But physical fatigue, for he had not dined and had tramped both far and fast, made him sit for a moment upon a seat on the Embankment. One of the regular occupants of those seats, an elderly man who had drunk himself, probably, out of work and lodging, drifted up, begged a match, and sat down beside him. It was a windy night, he said; times were hard; some long story of bad luck and injustice followed, told so often that the man seemed to be talking to himself, or, perhaps, the neglect of his audience had long made any attempt to catch their attention seem scarcely worth while. When he began to speak Ralph had a wild desire to talk to him; to question him; to make him understand. He did, in fact, interrupt him at one point; but it was useless. The ancient story of failure, ill-luck, undeserved disaster, went down the wind, disconnected syllables flying past Ralph's ears with a queer alternation of loudness and faintness as if, at certain moments, the man's memory of his wrongs revived and then flagged, dying down at last into a grumble of resignation, which seemed to represent a final lapse into the accustomed despair. The unhappy voice afflicted Ralph, but it also angered him. And when the elderly man refused to listen and mumbled on, an odd image came to his mind of a lighthouse besieged by the flying bodies of lost birds, who were dashed senseless, by the gale, against the glass. He had a strange sensation that he was both lighthouse and bird; he was steadfast and brilliant; and at the same time he was whirled, with all other things, senseless against the glass. He got up, left his tribute of silver, and pressed on, with the wind against him. The image of the lighthouse and the storm full of birds persisted, taking the place of more definite thoughts, as he walked past the Houses of Parliament and down Grosvenor Road, by the side of the river. In his state of physical fatigue, details merged themselves in the vaster prospect, of which the flying gloom and the intermittent lights of lamp-posts and private houses were the outward token, but he never lost his sense of walking in the direction of Katharine's house. He took it for granted that something would then happen, and, as he walked on, his mind became more and more full of pleasure and expectancy. Within a certain radius of her house the streets came under the influence of her presence. Each house had an individuality known to Ralph, because of the tremendous individuality of the house in which she lived. For some yards before reaching the Hilberys' door he walked in a trance of pleasure, but when he reached it, and pushed the gate of the little garden open, he hesitated. He did not know what to do next. There was no hurry, however, for the outside of the house held pleasure enough to last him some time longer. He crossed the road, and leant against the balustrade of the Embankment, fixing his eyes upon the house.
Lights burnt in the three long windows of the drawing-room. The space of the room behind became, in Ralph's vision, the center of the dark, flying wilderness of the world; the justification for the welter of confusion surrounding it; the steady light which cast its beams, like those of a lighthouse, with searching composure over the trackless waste. In this little sanctuary were gathered together several different people, but their identity was dissolved in a general glory of something that might, perhaps, be called civilization; at any rate, all dryness, all safety, all that stood up above the surge and preserved a consciousness of its own, was centered in the drawing-room of the Hilberys. Its purpose was beneficent; and yet so far above his level as to have something austere about it, a light that cast itself out and yet kept itself aloof. Then he began, in his mind, to distinguish different individuals within, consciously refusing as yet to attack the figure of Katharine. His thoughts lingered over Mrs. Hilbery and Cassandra; and then he turned to Rodney and Mr. Hilbery. Physically, he saw them bathed in that steady flow of yellow light which filled the long oblongs of the windows; in their movements they were beautiful; and in their speech he figured a reserve of meaning, unspoken, but understood. At length, after all this half-conscious selection and arrangement, he allowed himself to approach the figure of Katharine herself; and instantly the scene was flooded with excitement. He did not see her in the body; he seemed curiously to see her as a shape of light, the light itself; he seemed, simplified and exhausted as he was, to be like one of those lost birds fascinated by the lighthouse and held to the glass by the splendor of the blaze.
These thoughts drove him to tramp a beat up and down the pavement before the Hilberys' gate. He did not trouble himself to make any plans for the future. Something of an unknown kind would decide both the coming year and the coming hour. Now and again, in his vigil, he sought the light in the long windows, or glanced at the ray which gilded a few leaves and a few blades of grass in the little garden. For a long time the light burnt without changing. He had just reached the limit of his beat and was turning, when the front door opened, and the aspect of the house was entirely changed. A black figure came down the little pathway and paused at the gate. Denham understood instantly that it was Rodney. Without hesitation, and conscious only of a great friendliness for any one coming from that lighted room, he walked straight up to him and stopped him. In the flurry of the wind Rodney was taken aback, and for the moment tried to press on, muttering something, as if he suspected a demand upon his charity.
"Goodness, Denham, what are you doing here?" he exclaimed, recognizing him.
Ralph mumbled something about being on his way home. They walked on together, though Rodney walked quick enough to make it plain that he had no wish for company.
He was very unhappy. That afternoon Cassandra had repulsed him; he had tried to explain to her the difficulties of the situation, and to suggest the nature of his feelings for her without saying anything definite or anything offensive to her. But he had lost his head; under the goad of Katharine's ridicule he had said too much, and Cassandra, superb in her dignity and severity, had refused to hear another word, and threatened an immediate return to her home. His agitation, after an evening spent between the two women, was extreme. Moreover, he could not help suspecting that Ralph was wandering near the Hilberys' house, at this hour, for reasons connected with Katharine. There was probably some understanding between them—not that anything of the kind mattered to him now. He was convinced that he had never cared for any one save Cassandra, and Katharine's future was no concern of his. Aloud, he said, shortly, that he was very tired and wished to find a cab. But on Sunday night, on the Embankment, cabs were hard to come by, and Rodney found himself constrained to walk some distance, at any rate, in Denham's company. Denham maintained his silence. Rodney's irritation lapsed. He found the silence oddly suggestive of the good masculine qualities which he much respected, and had at this moment great reason to need. After the mystery, difficulty, and uncertainty of dealing with the other sex, intercourse with one's own is apt to have a composing and even ennobling influence, since plain speaking is possible and subterfuges of no avail. Rodney, too, was much in need of a confidant; Katharine, despite her promises of help, had failed him at the critical moment; she had gone off with Denham; she was, perhaps, tormenting Denham as she had tormented him. How grave and stable he seemed, speaking little, and walking firmly, compared with what Rodney knew of his own torments and indecisions! He began to cast about for some way of telling the story of his relations with Katharine and Cassandra that would not lower him in Denham's eyes. It then occurred to him that, perhaps, Katharine herself had confided in Denham; they had something in common; it was likely that they had discussed him that very afternoon. The desire to discover what they had said of him now came uppermost in his mind. He recalled Katharine's laugh; he remembered that she had gone, laughing, to walk with Denham.
"Did you stay long after we'd left?" he asked abruptly.
"No. We went back to my house."
This seemed to confirm Rodney's belief that he had been discussed. He turned over the unpalatable idea for a while, in silence.
"Women are incomprehensible creatures, Denham!" he then exclaimed.
"Um," said Denham, who seemed to himself possessed of complete understanding, not merely of women, but of the entire universe. He could read Rodney, too, like a book. He knew that he was unhappy, and he pitied him, and wished to help him.
"You say something and they—fly into a passion. Or for no reason at all, they laugh. I take it that no amount of education will—" The remainder of the sentence was lost in the high wind, against which they had to struggle; but Denham understood that he referred to Katharine's laughter, and that the memory of it was still hurting him. In comparison with Rodney, Denham felt himself very secure; he saw Rodney as one of the lost birds dashed senseless against the glass; one of the flying bodies of which the air was full. But he and Katharine were alone together, aloft, splendid, and luminous with a twofold radiance. He pitied the unstable creature beside him; he felt a desire to protect him, exposed without the knowledge which made his own way so direct. They were united as the adventurous are united, though one reaches the goal and the other perishes by the way.
"You couldn't laugh at some one you cared for."
This sentence, apparently addressed to no other human being, reached Denham's ears. The wind seemed to muffle it and fly away with it directly. Had Rodney spoken those words?
"You love her." Was that his own voice, which seemed to sound in the air several yards in front of him?
"I've suffered tortures, Denham, tortures!"
"Yes, yes, I know that."
"She's laughed at me."
The wind blew a space between the words—blew them so far away that they seemed unspoken.
"How I've loved her!"
This was certainly spoken by the man at Denham's side. The voice had all the marks of Rodney's character, and recalled, with; strange vividness, his personal appearance. Denham could see him against the blank buildings and towers of the horizon. He saw him dignified, exalted, and tragic, as he might have appeared thinking of Katharine alone in his rooms at night.
"I am in love with Katharine myself. That is why I am here to-night."
Ralph spoke distinctly and deliberately, as if Rodney's confession had made this statement necessary.
Rodney exclaimed something inarticulate.
"Ah, I've always known it," he cried, "I've known it from the first. You'll marry her!"
The cry had a note of despair in it. Again the wind intercepted their words. They said no more. At length they drew up beneath a lamp-post, simultaneously.
"My God, Denham, what fools we both are!" Rodney exclaimed. They looked at each other, queerly, in the light of the lamp. Fools! They seemed to confess to each other the extreme depths of their folly. For the moment, under the lamp-post, they seemed to be aware of some common knowledge which did away with the possibility of rivalry, and made them feel more sympathy for each other than for any one else in the world. Giving simultaneously a little nod, as if in confirmation of this understanding, they parted without speaking again.
Between twelve and one that Sunday night Katharine lay in bed, not asleep, but in that twilight region where a detached and humorous view of our own lot is possible; or if we must be serious, our seriousness is tempered by the swift oncome of slumber and oblivion. She saw the forms of Ralph, William, Cassandra, and herself, as if they were all equally unsubstantial, and, in putting off reality, had gained a kind of dignity which rested upon each impartially. Thus rid of any uncomfortable warmth of partisanship or load of obligation, she was dropping off to sleep when a light tap sounded upon her door. A moment later Cassandra stood beside her, holding a candle and speaking in the low tones proper to the time of night.
"Are you awake, Katharine?"
"Yes, I'm awake. What is it?"
She roused herself, sat up, and asked what in Heaven's name Cassandra was doing?
"I couldn't sleep, and I thought I'd come and speak to you—only for a moment, though. I'm going home to-morrow."
"Home? Why, what has happened?"
"Something happened to-day which makes it impossible for me to stay here."
Cassandra spoke formally, almost solemnly; the announcement was clearly prepared and marked a crisis of the utmost gravity. She continued what seemed to be part of a set speech.
"I have decided to tell you the whole truth, Katharine. William allowed himself to behave in a way which made me extremely uncomfortable to-day."
Katharine seemed to waken completely, and at once to be in control of herself.
"At the Zoo?" she asked.
"No, on the way home. When we had tea."
As if foreseeing that the interview might be long, and the night chilly, Katharine advised Cassandra to wrap herself in a quilt. Cassandra did so with unbroken solemnity.
"There's a train at eleven," she said. "I shall tell Aunt Maggie that I have to go suddenly.... I shall make Violet's visit an excuse. But, after thinking it over, I don't see how I can go without telling you the truth."
She was careful to abstain from looking in Katharine's direction. There was a slight pause.
"But I don't see the least reason why you should go," said Katharine eventually. Her voice sounded so astonishingly equable that Cassandra glanced at her. It was impossible to suppose that she was either indignant or surprised; she seemed, on the contrary, sitting up in bed, with her arms clasped round her knees and a little frown on her brow, to be thinking closely upon a matter of indifference to her.
"Because I can't allow any man to behave to me in that way," Cassandra replied, and she added, "particularly when I know that he is engaged to some one else."
"But you like him, don't you?" Katharine inquired.
"That's got nothing to do with it," Cassandra exclaimed indignantly. "I consider his conduct, under the circumstances, most disgraceful."
This was the last of the sentences of her premeditated speech; and having spoken it she was left unprovided with any more to say in that particular style. When Katharine remarked:
"I should say it had everything to do with it," Cassandra's self-possession deserted her.
"I don't understand you in the least, Katharine. How can you behave as you behave? Ever since I came here I've been amazed by you!"
"You've enjoyed yourself, haven't you?" Katharine asked.
"Yes, I have," Cassandra admitted.
"Anyhow, my behavior hasn't spoiled your visit."
"No," Cassandra allowed once more. She was completely at a loss. In her forecast of the interview she had taken it for granted that Katharine, after an outburst of incredulity, would agree that Cassandra must return home as soon as possible. But Katharine, on the contrary, accepted her statement at once, seemed neither shocked nor surprised, and merely looked rather more thoughtful than usual. From being a mature woman charged with an important mission, Cassandra shrunk to the stature of an inexperienced child.
"Do you think I've been very foolish about it?" she asked.
Katharine made no answer, but still sat deliberating silently, and a certain feeling of alarm took possession of Cassandra. Perhaps her words had struck far deeper than she had thought, into depths beyond her reach, as so much of Katharine was beyond her reach. She thought suddenly that she had been playing with very dangerous tools.
Looking at her at length, Katharine asked slowly, as if she found the question very difficult to ask.
"But do you care for William?"
She marked the agitation and bewilderment of the girl's expression, and how she looked away from her.
"Do you mean, am I in love with him?" Cassandra asked, breathing quickly, and nervously moving her hands.
"Yes, in love with him," Katharine repeated.
"How can I love the man you're engaged to marry?" Cassandra burst out.
"He may be in love with you."
"I don't think you've any right to say such things, Katharine," Cassandra exclaimed. "Why do you say them? Don't you mind in the least how William behaves to other women? If I were engaged, I couldn't bear it!"
"We're not engaged," said Katharine, after a pause.
"Katharine!" Cassandra cried.
"No, we're not engaged," Katharine repeated. "But no one knows it but ourselves."
"But why—I don't understand—you're not engaged!" Cassandra said again. "Oh, that explains it! You're not in love with him! You don't want to marry him!"
"We aren't in love with each other any longer," said Katharine, as if disposing of something for ever and ever.
"How queer, how strange, how unlike other people you are, Katharine," Cassandra said, her whole body and voice seeming to fall and collapse together, and no trace of anger or excitement remaining, but only a dreamy quietude.
"You're not in love with him?"
"But I love him," said Katharine.
Cassandra remained bowed, as if by the weight of the revelation, for some little while longer. Nor did Katharine speak. Her attitude was that of some one who wishes to be concealed as much as possible from observation. She sighed profoundly; she was absolutely silent, and apparently overcome by her thoughts.
"D'you know what time it is?" she said at length, and shook her pillow, as if making ready for sleep.
Cassandra rose obediently, and once more took up her candle. Perhaps the white dressing-gown, and the loosened hair, and something unseeing in the expression of the eyes gave her a likeness to a woman walking in her sleep. Katharine, at least, thought so.
"There's no reason why I should go home, then?" Cassandra said, pausing. "Unless you want me to go, Katharine? What DO you want me to do?"
For the first time their eyes met.
"You wanted us to fall in love," Cassandra exclaimed, as if she read the certainty there. But as she looked she saw a sight that surprised her. The tears rose slowly in Katharine's eyes and stood there, brimming but contained—the tears of some profound emotion, happiness, grief, renunciation; an emotion so complex in its nature that to express it was impossible, and Cassandra, bending her head and receiving the tears upon her cheek, accepted them in silence as the consecration of her love.
"Please, miss," said the maid, about eleven o'clock on the following morning, "Mrs. Milvain is in the kitchen."
A long wicker basket of flowers and branches had arrived from the country, and Katharine, kneeling upon the floor of the drawing-room, was sorting them while Cassandra watched her from an arm-chair, and absent-mindedly made spasmodic offers of help which were not accepted. The maid's message had a curious effect upon Katharine.
She rose, walked to the window, and, the maid being gone, said emphatically and even tragically:
"You know what that means."
Cassandra had understood nothing.
"Aunt Celia is in the kitchen," Katharine repeated.
"Why in the kitchen?" Cassandra asked, not unnaturally.
"Probably because she's discovered something," Katharine replied. Cassandra's thoughts flew to the subject of her preoccupation.
"About us?" she inquired.
"Heaven knows," Katharine replied. "I shan't let her stay in the kitchen, though. I shall bring her up here."
The sternness with which this was said suggested that to bring Aunt Celia upstairs was, for some reason, a disciplinary measure.
"For goodness' sake, Katharine," Cassandra exclaimed, jumping from her chair and showing signs of agitation, "don't be rash. Don't let her suspect. Remember, nothing's certain—"
Katharine assured her by nodding her head several times, but the manner in which she left the room was not calculated to inspire complete confidence in her diplomacy.
Mrs. Milvain was sitting, or rather perching, upon the edge of a chair in the servants' room. Whether there was any sound reason for her choice of a subterranean chamber, or whether it corresponded with the spirit of her quest, Mrs. Milvain invariably came in by the back door and sat in the servants' room when she was engaged in confidential family transactions. The ostensible reason she gave was that neither Mr. nor Mrs. Hilbery should be disturbed. But, in truth, Mrs. Milvain depended even more than most elderly women of her generation upon the delicious emotions of intimacy, agony, and secrecy, and the additional thrill provided by the basement was one not lightly to be forfeited. She protested almost plaintively when Katharine proposed to go upstairs.
"I've something that I want to say to you in PRIVATE," she said, hesitating reluctantly upon the threshold of her ambush.
"The drawing-room is empty—"
"But we might meet your mother upon the stairs. We might disturb your father," Mrs. Milvain objected, taking the precaution to speak in a whisper already.
But as Katharine's presence was absolutely necessary to the success of the interview, and as Katharine obstinately receded up the kitchen stairs, Mrs. Milvain had no course but to follow her. She glanced furtively about her as she proceeded upstairs, drew her skirts together, and stepped with circumspection past all doors, whether they were open or shut.
"Nobody will overhear us?" she murmured, when the comparative sanctuary of the drawing-room had been reached. "I see that I have interrupted you," she added, glancing at the flowers strewn upon the floor. A moment later she inquired, "Was some one sitting with you?" noticing a handkerchief that Cassandra had dropped in her flight.
"Cassandra was helping me to put the flowers in water," said Katharine, and she spoke so firmly and clearly that Mrs. Milvain glanced nervously at the main door and then at the curtain which divided the little room with the relics from the drawing-room.
"Ah, Cassandra is still with you," she remarked. "And did William send you those lovely flowers?"
Katharine sat down opposite her aunt and said neither yes nor no. She looked past her, and it might have been thought that she was considering very critically the pattern of the curtains. Another advantage of the basement, from Mrs. Milvain's point of view, was that it made it necessary to sit very close together, and the light was dim compared with that which now poured through three windows upon Katharine and the basket of flowers, and gave even the slight angular figure of Mrs. Milvain herself a halo of gold.
"They're from Stogdon House," said Katharine abruptly, with a little jerk of her head.
Mrs. Milvain felt that it would be easier to tell her niece what she wished to say if they were actually in physical contact, for the spiritual distance between them was formidable. Katharine, however, made no overtures, and Mrs. Milvain, who was possessed of rash but heroic courage, plunged without preface:
"People are talking about you, Katharine. That is why I have come this morning. You forgive me for saying what I'd much rather not say? What I say is only for your own sake, my child."
"There's nothing to forgive yet, Aunt Celia," said Katharine, with apparent good humor.
"People are saying that William goes everywhere with you and Cassandra, and that he is always paying her attentions. At the Markhams' dance he sat out five dances with her. At the Zoo they were seen alone together. They left together. They never came back here till seven in the evening. But that is not all. They say his manner is very marked—he is quite different when she is there."
Mrs. Milvain, whose words had run themselves together, and whose voice had raised its tone almost to one of protest, here ceased, and looked intently at Katharine, as if to judge the effect of her communication. A slight rigidity had passed over Katharine's face. Her lips were pressed together; her eyes were contracted, and they were still fixed upon the curtain. These superficial changes covered an extreme inner loathing such as might follow the display of some hideous or indecent spectacle. The indecent spectacle was her own action beheld for the first time from the outside; her aunt's words made her realize how infinitely repulsive the body of life is without its soul.
"Well?" she said at length.
Mrs. Milvain made a gesture as if to bring her closer, but it was not returned.
"We all know how good you are—how unselfish—how you sacrifice yourself to others. But you've been too unselfish, Katharine. You have made Cassandra happy, and she has taken advantage of your goodness."
"I don't understand, Aunt Celia," said Katharine. "What has Cassandra done?"
"Cassandra has behaved in a way that I could not have thought possible," said Mrs. Milvain warmly. "She has been utterly selfish—utterly heartless. I must speak to her before I go."
"I don't understand," Katharine persisted.
Mrs. Milvain looked at her. Was it possible that Katharine really doubted? That there was something that Mrs. Milvain herself did not understand? She braced herself, and pronounced the tremendous words:
"Cassandra has stolen William's love."
Still the words seemed to have curiously little effect.
"Do you mean," said Katharine, "that he has fallen in love with her?"
"There are ways of MAKING men fall in love with one, Katharine."
Katharine remained silent. The silence alarmed Mrs. Milvain, and she began hurriedly:
"Nothing would have made me say these things but your own good. I have not wished to interfere; I have not wished to give you pain. I am a useless old woman. I have no children of my own. I only want to see you happy, Katharine."
Again she stretched forth her arms, but they remained empty.
"You are not going to say these things to Cassandra," said Katharine suddenly. "You've said them to me; that's enough."
Katharine spoke so low and with such restraint that Mrs. Milvain had to strain to catch her words, and when she heard them she was dazed by them.
"I've made you angry! I knew I should!" she exclaimed. She quivered, and a kind of sob shook her; but even to have made Katharine angry was some relief, and allowed her to feel some of the agreeable sensations of martyrdom.
"Yes," said Katharine, standing up, "I'm so angry that I don't want to say anything more. I think you'd better go, Aunt Celia. We don't understand each other."
At these words Mrs. Milvain looked for a moment terribly apprehensive; she glanced at her niece's face, but read no pity there, whereupon she folded her hands upon a black velvet bag which she carried in an attitude that was almost one of prayer. Whatever divinity she prayed to, if pray she did, at any rate she recovered her dignity in a singular way and faced her niece.
"Married love," she said slowly and with emphasis upon every word, "is the most sacred of all loves. The love of husband and wife is the most holy we know. That is the lesson Mamma's children learnt from her; that is what they can never forget. I have tried to speak as she would have wished her daughter to speak. You are her grandchild."
Katharine seemed to judge this defence upon its merits, and then to convict it of falsity.
"I don't see that there is any excuse for your behavior," she said.
At these words Mrs. Milvain rose and stood for a moment beside her niece. She had never met with such treatment before, and she did not know with what weapons to break down the terrible wall of resistance offered her by one who, by virtue of youth and beauty and sex, should have been all tears and supplications. But Mrs. Milvain herself was obstinate; upon a matter of this kind she could not admit that she was either beaten or mistaken. She beheld herself the champion of married love in its purity and supremacy; what her niece stood for she was quite unable to say, but she was filled with the gravest suspicions. The old woman and the young woman stood side by side in unbroken silence. Mrs. Milvain could not make up her mind to withdraw while her principles trembled in the balance and her curiosity remained unappeased. She ransacked her mind for some question that should force Katharine to enlighten her, but the supply was limited, the choice difficult, and while she hesitated the door opened and William Rodney came in. He carried in his hand an enormous and splendid bunch of white and purple flowers, and, either not seeing Mrs. Milvain, or disregarding her, he advanced straight to Katharine, and presented the flowers with the words:
"These are for you, Katharine."
Katharine took them with a glance that Mrs. Milvain did not fail to intercept. But with all her experience, she did not know what to make of it. She watched anxiously for further illumination. William greeted her without obvious sign of guilt, and, explaining that he had a holiday, both he and Katharine seemed to take it for granted that his holiday should be celebrated with flowers and spent in Cheyne Walk. A pause followed; that, too, was natural; and Mrs. Milvain began to feel that she laid herself open to a charge of selfishness if she stayed. The mere presence of a young man had altered her disposition curiously, and filled her with a desire for a scene which should end in an emotional forgiveness. She would have given much to clasp both nephew and niece in her arms. But she could not flatter herself that any hope of the customary exaltation remained.
"I must go," she said, and she was conscious of an extreme flatness of spirit.
Neither of them said anything to stop her. William politely escorted her downstairs, and somehow, amongst her protests and embarrassments, Mrs. Milvain forgot to say good-bye to Katharine. She departed, murmuring words about masses of flowers and a drawing-room always beautiful even in the depths of winter.
William came back to Katharine; he found her standing where he had left her.
"I've come to be forgiven," he said. "Our quarrel was perfectly hateful to me. I've not slept all night. You're not angry with me, are you, Katharine?"
She could not bring herself to answer him until she had rid her mind of the impression that her aunt had made on her. It seemed to her that the very flowers were contaminated, and Cassandra's pocket-handkerchief, for Mrs. Milvain had used them for evidence in her investigations.
"She's been spying upon us," she said, "following us about London, overhearing what people are saying—"
"Mrs. Milvain?" Rodney exclaimed. "What has she told you?"
His air of open confidence entirely vanished.
"Oh, people are saying that you're in love with Cassandra, and that you don't care for me."
"They have seen us?" he asked.
"Everything we've done for a fortnight has been seen."
"I told you that would happen!" he exclaimed.
He walked to the window in evident perturbation. Katharine was too indignant to attend to him. She was swept away by the force of her own anger. Clasping Rodney's flowers, she stood upright and motionless.
Rodney turned away from the window.
"It's all been a mistake," he said. "I blame myself for it. I should have known better. I let you persuade me in a moment of madness. I beg you to forget my insanity, Katharine."
"She wished even to persecute Cassandra!" Katharine burst out, not listening to him. "She threatened to speak to her. She's capable of it—she's capable of anything!"
"Mrs. Milvain is not tactful, I know, but you exaggerate, Katharine. People are talking about us. She was right to tell us. It only confirms my own feeling—the position is monstrous."
At length Katharine realized some part of what he meant.
"You don't mean that this influences you, William?" she asked in amazement.
"It does," he said, flushing. "It's intensely disagreeable to me. I can't endure that people should gossip about us. And then there's your cousin—Cassandra—" He paused in embarrassment.
"I came here this morning, Katharine," he resumed, with a change of voice, "to ask you to forget my folly, my bad temper, my inconceivable behavior. I came, Katharine, to ask whether we can't return to the position we were in before this—this season of lunacy. Will you take me back, Katharine, once more and for ever?"
No doubt her beauty, intensified by emotion and enhanced by the flowers of bright color and strange shape which she carried wrought upon Rodney, and had its share in bestowing upon her the old romance. But a less noble passion worked in him, too; he was inflamed by jealousy. His tentative offer of affection had been rudely and, as he thought, completely repulsed by Cassandra on the preceding day. Denham's confession was in his mind. And ultimately, Katharine's dominion over him was of the sort that the fevers of the night cannot exorcise.
"I was as much to blame as you were yesterday," she said gently, disregarding his question. "I confess, William, the sight of you and Cassandra together made me jealous, and I couldn't control myself. I laughed at you, I know."
"You jealous!" William exclaimed. "I assure you, Katharine, you've not the slightest reason to be jealous. Cassandra dislikes me, so far as she feels about me at all. I was foolish enough to try to explain the nature of our relationship. I couldn't resist telling her what I supposed myself to feel for her. She refused to listen, very rightly. But she left me in no doubt of her scorn."
Katharine hesitated. She was confused, agitated, physically tired, and had already to reckon with the violent feeling of dislike aroused by her aunt which still vibrated through all the rest of her feelings. She sank into a chair and dropped her flowers upon her lap.
"She charmed me," Rodney continued. "I thought I loved her. But that's a thing of the past. It's all over, Katharine. It was a dream—an hallucination. We were both equally to blame, but no harm's done if you believe how truly I care for you. Say you believe me!"
He stood over her, as if in readiness to seize the first sign of her assent. Precisely at that moment, owing, perhaps, to her vicissitudes of feeling, all sense of love left her, as in a moment a mist lifts from the earth. And when the mist departed a skeleton world and blankness alone remained—a terrible prospect for the eyes of the living to behold. He saw the look of terror in her face, and without understanding its origin, took her hand in his. With the sense of companionship returned a desire, like that of a child for shelter, to accept what he had to offer her—and at that moment it seemed that he offered her the only thing that could make it tolerable to live. She let him press his lips to her cheek, and leant her head upon his arm. It was the moment of his triumph. It was the only moment in which she belonged to him and was dependent upon his protection.
"Yes, yes, yes," he murmured, "you accept me, Katharine. You love me."
For a moment she remained silent. He then heard her murmur:
"Cassandra loves you more than I do."
"Cassandra?" he whispered.
"She loves you," Katharine repeated. She raised herself and repeated the sentence yet a third time. "She loves you."
William slowly raised himself. He believed instinctively what Katharine said, but what it meant to him he was unable to understand. Could Cassandra love him? Could she have told Katharine that she loved him? The desire to know the truth of this was urgent, unknown though the consequences might be. The thrill of excitement associated with the thought of Cassandra once more took possession of him. No longer was it the excitement of anticipation and ignorance; it was the excitement of something greater than a possibility, for now he knew her and had measure of the sympathy between them. But who could give him certainty? Could Katharine, Katharine who had lately lain in his arms, Katharine herself the most admired of women? He looked at her, with doubt, and with anxiety, but said nothing.
"Yes, yes," she said, interpreting his wish for assurance, "it's true. I know what she feels for you."
"She loves me?"
"Ah, but who knows what I feel? How can I be sure of my feeling myself? Ten minutes ago I asked you to marry me. I still wish it—I don't know what I wish—"
He clenched his hands and turned away. He suddenly faced her and demanded: "Tell me what you feel for Denham."
"For Ralph Denham?" she asked. "Yes!" she exclaimed, as if she had found the answer to some momentarily perplexing question. "You're jealous of me, William; but you're not in love with me. I'm jealous of you. Therefore, for both our sakes, I say, speak to Cassandra at once."
He tried to compose himself. He walked up and down the room; he paused at the window and surveyed the flowers strewn upon the floor. Meanwhile his desire to have Katharine's assurance confirmed became so insistent that he could no longer deny the overmastering strength of his feeling for Cassandra.
"You're right," he exclaimed, coming to a standstill and rapping his knuckles sharply upon a small table carrying one slender vase. "I love Cassandra."
As he said this, the curtains hanging at the door of the little room parted, and Cassandra herself stepped forth.
"I have overheard every word!" she exclaimed.
A pause succeeded this announcement. Rodney made a step forward and said:
"Then you know what I wish to ask you. Give me your answer—"
She put her hands before her face; she turned away and seemed to shrink from both of them.
"What Katharine said," she murmured. "But," she added, raising her head with a look of fear from the kiss with which he greeted her admission, "how frightfully difficult it all is! Our feelings, I mean—yours and mine and Katharine's. Katharine, tell me, are we doing right?"
"Right—of course we're doing right," William answered her, "if, after what you've heard, you can marry a man of such incomprehensible confusion, such deplorable—"
"Don't, William," Katharine interposed; "Cassandra has heard us; she can judge what we are; she knows better than we could tell her."
But, still holding William's hand, questions and desires welled up in Cassandra's heart. Had she done wrong in listening? Why did Aunt Celia blame her? Did Katharine think her right? Above all, did William really love her, for ever and ever, better than any one?
"I must be first with him, Katharine!" she exclaimed. "I can't share him even with you."
"I shall never ask that," said Katharine. She moved a little away from where they sat and began half-consciously sorting her flowers.
"But you've shared with me," Cassandra said. "Why can't I share with you? Why am I so mean? I know why it is," she added. "We understand each other, William and I. You've never understood each other. You're too different."
"I've never admired anybody more," William interposed.
"It's not that"—Cassandra tried to enlighten him—"it's understanding."
"Have I never understood you, Katharine? Have I been very selfish?"
"Yes," Cassandra interposed. "You've asked her for sympathy, and she's not sympathetic; you've wanted her to be practical, and she's not practical. You've been selfish; you've been exacting—and so has Katharine—but it wasn't anybody's fault."
Katharine had listened to this attempt at analysis with keen attention. Cassandra's words seemed to rub the old blurred image of life and freshen it so marvelously that it looked new again. She turned to William.
"It's quite true," she said. "It was nobody's fault."
"There are many things that he'll always come to you for," Cassandra continued, still reading from her invisible book. "I accept that, Katharine. I shall never dispute it. I want to be generous as you've been generous. But being in love makes it more difficult for me."
They were silent. At length William broke the silence.
"One thing I beg of you both," he said, and the old nervousness of manner returned as he glanced at Katharine. "We will never discuss these matters again. It's not that I'm timid and conventional, as you think, Katharine. It's that it spoils things to discuss them; it unsettles people's minds; and now we're all so happy—"
Cassandra ratified this conclusion so far as she was concerned, and William, after receiving the exquisite pleasure of her glance, with its absolute affection and trust, looked anxiously at Katharine.
"Yes, I'm happy," she assured him. "And I agree. We will never talk about it again."
"Oh, Katharine, Katharine!" Cassandra cried, holding out her arms while the tears ran down her cheeks.
The day was so different from other days to three people in the house that the common routine of household life—the maid waiting at table, Mrs. Hilbery writing a letter, the clock striking, and the door opening, and all the other signs of long-established civilization appeared suddenly to have no meaning save as they lulled Mr. and Mrs. Hilbery into the belief that nothing unusual had taken place. It chanced that Mrs. Hilbery was depressed without visible cause, unless a certain crudeness verging upon coarseness in the temper of her favorite Elizabethans could be held responsible for the mood. At any rate, she had shut up "The Duchess of Malfi" with a sigh, and wished to know, so she told Rodney at dinner, whether there wasn't some young writer with a touch of the great spirit—somebody who made you believe that life was BEAUTIFUL? She got little help from Rodney, and after singing her plaintive requiem for the death of poetry by herself, she charmed herself into good spirits again by remembering the existence of Mozart. She begged Cassandra to play to her, and when they went upstairs Cassandra opened the piano directly, and did her best to create an atmosphere of unmixed beauty. At the sound of the first notes Katharine and Rodney both felt an enormous sense of relief at the license which the music gave them to loosen their hold upon the mechanism of behavior. They lapsed into the depths of thought. Mrs. Hilbery was soon spirited away into a perfectly congenial mood, that was half reverie and half slumber, half delicious melancholy and half pure bliss. Mr. Hilbery alone attended. He was extremely musical, and made Cassandra aware that he listened to every note. She played her best, and won his approval. Leaning slightly forward in his chair, and turning his little green stone, he weighed the intention of her phrases approvingly, but stopped her suddenly to complain of a noise behind him. The window was unhasped. He signed to Rodney, who crossed the room immediately to put the matter right. He stayed a moment longer by the window than was, perhaps, necessary, and having done what was needed, drew his chair a little closer than before to Katharine's side. The music went on. Under cover of some exquisite run of melody, he leant towards her and whispered something. She glanced at her father and mother, and a moment later left the room, almost unobserved, with Rodney.
"What is it?" she asked, as soon as the door was shut.
Rodney made no answer, but led her downstairs into the dining-room on the ground floor. Even when he had shut the door he said nothing, but went straight to the window and parted the curtains. He beckoned to Katharine.
"There he is again," he said. "Look, there—under the lamp-post."
Katharine looked. She had no idea what Rodney was talking about. A vague feeling of alarm and mystery possessed her. She saw a man standing on the opposite side of the road facing the house beneath a lamp-post. As they looked the figure turned, walked a few steps, and came back again to his old position. It seemed to her that he was looking fixedly at her, and was conscious of her gaze on him. She knew, in a flash, who the man was who was watching them. She drew the curtain abruptly.
"Denham," said Rodney. "He was there last night too." He spoke sternly. His whole manner had become full of authority. Katharine felt almost as if he accused her of some crime. She was pale and uncomfortably agitated, as much by the strangeness of Rodney's behavior as by the sight of Ralph Denham.
"If he chooses to come—" she said defiantly.
"You can't let him wait out there. I shall tell him to come in." Rodney spoke with such decision that when he raised his arm Katharine expected him to draw the curtain instantly. She caught his hand with a little exclamation.
"Wait!" she cried. "I don't allow you."
"You can't wait," he replied. "You've gone too far." His hand remained upon the curtain. "Why don't you admit, Katharine," he broke out, looking at her with an expression of contempt as well as of anger, "that you love him? Are you going to treat him as you treated me?"
She looked at him, wondering, in spite of all her perplexity, at the spirit that possessed him.
"I forbid you to draw the curtain," she said.
He reflected, and then took his hand away.
"I've no right to interfere," he concluded. "I'll leave you. Or, if you like, we'll go back to the drawing-room."
"No. I can't go back," she said, shaking her head. She bent her head in thought.
"You love him, Katharine," Rodney said suddenly. His tone had lost something of its sternness, and might have been used to urge a child to confess its fault. She raised her eyes and fixed them upon him.
"I love him?" she repeated. He nodded. She searched his face, as if for further confirmation of his words, and, as he remained silent and expectant, turned away once more and continued her thoughts. He observed her closely, but without stirring, as if he gave her time to make up her mind to fulfil her obvious duty. The strains of Mozart reached them from the room above.
"Now," she said suddenly, with a sort of desperation, rising from her chair and seeming to command Rodney to fulfil his part. He drew the curtain instantly, and she made no attempt to stop him. Their eyes at once sought the same spot beneath the lamp-post.
"He's not there!" she exclaimed.
No one was there. William threw the window up and looked out. The wind rushed into the room, together with the sound of distant wheels, footsteps hurrying along the pavement, and the cries of sirens hooting down the river.
"Denham!" William cried.
"Ralph!" said Katharine, but she spoke scarcely louder than she might have spoken to some one in the same room. With their eyes fixed upon the opposite side of the road, they did not notice a figure close to the railing which divided the garden from the street. But Denham had crossed the road and was standing there. They were startled by his voice close at hand.
"There you are! Come in, Denham." Rodney went to the front door and opened it. "Here he is," he said, bringing Ralph with him into the dining-room where Katharine stood, with her back to the open window. Their eyes met for a second. Denham looked half dazed by the strong light, and, buttoned in his overcoat, with his hair ruffled across his forehead by the wind, he seemed like somebody rescued from an open boat out at sea. William promptly shut the window and drew the curtains. He acted with a cheerful decision as if he were master of the situation, and knew exactly what he meant to do.
"You're the first to hear the news, Denham," he said. "Katharine isn't going to marry me, after all."
"Where shall I put—" Ralph began vaguely, holding out his hat and glancing about him; he balanced it carefully against a silver bowl that stood upon the sideboard. He then sat himself down rather heavily at the head of the oval dinner-table. Rodney stood on one side of him and Katharine on the other. He appeared to be presiding over some meeting from which most of the members were absent. Meanwhile, he waited, and his eyes rested upon the glow of the beautifully polished mahogany table.
"William is engaged to Cassandra," said Katharine briefly.
At that Denham looked up quickly at Rodney. Rodney's expression changed. He lost his self-possession. He smiled a little nervously, and then his attention seemed to be caught by a fragment of melody from the floor above. He seemed for a moment to forget the presence of the others. He glanced towards the door.
"I congratulate you," said Denham.
"Yes, yes. We're all mad—quite out of our minds, Denham," he said. "It's partly Katharine's doing—partly mine." He looked oddly round the room as if he wished to make sure that the scene in which he played a part had some real existence. "Quite mad," he repeated. "Even Katharine—" His gaze rested upon her finally, as if she, too, had changed from his old view of her. He smiled at her as if to encourage her. "Katharine shall explain," he said, and giving a little nod to Denham, he left the room.
Katharine sat down at once, and leant her chin upon her hands. So long as Rodney was in the room the proceedings of the evening had seemed to be in his charge, and had been marked by a certain unreality. Now that she was alone with Ralph she felt at once that a constraint had been taken from them both. She felt that they were alone at the bottom of the house, which rose, story upon story, upon the top of them.
"Why were you waiting out there?" she asked.
"For the chance of seeing you," he replied.
"You would have waited all night if it hadn't been for William. It's windy too. You must have been cold. What could you see? Nothing but our windows."
"It was worth it. I heard you call me."
"I called you?" She had called unconsciously.
"They were engaged this morning," she told him, after a pause.
"You're glad?" he asked.
She bent her head. "Yes, yes," she sighed. "But you don't know how good he is—what he's done for me—" Ralph made a sound of understanding. "You waited there last night too?" she asked.
"Yes. I can wait," Denham replied.
The words seemed to fill the room with an emotion which Katharine connected with the sound of distant wheels, the footsteps hurrying along the pavement, the cries of sirens hooting down the river, the darkness and the wind. She saw the upright figure standing beneath the lamp-post.
"Waiting in the dark," she said, glancing at the window, as if he saw what she was seeing. "Ah, but it's different—" She broke off. "I'm not the person you think me. Until you realize that it's impossible—"
Placing her elbows on the table, she slid her ruby ring up and down her finger abstractedly. She frowned at the rows of leather-bound books opposite her. Ralph looked keenly at her. Very pale, but sternly concentrated upon her meaning, beautiful but so little aware of herself as to seem remote from him also, there was something distant and abstract about her which exalted him and chilled him at the same time.
"No, you're right," he said. "I don't know you. I've never known you."
"Yet perhaps you know me better than any one else," she mused.
Some detached instinct made her aware that she was gazing at a book which belonged by rights to some other part of the house. She walked over to the shelf, took it down, and returned to her seat, placing the book on the table between them. Ralph opened it and looked at the portrait of a man with a voluminous white shirt-collar, which formed the frontispiece.
"I say I do know you, Katharine," he affirmed, shutting the book. "It's only for moments that I go mad."
"Do you call two whole nights a moment?"
"I swear to you that now, at this instant, I see you precisely as you are. No one has ever known you as I know you.... Could you have taken down that book just now if I hadn't known you?"
"That's true," she replied, "but you can't think how I'm divided—how I'm at my ease with you, and how I'm bewildered. The unreality—the dark—the waiting outside in the wind—yes, when you look at me, not seeing me, and I don't see you either.... But I do see," she went on quickly, changing her position and frowning again, "heaps of things, only not you."
"Tell me what you see," he urged.
But she could not reduce her vision to words, since it was no single shape colored upon the dark, but rather a general excitement, an atmosphere, which, when she tried to visualize it, took form as a wind scouring the flanks of northern hills and flashing light upon cornfields and pools.
"Impossible," she sighed, laughing at the ridiculous notion of putting any part of this into words.
"Try, Katharine," Ralph urged her.
"But I can't—I'm talking a sort of nonsense—the sort of nonsense one talks to oneself." She was dismayed by the expression of longing and despair upon his face. "I was thinking about a mountain in the North of England," she attempted. "It's too silly—I won't go on."
"We were there together?" he pressed her.
"No. I was alone." She seemed to be disappointing the desire of a child. His face fell.
"You're always alone there?"
"I can't explain." She could not explain that she was essentially alone there. "It's not a mountain in the North of England. It's an imagination—a story one tells oneself. You have yours too?"
"You're with me in mine. You're the thing I make up, you see."
"Oh, I see," she sighed. "That's why it's so impossible." She turned upon him almost fiercely. "You must try to stop it," she said.
"I won't," he replied roughly, "because I—" He stopped. He realized that the moment had come to impart that news of the utmost importance which he had tried to impart to Mary Datchet, to Rodney upon the Embankment, to the drunken tramp upon the seat. How should he offer it to Katharine? He looked quickly at her. He saw that she was only half attentive to him; only a section of her was exposed to him. The sight roused in him such desperation that he had much ado to control his impulse to rise and leave the house. Her hand lay loosely curled upon the table. He seized it and grasped it firmly as if to make sure of her existence and of his own. "Because I love you, Katharine," he said.
Some roundness or warmth essential to that statement was absent from his voice, and she had merely to shake her head very slightly for him to drop her hand and turn away in shame at his own impotence. He thought that she had detected his wish to leave her. She had discerned the break in his resolution, the blankness in the heart of his vision. It was true that he had been happier out in the street, thinking of her, than now that he was in the same room with her. He looked at her with a guilty expression on his face. But her look expressed neither disappointment nor reproach. Her pose was easy, and she seemed to give effect to a mood of quiet speculation by the spinning of her ruby ring upon the polished table. Denham forgot his despair in wondering what thoughts now occupied her.
"You don't believe me?" he said. His tone was humble, and made her smile at him.
"As far as I understand you—but what should you advise me to do with this ring?" she asked, holding it out.
"I should advise you to let me keep it for you," he replied, in the same tone of half-humorous gravity.
"After what you've said, I can hardly trust you—unless you'll unsay what you've said?"
"Very well. I'm not in love with you."
"But I think you ARE in love with me.... As I am with you," she added casually enough. "At least," she said slipping her ring back to its old position, "what other word describes the state we're in?"
She looked at him gravely and inquiringly, as if in search of help.
"It's when I'm with you that I doubt it, not when I'm alone," he stated.
"So I thought," she replied.
In order to explain to her his state of mind, Ralph recounted his experience with the photograph, the letter, and the flower picked at Kew. She listened very seriously.
"And then you went raving about the streets," she mused. "Well, it's bad enough. But my state is worse than yours, because it hasn't anything to do with facts. It's an hallucination, pure and simple—an intoxication.... One can be in love with pure reason?" she hazarded. "Because if you're in love with a vision, I believe that that's what I'm in love with."
This conclusion seemed fantastic and profoundly unsatisfactory to Ralph, but after the astonishing variations of his own sentiments during the past half-hour he could not accuse her of fanciful exaggeration.
"Rodney seems to know his own mind well enough," he said almost bitterly. The music, which had ceased, had now begun again, and the melody of Mozart seemed to express the easy and exquisite love of the two upstairs.
"Cassandra never doubted for a moment. But we—" she glanced at him as if to ascertain his position, "we see each other only now and then—"
"Like lights in a storm—"
"In the midst of a hurricane," she concluded, as the window shook beneath the pressure of the wind. They listened to the sound in silence.
Here the door opened with considerable hesitation, and Mrs. Hilbery's head appeared, at first with an air of caution, but having made sure that she had admitted herself to the dining-room and not to some more unusual region, she came completely inside and seemed in no way taken aback by the sight she saw. She seemed, as usual, bound on some quest of her own which was interrupted pleasantly but strangely by running into one of those queer, unnecessary ceremonies that other people thought fit to indulge in.
"Please don't let me interrupt you, Mr.—" she was at a loss, as usual, for the name, and Katharine thought that she did not recognize him. "I hope you've found something nice to read," she added, pointing to the book upon the table. "Byron—ah, Byron. I've known people who knew Lord Byron," she said.
Katharine, who had risen in some confusion, could not help smiling at the thought that her mother found it perfectly natural and desirable that her daughter should be reading Byron in the dining-room late at night alone with a strange young man. She blessed a disposition that was so convenient, and felt tenderly towards her mother and her mother's eccentricities. But Ralph observed that although Mrs. Hilbery held the book so close to her eyes she was not reading a word.
"My dear mother, why aren't you in bed?" Katharine exclaimed, changing astonishingly in the space of a minute to her usual condition of authoritative good sense. "Why are you wandering about?"
"I'm sure I should like your poetry better than I like Lord Byron's," said Mrs. Hilbery, addressing Ralph Denham.
"Mr. Denham doesn't write poetry; he has written articles for father, for the Review," Katharine said, as if prompting her memory.
"Oh dear! How dull!" Mrs. Hilbery exclaimed, with a sudden laugh that rather puzzled her daughter.
Ralph found that she had turned upon him a gaze that was at once very vague and very penetrating.
"But I'm sure you read poetry at night. I always judge by the expression of the eyes," Mrs. Hilbery continued. ("The windows of the soul," she added parenthetically.) "I don't know much about the law," she went on, "though many of my relations were lawyers. Some of them looked very handsome, too, in their wigs. But I think I do know a little about poetry," she added. "And all the things that aren't written down, but—but—" She waved her hand, as if to indicate the wealth of unwritten poetry all about them. "The night and the stars, the dawn coming up, the barges swimming past, the sun setting.... Ah dear," she sighed, "well, the sunset is very lovely too. I sometimes think that poetry isn't so much what we write as what we feel, Mr. Denham."
During this speech of her mother's Katharine had turned away, and Ralph felt that Mrs. Hilbery was talking to him apart, with a desire to ascertain something about him which she veiled purposely by the vagueness of her words. He felt curiously encouraged and heartened by the beam in her eye rather than by her actual words. From the distance of her age and sex she seemed to be waving to him, hailing him as a ship sinking beneath the horizon might wave its flag of greeting to another setting out upon the same voyage. He bent his head, saying nothing, but with a curious certainty that she had read an answer to her inquiry that satisfied her. At any rate, she rambled off into a description of the Law Courts which turned to a denunciation of English justice, which, according to her, imprisoned poor men who couldn't pay their debts. "Tell me, shall we ever do without it all?" she asked, but at this point Katharine gently insisted that her mother should go to bed. Looking back from half-way up the staircase, Katharine seemed to see Denham's eyes watching her steadily and intently with an expression that she had guessed in them when he stood looking at the windows across the road.
The tray which brought Katharine's cup of tea the next morning brought, also, a note from her mother, announcing that it was her intention to catch an early train to Stratford-on-Avon that very day.
"Please find out the best way of getting there," the note ran, "and wire to dear Sir John Burdett to expect me, with my love. I've been dreaming all night of you and Shakespeare, dearest Katharine."
This was no momentary impulse. Mrs. Hilbery had been dreaming of Shakespeare any time these six months, toying with the idea of an excursion to what she considered the heart of the civilized world. To stand six feet above Shakespeare's bones, to see the very stones worn by his feet, to reflect that the oldest man's oldest mother had very likely seen Shakespeare's daughter—such thoughts roused an emotion in her, which she expressed at unsuitable moments, and with a passion that would not have been unseemly in a pilgrim to a sacred shrine. The only strange thing was that she wished to go by herself. But, naturally enough, she was well provided with friends who lived in the neighborhood of Shakespeare's tomb, and were delighted to welcome her; and she left later to catch her train in the best of spirits. There was a man selling violets in the street. It was a fine day. She would remember to send Mr. Hilbery the first daffodil she saw. And, as she ran back into the hall to tell Katharine, she felt, she had always felt, that Shakespeare's command to leave his bones undisturbed applied only to odious curiosity-mongers—not to dear Sir John and herself. Leaving her daughter to cogitate the theory of Anne Hathaway's sonnets, and the buried manuscripts here referred to, with the implied menace to the safety of the heart of civilization itself, she briskly shut the door of her taxi-cab, and was whirled off upon the first stage of her pilgrimage.
The house was oddly different without her. Katharine found the maids already in possession of her room, which they meant to clean thoroughly during her absence. To Katharine it seemed as if they had brushed away sixty years or so with the first flick of their damp dusters. It seemed to her that the work she had tried to do in that room was being swept into a very insignificant heap of dust. The china shepherdesses were already shining from a bath of hot water. The writing-table might have belonged to a professional man of methodical habits.
Gathering together a few papers upon which she was at work, Katharine proceeded to her own room with the intention of looking through them, perhaps, in the course of the morning. But she was met on the stairs by Cassandra, who followed her up, but with such intervals between each step that Katharine began to feel her purpose dwindling before they had reached the door. Cassandra leant over the banisters, and looked down upon the Persian rug that lay on the floor of the hall.
"Doesn't everything look odd this morning?" she inquired. "Are you really going to spend the morning with those dull old letters, because if so—"
The dull old letters, which would have turned the heads of the most sober of collectors, were laid upon a table, and, after a moment's pause, Cassandra, looking grave all of a sudden, asked Katharine where she should find the "History of England" by Lord Macaulay. It was downstairs in Mr. Hilbery's study. The cousins descended together in search of it. They diverged into the drawing-room for the good reason that the door was open. The portrait of Richard Alardyce attracted their attention.
"I wonder what he was like?" It was a question that Katharine had often asked herself lately.
"Oh, a fraud like the rest of them—at least Henry says so," Cassandra replied. "Though I don't believe everything Henry says," she added a little defensively.
Down they went into Mr. Hilbery's study, where they began to look among his books. So desultory was this examination that some fifteen minutes failed to discover the work they were in search of.
"Must you read Macaulay's History, Cassandra?" Katharine asked, with a stretch of her arms.
"I must," Cassandra replied briefly.
"Well, I'm going to leave you to look for it by yourself."
"Oh, no, Katharine. Please stay and help me. You see—you see—I told William I'd read a little every day. And I want to tell him that I've begun when he comes."
"When does William come?" Katharine asked, turning to the shelves again.
"To tea, if that suits you?"
"If it suits me to be out, I suppose you mean."
"Oh, you're horrid.... Why shouldn't you—?"
"Why shouldn't you be happy too?"
"I am quite happy," Katharine replied.
"I mean as I am. Katharine," she said impulsively, "do let's be married on the same day."
"To the same man?"
"Oh, no, no. But why shouldn't you marry—some one else?"
"Here's your Macaulay," said Katharine, turning round with the book in her hand. "I should say you'd better begin to read at once if you mean to be educated by tea-time."
"Damn Lord Macaulay!" cried Cassandra, slapping the book upon the table. "Would you rather not talk?"
"We've talked enough already," Katharine replied evasively.
"I know I shan't be able to settle to Macaulay," said Cassandra, looking ruefully at the dull red cover of the prescribed volume, which, however, possessed a talismanic property, since William admired it. He had advised a little serious reading for the morning hours.
"Have YOU read Macaulay?" she asked.
"No. William never tried to educate me." As she spoke she saw the light fade from Cassandra's face, as if she had implied some other, more mysterious, relationship. She was stung with compunction. She marveled at her own rashness in having influenced the life of another, as she had influenced Cassandra's life.
"We weren't serious," she said quickly.
"But I'm fearfully serious," said Cassandra, with a little shudder, and her look showed that she spoke the truth. She turned and glanced at Katharine as she had never glanced at her before. There was fear in her glance, which darted on her and then dropped guiltily. Oh, Katharine had everything—beauty, mind, character. She could never compete with Katharine; she could never be safe so long as Katharine brooded over her, dominating her, disposing of her. She called her cold, unseeing, unscrupulous, but the only sign she gave outwardly was a curious one—she reached out her hand and grasped the volume of history. At that moment the bell of the telephone rang and Katharine went to answer it. Cassandra, released from observation, dropped her book and clenched her hands. She suffered more fiery torture in those few minutes than she had suffered in the whole of her life; she learnt more of her capacities for feeling. But when Katharine reappeared she was calm, and had gained a look of dignity that was new to her.
"Was that him?" she asked.
"It was Ralph Denham," Katharine replied.
"I meant Ralph Denham."
"Why did you mean Ralph Denham? What has William told you about Ralph Denham?" The accusation that Katharine was calm, callous, and indifferent was not possible in face of her present air of animation. She gave Cassandra no time to frame an answer. "Now, when are you and William going to be married?" she asked.
Cassandra made no reply for some moments. It was, indeed, a very difficult question to answer. In conversation the night before, William had indicated to Cassandra that, in his belief, Katharine was becoming engaged to Ralph Denham in the dining-room. Cassandra, in the rosy light of her own circumstances, had been disposed to think that the matter must be settled already. But a letter which she had received that morning from William, while ardent in its expression of affection, had conveyed to her obliquely that he would prefer the announcement of their engagement to coincide with that of Katharine's. This document Cassandra now produced, and read aloud, with considerable excisions and much hesitation.
"... a thousand pities—ahem—I fear we shall cause a great deal of natural annoyance. If, on the other hand, what I have reason to think will happen, should happen—within reasonable time, and the present position is not in any way offensive to you, delay would, in my opinion, serve all our interests better than a premature explanation, which is bound to cause more surprise than is desirable—"
"Very like William," Katharine exclaimed, having gathered the drift of these remarks with a speed that, by itself, disconcerted Cassandra.
"I quite understand his feelings," Cassandra replied. "I quite agree with them. I think it would be much better, if you intend to marry Mr. Denham, that we should wait as William says."
"But, then, if I don't marry him for months—or, perhaps, not at all?"
Cassandra was silent. The prospect appalled her. Katharine had been telephoning to Ralph Denham; she looked queer, too; she must be, or about to become, engaged to him. But if Cassandra could have overheard the conversation upon the telephone, she would not have felt so certain that it tended in that direction. It was to this effect:
"I'm Ralph Denham speaking. I'm in my right senses now."
"How long did you wait outside the house?"
"I went home and wrote you a letter. I tore it up."
"I shall tear up everything too."
"I shall come."
"Yes. Come to-day."
"I must explain to you—"
"Yes. We must explain—"
A long pause followed. Ralph began a sentence, which he canceled with the word, "Nothing." Suddenly, together, at the same moment, they said good-bye. And yet, if the telephone had been miraculously connected with some higher atmosphere pungent with the scent of thyme and the savor of salt, Katharine could hardly have breathed in a keener sense of exhilaration. She ran downstairs on the crest of it. She was amazed to find herself already committed by William and Cassandra to marry the owner of the halting voice she had just heard on the telephone. The tendency of her spirit seemed to be in an altogether different direction; and of a different nature. She had only to look at Cassandra to see what the love that results in an engagement and marriage means. She considered for a moment, and then said: "If you don't want to tell people yourselves, I'll do it for you. I know William has feelings about these matters that make it very difficult for him to do anything."
"Because he's fearfully sensitive about other people's feelings," said Cassandra. "The idea that he could upset Aunt Maggie or Uncle Trevor would make him ill for weeks."
This interpretation of what she was used to call William's conventionality was new to Katharine. And yet she felt it now to be the true one.
"Yes, you're right," she said.
"And then he worships beauty. He wants life to be beautiful in every part of it. Have you ever noticed how exquisitely he finishes everything? Look at the address on that envelope. Every letter is perfect."
Whether this applied also to the sentiments expressed in the letter, Katharine was not so sure; but when William's solicitude was spent upon Cassandra it not only failed to irritate her, as it had done when she was the object of it, but appeared, as Cassandra said, the fruit of his love of beauty.
"Yes," she said, "he loves beauty."
"I hope we shall have a great many children," said Cassandra. "He loves children."
This remark made Katharine realize the depths of their intimacy better than any other words could have done; she was jealous for one moment; but the next she was humiliated. She had known William for years, and she had never once guessed that he loved children. She looked at the queer glow of exaltation in Cassandra's eyes, through which she was beholding the true spirit of a human being, and wished that she would go on talking about William for ever. Cassandra was not unwilling to gratify her. She talked on. The morning slipped away. Katharine scarcely changed her position on the edge of her father's writing-table, and Cassandra never opened the "History of England."
And yet it must be confessed that there were vast lapses in the attention which Katharine bestowed upon her cousin. The atmosphere was wonderfully congenial for thoughts of her own. She lost herself sometimes in such deep reverie that Cassandra, pausing, could look at her for moments unperceived. What could Katharine be thinking about, unless it were Ralph Denham? She was satisfied, by certain random replies, that Katharine had wandered a little from the subject of William's perfections. But Katharine made no sign. She always ended these pauses by saying something so natural that Cassandra was deluded into giving fresh examples of her absorbing theme. Then they lunched, and the only sign that Katharine gave of abstraction was to forget to help the pudding. She looked so like her mother, as she sat there oblivious of the tapioca, that Cassandra was startled into exclaiming:
"How like Aunt Maggie you look!"
"Nonsense," said Katharine, with more irritation than the remark seemed to call for.
In truth, now that her mother was away, Katharine did feel less sensible than usual, but as she argued it to herself, there was much less need for sense. Secretly, she was a little shaken by the evidence which the morning had supplied of her immense capacity for—what could one call it?—rambling over an infinite variety of thoughts that were too foolish to be named. She was, for example, walking down a road in Northumberland in the August sunset; at the inn she left her companion, who was Ralph Denham, and was transported, not so much by her own feet as by some invisible means, to the top of a high hill. Here the scents, the sounds among the dry heather-roots, the grass-blades pressed upon the palm of her hand, were all so perceptible that she could experience each one separately. After this her mind made excursions into the dark of the air, or settled upon the surface of the sea, which could be discovered over there, or with equal unreason it returned to its couch of bracken beneath the stars of midnight, and visited the snow valleys of the moon. These fancies would have been in no way strange, since the walls of every mind are decorated with some such tracery, but she found herself suddenly pursuing such thoughts with an extreme ardor, which became a desire to change her actual condition for something matching the conditions of her dream. Then she started; then she awoke to the fact that Cassandra was looking at her in amazement.
Cassandra would have liked to feel certain that, when Katharine made no reply at all or one wide of the mark, she was making up her mind to get married at once, but it was difficult, if this were so, to account for some remarks that Katharine let fall about the future. She recurred several times to the summer, as if she meant to spend that season in solitary wandering. She seemed to have a plan in her mind which required Bradshaws and the names of inns.
Cassandra was driven finally, by her own unrest, to put on her clothes and wander out along the streets of Chelsea, on the pretence that she must buy something. But, in her ignorance of the way, she became panic-stricken at the thought of being late, and no sooner had she found the shop she wanted, than she fled back again in order to be at home when William came. He came, indeed, five minutes after she had sat down by the tea-table, and she had the happiness of receiving him alone. His greeting put her doubts of his affection at rest, but the first question he asked was:
"Has Katharine spoken to you?"
"Yes. But she says she's not engaged. She doesn't seem to think she's ever going to be engaged."
William frowned, and looked annoyed.
"They telephoned this morning, and she behaves very oddly. She forgets to help the pudding," Cassandra added by way of cheering him.
"My dear child, after what I saw and heard last night, it's not a question of guessing or suspecting. Either she's engaged to him—or—"
He left his sentence unfinished, for at this point Katharine herself appeared. With his recollections of the scene the night before, he was too self-conscious even to look at her, and it was not until she told him of her mother's visit to Stratford-on-Avon that he raised his eyes. It was clear that he was greatly relieved. He looked round him now, as if he felt at his ease, and Cassandra exclaimed:
"Don't you think everything looks quite different?"
"You've moved the sofa?" he asked.
"No. Nothing's been touched," said Katharine. "Everything's exactly the same." But as she said this, with a decision which seemed to make it imply that more than the sofa was unchanged, she held out a cup into which she had forgotten to pour any tea. Being told of her forgetfulness, she frowned with annoyance, and said that Cassandra was demoralizing her. The glance she cast upon them, and the resolute way in which she plunged them into speech, made William and Cassandra feel like children who had been caught prying. They followed her obediently, making conversation. Any one coming in might have judged them acquaintances met, perhaps, for the third time. If that were so, one must have concluded that the hostess suddenly bethought her of an engagement pressing for fulfilment. First Katharine looked at her watch, and then she asked William to tell her the right time. When told that it was ten minutes to five she rose at once, and said:
"Then I'm afraid I must go."
She left the room, holding her unfinished bread and butter in her hand. William glanced at Cassandra.
"Well, she IS queer!" Cassandra exclaimed.
William looked perturbed. He knew more of Katharine than Cassandra did, but even he could not tell—. In a second Katharine was back again dressed in outdoor things, still holding her bread and butter in her bare hand.
"If I'm late, don't wait for me," she said. "I shall have dined," and so saying, she left them.
"But she can't—" William exclaimed, as the door shut, "not without any gloves and bread and butter in her hand!" They ran to the window, and saw her walking rapidly along the street towards the City. Then she vanished.
"She must have gone to meet Mr. Denham," Cassandra exclaimed.
"Goodness knows!" William interjected.
The incident impressed them both as having something queer and ominous about it out of all proportion to its surface strangeness.
"It's the sort of way Aunt Maggie behaves," said Cassandra, as if in explanation.
William shook his head, and paced up and down the room looking extremely perturbed.
"This is what I've been foretelling," he burst out. "Once set the ordinary conventions aside—Thank Heaven Mrs. Hilbery is away. But there's Mr. Hilbery. How are we to explain it to him? I shall have to leave you."
"But Uncle Trevor won't be back for hours, William!" Cassandra implored.
"You never can tell. He may be on his way already. Or suppose Mrs. Milvain—your Aunt Celia—or Mrs. Cosham, or any other of your aunts or uncles should be shown in and find us alone together. You know what they're saying about us already."
Cassandra was equally stricken by the sight of William's agitation, and appalled by the prospect of his desertion.
"We might hide," she exclaimed wildly, glancing at the curtain which separated the room with the relics.
"I refuse entirely to get under the table," said William sarcastically.
She saw that he was losing his temper with the difficulties of the situation. Her instinct told her that an appeal to his affection, at this moment, would be extremely ill-judged. She controlled herself, sat down, poured out a fresh cup of tea, and sipped it quietly. This natural action, arguing complete self-mastery, and showing her in one of those feminine attitudes which William found adorable, did more than any argument to compose his agitation. It appealed to his chivalry. He accepted a cup. Next she asked for a slice of cake. By the time the cake was eaten and the tea drunk the personal question had lapsed, and they were discussing poetry. Insensibly they turned from the question of dramatic poetry in general, to the particular example which reposed in William's pocket, and when the maid came in to clear away the tea-things, William had asked permission to read a short passage aloud, "unless it bored her?"
Cassandra bent her head in silence, but she showed a little of what she felt in her eyes, and thus fortified, William felt confident that it would take more than Mrs. Milvain herself to rout him from his position. He read aloud.
Meanwhile Katharine walked rapidly along the street. If called upon to explain her impulsive action in leaving the tea-table, she could have traced it to no better cause than that William had glanced at Cassandra; Cassandra at William. Yet, because they had glanced, her position was impossible. If one forgot to pour out a cup of tea they rushed to the conclusion that she was engaged to Ralph Denham. She knew that in half an hour or so the door would open, and Ralph Denham would appear. She could not sit there and contemplate seeing him with William's and Cassandra's eyes upon them, judging their exact degree of intimacy, so that they might fix the wedding-day. She promptly decided that she would meet Ralph out of doors; she still had time to reach Lincoln's Inn Fields before he left his office. She hailed a cab, and bade it take her to a shop for selling maps which she remembered in Great Queen Street, since she hardly liked to be set down at his door. Arrived at the shop, she bought a large scale map of Norfolk, and thus provided, hurried into Lincoln's Inn Fields, and assured herself of the position of Messrs. Hoper and Grateley's office. The great gas chandeliers were alight in the office windows. She conceived that he sat at an enormous table laden with papers beneath one of them in the front room with the three tall windows. Having settled his position there, she began walking to and fro upon the pavement. Nobody of his build appeared. She scrutinized each male figure as it approached and passed her. Each male figure had, nevertheless, a look of him, due, perhaps, to the professional dress, the quick step, the keen glance which they cast upon her as they hastened home after the day's work. The square itself, with its immense houses all so fully occupied and stern of aspect, its atmosphere of industry and power, as if even the sparrows and the children were earning their daily bread, as if the sky itself, with its gray and scarlet clouds, reflected the serious intention of the city beneath it, spoke of him. Here was the fit place for their meeting, she thought; here was the fit place for her to walk thinking of him. She could not help comparing it with the domestic streets of Chelsea. With this comparison in her mind, she extended her range a little, and turned into the main road. The great torrent of vans and carts was sweeping down Kingsway; pedestrians were streaming in two currents along the pavements. She stood fascinated at the corner. The deep roar filled her ears; the changing tumult had the inexpressible fascination of varied life pouring ceaselessly with a purpose which, as she looked, seemed to her, somehow, the normal purpose for which life was framed; its complete indifference to the individuals, whom it swallowed up and rolled onwards, filled her with at least a temporary exaltation. The blend of daylight and of lamplight made her an invisible spectator, just as it gave the people who passed her a semi-transparent quality, and left the faces pale ivory ovals in which the eyes alone were dark. They tended the enormous rush of the current—the great flow, the deep stream, the unquenchable tide. She stood unobserved and absorbed, glorying openly in the rapture that had run subterraneously all day. Suddenly she was clutched, unwilling, from the outside, by the recollection of her purpose in coming there. She had come to find Ralph Denham. She hastily turned back into Lincoln's Inn Fields, and looked for her landmark—the light in the three tall windows. She sought in vain. The faces of the houses had now merged in the general darkness, and she had difficulty in determining which she sought. Ralph's three windows gave back on their ghostly glass panels only a reflection of the gray and greenish sky. She rang the bell, peremptorily, under the painted name of the firm. After some delay she was answered by a caretaker, whose pail and brush of themselves told her that the working day was over and the workers gone. Nobody, save perhaps Mr. Grateley himself, was left, she assured Katharine; every one else had been gone these ten minutes.
The news woke Katharine completely. Anxiety gained upon her. She hastened back into Kingsway, looking at people who had miraculously regained their solidity. She ran as far as the Tube station, overhauling clerk after clerk, solicitor after solicitor. Not one of them even faintly resembled Ralph Denham. More and more plainly did she see him; and more and more did he seem to her unlike any one else. At the door of the station she paused, and tried to collect her thoughts. He had gone to her house. By taking a cab she could be there probably in advance of him. But she pictured herself opening the drawing-room door, and William and Cassandra looking up, and Ralph's entrance a moment later, and the glances—the insinuations. No; she could not face it. She would write him a letter and take it at once to his house. She bought paper and pencil at the bookstall, and entered an A.B.C. shop, where, by ordering a cup of coffee, she secured an empty table, and began at vice to write:
"I came to meet you and I have missed you. I could not face William and Cassandra. They want us—" here she paused. "They insist that we are engaged," she substituted, "and we couldn't talk at all, or explain anything. I want—" Her wants were so vast, now that she was in communication with Ralph, that the pencil was utterly inadequate to conduct them on to the paper; it seemed as if the whole torrent of Kingsway had to run down her pencil. She gazed intently at a notice hanging on the gold-encrusted wall opposite, "... to say all kinds of things," she added, writing each word with the painstaking of a child. But, when she raised her eyes again to meditate the next sentence, she was aware of a waitress, whose expression intimated that it was closing time, and, looking round, Katharine saw herself almost the last person left in the shop. She took up her letter, paid her bill, and found herself once more in the street. She would now take a cab to Highgate. But at that moment it flashed upon her that she could not remember the address. This check seemed to let fall a barrier across a very powerful current of desire. She ransacked her memory in desperation, hunting for the name, first by remembering the look of the house, and then by trying, in memory, to retrace the words she had written once, at least, upon an envelope. The more she pressed the farther the words receded. Was the house an Orchard Something, on the street a Hill? She gave it up. Never, since she was a child, had she felt anything like this blankness and desolation. There rushed in upon her, as if she were waking from some dream, all the consequences of her inexplicable indolence. She figured Ralph's face as he turned from her door without a word of explanation, receiving his dismissal as a blow from herself, a callous intimation that she did not wish to see him. She followed his departure from her door; but it was far more easy to see him marching far and fast in any direction for any length of time than to conceive that he would turn back to Highgate. Perhaps he would try once more to see her in Cheyne Walk? It was proof of the clearness with which she saw him, that she started forward as this possibility occurred to her, and almost raised her hand to beckon to a cab. No; he was too proud to come again; he rejected the desire and walked on and on, on and on—If only she could read the names of those visionary streets down which he passed! But her imagination betrayed her at this point, or mocked her with a sense of their strangeness, darkness, and distance. Indeed, instead of helping herself to any decision, she only filled her mind with the vast extent of London and the impossibility of finding any single figure that wandered off this way and that way, turned to the right and to the left, chose that dingy little back street where the children were playing in the road, and so—She roused herself impatiently. She walked rapidly along Holborn. Soon she turned and walked as rapidly in the other direction. This indecision was not merely odious, but had something that alarmed her about it, as she had been alarmed slightly once or twice already that day; she felt unable to cope with the strength of her own desires. To a person controlled by habit, there was humiliation as well as alarm in this sudden release of what appeared to be a very powerful as well as an unreasonable force. An aching in the muscles of her right hand now showed her that she was crushing her gloves and the map of Norfolk in a grip sufficient to crack a more solid object. She relaxed her grasp; she looked anxiously at the faces of the passers-by to see whether their eyes rested on her for a moment longer than was natural, or with any curiosity. But having smoothed out her gloves, and done what she could to look as usual, she forgot spectators, and was once more given up to her desperate desire to find Ralph Denham. It was a desire now—wild, irrational, unexplained, resembling something felt in childhood. Once more she blamed herself bitterly for her carelessness. But finding herself opposite the Tube station, she pulled herself up and took counsel swiftly, as of old. It flashed upon her that she would go at once to Mary Datchet, and ask her to give her Ralph's address. The decision was a relief, not only in giving her a goal, but in providing her with a rational excuse for her own actions. It gave her a goal certainly, but the fact of having a goal led her to dwell exclusively upon her obsession; so that when she rang the bell of Mary's flat, she did not for a moment consider how this demand would strike Mary. To her extreme annoyance Mary was not at home; a charwoman opened the door. All Katharine could do was to accept the invitation to wait. She waited for, perhaps, fifteen minutes, and spent them in pacing from one end of the room to the other without intermission. When she heard Mary's key in the door she paused in front of the fireplace, and Mary found her standing upright, looking at once expectant and determined, like a person who has come on an errand of such importance that it must be broached without preface.
Mary exclaimed in surprise.
"Yes, yes," Katharine said, brushing these remarks aside, as if they were in the way.
"Have you had tea?"
"Oh yes," she said, thinking that she had had tea hundreds of years ago, somewhere or other.
Mary paused, took off her gloves, and, finding matches, proceeded to light the fire.
Katharine checked her with an impatient movement, and said:
"Don't light the fire for me.... I want to know Ralph Denham's address."
She was holding a pencil and preparing to write on the envelope. She waited with an imperious expression.
"The Apple Orchard, Mount Ararat Road, Highgate," Mary said, speaking slowly and rather strangely.
"Oh, I remember now!" Katharine exclaimed, with irritation at her own stupidity. "I suppose it wouldn't take twenty minutes to drive there?" She gathered up her purse and gloves and seemed about to go.
"But you won't find him," said Mary, pausing with a match in her hand. Katharine, who had already turned towards the door, stopped and looked at her.
"Why? Where is he?" she asked.
"He won't have left his office."
"But he has left the office," she replied. "The only question is will he have reached home yet? He went to see me at Chelsea; I tried to meet him and missed him. He will have found no message to explain. So I must find him—as soon as possible."
Mary took in the situation at her leisure.
"But why not telephone?" she said.
Katharine immediately dropped all that she was holding; her strained expression relaxed, and exclaiming, "Of course! Why didn't I think of that!" she seized the telephone receiver and gave her number. Mary looked at her steadily, and then left the room. At length Katharine heard, through all the superimposed weight of London, the mysterious sound of feet in her own house mounting to the little room, where she could almost see the pictures and the books; she listened with extreme intentness to the preparatory vibrations, and then established her identity.
"Has Mr. Denham called?"
"Did he ask for me?"
"Yes. We said you were out, miss."
"Did he leave any message?"
"No. He went away. About twenty minutes ago, miss."
Katharine hung up the receiver. She walked the length of the room in such acute disappointment that she did not at first perceive Mary's absence. Then she called in a harsh and peremptory tone:
Mary was taking off her outdoor things in the bedroom. She heard Katharine call her. "Yes," she said, "I shan't be a moment." But the moment prolonged itself, as if for some reason Mary found satisfaction in making herself not only tidy, but seemly and ornamented. A stage in her life had been accomplished in the last months which left its traces for ever upon her bearing. Youth, and the bloom of youth, had receded, leaving the purpose of her face to show itself in the hollower cheeks, the firmer lips, the eyes no longer spontaneously observing at random, but narrowed upon an end which was not near at hand. This woman was now a serviceable human being, mistress of her own destiny, and thus, by some combination of ideas, fit to be adorned with the dignity of silver chains and glowing brooches. She came in at her leisure and asked: "Well, did you get an answer?"
"He has left Chelsea already," Katharine replied.
"Still, he won't be home yet," said Mary.
Katharine was once more irresistibly drawn to gaze upon an imaginary map of London, to follow the twists and turns of unnamed streets.
"I'll ring up his home and ask whether he's back." Mary crossed to the telephone and, after a series of brief remarks, announced:
"No. His sister says he hasn't come back yet."
"Ah!" She applied her ear to the telephone once more. "They've had a message. He won't be back to dinner."
"Then what is he going to do?"
Very pale, and with her large eyes fixed not so much upon Mary as upon vistas of unresponding blankness, Katharine addressed herself also not so much to Mary as to the unrelenting spirit which now appeared to mock her from every quarter of her survey.
After waiting a little time Mary remarked indifferently:
"I really don't know." Slackly lying back in her armchair, she watched the little flames beginning to creep among the coals indifferently, as if they, too, were very distant and indifferent.
Katharine looked at her indignantly and rose.
"Possibly he may come here," Mary continued, without altering the abstract tone of her voice. "It would be worth your while to wait if you want to see him to-night." She bent forward and touched the wood, so that the flames slipped in between the interstices of the coal.
Katharine reflected. "I'll wait half an hour," she said.
Mary rose, went to the table, spread out her papers under the green-shaded lamp and, with an action that was becoming a habit, twisted a lock of hair round and round in her fingers. Once she looked unperceived at her visitor, who never moved, who sat so still, with eyes so intent, that you could almost fancy that she was watching something, some face that never looked up at her. Mary found herself unable to go on writing. She turned her eyes away, but only to be aware of the presence of what Katharine looked at. There were ghosts in the room, and one, strangely and sadly, was the ghost of herself. The minutes went by.
"What would be the time now?" said Katharine at last. The half-hour was not quite spent.
"I'm going to get dinner ready," said Mary, rising from her table.
"Then I'll go," said Katharine.
"Why don't you stay? Where are you going?"
Katharine looked round the room, conveying her uncertainty in her glance.
"Perhaps I might find him," she mused.
"But why should it matter? You'll see him another day."
Mary spoke, and intended to speak, cruelly enough.
"I was wrong to come here," Katharine replied.
Their eyes met with antagonism, and neither flinched.
"You had a perfect right to come here," Mary answered.
A loud knocking at the door interrupted them. Mary went to open it, and returning with some note or parcel, Katharine looked away so that Mary might not read her disappointment.
"Of course you had a right to come," Mary repeated, laying the note upon the table.
"No," said Katharine. "Except that when one's desperate one has a sort of right. I am desperate. How do I know what's happening to him now? He may do anything. He may wander about the streets all night. Anything may happen to him."
She spoke with a self-abandonment that Mary had never seen in her.
"You know you exaggerate; you're talking nonsense," she said roughly.
"Mary, I must talk—I must tell you—"
"You needn't tell me anything," Mary interrupted her. "Can't I see for myself?"
"No, no," Katharine exclaimed. "It's not that—"
Her look, passing beyond Mary, beyond the verge of the room and out beyond any words that came her way, wildly and passionately, convinced Mary that she, at any rate, could not follow such a glance to its end. She was baffled; she tried to think herself back again into the height of her love for Ralph. Pressing her fingers upon her eyelids, she murmured: