"I am!" It was a desperate cry, from her heart. Alf sighed.
"You're not playing the game, Jen old girl," he said, more kindly, more thoughtfully. "That's what's the matter. I don't know what it is, or what you're driving at; but that's what's wrong. What's the matter with me? Anything? I know I'm not much of a one to shout the odds about. I don't expect you to do that. Never did. But I never played you a trick like this. What is it? What's the game you think you're playing?" When she did not answer his urgent and humble appeal he went on in another tone: "I shall find out, mind you. It's not going to stop here. I shall ask Emmy. I can trust her."
"You can't ask her!" Jenny cried. It was wrung from her. "You just dare to ask her. If she knew you hadn't meant to take her to-night, it ud break her heart. It would. There!" Her voice had now the ring of intense sincerity. She was not afraid, not defiant. She was a woman, defending another woman's pride.
Alf groaned. His cheeks became less ruddy. He looked quickly at the door, losing confidence.
"No: I don't know what it is," he said again. "I don't understand it." He sat, biting his under lip, miserably undetermined. His grim front had disappeared. He was, from the conquering hero, become a crestfallen young man. He could not be passionate with Pa there. He felt that if only she were in his arms she could not be untruthful, could not resist him at all; but with the table between them she was safe from any attack. He was powerless. And he could not say he loved her. He would never be able to bring himself to say that to any woman. A woman might ask him if he loved her, and he would awkwardly answer that of course he did; but it was not in his nature to proclaim the fact in so many words. He had not the fluency, the dramatic sense, the imaginative power to sink and to forget his own self-consciousness. And so Jenny had won that battle—not gloriously, but through the sheer mischance of circumstances. Alf was beaten, and Jenny understood it.
"Don't think about me," she whispered, in a quick pity. Alf still shook his head, reproachfully eyeing her with the old bull-like concern. "I'm not worth thinking about. I'm only a beast. And you say you can trust Emmy.... She's ever so ..."
"Ah, but she can't make me mad like you do!" he said simply. "Jen, will you come another night ... Do!" He was beseeching her, his hands stretched towards her across the table, as near to making love as he would ever be. It was his last faint hope for the changing of her heart towards him. But Jenny slowly shook her head from side to side, a judge refusing the prisoner's final desperate entreaties.
"No," she said. "It's no good, Alf. It'll never be any good as long as I live."
Alf put out his hand and covered Jenny's hand with it; and the hand he held, after a swift movement, remained closely imprisoned. And just at that moment, when the two were striving for mastery, the door opened and Emmy came back into the room. She was fully dressed for going out, her face charmingly set off by the hat she had offered earlier to Jenny, her eyes alight with happiness, her whole bearing unutterably changed.
"Now who's waiting!" she demanded; and at the extraordinary sight before her she drew a quick breath, paling. It did not matter that the clinging hands were instantly apart, or that Alf rose hurriedly to meet her. "What's that?" she asked, in a trembling tone. "What are you doing?" As though she felt sick and faint, she sat sharply down upon her old chair near the door. Jenny rallied.
"Only a kid's game," she said. "Nothing at all." Alf said nothing, looking at neither girl. Emmy tried to speak again; but at first the words would not come. Finally she went on, with dreadful understanding.
"Didn't you want to take me, Alf? Did you want her to go?"
It was as though her short absence, perhaps even the change of costume, had worked a curious and cognate change in her mind. Perhaps it was that in her flushed happiness she had forgotten to be suspicious, or had blindly misread the meanings of the earlier colloquy, as a result of which the invitation had been given.
"Don't be so silly!" quickly cried Jenny. "Of course he wanted you to go!"
"Alf!" Emmy's eyes were fixed upon him with a look of urgent entreaty. She looked at Alf with all the love, all the extraordinary intimate confidence with which women of her class do so generally regard the men they love, ready to yield judgment itself to his decision. When he did not answer, but stood still before them like a red-faced boy, staring down at the floor, she seemed to shudder, and began despairingly to unfasten the buttons of her thick coat. Jenny darted up and ran to check the process.
"Don't be a fool!" she breathed. "Like that! You've got no time for a scene." Turning to Alf, she motioned him with a swift gesture to the door. "Look sharp!" she cried.
"I'm not going!" Emmy struggled with Jenny's restraining hands. "It's no good fussing me, Jenny.... I'm not going. He can take who he likes. But it's not me."
Alf and Jenny exchanged angry glances, each bitterly blaming the other.
"Em!" Jenny shouted. "You're mad!"
"No, I'm not. Let me go! Let me go! He didn't want me to go. He wanted you. Oh, I knew it. I was a fool to think he wanted me." Then, looking with a sort of crazed disdain at Jenny, she said coolly, "Well, how is it you're not ready? Don't you see your substitute's waiting! Your land lover!"
"Land!" cried Alf. "Land! A sailor!" He flushed deeply, raising his arms a little as if to ward off some further revelation. Jenny, desperate, had her hands higher than her head, protestingly quelling the scene. In a loud voice she checked them.
"Do ... not ... be ... fools!" she cried. "What's all the fuss about? Simply because Alf's a born booby, standing there like a fool! I can't go. I wouldn't go—even if he wanted me. But he wants you!" She again seized Emmy, delaying once more Emmy's mechanical unfastening of the big buttons of her coat. "Alf! Get your coat. Get her out of the house! I never heard such rubbish! Alf, say ... tell her you meant her to go! Say it wasn't me!"
"I shouldn't believe him," Emmy said, clearly. "I know I saw him holding your hand."
Jenny laughed hysterically.
"What a fuss!" she exclaimed. "He's been doing palmistry—reading it. All about ... what's going to happen to me. Wasn't it, Alf!"
Emmy disregarded her, watching Alf's too-transparent uneasiness.
"You always were a little lying beast," she said, venomously. "A trickster."
"You see?" Jenny said, defiantly to Alf. "What my own sister says?"
"So you were. With your sailor.... And playing the fool with Alf!" Emmy's voice rose. "You always were.... I wonder Alf's never seen it long ago...."
At this moment, with electrifying suddenness, Pa put down his tankard.
"What, ain't you gone yet?" he trembled. "I thought you was going out!"
"How did he know!" They all looked sharply at one another, sobered. So, for one instant, they stood, incapable of giving any explanation to the meekly inquiring old man who had disturbed their quarrel. Alf, so helpless before the girls, was steeled by the interruption. He took two steps towards Emmy.
"We'll have this out later on," he said. "Meanwhile ... Come on, Em! It's just on eight. Come along, there's a good girl!" He stooped, took her hands, and drew her to her feet. Then, with uncommon tenderness, he re-buttoned her coat, and, with one arm about her, led Emmy to the door. She pressed back, but it was against him, within the magic circle of his arm, suddenly deliriously happy.
Jenny, still panting, stood as she had stood for the last few minutes, and watched their departure. She heard the front door close as they left the house; and with shaky steps went and slammed the door of the kitchen. Trembling violently, she leant against the door, as Emmy had done earlier. For a moment she could not speak, could not think or feel; and only as a clock in the neighbourhood solemnly recorded the eighth hour did she choke down a little sob, and say with the ghost of her bereaved irony:
"That's done it!"
CHAPTER IV: THE WISH
Waiting until she had a little recovered her self-control, Jenny presently moved from the door to the fireplace, and proceeded methodically to put coals on the fire. She was still shaking slightly, and the corners of her mouth were uncontrollably twitching with alternate smiles and other raiding emotions; so that she did not yet feel in a fit state to meet Pa's scrutiny. He might be the old fool he sometimes appeared to be, and, inconveniently, he might not. Just because she did not want him to be particularly bright it was quite probable that he would have a flourish of brilliance. That is as it occasionally happens, in the dullest of mortals. So Jenny was some time in attending to the fire, until she supposed that any undue redness of cheek might be imagined to have been occasioned by her strenuous activities. She then straightened herself and looked down at Pa with a curious mixture of protectiveness and anxiety.
"Pleased with yourself, aren't you?" she inquired, more to make conversation which might engage the ancient mind in ruminant pastime than to begin any series of inquiries into Pa's mental states.
"Eh, Jenny?" said Pa, staring back at her. "Ain't you gone out? Is it Emmy that's gone out? What did that fool Alf Rylett want? He was shouting.... I heard him."
"Yes, Pa; but you shouldn't have listened," rebuked Jenny, with a fine colour.
Pa shook his shaggy head. He felt cunningly for his empty tankard, hoping that it had been refilled by his benevolent genius. It was not until the full measure of his disappointment had been revealed that he answered her.
"I wasn't listening," he quavered. "I didn't hear what he said.... Did Emmy go out with him?"
"Yes, Pa. To the theatre. Alf brought tickets. Tickets! Tickets for seats.... Oh, dear! Why can't you understand! Didn't have to pay at the door...."
Pa suddenly understood.
"Oh ah!" he said. "Didn't have to pay...." There was a pause. "That's like Alf Rylett," presently added Pa. Jenny sat looking at him in consternation at such an uncharitable remark.
"It's not!" she cried. "I never knew you were such a wicked old man!"
Pa gave an antediluvian chuckle that sounded like a magical and appalling rattle from the inner recesses of his person. He was getting brighter and brighter, as the stars appear to do when the darkness deepens.
"See," he proceeded. "Did Alf say there was any noos?" He admitted an uncertainty. Furtively he looked at her, suspecting all the time that memory had betrayed him; but in his ancient way continuing to trust to Magic.
"Well, you didn't seem to think much of what he did bring. But I'll tell you a bit of news, Pa. And that is, that you've got a pair of the rummiest daughters I ever struck!"
Pa looked out from beneath his bushy grey eyebrows, resembling a worn and dilapidated perversion of Whistler's portrait of Carlyle. His eyelids seemed to work as he brooded upon her announcement. It was as though, together, these two explored the Blanchard archives for confirmation of Jenny's sweeping statement. The Blanchards of several generations might have been imagined as flitting across a fantastic horizon, keening for their withered laurels, thrown into the shades by these more brighter eccentrics. It was, or it might have been, a fascinating speculation. But Pa did not indulge this antique vein for very long. The moment and its concrete images beguiled him back to the daughter before him and the daughter who was engaged in an unexpected emotional treat. He said:
"I know," and gave a wide grin that showed the gaps in his teeth as nothing else could have done—not even the profoundest yawn. Jenny was stunned by this evidence of brightness in her parent.
"Well, you're a caution!" she cried. "And to think of you sitting there saying it! And I reckon they've got a pretty rummy old Pa—if the truth was only known."
Pa's grin, if possible, stretched wider. Again that terrible chuckle, which suggested a derangement of his internal parts, or the running-down of an overwound clock, wheezed across the startled air.
"Maybe," Pa said, with some unpardonable complacency. "Maybe."
"Bless my soul!" exclaimed Jenny. She could not be sure, when his manner returned to one of vacancy, and when the kitchen was silent, whether Pa and she had really talked thus, or whether she had dreamed their talk. To her dying day she was never sure, for Pa certainly added nothing to the conversation thereafter. Was it real? Or had her too excited brain played her a trick? Jenny pinched herself. It was like a fairy tale, in which cats talk and little birds humanly sing, or the tiniest of fairies appear from behind clocks or from within flower-pots. She looked at Pa with fresh awe. There was no knowing where you had him! He had the interest, for her, of one returned by miracle from other regions, gifted with preposterous knowledges.... He became at this instant fabulous, like Rip Van Winkle, or the Sleeping Beauty ... or the White Cat....
In her perplexity Jenny fell once more into a kind of dream, an argumentative dream. She went back over the earlier rows, re-living them, exaggerating unconsciously the noble unselfishness of her own acts and the pointed effectiveness of her speeches, until the scenes were transformed. They now appeared in other hues, in other fashionings. This is what volatile minds are able to do with all recent happenings whatsoever, re-casting them in form altogether more exquisite than the crude realities. The chiaroscuro of their experiences is thus so constantly changing and recomposing that—whatever the apparent result of the scene in fact—the dreamer is in retrospect always victor, in the heroic limelight. With Jenny this was a mood, not a preoccupation; but when she had been moved or excited beyond the ordinary she often did tend to put matters in a fresh aspect, more palatable to her self-love, and more picturesque in detail than the actual happening. That is one of the advantages of the rapidly-working brain, that its power of improvisation is, in solitude, very constant and reassuring. It is as though such a grain, upon this more strictly personal side, were a commonwealth of little cell-building microbes. The chief microbe comes, like the engineer, to estimate the damage to one's amour propre and to devise means of repair. He then summons all his necessary workmen, who are tiny self-loves and ancient praises and habitual complacencies and the staircase words of which one thinks too late for use in the scene itself; and with their help he restores that proportion without which the human being cannot maintain his self-respect. Jenny was like the British type as recorded in legend; being beaten, she never admitted it; but even, five minutes later, through the adroitness of her special engineer and his handymen, would be able quite seriously to demonstrate a victory to herself.
Defeat? Never! How Alf and Emmy shrank now before her increasing skill in argument. How were they shattered! How inept were their feebleness! How splendid Jenny had been, in act, in motive, in speech, in performance!
"Er, yes!" Jenny said, beginning to ridicule her own highly coloured picture. "Well, it was something like that!" She had too much sense of the ridiculous to maintain for long unquestioned the heroic vein as natural to her own actions. More justly, she resumed her consideration of the scenes, pondering over them in their nakedness and their meanings, trying to see how all these stupid little feelings had burst their way from overcharged hearts, and how each word counted as part of the mosaic of misunderstanding that had been composed.
"Oh, blow!" Jenny impatiently ejaculated, with a sinking heart at the thought of any sequel. A sequel there was bound to be—however muffled. It did not rest with her. There were Emmy and Alf, both alike burning with the wish to avenge themselves—upon her! If only she could disappear—just drop out altogether, like a man overboard at night in a storm; and leave Emmy and Alf to settle together their own trouble. She couldn't drop out; nobody could, without dying, though they might often wish to do so; and even then their bodies were the only things that were gone, because for a long time they stubbornly survived in memory. No: she couldn't drop out. There was no chance of it. She was caught in the web of life; not alone, but a single small thing caught in the general mix-up of actions and inter-actions. She had just to go on as she was doing, waking up each morning after the events and taking her old place in the world; and in this instance she would have, somehow, to smooth matters over when the excitements and agitations of the evening were past. It would be terribly difficult. She could not yet see a clear course. If only Emmy didn't live in the same house! If only, by throwing Alf over as far as concerned herself, she could at the same time throw him into Emmy's waiting arms. Why couldn't everybody be sensible? If only they could all be sensible for half-an-hour everything could be arranged and happiness could be made real for each of them. No: misunderstandings were bound to come, angers and jealousies, conflicting desires, stupid suspicions.... Jenny fidgeted in her chair and eyed Pa with a sort of vicarious hostility. Why, even that old man was a complication! Nay, he was the worst thing of all! But for him, she could drop out! There was no getting away from him! He was as much permanently there as the chair upon which he was drowsing. She saw him as an incubus. And then Emmy being so fussy! Standing on her dignity when she'd give her soul for happiness! And then Alf being so ... What was Alf? Well, Alf was stupid. That was the word for Alf. He was stupid. As stupid as any stupid member of his immeasurably stupid sex could be!
"Great booby!" muttered Jenny. Why, look at the way he had behaved when Emmy had come into the room. It wasn't honesty, mind you; because he could tell any old lie when he wanted to. It was just funk. He hadn't known where to look, or what to say. Too slow, he was, to think of anything. What could you do with a man like that? Oh, what stupids men were! She expected that Alf would feel very fine and noble as he walked old Em along to the theatre—and afterwards, when the evening was over and he had gone off in a cloud of glory. He would think it all over and come solemnly to the conclusion that the reason for his mumbling stupidity, his toeing and heeling, and all that idiotic speechlessness that set Emmy on her hind legs, was sheer love of the truth. He couldn't tell a lie—to a woman. That would be it. He would pretend that Jenny had chivvied him into taking Em, that he was too noble to refuse to take Em, or to let Em really see point-blank that he didn't want to take her; but when it came to the pinch he hadn't been able to screw himself into the truly noble attitude needed for such an act of self-sacrifice. He had been speechless when a prompt lie, added to the promptitude and exactitude of Jenny's lie, would have saved the situation. Not Alf!
"I cannot tell a lie," sneered Jenny. "To a woman. George Washington. I don't think!"
Yes; but then, said her secret complacency, preening itself, and suggesting that possibly a moment or two of satisfied pity might be at this point in place, he'd really wanted to take Jenny. He had taken the tickets because he had wanted to be in Jenny's company for the evening. Not Emmy's. There was all the difference. If you wanted a cream bun and got fobbed off with a scone! There was something in that. Jenny was rather flattered by her happy figure. She even excitedly giggled at the comparison of Emmy with a scone. Jenny did not like scones. She thought them stodgy. She had also that astounding feminine love of cream buns which no true man could ever acknowledge or understand. So Emmy became a scone, with not too many currents in it. Jenny's fluent fancy was inclined to dwell upon this notion. She a little lost sight of Alf's grievance in her pleasure at the figures she had drawn. Her mind was recalled with a jerk. Now: what was it? Alf had wanted to take her—Jenny. Right! He had taken Emmy. Because he had taken Emmy, he had a grievance. Right! But against whom? Against Emmy? Certainly not. Against himself? By no means. Against Jenny? A horribly exulting and yet nervously penitent little giggle shook Jenny at her inability to answer this point as she had answered the others. For Alf had a grievance against Jenny, and she knew it. No amount of ingenious thought could hoodwink her sense of honesty for more than a debater's five minutes. No Alf had a grievance. Jenny could not, in strict privacy, deny the fact. She took refuge in a shameless piece of bluster.
"Well, after all!" she cried, "he had the tickets given to him. It's not as though they cost him anything! So what's all the row about?"
Thereafter she began to think of Alf. He had taken her out several times—not as many times as Emmy imagined, because Emmy had thought about these excursions a great deal and not only magnified but multiplied them. Nevertheless, Alf had taken Jenny out several times. To a music hall once or twice; to the pictures, where they had sat and thrilled in cushioned darkness while acrobatic humans and grey-faced tragic creatures jerked and darted at top speed in and out of the most amazingly telescoped accidents and difficulties. And Alf had paid more than once, for all Pa said. It is true that Jenny had paid on her birthday for both of them; and that she had occasionally paid for herself upon an impulse of sheer independence. But there had been other times when Alf had really paid for both of them. He had been very decent about it. He had not tried any nonsense, because he was not a flirtatious fellow. Well, it had been very nice; and now it was all spoilt. It was spoilt because of Emmy. Emmy had spoilt it by wanting Alf for herself. Ugh! thought Jenny. Em had always been a jealous cat: if she had just seen Alf somewhere she wouldn't have wanted him. That was it! Em saw that Alf preferred Jenny; she saw that Jenny went out with him. And because she always wanted to do what Jenny did, and always wanted what Jenny had got, Em wanted to be taken out by Alf. Jenny, with the cruel unerringness of an exasperated woman, was piercing to Emmy's heart with fierce lambent flashes of insight. And if Alf had taken Em once or twice, and Jenny once or twice, not wanting either one or the other, or not wanting one of them more than the other, Em would have been satisfied. It would have gone no further. It would still have been sensible, without nonsense. But it wouldn't do for Em. So long as Jenny was going out Emmy stayed at home. She had said to herself: "Why should Jenny go, and not me ... having all this pleasure?" That had been the first stage—Jenny worked it all out. First of all, it had been envy of Jenny's going out. Then had come stage number two: "Why should Alf Rylett always take Jenny, and not me?" That had been the first stage of jealousy of Alf. And the next time Alf took Jenny, Em had stayed at home, and thought herself sick about it, supposing that Alf and Jenny were happy and that she was unhappy, supposing they had all the fun, envying them the fun, hating them for having what she had not got, hating Jenny for monopolising Alf, hating Alf had monopolising Jenny; then, as she was a woman, hating Jenny for being a more pleasing woman than herself, and having her wounded jealousy moved into a strong craving for Alf, driven deeper and deeper into her heart by long-continued thought and frustrated desire. And so she had come to look upon herself as one defrauded by Jenny of pleasure—of happiness—of love—of Alf Rylett.
"And she calls it love!" thought Jenny bitterly. "If that's love, I've got no use for it. Love's giving, not getting. I know that much. Love's giving yourself; wanting to give all you've got. It's got nothing at all to do with envy, or hating people, or being jealous...." Then a swift feeling of pity darted through her, changing her thoughts, changing every shade of the portrait of Emmy which she had been etching with her quick corrosive strokes of insight. "Poor old Em!" she murmured. "She's had a rotten time. I know she has. Let her have Alf if she wants. I don't want him. I don't want anybody ... except ..." She closed her eyes in the most fleeting vision. "Nobody except just Keith...."
Slowly Jenny raised her hand and pressed the back of her wrist to her lips, not kissing the wrist, but holding it against her lips so that they were forced hard back upon her teeth. She drew, presently, a deep breath, releasing her arm again and clasping her hands over her knees as she bent lower, staring at the glowing heart of the fire. Her lips were closely, seriously, set now; her eyes sorrowful. Alf and Emmy had receded from her attention as if they had been fantastic shadows. Pa, sitting holding his exhausted hubble-bubble, was as though he had no existence at all. Jenny was lost in memory and the painful aspirations of her own heart.
How the moments passed during her reverie she did not know. For her it seemed that time stood still while she recalled days that were beautified by distance, and imagined days that should be still to come, made to compensate for that long interval of dullness that pressed her each morning into acquiescence. She bent nearer to the fire, smiling to herself. The fire showing under the little door of the kitchener was a bright red glowing ash, the redness that came into her imagination when the words "fire" or "heat" were used—the red heart, burning and consuming itself in its passionate immolation. She loved the fire. It was to her the symbol of rapturous surrender, that feminine ideal that lay still deeper than her pride, locked in the most secret chamber of her nature.
And then, as the seconds ticked away, Jenny awoke from her dream and saw that the clock upon the mantelpiece said half-past eight. Half-past eight was what, in the Blanchard home, was called "time." When Pa was recalcitrant Jenny occasionally shouted very loud, with what might have appeared to some people an undesirable knowledge of customs, "Act of Parliament, gentlemen, please"—which is a phrase sometimes used in clearing a public-house. To-night there was no need for her to do that. She had only to look at Pa, to take from his hand the almost empty pipe, to knock out the ashes, and to say:
"Time, Pa!" Obediently Pa held out his right hand and clutched in the other his sturdy walking-stick. Together they tottered into the bedroom, stood a moment while Jenny lighted the peep of gas which was Pa's guardian angel during the night, and then made their way to the bed. Pa sat upon the bed, like a child. Jenny took off Pa's collar and tie, and his coat and waistcoat; she took off his boots and his socks; she laid beside him the extraordinary faded scarlet nightgown in which Pa slept away the darkness. Then she left him to struggle out of his clothes as well as he could, which Pa did with a skill worthy of his best days. The cunning which replaces competence had shown him how the braces may be made to do their own work, how the shirt may with one hand be so manipulated as to be drawn swiftly over the head... Pa was adept at undressing. He was in bed within five minutes, after a panting, exhausted interval during which he sat in a kind of trance, and was then proudly as usual knocking upon the floor with his walking-stick for Jenny to come and tuck him in for the night.
Jenny came, gave him a big kiss, and went back to the kitchen, where she resumed work upon her hat. It had lost its interest for her. She stitched quickly and roughly, not as one interested in needlework or careful for its own sake of the regularity of the stitch. Ordinarily she was accurate: to-night her attention was elsewhere. It had come back to the rows, because there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it ever so much more important than it really is. Loneliness with happy thoughts is perhaps an ideal state; but no torment could be greater than loneliness with thoughts that wound. Jenny's thoughts wounded her. The mood of complacency was gone: that of shame and discontent was upon her. Distress was uppermost in her mind—not the petulant wriggling of a spoilt child, but the sober consciousness of pain in herself and in others. In vain did Jenny give little gasps of annoyance, intended by her humour to disperse the clouds. The gasps and exclamations were unavailing. She was angry, chagrined, miserable. ...At last she could bear the tension no longer, but threw down her work, rose, and walked impatiently about the kitchen.
"Oh, do shut up!" she cried to her insistent thoughts. "Enough to drive anybody off their nut. And they're not worth it, either of them. Em's as stupid as she can be, thinking about herself.... And as for Alf—anybody'd think I'd tricked him. I haven't. I've gone out with him; but what's that? Lots of girls go out with fellows for months, and nobody expects them to marry. The girls may want it; but the fellows don't. They don't want to get settled down. And I don't blame them. Why is Alf different? I suppose it's me that's different. I'm not like other girls...." That notion cheered her. "No: I'm not like other girls. I want my bit of fun. I've never had any. And just because I don't want to settle down and have a lot of kids that mess the place to bits, of course I get hold of Alf! It's too bad! Why can't he choose the right sort of girl? Why can't he choose old Em? She's the sort that does want to get settled. She knows she'll have to buck up about it, too. She said I should get left. That's what she's afraid of, herself; only she's afraid of getting left on the shelf.... I wonder why it is the marrying men don't get hold of the marrying girls! They do, sometimes, I suppose...." Jenny shrugged restlessly and stood looking at nothing. "Oh, it's sickening! You can't do anything you like in this world. Nothing at all! You've always got to do what you don't like. They say it's good for you. It's your 'duty.' Who to? And who are 'they,' to say such a thing? What are they after? Just to keep people like me in their place—do as you're told. Well, I'm not going to do as I'm told. They can lump it! That's what they can do. What does it matter—what happens to me? I'm me, aren't I? Got a right to live, haven't I? Why should I be somebody's servant all my life? I won't! If Alf doesn't want to marry Emmy, he can go and whistle somewhere else. There's plenty of girls who'd jump at him. But just because I don't, he'll worry me to death. If I was to be all over him—see Alf sheer off! He'd think there was something funny about me. Well, there is! I'm Jenny Blanchard; and I'm going to keep Jenny Blanchard. If I've got no right to live, then nobody's got any right to keep me from living. If there's no rights, other people haven't got any more than I have. They can't make me do anything—by any right they've got. People—managing people—think that because there isn't a corner of the earth they haven't collared they can tell you what you've got to do. Give you a ticket and a number, get up at six, eat so much a day, have six children, do what you're told. That may do for some people; but it's slavery. And I'm not going to do it. See!" She began to shout in her excited indignation. "See!" she cried again. "Just because I'm poor, I'm to do what I'm told. They seem to think that because they like to do what they're told, everybody ought to be the same. They're afraid. They're afraid of themselves—afraid of being left alone in the dark. They think everybody ought to be afraid—in case anybody should find out that they're cowards! But I'm not afraid, and I'm not going to do what I'm told.... I won't!"
In a frenzy she walked about the room, her eyes glittering, her face flushed with tumultuous anger. This was her defiance to life. She had been made into a rebel through long years in which she had unconsciously measured herself with others. Because she was a human being, Jenny thought she had a right to govern her own actions. With a whole priesthood against her, Jenny was a rebel against the world as it appeared to her—a crushing, numerically overwhelming pressure that would rob her of her one spiritual reality—the sense of personal freedom.
"Oh, I can't stand it!" she said bitterly. "I shall go mad! And Em taking it all in, and ready to have Alf's foot on her neck for life. And Alf ready to have Em chained to his foot for life. The fools! Why, I wouldn't ... not even to Keith.... No, I wouldn't.... Fancy being boxed up and pretending I liked it—just because other people say they like it. Do as you're told. Do like other people. All be the same—a sticky mass of silly fools doing as they're told! All for a bit of bread, because somebody's bagged the flour for ever! And what's the good of it? If it was any good—but it's no good at all! And they go on doing it because they're cowards! Cowards, that's what they all are. Well, I'm not like that!"
Exhausted, Jenny sat down again; but she could not keep still. Her feet would not remain quietly in the place she, as the governing intelligence, commanded. They too were rebels, nervous rebels, controlled by forces still stronger than the governing intelligence. She felt trapped, impotent, as though her hands were tied; as though only her whirling thoughts were unfettered. Again she took up the hat, but her hands so trembled that she could not hold the needle steady. It made fierce jabs into the hat. Stormily unhappy, she once more threw the work down. Her lips trembled. She burst into bitter tears, sobbing as though her heart were breaking. Her whole body was shaken with the deep and passionate sobs that echoed her despair.
Presently, when she grew calmer, Jenny wiped her eyes, her face quite pale and her hands still convulsively trembling. She was worn out by the stress of the evening, by the vehemence of her rebellious feelings. When she again spoke to herself it was in a shamed, giggling way that nobody but Emmy had heard from her since the days of childhood. She gave a long sigh, looking through the blur at that clear glow from beneath the iron door of the kitchen grate. Miserably she refused to think again. She was half sick of thoughts that tore at her nerves and lacerated her heart. To herself Jenny felt that it was no good—crying was no good, thinking was no good, loving and sympathising and giving kindness—all these things were in this mood as useless as one another. There was nothing in life but the endless sacrifice of human spirit.
"Oh!" she groaned passionately. "If only something would happen. I don't care what! But something ... something new ... exciting. Something with a bite in it!"
She stared at the kicking clock, which every now and again seemed to have a spasm of distaste for its steady record of the fleeting seconds. "Wound up to go all day!" she thought, comparing the clock with herself in an angry impatience.
And then, as if it came in answer to her poignant wish for some untoward happening, there was a quick double knock at the front door of the Blanchard's dwelling, and a sharp whirring ring at the push-bell below the knocker. The sounds seemed to go violently through and through the little house in rapid waves of vibrant noise.
CHAPTER V: THE ADVENTURE
So unexpected was this interruption of her loneliness that Jenny was for an instant stupefied. She took one step, and then paused, dread firmly in her mind, paralysing her. What could it be? She could not have been more frightened if the sound had been the turning of a key in the lock. Were they back already? Had her hope been spoiled by some accident? Surely not. It was twenty minutes to nine. They were safe in the theatre by now. Oh, she was afraid! She was alone in the house—worse than alone! Jenny cowered. She felt she could not answer the summons. Tick-tick-tick said the clock, striking across the silences. Again Jenny made a step forward. Then, terrifying her, the noise began once more—the thunderous knock, the ping-ping-ping-whir of the bell....
Wrenching her mind away from apprehensiveness she moved quickly to the kitchen door and into the dimly-lighted dowdy passage-way. Somewhere beyond the gas flicker and the hat-stand lay—what? With all her determination she pushed forward, almost running to the door. Her hand hovered over the little knob of the lock: only horror of a renewal of that dreadful sound prompted her to open the door quickly. She peered into the darkness, faintly silhouetted against the wavering light of the gas. A man stood there.
"Evening, miss," said the man. "Miss Jenny Blanchard?"
She could see there something white. He was holding it out to her. A letter!
"For me," she asked, her voice still unsteady. She took the letter, a large square envelope. Mechanically she thanked the man, puzzling at the letter. From whom could a letter be brought to her?
"There's an answer," she heard. It came from ever so far away, in the dim distance beyond her vague wonderings. Jenny was lost, submerged in the sensations through which she had passed during the evening. She was quite unlike herself, timid and fearful, a frightened girl alone in an unhappy house.
"Wait a bit!" she said. "Will you wait there?"
"Yes," answered the man, startlingly enough. "I've got the car here."
The car! What did it mean? She caught now, as her eyes were more used to the darkness, the sheen of light upon a peaked cap such as would be worn by a chauffeur. It filled her mind that this man was in uniform. But if so, why? From whom should the letter come? He had said "Miss Jenny Blanchard."
"You did say it was for me? I'll take it inside. ..." She left the door unfastened, but the man pulled it right to, so that the catch clicked. Then Jenny held the letter up under the flame of the passage gas. She read there by this meagre light her own name, the address, written in a large hand, very bold, with a sharp, sweeping stroke under all, such as a man of impetuous strength might make. There was a blue seal fastening the flap—a great pool of solid wax. Trembling so that she was hardly able to tear the envelope, Jenny returned to the kitchen, again scanning the address, the writing, the blue seal with its Minerva head. Still, in her perplexity, it seemed as though her task was first to guess the identity of the sender. Who could have written to her? It was unheard of, a think for wondering jest, if only her lips had been steady and her heart beating with normal pulsation. With a shrug, she turned back from the seal to the address. She felt that some curious mistake had been made, that the letter was not for her at all, but for some other Jenny Blanchard, of whom she had never until now heard. Then, casting such a fantastic thought aside with another impatient effort, she tore the envelope, past the seal, in a ragged dash. Her first glance was at the signature. "Yours always, KEITH."
Keith! Jenny gave a sob and moved swiftly to the light. Her eyes were quite blurred with shining mist. She could not read the words. Keith! She could only murmur his name, holding the letter close against her.
"MY DEAR JENNY," said the letter. "Do you remember? I said I should write to you when I got back. Well, here I am. I can't come to you myself. I'm tied here by the leg, and mustn't leave for a moment. But you said you'd come to me. Will you? Do! If you can come, you'll be a most awful dear, and I shall be out of my wits with joy. Not really out of my wits. Do come, there's a dear good girl. It's my only chance, as I'm off again in the morning. The man who brings this note will bring you safely to me in the car, and will bring you quite safely home again. Do come! I'm longing to see you. I trust you to come. I will explain everything when we meet. Yours always, KEITH."
A long sigh broke from Jenny's lips as she finished reading. She was transfigured. Gone was the defiant look, gone were the sharpnesses that earlier had appeared upon her face. A soft colour flooded her cheeks; her eyes shone. Come to him! She would go to the end of the world.... Keith! She said it aloud, in a voice that was rich with her deep feeling, magically transformed.
"Come to you, my dear!" said Jenny. "As if you need ask!"
Then she remembered that Emmy was out, that she was left at home to look after her father, that to desert him would be a breach of trust. Quickly her face paled, and her eyes became horror-laden. She was shaken by the conflict of love and love, love that was pity and love that was the overwhelming call of her nature. The letter fluttered from her fingers, swooping like a wounded bird to the ground, and lay unheeded at her feet.
"What shall I do?" Nobody to turn to; no help from any hand. To stay was to give up the chance of happiness. To go—oh, she couldn't go! If Keith was tied, so was Jenny. Half demented, she left the letter where it had fallen, a white square upon the shabby rug. In a frenzy she wrung her hands. What could she do? It was a cry of despair that broke from her heart. She couldn't go, and Keith was waiting. That it should have happened upon this evening of all others! It was bitter! To send back a message, even though it be written with all her love, which still she must not express to Keith in case he should think her lightly won, would be to lose him for ever. He would never stand it. She saw his quick irritation, the imperious glance. ... He was a king among men. She must go! Whatever the failure in trust, whatever the consequences, she must go. She couldn't go! Whatever the loss to herself, her place was here. Emmy would not have gone to the theatre if she had not known that Jenny would stay loyally there. It was too hard! The months, the long months during which Keith had not written, were upon her mind like a weariness. She had had no word from him, and the little photograph that he had laughingly offered had been her only consolation. Yes, well, why hadn't he written? Quickly her love urged his excuse. She might accuse him of having forgotten her, but to herself she explained and pardoned all. That was not for this moment. Keith was not in fault. It was this dreadful difficulty of occasion, binding her here when her heart was with him. To sit moping here by the fire when Keith called to her! Duty—the word was a mockery. "They" would say she ought to stay. Hidden voices throbbed the same message into her consciousness. But every eager impulse, winged with love, bade her go. To whom was her heart given? To Pa? Pity ... pity. ... She pitied him, helpless at home. If anything happened to him! Nothing would happen. What could happen? Supposing she had gone to the chandler's shop: in those few minutes all might happen that could happen in all the hours she was away. Yet Emmy often ran out, leaving Pa alone. He was in bed, asleep; he would not awaken, and would continue to lie there at rest until morning. Supposing she had gone to bed—she would still be in the house; but in no position to look after Pa. He might die any night while they slept. It was only the idea of leaving him, the superstitious idea that just because she was not there something would happen. Suppose she didn't go; but sat in the kitchen for two hours and then went to bed. Would she ever forgive herself for letting slip the chance of happiness that had come direct from the clouds'? Never! But if she went, and something did happen, would she ever in that event know self-content again in all the days of her life? Roughly she shouldered away her conscience, those throbbing urgencies that told her to stay. She was to give up everything for a fear? She was to let Keith go for ever? Jenny wrung her hands, drawing sobbing breaths in her distress.
Something made her pick the letter swiftly up and read it through a second time. So wild was the desire to go that she began to whimper, kissing the letter again and again, holding it softly to her cold cheek. Keith! What did it matter? What did anything matter but her love? Was she never to know any happiness? Where, then, was her reward? A heavenly crown of martyrdom? What was the good of that? Who was the better for it? Passionately Jenny sobbed at such a mockery of her overwhelming impulse. "They" hadn't such a problem to solve. "They" didn't know what it was to have your whole nature craving for the thing denied. "They" were cowards, enemies to freedom because they liked the music of their manacles! They could not understand what it was to love so that one adored the beloved. Not blood, but water ran in their veins! They didn't know. ... They couldn't feel. Jenny knew, Jenny felt; Jenny was racked with the sweet passion that blinds the eyes to consequences. She must go! Wickedness might be her nature: what then? It was a sweet wickedness. It was her choice!
Jenny's glance fell upon the trimmed hat which lay upon the table. Nothing but a cry from her father could have prevented her from taking it up and setting it upon her head. The act was her defiance. She was determined. As one deaf and blind, she went out of the kitchen, and to the hall-stand, fumbling there for her hatpins. She pinned her hat as deliberately as she might have done in leaving the house any morning. Her pale face was set. She had flung the gage. There remained only the acts consequential. And of those, since they lay behind the veil of night, who could now speak? Not Jenny!
There was still Pa. He was there like a secret, lying snug in his warm bed, drowsily coaxing sleep while Jenny planned a desertion. Even when she was in the room, her chin grimly set and her lips quivering, a shudder seemed to still her heart. She was afraid. She could not forget him. He lay there so quiet in the semi-darkness, a long mound under the bedclothes; and she was almost terrified at speaking to him because her imagination was heightened by the sight of his dim outline. He was so helpless! Ah, if there had only been two Jennies, one to go, one to stay. The force of uncontrollable desire grappled with her pity. She still argued within herself, a weary echo of her earlier struggle. He would need nothing, she was sure. It would be for such a short time that she left him. He would hardly know she was not there. He would think she was in the kitchen. But if he needed her? If he called, if he knocked with his stick, and she did not come, he might be alarmed, or stubborn, and might try to find his way through the passage to the kitchen. If he fell! Her flesh crept as she imagined him helpless upon the floor, feebly struggling to rise.... It was of no use. She was bound to tell him....
Jenny moved swiftly from the room, and returned with his nightly glass and jug of water. There could be nothing else that he would want during the night. It was all he ever had, and he would sleep so until morning. She approached the bed upon tiptoe.
"Pa," she whispered. "Are you awake?" He stirred, and looked out from the bedclothes, and she was fain to bend over him and kiss the tumbled hair. "Pa, dear ... I want to go out. I've got to go out. Will you be all right if I leave you? Sure? You'll be a good boy, and not move! I shall be back before Emmy, and you won't be lonely, or frightened—will you!" She exhorted him. "See, I've got to go out; and if I can't leave you.... You are awake, Pa?"
"Yes," breathed Pa, half asleep. "A good boy. Night, Jenny, my dearie girl."
She drew back from the bed, deeply breathing, and stole to the door. One last glance she took, at the room and at the bed, closed the door and stood irresolute for a moment in the passage. Then she whipped her coat from the peg and put it on. She took her key and opened the front door. Everything was black, except that upon the roofs opposite the rising moon cast a glittering surface of light, and the chimney pots made slanting broad markings upon the silvered slates. The road was quite quiet but for the purring of a motor, and she could now, as her eyes were clearer, observe the outline of a large car drawn to the left of the door. As the lock clicked behind her and as she went forward the side lights of the motor blazed across her vision, blinding her again.
"Are you there?" she softly called.
"Yes, miss." The man's deep voice came sharply out of the darkness, and he jumped down from his seat to open the door of the car. The action startled Jenny. Why had the man done that?
"Did you know I was coming?" she suddenly asked, drawing back with a sort of chill.
"Yes, miss," said the man. Jenny caught her breath. She half turned away, like a shy horse that fears the friendly hand. He had been sure of her, then. Oh, that was a wretched thought! She was shaken to the heart by such confidence. He had been sure of her! There was a flash of time in which she determined not to go; but it passed with dreadful speed. Too late, now, to draw back. Keith was waiting: he expected her! The tears were in her eyes. She was more unhappy than she had been yet, and her heart was like water.
The man still held open the door of the car. The inside was warm and inviting. His hand was upon her elbow; she was lost in the soft cushions, and drowned in the sweet scent of the great nosegay of flowers which hung before her in a shining holder. And the car was purring more loudly, and moving, moving as a ship moves when it glides so gently from the quay. Jenny covered her face with her hands, which cooled her burning cheeks as if they had been ice. Slowly the car nosed out of the road into the wider thoroughfare. Her adventure had begun in earnest. There was no drawing back now.
CHAPTER VI: THE YACHT
To lie deep among cushions, and gently to ride out along streets and roads that she had so often tramped in every kind of weather, was enough to intoxicate Jenny. She heard the soft humming of the engine, and saw lamps and other vehicles flashing by, with a sense of effortless speed that was to her incomparable. If only she had been mentally at ease, and free from distraction, she would have enjoyed every instant of her journey. Even as it was, she could not restrain her eagerness as they overtook a tramcar, and the chauffeur honked his horn, and they glided nearer and nearer, and passed, and seemed to leave the tram standing. Each time this was in process of happening Jenny gave a small excited chuckle, thinking of the speed, and the ease, and of how the people in the tram must feel at being defeated in the race. Every such encounter became a race, in which she pressed physically forward as if to urge her steed to the final effort. Never had Jenny teen so eager for victory, so elated when its certainty was confirmed. It was worth while to live for such experience. How she envied her driver! With his steady hands upon the steering wheel.... Ah, he was like a sailor, like the sailor of romance, with the wind beating upon his face and his eyes ever-watchful. And under his hand the car rode splendidly to Keith.
Jenny closed her eyes. She could feel her heart beating fast, and the blood heating her cheeks, reddening them. The blood hurt her, and her mouth seemed to hurt, too, because she had smiled so much. She lay back, thinking of Keith and of their meetings—so few, so long ago, so indescribably happy and beautiful. She always remembered him as he had been when first he had caught her eye, when he had stood so erect among other men who lounged by the sea, smoking and lolling at ease. He was different, as she was different. And she was going to him. How happy she was! And why did her breath come quickly and her heart sink? She could not bother to decide that question. She was too excited to do so. In all her life she had never known a moment of such breathless anticipation, of excitement which she believed was all happiness.
There was one other thought that Jenny shirked, and that went on nevertheless in spite of her inattention, plying and moulding somewhere deep below her thrilling joy. The thought was, that she must not show Keith that she loved him, because while she knew—she felt sure—that He loved her, she must not be the smallest fraction of time before him in confession. She was too proud for that. He would tell her that he loved her; and the spell would be broken. Her shyness would be gone; her bravado immediately unnecessary. But until then she must beware. It was as necessary to Keith's pride as to her own that he should win her. The Keith she loved would not care for a love too easily won. The consciousness of this whole issue was at work below her thoughts; and her thoughts, from joy and dread, to the discomfort of doubt, raced faster than the car, speedless and headlong. Among them were two that bitterly corroded. They were of Pa and of Keith's confidence that she would come. Both were as poison in her mind.
And then there came a curious sense that something had happened. The car stopped in darkness, and through the air there came in the huge tones of Big Ben the sound of a striking hour. It was nine o'clock. They were back at Westminster. Before her was the bridge, and above was the lighted face of the clock, like some faded sun. And the strokes rolled out in swelling waves that made the whole atmosphere feel soundladen. The chauffeur had opened the door of the car, and was offering his free hand to help Jenny to step down to the ground.
"Are we there?" she asked in a bewildered way, as if she had been dreaming. "How quick we've been!"
"Yes, miss. Mr. Redington's down the steps. You see them steps. Mr. Redington's down there in the dinghy. Mind how you go, miss. Hold tight to the rail...." He closed the door of the car and pointed to the steps.
The dinghy! Those stone steps to the black water! Jenny was shaken by a shudder. The horror of the water which had come upon her earlier in the evening returned more intensely. The strokes of the clock were the same, the darkness, the feeling of the sinister water rolling there beneath the bridge, resistlessly carrying its burdens to the sea. If Keith had not been there she would have turned and run swiftly away, overcome by her fear. She timidly reached the steps, and stopped, peering down through the dimness. She put her foot forward so that it hung dubiously beyond the edge of the pavement.
"What a coward!" she thought, violently, with self-contempt. It drove her forward. And at that moment she could see below, at the edge of the lapping water, the outline of a small boat and of a man who sat in it using the oars against the force of the current so as to keep the boat always near the steps. She heard a dear familiar voice call out with a perfect shout of welcome:
"Jenny! Good girl! How are you! Come along; be careful how you come. That's it.... Six more, and then stop!" Jenny obeyed him—she desired nothing else, and her doubtings were driven away in a breath. She went quickly down. The back water lapped and wattled against the stone and the boat, and she saw Keith stand up, drawing the dinghy against the steps and offering her his hand. He had previously been holding up a small lantern that gilded the brown mud with a feeble colour and made the water look like oil. "Now!" he cried quickly. "Step!" The boat rocked, and Jenny crouched down upon the narrow seat, aflame with rapture, but terrified of the water. It was so near, so inescapably near. The sense of its smooth softness, its yieldingness, and the danger lurking beneath the flowing surface was acute. She tried more desperately to sit exactly in the middle of the boat, so that she should not overbalance it. She closed her eyes, sitting very still, and heard the water saying plup-plup-plup all round her, and she was afraid. It meant soft death: she could not forget that. Jenny could not swim. She was stricken between terror and joy that overwhelmed her. Then:
"That's my boat," Keith said, pointing. "I say, you are a sport to come!" Jenny saw lights shining from the middle of the river, and could imagine that a yacht lay there stubbornly resisting the current of the flowing Thames.
Crouching still, she watched Keith bend to his oars, driving the boat's nose beyond the shadowy yacht because he knew that he must allow for the current. Her eyes devoured him, and her heart sang. Plup-plup-plup-plup said the water. The oars plashed gently. Jenny saw the blackness gliding beside her, thick and swift. They might go down, down, down in that black nothingness, and nobody would know of it.... The oars ground against the edge of the dinghy—wood against wood, grumbling and echoing upon the water. Behind everything she heard the roaring of London, and was aware of lights, moving and stationary, high above them. How low upon the water they were! It seemed to be on a level with the boat's edges. And how much alone they were, moving there in the darkness while the life of the city went on so far above. If the boat sank! Jenny shivered, for she knew that she would be drowned. She could imagine a white face under the river's surface, lanterns flashing, and then—nothing. It would be all another secret happening, a mystery, the work of a tragic instant; and Jenny Blanchard would be forgotten for ever, as if she had never been. It was a horrid sensation to her as she sat there, so near death.
And all the time that Jenny was mutely enduring these terrors they were slowly nearing the yacht, which grew taller as they approached, and more clearly outlined against the sky. The moon was beginning to catch all the buildings and to lighten the heavens. Far above, and very pale, were stars; but the sky was still murky, so that the river remained in darkness. They came alongside the yacht. Keith shipped his oars, caught hold of something which Jenny could not see; and the dinghy was borne round, away from the yacht's side. He half rose, catching with both his hands at an object projecting from the yacht, and hastily knotting a rope. Jenny saw a short ladder hanging over the side, and a lantern shining.
"There you are!" Keith cried. "Up you go! It's quite steady. Hold the brass rail...."
After a second in which her knees were too weak to allow of her moving, Jenny conquered her tremors, rose unsteadily in the boat, and cast herself at the brass rail that Keith had indicated. To the hands that had been so tightly clasped together, steeling her, the rail was startlingly cold; but the touch of it nerved her, because it was firm. She felt the dinghy yield as she stepped from it, and she seemed for one instant to be hanging precariously in space above the terrifying waters. Then she was at the top of the ladder, ready for Keith's warning shout about the descent to the deck. She jumped down. She was aboard the yacht; and as she glanced around Keith was upon the deck beside her, catching her arm. Jenny's triumphant complacency was so great that she gave a tiny nervous laugh. She had not spoken at all until this moment: Keith had not heard her voice.
"Well!" said Jenny. "That's over!" And she gave an audible sigh of relief. "Thank goodness!"
"And here you are!" Keith cried. "Aboard the Minerva."
He led her to a door, and down three steps. And then it seemed to Jenny as if Paradise burst upon her. She had never before seen such a room as this cabin. It was a room such as she had dreamed about in those ambitious imaginings of a wondrous future which had always been so vaguely irritating to Emmy. It seemed, partly because the ceiling was low, to be very spacious; the walls and ceiling were of a kind of dusky amber hue; a golden brown was everywhere the prevailing tint. The tiny curtains, the long settees into which one sank, the chairs, the shades of the mellow lights—all were of some variety of this delicate golden brown. In the middle of the cabin stood a square table; and on the table, arrayed in an exquisitely white tablecloth, was laid a wondrous meal. The table was laid for two: candles with amber shades made silver shine and glasses glitter. Upon a fruit stand were peaches and nectarines; upon a tray she saw decanters; little dishes crowding the table bore mysterious things to eat such as Jenny had never before seen. Upon a side table stood other dishes, a tray bearing coffee cups and ingredients for the provision of coffee, curious silver boxes. Everywhere she saw flowers similar to those which had been in the motor car. Under her feet was a carpet so thick that she felt her shoes must be hidden in its pile. And over all was this air of quiet expectancy which suggested that everything awaited her coming. Jenny gave a deep sigh, glanced quickly at Keith, who was watching her, and turned away, her breath catching. The contrast was too great: it made her unhappy. She looked down at her skirt, at her hands; she thought of her hat and her hidden shoes. She thought of Emmy, the bread and butter pudding, of Alf Rylett ... of Pa lying at home in bed, alone in the house.
Keith drew her forward slightly, until she came within the soft radiance of the cabin lights.
"I say, it is sporting of you to come!" he said. "Let's have a look at you—do!"
They stood facing one another. Keith saw Jenny, tall and pale, looking thin in her shabby dress, but indescribably attractive and beautiful even in her new shyness. And Jenny saw the man she loved: her eyes were veiled, but they were unfathomably those of one deeply in love. She did not know how to hide the emotions with which she was so painfully struggling. Pride and joy in him; shyness and a sort of dread; hunger and reserve—Keith might have read them all, so plainly were they written. Yet her first words were wounded and defiant.
"The man ... that man.... He knew I was coming," she said, in a voice of reproach. "You were pretty sure I should come, you know."
Keith said quietly:
"I hoped you would." And then he lowered his eyes. She was disarmed, and they both knew.
Keith Redington was nearly six feet in height. He was thin, and even bony; but he was very toughly and strongly built, and his face was as clean and brown as that of any healthy man who travels far by sea. He was less dark than Jenny, and his hair was almost auburn, so rich a chestnut was it. His eyes were blue and heavily lashed; his hands were long and brown, with small freckles between the knuckles. He stood with incomparable ease, his hands and arms always ready, but in perfect repose. His lips, for he was clean-shaven, were keen and firm. His glance was fearless. As the phrase is, he looked every inch a sailor, born to challenge the winds and the waters. To Jenny, who knew only those men who show at once what they think or feel, his greater breeding made Keith appear inscrutable, as if he had belonged to a superior race. She could only smile at him, with parted lips, not at all the baffling lady of the mirror, or the contemptuous younger sister, or the daring franctireur of her little home at Kennington Park. Jenny Blanchard she remained, but the simple, eager Jenny to whom these other Jennies were but imperious moods.
"Well, I've come," she said. "But you needn't have been so sure."
Keith gave an irrepressible grin. He motioned her to the table, shaking his head at her tone.
"Come and have some grub," he said cheerfully. "I was about as sure as you were. You needn't worry about that, old sport. There's so little time. Come and sit down; there's a good girl. And presently I'll tell you all about it." He looked so charming as he spoke that Jenny obediently smiled in return, and the light came rushing into her eyes, chasing away the shadows, so that she felt for that time immeasurably happy and unsuspicious. She sat down at the laden table, smiling again at the marvels which it carried.
"My word, what a feast!" she said helplessly. "Talk about the Ritz!"
Keith busied himself with the dishes. The softly glowing cabin threw over Jenny its spell; the comfort, the faint slow rocking of the yacht, the sense of enclosed solitude, lulled her. Every small detail of ease, which might have made her nervous, merged with the others in a marvellous contentment because she was with Keith, cut off from the world, happy and at peace. If she sighed, it was because her heart was full. But she had forgotten the rest of the evening, her shabbiness, every care that troubled her normal days. She had cast these things off for the time and was in a glow of pleasure. She smiled at Keith with a sudden mischievousness. They both smiled, without guilt, and without guile, like two children at a reconciliation.
"Soup?" said Keith, and laid before her a steaming plate. "All done by kindness."
"Have you been cooking?" Some impulse made Jenny motherly. It seemed a strange reversal of the true order that he should cook for her. "It's like The White Cat to have it...."
"It's a secret," Keith laughed. "Tell you later. Fire away!" He tasted the soup, while Jenny looked at five little letter biscuits in her own plate. She spelt them out E T K I H—KEITH. He watched her, enjoying the spectacle of the naive mind in action as the light darted into her face. "I've got JENNY," he said, embarrassed. She craned, and read the letters with open eyes of marvel. They both beamed afresh at the primitive fancy.
"How did you do it?" Jenny asked inquisitively. "But it's nice." They supped the soup. Followed, whitebait: thousands of little fish.... Jenny hardly liked to crunch them. Keith whipped away the plates, and dived back into the cabin with a huge pie that made her gasp. "My gracious!" said Jenny. "I can never eat it!"
"Not all of it," Keith admitted. "Just a bit, eh?" He carved.
"Oh, thank goodness it's not stew and bread and butter pudding!" cried Jenny, as the first mouthful of the pie made her shut her eyes tightly. "It's like heaven!"
"If they have pies there." Jenny had not meant that: she had meant only that her sensations were those of supreme contentment. "Give me the old earth; and supper with Jenny!"
"Really?" Jenny was all brimming with delight.
"What will you have to drink? Claret? Burgundy?" Keith was again upon his feet. He poured out a large glass of red wine and laid it before her. Jenny saw with marvel the reflections of light on the wine and of the wine upon the tablecloth. She took a timid sip, and the wine ran tingling into her being.
"High life," she murmured. "Don't make me tipsy!" They exchanged overjoyed and intimate glances, laughing.
There followed trifle. Trifle had always been Jenny's dream; and this trifle was her dream come true. It melted in the mouth; its flavours were those of innumerable spices. She was transported with happiness at the mere thought of such trifle. As her palate vainly tried to unravel the secrets of the dish, Keith, who was closely observant, saw that she was lost in a kind of fanatical adoration of trifle.
"You like it?" he asked.
"I shall never forget it!" cried Jenny. "Never as long as I live. When I'm an old ... great-aunt...." She had hesitated at her destiny. "I shall bore all the kids with tales about it. I shall say 'That night on the yacht ... when I first knew what trifle meant....' They won't half get sick of it. But I shan't."
"You'll like to think about it?" asked Keith. "Like to remember to-night?"
"Will you?" parried Jenny. "The night you had Jenny Blanchard to supper?" Their eyes met, in a long and searching glance, in which candour was not unmixed with a kind of measuring distrust.
Keith's face might have been carven for all the truth that Jenny got from it then. There darted across her mind the chauffeur's certainty that she was to be his passenger. She took another sip of wine.
"Yes," she said again, very slowly. "You were sure I was coming. You got it all ready. Been a bit of a sell if I hadn't come. You'd have had to set to and eat it yourself.... Or get somebody else to help you."
She meant "another girl," but she did not know she meant that until the words were spoken. Her own meaning stabbed her heart. That icy knowledge that Keith was sure of her was bitterest of all. It made her happiness defiant rather than secure. He was the only man for her. How did she know there were not other women for Keith! How could she ever know that? Rather, it sank into her consciousness that there must be other women. His very ease showed her that. The equanimity of his laughing expression brought her the unwelcome knowledge.
"I should have looked pretty small if I'd made no preparations, shouldn't I?" Keith inquired in a dry voice. "If you'd come here and found the place cold and nothing to eat you'd have made a bit of a shindy."
A reserve had fallen between them. Jenny knew she had been unwise. It pressed down upon her heart the feeling that he was somehow still a stranger to her. And all the time they had been apart he had not seemed a stranger, but one to whom her most fleeting and intimate thoughts might freely have been given. That had been the wonderful thought to her—that they had met so seldom and understood each other so well. She had made a thousand speeches to him in her dreams. Together, in these same dreams, they had seen and done innumerable things together, always in perfect confidence, in perfect understanding. Yet now, when she saw him afresh, all was different. Keith was different. He was browner, thinner, less warm in manner; and more familiar, too, as though he were sure of her. His clothes were different, and his carriage. He was not the same man. It was still Keith, still the man Jenny loved; but as though he were also somebody else whom she was meeting for the first time. Her love, the love intensified by long broodings, was as strong; but he was a stranger. All that intimacy which seemed to have been established between them once and for ever was broken by the new contact in unfamiliar surroundings. She was shy, uncertain, hesitating; and in her shyness she had blundered. She had been unwise, and he was offended when she could least afford to have him so offended. It took much resolution upon Jenny's part to essay the recovery of lost ground. But the tension was the worse for this mistake, and she suffered the more because of her anxious emotions.
"Oh, well," she said at last, as calmly as she could. "I daresay we should have managed. I mightn't have come. But I've come, and you had all these beautiful things ready; and...." Her courage to be severe abruptly failed; and lamely she concluded: "And it's simply like fairyland.... I'm ever so happy."
Keith grinned again, showing perfect white teeth. For a moment he looked, Jenny thought, quite eager. Or was that only her fancy because she so desired to see it? She shook her head; and that drew Keith's eye.
"More trifle?" he suggested, with an arch glance. Jenny noticed he wore a gold ring upon the little finger of his right hand. It gleamed in the faint glow of the cabin. So, also, did the fascinating golden hairs upon the back of his hand. Gently the cabin rose and fell, rocking so slowly that she could only occasionally be sure that the movement was true. She shook her head in reply.
"I've had one solid meal to-night," she explained. "Wish I hadn't! If I'd known I was coming out I'd have starved myself all day. Then you'd have been shocked at me!"
Keith demurely answered, as if to reassure her:
"Takes a lot to shock me. Have a peach?"
"I must!" she breathed. "I can't let the chance slip. O-oh, what a scent!" She reached the peach towards him. "Grand, isn't it!" Jenny discovered for Keith's quizzical gaze an unexpected dimple in each pale cheek. He might have been Adam, and she the original temptress.
"Shall I peel it?"
"Seems a shame to take it off!" Jenny watched his deft fingers as he stripped the peach. The glowing skin of the fruit fell in lifeless peelings upon his plate, dying as it were under her eyes, Keith had poured wine for her in another, smaller, glass. She shook her head.
"I shall be drunk!" she protested. "Then I should sing! Horrible, it would be!"
"Not with a little port ... I'm not pressing you to a lot. Am I?" He brought coffee to the table, and she began to admire first of all the pattern of the silver tray. Jenny had never seen such a tray before, outside a shop, nor so delicately porcelain a coffee-service. It helped to give her the sense of strange, unforgettable experience.
"You didn't say if you'd remember this evening," she slowly reflected. Keith looked sharply up from the coffee, which he was pouring, she saw, from a thermos flask.
"Didn't I?" he said. "Of course I shall remember it. I've done better. I've looked forward to it. That's something you've not done. I've looked forward to it for weeks. You don't think of that. We've been in the Mediterranean, coasting about. I've been planning what I'd do when we got back. Then Templecombe said he'd be coming right up to London; and I planned to see you."
"Templecombe?" Jenny queried. "Who's he?"
"He's the lord who owns this yacht. Did you think it was my yacht?"
"No.... I hoped it wasn't...." Jenny said slowly.
Keith's eyes were upon her; but she looked at her peach stone, her hand still lightly holding the fruit knife, and her fingers half caught by the beam of a candle which stood beside her. He persisted:
"Well, Templecombe took his valet, who does the cooking; and my hand—my sailorman—wanted to go and visit his wife ... and that left me to see after the yacht. D'you see? I had the choice of keeping Tomkins aboard, or staying aboard myself."
"You might almost have given me longer notice," urged Jenny. "It seems to me."
"No. I'm under instructions. I'm not a free man," said Keith soberly. "I was once; but I'm not now. I'm captain of a yacht. I do what I'm told."
Jenny fingered her port-wine glass, and in looking at the light upon the wine her eyes became fixed.
"Will you ever do anything else?" she asked. Keith shrugged slightly.
"You want to know a lot," he said.
"I don't know very much, do I?" Jenny answered, in a little dead voice. "Just somewhere about nothing at all. I have to pretend the rest."
"D'you want to know it?"
Jenny gave a quick look at his hands which lay upon the table. She could not raise her eyes further. She was afraid to do so. Her heart seemed to be beating in her throat.
"It's funny me having to ask for it, isn't it!" she said, suddenly haggard.
CHAPTER VII: MORTALS
Keith did not answer. That was the one certainty she had; and her heart sank. He did not answer. That meant that really she was nothing to him, that he neither wanted nor trusted her. And yet she had thought a moment before—only a moment before—that he was as moved as herself. They had seemed to be upon the brink of confidences; and now he had drawn back. Each instant deepened her sense of failure. When Jenny stealthily looked sideways, Keith sat staring before him, his expression unchanged. She had failed.
"You don't trust me," she said, with her voice trembling. There was another silence. Then:
"Don't I?" Keith asked, indifferently. He reached his hand out and patted hers, even holding it lightly for an instant. "I think I do. You don't think so?"
"No." She merely framed the word, sighing.
"You're wrong, Jenny." Keith's voice changed. He deliberately looked round the table at the little dishes that still lay there untouched. "Have some of these sweets, will you.... No?" Jenny could only draw her breath sharply, shaking her head. "Almonds, then?" She moved impatiently, her face distorted with wretched exasperation. As if he could see that, and as if fear of the outcome hampered his resolution, Keith hurried on. "Well, look here: we'll clear the table together, if you like. Take the things through the other cabin—that one—to the galley; root up the table by its old legs—I'll show you how its' done;—and then we can have a talk. I'll ... I'll tell you as much as I can about everything you want to know. That do?"
"I can't stay long. I've left Pa in bed." She could not keep the note of roughness from her pleading voice, although shame at being petulant was struggling with her deeper feeling.
"Well, he won't want to get up again yet, will he?" Keith answered composedly. Oh, he had nerves of steel! thought Jenny. "I mean, this is his bedtime, I suppose?" There was no answer. Jenny looked at the tablecloth, numbed by her sensations. "Do you have to look after him all the time? That's a bit rough..."
"No," was forced from Jenny. "No, I don't ... not generally. But to-night—but that's a long story, too. With rows in it." Which made Keith laugh. He laughed not quite naturally, forcing the last several jerks of his laughter, so that she shuddered at the thought of his possible contempt. It was as if everything she said was lost before ever it reached his heart—as if the words were like weak blows against an overwhelming strength. Discouragement followed and deepened after every blow—every useless and baffled word. There was again silence, while Jenny set her teeth, forcing back her bitterness and her chagrin, trying to behave as usual, and to check the throbbing within her breast. He was trying to charm her, teasingly to wheedle her back into kindness, altogether misunderstanding her mood. He was guarded and considerate when she wanted only passionate and abject abandonment of disguise.
"We'll toss up who shall begin first," Keith said in a jocular way. "How's that for an idea?"
Jenny felt her lips tremble. Frantically she shook her head, compressing the unruly lips. Only by keeping in the same position, by making herself remain still, could she keep back the tears. Her thought went on, that Keith was cruelly playing with her, mercilessly watching the effect of his own coldness upon her too sensitive heart. Eh, but it was a lesson to her! What brutes men could be, at this game! And that thought gave her, presently, an unnatural composure. If he were cruel, she would never show her wounds. She would sooner die. But her eyes, invisible to him, were dark with reproach, and her face drawn with agony.
"Well, we'd better do something," she said, in a sharp voice; and rose to her feet. "Where is it the things go?" Keith also rose, and Jenny felt suddenly sick and faint at the relaxation of her self-control.
"Hullo, hullo!" Keith cried, and was at once by her side. "Here; have a drink of water." Jenny, steadying herself by the table, sipped a little of the water.
"Is it the wine that's made me stupid?" she asked. "I feel as if my teeth were swollen, and my skin was too tight for my bones. Beastly!"
"How horrid!" Keith said lightly, taking from her hand the glass of water. "If it's the wine you won't feel the effects long. Go on deck if you like. You'll feel all right in the air. I'll clear away." Jenny would not leave him. She shook her head decidedly. "Wait a minute, then. I'll come too!"
They moved quickly about, leaving the fruit and little sweets and almonds upon the sidetable, but carrying everything else through a sleeping-cabin into the galley. It was this other cabin that still further deepened Jenny's sense of pain—of inferiority. That was the feeling now most painful. She had just realised it. She was a common girl; and Keith—ah, Keith was secure enough, she thought.
In that moment Jenny deliberately gave him up. She felt it was impossible that he should love her. When she looked around it was with a sorrowfulness as of farewell. These things were the things that Keith knew and had known—that she would never again see but in the bitter memories of this night. The night would pass, but her sadness would remain. She would think of him here. She gave him up, quite humble in her perception of the disparity between them. And yet her own love would stay, and she must store her memory full of all that she would want to know when she thought of his every moment. Jenny ceased to desire him. She somehow—it may have been by mere exhausted cessation of feeling—wished only to understand his life and then never to see him again. It was a kind of numbness that seized her. Then she awoke once again, stirred by the bright light and by the luxury of her surroundings.
"This where you sleep?" With passionate interest in everything that concerned him, Jenny looked eagerly about the cabin. She now indicated a broad bunk, with a beautifully white counterpane and such an eiderdown quilt as she might optimistically have dreamed about. The tiny cabin was so compact, and so marvellously furnished with beautiful things that it seemed to Jenny a kind of suite in tabloid form. She did not understand how she had done without all these luxurious necessities for five-and-twenty years.
"Sometimes," Keith answered, having followed her marvelling eye from beauty to beauty. "When there's company I sleep forward with the others." He had been hurrying by with a cruet and the bread dish when her exclamation checked him.
"Is this lord a friend of yours, then?" Jenny asked.
"Sometimes," Keith dryly answered. "Understand?" Jenny frowned again at his tone.
"No," she said. Keith passed on.
Jenny stood surveying the sleeping-cabin. A whole nest of drawers attracted her eye, deep drawers that would hold innumerable things. Then she saw a hand-basin with taps for hot and cold water. Impulsively she tried the hot-water tap, and was both relieved and disappointed when it gasped and offered her cold water. There were monogramed toilet appointments beautiful to see; a leather-cased carriage clock, a shelf full of books that looked fascinating; towels; tiny rugs; a light above the hand-basin, and another to switch on above the bunk.... It was wonderful! And there was a looking-glass before her in which she could see her own reflection as clear as day—too clearly for her pleasure!
The face she irresistibly saw in this genuine mirror looked pale and tired, although upon each white cheek there was a hard scarlet flush. Her eyes were liquid, the pupils dilated; her whole appearance was one of suppressed excitement. She had chagrin, not only because she felt that her appearance was unattractive, but because it seemed to her that her face kept no secrets. Had she seen it as that of another, Jenny would unerringly have read its painful message.
"Eh, dear," she said aloud. "You give yourself away, old sport! Don't you, now!" The mirrored head shook in disparaging admission of its own shortcoming. Jenny bent nearer, meeting the eyes with a clear stare. There were wretched lines about her mouth. For the first time in her life she had a horrified fear of growing older. It was as though, when she shut her eyes, she saw herself as an old woman. She felt a curious stab at her heart.
Keith, returning, found Jenny still before the mirror, engaged in this unsparing scrutiny; and, laughing gently, he caught her elbow with his fingers. In the mirror their glances met. At his touch Jenny thrilled, and unconsciously leaned towards him. From the mirrored glance she turned questioningly, to meet upon his face a beaming expression of tranquil enjoyment that stimulated her to candid remark. Somehow it restored some of her lost ease to be able to speak so.
"I look funny, don't I?" She appealed to his judgment. Keith bent nearer, as for more detailed examination, retaining hold upon her elbow. His face was tantalisingly close to hers, and Jenny involuntarily turned her head away, not coquettishly, but through embarrassment at a mingling of desire and timidity.
"Is that the word?" he asked. "You look all right, my dear."
My dear! She knew that the words meant more to her than they did to him, so carelessly were they uttered; but they sent a shock through her. How Jenny wished that she might indeed be dear to Keith! He released her, and she followed him, laden, backwards and forwards until the table was cleared. Then he unscrewed the table legs, and the whole thing came gently away in his hands. There appeared four small brass sockets imbedded in the carpet's deep pile; and the centre of the room was clear. By the same dexterous use of his acquaintance with the cabin's mechanism, Keith unfastened one of the settees, and wheeled it forward so that it stood under the light, and in great comfort for the time when they should sit to hear his story.
"Now!" he said. "We'll have a breather on deck to clear your old head."
By this time the moon was silvering the river, riding high above the earth, serenely a thing of eternal mystery to her beholders. With the passing of clouds and the deepening of the night, those stars not eclipsed by the moon shone like swarmed throbbing points of silver. They seemed more remote, as though the clearer air had driven them farther off. Jenny, her own face and throat illumined, stared up at the moon, marvelling; and then she turned, without speaking, to the black shadows and the gliding, silent water. Upon every hand was the chequer of contrast, beautiful to the eye, and haunting to the spirit. A soft wind stirred her hair and made her bare her teeth in pleasure at the sweet contact.
Keith led her to the wide wooden seat which ran by the side of the deck, and they sat together there. The noise of the city was dimmer; the lamps were yellowed in the moon's whiter light; there were occasional movements upon the face of the river. A long way away they heard a sharp panting as a motor boat rushed through the water, sending out a great surging wave that made all other craft rise and fall and sway as the river's agitation subsided. The boat came nearer, a coloured light showing; and presently it hastened past, a moving thing with a muffled figure at its helm; and the Minerva rocked gently almost until the sound of the motor boat's tuff-tuff had been lost in the general noise of London. Nearer at hand, above them, Jenny could hear the clanging of tram-gongs and the clatter and slow boom of motor omnibuses; but these sounds were mellowed by the evening, and although they were near enough to be comforting they were too far away to interrupt this pleasant solitude with Keith. The two of them sat in the shadow, and Jenny craned to hear the chuckle of the water against the yacht's sides. It was a beautiful moment in her life.... She gave a little moan, and swayed against Keith, her delight succeeded by deadly languor.
So for a moment they sat, Keith's arm around her shoulders; and then Jenny moved so as to free herself. She was restless and unhappy again, her nerves on edge. The moon and the water, which had soothed her, were now an irritation. Keith heard her breath come and go, quickly, heavily.
"Sorry, Jenny," he said, in a tone of puzzled apology. She caught his fallen hand, pressing it eagerly.
"It's nothing. Only that minute. Like somebody walking on my grave."
"You're cold. We'll go down to the cabin again." He was again cool and unembarrassed. Together they stood upon the deck in the moonlight, while the water flowed rapidly beneath them and the night's mystery emphasised their remoteness from the rest of the world. They had no part, at this moment, in the general life; but were solitary, living only to themselves....
Keith's arm was about her as they descended; but he let it drop as they stood once more in the golden-brown cabin. "Sit here!" He plumped a cushion for her, and Jenny sank into an enveloping softness that rose about her as water might have done, so that she might have been alarmed if Keith had not been there looking down with such an expression of concern.
"I'm really all right," she told him, reassuringly. "Miserable for a tick—that's all!"
"Sure?" He seemed genuinely alarmed, scanning her face. She had again turned sick and faint, so that her knees were without strength. Was he sincere? If only she could have been sure of him. It meant everything in the world to her. If only Keith would say he loved her: if only he would kiss her! He had never done that. The few short days of their earlier comradeship had been full of delight; he had taken her arm, he had even had her in his arms during a wild bluster of wind; but always the inevitable kiss had been delayed, had been averted; and only her eager afterthoughts had made romance of their meagre acquaintance. Yet now, when they were alone, together, when every nerve in her body seemed tense with desire for him, he was somehow aloof—not constrained (for then she would have been happy, at the profoundly affecting knowledge that she had carried the day), but unsympathetically and unlovingly at ease. She could not read his face: in his manner she read only a barren kindness that took all and gave nothing. If he didn't love her she need not have come. It would have been better to go on as she had been doing, dreaming of him until—until what? Jenny sighed at the grey vision. Only hunger had driven her to his side on this evening—the imperative hunger of her nature upon which Keith had counted. He had been sure she would come—that was unforgivable. He had welcomed her as he might have welcomed a man; but as he might also have welcomed any man or woman who would have relieved his loneliness upon the yacht. Not a loved friend. Jenny, with her brain restored by the gentle breeze to its normal quickness of action, seemed dartingly to seek in every direction for reassurance! and she found in everything no single tone or touch to feed her insatiable greed for tokens of his love. Oh, but she was miserable indeed—disappointed in her dearest and most secret aspirations. He was perhaps afraid that she wanted to attach herself to him? If that were so, why couldn't he be honest, and tell her so? That was all she wanted from him. She wanted only the truth. She felt she could bear anything but this kindness, this charming detached thought for her. He was giving her courtesy when all she needed was that his passion should approach her own. And when she should have been strong, mistress of herself, she was weak as water. Her strength was turned, her self-confidence mocked by his bearing. She trembled with the recurring vehemence of her love, that had been fed upon solitude, upon the dreariness in which she spent her mere calendared days. Her eyes were sombrely glowing, dark with pain; and Keith was leaning towards her as he might have leant towards any girl who was half fainting. She could have cried, but that she was too proud to cry. She was not Emmy, who cried. She was Jenny Blanchard, who had come upon this fool's trip because a force stronger than her pride had bidden her to forsake all but the impulse of her love. And Keith, secure and confident, was coolly, as it were, disentangling himself from the claim she had upon him by virtue of her love. It seemed to Jenny that he was holding her at a distance. Nothing could have hurt her more. It shamed her to think that Keith might suspect her honesty and her unselfishness. When she had thought of nothing but her love and the possibility of his own.
She read now, in this moment of descent into misery, a dreadful blunder made by her own overweening eagerness. She saw Keith, alone, thinking that he would be at a loss to fill his time, suddenly remembering her, thinking in a rather contemptuous way of their days together, and supposing that she would do as well as another for an hour's talk to keep him from a stagnant evening. If that were so, good-bye to her dreams. If she were no more to him than that there was no hope left in her life. For Keith might ply from port to port, seeing in her only one girl for his amusement; but he had spoilt her for another man. No other man could escape the withering comparison with Keith. To Jenny he was a king among men, incomparable; and if he did not love her, then the proud Jenny Blanchard, who unhesitatingly saw life and character with an immovable reserve, was the merest trivial legend of Kennington Park. She was like every other girl, secure in her complacent belief that she could win love—until the years crept by, and no love came, and she must eagerly seek to accept whatever travesty of love sidled within the radius of her attractiveness.
Suddenly Jenny looked at Keith.
"Better now," she said harshly. "You'll have to buck up with your tale—won't you! If you're going to get it out before I have to toddle home again."
"Oh," said Keith, in a confident tone. "You're here now. You'll stay until I've quite finished."
"What do you mean?" asked Jenny sharply. "Don't talk rubbish!"
Keith held up a warning forefinger. He stretched his legs and drew from his pocket a stout pipe.
"I mean what I say." He looked sideways at her. "Don't be a fool, Jenny."
Her heart was chilled at the menace of his words no less than by the hardness of his voice.
"I don't know what you're talking about, Keith; but you'll take me back to the steps when I say," she said. Keith filled his pipe. "I suppose you think it's funny to talk like that." Jenny looked straight in front of her, and her heart was fluttering. It was not her first tremor; but she was deeply agitated. Keith, with a look that was almost a smile, finished loading the pipe and struck a match. He then settled himself comfortably at her side.
"Don't be a juggins, Jenny," he remarked, in a dispassionate way that made her feel helpless.
"Sorry," she said quickly. "I've got the jumps. I've had awful rows to-night ... before coming out."
"Tell me about them," Keith urged. "Get 'em off your chest." She shook her head. Oh no, she wanted something from him very different from such kindly sympathy.
"Only make it worse," she claimed. "Drives it in more. Besides, I don't want to. I want to hear about you."
"Oh, me!" he made a laughing noise. "There's nothing to tell."
"You said you would." Jenny was alarmed at his perverseness; but they were not estranged now.
Keith was smiling rather bitterly at his own thoughts, it seemed.
"I wonder why it is women want to know such a lot," he said, drowsily.
"All of them?" she sharply countered. "I suppose you ought to know."
"You look seedy still.... Are you really feeling better?" Jenny took no notice. "Well, yes: I suppose all of them. They all want to take possession of you. They're never satisfied with what they've got."
"Perhaps they haven't got anything," Jenny said. And after a painful pause: "Oh, well: I shall have to be going home." She wearily moved, in absolute despair, perhaps even with the notion of rising, though her mind was in turmoil.
"Jenny!" He held her wrist, preventing any further movement. He was looking at her with an urgent gaze. Then, violently, with a rapid motion, he came nearer, and forced his arm behind Jenny's waist, drawing her close against his breast, her face averted until their cheeks touched, when the life seemed to go out of Jenny's body and she moved her head quickly in resting it on his shoulder, Keith's face against her hair, and their two hearts beating quickly. It was done in a second, and they sat so, closely embraced, without speech. Still Jenny's hands were free, as if they had been lifeless. Time seemed to stand still, and every noise to stop, during that long moment. And in her heart Jenny was saying over and over, utterly hopeless, "It's no good; it's no good; it's no good...." Wretchedly she attempted to press herself free, her elbow against Keith's breast. She could not get away; but each flying instant deepened her sense of bitter failure.
"It's no use," she said at last, in a dreadful murmur. "You don't want me a bit. Far better let me go."
Keith loosed his hold, and she sat away from him with a little sigh that was almost a shudder. Her hands went as if by instinct to her hair, smoothing it. Another instinct, perhaps, made her turn to him with the ghost of a reassuring smile.
"Silly, we've been," she said, huskily. "I've been thinking about you all this time; and this is the end of it. Well, I was a fool to come...." She sat up straight, away from the back of the settee; but she did not look at Keith. She was looking at nothing. Only in her mind was going on the tumult of merciless self-judgment. Suddenly her composure gave way and she was again in his arms, not crying, but straining him to her. And Keith was kissing her, blessed kisses upon her soft lips, as if he truly loved her as she had all this time hoped. She clung to him in a stupor.
CHAPTER VIII: PENALTIES
"Poor old Jenny," Keith was saying, stroking her arm and holding his cheek against hers.
"You don't want me ..." groaned Jenny.
"I can tell you don't. You don't mean it. D'you think I can't tell!"
Keith raised a finger and lightly touched her hair. He rubbed her cheek with his own, so that she could feel the soft bristles of his shaven beard. And he held her more closely within the circle of his arm.
"Because I'm clumsy?" he breathed. "You know too much, Jenny."
"No: I can tell.... It's all the difference in the world."
"Well, then; how many others have kissed you?... Eh?"
"Keith!" Jenny struggled a little. "Let me go now."
"How many?" Keith kissed her cheek. "Tell the whole dreadful truth."
"If I asked you how many girls ... what would you say then?" Jenny's sombre eyes were steadily watching him, prying into the secrets of his own. He gave a flashing smile, that lighted up his brown face.
"We're both jealous," he told her. "Isn't that what's the matter?"
"You don't trust me. You don't want me. You're only teasing." With a vehement effort she recovered some of her self-control. Pride was again active, the dominant emotion. "So am I only teasing," she concluded. "You're too jolly pleased with yourself."