"I was afraid you were bored and wanted to come away."
"BORED?" She made a little aggrieved grimace. "You mean you thought me too ignorant and stupid to appreciate it?"
"No; not that." The hand nearest him still lay on the railing of the balcony, and he covered it for a moment with his. As he did so he saw the colour rise and tremble in her cheek.
"Tell me just what you think," he said, bending his head a little, and only half-aware of his words.
She did not turn her face to his, but began to talk rapidly, trying to convey something of what she felt. But she was evidently unused to analyzing her aesthetic emotions, and the tumultuous rush of the drama seemed to have left her in a state of panting wonder, as though it had been a storm or some other natural cataclysm. She had no literary or historic associations to which to attach her impressions: her education had evidently not comprised a course in Greek literature. But she felt what would probably have been unperceived by many a young lady who had taken a first in classics: the ineluctable fatality of the tale, the dread sway in it of the same mysterious "luck" which pulled the threads of her own small destiny. It was not literature to her, it was fact: as actual, as near by, as what was happening to her at the moment and what the next hour held in store. Seen in this light, the play regained for Darrow its supreme and poignant reality. He pierced to the heart of its significance through all the artificial accretions with which his theories of art and the conventions of the stage had clothed it, and saw it as he had never seen it: as life.
After this there could be no question of flight, and he took her back to the theatre, content to receive his own sensations through the medium of hers. But with the continuation of the play, and the oppression of the heavy air, his attention again began to wander, straying back over the incidents of the morning.
He had been with Sophy Viner all day, and he was surprised to find how quickly the time had gone. She had hardly attempted, as the hours passed, to conceal her satisfaction on finding that no telegram came from the Farlows. "They'll have written," she had simply said; and her mind had at once flown on to the golden prospect of an afternoon at the theatre. The intervening hours had been disposed of in a stroll through the lively streets, and a repast, luxuriously lingered over, under the chestnut-boughs of a restaurant in the Champs Elysees. Everything entertained and interested her, and Darrow remarked, with an amused detachment, that she was not insensible to the impression her charms produced. Yet there was no hard edge of vanity in her sense of her prettiness: she seemed simply to be aware of it as a note in the general harmony, and to enjoy sounding the note as a singer enjoys singing.
After luncheon, as they sat over their coffee, she had again asked an immense number of questions and delivered herself of a remarkable variety of opinions. Her questions testified to a wholesome and comprehensive human curiosity, and her comments showed, like her face and her whole attitude, an odd mingling of precocious wisdom and disarming ignorance. When she talked to him about "life"—the word was often on her lips—she seemed to him like a child playing with a tiger's cub; and he said to himself that some day the child would grow up—and so would the tiger. Meanwhile, such expertness qualified by such candour made it impossible to guess the extent of her personal experience, or to estimate its effect on her character. She might be any one of a dozen definable types, or she might—more disconcertingly to her companion and more perilously to herself—be a shifting and uncrystallized mixture of them all.
Her talk, as usual, had promptly reverted to the stage. She was eager to learn about every form of dramatic expression which the metropolis of things theatrical had to offer, and her curiosity ranged from the official temples of the art to its less hallowed haunts. Her searching enquiries about a play whose production, on one of the latter scenes, had provoked a considerable amount of scandal, led Darrow to throw out laughingly: "To see THAT you'll have to wait till you're married!" and his answer had sent her off at a tangent.
"Oh, I never mean to marry," she had rejoined in a tone of youthful finality.
"I seem to have heard that before!"
"Yes; from girls who've only got to choose!" Her eyes had grown suddenly almost old. "I'd like you to see the only men who've ever wanted to marry me! One was the doctor on the steamer, when I came abroad with the Hokes: he'd been cashiered from the navy for drunkenness. The other was a deaf widower with three grown-up daughters, who kept a clock-shop in Bayswater!—Besides," she rambled on, "I'm not so sure that I believe in marriage. You see I'm all for self-development and the chance to live one's life. I'm awfully modern, you know."
It was just when she proclaimed herself most awfully modern that she struck him as most helplessly backward; yet the moment after, without any bravado, or apparent desire to assume an attitude, she would propound some social axiom which could have been gathered only in the bitter soil of experience.
All these things came back to him as he sat beside her in the theatre and watched her ingenuous absorption. It was on "the story" that her mind was fixed, and in life also, he suspected, it would always be "the story", rather than its remoter imaginative issues, that would hold her. He did not believe there were ever any echoes in her soul...
There was no question, however, that what she felt was felt with intensity: to the actual, the immediate, she spread vibrating strings. When the play was over, and they came out once more into the sunlight, Darrow looked down at her with a smile.
"Well?" he asked.
She made no answer. Her dark gaze seemed to rest on him without seeing him. Her cheeks and lips were pale, and the loose hair under her hat-brim clung to her forehead in damp rings. She looked like a young priestess still dazed by the fumes of the cavern.
"You poor child—it's been almost too much for you!"
She shook her head with a vague smile.
"Come," he went on, putting his hand on her arm, "let's jump into a taxi and get some air and sunshine. Look, there are hours of daylight left; and see what a night it's going to be!"
He pointed over their heads, to where a white moon hung in the misty blue above the roofs of the rue de Rivoli.
She made no answer, and he signed to a motor-cab, calling out to the driver: "To the Bois!"
As the carriage turned toward the Tuileries she roused herself. "I must go first to the hotel. There may be a message—at any rate I must decide on something."
Darrow saw that the reality of the situation had suddenly forced itself upon her. "I MUST decide on something," she repeated.
He would have liked to postpone the return, to persuade her to drive directly to the Bois for dinner. It would have been easy enough to remind her that she could not start for Joigny that evening, and that therefore it was of no moment whether she received the Farlows' answer then or a few hours later; but for some reason he hesitated to use this argument, which had come so naturally to him the day before. After all, he knew she would find nothing at the hotel—so what did it matter if they went there?
The porter, interrogated, was not sure. He himself had received nothing for the lady, but in his absence his subordinate might have sent a letter upstairs.
Darrow and Sophy mounted together in the lift, and the young man, while she went into her room, unlocked his own door and glanced at the empty table. For him at least no message had come; and on her threshold, a moment later, she met him with the expected: "No—there's nothing!"
He feigned an unregretful surprise. "So much the better! And now, shall we drive out somewhere? Or would you rather take a boat to Bellevue? Have you ever dined there, on the terrace, by moonlight? It's not at all bad. And there's no earthly use in sitting here waiting."
She stood before him in perplexity.
"But when I wrote yesterday I asked them to telegraph. I suppose they're horribly hard up, the poor dears, and they thought a letter would do as well as a telegram." The colour had risen to her face. "That's why I wrote instead of telegraphing; I haven't a penny to spare myself!"
Nothing she could have said could have filled her listener with a deeper contrition. He felt the red in his own face as he recalled the motive with which he had credited her in his midnight musings. But that motive, after all, had simply been trumped up to justify his own disloyalty: he had never really believed in it. The reflection deepened his confusion, and he would have liked to take her hand in his and confess the injustice he had done her.
She may have interpreted his change of colour as an involuntary protest at being initiated into such shabby details, for she went on with a laugh: "I suppose you can hardly understand what it means to have to stop and think whether one can afford a telegram? But I've always had to consider such things. And I mustn't stay here any longer now—I must try to get a night train for Joigny. Even if the Farlows can't take me in, I can go to the hotel: it will cost less than staying here." She paused again and then exclaimed: "I ought to have thought of that sooner; I ought to have telegraphed yesterday! But I was sure I should hear from them today; and I wanted—oh, I DID so awfully want to stay!" She threw a troubled look at Darrow. "Do you happen to remember," she asked, "what time it was when you posted my letter?"
Darrow was still standing on her threshold. As she put the question he entered the room and closed the door behind him.
His heart was beating a little faster than usual and he had no clear idea of what he was about to do or say, beyond the definite conviction that, whatever passing impulse of expiation moved him, he would not be fool enough to tell her that he had not sent her letter. He knew that most wrongdoing works, on the whole, less mischief than its useless confession; and this was clearly a case where a passing folly might be turned, by avowal, into a serious offense.
"I'm so sorry—so sorry; but you must let me help you...You will let me help you?" he said.
He took her hands and pressed them together between his, counting on a friendly touch to help out the insufficiency of words. He felt her yield slightly to his clasp, and hurried on without giving her time to answer.
"Isn't it a pity to spoil our good time together by regretting anything you might have done to prevent our having it?"
She drew back, freeing her hands. Her face, losing its look of appealing confidence, was suddenly sharpened by distrust.
"You didn't forget to post my letter?"
Darrow stood before her, constrained and ashamed, and ever more keenly aware that the betrayal of his distress must be a greater offense than its concealment.
"What an insinuation!" he cried, throwing out his hands with a laugh.
Her face instantly melted to laughter. "Well, then—I WON'T be sorry; I won't regret anything except that our good time is over!"
The words were so unexpected that they routed all his resolves. If she had gone on doubting him he could probably have gone on deceiving her; but her unhesitating acceptance of his word made him hate the part he was playing. At the same moment a doubt shot up its serpent-head in his own bosom. Was it not he rather than she who was childishly trustful? Was she not almost too ready to take his word, and dismiss once for all the tiresome question of the letter? Considering what her experiences must have been, such trustfulness seemed open to suspicion. But the moment his eyes fell on her he was ashamed of the thought, and knew it for what it really was: another pretext to lessen his own delinquency.
"Why should our good time be over?" he asked. "Why shouldn't it last a little longer?"
She looked up, her lips parted in surprise; but before she could speak he went on: "I want you to stay with me—I want you, just for a few days, to have all the things you've never had. It's not always May and Paris—why not make the most of them now? You know me—we're not strangers—why shouldn't you treat me like a friend?"
While he spoke she had drawn away a little, but her hand still lay in his. She was pale, and her eyes were fixed on him in a gaze in which there was neither distrust or resentment, but only an ingenuous wonder. He was extraordinarily touched by her expression.
"Oh, do! You must. Listen: to prove that I'm sincere I'll tell you...I'll tell you I didn't post your letter...I didn't post it because I wanted so much to give you a few good hours...and because I couldn't bear to have you go."
He had the feeling that the words were being uttered in spite of him by some malicious witness of the scene, and yet that he was not sorry to have them spoken.
The girl had listened to him in silence. She remained motionless for a moment after he had ceased to speak; then she snatched away her hand.
"You didn't post my letter? You kept it back on purpose? And you tell me so NOW, to prove to me that I'd better put myself under your protection?" She burst into a laugh that had in it all the piercing echoes of her Murrett past, and her face, at the same moment, underwent the same change, shrinking into a small malevolent white mask in which the eyes burned black. "Thank you—thank you most awfully for telling me! And for all your other kind intentions! The plan's delightful—really quite delightful, and I'm extremely flattered and obliged."
She dropped into a seat beside her dressing-table, resting her chin on her lifted hands, and laughing out at him under the elf-lock which had shaken itself down over her eyes.
Her outburst did not offend the young man; its immediate effect was that of allaying his agitation. The theatrical touch in her manner made his offense seem more venial than he had thought it a moment before.
He drew up a chair and sat down beside her. "After all," he said, in a tone of good-humoured protest, "I needn't have told you I'd kept back your letter; and my telling you seems rather strong proof that I hadn't any very nefarious designs on you."
She met this with a shrug, but he did not give her time to answer. "My designs," he continued with a smile, "were not nefarious. I saw you'd been through a bad time with Mrs. Murrett, and that there didn't seem to be much fun ahead for you; and I didn't see—and I don't yet see—the harm of trying to give you a few hours of amusement between a depressing past and a not particularly cheerful future." He paused again, and then went on, in the same tone of friendly reasonableness: "The mistake I made was not to tell you this at once—not to ask you straight out to give me a day or two, and let me try to make you forget all the things that are troubling you. I was a fool not to see that if I'd put it to you in that way you'd have accepted or refused, as you chose; but that at least you wouldn't have mistaken my intentions.—Intentions!" He stood up, walked the length of the room, and turned back to where she still sat motionless, her elbows propped on the dressing-table, her chin on her hands. "What rubbish we talk about intentions! The truth is I hadn't any: I just liked being with you. Perhaps you don't know how extraordinarily one can like being with you...I was depressed and adrift myself; and you made me forget my bothers; and when I found you were going—and going back to dreariness, as I was—I didn't see why we shouldn't have a few hours together first; so I left your letter in my pocket."
He saw her face melt as she listened, and suddenly she unclasped her hands and leaned to him.
"But are YOU unhappy too? Oh, I never understood—I never dreamed it! I thought you'd always had everything in the world you wanted!"
Darrow broke into a laugh at this ingenuous picture of his state. He was ashamed of trying to better his case by an appeal to her pity, and annoyed with himself for alluding to a subject he would rather have kept out of his thoughts. But her look of sympathy had disarmed him; his heart was bitter and distracted; she was near him, her eyes were shining with compassion—he bent over her and kissed her hand.
"Forgive me—do forgive me," he said.
She stood up with a smiling head-shake. "Oh, it's not so often that people try to give me any pleasure—much less two whole days of it! I sha'n't forget how kind you've been. I shall have plenty of time to remember. But this IS good-bye, you know. I must telegraph at once to say I'm coming."
"To say you're coming? Then I'm not forgiven?"
"Oh, you're forgiven—if that's any comfort."
"It's not, the very least, if your way of proving it is to go away!"
She hung her head in meditation. "But I can't stay.—How CAN I stay?" she broke out, as if arguing with some unseen monitor.
"Why can't you? No one knows you're here...No one need ever know."
She looked up, and their eyes exchanged meanings for a rapid minute. Her gaze was as clear as a boy's. "Oh, it's not THAT," she exclaimed, almost impatiently; "it's not people I'm afraid of! They've never put themselves out for me—why on earth should I care about them?"
He liked her directness as he had never liked it before. "Well, then, what is it? Not ME, I hope?"
"No, not you: I like you. It's the money! With me that's always the root of the matter. I could never yet afford a treat in my life!"
"Is THAT all?" He laughed, relieved by her naturalness. "Look here; since we re talking as man to man—can't you trust me about that too?"
"Trust you? How do you mean? You'd better not trust ME!" she laughed back sharply. "I might never be able to pay up!"
His gesture brushed aside the allusion. "Money may be the root of the matter; it can't be the whole of it, between friends. Don't you think one friend may accept a small service from another without looking too far ahead or weighing too many chances? The question turns entirely on what you think of me. If you like me well enough to be willing to take a few days' holiday with me, just for the pleasure of the thing, and the pleasure you'll be giving me, let's shake hands on it. If you don't like me well enough we'll shake hands too; only I shall be sorry," he ended.
"Oh, but I shall be sorry too!" Her face, as she lifted it to his, looked so small and young that Darrow felt a fugitive twinge of compunction, instantly effaced by the excitement of pursuit.
"Well, then?" He stood looking down on her, his eyes persuading her. He was now intensely aware that his nearness was having an effect which made it less and less necessary for him to choose his words, and he went on, more mindful of the inflections of his voice than of what he was actually saying: "Why on earth should we say good-bye if we're both sorry to? Won't you tell me your reason? It's not a bit like you to let anything stand in the way of your saying just what you feel. You mustn't mind offending me, you know!"
She hung before him like a leaf on the meeting of cross-currents, that the next ripple may sweep forward or whirl back. Then she flung up her head with the odd boyish movement habitual to her in moments of excitement. "What I feel? Do you want to know what I feel? That you're giving me the only chance I've ever had!"
She turned about on her heel and, dropping into the nearest chair, sank forward, her face hidden against the dressing-table.
Under the folds of her thin summer dress the modelling of her back and of her lifted arms, and the slight hollow between her shoulder-blades, recalled the faint curves of a terra-cotta statuette, some young image of grace hardly more than sketched in the clay. Darrow, as he stood looking at her, reflected that her character, for all its seeming firmness, its flashing edges of "opinion", was probably no less immature. He had not expected her to yield so suddenly to his suggestion, or to confess her yielding in that way. At first he was slightly disconcerted; then he saw how her attitude simplified his own. Her behaviour had all the indecision and awkwardness of inexperience. It showed that she was a child after all; and all he could do—all he had ever meant to do—was to give her a child's holiday to look back to.
For a moment he fancied she was crying; but the next she was on her feet and had swept round on him a face she must have turned away only to hide the first rush of her pleasure.
For a while they shone on each other without speaking; then she sprang to him and held out both hands.
"Is it true? Is it really true? Is it really going to happen to ME?"
He felt like answering: "You're the very creature to whom it was bound to happen"; but the words had a double sense that made him wince, and instead he caught her proffered hands and stood looking at her across the length of her arms, without attempting to bend them or to draw her closer. He wanted her to know how her words had moved him; but his thoughts were blurred by the rush of the same emotion that possessed her, and his own words came with an effort.
He ended by giving her back a laugh as frank as her own, and declaring, as he dropped her hands: "All that and more too—you'll see!"
All day, since the late reluctant dawn, the rain had come down in torrents. It streamed against Darrow's high-perched windows, reduced their vast prospect of roofs and chimneys to a black oily huddle, and filled the room with the drab twilight of an underground aquarium.
The streams descended with the regularity of a third day's rain, when trimming and shuffling are over, and the weather has settled down to do its worst. There were no variations of rhythm, no lyrical ups and downs: the grey lines streaking the panes were as dense and uniform as a page of unparagraphed narrative.
George Darrow had drawn his armchair to the fire. The time-table he had been studying lay on the floor, and he sat staring with dull acquiescence into the boundless blur of rain, which affected him like a vast projection of his own state of mind. Then his eyes travelled slowly about the room.
It was exactly ten days since his hurried unpacking had strewn it with the contents of his portmanteaux. His brushes and razors were spread out on the blotched marble of the chest of drawers. A stack of newspapers had accumulated on the centre table under the "electrolier", and half a dozen paper novels lay on the mantelpiece among cigar-cases and toilet bottles; but these traces of his passage had made no mark on the featureless dulness of the room, its look of being the makeshift setting of innumerable transient collocations. There was something sardonic, almost sinister, in its appearance of having deliberately "made up" for its anonymous part, all in noncommittal drabs and browns, with a carpet and paper that nobody would remember, and chairs and tables as impersonal as railway porters.
Darrow picked up the time-table and tossed it on to the table. Then he rose to his feet, lit a cigar and went to the window. Through the rain he could just discover the face of a clock in a tall building beyond the railway roofs. He pulled out his watch, compared the two time-pieces, and started the hands of his with such a rush that they flew past the hour and he had to make them repeat the circuit more deliberately. He felt a quite disproportionate irritation at the trifling blunder. When he had corrected it he went back to his chair and threw himself down, leaning back his head against his hands. Presently his cigar went out, and he got up, hunted for the matches, lit it again and returned to his seat.
The room was getting on his nerves. During the first few days, while the skies were clear, he had not noticed it, or had felt for it only the contemptuous indifference of the traveller toward a provisional shelter. But now that he was leaving it, was looking at it for the last time, it seemed to have taken complete possession of his mind, to be soaking itself into him like an ugly indelible blot. Every detail pressed itself on his notice with the familiarity of an accidental confidant: whichever way he turned, he felt the nudge of a transient intimacy...
The one fixed point in his immediate future was that his leave was over and that he must be back at his post in London the next morning. Within twenty-four hours he would again be in a daylight world of recognized activities, himself a busy, responsible, relatively necessary factor in the big whirring social and official machine. That fixed obligation was the fact he could think of with the least discomfort, yet for some unaccountable reason it was the one on which he found it most difficult to fix his thoughts. Whenever he did so, the room jerked him back into the circle of its insistent associations. It was extraordinary with what a microscopic minuteness of loathing he hated it all: the grimy carpet and wallpaper, the black marble mantel-piece, the clock with a gilt allegory under a dusty bell, the high-bolstered brown-counterpaned bed, the framed card of printed rules under the electric light switch, and the door of communication with the next room. He hated the door most of all...
At the outset, he had felt no special sense of responsibility. He was satisfied that he had struck the right note, and convinced of his power of sustaining it. The whole incident had somehow seemed, in spite of its vulgar setting and its inevitable prosaic propinquities, to be enacting itself in some unmapped region outside the pale of the usual. It was not like anything that had ever happened to him before, or in which he had ever pictured himself as likely to be involved; but that, at first, had seemed no argument against his fitness to deal with it.
Perhaps but for the three days' rain he might have got away without a doubt as to his adequacy. The rain had made all the difference. It had thrown the whole picture out of perspective, blotted out the mystery of the remoter planes and the enchantment of the middle distance, and thrust into prominence every commonplace fact of the foreground. It was the kind of situation that was not helped by being thought over; and by the perversity of circumstance he had been forced into the unwilling contemplation of its every aspect...
His cigar had gone out again, and he threw it into the fire and vaguely meditated getting up to find another. But the mere act of leaving his chair seemed to call for a greater exertion of the will than he was capable of, and he leaned his head back with closed eyes and listened to the drumming of the rain.
A different noise aroused him. It was the opening and closing of the door leading from the corridor into the adjoining room. He sat motionless, without opening his eyes; but now another sight forced itself under his lowered lids. It was the precise photographic picture of that other room. Everything in it rose before him and pressed itself upon his vision with the same acuity of distinctness as the objects surrounding him. A step sounded on the floor, and he knew which way the step was directed, what pieces of furniture it had to skirt, where it would probably pause, and what was likely to arrest it. He heard another sound, and recognized it as that of a wet umbrella placed in the black marble jamb of the chimney-piece, against the hearth. He caught the creak of a hinge, and instantly differentiated it as that of the wardrobe against the opposite wall. Then he heard the mouse-like squeal of a reluctant drawer, and knew it was the upper one in the chest of drawers beside the bed: the clatter which followed was caused by the mahogany toilet-glass jumping on its loosened pivots...
The step crossed the floor again. It was strange how much better he knew it than the person to whom it belonged! Now it was drawing near the door of communication between the two rooms. He opened his eyes and looked. The step had ceased and for a moment there was silence. Then he heard a low knock. He made no response, and after an interval he saw that the door handle was being tentatively turned. He closed his eyes once more...
The door opened, and the step was in the room, coming cautiously toward him. He kept his eyes shut, relaxing his body to feign sleep. There was another pause, then a wavering soft advance, the rustle of a dress behind his chair, the warmth of two hands pressed for a moment on his lids. The palms of the hands had the lingering scent of some stuff that he had bought on the Boulevard...He looked up and saw a letter falling over his shoulder to his knee...
"Did I disturb you? I'm so sorry! They gave me this just now when I came in."
The letter, before he could catch it, had slipped between his knees to the floor. It lay there, address upward, at his feet, and while he sat staring down at the strong slender characters on the blue-gray envelope an arm reached out from behind to pick it up.
"Oh, don't—DON'T" broke from him, and he bent over and caught the arm. The face above it was close to his.
——"take the trouble," he stammered.
He dropped the arm and stooped down. His grasp closed over the letter, he fingered its thickness and weight and calculated the number of sheets it must contain.
Suddenly he felt the pressure of the hand on his shoulder, and became aware that the face was still leaning over him, and that in a moment he would have to look up and kiss it...
He bent forward first and threw the unopened letter into the middle of the fire.
The light of the October afternoon lay on an old high-roofed house which enclosed in its long expanse of brick and yellowish stone the breadth of a grassy court filled with the shadow and sound of limes.
From the escutcheoned piers at the entrance of the court a level drive, also shaded by limes, extended to a white-barred gate beyond which an equally level avenue of grass, cut through a wood, dwindled to a blue-green blur against a sky banked with still white slopes of cloud.
In the court, half-way between house and drive, a lady stood. She held a parasol above her head, and looked now at the house-front, with its double flight of steps meeting before a glazed door under sculptured trophies, now down the drive toward the grassy cutting through the wood. Her air was less of expectancy than of contemplation: she seemed not so much to be watching for any one, or listening for an approaching sound, as letting the whole aspect of the place sink into her while she held herself open to its influence. Yet it was no less apparent that the scene was not new to her. There was no eagerness of investigation in her survey: she seemed rather to be looking about her with eyes to which, for some intimate inward reason, details long since familiar had suddenly acquired an unwonted freshness.
This was in fact the exact sensation of which Mrs. Leath was conscious as she came forth from the house and descended into the sunlit court. She had come to meet her step-son, who was likely to be returning at that hour from an afternoon's shooting in one of the more distant plantations, and she carried in her hand the letter which had sent her in search of him; but with her first step out of the house all thought of him had been effaced by another series of impressions.
The scene about her was known to satiety. She had seen Givre at all seasons of the year, and for the greater part of every year, since the far-off day of her marriage; the day when, ostensibly driving through its gates at her husband's side, she had actually been carried there on a cloud of iris-winged visions.
The possibilities which the place had then represented were still vividly present to her. The mere phrase "a French chateau" had called up to her youthful fancy a throng of romantic associations, poetic, pictorial and emotional; and the serene face of the old house seated in its park among the poplar-bordered meadows of middle France, had seemed, on her first sight of it, to hold out to her a fate as noble and dignified as its own mien.
Though she could still call up that phase of feeling it had long since passed, and the house had for a time become to her the very symbol of narrowness and monotony. Then, with the passing of years, it had gradually acquired a less inimical character, had become, not again a castle of dreams, evoker of fair images and romantic legend, but the shell of a life slowly adjusted to its dwelling: the place one came back to, the place where one had one's duties, one's habits and one's books, the place one would naturally live in till one died: a dull house, an inconvenient house, of which one knew all the defects, the shabbinesses, the discomforts, but to which one was so used that one could hardly, after so long a time, think one's self away from it without suffering a certain loss of identity.
Now, as it lay before her in the autumn mildness, its mistress was surprised at her own insensibility. She had been trying to see the house through the eyes of an old friend who, the next morning, would be driving up to it for the first time; and in so doing she seemed to be opening her own eyes upon it after a long interval of blindness.
The court was very still, yet full of a latent life: the wheeling and rustling of pigeons about the rectangular yews and across the sunny gravel; the sweep of rooks above the lustrous greyish-purple slates of the roof, and the stir of the tree-tops as they met the breeze which every day, at that hour, came punctually up from the river.
Just such a latent animation glowed in Anna Leath. In every nerve and vein she was conscious of that equipoise of bliss which the fearful human heart scarce dares acknowledge. She was not used to strong or full emotions; but she had always known that she should not be afraid of them. She was not afraid now; but she felt a deep inward stillness.
The immediate effect of the feeling had been to send her forth in quest of her step-son. She wanted to stroll back with him and have a quiet talk before they re-entered the house. It was always easy to talk to him, and at this moment he was the one person to whom she could have spoken without fear of disturbing her inner stillness. She was glad, for all sorts of reasons, that Madame de Chantelle and Effie were still at Ouchy with the governess, and that she and Owen had the house to themselves. And she was glad that even he was not yet in sight. She wanted to be alone a little longer; not to think, but to let the long slow waves of joy break over her one by one.
She walked out of the court and sat down on one of the benches that bordered the drive. From her seat she had a diagonal view of the long house-front and of the domed chapel terminating one of the wings. Beyond a gate in the court-yard wall the flower-garden drew its dark-green squares and raised its statues against the yellowing background of the park. In the borders only a few late pinks and crimsons smouldered, but a peacock strutting in the sun seemed to have gathered into his out-spread fan all the summer glories of the place.
In Mrs. Leath's hand was the letter which had opened her eyes to these things, and a smile rose to her lips at the mere feeling of the paper between her fingers. The thrill it sent through her gave a keener edge to every sense. She felt, saw, breathed the shining world as though a thin impenetrable veil had suddenly been removed from it.
Just such a veil, she now perceived, had always hung between herself and life. It had been like the stage gauze which gives an illusive air of reality to the painted scene behind it, yet proves it, after all, to be no more than a painted scene.
She had been hardly aware, in her girlhood, of differing from others in this respect. In the well-regulated well-fed Summers world the unusual was regarded as either immoral or ill-bred, and people with emotions were not visited. Sometimes, with a sense of groping in a topsy-turvy universe, Anna had wondered why everybody about her seemed to ignore all the passions and sensations which formed the stuff of great poetry and memorable action. In a community composed entirely of people like her parents and her parents' friends she did not see how the magnificent things one read about could ever have happened. She was sure that if anything of the kind had occurred in her immediate circle her mother would have consulted the family clergyman, and her father perhaps even have rung up the police; and her sense of humour compelled her to own that, in the given conditions, these precautions might not have been unjustified.
Little by little the conditions conquered her, and she learned to regard the substance of life as a mere canvas for the embroideries of poet and painter, and its little swept and fenced and tended surface as its actual substance. It was in the visioned region of action and emotion that her fullest hours were spent; but it hardly occurred to her that they might be translated into experience, or connected with anything likely to happen to a young lady living in West Fifty-fifth Street.
She perceived, indeed, that other girls, leading outwardly the same life as herself, and seemingly unaware of her world of hidden beauty, were yet possessed of some vital secret which escaped her. There seemed to be a kind of freemasonry between them; they were wider awake than she, more alert, and surer of their wants if not of their opinions. She supposed they were "cleverer", and accepted her inferiority good-humouredly, half aware, within herself, of a reserve of unused power which the others gave no sign of possessing.
This partly consoled her for missing so much of what made their "good time"; but the resulting sense of exclusion, of being somehow laughingly but firmly debarred from a share of their privileges, threw her back on herself and deepened the reserve which made envious mothers cite her as a model of ladylike repression. Love, she told herself, would one day release her from this spell of unreality. She was persuaded that the sublime passion was the key to the enigma; but it was difficult to relate her conception of love to the forms it wore in her experience. Two or three of the girls she had envied for their superior acquaintance with the arts of life had contracted, in the course of time, what were variously described as "romantic" or "foolish" marriages; one even made a runaway match, and languished for a while under a cloud of social reprobation. Here, then, was passion in action, romance converted to reality; yet the heroines of these exploits returned from them untransfigured, and their husbands were as dull as ever when one had to sit next to them at dinner.
Her own case, of course, would be different. Some day she would find the magic bridge between West Fifty-fifth Street and life; once or twice she had even fancied that the clue was in her hand. The first time was when she had met young Darrow. She recalled even now the stir of the encounter. But his passion swept over her like a wind that shakes the roof of the forest without reaching its still glades or rippling its hidden pools. He was extraordinarily intelligent and agreeable, and her heart beat faster when he was with her. He had a tall fair easy presence and a mind in which the lights of irony played pleasantly through the shades of feeling. She liked to hear his voice almost as much as to listen to what he was saying, and to listen to what he was saying almost as much as to feel that he was looking at her; but he wanted to kiss her, and she wanted to talk to him about books and pictures, and have him insinuate the eternal theme of their love into every subject they discussed.
Whenever they were apart a reaction set in. She wondered how she could have been so cold, called herself a prude and an idiot, questioned if any man could really care for her, and got up in the dead of night to try new ways of doing her hair. But as soon as he reappeared her head straightened itself on her slim neck and she sped her little shafts of irony, or flew her little kites of erudition, while hot and cold waves swept over her, and the things she really wanted to say choked in her throat and burned the palms of her hands.
Often she told herself that any silly girl who had waltzed through a season would know better than she how to attract a man and hold him; but when she said "a man" she did not really mean George Darrow.
Then one day, at a dinner, she saw him sitting next to one of the silly girls in question: the heroine of the elopement which had shaken West Fifty-fifth Street to its base. The young lady had come back from her adventure no less silly than when she went; and across the table the partner of her flight, a fat young man with eye-glasses, sat stolidly eating terrapin and talking about polo and investments.
The young woman was undoubtedly as silly as ever; yet after watching her for a few minutes Miss Summers perceived that she had somehow grown luminous, perilous, obscurely menacing to nice girls and the young men they intended eventually to accept. Suddenly, at the sight, a rage of possessorship awoke in her. She must save Darrow, assert her right to him at any price. Pride and reticence went down in a hurricane of jealousy. She heard him laugh, and there was something new in his laugh...She watched him talking, talking...He sat slightly sideways, a faint smile beneath his lids, lowering his voice as he lowered it when he talked to her. She caught the same inflections, but his eyes were different. It would have offended her once if he had looked at her like that. Now her one thought was that none but she had a right to be so looked at. And that girl of all others! What illusions could he have about a girl who, hardly a year ago, had made a fool of herself over the fat young man stolidly eating terrapin across the table? If that was where romance and passion ended, it was better to take to district visiting or algebra!
All night she lay awake and wondered: "What was she saying to him? How shall I learn to say such things?" and she decided that her heart would tell her—that the next time they were alone together the irresistible word would spring to her lips. He came the next day, and they were alone, and all she found was: "I didn't know that you and Kitty Mayne were such friends."
He answered with indifference that he didn't know it either, and in the reaction of relief she declared: "She's certainly ever so much prettier than she was..."
"She's rather good fun," he admitted, as though he had not noticed her other advantages; and suddenly Anna saw in his eyes the look she had seen there the previous evening.
She felt as if he were leagues and leagues away from her. All her hopes dissolved, and she was conscious of sitting rigidly, with high head and straight lips, while the irresistible word fled with a last wing-beat into the golden mist of her illusions...
She was still quivering with the pain and bewilderment of this adventure when Fraser Leath appeared. She met him first in Italy, where she was travelling with her parents; and the following winter he came to New York. In Italy he had seemed interesting: in New York he became remarkable. He seldom spoke of his life in Europe, and let drop but the most incidental allusions to the friends, the tastes, the pursuits which filled his cosmopolitan days; but in the atmosphere of West Fifty-fifth Street he seemed the embodiment of a storied past. He presented Miss Summers with a prettily-bound anthology of the old French poets and, when she showed a discriminating pleasure in the gift, observed with his grave smile: "I didn't suppose I should find any one here who would feel about these things as I do." On another occasion he asked her acceptance of a half-effaced eighteenth century pastel which he had surprisingly picked up in a New York auction-room. "I know no one but you who would really appreciate it," he explained.
He permitted himself no other comments, but these conveyed with sufficient directness that he thought her worthy of a different setting. That she should be so regarded by a man living in an atmosphere of art and beauty, and esteeming them the vital elements of life, made her feel for the first time that she was understood. Here was some one whose scale of values was the same as hers, and who thought her opinion worth hearing on the very matters which they both considered of supreme importance. The discovery restored her self-confidence, and she revealed herself to Mr. Leath as she had never known how to reveal herself to Darrow.
As the courtship progressed, and they grew more confidential, her suitor surprised and delighted her by little explosions of revolutionary sentiment. He said: "Shall you mind, I wonder, if I tell you that you live in a dread-fully conventional atmosphere?" and, seeing that she manifestly did not mind: "Of course I shall say things now and then that will horrify your dear delightful parents—I shall shock them awfully, I warn you."
In confirmation of this warning he permitted himself an occasional playful fling at the regular church-going of Mr. and Mrs. Summers, at the innocuous character of the literature in their library, and at their guileless appreciations in art. He even ventured to banter Mrs. Summers on her refusal to receive the irrepressible Kitty Mayne who, after a rapid passage with George Darrow, was now involved in another and more flagrant adventure.
"In Europe, you know, the husband is regarded as the only judge in such matters. As long as he accepts the situation—" Mr. Leath explained to Anna, who took his view the more emphatically in order to convince herself that, personally, she had none but the most tolerant sentiments toward the lady.
The subversiveness of Mr. Leath's opinions was enhanced by the distinction of his appearance and the reserve of his manners. He was like the anarchist with a gardenia in his buttonhole who figures in the higher melodrama. Every word, every allusion, every note of his agreeably-modulated voice, gave Anna a glimpse of a society at once freer and finer, which observed the traditional forms but had discarded the underlying prejudices; whereas the world she knew had discarded many of the forms and kept almost all the prejudices.
In such an atmosphere as his an eager young woman, curious as to all the manifestations of life, yet instinctively desiring that they should come to her in terms of beauty and fine feeling, must surely find the largest scope for self-expression. Study, travel, the contact of the world, the comradeship of a polished and enlightened mind, would combine to enrich her days and form her character; and it was only in the rare moments when Mr. Leath's symmetrical blond mask bent over hers, and his kiss dropped on her like a cold smooth pebble, that she questioned the completeness of the joys he offered.
There had been a time when the walls on which her gaze now rested had shed a glare of irony on these early dreams. In the first years of her marriage the sober symmetry of Givre had suggested only her husband's neatly-balanced mind. It was a mind, she soon learned, contentedly absorbed in formulating the conventions of the unconventional. West Fifty-fifth Street was no more conscientiously concerned than Givre with the momentous question of "what people did"; it was only the type of deed investigated that was different. Mr. Leath collected his social instances with the same seriousness and patience as his snuff-boxes. He exacted a rigid conformity to his rules of non-conformity and his scepticism had the absolute accent of a dogma. He even cherished certain exceptions to his rules as the book-collector prizes a "defective" first edition. The Protestant church-going of Anna's parents had provoked his gentle sarcasm; but he prided himself on his mother's devoutness, because Madame de Chantelle, in embracing her second husband's creed, had become part of a society which still observes the outward rites of piety.
Anna, in fact, had discovered in her amiable and elegant mother-in-law an unexpected embodiment of the West Fifty-fifth Street ideal. Mrs. Summers and Madame de Chantelle, however strongly they would have disagreed as to the authorized source of Christian dogma, would have found themselves completely in accord on all the momentous minutiae of drawing-room conduct; yet Mr. Leath treated his mother's foibles with a respect which Anna's experience of him forbade her to attribute wholly to filial affection.
In the early days, when she was still questioning the Sphinx instead of trying to find an answer to it, she ventured to tax her husband with his inconsistency.
"You say your mother won't like it if I call on that amusing little woman who came here the other day, and was let in by mistake; but Madame de Chantelle tells me she lives with her husband, and when mother refused to visit Kitty Mayne you said——"
Mr. Leath's smile arrested her. "My dear child, I don't pretend to apply the principles of logic to my poor mother's prejudices."
"But if you admit that they ARE prejudices——?"
"There are prejudices and prejudices. My mother, of course, got hers from Monsieur de Chantelle, and they seem to me as much in their place in this house as the pot-pourri in your hawthorn jar. They preserve a social tradition of which I should be sorry to lose the least perfume. Of course I don't expect you, just at first, to feel the difference, to see the nuance. In the case of little Madame de Vireville, for instance: you point out that she's still under her husband's roof. Very true; and if she were merely a Paris acquaintance—especially if you had met her, as one still might, in the RIGHT KIND of house in Paris—I should be the last to object to your visiting her. But in the country it's different. Even the best provincial society is what you would call narrow: I don't deny it; and if some of our friends met Madame de Vireville at Givre—well, it would produce a bad impression. You're inclined to ridicule such considerations, but gradually you'll come to see their importance; and meanwhile, do trust me when I ask you to be guided by my mother. It is always well for a stranger in an old society to err a little on the side of what you call its prejudices but I should rather describe as its traditions."
After that she no longer tried to laugh or argue her husband out of his convictions. They WERE convictions, and therefore unassailable. Nor was any insincerity implied in the fact that they sometimes seemed to coincide with hers. There were occasions when he really did look at things as she did; but for reasons so different as to make the distance between them all the greater. Life, to Mr. Leath, was like a walk through a carefully classified museum, where, in moments of doubt, one had only to look at the number and refer to one's catalogue; to his wife it was like groping about in a huge dark lumber-room where the exploring ray of curiosity lit up now some shape of breathing beauty and now a mummy's grin.
In the first bewilderment of her new state these discoveries had had the effect of dropping another layer of gauze between herself and reality. She seemed farther than ever removed from the strong joys and pangs for which she felt herself made. She did not adopt her husband's views, but insensibly she began to live his life. She tried to throw a compensating ardour into the secret excursions of her spirit, and thus the old vicious distinction between romance and reality was re-established for her, and she resigned herself again to the belief that "real life" was neither real nor alive.
The birth of her little girl swept away this delusion. At last she felt herself in contact with the actual business of living: but even this impression was not enduring.
Everything but the irreducible crude fact of child-bearing assumed, in the Leath household, the same ghostly tinge of unreality. Her husband, at the time, was all that his own ideal of a husband required. He was attentive, and even suitably moved: but as he sat by her bedside, and thoughtfully proffered to her the list of people who had "called to enquire", she looked first at him, and then at the child between them, and wondered at the blundering alchemy of Nature...
With the exception of the little girl herself, everything connected with that time had grown curiously remote and unimportant. The days that had moved so slowly as they passed seemed now to have plunged down head-long steeps of time; and as she sat in the autumn sun, with Darrow's letter in her hand, the history of Anna Leath appeared to its heroine like some grey shadowy tale that she might have read in an old book, one night as she was falling asleep...
Two brown blurs emerging from the farther end of the wood-vista gradually defined themselves as her step-son and an attendant game-keeper. They grew slowly upon the bluish background, with occasional delays and re-effacements, and she sat still, waiting till they should reach the gate at the end of the drive, where the keeper would turn off to his cottage and Owen continue on to the house.
She watched his approach with a smile. From the first days of her marriage she had been drawn to the boy, but it was not until after Effie's birth that she had really begun to know him. The eager observation of her own child had shown her how much she had still to learn about the slight fair boy whom the holidays periodically restored to Givre. Owen, even then, both physically and morally, furnished her with the oddest of commentaries on his father's mien and mind. He would never, the family sighingly recognized, be nearly as handsome as Mr. Leath; but his rather charmingly unbalanced face, with its brooding forehead and petulant boyish smile, suggested to Anna what his father's countenance might have been could one have pictured its neat features disordered by a rattling breeze. She even pushed the analogy farther, and descried in her step-son's mind a quaintly-twisted reflection of her husband's. With his bursts of door-slamming activity, his fits of bookish indolence, his crude revolutionary dogmatizing and his flashes of precocious irony, the boy was not unlike a boisterous embodiment of his father's theories. It was as though Fraser Leath's ideas, accustomed to hang like marionettes on their pegs, should suddenly come down and walk. There were moments, indeed, when Owen's humours must have suggested to his progenitor the gambols of an infant Frankenstein; but to Anna they were the voice of her secret rebellions, and her tenderness to her step-son was partly based on her severity toward herself. As he had the courage she had lacked, so she meant him to have the chances she had missed; and every effort she made for him helped to keep her own hopes alive.
Her interest in Owen led her to think more often of his mother, and sometimes she would slip away and stand alone before her predecessor's portrait. Since her arrival at Givre the picture—a "full-length" by a once fashionable artist—had undergone the successive displacements of an exiled consort removed farther and farther from the throne; and Anna could not help noting that these stages coincided with the gradual decline of the artist's fame. She had a fancy that if his credit had been in the ascendant the first Mrs. Leath might have continued to throne over the drawing-room mantel-piece, even to the exclusion of her successor's effigy. Instead of this, her peregrinations had finally landed her in the shrouded solitude of the billiard-room, an apartment which no one ever entered, but where it was understood that "the light was better," or might have been if the shutters had not been always closed.
Here the poor lady, elegantly dressed, and seated in the middle of a large lonely canvas, in the blank contemplation of a gilt console, had always seemed to Anna to be waiting for visitors who never came.
"Of course they never came, you poor thing! I wonder how long it took you to find out that they never would?" Anna had more than once apostrophized her, with a derision addressed rather to herself than to the dead; but it was only after Effie's birth that it occurred to her to study more closely the face in the picture, and speculate on the kind of visitors that Owen's mother might have hoped for.
"She certainly doesn't look as if they would have been the same kind as mine: but there's no telling, from a portrait that was so obviously done 'to please the family', and that leaves Owen so unaccounted for. Well, they never came, the visitors; they never came; and she died of it. She died of it long before they buried her: I'm certain of that. Those are stone-dead eyes in the picture...The loneliness must have been awful, if even Owen couldn't keep her from dying of it. And to feel it so she must have HAD feelings—real live ones, the kind that twitch and tug. And all she had to look at all her life was a gilt console—yes, that's it, a gilt console screwed to the wall! That's exactly and absolutely what he is!"
She did not mean, if she could help it, that either Effie or Owen should know that loneliness, or let her know it again. They were three, now, to keep each other warm, and she embraced both children in the same passion of motherhood, as though one were not enough to shield her from her predecessor's fate.
Sometimes she fancied that Owen Leath's response was warmer than that of her own child. But then Effie was still hardly more than a baby, and Owen, from the first, had been almost "old enough to understand": certainly DID understand now, in a tacit way that yet perpetually spoke to her. This sense of his understanding was the deepest element in their feeling for each other. There were so many things between them that were never spoken of, or even indirectly alluded to, yet that, even in their occasional discussions and differences, formed the unadduced arguments making for final agreement...
Musing on this, she continued to watch his approach; and her heart began to beat a little faster at the thought of what she had to say to him. But when he reached the gate she saw him pause, and after a moment he turned aside as if to gain a cross-road through the park.
She started up and waved her sunshade, but he did not see her. No doubt he meant to go back with the gamekeeper, perhaps to the kennels, to see a retriever who had hurt his leg. Suddenly she was seized by the whim to overtake him. She threw down the parasol, thrust her letter into her bodice, and catching up her skirts began to run.
She was slight and light, with a natural ease and quickness of gait, but she could not recall having run a yard since she had romped with Owen in his school-days; nor did she know what impulse moved her now. She only knew that run she must, that no other motion, short of flight, would have been buoyant enough for her humour. She seemed to be keeping pace with some inward rhythm, seeking to give bodily expression to the lyric rush of her thoughts. The earth always felt elastic under her, and she had a conscious joy in treading it; but never had it been as soft and springy as today. It seemed actually to rise and meet her as she went, so that she had the feeling, which sometimes came to her in dreams, of skimming miraculously over short bright waves. The air, too, seemed to break in waves against her, sweeping by on its current all the slanted lights and moist sharp perfumes of the failing day. She panted to herself: "This is nonsense!" her blood hummed back: "But it's glorious!" and she sped on till she saw that Owen had caught sight of her and was striding back in her direction.
Then she stopped and waited, flushed and laughing, her hands clasped against the letter in her breast.
"No, I'm not mad," she called out; "but there's something in the air today—don't you feel it?—And I wanted to have a little talk with you," she added as he came up to her, smiling at him and linking her arm in his.
He smiled back, but above the smile she saw the shade of anxiety which, for the last two months, had kept its fixed line between his handsome eyes.
"Owen, don't look like that! I don't want you to!" she said imperiously.
He laughed. "You said that exactly like Effie. What do you want me to do? To race with you as I do Effie? But I shouldn't have a show!" he protested, still with the little frown between his eyes.
"Where are you going?" she asked.
"To the kennels. But there's not the least need. The vet has seen Garry and he's all right. If there's anything you wanted to tell me——"
"Did I say there was? I just came out to meet you—I wanted to know if you'd had good sport."
The shadow dropped on him again. "None at all. The fact is I didn't try. Jean and I have just been knocking about in the woods. I wasn't in a sanguinary mood."
They walked on with the same light gait, so nearly of a height that keeping step came as naturally to them as breathing. Anna stole another look at the young face on a level with her own.
"You DID say there was something you wanted to tell me," her step-son began after a pause.
"Well, there is." She slackened her pace involuntarily, and they came to a pause and stood facing each other under the limes.
"Is Darrow coming?" he asked.
She seldom blushed, but at the question a sudden heat suffused her. She held her head high.
"Yes: he's coming. I've just heard. He arrives to-morrow. But that's not——" She saw her blunder and tried to rectify it. "Or rather, yes, in a way it is my reason for wanting to speak to you——"
"Because he's coming?"
"Because he's not yet here."
"It's about him, then?"
He looked at her kindly, half-humourously, an almost fraternal wisdom in his smile.
"About——? No, no: I meant that I wanted to speak today because it's our last day alone together."
"Oh, I see." He had slipped his hands into the pockets of his tweed shooting jacket and lounged along at her side, his eyes bent on the moist ruts of the drive, as though the matter had lost all interest for him.
He stopped again and faced her. "Look here, my dear, it's no sort of use."
"What's no use?"
"Anything on earth you can any of you say."
She challenged him: "Am I one of 'any of you'?"
He did not yield. "Well, then—anything on earth that even YOU can say." "You don't in the least know what I can say—or what I mean to."
"Don't I, generally?"
She gave him this point, but only to make another. "Yes; but this is particularly. I want to say...Owen, you've been admirable all through."
He broke into a laugh in which the odd elder-brotherly note was once more perceptible.
"Admirable," she emphasized. "And so has SHE."
"Oh, and so have you to HER!" His voice broke down to boyishness. "I've never lost sight of that for a minute. It's been altogether easier for her, though," he threw off presently.
"On the whole, I suppose it has. Well——" she summed up with a laugh, "aren't you all the better pleased to be told you've behaved as well as she?"
"Oh, you know, I've not done it for you," he tossed back at her, without the least note of hostility in the affected lightness of his tone.
"Haven't you, though, perhaps—the least bit? Because, after all, you knew I understood?"
"You've been awfully kind about pretending to."
She laughed. "You don't believe me? You must remember I had your grandmother to consider."
"Yes: and my father—and Effie, I suppose—and the outraged shades of Givre!" He paused, as if to lay more stress on the boyish sneer: "Do you likewise include the late Monsieur de Chantelle?"
His step-mother did not appear to resent the thrust. She went on, in the same tone of affectionate persuasion: "Yes: I must have seemed to you too subject to Givre. Perhaps I have been. But you know that was not my real object in asking you to wait, to say nothing to your grandmother before her return."
He considered. "Your real object, of course, was to gain time."
"Yes—but for whom? Why not for YOU?"
"For me?" He flushed up quickly. "You don't mean——?"
She laid her hand on his arm and looked gravely into his handsome eyes.
"I mean that when your grandmother gets back from Ouchy I shall speak to her——" "You'll speak to her...?"
"Yes; if only you'll promise to give me time——"
"Time for her to send for Adelaide Painter?"
"Oh, she'll undoubtedly send for Adelaide Painter!"
The allusion touched a spring of mirth in both their minds, and they exchanged a laughing look.
"Only you must promise not to rush things. You must give me time to prepare Adelaide too," Mrs. Leath went on.
"Prepare her too?" He drew away for a better look at her. "Prepare her for what?"
"Why, to prepare your grandmother! For your marriage. Yes, that's what I mean. I'm going to see you through, you know——"
His feint of indifference broke down and he caught her hand. "Oh, you dear divine thing! I didn't dream——"
"I know you didn't." She dropped her gaze and began to walk on slowly. "I can't say you've convinced me of the wisdom of the step. Only I seem to see that other things matter more—and that not missing things matters most. Perhaps I've changed—or YOUR not changing has convinced me. I'm certain now that you won't budge. And that was really all I ever cared about."
"Oh, as to not budging—I told you so months ago: you might have been sure of that! And how can you be any surer today than yesterday?"
"I don't know. I suppose one learns something every day——"
"Not at Givre!" he laughed, and shot a half-ironic look at her. "But you haven't really BEEN at Givre lately—not for months! Don't you suppose I've noticed that, my dear?"
She echoed his laugh to merge it in an undenying sigh. "Poor Givre..."
"Poor empty Givre! With so many rooms full and yet not a soul in it—except of course my grandmother, who is its soul!"
They had reached the gateway of the court and stood looking with a common accord at the long soft-hued facade on which the autumn light was dying. "It looks so made to be happy in——" she murmured.
"Yes—today, today!" He pressed her arm a little. "Oh, you darling—to have given it that look for me!" He paused, and then went on in a lower voice: "Don't you feel we owe it to the poor old place to do what we can to give it that look? You, too, I mean? Come, let's make it grin from wing to wing! I've such a mad desire to say outrageous things to it—haven't you? After all, in old times there must have been living people here!"
Loosening her arm from his she continued to gaze up at the house-front, which seemed, in the plaintive decline of light, to send her back the mute appeal of something doomed.
"It IS beautiful," she said.
"A beautiful memory! Quite perfect to take out and turn over when I'm grinding at the law in New York, and you're——" He broke off and looked at her with a questioning smile. "Come! Tell me. You and I don't have to say things to talk to each other. When you turn suddenly absentminded and mysterious I always feel like saying: 'Come back. All is discovered'."
She returned his smile. "You know as much as I know. I promise you that."
He wavered, as if for the first time uncertain how far he might go. "I don't know Darrow as much as you know him," he presently risked.
She frowned a little. "You said just now we didn't need to say things"
"Was I speaking? I thought it was your eyes——" He caught her by both elbows and spun her halfway round, so that the late sun shed a betraying gleam on her face. "They're such awfully conversational eyes! Don't you suppose they told me long ago why it's just today you've made up your mind that people have got to live their own lives—even at Givre?"
"This is the south terrace," Anna said. "Should you like to walk down to the river?"
She seemed to listen to herself speaking from a far-off airy height, and yet to be wholly gathered into the circle of consciousness which drew its glowing ring about herself and Darrow. To the aerial listener her words sounded flat and colourless, but to the self within the ring each one beat with a separate heart.
It was the day after Darrow's arrival, and he had come down early, drawn by the sweetness of the light on the lawns and gardens below his window. Anna had heard the echo of his step on the stairs, his pause in the stone-flagged hall, his voice as he asked a servant where to find her. She was at the end of the house, in the brown-panelled sitting-room which she frequented at that season because it caught the sunlight first and kept it longest. She stood near the window, in the pale band of brightness, arranging some salmon-pink geraniums in a shallow porcelain bowl. Every sensation of touch and sight was thrice-alive in her. The grey-green fur of the geranium leaves caressed her fingers and the sunlight wavering across the irregular surface of the old parquet floor made it seem as bright and shifting as the brown bed of a stream.
Darrow stood framed in the door-way of the farthest drawing-room, a light-grey figure against the black and white flagging of the hall; then he began to move toward her down the empty pale-panelled vista, crossing one after another the long reflections which a projecting cabinet or screen cast here and there upon the shining floors.
As he drew nearer, his figure was suddenly displaced by that of her husband, whom, from the same point, she had so often seen advancing down the same perspective. Straight, spare, erect, looking to right and left with quick precise turns of the head, and stopping now and then to straighten a chair or alter the position of a vase, Fraser Leath used to march toward her through the double file of furniture like a general reviewing a regiment drawn up for his inspection. At a certain point, midway across the second room, he always stopped before the mantel-piece of pinkish-yellow marble and looked at himself in the tall garlanded glass that surmounted it. She could not remember that he had ever found anything to straighten or alter in his own studied attire, but she had never known him to omit the inspection when he passed that particular mirror.
When it was over he continued more briskly on his way, and the resulting expression of satisfaction was still on his face when he entered the oak sitting-room to greet his wife...
The spectral projection of this little daily scene hung but for a moment before Anna, but in that moment she had time to fling a wondering glance across the distance between her past and present. Then the footsteps of the present came close, and she had to drop the geraniums to give her hand to Darrow...
"Yes, let us walk down to the river."
They had neither of them, as yet, found much to say to each other. Darrow had arrived late on the previous afternoon, and during the evening they had had between them Owen Leath and their own thoughts. Now they were alone for the first time and the fact was enough in itself. Yet Anna was intensely aware that as soon as they began to talk more intimately they would feel that they knew each other less well.
They passed out onto the terrace and down the steps to the gravel walk below. The delicate frosting of dew gave the grass a bluish shimmer, and the sunlight, sliding in emerald streaks along the tree-boles, gathered itself into great luminous blurs at the end of the wood-walks, and hung above the fields a watery glory like the ring about an autumn moon.
"It's good to be here," Darrow said.
They took a turn to the left and stopped for a moment to look back at the long pink house-front, plainer, friendlier, less adorned than on the side toward the court. So prolonged yet delicate had been the friction of time upon its bricks that certain expanses had the bloom and texture of old red velvet, and the patches of gold lichen spreading over them looked like the last traces of a dim embroidery. The dome of the chapel, with its gilded cross, rose above one wing, and the other ended in a conical pigeon-house, above which the birds were flying, lustrous and slatey, their breasts merged in the blue of the roof when they dropped down on it.
"And this is where you've been all these years."
They turned away and began to walk down a long tunnel of yellowing trees. Benches with mossy feet stood against the mossy edges of the path, and at its farther end it widened into a circle about a basin rimmed with stone, in which the opaque water strewn with leaves looked like a slab of gold-flecked agate. The path, growing narrower, wound on circuitously through the woods, between slender serried trunks twined with ivy. Patches of blue appeared above them through the dwindling leaves, and presently the trees drew back and showed the open fields along the river.
They walked on across the fields to the tow-path. In a curve of the wall some steps led up to a crumbling pavilion with openings choked with ivy. Anna and Darrow seated themselves on the bench projecting from the inner wall of the pavilion and looked across the river at the slopes divided into blocks of green and fawn-colour, and at the chalk-tinted village lifting its squat church-tower and grey roofs against the precisely drawn lines of the landscape. Anna sat silent, so intensely aware of Darrow's nearness that there was no surprise in the touch he laid on her hand. They looked at each other, and he smiled and said: "There are to be no more obstacles now."
"Obstacles?" The word startled her. "What obstacles?"
"Don't you remember the wording of the telegram that turned me back last May? 'Unforeseen obstacle': that was it. What was the earth-shaking problem, by the way? Finding a governess for Effie, wasn't it?"
"But I gave you my reason: the reason why it was an obstacle. I wrote you fully about it."
"Yes, I know you did." He lifted her hand and kissed it. "How far off it all seems, and how little it all matters today!"
She looked at him quickly. "Do you feel that? I suppose I'm different. I want to draw all those wasted months into today—to make them a part of it."
"But they are, to me. You reach back and take everything—back to the first days of all."
She frowned a little, as if struggling with an inarticulate perplexity. "It's curious how, in those first days, too, something that I didn't understand came between us."
"Oh, in those days we neither of us understood, did we? It's part of what's called the bliss of being young."
"Yes, I thought that, too: thought it, I mean, in looking back. But it couldn't, even then, have been as true of you as of me; and now——"
"Now," he said, "the only thing that matters is that we're sitting here together."
He dismissed the rest with a lightness that might have seemed conclusive evidence of her power over him. But she took no pride in such triumphs. It seemed to her that she wanted his allegiance and his adoration not so much for herself as for their mutual love, and that in treating lightly any past phase of their relation he took something from its present beauty. The colour rose to her face.
"Between you and me everything matters."
"Of course!" She felt the unperceiving sweetness of his smile. "That's why," he went on, "'everything,' for me, is here and now: on this bench, between you and me."
She caught at the phrase. "That's what I meant: it's here and now; we can't get away from it."
"Get away from it? Do you want to? AGAIN?"
Her heart was beating unsteadily. Something in her, fitfully and with reluctance, struggled to free itself, but the warmth of his nearness penetrated every sense as the sunlight steeped the landscape. Then, suddenly, she felt that she wanted no less than the whole of her happiness.
"'Again'? But wasn't it YOU, the last time——?"
She paused, the tremor in her of Psyche holding up the lamp. But in the interrogative light of her pause her companion's features underwent no change.
"The last time? Last spring? But it was you who—for the best of reasons, as you've told me—turned me back from your very door last spring!"
She saw that he was good-humouredly ready to "thresh out," for her sentimental satisfaction, a question which, for his own, Time had so conclusively dealt with; and the sense of his readiness reassured her.
"I wrote as soon as I could," she rejoined. "I explained the delay and asked you to come. And you never even answered my letter."
"It was impossible to come then. I had to go back to my post."
"And impossible to write and tell me so?"
"Your letter was a long time coming. I had waited a week—ten days. I had some excuse for thinking, when it came, that you were in no great hurry for an answer."
"You thought that—really—after reading it?"
"I thought it."
Her heart leaped up to her throat. "Then why are you here today?"
He turned on her with a quick look of wonder. "God knows—if you can ask me that!"
"You see I was right to say I didn't understand."
He stood up abruptly and stood facing her, blocking the view over the river and the checkered slopes. "Perhaps I might say so too."
"No, no: we must neither of us have any reason for saying it again." She looked at him gravely. "Surely you and I needn't arrange the lights before we show ourselves to each other. I want you to see me just as I am, with all my irrational doubts and scruples; the old ones and the new ones too."
He came back to his seat beside her. "Never mind the old ones. They were justified—I'm willing to admit it. With the governess having suddenly to be packed off, and Effie on your hands, and your mother-in-law ill, I see the impossibility of your letting me come. I even see that, at the moment, it was difficult to write and explain. But what does all that matter now? The new scruples are the ones I want to tackle."
Again her heart trembled. She felt her happiness so near, so sure, that to strain it closer might be like a child's crushing a pet bird in its caress. But her very security urged her on. For so long her doubts had been knife-edged: now they had turned into bright harmless toys that she could toss and catch without peril!
"You didn't come, and you didn't answer my letter; and after waiting four months I wrote another." "And I answered that one; and I'm here."
"Yes." She held his eyes. "But in my last letter I repeated exactly what I'd said in the first—the one I wrote you last June. I told you then that I was ready to give you the answer to what you'd asked me in London; and in telling you that, I told you what the answer was."
"My dearest! My dearest!" Darrow murmured.
"You ignored that letter. All summer you made no sign. And all I ask now is, that you should frankly tell me why."
"I can only repeat what I've just said. I was hurt and unhappy and I doubted you. I suppose if I'd cared less I should have been more confident. I cared so much that I couldn't risk another failure. For you'd made me feel that I'd miserably failed. So I shut my eyes and set my teeth and turned my back. There's the whole pusillanimous truth of it!"
"Oh, if it's the WHOLE truth!——" She let him clasp her. "There's my torment, you see. I thought that was what your silence meant till I made you break it. Now I want to be sure that I was right."
"What can I tell you to make you sure?"
"You can let me tell YOU everything first." She drew away, but without taking her hands from him. "Owen saw you in Paris," she began.
She looked at him and he faced her steadily. The light was full on his pleasantly-browned face, his grey eyes, his frank white forehead. She noticed for the first time a seal-ring in a setting of twisted silver on the hand he had kept on hers.
"In Paris? Oh, yes...So he did."
"He came back and told me. I think you talked to him a moment in a theatre. I asked if you'd spoken of my having put you off—or if you'd sent me any message. He didn't remember that you had."
"In a crush—in a Paris foyer? My dear!"
"It was absurd of me! But Owen and I have always been on odd kind of brother-and-sister terms. I think he guessed about us when he saw you with me in London. So he teased me a little and tried to make me curious about you; and when he saw he'd succeeded he told me he hadn't had time to say much to you because you were in such a hurry to get back to the lady you were with."
He still held her hands, but she felt no tremor in his, and the blood did not stir in his brown cheek. He seemed to be honestly turning over his memories. "Yes: and what else did he tell you?"
"Oh, not much, except that she was awfully pretty. When I asked him to describe her he said you had her tucked away in a baignoire and he hadn't actually seen her; but he saw the tail of her cloak, and somehow knew from that that she was pretty. One DOES, you know...I think he said the cloak was pink."
Darrow broke into a laugh. "Of course it was—they always are! So that was at the bottom of your doubts?"
"Not at first. I only laughed. But afterward, when I wrote you and you didn't answer——Oh, you DO see?" she appealed to him.
He was looking at her gently. "Yes: I see."
"It's not as if this were a light thing between us. I want you to know me as I am. If I thought that at that moment...when you were on your way here, almost——"
He dropped her hand and stood up. "Yes, yes—I understand."
"But do you?" Her look followed him. "I'm not a goose of a girl. I know...of course I KNOW...but there are things a woman feels...when what she knows doesn't make any difference. It's not that I want you to explain—I mean about that particular evening. It's only that I want you to have the whole of my feeling. I didn't know what it was till I saw you again. I never dreamed I should say such things to you!"
"I never dreamed I should be here to hear you say them!" He turned back and lifting a floating end of her scarf put his lips to it. "But now that you have, I know—I know," he smiled down at her.
"That this is no light thing between us. Now you may ask me anything you please! That was all I wanted to ask YOU."
For a long moment they looked at each other without speaking. She saw the dancing spirit in his eyes turn grave and darken to a passionate sternness. He stooped and kissed her, and she sat as if folded in wings.
It was in the natural order of things that, on the way back to the house, their talk should have turned to the future.
Anna was not eager to define it. She had an extraordinary sensitiveness to the impalpable elements of happiness, and as she walked at Darrow's side her imagination flew back and forth, spinning luminous webs of feeling between herself and the scene about her. Every heightening of emotion produced for her a new effusion of beauty in visible things, and with it the sense that such moments should be lingered over and absorbed like some unrenewable miracle. She understood Darrow's impatience to see their plans take shape. She knew it must be so, she would not have had it otherwise; but to reach a point where she could fix her mind on his appeal for dates and decisions was like trying to break her way through the silver tangle of an April wood.
Darrow wished to use his diplomatic opportunities as a means of studying certain economic and social problems with which he presently hoped to deal in print; and with this in view he had asked for, and obtained, a South American appointment. Anna was ready to follow where he led, and not reluctant to put new sights as well as new thoughts between herself and her past. She had, in a direct way, only Effie and Effie's education to consider; and there seemed, after due reflection, no reason why the most anxious regard for these should not be conciliated with the demands of Darrow's career. Effie, it was evident, could be left to Madame de Chantelle's care till the couple should have organized their life; and she might even, as long as her future step-father's work retained him in distant posts, continue to divide her year between Givre and the antipodes.
As for Owen, who had reached his legal majority two years before, and was soon to attain the age fixed for the taking over of his paternal inheritance, the arrival of this date would reduce his step-mother's responsibility to a friendly concern for his welfare. This made for the prompt realization of Darrow's wishes, and there seemed no reason why the marriage should not take place within the six weeks that remained of his leave.
They passed out of the wood-walk into the open brightness of the garden. The noon sunlight sheeted with gold the bronze flanks of the polygonal yews. Chrysanthemums, russet, saffron and orange, glowed like the efflorescence of an enchanted forest; belts of red begonia purpling to wine-colour ran like smouldering flame among the borders; and above this outspread tapestry the house extended its harmonious length, the soberness of its lines softened to grace in the luminous misty air.
Darrow stood still, and Anna felt that his glance was travelling from her to the scene about them and then back to her face.
"You're sure you're prepared to give up Givre? You look so made for each other!"
"Oh, Givre——" She broke off suddenly, feeling as if her too careless tone had delivered all her past into his hands; and with one of her instinctive movements of recoil she added: "When Owen marries I shall have to give it up."
"When Owen marries? That's looking some distance ahead! I want to be told that meanwhile you'll have no regrets."
She hesitated. Why did he press her to uncover to him her poor starved past? A vague feeling of loyalty, a desire to spare what could no longer harm her, made her answer evasively: "There will probably be no 'meanwhile.' Owen may marry before long."
She had not meant to touch on the subject, for her step-son had sworn her to provisional secrecy; but since the shortness of Darrow's leave necessitated a prompt adjustment of their own plans, it was, after all, inevitable that she should give him at least a hint of Owen's.
"Owen marry? Why, he always seems like a faun in flannels! I hope he's found a dryad. There might easily be one left in these blue-and-gold woods."
"I can't tell you yet where he found his dryad, but she IS one, I believe: at any rate she'll become the Givre woods better than I do. Only there may be difficulties——"
"Well! At that age they're not always to be wished away."
She hesitated. "Owen, at any rate, has made up his mind to overcome them; and I've promised to see him through."
She went on, after a moment's consideration, to explain that her step-son's choice was, for various reasons, not likely to commend itself to his grandmother. "She must be prepared for it, and I've promised to do the preparing. You know I always HAVE seen him through things, and he rather counts on me now."
She fancied that Darrow's exclamation had in it a faint note of annoyance, and wondered if he again suspected her of seeking a pretext for postponement.