Her thoughts ranged out to the other members of her little local court—to Peregrine Ditton and Harry Ellice, to Marshall Wace. Had they personal experience of this disquieting matter? Was it conceivable the boys' silly rivalries and jealousies concerning her took their rise in this? Did it inspire the fervour of Marshall Wace's singing, his flattering dependence on her sympathy?—Suspicion widened. Everywhere she seemed to find hint and suggestion of this—no, she wouldn't too distinctly define it. Let it remain nameless.—Everywhere, except in respect of her father and of her brother. There she could spend her heart in peace. She sighed with a sweetness of relief, unclasping her hands, raising her fixed, bowed head.
The hotel, meanwhile, was sensibly in act of coming awake. Doors opened, voices called. From the other side of the corridor sounded poor little Mrs. Titherage's hacking cough, increasing to a convulsive struggle before, the fit at last passing off, it sunk into temporary quiescence. Andre, the stout, middle-aged valet de chambre, hummed snatches of gay melody as he rubbed and polished the parquet flooring without. These noises, whether cheerful or the contrary, were at least ordinary enough. By degrees they gained Damaris' ear, drawing her mind from speculation regarding the nature, origin, prevalence and ethics of love. Soon Pauline, the chamber-maid, would bring her breakfast-tray, coffee and rolls, those pale wafer-like pats of butter which taste so good, and thin squares of beetroot sugar which are never half as sweet as one would like. Would bring hot water and her bath, too, and pay her some nicely turned little compliment as to the becoming effect of her night's sleep.—Everything would pick itself up, in short, and go on, naturally and comfortably just as before.
Damaris straightened the hem of the sheet over the billowing edge of flowered down quilt; and, while so doing, her hand came in contact both with the mirror and the open jewel-case. She looked at this last with an expression bordering on reproach, unfastened the pearls from her throat, and laid them on the wadded, cream-coloured velvet lining. She delighted to possess them and deplored possessing them in the same breath. They spoke to her too freely and conclusively, told her too much. She would rather not have acquired this knowledge either of Carteret or of herself.—If it really were knowledge?—Again she repeated the question, arising from the increasing normality of surrounding things—Before what?
For when all was said and done, the dear man with the blue eyes had veritably and very really departed. Throughout the night his train had been rushing north-north-westward to Paris, to England, to that Norfolk manor-house of his, where his sister, his nephews, all his home interests and occupations awaited him. What proof had she that more intimate and romantic affairs did not await him there, or thereabouts, also? Had not she, once and for all, learned the lesson that a man's ways are different and contain many unadvertised occupations and interests? If he had wished to say something, anything, special to her, before going away, how easily—thus she saw the business—how easily he might have said it! But he hadn't spoken, rather conspicuously, indeed, had avoided speaking. Perhaps it was all a silly, conceited mistake of her own—a delusion and one not particularly creditable either to her intelligence or her modesty.
Damaris shut up the jewel-case. The pearls were entrancing; but somehow she did not seem to think she cared to look at them any more—just now.
When her breakfast arrived she ate it in a pensive frame of mind. In a like frame of mind she went through the routine of her toilette. She felt oddly tired; oddly shy, moreover, of her looking-glass.
Miss Felicia Verity had made a tentative proposal, about a week before, of joining her niece and her brother upon the Riviera. She reported much discomfort from rheumatism during the past winter. Her doctor advised a change of climate. Damaris, while brushing and doing up her hair, discovered in herself a warm desire for Miss Felicia's company. She craved for a woman—not to confide in, but to somehow shelter behind. And Aunt Felicia was so perfect in that way. She took what you gave in a spirit of gratitude almost pathetic; and never asked for what you didn't give, never seemed even to, for an instant, imagine there was anything you withheld from her. It would be a rest—a really tremendous rest, to have Aunt Felicia. She—Damaris—would propound the plan to her father as soon as she went downstairs.
After luncheon and a walk with Sir Charles, her courage being higher, she repented in respect of the pearl necklace. Put it on—and with results. For that afternoon Henrietta Frayling—hungry for activity, hungry for prey, after her prolonged abstention from society—very effectively floated into the forefront of the local scene.
CONCERNING ITSELF WITH A GATHERING UP OP FRAGMENTS
An unheralded invasion on the part of the physician from Cannes had delayed, by a day, Henrietta's promised descent upon, or rather ascent to, the Grand Hotel.
That gentleman, whose avaricious pale grey eye belied the extreme silkiness of his manner—having been called to minister to Lady Hermione Twells in respect of some minor ailment—elected to put in the overtime, between two trains, in a visit to General Frayling. For the date drew near of his yearly removal from the Riviera to Cotteret-les-Bains, in the Ardennes, where, during the summer season, he exploited the physical infelicities and mental credulities of his more wealthy fellow-creatures. The etablissement at Cotteret was run by a syndicate, in which Dr. Stewart-Walker held—in the name of an obliging friend and solicitor—a preponderating number of shares. At this period of the spring he always became anxious to clear up, not to say clear out, his southern clienetle lest any left-over members of it should fall into the clutches of one of his numerous local rivals. And, in this connection, it may be noted as remarkable to how many of the said clientele a "cure" at Cotteret-les-Bains offered assurance of permanent restoration to health.
Among that happy band, as it now appeared, General Frayling might be counted. The dry, exciting climate of St. Augustin, and its near neighbourhood to the sea, were calculated to aggravate the gastric complications from which that polite little warrior so distressingly suffered.
"This, I fear we must recognize, my dear madam, is a critical period with your husband; and treatment, for the next six months or so, is of cardinal importance; I consider high inland air, if possible forest air, indispensable. What I should like you to do is to take our patient north by slow stages; and I earnestly counsel a course of waters before the return to England is attempted."
Thereupon, agreeable visions of festive toilettes and festive casinos flitting through Henrietta's mind, she named Homburg and other German spas of world-wide popularity. But at such ultra-fashionable resorts, as Dr. Stewart-Walker, with a suitable air of regret, reminded her, the season did not open until too late to meet existing requirements.
"Let me think, let me think," he repeated, head sagely bent and forefinger on lip.
He ran through a number of Latin terms, to her in the main incomprehensible; then looked up, relieved and encouraging.
"Yes, we might, I believe, safely try it. The medical properties of the springs—particularly those of La Nonnette—meet our patient's case excellently. And I should not lose sight of him—a point, I own, with me, for your husband's condition presents features of peculiar interest. Cotteret-les-Bains, my dear madam—in his case I can confidently recommend it. Lady Hermione talks of taking the cure at Cotteret this spring. But about that we shall see—we shall see. The question demands consideration. As you know, Lady Hermione is charmingly outspoken, emphatic; but I should be false to my professional honour, were I to allow her wishes to colour my judgment.—Meanwhile I have reason to know that other agreeable people are going to Cotteret shortly. Not the rank and file. For such the place does not pretend to cater. There the lucrative stock-broker, or lucrative Jew, is still a rara avis. Long may he continue to be so, and Cotteret continue to pride itself on its exclusiveness!—In that particular it will admirably suit you, Mrs. Frayling."
To a compliment so nicely turned Henrietta could not remain insensible. Before the destined train bore Dr. Stewart-Walker back to his more legitimate zone of practise, she saw herself committed to an early striking of camp, with this obscure, if select, ville d'eaux as her destination.
In some respects the prospect did not smile on her. Yet as, next day, emancipated at length from monotonies of the sick-chamber, she drove behind the free-moving little chestnut horses through the streets of the town—sleepy in the hot afternoon quiet—and along the white glaring esplanade, Henrietta admitted the existence of compensations. In the brilliant setting of some world-famous German spa, though she—as she believed—would have been perfectly at her ease, what about her companions? For in such scenes of high fashion, her own good clothes are not sufficient lifebelt to keep a pretty woman quite complacently afloat. Your male associates must render you support, be capable of looking the part and playing up generally, if your enjoyment is to be complete. And for all that Marshall Wace, frankly, couldn't be depended on. Not only was he too unmistakably English and of the middle-class; but the clerical profession, although he had so unfortunately failed it, or it so unkindly rejected him, still seemed to soak through, somehow, when you saw him in public. A whiff of the vestry queerly clung to his coats and his trousers, thus meanly giving away his relinquished ambitions; unless, and that was worse still, essaying to be extra smart, a taint of the footlights declared itself in the over florid curl of a hat-brim or sample of "neck-wear." To head a domestic procession, in eminently cosmopolitan circles, composed of a small, elderly, very palpable invalid and a probable curate in mufti, demanded an order of courage to which Henrietta felt herself entirely unequal. Preferable the obscurity of Cotteret-les-Bains—gracious heaven, ten thousand times preferable!
Did not Dr. Stewart-Walker, moreover, hold out hopes that, by following his advice, the General's strength might be renewed, if not precisely like that of the eagle, yet in the more modest likeness of some good, biddable, burden-bearing animal—the patient ass, if one might so put it without too obvious irony? As handyman, aide-de-camp, and, on occasion, her groom of the chambers, the General had deserved very well of Henrietta. He had earned her sincere commendation. To restore him to that level of convenient activity was, naturally, her main object; and if a sojourn at some rather dull spot in the Ardennes, promised to secure this desired end, let it be accepted without hesitation. For the proverbial creaking, yet long-hanging, gate—here Henrietta had the delicacy to take refuge in hyperbole—she had no liking whatever. She could not remember the time when Darby and Joan had struck her as an otherwise than preposterous couple, offspring of a positively degraded sentimentality.
But there, since it threatened depressing conclusions, Henrietta agreed with herself to pursue the line of reflection no further.—"Sufficient unto the day"—to look beyond is, the thirties once passed, to raise superfluous spectres. And this day, in itself supplied food for reflections of a quite other character; ones which set both her curiosity and partiality for intrigue quite legitimately afire.
The morning post had brought her a missive from Colonel Carteret announcing his "recall" to England, and deploring the imposed haste of it as preventing him from making his adieux to her in person. The letter contained a number of flattering tributes to her own charms and to old times in India, the pleasures of which—unforgettable by him—he had had the happiness of sharing with her. Yet—to her reading of it—this friendly communication remained enigmatic, its kindly sentences punctuated by more than one interjectional enquiry. Namely, what was the cause of this sudden "recall"? And what was his reason for not coming to say good-bye to her? Haste, she held an excuse of almost childish transparency. It went deeper than that. Simply he had wanted not to see her.
Since the night of the dance no opportunity had occurred for observing Carteret and Damaris when together.—Really, how General Frayling's tiresome illness shipwrecked her private plans!—And, from the beginning, she had entertained an uneasy suspicion regarding Carteret's attitude. Men can be so extraordinarily feeble-minded where young girls are concerned! Had anything happened during her withdrawal from society? In the light, or rather the obscurity, of Carteret's letter, a visit to Damaris became more than ever imperative.
Her own competence to extract the truth from that guileless maiden, Henrietta in nowise questioned. "The child," she complacently told herself, when preparing to set forth on her mission, "is like wax in my hands."
The above conviction she repeated now, as the horses swept the victoria along the shore road, while from beneath her white umbrella she absently watched the alternate lift and plunge of the dazzling ultramarine and Tyrian purple sea upon the polished rocks and pebbles of the shelving beach.
To Henrietta Nature, save as decoration to the human drama, meant nothing. But the day was hot, for the time of year royally so, and this rejoiced her. She basked in the sunshine with a cat-like luxury of content. Her hands never grew moist in the heat, nor her hair untidy, her skin unbecomingly red, nor her general appearance in the least degree blousy. She remained enchantingly intact, unaffected, except for an added glint, an added refinement. To-day's temperature justified the adoption of summer attire, of those thin, clear-coloured silk and muslin fabrics so deliciously to her taste. She wore a lavender dress. It was new, every pleat and frill inviolate, at their crispest and most uncrumpled. In this she found a fund of permanent satisfaction steeling her to intrepid enterprise.
Hence she scorned all ceremonies of introduction. She dared to pounce. Having ascertained the number of Sir Charles Verity's sitting-room she refused obsequious escort, tripped straight upstairs unattended, rapped lightly, opened the door and—with swift reconnoitering of the scene within—announced her advent thus:
"Damaris, are you there? Ah! yes. Darling child. At last!"
During that reconnoitering she inventoried impressions of the room and its contents.—Cool, first—blue walls, blue carpet, blue upholstering of sofa and of chairs. Not worn or shabby, but so graciously faded by sun and air, that this—decoratively speaking—most perilous of colours became innocuous, in a way studious, in keeping with a large writing-table occupying the centre of the picture, laden with manuscripts and with books. The wooden outside shutters of two of the three windows were closed, which enhanced the prevailing coolness and studiousness of effect. Red cushions, also agreeably faded, upon the window-seats, alone echoed, in some degree, the hot radiance obtaining out of doors—these, and a red enamelled vase holding sprays of yellow and orange-copper roses, placed upon a smaller table before which Damaris sat, her back towards the invader.
At the sound of the latter's voice, the girl started, raised her head and, in the act of looking round, swept together some scattered sheets of note-paper and shut her blotting-book.
"Henrietta!" she cried, and thereupon sprang up; the lady, meanwhile, advancing towards her with outstretched arms, which enclosed her in a fragrant embrace.
"Yes—nothing less than Henrietta"—imprinting light kisses on either cheek. "But I see you are busy writing letters, dearest child. I am in the way—I interrupt you?"
And, as Damaris hastily denied that such was the case:
"Ah! but I do," she repeated. "I have no right to dart in on you thus a l'improviste. It is hardly treating such an impressive young person—absolutely I believe you have grown since I saw you last!—yes, you are taller, darling child—handsomer than ever, and a tiny bit alarming too—what have you been doing with, or to, or by yourself?—Treating her—the impressive young person, I mean—with proper respect. But it was such a chance. I learnt that you were alone"—A fib, alas! on Henrietta's part.—"And I couldn't resist coming. I so longed to have you, like this, all to myself. What an eternity since we met!—For me a wearing, ageing eternity. The duties of a sick-room are so horribly anxious, yet so deadening in their repetition of ignoble details. I could not go through with them, honestly I could not—though I realize it is a damning admission for a woman to make—if it wasn't that I am rather absurdly attached to what good Dr. Stewart-Walker persists in calling 'our patient.' Is not that enough in itself?—To fall from all normal titles and dignities and become merely a patient? No, joking apart, only affection makes nursing in any degree endurable to me. Without its saving grace the whole business would be too unpardonably sordid."
She pursed up her lips, and shivered her graceful shoulders with the neatest exposition of delicate distaste.
"And too gross. But one must face and accept the pathetic risk of being eventually converted in garde malade thus, if one chooses to marry a man considerably older than oneself. It is a mistake. I say so though I committed it with my eyes open. I was betrayed by my affection."
As she finished speaking Henrietta stepped across to the sofa and sat down. The airy perfection of her appearance lent point to the plaintive character of this concluding sentence. The hot day, the summer costume—possibly the shaded room also—combined to strip away a good ten years from her record. Any hardness, any faint sense of annoyance, which Damaris experienced at the abruptness of her guest's intrusion melted. Henrietta in her existing aspect, her existing mood proved irresistible. Our tender-hearted maiden was charmed by her and coerced.
"But General Frayling is better, isn't he?" she asked, also taking her place upon the sofa. "You are not any longer in any serious anxiety about him, darling Henrietta? All danger is past?"
"Oh, yes—he is better of course, or how could I be here? But I have received a shock that makes me dread the future."
Which was true, though in a sense other than that in which her hearer comprehended it. For the studious atmosphere of the room reacted upon Henrietta, as did its many silent testimonies to Sir Charles Verity's constant habitation. This was his workshop. She felt acutely conscious of him here, nearer to him in idea and in sentiment than for many years past. The fact that he did still work, sought new fields to conquer, excited both her admiration and her regrets. He disdained to be laid on the shelf, got calmly and forcefully down off the shelf and spent his energies in fresh undertakings. Once upon a time she posed as his Egeria, fancying herself vastly in the part. During the Egerian period she lived at a higher intellectual and emotional level than ever before or since, exerting every particle of brain she possessed to maintain that level. The petty interests of her present existence, still more, perhaps, the poor odd and end of a yellow little General in his infinitely futile sick-bed, shrank to a desolating insufficiency. Surely she was worthy—had, anyway, once been worthy—of better things than that? The lavender dress, notwithstanding its still radiantly uncrumpled condition, came near losing its spell. No longer did she trust in it as in shining armour. Her humour soured. She instinctively inclined to revenge herself upon the nearest sentient object available—namely to stick pins into Damaris.
"Sweetest child," she said, "you can't imagine how much this room means to me through its association with your father's wonderful book.—Oh! yes, I know a lot about the book. Colonel Carteret has not failed to advertise his acquaintance with it. But, what have I said?"
For at mention of that gentleman's name Damaris, so she fancied, changed colour, the bloom fading upon her cheeks, while her glance became reserved, at once proud and slightly anxious.
"Is it forbidden to mention the wonderful book at this stage of its development? Though even if it were," she added, with a rather impish laugh, looking down at and fingering the little bunch of trinkets, attached to a long gold chain, which rested in her lap—"Carteret would hardly succeed in holding his peace. Speak of everything, sooner or later, he must."
She felt rather than saw Damaris' figure grow rigid.
"Have you ever detected that small weakness in him? But probably not. He keeps overflowings for the elder members of his acquaintance, and in the case of the younger ones does exercise some caution. Ah! yes, I've no doubt he seems to you a model of discretion. Yet, in point of fact, when you've known him as long as I, you will have discovered he is a more than sufficiently extensive sieve."
Then, fearing she had gone rather far, since Damaris remained rigid and silent:
"Not a malicious sieve," the lady hastened to add, raising her eyes. "I don't imply that for a single instant. On the contrary I incline to believe that his attitude of universal benevolence is to blame for this inclination to gossip. It is so great, so all-enclosing, that I can't help feeling it blunts his sense of right and wrong to some extent. He is the least censorious of men and therefore—though it may sound cynical to say so—I don't entirely trust his judgment. He is too ready to make excuses for everyone.—But, my precious child, what's the matter? What makes you look so terrifically solemn and severe?"
And playfully she put her hand under the girl's chin, drawing the grave face towards her, smilingly studying, then lightly and daintily kissing it. In the course of this affectionate interlude, the string of pearls round Damaris' throat, until now hidden by the V-shaped collar of her soft lawn shirt, caught Henrietta's eye. Their size, lustre and worth came near extracting a veritable shriek of enquiry and jealous admiration from her. But with praiseworthy promptitude she stifled her astonishment and now really rampant curiosity. Damaris but half yielded to her blandishments. She must cajole more successfully before venturing to request explanation. Therefore she cried, soothingly, coaxfully:
"There—there—descend from those imposing heights of solemnity, or upon my word you will make me think my poor little visit displeases and bores you. That would be peculiarly grievous to me, since it is, in all probability, my last."
"Your last?" Damaris exclaimed.
"Yes, darling child, the fiat, alas! has gone forth. We are ordered away and start for Cotteret-les-Bains in a day or two. Dr. Stewart-Walker considers the move imperative on account of General Frayling's health. This was only settled yesterday. Marshall would have rushed here to tell you; but I forbade him. I felt I must tell you myself. I confess it is a blow to me. Our tenancy of the Pavilion expires at the end of the month; but I proposed asking for an extension, and, if that failed, taking up our abode at the hotel for a while. To me Dr. Stewart-Walker's orders come as a bitter disappointment, for I counted on remaining until Easter—remaining just as long as you and Sir Charles and Carteret remained, in fact."
Here the bloom, far from further extinction, warmed to a lovely blush. Henrietta's curiosity craned its naughty neck standing on tiptoe. But, the blush notwithstanding, Damaris looked at her with such sincerity of quickening affection and of sympathy that she again postponed cross-examination.
For over this piece of news our maiden could—in its superficial aspects at all events—lament in perfect good faith. She proceeded to do so, eagerly embracing the opportunity to offer thanks and praise. All Henrietta's merits sprang into convincing evidence. Had not her hospitality been unstinted—the whole English colony had cause to mourn.
"But for you they'd still be staring at one another, bristling like so many strange dogs," Damaris said. "And you smoothed them all down so divertingly. Oh! you were beautifully clever in that. It was a lesson in the art of the complete hostess. While, as for me, Henrietta, you've simply spoiled me. I can never thank you enough. Think of the amusements past counting you planned for me, the excursions you've let me share with you—our delicious drives, and above all my coming-out dance."
Whereat Mrs. Frayling disclaimingly shook her very pretty head.
"In pleasing you I have merely pleased myself, dearest, so in that there's no merit.—Though I do plead guilty to but languid enthusiasm for girls of your age as a rule. Their conversation and opinions are liable to set my teeth a good deal on edge. I have small patience, I'm afraid, at the disposal of feminine beings at once so omniscient and so alarmingly unripe.—But you see, a certain downy owl, with saucer eyes and fierce little beak, won my heart by its beguiling ways a dozen years ago."
"Darling Henrietta!" Damaris softly murmured; and, transported by sentiment to that earlier date when the said darling Henrietta commanded her unqualified adoration, began playing with the well-remembered bunch of trinkets depending from the long gold chain the lady wore about her neck.
Watching her, Mrs. Frayling sighed.
"Ah, my child, the thought of you is inextricably joined to other thoughts upon which I should be far wiser not to dwell—far wiser to put from me and forget—only they are stronger than I am—and I can't."
There was a ring of honest human feeling in Henrietta Frayling's voice for once.
"No, no—I am more justly an object of commiseration than anyone I leave behind me at St. Augustin."
And again she laughed, not impishly, but with a hardness altogether astonishing to her auditor.
"Think," she cried, "of my sorry fate!—Not only a wretchedly ailing husband on my hands, needing attention day and night, but a wretchedly disconsolate young lover as well. For poor Marshall will be inconsolable—only too clearly do I foresee that.—Picture what a pair for one's portion week in and week out!—Whereas you, enviable being, are sure of the most inspiring society. Everything in this quiet room"—
She indicated the laden writing-table with a quick, flitting gesture.
"So refreshingly removed from the ordinary banal hotel salon—is eloquent of the absorbing, far-reaching pursuits and interests amongst which you live. Who could ask a higher privilege than to share your father's work, to be his companion and amanuensis?"—She paused, as emphasising the point, and then mockingly threw off—"Plus the smart beau sabreur Carteret, as devoted bodyguard and escort, whenever you are not on duty. To few women of your age, or indeed of any age, is Fortune so indulgent a fairy godmother as that!"
Astonished and slightly resentful at the sharpness of her guest's unprovoked onslaught, Damaris had dropped the little bunch of trinkets and backed into her corner of the sofa.
"Colonel Carteret has gone," she said coldly, rather irrelevantly, the statement drawn from her by a vague instinct of self-defence.
"Gone!" Henrietta echoed, with equal irrelevance. For she was singularly discomposed.
"Yes, he started for England last night. But you must know that already, Henrietta. He wrote to you—he told me so himself."
But having once committed herself by use of a word implying ignorance, Mrs. Frayling could hardly do otherwise than continue the deception. Explanation would be too awkward a business. The chances of detection, moreover, were infinitesimal. There were things she meant to say which would sound far more unstudied and obvious could she keep up the fiction of ignorance. This, quickly realizing, she again and more flagrantly fibbed. The voluntary lie acts as a tonic giving you—for the moment at least—most comforting conceit of your own courage and perspicacity. And Henrietta just now stood in need of a tonic. She had been strangely overcome by the force of her own emotion—an accident which rarely happened to her and which she very cordially detested when it did.
"Someone must have omitted to post the letter, then," she said, with a suitable air of annoyance. "How exceedingly careless—unless it has not been sent over from the hotel to the Pavilion. I have been obliged, more than once, to complain of the hall porter's very casual delivery of my letters. I will make enquiries directly, if I don't find it on my return. But this is all by the way. Tell me, dearest child, what is the reason of Colonel Carteret's leaving so suddenly? Is it not surprisingly unexpected?"
"He was wanted at home on business of some sort," Damaris replied, as she felt a little lamely. She was displeased, worried by Henrietta. It was difficult to choose her words. "He has been away for a long time, you see. I think he has been beautifully unselfish in giving up so much of his time to us."
"Do you?" Henrietta enquired with meaning. "If I remember right we discussed that point once before. I can repeat now what I then told you, with even firmer assurance, namely, that he struck me as remarkably well pleased with himself and his surroundings and generally content."
"Of course he loves being with my father," Damaris hastened to put in, having no wish to enlarge on the topic suggested by the above speech.
"Of course. Who doesn't, or rather who wouldn't were they sufficiently fortunate to have the chance. But come—to be honest—je me demande, is it exclusively Sir Charles whom Carteret loves to be with?"
And as she spoke, Henrietta bent forward from the waist, her dainty lavender skirts spread out on the faded blue of the sofa mattress, the contours of her dainty lavender bodice in fine relief against the faded blue cushions, her whole person, in the subdued light, bright and apparently fragile as some delicate toy of spun glass. She put out her hand, and lightly, mischievously, touched the string of pearls encircling the girl's throat.
"And what is the meaning of these, then," she asked, "you sweetly deceiving little puss!"
It was cleverly done, she flattered herself. She asserted nothing, implied much, putting the onus of admission or denial upon Damaris. The answer came with grave and unhesitating directness.
"Colonel Carteret gave them to me."
"So I imagined. They are the exquisite fruit, aren't they, of the little expedition by train of two days ago?"
Damaris' temper rose, but so did her protective instinct. For that journey to Marseilles, connected as it was with the dear secret of Darcy Faircloth, did not admit of investigation by Henrietta.
"About where and when Colonel Carteret may have got them for me, I know nothing," she returned. "He left them to be given to me last night after he went."
She unclasped the necklace.
"They are very lovely pearls, aren't they? Pray look at them if you care to, Henrietta," she said.
Thus at once invited and repulsed—for that it amounted to a repulse she could not but acknowledge—Mrs. Frayling advised herself a temporary retreat might be advisable. She therefore discoursed brightly concerning pearls and suchlike costly frivolities. Inwardly covetousness consumed her, since she possessed no personal ornament of even approximate value.
The conversation drifted. She learned the fact of Miss Felicia's projected arrival, and deplored her own approaching exile the less. Only once, long ago, had she encountered Miss Verity. The memory afforded her no satisfaction, for that lady's peculiar brand of good breeding and—as she qualified it—imbecility, did not appeal to her in the least. There was matter of thankfulness, therefore, she had not elected to join Sir Charles and Damaris sooner. She would undoubtedly have proved a most tiresome and impeding element. Unless—here Henrietta's mind darted—unless she happened to take a fancy to Marshall. Blameless spinsters, of her uncertain age and of many enthusiasms, did not infrequently very warmly take to him—in plain English, fell over head and ears in love with him, poor things, though without knowing it, their critical faculty being conspicuous by its absence where their own hearts were concerned.—By the way that was an idea!—Swiftly Henrietta reviewed the possibilities it suggested.—As an ally, an auxiliary, Miss Felicia might be well worth cultivation. Would it not be diplomatic to let Marshall stay on at the Hotel de la Plage by himself for a week or so? The conquest of Miss Felicia might facilitate another conquest on which her—Henrietta's—mind was set. For such mature enamoured virgins, as she reflected, are almost ludicrously selfless. To ensure the happiness of the beloved object they will even donate to him their rival.—Yes—distinctly an idea! But before attempting to reduce it to practice, she must make more sure of her ground in another direction.
During the above meditation, Henrietta continued to talk off the surface, her mind working on two distinct planes. Damaris, off the surface, continued to answer her.
Our maiden felt tired both in body and in spirit. She felt all "rubbed up the wrong way"—disturbed, confused. The many moral turns and twists of Henrietta's conversation had been difficult to follow. But from amid the curious maze of them, one thing stood out, arrestingly conspicuous—Henrietta believed it then also. Believed Carteret cared for her "in that way"—thus, with a turning aside of the eyes and shrinking, she phrased it. It wasn't any mistaken, conceited imagination of her own since Henrietta so evidently shared it. And Henrietta must be reckoned an expert in that line, having a triad of husbands to her credit—a liberality of allowance in matrimony which had always appeared to Damaris as slightly excessive. She had avoided dwelling upon this so outstanding feature of her friend's career; but that it gave assurance of the latter's ability to pronounce upon "caring in that way" was she now admitted incontestable.
Whether she really felt glad or sorry Henrietta's expert opinion confirmed her own suspicions, Damaris could not tell. It certainly tended to complicate the future; and for that she was sorry. She would have liked to see the road clear before her—anyhow for a time—complications having been over numerous lately. They were worrying. They made her feel unsettled, unnatural. In any case she trusted she shouldn't suffer again from those odious yet alluring feelings which put her to such shame this morning.—But—unpleasant thought—weren't they, perhaps, an integral part of the whole agitating business of "caring in that way?"
Her eyes rested in wide meditative enquiry upon Henrietta, Henrietta sitting up in all her finished elegance upon the faded blue sofa and so diligently making company conversation. Somehow, thus viewing her, it was extremely difficult to suppose Henrietta had ever experienced excited feelings. Yet—the wonder of it!—she'd actually been married three times.
Then, wearily, Damaris made a return upon herself. Yes—she was glad, although it might seem ungrateful, disloyal, the man with the blue eyes had gone away. For his going put off the necessity of knowing her own mind, excused her from making out exactly how she regarded him, thus relegating the day of fateful decision to a dim distance. Henrietta accused him of being a sieve.—Damaris grew heated in strenuous denial. That was a calumny which she didn't and wouldn't credit. Still you could never be quite sure about men—so she went back on the old, sad, disquieting lesson. Their way of looking at things, their angle of admitted obligation is so bewilderingly different!—Oh! how thankful she was Aunt Felicia would soon be here. Everything would grow simpler, easier to understand and to manage, more as it used to be, with dear Aunt Felicia here on the spot.
At this point she realized that Mrs. Frayling was finishing a sentence to the beginning of which she had not paid the smallest attention. That was disgracefully rude.
"So I am to go home then, dearest child, and break it to Marshall that he stands no chance—my poor Marshall, who has no delightful presents with which to plead his cause!"
"Mr. Wace?—Plead his cause? What cause? I am so sorry, Henrietta—forgive me. It's too dreadful, but I am afraid I wasn't quite listening"—this with most engaging confusion.
"Yes—his cause. I should have supposed his state of mind had been transparently evident for many a long day."
"But indeed—Henrietta, you must be mistaken. I don't know what you mean"—the other interposed smitten by the liveliest distress and alarm.
The elder lady waved aside her outcry with admirable playfulness and determination.
"Oh! I quite realize how crazy it must appear on his part, poor dear fellow, seeing he has so little to offer from the worldly and commercial standpoint. As he himself says—'the desire of the moth for the star, of the night for the morrow.' Still money and position are not everything in life, are they? Talent is an asset and so, I humbly believe, is the pure devotion of a good man's heart. These count for something, or used to do so when I was your age. But then the women of my generation were educated in a less sophisticated school. You modern young persons are wiser than we were no doubt, in that you are less romantic, less easily touched.—I have not ventured to give Marshall much encouragement. It would have been on my conscience to foster hopes which might be dashed. And yet I own, darling child, your manner not once nor twice, during our happy meetings at the Pavilion, when he read aloud to us or sang, gave me the impression you were not entirely indifferent. He, I know, has thought so too—for I have not been able to resist letting him pour out his hopes and fears to me now and then. I could not refuse either him or myself that indulgence, because"—
Mrs. Frayling rose, and, bending over our much tried and now positively flabbergasted damsel, brushed her hair with a butterfly kiss.
"Because my own hopes were also not a little engaged," she said. "Your manner to my poor Marshall, your willingness to let him so often be with you made me—perhaps foolishly—believe not only that his sad life might be crowned by a signal blessing, but you might be given to me some day as a daughter of whom I could be intensely proud. I have grown to look upon Marshall in the light of a son, and his wife would"—
Damaris had risen also. She stood at bay, white, strained, her lips quivering.
"Do—do you mean that I have behaved badly to Mr. Wace, Henrietta? That I have flirted with him?"
Mrs. Frayling drew her mouth into a naughty little knot. There were awkward corners to be negotiated in these questions. She avoided them by boldly striking for the open.
"Oh! it is natural, perfectly natural at your rather thoughtless time of life. Only Marshall's admiration for you is very deep. He has the poetic temperament which makes for suffering, for despair as well as for rapture. And his disillusionments, poor boy, have been so grievously many.—But Colonel Carteret—yes—dearest child, I do quite follow.—It's an old story. He has always had des bonnes fortunes."
Since her return to Europe, Mrs. Frayling had become much addicted to embellishing her conversation with such foreign tags, not invariably, it may be added, quite correctly applied or quoted.
"Women could never resist him in former days in India. They went down before his charms like a row of ninepins before a ball. I don't deny a passing tendresse for him myself, though I was married and very happily married. So I can well comprehend how he may take a girl's fancy by storm. Sans peur et sans reproche, he must seem to her.—And so in the main, I dare say, he is. At worst a little easy-going, owing to his cultivation of the universally benevolent attitude. Charity has a habit of beginning at home, you know; and a man usually views his own delinquencies at least as leniently as he views those of others. But that leniency is part of his charm—which I admit is great.—Heaven forbid, I should undermine your faith in it, if there is anything settled between you and him."
"But there isn't, there isn't," Damaris broke in, distressed beyond all calmness of demeanour. "You go too fast, Henrietta. You assume too much. Nothing is settled of—of that sort. Nothing of that sort has ever been said."
Mrs. Frayling raised her eyebrows, cast down her eyes, and fingered the bunch of trinkets hanging from her gold chain in silence for a few seconds. The ring of sincerity was unquestionable—only where did that land her? Had not she, in point of fact, very really gone too fast? In defeat Henrietta became unscrupulous.
"Merely another flirtation, Damaris?" she said. "Darling child, I am just a wee bit disappointed in you."
Which, among her many fibs, may rank amongst her most impudent and full-fed, though by no means her last.
Here, the door opened behind her. Henrietta turned alertly, hailing any interruption which—her bolt being shot—might facilitate her retreat from a now most embarrassing situation. After all she had planted more than one seed, which might fruitfully grow, so at that she could leave matters.—The interruption, however, took a form for which she was unprepared. To her intense disgust her nerves played her false. She gave the oddest little stifled squeak as she met Charles Verity's glance, fixed upon her in cool, slightly ironic scrutiny.
Some persons very sensibly bring their mental atmosphere along with them. You are compelled to breathe it whether you like or not. The atmosphere Charles Verity brought with him, at this juncture, was too masculine, intellectually too abstract yet too keenly critical, for comfortable absorption by Henrietta's lungs. Her self-complacency shrivelled in it. She felt but a mean and pitiful creature, especially in her recent treatment of Damaris. It was a nasty moment, the more difficult to surmount because of that wretchedly betraying squeak. Fury against herself gingered her up to action. She must be the first to speak.
"Ah! how delightful to see you," she said, a little over-playing the part—"though only for an instant. I was in the act of bidding Damaris farewell. As it is I have scandalously outstayed my leave; but we had a thousand and one things, hadn't we, to say to one another."
She smiled upon both father and daughter with graceful deprecation.
"Au, revoir, darling child—we must manage to meet somehow, just once more before I take my family north"—
And still talking, new lavender dress, trinkets, faint fragrance and all, she passed out on to the corridor accompanied by Sir Charles Verity.
WHICH RECOUNTS A TAKING OF SANCTUARY
Left alone Damaris sat down on the window-seat, within the shelter of the wooden shutters which interposed a green barred coolness between her and the brilliant world without. That those two, her father and Henrietta Frayling, should thus step off together, the small, softly crisp, feminine figure beside the tall, fine-drawn and—in a way—magnificent masculine one, troubled her. Yet she made no attempt to accompany or to follow them. Her head ached. Her mind and soul ached too. She felt spent and giddy, as from chasing round and round in an ever-shifting circle some tormenting, cleverly lovely thing which perpetually eluded her. Which thing, finally, floated out of the door there, drawing a personage unmeasurably its superior, away with it, and leaving her—Damaris—deserted.
Leaving, moreover, every subject on which its nimble tongue had lighted, damaged by that contact—at loose ends, frayed and ravelled, its inwove pattern just slightly discoloured and defaced. The patterned fabric of Damaris' thought and inner life had not been spared, but suffered disfigurement along with the rest. She felt humiliated, felt unworthy. The ingenious torments of a false conscience gnawed her. Her better judgment pronounced that conscience veritably false; or would, as she believed, so pronounce later when she had time to get a true perspective. But, just now, she could only lamentably, childishly, cry out against injustice. For wasn't Henrietta mainly responsible for the character of her intercourse with Marshall Wace? Hadn't Henrietta repeatedly entreated her to see much of him, be kind to him?—Wishing, even in her present rebellion to be quite fair, she acknowledged that she had enjoyed his singing and reading; that she had felt pleased at his eagerness to confide his troubles to her and talk confidentially about himself. She not unwillingly accepted a mission towards him, stimulated thereto by Henrietta's plaudits and thanks.
And—and Colonel Carteret? For now somehow she no longer, even in thought, could call him by her old name for him, "the dear man with the blue eyes."—Could it be true, as Henrietta intimated, that he went through life throwing the handkerchief first to one woman and then to another? That there was no real constancy or security in his affections, but all was lightly come and lightly go with him?
How her poor head ached! She held it in both hands and closed her eyes.—She would not think any more about Colonel Carteret. To do so made her temples throb and raised the lump, which is a precursor of tears, in her throat.
No—she couldn't follow Henrietta's statements and arguments either way. They were self-contradictory. Still, whose ever the fault, that the young man Wace should be unhappy on her account, should think she—Damaris—had behaved heartlessly to him, was quite dreadful. Humiliating too—false conscience again gnawing. Had she really contracted a debt towards him, which she—in his opinion and Henrietta's—tried to repudiate? She seemed to hear it, the rich impassioned voice, and hear it with a new comprehension. Was "caring in that way" what it had striven to tell her; and had she, incomparably dense in missing its meaning, appeared to sanction the message and to draw him on? Other people understood—so at least Henrietta implied; while she, remaining deaf, had rather cruelly misled him. Ought she not to do something to make up? Yet what could she do?—It had never occurred to her that—that—
She held her head tight. Held it on, as with piteous humour she told herself, since she seemed in high danger of altogether losing it.—Must she believe herself inordinately stupid, or was she made differently to everybody else? For, as she now suspected, most people are constantly occupied, are quite immensely busy about "caring in that way." And she shrank from it; actively and angrily disliked it. She felt smirched, felt all dealings as between men and women made suspect, rendered ugly, almost degraded by the fact—if fact it was—of that kind of caring and excited feelings it induces, lurking just below the surface, ready to dart out.—And this not quite honestly either. The whole matter savoured of hypocrisy, since the feelings disguised themselves in beautiful sounds, beautiful words, clothing their unseemliness with the noble panoply of poetry and art, masquerading in wholesome garments of innocent good-comradeship.
—A grind of wheels on the gravel below. Henrietta's neat limpid accents and Charles Verity's grave ones. The flourish and crack of a whip and scrambling start of the little chestnut horses. The rhythmical beat of their quick even trot and thin tinkle of their collar bells receding into the distance.
These sounds to our sorrowfully perplexed maiden opened fresh fields of uneasy speculation. For those diverse accents—the speakers being unseen—heard thus in conjunction, seized on and laboured her imagination. Throughout the past months of frequent meeting, Damaris had never quite understood her father's attitude towards Henrietta Frayling. It was marked by reserve; yet a reserve based, as she somehow divined, upon an uncommon degree of former intimacy. Judging from remarks let drop now and again by Henrietta, they knew, or rather had known, one another very well indeed. This bore out Damaris' own childhood's recollections; though in these last she was aware of lacunae, of gaps, of spaces unbridged by any coherent sequence of remembered events. A dazzling and delicious image, the idol of her baby adoration—thus did memory paint that earlier Henrietta. Surrounding circumstances remained shadowy. She could not recall them even in respect of herself, still less in respect of her father. So that question, as to the past, ruled the present. What had parted them, and how did they to-day envisage one another? She could not make out. Had never, indeed, attempted seriously to make out, shying from such investigation as disloyal and, in a way, irreverent. Now investigation was forced on her. Her mind worked independent of her will, so that she could neither prevent or arrest it. Sir Charles showed himself scrupulously attentive and courteous to General Frayling. He offered no spoken objection to her association with Henrietta. Yet an unexplained element did remain. Subtlely, but perceptibly, it permeated both her father's and Henrietta's speech and bearing. She, Damaris, was always conscious of a certain constraint beneath their calm and apparently easy talk. Was their relation one of friendship or of covert enmity?—Or did these, just perceptible, peculiarities of it betoken something deeper and closer still?
Suspicion once kindled spreads like a conflagration.—Damaris' hands dropped, a dead weight, into her lap. She sat, strained yet inert, as though listening to catch the inner significance of her own unformulated question, her eyes wide and troubled, her lips apart. For might it not be that they had once—long ago—in the princely, Eastern pleasure palace of her childhood—cared in that way?
Then the tears which, what with tiredness and the labour pains of her many conflicting emotions, had threatened more than once to-day, came into their own. She wept quietly, noiselessly, the tears running down her cheeks unchecked and unheeded. For there was no escape. Turn where she would, join hands with whom she would in all good faith and innocence, this thing reared its head and, evilly alluring looked at her. Now it set its claim upon her well-beloved Sultan-i-bagh—and what scene could in truth be more sympathetic to its display? She felt the breath of high romance. Imagination played strange tricks with her. She could feel, she could picture, a drama of rare quality with those two figures as protagonists. It dazzled while wounding her. She remembered Faircloth's words, spoken on that evening of fateful disclosure when knowledge of things as they are first raped her happy ignorance, while the boat drifted through the shrouding darkness of rain upon the inky waters of the tide-river.—"They were young," he had said, "and mayn't we allow they were beautiful? They met and, God help them, they loved."
The statement covered this case, also, to a nicety. It explained everything. But what an explanation, leaving her, Damaris, doubly orphaned and desolate! For the first case, that of which Faircloth actually had spoken, brought her royal, if secret compensation in the brotherhood and sisterhood it made known. But this second case brought nothing, save a sense of being tricked and defrauded, the victim of a conspiracy of silence. For nothing, as it now appeared, was really her own, nor had really belonged to her. "Some one," so she phrased it in the incoherence of her pain, "had always been there before her." What she supposed her exclusive property was only second-hand, had been already owned by others. They let her play at being first in the field, original and sole proprietress, because it saved them trouble by keeping her quiet and amused. But all the while they knew better and must have smiled at her possessive antics once her silly back was turned. And here Damaris lost sight of reasonable proportion and measure, exaggerating wildly, her pride and self-respect cut to the quick.
It was thus, in the full flood of mystification and resentment, Charles Verity found her when presently he returned. Sensible of something very much amiss, since she stayed within the shadow of the closed shutters, silent and motionless, he crossed the room and stood before her looking down searchingly into her upturned face. Stubborn in her misery, she met his glance with mutinous, and hard, if misty, eyes.
"Weeping, my dear? Is the occasion worth it? Has Mrs. Frayling then taken so profound a hold?" he asked, his tone mocking, chiding her yet very gently.
Damaris hedged. To expose the root of her trouble became impossible under the coercion of that gently bantering tone.
"It's not Henrietta's going; but that I no longer mind her going."
"A lost illusion—yes?" he said.
"I can't trust her. She—she isn't kind."
"Eh?" he said. "So you too have made that illuminating little discovery. I supposed it would be only a matter of time. But you read character, my dear, more quickly than I do. What it has taken you months to discover, took me years."
His frankness, the unqualified directness of his response, though startling, stimulated her daring.
"Then—then you don't really like Henrietta?" she found audacity enough to say.
"Ah! there you rush too headlong to conclusions," he reasoned, still with that same frankness of tone. "She is an ingenious, unique creature, towards whom one's sentiments are ingenious and unique in their turn. I admire her, although—for you are right there—she is neither invariably trustworthy nor invariably kind. Admire her ungrudgingly, now I no longer ask of her what she hasn't it in her to give. Limit your demand and you limit the risks of disappointment—a piece of wisdom easier to enunciate than to apply."
Lean, graceful, commanding under the cloak of his present gentle humour, Charles Verity sat down on the faded red cushion beside Damaris, and laid one arm along the window-ledge behind her. He did not touch her; being careful in the matter of caresses, reverent of her person, chary of claiming parental privileges unasked.
"In the making of Henrietta Frayling," he went on, "by some accident soul was left out. She hasn't any. She does not know it. Let us hope she never will know it, for it is too late now for the omission to be rectified."
"Are you laughing at me?" Damaris asked, still stubborn, though his presence enclosed her with an at once assuaging and authoritative charm.
"Not in the least. I speak that which I soberly believe. Just as some ill-starred human creatures are born physically or mentally defective—deformed or idiots—so may they be born spiritually defective. Why not? My reason offers no scientific or moral objection to such a belief. In other respects she is conspicuously perfect. But, verily, she has no soul; and the qualities which—for happiness or misery—draw their life from the soul, she does not possess. Therefore she sparkles, lovely and chill as frost. Is as astute as she is cold at heart; and can, when it suits her purpose, be both false and cruel without any subsequent prickings of remorse. But this very coldness and astuteness save her from misdeeds of the coarser kind. Treacherous she has been, and, for aught I know, may on occasions still be. But, though temptation has pretty freely crossed her path, she has never been other than virtuous. She is a good woman—in the accepted, the popular sense of the word."
Silence stole down upon the room. Damaris remained motionless, leaning forward gathered close into herself, her hands still heavy in her lap. Could she accept this statement as comfort, or must she bow under it as rebuke?
"Why," she asked at last huskily—the tears were no longer upon her cheeks but queerly in her throat, impeding utterance, "do you tell me these things?"
"To prevent you beholding lying visions, my dear, or dreaming lying dreams of what might very well have been but—God be thanked—never has been—never was.—Think a minute—remember—look."
And once more Damaris felt the breath of high romance and touched drama of rare quality, with those same two figures as protagonists, and that same Indian pleasure palace as their stage; but this time with a notable difference of sentiment and of result.
For she visualized another going of Henrietta, a flight before the dawn. Saw, through a thick scent-drenched atmosphere, between the expiring lamp-light and broadening day, a deserted child beating its little hands, in the extremity of its impotent anguish, upon the pillows of a disordered unmade bed. Saw a man, too, worn and travel-stained from long riding throughout the night, lost to all decent dignities of self-control, savage with the animalism of frustrated passion, rage to and fro amidst the litter of a smart woman's hurried packing, a trail of pale blue ribbon plucking at and tripping him entangled in the rowels of his spurs.
All this she saw; and knew that her father—sitting on the cushioned window-seat beside her, his legs crossed, his chin sunk on his breast—saw it also. That he, indeed, voluntarily and of set purpose made her see, transferring the living picture from his consciousness to her own. And, as she watched, each detail growing in poignancy and significance she—not all at once, but gropingly, rebelliously and only by degrees—comprehended that purpose, and the abounding love, both of herself and of justice, which dictated it. Divining the root of her trouble and the nature of her suspicion he took this strange means to dissipate them. Setting aside his natural pride, he caused her to look upon his hour of defeat and debasement, careless of himself if thereby he might mend her hurt and win her peace of mind.
Damaris was conquered. Her stubbornness went down before his sacrifice. All the generosity in her leapt forth to meet and to acclaim the signal generosity in him—a generosity extended not only towards herself but to Henrietta Frayling as well. This last Damaris recognized as superb.—He bade her remember. And, seeing in part through her own eyes, in part through his, she penetrated more deeply into his mind, into the rich diversity and, now mastered, violence of his character, than could otherwise have been possible. She learnt him from within as well as from without. He had been terrible—so she remembered—yet beautiful in his fallen god-head. She had greatly feared him under that aspect. Later, she more than ever loved him; and that with a provenant, protective and, baby though she was, a mothering love. He was beautiful now; but no longer terrible, no longer fallen—if not the god-head, yet the fine flower of his manhood royally and very sweetly disclosed. Her whole being yearned towards him; but humbly, a note of lowliness in her appreciation, as towards something exalted, far above her in experience, in self-knowledge and self-discipline.
She was, indeed, somewhat overwhelmed, both by realization of his distinction and of her own presumption in judging him, to the point of being unable as yet to look him in the face. So she silently laid hold of his hand, drew it down from the window-ledge and round her waist. Slipping along the cushioned seat until she rested against him, she laid her head back upon his shoulder. Testimony in words seemed superfluous after that shared consciousness, seemed impertinent even, an anti-climax from which both taste and insight recoiled.
For a while Charles Verity let the silent communion continue. Then, lest it should grow enervating, to either or to both, he spoke of ordinary subjects—of poor little General Frayling's illness, of Miss Felicia's plans, of his own book. It was wiser for her, better also for himself, to step back into the normal thus quietly closing the door upon their dual act of retrospective clairvoyance.
Damaris, catching his intention, responded; and if rather languidly yet loyally played up. But, before the spell was wholly broken and frankness gave place to their habitual reserve, there was one further question she must ask if the gnawings of that false conscience, begotten in her by Henrietta's strictures, were wholly to cease.
"Do you mind if we go back just a little minute," she said.
"Still unsatisfied, my dear?"
"Not unsatisfied—never again that as between us two, Commissioner Sahib. You have made everything beautifully, everlastingly smooth and clear."
"Then why tempt Providence, or rather human incertitude, by going back?"
"Because—can I say it quite plainly?"
"As plainly as you will."
"Because Henrietta tells me I have—have flirted—have played fast and loose with—with more than one person."
A pause, and the question came from above her—her head still lying against his breast—with a trace of severity, or was it anxiety?
"And have you?"
"Not intentionally—not knowingly," Damaris said.
"If that is so, is it not sufficient?"
"No—because she implies that I have raised false hopes, and so entangled myself—and that I ought to go further, that, as I understand her, I ought to be ready to marry—that it is not quite honourable to withdraw."
Charles Verity moved slightly, yet held her close. She felt the rise and fall of his ribs as he breathed slow and deep.
"Do you want to marry?" he at last asked her.
"No," she said, simply. "I'd much rather not, if I can keep out of it without acting unfairly by anyone—if you don't agree with Henrietta, and don't think I need. You don't want me to marry do you?"
"God in heaven, no," Charles Verity answered. He put her from him, rose and moved about the room.
"To me, the thought of giving you in marriage to any man is little short of abhorrent," he said hoarsely.
For fear clutched him by the throat. The gift of pearls, the little scene of last night, and Damaris' emotion in bidding Carteret farewell, confronted him. The idea had never occurred to him before. Now it glared at him, or rather he glared at it. It would be torment to say "yes"; and yet very difficult to say his best friend "nay." Anger kindled against Henrietta Frayling. Must this be regarded as her handiwork? Yet he could hardly credit it. Or had she some other candidate—Peregrine Ditton, young Harry Ellice?—But they were mere boys.—Of Marshall Wace he never thought, the young man being altogether outside his field of vision in this connection.
Long habit of personal chastity made Charles Verity turn, with a greater stabbing and rending of repulsion, from the thought of marriage for Damaris. She asserted she had no wish to marry, that she—bless her sweet simplicity!—would rather not. But this bare broaching of the subject threw him into so strange a tumult that, only too evidently, he was no competent observer, he laboured under too violent a prejudice. He had no right to demand from others the abstinence he chose himself to practise. Carteret, in desiring her, was within his rights. Damaris within hers, were she moved by his suit. Marriage is natural, wholesome, the God-ordained law and sanction of human increase since man first drew breath here upon earth. To condemn obedience to that law, by placing any parental embargo upon Damaris' marriage, would be both a defiance of nature and act of grossest selfishness.
He sat down on the window-seat again; and forced himself to put his arm around that fair maiden body, destined to be the prize, one day, of some man's love; the prey—for he disdained to mince matters, turning the knife in the wound rather—the prey of some man's lust. He schooled himself, while Damaris' heart beat a little tempestuously under his hand, to invite a conclusion which through every nerve and fibre he loathed.
"My dear," he said, "I spoke unadvisedly with my lips just now, letting crude male jealousy get the mastery of reason and common sense. Put my words out of your mind. They were unjustifiable, spoken in foolish heat. If you are in love with anyone"—
Damaris nestled against him.
"Only with you, dearest, I think," she said.
Charles Verity hesitated, unable to speak through the exquisite blow she delivered and his swift thankfulness.
"Let us put the question differently then—translating it into the language of ordinary social convention. Tell me, has anyone proposed to you?"
Damaris, still nestling, shook her head.
"No—no one. And I hope now, no one will. I escaped that, partly thanks to my own denseness.—It is not an easy thing, Commissioner Sahib, to explain or talk about. But I have come rather close to it lately, and"—with a hint of vehemence—"I don't like it. There is something in it which pulls at me but not at the best part of me. So that I am divided against myself. Though it does pull, I still want to push it all away with both hands. I don't understand myself and I don't understand it, I would rather be without it—forget it—if you think I am free to do so, if you are satisfied that I haven't intentionally hurt anyone or contracted a—a kind of debt of honour?"
"I am altogether satisfied," he said. "Until the strange and ancient malady attacks you in a very much more virulent form, you are free to cast Henrietta Frayling's insinuations to the winds, to ignore them and their existence."
THROUGH SHADOWS TOWARDS THE DAWN
WHICH CARRIES OVER A TALE OF YEARS, AND CARRIES ON
The last sentence was written. His work finished. And, looking upon his completed creation, Charles Verity saw that it was good. Yet, as he put the pen back in the pen-tray and, laying the last page of manuscript face downwards upon the blotting-paper passed his hand over it, he was less sensible of exultation than of a pathetic emptiness. The book had come to be so much part of him that he felt a nasty wrench when he thus finally rid himself of it.
He had kept the personal pronoun out of it, strictly and austerely, desiring neither self-glorification nor self-advertisement. Yet his mind and attitude towards life seasoned and tempered the whole, giving it vitality and force. This was neither a "drum-and-trumpet history" designed to tickle the vulgar ear, nor a blank four-wall depository of dry facts, names, dates, statistics, such as pedants mustily adore; but a living thing, seen and felt. Not his subconscious, but that much finer and—as one trusts—more permanent element in our human constitution, his super-conscious self found expression in its pages and travelled freely, fruitfully, through them amid luminous and masterful ideas. At times the intellectual sweep threatened to be overdaring and overwide; so that, in the interests of symmetry and balance of construction, he had been forced to clip the wings of thought, lest they should bear him to regions too remotely high and rare. Race, religion, customs and the modifications of these, both by climate and physical conformation of the land on the face of which they operate, went to swell the interest and suggestion of his theme. In handling such varied and coloured material the intellectual exercise had been to him delicious, as he fashioned and put a fine edge to passages of admirable prose, coined the just yet startling epithet, perfected the flow of some graceful period, and ransacked the English language for fearless words in which to portray the mingled splendour and vileness of a barbaric oriental Court, the naked terrors of tribal feuds and internecine war.
The occupation had, indeed, proved at once so refreshing and so absorbing that he went leisurely, lengthening out the process of production until it came nearer covering the thirty months of elephantine gestation than the normal human nine.
With but two brief sojourns to England, for the consultation of certain authorities and of his publishers, the said near on thirty months were passed in wandering through Southern France, Central Italy, and, taking ship from Naples to Malaga, finally through Eastern and Northern Spain. Charles Verity was too practised a campaigner for his power of concentration to depend on the stability or familiarity of his surroundings. He could detach himself, go out into and be alone with his work, at will. But the last chapter, like the first, he elected to write in the study at The Hard. A pious offering of incense, this, to the pleasant memory of that excellent scholar and devoted amateur of letters, his great-uncle, Thomas Clarkson Verity, whose society and conversation awakened the literary sense in him as a schoolboy, on holiday from Harchester, now nearly five decades ago. He judged it a matter of good omen, moreover,—toying for the moment with kindly superstition—that the book should issue from a house redeemed by his kinsman from base and brutal uses and dedicated to the worship of knowledge and of the printed word. That fat, soft-bodied, mercurial-minded little gentleman—to whom no record of human endeavour, of human speculation, mental or moral experiment, came amiss—would surely relish the compliment, if his curious and genial ghost still, in any sort, had cognizance of this, his former, dwelling-place.
The Hard, just now, showed a remarkably engaging countenance, the year standing on the threshold of May.—Mild softly bright weather made amends for a wet and windy April, with sunshine and high forget-me-not blue skies shading to silver along the sea-line. The flower-beds, before the garden house-front, were crowded with early tulips, scarlet, golden, and shell-pink. Shrubberies glowed with rhododendrons, flamed with azaleas. At the corner of the battery and sea-wall, misty grey-green plumes of tamarisk veiled the tender background of grey-blue water and yellow-grey sand. Birds peopled the scene. Gulls, in strong fierce flight, laughed overhead. Swallows darted back and forth, ceaselessly twittering, as they built their cup-shaped mud nests beneath the eaves. Upon the lawn companies of starlings ran, flapping glossy wings, squealing, whistling; to the annoyance of a song thrush, in spotted waistcoat and neatly fitting brown surtout, who, now tall, now flattened to the level of the turf, its head turned sideways, peered and listened, locating the presence of the victim worm.—Three or four vigorous pecks—the starlings running elsewhere—to loosen the surrounding soil, and the moist pink living string was steadily, mercilessly, drawn upward into the uncompromising light of day, to be devoured wriggling, bit by bit, with most unlovely gusto.—The chaff-chaff sharpened his tiny saw tipping about the branches of the fir trees in the Wilderness, along with the linnets, tits, and gold-finches.
Such, out of doors, was the home world which received Damaris after those many months of continental travel, on the eve of her twenty-first birthday. To pass from the dynamic to the static mode must be always something of an embarrassment and trial, especially to the young with whom sensation is almost disconcertingly direct and lively. Damaris suffered the change of conditions not without a measure or doubt and wonder. For they made demands to which she had become unaccustomed, and to which she found it difficult to submit quite naturally and simply. A whole social and domestic order, bristling with petty obligations, closed down upon her, within the bounds of which she felt to move awkwardly, at first, conscious of constraint.
Sympathetic Mrs. Cooper, comely and comfortable Mary, and the Napoleonic Patch, still reigned in house and stable. Laura had returned to her former allegiance on the announcement of "the family's" arrival, and other underlings had been engaged by the upper servants in conclave. To these latter entered that Ulysses, Mr. Hordle, so rendering the establishment once again complete.
The neighbours duly called—Dr. and Mrs. Horniblow, conscious of notable preferment, since high ecclesiastical powers had seen fit to present the former to a vacant canonry at Harchester. For three months yearly he would in future be resident in the cathedral city. This would necessitate the employment of a curate at Deadham, for the spiritual life of its inhabitants must by no means suffer through its vicar's promotion. At the moment of Sir Charles and Damaris' return the curate excitement was at its height. It swept through the spinster-ranks of the congregation like an epidemic. They thrilled with unacknowledgeable hopes. The Miss Minetts, though mature, grew pink and quivered, confessing themselves not averse to offering board and lodging to a suitable, a well-connected, well-conducted paying guest. To outpourings on the enthralling subject of the curate, Damaris found herself condemned to listen from every feminine visitor in turn. It held the floor, to the exclusion of all other topics. Her own long absence, long journeys, let alone the affairs of the world at large, were of no moment to these very local souls. So our young lady retired within herself, deploring the existence of curates in general, and the projected, individual, Deadham curate in particular, with a heartiness she was destined later to remember. Had it been prophetic?—Not impossibly so, granted the somewhat strange prescience by which she was, at times, possessed.
For the psychic quality that, from a child, now and again had manifested itself in her—though happily unattended by morbid or hysteric tendencies, thanks to her radiant health—grew with her growth. To her, in certain moods and under certain conditions, the barrier between things seen and unseen, material and transcendental, was pervious. It yielded before the push of her apprehension, sense of what it guards, what it withholds within an ace of breaking through.
Affairs of the heart would, so far, seem to have begun and ended with the winter spent at St. Augustin. Now and again Damaris met an Englishman, or foreigner, who stirred her slightly. But if one accident of travel brought them together, another accident of travel speedily swept them apart. The impression was fugitive, superficial, fading out and causing but momentary regret. Colonel Carteret she only saw in London, during those two brief visits to England. He had been captivating, treating her with playful indulgence, teasing a little; but far away, somehow—so she felt him—though infinitely kind. And the dear man with the blue eyes—for she could use her old name for him again now, though she couldn't quite tell why—looked older. The sentimental passage at St. Augustin assumed improbability—a fact over which she should, in all reason, have rejoiced, yet over which she, in point of fact when safe from observation, just a little wept.
From Henrietta some few letters reached her. One of them contained the news that Marshall Wace, surmounting his religious doubts and scruples—by precisely what process remained undeclared—had at last taken Holy Orders. Concerning this joyful consummation Henrietta waxed positively unctuous. "He had gone through so much"—the old cry!—to which now was added conviction that his own trials fitted him to minister the more successfully to his brethren among the sorely tried.
"His preaching will, I feel certain, be quite extraordinarily original and sympathetic—full of poetry. And I need hardly tell you what an immense relief it is both to the General and to myself to feel he is settled in life, and that his future is provided for—though not, alas! in the way I fondly hoped, and which—for his happiness' sake and my own—I should have chosen," she insidiously and even rather cynically wrote.
But, if in respect of the affections our maiden, during these two years, made no special progress and gained no further experimental knowledge of the perilous workings of sex, her advance in other departments was ample.
For faith now called to her with no uncertain note. The great spiritual forces laid hold of her intelligence and imagination, drawing, moulding, enlightening her. In the library of a somewhat grim hotel at Avila, in old Castile, she lighted upon an English translation of the life of St. Theresa—that woman of countless practical activities, seer and sybil, mystic and wit. The amazing biography set her within the magic circle of Christian feminine beatitude; and opened before her gaze mighty perspectives of spiritual increase, leading upward through unnumbered ranks of prophets, martyrs, saints, angelic powers, to the feet of the Virgin Mother, with the Divine Child on her arm.—He, this last, as gateway, intermediary, between the human soul and the mystery of God Almighty, by whom, and in whom, all things visible and invisible subsist. For the first time some dim and halting perception, some faintest hint and echo, reached Damaris of the awful majesty, the awful beauty of the fount of Universal Being; and, caught with a great trembling, she worshipped.
This culminating perception, in terms of time, amounted to no more than a single flash, the fraction of an instant's contact. An hour or so later, being very young and very human, the things of everyday resumed their sway. A new dress engaged her fancy, a railway journey through—to her—untrodden country excited her, a picturesque street scene held her delighted interest. Nevertheless that had taken place within her—call it conversion, evocation, the spiritual receiving of sight, as you please—upon which, for those who have once experienced it, there is no going back while life and reason last. Obscured, overlaid, buried beneath the dust of the trivial and immediate, the mark of revelation upon the forehead and the heart can never be obliterated quite. Its resurrection is not only possible but certain, if not on the near side, then surely on the farther side of death.
And not only did faith thus call her, at this period, but art, in its many forms, called her likewise. The two, indeed, according to her present understanding of them, moved—though at different levels—side by side, singularly conjoined, art translating faith into terms of sound, form and colour, faith consecrating and supplementing art. All of which, as she pondered, appeared to her only fitting and reasonable—the object of art being to capture beauty and touch reality, the substance of faith being nothing less than beauty and reality absolute.
With Sir Charles sometimes, but more often with her aunt, Miss Felicia—most enthusiastic, diligent and ingenuous of sightseers—she visited buildings of historic interest, galleries of statuary and of pictures. For here, too, in architecture, in marble god or hero, upon painted panel or canvas, she caught, at moments, some flickering shadow of the everlasting light, touched at moments both by its abiding terror and the ecstasy of its everlasting youth. But this appreciation of the height and grandeur of man's endeavour was new in her. To Nature she had from childhood, been curiously near. She sought expression and confirmation of it with silent ardour, her mind aflame with the joy of recognition. And, as daily, hourly background to these her many experiments and excursions, was the stable interest of her father's book. For in the pages of that, too, she caught sight of beauty and reality of no mean order, held nobly to ransom through the medium of words.
And while this high humour still possessed her, alive at every point, her thoughts—often by day, still oftener in dreams or wakeful intervals by night—rapt away beyond the stars, she was called upon, as already noted, to pass abruptly from the dynamic to the static mode. Called on to embrace domestic duties, and meet local social obligations, including polite endurance of long-drawn disquisitions regarding Canon Horniblow's impending curate. The drop proved disconcerting, or would have eminently done so had not another element—disquieting yet very dear—come into play.
Meantime the change from the stimulating continental atmosphere to the particularly soft and humid, not to say stagnant, English one, acted as a drop too. She drooped during the process of acclimatization. The fetid sweet reek off the mud-flats of the Haven oppressed and strangely pursued her, so that she asked for the horses to take her to the freshness of the high lying inland moors, for a boat to carry her across the tide-river to the less confined air and outlook of the Bar. Sight and sense of the black wooden houses, upon the forbidden island, hanging like disreputable boon companions about the grey stone-built inn, oppressed and strangely pursued her too. She could see them from her bedroom between the red trunks of the bird-haunted Scotch firs in the Wilderness. First thing, on clear mornings, the sunlight glittered on the glass of their small windows. Last thing, at night, the dim glow of lamp-light showed through open doorway, or flimsy curtain from within. They stood alone, but curiously united and self-sufficing, upon the treeless inhospitable piece of land, ringed by the rivers, the great whispering reed-beds and the tide. Their life was strangely apart from, defiant of, that of the mainland and the village. It yielded obedience to traditions and customs of an earlier, wilder age; and in so much was sinister, a little frightening. Yet out of precisely this rather primitive and archaic environment came Darcy Faircloth, her half-brother, the human being closest to her by every tie of blood and sentiment in the world save one—the father of them both. The situation was startling, alike in its incongruities and in its claims.
During those two years of continental wandering—following upon her meeting with him at Marseilles—the whole sweet and perplexing matter of Faircloth had fallen more or less into line, taking on a measure of simplicity and of ease. She thought of him with freedom, wrote to him when he could advise her of his next port of call.—To him at Deadham, by his request, he being very careful for her, she never wrote.—And therefore, all the more perhaps, being here at Deadham, his home and all the suggestive accessories of it so constantly before her eyes, did her relation to him suffer a painful transformation. In remembrance she had come to picture him on board his ship, governing his little floating kingdom with no feeble or hesitating sway. But here every impeding fact of class and education, every worldly obstacle to his and her intercourse, above all the hidden scandal of his birth sprang into high relief. All the dividing, alienating influences of his antecedents, his social position and her own, swung in upon her with aggravated intensity and pathos.
Away, she felt sweetly secure of him. Sure his and her bond remained inviolate. Sure his affection never wavered or paled, but stood always at the flood, a constant quantity upon which she could draw at need; or—to change the metaphor—a steady foundation upon which her heart could safely build. He would not, could not, ever fail her. This had been sufficient to stay her longing for sight and speech of him, her longing for his bodily presence. But now, in face of the very concrete facts of the island, the inn, which bore his name and where his mother lived and ruled, of the property he owned, the place and people to which—by half at least of his nature and much more than half his memory—he belonged, the comfort of this spiritual esoteric relation became but a meagre evasive thing. It was too unsubstantial. Doubts and fears encircled it. She grew heart-sick for some fresh testimony, some clear immediate assurance that time and absence had not staled or undermined the romance.
If only she could speak of it! But that was forbidden by every obligation of filial piety. Never had her relation to her father been more tender, more happy; yet only through sudden pressure of outward circumstance could she speak to him of Faircloth. To do so, without serious necessity, would be, as she saw it, a wanton endangering of his peace.—If only the dear man with the blue eyes hadn't removed himself! She had counted upon his permanent support and counsel, on his smoothing away difficulties from the path of her dealings with Faircloth; but he appeared to have given her altogether the go-by, to have passed altogether out of her orbit. And meditating, in the softly bright May weather beneath those high forget-me-not blue skies, upon his defection, our maiden felt quite desperately experienced and grown up, thrown back upon her own resources, thrown in upon her rather solitary life.
Throughout the summer visitors came and went; but never those two desired figures, Faircloth or Carteret. Dr. McCabe, vociferous in welcome, affectionate, whimsical and choleric, trundled over from Stourmouth on a bicycle of phenomenal height.
"On the horse without wheels I'm proficient enough," he declared. "Know the anatomy of the darlin' beast as well as I do my own, inside and out. But, be dashed, if the wheels without the horse aren't beyond me quite. Lord love you, but the skittish animal's given me some ugly knocks, cast me away, it has, in the wayside ditch, covering me soul with burning shame, and me jacket with malodorous mud."
At intervals Aunt Harriet Cowden and Uncle Augustus drove over in state the twelve miles from Paulton Lacy—the lady faithful to garments dyed, according to young Tom Verity, in the horrid hues of violet ink. She expressed her opinions with ruthless frankness, criticized, domineered, put all and sundry in—what she deemed—"their place"; and departed for the big house on the confines of Arnewood Forest again, to, had she but known it, a chorus of sighings of relief from those she left behind her and on whose emotional and intellectual tastes and toes she so mercilessly trod.
Garden parties, tennis tournaments, the Napworth cricket week, claimed Damaris' attendance in turn, along with agreeable display of her foreign spoils in the matter of Paris hats and frocks. Proofs arrived in big envelopes perpetually by post; first in the long, wide-margined galley form, later in the more dignified one of quire and numbered page. The crude, sour smell of damp paper and fresh printer's ink, for the first time assailed our maiden's nostrils. It wasn't nice; yet she sniffed it with a quaint sense of pleasure. For was it not part of the whole wonderful, beautiful business of the making of books? To the artist the meanest materials of his art have a sacredness not to be denied or ignored. They go to forward the birth of the precious whole, and hence are redeemed, for him, from all charge of common or uncleanness.
Finally Miss Felicia, arriving in mid-June, paid an unending visit, of which Damaris felt no impatience. Miss Felicia during the last two years had, indeed, become a habit. The major affairs of life it might be both useless and unwise to submit to her judgment. She lost her way in them, fluttering ineffectual, gently hurried and bird-like. But, in life's minor affairs, her innocent enthusiasm was invaluable as an encouraging asset. It lent point and interest to happenings and occupations otherwise trivial or monotonous. If silly at times, she never was stupid—distinction of meaning and moment.—A blameless creature, incapable of thinking, still more of speaking, evil of the worst or weakest, her inherent goodness washed about you like sun-warmed water, if sterile yet translucently pure.
And so the months accumulated. The clear colours of spring ripened to the hotter gamut of mid-summer, to an August splendour of ripening harvest in field, orchard and hedgerow, and thence to the purple, russet and gold of autumn. The birds, their nesting finished, ceased from song, as the active care of hungry fledglings grew on them. The swallows had gathered for their southern flight, and the water-fowl returned from their northern immigration to the waters and reed-beds of the Haven, Sir Charles Verity's book, in two handsome quarto volumes, had been duly reviewed and found a place of honour in every library, worth the name, in the United Kingdom, before anything of serious importance occurred directly affecting our maiden. Throughout spring, summer and the first weeks of autumn, she marked time merely. Her activities and emotions—in as far, that is, as outward expression of these last went—were vicarious, those of others. She glowed over and gloried in the triumph of her father's book, it is true, but it was his adventure, after all, rather than her own.
Then suddenly, as is the way with life, events crowded on one another, the drama thickened, sensation was tuned to a higher pitch. And it all began, not unludicrously, through the praiseworthy, if rather ill-timed moral indignation of Canon Horniblow's newly installed curate, Reginald Sawyer.