Such traffic as held the road was leisurely, native to the scene and therefore pleasing to the sight.—For the age of self-moving machines on land had barely dawned yet; while the sky was still wholly inviolate.—A white tilted miller's wagon, a brewer's dray, each drawn by well-favoured teams with jingling bells and brass-mounted harness, rumbling farm carts, a gypsy van painted in crude yellow, blue, and red and its accompanying rabble of children, donkeys and dogs, a farmer's high-hung, curtseying gig, were in turn met or passed. For the black horse, Damaris driving it, gave place to none, covering the mounting tale of miles handsomely at an even, swinging trot.
At Lady's Oak, a noble tree marking some ancient forest boundary and consequently spared when the needs of the British Navy, during the French wars of the early years of the century, condemned so many of its fellows to the axe—the flattened burnished dome of which glinted back the sunlight above a maze of spreading branches and massive powder-grey trunk—the main road forks. Damaris turned to the left, across the single-arch stone bridge spanning the Arne, and drove on up the long winding ascent from the valley to the moorland and fir plantations which range inland behind Stourmouth. This constituted the goal of her journey, for once the high-lying plateau reached, leagues of country open out far as the eye carries to the fine, bare outline of the Wiltshire downs.
She checked the horse, letting it walk, while she took stock of her surroundings.
It may be asserted that there are two ways of holding converse with Nature. The one is egotistic and sentimental, an imposing of personal tastes and emotions which betrays the latent categoric belief that the existence of external things is limited to man's apprehension of them—a vilely conceited if not actually blasphemous doctrine! The other is that of the seeker and the seer, who, approaching in all reverence, asks no more than leave to listen to the voice of external things—recognizing their independent existence, knowing them to be as real as he is, as wonderful, in their own order as permanent, possibly as potent even for good and evil as himself. And it was, happily, according to this latter reading of the position, instinctively, by the natural bent of her mind, that Damaris attempted converse with the world without.
The glory of the heather had passed, the bloom now showing only as silver-pink froth upon an ocean of warm brown. But the colouring was restful, the air here on the dry gravel soil light and eager, and the sense of height and space exhilarating. A fringe of harebells, of orange hawkweed and dwarf red sorrel bordered the road. Every small oasis of turf, amongst the heath and by the wayside, carried its pretty crop of centaury and wild thyme, of bed-straw, milkwort, and birdsfoot trefoil. Furzechats tipped about the gorse bushes, uttering a sharp, gay, warning note. A big flight of rooks, blue-black against the ethereal blue of the distance, winged their way slowly homeward to the long avenue of dark trees leading to a farm in the valley. The charm of the place was clear and sane, its beauty simple almost to austerity. This the young girl welcomed. It washed her imagination free of the curious questionings, involuntary doubts and suspicions, which the house and garden at The Hard, steeped in tradition, thick with past happenings, past passions, were prone to breed in her. No reek off the mud-flats, any more than over luscious garden scents, tainted the atmosphere. It was virgin as the soil of the moorland—a soil as yet untamed and unfertilized by the labour of man. And this effect of virginity, even though a trifle farouche, harsh, and barren in the perfection of its purity, appealed to Damaris' present mood. Her spirit leapt to meet it in proud fellowship. For it routed forebodings. Discounted introspective broodings. Discounted even the apparently inevitable—since nobody and nothing, so the young girl told herself with a rush of gladly resolute conviction, is really inevitable unless you permit or choose to have them so.—Gallant this, and the mother of brave doings; though—as Damaris was to discover later, to the increase both of wisdom and of sorrow—a half-truth only. For man is never actually master of people or of things; but master, at most, of his own attitude towards them. In this alone can he claim or exercise free-will.
Then—because general ideas, however inspiriting, are rather heavy diet for the young, immature minds growing quickly tired in the efforts to digest them—Damaris, having reached this happy, if partially erroneous, climax of emancipation, ceased to philosophize either consciously or unconsciously. The russet moorland and spacious landscape shut the door on her, had no more to tell her, no more to say. Or, to be strictly accurate, was it not rather perhaps that her power of response, power to interpret their speech and assimilate their message had reached its term? All her life the maturity of her brain had inclined—rather fatiguingly—to outrun the maturity of her body, so that she failed "to continue in one stay" and trivial hours trod close on the heels of hours of exaltation and of insight.
With a sigh and a sense of loss—as though noble companions had withdrawn themselves from her—she gathered up the reins and sent the horse forward. She fell into comfortable friendly conversation with the Napoleonic-countenanced Patch, moreover, consulting him as to the shortest way, through the purlieus of Stourmouth, into the Marychurch high road and so home to Deadham Hard. For, to tell the truth, she became aware she was hungry and very badly in want of her tea.
Theresa Bilson, setting out the next morning in solitary state, contrived to maintain the adopted attitude until the front gates were safely passed. Then she relaxed and looked out of the brougham windows with a fussy brightness more consonant to the joys of impending union with the Miss Minetts and the day's impending trip. She made no further effort to secure Damaris' participation in the social and educational advantages which it promised. On the contrary she left the young lady severely alone and at home, as one administering well-merited punishment. Thus effectively demonstrating, as she wished to believe, her personal authority; and suiting, as she would have stoutly denied, her personal convenience. For Damaris on a string, plus the extra brake and carriage horses, was one story; Damaris on her own, minus those animals and much-debated vehicle, quite another. Unless the presence of her ex-pupil could be made to redound to her own glory, Theresa much preferred reserving representation of The Hard and its distinguished proprietor wholly and solely to herself. So in the spirit of pretence and of make-believe did she go forth; to find, on her return, that spirit prove but a lying and treacherous ally—and for more reasons than one.
It happened thus. Supported by the two brindled tabby house cats, Geraldine and Mustapha—descendants of the numerous tribe honoured, during the last half-century of his long life, by Thomas Clarkson Verity's politely affectionate patronage—Damaris spent the greater part of the morning in the long writing room.
She had judged and condemned Theresa pretty roundly it is true, nevertheless she felt a little hurt and sore at the latter's treatment of her. Theresa need not have kept up the quarrel till the very last so acridly. After all, as she was going out purely for own pleasure and amusement, she might have found something nice and civil to say at parting. And then the mere fact of being left behind, of being out of it, however limited the charms of a party, has a certain small stab to it somehow—as most persons, probing youthful experiences, can testify. It is never quite pleasant to be the one who doesn't go!—The house, moreover, when her father was absent, always reminded Damaris of an empty shrine, a place which had lost its meaning and purpose. To-day, though windows and doors were wide open letting in a wealth of sunshine, it appeared startlingly lifeless and void. The maids seemed unusually quiet. She heard no movement on the staircase or in the rooms above. Neither gardener nor garden-boy was visible. She would have hailed the whirr of the mowing machine or swish of a broom on the lawn.—Oh! if only her poor dear Nannie were still alive, safe upstairs, there in the old nursery!
And at that the child Damaris felt a lump rise in her throat. But the girl, the soon-to-be woman, Damaris choked it down bravely. For nobody, nothing—so she assured herself, going back to the lesson learned yesterday upon the open moorland—is really inevitable unless you suffer or will it so to be. Wherefore she stiffened herself against recognition of loneliness, stiffened herself against inclination to mourning, refused to acquiesce in or be subjugated by either and, to the better forgetting of them, sought consolation among her great-great uncle's books.
For at this period Damaris was an omnivorous reader, eager for every form of literature and every description of knowledge—whether clearly comprehended or not—which the beloved printed page has to give. An eagerness, it may be noted, not infrequently productive of collisions with Theresa, and at this particular juncture all the more agreeable to gratify on that very account. For Theresa would have had her walk only in the narrow, sheltered, neatly bordered paths of history and fiction designed, for the greater preservation of female innocence, by such authors as Miss Sewell, Miss Strickland, and Miss Yonge. Upon Damaris, however, perambulation of those paths palled too soon. Her intellect and heart alike demanded wider fields of drama, of religion and of science, above all wider and less conventional converse with average human nature, than this triumvirate of Victorian sibyls was willing or capable to supply. It is undeniable that, although words and phrases, whole episodes indeed, were obscure even unintelligible to her, she found the memoirs of Benvenuto Cellini and Saint Simon more interesting than the "Lives of the Queens of England; Vathek," more to her taste than "Amy Herbert"; and, if the truth must be told, "The Decameron," and "Tristram Shandy" more satisfying to her imagination than "The Heir of Redcliffe" or "The Daisy Chain." To Damaris it seemed, just now, that a book the meaning of which was quite clear to her and could be grasped at sight, hardly repaid the trouble of reading, since it afforded no sense of adventure, no excitement of challenge or of pursuit, no mirage of wonder, no delightful provocation of matters outside her experience and not understood. About these latter she abstained from asking questions, having much faith in the illuminating power of the future. Given patience, all in good time she would understand everything worth understanding.—That there are things in life best not understood, or understood only at your peril, she already in some sort divined.—Hence her reading although of the order obnoxious to pedants, as lacking in method and accurate scholarship, went to produce a mental atmosphere in which honest love of letters and of art, along with generous instincts of humanity quicken and thrive.
On this particular morning Damaris elected to explore to the Near East, in the vehicle of Eoethen's virile and luminous prose. She sat in one of the solid wide seated arm-chairs at the fire-place end of a long room, near a rounded window, the lower sash, of which she raised to its full height. Outside the row of geranium beds glowed scarlet and crimson in the calm light. Beyond them the turf of the lawn was overspread by trailing gossamers, and delicate cart-wheel spider's webs upon which the dew still glittered. In the shrubberies robins sang; and above the river great companies of swallows swept to and fro, with sharp twitterings, restlessly gathering for their final southern flight.
No sooner had Damaris fairly settled down with her book, than Mustapha jumped upon her knees; and after, preliminary buttings and tramplings, curled himself round in gross comfort, his soft lithe body growing warmer and heavier, on her lap, as his sleep deepened. Where a bar of sunshine crossed the leather inset of the writing-table, just beside her in the window, Geraldine—his counterpart as to markings and colouring, but finer made, more slender of barrel and of limb—fitted herself into the narrow space between a silver inkstand and a stack of folded newspapers, her fore-paws tucked neatly under her chest, furry elbows outward. Her muzzle showed black, as did the rims of her eyelids which enhanced the brightness and size of her clear, yellow-green eyes. Her alert, observant little head was raised, as, with gently lashing tail, she watched an imprisoned honey-bee buzzing angrily up and down between the window-sashes.
An elfin creature, Geraldine,—repaying liberal study. Scornfully secure of the potency of her own charms where mankind, or Tomcat-kind, might be concerned, royally devoid of morals, past-mistress in all sprightly, graceful, feline devilries, she was yet a fond mother, solicitous to the point of actual selflessness regarding the safety and well-being of her successive and frequently recurrent litters. She suckled, washed, played with and educated those of her kittens who escaped the rigours of stable-bucket and broom, until such time as they were three to four months old. After which she sent them flying, amid cuffings and spittings extraordinary, whenever they attempted to approach her; and, oblivious of their orphaned and wistful existence, yielded herself with bewitching vivacity, to fresh intrigues and amours new.
The long quiet morning indoors, with cats and books for company, at once soothed Damaris and made her restless. After luncheon she put on hat, gloves, and walking shoes, and went down across the lawn to the sea-wall. Waylaying her in the hall, Mary had essayed to learn her programme, and anchor her as to time and place by enquiring when and where tea should be served. But Damaris put the kindly woman off.—She couldn't say exactly—yet—would ring and let Mary know when she came in. If any one called, she was not at home.
In truth her active young body asked for movement and exercise, while scenes and phrases from the pages of Eoethen still filled her mind. She longed for travel. Not via Marychurch to Harchester, well understood, shepherded by Theresa Bilson, the members of the Deadham Church choir and their supporters; but for travel upon the grand scale, with all its romance and enlargement of experience, its possible dangers and certain hardships, as the author of Eoethen had known it and her father, for that matter, had known it in earlier days too. She suffered the spell of the East—always haunting the chambers of her memory and ready to be stirred in active ascendency, as by her morning's reading to-day—suffered the spell not of its mysterious cities and civilizations alone, but of its vast solitudes and silences, desert winds and desert sands.
And hence it came about that, as her mood of yesterday sent her inland to pacify her imagination by gazing at the peaceful English country-side, so her present mood sent her down to the shore to satisfy, or rather further stimulate, her nostalgia for the East by gazing out to sea.
The cause in both cases was the same, namely, the inward tumult of her awakening womanhood, and still more, perhaps, the tumult of awakening talent which had not as yet found its appointed means of expression. She was driven hither and thither by the push of her individuality to disengage itself from adventitious surroundings and circumstances, and realize its independent existence.—A somewhat perilous crisis of development, fruitful of escapades and unruly impulses which may leave their mark, and that a disfiguring one, upon the whole of a woman's subsequent career.
Immediately, however, Damaris' disposition to defy established convention and routine took the mildest and apparently most innocuous form—merely the making, by herself, of a little expedition which, accompanied by others, she had made a hundred times before. From the terrace she went down the flight of steps, built into the width of the sea-wall, whence a tall wrought-iron gate opens direct upon the foreshore. Closing it behind her, she followed the coastguard-path, at the base of the river-bank—here a miniature sand cliff capped with gravel, from eight to ten feet high—which leads to the warren and the ferry. For she would take ship, with foxy-faced William Jennifer as captain and as crew, cross to the broken-down wooden jetty and, landing there, climb the crown of the Bar and look south-east, over the Channel highway, towards far distant countries of the desert and the dawn.
OUT ON THE BAR
All which was duly accomplished though with a difference. For on reaching the head of the shallow sandy gully opening on the tide, where the flat-bottomed ferry-boat lay, Damaris found not Jennifer but the withered and doubtfully clean old lobster-catcher, Timothy Proud, in possession. This disconcerted her somewhat. His appearance, indeed—as he stood amongst a miscellaneous assortment of sun-bleached and weather-stained foreshore lumber, leaning the ragged elbows of his blue jersey upon the top of an empty petroleum barrel and smoking a dirty clay pipe—was so far from inviting, that the young girl felt tempted to relinquish her enterprise and go back by the way she had come.
But, as she hesitated, the old man catching sight of her and scenting custom, first spat and then called aloud.
"Might 'e be wanting the Ferry, Miss?" Thus directly challenged, Damaris could not but answer in the affirmative.
"Put 'e across to the Bar?" he took her up smartly. "Nat'rally I will—bean't I here for the very purpose?—Put 'e across I will and on the tick too."
And, after further expectoration, relinquishing the support of the oil barrel, he joined her and shambled down the sandy track at her side, talking. Damaris hastened her step; but bent back and creaking breath notwithstanding, Proud kept pace with her, his speech and movements alike animated by a certain malicious glee.
"William 'e give hisself an 'oliday," he explained, "to take the little dorgs and ferrets up to Butcher Cleave's ratting. Powerful sight of varmin there allers be round they sheds and places. Comes after the innards and trimmings they do, as bold as you please."
"Oh, yes—no doubt. I understand," Damaris said, at once anxious to arrest the flow of his unsavoury eloquence yet to appear civil, since she was about to make use of his services.
"'Normous great rats they be," he however continued, with evident relish. "'Normous and fierce as tigers, the rascals, what with feasting on flesh and fatness like so many lords. So 'mind the ferry for me, will you, Daddy,' William says, coming round where was I taking my morning pint over at the Inn. 'You're a wonderful valorous man of your years'—and so thank the powers, Miss, I be—'can handle the old scraw as clever as I can myself,' William says. 'There ain't much about water, salt or fresh, nor whatsoever moves on the face of it, nor down below in the belly of it, any man can teach you.' Which may seem putting it a bit high yet ain't no more than truth and justice, Miss, so you needn't fear to trust yourself across the ferry along of me."
"I have no fear," Damaris answered curtly and loftily, holding herself very erect, her face slightly flushed, her eyes war-like.
For he was a repulsive old man, and said repulsive things such as she had never heard put thus plainly into words before. She felt soiled by even this brief association with him. She wanted to hear no more of his ugly high-coloured talk, although of his skill as a waterman she entertained no doubt. Stepping lightly and quickly up on to the square stern of the ferry-boat, she went forward and kept her back resolutely turned upon the old fellow as he scrambled on board after her, shoved off and settled to the oars. The river was low, and sluggish from the long drought with consequently easy passage to the opposite bank. It took but a short five minutes to reach the jetty, crawling like some gigantic, damaged, many-legged insect out over the smooth gleaming water.
Instead of the legal twopence, Damaris dropped a couple of shillings into Daddy Proud's eager hand—with a queenly little air; and, without waiting for his thanks, swung herself up on to the black planking and turned to go down the sand-strewn wooden steps.
"Pleased to fetch 'e back, Miss, any hour you like to name," Proud called after her, standing up and fingering the shillings with one hand while with the other he steered the boat's side away from the slippery weed-grown piles.
"Thank you, I don't quite know when I shall be back," she answered over her shoulder.
For her main desire was to get quit of his unpleasant neighbourhood. She would go for a long walk by the coast-guard path across the sand-hills, right out to Stone Horse Head. Would stay out till sundown, in the hope that by then Jennifer might have seen fit to exchange the manly joys of ratting for his more prosaic duties at the ferry, and so save her from further association with his displeasing deputy.
But, the ridge of the Bar reached, other thoughts and impulses took possession of her. For the sea this afternoon showed an infinitely beguiling countenance. Not as highway of the nations, still less as violent and incalculable, holding cruelties of storm and tempest in its heart, did it present itself to her view; but rather as some gentle, softly inviting and caressing creature decked forth in the changeful colours of a dove's neck and breast. Opaline haze veiled the horizon, shutting off all unrestful sense of distance. The tide was low and little waves, as of liquid crystal, chased one another over the gleaming sands. Out to where the haze met and covered it the smooth expanse of sea was unbroken by passing boat or ship; nor was any person within sight upon the long line of the beach. Damaris found herself alone—but deliciously alone, with this enchanted dream sea for companion in the sunshine, under the vault of tender blue sky.
And, for the present at least, she asked nothing better, humanity being at a decided discount with her, thanks first to the extreme tiresomeness of Theresa Bilson and later the extreme unsavouriness of Timothy Proud. The element thus eliminated, nothing interfered, nothing jarred; so that she could yield herself to an ecstasy of contemplation, active rather than passive, in that imagination, breaking the bounds of personality, made her strangely one with all she looked on. Consciousness of self was merged in pure delight. Never could she remember to have felt so light-hearted, so happy with the spontaneous, unconditioned happiness which is sufficient to itself, unclouded by thought of what has been or what may be.
Pushed by her own radiant emotion and an instinct, deriving from it, to draw even closer to that Everlasting Beauty of Things which is uncreated by and independent of the will and work of man, she ran down the slope, and sitting on the shingle slipped off her shoes and stockings. Took off her hat, too, and leaving the lot lying there, just above high-tide mark, gathered her skirts in one hand, and, bare-headed thus and bare-footed, danced out over the wet gleaming sands a graceful flying figure, until the little waves played and purred about her ankles. Her action was symbolic, born of the gay worship welling up within her, a giving of herself to the shining infinite of Nature as just now manifest—things divine and eternal glimmering through at her—in this fair hour of solitude and brooding peace.
Till her mood softened, Damaris danced thus alone, unwitnessed on the shore. Then, as she sobered, happy still though the crisis of ecstasy had passed, smaller seeings began to charm her fancy and her eyes.—Pinkish yellow starfish, long ribbons of madder-red or emerald seaweed, their colours the more living and vivid for the clear water covering them. Presently a company of five birds—their mottled brown and olive bodies raised on stilt-like legs thin as a straw—claimed her notice. So bewitched was she by their quaint and pretty ways, that she could not but follow them as they chased one another in and out of the rippling waves, ran quickly and bowed catching something eatable floating upon the tide, scattered and then joined up into a joyous chorus of association with gentle twittering cries. Watching them, dreaming, standing now and again looking out over the sweet wonder of the placid sea, sometimes wading ankle deep, sometimes walking on the firm floor of uncovered sand, Damaris passed onward losing count of time.
The birds led her eastward, up channel, to the half-mile distant nose of the Bar, round which the rivers, released at last from their narrow channel, sweep out into Marychurch Bay. Here, on a sudden, they took wing, and Damaris looking after them, bade them an unwilling farewell, for their innocent society had been sweet. And with that she became aware she was really quite tired and would be glad to rest awhile, the afternoon being young yet, before turning homeward. The longer she stayed the more hope there was of finding Jennifer at the ferry; and more than ever, the glamour of her wild hour of Nature worship still upon her, did she recoil from any sort of association with foul old Timothy Proud.
Therefore she went up across the moist gleaming levels to the tide-line, and picking her way carefully among the black jumble of seaweed and sea-litter which marked it, sat down in a fan-shaped depression in the dry, clean, blown sand some few paces above. The sunshine covered it making it warm to her bare feet. The feel and blond colour of it brought to mind her reading of this morning—a passage in Eoethen telling of the striking of camp at dawn, the desert waiting to claim its own again and obliterate, with a single gesture, all sign or token of the passing sojourn of man. Clasping her hands behind her head, Damaris lay back, the warm sand all around her, giving beneath her weight, fitted itself into the curves of her body and limbs—only it visible and the soft blue of the sky above. For a little while she rested open-eyed in the bright silent stillness, and then, unknowing of the exact moment of surrender, she stretched with a fluttering sigh, turned on her side and dreamlessly slept.
And, while she thus slept, two events took place eminently germane to the further unfolding of this history.—The weather changed, and the local degenerate, Abram Sclanders' half-idiot son—the poor "lippity-lop" who, according to Jennifer, had far better been "put away quiet-like at birth"—committed theft.
Of the first event, Damaris gradually became sensible, before her actual awakening. She grew restless, her bed of sand seeming robbed of comfort, bleak and uneasy, so that she started up, presently, into a sitting position, rubbing her eyes with her fists baby-fashion, unable for the minute to imagine how or why she came to be lying like this out on the Bar, hatless, shoe and stockingless. Looking about her, still in questioning bewilderment, she observed that in the south-west a great bank of cloud had risen. It blotted out the sun, deadening all colour. The opaline haze, turned to a dull falling mist, closed down and in, covering the sand-hills and the dark mass of Stone Horse Head and even blurring the long straight lines of the sandbank and nearer shingle. The sea had risen, but noiselessly, creeping up and up towards her, no line of white marking the edge of its slothful oncoming.
Damaris stood up, pulling her white jersey—the surface of it already furred with moisture—low over her hips. For she felt shivery, and the air was thick and chill to breathe causing a tightness in her throat.
"The glory has departed, very much departed, so I had best make haste to depart also," she told herself; but told herself gallantly, smiling at her own strange plight in a spirit of adventure, discovering in it the excitement of novel experience.
She picked her way over the shingle and black sea litter of high-water mark, and started to run along the narrow strip between it and the advancing tide. To run would circulate her blood, warm her through and keep her gallant humour up; still she had to own she found this heavy going, for her feet were numb and the sand seemed to pluck at and weigh them down. Her run slackened to a walk. Then she ventured a yard or two out into the shallow water, hoping there to meet with firmer foothold; but here it proved altogether too cold. She had the misfortune, moreover, to tread on the top end of a razor shell, buried upright, which cut the skin making her limp from pain and sharpness of smarting. So perforce, she took to the deep blown sand again above high-water mark, and ploughed along slowly enough in growing weariness and discomfort.
Never, surely, was any half-mile so long as this between the place of her farewell to the mottled stilt-legged birds and subsequent sleeping, and the place where she left her hat and shoes and stockings! In the dimness and chill of the falling mist, it seemed to lengthen and lengthen to an altogether incomprehensible extent. Time and again she stopped and scanned the ground immediately before her, certain she should see there those so lightly discarded and now so earnestly desired items of clothing. Once in possession of them she would simply scurry home. For visions of warm, dry pretty garments, of Mary's, comely ministering presence, of tea, of lamp-light and—yes, she would allow herself that culminating luxury—of a fine log fire in the long sitting-room, presented themselves to her imagination in most alluring sequence—the spirit of adventure, meanwhile, as must be owned, beginning to sing small and hang a diminished head.
But on a sudden, raising her eyes from their persistent search, Damaris realized she must have missed and already passed the spot. For she was close upon the tract of sand-hills—a picture of desolation in the sullen murk, the winding hollows between their pale formless elevations bearing a harsh growth of neutral tinted sword-like grasses.
She had come too far by a quarter of a mile at least, so she judged, and must turn her face eastward again and laboriously plough her way back. But the return journey was crowned with no better success than the outward one. Carefully, methodically she quartered the beach; but simply her things weren't there, had vanished, leaving neither token or trace.
She was confronted moreover by the unpleasant fact that it grew late. Soon the dusk would fall, its coming hastened by the mist, now settling into a steady drizzle of rain precursor of a dark and early night. To hunt any longer would be useless. She must give it up. Yet her maidenly pride, her sense of what is seemly and becoming, revolted from exposing herself to Timothy Proud's coarse leering glances or even—should he by luck be her waterman—to Jennifer's more respectful curiosity, dishevelled and but half-dressed as she was. And then the actual distance to be traversed appeared to her dishearteningly great. For she was weary—quite abominably weary now she came to think of it. Her feet were bruised and blistered. They ached. Her throat ached too, and she shivered. Cold, though it was, she must wait a minute or two and rest before attempting the ascent of the slope.
Damaris sat down, pulling her skirts as low as they would come over her bare legs, and clasping her hands round her knees, bowed, huddled together to gain, if it might be, some sensation of warmth. For a little she thought of that only—warmth—her mind otherwise a blank. But soon the consuming sadness of the place in the waning light penetrated her imagination, penetrated, indeed, her whole being. Only a few hours ago she had danced here, in ecstasy born of the sunshine, the colour, the apparently inexhaustible beauty of things uncreated by, and independent of, the will and work of man. Contrast that scene, and the radiant emotion evoked by it, with this? Which was real, the enduring revelation? Was this truth; the other no more than mirage—an exquisite dissembling and lovely lie?
Such thoughts are hardly wholesome at eighteen—hardly wholesome perhaps at any age, if life is to be lived sweetly, with honest profit to one's own soul and to the souls of others. Yet remembering back, down the dim avenues of childhood, Damaris knew she did not formulate the question, entertain the suspicion, for the first time. Only, until now, it had stayed in the vague, a shapeless nightmare horror, past which she could force herself to run with shut eyes. It didn't jump out of the vague, thank goodness, and bar her passage. But now no running or shutting of eyes availed. It had jumped out. She stared at it, and, in all its undermining power of discouragement, it stared back.—What if the deepest thing, the thing which alone lasted, the thing which, therefore, you were bound in the end to accept, to submit to, was just darkness, sorrow, loneliness of worn body and shrinking spirit, by the shore of a cold, dumb, and tenantless, limitless sea—what then?
From which undesirable abyss of speculation she was aroused by the sound of her own name—"Damaris Verity, hey—Damaris Verity"—shouted, not roughly though in tones of urgent command, from above and behind her on the crest of the Bar. Along with it came the rattle of shifting shingle under a strong active tread.
Hearing which the young girl's senses and faculties alike sprang to attention. She rose from her dejected attitude, stood up and faced round, forgetful of aches and weariness and of woeful ultimate questionings, while in glad surprise her heart went out to meet and welcome the—to her—best beloved being in this, no longer, sorry world.
For even thus, at some fifty yards distant through the blur of falling rain, the figure presented to her gaze, in height, build, and fashion of moving, was delightfully familiar, as were the tones of the voice which had hailed her—if in not quite equal degree the manner of that hail. Some change in his plans must have taken place, or some letter miscarried advising her of her father's earlier return. Finding her out he had come to look for her.—This was perfectly as it should be. Had Colonel Carteret come home with him, she wondered. And then there flashed through her, with a singular vividness, recollection of another, long, long ago escapade—when as a still almost baby child she had stepped off alone, in daring experiment, and fallen asleep, in the open as to-day. But in surroundings how amazingly different!—A place of fountains, cypresses and palms, she curled up in a black marble chair, set throne fashion, upon a platform of blood red sandstone, an age-old Oriental garden outstretched below. Colonel Carteret—"the man with the blue eyes" as she always had called him—awakened her, bringing an adorable and, as it proved in the sequel, a tragic birthday gift.—Tragic because to it might, actually if indirectly, be traced the breaking up of her childhood's home in the stately Indian pleasure palace of the Sultan-i-bagh at Bhutpur, her separation from her father and exile—as she had counted it—to Europe.
It is among the doubtful privileges of highly sensitized natures, such as Damaris', that, in hours of crisis, vision and pre-vision go hand in hand. As there flashed through her remembrance of that earlier sleep in the open, there flashed through her also conviction that history would still further repeat itself. Now, as then, the incident of sleep preluded the receipt of a gift, adorable perhaps, yet freighted with far-reaching consequences to herself and her future. Of just what that gift might consist she had no idea; but of its approach she felt as certain as of the approach of the man swinging down through the rain over the rattling pebbles. And her gladness of welcome declined somewhat. She could have cried off, begged for postponement. For she was very tired, after all. She didn't want anything now, anything which—however delightful in itself—demanded effort, demanded even the exertion of being very pleased. She shied away, in short. And then commendably rallied her forces, resolute not to be found unworthy or ungrateful.
"Yes—come. I am here," she called in response to that lately heard calling of her name, desiring to make an act of faith whereby to assure herself she was indeed ready, and assure her hearer of her readiness to accept the impending gift.
"I am here," she began again to affirm, but stopped abruptly, the words choking in her throat.
For, as with decreasing distance the figure grew distinct, she saw, to her blank amazement, not Sir Charles Verity, her father, as she expected, but the blue reefer jacket, peaked cap, and handsome bearded face of Darcy Faircloth, the young merchant sea-captain, emerge from the blur of the wet. And the revulsion of feeling was so sharp, the shock at once so staggering and intimate—as summing up all the last ten days confused experience—that Damaris could not control herself. She turned away with a wail of distress, threw out her hands, and then, covering her eyes with them, bowed her head.
The young man came forward and stood near her; but an appreciable time elapsed before he spoke. When he presently did so, his voice reached her as again singularly familiar in tone, though strange in diction and in accent.
"I'm sorry if I startled you," he began, "but I hailed you just now, and you told me to come.—I concluded you meant what you said. Not, I'm afraid, that your giving your permission or withholding it would have made much difference in the upshot. Timothy Proud let on, in my hearing, that he set you across the river soon after two o'clock, and that there'd been no call for the ferry since. So I took one of my own boats and just came over to look for you—in case you might have met with some mishap or strayed among the sand-hills and couldn't find your"—
Thus far he spoke with studied calm and restraint. But here, as though struck by a fresh and very objectionable idea, he broke out:
"Nothing has happened has it? No cowardly brute has interfered with you or upset you? Dear God alive, don't tell me I'm too late, don't tell me that."
Upon Damaris this sudden, though to her unaccountable, violence and heat acted as a cordial. She raised her head, pushing back the damp hair from her forehead, and displaying a proud if strained and weary face.
"No," she said, "of course not. Who would venture to be rude to me? I have not seen anyone all the afternoon—until now, when you came. And," she added by way of further explanation—she didn't want to be ungracious or unkind, but she did want, in justice to herself, to have this understood—"in the distance I didn't recognize you. I mistook you for someone else"—
"Who else?" he took her up, and with a queer flicker—if of a smile, then one with a keenish edge to it—in his eyes and about his mouth.
"For my father," Damaris answered. "It was a stupid mistake, because he is away staying in Norfolk for partridge shooting, and I have not any real reason to expect him home for several days yet."
"But in this deceptive light," Faircloth took her up again, while—as she could not help observing—that flicker became more pronounced. It seemed silently to laugh and to mock.—"Oh! to be sure that accounts for your mistake as to my identity. One sees how it might very well come about."
He took off his cap, and threw back his head looking up into the low wet sky.
"At night all cats are grey, aren't they," he went on, "little ones as well as big? And it's close on night now, thanks to this dirty weather. So close on it, that—though personally I'm in no hurry—I ought to get you back to The Hard, or there'll be a regular hue and cry after you—rightly and probably too, if your servants and people have any notion of their duty."
"I am quite ready," Damaris said.
She strove to show a brave front, to keep up appearances; but she felt helpless and weak, curiously confused by and unequal to dealing with this masterful stranger—who yet, somehow did not seem like a stranger. Precisely in this was the root of her confusion, of her inability to deal with him.
"But hardly as you are," he commented, on her announcement she was ready. "Let me help to put on your shoes and stockings for you first." And this he said so gently and courteously, that Damaris' lips began to quiver, very feminine and youthful shame at the indignity of her present plight laying hold on her.
"I can't find them," she pitifully declared. "I have looked and looked, but I can't find them anywhere. I left my things just here. Can anyone have stolen them while I was out at the end of the Bar? It is so mysterious and so dreadfully tiresome. I should have gone home long ago, before the rain began, if I could have found them."
And with that, the whole little story—childish or idyllic as you please—of sunshine and colour, of beguiling birds beguiling sea, of sleep, and uneasy awakening when the cloud-bank rising westward devoured the fair face of heaven, of mist and fruitless seeking, even some word of the fear which forever sits behind and peeps over the shoulder of all wonder and all beauty, got itself—not without eloquent passages—quickly yet gravely told. For the young man appeared to derive considerable pleasure from listening, from watching her and from questioning her too—still, gently and courteously though closely, as if each detail were of interest and of value.
"And now you know all about it, Captain Faircloth," Damaris said in conclusion, essaying to laugh at her own discomfiture. "And I am very tired, so if you will be kind enough to row me across the ferry, I shall be grateful to you, and glad, please, to go home at once."
"By all means," he answered. "Only, you know, I can't very well let you cut your feet to pieces on these cruel stones, so I am just going to carry you up over the Bar"—
"No—no—I can perfectly well walk. I mean to walk—see," she cried.
And started courageously up the rough ascent, only to slip, after a few paces, and to stagger. For as soon as she attempted to move, she felt herself not only weak, but oddly faint and giddy. She lurched forward, and to avoid falling instinctively clutched at her companion's outstretched hand. Exactly what passed between the young man and young girl in that hand-clasp—the first contact they had had of one another—it might seem far-reached and fantastic to affirm; yet that it steadied not only Damaris' trembling limbs, but her trembling and over-wrought spirit, is beyond question. For it was kind and more than kind—tender, and that with the tenderness of right and usage rather than of sentimental response to a passing sentimental appeal.
"There, there," he said, "what's the use of working to keep up this little farce any longer? Just give in—you can't put off doing so in the end. Why not at once, then, accept defeat and spare both yourself and me pain? You are no more fit to walk, than you are fit to fly—to fly away from me!—That's what you want, isn't it? Ah! that flight will come, no doubt, all in good time.—But meanwhile, be sensible. Put your left arm round my neck—like this, yes. Then—just a little hoist, and, if you'll not worry but keep still, nothing's easier."
As he spoke, Faircloth stooped, lightly and with no apparent exertion lifting her high, so that—she clasping his neck as instructed—the main weight of her body rested upon his shoulder. With his right arm he held her just above the waist, his left arm below her knees cradling her.
"Now rest quiet," he said. "Know you are safe and think only of comfortable things—among them this one, if you care to, that for once in my life I am content."
Yet over such yielding and treacherous ground, upward to the crown of the ridge and downward to the river, progress could not be otherwise than slow. Twilight, and that of the dreariest and least penetrable, overtook them before Faircloth, still carrying the white-clothed figure, reached the jetty. Here, at the bottom of the wooden steps he set Damaris down, led her up them and handed her into the boat—tied up to, and the tide being at the flood, now little below the level of the staging.
WHEREIN DAMARIS MAKES SOME ACQUAINTANCE WITH THE HIDDEN WAYS OF MEN
Throughout their singular journey—save for briefest question and answer about her well-being at the commencement of it—the two had kept silence, as though conscious Faircloth's assertion of contentment struck a chord any resolution of which might imperil the simplicity of their relation. Thus far that relation showed a noble freedom from embarrassment. It might have continued to do so but for a hazardous assumption on his part.
When first placing Damaris in the stern of the boat, the young man stripped off his jacket and, regardless of her vaguely expressed protest, wrapped it round her feet. It held the living warmth of his body; and, chilled, dazed, and spent, as Damaris was, that warmth curiously soothed her, until the ink-black boat floating upon the brimming, hardly less inky, water faded from her knowledge and sight. She drooped together, passing into a state more comparable to coma than to natural slumber, her will in abeyance, thought and imagination borne under by the immensity of her fatigue.
As Faircloth, meanwhile, pulled clear of the outstanding piles of the jetty, he heard voices and saw lights moving down by the ferry on the opposite shore. But these, and any invitation they might imply, he ignored. If the hue and cry after Damaris, which he had prophesied, were already afoot, he intended to keep clear of it, studiously to give it the slip. To this end, once in the fairway of the river he headed the boat downstream, rowing strongly though cautiously for some minutes, careful to avoid all plunge of the oars, all swish of them or drip. Then, the lights now hidden by the higher level and scrub of the warren, he sat motionless letting the boat drift on the seaward setting current.
The fine rain fell without sound. It shut out either bank creating a singular impression of solitude and isolation, and of endlessness too. There seemed no reason why it should ever cease. And this delusion of permanence, the enclosing soft-clinging darkness served to heighten. The passage of time itself seemed arrested—to-morrow becoming an abstraction, remote and improbable, which could, with impunity, be left out of the count. With this fantastic state of things, Faircloth had no quarrel. Though impatient of inaction, as a rule definite and autocratic enough, he really wasn't aware of having any particular use for to-morrow. Content still held sway. He was satisfied, profoundly, yet dreamingly, satisfied by an achievement long proposed, long waited for, the door upon which had opened to-day by the merest accident—if anything can justly be called accident, which he inclined to believe it could not.
He had appointed, it should be added, a limit in respect of that achievement, which he forbade himself to pass; and it was his habit very rigidly to obey his own orders, however little disposed he might be to obey those of other people. He had received, as he owned, more than he could reasonably have expected, good measure pressed down and running over. The limit was now reached. He should practise restraint—leave the whole, affair where it stood. But the effect of this darkness, and of drifting, drifting, over the black water in the fine soundless rain, with its illusion of permanence, and of the extinction of to-morrow—and the retributions and adjustments in which to-morrow is so frequently and inconveniently fertile—enervated him, rendering him a comparatively easy prey to impulse, should impulse chance to be stirred by some adventitious circumstance. The Devil, it may be presumed, is very much on the watch for such weakenings of moral fibre, ready to pounce, at the very shortest notice, and make unholy play with them!
To Faircloth's ruminative eyes, the paleness in the stern of the boat, indicating Damaris Verity's drooping figure, altered slightly in outline. Whereupon he shipped the oars skillfully and quietly, and going aft knelt down in front of her. Her feet were stretched out as, bowed together, she sat on the low seat. His jacket had slipped away exposing them to the weather, and the young man laying his hands on them felt them cold as in death. He held them, chafed them, trying to restore some degree of circulation. Finally, moved by a great upwelling of tenderness and of pity, and reckoning her, since she gave no sign, to be asleep, he bent down and put his lips to them.
But immediately the girl's hands were upon his shoulders.
"What are you doing, oh! what are you doing?" she cried.
"Kissing your feet."
Then the Devil, no doubt, flicking him, he let go restraint, disobeyed his own orders, raised his head, and looking at her as in the enfolding obscurity she leaned over him, said:
"And, if it comes to that, who in all the round world has a better right than I, your brother, to kiss your feet?"
For some, to him, intolerable and interminable seconds, Faircloth waited after he had shot his bolt. The water whispered and chuckled against the boat's sides in lazy undertones, as it floated down the sluggish stream. Beyond this there was neither sound nor movement. More than ever might time be figured to stand still. His companion's hands continued to rest upon his shoulders. Her ghostly, dimly discerned face was so near his own that he could feel, now and again, her breath upon his forehead; but she was silent. As yet he did not repent of his cruelty. The impulse which dictated it had not spent itself. Nevertheless this suspense tried him. He grew impatient.
"Damaris," he said, at last, "speak to me."
"How can I speak to you when I don't understand," she answered gravely. "Either you lie—which I should be sorry to accuse you of doing—or you tell me a very terrible thing, if, that is, I at all comprehend what you say.—Are you not the son of Mrs. Faircloth, who lives at the inn out by the black cottages?"
"Yes, Lesbia Faircloth is my mother. And I ask for no better. She has squandered love upon me—squandered money, upon me too; but wisely and cleverly, with results. Still—" he paused—"well, it takes two, doesn't it, to make a man? One isn't one's mother's son only."
"But Mrs. Faircloth is a widow," Damaris reasoned, in wondering directness. "I have heard people speak of her husband. She was married."
"But not to my father. Do you ask for proofs—just think a minute. Whom did you mistake me for when I called you and came down over the Bar in the dusk?"
"No—no—" she protested trembling exceedingly. "That is not possible. How could such a thing happen?"
"As such things mostly do happen. It is not the first case, nor will it by a long way, I reckon, be the last. They were young, and—mayn't we allow—they were beautiful. That's often a good deal to do with these accidents. They met and, God help them, they loved."
"No—no—" Damaris cried again.
Yet she kept her hands on Faircloth's shoulders, clinging to him in the excessive travail of her innocent spirit—though he racked her—for sympathy and for help.
"For whom, after all, did you take me?" he repeated. "If there wasn't considerable cause it would be incredible you should make such a mistake. Can you deny that I am hall-marked, that the fact of my parentage is written large in my flesh?"
He felt her eyes fixed on him, painfully straining to see him through the rain and darkness; and, when she spoke again, he knew she knew that he did not lie.
"But wasn't it wrong" she said.
"I suppose so. Only as it gave me life and as I love life I'm hardly the person to deliver an unbiased opinion on that point."
"Then you are not sad, you are not angry?" Damaris presently and rather unexpectedly asked.
"Yes—at times both, but not often or for long together. As I tell you I love life—love it too well to torment myself much about the manner of my coming by it. It might show more refinement of feeling perhaps to hang my head and let a certain ugly word blast my prospects. But I don't happen to see the business that way. On the contrary I hope to get every ounce of advantage out of it I can—use it as a spur rather than a hobble. And I love my profession too. It gives you room and opportunity. I am waiting now for my first ship, my first command. That's a fine thing and a strong one. For your first ship is as a bride to you, and your first command makes you as a king among men. Oh! on a small scale I grant; but, as far as it reaches, your authority is absolute. On board your own ship you are master with a vengeance—if you like. And I do like."
Faircloth said the last few words softly, but with a weight of meaning not to be misunderstood. He bent down, once more, chafed Damaris' feet and wrapped his jacket carefully round them.
"And, while you and I are alone together, there is something—as we've spoken so freely—which I want to tell you, so that there may be no misconception about me or about what I want.—As men in my rank of life go, I am well off. Rich—again on a small scale; but with means sufficient to meet all my needs. I'm not a spend-thrift by nature, luckily. And I have amply enough not only to hold my own in my profession and win through, but to procure myself the pleasures and amusements I happen to fancy. I want you to remember that, please. Tell me is it quite clear to you?"
"Yes," Damaris said, "you have made it quite clear."
Yet for the first time he jarred on her, as with a more than superficial difference of breeding and of class. This mention of money offended her taste, seeming to lower the level upon which their extraordinary and—to her—terrible conversation had thus far moved. It hurt her with another kind of hurting—not magnificent, not absorbing, but just common. That in speaking of money he was protecting himself, proudly self-guarding his own honour and that of his mother, Lesbia Faircloth, never, in her innocence of what is mean and mercenary, occurred to Damaris.
So she took her hands off his shoulders and clasped them in her lap. Clasped them with all her poor strength, striving even in this extreme, to maintain some measure of calm and of dignity. She must hold out, she told herself, just simply by force of will hold out, till she was away from him. After that, chaos—for thoughts, discoveries, apprehensions of possibilities in human intercourse hitherto undreamed of, were marshalled round her in close formation shoulder to shoulder. They only waited. An instant's yielding on her part, and they would be on to her, crushing down and in, making her brain reel, her mind stagger under their stifling crowded assault.
"Go back and row," she said, at once imploring and imperious. "Row quickly. I am very tired. I am cold. I want to be at home—to be in my own place."
RECOUNTING AN ASTONISHING DEPOSITION
Theresa Bilson bustled upstairs. Barring the absence of the extra brake, which had caused—and for this she could not be sorry since didn't it justify her "attitude" towards her recalcitrant ex-pupil?—some inconvenient overcrowding in transit to and from the station, and barring the rain, which set in between five and six o'clock, the expedition to Harchester passed off with considerable eclat. Such, in any case, was Theresa's opinion, she herself having figured conspicuously in the foreground. During the inspection of the Cathedral the Dean paid her quite marked attention; thanks, in part, to her historical and archaeological knowledge—of which she made the most, and to her connection with the Verity family—of which she made the most also. In precisely what that connection might consist, the learned and timid old gentleman, being very deaf and rather near-sighted, failed to gather. He determined, however, to be on the safe side.
"Our genial Archdeacon," he said, "and his distinguished kinsman, Sir Charles? Ah! yes—yes—indeed—to be sure—with the greatest pleasure."
And he motioned the blushing Theresa to fall into step with him, and with Dr. Horniblow, at the head of the Deadham procession.
The afterglow of that triumphal progress irradiated her consciousness still, when—after depositing the Miss Minetts upon their own doorstep, with playful last words recalling the day's mild jokes and rallyings—she drove on to The Hard to find the household there in a state of sombre and most admired confusion.
Thus to arrive home in possession of a fine bag of news, only to discover an opposition and far finer bag ready awaiting you may well prove trying to the most high-souled and amiable of temper. By this time, between success and fatigue, Theresa could not be justly described as either high-souled or sweet tempered. She was at once inflated and on edge, and consequently hotly indignant, as though the unfairest march possible had been stolen upon her.
She bustled upstairs, and crossing the landing turned into the schoolroom passage—a long, lamp-lit vista, hung with old Chinese wall-paper, the running pattern of buds and flowers, large out of all proportion to the bridges, palms, pagodas and groups of little purple and blue-clad men and women disposed, in dwindling perspective, upon its once white surface. Half-way along the passage, their backs towards her, Mary and Mrs. Cooper, the cook—a fair, mild middle-aged, and cow-like person, of ample proportions—stood conversing in smothered tones.
"And it's my belief he's been and told her, or anyhow that she guesses, pore dear young lady," the latter, with upraised hands, lamented.
Theresa just caught these strange words. Caught too, Mary's hurried rejoinder—"For mercy's sake, Mrs. Cooper, not a hint of that to any living soul"—before the two women, sensible of the swish and patter of her self-important entry, turned and moved forward to meet, or—could it be?—to intercept her. Their faces bore a singular expression, in Mrs. Cooper's case of sloppy, in Mary's of stern yet vivid alarm. Deeply engaged though she was with her private grievance, Miss Bilson could not but observe this. It made her nervous.
"What is the meaning," she began, her voice shrill with agitation, "of the extraordinary story about Miss Damaris which Laura reports to me? Someone is evidently very much in fault."
"Please don't speak quite so loud, Miss," Mary firmly admonished her. "I've just got Miss Damaris quieted off to sleep, and if she's roused up again, I won't answer for what mayn't happen."
"But what has happened? I insist upon knowing," Theresa declared, in growing offence and agitation.
"Ah! that's just what we should be thankful enough to have you tell us, Miss," Mrs. Cooper chimed in with heavy and reproachful emphasis upon the pronouns.
To even the mild and cow-like revenge is sweet. Though honestly distressed and scared, the speaker entertained a most consoling conviction she was at this moment getting even with Theresa Bilson and cleverly paying off old scores.
"The pore dear young lady's caught her death as likely as not, out there across the river in the wet, let alone some sneaking rascal making off with her stockings and shoes. When I saw her little naked feet, all blue with the cold, it made my heart bleed, regularly bleed, it did. I could only give thanks her Nanna, pore Mrs. Watson, who worshipped the very ground Miss Damaris trod on, was spared living to see that afflicting sight."
Then with a change of tone exasperating—as it was designed to be—to one, at least, of her hearers, she added:
"I'll have that soup ready against Miss Damaris wakes, Mary, in case she should fancy it. Just touch the bell, will you, and I'll bring it up myself. It's not suitable to give either of the girls a chance for prying. They're a deal too curious as it is. And I'm only too pleased to watch with you, turn and turn about, as I told you, whenever you feel to require a rest. Lizzie will have to see to the cooking anyhow—except what's wanted for Miss Damaris. I couldn't put my mind into kitchen work to-night, not if you paid me ever so."
And on large flat feet she moved away towards the back-staircase, leading down to the offices from the far end of the passage, leaving an odour of pastry behind her and of cloves.
"To think of what to-morrow may bring, ah! dear me," she murmured as she went.
During the ten minutes or so which immediately followed Theresa Bilson boxed the compass in respect of sensations, the needle, as may be noted, invariably quivering back to the same point—namely, righteous anger against Damaris. For was not that high-spirited maiden's imperviousness to influence and defiance of authority—her, Theresa's, influence and authority—the mainspring of all this disastrous complication? Theresa found it convenient to believe so, and whip herself up to almost frantic determination in that belief. It was so perfectly clear. All the more clear because her informant, Mary, evidently did not share her belief. Mary's account of to-day's most vexatious transactions betrayed partizanship and prejudice, such as might be expected from an uneducated person, offering—as Theresa assured herself—a pertinent example of the workings of "the servant mind." Nevertheless uneasy suspicion dogged her, a haunting though unformulated dread that other persons—one person above all others—might endorse Mary's prejudices rather than her own, so reasonably based, conviction.
"If only Mr. Patch had been in there'd have been somebody to depend on," the woman told her, recounting the anxious search after vanished Damaris. "But he'd driven into Marychurch of course, starting ever so early because of the parcels he had your orders to call for at the several shops, before meeting the train. And the gardeners had left work on account of the wet; so we'd nobody to send to make enquiries anywhere except Tolling, and that feather-head Alfred, who you can't trust half a minute out of your sight." Here she paused in her narrative and made a move, adroitly driving Theresa Bilson before her out on to the landing, thus putting a greater distance between that tormented spinster and the neighbourhood of Damaris' bed-chamber. Her handsome brown eyes held the light of battle and her colour was high. She straightened a chair, standing against the wall at the stair-head, with a neatly professional hand in passing.
"Mrs. Cooper and I were fairly wild waiting down on the sea-wall with the lantern, thinking of drowning and—worse,—when"—she glanced sharply at her companion and, lowering her eyes altered the position of the chair by a couple of inches—"when Captain Faircloth's boat came up beside the breakwater and he carried Miss Damaris ashore and across the garden."
"Stop"—Theresa broke in—"I do not follow you. Faircloth, Captain Faircloth? You are not, I earnestly hope, speaking of the owner of that low public-house on the island?"
"Yes—him," Mary returned grimly, her eyes still lowered.
"And do you mean me to understand that this young man carried Miss Damaris—actually carried her"—Miss Bilson choked and cleared her throat with a foolish little crowing sound—"carried her all the way into the house—in his arms?"
"Yes, in his arms, Miss. How else would you have had him carry her?—And, as gentle and careful as any woman could, too—into the house and right upstairs here"—pointing along the passage as if veritably beholding the scene once more—"and into her own bedroom."
"How shocking. How extremely improper!"
Theresa beat her fat little hands hysterically together. She credited herself with emotions of the most praiseworthy and purest; ignorant that the picture conjured up before her provoked obscure physical jealousies, obscure stirrings of latent unsatisfied passion. More than ever, surely, did the needle quiver back to that fixed point of most righteous anger.
"Such—such a proceeding cannot have been necessary. It ought not to have been permitted. Why did not Miss Damaris walk?"
"Because she was in a dead faint, and we'd all the trouble in life to bring her round."
"Indeed," she said, and that rather nastily. "I am sorry, but I cannot but believe Miss Damaris might have made an effort to walk—with your assistance and that of Cooper, had you offered it. As I remarked at first, someone is evidently very much to blame. The whole matter must be thoroughly sifted out, of course. I am disappointed, for I had great confidence in you and Cooper—two old servants who might really have been expected to possess some idea of the—the respect due to their master's daughter. What will Sir Charles say when he hears of this objectionable incident?"
"That's just what Mrs. Cooper and I are wondering, Miss," Mary took her up with so much meaning that Miss Bilson inwardly quailed, sensible of having committed a rather egregious blunder. This she made efforts to repair by sheering off hurriedly on another tack.
"Not that I shall trouble Sir Charles with the matter, unless circumstances arise which compel me to do so—as a duty. My great object, of course, is at all times to spare him any domestic annoyance."
She began pulling off her gloves, a new pair and tight. Her hands were moist and the glove-fingers stuck, rendering their removal lengthy and difficult.
"To-morrow I shall have a thorough explanation with Miss Damaris and decide what action it is my duty to take after hearing her version of the events of this afternoon. I should prefer speaking to her to-night—"
"Miss Damaris isn't fit to talk about anything to-night."
Theresa pulled at the right-hand glove—the kid gave with a little shriek, the thumb splitting out. She was in a state of acute indecision. Could she retire from this contest without endangering her authority, without loss of prestige, or must she insist? She had no real wish to hasten to her ex-pupil's bedside. She would be glad to put off doing so, glad to wait. She was conscious of resentment rather than affection. And she felt afraid, unformulated suspicion, unformulated dread, again dogging her. That Damaris was really ill, she did not believe for an instant. Damaris had excellent health. The maids exaggerated. They delighted in making mysteries. Uneducated persons are always absurdly greedy of disaster, lugubriously credulous.—Yes, on the whole she concluded to maintain her original attitude, the attitude of yesterday and this morning; concluded it would be more telling to keep up the fiction of disgrace—because—Theresa did not care to scrutinize her own motives or analyse her own thought too closely. She was afraid, and she was jealous—jealous of Damaris' beauty, of the great love borne her by her father, jealous of the fact that a young man—hadn't she, Theresa, seen the young sea-captain once or twice in the village recently and been fluttered by his notable good looks?—had rescued the girl, and carried her home, carried her up here across the landing and along the familiar schoolroom passage, with its patterned Chinese wall-paper, gently and carefully, in his arms.
And these qualifying terms—gentle and careful—rankled to the point even of physical disturbance, so that Miss Bilson again became guilty of inelegantly choking, and clearing her throat for the second time with a foolish crowing sound.
"I will postpone my interview with Miss Damaris until after breakfast to-morrow," she said, thus leaving Mary Fisher virtually, if not admittedly, master of the field.
But long before breakfast time, in the grey and mournful autumn morning, Patch rattled the dog-cart the seven miles into Stourmouth, as fast as the black horse could travel, to fetch Damaris' old friend, the retired Indian Civil surgeon, Dr. McCabe. For, coming to herself, in the intervals of distracted fever dreams, she had asked for him, going back by instinct to the comfort of his care of her in childish illnesses long ago. Since she was ill enough, so Mary said, to need a doctor, let it be him.
"Not Mr. Cripps out of the village, or Dr. Risdon from Marychurch. I won't see them. I will not see anyone from near here. Keep them away from me," she commanded. "I know Miss Bilson will try to send for one or the other. But I won't see either. Promise you'll keep them away."
When, after his visit, Theresa Bilson, considerably flustered and offended, found McCabe breakfasting in the dining-room and offered profuse apologies for the inconvenience to which he must have been put by so early and unnecessary a call, the tender-hearted and garrulous, but choleric Irishman cut her uncommonly short.
"And would you be supposing then, that if the dear blessed child should be desirous of consulting me I wouldn't have rejoiced to come to her a thousand times as early and from ten thousand times as far?" he enquired, between large mouthfuls of kidney and fried bacon. "The scheming little pudding-faced governess creature, with a cherry nose and an envious eye to her"—he commented to himself.
"But you do not apprehend anything serious?" Theresa said stiffly—"Merely a slight chill?"
"With a temperature dancing up and down like a mad thing between a hundred and one and a hundred and three? I'm dashed if I like the looks of her at all, at all, Miss Bilson; and I am well acquainted with her constitution and her temperament. She's as delicate a piece of feminine mechanism as it's ever been my fortune to handle, and has been so from a child. Mind and body so finely interwoven that you can't touch the one without affecting the other—that is where danger comes in.—And I am glad to find she has so competent a nurse as Mary Fisher—a wholesome woman and one to put faith in. I have given my full instructions to her."
"But I"—Theresa began fussily, her face crimson.
"Oh! I don't doubt you're devotion itself; only my first consideration is my patient, and so I make free to use my own judgment in the selection of my assistants. No disrespect to you, my dear lady. You are at home in more intellectual spheres than that of the sick-room. And now," he wiped his mouth with his napkin, twinkling at her over the top of it with small blue-grey eyes, at once merry, faithful, and cunning—"I'll be bidding you good-bye till the evening. I have told Mary Fisher I'll be glad to sleep here to-night. And I'll despatch a telegram to Sir Charles on my way through the village."
"Sir Charles?" Theresa cried.
"Yes," he answered her. "I find the darling girl's illness as serious as that."
A SOUL AT WAR WITH FACT
The deepest and most abiding demand of all sentient creatures, strong and weak alike, is for safety, or, that being unattainable, for a sense of safety, an illusion even of safety.
This, so universal demand, dictated, in Damaris' case, her prayer for Dr. McCabe's attendance. He belonged to the safeties of her childhood, to the securely guarded, and semi-regal state—as, looking back, she recalled it—of the years when her father held the appointment of Chief Commissioner at Bhutpur. Dr. McCabe was conversant with all that; the sole person available, at this juncture, who had lot or part in it. And, as she had foreseen—when drifting down the tide-river in the rain and darkness—once the supporting tension of Faircloth's presence removed, chaos would close in on her. It only waited due opportunity. That granted, as a tempest-driven sea it would submerge her. In the welter of the present, she clutched at the high dignities and distinctions of the past as at a lifebelt. Not vulgarly, in a spirit of self-aggrandizement; but in the simple interests of self-preservation, as a means of keeping endangered sanity afloat. For the distinctions and dignities of that period were real too, just as uncontrovertible a contribution to her knowledge of men and of things, just as vital an element in her experience, as chaos let loose on her now. The one in no degree invalidated the truth or actuality of the other.
But to keep this in mind, to remember it all the time, while imagination galloped with fever brought on by chill and exposure, and reason wandered, losing touch with plain commonsense through the moral shock she had sustained, was difficult to the point of impossibility. She needed a witness, visible and material, to the fact of those former happier conditions; and found it, quaintly enough, in the untidy person and humorous, quarrelsome, brick-dust coloured face—as much of the said face, that is, as was discoverable under the thick stiff growth of sandy hair surrounding and invading it—of the Irish doctor, as he sat by her bed, ministered to and soothed her with reverent and whimsical delicacy.
As long as he was there, her room retained its normal, pleasant and dainty aspect. All Damaris' little personal effects and treasures adorning dressing and writing-tables, the photographs and ornaments upon the mantelshelf, her books, the prints and pictures upon the walls—even the white dimity curtains and covers, trellised with small faded pink and blue roses—seemed to smile upon her, kindly and confiding. They wanted to be nice, to console and encourage her—McCabe holding them in place and in active good-will towards her, somehow, with his large freckled, hairy-backed hands. But let him go from the room, let him leave her, and they turned wicked, behaving as they had behaved throughout the past rather dreadful night and adding to the general chaos by tormenting tricks and distortions of their own.
The beloved photographs of her father, in particular, were cruel. They grew inordinately large, stepped out of their frames, and stalked to and fro in troops and companies. The charcoal drawing of him—done last year by that fine artist, James Colthurst, as a study for the portrait he was to paint—hanging between the two western windows, at right angles to her bed where she could always see it, proved the worst offender. It did not take the floor, it is true, but remained in its frame upon the wall. Yet it too came alive, and looked full at her, compelling her attention, dominating, commanding her; while, slowly, deliberately it changed, the features slightly losing their accentuation, growing youthful, softer in outline, the long drooping moustache giving place to a close-cut beard. The eyes alone stayed the same, steady, luminous, a living silence in them at once formidable and strangely sad. Finally—and this the poor child found indescribably agitating and even horrible—their silence was broken by a question. For they asked what she, Damaris, meant to say, meant to do, when he—her father, the all-powerful Commissioner Sahib of her babyhood's faith and devotion—came home here, came back?
Yet whose eyes, after all, were they which thus asked? Was it not, rather the younger man, the bearded one, who claimed, and of right, an answer to that question? And upon Damaris it now dawned that these two, distinct yet interchangeable personalities—imprisoned, as by some evil magic in one picture—were in opposition, in violent and impious conflict, which conflict she was called upon, yet was powerless, to avert or to assuage.
Not once but many times—since the transformation was persistently recurrent—the girl turned her face to the wall to gain relief from the sight of it and the demand it so fearfully embodied, pressing her dry lips together lest any word should escape them. For the whole matter, as she understood it was secret, sacred too as it was agonizing. No one must guess what lay at the root of her present suffering—not even comfortable devoted Mary, nor that invaluable lifebelt, Dr. McCabe. She held the honour of both those conflicting interchangeable personalities in her hands; and, whether she were strong enough to adjust their differences or not, she must in no wise betray either of them. The latent motherhood in her cried out to protect and to shield them both, to spare them both. For in this stage of the affair, while the hallucinations of deadly fever—in a sense mercifully—confused her, its grosser aspects did not present themselves to her mind. She wandered through mazes, painful enough to tread; but far removed from the ugliness of vulgar scandal. That her sacred secret, for instance, might be no more than a secret de Polichinelle suspected by many, did not, so far, occur to her.
Believing it to be her exclusive property, therefore, she, inspired by tender cunning, strove manfully to keep it so. To that end she made play with the purely physical miseries of her indisposition.—With shivering fits and scorching flushes, cold aching limbs and burning, aching head. With the manifold distractions of errant blood which, leaving her heart empty as a turned-down glass, drummed in her ears and throbbed behind her eyeballs. These discomforts were severely real enough, in all conscience, to excuse her for being self-occupied and a trifle selfish; to justify a blank refusal to receive Theresa Bilson, or attempt to retail and discuss the events of yesterday. All she craved was quiet, to be left alone, to lie silent in the quiet light of the covered grey day.
In the earlier hours of it, silver rain showers travelled across the sea to spend themselves, tearfully, against the panes of her bedroom windows. But towards evening the cloud lifted, revealing a watery sunset, spread in timid reds and yellows behind Stone Horse Head and the curving coast-line beyond, away to Stourmouth and Barryport. The faint tentative colours struck in long glinting shafts between the trunks and branches of the stone pines and Scotch firs in the so-called Wilderness—a strip of uncultivated land within the confines of the grounds dividing the gardens from the open Warren to the West—and gleamed in at the windows, faintly dyeing the dimity hangings and embroidered linen counterpane of Damaris' bed.
Throughout the afternoon she had been less restless. So that Mary Fisher, judging her to be fairly asleep, some five minutes earlier had folded her needlework together, and, leaving the chair where she sat sewing, went softly from the room.
But that brightening of sunset disturbed Damaris, bringing her slowly awake. For a time she lay watching, though but half consciously the tinted radiance as—the trees now stirred by a little wind drawing out of the sunset—it shifted and flitted over the white surfaces. At first it pleased her idle fancy. But presently distressed her, as too thin, too chill, too restlessly unsubstantial, the veriest chippering ghost of colour and of light. It affected her with a desolating sadness as of failure; of great designs richly attempted but petering out into a pitiful nothingness; of love which aped and mimicked, being drained of all purpose and splendour of hot blood; of partings whose sorrow had lost its savour, yet which masqueraded in showy crape for a heart-break long grown stale and obsolete.
Her temperature rushed up; and she threw off the bedclothes, raising herself on her elbow, while the shafts of thin brightness wavered fitfully. Through them she saw the photographs of her father step out of their frames again, and growing very tall and spare, stalk to and fro. Other figures joined them—those of women. Her poor dear Nannie, in the plain quaker-grey cotton gown and black silk apron she used to wear, even through the breathless hot-weather days, at the Sultan-i-bagh long ago. And Henrietta Pereira, too, composed and delicately sprightly, arrayed in full flounced muslins and fine laces with an exquisiteness of high feminine grace and refinement which had enthralled her baby soul and senses, and, which held her captive by their charm even yet. A handsome, high-coloured full-breasted, Eurasian girl, whom she but dimly recollected, was there as well. And with these another—carrying very certainly no hint of things oriental about her—an English woman and of the people, in dull homely clothing, grave of aspect and of bearing; yet behind whose statuesque and sternly patient beauty a great flame seemed to quiver, offering sharp enough contrast to the frail glintings of the rain-washed sunset amid which she, just now, moved.
At sight of the last comer, Damaris started up, tense with wonder and excitement, since she knew—somehow—this final visitant belonged not to the past so much as to the present, that her power was unexhausted and would go forward to the shaping of the coming years. Which knowledge drew confirmation from what immediately followed. For, as by almost imperceptible degrees the brightness faded in the west, the figures, so mysteriously peopling the room, faded out also, until only the woman in homely garments was left. By her side stood the charcoal drawing of Sir Charles Verity from off the wall—or seemed to do so, for almost at once, Damaris saw that dreaded interchange of personality again take place. Saw the strongly marked features soften in outline, the face grow bearded yet younger by full thirty years.
Both the woman and the young man looked searchingly at her; and in the eyes of both she read the same question—what did she mean to do, what to say, when her father, the object of her adoration, came home to her, came back to Deadham Hard?
"I will do right," she cried out loud to them in answer, "Only trust me. I am so tired and it is all so difficult to believe and to understand. But I am trying to understand. I shall understand, if you will give me time and not hurry me. And, when I understand, indeed, indeed, you may trust me, whatever it costs, to do right."
Just then Mary opened the door, entering quickly, and behind her came Dr. McCabe, to find Damaris talking, talking wildly, sitting up, parched and vivid with fever, in the disordered bed.
TELLING HOW TWO PERSONS, OF VERY DIFFERENT MORAL CALIBRE, WERE COMPELLED TO WEAR THE FLOWER OF HUMILIATION IN THEIR RESPECTIVE BUTTONHOLES
Cross-country connections by rail were not easy to make, with the consequence that Sir Charles Verity,—Hordle, gun-cases, bags and portmanteaux, in attendance—did not reach The Hard until close upon midnight.
Hearing the brougham at last drive up, Theresa Bilson felt rapturously fluttered. Her course had been notably empty of situations and of adventure; drama, as in the case of so many ladies of her profession—the pages of fiction notwithstanding—conspicuously cold-shouldering and giving her the go-by. Now, drama, and that of richest quality might perhaps—for she admitted the existence of awkward conjunctions—be said to batter at her door. She thought of the Miss Minetts, her ever-willing audience. She thought also—as so frequently during the last, in some respects, extremely unsatisfactory twenty-four hours—of Mr. Rochester and of Jane Eyre. Not that she ranged herself with Jane socially or as to scholastic attainments. In both these, as in natural refinement, propriety and niceness of ideas, she reckoned herself easily to surpass that much canvassed heroine. The flavour of the evangelical charity-school adhered—incontestably it adhered, and that to Jane's disadvantage. No extravagance of Protestantism or of applied philanthropy, thank heaven, clouded Theresa's early record. The genius of Tractarianism had rocked her cradle, and subsequently ruled her studies with a narrowly complacent pedantry all its own. Nevertheless in moments of expansion, such as the present, she felt the parallel between her own case and that of Jane did, in certain directions, romantically hold. Fortified by thought of the Miss Minetts' agitated interest in all which might befall her, she indulged in imaginary conversations with that great proconsul, her employer—the theme of which, purged of lyrical redundancies, reduced itself to the somewhat crude announcement that "your daughter, yes, may, alas, not impossibly be taken from you; but I, Theresa, still remain."
When, however, a summons to the presence of the said employer actually reached her, the bounce born of imaginary conversations, showed a tendency, as is its habit, basely to desert her and soak clean away. She had promised herself a little scene, full of respectful solicitude, of sympathy discreetly offered and graciously accepted, a drawing together through the workings of mutual anxiety leading on to closer intercourse, her own breast, to put it pictorially, that on which the stricken parent should eventually and gratefully lean. But in all this she was disappointed, for Sir Charles did not linger over preliminaries. He came straight and unceremoniously to the point; and that with so cold and lofty a manner that, although flutterings remained, they parted company with all and any emotions even remotely allied to rapture.
Charles Verity stood motionless before the fire-place in the long sitting-room. He still wore a heavy frieze travelling coat, the fronts of it hanging open. His shoulders were a trifle humped up and his head bent, as he looked down at the black and buff of the tiger skin at his feet. When Theresa approached with her jerky consequential little walk—pinkly self-conscious behind her gold-rimmed glasses—he glanced at her, revealing a fiercely careworn countenance, but made no movement to shake hands with or otherwise greet her. This omission she hardly noticed, already growing abject before his magnificence—for thus did his appearance impress her—which, while claiming her enthusiastic admiration, enjoined humility rather than the sentimental expansions in which her imaginary conversations had so conspicuously abounded.
"I have seen Dr. McCabe," he began. "His report of Damaris' condition is very far from reassuring. He tells me her illness presents peculiar symptoms, and is grave out of all proportion to its apparent cause. This makes me extremely uneasy. It is impossible to question her at present. She must be spared all exertion and agitation. I have not attempted to see her yet."
He paused, while anger towards her ex-pupil waxed warm in Theresa once again. For the pause was eloquent, as his voice had been when speaking about his daughter, of a depth of underlying tenderness which filled his hearer with envy.