"I don't know," Henry hesitated cautiously.
"D'you think children—a household—that sort of thing—d'you think that'll satisfy her? Mind, I'm out all day."
"She would certainly be very competent," Henry stated.
"Oh, she's wonderfully competent," said Rodney. "But—I get absorbed in my poetry. Well, Katharine hasn't got that. She admires my poetry, you know, but that wouldn't be enough for her?"
"No," said Henry. He paused. "I think you're right," he added, as if he were summing up his thoughts. "Katharine hasn't found herself yet. Life isn't altogether real to her yet—I sometimes think—"
"Yes?" Rodney inquired, as if he were eager for Henry to continue. "That is what I—" he was going on, as Henry remained silent, but the sentence was not finished, for the door opened, and they were interrupted by Henry's younger brother Gilbert, much to Henry's relief, for he had already said more than he liked.
When the sun shone, as it did with unusual brightness that Christmas week, it revealed much that was faded and not altogether well-kept-up in Stogdon House and its grounds. In truth, Sir Francis had retired from service under the Government of India with a pension that was not adequate, in his opinion, to his services, as it certainly was not adequate to his ambitions. His career had not come up to his expectations, and although he was a very fine, white-whiskered, mahogany-colored old man to look at, and had laid down a very choice cellar of good reading and good stories, you could not long remain ignorant of the fact that some thunder-storm had soured them; he had a grievance. This grievance dated back to the middle years of the last century, when, owing to some official intrigue, his merits had been passed over in a disgraceful manner in favor of another, his junior.
The rights and wrongs of the story, presuming that they had some existence in fact, were no longer clearly known to his wife and children; but this disappointment had played a very large part in their lives, and had poisoned the life of Sir Francis much as a disappointment in love is said to poison the whole life of a woman. Long brooding on his failure, continual arrangement and rearrangement of his deserts and rebuffs, had made Sir Francis much of an egoist, and in his retirement his temper became increasingly difficult and exacting.
His wife now offered so little resistance to his moods that she was practically useless to him. He made his daughter Eleanor into his chief confidante, and the prime of her life was being rapidly consumed by her father. To her he dictated the memoirs which were to avenge his memory, and she had to assure him constantly that his treatment had been a disgrace. Already, at the age of thirty-five, her cheeks were whitening as her mother's had whitened, but for her there would be no memories of Indian suns and Indian rivers, and clamor of children in a nursery; she would have very little of substance to think about when she sat, as Lady Otway now sat, knitting white wool, with her eyes fixed almost perpetually upon the same embroidered bird upon the same fire-screen. But then Lady Otway was one of the people for whom the great make-believe game of English social life has been invented; she spent most of her time in pretending to herself and her neighbors that she was a dignified, important, much-occupied person, of considerable social standing and sufficient wealth. In view of the actual state of things this game needed a great deal of skill; and, perhaps, at the age she had reached—she was over sixty—she played far more to deceive herself than to deceive any one else. Moreover, the armor was wearing thin; she forgot to keep up appearances more and more.
The worn patches in the carpets, and the pallor of the drawing-room, where no chair or cover had been renewed for some years, were due not only to the miserable pension, but to the wear and tear of twelve children, eight of whom were sons. As often happens in these large families, a distinct dividing-line could be traced, about half-way in the succession, where the money for educational purposes had run short, and the six younger children had grown up far more economically than the elder. If the boys were clever, they won scholarships, and went to school; if they were not clever, they took what the family connection had to offer them. The girls accepted situations occasionally, but there were always one or two at home, nursing sick animals, tending silkworms, or playing the flute in their bedrooms. The distinction between the elder children and the younger corresponded almost to the distinction between a higher class and a lower one, for with only a haphazard education and insufficient allowances, the younger children had picked up accomplishments, friends, and points of view which were not to be found within the walls of a public school or of a Government office. Between the two divisions there was considerable hostility, the elder trying to patronize the younger, the younger refusing to respect the elder; but one feeling united them and instantly closed any risk of a breach—their common belief in the superiority of their own family to all others. Henry was the eldest of the younger group, and their leader; he bought strange books and joined odd societies; he went without a tie for a whole year, and had six shirts made of black flannel. He had long refused to take a seat either in a shipping office or in a tea-merchant's warehouse; and persisted, in spite of the disapproval of uncles and aunts, in practicing both violin and piano, with the result that he could not perform professionally upon either. Indeed, for thirty-two years of life he had nothing more substantial to show than a manuscript book containing the score of half an opera. In this protest of his, Katharine had always given him her support, and as she was generally held to be an extremely sensible person, who dressed too well to be eccentric, he had found her support of some use. Indeed, when she came down at Christmas she usually spent a great part of her time in private conferences with Henry and with Cassandra, the youngest girl, to whom the silkworms belonged. With the younger section she had a great reputation for common sense, and for something that they despised but inwardly respected and called knowledge of the world—that is to say, of the way in which respectable elderly people, going to their clubs and dining out with ministers, think and behave. She had more than once played the part of ambassador between Lady Otway and her children. That poor lady, for instance, consulted her for advice when, one day, she opened Cassandra's bedroom door on a mission of discovery, and found the ceiling hung with mulberry-leaves, the windows blocked with cages, and the tables stacked with home-made machines for the manufacture of silk dresses.
"I wish you could help her to take an interest in something that other people are interested in, Katharine," she observed, rather plaintively, detailing her grievances. "It's all Henry's doing, you know, giving up her parties and taking to these nasty insects. It doesn't follow that if a man can do a thing a woman may too."
The morning was sufficiently bright to make the chairs and sofas in Lady Otway's private sitting-room appear more than usually shabby, and the gallant gentlemen, her brothers and cousins, who had defended the Empire and left their bones on many frontiers, looked at the world through a film of yellow which the morning light seemed to have drawn across their photographs. Lady Otway sighed, it may be at the faded relics, and turned, with resignation, to her balls of wool, which, curiously and characteristically, were not an ivory-white, but rather a tarnished yellow-white. She had called her niece in for a little chat. She had always trusted her, and now more than ever, since her engagement to Rodney, which seemed to Lady Otway extremely suitable, and just what one would wish for one's own daughter. Katharine unwittingly increased her reputation for wisdom by asking to be given knitting-needles too.
"It's so very pleasant," said Lady Otway, "to knit while one's talking. And now, my dear Katharine, tell me about your plans."
The emotions of the night before, which she had suppressed in such a way as to keep her awake till dawn, had left Katharine a little jaded, and thus more matter-of-fact than usual. She was quite ready to discuss her plans—houses and rents, servants and economy—without feeling that they concerned her very much. As she spoke, knitting methodically meanwhile, Lady Otway noted, with approval, the upright, responsible bearing of her niece, to whom the prospect of marriage had brought some gravity most becoming in a bride, and yet, in these days, most rare. Yes, Katharine's engagement had changed her a little.
"What a perfect daughter, or daughter-in-law!" she thought to herself, and could not help contrasting her with Cassandra, surrounded by innumerable silkworms in her bedroom.
"Yes," she continued, glancing at Katharine, with the round, greenish eyes which were as inexpressive as moist marbles, "Katharine is like the girls of my youth. We took the serious things of life seriously." But just as she was deriving satisfaction from this thought, and was producing some of the hoarded wisdom which none of her own daughters, alas! seemed now to need, the door opened, and Mrs. Hilbery came in, or rather, did not come in, but stood in the doorway and smiled, having evidently mistaken the room.
"I never SHALL know my way about this house!" she exclaimed. "I'm on my way to the library, and I don't want to interrupt. You and Katharine were having a little chat?"
The presence of her sister-in-law made Lady Otway slightly uneasy. How could she go on with what she was saying in Maggie's presence? for she was saying something that she had never said, all these years, to Maggie herself.
"I was telling Katharine a few little commonplaces about marriage," she said, with a little laugh. "Are none of my children looking after you, Maggie?"
"Marriage," said Mrs. Hilbery, coming into the room, and nodding her head once or twice, "I always say marriage is a school. And you don't get the prizes unless you go to school. Charlotte has won all the prizes," she added, giving her sister-in-law a little pat, which made Lady Otway more uncomfortable still. She half laughed, muttered something, and ended on a sigh.
"Aunt Charlotte was saying that it's no good being married unless you submit to your husband," said Katharine, framing her aunt's words into a far more definite shape than they had really worn; and when she spoke thus she did not appear at all old-fashioned. Lady Otway looked at her and paused for a moment.
"Well, I really don't advise a woman who wants to have things her own way to get married," she said, beginning a fresh row rather elaborately.
Mrs. Hilbery knew something of the circumstances which, as she thought, had inspired this remark. In a moment her face was clouded with sympathy which she did not quite know how to express.
"What a shame it was!" she exclaimed, forgetting that her train of thought might not be obvious to her listeners. "But, Charlotte, it would have been much worse if Frank had disgraced himself in any way. And it isn't what our husbands GET, but what they ARE. I used to dream of white horses and palanquins, too; but still, I like the ink-pots best. And who knows?" she concluded, looking at Katharine, "your father may be made a baronet to-morrow."
Lady Otway, who was Mr. Hilbery's sister, knew quite well that, in private, the Hilberys called Sir Francis "that old Turk," and though she did not follow the drift of Mrs. Hilbery's remarks, she knew what prompted them.
"But if you can give way to your husband," she said, speaking to Katharine, as if there were a separate understanding between them, "a happy marriage is the happiest thing in the world."
"Yes," said Katharine, "but—" She did not mean to finish her sentence, she merely wished to induce her mother and her aunt to go on talking about marriage, for she was in the mood to feel that other people could help her if they would. She went on knitting, but her fingers worked with a decision that was oddly unlike the smooth and contemplative sweep of Lady Otway's plump hand. Now and then she looked swiftly at her mother, then at her aunt. Mrs. Hilbery held a book in her hand, and was on her way, as Katharine guessed, to the library, where another paragraph was to be added to that varied assortment of paragraphs, the Life of Richard Alardyce. Normally, Katharine would have hurried her mother downstairs, and seen that no excuse for distraction came her way. Her attitude towards the poet's life, however, had changed with other changes; and she was content to forget all about her scheme of hours. Mrs. Hilbery was secretly delighted. Her relief at finding herself excused manifested itself in a series of sidelong glances of sly humor in her daughter's direction, and the indulgence put her in the best of spirits. Was she to be allowed merely to sit and talk? It was so much pleasanter to sit in a nice room filled with all sorts of interesting odds and ends which she hadn't looked at for a year, at least, than to seek out one date which contradicted another in a dictionary.
"We've all had perfect husbands," she concluded, generously forgiving Sir Francis all his faults in a lump. "Not that I think a bad temper is really a fault in a man. I don't mean a bad temper," she corrected herself, with a glance obviously in the direction of Sir Francis. "I should say a quick, impatient temper. Most, in fact ALL great men have had bad tempers—except your grandfather, Katharine," and here she sighed, and suggested that, perhaps, she ought to go down to the library.
"But in the ordinary marriage, is it necessary to give way to one's husband?" said Katharine, taking no notice of her mother's suggestion, blind even to the depression which had now taken possession of her at the thought of her own inevitable death.
"I should say yes, certainly," said Lady Otway, with a decision most unusual for her.
"Then one ought to make up one's mind to that before one is married," Katharine mused, seeming to address herself.
Mrs. Hilbery was not much interested in these remarks, which seemed to have a melancholy tendency, and to revive her spirits she had recourse to an infallible remedy—she looked out of the window.
"Do look at that lovely little blue bird!" she exclaimed, and her eye looked with extreme pleasure at the soft sky. at the trees, at the green fields visible behind those trees, and at the leafless branches which surrounded the body of the small blue tit. Her sympathy with nature was exquisite.
"Most women know by instinct whether they can give it or not," Lady Otway slipped in quickly, in rather a low voice, as if she wanted to get this said while her sister-in-law's attention was diverted. "And if not—well then, my advice would be—don't marry."
"Oh, but marriage is the happiest life for a woman," said Mrs. Hilbery, catching the word marriage, as she brought her eyes back to the room again. Then she turned her mind to what she had said.
"It's the most INTERESTING life," she corrected herself. She looked at her daughter with a look of vague alarm. It was the kind of maternal scrutiny which suggests that, in looking at her daughter a mother is really looking at herself. She was not altogether satisfied; but she purposely made no attempt to break down the reserve which, as a matter of fact, was a quality she particularly admired and depended upon in her daughter. But when her mother said that marriage was the most interesting life, Katharine felt, as she was apt to do suddenly, for no definite reason, that they understood each other, in spite of differing in every possible way. Yet the wisdom of the old seems to apply more to feelings which we have in common with the rest of the human race than to our feelings as individuals, and Katharine knew that only some one of her own age could follow her meaning. Both these elderly women seemed to her to have been content with so little happiness, and at the moment she had not sufficient force to feel certain that their version of marriage was the wrong one. In London, certainly, this temperate attitude toward her own marriage had seemed to her just. Why had she now changed? Why did it now depress her? It never occurred to her that her own conduct could be anything of a puzzle to her mother, or that elder people are as much affected by the young as the young are by them. And yet it was true that love—passion—whatever one chose to call it, had played far less part in Mrs. Hilbery's life than might have seemed likely, judging from her enthusiastic and imaginative temperament. She had always been more interested by other things. Lady Otway, strange though it seemed, guessed more accurately at Katharine's state of mind than her mother did.
"Why don't we all live in the country?" exclaimed Mrs. Hilbery, once more looking out of the window. "I'm sure one would think such beautiful things if one lived in the country. No horrid slum houses to depress one, no trams or motor-cars; and the people all looking so plump and cheerful. Isn't there some little cottage near you, Charlotte, which would do for us, with a spare room, perhaps, in case we asked a friend down? And we should save so much money that we should be able to travel—"
"Yes. You would find it very nice for a week or two, no doubt," said Lady Otway. "But what hour would you like the carriage this morning?" she continued, touching the bell.
"Katharine shall decide," said Mrs. Hilbery, feeling herself unable to prefer one hour to another. "And I was just going to tell you, Katharine, how, when I woke this morning, everything seemed so clear in my head that if I'd had a pencil I believe I could have written quite a long chapter. When we're out on our drive I shall find us a house. A few trees round it, and a little garden, a pond with a Chinese duck, a study for your father, a study for me, and a sitting room for Katharine, because then she'll be a married lady."
At this Katharine shivered a little, drew up to the fire, and warmed her hands by spreading them over the topmost peak of the coal. She wished to bring the talk back to marriage again, in order to hear Aunt Charlotte's views, but she did not know how to do this.
"Let me look at your engagement-ring, Aunt Charlotte," she said, noticing her own.
She took the cluster of green stones and turned it round and round, but she did not know what to say next.
"That poor old ring was a sad disappointment to me when I first had it," Lady Otway mused. "I'd set my heart on a diamond ring, but I never liked to tell Frank, naturally. He bought it at Simla."
Katharine turned the ring round once more, and gave it back to her aunt without speaking. And while she turned it round her lips set themselves firmly together, and it seemed to her that she could satisfy William as these women had satisfied their husbands; she could pretend to like emeralds when she preferred diamonds. Having replaced her ring, Lady Otway remarked that it was chilly, though not more so than one must expect at this time of year. Indeed, one ought to be thankful to see the sun at all, and she advised them both to dress warmly for their drive. Her aunt's stock of commonplaces, Katharine sometimes suspected, had been laid in on purpose to fill silences with, and had little to do with her private thoughts. But at this moment they seemed terribly in keeping with her own conclusions, so that she took up her knitting again and listened, chiefly with a view to confirming herself in the belief that to be engaged to marry some one with whom you are not in love is an inevitable step in a world where the existence of passion is only a traveller's story brought from the heart of deep forests and told so rarely that wise people doubt whether the story can be true. She did her best to listen to her mother asking for news of John, and to her aunt replying with the authentic history of Hilda's engagement to an officer in the Indian Army, but she cast her mind alternately towards forest paths and starry blossoms, and towards pages of neatly written mathematical signs. When her mind took this turn her marriage seemed no more than an archway through which it was necessary to pass in order to have her desire. At such times the current of her nature ran in its deep narrow channel with great force and with an alarming lack of consideration for the feelings of others. Just as the two elder ladies had finished their survey of the family prospects, and Lady Otway was nervously anticipating some general statement as to life and death from her sister-in-law, Cassandra burst into the room with the news that the carriage was at the door.
"Why didn't Andrews tell me himself?" said Lady Otway, peevishly, blaming her servants for not living up to her ideals.
When Mrs. Hilbery and Katharine arrived in the hall, ready dressed for their drive, they found that the usual discussion was going forward as to the plans of the rest of the family. In token of this, a great many doors were opening and shutting, two or three people stood irresolutely on the stairs, now going a few steps up, and now a few steps down, and Sir Francis himself had come out from his study, with the "Times" under his arm, and a complaint about noise and draughts from the open door which, at least, had the effect of bundling the people who did not want to go into the carriage, and sending those who did not want to stay back to their rooms. It was decided that Mrs. Hilbery, Katharine, Rodney, and Henry should drive to Lincoln, and any one else who wished to go should follow on bicycles or in the pony-cart. Every one who stayed at Stogdon House had to make this expedition to Lincoln in obedience to Lady Otway's conception of the right way to entertain her guests, which she had imbibed from reading in fashionable papers of the behavior of Christmas parties in ducal houses. The carriage horses were both fat and aged, still they matched; the carriage was shaky and uncomfortable, but the Otway arms were visible on the panels. Lady Otway stood on the topmost step, wrapped in a white shawl, and waved her hand almost mechanically until they had turned the corner under the laurel-bushes, when she retired indoors with a sense that she had played her part, and a sigh at the thought that none of her children felt it necessary to play theirs.
The carriage bowled along smoothly over the gently curving road. Mrs. Hilbery dropped into a pleasant, inattentive state of mind, in which she was conscious of the running green lines of the hedges, of the swelling ploughland, and of the mild blue sky, which served her, after the first five minutes, for a pastoral background to the drama of human life; and then she thought of a cottage garden, with the flash of yellow daffodils against blue water; and what with the arrangement of these different prospects, and the shaping of two or three lovely phrases, she did not notice that the young people in the carriage were almost silent. Henry, indeed, had been included against his wish, and revenged himself by observing Katharine and Rodney with disillusioned eyes; while Katharine was in a state of gloomy self-suppression which resulted in complete apathy. When Rodney spoke to her she either said "Hum!" or assented so listlessly that he addressed his next remark to her mother. His deference was agreeable to her, his manners were exemplary; and when the church towers and factory chimneys of the town came into sight, she roused herself, and recalled memories of the fair summer of 1853, which fitted in harmoniously with what she was dreaming of the future.
But other passengers were approaching Lincoln meanwhile by other roads on foot. A county town draws the inhabitants of all vicarages, farms, country houses, and wayside cottages, within a radius of ten miles at least, once or twice a week to its streets; and among them, on this occasion, were Ralph Denham and Mary Datchet. They despised the roads, and took their way across the fields; and yet, from their appearance, it did not seem as if they cared much where they walked so long as the way did not actually trip them up. When they left the Vicarage, they had begun an argument which swung their feet along so rhythmically in time with it that they covered the ground at over four miles an hour, and saw nothing of the hedgerows, the swelling plowland, or the mild blue sky. What they saw were the Houses of Parliament and the Government Offices in Whitehall. They both belonged to the class which is conscious of having lost its birthright in these great structures and is seeking to build another kind of lodging for its own notion of law and government. Purposely, perhaps, Mary did not agree with Ralph; she loved to feel her mind in conflict with his, and to be certain that he spared her female judgment no ounce of his male muscularity. He seemed to argue as fiercely with her as if she were his brother. They were alike, however, in believing that it behooved them to take in hand the repair and reconstruction of the fabric of England. They agreed in thinking that nature has not been generous in the endowment of our councilors. They agreed, unconsciously, in a mute love for the muddy field through which they tramped, with eyes narrowed close by the concentration of their minds. At length they drew breath, let the argument fly away into the limbo of other good arguments, and, leaning over a gate, opened their eyes for the first time and looked about them. Their feet tingled with warm blood and their breath rose in steam around them. The bodily exercise made them both feel more direct and less self-conscious than usual, and Mary, indeed, was overcome by a sort of light-headedness which made it seem to her that it mattered very little what happened next. It mattered so little, indeed, that she felt herself on the point of saying to Ralph:
"I love you; I shall never love anybody else. Marry me or leave me; think what you like of me—I don't care a straw." At the moment, however, speech or silence seemed immaterial, and she merely clapped her hands together, and looked at the distant woods with the rust-like bloom on their brown, and the green and blue landscape through the steam of her own breath. It seemed a mere toss-up whether she said, "I love you," or whether she said, "I love the beech-trees," or only "I love—I love."
"Do you know, Mary," Ralph suddenly interrupted her, "I've made up my mind."
Her indifference must have been superficial, for it disappeared at once. Indeed, she lost sight of the trees, and saw her own hand upon the topmost bar of the gate with extreme distinctness, while he went on:
"I've made up my mind to chuck my work and live down here. I want you to tell me about that cottage you spoke of. However, I suppose there'll be no difficulty about getting a cottage, will there?" He spoke with an assumption of carelessness as if expecting her to dissuade him.
She still waited, as if for him to continue; she was convinced that in some roundabout way he approached the subject of their marriage.
"I can't stand the office any longer," he proceeded. "I don't know what my family will say; but I'm sure I'm right. Don't you think so?"
"Live down here by yourself?" she asked.
"Some old woman would do for me, I suppose," he replied. "I'm sick of the whole thing," he went on, and opened the gate with a jerk. They began to cross the next field walking side by side.
"I tell you, Mary, it's utter destruction, working away, day after day, at stuff that doesn't matter a damn to any one. I've stood eight years of it, and I'm not going to stand it any longer. I suppose this all seems to you mad, though?"
By this time Mary had recovered her self-control.
"No. I thought you weren't happy," she said.
"Why did you think that?" he asked, with some surprise.
"Don't you remember that morning in Lincoln's Inn Fields?" she asked.
"Yes," said Ralph, slackening his pace and remembering Katharine and her engagement, the purple leaves stamped into the path, the white paper radiant under the electric light, and the hopelessness which seemed to surround all these things.
"You're right, Mary," he said, with something of an effort, "though I don't know how you guessed it."
She was silent, hoping that he might tell her the reason of his unhappiness, for his excuses had not deceived her.
"I was unhappy—very unhappy," he repeated. Some six weeks separated him from that afternoon when he had sat upon the Embankment watching his visions dissolve in mist as the waters swam past and the sense of his desolation still made him shiver. He had not recovered in the least from that depression. Here was an opportunity for making himself face it, as he felt that he ought to; for, by this time, no doubt, it was only a sentimental ghost, better exorcised by ruthless exposure to such an eye as Mary's, than allowed to underlie all his actions and thoughts as had been the case ever since he first saw Katharine Hilbery pouring out tea. He must begin, however, by mentioning her name, and this he found it impossible to do. He persuaded himself that he could make an honest statement without speaking her name; he persuaded himself that his feeling had very little to do with her.
"Unhappiness is a state of mind," he said, "by which I mean that it is not necessarily the result of any particular cause."
This rather stilted beginning did not please him, and it became more and more obvious to him that, whatever he might say, his unhappiness had been directly caused by Katharine.
"I began to find my life unsatisfactory," he started afresh. "It seemed to me meaningless." He paused again, but felt that this, at any rate, was true, and that on these lines he could go on.
"All this money-making and working ten hours a day in an office, what's it FOR? When one's a boy, you see, one's head is so full of dreams that it doesn't seem to matter what one does. And if you're ambitious, you're all right; you've got a reason for going on. Now my reasons ceased to satisfy me. Perhaps I never had any. That's very likely now I come to think of it. (What reason is there for anything, though?) Still, it's impossible, after a certain age, to take oneself in satisfactorily. And I know what carried me on"—for a good reason now occurred to him—"I wanted to be the savior of my family and all that kind of thing. I wanted them to get on in the world. That was a lie, of course—a kind of self-glorification, too. Like most people, I suppose, I've lived almost entirely among delusions, and now I'm at the awkward stage of finding it out. I want another delusion to go on with. That's what my unhappiness amounts to, Mary."
There were two reasons that kept Mary very silent during this speech, and drew curiously straight lines upon her face. In the first place, Ralph made no mention of marriage; in the second, he was not speaking the truth.
"I don't think it will be difficult to find a cottage," she said, with cheerful hardness, ignoring the whole of this statement. "You've got a little money, haven't you? Yes," she concluded, "I don't see why it shouldn't be a very good plan."
They crossed the field in complete silence. Ralph was surprised by her remark and a little hurt, and yet, on the whole, rather pleased. He had convinced himself that it was impossible to lay his case truthfully before Mary, and, secretly, he was relieved to find that he had not parted with his dream to her. She was, as he had always found her, the sensible, loyal friend, the woman he trusted; whose sympathy he could count upon, provided he kept within certain limits. He was not displeased to find that those limits were very clearly marked. When they had crossed the next hedge she said to him:
"Yes, Ralph, it's time you made a break. I've come to the same conclusion myself. Only it won't be a country cottage in my case; it'll be America. America!" she cried. "That's the place for me! They'll teach me something about organizing a movement there, and I'll come back and show you how to do it."
If she meant consciously or unconsciously to belittle the seclusion and security of a country cottage, she did not succeed; for Ralph's determination was genuine. But she made him visualize her in her own character, so that he looked quickly at her, as she walked a little in front of him across the plowed field; for the first time that morning he saw her independently of him or of his preoccupation with Katharine. He seemed to see her marching ahead, a rather clumsy but powerful and independent figure, for whose courage he felt the greatest respect.
"Don't go away, Mary!" he exclaimed, and stopped.
"That's what you said before, Ralph," she returned, without looking at him. "You want to go away yourself and you don't want me to go away. That's not very sensible, is it?"
"Mary," he cried, stung by the remembrance of his exacting and dictatorial ways with her, "what a brute I've been to you!"
It took all her strength to keep the tears from springing, and to thrust back her assurance that she would forgive him till Doomsday if he chose. She was preserved from doing so only by a stubborn kind of respect for herself which lay at the root of her nature and forbade surrender, even in moments of almost overwhelming passion. Now, when all was tempest and high-running waves, she knew of a land where the sun shone clear upon Italian grammars and files of docketed papers. Nevertheless, from the skeleton pallor of that land and the rocks that broke its surface, she knew that her life there would be harsh and lonely almost beyond endurance. She walked steadily a little in front of him across the plowed field. Their way took them round the verge of a wood of thin trees standing at the edge of a steep fold in the land. Looking between the tree-trunks, Ralph saw laid out on the perfectly flat and richly green meadow at the bottom of the hill a small gray manor-house, with ponds, terraces, and clipped hedges in front of it, a farm building or so at the side, and a screen of fir-trees rising behind, all perfectly sheltered and self-sufficient. Behind the house the hill rose again, and the trees on the farther summit stood upright against the sky, which appeared of a more intense blue between their trunks. His mind at once was filled with a sense of the actual presence of Katharine; the gray house and the intense blue sky gave him the feeling of her presence close by. He leant against a tree, forming her name beneath his breath:
"Katharine, Katharine," he said aloud, and then, looking round, saw Mary walking slowly away from him, tearing a long spray of ivy from the trees as she passed them. She seemed so definitely opposed to the vision he held in his mind that he returned to it with a gesture of impatience.
"Katharine, Katharine," he repeated, and seemed to himself to be with her. He lost his sense of all that surrounded him; all substantial things—the hour of the day, what we have done and are about to do, the presence of other people and the support we derive from seeing their belief in a common reality—all this slipped from him. So he might have felt if the earth had dropped from his feet, and the empty blue had hung all round him, and the air had been steeped in the presence of one woman. The chirp of a robin on the bough above his head awakened him, and his awakenment was accompanied by a sigh. Here was the world in which he had lived; here the plowed field, the high road yonder, and Mary, stripping ivy from the trees. When he came up with her he linked his arm through hers and said:
"Now, Mary, what's all this about America?"
There was a brotherly kindness in his voice which seemed to her magnanimous, when she reflected that she had cut short his explanations and shown little interest in his change of plan. She gave him her reasons for thinking that she might profit by such a journey, omitting the one reason which had set all the rest in motion. He listened attentively, and made no attempt to dissuade her. In truth, he found himself curiously eager to make certain of her good sense, and accepted each fresh proof of it with satisfaction, as though it helped him to make up his mind about something. She forgot the pain he had caused her, and in place of it she became conscious of a steady tide of well-being which harmonized very aptly with the tramp of their feet upon the dry road and the support of his arm. The comfort was the more glowing in that it seemed to be the reward of her determination to behave to him simply and without attempting to be other than she was. Instead of making out an interest in the poets, she avoided them instinctively, and dwelt rather insistently upon the practical nature of her gifts.
In a practical way she asked for particulars of his cottage, which hardly existed in his mind, and corrected his vagueness.
"You must see that there's water," she insisted, with an exaggeration of interest. She avoided asking him what he meant to do in this cottage, and, at last, when all the practical details had been thrashed out as much as possible, he rewarded her by a more intimate statement.
"One of the rooms," he said, "must be my study, for, you see, Mary, I'm going to write a book." Here he withdrew his arm from hers, lit his pipe, and they tramped on in a sagacious kind of comradeship, the most complete they had attained in all their friendship.
"And what's your book to be about?" she said, as boldly as if she had never come to grief with Ralph in talking about books. He told her unhesitatingly that he meant to write the history of the English village from Saxon days to the present time. Some such plan had lain as a seed in his mind for many years; and now that he had decided, in a flash, to give up his profession, the seed grew in the space of twenty minutes both tall and lusty. He was surprised himself at the positive way in which he spoke. It was the same with the question of his cottage. That had come into existence, too, in an unromantic shape—a square white house standing just off the high road, no doubt, with a neighbor who kept a pig and a dozen squalling children; for these plans were shorn of all romance in his mind, and the pleasure he derived from thinking of them was checked directly it passed a very sober limit. So a sensible man who has lost his chance of some beautiful inheritance might tread out the narrow bounds of his actual dwelling-place, and assure himself that life is supportable within its demesne, only one must grow turnips and cabbages, not melons and pomegranates. Certainly Ralph took some pride in the resources of his mind, and was insensibly helped to right himself by Mary's trust in him. She wound her ivy spray round her ash-plant, and for the first time for many days, when alone with Ralph, set no spies upon her motives, sayings, and feelings, but surrendered herself to complete happiness.
Thus talking, with easy silences and some pauses to look at the view over the hedge and to decide upon the species of a little gray-brown bird slipping among the twigs, they walked into Lincoln, and after strolling up and down the main street, decided upon an inn where the rounded window suggested substantial fare, nor were they mistaken. For over a hundred and fifty years hot joints, potatoes, greens, and apple puddings had been served to generations of country gentlemen, and now, sitting at a table in the hollow of the bow window, Ralph and Mary took their share of this perennial feast. Looking across the joint, half-way through the meal, Mary wondered whether Ralph would ever come to look quite like the other people in the room. Would he be absorbed among the round pink faces, pricked with little white bristles, the calves fitted in shiny brown leather, the black-and-white check suits, which were sprinkled about in the same room with them? She half hoped so; she thought that it was only in his mind that he was different. She did not wish him to be too different from other people. The walk had given him a ruddy color, too, and his eyes were lit up by a steady, honest light, which could not make the simplest farmer feel ill at ease, or suggest to the most devout of clergymen a disposition to sneer at his faith. She loved the steep cliff of his forehead, and compared it to the brow of a young Greek horseman, who reins his horse back so sharply that it half falls on its haunches. He always seemed to her like a rider on a spirited horse. And there was an exaltation to her in being with him, because there was a risk that he would not be able to keep to the right pace among other people. Sitting opposite him at the little table in the window, she came back to that state of careless exaltation which had overcome her when they halted by the gate, but now it was accompanied by a sense of sanity and security, for she felt that they had a feeling in common which scarcely needed embodiment in words. How silent he was! leaning his forehead on his hand, now and then, and again looking steadily and gravely at the backs of the two men at the next table, with so little self-consciousness that she could almost watch his mind placing one thought solidly upon the top of another; she thought that she could feel him thinking, through the shade of her fingers, and she could anticipate the exact moment when he would put an end to his thought and turn a little in his chair and say:
"Well, Mary—?" inviting her to take up the thread of thought where he had dropped it.
And at that very moment he turned just so, and said:
"Well, Mary?" with the curious touch of diffidence which she loved in him.
She laughed, and she explained her laugh on the spur of the moment by the look of the people in the street below. There was a motor-car with an old lady swathed in blue veils, and a lady's maid on the seat opposite, holding a King Charles's spaniel; there was a country-woman wheeling a perambulator full of sticks down the middle of the road; there was a bailiff in gaiters discussing the state of the cattle market with a dissenting minister—so she defined them.
She ran over this list without any fear that her companion would think her trivial. Indeed, whether it was due to the warmth of the room or to the good roast beef, or whether Ralph had achieved the process which is called making up one's mind, certainly he had given up testing the good sense, the independent character, the intelligence shown in her remarks. He had been building one of those piles of thought, as ramshackle and fantastic as a Chinese pagoda, half from words let fall by gentlemen in gaiters, half from the litter in his own mind, about duck shooting and legal history, about the Roman occupation of Lincoln and the relations of country gentlemen with their wives, when, from all this disconnected rambling, there suddenly formed itself in his mind the idea that he would ask Mary to marry him. The idea was so spontaneous that it seemed to shape itself of its own accord before his eyes. It was then that he turned round and made use of his old, instinctive phrase:
As it presented itself to him at first, the idea was so new and interesting that he was half inclined to address it, without more ado, to Mary herself. His natural instinct to divide his thoughts carefully into two different classes before he expressed them to her prevailed. But as he watched her looking out of the window and describing the old lady, the woman with the perambulator, the bailiff and the dissenting minister, his eyes filled involuntarily with tears. He would have liked to lay his head on her shoulder and sob, while she parted his hair with her fingers and soothed him and said:
"There, there. Don't cry! Tell me why you're crying—"; and they would clasp each other tight, and her arms would hold him like his mother's. He felt that he was very lonely, and that he was afraid of the other people in the room.
"How damnable this all is!" he exclaimed abruptly.
"What are you talking about?" she replied, rather vaguely, still looking out of the window.
He resented this divided attention more than, perhaps, he knew, and he thought how Mary would soon be on her way to America.
"Mary," he said, "I want to talk to you. Haven't we nearly done? Why don't they take away these plates?"
Mary felt his agitation without looking at him; she felt convinced that she knew what it was that he wished to say to her.
"They'll come all in good time," she said; and felt it necessary to display her extreme calmness by lifting a salt-cellar and sweeping up a little heap of bread-crumbs.
"I want to apologize," Ralph continued, not quite knowing what he was about to say, but feeling some curious instinct which urged him to commit himself irrevocably, and to prevent the moment of intimacy from passing.
"I think I've treated you very badly. That is, I've told you lies. Did you guess that I was lying to you? Once in Lincoln's Inn Fields and again to-day on our walk. I am a liar, Mary. Did you know that? Do you think you do know me?"
"I think I do," she said.
At this point the waiter changed their plates.
"It's true I don't want you to go to America," he said, looking fixedly at the table-cloth. "In fact, my feelings towards you seem to be utterly and damnably bad," he said energetically, although forced to keep his voice low.
"If I weren't a selfish beast I should tell you to have nothing more to do with me. And yet, Mary, in spite of the fact that I believe what I'm saying, I also believe that it's good we should know each other—the world being what it is, you see—" and by a nod of his head he indicated the other occupants of the room, "for, of course, in an ideal state of things, in a decent community even, there's no doubt you shouldn't have anything to do with me—seriously, that is."
"You forget that I'm not an ideal character, either," said Mary, in the same low and very earnest tones, which, in spite of being almost inaudible, surrounded their table with an atmosphere of concentration which was quite perceptible to the other diners, who glanced at them now and then with a queer mixture of kindness, amusement, and curiosity.
"I'm much more selfish than I let on, and I'm worldly a little—more than you think, anyhow. I like bossing things—perhaps that's my greatest fault. I've none of your passion for—" here she hesitated, and glanced at him, as if to ascertain what his passion was for—"for the truth," she added, as if she had found what she sought indisputably.
"I've told you I'm a liar," Ralph repeated obstinately.
"Oh, in little things, I dare say," she said impatiently. "But not in real ones, and that's what matters. I dare say I'm more truthful than you are in small ways. But I could never care"—she was surprised to find herself speaking the word, and had to force herself to speak it out—"for any one who was a liar in that way. I love the truth a certain amount—a considerable amount—but not in the way you love it." Her voice sank, became inaudible, and wavered as if she could scarcely keep herself from tears.
"Good heavens!" Ralph exclaimed to himself. "She loves me! Why did I never see it before? She's going to cry; no, but she can't speak."
The certainty overwhelmed him so that he scarcely knew what he was doing; the blood rushed to his cheeks, and although he had quite made up his mind to ask her to marry him, the certainty that she loved him seemed to change the situation so completely that he could not do it. He did not dare to look at her. If she cried, he did not know what he should do. It seemed to him that something of a terrible and devastating nature had happened. The waiter changed their plates once more.
In his agitation Ralph rose, turned his back upon Mary, and looked out of the window. The people in the street seemed to him only a dissolving and combining pattern of black particles; which, for the moment, represented very well the involuntary procession of feelings and thoughts which formed and dissolved in rapid succession in his own mind. At one moment he exulted in the thought that Mary loved him; at the next, it seemed that he was without feeling for her; her love was repulsive to him. Now he felt urged to marry her at once; now to disappear and never see her again. In order to control this disorderly race of thought he forced himself to read the name on the chemist's shop directly opposite him; then to examine the objects in the shop windows, and then to focus his eyes exactly upon a little group of women looking in at the great windows of a large draper's shop. This discipline having given him at least a superficial control of himself, he was about to turn and ask the waiter to bring the bill, when his eye was caught by a tall figure walking quickly along the opposite pavement—a tall figure, upright, dark, and commanding, much detached from her surroundings. She held her gloves in her left hand, and the left hand was bare. All this Ralph noticed and enumerated and recognized before he put a name to the whole—Katharine Hilbery. She seemed to be looking for somebody. Her eyes, in fact, scanned both sides of the street, and for one second were raised directly to the bow window in which Ralph stood; but she looked away again instantly without giving any sign that she had seen him. This sudden apparition had an extraordinary effect upon him. It was as if he had thought of her so intensely that his mind had formed the shape of her, rather than that he had seen her in the flesh outside in the street. And yet he had not been thinking of her at all. The impression was so intense that he could not dismiss it, nor even think whether he had seen her or merely imagined her. He sat down at once, and said, briefly and strangely, rather to himself than to Mary:
"That was Katharine Hilbery."
"Katharine Hilbery? What do you mean?" she asked, hardly understanding from his manner whether he had seen her or not.
"Katharine Hilbery," he repeated. "But she's gone now."
"Katharine Hilbery!" Mary thought, in an instant of blinding revelation; "I've always known it was Katharine Hilbery!" She knew it all now.
After a moment of downcast stupor, she raised her eyes, looked steadily at Ralph, and caught his fixed and dreamy gaze leveled at a point far beyond their surroundings, a point that she had never reached in all the time that she had known him. She noticed the lips just parted, the fingers loosely clenched, the whole attitude of rapt contemplation, which fell like a veil between them. She noticed everything about him; if there had been other signs of his utter alienation she would have sought them out, too, for she felt that it was only by heaping one truth upon another that she could keep herself sitting there, upright. The truth seemed to support her; it struck her, even as she looked at his face, that the light of truth was shining far away beyond him; the light of truth, she seemed to frame the words as she rose to go, shines on a world not to be shaken by our personal calamities.
Ralph handed her her coat and her stick. She took them, fastened the coat securely, grasped the stick firmly. The ivy spray was still twisted about the handle; this one sacrifice, she thought, she might make to sentimentality and personality, and she picked two leaves from the ivy and put them in her pocket before she disencumbered her stick of the rest of it. She grasped the stick in the middle, and settled her fur cap closely upon her head, as if she must be in trim for a long and stormy walk. Next, standing in the middle of the road, she took a slip of paper from her purse, and read out loud a list of commissions entrusted to her—fruit, butter, string, and so on; and all the time she never spoke directly to Ralph or looked at him.
Ralph heard her giving orders to attentive, rosy-checked men in white aprons, and in spite of his own preoccupation, he commented upon the determination with which she made her wishes known. Once more he began, automatically, to take stock of her characteristics. Standing thus, superficially observant and stirring the sawdust on the floor meditatively with the toe of his boot, he was roused by a musical and familiar voice behind him, accompanied by a light touch upon his shoulder.
"I'm not mistaken? Surely Mr. Denham? I caught a glimpse of your coat through the window, and I felt sure that I knew your coat. Have you seen Katharine or William? I'm wandering about Lincoln looking for the ruins."
It was Mrs. Hilbery; her entrance created some stir in the shop; many people looked at her.
"First of all, tell me where I am," she demanded, but, catching sight of the attentive shopman, she appealed to him. "The ruins—my party is waiting for me at the ruins. The Roman ruins—or Greek, Mr. Denham? Your town has a great many beautiful things in it, but I wish it hadn't so many ruins. I never saw such delightful little pots of honey in my life—are they made by your own bees? Please give me one of those little pots, and tell me how I shall find my way to the ruins."
"And now," she continued, having received the information and the pot of honey, having been introduced to Mary, and having insisted that they should accompany her back to the ruins, since in a town with so many turnings, such prospects, such delightful little half-naked boys dabbling in pools, such Venetian canals, such old blue china in the curiosity shops, it was impossible for one person all alone to find her way to the ruins. "Now," she exclaimed, "please tell me what you're doing here, Mr. Denham—for you ARE Mr. Denham, aren't you?" she inquired, gazing at him with a sudden suspicion of her own accuracy. "The brilliant young man who writes for the Review, I mean? Only yesterday my husband was telling me he thought you one of the cleverest young men he knew. Certainly, you've been the messenger of Providence to me, for unless I'd seen you I'm sure I should never have found the ruins at all."
They had reached the Roman arch when Mrs. Hilbery caught sight of her own party, standing like sentinels facing up and down the road so as to intercept her if, as they expected, she had got lodged in some shop.
"I've found something much better than ruins!" she exclaimed. "I've found two friends who told me how to find you, which I could never have done without them. They must come and have tea with us. What a pity that we've just had luncheon." Could they not somehow revoke that meal?
Katharine, who had gone a few steps by herself down the road, and was investigating the window of an ironmonger, as if her mother might have got herself concealed among mowing-machines and garden-shears, turned sharply on hearing her voice, and came towards them. She was a great deal surprised to see Denham and Mary Datchet. Whether the cordiality with which she greeted them was merely that which is natural to a surprise meeting in the country, or whether she was really glad to see them both, at any rate she exclaimed with unusual pleasure as she shook hands:
"I never knew you lived here. Why didn't you say so, and we could have met? And are you staying with Mary?" she continued, turning to Ralph. "What a pity we didn't meet before."
Thus confronted at a distance of only a few feet by the real body of the woman about whom he had dreamt so many million dreams, Ralph stammered; he made a clutch at his self-control; the color either came to his cheeks or left them, he knew not which; but he was determined to face her and track down in the cold light of day whatever vestige of truth there might be in his persistent imaginations. He did not succeed in saying anything. It was Mary who spoke for both of them. He was struck dumb by finding that Katharine was quite different, in some strange way, from his memory, so that he had to dismiss his old view in order to accept the new one. The wind was blowing her crimson scarf across her face; the wind had already loosened her hair, which looped across the corner of one of the large, dark eyes which, so he used to think, looked sad; now they looked bright with the brightness of the sea struck by an unclouded ray; everything about her seemed rapid, fragmentary, and full of a kind of racing speed. He realized suddenly that he had never seen her in the daylight before.
Meanwhile, it was decided that it was too late to go in search of ruins as they had intended; and the whole party began to walk towards the stables where the carriage had been put up.
"Do you know," said Katharine, keeping slightly in advance of the rest with Ralph, "I thought I saw you this morning, standing at a window. But I decided that it couldn't be you. And it must have been you all the same."
"Yes, I thought I saw you—but it wasn't you," he replied.
This remark, and the rough strain in his voice, recalled to her memory so many difficult speeches and abortive meetings that she was jerked directly back to the London drawing-room, the family relics, and the tea-table; and at the same time recalled some half-finished or interrupted remark which she had wanted to make herself or to hear from him—she could not remember what it was.
"I expect it was me," she said. "I was looking for my mother. It happens every time we come to Lincoln. In fact, there never was a family so unable to take care of itself as ours is. Not that it very much matters, because some one always turns up in the nick of time to help us out of our scrapes. Once I was left in a field with a bull when I was a baby—but where did we leave the carriage? Down that street or the next? The next, I think." She glanced back and saw that the others were following obediently, listening to certain memories of Lincoln upon which Mrs. Hilbery had started. "But what are you doing here?" she asked.
"I'm buying a cottage. I'm going to live here—as soon as I can find a cottage, and Mary tells me there'll be no difficulty about that."
"But," she exclaimed, almost standing still in her surprise, "you will give up the Bar, then?" It flashed across her mind that he must already be engaged to Mary.
"The solicitor's office? Yes. I'm giving that up."
"But why?" she asked. She answered herself at once, with a curious change from rapid speech to an almost melancholy tone. "I think you're very wise to give it up. You will be much happier."
At this very moment, when her words seemed to be striking a path into the future for him, they stepped into the yard of an inn, and there beheld the family coach of the Otways, to which one sleek horse was already attached, while the second was being led out of the stable door by the hostler.
"I don't know what one means by happiness," he said briefly, having to step aside in order to avoid a groom with a bucket. "Why do you think I shall be happy? I don't expect to be anything of the kind. I expect to be rather less unhappy. I shall write a book and curse my charwoman—if happiness consists in that. What do you think?"
She could not answer because they were immediately surrounded by other members of the party—by Mrs. Hilbery, and Mary, Henry Otway, and William.
Rodney went up to Katharine immediately and said to her:
"Henry is going to drive home with your mother, and I suggest that they should put us down half-way and let us walk back."
Katharine nodded her head. She glanced at him with an oddly furtive expression.
"Unfortunately we go in opposite directions, or we might have given you a lift," he continued to Denham. His manner was unusually peremptory; he seemed anxious to hasten the departure, and Katharine looked at him from time to time, as Denham noticed, with an expression half of inquiry, half of annoyance. She at once helped her mother into her cloak, and said to Mary:
"I want to see you. Are you going back to London at once? I will write." She half smiled at Ralph, but her look was a little overcast by something she was thinking, and in a very few minutes the Otway carriage rolled out of the stable yard and turned down the high road leading to the village of Lampsher.
The return drive was almost as silent as the drive from home had been in the morning; indeed, Mrs. Hilbery leant back with closed eyes in her corner, and either slept or feigned sleep, as her habit was in the intervals between the seasons of active exertion, or continued the story which she had begun to tell herself that morning.
About two miles from Lampsher the road ran over the rounded summit of the heath, a lonely spot marked by an obelisk of granite, setting forth the gratitude of some great lady of the eighteenth century who had been set upon by highwaymen at this spot and delivered from death just as hope seemed lost. In summer it was a pleasant place, for the deep woods on either side murmured, and the heather, which grew thick round the granite pedestal, made the light breeze taste sweetly; in winter the sighing of the trees was deepened to a hollow sound, and the heath was as gray and almost as solitary as the empty sweep of the clouds above it.
Here Rodney stopped the carriage and helped Katharine to alight. Henry, too, gave her his hand, and fancied that she pressed it very slightly in parting as if she sent him a message. But the carriage rolled on immediately, without wakening Mrs. Hilbery, and left the couple standing by the obelisk. That Rodney was angry with her and had made this opportunity for speaking to her, Katharine knew very well; she was neither glad nor sorry that the time had come, nor, indeed, knew what to expect, and thus remained silent. The carriage grew smaller and smaller upon the dusky road, and still Rodney did not speak. Perhaps, she thought, he waited until the last sign of the carriage had disappeared beneath the curve of the road and they were left entirely alone. To cloak their silence she read the writing on the obelisk, to do which she had to walk completely round it. She was murmuring a word to two of the pious lady's thanks above her breath when Rodney joined her. In silence they set out along the cart-track which skirted the verge of the trees.
To break the silence was exactly what Rodney wished to do, and yet could not do to his own satisfaction. In company it was far easier to approach Katharine; alone with her, the aloofness and force of her character checked all his natural methods of attack. He believed that she had behaved very badly to him, but each separate instance of unkindness seemed too petty to be advanced when they were alone together.
"There's no need for us to race," he complained at last; upon which she immediately slackened her pace, and walked too slowly to suit him. In desperation he said the first thing he thought of, very peevishly and without the dignified prelude which he had intended.
"I've not enjoyed my holiday."
"No. I shall be glad to get back to work again."
"Saturday, Sunday, Monday—there are only three days more," she counted.
"No one enjoys being made a fool of before other people," he blurted out, for his irritation rose as she spoke, and got the better of his awe of her, and was inflamed by that awe.
"That refers to me, I suppose," she said calmly.
"Every day since we've been here you've done something to make me appear ridiculous," he went on. "Of course, so long as it amuses you, you're welcome; but we have to remember that we are going to spend our lives together. I asked you, only this morning, for example, to come out and take a turn with me in the garden. I was waiting for you ten minutes, and you never came. Every one saw me waiting. The stable-boys saw me. I was so ashamed that I went in. Then, on the drive you hardly spoke to me. Henry noticed it. Every one notices it.... You find no difficulty in talking to Henry, though."
She noted these various complaints and determined philosophically to answer none of them, although the last stung her to considerable irritation. She wished to find out how deep his grievance lay.
"None of these things seem to me to matter," she said.
"Very well, then. I may as well hold my tongue," he replied.
"In themselves they don't seem to me to matter; if they hurt you, of course they matter," she corrected herself scrupulously. Her tone of consideration touched him, and he walked on in silence for a space.
"And we might be so happy, Katharine!" he exclaimed impulsively, and drew her arm through his. She withdrew it directly.
"As long as you let yourself feel like this we shall never be happy," she said.
The harshness, which Henry had noticed, was again unmistakable in her manner. William flinched and was silent. Such severity, accompanied by something indescribably cold and impersonal in her manner, had constantly been meted out to him during the last few days, always in the company of others. He had recouped himself by some ridiculous display of vanity which, as he knew, put him still more at her mercy. Now that he was alone with her there was no stimulus from outside to draw his attention from his injury. By a considerable effort of self-control he forced himself to remain silent, and to make himself distinguish what part of his pain was due to vanity, what part to the certainty that no woman really loving him could speak thus.
"What do I feel about Katharine?" he thought to himself. It was clear that she had been a very desirable and distinguished figure, the mistress of her little section of the world; but more than that, she was the person of all others who seemed to him the arbitress of life, the woman whose judgment was naturally right and steady, as his had never been in spite of all his culture. And then he could not see her come into a room without a sense of the flowing of robes, of the flowering of blossoms, of the purple waves of the sea, of all things that are lovely and mutable on the surface but still and passionate in their heart.
"If she were callous all the time and had only led me on to laugh at me I couldn't have felt that about her," he thought. "I'm not a fool, after all. I can't have been utterly mistaken all these years. And yet, when she speaks to me like that! The truth of it is," he thought, "that I've got such despicable faults that no one could help speaking to me like that. Katharine is quite right. And yet those are not my serious feelings, as she knows quite well. How can I change myself? What would make her care for me?" He was terribly tempted here to break the silence by asking Katharine in what respects he could change himself to suit her; but he sought consolation instead by running over the list of his gifts and acquirements, his knowledge of Greek and Latin, his knowledge of art and literature, his skill in the management of meters, and his ancient west-country blood. But the feeling that underlay all these feelings and puzzled him profoundly and kept him silent was the certainty that he loved Katharine as sincerely as he had it in him to love any one. And yet she could speak to him like that! In a sort of bewilderment he lost all desire to speak, and would quite readily have taken up some different topic of conversation if Katharine had started one. This, however, she did not do.
He glanced at her, in case her expression might help him to understand her behavior. As usual, she had quickened her pace unconsciously, and was now walking a little in front of him; but he could gain little information from her eyes, which looked steadily at the brown heather, or from the lines drawn seriously upon her forehead. Thus to lose touch with her, for he had no idea what she was thinking, was so unpleasant to him that he began to talk about his grievances again, without, however, much conviction in his voice.
"If you have no feeling for me, wouldn't it be kinder to say so to me in private?"
"Oh, William," she burst out, as if he had interrupted some absorbing train of thought, "how you go on about feelings! Isn't it better not to talk so much, not to be worrying always about small things that don't really matter?"
"That's the question precisely," he exclaimed. "I only want you to tell me that they don't matter. There are times when you seem indifferent to everything. I'm vain, I've a thousand faults; but you know they're not everything; you know I care for you."
"And if I say that I care for you, don't you believe me?"
"Say it, Katharine! Say it as if you meant it! Make me feel that you care for me!"
She could not force herself to speak a word. The heather was growing dim around them, and the horizon was blotted out by white mist. To ask her for passion or for certainty seemed like asking that damp prospect for fierce blades of fire, or the faded sky for the intense blue vault of June.
He went on now to tell her of his love for her, in words which bore, even to her critical senses, the stamp of truth; but none of this touched her, until, coming to a gate whose hinge was rusty, he heaved it open with his shoulder, still talking and taking no account of his effort. The virility of this deed impressed her; and yet, normally, she attached no value to the power of opening gates. The strength of muscles has nothing to do on the face of it with the strength of affections; nevertheless, she felt a sudden concern for this power running to waste on her account, which, combined with a desire to keep possession of that strangely attractive masculine power, made her rouse herself from her torpor.
Why should she not simply tell him the truth—which was that she had accepted him in a misty state of mind when nothing had its right shape or size? that it was deplorable, but that with clearer eyesight marriage was out of the question? She did not want to marry any one. She wanted to go away by herself, preferably to some bleak northern moor, and there study mathematics and the science of astronomy. Twenty words would explain the whole situation to him. He had ceased to speak; he had told her once more how he loved her and why. She summoned her courage, fixed her eyes upon a lightning-splintered ash-tree, and, almost as if she were reading a writing fixed to the trunk, began:
"I was wrong to get engaged to you. I shall never make you happy. I have never loved you."
"Katharine!" he protested.
"No, never," she repeated obstinately. "Not rightly. Don't you see, I didn't know what I was doing?"
"You love some one else?" he cut her short.
"Absolutely no one."
"Henry?" he demanded.
"Henry? I should have thought, William, even you—"
"There is some one," he persisted. "There has been a change in the last few weeks. You owe it to me to be honest, Katharine."
"If I could, I would," she replied.
"Why did you tell me you would marry me, then?" he demanded.
Why, indeed? A moment of pessimism, a sudden conviction of the undeniable prose of life, a lapse of the illusion which sustains youth midway between heaven and earth, a desperate attempt to reconcile herself with facts—she could only recall a moment, as of waking from a dream, which now seemed to her a moment of surrender. But who could give reasons such as these for doing what she had done? She shook her head very sadly.
"But you're not a child—you're not a woman of moods," Rodney persisted. "You couldn't have accepted me if you hadn't loved me!" he cried.
A sense of her own misbehavior, which she had succeeded in keeping from her by sharpening her consciousness of Rodney's faults, now swept over her and almost overwhelmed her. What were his faults in comparison with the fact that he cared for her? What were her virtues in comparison with the fact that she did not care for him? In a flash the conviction that not to care is the uttermost sin of all stamped itself upon her inmost thought; and she felt herself branded for ever.
He had taken her arm, and held her hand firmly in his, nor had she the force to resist what now seemed to her his enormously superior strength. Very well; she would submit, as her mother and her aunt and most women, perhaps, had submitted; and yet she knew that every second of such submission to his strength was a second of treachery to him.
"I did say I would marry you, but it was wrong," she forced herself to say, and she stiffened her arm as if to annul even the seeming submission of that separate part of her; "for I don't love you, William; you've noticed it, every one's noticed it; why should we go on pretending? When I told you I loved you, I was wrong. I said what I knew to be untrue."
As none of her words seemed to her at all adequate to represent what she felt, she repeated them, and emphasized them without realizing the effect that they might have upon a man who cared for her. She was completely taken aback by finding her arm suddenly dropped; then she saw his face most strangely contorted; was he laughing, it flashed across her? In another moment she saw that he was in tears. In her bewilderment at this apparition she stood aghast for a second. With a desperate sense that this horror must, at all costs, be stopped, she then put her arms about him, drew his head for a moment upon her shoulder, and led him on, murmuring words of consolation, until he heaved a great sigh. They held fast to each other; her tears, too, ran down her cheeks; and were both quite silent. Noticing the difficulty with which he walked, and feeling the same extreme lassitude in her own limbs, she proposed that they should rest for a moment where the bracken was brown and shriveled beneath an oak-tree. He assented. Once more he gave a great sigh, and wiped his eyes with a childlike unconsciousness, and began to speak without a trace of his previous anger. The idea came to her that they were like the children in the fairy tale who were lost in a wood, and with this in her mind she noticed the scattering of dead leaves all round them which had been blown by the wind into heaps, a foot or two deep, here and there.
"When did you begin to feel this, Katharine?" he said; "for it isn't true to say that you've always felt it. I admit I was unreasonable the first night when you found that your clothes had been left behind. Still, where's the fault in that? I could promise you never to interfere with your clothes again. I admit I was cross when I found you upstairs with Henry. Perhaps I showed it too openly. But that's not unreasonable either when one's engaged. Ask your mother. And now this terrible thing—" He broke off, unable for the moment to proceed any further. "This decision you say you've come to—have you discussed it with any one? Your mother, for example, or Henry?"
"No, no, of course not," she said, stirring the leaves with her hand. "But you don't understand me, William—"
"Help me to understand you—"
"You don't understand, I mean, my real feelings; how could you? I've only now faced them myself. But I haven't got the sort of feeling—love, I mean—I don't know what to call it"—she looked vaguely towards the horizon sunk under mist—"but, anyhow, without it our marriage would be a farce—"
"How a farce?" he asked. "But this kind of analysis is disastrous!" he exclaimed.
"I should have done it before," she said gloomily.
"You make yourself think things you don't think," he continued, becoming demonstrative with his hands, as his manner was. "Believe me, Katharine, before we came here we were perfectly happy. You were full of plans for our house—the chair-covers, don't you remember?—like any other woman who is about to be married. Now, for no reason whatever, you begin to fret about your feeling and about my feeling, with the usual result. I assure you, Katharine, I've been through it all myself. At one time I was always asking myself absurd questions which came to nothing either. What you want, if I may say so, is some occupation to take you out of yourself when this morbid mood comes on. If it hadn't been for my poetry, I assure you, I should often have been very much in the same state myself. To let you into a secret," he continued, with his little chuckle, which now sounded almost assured, "I've often gone home from seeing you in such a state of nerves that I had to force myself to write a page or two before I could get you out of my head. Ask Denham; he'll tell you how he met me one night; he'll tell you what a state he found me in."
Katharine started with displeasure at the mention of Ralph's name. The thought of the conversation in which her conduct had been made a subject for discussion with Denham roused her anger; but, as she instantly felt, she had scarcely the right to grudge William any use of her name, seeing what her fault against him had been from first to last. And yet Denham! She had a view of him as a judge. She figured him sternly weighing instances of her levity in this masculine court of inquiry into feminine morality and gruffly dismissing both her and her family with some half-sarcastic, half-tolerant phrase which sealed her doom, as far as he was concerned, for ever. Having met him so lately, the sense of his character was strong in her. The thought was not a pleasant one for a proud woman, but she had yet to learn the art of subduing her expression. Her eyes fixed upon the ground, her brows drawn together, gave William a very fair picture of the resentment that she was forcing herself to control. A certain degree of apprehension, occasionally culminating in a kind of fear, had always entered into his love for her, and had increased, rather to his surprise, in the greater intimacy of their engagement. Beneath her steady, exemplary surface ran a vein of passion which seemed to him now perverse, now completely irrational, for it never took the normal channel of glorification of him and his doings; and, indeed, he almost preferred the steady good sense, which had always marked their relationship, to a more romantic bond. But passion she had, he could not deny it, and hitherto he had tried to see it employed in his thoughts upon the lives of the children who were to be born to them.
"She will make a perfect mother—a mother of sons," he thought; but seeing her sitting there, gloomy and silent, he began to have his doubts on this point. "A farce, a farce," he thought to himself. "She said that our marriage would be a farce," and he became suddenly aware of their situation, sitting upon the ground, among the dead leaves, not fifty yards from the main road, so that it was quite possible for some one passing to see and recognize them. He brushed off his face any trace that might remain of that unseemly exhibition of emotion. But he was more troubled by Katharine's appearance, as she sat rapt in thought upon the ground, than by his own; there was something improper to him in her self-forgetfulness. A man naturally alive to the conventions of society, he was strictly conventional where women were concerned, and especially if the women happened to be in any way connected with him. He noticed with distress the long strand of dark hair touching her shoulder and two or three dead beech-leaves attached to her dress; but to recall her mind in their present circumstances to a sense of these details was impossible. She sat there, seeming unconscious of everything. He suspected that in her silence she was reproaching herself; but he wished that she would think of her hair and of the dead beech-leaves, which were of more immediate importance to him than anything else. Indeed, these trifles drew his attention strangely from his own doubtful and uneasy state of mind; for relief, mixing itself with pain, stirred up a most curious hurry and tumult in his breast, almost concealing his first sharp sense of bleak and overwhelming disappointment. In order to relieve this restlessness and close a distressingly ill-ordered scene, he rose abruptly and helped Katharine to her feet. She smiled a little at the minute care with which he tidied her and yet, when he brushed the dead leaves from his own coat, she flinched, seeing in that action the gesture of a lonely man.
"William," she said, "I will marry you. I will try to make you happy."
The afternoon was already growing dark when the two other wayfarers, Mary and Ralph Denham, came out on the high road beyond the outskirts of Lincoln. The high road, as they both felt, was better suited to this return journey than the open country, and for the first mile or so of the way they spoke little. In his own mind Ralph was following the passage of the Otway carriage over the heath; he then went back to the five or ten minutes that he had spent with Katharine, and examined each word with the care that a scholar displays upon the irregularities of an ancient text. He was determined that the glow, the romance, the atmosphere of this meeting should not paint what he must in future regard as sober facts. On her side Mary was silent, not because her thoughts took much handling, but because her mind seemed empty of thought as her heart of feeling. Only Ralph's presence, as she knew, preserved this numbness, for she could foresee a time of loneliness when many varieties of pain would beset her. At the present moment her effort was to preserve what she could of the wreck of her self-respect, for such she deemed that momentary glimpse of her love so involuntarily revealed to Ralph. In the light of reason it did not much matter, perhaps, but it was her instinct to be careful of that vision of herself which keeps pace so evenly beside every one of us, and had been damaged by her confession. The gray night coming down over the country was kind to her; and she thought that one of these days she would find comfort in sitting upon the earth, alone, beneath a tree. Looking through the darkness, she marked the swelling ground and the tree. Ralph made her start by saying abruptly;
"What I was going to say when we were interrupted at lunch was that if you go to America I shall come, too. It can't be harder to earn a living there than it is here. However, that's not the point. The point is, Mary, that I want to marry you. Well, what do you say?" He spoke firmly, waited for no answer, and took her arm in his. "You know me by this time, the good and the bad," he went on. "You know my tempers. I've tried to let you know my faults. Well, what do you say, Mary?"
She said nothing, but this did not seem to strike him.
"In most ways, at least in the important ways, as you said, we know each other and we think alike. I believe you are the only person in the world I could live with happily. And if you feel the same about me—as you do, don't you, Mary?—we should make each other happy." Here he paused, and seemed to be in no hurry for an answer; he seemed, indeed, to be continuing his own thoughts.
"Yes, but I'm afraid I couldn't do it," Mary said at last. The casual and rather hurried way in which she spoke, together with the fact that she was saying the exact opposite of what he expected her to say, baffled him so much that he instinctively loosened his clasp upon her arm and she withdrew it quietly.
"You couldn't do it?" he asked.
"No, I couldn't marry you," she replied.
"You don't care for me?"
She made no answer.
"Well, Mary," he said, with a curious laugh, "I must be an arrant fool, for I thought you did." They walked for a minute or two in silence, and suddenly he turned to her, looked at her, and exclaimed: "I don't believe you, Mary. You're not telling me the truth."
"I'm too tired to argue, Ralph," she replied, turning her head away from him. "I ask you to believe what I say. I can't marry you; I don't want to marry you."
The voice in which she stated this was so evidently the voice of one in some extremity of anguish that Ralph had no course but to obey her. And as soon as the tone of her voice had died out, and the surprise faded from his mind, he found himself believing that she had spoken the truth, for he had but little vanity, and soon her refusal seemed a natural thing to him. He slipped through all the grades of despondency until he reached a bottom of absolute gloom. Failure seemed to mark the whole of his life; he had failed with Katharine, and now he had failed with Mary. Up at once sprang the thought of Katharine, and with it a sense of exulting freedom, but this he checked instantly. No good had ever come to him from Katharine; his whole relationship with her had been made up of dreams; and as he thought of the little substance there had been in his dreams he began to lay the blame of the present catastrophe upon his dreams.
"Haven't I always been thinking of Katharine while I was with Mary? I might have loved Mary if it hadn't been for that idiocy of mine. She cared for me once, I'm certain of that, but I tormented her so with my humors that I let my chances slip, and now she won't risk marrying me. And this is what I've made of my life—nothing, nothing, nothing."
The tramp of their boots upon the dry road seemed to asseverate nothing, nothing, nothing. Mary thought that this silence was the silence of relief; his depression she ascribed to the fact that he had seen Katharine and parted from her, leaving her in the company of William Rodney. She could not blame him for loving Katharine, but that, when he loved another, he should ask her to marry him—that seemed to her the cruellest treachery. Their old friendship and its firm base upon indestructible qualities of character crumbled, and her whole past seemed foolish, herself weak and credulous, and Ralph merely the shell of an honest man. Oh, the past—so much made up of Ralph; and now, as she saw, made up of something strange and false and other than she had thought it. She tried to recapture a saying she had made to help herself that morning, as Ralph paid the bill for luncheon; but she could see him paying the bill more vividly than she could remember the phrase. Something about truth was in it; how to see the truth is our great chance in this world.
"If you don't want to marry me," Ralph now began again, without abruptness, with diffidence rather, "there is no need why we should cease to see each other, is there? Or would you rather that we should keep apart for the present?"
"Keep apart? I don't know—I must think about it."
"Tell me one thing, Mary," he resumed; "have I done anything to make you change your mind about me?"
She was immensely tempted to give way to her natural trust in him, revived by the deep and now melancholy tones of his voice, and to tell him of her love, and of what had changed it. But although it seemed likely that she would soon control her anger with him, the certainty that he did not love her, confirmed by every word of his proposal, forbade any freedom of speech. To hear him speak and to feel herself unable to reply, or constrained in her replies, was so painful that she longed for the time when she should be alone. A more pliant woman would have taken this chance of an explanation, whatever risks attached to it; but to one of Mary's firm and resolute temperament there was degradation in the idea of self-abandonment; let the waves of emotion rise ever so high, she could not shut her eyes to what she conceived to be the truth. Her silence puzzled Ralph. He searched his memory for words or deeds that might have made her think badly of him. In his present mood instances came but too quickly, and on top of them this culminating proof of his baseness—that he had asked her to marry him when his reasons for such a proposal were selfish and half-hearted.