Thus called upon to sum up the worth of human nature in a few words, Ralph answered unhesitatingly:
"Worse, Mrs. Cosham, a good deal worse. I'm afraid the ordinary man is a bit of a rascal—"
"And the ordinary woman?"
"No, I don't like the ordinary woman either—"
"Ah, dear me, I've no doubt that's very true, very true." Mrs. Cosham sighed. "Swift would have agreed with you, anyhow—" She looked at him, and thought that there were signs of distinct power in his brow. He would do well, she thought, to devote himself to satire.
"Charles Lavington, you remember, was a solicitor," Mrs. Milvain interposed, rather resenting the waste of time involved in talking about fictitious people when you might be talking about real people. "But you wouldn't remember him, Katharine."
"Mr. Lavington? Oh, yes, I do," said Katharine, waking from other thoughts with her little start. "The summer we had a house near Tenby. I remember the field and the pond with the tadpoles, and making haystacks with Mr. Lavington."
"She is right. There WAS a pond with tadpoles," Mrs. Cosham corroborated. "Millais made studies of it for 'Ophelia.' Some say that is the best picture he ever painted—"
"And I remember the dog chained up in the yard, and the dead snakes hanging in the toolhouse."
"It was at Tenby that you were chased by the bull," Mrs. Milvain continued. "But that you couldn't remember, though it's true you were a wonderful child. Such eyes she had, Mr. Denham! I used to say to her father, 'She's watching us, and summing us all up in her little mind.' And they had a nurse in those days," she went on, telling her story with charming solemnity to Ralph, "who was a good woman, but engaged to a sailor. When she ought to have been attending to the baby, her eyes were on the sea. And Mrs. Hilbery allowed this girl—Susan her name was—to have him to stay in the village. They abused her goodness, I'm sorry to say, and while they walked in the lanes, they stood the perambulator alone in a field where there was a bull. The animal became enraged by the red blanket in the perambulator, and Heaven knows what might have happened if a gentleman had not been walking by in the nick of time, and rescued Katharine in his arms!"
"I think the bull was only a cow, Aunt Celia," said Katharine.
"My darling, it was a great red Devonshire bull, and not long after it gored a man to death and had to be destroyed. And your mother forgave Susan—a thing I could never have done."
"Maggie's sympathies were entirely with Susan and the sailor, I am sure," said Mrs. Cosham, rather tartly. "My sister-in-law," she continued, "has laid her burdens upon Providence at every crisis in her life, and Providence, I must confess, has responded nobly, so far—"
"Yes," said Katharine, with a laugh, for she liked the rashness which irritated the rest of the family. "My mother's bulls always turn into cows at the critical moment."
"Well," said Mrs. Milvain, "I'm glad you have some one to protect you from bulls now."
"I can't imagine William protecting any one from bulls," said Katharine.
It happened that Mrs. Cosham had once more produced her pocket volume of Shakespeare, and was consulting Ralph upon an obscure passage in "Measure for Measure." He did not at once seize the meaning of what Katharine and her aunt were saying; William, he supposed, referred to some small cousin, for he now saw Katharine as a child in a pinafore; but, nevertheless, he was so much distracted that his eye could hardly follow the words on the paper. A moment later he heard them speak distinctly of an engagement ring.
"I like rubies," he heard Katharine say.
"To be imprison'd in the viewless winds, And blown with restless violence round about The pendant world...."
Mrs. Cosham intoned; at the same instant "Rodney" fitted itself to "William" in Ralph's mind. He felt convinced that Katharine was engaged to Rodney. His first sensation was one of violent rage with her for having deceived him throughout the visit, fed him with pleasant old wives' tales, let him see her as a child playing in a meadow, shared her youth with him, while all the time she was a stranger entirely, and engaged to marry Rodney.
But was it possible? Surely it was not possible. For in his eyes she was still a child. He paused so long over the book that Mrs. Cosham had time to look over his shoulder and ask her niece:
"And have you settled upon a house yet, Katharine?"
This convinced him of the truth of the monstrous idea. He looked up at once and said:
"Yes, it's a difficult passage."
His voice had changed so much, he spoke with such curtness and even with such contempt, that Mrs. Cosham looked at him fairly puzzled. Happily she belonged to a generation which expected uncouthness in its men, and she merely felt convinced that this Mr. Denham was very, very clever. She took back her Shakespeare, as Denham seemed to have no more to say, and secreted it once more about her person with the infinitely pathetic resignation of the old.
"Katharine's engaged to William Rodney," she said, by way of filling in the pause; "a very old friend of ours. He has a wonderful knowledge of literature, too—wonderful." She nodded her head rather vaguely. "You should meet each other."
Denham's one wish was to leave the house as soon as he could; but the elderly ladies had risen, and were proposing to visit Mrs. Hilbery in her bedroom, so that any move on his part was impossible. At the same time, he wished to say something, but he knew not what, to Katharine alone. She took her aunts upstairs, and returned, coming towards him once more with an air of innocence and friendliness that amazed him.
"My father will be back," she said. "Won't you sit down?" and she laughed, as if now they might share a perfectly friendly laugh at the tea-party.
But Ralph made no attempt to seat himself.
"I must congratulate you," he said. "It was news to me." He saw her face change, but only to become graver than before.
"My engagement?" she asked. "Yes, I am going to marry William Rodney."
Ralph remained standing with his hand on the back of a chair in absolute silence. Abysses seemed to plunge into darkness between them. He looked at her, but her face showed that she was not thinking of him. No regret or consciousness of wrong disturbed her.
"Well, I must go," he said at length.
She seemed about to say something, then changed her mind and said merely:
"You will come again, I hope. We always seem"—she hesitated—"to be interrupted."
He bowed and left the room.
Ralph strode with extreme swiftness along the Embankment. Every muscle was taut and braced as if to resist some sudden attack from outside. For the moment it seemed as if the attack were about to be directed against his body, and his brain thus was on the alert, but without understanding. Finding himself, after a few minutes, no longer under observation, and no attack delivered, he slackened his pace, the pain spread all through him, took possession of every governing seat, and met with scarcely any resistance from powers exhausted by their first effort at defence. He took his way languidly along the river embankment, away from home rather than towards it. The world had him at its mercy. He made no pattern out of the sights he saw. He felt himself now, as he had often fancied other people, adrift on the stream, and far removed from control of it, a man with no grasp upon circumstances any longer. Old battered men loafing at the doors of public-houses now seemed to be his fellows, and he felt, as he supposed them to feel, a mingling of envy and hatred towards those who passed quickly and certainly to a goal of their own. They, too, saw things very thin and shadowy, and were wafted about by the lightest breath of wind. For the substantial world, with its prospect of avenues leading on and on to the invisible distance, had slipped from him, since Katharine was engaged. Now all his life was visible, and the straight, meager path had its ending soon enough. Katharine was engaged, and she had deceived him, too. He felt for corners of his being untouched by his disaster; but there was no limit to the flood of damage; not one of his possessions was safe now. Katharine had deceived him; she had mixed herself with every thought of his, and reft of her they seemed false thoughts which he would blush to think again. His life seemed immeasurably impoverished.
He sat himself down, in spite of the chilly fog which obscured the farther bank and left its lights suspended upon a blank surface, upon one of the riverside seats, and let the tide of disillusionment sweep through him. For the time being all bright points in his life were blotted out; all prominences leveled. At first he made himself believe that Katharine had treated him badly, and drew comfort from the thought that, left alone, she would recollect this, and think of him and tender him, in silence, at any rate, an apology. But this grain of comfort failed him after a second or two, for, upon reflection, he had to admit that Katharine owed him nothing. Katharine had promised nothing, taken nothing; to her his dreams had meant nothing. This, indeed, was the lowest pitch of his despair. If the best of one's feelings means nothing to the person most concerned in those feelings, what reality is left us? The old romance which had warmed his days for him, the thoughts of Katharine which had painted every hour, were now made to appear foolish and enfeebled. He rose, and looked into the river, whose swift race of dun-colored waters seemed the very spirit of futility and oblivion.
"In what can one trust, then?" he thought, as he leant there. So feeble and insubstantial did he feel himself that he repeated the word aloud.
"In what can one trust? Not in men and women. Not in one's dreams about them. There's nothing—nothing, nothing left at all."
Now Denham had reason to know that he could bring to birth and keep alive a fine anger when he chose. Rodney provided a good target for that emotion. And yet at the moment, Rodney and Katharine herself seemed disembodied ghosts. He could scarcely remember the look of them. His mind plunged lower and lower. Their marriage seemed of no importance to him. All things had turned to ghosts; the whole mass of the world was insubstantial vapor, surrounding the solitary spark in his mind, whose burning point he could remember, for it burnt no more. He had once cherished a belief, and Katharine had embodied this belief, and she did so no longer. He did not blame her; he blamed nothing, nobody; he saw the truth. He saw the dun-colored race of waters and the blank shore. But life is vigorous; the body lives, and the body, no doubt, dictated the reflection, which now urged him to movement, that one may cast away the forms of human beings, and yet retain the passion which seemed inseparable from their existence in the flesh. Now this passion burnt on his horizon, as the winter sun makes a greenish pane in the west through thinning clouds. His eyes were set on something infinitely far and remote; by that light he felt he could walk, and would, in future, have to find his way. But that was all there was left to him of a populous and teeming world.
The lunch hour in the office was only partly spent by Denham in the consumption of food. Whether fine or wet, he passed most of it pacing the gravel paths in Lincoln's Inn Fields. The children got to know his figure, and the sparrows expected their daily scattering of bread-crumbs. No doubt, since he often gave a copper and almost always a handful of bread, he was not as blind to his surroundings as he thought himself.
He thought that these winter days were spent in long hours before white papers radiant in electric light; and in short passages through fog-dimmed streets. When he came back to his work after lunch he carried in his head a picture of the Strand, scattered with omnibuses, and of the purple shapes of leaves pressed flat upon the gravel, as if his eyes had always been bent upon the ground. His brain worked incessantly, but his thought was attended with so little joy that he did not willingly recall it; but drove ahead, now in this direction, now in that; and came home laden with dark books borrowed from a library.
Mary Datchet, coming from the Strand at lunch-time, saw him one day taking his turn, closely buttoned in an overcoat, and so lost in thought that he might have been sitting in his own room.
She was overcome by something very like awe by the sight of him; then she felt much inclined to laugh, although her pulse beat faster. She passed him, and he never saw her. She came back and touched him on the shoulder.
"Gracious, Mary!" he exclaimed. "How you startled me!"
"Yes. You looked as if you were walking in your sleep," she said. "Are you arranging some terrible love affair? Have you got to reconcile a desperate couple?"
"I wasn't thinking about my work," Ralph replied, rather hastily. "And, besides, that sort of thing's not in my line," he added, rather grimly.
The morning was fine, and they had still some minutes of leisure to spend. They had not met for two or three weeks, and Mary had much to say to Ralph; but she was not certain how far he wished for her company. However, after a turn or two, in which a few facts were communicated, he suggested sitting down, and she took the seat beside him. The sparrows came fluttering about them, and Ralph produced from his pocket the half of a roll saved from his luncheon. He threw a few crumbs among them.
"I've never seen sparrows so tame," Mary observed, by way of saying something.
"No," said Ralph. "The sparrows in Hyde Park aren't as tame as this. If we keep perfectly still, I'll get one to settle on my arm."
Mary felt that she could have forgone this display of animal good temper, but seeing that Ralph, for some curious reason, took a pride in the sparrows, she bet him sixpence that he would not succeed.
"Done!" he said; and his eye, which had been gloomy, showed a spark of light. His conversation was now addressed entirely to a bald cock-sparrow, who seemed bolder than the rest; and Mary took the opportunity of looking at him. She was not satisfied; his face was worn, and his expression stern. A child came bowling its hoop through the concourse of birds, and Ralph threw his last crumbs of bread into the bushes with a snort of impatience.
"That's what always happens—just as I've almost got him," he said. "Here's your sixpence, Mary. But you've only got it thanks to that brute of a boy. They oughtn't to be allowed to bowl hoops here—"
"Oughtn't to be allowed to bowl hoops! My dear Ralph, what nonsense!"
"You always say that," he complained; "and it isn't nonsense. What's the point of having a garden if one can't watch birds in it? The street does all right for hoops. And if children can't be trusted in the streets, their mothers should keep them at home."
Mary made no answer to this remark, but frowned.
She leant back on the seat and looked about her at the great houses breaking the soft gray-blue sky with their chimneys.
"Ah, well," she said, "London's a fine place to live in. I believe I could sit and watch people all day long. I like my fellow-creatures...."
Ralph sighed impatiently.
"Yes, I think so, when you come to know them," she added, as if his disagreement had been spoken.
"That's just when I don't like them," he replied. "Still, I don't see why you shouldn't cherish that illusion, if it pleases you." He spoke without much vehemence of agreement or disagreement. He seemed chilled.
"Wake up, Ralph! You're half asleep!" Mary cried, turning and pinching his sleeve. "What have you been doing with yourself? Moping? Working? Despising the world, as usual?"
As he merely shook his head, and filled his pipe, she went on:
"It's a bit of a pose, isn't it?"
"Not more than most things," he said.
"Well," Mary remarked, "I've a great deal to say to you, but I must go on—we have a committee." She rose, but hesitated, looking down upon him rather gravely. "You don't look happy, Ralph," she said. "Is it anything, or is it nothing?"
He did not immediately answer her, but rose, too, and walked with her towards the gate. As usual, he did not speak to her without considering whether what he was about to say was the sort of thing that he could say to her.
"I've been bothered," he said at length. "Partly by work, and partly by family troubles. Charles has been behaving like a fool. He wants to go out to Canada as a farmer—"
"Well, there's something to be said for that," said Mary; and they passed the gate, and walked slowly round the Fields again, discussing difficulties which, as a matter of fact, were more or less chronic in the Denham family, and only now brought forward to appease Mary's sympathy, which, however, soothed Ralph more than he was aware of. She made him at least dwell upon problems which were real in the sense that they were capable of solution; and the true cause of his melancholy, which was not susceptible to such treatment, sank rather more deeply into the shades of his mind.
Mary was attentive; she was helpful. Ralph could not help feeling grateful to her, the more so, perhaps, because he had not told her the truth about his state; and when they reached the gate again he wished to make some affectionate objection to her leaving him. But his affection took the rather uncouth form of expostulating with her about her work.
"What d'you want to sit on a committee for?" he asked. "It's waste of your time, Mary."
"I agree with you that a country walk would benefit the world more," she said. "Look here," she added suddenly, "why don't you come to us at Christmas? It's almost the best time of year."
"Come to you at Disham?" Ralph repeated.
"Yes. We won't interfere with you. But you can tell me later," she said, rather hastily, and then started off in the direction of Russell Square. She had invited him on the impulse of the moment, as a vision of the country came before her; and now she was annoyed with herself for having done so, and then she was annoyed at being annoyed.
"If I can't face a walk in a field alone with Ralph," she reasoned, "I'd better buy a cat and live in a lodging at Ealing, like Sally Seal—and he won't come. Or did he mean that he WOULD come?"
She shook her head. She really did not know what he had meant. She never felt quite certain; but now she was more than usually baffled. Was he concealing something from her? His manner had been odd; his deep absorption had impressed her; there was something in him that she had not fathomed, and the mystery of his nature laid more of a spell upon her than she liked. Moreover, she could not prevent herself from doing now what she had often blamed others of her sex for doing—from endowing her friend with a kind of heavenly fire, and passing her life before it for his sanction.
Under this process, the committee rather dwindled in importance; the Suffrage shrank; she vowed she would work harder at the Italian language; she thought she would take up the study of birds. But this program for a perfect life threatened to become so absurd that she very soon caught herself out in the evil habit, and was rehearsing her speech to the committee by the time the chestnut-colored bricks of Russell Square came in sight. Indeed, she never noticed them. She ran upstairs as usual, and was completely awakened to reality by the sight of Mrs. Seal, on the landing outside the office, inducing a very large dog to drink water out of a tumbler.
"Miss Markham has already arrived," Mrs. Seal remarked, with due solemnity, "and this is her dog."
"A very fine dog, too," said Mary, patting him on the head.
"Yes. A magnificent fellow," Mrs. Seal agreed. "A kind of St. Bernard, she tells me—so like Kit to have a St. Bernard. And you guard your mistress well, don't you, Sailor? You see that wicked men don't break into her larder when she's out at HER work—helping poor souls who have lost their way.... But we're late—we must begin!" and scattering the rest of the water indiscriminately over the floor, she hurried Mary into the committee-room.
Mr. Clacton was in his glory. The machinery which he had perfected and controlled was now about to turn out its bi-monthly product, a committee meeting; and his pride in the perfect structure of these assemblies was great. He loved the jargon of committee-rooms; he loved the way in which the door kept opening as the clock struck the hour, in obedience to a few strokes of his pen on a piece of paper; and when it had opened sufficiently often, he loved to issue from his inner chamber with documents in his hands, visibly important, with a preoccupied expression on his face that might have suited a Prime Minister advancing to meet his Cabinet. By his orders the table had been decorated beforehand with six sheets of blotting-paper, with six pens, six ink-pots, a tumbler and a jug of water, a bell, and, in deference to the taste of the lady members, a vase of hardy chrysanthemums. He had already surreptitiously straightened the sheets of blotting-paper in relation to the ink-pots, and now stood in front of the fire engaged in conversation with Miss Markham. But his eye was on the door, and when Mary and Mrs. Seal entered, he gave a little laugh and observed to the assembly which was scattered about the room:
"I fancy, ladies and gentlemen, that we are ready to commence."
So speaking, he took his seat at the head of the table, and arranging one bundle of papers upon his right and another upon his left, called upon Miss Datchet to read the minutes of the previous meeting. Mary obeyed. A keen observer might have wondered why it was necessary for the secretary to knit her brows so closely over the tolerably matter-of-fact statement before her. Could there be any doubt in her mind that it had been resolved to circularize the provinces with Leaflet No. 3, or to issue a statistical diagram showing the proportion of married women to spinsters in New Zealand; or that the net profits of Mrs. Hipsley's Bazaar had reached a total of five pounds eight shillings and twopence half-penny?
Could any doubt as to the perfect sense and propriety of these statements be disturbing her? No one could have guessed, from the look of her, that she was disturbed at all. A pleasanter and saner woman than Mary Datchet was never seen within a committee-room. She seemed a compound of the autumn leaves and the winter sunshine; less poetically speaking, she showed both gentleness and strength, an indefinable promise of soft maternity blending with her evident fitness for honest labor. Nevertheless, she had great difficulty in reducing her mind to obedience; and her reading lacked conviction, as if, as was indeed the case, she had lost the power of visualizing what she read. And directly the list was completed, her mind floated to Lincoln's Inn Fields and the fluttering wings of innumerable sparrows. Was Ralph still enticing the bald-headed cock-sparrow to sit upon his hand? Had he succeeded? Would he ever succeed? She had meant to ask him why it is that the sparrows in Lincoln's Inn Fields are tamer than the sparrows in Hyde Park—perhaps it is that the passers-by are rarer, and they come to recognize their benefactors. For the first half-hour of the committee meeting, Mary had thus to do battle with the skeptical presence of Ralph Denham, who threatened to have it all his own way. Mary tried half a dozen methods of ousting him. She raised her voice, she articulated distinctly, she looked firmly at Mr. Clacton's bald head, she began to write a note. To her annoyance, her pencil drew a little round figure on the blotting-paper, which, she could not deny, was really a bald-headed cock-sparrow. She looked again at Mr. Clacton; yes, he was bald, and so are cock-sparrows. Never was a secretary tormented by so many unsuitable suggestions, and they all came, alas! with something ludicrously grotesque about them, which might, at any moment, provoke her to such flippancy as would shock her colleagues for ever. The thought of what she might say made her bite her lips, as if her lips would protect her.
But all these suggestions were but flotsam and jetsam cast to the surface by a more profound disturbance, which, as she could not consider it at present, manifested its existence by these grotesque nods and beckonings. Consider it, she must, when the committee was over. Meanwhile, she was behaving scandalously; she was looking out of the window, and thinking of the color of the sky, and of the decorations on the Imperial Hotel, when she ought to have been shepherding her colleagues, and pinning them down to the matter in hand. She could not bring herself to attach more weight to one project than to another. Ralph had said—she could not stop to consider what he had said, but he had somehow divested the proceedings of all reality. And then, without conscious effort, by some trick of the brain, she found herself becoming interested in some scheme for organizing a newspaper campaign. Certain articles were to be written; certain editors approached. What line was it advisable to take? She found herself strongly disapproving of what Mr. Clacton was saying. She committed herself to the opinion that now was the time to strike hard. Directly she had said this, she felt that she had turned upon Ralph's ghost; and she became more and more in earnest, and anxious to bring the others round to her point of view. Once more, she knew exactly and indisputably what is right and what is wrong. As if emerging from a mist, the old foes of the public good loomed ahead of her—capitalists, newspaper proprietors, anti-suffragists, and, in some ways most pernicious of all, the masses who take no interest one way or another—among whom, for the time being, she certainly discerned the features of Ralph Denham. Indeed, when Miss Markham asked her to suggest the names of a few friends of hers, she expressed herself with unusual bitterness:
"My friends think all this kind of thing useless." She felt that she was really saying that to Ralph himself.
"Oh, they're that sort, are they?" said Miss Markham, with a little laugh; and with renewed vigor their legions charged the foe.
Mary's spirits had been low when she entered the committee-room; but now they were considerably improved. She knew the ways of this world; it was a shapely, orderly place; she felt convinced of its right and its wrong; and the feeling that she was fit to deal a heavy blow against her enemies warmed her heart and kindled her eye. In one of those flights of fancy, not characteristic of her but tiresomely frequent this afternoon, she envisaged herself battered with rotten eggs upon a platform, from which Ralph vainly begged her to descend. But—
"What do I matter compared with the cause?" she said, and so on. Much to her credit, however teased by foolish fancies, she kept the surface of her brain moderate and vigilant, and subdued Mrs. Seal very tactfully more than once when she demanded, "Action!—everywhere!—at once!" as became her father's daughter.
The other members of the committee, who were all rather elderly people, were a good deal impressed by Mary, and inclined to side with her and against each other, partly, perhaps, because of her youth. The feeling that she controlled them all filled Mary with a sense of power; and she felt that no work can equal in importance, or be so exciting as, the work of making other people do what you want them to do. Indeed, when she had won her point she felt a slight degree of contempt for the people who had yielded to her.
The committee now rose, gathered together their papers, shook them straight, placed them in their attache-cases, snapped the locks firmly together, and hurried away, having, for the most part, to catch trains, in order to keep other appointments with other committees, for they were all busy people. Mary, Mrs. Seal, and Mr. Clacton were left alone; the room was hot and untidy, the pieces of pink blotting-paper were lying at different angles upon the table, and the tumbler was half full of water, which some one had poured out and forgotten to drink.
Mrs. Seal began preparing the tea, while Mr. Clacton retired to his room to file the fresh accumulation of documents. Mary was too much excited even to help Mrs. Seal with the cups and saucers. She flung up the window and stood by it, looking out. The street lamps were already lit; and through the mist in the square one could see little figures hurrying across the road and along the pavement, on the farther side. In her absurd mood of lustful arrogance, Mary looked at the little figures and thought, "If I liked I could make you go in there or stop short; I could make you walk in single file or in double file; I could do what I liked with you." Then Mrs. Seal came and stood by her.
"Oughtn't you to put something round your shoulders, Sally?" Mary asked, in rather a condescending tone of voice, feeling a sort of pity for the enthusiastic ineffective little woman. But Mrs. Seal paid no attention to the suggestion.
"Well, did you enjoy yourself?" Mary asked, with a little laugh.
Mrs. Seal drew a deep breath, restrained herself, and then burst out, looking out, too, upon Russell Square and Southampton Row, and at the passers-by, "Ah, if only one could get every one of those people into this room, and make them understand for five minutes! But they MUST see the truth some day.... If only one could MAKE them see it...."
Mary knew herself to be very much wiser than Mrs. Seal, and when Mrs. Seal said anything, even if it was what Mary herself was feeling, she automatically thought of all that there was to be said against it. On this occasion her arrogant feeling that she could direct everybody dwindled away.
"Let's have our tea," she said, turning back from the window and pulling down the blind. "It was a good meeting—didn't you think so, Sally?" she let fall, casually, as she sat down at the table. Surely Mrs. Seal must realize that Mary had been extraordinarily efficient?
"But we go at such a snail's pace," said Sally, shaking her head impatiently.
At this Mary burst out laughing, and all her arrogance was dissipated.
"You can afford to laugh," said Sally, with another shake of her head, "but I can't. I'm fifty-five, and I dare say I shall be in my grave by the time we get it—if we ever do."
"Oh, no, you won't be in your grave," said Mary, kindly.
"It'll be such a great day," said Mrs. Seal, with a toss of her locks. "A great day, not only for us, but for civilization. That's what I feel, you know, about these meetings. Each one of them is a step onwards in the great march—humanity, you know. We do want the people after us to have a better time of it—and so many don't see it. I wonder how it is that they don't see it?"
She was carrying plates and cups from the cupboard as she spoke, so that her sentences were more than usually broken apart. Mary could not help looking at the odd little priestess of humanity with something like admiration. While she had been thinking about herself, Mrs. Seal had thought of nothing but her vision.
"You mustn't wear yourself out, Sally, if you want to see the great day," she said, rising and trying to take a plate of biscuits from Mrs. Seal's hands.
"My dear child, what else is my old body good for?" she exclaimed, clinging more tightly than before to her plate of biscuits. "Shouldn't I be proud to give everything I have to the cause?—for I'm not an intelligence like you. There were domestic circumstances—I'd like to tell you one of these days—so I say foolish things. I lose my head, you know. You don't. Mr. Clacton doesn't. It's a great mistake, to lose one's head. But my heart's in the right place. And I'm so glad Kit has a big dog, for I didn't think her looking well."
They had their tea, and went over many of the points that had been raised in the committee rather more intimately than had been possible then; and they all felt an agreeable sense of being in some way behind the scenes; of having their hands upon strings which, when pulled, would completely change the pageant exhibited daily to those who read the newspapers. Although their views were very different, this sense united them and made them almost cordial in their manners to each other.
Mary, however, left the tea-party rather early, desiring both to be alone, and then to hear some music at the Queen's Hall. She fully intended to use her loneliness to think out her position with regard to Ralph; but although she walked back to the Strand with this end in view, she found her mind uncomfortably full of different trains of thought. She started one and then another. They seemed even to take their color from the street she happened to be in. Thus the vision of humanity appeared to be in some way connected with Bloomsbury, and faded distinctly by the time she crossed the main road; then a belated organ-grinder in Holborn set her thoughts dancing incongruously; and by the time she was crossing the great misty square of Lincoln's Inn Fields, she was cold and depressed again, and horribly clear-sighted. The dark removed the stimulus of human companionship, and a tear actually slid down her cheek, accompanying a sudden conviction within her that she loved Ralph, and that he didn't love her. All dark and empty now was the path where they had walked that morning, and the sparrows silent in the bare trees. But the lights in her own building soon cheered her; all these different states of mind were submerged in the deep flood of desires, thoughts, perceptions, antagonisms, which washed perpetually at the base of her being, to rise into prominence in turn when the conditions of the upper world were favorable. She put off the hour of clear thought until Christmas, saying to herself, as she lit her fire, that it is impossible to think anything out in London; and, no doubt, Ralph wouldn't come at Christmas, and she would take long walks into the heart of the country, and decide this question and all the others that puzzled her. Meanwhile, she thought, drawing her feet up on to the fender, life was full of complexity; life was a thing one must love to the last fiber of it.
She had sat there for five minutes or so, and her thoughts had had time to grow dim, when there came a ring at her bell. Her eye brightened; she felt immediately convinced that Ralph had come to visit her. Accordingly, she waited a moment before opening the door; she wanted to feel her hands secure upon the reins of all the troublesome emotions which the sight of Ralph would certainly arouse. She composed herself unnecessarily, however, for she had to admit, not Ralph, but Katharine and William Rodney. Her first impression was that they were both extremely well dressed. She felt herself shabby and slovenly beside them, and did not know how she should entertain them, nor could she guess why they had come. She had heard nothing of their engagement. But after the first disappointment, she was pleased, for she felt instantly that Katharine was a personality, and, moreover, she need not now exercise her self-control.
"We were passing and saw a light in your window, so we came up," Katharine explained, standing and looking very tall and distinguished and rather absent-minded.
"We have been to see some pictures," said William. "Oh, dear," he exclaimed, looking about him, "this room reminds me of one of the worst hours in my existence—when I read a paper, and you all sat round and jeered at me. Katharine was the worst. I could feel her gloating over every mistake I made. Miss Datchet was kind. Miss Datchet just made it possible for me to get through, I remember."
Sitting down, he drew off his light yellow gloves, and began slapping his knees with them. His vitality was pleasant, Mary thought, although he made her laugh. The very look of him was inclined to make her laugh. His rather prominent eyes passed from one young woman to the other, and his lips perpetually formed words which remained unspoken.
"We have been seeing old masters at the Grafton Gallery," said Katharine, apparently paying no attention to William, and accepting a cigarette which Mary offered her. She leant back in her chair, and the smoke which hung about her face seemed to withdraw her still further from the others.
"Would you believe it, Miss Datchet," William continued, "Katharine doesn't like Titian. She doesn't like apricots, she doesn't like peaches, she doesn't like green peas. She likes the Elgin marbles, and gray days without any sun. She's a typical example of the cold northern nature. I come from Devonshire—"
Had they been quarreling, Mary wondered, and had they, for that reason, sought refuge in her room, or were they engaged, or had Katharine just refused him? She was completely baffled.
Katharine now reappeared from her veil of smoke, knocked the ash from her cigarette into the fireplace, and looked, with an odd expression of solicitude, at the irritable man.
"Perhaps, Mary," she said tentatively, "you wouldn't mind giving us some tea? We did try to get some, but the shop was so crowded, and in the next one there was a band playing; and most of the pictures, at any rate, were very dull, whatever you may say, William." She spoke with a kind of guarded gentleness.
Mary, accordingly, retired to make preparations in the pantry.
"What in the world are they after?" she asked of her own reflection in the little looking-glass which hung there. She was not left to doubt much longer, for, on coming back into the sitting-room with the tea-things, Katharine informed her, apparently having been instructed so to do by William, of their engagement.
"William," she said, "thinks that perhaps you don't know. We are going to be married."
Mary found herself shaking William's hand, and addressing her congratulations to him, as if Katharine were inaccessible; she had, indeed, taken hold of the tea-kettle.
"Let me see," Katharine said, "one puts hot water into the cups first, doesn't one? You have some dodge of your own, haven't you, William, about making tea?"
Mary was half inclined to suspect that this was said in order to conceal nervousness, but if so, the concealment was unusually perfect. Talk of marriage was dismissed. Katharine might have been seated in her own drawing-room, controlling a situation which presented no sort of difficulty to her trained mind. Rather to her surprise, Mary found herself making conversation with William about old Italian pictures, while Katharine poured out tea, cut cake, kept William's plate supplied, without joining more than was necessary in the conversation. She seemed to have taken possession of Mary's room, and to handle the cups as if they belonged to her. But it was done so naturally that it bred no resentment in Mary; on the contrary, she found herself putting her hand on Katharine's knee, affectionately, for an instant. Was there something maternal in this assumption of control? And thinking of Katharine as one who would soon be married, these maternal airs filled Mary's mind with a new tenderness, and even with awe. Katharine seemed very much older and more experienced than she was.
Meanwhile Rodney talked. If his appearance was superficially against him, it had the advantage of making his solid merits something of a surprise. He had kept notebooks; he knew a great deal about pictures. He could compare different examples in different galleries, and his authoritative answers to intelligent questions gained not a little, Mary felt, from the smart taps which he dealt, as he delivered them, upon the lumps of coal. She was impressed.
"Your tea, William," said Katharine gently.
He paused, gulped it down, obediently, and continued.
And then it struck Mary that Katharine, in the shade of her broad-brimmed hat, and in the midst of the smoke, and in the obscurity of her character, was, perhaps, smiling to herself, not altogether in the maternal spirit. What she said was very simple, but her words, even "Your tea, William," were set down as gently and cautiously and exactly as the feet of a Persian cat stepping among China ornaments. For the second time that day Mary felt herself baffled by something inscrutable in the character of a person to whom she felt herself much attracted. She thought that if she were engaged to Katharine, she, too, would find herself very soon using those fretful questions with which William evidently teased his bride. And yet Katharine's voice was humble.
"I wonder how you find the time to know all about pictures as well as books?" she asked.
"How do I find the time?" William answered, delighted, Mary guessed, at this little compliment. "Why, I always travel with a notebook. And I ask my way to the picture gallery the very first thing in the morning. And then I meet men, and talk to them. There's a man in my office who knows all about the Flemish school. I was telling Miss Datchet about the Flemish school. I picked up a lot of it from him—it's a way men have—Gibbons, his name is. You must meet him. We'll ask him to lunch. And this not caring about art," he explained, turning to Mary, "it's one of Katharine's poses, Miss Datchet. Did you know she posed? She pretends that she's never read Shakespeare. And why should she read Shakespeare, since she IS Shakespeare—Rosalind, you know," and he gave his queer little chuckle. Somehow this compliment appeared very old-fashioned and almost in bad taste. Mary actually felt herself blush, as if he had said "the sex" or "the ladies." Constrained, perhaps, by nervousness, Rodney continued in the same vein.
"She knows enough—enough for all decent purposes. What do you women want with learning, when you have so much else—everything, I should say—everything. Leave us something, eh, Katharine?"
"Leave you something?" said Katharine, apparently waking from a brown study. "I was thinking we must be going—"
"Is it to-night that Lady Ferrilby dines with us? No, we mustn't be late," said Rodney, rising. "D'you know the Ferrilbys, Miss Datchet? They own Trantem Abbey," he added, for her information, as she looked doubtful. "And if Katharine makes herself very charming to-night, perhaps'll lend it to us for the honeymoon."
"I agree that may be a reason. Otherwise she's a dull woman," said Katharine. "At least," she added, as if to qualify her abruptness, "I find it difficult to talk to her."
"Because you expect every one else to take all the trouble. I've seen her sit silent a whole evening," he said, turning to Mary, as he had frequently done already. "Don't you find that, too? Sometimes when we're alone, I've counted the time on my watch"—here he took out a large gold watch, and tapped the glass—"the time between one remark and the next. And once I counted ten minutes and twenty seconds, and then, if you'll believe me, she only said 'Um!'"
"I'm sure I'm sorry," Katharine apologized. "I know it's a bad habit, but then, you see, at home—"
The rest of her excuse was cut short, so far as Mary was concerned, by the closing of the door. She fancied she could hear William finding fresh fault on the stairs. A moment later, the door-bell rang again, and Katharine reappeared, having left her purse on a chair. She soon found it, and said, pausing for a moment at the door, and speaking differently as they were alone:
"I think being engaged is very bad for the character." She shook her purse in her hand until the coins jingled, as if she alluded merely to this example of her forgetfulness. But the remark puzzled Mary; it seemed to refer to something else; and her manner had changed so strangely, now that William was out of hearing, that she could not help looking at her for an explanation. She looked almost stern, so that Mary, trying to smile at her, only succeeded in producing a silent stare of interrogation.
As the door shut for the second time, she sank on to the floor in front of the fire, trying, now that their bodies were not there to distract her, to piece together her impressions of them as a whole. And, though priding herself, with all other men and women, upon an infallible eye for character, she could not feel at all certain that she knew what motives inspired Katharine Hilbery in life. There was something that carried her on smoothly, out of reach—something, yes, but what?—something that reminded Mary of Ralph. Oddly enough, he gave her the same feeling, too, and with him, too, she felt baffled. Oddly enough, for no two people, she hastily concluded, were more unlike. And yet both had this hidden impulse, this incalculable force—this thing they cared for and didn't talk about—oh, what was it?
The village of Disham lies somewhere on the rolling piece of cultivated ground in the neighborhood of Lincoln, not so far inland but that a sound, bringing rumors of the sea, can be heard on summer nights or when the winter storms fling the waves upon the long beach. So large is the church, and in particular the church tower, in comparison with the little street of cottages which compose the village, that the traveler is apt to cast his mind back to the Middle Ages, as the only time when so much piety could have been kept alive. So great a trust in the Church can surely not belong to our day, and he goes on to conjecture that every one of the villagers has reached the extreme limit of human life. Such are the reflections of the superficial stranger, and his sight of the population, as it is represented by two or three men hoeing in a turnip-field, a small child carrying a jug, and a young woman shaking a piece of carpet outside her cottage door, will not lead him to see anything very much out of keeping with the Middle Ages in the village of Disham as it is to-day. These people, though they seem young enough, look so angular and so crude that they remind him of the little pictures painted by monks in the capital letters of their manuscripts. He only half understands what they say, and speaks very loud and clearly, as though, indeed, his voice had to carry through a hundred years or more before it reached them. He would have a far better chance of understanding some dweller in Paris or Rome, Berlin or Madrid, than these countrymen of his who have lived for the last two thousand years not two hundred miles from the City of London.
The Rectory stands about half a mile beyond the village. It is a large house, and has been growing steadily for some centuries round the great kitchen, with its narrow red tiles, as the Rector would point out to his guests on the first night of their arrival, taking his brass candlestick, and bidding them mind the steps up and the steps down, and notice the immense thickness of the walls, the old beams across the ceiling, the staircases as steep as ladders, and the attics, with their deep, tent-like roofs, in which swallows bred, and once a white owl. But nothing very interesting or very beautiful had resulted from the different additions made by the different rectors.
The house, however, was surrounded by a garden, in which the Rector took considerable pride. The lawn, which fronted the drawing-room windows, was a rich and uniform green, unspotted by a single daisy, and on the other side of it two straight paths led past beds of tall, standing flowers to a charming grassy walk, where the Rev. Wyndham Datchet would pace up and down at the same hour every morning, with a sundial to measure the time for him. As often as not, he carried a book in his hand, into which he would glance, then shut it up, and repeat the rest of the ode from memory. He had most of Horace by heart, and had got into the habit of connecting this particular walk with certain odes which he repeated duly, at the same time noting the condition of his flowers, and stooping now and again to pick any that were withered or overblown. On wet days, such was the power of habit over him, he rose from his chair at the same hour, and paced his study for the same length of time, pausing now and then to straighten some book in the bookcase, or alter the position of the two brass crucifixes standing upon cairns of serpentine stone upon the mantelpiece. His children had a great respect for him, credited him with far more learning than he actually possessed, and saw that his habits were not interfered with, if possible. Like most people who do things methodically, the Rector himself had more strength of purpose and power of self-sacrifice than of intellect or of originality. On cold and windy nights he rode off to visit sick people, who might need him, without a murmur; and by virtue of doing dull duties punctually, he was much employed upon committees and local Boards and Councils; and at this period of his life (he was sixty-eight) he was beginning to be commiserated by tender old ladies for the extreme leanness of his person, which, they said, was worn out upon the roads when it should have been resting before a comfortable fire. His elder daughter, Elizabeth, lived with him and managed the house, and already much resembled him in dry sincerity and methodical habit of mind; of the two sons one, Richard, was an estate agent, the other, Christopher, was reading for the Bar. At Christmas, naturally, they met together; and for a month past the arrangement of the Christmas week had been much in the mind of mistress and maid, who prided themselves every year more confidently upon the excellence of their equipment. The late Mrs. Datchet had left an excellent cupboard of linen, to which Elizabeth had succeeded at the age of nineteen, when her mother died, and the charge of the family rested upon the shoulders of the eldest daughter. She kept a fine flock of yellow chickens, sketched a little, certain rose-trees in the garden were committed specially to her care; and what with the care of the house, the care of the chickens, and the care of the poor, she scarcely knew what it was to have an idle minute. An extreme rectitude of mind, rather than any gift, gave her weight in the family. When Mary wrote to say that she had asked Ralph Denham to stay with them, she added, out of deference to Elizabeth's character, that he was very nice, though rather queer, and had been overworking himself in London. No doubt Elizabeth would conclude that Ralph was in love with her, but there could be no doubt either that not a word of this would be spoken by either of them, unless, indeed, some catastrophe made mention of it unavoidable.
Mary went down to Disham without knowing whether Ralph intended to come; but two or three days before Christmas she received a telegram from Ralph, asking her to take a room for him in the village. This was followed by a letter explaining that he hoped he might have his meals with them; but quiet, essential for his work, made it necessary to sleep out.
Mary was walking in the garden with Elizabeth, and inspecting the roses, when the letter arrived.
"But that's absurd," said Elizabeth decidedly, when the plan was explained to her. "There are five spare rooms, even when the boys are here. Besides, he wouldn't get a room in the village. And he oughtn't to work if he's overworked."
"But perhaps he doesn't want to see so much of us," Mary thought to herself, although outwardly she assented, and felt grateful to Elizabeth for supporting her in what was, of course, her desire. They were cutting roses at the time, and laying them, head by head, in a shallow basket.
"If Ralph were here, he'd find this very dull," Mary thought, with a little shiver of irritation, which led her to place her rose the wrong way in the basket. Meanwhile, they had come to the end of the path, and while Elizabeth straightened some flowers, and made them stand upright within their fence of string, Mary looked at her father, who was pacing up and down, with his hand behind his back and his head bowed in meditation. Obeying an impulse which sprang from some desire to interrupt this methodical marching, Mary stepped on to the grass walk and put her hand on his arm.
"A flower for your buttonhole, father," she said, presenting a rose.
"Eh, dear?" said Mr. Datchet, taking the flower, and holding it at an angle which suited his bad eyesight, without pausing in his walk.
"Where does this fellow come from? One of Elizabeth's roses—I hope you asked her leave. Elizabeth doesn't like having her roses picked without her leave, and quite right, too."
He had a habit, Mary remarked, and she had never noticed it so clearly before, of letting his sentences tail away in a continuous murmur, whereupon he passed into a state of abstraction, presumed by his children to indicate some train of thought too profound for utterance.
"What?" said Mary, interrupting, for the first time in her life, perhaps, when the murmur ceased. He made no reply. She knew very well that he wished to be left alone, but she stuck to his side much as she might have stuck to some sleep-walker, whom she thought it right gradually to awaken. She could think of nothing to rouse him with except:
"The garden's looking very nice, father."
"Yes, yes, yes," said Mr. Datchet, running his words together in the same abstracted manner, and sinking his head yet lower upon his breast. And suddenly, as they turned their steps to retrace their way, he jerked out:
"The traffic's very much increased, you know. More rolling-stock needed already. Forty trucks went down yesterday by the 12.15—counted them myself. They've taken off the 9.3, and given us an 8.30 instead—suits the business men, you know. You came by the old 3.10 yesterday, I suppose?"
She said "Yes," as he seemed to wish for a reply, and then he looked at his watch, and made off down the path towards the house, holding the rose at the same angle in front of him. Elizabeth had gone round to the side of the house, where the chickens lived, so that Mary found herself alone, holding Ralph's letter in her hand. She was uneasy. She had put off the season for thinking things out very successfully, and now that Ralph was actually coming, the next day, she could only wonder how her family would impress him. She thought it likely that her father would discuss the train service with him; Elizabeth would be bright and sensible, and always leaving the room to give messages to the servants. Her brothers had already said that they would give him a day's shooting. She was content to leave the problem of Ralph's relations to the young men obscure, trusting that they would find some common ground of masculine agreement. But what would he think of HER? Would he see that she was different from the rest of the family? She devised a plan for taking him to her sitting-room, and artfully leading the talk towards the English poets, who now occupied prominent places in her little bookcase. Moreover, she might give him to understand, privately, that she, too, thought her family a queer one—queer, yes, but not dull. That was the rock past which she was bent on steering him. And she thought how she would draw his attention to Edward's passion for Jorrocks, and the enthusiasm which led Christopher to collect moths and butterflies though he was now twenty-two. Perhaps Elizabeth's sketching, if the fruits were invisible, might lend color to the general effect which she wished to produce of a family, eccentric and limited, perhaps, but not dull. Edward, she perceived, was rolling the lawn, for the sake of exercise; and the sight of him, with pink cheeks, bright little brown eyes, and a general resemblance to a clumsy young cart-horse in its winter coat of dusty brown hair, made Mary violently ashamed of her ambitious scheming. She loved him precisely as he was; she loved them all; and as she walked by his side, up and down, and down and up, her strong moral sense administered a sound drubbing to the vain and romantic element aroused in her by the mere thought of Ralph. She felt quite certain that, for good or for bad, she was very like the rest of her family.
Sitting in the corner of a third-class railway carriage, on the afternoon of the following day, Ralph made several inquiries of a commercial traveler in the opposite corner. They centered round a village called Lampsher, not three miles, he understood, from Lincoln; was there a big house in Lampsher, he asked, inhabited by a gentleman of the name of Otway?
The traveler knew nothing, but rolled the name of Otway on his tongue, reflectively, and the sound of it gratified Ralph amazingly. It gave him an excuse to take a letter from his pocket in order to verify the address.
"Stogdon House, Lampsher, Lincoln," he read out.
"You'll find somebody to direct you at Lincoln," said the man; and Ralph had to confess that he was not bound there this very evening.
"I've got to walk over from Disham," he said, and in the heart of him could not help marveling at the pleasure which he derived from making a bagman in a train believe what he himself did not believe. For the letter, though signed by Katharine's father, contained no invitation or warrant for thinking that Katharine herself was there; the only fact it disclosed was that for a fortnight this address would be Mr. Hilbery's address. But when he looked out of the window, it was of her he thought; she, too, had seen these gray fields, and, perhaps, she was there where the trees ran up a slope, and one yellow light shone now, and then went out again, at the foot of the hill. The light shone in the windows of an old gray house, he thought. He lay back in his corner and forgot the commercial traveler altogether. The process of visualizing Katharine stopped short at the old gray manor-house; instinct warned him that if he went much further with this process reality would soon force itself in; he could not altogether neglect the figure of William Rodney. Since the day when he had heard from Katharine's lips of her engagement, he had refrained from investing his dream of her with the details of real life. But the light of the late afternoon glowed green behind the straight trees, and became a symbol of her. The light seemed to expand his heart. She brooded over the gray fields, and was with him now in the railway carriage, thoughtful, silent, and infinitely tender; but the vision pressed too close, and must be dismissed, for the train was slackening. Its abrupt jerks shook him wide awake, and he saw Mary Datchet, a sturdy russet figure, with a dash of scarlet about it, as the carriage slid down the platform. A tall youth who accompanied her shook him by the hand, took his bag, and led the way without uttering one articulate word.
Never are voices so beautiful as on a winter's evening, when dusk almost hides the body, and they seem to issue from nothingness with a note of intimacy seldom heard by day. Such an edge was there in Mary's voice when she greeted him. About her seemed to hang the mist of the winter hedges, and the clear red of the bramble leaves. He felt himself at once stepping on to the firm ground of an entirely different world, but he did not allow himself to yield to the pleasure of it directly. They gave him his choice of driving with Edward or of walking home across the fields with Mary—not a shorter way, they explained, but Mary thought it a nicer way. He decided to walk with her, being conscious, indeed, that he got comfort from her presence. What could be the cause of her cheerfulness, he wondered, half ironically, and half enviously, as the pony-cart started briskly away, and the dusk swam between their eyes and the tall form of Edward, standing up to drive, with the reins in one hand and the whip in the other. People from the village, who had been to the market town, were climbing into their gigs, or setting off home down the road together in little parties. Many salutations were addressed to Mary, who shouted back, with the addition of the speaker's name. But soon she led the way over a stile, and along a path worn slightly darker than the dim green surrounding it. In front of them the sky now showed itself of a reddish-yellow, like a slice of some semilucent stone behind which a lamp burnt, while a fringe of black trees with distinct branches stood against the light, which was obscured in one direction by a hump of earth, in all other directions the land lying flat to the very verge of the sky. One of the swift and noiseless birds of the winter's night seemed to follow them across the field, circling a few feet in front of them, disappearing and returning again and again.
Mary had gone this walk many hundred times in the course of her life, generally alone, and at different stages the ghosts of past moods would flood her mind with a whole scene or train of thought merely at the sight of three trees from a particular angle, or at the sound of the pheasant clucking in the ditch. But to-night the circumstances were strong enough to oust all other scenes; and she looked at the field and the trees with an involuntary intensity as if they had no such associations for her.
"Well, Ralph," she said, "this is better than Lincoln's Inn Fields, isn't it? Look, there's a bird for you! Oh, you've brought glasses, have you? Edward and Christopher mean to make you shoot. Can you shoot? I shouldn't think so—"
"Look here, you must explain," said Ralph. "Who are these young men? Where am I staying?"
"You are staying with us, of course," she said boldly. "Of course, you're staying with us—you don't mind coming, do you?"
"If I had, I shouldn't have come," he said sturdily. They walked on in silence; Mary took care not to break it for a time. She wished Ralph to feel, as she thought he would, all the fresh delights of the earth and air. She was right. In a moment he expressed his pleasure, much to her comfort.
"This is the sort of country I thought you'd live in, Mary," he said, pushing his hat back on his head, and looking about him. "Real country. No gentlemen's seats."
He snuffed the air, and felt more keenly than he had done for many weeks the pleasure of owning a body.
"Now we have to find our way through a hedge," said Mary. In the gap of the hedge Ralph tore up a poacher's wire, set across a hole to trap a rabbit.
"It's quite right that they should poach," said Mary, watching him tugging at the wire. "I wonder whether it was Alfred Duggins or Sid Rankin? How can one expect them not to, when they only make fifteen shillings a week? Fifteen shillings a week," she repeated, coming out on the other side of the hedge, and running her fingers through her hair to rid herself of a bramble which had attached itself to her. "I could live on fifteen shillings a week—easily."
"Could you?" said Ralph. "I don't believe you could," he added.
"Oh yes. They have a cottage thrown in, and a garden where one can grow vegetables. It wouldn't be half bad," said Mary, with a soberness which impressed Ralph very much.
"But you'd get tired of it," he urged.
"I sometimes think it's the only thing one would never get tired of," she replied.
The idea of a cottage where one grew one's own vegetables and lived on fifteen shillings a week, filled Ralph with an extraordinary sense of rest and satisfaction.
"But wouldn't it be on the main road, or next door to a woman with six squalling children, who'd always be hanging her washing out to dry across your garden?"
"The cottage I'm thinking of stands by itself in a little orchard."
"And what about the Suffrage?" he asked, attempting sarcasm.
"Oh, there are other things in the world besides the Suffrage," she replied, in an off-hand manner which was slightly mysterious.
Ralph fell silent. It annoyed him that she should have plans of which he knew nothing; but he felt that he had no right to press her further. His mind settled upon the idea of life in a country cottage. Conceivably, for he could not examine into it now, here lay a tremendous possibility; a solution of many problems. He struck his stick upon the earth, and stared through the dusk at the shape of the country.
"D'you know the points of the compass?" he asked.
"Well, of course," said Mary. "What d'you take me for?—a Cockney like you?" She then told him exactly where the north lay, and where the south.
"It's my native land, this," she said. "I could smell my way about it blindfold."
As if to prove this boast, she walked a little quicker, so that Ralph found it difficult to keep pace with her. At the same time, he felt drawn to her as he had never been before; partly, no doubt, because she was more independent of him than in London, and seemed to be attached firmly to a world where he had no place at all. Now the dusk had fallen to such an extent that he had to follow her implicitly, and even lean his hand on her shoulder when they jumped a bank into a very narrow lane. And he felt curiously shy of her when she began to shout through her hands at a spot of light which swung upon the mist in a neighboring field. He shouted, too, and the light stood still.
"That's Christopher, come in already, and gone to feed his chickens," she said.
She introduced him to Ralph, who could see only a tall figure in gaiters, rising from a fluttering circle of soft feathery bodies, upon whom the light fell in wavering discs, calling out now a bright spot of yellow, now one of greenish-black and scarlet. Mary dipped her hand in the bucket he carried, and was at once the center of a circle also; and as she cast her grain she talked alternately to the birds and to her brother, in the same clucking, half-inarticulate voice, as it sounded to Ralph, standing on the outskirts of the fluttering feathers in his black overcoat.
He had removed his overcoat by the time they sat round the dinner-table, but nevertheless he looked very strange among the others. A country life and breeding had preserved in them all a look which Mary hesitated to call either innocent or youthful, as she compared them, now sitting round in an oval, softly illuminated by candlelight; and yet it was something of the kind, yes, even in the case of the Rector himself. Though superficially marked with lines, his face was a clear pink, and his blue eyes had the long-sighted, peaceful expression of eyes seeking the turn of the road, or a distant light through rain, or the darkness of winter. She looked at Ralph. He had never appeared to her more concentrated and full of purpose; as if behind his forehead were massed so much experience that he could choose for himself which part of it he would display and which part he would keep to himself. Compared with that dark and stern countenance, her brothers' faces, bending low over their soup-plates, were mere circles of pink, unmolded flesh.
"You came by the 3.10, Mr. Denham?" said the Reverend Wyndham Datchet, tucking his napkin into his collar, so that almost the whole of his body was concealed by a large white diamond. "They treat us very well, on the whole. Considering the increase of traffic, they treat us very well indeed. I have the curiosity sometimes to count the trucks on the goods' trains, and they're well over fifty—well over fifty, at this season of the year."
The old gentleman had been roused agreeably by the presence of this attentive and well-informed young man, as was evident by the care with which he finished the last words in his sentences, and his slight exaggeration in the number of trucks on the trains. Indeed, the chief burden of the talk fell upon him, and he sustained it to-night in a manner which caused his sons to look at him admiringly now and then; for they felt shy of Denham, and were glad not to have to talk themselves. The store of information about the present and past of this particular corner of Lincolnshire which old Mr. Datchet produced really surprised his children, for though they knew of its existence, they had forgotten its extent, as they might have forgotten the amount of family plate stored in the plate-chest, until some rare celebration brought it forth.
After dinner, parish business took the Rector to his study, and Mary proposed that they should sit in the kitchen.
"It's not the kitchen really," Elizabeth hastened to explain to her guest, "but we call it so—"
"It's the nicest room in the house," said Edward.
"It's got the old rests by the side of the fireplace, where the men hung their guns," said Elizabeth, leading the way, with a tall brass candlestick in her hand, down a passage. "Show Mr. Denham the steps, Christopher.... When the Ecclesiastical Commissioners were here two years ago they said this was the most interesting part of the house. These narrow bricks prove that it is five hundred years old—five hundred years, I think—they may have said six." She, too, felt an impulse to exaggerate the age of the bricks, as her father had exaggerated the number of trucks. A big lamp hung down from the center of the ceiling and, together with a fine log fire, illuminated a large and lofty room, with rafters running from wall to wall, a floor of red tiles, and a substantial fireplace built up of those narrow red bricks which were said to be five hundred years old. A few rugs and a sprinkling of arm-chairs had made this ancient kitchen into a sitting-room. Elizabeth, after pointing out the gun-racks, and the hooks for smoking hams, and other evidence of incontestable age, and explaining that Mary had had the idea of turning the room into a sitting-room—otherwise it was used for hanging out the wash and for the men to change in after shooting—considered that she had done her duty as hostess, and sat down in an upright chair directly beneath the lamp, beside a very long and narrow oak table. She placed a pair of horn spectacles upon her nose, and drew towards her a basketful of threads and wools. In a few minutes a smile came to her face, and remained there for the rest of the evening.
"Will you come out shooting with us to-morrow?" said Christopher, who had, on the whole, formed a favorable impression of his sister's friend.
"I won't shoot, but I'll come with you," said Ralph.
"Don't you care about shooting?" asked Edward, whose suspicions were not yet laid to rest.
"I've never shot in my life," said Ralph, turning and looking him in the face, because he was not sure how this confession would be received.
"You wouldn't have much chance in London, I suppose," said Christopher. "But won't you find it rather dull—just watching us?"
"I shall watch birds," Ralph replied, with a smile.
"I can show you the place for watching birds," said Edward, "if that's what you like doing. I know a fellow who comes down from London about this time every year to watch them. It's a great place for the wild geese and the ducks. I've heard this man say that it's one of the best places for birds in the country."
"It's about the best place in England," Ralph replied. They were all gratified by this praise of their native county; and Mary now had the pleasure of hearing these short questions and answers lose their undertone of suspicious inspection, so far as her brothers were concerned, and develop into a genuine conversation about the habits of birds which afterwards turned to a discussion as to the habits of solicitors, in which it was scarcely necessary for her to take part. She was pleased to see that her brothers liked Ralph, to the extent, that is, of wishing to secure his good opinion. Whether or not he liked them it was impossible to tell from his kind but experienced manner. Now and then she fed the fire with a fresh log, and as the room filled with the fine, dry heat of burning wood, they all, with the exception of Elizabeth, who was outside the range of the fire, felt less and less anxious about the effect they were making, and more and more inclined for sleep. At this moment a vehement scratching was heard on the door.
"Piper!—oh, damn!—I shall have to get up," murmured Christopher.
"It's not Piper, it's Pitch," Edward grunted.
"All the same, I shall have to get up," Christopher grumbled. He let in the dog, and stood for a moment by the door, which opened into the garden, to revive himself with a draught of the black, starlit air.
"Do come in and shut the door!" Mary cried, half turning in her chair.
"We shall have a fine day to-morrow," said Christopher with complacency, and he sat himself on the floor at her feet, and leant his back against her knees, and stretched out his long stockinged legs to the fire—all signs that he felt no longer any restraint at the presence of the stranger. He was the youngest of the family, and Mary's favorite, partly because his character resembled hers, as Edward's character resembled Elizabeth's. She made her knees a comfortable rest for his head, and ran her fingers through his hair.
"I should like Mary to stroke my head like that," Ralph thought to himself suddenly, and he looked at Christopher, almost affectionately, for calling forth his sister's caresses. Instantly he thought of Katharine, the thought of her being surrounded by the spaces of night and the open air; and Mary, watching him, saw the lines upon his forehead suddenly deepen. He stretched out an arm and placed a log upon the fire, constraining himself to fit it carefully into the frail red scaffolding, and also to limit his thoughts to this one room.
Mary had ceased to stroke her brother's head; he moved it impatiently between her knees, and, much as though he were a child, she began once more to part the thick, reddish-colored locks this way and that. But a far stronger passion had taken possession of her soul than any her brother could inspire in her, and, seeing Ralph's change of expression, her hand almost automatically continued its movements, while her mind plunged desperately for some hold upon slippery banks.
Into that same black night, almost, indeed, into the very same layer of starlit air, Katharine Hilbery was now gazing, although not with a view to the prospects of a fine day for duck shooting on the morrow. She was walking up and down a gravel path in the garden of Stogdon House, her sight of the heavens being partially intercepted by the light leafless hoops of a pergola. Thus a spray of clematis would completely obscure Cassiopeia, or blot out with its black pattern myriads of miles of the Milky Way. At the end of the pergola, however, there was a stone seat, from which the sky could be seen completely swept clear of any earthly interruption, save to the right, indeed, where a line of elm-trees was beautifully sprinkled with stars, and a low stable building had a full drop of quivering silver just issuing from the mouth of the chimney. It was a moonless night, but the light of the stars was sufficient to show the outline of the young woman's form, and the shape of her face gazing gravely, indeed almost sternly, into the sky. She had come out into the winter's night, which was mild enough, not so much to look with scientific eyes upon the stars, as to shake herself free from certain purely terrestrial discontents. Much as a literary person in like circumstances would begin, absent-mindedly, pulling out volume after volume, so she stepped into the garden in order to have the stars at hand, even though she did not look at them. Not to be happy, when she was supposed to be happier than she would ever be again—that, as far as she could see, was the origin of a discontent which had begun almost as soon as she arrived, two days before, and seemed now so intolerable that she had left the family party, and come out here to consider it by herself. It was not she who thought herself unhappy, but her cousins, who thought it for her. The house was full of cousins, much of her age, or even younger, and among them they had some terribly bright eyes. They seemed always on the search for something between her and Rodney, which they expected to find, and yet did not find; and when they searched, Katharine became aware of wanting what she had not been conscious of wanting in London, alone with William and her parents. Or, if she did not want it, she missed it. And this state of mind depressed her, because she had been accustomed always to give complete satisfaction, and her self-love was now a little ruffled. She would have liked to break through the reserve habitual to her in order to justify her engagement to some one whose opinion she valued. No one had spoken a word of criticism, but they left her alone with William; not that that would have mattered, if they had not left her alone so politely; and, perhaps, that would not have mattered if they had not seemed so queerly silent, almost respectful, in her presence, which gave way to criticism, she felt, out of it.
Looking now and then at the sky, she went through the list of her cousins' names: Eleanor, Humphrey, Marmaduke, Silvia, Henry, Cassandra, Gilbert, and Mostyn—Henry, the cousin who taught the young ladies of Bungay to play upon the violin, was the only one in whom she could confide, and as she walked up and down beneath the hoops of the pergola, she did begin a little speech to him, which ran something like this:
"To begin with, I'm very fond of William. You can't deny that. I know him better than any one, almost. But why I'm marrying him is, partly, I admit—I'm being quite honest with you, and you mustn't tell any one—partly because I want to get married. I want to have a house of my own. It isn't possible at home. It's all very well for you, Henry; you can go your own way. I have to be there always. Besides, you know what our house is. You wouldn't be happy either, if you didn't do something. It isn't that I haven't the time at home—it's the atmosphere." Here, presumably, she imagined that her cousin, who had listened with his usual intelligent sympathy, raised his eyebrows a little, and interposed:
"Well, but what do you want to do?"
Even in this purely imaginary dialogue, Katharine found it difficult to confide her ambition to an imaginary companion.
"I should like," she began, and hesitated quite a long time before she forced herself to add, with a change of voice, "to study mathematics—to know about the stars."
Henry was clearly amazed, but too kind to express all his doubts; he only said something about the difficulties of mathematics, and remarked that very little was known about the stars.
Katharine thereupon went on with the statement of her case.
"I don't care much whether I ever get to know anything—but I want to work out something in figures—something that hasn't got to do with human beings. I don't want people particularly. In some ways, Henry, I'm a humbug—I mean, I'm not what you all take me for. I'm not domestic, or very practical or sensible, really. And if I could calculate things, and use a telescope, and have to work out figures, and know to a fraction where I was wrong, I should be perfectly happy, and I believe I should give William all he wants."
Having reached this point, instinct told her that she had passed beyond the region in which Henry's advice could be of any good; and, having rid her mind of its superficial annoyance, she sat herself upon the stone seat, raised her eyes unconsciously and thought about the deeper questions which she had to decide, she knew, for herself. Would she, indeed, give William all he wanted? In order to decide the question, she ran her mind rapidly over her little collection of significant sayings, looks, compliments, gestures, which had marked their intercourse during the last day or two. He had been annoyed because a box, containing some clothes specially chosen by him for her to wear, had been taken to the wrong station, owing to her neglect in the matter of labels. The box had arrived in the nick of time, and he had remarked, as she came downstairs on the first night, that he had never seen her look more beautiful. She outshone all her cousins. He had discovered that she never made an ugly movement; he also said that the shape of her head made it possible for her, unlike most women, to wear her hair low. He had twice reproved her for being silent at dinner; and once for never attending to what he said. He had been surprised at the excellence of her French accent, but he thought it was selfish of her not to go with her mother to call upon the Middletons, because they were old family friends and very nice people. On the whole, the balance was nearly even; and, writing down a kind of conclusion in her mind which finished the sum for the present, at least, she changed the focus of her eyes, and saw nothing but the stars.
To-night they seemed fixed with unusual firmness in the blue, and flashed back such a ripple of light into her eyes that she found herself thinking that to-night the stars were happy. Without knowing or caring more for Church practices than most people of her age, Katharine could not look into the sky at Christmas time without feeling that, at this one season, the Heavens bend over the earth with sympathy, and signal with immortal radiance that they, too, take part in her festival. Somehow, it seemed to her that they were even now beholding the procession of kings and wise men upon some road on a distant part of the earth. And yet, after gazing for another second, the stars did their usual work upon the mind, froze to cinders the whole of our short human history, and reduced the human body to an ape-like, furry form, crouching amid the brushwood of a barbarous clod of mud. This stage was soon succeeded by another, in which there was nothing in the universe save stars and the light of stars; as she looked up the pupils of her eyes so dilated with starlight that the whole of her seemed dissolved in silver and spilt over the ledges of the stars for ever and ever indefinitely through space. Somehow simultaneously, though incongruously, she was riding with the magnanimous hero upon the shore or under forest trees, and so might have continued were it not for the rebuke forcibly administered by the body, which, content with the normal conditions of life, in no way furthers any attempt on the part of the mind to alter them. She grew cold, shook herself, rose, and walked towards the house.
By the light of the stars, Stogdon House looked pale and romantic, and about twice its natural size. Built by a retired admiral in the early years of the nineteenth century, the curving bow windows of the front, now filled with reddish-yellow light, suggested a portly three-decker, sailing seas where those dolphins and narwhals who disport themselves upon the edges of old maps were scattered with an impartial hand. A semicircular flight of shallow steps led to a very large door, which Katharine had left ajar. She hesitated, cast her eyes over the front of the house, marked that a light burnt in one small window upon an upper floor, and pushed the door open. For a moment she stood in the square hall, among many horned skulls, sallow globes, cracked oil-paintings, and stuffed owls, hesitating, it seemed, whether she should open the door on her right, through which the stir of life reached her ears. Listening for a moment, she heard a sound which decided her, apparently, not to enter; her uncle, Sir Francis, was playing his nightly game of whist; it appeared probable that he was losing.
She went up the curving stairway, which represented the one attempt at ceremony in the otherwise rather dilapidated mansion, and down a narrow passage until she came to the room whose light she had seen from the garden. Knocking, she was told to come in. A young man, Henry Otway, was reading, with his feet on the fender. He had a fine head, the brow arched in the Elizabethan manner, but the gentle, honest eyes were rather skeptical than glowing with the Elizabethan vigor. He gave the impression that he had not yet found the cause which suited his temperament.
He turned, put down his book, and looked at her. He noticed her rather pale, dew-drenched look, as of one whose mind is not altogether settled in the body. He had often laid his difficulties before her, and guessed, in some ways hoped, that perhaps she now had need of him. At the same time, she carried on her life with such independence that he scarcely expected any confidence to be expressed in words.
"You have fled, too, then?" he said, looking at her cloak. Katharine had forgotten to remove this token of her star-gazing.
"Fled?" she asked. "From whom d'you mean? Oh, the family party. Yes, it was hot down there, so I went into the garden."
"And aren't you very cold?" Henry inquired, placing coal on the fire, drawing a chair up to the grate, and laying aside her cloak. Her indifference to such details often forced Henry to act the part generally taken by women in such dealings. It was one of the ties between them.
"Thank you, Henry," she said. "I'm not disturbing you?"
"I'm not here. I'm at Bungay," he replied. "I'm giving a music lesson to Harold and Julia. That was why I had to leave the table with the ladies—I'm spending the night there, and I shan't be back till late on Christmas Eve."
"How I wish—" Katharine began, and stopped short. "I think these parties are a great mistake," she added briefly, and sighed.
"Oh, horrible!" he agreed; and they both fell silent.
Her sigh made him look at her. Should he venture to ask her why she sighed? Was her reticence about her own affairs as inviolable as it had often been convenient for rather an egoistical young man to think it? But since her engagement to Rodney, Henry's feeling towards her had become rather complex; equally divided between an impulse to hurt her and an impulse to be tender to her; and all the time he suffered a curious irritation from the sense that she was drifting away from him for ever upon unknown seas. On her side, directly Katharine got into his presence, and the sense of the stars dropped from her, she knew that any intercourse between people is extremely partial; from the whole mass of her feelings, only one or two could be selected for Henry's inspection, and therefore she sighed. Then she looked at him, and their eyes meeting, much more seemed to be in common between them than had appeared possible. At any rate they had a grandfather in common; at any rate there was a kind of loyalty between them sometimes found between relations who have no other cause to like each other, as these two had.
"Well, what's the date of the wedding?" said Henry, the malicious mood now predominating.
"I think some time in March," she replied.
"And afterwards?" he asked.
"We take a house, I suppose, somewhere in Chelsea."
"It's very interesting," he observed, stealing another look at her.
She lay back in her arm-chair, her feet high upon the side of the grate, and in front of her, presumably to screen her eyes, she held a newspaper from which she picked up a sentence or two now and again. Observing this, Henry remarked:
"Perhaps marriage will make you more human."
At this she lowered the newspaper an inch or two, but said nothing. Indeed, she sat quite silent for over a minute.
"When you consider things like the stars, our affairs don't seem to matter very much, do they?" she said suddenly.
"I don't think I ever do consider things like the stars," Henry replied. "I'm not sure that that's not the explanation, though," he added, now observing her steadily.
"I doubt whether there is an explanation," she replied rather hurriedly, not clearly understanding what he meant.
"What? No explanation of anything?" he inquired, with a smile.
"Oh, things happen. That's about all," she let drop in her casual, decided way.
"That certainly seems to explain some of your actions," Henry thought to himself.
"One thing's about as good as another, and one's got to do something," he said aloud, expressing what he supposed to be her attitude, much in her accent. Perhaps she detected the imitation, for looking gently at him, she said, with ironical composure:
"Well, if you believe that your life must be simple, Henry."
"But I don't believe it," he said shortly.
"No more do I," she replied.
"What about the stars?" he asked a moment later. "I understand that you rule your life by the stars?"
She let this pass, either because she did not attend to it, or because the tone was not to her liking.
Once more she paused, and then she inquired:
"But do you always understand why you do everything? Ought one to understand? People like my mother understand," she reflected. "Now I must go down to them, I suppose, and see what's happening."
"What could be happening?" Henry protested.
"Oh, they may want to settle something," she replied vaguely, putting her feet on the ground, resting her chin on her hands, and looking out of her large dark eyes contemplatively at the fire.
"And then there's William," she added, as if by an afterthought.
Henry very nearly laughed, but restrained himself.
"Do they know what coals are made of, Henry?" she asked, a moment later.
"Mares' tails, I believe," he hazarded.
"Have you ever been down a coal-mine?" she went on.
"Don't let's talk about coal-mines, Katharine," he protested. "We shall probably never see each other again. When you're married—"
Tremendously to his surprise, he saw the tears stand in her eyes.
"Why do you all tease me?" she said. "It isn't kind."
Henry could not pretend that he was altogether ignorant of her meaning, though, certainly, he had never guessed that she minded the teasing. But before he knew what to say, her eyes were clear again, and the sudden crack in the surface was almost filled up.
"Things aren't easy, anyhow," she stated.
Obeying an impulse of genuine affection, Henry spoke.
"Promise me, Katharine, that if I can ever help you, you will let me."
She seemed to consider, looking once more into the red of the fire, and decided to refrain from any explanation.
"Yes, I promise that," she said at length, and Henry felt himself gratified by her complete sincerity, and began to tell her now about the coal-mine, in obedience to her love of facts.
They were, indeed, descending the shaft in a small cage, and could hear the picks of the miners, something like the gnawing of rats, in the earth beneath them, when the door was burst open, without any knocking.
"Well, here you are!" Rodney exclaimed. Both Katharine and Henry turned round very quickly and rather guiltily. Rodney was in evening dress. It was clear that his temper was ruffled.
"That's where you've been all the time," he repeated, looking at Katharine.
"I've only been here about ten minutes," she replied.
"My dear Katharine, you left the drawing-room over an hour ago."
She said nothing.
"Does it very much matter?" Henry asked.
Rodney found it hard to be unreasonable in the presence of another man, and did not answer him.
"They don't like it," he said. "It isn't kind to old people to leave them alone—although I've no doubt it's much more amusing to sit up here and talk to Henry."
"We were discussing coal-mines," said Henry urbanely.
"Yes. But we were talking about much more interesting things before that," said Katharine.
From the apparent determination to hurt him with which she spoke, Henry thought that some sort of explosion on Rodney's part was about to take place.
"I can quite understand that," said Rodney, with his little chuckle, leaning over the back of his chair and tapping the woodwork lightly with his fingers. They were all silent, and the silence was acutely uncomfortable to Henry, at least.
"Was it very dull, William?" Katharine suddenly asked, with a complete change of tone and a little gesture of her hand.
"Of course it was dull," William said sulkily.
"Well, you stay and talk to Henry, and I'll go down," she replied.
She rose as she spoke, and as she turned to leave the room, she laid her hand, with a curiously caressing gesture, upon Rodney's shoulder. Instantly Rodney clasped her hand in his, with such an impulse of emotion that Henry was annoyed, and rather ostentatiously opened a book.
"I shall come down with you," said William, as she drew back her hand, and made as if to pass him.
"Oh no," she said hastily. "You stay here and talk to Henry."
"Yes, do," said Henry, shutting up his book again. His invitation was polite, without being precisely cordial. Rodney evidently hesitated as to the course he should pursue, but seeing Katharine at the door, he exclaimed:
"No. I want to come with you."
She looked back, and said in a very commanding tone, and with an expression of authority upon her face:
"It's useless for you to come. I shall go to bed in ten minutes. Good night."
She nodded to them both, but Henry could not help noticing that her last nod was in his direction. Rodney sat down rather heavily.
His mortification was so obvious that Henry scarcely liked to open the conversation with some remark of a literary character. On the other hand, unless he checked him, Rodney might begin to talk about his feelings, and irreticence is apt to be extremely painful, at any rate in prospect. He therefore adopted a middle course; that is to say, he wrote a note upon the fly-leaf of his book, which ran, "The situation is becoming most uncomfortable." This he decorated with those flourishes and decorative borders which grow of themselves upon these occasions; and as he did so, he thought to himself that whatever Katharine's difficulties might be, they did not justify her behavior. She had spoken with a kind of brutality which suggested that, whether it is natural or assumed, women have a peculiar blindness to the feelings of men.
The penciling of this note gave Rodney time to recover himself. Perhaps, for he was a very vain man, he was more hurt that Henry had seen him rebuffed than by the rebuff itself. He was in love with Katharine, and vanity is not decreased but increased by love; especially, one may hazard, in the presence of one's own sex. But Rodney enjoyed the courage which springs from that laughable and lovable defect, and when he had mastered his first impulse, in some way to make a fool of himself, he drew inspiration from the perfect fit of his evening dress. He chose a cigarette, tapped it on the back of his hand, displayed his exquisite pumps on the edge of the fender, and summoned his self-respect.
"You've several big estates round here, Otway," he began. "Any good hunting? Let me see, what pack would it be? Who's your great man?"
"Sir William Budge, the sugar king, has the biggest estate. He bought out poor Stanham, who went bankrupt."
"Which Stanham would that be? Verney or Alfred?"
"Alfred.... I don't hunt myself. You're a great huntsman, aren't you? You have a great reputation as a horseman, anyhow," he added, desiring to help Rodney in his effort to recover his complacency.
"Oh, I love riding," Rodney replied. "Could I get a horse down here? Stupid of me! I forgot to bring any clothes. I can't imagine, though, who told you I was anything of a rider?"
To tell the truth, Henry labored under the same difficulty; he did not wish to introduce Katharine's name, and, therefore, he replied vaguely that he had always heard that Rodney was a great rider. In truth, he had heard very little about him, one way or another, accepting him as a figure often to be found in the background at his aunt's house, and inevitably, though inexplicably, engaged to his cousin.
"I don't care much for shooting," Rodney continued; "but one has to do it, unless one wants to be altogether out of things. I dare say there's some very pretty country round here. I stayed once at Bolham Hall. Young Cranthorpe was up with you, wasn't he? He married old Lord Bolham's daughter. Very nice people—in their way."
"I don't mix in that society," Henry remarked, rather shortly. But Rodney, now started on an agreeable current of reflection, could not resist the temptation of pursuing it a little further. He appeared to himself as a man who moved easily in very good society, and knew enough about the true values of life to be himself above it.
"Oh, but you should," he went on. "It's well worth staying there, anyhow, once a year. They make one very comfortable, and the women are ravishing."
"The women?" Henry thought to himself, with disgust. "What could any woman see in you?" His tolerance was rapidly becoming exhausted, but he could not help liking Rodney nevertheless, and this appeared to him strange, for he was fastidious, and such words in another mouth would have condemned the speaker irreparably. He began, in short, to wonder what kind of creature this man who was to marry his cousin might be. Could any one, except a rather singular character, afford to be so ridiculously vain?
"I don't think I should get on in that society," he replied. "I don't think I should know what to say to Lady Rose if I met her."
"I don't find any difficulty," Rodney chuckled. "You talk to them about their children, if they have any, or their accomplishments—painting, gardening, poetry—they're so delightfully sympathetic. Seriously, you know I think a woman's opinion of one's poetry is always worth having. Don't ask them for their reasons. Just ask them for their feelings. Katharine, for example—"
"Katharine," said Henry, with an emphasis upon the name, almost as if he resented Rodney's use of it, "Katharine is very unlike most women."
"Quite," Rodney agreed. "She is—" He seemed about to describe her, and he hesitated for a long time. "She's looking very well," he stated, or rather almost inquired, in a different tone from that in which he had been speaking. Henry bent his head.
"But, as a family, you're given to moods, eh?"
"Not Katharine," said Henry, with decision.
"Not Katharine," Rodney repeated, as if he weighed the meaning of the words. "No, perhaps you're right. But her engagement has changed her. Naturally," he added, "one would expect that to be so." He waited for Henry to confirm this statement, but Henry remained silent.
"Katharine has had a difficult life, in some ways," he continued. "I expect that marriage will be good for her. She has great powers."
"Great," said Henry, with decision.
"Yes—but now what direction d'you think they take?"
Rodney had completely dropped his pose as a man of the world, and seemed to be asking Henry to help him in a difficulty.