The world held no more for her to marvel at, it is true; but it held other people; and each other person possessed in Cassandra's mind some fragment of what privately she called "reality." It was a gift that they would impart if you asked them for it, and thus no dinner-party could possibly be dull, and little Mr. Peyton on her right and William Rodney on her left were in equal measure endowed with the quality which seemed to her so unmistakable and so precious that the way people neglected to demand it was a constant source of surprise to her. She scarcely knew, indeed, whether she was talking to Mr. Peyton or to William Rodney. But to one who, by degrees, assumed the shape of an elderly man with a mustache, she described how she had arrived in London that very afternoon, and how she had taken a cab and driven through the streets. Mr. Peyton, an editor of fifty years, bowed his bald head repeatedly, with apparent understanding. At least, he understood that she was very young and pretty, and saw that she was excited, though he could not gather at once from her words or remember from his own experience what there was to be excited about. "Were there any buds on the trees?" he asked. "Which line did she travel by?"
He was cut short in these amiable inquiries by her desire to know whether he was one of those who read, or one of those who look out of the window? Mr. Peyton was by no means sure which he did. He rather thought he did both. He was told that he had made a most dangerous confession. She could deduce his entire history from that one fact. He challenged her to proceed; and she proclaimed him a Liberal Member of Parliament.
William, nominally engaged in a desultory conversation with Aunt Eleanor, heard every word, and taking advantage of the fact that elderly ladies have little continuity of conversation, at least with those whom they esteem for their youth and their sex, he asserted his presence by a very nervous laugh.
Cassandra turned to him directly. She was enchanted to find that, instantly and with such ease, another of these fascinating beings was offering untold wealth for her extraction.
"There's no doubt what YOU do in a railway carriage, William," she said, making use in her pleasure of his first name. "You never ONCE look out of the window; you read ALL the time."
"And what facts do you deduce from that?" Mr. Peyton asked.
"Oh, that he's a poet, of course," said Cassandra. "But I must confess that I knew that before, so it isn't fair. I've got your manuscript with me," she went on, disregarding Mr. Peyton in a shameless way. "I've got all sorts of things I want to ask you about it."
William inclined his head and tried to conceal the pleasure that her remark gave him. But the pleasure was not unalloyed. However susceptible to flattery William might be, he would never tolerate it from people who showed a gross or emotional taste in literature, and if Cassandra erred even slightly from what he considered essential in this respect he would express his discomfort by flinging out his hands and wrinkling his forehead; he would find no pleasure in her flattery after that.
"First of all," she proceeded, "I want to know why you chose to write a play?"
"Ah! You mean it's not dramatic?"
"I mean that I don't see what it would gain by being acted. But then does Shakespeare gain? Henry and I are always arguing about Shakespeare. I'm certain he's wrong, but I can't prove it because I've only seen Shakespeare acted once in Lincoln. But I'm quite positive," she insisted, "that Shakespeare wrote for the stage."
"You're perfectly right," Rodney exclaimed. "I was hoping you were on that side. Henry's wrong—entirely wrong. Of course, I've failed, as all the moderns fail. Dear, dear, I wish I'd consulted you before."
From this point they proceeded to go over, as far as memory served them, the different aspects of Rodney's drama. She said nothing that jarred upon him, and untrained daring had the power to stimulate experience to such an extent that Rodney was frequently seen to hold his fork suspended before him, while he debated the first principles of the art. Mrs. Hilbery thought to herself that she had never seen him to such advantage; yes, he was somehow different; he reminded her of some one who was dead, some one who was distinguished—she had forgotten his name.
Cassandra's voice rose high in its excitement.
"You've not read 'The Idiot'!" she exclaimed.
"I've read 'War and Peace'," William replied, a little testily.
"'WAR AND PEACE'!" she echoed, in a tone of derision.
"I confess I don't understand the Russians."
"Shake hands! Shake hands!" boomed Uncle Aubrey from across the table. "Neither do I. And I hazard the opinion that they don't themselves."
The old gentleman had ruled a large part of the Indian Empire, but he was in the habit of saying that he had rather have written the works of Dickens. The table now took possession of a subject much to its liking. Aunt Eleanor showed premonitory signs of pronouncing an opinion. Although she had blunted her taste upon some form of philanthropy for twenty-five years, she had a fine natural instinct for an upstart or a pretender, and knew to a hairbreadth what literature should be and what it should not be. She was born to the knowledge, and scarcely thought it a matter to be proud of.
"Insanity is not a fit subject for fiction," she announced positively.
"There's the well-known case of Hamlet," Mr. Hilbery interposed, in his leisurely, half-humorous tones.
"Ah, but poetry's different, Trevor," said Aunt Eleanor, as if she had special authority from Shakespeare to say so. "Different altogether. And I've never thought, for my part, that Hamlet was as mad as they make out. What is your opinion, Mr. Peyton?" For, as there was a minister of literature present in the person of the editor of an esteemed review, she deferred to him.
Mr. Peyton leant a little back in his chair, and, putting his head rather on one side, observed that that was a question that he had never been able to answer entirely to his satisfaction. There was much to be said on both sides, but as he considered upon which side he should say it, Mrs. Hilbery broke in upon his judicious meditations.
"Lovely, lovely Ophelia!" she exclaimed. "What a wonderful power it is—poetry! I wake up in the morning all bedraggled; there's a yellow fog outside; little Emily turns on the electric light when she brings me my tea, and says, 'Oh, ma'am, the water's frozen in the cistern, and cook's cut her finger to the bone.' And then I open a little green book, and the birds are singing, the stars shining, the flowers twinkling—" She looked about her as if these presences had suddenly manifested themselves round her dining-room table.
"Has the cook cut her finger badly?" Aunt Eleanor demanded, addressing herself naturally to Katharine.
"Oh, the cook's finger is only my way of putting it," said Mrs. Hilbery. "But if she had cut her arm off, Katharine would have sewn it on again," she remarked, with an affectionate glance at her daughter, who looked, she thought, a little sad. "But what horrid, horrid thoughts," she wound up, laying down her napkin and pushing her chair back. "Come, let us find something more cheerful to talk about upstairs."
Upstairs in the drawing-room Cassandra found fresh sources of pleasure, first in the distinguished and expectant look of the room, and then in the chance of exercising her divining-rod upon a new assortment of human beings. But the low tones of the women, their meditative silences, the beauty which, to her at least, shone even from black satin and the knobs of amber which encircled elderly necks, changed her wish to chatter to a more subdued desire merely to watch and to whisper. She entered with delight into an atmosphere in which private matters were being interchanged freely, almost in monosyllables, by the older women who now accepted her as one of themselves. Her expression became very gentle and sympathetic, as if she, too, were full of solicitude for the world which was somehow being cared for, managed and deprecated by Aunt Maggie and Aunt Eleanor. After a time she perceived that Katharine was outside the community in some way, and, suddenly, she threw aside her wisdom and gentleness and concern and began to laugh.
"What are you laughing at?" Katharine asked.
A joke so foolish and unfilial wasn't worth explaining.
"It was nothing—ridiculous—in the worst of taste, but still, if you half shut your eyes and looked—" Katharine half shut her eyes and looked, but she looked in the wrong direction, and Cassandra laughed more than ever, and was still laughing and doing her best to explain in a whisper that Aunt Eleanor, through half-shut eyes, was like the parrot in the cage at Stogdon House, when the gentlemen came in and Rodney walked straight up to them and wanted to know what they were laughing at.
"I utterly refuse to tell you!" Cassandra replied, standing up straight, clasping her hands in front of her, and facing him. Her mockery was delicious to him. He had not even for a second the fear that she had been laughing at him. She was laughing because life was so adorable, so enchanting.
"Ah, but you're cruel to make me feel the barbarity of my sex," he replied, drawing his feet together and pressing his finger-tips upon an imaginary opera-hat or malacca cane. "We've been discussing all sorts of dull things, and now I shall never know what I want to know more than anything in the world."
"You don't deceive us for a minute!" she cried. "Not for a second. We both know that you've been enjoying yourself immensely. Hasn't he, Katharine?"
"No," she replied, "I think he's speaking the truth. He doesn't care much for politics."
Her words, though spoken simply, produced a curious change in the light, sparkling atmosphere. William at once lost his look of animation and said seriously:
"I detest politics."
"I don't think any man has the right to say that," said Cassandra, almost severely.
"I agree. I mean that I detest politicians," he corrected himself quickly.
"You see, I believe Cassandra is what they call a Feminist," Katharine went on. "Or rather, she was a Feminist six months ago, but it's no good supposing that she is now what she was then. That is one of her greatest charms in my eyes. One never can tell." She smiled at her as an elder sister might smile.
"Katharine, you make one feel so horribly small!" Cassandra exclaimed.
"No, no, that's not what she means," Rodney interposed. "I quite agree that women have an immense advantage over us there. One misses a lot by attempting to know things thoroughly."
"He knows Greek thoroughly," said Katharine. "But then he also knows a good deal about painting, and a certain amount about music. He's very cultivated—perhaps the most cultivated person I know."
"And poetry," Cassandra added.
"Yes, I was forgetting his play," Katharine remarked, and turning her head as though she saw something that needed her attention in a far corner of the room, she left them.
For a moment they stood silent, after what seemed a deliberate introduction to each other, and Cassandra watched her crossing the room.
"Henry," she said next moment, "would say that a stage ought to be no bigger than this drawing-room. He wants there to be singing and dancing as well as acting—only all the opposite of Wagner—you understand?"
They sat down, and Katharine, turning when she reached the window, saw William with his hand raised in gesticulation and his mouth open, as if ready to speak the moment Cassandra ceased.
Katharine's duty, whether it was to pull a curtain or move a chair, was either forgotten or discharged, but she continued to stand by the window without doing anything. The elderly people were all grouped together round the fire. They seemed an independent, middle-aged community busy with its own concerns. They were telling stories very well and listening to them very graciously. But for her there was no obvious employment.
"If anybody says anything, I shall say that I'm looking at the river," she thought, for in her slavery to her family traditions, she was ready to pay for her transgression with some plausible falsehood. She pushed aside the blind and looked at the river. But it was a dark night and the water was barely visible. Cabs were passing, and couples were loitering slowly along the road, keeping as close to the railings as possible, though the trees had as yet no leaves to cast shadow upon their embraces. Katharine, thus withdrawn, felt her loneliness. The evening had been one of pain, offering her, minute after minute, plainer proof that things would fall out as she had foreseen. She had faced tones, gestures, glances; she knew, with her back to them, that William, even now, was plunging deeper and deeper into the delight of unexpected understanding with Cassandra. He had almost told her that he was finding it infinitely better than he could have believed. She looked out of the window, sternly determined to forget private misfortunes, to forget herself, to forget individual lives. With her eyes upon the dark sky, voices reached her from the room in which she was standing. She heard them as if they came from people in another world, a world antecedent to her world, a world that was the prelude, the antechamber to reality; it was as if, lately dead, she heard the living talking. The dream nature of our life had never been more apparent to her, never had life been more certainly an affair of four walls, whose objects existed only within the range of lights and fires, beyond which lay nothing, or nothing more than darkness. She seemed physically to have stepped beyond the region where the light of illusion still makes it desirable to possess, to love, to struggle. And yet her melancholy brought her no serenity. She still heard the voices within the room. She was still tormented by desires. She wished to be beyond their range. She wished inconsistently enough that she could find herself driving rapidly through the streets; she was even anxious to be with some one who, after a moment's groping, took a definite shape and solidified into the person of Mary Datchet. She drew the curtains so that the draperies met in deep folds in the middle of the window.
"Ah, there she is," said Mr. Hilbery, who was standing swaying affably from side to side, with his back to the fire. "Come here, Katharine. I couldn't see where you'd got to—our children," he observed parenthetically, "have their uses—I want you to go to my study, Katharine; go to the third shelf on the right-hand side of the door; take down 'Trelawny's Recollections of Shelley'; bring it to me. Then, Peyton, you will have to admit to the assembled company that you have been mistaken."
"'Trelawny's Recollections of Shelley.' The third shelf on the right of the door," Katharine repeated. After all, one does not check children in their play, or rouse sleepers from their dreams. She passed William and Cassandra on her way to the door.
"Stop, Katharine," said William, speaking almost as if he were conscious of her against his will. "Let me go." He rose, after a second's hesitation, and she understood that it cost him an effort. She knelt one knee upon the sofa where Cassandra sat, looking down at her cousin's face, which still moved with the speed of what she had been saying.
"Are you—happy?" she asked.
"Oh, my dear!" Cassandra exclaimed, as if no further words were needed. "Of course, we disagree about every subject under the sun," she exclaimed, "but I think he's the cleverest man I've ever met—and you're the most beautiful woman," she added, looking at Katharine, and as she looked her face lost its animation and became almost melancholy in sympathy with Katharine's melancholy, which seemed to Cassandra the last refinement of her distinction.
"Ah, but it's only ten o'clock," said Katharine darkly.
"As late as that! Well—?" She did not understand.
"At twelve my horses turn into rats and off I go. The illusion fades. But I accept my fate. I make hay while the sun shines." Cassandra looked at her with a puzzled expression.
"Here's Katharine talking about rats, and hay, and all sorts of odd things," she said, as William returned to them. He had been quick. "Can you make her out?"
Katharine perceived from his little frown and hesitation that he did not find that particular problem to his taste at present. She stood upright at once and said in a different tone:
"I really am off, though. I wish you'd explain if they say anything, William. I shan't be late, but I've got to see some one."
"At this time of night?" Cassandra exclaimed.
"Whom have you got to see?" William demanded.
"A friend," she remarked, half turning her head towards him. She knew that he wished her to stay, not, indeed, with them, but in their neighborhood, in case of need.
"Katharine has a great many friends," said William rather lamely, sitting down once more, as Katharine left the room.
She was soon driving quickly, as she had wished to drive, through the lamp-lit streets. She liked both light and speed, and the sense of being out of doors alone, and the knowledge that she would reach Mary in her high, lonely room at the end of the drive. She climbed the stone steps quickly, remarking the queer look of her blue silk skirt and blue shoes upon the stone, dusty with the boots of the day, under the light of an occasional jet of flickering gas.
The door was opened in a second by Mary herself, whose face showed not only surprise at the sight of her visitor, but some degree of embarrassment. She greeted her cordially, and, as there was no time for explanations, Katharine walked straight into the sitting-room, and found herself in the presence of a young man who was lying back in a chair and holding a sheet of paper in his hand, at which he was looking as if he expected to go on immediately with what he was in the middle of saying to Mary Datchet. The apparition of an unknown lady in full evening dress seemed to disturb him. He took his pipe from his mouth, rose stiffly, and sat down again with a jerk.
"Have you been dining out?" Mary asked.
"Are you working?" Katharine inquired simultaneously.
The young man shook his head, as if he disowned his share in the question with some irritation.
"Well, not exactly," Mary replied. "Mr. Basnett had brought some papers to show me. We were going through them, but we'd almost done.... Tell us about your party."
Mary had a ruffled appearance, as if she had been running her fingers through her hair in the course of her conversation; she was dressed more or less like a Russian peasant girl. She sat down again in a chair which looked as if it had been her seat for some hours; the saucer which stood upon the arm contained the ashes of many cigarettes. Mr. Basnett, a very young man with a fresh complexion and a high forehead from which the hair was combed straight back, was one of that group of "very able young men" suspected by Mr. Clacton, justly as it turned out, of an influence upon Mary Datchet. He had come down from one of the Universities not long ago, and was now charged with the reformation of society. In connection with the rest of the group of very able young men he had drawn up a scheme for the education of labor, for the amalgamation of the middle class and the working class, and for a joint assault of the two bodies, combined in the Society for the Education of Democracy, upon Capital. The scheme had already reached the stage in which it was permissible to hire an office and engage a secretary, and he had been deputed to expound the scheme to Mary, and make her an offer of the Secretaryship, to which, as a matter of principle, a small salary was attached. Since seven o'clock that evening he had been reading out loud the document in which the faith of the new reformers was expounded, but the reading was so frequently interrupted by discussion, and it was so often necessary to inform Mary "in strictest confidence" of the private characters and evil designs of certain individuals and societies that they were still only half-way through the manuscript. Neither of them realized that the talk had already lasted three hours. In their absorption they had forgotten even to feed the fire, and yet both Mr. Basnett in his exposition, and Mary in her interrogation, carefully preserved a kind of formality calculated to check the desire of the human mind for irrelevant discussion. Her questions frequently began, "Am I to understand—" and his replies invariably represented the views of some one called "we."
By this time Mary was almost persuaded that she, too, was included in the "we," and agreed with Mr. Basnett in believing that "our" views, "our" society, "our" policy, stood for something quite definitely segregated from the main body of society in a circle of superior illumination.
The appearance of Katharine in this atmosphere was extremely incongruous, and had the effect of making Mary remember all sorts of things that she had been glad to forget.
"You've been dining out?" she asked again, looking, with a little smile, at the blue silk and the pearl-sewn shoes.
"No, at home. Are you starting something new?" Katharine hazarded, rather hesitatingly, looking at the papers.
"We are," Mr. Basnett replied. He said no more.
"I'm thinking of leaving our friends in Russell Square," Mary explained.
"I see. And then you will do something else."
"Well, I'm afraid I like working," said Mary.
"Afraid," said Mr. Basnett, conveying the impression that, in his opinion, no sensible person could be afraid of liking to work.
"Yes," said Katharine, as if he had stated this opinion aloud. "I should like to start something—something off one's own bat—that's what I should like."
"Yes, that's the fun," said Mr. Basnett, looking at her for the first time rather keenly, and refilling his pipe.
"But you can't limit work—that's what I mean," said Mary. "I mean there are other sorts of work. No one works harder than a woman with little children."
"Quite so," said Mr. Basnett. "It's precisely the women with babies we want to get hold of." He glanced at his document, rolled it into a cylinder between his fingers, and gazed into the fire. Katharine felt that in this company anything that one said would be judged upon its merits; one had only to say what one thought, rather barely and tersely, with a curious assumption that the number of things that could properly be thought about was strictly limited. And Mr. Basnett was only stiff upon the surface; there was an intelligence in his face which attracted her intelligence.
"When will the public know?" she asked.
"What d'you mean—about us?" Mr. Basnett asked, with a little smile.
"That depends upon many things," said Mary. The conspirators looked pleased, as if Katharine's question, with the belief in their existence which it implied, had a warming effect upon them.
"In starting a society such as we wish to start (we can't say any more at present)," Mr. Basnett began, with a little jerk of his head, "there are two things to remember—the Press and the public. Other societies, which shall be nameless, have gone under because they've appealed only to cranks. If you don't want a mutual admiration society, which dies as soon as you've all discovered each other's faults, you must nobble the Press. You must appeal to the public."
"That's the difficulty," said Mary thoughtfully.
"That's where she comes in," said Mr. Basnett, jerking his head in Mary's direction. "She's the only one of us who's a capitalist. She can make a whole-time job of it. I'm tied to an office; I can only give my spare time. Are you, by any chance, on the look-out for a job?" he asked Katharine, with a queer mixture of distrust and deference.
"Marriage is her job at present," Mary replied for her.
"Oh, I see," said Mr. Basnett. He made allowances for that; he and his friends had faced the question of sex, along with all others, and assigned it an honorable place in their scheme of life. Katharine felt this beneath the roughness of his manner; and a world entrusted to the guardianship of Mary Datchet and Mr. Basnett seemed to her a good world, although not a romantic or beautiful place or, to put it figuratively, a place where any line of blue mist softly linked tree to tree upon the horizon. For a moment she thought she saw in his face, bent now over the fire, the features of that original man whom we still recall every now and then, although we know only the clerk, barrister, Governmental official, or workingman variety of him. Not that Mr. Basnett, giving his days to commerce and his spare time to social reform, would long carry about him any trace of his possibilities of completeness; but, for the moment, in his youth and ardor, still speculative, still uncramped, one might imagine him the citizen of a nobler state than ours. Katharine turned over her small stock of information, and wondered what their society might be going to attempt. Then she remembered that she was hindering their business, and rose, still thinking of this society, and thus thinking, she said to Mr. Basnett:
"Well, you'll ask me to join when the time comes, I hope."
He nodded, and took his pipe from his mouth, but, being unable to think of anything to say, he put it back again, although he would have been glad if she had stayed.
Against her wish, Mary insisted upon taking her downstairs, and then, as there was no cab to be seen, they stood in the street together, looking about them.
"Go back," Katharine urged her, thinking of Mr. Basnett with his papers in his hand.
"You can't wander about the streets alone in those clothes," said Mary, but the desire to find a cab was not her true reason for standing beside Katharine for a minute or two. Unfortunately for her composure, Mr. Basnett and his papers seemed to her an incidental diversion of life's serious purpose compared with some tremendous fact which manifested itself as she stood alone with Katharine. It may have been their common womanhood.
"Have you seen Ralph?" she asked suddenly, without preface.
"Yes," said Katharine directly, but she did not remember when or where she had seen him. It took her a moment or two to remember why Mary should ask her if she had seen Ralph.
"I believe I'm jealous," said Mary.
"Nonsense, Mary," said Katharine, rather distractedly, taking her arm and beginning to walk up the street in the direction of the main road. "Let me see; we went to Kew, and we agreed to be friends. Yes, that's what happened." Mary was silent, in the hope that Katharine would tell her more. But Katharine said nothing.
"It's not a question of friendship," Mary exclaimed, her anger rising, to her own surprise. "You know it's not. How can it be? I've no right to interfere—" She stopped. "Only I'd rather Ralph wasn't hurt," she concluded.
"I think he seems able to take care of himself," Katharine observed. Without either of them wishing it, a feeling of hostility had risen between them.
"Do you really think it's worth it?" said Mary, after a pause.
"How can one tell?" Katharine asked.
"Have you ever cared for any one?" Mary demanded rashly and foolishly.
"I can't wander about London discussing my feelings—Here's a cab—no, there's some one in it."
"We don't want to quarrel," said Mary.
"Ought I to have told him that I wouldn't be his friend?" Katharine asked. "Shall I tell him that? If so, what reason shall I give him?"
"Of course you can't tell him that," said Mary, controlling herself.
"I believe I shall, though," said Katharine suddenly.
"I lost my temper, Katharine; I shouldn't have said what I did."
"The whole thing's foolish," said Katharine, peremptorily. "That's what I say. It's not worth it." She spoke with unnecessary vehemence, but it was not directed against Mary Datchet. Their animosity had completely disappeared, and upon both of them a cloud of difficulty and darkness rested, obscuring the future, in which they had both to find a way.
"No, no, it's not worth it," Katharine repeated. "Suppose, as you say, it's out of the question—this friendship; he falls in love with me. I don't want that. Still," she added, "I believe you exaggerate; love's not everything; marriage itself is only one of the things—" They had reached the main thoroughfare, and stood looking at the omnibuses and passers-by, who seemed, for the moment, to illustrate what Katharine had said of the diversity of human interests. For both of them it had become one of those moments of extreme detachment, when it seems unnecessary ever again to shoulder the burden of happiness and self-assertive existence. Their neighbors were welcome to their possessions.
"I don't lay down any rules,"' said Mary, recovering herself first, as they turned after a long pause of this description. "All I say is that you should know what you're about—for certain; but," she added, "I expect you do."
At the same time she was profoundly perplexed, not only by what she knew of the arrangements for Katharine's marriage, but by the impression which she had of her, there on her arm, dark and inscrutable.
They walked back again and reached the steps which led up to Mary's flat. Here they stopped and paused for a moment, saying nothing.
"You must go in," said Katharine, rousing herself. "He's waiting all this time to go on with his reading." She glanced up at the lighted window near the top of the house, and they both looked at it and waited for a moment. A flight of semicircular steps ran up to the hall, and Mary slowly mounted the first two or three, and paused, looking down upon Katharine.
"I think you underrate the value of that emotion," she said slowly, and a little awkwardly. She climbed another step and looked down once more upon the figure that was only partly lit up, standing in the street with a colorless face turned upwards. As Mary hesitated, a cab came by and Katharine turned and stopped it, saying as she opened the door:
"Remember, I want to belong to your society—remember," she added, having to raise her voice a little, and shutting the door upon the rest of her words.
Mary mounted the stairs step by step, as if she had to lift her body up an extremely steep ascent. She had had to wrench herself forcibly away from Katharine, and every step vanquished her desire. She held on grimly, encouraging herself as though she were actually making some great physical effort in climbing a height. She was conscious that Mr. Basnett, sitting at the top of the stairs with his documents, offered her solid footing if she were capable of reaching it. The knowledge gave her a faint sense of exaltation.
Mr. Basnett raised his eyes as she opened the door.
"I'll go on where I left off," he said. "Stop me if you want anything explained."
He had been re-reading the document, and making pencil notes in the margin while he waited, and he went on again as if there had been no interruption. Mary sat down among the flat cushions, lit another cigarette, and listened with a frown upon her face.
Katharine leant back in the corner of the cab that carried her to Chelsea, conscious of fatigue, and conscious, too, of the sober and satisfactory nature of such industry as she had just witnessed. The thought of it composed and calmed her. When she reached home she let herself in as quietly as she could, in the hope that the household was already gone to bed. But her excursion had occupied less time than she thought, and she heard sounds of unmistakable liveliness upstairs. A door opened, and she drew herself into a ground-floor room in case the sound meant that Mr. Peyton were taking his leave. From where she stood she could see the stairs, though she was herself invisible. Some one was coming down the stairs, and now she saw that it was William Rodney. He looked a little strange, as if he were walking in his sleep; his lips moved as if he were acting some part to himself. He came down very slowly, step by step, with one hand upon the banisters to guide himself. She thought he looked as if he were in some mood of high exaltation, which it made her uncomfortable to witness any longer unseen. She stepped into the hall. He gave a great start upon seeing her and stopped.
"Katharine!" he exclaimed. "You've been out?" he asked.
"Yes.... Are they still up?"
He did not answer, and walked into the ground-floor room through the door which stood open.
"It's been more wonderful than I can tell you," he said, "I'm incredibly happy—"
He was scarcely addressing her, and she said nothing. For a moment they stood at opposite sides of a table saying nothing. Then he asked her quickly, "But tell me, how did it seem to you? What did you think, Katharine? Is there a chance that she likes me? Tell me, Katharine!"
Before she could answer a door opened on the landing above and disturbed them. It disturbed William excessively. He started back, walked rapidly into the hall, and said in a loud and ostentatiously ordinary tone:
"Good night, Katharine. Go to bed now. I shall see you soon. I hope I shall be able to come to-morrow."
Next moment he was gone. She went upstairs and found Cassandra on the landing. She held two or three books in her hand, and she was stooping to look at others in a little bookcase. She said that she could never tell which book she wanted to read in bed, poetry, biography, or metaphysics.
"What do you read in bed, Katharine?" she asked, as they walked upstairs side by side.
"Sometimes one thing—sometimes another," said Katharine vaguely. Cassandra looked at her.
"D'you know, you're extraordinarily queer," she said. "Every one seems to me a little queer. Perhaps it's the effect of London."
"Is William queer, too?" Katharine asked.
"Well, I think he is a little," Cassandra replied. "Queer, but very fascinating. I shall read Milton to-night. It's been one of the happiest nights of my life, Katharine," she added, looking with shy devotion at her cousin's beautiful face.
London, in the first days of spring, has buds that open and flowers that suddenly shake their petals—white, purple, or crimson—in competition with the display in the garden beds, although these city flowers are merely so many doors flung wide in Bond Street and the neighborhood, inviting you to look at a picture, or hear a symphony, or merely crowd and crush yourself among all sorts of vocal, excitable, brightly colored human beings. But, all the same, it is no mean rival to the quieter process of vegetable florescence. Whether or not there is a generous motive at the root, a desire to share and impart, or whether the animation is purely that of insensate fervor and friction, the effect, while it lasts, certainly encourages those who are young, and those who are ignorant, to think the world one great bazaar, with banners fluttering and divans heaped with spoils from every quarter of the globe for their delight.
As Cassandra Otway went about London provided with shillings that opened turnstiles, or more often with large white cards that disregarded turnstiles, the city seemed to her the most lavish and hospitable of hosts. After visiting the National Gallery, or Hertford House, or hearing Brahms or Beethoven at the Bechstein Hall, she would come back to find a new person awaiting her, in whose soul were imbedded some grains of the invaluable substance which she still called reality, and still believed that she could find. The Hilberys, as the saying is, "knew every one," and that arrogant claim was certainly upheld by the number of houses which, within a certain area, lit their lamps at night, opened their doors after 3 p. m., and admitted the Hilberys to their dining-rooms, say, once a month. An indefinable freedom and authority of manner, shared by most of the people who lived in these houses, seemed to indicate that whether it was a question of art, music, or government, they were well within the gates, and could smile indulgently at the vast mass of humanity which is forced to wait and struggle, and pay for entrance with common coin at the door. The gates opened instantly to admit Cassandra. She was naturally critical of what went on inside, and inclined to quote what Henry would have said; but she often succeeded in contradicting Henry, in his absence, and invariably paid her partner at dinner, or the kind old lady who remembered her grandmother, the compliment of believing that there was meaning in what they said. For the sake of the light in her eager eyes, much crudity of expression and some untidiness of person were forgiven her. It was generally felt that, given a year or two of experience, introduced to good dressmakers, and preserved from bad influences, she would be an acquisition. Those elderly ladies, who sit on the edge of ballrooms sampling the stuff of humanity between finger and thumb and breathing so evenly that the necklaces, which rise and fall upon their breasts, seem to represent some elemental force, such as the waves upon the ocean of humanity, concluded, a little smilingly, that she would do. They meant that she would in all probability marry some young man whose mother they respected.
William Rodney was fertile in suggestions. He knew of little galleries, and select concerts, and private performances, and somehow made time to meet Katharine and Cassandra, and to give them tea or dinner or supper in his rooms afterwards. Each one of her fourteen days thus promised to bear some bright illumination in its sober text. But Sunday approached. The day is usually dedicated to Nature. The weather was almost kindly enough for an expedition. But Cassandra rejected Hampton Court, Greenwich, Richmond, and Kew in favor of the Zoological Gardens. She had once trifled with the psychology of animals, and still knew something about inherited characteristics. On Sunday afternoon, therefore, Katharine, Cassandra, and William Rodney drove off to the Zoo. As their cab approached the entrance, Katharine bent forward and waved her hand to a young man who was walking rapidly in the same direction.
"There's Ralph Denham!" she exclaimed. "I told him to meet us here," she added. She had even come provided with a ticket for him. William's objection that he would not be admitted was, therefore, silenced directly. But the way in which the two men greeted each other was significant of what was going to happen. As soon as they had admired the little birds in the large cage William and Cassandra lagged behind, and Ralph and Katharine pressed on rather in advance. It was an arrangement in which William took his part, and one that suited his convenience, but he was annoyed all the same. He thought that Katharine should have told him that she had invited Denham to meet them.
"One of Katharine's friends," he said rather sharply. It was clear that he was irritated, and Cassandra felt for his annoyance. They were standing by the pen of some Oriental hog, and she was prodding the brute gently with the point of her umbrella, when a thousand little observations seemed, in some way, to collect in one center. The center was one of intense and curious emotion. Were they happy? She dismissed the question as she asked it, scorning herself for applying such simple measures to the rare and splendid emotions of so unique a couple. Nevertheless, her manner became immediately different, as if, for the first time, she felt consciously womanly, and as if William might conceivably wish later on to confide in her. She forgot all about the psychology of animals, and the recurrence of blue eyes and brown, and became instantly engrossed in her feelings as a woman who could administer consolation, and she hoped that Katharine would keep ahead with Mr. Denham, as a child who plays at being grown-up hopes that her mother won't come in just yet, and spoil the game. Or was it not rather that she had ceased to play at being grown-up, and was conscious, suddenly, that she was alarmingly mature and in earnest?
There was still unbroken silence between Katharine and Ralph Denham, but the occupants of the different cages served instead of speech.
"What have you been doing since we met?" Ralph asked at length.
"Doing?" she pondered. "Walking in and out of other people's houses. I wonder if these animals are happy?" she speculated, stopping before a gray bear, who was philosophically playing with a tassel which once, perhaps, formed part of a lady's parasol.
"I'm afraid Rodney didn't like my coming," Ralph remarked.
"No. But he'll soon get over that," she replied. The detachment expressed by her voice puzzled Ralph, and he would have been glad if she had explained her meaning further. But he was not going to press her for explanations. Each moment was to be, as far as he could make it, complete in itself, owing nothing of its happiness to explanations, borrowing neither bright nor dark tints from the future.
"The bears seem happy," he remarked. "But we must buy them a bag of something. There's the place to buy buns. Let's go and get them." They walked to the counter piled with little paper bags, and each simultaneously produced a shilling and pressed it upon the young lady, who did not know whether to oblige the lady or the gentleman, but decided, from conventional reasons, that it was the part of the gentleman to pay.
"I wish to pay," said Ralph peremptorily, refusing the coin which Katharine tendered. "I have a reason for what I do," he added, seeing her smile at his tone of decision.
"I believe you have a reason for everything," she agreed, breaking the bun into parts and tossing them down the bears' throats, "but I can't believe it's a good one this time. What is your reason?"
He refused to tell her. He could not explain to her that he was offering up consciously all his happiness to her, and wished, absurdly enough, to pour every possession he had upon the blazing pyre, even his silver and gold. He wished to keep this distance between them—the distance which separates the devotee from the image in the shrine.
Circumstances conspired to make this easier than it would have been, had they been seated in a drawing-room, for example, with a tea-tray between them. He saw her against a background of pale grottos and sleek hides; camels slanted their heavy-ridded eyes at her, giraffes fastidiously observed her from their melancholy eminence, and the pink-lined trunks of elephants cautiously abstracted buns from her outstretched hands. Then there were the hothouses. He saw her bending over pythons coiled upon the sand, or considering the brown rock breaking the stagnant water of the alligators' pool, or searching some minute section of tropical forest for the golden eye of a lizard or the indrawn movement of the green frogs' flanks. In particular, he saw her outlined against the deep green waters, in which squadrons of silvery fish wheeled incessantly, or ogled her for a moment, pressing their distorted mouths against the glass, quivering their tails straight out behind them. Again, there was the insect house, where she lifted the blinds of the little cages, and marveled at the purple circles marked upon the rich tussore wings of some lately emerged and semi-conscious butterfly, or at caterpillars immobile like the knobbed twigs of a pale-skinned tree, or at slim green snakes stabbing the glass wall again and again with their flickering cleft tongues. The heat of the air, and the bloom of heavy flowers, which swam in water or rose stiffly from great red jars, together with the display of curious patterns and fantastic shapes, produced an atmosphere in which human beings tended to look pale and to fall silent.
Opening the door of a house which rang with the mocking and profoundly unhappy laughter of monkeys, they discovered William and Cassandra. William appeared to be tempting some small reluctant animal to descend from an upper perch to partake of half an apple. Cassandra was reading out, in her high-pitched tones, an account of this creature's secluded disposition and nocturnal habits. She saw Katharine and exclaimed:
"Here you are! Do prevent William from torturing this unfortunate aye-aye."
"We thought we'd lost you," said William. He looked from one to the other, and seemed to take stock of Denham's unfashionable appearance. He seemed to wish to find some outlet for malevolence, but, failing one, he remained silent. The glance, the slight quiver of the upper lip, were not lost upon Katharine.
"William isn't kind to animals," she remarked. "He doesn't know what they like and what they don't like."
"I take it you're well versed in these matters, Denham," said Rodney, withdrawing his hand with the apple.
"It's mainly a question of knowing how to stroke them," Denham replied.
"Which is the way to the Reptile House?" Cassandra asked him, not from a genuine desire to visit the reptiles, but in obedience to her new-born feminine susceptibility, which urged her to charm and conciliate the other sex. Denham began to give her directions, and Katharine and William moved on together.
"I hope you've had a pleasant afternoon," William remarked.
"I like Ralph Denham," she replied.
"Ca se voit," William returned, with superficial urbanity.
Many retorts were obvious, but wishing, on the whole, for peace, Katharine merely inquired:
"Are you coming back to tea?"
"Cassandra and I thought of having tea at a little shop in Portland Place," he replied. "I don't know whether you and Denham would care to join us."
"I'll ask him," she replied, turning her head to look for him. But he and Cassandra were absorbed in the aye-aye once more.
William and Katharine watched them for a moment, and each looked curiously at the object of the other's preference. But resting his eye upon Cassandra, to whose elegance the dressmakers had now done justice, William said sharply:
"If you come, I hope you won't do your best to make me ridiculous."
"If that's what you're afraid of I certainly shan't come," Katharine replied.
They were professedly looking into the enormous central cage of monkeys, and being thoroughly annoyed by William, she compared him to a wretched misanthropical ape, huddled in a scrap of old shawl at the end of a pole, darting peevish glances of suspicion and distrust at his companions. Her tolerance was deserting her. The events of the past week had worn it thin. She was in one of those moods, perhaps not uncommon with either sex, when the other becomes very clearly distinguished, and of contemptible baseness, so that the necessity of association is degrading, and the tie, which at such moments is always extremely close, drags like a halter round the neck. William's exacting demands and his jealousy had pulled her down into some horrible swamp of her nature where the primeval struggle between man and woman still rages.
"You seem to delight in hurting me," William persisted. "Why did you say that just now about my behavior to animals?" As he spoke he rattled his stick against the bars of the cage, which gave his words an accompaniment peculiarly exasperating to Katharine's nerves.
"Because it's true. You never see what any one feels," she said. "You think of no one but yourself."
"That is not true," said William. By his determined rattling he had now collected the animated attention of some half-dozen apes. Either to propitiate them, or to show his consideration for their feelings, he proceeded to offer them the apple which he held.
The sight, unfortunately, was so comically apt in its illustration of the picture in her mind, the ruse was so transparent, that Katharine was seized with laughter. She laughed uncontrollably. William flushed red. No display of anger could have hurt his feelings more profoundly. It was not only that she was laughing at him; the detachment of the sound was horrible.
"I don't know what you're laughing at," he muttered, and, turning, found that the other couple had rejoined them. As if the matter had been privately agreed upon, the couples separated once more, Katharine and Denham passing out of the house without more than a perfunctory glance round them. Denham obeyed what seemed to be Katharine's wish in thus making haste. Some change had come over her. He connected it with her laughter, and her few words in private with Rodney; he felt that she had become unfriendly to him. She talked, but her remarks were indifferent, and when he spoke her attention seemed to wander. This change of mood was at first extremely disagreeable to him; but soon he found it salutary. The pale drizzling atmosphere of the day affected him, also. The charm, the insidious magic in which he had luxuriated, were suddenly gone; his feeling had become one of friendly respect, and to his great pleasure he found himself thinking spontaneously of the relief of finding himself alone in his room that night. In his surprise at the suddenness of the change, and at the extent of his freedom, he bethought him of a daring plan, by which the ghost of Katharine could be more effectually exorcised than by mere abstinence. He would ask her to come home with him to tea. He would force her through the mill of family life; he would place her in a light unsparing and revealing. His family would find nothing to admire in her, and she, he felt certain, would despise them all, and this, too, would help him. He felt himself becoming more and more merciless towards her. By such courageous measures any one, he thought, could end the absurd passions which were the cause of so much pain and waste. He could foresee a time when his experiences, his discovery, and his triumph were made available for younger brothers who found themselves in the same predicament. He looked at his watch, and remarked that the gardens would soon be closed.
"Anyhow," he added, "I think we've seen enough for one afternoon. Where have the others got to?" He looked over his shoulder, and, seeing no trace of them, remarked at once:
"We'd better be independent of them. The best plan will be for you to come back to tea with me."
"Why shouldn't you come with me?" she asked.
"Because we're next door to Highgate here," he replied promptly.
She assented, having very little notion whether Highgate was next door to Regent's Park or not. She was only glad to put off her return to the family tea-table in Chelsea for an hour or two. They proceeded with dogged determination through the winding roads of Regent's Park, and the Sunday-stricken streets of the neighborhood, in the direction of the Tube station. Ignorant of the way, she resigned herself entirely to him, and found his silence a convenient cover beneath which to continue her anger with Rodney.
When they stepped out of the train into the still grayer gloom of Highgate, she wondered, for the first time, where he was taking her. Had he a family, or did he live alone in rooms? On the whole she was inclined to believe that he was the only son of an aged, and possibly invalid, mother. She sketched lightly, upon the blank vista down which they walked, the little white house and the tremulous old lady rising from behind her tea-table to greet her with faltering words about "my son's friends," and was on the point of asking Ralph to tell her what she might expect, when he jerked open one of the infinite number of identical wooden doors, and led her up a tiled path to a porch in the Alpine style of architecture. As they listened to the shaking of the bell in the basement, she could summon no vision to replace the one so rudely destroyed.
"I must warn you to expect a family party," said Ralph. "They're mostly in on Sundays. We can go to my room afterwards."
"Have you many brothers and sisters?" she asked, without concealing her dismay.
"Six or seven," he replied grimly, as the door opened.
While Ralph took off his coat, she had time to notice the ferns and photographs and draperies, and to hear a hum, or rather a babble, of voices talking each other down, from the sound of them. The rigidity of extreme shyness came over her. She kept as far behind Denham as she could, and walked stiffly after him into a room blazing with unshaded lights, which fell upon a number of people, of different ages, sitting round a large dining-room table untidily strewn with food, and unflinchingly lit up by incandescent gas. Ralph walked straight to the far end of the table.
"Mother, this is Miss Hilbery," he said.
A large elderly lady, bent over an unsatisfactory spirit-lamp, looked up with a little frown, and observed:
"I beg your pardon. I thought you were one of my own girls. Dorothy," she continued on the same breath, to catch the servant before she left the room, "we shall want some more methylated spirits—unless the lamp itself is out of order. If one of you could invent a good spirit-lamp—" she sighed, looking generally down the table, and then began seeking among the china before her for two clean cups for the new-comers.
The unsparing light revealed more ugliness than Katharine had seen in one room for a very long time. It was the ugliness of enormous folds of brown material, looped and festooned, of plush curtains, from which depended balls and fringes, partially concealing bookshelves swollen with black school-texts. Her eye was arrested by crossed scabbards of fretted wood upon the dull green wall, and whereever there was a high flat eminence, some fern waved from a pot of crinkled china, or a bronze horse reared so high that the stump of a tree had to sustain his forequarters. The waters of family life seemed to rise and close over her head, and she munched in silence.
At length Mrs. Denham looked up from her teacups and remarked:
"You see, Miss Hilbery, my children all come in at different hours and want different things. (The tray should go up if you've done, Johnnie.) My boy Charles is in bed with a cold. What else can you expect?—standing in the wet playing football. We did try drawing-room tea, but it didn't do."
A boy of sixteen, who appeared to be Johnnie, grumbled derisively both at the notion of drawing-room tea and at the necessity of carrying a tray up to his brother. But he took himself off, being enjoined by his mother to mind what he was doing, and shut the door after him.
"It's much nicer like this," said Katharine, applying herself with determination to the dissection of her cake; they had given her too large a slice. She knew that Mrs. Denham suspected her of critical comparisons. She knew that she was making poor progress with her cake. Mrs. Denham had looked at her sufficiently often to make it clear to Katharine that she was asking who this young woman was, and why Ralph had brought her to tea with them. There was an obvious reason, which Mrs. Denham had probably reached by this time. Outwardly, she was behaving with rather rusty and laborious civility. She was making conversation about the amenities of Highgate, its development and situation.
"When I first married," she said, "Highgate was quite separate from London, Miss Hilbery, and this house, though you wouldn't believe it, had a view of apple orchards. That was before the Middletons built their house in front of us."
"It must be a great advantage to live at the top of a hill," said Katharine. Mrs. Denham agreed effusively, as if her opinion of Katharine's sense had risen.
"Yes, indeed, we find it very healthy," she said, and she went on, as people who live in the suburbs so often do, to prove that it was healthier, more convenient, and less spoilt than any suburb round London. She spoke with such emphasis that it was quite obvious that she expressed unpopular views, and that her children disagreed with her.
"The ceiling's fallen down in the pantry again," said Hester, a girl of eighteen, abruptly.
"The whole house will be down one of these days," James muttered.
"Nonsense," said Mrs. Denham. "It's only a little bit of plaster—I don't see how any house could be expected to stand the wear and tear you give it." Here some family joke exploded, which Katharine could not follow. Even Mrs. Denham laughed against her will.
"Miss Hilbery's thinking us all so rude," she added reprovingly. Miss Hilbery smiled and shook her head, and was conscious that a great many eyes rested upon her, for a moment, as if they would find pleasure in discussing her when she was gone. Owing, perhaps, to this critical glance, Katharine decided that Ralph Denham's family was commonplace, unshapely, lacking in charm, and fitly expressed by the hideous nature of their furniture and decorations. She glanced along a mantelpiece ranged with bronze chariots, silver vases, and china ornaments that were either facetious or eccentric.
She did not apply her judgment consciously to Ralph, but when she looked at him, a moment later, she rated him lower than at any other time of their acquaintanceship.
He had made no effort to tide over the discomforts of her introduction, and now, engaged in argument with his brother, apparently forgot her presence. She must have counted upon his support more than she realized, for this indifference, emphasized, as it was, by the insignificant commonplace of his surroundings, awoke her, not only to that ugliness, but to her own folly. She thought of one scene after another in a few seconds, with that shudder which is almost a blush. She had believed him when he spoke of friendship. She had believed in a spiritual light burning steadily and steadfastly behind the erratic disorder and incoherence of life. The light was now gone out, suddenly, as if a sponge had blotted it. The litter of the table and the tedious but exacting conversation of Mrs. Denham remained: they struck, indeed, upon a mind bereft of all defences, and, keenly conscious of the degradation which is the result of strife whether victorious or not, she thought gloomily of her loneliness, of life's futility, of the barren prose of reality, of William Rodney, of her mother, and the unfinished book.
Her answers to Mrs. Denham were perfunctory to the verge of rudeness, and to Ralph, who watched her narrowly, she seemed further away than was compatible with her physical closeness. He glanced at her, and ground out further steps in his argument, determined that no folly should remain when this experience was over. Next moment, a silence, sudden and complete, descended upon them all. The silence of all these people round the untidy table was enormous and hideous; something horrible seemed about to burst from it, but they endured it obstinately. A second later the door opened and there was a stir of relief; cries of "Hullo, Joan! There's nothing left for you to eat," broke up the oppressive concentration of so many eyes upon the table-cloth, and set the waters of family life dashing in brisk little waves again. It was obvious that Joan had some mysterious and beneficent power upon her family. She went up to Katharine as if she had heard of her, and was very glad to see her at last. She explained that she had been visiting an uncle who was ill, and that had kept her. No, she hadn't had any tea, but a slice of bread would do. Some one handed up a hot cake, which had been keeping warm in the fender; she sat down by her mother's side, Mrs. Denham's anxieties seemed to relax, and every one began eating and drinking, as if tea had begun over again. Hester voluntarily explained to Katharine that she was reading to pass some examination, because she wanted more than anything in the whole world to go to Newnham.
"Now, just let me hear you decline 'amo'—I love," Johnnie demanded.
"No, Johnnie, no Greek at meal-times," said Joan, overhearing him instantly. "She's up at all hours of the night over her books, Miss Hilbery, and I'm sure that's not the way to pass examinations," she went on, smiling at Katharine, with the worried humorous smile of the elder sister whose younger brothers and sisters have become almost like children of her own.
"Joan, you don't really think that 'amo' is Greek?" Ralph
"Did I say Greek? Well, never mind. No dead languages at tea-time. My dear boy, don't trouble to make me any toast—"
"Or if you do, surely there's the toasting-fork somewhere?" said Mrs. Denham, still cherishing the belief that the bread-knife could be spoilt. "Do one of you ring and ask for one," she said, without any conviction that she would be obeyed. "But is Ann coming to be with Uncle Joseph?" she continued. "If so, surely they had better send Amy to us—" and in the mysterious delight of learning further details of these arrangements, and suggesting more sensible plans of her own, which, from the aggrieved way in which she spoke, she did not seem to expect any one to adopt, Mrs. Denham completely forgot the presence of a well-dressed visitor, who had to be informed about the amenities of Highgate. As soon as Joan had taken her seat, an argument had sprung up on either side of Katharine, as to whether the Salvation Army has any right to play hymns at street corners on Sunday mornings, thereby making it impossible for James to have his sleep out, and tampering with the rights of individual liberty.
"You see, James likes to lie in bed and sleep like a hog," said Johnnie, explaining himself to Katharine, whereupon James fired up and, making her his goal, also exclaimed:
"Because Sundays are my one chance in the week of having my sleep out. Johnnie messes with stinking chemicals in the pantry—"
They appealed to her, and she forgot her cake and began to laugh and talk and argue with sudden animation. The large family seemed to her so warm and various that she forgot to censure them for their taste in pottery. But the personal question between James and Johnnie merged into some argument already, apparently, debated, so that the parts had been distributed among the family, in which Ralph took the lead; and Katharine found herself opposed to him and the champion of Johnnie's cause, who, it appeared, always lost his head and got excited in argument with Ralph.
"Yes, yes, that's what I mean. She's got it right," he exclaimed, after Katharine had restated his case, and made it more precise. The debate was left almost solely to Katharine and Ralph. They looked into each other's eyes fixedly, like wrestlers trying to see what movement is coming next, and while Ralph spoke, Katharine bit her lower lip, and was always ready with her next point as soon as he had done. They were very well matched, and held the opposite views.
But at the most exciting stage of the argument, for no reason that Katharine could see, all chairs were pushed back, and one after another the Denham family got up and went out of the door, as if a bell had summoned them. She was not used to the clockwork regulations of a large family. She hesitated in what she was saying, and rose. Mrs. Denham and Joan had drawn together and stood by the fireplace, slightly raising their skirts above their ankles, and discussing something which had an air of being very serious and very private. They appeared to have forgotten her presence among them. Ralph stood holding the door open for her.
"Won't you come up to my room?" he said. And Katharine, glancing back at Joan, who smiled at her in a preoccupied way, followed Ralph upstairs. She was thinking of their argument, and when, after the long climb, he opened his door, she began at once.
"The question is, then, at what point is it right for the individual to assert his will against the will of the State."
For some time they continued the argument, and then the intervals between one statement and the next became longer and longer, and they spoke more speculatively and less pugnaciously, and at last fell silent. Katharine went over the argument in her mind, remembering how, now and then, it had been set conspicuously on the right course by some remark offered either by James or by Johnnie.
"Your brothers are very clever," she said. "I suppose you're in the habit of arguing?"
"James and Johnnie will go on like that for hours," Ralph replied. "So will Hester, if you start her upon Elizabethan dramatists."
"And the little girl with the pigtail?"
"Molly? She's only ten. But they're always arguing among themselves."
He was immensely pleased by Katharine's praise of his brothers and sisters. He would have liked to go on telling her about them, but he checked himself.
"I see that it must be difficult to leave them," Katharine continued. His deep pride in his family was more evident to him, at that moment, than ever before, and the idea of living alone in a cottage was ridiculous. All that brotherhood and sisterhood, and a common childhood in a common past mean, all the stability, the unambitious comradeship, and tacit understanding of family life at its best, came to his mind, and he thought of them as a company, of which he was the leader, bound on a difficult, dreary, but glorious voyage. And it was Katharine who had opened his eyes to this, he thought.
A little dry chirp from the corner of the room now roused her attention.
"My tame rook," he explained briefly. "A cat had bitten one of its legs." She looked at the rook, and her eyes went from one object to another.
"You sit here and read?" she said, her eyes resting upon his books. He said that he was in the habit of working there at night.
"The great advantage of Highgate is the view over London. At night the view from my window is splendid." He was extremely anxious that she should appreciate his view, and she rose to see what was to be seen. It was already dark enough for the turbulent haze to be yellow with the light of street lamps, and she tried to determine the quarters of the city beneath her. The sight of her gazing from his window gave him a peculiar satisfaction. When she turned, at length, he was still sitting motionless in his chair.
"It must be late," she said. "I must be going." She settled upon the arm of the chair irresolutely, thinking that she had no wish to go home. William would be there, and he would find some way of making things unpleasant for her, and the memory of their quarrel came back to her. She had noticed Ralph's coldness, too. She looked at him, and from his fixed stare she thought that he must be working out some theory, some argument. He had thought, perhaps, of some fresh point in his position, as to the bounds of personal liberty. She waited, silently, thinking about liberty.
"You've won again," he said at last, without moving.
"I've won?" she repeated, thinking of the argument.
"I wish to God I hadn't asked you here," he burst out.
"What do you mean?"
"When you're here, it's different—I'm happy. You've only to walk to the window—you've only to talk about liberty. When I saw you down there among them all—" He stopped short.
"You thought how ordinary I was."
"I tried to think so. But I thought you more wonderful than ever."
An immense relief, and a reluctance to enjoy that relief, conflicted in her heart.
She slid down into the chair.
"I thought you disliked me," she said.
"God knows I tried," he replied. "I've done my best to see you as you are, without any of this damned romantic nonsense. That was why I asked you here, and it's increased my folly. When you're gone I shall look out of that window and think of you. I shall waste the whole evening thinking of you. I shall waste my whole life, I believe."
He spoke with such vehemence that her relief disappeared; she frowned; and her tone changed to one almost of severity.
"This is what I foretold. We shall gain nothing but unhappiness. Look at me, Ralph." He looked at her. "I assure you that I'm far more ordinary than I appear. Beauty means nothing whatever. In fact, the most beautiful women are generally the most stupid. I'm not that, but I'm a matter-of-fact, prosaic, rather ordinary character; I order the dinner, I pay the bills, I do the accounts, I wind up the clock, and I never look at a book."
"You forget—" he began, but she would not let him speak.
"You come and see me among flowers and pictures, and think me mysterious, romantic, and all the rest of it. Being yourself very inexperienced and very emotional, you go home and invent a story about me, and now you can't separate me from the person you've imagined me to be. You call that, I suppose, being in love; as a matter of fact it's being in delusion. All romantic people are the same," she added. "My mother spends her life in making stories about the people she's fond of. But I won't have you do it about me, if I can help it."
"You can't help it," he said.
"I warn you it's the source of all evil."
"And of all good," he added.
"You'll find out that I'm not what you think me."
"Perhaps. But I shall gain more than I lose."
"If such gain's worth having."
They were silent for a space.
"That may be what we have to face," he said. "There may be nothing else. Nothing but what we imagine."
"The reason of our loneliness," she mused, and they were silent for a time.
"When are you to be married?" he asked abruptly, with a change of tone.
"Not till September, I think. It's been put off."
"You won't be lonely then," he said. "According to what people say, marriage is a very queer business. They say it's different from anything else. It may be true. I've known one or two cases where it seems to be true." He hoped that she would go on with the subject. But she made no reply. He had done his best to master himself, and his voice was sufficiently indifferent, but her silence tormented him. She would never speak to him of Rodney of her own accord, and her reserve left a whole continent of her soul in darkness.
"It may be put off even longer than that," she said, as if by an afterthought. "Some one in the office is ill, and William has to take his place. We may put it off for some time in fact."
"That's rather hard on him, isn't it?" Ralph asked.
"He has his work," she replied. "He has lots of things that interest him.... I know I've been to that place," she broke off, pointing to a photograph. "But I can't remember where it is—oh, of course it's Oxford. Now, what about your cottage?"
"I'm not going to take it."
"How you change your mind!" she smiled.
"It's not that," he said impatiently. "It's that I want to be where I can see you."
"Our compact is going to hold in spite of all I've said?" she asked.
"For ever, so far as I'm concerned," he replied.
"You're going to go on dreaming and imagining and making up stories about me as you walk along the street, and pretending that we're riding in a forest, or landing on an island—"
"No. I shall think of you ordering dinner, paying bills, doing the accounts, showing old ladies the relics—"
"That's better," she said. "You can think of me to-morrow morning looking up dates in the 'Dictionary of National Biography.'"
"And forgetting your purse," Ralph added.
At this she smiled, but in another moment her smile faded, either because of his words or of the way in which he spoke them. She was capable of forgetting things. He saw that. But what more did he see? Was he not looking at something she had never shown to anybody? Was it not something so profound that the notion of his seeing it almost shocked her? Her smile faded, and for a moment she seemed upon the point of speaking, but looking at him in silence, with a look that seemed to ask what she could not put into words, she turned and bade him good night.
Like a strain of music, the effect of Katharine's presence slowly died from the room in which Ralph sat alone. The music had ceased in the rapture of its melody. He strained to catch the faintest lingering echoes; for a moment the memory lulled him into peace; but soon it failed, and he paced the room so hungry for the sound to come again that he was conscious of no other desire left in life. She had gone without speaking; abruptly a chasm had been cut in his course, down which the tide of his being plunged in disorder; fell upon rocks; flung itself to destruction. The distress had an effect of physical ruin and disaster. He trembled; he was white; he felt exhausted, as if by a great physical effort. He sank at last into a chair standing opposite her empty one, and marked, mechanically, with his eye upon the clock, how she went farther and farther from him, was home now, and now, doubtless, again with Rodney. But it was long before he could realize these facts; the immense desire for her presence churned his senses into foam, into froth, into a haze of emotion that removed all facts from his grasp, and gave him a strange sense of distance, even from the material shapes of wall and window by which he was surrounded. The prospect of the future, now that the strength of his passion was revealed to him, appalled him.
The marriage would take place in September, she had said; that allowed him, then, six full months in which to undergo these terrible extremes of emotion. Six months of torture, and after that the silence of the grave, the isolation of the insane, the exile of the damned; at best, a life from which the chief good was knowingly and for ever excluded. An impartial judge might have assured him that his chief hope of recovery lay in this mystic temper, which identified a living woman with much that no human beings long possess in the eyes of each other; she would pass, and the desire for her vanish, but his belief in what she stood for, detached from her, would remain. This line of thought offered, perhaps, some respite, and possessed of a brain that had its station considerably above the tumult of the senses, he tried to reduce the vague and wandering incoherency of his emotions to order. The sense of self-preservation was strong in him, and Katharine herself had strangely revived it by convincing him that his family deserved and needed all his strength. She was right, and for their sake, if not for his own, this passion, which could bear no fruit, must be cut off, uprooted, shown to be as visionary and baseless as she had maintained. The best way of achieving this was not to run away from her, but to face her, and having steeped himself in her qualities, to convince his reason that they were, as she assured him, not those that he imagined. She was a practical woman, a domestic wife for an inferior poet, endowed with romantic beauty by some freak of unintelligent Nature. No doubt her beauty itself would not stand examination. He had the means of settling this point at least. He possessed a book of photographs from the Greek statues; the head of a goddess, if the lower part were concealed, had often given him the ecstasy of being in Katharine's presence. He took it down from the shelf and found the picture. To this he added a note from her, bidding him meet her at the Zoo. He had a flower which he had picked at Kew to teach her botany. Such were his relics. He placed them before him, and set himself to visualize her so clearly that no deception or delusion was possible. In a second he could see her, with the sun slanting across her dress, coming towards him down the green walk at Kew. He made her sit upon the seat beside him. He heard her voice, so low and yet so decided in its tone; she spoke reasonably of indifferent matters. He could see her faults, and analyze her virtues. His pulse became quieter, and his brain increased in clarity. This time she could not escape him. The illusion of her presence became more and more complete. They seemed to pass in and out of each other's minds, questioning and answering. The utmost fullness of communion seemed to be theirs. Thus united, he felt himself raised to an eminence, exalted, and filled with a power of achievement such as he had never known in singleness. Once more he told over conscientiously her faults, both of face and character; they were clearly known to him; but they merged themselves in the flawless union that was born of their association. They surveyed life to its uttermost limits. How deep it was when looked at from this height! How sublime! How the commonest things moved him almost to tears! Thus, he forgot the inevitable limitations; he forgot her absence, he thought it of no account whether she married him or another; nothing mattered, save that she should exist, and that he should love her. Some words of these reflections were uttered aloud, and it happened that among them were the words, "I love her." It was the first time that he had used the word "love" to describe his feeling; madness, romance, hallucination—he had called it by these names before; but having, apparently by accident, stumbled upon the word "love," he repeated it again and again with a sense of revelation.
"But I'm in love with you!" he exclaimed, with something like dismay. He leant against the window-sill, looking over the city as she had looked. Everything had become miraculously different and completely distinct. His feelings were justified and needed no further explanation. But he must impart them to some one, because his discovery was so important that it concerned other people too. Shutting the book of Greek photographs, and hiding his relics, he ran downstairs, snatched his coat, and passed out of doors.
The lamps were being lit, but the streets were dark enough and empty enough to let him walk his fastest, and to talk aloud as he walked. He had no doubt where he was going. He was going to find Mary Datchet. The desire to share what he felt, with some one who understood it, was so imperious that he did not question it. He was soon in her street. He ran up the stairs leading to her flat two steps at a time, and it never crossed his mind that she might not be at home. As he rang her bell, he seemed to himself to be announcing the presence of something wonderful that was separate from himself, and gave him power and authority over all other people. Mary came to the door after a moment's pause. He was perfectly silent, and in the dusk his face looked completely white. He followed her into her room.
"Do you know each other?" she said, to his extreme surprise, for he had counted on finding her alone. A young man rose, and said that he knew Ralph by sight.
"We were just going through some papers," said Mary. "Mr. Basnett has to help me, because I don't know much about my work yet. It's the new society," she explained. "I'm the secretary. I'm no longer at Russell Square."
The voice in which she gave this information was so constrained as to sound almost harsh.
"What are your aims?" said Ralph. He looked neither at Mary nor at Mr. Basnett. Mr. Basnett thought he had seldom seen a more disagreeable or formidable man than this friend of Mary's, this sarcastic-looking, white-faced Mr. Denham, who seemed to demand, as if by right, an account of their proposals, and to criticize them before he had heard them. Nevertheless, he explained his projects as clearly as he could, and knew that he wished Mr. Denham to think well of them.
"I see," said Ralph, when he had done. "D'you know, Mary," he suddenly remarked, "I believe I'm in for a cold. Have you any quinine?" The look which he cast at her frightened her; it expressed mutely, perhaps without his own consciousness, something deep, wild, and passionate. She left the room at once. Her heart beat fast at the knowledge of Ralph's presence; but it beat with pain, and with an extraordinary fear. She stood listening for a moment to the voices in the next room.
"Of course, I agree with you," she heard Ralph say, in this strange voice, to Mr. Basnett. "But there's more that might be done. Have you seen Judson, for instance? You should make a point of getting him."
Mary returned with the quinine.
"Judson's address?" Mr. Basnett inquired, pulling out his notebook and preparing to write. For twenty minutes, perhaps, he wrote down names, addresses, and other suggestions that Ralph dictated to him. Then, when Ralph fell silent, Mr. Basnett felt that his presence was not desired, and thanking Ralph for his help, with a sense that he was very young and ignorant compared with him, he said good-bye.
"Mary," said Ralph, directly Mr. Basnett had shut the door and they were alone together. "Mary," he repeated. But the old difficulty of speaking to Mary without reserve prevented him from continuing. His desire to proclaim his love for Katharine was still strong in him, but he had felt, directly he saw Mary, that he could not share it with her. The feeling increased as he sat talking to Mr. Basnett. And yet all the time he was thinking of Katharine, and marveling at his love. The tone in which he spoke Mary's name was harsh.
"What is it, Ralph?" she asked, startled by his tone. She looked at him anxiously, and her little frown showed that she was trying painfully to understand him, and was puzzled. He could feel her groping for his meaning, and he was annoyed with her, and thought how he had always found her slow, painstaking, and clumsy. He had behaved badly to her, too, which made his irritation the more acute. Without waiting for him to answer, she rose as if his answer were indifferent to her, and began to put in order some papers that Mr. Basnett had left on the table. She hummed a scrap of a tune under her breath, and moved about the room as if she were occupied in making things tidy, and had no other concern.
"You'll stay and dine?" she said casually, returning to her seat.
"No," Ralph replied. She did not press him further. They sat side by side without speaking, and Mary reached her hand for her work basket, and took out her sewing and threaded a needle.
"That's a clever young man," Ralph observed, referring to Mr. Basnett.
"I'm glad you thought so. It's tremendously interesting work, and considering everything, I think we've done very well. But I'm inclined to agree with you; we ought to try to be more conciliatory. We're absurdly strict. It's difficult to see that there may be sense in what one's opponents say, though they are one's opponents. Horace Basnett is certainly too uncompromising. I mustn't forget to see that he writes that letter to Judson. You're too busy, I suppose, to come on to our committee?" She spoke in the most impersonal manner.
"I may be out of town," Ralph replied, with equal distance of manner.
"Our executive meets every week, of course," she observed. "But some of our members don't come more than once a month. Members of Parliament are the worst; it was a mistake, I think, to ask them."
She went on sewing in silence.
"You've not taken your quinine," she said, looking up and seeing the tabloids upon the mantelpiece.
"I don't want it," said Ralph shortly.
"Well, you know best," she replied tranquilly.
"Mary, I'm a brute!" he exclaimed. "Here I come and waste your time, and do nothing but make myself disagreeable."
"A cold coming on does make one feel wretched," she replied.
"I've not got a cold. That was a lie. There's nothing the matter with me. I'm mad, I suppose. I ought to have had the decency to keep away. But I wanted to see you—I wanted to tell you—I'm in love, Mary." He spoke the word, but, as he spoke it, it seemed robbed of substance.
"In love, are you?" she said quietly. "I'm glad, Ralph."
"I suppose I'm in love. Anyhow, I'm out of my mind. I can't think, I can't work, I don't care a hang for anything in the world. Good Heavens, Mary! I'm in torment! One moment I'm happy; next I'm miserable. I hate her for half an hour; then I'd give my whole life to be with her for ten minutes; all the time I don't know what I feel, or why I feel it; it's insanity, and yet it's perfectly reasonable. Can you make any sense of it? Can you see what's happened? I'm raving, I know; don't listen, Mary; go on with your work."
He rose and began, as usual, to pace up and down the room. He knew that what he had just said bore very little resemblance to what he felt, for Mary's presence acted upon him like a very strong magnet, drawing from him certain expressions which were not those he made use of when he spoke to himself, nor did they represent his deepest feelings. He felt a little contempt for himself at having spoken thus; but somehow he had been forced into speech.
"Do sit down," said Mary suddenly. "You make me so—" She spoke with unusual irritability, and Ralph, noticing it with surprise, sat down at once.
"You haven't told me her name—you'd rather not, I suppose?"
"Her name? Katharine Hilbery."
"But she's engaged—"
"To Rodney. They're to be married in September."
"I see," said Mary. But in truth the calm of his manner, now that he was sitting down once more, wrapt her in the presence of something which she felt to be so strong, so mysterious, so incalculable, that she scarcely dared to attempt to intercept it by any word or question that she was able to frame. She looked at Ralph blankly, with a kind of awe in her face, her lips slightly parted, and her brows raised. He was apparently quite unconscious of her gaze. Then, as if she could look no longer, she leant back in her chair, and half closed her eyes. The distance between them hurt her terribly; one thing after another came into her mind, tempting her to assail Ralph with questions, to force him to confide in her, and to enjoy once more his intimacy. But she rejected every impulse, for she could not speak without doing violence to some reserve which had grown between them, putting them a little far from each other, so that he seemed to her dignified and remote, like a person she no longer knew well.
"Is there anything that I could do for you?" she asked gently, and even with courtesy, at length.
"You could see her—no, that's not what I want; you mustn't bother about me, Mary." He, too, spoke very gently.
"I'm afraid no third person can do anything to help," she added.
"No," he shook his head. "Katharine was saying to-day how lonely we are." She saw the effort with which he spoke Katharine's name, and believed that he forced himself to make amends now for his concealment in the past. At any rate, she was conscious of no anger against him; but rather of a deep pity for one condemned to suffer as she had suffered. But in the case of Katharine it was different; she was indignant with Katharine.
"There's always work," she said, a little aggressively.
Ralph moved directly.
"Do you want to be working now?" he asked.
"No, no. It's Sunday," she replied. "I was thinking of Katharine. She doesn't understand about work. She's never had to. She doesn't know what work is. I've only found out myself quite lately. But it's the thing that saves one—I'm sure of that."
"There are other things, aren't there?" he hesitated.
"Nothing that one can count upon," she returned. "After all, other people—" she stopped, but forced herself to go on. "Where should I be now if I hadn't got to go to my office every day? Thousands of people would tell you the same thing—thousands of women. I tell you, work is the only thing that saved me, Ralph." He set his mouth, as if her words rained blows on him; he looked as if he had made up his mind to bear anything she might say, in silence. He had deserved it, and there would be relief in having to bear it. But she broke off, and rose as if to fetch something from the next room. Before she reached the door she turned back, and stood facing him, self-possessed, and yet defiant and formidable in her composure.
"It's all turned out splendidly for me," she said. "It will for you, too. I'm sure of that. Because, after all, Katharine is worth it."
"Mary—!" he exclaimed. But her head was turned away, and he could not say what he wished to say. "Mary, you're splendid," he concluded. She faced him as he spoke, and gave him her hand. She had suffered and relinquished, she had seen her future turned from one of infinite promise to one of barrenness, and yet, somehow, over what she scarcely knew, and with what results she could hardly foretell, she had conquered. With Ralph's eyes upon her, smiling straight back at him serenely and proudly, she knew, for the first time, that she had conquered. She let him kiss her hand.
The streets were empty enough on Sunday night, and if the Sabbath, and the domestic amusements proper to the Sabbath, had not kept people indoors, a high strong wind might very probably have done so. Ralph Denham was aware of a tumult in the street much in accordance with his own sensations. The gusts, sweeping along the Strand, seemed at the same time to blow a clear space across the sky in which stars appeared, and for a short time the quicks-peeding silver moon riding through clouds, as if they were waves of water surging round her and over her. They swamped her, but she emerged; they broke over her and covered her again; she issued forth indomitable. In the country fields all the wreckage of winter was being dispersed; the dead leaves, the withered bracken, the dry and discolored grass, but no bud would be broken, nor would the new stalks that showed above the earth take any harm, and perhaps to-morrow a line of blue or yellow would show through a slit in their green. But the whirl of the atmosphere alone was in Denham's mood, and what of star or blossom appeared was only as a light gleaming for a second upon heaped waves fast following each other. He had not been able to speak to Mary, though for a moment he had come near enough to be tantalized by a wonderful possibility of understanding. But the desire to communicate something of the very greatest importance possessed him completely; he still wished to bestow this gift upon some other human being; he sought their company. More by instinct than by conscious choice, he took the direction which led to Rodney's rooms. He knocked loudly upon his door; but no one answered. He rang the bell. It took him some time to accept the fact that Rodney was out. When he could no longer pretend that the sound of the wind in the old building was the sound of some one rising from his chair, he ran downstairs again, as if his goal had been altered and only just revealed to him. He walked in the direction of Chelsea.