Awaking a little, his thoughts returned to the consideration of his present condition. He had been ill, death had been by his bedside, and in that awful moment he had blasphemed. He could conceive nothing more terrible, and he thanked God for his great mercy. If worldly life was a peril he must fly from that peril, the salvation of his soul must be his first consideration. His thoughts lapsed into dreams—dreams of aisle and cloister, arches and legended panes. Palms rose in great curls like the sky, and beautiful harmonies of voices were gathered together, grouped and single voices, now the white of the treble, now the purple of the bass, and these, the souls of the carven stone, like birds hovering, like birds in swift flight, like birds poising, floated from the arches. Then the organ intoned the massive Gregorian, and the chant of the mass moved amid the opulence of gold vestments; the Latin responses filled the ear; and at the end of long abstinences the holy oil came like a bliss that never dies. In the ecstasy of ordination it seemed to him that the very savour and spirit of God had descended upon him.
Mrs. Norton flung her black shawl over her shoulders, rattled her keys, and scolded the servants at the end of the long passage. Kitty, as she watered the flowers in the greenhouse, often wondered why John had chosen to become a priest and grieve his mother. One morning, as she stood watching the springtide, she saw him walking up the drive: the sky was bright with summer hours, and the beds were catching flower beneath the evergreen oaks. She ran to Mrs. Norton, who was attending to the canaries in the bow-window.
'Look, look, Mrs. Norton, John is coming up the drive; it is he— look!' 'John!' said Mrs. Norton, seeking for her glasses nervously; 'yes, so it is; let's run and meet him. But no; let's take him rather coolly. I believe half his eccentricity is only put on because he wishes to astonish us. We won't ask him any questions—we'll just wait and let him tell his own story—-'
'How do you do, mother?' said the young man, kissing Mrs. Norton with less reluctance than usual. 'You must forgive me for not having answered your letters. It really was not my fault.... And how do you do, Kitty? Have you been keeping my mother company ever since? It is very good of you; I am afraid you must think me a very undutiful son. But what is the news?'
'One of the rooks is gone.'
'Is that all? ... What about the ball at Steyning? I hear it was a great success.'
'Oh, it was delightful.'
'You must tell me about it after dinner. Now I must go round to the stables and tell Walls to fetch my things from the station.'
'Are you going to be here for some time?' said Mrs. Norton with an indifferent air.
'Yes, I think so; that is to say, for a couple of months—six weeks. I have some arrangements to make; but I will speak to you about all that after dinner.'
With these words John left the room, and he left his mother agitated and frightened.
'What can he mean by having arrangements to make?' she asked. Kitty could of course suggest no explanation, and the women waited the pleasure of the young man to speak his mind. He seemed, however, in no hurry to do so; and the manner in which he avoided the subject aggravated his mother's uneasiness. At last she said, unable to bear the suspense any longer—
'Have you had a quarrel with the Jesuits?'
'Not exactly a quarrel, but the order is so entirely opposed to the monastic spirit. What I mean is—well, their worldliness is repugnant to me—fashionable friends, confidences, meddling in family affairs, dining out, letters from ladies who need consolation.... I don't mean anything wrong; pray don't misunderstand me. I merely mean to say that I hate their meddling in family affairs. Their confessional is a kind of marriage bureau; they have always got some plan on for marrying this person to that, and I must say I hate all that sort of thing.... If I were a priest I would disdain to... but perhaps I am wrong to speak like that. Yes, it is very wrong of me, and before... Kitty, you must not think I am speaking against the principles of religion; I am only speaking of matters of—-'
'And have you given up your rooms in Stanton College?'
'Not yet—that is to say, nothing is settled definitely; but I do not think I shall go back there, at least not to live.'
'And do you still think of becoming a priest?'
'On that point I am not certain. I am not yet quite sure that I have a vocation for the priesthood. I would wish the world to be my monastery. Be that as it may, I intend altering the house a little here and there; you know how repugnant this mock Italian architecture is to my feelings. For the present I am determined only on a few alterations. I have them all in my head. The billiard-room, that addition of yours, can be turned into a chapel. And the casements of the dreadful bow-window might be removed; and instead of the present flat roof a sloping tiled roof might be carried up against the wall of the house. The cloisters would come at the back of the chapel.'
His mother bit her thin lips, and her face tightened in an expression of settled grief. Kitty was sorry for Mrs. Norton, but Kitty was too young to understand, and her sorrow evaporated in laughter. She listened to John's explanations of the architectural changes as to a fairy tale. Her innocent gaiety attracted her to him; and as they walked about the grounds after breakfast he spoke to her about pictures and statues, of a trip he intended to take to Italy and Spain, and he did not seem to care to be reminded that this jarred with his project for immediate realisation of Thornby Priory.
Leaning their backs against the iron railing which divided the greensward from the park, John and Kitty looked at the house.
'From this view it really is not so bad, though the urns and loggia are so intolerably out of keeping with the landscape. But when I have made certain alterations it will harmonise with the downs and the flat flowing country, so English, with its barns and cottages and rich agriculture, and there will be then a charming recollection of old England, the England of the monastic ages, before the—but I forgot I must not speak to you on that subject.'
'Do you think the house will look prettier than it does now? Mrs. Norton says that it will be impossible to alter Italian architecture into Gothic.'
'Mother does not know what she is talking about. I have it all down in my pocket-book. I have various plans.... I admit it is not easy, but last night I fancy I hit on an idea. I shall of course consult an architect, although really I don't see there is any necessity for so doing, but just to be on the safe side; for in architecture there are many practical difficulties, and to be on the safe side I will consult an experienced man regarding the practical working out of my design. I made this drawing last night.' John produced a large pocket-book.
'But, oh, how pretty! will it be really like that?'
'Yes,' exclaimed John, delighted; 'it will be exactly like that. The billiard-room can be converted into a chapel by building a new high- pitched roof.'
'Oh, John, why should you do away with the billiard-room; why shouldn't the monks play billiards? You played on the day of the meet.'
'I am not a monk yet.' The conversation paused a moment and then John continued, 'That dreadful addition of my mother's cannot remain in its present form; it is hideous, but it can be converted very easily into a chapel. It will not be difficult. A high-pitched timber roof, throwing out an apse at the end, and putting in mullioned and traceried windows filled with stained glass.'
'And the cloister you are speaking about—where will that be?'
'The cloister will come at the back of the chapel, and an arched and vaulted ambulatory will be laid round the house. Later on I shall add a refectory, and put a lavatory at one end of the ambulatory.'
'But don't you think, John, you may become tired of being a monk, and then the house will have to be built back again?'
'No; the house will be from every point of view a better house when my alterations are carried into effect. And as for my becoming a monk, that is in the main an idea of my mother's. Monastic life, I admit, presents great attractions for me, but that does not mean that I shall become a monk. My mother does not understand an impersonal admiration for anything. She cannot understand that it is impossible to become a monk unless you have a vocation. It is all a question of vocation.'
Later in the day Mrs. Norton stopped John as he was hurrying to his room. She was much excited by the news just received of the engagement of one of the Austin girls. She approved of the match, and spoke enthusiastically of the girl's beauty.
'I could never see it. It never appealed to me in the least.'
'But no woman does. You never think a woman good-looking.'
'Yes, I do. But you never can understand an impersonal admiration for anything. You say I do not appreciate beauty in women because I do not marry. You say I am determined on becoming a monk, because I admire monastic life.'
'But are you going to become a monk?' 'I am not sure that I should not prefer the world to be my monastery.'
'Now you are talking nonsense.'
'Now you are beginning to be rude, mother. ... We were discussing the question of beauty in women.'
'Well, what fault, I should like to know, do you find with Lucy?'
John laughed, and after a moment's hesitation, he said—
'Her face is a pretty oval, but it conveys nothing to my mind; her eyes are large and soft, but there is no, no—-' John gesticulated with his fingers.
'No suggestiveness in her face, no strangeness; she seems to me too much like a woman.'
'I think a woman ought to be like a woman. You would not like a man to be like a woman, would you?'
'That's different. Women are often beautiful, but their beauty is not of the highest type. You admit that Kitty is a pretty girl. Well, she's not nearly so womanly in face or figure as Lucy. Her figure is slight even to boyishness. She's like a little antique statue done in a period of decadence. She has the far-away look in the eyes which we find in antique sculpture, and which is so attractive to me. But you don't understand.'
'I understand very well. I understand you far better than you think,' Mrs. Norton answered angrily. She was angered by what she deemed her son's affectations, and by the arrival of the architect before whom John was to lay his scheme for the reconstruction of the house.
Mr. Egerton seemed to think John's architecture somewhat wild, but he promised to see what could be done to overcome the difficulties he foresaw, and in a week he forwarded John several drawings for his consideration. Judged by comparison with John's dreams, the practical architecture of the experienced man seemed altogether lacking in expression and in poetry of proportion; and comparing them with his own cherished project, John hung over the billiard-table, where the drawings were laid out.
He could think of nothing but his monastery; his Latin authors were forgotten; he drew facades and turrets on the cloth during dinner, and he went up to his room, not to bed, but to reconsider the difficulties that rendered the construction of a central tower an impossibility.
Once again he takes up the architect's notes.
_'The interior would be so constructed as to make it impossible to carry up the central tower. The outer walls would not be strong enough to take the large gables and roof. Although the chapel could be done easily, the ambulatory would be of no use, as it would lead probably from the kitchen offices.
'Would have to reduce work on front facade to putting in new arched entrance. Buttresses would take the place of pilasters.
'The bow-window could remain.
'The roof to be heightened somewhat. The front projection would throw the front rooms into almost total darkness.'_
'But why not a light timber lantern tower?' thought John. 'Yes, that would get over the difficulty. Now, if we could only manage to keep my front.... If my design for the front cannot be preserved, I might as well abandon the whole thing! And then?'
His face contracted in an expression of anger. He rose from the table, and looked round the room. The room seemed to him a symbol—the voluptuous bed, the corpulent arm-chair, the toilet-table shapeless with muslin—of the hideous laws of the world and the flesh, ever at variance and at war, and ever defeating the indomitable aspirations of the soul. John ordered his room to be changed; and in the face of much opposition from his mother, who declared that he would never be able to sleep there, and would lose his health, he selected a narrow room at the end of the passage. He would have no carpet. He placed a small iron bed against the wall; two plain chairs, a screen to keep off the draught from the door, a small basin-stand, such as you might find in a ship's cabin, and a prie-dieu were all the furniture he permitted himself.
'Oh, what a relief!' he murmured. 'Now there is line, there is definite shape. That formless upholstery frets my eye as false notes grate on my ear;' and, becoming suddenly conscious of the presence of God, he fell on his knees and prayed. He prayed that he might be guided aright in his undertaking, and that, if it were conducive to the greater honour and glory of God, he might be permitted to found a monastery, and that he might be given strength to surmount all difficulties.
'Either of two things: I must alter the architecture of this house, or I must return to Stanton College.'
'Don't talk nonsense, do you think I don't know you; you are boring yourself because Kitty is upstairs in bed and cannot walk about with you.'
'I do not know how you contrive, mother, always to say the most disagreeable things; the marvellous way in which you pitch on what will, at the moment, wound me most, is truly wonderful. I compliment you on your skill, but I confess I am at a loss to understand why you should, as if by right, expect me to remain here to serve as a target for the arrows of your scorn.'
John walked out of the room. During dinner mother and son spoke very little, and he retired early, about ten o'clock, to his room. He was in high dudgeon, but the white walls, the prie-dieu, the straight, narrow bed, were pleasant to see. His room was the first agreeable impression of the day. He picked up a drawing from the table, it seemed to him awkward and slovenly. He sharpened his pencil, cleared his crow-quill pens, got out his tracing-paper, and sat down to execute a better. But he had not finished his outline sketch before he leaned back in his chair, and as if overcome by the insidious warmth of the fire, lapsed into firelight attitudes and meditations.
Nibbling his pencil's point, he looked into the glare. Wavering light and wavering shade flickered fast over the Roman profile, flowed fitfully—fitfully as his thoughts. Now his thoughts pursued architectural dreams, and now he thought of himself, of his unhappy youth, of how he had been misunderstood, of his solitary life; a bitter, unsatisfactory life, and yet a life not wanting in an ideal—a glorious ideal. He thought how his projects had always met with failure, with disapproval, above all, failure... and yet, and yet he felt, he almost knew, there was something great and noble in him. His eyes brightened, he slipped into thinking of schemes for a monastic life; and then he thought of his mother's hard disposition and how she misunderstood him. What would the end be? Would he succeed in creating the monastery he dreamed of so fondly? To reconstruct the ascetic life of the Middle Ages, that would be something worth doing, that would be a great ideal—that would make meaning in his life. If he failed... what should he do then? His life as it was, was unbearable... he must come to terms with life....
That central tower! how could he manage it and that built-out front? Was it true, as the architect said, that it would throw all the front rooms into darkness? Without this front his design would be worthless. What a difference it made! Kitty had approved of it.
For a woman she was strangely beautiful. She appealed to him as no other woman ever had. Other women, with their gross display of sex, disgusted him; but Kitty, with her strange, enigmatic eyes, appealed to him like—well, like an antique statuette.
That was how she appealed to him—as an exquisite work of art. His mother had said that he found Thornby Place dull when she was ill, that he missed her, that—that it was because she was not there that he had found the day so wearisome. But this was because his mother could only understand men and women in one relation; she had no feeling for art, for that remoteness from life which is art, and which was everything to him. His thoughts paused, and returned slowly to his architectural projects. But Kitty was in them all; he saw her in decorations for the light timber lantern roof, and she flitted through the ambulatory which was to be constructed at the back of the house. Soon he was absorbed in remembrance of her looks and laughter, of their long talks of the monastery, the neighbours, the pet rooks, Sammy the great yellow cat, and the greenhouses. He remembered the pleasure he had taken in these conversations.
Was it then true that he thought of her as men think of women, was there some alloy of animal passion in his admiration for her beauty? He asked himself this question, and remembered with shame some involuntary thoughts which had sprung upon him, and which, when he listened, he still could hear in the background of his mind; and, listening, he grew frightened and fled, like a lonely traveller from the sound of wolves.
Pausing in his mental flight he asked himself what this must lead to? To a coarse affection, to marriage, to children, to general domesticity.
And contrasted with this...
The dignified and grave life of the cloister, the constant sensation of lofty and elevating thought, a high ideal, the communion of learned men, the charm of headship.
Could he abandon this? No, a thousand times no. This was what was real in him, this was what was true to his nature. The thoughts he deplored were accidental. He could not be held accountable for them. He had repulsed them; and trembling and pale with passion, John fell on his knees and prayed for grace. But prayer was thin upon his lips, and he could only beg that the temptation might pass from him....
'In the morning' he said, 'I shall be strong.'
But if in the morning he were strong, Kitty was more beautiful than ever.
They walked towards the tennis seat, with its red-striped awning. They listened to the feeble cawing of young rooks swinging on the branches. They watched the larks nestle in and fly out of the golden meadow. It was May-time, and the air was bright with buds and summer bees. She was dressed in white, and the shadow of the straw hat fell across her eyes when she raised her face. He was dressed in black, and the clerical frock-coat, buttoned by one button at the throat, fell straight.
They sat under the red-striped awning of the tennis seat. The large grasping hands holding the polished cane contrasted with the reedy, translucent hands laid upon the white folds. The low, sweet breath of the May-time breathed within them, and their hearts were light; hers was only conscious of the May-time, but his was awake with unconscious love, and he yielded to her, to the perfume of the garden, to the absorbing sweetness of the moment. He was no longer John Norton. His being was part of the May—time; it had gone forth and had mingled with the colour of the fields and sky; with the life of the flowers, with all vague scents and sounds.
'How beautiful the day is,' he said, speaking slowly. 'Is it not all light and colour? And you, in your white dress, with the sunlight on your hair, seem more blossom—like than any flower. I wonder what flower I should compare you to? Shall I say a rose? No, not a rose, nor a lily, nor a violet; you remind me rather of a tall, delicate, pale carnation....'
'Why, John, I never heard you speak like that before. I thought you never paid compliments.'
The transparent green of the limes shivered, the young rooks cawed feebly, and the birds flew out of and nestled with amorous wings in the golden meadow. Kitty had taken off her straw hat, the sunlight caressed the delicate plenitudes of the bent neck, the delicate plenitudes bound with white cambric, cambric swelling gently over the bosom into the narrow of the waist, cambric fluting to the little wrist, reedy, translucid hands; cambric falling outwards, and flowing like a great white flower over the greensward, over the mauve stocking, and the little shoe set firmly. The ear like a rose leaf; a fluff of light hair trembling on the curving nape, and the head crowned with thick brown gold. And her pale marmoreal eyes were haunted by a yearning look which he had always loved, and which he had hitherto only found in some beautiful relics of antiquity. She seemed to him purged, as a Greek statue, of all life's grossness; and as the women of Botticelli and Mantegna she seemed to him to live in a long afternoon of unchanging aspiration.
And it seemed to him that he thought of her as impersonally as he thought of these women, and the fact that she participated in the life of the flesh neither concerned him nor did it matter. That she lived in the flesh instead of in marble was an accident. He smiled at the paradox, for he had recovered from the fears of overnight and was certain that even the longing to strain her in his arms was only part of the impulse which compels our lips to the rose, which buries our hands in the earth when we lie at length, which fills our souls with longing for white peaks and valleys when the great clouds tower and shine.
And that evening, as he sat in his study, his thoughts suddenly said: 'She is the symbol of my inner life.' Surprised and perplexed, he sought the meaning of the words. He was forced to admit that her beauty had penetrated his soul. But was it not natural for him to admire all beautiful things, especially things on a certain plane of idea? He had admired other women: in what then did his admiration for this woman differ from that, which others had drawn from him? In his admiration for other women there had always been a sense of repulsion; this feeling of repulsion seemed to be absent from his admiration for Kitty.... He hardly perceived any sex in her; she was sexless as a work of art, as the women of the first Italian painters, as some Greek statues.
Then by natural association of idea his mind was carried back to early youth, to struggles with himself, and to temptations which he had conquered, and the memory of which he was always careful to keep out of mind. In that critical time he had felt that it was essential for him 'to come to terms with life.' And the terms he had discovered were strictest adhesion to the rules laid down by the Catholic Church for the conduct of life. He had lived within these rules and had received peace. Now for the first time that peace was seriously assailed. His thoughts continued their questioning, and he found himself asking if sufficient change had come into his nature to allow him to accept marriage. But before answer could be given an opposing thought asked if this girl were more than a mere emissary of Satan; and with that thought all that was mediaeval in him arose.
Femina dulce mahim pariter favus atque venenum.
'Not sweet evil,' he said, determined to outdo the monk in denunciation, 'but the vilest of evils, not honeycomb and venom but filth and venom. Though as fair as roses the beginning the end is gall and wormwood; heartache and misery are the end of love. Why then do we seek passion when we may find happiness only in calm?'
He had known the truth, as if by instinct, from the first. No life was possible for him except an ascetic life. But he had no vocation for the priesthood. True that in a moment of weakness, after a severe illness, he had returned to Stanton College with the intention of taking orders; but with renewal of health the truth had come home to him that he was as unfitted to the priesthood as he was for marriage, or nearly so. The path of his life lay between the church and the world; he must remain in the world though he never could be of the world, he could only view the world as a spectator, as a passing pageant it interested him; and with art and literature and music, for necessary distraction, and the fixed resolve to save his soul—nothing really mattered but that—he hoped to achieve his destiny.
'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 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.
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 rosery, and the fountain where the rose-leaves float, and the woodpigeons 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.
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 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. 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?'
'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 snow, and in an instant the occasion had passed.
On another occasion they were walking in the park.
'I never would have believed, John, that you would care to go out for a walk with me.'
'And why, Kitty?'
Kitty laughed—her short, sudden laugh was strange and sweet, and 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 for a long time. I wish my mother would not repeat conversations; it is most unfair.'
'Mind, 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. Kitty looked up; and, overtaken by a sudden nervousness, John said—
'We had better make haste; the storm is coming on; we shall get wet through.'
And he made no further attempt to screw his courage up to the point of proposing, but asked himself if his powerlessness was a sign from God that he was abandoning his true vocation for a false one? He knew that he would not propose. If he did he would break his engagement when it came to the point of marriage. He was as unfitted for marriage as he was for the priesthood. He had deceived himself about the priesthood, as he was now deceiving himself about marriage. No, not deceiving himself, for at the bottom of his heart he could hear the truth. Then, why did he continue this,—it was no better than a comedy, an unworthy comedy, from which he did not seem to be able to disentangle himself; he could not say why. He could not understand himself; his brain was on fire, and he knelt down to pray, but when he prayed the thought of bringing a soul home to the fold tempted him like a star, and he asked himself if Kitty had not, in some of their conversations, shown leanings toward Catholicism. If this were so would it be right to desert her in a critical moment?
He had not proposed when Mr. Hare wrote for his daughter, and Kitty returned to Henfield. John at first thought that this absence was the solution of his difficulty; but he could not forget her, and it became one of his pleasures to start early in the morning, and having spent a long day with her, to return home across the downs.
'What a beautiful walk you will have, Mr. Norton! But are you not 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 trees that encircled Leywood, Kitty and John faced the hill, and ascending, they soon stood, tiny specks upon the evening hours.
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. But tell me the legend.'
'Very well; 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.'
'You do astonish me,' said Kitty, seating herself on the spot that had been chosen for her. 'You never heard of the legend of St. Cuthman!'
'Won't you cross the poor gipsy's palm with a bit of silver, my pretty gentleman, and she'll 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.
'What do you think, Kitty, would you like to have your fortune told?'
Kitty laughed. 'It would be rather fun,' she said.
And she listened to the usual story of a handsome young gentleman who would woo her, win her, and give her happiness and wealth.
John threw the girl a shilling. She withdrew. They watched her passing through the furze.
'What nonsense they talk; you don't believe that there's anything in what they say,' said Kitty, raising her eyes.
John's eyes were fixed upon her. He tried to answer her question, which he had only half heard. But he could not form an intelligible sentence. There was a giddiness in his brain which he had never felt before; he trembled, and the victim of an impulse which forced him toward her, he threw his arms about her and kissed her violently.
'Oh, don't,' cried the girl, 'let me go—oh, John, how could you,' and disengaging herself from his arms she looked at him. The expression of deep sorrow and regret on his face surprised her more even than his kiss. She said, 'What is the matter, John? Why did you—' She did not finish the sentence.
'Do not ask me, I do not know. I cannot explain—a sudden impulse for which I am hardly accountable. You are so beautiful,' he said, taking her hand gently, 'that the temptation to kiss you—I don't know... I suppose it is natural desire to kiss what is beautiful. But you'll forget this, you will never mention it. I humbly beg your pardon.'
John sat looking into space, and, seeing how troubled he was, Kitty excused the kiss.
'I'm sure I forgive you, John. There was no great harm. I believe young men often kiss girls. The Austin girls do, I know, they have told me so. I shouldn't have cried out so if you hadn't taken me by surprise. I forgive you, John, I know you didn't mean it, you meant nothing.'
His face frightened her.
'You must never do so again. It is not right; but we have known each other always—I don't think it was a sin. I don't think that father or Mrs. Norton would think it—-'
'But they must never know. You promise me, Kitty. ... I am grateful to you for what you have said in my excuse. I daresay the Austin girls do kiss young men, but because they do so it does not follow that it is right. No girl should kiss a man unless she intends to marry him.'
'But,' said Kitty, laughing, 'if he kisses her by force what is she to do?'
For she failed to perceive that to snatch a kiss was as important as John seemed to think. But he told her that she must not laugh, that she must try to forgive him.
'It is unpardonable,' he said, 'for I cannot marry you. We are not of the same religion....'
'But you don't want to marry me, John—to marry just because you kissed me! People kiss every year under the mistletoe but they don't marry each other.'
'It is as you like, Kitty.'
But forced on by his conscience, he said:
'We might obtain a dispensation.... 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 that 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....'
'And did it cost you much to give up your ideas?'
'Yes; I have suffered. But now I am happy, and my happiness would be complete if God would grant you grace to believe....'
'But I do believe. I believe in our Lord Jesus who died to save us. Is not that enough?'
There was no wind on the down. And still as a reflection in a glass the grey barren land rolled through the twilight. Beyond it the circling sea and the girl's figure distinct on a golden hour. John watched a moment, and then hastened homeward. He was overpowered by fear of the future; he trembled with anticipation, and prayed that accident might lead him out of the difficulty into which a chance moment had betrayed him.
When she rose from the ground she saw a tall, gaunt figure passing away like a shadow.
'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.' To rob her, and of what?... of her watch; where was it? It was gone. 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!
Then, as her thoughts broke away, she thought of how she had escaped being murdered. How thankful she ought to be! But somehow she was not thankful. She was conscious of a horror of returning, of returning to where she would see men and women's faces. '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. She brushed herself, 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: 'He threw me down and ill-treated me; my frock is 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; and failing to do so, she walked on hurriedly, she almost ran as if to force out of sight the thought that for a moment threatened to define itself. 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.
The front door was open; she heard her father calling. But she felt she could not see him, she must hide from his sight, 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. Her room! she had lived in many years, had seen it under all aspects; then why did she look with strained eyes? Why did she shrink? Nothing has been changed.
There is her little narrow bed, and her little book-case 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 started at the sight of these familiar objects, and trembled in the room which she had thought of as a haven of refuge. Why? She didn't know; something that is at once remembrance and suspicion filled her mind, and she asked if this was her room?
She sighed, and approaching her bedside, raised her hands to her neck. It was the instinctive movement of undressing. But she did not unbutton her collar. Resuming her walk, she picked up a blossom that had fallen from the fuchsia. She walked to and fro. Then she threw herself on her bed and closed her eyes.... She slept, and then the moonlight showed her face convulsed. She is the victim of a dream. Something follows her—she knows not what. She dare not look round. 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; they turn to attack her; they glide away and disappear in moss and inscriptions.
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. And through the torrid twilight of the approaching storm the cry of the hyena is heard. The claws of the hyena are heard upon the crumbling tombs and the suffocating girl strives with her last strength to free herself from the thrall of the great lianas. But there comes a hirsute smell; she turns with terrified eyes to plead, but meets only dull, liquorish eyes, and the breath of the obscene animal is hot on her face.
She sprang from her bed. Was there any one in her room? No, only the moonlight. 'But the forest, the wild animal—was it then only a dream?' the girl thought. 'It was only a dream, a horrible dream, but after all, only a dream.' Then a voice within her said, 'But all was not a dream—there was something that was worse than the dream.'
She walked to and fro, and when she lay down her eyelids strove against sleep. But sleep came again, and her dream was of a brown and yellow serpent. She saw it from afar rearing its tawny hide, scenting its prey.
She takes refuge in the rosery. How will she save herself? By plucking roses and building a. wall between her and it. So 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 whither snowy blossoms bloom in clustering millions. She gathers them in haste; her arms and hands stream with blood, but she pays no heed, and as the snake surmounts one barricade she builds another. But the reptile leans over 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. Then she knows not how, but while the roses fall in a red and white rain about her she escapes from the stench of the scaly hide, from the strength of the coils.
And, 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 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, chases a dog, and disappears. The people too have disappeared. She is now flying along a wild plain covered with coarse grass and wild poppies. 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. 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 its weight upon her, and with a shriek she awakes.
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!' Then a voice within her said, 'But all was not a dream—there was something that was worse than the dream.'
She uttered a low cry—she moaned. She drew herself up on her bed, and lay with her face buried in the pillow. Again she fought against sleep, but sleep came again, and in overpowering dream she lay as if dead. And she sees herself dead. All her friends are about her crowning her with flowers, beautiful garlands of white roses. They dress 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. It falls over her feet, her hands are crossed over her breast, and all praise in low but ardent words the excessive whiteness of the garment. For none but she sees that there is a black spot upon the robe which they believe to be immaculate. 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 as they continue their last offices, folds or flowers fall over the stain and hide it from view.
It is great pain to her to find herself 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 there is one amid the mourners who knows that she is endeavouring to tell of the black stain. And this one, whose face she cannot readily distinguish, maliciously, and with diabolical ingenuity, withdraws the attention of the others, so that they do not see it.
And so it befell her to be buried in the stained robe. And she is taken away amid flowers and white cloths to a white tomb, where incense is burning, and where the walls are hung with votive wreaths, and things commemorative of virginal life. But 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 stirred by laughter.
The mourners go; the evening darkens; the wild sunset floats for a while through the western heavens; the cemetery becomes a deep green, and in the wind that blows out of heaven the cypresses rock like things sad and mute. Then the blue night comes with stars in her tresses, and out of those stars angels float softly; their white feet hanging out of blown folds, their wings pointing 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; the dark angels cower in a corner of the cemetery, but they do not utterly retire.
The tomb mysteriously opens, 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, through the stars of heaven. And it is not until one whose face she cannot recognise, and whose presence among the angels of heaven she cannot comprehend, steals away one of the garlands with which she is entwined, that the fatal stain becomes visible. Then relinquishing their burden, the angels break into song, and the song they sing is one of grief; it travels through the spaces of heaven; she listens to its wailing echoes as she falls—as she 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.
'Save me, save me!' she cried; and, bewildered and dazed with the dream, she stared on the room, now chill with summer dawn. 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 the voice within her said, 'But all was not a dream—there was something that was worse than the dream.' And 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.
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.
And 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, sobbing. The sight of the female face brought 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 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 the hot water here, Miss?'
'Bath ... hot water ...' Kitty repeated the words over as if she were striving to grasp a meaning, but which eluded her.
Soon after the maid returned with a tray. The trivial jingle of the cups and plates was another suffering added to the ever-increasing stress of mind. Her dress was torn, it was muddy, there were bits of furze sticking to it. She picked these off; and as she did so, accurate remembrance 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 vague hills, the vague 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 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.
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. She knew 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. At the same time she seemed to see 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 that 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—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.
John and Mr. Hare looked at her.
John at length rose, and he 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 caused her to shrink from him.
'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.
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.
'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.
The white dress passed through the green leaves, and John heard a dull thud.
Mr. Hare stood looking at his dead daughter; John Norton sat by the window. His brain was empty, everything was far away. He saw things moving, moving, but they were all 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. He knew that Kitty had thrown herself out of the window and was dead. The word shocked him, 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. Now she was dead.
Had he loved her? Why was there neither burning grief nor tears? He envied the hard-sobbing father's grief, the father who held his dead daughter's hand, and showed 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.
She usually sat on that sofa; how often had he seen her sitting there! And now he should not see her any more. Only three days ago she had been sitting in that basket-chair. How well he remembered her words, her laughter! Shadow-like is human life! one moment it is here, the next it is gone. Her work-basket; the very ball of wool which he had held for her to wind; the 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 had 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.
He took up his hat and set forth to walk home across the downs, all the while thinking, thinking over what had happened. He had asked her to be his wife. She had consented, and, alarmed at the prospect of the new duties he had contracted, he had returned home. These newly- contracted duties had stirred his being to its very depth; the chance appearance of a gipsy girl (without the aid of that circumstance he felt he would never have spoken) had set his life about with endless eventuality; he could not see to the end; the future he had indefinitely plighted, and his own intimate and personal life had been abandoned for ever. He had exchanged it for the life of the hearth, of the family; that private life—private, and yet so entirely impersonal-which he had hitherto loathed. He had often said he had no pity for those who accepted burdens and then complained that they had not sufficient strength to carry them. Such had been his theory; he must now make his theory and practice coincide.
He had walked up and down his study, his mind aflame; he had sat in his arm-chair, facing the moonlight, considering a question, to him so important, so far-reaching, that his mind at moments seemed as if like to snap, to break, but which was accepted by nine-tenths of humanity without a second thought, as lightly as the most superficial detail of daily life. But how others acted was not his concern; he must consider his own competence to bear the burden—the perilous burden he had asked, and which had been promised to him.
He must not adventure into a life he was not fitted for; he must not wreck another's life; in considering himself he was considering her; their interests were mutual, they were identical; there was no question of egotism. But this marriage question had been debated a thousand times in the last six months; it had haunted his thought, it had become his daily companion, his familiar spirit. Under what new aspect could he consider this question? It faced him always with the same unmovable, mysterious eyes in which he read nothing, which told him nothing of what he longed to know. He only knew that he had desired this girl as a wife. A desire had come he knew not whence; and he asked himself if it were a passing weakness of the flesh, or if this passion abided in him, if it had come at last to claim satisfaction? On this point he was uncertain, this was nature's secret.
In the midst of his stress of mind his eyes had wandered over his books; they had been caught by the colour of a small thin volume, and, obeying an instinct, he had taken the volume down. He knew it well; a few hundred small pages containing the wisdom of a great Greek philosopher, Epictetus, and John had often before turned to this sage discourse for relief in his mental depressions and despair of life.
'The subject for the good and wise man is his master faculty, as the body is for the physician and the trainer, and the soil is the subject for the husbandman. And the work of the good and wise man is to use appearances according to Nature. For it is the nature of every soul to consent to what is good and reject what is evil, and to hold back about what is uncertain; and thus to be moved to pursue the good and avoid the evil, and neither way for what is neither good nor evil.'
In the light of these words John's mind grew serene as a landscape on which the moon is shining; and he asked himself why he had hesitated if marriage were the state which he was destined to fulfil?
'If a habit affects us, against that must we endeavour to find some remedy? And what remedy is to be found against a habit? The contrary habit.'
A temptation of the flesh had come upon him; he had yielded to it instead of opposing it with the contrary habit of chastity. For chastity had never afflicted him; it had ever been to him a source of strength and courage. Chastity had brought him peace of mind, but the passion to which he had in a measure yielded had robbed him of his peace of mind, and had given him instead weakness, and agitation of spirit and flesh. The last six months had been the unhappiest of his life. Nothing in this world, he thought, is worth our peace of mind, and love robs us of that, therefore it must be maleficent. 'And this passion which has caused me so much trouble, what is it? A passing emotion of which I am ashamed, of which I would speak to no one. An emotion which man shares with the lowest animals, but which his higher nature teaches him to check and subject.' Then he remembered that this emotion might come upon him again. But each time he thought, 'I shall be able to control it better than the last, and it will grow weaker and weaker until at last it will pass and to return no more.'
But he had proposed to Kitty and had been accepted, and for some solution of this material difficulty he had to fall back upon the argument that he had no right to wreck another's life, that in considering his interests he was considering hers. And he had stood in the dawn light pondering a means of escape from a position into which a chance circumstance had led him.
He had gone to bed hoping to find counsel in the night, and in the morning he had waked firm in his resolve, and had gone to Shoreham in the intention of breaking his engagement. But instead he had witnessed a cruel and terrible suicide, the reason of which was hidden from him. Possibly none would ever know the reason. Perhaps it were better so; the reasons that prompted suicide were better unrevealed....
And now, as he returned home after the tragedy, about midway in his walk across the downs, the thought came upon him that the breaking off of his engagement might have been sufficient reason in an affected mind for suicide. But this was not so. He knew it was not so. He had been spared that!
'She was here with me yesterday,' he said. And he looked down the landscape now wrapped in a white mist. The hills were like giants sleeping, the long distance vanished in mysterious moonlight. He could see Brighton, nearer was Southwick; and further away, past the shadowy shore, was Worthing.
He sat down by the blown hawthorn bush that stands by the burgh. A ship sailed across the rays of the moon, and he said—
'Illusion, illusion! so is it always with him who places his trust in life. Ah, life, life, what hast thou for giving save deceptions? Why did I leave my life of contemplation and prayer to enter into that of desire? Did I not know that there was no happiness save in calm and contemplation, and foolish is he who places his happiness in the things of this world?'
But what had befallen her? She was mad when she threw herself out of the window to escape from him. But how had she become mad? Yesterday he had looked back and had seen her walking away and waving her parasol, a slight happy figure on the gold-tinted sky. What had happened? By what strange alienation of the brain, by what sudden snapping of the sense had madness come? Something must have happened. Did madness fall like that? like a bolt from the blue. If so she must have always been mad, and walking home the slight thread of sense half worn through had suddenly snapped. He knew that she liked him. Had she guessed that when it came to the point that he would not, that he might not have been able to marry her? If so, he was in a measure responsible. Ah, why had he ventured upon a path which he must have known he was not fitted to walk in?
Next morning John and Mrs. Norton drove to the Rectory, and without asking for Mr. Hare, they went to her room. The windows were open; 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. 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. And beautiful indeed were the rounded shoulders, the neck, the calm and bloodless face, the little nose, and the drawing of the nostrils, the extraordinary waxen pallor, the eyelids laid like rose-leaves upon the eyes that death has closed for ever. An Ascension lily lay within the arm, in the pale hand.
Candles were burning, and the soft smell of wax mixed with the perfume of the roses. For there were roses everywhere—great snowy bouquets and long lines of scattered blossoms, and single roses there and here, and the petals falling were as tears shed for the beautiful dead, and the white flowerage vied with the pallor and the immaculate stillness of the dead.
When they next saw her she was in her coffin. It was almost full of white blossoms—jasmine, Eucharis lilies, white roses, and in the midst of the flowers the hands lay folded, and the face was veiled with some delicate, filmy handkerchief.
For the funeral there were crosses and wreaths of white flowers, roses, and stephanotis. And the Austin girls and their cousins, who had come from Brighton and Worthing, carried loose flowers. Down the short drive, through the iron gate, through the farm gate, the bearers staggering a little under the weight of lead, the little cortege passed two by two. A broken-hearted lover, a grief-stricken father, and a dozen sweet girls, their eyes and cheeks streaming with tears. Kitty, their girl friend, was dead. The word 'dead' rang in their hearts in answer to the mournful tolling of the bell. The little by- way along which they went, the little green path leading over the hill, was strewn with blossoms fallen from the bier and the fingers of the weeping girls.
The old church was all in white; great lilies in vases, wreaths of stephanotis; and, above all, roses—great garlands of white roses had been woven, and they hung along and across. A blossom fell, a sob sounded in the stillness. An hour of roses, an hour of sorrow, and the coffin sank out of sight, a snow-drift of delicate bloom descended into the earth.
John wandered through the green woods and fields into the town. He stood by the railway gates. He saw the people coming and going in and out of the public-houses; and he watched the trains that whizzed past.
A train stopped. He took a ticket and went to Brighton.
He walked through the southern sunlight of the town. The brown sails of the fishing-boats waved in translucid green; and the white field of the sheer cliff, and all the roofs, gables, spires, balconies, and the green of the verandahs were exquisitely indicated and elusive in the bright air; and the beach was loud with acrobats and comic minstrels, and nurse-maids lay on the pebbles reading novels, children with their clothes tied tightly about them were busy building sand castles.
But he saw not these things; on his mind was engraved a little country cemetery—graves, yews, a square, impressive spire. He heard not the laughter and the chatter of the beach, but the terrible words: Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and the dread, responsive rattle given back by the coffin lid. 'And these,' his soul cried, 'are the true realities, death, and after death Heaven or Hell!'
Then he wondered at the fate that had led him from his calm student life.... He had come to Thornby Place with the intention of founding a monastery; instead, he had fallen in love (the word shocked him), and he asked himself if he had ever thought of her more as a wife than as a sister; if he could have been her husband? He feared that he had adventured perilously near to a life of which he could nowise sustain or fulfil, to a life for which he knew he was nowise suited, and which might have lost him his soul.
He never could have married her—no, not when it came to the point. He thought of the wedding-breakfast, the cake, the speeches, the congratulations, and of the woman with whom he would have gone away, of the honeymoon, of the bridal chamber! He knew now that he could not have fulfilled the life of marriage. If those things had happened he would have had to tell her—ah! when it was too late—that he was mistaken, that he could not, in any real sense of the word, be her husband. They could not have lived together. They would have had to part. His life and hers would have been irretrievably ruined, and then? John remembered the story of Abelard and Heloise. A new Abelard —a new Heloise!
The romance of the idea interested him. Then returning suddenly to reality, he asked himself what had happened to Kitty—what was the cause of her madness? Something had occurred. Once again, as he remembered the blithe innocence of her smiling eyes when they parted on the hill, and he recalled with terror the trembling, forlorn, half- crazy girl that had sat opposite him in the drawing-room next day. He remembered the twitch of her lips, the averted eyes, and the look of mad fear that had crept over her face, her flight from him, her cries for help, and her desperate escape through the window. His thoughts paused, and then, like a bolt from the blue, a thought fell into his mind. 'No,' he cried, 'not that.' He tried to shake himself free from the thought; it was not to be shaken off. That was the explanation. It could only be that—ah! it was that, that, and nothing but that.
And as he viewed the delicate, elusive externality of the southern town, he remembered that he had kissed her—he had kissed her by force! 'My God! then the difference between us is only one of degree, and the vilest humanity claims kinship of instinct with me!' He clasped his hands across his eyes, and feeling himself on the brink of madness, he cried out to God to save him; and he longed to speak the words that would take him from the world. Life was not for him. He had learnt his lesson. Thornby Place should soon be Thornby Abbey, and in the divine consolation of religion John Norton hoped to find escape from the ignominy of life.
A grey, winter morning filtered through lace curtains into drawing- rooms typical of a fashionable London neighbourhood and a moderate income. There was neither excess of porcelain, nor of small tables, nor of screens. Two large vases hinted at some vulgarity of taste; a grand piano in the back room suggested a love of music, and Mrs. Lahens had but to sing a few notes to leave no doubt that she had bestowed much care on the cultivation of her voice. But method only disguised its cracks and thinness as powder and rouge did the fading and withering of her skin. She was like her voice.
Lord Chadwick stood behind her, following the music bar by bar, and with an interest and a pleasure that did not concord with his appearance. For there was nothing in his appearance to indicate that his intelligence was on a higher plane than that of the mess-room. His appearance seemed to fluctuate between the mess-room and the company promoter's office. He was a good-looking solicitor, he was a good- looking officer; the eyes were attractive; the nose was too large, but it was well-shaped; a heavy military moustache curled over his cheeks, and, as he stood nodding his head, delighted with the music, the seeming commonness of his appearance wore away.
Her song finished, Mrs. Lahens got up from the piano. She was tall and well-made; perhaps too full in the bosom, perhaps too wide in the hips, and perhaps the smallness of the waist was owing to her stays. Her figure suggested these questions. She wore a fashionable lilac blue silk, pleated over the bosom; and round her waist a chatelaine to which was attached a number of trinkets, a purse of gold net, a pencil case, some rings, a looking-glass, and small gold boxes jewelled— probably containing powder. Her hair was elaborately arranged, as if by the hairdresser, and she exhaled a faint odour of heliotrope as she crossed the room. She was still a handsome woman; she once had been beautiful, but too obviously beautiful to be really beautiful; there was nothing personal or distinguished in her face; it was made of too well-known shapes—the long, ordinary, clear-cut nose, and the eyes, forehead, cheeks, and chin proportioned according to the formula of the casts in vestibules. That she was slightly declassee was clear in the first glance. And she represented all that the word could be made to mean—liaisons, familiarity with fashionable restaurants, and the latest French literature.
Lord Chadwick saw that she was out of temper, and wondered what was the cause. He had not yet spoken to her; she was singing when he came into the room. So laying his hand on her shoulder, he said:
'What is the matter, Olive?'
But it was some time before he could get an answer. At last she said:
'I had an unpleasant scene with the Major this morning.'
'I am glad it is no more than that,' and Lord Chadwick threw himself into an arm-chair. 'What further eccentricity has he been guilty of? Does he want to sweep the crossing, or to wait at table in the crossing-sweeper's clothes?' 'He has bought an old overcoat from the butler.'
'And wants to wear it at lunch?'
'No; he's got a new suit. I insisted on that. It came home last night. He had to give way, for I told him that if he would come down to lunch he must come decently dressed, otherwise he would do Agnes a great deal of harm.'
'But you couldn't persuade him to stick to his type-writing, and keep out of the way?'
'No, and I thought it better not to try. Agnes' return home has excited him dreadfully, and he fancies that it is his duty to watch over her—to protect her from my friends.'
'Then I suppose we shall never get rid of him. He'll be here all day, night and day. Good Heavens!'
'I don't say that. I hope that this new idea of his is only a freak. He will soon tire of his task of censor of morals. Meanwhile, we are to be most guarded in our conversation. And as for you——'
'What has he got against me?' and Lord Chadwick looked at Mrs. Lahens. 'About me!' he repeated, 'Nonsense.'
'I don't mean that he's jealous, but he thinks that we should not continue to see one another.'
'Does he give any reason?'
'Agnes is coming home to-day. I shall have to take her into society. He says that society will not stand it, unless our relations are broken off.'
'Society has stood it for the last seven years; society will stand anything except the Divorce Court, and there's no danger of that.'
'The Major's very queer. I don't know what's the matter with him; I never saw him go on as he did this morning. He says that the girl shall not be sacrificed if he can help it.'
'You don't think he'll make a row, do you?'
'Are you afraid?'
'Of what? For your sake I shouldn't like a row. Afraid of a madman like that! But he can do nothing. I don't see what he can do.'
'That's what he said himself. He says he can do nothing—you should have seen him walking up and down the room, dressed in a suit of clothes out of a rag shop, yellow-grey things two sizes too big for him; he has to roll up the ends of the trousers. He had no collar on, and to keep his neck warm he had tied an old pink scarf round his throat. He couldn't walk either way above a couple of yards, for the roof slants down almost to the floor; he knocked his head against the roof, but he did not mind, he went on talking, half to me, half to himself.'
'He sent for you, then?'
'Yes; that he'd like to see me upstairs. I told my maid to say that he was to come down to my room, but she brought back word that the Major couldn't come down, would I go up to him. So I had to go up to his garret. You never saw such a place. At last I got tired of listening to him—I couldn't stand there in the cold any longer—I was catching cold.'
'But you haven't told me what he said.'
'The usual thing: that it was the loss of his money that had brought him where he was; that if he only had a little money, if he could only keep himself, he would take his daughter away to live with him. He didn't know what would become of her in this house. Oh, he did go on. At last he burst into tears, he threw himself at my feet and said he'd forgive me everything if I'd only think of my daughter.'
'What did you say?'
'I said the best way to consider his daughter's interests, was by avoiding all scandal and wearing proper clothes.'
'And he promised he would wear the new suit?'
'Yes; he promised he would. He said that he knew all I said was true. That it wasn't my fault, that a woman couldn't be expected to respect a man who couldn't keep her, that he felt the shame of his position in the house, that it had broken his heart, that if he had lost his money it was not his fault, that the world was full of rogues, you know— you've heard him go on.'
'I should think I had. I don't know how I put up with him. Very often it is as much as I can do to prevent myself from running out of the room.'
Mrs. Lahens looked at her lover angrily.
'You don't think what I have to put up with. You come here when you like, you go away when you like.... Men are always the same, they only think of themselves. You don't think of me, you do not remember what I have put up with for your sake, of the sacrifices I have made for you. I should have left him years ago when he lost his money if it hadn't been for fear of compromising you.'
'He never would have divorced you. He'd have been left without a cent if he had, and he couldn't have got anything out of me.'
'Whatever my husband's faults are, he's not mercenary. There are many who think more of money and its advantages than he.'
'Now, what are you angry about, Olive?' and Lord Chadwick laid his hand on her shoulder.
'I don't like unjust accusations, not even against my husband. The Major is a fool, but he is not dishonourable; he is the most honourable man that comes to this house. It was not on account of my money that he did not divorce me.'
'On account of you, then.'
'Partly, strange as that may seem to you, and on account of his daughter.'
Lord Chadwick did not answer. The conversation was taking a disagreeable turn, and as he looked into the fire he thought how he might change it.
'So Agnes returns home to-day?'
'Yes, her father insisted... She, poor dear, begged and prayed to be allowed to become a nun, but he would not listen to her any more than he would to me.... There was no use arguing.... You know what the Major is; you are never sure when he'll turn on you. If I opposed him he might come down some evening when there was a party, and inform my guests that I kept my daughter imprisoned in a convent, that I wouldn't let her out. No; I daren't oppose him on this point. Agnes must come home for a while. But the experiment won't succeed. I daresay you think so too. But for all that I'm right, as time will prove. A mother knows more about her own daughter than any one else, and I tell you that Agnes is no more fitted for the world than I am for a convent. I shall have to drag her about for a season or two. She won't succeed, and she'll be wretchedly unhappy. I shall be put to any amount of trouble and expense, that will be all.'
'I don't know. Even if I did give you up, I don't see what would be gained. All I could do would be to ask you not to come to the house any more.'
'That is nonsense.'
'Of course it is nonsense. Can I go back on my whole life? can I change all my friends? If I did I should only collect more exactly like them, and without knowing I was doing it. Lie low for a month or so, and then pursue the same old way. With the best intentions in the world we cannot change ourselves.' 'But you don't intend to give me up, Olive?'
'Do you want me to, Reggie?'
'No, dearest, we've held together a long time—seven years—we cannot give each other up.'
'We can't give each other up,' said Mrs. Lahens. 'It never shall be broken off, unless you break it off.'
Lord Chadwick asked himself if he desired to break with her? He looked at her, and thought that he had never seen her look so old; but he could not imagine his life without her. Apart from her, there was nothing for him. His name had been mixed up in questionable city transactions; his wife had divorced him, and he was over forty... Notwithstanding his title, he'd find it difficult to marry a girl with money; he couldn't marry one without. Besides, he loved Olive as well as a man could love a woman whose lover he has been for seven years. ... Mrs. Lahens looked at him, and wondered what there was in him that attached her so firmly. They had once loved each other passionately. All that was over now... But still she loved him. ... He was all she had in the world. To live with her husband without Reggie! no, she could not think of it. Even if she did, Agnes would profit nothing by it. Every one knew of their liaison. No one talked about it any more, it had been in a way accepted, and for them to separate would only serve to set Mayfair gossiping again.
'I know I appear selfish,' she said; 'not to want to see my daughter must seem selfish. But I am not selfish, Reggie. I've never been selfish where you have been concerned, have I?'
'I at least can't accuse you of selfishness, Olive. You've always been a good friend to me. There was my bankruptcy—-'
'Do not speak of it. I only did for you what you would have done for me. I have been very unlucky; I was cursed with a husband who was a fool, and who lost all his money—no one can say he's in his right mind. They say that I have driven him out of his mind, but that is not so, you know that it is not so; I've not driven you out of your mind. There never was such a fool as my husband. He has acted as stupidly about his daughter as he did about his money. First he takes her away from me—I'm not good enough for her, this house isn't good enough for her; he shuts her up in a convent, and never has her home for fear she should hear or see anything that was not pious and good. Then, when she wants to become a nun, and her mind is made up, and her character is formed, he insists that she shall come home, and that I shall give up my lover and bring her into society. But not into the society that comes to my house, but into some other society, some highly respectable society that neither he nor I knows anything about. And to make my task the more easy, he insists on living in a servant's room, buying the butler's overcoat, and running down the street whistling for cabs, and carrying my trunks on his shoulder. There never was such madness; God knows how it will all end.'
She turned her head slightly when her husband entered the room, and, without getting off the arm of Lord Chadwick's chair, said:
'Doesn't he look well in that suit of clothes, Reggie?'
The Major was a short man, shorter by nearly two inches than his wife or Lord Chadwick. His hair had once been red; it was now faded, and the tall forehead showed bald amid a slight gleaning. His beard and moustaches were thick, unkempt, and full of grey hair. The nose was small and aquiline, and the eyes, shallow and pale blue, wore a silly and vacant stare. The skin was coloured everywhere alike, a sort of conventional tone of flesh-colour seemed to have been poured over the face, forehead, and neck. His short thick hands were covered with reddish hair. They fidgeted at the trousers and waistcoat, too tightly strained across his little round stomach; and he did not desist till his wife said:
'I hope you will have finished dressing before our guests arrive.'
'Whom have you asked? Not the tall thin man who—-'
'You surely don't think he is a fit companion for Agnes?'
'Companion for Agnes! no; but I don't intend every one that comes here to lunch as a companion for Agnes. I'm sick of hearing of that girl. I've heard of nothing else for the last week—the people she should meet—what we should say and not say before her. If we aren't good enough for her she should have remained in the convent. But what fault, may I ask, do you find with Moulton?'
'Only what you've told me.... Am I not right, Reggie?'
'Oh, Reggie will agree with you—he hates Moulton.'
'I don't like the man.'
'The truth is that he sent a note asking if he might come, and I knew if I refused he'd have nothing to eat.... You ought to be able to judge Moulton more fairly, for it is want of money that has reduced him to his present position. He was born a gentleman, and his uncle only allows him fifteen shillings a week. This pays for his lodging— one room, which costs five shillings a week—another five shillings a week goes for current expenses, a cup of tea in the morning, and a few omnibus fares; the remaining five shillings goes towards his clothes. So every day he finds himself face to face with the problem where he shall lunch, where he shall dine. He's good-looking, women like him, and any little present they make him is welcomed, I can assure you. He said the other day, "Look at my boot, there's a hole in it; I shall be laid up with a cold. You don't know what it is to be ill in a room for which you pay five shillings a week." What could I do but to tell him that he might order a pair at my shoemaker's?'
'And he ordered a pair that cost three pounds,' said Lord Chadwick.
'Yes; I did think that he might have chosen a cheaper pair. But you're rather hard on him,' said Mrs. Lahens; 'he's not the only man in London who takes money from women.'
'I wonder he doesn't go to Mashonaland or to Canada?' said the Major.
'If every one who could not make his living here went to Mashonaland or Canada, the London drawing-rooms would be pretty empty.'
'You mean that for me, Olive,' said the Major. 'I would go to-morrow to Mashonaland if I were as young as Moulton.'
At that moment a youngish-looking man, about five-and-thirty, came into the room quickly. Notwithstanding the wintry weather he was clad in a light grey summer suit; he wore a blue shirt and a blue linen tie, neatly tied and pinned. Mrs. Lahens, the Major, and Reggie glanced at the boots which had cost three pounds, and Mrs. Lahens thought how carefully that grey summer suit was folded and laid away in the tiny chest of drawers which stood next the wall by the little window. Mr. Moulton was clean shaved. His features were long and regular; a high Socratic forehead suggested an intelligence which his conversation did not confirm. His manners were stagey, and there was a hollow cordiality in the manner in which he said 'How do you do,' and shook hands. Immediately his blue, superficial, glassy eyes were turned to Mrs. Lahens; and he studied her figure in her new gown, and whispered that he had never seen her looking better.
'So there he is, and in his new clothes. Curious little fellow he is,' said Moulton, eyeing the Major. 'Did he offer much resistance? You don't seem torn at all. Not a scratch.'
'I did all I could to dissuade him, but——'
'I know, suffering from daughter on the brain.... Tell me, shall we see much of him? Will he come down every day to lunch, and what about dinner?'
'I hope not, I think not... he has his typewriting to attend to.'
'At all events the mystery is cleared up. I don't think I ever was believed when I said that I had once spoken to him on the stairs.'
'Do you hear that, Major? Mr. Moulton says that he doesn't think he ever was believed when he said that he had once spoken to you on the staircase. Major, do you hear?'
'Yes, dear, I hear. But I am talking to Reggie about Miss Lahens. By the way, Mr. Moulton, my daughter, Miss Lahens, is coming home to-day, so I hope that you'll be guarded in your conversation, and will say nothing that a young girl may not hear.'
'I shall be very pleased to see Agnes again,' said Moulton. 'If I had thought of it I would have read up the lives of the saints.'
'I beg, Mr. Moulton, that you do not speak disrespectfully of Miss Lahens. Perhaps there is nothing in your conversation that is fit for her to hear.'
Moulton looked at Mrs. Lahens, then taking in the situation, he said:
'If I have the pleasure of talking to Miss Lahens I shall confine my conversation to those subjects with which she is familiar. I shall acquit myself better than you, I think, Major; I have a sister who is a nun. I know a good deal about convents.'
'I'm glad to hear it,' said the Major. 'I wanted you to know that my daughter has been very strictly brought up.'
'My dear Major,' said Mrs. Lahens, 'you had better write on a piece of paper "My daughter, Miss Lahens, comes home from school to-day, and my guests at lunch are particularly requested to be guarded in their conversation." You can put it up where every one can see it, then there can be no mistake. The only disadvantage of this will be that at the end of the week Agnes will be the talk of the town. If Lilian Dare were to hear you she would—'
'But you haven't asked her?'
'Why not? she's received everywhere.'
'Not where there are young girls. You know how she got her money.'
'Oh yes, we've all heard that story,' said Mrs. Lahens, and before the Major could reply the servant announced—
'Miss Lahens and Father White.'
'Who is Father White?' whispered Moulton.
'I haven't the least idea,' said Mrs. Lahens.
Agnes wore a jacket made of some dark material, she held a little fur muff in her hand, and under a black straw hat her blue eyes smiled; and when she caught sight of her mother she uttered a happy cry.
Mrs. Lahens looked at Agnes curiously; at this thin girl; for, though Agnes' face was round and rosy, her waist was slender, and her hands, and hips, and bosom; and Mrs. Lahens was unconsciously affected by the contrast that her own regular and painted features, and her long life of social adventure, presented to this pretty, dovelike girl, this pale conventual rose, without instinct of the world, and into whose guileless mind no knowledge of the world would apparently ever enter.
'Oh, father, how are you? I did not see you, the room is so dark.' Agnes kissed her father, and with her right hand in her mother's left hand, and her left hand in her father's left she looked at her parents, overcome by her affection for them. But suddenly remembering, she said:
'But I haven't introduced you to Father White. How rude of me! Father White was good enough to see me home. The Mother Abbess was afraid I should get into a wrong train, or get run over in the streets.'
The little priest came forward shyly. His black cloth trousers were too short, and did not hide his clumsy laced boots. His features were small and regular, and his light-brown hair grew thick on his little round head, which he carried on one side. He was young, seven or eight and twenty, and so good-looking that some unhappy romantic passion suggested itself as the cause of his long black coat and penitential air.
'I'm sure that we're very much obliged to you for your kindness, Father White,' said Mrs. Lahens.
'I was going to London, and the Mother Abbess asked me to take charge of Miss Lahens, and surrender her safe into your hands.'
'Won't you sit down, Father White?' said Mrs. Lahens. 'I want to talk to you about Agnes. I hope you will stop to lunch.... I wish you would.'
'Thank you, but I'm afraid I cannot. I have an engagement to lunch with the Dominicans.'
'I'm sorry, but you can spare me a few minutes,' said Mrs. Lahens, leading him away.
Lord Chadwick came forward and shook hands with Agnes.
'I'm afraid you've forgotten me, Agnes. It is nearly five years—-'
'No; I haven't, at least not quite. It was in the country, at the cottage in Surrey. You're the gentleman who used to go out driving with mother.'
'Yes; you're right so far, I used to go out driving with Mrs. Lahens. You used to come too.'
'And very often you used to speak French to mother. I never could understand why—I used to think and think.'
'And do you remember any of the things he used to say in French?' said Mr. Moulton.
'No; I didn't understand French then.'
'But you do now?'
'Yes. Our school is one of the best; we are taught everything.'
'I'm sorry for that. There'll be nothing for us to teach you.'
'For you to teach me?' said Agnes, looking at him inquiringly.
At that moment the servant announced Mr. Harding. The Major went forward and welcomed him cordially.
'You see, you've lost your bet,' Moulton whispered to Harding.
'We were very sorry to lose her,' said Father White, 'and she was sorry to leave, but it would not be right for her to take vows to enter a severe order until she has seen the world and had opportunities of knowing if she has a vocation. On that point I shall be very firm with her, you can rely on me, Mrs. Lahens.'
'I'm afraid that she will never care for society. I'm afraid that this experience will not prove of much avail. She'll return to the convent, I shall be sorry to lose her.'
'She's indeed a good girl, and if she finds that she has a vocation—'
'Now, you are speaking about me,' said Agnes. 'I can hear the word vocation.'
Mrs. Lahens smiled and was about to reply when the servant announced Miss Lilian Dare.
Lilian was a red blonde; her rich chestnut hair fell over her ears like wings, and she was showily dressed in an expensive French gown which did not suit her, which made her seem older than she was.
'So you have come alone?'
'Yes, dear Lady Duckle was not feeling well this morning; she sends you her love, and begs you'll excuse her.'
'Oh yes, we'll excuse her. But tell me, Lilian,' said Mrs. Lahens, taking the girl aside, 'how do you like living with her?'
'It is delightful, you don't know what it means to me to get away from home—all those brothers and sisters—that hateful suburb.'
'You must never speak of it again. Islington, where is that? you must say if Islington should happen in the conversation, which is not likely. I always told you that you'd have to throw your family over. We want you, not your family. Chaperons nowadays are a make-believe. Lady Duckle will suit you very well; she'll feel ill when you don't want her, when you do she'll be all there. She's an honest old thing, and will do all that's required of her for the money you pay her. Thirty pounds a month, that's it, isn't it, dear?'
The servant announced Lady Castlerich.
Lady Castlerich disguised her seventy years under youthful gowns and an extraordinary yellow wig. She wore a large black hat trimmed with black ostrich plumes, it became her; she looked quite handsome, and her cracked and tremulous voice was as full of sympathy as her manner was of high breeding. She seemed very fond of Lilian, and was soon engaged in conversation with her.
'You mustn't disappoint me, my dear; you must come to my shootin' party on the twenty-fifth, and dear Lady Duckle, I hope she'll come too, though she is rather a bore. I shall have plenty of beaux for you, there is my neighbour Lord Westhorpe, he's young and handsome, a beautiful place, charmin', my dear. And if you don't like him, there's my old lover Appletown, you know, my dear, all that is a long while ago. I said to Appletown more than ten years ago—"Appletown, this must end, I am an old woman." You've no idea the look he gave me. "Florence," he said, "don't call yourself an old woman, I can't bear it. You'll never be an old woman, at least not in my eyes." Charmin', wasn't it; no one but a nice man could speak like that. So we've always remained friends, Appletown has his rooms at Morelands, and he does as he likes. He likes you, dear, he told me so. I've got a telegram from him, I'll show it to you after lunch.'