"But once Owen's future is settled, you won't, surely, for the sake of what you call seeing him through, ask that I should go away again without you?" He drew her closer as they walked. "Owen will understand, if you don't. Since he's in the same case himself I'll throw myself on his mercy. He'll see that I have the first claim on you; he won't even want you not to see it."
"Owen sees everything: I'm not afraid of that. But his future isn't settled. He's very young to marry—too young, his grandmother is sure to think—and the marriage he wants to make is not likely to convince her to the contrary."
"You don't mean that it's like his first choice?"
"Oh, no! But it's not what Madame de Chantelle would call a good match; it's not even what I call a wise one."
"Yet you're backing him up?"
"Yet I'm backing him up." She paused. "I wonder if you'll understand? What I've most wanted for him, and shall want for Effie, is that they shall always feel free to make their own mistakes, and never, if possible, be persuaded to make other people's. Even if Owen's marriage is a mistake, and has to be paid for, I believe he'll learn and grow in the paying. Of course I can't make Madame de Chantelle see this; but I can remind her that, with his character—his big rushes of impulse, his odd intervals of ebb and apathy—she may drive him into some worse blunder if she thwarts him now."
"And you mean to break the news to her as soon as she comes back from Ouchy?"
"As soon as I see my way to it. She knows the girl and likes her: that's our hope. And yet it may, in the end, prove our danger, make it harder for us all, when she learns the truth, than if Owen had chosen a stranger. I can't tell you more till I've told her: I've promised Owen not to tell any one. All I ask you is to give me time, to give me a few days at any rate She's been wonderfully 'nice,' as she would call it, about you, and about the fact of my having soon to leave Givre; but that, again, may make it harder for Owen. At any rate, you can see, can't you, how it makes me want to stand by him? You see, I couldn't bear it if the least fraction of my happiness seemed to be stolen from his—as if it were a little scrap of happiness that had to be pieced out with other people's!" She clasped her hands on Darrow's arm. "I want our life to be like a house with all the windows lit: I'd like to string lanterns from the roof and chimneys!"
She ended with an inward tremor. All through her exposition and her appeal she had told herself that the moment could hardly have been less well chosen. In Darrow's place she would have felt, as he doubtless did, that her carefully developed argument was only the disguise of an habitual indecision. It was the hour of all others when she would have liked to affirm herself by brushing aside every obstacle to his wishes; yet it was only by opposing them that she could show the strength of character she wanted him to feel in her.
But as she talked she began to see that Darrow's face gave back no reflection of her words, that he continued to wear the abstracted look of a man who is not listening to what is said to him. It caused her a slight pang to discover that his thoughts could wander at such a moment; then, with a flush of joy she perceived the reason.
In some undefinable way she had become aware, without turning her head, that he was steeped in the sense of her nearness, absorbed in contemplating the details of her face and dress; and the discovery made the words throng to her lips. She felt herself speak with ease, authority, conviction. She said to herself: "He doesn't care what I say—it's enough that I say it—even if it's stupid he'll like me better for it..." She knew that every inflexion of her voice, every gesture, every characteristic of her person—its very defects, the fact that her forehead was too high, that her eyes were not large enough, that her hands, though slender, were not small, and that the fingers did not taper—she knew that these deficiencies were so many channels through which her influence streamed to him; that she pleased him in spite of them, perhaps because of them; that he wanted her as she was, and not as she would have liked to be; and for the first time she felt in her veins the security and lightness of happy love.
They reached the court and walked under the limes toward the house. The hall door stood wide, and through the windows opening on the terrace the sun slanted across the black and white floor, the faded tapestry chairs, and Darrow's travelling coat and cap, which lay among the cloaks and rugs piled on a bench against the wall.
The sight of these garments, lying among her own wraps, gave her a sense of homely intimacy. It was as if her happiness came down from the skies and took on the plain dress of daily things. At last she seemed to hold it in her hand.
As they entered the hall her eye lit on an unstamped note conspicuously placed on the table.
"From Owen! He must have rushed off somewhere in the motor."
She felt a secret stir of pleasure at the immediate inference that she and Darrow would probably lunch alone. Then she opened the note and stared at it in wonder.
"Dear," Owen wrote, "after what you said yesterday I can't wait another hour, and I'm off to Francheuil, to catch the Dijon express and travel back with them. Don't be frightened; I won't speak unless it's safe to. Trust me for that—but I had to go."
She looked up slowly.
"He's gone to Dijon to meet his grandmother. Oh, I hope I haven't made a mistake!"
"You? Why, what have you to do with his going to Dijon?"
She hesitated. "The day before yesterday I told him, for the first time, that I meant to see him through, no matter what happened. And I'm afraid he's lost his head, and will be imprudent and spoil things. You see, I hadn't meant to say a word to him till I'd had time to prepare Madame de Chantelle."
She felt that Darrow was looking at her and reading her thoughts, and the colour flew to her face. "Yes: it was when I heard you were coming that I told him. I wanted him to feel as I felt...it seemed too unkind to make him wait!" Her hand was in his, and his arm rested for a moment on her shoulder.
"It WOULD have been too unkind to make him wait."
They moved side by side toward the stairs. Through the haze of bliss enveloping her, Owen's affairs seemed curiously unimportant and remote. Nothing really mattered but this torrent of light in her veins. She put her foot on the lowest step, saying: "It's nearly luncheon time—I must take off my hat..." and as she started up the stairs Darrow stood below in the hall and watched her. But the distance between them did not make him seem less near: it was as if his thoughts moved with her and touched her like endearing hands.
In her bedroom she shut the door and stood still, looking about her in a fit of dreamy wonder. Her feelings were unlike any she had ever known: richer, deeper, more complete. For the first time everything in her, from head to foot, seemed to be feeding the same full current of sensation.
She took off her hat and went to the dressing-table to smooth her hair. The pressure of the hat had flattened the dark strands on her forehead; her face was paler than usual, with shadows about the eyes. She felt a pang of regret for the wasted years. "If I look like this today," she said to herself, "what will he think of me when I'm ill or worried?" She began to run her fingers through her hair, rejoicing in its thickness; then she desisted and sat still, resting her chin on her hands.
"I want him to see me as I am," she thought.
Deeper than the deepest fibre of her vanity was the triumphant sense that AS SHE WAS, with her flattened hair, her tired pallor, her thin sleeves a little tumbled by the weight of her jacket, he would like her even better, feel her nearer, dearer, more desirable, than in all the splendours she might put on for him. In the light of this discovery she studied her face with a new intentness, seeing its defects as she had never seen them, yet seeing them through a kind of radiance, as though love were a luminous medium into which she had been bodily plunged.
She was glad now that she had confessed her doubts and her jealousy. She divined that a man in love may be flattered by such involuntary betrayals, that there are moments when respect for his liberty appeals to him less than the inability to respect it: moments so propitious that a woman's very mistakes and indiscretions may help to establish her dominion. The sense of power she had been aware of in talking to Darrow came back with ten-fold force. She felt like testing him by the most fantastic exactions, and at the same moment she longed to humble herself before him, to make herself the shadow and echo of his mood. She wanted to linger with him in a world of fancy and yet to walk at his side in the world of fact. She wanted him to feel her power and yet to love her for her ignorance and humility. She felt like a slave, and a goddess, and a girl in her teens...
Darrow, late that evening, threw himself into an armchair before his fire and mused.
The room was propitious to meditation. The red-veiled lamp, the corners of shadow, the splashes of firelight on the curves of old full-bodied wardrobes and cabinets, gave it an air of intimacy increased by its faded hangings, its slightly frayed and threadbare rugs. Everything in it was harmoniously shabby, with a subtle sought-for shabbiness in which Darrow fancied he discerned the touch of Fraser Leath. But Fraser Leath had grown so unimportant a factor in the scheme of things that these marks of his presence caused the young man no emotion beyond that of a faint retrospective amusement.
The afternoon and evening had been perfect.
After a moment of concern over her step-son's departure, Anna had surrendered herself to her happiness with an impetuosity that Darrow had never suspected in her. Early in the afternoon they had gone out in the motor, traversing miles of sober-tinted landscape in which, here and there, a scarlet vineyard flamed, clattering through the streets of stony villages, coming out on low slopes above the river, or winding through the pale gold of narrow wood-roads with the blue of clear-cut hills at their end. Over everything lay a faint sunshine that seemed dissolved in the still air, and the smell of wet roots and decaying leaves was merged in the pungent scent of burning underbrush. Once, at the turn of a wall, they stopped the motor before a ruined gateway and, stumbling along a road full of ruts, stood before a little old deserted house, fantastically carved and chimneyed, which lay in a moat under the shade of ancient trees. They paced the paths between the trees, found a mouldy Temple of Love on an islet among reeds and plantains, and, sitting on a bench in the stable-yard, watched the pigeons circling against the sunset over their cot of patterned brick. Then the motor flew on into the dusk...
When they came in they sat beside the fire in the oak drawing-room, and Darrow noticed how delicately her head stood out against the sombre panelling, and mused on the enjoyment there would always be in the mere fact of watching her hands as they moved about among the tea-things...
They dined late, and facing her across the table, with its low lights and flowers, he felt an extraordinary pleasure in seeing her again in evening dress, and in letting his eyes dwell on the proud shy set of her head, the way her dark hair clasped it, and the girlish thinness of her neck above the slight swell of the breast. His imagination was struck by the quality of reticence in her beauty. She suggested a fine portrait kept down to a few tones, or a Greek vase on which the play of light is the only pattern.
After dinner they went out on the terrace for a look at the moon-misted park. Through the crepuscular whiteness the trees hung in blotted masses. Below the terrace, the garden drew its dark diagrams between statues that stood like muffled conspirators on the edge of the shadow. Farther off, the meadows unrolled a silver-shot tissue to the mantling of mist above the river; and the autumn stars trembled overhead like their own reflections seen in dim water.
He lit his cigar, and they walked slowly up and down the flags in the languid air, till he put an arm about her, saying: "You mustn't stay till you're chilled"; then they went back into the room and drew up their chairs to the fire.
It seemed only a moment later that she said: "It must be after eleven," and stood up and looked down on him, smiling faintly. He sat still, absorbing the look, and thinking: "There'll be evenings and evenings"—till she came nearer, bent over him, and with a hand on his shoulder said: "Good night."
He got to his feet and put his arms about her.
"Good night," he answered, and held her fast; and they gave each other a long kiss of promise and communion.
The memory of it glowed in him still as he sat over his crumbling fire; but beneath his physical exultation he felt a certain gravity of mood. His happiness was in some sort the rallying-point of many scattered purposes. He summed it up vaguely by saying to himself that to be loved by a woman like that made "all the difference"...He was a little tired of experimenting on life; he wanted to "take a line", to follow things up, to centralize and concentrate, and produce results. Two or three more years of diplomacy—with her beside him!—and then their real life would begin: study, travel and book-making for him, and for her—well, the joy, at any rate, of getting out of an atmosphere of bric-a-brac and card-leaving into the open air of competing activities.
The desire for change had for some time been latent in him, and his meeting with Mrs. Leath the previous spring had given it a definite direction. With such a comrade to focus and stimulate his energies he felt modestly but agreeably sure of "doing something". And under this assurance was the lurking sense that he was somehow worthy of his opportunity. His life, on the whole, had been a creditable affair. Out of modest chances and middling talents he had built himself a fairly marked personality, known some exceptional people, done a number of interesting and a few rather difficult things, and found himself, at thirty-seven, possessed of an intellectual ambition sufficient to occupy the passage to a robust and energetic old age. As for the private and personal side of his life, it had come up to the current standards, and if it had dropped, now and then, below a more ideal measure, even these declines had been brief, parenthetic, incidental. In the recognized essentials he had always remained strictly within the limit of his scruples.
From this reassuring survey of his case he came back to the contemplation of its crowning felicity. His mind turned again to his first meeting with Anna Summers and took up one by one the threads of their faintly sketched romance. He dwelt with pardonable pride on the fact that fate had so early marked him for the high privilege of possessing her: it seemed to mean that they had really, in the truest sense of the ill-used phrase, been made for each other.
Deeper still than all these satisfactions was the mere elemental sense of well-being in her presence. That, after all, was what proved her to be the woman for him: the pleasure he took in the set of her head, the way her hair grew on her forehead and at the nape, her steady gaze when he spoke, the grave freedom of her gait and gestures. He recalled every detail of her face, the fine veinings of the temples, the bluish-brown shadows in her upper lids, and the way the reflections of two stars seemed to form and break up in her eyes when he held her close to him...
If he had had any doubt as to the nature of her feeling for him those dissolving stars would have allayed it. She was reserved, she was shy even, was what the shallow and effusive would call "cold". She was like a picture so hung that it can be seen only at a certain angle: an angle known to no one but its possessor. The thought flattered his sense of possessorship...He felt that the smile on his lips would have been fatuous had it had a witness. He was thinking of her look when she had questioned him about his meeting with Owen at the theatre: less of her words than of her look, and of the effort the question cost her: the reddening of her cheek, the deepening of the strained line between her brows, the way her eyes sought shelter and then turned and drew on him. Pride and passion were in the conflict—magnificent qualities in a wife! The sight almost made up for his momentary embarrassment at the rousing of a memory which had no place in his present picture of himself.
Yes! It was worth a good deal to watch that fight between her instinct and her intelligence, and know one's self the object of the struggle...
Mingled with these sensations were considerations of another order. He reflected with satisfaction that she was the kind of woman with whom one would like to be seen in public. It would be distinctly agreeable to follow her into drawing-rooms, to walk after her down the aisle of a theatre, to get in and out of trains with her, to say "my wife" of her to all sorts of people. He draped these details in the handsome phrase "She's a woman to be proud of", and felt that this fact somehow justified and ennobled his instinctive boyish satisfaction in loving her.
He stood up, rambled across the room and leaned out for a while into the starry night. Then he dropped again into his armchair with a sigh of deep content.
"Oh, hang it," he suddenly exclaimed, "it's the best thing that's ever happened to me, anyhow!"
The next day was even better. He felt, and knew she felt, that they had reached a clearer understanding of each other. It was as if, after a swim through bright opposing waves, with a dazzle of sun in their eyes, they had gained an inlet in the shades of a cliff, where they could float on the still surface and gaze far down into the depths.
Now and then, as they walked and talked, he felt a thrill of youthful wonder at the coincidence of their views and their experiences, at the way their minds leapt to the same point in the same instant.
"The old delusion, I suppose," he smiled to himself. "Will Nature never tire of the trick?"
But he knew it was more than that. There were moments in their talk when he felt, distinctly and unmistakably, the solid ground of friendship underneath the whirling dance of his sensations. "How I should like her if I didn't love her!" he summed it up, wondering at the miracle of such a union.
In the course of the morning a telegram had come from Owen Leath, announcing that he, his grandmother and Effie would arrive from Dijon that afternoon at four. The station of the main line was eight or ten miles from Givre, and Anna, soon after three, left in the motor to meet the travellers.
When she had gone Darrow started for a walk, planning to get back late, in order that the reunited family might have the end of the afternoon to themselves. He roamed the country-side till long after dark, and the stable-clock of Givre was striking seven as he walked up the avenue to the court.
In the hall, coming down the stairs, he encountered Anna. Her face was serene, and his first glance showed him that Owen had kept his word and that none of her forebodings had been fulfilled.
She had just come down from the school-room, where Effie and the governess were having supper; the little girl, she told him, looked immensely better for her Swiss holiday, but was dropping with sleep after the journey, and too tired to make her habitual appearance in the drawing-room before being put to bed. Madame de Chantelle was resting, but would be down for dinner; and as for Owen, Anna supposed he was off somewhere in the park—he had a passion for prowling about the park at nightfall...
Darrow followed her into the brown room, where the tea-table had been left for him. He declined her offer of tea, but she lingered a moment to tell him that Owen had in fact kept his word, and that Madame de Chantelle had come back in the best of humours, and unsuspicious of the blow about to fall.
"She has enjoyed her month at Ouchy, and it has given her a lot to talk about—her symptoms, and the rival doctors, and the people at the hotel. It seems she met your Ambassadress there, and Lady Wantley, and some other London friends of yours, and she's heard what she calls 'delightful things' about you: she told me to tell you so. She attaches great importance to the fact that your grandmother was an Everard of Albany. She's prepared to open her arms to you. I don't know whether it won't make it harder for poor Owen...the contrast, I mean...There are no Ambassadresses or Everards to vouch for HIS choice! But you'll help me, won't you? You'll help me to help him? To-morrow I'll tell you the rest. Now I must rush up and tuck in Effie..."
"Oh, you'll see, we'll pull it off for him!" he assured her; "together, we can't fail to pull it off."
He stood and watched her with a smile as she fled down the half-lit vista to the hall.
If Darrow, on entering the drawing-room before dinner, examined its new occupant with unusual interest, it was more on Owen Leath's account than his own.
Anna's hints had roused his interest in the lad's love affair, and he wondered what manner of girl the heroine of the coming conflict might be. He had guessed that Owen's rebellion symbolized for his step-mother her own long struggle against the Leath conventions, and he understood that if Anna so passionately abetted him it was partly because, as she owned, she wanted his liberation to coincide with hers.
The lady who was to represent, in the impending struggle, the forces of order and tradition was seated by the fire when Darrow entered. Among the flowers and old furniture of the large pale-panelled room, Madame de Chantelle had the inanimate elegance of a figure introduced into a "still-life" to give the scale. And this, Darrow reflected, was exactly what she doubtless regarded as her chief obligation: he was sure she thought a great deal of "measure", and approved of most things only up to a certain point. She was a woman of sixty, with a figure at once young and old-fashioned. Her fair faded tints, her quaint corseting, the passementerie on her tight-waisted dress, the velvet band on her tapering arm, made her resemble a "carte de visite" photograph of the middle sixties. One saw her, younger but no less invincibly lady-like, leaning on a chair with a fringed back, a curl in her neck, a locket on her tuckered bosom, toward the end of an embossed morocco album beginning with The Beauties of the Second Empire.
She received her daughter-in-law's suitor with an affability which implied her knowledge and approval of his suit. Darrow had already guessed her to be a person who would instinctively oppose any suggested changes, and then, after one had exhausted one's main arguments, unexpectedly yield to some small incidental reason, and adhere doggedly to her new position. She boasted of her old-fashioned prejudices, talked a good deal of being a grandmother, and made a show of reaching up to tap Owen's shoulder, though his height was little more than hers.
She was full of a small pale prattle about the people she had seen at Ouchy, as to whom she had the minute statistical information of a gazetteer, without any apparent sense of personal differences. She said to Darrow: "They tell me things are very much changed in America...Of course in my youth there WAS a Society"...She had no desire to return there she was sure the standards must be so different. "There are charming people everywhere...and one must always look on the best side...but when one has lived among Traditions it's difficult to adapt one's self to the new ideas...These dreadful views of marriage...it's so hard to explain them to my French relations...I'm thankful to say I don't pretend to understand them myself! But YOU'RE an Everard—I told Anna last spring in London that one sees that instantly"...
She wandered off to the cooking and the service of the hotel at Ouchy. She attached great importance to gastronomic details and to the manners of hotel servants. There, too, there was a falling off, she said. "I don t know, of course; but people say it's owing to the Americans. Certainly my waiter had a way of slapping down the dishes...they tell me that many of them are Anarchists...belong to Unions, you know." She appealed to Darrow's reported knowledge of economic conditions to confirm this ominous rumour.
After dinner Owen Leath wandered into the next room, where the piano stood, and began to play among the shadows. His step-mother presently joined him, and Darrow sat alone with Madame de Chantelle.
She took up the thread of her mild chat and carried it on at the same pace as her knitting. Her conversation resembled the large loose-stranded web between her fingers: now and then she dropped a stitch, and went on regardless of the gap in the pattern.
Darrow listened with a lazy sense of well-being. In the mental lull of the after-dinner hour, with harmonious memories murmuring through his mind, and the soft tints and shadowy spaces of the fine old room charming his eyes to indolence, Madame de Chantelle's discourse seemed not out of place. He could understand that, in the long run, the atmosphere of Givre might be suffocating; but in his present mood its very limitations had a grace.
Presently he found the chance to say a word in his own behalf; and thereupon measured the advantage, never before particularly apparent to him, of being related to the Everards of Albany. Madame de Chantelle's conception of her native country—to which she had not returned since her twentieth year—reminded him of an ancient geographer's map of the Hyperborean regions. It was all a foggy blank, from which only one or two fixed outlines emerged; and one of these belonged to the Everards of Albany.
The fact that they offered such firm footing—formed, so to speak, a friendly territory on which the opposing powers could meet and treat—helped him through the task of explaining and justifying himself as the successor of Fraser Leath. Madame de Chantelle could not resist such incontestable claims. She seemed to feel her son's hovering and discriminating presence, and she gave Darrow the sense that he was being tested and approved as a last addition to the Leath Collection.
She also made him aware of the immense advantage he possessed in belonging to the diplomatic profession. She spoke of this humdrum calling as a Career, and gave Darrow to understand that she supposed him to have been seducing Duchesses when he was not negotiating Treaties. He heard again quaint phrases which romantic old ladies had used in his youth: "Brilliant diplomatic society...social advantages...the entree everywhere...nothing else FORMS a young man in the same way..." and she sighingly added that she could have wished her grandson had chosen the same path to glory.
Darrow prudently suppressed his own view of the profession, as well as the fact that he had adopted it provisionally, and for reasons less social than sociological; and the talk presently passed on to the subject of his future plans.
Here again, Madame de Chantelle's awe of the Career made her admit the necessity of Anna's consenting to an early marriage. The fact that Darrow was "ordered" to South America seemed to put him in the romantic light of a young soldier charged to lead a forlorn hope: she sighed and said: "At such moments a wife's duty is at her husband's side."
The problem of Effie's future might have disturbed her, she added; but since Anna, for a time, consented to leave the little girl with her, that problem was at any rate deferred. She spoke plaintively of the responsibility of looking after her granddaughter, but Darrow divined that she enjoyed the flavour of the word more than she felt the weight of the fact.
"Effie's a perfect child. She's more like my son, perhaps, than dear Owen. She'll never intentionally give me the least trouble. But of course the responsibility will be great...I'm not sure I should dare to undertake it if it were not for her having such a treasure of a governess. Has Anna told you about our little governess? After all the worry we had last year, with one impossible creature after another, it seems providential, just now, to have found her. At first we were afraid she was too young; but now we've the greatest confidence in her. So clever and amusing—and SUCH a lady! I don't say her education's all it might be...no drawing or singing...but one can't have everything; and she speaks Italian..."
Madame de Chantelle's fond insistence on the likeness between Effie Leath and her father, if not particularly gratifying to Darrow, had at least increased his desire to see the little girl. It gave him an odd feeling of discomfort to think that she should have any of the characteristics of the late Fraser Leath: he had, somehow, fantastically pictured her as the mystical offspring of the early tenderness between himself and Anna Summers.
His encounter with Effie took place the next morning, on the lawn below the terrace, where he found her, in the early sunshine, knocking about golf balls with her brother. Almost at once, and with infinite relief, he saw that the resemblance of which Madame de Chantelle boasted was mainly external. Even that discovery was slightly distasteful, though Darrow was forced to own that Fraser Leath's straight-featured fairness had lent itself to the production of a peculiarly finished image of childish purity. But it was evident that other elements had also gone to the making of Effie, and that another spirit sat in her eyes. Her serious handshake, her "pretty" greeting, were worthy of the Leath tradition, and he guessed her to be more malleable than Owen, more subject to the influences of Givre; but the shout with which she returned to her romp had in it the note of her mother's emancipation.
He had begged a holiday for her, and when Mrs. Leath appeared he and she and the little girl went off for a ramble. Anna wished her daughter to have time to make friends with Darrow before learning in what relation he was to stand to her; and the three roamed the woods and fields till the distant chime of the stable-clock made them turn back for luncheon.
Effie, who was attended by a shaggy terrier, had picked up two or three subordinate dogs at the stable; and as she trotted on ahead with her yapping escort, Anna hung back to throw a look at Darrow.
"Yes," he answered it, "she's exquisite...Oh, I see what I'm asking of you! But she'll be quite happy here, won't she? And you must remember it won't be for long..."
Anna sighed her acquiescence. "Oh, she'll be happy here. It's her nature to be happy. She'll apply herself to it, conscientiously, as she does to her lessons, and to what she calls 'being good'...In a way, you see, that's just what worries me. Her idea of 'being good' is to please the person she's with—she puts her whole dear little mind on it! And so, if ever she's with the wrong person——"
"But surely there's no danger of that just now? Madame de Chantelle tells me that you've at last put your hand on a perfect governess——"
Anna, without answering, glanced away from him toward her daughter.
"It's lucky, at any rate," Darrow continued, "that Madame de Chantelle thinks her so."
"Oh, I think very highly of her too."
"Highly enough to feel quite satisfied to leave her with Effie?"
"Yes. She's just the person for Effie. Only, of course, one never knows...She's young, and she might take it into her head to leave us..." After a pause she added: "I'm naturally anxious to know what you think of her."
When they entered the house the hands of the hall clock stood within a few minutes of the luncheon hour. Anna led Effie off to have her hair smoothed and Darrow wandered into the oak sitting-room, which he found untenanted. The sun lay pleasantly on its brown walls, on the scattered books and the flowers in old porcelain vases. In his eyes lingered the vision of the dark-haired mother mounting the stairs with her little fair daughter. The contrast between them seemed a last touch of grace in the complex harmony of things. He stood in the window, looking out at the park, and brooding inwardly upon his happiness...
He was roused by Effie's voice and the scamper of her feet down the long floors behind him.
"Here he is! Here he is!" she cried, flying over the threshold.
He turned and stooped to her with a smile, and as she caught his hand he perceived that she was trying to draw him toward some one who had paused behind her in the doorway, and whom he supposed to be her mother.
"HERE he is!" Effie repeated, with her sweet impatience.
The figure in the doorway came forward and Darrow, looking up, found himself face to face with Sophy Viner. They stood still, a yard or two apart, and looked at each other without speaking.
As they paused there, a shadow fell across one of the terrace windows, and Owen Leath stepped whistling into the room. In his rough shooting clothes, with the glow of exercise under his fair skin, he looked extraordinarily light-hearted and happy. Darrow, with a quick side-glance, noticed this, and perceived also that the glow on the youth's cheek had deepened suddenly to red. He too stopped short, and the three stood there motionless for a barely perceptible beat of time. During its lapse, Darrow's eyes had turned back from Owen's face to that of the girl between them. He had the sense that, whatever was done, it was he who must do it, and that it must be done immediately. He went forward and held out his hand.
"How do you do, Miss Viner?"
She answered: "How do you do?" in a voice that sounded clear and natural; and the next moment he again became aware of steps behind him, and knew that Mrs. Leath was in the room.
To his strained senses there seemed to be another just measurable pause before Anna said, looking gaily about the little group: "Has Owen introduced you? This is Effie's friend, Miss Viner."
Effie, still hanging on her governess's arm, pressed herself closer with a little gesture of appropriation; and Miss Viner laid her hand on her pupil's hair.
Darrow felt that Anna's eyes had turned to him.
"I think Miss Viner and I have met already—several years ago in London."
"I remember," said Sophy Viner, in the same clear voice.
"How charming! Then we're all friends. But luncheon must be ready," said Mrs. Leath.
She turned back to the door, and the little procession moved down the two long drawing-rooms, with Effie waltzing on ahead.
Madame de Chantelle and Anna had planned, for the afternoon, a visit to a remotely situated acquaintance whom the introduction of the motor had transformed into a neighbour. Effie was to pay for her morning's holiday by an hour or two in the school-room, and Owen suggested that he and Darrow should betake themselves to a distant covert in the desultory quest for pheasants.
Darrow was not an ardent sportsman, but any pretext for physical activity would have been acceptable at the moment; and he was glad both to get away from the house and not to be left to himself.
When he came downstairs the motor was at the door, and Anna stood before the hall mirror, swathing her hat in veils. She turned at the sound of his step and smiled at him for a long full moment.
"I'd no idea you knew Miss Viner," she said, as he helped her into her long coat.
"It came back to me, luckily, that I'd seen her two or three times in London, several years ago. She was secretary, or something of the sort, in the background of a house where I used to dine."
He loathed the slighting indifference of the phrase, but he had uttered it deliberately, had been secretly practising it all through the interminable hour at the luncheon-table. Now that it was spoken, he shivered at its note of condescension. In such cases one was almost sure to overdo...But Anna seemed to notice nothing unusual.
"Was she really? You must tell me all about it—tell me exactly how she struck you. I'm so glad it turns out that you know her."
"'Know' is rather exaggerated: we used to pass each other on the stairs."
Madame de Chantelle and Owen appeared together as he spoke, and Anna, gathering up her wraps, said: "You'll tell me about that, then. Try and remember everything you can."
As he tramped through the woods at his young host's side, Darrow felt the partial relief from thought produced by exercise and the obligation to talk. Little as he cared for shooting, he had the habit of concentration which makes it natural for a man to throw himself wholly into whatever business he has in hand, and there were moments of the afternoon when a sudden whirr in the undergrowth, a vivider gleam against the hazy browns and greys of the woods, was enough to fill the foreground of his attention. But all the while, behind these voluntarily emphasized sensations, his secret consciousness continued to revolve on a loud wheel of thought. For a time it seemed to be sweeping him through deep gulfs of darkness. His sensations were too swift and swarming to be disentangled. He had an almost physical sense of struggling for air, of battling helplessly with material obstructions, as though the russet covert through which he trudged were the heart of a maleficent jungle...
Snatches of his companion's talk drifted to him intermittently through the confusion of his thoughts. He caught eager self-revealing phrases, and understood that Owen was saying things about himself, perhaps hinting indirectly at the hopes for which Darrow had been prepared by Anna's confidences. He had already become aware that the lad liked him, and had meant to take the first opportunity of showing that he reciprocated the feeling. But the effort of fixing his attention on Owen's words was so great that it left no power for more than the briefest and most inexpressive replies.
Young Leath, it appeared, felt that he had reached a turning-point in his career, a height from which he could impartially survey his past progress and projected endeavour. At one time he had had musical and literary yearnings, visions of desultory artistic indulgence; but these had of late been superseded by the resolute determination to plunge into practical life.
"I don't want, you see," Darrow heard him explaining, "to drift into what my grandmother, poor dear, is trying to make of me: an adjunct of Givre. I don't want—hang it all!—to slip into collecting sensations as my father collected snuff-boxes. I want Effie to have Givre—it's my grandmother's, you know, to do as she likes with; and I've understood lately that if it belonged to me it would gradually gobble me up. I want to get out of it, into a life that's big and ugly and struggling. If I can extract beauty out of THAT, so much the better: that'll prove my vocation. But I want to MAKE beauty, not be drowned in the ready-made, like a bee in a pot of honey."
Darrow knew that he was being appealed to for corroboration of these views and for encouragement in the course to which they pointed. To his own ears his answers sounded now curt, now irrelevant: at one moment he seemed chillingly indifferent, at another he heard himself launching out on a flood of hazy discursiveness. He dared not look at Owen, for fear of detecting the lad's surprise at these senseless transitions. And through the confusion of his inward struggles and outward loquacity he heard the ceaseless trip-hammer beat of the question: "What in God's name shall I do?"...
To get back to the house before Anna's return seemed his most pressing necessity. He did not clearly know why: he simply felt that he ought to be there. At one moment it occurred to him that Miss Viner might want to speak to him alone—and again, in the same flash, that it would probably be the last thing she would want...At any rate, he felt he ought to try to speak to HER; or at least be prepared to do so, if the chance should occur...
Finally, toward four, he told his companion that he had some letters on his mind and must get back to the house and despatch them before the ladies returned. He left Owen with the beater and walked on to the edge of the covert. At the park gates he struck obliquely through the trees, following a grass avenue at the end of which he had caught a glimpse of the roof of the chapel. A grey haze had blotted out the sun and the still air clung about him tepidly. At length the house-front raised before him its expanse of damp-silvered brick, and he was struck afresh by the high decorum of its calm lines and soberly massed surfaces. It made him feel, in the turbid coil of his fears and passions, like a muddy tramp forcing his way into some pure sequestered shrine...
By and bye, he knew, he should have to think the complex horror out, slowly, systematically, bit by bit; but for the moment it was whirling him about so fast that he could just clutch at its sharp spikes and be tossed off again. Only one definite immediate fact stuck in his quivering grasp. He must give the girl every chance—must hold himself passive till she had taken them...
In the court Effie ran up to him with her leaping terrier.
"I was coming out to meet you—you and Owen. Miss Viner was coming, too, and then she couldn't because she's got such a headache. I'm afraid I gave it to her because I did my division so disgracefully. It's too bad, isn't it? But won't you walk back with me? Nurse won't mind the least bit; she'd so much rather go in to tea."
Darrow excused himself laughingly, on the plea that he had letters to write, which was much worse than having a headache, and not infrequently resulted in one.
"Oh, then you can go and write them in Owen's study. That's where gentlemen always write their letters."
She flew on with her dog and Darrow pursued his way to the house. Effie's suggestion struck him as useful. He had pictured himself as vaguely drifting about the drawing-rooms, and had perceived the difficulty of Miss Viner's having to seek him there; but the study, a small room on the right of the hall, was in easy sight from the staircase, and so situated that there would be nothing marked in his being found there in talk with her.
He went in, leaving the door open, and sat down at the writing-table. The room was a friendly heterogeneous place, the one repository, in the well-ordered and amply-servanted house, of all its unclassified odds and ends: Effie's croquet-box and fishing rods, Owen's guns and golf-sticks and racquets, his step-mother's flower-baskets and gardening implements, even Madame de Chantelle's embroidery frame, and the back numbers of the Catholic Weekly. The early twilight had begun to fall, and presently a slanting ray across the desk showed Darrow that a servant was coming across the hall with a lamp. He pulled out a sheet of note-paper and began to write at random, while the man, entering, put the lamp at his elbow and vaguely "straightened" the heap of newspapers tossed on the divan. Then his steps died away and Darrow sat leaning his head on his locked hands.
Presently another step sounded on the stairs, wavered a moment and then moved past the threshold of the study. Darrow got up and walked into the hall, which was still unlighted. In the dimness he saw Sophy Viner standing by the hall door in her hat and jacket. She stopped at sight of him, her hand on the door-bolt, and they stood for a second without speaking.
"Have you seen Effie?" she suddenly asked. "She went out to meet you."
"She DID meet me, just now, in the court. She's gone on to join her brother."
Darrow spoke as naturally as he could, but his voice sounded to his own ears like an amateur actor's in a "light" part.
Miss Viner, without answering, drew back the bolt. He watched her in silence as the door swung open; then he said: "She has her nurse with her. She won't be long."
She stood irresolute, and he added: "I was writing in there—won't you come and have a little talk? Every one's out."
The last words struck him as not well-chosen, but there was no time to choose. She paused a second longer and then crossed the threshold of the study. At luncheon she had sat with her back to the window, and beyond noting that she had grown a little thinner, and had less colour and vivacity, he had seen no change in her; but now, as the lamplight fell on her face, its whiteness startled him.
"Poor thing...poor thing...what in heaven's name can she suppose?" he wondered.
"Do sit down—I want to talk to you," he said and pushed a chair toward her.
She did not seem to see it, or, if she did, she deliberately chose another seat. He came back to his own chair and leaned his elbows on the blotter. She faced him from the farther side of the table.
"You promised to let me hear from you now and then," he began awkwardly, and with a sharp sense of his awkwardness.
A faint smile made her face more tragic. "Did I? There was nothing to tell. I've had no history—like the happy countries..."
He waited a moment before asking: "You ARE happy here?"
"I WAS," she said with a faint emphasis.
"Why do you say 'was'? You're surely not thinking of going? There can't be kinder people anywhere." Darrow hardly knew what he was saying; but her answer came to him with deadly definiteness.
"I suppose it depends on you whether I go or stay."
"On me?" He stared at her across Owen's scattered papers. "Good God! What can you think of me, to say that?"
The mockery of the question flashed back at him from her wretched face. She stood up, wandered away, and leaned an instant in the darkening window-frame. From there she turned to fling back at him: "Don't imagine I'm the least bit sorry for anything!"
He steadied his elbows on the table and hid his face in his hands. It was harder, oh, damnably harder, than he had expected! Arguments, expedients, palliations, evasions, all seemed to be slipping away from him: he was left face to face with the mere graceless fact of his inferiority. He lifted his head to ask at random: "You've been here, then, ever since?"
"Since June; yes. It turned out that the Farlows were hunting for me—all the while—for this."
She stood facing him, her back to the window, evidently impatient to be gone, yet with something still to say, or that she expected to hear him say. The sense of her expectancy benumbed him. What in heaven's name could he say to her that was not an offense or a mockery?
"Your idea of the theatre—you gave that up at once, then?"
"Oh, the theatre!" She gave a little laugh. "I couldn't wait for the theatre. I had to take the first thing that offered; I took this."
He pushed on haltingly: "I'm glad—extremely glad—you're happy here...I'd counted on your letting me know if there was anything I could do...The theatre, now—if you still regret it—if you're not contented here...I know people in that line in London—I'm certain I can manage it for you when I get back——"
She moved up to the table and leaned over it to ask, in a voice that was hardly above a whisper: "Then you DO want me to leave? Is that it?"
He dropped his arms with a groan. "Good heavens! How can you think such things? At the time, you know, I begged you to let me do what I could, but you wouldn't hear of it...and ever since I've been wanting to be of use—to do something, anything, to help you..."
She heard him through, motionless, without a quiver of the clasped hands she rested on the edge of the table.
"If you want to help me, then—you can help me to stay here," she brought out with low-toned intensity.
Through the stillness of the pause which followed, the bray of a motor-horn sounded far down the drive. Instantly she turned, with a last white look at him, and fled from the room and up the stairs. He stood motionless, benumbed by the shock of her last words. She was afraid, then—afraid of him—sick with fear of him! The discovery beat him down to a lower depth...
The motor-horn sounded again, close at hand, and he turned and went up to his room. His letter-writing was a sufficient pretext for not immediately joining the party about the tea-table, and he wanted to be alone and try to put a little order into his tumultuous thinking.
Upstairs, the room held out the intimate welcome of its lamp and fire. Everything in it exhaled the same sense of peace and stability which, two evenings before, had lulled him to complacent meditation. His armchair again invited him from the hearth, but he was too agitated to sit still, and with sunk head and hands clasped behind his back he began to wander up and down the room.
His five minutes with Sophy Viner had flashed strange lights into the shadowy corners of his consciousness. The girl's absolute candour, her hard ardent honesty, was for the moment the vividest point in his thoughts. He wondered anew, as he had wondered before, at the way in which the harsh discipline of life had stripped her of false sentiment without laying the least touch on her pride. When they had parted, five months before, she had quietly but decidedly rejected all his offers of help, even to the suggestion of his trying to further her theatrical aims: she had made it clear that she wished their brief alliance to leave no trace on their lives save that of its own smiling memory. But now that they were unexpectedly confronted in a situation which seemed, to her terrified fancy, to put her at his mercy, her first impulse was to defend her right to the place she had won, and to learn as quickly as possible if he meant to dispute it. While he had pictured her as shrinking away from him in a tremor of self-effacement she had watched his movements, made sure of her opportunity, and come straight down to "have it out" with him. He was so struck by the frankness and energy of the proceeding that for a moment he lost sight of the view of his own character implied in it.
"Poor thing...poor thing!" he could only go on saying; and with the repetition of the words the picture of himself as she must see him pitiably took shape again.
He understood then, for the first time, how vague, in comparison with hers, had been his own vision of the part he had played in the brief episode of their relation. The incident had left in him a sense of exasperation and self-contempt, but that, as he now perceived, was chiefly, if not altogether, as it bore on his preconceived ideal of his attitude toward another woman. He had fallen below his own standard of sentimental loyalty, and if he thought of Sophy Viner it was mainly as the chance instrument of his lapse. These considerations were not agreeable to his pride, but they were forced on him by the example of her valiant common-sense. If he had cut a sorry figure in the business, he owed it to her not to close his eyes to the fact any longer...
But when he opened them, what did he see? The situation, detestable at best, would yet have been relatively simple if protecting Sophy Viner had been the only duty involved in it. The fact that that duty was paramount did not do away with the contingent obligations. It was Darrow's instinct, in difficult moments, to go straight to the bottom of the difficulty; but he had never before had to take so dark a dive as this, and for the minute he shivered on the brink...Well, his first duty, at any rate, was to the girl: he must let her see that he meant to fulfill it to the last jot, and then try to find out how to square the fulfillment with the other problems already in his path...
In the oak room he found Mrs. Leath, her mother-in-law and Effie. The group, as he came toward it down the long drawing-rooms, composed itself prettily about the tea-table. The lamps and the fire crossed their gleams on silver and porcelain, on the bright haze of Effie's hair and on the whiteness of Anna's forehead, as she leaned back in her chair behind the tea-urn.
She did not move at Darrow's approach, but lifted to him a deep gaze of peace and confidence. The look seemed to throw about him the spell of a divine security: he felt the joy of a convalescent suddenly waking to find the sunlight on his face.
Madame de Chantelle, across her knitting, discoursed of their afternoon's excursion, with occasional pauses induced by the hypnotic effect of the fresh air; and Effie, kneeling, on the hearth, softly but insistently sought to implant in her terrier's mind some notion of the relation between a vertical attitude and sugar.
Darrow took a chair behind the little girl, so that he might look across at her mother. It was almost a necessity for him, at the moment, to let his eyes rest on Anna's face, and to meet, now and then, the proud shyness of her gaze.
Madame de Chantelle presently enquired what had become of Owen, and a moment later the window behind her opened, and her grandson, gun in hand, came in from the terrace. As he stood there in the lamp-light, with dead leaves and bits of bramble clinging to his mud-spattered clothes, the scent of the night about him and its chill on his pale bright face, he really had the look of a young faun strayed in from the forest.
Effie abandoned the terrier to fly to him. "Oh, Owen, where in the world have you been? I walked miles and miles with Nurse and couldn't find you, and we met Jean and he said he didn't know where you'd gone."
"Nobody knows where I go, or what I see when I get there—that's the beauty of it!" he laughed back at her. "But if you're good," he added, "I'll tell you about it one of these days."
"Oh, now, Owen, now! I don't really believe I'll ever be much better than I am now."
"Let Owen have his tea first," her mother suggested; but the young man, declining the offer, propped his gun against the wall, and, lighting a cigarette, began to pace up and down the room in a way that reminded Darrow of his own caged wanderings. Effie pursued him with her blandishments, and for a while he poured out to her a low-voiced stream of nonsense; then he sat down beside his step-mother and leaned over to help himself to tea.
"Where's Miss Viner?" he asked, as Effie climbed up on him. "Why isn't she here to chain up this ungovernable infant?"
"Poor Miss Viner has a headache. Effie says she went to her room as soon as lessons were over, and sent word that she wouldn't be down for tea."
"Ah," said Owen, abruptly setting down his cup. He stood up, lit another cigarette, and wandered away to the piano in the room beyond.
From the twilight where he sat a lonely music, borne on fantastic chords, floated to the group about the tea-table. Under its influence Madame de Chantelle's meditative pauses increased in length and frequency, and Effie stretched herself on the hearth, her drowsy head against the dog. Presently her nurse appeared, and Anna rose at the same time. "Stop a minute in my sitting-room on your way up," she paused to say to Darrow as she went.
A few hours earlier, her request would have brought him instantly to his feet. She had given him, on the day of his arrival, an inviting glimpse of the spacious book-lined room above stairs in which she had gathered together all the tokens of her personal tastes: the retreat in which, as one might fancy, Anna Leath had hidden the restless ghost of Anna Summers; and the thought of a talk with her there had been in his mind ever since. But now he sat motionless, as if spell-bound by the play of Madame de Chantelle's needles and the pulsations of Owen's fitful music.
"She will want to ask me about the girl," he repeated to himself, with a fresh sense of the insidious taint that embittered all his thoughts; the hand of the slender-columned clock on the mantel-piece had spanned a half-hour before shame at his own indecision finally drew him to his feet.
From her writing-table, where she sat over a pile of letters, Anna lifted her happy smile. The impulse to press his lips to it made him come close and draw her upward. She threw her head back, as if surprised at the abruptness of the gesture; then her face leaned to his with the slow droop of a flower. He felt again the sweep of the secret tides, and all his fears went down in them.
She sat down in the sofa-corner by the fire and he drew an armchair close to her. His gaze roamed peacefully about the quiet room.
"It's just like you—it is you," he said, as his eyes came back to her.
"It's a good place to be alone in—I don't think I've ever before cared to talk with any one here."
"Let's be quiet, then: it's the best way of talking."
"Yes; but we must save it up till later. There are things I want to say to you now."
He leaned back in his chair. "Say them, then, and I'll listen."
"Oh, no. I want you to tell me about Miss Viner."
"About Miss Viner?" He summoned up a look of faint interrogation.
He thought she seemed surprised at his surprise. "It's important, naturally," she explained, "that I should find out all I can about her before I leave."
"Important on Effie's account?"
"On Effie's account—of course."
"Of course...But you've every reason to be satisfied, haven't you?"
"Every apparent reason. We all like her. Effie's very fond of her, and she seems to have a delightful influence on the child. But we know so little, after all—about her antecedents, I mean, and her past history. That's why I want you to try and recall everything you heard about her when you used to see her in London."
"Oh, on that score I'm afraid I sha'n't be of much use. As I told you, she was a mere shadow in the background of the house I saw her in—and that was four or five years ago..."
"When she was with a Mrs. Murrett?"
"Yes; an appalling woman who runs a roaring dinner-factory that used now and then to catch me in its wheels. I escaped from them long ago; but in my time there used to be half a dozen fagged 'hands' to tend the machine, and Miss Viner was one of them. I'm glad she's out of it, poor girl!" "Then you never really saw anything of her there?"
"I never had the chance. Mrs. Murrett discouraged any competition on the part of her subordinates."
"Especially such pretty ones, I suppose?" Darrow made no comment, and she continued: "And Mrs. Murrett's own opinion—if she'd offered you one—probably wouldn't have been of much value?"
"Only in so far as her disapproval would, on general principles, have been a good mark for Miss Viner. But surely," he went on after a pause, "you could have found out about her from the people through whom you first heard of her?"
Anna smiled. "Oh, we heard of her through Adelaide Painter—;" and in reply to his glance of interrogation she explained that the lady in question was a spinster of South Braintree, Massachusetts, who, having come to Paris some thirty years earlier, to nurse a brother through an illness, had ever since protestingly and provisionally camped there in a state of contemptuous protestation oddly manifested by her never taking the slip-covers off her drawing-room chairs. Her long residence on Gallic soil had not mitigated her hostility toward the creed and customs of the race, but though she always referred to the Catholic Church as the Scarlet Woman and took the darkest views of French private life, Madame de Chantelle placed great reliance on her judgment and experience, and in every domestic crisis the irreducible Adelaide was immediately summoned to Givre.
"It's all the odder because my mother-in-law, since her second marriage, has lived so much in the country that she's practically lost sight of all her other American friends. Besides which, you can see how completely she has identified herself with Monsieur de Chantelle's nationality and adopted French habits and prejudices. Yet when anything goes wrong she always sends for Adelaide Painter, who's more American than the Stars and Stripes, and might have left South Braintree yesterday, if she hadn't, rather, brought it over with her in her trunk."
Darrow laughed. "Well, then, if South Braintree vouches for Miss Viner——"
"Oh, but only indirectly. When we had that odious adventure with Mademoiselle Grumeau, who'd been so highly recommended by Monsieur de Chantelle's aunt, the Chanoinesse, Adelaide was of course sent for, and she said at once: 'I'm not the least bit surprised. I've always told you that what you wanted for Effie was a sweet American girl, and not one of these nasty foreigners.' Unluckily she couldn't, at the moment, put her hand on a sweet American; but she presently heard of Miss Viner through the Farlows, an excellent couple who live in the Quartier Latin and write about French life for the American papers. I was only too thankful to find anyone who was vouched for by decent people; and so far I've had no cause to regret my choice. But I know, after all, very little about Miss Viner; and there are all kinds of reasons why I want, as soon as possible, to find out more—to find out all I can."
"Since you've got to leave Effie I understand your feeling in that way. But is there, in such a case, any recommendation worth half as much as your own direct experience?"
"No; and it's been so favourable that I was ready to accept it as conclusive. Only, naturally, when I found you'd known her in London I was in hopes you'd give me some more specific reasons for liking her as much as I do."
"I'm afraid I can give you nothing more specific than my general vague impression that she seems very plucky and extremely nice."
"You don't, at any rate, know anything specific to the contrary?"
"To the contrary? How should I? I'm not conscious of ever having heard any one say two words about her. I only infer that she must have pluck and character to have stuck it out so long at Mrs. Murrett's."
"Yes, poor thing! She has pluck, certainly; and pride, too; which must have made it all the harder." Anna rose to her feet. "You don't know how glad I am that your impression's on the whole so good. I particularly wanted you to like her."
He drew her to him with a smile. "On that condition I'm prepared to love even Adelaide Painter."
"I almost hope you wont have the chance to—poor Adelaide! Her appearance here always coincides with a catastrophe."
"Oh, then I must manage to meet her elsewhere." He held Anna closer, saying to himself, as he smoothed back the hair from her forehead: "What does anything matter but just THIS?—Must I go now?" he added aloud.
She answered absently: "It must be time to dress"; then she drew back a little and laid her hands on his shoulders. "My love—oh, my dear love!" she said.
It came to him that they were the first words of endearment he had heard her speak, and their rareness gave them a magic quality of reassurance, as though no danger could strike through such a shield.
A knock on the door made them draw apart. Anna lifted her hand to her hair and Darrow stooped to examine a photograph of Effie on the writing-table.
"Come in!" Anna said.
The door opened and Sophy Viner entered. Seeing Darrow, she drew back.
"Do come in, Miss Viner," Anna repeated, looking at her kindly.
The girl, a quick red in her cheeks, still hesitated on the threshold.
"I'm so sorry; but Effie has mislaid her Latin grammar, and I thought she might have left it here. I need it to prepare for tomorrow's lesson."
"Is this it?" Darrow asked, picking up a book from the table.
"Oh, thank you!"
He held it out to her and she took it and moved to the door.
"Wait a minute, please, Miss Viner," Anna said; and as the girl turned back, she went on with her quiet smile: "Effie told us you'd gone to your room with a headache. You mustn't sit up over tomorrow's lessons if you don't feel well."
Sophy's blush deepened. "But you see I have to. Latin's one of my weak points, and there's generally only one page of this book between me and Effie." She threw the words off with a half-ironic smile. "Do excuse my disturbing you," she added.
"You didn't disturb me," Anna answered. Darrow perceived that she was looking intently at the girl, as though struck by something tense and tremulous in her face, her voice, her whole mien and attitude. "You DO look tired. You'd much better go straight to bed. Effie won't be sorry to skip her Latin."
"Thank you—but I'm really all right," murmured Sophy Viner. Her glance, making a swift circuit of the room, dwelt for an appreciable instant on the intimate propinquity of arm-chair and sofa-corner; then she turned back to the door.
At dinner that evening Madame de Chantelle's slender monologue was thrown out over gulfs of silence. Owen was still in the same state of moody abstraction as when Darrow had left him at the piano; and even Anna's face, to her friend's vigilant eye, revealed not, perhaps, a personal preoccupation, but a vague sense of impending disturbance.
She smiled, she bore a part in the talk, her eyes dwelt on Darrow's with their usual deep reliance; but beneath the surface of her serenity his tense perceptions detected a hidden stir.
He was sufficiently self-possessed to tell himself that it was doubtless due to causes with which he was not directly concerned. He knew the question of Owen's marriage was soon to be raised, and the abrupt alteration in the young man's mood made it seem probable that he was himself the centre of the atmospheric disturbance, For a moment it occurred to Darrow that Anna might have employed her afternoon in preparing Madame de Chantelle for her grandson's impending announcement; but a glance at the elder lady's unclouded brow showed that he must seek elsewhere the clue to Owen's taciturnity and his step-mother's concern. Possibly Anna had found reason to change her own attitude in the matter, and had made the change known to Owen. But this, again, was negatived by the fact that, during the afternoon's shooting, young Leath had been in a mood of almost extravagant expansiveness, and that, from the moment of his late return to the house till just before dinner, there had been, to Darrow's certain knowledge, no possibility of a private talk between himself and his step-mother.
This obscured, if it narrowed, the field of conjecture; and Darrow's gropings threw him back on the conclusion that he was probably reading too much significance into the moods of a lad he hardly knew, and who had been described to him as subject to sudden changes of humour. As to Anna's fancied perturbation, it might simply be due to the fact that she had decided to plead Owen's cause the next day, and had perhaps already had a glimpse of the difficulties awaiting her. But Darrow knew that he was too deep in his own perplexities to judge the mental state of those about him. It might be, after all, that the variations he felt in the currents of communication were caused by his own inward tremor.
Such, at any rate, was the conclusion he had reached when, shortly after the two ladies left the drawing-room, he bade Owen good-night and went up to his room. Ever since the rapid self-colloquy which had followed on his first sight of Sophy Viner, he had known there were other questions to be faced behind the one immediately confronting him. On the score of that one, at least, his mind, if not easy, was relieved. He had done what was possible to reassure the girl, and she had apparently recognized the sincerity of his intention. He had patched up as decent a conclusion as he could to an incident that should obviously have had no sequel; but he had known all along that with the securing of Miss Viner's peace of mind only a part of his obligation was discharged, and that with that part his remaining duty was in conflict. It had been his first business to convince the girl that their secret was safe with him; but it was far from easy to square this with the equally urgent obligation of safe-guarding Anna's responsibility toward her child. Darrow was not much afraid of accidental disclosures. Both he and Sophy Viner had too much at stake not to be on their guard. The fear that beset him was of another kind, and had a profounder source. He wanted to do all he could for the girl, but the fact of having had to urge Anna to confide Effie to her was peculiarly repugnant to him. His own ideas about Sophy Viner were too mixed and indeterminate for him not to feel the risk of such an experiment; yet he found himself in the intolerable position of appearing to press it on the woman he desired above all others to protect...
Till late in the night his thoughts revolved in a turmoil of indecision. His pride was humbled by the discrepancy between what Sophy Viner had been to him and what he had thought of her. This discrepancy, which at the time had seemed to simplify the incident, now turned out to be its most galling complication. The bare truth, indeed, was that he had hardly thought of her at all, either at the time or since, and that he was ashamed to base his judgement of her on his meagre memory of their adventure.
The essential cheapness of the whole affair—as far as his share in it was concerned—came home to him with humiliating distinctness. He would have liked to be able to feel that, at the time at least, he had staked something more on it, and had somehow, in the sequel, had a more palpable loss to show. But the plain fact was that he hadn't spent a penny on it; which was no doubt the reason of the prodigious score it had since been rolling up. At any rate, beat about the case as he would, it was clear that he owed it to Anna—and incidentally to his own peace of mind—to find some way of securing Sophy Viner's future without leaving her installed at Givre when he and his wife should depart for their new post.
The night brought no aid to the solving of this problem; but it gave him, at any rate, the clear conviction that no time was to be lost. His first step must be to obtain from Miss Viner the chance of another and calmer talk; and he resolved to seek it at the earliest hour.
He had gathered that Effie's lessons were preceded by an early scamper in the park, and conjecturing that her governess might be with her he betook himself the next morning to the terrace, whence he wandered on to the gardens and the walks beyond.
The atmosphere was still and pale. The muffled sunlight gleamed like gold tissue through grey gauze, and the beech alleys tapered away to a blue haze blent of sky and forest. It was one of those elusive days when the familiar forms of things seem about to dissolve in a prismatic shimmer.
The stillness was presently broken by joyful barks, and Darrow, tracking the sound, overtook Effie flying down one of the long alleys at the head of her pack. Beyond her he saw Miss Viner seated near the stone-rimmed basin beside which he and Anna had paused on their first walk to the river.
The girl, coming forward at his approach, returned his greeting almost gaily. His first glance showed him that she had regained her composure, and the change in her appearance gave him the measure of her fears. For the first time he saw in her again the sidelong grace that had charmed his eyes in Paris; but he saw it now as in a painted picture.
"Shall we sit down a minute?" he asked, as Effie trotted off.
The girl looked away from him. "I'm afraid there's not much time; we must be back at lessons at half-past nine."
"But it's barely ten minutes past. Let's at least walk a little way toward the river."
She glanced down the long walk ahead of them and then back in the direction of the house. "If you like," she said in a low voice, with one of her quick fluctuations of colour; but instead of taking the way he proposed she turned toward a narrow path which branched off obliquely through the trees.
Darrow was struck, and vaguely troubled, by the change in her look and tone. There was in them an undefinable appeal, whether for help or forbearance he could not tell. Then it occurred to him that there might have been something misleading in his so pointedly seeking her, and he felt a momentary constraint. To ease it he made an abrupt dash at the truth.
"I came out to look for you because our talk of yesterday was so unsatisfactory. I want to hear more about you—about your plans and prospects. I've been wondering ever since why you've so completely given up the theatre."
Her face instantly sharpened to distrust. "I had to live," she said in an off-hand tone.
"I understand perfectly that you should like it here—for a time." His glance strayed down the gold-roofed windings ahead of them. "It's delightful: you couldn't be better placed. Only I wonder a little at your having so completely given up any idea of a different future."
She waited for a moment before answering: "I suppose I'm less restless than I used to be."
"It's certainly natural that you should be less restless here than at Mrs. Murrett's; yet somehow I don't seem to see you permanently given up to forming the young."
"What—exactly—DO you seem to see me permanently given up to? You know you warned me rather emphatically against the theatre." She threw off the statement without impatience, as though they were discussing together the fate of a third person in whom both were benevolently interested. Darrow considered his reply. "If I did, it was because you so emphatically refused to let me help you to a start."
She stopped short and faced him "And you think I may let you now?"
Darrow felt the blood in his cheek. He could not understand her attitude—if indeed she had consciously taken one, and her changes of tone did not merely reflect the involuntary alternations of her mood. It humbled him to perceive once more how little he had to guide him in his judgment of her. He said to himself: "If I'd ever cared a straw for her I should know how to avoid hurting her now"—and his insensibility struck him as no better than a vulgar obtuseness. But he had a fixed purpose ahead and could only push on to it.
"I hope, at any rate, you'll listen to my reasons. There's been time, on both sides, to think them over since——" He caught himself back and hung helpless on the "since": whatever words he chose, he seemed to stumble among reminders of their past.
She walked on beside him, her eyes on the ground. "Then I'm to understand—definitely—that you DO renew your offer?" she asked
"With all my heart! If you'll only let me——"
She raised a hand, as though to check him. "It's extremely friendly of you—I DO believe you mean it as a friend—but I don't quite understand why, finding me, as you say, so well placed here, you should show more anxiety about my future than at a time when I was actually, and rather desperately, adrift."
"Oh, no, not more!"
"If you show any at all, it must, at any rate, be for different reasons.—In fact, it can only be," she went on, with one of her disconcerting flashes of astuteness, "for one of two reasons; either because you feel you ought to help me, or because, for some reason, you think you owe it to Mrs. Leath to let her know what you know of me."
Darrow stood still in the path. Behind him he heard Effie's call, and at the child's voice he saw Sophy turn her head with the alertness of one who is obscurely on the watch. The look was so fugitive that he could not have said wherein it differed from her normal professional air of having her pupil on her mind.
Effie sprang past them, and Darrow took up the girl's challenge.
"What you suggest about Mrs. Leath is hardly worth answering. As to my reasons for wanting to help you, a good deal depends on the words one uses to define rather indefinite things. It's true enough that I want to help you; but the wish isn't due to...to any past kindness on your part, but simply to my own interest in you. Why not put it that our friendship gives me the right to intervene for what I believe to be your benefit?"
She took a few hesitating steps and then paused again. Darrow noticed that she had grown pale and that there were rings of shade about her eyes.
"You've known Mrs. Leath a long time?" she asked him suddenly.
He paused with a sense of approaching peril. "A long time—yes."
"She told me you were friends—great friends"
"Yes," he admitted, "we're great friends."
"Then you might naturally feel yourself justified in telling her that you don't think I'm the right person for Effie." He uttered a sound of protest, but she disregarded it. "I don't say you'd LIKE to do it. You wouldn't: you'd hate it. And the natural alternative would be to try to persuade me that I'd be better off somewhere else than here. But supposing that failed, and you saw I was determined to stay? THEN you might think it your duty to tell Mrs. Leath."
She laid the case before him with a cold lucidity. "I should, in your place, I believe," she ended with a little laugh.
"I shouldn't feel justified in telling her, behind your back, if I thought you unsuited for the place; but I should certainly feel justified," he rejoined after a pause, "in telling YOU if I thought the place unsuited to you."
"And that's what you're trying to tell me now?"
"Yes; but not for the reasons you imagine."
"What, then, are your reasons, if you please?"
"I've already implied them in advising you not to give up all idea of the theatre. You're too various, too gifted, too personal, to tie yourself down, at your age, to the dismal drudgery of teaching."
"And is THAT what you've told Mrs. Leath?"
She rushed the question out at him as if she expected to trip him up over it. He was moved by the simplicity of the stratagem.
"I've told her exactly nothing," he replied.
"And what—exactly—do you mean by 'nothing'? You and she were talking about me when I came into her sitting-room yesterday."
Darrow felt his blood rise at the thrust.
"I've told her, simply, that I'd seen you once or twice at Mrs. Murrett's."
"And not that you've ever seen me since?"
"And not that I've ever seen you since..."
"And she believes you—she completely believes you?"
He uttered a protesting exclamation, and his flush reflected itself in the girl's cheek.
"Oh, I beg your pardon! I didn't mean to ask you that." She halted, and again cast a rapid glance behind and ahead of her. Then she held out her hand. "Well, then, thank you—and let me relieve your fears. I sha'n't be Effie's governess much longer."
At the announcement, Darrow tried to merge his look of relief into the expression of friendly interest with which he grasped her hand. "You really do agree with me, then? And you'll give me a chance to talk things over with you?"
She shook her head with a faint smile. "I'm not thinking of the stage. I've had another offer: that's all."
The relief was hardly less great. After all, his personal responsibility ceased with her departure from Givre.
"You'll tell me about that, then—won't you?"
Her smile flickered up. "Oh, you'll hear about it soon...I must catch Effie now and drag her back to the blackboard."
She walked on for a few yards, and then paused again and confronted him. "I've been odious to you—and not quite honest," she broke out suddenly.
"Not quite honest?" he repeated, caught in a fresh wave of wonder.
"I mean, in seeming not to trust you. It's come over me again as we talked that, at heart, I've always KNOWN I could..."
Her colour rose in a bright wave, and her eyes clung to his for a swift instant of reminder and appeal. For the same space of time the past surged up in him confusedly; then a veil dropped between them.
"Here's Effie now!" she exclaimed.
He turned and saw the little girl trotting back to them, her hand in Owen Leath's. Even through the stir of his subsiding excitement Darrow was at once aware of the change effected by the young man's approach. For a moment Sophy Viner's cheeks burned redder; then they faded to the paleness of white petals. She lost, however, nothing of the bright bravery which it was her way to turn on the unexpected. Perhaps no one less familiar with her face than Darrow would have discerned the tension of the smile she transferred from himself to Owen Leath, or have remarked that her eyes had hardened from misty grey to a shining darkness. But her observer was less struck by this than by the corresponding change in Owen Leath. The latter, when he came in sight, had been laughing and talking unconcernedly with Effie; but as his eye fell on Miss Viner his expression altered as suddenly as hers.
The change, for Darrow, was less definable; but, perhaps for that reason, it struck him as more sharply significant. Only—just what did it signify? Owen, like Sophy Viner, had the kind of face which seems less the stage on which emotions move than the very stuff they work in. In moments of excitement his odd irregular features seemed to grow fluid, to unmake and remake themselves like the shadows of clouds on a stream. Darrow, through the rapid flight of the shadows, could not seize on any specific indication of feeling: he merely perceived that the young man was unaccountably surprised at finding him with Miss Viner, and that the extent of his surprise might cover all manner of implications.
Darrow's first idea was that Owen, if he suspected that the conversation was not the result of an accidental encounter, might wonder at his step-mother's suitor being engaged, at such an hour, in private talk with her little girl's governess. The thought was so disturbing that, as the three turned back to the house, he was on the point of saying to Owen: "I came out to look for your mother." But, in the contingency he feared, even so simple a phrase might seem like an awkward attempt at explanation; and he walked on in silence at Miss Viner's side. Presently he was struck by the fact that Owen Leath and the girl were silent also; and this gave a new turn to his thoughts. Silence may be as variously shaded as speech; and that which enfolded Darrow and his two companions seemed to his watchful perceptions to be quivering with cross-threads of communication. At first he was aware only of those that centred in his own troubled consciousness; then it occurred to him that an equal activity of intercourse was going on outside of it. Something was in fact passing mutely and rapidly between young Leath and Sophy Viner; but what it was, and whither it tended, Darrow, when they reached the house, was but just beginning to divine...
Anna Leath, from the terrace, watched the return of the little group.
She looked down on them, as they advanced across the garden, from the serene height of her unassailable happiness. There they were, coming toward her in the mild morning light, her child, her step-son, her promised husband: the three beings who filled her life. She smiled a little at the happy picture they presented, Effie's gambols encircling it in a moving frame within which the two men came slowly forward in the silence of friendly understanding. It seemed part of the deep intimacy of the scene that they should not be talking to each other, and it did not till afterward strike her as odd that neither of them apparently felt it necessary to address a word to Sophy Viner.
Anna herself, at the moment, was floating in the mid-current of felicity, on a tide so bright and buoyant that she seemed to be one with its warm waves. The first rush of bliss had stunned and dazzled her; but now that, each morning, she woke to the calm certainty of its recurrence, she was growing used to the sense of security it gave.
"I feel as if I could trust my happiness to carry me; as if it had grown out of me like wings." So she phrased it to Darrow, as, later in the morning, they paced the garden-paths together. His answering look gave her the same assurance of safety. The evening before he had seemed preoccupied, and the shadow of his mood had faintly encroached on the great golden orb of their blessedness; but now it was uneclipsed again, and hung above them high and bright as the sun at noon.
Upstairs in her sitting-room, that afternoon, she was thinking of these things. The morning mists had turned to rain, compelling the postponement of an excursion in which the whole party were to have joined. Effie, with her governess, had been despatched in the motor to do some shopping at Francheuil; and Anna had promised Darrow to join him, later in the afternoon, for a quick walk in the rain.
He had gone to his room after luncheon to get some belated letters off his conscience; and when he had left her she had continued to sit in the same place, her hands crossed on her knees, her head slightly bent, in an attitude of brooding retrospection. As she looked back at her past life, it seemed to her to have consisted of one ceaseless effort to pack into each hour enough to fill out its slack folds; but now each moment was like a miser's bag stretched to bursting with pure gold.
She was roused by the sound of Owen's step in the gallery outside her room. It paused at her door and in answer to his knock she called out "Come in!"
As the door closed behind him she was struck by his look of pale excitement, and an impulse of compunction made her say: "You've come to ask me why I haven't spoken to your grandmother!" He sent about him a glance vaguely reminding her of the strange look with which Sophy Viner had swept the room the night before; then his brilliant eyes came back to her.
"I've spoken to her myself," he said.
Anna started up, incredulous.
"You've spoken to her? When?"
"Just now. I left her to come here."
Anna's first feeling was one of annoyance. There was really something comically incongruous in this boyish surrender to impulse on the part of a young man so eager to assume the responsibilities of life. She looked at him with a faintly veiled amusement.
"You asked me to help you and I promised you I would. It was hardly worth while to work out such an elaborate plan of action if you intended to take the matter out of my hands without telling me."
"Oh, don't take that tone with me!" he broke out, almost angrily.
"That tone? What tone?" She stared at his quivering face. "I might," she pursued, still half-laughing, "more properly make that request of YOU!"
Owen reddened and his vehemence suddenly subsided.
"I meant that I HAD to speak—that's all. You don't give me a chance to explain..."
She looked at him gently, wondering a little at her own impatience.
"Owen! Don't I always want to give you every chance? It's because I DO that I wanted to talk to your grandmother first—that I was waiting and watching for the right moment..."
"The right moment? So was I. That's why I've spoken." His voice rose again and took the sharp edge it had in moments of high pressure.
His step-mother turned away and seated herself in her sofa-corner. "Oh, my dear, it's not a privilege to quarrel over! You've taken a load off my shoulders. Sit down and tell me all about it."
He stood before her, irresolute. "I can't sit down," he said.
"Walk about, then. Only tell me: I'm impatient."
His immediate response was to throw himself into the armchair at her side, where he lounged for a moment without speaking, his legs stretched out, his arms locked behind his thrown-back head. Anna, her eyes on his face, waited quietly for him to speak.
"Well—of course it was just what one expected."
"She takes it so badly, you mean?"
"All the heavy batteries were brought up: my father, Givre, Monsieur de Chantelle, the throne and the altar. Even my poor mother was dragged out of oblivion and armed with imaginary protests."
Anna sighed out her sympathy. "Well—you were prepared for all that?"
"I thought I was, till I began to hear her say it. Then it sounded so incredibly silly that I told her so."
"Yes: I know. I was a fool; but I couldn't help it."
"And you've mortally offended her, I suppose? That's exactly what I wanted to prevent." She laid a hand on his shoulder. "You tiresome boy, not to wait and let me speak for you!"
He moved slightly away, so that her hand slipped from its place. "You don't understand," he said, frowning.
"I don't see how I can, till you explain. If you thought the time had come to tell your grandmother, why not have asked me to do it? I had my reasons for waiting; but if you'd told me to speak I should have done so, naturally."
He evaded her appeal by a sudden turn. "What WERE your reasons for waiting?"
Anna did not immediately answer. Her step-son's eyes were on her face, and under his gaze she felt a faint disquietude.
"I was feeling my way...I wanted to be absolutely sure..."
"Absolutely sure of what?"
She delayed again for a just perceptible instant. "Why, simply of OUR side of the case."
"But you told me you were, the other day, when we talked it over before they came back from Ouchy."
"Oh, my dear—if you think that, in such a complicated matter, every day, every hour, doesn't more or less modify one's surest sureness!"
"That's just what I'm driving at. I want to know what has modified yours."
She made a slight gesture of impatience. "What does it matter, now the thing's done? I don't know that I could give any clear reason..."
He got to his feet and stood looking down on her with a tormented brow. "But it's absolutely necessary that you should."
At his tone her impatience flared up. "It's not necessary that I should give you any explanation whatever, since you've taken the matter out of my hands. All I can say is that I was trying to help you: that no other thought ever entered my mind." She paused a moment and then added: "If you doubted it, you were right to do what you've done."
"Oh, I never doubted YOU!" he retorted, with a fugitive stress on the pronoun. His face had cleared to its old look of trust. "Don't be offended if I've seemed to," he went on. "I can't quite explain myself, either...it's all a kind of tangle, isn't it? That's why I thought I'd better speak at once; or rather why I didn't think at all, but just suddenly blurted the thing out——"
Anna gave him back his look of conciliation. "Well, the how and why don't much matter now. The point is how to deal with your grandmother. You've not told me what she means to do."
"Oh, she means to send for Adelaide Painter."
The name drew a faint note of mirth from him and relaxed both their faces to a smile.
"Perhaps," Anna added, "it's really the best thing for us all."
Owen shrugged his shoulders. "It's too preposterous and humiliating. Dragging that woman into our secrets——!"
"This could hardly be a secret much longer."
He had moved to the hearth, where he stood pushing about the small ornaments on the mantel-shelf; but at her answer he turned back to her.
"You haven't, of course, spoken of it to any one?"
"No; but I intend to now."
She paused for his reply, and as it did not come she continued: "If Adelaide Painter's to be told there's no possible reason why I shouldn't tell Mr. Darrow." Owen abruptly set down the little statuette between his fingers. "None whatever: I want every one to know."
She smiled a little at his over-emphasis, and was about to meet it with a word of banter when he continued, facing her: "You haven't, as yet, said a word to him?"
"I've told him nothing, except what the discussion of our own plans—his and mine—obliged me to: that you were thinking of marrying, and that I wasn't willing to leave France till I'd done what I could to see you through."
At her first words the colour had rushed to his forehead; but as she continued she saw his face compose itself and his blood subside.
"You're a brick, my dear!" he exclaimed.
"You had my word, you know."
"Yes; yes—I know." His face had clouded again. "And that's all—positively all—you've ever said to him?"
"Positively all. But why do you ask?"
He had a moment's embarrassed hesitation. "It was understood, wasn't it, that my grandmother was to be the first to know?"
"Well—and so she has been, hasn't she, since you've told her?"
He turned back to his restless shifting of the knick-knacks.
"And you're sure that nothing you've said to Darrow could possibly have given him a hint——?"
"Nothing I've said to him—certainly."
He swung about on her. "Why do you put it in that way?"
"In what way?"
"Why—as if you thought some one else might have spoken..."
"Some one else? Who else?" She rose to her feet. "What on earth, my dear boy, can you be driving at?"
"I'm trying to find out whether you think he knows anything definite."
"Why should I think so? Do YOU?"
"I don't know. I want to find out."
She laughed at his obstinate insistence. "To test my veracity, I suppose?" At the sound of a step in the gallery she added: "Here he is—you can ask him yourself."
She met Darrow's knock with an invitation to enter, and he came into the room and paused between herself and Owen. She was struck, as he stood there, by the contrast between his happy careless good-looks and her step-son's frowning agitation.
Darrow met her eyes with a smile. "Am I too soon? Or is our walk given up?"
"No; I was just going to get ready." She continued to linger between the two, looking slowly from one to the other. "But there's something we want to tell you first: Owen is engaged to Miss Viner."
The sense of an indefinable interrogation in Owen's mind made her, as she spoke, fix her eyes steadily on Darrow.
He had paused just opposite the window, so that, even in the rainy afternoon light, his face was clearly open to her scrutiny. For a second, immense surprise was alone visible on it: so visible that she half turned to her step-son, with a faint smile for his refuted suspicions. Why, she wondered, should Owen have thought that Darrow had already guessed his secret, and what, after all, could be so disturbing to him in this not improbable contingency? At any rate, his doubt must have been dispelled: there was nothing feigned about Darrow's astonishment. When her eyes turned back to him he was already crossing to Owen with outstretched hand, and she had, through an unaccountable faint flutter of misgiving, a mere confused sense of their exchanging the customary phrases. Her next perception was of Owen's tranquillized look, and of his smiling return of Darrow's congratulatory grasp. She had the eerie feeling of having been overswept by a shadow which there had been no cloud to cast...
A moment later Owen had left the room and she and Darrow were alone. He had turned away to the window and stood staring out into the down-pour.
"You're surprised at Owen's news?" she asked.
"Yes: I am surprised," he answered.
"You hadn't thought of its being Miss Viner?"
"Why should I have thought of Miss Viner?"
"You see now why I wanted so much to find out what you knew about her." He made no comment, and she pursued: "Now that you DO know it's she, if there's anything——"
He moved back into the room and went up to her. His face was serious, with a slight shade of annoyance. "What on earth should there be? As I told you, I've never in my life heard any one say two words about Miss Viner."
Anna made no answer and they continued to face each other without moving. For the moment she had ceased to think about Sophy Viner and Owen: the only thought in her mind was that Darrow was alone with her, close to her, and that, for the first time, their hands and lips had not met.
He glanced back doubtfully at the window. "It's pouring. Perhaps you'd rather not go out?"
She hesitated, as if waiting for him to urge her. "I suppose I'd better not. I ought to go at once to my mother-in-law—Owen's just been telling her," she said.
"Ah." Darrow hazarded a smile. "That accounts for my having, on my way up, heard some one telephoning for Miss Painter!"
At the allusion they laughed together, vaguely, and Anna moved toward the door. He held it open for her and followed her out.
He left her at the door of Madame de Chantelle's sitting-room, and plunged out alone into the rain.
The wind flung about the stripped tree-tops of the avenue and dashed the stinging streams into his face. He walked to the gate and then turned into the high-road and strode along in the open, buffeted by slanting gusts. The evenly ridged fields were a blurred waste of mud, and the russet coverts which he and Owen had shot through the day before shivered desolately against a driving sky.
Darrow walked on and on, indifferent to the direction he was taking. His thoughts were tossing like the tree-tops. Anna's announcement had not come to him as a complete surprise: that morning, as he strolled back to the house with Owen Leath and Miss Viner, he had had a momentary intuition of the truth. But it had been no more than an intuition, the merest faint cloud-puff of surmise; and now it was an attested fact, darkening over the whole sky.
In respect of his own attitude, he saw at once that the discovery made no appreciable change. If he had been bound to silence before, he was no less bound to it now; the only difference lay in the fact that what he had just learned had rendered his bondage more intolerable. Hitherto he had felt for Sophy Viner's defenseless state a sympathy profoundly tinged with compunction. But now he was half-conscious of an obscure indignation against her. Superior as he had fancied himself to ready-made judgments, he was aware of cherishing the common doubt as to the disinterestedness of the woman who tries to rise above her past. No wonder she had been sick with fear on meeting him! It was in his power to do her more harm than he had dreamed...
Assuredly he did not want to harm her; but he did desperately want to prevent her marrying Owen Leath. He tried to get away from the feeling, to isolate and exteriorize it sufficiently to see what motives it was made of; but it remained a mere blind motion of his blood, the instinctive recoil from the thing that no amount of arguing can make "straight." His tramp, prolonged as it was, carried him no nearer to enlightenment; and after trudging through two or three sallow mud-stained villages he turned about and wearily made his way back to Givre. As he walked up the black avenue, making for the lights that twinkled through its pitching branches, he had a sudden realisation of his utter helplessness. He might think and combine as he would; but there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that he could do...