Do you—you who read—find this so very difficult to understand? Can you recall no like imperfect memory of your own that, multiplied a hundredfold, would supply an analogy, a standpoint to look into Fenwick's disordered mind from?
After his delirious collision with his first vigorous revival of the past, he was beginning to settle down to face it, helped by the talisman of his love for Rosalind, whom it was his first duty to shield from whatever it should prove to hold of possible injury to her. That happy hour of the dying sunset in the shorn cornfields, with her and Sally and the sky above and the sea beyond, had gone far to soothe the perturbation of the night. And his talk of the morning with this young man he had just left had helped him strongly. For he knew in his heart he could safely go to him again if he could not bear his own silence, could trust him with whatever he could tell at all to any one. Could he not, when he was actually ready to trust him with—Sally?
So, though he was far from feeling at rest, a working equilibrium was in sight. He could acquiesce in what came back to him, as it came; need never struggle to hasten or retard it. Little things would float into his mind, like house-flies into the ray from a shutter-crack in a darkened room, and float away again uncaptured, or whizz and burr round and against each other as the flies do, and then decide—as the flies do—that neither concerns the other and each may go his way. But he was nowise bound to catch these things on the wing, or persuade them to live in peace with one another. If they came, they came; and if they went, they went.
Such a one caught his thoughts, and held them for a moment as, satisfied that astronomy would see to that star, he turned to go straight home to Lobjoit's. That would just last out the cigar. But what was it now? What was the fly that flew into his sun-ray this time, that it should make him remember a line of Horace, to be so pat with it, and to know what it meant, too?
But this fact, that he could not tell how he came to know its meaning, showed him how decisively the barrier line across the memory of his boyhood was drawn, or, it might be, his early manhood. He could not remember, properly speaking, the whole of his life in the States, but he could remember telling a man—one Larpent, a man with a club-foot, at Ontario—that he had been there over fifteen years. This man has nothing to do with this story, but he happens to serve as an illustration of the disjointed way in which small details would tell out clear against a background of confusion. Why, Fenwick could remember his face plainly—how close-shaven he was, and black over the razor-land; how his dentist had inserted an artificial tooth that didn't match, and shone out white. But as to the fifteen years he had spent in the States, that he had told Mr. Larpent of, they grew dimmer and dimmer as he tried to carry his recollection further back. Beyond them—or rather, longer ago than they, properly speaking—came that endless, intolerable labyrinth of trees, and then, earlier still, that railway-carriage. It was getting clearer; but the worst of it was that the clearer it got, the clearer grew the Rosey that came out of it. As long as that went on, there was nothing of it all he could place faith in. He had been told that no man could be convinced, by his own reason, of his own hallucination. He would supply a case to the contrary. It would amuse him one day, if ever he came to know that girl of the railway-carriage was dead, to tell Rosalind all his experiences, and how bravely he fought against what he knew to be delusion.
But he must make an effort against this sort of thing. Here was he, who had just made up his mind—so he phrased it—to remain himself, and refuse to be Harrisson, no sooner was he left alone for a few minutes than he must needs be raking up the past. And that, too, because of a line of Horace!—sound in itself, but quite cut asunder from its origin, the book he read it in, or the voice he heard read it. What did that line matter? Leave it for Mr. Harrisson in that state of pre-existence. As well make a point of recalling the provenance of any little thing that had happened in this his present life. Well, for instance, Mary and the fat boy in "Pickwick." Rosalind had read him that aloud, he knew, but he couldn't say when. Was he going to worry himself to recall that which could do him no harm to know? Surely not. And if so, why strive to bring back things better forgotten? It is useless to endeavour to make the state of Fenwick's mind, at this point of the imperfect revival of memory, appear other than incredible. A person who has had the painful experience of forgetting his own name in a dream would perhaps understand it best. Or, without going so far, can no help be got towards it from our frequent certainties about some phrase (for instance) that we think we cannot possibly forget? about some date that we believe no human power will ever obliterate? And in five minutes—gone—utterly gone! Truly, there is no evidence but a man's own word for what he does or does not, can or cannot, recollect.
* * * * *
"I say, Rosey, when was it you read to me about Mary and the fat boy in 'Pickwick'?" Fenwick, having suggested a doubt to himself about his power to recall what he supposed to have happened recently, had, of course, set about doing it directly. His question was asked of his wife as he came into her bedroom on his return. He mounted the stairs singing to himself,
"Que nous mangerons Marott-e, Bec-a-bec et toi et moi,"
till he came in to where Rosalind was sitting reading, with her wonderful hair combed free—probably by Sally for a treat. Then he asked his question rather suddenly, and it made her start.
"I was in the middle of my book, and you made me jump." He gave her a kiss for apology. "What's the question? When did I read to you about Mary and the fat boy? I couldn't say. I feel as if I had, though."
"Was it out in the garden at K. Villa? It wasn't here." He usually called Krakatoa "K." for working purposes.
"No, it certainty wasn't here. It must have been at home, only I can't recollect when. Ask Sally."
"The kitten wasn't there."
"She would know, though. She always knows. She's not asleep yet ... Sallykin!" The young person is on the other side of a mere wooden partition, congenial to the architecture of Lobjoit's, and her reply conveys the idea of a speaker in bed who hasn't moved to answer.
"What? Be quick. I'm going to sleep."
"I'm so sorry, chick. When was it I read to this man Mary and the fat boy in 'Pickwick'?"
"How should I know? Not when I was there."
"All right, Sarah." Thus Fenwick, to whom Sarah responds:
"Good-night, Jeremiah. Go to bed, and don't keep decent Christian people awake at this hour of the night. Take mother's book away, and cut it."
Rosalind closes her book and says: "I don't know, darling, if Sally doesn't. Why do you want to know?"
"Couldn't say. It crossed my mind. I know the kitten wasn't there, though. Good-night, love.... Oh yes, I shall sleep to-night. Ta, ta, Sarah—pleasant dreams!"
But he had not reached the door when the voice of Sarah came again, with the implication of a mouth that had come out into the open.
"Stop, Jeremiah!" it said. "It wasn't at K. Villa."
"Why not, chick?"
"Because Pickwick's lost! It was lent to those impossible people at Turnham Green, and they stole it. I know they did. Name like Marylebone."
"The Haliburtons? Why, that's ever so long ago." Thus Rosalind.
"Of course it is. It's been gone ages. I'm going to sleep. Good-night!" And Jeremiah said good-night once more and departed.
Sally didn't go straight to sleep, but she made a start on her way there. It was not a vigorous start, for she had hardly begun upon it when she desisted, and sat up in bed and listened.
"What's that, mother? Nothing wrong, is there?"
"No, darling child, what should be wrong? Go to sleep."
"I thought I heard you gasp, or snuffle, or sigh, or sob, or click in your throat. That's all. Sure you didn't?"
"Quite sure. Now, do be a reasonable kitten, and go to sleep; I shall be in bed in half-a-second."
And Sally subsides, but first makes a stipulation: "You will sleep in your hair, mother darling, won't you? Or, at least, do it up, and not that hateful nightcap?"
But though Rosalind felt conscientiously able to disclaim any of the sounds Sally had described, something audible had occurred in her breathing. Sally's first word had gone nearest, but it was hardly a full-grown gasp.
Her husband's question about "Pickwick" had scarcely taken her attention off an exciting story-climax, and she really did want to know why the Archbishop turned pale as death when the Countess kissed him. Gerry was looking well and cheerful again, and there was nothing to connect his inquiry with any reminiscence of "B.C." So, as soon as he had gone, she reopened her book—not without a mental allusion to a dog in Proverbs—and went on where she had left off. The writer had not known how to manage his Archbishop and Countess, and the story went flat and slushy like an ill-whipped zabajone. She put the book aside, and wondered whether "Pickwick" really had been alienated by the impossible Haliburtons; sat thinking, but only of the thing of now—nothing of buried records.
So she sat, it might be for two minutes. Then, quite suddenly, she had bitten her lip and her brows had wrinkled. And her eyes had locked to a fixed look that would stay till she had thought this out. So her face said, and the stillness of her hand.
For she had suddenly remembered when and where it was she had read to that man about Mary and the fat boy. It was in the garden at her mother's twenty-two years ago. She remembered it well now, and quite suddenly. She could remember how Gerry, young-man-wise, had tried to utilise Thackeray to show his greater knowledge of the world—had flaunted Piccadilly and Pall Mall before the dazzled eyes of an astonished suburban. She could remember how she read it aloud to him, because, when he read over her shoulder, she always turned the page before he was ready. And his decision that Dickens's characters were never gentlemen, and her saying perhaps that was why he was so amusing. And then how he got the book from her and went on reading while she went away for her lawn-tennis shoes, and when she came back found he had only two more pages to read, and then he would come and play.
But it spoke well for her husband's chances of a quiet time to-night that he should hold this memory in his mind, and yet be secure against a complete resurrection of the past. Nothing else might grow from it. He evidently thought the reading had been at Shepherd's Bush. He would hardly have said, "the kitten wasn't there," unless his ideas had been glued to that spot. But then—and Rosalind's mind swam to think of it—how very decisively the kitten was "not there" in that other garden two-and-twenty years ago.
It was at that moment the gasp, or sigh, or sob, or whatever it was, awoke Sally. Her mother had been strong against the mere memory of the happy hour of thoughtless long ago; but then, this that was to come—this thing the time was thoughtless of! Was it not enough to force a gasp from self-control itself? a cry from any creature claiming to be human? "The kitten wasn't there!" No, truly she was not.
HOW MEMORY CREPT BACK AND BACK, AND FENWICK KEPT HIS OWN COUNSEL. ROSALIND NEED NEVER KNOW IT. OF A JOLLY BIG BLOB OF MELTED CANDLE, AND SALLY'S HALF-BROTHER. OF FENWICK'S IMPROVED GOOD SPIRITS
That was a day of many little incidents, and a fine day into the bargain. Perhaps the next day was helped to be a flat day by the barometer, which had shown its usual untrustworthiness and gone down. The wind's grievance—very perceptible to the leeward of keyholes and window-cracks—may have been against this instability. It had been looking forward to a day's rest, and here this meteorology must needs be fussing. Neptune on the contrary was all the fresher for his half-holiday, and was trotting out tiny white ponies all over his fields, who played bo-peep with each other in and out of the valleys of the plough-land. But they were grey valleys now, that yesterday were smiling in the sun. And the sky was a mere self-coloured sky (a modern expression, as unconvincing as most of its congeners), and wanted to make everything else as grey as itself. Also there came drifts of fine rain that wetted you through, and your umbrella wasn't any good. So a great many of the visitors to St. Sennans thought they would stop at home and get those letters written.
Sally wouldn't admit that the day was flat per se, but only that it had become so owing to the departure of Laetitia and her husband. She reviewed the latter a good deal, as one who had recently been well under inspection and had stood the test. He was really a very nice fellow, haberdasher or no, wasn't he, mother? To which Rosalind replied that he was a very nice fellow indeed, only so quiet. If he had had his violin with him, he would have been much more perceptible. But she supposed it was best to travel with it as little as possible. For it had been decided, all things considered, that the precious Strad should be left locked up at home. "It's got an insurance policy all to itself," said Sally, "for three hundred pounds." She was quite awestruck by the three hundred golden sovereigns which these pounds would have been if they had had an existence of their own off paper.
"You ought to have an insurance policy all to yourself, Sarah," said Fenwick. "Only I don't believe any office would accept you. Fancy your swimming out like that yesterday! How far did you go?"
"Round the buoy and aback again. I say, Jeremiah, if ever I get drowned, mind you rush to the bathing-machine and see if there's a copy of 'Ally Sloper' or 'Tit-Bits'. Because there'd be fifty pounds for each. Think of that!" Sally is delighted with these sums, too, to the extent of quite losing sight of the sacrifice necessary for their acquisition.
"Two whole fifties!" Fenwick says, adding after consideration: "I think we had sooner keep our daughter, eh, Rosey?" And Rosalind agreed. Only she really was a shocking madcap, the kitten!
Had some flavour of Fenwick's mental history got in the air, that Sally, presumably with no direct information about its last chapter, should say to him suddenly: "It is such a puzzle to me, Jeremiah, that you've never recollected the railway-carriage"? He was saved from telling fibs in reply—for he had recollected the railway-carriage, and left it, as it were, for Mr. Harrisson—by Sally continuing: "When you were Mr. Fenwick, and I wasn't at liberty to kiss you." She did so to illustrate.
"I don't see how I could reasonably have resented your kissing me, Sarah. And I'm Mr. Fenwick now."
"On the contrary, you're Jeremiah. But if you were he ever so, I'm puzzled why Mr. Fenwick now can't remember Mr. Fenwick then."
"He can't, Sarah dear. He can no more remember Mr. Fenwick then than if no such person had ever existed." It was a clever equivocation, for though he had so far made nothing of the name on his arm, he was quite clear he came back to England Harrisson. His gravity and sadness as he said it may have been not so much duplicity as a reflection from his turgid current of thought of the last two days. It imposed on Sally, who decided in her own mind on changing the topic as soon as she could do it without a jerk. Meanwhile, a stepping-stone was available—extravagant treatment of the subject with a view to help from laughter.
"I wonder what Mr. Fenwick then would have thought if I had kissed him in the railway-carriage."
"He'd have thought you must be Sally, only he hadn't noticed it. He wouldn't have made a rumpus on high moral grounds, I'm sure. But I don't know about the old cock that talked about the terms of the Company's charter...."
"Hullo!" Sally interrupts him blankly. He had better have let it alone. But it wouldn't do to admit anything.
"What's 'hullo,' Sarah?"
"See how you're recollecting things! Jeremiah's recollecting the railway-carriage, mother—the electrocution-carriage."
"Are you, darling?" Rosalind, coming behind his chair, puts her hands round his neck. "What have you recollected?"
"I don't think I've recollected anything the kitten hasn't told me," says Fenwick dreamily. But Sally is positive she never told him anything about the terms of the Company's charter.
Rosalind adheres to her policy of keeping Sally out of it as much as possible. In this case a very small fib indeed serves the purpose: "You must have told him, chick; or perhaps I repeated it. I remember your telling me about the elderly gentleman who was in a rage with the Company." Sally looked doubtful, but gave up the point.
Nevertheless, Fenwick felt certain in his own heart that "the terms of the Company's charter" was a bit of private recollection of his own. And Rosalind had never heard of it before. But it was true she had heard of the elderly gentleman. Near enough!
* * * * *
As to the crowd of memories that kept coming, some absolutely clear, some mere phantoms, into the arena of Fenwick's still disordered mind, they would have an interest, and a strong one, for this story if its object were the examination of strange freaks of memory. But the only point we are nearly concerned with is the rigid barrier drawn across the backward pathway of his recollection at some period between ten and fifteen years ago. Till this should be removed, and the dim image of his forgotten marriage should acquire force and cohesion, he and his wife were safe from the intrusion of their former selves on the scene of their present happiness—safe possibly from a power of interference it might exercise for ill—safe certainly from risk of a revelation to Sally of her mother's history and her own parentage—but safe at a heavy cost to the one of the three who alone now held the key to their disclosure.
However vividly Fenwick had recalled the incidents of his arrival in England, and however convinced he was that no part of them was mere dream, they all belonged for him to that buried Harrisson whose identity he shrank from taking on himself—would have shrunk from, at the cost that was to be paid for it, had the prize of its inheritance been ten times as great. Still, one or two connecting links had caught on either side, the chief one being Sally, who had actually spoken with him whilst still Harrisson—although it must be admitted she had not kissed him—and the one next in importance, the cabman. The pawnbroker made a very bad third—in fact, scarcely counted, owing to his own moroseness or reserve. But the cabman! Why, Fenwick had it all now at his fingers' ends. He could recall the start from New York, the wish to keep the secret of his gold-mining success to himself on the ship, and his satisfaction when he found his name printed with one s in the list of cabin passengers. Then a pleasant voyage on a summer Atlantic, and that nice young American couple whose acquaintance he made before they passed Sandy Hook, every penny of whose cash had been stolen on board, and how he had financed them, careless of his own ready cash. And how then, not being sure if he should go to London or to Manchester, he decided on the former, and wired his New York banker to send him credit, prompt, at the bank he named in London; and then Livermore's Rents, 1808, and the joy of the cabman; and then the Twopenny Tube; and then Sally. He tried what he could towards putting in order what followed, but could determine nothing except that he stooped for the half-crown, and something struck him a heavy blow. Thereupon he was immediately a person, or a confusion, sitting alone in a cab, to whom a lady came whom he thought he knew, and to this lady he wanted to say, "Is that you?" for no reason he could now trace, but found he could scarcely articulate.
Recalling everything thus, to the full, he was able to supply links in the story that we have found no place for so far. For instance, the loss of a small valise on the boat that contained credentials that would have made it quite unnecessary for him to cable to New York for credit, and also an incident this reminded him of—that he had not only parted with most of his cash to the young Americans, but had given his purse to the lady to keep her share of it in, saying he had a very good cash pocket, and would have plenty of time to buy another, whereas they were hurrying through to catch the tidal boat for Calais. This accounted for that little new pocket-book without a card in it that had given no information at all. He could remember having made so free with his cards on the boat and in the train that he had only one left when he got to Euston.
He found himself, as the hours passed, better and better able to dream and speculate about the life he now chose to imagine was Harrisson's property, not his; and the more so the more he felt the force of the barrier drawn across the earlier part of it. Had the barrier remained intact, he might ultimately have convinced himself, for all practical purposes, that Harrisson's life was all dream. Yes, all a dream! The cold and the gold of the Klondyke, the French Canadians at Ontario, four years on a cattle-ranch in California, five of unsuccessful attempts to practise at the American Bar—all, all a dream of another man named Harrisson, dreamed by Algernon Fenwick, that big hairy man at the wine-merchant's in Bishopsgate, who has a beautiful wife and a daughter who swims like a fish. One of the many might-have-beens that were not! But a decision against its reality demanded time, and his revival of memory was only forty-eight hours old so far.
Of course, he would have liked, of all things, to make full confession, and talk it all out—this quasi-dream—to Rosalind; but he could not be sure how much he could safely bring to light, how much would be best concealed. He could not run the slightest risk when the thing at stake was her peace of mind. No, no—Harrisson be hanged! Him and his money, too.
So, though things kept coming to his recollection, he could hold his peace, and did so. There was nothing to come—not likely to be—that could unsay that revelation that he had been a married man, and did not know of his wife's death; not even that he and she had been divorced, which would have been nearly as bad. He knew the worst of it, at any rate, and Rosalind need never know it if he kept it all to himself, best and worst.
So that day passed, and there was nothing to note about it, unless we mention that Sally was actually kept out of the Channel by Neptune's little white ponies aforesaid, which spoiled the swimming water—though, of course, it wasn't rough—backed by the fact that these little sudden showers wetted you through, right through your waterproof, before you knew where you were. Dr. Conrad came in as usual in the evening, reporting that his mother was "rather better." It was a discouraging habit she had, when she was not known to have been any worse than usual. This good lady always caught Commiseration napping, if ever that quality took forty winks. The doctor was very silent this evening, imbibing Sally without comment. However, St. Sennans was drawing to a close for all others. That was enough to account for it, Sally thought. It was the last day but one, and poor Prosy couldn't be expected to accept her own view—that the awful jolliness of being back at Krakatoa Villa would even compensate—more than compensate—for the pangs of parting with the Saint. Sally's optimism was made of a stuff that would wash, or was all wool.
According to her own account, she had spent the whole day wondering whether the battle between Tishy and her mother had come off. She said so last thing of all to her mother as she decanted the melted paraffin of a bedroom candle whose wick, up to its neck therein, was unable to find a scope for its genius, and yielded only a spectral blue spark that went out directly if you carried it. Tilted over, it would lick in the end—this was Sally's testimony; and if you dropped the grease on the back of the soap-dish and thickened it up to a good blob, it would come off click when it was cold, and not make any mess at all.
"Yes, I've been wondering all day long," said she. "How I should enjoy being there to see! How freezing and dignified the Dragon will be! Mrs. Sales Wilson! Or perhaps she'll flare. (I wish this wick would; and it's such disgraceful waste of good candle!)"
"I do think, kitten, you're unkind to the poor lady. Just think how she must have dreamed about the splendid match her handsome daughter was going to make! And, you know, it is rather a come down...."
"Yes, of course it's a come down. But I don't pity the Dragon one bit. She should have thought more of Tishy's happiness, and less of her grandeur. (It's just beginning; the flame will go white directly.)"
"She'd got some one else in view then?" Rosalind was quickly perceptive about it.
"Oh yes; don't you know? Sir Penderfield. (That'll do now, nicely; there's the white flame!) Sir Oughtred Penderfield. He's a Bart., of course. But he's a horror, and they say his father was even worse. Like father, like son! And the Dragon wanted Tishy to accept him."
At the name Rosalind shivered. The thought that followed it sent a knife-cut to her heart. This man that Sally had spoken of so unconsciously was her brother—at least, he was brother enough to her by blood to make that thought a blade to penetrate the core of her mother's soul. It was a case for her strength to show itself in—a case for nettle-grasping with a vengeance. She would grasp this nettle directly; but oh, for one moment—only one moment—just to be a little less sick with the slice of the chill steel! just to quench the tremor she knew would come with her voice if she tried now to say, "What was the name? Tishy's pretendu's, I mean; not his father's."
But she could take the whole of a moment, and another, for that matter. So she left her words on her tongue's tip to say later, and felt secure that Sally would not look up and see the dumb white face she herself could see in the mirror she sat before. For, of course, she saw Sally's reflection, too, its still thoughtful eyelids half shrouded in a broken coil of black hair their owner's pearly teeth are detaining an end of, to stop it falling in the paraffin she is so intent on, as she watches it cooling on the soap-dish.
"I've made it such a jolly big blob it'll take ever so long to cool. You can, you know, if you go gently. Only then the middle stops soft, and if you get in a hurry it spoils the clicket." But it is hard enough now to risk moving the hair over it, and Sally's voice was free to speak as soon as her little white hand had swept the black coils back beyond the round white throat. Mrs. Lobjoit's mirror has its defects apart from some of the quicksilver having been scratched off; but Rosalind can see the merpussy's image plain enough, and knows perfectly well that before she looks up she will reap the harvest of happiness she has been looking forward to. She will "clicket" off the "blob" with her finger.
The moment of fruition comes, and a filbert thumbnail spuds the hardened lozenge off the smooth glaze. "There!" says Sally, "didn't I tell you? Just like ice.... What, mother?" For her mother's question had been asked, very slightly varied, in a nettle-grasping sense. She has had time to think.
"What was Tishy's man's name—the other applicant? Christian name, I mean; not his father's."
"Sir Oughtred Penderfield. Why?"
"I remember there was a small boy in India, twenty-two years ago, named Penderfield. Is Oughtred his only name?" The nettle-grasping there was in this! Rosalind felt consoled by her own strength.
"Can't say. He may have a dozen. Never seen him. Don't want to! But his hair's as black as mine, Tishy says.... I say, mother, isn't it deliciously smooth?" But this refers to the paraffin lozenge, not to the hair.
"Yes, darling. Now I want to get to bed, if you've no objection."
"Certainly, mother darling; but say I'm right about the Dragon and Sir Penderfield. Because I am, you know."
"Of course you are, chick. Only you never told me about him; now, did you?"
"Because I was so honourable. It was a secret. Very well, good-night, then.... Oh, you poor mother! how cold you are, and I've been keeping you up! Good-night!"
And off went Sally, leaving her mother to reason with herself about her own unreasonableness. After all, what was there in the fact that the little chap she remembered, seven years old, at the Residency at Khopal twenty odd years ago had grown up and inherited his father's baronetcy? What was there in this to discompose and upset her, to make her breath catch and her nerves thrill? A longing came on her that Gerry should not look in to say good-night till she was in a position to refuse interviewing on the score of impending sleep. She made a dash for bed, and got the light out, out-generalling him by perhaps a minute.
What could she expect? Not that little Tamerlane, as his father called him, should die just to be out of her path. It was no fault of his that he was his father's son, with—how could she doubt after what Sally had just said?—the curse of his father's form of manhood or beasthood upon him. And yet, might it not have been better that he should have died, the innocent child she knew him, than live to follow his father's footsteps? Better, best of all that the whole evil brood should perish and be forgotten.... Stop!
For the thought she had framed caught her breath and held it, caught her by the heart and checked its beating, caught her by the brain and stopped its thinking; and she was glad when her husband's voice found her, dumb and stunned in the silence, and brought a respite to the unanswerable enigma she was face to face with.
"Hullo! light out already? Beg your pardon, darling. Good-night!"
"I wasn't asleep." So he came in and said good-night officially and departed. His voice and his presence had staved off a nightmare idea that was on the watch to seize on her—how if chance had brought Sally across this unsuspected relation of hers, and events had forced a full declaration of their kinship? Somnus jumped at the chance given by its frustration; the sea air asserted itself, and went into partnership with him, and Rosalind's mind was carried captive into dreamland.
But not before she had heard her husband stop singing to himself a German student's song as he closed his door on himself for the night.
"War ich zum grossen Herrn geboren, wie Kaiser Maximilian...."
There could be no further unwelcome memories there, thank Heaven! No mind oppressed by them could possibly sing "Kram-bam-bambuli, krambam-bu-li!"
BATHING WEATHER AGAIN, AND A LETTER FROM TISHY BRADSHAW. THE TRIUMPH OF ORPHEUS. BUT WAS IT EURYDICE OR THE LITTLE BATTERY? THE REV. MR. HERRICK. OF A REVERIE UNDER A BATHING-MACHINE, AND OF GWENDOLEN'S MAMMA'S CONNECTING-LINK. OF DR. CONRAD'S MAMMA'S DONKEY-CHAIR, AND HIS GREAT-AUNT ELIZA. HOW SALLY AND HE STARTED FOR THEIR LAST WALK AT ST. SENNANS
The next day the morning was bright and the sea was clear of Poseidon's ponies. They had gone somewhere else. Therefore, it behooved Mrs. Lobjoit to get breakfast quick, because it was absurd to expect anybody to go in directly after, and the water wouldn't be good later than half-past ten. Which Sally, coming downstairs at eight, impressed on Mrs. Lobjoit, who entered her own recognisances that it should appear as by magic the very minute your mamma came down. For it is one of the pleasures of anticipation-of-a-joy-to-come to bring about its antecedents too soon, and so procure a blank period of unqualified existence to indulge Hope in without alloy. Even so, when true prudence wishes to catch a train, she orders her cab an hour before, and takes tickets twenty minutes before, and arrives on the platform eighteen minutes before there is the slightest necessity to do so; and then she stands on the said platform and lives for the train that is to be, and inquires of every guard, ticket-taker, and pointsman with respect to every linear yard of the platform edge, whether her train is going to come up there; and they ask each other questions, and give prismatic information; and then the train for Paradise (let us say) comes reluctantly backwards into the station with friends standing on its margin, and prudence seizes her valise and goes at a hand-gallop to the other end, where the nth class is, and is only just in time to get a corner seat.
So, though there was no fear of the tide going out as fast as the train for Paradise, Sally, relying on Mrs. Lobjoit, who had become a very old friend in eight weeks, felt she had done well to be beforehand, and, as breakfast would be twenty minutes, sat down to write a letter to Tishy. She wrote epistle-wise, heedless of style and stops, and as her mother was also twenty minutes—we are not responsible for these expressions—she wrote a heap of it. Then events thickened, as Fenwick, returning from an early dip, met the postman outside, and came in bearing an expected letter which Sally pounced upon.
"All about the row!" said she, attacking an impregnable corner of the envelope with a fork-point, in a fever of impatience to get at the contents. "Hang these envelopes! There, that's done it! Whatever they want to sticky them up so for I can't imagine...."
"Get your breakfast, kitten, and read it after."
"I dare say. Catch me! No, I'm the sort that never waits for anything.... No, mummy darling; it shan't get cold. I can gormandize and read aloud both at once."
But she doesn't keep her promise, for she dives straight into an exploration ahead, and meanly says, "Just half a minute till I see what's coming," or, "Only to the end of this sentence," and also looks very keen and animated, and throws in short notes of exclamation and well's and there's and think of that's till Fenwick enters a protest.
"Don't cheat, Sarah!" he says. "Play fair! If you won't read it aloud yourself, let somebody else."
"There's the first sheet to keep you quiet, Jeremiah!" Who, however, throws it over to Rosalind, who throws it back with a laugh.
"What a couple of big babies you two are!" she exclaims. "As if I couldn't possess my soul in peace for five minutes! Do put the letter by till you've had your breakfasts."
But this course was not approved, and the contents of Laetitia's epistle came out by fits and jerks and starts, and may be said to have been mixed with tea and coffee and eggs and bacon and toast. Perhaps we had better leave these out, and give the letter intact. Here it is:
"I am going to keep my promise, and write you a long letter at once, and tell you all about our reception at home. You will say it wasn't worth writing, especially as you will be back on Monday. However, a promise is a promise!
"We got to Victoria at seven, and were not so very late considering at G. Terrace; but when we had had something to eat I propounded my idea I told you of, that we should just go straight on, and beard mamma in her own den, and have it out. I knew I shouldn't sleep unless we did. Paggy said, 'Wouldn't it do as well if he called there to-morrow for the Strad—which we had left behind last time as a connecting-link to go and fetch away—and me to meet him as he came from the shop?' But surprise-tactics were better—I knew they would be—and now Paggy admits I was right.
"Of course, Thomas stared when he saw who it was, and was going to sneak off without announcing us, and Fossett, who just crossed us in the passage, was perfectly comic. Pag said afterwards she was bubbling over with undemonstrativeness, which was clever for him. I simply said to Thomas that I thought he had better announce us, as we weren't expected, and he asked who he was to announce, miss! Actually, I was rather relieved when Pag said, 'Say Mr. and Mrs. Julius Bradshaw.' I should have laughed, I know. Thomas looked a model of discretion that wouldn't commit itself either way, and did as he was bid in an apologetic voice; but he turned round on the stairs to say to me, 'I suppose you know, msam, there's two ladies and a gentleman been dining here?' Because he began miss and ended ma'am, and then turned scarlet. Pag said after he thought Thomas wanted to caution us against a bigamist mamma was harbouring.
"Papa was very nice, really. His allusion to our little escapade was the only one made, and might have meant nothing at all. 'Well, you're a nice couple of people, upon my word!' and then, seeing that mamma remained a block (which she can), he introduced Paggy to one of the two ladies as 'My son-in-law, Mr. Julius Bradshaw.' I'm sure mamma gave a wooden snort and was ashamed of it before visitors, because she did another rather more probable one directly after, and pretended it was only that sort. Really, except a peck for me and saying howd and nothing more to Paggy, she kept herself to herself. But it didn't matter, because of what happened. Really, it quite made me jump—I mean the way the lady Pag was introduced to rushed into his arms. I wasn't sure I hadn't better take him away at once. She was a celebrated German pianiste that had accompanied him in Paris. Mamma was at school with her at Frankfort. She had been inconsolable at the disappearance of the great Carissimi, whose playing of the Kreutzer was the only perfectly sympathetic one she had ever met. Was she never to play it with him again? Alas, no! for she was off to Vienna to-morrow, and then to New York, and if the ship went down she would never play the Kreutzer with Signore Carissimi again!
"I saw papa's eye looking mischievous, and then he pointed to the Strad, where it was lying on the piano—locked up safe; we saw to that—and said there was Paganini's fiddle, why not play the Cruet-stand, or whatever you called it, now? Mamma found her voice, but lost her judgment, for she tried to block the performance on a fibby ground. Think how late it was, and how it would be keeping Madame von Hoefenhoffer! She put her head in the lion's mouth there, for the Frau immediately said she would play all night rather than lose a note of Signore Carissimi. The other two went, and nobody wanted them. I've forgotten the woman's second husband's name—he's dead—but her son's the man I told you about. Of course, he hadn't expected to meet me, and I hope he felt like a fool. I was so glad it wasn't him, but Paggy. They played right through the Kreutzer, and didn't want the music, which couldn't be found, and then did bits again, and it was absolutely glorious. Even mamma (she's fond of music—it's her only good quality—and where should I get mine from if she wasn't?) couldn't stop quite stony, though she did her best, I promise you. As for papa, he was chuckling so over mamma's dilemma—because she wanted to trample on Paggy, and it was a dilemma—that he didn't care how long it went on. And do you know, dear, it did go on—one thing after another, that Frau glued to the clavier like a limpet not detachable without violence—till nearly one in the morning, having begun at ten about! And there was papa and Egerton and Theeny all sniggering at mamma, I know, in secret, and really proud of the connexion, if the truth were known. Mamma tried to get a little revenge by saying to me freezingly when the Hoefenhoffer had gone: 'I suppose you are going home with Mr. Bradshaw, Laetitia? Good-night.' And then she said goodn to Paggy just as she had said howd. I thought Paggy behaved so nicely. However, I'll tell you all about that on Monday.
"Papa was very nice—came out on the doorstep to say good-night, and, do you know—it really is very odd; it must be the sea air—papa said to Paggy as we were starting: 'How's the head—the nerves, you know—eh, Master Julius?' And actually Paggy said: 'Why, God bless my soul, I had forgotten all about them!' Oh, Sally darling, just think! Suppose they got well, and all because I treated him to a honeymoon! Oh, my gracious, what a long letter!"
"There now! that is a letter and a half. 'With love from us both,' mine affectionately. And twelve pages! And Tishy's hand's not so large, neither, as all that." This is Sally, as epilogue; but her mother puts in a correction:
"It's thirteen pages. There's a bit on a loose page you haven't read." Sally has seen that, and it was nothing—so she says; but Fenwick picks it up and reads it aloud:
"P.S.—Just a line to say I've remembered that name. She's Herrick—married a parson in India soon after her Penderfield husband died. She's great on reformatories."
Sally reread her letter with a glow of interest on her face and a passing approval or echo now and then. She noticed nothing unusual in either her mother or her stepfather; but she did not look up, so absorbed was she.
Had she done so she might have wondered why her mother had gone so pale suddenly, and why there should be that puzzled absent look on the handsome face her eyes remained fixed on across the table; but her own mind was far away, deep in her amusement at her friend's letter, full of her image of the disconcerted Dragon and the way Paganini and Beethoven in alliance had ridden rough-shod over Mrs. Grundy and social distinctions. She saw nothing, and finished a cup of coffee undisturbed, and asked for more.
Fenwick, caught by some memory or association he could not define or give its place to, for the moment looked at neither of his companions. Rosalind, only too clear about all the postscript of the letter had brought before her own mind, saw reason to dread its effect on his. The linking of the name of Penderfield and that of the clergyman who had married them at Umballa—a name that, two days since, had had a familiar sound to him when she incautiously uttered it—was using Suggestion to bait a trap for Memory. She felt she was steering through shoal-waters perilously near the wind; but she made no attempt to break his reverie. She might do as much harm as good. She only watched his face, feeling its contrast to that of the absorbed and happy merpussy, rejoicing in the fortunate outcome of her friend's anxieties.
It was a great relief when, with a deep breath and a shake, akin to a horse's when the flies won't take a hint, Fenwick flung off the oppression, whatever it was, and came back into the living world on a stepping-stone of the back-talk.
"Well done, Paganini! Nothing like it since Orpheus and Eurydice—only this time it was Proserpine, not Pluto, that had to be put to sleep.... What's the matter, darling? Anything wrong?"
"Nothing at all. I was looking at you."
"Well, I'm all right!" And Sally looked up from her letter for a moment to say, "There's nothing the matter with Jeremiah," and went on reading as before. Sally's attitude about him always implied a kind of proprietorship, as in a large, fairly well-behaved dog. Rosalind felt glad she had not looked at her.
Presently Fenwick said: "Now, who's coming for a walk with me?" But Sally was off directly to find the Swiss girl she sometimes bathed with, and Rosalind thought it would be nice in a sheltered place on the beach. She really wanted to be alone, and knew the shortest way to this was to sit still, especially in the morning; but Gerry had better get Vereker to go for a walk. Perhaps she would look in at his mother's later. So Fenwick, after a customary caution to Sally not to drown herself, went away to find Conrad, as he generally called him now.
Rosalind was shirking a problem she dared not face from a cowardly conviction of its insolubility. What would she do if Gerry should, without some warning, identify her? She had to confess to herself that she had no clue at all to the effect it would have, coming suddenly, on him. She could at least imagine aspects, attitudes, tones of voice for him if it came slowly; but she could not supply any image of him, under other circumstances, not more or less founded on her recollections of twenty years ago. Might she not lose him again, as she lost him then? She must get nearer to safety than she was now. Was she not relying on the house not catching fire instead of negotiating insurance policies or providing fire extinguishers?
She would go and sit under the shelter of one of the many unemployed machines—for only a few daring spirits would follow Sally's example to-day—and try to think it out. Just a few instructions to Mrs. Lobjoit, and a word or two of caution to Gerry not to fall over cliffs, or to get run over at level-crossings or get sunstrokes, or get cold, etc., and she would fall back on her own society and think....
Yes, that was the question! Might she not lose him again? And if she did, how live without him?... Oh yes, she would be no worse off than before, in a certain sense. She would have Sally still ... but....
Which would be the worse? The loss of the husband whom every day taught her to love more dearly, or the task of explaining the cause of her loss to Sally? The one she fixed her mind on always seemed intolerable. As for the other contingencies—difficulties of making all clear to friends, and so forth—let them go; they were not worth a thought. But she must be beforehand, and know how to act, how to do her best to avert both, if the thing she dreaded came to pass....
There now! Here she was settled under the lee of a machine—happily the shadow-side, for the sun was warm—and the white foam of the undertow was guilty of a tremendous glare—the one the people who can't endure the seaside get neuralgia from—and Sally was going to come out of the second machine directly in the Turkey-twill knickers, and find her way through the selvage-wave and the dazzle, or get knocked down and have to try back. Surely Rosalind, instead of saying over and over again that she must be ready to meet the coming evil, possibly close at hand, ought to make a serious effort to become so. She found herself, even at this early hour of the day, tired with the strain of a misgiving that an earthquake was approaching; and as those who have lived through earthquakes become unstrung at every slightest tremor of the earth's crust beneath them, so she felt that the tension begun with that recurrence of two days ago had grown and grown, and threatened to dominate her mind, to the exclusion of all else. Every little thing, such as the look on her husband's face half an hour ago, made her say to herself, as the earthquake-haunted man says at odd times all through the day and night, "Is this it? Has it come?" and she saw before her no haven of peace.
What was it now she really most feared? Simply the effect of the revelation on her husband's mind—an effect no human creature could make terms with. She was not the least afraid of anything he could say or do, delirium apart; but see what delirium had made of him—she was sure it was so—in that old evil hour when he had flung her from him and gone away in anger to try to get her sentence of banishment ratified. How could she guard against a repetition, in some form or other, of the disastrous errors of that unhappy time?
As we know, she was still in ignorance of all the revived memories he had told to Vereker; but she knew there had been something—disjointed, perhaps, and not to be relied on, as the doctor had said, but none the less to be feared on that account. She had seen the effect of his sleepless night before he went away with Vereker, and knew it to be connected with mental disturbance outside and beyond mere loss of rest; and she had an uneasy sense that something was being kept from her. She could not but believe Gerry's cheerfulness was partly assumed. Had he been quite at ease about his recollections, surely he would have told them to her. Then this had all come on the top of that Kreutzkammer one. The most upsetting thing of all, though, was the change that had come over him suddenly at breakfast, just after he had read aloud the name Herrick—a name he had seemed not free from memory of when her tongue was betrayed into speaking it—and the name Penderfield. If it was due to this last, so much the worse! It was the name of all others that was best for oblivion.
How hard it seemed that it must needs force itself to the fore in this way! Its present intrusion into her life and surroundings was utterly unconnected with anything in the past. Sally's friendship with Laetitia began in a music-class six years ago. The Sales Wilsons were people to all appearance as un-Indian as any folk need be. Why must Sally's friend, of all others, be the object of its owner's unwelcome admiration? To think, too, how near she had been to a precipice without knowing it! Suppose she had come face to face with that woman again! To be sure, her intercourse with Ladbroke Grove Road was limited to one stiff exchange of calls in "the season." Still, it might have happened ... but where was the use of begging and borrowing troubles?
Was it, or was it not, the fact, she asked herself, that now, after all these years, she thought of this woman as worse than her husband, the iniquity of the accomplice as more diabolical than that of the principal? She found she could not answer this in the negative off-hand. The paradox was also before her that that incorrigible amphibious treasure of hers, whose voice was even now shouting to her more timorous friend from beyond the selvage-wave she had just contemptuously dived through—that that Sally, inexchangeable for anything she could conceive or imagine, must needs have been something quite other than she was, had she come of any other technical paternity than the accursed one she had to own to. Was there some terrible law in Nature that slow forgiveness of the greatest wrong that can be wrought must perforce be granted to its inflictor, through the gracious survivor of a brutal indifference that would almost add to his crime, if that were possible? If, so, surely the Universe must be the work of an Almighty Fiend, a Demiurgus with a cruel heart, and this the masterstroke of all his cunning. But what, in Heaven's name, was the use of bruising her brains against the conundrums of the great unanswered metaphysical sphinx? Better be contented with the easy vernacular solution of the rhymester:
"Praise God from whom all blessings flow, Evils from circumstances grow."
Because she felt she was getting no nearer the solution of her own problem, and was, if anything, wandering from the point.
Another way of looking at the matter was beginning to take form: had hung about her mind and forsaken it more than once. Might it not be better, after all, to dash at the position and capture it while her forces were well under control? To pursue the metaphor, the commissariat might not hold out. Better endure the ills we have—of course, Rosalind knew all that—than fly to others that we know not of. But suppose we have a chance of flying to others we can measure the length and breadth of, and staving off thereby an uncalculable unknown? She felt she almost knew the worst that could come of taking Gerry into her confidence, telling him boldly all about himself, provided she could choose her opportunity and make sure Sally was well out of the way. The concealment from Sally was the achievement whose failure involved the greatest risk. Her husband's mind would bear the knowledge of his story well or ill according to the way in which it reached him; but the necessity of keeping her girl in ignorance of it was a thing absolute. Any idea that Sally's origin could be concealed from her, and her stepfather's identity made known, Rosalind dismissed as simply fantastic.
A lady who had established herself below high-water mark with many more books than she could read, and plant capable of turning out much more work than she could do, at this point fled for safety from a rush of white foam. It went back for more, meaning to wet her through next time; but had to bear its disappointment. Mrs. Arkwright—for it was Gwendolen's mamma—being driven from the shadow of the breakwater, cast about her for a new lodgment, and perceived one beside Mrs. Fenwick, whom she thought very well for the seaside, but not to leave cards on. Might she come up there, beside you? Rosalind didn't want her, but had to pretend she did, to encourage her advent. It left behind it a track of skeins and volumes, which had trickled from the fugitive, but were recovered by a domestic, and pronounced dry. Besides, they were only library books, and didn't matter.
"I haven't seen you since the other day on the pier, Mrs. Fenwick, or I wanted to have asked you more about that charming young couple, the Julian Attwoods. Oh dear! I knew I should get the name wrong.... Bradshaw! Yes, of course." Her vivid perception of what the name really is, when apprised of it, almost amounts to a paroxysm. You see, on the pier that day, she made a bad blunder over those Bradshaw people, and though she had consoled her conscience by admitting to her husband that she had "mis le pied dans le plat," still, she thought, if she was actually going to plump down on Mrs. Fenwick's piece of beach, she ought to do a little more apology. By-the-bye, why is it that ladies of her sort always resort to snippets of French idiom, whenever they get involved in a quagmire of delicacy—or indelicacy, as may be? Will Gwendolen grow like her mother? However, that doesn't concern us now.
A little stiffness on Rosalind's part was really due to her wish to be by herself, but Mrs. Arkwright ascribed it to treasured resentment against her blunders of two days since. Now, she was a person who could never let anything drop—a tugging person. She proceeded to develop the subject.
"Really a most interesting story! I need hardly say that my informants had given me no particulars. Very old friends of my husband's. Quite possible they really knew nothing of this young gentleman's musical gifts. Simply told my husband the tale as I told it to you. Just that the daughter of an old friend of theirs, Professor Sales Wilson—the Professor Sales Wilson—of course, quite a famous name in literature—scholarship—that sort of thing—had run away with a shopman! That was what my husband heard, you know. I merely repeated it."
"Wasn't it, as things go, rather a malicious way of putting it—on their part?"
Mrs. Arkwright gave sagacious nods, indicative of comfortable "we-know-the-world-we-live-in-and-won't-pretend" relationships between herself and the speaker. They advertised perfect mutual understanding on a pinnacle of married experience. Fancy there being any need for anything else between us! they said. Their editor then supplied explanatory text: "Of course there may have been a soupcon of personal feeling in the case—bias, pique, whatever one likes to call it. You know, dear Mrs. Fenwick?" But Mrs. Fenwick waited for further illumination. "Well, you know ... I suppose it's rather a breach of confidence, only I know I shall be safe with you...."
"Don't tell me any secrets, Mrs. Arkwright. I'm not safe." But Mrs. Arkwright was not a person to be put off in this way. Not she! She meant elucidation, and nothing short of bayonets would stop her.
"Well, really, perhaps I'm making it of too much importance to talk of breaches of confidence. After all, it only amounts to a gentleman having been disappointed. Of course, his relations would ... don't you see?..."
"Was it some man that was after Tishy?" asked Rosalind, wondering how many more rejected suitors were wearing the willow about the haberdasher's bride. She had heard of one, only last night. She was not putting two and two together.
"I dare say everybody knows it, and it's only my nonsensical caution. But one does get so timorous of saying anything. You know, dear Mrs. Fenwick! However, it's better to say it out now—of course, quite between ourselves, you know. It was Mrs. Samuel Herrick's son, Sir Charles Penderfield. He's the present baronet, you know. Father was in the army—rather distinguished man, I fancy. Her second husband was a clergyman...." Here followed social analysis, some of which Rosalind could have corrected. The speaker floundered a little among county families, and then resumed the main theme. "Mrs. Herrick is a sort of connexion of my husband's (I don't exactly know what; but then, I never do know—family is such a bore), and it was she told him all about this. I always forget these things when they're told me. But I can quite understand that the young man's mother, in speaking of it ... you understand?..."
"Oh, of course, naturally. I think my daughter's coming out. I saw her machine-door move." Rosalind began collecting herself for departure.
"But, of course, you won't repeat any of this—but, of course, I know I can rely upon you—but, of course, it doesn't really matter...." A genial superior tone of toleration for mankind's foibles as seen by the two speakers from an elevation comes in at this point juicily. It meets an appreciative response in the prolonged first syllable of Rosalind's "Certainly. I never should dream," etc., whose length makes up for an imperfect finish—a dispersal of context from which a farewell good-morning emerges clear, hand-in-hand with a false statement that the speaker has enjoyed sitting there talking.
Rosalind had not enjoyed it at all. She was utilising the merpussy's return to land as a means of escape, because, had there been no Mrs. Arkwright, and no folk-chatter, Sally would have come scranching up the shingle, and flung herself down beside her mother. As it was, Rosalind's "Oh, I am so glad to get away from that woman!" told a tale. And Sally's truthful soul interpreted the upshot of that tale as prohibitive of merely going away and sitting down elsewhere. She and her mother were in honour bound to have promised to meet somebody somewhere—say, for instance, Mrs. Vereker and her son and donkey-chair. Sally said it, for instance, seeing something of the sort would soothe the position; and the two of them met the three, or rather the three and a half, for we had forgotten the boy to whom the control of the donkey was entrusted, and whose interpretation of his mission was to beat the donkey incessantly like a carpet, and to drag it the other way. The last held good of all directions soever. Which the donkey, who was small, but by nature immovable, requited by taking absolutely no notice whatever of his exertions.
"What's become of my step-parent? I thought he was going to take you for a walk." So spoke Sally to Dr. Conrad as she and her mother met the three others, and the half. The doctor replied:
"He's gone for a walk along the cliff by himself. I would have gone...." The doctor pauses a moment till the donkey-chair is a few paces ahead, accompanied by Mrs. Fenwick. "I would have gone, only, you see, it's just mother's last day or two...." Sally apprehends perfectly. But he shouldn't have dropped his voice. He was quite distant enough to be inaudible by the Octopus as far as overhearing words went. But any one can hear when a voice is dropped suddenly, and words are no longer audible. Dr. Conrad is a very poor Machiavelli, when all is said and done.
"I can hear every word my boy is saying to your girl, Mrs. Fenwick." This is delivered with exemplary sweetness by the Octopus, who then guesses with diabolical acumen at almost the exact wording of her son's speech. Apparently, no amount of woollen wraps, no double thickness of green veil to keep the glare out, no smoked glasses with flanges to make it harmless if it gets in, can obscure the Goody's penetrative powers when invoked for the discomfiture of her kind. "But does not my dear boy know," she continues gushily, "that I am always content to be alone as long as I can be sure that he is happily employed elsewhere. I am a dull old woman, I know; but, at least, my wish is not to be a burden. That was the wish of my great-aunt Eliza—your great-great-aunt, Conrad; you never saw her—in her last illness. I borrow her expression—'not to be a burden.'" The Octopus, having seized her prey in this tentacle, was then at liberty to enlarge upon the unselfish character of her great-aunt, reaping the advantages of a vicarious egoism from an hypnotic suggestion that that character was also her own. The great-aunt had, it appeared, lost the use, broadly speaking, of her anatomy, and could only communicate by signs; but when she died she was none the less missed by her own circle, whose grief for her loss took the form of a tablet. The speaker paused a moment for her hearers to contemplate the tablet, and perhaps ask for the inscription, when Sally saw an opening, and took advantage of it.
"Dr. Conrad's going to be very selfish this afternoon, Mrs. Vereker, and come with us to Chalke, where that dear little church is that looks like a barn. I mean to find the sexton and get the key this time."
"My dear, I shall be perfectly happy knitting. Do not trouble about me for one moment. I shall think how you are enjoying yourselves. When I was a girl there was nothing I enjoyed more than ransacking old churches...."
And so forth. Rosalind felt almost certain that Sally either said or telegraphed to the doctor, who was wavering, "You'll come, you know. Now, mind; two-thirty punc.," and resolved, if he did not come, to go to Iggulden's and extract him from the tentacles of his mamma, and remain entangled herself, if necessary.
In fact, this was how the arrangement for the afternoon worked out. Dr. Conrad did not turn up, as expected, and Rosalind carried out her intention. She rescued the doctor, and sent him round to join her husband and Sally, promising to follow shortly and catch them up. The three started to walk, but Fenwick, after a little slow walking to allow Rosalind to overtake them, had misgivings that she had got caught, and went back to rescue her, telling Sally and the doctor it was no use to wait—they would follow on, and take their chance. And the programme so indicated was acted on.
OF LOVE, CONSIDERED AS A THUNDERSTORM, AND OF AGUR, THE SON OF JAKEH (PROV. XXX.). OF A COUNTRY WALK AND A JUDICIOUSLY RESTORED CHURCH. OF TWO CLASPED HANDS, AND THEIR CONSEQUENCES. NOTHING SO VERY REMARKABLE AFTER ALL!
Love, like a thunderstorm, is very much more intelligible in its beginnings—to its chronicler, at least—than it becomes when it is, so to speak, overhead. We all know the clear-cut magnificence of the great thundercloud against the sky, its tremendous deliberation, its hills and valleys of curdling mist, fraught with God knows what potential of destruction in volts and ohms; the ceaseless muttering of its wrath as it speaks to its own heart, and its sullen secrets reverberate from cavern to cavern in the very core of its innermost blackness. We know the last prismatic benedictions of the sun it means to hide from us—the strange gleams of despairing light on the other clouds—clouds that are not in it, mere outsiders or spectators. We can remember them after we have got home in time to avoid a wetting, and can get our moist water-colours out and do a recollection of them before they go out of our heads—or think we can.
But we know, too, that there comes a time of a sudden wind and agitated panic of the trees, and then big, warm preliminary drops, and then the first clap of thunder, clear in its own mind and full of purpose. Then the first downpour of rain, that isn't quite so clear, and wavers for a breathing-space, till the tart reminder of the first swift, decisive lightning-flash recalls it to its duty, and it becomes a steady, intolerable torrent that empties roads and streets of passers-by, and makes the gutters rivulets. And then the storm itself—flash upon flash—peal upon peal—up to the blinding and deafening climax, glare and thunderbolt in a breath. And then it's overhead, and we are sure something has been struck that time.
It was all plain sailing, two days since, in the love-storm we want the foregoing sketch of a thunderstorm to illustrate, that was brewing in the firmament of Conrad Vereker's soul. At the point corresponding to the first decisive clap of thunder—wherever it was—Chaos set in in that firmament. And Chaos was developing rapidly at the time when the doctor, rescued by Sally's intrepidity from the maternal clutch, started on what he believed would be his last walk with his idol at St. Sennans. Now he knew that, when he got back to London, though there might be, academically speaking, opportunities of seeing Sally, it wasn't going to be the same thing. That was the phrase his mind used, and we know quite well what it meant.
Of course, when some peevish author or invalid sends out a servant to make you take your organ farther off, a good way down the street, you can begin again exactly where you left off, lower down. But a barrel-organ has no soul, and one has one oneself, usually. Dr. Vereker's soul, on this occasion, was the sport of the love-storm of our analogy, and was tossed and driven by whirlwinds, beaten down by torrents, dazzled by lightning and deafened by thunder, out of reach of all sane record by the most eloquent of chroniclers. It was not in a state to accept calmly the idea of transference to Shepherd's Bush. A tranquil mind would have said, "By all means, go home and start afresh." But no; the music in this case refused to welcome the change. Still, he would forget it—make light of it and ignore it—to enjoy this last little expedition with Sally to the village church across the downs, that had been so sweetly decorated for the harvest festival. A bird in the hand was worth two in the bush. Carpe diem!
So Dr. Conrad seemed to have grown younger than ever when he and Sally got away from all the world, after Fenwick had fallen back to rescue the captive, octopus-caught. Whereat Sally's heart rejoiced; for this young man's state of subordination to his skilful and overwhelming parent was a constant thorn in her side. To say she felt for him is to say nothing. To say that she would have jumped out of her skin with joy at hearing that he was engaged to that young lady, unknown; and that that young lady had successfully made terms of capitulation, involving the disbanding of the Goody, and her ultimate dispersal to Bedford Park with a companion—to vouch for this actually happening might be rash. But Sally told herself—and her mother, for that matter—that she should so jump out of her skin; and you may believe her, perhaps. We happen not to; but it may have been true, for all that.
Agur, the son of Jakeh (Prov. xxx.), evidently thought the souls of women not worth analysis, and the way of a maid with a man not a matter for Ithiel and Ucal to spend time and thought over, as they seem to have said nothing to King Solomon on the subject. But then Agur candidly admitted that he was more brutish than any man, and had not the understanding of a man. So he contented himself with wondering at the way of a man with a maid, and made no remarks about the opposite case. Even with the understanding of a man, would he have been any nearer seeing into the mystery of a girl's heart? As for ourselves, we give it up. We have to be content with watching what Miss Sally will do next, not trying to understand her.
She certainly believed she believed—we may go that far—when she started to walk to Chalke Church with a young man she felt a strong interest in, and wanted to see happily settled in life—(all her words, please, not ours)—that she intended, this walk, to get out of Prosy who the young lady was that he had hinted at, and, what was more, she knew exactly how she was going to lead up to it. Only she wouldn't rush the matter; it would do just as well, or better, after they had seen the little church, and were walking back in the twilight. They could be jolly and chatty then. Oh yes, certainly a good deal better. As for any feeling of shyness about it, of relief at postponing it—what nonsense! Hadn't they as good as talked it all over already? But, for our own part, we believe that this readiness to let the subject wait was a concession Sally made towards admitting a personal interest in the result of her inquiry—so minute a one that maybe you may wonder why we call it a concession at all. Dr. Conrad was perhaps paltering a little with the truth, too, when he said to himself that he was quite prepared to fulfil his half-promise to Fenwick and reveal his mind to Sally; but not till quite the end of this walk, in case he should spoil it, and upset Sally. Or, perhaps, to-morrow morning, on the way to the train. Our own belief is, he was frightened, and it was an excuse.
"We shall go by the beech-forest," was Sally's last speech to Fenwick, as he turned back on his mission of rescue. And twenty minutes later she and Dr. Conrad were crossing the smooth sheep-pasture that ended at the boundary of the said forest—a tract of woodland that was always treated with derision on account of its acreage. It was small, for a forest, certainly; but, then, it hadn't laid claim to the name itself. Sally spoke forgivingly of it as they approached it.
"It's a handy little forest," said she; "only you can't lie down in it without sticking out. If you don't expect to, it doesn't matter." This was said without a trace of a smile, Sally-fashion. It took its reasonableness for granted, and allowed the speaker to continue without a pause into conversation sane and unexaggerated.
"What were you and Jeremiah talking about the day before yesterday, when you went that long walk?"
"We talked about a good many things. I've forgotten half."
"Which was the one you don't want me to know about? Because you haven't forgotten that, you know." Vereker thinks of Sally's putative parents, the Arcadian shepherdess and the thunderbolt. Obviously a reality! Besides—so ran the doctor's thought—with her looking like that, what can I do? He felt perfectly helpless, but wouldn't confess it. He would make an effort. One thing he was certain of: that evasion, with those eyes looking at him, would mean instant shipwreck.
"We had a long talk, dear Miss Sally, about how much Jeremiah"—a slight accent on the name has the force of inverted commas in text—"can really recollect of his own history." But Sally's reply takes a form of protest, without seeming warranty.
"I say, Dr. Conrad, I wish you wouldn't.... However, never mind that now. I want to know about Jeremiah. Has he remembered a lot more, and not told?"
"He goes on recovering imperfect versions of things. He told me a good many such yesterday—so imperfect that I am convinced as his mind clears he will find that some of them, though founded on reality, are little better than dreams. He can't rely on them himself.... But what is it you wish I wouldn't?"
"Oh, nothing!—I'll tell you after. Never mind that now. What are the things—I mean, the things he recovers the imperfect versions of? You needn't tell me the versions, you know, but you might tell me what they were versions of, without any breach of confidence." Dr. Conrad has not time for more than a word or two towards the obvious protest against this way of stating the case, before Sally becomes frankly aware of her own unfairness. "No, I won't worm out and inquisit," she says—and we are bound to give her exact language. "It isn't fair on a general practitioner to take him for a walk and get at his professional secrets." The merry eyebrows and the pearly teeth, slightly in abeyance for a serious moment or two, are all in evidence again as the black eyes flash round on the doctor, and, as it were, convey his reprieve to him. He acknowledges it in this sense.
"I'm glad you don't insist upon my telling, Miss Sally. If you had insisted, I should have had to tell." He paused a second, drawing an inference from an expression of Sally's face, then added: "Well, it's true...."
"I wasn't thinking of that." This refers to her intention to say something, which never fructified; but somehow got communicated, magnetically perhaps, to Dr. Conrad. "Never mind what, now. Because if your soles are as slippy as mine are, we shall never get up. Catch hold!"
This last refers to the necessity two travellers are under, who, having to ascend a steep escarpment of slippery grass, can only do so by mutual assistance. Sally and the doctor got to the top, and settled down to normal progress on a practicable gradient, and all the exhilaration of the wide, wind-swept downland. But what had been to the unconscious merpussy nothing but a mutual accommodation imposed by a common lot—common subjection to the forces of gravitation and the extinction of friction by the reaction of short grass on leather—had been to her companion a phase of stimulus to the storm that was devastating the region of his soul; a new and prolonged peal of thunder swift on the heels of a blinding lightning-flash, and a deluge to follow such as a real storm makes us run to shelter from. On Dr. Conrad's side of the analogy, there was no shelter, and he didn't ask for it. Had he asked for anything, it would have been for the power to tell Sally what she had become to him, and a new language he did not now know in which to tell it. And such a vocabulary!
But Dr. Conrad didn't know how simple the language was that he felt the want of—least of all, that there was only one word in its vocabulary. And when the two of them got to the top of their slippery precipice, breathless, he was no nearer the disclosure he had made up his mind to, and as good as promised Fenwick to make, than when they were treading the beechmast and listening to the wood-doves in the handy little forest they had left below. But oh, the little things in this life that are the big ones all the while, and no one ever suspects them!
A very little thing indeed was to play a big part, unacknowledged till after, in the story of this walk. For it chanced that as they reached the hill-top the diminution of the incline was so gradual that at no exact point could the lease of Sally's hand to that of the doctor be determined by either landlord or tenant. We do not mean that he refused to let go, nor that Sally consciously said to herself that it would be rude to snatch back the gloveless six-and-a-half that she had entrusted to him, the very minute she didn't want his assistance. It was a nuance of action or demeanour far, far finer than that on the part of either. But it was real all the same. And the facts of the case were as clear to Sally's subconsciousness, unadmitted and unconfessed, as though Dr. Conrad had found his voice then and there, and said out boldly: "There is no young lady I am wavering about except it be you; she's a fiction, and a silly one. There is no one in the world I care for as I do for you. There is nothing in the world that I can name or dream of so precious to me as this hand that I now give up with reluctance, under the delusion that I have not held it long enough to make you guess the whole of the story." All that was said, but what an insignificant little thing it was that said it!
As for Miss Sally, it was only her subself that recognised that any one had said anything at all. Her superself dismissed it as a fancy; and, therefore, being put on its mettle to justify that action, it pointed out to her that, after that, it would be the merest cowardice to shirk finding out about Dr. Conrad's young lady. She would manage it somehow by the end of this walk. But still an element of postponement came in, and had its say. Yet it excited no suspicions in her mind, or she ignored them. She was quite within her rights, technically, in doing so.
It was necessary, though, to tide over the momentary reciprocity—the slight exchange of consciousnesses that, if indulged, must have ended in a climax—with a show of stiffness; a little pretence that we were a lady and gentleman taking a walk, otherwise undescribed. When the doctor relinquished Sally's hand, he felt bound to ignore the fact that hers went on ringing like a bell in the palm of his, and sending musical messages up his arm; and to talk about dewponds. They occur on the tops of downs, and are very scientific. High service and no rate are the terms of their water-supply. Dr. Conrad knew all about them, and was aware that one they passed was also a relic of prehistoric man, who had dug it, and didn't live long enough, poor fellow! to know it was a dewpond, or prehistoric. Sally was interested. A little bird with very long legs didn't seem to care, and walked away without undue hurry, but amazingly quickly, for all that.
"What a little darling!" Sally said. "Did you hear that delicious little noise he made? Isn't he a water-ouzel?" Sally took the first name that she thought sounded probable. She really was making talk, to contribute her share to the fiction about the lady and gentleman. So was her companion. He reflected for a moment whether he could say anything about Grallae and Scolopacidae, or such like, but decided against heaping up instructive matter on the top of the recent dewponds. He gave it up, and harked back quite suddenly to congenial personalities.
"What was it you wished I wouldn't, Miss Sally?"
Our Sally had it on her lips to say, "Why, do that—call me Miss Sally, of course! I can't tell you how I hate it." But, this time, she was seized with a sudden fit of shyness. She could have said it quite easily before that trivial hand-occurrence, and the momentary stiffness that followed it. Now she backed out in the meanest way, and even sought to fortify the lady and gentleman pretext. She looked back over the panorama they were leaving behind, and discerned that that was Jeremiah and her maternal parent coming through the clover-field. But it wasn't, palpably. Nevertheless, Sally held tight to her groundless opinion long enough for the previous question to be droppable, without effrontery. Then her incorrigible candour bubbled up, and she refused to take advantage of her own subterfuge.
"Never mind, Dr. Conrad; I'll tell you presently. I've a bone to pick with you. Wait till we've seen the little churchy-wurchy—there it is, over there, with a big weathercock—and then we can quarrel and go home separate."
Even Agur, the son of Jakeh, would have seen, at this point, the way that this particular maid, in addressing this particular man, was exaggerating a certain spirit of bravado; and if he had been accompanying them unseen from St. Sennans, would certainly have deserved his own self-censure if he had failed to trace this spirit to its source—the hand-incident. We believe it was only affectation in Agur, and that he knew all about the subject, men, maids, and every other sort; only he didn't think any of the female sorts worth his Oriental consideration. It was a far cry to the dawn of Browning in those days.
Down the hill to the flatlands was a steep pathway, where talk paused naturally. When you travel in single file on a narrow footway with a grass slide to right or left of you, which it does not do to tread on with shoe-soles well polished on two miles of previous grass, you don't talk—especially if you have come to some point in talk where silence is not unwelcome. Sally and the doctor said scarcely a dozen words on the way down to the little village that owned the name and the church of Chalke. When they arrived in its seclusion they found, for purposes of information and reference, no human creatures visible except some absolutely brown, white-haired ones whose existence dated back only a very few years—not enough to learn English in. So, when addressed, they remained a speechless group, too unaccustomed to man to be able to say where keys of churches were to be had, or anything else. But the eldest, a very little girl in a flexible blue bonnet, murmured what Sally, with insight, interpreted into a reference.
"Yes, dear, that's right. You go and tell moarther t' whoam that a lady and gentleman want to see inside the church, and ask for the key." Whereupon the little maid departs down a passage into a smell of wallflowers, and is heard afar rendering her message as a long narrative—so long that Dr. Conrad says the child cannot have understood right, and they had better prosecute inquiry further. Sally thinks otherwise, and says men are impatient fidgets.
The resolute dumbness of one of the small natives must have been a parti-pris, for it suddenly disappeared during his sister's absence, and he gave a narrative of a family dissension, not necessarily recent. He appears proud of his own share in it, which Sally nevertheless felt she could not appear to sanction by silence.
"You bad little boy," she said. "You smacked your sister Elizabeth in t' oy, and your foarther smacked you. I hope he hurt." The bad little boy assented with a nod, and supplied some further details. Then he asked for a penny before his sister Elizabeth came back. He wanted it to buy almond-rock, but he wouldn't give any of it to Jacob, nor to his sister Elizabeth, nor to Reuben, nor to many others, whom he seemed to exclude from almond-rock with rapture. Asked to whom he would give some, then, he replied: "Not you—eat it moyself!" and laughed heartlessly. Sally, we regret to say, gave this selfish little boy a penny for not being hypocritical. And then his sister Elizabeth reappeared with the key, which was out of scale with her, like St. Peter's.
The inward splendours of this church had been inferred by Sally from a tiptoe view through the window, which commanded its only archaic object of interest—the monument of a woolstapler who, three hundred and odd years ago, had the effrontery to have two wives and sixteen children. He ought to have had one or two more wives, thought Dr. Conrad. However, the family was an impressive one now, decorated as it was with roses cut out of turnips, and groups of apples and carrots and cereals. And no family could have kneeled down more symmetrically, even in 1580.
But there was plenty to see in that church, too. Indeed, it was for all the world like the advertisement sheets of Architectonic Ecclesiology (ask for this paper at your club), and every window was brim full of new stained glass, and every inch of floor-space was new encaustic tiles. And, what was more, there was a new mosaic over the chancel-arch—a modest and wobbly little arch in itself, that seemed afflicted with its position, and to want to get away into a quiet corner and meditate. Sally said so, and added so should she, if she were it.
"I wonder if the woolstapler was married here to one or other of the little square women," said she.
"I wonder why the angels up there look so sulky," said Dr. Conrad. And then Sally, who seemed absent-minded, found something else to wonder about—a certain musical whistling noise that filled the little church. But it was only a big bunch of moonwort on a stained-glass-window sill, and the wind was blowing through a vacancy that should have been a date, and making AEolian music. The little maid with the key found her voice over this suddenly. Her bruvver had done that, she said with pride. He had oymed a stoo-an when it was putten up, and brokken t' glass. So that stained glass was very new indeed, evidently.
"I wonder why they call that stuff 'honesty,' Miss Sally?" said the doctor. Sally, feeling that the interest of either in the church was really perfunctory, said vaguely—did they? And then, recoiling from further wonderment, and, indeed, feeling some terror of becoming idiotic if this sort of thing went on much longer, she exclaimed, with reality in her voice: "Because it's not pretending to take an interest when it doesn't, like us. But I wish you wouldn't, Dr. Conrad; I do hate it so."
"Hate what? Taking an interest or calling it honesty? I didn't call it honesty. They did, whoever they are!"
"No, no—I don't mean that. Never mind. I'll tell you when we're out. Come along—that is, if you've seen enough of the tidy mosaic and the tidy stained glass, and the tidy nosegays on the tidy table." The doctor came along—seemed well satisfied to do so. But this was the third time Sally had wished that Dr. Conrad wouldn't, and this time she felt she must explain. She wasn't at all sure that the name of that herb hadn't somehow got into the atmosphere—caught on, as it were, and twitted her. After all, why shouldn't she speak a plain thought to an old friend, as poor Prosy was now? Who could gainsay it? Moreover—now, surely this was an inspiration—why shouldn't she kill two birds with one stone, and work in her inquiry about the other young lady with this plain thought that was on her tongue to speak?
The sun was a sheer blaze of golden light as they stepped out of the little church into its farewell efforts on behalf of the hill-shadowed land of premature sunsets, and the merpussy looked her best in its effulgence. Sally's good looks had never been such as to convince her she was a beauty; and we suppose she wasn't, critically speaking. But youth and health, and an arrow-straight bearing, and a flawless complexion, in a flood of evening light, make a bold bid for beauty even in the eyes of others than young men already half-imbecile with love. Sally's was, at any rate, enough to dumbfounder the little janitress with the key, who stood at gaze with violet eyes in her sunbrowned face in the shadow, looking as though for certain they would never close again; while, as for Dr. Conrad, he was too far gone to want a finishing touch, and if he had been, the faintest animation of an extra flush due to embarrassment at what she was meaning to say would have done the business for him. What could he do but wonder and idolize, even while he almost flinched before his idol; and wait to know what it was she wished he wouldn't? What was there in earth or heaven he would not, if Sally wished it?
"Dr. Conrad, I'm sure you must know what I mean. I do so hate being called 'Miss Sally.' Do make it 'Sally,' and have done with it."
The breezy freshness of her spontaneous ease was infectious, and the shy man's answering laugh showed how it had caught his soul. "Is that all?" says he. "That's soon done—Sally! You know, I do call you Sally when I speak to your mother and...."
"Now, do say father. You've no idea how I like it when people call Jeremiah my father, instead of step."
"Well—father, then. I mean, they said call you Sally; so of course I do. But speaking to you—don't you see?..." The doctor hesitates—doesn't actually blush, perhaps. A slight pause in the conversation eases off the context. The little maiden has to lock up the church-door with the big key, and to receive sixpence and a kiss from Sally. The violet eyes follow the lady and gentleman, fixed in wonderment, as they move off towards the hill, and the last glint of the sun vanishes. Then Sally goes on where they left off:
"No, I don't see. Speaking to me, what? Be an explicit little general practitioner, or we shall quarrel, after all, and go home different ways."
"Well, look here! You know Bailey, the young man that drives me round in London?"
"Yes. How does he come in?"
"Why, just this way; I've known the youth for years, and the other day if it doesn't turn out that he's been married ever so long! And when I taxed him with needless secrecy and mistrust of an old friend, what does the young humbug say? 'The fact is, sir, I hadn't the cheek to tell you.' Well, I was like that. I hadn't the cheek."
"At any rate, you have the grace to call him a young humbug. I'm glad you're repentant, Dr. Conrad."
"Come—I say, now—Sally! That's not fair."
"What's not fair?"
"Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. You called me 'Dr. Conrad.'"
"We-ell, I don't see anything in that. Of course, it's quite a different thing—you and me."
"Very well, then. I shall say Miss Sally. Miss Sally!"
Here was Sally's opportunity, clear enough. She had never had a chance till now of bringing back the mysterious young lady of the jetty-interview into court, and examining her. She felt quite sure of herself and her powers of conducting the case—and she was mistaken. She knew nothing of the traps and pitfalls that were gaping for her. Her opening statement went easily though; it was all prepared.
"Don't you see, Dr. Conrad dear, the cases are quite different? When you're married, your wife will call me Sally, of course. But ... well, if I had a husband, you know, he would call you Dr. Vereker. Sure to!" Sally felt satisfied with the sound of her voice. But the doctor said never a word, and his face was grave. She would have to go on, unassisted, and she had invented nothing to say, so far. So a wavering crept in—nothing in itself at first, apart from her consciousness of it. "Besides, though, of course she would call me Sally, she mightn't quite—not altogether, you know—I mean, she might think it...." But ambushes revealed themselves in every hedge, ready to break out if she ended this sentence. Dr. Conrad made completion unnecessary.