"Robert," she said, "the Hankins are probably sitting down there under the Cliff. Supposing they see us?"
"They can't, we're over their heads."
"But if they do what do you suppose they'll think?"
"If they think at all, they'll have an inkling of the truth. But it isn't their business. The children will be here soon," he added.
She looked at him intently. Was he trying, she wondered, to reassure her that the presence of his children would protect her? Or was he merely preoccupied with the thought of their arrival?
"You don't mind," he said presently, "not coming to the station?"
He had said that already twice before. Why ask, she said, when he knew perfectly well she didn't mind?
Of course she didn't mind. She knew his idea, that they were not to be confronted with her suddenly. He meant to let her dawn on them beautifully, with the tenderest gradations. He would approach them with an incomparable cunning. He would tell them that they were going to see a very pretty lady. And when they were thoroughly inured to the idea of her, he would announce that the pretty lady was coming to stay with them, and that she would never go away.
She looked at her watch.
"We've got another half-hour before they come."
"Kitty, I believe you're afraid of them?"
"Yes, Robert, I'm afraid."
"What? Of two small children?"
"What are they like? I haven't asked you that."
"Well, Janet's a queer, uncanny little person, rather long for her age and very thin——"
"Like me. At first you think she's all legs. Then you see a little white face with enormous eyes that look at you as if she was wondering what you are."
He smiled. His mind had gone off, away from her, to the contemplation of his little daughter.
"I think she is clever, but one never knows. We have to handle her very carefully. Barbara's all right. You can pitch her about like anything."
"What is Barbara like?"
"Barbara? She's round and fat and going to be pretty, like——"
"Like her mother?"
"No, like Janey, if Janey was fat. They're both a little difficult to manage. If you reprove Barbara, she bursts out laughing in your face. If you even hint to Janet that you disapprove of her, she goes away somewhere and weeps."
"Poor little thing. I'm afraid," said Kitty sadly, "they're not so very small."
"Well, Janet, I believe, is seven, and Barbara is five."
"Barbara is five. And, oh dear me, Janet is seven."
"Is that such a very formidable age?"
She laughed uneasily. "Yes. That's the age when they begin to take notice, isn't it?"
"Oh, no, they do that when they're babies. Even Barbara's grown out of that. I say, Kitty, what a lot you know."
"Don't, Robert." She looked at him imploringly and put her hand in his.
"I won't, if you'll only tell me what I'm not to do."
"You're not to tease me about the things you think I don't know. I used to nurse my little sisters, when I wasn't very big myself. I can't nurse Janet, or Barbara, can I?"
"They wouldn't let me. They're too old. It won't be the same thing at all."
"Well," said Robert, and paused, hiding from her the thing that was in his mind.
"Oh, Robert, I do wish, I do wish they were really small."
"I'm sorry, Kitty. But perhaps——"
He could not hide anything from Kitty.
"No, Robert," she said, "I'm afraid there won't be any perhaps. That's one of the things I meant to tell you. But I'm not bothering about that. I meant—if they were little—little things, I shouldn't be so dreadfully afraid of them."
"Why? What do you think they'll do to you, Kitty?"
"You needn't be alarmed. I believe they're very well-behaved. Jane has brought them up quite nicely."
"What is Jane going to do?"
"Ah—that's what I wanted to ask you about."
"You needn't ask me. You want her to stay and look after them just the same?"
"No, not just the same. I want her to stay and she won't. She says it wouldn't be fair to you."
"But—if she only would, that would make it all so easy. You see, I could look after you, and she could look after them."
"You don't want to be bored with them?"
"You know that isn't what I mean. I don't want them to suffer."
"Why should they suffer?" There was some irritation in his tone.
"Because I don't think, Robert, I'm really fit to bring up children."
"I think you are. And I don't mean anybody else to bring them up. If you're my wife, Kitty, you're their mother."
"And they're to be mine as well as yours?"
"As much yours as you can make them, dear."
"Oh, how you trust me. That's what makes me so afraid. And—do you think they'll really love me?"
"Trust them—for that."
"You asked me if I could care for you, Robert; you never asked me if I could care for them. You trusted me for that!"
"I could have forgiven you if you couldn't care for me."
"But you couldn't forgive me if I didn't care for them? Is that it?"
"No; I simply couldn't understand any woman not caring for them. I think you will like the little things, when you've seen them."
"I'll promise you one thing. I won't be jealous of them."
"Jealous? Why on earth should you be?"
"Some women are. I was afraid I might be that sort."
"Because—oh, because I care for you so awfully. But that's just it. That's why I can't be jealous of them. They're yours, you see. I can't separate them from you."
"Well, well, let's wait until you've seen them."
"Don't you believe me, Robert? Women do love their children before they've seen them. I don't need to see them. I have seen them. I saw them all last night."
She looked away from him, brooding, as if she still saw them.
"There's only one person I could be jealous of, and I'm not jealous of her any more."
"Poor little Jane."
"It wasn't Jane. It was their mother. I mean it was your wife."
He turned and looked at her. There was amazement in his kind, simple face.
"I suppose you think that's fiendish of me?"
He did not reply.
"But—Robert—I'm not jealous of her any more. I don't care if she was your wife."
"Kitty, my dear child——"
"I don't care if she had ten children and I never had one. It's got nothing to do with it. She had you for—two years, wasn't it?"
"Two years, Kitty."
"Poor thing; and I shall have you all my life."
"Yes. And so, if you don't mind, dear, I'd rather you didn't talk about that again."
"I'm sorry. I won't ever again."
She sat silent for a moment in a sort of penitential shame. Then she burst out—
"I'm not jealous. But, Robert, if you were to leave me for another woman it would kill me. I daren't say that to any other man if I cared for him. It would just make him go and do it. But I believe somehow you'd think twice before you killed me."
He only smiled at this, and spoke gently.
"Yes, Kitty, you're right. I believe I would think twice about it."
He said to himself that this fierceness, her passionate perversity, all that was most unintelligible in her, was just Kitty's way—the way of a woman recklessly, adorably in love. It stirred in him the very depths of tenderness. When she was married (they must marry very soon) she would be happy; she would understand him; she would settle down.
He looked at his watch. "I'm afraid I must be going."
She glanced at the hands of the watch over his shoulder. "You needn't," she said. "It isn't really time."
The five minutes went. "Time's up," he said.
"Oh, no, Robert—not yet."
"Kitty—don't you want to see them?"
"I don't want you to go."
"I'm coming back."
"Yes, but it won't be the same thing. It never will be the same thing as now."
"Poor Kitty—I say, I must go and meet them."
"Very well." She stood up. "Kiss me," she said.
She took his kiss as if it were the last that would be given her.
They went together to the hotel. Jane had started five minutes ago for the station.
"It's all right," he said. "I'll catch her up."
She followed to the gates and looked down the white road where Jane had gone.
"Let me come with you—just a little way—to the first lamp-post on the station road."
"Well, to the first lamp-post."
At the lamp-post she let him go.
She stood looking after him till he swung round the turn of the road, out of her sight. Then she went back, slowly, sad-eyed, and with a great terror in her heart.
It was not the thing she had confessed to him, fear of his little unseen children, it was terror, unconfessed, uncomprehended, as it were foreknowledge of the very soul of destiny clothed for her in their tender flesh and blood.
Up till now she had been careless of her destiny. She had been so joyous, so defiant in her sinning. By that charm of hers, younger than youth, indestructibly childlike, she had carried it through with the audacity of chartered innocence. She had propitiated, ignored, eluded the more feminine amenities of fate. Of course, she had had her bad moments. She had been sorry, sometimes, and she had been sick; but on the whole her powers had been splendidly recuperative. She had shown none of those naked tender spots that provoke destiny to strike. And with it all she had preserved, perhaps too scrupulously, the rules laid down for such as she. She had kept her own place. She had never attempted to invade the sanctuaries set apart for other women.
It was Robert who had tempted her to that transgression. He had opened the door of the sanctuary for her and shut it behind her and put his back against it. He had made her believe that if she stayed in there, with him, it would be all right. She might have known what would happen. It was for such a moment, of infatuation made perfect, that destiny was waiting.
Kitty had no very luminous idea of its intentions. But she bore in her blood forebodings, older and obscurer than the flashes of the brain; and her heart had swift immortal instincts, forerunners of the mortal hours. The powers of pain, infallibly wise, implacably just, would choose their moment well, striking at her through the hands of the children she had never borne.
If Robert found out what she was before he married her, he would have to give her up because of them. She knew better than he did the hold she had over him. She had tried to keep him in ignorance of her power, so great was her terror of what it might do to him, and to her through him. Yet, with all her sad science, she remained uncertain of his ultimate behaviour. That was the charm and the danger of him. For fear of some undiscovered, uncalculated quality in him she had held herself back; she had been careful how she touched him, how she looked at him, lest her hands or her eyes should betray her; lest in his heart he should call her by her name, and fling her from him because of them. Whereas, but for them, she judged that whatever she was he would not give her up. She was not quite sure (you couldn't say what a man like Robert would or wouldn't do), but she felt that if she could have had him to herself, if there had been only he and she, facing the world, then, for sheer chivalry, he simply couldn't have left her. Even now, once he was married to her it would be all right; he couldn't give her up or leave her; the worst he could do would be to separate her from them.
There was really no reason then why she should be frightened. He was going to marry her very soon. She knew that, by her science, though he had not said so. She would be all right. She would be very careful. It wasn't as if she didn't want to be nice and to do all the proper things.
And so Kitty cast off care.
Only, as she waited in the room prepared for the children, she looked at herself in the glass, once, to make sure that there was nothing in her face that could betray her. No; Nature had spared her as yet and her youth was good to her. Her face looked back at her, triumphantly reticent, innocent of memory, holding her charm, a secret beyond the secrets of corruption, as her perfect body held the mystery and the prophecy of her power. Besides, her face was different now from what it had been. Wilfrid had intimated to her that it was different. It was the face that Robert loved; it had the look that told him that she loved him, a look it never wore for any other man. Even now as she thought of him it lightened and grew rosy. She saw it herself and wondered and took hope. "That's how I look when I'm happy, is it? I'm always happy when I'm with him, so," she reasoned, "he will always see me like that; and it will be all right."
Anyhow, there would be no unhappiness about his pretty lady when he came back with them.
She smiled softly as she went about the room, putting the touches of perfection to the festival. There were roses everywhere; on the table, on the mantelpiece; the room was sweet with the smell of them; there was a rose on each child's plate. The tremulous movements of her hands betrayed the immensity and the desperation of her passion to please. The very waiter was touched by her, and smiled secretly in sympathy as he saw her laying her pretty lures. When he had gone she arranged the table all over again and did it better. Then she stood looking at it, hovering round it, thinking. She would sit here, and the children there, Janet between her and Robert, Barbara between her and Jane.
"Poor little things," she said, "poor little things." She yearned to them even in her fear of them, and when she thought of them sitting there her lips moved in unspoken, pitiful endearments.
The light from the south-west streamed into the little room and made it golden. Everything in it shimmered and shone. The window, flung wide open to the veranda, framed the green lawn and the shining, shimmering sea. A wind, small and soft, stirred the thin curtains to and fro, fanning the warm air. The sunlight and heat oppressed her. She shut her eyes and put her hands over them to cool them with darkness. It was a trick she had when she was troubled.
She sat by the window and waited in the strange, throbbing darkness of hot eyes closed in daylight, a darkness smitten by the sun and shot with a fiery fume.
They were coming now. She heard feet on the gravel outside, round the corner; she heard Robert's voice and Janey's; and then little shuffling footsteps at the door, and two voices shrill and sweet.
Robert came in first and the children with him. They stood all three on the threshold, looking at her. Robert was smiling, but the little girls (they were very little) were grave. His eyes drew her and she came toward them as she was used to come to the things of her desire, swift and shy, with a trailing, troubling movement; the way that he had seen her come, swayed by the rhythm of impulse.
The children stood stock still as she stooped to them. Her fear of them made her supremely gentle. Little Barbara put up her round rose face with its soft mouth thrust forward in a premature kiss. Janet gave her a tiny hand and gazed at her with brooding, irresponsive eyes. Her little mouth never moved as Kitty's mouth touched it.
But little Barbara held out her spade and bucket for Kitty to see. "Look, look," said little Barbara, "Daddy gave them me to build castles in the sand." Barbara spoke so fast that she panted, and laughed in a divine superfluity of joy.
Robert stood looking down from his tremendous height at Barbara, tenderly as one who contemplates a thing at once heartrending and absurd. Then his eyes turned to Kitty, smiling quietly as if they said, "Didn't I tell you to wait until you'd seen them?" Kitty's heart contracted with a sharp, abominable pang.
Then Janey took the little girls to the room upstairs where their nurse was. Barbara looked back at Kitty as she went, but Kitty's eyes followed Janet.
"Robert," she said, "will she always look at me like that? Shall I never know what she is thinking?"
"None of us know what Janet's thinking."
"I told you we had to be very careful of her."
"Is she delicate?"
"No. Physically, she's far stronger than Barbara. She's what you call morally delicate."
She flushed. "What do you mean, Robert?"
"Well—not able to bear things. For instance, we'd a small child staying with us once. It turned out that she wasn't a nice child at all. We didn't know it, though. But Janet had a perfect horror of her. It's as if she had a sort of intuition. She was so unhappy about it that we had to send the child away."
His forehead was drawn into a frown of worry and perplexity.
"I don't see how she's to grow up. It makes me feel so awfully responsible. The world isn't an entirely pretty place, you know, and it seems such a cruel shame to bring a child like that into it. Doesn't it?"
"Somehow I think you'll understand her, Kitty."
"Yes, Robert, I understand."
She came to him. She laid her hand on the sleeve of his coat, and stood by him. Her eyes were shining through some dew that was not tears.
"What is it, Kitty?"
"Will you marry me soon?" she said. "Very soon?" she whispered. "I—I can't wait." She hid her face against his arm.
He thought it was the motherhood in her that was moved, that pleaded, impatient for its hour.
"Why should we wait? Do you suppose I want to?"
"Hush!" she said. "They're coming."
They came a little solemnly, as beseemed a festival. Janet, in her long white pinafore, looked more than ever the spiritual thing she was. Her long brown hair hung down her cheeks, straight and smooth as a parted veil, sharpening her small face, that flickered as a flame flickers in troubled air. Beside her little Barbara bloomed and glowed, with cheeks full-blown, and cropped head flowering into curls that stood on end in brown tufts, and tawny feathers, and little crests of gold. They took their places, pensively, at the table.
They had beautiful manners, Robert's children; little exquisite, gentle ways of approaching and of handling things. They held themselves very erect, with a secure, diminutive distinction. Kitty's heart sank deeper as she looked at them. Even Barbara, who was so very young, carried her small perfections intact through all the spontaneities of her behaviour.
All through tea-time little Barbara, pursued by her dream, talked incessantly of castles in the sand. And when she was tired of talking she began to sing.
"Darling," said Jane, "we don't sing at tea-time."
"I do," said little Barbara, and laughed.
Jane laughed too, hysterically.
Then the spirit of little Barbara entered into Jane, and made her ungovernably gay. It passed into Kitty, and ran riot in her blood and nerves. Whenever Barbara laughed Kitty laughed, and when Kitty laughed Robert laughed too. Even Janet gave a little shriek now and then. The children thought it was all because they had had strawberries and cream for tea, and were going down to the sea to build castles in the sand.
All afternoon, till dinner-time, Kitty laboured on the sands, building castles as if she had never done anything else in her life. The Hankins watched her from their seat on the rocks in the angle of the Cliff.
"We were mistaken. She must be all right. How pretty she is, too, poor thing," said Mrs. Hankin to her husband.
"How pretty she is, how absolutely lovable and good," said Robert to himself as he watched her, while Barbara, a tired little labourer, lay stretched in her lap. She was sitting on a rock under the Cliff, with the great brow of it for a canopy. Her eyes were lowered, and hidden by their deep lids. She was smiling at the child who leaned back in her arms, crushing a soft cheek against her breast.
He threw himself down beside her. He had just finished a prodigious fortress, with earthworks and trenches extending to the sea.
"Kitty, Kitty," he said, "you're only a child yourself, like Janey. She's perfectly happy building castles in the sand—so are you. You're a perfect baby."
"We're all babies, Robert, building castles in the sand. And you're the biggest baby of the lot."
"I don't care. I've built the biggest castle."
"Look at Janet," said Kitty. "She'll be grown up before any of us."
The child sat on a rock with Jane. But, from the distance that she kept, she looked at her father and Kitty from time to time. All afternoon Janet had clung to Jane. But when bed-time came Robert took her aside and whispered something to her. Going home she walked by Kitty, and put her hand in hers.
"Daddy said I'm to be very kind to you."
"Did he? That's very kind of daddy."
"Daddy's always kind to people. Especially when they've not been very happy. Really and truly I'm going to be kind. But you won't mind if I don't love you very soon, will you?"
"Of course I won't. Only don't leave it too late, darling."
"Well, I don't know," said Janet thoughtfully; "we've lots of time."
"Heaps and heaps. You see, I love Auntie Janey, and it might hurt her feelings."
"But I'm going to give you something," said Janet presently.
"I don't want you to give me anything that belongs to Auntie Janey."
"No," said Janet; "I shall give you something of my own."
"Oh! And you can't tell me what it's going to be?"
"I must think about it." The little girl became lost in thought. "Barbara likes kissing people. I don't."
"So I see. It won't be kisses, then?"
"No; it won't be kisses. It will," she reiterated, "be something of my own."
She dropped Kitty's hand.
"You won't mind if I go to Auntie Janey now?"
Kitty told Janey about it afterward, as they sat alone in the lounge before dinner.
"You mustn't mind, Kitty dear," said Jane. "It only means that she's a faithful little soul. She'll be just as faithful to you some day."
"Don't sigh like that, Kitty."
"She's like Robert, isn't she?"
"Very like Robert."
"Janey," she said, "let me have him to myself this evening."
All evening she had him to herself, out on the Cliff, in the place where nobody came but they.
"Well," he said, "what do you think of them?"
"I think they're adorable."
"Funny little beggars, aren't they? How did you get on with Janet?"
She told him.
"That's Janet's little way. To give you something of her own." He smiled in tender satisfaction, repeating the child's phrase.
"It's all right, Kitty. She's only holding herself in. You're in for a big thing."
She surveyed it.
"I know, Robert. I know."
"You're tired? Have the children been too much for you?"
She shook her head.
"You're not to make yourself a slave to them, you know."
She looked at him.
"Was I all right, Robert?"
"You were perfect."
"You said I was only a child myself."
"So you are. That's why I like you."
She shook her head again.
"It's all very well," she said, "but that isn't what you want, dear—another child."
"How do you know what I want?"
"You want somebody much nicer than I am."
He was silent, looking at her as he had looked at Barbara, enjoying her absurdity, letting her play, like the child she was, with her preposterous idea.
"Oh, Robert, you do really think I'm nice?" She came nearer to him, crying out like a child in pain. He put his arm round her, and comforted her as best he could.
"You child, do you suppose I'd marry you if I didn't think you nice?"
"You might. You mightn't care."
"As it happens, I do care, very much. Anyhow, I wouldn't ask you to be a mother to my children if I didn't think you nice. That's the test."
"Yes, Robert," she repeated, "that's the test."
They rose and went back to the hotel. From the lawn they could see the open window of the children's room. They looked up.
"Would you like to see them, Kitty?"
He took her up to them. They were asleep. Little Barbara lay curled up in the big bed, right in the middle of it where her dreams had tossed her. Janet, in the cot beside her, lay very straight and still.
Robert signed to Kitty to come near, and they stood together and looked first at the children and then into each other's faces. Kitty was very quiet.
"Do you like them?" he whispered.
Her lips quivered, but she made no sign.
He stooped over each bed, smoothing the long hair from Janet's forehead, folding back the blanket that weighed on Barbara's little body. When he turned, Kitty had gone. She had slipped into her own room.
She waited till she heard Robert go away. The children were alone in there. The nurse, she knew, was in Jane's room across the passage. Jane was probably telling her that her master was to be married very soon.
She looked out. The door of Jane's room was shut; so was the door of the children's room through which Robert had gone out. The other, the door of communication, she had left ajar. She went softly back through it and stood again by the children's beds. Janet was still sound asleep. Her fine limbs were still stretched straight and quiet under the blanket. Her hair was as Robert's hand had left it.
Kitty was afraid of disturbing Janet's sleep. She was afraid of Janet.
She stooped over little Barbara, and turned back the bedclothes from the bed. She laid herself down, half her length, upon it by Barbara's side, and folded her in arms that scarcely touched her at first, so light they lay on her. Then some perverse and passionate impulse seized her to wake the child. She did it gently, tenderly, holding back her passion, troubling the depths of sleep with fine, feather-like touches, with kisses soft as sleep.
The child stirred under the caressing arms. She lay in her divine beauty, half asleep, half awake, opening her eyes, and shutting them on the secret of her dream. Then Kitty's troubling hand turned her from her flight down the ways of sleep. She lay on her back, her eyes glimmered in the lifting of their lids; they opened under Kitty's eyes that watched them, luminous, large and clear. Her mouth curled under Kitty's mouth, in drowsy kisses plucked from the annihilated dream. She drew up her rosy knees and held out her arms to Kitty's arms and smiled, half awake and half asleep.
Kitty rose, lifting the child with her from the bed. She held her close, pressing the tender body close to her own body with quivering hands, stroking the adorable little face with her own face, closing her eyes under the touch of it as she closed them when Robert's face touched hers. She was aware that she had brought some passionate, earthly quality of her love for Robert into her love for Robert's child.
She said to herself, "I'm terrible; there's something wrong with me. This isn't the way to love a child."
She laid the little thing down again, freed her neck from the drowsy, detaining arms, and covered the small body up out of her sight. Barbara, thus abandoned, cried, and the cry cut through her heart.
She went into her own room, and threw herself on her bed and writhed there, torn by many pangs. The pang of the heart and the pang of the half-born spirit, struggling with the body that held it back from birth; and through it all the pang of the motherhood she had thwarted and disowned. Out of the very soil of corruption it pierced, sharp and pure, infinitely painful. It was almost indiscernible from the fierce exultation of her heart that had found fulfilment, and from the passion of her body that yet waited for its own.
She undressed herself, and crept into her bed and lay there, tortured, visited by many memories. She gazed with terrified, pitiful eyes into a darkness that was peopled for her with all the faces she had known in the short seasons of her sinning; men, and the women who had been her friends and her companions; and the strangers who had passed her by, or who had lingered and looked on. The faces of Robert and his children hung somewhere on the outskirts of her vision, but she could not fix them or hold them; they were trampled out, obliterated by that phantasmal procession of her shames. Some faces, more terrible than all, detached themselves and crowded round her, the faces of those who had pursued her, and of those whom her own light feet pursued; from the first who had found her and left her, to the last whom she herself had held captive and let go. They stood about her bed; they stretched out their hands and touched her; their faces peered into hers; faces that she had forgotten. She thrust them from her into the darkness and they came again. Each bore the same likeness to his fellow; each had the same looks, the same gestures that defied her to forget. She fell asleep; and the dreams, the treacherous, perpetually remembering, delivered her into their hands.
She waked at dawn, with memory quickened by her dreams. She heard voices now, all the voices that had accused her. Her mother's voice spoke first, and it was very sad. It said, "I am sending you away, Kitty, because of the children." Then her father's voice, very stern, "No, I will not have you back. You must stay where you are for your little sisters' sake." And her mother's voice again—afterward—sad and stern, too, this time, "As you made your bed, Kitty, you must lie. We can't take you back."
And there was a third voice. It said very softly, "You can't have it both ways." It cried out aloud in a fury, "I've always known it. You can't hide it. You're full of it." And yet another voice, deep and hard, "You can't not tell him. It's a shame Kitty; it's an awful shame."
She could not sleep again for listening to them.
It was morning. She dragged herself up and tried to dress. But her hands shook and her head ached violently. She stretched herself half-dressed upon her bed and lay there helpless, surrendered to the bodily pain that delivered her mercifully from the anguish of her mind.
She saw no one, not even Jane Lucy.
Outside, in the passage, and in the inner room she heard the footsteps of the children and their little shrill voices; each sound accentuated the stabbing pulse of pain. It was impossible to darken the room, and the insufferable sunlight poured in unchecked through the thin yellow blinds and plagued her brain, till the nerves of vision throbbed, beat for beat, with the nerves of torment. At noon she had only one sensation of brilliant surging pain.
She dozed and her headache lifted. When she woke her body was weak as if it had had a fever, but her mind closed on reality with the impact of a force delayed.
There was a thing not yet quite real to her, a thing that seemed to belong to the region of bodily pain, to be born there as a bad dream might be born; a thing that had been there last night among other things, that, as she stared at it, became more prominent, more poignant than they. And yet, though its air was so beckoning and so familiar, it was not among the number of things accomplished and irrevocable. It was simply the thing she had to do.
It possessed her now; and under its dominion she was uplifted, carried along. Her mind moved toward it with a reckless rocking speed, the perilous certainty of the insane.
At five o'clock she rang the bell and asked the servant to bring her some tea. She swallowed a little with a jerk of her throat, and put the cup down, shuddering. It brought her a sickening memory of yesterday.
At five o'clock she got up and dressed herself and sent a message to Robert Lucy to see her downstairs in her sitting-room, alone. As she stood at her glass she said to herself, "How shocking I look. But he won't mind."
At six he was with her.
She drew her hand away from his as if his touch had hurt her. Her smile was the still, bloodless smile that comes with pain. She drew her chair back out of the sunlight, in the recess by the fireplace. He stood beside her then, looking at her with eyes that loved her the more for the sad hurt to her beauty. His manner recalled the shy, adolescent uncertainty of his first approaches.
"Don't you think," he said, "you ought to have stayed in bed?"
She shook her head and struggled to find her voice. It came convulsively.
"No. I'm better. I'm all right now."
"It was being out in that beastly hot sun yesterday—with those youngsters. You're not used to it."
She laughed. "No. I'm not used to it. Robert—you haven't told them, have you?"
"About you—and me?"
"No. Not yet." He smiled. "I say, I shall have to tell them very soon, shan't I?"
He made some inarticulate sound that questioned her.
"I've changed my mind. I can't marry you."
He had to bend his head to catch her low, indistinct murmur; but he caught it.
He drew back from her, and leaned against the chimneypiece and looked at her more intently than before.
"Do you mean," he said quietly, "because of them?"
He looked down.
"Poor Kitty," he said. "You think I'm asking too much of you?"
She did not answer.
"I told you I was afraid."
"Yes. But I thought it was all right. I thought you liked them."
She was silent. Tears rose to her eyes and hung on their unsteady lashes.
"They like you."
She bowed her head and the tears fell.
"Is that what has upset you?"
"I see. You've been thinking it over and you find you can't stand it. I don't wonder. You've let those little monkeys tire you out. You've nearly got a sunstroke and you feel as if you'd rather die than go through another day like yesterday? Well, you shan't. There'll never be another day like yesterday."
"No. Never," she said; and her sobs choked her.
"Why should there be? They'll have a governess. You don't suppose I meant you to have them on your hands all the time?"
She went on crying softly. He sat on the arm of her chair and put his arm round her and dried her eyes.
"Don't be unhappy about it, Kitty. I understand. You're not marrying them, dear; you're marrying me."
She broke loose from him.
"I can't marry you," she cried. "I can't give you what you want."
"Do you mean that you can't care for me? Is that what you're trying to tell me all the time?"
He moved and she cowered back into her chair.
"I—I can't tell you."
He had turned from her. He was leaning his arms along the mantelshelf; he had bowed his head on them.
They remained for some minutes so; she cowering back; he with his face hidden from her.
"Do you mind telling me," he said presently, "if there's anybody else that you——"
"That I care for? No, Robert, there's no one."
"Are you quite sure? Quite honest. Think."
"Do you mean Wilfrid Marston?"
"I certainly do not care for him."
He raised his head at that; but he did not look at her.
"Thank God!" he said.
"Do you think as badly of him as all that?"
"Don't ask me what I think of him."
"Would you think badly of me if I'd married him?"
"I—I couldn't have stood it, Kitty."
"I am not going to marry him."
"You haven't said yet that you don't care for me?"
"No. I haven't."
He turned and stooped over her, compelling her to look at him.
"Say it then," he said.
She drew back her face from his and put up her hands between them. He rose and stood before her and looked down at her. The blue of her eyes had narrowed, the pupils stared at him, black and feverish. Her mouth, which had been tight-shut, was open slightly. A thin flush blurred its edges. Her breath came through, short and sharp.
"You're ill," he said. "You must go back to bed."
"No," she said. "I've got to tell you something."
"If you do I shan't believe it."
"What won't you believe?"
"That you don't care for me. I can't believe it."
"You'd better, Robert."
"I don't. There's something wrong. You must tell me what it is."
"There's nothing wrong but that. I—I made a mistake."
"You only thought you liked me? Or is it worse than that?"
"It's worse, far worse."
"I see. You tried to like me, and you couldn't?"
She was silent.
"Poor child. I've been a selfish brute. I might have known you couldn't. You've hardly known me ten days. But if I wait, Kitty—if I give you time to think?"
"If you give me ten years it would do no good."
"I see," he said; "I see."
He gripped the edge of the mantelpiece with both his hands; his tense arms trembled from the shoulders to the wrists; his hold relaxed. He straightened himself and hid his shaking hands in his coat pockets. There were tears at the edges of his eyelids, the small, difficult tears that cut their way through the flesh that abhors them.
She saw them.
"Ah, Robert—do you care for me like that?"
"You know how I care for you."
He stopped as he swung away from her, remembering that he had failed in courtesy.
"Thank you," he said, simply, "for telling me the truth."
He reached the door, and she rose and came after him. He shook his head as a sign to her not to follow him. She saw that he was going from her because he was tortured and dumb with suffering and with shame.
Then she knew what she must do. She called to him, she entreated.
"Robert—don't go. Come back—come back. I can't bear it."
He came back at that cry.
"I haven't told you the truth. I lied."
"When?" he said sternly.
"Just now. When I told you that I didn't care for you."
"Sit down—here, on the sofa. I'll try and tell you."
He sat down beside her, but not near. She leaned forward with her elbows on her knees, and her head propped on her clenched hands. She did not look at him as she spoke.
"I said I didn't care, because I thought that was the easiest way out of it. Easiest for you. So much easier than knowing the truth."
He smiled grimly.
"Well, you see how easy it's been."
"Yes." She paused. "The truth isn't going to be easy either."
"Let's have it, all the same, Kitty."
"You're going to have it." She paused again, breathing hard. "Have you never wondered why the people here avoided me? You know they thought things."
"As if it mattered what they thought."
"They were right. There was something."
She heard him draw a deep breath. He, too, leaned forward now, in the same attitude as she, as if he were the participator of her confession, and the accomplice of her shame. His face was level with hers, but his eyes looked straight past her, untainted and clear.
"What if there was?" he said. "It makes no difference."
She turned her sad face to his.
"Don't you know, Robert? Don't you know?"
He frowned impatiently.
"No, I don't. I don't want to."
"You'd rather think I didn't care for you?"
His face set again in its tortured, dumb look.
"You shan't think that of me."
She leaned back again out of his sight, and he presented to her his shoulder, thrust forward, and his profile, immovable, dogged, and apparently unheeding.
"It's because I cared for you that I couldn't tell you the truth. I tried and couldn't. It was so difficult, and you wouldn't understand. Then Wilfrid Marston said I must—I had to tell you."
He threw himself back and turned on her.
"What had Marston to do with it?"
Her voice and her eyes dropped.
"You see, he knew."
"I couldn't tell you."
His silence conveyed to her that he listened since she desired it, that he left it to her to tell him as much or as little as she would, and that thus he trusted her.
"I was afraid," she said.
"What? Afraid of me, Kitty?"
"I thought it would make you not care for me."
"I don't think anything you can tell me will make any difference."
"You said yourself it would. You said you wouldn't marry me if I wasn't nice."
He looked up impatient and surprised.
"But we've been through all that," he said.
"No, we haven't. When I said I wasn't nice I meant there were things I——"
"I—I wasn't married to Charley Tailleur."
He took it in silence; and through the silence she let it sink in.
"Where is the fellow?" he asked presently.
"He's dead. I told you that."
There was another silence.
"Did you care for him very much, Kitty?"
"I don't know. Yes. No, I don't know. It wasn't the same thing."
"Never mind. It's very good of you to tell me."
"I didn't mean to."
"What made you tell me?"
"Seeing the children. I thought I could go on deceiving you; but when I saw them I knew I couldn't."
"I see." His voice softened. "You told me because of them. I'm glad you told me." He paused on that.
"Well," he said, "we must make the best of it."
"That makes no difference?"
"No. Not now."
"How long ago was it?" he asked.
"Five years. Charley Tailleur was the first."
"The first. There were others; ever so many others. I'm—that sort."
"I don't believe you."
"You've got to believe me. You can't marry me, and you've got to see why."
She also paused. Her silences were terrible to him.
"I thought you did see once. It didn't seem possible that you couldn't. Do you remember the first time I met you?"
"I thought you saw then. And afterward—don't you remember how you followed me out of the room—another night?"
"I thought you understood, and were too shy to say so. But you didn't. Then—do you remember how I waited for you at the end of the garden?—and how we sat out on the Cliff? I was trying then—the way I always try. I thought I'd make you—and you—you wouldn't see it. You only wanted to help me. You were so innocent and dear. That's what made me love you."
"Oh," he groaned. "Don't."
But she went on. "And do you remember how you found me—that night—out on the Cliff?"
She drew back her voice softly.
"I was sure then that you knew, and that when you asked me to come back with you——"
"Look here, Kitty, I've had enough of it."
"You haven't, for you're fond of me still. You are, aren't you?"
"Oh, my God! how do I know?"
"I know. It's because you haven't taken it in. What do you think of this? You've known me ten days, and ten days before that I was with Wilfrid Marston."
He had taken it in at last. She had made it real to him, clothed it in flesh and blood.
"If you don't believe me," she said, "ask him. That's what he came to see me for. He wanted me to go back to him. In fact, I wasn't supposed to have left him."
He put his hand to his forehead as if he were trying to steady his mind to face the thing that stunned it.
"And you're telling me all this because——" he said dully.
"Because I want to make you loathe me, so that you can go away and be glad that you'll never see me again. And if it hurts you too much to think of me as I am, to think that you cared for me, just say to yourself that I cared for you, and that I couldn't have done it if I'd been quite bad."
She cried out, "It would have been better for me if I had been. I shouldn't feel then. It wouldn't hurt me to see little children. I should have got over that long ago; and I shouldn't have cared for you or them. I shouldn't have been able to. We get like that. And then—I needn't have let you care for me. That was the worst thing I ever did. But I was so happy—so happy."
He could not look at her; he covered his face with his hands, and she knew that he cared still.
Then she came and knelt down beside him and whispered. He got up and broke away from her and she followed him.
"You can't marry me now," she said.
And he answered, "No."
He did not leave her. They sat still, separated by the length of the little room, staring, not at each other, but at some point in the distance, as if each brain had flung and fixed there the same unspeakable symbol of its horror.
Her face was sharp with pain, was strangely purified, spiritualised by the immortal moment that uplifted her. His face, grown old in a moment, had lost its look of glad and incorruptible innocence.
Not that he was yet in full possession of reality. His mind was sunk in the stupor that follows after torture. It kept its hold by one sense only, the vague discerning of profound responsibility, and of something profounder still, some tie binding him to Kitty, immaterial, indestructible, born of their communion in pain.
It kept him by its intangible compulsion, sitting there in the same small room, divided from her, but still there, still wearing that strange air of participation, of complicity.
And all the time he kept saying to himself, "What next?"
There was a knock at the door.
"It's Jane," he said. "I'll tell her not to come in." His voice sounded hoarse and unlike his own.
"Oh, mayn't I see her?"
He looked up with his clouded eyes. "Do you want to?"
He considered. He hesitated.
"Do you mind?"
"Mind?" he repeated. As if, after what they had gone through, there could ever be anything to mind. It seemed to him that things would always henceforth be insubstantial, and events utterly unimportant. He tried with an immense effort to grasp this event of Jane's appearance and of Kitty's attitude to Jane.
"I thought," he said, "perhaps she would bother you."
The knock came again.
"Robert," she said, "I don't want her to know—what I told you."
"Of course not," he said. "Come in."
Jane came in and closed the door behind her. She had a letter folded tightly in her hand. She stood there a moment, looking from one to the other. It was Kitty who spoke.
"Come in, Janey," she said. "I want you."
Jane came forward and stood between them. She looked at Robert who hardened his face, and at Kitty who was trembling.
"Has anything happened?" she said.
And Kitty answered, "No. Nothing will happen now. I've just told him that it can't."
"You've given him up?"
"Yes. I've—given—him up."
She drew in her breath on the "Yes," so that it sounded like a sob. The other words came slowly from her, one by one, as if she repeated them by rote, without knowing what they meant.
Jane turned to her brother. "And you've let her do it?"
He was silent, still saying to himself, "What next?"
"Of course he's let me. He knows it was the only thing I could do."
"Kitty—what made you do it?"
Kitty closed her eyes. Robert saw her and gave a low inarticulate sound of misery. Jane heard it and understood.
"Kitty," she said, "have you made him believe you don't care for him?"
She sat down on the couch beside her and covered her hands with her own.
"It isn't true, Robert," she said. "She doesn't know what she's doing. Kitty, tell him it isn't true."
The trembling hands broke loose from her. Kitty sobbed once and was still. At the sound Robert turned on Jane.
"Leave her alone," he said, "she doesn't want to be bothered about it now."
Kitty's hand moved back along the couch to Jane. "No," she said, "don't make her leave me. I'm going away soon."
He started to that answer to his question, "What next?"
"Tell me what made you do it?" said Jane again.
"Whatever it was," he said, "she's doing perfectly right."
"I know what she's doing. And I know why she's doing it. Can't you see why?"
Robert, who had stood still looking at her helplessly, turned away at the direct appeal and walked up and down, up and down, the room. He was still saying to himself, "And if she goes, what next?"
"She doesn't mean it, Robert. It's these wretched people who have driven her to it with the abominable things they've said and thought. You can't let her give you up. Don't you see that it'll look as if you didn't believe in her? And he does believe in you, Kitty dear. He doesn't care what anybody says."
Kitty spoke. "Leave it alone, Janey. You don't know what you're talking about. You don't even know what it is they say."
"I do," said Jane. She rose and went to her brother and thrust the letter she held into his hand. "Look there, that came just now."
He glanced at the letter, lit a match and set fire to it and dropped the ashes into the grate.
"Look at him, Kitty, look at him," she cried triumphantly.
"What was in that letter?"
"Nothing that matters."
"Who wrote it?"
"Nobody who matters in the very least."
"Was it Mr. Marston? Tell me."
"He wouldn't," said Kitty thoughtfully. "It's women who write letters. It must have been Grace Keating. She hates me."
"I know she hates you. Do you see now why Kitty's giving you up?"
"She has told me herself, Janey. She may have more reasons than you know."
"She has none, none that I don't know. They're all there in that letter which you've burnt. Can't you see why it was written?"
"Does it matter why?"
"Yes, it does matter. It was written to make you give Kitty up. There's no reason why I should spare the woman who wrote it. She hates Kitty—because she wanted you for herself. Kitty knows that she's slandered her. She did it before she went, to her face, and Kitty forgave her. And now the poor child thinks that she'll let you go, and just creep away quietly and hide herself—from that. And you'll let her do it? You believe her when she says she doesn't care for you? If that isn't caring—Why it's because she cares for you, and cares for your honour more than she does for her own, poor darling——"
"I know, Janey. And she knows I know."
"Then where's your precious honour if you don't stand up for her? She's got nobody but you, and if you don't defend her from that sort of thing——"
She stood before him, flaming, and Kitty rose and put herself between them.
"He can't defend me, Janey. It's the truth."
She had left them to each other. It was eight o'clock. She had crept back again to the bed that was her refuge, where she had lain for the last hour, weeping to exhaustion. She had raised herself at the touch of a hand on her hot forehead. Jane was standing beside her.
"Kitty," she said, "will you see Robert for a moment? He's waiting for you downstairs, in your room."
Kitty dropped back again on her pillow with her arm over her face, warding off Jane's gaze.
"No," she said, "I can't see him. I can't go through that again."
"But, Kitty, there's something he wants to say to you."
"There's nothing he can say. Nothing—nothing. Tell him I'm going away."
"You mustn't go without seeing him."
"I must. It's the only way."
"For you—yes. How about him?"
Kitty sighed. She stirred irresolutely on her pillow.
"No, no," she said. "I've done it once. I can't do it all over again."
"I suppose," said Jane, "it is easier—not to see him."
At that Kitty clenched her hands.
"Easier?" she cried. "I'd give my soul to see him for one minute—one minute, Janey."
She turned, stifling her sobs on her pillow. They ceased, and the passion that was in her had its way then. She lay on her face, convulsed, biting into the pillow; gripping the sheets, tearing at them and wringing them in her hands. Her whole body writhed, shaken and tormented.
"Oh, go away!" she cried. "Go away. Don't look at me!"
But Jane did not go. She stood there by the bedside.
She had come to the end of her adventure. It was as if she had been brought there blindfold, carried past the border into the terrible, alien, unpenetrated lands. Her genius for exploration had never taken her within reasonable distance of them. She had turned back when the frontier was in sight, refusing all knowledge of the things that lay beyond. And here she was, in the very thick of it, at the heart of the unexplored, with her poor terrified eyes uncovered, her face held close to the thing she feared. And yet she had passed through the initiation without terror; she had held her hand in the strange fire and it had not hurt her. She felt only a great penetrating, comprehending, incorruptible pity for her sister who writhed there, consumed and tortured in the flame.
She knelt by the bedside and stretched out her arm and covered her, and Kitty lay still.
"You haven't gone?" she said.
Kitty moved; she sat up and put her hands to her loosened hair.
"I'll see him now," she said.
Kitty slid her feet to the floor. She stood up, steadying herself by the bedside.
Jane looked at her, and her heart was wrung with compassion.
"No," she said, "wait till you're better. I'll tell him."
But Kitty was before her at the door, leaning against it.
"I shall never be better," she said. Her smile was ghastly. She turned to Jane on the open threshold. "He hasn't got the children with him, has he? I don't want to see them."
"You won't see them."
"Can't he come to me?"
She peered down the passage and drew back, and Jane knew that she was afraid of being seen.
"There's nobody about," she said, "they're all in the dining-room."
Still Kitty hesitated.
"Will you come with me?" she said.
Then Jane took her hand and led her to the room where Robert was, and left her with him.
He stood by the hearth, waiting for her. His head was bowed, but his eyes, as she entered, lifted and fixed themselves on her. There had gone from him that air of radiant and unconquerable youth, of innocence, expectant and alert. Instead of it he too wore the mark of experience, of initiation that had meant torture.
"I hope," he said, "you are rested."
She stood there, weak and drooping, leaning her weight on one slender hand, spread palm downward on the table.
He drew out a chair for her, and removed his own to the other side of the table, keeping that barrier between them. In his whole manner there was a terrible constraint.
"You've eaten nothing," he said.
Neither had he, she gathered, nor Jane. The trouble she had brought on them was jarring, dislocating, like the shock of bereavement. They had behaved as if in the presence of the beloved dead.
And yet, though he held himself apart, she knew that he had not sent for her to cast her off; that he was yet bound to her by the mysterious, infrangible tie; that he seemed to himself, in some way, her partner and accomplice.
Their silence was a link that bound them, and she broke it.
"Well," she said, "you have something to say to me?"
"Yes"—his hands, spread out on the table between them, trembled—"I have, only it seems so little——"
"Does it? Well, of course, there isn't much to be said."
"Not much. There aren't any words. Only, I don't want you to think that I don't realise what you've done. It was magnificent."
He answered her look of stupefied inquiry.
"Your courage, Kitty, in telling me the truth."
"Oh, that. Don't let's talk about it."
"I am not going to talk about it. But I want you to understand that what you told me has made no difference in my—in my feeling for you."
"It hasn't. And it never will. And I want to know what we're going to do next."
"Next?" she repeated.
"Yes, next. Now."
"I'm going away. There's nothing else left for me to do."
"And I, Kitty? Do you think I'm going to let you go, without——"
She stopped him.
"You can't help yourself."
"What? You think I'm brute enough to take everything you've given me, and to—to let you go like this?"
His hands moved as if they would have taken hers and held them. Then he drew back.
"There's one thing I can't do for you, Kitty. I can't marry you, because it wouldn't be fair to my children."
"I know, Robert, I know."
"I know you know. I told you nothing would ever make any difference. If it weren't for them I'd ask you to marry me to-morrow. I'm only giving you up as you're giving me up, because of them. But if I can't marry you, I want you to let me make things a little less hard for you."
"Well, for one thing, I don't believe you've anything to live on."
"What makes you think that?"
"Marston told me that if you married you forfeited your income. I suppose that meant that you had nothing of your own."
"My father would give me fifty pounds a year if I kept straight. But he can't afford it. It means that my little sisters go without dresses."
"And you've no home, Kitty?"
She shook her head.
"They can't have me at home, you see."
"If I looked after you, Kitty, do you think you would keep straight? If I made a home for you, somewhere, where you won't be too unhappy?"
"You mean you'd take care of me?"
"Yes. As far as I can."
Her face flushed deeply.
"No," she said. "No. I mustn't let you do that."
"Why not? It's nothing, Kitty. It's the least that I can do. And you'd be very lonely."
"I would. I would be miserable—in between."
"When you weren't there."
"Kitty, dear child, I can't be there."
She shrank back, the flush died out of her face and left it white.
"I see. You didn't mean that I was to live with you?"
"I—I didn't understand."
"No," he said gently, "no."
"You see how hopeless I am?"
"I see what my responsibility would be if I left you to yourself."
"And—what do you want to do?"
"I want to provide for you and your future."
"Dear Robert, you can't possibly provide—for either."
"I can. I've got a little house in the country, if you'll take it, and I can spare enough out of my income."
"You can't afford it."
"If I could afford to marry, I could afford that."
"I see. It's a beautiful scheme, Robert. And in the little house where I'm to live, you will come sometimes, and see me?"
"I think it would be better not."
"And what am I to do, if—if things are too hard for me? And if you are the only one——?"
"Then you're to send for me."
"I see. I've only to send for you and you'll come?"
"Of course I'll come."
"When I can't bear it any longer, am I to send for you?"
"You're to send for me when you're in any trouble, or any difficulty—or any danger."
"And the way out of the trouble—and the difficulty—and the danger?"
"Between us we shall find the way."
"No, Robert. Between us we shall lose it. And we shall never, never find it again."
"You can't trust me, Kitty?"
"I can't trust myself. I know how your scheme would work. I let you do this thing; I go away and live in the dear little house you'll give me; and I let you keep me there, and give me all my clothes and things. And you think that's the way to stop me thinking about you and caring for you? I shall be there, eating my heart out. What else can I do, when everything I put on or have about me reminds me of you, every minute of the day? I'm to look to you for everything, but never to see you until I can bear it no longer. How long do you think I shall bear it? A woman made like me? You know perfectly well what the trouble and the difficulty and the danger is. I shall be in it all the time. And some day I shall send for you and you'll come. Oh yes, you'll come; for you'll be in it, too. It won't be a bit easier for you than it is for me."
"You'll come. And you know what the end of that will be."
"You think no other end is possible between a man and a woman?"
"If I do, it's men who have made me think it."
"Have I, Kitty?"
"No, not you. I don't say your plan wouldn't work with some other woman. I say it's impossible between you—and me."
"Because you won't believe that I might behave differently from some other men?"
"You are different. And I mean to keep you so."
"There's only one way," she said. "We must never see each other again. We mustn't even think. I shall go away, and you're not to come after me."
"To-morrow. Perhaps to-night."
"And where, Kitty?"
"I don't know."
"You shan't go," he said. "I'll go. You must stay here until we can think of something."
She closed her eyes and drew a hard sigh, as if exhausted with the discussion.
"Robert, dear, would you mind not talking any more to me? I'm very tired."
"If I leave you will you go to bed and rest?"
"I think so. You can say good night."
He rose and came toward her.
"No—don't say it!" she cried. "Don't speak to me!"
She drew back and put her hands behind her as a sign that he was not to touch her.
He stood for a moment looking at her. And as he looked at her he was afraid, even as she was. He said to himself that in that moment she was wise and had done well. For his heart hardly knew its pity from its passion, and its passion from its fear.
And she, seeing that she stood between him and the door, turned aside and made his way clear for him.
And so he left her.
She stared at her own face in the glass without seeing it. Her brain was filled with the loud, hurried ticking of the clock. It sounded somehow as if it were out of gear. She felt herself swaying slightly as she stood.
She was not going to faint bodily. It seemed to her rather that the immaterial bonds, the unseen, subtle, intimate connections were letting go their hold. Her soul was the heart of the danger. It was there that the travelling powers of dissolution, accelerated, multiplying, had begun their work and would end it. Its moments were not measured by the ticking of the clock.
She had remained standing as Lucy had left her, with her back to the door he had gone out by. She was thus unaware that a servant of the hotel had come in, that he had delivered some message and was waiting for her answer.
She started as the man spoke to her again. With a great effort her brain grasped and repeated what he had said.
No; she was certainly not going to faint. There was no receding of sensation. It was resurgence and invasion, violence shaking the very doors of life. She heard the light, tremulous tread of the little pulses of her body, scattered by the ringing hammer strokes of her heart and brain. She heard the clock ticking out of gear, like the small, irritable pulse of time.
She steadied her voice to answer.
"Very well. Show him in."
Marston's face, as he approached her, was harder and stiffer than ever; his bearing more uncompromisingly upright and correct. He greeted her with that peculiar deference that he showed to women whose acquaintance he had yet to make. Decency required that he should start on a fresh and completely purified footing with the future Mrs. Robert Lucy.
"It's charming of you," he said, "to let me come in."
"I wanted to see you, Wilfrid."
Something in her tone made him glance at her with a look that restored her, for a moment, to her former place.
"That is still more charming," he replied.
"I've done what you told me. I've given him up."
A heavy flush spread over his face and relaxed the hard tension of the muscles.
"I thought you'd do it."
"Well, I have done it." She paused.
"That's all I had to say to you."
Her voice struck at him like a blow. But he bore it well, smiling his hard, reticent smile.
"I knew you'd do it," he repeated; "but I didn't think you'd do it quite so soon. Why did you?"
"You know why."
"I didn't mean to put pressure on you, Kitty. It was your problem. Still, I'm glad you've seen it in the right light."
"You think you made me see it?"
"I should hope you'd see it for yourself. It was obvious."
"What was obvious?"
"The unsuitability of the entire arrangement. Was it likely you'd stick to it when you saw what you were in for?"
"You think I tired of him?"
"I think you saw possibilities of fatigue; and, like a wise child, you chucked it. It's as well you did it before instead of after. I say, how did Lucy take it?"
She did not answer. His smile flickered and died under the oppression of her silence.
"Have you done with him altogether? He didn't suggest—er—any compromise?"
"He did not."
"He wouldn't. Compromise is foreign to his nature."
He sat leaning forward, contemplating, with apparent satisfaction, his own strong-grained, immaculate hands. From time to time he tapped the floor with a nervous movement of his foot.
"Then," he said presently, "if that's so, there's no reason, is there, why you shouldn't come back to me?"
"I can't come back to you. I told you so yesterday."
"Since yesterday the situation has altered considerably; or rather, it remains precisely where it was before."
"No, Wilfrid; things can never be as they were before."
"Why not?—if I choose to ignore this episode, this little aberration on your part. You must be equally anxious to forget it. In which case we may consider our relations uninterrupted."
"Do you think I gave Robert Lucy up to go back to you?"
"My dear Kitty, if I'm willing to take you back after you gave me up for him, I think my attitude almost constitutes a claim."
"Well, let's say it entitles me to a hearing. You don't seem to realise, in the least, my extreme forbearance. I never reproached you. I never interfered between you and Lucy. You can't say I didn't play the game."
"I'm not saying it. I know you didn't betray me."
"Betray you? My dear child, I helped you. I never dreamed of standing in your way as long as there was a chance of your marrying. Now that there is none——"
"That has nothing to do with it. I told you that I wouldn't go back to you in any case."
"Come, I don't propose to throw you over for any other woman. Surely it would be more decent to come back to me than to go off with some other man, heaven knows whom, which is what you must do—eventually?"
"It's what I won't do. I'm not going back to that. Don't you see that's why I won't go back to you?"
Her apathy had become exhaustion. The flat, powerless voice, dying of its own utterance, gave him a sense of things past and done with, sunk into the ultimate oblivion. No voice of her energy and defiance could have touched him so. Her indifference troubled him like passion; in its completeness, its finality, it stirred him to decision, to acceptance of its terms. She was ready to fall from his grasp by her own dead weight. There was only one way in which he could hold her.
"Kitty," he said, "is that really why you won't come back?"
"Yes; that's why. Anything—anything but that."
"I see. You're tired of it? And you want to give it up? Well, I'm not sure that I don't want you to."
"Then why," she moaned, "why won't you let me go?"
"Simply because I can't. I've tried it, Kitty. I can't."
He came and sat close to her. He leaned his face to hers and spoke thickly and low.
"You can't give it up, dear. You're bound to go back."
"No—no—no. Don't talk about it."
"I won't. I won't ask you to go back; but I can't do without you."
"Oh yes, you can. There are other women."
"I loathe them all. I wouldn't do for one of them what I'll do for you."
"What will you do for me?"
"I'll marry you, Kitty."
She laughed in her tired fashion. "You want to make an honest woman of me, do you?"
"No. I think I'm endeavouring to make myself an honest man. If you give Lucy up for me I don't want you to lose by the transaction. You were to have been married; but for me perhaps, you would have been. Very well, I'll marry you."
"And that," said she, "will make it all right?"
"Well, won't it?"
"No, it won't. How could it?"
"You know how. It will help you to keep straight. That's what you want, isn't it?"
"Oh yes, that's what I want. And you think I'll keep straight by marrying you?"
"I won't swear to it. But I know it's ten to one that you'll go to the devil if you don't marry me. And you say you don't want to do that."
"I don't want—to marry you."
He shrugged his shoulders. "Perhaps not; but even marrying me might be better than the other alternative."
"It wouldn't," she cried. "It would be worse. If I married you I couldn't get away from you. I couldn't get away from it. You'd keep me in it. It's what you like me for—what you're marrying me for. You haven't married, all these years, because you can't stand living with a decent woman. And you think, if I marry you, it will make it all right. All right!"
She rose and defied him. "Why, I'd rather be your mistress. Then I could get away from you. I shall get away now."
She turned violently, and he leaped up and caught her in his arms. She struggled, beating upon his breast, and crying with a sad, inarticulate cry. She would have sunk to the floor if he had not kept his hold of her.
He raised her, and she stood still, breathing hard, while he still grasped her tightly by the wrists.
"Let me go," she said faintly.
"Where are you going to?"
"I don't know."
"You've no money. If you're not going back what are you going to do?"
"I don't know."
Her eyelids dropped, and he saw mendacity in her eyes' furtive fleeing under cover. He held her tighter. His arm shook her, not brutally, but with a nervous movement that he was powerless to control.
"You lie," he said. "You've been lying to me all the time. You are going back. You're going to that fellow Lucy."
"No. I'm going—somewhere—where I shan't see him."
"I don't know."
"I think so."
Her eyelids quivered, and she panted. "Yes."
There was a knock at the door.
"Let me go," she said again.
He let her go.
"You're going to live—by yourself—respectably—abroad?"
She was silent.
"And how long do you think that will last?"
"I don't know."
Jane Lucy's voice called her from the door. He swore under his breath.
"Let her come in. I want her."
He laid his hand upon the door.
"What are you going to do?" he reiterated.
"Oh, let her come to me."
"You haven't answered my question."
"Let me see her first. Leave me alone with her. Janey! Janey!" she called.
"Very well," he said.
He opened the door and bowed to Jane Lucy as she entered.
"I shall come back," he said, "for my answer."
"Did Robert send you?" she asked, when she was alone with Jane.
"It's no good. I can't do what he wants."
"What are you going to do, dear?"
"I don't know. I don't care. The terrible thing is that I've had to hurt him. I must go away somewhere."
"I'll come with you and see you through."
Kitty shook her head.
"Don't think about it now," said Jane.
"No; I can't think. I'm too tired, and my head's hot. But if I go away you'll understand why I did it?"
"Kitty"—Jane whispered it—"you won't go back?"
"No. I won't go back. You won't have to think that of me."
She had not looked at Jane as they talked. Now she turned to her with eyes of anguish and appeal.
"Janey—think. I've been wicked for years and years. I've only been good for one moment. One moment—when I gave Robert up. Do you think it'll count?"
"I think that, in the sight of God, such moments last forever."
"And that's what you'll think of me by?"
She lifted up her face, haggard and white, flame-spotted where her tears had scorched it. Jane kissed it.
"Do you mind kissing me?"
"My dear, my dear," said Jane, and she drew her closer.
There was a sound of footsteps in the passage. Kitty drew back and listened.
"Upstairs with the children."
"They'll be asleep by this time, won't they?"
The footsteps came again, approaching the door. They paused outside it a moment and turned back.
"Do you hear that?" said Kitty. "It's Wilfrid Marston walking up and down. He wants to get hold of me. I think he's mad about me. He asked me to marry him just now, and I wouldn't. He thinks I didn't mean it, and he's coming back for his answer. But I'll tell you what I'm going to do. I shall go out quietly by the window and slip away, and he won't find me. I want you to be here when he comes, and tell him that he can't see me. Would you mind doing that?"
"You'll stay here all the time, and you won't let him go out and look for me?"
Kitty listened again for the footsteps.
"He's still there," she whispered.
"And you'll go to bed, Kitty?"
"Yes; of course I will."
She went out through the window on to the veranda, and so on into the garden.
It was cool out there and unutterably peaceful, with a tender, lucid twilight on the bare grass of the lawn; on the sea beyond it, and on the white gravel path by the low wall between. She saw it, the world that had held her and Robert, that, holding them, had taken on the ten days' splendour of their passion. It stood, divinely still in the perishing violet light, a world withdrawn and unsubstantial, yet piercingly, intolerably near.
Indoors Jane waited. It was not yet the half-hour. She waited till the clock struck and Marston came for his answer.
He looked round the room, and his face, under its deference, betrayed his sharp annoyance at finding himself alone with Miss Lucy.
"Pardon me," he said, "I thought that Mrs. Tailleur was here."
"Mrs. Tailleur asked me to tell you that she cannot see you. She has gone to her room."
"To her room?"
He stared at her, and his face loosened in a sudden incredulity and dismay.
"Did she tell you she was going there?"
"Yes. She was very tired."
"But—she was here not half an hour ago. She couldn't have gone without my seeing her."
"She went out," said Jane faintly, "by the window."
"She couldn't get to her room without going through the hall. I've been there all the time on the seat by the stairs."
They looked at each other. The seat by the stairs commanded all ways in and out, the entrance of the passage, and the door of the sitting-room, and the portiere of the lounge.
"What do you think?" he said.
"I think that she has not gone far. But if she goes, it is you who will have driven her away."
"Forgive me if I remind you that it is not I who have given her up."
"It was you," said Jane quietly, "who helped to ruin her."
His raised eyebrows expressed an urbane surprise at the curious frankness of her charge. And with a delicate gesture of his hand he repudiated it and waved it away.
"My dear lady, you are alarmed and you are angry, consequently you are unjust. Whatever poor Kitty may have done I am not responsible."
"You are responsible. It's you, and men like you, who have dragged her down. You took advantage of her weakness, of her very helplessness. You've made her so that she can't believe in a man's goodness and trust herself to it."
He smiled, still with that untroubled urbanity, on the small flaming thing as she arraigned him.
"And you consider me responsible for that?" he said.
Their eyes met. "My brother is here," said she. "Would you like to see him?"
"It might be as well, perhaps. If you can find him."
She left him, and he waited five minutes, ten minutes, twenty.
She returned alone. All her defiance had gone from her, and the face that she turned to him was white with fear.
"She is not here," she said. "She went out—by that window—and she has not come in. We've searched the hotel, and we can't find her."
"And you have not found your brother?"
"He has gone out to look for her."
She sat down by the table, turning her face away and screening it from him with her hand.
Marston gave one look at her. He stepped out, and crossed the lawn to the bottom of the garden. The gate at the end of the path there swung open violently, and he found himself face to face with Robert Lucy. "What have you done with Mrs. Tailleur?" he said.
Lucy's head was sunk upon his breast. He did not look at him nor answer. The two men walked back in silence up the lawn.
"You don't know where she is?" said Marston presently.
"No. I thought I did. But—she is not there."
He paused, steadying his voice to speak again.
"If I don't find her, I shall go up to town by the midnight train. Can you give me her address there?"
"You think she has gone up to town?" Marston spoke calmly. He was appeased by Lucy's agitation and his manifest ignorance as to Kitty's movements.
"There's nothing else she could do. I've got to find her. Will you be good enough to give me her address?"
"My dear Mr. Lucy, there's really no reason why I should. If Mrs. Tailleur has not gone up to town, her address won't help you. If she has gone, your discreetest course by far, if I may say so——"
"Is what?" said Lucy sternly.
"Why, my dear fellow, of course—to let her go."
Lucy raised his head. "I do not intend," he said, "to let her go."
"Nor I," said Marston.
"Then we've neither of us any time to lose. I won't answer for what she may do, in the state she's in."
Marston swung slightly round, so that he faced Lucy with his imperturbable stare.
"If you'd known Mrs. Tailleur as long as I have you'd have no sort of doubt as to what she'll do."
Lucy did not appear to have heard him, so sunk was he in his own thoughts.
"What was that?" said Marston suddenly.
They listened. The gate of the Cliff path creaked on its hinges and fell back with a sharp click of the latch. Lucy turned and saw a small woman's figure entering the garden from the Cliff. He strode on toward the house, unwilling to be observed and overtaken by any guests of the hotel.
Marston followed him slowly, pondering at each step of the way.
He heard footsteps, quick stumbling footsteps, and a sound like a hoarse, half-suffocating breath behind him. Then a woman's voice, that sank, stumbling, like the footsteps, as it spoke.
"Mr. Lucy," it said, "is it you?"
Marston went on.
Lucy was in the room with his sister. He was sitting with his back to the open window as Marston came in by it.
The voice outside was nearer; it whispered, "Where is Mr. Lucy?"
"Somebody's looking for you, Lucy," said Marston.
And the three turned round.
Mrs. Hankin stood in the window, holding on to the frame of it and trembling. Her face, her perfect face, was gray, like the face of an old woman. It was drawn and disfigured with some terrible emotion.
Lucy went to her. She clung to his arm, and held him on the threshold.
"Mrs. Tailleur," she said, "Mrs. Tailleur. We found her—down there. She's killed. She—she fell from the Cliff."
The three stood still as she spoke to them.
Then Jane rushed forward to her brother with a cry, and Mrs. Hankin stretched out her arms and barred the way.
There were small spots of blood on her hands and on her dress where she had knelt.
"Go back, child," she said. "They're carrying her in."