Charles Verity lifted his eyes to hers, and she perceived his spirit as now in nowise remote; but close, evident almost to the point of alarm. It looked out from the wasted face, at once—to her seeing—exquisite and austere, reaching forward, keenly curious of all death should reveal, unmoved, yet instinct with the brilliance, the mirthfulness even, of impending portentous adventure.
"You know, Damaris, how greatly I love and have loved you—how dear you have been to me, dearer than the satisfaction of my own flesh?"
Speech was beyond her. She looked back, dazzled and for the moment broken.
"Therefore it goes hard with me to ask anything which might, ever so distantly, cause you offence or distress. Only time presses. We are within sight of the end."
"Ah! no—no," she exclaimed, wrenching away her hands and beating them together, passion of affection, of revolt and sorrow no more to be controlled. "How can I bear it, how can I part with you? I will not, I will not have you die.—McCabe isn't infallible. We must call in other doctors. They may be cleverer, may suggest new treatment, new remedies. They must cure you—or if they can't cure, at least keep you alive for me. I won't have you die!"
"Call in whom you like, as many as you like, my darling, the whole medical faculty if it serves to pacify or to content you," he said, smiling at her.
Damaris repented. Took poor passion by the throat, stifling its useless cries.
"I tire you. I waste your strength. I think only of myself, of my own grief, most beloved, my own consuming grief and desolation.—See—I will be good—I am good. What else is there you want to have me do?"
"This—but recollect you are free to say me nay, without scruple or hesitation. I shall not require you to give your reasons, but shall bow, unreservedly, to your wishes. For you possess a touchstone in such questions as the one now troubling me, which, did I ever possess it, I lost, as do most men, rather lamentably early in my career. If you suffer me to do so, I will ask Darcy Faircloth to bring his mother here to me, this evening at dusk, when her coming will not challenge impertinent observation—so that I may be satisfied no bitterness colours her thought of me and that we part in peace, she and I."
Damaris got up from her seat on the arm of the red-covered chair. She stood rigid, her expression reserved to blankness, but her head carried high.
"Of course," she said, a little hoarsely, and waited. "Of course. How could I object? Wasn't it superfluous even to ask me? Your word, dearest, is law."
"But in the present case hardly gospel?"
"Yes—gospel too—since it is your word. Gospel, that is, for me. Let Darcy Faircloth bring his mother here by all means. Only I think, perhaps, this is all a little outside my province. It would be better you should make the—the appointment with him yourself. I will send to him directly. Patch can take a note over to the island. I would prefer to have Patch go as messenger than either of the other men."
She walked towards the door. Stopped half-way and turned, hearing her father move. And as she turned—her eyes quick with enquiry as to his case, but inscrutable as to her own—Charles Verity rose too and held out his arms in supreme invitation. She came swiftly forward and kissed him, while with all the poor measure of force left him, he strained her to his breast.
"Have I asked too much from you, Damaris, and, in the desire to make sure of peace elsewhere, endangered the perfection of my far dearer peace with you?"
She leaned back from the waist, holding her head away from him and laid her hand on his lips.
"Don't blaspheme, most beloved," she said, "I have no will but yours."
Again she kissed him, disengaged herself very gently, and went.
CHAPTER THE EIGHTH WHICH IS ALSO CHAPTER THE LAST
At Lady's Oak—an ancient forest boundary—where the main road forks, Damaris swung the dog-cart to the left, across the single-arch stone bridge spanning the Arne; and on, up the long winding ascent from the valley-bottom to the moorlands patched with dark fir plantations, which range inland from behind Stourmouth. This constituted the goal of her journey; for, the high-lying plateau reached, leagues of open country are disclosed north and west, far as the eye carries, to the fine bare outline of the Wiltshire Downs. She asked for wide prospects, for air and ample space; but as floored by stable earth rather than by the eternal unrest and "fruitless, sonorous furrows" of the sea.
Ever since the day of the funeral, now nearly a fortnight ago, Damaris had kept within the sheltering privacy of the house and grounds. That day, one of soft drizzling rain and clinging ground fog, had also been to her one of hardly endurable distraction. Beneath assumption of respectful silence, it jarred, boomed, took notes, debated, questioned. Beneath assumption of solemnity, it peeped and stared. Her flayed nerves and desolated heart plagued her with suspicions of insincerity.
In as far as Colonel Carteret controlled proceedings all had been marked by reverent simplicity. But where the carcass is, the eagles, proverbially, gather. And unfeathered fowl, in their own estimation eminently representative of that regal species, flocked to Deadham church and to The Hard.
If—to vary our metaphor—some, in the past, inclined to stone the living prophet, these now outvied one another in their alacrity to bedeck his tomb. Dr. Cripps, for example, hurried to offer himself as pall-bearer—a request the more readily disposed of that there was no pall. While Archdeacon Verity, to cite a second example and from a higher social level, supported by his elder son Pontifex—domestic chaplain to the Bishop of Harchester—insisted on sharing with Canon Horniblow the melancholy honour of reading the burial service.
For the rest, the head, and lesser members of the family, from the big house at Canton Magna, were solidly, not to say rather aggressively in evidence. With them Mrs. Cowden and her husband-satellite, the Honourable Augustus joined forces on arriving from Paulton Lacy.—Lord Bulparc drove over from Napworth Castle. The country, indeed, showed up with commendable indifference to depressing atmospheric conditions. Marychurch sent a contingent. Stourmouth followed suit in the shape of General Frayling—attended by Marshall Wace in full clerical raiment—bearing a wreath of palm, violets, and myrtle wholly disproportionate in bulk and circumference to his own shrivelled and rather tottery form.—Of this unlooked for advent more hereafter.—Other distinguished soldiers came from Aldershot and down from town. A permanent Under Secretary, correct but visibly bored, represented the India Office.
The parish, neglecting its accustomed industries and occupations, mustered in strength; incited thereto, not only by the draw of recently resurrected scandal, but by news of the appointment recently offered Sir Charles Verity, which had somehow got noised abroad. The irony of his illness and death occurring precisely when he was invited to mount nothing less—according to local report—than an oriental throne, sufficed to stir the most lethargic imagination. Moralists of the Reginald Sawyer school might read in this the direct judgment of an offended deity. Deadham, however, being reprehensibly clannish, viewed the incident otherwise; and questioned—thanks to an ingeniously inverted system of reasoning—whether the said Reginald Sawyer hadn't laid himself open to a charge of manslaughter or of an even graver breach of the Decalogue.
Theresa Bilson—in whose hat artificial buttercups and daisies hastily made room for bows of crape—lurked in the humble obscurity of the free seats near the west door. To right and left she was flanked by a guardian Miss Minett; but these ladies to-day were but broken reeds on which to lean. They still laboured under a sense of having been compromised, and of resultant social ostracism. This, although their former parsonic lodger had vanished from the scene on the day following his threatened immersion—a half-hearted proposition on his part of "facing out the undeserved obloquy, living down the coarse persecution" meeting with as scant encouragement from his ecclesiastical superior, the vicar, as from themselves. Theresa—it really was hard on her—shared their eclipse. Hence the humble obscurity of the free seats, where she sniffed, dabbed her eyes and gurgled, unheeded and unseen.
Finally young Tom Verity—home on his first long leave—having accompanied the family party from Canton Magna and feeling his sense of humour unequal to the continued strain of their sublime insularity, benevolently herded two stately, though shivering, turbanned native gentlemen, who reached Deadham during the early stages of the ceremony no one quite knew whence or when. In the intervals of his self-imposed duties, he found time to admire the rich unction of his father, the Archdeacon's manner and voice.
"Plus ca change, plus la meme chose," he quoted gleefully. "What a consummate fraud the dear old governor is; and how deliciously innocent of the fact, that he imposes upon no one half so successfully as he does upon himself!"
Our young man also found time, from afar, to admire Damaris; but, let it be added, to a very different tune. Her beauty came as surprise to him as having much more than fulfilled its early promise. He found it impressive beyond that of any one of the many ladies, mature or callow, with whom it was his habit largely to flirt. So far he could congratulate himself on having successfully withstood the wiles of matrimony—but by how near a shave, at times by how narrow a squeak! If that fine parental fraud, the Archdeacon, had but known!—Tom, undeterred by the solemnity of the occasion, hunched up his shoulders like a naughty boy expecting his ears boxed.—But then—thank the powers, the Archdeacon so blessedly and refreshingly didn't, and, what was more, didn't in the very least want to know. He never asked for trouble; but, like the priest and Levite of sacred parable, carefully passed by on the other side when trouble was about.
Our young friend looked again at Damaris. Yes—she had beauty and in the grand manner, standing there at the foot of the open brick-lined grave, calm, immobile, black-clad, white-faced, in the encircling melancholy of the drizzling mist. With the family grouped about her, large-boned, pompous, well-fed persons, impervious to general ideas as they were imperviously prosperous, he compared her to a strayed deer amongst a herd of store cattle. Really, with the exception of his cousin Felicia and—naturally—of himself, the Verity breed was almost indecently true to type. Prize animals, most of them, he granted, still cattle—for didn't he detect an underlying trace of obstinate bovine ferocity in their collective aspect?
Damaris' calm and immobility exceeded theirs. But in quality and source how far removed, how sensitive and intelligent! Her mourning was in the grand manner, too, her grief sincere and absolute to the extent of a splendid self-forgetfulness. She didn't need to pose; for that forgotten self could be trusted—in another acceptation of the phrase—never to forget itself.
And here Tom Verity's agreeable frivolity, the astute and witty shiftiness of mind and—in a degree—of practice, for which he so readily found excuses and forgave himself, made place for nobler apprehensions. Not merely Damaris', just now, rather tragic beauty moved and impressed him; but some quality inherent in her upon which he felt disposed to confer the title of genius. That was going far.—Mentally he pulled himself up short.—For wasn't it going altogether too far—absurdly so? What the dickens did this excessive admiration portend? Could he have received the coup de foudre?—He had to-day a fancy for French tags, in reaction from the family's over-powering Englishness.—That wouldn't suit his book in the very least. For in the matters of the affections he held it thriftless, to the confines of sheer lunacy, to put all your eggs into one basket. He, therefore, politicly abstained from further observation of Damaris; and, with engaging assiduity, reapplied himself to herding the two native gentlemen through the remainder of the ceremony and, at the conclusion of it, into the mildewed luxury of a Marychurch landau.
Deadham parish went home to its tea that evening damp, not to say dripping, but well pleased with the figure it had cut in the public eye. For it had contributed its quota to contemporary history; and what parish can, after all, do more! Reporters pervaded it armed with note-books and pencils. They put questions, politely requested a naming of names. The information furnished in answer would reach the unassailable authority of print, giving Deadham opportunity to read the complimentary truth about itself. Still better, giving others opportunity to read the complimentary truth about Deadham. Hence trade and traffic of sorts, with much incidental replenishing of purses. Great are the uses of a dead prophet to the keepers of his tomb! Not within the memory of the oldest inhabitant had any funeral been so largely or honourably attended. Truly it spelled excellent advertisement—and this although two persons, calculated mightily to have heightened interest and brought up dramatic and emotional values, were absent from the scene.
For Lesbia Faircloth, giving her barman and two women servants a holiday, closed the inn at noon. Alone within the empty house, she locked the outer doors. Drew the blinds, reducing the interior to uniform, shadow-peopled obscurity, with the exception of her own bed-chamber. There she left one small square window—set deep in the stone work of the wall—open and uncurtained.
It faced the causeway and perspective of lane skirting the warren and leading to the high road and village. Looking out thence, in winter when the trees were bare, she could see Deadham church, crowning its monticule, part of the sloping graveyard and, below these in the middle distance, the roofs and gables of the village street.
To-day the view was obliterated. For here, at the river level, mist and drizzle took the form of fog. Opaque, chill and dank, it drifted in continuous, just perceptible, undulations past and in at the open casement. Soon the air of the room grew thick and whitish, the dark oak furniture and the floor boards furred with moisture. Yet, her methodical closure of the house complete, Lesbia Faircloth elected to sit in full inward sweep of it, drawing a straight-backed chair, mounted on roughly carpentered rockers, close to the window.
A handsome woman still, though in her late fifties, erect and of commanding presence, her figure well-proportioned if somewhat massive. Her dark hair showed no grey. Her rather brown skin was clear, smooth and soft in texture. Her eyes clear, too, watchful and reticent; on occasion—such as the driving of a business bargain say, or of a drunken client—hard as flint. Her mouth, a wholesome red, inclined to fullness; but had been governed to straightness of line—will dominant, not only in her every movement, but in repose as she now sat, the chair rockers at a backward tilt, her capable and well-shaped hands folded on her black apron in the hollow of her lap.
Putting aside all work for once, and permitting herself a space of undisturbed leisure, she proceeded to cast up her account with love and life in as clear-headed, accurate a fashion as she would have cast up the columns of cash-book or ledger—and found the balance on the credit side. So finding it, she turned her head and looked across the room at the wide half-tester wooden bed, set against the inner wall—the white crochet counterpane of which, an affair of intricate fancy patterns and innumerable stitches, loomed up somewhat ghostly and pallid through the gloom. A flicker of retrospective victory passed across her face, attesting old scores as paid. For there, through sleepless nights, nursing the ardours and disgust of her young womanhood, she lay barren beside her apple-cheeked, piping-voiced spouse, his wife in name only. There later, times having, as by miracle, changed for her, she gave birth to her son.
If somewhat pre-christian in instinct and in nature, the child of a more ancient and a simpler world, she was in no sort slow of intelligence or wanton. What had been, sufficed her. She cried out neither for further indulgence of passion, nor against barriers imposed by circumstance and class. That which she had done, she had done open-eyed, counting and accepting the cost. Since then wooers were not lacking; but she turned a deaf ear to all and each. A frank materialist in some ways, she proved an idealist in this. No subsequent love passage could rival, in wonder or beauty, that first one; since, compared with Charles Verity, the men who subsequently aspired to her favours—whether in wedlock or out—were, to her taste, at best dull, loutish fellows, at worst no more than human jackasses or human swine.
And, through it all, she possessed the boy on whom to spend her heart, in whose interests to employ her foresight and singular capacity of money-making. For love's sake therefore, and for his sake also, she had lived without reproach, a woman chary even of friendship, chary, too, of laughter, chary above all of purposeless gaddings and of gossip. Business, and the boy's sea-going or returning, might take her as far as Southampton, Plymouth, Cardiff, more rarely London or some northern port. But Deadham village rarely beheld her, and never, it is to be feared, did the inside of Deadham church.
Yet Deadham church bell plaintively, insistently tolling, the sound reaching her muted by the thickness of the fog, kept her attention on the stretch for the ensuing hour. Startling as it was poignant, Charles Verity's demand to see her, six days ago, brought the story of her love to full circle. Their meeting had been of the briefest, for he was exhausted by pain. But that he had sent, and she had gone, was unlocked for largesse on the part of fortune, sufficient to give her deep-seated and abiding sense of healing and of gain. And this stayed by her now, rather than any active call for mourning.
She inhaled the dank chillness of the fog gratefully. It suited the occasion better far than sunshine and bright skies. For winter, darkness, sullen flowing waters and desolate crying winds furnished the accompaniment of those earlier meetings. Hearing the tolling bell she strove to relive them, and found she did so with singularly mounting wealth and precision of detail. Not only vision but sense pushed backward and inward, revitalizing what had been; until she ached with suspense and yearning, shrewdly evaded dangers, surmounted obstructions by action at once bold and wary and tasted the transfiguring rapture of the end attained.
In the soberness of her middle years, occupied as she was with the rough, exacting business of the inn, and with the management of accumulating landed and other property—anxiety born of her son's perilous calling never absent from her thought—Lesbia Faircloth inclined to live exclusively in the present. Hence the colours of her solitary passion had somewhat faded, becoming clouded and dim. Recent events—led by the ugly publicity of Reginald Sawyer's sermon—served to revive those colours. To-day they glowed rich and splendid, a robing of sombre glory to her inward and backward searching sight.
The bell tolled quicker, announcing the immediate approach of the dead. Lesbia listened, her head raised, her face, turned to open window, felt over by the clammy, impalpable fingers of the fog.
Now they bore the coffin up the churchyard path, as she timed it. She wondered who the bearers might be, and whether they carried it shoulder high? The path was steep; and Charles Verity, though spare and lean, broad of chest and notably tall. Bone tells. They would feel the weight, would breathe hard, stagger a little even and sweat.
And with this visualizing of grim particulars, love, bodily love and desire of that which rested stark and for ever cold within the narrow darkness of the coffin—shut away from all comfort of human contact and the dear joys of a woman's embrace—rushed on her like a storm, buffeted and shook her, so that she looked to right and to left as asking help, while her hands worked one upon the other in the hollow of her lap.
Nor did Darcy Faircloth figure in Deadham's record funeral gathering. Upon the day preceding it, having watched by Charles Verity's corpse during the previous night, he judged it well to take his new command—a fine, five-thousand-ton steamer, carrying limited number of passengers as well as cargo, and trading from Tilbury to the far East and to Japan, via the Cape.
In his withdrawal, at this particular date, Miss Felicia hailed a counsel of perfection which commanded, and continued to command, alike her enthusiastic approval and unfeigned regret. For that he should so seasonably efface himself, argued—in her opinion—so delightful a nature, such nice thought for others, such chivalrous instincts and excellent good taste!—All the more lamentable, then, effacement should be, from social, moral or other seasons, required.—Yet for the family to gain knowledge of certain facts without due preparation—how utterly disastrous! Think of her half-sister, Harriet Cowden, for instance, with a full-grown and, alas! wrong-way-about, step-nephew bounced on her out of a clear sky, and on such an occasion too.—The bare notion of what that formidable lady, not only might, but quite certainly would look and say turned Miss Felicia positively faint.—No—no, clearly it had to be—it had to be—or rather—she became incoherent—had not to be, if only for dearest Charles's sake. Yet what a ten thousand pities; for notwithstanding the plebeian origin on the mother's side, didn't Faircloth—these reflections came later—really surpass every male Verity present, young Tom included, though she confessed to a very soft spot in her heart for young Tom?—Surpass them, just as her brother Charles had always surpassed them in good looks and charm as in inches, above all in his air of singular good-breeding? And how extraordinarily he had transmitted this last to Faircloth, notwithstanding the—well, the drawback, the obstacle to—Miss Felicia did not finish the sentence, though in sentiment becoming sweetly abandoned. For how she would have revelled, other things being equal—which they so deplorably weren't—in shaking this singularly attractive nephew in the family's collective face, just to show them what dearest Charles—who they never had quite understood or appreciated—could do in the matter of sons, when he once set about it, even against admittedly heavy odds!
As it was, she had to pacify her gentle extravagance by subjecting the said nephew's hand to a long tremulous pressure at parting.—He, worn, blanched, a little strange from the night's lonely and very searching vigil; she patchily pink as to complexion, fluttered, her candid eyes red-lidded.—Pacify herself by assuring him she could never express how deeply she had felt his unselfish devotion during this time of trouble—felt his—his perfect attitude towards her dearest brother—his father—or the consideration he had shown towards Damaris and herself.
"You can count on my unswerving affection, my dear Darcy," she had said. Adding with, to him, very touching humility—"And any affection you have to give me in return I shall cherish most gratefully, be very sure of that."
All which, as shall presently be shown, brings our narrative, though by devious courses, back to Damaris sweeping the dog-cart to the left across the bridge spanning the Arne, and on up the long winding ascent, from the woods and rich meadows in the valley to the wide prospects and keener air of the moorland above.
Until now, as already chronicled, she had remained in house or garden, prey to an apathy which, while not amounting to definite ill-health, refused interest and exertion. She could not shake it off. To her all things were empty, blank, immensely purposeless. Religion failed to touch her state—religion, that is, in the only form accessible. The interior of some frowning Gothic church of old Castile, or, from another angle, of some mellow Latin basilica, might have found the required mystic word to say to her. But Protestantism, even in its mild Anglican form, shuts the door on its dead children with a heavy hand.—And she suffered this religious coldness, although any idea that death of the body implies extinction of the spirit, extinction of personality, never occurred to her. Damaris' sense of the unseen was too ingrained, her commerce with it too actual for that. No—the spirit lived on. He, her most beloved, lived on, himself, his very self; but far away from her. In just this consisted the emptiness, the unspeakable and blank bitterness—he was somewhere and she could not reach him. The dreadful going away of his spirit, against which she had fought during the thirty-six hours of his illness, had reached its ordained consummation—that was all.
The body which had contained and by that beloved spirit been so nobly animated, in its present awful peace, its blind dumb majesty, meant scarcely more to her than some alabaster or waxen effigy of her dead. It was so like, yet so terrifyingly unlike Charles Verity in life!—She had visited it morning and evening, since to leave it in solitude appeared wanting in reverence. Throughout each night she thankfully knew that either Carteret, McCabe or Faircloth watched by it. Yet to her it hardly retained as much of her father's natural presence as the clothes he had worn, the books and papers littering his writing-table, the chair he preferred to sit in, his guns and swords upon the wall, or the collection of fishing-rods, walking-sticks and his spud stacked in a corner.
After the strain and publicity of the funeral her apathy deepened, perplexing and saddening Carteret and bringing Miss Felicia near to veritable wailing. For while thanking them both she, in fact, put them both aside. This in no sour or irritable humour; but with a listlessness and apartness hopeless to overcome. She prayed them to give her time. Soon she would begin again; but not just yet. She "couldn't begin again to order—couldn't make herself begin again. They must not trouble, only be patient with her, please, a little longer—she wasn't, indeed she wasn't, pretending"—a statement which, in its simplicity, cut Carteret to the quick—for "she meant to begin again directly she could."
To-day the weather took an encouraging turn for the better. Following the spell of fog and wet a northerly wind at last arose. It swept the sky clear of clouds, the land of melancholy vapours, begetting a brilliance of atmosphere which wooed our maiden to come forth and once more affront the open. She therefore ordered the dog-cart at two o'clock. Would herself drive; and, "if Aunt Felicia didn't mind and think her unsociable, would take Patch for sole company, because then"—renewed apologies—"she needn't talk and she felt disinclined to do so."
During the first half mile or so, as must be confessed, each prick of the black horse's ears and change in his pace sent a quake through her, as did the sight of every vehicle upon the road she passed or met. Her nerve was nowhere, her self-confidence in tatters. But, since this parlous state was, in the main, physical, air and movement, along with the direct call on her attention, steadied the one and knit up the ravelled edges of the other. By the time the plateau was reached and the hill lay behind her, she could afford to walk the horse, tentatively invite her soul, and attempt to hold communion with Nature. Sorrow—as well as the Napoleonic Patch—still sat very squarely beside her; but the nightmare of mortality, with consequent blankness and emptiness, was no longer omnipresent. Interest again stirred in her, the healthy instinct of going on.
Except in the foreground, where foxy browns of withered bracken and pink-shot browns of withered heather gave richness of tone, the colouring of the great view was somewhat cold. It dealt in thin, uncertain green, the buff of stubble, in sharp slate-like blues blended in places with indigo, the black purple of hawthorn hedges and grey-brown filigree of leafless trees.—This did her good, she asking to be strengthened and stimulated rather than merely soothed. To feel the harsh, untainted wind break against her, hear it shrill through the dry, shivering grasses of the roadside and sturdy spires of heath, to see it toss the dark crests and tufted branches of the outstanding firs at the edge of the plantation, brought up her morale. Brought her resignation, moreover—not of the self-indulgent order, of bowed head and languidly folded hands; but of the sort which acknowledges loss and sorrow as common to the sum of human experience, places it in its just relation to the rest, and, though more heavily weighted than before, takes up the onward march, sobered perhaps yet undismayed.
Sins of omission began to prick her. The domestic establishment ran on wheels, even during the recent stress and agitation, though she had ceased to exercise control over it. Now it must be reorganized—and probably on a less liberal footing.—But these were minor questions, comparatively simple to cope with. Her life had been full, it must find fresh purpose, fresh interest and occupation, in a word, be refilled.
Literature allured her. She dreamed of wonderful tellings, dreamed of the engrossing joys of the written word. But in what form—poetry, essay, history, novel?—The extreme limitation of her own knowledge, or rather the immensity of her own ignorance, confronted her. And that partly through her own fault, for she had been exclusive, fastidious, disposed to ignore both truths and people who offended her taste or failed to strike her fancy. Hitherto she had been led by fancy and feeling rather than by reasoned principle. She must at once simplify, broaden and democratize her outlook. Must force herself to remember that respect is, in some sort, due to everything—however unbeautiful, however even vile or repugnant—which is a constant quantity in human affairs and human character, due to everything in the realm of Nature also, however repellent, if it is really so, actually exists.
In this connection the mysterious and haunting question of sex obtruded itself. And, along with it, the thought of two eminently diverse persons, namely Lesbia Faircloth and the dear, the more than ever dear, man with the blue eyes. That, in his agony, her father should have desired the visit of the former, once his mistress, had been very bitter to bear, provoking in Damaris a profound though silent jealousy. This had even come in some degree between her and Faircloth. For, in proportion as that visit more effectually united father and son, it abolished her position as intermediary between the two.
Recalling the incident jealousy moved her now, so that she gathered up the reins hastily and touched the horse with the whip. It sprang forward, danced and behaved, before settling down to the swinging trot which, in so handsome a fashion, ate up the blond road crossing the brown expanse of moor.
Damaris was surprised and distressed by the vehemence of her own emotion. That her jealousy was retrospective, and belonged to a past now over and done with, she admitted. Yet, thinking of her father's demand to see Lesbia, how amazingly deep it went, how profound, and lasting is the empire of "feeling in that way"—so she put it, falling back on her phrase of nearly three years ago, first coined at St. Augustin.
And this was where Carteret came in.—For he alone, of all men, had made her, Damaris, ever consciously "feel in that way."—A fact of immense significance surely, could she but grasp the full, the inner meaning of it—and one which entered vitally into the matter of "beginning again." Therefore, so she argued, the proposed simplifying, broadening, democratizing of her outlook must cover—amongst how much else!—the whole astonishing business of "feeling in that way."
She shrank from the conclusion as unwelcome. The question of sex was still distasteful to her. But she bade herself, sternly, not to shrink. For without some reasoned comprehension of it—as now dawned on her—the ways of human beings, of animals, of plants and, so some say, even of minerals, are unintelligible, arbitrary, and nonsensical. It is the push of life itself, essential, fundamental, which makes us "feel in that way"—the push of spirit yearning to be clothed upon with flesh, made visible and given its chance to enter the earthly arena, to play an individual part in the beautiful, terrible earthly scene. Therefore she must neglect it, reject it no longer. It had to be met and understood, if she would graduate in the school of reality; and in what other possible school is it worth while to graduate?
Reaching which climax in her argument, the selfishness of her recent behaviour became humiliatingly patent to her. From the whole household, but especially from Carteret and Aunt Felicia, she had taken all and given nothing in return. She had added to their grief, their anxieties, by her silence, her apathy, her whimsies.
"Patch," she asked suddenly, "which is the shortest way home, without going through Stourmouth and Marychurch? "—And, under his instructions, turned the dog-cart down a grassy side-track, heading south-east—her back now to the wind and inland country, her face to the larger horizon, the larger if more hazardous freedom of the sea.
Conversation, started thus by her enquiry, flourished in friendly, desultory fashion until, about three-quarters of an hour later, the front gates of The Hard came in sight. By then afternoon merged itself in early evening. Lights twinkled in the windows of the black cottages, upon the Island, and in those of Faircloth's inn. The sky flamed orange and crimson behind the sand-hills and Stone Horse Head. The air carried the tang of coming frost. Upon the hard gravel of the drive, the wheels of the dog-cart grated and the horse's hoofs rang loud.
Another Damaris came home to the Damaris who had set forth—a Damaris rested, refreshed, invigorated, no longer a passive but an active agent. Nevertheless, our poor maiden suffered some reaction on re-entering the house. For, so entering, her loss again confronted her as an actual entity. It sat throned in the lamp-lit hall. It demanded payment of tribute before permitting her to pass. Its attitude amounted, in her too fertile imagination, to a menace. Here, within the walls which had witnessed not only her own major acquaintance with sorrow, but so many events and episodes of strange and, sometimes, cruel import—super-normal manifestations, too, of which last she feared to think—she grew undone and weak, disposed to let tears flow, and yield once more to depression and apathy. The house was stronger than she. But—but—only stronger, surely, if she consented to turn craven and give way to it?—Whereupon she consciously, of set purpose, defied the house, denied its right to browbeat thus and enslave her. For had not she this afternoon, up on the moorland, found a finer manner of mourning than it imposed, a manner at once more noble and so more consonant with the temper and achievements of her beloved dead? She believed that she had.
On the hall table lay a little flight of visiting cards. Her mind occupied in silent battle with the house, Damaris glanced at them absently and would have passed on. But something in the half-deciphered printed names caught her attention. She bent lower, doubting if she could have read aright.
"Brig.-General and Mrs. Frayling."—Two smaller cards, also bearing the General's name, ranged with two others bearing that of "The Rev. Marshall Wace." A written inscription, in the corner of each, notified a leading hotel in Stourmouth as the habitat of their respective owners.
This little discovery affected Damaris to a singular extent. She had small enough wish for Henrietta Frayling's society at this juncture; still less for that of her attendant singer-reciter-parson. Yet their names, and the train of recollections evoked by these, made for the normal, the average, and, in so far, had on her a wholesome effect. For Henrietta, of once adored and now somewhat tarnished memory—soulless, finished, and exquisitely artificial to her finger-tips, beguiling others yet never herself beguiled beyond the limits of a flawless respectability—was wonderfully at odds with high tragedies of dissolution. How had the house received such a guest? How put up with her intrusion? But wasn't the house, perhaps, itself at a disadvantage, its sting drawn in presence of such invincible materialism? For how impress a creature at once so light and so pachydermatous? The position lent itself to rather mordant comedy.
In this sense, though not precisely in these phrases, did Damaris apprehend matters as, still holding Henrietta Frayling's visiting card in her hand, she crossed the hall and went into the drawing-room.
There, from upon the sofa behind the tea-table, through the warm soft radiance of shaded lamps and glowing fire, Felicia Verity uplifted her voice in somewhat agitated greeting. She made no preliminary affectionate enquiries—such as might have been expected—regarding her niece's outing or general well-being, but darted, not to say exploded, into the declaration:
"Darling, I am so exceedingly glad you weren't at home!—Mrs. Frayling's card?"
This, as the girl sat down on the sofa beside her.
"Then you know who's been here. I didn't intend to see anyone—unless poor little Theresa—But no, truly no one. Both Hordle and Mary were off duty—I ought not to have let them be away at the same time, perhaps, but I did feel they both needed a holiday, don't you know.—And either they had forgotten to give Laura my orders, or she lost her head, or was talked over. I daresay Mrs. Frayling insisted."
"Henrietta is not easily turned from her purpose," Damaris said.
"Exactly.—A very few minutes' conversation with her convinced me of that. And so I felt it would be unfair to blame Laura too severely. I should suppose Mrs. Frayling excessively clever in getting her own way. Poor Laura—even if she did know my orders, she hadn't a chance."
"Not a chance," Damaris repeated.
Once convalescence initiated, youth speedily regains its elasticity; and Aunt Felicia with her feathers ruffled, Aunt Felicia upon the warpath thus, presented a novel spectacle meriting observation. Evidently she and Henrietta had badly clashed!—A nice little demon of diversion stirred within Damaris. For the first time for many days she felt amused.
"Excessively clever," Miss Felicia continued.
—Without doubt the dear thing was finely worked up!—
"And, though I hardly like to make such accusation, none too scrupulous in her methods. She leads you on with a number of irrelevant comments and questions, until you find she's extracted from you a whole host of things you never meant to say. She is far too inquisitive—too possessive."
Miss Felicia ended on an almost violent note.
"Yes, Henrietta has a tiresome little habit of having been there first," Damaris said, a touch of weariness in her tone remembering past encounters.
Miss Felicia, caught by that warning tone, patted her niece's rather undiscoverable knee—undiscoverable because still covered by a heavy fur-lined driving coat—lovingly, excitedly.
"If you choose to believe her, darling," she cried, "which I, for one, emphatically don't."
Following which ardent profession of faith, or rather of scepticism, Miss Felicia attempted to treat the subject broadly. She soared to mountain-tops of social and psychological astuteness; but only to make hasty return upon her gentler self, deny her strictures, and snatch at the skirts of vanishing Christian charity.
"Men aren't so easily led away," she hopefully declared. "Nor can I think Mrs. Frayling so irresistible to each and all as she wishes one to imagine. She must magnify the number and, still more, the permanence of her conquests. No doubt she has been very much admired. I know she was lovely. I saw her once ages ago, at Tullingworth. Dearest Charles," the words came softly, as though her lips hesitated to pronounce them in so trivial a connection—"asked me to call on her as I was staying in the neighbourhood. She had a different surname then, by the way, I remember."
"Henrietta has had four in all—counting in her maiden name, I mean."
"Exactly," Miss Felicia argued, "and that, no doubt, does prejudice me a little against her. I suppose it is wrong, but when a woman marries so often one can't help feeling as if she ended by not being married at all—a mere change of partners, don't you know, which does seem rather shocking. It suggests such an absence of deep feeling.—Poor thing, I dare say that is just her nature; still it doesn't attract me. In fact it gives me a creep.—But I quite own she is pretty still, and extraordinarily well dressed—only too well dressed, don't you know, that is for the country.—More tea, darling. Yes, Mrs. Cooper's scones are particularly good this afternoon.—I wish I liked her better, Mrs. Frayling, I mean, because she evidently intends to be here a lot in future. She expressed the warmest affection for you. She was very possessive about you, more I felt than she'd any real right to be. That, I'm afraid, put my back up—that and one or two other things. She and General Frayling think of settling in Stourmouth for good, if Mr. Wace is appointed to the Deadham curacy."
"The curacy here?" Damaris echoed, a rather lurid light breaking in on her.
Miss Felicia's glance was of timid, slightly distressed, enquiry.
"Yes," she said, "Mr. Wace has applied for the curacy. He and General Frayling were to have an interview with Canon Horniblow this afternoon. They dropped Mrs. Frayling here on their way to the vicarage, and sent the fly back for her. She talked a great deal about Mr. Wace and his immense wish to come here. She gave me to understand it was his one object to"—
The speaker broke off, raised her thin, long-fingered hands to her forehead.
"I don't know," she said, "but really I feel perhaps, darling, it is better to warn you. She implied—oh! she did it very cleverly, really, in a way charmingly—but she implied that things had gone very hard with Mr. Wace that winter at St. Augustin, and that all he went through has remarkably developed and strengthened his character—that it, in fact, was what determined him to take Holy Orders. His difficulties melted before his real need for the support of religion. It would have all been most touching if one had heard a story of such devotion from anyone but—but her, about anyone but him—under the circumstances, poor young man—because—darling—well, because of you."
"Of me?" Damaris stiffened.
"Yes—that is just the point. Mrs. Frayling left me in no doubt. She was determined to make me understand just what Mr. Wace's attitude had been towards you—and that it is still unchanged."
Damaris got up. Pulled off her driving coat, gloves and hat. Threw them upon the seat of a chair. The act was symbolic. She felt suffocated, impelled to rid herself of every impediment. For wasn't she confronted with another battle—a worse one than that with the house, namely, a battle with her long-ago baby-love, and her father's love too—Henrietta.—Henrietta, so strangely powerful, so amazingly persistent—Henrietta who enclosed you in arms, apparently so soft but furnished with suckers, octopus arms adhering, never letting you go? She had played with the idea of this intrusion of Henrietta's and its effect upon Miss Felicia, at first as something amusing. It ceased to be amusing. It frightened her.
"And my attitude is unchanged, too," she said presently, gravely proud. "I didn't want to marry Marshall Wace then. I was dreadfully sorry when Henrietta told me he cared for me. I don't want to marry him or have him care for me one bit more now. I think it very interfering of Henrietta to trouble you with this. It is not the moment. She might at least have waited."
"So I felt," Miss Felicia put in. She watched her niece anxiously, as the latter went across to the fire-place and stood, her back to the room, looking down into the glowing logs.
For she had—or rather ought she not to have?—another communication to make which involved the fighting of a battle on her own account, not against Henrietta Frayling, still less against Damaris, but against herself. It trembled on the tip of her tongue. She felt impelled, yet sorrowed to utter it. Hence her wishes and purposes jostled one another, being tenderly, bravely, heroically even, contradictory. In speaking she invited the shattering of a dream of personal election to happiness—a late blossoming happiness and hence the more entrancing, the more pathetic. That any hope of the dream's fulfilment was fragile as glass, lighter than gossamer, the veriest shadow of a shade, her natural diffidence and sane sense, alike, convinced her. For this very cause, the dream being of the sweetest and most intimate, how gladly would she have cherished the enchanting foolishness of it a trifle longer!—Her act of heroism would earn no applause, moreover, would pass practically unnoticed. No one would be aware of her sacrifice. She would only gain the satisfaction of knowing she had done the perfectly right and generous thing by two persons who would never share that knowledge.—She blushed.—Heaven forbid they ever should share it—and thank her.
"Mrs. Frayling—I don't want"—
Miss Felicia stopped.
"What don't you want?"—This from Damaris over her shoulder, the pause being prolonged.
"To set you against her, darling"—
"I think," Damaris said, "I know all about Henrietta."
"She insinuates so much," Miss Felicia lamented.—"Or seems to do so. One grows wretchedly suspicious of her meaning. Perhaps I exaggerate and misjudge her.—She is quite confusingly adroit; but I extremely disliked the way in which she spoke of Colonel Carteret."
Damaris bent a little forward, holding her skirt back from the scorch of the fire, her eyes still downcast.
"How did she speak of him?"
"Oh! all she said was very indirect—but as though he had not played quite fair with her on some occasion. And—it's odious to repeat!—as if that was his habit with women, and with unmarried girls as well—as if he was liable to behave in a way which placed them in a rather invidious position while he just shuffled out of all responsibility himself. She hinted his staying on with us here was a case in point—that it might give people a wrong idea altogether. That, in short—at least thinking it over I feel sure this is the impression she meant to convey to me—that he is indulging his chronic love of philandering at your expense."
"And thereby standing in the light of serious lovers such as Marshall Wace?"
After a moment Damaris added:
"Is that your idea of Colonel Carteret, Aunt Felicia?"
"Ah! No, indeed no," the poor lady cried, with rather anguished sincerity. Then making a fine effort over herself:
"Least of all where you are concerned, my darling."
And she drifted hastily on to her feet. The curtains were still undrawn; and, through the window opposite, she caught sight of a tall figure coming up across the lawn in the frosty twilight.
"Pardon me if I run away. I've forgotten a note I meant to send to poor little Theresa Bilson.—I must let Laura have it at once, or she mayn't catch the postman," she said with equal rapidity and apparent inconsequence.
As Felicia Verity passed out into the hall, at one end of the avenue of stumpy pillars, Carteret came in at the other end through the garden door. He halted a moment, dazzled by the warmth and light within after the clair-obscure of the frosty dusk without, and looked round the room before recognizing the identity of its remaining occupant. Then:
"Ah! you—dear witch," he said. "So you're home. And what of your drive?"
Damaris turned round, all of a piece. Her hands, white against the black, the fingers slightly apart, still pressed back the skirt of her dress as though saving it from the fire scorch, in quaintly careful childish fashion. Her complexion was that of a child too, in its soft brightness. And the wonder of her great eyes fairly challenged Carteret's wits.
"A babe of a thousand years," he quoted to himself. "Does that look grow out of a root of divine innocence, or of quite incalculable wisdom?"
"I told you if you would be patient with me I should begin again. I have begun again, dear Colonel Sahib."
"So I perceive," he answered her.
"Is it written so large?" she asked curiously.
"Very large," he said, falling in with her humour. "And where does the beginning lead to?"
"I wish you'd tell me.—Henrietta has begun again too."
"I know it," he said. "Our incomparable Henrietta overtook me on her way from here to the Vicarage, and bestowed her society on me for the better part of half an hour. She was in astonishing form."
Carteret came forward and stood on the tiger skin beside Damaris. Mrs. Frayling's conversation had given him very furiously to think, and his thoughts had not proved by any means exhilarating.
"Does this recrudescence of our Henrietta, her beginning again, affect the scope and direction of your own beginning again, dearest witch?" he presently enquired, in singularly restrained and colourless accents.
"That depends a good deal upon you—doesn't it, Colonel Sahib?" our maiden gravely answered.
Carteret felt as though she dealt him a blow. The pain was numbing. He could neither see, nor could he think clearly. But he traced Mrs. Frayling's hand in this, and could have cursed her elaborately—had it been worth while. But was anything worth while, just now? He inclined to believe not—so called himself a doating fool. And then, though tormented, shaken, turned his mind to making things easy for Damaris.
"Oh! I see that," he told her. "And now you have got hold of your precious little self again and made a start, it's easy enough to manage your affairs—in as far as they need any management of mine—from a distance. This beginning again is triumphant. I congratulate you! You're your own best physician. You know how to treat your case to a marvel. So I abdicate."
"But why? Why abdicate? Do you mean go away? Then Henrietta was right. What she said was true. I never believed her. I"—
Damaris grew tall in her shame and anger. The solemn eyes blazed.
"Yes—pray go," she said. "It's unwarrantable the way I kept you here—the way I've made use of you. But, indeed, indeed, I am very grateful, Colonel Sahib. I ought to have known better. But I didn't. I have been so accustomed all my life to your help that I took it all for granted. I never thought how much I taxed your forbearance or encroached on your time.—That isn't quite true though. I did have scruples; but little things you said and did put my scruples to sleep. I liked having them put to sleep.—Now you must not let me or my business interfere any more.—Oh! you've treated me, given to me, like a prince," she declared, rising superior to anger and to shame, her eyes shining—"like a king. Nobody can ever take your place or be to me what you've been. I shall always love to think of your goodness to—to him—my father—and to me—always—all my life."
Damaris held out her hands.
"And that's all.—Now let us say no more about this. It's difficult. It hurts us both, I fancy, a little."
But Carteret did not take her proffered hands.
"Dear witch," he said, "we've spoken so freely that I am afraid we must speak more freely still—even though it pains you a little perhaps, and myself, almost certainly very much more. I love you—not as a friend, not as an amiable elderly person should love a girl of your age.—This isn't an affair of yesterday or the day before yesterday. You crept into my heart on your sixth birthday—wasn't it?—when I brought you a certain little green jade elephant from our incomparable Henrietta, and found you asleep in a black marble chair, set on a blood-red sandstone platform, overlooking the gardens of the club at Bhutpur. And you have never crept out of it again—won't do so as long as body and mind hang together, or after. It has been a song of degrees.—For years you were to me a delicious plaything; but a plaything with a mysterious soul, after which I felt, every now and again, in worship and awe. The plaything stage came to an end when I was here with you before we went to Paris, four years ago. For I found then, beyond all question of doubt, that I loved you as a man only loves once, and as most men never love at all. I have tried to keep this from you because I have no right to burden your youth with my middle-age."
Carteret smiled at her.
"It has not been altogether easy to hold my peace, dearest witch," he said. "The seven devils of desire—of which you knew nothing, bless you"—"I'm not sure that I do know nothing," Damaris put in quietly. She looked him over from head to heel, and the wonder of her great eyes deepened.
"It isn't wrong?" she said, brokenly, hoarsely. "I don't think it can be wrong?"
Then, "You will be good to my brother, to Darcy Faircloth, and let me see him quite, quite often!"
And lastly, her lips trembling:
"It is beautiful, more beautiful than I ever knew about, to have you for quite my own, Colonel Sahib."