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Nocturne
by Frank Swinnerton
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"Quite a commotion," said Emmy, with assumed ease.

Jenny was looking at her, and Jenny's heart felt as though it were bursting. She had never in her life known such a sensation of guilt—guilt at the suppression of a vital fact. Yet above that sense of guilt, which throbbed within all her consciousness, was a more superficial concern with the happenings of the moment.

"Yes," Jenny said. "And.... Had you been in long?" she asked quickly.

"Only a minute. We found him like that. We didn't come straight home."

"Oh," said Jenny, significantly, though her heart was thudding. "You didn't come straight home." Emmy's colour rose still higher. She faltered slightly, and tears appeared in her eyes. She could not explain. Some return of her jealousy, some feeling of what Jenny would "think," checked her. The communication must be made by other means than words. The two sisters eyed each other. They were very near, and Emmy's lids were the first to fall. Jenny stepped forward, and put a protective arm round her; and as if Emmy had been waiting for that she began smiling and crying at one and the same moment.

"Looks to me as if...." Jenny went on after this exchange.

"I'm sorry I was a beast," Emmy said. "I'm as different as anything now."

"You're a dear!" Jenny assured her. "Never mind about what you said."

It was an expansive moment. Their hearts were charged. To both the evening had been the one poignant moment of their lives, an evening to provide reflections for a thousand other evenings. And Emmy was happy, for the first time for many days, with the thought of happy life before her. She described in detail the events of the theatre and the walk. She did not give an exactly true story. It was not to be expected that she would do so. Jenny did not expect it. She gave indications of her happiness, which was her main object; and she gave further indications, less intentional, of her character, as no author can avoid doing. And Jenny, immediately discounting, and in the light of her own temperament re-shaping and re-proportioning the form of Emmy's narrative, was like the eternal critic—apprehending only what she could personally recognise. But both took pleasure in the tale, and both saw forward into the future a very satisfactory ending to Emmy's romance.

"And we got back just as twelve was striking," Emmy concluded.

A deep flush overspread Jenny's face. She turned away quickly in order that it might not be seen. Emmy still continued busy with her thoughts. It occurred to her to be surprised that Jenny should be fully dressed. The surprise pressed her further onward with the narrative.

"And then, of course, we found Pa. Wasn't it strange of him to do it? He couldn't have been there long.... He must have waited for you to go up. He must have listened. I must find another place to keep it, though he's never done such a thing before in his life. He must have listened for you going up, and then come creeping out here.... Why, there's his candle on the floor! Fancy that! Might have set fire to the whole house! See, you couldn't have been upstairs long.... I thought you must have been, seeing the fire was black out. Did you go to sleep in front of it? I thought you might have laid a bit of supper for us. I thought you would have. But if you were asleep, I don't wonder. I thought you'd have been in bed hours. Did you hear anything? He must have made a racket falling off the chair. What made you come down again? Pa must have listened like anything."

"I didn't come down," Jenny said, in a slow, passionless voice. "I hadn't gone to bed. I was out. I'd been out all the evening ... since quarter-to-nine."

iv

At first Emmy could not understand. She stood, puzzled, unable to collect her thoughts.

"Jenny!" at last she said, unbelievingly. Accusing impulses showed in her face. The softer mood, just passing, was replaced by one of anger. "Well, I must say it's like you," Emmy concluded. "I'm not to have a moment out of the house. I can't even leave you...."

"Half-an-hour after you'd gone," urged Jenny, "I got a note from Keith."

"Keith!" It was Emmy's sign that she had noted the name.

"I told you.... He'd only got the one evening in London."

"Couldn't he have come here?"

"He mustn't leave his ship. I didn't know what to do. At first I thought I couldn't go. But the man was waiting—"

"Man!" cried Emmy. "What man?"

"The chauffeur."

Emmy's face changed. Her whole manner changed. She was outraged.

"Jenny! Is he that sort! Oh, I warned you.... There's never any good in it. He'll do you no good."

"He's a captain of a little yacht. He's not what you think," Jenny protested, very pale, her heart sinking under such a rebuke, under such knowledge as she alone possessed.

"Still, to go to him!" Emmy was returned to that aspect of the affair. "And leave Pa!"

"I know. I know," Jenny cried. She was no longer protective. She was herself in need of comfort. "But I had to go. You'd have gone yourself!" She met Emmy's gaze steadily, but without defiance.

"No I shouldn't!" It was Emmy who became defiant. Emmy's jealousy was again awake. "However much I wanted to go. I should have stayed."

"And lost him!" Jenny cried.

"Are you sure of him now?" asked Emmy swiftly. "If he's gone again."

With her cheeks crimson, Jenny turned upon her sister.

"Yes, I'm sure of him. And I love him. I love him as much as you love Alf." She had the impulse, almost irresistible, to add "More!" but she restrained her tongue just in time. That was a possibility Emmy could never admit. It was only that they were different.

"But to leave Pa!" Emmy's bewildered mind went back to what was the real difficulty. Jenny protested.

"He was in bed. I thought he'd be safe. He was tucked up. Supposing I hadn't gone. Supposing I'd gone up to bed an hour ago. Still he'd have done the same."

"You know he wouldn't," Emmy said, very quietly. Jenny felt a wave of hysteria pass through her. It died down. She held herself very firmly. It was true. She knew that she was only defending herself.

"I don't know," she said, in a false, aggrieved voice. "How do I know?"

"You do. He knew you were out. He very likely woke up and felt frightened."

"Felt thirsty, more like it!" Jenny exclaimed.

"Well, you did wrong," Emmy said. "However you like to put it to yourself, you did wrong."

"I always manage to. Don't I!" Jenny's speech still was without defiance. She was humble. "It's a funny thing; but it's true...."

"You always want to go your own way," Emmy reproved.

"Oh, I don't think that's wrong!" hastily said Jenny. "Why should you go anybody else's way?"

"I don't know," admitted Emmy. "But it's safer."

"Whose way do you go?" Jenny had stumbled upon a question so unanswerable that she was at liberty to answer it for herself. "I don't know whose way you go now; but I do know whose way you'll go soon. You'll go Alf's way."

"Well?" demanded Emmy. "If it's a good way?"

"Well, I go Keith's way!" Jenny answered, in a fine glow. "And he goes mine."

Emmy looked at her, shaking her head in a kind of narrow wisdom.

"Not if he sends a chauffeur," she said slowly. "Not that sort of man."

v

For a moment Jenny's heart burned with indignation. Then it turned cold. If Emmy were right! Supposing—just supposing.... Savagely she thrust doubt of Keith from her: her trust in him was forced by dread into still warmer and louder proclamation.

"You don't understand!" she cried. "You couldn't. You've never seen him. Wait a minute!" She went quickly out of the kitchen and up to her bedroom. There, secretly kept from every eye, was the little photograph of Keith. She brought it down. In anxious triumph she showed it to Emmy. Emmy's three years' seniority had never been of so much account. "There," Jenny said. "That's Keith. Look at him!"

Emmy held the photograph under the meagre light. She was astonished, although she kept outwardly calm; because Keith—besides being obviously what is called a gentleman—looked honest and candid. She could not find fault with the face.

"He's very good-looking," she admitted, in a critical tone. "Very."

"Not the sort of man you thought," emphasised Jenny, keenly elated at Emmy's dilemma.

"Is he ... has he got any money?"

"Never asked him. No—I don't think he has. It wasn't his chauffeur. A lord's."

"There! He knows lords.... Oh, Jenny!" Emmy's tone was still one of warning. "He won't marry you. I'm sure he won't."

"Yes he will," Jenny said confidently. But the excitement had shaken her, and she was not the firm Jenny of custom. She looked imploringly at Emmy. "Say you believe it!" she begged. Emmy returned her urgent gaze, and felt Jenny's arm round her. Their two faces were very close. "You'd have done the same," Jenny urged.

Something in her tone awakened a suspicion in Emmy's mind. She tried to see what lay behind those glowing mysteries that were so close to hers. Her own eyes were shining as if from an inner brightness. The sisters, so unlike, so inexpressibly contrary in every phase of their outlook, in every small detail of their history, had this in common—that each, in her own manner, and with the consequences drawn from differences of character and aim, had spent happy hours with the man she loved. What was to follow remained undetermined. But Emmy's heart was warmed with happiness: she was for the first time filled only with impulses of kindness and love for Jenny. She would blame no more for Jenny's desertion. It was just enough, since the consequences of that desertion had been remedied, to enhance Emmy's sense of her own superiority. There remained only the journey taken by Jenny. She again took from her sister's hand the little photograph. Alf's face seemed to come between the photograph and her careful, poring scrutiny, more the jealous scrutiny of a mother than that of a sister.

"He's rather thin", Emmy ventured, dubiously. "What colour are his eyes?"

"Blue. And his hair's brown.... He's lovely."

"He looks nice," Emmy said, relenting.

"He is nice. Em, dear.... Say you'd have done the same!"

Emmy gave Jenny a great hug, kissing her as if Jenny had been her little girl. To Emmy the moment was without alloy. Her own future assured, all else fell into the orderly picture which made up her view of life. But she was not quite calm, and it even surprised her to feel so much warmth of love for Jenny. Still holding her sister, she was conscious of a quick impulse that was both exulting and pathetically shy.

"It's funny us both being happy at once. Isn't it!" she whispered, all sparkling.

vi

To herself Jenny groaned a sufficient retort.

"I don't know that I'm feeling so tremendously happy my own self," she thought. For the reaction had set in. She was glad enough to bring about by various movements their long-delayed bedward journey. She was beginning to feel that her head and her heart were both aching, and that any more confidences from Emmy would be unbearable. And where Emmy had grown communicative—since Emmy had nothing to conceal—Jenny had felt more and more that her happiness was staled as thought corroded it. By the time they turned out the kitchen gas the clock pointed to twenty minutes past two, and the darkest hour was already recorded. In three more hours the sun would rise, and Jenny knew that long before then she would see the sky greying as though the successive veils of the transformation were to reveal the crystal grotto. She preceded Emmy up the stairs, carrying a candle and lighting the way. At the top of the staircase Emmy would find her own candle, and they would part. They were now equally eager for the separation, Emmy because she wanted to think over and over again the details of her happiness, and to make plans for a kind of life that was to open afresh in days that lay ahead. Arrived at the landing the sisters did not pause or kiss, but each looked and smiled seriously as she entered her bedroom. With the closing of the doors noise seemed to depart from the little house, though Jenny heard Emmy moving in her room. The house was in darkness. Emmy was gone; Pa lay asleep in the dim light, his head bandaged and the water slowly soaking into the towel protectively laid upon his chest; in the kitchen the ailing clock ticked away the night. Everything seemed at peace but Jenny, who, when she had closed the door and set her candle down, went quickly to the bed, sitting upon its edge and looking straight before her with dark and sober eyes.

She had much to think of. She would never forgive herself now for leaving Pa. It might have been a more serious accident that had happened during her absence; she could even plead, to Emmy, that the accident might have happened if she had not left the house at all; but nothing her quick brain could urge had really satisfied Jenny. The stark fact remained that she had been there under promise to tend Pa; and that she had failed in her acknowledged trust. He might have died. If he had died, she would have been to blame. Not Pa! He couldn't help himself! He was driven by inner necessity to do things which he must not be allowed to do. Jenny might have pleaded the same justification. She had done so before this. It had been a necessity to her to go to Keith. As far as that went she did not question the paramount power of impulse. Not will, but the strongest craving, had led her. Jenny could perhaps hardly discourse learnedly upon such things: she must follow the dictates of her nature. But she never accused Pa of responsibility. He was an irresponsible. She had been left to look after him. She had not stayed; and ill had befallen. A bitter smile curved Jenny's lips.

"I suppose they'd say it was a punishment," she whispered. "They'd like to think it was."

After that she stayed a long time silent, swaying gently while her candle flickered, her head full of a kind of formless musing. Then she rose from the bed and took her candle so that she could see her face in the small mirror upon the dressing-table. The candle flickered still more in the draught from the open window; and Jenny saw her breath hang like a cloud before her. In the mirror her face looked deadly pale; and her lips were slightly drawn as if she were about to cry. Dark shadows were upon her face, whether real or the work of the feeble light she did not think to question. She was looking straight at her own eyes, black with the dilation of pupil, and somehow struck with the horror which was her deepest emotion. Jenny was speaking to the girl in the glass.

"I shouldn't have thought it of you," she was saying. "You come out of a respectable home and you do things like this. Silly little fool, you are. Silly little fool. Because you can't stand his not loving you ... you go and do that." For a moment she stopped, turning away, her lip bitten, her eyes veiled. "Oh, but he does love me!" she breathed. "Quite as much ... quite as much ... nearly ... nearly as much...." She sighed deeply, standing lone in the centre of the room, her long, thin shadow thrown upon the wall in front of her. "And to leave Pa!" she was thinking, and shaking her head. "That was wrong, when I'd promised. I shall always know it was wrong. I shall never be able to forget it as long as I live. Not as long as I live. And if I hadn't gone, I'd never have seen Keith again—never! He'd have gone off; and my heart would have broken. I should have got older and older, and hated everybody. Hated Pa, most likely. And now I just hate myself.... Oh, it's so difficult!" She moved impatiently, and at last went back to the mirror, not to look into it but to remove the candle, to blow it out, and to leave the room in darkness. This done, Jenny drew up the blind, so that she could see the outlines of the roofs opposite. It seemed to her that for a long distance there was no sound at all: only there, all the time, far behind all houses, somewhere buried in the heart of London, there was the same unintermittent low growl. It was always in her ears, even at night, like a sleepless pulse, beating steadily through the silences.

Jenny was not happy. Her heart was cold. She continued to look from the window, her face full of gravity. She was hearing again Keith's voice as he planned their future; but she was not sanguine now. It all seemed too far away, and so much had happened. So much had happened that seemed as though it could never be realised, never be a part of memory at all, so blank and sheer did it now stand, pressing upon her like overwhelming darkness. She thought again of the bridge, and the striking hours; the knock, the letter, the hurried ride; she remembered her supper and the argument with Emmy; the argument with Alf; and her fleeting moods, so many, so painful, during her time with Keith. To love, to be loved: that was her sole commandment of life—how learned she knew not. To love and to work she knew was the theory of Emmy. But how different they were, how altogether unlike! Emmy with Alf; Jenny with Keith....

"Yes, but she's got what she wants," Jenny whispered in the darkness. "That's what she wants. It wouldn't do for me. Only in this world you've all got to have one pattern, whether it suits you or not. Else you're not 'right.' 'They' don't like it. And I'm outside ... I'm a misfit. Eh, well: it's no good whimpering about it. What must be, must; as they say!"

Soberly she moved from the window and began to undress in the darkness, stopping every now and then as if she were listening to that low humming far beyond the houses, when the thought of unresting life made her heart beat more quickly. Away there upon the black running current of the river was Keith, on that tiny yacht so open upon the treacherous sea to every kind of danger. And nothing between Keith and sudden, horrible death but that wooden hulk and his own seamanship. She was Keith's: she belonged to him; but he did not belong to her. To Keith she might, she would give all, as she had done; but he would still be apart from her. He might give his love, his care: but she knew that her pride and her love must be the love and pride to submit—not Keith's. Away from him, released from the spell, Jenny knew that she had yielded to him the freedom she so cherished as her inalienable right. She had given him her freedom. It was in his power. For her real freedom was her innocence and her desire to do right. It was not that she wanted to defy, so much as that she could bear no shackles, and that she had no respect for the belief that things should be done only because they were always done, and for no other reason but that of tradition. And she feared nothing but her own merciless judgment.

It was not now that she dreaded Emmy's powerlessness to forgive her, or the opinion of anybody else in the world. It was that she could not forgive herself. Those who are strong enough to live alone in the world, so long as they are young and vigorous, have this rare faculty of self-judgment. It is only when they are exhausted that they turn elsewhere for judgment and pardon.

Jenny sat once again upon the bed.

"Oh Keith, my dearest...." she began. "My Keith...." Her thoughts flew swiftly to the yacht, to Keith. With unforgettable pain she heard his voice ringing in her ears, saw his clear eyes, as honest as the day, looking straight into her own. Pain mingled with love and pride; and battled there within her heart, making a fine tumult of sensation; and Jenny felt herself smiling in the darkness at such a conflict. She even began very softly to laugh. But as if the sound checked her and awoke the secret sadness that the tumultuous sensations were trying to hide, her courage suddenly gave way.

"Keith!" she gently called, her voice barely audible. Only silence was there. Keith was far away—unreachable. Jenny pressed her hands to her lips, that were trembling uncontrollably. She rose, struggling for composure, struggling to get back to the old way of looking at everything. It seemed imperative that she should do so. In a forlorn, quivering voice she ventured:

"What a life! Golly, what a life!"

But the effort to pretend that she could still make fun of the events of the evening was too great for Jenny. She threw herself upon the bed, burying her face in the pillow.

"Keith ... oh Keith!..."

THE END

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