"MARY LETITIA GREY."
* * * * *
This was the letter that had flashed like a ray of sun into the scheme of things for Blanche, and whose salient portions—by which she meant those directly affecting herself—she repeated over and over. "A very rich young man ... educated at Cambridge, I am told ... cannot blame the poor young man if he does not fall in love down here ... it would be different if you were home. He is just your style." That meant the style of man who fell in love with her, now always younger than herself.
"Got bad news, have 'ee, or is it good?" asked Mrs. Penticost, who could contain herself in silence no longer. She gave up the pretence of dusting and stood frankly looking at her lodger.
"I—I don't quite know how to take it, Mrs. Penticost," temporised Blanche.
"Whisht kind of news that must be," remarked Mrs. Penticost, who had not watched Miss Grey these past weeks without getting a shrewd idea of the tendency of her thoughts and affections. "I was wondering whether you weren't feeling glad that time's come to go—if 'ee are going along of Miss Judy?"
There was no answer to this, and Mrs. Penticost, her rosy face set in lines of determination, began again.
"Must be rare and dull for 'ee down here after London, though there was that ball in to Penzance t'other night. Dance weth Maister Ruan, ded 'ee, my dear? They do say he handles his feet some pretty. I remember when I was a maid I was all for a man who could do that. I got as far as walking arm-a-crook weth a chap wance, and, thought I, 'I won't go for to ask he to step in till I do know if he can dance wi' I.' Some trouble I ded have keepen' he quiet till there was a gala and us could dance. Primitive Wesleyan, the gala was. He was all for me maken' up my mind long before, and I wouldn' have un till I knew, nor yet I wouldn' let un go. 'Must keep cousins weth he or he'll go off,' I thought; and so I ded, my dear, just managed it nicely. I gave the go-bye to a fine-looken chap from St. Just to dance wi' my man, and then I found that he never danced toall, and hadn't dared tell me. Mad as fire I was, and abused him worse than dung. But you couldn' ever go for to lay that complaint against Maister Ruan, nor yet any other, I should say."
"Mr. Ruan is all that is good and splendid, of course, Mrs. Penticost," said Blanche, folding up her letter.
"He is that, sure 'nough, and it'll be a bad day for the woman that ever does him a hurt, him that has had enough already to turn his very heart grey in his breast. I wouldn' like to see no woman do that."
"Mightn't it be better than making him unhappier in the long run by not doing him a hurt now, as you call it?" asked Blanche.
"If he but knew what was best for him, 'tes a sharp hurt and soon auver," said Mrs. Penticost frankly; "but he'm like all men, naught but a cheild that cries for the moon, and a woman as has a heart would sooner see a man getten' what he wants, even when 'tes bad for 'en, than see him eaten' his soul away with longing. There's a deal of satisfaction in maken' our own unhappiness, and a man has that to console him."
"You are a Job's comforter," cried Blanche, rustling out of the room. She had heard the well-known click of the little gate, and she fled upstairs to be alone with her thoughts and her letter for a few moments before meeting Ishmael. She no longer doubted she was going to break off her engagement and leave for home the next day, but she still had to decide on the type of Blanche who should appear to him and what her manner and aspect should be. A tender grieving, shown in a pale face and quiet eyes, would probably be best ... and she could always introduce a maternal note in the very accent of her "dear boy...."
Not for nothing had Ishmael given way to the incursion of the personal, always before so jealously kept out of his life. His desire for impersonality now only kept by him in a fierce wish to blot out his own as much as possible, to sink it in that of the beloved, to drown in hers. He was obsessed by Blanche, she filled the world for him from rim to rim; and though with his mind he still admitted the absurdity of it, could even look at his own state dispassionately, he yet had to admit the fact. It was some time since he had been near Boase, because, although the Parson never so much as hinted it, Ishmael knew he was not in sympathy with him over this. Annie he felt he could hate for her antagonism, which, as long as it had been against himself alone, he had not minded; even Vassie would not yield altogether and come in on his side. Blanche had to fight the lot of them, he told himself—resentful, fearful lest they should frighten her away. But at the bottom of it all was the fear, the distrust of her which he refused to recognise.
On this morning as he went down over the fields to Mrs. Penticost's he was more uneasy than ever before—he knew it was not his imagination that she had been different these last few days; he began to be beset by vague fears to which he had not dared give form even in his own mind, much less in any speech with her. Yet since the dance he had faced the conclusion that they could not go on as they were, that Blanche must either agree to a wedding or a final parting....
He reached the cottage and had to wait awhile till Blanche, pale and grave, came to him in the little parlour.
"Come out," he said to her. "There's a lot of things I want to say, and I can't here. The room's too small."
Blanche hesitated, seemed to be weighing something in her mind, and then agreed docilely; she put on a hat, and then went beside him towards the cliff. As they went Ishmael tried to take her hand, trying to capture with it some of the spirit of joy which had fled, but she was carrying a little bag, which she snatched away; there came from it a crackle as of a letter.... They went down on to the cliff together and stood awhile in a speechless constraint among the withered bracken.
It was a day of sunlight so faint it seemed dead, like some gleam refracted onto the pale bright sky, and so to earth, rather than any direct outflow; the quiet air was only stirred by the swish of scythes from the sloping cliff where two men cut the crisp bracken down for litter for cattle. The time of year had fallen upon rust—brown-rust were the bells of the dried heath, the spires of wall-pennywort that lurked in the crannies of the boulders; blood-rust were the wisps of dead sorrel that stood up into the sunlight; fawn-rust were the hemlocks with their spidery umbels, and a deader fawn were the masses of seeded hemp-agrimony, whose once plumy heads were now become mere frothy tufts of down, that blew against Blanche's dress as she passed, and clung there.
Swish-swish ... came the even sweep of the scythes, a whispering sound that irritated Blanche and somehow disarranged her carefully-prepared sentences before ever they had a chance to reach her tongue. She felt that here, on the rust-red cliff, with that deadly scything sounding in their ears, Ishmael would get the better of her, and she turned through the bracken to where an overgrown track led to what had once been a series of tiny gardens set on the cliff and walled in with thick elder. There at least they could be hidden from the eyes of any stray labourers, and with less space about her she felt she would find her task easier. Ishmael followed her with a heart that warned him of dread to come. Always afterwards he avoided those dead gardens on the cliff that he had been wont to like to wander in.
They stretched, some dozen or so of them, down the slope, divided up thus for better protection against the wind. The close-set hedges of elder were bare as skeletons, but so thickly entwined as, even so, to form dense screens, only broken at the corners to allow of passing from one little garden to the next and the next, both below and to one side. In his childhood they had belonged to an old man who cultivated them assiduously and sent in the produce to the weekly market at Penzance, and then, in their patchwork brightness as narcissi and wall flowers, violets, or beans and young potatoes, flourished there, they had deserved their name of jewel-gardens, and to himself he had always called them "the hanging gardens of Babylon"—a phrase that had filled him with a sense of joy. Now they had been long neglected, and the bare earth crumbled underfoot; even grass or weeds seemed afraid to grow there. Dead, quiet, and still, they were become sinister little squares of earth, shrouded by those contorted elders, dry and brown as they.
Blanche paused by a tall hedge and stood with her back against it, her arms outflung on either side and her head up bravely. Ishmael had a moment of looking round blindly as though he were in some trap from which he could not escape, as though the walls of dead elder had grown together and were penning him in. Then he faced her and spoke.
"Blanche!" he said; "won't you tell me what is the matter?"
Blanche said nothing; tears of pity suddenly choked her, and the knowledge of the blow she was about to deal. Ishmael at last brought himself to voice his dread.
"You aren't disappointed in it all—or in me?" he asked in a low voice. "You're not getting—bored, are you, Blanche? After all, the actress sees the seamiest side of town; you won't mind leaving it? I know I'm offering you a very different life from what you're used to, but"—with a shade of the decisiveness that had always attracted her to him—"it will be much better for you. No late hours, no more of the sandwiches-at-odd-times game. We shall be very happy, just us two, even if we don't know people. People!" he cried scornfully, a wave of passion breaking over him as he caught her to him. "What do we want with other people?"
Pressing her almost roughly against him, he bent her head back into the curve of his arm and kissed her fiercely. She lay passive, deliberately taking all he gave and thrilling to it. Self-pity surged over her; she had been so happy—not only happy, but so much better! It was very hard, she felt, as she trembled with pleasure under his kisses. She shrank from giving pain, but she shrank still more from lowering herself in his eyes, and the situation needed all her skill. Disengaging herself from his arms, she faced him with what she felt to be a brave little smile.
"Ishmael! My poor boy; Ishmael!" she said.
He was suddenly very grave, but waited silently.
Still, he said nothing, and she took his hand in hers and spoke very gently.
"Ishmael, dear one! listen to me. You must see that it's impossible, that it would never do."
He did see it, her very certainty showed him plainly enough; but still he fought against it, bringing forward every plea, and ending with what was to him the great argument: "But if we love each other?"
"Of course love is very important, Ishmael," said Blanche, choosing her words carefully; "but don't you see how important other things are too? It's the externals that matter most in this life, Ishmael; see how they matter to you, who have worked so hard to alter them."
"You can be clever about it," said Ishmael, a new look that was almost suspicion glinting in his eyes; "I can't talk round a thing, but I know things. I know I love you and would spend my life trying to make you happy. You say you aren't happy in your own life."
"But how could I be happy without my friends and my own kind of people, Ishmael?" asked Blanche reproachfully. She did not add that, being incapable of loyalty, she had no real friends, but suddenly she saw it as true, and staggered under the flood of self-pity that followed. Losing Ishmael, she was indeed bereft, not only of him, but of her new self, and with the worst of all pangs—loneliness—striking through her, she laid her arms against the hedge and, hiding her face, burst into a storm of tears. Ishmael stood by her silently; like most men, he was inarticulate at the great moments, and Blanche sobbed on. She who for so many years had made herself believe what she wished, had gagged and blindfolded her own soul till truth showed its face to her in vain, was now stripped of all bandages and having facts passed relentlessly before her. She had made Ishmael love her, as she had so many men, by seeming something she was not; she had fallen in love with Ishmael herself, and must keep up the pretence of being the woman he thought her, for for her real self such a man as Ishmael could have no comprehension. She told herself that if they could only have married she would in time have grown to be the woman he thought her, and she railed bitterly at Fate. For her there only remained the old path, and the knowledge filled her with a leaden weariness. But for Ishmael—what remained for him? Never again would he be able to delight in the world of hopes he had set up with such care. What could she give him to help him face reality? The plighted word, steadfastness, friendship, none of these gifts were Blanche's to bestow, but she could at least send him away his own man again—at the sacrifice of her vanity. A struggle shook her mind, all the well-trained sophistries warring against a new clarity of vision. There were two courses open to her—she might hoodwink Ishmael, bewilder him with words, show herself as grieving, exquisite, far above him, yet in spirit unchangeably his; or she might show him the truth, let him see her as the world-ridden, egotistical creature of flimsy emotions and tangible ambitions that she was. If she chose the first way, Ishmael would have an unshattered ideal to take away and set up in his lonely heart; but it placed forgetfulness out of the question for a man of his temperament. If she decided on the second course, he would have a time of bitter disillusionment, but could some day love again, perhaps all the sooner for the shock; Blanche knew that nothing sends a man so surely into a woman's arms as a rebuff from another woman. In her heart she saw the finer course, yet the little voices clamoured, told her she would be destroying the ideality of a delicate nature, spoiling something that could never be the same again: on the one side whatever there was of self-abnegation in her love, on the other the habit of a lifetime.
She raised her head, and her glance was arrested idly by a deserted spider's web woven from branch to branch of the elder hedge and wavering gently in the breeze. Some seed husks had been blown into the meshes and clung there lightly, cream-hued against the pearly threads. Blanche found herself picturing the disgust of the departed spider over this innovation on flies. "It is like my life," she thought, "blown husks for bread," and the tears welling in her eyes made the seeds seem to swell and the web run together in a silvery blur. The moment of idle thought had taken the keen edge from her ideas, and, like many another, she tried to compromise.
"I'm afraid you must reconstruct your ideas of me, Ishmael," she said, with an air of candour that struck him as worthy of her even through his pain. "You think of me as something ethereal and angelic, and I'm not. I'm only a woman, Ishmael, and the little things of life—friendship, beauty, one's own kin—mean so much to me."
He had a confused idea she must mean the big things, but he waited silently.
"Ishmael!" she said desperately; "it's no good, I'm not the sort of woman who can throw up the whole of life for one thing. You will think me mercenary, worldly, but I'm not; the old ties are too strong for me, and I can't break them. It's my heart that breaks.... Oh, Ishmael, Ishmael, I loved you so!"
Through all the inconsistencies of her words two salient facts stood out to Ishmael—she was unhappy, and through him. His own pain lay numb, a thing to be realised when he roamed the fields alone, and still more intimately known when he had it for bed-and-hearth fellow in his dreary house. Nature has provided that a great blow shall always stun for a time; sensation stays quiescent as long as there still remains something to be done; it is in the lonely hours after all action is over that pain makes itself felt. Ishmael, if asked then, would have said his heart was broken, but long afterwards he would see that no such merciful thing had happened, and marvel how the cord of suffering can be strained to breaking-point and kept taut, yet never snap. He was yet to learn that no pain is unbearable, for the simple reason that it has to be borne.
"There's nothing to blame yourself about," he said. "You've given me the most beautiful things to remember, and it's not your fault you can't give more. When I think of what you are and what I have to offer I feel I couldn't let you give more even if you would...." Always unfluent of speech, he stopped abruptly, while a wheel of thought whirred round so swiftly in his brain that he only caught a blurred impression. Ishmael had had, perforce, to live as far as his mental life went in a world of books, and with a vague resentment he felt that books had not played him fair. Surely he had read, many times, of women who had thought the world well lost for love—the hackneyed expression came so readily to him. "She cares for me," he thought, with an odd mingling of triumph and pain, "only she doesn't care enough. It's a half-shade, and the books don't prepare one for the half-shades. Nobody can love without a flaw—we all fail each other somewhere; it's like no one being quite good or quite bad: nothing is black or white, but just varying tones of grey. They make life damned difficult, the half-shades!"
Giving his shoulders a little shake, he turned to Blanche. "I must go," he said gently. "Good-bye, Blanche!"
She held out both her hands, and he took them in his, repeating, "Good-bye, Blanche!"
Then she made her only mistake; she swayed towards him, her face held up to his in a last invitation. Roughly he put her hands away.
"Not that, Blanche ... not that!" said a voice he hardly recognised as his own, and, wheeling, he went heavily through the little dead gardens. Blanche, sick with disappointment, noted dully that he never turned his head as he passed out of the last. A sob rose to her throat, and as she heard the choking sound she made, the swift thought came: "That sounded real! I must be broken-hearted to sob like that...."; and she sobbed again. Then a flash of self-revelation ran over her, and she stood aghast.
"Nothing is real about me, nothing!" she cried despairingly, "not even my sorrow at being so unreal." Drying her eyes, she stared out at the pale gleam of the Atlantic glinting through the elders and began to think. She saw love, such love as she was capable of, had been ruled out of life for her; it became all the more necessary that she should capture other things that made life pleasant. If she let this new phase of sincerity become a habit, she was lost indeed; better to slip into the old self-deceiving Blanche once again. Deliberately she shut off thoughts of Ishmael, and barred them out until such time as she could think of him, without effort, from a point of view that in no way lowered her self-esteem. She had been artificial in her strivings after sincerity; now, for the last time, she was real in her acceptance of unreality. Lightly dabbing her eyelids with a pocket powder-puff, she went back to the cottage.
There she read through the letter again, then consulted a time-table; she could change at Exeter and catch a train that would enable her to reach home that evening. She could make up a story to her stepmother to account for her sudden appearance. Blanche began composing in her mind what she would say to her. She would pretend not to have had the letter; even her gentle, garrulous little stepmother's good opinion was dear to her. She would seal it up again and forward it on herself; it would reach her at home a day after her own arrival. Yes, thought Blanche, everything would dovetail excellently. She went into the kitchen where Mrs. Penticost was ironing and the pleasant smell of warm linen hung upon the air.
"I've decided I must go home, Mrs. Penticost," she said. "That letter was to say my father is very ill, and I was only waiting till I'd seen Mr. Ruan.... I've told him I must go to-morrow. I'm so sorry, but—"
"Ah!" interrupted Mrs. Penticost; "'tes as well—'twould be dull for 'ee alone wi'out Mr. Ruan able to come so much about the place, and I wouldn' have had en here with Miss Judy gone and you alone. You was rare taken up wi' he!"
Blanche's vanity was too insatiable to spare Ishmael; she sighed pathetically.
"Oh, Mrs. Penticost! you make me feel horribly guilty, for I'm afraid it's all over," she said with simple earnestness, "but I couldn't prevent it; and poor Mr. Ruan—"
"Don't 'ee go for to tell I about it!" broke in Mrs. Penticost; "'tes downright ondecent in 'ee!"
Blanche flushed. "Horrid, insufferable woman!" she thought angrily as she went upstairs. "How thankful I shall be to see the last of her!"
Opening her box, she began to throw her belongings in viciously. From without came the crunch of Billy Penticost's boots as he crossed the little yard and the clink of a pail set down; then the rhythmic sound of pumping, so like the stertorous breathing of some vast creature, rose on the morning air. A sudden loathing of country sights and sounds gripped Blanche, and, tearing off her faded frock, she began to dress herself in the one smart travelling gown she had brought with her.
"I don't care what Mrs. Penticost thinks!" she told her reflection in the blurred looking-glass as she pulled a gold-coloured ribbon round her waist; "I don't care what any of them think—they're just country bumpkins, with no ideas in their heads beyond crops and cows!"
Without warning, a throb of memory assailed her: was it only a month ago she had stood in this room in the moonlight, waiting to go and meet Ishmael in the field? Her fingers shook a little as she took a few blossoms of creamy-yellow toadflax he had picked for her out of their vase and laid them tentatively against her gown. They harmonised to perfection, but Blanche, after a moment's hesitation, flung them down.
"I'll buy some roses in Exeter," she thought; "they'll look more suitable than hedge-flowers." It was her definite rejection of the country and all it stood for; but on a gust of sentiment she picked up the toadflax blossoms and stuck them in water again—her last tribute to the memory of Ishmael.
THE GREY WORLD
During the next few months pain became a habit of mind with Ishmael, a habit which was to grow into a blessing for him, preventing him ever again feeling with such acuteness. From time to time he fell into deadness of all sensation, when he hoped that the worst of his suffering was over; but always it struggled up out of the numbness again, as insistent as before. He fought his lassitude of spirit as stubbornly as the periods of active pain, but both with the same result, the opposition probably only making both last the longer. He would doubtless have pulled through more quickly if he had gone away, joined Killigrew in Paris, or gone on some tour with Boase. But partly from a stubborn sense of not deserting his post, partly because things were not doing well in the farming world just then, and partly because of the true instinct of the lover which bids him stay where the feet of his mistress have passed, though the suffering thereby be doubled, he stayed on at Cloom. At Cloom—where there was no evading the thought of her amid the memories, where every stile and field held some fragrance from what he had thought her, where the very air that blew across his brow seemed as though it blew from her. If he had left he would have had to take with him the image of her as he now knew her; by staying he kept the ghost of the Blanche he had imagined her to be when she was still there.
There was a long time when it suddenly seemed to him as though she must repent, as though he could not be suffering so and she not share it, as though any post might bring a letter and any moment show her figure pausing at the gate. He learnt during that phase what poignancy is held by the cry of the wisest of men—that "hope deferred maketh the heart sick." During the weeks that he was thus obsessed there was not a click of the latch but sent his heart racing, while at the same time he did not dare look up because in his heart he knew it would not be she he saw. He slept little during this period, and looked a good six or seven years older than his real age. This was succeeded by one of the phases of numbness when partly reaction, because the mind cannot keep stretched too tautly, and partly sheer physical fatigue from the hard work he drove himself to every day, made for a merciful slough of the spirit in which it all the time deceitfully gathered itself together for the next onslaught.
That his instinct had always been to fight the intrusion of the personal, that still it was so to the extent of a deadly clearness of vision which prevented him thinking the affair of greater importance than it was, did not prevent one shade of his pain; rather it was the more acute for raging in spite of himself. He was powerless to do anything but set his teeth and assure himself that it would eventually pass. He looked at his suffering as a man may look at a broken leg: he sees it stretched helpless before him; the pain from it ravages his whole sense, but it is local, so that he can lay his hand upon it and look from it to uninjured portions of his being which are yet unconscious of immunity, so much is his whole sense occupied with the one suffering portion.
Meanwhile Ishmael set himself to believe, or rather to realise—for he never lost his feeling for values sufficiently ever to believe otherwise—that all this would one day fall from off him; he even thought that then he would be as he had been before, not yet knowing that pain never leaves a man as it found him—that freshness of emotion lost in any direction, it can never be recaptured. Meanwhile, now and again, for all his philosophy, he was occasionally guilty of adding to the sum of his own pain by deliberately indulging in it. There were evenings when he fell on weakness and allowed himself to go over the fields at dark to Paradise, where he would stand at the point in the hedge whence he had been wont to watch her light. One evening there was a light in her window, and his heart had thudded in his chest so that he could have heard it had he been occupied in anything but clutching the hedge with both hands and staring, half-expecting a miracle to happen and her form to be shadowed on the blind at any moment. Sometimes, too, as he lay in his bed after a hard day's work and sleep would have come to him had he let it, he would start imagining, as he had been wont to do when a little boy. Only now it was not mere cloudy, impossible dreams of renown, of rescuing the whole family from a burning house, that filled his mind, but reconstructions of the time with Blanche.... If he had said this or that, something different from what he had said; if only, if only.... And if she were to come back, how he would forget all he had said about it being impossible to go on as they were in uncertainty—how willingly would he catch at any excuse for trying it all over again. He would plan that too, till sometimes his vivid imaginings would for a few moments almost deceive himself, and he would realise, with a pang whose sharpness turned him sick and banished sleep, that it was all only the pretence of a child.
Nevertheless, he did not succumb to the temptation to write to her, probably because in his inmost heart he knew too well that if she wanted him she would write—on some other excuse. He had been in a curious way clear-sighted about her from the first; he had always acknowledged that strain of insincerity, but he had fallen into the error of believing that underneath all those shifting sands there was at last bedrock and that it was his hand which was to discover it. He now knew that it was nothing but sands, and a quicksand at that, yet the knowledge made the death of his love no easier. Love cannot be killed—it always dies a natural death; and natural deaths are slow processes. Of all the things Blanche had said to him one at least was very true, and that was on a day when he had been telling her the many reasons why he loved her. Her mouth, her eyes, her soul, her voice, it had been the usual lover's medley. She had listened, and then perhaps, with the knowledge in her heart that disillusionment was bound to be his, said:
"There's only one safe reason for loving anyone, Ishmael, and that is—'because I am I and you are you!'... Love a person for beauty or brains or virtues, and they may all fail—there's only the one reason that may be trusted not to change." And that was, of course, precisely why he had loved her, and why the love died harder than the reasoned loves of older years which respond to reasoning.
Affairs at home were not likely to provide a pleasurable change for Ishmael's thoughts. Vassie, it was true, meant more to him, as he to her, than ever before. The pain that Vassie had suffered when Killigrew had left after his first visit, though not comparable to Ishmael's, being disappointment and hurt vanity, yet had dowered her with a degree of comprehension she might otherwise have missed. She felt she loved this young brother more dearly than she had ever thought to; something of the maternal awoke in her; she helped him in many little ways he did not notice, getting between him and their mother's tongue, exerting herself to make the affairs within the house run more smoothly. She was proud of her youngest brother, of his unlikeness to the rest, even of the aloofness and fits of dreaming which she no more than the others understood, but which she was sufficiently in advance of them to revere instead of scorning. She was more like him than she knew, though in her ambition had taken harder and more personal form.
With the spring Annie became unbearable. Archelaus had suddenly gone off again, after his fashion, this time to the goldfields of California, and Annie, who felt his departure bitterly, chose to blame Ishmael for it. Christmas had been for her the occasion to revive all her religious frenzies, and the house rang with her cracked-voiced hymns till Ishmael felt he could have smothered her with her own feather-bed. Her lust for religion, however, was taking a new direction—it was towards the Parson and his church instead of the conventicle of Mr. Tonkin. Quite what had brought about this change was hard to say—probably chiefly the infatuation of Tonkin for Vassie, a circumstance Annie took as an insult to herself.
"A man on in years like him, oldern' I be myself, and a minister before the Lard, ought to have other things to think on than wantoning with his thoughts after a maid young enough to be his daughter! Where's his religion, I should like to knaw?" This was Annie's own explanation, and even she realised that against Boase no charge of thinking about women could be brought—that quality of priesthood even her ignorance unconsciously admitted. She approached Boase on the subject of his creed and met with scant encouragement, which made her the more earnest. If the Parson had been anxious to receive her into the path he trod, she would have lagged; as it was, his brusqueness awaked a sensation of pleasure in her—there was no male to snub and bully her now that Archelaus had gone away. She set up to herself the image of Boase that some more educated women make of their doctor—a bully who had to be placated, who would scold her if she transgressed his ideas. She took to going to church every Sunday evening and sat in the Manor pew, every jet bead trembling on her bonnet as she kept her mind strained to attention—always a difficult task with her for any length of time.
One wet afternoon Vassie found she was not in the house, though when she had slipped out no one could say. Ishmael, alarmed—for nothing could have been more unlike Annie's habits—was about to set out in search of her, when the kitchen door was thrust open and slammed again and Annie stood before them, soaking with wet, her arms clasping a bundle of little books and a light of sly triumph in her eyes. Boase, shutting a dripping umbrella, was behind her. She had been across to the Vicarage in all the wet and cold to make the Parson talk to her about her soul, and to get rid of her he had finally given her a host of little cheap devotional books that had from time to time been sent to him from the publishers, and which he himself, disliking most modern books of devotion, had not troubled to read. He knew they were suited to the mentality of the average child of ten, and that therefore Annie with an effort might understand them and would certainly think them full of the Spirit.
He stood behind Annie, grave and quiet, signalling to Ishmael and Vassie with his eyes. Vassie sprang forward.
"Why, Mamma, you're soaked!" she cried. "Come! it's up to the bed you must go at once, and I'll bring you a hot drink when you're undressed. You can look at your books better in bed, you know."
"That's a true word," said Annie; "so I can. I can have 'en all around me on the bed, can't I, Vassie? I'll take en up, though; don't you touch en, I fear you'm nought but an unconverted vessel, and I won't have 'ee touchen my books."
Assuring her she should have it all her own way, Vassie got her out of the room and upstairs, while Katie heated water for a stone bottle to be put at her feet. Ishmael and Boase went into the parlour and sat down with grave faces.
"I don't understand it at all, Padre," said Ishmael. "This isn't a bit like her. Of course, she's always been funny, but she's never done a thing like this."
"It may be nothing but her annual attack of salvation," said the Parson drily. "I shouldn't worry about it if I were you; only keep an eye on her. She's not as young as she was, and it won't do her any good to be running about getting wet through."
"She'll never listen to anything I say."
"Well, Vassie seems able to manage her all right. She's a most capable girl, that!"
"She is indeed," said Ishmael, pleased at praise of his sister, whom he knew Boase as a rule was apt to criticise silently rather than admire. "I don't think my life here would be possible without Vassie. There are times when I feel I want to take mother's head and knock it against the wall. It sounds awful, but it's true. I want to knock it and hear the crunch it would make. There! But you can't think what it's like sometimes. One's soul is thrown at one, so to speak, morning, noon, and night. I don't believe it's a good thing, anyway, to be always taking one's soul out to feel its pulse. Except that mother's uneducated and ignorant about it, she reminds me very much of a woman at that vicarage in Somerset I used to go to sometimes in the holidays. She was the aunt of the family and was what she called a deaconess. It's a sort of half and half thing, not like a Sister of Mercy exactly...."
"A Cousin of Mercy, shall we say?" suggested the Parson. "I think I once met the lady and I know what you mean. She had rows of little books, hadn't she?"
"Yes, and thought it was the sin against the Holy Ghost if she missed saying what she called her Hours. I'm sorry to be profane, but she did annoy me so though I was only a youngster. And now mother seems to be getting very like it. I wouldn't mind a bit if it made her happy, but it doesn't, not a bit of it."
"Nothing would make your mother happy—she wouldn't think it right; but she's only like a lot of women in that. The evils of Puritanism seem to have taken a deeper root in women than in men, and in some it has kept on cropping up generation after generation. Your mother is a born Puritan, which is why I wish her to stay a Wesleyan. There is no more arduous combination than the Puritan by instinct labouring under acquired Catholicism. I am a bad missionary, I suppose, but I have seen too much of these women."
"Women make such a fuss about nothing!" complained Ishmael.
"What has always seemed to me the mistake about the religious life as it is lived to-day," said Boase, "is the overweening importance given to trifles. The distortion of the sweeping-a-room-to-the-glory-of-God theory. If the mind is properly attuned to the spiritual sphere temporal things should lose significance, not gain them. I don't mean that we must leave off seeing to them—that would result in our all lying down, shutting our eyes, and starving ourselves gently into futurity. I mean that we should do the things, and do them well; because they are of such an insignificance they may just as well be done right as not. Get yourself into the habit of washing dishes so well that instinctively you are thorough over the job, and you won't have to think about it while you do it. But the self-consciousness put into mundane affairs by the average religious beats the worldly person hollow."
"They dissipate their secret bread into crumbs, in fact," said Ishmael with a laugh.
The Parson nodded. "Exactly—and stale crumbs at that. I wonder—it's easy to judge after all, and, as I once tried to tell you, it means something different to every man. Tolerance—the deeper tolerance which is charity ... if life doesn't teach one that, it's all been so much waste. Who am I and who is anyone to despise the means by which another man lives? Some of us find our relief in action, in the actual sweat of our bodies; some find it in set hours and rows of little devotional books—the technique of the thing, so to speak. And some of us find it out of doors and some within narrow walls—some find it in goodness and some only by sin and shame.... One shouldn't let other people's salvation rub one up the wrong way."
"It all goes to make the pattern, as Killigrew would say," suggested Ishmael thoughtfully.
"When I was very young," went on Ishmael after a pause, "I think I lived by the Spirit—much more so than I can now, Da Boase. I seem to have gone dead, somehow," Boase nodded, but said nothing. "And then it was Cloom that meant life to me when I came back here and started in on it. Then it was love!"
He spoke the word baldly, looking away from the Parson. "Then it was love!" he repeated; "and now it's just emptiness, a sort of going on blindly from day to day. It's as though one were pressing through dark water instead of air, and one could only struggle on and let it go over one's head and hope that some time one will come out the other side."
"Don't forget," said Boase gently, "that no one can see a pattern when he is in the middle of it. It all seems confused and without scheme while we are living in the midst of it; it's only on looking back that we see it fall into shape."
"And does it, always?"
"I firmly believe so. It rests with us to make it as beautiful a pattern as possible, but a pattern it is bound to make. And a terribly inevitable one, each curve leading to the next, as though we were spiders, spinning our web out of ourselves as we go...."
"I suppose so," said Ishmael listlessly. Boase looked at him keenly. He could hardly believe that Cloom meant nothing to Ishmael; he was certain that there balm must eventually be found. He glanced out of the window, and saw that the rain had left off and a still pallor held the air.
"Come out for a turn with me," he suggested. "I haven't seen you go beyond the fields for ages. Your mother'll be all right now."
Ishmael hesitated, then picked up a stick, and went out with the Parson. Boase had wondered much how deeply Ishmael had been hurt by the defection of Blanche, and it had been difficult for him to ascertain, as the young man's reserve was not of the quality which all the time tacitly asks for questioning. On the surface he had shown no trace, except by a sudden ageing that was probably temporary; there had been, as far as Boase knew, no outbreaks of rage or pain. Now he began to suspect that it was taking a worse way—an utter benumbing of the faculty of enjoyment. Never since Ishmael's earliest boyhood had beauty failed to rouse him to emotion, and the Parson wondered whether it could fail now. At least it was worth trying, and it was not without guile that he had proposed this walk; he knew of something he meant to spring upon Ishmael as a test. He led, as though casually, to a wild gorge that lay on the way to the Vicarage, but nearer the sea than the commonly-used path, which here looped inland to avoid it. A stream, half-hidden by heavy growths of bracken and hemlock and furze, raced down this gorge to the pebbly beach, where it divided up into a dozen tiny streams that bubbled and trickled to the sea's edge. All down the gorge great hummocks of earth had been thrown up at some giant upheaval of the land's making, and over their turfy, furze-ridden slopes granite boulders were tumbled one against the other. In the treacherous fissures between brambles and bracken had grown thickly; over everything else except the bare rocks the furze had spread in a dense sea that followed the curves of the slopes and stretched on up over each side of the gorge. Everything was grey—pearly grey of the sky, grey-green of the turf, brown-grey of last year's undergrowth, cold grey of the boulders—everything except the gorse; and it was this that had caused the Parson to catch his breath and stand amazed when first he came upon it as at too much of beauty for eyes to believe—that caught at him again now though he was expecting it. He and Ishmael rounded the end of the valley, mounted a slope, and stood with all the length and sweep of the gorge rolling around them.
By some freak of soil or aspect every tuft of the low-lying cushion gorse that covered the slopes and hummocks as far as the eye could see was in full bloom, not a dry bush to be seen—bloom so thickly set that hardly a green prickle was visible; bloom of one pure vivid yellow, undimmed in the distance, unmarked to closest view, a yellow that was pure essence of that colour untinged by any breath of aught else. The air reeked with the rich scent; the greyness of sky and land became one neutral tone for the onslaught of those pools of flaring molten gold that burnt to heaven with their undestructive flame. And every ardent sheet of it had a grape-like bloom, made by the velvety quality of the thousands of close-set petals; they gave the sensation of exquisite touch merely by looking at them, while their passionate colour and scent made the senses drunken on pure loveliness.
That was how it had taken Boase—how in normal days it would have taken Ishmael, even more keenly. Now he stood staring at it, hardly seeing, untouched to anything but a bleak knowledge that it was beautiful. Not a breath of ecstasy went through him; for him it was nothing, and he never even noticed that Boase was watching him. He moved forward as though to continue the walk, and the Parson fell into stride beside him. Something in Ishmael was dead, and in dying it had for the time being stunned what Boase could only hope was a more vital and permanent part.
Ishmael said good-bye at the Vicarage and went home again, his mind floating through greyness even as his body was passing through the grey of the weather and surroundings. At home he found John-James waiting to consult him about the breaking up of a grass-field, and harnessing the horse to the iron-toothed tormentor, he took it out himself and spent the rest of the day driving it over the tumbling clods.
THE CLIFF AND THE VALLEY
A month later Annie's religiosity, which had been increasing in violence, unmistakably took the form of mania. She became very violent, and for her own sake as much as for her family's she was removed to a doctor's establishment for such cases in Devonshire. The whole affair left the three at home very untouched—John-James because he was of a stolid habit, Vassie because she was never in sympathy with her mother and had borne much from her of late, and Ishmael because it seemed to him to have really no more to do with him intimately than if she had been a stranger woman living in his house. Both he and Vassie felt guiltily on the subject, not realising that reaction from strain was at the bottom of their seeming impassivity. To be able to take definite action instead of having merely to put up with the thing day by day was, when it came, a blessing to both of them, although it took what might conventionally have been assumed to be such a terrible shape. They were both very honest people, their strongest quality in common, and kept up no pretence even in outward appearance, unlike most people who keep it up even to themselves. They hardly spoke of the matter beyond making the necessary arrangements, and when Vassie had a fit of weeping in her room it was for the mother she remembered from her childhood, the mother of stormy tendernesses that nevertheless were sweet to her at the time, and whom she thought of now instead of letting her mind dwell on the woman who had been growing more and more distorted these last few years.
Nevertheless the fabric of their daily lives was torn up, and Ishmael began to see that things could not go on as they were. Vassie badly needed not only a rest, but a complete change and new interests; she had been living a life of strain lately, and her vigorous personality, unaccustomed to being swamped in that of others and only forced to it by her strong will, began to assert its needs. For the first time her bloom showed as impaired—something of her radiance had fled. Ishmael saw it, and knew that her affection for him would prevent her telling him as long as flesh could bear it. A Vassie grown fretful was the last thing he wanted, and her marred bloom hurt him; he always, in some odd way, looked on Vassie as a superior being even when he saw her little faults in style—so much more devastating than faults of character—most clearly. It somehow got itself settled that Vassie was to take a charming though impoverished maiden lady, whom the Parson had known for years in Penzance, as chaperon, and was to go and spend the summer at some big seaside place such as she delighted in. Vassie seemed to glow afresh at the mere notion, at the feel of the crisp bank notes which Ishmael gave her, and which represented all the old ambitions that swelled before her once more like bubbles blown by some magic pipe. She departed in a whirl of new frocks and sweeping mantles and feathery hats, and a quietness it had never known settled upon Cloom.
For the first few days, even a week or so, Ishmael enjoyed it. The scenes with Annie had been violent enough to fray the nerves more than he knew, but they had done him the service of putting other thoughts out of his head for the time being. Now these thoughts came back, but, as the days wore on, with a difference.
In his relations with Blanche the physical side had been hardly counted by him; he had felt passion for the first time, but so refined by his boy's devotion that he had not given it place. He had been so aware of what she must have had to confront from other men, and had besides thought her so much younger than she was, that the idea of desire in connection with her, though in the nature of things not entirely eliminated, had yet been kept by him in the background even to himself. He had loved Blanche as unselfishly as only a woman or a boy can love, and now he began to suffer from it in a manner he had not at the time.
In London he had never felt any temptation to go with Killigrew when that young man frankly announced his intention of making a night of it with some girl he had picked up at the Cafe Riche or Cremorne; distaste had been his dominant instinct, yet many of the suggestive things he had apparently passed through unscathed came crowding back on him now. When he was not actually driving himself to physical labour his mind would fill with pictures that he was able to conjure up without knowing how; sometimes Blanche would partner him in those imaginings, sometimes some stranger woman of his invention. He felt ashamed of these ideas, but that did not prevent them coming, and sometimes he would deliberately give way and allow himself hours to elaborate them, from which he would rouse himself worn out and fevered. From these mental orgies he would feel so intense a reaction of disgust that he knew how keenly he would feel the same if he gave way actually, in some hidden house by Penzance harbour, where men that he knew sometimes went. Physical satisfaction and the fact that Nature had been allowed her way would not have saved him from the aftermath, and he did not delude himself that it would. He looked sometimes at John-James, sitting so placidly opposite him at meals, and wondered about him, whether his physical nature did not perhaps follow his mental and remain untroubled. Yet this thing seemed in every man.... He wondered, but never asked, and, by dint of hard work and a resolute cleansing of his mind, kept the thing at bay.
The summer was a singularly perfect one, and the contrast between its emptiness and that time only a year ago when he came down from London and was expecting Blanche to follow, pricked him at every turn. He felt convinced he no longer cared for Blanche; he was regaining interest in the world without, but she had left this legacy of reaction behind her. He told himself that this too must be borne with, but all the time his youth and natural disposition to get all that was possible out of life were preparing him for fresh enterprise. He could no longer be happy over nothing but the sheer joy of life, yet simple pleasures began to appeal to him once more, as Boase noted thankfully. The daily expectation, that absurd delicious hope, that "something" would happen, had not yet deserted him, and once again he began to live on it.
One day there arrived a letter from Vassie—a letter written in superlatives, a letter that made Ishmael and John-James both feel relief in their different ways and that made the Parson very glad. Vassie had achieved her end, the great end of mid-Victorian womanhood, and more vital to her even than most—she was engaged to be married, and to a man whose social position seemed, as far as her judgment could be trusted, satisfactory. Mr. Daniel O'Connell Flynn was, according to Vassie, more than she could have dared hope for, and if she said little as to any personal feelings for him, Ishmael knew how unimportant that would be to her compared with the satisfaction of her ambitions. For, as his name denoted, he was engaged in politics—an Irish-Canadian, a Free Trader, a Home Ruler, perhaps even a Chartist, for all Vassie said to the contrary. The third Derby Ministry was in power, and Mr. Flynn was for the time agitating in the Opposition; but at least he was a member of Parliament, and what glory that was to Vassie.
Poor Vassie! What, after all, was her ambition but to attain what should have come to her by right as daughter of the Squire of Cloom? She had had to make it the end of her desires, for it she had had to appear what she was not—what she ought to have been without any striving. If Mr. Flynn were a man to whom Vassie's beauty outweighed her defects, and if it were nothing but that with him, then was the outlook for her ultimate happiness poor; but she was her own mistress and had to be judge of that. At least she had not deceived him, for there came a postscript to the rather worldly raptures. "P.S.—He knows about it all, and says it does not matter; what he wants is me."
After Ishmael, the person most affected by the news, both in herself and her prospects, would be Phoebe. Ishmael put the letter in his pocket, though he guessed she too would have had one, and went over to Vellan-Clowse, Wanda at his heels.
As he went the realisation of how this would affect him grew upon him; losing Vassie, his life at Cloom would not only be lonely, but, without her resolute insistence on the niceties, might all too easily slip into some such slough of boorishness as had overtaken it in his father's day. If Blanche had only been different, if she had been the Blanche he once thought her, how sweetly would the whole problem—of loneliness and a standard of decency and of this tormenting thing that pricked at him—have been solved. Even the removal of his mother, though a relief, added to the sense of total disruption which weighed on him. Cloom, the old Cloom that had been so jolly in spite of everything, the Cloom of the first three contested, arduous years, then the delightful Cloom glorified by that summer of Blanche and Killigrew and Vassie and little Judith, was dead, and everyone else had flown to other fields while he alone was left among the ruins. Of all the old atmosphere Phoebe was the only one remaining—little, soft, admiring Phoebe, whom he had hardly noticed all this past winter.
Ishmael was one of those to whom the ending even of a not altogether congenial atmosphere was fraught with sadness; had he been left to himself he would probably never have moved far out of an accustomed circle, thus much of the peasant was potent in his blood. Now he felt, with the finality of youth, that everything had been stripped from around him, and that no new scheme of life formed itself before his eyes.
When he came to the top of the cliff above his plateau he turned off down the narrow goat-track that led to it, and when there flung himself on his face upon the turf, chin on hands, and brooded. His thoughts took no definite shape; rather were they the vague unsettled desires for he knew not what. Just that "something," anything, would happen.
He lay staring at the grass, covered with tiny blossoms of self-heal and rest-harrow: behind and a hundred feet below him the sea swirled, its deep peacock hue patterned with milky wreaths of foam; half around him reared a semi-circle of pale cliff. He stared at the miniature forest of blade and leaf beneath his eyes, and could hear faint rustlings as tiny insects thrust their way through it or climbed aimlessly up stalks that only led them into air. On the fragile curve of a feathery bent a pair of Spotted Burnet moths were at their mating—lovely creatures of the iridescent green of lapis-lazuli, their folded wings of greyer green decorated with splashes of purest crimson, their long glossy antennae shining in the sunlight. Immobile they clung together for what must have been, in their measuring of time, hours of love. Beyond them, on other grass-stems, orange-hued flies took their pleasure, and the whole air was quick with the wings of butterflies and moths. The quiet little circle of turf was athrill with life; the air, the warm soil, the clumps of bracken whence the hidden crickets shrilled, the pinkish grasses which bore the tiny interlocked bodies of the mating flies—everything told of life, life, life. This place seemed an amphitheatre for the display of the secret of Nature—life, and yet more life, in splendid prodigality. Ishmael watched and wondered. Was this, then, the blind end of creation—to create again? If life were only valuable for the production of more, then what it created was not valuable either, and the whole thing became an illogical absurdity. There must be some definite value in each life apart from its reproductive powers, or the reproductions were better left in the void. Blind pleasure, like blind working, was not a possible solution to one of his blood and habit of mind.
Yet he knew as he lay there that not for ever would he be able to go on as so far he had. He told himself that if it were possible to stamp on desire now it would continue to be possible; that if one were not put into the world to get what one wanted at least it should be possible to grit the teeth on the fact. It was childish enough to cry for the moon—it was pitiable to hanker after its reflection in a cesspool. Chastity to Ishmael, by the nature of his training and his circumstances, was a vital thing; the ever-present miseries of home resulting from his father's offence, the determination to keep clean himself and bring clean children to the inheritance, had grown with him. If he lost it he lost far more than most men, because to him it had been more.
Not for the first time some words of the Parson's came back to him: "Casual encounters where no such question arises ..." That seemed to him more horrible, more unsound, now, as he lay looking at the inevitable matings of the winged creatures, than ever before; something ages old in him revolted at the fruitless squandering.
The fact remained that there was no one he wanted to marry, that he no longer wanted to marry at all; his wish to marry Blanche had been an exigency of the situation; in himself his instinct against inroads on privacy would never have inclined him towards it. Also there was no one girl he wanted, and he told himself there never would be again; all personal emotion was drained away from him. The only girl he even knew at all was Phoebe, and at the idea of her in connection with himself he smiled. That would indeed be giving the lie to all he had struggled after—to the vision of the Cloom to be that he had built up with much work and many dreams.
Suddenly as he lay on the grass he felt tired, so tired that it seemed to him he did not so very much want anything after all, and that a leaden weariness was the worst thing he would have to fight against. He laid his face in the warm fragrant grass and let his hands lie out on either side of him, then stretched to the extent of his limbs, and rolled on his back. Wanda, eager to be bounding on once more, licked his cheek with her warm, quick-moving tongue, and he rubbed her head against him and told her she was becoming a fussy old lady. Still, it was time he went on to Vellan-Clowse; the sun was near the rim of the burning sea, and far below the foam was tinged with fire. He scrambled to his feet and went on.
At the mill he found he had been wrong in his conjecture and Phoebe had not yet heard from Vassie. She was looking pale and thin; there were shadows under her soft eyes, and her mouth drooped at the corners. Ishmael's news stung her to interest and to enthusiasm for Vassie, but seemed, when she had cooled down, only to make her melancholy deeper. At supper—to which Ishmael needed little pressing to stay, for in talk and companionship he forgot his vacant house—she was obviously trying to make herself pleasant and bright; she would not have been Phoebe if she had allowed her own comfort to come before that of others.
Phoebe was changed in this past year; she was no longer so sprightly in her little flirtations, her tongue had lost its rustic readiness, her eyes held a furtive something, as though she were always watching some memory. Her prettiness had gained in quality however, and her charm, though more conscious, was more certain. Curiously enough, the charm struck Ishmael for the first time now that he saw her subdued, not troubling to exert it save mechanically. He was sorry for that lassitude of hers, and after supper, walking under the elms down the lush valley, he tried to fathom it.
"It's nothing," said Phoebe. "I'm lonely, I suppose. You know, there's no one I'm really friends with, only Vassie and you, and I shan't see her any more now. And you never come near me...."
Ishmael felt a guilty pang as he realised this was true; he cast about to lead the talk elsewhere.
"You were great friends with Archelaus while he was at Botallack last autumn, I've heard," he said teasingly. "Indeed, I did think that even when I lost Vassie I might have another sister...."
"Him ...!" cried Phoebe; "never, never! You're being cruel to me, Ishmael, so you are! If you've only come to tease me you can go home to your old manor-house again!"
"Why—Phoebe! What's the matter; what have I said to hurt you?" asked Ishmael. "Why, I wouldn't do that for the world! Phoebe, dear, tell me what it is that's the matter. Surely you can trust me! Is it because Archelaus has gone?"
Phoebe burst into tears. Ishmael was alarmed, embarrassed, even irritated, yet somehow she was nestling against him and his arms were holding her while he consoled her. She sobbed on, her warm little body pressed convulsively against him; his words "surely you can trust me ..." had caught at her heart. After months of furtive meetings with Archelaus, after being drawn into a whirlpool of passion which she could not resist and yet always resented, hating something in Archelaus even when his ardour pursued her most, hating the thought of him at every moment before and after, when his lips were not actually upon hers—after all this she felt she wanted nothing but to fling herself on this quieter, kinder, younger man, on whom she still felt the freshness she had lost. It was only fair, she told herself; if Ishmael had cared for her a year ago she would have been armed against Archelaus and her own nature. Slowly her sobs grew less frequent—they became the faint sniffs of a tired child; but she still lay in his arms, snuggling closer, one hand, very small and smooth, creeping up to lie against his neck. Ishmael looked down, and through the dusk he could see how wet were the lashes on her pale cheek; the curve of her throat and bosom was still troubled by sobbing breaths. He drew her closer; then his clasp of her began to change, grow fiercer; she felt it and thrilled to it, lifted her mouth that looked so childish, and which he told himself through the clamour of his pulses there would be no harm in kissing, as though she were the child she looked. But it was not a child's kiss he gave her; nor, as he could but feel, was it a child's return she tendered.
"Phoebe ...!" he began; "Phoebe ...!" He never knew himself what he was trying to say, whether it were protest or excuse or a mere stammer of passion. She interrupted him with a low cry.
"Oh, Ishmael! it was always you—really, always you ... I didn't know. It'll be always you...!"
THE IMMORTAL MOMENT
That which Lenine had hoped for some twelve years, which the Parson and Vassie had first feared and then laughed at, which Ishmael himself had hardly thought of, and then merely to dismiss with a smile, had come to pass—so simply, with such a logical though quiet following of effect on various causes, that it was no wonder Ishmael felt enmeshed in the web of something it was not worth fighting to cut away. At first, on the heels of the miller's rejoicing and Phoebe's clinging content, he had been overwhelmed by a dense cloud of depression—a sense as of being caught in something soft and too sweet that would not let him go and into which he sunk the more deeply for his instinctive protest. Also the sheer impossibility of the thing affected him with a dream-like belief that it could not really have happened, or that at least something must occur to dissolve it. Yet nothing did, not even the Parson's frankly-expressed dismay.
Ishmael was very young, and in no sense a man of the world, and when he thought of what lay behind that kiss he had given Phoebe he felt her innocence had a right to demand of him that at least he should not retract what she had built upon it. Also, Penwith being a very narrow and intimate track of land, the scandal for her if he had withdrawn and let the miller blaze his version abroad would have never been lived down. A country which is a blind-alley has the advantage of immunity from tramps, but it has the disadvantages also of a place which cannot be a highway to other places. Talk, interest, all the thoughts and emotions of life, of necessity beat back on themselves instead of passing on and dying, or being swamped in the affairs of the great world. Phoebe, as the miller knew, was already the subject of censure among the stiffer matrons, whose sons were wont to hang round the mill like bees, and in his expressions of approval to Ishmael was mingled a subtle strain of warning, almost of menace. And to himself as the days went by and Phoebe was always there for him to see and caress when he felt inclined, her yielding sweetness ever ready for him to draw on, her gentle stupidity hidden under her adoration, he admitted that he did not altogether want to withdraw. After all, what did it matter? Phoebe had many refinements of heart and temper which surely could be held to outweigh her little ignorances, and now that, with the removal of Blanche, the outer world was, he told himself, cut off from him, he refused to see that to ally himself with the Lenines of the mill mattered as much as the Parson, in his old-fashioned Toryism, seemed to think. A woman takes her husband's position; and as to that, what, he asked bitterly, was his position that any woman should want to share it? Phoebe did want to; she had shown all her heart so plainly in that cry—genuine in that she believed it herself; and Phoebe was kind and perilously sweet.... The days went on, and Vassie's letter of argument and protest was less determined than it would have been if she herself had not been engrossed in her own affairs. And stronger even that the dread of hurting Phoebe, of the terrible scenes that would of necessity occur, than his own loneliness, was the enemy within himself that every time he caressed Phoebe mounted to his brain and told him it was, after all, well worth while.
It fell to the Parson's bitter lot to marry them in the early autumn of that year. Archelaus had now been away a year, and he had neither come back nor written, and not till several months later did he suddenly reappear, after the habit of the born rover.
They were months of mingled wonder and dismay for Ishmael. He had married a girl who had only one talent, but that was the oldest in the world—she was a born lover. She, who in many ways was so startlingly lacking in refinement, had a genius for the little lures, the ways with hand and eye, of voice and gesture, that make of love an art. In the ordinary intimacies of marriage, the blunting intimacies of daily life, she had no discrimination; Ishmael, had he been inclined to idealise her, would not have been spared the realisation that even as the grosser male she looked unbeautiful at times, needed to send clothes to the wash, and was warned every few weeks, by an unbecoming limpness in her hair, that it was time for soap and water to combat natural greasiness. She made no attempt to keep up the illusion which, even while it is admitted to be such, yet achieves its object. She would have thought it silly. But when it came to the rites of love she was inspired and could not make a false move. A thousand little ways of her own, cat-like rubs of her sleek head, turns of her limbs, inspirations of withheld kisses and in the same breath approaches that held an eternally child-like quality in their submission—there was no faint tone of the age-old gamut to which she did not give its keenest value.
The month spent at the genteel resort of Torquay was to Ishmael a fevered medley. His days were full of distaste—at her predilections for the young clerks who eyed her on the sea-front, for cheap jewellery and casual friends picked up at the hotel, at the bland superficiality of her mind; and now and again this distaste was shot through with moments of acute fears when he realised, startled to it by some blunt display of the ugly things of life, that to this he must accustom himself for the rest of his days; and that he would grow only too deadly accustomed, to the stifling of other ideals, he foresaw. These were his days, yet he felt remorseful at his own spirit of criticism, because she thought him so god-like, and in many little womanly ways showed an unselfish consideration that humbled him in his own eyes and exalted her. Of the nights, even when there was no passion between them, she made such a delight with her childish clinging, her soft nestling against him, that he would hold his breath to listen to her quiet breathing and move a little away as though in sleep, so as to feel her kitten-like, half-unconscious wriggle into the curve of his arm again. It was sweet at such times to feel such utter dependence upon him as the protective male, and the best in him was stirred to response. The next morning she might jar again from the hour of getting up in their ugly hotel room, through the expedition with which they would try and beguile the day, to the dinner, at which her conversation was always most noticeably trifling; but he always, to her surprise, let her go to bed alone, and came up much later to find the old magic upon her once more like dew.
It was late autumn when they went back to Cloom, and under John-James' watchful care the harvest was all in; he awaited them at the station in the smart new trap that had been a present from the miller, and Katie Jacka, with a tight-lipped smile upon her face and a heart full of contempt for a mistress whom privately she considered no better than herself, was hovering between kitchen and passage when they drove up, with a large bouquet of bought flowers swaddled in a stiff paper frill ready as an offering. Boase came over after supper, and when Phoebe, piqued by a conversation which she could not share and—what she resented still more—by the efforts of the two men to include her in it, had gone upstairs, then Ishmael and the Parson sat and smoked and chatted, and for the first time all the past month lifted its deadweight and life seemed more as it had been in the old days.
It was in the winter that Archelaus reappeared, and the first that Cloom heard of it was a casual word dropped by Katie as she waited at table. "So Cap'n Arch'las is back among us," she remarked cheerfully, after the manner of Cornish servants, who see no harm in imparting items of gossip as they hand a dish; "they do say he'm rare and changed, though 'zackly how I don't knaw. Simme 'tes enough to make a man come home a nigger, going so much to the lands where the folk are all black."
Ishmael was startled by the news, but, to hide the fact, began to joke Katie on her ideas of the population of the American continent, when a little sound from Phoebe caught his attention. She had gone very white, and she tried to push her chair away from the table, making a gesture as though she wanted to be free of its confining edge; but her hands seemed too weak to accomplish the act, and she let them fall into her lap. Ishmael sprang up and went round to her, sharply bidding the staring Katie to bring cold water; in a moment or two Phoebe had conquered her faintness and was smiling timidly at him. When he was alone and out of doors he thought over the incident, but without exaggerating it to himself. He had always guessed that Archelaus had at one time been attracted by Phoebe; he supposed that her refusal of him was at the back of the former's departure. Now that Archelaus had returned it was not unnatural, considering her marriage and the bad blood between himself and his brother, that she should feel nervous. He was sorry for her, and wondered, not for the first time, whether it would not be possible, now he himself was less green and prickly, and had settled into a scheme of life that need not, ill-feeling apart, exclude Archelaus, to become better friends or at least more tolerant of each other. He suggested his idea to Phoebe, though characteristically he did not refer to her attack of faintness. She looked at him in a scared way and then murmured something about thinking it was best to wait till Archelaus made the first advance, and to this Ishmael rather reluctantly agreed.
They had not long to wait; the next evening saw Archelaus at Cloom. An oddly-altered Archelaus, so much was soon plain. Even in appearance he seemed changed; something of his golden beauty had tarnished at last, and a faint grizzle showed here and there in his curly hair, while the ruddy face had become weather-beaten. He talked a good deal—about his adventures in California, his bad luck with the gold, and the beauty of the Californian women, especially those with a Spanish strain. Of these last he spoke so freely, notably of some camp-followers, that Ishmael reminded him sharply of Phoebe's presence. Archelaus glanced from one to the other, from Ishmael's irritated eyes to Phoebe's averted cheek, with a slight smile, before answering.
"Ah! I forgot that Phoebe's not like that kind o' women a man gets used to out there," he said slowly. "Besides, of course, she'm a lady now...."
The apology was worse than the offence; but Ishmael swallowed his anger for Phoebe's sake, though he was vexed with her too for staying there to hang upon Archelaus's doubtful talk. Soon after, when Phoebe had brewed hot milk-punch and it had been drunk by the two men, Archelaus rose to go. He went out to see if his trap were ready, and Ishmael went also. The boy had gone home for the night, and Ishmael lit a lantern and went into the stable to fetch the horse. He supposed Archelaus was with him, but found he had not followed so far; neither was he by the cart. Ishmael put the horse in and brought it through into the courtyard, and the same moment saw Archelaus appearing from the kitchen door.
"Just haven a bit of chat wi' Katie," said Archelaus. "She'm a rare one for gossip, she is." Then, as he pretended to busy himself with something at the horse's head, he spoke again.
"Ishmael," he began, "I knaw how it is wi' you. You think on when my fancy was took by your lil' missus, and you don't knaw how I'm thinken about things. Well, I'm a rough chap, but I'm honest, b'lieve, and I can tell 'ee there's no wound in my heart, and the soreness there was against 'ee has gone in the sun out in those lands.... Will 'ee shake hands and let I be a friend to you and your missus as a brother should?" He held out his hand as he spoke, and Ishmael found himself staring at it in the uncertain light of the lamps. The next moment a flood of self-reproach at his own hesitation swept over him; he put out his hand and took his brother's. Archelaus gave such a vigorous wringing that Ishmael could not keep back a little exclamation, and his fingers were numb when they were released.
"Bit too strong, am I?" asked Archelaus with a friendly laugh. "My muscles have got so tough I don't rightly knaw how hard I grip." He swung himself up into the cart, and from that elevation looked down at Ishmael with a nod of farewell.
Ishmael went into the house, where he found Phoebe still sitting in the parlour, her hands folded on her lap, staring in front of her. She gave a start when he spoke to her, and when he told her of his pact with Archelaus chilled him by her scant enthusiasm. They went to bed, and as they lay side by side in the darkness there was a constraint between them there had not been even when they had quarrelled or his occasional fits of irritation had made her rail at him.
As the weeks wore on they both seemed to become used to the occasional but unwonted presence of Archelaus about the place, though Phoebe always resented it oddly. Yet it was a friendly presence; he was ready to help on the farm with advice and even with his strong muscles if need be, and the world at large was much edified by the reconciliation.
"A gentle little wife like that is such a softening influence" was the general verdict ... and Ishmael, irked by the strain between them to a sudden passion of distaste for what he felt had been his weakness, had instituted what was for those days a startling innovation—that of a separate bedroom for himself. He guessed that Phoebe almost hated him for it, yet he had come suddenly to that point when he sickened at over-intimacy, when he realised that the passion in him had betrayed him, so that he felt the only salvation for his mind lay in crushing it. He had sold himself, but at least he could refrain from taking his price. So he told himself and so he meant, yet when, as on a night when Phoebe, shedding resentment for a wistful tenderness, had won him to a triumph of passion once again, there was mingled with his sense of having failed himself a certain relief in the acknowledgment that this thing still held sweets for him....
With the spring the affairs on the farm took up Ishmael's interest more and more, and he was able to find solace for the deadening knowledge of his mistaken marriage in the things that lay so near his heart. He told himself that it was here, in the soil, and the warm, gentle cattle and the growing things, that his keenest as well as his truest joys were to be found, not knowing that even while he thought it Phoebe held that which was to thrill him as never yet anything in life had had power to do.
She told him of it one night when he went up to bed late, thinking and hoping she would be asleep. But she called out to him as he passed her door. He went in and found her sitting up, looking like a child among the big white pillows, her brown hair about her wide eyes. He was struck by it and spoke to her gently, telling her to lie down and go to sleep. Instead of obeying she held out her hands and drew him down towards her.
"I want to whisper, Ishmael," she said, as she had been wont to say when a little girl and she had had something of tremendous interest to impart. He humoured her, and, putting his arm round her, gathered her against him and said that he was listening. She kept a shy silence for a second after that and then whispered. Ishmael caught the few words, and at first they seemed to him to convey something incredible, though he had often thought about this very thing, wondered if and when he should hear of it. He was very gentle with her, but said little, only he stayed by her till she had fallen asleep, and then he disengaged himself and, going quietly out of the room, opened the front door and went out into the garden.
It was the darkest hour of the night, only the stars shone brightly, and not till he was upon the pale clouds of the drifted narcissi could he tell they were there, not till their scent came up at him. The night was very still as well as dark, but Ishmael noted neither circumstance. His own soul held all of sound and colour and light for him, and he recked of nothing external. This news, the simplest, oldest thing in the way of news that there is, seemed to him never to have been told to anyone before—never, at least, to have been so wonderful. All the beauties of Cloom, of life, all the trouble his own short span had felt, all the future held, seemed to fall into place and be made worth while. This was what he had lived for without knowing it—not to make Cloom finer for himself, not to save his own soul or carve out a life for himself, but this—to make of himself this mysterious immortality. Always he had waited for "something" to happen, always at moments of keenest pleasure he had been conscious there was more he did not feel: depths unplumbed, heights unscaled, some master-rapture that would explain all the others and that he never came upon. Even beauty had had this sting for him; he had always felt that, however lovely a thing were, there was something more beautiful just round the corner, for ever slipping ahead, like a star reflected in a rain-filled rut. Now for the first time he was aware of a dizzying sensation as though for one moment the gleam had stayed still, as if Beauty for a flash were not withdrawing herself, as though time for one moment stood, and that moment was self-sufficient, free of the perpetual something that was always just ahead—more, actually capturing that something. The moment had the quality of immortality, although it reeled and was caught up again in the inexorable march, but, drunken with it, he stayed tingling in the cold dawn.
And if, mixed with that draught, there were this much of venom—that he rejoiced at having at last so ousted Archelaus, in the fact that indeed flesh of his flesh should inherit after him and Archelaus be outcast for ever, at least in that first rapture he was unaware of it.
Spring waxed full, buds burst into flower, then petals dropped and the hard green fruit began to swell, and the blades of the corn showed perceptibly higher every week. Summer, warm and lazy, big with all her ripening store, brooded upon the land, and Phoebe Ruan, guarding the growing life she held, seemed, with all the care taken of her, to lose vigour and gaiety. She seemed to wish to withdraw from everyone, from Ishmael most of all, as though she only wished to sit and commune with the secret soul of the child beneath her heart. She was almost beautiful these days, touched by a gravity new to her, and with an added poise. For the first time it was as though she found sufficient support in her own company and did not need to be for ever following and leaning upon other people. To look at, sitting so withdrawn, her eyes watching something unseen of human gaze, she was perfect; even in intercourse she would have been more nearly so than ever before had it not been for the fits of irritability gave unwonted bitterness to her tongue. There were days when nothing would please her, when she showed all her common strain in the taunts she found to fling at Ishmael and the rest of her little world. Only Archelaus was immune, and in his presence she maintained a sullen silence, so marked that a third person with them could, if he were sensitive, feel her ever-deepening resentment emanating from her.
Archelaus himself was as though unaware of it, for he came to the house with increasing frequency. About this time he began to walk out with a Botallack girl, the daughter of a mine captain, and indeed asked Ishmael's congratulations on the match. But, in his brotherly fashion, he was always eager to do anything to help Phoebe, whether it were to ride into Penzance and buy her anything she wished for, or to wait on her at home, adjusting a hammock at exactly the right height and carrying out cushions. Only Phoebe knew the taunt that underlay every word, the subtle scheme for making her uncomfortable that he carried on under cover of his solicitude. And she was not clever enough to combat it; when he told her she had ruined his life by marrying Ishmael, she was not brave enough to retort that he had had opportunity enough to marry her and never breathed the wish; when she hinted as much, he retorted that he had only been waiting to make more money so that she could have a position worthy of her. He declared that all she had married Ishmael for was to get the position that should by rights have belonged to him, Archelaus. That there had been a month of terror when she would, if he had not already left, have begged him to marry her she never told him. That fear had been groundless and had passed, but she never forgave it him.
Since his return she could not have told what swelled her resentment the more—that he should dare to come back at all, or that his fascination for her, the plainer to her since intimacy with another man had proved so much less wonderful, should prick at her perpetually in spite of her dislike of him. Ishmael she still regarded as a superior being whom she admired, but the touch of Archelaus's casual hand had power over her that was more intensified than stilled both by her resentment and her distrust.
So the months went by, and the time drew nearer, and all seemed more peaceful at Cloom than it had ever been. One day Phoebe happened to be alone; Ishmael and John-James were in the fields, and Phoebe lay on a plush sofa in the parlour. Ishmael had bought that sofa for her in Penzance when she admired its glossy crimson curves. She had not been at all grateful; she had merely told him that he bought it, as he did everything else for which she expressed a wish, because he wanted to do everything possible to ensure a healthy and happy child, and there was enough of truth in her accusation to justify it. Now she lay upon the sofa, staring at the mahogany arm that ran along one side of it and wishing that she were dead or that Archelaus would go away and not torment her with his taunts and his kisses—his whole presence that made her feel so helpless. While she lay there thus thinking he came in, walking straight into the hall as of right, whistling carelessly; and she heard his stick, flung against the wall, go sliding and clattering down upon the stone flags.
The next moment he was in the room and standing looking down at her with a smile. She did not move, but lay looking back at him like a small bird stricken motionless and staring beneath a hawk. Wanda, who was curled up by her feet, growled softly. What strange twist it was in Archelaus, what sardonic cruelty, inherited perhaps from the old Squire, that made him take pleasure in tormenting the helpless Phoebe it would have been hard to say. Though always latent in him, it may have been waked to activity by the wound on his head which had left the scar. Some nice balance may have been overset in his brain, though there was bitterness enough in his sense of grudge to stimulate him to a perpetual nagging at this vulnerable part of Ishmael. He had lately discovered a new way to frighten her; in addition to his passionate urgings of what he called his love, he vowed that he would not be able to bear his life much longer, that in losing Cloom he had been sent out to wander the earth a disappointed man, but in losing her he had lost all that had made his life worth living. He threatened to kill himself, with so many picturesque details and so much grim emphasis, that there were moments when he could almost have deceived himself, let alone poor simple Phoebe. His feeling for her had been of the most animal even at its strongest, but he had to the full the primitive instinct for possession; he had made her his woman, and, though he might have felt a mere blind jealousy if she had married any other man, to find her taken by Ishmael, the younger brother who had dispossessed him of all, awoke in him a surge of anger stronger than any emotion he had ever known.
He stooped down and deliberately took a long kiss from her mouth, hitting the back of his hand against Wanda's sensitive nose to stop her growling. She whimpered and slunk off the sofa, and Archelaus helped her departure with his boot. Phoebe was too taken up with his cruelty to herself to reproach him on behalf of the dog.
"You ought to be ashamed, Archelaus!" she complained. "Oh, sometimes I think you're the wickedest man in the world, that I do...!"
"Who's made me so, then? Who went and wed another man as soon as I'd gone off to make a fortune for her, eh? Tell me that!"