"Oh, no!—go on—please, go on," she brokenly prayed him.
So he told her, further, how at Singapore, the outward voyage at last ended, he was tempted to desert; or, better still, put an end, once and for all, to the whole black business of living. And how, meditating on the methods of such drastic deliverance—sitting in the palm-shaded verandah of a fly-blown little eating-house, kept by a monkey-faced, squint-eyed Japanese—he happened to pick up a Calcutta newspaper. He read its columns mechanically, without interest or understanding, his mind still working on methods of death, when a name leapt at him weighted with personal meaning.
"It hit me," Faircloth said, "full between the eyes, knocking the cry-baby stuff out of me, and knocking stuff of very different order in. For I wanted something stronger than mother-love—precious though that is—to brace me up and put some spunk into me just then.—Sir Charles was campaigning in Afghanistan, and this Calcutta paper sang his praises to a rousing tune. Lamented the loss of him to the Indian Government, and the lack of appreciation and support of him at home which induced him to take foreign service. Can't you imagine how all this about a great soldier, whose blood after all ran in my veins, pulled me clean up out of the slime, where suicide tempted the soft side of me, into another world?—A sane world, in which a man can make good, if only he's pluck to hold on.—Yes, he saved me; or at all events roused the spirit in me which makes for salvation, and which that drunken brute had almost killed. But, because I was only a boy as yet, with a boy's queer instincts and extravagancies, I made the monkey-faced, Japanese eating-house keeper—who added artistic tattooing to other and less reputable ways of piling up a fortune—fix the sea-bird, for faith in my profession—and those three initials of my own name and a name not altogether my own, right here.—Fix them for remembrance and for a warning of which I could never get free. Always I should be forced to see it. And others must see it too. Through it my identity—short of mutilation—was indestructibly established. From that identity, henceforward, there wasn't any possible running away."
Faircloth had ended on a note of exultation, calmly sounded yet profound.
And upon that final note Damaris dwelt now, sitting on the chintz-covered window-seat of the room which Carteret would to-night inhabit. She went through the cruel story again, while the transparent twilight drew its elfin veil over all things, outdoor and in.
The crescent moon, a slender, upright wisp of a thing, climbed the southern sky. And Damaris' soul was strangely satisfied, for the story, if cruel, was one of restitution and the healing of a wrong. To her father—his father—the boy had turned in that bad hour, which very perfectly made for peace between them. The curve of her duty to the one, as she now apprehended, in nowise cut across or deflected the curve of her duty towards the other. The two were the same, were one. And this, somehow, some day, when time and sentiment offered opportunity for such disclosure, she must let her father know. She must repeat to him the story of the eating-house and its monkey-faced proprietor—of questionable reputation—away in tropic Singapore. It could hardly fail to appeal to him if rightly told. About the events and vulgar publicity of yesterday nothing need be said. About this, within careful limits, much; and that, with, as she believed, happiest result. She had succeeded in bringing father and son together in the first instance. Now, with this pathetic story as lever, might she not hope to bring them into closer, more permanent union? Why should not Faircloth, in future, come and go, if not as an acknowledged son, yet as acknowledged and welcome friend, of the house? A consummation this, to her, delightful and reasonable as just. For had not the young man passed muster, and that triumphantly—she again told herself—in small things as well as great, in things of social usage and habit, those "little foxes" which, as between class and class, do so deplorably and disastrously "spoil the grapes?"
Therefore she began to invent ingenious speeches to Carteret and to her father. Hatch ingenious schemes and pretty plots—in the style of dear Aunt Felicia almost!—Was that lady's peace-making passion infectious, by chance? And supposing it were, hadn't it very charming and praiseworthy turns to it—witness Felicia's rather noble gathering in and acceptance of Faircloth yesterday.
Arriving at which engaging conclusion, Damaris felt minded to commune for a space with the restful loveliness of the twilight, before going downstairs again and seeking more definite employment of books or needlework. She raised the window-sash and, kneeling on the chintz-covered cushioned window-seat, leaned out.
The gardeners to-day had rooted up the geraniums and dug over the empty flower beds, just below, preparatory to planting them with bulbs for spring blossoming. The keen, pungent scent of the newly-turned earth hung in the humid air, as, mingling with it—a less agreeable incense—did the reek of the mud-flats. On the right the twin ilex trees formed a mass of soft imponderable gloom. Above and behind them the sky was like smoked crystal. The lawn lay open and vacant. Upon it nothing hopped or crept. The garden birds had eaten their suppers long since, and sought snug bosky perching places for the night. Even the unsleeping sea was silent, the tide low and waveless, no more than a languid ripple far out upon the shelving sands. All dwelt in calm, in a brooding tranquillity which might be felt.
Damaris listened to the silence, until her ears began to suspect its sincerity. Sounds were there in plenty, she believed, were her hearing sharp enough to detect them. They naughtily played hide-and-seek with her, striking a chord too deep or too thinly acute for human sense. Sights were there too, had her eyes but a cat's or an owl's keener faculty of seeing. Behind the tranquillity she apprehended movement and action employing a medium, obeying impulses, to us unknown. Restfulness fled away, but, in place of it, interest grew. If she concentrated her attention and listened more carefully, she should hear; looked more steadily, she should see.
Just because she was tired, a little shattered still and spent, did this predominance of outward nature draw her, imposing itself. It beckoned her; and, through passing deficiency of will, she followed its beckoning, making no serious effort to resist. With the consequence she presently did hear sounds, but sounds surely real and recognizable enough.
Coming from the shore eastwards, below the sea-wall along the river frontage, ponies walked, or rather floundered, fetlock deep in blown sand—a whole drove of them to judge by the confused and muffled trampling of their many hoofs. The drop from the top of the sea-wall to the beach was too great, and the space between the foot of the wall and the river-bank and breakwater too confined, for her to see the animals, even had not oncoming darkness rendered all objects increasingly ill-defined.
But the confused trampling instead of keeping along the foreshore, as in all reason it should, now came up and over the sea-wall, on to the battery, into the garden, heading towards the house, Damaris strained her eyes through the tranquil obscurity, seeking visible cause of this advancing commotion, but without effect. Yet all the while, as her hearing clearly testified, the unseen ponies hustled one another, plunging, shying away from the swish and crack of a long-thonged whip. One stumbled and rolled over in the sand.—For although the mob was half-way up the lawn by now, the shuffling, sliding sand stayed always with them.—After a nasty struggle it got on to its feet, tottering forward under savage blows, dead lame. Another, a laggard, fell into its tracks, and lay there foundered, rattling in the throat.
By this time the foremost of the drove came abreast the house front, where Sir Charles Verity's three ground-floor rooms, with the corridor behind them, ranged out from the main building. The many-paned semicircular windows of these rooms dimly glistened, below their fan-shaped, slated roofs. The crowding scurry of scared, over-driven animals was so indisputable that Damaris expected a universal smashing of glass. But the sound of many hoofs, still muted by sliding sand, passed straight on into and through the house as though no obstacle intervened barring progress.
The many-paned windows remained intact, undemolished, dimly glistening beneath their slated roofs. The garden stretched vacant, as before, right away to the battery, in the elusive twilight, a sky of smoked crystal—through which stars began to show faintly, points of cold blurred light—above the gloom of the ilex trees to the west, and in the south, above the indistinguishable sea, the slender moon hanging upright, silver and sickle-shaped.
Thus far Damaris' entire consciousness had resided in and been limited to her auditory sense; concentration being too absorbed and intense to allow room for reasoning, still less for scepticism or even astonishment. She had watched with her ears—as the blind watch—desperate to interpret, instant by instant, inch by inch, this reconstructed tragedy of long-dead man and long-dead beast. There had been no thinking round the central interest, no attempted reading of its bearing upon normal events. Mind and imagination were fascinated by it to the exclusion of all else. It acted as an extravagant dream acts, abrogating all known laws of cause and effect, giving logic and science the lie, negativing probability, making the untrue true, the impossible convincingly manifest.
Not, indeed, until she beheld Mary Fisher, deep-bosomed and comely, in black gown, white apron and cap, moving within those rooms downstairs—still echoing, as they surely must, to that tumultuous and rather ghastly equine transit—did the extraordinary character of the occurrence flash into fullness of relief.
Mary, meanwhile, set down her flat candlestick upon the big writing-table in Sir Charles's study, lighted lamps and drew blinds and curtains. Went into the bedroom next door and dressing-room beyond, methodically performing the evening ritual of "shutting up." Her shadow marched with her, as though mockingly assisting in her operations, now crouching, now leaping ahead, blotting a ceiling, extending itself upon a wall space. Other shadows, thrown by the furniture, came forth and leapt also, pranced, skipping back into hiding as the candle-light shifted and passed. But save this indirect admission of the immaterial and grotesque, everything showed reassuringly ordinary, the woman herself unconcerned, ignorant of disturbance.
Damaris rose from her kneeling posture upon the window-seat and, standing, lowered the sash. Once was enough. It was no longer incumbent upon her to listen or to look. If these ghostly phenomena were repeated they could convey nothing more to her, nothing fresh. They had delivered their message—one addressed wholly and solely to herself, so she judged, since Mary had so conspicuously no suspicion of it.
Our maiden's lips were dry. Her heart beat in her ears. Yet she was in no degree unnerved. Seldom indeed had she been more mistress of her powers, self-realized and vigilant. Nor did she feel tired any more, infirm of will and spent. Rather was she consciously resolute to encounter and withstand events—of what order she did not know as yet but events of moment and far-reaching result, already on the road, journeying toward her hotfoot. They were designed to test and try her. Would do their utmost to overwhelm, to submerge her, were she weak. But she didn't intend them to submerge her. She bade weakness quit, all her young courage rising in arms.
The marvellous things she just now heard, so nearly saw—for it had come very near to seeing, hadn't?—were avant couriers of these same journeying events, their appointed prelude. She could explain neither how nor why—but, very certainly, somehow. Nor could she explain the relation—if any—coupling together the said marvels heard and the events. Nevertheless, she knew the former rode ahead, whether in malignity or mercy, to forewarn her. This place, The Hard, in virtue of its numerous vicissitudes of office and of ownership, of the memories and traditions which it harboured, both sinister, amiable, erudite, passionate, was singularly sentient, replete with influences. In times of strain and stress the normal wears thin, and such lurking influences are released. They break bounds, shouting—to such as have the psychic genius—convincing testimony of their existence.
All this Damaris perceived, standing in the middle of the room while the silver crescent moon looked in at her. The stillness once again was absolute. The dusk, save where the windows made pale squares upon the carpet, thick. The four-post bed, gay enough by day with hangings and valences patterned in roses on a yellow ground, looked cavernous. Carteret would lie under its black canopy to-night if—
"If all goes well."
Damaris said the words aloud, her thought becoming personal and articulate.
Once before she had heard the smugglers' ponies, waiting in this same room. Waiting at the open window to catch the first rumble of the wheels of a returning carriage. Her poor dear Nannie, Sarah Watson, was returning home after a summer holiday spent with her own people in the north. And Damaris, younger then by nearly five years, had listened impatiently, ready to skirmish down into the front hall—directly the carriage turned the elbow of the drive—and enclose her faithful nurse and foster-mother in arms of child-like love. But destiny ruled otherwise. In vain she waited. Sarah Watson returned no more, death having elected to take her rather horribly to himself some hours previously amid the flaming wreckage of a derailed express.
What did this second hearing presage? A like vain waiting and disclosure of death-dealing accident? Notwithstanding her attitude of high resolution, the question challenged Damaris in sardonic fashion from beneath the black canopy of the great bed. Her hand went up to the string of pearls which, on a sudden, grew heavy about her throat.
"But not—not—pray God, the dear man with the blue eyes," she cried.
She was glad to be alone, in the encompassing semi-dark, for a warm wave of emotion swept over her, an ardour hardly of the spiritual sort. Had she deceived herself? Was she, in truth, desirous Carteret should approach her solely according to that earlier manner, in which she so simply trusted him? Did she hail his coming as that of a wise counsellor merely—or—
But here Mary—still pursuing the time-honoured ritual of shutting up—entered candle in hand, the landing showing brightly lit behind her.
"Dear heart alive!" she exclaimed, "whoever's that? You, Miss Damaris? Alone here in the dark. You did make me jump. But there," she added, repentant of her unceremonious exclamation, "I don't know what possesses us all to-night. The least thing seems to make you jump. Mrs. Cooper's all of a twitter, and Laura—silly girl—is almost as bad. I suppose it's the weather being so quiet after yesterday's gale. For my own part I always do like a wind about. It seems company, particularly these long evenings if you're called on to go round the house by yourself."
All of which amounted to an admission, as Damaris was not slow to detect. She was still under the empire of emotion. The abrupt intrusion affected her. She, too, needed to carry off the situation.
"Poor Mary," she said, "you have been frightened—by what? Did you hear anything you could not account for when you were down in the library just now?"
The answer came after a pause, as though the speaker were suspicious, slightly unwilling to commit herself.
"No, Miss Damaris, not in Sir Charles's rooms or in the west wing either. Whatever unaccountable noises there ever is belong to this old part of the house."
She set her candlestick on the dressing-table, and went to each window in turn, drawing blinds down and curtains across. So doing she continued to talk, moving to and fro meanwhile with a firm, light tread.
"Not that I pay much attention to such things myself. I don't hold it's right. It's my opinion there's no sort of nonsense you can't drive yourself into believing once you let ideas get a root in you. I've seen too much of Mrs. Cooper giving away like that. The two winters you and Sir Charles was abroad I'd a proper upset with her—though we are good friends—more than once. After sundown she was enough to terrify you out of your life—wouldn't go here and wouldn't go there for fear of she didn't know what. Tempting Providence, I call it, and spoke to her quite sharp. If ever I wanted to go over to spend an hour or two with father and mother in Marychurch, I was bound to ask Mrs. Patch and the children to come in and keep her company. There's no sense in putting yourself into such a state. It makes you a trouble to yourself and everybody else. And in the end, a thousand to one if anything comes of all the turmoil and fuss—Mrs. Cooper, to be only fair to her, when she's in a reasonable humour, allows as much."
Mary stepped across to the bed and doubled back the quilt, preparatory to turning down the fine linen sheet. She felt she had extracted herself from a somewhat invidious position with flying colours; and, in the process, had administered timely advice. For it wasn't suitable Miss Damaris should be moping alone upstairs at odd times like this. It all came of yesterday's upset.—Her righteous anger blazed against the clerical culprit. In that connection there was other matter of which she craved to deliver herself—refreshing items of local gossip, sweet as honey to the mouth did she but dare retail them. She balanced the question this way and that. Would satisfaction outweigh offence, or offence satisfaction, on the part of Miss Damaris? You could not be sure how she'd take things—quite. And yet she ought to know, for the affair certainly placed Captain Faircloth in a pleasant light. Only one who was every inch a gentleman would behave so handsomely as he had.
She stretched across the bed to smooth the slightly wrinkled surface of the sheet. This gymnastic feat necessitated the averting of her face and turning of her back.
"There's a fine tale going round of how the Island lads—wild young fellows ready for any pranks—served Mr. Sawyer, the curate," she began. "They say William Jennifer put them up to it, having a grudge against him for trying to get his youngest boy taken up for stealing apples last week. They planned to give him a ducking in the pool just above the ferry, where the water's so deep under the bank. And if Captain Faircloth hadn't happened to come along, for certain they'd have made Mr. Sawyer swim for it. Mr. Patch hears they handled him ever so rough, tore his coat, and were on the very tick of pitching him in. But Captain Faircloth would not suffer it. He took a very high line with them, it is said. And not content with getting Mr. Sawyer away, walked with him as far as the Grey House to protect him from any further interference."
She gave the pillows sundry judicious strokings and pats.
"I hope Mr. Sawyer's properly thankful, for it isn't many that would have shown him so much leniency as that."
She would have enjoyed labouring the point. But comment appeared to her, under the circumstances, to trench on impertinence. Facts spoke for themselves. She restrained herself, fetched her candlestick from the dressing-table, and stood by the open door, thereby enjoining her young lady's exit.
Thus far Damaris maintained silence, but in passing out on to the landing, she said—"Thank you. I am glad to know what has happened."
Encouraged by which acknowledgment, the excellent woman ventured further advice.
"And now, miss, you must please just lie down on the schoolroom sofa and get a little sleep before the gentlemen and Mr. Hordle arrive back. There is a good two hours to wait yet, and I'll call you in plenty of time for you to dress. You don't look altogether yourself, miss. Too much talking with all that host of callers. You are properly fagged out. I'll get Mrs. Cooper to beat up an egg for you in a tumbler of hot milk, with a tablespoonful of sherry and just a pinch of sugar in it. That will get your circulation right."
SHOWING HOW SIR CHARLES VERITY WAS JUSTIFIED OF HIS LABOURS
Which homely programme being duly executed, worked restorative wonders. Matter, in the sublimated form of egg-flip, acted upon mind beneficially through the functions of a healthy, if weary, young body. Our maiden slept, to dream not of ghostly ponies or other uncomfortably discarnate creatures; but of Darcy Faircloth in his pretty piece of Quixotism, rescuing a minister of the Church of England "as by law established" from heretical baptismal rites of total immersion. The picture had a rough side to it, and also a merry one; but, beyond these, generous dealing wholly delightful to her feeling. She awoke soothed and restored, ready to confront the oncoming of events—whatever their character—in a spirit of high confidence as well as of resolution.
With the purpose of advertising this brave humour she dressed herself in her best. I do not deny a love of fine clothes in Damaris. Yet in her own home, and for delectation of the men belonging to her, a woman is surely free to deck herself as handsomely as her purse allows. "Beauty unadorned" ceased to be practicable, in self-respecting circles, with the expulsion of our first parents from the paradisaic state; while beauty merely dowdy, is a pouring of contempt on one of God's best gifts to the human race. Therefore I find no fault with Damaris, upon this rather fateful evening, in that she clothed herself in a maize-coloured silk gown flowered in faint amber and faint pink. Cut in the piece from shoulder to hem, according to a then prevailing fashion, it moulded bosom, waist and haunches, spreading away into a demi-train behind. The high Medici collar of old lace, at the back of the square decolletage, conferred dignity; the hanging lace of the elbow sleeves a lightness. Her hair, in two wide plaits, bound her head smoothly, save where soft disobedient little curls, refusing restriction, shaded her forehead and the nape of her neck.
After a few seconds of silent debate she clasped Carteret's pearls about her throat again; and so fared away, a creature of radiant aspect, amid sombre setting of low ceilings and dark carpeted floors, to await the advent of the travellers.
These arrived some little while before their time, so that the girl, in her gleaming dress, had gone but half-way down the staircase when they came side by side into the hall.—Two very proper gentlemen, the moist freshness of the night attending them, a certain nobility in their bearing which moved her to enthusiasm, momentarily even bringing a mist before her eyes. For they were safe and well both of them, so she joyously registered, serene of countenance, moreover, as bearers of glad tidings are. Whatever the ghostly ponies foretold could be no evil shadowing them—for which she gave God thanks.
Meanwhile, there without, the light of the carriage lamps pierced the enclosing gloom, played on the silver plating of harness, on the shining coats of the horses, whose nostrils sent out jets of pale steam. Played over the faces of the servants, too, Mary and Laura just within the open door, Hordle and Conyers outside loading down the baggage from the back of the mail-phaeton, and on Patch, exalted high above them on the driving-seat.
As Damaris paused, irradiated by the joy of welcome and of forebodings falsified, upon the lowest step of the staircase, Sir Charles turned aside and tenderly kissed her.
"My darling," he said.
And Carteret, following him an instant later, took her by both hands and, from arm's length, surveyed her in smiling admiration he made no effort to repress.
"Dear witch, this is unexpected good fortune. I had little thought of seeing you so soon—resplendent being that you are, veritably clothed with sunshine."
"And with your pearls," she gaily said.
"Ah! my poor pearls," he took her up lightly. "I am pleased they still find favour in your sight. But aren't you curious to learn what has made us desert our partridge shooting at an hour's notice, granting the pretty little beggars unlooked-for length of life?"
His blue eyes laughed into hers. There was a delightful atmosphere about him. Something had happened to him surely—for wasn't he, after all, a young man even yet?
"Yes—what—what has brought you, Colonel Sahib?" Damaris laughed back at him, bubbling over with happy excitement.
"Miracles," he answered. "A purblind Government at last admits the error of its ways and proposes to make reparation for its neglect of a notable public-servant."
"You?" she cried.
Carteret shook his head, still surveying her but with a soberer glance.
"No—no—not me. In any case there isn't any indebtedness to acknowledge—no arrears to pay off. I have my deserts.—To a man immensely my superior. Look nearer home, dear witch."
He made a gesture in the direction of his host.
"My Commissioner Sahib?"
"Yes—your Commissioner Sahib, who comes post haste to request your dear little permission, before accepting this tardy recognition of his services to the British Empire."
"Ah! but that's too much!" the girl said softly, glancing from one to the other, enchanted and abashed by the greatness of their loyalty to and prominent thought of her.
"Has this made him happy?" she asked Carteret, under her breath. "He looks so, I think. How good that this has come in time—that it hasn't come too late."
For, in the midst of her joyful excitement, a shadow crossed Damaris' mind oddly obscuring the light. She suffered a perception things might so easily have turned out otherwise; a suspicion that, had the reparation of which Carteret spoke been delayed, even by a little, its beloved recipient would no longer have found use for or profit in it. Damaris fought the black thought, as ungrateful and faithless. To fear disaster is too often to invite it.
Just at this juncture Miss Felicia made hurried and gently eager irruption into the hall; and with that irruption the tone of prevailing sentiment declined upon the somewhat trivial, even though warmly affectionate. For she fluttered round Sir Charles, as Mary Fisher helped divest him of his overcoat, in sympathetic overflowings of the simplest sort.—"She had been reading and failed to hear the carriage, hence her tardy appearance. Let him come into the drawing-room at once, out of these draughts. There was a delightful wood fire and he must be chilled. The drive down the valley was always so cold at night—particularly where the road runs through the marsh lands by Lampit."
In her zeal of welcome Miss Verity was voluble to the point of inconsequence, not to say incoherence. Questions poured from her. She appeared agitated, quaintly self-conscious, so at least it occurred to Damaris. Finally she addressed Carteret.
"And you too must be frozen," she declared. "How long it is since we met! I have always been so unlucky in just missing you here! Really I believe I have only seen you once since you and Charles stayed with us at Canton Magna.—You were both on leave from India. I dare not think how many years ago that is—before this child"—her candid eyes appealingly sought those of Damaris—"before this child existed. And you are so wonderfully unaltered."
Colour dyed her thin face and rather scraggy neck. Only the young should blush. After forty such involuntary exhibitions of emotion are unattractive, questionably even pathetic.
"Really time has stood still with you—it seems to me, Colonel Carteret."
"Time has done better than stand still," Damaris broke in, with a rather surprising imperiousness. "It has beautifully run backwards—lately."
And our maiden, in her whispering gleaming dress, swept down from the step, swept past the sadly taken aback Miss Felicia, and joined her father. She put her hand within his arm.
"Come and warm yourself—come, dearest," she said, gently drawing him onward into the long room, where from above the range of dark bookshelves, goggle-eyed, pearl-grey Chinese goblins and monsters, and oblique-eyed Chinese philosophers and saints looked mysteriously down through the warm mellow light.
Damaris was conscious of a singular inward turmoil. For Miss Felicia's speeches found small favour in her ears. She resented this open claiming of Carteret as a member of the elder generation. Still more resented her own relegation to the nullity of the prenatal state. Reminiscences, in which she had neither lot nor part, left her cold. Or, to be accurate, bred in her an intemperate heat, putting a match to jealousies which, till this instant, she had no knowledge of. Touched by that match they flared to the confusion of charity and reverence. Hence, impulsively, unscrupulously, yet with ingenious unkindness, she struck—her tongue a sword—to the wounding of poor Miss Felicia. And she felt no necessity for apology. She liked to be unkind. She liked to strike. Aunt Felicia should not have been so self-assertive, so tactless. She had brought chastisement upon herself. It wasn't like her to behave thus. Her enthusiasms abounded; but she possessed a delicate appreciation of relative positions. She never poached. This came perilously near poaching.—And everything had danced to so inspiring a tune, the movement of it so delicious! Now the evening was spoilt. The first fine alacrity of it could not be recaptured—which was all Aunt Felicia's fault.—No, for her unkindness Damaris felt no regret.
It may be remarked that our angry maiden's mind dwelt rather upon the snub she had inflicted on Miss Verity, than upon the extensive compliment she had paid, and the challenge she had delivered, to Carteret. Hearing her flattering declaration, his mind not unnaturally dwelt more upon the latter. It took him like a blow, so that from bending courteously over the elder lady's hand, he straightened himself with a jerk. His eyes followed the imperious, sun-clad young figure, questioning and keenly alert. To-day he had liberally enjoyed the pleasures of friendship, for Charles Verity had been largely and generously elate. But Damaris' outburst switched feeling and sentiment onto other lines. They became personal. Were her words thrown off in mere lightness of heart, or had she spoken deliberately, with intention? It were wiser, perhaps, not to ask. He steadied his attention on to Miss Felicia once more, but not without effort.
"You always said kind and charming things, I remember," so he told her. "You are good enough to say them still."
Damaris stood by her father, upon the tiger skin before the hearth.
"Tell me, dearest?" she prayed him.
Charles Verity put his hand under her chin, turned up her face and looked searchingly at her. Her beauty to-night was conspicuous and of noble quality. It satisfied his pride. Public life invited him, offering him place and power. Ranklings of disappointment, of detraction and slight, were extinguished. His soul was delivered from the haunting vexations of them. He was in the saddle again, and this radiant woman-child, whom he so profoundly loved, should ride forth with him for all the world to see—if she pleased. That she would please he had no doubt. Pomp and circumstance would suit her well. She was, moreover, no slight or frothy piece of femininity; but could be trusted, amid the glamour of new and brilliant conditions, to use her judgment and to keep her head. Increasingly he respected her character as well as her intelligence. He found in her unswerving sense of right and wrong, sense of honour likewise. Impetuous she might be, swift to feel and to revolt; but of tender conscience and, on occasion, royally compassionate. Now he could give her fuller opportunity. Could place her in circumstances admittedly enviable and prominent. From a comparative back-water, she should gain the full stream—and that stream, in a sense, at the flood.
Rarely, if ever, had Charles Verity experienced purer pleasure, touched a finer level of purpose and of hope than to-day, when thinking of and now when looking upon Damaris. He thankfully appraised her worth, and in spirit bowed before it, not doatingly or weakly but with reasoned conviction. Weighed in the balances she would not be found wanting, such was his firm belief. For himself he accepted this recall to active participation in affairs, active service to the State, with a lofty content. But that his daughter, in the flower of her young womanhood, would profit by this larger and more distinguished way of life, gave the said recall its deeper values and its zest.
Still he put her off awhile as to the exact announcement, smiling upon her in fond, yet stately approval.
"Let the telling keep until after dinner, my dear," he bade her. "Pacify the cravings of the natural man for food and drink. The day has been fertile in demands—strenuous indeed to the point of fatigue. So let us comfort ourselves inwardly and materially before we affront weighty decisions."
He kissed her cheek.
"By the way, though, does it ever occur to you to think of the Bhutpur Sultan-i-bagh and wish to go East again?"
And Damaris, with still uplifted chin, surveyed him gravely and with a certain wistfulness, Miss Felicia's attempted poaching forgotten and an impression of Faircloth vividly overtaking her. For they were so intimately, disturbingly alike, the father and the son, in voice as well as in build and feature.
"Go East?" she said, Faircloth's declared preference for sailing into the sunrise present to her. "Why, I go East in my dreams nearly every night. I love it—love it more rather than less as I grow older. Of course I wish to go—some day. But that's by the way, Commissioner Sahib. All that I really want, now, at once, is to go wherever you go, stay wherever you stay. You won't ask me to agree to any plan which parts us, will you?—which takes you away from me?"
"Ruth to a strange Naomi, my dear," he answered. "But so be it. I desire nothing better than to have you always with me.—But I will not keep you on tenter-hooks as to your and my projected destination. Let them bring in dinner in half an hour. Carteret and I shall be ready. Meanwhile, read this—agreeing to relegate discussion of it to a less hungry season."
And taking the letter she had forwarded to him yesterday, bearing the imprint of the Indian Office, from the breast pocket of his shooting coat, he put it into her hand.
The appointment—namely, that of Lieutenant-Governor of an Indian presidency famous in modern history, a cradle of great reputations and great men, of English names to conjure with while our Eastern Empire endures—was offered, in terms complimentary above those common to official communications. Sir Charles Verity's expert knowledge, not only of the said mighty province but of the turbulent kingdom lying beyond its frontiers, marked him as peculiarly fitted for the post. A campaign against that same turbulent kingdom had but recently been brought to a victorious conclusion. His influence, it was felt, might be of supreme value at this juncture in the maintenance of good relations, and consolidation of permanent peace.
Damaris' heart glowed within her as she read the courteous praiseful sentences. Even more than through the well-merited success of his book, did her father thus obtain and come into the fullness of his own at last. Her imagination glowed, too, calling up pictures of the half-remembered, half-fabulous oriental scene. The romance of English rule in India, the romance of India itself, its variety, its complexity, the multitude of its gods, the multitude of its peoples, hung before her as a mirage, prodigal in marvels, reaching back and linking up through the centuries with the hidden wisdom, the hidden terror of the Ancient of Days.
To this land of alien faiths and secular wonders, she found herself summoned, not as casual sightseer or tourist, but as among the handful of elect persons who count in its social, political and administrative life. In virtue of her father's position, her own would be both conspicuous and assured. An intoxicating prospect this for a girl of one-and-twenty! Intoxicating, yet, as she envisaged it, disquieting likewise. She balanced on the thought of all it demanded as well as all it offered, of all it required from her—dazed by the largeness of the purview, volition in suspense.
Carteret was the first to reappear, habited in the prescribed black and white of evening male attire. In the last six months he had, perhaps, put on flesh; but this without detriment to the admirable proportions of his figure. It retained its effect of perfect response to the will within, and all its natural grace. His fair hair and moustache were still almost untouched with grey. His physical attraction, in short, remained unimpaired. And of this Damaris was actually, if unconsciously, sensible as he closed the door and, passing between the stumpy pillars, walked up the long narrow room and stood, his hands behind him, his back to the pleasantly hissing and crackling fire of driftwood.
"Alone, dear witch?" he said, and, seeing the open letter in her hand—"Well, what do you make of this proposition?" And yet again, as she raised serious pondering eyes—"You find it an extensive order?"
"I find it magnificent for him—beautifully as it should be, adequate and right."
"And for yourself?" Carteret asked, aware of a carefulness in her language and intrigued by it.
"Magnificent for me, too—though it takes away my breath."
"You must learn to breathe deeper, that's all," he returned, gently teasing her.
"And who is to teach me to breathe deeper, dear Colonel Sahib," she quickly, and rather embarrassingly, asked. "Not my father. He'll have innumerable big things to do and to do them without waste of energy he must be saved at every point. He must not fritter away strength in coaching me in my odds and ends of duties, still less in covering up my silly mistakes."
"Oh! you exaggerate difficulties," he said, looking not at her but at the fierce yellow and black striped tiger skin at his feet.—Bless the lovely child, what was she driving at?
Carteret started for Deadham under the impression he had himself thoroughly in hand, and that all danger of certain inconvenient emotions was passed. He had lived them down, cast them out. For over two years now he had given himself to the superintendence of his estate, to county business, to the regulation of his sister's—happily more prosperous—affairs, to the shepherding of his two elder nephews in their respective professions and securing the two younger ones royally good times during their holidays at home. Throughout the hunting season, moreover, he rode to hounds on an average of three days a week. Such healthy sport helps notably to deliver a man from vain desires, by sending his body cleanly weary to bed and to sleep o' nights.
By such varied activities had Carteret systematically essayed to rid himself of his somewhat exquisite distemper, and, when coming to Deadham, honestly believed himself immune, sane and safe. He was proportionately disturbed by finding the cure of this autumn love-madness less complete than, fool-like, he had supposed. For it showed disquieting signs of resurrection even when Damaris, arrayed in the sheen of silken sunlight, greeted him at the staircase foot, and an alarming disposition finally to fling away head-cloth and winding-sheet when she petulantly broke in upon Miss Verity's faded memories of Canton Magna with the flattering assertion that time had run backward with him of late.
Now alone with her, confident, moreover, of her maidenly doubts and pretty self-distrust, he felt at a decided disadvantage. The detached, affectionately friendly, the avuncular—not to say grandfatherly—attitude escaped him. He could not play that part.
"Oh! you exaggerate difficulties," he therefore told her, with a singular absence of his habitual mansuetude, his tone trenching on impatience. "Instinct and common sense will teach you-mother-wit, too-of which, you may take it from me, you have enough and to spare.-Let alone that there will be a host of people emulous of guiding your steps aright, if your steps should stand in need of guidance which I venture to doubt. Don't underrate your own cleverness." Hearing him, sensible of his apparent impatience and misconceiving the cause of it, Damaris' temper stirred. She felt vexed. She also felt injured.
"What has happened to you, Colonel Sahib?" she asked him squarely. "I see nothing foolish in what I have said. You wouldn't have me so conceited that I rushed into this immense business without a qualm, without any thought whether I can carry it out creditably—with credit to him, I mean?"
Thus astonishingly attacked, Carteret hedged.
"Miss Verity, of course, will be"—he began.
Damaris cut him short.
"Aunt Felicia is an angel, a darling," she declared, "but—but"—
And there stopped, pricked by a guilty conscience. For to expose Miss Felicia's inadequacies and enlarge on her ineligibility for the position of feminine Chief of the Staff, struck her as unworthy, a meanness to which, under existing circumstances, she could not condescend to stoop.
Carteret looked up, to be entranced not only by the fair spectacle of her youth but by her delicious little air of shame and self-reproach. Evidently she had caught herself out in some small naughtiness—was both penitent and defiant, at once admitting her fault and pleading for indulgence. He suspected some thought at the back of her mind which he could neither exactly seize nor place. She baffled him with her changes of mood and of direction—coming close and then slipping from under his hand. This humour was surely new in her. She would not leave him alone, would not let him rest. Had she developed, since last he had converse with her, into a practised coquette?
"Look here, dear witch," he said, making a return upon himself, and manfully withstanding the sweet provocation of her near neighbourhood. "We seem to be queerly at cross purposes. I can't pretend to follow the turnings and doublings of your ingenious mind. I gather there is something you want of me. To be plain, then, what is it?"
"That—that you shouldn't desert me—desert us—in this crisis. You have never deserted me before—never since I can first remember."
"I desert you—good Lord!" Carteret exclaimed, his hands dropping at his sides with an odd sort of helplessness.
"Ah! that's asking too much, I suppose," she said. "I'm selfish even to think of it. Yet how can I do otherwise? Don't you understand how all difficulties would vanish, and how beautifully simple and easy everything would be if you coached me—if you, dear Colonel Sahib, went with us?"
The man with the blue eyes looked down at the tiger skin again, his countenance strained and blanched.
More than ever did he find her humour baffling. Not once nor twice had he, putting force upon himself, resisted the temptation to woo her—witness his retirement from St. Augustin and his determined abstinence from intercourse with her since. But now, so it might veritably appear, the positions were reversed and she wooed him. Though whether pushed to that length merely by wayward fancy, by some transient skittish influence or frolic in the blood, or by realized design he had no means of judging.—Well, he had bidden her be plain, and she, in some sort at least, obeyed him. It behooved him, therefore, to be plain in return, in as far as a straightforward reading of her meaning would carry.
"So you think all would be simple and easy were I to go with you and your father?" he said, both speech and manner tempered to gentleness. "I am glad to have you think so—should be still more glad could I share your belief. But I know better, dearest witch—know that you are mistaken. This is no case of desertion—put that out of your precious mind once and for all—but of discretion. My being in attendance, far from simplifying, would embroil and distort your position. An elderly gentleman perpetually trotting"—
"Don't," Damaris cried, holding up both hands in hot repudiation. "Don't say that. There's distortion if you like! It's ugly—I won't have it, for it is not true."
In the obvious sincerity of which denunciation Carteret found balm; yet adhered to his purpose.
"But it is true, alas; and I therefore repeat it both for your admonition and my own. For an elderly gentleman trotting at a young girl's heels is a most unedifying spectacle—giving occasion, and reasonably, to the enemy to blaspheme—bad for her in numberless ways; and, if he's any remnant of self-respect left in him, is anything better than a fatuous dotard, damnably bad for him as well. Do you understand?"
Damaris presented a mutinous countenance. She would have had much ado to explain her own motives during this ten minutes' conference. If her mental—or were they not rather mainly emotional?—turnings and doublings proved baffling to her companion, they proved baffling to herself in an almost greater degree. Things in general seemed to have gone into the melting-pot. So many events had taken place, so many more been preshadowed, so many strains of feeling excited! And these were confusingly unrelated, or appeared to be so as yet. Amongst the confusion of them she found no sure foothold, still less any highway along which to travel in confidence and security. Her thought ran wild. Her intentions ran with it, changing their colour chameleon-like from minute to minute. Now she was tempted to make an equivocal rejoinder.
"To understand," she said, "is not always, Colonel Sahib, necessarily to agree."
"I am satisfied with understanding and don't press for agreement," he answered, and on an easier note—"since to me it is glaringly evident you should take this fine flight unhandicapped. My duty is to stand aside and leave you absolutely free—not because I enjoy standing aside, but"—he would allow sentiment such meagre indulgence—"just exactly because I do not."
Here for the second time, at the crucial moment, Felicia Verity made irruption upon the scene. But though her entrance was hurried, it differed fundamentally from that earlier one; so that both the man and the girl, standing in the proximity of their intimate colloquy before the fire, were sensible of and arrested by it. She was self-forgetful, self-possessed, the exalted touch of a pure devotion upon her.
"I have been with my brother Charles," she began, addressing them both. "I happened to see Hordle coming from the library—and I put off dinner. I thought, darling"—this to Damaris, with a becoming hint of deference—"I might do so. I gathered that Charles—that your father—wished it. He has not been feeling well."
And as Damaris anxiously exclaimed—
"Yes"—Miss Felicia went on—"not at all well. Hordle told me. That was why I went to the library. He hoped, if he waited and rested for a little while, the uncomfortable sensations might subside and it would be needless to mention them. He did not want any fuss made. We gave him restoratives, and he recovered from the faintness. But he won't be equal, he admits, to coming in to dinner. Colonel Carteret must be hungry—your father begs us to wait no longer, I assured him we would not. Hordle is with him. He should not be alone, I think, while any pain continues."
"Pain—pain?" Damaris cried, her imagination rather horribly caught by the word. "But is he hurt, has he had some accident?"
While Carteret asked tersely: "Pain—and where?"
"Here," Felicia answered, laying her hand upon her left side over the heart. She looked earnestly at Carteret as she spoke, conveying to him an alarm she sought to spare Damaris.
"He tries to make little of it, and assures me it was only the heat of the house which caused him discomfort after the cold air out of doors. It may be only that, but I think we ought to make sure."
Again, and with that same becoming hint of deference, she turned to her niece.
"So I sent orders that Patch should drive at once to Stourmouth and fetch Dr. McCabe. I did not stop to consult you because it seemed best he should take out the horses before they were washed down and stabled."
"Yes—but I can go to him?" Damaris asked.
"Darling—of course. But I would try to follow his lead, if I were you—treat it all lightly, since he so wishes. Your father knows best in most things—and may know best in this. Please God it is so."
Left alone with Carteret.
"I am anxious—most cruelly anxious about my brother," she said.
While Damaris, sweeping across the hall and down the corridor in her sunshine silken dress, repeated:
"The ponies—the smugglers' ponies," a sob in her throat.
TELLING HOW CHARLES VERITY LOOKED ON THE MOTHER OF HIS SON
"Which is equivalent to saying, 'Hear the conclusion of the whole matter,' isn't it, McCabe?"
Dr. McCabe's square, hairy-backed hands fumbled with the stethoscope as he pushed it into his breast pocket, and, in replying, his advertised cheerfulness rang somewhat false.
"Not so fast, Sir Charles—in the good Lord's name, not so fast. While there's life there's hope, it's me settled opinion. I'm never for signing a patient's death-warrant before the blessed soul of him's entirely parted company with its mortal tenement of clay. The normal human being takes a mighty lot of killing in my experience, where the will to live is still intact. Let alone that you can never be quite upsides with Nature. Ah! she's an astonishing box of tricks to draw on where final dissolution's concerned. She glories to turn round on your pathological and biological high science; and, while you're measuring a man for his coffin, to help him give death the slip."
Charles Verity slightly shifted his position—and that with singular carefulness—against the pillows in the deep red-covered chair. His hands, inert and bluish about the finger-tips, lay along the padded arms of it. The jacket of his grey-and-white striped flannel sleeping-suit was unfastened at the throat, showing the irregular lift and fall of his chest with each laboured breath. His features were accentuated, his face drawn and of a surprising pallor.
The chair, in which he sat, had been brought forward into the wide arc of the great window forming the front of the room. Two bays of this stood open down to the ground. Looking out, beyond the rich brown of the newly-turned earth in the flower-beds, the lawn stretched away—a dim greyish green, under the long shadows cast by the hollies masking the wall on the left, and glittering, powdered by myriads of scintillating dewdrops, where the early sunshine slanted down on it from between their stiff pinnacles and sharply serrated crests.
In the shrubberies robins sang, shrilly sweet. A murmur of waves, breaking at the back of the Bar, hung in the chill, moist, windless air. Presently a handbarrow rumbled and creaked, as West—the head gardener, last surviving relic of Thomas Clarkson Verity's reign—wheeled it from beneath the ilex trees towards the battery, leaving dark smudgy tracks upon the spangled turf.
Arrived at his objective, the old gardener, with most admired deliberation, loaded down long-handled birch-broom, rake and hoe; and applied himself to mysterious peckings and sweeping of the gravel around the wooden carriages of the little cannon and black pyramid of ball.—Man, tools, and barrow were outlined against the pensive brightness of autumn sea and autumn sky, which last, to southward, still carried remembrance of sunrise in a broad band of faint yellowish pink, fading upward into misty azure and barred with horizontal pencillings of tarnished silver cloud.
Thus far Charles Verity had watched the progress of the bowed, slow-moving figure musingly. But now, as the iron of the hoe clinked against the gravel flints, he came back, so to say, to himself and back to the supreme question at issue. He looked up, his eyes and the soundless ironic laughter resident in them, meeting McCabe's twinkling, cunning yet faithful and merry little eyes, with a flash.
"The work of the world is not arrested," he said. "See, that octogenarian, old West. He wheeled ill-oiled, squeaking barrows and hacked at the garden paths when I was a Harchester boy. He wheels the one and hacks at the other even yet—a fact nicely lowering to one's private egotism, when you come to consider it. Why, then, my good friend, perjure yourself or strive to mince matters? The work of the world will be done whether I'm here to direct the doing of it or not.—Granted I am tough and in personal knowledge of ill-health a neophyte. My luck throughout has been almost uncanny. Neither in soldiering nor in sport, from man or from beast, have I ever suffered so much as a scratch. I have borne a charmed life—established a record for invulnerability, which served me well in the East where the gods still walk in the semblance of man and miracle is still persistently prevalent. Accident has passed me by—save for being laid up once, nearly thirty years ago, with a broken ankle in the house of some friends at Poonah."
He ceased speaking, checking, as it seemed, disposition to further disclosure; while the soundless laughter in his eyes found answering expression upon his lips, curving them, to a somewhat bitter smile beneath the flowing moustache.
"In to-day's enforced idleness how persistently cancelled episodes and emotions rap, ghostly, on the door demanding and gaining entrance!" he presently said. "Must we take it, Doctor, that oblivion is a fiction, merciful forgetfulness an illusion; and that every action, every desire—whether fulfilled or not—is printed indelibly upon one's memory, merely waiting the hour of weakness and physical defeat to show up?"
"The Lord only knows!" McCabe threw off, a little hopelessly. This was the first utterance approaching complaint; and he deplored it for his patient's sake. He didn't like that word defeat.
Then, to his hearer's relief with a softened accent, Charles Verity took up his former theme.
"Save for a trifling go of fever now and again, illness has given me the go-by equally with accident. But, for all my ignorance of such afflictions I know, beyond all shadow of doubt, that a few repetitions of the experience of last night must close any man's account. Experiment is more enlightening than argument. There is no shaking the knowledge you arrive at through it."
McCabe, standing at ease by the open window, untidy, hirsute, unkempt, rammed his hands down into his gaping trouser pockets and nodded unwilling agreement.
"The attack was bad," he said. "I'm not denying it was murderously bad. And all the harder on you because, but for the one defaulting organ, your heart, you're as sound as a bell. You're a well enough man to put up a good fight; and that, you see, cuts both ways, be danged to it."
"A chain is no stronger than its weakest link.—You know as well as I do the Indian appointment will never be gazetted."
"There you have me, Sir Charles, loath though I am to admit as much. I'd be a liar if I denied it would not."
"How long do you give me then? Months, or only weeks?"
"That depends in the main on yourself, in as far as I can presume to pronounce. With care"—
"Which means sitting still here"—
Charles Verity raised his shoulders the least bit.
"Not good enough, McCabe," he declared, "not good enough. There are rites to be duly performed, words to be said, which I refuse to neglect. Oh, no, don't misunderstand me. I don't need professional help to accomplish my dying. Were I a member of your communion it might be different, but I require no much-married parsonic intermediary to make my peace with God. I am but little troubled regarding that. Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?—Nevertheless, there remain rites to be decently performed. I must make my peace with man—and still more with woman—before I go hence and am no more seen. But, look here, I have no wish to commit myself too soon, and risk the bathos of an anti-climax by having to perform them twice, repeat them at a later date.—So how long do you give me—weeks? Too generous an estimate? A week, then or—well—less?"
"You want it straight?"
"I want it straight."
"More likely days. God grant I am mistaken. With your fine constitution, as I tell you, you are booked to put up a good fight. All the same, to be honest, Sir Charles, it was touch and go more than once last night."
In the room an interval of silence, and without song of the robins and murmur of the sea, nearer now and louder as the rising tide lapped up the sands at the back of the Bar. The faint yellow-pink after-thought of sunrise and pencillings of tarnished cloud alike had vanished into the all-obtaining misty blue of the upper sky. Heading for the French coast, a skein of wild geese passed in wedge-shaped formation with honking cries and the beat of strong-winged flight. The barrow creaked again, wheeled some few yards further along the battery walk.
"Thanks—so I supposed," Sir Charles Verity calmly said.
He stretched himself, falling into a less constrained and careful posture. Leaned his elbow on the chair-arm, his chin in the hollow of his hand, crossed the right leg over the left.
"Twenty-four hours will give me time for all which is of vital importance. The rest must, and no doubt perfectly will, arrange itself.—Oh! I'll obey you within reasonable limits, McCabe. I have no craving to hurry the inevitable conclusion. These last hours possess considerable significance and charm—an impressiveness even, which it would be folly to thrust aside or waste."
Once more he looked up, his tone and expression devoid now of all bitterness.
"I propose to savour their pleasant qualities to the full. So make yourself easy, my good fellow," he continued with an admirable friendliness. "Go and get your breakfast. Heaven knows you've most thoroughly earned it, and a morning pipe of peace afterwards.—The bell upon the small table?—Yes—oh, yes—and Hordle within earshot. I've everything I require; and, at the risk of seeming ungrateful, shall be glad enough of a respite from this course of food and drink, potions and poultices—remedial to the delinquent flesh no doubt, but a notable weariness to the-spirit.—And, see here, report to the two ladies, my sister and—and Damaris, that you leave me in excellent case, free of discomfort, resting for a time before girding up my loins to meet the labours of the day."
Charles Verity closed his eyes in intimation of dismissal, anxious to be alone the better to reckon with that deeper, final loneliness which confronted him just now in all its relentless logic.
For, though his mind remained lucid, self-realized and observant, his control of its action and direction was incomplete owing to bodily fatigue. Hence it lay open to assault, at the mercy of a thousand and one crowding thoughts and perceptions. And over these he desired to gain ascendency—to drive, rather than be driven by them. The epic of his three-score years, from its dim, illusive start to this dramatic and inexorable finish—but instantly disclosed to him in the reluctant admissions of the good-hearted Irish doctor—flung by at a double, in coloured yet incoherent progression, so to speak, now marching to triumphant blare of trumpet, now to roll of muffled drum. Which incoherence came in great measure of the inalienable duality of his own nature—passion and austerity, arrogance and self-doubt, love—surpassing most men's capacity of loving—and a defacing strain of cruelty, delivering stroke and counter-stroke. From all such tumult he earnestly sought to be delivered; since not the thing accomplished—whether for fame, for praise or for remorse—not, in short, what has been, but what was, and still more what must soon be, did he need, at this juncture, dispassionately to contemplate.
That sharp-toothed disappointment gnawed him, is undeniable, when he thought of the culminating gift of happy fortune, royally satisfying to ambition, as unexpectedly offered him as, through his own unlooked-for and tragic disability, it was unexpectedly withdrawn. But disappointment failed to vex him long. A more wonderful journey than any possible earthly one, a more majestic adventure than that of any oriental proconsulship, awaited him. For no less a person than Death issued the order—an order there is no disobeying. He must saddle up therefore, bid farewell, and ride away.
Nor did he flinch from that ride with Death, the black captain, as escort, any more than, during the past night, he had flinched under the grip of mortal pain. For some persons the call to endurance brings actual pleasure—of a grim heroic kind. It did so to Charles Verity. And not only this conscious exercise of fortitude, this pride of bearing bodily anguish, but a strange curiosity worked to sustain him. The novelty of the experience, in both cases, excited and held his interest, continued to exercise it and to hold.
Now, as in solitude his mental atmosphere acquired serenity and poise—the authority of the past declining—this matter of death increasingly engrossed him. For it trenches on paradox, surely, that the one absolutely certain event in every human career is also the most unexplored and practically incredible.—An everyday occurrence, a commonplace, concerning which there remains nothing new, nothing original, to be written, sung or said; yet a mystery still inviolate, aching with the alarm of the undiscovered, the unpenetrated, to each individual, summoned to accept its empire! He had sent others to their death. Now his own turn came and he found it, however calmly considered, a rather astounding business. An ending or a beginning?—Useless, after all, to speculate. The worst feature of it, not improbably, this same preliminary loneliness, this stripping naked, no smallest comfort left you of human companionship, or even of humble material keepsake from out the multitude of your familiar possessions here in the dear accustomed human scene.
The gates of death open. You pass them. They close behind you. And what then?—The whole hierarchy of heaven, the whole company of your forerunners thither—beloved and honoured on earth—may be gathered to hail the homing soul within those amazing portals; or it may drop, as a stone into a well, down the blank nothingness of the abyss.—Of all gambles invented by God, man or devil—so he told himself—this daily, hourly gamble of individual dissolution is the biggest. Man's heart refuses the horror of extinction, while his intellect holds the question in suspense. We hope. We believe. From of old fair promises have been made us; and, granted the gift of faith, hope and belief neighbour upon assurance. But certainty is denied. No mortal, still clothed in flesh, has known, nor—the accumulated science of the ages notwithstanding—does know, actually and exactly, that which awaits it.
Thus, anyhow, in the still, tender brightness of the autumn morning, while Nature and men alike pursued their normal activities and occupations, did this singular matter appear to Charles Verity—he, himself, arbitrarily cut off from all such activities and occupations in the very moment of high fruition. Had death been a less eminent affair, or less imminent, the sarcasm of his position might have seemed gross to the point of insult. But, the longer he envisaged it, the more did the enduring enigma and its accompanying uncertainty allure. Not as victim, but rather as conqueror of the final terror, did he begin to regard himself.
Meanwhile, though reason continued to hold the balance even between things positively known and things imagined only and hoped for, the god-ward impulse strengthened in him. Not by conscious or convincing argument from within, but by all-powerful compulsion from without, was his thought borne onward and upward to increasing confidence. So that he asked himself—as so many another, still unwearied, still enamoured of attainment, has asked in like case—whether impending divorce of soul and body may not confer freedom of a wider range and nobler quality, powers more varied and august than the mind, circumscribed by conditions of time and sense, has yet conception of?
To him such development seemed possible—certainly. Probable?—Ah, well, perhaps—perhaps. Which brought him back to his former contention, that its inherent loneliness constitutes the bitterest sting of death. Smiling, he quoted the ancient, divinely tender saying: "There is a child in each one of us which cries at the dark."
While, in swift reaction, he yearned towards battle where amid the fierce and bloody glory of the fight, souls of heroes troop forth together, shouting, into everlasting day or—sceptical reason shaking a sadly sage head once again—into everlasting night.
He stretched out his hand instinctively for the bell on the little table at his elbow. Hordle answered his summons, grey of countenance from alarm, anxiety, and broken rest.
"Let Miss Damaris know I shall be glad to see her when she is free to come to me," he said.
And here, although our damsel's reputation for courage and resource may, thereby, sustain some damage, I am constrained to state that while in the sick-room Miss Felicia shone, Damaris gave off but a vacillating and ineffective light.
Imagination is by no means invariably beneficent. The very liveliness of the perceptions which it engenders may intimidate and incapacitate. Upon Damaris imagination practised this mischief. Becoming, for the time, that upon which she looked, sharing every pang and even embroidering the context, she weakened, in some sort, to the level of the actual sufferer, helpless almost as he through the drench of overwhelming sympathy. She had been taken, poor child, at so villainous a disadvantage. Without preparation or warning—save of the most casual and inadequate—her humour wayward, she a trifle piqued, fancying her pretty clothes, her pretty looks, excited, both by the brilliant prospect presented by the Indian appointment and by her delicate passage of arms with Carteret, she was compelled of a sudden to witness the bodily torment of a human being, not only by her beloved beyond all others, but reverenced also. The impression she received was of outrage, almost of blasphemy. The cruelty of life lay uncovered, naked and open to her appalled and revolted consciousness. She received a moral, in addition to a physical shock, utterly confounding in its crudity, its primitive violence.
The ravage of pain can be, in great measure, surmounted and concealed; but that baser thing, functional disturbance—in this case present as heart spasm, threatening suffocation, with consequent agonized and uncontrollable struggle for breath—defies concealment. This manifestation horrified Damaris. The more so that, being unacquainted with the sorry spectacle of disease, her father, under the deforming stress of it, appeared to her as a stranger almost—inaccessible to affection, hideously removed from her and remote. His person and character, to her distracted observation, were altered beyond recognition except during intervals, poignant to the verge of heart-break, when passing ease restored his habitual dignity and grace.
Thus, while Miss Felicia and Carteret—with Hordle and Mary Fisher as assistants—ministered to his needs in as far as ministration was possible, she stood aside, consumed by misery, voluntarily effacing herself. Backed away even against the wall, out of range of the lamp-light, stricken, shuddering, and mute. Upon Dr. McCabe's arrival and assumption of command, Carteret, finding himself at liberty to note her piteous state, led her out into the passage and then to the long drawing-room, with gentle authority. There for a half-hour or more—to him sadly and strangely sweet—he sat beside her, while the tears silently coursed down her cheeks, letting her poor proud head rest against his shoulder, his arm supporting her gracious young body still clothed in all the bravery of her flowered silken sunshine dress.
Later, Mary bringing more favourable news of Sir Charles—pain and suffocation having yielded for the time being to McCabe's treatment—Carteret persuaded her to go upstairs and let the said Mary put her to bed. Once there she slept the sleep of exhaustion, fatigue and sorrow mercifully acting as a soporific, her capacity for further thought or feeling literally worn out.
During that session in the drawing-room Damaris, to his thankfulness, had asked no questions of him. All she demanded child-like, in her extremity, had been the comfort and security of human contact. And this he gave her simply, ungrudgingly, with a high purity of understanding, guiltless of any shadow of embarrassment or any after-thought. Their lighter, somewhat enigmatic relation of the earlier evening was extinguished, swamped by the catastrophe of Charles Verity's illness. Exactly in how far she gauged the gravity of that illness and its only too likely result, or merely wept, unnerved by the distressing outward aspect of it, Carteret could not determine. But he divined, and rightly, that she was in process of ranging herself, at least subconsciously, with a new and terrible experience which, could she learn the lesson of it aright would temper her nature to worthy issues.
Hence, with a peculiar and tender interest, he watched her when, coming down in the morning, he found her already in the dining-room, the pleasant amenities of a well-ordered, hospitable house and household abundantly evident.
Whatever the tragic occurrences of the last twelve hours, domestic discipline was in no respect relaxed. The atmosphere of the room distilled a morning freshness. Furniture and flooring shone with polish, a log fire, tipped by dancing flames, burned in the low wide grate. Upon the side-table, between the westward facing windows, a row of silver chafing-dishes gave agreeable promise of varied meats; as did the tea and coffee service, arrayed before Damaris, of grateful beverage. While she herself looked trim, and finished in white silk shirt and russet-red suit, her toilet bearing no sign of indifference or of haste.
That her complexion matched her shirt in colour—or rather in all absence of it—that her face was thin, its contours hardened, her eyebrows drawn into a little frown, her eyes enormous, sombre and clouded as with meditative thought, increased, in Carteret's estimation, assurance of her regained self-mastery and composure. Nor did a reticence in her manner displease him.
"I have persuaded Aunt Felicia to breakfast upstairs," she told him. "Dr. McCabe sends me word he—my father—wishes to rest for the present, so I engaged Aunt Felicia to rest too. She was wonderful."
Damaris' voice shook slightly, as did her hand lifting the coffee-pot.
"She stayed up all night. So did you, I'm afraid, didn't you, Colonel Sahib?"
"Oh, for me that was nothing. A bath, a change, and ten minutes out there on the battery watching the sun come up over the sea," Carteret said. "So don't waste compassion on me. I'm as fit as a fiddle and in no wise deserve it."
"Ah! but you and Aunt Felicia did stay," she repeated, her hands still rather tremulously busy with coffee-pot and milk jug. "You were faithful and I no better than a shirker. I fell through, miserably lost myself, which was selfish, contemptible. I am ashamed. Only I was so startled. I never really knew before such—such things could be.—Forgive me, Colonel Sahib. I have been to Aunt Felicia and asked her forgiveness already.—And don't think too meanly of me, please. The shirking is over and done with for always. You may trust me it never will happen again—my losing myself as I did last night, I mean."
In making this appeal for leniency, her eyes met Carteret's fairly for the first time; and he read in them, not without admiration and a twinge of pain, both the height of her new-born, determined valour and the depth of her established distress.
"You needn't tell me that, you needn't tell me that, dear witch," he answered quickly. "I was sure of it all along. I knew it was just a phase which would have no second edition. So put any question of shame or need of forgiveness out of your precious head. You were rushed up against circumstances, against a revelation, calculated to stagger the most seasoned campaigner. You did not shirk; but it took you a little time to get your bearings. That was all. Don't vex your sweet soul with quite superfluous reproaches.—Sugar? Yes, and plenty of it I am afraid.—But you, too, must eat."
And on her making some show of repugnance—
"See here, we can't afford to despise the day of small things, of minor aids to efficiency, dearest witch," he wisely admonished her.
Whereupon, emulous to please him, bending her will to his, Damaris humbled herself to consumption of a portion of the contents of the chafing-dishes aforesaid. To discover that, granted a healthy subject, sorrow queerly breeds hunger, the initial distaste for food—in the main a sentimental one—once surmounted.
Later McCabe joined them. Recognized Damaris' attitude of valour, and inwardly applauded it, although himself in woeful state. For he was hard hit, badly upset. Conscious of waste of tissue, he set about to restore it without apology or hesitation, trouble putting an edge to appetite in his case also, and that of formidable keenness. Bitterly he grieved, since bearing the patient, he feared very certainly to lose, an uncommon affection. He loved Charles Verity; while, from the worldly standpoint, his dealings with The Hard meant very much to him—made for glory, a feather in his cap visible to all and envied by many. Minus the fine flourish of it his position sank to obscurity. As a whist-playing, golf-playing, club-haunting, Anglo-Indian ex-civil surgeon—and Irishman at that—living in lodgings at Stourmouth, he commanded meagre consideration. But as chosen medical-attendant and, in some sort, retainer of Sir Charles Verity he ranked. The county came within his purview. Thanks to this connection with The Hard he, on occasion, rubbed shoulders with the locally great. Hence genuine grief for his friend was black-bordered by the prospect of impending social and mundane loss. The future frowned on him, view it in what terms he might. To use his own unspoken phrase, he felt "in hellishly low water."
One point in particular just now worried him. Thus, as fish, eggs, porridge, hot cakes, honey, and jam disappeared in succession, he opened himself to Damaris and Carteret. A difficult subject, namely that of a second opinion.—Let no thought of any wounding of his susceptibilities operate against the calling in of such. He was ready and willing to meet any fellow practitioner they might select—a Harley Street big-wig, or Dr. Maskall, of Harchester, whose advice in respect of cardiac trouble was wide sought.
He had, however, but just launched the question when Hordle entered and, walking to the head of the table, addressed Damaris.
"Sir Charles desires me to say he will be glad to see you, miss, when you are at liberty," he told her in muffled accents.
She sprang up, to pause an instant, irresolute, glancing wide-eyed at Carteret.
He had risen too. Coming round the corner of the table, he drew back her chair, put his hand under her elbow, went with her to the door.
"There is nothing to dread, dearest witch," he gently and quietly said. "Have confidence in yourself. God keep you—and him.—Now you are quite ready? That's right.—Well, then go."
Carteret waited, looking after her until, crossing the hall followed by Hordle, she passed along the corridor out of sight. Silent, preoccupied, he closed the door and took a turn the length of the room before resuming his place at the opposite side of the table to McCabe, facing the light.
The doctor, who had ceased eating and half risen to his feet at the commencement of this little scene, watched it throughout; at first indifferent, a prey to his own worries, but soon in quickening interest, shrewd enquiry and finally in dawning comprehension.
"Holy Mother of Mercy, so that's the lay of the land, is it?" and his loose lips shaped themselves to a whistle, yet emitted no sound. To obliterate all signs of which tendency to vulgar expression of enlightenment he rubbed moustache, mouth and chin with his napkin, studying Carteret closely meanwhile.
"In the pink of condition, by Gad—good for a liberal twenty years yet, and more—bar accident. Indefinite postponement of the grand climacteric in this case.—All the same a leetle, lee-tie bit dangerous, I'm thinking, for both, if she tumbles to it."
Then aloud—"Has the poor darling girl grasped the meaning of her father's illness do you make out, Colonel grasped the ugly eventualities of it?"
Carteret slowly brought his glance to bear on the speaker.
"I believe so, though she has not actually told me as much," he said—"And now about this question of a second opinion, McCabe?"
The easily huffed Irishman accepted the reproof in the best spirit possible, as confirming his own perspicacity.
"Quite so. Flicked him neatly on the raw, and he winced. All the same he's a white man, a real jewel of a fellow, worthy of good fortune if the ball's thrown his way. I wonder how long, by-the-by, this handsome game's been a-playing?"
With which, as requested, he returned to the rival claims of Harley Street and Harchester in respect of a consulting physician.
Carteret proved a faithful prophet, for in truth there was nothing to dread the beloved presence once entered, as Damaris thankfully registered.
The sun by now topped the hollies and shone into the study, flinging a bright slanting pathway across the dim crimson, scarlet and blue of the Turkey carpet. Charles Verity stood, in an open bay of the great window, looking out over the garden. Seen thus, in the still sunlight, the tall grey-clad figure possessed all its accustomed, slightly arrogant repose. Damaris thrilled with exalted hope. For the young are slow to admit even the verdict of fact as final. His attitude was so natural, so unstrained and unstudied, that the message of ghostly warning yesterday evening was surely discounted; while the subsequent terror of the night, that hideous battle with pain and suffocation, became to her incredible, an evil dream from which, in grateful ecstasy, she now awoke.
Her joy found expression.
"Dearest, dearest, you sent for me.—Is it to let me see you are really better, more beautifully recovered than they told me or I ventured to suppose?"
Her voice broke under a gladness midway between tears and laughter.
"The envious blades of Atropos' scissors have not cut the mortal thread yet anyhow," he answered, smiling, permitting himself the classic conceit as a screen to possible emotion. "But we won't build too much on the clemency of Fate. How long she proposes to wait before closing her scissors it is idle to attempt to say."
He laid his hands on Damaris' shoulders. Bent his head and kissed her upward pouted lips—thereby hushing the loving disclaimer which rose to them.
"So we will keep on the safe side of the event, my wise child," he continued. "Make all our preparations and thus deny the enemy any satisfaction of taking us unawares.—Can you write a business letter for me?"
"A dozen, dearest, if you wish," Damaris assented eagerly. Yet that image of the scissors stayed by her. Already her joy was sensibly upon the wane.
"Oh! one will be sufficient, I think—quite sufficient for this morning."
Charles Verity turned his head, looking seaward through the tranquil sunshine.
"That Indian appointment has to be suitably thanked for and—declined."
Damaris drew back a step so as to gain a clearer view of him. The hands resting on her shoulders were oddly inert, so she fancied, forceless and in temperature cold. Even through the thickness of cloth jacket and silk shirt she was aware of their lifelessness and chill. This roused rebellion in her. Her instinct was for fight. She made a return on McCabe's suggestion regarding further advice. She would demand a consultation, call in expert opinion. The dear man with the blue eyes—here her white face flushed rosy—would manage all that for her, and compel help in the form of the last word of medical science and skill.
"Might not your letter be put off for just a few days?" she pleaded, "in case—until"—
But Charles Verity broke in before she could finish her tender protest, a sadness, even hint of bitterness in his tone.
"You covet this thing so much," he said. "Your heart is so set on it?"
She made haste to reassure him.—No, no not that way, not for her. How could it signify, save on his account? She only cared because greedy of his advancement, greedy to have him exalted—placed where he belonged, on the summit, the apex, so that all must perceive and acknowledge his greatness. As to herself—and the flush deepened, making her in aspect deliciously youthful and ingenious—she confessed misgivings. Reported her talk with Carteret concerning the subject, and the scolding received from him thereupon.
"One more reason for writing in the sense I propose, then," her father declared, "since it sets your over-modest doubts and qualms at rest, my dear. That is settled."
His hands weighed on her shoulders as though he suddenly needed and sought support.
"I will sit down," he said. "There are other matters to be discussed, and I can, perhaps, talk more easily so."
He went the few steps across to the red chair. Sank into it. Leaned against the pillows, bending backward, his hand pressed to his left side. His features contracted, and his breath caught as of one spent with running. And Damaris, watching him, again received that desolating impression of change, of his being in spirit far removed, inaccessible to her sympathy, a stranger. He had gone away and rather terribly left her alone.
"Are you in pain?" she asked, agonized.
"Discomfort," he replied. "We will not dignify this by the name of pain. But I must wait for a time before dictating the letter. There's something I will ask you to do for me, my dear, meanwhile."
"Yes"—He paused, shifted his position, closed his eyes.
"Have you held any communication with—"
He stopped, for the question irked him. Even at this pass it went against the grain with him to ask of his daughter news of his son.
But in that pause our maiden's scattered wits very effectually returned to her.
"With Darcy Faircloth?" she said. And as Charles Verity bowed his head in assent—"Yes, I should have told you already but—but for all which has happened. He was here the day before yesterday. He came home from church with me.—That was my doing, not his, to begin with. You mustn't think he put himself forward—took advantage, I mean, of your being away. If there is any blame it is mine."
"Mine, rather—and of long standing. God forgive me!"
But Damaris, fairly launched now upon a wholly welcome topic, would have none of this. To maintain her own courage, and, if it might be, combat that dreaded withdrawal of his spirit into regions where she could not follow, she braced herself to reason with him.
"No—there indeed you are mistaken, dearest," she gently yet confidently asserted. "You take the whole business topsy-turvy fashion, quite wrong way round. I won't weary you with explanations of exactly what led to Darcy Faircloth coming here with me on Sunday. But you ought to know that he and Aunt Felicia met. I hadn't planned that. It just happened. And she was lovely to him—lovely to us both. She made him stay to luncheon—inviting him in your name."
"I seem to possess a singular gift for saddling my relations with the payment of my bad debts," Charles Verity remarked.
"But there isn't any bad debt—that's what I so dearly want you to believe, what I'm trying so hard, Commissioner Sahib, to tell you," Damaris cried. "Afterwards, when he and I were alone by ourselves, the ice broke somehow, he gave himself away and said beautiful things—things about you which made me delightfully happy, and showed how he has felt towards you all along."
Simply, without picking of her words, hesitation or artifice, Damaris repeated that somewhat sinister tale of the sea. Of a sailing ship, becalmed through burning days and stifling nights in tropic waters. Of the ill-doings of a brutal, drunken captain. Of a fly-blown eating-house in Singapore. Of the spiritual deliverance there achieved through sight of Charles Verity's name and successful record in the columns of a Calcutta newspaper; and the boy's resultant demand for the infliction of some outward and visible sign, some inalienable stigmata, which should bear perpetual witness to the fact of his parentage.
"So you see"—
Damaris kindled, standing before him, flamed indeed to a rare carelessness of convention, of enjoined pruderies and secrecies.—
"You gave him the beautiful gift of life to begin with; and saved his life later when he was so miserably tempted to end it. As he loves life, where then is the debt?—Not on your side certainly, dearest."
Listening to which fondly exalted sophistries—for sophistries from worldly and moral standpoint alike must he not surely pronounce them?—Charles Verity still received comfort to his soul. They ought to be reckoned mistaken, of course, transparently in error, yet neither son nor daughter condemned him. Neither did his sister, in the pathetic innocence and purity of her middle-age maidenhood.
This moved him to thankfulness, none the less genuine because shot with self-mockery. For he was curious to observe how, as the last urgings of ambition and thirst of power fell away from him,—he riding under escort of Death, the black captain—all tributes of human tenderness and approval gained in value.—Not the approval of notable personages, of those high in office, nor even that of sympathetic critics and readers; but of persons in his own immediate voisinage, bound to him by friendship, by association, or the tie of blood.—Their good-will was precious to him as never before. He craved to be in perfect amity with every member of that restricted circle. Hence it vexed and fretted him to know the circle incomplete, through the exclusion of one rather flagrantly intimate example. Yet to draw the said member, the said example, within the circle, yielding it the place which it might rightfully aspire to occupy, amounted—after half a lifetime of abstention and avoidance—to a rather tremendous demonstration, one which might well be hailed as extravagant, as a courting of offence possible only to a sentimental egoist of most aggravated kind.
And he was tired—had no smallest inclination towards demonstrations. For the threatening of heart spasm, to which he lately denied the title of pain, though of short duration, affected him adversely, sapping his strength. His mind, it is true, remained clear, even vividly receptive; but, just as earlier this morning, his will proved insufficient for its direction or control. He mused, his chin sunk on his breast, his left hand travelling down over the long soft moustache, his eyes half closed. Thought and vision followed their own impulse, wandering back and forth between the low-caste eating-house in the sweltering heat and perfumed stenches of the oriental, tropic seaport; and the stone-built English inn—here on Marychurch Haven—overlooking the desolate waste of sand-hills, the dark reed-beds and chill gleaming tides.
For love of Damaris, his daughter, while still in the heat of his prime, he had foresworn all traffic with women. Yet now, along with the tacitly admitted claims of the son, arose the claim of the mistress, mother of that son—in no sensual sort, but with a certain wildness of bygone romance, wind and rain-swept, unsubstantial, dim and grey. Ever since conviction of the extreme gravity of his physical condition dawned on him, the idea of penetrating the courts of that deserted sanctuary had been recurrent. In the summing up of his human, his earthly, experience, romance deserved, surely, a word of farewell? Damaris' story served to give the idea a fuller appeal and consistency.
But he was tired—tired. He longed simply to drift. It was infinitely distasteful to him definitely to plan, or to decide respecting anything.
Meanwhile his continued silence and abstraction wore badly upon Damaris. She had steeled herself; had flamed, greatly daring. Now reaction set in. Her effort proved vain. She had failed. For once more she recognized that an unknown influence, a power dark and incalculably strong—so she figured it—regained ascendency over her father, working to the insidious changing of his nature, strangely winning him away. Waiting for some response, some speech or comment on his part, fear and the sense of helplessness assailed, and would have submerged her, had she not clung to Carteret's parting "God bless you" and avowed faith in her stability, as to a wonder-working charm. Nor did the charm fail in efficacy.—Oh! really he was a wonderful sheet-anchor, "the shadow of a great rock in a weary land," that dear man with the blue eyes! Consciously she blessed him.—And, thanks to remembrance of him, presently found voice and purpose once again.
"You aren't displeased with me, dearest?" she asked.
"Displeased?" Charles Verity repeated, at first absently. "Displeased, my dear, no—why?"
"We didn't do wrong?"—labouring the point, the more fully to recall and retain him—"Didn't take too much upon ourselves—Aunt Felicia, I mean, and I—by persuading Darcy Faircloth to stay on Sunday, by entertaining him when you were away? Or—or have I been stupid, dearest, and thoughtlessly wearied you by talking too much and too long?"
"Neither," he said. "On the contrary, all you have told me goes to lessen certain difficulties, make the crooked, in some degree, straight and rough places plain."
For, if Faircloth had been here so recently, broken bread too in the house, so he argued, it became the easier to bid him return. And Charles Verity needed to see him, see him this morning—since purpose of farewells, to be spoken in those long-deserted courts of romance, stiffened, becoming a thing not merely to be turned hither and thither in thought, but to be plainly and directly done.—"Send for him in your own name," he said. "Explain to him how matters stand, and ask him to talk with me."
And, as Damaris agreed, rejoiced by the success of her adventurous diplomacy, making to go at once and give the required instructions—
"Stay—stay a moment," her father said, and drew her down to sit on the chair-arm, keeping her hand in his, and with his other hand stroking it wistfully. For though certain difficulties might be sensibly lessened, they were not altogether removed; and he smiled inwardly, aware that not even in the crack of doom are feminine rights over a man other than conflicting and uncommonly ticklish to adjust.
"Before we commit ourselves to further enterprises, my darling, let us quite understand one another upon one or two practical points—bearing in mind the blades of Atropos' envious scissors. My affairs are in order"—Damaris shrank, piteously expostulated.
"Oh! but must we, are we obliged to speak of those things? They grate on me—Commissioner Sahib, they are ugly. They hurt."
"Yes—distinctly we are obliged to speak of them. To do so can neither hasten nor retard the event. All the more obliged to speak of them, because I have never greatly cared about money, except for what I could do with it.—As a means, of vast importance. As an end, uninteresting.—So it has been lightly come and lightly go, I am afraid. All the same I've not been culpably improvident. A portion of my income dies with me; but enough remains to secure you against any anxiety regarding ways and means, if not to make you a rich woman. I have left an annuity to your Aunt Felicia. Her means are slender, dear creature, and her benevolence outruns them, so that she balances a little anxiously, I gather, on the edge of debt. The capital sum will return to you eventually. Carteret and McCabe consented, some years ago, to act as my executors. Their probity and honour are above reproach.—Now as to this place—if you should ever wish to part with it, let Faircloth take it over. I have made arrangements to that effect, about which I will talk with him when he comes.—Have no fear lest I should say that which might wound him. I shall be as careful, my dear, of his proper pride as of my own.—Understand I have no desire to circumscribe either your or his liberty of action unduly. But this house, all it contains, the garden, the very trees I see from these windows, are so knitted into the fabric of my past life that I shrink—with a queer sense of homelessness—from any thought of their passing into the occupation of strangers.—Childish, pitifully weak-minded no doubt, and therefore the more natural that one should crave a voice, thus in the disposition of what one has learned through long usage so very falsely to call one's own!"
"We will do exactly what you wish, even to the littlest particular, I promise you—both for Faircloth and for myself," Damaris answered, forcing herself to calmness and restraint of tears.
He petted her hands silently until, as the minutes passed, she began once more to grow fearful of that dreadful unknown influence insidiously possessing him and winning him away. And he may have grown fearful of it too, for he made a sharp movement, raising his shoulders as though striving to throw off some weight, some encumbrance.
"There is an end, then, of business," he said, "and of such worldly considerations. I need worry you with them no more. Only one thing remains, of which, before I speak to others, it is only seemly, my darling, I should speak to you."