'I hear that you have not followed his example.'
'Not more than I could help.'
His childish candour amused her so that she laughed outright, and she watched the stolid childish stare that she liked, until a longing to take him in her arms and kiss him came upon her. Her voice softened, and she asked him if he had ever been in love?
'Yes, I think I was.'
'How long did it last?'
'About five years.'
'A lot of rot about scruples of conscience. I said, I give you a week to think it over, and if I don't hear from you in that time I'm off to Italy.'
'Did she write?'
'Not until I had left Paris. Then she spent five-and-twenty pounds in telegrams trying to get me back.'
'But you wouldn't go back.'
'Not I; with me, when an affair of that sort is over, it is really over. Don't you think I'm right?'
'Perhaps so.... But I'm afraid we've learnt love in different schools.'
'Then the sooner you relearn it in my school the better.'
At that moment a light breeze came up the sandy path, carrying some dust on to the picture. Morton stamped and swore. For three minutes it was damn, damn, damn.
'Do you always swear like that in the presence of ladies?'
'What's a fellow to do when a blasted wind comes up smothering his picture in sand?'
Mildred could only laugh at him; and, while he packed up his canvases, paint-box, and easel, she thought about him. She thought that she understood him, and fancied that she would be able to manage him. And convinced of her power she said aloud, as they plunged into the forest:
'I always think it is a pity that it is considered vulgar to walk arm in arm. I like to take an arm.... I suppose we can do what we like in the forest of Fontainebleau. But you're too heavily laden—'
'No, not a bit. I should like it.'
She took his arm and walked by his side with a sweet caressing movement, and they talked eagerly until they reached the motive of his second picture.
'What I've got on the canvas isn't very much like the view in front of you, is it?'
'No, not much, I don't like it as well as the other picture.'
'I began it late one evening. I've never been able to get the same effect again. Now it looks like a Puvis de Chavannes—not my picture, but that hillside, that large space of blue sky and the wood-cutters.'
'It does a little. Are you going on with it?'
'Because there is no shade for me to sit in. I shall be roasted if we remain here.'
'What shall we do? Lie down in some shady place?'
'We might do that.... I know what I should like.'
'A long drive in the forest.'
'A capital idea. We can do that. We shall meet some one going to Barbizon. We'll ask them to send us a fly.'
Their way lay through a pine wood where the heat was stifling; the dry trees were like firewood scorched and ready to break into flame; and their steps dragged through the loose sand. And, when they had passed this wood, they came to a place where the trees had all been felled, and a green undergrowth of pines, two or three feet high, had sprung up. It was difficult to force their way through; the prickly branches were disagreeable to touch, and underneath the ground was spongy, with layers of fallen needles hardly covered with coarse grass.
Morton missed the way, and his paint-box and canvases had begun to weigh heavy when they came upon the road they were seeking. But where they came upon it, there was only a little burnt grass, and Morton proposed that they should toil on until they came to a pleasanter place.
The road ascended along the verge of a steep hill, at the top of which they met a bicyclist who promised to deliver Morton's note. There was an opening in the trees, and below them the dark green forest waved for miles. It was pleasant to rest—they were tired. The forest murmured like a shell. They could distinguish here and there a tree, and their thoughts went to that tree. But, absorbed though they were by this vast nature, each was thinking intensely of the other. Mildred knew she was near the moment when Morton would take her hand and tell her that he loved her. She wondered what he would say. She did not think he would say he loved her, he would say: 'You're a damned pretty woman.' She could see he was thinking of something, and suspected him of thinking out a phrase or an oath appropriate to the occasion. She was nearly right. Morton was thinking how he should act. Mildred was not the common Barbizon art student whose one idea is to become the mistress of a painter so that she may learn to paint. She had encouraged him, but she had kept her little dignity. Moreover, he did not feel sure of her. So the minutes went by in awkward expectancy, and Morton had not kissed her before the carriage arrived.
She lay back in the fly smiling, Morton thought, superciliously. It seemed to him stupid to put his arm round her waist and try to kiss her. But, sooner or later, he would have to do this. Once this Rubicon was passed he would know where he was.... As he debated, the tall trunks rose branchless for thirty or forty feet; and Mildred said that they were like plumed lances.
'So they are,' he said, 'like plumed lances. And how beautifully that beech bends, what an exquisite curve, like a lance bent in the shock of the encounter.'
The underwood seemed to promise endless peace, happy life amid leaves and birds; and Mildred thought of a duel under the tall trees. She saw two men fighting to the death for her. A romantic story begun in a ball-room, she was not quite certain how. Morton remembered a drawing of fauns and nymphs. But there was hardly cover for a nymph to hide her whiteness. The ground was too open, the faun would soon overtake her. She could better elude his pursuit in the opposite wood. There the long branches of the beeches swept the heads of the ferns, and, in mysterious hollows, ferns made mysterious shade, places where nymphs and fauns might make noonday festival.
'What are you thinking of?' said Mildred.
'Of fauns and nymphs,' he answered. 'These woods seem to breathe antiquity.'
'But you never paint antiquity.'
'I try to. Millet got its spirit. Do you know the peasant girl who has taken off her clothes to bathe in a forest pool, her sheep wandering through the wood? By God! I should like you to see that picture.'
At the corner of the carrefour, the serpent catcher showed them two vipers in a low flat box. They darted their forked tongues against the wire netting, and the large green snake, which he took out of a bag, curled round his arm, seeking to escape. In questioning him they learnt that the snakes were on their way to the laboratory of a vivisectionist. This dissipated the mystery which they had suggested, and the carriage drove in silence down the long forest road.
'We might have bought those snakes from him, and set them at liberty.'
'We might have, but we didn't.'
'Why didn't we?'
'What would be the good? ... If we had, he would have caught others.'
'I suppose so. But I don't like the idea of that beautiful snake, which you compared to me, being vivisected.'
The forest now extended like a great temple, hushed in the beautiful ritual of the sunset. The light that suffused the green leaves overhead glossed the brown leaves underfoot, marking the smooth grosund as with a pattern. And, like chapels, every dell seemed in the tranquil light, and leading from them a labyrinthine architecture without design or end. Mildred's eyes wandered from the colonnades to the underwoods. She thought of the forest as of a great green prison; and then her soul fled to the scraps of blue that appeared through the thick leafage, and she longed for large spaces of sky, for a view of a plain, for a pine-plumed hill-top. Once more she admired, once more she wearied of the forest aisles, and was about to suggest returning to Barbizon when Morton said:
'We are nearly there now; I'm going to show you our lake.'
'A lake! Is there a lake?'
'Yes, there's a lake—not a very large one, it is true, but still a lake—on the top of a hill where you can see the forest. Under a sunset sky the view is magnificent.'
The carriage was to wait for them, and, a little excited by the adventure, Mildred followed Morton through rocks and furze bushes. When it was possible she took his arm, and once accidentally, or nearly accidentally, she sprang from a rock into his arms. She was surprised that he did not take advantage of the occasion to kiss her.
'Standing on this flat rock we're like figures in a landscape, by Wilson,' Mildred said.
'So we are,' said Morton, who was struck by the truth of the comparison. 'But there is too much colour in the scene for Wilson—he would have reduced it all to a beautiful blue, with only a yellow flush to tell where the sun had gone.'
'It would be very nice if you would make me a sketch of the lake. I'll lend you a lead pencil, the back of an envelope will do.'
'I've a water-colour box in my pocket and a block. Sit down there and I'll do you a sketch.'
'And, while you are accomplishing a work of genius, I'll supply the levity, and don't you think I'm just the person to supply the necessary leaven of lightness? Look at my frock and my sunshade.'
Morton laughed, the conversation paused, and the water-colour progressed. Suddenly Mildred said:
'What did you think of me the first time you saw me? What impression did I produce on you?'
'Do you want me to tell you, to tell you exactly?'
'Yes, indeed I do.'
'I don't think I can.'
'What was it?' Mildred asked in a low affectionate tone, and she leaned towards him in an intimate affectionate way.
'Well—you struck me as being a little dowdy.'
'Dowdy! I had a nice new frock on. I don't think I could have looked dowdy, and among the dreadful old rags that the girls wear here.'
'It had nothing to do with the clothes you wore. It was a little quiet, sedate air.'
'I wasn't in good spirits when I came down here.'
'No, you weren't. I thought you might be a bore.'
'But I haven't been that, have I?'
'No, I'm damned if you're that.'
'But what a charming sketch you're making. You take that ordinary common grey from the palette, and it becomes beautiful. If I were to take the very same tint, and put it on the paper, it would be mud.'
Morton placed his sketch against a rock, and surveyed it from a little distance. 'I don't call it bad, do you? I think I've got the sensation of the lonely lake. But the effect changes so rapidly. Those clouds are quite different from what they were just now. I never saw a finer sky, it is wonderful. It is splendid as a battle'...
'Write underneath it, "That night the sky was like a battle."'
'No, it would do for my sketch.'
'You think the suggestion would overpower the reality.... But it is a charming sketch. It will remind me of a charming day, of a very happy day.'
She raised her eyes. The moment had come.
He threw one arm round her, and raised her face with the other hand. She gave her lips easily, with a naturalness that surprised and deceived him. He might marry her, or she might be his mistress, he didn't know which, but he was quite sure that he liked her better than any woman he had seen for a long time. He had not known her a week, and she already absorbed his thoughts. And, during the drive home, he hardly saw the forest. Once a birch, whose faint leaves and branches dissolved in a glittering light, drew his thoughts away from Mildred. She lay upon his shoulder, his arm was affectionately around her, and, looking at him out of eyes whose brown seemed to soften in affection, she said:
'Elsie said you'd get round me.'
'What did she mean?'
'Well,' said Mildred, nestling a little closer, and laughing low, 'haven't you got round me?'
Her playfulness enchanted her lover, and, when she discreetly sought his hand, he felt that he understood her account of Alfred's brutality. But her tenderness, in speaking of Ralph, quickened his jealousy.
'My violets lay under his hand, he must have died thinking of me.'
'But the woman who wrote to you, his mistress, she must have known all about his love for you. What did she say?'
'She said very little. She was very nice to me. She could see that I was a good woman....'
'But that made no difference so far as she was concerned. You took her lover away from her.'
'She knew that I hadn't done anything wrong, that we were merely friends.'
The conversation paused a moment, then Morton said: 'It seems to have been a mysterious kind of death. What did he die of?'
'Ah, no one ever knew. The doctors could make nothing of his case. He had been complaining a long time. They spoke of overwork, but—'
'I believe he died of slow poisoning.'
'Slow poisoning! Who could have poisoned him?'
'What an awful thing to say.... I suppose you have some reason for suspecting her?'
'His death was very mysterious. The doctors could not account for it. There ought to have been a post-mortem examination.' Feeling that this was not sufficient reason, and remembering suddenly that Ralph held socialistic theories and was a member of a sect of socialists, she said: 'Ralph was a member of a secret society.... He was an anarchist—no one suspected it, but he told me everything, and it was I who persuaded him to leave the Brotherhood.'
'I do not see what that has to do with his death by slow poisoning.'
'Those who retire from these societies usually die.'
'But why Ellen Gibbs?'
'She was a member of the same society, it was she who got him to join. When he resigned it was her duty to—'
'Kill him! What a terrible story. I wonder if you're right.'
'I know I am right.'
At the end of a long silence, Morton said:
'I wonder if you like me as much as you liked Ralph.'
'It is very different. He was very good to me.'
'And do you think that I shall not be good to you?'
'Yes, I think you will,' she said looking up and taking the hand which pressed against her waist.
'You say he was a very clever artist. Do you like his work better than mine?'
'It was as different as you yourselves are.'
'I wonder if I should like it?'
'He would have liked that,' and she pointed with her parasol towards an oak glade, golden hearted and hushed.
'A sort of Diaz, then?'
'No, not the least like that. No, it wasn't the Rousseau palette.'
'That's a regular Diaz motive. It would be difficult to treat it differently.'
The carriage rolled through a tender summer twilight, through a whispering forest.
At the end of September the green was duskier, yellow had begun to appear; and the crisped leaf falling through the still air stirred the heart like a memory.
The skies which rose above the dying forest had acquired gentler tints, a wistfulness had come into the blue which was in keeping with the fall of the leaf.
There was a scent of moisture in the underwoods, rills had begun to babble; on the hazel rods leaves fluttered pathetically, the branches of the plane trees hung out like plumes, their drooping leaves making wonderful patterns.
In the hotel gardens a sunflower watched the yellowing forest, then bent its head and died.
The great cedar was deserted, and in October Morton was painting chrysanthemums on the walls of the dining-room. He called them the flowers of twilight, the flowers of the summer's twilight. Mildred watched him adding the last sprays to his bouquet of white and purple bloom.
The inveigling sweetness of these last bright days entered into life, quickening it with desire to catch and detain some tinge of autumn's melancholy. All were away in the fields and the forest; and, though little of their emotion transpired on their canvases, they were moved, as were Rousseau and Millet, by the grandeur of the blasted oak and the lonely byre standing against the long forest fringes, dimming in the violet twilight.
Elsie was delighted with her birch, and Cissy considered her rocks approvingly.
'You've caught the beauty of that birch,' said Cissy. 'How graceful it is in the languid air. It seems sad about something.'
'About the pine at the end of the glade,' said Elsie laughing. 'I brought the pine a little nearer. I think it composes better.'
'Yes, I think it does. You must come and see my rocks and ferns. There's one corner I don't know what to do with. But I like my oak.'
'I will come presently. I'm working at the effect; the light will have changed in another half hour.'
'I've done all I can do to mine. It would make a nice background for a hunting picture. There's a hunt to-day in the forest. Mildred and Morton are going to see the meet.'
Elsie continued painting, Cissy sat down on a stone and soon lost herself in meditations. She thought about the man she was in love with; he had gone back to Paris. She was now sure that she hated his method of painting, and, finding that his influence had not been a good one, she strove to look on the landscape with her own eyes. But she saw only various painters in it. The last was Morton Mitchell, and she thought if he had been her lover she might have learnt something from him. But he was entirely taken up with Mildred. She did not like Mildred any more, she had behaved very badly to that poor little Rose Turner. 'Poor little thing, she trembles like that birch.'
'What are you saying, Cissy? Who trembles like that birch?'
'I was thinking of Rose, she seems dreadfully upset, Morton never looks at her now.'
'I think that Morton would have married her if Mildred hadn't appeared on the scene. I know he was thinking of settling down.'
'Mildred is a mystery. Her pleasure seems to be to upset people's lives. You remember poor Ralph Hoskin. He died of a broken heart. I can't make Mildred out, she tells a lot of lies. She's always talking about her virtue. But I hardly think that Morton would be as devoted to her as he is if he weren't her lover. Do you think so?'
'I don't know, men are very strange.'
Elsie rose to her feet. She put aside her camp stool, walked back a few yards, and looked at her picture. The motive of her picture was a bending birch at the end of the glade. Rough forest growth made clear its delicate drawing, and in the pale sky, washed by rains to a faded blue, clouds arose and evaporated. The road passed at the bottom of the hill and several huntsmen had already ridden by. Now a private carriage with a pair of horses stood waiting.
'That's Madame Delacour's carriage, she is waiting for Mildred and Morton.'
'The people at Fontainebleau?'
'Yes, the wife of the great Socialist Deputy. They're at Fontainebleau for the season. M. Delacour has taken the hunting. They say he has a fine collection of pictures. He buys Morton's pictures.... It was he who bought his "Sheepfold."'
Elsie did not admire Morton's masterpiece as much as Cissy. But they were agreed that Mildred might prove a disintegrating influence in the development of his talent. He had done no work since he had made her acquaintance. She was a mere society woman. She had never cared for painting; she had taken up painting because she thought that it would help her socially. She had taken up Morton for the same reason. He had introduced her to the Delacours. She had been a great success at the dinner they had given last week. No doubt she had exaggerated her success, but old Dedyier, who had been there too, had said that every one was talking of la belle et la spirituelle anglaise.
The girls sat watching the carriage stationed at the bottom of the hill. The conversation paused, a sound of wheels was heard, and a fly was seen approaching. The fly was dismissed, and Mildred took her seat next to Madame Delacour. Morton sat opposite. He settled the rug over the ladies' knees and the carriage drove rapidly away.
'They'll be late for the meet,' said Cissy.
And all the afternoon the girls listened to the hunting. In the afternoon three huntsmen crashed through the brushwood at the end of a glade, winding the long horns they wore about their shoulders. Once a strayed hound came very near them, Elsie threw the dog a piece of bread. It did not see the bread, and pricking up its ears it trotted away. The horns came nearer and nearer, and the girls were affrighted lest they should meet the hunted boar and be attacked. It must have turned at the bottom of the hill. The horns died through the twilight, a spectral moon was afloat in the sky, and some wood-cutters told them that they were three kilometres from Barbizon.
When about a mile from the village they were overtaken by the Delacours' carriage. Morton and Mildred bade Madame good-bye and walked home with them. Their talk was of hunting. The boar had been taken close to the central carrefour, they had watched the fight with the dogs, seven of which he had disabled before M. Delacour succeeded in finally despatching him. The edible value of boar's head was discussed, until Mildred mentioned that Madame Delacour was going to give a ball. Elsie and Cissy were both jealous of Mildred, but they hoped she would get them invited. She said that she did not know Madame Delacour well enough to ask for invitations. Later on she would see what could be done; Morton thought that there would be no difficulty, and Elsie asked Mildred what dress she was going to wear. Mildred said she was going to Paris to order some clothes and the conversation dropped.
At the end of the week the Delacours drove over to Barbizon and lunched at Lunions. The horses, the carriage, liveries, the dresses, the great name of the Deputy made a fine stir in the village.
'I wonder if she'll get us invited,' said Elsie.
'Not she,' said Cissy.
But Mildred was always unexpected. She introduced Monsieur and Madame Delacour to Elsie and Cissy; she insisted on their showing their paintings; they were invited to the ball, and Mildred drove away nodding and smiling.
Her dress was coming from Paris; she was staying with the Delacours until after the ball, so, as Cissy said, her way was nice and smooth and easy—very different indeed from theirs. They had to struggle with the inability and ignorance of a provincial dressmaker, working against time. At the last moment it became clear that their frocks could not be sent to Barbizon, that they would have to dress for the ball in Fontainebleau. But where! They would have to hire rooms at the hotel, and, having gone to the expense of hiring rooms, they had as well sleep at Fontainebleau. They could return with Mildred—she would have the Delacours' carriage. They could all four return together, that would be very jolly. The hotel omnibus was going to Melun to catch the half-past six train. If they went by train they would economise sufficiently in carriage hire to pay their hotel expenses, or very nearly. Morton agreed to accompany them. He got their tickets and found them places, but they noticed that he seemed a little thoughtful, not to say gloomy. Not the least,' as Elsie said, 'like a man who was going to meet his sweetheart at a ball.'
'I think,' whispered Cissy, 'that he's beginning to regret that he introduced her to the Delacours. He feels that it is as likely as not that she'll throw him over for some of the grand people she will meet there.'
Cissy had guessed rightly. A suspicion had entered into his heart that Mildred was beginning to perceive that her interest lay rather with the Delacours than with him. And he had not engaged himself to Mildred for any dances, because he wished to see if she would reserve any dances for him. This ball he felt would prove a turning-point in his love story. He suspected M. Delacour of entertaining some very personal admiration for Mildred; he would see if his suspicion were well founded; he would not rush to her at once; and, having shaken hands with his host and hostess, he sought a corner whence he could watch Mildred and the ball.
The rooms were already thronged, but the men were still separated from the women; the fusion of the sexes, which was the mission of the dance to accomplish, had hardly begun. Some few officers were selecting partners up and down the room, but the politicians, their secretaries, the prefects, and the sub-prefects had not yet moved from the doorways. The platitudes of public life were written in their eyes. But these made expressions were broken at the sight of some young girl's fragility, or the paraded charms of a woman of thirty; and then each feared that his neighbour had discovered thoughts in him unappropriate to the red ribbon which he wore in his buttonhole.
'A cross between clergymen and actors,' thought Morton, and he indulged in philosophical reflections. The military had lost its prestige in the boudoir, Nothing short of a continental war could revive it, the actor and the tenor never did more than to lift the fringe of society's garment. The curate continues a very solid innings in the country; but in town the political lover is in the ascendent. 'A possible under-secretary is just the man to cut me out with Mildred.... They'd discuss the elections between kisses.' At that moment he saw Mildred struggling through the crowd with a young diplomatist, Le Comte de la Ferriere.
She wore white tulle laid upon white silk. The bodice was silver fish- scales, and she shimmered like a moonbeam. She laid her hand on her dancer's shoulder, moving forward with a motion that permeated her whole body. A silver shoe appeared, and Morton thought:
'What a vanity, only a vanity; but what a delicious and beautiful vanity.'
The waltz ended, some dancers passed out of the ball-room, and Mildred was surrounded. It looked as if her card would be filled before Morton could get near her. But she stood on tiptoe and, looking over the surrounding shoulders, cried that she would keep the fourteenth for him. 'Why did you not come before,' she asked smiling, and went out of the room on the arm of the young comte.
At that moment M. Delacour took Morton's arm and asked when would the picture he had ordered be finished. Morton hoped by the end of next week, and the men walked through the room talking of pictures... On the way back they met Mildred. She told Morton that she would make it all right later on. He must now go and talk to Madame Delacour. She had promised M. Delacour the next dance.
M. Delacour was fifty, but he was straight and thin, and there was no sign of grey in his black hair, which fitted close and tight as a skull cap. His face was red and brown, but he did not seem very old, and Morton wondered if it were possible for Mildred to love so old a man.
Madame Delacour sat in a high chair within the doorway, out of reach of any draught that might happen on the staircase. Her blond hair was drawn high up in an eighteenth century coiffure, and her high pale face looked like a cameo or an old coin. She spoke in a high clear voice, and expressed herself in French a little unfamiliar to her present company. 'She must have married beneath her,' thought Morton, and he wondered on what terms she lived with her husband. He spoke of Mildred as the prettiest woman in the room, and was disappointed that Madame Delacour did not contest the point...
When Cissy and Elsie came whirling by, Cissy unnecessarily large and bare, and Elsie intolerably pert and middle class, Morton regretted that he would have to ask them to dance. And, when he had danced with them and the three young ladies Madame Delacour had introduced him to, and had taken a comtesse into supper, he found that the fourteenth waltz was over. But Mildred bade him not to look so depressed, she had kept the cotillion for him. It was going to begin very soon. He had better look after chairs. So he tied his handkerchief round a couple. But he knew what the cotillion meant. She would be always dancing with others. And the cotillion proved as he had expected. Everything happened, but it was all the same to him. Dancers had gone from the dancing-room and returned in masks and dominoes. A paper imitation of a sixteenth-century house had been brought in, ladies had shown themselves at the lattice, they had been serenaded, and had chosen serenaders to dance with. And when at the end of his inventions the leader fell back on the hand glass and the cushion, Mildred refused dance after dance. At last the leader called to Morton, he came up certain of triumph, but Mildred passed the handkerchief over the glass and drew the cushion from his knee. She danced both figures with M. Delacour.
She was covered with flowers and ribbons, and, though a little woman, she looked very handsome in her triumph. Morton hated her triumph, knowing that it robbed him of her. But he hid his jealousy as he would his hand in a game of cards, and, when the last guests were going, he bade her good-night with a calm face. He saw her go upstairs with M. Delacour. Madame Delacour had gone to her room; she had felt so tired that she could sit up no longer and had begged her husband to excuse her, and as Mildred went upstairs, three or four steps in front of M. Delacour, she stopped to arrange with Elsie and Cissy when she should come to fetch them, they were all going home together.
At that moment Morton saw her so clearly that the thought struck him that he had never seen her before. She appeared in that instant as a toy, a trivial toy made of coloured glass; and as a maleficent toy, for he felt if he played with it any longer that it would break and splinter in his fingers. 'As brilliant, as hard, and as dangerous as a piece of broken glass.' He wondered why he had been attracted by this bit of coloured glass; he laughed at his folly and went home certain that he could lose her without pain. But memory of her delicate neck and her wistful eyes suddenly assailed him; he threw himself over on his pillow, aching to clasp the lissome mould of her body—a mould which he knew so well that he seemed to feel its every shape in his arms; his nostrils recalled its perfume, and he asked himself if he would destroy his picture, 'The Sheepfold,' if, by destroying it, he could gain her. For six months with her in Italy he would destroy it, and he would not regret its destruction. But had she the qualities that make a nice mistress? Candidly, he did not think she had. He'd have to risk that. Anyhow, she wasn't common like the others.... In time she would become common; time makes all things common.
'But this is God-damned madness,' he cried out, and lay staring into the darkness, his eyes and heart on fire. Visions of Mildred and Delacour haunted his pillow, he did not know whether he slept or waked; and he rose from his bed weary, heavy-eyed, and pale.
He was to meet her at eleven on the terrace by the fish-pond, and had determined to come to an understanding with her, but his heart choked him when he saw her coming toward him along the gravel path. He bought some bread at the stall for the fish; and talking to her he grew so happy that he feared to imperil his happiness by reproaches. They wondered if they would see the fabled carp in whose noses rings had been put in the time of Louis XIV. The statues on their pedestals, high up in the clear, bright air, were singularly beautiful, and they saw the outlines of the red castle and the display of terraces reaching to the edge of the withering forest. They were conscious that the place was worthy of its name, Fontainebleau. The name is evocative of stately days and traditions, and Mildred fancied herself a king's mistress—La Pompadour. The name is a romance, an excitement, and, throwing her arms on Morton's shoulders, she said:
'Morton, dear, don't be angry. I'm very fond of you, I really am.... I only stop with the Delacours because they amuse me.... It means nothing.'
'If I could only believe you,' said Morton, holding her arms in his hands and looking into her brown eyes.
'Why don't you believe me?' she said; but there was no longer any earnestness in her voice. It had again become a demure insincerity.
'If you were really fond of me, you'd give yourself.'
'Perhaps I will one of these days.'
'When... when you return to Barbizon?'
'I won't promise. When I promise I like to keep my promise.... You ask too much. You don't realise what it means to a woman to give herself. Have you never had a scruple about anything?'
'Scruple about anything! I don't know what you mean.... What scruple can you have? you're not a religious woman.'
'It isn't religion, it is—well, something.... I don't know.'
'This has gone on too long,' he said, 'if I don't get you now I shall lose you.'
'If you were really afraid of losing me you would ask me to marry you.'
Morton was taken aback.
'I never thought of marriage; but I would marry you. Do you mean it?'
'Yes, I mean it.'
'One of these days.'
'I don't believe you. ... You're a bundle of falsehoods.'
'I'm not as false as you say. There's no use making me out worse than I am. I'm very fond of you, Morton.'
'I wonder,' said Morton. 'I asked you just now to be my mistress; you said you'd prefer to marry me. Very well, when will you marry me?'
'Don't ask me. I cannot say when. Besides, you don't want to marry me.'
'You think so?'
'You hesitated just now. A woman always knows. ... If you had wanted to marry me you would have begun by asking me.'
'This is tomfoolery. I asked you to be my mistress, and then, at your suggestion, I asked you to be my wife; I really don't see what more I can do. You say you're very fond of me, and yet you want to be neither mistress nor wife.'
A little dark cloud gathered between her eyes. She did not answer. She did not know what to answer, for she was acting in contradiction to her reason. Her liking for Morton was quite real; there were even moments when she thought that she would end by marrying. But mysterious occult influences which she could neither explain nor control were drawing her away from him. She asked herself, what was this power which abided in the bottom of her heart, from which she could not rid herself, and which said, 'thou shalt not marry him.' She asked herself if this essential force was the life of pleasure and publicity which the Delacours offered her. She had to admit that she was drawn to this life, and that she had felt strangely at ease in it. In the few days that she had spent with the Delacours she had, for the first time in her life, felt in agreement with her surroundings. She had always hated that dirty studio, and still more its dirty slangy frequenters.
And she lay awake a great part of the night thinking. She felt that she must act in obedience to her instinct whatever it might cost her, and her instinct drew her towards the Delacours and away from Morton. But her desire for Morton was not yet exhausted, and the struggle between the two forces resulted in one of her moods. Its blackness lay on forehead, between her eyes, and, in the influence of its mesmerism, she began to hate him. As she put it to herself, she began to feel ugly towards him. She hated to return to Barbizon, and when they met, she gave her cheek instead of her lips, and words which provoked and wounded him rose to her tongue's tip; she could not save herself from speaking them, and each day their estrangement grew more and more accentuated.
She came down one morning nervously calm, her face set in a definite and gathering expression of resolution. Elsie could see that something serious had happened. But Mildred did not seem inclined to explain, she only said that she must leave Barbizon at once. That she was going that very morning, that her boxes were packed, that she had ordered a carriage.
'Are you going back to Paris?'
'Yes, but I don't think I shall go to Melun, I shall go to Fontainebleau. I'd like to say good-bye to the Delacours.'
'This is hardly a day for a drive through the forest; you'll be blown to pieces.'
'I don't mind a little wind. I shall tie my veil tighter.'
Mildred admitted that she had quarrelled with Morton. But she would say no more. She declared, however, that she would not see him again. Her intention was to leave before he came down; and, as if unable to bear the delay any longer, she asked Cissy and Elsie to walk a little way with her. The carriage could follow.
The wind was rough, but they were burning to hear what Morton had done, and, hoping that Mildred would become more communicative when they got out of the village, they consented to accompany her.
'I'm sorry to leave,' said Mildred, 'but I cannot stay after what happened last night. Oh, dear!' she exclaimed, 'my hat nearly went that time. I'm afraid I shall have a rough drive.'
'You will indeed. You'd better stay,' said Elsie.
'I cannot. It would be impossible for me to see him again.'
'But what did he say to offend you?'
'It wasn't what he said, it was what he did.'
'What did he do?'
'He came into my room last night.'
'Did he! were you in bed?'
'Yes; I was in bed reading. I was awfully frightened. I never saw a man in such a state. I think he was mad.'
'What did you do?'
'I tried to calm him. I felt that I must not lose my presence of mind. I spoke to him gently. I appealed to his honour, and at last I persuaded him to go.'
'What did you say?'
'I at last persuaded him to go.'
'We can't talk in this wind,' screamed Elsie, 'we'd better go back.'
'We shall be killed,' cried Cissy starting back in alarm, for a young pine had crashed across the road not very far from where they were standing, and the girls could hear the wind trumpeting, careering, springing forward; it rushed, leaped, it paused, and the whole forest echoed its wrath.
When the first strength of the blast seemed ebbing, the girls looked round for shelter. They felt if they remained where they were, holding on to roots and grasses, that they would be carried away.
'Those rocks,' cried Cissy.
'We shan't get there in time, the trees will fall,' cried Elsie.
'Not a minute to lose,' said Mildred. 'Come!'
And the girls ran through the swaying trees at the peril of their lives. And, as they ran, the earth gave forth a rumbling sound and was lifted beneath their feet. It seemed as if subterranean had joined with aerial forces, for the crumbling sound they had heard as they ran through the scattered pines increased; it was the roots giving way; and the pines bent, wavered, and fell this way and that. But about the rocks, where the girls crouched the trees grew so thickly that the wind could not destroy them singly; so it had taken the wood in violent and passionate grasp, and was striving to beat it down. But under the rocks all was quiet, the storm was above in the branches, and, hearing almost human cries, the girls looked up and saw great branches interlocked like serpents in the writhe of battle.
In half an hour the storm had blown itself out. But a loud wind shook through the stripped and broken forest; lament was in all the branches, the wind forced them upwards and they gesticulated their despair. The leaves rose and sank like cries of woe adown the raw air, and the roadway was littered with ruin. The whirl of the wind still continued and the frightened girls dreaded lest the storm should return, overtaking them as they passed through the avenue.
The avenue was nearly impassable with fallen trees, and Elsie said:
'You'll not be able to go to Fontainebleau to-day.'
'Then I shall go to Melun.'
As they entered the village they met the carriage, and Mildred bade her friends good-bye.
In the long autumn and winter evenings Harold often thought of his sister. His eyes often wandered to the writing table, and he asked himself if he should write to her again. There seemed little use. She either ignored his questions altogether, or alluded to them in a few words and passed from them into various descriptive writing, the aspects of the towns she had visited, and the general vegetation of the landscapes she had seen; or she dilated on the discovery of a piece of china, a bronze, or an old engraving in some forgotten corner. Her intention to say nothing about herself was obvious.
In a general way he gathered that she had been to Nice and Monte Carlo, and he wondered why she had gone to the Pyrenees, and with whom she was living in the Boulevard Poissonier. That was her last address. The letter was dated the fifteenth of December, she had not written since, and it was now March. But scraps of news of her had reached him. One day he learnt from a paragraph in a newspaper that Miss Mildred Lawson had been received into the Church of Rome, he wrote to inquire if this was true, and a few days after a lady told him that she had heard that Mildred had entered a Carmelite convent and taken the veil. The lady's information did not seem very trustworthy, but Harold was nevertheless seriously alarmed, and, without waiting for an answer to the letter he had written the day before, he telegraphed to Mildred.
'I have not entered a convent and have no present intention of doing so.'
'Could anything be more unsatisfactory,' Harold thought. 'She does not say whether she has gone over to Rome. Perhaps that is untrue too. Shall I telegraph again?' He hesitated and then decided that he would not. She did not wish to be questioned, and would find an evasive answer that would leave him only more bewildered than before.
He hoped for an answer to his letter, but Mildred did not write, no doubt, being of opinion that her telegram met the necessity of the case, and he heard no more until some news of her came to him through Elsie Laurence, whom Harold met one afternoon as he was coming home from the city. From Elsie he learnt that Mildred was a great social success in Paris. She was living with the Delacours, she had met them at Fontainebleau. Morton Mitchell, that was the man she had thrown over, had introduced her to them. Harold had never heard of the Delacours, and he hastened to acquaint himself with them; Morton Mitchell he reserved for some future time; one flirtation more or less mattered little; but that his sister should be living with the Delacours, a radical and socialist deputy, a questionable financier, a company promoter, a journalist, was very shocking. Delacour was all these things and many more, according to Elsie, and she rattled on until Harold's brain whirled. He learnt, too, that it was with the Delacours that Mildred had been in the South.
'She wrote to me from some place in the Pyrenees.'
'From Lourdes? she was there.'
A cloud gathered on Harold's face.
'She didn't write to me from Lourdes,' he said. 'But Lourdes is, I suppose, the reason of her perversion to Rome?'
'No; Mildred told me that Lourdes had nothing to do with it.'
'You say that she now lives with these people, the Delacours.'
'Yes; she's just like one of the family. She invites her friends to dinner. She invited me to dinner. The Delacours are very rich, and Mildred is now all the rage in Paris.'
'And Madame Delacour, what kind of a woman is she?'
'Madame Delacour has very poor health, they say she was once a great beauty, but there's very little of her beauty left. ... She's very fond of Mildred. They are great friends.'
The next time that Harold heard of Mildred was through his solicitors. In the course of conversation regarding some investments, Messrs. Blunt and Hume mentioned that Miss Lawson had taken 5000 pounds out of mortgage. They did not know if she had re-invested it, she had merely requested them to pay the money into her banking account.
'Why did you not mention this to me before?'
'Miss Lawson has complete control over her private fortune. On a former occasion, you remember, when she required five hundred pounds to hire and furnish a studio, she wrote very sharply because we had written to you on the subject. She spoke of a breach of professional etiquette.'
'Then why do you tell me now about this 5000 pounds?'
'Strictly speaking we ought not to have done so, but we thought that we might venture on a confidential statement.'
Harold thought that Messrs. Blunt and Hume had acted very stupidly, and he asked himself what Mildred proposed to do with the money. Did she intend to re-invest it in French securities? Or had the Roman Catholics persuaded her to leave it to a convent or to spend it in building a church? Or perhaps, Delacour and the Socialists have got hold of the money. But Mildred was never very generous with her money. ... He stepped into a telegraph office and stepped out again without having sent a message. He wrote a long letter when he arrived home, and tore it up when he had finished it. It was not a case for a letter or telegram, but for an immediate journey. He could send a telegram to the office, saying he would not be there to-morrow; he remembered a business appointment for Friday, which could not be broken. But he could return on Thursday morning. ... Arrive on Wednesday night, return on Thursday morning or Thursday night, if he did not succeed in seeing Mildred on Wednesday night. ... Yes, that would do it, but it would mean a tedious journey on the coldest month of the year. But 5000 English pounds was a large sum of money, he must do what he could to save it. Save it! Yes, for he hadn't a doubt that it was in danger. ... He would take the train at Charing Cross to-morrow morning. ... He would arrive in Paris about eight.... He would then go to his hotel, change his clothes, dine, and get to Mildred's about nine or half- past.
This was the course he adopted, and on Wednesday night at half-past nine, he crossed the Rue Richlieu, and inquired the way to Boulevard Poissonier.... If Mildred were going to a ball he would be able to get half an hour's conversation were her before she went upstairs to dress. If she were dining out, he could wait until she came in. She would not be later than eleven, he thought as he entered a courtyard. There were a number of staircases, and he at last found himself in the corridors and the salons of La voix du Peuple, which was printed and published on the first floor. He addressed questions to various men who passed him with proofs in their hands, and, when a door was opened on the left, he saw a glare of gas and the compositors bending over the cases.
Then he found his way to the floor above, and there doors were open on both sides of the landing; footmen hurried to and fro. He asked for Mademoiselle Lawson, and was led through rooms decorated with flowers. 'They are giving a ball here to-night,' he thought, and the footmen drew aside a curtain; and in a small end room, a boudoir dimly lighted and hung with tapestry and small pictures in gold frames, he found Mildred sitting on a couch with an elderly man, about fifty.
They seemed to be engaged in intimate conversation; and they rose abruptly, as if disconcerted by his sudden intrusion.
'Oh, Harold,' said Mildred.... 'Why didn't you write to say that you were coming vous tombez comme une tuile.... Permettez-moi, Monsieur Delacour, de vous presenter a won frere.' Harold bowed and shook hands with the tall thin man with the high-bridged nose and the close- cut black hair, fitting close to his head. In the keen grey eyes, which shone out of a studiously formal face, there was a look which passed from disdain to swift interrogation, and then to an expression of courteous and polite welcome. M. Delacour professed himself delighted to make Harold's acquaintance, and he hoped that Harold was staying some time in Paris. Harold regretted that he was obliged to return on the following morning, and M. Delacour's face assumed an expression of disappointment. He said that it would have been his pleasure to make Harold's stay as agreeable as possible. However, on the occasion of Harold's next visit, M. Delacour hoped that he could stay with them. He went so far as to say that he hoped that Harold would consider this house as his own. Harold thanked him, and again expressed regret that he was obliged to leave the following morning. He noticed a slight change of expression on the diplomatist's face when he mentioned that he had come over in a hurry to discuss some business matters with his sister. A moment later M. Delacour was smiling perfect approval and comprehension and moving towards the door. At the door he lingered to express a hope that Harold would stay for the ball. He said that Mildred must do her best to persuade her brother to remain.
The musicians had just come, she could hear them tuning their instruments. Guests would soon arrive, so she hoped that the interview would not be prolonged. The way to shorten it was to say nothing. She could see that Harold was embarrassed, silence would increase his embarrassment. She knew that he had come to speak about the 4000 pounds which she had taken out of mortgage. She knew that he hoped to induce her to re-invest it in some good security at five per cent. But she did not intend to take his advice, or to inform him regarding her relations with the Delacours. She knew, too, that he disapproved of her dress: it was certainly cut a little lower than she had intended, and then she saw that his eyes had wandered to the newspaper, which lay open on the table. In a moment he would see her name at the bottom of the first article. If he were to read the article, he would be more shocked than he was by her dress. It was even more decolletee than her dress, both had come out a little more decolletee than she had intended.
'I see,' he said, 'that you write in this paper.'
'A little, I'm doing a series of articles under the title of Bal Blanc. My articles are a success. I like that one as well as any, you shall take the number of the paper away with you.'
'But how do you manage about writing in French?'
'I write very easily in French now, as easily as in English. M. Delacour looks over my proof, but he hardly finds anything to correct.'
Mildred suppressed a smile, she had taken in the entire situation, and was determined to act up to it. It offered an excellent opportunity for acting, and Mildred was only happy when she could get outside herself. She crossed her hands and composed her most demure air; and, for the sake of the audience which it pleased her to imagine; and when Harold was not looking she allowed her malicious eyes to say what she was really thinking. And he, unconscious of the amusement he afforded, made delightful comedy. He tried to come to the point, but feared to speak too suddenly of the money she had drawn out of the mortgage, and, in his embarrassment, he took a book from the table. The character of the illustrations caused his face to flush, and an expression of shame to appear. Mildred snatched the book out of his hand, saying:
'That is one of M. Delacour's books.'
'You know the book, then?'
'One knows everything. You are not an artist, and see things in a different light.'
'I don't think that art has much to do with a book of that kind. You must have changed very much, Mildred.'
'No,' she said, 'that shows me how little you understand me. I have not changed at all.'
The word suggested the idea, and he said, 'you have changed your religion. You've become a Roman Catholic. I must say, if that book is—-'
'That book has nothing to do with me. I glanced at it once, that was all, and, when I saw what it was, I put it down.'
The subject was a painful one, and Harold was willing to let it drop.
'But why,' he said, 'did you go over to Rome? Wasn't the religion you were brought up in good enough for you?'
'I was so unhappy at the time. I had suffered a great deal, I didn't believe in anything—I did not know what was going to become of me.'
'Didn't believe in anything, Mildred—I'm very sorry.... But, if you found difficulty in accepting Protestantism, Catholicism, I should have thought, would be still more impossible. It makes so much a larger demand on faith.'
The discovery of the book had for a moment forced her out of the part she was playing, but religious discussion afforded her ample facility, which she eagerly availed herself of, to return to it.
'You do not understand women.'
'But what has understanding women to do with a religious question?' Harold asked a little more petulantly than usual.
These were the words and intonation she had expected, and she smiled inwardly.
'Women's lives are so different from men, we need a more intimate consolation than Protestantism can give us. Our sense of the beauty—'
'The old story, those who find difficulty in believing in the divinity of our Lord will swallow infallibility, transubstantiation, and the rest of it—all the miracles, and the entire hierarchy of the saints, male and female, if they may be gratified by music, candles, incense, gold vestments, and ceremonial display. ... It is not love of God, it is love of the senses.'
'Ou fait la guerre avec de la musique, des panaches, des drapeaux, des harnais d'or, un deploiement de ceremonie.'
'That is from the Tentation de Saint Antoine. It comes in the dialogue between Death and Lust. They make war with music, with banners, with plumes, with golden trappings, and ceremonial display.'
'What's that got to do with what we were saying?'
'Only that you accidentally made use of nearly the same words as Flaubert. "Ceremonial display" is not so good as deploiement de ceremonie, but—-'
She wore a little subdued look, and he did not detect the malice that it superficially veiled. She did not wish him to see that she was playing with him, but she wished to fret him with some slight suspicion that she was. She was at the same time conscious of his goodness, and her own baseness; she even longed to throw herself into his arms, and thank him for having come to Paris; she knew that it was in her interest that he had come, but an instinct stronger than her will forced her to continue improvising the words of her part, and it was her pleasure to provide it with suitable gesture, expression of face, and inflection of voice. She could hear the fiddles in the ball- room, and wished the wall away, and the company ranged behind a curtain. And, as these desires crossed her mind, she pitied poor Harold with his one idea, 'how he may serve me.' When she came to the word me her heart softened towards him, but the temptation to discuss her conversion with him was imperative, and she watched him, guessing easily how his idea of Catholicism turned in his narrow brain, and she knew that turn it as he pleased, that he would get no nearer to any understanding of it or of her. Religion was a fixed principle in his life; it was there as his head, neck, and arms were there; and it played a very definite part in his life; his religion was not a doll that could be dressed to suit the humours of the day, but an unchanging principle that ruled, that was obeyed, and that visited all fallings away with remorse. So this opportunity to play with her brother's religious consciousness was to be gainsayed no more than an opportunity to persuade a lover into exhibition of passion. And she remembered how Harold and Alfred used to sit over the dining- room fire shaking their heads over the serious scandal that had been caused in the parish by the new Vicar, who had introduced the dangerous innovation of preaching in his surplice. She had laughed and sneered at her brother's hesitations and scruples about accepting the surplice for the black robe, and now she wondered if he would ask her if she considered it a matter of no importance if the priests put on vestments to say Mass, or if there were wine and water in the cruets.
She had, as she had told her brother, embraced Catholicism in a time of suffering and depression, when she had fancied herself very near to suicide, when she didn't know what else was going to become of her. Her painting had failed, and she had gone to Barbizon a wreck of abandoned hopes. She had gone there because at that moment it was necessary to create some interest in her life. And Barbizon had succeeded in a way—she had liked Morton, and it was not her fault if he had failed to understand her, that was one of the reasons why she had left Barbizon, and her distress of mind on leaving was the result of indiscretions which she did not like to remember. True it was that she had not actually been his mistress, but she had gone further than she had intended to go, and she had felt that she must leave Barbizon at once. For her chastity was her one safeguard, if she were to lose that, she had always felt, and never more strongly than after the Barbizon episode, that there would be no safety for her. She knew that her safety lay in her chastity, others might do without chastity, and come out all right in the end, but she could not: an instinct told her so.
There had been moments when she had wondered if she were really quite sane. Something had to happen—Catholicism had happened, and she had gone to travel with the Delacours. Madame Delacour was a strict Catholic and was therefore interested in Mildred's conversion. And with her Mildred went to Mass, high and low, vespers and benediction. She selected an old priest for confessor, who gave her absolution without hearing half she said; and she went to communion and besought of M. Delacour never to laugh at her when she was in one of her religious moods. These occurred at undetermined intervals, speaking broadly, about every two months; they lasted sometimes a week, sometimes a fortnight. In her moods she was a strict Catholic, but as they wore away she grew more loose, and Madame Delacour noticed Mildred's absentations from Mass. Mildred answered that she was a Newmanite and was more concerned with the essential spirit of Catholicism than with its outward practice; and she adopted the same train of argument when Harold asked her if she believed that the bread and wine consecrated and swallowed by the priest was the real Body and Blood of God. She replied:
'I take all that as a symbol.'
'But Catholicism imposes the belief that it is the real Body and Blood.'
Mildred passed off her perplexity with a short laugh, 'You're always the same,' she said, 'you never get farther than externals. I remember how you and Alfred used to shake your heads over the surplice and the black robe question.... You're an enemy of ritualism, and yet I know no one more ritualistic than you are, only your ritual is not ours. You cannot listen to a sermon if the preacher wears a surplice, you waive the entire merit of the sermon, and see nothing but the impudent surplice. All the beautiful instruction passes unheeded, and your brows gather into a frown black as the robe that isn't there.... I believe that you would insist that Christ Himself should ascend into Heaven in a black robe, and you would send the goats to hell draped in samite and white linen.' Her paradoxical imagination of the ascent into Heaven and the judgment-seat amused her, and the glimpse she had caught of her brother's portentous gravity curled her up like a cigarette paper. But he was too shocked for speech, and Mildred strove to curb her hilarity.
'No,' she said, 'you can never get farther than externals, you are the true ritualist, the Pope is not more so.' Harold's face now wore an expression of such awful gravity that Mildred could hardly contain herself, she bit her lips and continued: 'But ritual hardly concerns me at all. I was received into the Church before I had ever heard Mass. I am not interested in externals; I think of the essentials, and Catholicism seems to me to be essentially right. A great deal of it I look upon as symbolism. I am a Catholic, but my Catholicism is my own: I am a Newmanite. If there be no future life and all is mistake, then Catholicism is a sublime mistake; if there be a future life, then we're on the right side.'
'I'm afraid there is little use in our discussing this subject, Mildred. We feel religion very differently. You say that I don't understand women, it seems to me that some women do not understand religion.... They have never originated any religious movement.'
'There have been great saints among women; there have been great Roman Catholic saints.'
'Mildred, really this discussion is futile, not to say exasperating. Don't you hear the fiddles in the next room, they're playing a waltz.'
Mildred had heard the fiddlers all the while, without them the conversation would have been shorn of most of its interest for her.
'We have wandered very far from the subject on which I came to talk to you—the matter which I came to Paris to talk to you about.'
Mildred suppressed a smile. She had annoyed him sufficiently, there was no reason why she should press this interview towards a quarrel. Harold paused a moment and then said:
'I hear from our solicitors that you have drawn five thousand pounds out of first-class mortgages. Now, this is a large sum of money. How do you intend to re-invest it? I don't see how you could get better interest than you have been getting unless you accept doubtful security. I hope that neither this paper La Voix du Peuple or Panama has tempted you.'
'It is very kind of you, Harold, to come to Paris to inquire into this matter. You won't think that I am ungrateful, will you?'
'Then I would sooner say nothing about this money.... I have re- invested it, and I think well invested it. I am satisfied, it is my own money. I am of age and quite capable of judging.'
'You know a great deal more than I do, Mildred, about art and literature and all that kind of thing, but I have had business experience that you have not, and I feel it my duty to tell you if you have invested your money in La Voix du Peuple that I can only look upon it as lost.'
'Come, Harold. Let us admit, for the sake of argument, that I have invested the whole or part of my money in this paper.'
'Then you have done so. If you hadn't, you would not feel inclined to discuss hypothetical investments.'
'Why not? For you impugn the integrity of my dearest friends. The circulation of the paper is going up steadily. When we reach sixty thousand I shall have invested my money, supposing I have put it into the paper at twenty per cent., and will then receive not 250 pounds but 1000 pounds a year. You will admit there is a difference.'
'I should think there was. I wish I could get twenty per cent, for my money. But I thought that getting a big interest for money was against your principles. I thought that the Socialists said that interest was "unpaid labour." Isn't that the expression you use?'
'Yes, it is. I had scruples on this point, but M. Delacour overruled my scruples. Your objection is answered by the theory that individual sacrifice is unavailing: indeed, it is as useless as giving charity, quite. A case of intense suffering is brought under the notice of a bourgeois; it awakens in him a certain hysterical pity, or, I should say, remorse, for he feels that a system that permits such things to be cannot be wholly right. He relieves this suffering, and then he thinks he is a virtuous man; he thinks he has done a good action; but a moment's reflection shows us that this good action is only selfishness in disguise—that it is nothing more than a personal gratification, a balm to his wound, which, by a sort of reflective action, he has received from outraged humanity. Charity is of no use; it is individual, and nothing individual is of any value; the movement must be general.'
'It seems to me that pity is a human sentiment, that it always existed. In all ages there has been pity for the blind, the lame, the deformed, never was pity so general, or so ardent as in the nineteenth century, but it always existed for the poor of spirit and the feeble of body, and these are not the victims of our social system; they are nature's victims.' Mildred did not answer, and they heard the fiddles, the piano, and then the cornet.
'The Delacours entertain a great deal, I suppose: on the first floor the editor writes that property is robbery, and advocates an equal division of property; on the second floor he spends the money he gets out of the people by holding illusory hopes of an approaching spoliation of the rich, and advocating investment in a fraudulent enterprise like Panama.... You always accuse me of want of humour, but I have sufficient to appreciate The Voice of the People on the first floor and the voice of the ball on the second.'
At that moment M. Delacour opened the door of the boudoir:
'Forgive me,' he said, 'for interrupting you, but I wanted to tell that every one has read your article. It is a great success, spirituel, charmant, surtout tres parisien, that's what is said on every side.'
Mildred's face flushed with pleasure, and, turning to Harold, she said:
'I am writing a series of articles in La Voix du Peuple under the title of Bal Blanc.'
'Have you not seen your sister's articles, M. Lawson?' asked M. Delacour.
'No, Mildred did not send them to me, and I rarely see the French papers in London.'
Mildred looked at M. Delacour, and Harold read in her eyes that she was annoyed that M. Delacour had called attention to the article. He asked himself why this was, and, when M. Delacour left the room, he took up the paper. He read a few lines and then Mildred said:
'I cannot remain much longer away from my guests.'
'Yes; they are my guests in a way, the ball was given for me.'
'You can go to them; I can remain here I suppose. I can see you later on.'
Mildred did not answer, and, while Harold looked through the article, her face darkened, and she bit her lips twice. At last she said:
'We had better finish: I cannot remain away any longer from my guests, and I shall be engaged the rest of the evening. There's no use in your reading that article. You won't like it. You won't approve of it.'
'I certainly do not approve of it, and are all the articles you write under this title of the same character?'
'I can't see anything wrong in it. Of course you can read meanings into it that I don't intend if you like.'
'I am afraid that your articles must give people a very false idea of you.'
'Every one who knows me knows that I would not do anything wrong, that I am not that kind of woman. You need not be afraid, I shall not disgrace you.'
'I'm not thinking of myself, Mildred. I am sure you would not do anything wrong, that you would not disgrace yourself; I was merely wondering what people would think. Do the priests approve of this kind of writing?'
'I don't submit my writings to my Confessor,' Mildred answered laughing.
'And your position in this house. Your intimacy with M. Delacour. I found you sitting side by side on this sofa.'
'I never heard before that there was any harm in sitting on a sofa with a man. But there are people who see immorality in every piece of furniture in a drawing-room.'
'You seemed very intimate, that's all. What does Madame Delacour say? Does she approve of this intimacy?'
'I don't know what you mean. What intimacy? Madame Delacour does not see any harm in my sitting on a sofa with her husband. She knows me very well. She knows that I wouldn't do anything wrong. She's my most intimate friend; she is quite satisfied, I can assure you. I'll introduce you to her as you go out.'
'I see you are anxious to join your company, I must not keep you from your guests any longer. I suppose I shall not see you again, I return to-morrow.'
'Then it is good-bye.'
'I suppose so, unless you return with me.'
'Return to Sutton to look after your house!'
'I don't want you to look after my house; you can have a housekeeper. I'm sorry you think that is why I want you to return. Perhaps you think that is why I came over. Oh, Mildred!'
'Harold, I'm sorry. I did not think such a thing. It was good of you to come to Paris. Harold, you're not angry?'
'No, Mildred, I'm not angry. But all this seems strange to me: this house, these people, this paper.'
'I know, I know. But we cannot all think alike. We never did think alike. But that should not interfere in our affection for one another. We should love each other. We are alone in the world, father and mother both gone, only a few aunts and cousins that we don't care about.' 'Do you ever think of what father and mother would say if they knew? What would they think of your choosing to leave home to live with these people?'
'Do not let us argue these things, we shall never agree.'
The affection which had suddenly warmed her had departed, and her heart had grown cold as stone again.
'Each must be free to choose his or her life.'
'You surely don't intend always to live here?'
'Always? I don't know about always, for the present certainly.'
'Then there is nothing but to say good-bye.'
One evening in spring Mildred returned home. Harold had not long returned from the city, the candles were lighted. He was sitting in the drawing-room thinking, thinking of her.
'Mildred! is that you?'
'Yes, how do you do, Harold?'
'Come and sit near the fire, you've had a cold journey. When did you return?'
'Last night. We had a dreadful crossing, I stayed in bed all the morning. That was why I didn't come to see you in the city.'
Harold sat for some moments without speaking, looking into the fire.
Reticence was natural to him; he refrained from questioning her, and thought instead of some harmless subject of conversation. Her painting? But she had abandoned painting. Her money? she had lost it! ... that was the trouble she was in. He had warned her against putting her money into that paper.... But there was no use worrying her, she would tell him presently. Besides, there was not time to talk about it now, dinner would soon be ready.
'It is now half-past six, don't you think you'd better go upstairs and get ready?'
'Oh, don't bother me about the dinner, Harold. What does it matter if it is a few minutes late. I can't go upstairs yet. I want to sit here.'
She looked round the room and remembered how her father used to sit in the chair Harold was sitting in. He was getting bald just like father. He looked just like father, his head seen against the book-cases, the light catching the ends of his bristly hair. But who was she like? she didn't know, not like poor dear mother who thought of nothing but her husband and her children. From whom had she got her tastes, her taste for painting—her ideas, God knows. She wished she were like other people. Like Harold. Yet she didn't know that she would like to be quite so simple, so matter of fact. They were only like in one thing, neither had married. She had never thought of that before, and wondered why. But he would marry one of these days. He wasn't forty yet. Then she would have to leave Sutton, she couldn't live there with a step-sister.
'So you're not married yet, Harold.'
'No, not yet.'
'Not even engaged?'
'No, not even engaged.'
'I suppose you will one of these days.'
'Perhaps, one of these days, but I'm in no hurry. And you, are you as much set against marriage as ever? Alfred Stanby has never married, I don't think he ever will. I think you broke his heart.'
'I don't believe in breaking men's hearts.'
'You are just the kind of woman who does break men's hearts.'
'Why do you say that? You think me heartless.'
'No, Mildred, I don't think you heartless—only you're not like other girls.'
No, I'm not. I've too much heart, that's been my misfortune, I should have got on better if I had less.'
Harold had no aptitude or taste of philosophical reflections, so he merely mentioned that Alfred was living in Sutton, and hoped that Mildred would not mind meeting him.
'No, I don't mind meeting him, but he may not like to meet me. Does he ever speak of me?'
'Yes, he does sometimes.... I never knew why you threw him over. He's really a very good fellow. He has worked hard and is now making a fair income.'
'I'm glad of that.... I suppose I did treat him badly. But no worse than men treat women every day.'
'Why did you throw him over?'
'I don't know. It's so long ago. He didn't understand me. I thought I should find some one who did.... I know the world better now.'
'Would you marry him if he were to propose again?'
'I don't know, I don't know.... I don't know what I should do now. Don't question me, Harold.'
At that moment the gong sounded for dinner. Harold refrained from saying 'I knew you'd be late.' An hour after, brother and sister were sitting by the library fire. At last Harold said:
'I'm glad you're going to stop here for the present, that you're not going back to Paris. Do you never intend to live there again?'
'There's no reason why I should go back, certainly none that I should live there again, my life in Paris is ended.'
She did not recount her misfortunes in plain straightforward narrative, her story fluctuated and transpired in inflections of voice and picturesque glances. She was always aware of the effect of herself on others, and she forgot a great deal of her disappointment in the pleasure of astonishing Harold. The story unwound itself like spun silk. The principal spool was the Panama scandals.... But around it there were little spools full of various thread, a little of which Mildred unwound from time to time.
When the first accusations against the Deputies were made, I warned him. I told him that the matter would not stop there, but he was over confident. Moreover, I warned him against Darres.'
'Oh, he was the secretaire de la redaction and a sort of partner. But I never liked him. I gave him one look.... I told M. Delacour not to trust him. ... And he knew that I suspected him. He admired me, I could see that, but he wasn't my kind of man: a tall, bullet—headed fellow, shoulders thrown well back, the type of the sous officier, le beau soudard, smelling of the cafe and a cigarette. A plain sensualist. I can tell them at once, and when he saw that I was not that kind of person, he went and made love to Madame Delacour. She was only too glad to listen to him.'
'Is Madame Delacour good-looking?'
'I daresay she's what some people would call good-looking. But she has wretched health, she never got over the birth of her last child.'
Madame Delacour's health was the subject of many disparaging remarks, in the course of which Mildred called into question the legitimacy of one of her children, and the honourability of Darres as a card-player. The conversation at last turned on Panama. M. Delacour had, of course, denied the charge of blackmail and bribery. Neither had been proved against him. Nevertheless, his constituency had refused to re-elect him. That, of course, had ruined him politically. Nothing had been proved against him, but he had merely failed to explain how he had lived at the rate of twelve thousand a year for the last three years.
'But the paper?'
'The paper never was a pecuniary success.'
'The money you put into it, I suppose, is lost.'
'For the present at all events. Things may right themselves, Delacour may come up to the top of the wheel again.'
'He must have cheated you, he swindled you.'
'I suppose he did, but he was very hard pressed at the time. He didn't know where to turn for money.'
Harold was surprised by the gentleness of Mildred's tone.
'You must give me the particulars, and I'll do all that can be done to get back your money. Now tell me how—'
'Yes, you shall have all the particulars,' she said, 'but I'm afraid that you'll not be able to do much.'
'What were the conditions?'
'I cannot talk about them now, I'm too tired.'
There was a petulant note in her voice which told Harold that it would be useless to question her. He smoked his pipe and listened, and, in her low musical and so well-modulated voice, she continued her tale about herself, M. Delacour, La Voix du Peuple, and M. Darres. Her conversation was full of names and allusions to matters of which Harold knew nothing. He failed to follow her tale, and his thoughts reverted to the loss of three thousand pounds in the shocking Voix du Peuple and two thousand in scandalous Panama. Every now and then something surprising in her tale caught his ear, he asked for precise information, but Mildred answered evasively and turned the conversation. She was much more interested in the influence M. Delacour had exercised over her. She admitted that she had liked him very much, and attributed the influence he had exercised to hypnotism and subordination of will. She had, however, refused to run away with him when he had asked her.
'You mean to say that he asked you to run away with him—a married man?'
'Yes; but I said no. I knew that it would ruin him to run away with me. I told him that he must not go away either with me or alone, that he must face his enemies and overcome them. I was a true friend.'
'It is most extraordinary. You must have been very intimate for him to propose such a thing.'
'Yes; we were very intimate, but, when it came to the point, I felt that I couldn't.'
'Came to the point!'
It was impossible to lead Mildred into further explanation, and she spoke of the loss of the paper. It had passed into the hands of M. Darres; he had changed the staff; he had refused her articles, that was the extraordinary part; explained the unwisdom Darres had showed in his editorship. The paper was now a wreck. He had changed its policy, and the circulation had sunk from sixty to twenty-five thousand. Harold cared nothing whether La Voix du Peuple was well or badly edited, except so far as its prosperity promised hope of the recovery of the money Mildred had invested in it; and he had begun to feel that the paper was not responsible for M. Delacour's debts, and that Mildred's money was lost irretrievably. He was thinking of M. Delacour and the proposal he had made to Mildred, that they should go away together. M. Delacour, a married man! But his wife must have been aware of her husband's intimacy, of his love for Mildred.
'But wasn't Madame Delacour jealous of you, of your intimacy with her husband?'
'She knew there was nothing wrong.... But she accused me of kissing her husband; that was spite.'
'But it wasn't true?'
'No; certainly it wasn't true. I wonder you can ask me. But, after that, it was impossible for me to stay any longer in the house.'
'Where is Madame Delacour, is she with her husband?'
'No; she's separated from him. She's gone back to her own people. She lives with them somewhere in the south near Pau, I think.'
'She's not with Darres?'
'No; she's not living with him; but I daresay they see each other occasionally.'
'They can't see each other very often if she's living near Pau, and he's editing a paper in Paris.'
One morning after breakfast Harold said as he rose from table, 'You must be very lonely here. Don't you think you would like some one to keep you company? Mrs. Fargus is in London; we might ask her, she'd be glad to come; you used to like her.'
'That's a long while ago. I don't think she'd amuse me now.'
'She'd talk about art, about things that interest you. I'm away all day, and when I come home in the evening I'm tired. I'm no society for you, I know that.'
'No, Harold, I assure you I'm all right; don't worry about me. I shouldn't care to have Mrs. Fargus here. If I did I'd say so. I know that you're anxious to please me. I like you better than any one else.'
'But I don't understand you, Mildred. We never did understand each other. Our tastes are so different,' he added hastily, lest his words might be construed into a reproach.
'Oh yes, we understand each other very well. I used to think we didn't.... I don't think there's anything in me that any one could not understand. I am afraid I'm a very ordinary person.'
'But I can see that you're bored. I don't mean that you show it. But it would be impossible otherwise, all alone in this house all day by yourself. You used to read a great deal. You never read now. Are there any books I can bring you from London? Do you want any paints, canvases? You haven't touched your paints since you've been back. You might have your drawing master here, you might go out painting with him. This is just the time of year.'
'I've given up painting. No, Harold, thank you all the same. I know I'm dull, cheerless; you mustn't mind me, it is only a fit of the blues; it will wear off. One of these days I shall be all right.'
'But do you mind my asking people to the house?'
'Not if it pleases you. But don't do so for me.'
Harold looked at his watch. 'I must say good-bye now. I've only just time to catch the train.'
That same evening brother and sister sat together in the library; neither had spoken for some time, and, coming at the end of a long silence, Mildred's voice sounded clear and distinct.
'Alfred Stanby called here to-day.'
'I wonder he did not call before.' There was a note of surprise in his voice which did not quite correspond with his words.
'Did he stay long?'
'He stayed for tea.'
'Did you find him changed? It must be five years since you met.'
'He has grown stouter.'
'What did he talk about?'
'Ordinary things. He was very formal.'
'He was very much cut up when you broke off your engagement.'
'You never approved of it.'
No, but it was not for me that you broke it off.'
'No, it wasn't on account of you.'
The conversation paused. At last Harold said:
'Are you as indisposed as ever towards marriage? If Alfred were to propose again would you have him?'
'I really don't know. Do you want me to marry? I'm not very pleasant company, I'm well aware of that.'
'You know that I didn't mean that, Mildred. I don't want to press you into any marriage. I've always wished you to do what you like.'
'And I have done so.'
'I still want you to do what you like. But I can't forget that if I were to die to-morrow you would be practically alone in the world—a few cousins——'
'But what makes you think of dying? You're in as good health as ever.'
'I'm forty-three, and father died when he was forty-eight. He died of heart disease; I have suffered from my heart, so it is not probable that I shall make very old bones. If I were to die, you would inherit everything. What would become of this place—of this business? Isn't it natural that I should wish to see you settled in life?'
'You think that Alfred would be a suitable match? Would you like to see me marry him?'
'There's nothing against him; he's not very well off. But he's got on while you've been away. He's making, I should say now, at least 500 pounds a year. That isn't much, but to have increased his income from three to five hundred a year in five years proves that he is a steady man.'
'No one ever doubted Alfred's steadiness.'
'Mildred, it is time to have done with those sneers.'
'I suppose it is. I suppose what you say is right. I've been from pillar to post and nothing has come of it. Perhaps I was only fitted for marriage after all.'
'And for what better purpose could a woman be fitted?'
'We won't discuss that subject,' Mildred answered. 'If I'm to marry any one, as well Alfred as another.'
It was the deeper question that perplexed: Could she accept marriage at all? And in despair she decided that things must take their chance. If she couldn't marry when it came to the point, why, she couldn't; if she married and found marriage impossible, they would have to separate. The experience might be an unpleasant one, but it could not be more unpleasant than her present life which was driving her to suicide. Marriage seemed a thing that every one must get through; one of the penalties of existence. Why it should be so she couldn't think! but it was so. Marriage was supposed to be for ever, but nothing was for ever. Even if she did marry, she felt that it would not be for ever. No; it would not be for ever. Further into the future she could not see, nor did she care to look. She remembered that she was not acting fairly towards Alfred. But instead of considering that question, she repelled it. She had suffered enough, suffering had made her what she was; she must now think of herself. She must get out of her present life; marriage might be worse, but it would be a change, and change she must have. Things must take their course, she did not know whether she would accept or refuse: but she was sure she would like him to propose. He had loved her, and, as he had not married, it was probable that he still loved her, anyway she would like to find out.
He interested her, yes, in a way, for she no longer understood him. Five years are a long while; he was practically a new man; and she wondered if he had changed as much as she. Perhaps he hated her. Perhaps he had forgiven her. Perhaps she was indifferent to him. Perhaps his conventional politeness was the real man. Perhaps no real man existed underneath it. In that case the pursuit would not prove very exciting. But she did not think that this was so. She remembered certain traits of character, certain looks.
Thinking of Alfred carried her back to the first years of her girlhood. She was only eighteen when she first met him. He was the first man who had kissed her, and she had lain awake thinking of something which his sister Edith had told her. Edith knew that she did not love a man to whom she was engaged, because when he kissed her his kiss did not thrill her. Alfred's kiss had not thrilled, so far as Mildred could make out. But she had admired his frock coat, his gloves, and his general bearing had seemed to her most gentlemanly, not to say distinguished. She had felt that she would never feel ashamed of him; his appearance had flattered her girlish vanity, and for nearly two years they had been engaged. She remembered that she had not discovered any new attractions about him; he had always remained at the frock coat and the gloves stage; she remembered that she had, on more than one occasion, wearied of his society and suspected that there was little in him. They had nevertheless very nearly been married when she was twenty. But Harold had always been opposed to the match, and at the bottom of her heart she had never cared much about it. If she had, she would have married him then...
The first stirring influence that had entered into her life was Mrs. Fargus. She could trace everything back to Mrs. Fargus. Mrs. Fargus had awakened all that lay dormant in her desire of self-realisation, and, although Mrs. Fargus had not directly impugned marriage, she had said enough to make her understand that it were possible to rebel against marriage; and that in proclaiming antipathy to marriage she would win admiration, and would in a measure distinguish herself.
And, with the first discovery of a peculiarity of temperament, Mildred had grown intensely interested in herself; she remembered how day by day she had made new discoveries in herself, how she had wondered at this being which was she. Her faults at all times had especially interested her. She remembered how frightened, how delighted she had been, when she discovered that she was a cruel woman. She had not suspected this till the day she sat in the garden listening to Alfred's reproaches and expostulations. She had thrilled at the thought that she could make a man so unhappy. His grief was wonderful to witness, and involuntary remarks had escaped her admirably designed to draw it forth, to exhibit it; she was sorry for him, but in the background of her mind she could not help rejoicing; the instinct of cruelty would not be wholly repressed. But once the interview over, she had thought very little of him; there was little in his nature to attract hers; nothing beyond the mere antagonism of opposites—he was straightforward and gross, she was complex and artificial.
But, in her relations with Ralph, there had been sympathy and affection, she had felt sorry that she would not marry him, and his death had come as a painful shock which had affected her life. She had not been able to grieve for him as violently as she would have liked, but she retained a very tender memory. Tears sometimes rose to her eyes when she thought of him, and that past in the National Gallery and in St. James' Park. For the sentiment of love, if not its realisation was largely appreciated by Mildred, and that a man should choose and, failing to obtain, should reject all else as inadequate, was singularly attractive to her. All the tenderness that her nature was capable of had vented itself in Ralph; he had been so good to her, so kind, so unquestioning; the time they had spent together had been peaceful, and full of gentle inspiration; she remembered and thought of him differently from the others. His love had gratified her vanity, but not grossly as Alfred's had done, there had been no feeling of cruelty; she would have been glad to have made him happy; she would have done so if she had been able.