of sea, and the ships loll upon the long strand, the tapering masts and slacking ropes vanish upon the pallid sky. There is the old town, dusty, and dreamy, and brown, with neglected wharfs and quays; there is the new town, vulgar and fresh with green paint and trees, and looking hungrily on the broad lands of the Squire, the broad lands and the rich woods which rise up the hill side to the barn on the limit of the downs. How beautiful the great green woods look as they sweep up a small expanse of the downs, like a wave over a slope of sand. And there is a house with red gables where the girls are still on the tennis lawn. John walked through the town; he told the doctor he must go at once to the rectory. He walked to Leywood and left his letter with the lodge-keeper; and then, as if led by a strange fascination, he passed through the farm gate and set out to return home across the hills.
"She was here with me yesterday; how beautiful she looked, and how graceful were her laughter and speech," he said, turning suddenly and looking down on the landscape; on the massy trees contrasting with the walls of the town, the spine-like bridge crossing the marshy shore, the sails of the mill turning over the crest of the hill. The night was falling fast, as a blue veil it hung down over the sea, but the deep pure sky seemed in one spot to grow clear, and suddenly the pale moon shone and shimmered upon the sea. The landscape gained in loveliness, the sheep seemed like phantoms, the solitary barns like monsters of the night. And the hills were like giants sleeping, and the long outlines were prolonged far away into the depths and mistiness of space. Turning again and looking through a vista in the hills, John could see Brighton, a pale cloud of fire, set by the moon-illumined sea, and nearer was Southwick, grown into separate lines of light, that wandered into and lost themselves among the outlying hollows of the hills; and below him and in front of him Shoreham lay, a blaze of living fire, a thousand lights; lights everywhere save in one gloomy spot, and there John knew that his beloved was lying dead. And further away, past the shadowy marshy shores, was Worthing, the palest of nebulae in these earthly constellations; and overhead the stars of heaven shone as if in pitiless disdain. The blown hawthorn bush that stands by the burgh leaned out, a ship sailed slowly across the rays of the moon. Yesterday they parted here in the glad golden sunlight, parted for ever, for ever.
"Yesterday I had all things—a sweet wife and happy youthful days to look forward to. To-day I have nothing; all my hopes are shattered, all my illusions have fallen. So is it always with him who places his trust in life. Ah, life, life, what hast thou for giving save cruel deceptions and miserable wrongs? Ah, why did I leave my life of contemplation and prayer to enter into that of desire.... Ah, I knew, well I knew there was no happiness save in calm and contemplation. Ah, well I knew; and she is gone, gone, gone!"
We suffer differently indeed, but we suffer equally. The death of his sweetheart forces one man to reflect anew on the slightness of life's pleasures and the depth of life's griefs. In the peaceful valley of natural instincts and affections he had slept for a while, now he awoke on one of the high peaks lit with the rays of intense consciousness, and he cried aloud, and withdrew in terror at a too vivid realisation of self. The other man wept for the daughter that had gone out of his life, wept for her pretty face and cheerful laughter, wept for her love, wept for the years he would live without her. We know which sorrow is the manliest, which appeals to our sympathy, but who can measure the depth of John Norton's suffering? It was as vast as the night, cold as the stream of moonlit sea.
He did not arrive home till late, and having told his mother what had happened, he instantly retired to his room. Dreams followed him. The hills were in his dreams. There were enemies there; he was often pursued by savages, and he often saw Kitty captured; nor could he ever evade their wandering vigilance and release her. Again and again he awoke, and remembered that she was dead.
Next morning John and Mrs Norton drove to the rectory, and without asking for Mr Hare, they went up to her room. The windows were open, and Annie and Mary Austin sat by the bedside watching. The blood had been washed out of the beautiful hair, and she lay very white and fair amid the roses her friends had brought her. She lay as she had lain in one of her terrible dreams—quite still, the slender body covered by a sheet, moulding it with sculptured delight and love. From the feet the linen curved and marked the inflections of the knees; there were long flowing folds, low-lying like the wash of retiring water; the rounded shoulders, the neck, the calm and bloodless face, the little nose, and the beautiful drawing of the nostrils, the extraordinary waxen pallor, the eyelids laid like rose leaves upon the eyes that death has closed for ever. Within the arm, in the pale hand extended, a great Eucharis lily had been laid, its carved blossoms bloomed in unchanging stillness, and the whole scene was like a sad dream in the whitest marble.