He was lying back comfortably in a deep arm-chair smoking a cigar, and ruminating the fruitful question as to whether Coleridge had wished to marry Dorothy Wordsworth, and what, if he had done so, would have been the consequences to him in particular, and to literature in general. When Katharine came in he reflected that he knew what she had come for, and he made a pencil note before he spoke to her. Having done this, he saw that she was reading, and he watched her for a moment without saying anything. She was reading "Isabella and the Pot of Basil," and her mind was full of the Italian hills and the blue daylight, and the hedges set with little rosettes of red and white roses. Feeling that her father waited for her, she sighed and said, shutting her book:
"I've had a letter from Aunt Celia about Cyril, father.... It seems to be true—about his marriage. What are we to do?"
"Cyril seems to have been behaving in a very foolish manner," said Mr. Hilbery, in his pleasant and deliberate tones.
Katharine found some difficulty in carrying on the conversation, while her father balanced his finger-tips so judiciously, and seemed to reserve so many of his thoughts for himself.
"He's about done for himself, I should say," he continued. Without saying anything, he took Katharine's letters out of her hand, adjusted his eyeglasses, and read them through.
At length he said "Humph!" and gave the letters back to her.
"Mother knows nothing about it," Katharine remarked. "Will you tell her?"
"I shall tell your mother. But I shall tell her that there is nothing whatever for us to do."
"But the marriage?" Katharine asked, with some diffidence.
Mr. Hilbery said nothing, and stared into the fire.
"What in the name of conscience did he do it for?" he speculated at last, rather to himself than to her.
Katharine had begun to read her aunt's letter over again, and she now quoted a sentence. "Ibsen and Butler.... He has sent me a letter full of quotations—nonsense, though clever nonsense."
"Well, if the younger generation want to carry on its life on those lines, it's none of our affair," he remarked.
"But isn't it our affair, perhaps, to make them get married?" Katharine asked rather wearily.
"Why the dickens should they apply to me?" her father demanded with sudden irritation.
"Only as the head of the family—"
"But I'm not the head of the family. Alfred's the head of the family. Let them apply to Alfred," said Mr. Hilbery, relapsing again into his arm-chair. Katharine was aware that she had touched a sensitive spot, however, in mentioning the family.
"I think, perhaps, the best thing would be for me to go and see them," she observed.
"I won't have you going anywhere near them," Mr. Hilbery replied with unwonted decision and authority. "Indeed, I don't understand why they've dragged you into the business at all—I don't see that it's got anything to do with you."
"I've always been friends with Cyril," Katharine observed.
"But did he ever tell you anything about this?" Mr. Hilbery asked rather sharply.
Katharine shook her head. She was, indeed, a good deal hurt that Cyril had not confided in her—did he think, as Ralph Denham or Mary Datchet might think, that she was, for some reason, unsympathetic—hostile even?
"As to your mother," said Mr. Hilbery, after a pause, in which he seemed to be considering the color of the flames, "you had better tell her the facts. She'd better know the facts before every one begins to talk about it, though why Aunt Celia thinks it necessary to come, I'm sure I don't know. And the less talk there is the better."
Granting the assumption that gentlemen of sixty who are highly cultivated, and have had much experience of life, probably think of many things which they do not say, Katharine could not help feeling rather puzzled by her father's attitude, as she went back to her room. What a distance he was from it all! How superficially he smoothed these events into a semblance of decency which harmonized with his own view of life! He never wondered what Cyril had felt, nor did the hidden aspects of the case tempt him to examine into them. He merely seemed to realize, rather languidly, that Cyril had behaved in a way which was foolish, because other people did not behave in that way. He seemed to be looking through a telescope at little figures hundreds of miles in the distance.
Her selfish anxiety not to have to tell Mrs. Hilbery what had happened made her follow her father into the hall after breakfast the next morning in order to question him.
"Have you told mother?" she asked. Her manner to her father was almost stern, and she seemed to hold endless depths of reflection in the dark of her eyes.
Mr. Hilbery sighed.
"My dear child, it went out of my head." He smoothed his silk hat energetically, and at once affected an air of hurry. "I'll send a note round from the office.... I'm late this morning, and I've any amount of proofs to get through."
"That wouldn't do at all," Katharine said decidedly. "She must be told—you or I must tell her. We ought to have told her at first."
Mr. Hilbery had now placed his hat on his head, and his hand was on the door-knob. An expression which Katharine knew well from her childhood, when he asked her to shield him in some neglect of duty, came into his eyes; malice, humor, and irresponsibility were blended in it. He nodded his head to and fro significantly, opened the door with an adroit movement, and stepped out with a lightness unexpected at his age. He waved his hand once to his daughter, and was gone. Left alone, Katharine could not help laughing to find herself cheated as usual in domestic bargainings with her father, and left to do the disagreeable work which belonged, by rights, to him.
Katharine disliked telling her mother about Cyril's misbehavior quite as much as her father did, and for much the same reasons. They both shrank, nervously, as people fear the report of a gun on the stage, from all that would have to be said on this occasion. Katharine, moreover, was unable to decide what she thought of Cyril's misbehavior. As usual, she saw something which her father and mother did not see, and the effect of that something was to suspend Cyril's behavior in her mind without any qualification at all. They would think whether it was good or bad; to her it was merely a thing that had happened.
When Katharine reached the study, Mrs. Hilbery had already dipped her pen in the ink.
"Katharine," she said, lifting it in the air, "I've just made out such a queer, strange thing about your grandfather. I'm three years and six months older than he was when he died. I couldn't very well have been his mother, but I might have been his elder sister, and that seems to me such a pleasant fancy. I'm going to start quite fresh this morning, and get a lot done."
She began her sentence, at any rate, and Katharine sat down at her own table, untied the bundle of old letters upon which she was working, smoothed them out absent-mindedly, and began to decipher the faded script. In a minute she looked across at her mother, to judge her mood. Peace and happiness had relaxed every muscle in her face; her lips were parted very slightly, and her breath came in smooth, controlled inspirations like those of a child who is surrounding itself with a building of bricks, and increasing in ecstasy as each brick is placed in position. So Mrs. Hilbery was raising round her the skies and trees of the past with every stroke of her pen, and recalling the voices of the dead. Quiet as the room was, and undisturbed by the sounds of the present moment, Katharine could fancy that here was a deep pool of past time, and that she and her mother were bathed in the light of sixty years ago. What could the present give, she wondered, to compare with the rich crowd of gifts bestowed by the past? Here was a Thursday morning in process of manufacture; each second was minted fresh by the clock upon the mantelpiece. She strained her ears and could just hear, far off, the hoot of a motor-car and the rush of wheels coming nearer and dying away again, and the voices of men crying old iron and vegetables in one of the poorer streets at the back of the house. Rooms, of course, accumulate their suggestions, and any room in which one has been used to carry on any particular occupation gives off memories of moods, of ideas, of postures that have been seen in it; so that to attempt any different kind of work there is almost impossible.
Katharine was unconsciously affected, each time she entered her mother's room, by all these influences, which had had their birth years ago, when she was a child, and had something sweet and solemn about them, and connected themselves with early memories of the cavernous glooms and sonorous echoes of the Abbey where her grandfather lay buried. All the books and pictures, even the chairs and tables, had belonged to him, or had reference to him; even the china dogs on the mantelpiece and the little shepherdesses with their sheep had been bought by him for a penny a piece from a man who used to stand with a tray of toys in Kensington High Street, as Katharine had often heard her mother tell. Often she had sat in this room, with her mind fixed so firmly on those vanished figures that she could almost see the muscles round their eyes and lips, and had given to each his own voice, with its tricks of accent, and his coat and his cravat. Often she had seemed to herself to be moving among them, an invisible ghost among the living, better acquainted with them than with her own friends, because she knew their secrets and possessed a divine foreknowledge of their destiny. They had been so unhappy, such muddlers, so wrong-headed, it seemed to her. She could have told them what to do, and what not to do. It was a melancholy fact that they would pay no heed to her, and were bound to come to grief in their own antiquated way. Their behavior was often grotesquely irrational; their conventions monstrously absurd; and yet, as she brooded upon them, she felt so closely attached to them that it was useless to try to pass judgment upon them. She very nearly lost consciousness that she was a separate being, with a future of her own. On a morning of slight depression, such as this, she would try to find some sort of clue to the muddle which their old letters presented; some reason which seemed to make it worth while to them; some aim which they kept steadily in view—but she was interrupted.
Mrs. Hilbery had risen from her table, and was standing looking out of the window at a string of barges swimming up the river.
Katharine watched her. Suddenly Mrs. Hilbery turned abruptly, and exclaimed:
"I really believe I'm bewitched! I only want three sentences, you see, something quite straightforward and commonplace, and I can't find 'em."
She began to pace up and down the room, snatching up her duster; but she was too much annoyed to find any relief, as yet, in polishing the backs of books.
"Besides," she said, giving the sheet she had written to Katharine, "I don't believe this'll do. Did your grandfather ever visit the Hebrides, Katharine?" She looked in a strangely beseeching way at her daughter. "My mind got running on the Hebrides, and I couldn't help writing a little description of them. Perhaps it would do at the beginning of a chapter. Chapters often begin quite differently from the way they go on, you know." Katharine read what her mother had written. She might have been a schoolmaster criticizing a child's essay. Her face gave Mrs. Hilbery, who watched it anxiously, no ground for hope.
"It's very beautiful," she stated, "but, you see, mother, we ought to go from point to point—"
"Oh, I know," Mrs. Hilbery exclaimed. "And that's just what I can't do. Things keep coming into my head. It isn't that I don't know everything and feel everything (who did know him, if I didn't?), but I can't put it down, you see. There's a kind of blind spot," she said, touching her forehead, "there. And when I can't sleep o' nights, I fancy I shall die without having done it."
From exultation she had passed to the depths of depression which the imagination of her death aroused. The depression communicated itself to Katharine. How impotent they were, fiddling about all day long with papers! And the clock was striking eleven and nothing done! She watched her mother, now rummaging in a great brass-bound box which stood by her table, but she did not go to her help. Of course, Katharine reflected, her mother had now lost some paper, and they would waste the rest of the morning looking for it. She cast her eyes down in irritation, and read again her mother's musical sentences about the silver gulls, and the roots of little pink flowers washed by pellucid streams, and the blue mists of hyacinths, until she was struck by her mother's silence. She raised her eyes. Mrs. Hilbery had emptied a portfolio containing old photographs over her table, and was looking from one to another.
"Surely, Katharine," she said, "the men were far handsomer in those days than they are now, in spite of their odious whiskers? Look at old John Graham, in his white waistcoat—look at Uncle Harley. That's Peter the manservant, I suppose. Uncle John brought him back from India."
Katharine looked at her mother, but did not stir or answer. She had suddenly become very angry, with a rage which their relationship made silent, and therefore doubly powerful and critical. She felt all the unfairness of the claim which her mother tacitly made to her time and sympathy, and what Mrs. Hilbery took, Katharine thought bitterly, she wasted. Then, in a flash, she remembered that she had still to tell her about Cyril's misbehavior. Her anger immediately dissipated itself; it broke like some wave that has gathered itself high above the rest; the waters were resumed into the sea again, and Katharine felt once more full of peace and solicitude, and anxious only that her mother should be protected from pain. She crossed the room instinctively, and sat on the arm of her mother's chair. Mrs. Hilbery leant her head against her daughter's body.
"What is nobler," she mused, turning over the photographs, "than to be a woman to whom every one turns, in sorrow or difficulty? How have the young women of your generation improved upon that, Katharine? I can see them now, sweeping over the lawns at Melbury House, in their flounces and furbelows, so calm and stately and imperial (and the monkey and the little black dwarf following behind), as if nothing mattered in the world but to be beautiful and kind. But they did more than we do, I sometimes think. They WERE, and that's better than doing. They seem to me like ships, like majestic ships, holding on their way, not shoving or pushing, not fretted by little things, as we are, but taking their way, like ships with white sails."
Katharine tried to interrupt this discourse, but the opportunity did not come, and she could not forbear to turn over the pages of the album in which the old photographs were stored. The faces of these men and women shone forth wonderfully after the hubbub of living faces, and seemed, as her mother had said, to wear a marvelous dignity and calm, as if they had ruled their kingdoms justly and deserved great love. Some were of almost incredible beauty, others were ugly enough in a forcible way, but none were dull or bored or insignificant. The superb stiff folds of the crinolines suited the women; the cloaks and hats of the gentlemen seemed full of character. Once more Katharine felt the serene air all round her, and seemed far off to hear the solemn beating of the sea upon the shore. But she knew that she must join the present on to this past.
Mrs. Hilbery was rambling on, from story to story.
"That's Janie Mannering," she said, pointing to a superb, white-haired dame, whose satin robes seemed strung with pearls. "I must have told you how she found her cook drunk under the kitchen table when the Empress was coming to dinner, and tucked up her velvet sleeves (she always dressed like an Empress herself), cooked the whole meal, and appeared in the drawing-room as if she'd been sleeping on a bank of roses all day. She could do anything with her hands—they all could—make a cottage or embroider a petticoat.
"And that's Queenie Colquhoun," she went on, turning the pages, "who took her coffin out with her to Jamaica, packed with lovely shawls and bonnets, because you couldn't get coffins in Jamaica, and she had a horror of dying there (as she did), and being devoured by the white ants. And there's Sabine, the loveliest of them all; ah! it was like a star rising when she came into the room. And that's Miriam, in her coachman's cloak, with all the little capes on, and she wore great top-boots underneath. You young people may say you're unconventional, but you're nothing compared with her."
Turning the page, she came upon the picture of a very masculine, handsome lady, whose head the photographer had adorned with an imperial crown.
"Ah, you wretch!" Mrs. Hilbery exclaimed, "what a wicked old despot you were, in your day! How we all bowed down before you! 'Maggie,' she used to say, 'if it hadn't been for me, where would you be now?' And it was true; she brought them together, you know. She said to my father, 'Marry her,' and he did; and she said to poor little Clara, 'Fall down and worship him,' and she did; but she got up again, of course. What else could one expect? She was a mere child—eighteen—and half dead with fright, too. But that old tyrant never repented. She used to say that she had given them three perfect months, and no one had a right to more; and I sometimes think, Katharine, that's true, you know. It's more than most of us have, only we have to pretend, which was a thing neither of them could ever do. I fancy," Mrs. Hilbery mused, "that there was a kind of sincerity in those days between men and women which, with all your outspokenness, you haven't got."
Katharine again tried to interrupt. But Mrs. Hilbery had been gathering impetus from her recollections, and was now in high spirits.
"They must have been good friends at heart," she resumed, "because she used to sing his songs. Ah, how did it go?" and Mrs. Hilbery, who had a very sweet voice, trolled out a famous lyric of her father's which had been set to an absurdly and charmingly sentimental air by some early Victorian composer.
"It's the vitality of them!" she concluded, striking her fist against the table. "That's what we haven't got! We're virtuous, we're earnest, we go to meetings, we pay the poor their wages, but we don't live as they lived. As often as not, my father wasn't in bed three nights out of the seven, but always fresh as paint in the morning. I hear him now, come singing up the stairs to the nursery, and tossing the loaf for breakfast on his sword-stick, and then off we went for a day's pleasuring—Richmond, Hampton Court, the Surrey Hills. Why shouldn't we go, Katharine? It's going to be a fine day."
At this moment, just as Mrs. Hilbery was examining the weather from the window, there was a knock at the door. A slight, elderly lady came in, and was saluted by Katharine, with very evident dismay, as "Aunt Celia!" She was dismayed because she guessed why Aunt Celia had come. It was certainly in order to discuss the case of Cyril and the woman who was not his wife, and owing to her procrastination Mrs. Hilbery was quite unprepared. Who could be more unprepared? Here she was, suggesting that all three of them should go on a jaunt to Blackfriars to inspect the site of Shakespeare's theater, for the weather was hardly settled enough for the country.
To this proposal Mrs. Milvain listened with a patient smile, which indicated that for many years she had accepted such eccentricities in her sister-in-law with bland philosophy. Katharine took up her position at some distance, standing with her foot on the fender, as though by so doing she could get a better view of the matter. But, in spite of her aunt's presence, how unreal the whole question of Cyril and his morality appeared! The difficulty, it now seemed, was not to break the news gently to Mrs. Hilbery, but to make her understand it. How was one to lasso her mind, and tether it to this minute, unimportant spot? A matter-of-fact statement seemed best.
"I think Aunt Celia has come to talk about Cyril, mother," she said rather brutally. "Aunt Celia has discovered that Cyril is married. He has a wife and children."
"No, he is NOT married," Mrs. Milvain interposed, in low tones, addressing herself to Mrs. Hilbery. "He has two children, and another on the way."
Mrs. Hilbery looked from one to the other in bewilderment.
"We thought it better to wait until it was proved before we told you," Katharine added.
"But I met Cyril only a fortnight ago at the National Gallery!" Mrs. Hilbery exclaimed. "I don't believe a word of it," and she tossed her head with a smile on her lips at Mrs. Milvain, as though she could quite understand her mistake, which was a very natural mistake, in the case of a childless woman, whose husband was something very dull in the Board of Trade.
"I didn't WISH to believe it, Maggie," said Mrs. Milvain. "For a long time I COULDN'T believe it. But now I've seen, and I HAVE to believe it."
"Katharine," Mrs. Hilbery demanded, "does your father know of this?"
"Cyril married!" Mrs. Hilbery repeated. "And never telling us a word, though we've had him in our house since he was a child—noble William's son! I can't believe my ears!"
Feeling that the burden of proof was laid upon her, Mrs. Milvain now proceeded with her story. She was elderly and fragile, but her childlessness seemed always to impose these painful duties on her, and to revere the family, and to keep it in repair, had now become the chief object of her life. She told her story in a low, spasmodic, and somewhat broken voice.
"I have suspected for some time that he was not happy. There were new lines on his face. So I went to his rooms, when I knew he was engaged at the poor men's college. He lectures there—Roman law, you know, or it may be Greek. The landlady said Mr. Alardyce only slept there about once a fortnight now. He looked so ill, she said. She had seen him with a young person. I suspected something directly. I went to his room, and there was an envelope on the mantelpiece, and a letter with an address in Seton Street, off the Kennington Road."
Mrs. Hilbery fidgeted rather restlessly, and hummed fragments of her tune, as if to interrupt.
"I went to Seton Street," Aunt Celia continued firmly. "A very low place—lodging-houses, you know, with canaries in the window. Number seven just like all the others. I rang, I knocked; no one came. I went down the area. I am certain I saw some one inside—children—a cradle. But no reply—no reply." She sighed, and looked straight in front of her with a glazed expression in her half-veiled blue eyes.
"I stood in the street," she resumed, "in case I could catch a sight of one of them. It seemed a very long time. There were rough men singing in the public-house round the corner. At last the door opened, and some one—it must have been the woman herself—came right past me. There was only the pillar-box between us."
"And what did she look like?" Mrs. Hilbery demanded.
"One could see how the poor boy had been deluded," was all that Mrs. Milvain vouchsafed by way of description.
"Poor thing!" Mrs. Hilbery exclaimed.
"Poor Cyril!" Mrs. Milvain said, laying a slight emphasis upon Cyril.
"But they've got nothing to live upon," Mrs. Hilbery continued. "If he'd come to us like a man," she went on, "and said, 'I've been a fool,' one would have pitied him; one would have tried to help him. There's nothing so disgraceful after all—But he's been going about all these years, pretending, letting one take it for granted, that he was single. And the poor deserted little wife—"
"She is NOT his wife," Aunt Celia interrupted.
"I've never heard anything so detestable!" Mrs. Hilbery wound up, striking her fist on the arm of her chair. As she realized the facts she became thoroughly disgusted, although, perhaps, she was more hurt by the concealment of the sin than by the sin itself. She looked splendidly roused and indignant; and Katharine felt an immense relief and pride in her mother. It was plain that her indignation was very genuine, and that her mind was as perfectly focused upon the facts as any one could wish—more so, by a long way, than Aunt Celia's mind, which seemed to be timidly circling, with a morbid pleasure, in these unpleasant shades. She and her mother together would take the situation in hand, visit Cyril, and see the whole thing through.
"We must realize Cyril's point of view first," she said, speaking directly to her mother, as if to a contemporary, but before the words were out of her mouth, there was more confusion outside, and Cousin Caroline, Mrs. Hilbery's maiden cousin, entered the room. Although she was by birth an Alardyce, and Aunt Celia a Hilbery, the complexities of the family relationship were such that each was at once first and second cousin to the other, and thus aunt and cousin to the culprit Cyril, so that his misbehavior was almost as much Cousin Caroline's affair as Aunt Celia's. Cousin Caroline was a lady of very imposing height and circumference, but in spite of her size and her handsome trappings, there was something exposed and unsheltered in her expression, as if for many summers her thin red skin and hooked nose and reduplication of chins, so much resembling the profile of a cockatoo, had been bared to the weather; she was, indeed, a single lady; but she had, it was the habit to say, "made a life for herself," and was thus entitled to be heard with respect.
"This unhappy business," she began, out of breath as she was. "If the train had not gone out of the station just as I arrived, I should have been with you before. Celia has doubtless told you. You will agree with me, Maggie. He must be made to marry her at once for the sake of the children—"
"But does he refuse to marry her?" Mrs. Hilbery inquired, with a return of her bewilderment.
"He has written an absurd perverted letter, all quotations," Cousin Caroline puffed. "He thinks he's doing a very fine thing, where we only see the folly of it.... The girl's every bit as infatuated as he is—for which I blame him."
"She entangled him," Aunt Celia intervened, with a very curious smoothness of intonation, which seemed to convey a vision of threads weaving and interweaving a close, white mesh round their victim.
"It's no use going into the rights and wrongs of the affair now, Celia," said Cousin Caroline with some acerbity, for she believed herself the only practical one of the family, and regretted that, owing to the slowness of the kitchen clock, Mrs. Milvain had already confused poor dear Maggie with her own incomplete version of the facts. "The mischief's done, and very ugly mischief too. Are we to allow the third child to be born out of wedlock? (I am sorry to have to say these things before you, Katharine.) He will bear your name, Maggie—your father's name, remember."
"But let us hope it will be a girl," said Mrs. Hilbery.
Katharine, who had been looking at her mother constantly, while the chatter of tongues held sway, perceived that the look of straightforward indignation had already vanished; her mother was evidently casting about in her mind for some method of escape, or bright spot, or sudden illumination which should show to the satisfaction of everybody that all had happened, miraculously but incontestably, for the best.
"It's detestable—quite detestable!" she repeated, but in tones of no great assurance; and then her face lit up with a smile which, tentative at first, soon became almost assured. "Nowadays, people don't think so badly of these things as they used to do," she began. "It will be horribly uncomfortable for them sometimes, but if they are brave, clever children, as they will be, I dare say it'll make remarkable people of them in the end. Robert Browning used to say that every great man has Jewish blood in him, and we must try to look at it in that light. And, after all, Cyril has acted on principle. One may disagree with his principle, but, at least, one can respect it—like the French Revolution, or Cromwell cutting the King's head off. Some of the most terrible things in history have been done on principle," she concluded.
"I'm afraid I take a very different view of principle," Cousin Caroline remarked tartly.
"Principle!" Aunt Celia repeated, with an air of deprecating such a word in such a connection. "I will go to-morrow and see him," she added.
"But why should you take these disagreeable things upon yourself, Celia?" Mrs. Hilbery interposed, and Cousin Caroline thereupon protested with some further plan involving sacrifice of herself.
Growing weary of it all, Katharine turned to the window, and stood among the folds of the curtain, pressing close to the window-pane, and gazing disconsolately at the river much in the attitude of a child depressed by the meaningless talk of its elders. She was much disappointed in her mother—and in herself too. The little tug which she gave to the blind, letting it fly up to the top with a snap, signified her annoyance. She was very angry, and yet impotent to give expression to her anger, or know with whom she was angry. How they talked and moralized and made up stories to suit their own version of the becoming, and secretly praised their own devotion and tact! No; they had their dwelling in a mist, she decided; hundreds of miles away—away from what? "Perhaps it would be better if I married William," she thought suddenly, and the thought appeared to loom through the mist like solid ground. She stood there, thinking of her own destiny, and the elder ladies talked on, until they had talked themselves into a decision to ask the young woman to luncheon, and tell her, very friendlily, how such behavior appeared to women like themselves, who knew the world. And then Mrs. Hilbery was struck by a better idea.
Messrs. Grateley and Hooper, the solicitors in whose firm Ralph Denham was clerk, had their office in Lincoln's Inn Fields, and there Ralph Denham appeared every morning very punctually at ten o'clock. His punctuality, together with other qualities, marked him out among the clerks for success, and indeed it would have been safe to wager that in ten years' time or so one would find him at the head of his profession, had it not been for a peculiarity which sometimes seemed to make everything about him uncertain and perilous. His sister Joan had already been disturbed by his love of gambling with his savings. Scrutinizing him constantly with the eye of affection, she had become aware of a curious perversity in his temperament which caused her much anxiety, and would have caused her still more if she had not recognized the germs of it in her own nature. She could fancy Ralph suddenly sacrificing his entire career for some fantastic imagination; some cause or idea or even (so her fancy ran) for some woman seen from a railway train, hanging up clothes in a back yard. When he had found this beauty or this cause, no force, she knew, would avail to restrain him from pursuit of it. She suspected the East also, and always fidgeted herself when she saw him with a book of Indian travels in his hand, as though he were sucking contagion from the page. On the other hand, no common love affair, had there been such a thing, would have caused her a moment's uneasiness where Ralph was concerned. He was destined in her fancy for something splendid in the way of success or failure, she knew not which.
And yet nobody could have worked harder or done better in all the recognized stages of a young man's life than Ralph had done, and Joan had to gather materials for her fears from trifles in her brother's behavior which would have escaped any other eye. It was natural that she should be anxious. Life had been so arduous for all of them from the start that she could not help dreading any sudden relaxation of his grasp upon what he held, though, as she knew from inspection of her own life, such sudden impulse to let go and make away from the discipline and the drudgery was sometimes almost irresistible. But with Ralph, if he broke away, she knew that it would be only to put himself under harsher constraint; she figured him toiling through sandy deserts under a tropical sun to find the source of some river or the haunt of some fly; she figured him living by the labor of his hands in some city slum, the victim of one of those terrible theories of right and wrong which were current at the time; she figured him prisoner for life in the house of a woman who had seduced him by her misfortunes. Half proudly, and wholly anxiously, she framed such thoughts, as they sat, late at night, talking together over the gas-stove in Ralph's bedroom.
It is likely that Ralph would not have recognized his own dream of a future in the forecasts which disturbed his sister's peace of mind. Certainly, if any one of them had been put before him he would have rejected it with a laugh, as the sort of life that held no attractions for him. He could not have said how it was that he had put these absurd notions into his sister's head. Indeed, he prided himself upon being well broken into a life of hard work, about which he had no sort of illusions. His vision of his own future, unlike many such forecasts, could have been made public at any moment without a blush; he attributed to himself a strong brain, and conferred on himself a seat in the House of Commons at the age of fifty, a moderate fortune, and, with luck, an unimportant office in a Liberal Government. There was nothing extravagant in a forecast of that kind, and certainly nothing dishonorable. Nevertheless, as his sister guessed, it needed all Ralph's strength of will, together with the pressure of circumstances, to keep his feet moving in the path which led that way. It needed, in particular, a constant repetition of a phrase to the effect that he shared the common fate, found it best of all, and wished for no other; and by repeating such phrases he acquired punctuality and habits of work, and could very plausibly demonstrate that to be a clerk in a solicitor's office was the best of all possible lives, and that other ambitions were vain.
But, like all beliefs not genuinely held, this one depended very much upon the amount of acceptance it received from other people, and in private, when the pressure of public opinion was removed, Ralph let himself swing very rapidly away from his actual circumstances upon strange voyages which, indeed, he would have been ashamed to describe. In these dreams, of course, he figured in noble and romantic parts, but self-glorification was not the only motive of them. They gave outlet to some spirit which found no work to do in real life, for, with the pessimism which his lot forced upon him, Ralph had made up his mind that there was no use for what, contemptuously enough, he called dreams, in the world which we inhabit. It sometimes seemed to him that this spirit was the most valuable possession he had; he thought that by means of it he could set flowering waste tracts of the earth, cure many ills, or raise up beauty where none now existed; it was, too, a fierce and potent spirit which would devour the dusty books and parchments on the office wall with one lick of its tongue, and leave him in a minute standing in nakedness, if he gave way to it. His endeavor, for many years, had been to control the spirit, and at the age of twenty-nine he thought he could pride himself upon a life rigidly divided into the hours of work and those of dreams; the two lived side by side without harming each other. As a matter of fact, this effort at discipline had been helped by the interests of a difficult profession, but the old conclusion to which Ralph had come when he left college still held sway in his mind, and tinged his views with the melancholy belief that life for most people compels the exercise of the lower gifts and wastes the precious ones, until it forces us to agree that there is little virtue, as well as little profit, in what once seemed to us the noblest part of our inheritance.
Denham was not altogether popular either in his office or among his family. He was too positive, at this stage of his career, as to what was right and what wrong, too proud of his self-control, and, as is natural in the case of persons not altogether happy or well suited in their conditions, too apt to prove the folly of contentment, if he found any one who confessed to that weakness. In the office his rather ostentatious efficiency annoyed those who took their own work more lightly, and, if they foretold his advancement, it was not altogether sympathetically. Indeed, he appeared to be rather a hard and self-sufficient young man, with a queer temper, and manners that were uncompromisingly abrupt, who was consumed with a desire to get on in the world, which was natural, these critics thought, in a man of no means, but not engaging.
The young men in the office had a perfect right to these opinions, because Denham showed no particular desire for their friendship. He liked them well enough, but shut them up in that compartment of life which was devoted to work. Hitherto, indeed, he had found little difficulty in arranging his life as methodically as he arranged his expenditure, but about this time he began to encounter experiences which were not so easy to classify. Mary Datchet had begun this confusion two years ago by bursting into laughter at some remark of his, almost the first time they met. She could not explain why it was. She thought him quite astonishingly odd. When he knew her well enough to tell her how he spent Monday and Wednesday and Saturday, she was still more amused; she laughed till he laughed, too, without knowing why. It seemed to her very odd that he should know as much about breeding bulldogs as any man in England; that he had a collection of wild flowers found near London; and his weekly visit to old Miss Trotter at Ealing, who was an authority upon the science of Heraldry, never failed to excite her laughter. She wanted to know everything, even the kind of cake which the old lady supplied on these occasions; and their summer excursions to churches in the neighborhood of London for the purpose of taking rubbings of the brasses became most important festivals, from the interest she took in them. In six months she knew more about his odd friends and hobbies than his own brothers and sisters knew, after living with him all his life; and Ralph found this very pleasant, though disordering, for his own view of himself had always been profoundly serious.
Certainly it was very pleasant to be with Mary Datchet and to become, directly the door was shut, quite a different sort of person, eccentric and lovable, with scarcely any likeness to the self most people knew. He became less serious, and rather less dictatorial at home, for he was apt to hear Mary laughing at him, and telling him, as she was fond of doing, that he knew nothing at all about anything. She made him, also, take an interest in public questions, for which she had a natural liking; and was in process of turning him from Tory to Radical, after a course of public meetings, which began by boring him acutely, and ended by exciting him even more than they excited her.
But he was reserved; when ideas started up in his mind, he divided them automatically into those he could discuss with Mary, and those he must keep for himself. She knew this and it interested her, for she was accustomed to find young men very ready to talk about themselves, and had come to listen to them as one listens to children, without any thought of herself. But with Ralph, she had very little of this maternal feeling, and, in consequence, a much keener sense of her own individuality.
Late one afternoon Ralph stepped along the Strand to an interview with a lawyer upon business. The afternoon light was almost over, and already streams of greenish and yellowish artificial light were being poured into an atmosphere which, in country lanes, would now have been soft with the smoke of wood fires; and on both sides of the road the shop windows were full of sparkling chains and highly polished leather cases, which stood upon shelves made of thick plate-glass. None of these different objects was seen separately by Denham, but from all of them he drew an impression of stir and cheerfulness. Thus it came about that he saw Katharine Hilbery coming towards him, and looked straight at her, as if she were only an illustration of the argument that was going forward in his mind. In this spirit he noticed the rather set expression in her eyes, and the slight, half-conscious movement of her lips, which, together with her height and the distinction of her dress, made her look as if the scurrying crowd impeded her, and her direction were different from theirs. He noticed this calmly; but suddenly, as he passed her, his hands and knees began to tremble, and his heart beat painfully. She did not see him, and went on repeating to herself some lines which had stuck to her memory: "It's life that matters, nothing but life—the process of discovering—the everlasting and perpetual process, not the discovery itself at all." Thus occupied, she did not see Denham, and he had not the courage to stop her. But immediately the whole scene in the Strand wore that curious look of order and purpose which is imparted to the most heterogeneous things when music sounds; and so pleasant was this impression that he was very glad that he had not stopped her, after all. It grew slowly fainter, but lasted until he stood outside the barrister's chambers.
When his interview with the barrister was over, it was too late to go back to the office. His sight of Katharine had put him queerly out of tune for a domestic evening. Where should he go? To walk through the streets of London until he came to Katharine's house, to look up at the windows and fancy her within, seemed to him possible for a moment; and then he rejected the plan almost with a blush as, with a curious division of consciousness, one plucks a flower sentimentally and throws it away, with a blush, when it is actually picked. No, he would go and see Mary Datchet. By this time she would be back from her work.
To see Ralph appear unexpectedly in her room threw Mary for a second off her balance. She had been cleaning knives in her little scullery, and when she had let him in she went back again, and turned on the cold-water tap to its fullest volume, and then turned it off again. "Now," she thought to herself, as she screwed it tight, "I'm not going to let these silly ideas come into my head.... Don't you think Mr. Asquith deserves to be hanged?" she called back into the sitting-room, and when she joined him, drying her hands, she began to tell him about the latest evasion on the part of the Government with respect to the Women's Suffrage Bill. Ralph did not want to talk about politics, but he could not help respecting Mary for taking such an interest in public questions. He looked at her as she leant forward, poking the fire, and expressing herself very clearly in phrases which bore distantly the taint of the platform, and he thought, "How absurd Mary would think me if she knew that I almost made up my mind to walk all the way to Chelsea in order to look at Katharine's windows. She wouldn't understand it, but I like her very much as she is."
For some time they discussed what the women had better do; and as Ralph became genuinely interested in the question, Mary unconsciously let her attention wander, and a great desire came over her to talk to Ralph about her own feelings; or, at any rate, about something personal, so that she might see what he felt for her; but she resisted this wish. But she could not prevent him from feeling her lack of interest in what he was saying, and gradually they both became silent. One thought after another came up in Ralph's mind, but they were all, in some way, connected with Katharine, or with vague feelings of romance and adventure such as she inspired. But he could not talk to Mary about such thoughts; and he pitied her for knowing nothing of what he was feeling. "Here," he thought, "is where we differ from women; they have no sense of romance."
"Well, Mary," he said at length, "why don't you say something amusing?"
His tone was certainly provoking, but, as a general rule, Mary was not easily provoked. This evening, however, she replied rather sharply:
"Because I've got nothing amusing to say, I suppose."
Ralph thought for a moment, and then remarked:
"You work too hard. I don't mean your health," he added, as she laughed scornfully, "I mean that you seem to me to be getting wrapped up in your work."
"And is that a bad thing?" she asked, shading her eyes with her hand.
"I think it is," he returned abruptly.
"But only a week ago you were saying the opposite." Her tone was defiant, but she became curiously depressed. Ralph did not perceive it, and took this opportunity of lecturing her, and expressing his latest views upon the proper conduct of life. She listened, but her main impression was that he had been meeting some one who had influenced him. He was telling her that she ought to read more, and to see that there were other points of view as deserving of attention as her own. Naturally, having last seen him as he left the office in company with Katharine, she attributed the change to her; it was likely that Katharine, on leaving the scene which she had so clearly despised, had pronounced some such criticism, or suggested it by her own attitude. But she knew that Ralph would never admit that he had been influenced by anybody.
"You don't read enough, Mary," he was saying. "You ought to read more poetry."
It was true that Mary's reading had been rather limited to such works as she needed to know for the sake of examinations; and her time for reading in London was very little. For some reason, no one likes to be told that they do not read enough poetry, but her resentment was only visible in the way she changed the position of her hands, and in the fixed look in her eyes. And then she thought to herself, "I'm behaving exactly as I said I wouldn't behave," whereupon she relaxed all her muscles and said, in her reasonable way:
"Tell me what I ought to read, then."
Ralph had unconsciously been irritated by Mary, and he now delivered himself of a few names of great poets which were the text for a discourse upon the imperfection of Mary's character and way of life.
"You live with your inferiors," he said, warming unreasonably, as he knew, to his text. "And you get into a groove because, on the whole, it's rather a pleasant groove. And you tend to forget what you're there for. You've the feminine habit of making much of details. You don't see when things matter and when they don't. And that's what's the ruin of all these organizations. That's why the Suffragists have never done anything all these years. What's the point of drawing-room meetings and bazaars? You want to have ideas, Mary; get hold of something big; never mind making mistakes, but don't niggle. Why don't you throw it all up for a year, and travel?—see something of the world. Don't be content to live with half a dozen people in a backwater all your life. But you won't," he concluded.
"I've rather come to that way of thinking myself—about myself, I mean," said Mary, surprising him by her acquiescence. "I should like to go somewhere far away."
For a moment they were both silent. Ralph then said:
"But look here, Mary, you haven't been taking this seriously, have you?" His irritation was spent, and the depression, which she could not keep out of her voice, made him feel suddenly with remorse that he had been hurting her.
"You won't go away, will you?" he asked. And as she said nothing, he added, "Oh no, don't go away."
"I don't know exactly what I mean to do," she replied. She hovered on the verge of some discussion of her plans, but she received no encouragement. He fell into one of his queer silences, which seemed to Mary, in spite of all her precautions, to have reference to what she also could not prevent herself from thinking about—their feeling for each other and their relationship. She felt that the two lines of thought bored their way in long, parallel tunnels which came very close indeed, but never ran into each other.
When he had gone, and he left her without breaking his silence more than was needed to wish her good night, she sat on for a time, reviewing what he had said. If love is a devastating fire which melts the whole being into one mountain torrent, Mary was no more in love with Denham than she was in love with her poker or her tongs. But probably these extreme passions are very rare, and the state of mind thus depicted belongs to the very last stages of love, when the power to resist has been eaten away, week by week or day by day. Like most intelligent people, Mary was something of an egoist, to the extent, that is, of attaching great importance to what she felt, and she was by nature enough of a moralist to like to make certain, from time to time, that her feelings were creditable to her. When Ralph left her she thought over her state of mind, and came to the conclusion that it would be a good thing to learn a language—say Italian or German. She then went to a drawer, which she had to unlock, and took from it certain deeply scored manuscript pages. She read them through, looking up from her reading every now and then and thinking very intently for a few seconds about Ralph. She did her best to verify all the qualities in him which gave rise to emotions in her; and persuaded herself that she accounted reasonably for them all. Then she looked back again at her manuscript, and decided that to write grammatical English prose is the hardest thing in the world. But she thought about herself a great deal more than she thought about grammatical English prose or about Ralph Denham, and it may therefore be disputed whether she was in love, or, if so, to which branch of the family her passion belonged.
"It's life that matters, nothing but life—the process of discovering, the everlasting and perpetual process," said Katharine, as she passed under the archway, and so into the wide space of King's Bench Walk, "not the discovery itself at all." She spoke the last words looking up at Rodney's windows, which were a semilucent red color, in her honor, as she knew. He had asked her to tea with him. But she was in a mood when it is almost physically disagreeable to interrupt the stride of one's thought, and she walked up and down two or three times under the trees before approaching his staircase. She liked getting hold of some book which neither her father or mother had read, and keeping it to herself, and gnawing its contents in privacy, and pondering the meaning without sharing her thoughts with any one, or having to decide whether the book was a good one or a bad one. This evening she had twisted the words of Dostoevsky to suit her mood—a fatalistic mood—to proclaim that the process of discovery was life, and that, presumably, the nature of one's goal mattered not at all. She sat down for a moment upon one of the seats; felt herself carried along in the swirl of many things; decided, in her sudden way, that it was time to heave all this thinking overboard, and rose, leaving a fishmonger's basket on the seat behind her. Two minutes later her rap sounded with authority upon Rodney's door.
"Well, William," she said, "I'm afraid I'm late."
It was true, but he was so glad to see her that he forgot his annoyance. He had been occupied for over an hour in making things ready for her, and he now had his reward in seeing her look right and left, as she slipped her cloak from her shoulders, with evident satisfaction, although she said nothing. He had seen that the fire burnt well; jam-pots were on the table, tin covers shone in the fender, and the shabby comfort of the room was extreme. He was dressed in his old crimson dressing-gown, which was faded irregularly, and had bright new patches on it, like the paler grass which one finds on lifting a stone. He made the tea, and Katharine drew off her gloves, and crossed her legs with a gesture that was rather masculine in its ease. Nor did they talk much until they were smoking cigarettes over the fire, having placed their teacups upon the floor between them.
They had not met since they had exchanged letters about their relationship. Katharine's answer to his protestation had been short and sensible. Half a sheet of notepaper contained the whole of it, for she merely had to say that she was not in love with him, and so could not marry him, but their friendship would continue, she hoped, unchanged. She had added a postscript in which she stated, "I like your sonnet very much."
So far as William was concerned, this appearance of ease was assumed. Three times that afternoon he had dressed himself in a tail-coat, and three times he had discarded it for an old dressing-gown; three times he had placed his pearl tie-pin in position, and three times he had removed it again, the little looking-glass in his room being the witness of these changes of mind. The question was, which would Katharine prefer on this particular afternoon in December? He read her note once more, and the postscript about the sonnet settled the matter. Evidently she admired most the poet in him; and as this, on the whole, agreed with his own opinion, he decided to err, if anything, on the side of shabbiness. His demeanor was also regulated with premeditation; he spoke little, and only on impersonal matters; he wished her to realize that in visiting him for the first time alone she was doing nothing remarkable, although, in fact, that was a point about which he was not at all sure.
Certainly Katharine seemed quite unmoved by any disturbing thoughts; and if he had been completely master of himself, he might, indeed, have complained that she was a trifle absent-minded. The ease, the familiarity of the situation alone with Rodney, among teacups and candles, had more effect upon her than was apparent. She asked to look at his books, and then at his pictures. It was while she held photograph from the Greek in her hands that she exclaimed, impulsively, if incongruously:
"My oysters! I had a basket," she explained, "and I've left it somewhere. Uncle Dudley dines with us to-night. What in the world have I done with them?"
She rose and began to wander about the room. William rose also, and stood in front of the fire, muttering, "Oysters, oysters—your basket of oysters!" but though he looked vaguely here and there, as if the oysters might be on the top of the bookshelf, his eyes returned always to Katharine. She drew the curtain and looked out among the scanty leaves of the plane-trees.
"I had them," she calculated, "in the Strand; I sat on a seat. Well, never mind," she concluded, turning back into the room abruptly, "I dare say some old creature is enjoying them by this time."
"I should have thought that you never forgot anything," William remarked, as they settled down again.
"That's part of the myth about me, I know," Katharine replied.
"And I wonder," William proceeded, with some caution, "what the truth about you is? But I know this sort of thing doesn't interest you," he added hastily, with a touch of peevishness.
"No; it doesn't interest me very much," she replied candidly.
"What shall we talk about then?" he asked.
She looked rather whimsically round the walls of the room.
"However we start, we end by talking about the same thing—about poetry, I mean. I wonder if you realize, William, that I've never read even Shakespeare? It's rather wonderful how I've kept it up all these years."
"You've kept it up for ten years very beautifully, as far as I'm concerned," he said.
"Ten years? So long as that?"
"And I don't think it's always bored you," he added.
She looked into the fire silently. She could not deny that the surface of her feeling was absolutely unruffled by anything in William's character; on the contrary, she felt certain that she could deal with whatever turned up. He gave her peace, in which she could think of things that were far removed from what they talked about. Even now, when he sat within a yard of her, how easily her mind ranged hither and thither! Suddenly a picture presented itself before her, without any effort on her part as pictures will, of herself in these very rooms; she had come in from a lecture, and she held a pile of books in her hand, scientific books, and books about mathematics and astronomy which she had mastered. She put them down on the table over there. It was a picture plucked from her life two or three years hence, when she was married to William; but here she checked herself abruptly.
She could not entirely forget William's presence, because, in spite of his efforts to control himself, his nervousness was apparent. On such occasions his eyes protruded more than ever, and his face had more than ever the appearance of being covered with a thin crackling skin, through which every flush of his volatile blood showed itself instantly. By this time he had shaped so many sentences and rejected them, felt so many impulses and subdued them, that he was a uniform scarlet.
"You may say you don't read books," he remarked, "but, all the same, you know about them. Besides, who wants you to be learned? Leave that to the poor devils who've got nothing better to do. You—you—ahem!—"
"Well, then, why don't you read me something before I go?" said Katharine, looking at her watch.
"Katharine, you've only just come! Let me see now, what have I got to show you?" He rose, and stirred about the papers on his table, as if in doubt; he then picked up a manuscript, and after spreading it smoothly upon his knee, he looked up at Katharine suspiciously. He caught her smiling.
"I believe you only ask me to read out of kindness," he burst out. "Let's find something else to talk about. Who have you been seeing?"
"I don't generally ask things out of kindness," Katharine observed; "however, if you don't want to read, you needn't."
William gave a queer snort of exasperation, and opened his manuscript once more, though he kept his eyes upon her face as he did so. No face could have been graver or more judicial.
"One can trust you, certainly, to say unpleasant things," he said, smoothing out the page, clearing his throat, and reading half a stanza to himself. "Ahem! The Princess is lost in the wood, and she hears the sound of a horn. (This would all be very pretty on the stage, but I can't get the effect here.) Anyhow, Sylvano enters, accompanied by the rest of the gentlemen of Gratian's court. I begin where he soliloquizes." He jerked his head and began to read.
Although Katharine had just disclaimed any knowledge of literature, she listened attentively. At least, she listened to the first twenty-five lines attentively, and then she frowned. Her attention was only aroused again when Rodney raised his finger—a sign, she knew, that the meter was about to change.
His theory was that every mood has its meter. His mastery of meters was very great; and, if the beauty of a drama depended upon the variety of measures in which the personages speak, Rodney's plays must have challenged the works of Shakespeare. Katharine's ignorance of Shakespeare did not prevent her from feeling fairly certain that plays should not produce a sense of chill stupor in the audience, such as overcame her as the lines flowed on, sometimes long and sometimes short, but always delivered with the same lilt of voice, which seemed to nail each line firmly on to the same spot in the hearer's brain. Still, she reflected, these sorts of skill are almost exclusively masculine; women neither practice them nor know how to value them; and one's husband's proficiency in this direction might legitimately increase one's respect for him, since mystification is no bad basis for respect. No one could doubt that William was a scholar. The reading ended with the finish of the Act; Katharine had prepared a little speech.
"That seems to me extremely well written, William; although, of course, I don't know enough to criticize in detail."
"But it's the skill that strikes you—not the emotion?"
"In a fragment like that, of course, the skill strikes one most."
"But perhaps—have you time to listen to one more short piece? the scene between the lovers? There's some real feeling in that, I think. Denham agrees that it's the best thing I've done."
"You've read it to Ralph Denham?" Katharine inquired, with surprise. "He's a better judge than I am. What did he say?"
"My dear Katharine," Rodney exclaimed, "I don't ask you for criticism, as I should ask a scholar. I dare say there are only five men in England whose opinion of my work matters a straw to me. But I trust you where feeling is concerned. I had you in my mind often when I was writing those scenes. I kept asking myself, 'Now is this the sort of thing Katharine would like?' I always think of you when I'm writing, Katharine, even when it's the sort of thing you wouldn't know about. And I'd rather—yes, I really believe I'd rather—you thought well of my writing than any one in the world."
This was so genuine a tribute to his trust in her that Katharine was touched.
"You think too much of me altogether, William," she said, forgetting that she had not meant to speak in this way.
"No, Katharine, I don't," he replied, replacing his manuscript in the drawer. "It does me good to think of you."
So quiet an answer, followed as it was by no expression of love, but merely by the statement that if she must go he would take her to the Strand, and would, if she could wait a moment, change his dressing-gown for a coat, moved her to the warmest feeling of affection for him that she had yet experienced. While he changed in the next room, she stood by the bookcase, taking down books and opening them, but reading nothing on their pages.
She felt certain that she would marry Rodney. How could one avoid it? How could one find fault with it? Here she sighed, and, putting the thought of marriage away, fell into a dream state, in which she became another person, and the whole world seemed changed. Being a frequent visitor to that world, she could find her way there unhesitatingly. If she had tried to analyze her impressions, she would have said that there dwelt the realities of the appearances which figure in our world; so direct, powerful, and unimpeded were her sensations there, compared with those called forth in actual life. There dwelt the things one might have felt, had there been cause; the perfect happiness of which here we taste the fragment; the beauty seen here in flying glimpses only. No doubt much of the furniture of this world was drawn directly from the past, and even from the England of the Elizabethan age. However the embellishment of this imaginary world might change, two qualities were constant in it. It was a place where feelings were liberated from the constraint which the real world puts upon them; and the process of awakenment was always marked by resignation and a kind of stoical acceptance of facts. She met no acquaintance there, as Denham did, miraculously transfigured; she played no heroic part. But there certainly she loved some magnanimous hero, and as they swept together among the leaf-hung trees of an unknown world, they shared the feelings which came fresh and fast as the waves on the shore. But the sands of her liberation were running fast; even through the forest branches came sounds of Rodney moving things on his dressing-table; and Katharine woke herself from this excursion by shutting the cover of the book she was holding, and replacing it in the bookshelf.
"William," she said, speaking rather faintly at first, like one sending a voice from sleep to reach the living. "William," she repeated firmly, "if you still want me to marry you, I will."
Perhaps it was that no man could expect to have the most momentous question of his life settled in a voice so level, so toneless, so devoid of joy or energy. At any rate William made no answer. She waited stoically. A moment later he stepped briskly from his dressing-room, and observed that if she wanted to buy more oysters he thought he knew where they could find a fishmonger's shop still open. She breathed deeply a sigh of relief.
Extract from a letter sent a few days later by Mrs. Hilbery to her sister-in-law, Mrs. Milvain:
"... How stupid of me to forget the name in my telegram. Such a nice, rich, English name, too, and, in addition, he has all the graces of intellect; he has read literally EVERYTHING. I tell Katharine, I shall always put him on my right side at dinner, so as to have him by me when people begin talking about characters in Shakespeare. They won't be rich, but they'll be very, very happy. I was sitting in my room late one night, feeling that nothing nice would ever happen to me again, when I heard Katharine outside in the passage, and I thought to myself, 'Shall I call her in?' and then I thought (in that hopeless, dreary way one does think, with the fire going out and one's birthday just over), 'Why should I lay my troubles on HER?' But my little self-control had its reward, for next moment she tapped at the door and came in, and sat on the rug, and though we neither of us said anything, I felt so happy all of a second that I couldn't help crying, 'Oh, Katharine, when you come to my age, how I hope you'll have a daughter, too!' You know how silent Katharine is. She was so silent, for such a long time, that in my foolish, nervous state I dreaded something, I don't quite know what. And then she told me how, after all, she had made up her mind. She had written. She expected him to-morrow. At first I wasn't glad at all. I didn't want her to marry any one; but when she said, 'It will make no difference. I shall always care for you and father most,' then I saw how selfish I was, and I told her she must give him everything, everything, everything! I told her I should be thankful to come second. But why, when everything's turned out just as one always hoped it would turn out, why then can one do nothing but cry, nothing but feel a desolate old woman whose life's been a failure, and now is nearly over, and age is so cruel? But Katharine said to me, 'I am happy. I'm very happy.' And then I thought, though it all seemed so desperately dismal at the time, Katharine had said she was happy, and I should have a son, and it would all turn out so much more wonderfully than I could possibly imagine, for though the sermons don't say so, I do believe the world is meant for us to be happy in. She told me that they would live quite near us, and see us every day; and she would go on with the Life, and we should finish it as we had meant to. And, after all, it would be far more horrid if she didn't marry—or suppose she married some one we couldn't endure? Suppose she had fallen in love with some one who was married already?
"And though one never thinks any one good enough for the people one's fond of, he has the kindest, truest instincts, I'm sure, and though he seems nervous and his manner is not commanding, I only think these things because it's Katharine. And now I've written this, it comes over me that, of course, all the time, Katharine has what he hasn't. She does command, she isn't nervous; it comes naturally to her to rule and control. It's time that she should give all this to some one who will need her when we aren't there, save in our spirits, for whatever people say, I'm sure I shall come back to this wonderful world where one's been so happy and so miserable, where, even now, I seem to see myself stretching out my hands for another present from the great Fairy Tree whose boughs are still hung with enchanting toys, though they are rarer now, perhaps, and between the branches one sees no longer the blue sky, but the stars and the tops of the mountains.
"One doesn't know any more, does one? One hasn't any advice to give one's children. One can only hope that they will have the same vision and the same power to believe, without which life would be so meaningless. That is what I ask for Katharine and her husband."
"Is Mr. Hilbery at home, or Mrs. Hilbery?" Denham asked, of the parlor-maid in Chelsea, a week later.
"No, sir. But Miss Hilbery is at home," the girl answered.
Ralph had anticipated many answers, but not this one, and now it was unexpectedly made plain to him that it was the chance of seeing Katharine that had brought him all the way to Chelsea on pretence of seeing her father.
He made some show of considering the matter, and was taken upstairs to the drawing-room. As upon that first occasion, some weeks ago, the door closed as if it were a thousand doors softly excluding the world; and once more Ralph received an impression of a room full of deep shadows, firelight, unwavering silver candle flames, and empty spaces to be crossed before reaching the round table in the middle of the room, with its frail burden of silver trays and china teacups. But this time Katharine was there by herself; the volume in her hand showed that she expected no visitors.
Ralph said something about hoping to find her father.
"My father is out," she replied. "But if you can wait, I expect him soon."
It might have been due merely to politeness, but Ralph felt that she received him almost with cordiality. Perhaps she was bored by drinking tea and reading a book all alone; at any rate, she tossed the book on to a sofa with a gesture of relief.
"Is that one of the moderns whom you despise?" he asked, smiling at the carelessness of her gesture.
"Yes," she replied. "I think even you would despise him."
"Even I?" he repeated. "Why even I?"
"You said you liked modern things; I said I hated them."
This was not a very accurate report of their conversation among the relics, perhaps, but Ralph was flattered to think that she remembered anything about it.
"Or did I confess that I hated all books?" she went on, seeing him look up with an air of inquiry. "I forget—"
"Do you hate all books?" he asked.
"It would be absurd to say that I hate all books when I've only read ten, perhaps; but—' Here she pulled herself up short.
"Yes, I do hate books," she continued. "Why do you want to be for ever talking about your feelings? That's what I can't make out. And poetry's all about feelings—novels are all about feelings."
She cut a cake vigorously into slices, and providing a tray with bread and butter for Mrs. Hilbery, who was in her room with a cold, she rose to go upstairs.
Ralph held the door open for her, and then stood with clasped hands in the middle of the room. His eyes were bright, and, indeed, he scarcely knew whether they beheld dreams or realities. All down the street and on the doorstep, and while he mounted the stairs, his dream of Katharine possessed him; on the threshold of the room he had dismissed it, in order to prevent too painful a collision between what he dreamt of her and what she was. And in five minutes she had filled the shell of the old dream with the flesh of life; looked with fire out of phantom eyes. He glanced about him with bewilderment at finding himself among her chairs and tables; they were solid, for he grasped the back of the chair in which Katharine had sat; and yet they were unreal; the atmosphere was that of a dream. He summoned all the faculties of his spirit to seize what the minutes had to give him; and from the depths of his mind there rose unchecked a joyful recognition of the truth that human nature surpasses, in its beauty, all that our wildest dreams bring us hints of.
Katharine came into the room a moment later. He stood watching her come towards him, and thought her more beautiful and strange than his dream of her; for the real Katharine could speak the words which seemed to crowd behind the forehead and in the depths of the eyes, and the commonest sentence would be flashed on by this immortal light. And she overflowed the edges of the dream; he remarked that her softness was like that of some vast snowy owl; she wore a ruby on her finger.
"My mother wants me to tell you," she said, "that she hopes you have begun your poem. She says every one ought to write poetry.... All my relations write poetry," she went on. "I can't bear to think of it sometimes—because, of course, it's none of it any good. But then one needn't read it—"
"You don't encourage me to write a poem," said Ralph.
"But you're not a poet, too, are you?" she inquired, turning upon him with a laugh.
"Should I tell you if I were?"
"Yes. Because I think you speak the truth," she said, searching him for proof of this apparently, with eyes now almost impersonally direct. It would be easy, Ralph thought, to worship one so far removed, and yet of so straight a nature; easy to submit recklessly to her, without thought of future pain.
"Are you a poet?" she demanded. He felt that her question had an unexplained weight of meaning behind it, as if she sought an answer to a question that she did not ask.
"No. I haven't written any poetry for years," he replied. "But all the same, I don't agree with you. I think it's the only thing worth doing."
"Why do you say that?" she asked, almost with impatience, tapping her spoon two or three times against the side of her cup.
"Why?" Ralph laid hands on the first words that came to mind. "Because, I suppose, it keeps an ideal alive which might die otherwise."
A curious change came over her face, as if the flame of her mind were subdued; and she looked at him ironically and with the expression which he had called sad before, for want of a better name for it.
"I don't know that there's much sense in having ideals," she said.
"But you have them," he replied energetically. "Why do we call them ideals? It's a stupid word. Dreams, I mean—"
She followed his words with parted lips, as though to answer eagerly when he had done; but as he said, "Dreams, I mean," the door of the drawing-room swung open, and so remained for a perceptible instant. They both held themselves silent, her lips still parted.
Far off, they heard the rustle of skirts. Then the owner of the skirts appeared in the doorway, which she almost filled, nearly concealing the figure of a very much smaller lady who accompanied her.
"My aunts!" Katharine murmured, under her breath. Her tone had a hint of tragedy in it, but no less, Ralph thought, than the situation required. She addressed the larger lady as Aunt Millicent; the smaller was Aunt Celia, Mrs. Milvain, who had lately undertaken the task of marrying Cyril to his wife. Both ladies, but Mrs. Cosham (Aunt Millicent) in particular, had that look of heightened, smoothed, incarnadined existence which is proper to elderly ladies paying calls in London about five o'clock in the afternoon. Portraits by Romney, seen through glass, have something of their pink, mellow look, their blooming softness, as of apricots hanging upon a red wall in the afternoon sun. Mrs. Cosham was so appareled with hanging muffs, chains, and swinging draperies that it was impossible to detect the shape of a human being in the mass of brown and black which filled the arm-chair. Mrs. Milvain was a much slighter figure; but the same doubt as to the precise lines of her contour filled Ralph, as he regarded them, with dismal foreboding. What remark of his would ever reach these fabulous and fantastic characters?—for there was something fantastically unreal in the curious swayings and noddings of Mrs. Cosham, as if her equipment included a large wire spring. Her voice had a high-pitched, cooing note, which prolonged words and cut them short until the English language seemed no longer fit for common purposes. In a moment of nervousness, so Ralph thought, Katharine had turned on innumerable electric lights. But Mrs. Cosham had gained impetus (perhaps her swaying movements had that end in view) for sustained speech; and she now addressed Ralph deliberately and elaborately.
"I come from Woking, Mr. Popham. You may well ask me, why Woking? and to that I answer, for perhaps the hundredth time, because of the sunsets. We went there for the sunsets, but that was five-and-twenty years ago. Where are the sunsets now? Alas! There is no sunset now nearer than the South Coast." Her rich and romantic notes were accompanied by a wave of a long white hand, which, when waved, gave off a flash of diamonds, rubies, and emeralds. Ralph wondered whether she more resembled an elephant, with a jeweled head-dress, or a superb cockatoo, balanced insecurely upon its perch, and pecking capriciously at a lump of sugar.
"Where are the sunsets now?" she repeated. "Do you find sunsets now, Mr. Popham?"
"I live at Highgate," he replied.
"At Highgate? Yes, Highgate has its charms; your Uncle John lived at Highgate," she jerked in the direction of Katharine. She sank her head upon her breast, as if for a moment's meditation, which past, she looked up and observed: "I dare say there are very pretty lanes in Highgate. I can recollect walking with your mother, Katharine, through lanes blossoming with wild hawthorn. But where is the hawthorn now? You remember that exquisite description in De Quincey, Mr. Popham?—but I forget, you, in your generation, with all your activity and enlightenment, at which I can only marvel"—here she displayed both her beautiful white hands—"do not read De Quincey. You have your Belloc, your Chesterton, your Bernard Shaw—why should you read De Quincey?"
"But I do read De Quincey," Ralph protested, "more than Belloc and Chesterton, anyhow."
"Indeed!" exclaimed Mrs. Cosham, with a gesture of surprise and relief mingled. "You are, then, a 'rara avis' in your generation. I am delighted to meet anyone who reads De Quincey."
Here she hollowed her hand into a screen, and, leaning towards Katharine, inquired, in a very audible whisper, "Does your friend WRITE?"
"Mr. Denham," said Katharine, with more than her usual clearness and firmness, "writes for the Review. He is a lawyer."
"The clean-shaven lips, showing the expression of the mouth! I recognize them at once. I always feel at home with lawyers, Mr. Denham—"
"They used to come about so much in the old days," Mrs. Milvain interposed, the frail, silvery notes of her voice falling with the sweet tone of an old bell.
"You say you live at Highgate," she continued. "I wonder whether you happen to know if there is an old house called Tempest Lodge still in existence—an old white house in a garden?"
Ralph shook his head, and she sighed.
"Ah, no; it must have been pulled down by this time, with all the other old houses. There were such pretty lanes in those days. That was how your uncle met your Aunt Emily, you know," she addressed Katharine. "They walked home through the lanes."
"A sprig of May in her bonnet," Mrs. Cosham ejaculated, reminiscently.
"And next Sunday he had violets in his buttonhole. And that was how we guessed."
Katharine laughed. She looked at Ralph. His eyes were meditative, and she wondered what he found in this old gossip to make him ponder so contentedly. She felt, she hardly knew why, a curious pity for him.
"Uncle John—yes, 'poor John,' you always called him. Why was that?" she asked, to make them go on talking, which, indeed, they needed little invitation to do.
"That was what his father, old Sir Richard, always called him. Poor John, or the fool of the family," Mrs. Milvain hastened to inform them. "The other boys were so brilliant, and he could never pass his examinations, so they sent him to India—a long voyage in those days, poor fellow. You had your own room, you know, and you did it up. But he will get his knighthood and a pension, I believe," she said, turning to Ralph, "only it is not England."
"No," Mrs. Cosham confirmed her, "it is not England. In those days we thought an Indian Judgeship about equal to a county-court judgeship at home. His Honor—a pretty title, but still, not at the top of the tree. However," she sighed, "if you have a wife and seven children, and people nowadays very quickly forget your father's name—well, you have to take what you can get," she concluded.
"And I fancy," Mrs. Milvain resumed, lowering her voice rather confidentially, "that John would have done more if it hadn't been for his wife, your Aunt Emily. She was a very good woman, devoted to him, of course, but she was not ambitious for him, and if a wife isn't ambitious for her husband, especially in a profession like the law, clients soon get to know of it. In our young days, Mr. Denham, we used to say that we knew which of our friends would become judges, by looking at the girls they married. And so it was, and so, I fancy, it always will be. I don't think," she added, summing up these scattered remarks, "that any man is really happy unless he succeeds in his profession."
Mrs. Cosham approved of this sentiment with more ponderous sagacity from her side of the tea-table, in the first place by swaying her head, and in the second by remarking:
"No, men are not the same as women. I fancy Alfred Tennyson spoke the truth about that as about many other things. How I wish he'd lived to write 'The Prince'—a sequel to 'The Princess'! I confess I'm almost tired of Princesses. We want some one to show us what a good man can be. We have Laura and Beatrice, Antigone and Cordelia, but we have no heroic man. How do you, as a poet, account for that, Mr. Denham?"
"I'm not a poet," said Ralph good-humoredly. "I'm only a solicitor."
"But you write, too?" Mrs. Cosham demanded, afraid lest she should be balked of her priceless discovery, a young man truly devoted to literature.
"In my spare time," Denham reassured her.
"In your spare time!" Mrs. Cosham echoed. "That is a proof of devotion, indeed." She half closed her eyes, and indulged herself in a fascinating picture of a briefless barrister lodged in a garret, writing immortal novels by the light of a farthing dip. But the romance which fell upon the figures of great writers and illumined their pages was no false radiance in her case. She carried her pocket Shakespeare about with her, and met life fortified by the words of the poets. How far she saw Denham, and how far she confused him with some hero of fiction, it would be hard to say. Literature had taken possession even of her memories. She was matching him, presumably, with certain characters in the old novels, for she came out, after a pause, with:
"Um—um—Pendennis—Warrington—I could never forgive Laura," she pronounced energetically, "for not marrying George, in spite of everything. George Eliot did the very same thing; and Lewes was a little frog-faced man, with the manner of a dancing master. But Warrington, now, had everything in his favor; intellect, passion, romance, distinction, and the connection was a mere piece of undergraduate folly. Arthur, I confess, has always seemed to me a bit of a fop; I can't imagine how Laura married him. But you say you're a solicitor, Mr. Denham. Now there are one or two things I should like to ask you—about Shakespeare—" She drew out her small, worn volume with some difficulty, opened it, and shook it in the air. "They say, nowadays, that Shakespeare was a lawyer. They say, that accounts for his knowledge of human nature. There's a fine example for you, Mr. Denham. Study your clients, young man, and the world will be the richer one of these days, I have no doubt. Tell me, how do we come out of it, now; better or worse than you expected?"