"I must therefore ask you, Miss Bilson," he presently went on, "to give me a detailed account of all that took place yesterday. It is important I should know exactly what occurred."
Whereat Theresa, perceiving pitfalls alike in statement and in suppression of fact, hesitated and gobbled to the near neighbourhood of positive incoherence, while admitting, and trying to avoid admitting, how inconveniently ignorant of precise details she herself was.
"Perhaps I erred in not more firmly insisting upon an immediate enquiry," she said. "But, at the time, alarm appeared so totally uncalled for. I assumed, from what was told me, and from my knowledge of the strength of Damaris' constitution, that a night's rest would fully restore her to her usual robust state of health, and so deferred my enquiry. The servants were excited and upset, so I felt their account might be misleading—all they said was so confused, so far from explicit. My position was most difficult, Sir Charles," she assured him and incidentally, also, assured herself. "I encountered most trying opposition, which made me feel it would be wiser to wait until this morning. By then, I hoped, the maids would have had time to recollect themselves and recollect what is becoming towards their superiors in the way of obedience and respect."
Charles Verity threw back his head with a movement of impatience, and looked down at her from under his eyelids—in effect weary and a little insolent.
"We seem to be at cross purposes, Miss Bilson," he said. "You do not, I think quite follow my question. I did not ask for the servants' account of the events of yesterday—whatever those events may have been—but for your own."
"Ah! it is so unfortunate, so exceedingly unfortunate," Theresa broke out, literally wringing her hands, "but a contingency, an accident, which I could not possibly have foreseen—I cannot but blame Damaris, Sir Charles"—
"Indeed?" he said.
"No, truly I cannot but blame her for wilfulness. If she had consented—as I so affectionately urged—to join the choir treat to Harchester, this painful incident would have been spared us."
"Am I to understand that you went to Harchester, leaving my daughter here alone?"
"Her going would have given so much pleasure in the parish," Theresa pursued, dodging the question with the ingenuity of one who scents mortal danger. "Her refusal would, I knew, cause sincere disappointment. I could not bring myself to accentuate that disappointment. Not that I, of course, am of any importance save as coming from this house, as—as—in some degree your delegate, Sir Charles."
"Indeed?" he said.
"Yes, indeed," Theresa almost hysterically repeated.
For here—if anywhere—was her chance, as she recognized. Never again might she be thus near to him, alone with him—the normal routine made it wholly improbable.—And at midnight too. For the unaccustomed lateness of the hour undoubtedly added to her ferment, provoking in her obscure and novel hopes and hungers. Hence she blindly and—her action viewed from a certain angle—quite heroically precipitated herself. Heroically, because the odds were hopelessly adverse, her equipment, whether of natural or artificial, being so conspicuously slender. Her attempt had no backing in play of feature, felicity of gesture, grace of diction. The commonest little actress that ever daubed her skin with grease-paint, would have the advantage of Theresa in the thousand and one arts by which, from everlasting, woman has limed twigs for the catching of man. Her very virtues—respectability, learning, all the proprieties of her narrowly virtuous little life—counted for so much against her in the present supreme moment of her self-invented romance.
"You hardly, I dare say," she pursued—"how should you after the commanding positions you have occupied?—appreciate the feelings of the inhabitants of this quiet country parish towards you. But they have a lively sense, believe me, of the honour you confer upon them, all and severally—I am speaking of the educated classes in particular, of course—by residing among them. They admire and reverence you so much, so genuinely; and they have extended great kindness to me as a member of your household. How can I be indifferent to it? I am thankful, Sir Charles, I am grateful—the more so that I have the happiness of knowing I owe the consideration with which I am treated, in Deadham, entirely to you.—Yes, yes," she cried in rising exaltation, "I do not deny that I went to Harchester yesterday—went—Dr. Horniblow thus expressed it when inviting me—'as representing The Hard.' I was away when Damaris made this ill-judged excursion across the river to the Bar. Had she confided her intention to me, I should have used my authority and forbade her. But recently we have not been, I grieve to say, on altogether satisfactory terms, and our parting yesterday was constrained, I am afraid."
Theresa blushed and swallowed. Fortunately her sense of humour was limited; but, even so, she could not but be aware of a dangerous decline. Not only of bathos, but of vulgar bathos, from which gentility revolted, must she be the exponent, thanks to Damaris' indiscretion!
"You require me to give you the details, Sir Charles," she resumed, "and although it is both embarrassing and repugnant to me to do so, I obey. I fear Damaris so far forgot herself—forgot I mean what is due to her age and position—as to remove her shoes and stockings and paddle in the sea—a most unsuitable and childish occupation. While she was thus engaged her things—her shoes and stockings—appear to have been stolen. In any case she was unable to find them when tired of the amusement she came up on to the beach. Moreover she was caught in the rain. And I deeply regret to tell you—but I merely repeat what I learned from Mary Fisher and Mrs. Cooper when I returned—it was not till after dark, when the maids had become so alarmed that they despatched Tolling and Alfred to search for her, that Damaris landed from a boat at the breakwater, having been brought down the river—by—by"—
Throughout the earlier portion of her recital Charles Verity stood in the same place and same attitude staring down at the tiger skin. Twice or thrice only he raised his eyes, looking at the speaker with a flash of arrogant interrogation.
Upon one, even but moderately, versed in the secular arts of twig-liming, such flashes would have acted as an effective warning and deterrent. Not so upon Theresa. She barely noticed them, as blindly heroic, she pounded along leading her piteous forlorn hope. Her chance—her unique chance, in nowise to be missed—and, still more, those obscure hungers, fed by the excitement of this midnight tete-a-tete, rushed her forward upon the abyss; while at every sputtering sentence, whether of adulation, misplaced prudery, or thinly veiled animosity towards Damaris, she became more tedious, more frankly intolerable and ridiculous to him whose favour she so desperately sought. Under less anxious circumstances Charles Verity might have been contemptuously amused at this exhibition of futile ardour. Now it exasperated him. Yet he waited, in rather cruel patience. Presently he would demolish her, if to do so appeared worth the trouble. Meanwhile she should have her say, since incidentally he might learn something from it bearing upon the cause of Damaris' illness.
But now, when, at the climax of her narrative, Theresa—seized by a spasm of retrospective resentment and jealousy, the picture of the young man carrying the girl tenderly in his arms across the dusky lawns arising before her—choked and her voice cracked up into a bat-like squeaking, Charles Verity's self-imposed forbearance ran dry.
"I must remind you that neither my time nor capacity of listening are inexhaustible, Miss Bilson," he said to her. "May I ask you to be so good as to come to the point. By whom was Damaris rescued and brought home last night?"
"Ah! that is what I so deeply regret," Theresa quavered, still obstinately dense and struggling with the after convulsion of her choke. "I felt so shocked and annoyed on your account, Sir Charles, when the maids told me, knowing how you would disapprove such a—such an incident in connection with Damaris.—She was brought home, carried"—she paused—"carried indoors by the owner of that objectionable public-house on the island. He holds some position in the Mercantile Marine, I believe. I have seen him recently once or twice myself in the village—his name is Faircloth."
Theresa pursed up her lips as she finished speaking. The glasses of her gold pince-nez seemed to gleam aggressively in the lamp-light. The backs of the leather-bound volumes in the many book-cases gleamed also, but unaggressively, with the mellow sheen—as might fancifully be figured—of the ripe and tolerant wisdom their pages enshrined. The pearl-grey porcelain company of Chinese monsters, saints and godlings, ranged above them placid, mysteriously smiling, gleamed as well.
For a time, silence, along with these various gleamings, sensibly, even a little uncannily, held possession of the room. Then Charles Verity moved, stiffly, and for once awkwardly, all of a piece. Backed against the mantelshelf, throwing his right arm out along it sharply and heavily—careless of the safety of clock and of ornaments—as though overtaken by sudden weakness and seeking support.
"Faircloth? Of course, his name is Faircloth." he repeated absently. "Yes, of course."
But whatever the nature of the weakness assailing him, it soon, apparently, passed. He stood upright, his face, perhaps, a shade more colourless and lean, but in expression fully as arrogant and formidably calm as before.
"Very well, Miss Bilson," he began. "You have now given me all the information I require, so I need detain you no longer—save to say this.—You will, if you please, consider your engagement as my daughter's companion terminated, concluded from to-night. You are free to make such arrangements as may suit you; and you will, I trust, pardon my adding that I shall be obliged by your making them without undue delay."
"You do not mean," Theresa broke out, after an interval of speechless amazement—"Sir Charles, you cannot mean that you dismiss me—that I am to leave The Hard—to—to go away?"
"I mean that I have no further occasion for your services."
Theresa waved her arms as though playing some eccentric game of ball.
"You forget the servants, the conduct of the house, Damaris' need of a chaperon, her still unfinished education—All are dependent upon me."
"Hardly dependent," he answered. "These things, I have reason to think, can safely be trusted to other hands, or be equally safely be left to take care of themselves."
"But why do you repudiate me?" she cried again, rushing upon her fate in the bitterness of her distraction. "What have I done to deserve such harshness and humiliation?"
"I gave the most precious of my possessions—Damaris—into your keeping, and—and—well—we see the result. Is it not written large enough, in all conscience, for the most illiterate to read?—So you must depart, my dear Miss Bilson, and for everyone's sake, the sooner the better. There can be no further discussion of the matter. Pray accept the fact that our interview is closed."
But Theresa, now sensible that her chance was in act of being finally ravished away from her, fell—or rose—perhaps more truly the latter—into an extraordinary sincerity and primitiveness of emotion. She cast aside nothing less than her whole personal legend, cast aside every tradition and influence hitherto so strictly governing her conduct and her thought. Unluckily the physical envelope could not so readily be got rid of. Matter retained its original mould, and that one neither seductive nor poetic.
She went down upon her fat little knees, held her fat little hands aloft as in an impassioned spontaneity of worship.
"Sir Charles," she prayed, while tears running down her full cheeks splashed upon her protuberant bosom—"Sir Charles"—
He looked at the funny, tubby, jaunty, would-be smart, kneeling figure.
"Oh! you inconceivably foolish woman," he said and turned away.
Did more than that—walked out into the hall and to his own rooms, opening off the corridor. In the offices a bell tinkled. Theresa scrambled on to her feet, just as Hordle, in response to its summons, arrived at the sitting-room door.
"Did you ring, Miss?" he asked grudgingly. Less than ever was she in favour with the servants' hall to-night.
Past intelligible utterance, Theresa merely shook her head in reply. Made a return upon herself—began to instruct him to put out the lamps in the room. Remembered that now and henceforth the right to give orders in this house was no longer hers; and broke into sobbing, the sound of which her handkerchief pressed against her mouth quite failed to stifle.
About an hour later, having bathed and changed, Sir Charles Verity made his way upstairs. Upon the landing Dr. McCabe met him.
"Better," he said, "thank the heavenly powers, decidedly better. Temperature appreciably lower, and the pulse more even. Oh! we're on the road very handsomely to get top dog of the devil this bout, believe me, Sir Charles."
"Then go to bed, my dear fellow," the other answered. "I will take over the rest of the watch for you. You need not be afraid. I can be an admirable sick-nurse on occasion. And by the way, McCabe, something has come to my knowledge which in my opinion throws considerable light upon the symptoms that have puzzled you. Probably I shall be more sure of my facts before morning. I will explain to you later, if it should seem likely to be helpful to you in your treatment of the case. Just now, as I see it, the matter lies exclusively between me"—he smiled looking at his companion full and steadily—"between me"—he repeated, "and my only child."
All which upon the face of it might, surely, be voted encouraging enough. Yet:
"Should there be any that doubt the veritable existence of hell fire," the doctor told himself, as he subsequently and thankfully pulled on his night-shirt, "to recover them, and in double quick time, of their heresy let 'em but look in my friend Verity's eyes."—And he rounded off the sentence with an oath.
AN EXPERIMENT IN BRIDGE-BUILDING OF WHICH TIME ALONE CAN FIX THE VALUES
Damaris lay on her side, her face turned to the wall. When Charles Verity, quietly crossing the room, sat down in an easy chair, so placed at the head of the half-tester bed as to be screened from it by the dimity curtains, she sighed and slightly shifted her position.
Leaning back, he crossed his legs and let his chin drop on his breast. He had barely glanced at her in passing, receiving a vague impression of the outline of her cheek, of her neck, and shoulders, of her head, dark against the dim whiteness on which it rested, and the long dark stream of her hair spread loose across the pillows. He had no wish for recognition—not yet awhile. On the contrary, it was a relief to have time in which silently to get accustomed to her presence, to steep himself in the thought of her, before speech should define the new element intruded, as he believed, into his and her relation. Though little enough—too little, so said some of his critics—hampered by fear in any department, he consciously dreaded the smallest modification of that relation. Among the many dissatisfactions and bitternesses of life, it shone forth with a steady light of purity and sweetness, as a thing unspoiled, unbreathed on, even, by what is ignoble or base. And not the surface of it alone was thus free from all breath of defilement. It showed clear right through, as some gem of the purest water. To keep it thus inviolate, he had made sacrifices in the past neither easy nor inconsiderable to a man of his temperament and ambitions. Hence that its perfection should be now endangered was to him the more exquisitely hateful.
Upon the altar of that hatred, promptly without scruple he sacrificed the wretched Theresa. Most of us are so constituted that, at a certain pass, pleasure—of a sort—is to be derived from witnessing the anguish of a fellow creature. In all save the grossly degenerate that pleasure, however, is short-lived. Reflection follows, in which we cut to ourselves but a sorry figure. With Charles Verity, reflection began to follow before he had spent many minutes in Damaris' sick-room. For here the atmosphere was, at once, grave and tender, beautifully honest in its innocence of the things of the flesh.—The woman had been inconceivably foolish, from every point of view. If she had known, good heavens, if she had only known! But he inclined now to the more merciful view that, veritably, she didn't know; that her practical, even her theoretic, knowledge was insufficient for her to have had any clear design. It was just a blind push of starved animal instinct. Of course she must go. Her remaining in the house was in every way unpermissible; still he need not, perhaps, have been so cold-bloodedly precipitate with her.
Anyhow the thing was done—it was done—He raised his shoulders and making with his hands a graphic gesture of dismissal, let his chin drop on to his breast again.
For the East had left its mark on his attitude towards women with one exception—that of his daughter—Charles Verity, like most men, not requiring of himself to be too rigidly consistent. Hence Theresa, and all which pertained to her, even her follies, appeared to him of contemptibly small moment compared with the developments for which those follies might be held accidentally responsible. His mind returned to that main theme painfully. He envisaged it in all its bearings, not sparing himself. Suffered, and looked on at his own suffering with a stoicism somewhat sardonic.
Meanwhile Damaris slept. His nearness had not disturbed her, indeed he might rather suppose its effect beneficent. For her breathing grew even, just sweetly and restfully audible in the intervals of other sounds reaching him from out of doors.
The wind, drawing out of the sunset, freshened during the night. Now it blew wet and gustily from south-west, sighing through the pines and Scotch firs in the Wilderness. A strand of the yellow Banksia rose, trained against the house wall, breaking loose, scratched and tapped at the window-panes with anxious appealing little noises.
Many years had elapsed since Charles Verity spent a night upstairs in this part of the house, and by degrees those outdoor sounds attracted his attention as intimately familiar. They carried him back to his boyhood, to the spacious dreams and projects of adolescence. He could remember just such gusty wet winds swishing through the trees, such petulant fingering of errant creepers upon the windows, when he stayed here during the holidays from school at Harchester, on furlough from his regiment, and, later, on long leave from India, during his wonderful little great-uncle's lifetime.
And his thought took a lighter and friendlier vein, recalling that polished, polite, encyclopedic minded and witty gentleman, who had lived to within a few months of his full century with a maximum of interest and entertainment to himself, and a minimum of injury or offence to others. To the last he retained his freshness of intellectual outlook, his insatiable yet discreet curiosity. Taking it as a whole, should his life be judged a singularly futile or singularly enviable one? Nothing feminine, save on strictly platonic lines, was recorded to have entered it at any period. Did that argue remarkable wisdom or defective courage, or some abnormal element in a composition otherwise deliciously mundane and human?
Charles had debated this often. Even as a boy it had puzzled him. As a young man he had held his own views on the subject, not without lasting effect. For one winter he had passed at The Hard, in the fine bodily health and vigour of his early thirties, this very lack of women's society contributed, by not unnatural reaction, to force the idea of woman hauntingly upon him—thereby making possible a strange and hidden love passage off the Dead Sea fruit of which he was in process of supping here to-night.
He moved, bent forward, setting his elbows on the two chair arms, closing his eyes as he listened, and leaning his forehead upon his raised hands. For in the plaintive voice of the moist, fitful southwesterly wind how, to his bearing, the buried, half-forgotten drama re-lived and reenacted itself!
It dated far back, to a period when his career was still undetermined, hedged about by doubts and uncertainties—before the magnificent and terrible years of the Mutiny brought him, not only fame and distinction, but a power of self-expression and of plain seeing.—Before, too, his not conspicuously happy marriage. Before the Bhutpur appointment tested and confirmed his reputation as a most able if most autocratic ruler. Before, finally, his term of service under the Ameer in Afghanistan—that extraordinary experience of alternate good and evil fortune in barbaric internecine warfare, the methods and sentiments of which represented a swing back of three or four centuries, Christianity, and the attitude of mind and conduct Christianity inculcates, no longer an even nominal factor, Mahomet, sword in hand, ruthlessly outriding Christ.
He had done largely more than the average Englishman, of his age and station, towards the making of contemporary history. Yet it occurred to him now, sitting at Damaris' bedside, those intervening years of strenuous public activity, of soldiering and of administration, along with the honours reaped in them, had procured cynically less substantial result, cynically less ostensible remainder, than the brief and hidden intrigue which preceded them. They sank away as water spilt on sand—thus in his present pain he pictured it—leaving barely a trace. While that fugitive and unlawful indulgence of the flesh not only begot flesh, but spirit,—a living soul, henceforth and eternally to be numbered among the imperishable generations of the tragic and marvellous children of men.
Then, aware something stirred close to him, Charles Verity looked up sharply, turning his head; to find Damaris—raised on one elbow planted among the pillows—holding aside the dimity curtain and gazing wonderingly yet contentedly in his face.
"Commissioner Sahib," she said, softly, "I didn't know you'd come back. I've had horrid bad dreams and seemed to see you—many of you—walking about. The room was full of you, you over and over again; but not like yourself, frightening, not loving me, busy about something or somebody else. I didn't at all enjoy that.—But I am awake now, aren't I? I needn't be frightened any more; because you do love me, don't you—and this really is you, your very ownself?"
She put up her face to be kissed. But he, in obedience to an humility heretofore unfelt by and unknown to him, leaning sideways kissed the hand holding aside the curtain rather than the proffered lips.
"Yes, my darling, very surely it is me," he said. "Any multiplication of specimens is quite superfluous—a single example of the breed is enough, conceivably more than enough."
But to his distress, while he spoke, he saw the content die out of Damaris' expression and her eyes grow distended and startled. She glanced oddly at the hand he had just kissed and then at him again.
"It seems to me something must have happened which I can't exactly remember," she anxiously told him, sitting upright and leaving go the curtain which slipped back into place shutting off the arm-chair and its occupant. "Something real, I mean, not just bad dreams. I know I had to ask you about it, and yet I didn't want to ask you."
Charles Verity rose from his place, slowly walked the length of the room; and, presently returning, stood at the foot of the bed. Damaris still sat upright, her hands clasped, her hair hanging in a cloud about her to below the waist. The light was low and the shadow cast by the bed-curtain covered her. But, through it, he could still distinguish the startled anxiety of her great eyes as she pondered, trying to seize and hold some memory which escaped her. And he felt sick at heart, assured it could be but a matter of time before she remembered; convinced now, moreover, what she would, to his shame and sorrow, remember in the end.
The purity in which he delighted, and to which he so frequently and almost superstitiously had turned for refreshment and the safeguarding of all the finest instincts of his own very complex nature, would, although she remembered, remain essentially intact. But, even so, the surface of it must be, as he apprehended, henceforth in some sort dimmed, and that by the breath of his own long ago misdoing. The revelation of passion and of sex, being practically and thus intimately forced home on her, the transparent innocence of childhood must inevitably pass away from her; and, through that same passing she would consciously go forward, embracing the privileges and the manifold burdens, the physical and emotional needs and aspirations of a grown woman. The woman might, would—such was his firm belief—prove a glorious creature. But it was not she whom he wanted. Her development, in proportion as it was rich and complete, led her away from and made her independent of him.—No, it wasn't she, but the child whom he wanted. And, standing at the foot of Damaris' bed, he knew, with a cruel certainty, he was there just simply to watch the child die.
Yes, it was a mere matter of time. Sooner or later she would put a leading question—her methods being bravely candid and direct. Of course, it was open to him to meet that question with blank denial, open to him to lie—as is the practice of the world when such damnably awkward situations come along.—A solution having, in the present case, the specious argument behind it that in so doing he would spare her, save her pain, in addition to the obvious one that he would save his own skin. Moreover, if he lied he could trust Damaris' loyalty. Whether she believed it or not, she would accept his answer as final. No further question upon the subject would ever pass her lips. The temptation was definite and great. For might not the lie, if he could stomach his disgust at telling it, even serve to prolong the life of the child? Should he not sell his honour to save his honour—if it came to that?
Thus he debated, his nature battling with itself, while at that battle he stoically, for a time, looked on. But when, at last, the climax was reached, and Damaris commenced to speak, stoicism dragged anchor. For he could conquer neither his disgust nor his sorrow, could find courage neither for his denial nor for watching the child die. Leaving the foot of the bed, he went and sat down in the arm-chair, where the dimity curtain screened Damaris from his, and him from Damaris' sight.
"Commissioner Sahib," she began, her voice grave and low, "it has come back to me—the thing I had to ask you, but it is very hard to say. If it makes you angry, please try to forgive me—because it does hurt me to ask you. It hurts me through and through. Only I can't speak of it. I oughtn't just to leave it. To leave it would be wrong—wrong by you."
"Very well, my darling, ask me then," he said, a little hoarsely.
"You have heard about my being out on the Bar and—and all that?"
"Yes," he said, "I have heard."
"Captain Faircloth, who found me and brought me home, told me something."
Damaris' voice broke into tones of imploring tenderness.
"I love you, Commissioner Sahib, you know how I love you—but—but is what Captain Faircloth told me true?"
Whereupon temptation surged up anew, inviting, inciting Charles Verity to lie—dressing up that lie in the cloak of most excellent charity, of veritable duty towards Damaris' fine courage and her precious innocence. And he hedged, keeping open, if only for a few minutes longer, the way of escape.
"How can I answer until I know what he did tell you?" he took her up, at last, almost coldly.
"That he is your son—is my brother," Damaris said.
Even at this pass, Charles Verity waited before finally committing himself, thereby unwittingly giving sentiment—in the shape of the Powers of the Air—the chance to take a rather unfairly extensive hand in the game.
For while he thus waited, he could not but be aware, through the tense silence otherwise reigning in the room, of the tap and scratch of the rose-spray upon the window-panes; of the swish of the moist gusty wind sweeping from across the salt-marsh and mud-flats of the Haven—from the black cottages, too, beyond the warren, gathered, as somewhat sinister boon companions, about the bleak, grey stone-built Inn. And this served to transfix his consciousness with visions of what once had been—he knowing so exactly how it would all sound, all look out there, the wistful desolation, the penetrating appeal bred of the inherent sadness of the place on a wild autumn night such as this.
"Yes," he said at last, and putting a great constraint upon himself he spoke calmly, without sign of emotion. "What the young man told is true, Damaris, perfectly true."
"I—I thought so," she answered back, gravely. "Though I didn't understand"—And, after a moment's pause, with a certain hopelessness of resignation—"Though I don't understand even now."
In her utterance Charles Verity so distinctly heard the last words of the—to him—dying child, that, smitten with raging bitterness of grief and of regret, he said:
"Nevertheless it is, in my opinion, disgraceful, abominable, that he should have made the occasion, or, to put the matter at its best, have taken advantage of the occasion, when you were alone and, in a sense, at his mercy, to tell you this most unhappy thing."
"No, no," Damaris cried, in her generous eagerness catching back the curtain and looking at him nobly unselfconscious, nobly zealous to defend and to set right. "You mustn't think that. He didn't start with any intention of telling me. He fancied I might have lost my way among the sand-hills, that I might be frightened or get some harm, and so came straight to look for me, and take care of me. He was very beautifully kind; and I felt beautifully safe with him—safe in the same way I feel safe with you, almost."
Her mouth was soft, her eyes alight—dangerously alight now, for her pulse had quickened. As she pleaded and protested her temperature raced up.
"It happened later," she went on, "when we were in the boat, and it was partly my fault. He wrapped my feet up in his coat. They were very cold. And he believed I was asleep because I didn't speak or thank him. I was so tired, and everything seemed so strange. I couldn't rouse myself somehow to speak. And as he wrapped them in his coat, he kissed my feet, thinking I shouldn't know. But I wasn't asleep, and it displeased me. I felt angry, just as you felt when you condemned him just now."
"Ah! as I felt just now!" he commented, closing his eyes and, just perceptibly, bowing his head.
"Yes, Commissioner Sahib, as you felt just now—but as, please you mustn't go on feeling.—What he had done seemed to me treacherous; and it pained as well as displeased me. But in all that I was unjust and mistaken.—And it was then, because he saw he'd pained me, displeased and made me angry, that he told me in self-defence—told me to show he wasn't treacherous, but had the right—a right no one else in all the world has over me except yourself."
"And you believed this young man, you forgave his audacity, and admitted his right?" Sir Charles said.
He leaned back in the angle of the chair, away from her, smiling as he spoke—a smile which both bade farewell and mocked at the sharpness and futility of the grief which that farewell brought with it. For this was a grown woman who pleaded with him surely, acting as advocate? A child, compelled to treat such controversial, such debatable matters at all, would have done so to a different rhythm, in a different spirit.
"Forgave him? But after just the first, when, I had time to at all think of it," Damaris answered with rather desperate bravery, "I couldn't see there was anything for me to forgive. It was the other way about. For haven't I so much which he might very well feel belonged, or should have belonged, to him?"
"You cut deep, my dear," Sir Charles said quietly.
Still holding back the curtain with one hand, Damaris flung herself over upon her face. She would not give way, she would not cry, but her soul was in travail. These words, as coming from her father, were anguish to her. She could look at him no longer, and lying outstretched thus, the lines of her gracious body, moulded by the embroidered linen quilt, quivered from head to heel. Still that travail of soul should bring forth fruit. She would not give in, cost what anguish it might, till all was said.
"I only want to do what is right," she cried, her voice half stifled by the pillows. "You know, surely you know, how I love you, Commissioner Sahib, from morning till night and round till morning again, always and above all, ever since I can first remember. But this is different to anything that has ever happened to me before, and it wouldn't be right not to speak about it. It would be there all the time, and it would creep in between us—between you and me—and interfere in all my thinking about you."
"It may very well do that in any case, my dear," he said.
"No—no," Damaris answered hotly, "not if I do right now—right by both. For you must not entertain wrong ideas about him—about Captain Faircloth I mean. You must not suppose he said a word about my having what might, or ought to be his. He couldn't do so. He isn't the least that sort of person. He took pains to make me understand—I couldn't think why at first, it seemed a little like boasting—that he is quite well off and that he's very proud of his profession. He doesn't want anything from—from us. Oh! no," she cried, "no."
And, in her excitement, Damaris raised herself, from the small of her back, resting on her elbows, sphinx-like in posture, her hands and arms—from the elbows—stretched out in front of her across the pillows. Her face was flushed, her eyes blazed. There was storm and vehemence in her young beauty.
"No—he's too much like you, you yourself, Commissioner Sahib, to want anything, to accept anything from other people. He means to act for himself, and make people and things obey him, just as you yourself do. And," she went on, with a daring surely not a little magnificent under the circumstances—"he told me he loved life too well to care very much how he came by it to begin with."
Damaris folded her arms, let her head sink on them as she finished speaking, and lay flat thus, her face hidden, while she breathed short and raspingly, struggling to control the after violence of her emotion.
The curtain hung straight. The wind took up its desolate chant again. And Sir Charles Verity sat back in the angle of the arm-chair, motionless, and, for the present, speechless.
In truth he was greatly moved, stirred to the deep places of perception, and of conscience also. For this death of childhood and birth of womanhood undoubtedly presented a rare and telling spectacle, which, even while it rent him, in some aspects enraged and mortified him, he still appreciated. He found, indeed, a strangely vital, if somewhat cruel, satisfaction in looking on at it—a satisfaction fed, on its more humane and human side, by the testimony to the worth of the unknown son by the so well-beloved daughter. Respecting himself he might have cause for shame; but respecting these two beings for whose existence—whether born in wedlock or out of it—he was responsible, he had no cause for shame. In his first knowledge of them as seen together, they showed strong, generous, sure of purpose, a glamour of high romance in their adventitious meeting and companionship.
This was the first, the unworldly and perhaps deepest view of the matter. In it Charles Verity allowed himself to rest, inactive for a space. That there were, not one, but many other views of the said matter, very differently attuned and coloured he was perfectly well aware. Soon these would leap on him, and that with an ugly clamour which he consciously turned from in repulsion and weary disgust. For he was very tired, as he now realized. The anxiety endured during his tedious cross-country journey, the distasteful tragic-comedy of the scene de seduction so artlessly made him by unlucky Theresa Bilsen, followed by this prolonged vigil; lastly the very real tragedy—for such it in great measure remained and must remain—of his interview with Damaris and the re-living of long buried drama that interview entailed, left him mentally and physically spent. He fell away into meditation, mournful as it was indefinite, while the classic lament of another age and race formed itself silently upon his lips.
"Comprehenderunt me iniquitates meae, et non potui ut viderem. Multiplicatae sunt super capillos capitis mei; et cor meum dereliquit me," he quoted, in the plenitude of his existing discouragement.
At his time of life, he told himself, earth held no future; and in heaven—as the Churches figure it—namely, an adjustment of the balance on the other side death, his belief was of the smallest. A sea of uncertainty, vast, limitless, laps the shores of the meagre island of the present—which is all we actually have to our count. Faith is a gift.—You possess it, or you possess it not; yet without it—
But here his attention was caught, and brought home to that very present, by a movement upon the bed and Damaris' voice, asking tremulously:
"Commissioner Sahib are you angry, too angry to speak to me?"
Whereupon Charles Verity got up, gathered back the curtain stuffing it in between the head board and the wall, and stood, tall, spare, yet graceful, looking down at her. Whether from fatigue or from emotion, his expression was softer, his face less keen than usual, and the likeness between him and Darcy Faircloth proportionately and notably great.
"No, my dear," he said, "why should I be angry? What conceivable right have I to be angry? As a man sows so does he reap. I only reap to-day what I sowed eight or nine-and-twenty years ago—a crop largely composed of tares, though among those tares I do find some modicum of wheat. Upon that modest provision of wheat I must make shift to subsist with the best grace I may. No, don't cry, my darling. It is useless. Tears never yet altered facts. You will only do yourself harm, and put a crown to my self-reproach."
He sat down on the side of the bed, taking her hand, holding and coaxing it.
"Only let there be no doubt or suspicion on your part, my dear," he went on. "As you have travelled so far along this dolorous way, take courage and travel a little farther. To stop, to turn back, is only to leave your mind open to all manner of imaginations worse very likely than the truth. I will be quite plain with you. This episode—which I do not attempt to explain or excuse—took place, and ended, several years before I first met your mother. And it ended absolutely. Never, by either written or spoken word, have I held any communication with Lesbia Faircloth since. Never have I attempted to see her—this in the interests of her reputation every bit as much as in those of my own. For her station in life she was a woman of remarkable qualities and character. She had made an ugly, a repulsive marriage, and she was childless.—More than this it is not seemly I should tell you."
Charles Verity waited a minute or so. He still coaxed Damaris' hand, calmly, soothingly. And she lay very still watching him; but with half-closed eyes, striving to prevent the tears which asked so persistently to be shed. For her heart went out to him in a new and over-flowing tenderness, in an exalted pity almost maternal. Never had she felt him more attractive, more, in a sense, royally lovable than in this hour of weariness, of moral nakedness, and humiliation.
"Not until I had rejoined my regiment in India," he presently continued, in the same low even tones, "did I hear of the birth of her son. I have never seen him—or made enquiries regarding him. I meant to let the dead bury its dead in this matter. For everyone concerned it seemed best and wisest so. Therefore all you have told me to-night comes as news to me—and in some respects as good news. For I gather I have no reason to be ashamed of this young man—which on your account, even more than on my own, is so much clear gain.—But I oughtn't to have brought you here to live at Deadham. I ought to have taken the possibility of some accidental revelation, such as the present one, into serious account and saved you from that. To expose you, however remotely, to the risk was both callous and stupid on my part. I own I have a strong sentiment for this house. It seemed natural and restful to return to it—the only house to call a home, I have ever had. And so much has happened during the last eight or nine-and-twenty years, to occupy my mind, that I had grown indifferent and had practically forgotten the risks. This was selfish, self-indulgent, lacking in consideration and reverence towards you, towards your peace of mind, your innocence.—And for it, my darling, I beg your forgiveness."
Damaris sat up in the bed, raised her face to be kissed.
"No—no," she implored him, "don't say that. I can't bear to have you say it—to have you speak as if you had been, could ever be anything but beautiful and perfect towards me. I can't have you, not even for a little minute, step down, from the high place, which is your own, and talk of forgiveness. It hurts me.—I begin to understand that your world, a man's world, is different to my world—the world, I mean, in which I have been brought up. I know what is right for myself—but it would be silly to believe mine is the only rightness"—
"Ah!" Charles Verity murmured, under his breath, "alas! for the child that is dead."
And leaning forward he kissed her lips.
TELLING HOW MISS FELICIA VERITY UNSUCCESSFULLY ATTEMPTED A RESCUE
With the assistance of the Miss Minetts, reinforced by a bribe of five shillings, Theresa Bilson procured a boy on a bicycle, early the following morning, to convey a note the twelve miles to Paulton Lacy—Mr. Augustus Cowden's fine Georgian mansion, situate just within the Southern boundaries of Arnewood Forest. Miss Felicia Verity, to whom the note was addressed, still enjoyed the hospitality of her sister and brother-in-law; but this, as Mrs. Cowden gave her roundly to understand, must not be taken to include erratic demands upon the stables. If she required unexpectedly to visit her brother or her niece at Deadham Hard, she must contrive to do so by train, and by such hired conveyances as the wayside station of Paulton Halt at this end of her journey, and of Marychurch at the other, might be equal to supplying.
"In my opinion, Felicia, it is quite ridiculous you should attempt to go there at all to-day," Mrs. Cowden, giving over for the moment her study of the Morning Post, commandingly told her. "If Damaris has got a cold in her head through some imprudence, and if Charles has called Miss Bilson over the coals for not being more strict with her, that really is no reason why Augustus' and my plans for the afternoon should be set aside or why you should be out in the rain for hours with your rheumatism. I shall not even mention the subject to Augustus. We arranged to drive over to Napworth for tea, and I never let anything interfere with my engagements to the Bulparcs as you know. I encourage Augustus to see as much as possible of his own people.—I have no doubt in my own mind that the account of Damaris' illness is absurdly exaggerated. You know how Charles spoils her! She has very much too much freedom; and little Miss Bilson, though well-meaning, is incapable of coping with a headstrong girl like Damaris. She ought—Damaris ought I mean—to have been sent to a finishing school for another year at least. She might then have found her level. If Charles had consulted me, or shown the least willingness to accept my advice, I should have insisted upon the finishing school. It would have been immensely to Damaris' advantage. I have known all along that the haphazard methods of her education were bound to have deplorable results.—But look here, Felicia, if you really intend to go on this wild-goose-chase notwithstanding the rain, let the boy who brought the note order Davis' fly for you on his way back. He passes Paulton Halt. I shall not expect you before dinner to-night. Now that is settled."
With which she returned to her interrupted study of the Morning Post.
The above pronouncement while rendering Felicia Verity somewhat uneasy, in nowise turned her from her purpose. Her powers of sympathy were as unlimited as they were confused and, too often, ineffective. Forever she ran after the tribulations of her fellow creatures, pouring forth on them treasures of eager sympathy, but without discrimination as to whether the said tribulations were in fact trivial or profound, deserving or deserved. That anyone under any circumstances, should suffer, be uncomfortable or unhappy, filled her with solicitude. The loss of an eyelash, the loss of a fortune, the loss of the hope of a lifetime equally ranked. Illness and disease appealed to her in hardly less degree than unfortunate affairs of the heart. She practised the detection of extenuating circumstances as one might practise a fine art. She wallowed in sentiment, in short; but that with such native good-breeding and singleness of mind, as went far to redeem the said wallowings from morbidity or other offence. Her friends and acquaintances loved her, quite unconscionably made use of her, secretly laughed at her, grew weary of her, declared that "of such are the Kingdom of Heaven;" and, having successfully exploited her, turned with relief to the society of persons frankly belonging to the kingdoms of earth. Men petted but did not propose to her; affected to confide in her, but carefully withheld the heart of their confessions. Tall, thin, gently hurried and bird-like, she yet bore a quaint, almost mirthful, resemblance to her brother, Sir Charles Verity. Such was the lady who responded, in a spirit of liveliest charity, to Theresa's wildly waved flag of distress.
By the time Miss Verity reached Marychurch the rain amounted to a veritable downpour. Driven by the southwesterly wind, it swept in sheets over the low-lying country, the pallid waters, drab mud-flats, dingy grey-green salt-marsh, and rusty brown reed-beds of the estuary. The dusty road, running alongside this last through the hamlets of Horny Cross and Lampit, grew hourly deeper in gritty mud. Beyond question summer and all its dear delights were departed and the chill mournfulness of autumn reigned in their stead.
With the surrounding mournfulness, Miss Verity's simple, yet devious, mind played not ungratefully. For it seemed to her to harmonize with the true inwardness of her mission, offering a sympathetic background to the news of her niece's indisposition and the signals of distress flown by her little protegee, Theresa Bilson. The note addressed to her by the latter was couched in mysterious and ambiguous phrases, the purport of which she failed to grasp. Theresa's handwriting, usually so neat and precise, was wobbly, bearing unmistakable traces of severe agitation and haste. She hinted at nothing short of catastrophe, though whether in relation to herself, to her ex-pupil, or to Sir Charles, Miss Verity couldn't for the life of her discover. It was clear in any case, however, that affairs at The Hard had, for cause unknown, gone quite startlingly astray, and that Theresa found herself entirely unequal to righting them—hence her outcry.
Under these circumstances, it struck Miss Verity as only tasteful and tactful that her approach to the distracted dwelling should take place unheralded by rumble of wheels or beat of horse-hoofs, should be pitched in a, so to speak, strictly modest and minor key. On arriving at the front gate she therefore alighted and, bidding her grumpy and streaming flyman take himself and his frousty landau to the Bell and Horns in Deadham village there to await her further orders, proceeded to walk up the carriage-drive under the swaying, dripping trees.
About fifty yards from the gate the drive turns sharply to the left; and, just at the turn, Miss Verity suddenly beheld a tall figure clad in a seaman's oilskins and sou'wester, coming towards her from the direction of the house. Youth and good looks—more especially perhaps masculine ones—whatever rank of life might exhibit them, acted as a sure passport to Miss Verity's gentle heart. And the youth and good looks of the man approaching her became momentarily more incontestable. His bearing, too, notwithstanding the clumsiness of his shiny black over-garment, had a slightly ruffling, gallantly insolent air to it, eminently calculated to impress her swift and indulgent fancy.
The young man, on his part, calmly took stock of her appearance, as she beat up against the wind, her flapping waterproof cloak giving very inefficient protection to the rather girlish dove-grey cashmere dress, picked out with pink embroidery, beneath it. At first his eyes challenged hers in slightly defiant and amused enquiry. But as she smiled back at him, sweetly eager, ingenuously benignant, his glance softened and his hand went up to his sou'wester with a courteous gesture.
"What weather!" she exclaimed. "How fearfully wet!"—while her expression testified to a flattering interest and admiration.
"Yes, it's a wild day," he said, in answer. "I expect We've seen the last of the sun, anyhow for this week."
The incident, though of the most casual and briefest, gave a new direction to Miss Verity's thought. It pleased and intrigued her, bringing a pretty blush to her thin cheeks. "Who and what can he be?" she said to herself. "Where can I have seen him before?" And the blush deepened. "I must really describe him to Charles and find out who he is."
This monologue brought her as far as the front door, at which, it may be added, she—though by no means impatient—did in point of fact ring twice before the man-servant answered it. Although Mr. Hordle had the reputation of "being fond of his joke" in private life, in his official capacity his manner offered a model of middle-aged sedateness and restraint. To-day neither humour nor reserve were in evidence, but a harassed and hunted look altogether surprising to Miss Verity. He stared at her, stared past her along the drive, before attempting to usher her into the hall and relieve her of her umbrella and her cloak.
"Sir Charles doesn't expect me, Hordle," she said. "But hearing Miss Damaris was unwell I came over from Paulton Lacy at once."
"Quite so, ma'am. Sir Charles has not left his room yet. He did not reach home till late, and he sat up with Miss Damaris the rest of the night."
"Oh! dear—did he? Then, of course, I wouldn't disturb him on any account, Hordle. I had better see Miss Bilson first. Will you tell her I am here?"
"I can send Laura to enquire, ma'am. But, I doubt if Miss Bilson, will care to come downstairs at present."
"She is with Miss Damaris?"
"No, ma'am, Miss Bilson is not with Miss Damaris."
Hordle paused impressively, sucking in his under lip.
"If I might presume to advise, ma'am, I think it would be wise you should see Miss Bilson in the schoolroom—and go up by the back staircase, ma'am, if you don't object so as to avoid passing Miss Damaris' bedroom door. I should not presume to suggest it, ma'am, but that our orders as to quiet are very strict."
In this somewhat ignominious method of reaching her objective Miss Verity, although more and more mystified, amiably acquiesced—to be greeted, when Hordle throwing open the schoolroom door formally announced her, by a sound closely resembling a shriek.
Entrenched behind a couple of yawning trunks, a litter of feminine apparel and of personal effects—the accumulation of a long term of years, for she was an inveterate hoarder—encumbering every available surface, the carpet included, Theresa Bilson stood as at bay.
"My dear friend," Miss Verity exclaimed advancing with kindly outstretched hands—"what is the meaning of this?"—She looked at the miscellaneous turn-out of cupboards and chests of drawers, at the display of garments not usually submitted to the public gaze. "Are you preparing a rummage sale or are you—but no, surely not!—are you packing? I cannot describe how anxious I am to hear what has occurred. My sister, Mrs. Cowden, was extremely adverse to my facing the bad weather; but, I felt your note could only be answered in person. Let me hear everything."
She drew Theresa from behind the luggage entrenchments, and, putting aside an assortment of derelict hats and artificial flowers strewn in most admired confusion on the sofa, made her sit down upon the said piece of furniture beside her.
Whereupon, in the pensive, rain-washed, mid-day light, which served to heighten rather than mitigate the prevailing, very unattractive and rather stuffy disorder obtaining in the room, Theresa Bilson, not without chokings and lamentations, gave forth the story of her—to herself quite spectacular—deposition from the command of The Hard and its household. She had sufficiently recovered her normal attitude, by this time, to pose to herself, now as a heroine of one of Charlotte Bronte's novels, now as a milder and more refined sample of injured innocence culled from the pages of Charlotte Yonge. A narrow, purely personal view inevitably embodies an order of logic calculated to carry conviction; and Theresa, even in defeat, retained a degree of self-opinionated astuteness. She presented her case effectively. To be discharged, and that in disgrace, to be rendered homeless, cast upon the world at a moment's notice, for that which—with but trifling, almost unconscious, manipulation of fact—could be made to appear as nothing worse than a venial error of judgment, did really sound and seem most unduly drastic punishment.
Miss Verity's first instinct was to fling herself into the breech; and, directly her brother emerged from his room, demand for her protegee redress and reinstatement. Her second instinct was—she didn't, in truth, quite know what—for she grew sadly perplexed as she listened.
Her sympathy, in fact, split into three inconveniently distinct and separate streams. Of these Theresa's woes still claimed the widest and deepest, since with Theresa she was in immediate and intimate contact. Yet the other two began to show a quite respectable volume and current, as she pictured Damaris marooned on the Bar and Sir Charles ravished away from the seasonable obligation of partridge shooting to take his place at his daughter's bedside.
"But this young Captain Faircloth, of whom you speak," she presently said, her mind taking one of its many inconsequent skippits—"who so providentially came to the dearest child's assistance—could he, I wonder, be the same really very interesting-looking young man I met in the drive, just now, when I came here?"
And Miss Verity described him, while a pretty stain of colour illuminated her cheek once more.
"You think quite possibly yes?—How I wish I had known that at the time. I would certainly have stopped and expressed my gratitude to him. Such a mercy he was at hand!—Poor dearest Damaris! I hope his good offices have already been acknowledged. Do you know if my brother has seen and thanked him?"
The expression of Theresa's round little face, still puffy and blotched from her last night's weeping, held a world of reproachful remindings.
"Ah! no," the other cried conscience-stricken—"no, of course not. How thoughtless of me to ask you. And"—another mental skippit—"and that you should be forbidden the sick-room too, not permitted to nurse Damaris! My poor friend, indeed I do feel for you. I so well understand that must have caused you more pain than anything."
A remark her hearer found it not altogether easy to counter with advantage to her own cause, so wisely let it pass in silence.
"I know—I know, you can hardly trust yourself to speak of it. I am so grieved—so very grieved. But one must be practical. I think you are wise to yield without further protest. I will sound my brother—just find out if he shows any signs of relenting. Of course, you can understand, I ought to hear his view of the matter too—not, that I question your account, dear friend, for one instant. Meanwhile make all your arrangements."
"The village!"—Theresa put in, with a note of despair this time perfectly genuine.
"Ah, yes—the village. But if I take you away, in my fly I mean, that will give you a position, a standing. It will go far to prevent unpleasant gossip!"
Miss Verity's soul looked out of her candid eyes with a positive effulgence of charity.
"Oh! I can enter so fully into your shrinking from all that. We will treat your going as temporary, merely temporary—in speaking of it both here and at Paulton Lacy. Of course, you might stay with your friends, the good Miss Minetts; but I can't honestly counsel your doing so. I am afraid Sir Charles might not quite like your remaining in Deadham directly after leaving his house. It might be awkward, and give rise to tiresome enquiries and comment. One has to consider those things.—No—I think it would be a far better plan that you should spend a week at Stourmouth. That would give us time to see our way more clearly. I know of some quite nice rooms kept by a former maid of Lady Bulparc's. You would be quite comfortable there—and, as dinner at Paulton Lacy isn't till eight, I could quite well go into Stourmouth with you myself this afternoon. And, my dear friend, you will, won't you, forgive my speaking of this"—
Miss Verity—whose income, be it added, was anything but princely—gave an engagingly apologetic little laugh.
"Pray don't worry yourself on the score of expense. The week in Stourmouth must cost you nothing. As I recommend the rooms I naturally am responsible—you go to them as my guest, of course.—Still I'll sound my brother at luncheon, and just see how the land lies. But don't build too much on any change of front. I don't expect it—not yet. Later, who knows Meanwhile courage—do try not to fret."
And Miss Verity descended the backstairs again.
"Poor creature—now her mind will be more at rest, I do trust. I am afraid Charles has been rather severe. I never think he does quite understand women. But how should he after only being married for three—or four years, was it?—Such a very limited experience!—It is a pity he didn't marry again, while Damaris was still quite small—some really nice woman who one knows about. But I suppose Charles has never cared about that side of things. His public work has absorbed him. I doubt if he has ever really been in love"—Miss Verity sighed.—"Yes, Hordle, thanks I'll wait in the long sitting-room. Please let Sir Charles know I am there, that I came over to enquire for Miss Damaris. He is getting up?—Yes—I shall be here to luncheon, thanks."
But, during the course of luncheon, that afore-mentioned split in Miss Verity's sympathies was fated to declare itself with ever growing distinctness. The stream consecrated to Theresa's woes—Theresa herself being no longer materially present—declined in volume and in force, while that commanded by Felicia's affection for her brother soon rushed down in spate. Perhaps, as she told herself, it was partly owing to the light—which, if pensive upstairs in the white-walled schoolroom, might, without exaggeration, be called quite dismally gloomy in the low-ceilinged dining-room looking out on the black mass of the ilex trees over a havoc of storm-beaten flower-beds—but Sir Charles struck her as so worn, so aged, so singularly and pathetically sad. He was still so evidently oppressed by anxiety concerning Damaris that, to hint at harsh action on his part, or plead Theresa's cause with convincing earnestness and warmth, became out of the question. Miss Verity hadn't the heart for it.
"Be true to your profession of good Samaritan, my dear Felicia," he begged her with a certain rueful humour, "and take the poor foolish woman off my hands. Plant her where you like, so long as it is well out of my neighbourhood. She has made an egregious fiasco of her position here. As you love me, just remove her from my sight—let this land have rest and enjoy its Sabbaths in respect of her at least. I'll give you a cheque for her salary, something in excess of the actual amount if you like; for, heaven forbid, you should be out of pocket yourself as a consequence of your good offices.—Now let us, please, talk of some less unprofitable subject."
Brightly, sweetly eager, Miss Verity hastened to obey, as she believed, his concluding request.
"Ah! yes," she said, "that reminds me of something about which I do so want you to enlighten me.—This young Captain Faircloth, who so opportunely appeared on the scene and rescued darling Damaris, I believe I met him this morning, as I walked up from the front gate. I wondered who he was. His appearance interested me, so did his voice. It struck me as being so quaintly like some voice I know quite well—and I stupidly cannot remember whose."
The coffee-cups chattered upon the silver tray as Hordle handed it to Miss Verity.
"You spoke to him then?" Sir Charles presently said.
"Oh! just in passing, you know, about the weather—which was phenomenally bad, raining and blowing too wildly at the moment. I supposed you had seen him. He seemed to be coming away from the house."
Charles Verity turned sideways to the table, bending down a little over the tray as he helped him. The coffee splashed over into the saucer; yet it was not the hand holding the coffee-pot, but those holding the tray that shook. Whereupon Charles Verity glanced up into the manservant's face, calmly arrogant.
"Pray be careful, Hordle," he said. And then—"Is Miss Verity right in supposing Captain Faircloth called here this morning?"
"I beg your pardon, Sir Charles. Yes, Sir Charles, he did."
"What did he want?"
"He came to enquire after Miss Damaris, Sir Charles. I understood him to say he was going away to sea shortly."
"Did he ask for me?"
"No, Sir Charles," rather hurriedly; and later, with visible effort to recapture the perfection of well-trained nullity.—"He only asked after Miss Damaris."
"When he calls again, let me know. Miss Damaris wishes to see him if she is sufficiently well to do so."
"Very good, Sir Charles."
And during this conversation, Felicia felt keenly distressed and perplexed. It made her miserable to think evil of anyone—particularly an old and trusted servant. But from the moment of her arrival Hordle's manner had seemed so very strange. Of course it was horrid even to suspect such a thing; but was it possible that he over-indulged sometimes, that he, in plain English, drank? Poor dear Charles—if he knew it, what an additional worry! It really was too deplorable.—Anyway she could alleviate his worries to a certain extent by carrying Theresa off. She would do so at once.—Was there an evening train from Stourmouth, which stopped at Paulton Halt? Well—if there wasn't she must get out at Marychurch, and drive from there. She only trusted she would be in time to dress for dinner. Harriet was such a stickler for etiquette.
From all which it may be deduced that the confessions, made to Miss Verity to-day, had this in common with those habitually heard by her—that the point of the story had been rather carefully left out.
IN WHICH DAMARIS RECEIVES INFORMATION OF THE LOST SHOES AND STOCKINGS—ASSUMPTION OF THE GOD-HEAD
As Darcy Faircloth prophesied, the wild weather lasted throughout that week. Then, the rain having rained itself out, the wind backed and the skies cleared. But all to a different mode and rhythm. A cold white sun shone out of a cold blue sky, diapered, to the north above the indigo and umber moorland and forest, with perspectives of tenuous silken-white cloud. Land and sky were alike washed clean, to a starkness and nakedness calling for warm clothing out of doors, and well-stoked fires within.
At the beginning of the next week, invited by that thin glinting sunshine—beneath which the sea still ran high, in long, hollow-backed waves, brokenly foam-capped and swirling—Damaris came forth from her retreat, sufficiently convalescent to take up the ordinary routine of life again. But this, also, to a changed mode and rhythm, having its source in causes more recondite and subtle than any matter of fair or foul weather.
To begin with she had, in the past week, crossed a certain bridge there is no going back over for whoso, of her sex, is handicapped or favoured—in mid-nineteenth century the handicap rather than the favour counted even more heavily than it does to-day, though even to-day, as some of us know to our cost, it still counts not a little!—by possession of rarer intelligence, more lively moral and spiritual perceptions, than those possessed by the great average of her countrymen or countrywomen. Damaris' crossing of that bridge—to carry on the figure—affected her thought of, and relation to everyone and everything with which she now came in contact. She had crossed other bridges on her eighteen years' journey from infancy upwards; but, compared with this last, they had been but airy fantastic structures, fashioned of hardly more substantial stuff than dreams are made of.—Thus, anyhow, it appeared to her as she lay resting in her pink-and-white curtained bed, watching the loose rose-sprays tremble against the rain-spattered window-panes.—For this last bridge was built of the living stones of fact, of deeds actually done; and, just because it was so built, for one of her perceptions and temperament, no recrossing of it could be possible.
So much to begin with.—To go on with, even before Dr. McCabe granted her permission to emerge from retirement, all manner of practical matters claimed her attention; and that not unwholesomely, as it proved in the sequel. For with the incontinent vanishing of Theresa Bilson into space, or,—more accurately—into the very comfortable lodgings provided for her by Miss Verity in Stourmouth, the mantle of the ex-governess-companion's domestic responsibilities automatically descended upon her ex-pupil. The said vanishing was reported to Damaris by Mary, on the day subsequent to its occurrence, not without signs of hardly repressed jubilation. For "Egypt," in this case represented by the Deadham Hard servants' hall, was unfeignedly "glad at her departing."
"A good riddance, I call it—and we all know the rest of that saying," Mrs. Cooper remarked to an audience of Hordle and Mary Fisher, reinforced by the Napoleonic Patch and his wife—who happened to have looked in from the stables after supper—some freedom of speech being permissible, thanks to the under-servants' relegation to the kitchen.
"I never could see she was any class myself. But the airs and graces she'd give herself! You'll never persuade me she wasn't sweet on the master. That was at the back of all her dressings up, and flouncings and fidgetings. The impidence of it!—You may well say so, Mrs. Patch. But the conceit of some people passes understanding. To be Lady Verity, if you please, that was what she was after. To my dying day I shall believe it. Don't tell me!"
Mary's announcement of the event was couched in sober terms, shorn of such fine flowers of suggestion and comment. Yet it breathed an unmistakable satisfaction, which, to Damaris' contrition, found instant echo in her own heart. She ought, she knew, to feel distressed at poor Theresa's vanishing—only she didn't and couldn't. As an inherent consequence of the afore-chronicled bridge-crossing, Theresa was more than ever out of the picture. To listen to her chatterings, to evade her questionings would, under existing circumstances, amount to a daily trial from which the young girl felt thankful to escape. For Damaris entertained a conviction the circumstances in question would call for fortitude and resource of an order unknown, alike in their sternness and their liberality of idea, to Theresa's narrowly High Anglican and academic standards of thought and conduct. She therefore ascertained from her informant that Miss Verity had been as actively instrumental in the vanishing—had, to be explicit, taken "Miss Bilson, and all her luggage (such a collection!) except two disgraceful old tin boxes which were to be forwarded by the carrier, away with her in her own Marychurch fly."—And at this Damaris left the business willingly enough, secure that if tender-hearted Aunt Felicia was party to the removal, it would very surely be effected with due regard to appearances and as slight damage to "feelings" as could well be.
Later Sir Charles referred briefly to the subject, adding:
"When you require another lady-in-waiting we will choose her ourselves, I think, rather than accept a nominee of my sister Felicia's. She is certain to have some more or less unsuitable and incapable person on hand, upon whom she ardently desires to confer benefits."
"But must I have another lady-in-waiting?" Damaris meaningly and pleadingly asked.
Charles Verity drew his hand down slowly over his flowing moustache, and smiled at her in tender amusement, as she sat up in a much lace and ribbon befrilled jacket, her hair hanging down in a heavy plait on either side the white column of her warmly white throat. Her face was refined to a transparency of colouring, even as it seemed of texture, from confinement to the house and from lassitude following upon fever, which, while he recognized its loveliness, caused him a pretty sharp pang. Still she looked content, as he told himself. Her glance was frank and calm, without suggestion of lurking anxiety.
Nor was she unoccupied and brooding—witness the counterpane strewn with books, with balls of wool, a sock in leisurely process of knitting, and, in a hollow of it, Mustapha, the brindled cat, luxuriously sleeping curled round against her feet.
"Heaven knows I've no special craving your lady-in-waiting should find a speedy successor," he said. "But to do without one altogether might appear a rather daring experiment. Your aunts would be loud in protest."
"What matters isn't the aunts, is it, but ourselves?" Damaris quite gaily took him up.
"But wouldn't you be lonely, my dear, and would you not find it burdensome to run the house yourself?"
"No—no," she cried. "Not one bit. Anyway let me try, Commissioner Sahib. Let us be by ourselves together—beautifully by ourselves, for a time at least."
"So be it then," Charles Verity said.
And perhaps, although hardly acknowledged, in the mind of each the same consideration operated. For there remained a thing still to be done before the new order could be reckoned as fully initiated, still more fully established,—a thing which, as each knew, could be best done without witnesses; a thing which both intended should very surely be done, yet concerning which neither proposed to speak until the hour of accomplishment actually struck.
That hour, in point of fact, struck sooner than Damaris anticipated, the sound and sight of it reaching her without prelude or opportunity of preparation. For early in the afternoon of the second day she spent downstairs, as, sitting at the writing table in the long drawing-room, she raised her eyes from contemplation of the house-keeping books spread out before her, she saw her father walking slowly up from the sea-wall across the lawn. And seeing him, for the moment, her mind carried back to that miracle of interchangeable personalities so distressingly haunting her at the beginning of her illness, when James Colthurst's charcoal sketch of her father played cruel juggler's tricks upon her. For beside him now walked a man so strangely resembling him in height, in bearing and in build that, but for the difference of clothing and the bearded face, it might be himself had the clock of his life been set back by thirty years.
Damaris' first instinct was of flight. Just as when, out on the Bar with her cousin, Tom Verity, now nearly a month ago, overcome by a foreboding of far-reaching danger she had—to the subsequent bitter wounding of her self-respect and pride—shown the white feather, ignominiously turned tail and run away, was she tempted to run away now.
For it seemed too much. It came too close, laying rough hands not only upon the deepest of her love and reverence for her father, but upon that still mysterious depth of her own nature, namely her apprehension of passion and of sex. A sacred shame, an awe as at the commission of some covert act of impiety, overcame her as she looked at the two men walking, side by side, across the moist vividly green carpet of turf in the chill white sunshine, the plain of an uneasy grey sea behind them. She wanted to hide herself, to close eyes and ears against further knowledge. Yes—it came too close; and at the same time made her feel, as never before, isolated and desolate—as though a great gulf yawned between her and what she had always counted pre-eminently her own, most securely her property because most beloved.
She had spoken valiantly on Faircloth's behalf, had generously acted as his advocate; yet now, beholding him thus in open converse with her father, the wings of love were scorched by the flame of jealousy—not so much of the young man himself, as of a past which he stood for and in which she had no part. Therefore to run—yes, run and hide from further knowledge, further experience and revelation, to claim the privileges, since she was called on to endure the smart, of isolation.—Yet to run, as she almost directly began to reason, was not only cowardly but useless. Fact remains fact, and if she refused to accept it, range herself in line with it to-day, she in nowise negatived but merely postponed the event. If not to-day, then to-morrow she was bound to empty the cup. And she laughed at the specious half-truth which had appeared so splendid and exhilarating a discovery—the half-truth that nothing is really inevitable unless you yourself will it to be so. For this was inevitable, sooner or later unescapable, fight against it, fly from it as she might.
Therefore she must stay, whether she liked it or not—stay, because to do otherwise was purposeless, because she couldn't help herself, because there was nowhere to run to, in short—
She heard footsteps upon the flags outside the garden door, speech, calm and restrained, of which she could not distinguish the import. Mechanically Damaris gathered the scattered house-keeping books lying before her upon the table—baker's, butcher's, grocer's, corn-chandler's, coal-merchant's—into a tight little heap; and, folding her hands on the top of them, prayed simply, almost wordlessly, for courage to hold the balance even, to seek not her own good but the good of those two others, to do right. Then she waited.
The door opened, closed, and, after a minute's pause, one of the two men—Damaris did not know which, she could not bring herself to look—coming from between the stumpy pillars walked towards her down the half-length of the room; and bent over her, resting one hand on the back of her chair, the other on the leather inlay of the writing-table just beside the little pile of house-books.
The hand was young, sunburnt, well-shaped, the finger nails well kept. Across the back of it a small-bodied, wide-winged sea-bird, in apparent act of flight, and the letters D.V.F. were tattooed in blue and crimson. A gold bangle, the surface of it dented in places and engraved with Japanese characters, encircled the fine lean wrist. These Damaris saw, and they worked upon her strangely, awakening an emotion of almost painful tenderness, as at sight of decorations pathetically fond, playfully child-like and ingenuous. While, as he bent over her, she also became aware of a freshness, a salt sweetness as of the ocean and the great vacant spaces where all the winds of the world blow keen and free.
"Sir Charles wrote to me," Faircloth said a little huskily. "He told me I might come and see you again and talk to you, and bid you good-bye before I go to sea. And I should have been here sooner, but that I was away at Southampton Docks, and the letter only reached me this morning. I telegraphed and started on at once. And he—Sir Charles—walked out over the warren to meet me, and brought me up here right to the door. And on the way we talked a little,—if he chose he could make the very stones speak, I think—and he said one or two things for which—I—well—I thank first Almighty God, and next to God, you—Damaris"—
This last imperatively.
"You did ask for me? You did wish to have me come to you?"
"Yes, I did wish it," she answered. "But I never knew how much until now, when he has brought you. For that is the right, the beautiful, safe way of having you come to me and to this house."
Yet, as she spoke, she lightly laid her hand over the tattooed image of the flying sea-bird, concealing it, for it moved her to the point of active suffering in its quaint prettiness fixed thus indelibly up in the warm live flesh.
At the touch of her hand Faircloth drew in his breath sharply, seeming to wince. Then, at last, Damaris looked up at him, her eyes full of questioning and startled concern.
"I didn't hurt you?" she asked, a vague idea of suffering, attached to that fanciful stigmata, troubling her.
"Hurt me—good Lord, how could you, of all people, hurt me?" he gently laughed at her. "Unless you turned me down, gave me to understand that, on second thoughts, you didn't find me up to your requirements or some mean class devilry of that kind—of which, by the way, had I judged you capable, you may be sure I should have been uncommonly careful never to come near you again.—No, it isn't that you hurt me; but that you delight me a little overmuch, so that it isn't easy to keep quite level-headed. There's so much to hear and to tell, and such scanty time to hear or tell it in, worse luck."
"You are obliged to go so soon?"
The flames of jealousy had effectually, it may be noted, died down in Damaris.
"Yes—we're taking on cargo for all we're worth. We are booked to sail by noon the day after to-morrow. I stretched a point in leaving at all, which won't put me in the best odour with my officers and crew, or—supposing they come to hear of it—with my owners either. I am giving my plain duty the slip; but, in this singular ease, it seemed to me, a greater duty stood back of and outweighed the plain obvious one—since it mounted to a reconstruction, a peace-making, ridding the souls of four persons of an ugly burden. I wanted the affair all settled up and straightened out before this, my maiden voyage, in command of a ship of my own. For me it is a great event, a great step forward. And, perhaps I'm over-superstitious—most men of my trade are supposed to be touched that way—but I admit I rather cling to the notion of this private peace-making, this straightening out of an ancient crookedness, as a thing of good augury, a favourable omen. As such—let alone other reasons"—and he looked down at Damaris with a fine and delicate admiration—"I desired it and, out of my heart, I prize it.—Do you see?"
"Yes—indeed a thing of good augury"—she affirmed.
Yet in speaking her lips shook. For, in truth, poor child, she was hard-pressed. This intimate intercourse, alike in its simple directness and its novelty, began to wear on her to the point of physical distress. She felt tremulous and faint. Not that Faircloth jarred upon or was distasteful to her. Far from that. His youth and health, the unspoiled vigour and force of him, captivated her imagination. Even the dash of roughness, the lapses from conventional forms of speech and manner she now and again observed in him, caught her fancy, heightening his attraction for her. Nor was she any longer tormented by a sense of isolation. For, as she recognized, he stole nothing away which heretofore belonged to her. Rather did he add his own by no means inconsiderable self to the sum of her possessions.—And in that last fact she probably touched the real crux, the real strain, of the present, to her disintegrating, situation. For in him, and in his relation to her, a wonderful and very precious gift was bestowed upon her, namely another human life to love and live for.—Bestowed on her, moreover, without asking or choice of her own, arbitrarily, through the claim of his and her common ancestry and the profound moral and spiritual obligations, the mysterious affinities, which a common ancestry creates.
Had she possessed this gift from childhood, had it taken its natural place in her experience through the linked and orderly progress of the years, it would have been wholly welcome, wholly profitable and sweet. But it was sprung upon her from the outside, quite astoundingly ready-made. It bore down on her, and at a double, foot, horse, and siege guns complete. Small discredit to her if she staggered under its onset, trembled and turned faint! For as she now perceived, it was exactly this relation of brother and sister of which she had some prescience, some dim intuition, from her first sight of Faircloth as he stood among the skeleton lobster-pots on board Timothy Proud's old boat. It was this call of a common blood which begot in her unreasoning panic, which she had run from and so wildly tried to escape. And yet it remained a gift of great price, a crown of gold; but oh! so very heavy—just at this moment anyhow—for her poor proud young head.
Lifting her hand off Faircloth's, she made a motion to rise. Change of attitude and place might bring her relief, serve to steady her nerves and restore her endangered composure! Brooding over the whole singular matter in the peace and security of her room upstairs, her course had appeared a comparatively easy one, granted reasonable courage and address. But the young man's bodily presence, as now close beside her, exercised an emotional influence quite unforeseen and unreckoned with. Under it her will wavered. She ceased to see her way clearly, to be sure of herself. She grew timid, bewildered, unready both of purpose and of speech.
Faircloth, meanwhile, being closely observant of her, was quick to detect her agitation. He drew aside her chair, and backed away, leaving her free to pass.
"I am afraid we have talked too long," he said. "You're tired. I ought to have been more careful of you, remembered how ill you have been—and that partly through my doing too. So now, I had better bid you good-bye, I think, and leave you to rest."
But Damaris, contriving to smile tremulous lips notwithstanding, shook her head. For, in lifting her hand from his, she caught sight of the tattooed blue-and-crimson sea-bird and the initials below it. And again her heart contracted with a spasm of tenderness; while those three letters, more fully arresting her attention, aroused in her a fascinated, half-shrinking curiosity. What did they mean? What could they stand for? She longed intensely to know—sure they were in some sort a symbol, a token, not without special significance for herself. But shyness and a quaint disposition, dating from her childhood, to pause and hover on the threshold of discovery, thus prolonging a period of entrancing, distracting suspense, withheld her. She dared not ask—in any case dared not ask just yet; and therefore took up his words in their literal application.
"Indeed, you haven't talked too long," she assured him, as she went over to the tiger skin before the fire-place, and standing there looked down into the core of the burning logs. "We have only just begun to talk, so it isn't that which has tried me. But—if you won't misunderstand—pray don't—the thought of—of you, and of all that which lies between us, is still very new to me. I haven't quite found you, or myself in my relation to you, yet. Give me time, and indeed, I won't disappoint you."
Faircloth, who had followed her, put his elbows on the mantelshelf, and sinking his head somewhat between his shoulders, stared down at the burning logs too.
"Ah! when you take that tone, I'm a little scared lest I should turn out to be the disappointment, the failure, in this high adventure of ours," he said under his breath.
"So stay, please," the young girl went on, touched by, yet ignoring, his interjected comment. "Let me get as accustomed as I can now, so that I may feel settled. That is the way to prevent my being tired—the way to rest me, because it will help to get all my thinkings about you into place.—Yes, please stay.—That is," she added with a pretty touch of ceremony—"if you have time, and don't yourself wish to go."
"I wish it! What, in heaven's name, could well be further from any wish of mine?" Faircloth broke out almost roughly, without raising his eyes. "Do you suppose when a man's gone thirsty many days, he is in haste to forego the first draught of pure water offered to him—and that after just putting his lips to the dear comfort of it?"
"Ah! you care too much," Damaris cried, smitten by swift shrinking and dread.
Faircloth lifted his head and looked at her, his face keen, brilliant with a far from ignoble emotion.
"It is not, and never will be possible—so I fancy"—he said, "to care too much about you."
And he fell into contemplation of the glowing logs again.
But Damaris, seeing his transfigured countenance, hearing his rejoinder, penetrated, moreover, by the conviction of his entire sincerity, felt the weight of a certain golden crown more than ever heavy upon her devoted young head. She stepped aside, groping with outstretched hands behind her until she found and held on to the arm of the big sofa stationed at right angles to the hearth. And she waited, morally taking breath, to slip presently on to the wide low seat of it and lean thankfully against its solidly cushioned back for support.
"Neither for you, or for my ship"—Faircloth went on, speaking, as it seemed, more to himself than to his now pale companion. "I dare couple you and her together, though she is no longer in the dew of her youth. Oh! I can't defend her looks, poor dear. She has seen service. Is only a battered, travel-weary old couple-of-thousand-ton cargo boat, which has hugged and nuzzled the foul-smelling quays of half the seaports of southern Europe and Asia. All the same—next to you—she's the best and finest thing life, up to now, has brought me, and I love her.—My affection for her, though," he went on, "is safe to be transitory. She is safe to have rivals and successors in plenty—unless, of course, by some ugly turn of luck, she and I go to the bottom in company."
Faircloth broke off. A little sound, a little gesture of protest and distress, making him straighten himself up and turn quickly, his eyes alight with enquiry and laughter.
"May I take that to mean I'm not quite alone in my caring," he asked; "but that you, Damaris, care, perhaps, just a trifling amount too?"
He went across to the sofa, sat down sideways, laying his right arm along the back of it, and placing his left hand—inscribed with the fanciful device—over the girl's two hands clasped in her lap. The strong, lean fingers exercised a quiet, steady pressure, for a minute. After which he leaned back, no longer attempting to touch her, studiously indeed keeping his distance, while he said:
"The other affection is stable for ever—safe from all rivals or successors. That is another reason why I jumped at the chance Sir Charles's letter gave me of coming here to-day, and seeing you, with this room—as I hoped—in which so much of your time must be spent, for background. I wanted to stamp a picture of you upon my memory, burn it right into the very tissue of my brain, so that I shall always have it with me, wherever I go, and however rarely we meet.—Because, as I see it, we shall rarely meet. We ought to be clear on that point—leave no frayed edges. There is a bar between us, which for the sake of others, as well as for your sake, it is only right and decent I should respect, a wall of partition through which I shouldn't attempt to break."
"I know—but it troubles me," Damaris murmured. "It is sad."
"Yes, of course, it is sad. But it's just the penalty that is bound to be paid, and which it is useless to ignore or lie to ourselves about.—So I shall never come, unless he—Sir Charles—sends for me as he did to-day, or unless you send. Only remember your picture will never leave me. I have it safe and sound"—Faircloth smiled at her.—"It will be with me just as actually and ineffaceably as this is with me."
He patted the back of his left hand.
"Nothing, short of death, can rub either out. I have pretty thoroughly banked against that, you see. So you've only to send when, and if, you want me. I shall turn up—oh! never fear, I shall turn up."