We ran through miles of dense pine forests, where rhododendrons grew wild; where gulls spread silver wings and trailed coral feet a few yards above our heads; and the tang of the sea mingled with pine-balsam in our nostrils.
Soon after dull, but historic Wareham we came quite into the heart of Thomas Hardy's country. Scarcely had we turned our backs on Wareham (which I wasn't sorry to do), when I cried out at something on a distant height—something which was like a background in a mediaeval picture. It was Corfe Castle, of which I'd been thinking ever since Amesbury, because of the wicked Elfrida; but the glimpse was delusive, for the dark shape hid in a moment, and we didn't see it again for a long time—not until our curving road ran along underneath the castle's towering hill. Then it soared up with imposing effect, giving an impression of grisly strength which was heightened the nearer we approached. Distance lends no enchantment to Corfe, for the castle dominates the dour, gray town that huddles round it, and is never nobler than when you tap for admittance at its gates.
I tried to think, as we waited to go in, how young Edward felt—Edward the Martyr—when he stood at the gates, waiting to go in and visit his half-brother whom he loved, and his step-mother Elfrida, whom he hated. He never left the castle alive, poor boy! Afterward, in the ruins, I went to the window where Elfrida was supposed to have watched the young king's coming, before she ran down to the gates and directed the murder which was planned to give her own son the kingdom. It made the story seem almost too realistic, because, as you often tell me, my imagination carries me too fast and too far. There's nothing easier than to send it back ten or twelve centuries in the same number of minutes—and it's such a cheap way of travelling, too!
Corfe is in Dorset, you must know, a county as different from others as I am different from the real Ellaline Lethbridge, and the castle is at the very centre of the Isle of Purbeck, which makes it seem even more romantic than it would otherwise. I'm afraid it wasn't really even begun in the days of Elfrida, or "AElfrith," who had only a hunting lodge there; but if people will point out her window, am I to blame if I try to make firm belief attract shy facts? Besides, facts are such dull dogs in the historical kennels until they've been taught a few tricks.
Anyhow, Corfe is Norman, at worst, and not only did King John keep much treasure there, but one supposes there's some hidden still. If I could only have found it, I'd be buying a castle for you and me to live in. Sir Lionel thinks that I, as his ward, will live in his castle; and he was telling me at Corfe about the Norman tower at Graylees. But, alas, I knew better. Oh, I didn't mean that "alas"! Consider it erased; and the other silly things I wrote you the other night, please. They're all so useless.
There were loads of interesting prisoners in Corfe Castle, at one time or another, knights from France, and fair ladies, the fairest of all, the beautiful "Damsel of Brittany," who had claims to the English crown. And kings have visited there; and in Cromwell's day a lady and her daughters successfully defended it in a great siege. It was such a splendid and brave defence that it seems sad, even to this day, to think how the castle fell after all, a year later, and to see the great stones and masses of masonry lying, far below the height, exactly where they rolled when Parliament ordered the conquered towers to be blown up by gunpowder. The Bankes family, who still own Corfe, must be proud of that Lady Bankes, their ancestress, who held the castle. And isn't it nice, the Bankes still have the old keys, where they live, at Kingston Lacy?
You like Thomas Hardy's "Hand of Ethelberta" next to "Far from the Madding Crowd." Well, Coomb Castle in that book is really Corfe Castle. I told you we were in Hardy country. After Wareham, and not very far away, at Wool, is an old, old manor-house of the Turbervilles, turned into a farmhouse now. You don't need to be reminded of what Hardy made of that, I know.
We lunched at an interesting old inn, like all the rest of the ancient houses of Corfe, slate-roofed, grim and gray. Then we coasted down the steep hill to the plain again, making for Swanage. It was dusty, but we weren't sorry, because, just when we were travelling rather fast, on a perfectly clear road, a policeman popped out like a Jack-in-the-Box, apparently from nowhere. You could tell by his face he was a "trappist," as Dick calls the motor-spies, and though Sir Lionel wasn't really going beyond the legal limit, he glared at our number as if he meant mischief. But that number-plate had thoughtfully masked itself in dust, so with all the will in the world he could work us no harm after our backs were turned. Once in a while it does seem as if Nature sympathized with the poor, maligned motorist whom nobody loves, and is willing to throw her protection over him. It would be like tempting Providence to polish off dust or mud, in such circumstances, wouldn't it?
My face was a different matter, though, and I longed to polish it. Before we got to Swanage, it felt—even under chiffon—just as an iced cake must feel. Only the cake, fortunately for its contour, never needs to smile.
We were going to Swanage because of the caves—Tilly Whim Caves. Did you ever hear of them, Parisienne mamma? Small blame to you, if not, because one can't know everything; but they are worth seeing; and the Swanage harbour is a little dream. The town is good, too. Old-world, and very, very respectable-looking, as if it were full of long-established lawyers and clergymen, yet not dull, like Wareham, which was important in Saxon days, long before Swanage was born or thought of. It's "Knollsea" in the "Hand of Ethelberta." Do you remember? And Alfred the Great had a victory close by—so close, that in a storm the Danish ships blew into what is the town now, as if they had been butterflies with their wings wet.
We climbed up, up above the village, in the motor-car, on the steepest, twistingest road I've seen yet in England, though Sir Lionel says I'll think nothing of it when we get into Devonshire; up, up to a high place where they've built a restaurant. Near by we left the motor (and Emily, who never walks for pleasure), and ho, for the caves! It was a scramble among dark cliffs of Purbeck limestone. The caves are delightfully weird, and of course there are smuggling stories about them. A strange wind blew through their labyrinths, ceaselessly, like the breathings of a hidden giant, betrayed by sleep. It was heavenly cool in that dim twilight that never knew sun, but oh, it was hot coming out into the afternoon glare, and climbing the steep path to where the motor waited! I think Mrs. Senter was sorry she hadn't stopped with Emily. She got a horrid headache, and felt so ill that Sir Lionel asked if she would care to stop all night at Swanage, and she said she would.
Fortunately, it turned out that there were good hotels, and Sir Lionel took rooms at the one we liked the best—old-fashioned in an agreeable way. Mrs. Senter went to bed, but the rest of us strolled out after dinner; and Mrs. Norton began talking to Dick about his mother, which threw Sir Lionel and me together.
We sat on the pier, where the moon turned bright pink as she dipped down into a bank of clouds like a rose-garden growing out of the sea. And even when it was dark, the sea kept its colour, the deep blue of sapphires, where, at a distance, little white yachts and sailboats looked like a company of crescent moons floating in an azure sky. I felt in the sweetest mood, kind toward all the world, and particularly to Sir Lionel. I couldn't bear to remember that I'd ever had bad thoughts, and doubts, so I was half sub-consciously nicer to him than I ever was before. Dick kept glaring at me, from his seat beside Mrs. Norton, and drawing his eyebrows together when he thought Sir Lionel wasn't looking. Going home, he got a chance for a few words, when Emily was speaking to her brother about Mrs. Senter's headache. He said that there was something he must say to me, alone, and he wanted me to come out into the garden behind the hotel, to talk to him when the others had gone to bed, but of course I refused. Then he said, would I manage to give him a few minutes next day, and intimated, gently, that I'd be sorry if I didn't. I told him that "I'd see"; which is always a safe answer; but I haven't "managed" yet.
When I got back to my room at the hotel I noticed that some of my things weren't in the places where I'd left them; and the writing portfolio in a dressing-case which Sir Lionel thinks is mine, but is really Ellaline's (one of the Bond Street purchases), had my papers changed about in it. The servants in the house seemed so respectable and nice, I can't think that one of them would have pried. And yet—well, the truth is, I'm afraid of being catty, but I can't help putting Mrs. Senter's headache and my disturbed papers together in my mind. Two and two when put together, make four, you know. And her room in the Swanage hotel was next to mine. She might have been sure that we'd all go out after dinner on such a perfect night. But why should she bother? Unless Dick has told her something, after all? I suppose I shall never know whether it was she or someone else who meddled. I looked through all the papers and other things, but could find nothing "compromising," as the adventuresses say. However, I can't quite remember what I had. Some letter may have been taken. I have been a tiny bit worried since, for you know Ellaline would never forgive me if anything should go wrong now. And I've been thinking that, though Sir Lionel is no dragon, there may be something about Honore du Guesclin which he wouldn't approve. Ellaline may even have her own reasons for thinking he wouldn't approve, dragon or no dragon. Very likely she didn't tell me everything—she was so anxious to have her own way.
But to go back to the journey here. Almost each mile we travelled gave us some thought of Hardy, and acquainted me with the character of Dorset, which is just what I expected from his books: giant trees; tall, secretive hedges; high brick walls, mellow with age and curtained with ivy; stone cottages, solid and prosperous and old, with queer little bay-windows, diamond-paned; Purbeck granite bursting through the grass of meadows, and making a grave background for brilliant flowers; heaths that Hardy wrote about in the "Return of the Native"—heaths, heaths, and rolling downs.
We took the way from Swanage to West Lulworth, and had an adventure on a hill. Sir Lionel is very strict with his little Buddha about examining everything that could possibly go wrong with the motor, and just before we started, I heard him ask Young Nick if he had looked at the brakes after our descent from Tilly Whim. "Oh, yes, sahib," said the brown image. "Oh, no!" said the brakes themselves, on a big hill, as far from the madding crowd as "Gabriel" and "Bathsheba" ever lived. We'd got lost, and that was the way the car punished us. First of all, the motor refused to work. That made Apollo feel faint, so that he began to run backward down the hill instead of going up; and when Sir Lionel put on the brakes, they wouldn't act.
It was the first time anything really bad had happened, and my heart gave a jump, but somehow I wasn't frightened. With Sir Lionel driving, it seemed as if no harm could come; and it didn't, for he steered to the side of the road, and brought the car up short against a great hummock of grass. All the same, we nearly tipped over, and Sir Lionel told us to jump. I shouldn't have stirred if he hadn't spoken. I should have awaited orders; but the others were moving before we stopped, and Mrs. Senter fell down and bumped her knee. That made her hair come partly undone, and, to my horror, a bunch of the dearest little curls, which I always thought lived there, were loosened. There was a great wind blowing, and in a second more the curls would have been on the horizon, if I hadn't seized them just as they were about to take flight. If they'd gone, they must have passed almost in front of Sir Lionel's nose, on their way. Wouldn't that have been dreadful? I should think she could never have looked him in the face again, for her hair's her greatest beauty, and she's continually saying things about its being all her own, and having more than she knows what to do with.
But luckily his back was turned when I caught the curls, and stuffed them hastily into her hand before she was on her feet, nobody seeing except Dick. I suppose a nephew doesn't count! But do you know, dear, if they'd been my curls, I believe she'd have loved Sir Lionel to see them. I don't like her a bit, but all the more I couldn't be mean. I reserve all my cattyness toward her for my letters to you, when I let myself go, and stretch my little nails in my velvet paw.
I was sorry for Young Nick! He was miserably sheepish, and vowed that he really had examined the brakes. Sir Lionel just looked at him, and raised his eyebrows; that was all, because he wouldn't scold the poor little wretch before us.
It was as much as the three men could do to get Apollo down on his four tires again, for, though he seemed as lightly balanced as an eccentric dancer trying to touch one eyelid to the floor, he was partly embedded in the bank by the roadside. Then we all sat gracefully about, while Sir Lionel and the chauffeur worked—Young Nick under the car, looking sometimes like a contortionist tying himself into lover's knots, sometimes like a miniature Michelangelo lying on his back to paint a fresco. I hope, though, that Michael never had half the trouble finding his paints and brushes that Nick had to get at his tommies and jemmies, and dozens of strange little instruments. He lay with his mouth bristling with giant pins, and had the air of a conscientious dentist filling a difficult tooth.
It was a long time before the brakes were properly tightened up and the four cylinders breathing freely again; but it would have been ungracious to be bored in such a glorious wild place, in such glorious weather. There was a kind of Walt Whitman feeling in the air that made me want to sing; and finally I could resist no longer. I burst out with those verses of his which you set to music for me. At least, I sang a few bars; and you ought to have seen Sir Lionel wheel round and look at me when he heard my voice. I never said anything to him about knowing how to sing, so he was surprised.
"Why, you have quite a pretty voice, Ellaline!" said Mrs. Norton.
"'Quite a pretty voice!' I should say she had!" remarked Sir Lionel. He didn't say any more. But I never had a compliment I liked better; and I didn't mind a bit when Mrs. Senter remarked that anyone would fancy I was a professional.
I was almost sorry to go on at last, though Emily was worrying lest we should get no lunch. But we saw beautiful things as we spun toward Lulworth, rushing so swiftly along an empty road that the hedges roared past us like dark cataracts. It was thrilling, and showed what Apollo could do when he chose. If there had been a soul on the road, of course we wouldn't have done such deeds; though I must say, from what I've seen, if you creep along so as not to kick up a dust and annoy people, they aren't at all grateful, but only scorn instead of hating you, and think you can't go faster, or you would. Still, you have the consciousness of innocence. One thing we saw was a delightful Tudor house, called Creech Grange; and the ancestor of the man who owns it built Bond Street. I'm sure I don't know why, but I'm glad he did. We took the valley way on purpose to see the Grange, instead of going over Ring Hill and other windy heights, but it was worth the sacrifice.
Lulworth Castle, which we passed, is rather like Graylees, Sir Lionel said; so now I wish more than ever that I could see Graylees, for Lulworth is fine and feudal. But I shall have burst like a bubble before the time comes for Graylees.
There! I have brought you with us to Lulworth Cove, at last—the adorable little place where, at this moment, as I told you at the beginning of my letter, I'm sitting on the beach among red and green fishing boats.
You wouldn't dream of Lulworth's existence until it suddenly breaks on you, and you see the blue bay lying asleep in the arms of giant rocks, which appear to have had a violent convulsion without disturbing the baby sheet of water. I suppose they were angry with the world for finding out their secret; for it has found out, and loves to come to Lulworth Cove. However, the place contrives to look as unknown as ever, as if only some lazy gulls and a few fishermen mending lobster-pots had ever heard a hint of it. There's a narrow street; a few pretty old cottages; a comfortable hotel where we had crabs, divine though devilled, and omelette au rhum floating in flames of the blue I should like my eyes to be when angry; there's a post-office, and—nothing else that I can think of, except circling hills, a golden sweep of beach, and sea of ethereal azure creaming against contorted rocks. That's all; but it's a little Paradise, and——
Night, of the same day.
Just there I was interrupted. Dick Burden came, and I had to listen to him, unless I wanted a scene. I couldn't appeal to any nice brown fisherman to please feed him to the lobsters, so I sat still and let him talk. He said that he was awfully in love with me. A charming fashion he's taken to show it, hasn't he? As I remarked to him.
He replied in the old, old way, about all being fair, etc., etc. I asked him which it was, love or war, and he said it was both. He knew I wasn't in love (I should think not, indeed!), but he wanted me to promise to be engaged to him from now on.
"I won't," said I—short and sudden, like that.
"You'll jolly well have to," said he. Then he proceeded to warn me that if I didn't, my friend Miss Ellaline Lethbridge must look out for herself, because I would no longer be in a position to guard her interests.
I mentioned that he was a perfect beast, and he said it might be true, but I was a deceiver, and it was not good taste for the pot to call the kettle black.
"I'd rather go into the kind of convent where one's not allowed to speak a word all one's life, except 'Memento mori,' than marry you," said I, politely.
But it seemed that he wasn't thinking so much about being married, as just being engaged. As to marrying, we were both very young, and he would wait for me till we could afford to marry, which mightn't be for some time yet, he explained. What he was keen on beginning at once, was being engaged.
"Why?" I asked, savagely.
"Because I don't want anyone else to think he has a chance. That's the plain truth," said Dick, in the most brazen way.
That staggered me; for he was glaring straight into my eyes in such a meaning way I couldn't help understanding who was in his mind. So utterly ridiculous! As if the person he meant would ever think of me! And Dick used to say himself that Sir Lionel Pendragon took no interest in girls, or any women except Mrs. Senter. I'd have liked to remind him of this, only I wouldn't let him see that I read his thoughts.
"I believe you must be mad," said I.
"I shouldn't wonder," said he. "Anyhow, I'm mad enough to go straight to Sir Lionel with the whole story the minute he comes back from his walk with his sister and my aunt, unless you do what I want."
"That won't be very nice for Mrs. Senter," I temporized, "if she's enjoying this trip she was so anxious to take; for if Sir Lionel knows about Ellaline the tour will probably break up, and he'll rush over to France."
"On the contrary, it will be nice for her," Dick returned, "because many a heart is caught in the rebound."
I said that this argument was too intricate for me, but it wasn't really. I knew quite well what he meant, though of course he is absolutely mistaken, as far as Sir Lionel's feelings toward me are concerned. But I had to think quickly, and I thought maybe he was right about his aunt. She would be a woman who would make any use of an emergency. And once she had compromised poor Sir Lionel, it would be too late, for I have an idea he'd be exaggeratedly honourable.
You may smile at my saying she'd compromise him. But you know what I mean. I'm not sure I do—but anyhow, I couldn't bear to have her do it, especially if it could be prevented by me. I sat still a minute, reflecting, and then asked Dick what he meant by "being engaged."
He replied that he meant the usual thing; and I replied to this that nothing could tempt me. He saw I wouldn't go back from my word, so he promised, if I would be engaged, that he'd not try even to hold my hand until I should be willing. All he would ask was, that he might tell his aunt we had a "kind of a, sort of an understanding," which might develop into an engagement, and let her tell Sir Lionel. Nothing more than that; and why should I mind, when in any case there could never have been a question of my marrying Sir L.?
I said I did mind horribly, but not on that account, and I should never marry anyone. I was almost ready to cry, I felt so wretched. I don't think I was ever as miserable in my life, dear; though, when I come to argue it out with myself, I've pretended so much to please Ellaline, it oughtn't to matter, pretending a little more.
Just then all three of the others came along, and seeing us on the beach, joined us. Dick put on a familiar air with me, as if he had rights, and I saw Sir Lionel glance from me to him, and draw his eyebrows together.
I came indoors then, to my room, and didn't go out again till dinner time. I was half afraid Mrs. Senter might already have got in her deadly work, but if she had, Sir Lionel didn't say anything to me. Only it was a horrid dinner, in spite of nice, seaside things to eat. Nobody spoke much, and I felt so choked I could hardly swallow.
Oh, I am homesick for you, dear. I hurried upstairs, as soon as dinner was over, saying I had letters to write. To-morrow, early, we start for Sidmouth, in Devonshire, going by way of Weymouth and Dorchester. As I write, looking from my window, across which I haven't drawn the curtains, I can see Sir Lionel and Mrs. Senter strolling out of the hotel, toward the beach. There's a lovely blue dusk, which the sunset struck into a million glorious sparks, and then let fade again into a dull glow, like ashes of roses. They look a romantic couple walking together. I wonder if they are talking about each other, to each other, or—about Dick and me? I feel as if I should have to scream—"Sir Lionel, don't believe it. It isn't true!" But of course, I can't. I think I shall go to bed, and then I won't be tempted to look out of the window.
Always your own loving
Please write at once, and address Poste Restante, Torquay.
SIR LIONEL PENDRAGON TO COLONEL PATRICK O'HAGAN
Knoll Park Hotel, Sidmouth, Devon, August 2nd. Evening
My Dear Pat: I am a fool. By this time you will soon be receiving my first letter, and saying to yourself, "He is on the way to being a fool." Well, I am already that fool. I didn't see where I was drifting, but I see now that it had begun then; and of course you, a spectator, won't be dense as I was at first. You will know.
I didn't suppose this thing could happen to me again. I thought I was safe. But at forty, it's worse with me than when I was twenty-one.
I don't need to explain. Yet I will say in self-defence that, fool as I am, I am not going to let anyone but you know that I'm a fool. Especially the girl. She would be thunderstruck. Not that girls of nineteen haven't married men of forty, and perhaps cared for them. But this girl has been brought up since her babyhood to think of me as her guardian, and an elderly person beyond the pale where love or even flirtation is concerned. Imagine a daughter and namesake of Ellaline de Nesville being in the society of a man, and not trying to flirt with him! It's almost inconceivable. But Ellaline the second shows not the slightest inclination to flirt with me. She is gentle, sweet, charming, even obedient; perhaps I might say daughterly, if I were willing to hurt my own feelings. Therefore, even without Mr. Dick Burden's oppressive respect for me, I must suppose that I am regarded as a generation behind.
By the way, that young beast made me a present of a cane the other day. Not an ordinary stick, but an old gentleman's cane, with a gold head on it. He said he saw it in a shop at Weymouth, where we stopped for lunch, and thought it so handsome, he begged that I would accept it. His aunt laughed, called him a ridiculous little boy, and advised me to have "Thou shalt not steal" engraved on a gold band, with my name and address. This was to soothe my amour propre; but, while I wonder whether the thing really is a gift suitable to my years, I long to lay it across the giver's back. He gave it to me before Ellaline, too. What an idiot I am to care! I can laugh, for my sense of humour hasn't yet jilted me, if my good sense has. But the laugh is on the wrong side of my mouth.
I feel somewhat better, having confessed my foolishness—which you would have divined without the confession. The girl doesn't suspect. I enact the "heavy father" even more ostentatiously than if I weren't ass enough to prefer a role for which time and our relationship have unfitted me. But it's rather curious, isn't it, what power one little woman can wield over a man's life, even the life of a man who is as far as possible from being a "woman's man"? Ellaline de Nesville pretty well spoiled my early youth, or would if I hadn't freed myself to take up other interests. She burdens the remainder of my young years by making me, willy nilly, the guardian of her child. And, not content with that, she (indirectly) destroys what might have been the comfortable contentment of my middle age.
Women are the devil. All but this one—and she isn't a woman yet.
The dangerous part is that I am not as grimly unhappy as I ought to be. There are moments, hours, when I forget that there's any obstacle dividing Ellaline's future from mine. I think of her as belonging to me. I feel that she is to be a part of my life always, as she is now. And until I have again drummed it into my rebellious head that she is not for me, that my business with her is to see that she gets a rich, well-born, and well-looking young husband, not more than two-thirds of my age, I enjoy myself hugely in her nearness.
But, why not, after all? Just for the length of this tour in the motor-car, which throws us so constantly together? As long as I don't betray myself, why not? Why not revel in borrowed sunshine? At Graylees, I can turn over a new leaf; I need see very little of her there. She and Emily will have plenty to do, with their social duties, and I shall have my own. Let me be a fool in peace till Graylees, then. If I can be a fool in peace!
Talking of borrowed sunshine, England seems to have borrowed an inexhaustible supply from some more "favoured clime" this summer. I dare say we shall have to pay for it later. I shall have to pay for my private supply, too—but no matter.
Next to my native Cornwall, I think I prefer Devonshire; and Devonshire is being particularly kind and hospitable, offering us her choicest gifts.
It's said that the Earth is a host who murders all his guests. But he certainly gives some of us, for some of the time, glorious innings during our visit to him. I don't complain, though my stay so far has been accompanied by a good deal of stormy weather.
I remember your once remarking that Weymouth would be a good place to hide in, if you wanted to grow a beard or anything lingering and unbecoming; but you wouldn't make that remark now: there are too many pretty women in the nice, tranquil old town. Just at this season it's far from dull, and walking along the Esplanade, while young Nick mended a tire, I understood something of George the Third's fondness for the place. Certainly vanity wouldn't permit you to show your nose on parade or beach, in these times, during the beard-growing process, for there's apparently no hour of the day when a lively scene isn't being enacted on both: the sands thickly dotted with tents; charming girls bathing, chubby children playing, pretty women reading novels under red parasols, fishermen selling silver-scaled fish, boatmen soliciting custom; the parade crowded with "trippers," soldiers and sailors; the wide road noisy with motor-cars and motor-'buses; even the sea gay with boats of all descriptions, and at least one big war vessel hovering in the distance. Besides, there is the clock-tower. I don't know why I like it so much, but I do. I have a feeling that Weymouth would be worth a visit for the sake of that clock alone; and then there's the extraordinary historical and geological interest, which no other watering-place has.
Burden was anxious to go over to Portland, lured there, no doubt, by the incipient detective talent of which he boasts; but the ladies voted it too sad a place to see, on an excursion of pleasure, and perhaps they were right. The sort of woman who would like to go and spend a happy afternoon staring at a lot of unfortunate wretches dressed in a pattern of broad arrows, would go "slumming" out of idle curiosity; and I have always thought I could not love a woman who amused herself by slumming, any more than I could love one who eagerly patronized bull-fights.
Thomas Hardy's work is too near Nature's heart to appeal to Mrs. Senter, and too clever for my good sister Emily, who will read no author, willingly, unless he calls a spade a pearl-headed hatpin. But Ellaline, strange to say, has been allowed to read him. Evidently French schools are not what they once were; and she and I particularly wanted to go through Dorchester (his Casterbridge) even though we could see nothing of Hardy's place, Max Gate, except its tree-tops. A pity more English towns haven't made boulevards of their earthworks (since there are plenty that have earthworks), planting them with chestnuts and sycamores, as Dorchester has cleverly done. It was an idea worthy of a "Mayor of Casterbridge." We lingered a bit, in the car, picking out "landmarks" of resemblance to the book, and there were plenty. You know, there's a magnificent Roman amphitheatre near by; but did we stay to look at it? My friend, we are motorists! And it happened to be a grand day with the car, which, though still very new, has "found" itself. "Apollo" seemed a steed of "pure air and fire; and the dull elements of earth and water never appear in him." He chafed against stopping, and I humoured him gladly.
"Strange," said Ellaline, yesterday, "how a person will pay lots of money to buy a motor-car, and go tearing about the world at great expense, to gratify two little black or blue holes in his face; and then, instead of letting the holes thoroughly absorb his money's worth, he will rush past some of the best things on earth rather than 'spoil a run.'" But she doesn't take the intoxication of ozone into consideration in this indictment.
Our road was of the best, and always interesting, with some fine distant views, and here and there an avenue of trees like a vast Gothic aisle in a cathedral. "We could see things so nicely if it weren't for the mists!" sighed Emily, who, if her wish had been a broom, would have ruthlessly swept away those lacy cobwebs clinging to the hill-sides. "Why," replied Ellaline, "you could see a bride's face more clearly if you took away her veil, but it's the prettiest thing about her." That put my feelings in a nutshell. England would be no bride for me if she threw away her veil; and nowhere did it become her more than in Dorset, Somerset, and Devon, where it is threaded with gold and embroidered with jewels toward the edge of sunset.
Of course, there's only the most fanciful dividing line between Somerset and Devon, yet I imagine the two counties different in their attributes, as well as in their graces. Surely in Somerset the Downs are on a grander scale. Between two of them you are in a valley, and think that you see mountains. In Devonshire you have wider horizons, save for the lanes and hedges, which do their best to keep straying eyes fastened on their own beauty.
I suppose men who never have left England take such beauty for granted, but to me, after the flaunting luxuriance of the East, it is enchanting. I notice everything. I want someone, who cares for it as I do, to admire it with me. If it weren't for Dick Burden this England would be making me twenty-one again.
You should see, to understand me, all the lovely things fighting sportively for supremacy in these Devonshire hedges; the convolvulus pretending to throttle the honeysuckle; the honeysuckle shaking creamy fists in the faces of roses that push out, blushing in the starlight of wild clematis, white and purple. Such gentle souls, these Devonshire roses! Kind and innocent, like the sweet, sentimental "Evelinas" of old-fashioned stories, yet full of health, and tingling with buds, as a young girl with fancies.
Devonshire seems to express herself in flowers, as sterner counties do in trees and rocks. Even the children one meets playing in the road are flowers. They are to the pretty cottages what the sweetbriar is to the hedges; and no background could be daintier for the little human blossoms than those same thatched cottages with open, welcoming doors.
Ellaline, fascinated by glimpses through open doors—(old oak dressers set with blue and white china; ancient clocks with peering moon-faces; high-backed chairs; bright flowers in gilt vases on gate-legged tables, all obscurely seen through rich brown shadows)—says she would like to live in such a cottage with somebody she loved. Who will that somebody be? I constantly wonder. I should think less of her if it could be Dick Burden, or one of his type, yet Mrs. Senter hints that the girl likes his society. Can she?
We had a picnic luncheon on our way to Sidmouth, lingering rather long (once you have stopped your motor, nothing matters. If you're happy, you are as reluctant to go on as you are to stop when going). Then, as they all wished to travel by moonlight, I suggested that dinner also should be a picnic. We bought food and drink at Honiton, and the country being exquisite between there and Sidmouth, we soon found a moss-carpeted, tree-roofed dining-room, fit for an emperor. Nearby glimmered a sheet of blue-bells, like a blue underground lake that had broken through and flooded the meadow. Ellaline said she would like to wash her face in it, as if in a fairy cosmetic, to make her "beautiful forever." I really don't believe she knows that would be superfluous trouble! And a fairy godmother has given her the gift of song. I wish you could hear her sing, Pat. I have heard her only once; but if I hadn't been a fool already, I'd have become one then, beyond recall.
So we sat there, on the still, blue brink of twilight, till the moon rose red as a molten helmet, and cooled to a silver bowl as she sailed higher, dripping light. But tell me this: Would I think of such similes if I weren't like a man who has eaten hasheesh and filled his brain with a fantastic tumult—a magical vision of romance, such as his heart never knew in its youth, never can know except in visions, now that youth has passed? There's joy as well as pain in the vision, though, I can tell you, as there must be in any mirage. And it was in a mirage of moonlight and mystery that we took up our journey again, after that second picnic, swooping bird-like, from hill to valley, on our way to the Knoll Park Hotel.
It's an historic place, by the way, with an interesting past—once it was a country house belonging to an eccentric gentleman—and at present it is extremely ornamental among its lawns and Lebanon cedars.
As for Sidmouth the town, you have but to enter it to feel that you are walking in a quaint old coloured lithograph—one of the eighteenth-century sort, you know, that the artist invariably dedicated, with extravagant humility, to a marquis, if he didn't know a duke!
There's no architecture whatever. As far as that is concerned, children might have built the original village of Sidmouth as they sat playing on the beach; but the queer cottages, with their low brows of mouse-coloured thatch, protruding amid absurd battlements, have a fantastic charm. They are most engaging, with their rustic-framed bow-windows, like surprised-looking eyes in spectacles; their green veranda-eyebrows, and their smiling, yellow-stucco faces, with low foreheads. The house where Queen Victoria stopped as a little girl is a great show place, of course, and is like a toy flung down against a cushiony hillside, a battlemented doll's house, forgotten by the child who let it fall, while big trees grew up and tried to hide it.
Two cliffs has Sidmouth, and an innocent esplanade, and—that is about all, except the toy town itself. But it's a place to stay in. A happy man would never tire of it, I think. An unhappy one might prefer Brighton—or Monte Carlo. I am neither one nor the other. So I prefer a motor-car. We are on the wing again to-morrow.
I must now go to our sitting-room, which looks over the sea, and play a rubber of bridge with Mrs. Senter, Emily, and Burden. Ellaline doesn't play.
Hope I haven't bored you with my Burden, and other complaints.
Later, August 2nd, Night
I have opened my letter again, to tell you what came of that rubber of bridge.
I've lost—all the glamour. The reaction after the hasheesh has set in.
We didn't play long. Just that one rubber, and before we finished Ellaline had taken her copy of "Lorna Doone" upstairs to her own room, without interrupting our game for a good-night. She didn't think we saw her go; but there were two of us who did. Burden was one of the two. I don't need to tell you who the other fool was.
Mrs. Senter and I were partners, as we generally are, if there's any bridge going in the evening. She's devoted to the game, and it's always she who proposes it. I would generally prefer to fag up our route for next day with guide-books and road-maps. But hosts, like beggars, can't be "choosers."
Well, to-night Emily and Burden had all the cards, and Burden wanted a second rubber, but his aunt doesn't like losing her money to her nephew, even though we play for childishly low stakes. She said she "knew that Mrs. Norton was tired," and Emily didn't deny the soft impeachment, as she plays bridge in the same way she would do district visiting during an epidemic of measles—because it is her duty.
Dick had the latest French imitation of Sherlock Holmes to read, and a box of Egyptian cigarettes to smoke (mine), which he evidently thinks too young for me. Emily had some embroidery, which I seem to remember that she began when I was a boy, and kept religiously to do in hotels. (But what is there that my good sister does, which she does not do religiously?) Mrs. Senter had nothing to amuse or occupy her—except your humble servant—consequently she suggested a stroll in the garden before bedtime.
She was almost beautiful in the moonlight, quite ethereal-looking, and her hair a nimbus for that small white face of hers; just as small, just as white, and just as smooth as when those big eyes used to look up into our eyes under an Indian moon. And she is always agreeable, always witty, or at least "smart." Still, I must confess that I was ungallantly absent-minded until something she said waked me up from a brown study.
"He really is a nice boy," she was saying, "and after all, it's a tribute to your distinguished qualities that he should be afraid to speak to you."
I guessed at once that she must have been talking of her nephew.
"What is he afraid to say to me?" I enquired.
"Afraid to ask you for Miss Lethbridge," she explained.
I think just about that time an ugly black eyelid shut down over the moon. Anyhow, the world darkened for me.
"Isn't it rather old-fashioned, in these rapid days, for a young man to ask a guardian's permission to make love to his ward?" said I, savage as a chained dog.
She laughed. "Oh, he hasn't waited for that to make love, I'm afraid," she returned. "But he's afraid she won't accept him without your consent."
"He seems to be afraid of several things," I growled. "Afraid to speak to me—afraid to speak to her."
"He is young, and love has made him modest," Mrs. Senter excused her favourite. "He knows he isn't a grand parti. But if they care for each other?"
"I have seen no reason to believe that she cares for him," said I, thinking myself (more or less) safe in the recollection of Ellaline's words at Winchester. I told you about them, I think.
"Ah, well," said Mrs. Senter, "she cares enough, anyhow, to have entered into a pact of some sort with the poor boy—a kind of understanding that, if you approve, she may at least think of being engaged to him in the future."
"You are sure she has done that?" I asked, staggered by this statement, which I was far from expecting.
"Quite sure, unless love (in the form of Dick) is deaf as well as blind. He certainly flatters himself that they are on these terms."
"Since when?" I persisted. (By the by, I wonder if the inquisitors ever hit on the ingenious plan of making prisoners torture themselves? Nothing hurts worse than self-torture.)
"Only since Lulworth Cove, or you would have heard of it before. You know when we came back from our walk, and saw them sitting on the beach together, I said what a pretty picture they made?"
Naturally, I remembered extremely well.
"That was when they had their great scene. Dick begged me, as an old friend of yours, to say a word when I found the chance. And I confess, I've made the chance to-night. I do hope you won't think me impertinent and interfering? I'm fond of Dick. He's about all I have to be fond of in the world. And besides—just because I've never been happy myself, I want others to be, while they're young, not to waste time."
I muttered something, I hardly know what, and she went on to talk to me of her past, for the first time. Said she had married when little more than a child, and had made the mistake of marrying a man she thought she could manage to live happily with, instead of one she couldn't manage to live happily without. That was all; but it had made all the difference—and if Miss Lethbridge had given her first love to Dick——
I nearly said, "Hang first love!" but I held my tongue, fortunately, for of course she meant well, and was only doing her best for her nephew. But how anyone could love that fellow passes my understanding! Why, it seems to me the creature's parents could hardly have loved him, unless he had had something of the monstrous hypnotism, as well as the selfishness, of a young cuckoo in its stolen nest. Yet the same hypnotism may influence birds outside the nest, I suppose. That's the only way to account for an infatuation on the part of Ellaline.
"If you are angry, Dick and I must go away," Mrs. Senter went on. "But he couldn't help falling in love, and to me they seem made for each other."
I had to answer that of course I wasn't angry, but I thought any talk of love premature, to say the least.
"You won't actually refuse your consent, then?" asked she.
"Much good my refusing would do, if the girl really cares!" said I. "I shan't disinherit her, whatever she does."
Mrs. Senter laughed at that. "Why, even if you did," said she, "it wouldn't matter greatly to them, because Dick has something of his own, and she is an heiress, isn't she?"
Then—I don't know whether I was wrong or not—but I swear I made the answer I did without any mean or selfish motives—if I can read my own soul. If Burden were a fortune-hunter, I wanted to save her from him, that's all. I told Mrs. Senter that Ellaline had very little money of her own. "I shall look after her, of course," I said. "But the amount of the dot I may give will be determined by circumstances."
I don't know that I mayn't have put this in a tactless way. Anyhow, Mrs. Senter looked rather odd—hurt, or distressed, or something queer—I couldn't make quite out. She said, nevertheless, that Dick did not care for Miss Lethbridge's money. He had fallen in love with her the first time they met. Nothing else mattered, as they would have enough to live on. But she had supposed the girl almost too rich for Dick. Wasn't Ellaline a relation of the millionaire family of Lethbridges? She had heard so.
I answered that the relationship was distant. That Ellaline's father had once been a friend of mine, and that her mother had been my cousin, though a French girl.
"Oh!" said Mrs. Senter, as if suddenly enlightened. "Is she—by any chance—the daughter of a Frederic Lethbridge?"
What she recalled about Fred Lethbridge, I can't guess. She isn't old enough to have known him, unless as a child or a very young girl. But she certainly had some thought in connection with him which made her silent and reflective. I hope I have done Ellaline no harm—in case the girl really does care for Burden. I never had the intention of keeping her parentage secret, though at the same time it would pain me to have any gossip reach her. However, to do Mrs. Senter justice, I don't think she is a gossip. She likes to say "smart" things, but so far as I have heard, she is never smart at other people's expense. And since her confidences to me concerning her past, I am sorry for the poor little woman.
Not much more passed between us on the subject of Ellaline and Dick, except that I refused to recommend the young man to the girl's good graces. I had to tell Mrs. Senter that, not even for the pleasure of pleasing her, could I consent to do what she asked. But I did finally promise to let Ellaline know that personally I had no objection to the alleged "understanding," if it were for her happiness. Nevertheless, I would advise her that she must do nothing rash. Mrs. Senter not only permitted, but actually suggested, this extra clause; and our seance ended.
Some things are too strange not to be true; and I suppose this infatuation of Ellaline's, if it exists, is one of them. And it must exist. There can be no doubt of it, since Mrs. Senter has it from the boy—who apparently has it from the girl.
What to make of it, however, that she told me only about ten days ago, she didn't like him? Yet I am forgetting. We have it on good authority that "'tis best to begin with a little aversion."
I ought to have known that a daughter of Ellaline de Nesville and Frederic Lethbridge couldn't develop into the star-high being this girl has seemed to me; and I must make the best of it that she's something less in soul than, in my first burst of astonished admiration, I was inclined to appraise her. After all, why feel bitter against people because they have disappointing shortcomings, if not defects, instead of the dazzling virtues that glittered in your imagination? Cream always rises to the top, yet we don't think less of it because there's nothing but milk underneath.
Yes, if I find out that she likes this hypnotic cuckoo I mustn't despise her for it. But I must find out as soon as I can. Suspense is the one unbearable pain. And you are at liberty to laugh at me as I hope I shall soon be laughing at myself.
AUDRIE BRENDON TO HER MOTHER
Osborne Hotel, Torquay, August 6th
Ma Petite Minerve-de-Mere: A hundred and six and a half thanks for your counsels and consolations. I needed both, and not a bit the less because I'm not unhappy now. I'm violently happy. It won't last, but I love it—this happiness. I keep it sitting on my shoulder and stroking its wings, so it mayn't remember when it's time to fly away.
That letter I wrote you was silly. I was a regular cry-baby to write it. But I'm so glad you answered quickly. I don't know how I should have borne it if the man at the Poste Restante window had said: "Nothing for you, miss." I might have responded with blows.
There was a letter from Ellaline, too. I'd sent her the "itinerary" as far as I knew it, and Torquay was the last place on the list. I was wondering if anything were the matter, but there isn't—though there is news. She waited to write, she says, so that her plans might be decided and she could tell them to me.
The military manoeuvres go on; and the news has nothing directly to do with the adored Honore. But Ellaline has made a confidante—a Scotch girl she has met. I don't mean she's told everything; far from that, apparently. She has kept the fraudulent part, about me, secret, and only confided the romantic part, about herself. What she says she has told is, that she's run away from cruel persons who want to have all her money, and to prevent her from having any happiness. That she's hiding till the man she's engaged to can take her to Scotland and have a Scotch marriage—at Gretna Green, if possible, because it would be romantic, and her mother was married there. The Scotch girl, with northern coldness of reason, has pointed out that Gretna Green is nowadays like any other place, but Ellaline is not weaned from the idea. She appears to have fascinated her new friend (as she did her old ones), in spite of the northern coldness, and has received a pressing invitation to visit at the girl's house in Scotland until Honore can claim her.
There is a mother, as well as a girl, but only a stepmother, and apparently a detail; for the girl has the money and the strength of will. The two are stopping in a pension near Madame de Blanchemain's house. The girl is a Miss McNamarra, with freckles and no figure, but engaged to an officer, and consequently sympathetic. She has advised Ellaline that, if she travels from France to Scotland with Honore, on the way to be married, he mayn't respect her as much as if she had friends and chaperons, and a nice place to wait for him. Ellaline is too French at heart not to feel that this advice is good—though she adds in her letter that she, of course, trusts darling Honore completely;—so she has accepted the invitation.
The only trouble is, she wants more money at once. She must let golden louis run through her fingers like water, for I sent her nearly all Sir Lionel handed me before we started on the trip. I shall have to ask him for more, and I'll hate doing that, because, though I shall be gone out of his life so soon, I'm too vain and self-conscious (it must be that!) to like making a bad impression on his mind while we're together.
I shan't hate it as much, however, as I should, supposing that something which happened last night hadn't happened. I'm coming to that part presently. It's the thing that's made me happy—the thing that won't last long.
We left adorable little Sidmouth days ago—I almost forget how many, coming as far as Exeter along a lovely road. But then, everything is lovely in Devonshire. It is almost more beautiful than the New Forest, only so different that, thank goodness, it isn't necessary to compare the two kinds of scenery.
Perhaps Devonshire, stripped of its bold, red rocks, drained of its brilliant blue sea, and despoiled of its dark moors, might be too sugary sweet with its flower-draped cottages, and lanes like green-walled conservatories; but it is so well balanced, with its intimate sweetnesses, and its noble outlines. I think you are rather like Devonshire, you're so perfect, and you are the most well-balanced person I was ever introduced to—except Dad. I'm proud that his ancestors were Devonshire men. And oh, the junket and Devonshire cream are even better than he used to tell me! I haven't tasted the cider yet, because I can't bear to miss the cream at any meal; and the chambermaid at Sidmouth warned me that they "didn't mix."
Bits of Devonshire are like Italy, I find. Not only is the earth deep red in the meadows, where the farmers have torn open its green coat, and many of the roads a pale rose-pink—dust and all—but lots of houses and cottages are pink, a real Italian pink, so that whole villages blush as you look them in the face. Sometimes, too, there's a blue or a green, or a golden-ochre house; here and there a high, broken wall of rose or faded yellow, with torrential geraniums boiling over the top. And the effect of this riot of colour, in contrast with the silver gray of the velvety thatch, or lichen-jewelled slate roofs, under great, cool trees, is even more beautiful than Italy. If all England is a park, Devonshire is a queen's garden.
From Sidmouth we went to Budleigh Salterton (why either, but especially both?), quaintly pretty, and rather Holland-like with its miniature bridges and canal. Then to Exmouth, with its flowering "front," its tiny "Maison Carree" (which would remind one more of Nimes if it had no bay windows), and its exquisite view across silver river, and purple hills that ripple away into faint lilac shadows in the distance. Then we struck inland, to Exeter, and at Exeter we stopped two days, in the very oldest and queerest but nicest hotel imaginable.
I wasn't so very happy there, because the Thing I'm going to tell you about in good time hadn't happened yet. But I'm not sure that I wasn't more in tune with Exeter than if I had been as happy as I am now. The scenery here suits my joyous mood; and the grave tranquillity of the beautiful old cathedral town calmed my spirit when I needed calm.
I've given up expecting to love any other cathedral as I loved Winchester. Chichester I've half forgotten already—except some of the tombs. Salisbury was far more beautiful, far more impressive in its proportions than Winchester, yet to me not so impressive in other ways; and Exeter Cathedral struck me at first sight as curiously low, almost squat. But as soon as I lived down the first surprise of that effect I began to love it. The stone of which the Cathedral is built may be cold and gray; but time and carvings have made it solemn, not depressing. I stood a long time looking up at the west front, not saying a word; but something in me was singing a Te Deum. And how you would love the windows! You used always to say, when we were in Italy and France, that it was beautiful windows which made you love a cathedral or church, as beautiful eyes make one love a face.
This Cathedral has unforgettable eyes, and a tremendously long history, beginning as far back as nine hundred and something, when Athelstan came to Exeter and drove out the poor British who thought it was theirs. He built towns, founded a monastery in honour of Saint Mary and Saint Peter, not having time, I suppose, to do one for each. And afterward the monastery decided that it would be a cathedral instead. But two hundred and more years earlier, that disagreeable St. Boniface, who disliked the Celts so much, went to a Saxon school in Exeter! I wonder what going to school was like when all the world was young?
I wandered into the Cathedral both mornings to hear the music; and something about the dim, moonlit look of the interior made me feel good. You will say that's rather a change for me, perhaps, because you tell me reproachfully, sometimes, after I've thought about the people's hats and the backs of their blouses in church, that I have only a bowing acquaintance with religion. I don't know whether I mayn't be doing the most dreadful wrong every minute by pretending to be Ellaline; but it was begun for a good purpose, as you know, and you yourself consented. And though I have twinges sometimes, I did feel good at Exeter. Oh, it did me heaps of good to feel good! You have to live up to your feelings, if you feel like that. And I prayed in the Cathedral. I prayed to be happy. Is that a wrong note for a prayer? I don't believe it is, if it rings true. Anyway, it makes me feel young and strong to pray, like Achilles, after he'd rolled on the earth. And I do feel so young and strong just now, dear! I have to sing in my bath, and when I look out of the window—also sometimes when I look in the glass, for it seems to me that I am growing brighter and prettier.
I love to be pretty, because it's such a beautiful world, and to be pretty is to be in the harmony of it. Though, perhaps—only perhaps, mind!—I'm glad I'm not a regular beauty. It would be such a responsibility in the matter of wearing one's clothes, and doing one's hair, and never getting tanned or chapped.
And I love to be thin, and alive—alive, with my soul in proportion to my body, like a hand in a glove, not like a seed in a big apple. But isn't this funny talk, in the midst of describing Exeter? It's because of the reaction from misery to ecstasy that I'm so bubbly. I can't stop; but luckily it didn't come on in Exeter, because the delightful, queer old streets aren't at all suitable to bubble in. It's impertinent to be excessively young there, especially in the beautiful cathedral close, where it is so calm and dignified, and the rooks, who are very, very old, do nothing but caw about their ancestors. I think some curates ought to turn into rooks when they die. They would be quite happy.
Our hotel, as I said, was fascinating, though Mrs. Norton fell once or twice, as there were steps up and down everywhere, and Dick bumped his forehead on a door. (I wasn't at all sorry for him.) Mrs. Senter said, if we'd stopped long she would have got "cottage walk," and as she already had motor-car face and bridge eye, she thought the combination would be trop fort. If she weren't Dick's aunt, and if she weren't so determined to flirt with Sir Lionel without his knowing what she's at, and if she didn't make little cutting speeches to me when he isn't listening, I think I should find her amusing.
The only things I didn't like at the hotel were the eggs; which looked so nice, quite brown, and dated the morning you had them, on their shells, but tasting mediaeval. I wonder if eggs can be post-dated, like cheques? As for the other eatables, there was very little taste in them, mediaeval or otherwise. I do think ice-cream, for instance, ought to taste like something, if it's only hair oil. And the head waiter had such mournful-looking hair!
I never got a talk alone with Sir Lionel in Exeter, because though he tried once or twice, with the air of having a painful duty to accomplish, I was afraid he was going to ask me about Dick, and I just felt I couldn't bear it, so avoided him, or instantly tacked myself on to Emily or someone. I think Emily approves of my running to her, whenever threatened by man's society, because she thinks the instinctive desire to be protected from anything male is pretty and maidenly. She certainly belongs to the Stone Age in some of her ideas; though her maxims are of a later period. Many of them she draws (and quarters) from the Scriptures; at least, she attributes them to the Scriptures, but I know some of them to be in Shakespeare. Lots of people seem to make that mistake!
Of course, in the car I never talk to Sir Lionel, except a word flung over shoulders now and then, for Mrs. Senter sits by him. She asked to. Did I tell you that before? So the day we left Exeter things were just the same between us; not trustful and silently happy, as at the time of the ring, but rather strained, and vaguely official.
It had rained a little in Exeter, but the sky and landscape were clean-washed and sparkling as we sailed over the pink road, past charming little Starcross, with its big swan-boat and baby swan-boat; past Dawlish of the crimson cliffs and deep, deep blue sea (if I were a Bluer—just as good a word as Brewer!—I would buy Dawlish as an advertisement for my blue. It seems made for that by Nature, and is so brilliant you'd never believe it was true, on a poster); down a toboggan slide of a hill into Teignmouth, another garden-town by the sea, and through one of England's many Newtons—Newton Abbot, this time—to Torquay.
As we hadn't left Exeter until after luncheon, it was evening when we arrived; but that, Sir Lionel said, was what he wanted, on account of the lights in and on and above the water, which he wanted us to see as we came to the town. He has been here before, long ago, as he has been at most of the places; but he says that he enjoys and appreciates everything more now than he did the first time.
It was like a dream!—a dream all the way from Newton Abbot, where sunset began to turn the silver streak of river in the valley red as wine. There was just one ugly interval: the long, dull street by which we entered Torquay, with its tearing trams and common shops; but out of it we came suddenly into a scene of enchantment. That really isn't too enthusiastic a description, for in front of us lay the harbour; the water violet, flecked with gold, the sky blazing still, coral-red to the zenith, where the moon drenched the fire with a silver flood. The hills were deeper violet than the sea, sparkling with lights that sprang out of the twilight; and on the smooth water a hundred little white boats danced over their own reflections.
We begged Sir Lionel not to let Young Nick light our lamps, for they are so fierce and powerful, they swallow up the beauty of the evening. But I do think, where there are lots of motors about, it would be nice if people had to be lighted at night, and especially dogs.
Now, at last, I have come to the Thing—the thing that makes me happy, with a happiness all the more vivid because it can't last. But even if I fall to the depths of misery once more, I shan't be a coward, and moan to you. It must be horrid to get letter after letter, full of wails! I don't see how Mademoiselle Julie de Lespinasse could write the letters she did; and I can't much blame Monsieur de Guibert for dreading to read them, always in the same key, and on the same note: "I suffer, I suffer. I want to die."
Well, I've kept you waiting long enough, or have you, perhaps, read ahead? I should, in your place, though I hope you haven't.
We came to the Osborne because Sir Lionel knew and liked it, though there's another hotel grander, and we usually go to the grandest (so odd, that feels, after our travels, yours and mine, when our first thought was to search out the cheapest place in any town!), and the Osborne has a terraced garden, which runs down and down the cliffs, toward the sea, with a most alluring view.
Mrs. Senter had luggage come to meet her here, and she appeared at dinner in our private sitting-room looking quite startlingly handsome, in a black chiffon dress embroidered in pale gold, exactly the colour of her hair. The weather had turned rather cold, however, since the rain at Exeter, so, gorgeous as the moonlight was, she wanted to stop indoors after dinner, and proposed bridge, as usual.
That was the signal for me to slip away. I'd finished "Lorna Doone," which is the loveliest love story in the English language (except part of "Richard Feverel"), so I thought I would go into the garden. I felt moderately secure from Dick, because, even if he really is in love with me, he is as much in love with bridge, and besides, he's afraid of his aunt, for some reason or other. As for Sir Lionel, it didn't occur to me that he might even want to come.
I strolled about at first, not far from the hotel. Then I was tempted farther and farther down the cliff path, until I found a thatched summer-house, where I sat and thought what a splendid, ornamental world it would be to live in if one were quite happy.
By this time the sky and sea were bathed in moonlight, the stone pines—so like Italian pines—black against a silver haze. In the dark water the path of the moon lay, very broad and long, all made of great flakes of thick, deep gold, as if the sea were paved with golden scales.
It was so lovely it saddened me, but I didn't want to go indoors; and presently I heard footsteps on the path. I was afraid it was Dick, after all, as he is horribly clever about finding out where one has gone—so detectivey of him!—but in another second I smelt Sir Lionel's kind of cigarette smoke. It would make me think of him if it were a hundred years from now! Still, Dick borrows his cigarettes often, as he says they're too expensive to buy, so I wasn't safe. Indeed, which ever it turned out to be, I wasn't safe, because one might be silly, and the other might scold.
But it was Sir Lionel, and he saw me, although I made myself little and stood in the shadow, not daring to sit down again, because the seat squeaked.
"Aren't you cold?" he asked.
I answered that I was quite warm.
Then he said that it was a nice night, and we talked about the weather, and all that idiotic sort of thing, which means empty brains or hearts too full.
By and by, when I was beginning to feel as though I should scream if it went on much longer, he stopped suddenly, in a conversation about fresh fish, and said: "Ellaline, I think I must speak of something that's been on my mind for some days."
He'd never called me "Ellaline" before, but only "you," and this gave me rather a start, to begin with, so I said nothing. And, as it turned out, that was probably the best thing I could have done. If I'd said anything, it would have been the wrong thing, and then, perhaps, we should have started off with a misunderstanding.
"I should hate to have you think me unsympathetic," he went on. "I'm not. But—do you want to marry Dick Burden, some day?"
If he'd put it differently I might have hesitated what to answer, for I am afraid of Dick, there's no use denying it—of course, mostly on Ellaline's account, but a little on my own too, because I'm a coward, and don't want to be disgraced. As it was, I couldn't hesitate, for the thought of marrying Dick Burden would have been insupportable if it hadn't been ridiculous. So you see, I forgot to dread what Dick might do if he heard, and just blurted out the truth.
"I'd sooner go into a convent," said I.
"You mean that?" Sir Lionel pinned me down.
"I do," I repeated. "Could you imagine a girl wanting to marry Dick Burden?"
"No, I couldn't," said Sir Lionel. And then he laughed—such a nice, happy laugh, like a boy's, quite different from the way I have heard him laugh lately—though at first, in London, he seemed young and light-hearted. "But I'm no judge of the men—or boys—a girl might want to marry. Dick's good-looking, or near it."
"Yes," I admitted. "So is your little chauffeur. But I don't want to marry it."
"Are you flirting with Dick, then?" Sir Lionel asked, not sharply, but almost wistfully.
I couldn't stand that. I had to tell the truth, no matter for to-morrow!
"I'm not flirting with him, either," I said.
"But he seems to think there is something—something to hope."
"Did he tell you so?"
"No. He sent me word."
"Oh! Words get mixed, when they're sent. He knows I'm not flirting with him."
"Does he know—forgive me—does he know that you don't love him—a little?"
"He knows I don't love him at all."
"Then I—can't understand," said Sir Lionel.
"Would you like me to love him?" I couldn't help asking.
"No," he began, and stopped. "I should like you to be happy, in your own way," he went on more slowly. "I've been at a loss, because a little while ago you said you didn't like Burden, and then you seemed to change your mind——"
"It was only seeming," I continued on my reckless course. "My mind toward him stands where it did."
"If that is so, what have you done to him, to give him hope?"
"Nothing I could help," I said.
"There's a strange misunderstanding somewhere, apparently," Sir Lionel reflected aloud.
"Oh, don't let there be one between us!" I begged, looking up at him suddenly.
He put his hand out as suddenly, and grabbed—literally grabbed—mine. I was so happy! Isn't it nice that men are so much stronger than women, and that we're meant to like them to be? It can make life so interesting.
As his fingers pressed mine, I let mine press his too, and felt we were friends. "By Jove, no, we won't," he said. And though it wasn't much to say, nothing could have pleased me better. The words and the tone seemed to match the close clasp of our hands.
"Would you be willing to trust me?" I asked.
"Of course. But in what way do you mean?"
"About Dick Burden. He doesn't think I'm flirting, and he doesn't think I care for him. Yet I want you to trust me, and not say anything to him or to his aunt. Let Dick and me fight it out between us."
He laughed again. "With all my heart, if you want to fight. But I won't have you annoyed. If he annoys you he must go. I will get rid of him."
"Dick can't annoy me if he doesn't make trouble for me with you, Sir Lionel," I said. (And that was the truth.) "Only, if you'll just trust me to manage him?"
"You're very young to undertake the management of a man."
"Dick isn't a man. He's a boy."
"And you—are a child."
"I may seem a child to you," I said, "but I'm not. I'll be so happy, and I'll thank you so much, if you'll just let things go on as they are for a little while. You'll be glad afterward if you do."
And he will, when I've gone and Ellaline has come. He will be glad he didn't give himself too much trouble on my account. But I'm not going to think now of what his opinion of me may be then. At present he has a very good, kind opinion. Even though I am a child in his eyes, I am a dear child; and though it can't last, it does make me happy to be dear to him, in any way at all—this terrible Dragon of Ellaline's.
But that isn't the end of our conversation. The real end was an anti-climax, perhaps, but I liked it. For that matter, the tail of a comet's an anti-climax.
It was only that, when we'd talked on, and he'd promised to trust me, and leave the reins in my hands, while he attended solely to the steering of his motor-car, I said: "Now we must go in. Mrs. Senter will be wanting to finish her rubber." (I forgot to tell you that he explained she'd had a telegram, and had been obliged to hurry and write a letter, to catch the last post. That had stopped a game in the middle.)
"Oh, hang it all, I suppose she will!" he grumbled, more to himself than to me, because, if he'd paused to think, he would have been too polite to express himself so about a guest, whatever his feelings were. But that's why I was pleased. He spoke impulsively, without thinking. Wasn't it a triumph, that he would rather have stayed there in the garden, even with a "child," than hurry back to that radiant white-and-gold (and black) vision?
Now you know why I am so pleased with life.
All that happened last night, and to-day we have had "excursions," but no "alarums." We (every one, not just he and I) have been to Kent's Cavern, where prehistoric tigers' teeth grinned at us from the walls, and have taken a walk to Babbicombe Bay, where we had tea. I think it was the loveliest path I ever saw, that cliff way, with the gray rocks, and the blue sea into which the sky had emptied itself, like a cup with a silver rim. And the wild flowers—the little, dainty, pink-tipped daisies, which I couldn't bear to crush—and the larks that sprang out of the grass! There are things that make you feel so at home in England, dear. I think it is like no other country for that.
To-morrow we are to motor to Princetown, on Dartmoor—Eden Phillpotts land—and are coming back to Torquay at night. If I have time I'll write you a special Dartmoor letter, for I have an idea that I shall find the moor wonderfully impressive. But we mayn't get back till late; and the day after we are to start early in the morning for Sir Lionel's county, Cornwall. Afterward we shall come back into another part of Devonshire, and see Bideford and Exmoor. That's why I've been able to forget some of my worries in "Westward Ho!" and "Lorna Doone" lately. But Sir Lionel can't wait longer for Cornwall, and, so day-after-to-morrow night my eyes shall look upon—only think of it—"dark Tintagel by the Cornish sea." That is, we shall see it, Apollo permitting, for motors and men gang aft aglee.
This isn't apropos of Apollo's usual behaviour, but of the stories we've been told concerning Dartmoor roads. They say—well, there's nothing to worry about with Sir Lionel at the helm; but I shouldn't wonder if to-morrow will be an adventure.
There, now, I'm sorry I said that. You may be anxious; but I can't scratch it out, and it's nearly at the bottom of such a big sheet. So I'll wire to-morrow night, when we get back, and you'll have the telegram before you have this letter.
But ever loving,
AUDRIE BRENDON TO HER MOTHER
Still Torquay, Ten Thirty, August 7th
Dearest: I thought the moor would be impressive. It is overwhelming. Oh, this Devonshire of my father's people is far from being all a land of cream and roses!
Dartmoor has given me so many emotions that I am tired, but I must tell you about it and them. When I shut my eyes, I see tors, like ruined watch-towers, against the sky. And I see Princetown, grim and terrible.
No country can look its best on a map, no matter what colour be chosen to express it; but I did like Dartmoor's rich brown, which set it apart from the green parts of Devonshire. It took some time, though, even in a motor, to come to the brown; for our road was fairy-like as far as Holne, Charles Kingsley's birthplace. We got out there, of course, and looked at his memorial window in the charming village church. At Holne Bridge I thought of the beautiful way to the Grande Chartreuse; so you can imagine it was far from sterile, although we were on the fringe of the moor. And ah, what a lovely green fringe the brown moor wears! It is all trimmed round the edge with woods, and glens, where the baby River Dart goes laughing by. And there's a most romantic Lover's Leap, of course. Strange how so many lovers, though of different countries, have all that same wild desire to jump off something! If I were a lover I should much rather die a flat, neat death.
We saw this Lover's Leap only at a distance when going toward the moor, but coming back—however, I will tell you about it afterward, when I come to Buckland Chase, on the way home.
It was at Holne that the big hills, of which we'd been warned, began; but Apollo merely sniffs at gradients that make smaller, meaner motors grunt with rage. We had a car behind us (which had started ahead), but it was rather an ominous sign to see no "pneu" tracks in the white dust of the road as we travelled. Other days, we have always had them to follow; and it makes a motor feel at home to know that his brethren have come and gone that way. This must have seemed to Apollo like isolation; and as if to emphasize the sensation which we all shared, suddenly we began to smell the moor.
I can't describe to you exactly what that smell was like, but we knew it was the moor. The air became alive and life-giving. It tingled with a cold breath of the north, and one thought of granite with the sun on it, and broom in blossom, and coarse grass such as mountain-sheep love, though one saw none of those things yet. The scenery was still gentle and friendly, and the baby Dart was singing at the top of its voice. Really, it was almost a tune. I felt, as I listened, that it would be easy to set it to music. The moss-covered stones round which purled the clear water looked like the whole notes and half notes, all ready to be pushed into place, so that the tune might "arrange itself." And the amber brown of the stream was mottled with gold under the surface, as if a sack full of sovereigns had been emptied into the river.
The first tor on our horizon was Sharp Tor, which the Dart evidently feared. The poor little river disappeared at sight of it, hurrying away from its frown, and as the stream vanished all the dainty charm of the landscape fled, too. We saw the moor towering toward us, stern and barren, with that great watch-tower of Nature's pinning it to the sky.
Moorland ponies raced to and fro, mad with the joy of some game they were playing, and they were not afraid of us. I should think the live things of the moor were afraid of nothing that could come to them out of the world beyond, for that pungent air breathes "courage," and the gray granite, breaking through the poor coat of grass, dares the eyes that look at it not to be brave.
Near the moorland ponies—on Holne Moor—we came to the strangest reservoir you could dream of. It was vast, and blue as a block fallen out of the sky; and once, Sir Lionel said, it had been a lake, though now it gives water to the prison town. An old road used to run through it; and to this day you can see the bridge under water. The story is that strange forms cross that bridge at night. I'm sure it's true, for anything could happen on the moor, and of course it swarms with pixies. You believe that, don't you? Well, anyway, you would if you saw the moor.
The next tor was nameless for us, but it was even finer than Sharp Tor. After seeing Stonehenge I felt so certain it must be Druidical that it was disappointing to hear it wasn't—that all such theories about the tors had "exploded." Afterward there were lots of tors; and there were tin mines, too, not far from our wild, desolate road—tin mines that have always been worked, they say, since the days of the Phoenicians. I should have been more interested in thinking about them, however, if we hadn't just then begun gliding down a hill which, from the top, looked as if it might go straight through to China. My toes felt as if they'd been done up in curl-papers for years. But there was a savage joy in the creepiness of it, and Apollo "chunk-chunked" sturdily down, in a nice, dependable way, toward a lonely village, which I felt sure was entirely populated by Eden Phillpotts people. He, and the other authors who write about the moor, invariably make their leading characters have "primitive passions," so I thought perhaps the faces of the moor folk would be wilder and stranger, and have more meaning than other civilized faces. But all those I saw looked just like everybody else, and I was so disappointed! They even dropped their "h's"; and once, when we stopped a moment at a place where Sir Lionel wasn't sure of the way, I asked a boy on a rough pony the names of some trees we had passed. "H'ash and green h'elm, miss," said he. It was a blow!
Toward eleven, the sun had drunk up the cold mist, and the moor basked in heat. We were in an empty world, save for a cottage now and then, and a Cyclopean wall of stones loosely piled one upon another. Yet this was the main road from Ashburton to Princetown! Apollo glided along a desolate white way between creamy and silver grasses artistically intermingled, and burning, golden gorse, which caught the sun. The splendid, dignified loneliness of the moor was like the retreat chosen by a hermit god! There may be only twenty square miles of moor, but it feels like a hundred.
Hexworthy and the Forest Inn, which we came to in a valley, were curiously Swiss, all but the ancient cross which made me think of Eden Phillpotts's "American Prisoner." How can I say an "ancient" cross, though, when the really old things on the moor began not only before Christ, but before history—the stone circles, the cairns and the cromlechs, the kistvaen and the barrows! The hut circles, where a forgotten people used to live, are strewn in thousands over the moor, and cooking utensils are sometimes dug up, even now; so you see, everything isn't discovered yet. The people hadn't any metal to work with, poor creatures, until the Bronze Age, and they clothed themselves in skins, which I suppose their dressmakers and tailors made when the sheep and cows that wore them first had been cut up and eaten. I wonder if girls were pretty in those days, or men handsome, and if anyone cared? But I suppose knowing the difference between ugliness and beauty is as old as Adam and Eve. If Eve hadn't been pretty, Adam wouldn't have looked at her, but would have waited in the hope of something better.
The first sight of Princetown only intensified the loneliness of the moor, somehow, partly because it loomed so gray and grim, partly, perhaps, because we knew it to be a prison town. The dark buildings looked as much a natural growth of the moor as those ruined temples on the horizon, which were tors. It was almost impossible to believe that Plymouth was only fifteen miles away. And the sombreness and gloom of the melancholy place increased instead of diminished as we drew nearer to it, after leaving behind us the pleasant oasis of Tor Bridge and its little hotel that anglers and walkers love.
The prison settlement was stuck like a black vice-spot in the midst of wide purity. Gloom hung over it in a pall, and stole the warmth from the sunshine. What a town to name after a Prince Regent! and what a town to have lunch in! Yet it was a singularly good lunch.
We ate it in a hotel built of gray stone, with gray stone colonnades, which looked like an annex to the prison. There was meat pie, which one expected to find smoking hot, and it gave quite a shock to find it not only cold, but iced. There was a big, cool dining-room, all mysterious, creeping shadows, and queer echoes when one dared to speak. And unless one did speak the silence sent a chill through one's body, but it was an interesting chill. Certainly the hotel was the strangest I ever saw; and the hotel dog was like no other animal on land or sea. He appeared to be a mixture of brindled bull and Irish terrier, with long side-whiskers on a bull-dog face. He was a nightmare, but he loved Devonshire cream and junket, and ate them as if he were a lamb.
We stayed a long time in Princetown, and then started to go home by a different way. Out of a vast moorland tract we descended to Dartmoor Bridge, the prettiest oasis in the wild desert of moor which we had seen yet. But soon we were back in moorland again, with tors rising up to snatch at heaven with their dark claws. Each one seemed different from all the rest, just as people's faces are different in crowds. Some were like crests of waves, petrified as they were ready to break; but the weirdest of all were exactly like ruined forts of dwarfs. And presently the scenery changed again in a kaleidoscopic way. We came to lovely Houndsgate, with a great, deep wonder-valley far below us, only to return to a region of tors and bracken, and to plunge down the most tremendous hill of all—a hill which was like gliding down the glassy side of an ocean wave.
I had just exclaimed, "See, there's a motor ahead of us!" when an extraordinary thing happened. The car going before us, very fast, suddenly ran to the side of the steep road, stopped, some people jumped out, and at the same instant a great flame spouted straight up toward the sky.