"You forget that I loved him too. I thought I knew him. I DID know him."
And yet, what had she known? She could not remember it any more. She pressed her eyeballs until they struck stars and suns into her darkness. She convinced herself that she was stirring among ashes. She desisted. She was astonished at her discovery. She did not love Ralph any more. She looked back dazed into the room, and her eyes rested upon the table with its lamp-lit papers. The steady radiance seemed for a second to have its counterpart within her; she shut her eyes; she opened them and looked at the lamp again; another love burnt in the place of the old one, or so, in a momentary glance of amazement, she guessed before the revelation was over and the old surroundings asserted themselves. She leant in silence against the mantelpiece.
"There are different ways of loving," she murmured, half to herself, at length.
Katharine made no reply and seemed unaware of her words. She seemed absorbed in her own thoughts.
"Perhaps he's waiting in the street again to-night," she exclaimed. "I'll go now. I might find him."
"It's far more likely that he'll come here," said Mary, and Katharine, after considering for a moment, said:
"I'll wait another half-hour."
She sank down into her chair again, and took up the same position which Mary had compared to the position of one watching an unseeing face. She watched, indeed, not a face, but a procession, not of people, but of life itself: the good and bad; the meaning; the past, the present, and the future. All this seemed apparent to her, and she was not ashamed of her extravagance so much as exalted to one of the pinnacles of existence, where it behoved the world to do her homage. No one but she herself knew what it meant to miss Ralph Denham on that particular night; into this inadequate event crowded feelings that the great crises of life might have failed to call forth. She had missed him, and knew the bitterness of all failure; she desired him, and knew the torment of all passion. It did not matter what trivial accidents led to this culmination. Nor did she care how extravagant she appeared, nor how openly she showed her feelings.
When the dinner was ready Mary told her to come, and she came submissively, as if she let Mary direct her movements for her. They ate and drank together almost in silence, and when Mary told her to eat more, she ate more; when she was told to drink wine, she drank it. Nevertheless, beneath this superficial obedience, Mary knew that she was following her own thoughts unhindered. She was not inattentive so much as remote; she looked at once so unseeing and so intent upon some vision of her own that Mary gradually felt more than protective—she became actually alarmed at the prospect of some collision between Katharine and the forces of the outside world. Directly they had done, Katharine announced her intention of going.
"But where are you going to?" Mary asked, desiring vaguely to hinder her.
"Oh, I'm going home—no, to Highgate perhaps."
Mary saw that it would be useless to try to stop her. All she could do was to insist upon coming too, but she met with no opposition; Katharine seemed indifferent to her presence. In a few minutes they were walking along the Strand. They walked so rapidly that Mary was deluded into the belief that Katharine knew where she was going. She herself was not attentive. She was glad of the movement along lamp-lit streets in the open air. She was fingering, painfully and with fear, yet with strange hope, too, the discovery which she had stumbled upon unexpectedly that night. She was free once more at the cost of a gift, the best, perhaps, that she could offer, but she was, thank Heaven, in love no longer. She was tempted to spend the first instalment of her freedom in some dissipation; in the pit of the Coliseum, for example, since they were now passing the door. Why not go in and celebrate her independence of the tyranny of love? Or, perhaps, the top of an omnibus bound for some remote place such as Camberwell, or Sidcup, or the Welsh Harp would suit her better. She noticed these names painted on little boards for the first time for weeks. Or should she return to her room, and spend the night working out the details of a very enlightened and ingenious scheme? Of all possibilities this appealed to her most, and brought to mind the fire, the lamplight, the steady glow which had seemed lit in the place where a more passionate flame had once burnt.
Now Katharine stopped, and Mary woke to the fact that instead of having a goal she had evidently none. She paused at the edge of the crossing, and looked this way and that, and finally made as if in the direction of Haverstock Hill.
"Look here—where are you going?" Mary cried, catching her by the hand. "We must take that cab and go home." She hailed a cab and insisted that Katharine should get in, while she directed the driver to take them to Cheyne Walk.
Katharine submitted. "Very well," she said. "We may as well go there as anywhere else."
A gloom seemed to have fallen on her. She lay back in her corner, silent and apparently exhausted. Mary, in spite of her own preoccupation, was struck by her pallor and her attitude of dejection.
"I'm sure we shall find him," she said more gently than she had yet spoken.
"It may be too late," Katharine replied. Without understanding her, Mary began to pity her for what she was suffering.
"Nonsense," she said, taking her hand and rubbing it. "If we don't find him there we shall find him somewhere else."
"But suppose he's walking about the streets—for hours and hours?"
She leant forward and looked out of the window.
"He may refuse ever to speak to me again," she said in a low voice, almost to herself.
The exaggeration was so immense that Mary did not attempt to cope with it, save by keeping hold of Katharine's wrist. She half expected that Katharine might open the door suddenly and jump out. Perhaps Katharine perceived the purpose with which her hand was held.
"Don't be frightened," she said, with a little laugh. "I'm not going to jump out of the cab. It wouldn't do much good after all."
Upon this, Mary ostentatiously withdrew her hand.
"I ought to have apologized," Katharine continued, with an effort, "for bringing you into all this business; I haven't told you half, either. I'm no longer engaged to William Rodney. He is to marry Cassandra Otway. It's all arranged—all perfectly right.... And after he'd waited in the streets for hours and hours, William made me bring him in. He was standing under the lamp-post watching our windows. He was perfectly white when he came into the room. William left us alone, and we sat and talked. It seems ages and ages ago, now. Was it last night? Have I been out long? What's the time?" She sprang forward to catch sight of a clock, as if the exact time had some important bearing on her case.
"Only half-past eight!" she exclaimed. "Then he may be there still." She leant out of the window and told the cabman to drive faster.
"But if he's not there, what shall I do? Where could I find him? The streets are so crowded."
"We shall find him," Mary repeated.
Mary had no doubt but that somehow or other they would find him. But suppose they did find him? She began to think of Ralph with a sort of strangeness, in her effort to understand how he could be capable of satisfying this extraordinary desire. Once more she thought herself back to her old view of him and could, with an effort, recall the haze which surrounded his figure, and the sense of confused, heightened exhilaration which lay all about his neighborhood, so that for months at a time she had never exactly heard his voice or seen his face—or so it now seemed to her. The pain of her loss shot through her. Nothing would ever make up—not success, or happiness, or oblivion. But this pang was immediately followed by the assurance that now, at any rate, she knew the truth; and Katharine, she thought, stealing a look at her, did not know the truth; yes, Katharine was immensely to be pitied.
The cab, which had been caught in the traffic, was now liberated and sped on down Sloane Street. Mary was conscious of the tension with which Katharine marked its progress, as if her mind were fixed upon a point in front of them, and marked, second by second, their approach to it. She said nothing, and in silence Mary began to fix her mind, in sympathy at first, and later in forgetfulness of her companion, upon a point in front of them. She imagined a point distant as a low star upon the horizon of the dark. There for her too, for them both, was the goal for which they were striving, and the end for the ardors of their spirits was the same: but where it was, or what it was, or why she felt convinced that they were united in search of it, as they drove swiftly down the streets of London side by side, she could not have said.
"At last," Katharine breathed, as the cab drew up at the door. She jumped out and scanned the pavement on either side. Mary, meanwhile, rang the bell. The door opened as Katharine assured herself that no one of the people within view had any likeness to Ralph. On seeing her, the maid said at once:
"Mr. Denham called again, miss. He has been waiting for you for some time."
Katharine vanished from Mary's sight. The door shut between them, and Mary walked slowly and thoughtfully up the street alone.
Katharine turned at once to the dining-room. But with her fingers upon the handle, she held back. Perhaps she realized that this was a moment which would never come again. Perhaps, for a second, it seemed to her that no reality could equal the imagination she had formed. Perhaps she was restrained by some vague fear or anticipation, which made her dread any exchange or interruption. But if these doubts and fears or this supreme bliss restrained her, it was only for a moment. In another second she had turned the handle and, biting her lip to control herself, she opened the door upon Ralph Denham. An extraordinary clearness of sight seemed to possess her on beholding him. So little, so single, so separate from all else he appeared, who had been the cause of these extreme agitations and aspirations. She could have laughed in his face. But, gaining upon this clearness of sight against her will, and to her dislike, was a flood of confusion, of relief, of certainty, of humility, of desire no longer to strive and to discriminate, yielding to which, she let herself sink within his arms and confessed her love.
Nobody asked Katharine any questions next day. If cross-examined she might have said that nobody spoke to her. She worked a little, wrote a little, ordered the dinner, and sat, for longer than she knew, with her head on her hand piercing whatever lay before her, whether it was a letter or a dictionary, as if it were a film upon the deep prospects that revealed themselves to her kindling and brooding eyes. She rose once, and going to the bookcase, took out her father's Greek dictionary and spread the sacred pages of symbols and figures before her. She smoothed the sheets with a mixture of affectionate amusement and hope. Would other eyes look on them with her one day? The thought, long intolerable, was now just bearable.
She was quite unaware of the anxiety with which her movements were watched and her expression scanned. Cassandra was careful not to be caught looking at her, and their conversation was so prosaic that were it not for certain jolts and jerks between the sentences, as if the mind were kept with difficulty to the rails, Mrs. Milvain herself could have detected nothing of a suspicious nature in what she overheard.
William, when he came in late that afternoon and found Cassandra alone, had a very serious piece of news to impart. He had just passed Katharine in the street and she had failed to recognize him.
"That doesn't matter with me, of course, but suppose it happened with somebody else? What would they think? They would suspect something merely from her expression. She looked—she looked"—he hesitated—"like some one walking in her sleep."
To Cassandra the significant thing was that Katharine had gone out without telling her, and she interpreted this to mean that she had gone out to meet Ralph Denham. But to her surprise William drew no comfort from this probability.
"Once throw conventions aside," he began, "once do the things that people don't do—" and the fact that you are going to meet a young man is no longer proof of anything, except, indeed, that people will talk.
Cassandra saw, not without a pang of jealousy, that he was extremely solicitous that people should not talk about Katharine, as if his interest in her were still proprietary rather than friendly. As they were both ignorant of Ralph's visit the night before they had not that reason to comfort themselves with the thought that matters were hastening to a crisis. These absences of Katharine's, moreover, left them exposed to interruptions which almost destroyed their pleasure in being alone together. The rainy evening made it impossible to go out; and, indeed, according to William's code, it was considerably more damning to be seen out of doors than surprised within. They were so much at the mercy of bells and doors that they could hardly talk of Macaulay with any conviction, and William preferred to defer the second act of his tragedy until another day.
Under these circumstances Cassandra showed herself at her best. She sympathized with William's anxieties and did her utmost to share them; but still, to be alone together, to be running risks together, to be partners in the wonderful conspiracy, was to her so enthralling that she was always forgetting discretion, breaking out into exclamations and admirations which finally made William believe that, although deplorable and upsetting, the situation was not without its sweetness.
When the door did open, he started, but braved the forthcoming revelation. It was not Mrs. Milvain, however, but Katharine herself who entered, closely followed by Ralph Denham. With a set expression which showed what an effort she was making, Katharine encountered their eyes, and saying, "We're not going to interrupt you," she led Denham behind the curtain which hung in front of the room with the relics. This refuge was none of her willing, but confronted with wet pavements and only some belated museum or Tube station for shelter, she was forced, for Ralph's sake, to face the discomforts of her own house. Under the street lamps she had thought him looking both tired and strained.
Thus separated, the two couples remained occupied for some time with their own affairs. Only the lowest murmurs penetrated from one section of the room to the other. At length the maid came in to bring a message that Mr. Hilbery would not be home for dinner. It was true that there was no need that Katharine should be informed, but William began to inquire Cassandra's opinion in such a way as to show that, with or without reason, he wished very much to speak to her.
From motives of her own Cassandra dissuaded him.
"But don't you think it's a little unsociable?" he hazarded. "Why not do something amusing?—go to the play, for instance? Why not ask Katharine and Ralph, eh?" The coupling of their names in this manner caused Cassandra's heart to leap with pleasure.
"Don't you think they must be—?" she began, but William hastily took her up.
"Oh, I know nothing about that. I only thought we might amuse ourselves, as your uncle's out."
He proceeded on his embassy with a mixture of excitement and embarrassment which caused him to turn aside with his hand on the curtain, and to examine intently for several moments the portrait of a lady, optimistically said by Mrs. Hilbery to be an early work of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Then, with some unnecessary fumbling, he drew aside the curtain, and with his eyes fixed upon the ground, repeated his message and suggested that they should all spend the evening at the play. Katharine accepted the suggestion with such cordiality that it was strange to find her of no clear mind as to the precise spectacle she wished to see. She left the choice entirely to Ralph and William, who, taking counsel fraternally over an evening paper, found themselves in agreement as to the merits of a music-hall. This being arranged, everything else followed easily and enthusiastically. Cassandra had never been to a music-hall. Katharine instructed her in the peculiar delights of an entertainment where Polar bears follow directly upon ladies in full evening dress, and the stage is alternately a garden of mystery, a milliner's band-box, and a fried-fish shop in the Mile End Road. Whatever the exact nature of the program that night, it fulfilled the highest purposes of dramatic art, so far, at least, as four of the audience were concerned.
No doubt the actors and the authors would have been surprised to learn in what shape their efforts reached those particular eyes and ears; but they could not have denied that the effect as a whole was tremendous. The hall resounded with brass and strings, alternately of enormous pomp and majesty, and then of sweetest lamentation. The reds and creams of the background, the lyres and harps and urns and skulls, the protuberances of plaster, the fringes of scarlet plush, the sinking and blazing of innumerable electric lights, could scarcely have been surpassed for decorative effect by any craftsman of the ancient or modern world.
Then there was the audience itself, bare-shouldered, tufted and garlanded in the stalls, decorous but festal in the balconies, and frankly fit for daylight and street life in the galleries. But, however they differed when looked at separately, they shared the same huge, lovable nature in the bulk, which murmured and swayed and quivered all the time the dancing and juggling and love-making went on in front of it, slowly laughed and reluctantly left off laughing, and applauded with a helter-skelter generosity which sometimes became unanimous and overwhelming. Once William saw Katharine leaning forward and clapping her hands with an abandonment that startled him. Her laugh rang out with the laughter of the audience.
For a second he was puzzled, as if this laughter disclosed something that he had never suspected in her. But then Cassandra's face caught his eye, gazing with astonishment at the buffoon, not laughing, too deeply intent and surprised to laugh at what she saw, and for some moments he watched her as if she were a child.
The performance came to an end, the illusion dying out first here and then there, as some rose to put on their coats, others stood upright to salute "God Save the King," the musicians folded their music and encased their instruments, and the lights sank one by one until the house was empty, silent, and full of great shadows. Looking back over her shoulder as she followed Ralph through the swing doors, Cassandra marveled to see how the stage was already entirely without romance. But, she wondered, did they really cover all the seats in brown holland every night?
The success of this entertainment was such that before they separated another expedition had been planned for the next day. The next day was Saturday; therefore both William and Ralph were free to devote the whole afternoon to an expedition to Greenwich, which Cassandra had never seen, and Katharine confused with Dulwich. On this occasion Ralph was their guide. He brought them without accident to Greenwich.
What exigencies of state or fantasies of imagination first gave birth to the cluster of pleasant places by which London is surrounded is matter of indifference now that they have adapted themselves so admirably to the needs of people between the ages of twenty and thirty with Saturday afternoons to spend. Indeed, if ghosts have any interest in the affections of those who succeed them they must reap their richest harvests when the fine weather comes again and the lovers, the sightseers, and the holiday-makers pour themselves out of trains and omnibuses into their old pleasure-grounds. It is true that they go, for the most part, unthanked by name, although upon this occasion William was ready to give such discriminating praise as the dead architects and painters received seldom in the course of the year. They were walking by the river bank, and Katharine and Ralph, lagging a little behind, caught fragments of his lecture. Katharine smiled at the sound of his voice; she listened as if she found it a little unfamiliar, intimately though she knew it; she tested it. The note of assurance and happiness was new. William was very happy. She learnt every hour what sources of his happiness she had neglected. She had never asked him to teach her anything; she had never consented to read Macaulay; she had never expressed her belief that his play was second only to the works of Shakespeare. She followed dreamily in their wake, smiling and delighting in the sound which conveyed, she knew, the rapturous and yet not servile assent of Cassandra.
Then she murmured, "How can Cassandra—" but changed her sentence to the opposite of what she meant to say and ended, "how could she herself have been so blind?" But it was unnecessary to follow out such riddles when the presence of Ralph supplied her with more interesting problems, which somehow became involved with the little boat crossing the river, the majestic and careworn City, and the steamers homecoming with their treasury, or starting in search of it, so that infinite leisure would be necessary for the proper disentanglement of one from the other. He stopped, moreover, and began inquiring of an old boatman as to the tides and the ships. In thus talking he seemed different, and even looked different, she thought, against the river, with the steeples and towers for background. His strangeness, his romance, his power to leave her side and take part in the affairs of men, the possibility that they should together hire a boat and cross the river, the speed and wildness of this enterprise filled her mind and inspired her with such rapture, half of love and half of adventure, that William and Cassandra were startled from their talk, and Cassandra exclaimed, "She looks as if she were offering up a sacrifice! Very beautiful," she added quickly, though she repressed, in deference to William, her own wonder that the sight of Ralph Denham talking to a boatman on the banks of the Thames could move any one to such an attitude of adoration.
That afternoon, what with tea and the curiosities of the Thames tunnel and the unfamiliarity of the streets, passed so quickly that the only method of prolonging it was to plan another expedition for the following day. Hampton Court was decided upon, in preference to Hampstead, for though Cassandra had dreamt as a child of the brigands of Hampstead, she had now transferred her affections completely and for ever to William III. Accordingly, they arrived at Hampton Court about lunch-time on a fine Sunday morning. Such unity marked their expressions of admiration for the red-brick building that they might have come there for no other purpose than to assure each other that this palace was the stateliest palace in the world. They walked up and down the Terrace, four abreast, and fancied themselves the owners of the place, and calculated the amount of good to the world produced indubitably by such a tenancy.
"The only hope for us," said Katharine, "is that William shall die, and Cassandra shall be given rooms as the widow of a distinguished poet."
"Or—" Cassandra began, but checked herself from the liberty of envisaging Katharine as the widow of a distinguished lawyer. Upon this, the third day of junketing, it was tiresome to have to restrain oneself even from such innocent excursions of fancy. She dared not question William; he was inscrutable; he never seemed even to follow the other couple with curiosity when they separated, as they frequently did, to name a plant, or examine a fresco. Cassandra was constantly studying their backs. She noticed how sometimes the impulse to move came from Katharine, and sometimes from Ralph; how, sometimes, they walked slow, as if in profound intercourse, and sometimes fast, as if in passionate. When they came together again nothing could be more unconcerned than their manner.
"We have been wondering whether they ever catch a fish..." or, "We must leave time to visit the Maze." Then, to puzzle her further, William and Ralph filled in all interstices of meal-times or railway journeys with perfectly good-tempered arguments; or they discussed politics, or they told stories, or they did sums together upon the backs of old envelopes to prove something. She suspected that Katharine was absent-minded, but it was impossible to tell. There were moments when she felt so young and inexperienced that she almost wished herself back with the silkworms at Stogdon House, and not embarked upon this bewildering intrigue.
These moments, however, were only the necessary shadow or chill which proved the substance of her bliss, and did not damage the radiance which seemed to rest equally upon the whole party. The fresh air of spring, the sky washed of clouds and already shedding warmth from its blue, seemed the reply vouchsafed by nature to the mood of her chosen spirits. These chosen spirits were to be found also among the deer, dumbly basking, and among the fish, set still in mid-stream, for they were mute sharers in a benignant state not needing any exposition by the tongue. No words that Cassandra could come by expressed the stillness, the brightness, the air of expectancy which lay upon the orderly beauty of the grass walks and gravel paths down which they went walking four abreast that Sunday afternoon. Silently the shadows of the trees lay across the broad sunshine; silence wrapt her heart in its folds. The quivering stillness of the butterfly on the half-opened flower, the silent grazing of the deer in the sun, were the sights her eye rested upon and received as the images of her own nature laid open to happiness and trembling in its ecstasy.
But the afternoon wore on, and it became time to leave the gardens. As they drove from Waterloo to Chelsea, Katharine began to have some compunction about her father, which, together with the opening of offices and the need of working in them on Monday, made it difficult to plan another festival for the following day. Mr. Hilbery had taken their absence, so far, with paternal benevolence, but they could not trespass upon it indefinitely. Indeed, had they known it, he was already suffering from their absence, and longing for their return.
He had no dislike of solitude, and Sunday, in particular, was pleasantly adapted for letter-writing, paying calls, or a visit to his club. He was leaving the house on some such suitable expedition towards tea-time when he found himself stopped on his own doorstep by his sister, Mrs. Milvain. She should, on hearing that no one was at home, have withdrawn submissively, but instead she accepted his half-hearted invitation to come in, and he found himself in the melancholy position of being forced to order tea for her and sit in the drawing-room while she drank it. She speedily made it plain that she was only thus exacting because she had come on a matter of business. He was by no means exhilarated at the news.
"Katharine is out this afternoon," he remarked. "Why not come round later and discuss it with her—with us both, eh?"
"My dear Trevor, I have particular reasons for wishing to talk to you alone.... Where is Katharine?"
"She's out with her young man, naturally. Cassandra plays the part of chaperone very usefully. A charming young woman that—a great favorite of mine." He turned his stone between his fingers, and conceived different methods of leading Celia away from her obsession, which, he supposed, must have reference to the domestic affairs of Cyril as usual.
"With Cassandra," Mrs. Milvain repeated significantly. "With Cassandra."
"Yes, with Cassandra," Mr. Hilbery agreed urbanely, pleased at the diversion. "I think they said they were going to Hampton Court, and I rather believe they were taking a protege of mine, Ralph Denham, a very clever fellow, too, to amuse Cassandra. I thought the arrangement very suitable." He was prepared to dwell at some length upon this safe topic, and trusted that Katharine would come in before he had done with it.
"Hampton Court always seems to me an ideal spot for engaged couples. There's the Maze, there's a nice place for having tea—I forget what they call it—and then, if the young man knows his business he contrives to take his lady upon the river. Full of possibilities—full. Cake, Celia?" Mr. Hilbery continued. "I respect my dinner too much, but that can't possibly apply to you. You've never observed that feast, so far as I can remember."
Her brother's affability did not deceive Mrs. Milvain; it slightly saddened her; she well knew the cause of it. Blind and infatuated as usual!
"Who is this Mr. Denham?" she asked.
"Ralph Denham?" said Mr. Hilbery, in relief that her mind had taken this turn. "A very interesting young man. I've a great belief in him. He's an authority upon our mediaeval institutions, and if he weren't forced to earn his living he would write a book that very much wants writing—"
"He is not well off, then?" Mrs. Milvain interposed.
"Hasn't a penny, I'm afraid, and a family more or less dependent on him."
"A mother and sisters?—His father is dead?"
"Yes, his father died some years ago," said Mr. Hilbery, who was prepared to draw upon his imagination, if necessary, to keep Mrs. Milvain supplied with facts about the private history of Ralph Denham since, for some inscrutable reason, the subject took her fancy.
"His father has been dead some time, and this young man had to take his place—"
"A legal family?" Mrs. Milvain inquired. "I fancy I've seen the name somewhere."
Mr. Hilbery shook his head. "I should be inclined to doubt whether they were altogether in that walk of life," he observed. "I fancy that Denham once told me that his father was a corn merchant. Perhaps he said a stockbroker. He came to grief, anyhow, as stockbrokers have a way of doing. I've a great respect for Denham," he added. The remark sounded to his ears unfortunately conclusive, and he was afraid that there was nothing more to be said about Denham. He examined the tips of his fingers carefully. "Cassandra's grown into a very charming young woman," he started afresh. "Charming to look at, and charming to talk to, though her historical knowledge is not altogether profound. Another cup of tea?"
Mrs. Milvain had given her cup a little push, which seemed to indicate some momentary displeasure. But she did not want any more tea.
"It is Cassandra that I have come about," she began. "I am very sorry to say that Cassandra is not at all what you think her, Trevor. She has imposed upon your and Maggie's goodness. She has behaved in a way that would have seemed incredible—in this house of all houses—were it not for other circumstances that are still more incredible."
Mr. Hilbery looked taken aback, and was silent for a second.
"It all sounds very black," he remarked urbanely, continuing his examination of his finger-nails. "But I own I am completely in the dark."
Mrs. Milvain became rigid, and emitted her message in little short sentences of extreme intensity.
"Who has Cassandra gone out with? William Rodney. Who has Katharine gone out with? Ralph Denham. Why are they for ever meeting each other round street corners, and going to music-halls, and taking cabs late at night? Why will Katharine not tell me the truth when I question her? I understand the reason now. Katharine has entangled herself with this unknown lawyer; she has seen fit to condone Cassandra's conduct."
There was another slight pause.
"Ah, well, Katharine will no doubt have some explanation to give me," Mr. Hilbery replied imperturbably. "It's a little too complicated for me to take in all at once, I confess—and, if you won't think me rude, Celia, I think I'll be getting along towards Knightsbridge."
Mrs. Milvain rose at once.
"She has condoned Cassandra's conduct and entangled herself with Ralph Denham," she repeated. She stood very erect with the dauntless air of one testifying to the truth regardless of consequences. She knew from past discussions that the only way to counter her brother's indolence and indifference was to shoot her statements at him in a compressed form once finally upon leaving the room. Having spoken thus, she restrained herself from adding another word, and left the house with the dignity of one inspired by a great ideal.
She had certainly framed her remarks in such a way as to prevent her brother from paying his call in the region of Knightsbridge. He had no fears for Katharine, but there was a suspicion at the back of his mind that Cassandra might have been, innocently and ignorantly, led into some foolish situation in one of their unshepherded dissipations. His wife was an erratic judge of the conventions; he himself was lazy; and with Katharine absorbed, very naturally—Here he recalled, as well as he could, the exact nature of the charge. "She has condoned Cassandra's conduct and entangled herself with Ralph Denham." From which it appeared that Katharine was NOT absorbed, or which of them was it that had entangled herself with Ralph Denham? From this maze of absurdity Mr. Hilbery saw no way out until Katharine herself came to his help, so that he applied himself, very philosophically on the whole, to a book.
No sooner had he heard the young people come in and go upstairs than he sent a maid to tell Miss Katharine that he wished to speak to her in the study. She was slipping furs loosely onto the floor in the drawing-room in front of the fire. They were all gathered round, reluctant to part. The message from her father surprised Katharine, and the others caught from her look, as she turned to go, a vague sense of apprehension.
Mr. Hilbery was reassured by the sight of her. He congratulated himself, he prided himself, upon possessing a daughter who had a sense of responsibility and an understanding of life profound beyond her years. Moreover, she was looking to-day unusual; he had come to take her beauty for granted; now he remembered it and was surprised by it. He thought instinctively that he had interrupted some happy hour of hers with Rodney, and apologized.
"I'm sorry to bother you, my dear. I heard you come in, and thought I'd better make myself disagreeable at once—as it seems, unfortunately, that fathers are expected to make themselves disagreeable. Now, your Aunt Celia has been to see me; your Aunt Celia has taken it into her head apparently that you and Cassandra have been—let us say a little foolish. This going about together—these pleasant little parties—there's been some kind of misunderstanding. I told her I saw no harm in it, but I should just like to hear from yourself. Has Cassandra been left a little too much in the company of Mr. Denham?"
Katharine did not reply at once, and Mr. Hilbery tapped the coal encouragingly with the poker. Then she said, without embarrassment or apology:
"I don't see why I should answer Aunt Celia's questions. I've told her already that I won't."
Mr. Hilbery was relieved and secretly amused at the thought of the interview, although he could not license such irreverence outwardly.
"Very good. Then you authorize me to tell her that she's been mistaken, and there was nothing but a little fun in it? You've no doubt, Katharine, in your own mind? Cassandra is in our charge, and I don't intend that people should gossip about her. I suggest that you should be a little more careful in future. Invite me to your next entertainment."
She did not respond, as he had hoped, with any affectionate or humorous reply. She meditated, pondering something or other, and he reflected that even his Katharine did not differ from other women in the capacity to let things be. Or had she something to say?
"Have you a guilty conscience?" he inquired lightly. "Tell me, Katharine," he said more seriously, struck by something in the expression of her eyes.
"I've been meaning to tell you for some time," she said, "I'm not going to marry William."
"You're not going—!" he exclaimed, dropping the poker in his immense surprise. "Why? When? Explain yourself, Katharine."
"Oh, some time ago—a week, perhaps more." Katharine spoke hurriedly and indifferently, as if the matter could no longer concern any one.
"But may I ask—why have I not been told of this—what do you mean by it?"
"We don't wish to be married—that's all."
"This is William's wish as well as yours?"
"Oh, yes. We agree perfectly."
Mr. Hilbery had seldom felt more completely at a loss. He thought that Katharine was treating the matter with curious unconcern; she scarcely seemed aware of the gravity of what she was saying; he did not understand the position at all. But his desire to smooth everything over comfortably came to his relief. No doubt there was some quarrel, some whimsey on the part of William, who, though a good fellow, was a little exacting sometimes—something that a woman could put right. But though he inclined to take the easiest view of his responsibilities, he cared too much for this daughter to let things be.
"I confess I find great difficulty in following you. I should like to hear William's side of the story," he said irritably. "I think he ought to have spoken to me in the first instance."
"I wouldn't let him," said Katharine. "I know it must seem to you very strange," she added. "But I assure you, if you'd wait a little—until mother comes back."
This appeal for delay was much to Mr. Hilbery's liking. But his conscience would not suffer it. People were talking. He could not endure that his daughter's conduct should be in any way considered irregular. He wondered whether, in the circumstances, it would be better to wire to his wife, to send for one of his sisters, to forbid William the house, to pack Cassandra off home—for he was vaguely conscious of responsibilities in her direction, too. His forehead was becoming more and more wrinkled by the multiplicity of his anxieties, which he was sorely tempted to ask Katharine to solve for him, when the door opened and William Rodney appeared. This necessitated a complete change, not only of manner, but of position also.
"Here's William," Katharine exclaimed, in a tone of relief. "I've told father we're not engaged," she said to him. "I've explained that I prevented you from telling him."
William's manner was marked by the utmost formality. He bowed very slightly in the direction of Mr. Hilbery, and stood erect, holding one lapel of his coat, and gazing into the center of the fire. He waited for Mr. Hilbery to speak.
Mr. Hilbery also assumed an appearance of formidable dignity. He had risen to his feet, and now bent the top part of his body slightly forward.
"I should like your account of this affair, Rodney—if Katharine no longer prevents you from speaking."
William waited two seconds at least.
"Our engagement is at an end," he said, with the utmost stiffness.
"Has this been arrived at by your joint desire?"
After a perceptible pause William bent his head, and Katharine said, as if by an afterthought:
Mr. Hilbery swayed to and fro, and moved his lips as if to utter remarks which remained unspoken.
"I can only suggest that you should postpone any decision until the effect of this misunderstanding has had time to wear off. You have now known each other—" he began.
"There's been no misunderstanding," Katharine interposed. "Nothing at all." She moved a few paces across the room, as if she intended to leave them. Her preoccupied naturalness was in strange contrast to her father's pomposity and to William's military rigidity. He had not once raised his eyes. Katharine's glance, on the other hand, ranged past the two gentlemen, along the books, over the tables, towards the door. She was paying the least possible attention, it seemed, to what was happening. Her father looked at her with a sudden clouding and troubling of his expression. Somehow his faith in her stability and sense was queerly shaken. He no longer felt that he could ultimately entrust her with the whole conduct of her own affairs after a superficial show of directing them. He felt, for the first time in many years, responsible for her.
"Look here, we must get to the bottom of this," he said, dropping his formal manner and addressing Rodney as if Katharine were not present. "You've had some difference of opinion, eh? Take my word for it, most people go through this sort of thing when they're engaged. I've seen more trouble come from long engagements than from any other form of human folly. Take my advice and put the whole matter out of your minds—both of you. I prescribe a complete abstinence from emotion. Visit some cheerful seaside resort, Rodney."
He was struck by William's appearance, which seemed to him to indicate profound feeling resolutely held in check. No doubt, he reflected, Katharine had been very trying, unconsciously trying, and had driven him to take up a position which was none of his willing. Mr. Hilbery certainly did not overrate William's sufferings. No minutes in his life had hitherto extorted from him such intensity of anguish. He was now facing the consequences of his insanity. He must confess himself entirely and fundamentally other than Mr. Hilbery thought him. Everything was against him. Even the Sunday evening and the fire and the tranquil library scene were against him. Mr. Hilbery's appeal to him as a man of the world was terribly against him. He was no longer a man of any world that Mr. Hilbery cared to recognize. But some power compelled him, as it had compelled him to come downstairs, to make his stand here and now, alone and unhelped by any one, without prospect of reward. He fumbled with various phrases; and then jerked out:
"I love Cassandra."
Mr. Hilbery's face turned a curious dull purple. He looked at his daughter. He nodded his head, as if to convey his silent command to her to leave the room; but either she did not notice it or preferred not to obey.
"You have the impudence—" Mr. Hilbery began, in a dull, low voice that he himself had never heard before, when there was a scuffling and exclaiming in the hall, and Cassandra, who appeared to be insisting against some dissuasion on the part of another, burst into the room.
"Uncle Trevor," she exclaimed, "I insist upon telling you the truth!" She flung herself between Rodney and her uncle, as if she sought to intercept their blows. As her uncle stood perfectly still, looking very large and imposing, and as nobody spoke, she shrank back a little, and looked first at Katharine and then at Rodney. "You must know the truth," she said, a little lamely.
"You have the impudence to tell me this in Katharine's presence?" Mr. Hilbery continued, speaking with complete disregard of Cassandra's interruption.
"I am aware, quite aware—" Rodney's words, which were broken in sense, spoken after a pause, and with his eyes upon the ground, nevertheless expressed an astonishing amount of resolution. "I am quite aware what you must think of me," he brought out, looking Mr. Hilbery directly in the eyes for the first time.
"I could express my views on the subject more fully if we were alone," Mr. Hilbery returned.
"But you forget me," said Katharine. She moved a little towards Rodney, and her movement seemed to testify mutely to her respect for him, and her alliance with him. "I think William has behaved perfectly rightly, and, after all, it is I who am concerned—I and Cassandra."
Cassandra, too, gave an indescribably slight movement which seemed to draw the three of them into alliance together. Katharine's tone and glance made Mr. Hilbery once more feel completely at a loss, and in addition, painfully and angrily obsolete; but in spite of an awful inner hollowness he was outwardly composed.
"Cassandra and Rodney have a perfect right to settle their own affairs according to their own wishes; but I see no reason why they should do so either in my room or in my house.... I wish to be quite clear on this point, however; you are no longer engaged to Rodney."
He paused, and his pause seemed to signify that he was extremely thankful for his daughter's deliverance.
Cassandra turned to Katharine, who drew her breath as if to speak and checked herself; Rodney, too, seemed to await some movement on her part; her father glanced at her as if he half anticipated some further revelation. She remained perfectly silent. In the silence they heard distinctly steps descending the staircase, and Katharine went straight to the door.
"Wait," Mr. Hilbery commanded. "I wish to speak to you—alone," he added.
She paused, holding the door ajar.
"I'll come back," she said, and as she spoke she opened the door and went out. They could hear her immediately speak to some one outside, though the words were inaudible.
Mr. Hilbery was left confronting the guilty couple, who remained standing as if they did not accept their dismissal, and the disappearance of Katharine had brought some change into the situation. So, in his secret heart, Mr. Hilbery felt that it had, for he could not explain his daughter's behavior to his own satisfaction.
"Uncle Trevor," Cassandra exclaimed impulsively, "don't be angry, please. I couldn't help it; I do beg you to forgive me."
Her uncle still refused to acknowledge her identity, and still talked over her head as if she did not exist.
"I suppose you have communicated with the Otways," he said to Rodney grimly.
"Uncle Trevor, we wanted to tell you," Cassandra replied for him. "We waited—" she looked appealingly at Rodney, who shook his head ever so slightly.
"Yes? What were you waiting for?" her uncle asked sharply, looking at her at last.
The words died on her lips. It was apparent that she was straining her ears as if to catch some sound outside the room that would come to her help. He received no answer. He listened, too.
"This is a most unpleasant business for all parties," he concluded, sinking into his chair again, hunching his shoulders and regarding the flames. He seemed to speak to himself, and Rodney and Cassandra looked at him in silence.
"Why don't you sit down?" he said suddenly. He spoke gruffly, but the force of his anger was evidently spent, or some preoccupation had turned his mood to other regions. While Cassandra accepted his invitation, Rodney remained standing.
"I think Cassandra can explain matters better in my absence," he said, and left the room, Mr. Hilbery giving his assent by a slight nod of the head.
Meanwhile, in the dining-room next door, Denham and Katharine were once more seated at the mahogany table. They seemed to be continuing a conversation broken off in the middle, as if each remembered the precise point at which they had been interrupted, and was eager to go on as quickly as possible. Katharine, having interposed a short account of the interview with her father, Denham made no comment, but said:
"Anyhow, there's no reason why we shouldn't see each other."
"Or stay together. It's only marriage that's out of the question," Katharine replied.
"But if I find myself coming to want you more and more?"
"If our lapses come more and more often?"
He sighed impatiently, and said nothing for a moment.
"But at least," he renewed, "we've established the fact that my lapses are still in some odd way connected with you; yours have nothing to do with me. Katharine," he added, his assumption of reason broken up by his agitation, "I assure you that we are in love—what other people call love. Remember that night. We had no doubts whatever then. We were absolutely happy for half an hour. You had no lapse until the day after; I had no lapse until yesterday morning. We've been happy at intervals all day until I—went off my head, and you, quite naturally, were bored."
"Ah," she exclaimed, as if the subject chafed her, "I can't make you understand. It's not boredom—I'm never bored. Reality—reality," she ejaculated, tapping her finger upon the table as if to emphasize and perhaps explain her isolated utterance of this word. "I cease to be real to you. It's the faces in a storm again—the vision in a hurricane. We come together for a moment and we part. It's my fault, too. I'm as bad as you are—worse, perhaps."
They were trying to explain, not for the first time, as their weary gestures and frequent interruptions showed, what in their common language they had christened their "lapses"; a constant source of distress to them, in the past few days, and the immediate reason why Ralph was on his way to leave the house when Katharine, listening anxiously, heard him and prevented him. What was the cause of these lapses? Either because Katharine looked more beautiful, or more strange, because she wore something different, or said something unexpected, Ralph's sense of her romance welled up and overcame him either into silence or into inarticulate expressions, which Katharine, with unintentional but invariable perversity, interrupted or contradicted with some severity or assertion of prosaic fact. Then the vision disappeared, and Ralph expressed vehemently in his turn the conviction that he only loved her shadow and cared nothing for her reality. If the lapse was on her side it took the form of gradual detachment until she became completely absorbed in her own thoughts, which carried her away with such intensity that she sharply resented any recall to her companion's side. It was useless to assert that these trances were always originated by Ralph himself, however little in their later stages they had to do with him. The fact remained that she had no need of him and was very loath to be reminded of him. How, then, could they be in love? The fragmentary nature of their relationship was but too apparent.
Thus they sat depressed to silence at the dining-room table, oblivious of everything, while Rodney paced the drawing-room overhead in such agitation and exaltation of mind as he had never conceived possible, and Cassandra remained alone with her uncle. Ralph, at length, rose and walked gloomily to the window. He pressed close to the pane. Outside were truth and freedom and the immensity only to be apprehended by the mind in loneliness, and never communicated to another. What worse sacrilege was there than to attempt to violate what he perceived by seeking to impart it? Some movement behind him made him reflect that Katharine had the power, if she chose, to be in person what he dreamed of her spirit. He turned sharply to implore her help, when again he was struck cold by her look of distance, her expression of intentness upon some far object. As if conscious of his look upon her she rose and came to him, standing close by his side, and looking with him out into the dusky atmosphere. Their physical closeness was to him a bitter enough comment upon the distance between their minds. Yet distant as she was, her presence by his side transformed the world. He saw himself performing wonderful deeds of courage; saving the drowning, rescuing the forlorn. Impatient with this form of egotism, he could not shake off the conviction that somehow life was wonderful, romantic, a master worth serving so long as she stood there. He had no wish that she should speak; he did not look at her or touch her; she was apparently deep in her own thoughts and oblivious of his presence.
The door opened without their hearing the sound. Mr. Hilbery looked round the room, and for a moment failed to discover the two figures in the window. He started with displeasure when he saw them, and observed them keenly before he appeared able to make up his mind to say anything. He made a movement finally that warned them of his presence; they turned instantly. Without speaking, he beckoned to Katharine to come to him, and, keeping his eyes from the region of the room where Denham stood, he shepherded her in front of him back to the study. When Katharine was inside the room he shut the study door carefully behind him as if to secure himself from something that he disliked.
"Now, Katharine," he said, taking up his stand in front of the fire, "you will, perhaps, have the kindness to explain—" She remained silent. "What inferences do you expect me to draw?" he said sharply.... "You tell me that you are not engaged to Rodney; I see you on what appear to be extremely intimate terms with another—with Ralph Denham. What am I to conclude? Are you," he added, as she still said nothing, "engaged to Ralph Denham?"
"No," she replied.
His sense of relief was great; he had been certain that her answer would have confirmed his suspicions, but that anxiety being set at rest, he was the more conscious of annoyance with her for her behavior.
"Then all I can say is that you've very strange ideas of the proper way to behave.... People have drawn certain conclusions, nor am I surprised.... The more I think of it the more inexplicable I find it," he went on, his anger rising as he spoke. "Why am I left in ignorance of what is going on in my own house? Why am I left to hear of these events for the first time from my sister? Most disagreeable—most upsetting. How I'm to explain to your Uncle Francis—but I wash my hands of it. Cassandra goes tomorrow. I forbid Rodney the house. As for the other young man, the sooner he makes himself scarce the better. After placing the most implicit trust in you, Katharine—" He broke off, disquieted by the ominous silence with which his words were received, and looked at his daughter with the curious doubt as to her state of mind which he had felt before, for the first time, this evening. He perceived once more that she was not attending to what he said, but was listening, and for a moment he, too, listened for sounds outside the room. His certainty that there was some understanding between Denham and Katharine returned, but with a most unpleasant suspicion that there was something illicit about it, as the whole position between the young people seemed to him gravely illicit.
"I'll speak to Denham," he said, on the impulse of his suspicion, moving as if to go.
"I shall come with you," Katharine said instantly, starting forward.
"You will stay here," said her father.
"What are you going to say to him?" she asked.
"I suppose I may say what I like in my own house?" he returned.
"Then I go, too," she replied.
At these words, which seemed to imply a determination to go—to go for ever, Mr. Hilbery returned to his position in front of the fire, and began swaying slightly from side to side without for the moment making any remark.
"I understood you to say that you were not engaged to him," he said at length, fixing his eyes upon his daughter.
"We are not engaged," she said.
"It should be a matter of indifference to you, then, whether he comes here or not—I will not have you listening to other things when I am speaking to you!" he broke off angrily, perceiving a slight movement on her part to one side. "Answer me frankly, what is your relationship with this young man?"
"Nothing that I can explain to a third person," she said obstinately.
"I will have no more of these equivocations," he replied.
"I refuse to explain," she returned, and as she said it the front door banged to. "There!" she exclaimed. "He is gone!" She flashed such a look of fiery indignation at her father that he lost his self-control for a moment.
"For God's sake, Katharine, control yourself!" he cried.
She looked for a moment like a wild animal caged in a civilized dwelling-place. She glanced over the walls covered with books, as if for a second she had forgotten the position of the door. Then she made as if to go, but her father laid his hand upon her shoulder. He compelled her to sit down.
"These emotions have been very upsetting, naturally," he said. His manner had regained all its suavity, and he spoke with a soothing assumption of paternal authority. "You've been placed in a very difficult position, as I understand from Cassandra. Now let us come to terms; we will leave these agitating questions in peace for the present. Meanwhile, let us try to behave like civilized beings. Let us read Sir Walter Scott. What d'you say to 'The Antiquary,' eh? Or 'The Bride of Lammermoor'?"
He made his own choice, and before his daughter could protest or make her escape, she found herself being turned by the agency of Sir Walter Scott into a civilized human being.
Yet Mr. Hilbery had grave doubts, as he read, whether the process was more than skin-deep. Civilization had been very profoundly and unpleasantly overthrown that evening; the extent of the ruin was still undetermined; he had lost his temper, a physical disaster not to be matched for the space of ten years or so; and his own condition urgently required soothing and renovating at the hands of the classics. His house was in a state of revolution; he had a vision of unpleasant encounters on the staircase; his meals would be poisoned for days to come; was literature itself a specific against such disagreeables? A note of hollowness was in his voice as he read.
Considering that Mr. Hilbery lived in a house which was accurately numbered in order with its fellows, and that he filled up forms, paid rent, and had seven more years of tenancy to run, he had an excuse for laying down laws for the conduct of those who lived in his house, and this excuse, though profoundly inadequate, he found useful during the interregnum of civilization with which he now found himself faced. In obedience to those laws, Rodney disappeared; Cassandra was dispatched to catch the eleven-thirty on Monday morning; Denham was seen no more; so that only Katharine, the lawful occupant of the upper rooms, remained, and Mr. Hilbery thought himself competent to see that she did nothing further to compromise herself. As he bade her good morning next day he was aware that he knew nothing of what she was thinking, but, as he reflected with some bitterness, even this was an advance upon the ignorance of the previous mornings. He went to his study, wrote, tore up, and wrote again a letter to his wife, asking her to come back on account of domestic difficulties which he specified at first, but in a later draft more discreetly left unspecified. Even if she started the very moment that she got it, he reflected, she would not be home till Tuesday night, and he counted lugubriously the number of hours that he would have to spend in a position of detestable authority alone with his daughter.
What was she doing now, he wondered, as he addressed the envelope to his wife. He could not control the telephone. He could not play the spy. She might be making any arrangements she chose. Yet the thought did not disturb him so much as the strange, unpleasant, illicit atmosphere of the whole scene with the young people the night before. His sense of discomfort was almost physical.
Had he known it, Katharine was far enough withdrawn, both physically and spiritually, from the telephone. She sat in her room with the dictionaries spreading their wide leaves on the table before her, and all the pages which they had concealed for so many years arranged in a pile. She worked with the steady concentration that is produced by the successful effort to think down some unwelcome thought by means of another thought. Having absorbed the unwelcome thought, her mind went on with additional vigor, derived from the victory; on a sheet of paper lines of figures and symbols frequently and firmly written down marked the different stages of its progress. And yet it was broad daylight; there were sounds of knocking and sweeping, which proved that living people were at work on the other side of the door, and the door, which could be thrown open in a second, was her only protection against the world. But she had somehow risen to be mistress in her own kingdom, assuming her sovereignty unconsciously.
Steps approached her unheard. It is true that they were steps that lingered, divagated, and mounted with the deliberation natural to one past sixty whose arms, moreover, are full of leaves and blossoms; but they came on steadily, and soon a tap of laurel boughs against the door arrested Katharine's pencil as it touched the page. She did not move, however, and sat blank-eyed as if waiting for the interruption to cease. Instead, the door opened. At first, she attached no meaning to the moving mass of green which seemed to enter the room independently of any human agency. Then she recognized parts of her mother's face and person behind the yellow flowers and soft velvet of the palm-buds.
"From Shakespeare's tomb!" exclaimed Mrs. Hilbery, dropping the entire mass upon the floor, with a gesture that seemed to indicate an act of dedication. Then she flung her arms wide and embraced her daughter.
"Thank God, Katharine!" she exclaimed. "Thank God!" she repeated.
"You've come back?" said Katharine, very vaguely, standing up to receive the embrace.
Although she recognized her mother's presence, she was very far from taking part in the scene, and yet felt it to be amazingly appropriate that her mother should be there, thanking God emphatically for unknown blessings, and strewing the floor with flowers and leaves from Shakespeare's tomb.
"Nothing else matters in the world!" Mrs. Hilbery continued. "Names aren't everything; it's what we feel that's everything. I didn't want silly, kind, interfering letters. I didn't want your father to tell me. I knew it from the first. I prayed that it might be so."
"You knew it?" Katharine repeated her mother's words softly and vaguely, looking past her. "How did you know it?" She began, like a child, to finger a tassel hanging from her mother's cloak.
"The first evening you told me, Katharine. Oh, and thousands of times—dinner-parties—talking about books—the way he came into the room—your voice when you spoke of him."
Katharine seemed to consider each of these proofs separately. Then she said gravely:
"I'm not going to marry William. And then there's Cassandra—"
"Yes, there's Cassandra," said Mrs. Hilbery. "I own I was a little grudging at first, but, after all, she plays the piano so beautifully. Do tell me, Katharine," she asked impulsively, "where did you go that evening she played Mozart, and you thought I was asleep?"
Katharine recollected with difficulty.
"To Mary Datchet's," she remembered.
"Ah!" said Mrs. Hilbery, with a slight note of disappointment in her voice. "I had my little romance—my little speculation." She looked at her daughter. Katharine faltered beneath that innocent and penetrating gaze; she flushed, turned away, and then looked up with very bright eyes.
"I'm not in love with Ralph Denham," she said.
"Don't marry unless you're in love!" said Mrs. Hilbery very quickly. "But," she added, glancing momentarily at her daughter, "aren't there different ways, Katharine—different—?"
"We want to meet as often as we like, but to be free," Katharine continued.
"To meet here, to meet in his house, to meet in the street." Mrs. Hilbery ran over these phrases as if she were trying chords that did not quite satisfy her ear. It was plain that she had her sources of information, and, indeed, her bag was stuffed with what she called "kind letters" from the pen of her sister-in-law.
"Yes. Or to stay away in the country," Katharine concluded.
Mrs. Hilbery paused, looked unhappy, and sought inspiration from the window.
"What a comfort he was in that shop—how he took me and found the ruins at once—how SAFE I felt with him—"
"Safe? Oh, no, he's fearfully rash—he's always taking risks. He wants to throw up his profession and live in a little cottage and write books, though he hasn't a penny of his own, and there are any number of sisters and brothers dependent on him."
"Ah, he has a mother?" Mrs. Hilbery inquired.
"Yes. Rather a fine-looking old lady, with white hair." Katharine began to describe her visit, and soon Mrs. Hilbery elicited the facts that not only was the house of excruciating ugliness, which Ralph bore without complaint, but that it was evident that every one depended on him, and he had a room at the top of the house, with a wonderful view over London, and a rook.
"A wretched old bird in a corner, with half its feathers out," she said, with a tenderness in her voice that seemed to commiserate the sufferings of humanity while resting assured in the capacity of Ralph Denham to alleviate them, so that Mrs. Hilbery could not help exclaiming:
"But, Katharine, you ARE in love!" at which Katharine flushed, looked startled, as if she had said something that she ought not to have said, and shook her head.
Hastily Mrs. Hilbery asked for further details of this extraordinary house, and interposed a few speculations about the meeting between Keats and Coleridge in a lane, which tided over the discomfort of the moment, and drew Katharine on to further descriptions and indiscretions. In truth, she found an extraordinary pleasure in being thus free to talk to some one who was equally wise and equally benignant, the mother of her earliest childhood, whose silence seemed to answer questions that were never asked. Mrs. Hilbery listened without making any remark for a considerable time. She seemed to draw her conclusions rather by looking at her daughter than by listening to her, and, if cross-examined, she would probably have given a highly inaccurate version of Ralph Denham's life-history except that he was penniless, fatherless, and lived at Highgate—all of which was much in his favor. But by means of these furtive glances she had assured herself that Katharine was in a state which gave her, alternately, the most exquisite pleasure and the most profound alarm.
She could not help ejaculating at last:
"It's all done in five minutes at a Registry Office nowadays, if you think the Church service a little florid—which it is, though there are noble things in it."
"But we don't want to be married," Katharine replied emphatically, and added, "Why, after all, isn't it perfectly possible to live together without being married?"
Again Mrs. Hilbery looked discomposed, and, in her trouble, took up the sheets which were lying upon the table, and began turning them over this way and that, and muttering to herself as she glanced:
"A plus B minus C equals 'x y z'. It's so dreadfully ugly, Katharine. That's what I feel—so dreadfully ugly."
Katharine took the sheets from her mother's hand and began shuffling them absent-mindedly together, for her fixed gaze seemed to show that her thoughts were intent upon some other matter.
"Well, I don't know about ugliness," she said at length.
"But he doesn't ask it of you?" Mrs. Hilbery exclaimed. "Not that grave young man with the steady brown eyes?"
"He doesn't ask anything—we neither of us ask anything."
"If I could help you, Katharine, by the memory of what I felt—"
"Yes, tell me what you felt."
Mrs. Hilbery, her eyes growing blank, peered down the enormously long corridor of days at the far end of which the little figures of herself and her husband appeared fantastically attired, clasping hands upon a moonlit beach, with roses swinging in the dusk.
"We were in a little boat going out to a ship at night," she began. "The sun had set and the moon was rising over our heads. There were lovely silver lights upon the waves and three green lights upon the steamer in the middle of the bay. Your father's head looked so grand against the mast. It was life, it was death. The great sea was round us. It was the voyage for ever and ever."
The ancient fairy-tale fell roundly and harmoniously upon Katharine's ears. Yes, there was the enormous space of the sea; there were the three green lights upon the steamer; the cloaked figures climbed up on deck. And so, voyaging over the green and purple waters, past the cliffs and the sandy lagoons and through pools crowded with the masts of ships and the steeples of churches—here they were. The river seemed to have brought them and deposited them here at this precise point. She looked admiringly at her mother, that ancient voyager.
"Who knows," exclaimed Mrs. Hilbery, continuing her reveries, "where we are bound for, or why, or who has sent us, or what we shall find—who knows anything, except that love is our faith—love—" she crooned, and the soft sound beating through the dim words was heard by her daughter as the breaking of waves solemnly in order upon the vast shore that she gazed upon. She would have been content for her mother to repeat that word almost indefinitely—a soothing word when uttered by another, a riveting together of the shattered fragments of the world. But Mrs. Hilbery, instead of repeating the word love, said pleadingly:
"And you won't think those ugly thoughts again, will you, Katharine?" at which words the ship which Katharine had been considering seemed to put into harbor and have done with its seafaring. Yet she was in great need, if not exactly of sympathy, of some form of advice, or, at least, of the opportunity of setting forth her problems before a third person so as to renew them in her own eyes.
"But then," she said, ignoring the difficult problem of ugliness, "you knew you were in love; but we're different. It seems," she continued, frowning a little as she tried to fix the difficult feeling, "as if something came to an end suddenly—gave out—faded—an illusion—as if when we think we're in love we make it up—we imagine what doesn't exist. That's why it's impossible that we should ever marry. Always to be finding the other an illusion, and going off and forgetting about them, never to be certain that you cared, or that he wasn't caring for some one not you at all, the horror of changing from one state to the other, being happy one moment and miserable the next—that's the reason why we can't possibly marry. At the same time," she continued, "we can't live without each other, because—" Mrs. Hilbery waited patiently for the sentence to be completed, but Katharine fell silent and fingered her sheet of figures.
"We have to have faith in our vision," Mrs. Hilbery resumed, glancing at the figures, which distressed her vaguely, and had some connection in her mind with the household accounts, "otherwise, as you say—" She cast a lightning glance into the depths of disillusionment which were, perhaps, not altogether unknown to her.
"Believe me, Katharine, it's the same for every one—for me, too—for your father," she said earnestly, and sighed. They looked together into the abyss and, as the elder of the two, she recovered herself first and asked:
"But where is Ralph? Why isn't he here to see me?"
Katharine's expression changed instantly.
"Because he's not allowed to come here," she replied bitterly.
Mrs. Hilbery brushed this aside.
"Would there be time to send for him before luncheon?" she asked.
Katharine looked at her as if, indeed, she were some magician. Once more she felt that instead of being a grown woman, used to advise and command, she was only a foot or two raised above the long grass and the little flowers and entirely dependent upon the figure of indefinite size whose head went up into the sky, whose hand was in hers, for guidance.
"I'm not happy without him," she said simply.
Mrs. Hilbery nodded her head in a manner which indicated complete understanding, and the immediate conception of certain plans for the future. She swept up her flowers, breathed in their sweetness, and, humming a little song about a miller's daughter, left the room.
The case upon which Ralph Denham was engaged that afternoon was not apparently receiving his full attention, and yet the affairs of the late John Leake of Dublin were sufficiently confused to need all the care that a solicitor could bestow upon them, if the widow Leake and the five Leake children of tender age were to receive any pittance at all. But the appeal to Ralph's humanity had little chance of being heard to-day; he was no longer a model of concentration. The partition so carefully erected between the different sections of his life had been broken down, with the result that though his eyes were fixed upon the last Will and Testament, he saw through the page a certain drawing-room in Cheyne Walk.
He tried every device that had proved effective in the past for keeping up the partitions of the mind, until he could decently go home; but a little to his alarm he found himself assailed so persistently, as if from outside, by Katharine, that he launched forth desperately into an imaginary interview with her. She obliterated a bookcase full of law reports, and the corners and lines of the room underwent a curious softening of outline like that which sometimes makes a room unfamiliar at the moment of waking from sleep. By degrees, a pulse or stress began to beat at regular intervals in his mind, heaping his thoughts into waves to which words fitted themselves, and without much consciousness of what he was doing, he began to write on a sheet of draft paper what had the appearance of a poem lacking several words in each line. Not many lines had been set down, however, before he threw away his pen as violently as if that were responsible for his misdeeds, and tore the paper into many separate pieces. This was a sign that Katharine had asserted herself and put to him a remark that could not be met poetically. Her remark was entirely destructive of poetry, since it was to the effect that poetry had nothing whatever to do with her; all her friends spent their lives in making up phrases, she said; all his feeling was an illusion, and next moment, as if to taunt him with his impotence, she had sunk into one of those dreamy states which took no account whatever of his existence. Ralph was roused by his passionate attempts to attract her attention to the fact that he was standing in the middle of his little private room in Lincoln's Inn Fields at a considerable distance from Chelsea. The physical distance increased his desperation. He began pacing in circles until the process sickened him, and then took a sheet of paper for the composition of a letter which, he vowed before he began it, should be sent that same evening.
It was a difficult matter to put into words; poetry would have done it better justice, but he must abstain from poetry. In an infinite number of half-obliterated scratches he tried to convey to her the possibility that although human beings are woefully ill-adapted for communication, still, such communion is the best we know; moreover, they make it possible for each to have access to another world independent of personal affairs, a world of law, of philosophy, or more strangely a world such as he had had a glimpse of the other evening when together they seemed to be sharing something, creating something, an ideal—a vision flung out in advance of our actual circumstances. If this golden rim were quenched, if life were no longer circled by an illusion (but was it an illusion after all?), then it would be too dismal an affair to carry to an end; so he wrote with a sudden spurt of conviction which made clear way for a space and left at least one sentence standing whole. Making every allowance for other desires, on the whole this conclusion appeared to him to justify their relationship. But the conclusion was mystical; it plunged him into thought. The difficulty with which even this amount was written, the inadequacy of the words, and the need of writing under them and over them others which, after all, did no better, led him to leave off before he was at all satisfied with his production, and unable to resist the conviction that such rambling would never be fit for Katharine's eye. He felt himself more cut off from her than ever. In idleness, and because he could do nothing further with words, he began to draw little figures in the blank spaces, heads meant to resemble her head, blots fringed with flames meant to represent—perhaps the entire universe. From this occupation he was roused by the message that a lady wished to speak to him. He had scarcely time to run his hands through his hair in order to look as much like a solicitor as possible, and to cram his papers into his pocket, already overcome with shame that another eye should behold them, when he realized that his preparations were needless. The lady was Mrs. Hilbery.
"I hope you're not disposing of somebody's fortune in a hurry," she remarked, gazing at the documents on his table, "or cutting off an entail at one blow, because I want to ask you to do me a favor. And Anderson won't keep his horse waiting. (Anderson is a perfect tyrant, but he drove my dear father to the Abbey the day they buried him.) I made bold to come to you, Mr. Denham, not exactly in search of legal assistance (though I don't know who I'd rather come to, if I were in trouble), but in order to ask your help in settling some tiresome little domestic affairs that have arisen in my absence. I've been to Stratford-on-Avon (I must tell you all about that one of these days), and there I got a letter from my sister-in-law, a dear kind goose who likes interfering with other people's children because she's got none of her own. (We're dreadfully afraid that she's going to lose the sight of one of her eyes, and I always feel that our physical ailments are so apt to turn into mental ailments. I think Matthew Arnold says something of the same kind about Lord Byron.) But that's neither here nor there."
The effect of these parentheses, whether they were introduced for that purpose or represented a natural instinct on Mrs. Hilbery's part to embellish the bareness of her discourse, gave Ralph time to perceive that she possessed all the facts of their situation and was come, somehow, in the capacity of ambassador.
"I didn't come here to talk about Lord Byron," Mrs. Hilbery continued, with a little laugh, "though I know that both you and Katharine, unlike other young people of your generation, still find him worth reading." She paused. "I'm so glad you've made Katharine read poetry, Mr. Denham!" she exclaimed, "and feel poetry, and look poetry! She can't talk it yet, but she will—oh, she will!"
Ralph, whose hand was grasped and whose tongue almost refused to articulate, somehow contrived to say that there were moments when he felt hopeless, utterly hopeless, though he gave no reason for this statement on his part.
"But you care for her?" Mrs. Hilbery inquired.
"Good God!" he exclaimed, with a vehemence which admitted of no question.
"It's the Church of England service you both object to?" Mrs. Hilbery inquired innocently.
"I don't care a damn what service it is," Ralph replied.
"You would marry her in Westminster Abbey if the worst came to the worst?" Mrs. Hilbery inquired.
"I would marry her in St. Paul's Cathedral," Ralph replied. His doubts upon this point, which were always roused by Katharine's presence, had vanished completely, and his strongest wish in the world was to be with her immediately, since every second he was away from her he imagined her slipping farther and farther from him into one of those states of mind in which he was unrepresented. He wished to dominate her, to possess her.
"Thank God!" exclaimed Mrs. Hilbery. She thanked Him for a variety of blessings: for the conviction with which the young man spoke; and not least for the prospect that on her daughter's wedding-day the noble cadences, the stately periods, the ancient eloquence of the marriage service would resound over the heads of a distinguished congregation gathered together near the very spot where her father lay quiescent with the other poets of England. The tears filled her eyes; but she remembered simultaneously that her carriage was waiting, and with dim eyes she walked to the door. Denham followed her downstairs.
It was a strange drive. For Denham it was without exception the most unpleasant he had ever taken. His only wish was to go as straightly and quickly as possible to Cheyne Walk; but it soon appeared that Mrs. Hilbery either ignored or thought fit to baffle this desire by interposing various errands of her own. She stopped the carriage at post-offices, and coffee-shops, and shops of inscrutable dignity where the aged attendants had to be greeted as old friends; and, catching sight of the dome of St. Paul's above the irregular spires of Ludgate Hill, she pulled the cord impulsively, and gave directions that Anderson should drive them there. But Anderson had reasons of his own for discouraging afternoon worship, and kept his horse's nose obstinately towards the west. After some minutes, Mrs. Hilbery realized the situation, and accepted it good-humoredly, apologizing to Ralph for his disappointment.
"Never mind," she said, "we'll go to St. Paul's another day, and it may turn out, though I can't promise that it WILL, that he'll take us past Westminster Abbey, which would be even better."
Ralph was scarcely aware of what she went on to say. Her mind and body both seemed to have floated into another region of quick-sailing clouds rapidly passing across each other and enveloping everything in a vaporous indistinctness. Meanwhile he remained conscious of his own concentrated desire, his impotence to bring about anything he wished, and his increasing agony of impatience.
Suddenly Mrs. Hilbery pulled the cord with such decision that even Anderson had to listen to the order which she leant out of the window to give him. The carriage pulled up abruptly in the middle of Whitehall before a large building dedicated to one of our Government offices. In a second Mrs. Hilbery was mounting the steps, and Ralph was left in too acute an irritation by this further delay even to speculate what errand took her now to the Board of Education. He was about to jump from the carriage and take a cab, when Mrs. Hilbery reappeared talking genially to a figure who remained hidden behind her.
"There's plenty of room for us all," she was saying. "Plenty of room. We could find space for FOUR of you, William," she added, opening the door, and Ralph found that Rodney had now joined their company. The two men glanced at each other. If distress, shame, discomfort in its most acute form were ever visible upon a human face, Ralph could read them all expressed beyond the eloquence of words upon the face of his unfortunate companion. But Mrs. Hilbery was either completely unseeing or determined to appear so. She went on talking; she talked, it seemed to both the young men, to some one outside, up in the air. She talked about Shakespeare, she apostrophized the human race, she proclaimed the virtues of divine poetry, she began to recite verses which broke down in the middle. The great advantage of her discourse was that it was self-supporting. It nourished itself until Cheyne Walk was reached upon half a dozen grunts and murmurs.
"Now," she said, alighting briskly at her door, "here we are!"
There was something airy and ironical in her voice and expression as she turned upon the doorstep and looked at them, which filled both Rodney and Denham with the same misgivings at having trusted their fortunes to such an ambassador; and Rodney actually hesitated upon the threshold and murmured to Denham:
"You go in, Denham. I..." He was turning tail, but the door opening and the familiar look of the house asserting its charm, he bolted in on the wake of the others, and the door shut upon his escape. Mrs. Hilbery led the way upstairs. She took them to the drawing-room. The fire burnt as usual, the little tables were laid with china and silver. There was nobody there.
"Ah," she said, "Katharine's not here. She must be upstairs in her room. You have something to say to her, I know, Mr. Denham. You can find your way?" she vaguely indicated the ceiling with a gesture of her hand. She had become suddenly serious and composed, mistress in her own house. The gesture with which she dismissed him had a dignity that Ralph never forgot. She seemed to make him free with a wave of her hand to all that she possessed. He left the room.
The Hilberys' house was tall, possessing many stories and passages with closed doors, all, once he had passed the drawing-room floor, unknown to Ralph. He mounted as high as he could and knocked at the first door he came to.
"May I come in?" he asked.
A voice from within answered "Yes."
He was conscious of a large window, full of light, of a bare table, and of a long looking-glass. Katharine had risen, and was standing with some white papers in her hand, which slowly fluttered to the ground as she saw her visitor. The explanation was a short one. The sounds were inarticulate; no one could have understood the meaning save themselves. As if the forces of the world were all at work to tear them asunder they sat, clasping hands, near enough to be taken even by the malicious eye of Time himself for a united couple, an indivisible unit.
"Don't move, don't go," she begged of him, when he stooped to gather the papers she had let fall. But he took them in his hands and, giving her by a sudden impulse his own unfinished dissertation, with its mystical conclusion, they read each other's compositions in silence.
Katharine read his sheets to an end; Ralph followed her figures as far as his mathematics would let him. They came to the end of their tasks at about the same moment, and sat for a time in silence.
"Those were the papers you left on the seat at Kew," said Ralph at length. "You folded them so quickly that I couldn't see what they were."
She blushed very deeply; but as she did not move or attempt to hide her face she had the appearance of some one disarmed of all defences, or Ralph likened her to a wild bird just settling with wings trembling to fold themselves within reach of his hand. The moment of exposure had been exquisitely painful—the light shed startlingly vivid. She had now to get used to the fact that some one shared her loneliness. The bewilderment was half shame and half the prelude to profound rejoicing. Nor was she unconscious that on the surface the whole thing must appear of the utmost absurdity. She looked to see whether Ralph smiled, but found his gaze fixed on her with such gravity that she turned to the belief that she had committed no sacrilege but enriched herself, perhaps immeasurably, perhaps eternally. She hardly dared steep herself in the infinite bliss. But his glance seemed to ask for some assurance upon another point of vital interest to him. It beseeched her mutely to tell him whether what she had read upon his confused sheet had any meaning or truth to her. She bent her head once more to the papers she held.
"I like your little dot with the flames round it," she said meditatively.
Ralph nearly tore the page from her hand in shame and despair when he saw her actually contemplating the idiotic symbol of his most confused and emotional moments.
He was convinced that it could mean nothing to another, although somehow to him it conveyed not only Katharine herself but all those states of mind which had clustered round her since he first saw her pouring out tea on a Sunday afternoon. It represented by its circumference of smudges surrounding a central blot all that encircling glow which for him surrounded, inexplicably, so many of the objects of life, softening their sharp outline, so that he could see certain streets, books, and situations wearing a halo almost perceptible to the physical eye. Did she smile? Did she put the paper down wearily, condemning it not only for its inadequacy but for its falsity? Was she going to protest once more that he only loved the vision of her? But it did not occur to her that this diagram had anything to do with her. She said simply, and in the same tone of reflection: