Keggo's phrase! Keggo was being intermittently seen at this time and these thoughts of Rosalie's were very close to the occasion when finally she lost sight of Keggo. It could be said like this—that Keggo here made a contribution to Rosalie's life that passed Rosalie on her way.
They had kept touch for quite a time after their separation as governess and pupil. They then lost touch.
"Why, it must be more than a year!" cried Rosalie, suddenly encountering Miss Keggs near the Marble Arch one evening and delightedly greeting her. It was in the summer and Rosalie had gone out from the boarding house after dinner for some fresh air in the park. She was enormously glad to see Keggo again and carried her greeting straight on into excuses for her share in their long sundering. "More than a year! You know, the fact is, Keggo, that when I first left the Sultana's, and for quite a time afterwards, I used to gush. I did! I was so frightfully full of all I was doing and it was all so new and so wonderful and I was so excited about it that it was sheer letting off steam—gush—to write you reams and reams of letters about it as I used to do. Then it got normal and the—the tumultuousness of it wore off and I was just—I am, you know—just absolutely absorbed in it and there was no more steam to let off; all the energy went into the work, I suppose. So gradually, I suppose, without quite realising it, I gave up writing. But, oh, if you knew how glad I am to see you now!"
Miss Keggs to all this presented only a fixed smile. A smile belongs much more to the eyes than to the lips. The lips, but not the eyes, can counterfeit a smile. False coin is "uttered" as they say in law; and the lips utter. Not so the eyes. All metal that the mouth issues is to be tested there. The expression in Miss Keggs's eyes was not at all in consonance with that of her mouth. The expression of her eyes was rather oddly vacant as you may see on the face of a person who is apparently attending to what you are saying but really is listening to another conversation in the same room. "Not listening" as it is called. "An absent look" as they say.
Nevertheless she joined dove-tailed response to Rosalie's words. "To tell you the truth," said Miss Keggs, speaking very slowly and repeating the preamble. "To tell you the truth I wouldn't have received your letters if you had written them."
"You wouldn't? Why not?"
"To tell you the truth—" there had been a pause before she first spoke; a pause again before this reply and then again a beginning with this phrase about which there was nothing odd in itself but something odd in the manner of its use by Miss Keggs. "To tell you the truth, I've left the school."
"Left the Sultana's!"
Miss Keggs nodded with slow inclinations, like grave bows, of her head.
"Whatever for? Keggo, when, why?" And then Rosalie, impelled by some apprehension that suddenly pressed her, put a quick hand on Keggo's arm and cried sharply, "Keggo! There is something very strange about you. What has happened to you? Something has happened. You can't keep it from me."
But Keggo could. At that quick gesture of suspicion of Rosalie's, animation sprung to meet it as a cat, at a sudden start, will leap from profound slumber to a place of safety and to arched defence. Miss Keggs, in their first exchanges, might have been as one drowsily answering questions from a bed. She was suddenly, in her instant casting away of her absent air, as that one flinging away the bedclothes and leaping upright to the floor. What had she been saying? She had been quite lost in something she was thinking of when Rosalie came up. She scarcely had recollected her. She had been very, very ill with "this influenza" and still was only convalescent. Why, how very, very glad she was to see her dear Rosalie again! And how Rosalie had developed!
"Why, Rosalie, you are beautiful! You are! And you don't blush or simper to hear it! Yes, you are beautiful."
There was a little room in a street somewhere off the Harrow Road that Miss Keggs now occupied. It was a forbidding street. It was one of those derelict streets frequent in certain quarters of London, in Holloway, in Kentish Town, in Kilburn and all over South London, all about which life teems and roars but where, along their own pavements, no life is. They are most characteristic of themselves, these streets, when, as often to be seen, there is no soul along them but a sad drab that is an itinerant singer that drifts along wailing, at every few paces shuffling her body in complete turns to scan the windows she has passed and the immediate windows on either hand. She has no home and these are not homes to which she wails. There is no flicker of life at any window. She's a sad drab, repulsive within; and they are sad drabs, not nice within. At night, but not before dusk, forlorn things flicker in and out of them like drab ghosts had on the strings of a puppet show. By day there sometimes is an old man crawling in or crawling out; sometimes a woman, always with a parcel or a net bag, fleeting along, expressionless. The high houses, all of one pattern, appear to have no pattern. They are like dead walls and the place they enclose like a vault, and the itinerant drab like a thing in drab cerements (they trail the dust) that ought to be dead wailing for entrance to things, tombed in those walls, that are dead. There is no life at all in these streets. There is nothing active or positive. There is just passivity and negation. There is just nothingness. They are not habitations, which connote life; they are repositories, which connote desuetude. They are the repositories of creatures, not that have done with life, for the sheer fact of living acknowledges service to life, but with whom life has done.
These came to be Rosalie's thoughts of this street—Limpen Street—but they could not have been hers when she was first going there to spend evenings with Miss Keggs, for it was in her earlier visits there to Keggo that she cried there. When she could cry for pure compassion for another she was still too—too ardent for Limpen Street to be seen as it has been presented. From the first it affected her disagreeably but she would have felt, then, a sympathy for its state, and a belief that it could be aroused out of its state, and a wish so to arouse it; and in her earlier visits she had ardently this sympathy, but it was raised to a profound compassion; this belief, but it was a conviction; and this wish, but it was a resolution, in regard to Keggo.
For Keggo was drinking.
Keggo had been drinking for years and years and now Keggo had walled herself away in Limpen Street to drink and drink, still secretly with the sharp cunning of the secret drinker, but now with cunning only necessary when of her own wish she met the world. At the Sultana's, (only Mr. Ponders in her secret, and in her pay; "that vile man" as, after the revelation, she always spoke of him to Rosalie) at the Sultana's and in all her life of that period she was, as it were, as one whose life is threatened, dwelling among spies; that breastplate of her cunning never could be laid off then; now, as one threatened, but secure in a castle, the breastplate only was needed when sallies forth were made. There was at the Sultana's the need of constant care to inhibit her cravings; there now was none to save her—unless Rosalie did.
There is no need at all to tell all this and all that by which Rosalie was led to this most terrible discovery and Keggo impelled to her most painful revelation. There was deceit and its exposure; lies and their crumpling in the hand; mystifications and their sinister interpretations; contingencies and their ugly dissolutions. These would be all beastly to tell. Beastly is a vile word but this is a vile thing. There was about it all, all the time, a tainted and unwholesome atmosphere. There was always in the little room in Limpen Street that strange disagreeable smell of bad eau-de-Cologne that always had hung about the little room at the Sultana's.
But they were not felt to be beastly by Rosalie, then. They are said here to be beastly, for they were beastly, only in excuse for Rosalie afterwards. They only were to her, then, intensely sad, most deeply pitiful, intensely increasing of her love for Keggo as pure love is increased by seeing its object in tortures that may not be helped because they will not be confessed. If only Keggo would tell her! Once or twice she said to Keggo, speaking with an entreaty that must have made obvious to Keggo her knowledge, "Keggo, haven't you something to tell me; something that you'd like to tell me?" The occasion was always when she was leaving after a visit that had found Keggo very unwell, very dejected of spirits, and that Keggo had at last terminated by saying, "I think perhaps you had better go, Rosalie. I think perhaps I'd be better lying down." But Keggo's answer always was, "Something to tell you? No, nothing at all! What should I have to tell you?"
And then one day something said brought them very near to the matter between them. Miss Keggs came nearer yet. She said, "The fact is, Rosalie, I sometimes get so I simply cannot make an effort, the smallest effort. I believe when I'm like that if a thousand pounds were offered me for the going out and asking of it, and God knows I want it badly enough, I simply could not make the effort to do it. I'd simply let it pass and know that I was letting it pass and not care. That's how it's got with me, how it is sometimes with me, Rosalie."
Rosalie said with extraordinary emphasis, leaning forward on the chair in which she sat facing Keggo. "Why is it, Keggo?"
If Keggo had answered, the thing would not have happened. Keggo did not answer. She was sitting with her hands crossed, one palm upon the other, and resting on her lap, her eyes to the ground. Quite a long time passed. Rosalie said, "You're drinking, aren't you, Keggo?"
"Yes, drinking, Rosalie."
It was then that Rosalie cried.
Sne cried. Her sympathies, though drying and slower now to be aroused, still then were such that she could weep for pity. It is a glimpse of her not to be seen again. There was she on her knees by Keggo, and with her arms about Keggo's waist, and with her head on Keggo's lap, crying for Keggo; and in the pauses of Keggo's unfolding of her story entreating her, as one that cried responses to a litany, "Don't mind, Keggo! Keggo, don't mind now! Dear Keggo, poor Keggo, it's all right now."
And presently all the tale told: what Mr. Ponders' medicine was; and all the humiliation suffered in keeping in with "that vile man"; and that vile man's betrayal of her to the Sultana, and her dismissal; and all the earlier dreadfulness of her first steps down into her dreadful malady; and all the dreadful secrecy of all those years; and all the horrible humiliation secretly to get her poison; and all the horrible humiliations when her poison got. All the dark tale of that presently told; and her head bowed down to Rosalie's, and Rosalie's wet face against her face, and her face also wet; and just her murmurs, murmured at intervals, as though her heart that had discharged its grievous load ran slowly now, slowly to rise and then to well with, "God bless you, Rosalie; oh, Rosalie, God bless you"; and for a long time just seated thus, cheek to cheek, hand to hand, heart to heart; weakness bound about with strength, sorrow in pity's arms, travail in sanctuary....
It is desired that one should try to see that picture. Its counterpart was not again in the life of Rosalie, hardening.
There were, after that, such happy evenings in Keggo's room. Keggo, with one to help her, fighting for herself; Rosalie, with one to help, elevated upon that high happiness that comes with fighting for another. For a short time there seemed to be no lapses in Keggo's struggle. When they came (as Rosalie knew afterwards) the practised cunning of years of secrecy had no difficulty in concealing them from the unsuspecting eyes of Rosalie. Ill that it was so! Rosalie was harder when came the lapse that cunning could not hide. She did not cry. Her eyes were hard. She said with thin lips, "Why, even all this time you have been deceiving me!" the which egged on, in that vile way in which exchanges of a quarrel are as knives sharpening one against the other, Keggo's enflamed retort, "The more fool you! Little fool!"
But at first, while the lapses were few and the cunning was equal to them, only a closer friendship was set afoot between the woman that was grown and the woman that was burgeoning, and there were such very happy evenings in the room in Limpen Street. Such jolly talks.
There was one talk that, forgotten with the very evening of its passage, afterwards very strongly returned to Rosalie and abode with her. It had in it rather vital things for Rosalie.
She loved to talk about her work with intelligent and sympathetic Keggo, and she had been on this occasion expounding to her the mysteries and interest of life insurance: in particular explaining the "romance" of vital statistics; in particular, again, the curious fact that, though women in the United Kingdom largely outnumbered men, many more male children were born than female. The disproportion "the other way about" in maturity, said Rosalie, was because the death rate among men was much higher—due to risks of their occupations. "A certain number of house painters," said Rosalie sagely, "fall off ladders every year and are killed; women don't paint houses, so they don't fall off ladders and get killed. Similarly on railways, Keggo. The death rate among railway men is much higher in proportion, over an average, than the rate in any other occupation. Porters doing shunting, for instance, are always getting killed. Well, women don't shunt trains so they don't get killed while shunting trains, so there you are again, so to speak. The thing in a nutshell, Keggo, is that, by contrast, men lead dangerous lives."
Keggo, who always was very alert in response, was here very long in responding. Then she responded an extraordinary thing that Rosalie afterwards remembered. She said slowly, "Oh, but Rosalie, it's very dangerous to be a woman."
Rosalie questioned her.
Keggo said, "Rosalie, you've great ideas, and I think very shrewd and very striking ideas, about the difference between men and women, but there's this difference I think you haven't thought of—the danger that women carry in themselves; right in them, here"—she had a hand against her breast and she pressed it there—"born in them, inerradicable, and that men have not. Men go into dangers but they come out of them and go home to tea. That's what it is with men, Rosalie. They can always get out. They can always come back. They never belong to a thing, body and soul and heart and mind. Rosalie, women do. That's their danger. That's why it is so very, very dangerous being a woman. Women can't come back. They can't, Rosalie. Look at me. They take to a thing and it becomes a craze, it becomes an obsession, it becomes a drug. Look at me. They take to a thing—anything; a poison like mine, or a pursuit like some one else's, or an idea like some other's, or a—a career in life like, like yours, Rosalie,—they take to it and go deep enough, and they're its; they never will get away from it, they never, never will be able to come out of it. Never."
She was extraordinarily vehement. It was embarrassing for Rosalie. Rosalie desired to contest, as vehemently, these theories. She did not believe them a bit. They were founded, she felt, on the tragedy of Keggo's own case. Keggo was unfairly, though very naturally, arguing from the particular to the general, from the personal to the abstract. But how could she reply to Keggo, "Of course you say that?"
She was silent; but she betrayed perhaps her thoughts in a gesture, her difficulty in some expression of her face.
Keggo said very intensely, "But, Rosalie, if you only knew! With me it's drink and you'll say—. But I say to you, Rosalie, never, never let anything get the mastery of you. With me it's drink and you'll say that is a matter altogether different, with which parallels are not to be drawn. Oh, do not believe it, Rosalie. A woman should in all things be desperately temperate—watchfully, desperately temperate. A man—nearly every man—seems somehow to have his life and all his interests in compartments. He can be immersed in one while he is in it, and can get out of it and distribute himself over his others and close it and forget it. Rosalie, a woman can't. Men have hobbies. They don't have attachments; they have detachments. They detach themselves and turn to a thing and they detach themselves from it and turn back again. Rosalie, women don't turn to a thing; they go to it. They don't have hobbies, they have obsessions. They don't trifle, they plunge. They cannot sip, they drain. It's in their bone. They never would have occupied the place they do occupy if it were not that from the beginning they have given themselves over, or they were given over, to mastery. They are the weaker vessel. Rosalie, I tell you this, when a woman gives herself, forgets moderation and gives herself to anything, she is its captive for ever. She may think she can come back, but she can't come back. For a woman there is no comeback. They don't issue return tickets to women. For women there is only departure; there is no return."
Rosalie said, "Keggo, I think I could argue, but I won't. But what I can't imagine is the application of it in hundreds of cases—in by far the great majority of cases. Take mine. You're not warning me, are you? I don't see the possibility—"
Keggo said, "Darling, I'm not warning you and yet I am. I am warning you because you are a woman; and because you are a woman you are susceptible to danger. It's what I've said; it's what I would have you remember for a day perhaps to come, that it is dangerous being a woman. I'm not warning you, because there's nothing to—well, but isn't there? You've got a theory of life and you are bent upon a career in life. There's—"
Rosalie cried, "Well, but there you are, Keggo. No comeback, no return tickets—well, I don't want to come back; I don't want a return ticket."
"You might. You never know. Suppose you ever did?"
"But you can't suppose it. Why ever should I?"
"Suppose you wanted to marry?"
Rosalie laughed. The thing immediately lost reality. "Well, suppose the incredible. Suppose I did. There'd be no comeback wanted there. I could perfectly well marry and still keep my theory of life; I could perfectly well marry and still keep on in my career—and most certainly I would still keep on. Why, that is my theory of life, as you call it, or a very outstanding principle of it. There's nothing to me more detestable in the whole business than the idea that because a woman marries she therefore must give up her work. That's what is the reason the boarding house and every boarding house and every home and street and city swarms with derelicts—with derelict women—just because their lives are all planned as blind alley occupations, marriage at the end of the alley, no need to do anything, no need to be anything because it's only a blind alley you're in. When you reach the end—you reach the end! That's it, Keggo. You reach the end. You're a woman, therefore for you—the end!"
She laughed again. She was returning Keggo's vehemence without embarrassment upon the subject that had made return difficult. She cried, "I've got you now, Keggo. I really have. You say they don't issue return tickets to women. No. Perhaps they don't; but I'll tell you where they book them all to—from the cradle to a terminus."
Keggo smiled and would have spoken. But Rosalie was pleased with her adroit turning of metaphors. She repeated "To a terminus. Well, I've booked beyond, Keggo." She laughed again. "And then the idea of marriage for me! I've granted the preposterous just for the sake of the argument and just to floor the argument. But you know, you know perfectly well from all our talks, even so far back as at the Sultana's, that it's simply too grotesque! Marriage, for me! Why, if a million men came to me on their bended knees, each with a million pounds on their backs you know perfectly well that I'd just feel sick. Tame cats, tabby cats, tomcats, Cheshire cats, wild cats, stray cats,—I'm not going to set up a cats' home. No thanks."
So Rosalie had the laugh of that evening.
But this was not to continue. Keggo began to lapse; Rosalie began to weary of helping Keggo. She had herself to think of. Those who go down in life, whether by age or by misfortune, are prone, engulfed, to cry to those ascending, "You could help me!" There is a correct answer to this. It is, "I have done (or I do) a great deal for you. I cannot do more. It is not fair to ask me to do more. I have a duty to myself. I have myself to think of." Our generation endorses this.
Rosalie had herself to think of. By stages that need not be detailed, they are the common facts of life, the thing passes from that picture of those two with Rosalie's strong young arms about the other to a new picture, the last, between them.
The stages show Rosalie's enormous, ardent plans for the rescue and rehabilitation of Keggo, and they show the projection and the failure of the plans. They show work found for Keggo (through Simcox's scholastic side) and lost and found again and again lost and still again. They show Keggo's remorse and they show Rosalie's forgiveness. They show it repeated and repeated. They show by degrees the gradual, and then the rapid, staling of Rosalie's fond sympathies. They show her finally, immersed in her own purposeful interests, discovering to herself feelings in regard to Keggo on a plane with feelings discovered to herself in regard to her mother. It has been written: "Her mother was ageing rapidly. Rosalie could have wept to see the ageing signs; but somehow, seeing them, did not weep; was not moved; received the impression but was not sensitive to it; felt the tug but did not respond to the pull. Rather, indeed, was apt to be a little impatient." It is not necessary to expand. Keggo was fast going downhill. Rosalie could have wept to see the downhill signs; but somehow, seeing them, did not weep; was not moved... rather, indeed... impatient. She had herself to think of.
Youth's an excuse for youth as childhood's an excuse for childishness. Youth, still, like childhood, but unlike maturity, can be lost in its emotions, absorbed in them to the exclusion of all else, abandoned to them with all else pitched away as a swimmer discards his every stitch and joyously plunges in the stream. Youth is not accountable for its actions then: it is too happy or it is too sad. One oughtn't to blame youth, immersed.
There was outstandingly one such day of absorption in delight, of abandonment to ecstasy for Rosalie, and it was the day on which she made her third advance in the social grade of Miss Kentish's boarding house and moved into the two rooms en suite, furnished and decorated by herself to her own taste. She awoke to this great day, long anticipated; and with the vigorous action of throwing off the clothes and jumping out of bed, she plunged into it and was lost in it. The excitement and the elation of taking possession of that enchanting, that significant apartment of her own! She was excited; she was elated. Moving in was the cumulative excitement of all the long-drawn, anxious excitements of peering round the antique dealers and picking up the bits of furniture and of placing them and moving them a shade to this side and then a shade to that till was found the one and only exact position that suited them and that they suited; and the terrible excitements of watching the decorators at work, her scheme developing beneath their hands, and the awful knowledge that now it was being done it was done for good or bad—no altering it now!—and the agonizing excitements of putting down the carpets—how can you tell exactly how a carpet is going to look until you see it actually down upon its floor and between its walls?—and the increasing excitement all the time of the knowledge that everything was harmonising and was looking just as in dreams of the ideal it had been made to look; and now all ready! The bed-sitting-room slept in last night for the last time; the two utterly perfect rooms and all that their possession connoted, to be occupied that evening for the first time! Yes, in all the tumultuous pride and engrossment of that, there was no place—how could there be place?—for tiresome things of other people's worlds, if such should offer.
And in this tremendous day there was stuff more tremendous yet. This also was the day on whose evening was made the tremendous tribute to her work and to her talent, the evening of the dazzling offer that, like a door swung open on a treasure house, disclosed to her new fields to which her career had brought her, new triumphs that her career, in its stride, might make her own—the evening when Mr. Sturgiss of Field's Bank leant across the dinner table in his house (at his request only she and himself left in the room) and said in his quiet voice, "Well, look here—to come to the point—the reason I've got you up here to-night—it's this: we want you, Field and Company, the Bank, we want you to join us. We want you in Lombard Street."
Cumulative also was this thrill, for it had begun some few days previously when Mr. Sturgiss, calling at Simcox's for a chat with Mr. Simcox, an old friend, had come into her room and after mysteriously fidgetting with business and conversational trifles, had issued the invitation to dinner at his house at Cricklewood in language mysteriously couched. "My wife would like to meet you," said Mr. Sturgiss. "She's heard a lot from me, and from Field, of what an astonishingly clever young person we think you and she'd—she'd like to meet you. And more than that." Mr. Sturgiss's halting speech suddenly became direct and definitive like a flag that had been fluttering suddenly streaming upon the breeze. "And more than that. The fact is, there's a proposition I want to put up to you. A proposition. We could go into it quietly and discuss it. I rather think it would interest you. I'm sure it will. You'll come? Good. I'm very glad. Very glad."
A proposition! From Mr. Sturgiss! Of Field and Company! What could it be?
But Rosalie was not of the sort to tread the succeeding days on the enchanted air of fond surmises. She told herself that the mysterious proposition might be everything or might be nothing: the fact that outstood was that she had brought her aspirations to this—that a partner in a London bank recognised in her stuff sufficient to invite her to a confidential meeting, there to go into something with her "quietly together," to meet together over something and "discuss it." She had determined to establish herself and she was establishing herself. And was it not an omen propitious and significant that this recognition of her parts was to fall on the very day on which the exercise of those parts brought her into the dignity and comfort of that delicious, that significant apartment of her own?
This solid stuff, and no mere daydreams, was the delight absorbing her and the ecstasy to which she was abandoned when that great day came. In the morning she put the last of her possessions, the equipment of her dressing table, into the new apartment; after the day spent at Simcox's, she returned to dress for the first time before the noble cheval glass purchased for the bedroom. She decided to go up in a hat; it could be removed or not for dinner as Mrs. Sturgiss might seem to indicate. She put on an evening bodice of black silk and net with a simple skirt in keeping. She gave last approving glances about the delightful rooms and set out, immersed in eager happiness, for Cricklewood.
One of those old red buses that vied with the white Putney buses as being the best horsed on the London routes took her there. Up the Edgware Road; past the junction with the Harrow Road that led to Keggo's street—she only had for it the thought that it was weeks since she had seen Keggo, almost months; along broad Maida Vale and past the turning that led to the Sultana's with the corner where often the crocodile had huddled—and she was so engrossed in her happy achievements that she passed it without thinking of it. The bus terminated its journey at the foot of Shoot Up Hill. Rosalie, called upon to alight, came out of her thoughts into her surroundings. She realised that she must have passed Crocodile Corner without noticing and the realisation caused her to give a little note of amused indifference. The indifference was not directed precisely at the Sultana's; it was at the idea, which came to her, that, normally to human predilections, she ought to have given—ought now to give—a sentimental thought to memories of the Sultana years. Well, she did not. Funny! Yes, it was funny. As she sometimes thought of her mother and of all her home ties; of Miss Salmon and that cry of hers of never being able to find another lover; of Keggo now so seldom seen and known to be going from bad to worse,—so with memories of Crocodile Corner and the Sultana's, she could see and appreciate the call of all these attachments, but somehow, seeing and appreciating, did not respond to them. What a very curious attitude! It was not unfeeling for she could feel. It was not insensibility for she was sensitive to such things. Sensitive! No, a better word than that. She was in such matters sensible. She saw, as one should see, these things in their right perspective. They were touching (as of her mother) or they were sad (as of Keggo) or they were appealing (as the happy schoolgirl memories) but they must not touch or sadden or appeal too closely. They must be estimated in their degree and in their place; they must not be assumed, be shouldered, be permitted to cumber. No good could be done to them by encumbrance with them. That was the point. What good could it do them? No good. Yes, that was sensible.
She abated, in these thoughts, nothing of the eagerness with which she was living this great day—the day whose points of suspension (on which it tumultuously revolved) were the taking over of the significant apartment from which she had just come and the entering upon the significant invitation to which now her feet were taking her. These thoughts, this analysis of her attitude to sentimental appeals, she tossed upon her eager happiness that was her being as an airball tossed upon laughing breath that yet is used, breathing, to support life. And she was aware that this was so. And she enjoyed a flash of approval of herself that it could be so; it was admirable, it was sensible, thus to be able to detach and look upon a portion of her mind while her main mind deflected not a shade from its occupation with the main chance. That faculty was perhaps the secret of her success, the quality, that, in exercise, had brought her to the significant apartment and to the significant invitation.
She was at the gate of Mr. Sturgiss's house and she most happily passed up the short drive, ascended the steps and rang the bell.
Mr. Sturgiss's house was almost on the summit of Shoot Up Hill. It was one of those houses standing a few miles along the main thoroughfares out of London that, now in decay or displaced by busy shops, packed villas, or monstrous flats, were then the distinctly impressive residences of distinctly well-to-do business people. Mr. Sturgiss was a distinctly well-to-do business person. The house, double-fronted, had that third sitting-room which confers such an immense superiority over houses of but two sitting-rooms—"Such a convenience in so many ways" as those newly promoted from two to three nowadays remark with languid triumph to visitors still immured in two. Houses—new, two sitting-roomed houses—extended beyond it and around it, and now stretch miles beyond and about, but Mrs. Sturgiss told Rosalie that when they first came there they actually had cows grazing and horses ploughing in fields adjoining their garden.
Mrs. Sturgiss told Rosalie this while personally attending Rosalie's removal of her hat (it was "no hat"; Rosalie felt so glad she had come dressed for either indication) and Mrs. Sturgiss sighed pleasantly as she said it. "Things are going ahead at such a pace now!" said Mrs. Sturgiss. "It's all very different from what it used to be. Why, the very fact of your coming here, not as my guest but as my husband's, 'on business!' The idea of women being in business, or even knowing anything about business, when I was a girl, why, I can't tell you how, how positively shocking it would have been considered."
Rosalie laughed. She liked Mrs. Sturgiss, who was motherly and seemed to have her own dear mother's gentle ways—this personally attending her in her bedroom, for instance. "Oh, there are getting to be heaps of women in business now, Mrs. Sturgiss," she smiled.
Mrs. Sturgiss returned brightly, "Oh, I know it. I know it well." She paused and her voice had a thoughtful note. "But even then.... Use the long mirror, my dear; the light is better. Even then, there can be few as,—as much in it as you. You know, my husband has an immense idea of your abilities. He has spoken of you so much. Do you know, you are a great surprise to me, now I see you. I could only imagine from all John's idea of you a rather terrible looking blue-stocking, as we used to call the clever women." She came and stood by Rosalie, regarding the image in the glass that Rosalie regarded. She said simply, "But you are beautiful."
A very odd feeling, akin to tears—but for what on earth tears?—quickened in Rosalie. She turned sharply from the mirror. "I am quite ready now." She pretended she had not heard.
Mrs. Sturgiss said, "My dear, do you like it, being what you are?"
It was a great rescue for Rosalie to be able to spring away from that odd feeling (in her bosom and in her throat) by swift animation. "Oh, I love it. I simply love it. It is everything to me, everything in the world!"
Mrs. Sturgiss opened the door. "No, you go first, my dear. But if I had had a dear girl, such as you, I would have wished her to stay with me at home."
She had made with her hand the gesture of her wish that Rosalie should precede her from the room. Rosalie impulsively touched the extended fingers. "But, Mrs. Sturgiss, don't you see, that's just it, the idea there is now. If you had had a daughter and she had stayed at home—well, let that go, while you were with her. But when you died and left her, what would there be—don't you see it?—what would there be for her then?"
Mrs. Sturgiss pressed the warm young hand. "But I would have left her married, a dear wife and a dear mother."
"Oh, that!" cried Rosalie and her stronger personality carried off the exchanges in a laugh. Mrs. Sturgiss thought the expression and the tone meant, happily, that marriage might happen to any one, in the market as much as in the home. Rosalie, with all the fierce contempt that her "Oh, that!" conveyed to her secret self, was ridden strongly away from emotionalism in the conversation. Her thought as they went downstairs was, "If I were to instruct her in the cat-men! Her horror!"
There was downstairs a surprise that was very annoying, but that was made to produce compensations. An unexpected fourth person, presuming—so Rosalie was given to understand—on a long standing, indefinite invitation, had dropped in to dinner. She recognised him directly they entered the drawing-room and could not stop the emblem of a swift vexation about her mouth and in her eyes. He caught it, she was sure; and she hoped he did. It was Harry Occleve—Laetitia's futile slave! He had already informed his host that he knew her. She greeted him with a mere touch of her hand, a touch made cold by intent, and with "With a free evening off one would have expected you would spend it with Laetitia," said disdainfully. It was a rude and inept thing to say (in the tone she said it) for the feeble creature, as she stigmatised him, had not yet screwed his fatuous idolatry to the point of proposal of marriage. But she intended it to be rude and to discomfort him and she was glad to see some twinge at the flick pass across his face. She hated his presence there. The presence of any man, in the capacity of a monkey to entertain and to be entertained, was always, not to put too fine a point upon it, repulsive to her. This man was of all men obnoxious to her. When he approached her for their brief greeting (she turned instantly away at its conclusion) she savoured immediately that odd, nice smell there was about him, of mingled soap and peat and fresh tobacco smoke and tweed; and that annoyed her. It was a reminder, emanated from him and therefore not to be escaped, of a distinction he had different from, and above common men. She always granted him his distinction of looks, of air, of talent. It was why she so much disdained him. To be dowered so well and so fatuously to betray his dowry! Tame cat!
But she made him, through the meal, pay compensations for his presence. At the table of Aunt Belle, in his presence she was accustomed to sit largely silent. Beautiful Laetitia was there the star; and while he mouthed and languished in that star's rays Aunt Belle and Uncle Pyke, (stealing about him to capture him as a farmer and his wife with mincing steps and tempting morsel towards a fatted calf) fawned, flattered and deferred to him, he returning it. There was no place for her, and she would have shuddered to have held a place, in that society for mutual admiration. She sat apart. She was very much the poor relation (Aunt Belle could not comprehend her business success and Uncle Pyke would not admit it) and especially odious to her was the Occleve's polite interest in her direction when Aunt Belle, poor-relationing her, would turn to her from coquettish raillery of him with, "Dear child, you're eating nothing." He would smile towards her and, fatuously anxious to please, offer some remark that might draw her into the conversation. She never would be so drawn. She scarcely ever exchanged words with him. She made herself to be unconscious of his presence. He was so occupied with his adoration of Laetitia that to be insensible of his presence was easy. When sometimes she glanced towards him it was with the thought, "Fancy being one of the rising young men at the Bar, being the rising young man—the Bar, with silk and ermine and, why not? the Woolsack before you—and being that, doing that! Fatted calf; dilly, dilly, come and be killed, goose; tame cat!"
Here, at the table of Mr. Sturgiss, it was very different. Intolerable that he should be here, but she was able to make him provide her compensation for his presumption. For the first time in her life, she found herself with sufficient interest in a man to enjoy, nay, to seek, a triumph over him. And she had that triumph. She was as certain as that she sat there that Mr. Sturgiss, in the period before her arrival in the drawing-room, had been telling him of her abilities and of his high regard for her. There was an interest in his look at her across the table that assured her he had been informed. There was, much more, a conviction within her, from Mr. Sturgiss's manner and from his choice of subjects—confined almost entirely and to the absolute exclusion of Mrs. Sturgiss to the political situation and to markets, exchanges and the general tendency in the City—and particularly from the openings in these subjects with which continuously he presented her—a conviction arising out of these that Mr. Sturgiss, proud of her, of his discovery of her, was bent upon showing her off to his second guest, bent upon proving to his second guest what unquestionably he had said to him about her.
She most admirably responded. If she were indeed the subject of a challenge she most admirably flattered her backer. She is not to be imagined as a pundit excavating from within herself slabs of profound wisdom, nor yet as a pupil astoundingly instructing her masters, nor even as one of Mrs. Sturgiss's blue stockings, packed with surprising lore. Rosalie was nothing so foolishly impossible, but she displayed herself knowledgeable. She was profoundly interested in the matters under notice and therefore (for it follows) she was interesting in her contributions to them; she was fascinated—the old fascination of "Lombard Street" and of "The English Constitution" now intensified as desire intensifies by gratification—and therefore she fascinated; she was never silly—Rosalie could not be silly—but she was frequently in her remarks ingenuous, but her ingenuousness, causing Mr. Sturgiss more than once to laugh delightedly (Occleve, curiously grave, no doubt because surprised, did not laugh) was born out of a shrewd touch towards the heart of the matter, as the best schoolboy howlers are never the work of the dullard but of him that has perceptions. Of her in her childhood it has been said that she was never the wonder-child of fiction who at ten has read all that its author probably had not read at thirty. So now of her budding maturity she was not the wonder-woman of fiction, causing by her brilliance her hearers, like Cortez's men, to stare at each other with a wild surmise. No, nothing so unlikely. But she was intelligent and she was ardent; and there are not boundaries to the distance one may go with that equipment. She was admirable and she felt that she was effective. She had a consciousness of confidence amounting almost to a feeling of being tuned up and now let go; to a feeling of power, as of inspiration. And this strange animation that she had, came, she knew, from the triumph over that man, from the feeling, stated grimly, that she was giving him one.
It is much more important, all that, than, when it came, the great reason of the great invitation that had brought Rosalie to take part in it. The great reason already has been disclosed—Mr. Sturgiss, bending across the tablecloth, they two left alone, "Well, look here—to come to the point—the reason why I've got you up here tonight—it's this: we want you—Field and Company, the Bank,—we want you to come to us—we want you in Lombard Street."
She was beautiful to see in her proud happiness at that. Startled and tremulous, she was; like some lovely fawn burst from thicket and at breathless poise upon the crest of unsuspected pastures; within her eyes the cloud of dreams passing like veils upon the gleam of her first ecstasy; upon her face, shadowed as she sinks somewhat back, the tide of colour (her rosy joy) flooding above her sudden pallor; her lips slightly parted; her hand that had been plucking at the cloth caught to her bosom where her heart had leapt.
It may be left at that. It is enough; too much. What, in the reconstruction of a life, are, in retrospect, its triumphs but empty shards, drained and discarded, the litter of a picnic party that has fed and passed along?
Mr. Sturgiss bent farther across the tablecloth, expanding his proposal: She knew, said he, what he represented, what the firm was. Field and Company. A private bank. Well, the days of private banks were drawing in. These huge joint-stock leviathans swallowing them up like pike among the troutlings. But not swallowing up Field and Company! Not much! If the old private houses were tumbling into the joint-stock maw, the greater the chances for those that stood out and remained. The private banks were tumbling in because they stood rooted in the old, solid, stolid banking business and the leviathans came along and pounced while they dozed. There was no dozing at Field's. They were very much awake. They were enterprising.
"Look at this very matter between us. The idea of bringing a woman into a bank! Even old Field himself was startled at first. Why? In America, women are entering banking seriously and successfully. They're going to in England. At Field's. You." He wasn't proposing to bring her in for fun or for a chance that might turn up, like the man who picked up a dog biscuit from the road on the chance that some one would give him a dog before it got mildewed; no, he was bringing her in to develop an enterprise that should be the parent of other and greater enterprises. Her knowledge of insurance, her knowledge of schools, these, with her sex, on the one side of the counter and all their clients—the Anglo-Indian crowd who were the backbone of the business—on the other side of the counter. Field's, for cash, and, while it was drawing, for advice, was always the first port of call of the wives and the mothers home from India, to say nothing of the husbands and the fathers,—"well, Field's, you, shall be the fount of all that domestic advice that is just what all those people, cut off from home, are constantly and distractingly in need of." She didn't suppose, as it was, that Field's did no more, for them than bank their money? Field's were their agents. Field's saw that they booked their passages, and that their baggage got aboard; and when they arrived this end or the other, or when they broke their journeys coming or going, Field's representatives were there to meet them and take over all their baggage troubles for them. "Very well. Now Field's—you—are going to look after their domestic troubles for them—find them rooms, find them houses, find them schools for their children. When people know what we can do for them, people will come to us to bank with us because we can do it. When people come to us to bank with us—we go ahead."
Mr. Sturgiss ended and drew back and looked at her. He lit a cigarette and took a sip at his coffee. "We thought of offering you three—" he set down his cup and looked at her again—"four hundred a year."
She declined the post. She was girlish, and delighted him, in her expression of her enormous sense of the compliment he paid her; she was a woman of uncommon purposefulness, and increased his admiration for her by the directness and decision with which uncompromisingly she said him no. She owed a loyalty which she could never fully pay to Simcox's, to Mr. Simcox; that was the beginning and the end of her refusal. Simcox's was her own, her idea, her child that daily she saw growing and that daily absorbed her more: that was the material that filled in and stiffened out the joints of her refusal. "But if you knew how proud I am, Mr. Sturgiss! You don't mind my refusing?"
He laughed and rose to take her to the drawing-room. "I don't mind a bit. This is only what they call preliminary overtures. I shall ask you again. We mean to have you."
Between the two rooms he said, "Yes, mean to. It's a big thing. I'm certain of it. We shall keep it open for you. We shan't fill it." He put his hand on the drawing-room door and opened it. "We can't."
She went in radiant.
She was on the red bus again, going home. She had stayed but the briefest time after dinner. She was too elevated, too buoyant, too possessed possibly to remain in company; excitedly desirous to be alone with her excited thoughts,—especially to be alone with them in that significant apartment of hers. Significant! Why upon the very day of entering it had come this most triumphant sign of its significance! Significant!...
She had a front seat on the outside of the omnibus. She gazed before her along a path of night that the lamps jewelled in chains of gold, and streamed along it her tumultuous thoughts, terrible as an army with banners. It was very strange, and it vexed her, robbing her of her proud consciousness of them, that there obtruded among them, as one plucking at her skirt—as captain of them she rode before them—the figure of Laetitia's Harry. Similarly he had obtruded and been like to spoil the pleasure of her visit; but he had been made to provide compensations and he obtruded now only in rebirth of a passage with him that, rehearsed again, much pleased her even while, annoyed, she cut him down.
Taking her leave, she had been seen from the threshold by Mr. Sturgiss and by Laetitia's Harry. It was pitchy dark, emerging from the brightness of the interior, and he had stepped with her to conduct her to the gate. "It was an extraordinary coincidence, meeting you here," he had said.
She did not reply. His voice was most strangely grave for an observation so trite; he might have been speaking some deeply meditated thing, profound, heavy with meaning, charged with fate. Fatuous! It was extraordinary that there was not an action of his but aroused her animosity. This vibrant gravity of tone—an organ used for a jig, just as his gifts were used for his Laetitia moon-calfings—caused newly a disturbance within her against him. She would have liked to whistle or in some equal way to express indifference to his presence.
They were at the gate and he stooped to the latch and appeared to have some trouble with it. "Sturgiss has been telling me what a wonderful person you are."
Again that immense gravity of tone. She was astonished at the sudden surge of her animosity that it caused within her. She had desired to express indifference. She desired now to assail. She made a sneer of her voice. "I should have thought you had ears for the wonder of no one but Laetitia."
"Why do you say that?"
She felt her lip curl with her malevolence. "To see you raise your eyes and hear you breathe 'Ah, Laetitia!'"
He opened the gate and she passed out, tingling.
It astounded her to find herself a hundred yards gone from the house, nay, now upon the bus a mile and more away, recalling it, trembling and with her breath quickened. It was as if she had been engaged in a contest of wills, very fierce; nay, in a contest physical, a wrestling. She had not known, she told herself, that it was possible to hate so. That man! These men! She put her eye upon the bus driver, strapped on his perch so near to her that she could have touched him, and absurdly in her repugnance of his sex hated him and shrank farther away from him.
It was enormously, sickeningly real to her, her repugnance. Even on detached consideration of her ridiculous shrinking from the bus driver she could not have laughed at it. People who had an uncontrollable antipathy to cats did not laugh at the grotesque puerilities to which it carried them. Nor she at her antipathy. "Of course they're beasts." Yes, the right word! It was the beastliness of sex that bottomed her loathing.
She could not have laughed; but she could and did with a conscious intention of her will put that intruder on her animation finally out of her mind. This very joyous uplifting of her spirit, was it not because, in this world dominated by men, based for its fundamental principle upon play of sex as commerce is based upon the principle of barter, she was assured of position, of privilege, and of power that raised her independent of such conventions and such laws?
She was her own! All her proud joys, her glad imaginings, her delighted hopes, arose amain and anew, tuned to this cumulative paean as a nourish of trumpets at the climax of a proclamation. She was intoxicated on her happiness.
They were come to the lighted shops and the crowded pavements. The bus drew up at the thronged corner adjacent to the divigation of the Harrow Road and she leaned over and watched the scene, smilingly (for sheer happiness) looking down upon it, as smilingly (for her triumphant altitude) she felt that she looked down upon the world. She would not have changed place with any life living or that could be lived; she was so much abandoned to her happiness that she made the intention she would sit up in her significant apartment all that night, not to lose a moment of it. She grudged that even sleep upon her happiness should intrude.
There came one in the traffic beneath her that caught her attention: a woman whom people stood aside to let pass and turned to look upon with grins; two or three urchins danced about the woman, pointing at her and calling at her. Her dress was disordered, muddy all up one side as if she had fallen; her face flushed; her hat awry; her hair escaped and wisped about her eyes and on her shoulders. She was drunk. An obscene and horrible spectacle, the mock of her beholders. A horrible woman.
It was Keggo.
Rosalie caught her breath. She made to rise but did not rise. Keggo stopped and lifted all around a vacant gaze. Her eyes met Rosalie's straight above her. She lurched a step and stopped and swayed and looked again, battling perhaps with hints within her fumy brain of recognition. Rosalie made again to rise to go to her and again did not rise. The bus moved forward. That wretched woman, making as if to pursue her aroused be-fuddlement, turned about to follow and came a few steps, lurching like a ship that foundered. The light blazed down upon her upturned face. She lurched into some shadow and, as wreckage swallowed up in the trough of the sea, her face was gone.
Lurching... as a ship... that foundered. There was in Rosalie's mind some dim memory struggling. Lurching... as a ship... in the darkness... in the night. And her face... seen and gone... as a ship... labouring... as a ship...
Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing; Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness.
It came to Rosalie complete and word for word; and with perfect clearness, as though she saw and sensed them, all its attendant circumstances: the attic room at the Sultana's, the strange smell mingled with the smell of the oil lamp, Keggo in the wicker chair, she beside her, her head against Keggo's knee; and Keggo's voice reciting the lines and her young, protesting, loving cry, "O Keggo!"
She saw it, sensed it, heard it—and stonily regarded it. A thing to weep at, she knew it; but did not weep. A thing to stab her, it ought to; but did not stab. What good could she do? Suppose she had got up and gone down; suppose she now got up and went down and went back? What good? All sentimentality that. Be sensible! If a thousand pounds would do Keggo any good, and if she had a thousand pounds, freely and gladly she would give the last penny of it. But to get down, to have got down, what could she have done? Why should she worry about her? Keggo had had her chance. Everybody had their chance. She now had hers. Why should she...
She never saw Keggo again.
She had not good health in the week immediately following that great day. She did not feel well. She did not look very well. Mr. Simcox, profoundly sympathetic to every mood of her who was at once his protege and his support, told her he thought she had been overdoing it. She seized upon that excuse and tried to persuade herself that perhaps she had; or, which amounted to the same thing, that she was suffering from the revulsion of those huge excitements. But she did not persuade herself. Her malaise, whatever it was, was not of that kind. Its manifestations were not in lassitude or sense of disability. They were in a curious dis-ease whose occasion was not to be defined; in a consuming restlessness beneath whose goad even the significant apartment had not power to charm and hold her; in a certain feverishness whose exsiccative heat, leaving her palms and temples cool (she sometimes felt them and had surprise) caused inwardly a dry burning that made her long for quiet places.
She could not settle to anything. Her limbs, and they had their way, desired not to rest; her mind, and it deposed her captaincy, would cast no anchor.
Mr. Simcox, as the week drew on, suggested a weekend at home. It had occurred to her, very attractively, but she had negatived it. Aunt Belle (before the idea had come to her) had written an invitation to one of the Saturday dinners in which she had "most particularly, my dear child" desired her presence. Something most delightful was going to happen and she must be there. She had accepted and she later told herself she did not like to refuse. She knew, instantly as she read, what was the identity of this delightful thing that was to happen and she decided, with a sharp turn within her of some emotion, that certainly she would be there. To whet her scorn! She was thereafter much aggravated that her drifting mind, against her wish, swayed constantly towards it sometimes with that same sharp turn of that same emotion (nameless to her and without meaning) always with aggravation of her restlessness, of her fever, of her dis-ease. When came Mr. Simcox's suggestion of the week-end at home she decided, as swiftly as she had first accepted, to revoke her acceptance. She would not be there! She would not—waste her scorn!
Impatient for movement, she that evening went to the splendid house in Pilchester Square to tell her withdrawal. This most exasperating dis-ease of hers! Now that she was come to change her mind she did not want to change her mind. It was like going to the dentist with an aching tooth. On his doorstep the tooth does not ache. Her governance of herself was by her malaise so shaken that positively, as she came into Aunt Belle's presence, she did not know whether she was going to withdraw or to confirm her acceptance of the invitation.
Most comfortingly, Aunt Belle saved her the decision. "My dear child! How unexpected! How opportune! I was just writing to you. Our little dinner is put off! Sit here while I tell you. Now would you like anything, dear child? A piece of cake? Some nice fruit? To please me. Really, no? Well, now; our dinner that I so especially wanted you for—did you guess?"
She began to tell.
She told what Rosalie had perfectly well known. The delightful thing expected to happen was Harry Occleve's proposal of marriage to darling Laetitia. There had been certain signs and portents. They had come at last. Their meaning was perfectly clear. There was not the least doubt that at the next meeting Harry would ask Laetitia's hand. Not the shadow of a doubt! Aunt Belle knew all the signs! Every woman of Aunt Belle's experience knew them, dear child. So Harry had been asked for this dinner; a meaningly written letter, dear child, to encourage him, the dear, poor fellow! And had accepted, in terms so meaning too, the dear, devoted fellow. Then—
"But, Aunt Belle—"
"Listen, dear child. Then he suddenly wrote saying he found he had made a mistake—"
"Made a mistake!" The words went out from Rosalie in a small cry.
"Dear child, it is nothing. How sweet to be so concerned! It is nothing, it is the best of signs. Made a mistake that he was disengaged for Saturday. The dear, devoted fellow was so absurdly vague about it. Unavoidable circumstances prevented him; that was all; his writing and all the appearance of his letter so delightfully distracted! How amused we were, your Uncle Pyke and I! How amused, and how we felt for the dear, devoted fellow! Screwing up his courage! How we remembered our own courtship! You should hear your Uncle Pyke tell how he had to screw up his courage to propose to me and how many times it failed him and he fled. Dear, child, you've no idea how ridiculous these poor men are in their love! How timorous! How they suffer! The dear, poor fellows. Your Uncle Pyke wrote him at once a most kind and meaning letter—accepting his unforeseen circumstances (he had to, of course) and positively fixing him for Monday instead. 'Laetitia is expecting you,' your Uncle Pyke wrote. The dear fellow! How happy it will make him! So it is Monday, dear child. Monday, instead. We do so want you to be there. I do so want you, and so does my darling, to be the first to congratulate her. And you shall be a bridesmaid! Won't that be nice? Kiss me, dear child. I shall never forget your sweet concern before I told you his excuse meant nothing. Dear child, you look startled yet."
There was only a faint voice that came to Rosalie's lips. "Really nothing, Aunt Belle?"
"Dear child, nothing at all."
She went down to the Rectory on Saturday and found herself more glad to be there and to be with her mother than she had ever been. When she greeted her mother, "Kiss me again, dear, small mother," she cried and put her cheek against her mother's and held it there some moments, rather fiercely and with her eyes closed, as though there were in that contact some febrifuge that abated her inward fever, some mooring whereto, adrift, her mind made fast.
What beset her? What was the matter with her? What worked within her? Feverishly she inquired of herself, seeking to analyse her case; but she could by no means inform herself; her case was not within what diagnosis she could summon. What? Near as she could get she had the feeling, nay, the wild longing, to get out: out of what? She did not know. To get away: away from what? She could not say.
She found in herself a great and an unusual tenderness towards the home life. Only her mother and her father were now at home. Harold was at a branch of his bank in Shanghai. Robert was in Canada. Flora was in India, married, with two small children. Hilda was in Devonshire, married to a doctor. These things had happened, these flights been winged, and she had taken but the smallest interest in them. She had had her own af-fairs. She had had herself to think of. She had lost touch with her brothers and sisters. She scarcely ever thought about them. Now she wanted very much to hear about them. What news of them was there? How were they getting on? She did want—she could fix that much of her state, or it presented a relief for her state—she did want to feel that she belonged to them and they to her. She noticed with a large whelming of pity how very small her mother seemed to have grown She was always small, but now—much smaller, fallen in, very fragile. She noticed with a quick pang how all her father's violent blackness of hair, and violent red of colouring, and violent glint of eye and violent energy of gesture were faded, greyed, dimmed, devitalized to a hue and to an air that was all one and lustreless, as if he had gone in a pond covered, not with duckweed but with lichen, and had come out, not dripping, but limp and shrouded head to foot in scaly grey. Was it possible that all this had been so when she was last here? She had not noticed it. She noticed that both her dear mother and her father walked on the flat soles of their feet, and touched articles of furniture as they trod, heavily, across the room. A most frightful tenderness towards them possessed her. She wanted like anything to show them devotion and, most frightfully, to receive from them signs of devotion to her—to be able to feel she was theirs, and they hers. She wanted it terribly.
But what else did she want? What? They gave her, all the home talk, but soon it flagged and whatever in her desired satisfaction still gnawed within her and was unsatisfied; she ministered to them and they were pleased but they seemed very quickly tired; they had their accustomed hours and habits, and whatever it was in her that found relief in solicitude still tossed within her and was not relieved. What beset her? What?
Monday came. She was at this dinner, this festival for the consummation and celebration of the betrothal of beautiful Laetitia and Laetitia's darling Harry. That sick dis-ease of hers had wonderfully vanished when she came into the house, when she was hugged fit to crack her to Aunt Belle's bosom with "Dear child! Dear child! He's just arrived! He's with your uncle downstairs. Look at Laetitia! Lovely! Isn't she lovely? Kiss me again, again, dear child!" When she was floated to by Laetitia, exquisitely arrayed, pink and white, doll-faced, doll-headed, squeaking with coquettish glee, "Rosalie! Darling! Isn't this awful? Imagine it for me, Rosalie! It oughtn't to have been planned like this, ought it? Do tell darling mamma it ought not to have been! I'm trembling. Wouldn't you be?"
Yes, gone that sick dis-ease. How at this spectacle suffer dis-ease, or any other disturbance of the emotions save only disgust, contempt at such a horrid preparation for such a horrid rite. Excited responsiveness to their most friendly excitation was not needed in her for it was not expected. "The shy, quiet thing you always are, dear child," Aunt Belle often used to say to her and said now. (And within the week was to beat her breast in that same drawing-room and cry with an exceeding bitter cry, "Shy! We thought her shy! Sly! Sly! Sly to the tips of her fingers, the wicked girl!")
So she need respond with no more than her normal quiet smile, her normal tone, in their presence, of poor-relation deference and awe. So behind that mask could curl her lip and shudder in the refinements of her views at this most horrid preparation for this most horrid rite. And did. That dis-ease strangely fled, there came to her the swift belief that here, and she had not known it!—was that dis-ease's cause. It was the anticipation of this exhibition of all the things she hated most, of the most glaring presentiment of outrage of all her strongest principles. This Laetitia, embodiment of useless woman-hood, launching herself on that disgusting dependence on a man that soon would strand her among the derelicts; and that Laetitia's Harry, that might have been a man among men, coming to the apotheosis of his languishing to—oh, wreathed, fatted calf with gilded horns!
Yes, it was this had vexed her so; and suddenly informed of the seat of her injury she turned upon it disgust and scorn such as never before had she felt (and she, had felt it always) for the whole order of things for which it stood. She felt her very blood run acid, causing her to twist, in her acid contempt for the subservience of women, and most of all for that Laetitia's subservience, floated on that ghastly coquetry like a shifting cargo that in the first gale will capsize the ship; she felt her very temples throb, and almost thought they must be heard, in her fierce detestation of all the masculinity of men and most of all—yes, with a flash of eye she could not stay and hoped that he could see—that fatuous Harry's masculinity.
He came into the room—looked pale—poor calf!—and went, with a nervous halt in his walk—sick fool!—to his Laetitia; and looked across at Rosalie and made a half-step to her; and she thought with all her force, to send it to him, her last words to him: that most malevolent, "to see you raise your eyes and hear you breathe, 'Ah, Laetitia'"; and surely sent it, for on that half-step towards her he stopped, hesitated, and turned and engaged Laetitia again.
She had told herself, leaving the Sturgiss's house that night a week ago, that she had not believed it possible to hate a man so. Now! Why that was not hate; that, compared with the inimity that now consumed her, was a mere chill indifference. And it had made her tremble! She was rigid now. Stiff with hate! He personified for her all in life against which she was in rebellion, all in life that her soul abhorred; and while, in the moments before dinner, grunting Uncle Pyke and rallying Aunt Belle and coquetting Laetitia crowded about him, leaving her alone and far apart, she, for the reason that it gave to her hate, and for the example that stood before her eyes, reviewed again her theories of life and again pledged herself in their support....
"Dinner is served." That group went laughing to the door, she followed. "No, no, my boy. Don't stand on ceremony. Pass along as we come. Why, hang it, man, we regard you as one of the family! Ha! ha! haw!" Down the stairs in a body, she following. There is, from their conversation, something the wreathed calf is to get from his coat to bring to show them, a letter or a token or something. The dining-room is to the front on the ground floor. The coats hang in the hall, a narrow passage there, that runs back to Uncle Pyke's study. They are down. "Shall I get it now?" "Yes, bring it along; bring it along, my boy." "And Rosalie" (Aunt Belle), "my fan, dear child. Dear child, I left it on the table in Uncle Pyke's den. You will? Dear child!"
They pass in. The gilded calf turns from them for what it is he is to fetch from his coat; she slips by him to the study and takes up the fan and comes with it again.
It is dim in the passage. A condition on which generous Uncle Pyke years before installed this wonderful electric light that you flick on and flick off as you require it was that it should always be flicked off when you did not require it. Now as Rosalie came from the study the passage was lit only by the shaft of light that gleamed from the dining-room door; its only sound Aunt Belle's noisy chatter from the waiting table.
He was fumbling at the coats, standing there sharply outlined against the stream of light, his face cut on it in a perfect silhouette. She had to pass him. That hateful he. She was seized with a fit of that same trembling that had shaken her after the passage between them at the gate on Shoot Up Hill. It shook her now, dreadfully. Her knees trembled. She felt faint. Awful to hate so! She was quite close, almost touching him. It was necessary he should move, forward or back, to give her room. But he did not move. His hands, outstretched before him on the coats, and sharp against the light, appeared to her to be shaking; but that was the hallucination of this frightful trembling that possessed her. She tried to say, "If you please—," but, dreadfully, had no voice; but made some sound; and he, most slowly, drew back. It was before him that she had to pass.
She advanced; and felt, as if she saw it, the intensity of the gaze of his eyes upon her; and saw, as if the place were light and her look not averted, his "marching" face and those lines radiating to his temples (horizon tracks) where the faint touch of greyness was; and suddenly had upon her senses, with an extraordinary pungency, causing them to swim, that odd, nice smell there was about him of mingled peat and soap and fresh tobacco, of tweed and heather and the sea.
She caught her breath...
The thing's too poignant for the words a man has.
She was caught in his arms, terribly enfolding her. He was crying in her ears, passionately, triumphantly, "Rosalie! Rosalie!" She was in his arms. Those long, strong arms of his were round her; and she was caught against his heart, her face upturned to his, his face against her own; and she was swooning, falling through incredible spaces, drowning in incredible seas, sinking through incredible blackness; and in her ears his voice, coming to her in her extremity like the beat of a wing in the night, like the first pulsing roll of music enormously remote, "Rosalie! Rosalie!"
The thing's too poignant for the words one has. This girl's extremity was very great, not to be set in words. Words cannot bring to earth that which, ethereal, defies our comprehension as life and death defy it and, like life and death, to our comprehension only sublimely IS. Words only can say her spirit, bursting from bondage, streamed up to cleave to his; how tell the anguish, how the ecstasy? Words only can say her spirit, like a live part of her drawn out of her, seemed to be rushing upwards from her body to her lips; words cannot tell the anguish that was bliss, the rapture that was pain. Only can say that she was in his arms, her heart to his, his lips against her own, and cannot tell—
But also it is to be accounted to her for her extremity that herein all her life's habit was delivered over by her to betrayal.
He was saying, "We must go in. Can you go in?" She breathed, "I can."
That dinner! That after-dinner in the drawing-room upstairs! It is a nightmare to be imagined, not to be described. Imagine walking from the darkness and the frightful secret of the passage into the blazing dazzle and the glittering eyes of the resplendent dinner party! They, in Harry's absence, have been exchanging the last private nods and flashes. "Soon! Soon!" they have been nodding to one another. Uncle Pyke, licking his chops anticipatorily of his bath in his soup, has been licking them also in relish of working off his daughter in this excellent match; Aunt Belle, kind, kind Aunt Belle, with a last satisfied eye about the appointments of the table, has patted her Laetitia's hand and conveyed to her, "Soon, soon, darling; soon, soon!" Beautiful Laetitia has given a gentle, glad squeeze to the patting hand and smiled a lovely, happy, certain smile. "Soon! Soon!" has gone the jolly signal—and it is not going to be soon, nor late; it is never, never going to happen; and worse than never happen!
Worse than never happen! That's it. That is the awful knowledge of awful guilt with which Rosalie sits there and freezes in guilty agony at every pause in the conversation and could scream to notice how the pauses grow longer and longer, more frequent and more frequent yet. There's a frightful constraint, a chilly, creepy dreadfulness steals about the party. They go upstairs—Aunt Belle and Rosalie and beautiful Laetitia—and the constraint goes with them. They sit and stare and hardly a word said. Something's up! What's up? What's the matter with everything? Why is everything hanging like this! What's up? And the men come in—Uncle Pyke swollen with food, swollen with indigestion, swollen with baffled perplexity and ferocious irritation; and Harry—she dare not look at Harry—and the thing is worse, the awfulness more awful. Glances go shooting round the awful silences—Uncle Pyke's atrabilious eye in the burning fiery furnace of his swollen face is a stupendous note of interrogation directed upon Aunt Belle; Aunt Belle's eyebrows arch to scalp and appear likely to disappear into her scalp and remain there in the effort to express, "I don't know! I can't imagine!"; Laetitia—Laetitia's eyes upon her mother are as a spaniel's upon one devouring meat at table.
Frightfulness more frightful, awfulness more awful; in Rosalie almost now beyond control the desire to scream, or to burst into tears or wildly into laughter. Then she knows herself upon her feet and hears her voice: "Aunt Belle. I must go, I think. I think I am very tired to-night."
They suffer her to go.
That's all a nightmare; but, when the door is closed upon them, like a nightmare gone. She was alone upon the staircase and then down in the hall—by those coats!—and, as though no ghastly interval had been, the amazing and beloved moment was returned to her. Out of a nightmare into a dream! She stood in her dream a moment—two moments—three—by the hall door. Who till that evening never had thought of love, astonishingly was invested with all love's darling cunning. She felt somehow he would see her again before she left; and love's dear cunning told her right. He came swiftly down the stairs. She never knew on what pretext he had left the room. He came to her. Love loves these snatched moments and always makes them snatched to breathlessness. She opened the door and must be gone. She said to him, speaking first, "Oh, we were vile in there! How vile we were!"
It was, the intimacy and the abruptness of it, the perfect comprehension that their thoughts were shared, as if they had known and loved for years.
He caught her hand. "My conspirator! My secret-sharer!"
She gave him her heart in her eyes.
He said, "To-morrow, I will come to you."
She disengaged her hand.
He gave a swift look all about and caught her in his arms. "You must tell me, my Rosalie. Tell me."
She breathed, "You knew, before I knew, that I loved you."
When she was home and got to her room she undressed, suffering her clothes to lie as they slipped from her. She got into bed, moving there and then lying there as one in trance.
Cataclysm! All she had been, all she had determined—all, all gone; all nothing, surrendered all. At a touch, in a moment, without a cry, without a shot, without a stroke, all her life's habit swept away. All she had been, all she'd designed, all she had built within herself and walled about herself, all she had scorned, all that with a violent antipathy she had shuddered from or with curled lip spurned away,—all, all betrayed, breached, mined, calamitously riven, tumultously sundered, burst away.
She turned her face to the pillow and began to cry—most frightfully.
It was very terrible for Rosalie.
PART THREE—HOUSE OF CHILDREN
There's none so sick as, brought to bed, that robust he that ever has scorned sickness; nor any sinner like a saint suddenly gone from saintliness to sin; and there can be no love like love suddenly leapt from repression into being.
Rosalie, that had abhorred the very name of love, now finding love was quite consumed by love. She loved him so! Even to herself she never could express how tremendous a thing to her their love was. She used deliberately to call it to her mind (as the new, rapt possessor of a jewel going specially to the case to peep and gloat again) and when she called it up like that, or when, in the midst of occupation, her mind secretly opened a door and she turned and saw it there, a surge, physically felt, passed through her, and she would nearly gasp, her breath taken by this new, this rapturous element, as the bather's at his first plunge in the cold, the splendid sea.
She loved him so! She looked at him with eyes, not of an inexperienced girl blinded by love, but of one cynically familiar with the traits of common men, intolerantly prejudiced, sharply susceptible to every note or motion of displeasing quality; and her eyes told her heart, and what is much more told her mind, that nothing but sheer perfection was here. Harry was brilliantly talented, Harry was in face and form one that took the eye among a hundred men. But she had known all that and freely granted him all that before. What she found as she came to know him, and when they were married what she continued to find, was simply, that he was perfect. He was perfect in every way and there was no way in which, inclining neither to the too much nor the too little, he was not perfect.
The labour of a catalogue of her Harry's virtues is thus discounted. Name a virtue in a man and it was Harry's. Declare too much perfection is as ill to live with as too much fault, and it is precisely just before too much is reached that Harry's dowry stopped. Suggest she was blind to defects, and it is to be answered that there was no man who knew him that ever had a thought against him (except Uncle Pyke, Colonel Pyke Pounce, R.E., who, justifiably, was warned by his physician never to think upon the monster lest apoplexy should supervene) nor any fellow man in his profession (and that is the supreme test) that ever grudged him his success. Disgruntled barristers, morosely brooding upon the fall of plums into other mouths than theirs, always said, when it was Harry's mouth: "Ah, Occleve; yes, but he's different. No one grudges Harry Occleve what he gets."
Different! In Rosalie's fond, fondest love for him she often used to hug her love by making that catalogue of all his parts that has been shown not to be necessary. And it was the little, tiny things wherein he differed from common men that especially she cherished. By the deepest part of her nature terribly susceptible to the grosser manifestations of the male habit, it was extraordinarily wonderful and delicious to her that Harry of these had none. In an age much given to easy freedom of language it will not be appreciated, it perhaps will cause the pair of them to be sneered at, but it demands mention as illuminating a characteristic of hers (and of his), that she had, for instance, especial delight in the fact that Harry never even swore. The impossible test in the matter of self-command is when a man hits his thumb with a hammer. What does a bishop say when he does that? But she saw Harry catch his thumb a proper crack hanging a picture in the house they took, and, "Mice and Mumps!" cried Harry, and dropped the hammer and the picture, and jumped off the stepladder, and did a hop, and wrung his hand, and laughed at her and wrung his hand and laughed again. "Mice and Mumps!"
"Mice and Mumps!" It always seemed to her to characterise and to epitomise him, that grotesque expression. It always made her laugh; and the more serious the accident or the dilemma that brought it to Harry's lips, the more, by pathos, one was forced to laugh and the seriousness thereby dissipated into an affair not serious at all. Yes, that was the point of it and the reason it epitomised him. There was none of life's dilemmas—little dilemmas that irritate ordinary people or in which ordinary people display themselves pusillanimous; or tragic dilemmas that find ordinary people wanting and leave them in vacillation and despair—there was none of any sort that Harry, receiving with his comic, "Mice and Mumps! Mice and Mumps, old girl!" did not receive with the assurance to her that, though this was a nuisance, he had metal and to spare to settle such; that, though this was a catastrophe, a facer, he'd too much courage, too much high, brave spirit for it to discommode him; there was no fight in such, he was captain of such, trust him!
"One who never turned his back but marched breast forward."
That was Harry!
"Mice and Mumps!" On the evening of the day following that astounding betrothal of theirs, affianced as it were at a blow—a day spent together in the park complete, without a break for food or thought of occupation—on the evening of that day he must go, he de-clared, to the horrific castle in Pilchester Square and break the awful news, proclaim his villainy.
She was terrified. "They'll kill you, Harry. Write."
"No, no. I've been a howling cad. It's true, a howling cad, not of guile, but of these astounding things that have happened to us outside ourselves, but nevertheless a howling cad as such conduct is judged, and will be judged. So I must go through it. I must. That's certain. I couldn't hide behind a letter. They are entitled to tell me to my face what they think of me. They must have their right. Oh, yes, I've got to give them that. To-night. Now."
A howling cad, but of forces outside themselves ("Too quick for me," he had explained), not of guile.
He had explained, in those enchanted hours in the park, that it was really by resolve to do the right thing, and not to do the caddish thing, that he had presented himself the howling cad that they would hold him. That night at the Sturgiss's at Cricklewood had charged him ("Oh, Rosalie, like bursting awake to breathe from suffocation in a dream.") what for many days, only looking at her, never speaking to her, suffering her not veiled contempt, he had felt as one feels a premonition that is insistent but that cannot be defined—that night had charged him that he loved her. He was no way definitely committed to poor Laetitia. Was he more wrong if, now knowing his heart was otherwhere, he maintained and carried to its consummation the intimacy between Laetitia and himself, or if he stopped while yet he had not gone too far? He had decided to break while yet it might, be broken. There was an invitation from Mrs. Pyke Pounce he had accepted. He wrote, endeavouring to give a meaning to his words, excusing himself from it.
She murmured, "I remember." ("Nothing in it, dear child; nothing in it!")
There came back a letter from Colonel Pyke Pounce in which Colonel Pyke Pounce also had endeavoured to give a meaning to his words, and had succeeded. Now Harry knew his problem of moral conduct in a fiercer form; now, resolving to do what he told himself was the right thing and not the caddish thing, he took the step that made him be the howling cad that they would think him. ("But, Rosalie, gave me you!")
He had resolved that he must accept the invitation, present himself at the house—and let the hour decide. As the situation revealed itself so he would accept it. If it was made clear to him, as the Pyke Pounce letter much gave him to believe, that proposal for Laetitia's hand was expected of him, he would "do the right thing" and stand by what his behaviour apparently had led them to expect; if the way still seemed open, the door not shut behind him, he would very frankly explain to Laetitia's grisly father that he thought it best his visits to the house from now should cease. The hour should decide! But there was in the hour, when it came, one terrible, one lovely element that he never had expected to be there. In all his visits to the house Rosalie never had been met on any other day than Saturday. This dinner was on the Monday, and arriving to face and carry through his ordeal, he was startled, he was utterly shaken to see her there. ("To see my darling there.")
O forces outside themselves! "When you had to pass me in the passage nothing mattered then—except I could not let you pass."
So it was that now, the right thing not having been done on that night, the right thing in this new position must be done to-day. They were entitled to tell him to his face what they thought of him and they must have their right. That was his view and he would not abate it.
"They'll kill you, Harry."
They had come by this to the corner of Pilchester Square and there he bade her wait. She said again, part laughing, most in fear, "They'll kill you."
"I've got to give them the chance to do their best."
And off he went, strongly, erect. One who never... but marched breast forward.
Waiting for him, she really was terrified for him. Ferocious Uncle Pyke! Terrific Aunt Belle! Swollen and infuriated Uncle Pyke! Bitter and outraged Aunt Belle!
In twenty minutes came the crash of a slammed front door that clearly and terribly was Uncle Pyke Pounce slamming it as if he would hurl it through its portals and crash it on to Harry down the steps.
Harry reappeared, uncommonly grave.
She put out a hand to him, dreadfully anxious.
"Mice and Mumps!" said Harry. "Mice and Mumps!"
You couldn't help laughing! But also, squeezing the strong arm beneath which he tucked her hand, you felt, with such a thrill, from that grotesque expression, and from his face as he said it, that this, like every forward thing, had in it nothing that could discommode that high, brave spirit: no fight in such; he was captain of such, trust him!
Thus also her delight in another form, and yet in the same form, in that grotesque expression, when it was ejaculated as his sole expletive when he caught his thumb that frightful crack while hanging a picture in what was to be his study in their newly taken house.
Any other man in the world, even a bishop, would have sworn; would have sworn no doubt harmlessly and with an honest heartiness to which the most pious prude could not have taken exception. Agreed! But the point was—that Harry didn't!
She loved him so! She insisted she must bind up the thumb with her pocket handkerchief, and did, Harry protesting; and for years, still loving him with the old, first love, she often would be reminded by the picture of the incident and of her joy in it.
Yes, the only expletive she ever heard him use; and, lo, in that very room, years on, he seated beneath that very picture, she was to come to him with news (and hers the guilt of it) that for the first time was to strike him between the joints of his harness, visibly ageing him as she spoke, and for the first time cause him to groan his pain. She was to glance at the picture as she spoke and very terribly its merry association to be recalled to her. She was to recall him young, gay, tremendously splendid, wringing his damaged hand, laughing, "Mice and Mumps!" She was to see him, grey ascendant upon the raven of his hair, shrinking down in his seat, wilting as one slowly collapsing after a stunning blow, and at her news (and hers the guilt of it) to hear his voice go, not exclamatorily, but in a thick mutter, as one dazed, bewildered, in a fog, "My God, my God, my God, my God!"
How could one ever have foreseen that?
She loved him so! On that first day together in the park she told him everything about herself, about all her ideas and theories and principles, particularly where these touched his sex, even about that terrible fit of crying of hers in bed an hour after she had left him. And Harry understood everything and agreed with her in everything. O rapturous affinity!
They met early when business London was rushing to business. They stayed late, with no thought of food or of their occupations, till business London was returning, and night, in lamps below and stars above, was setting out its sentinels.
She told him everything; and even if she had wished not to open all her heart, there would have been the immense selection of everything—every single thing about herself—from which to choose to tell him. For there never had been such a betrothal as theirs; done at a blow with no single intimate thing ever before passed between them! Her very first words to him as they met, her greeting of him as they came together, showed how preposterous and never-before-imagined was their affiancement. "You know, it's incredible," she greeted him. "It's incredible, it's grotesque, it's flatly impossible—I've never before seen you except in your dress clothes or at afternoon tea!"
Harry took both her hands in his. "But I think I've wanted you," said Harry, "ever since I was in long clothes. I know I've wanted you ever since first I saw you."
One knows another, in her place, would have bantered this off in that modern attitude towards love which is a horror, boisterously expressed, of admitting love as an emotion. Rosalie, that had scorned the very name of love, and that, because betrayed by love, had turned her face to her pillow and cried most frightfully, received it with a sound that was between a sigh and a catching of her breath. She loved him so!
And then they talked; and the thing between them, that had come so wonderfully, was so wonderful that they were as it were transfigured by it, as awe and spirituality and mysticism would fill the dwellers in a house visited by a miracle of God. So wonderful, that conversation, they would have felt, was not possibly a word for all that occupied them in those rapturous hours: not conversation, no,—a sublime engagement of their spirits wherein (possessing the keys of all the wonders), seas, continents and worlds of thoughts were traversed by them, in every clime most exquisite affinity discovered.