"You will shake hands with me, then, won't you?" and he held out his hand.
With an effort I stretched out mine and took his, and held it for a second as in old times.
"Good-bye, Victor," he said, in rather a strained voice, "I shall never cease to regret what I have done."
He hesitated, as if wondering if I should speak. I did not, and he turned and went down the alley, and the darkness closed up after him. I leant silent against the wall, hating myself for forgiving him and letting him go, and yet knowing I would do the same again.
"One must forgive, one must forgive; otherwise one is no better than brute," I thought mechanically. "Later I shall be glad,"—and similar phrases by which Principle excuses itself to furious, disappointed Nature.
After a time I grew calmer, and I went back to the hotel and up to my room. It seemed emptier, blanker still, now that even the dead body of the dog had gone. In the grate, and scattered over the carpet, remained still remnants of black tinder. I felt suddenly tired, worn out. I flung myself, dressed as I was, upon the bed, and lay there in a sort of stupor. And the slow, dark hours of that terrible night of depression tramped over me with leaden footsteps.
The next morning, just as I had dropped into an uneasy doze, there came a knocking and a hammering, and a muttering outside my door.
"M'sieur! M'sieur!" Tap-tap-tap. "Que diable donc! Qu'il dort! M'sieur! Profondement! Est ce qu'il est mort? Ah! c'est une bete Anglaise!" Tap-tap-tap.
All this came through the wall in a hazy sort of confusion, mingling with my sleep, before it roused me to go and open the door. Finally, however, I stumbled off the bed and unlocked the door, and threw it open.
"What now" I thought. "Have I broken any more of your confounded Gallic regulations."
It was not a Commissary of Police this time, but a uniformed commissionaire, with a note in his hand. Possibly serenely unconscious that I had heard his polite remarks outside, he bowed urbanely.
"Bonjour, M'sieur! A thousand apologies for disturbing M'sieur! But Madame said I was to deliver this note personally."
I looked at him with elevated eyebrows. I knew no Madame in Paris.
"I think there is some mistake," I said.
"But why? Monsieur Eeltone? Numero quinze, is it not?"
"Hilton. Yes, that is my name."
He gave me a triumphant glance, and handed me the note with a flourish. The envelope was that of the Grand Hotel; but the writing on it was Lucia's writing. Lucia here in Paris! Close to me! How? Why? The blood poured over my face. With a sense of delight I tore the envelope open:—
"I am at the above hotel. I shall remain at home all to-day in the hope that you may be able to come and see me." "LUCIA."
I looked up the man in the doorway bowed with a deprecating air.
"Madame said I was to wait for an answer."
He had a subdued smile upon his face, which seemed to say—"We know all about these little notes! We are accustomed to them here in Paris!"
I told him to enter, and he followed me into the room and took an interested glance round. Probably, to his view, my pallid face and blood-shot eyes, my last night's clothes, my boots on my feet, and the bed unslept-in, conveyed the idea of a drunken fit only just over in time to make room for the morning's intrigue. A young, beautiful English madame—for the title Miss is barely recognised, never understood in Paris—staying at the hotel and sending notes to a young English M'sieur in another. Yes, this was plainly an intrigue of the genuine order, and the mari would doubtless arrive from England later. All was plain, and he stood with a patronising smile by the table, while I scribbled a note to Lucia.
"My Dearest Life,—I am rushing, flying to you now. I will be with you as soon as fiacre can bring me." "VICTOR."
I closed it, and made him wait while I sealed it, lest he should interfere with it. Then I handed it to him with a two-franc piece, and with bon jours and remerciments and grins he withdrew.
I dressed hurriedly and yet carefully, and shaved with a dangerously trembling hand. The first fiacre that was passing as I left the hotel I took, and was driven, through the bright sunshine that filled the Paris boulevards, to the Grand. I sat back in it, with my arms folded, feeling my heart like a stone within me. Lucia's coming, that, thirty-six hours back, would have infused the extreme of delight through me, was now useless, worthless.
I could do nothing, say nothing. I was a prisoner again, fettered, bound, as if I had an iron collar on my neck, and manacles on my wrists. I looked through the shining, quivering sunlight that fell on every side with blank, unseeing eyes, and the bitterest curses against Howard rose to my lips, checked only by the knowledge that I had forgiven him.
When I reached the hotel, and mentioned her name, I was shown up to a private sitting-room on the first floor, facing the gay Paris boulevard, and with the bright light streaming in through its half-closed persiennes. A figure rose at the opening of the door, and came towards me with outstretched hands.
My eyes fixed on her, and my glance rushed over her in a second, and poured with feverish haste their report back into my brain. Within the first moment of my entry of the room, I was conscious of, I recognised that there was a great change, an almost indefinable, but nevertheless distinctly perceptible, metamorphosis in this woman since I had seen her last. Lucia was a somnambulist no longer. She had awakened. It was a lovely, living woman who crossed the room to me now; a woman awake to her own powers, conscious of the sceptre, and the gifts, and the kingdom that Nature puts into the hands of a woman for a few years, I felt all this as I looked at her, saw it in her advance towards me, heard it in the soft tones of her voice as she said,—
"Well, Victor, are you glad I have come?"
And it was with my heart suddenly beating hard, and my face pale, and a mist before my eyes, that I came forward to her. What had been the first slight shock to her sleeping woman's passions I had no idea.
Perhaps some chance glance from a man's eyes upon her as she passed him in a crowd had suddenly struck through the ice of her abstraction. Perhaps some pressure of an arm meaning she did not even comprehend. Perhaps some word, overheard between two men, whose meaning she did not even comprehend. Perhaps it was only Nature unaided that had whispered to her,—"Life is passing, and its greatest pleasure is as yet untried. Get up and seek it."
Perhaps any of these, or all or none. I could not say. The change was there. Lucia was conscious, awake. Pure, delicate, as from her integral nature she would always, but still awake. As she stood, the sun fell upon her light hair and seemed to get tangled there, a hot, rose glow was in her face, and the smooth scarlet lips parted in a faint seducing smile.
"Now, tell me everything," she said, softly, "I am sure the manuscript is finished by now."
She pointed to a wicker chair for me, and drew one just opposite it in which she threw herself, full in the morning light, but just avoiding the stabbing sun-rays. I saw in a sort of mechanical manner the way in which she was dressed. It was as a woman only dresses once or twice, perhaps, in her lifetime; and that is when she is determined to win, through the sheer strength and force of her beauty, in the face of every obstacle, the man she desires.
Every detail had been thought of, every beauty of her form studied and enhanced, from the light curls on her forehead, and the curves of her bosom rising and falling under its lace bodice, to the tiny shoes that came from beneath the folds of her delicate-coloured skirt.
It was presumably of cotton, for Lucia herself had informed me that she never wore anything in the mornings except cotton or serge; if so, it was a glorified cotton of a clear rose tint. Film upon film of lace hung over it in transparent folds, through which the glowing colour deepened and blushed at her slightest movement, as the hot colour in the heart of a rose flushes through all its leaves.
Above her supple hips, clasping her waist, shone an open-work band of Maltese silver, and above this rose delicate vase-like lines, swelling and expanding at last into the rounded curves of her bosom; here the colour seemed to glow deeper and warmer where her heart was beating tumultuously, and then towards her neck it paled again, beneath ruffle and ruffle of lace that lay like foam against the soft, snow-white throat. It was a symphony of colour. A perfect harmony of perfect tones in union with the brilliant fairness of her skin. The sleeves, half open to the elbow, revealed a white, rounded, downy arm, and the thousand subtle pink-and-white tints of her flesh seemed to melt and merge themselves into a bewildering, distracting glow within that rose-hued sleeve. She made one exquisite, intoxicating vision to the senses. In those moments I can hardly say I saw her. She rather seemed to sway before the dizzy sight of my excited eyes.
Dimly yet keenly, vaguely yet convincingly, I felt she had come as an adorable antagonist to my resolutions. Traditionally speaking, such a knowledge should have made me instantly on my guard.
I ought certainly to have summoned my control, my judgment, and so on, to say nothing of an icy reserve. But I did not. My whole heart seemed to rush out to her, my whole being to strain towards her. I longed to take her entirely in my arms, to kiss her on the lips and throat, and say,—
"Ask whatever you will and it shall be granted."
"The manuscript is finished, isn't it?" she repeated.
Oh, bitter, bitter, and cruel fate that had dragged the fruits of my labour, and with them everything, out of my hand!
"It was finished, Lucia, a few days ago," I said, speaking calmly with a great effort; "but an accident happened and it was destroyed."
I felt myself growing paler and paler as I spoke, meeting her lovely, eager eyes fixed on mine.
"Destroyed?" she echoed, growing white to the lips. "Oh, Victor! How?"
"I would rather not say, Lucia, exactly how it occurred, but it had been accepted by a publisher here, and I was going to make one or two trifling alterations in it to please him, and so I had it back. Well, then, as I say, something happened, and the thing was destroyed."
There was a dead silence.
I saw her heart beating painfully beneath the laces on her bosom, and pain stamped on all her face. Then she said abruptly,—
"Have you Howard with you still?"
"No. He left Paris last night," I answered.
Her eyes met mine full across the sunlight. We looked at each other in silence.
She asked nothing farther.
I believe she comprehended the whole case as it stood, because she would know that had I lost or injured the MSS. myself I should have no reason for concealing it. As a matter of honourable feeling I wanted to keep the fact from her, but I could not help her guessing it. Curiously enough her next question, after a long pause—though I did not see that in her mind there could have been connection between the subjects—was:
"Where is Nous?"
"Nous is dead."
"How did he die?"
"That, also, I would rather not say."
At that, in addition to a sharper look of distress, a puzzled surprise came into her face. She raised her delicate eyebrows and looked at me with a perplexed, half-frightened expression.
"Victor," she said, leaning forward a little in her chair, "was it he that tore up the manuscript? and did you kill him in a fit of rage?"
I looked back at her, also with surprise, that she could suggest such a thing of me as possible.
"Oh, no!" I said hastily; "nothing at all of the sort. No! If either the loss of the book or the dog's death had occurred in any way through my fault I would tell you. I have no secrets of my own from you, but both of these concern another man, and therefore I would rather let them pass."
There was silence.
Then I asked, looking at her,—
"Are you alone here, Lucia?"
"Except, of course, for my maid—Yes."
My heart beat harder. Why? I hardly know, except that the word "alone" has such a charm in it connected with a woman we love.
"Of course," she said, leaning back, "it is a little unconventional my coming here alone; but Mama was not well enough, and I—Victor," she said, with a sudden indrawn breath, "I felt I must come and see you. I told her I felt I should die there if they would not let me come!"
I saw her breast heave as she spoke, her cheek flushed and paled alternately, the azure of her eyes deepened slowly as the pupils widened in them, till there seemed midnight behind the lashes.
I felt a dangerous current stirring in all my blood at her words, a dry spasm seemed in my throat, blocking all speech.
"I thought you must have finished by now, and I came to say—I came to say"—she murmured.
The blood rushed scarlet, staining all the fair skin, across the face before me, and the bright lips fluttered in uncertain hesitation.
I guessed the situation.
She had come to say to me phrases that seemed quite easy, quite simple to her, murmuring them to herself in the silence of an empty studio, and now face to face with me, listening and expectant, they had become difficult, impossible. I leant forward, the blood hot in my own cheek, a dull flame waking in every vein.
"Darling," I said, taking her soft left hand within both my own, "I cannot tell exactly what you wish to tell me; but listen—I had finished all, and had things not turned out as they have I should have been starting now to come to you and say, 'Lucia I am free now to be your slave.' All this year we have been separated I have thought only of you, waking and sleeping, longed for you, dreamed of you, lived in the hour of our re-union, desired with an intensity beyond all words that day that gives you to me; and, forty hours back, that day, Lucia, seemed so near, but now—dearest"—
I stopped, choked, suffocated with the weight of hopeless, despairing passion that fell back upon itself within me.
Lucia leant forward, the beating, palpitating bosom was close to me, her white, nerveless hand lay close in mine.
"And now, Victor?"
"Now all is vanished. I am exactly in the position where I was when I left you in England a year ago."
"And what do you mean—what are we—what?"—
"My sweet, what can we do? I must recommence. I must work on another year."
I felt the burning, tremulous fingers grow cold in mine. Her face paled till it was like white stone. Then suddenly she withdrew her hand from my clasp, and started to her feet.
"Victor, I cannot! no, I cannot! I cannot wait another year! It will kill me!" she said, passionately, looking away from me, and pacing a short length of the floor backwards and forwards before me, as I rose, too, and stood watching dizzily the incomparable figure pass and repass, hardly master of myself.
"Dearest," she continued; "this is what I came to say—let us marry now. I thought you would have successfully finished your work, and we might do so; but now, now, even as it is, let it be as it is, let it be unfinished, and still, still let us marry. There is no real bar as there might be. There is no question of wrong to any one. We are to be married—it cannot matter to any one when we are. Continue to work afterwards. I am willing to be second always, in every thing, to your work. But don't drive me from you altogether. Let me stay with you now I have come. Let us marry now—here. Let us go before some official—the Maire, or some one, or English consul, no matter whom—this afternoon! Victor, if not now, that day you desire will never come. I shall never be your own. Think how it has receded and receded into time! We have been engaged now more than three years!"
She paused in front of me, and lifted her face—brilliant, glowing, appealing—with an intensity of passionate, eager longing in it that defied her words to express. Her whole form quivered with excitement, till I saw the laces of her dress tremble. On the bodice beneath my eyes, the lace fell from the shoulders, and its folds on each side divided slightly in the centre, leaving a depression there in which the rose-colour glowed crimson. It riveted my eyes this line—this channel of colour burnt fiercely beneath my lids.
I could see nothing but it; it seemed everywhere, to fill the room, to scorch into my brain, this palpitating, throbbing, crimson line. That terrible impulse of blind excitement was rapidly drawing me into itself—the impulse that counts nothing, knows nothing, reckons nothing but itself; that will buy the present hour at any sacrifice—that accepts everything, ignores everything but that one moment it feels approaching. This impulse urged me, pressed me, strained violently upon me.
It left me barely conscious of anything except the absorbing longing to take her, draw her close, hard into my arms, and say, "Yes, let all go; from this day henceforward you are mine." But almost unconsciously to myself my reason rebelled against being thus thrust down and trampled upon by this sudden, brute instinct rushing furiously through my frame, and my reason clutched me and clung to me and maintained its hold, and, feeling myself wrenched asunder by these two opposite forces, I stood immovable and silent.
"Victor," she said, after a minute, and the warm, white uncertain hand sought mine again and held it, "I have been working hard since you left, and the canvas is nearly finished, but I am willing to relinquish it for the present, to let it go. In all this time you have been away from me I have been slowly learning that one's own life and one's own life's happiness is of more worth than these abstract ideas, than one's work or talent or anything else. I have been feeling that you and I are letting day after day go by and are working for a to-morrow that for us may never come. Is this your philosophy?"
I looked down on her as she clasped my hand and drew it up to her breast, her eyes were on mine, and all my mental perceptions were blinded and forced down under the pressure of the physical senses.
"Take me into your life, Victor. I swear I won't interfere with your work. Let me sit somewhere beside you all day long while you write, and let me lie all night long watching you while you write, if you like! Oh, do let me! do speak to me?"
She pressed my hand in, convulsively, upon her breast, until it seemed to be in the midst of tremulous warmth, close upon the throbbing heart itself. I could not think. Thought seemed slipping from me. I felt sinking deeper each minute into the quicksand of desire. Nothing seemed clear any longer. All within my brain was merged into one hot, clinging haze, in which still loomed the idea that I must not yield. It would be dishonourable to my father, disappointing to myself, destructive to my work. I could not realise it then, could not see it, but I knew and remembered in a dim way that it was so, that it had been so decided, and I must adhere to it.
"It is impossible, Lucia."
"Because I promised my father we should not marry until I had got out some book."
"But rescind the promise! Say that you cannot carry it out! Give up all help from him, and let us live our lives apart!"
"I have no means to do it with."
"You can make them! Surely with all your knowledge you can get some ordinary work to do till you can get your works out!"
"Even if I had the means I could not, after the understanding between us, after all he has done for me, throw him over at a moment's notice."
"He has no right to ask such a sacrifice!"
"It has all been thought out," I said dully, "and settled before. I can't re-argue it all now. I decided it finally before I left England, and I am in the same position now as I was then."
A scarlet colour stole into the rose glow on Lucia's face.
"You don't care for me, Victor!" she said passionately. "You can't! No man could and speak so!" and she threw my hand from her and herself into the long chair in a sudden, wild storm of excited tears.
I hardly knew what I was doing. I felt as if I had been struck sharply on the eyes as I heard her words. I fell on my knees beside her chair, and put both my arms up and clasped them round the soft waist, and let them lean hard on the hips, in a spasm of angry passion.
"What are you thinking of? You know there is nothing I covet like yourself," I said savagely, the blood flowing over my face as hotly as it burnt in her own. "But we can't do this. We should both despise ourselves afterwards. You should be the last person to urge it on me. What do I ask you? To wait another nine months! That's all. You should help me."
"Help you?" she said, her eyes blazing upon me with anger, shame and passion. "Help you in making a fatal mistake? No, I will not! You can refuse me if you like, but all the responsibility is with you. I warn you against it. I have come to warn you. When it is too late you will wish this day back again. You are not tied now after a whole year's work, and after a misfortune you could not help. If you always wait in life until you have settled and arranged everything just to your satisfaction you will find that you lose your desires. They will slip like sand through your hands while you are arranging your circumstances. Life is never, never quite as we would have it. We must take our pleasures one by one as they are offered to us; it is hopeless to think we can gain them all together. Oh, Victor dearest!" she added, stretching out two rounded, glowing arms in a sort of half-timid desperation and clasping them round my neck, while mine still held her heaving waist, "love now, and win your name by-and-by."
There was delirium in my brain. The whole woman's form swam before my sight. My arms locked themselves violently round the yielding, pulsating waist.
"I would if I could," I muttered, and that was as much as I could say.
"You can," she urged in a soft, desperate voice. "Why not? I can't believe you love me if you let me go back now."
"I can't believe you love me if you urge me to do what I think is dishonourable."
Her arms dropped from my neck.
"Oh, it is a mistake," she said.
We had both risen. The floor seemed to bend beneath my feet. I felt her pulses still beating against my arms. I looked at her. Our eyes met, and the gaze seemed locked, fixed, and we neither of us could transfer it. My throat seemed rigid, dry as a desert; her voice was choked, suffocated in tears. But "Kiss me, at least; oh, kiss me!" was written on the whole imploring face, on the wildly quivering lips, in the burning, distracted eyes. But what use? Rather such a kiss, here, now, might bring an irremediable loss. In any case, the pain of parting after would be ten times intensified for us both. Could I then go? Would any force then be left in me? Would my will stand beyond a certain point? I did not know. It seemed the only safety for us both, the one rock still left in the wild ocean of our passion—an absolute denial to the rushing feelings to find expression in the least of acts or words.
I did not believe nor think she could misunderstand me. I felt sure the struggle and the suffering and the desire must be printed in my face. I knew she must see in it that I was not cold before the despairing, passionate longing I saw stirring all her pained, excited frame. To me it seemed as if she must see me ageing and my face lining before her eyes. I held her hand in mine hard for a moment. Then I dropped it gently, and she looked at me—stunned. And so, unkissed, untouched by my lips that ached so desperately for hers, I left her and went out through the passages and down the steps and out of the hotel into the brilliant streets with my nerves strung tense to sheer agony.
I had acted, of course, in a correct and orthodox manner. No one could reproach me for the interview just past, but in my heart there was a self-condemning voice. Pleasure seldom unveils her face and offers herself to us twice, and Venus is a dangerous goddess to offend. I said, "Wait, wait," and "to-morrow," but those ominous lines beat dully through my brain—
"to daurion tis oiden; os oun et eudi estin."
When I reached my hotel, thought, intelligent thought, seemed collapsing, and my brain spinning round and round within my skull.
"The end of me," I muttered, "at this rate will certainly be a cell in a lunatic asylum."
For the first time, I released my rule against drugs. I sent the hotel porter for a draught of chloral. When it came I drank it, and, in the middle of the brilliant afternoon sunshine, threw myself on the bed, conscious of nothing but a longing for oblivion. Unaccustomed to it, the drug seized well upon me. For long, merciful, quiet hours I knew nothing.
After this there came a blank of many days: idle, barren days, in which I did nothing, knew nothing except that I suffered. My brain seemed blank, empty, like a quarry of black slate. The power that seemed to dwell there at times was gone now; crushed all that impersonal emotion of the writer's mind by the blighting personal emotion of the man.
A fortnight passed, and at the end of it I had done nothing; another week, and then another, and I had still not written a line.
At last one night, sitting idle in the cafe after dinner, I felt the old impulse stir in me, a rush of eager inclination to write went through me. A sudden sense of power filled me. The brain, empty and idle a few minutes before, became charged with energy and desire to expend it. A corresponding current of activity poured along each vein. The old familiar impetus swayed me.
I welcomed it gladly and went upstairs, got out paper and a pen, and the remembrance of my own life slipped away from me. All that night I wrote, and the next day, and the fresh manuscript was fairly started. For a whole fortnight I wrote almost incessantly. I snatched a little food in the cafe, hardly knowing what I ate.
The nights passed feverishly without sleep, while the brain revolved, excitedly, scenes written or to be written. Towards the end of the fortnight the impulses to work steadily declined. I forced myself to write at intervals; but, as usual, the forced work was worthless, and I destroyed it when it was done. No, it was no use. I could merely shrug my shoulders and smoke and wait.
The hot, blank days of August drifted by, and as I saw the boulevards empty themselves day by day, and Paris grow hotter and duller each afternoon, I felt the solitary existence weigh heavier and heavier upon me. The loss of the dog seemed to have made a larger gap in my existence than I should have believed; his unused collars still lay upon my mantelpiece, his plate and saucer still stood in the corner by the hearth, and sometimes when I was climbing the dark stairs at night to my empty room I felt as if I would have given years of my life to have had the dog leap up into my arms in welcome.
One of these nights, when I came into the unlighted room, I saw a letter lying, a white square, in the dusk, upon the table. I supposed it was from my father, as Lucia never wrote, and I was too occupied, or indifferent, or rather both, to keep up other correspondents.
In answer to the first long desperate letter that I had written to my father after Lucia's visit, in which I told him, without explaining farther, that an accident had happened to the MS., and begging him to release me from the arrangement made before I left England, I had received a derisive note from him, full of ironical sympathy with my misfortunes, and advising me to settle down to another year's work, with a good grace and a contented spirit.
My appeals on behalf of Lucia and myself he simply ignored.
I tore the letter into atoms and flung them over the balcony, and since then my letters to him had been short notes, out of which I studiously kept my own feelings. There was no one now to whom I could either speak or write a word of personal matters.
An anchorite in a cave of the desert could not have been more shut off from that dear communication with his fellows that a man hardly values till he loses it.
When I had lighted the lamp I sat staring at the loose sheets of the manuscript lying on the side table, noting painfully how far it was from completion, and it was only when I lifted it to the middle table for work that I glanced at the letter again.
As my eyes fell on the superscription the blood leapt into my face—it was Howard's. There was a strong disinclination in me to take up the letter, to read it, to let my thoughts flow in his direction at all. Resolutely I had tried to banish the memory of him from my mind, to utterly throw out his image from my recollection. The thought of him was disagreeable, and therefore never welcomed.
The idea of one person cherishing, as the phrase is, hatred, envy, or anger against another, always seems to me incomprehensible. All these are unpleasant sensations, and I sweep them out of my mind as quickly as I possibly can, not from any exalted motives, but simply as useless, cumbering lumber, for which I decline to use my brain at a storehouse. Howard had injured me enough.
Was I to waste my time and my energies in hating him? And yet the time had not come when I could think of him with calm indifference. Therefore, to scout the idea of him whenever it presented itself, to refuse to dwell upon him and what he had inflicted on me, was the only way to escape additional pain and discomfort for myself. And now, at sight of his handwriting, the beast, the monster of declining hate rose in me again, and I remembered him.
It came back upon me that evening, his image, and I knew that I hated him still. I took up the letter with a feeling of revolt and disgust, as if it had been a filthy object, broke it open, and read:—
"DEAR VICTOR,—I expect you will say to yourself it is the greatest cheek my writing to you, and I know it is, but I am reduced to that state of desperation when a man ceases to feel degradation."
"I am writing to ask you for help—you will wonder how I can. So do I. I wonder at myself. But I know you are the best of fellows, and I feel you will help me now in spite of all that has happened. Victor send me what you can, as near 15 Pounds Sterling as possible, to save me from irrevocable disgrace. I have no one but yourself to apply to. If you refuse I am done for. You will know what a desperate position I am in, I must be in, to ask you at all.—Yours in despair and everlasting regret, HOWARD."
I read it through, and then dropped the letter and its envelope into the fire, glad to get rid of the sight of the familiar hand. And I watched it burn, and I thought of the manuscript which must have curled and writhed in the same way, leaf by leaf, as he lighted it, and I asked myself again—What is forgiveness?
I knew that I hated him. I had now the opportunity of consigning him to "irrevocable disgrace," as he put it. But I knew that I should send him the help he asked for on the same principle as I had refrained from injuring him, forgiven him, shaken hands with him. And why? I wondered. What was my motive? Simply, I think, a mere instinct to preserve my own self-respect.
I enclosed a cheque for 20 Pounds Sterling in a blank sheet of paper, put it in an envelope, and went out that same night and posted it. When I had his letter of thanks I glanced through it hastily and then burnt it, and tried to stamp out the re-awakened memory of him from my brain. Weeks followed weeks of the same colourless, monotonous existence; some of them were wasted in physical ill-health, some in mental inactivity, but slowly a manuscript grew and grew again into being.
The slow winter wore away, and the ice froze or the fog pressed on the long French windows of my room. My father invited me to run over and spend Christmas with him, but I dreaded the interruption and the delay in the work. I stayed and pressed forward with it, and in the last days of March the whole book stood complete.
It was one of the first nights of May. The first warm, spring-like night of the season, and the seats at the Concert des Ambassadeurs were crowded by the Parisians consuming their brandied cherries under the canopy of fluttering light green leaves of the opening limes. I sat, one of the audience, and heard the band clashing, and watched the dancers flit on and off the glittering diminutive stage, with indifferent eyes and ears.
I was thinking of my success. The band might thunder its hardest, but it could not drown the publisher's voice in my ears, which repeated over and over the words I had heard that morning. "Yes, M'sieur, your book has been accepted. We shall hope to bring it out in September."
I sat there at peace with all the world. Howard was entirely forgiven now; my father's treatment forgotten. Let the past go. What did anything matter? And I tapped my stick on the flooring at the end of the songs I had barely heard, out of sheer good humour, and swallowed the second-rate brandy and smoked an infamous cigar with imperturbable complacence; and as I got up with the mass at the finale I heard my nearest neighbour's remark to his companion, which might be freely translated thus:
"How jolly these pigs of English always look!"
As I was leaving, a woman ran down the gravel walk after me, and slipped her arm through mine. I turned and paused. She was very small, pretty, and Parisian from her black eyebrows, cocked like one of her own circumflex accents, to her patent shoes under her silk skirt.
"What do you want" I said, in her own tongue, of course. "Money?"
"We don't put it like that!" she said, thrusting out her red lips.
"Well, it comes to that in the end generally," I said, whirling my cane round in my hand and smiling." It will save you trouble if you take it now," and I offered her two five-franc pieces and withdrew my arm. "Go to the bar and drink my health with it!" She took the money, but still looked at me.
"Give me a kiss!" she said in a low tone, so low that I did not catch the last word.
"Give you what" I asked.
She stamped her foot.
"Un baiser!" she said, with a little French scream. "Embrasse moi! Stupide!"
I laughed slightly as I looked down upon her. It seemed so ludicrous, the proposition, just then to me. I had hardly lived the life I had in Paris for the last thirty months, to now, in the moment of success and freedom, mar its remembrance by even so much as a chance kiss to a cafe chantant girl.
For a second we looked at each other. I noted the tint and the curl of the offered lips, damp with cosmetic, and suggestive of past kisses, and the untouched lips of Lucia seemed almost against my own as I looked. Then I loosened her hand, which clung to my sleeve, and turned from her, and went on down the path. She shrieked some vile French words after me, and sent the five-franc piece rolling after me down the gravel slope.
I laughed and shrugged my shoulders without looking back, and went on out of the gardens down into the now silent streets. What a flood of good spirits poured through my frame as I passed on! I hardly seemed to walk. The buoyant, almost intolerable, unbearable sense of elation within me seemed pressing me forward without volition.
The incident just passed, the woman's hand on mine, the woman's words, though from her they were nothing to me, had yet touched and unlocked those impulses which, until now, had been so sternly repressed, barred down, sepulchred and sealed. They rose upwards, and with an exultant triumph I remembered I was free now to live and to love. My work was done, honourably and faithfully accomplished.
Thirty months lay behind me, an unblemished scroll in time, recording one unbroken stretch of labour, suffering, and repression. And now it was over, and I was at liberty. An unspeakable animation swelled in me; and through all the excited, burning frame seemed to run living fire that formed one thought in my brain, one loved word on my lips—Lucia! Like two planets, at the end of each dark street I turned, I seemed to see her eyes. To her, to her my feet seemed carrying me. I was only returning to my empty room, but no matter! A few days more and then England and Lucia!
I was glad now of everything I had suffered, every emotion repressed, every weakness vanquished. Strange, wonderful power that lies in that slight, grey tissue which we call brain! It seemed hardly credible that this buoyant sense of exultation, this overflowing, stupendous joy of gratified pride and ambition, this triumphant pleasure in my own powers and their recognition at last, these brilliant vistas that opened in my thoughts, could come from the movements of a little matter with a little blood flowing through it. And yet, so soon, a few years and I, who seemed now like some eternal being carried through worlds of space and endless cycles of years, should be—nothing. Well, no matter; I lived now and Lucia lived!
The street was quite empty, and, half unconsciously, I began to sing the song Bella Napoli, always a favourite of mine, for the sake of the refrain, Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia! The notes echoed down the silent street as the words flowed from my tongue in the intoxication of pleasure—pure, simple, single, undiluted pleasure of the relief after those weary months of strain. The ground beneath my feet seemed buoyant air, each pulse within me beat with keen life, and the name of the woman I loved formed itself again and again on my lips, fluttered and lingered there, almost like the touch of a pure and invisible kiss.
The lamps burned in a subdued way under their dark, rose-coloured shades, the trail of the women's skirts hardly made any sound on the thick carpet, the room was large, and the piano that was being played mildly at the other end of it failed to disturb our conversation.
"Well, now, then?"
I leant over the back of Lucia's low easy-chair and waited eagerly for her answer. It was the second night after my return to England. I had dined with the Grants, and now in this dim, secluded corner of the drawing-room I had the first opportunity of serious conversation with her.
"I don't know, Victor; not at present."
"Lucia! what do you mean!"
"What I say, dearest," she answered quietly.
Looking down on her I could see, beneath a confusion of black eyelashes and dark eyebrow, that the blue eyes looked straight out in front of her, her arm lay along the wicker side-rest of the chair, languid, indolent, relaxed.
"But why?" I said. "Why not at once? Tell me."
She was silent for some time, then she said,—
"When I came to you last year I urged our marriage, and you said it could not be; now you urge it, and I say it cannot be. That's all."
I bit my lips suddenly, and I was glad she was not looking at me. I was silent, too, for a minute; then I said,—
"But surely you are not thinking of punishing me for that; of avenging yourself? You knew all the circumstances, and you acquiesced in my decision. You would not now think of revenge—it is so unlike you!"
"Oh no, no! You misunderstood me. How can you think I should occupy myself with a ridiculous, petty idea of revenge?" and she laughed a slight, fatigued laugh. "No, I merely meant that Chance had so arranged it."
"But how, then? There is no obstacle now."
"Not on your side; no."
"Then what is it, dearest, on yours?"
She did not answer me for a long time, and then it was seemingly with reluctance, and a slight flush crept into her pale face as she said merely the two words,—
I hardly know exactly what sensation her answer roused in me, but I think it was nearer relief than any other. In those few seconds of silence all sorts of apprehensions and fears had crowded in upon me. Her health! What barrier need that make between us? And in that moment of selfish passion that was all I heeded.
"What has that to do with our marriage?" I asked, laughing, and bending down farther over her. "You don't mean that you are too ill to go through the ceremony. Come!"
She met my gaze fully, and then laughed too. After a second she said,—
"If you disbelieve me and think I am making up, you can at any rate tell from my looks that I am ill—any man can see that."
I looked at her critically now, remembering my feeling of shock when I had first seen her on my return. Yes; I remembered I had thought her looking fearfully overworked and exhausted, and now I looked at her again with redoubled anxiety.
From the black lace of her dinner dress, cut as low as vanity dared to dictate, and with but one narrow black strip supporting it on her shoulders, her white throat and breast and light head rose like dawn out of the night ocean. The milky arms that lay idly along the chair were as smooth, as downy, but far less dimpled than when I had seen them in Paris. Round the throat I could trace now the clavicles, formerly invisible, and lower, at the edge of her bodice, the depression in the centre of the soft breast was wider. Yes; she was very much thinner, and the face above only confirmed the impression of illness. It was pale, and looked slightly swollen; the eyes were dilated and surrounded with blue shades; the lips were red, almost unnaturally so, to the point of soreness, as they get to look in fever.
"Well, have you come to your conclusion?" she said, as she raised her eyes suddenly and intercepted mine surveying her.
I coloured slightly, looked away, and then said merely, "Yes, you don't look well."
She gave a little slighting laugh, as much as to say, "You might have arrived at that before, one would think!"
"But Lucia," I said, entreatingly, "this is all very serious; do tell me what is wrong."
"Ah, my health becomes a serious matter," she answered, leaning her soft head back on my arm that was resting on the top of her chair, and looking up at me with her brilliant, clever eyes ablaze with indulgent derision, "if it is likely to stop our marriage when YOU desire it!"
I winced before the delicate thrust in her words, and hardly knew whether the pain of them was drowned in the pleasure the confident touch of her head transfused through my arm.
"That is unnecessarily unkind," I answered, quietly. "Your health or ill-health would always be a serious matter, but since you hint it—yes, I admit—if it prevented our marriage, if it came between us now, Lucia, it would surpass even the importance it has at all other times. Tell me what is the matter," I persisted.
The little head turned restlessly on my coat sleeve, and the warmth from the cheeks and lips came into my wrist. She seemed half inclined to yawn, and the delicate left hand, with my ring flashing on it, came to her lips and closed them when they had barely parted.
"People call it hysteria," she said at last. "It is a form of hysteria now, but it did not begin with that. It was overstrain, nervous breakdown, a collapse of the system. See my hand when I hold it up, how it shakes? I can't control that, and my heart beats wildly at the slightest exertion. I am exhausted, limp, Victor, ironed out by the events of last year, very much like what your collar would be without its starch!"
She was looking up at me now and half laughing. She had raised her hand between me and the nearest lamp; it quivered violently, as she said, and looked transparent and scarlet close against the light. I caught it in mine and drew it up to my lips.
"Victor!" she said, indignantly, "release it! remember where we are!"
"I don't care where we are!" I muttered, letting go her hand, but not before I had kissed it passionately across the tiny knuckles and in the palm. It fell nerveless into her lap; her face grew so desperately pallid, even her lips, that I was startled.
"Lucia! What is the matter?"
The lids that seemed ready to sink over her eyes lifted again.
"Nothing; but—I was telling you, just this minute, I am exhausted—done for."
I looked at her in dismay, and I saw her heart must be beating violently; the red geraniums against her breast rose and sank in a series of rapid, irregular jerks.
"I am sorry," I murmured. "Forgive me;" and my heart sank suddenly with a vague, in definable sense of apprehension as I looked at her.
Where was the girl who had come to me a year ago, full of overflowing, eager, exuberant health and life, hungry for love, longing and ardent for a kiss? Not here; somewhere in the past that I had neglected and refused. And the contrast between the two images struck me like a lash across the brain. The next minute I had recovered myself. This was only a passing in disposition of Lucia's, the sooner we were married now the better.
"Well, dearest, if it is only hysteria and nervous strain, and so on," I said, taking up the main thread of our conversation, "then, for that, our marriage and a long rest, in which you would do nothing but amuse yourself, would be the best thing. Make up your mind, Lucia, to give yourself, trust yourself, to me, and I will promise to get you quite well, sooner than any doctor can. I suppose you have seen one?"
"Well, what does he do for you?"
"Oh, I take hydrochloric acid, sulphuric acid, and strychnine through the day, and digitalis and potassium bromide at night."
"Good heavens! Lucia! how can you be so foolish?" I exclaimed. "It's most unwise to take all these things."
"You are not a doctor," she answered languidly.
"No; and therefore I can talk common sense," I said, flushing. "Come, dearest, let us settle which is to be the happiest day in my life."
"Don't fuss, Victor. I can't settle any time just now."
"But at least give me an idea!"
"I can't give you what I have not got myself."
"Do you mean you have no idea when we shall be married?"
"Yes. I have just said so."
My hand closed involuntarily on the back of the chair till the basket-work creaked. She heard it, and felt perhaps, also, the sudden tension in the arm beneath her head. She raised her eyes with a gleam of the old desire in them: they were soft, and her voice was gentle, with out any mockery in it now, as she said,—
"I am excessively sorry about it, Victor, but you may trust me. I will give you some certain date the moment I can, when I am better. You can't think I would voluntarily defer it, do you?"
The whole lovely, inert form heaved a little as she spoke; the eyelids and nostrils in the up-turned face quivered, the lips parted, and, convinced, I bent over her with a hurried, desperate murmur.
"No! no! But, then, when? How long? Is it days, weeks, or the end of the season?"
"Yes; I should think about the end. I can not fix it nearer. It is bad taste to press me any farther."
She lifted her head from my arm and sat up right, though even then, after a minute, her figure drooped languidly towards the side of the chair, and she doubled one of her white, round arms on the wicker-work to form a support. I stood silent, irritated, disappointed, perplexed, biting my lips in nervous, absent-mindedness. She spoke twice to me without my hearing what her words were, and I had to apologise.
"I was only saying I should like you to see the "Death of Hyacinthus" now it is finished: see the result of last year's efforts and the cause of this year's ill-health!"
"Certainly; I want to see it very much. When may I?"
"To-morrow, if you like, but I want you to see the Academy first. I should like you to come to it prejudiced, with your eyes full of all the successful pictures of the year."
"Is it not at the Academy, Lucia?"
"Don't look so apprehensive!" she said, with a slight laugh. "It has not been rejected—simply, I could not get it finished in time for presentation. I was ill, and it just missed this season by a very little."
"And now, what are you going to do with it?"
"I must offer it next year, that's all."
"What a disappointment for you!"
"Yes, I should have thought so some time ago; but I seem to be much more apathetic now to everything. Each year that one lives one gets to expect less and less from life, and one grows more philosophic, more contented with what is thrown in one's way, and less disappointed when one's hopes and expectations are not realised. Judging by those things which we do gain and enjoy and experience the worth lessness of, I suppose we learn by degrees to infer that others so longed-for and coveted would prove as valueless if possessed."
Her voice was low and tired, and had the sound of suppressed tears in it.
"You are in a depressed frame of mind," I said.
"Yes;" then, with a cynical smile, "hysteric, as I told you. Well, will you come to-morrow about eleven, and then afterwards we can come back here to criticise 'Hyacinthus'?"
"Yes; I shall be delighted."
"I think mama is going to take our carriage, so come in yours, will you?"
"Very good," I answered, and there was a long silence. Not broken, in fact, until there was the stir of some of the guests leaving.
As the third or fourth left the room, I came round and took her hand as I stood in front of her.
"Good-night, Lucia, I hope you may be granted all the sleep you have stolen from me," I said gently; then, partly influenced by the contact of that delicious hand, and prompted by my own impulse, and partly deliberately to excite, if possible, her own instincts as allies to fight for me, I pressed it hard as I added,—
"On how many more nights is this hated formula, 'Good-night,' to be said between us? Minimise them, my darling, for my sake!"
Into the tone I allowed to enter all the strength of my feelings at the moment. She only coloured painfully up to the heavy eyes, whether from confusion or pleasure or passion I could not tell. She made no answer, and the soft, captive hand struggled faintly to be free.
We were surrounded the next instant by the press of talking, laughing guests passing down to the door, and I could do nothing but drop her hand and leave her with a composed face, and my brain feeling literally on fire. The perplexity, mystery, uncertainty, and irritation which Lucia's illness and manner had poured suddenly in upon the elation, the assured triumph, the excited expectations and eager desire with which I had come, produced a state of thought in which I hardly recognised my reasoning being.
I made my way over to Mrs. Grant with the conventional smile, and then, once without the drawing-room, hurried down to the door and the night air. In the hall I recognised, standing waiting for his carriage, a familiar figure. It was a man I had known intimately in India: he was home now on furlough, and as friends we were often invited to the same houses.
"I say, Dick," I said, as I came up to him, "it's a lovely night. Are you game for a walk? If so, send the carriage home and come with me round to my place. I want your advice and condolences."
We were at the foot of the stairs. The other men and women had collected nearer the door.
"Condolences! Why, yesterday you told me congratulations were the order of the day!" he answered in a tone of good-natured raillery.
"They are so no longer," I answered, gloomily. "My head is simply splitting too. I can't think where I get these confounded headaches," I muttered, pushing the hair up off my forehead, and wishing I could push off some of the oppressing ideas. "Are you coming with me, Dick?"
He looked at me attentively, and possibly seeing the excitement I tried to suppress, and the flush it drove to my face, he debated my sobriety. I think he came to the right conclusion, for the next moment he said,—
"Yes; I'll come. Just let me get my over coat and tell the coachman."
I had the same thing to do, and we met a second or two later at the bottom of the steps, and turned to walk towards my place. As we walked down the street he slipped his arm in mine and said,—
"You seem frightfully upset. What has happened?"
"That's just what I want to know!" I answered. "If I knew I should not so much mind, but this is what I hate about women, they never will speak out nor come to the point. It is the one great fault of the sex. I despise it utterly. It can do no good, and it is most annoying and irritating to a person who has a right to confidence."
"My dear fellow," he said, soothingly, "you can't expect your fiancee, if that's what you mean, to be so uncommonly direct in speech as you are! You have a way of very much going to the point in everything, but you won't find it in other people, even throwing women out of the question."
"What is the use of wrapping things up in mystery? But women delight in it! The more they can mystify and mislead and perplex you, and leave their real or their possible meaning doubtful and involved, the greater the pleasure they have. They will carry on a conversation for hours by hints, suggestions, ambiguous terms, allusions, phrases that may mean anything or nothing, and then leave at the end, in obscurity, the whole matter, which could have been explained and made perfectly clear and settled on a satisfactory basis in a few short sentences. It's a petty, abominable trait in their character."
Dick raised his eyebrows considerably.
"She has offended, evidently," he said.
"Offended? She simply tortured me all this evening, either intentionally or involuntarily. She said too little and too much. And her manner was worse than her words. I could not make out whether she was telling me the truth or a series of delicate excuses; she herself did not calculate on my believing. Everything she said to-night, if proved false, she might justify to-morrow by saying, 'Oh, well, of course, I never thought you would take that seriously; I thought you would understand that was a euphemism to save your feelings, and so on; you know one does not say to a person's face one is tired of him and wishes the thing off.' That is what she may say afterwards, or, of course, what she told me may be the truth. It may be an excuse that sounds like the truth, or the truth that sounds like an excuse. She contrived to leave it confoundedly indistinct, and that is what I complain of."
"You haven't given me any clue yet as to what the conversation was," Dick said quietly as we paced down the silent street.
My head seemed reeling with pain and the blood that flowed to it. The moonlight, and the black shadows it deepened, jumped together before my eyes.
"The accursed upshot of it was that she won't have anything to do with our marriage at present," I returned.
"Oh! And what reason did she assign?"
"After considerable hesitation she said her health; but, as I say, she would not speak out, and such an excuse between us is monstrous!"
"After considerable hesitation she said her health; but, as I say, she would not speak out, and such an excuse between us is monstrous! Ours is not a formal 'mariage de convenance;' it lies with ourselves. She is obviously not seriously ill; if she hesitates on her own account she must know she has nothing to fear from me; if she hesitates on mine, then it is folly and nonsense. I don't care about anything! I don't care what is the matter with her, I would marry her if she were dying, rotting of leprosy to-morrow!"
"I say, old fellow, you must not excite yourself like this! You will be seriously ill if you don't look out," Dick answered, remonstratingly. "It's no use working yourself up into a fever."
"I am not working myself up; unfortunately that has been done for me," I answered, with a short laugh. "Well, Dick, I am sick of everything, disgusted with everything! It's the same old story perpetually repeated. All that one fixes one's eyes on in the distance turns into dust as one approaches it. For the last year I have thought of this meeting this evening, and now it has come, what is it?"
"You are taking me by surprise to-night, Victor! I remember you in the regiment as so deuced calm."
"I'm never calm!" I returned. "Exteriorly, yes, of course, for one's own convenience and self-respect, to outsiders, one is always calm; but the exterior is not the reality. I am not one of those things naturally which I command myself into being: existence to me is nothing but a close-fitting, strangling, self-restraint. It drags upon me like a prisoner's gangrening fetter, and I'm getting tired of it. I think I'll slip it off altogether!"
I talked straight out of the distraction of my own thoughts, the pain in my head was acute, stunning my brain, and my vision seemed all wrong, as when one has been drinking. I was conscious of Dick looking at me anxiously, as he said—
"That's all nonsense! You are quite out of your senses this evening! You wouldn't throw up your life now, when you are just on the point of success, surely?"
"If I can't force our marriage, it's likely to come to that, I think," I muttered. "I am totally at a loss. I know nothing. I can conjecture nothing. I have not seen her nor heard from her this past year; and now she will say nothing. I pressed her as much, I think, as a fellow decently could. If she had spoken clearly and definitely it would have been different. Whatever statement a woman made to me of any painful facts; or if she came to me with any confession of folly, or change of feeling, or misfortune, or whatever it was, no matter what, I should enter into it and understand her. But Lucia to-night treated me like a stranger, fenced with me like an enemy. I have no clue as to what to think and what to believe. Simply, I see that she is no longer keen on the matter, and there is a large possibility of my not having her at all. By God! if it is so"—
I broke off into silence. After all, there is no use in talk; and the knives twisted backwards and forwards in my head helped to stop speech.
We walked on in silence. The streets were very quiet here; we had left the Grants' late, and now it was getting towards morning. We verged directly towards Knightsbridge; for some time our steps were the only sound. Then, after a pause, Dick said quietly—
"I think, Victor, you are going on a wrong tack altogether. You don't make enough allowance for the fact that she is a girl, and has not seen you for a year, remember. It is all very well for you to talk of to-the-point confessions and plain statements, but practically, if a girl were to talk as frankly as you would like, I am afraid the idea of modesty would rather come to grief."
"Oh! modesty," I said impatiently, "be—Modesty! It's all very well as a pretty, becoming, every-day fashion, but it should be laid aside in the serious matters of life. It is an artificiality; admirable, useful, excellent as a daily conventional rule, but it should yield when there is a great natural question at issue. Modesty! a fictitious, artificial, inculcated shame to intrude itself between two people considering gravely the vital matter of their love, their union, their future life! It's preposterous!"
"It very often does so," remarked Dick. "I am not saying whether it should or it shouldn't."
"No," I answered more calmly; "and I entirely see what you mean, and I think you are perfectly right there. Lucia is steeped in fashion, soaked through with the prejudice and bringing up of her own rank. And I suppose I do like it and expect it, certainly, as a general rule; only, when the thing on hand is very important, and a society woman fences with you behind a screen of elegant, delicate language, you feel sometimes you would prefer the intelligible candour of a kitchen maid."
"I doubt the charm of the latter individual, Vic! You must have a little more patience with this girl, and the confidence will come by degrees, if you don't lose your self-command with her; but I'd advise you to be careful. The way in which you have been talking to me now gives an impression of—well, almost brutality, that I didn't think was in you."
I laughed contemptuously.
"Oh, you needn't be afraid of the word; I know there is a lot of it in me. It's just that knowledge that enables me to keep it under. I know if I had not kept myself, for the sake of the work, out of it, that I should have led a brutish existence. However, you needn't think that I am going to frighten Lucia. I have had such a deuce of a lot of practice in patience and restraint, and all those fine things, that I am quite sure of myself when I am with her. But as to gaining her confidence, that is impossible before the ceremony, I believe. She has been brought up in that monstrous idea, like the rest of our fashionable girls, that the man into whose possession she is to give herself utterly with the ceremony, up to the last moment before it, is to be treated with the most absolute reserve. The contrast is too ludicrous—driven to the point of exaggeration to which they drive it. In Lucia's eyes an unusual, an unfashionable word, no matter how great the necessity for it, is a crime. I believe she would walk to the block rather than let a word pass her lips in my hearing an hour before our marriage that in twenty-four hours afterwards might be a common phrase between us. You may call it modesty and charming, if you like. All I can say is, there are limits to its charm."
The approach of morning was distinct now. A grey light hung in a faint misty veil over the Green Park and top of Piccadilly. As it fell from the cloudy, neutral-tinted sky, it showed one solitary figure, a woman with a trailing skirt and battered hat, passing Hyde Park corner.
In the waste of deserted street and roadway, glimmering in the dull, grey light, that one dishevelled black figure reminded one of the remnant of some wrecked vessel, drifting at dawn along a sullen coast. She drifted somewhat faster up to us as we came to the corner and touched Dick, who was next to the road, on the arm. He shook her hand off without speaking.
"Have you any money with you, Dick?" I asked.
"Yes; but I am not going to give any to her," he answered.
I would have given the woman some, but I had none. I had left it behind when I changed my clothes for dinner. She heard Dick's answer to me plainly, and it exasperated her. All the natural, florid, unstudied eloquence of the lower orders was at her command, and well-turned periods of perfect abuse and neat incisive remarks upon our characters, our persons and attributes generally, rippled in a smooth, unbroken stream from her lips as she followed us. Just at that moment there was not a policeman nor any other being within sight.
We walked on, and the woman's curses and imprecations upon us filled the grey silence of the street. At last a porter on his way to work passed us, and she transferred her attentions and oratory to him. Dick glanced at me and laughed.
"Well, there was an extensive vocabulary, Victor! How would some of those words sound in your fiancee's mouth?"
I laughed too.
"You always were good at a sophistical sneer, but vile language has nothing to do with what I was talking about."
"No; of course not. It does strike one as curious, doesn't it," he added after a minute, "that a creature like that and the girl we have been with this evening can belong to the same sex."
"Well, I don't know," I answered; "I know there is the sort of idea that it is funny, but somehow it does not strike me more with reference to woman than to ourselves. I mean it does not seem more incongruous than that a man like yourself and an offal sweeper belong to the same sex."
"No; perhaps not. One of those houses is yours, isn't it?" Dick said.
"Yes; number 2," I answered, as we went up to the door.
"They seem to have turned the light out."
I opened the door and Dick went in. I followed, and when the door was shut behind us the hall was in nether darkness. We found our way to the foot of the stairs, where an undefined heap barred our way. Not knowing what it was I kicked it, and Dick exclaimed,—
"Take care! I think that's your man," and a groan confirmed the statement.
"Hullo, Walters! I am very sorry. I had no idea it was you. I hope I haven't hurt you!" I said as the servant got on his feet. "Why do you turn the lights out? However, it's just as well you are here. Bring me upstairs the soda, champagne, and the new lot of cigars. I suppose there is the lamp in my room?"
"You won't care to turn out again, Dick, to-night, will you?" I said as we went upstairs. "There's an awfully comfortable sofa in my room, quite as good as a bed. Will you accept that?"
"Oh yes; I always find I can go to sleep anywhere. Do you remember, when we were camping out at Shikarpur, those nights on the shaky-legged native benches?"
"Rather! That was when I never bothered about anything. I have never slept so well since."
We went into my room. Two lamps were burning here, and the thick blinds shut out all signs of the dreary dawning light. Walters followed us in a few seconds and set a tray of glasses and bottles on the table. I flung off my overcoat and sat down in an arm-chair, pressing the palms of my hands hard on my forehead in the vain effort to deaden the tearing pain.
"Try some of those cigars," I said, after a minute, "they are not bad, and take whatever you like to drink," and I got up and filled my glass at the same time.
"I think that brandy is the worst thing for your head," remarked Dick, looking dubiously at the glass.
"But I am so confoundedly thirsty!"
"Take the soda without the brandy, then. Really, I would advise you not to touch that spirit to-night."
"Oh, I don't much care! let it be the soda;" and I filled another tumbler with the latter and drank it. "But what is your own opinion about this business with Lucia," I asked, when Dick had stretched himself on the sofa and started his cigar. "What puzzles me so is the great change in her—a change apparently in the whole tenour of her feelings. You can't think how wide the difference is between her now and a year ago. I told you that she came over to Paris to see me, didn't I?"
"That was only twelve months back, and she was simply—well, she was evidently very much in love then. You know what I mean, and she made no effort to conceal it. She urged our marriage; and then, when we decided it was impossible, she would have liked me to go any reasonable lengths in demonstration of my love for her, and so on. I made a mistake there, perhaps, but I thought it unwise. We hardly knew where we were as it was. She seemed utterly weak, and I felt she might say things in those moments she would be fearfully cut up to remember afterwards. It seemed dishonourable in my shackled, circumscribed position to lead her any farther on. That was my idea—perhaps it was mistaken—I don't know. Anyway we shook hands merely. Then, at that time, she invited a kiss in every way short of demanding it. Now, to-night I kissed her hand, not a very extraordinary nor embarrassing action, and yet I thought she was going to faint as a result. It moved some very strong sensation, repulsion or disgust, or something, and I want to know what."
"You see, Vic," Dick said, after a minute or two of silence, laying down the cigar and driving his elbow into the sofa cushion, and leaning his head on his hand. He looked past me absently towards the fender, and spoke as a person does whose opinion has long since been formed. "We can't hold over anything in this life, opportunities, our own powers, health, youth, they are all things you can't store for the future. All we can do is to use them when they are put into our hands. Still less can we reserve and warehouse our own feelings and emotions, and least of all, those of others. You might compare passion to a gas. If you allow gas its expansion it diffuses itself and is lost. If you subject it to confinement with close pressure, it becomes a liquid and loses its original form. It is the same with passion. It is impossible to maintain it as such. Either it evaporates in gratification or it undergoes some metamorphosis in suppression."
I said nothing. There was a sort of coldness and weight in his words and tone that increased my own apprehensions.
"You can keep nothing up to the pitch of a crisis. We all know that. Even a kettle of water, when it is once boiling, you cannot keep it so. It must boil over into the flames or simmer down or dry up. And if you reject a woman at the crisis of her passion, there is an enormous probability that, in waiting, her virtue or her inclination or her health will break down. Either her feelings may transport her into some folly or they may cool. If her will is too strong to allow the folly, and her nature too ardent to permit the cooling, then her constitution must give way. This last is what, judging from all I see, I should think—since you ask my opinion, old fellow, you know—has happened in Lucia's case."
I looked at him with a faint feeling of surprise. His manner, voice, and words conveyed such an idea of certainty and perfect decision in his own mind.
"Yes," I answered; "I suppose that is it. Well, that is what she told me, virtually, herself."
"You cannot wonder at it!"
I coloured hotly as I answered,—
"I know it seems as if I had been a confounded prig in refusing her last year—people may say so; but if I had given in and kept her with me in Paris, then everybody would have been slanging me for that!"
"No, Victor; I am not slanging you for one or the other course. You acted up to your own principle—every fellow must do that; but I am not sure your principle is the best—that perpetual denial to impulse, that refusal to take what you can get in the moment, because of what you may be called upon to pay hereafter. At any rate, it may not be the luckiest nor the happiest. But still, in the case of a man who has many equally strong wishes, it is difficult to say what he should do. In your case the upshot of either resolution would have been the same—as things are, you will get your book out and be discontented; in the other case, you would have married Lucia and been discontented!"
"You may be as cynical as you please," I muttered, with my hands pressed over my eyes. "I am not responsible for the complex nature of the human brain, nor can I simplify it. I know what I am going to do now. Having secured the work, I am going to gain Lucia too, if it is in the power of any man—whether, as you put it, her virtue, or her health, or her inclination, or the whole lot together, have broken down!"
"And if you don't get her, you will get over it: we all do, Vic," he said, with a smile.
"Very possibly," I assented.
It was not worth while to discuss a contingency I had determined to prevent.
"A man's profession is his best friend," Dick went on, stretching himself out on the couch. "That he can command; and for the rest—purchasable pleasures—those he can command. These affaires-de-coeur, which you can't command, are always more bother than they are worth."
There was silence, then he added,—
"One good one, though, fairly early in life, is useful, like vaccination. You are not so likely to fall in love again after it; just as, after vaccination, you are not so likely to have smallpox. For myself, I should prefer smallpox to being in love."
I merely laughed, without replying. In my present state I was not sure that he was far wrong.
"I say," Dick remarked, after a pause; "you are looking most awfully seedy. Hadn't you better turn in and try and get some sleep? One always thinks one can't, but one generally does."
"Yes; I think I had better," I said, getting up. I turned one lamp out and the other down.
"It's odd—I wonder what the ultimate, future event will be"—
"'Quid sit futurum eras, fuge quaerere,'" answered Dick, with a laugh, as he turned and settled himself on the couch.
"There are a couple of rugs," I said, depositing them on his feet. "Draw them up if you're cold."
"All right. Thanks! Good-night!"
I slipped off my clothes and got into bed, feeling almost uncertain on my feet. My head seemed literally whirling and swimming in pain. When I awoke the following morning and looked round it was past ten. Dick had gone. I looked at the couch, it was empty, and a note was stuck by his pin into the sofa pillow. I sat up in bed, and by leaning forward and extending my arm I got hold of the pillow, and thence the paper and read it.
"8 A.M.—You are still asleep and I don't like to wake you, but I want to be back at my place by nine, so I am departing like the guest of an Arab. If you have nothing better to do this evening, come and dine with me. Army and Navy. Seven."
"Very good," I thought; I put the note and the pin on the table beside me, and got up. The headache was gone, and the head felt none the worse for it. The sun was streaming in through the blinds now. The gloom, the apprehensions, the pain of the previous night, had all cleared from the field together. I dressed and shaved with a steady hand, thinking, in a sane, easy way, very different from the inflamed, convulsive working of the brain last night. The work was set afloat in Paris—I should soon find readers on the asphalt—that quarter of my sky was clear. As for the sudden darkening squall that had sprung up in the other quarter, formerly so serene, the quarter over which reigned Lucia's star—it was only a squall, it would pass. She must be capable of being roused again to those feelings she had once known. And if I had nothing else, I had, at least, in my favour the sheer force and intensity of my own passion—which is, after all, the weapon under which a woman quickest sinks. I felt that I cared more keenly for Lucia than most men of eight-and-twenty in the nineteenth century care for the women they marry. I was conscious of it instinctively; even if the memory of these last ten barren, empty years that I had lived did not convince me that a passion for any one object would be greater in myself than in men whose multiplicity of previous loves must lessen the value of each succeeding one. My work, which had been Lucia's successful rival, had protected her from lesser ones.
Nothing, except the possession of this woman, had ever been a synonym of pleasure with me, and therefore its expectation had a stronger hold over me than it could have had over a man who was accustomed to acknowledge and recognise pleasure under a hundred names. I felt the impetus of this undiffused, undissipated passion, in its undivided strength, stir and vitalise all my energies, and its power over my own frame made me involuntarily, instinctively confident of the power it would have over hers.
"We will see how long it is before you capitulate, oh my fortified and arrogant city!" I thought, as I finished dressing and went downstairs. My father was reading the paper, apparently waiting breakfast for me. We were on the very best of terms now.
He felt convinced of my capability to work, and assured of my success. With that surprising tendency of the human mind to delegate its own powers to another, he accepted completely the verdict of the Parisian publisher upon qualities he had had under his own observation for an odd twenty years. Now, forsooth, because another man had told him so, he took it for granted that I had some talent. And all the time we had lived together he had hesitated to form that opinion from first-hand knowledge. Extraordinary trait in human nature, this liking to be thought for, instead of thinking for yourself! This waiting to take up, second-hand, ready-made, the views of another man, even when the fresh materials are at your hand, and you may examine them and form your own. It is a universal tendency, of course, and displays itself everywhere; in religion, in morality, in fashions, in vices, in simple conversation—everywhere.
The glorious and free gift of Nature to every man, the capacity for perception and judgment, he shamefacedly, as if it were a disgrace, tries to shift off upon another. It always amuses me immensely when brought before me, and it did now in my father's case. He assumed, as innumerable people do, that success or failure proves or disproves merit, which is such a curious opinion, as remarkable as if a person believed the absence or presence of the hall-mark proved or disproved the identity of gold. On no point did he and I differ more widely than on this.
It has always seemed to me that the formation of a judgment and opinion is an involuntary function of the mind, not a matter of effort, as others seem to regard it. Your judgment may be wrong, so may your opinion; your perception may be misled. I understand that. But can you exist without judgment, without opinion, without perception, till another man hand you his? This is hard to realise.
My father in all these years had not said my son is a fool and will not succeed, nor had he said my son is clever and will succeed, but what he had said was this, he may be a fool or he may be clever, we will see what the publishers say. And this attitude of mind, which repeated itself in different forms in half the men one meets, is fascinatingly incomprehensible to me. If I have the opportunity of seeing a man or testing a ring, what do I care, what does it matter to me, whether he is successful or unsuccessful, whether the ring is hall-marked or not! I have my own eyes, ears, and intelligence at command. What more do I want? Give me the man or the metal: in a very short time I have decided their worth to my own satisfaction. I may be wrong in my estimate, of course, but that is another matter.
If my brain is in a healthy state, I can do more avoid its forming an exact, personal opinion of the man, and a computation of his powers, than I can avoid my eye spontaneously taking his shape and muscles into its vision. In their natural, unimpaired state, neither organ should need artificial aid. But my father was looking at me now through the mental spectacles of my success, which made to him hugely big that merit which, before, he could not see at all. Thanks to those spectacles, an easy indulgence was granted me. Little that I could do now was wrong. Another man had thought fit to pay me for my powers. That elevated me in his estimation as the powers themselves never had done. He had no longer any wish apparently to oppose me. Since my brains were now authenticated by the seal of a publisher, he was sufficiently satisfied that they might be trusted to decide my own life and conduct. However, besides all this, he was strictly a man of his word, and having promised that, with my success, all opposition to my marriage would cease, he kept his conditions, as I had kept mine.
"I am very sorry to be so late," I said, as we drew our chairs to the table. "I am afraid you have waited for me."
"My dear boy, a few minutes are of no consequence!"
"I had rather a stiff headache last night, and only got to sleep when it was nearly time to get up. I hope I didn't wake you coming home last night? That idiot Walters must needs turn out the gas and go to sleep in the hall. Of course I kicked him over. Did it disturb you?"
"I should think it was calculated to disturb Walters more than me!" he returned. "No; I didn't hear you. Were you late? Will you have sole or bacon?"
"Sole, please," I said. "Yes; Dick and I walked back from Lucia's place."
"How did you find her?" he asked, stirring his tea I had just handed him, and looking at me. "Don't you think she has deteriorated in looks very much?"
"Enormously," I replied, without hesitation.
There is nothing like conceding at once to your opponent any point that you admit yourself. It saves discussion being wasted upon that which you are really agreed about, and gives more weight to all you refuse to relinquish to him afterwards.
My father looked a little surprised, and did not answer immediately, and I continued,—
"She was always, as far as I remember, a girl who could look exceedingly pretty and positively plain, and all the intermediate gradations, within twenty-four hours, but really," I added, meeting his eyes across the breakfast table, and the full blaze of the sunlight falling into my own, "to me, in any one of them, she is equally"—
I hesitated a second, and he put in—
It was not the word I should have used, but it served, and I let it pass.
"I suppose it's really her talent that fetches you as much as anything, eh?" he said, after a few minutes.
"And her character," I answered; "her whole personality. I suppose all those things weighed at first, but, as a matter of fact, now it is quite enough that she is the woman I have determined upon."
"An admission of your own obstinacy," he answered, tartly.
"That may be the right term for it," I returned, "but I hardly think it is. Theoretically, Lucia has belonged to me the past four years. An idea, a habit of the mind, is full grown and has some strength at four years of age."
My father said nothing, but lapsed into the silence of defeat or of contempt, and we pursued our breakfast.
"Will you let me have the victoria this morning?" I said, after a long silence. "She wants me to drive her to the Academy."
"Of course; I'm glad you can find something to do here. I'm afraid of its seeming dull to you after Paris."
I looked up with elevated eyebrows.
"And wherein do you imagine the gaiety of Paris consisted?" I asked.
"Oh, I've no doubt you found plenty of amusement there," he answered, with an indulgent smile.
"I assure you there was not one single hour of the whole time that was not spent in work or thought," I said, seriously.
"I am delighted to hear it, I'm sure, Victor," he said, with the air of a person who accepts the general truth of a statement with a large reservation of their own opinion on the details of it. However, I did not care. I had worked for my own sake; lived correctly for my own sake—and whether another knew it or not mattered to me not at all.
"No; on the contrary, I am very pleased to be back," I said. "I always look upon the place where you are as home."
A pleased expression came over his face as I spoke. We were sincerely attached to each other in spite of the jarring dissonance of character. Later that same morning when I was sitting beside Lucia as we drove to the Academy, I studied her closely in the sharp morning light, and I was alarmed at the pallor and exhaustion of her face. I am not an admirer of ill-health in any form. The hectic flush of phthisis, even, dear to the poets, has positively no charm for me; and Lucia's illness was not phthisis, and certainly did not enhance her looks.
"Who is your medical man, Lucia?" I asked.
"Why do you wish to know?"
"That I may be satisfied that he is a good one."
"I should prefer not to tell you his name."
"Because I object," she said simply, in her coldest tone.
"That is not a sufficient reason."
"I am of opinion that it is," she returned frigidly, with a supercilious accent.
I leant back in the carriage without answering, and looked away from her. How I hated her in that moment! After all, I thought, why do you trouble to get this particular woman above everything? Fifty women that you meet in the course of a week are as pretty—possibly of more worth—probably more civil. Why not select a more accessible divinity? Or else content yourself with Horace's parabilem venerem facilemque?
Then I glanced involuntarily at her, and I knew it was impossible. My eyes swept over the form beside me, as she sat cold, impassive; her attitude one of quiet ease, her whole mien the essence of calm self-possession. That excess of pride and dignity and supercilious arrogance that in Lucia replaced, at times, her seductive plasticity at others, had always exercised a violent attraction over me. And now, when this pride seemed joined with a positive hostility to myself, it failed to repel; it simply raised to its highest pitch a savage and acrimonious determination to subdue it.
As I sat silent, with my eyes turned away from her to the blaze of glaring pavement and roadway, and noted mechanically the crush of traffic on ahead, Dick's remark on my brutality recurred to me, and I forced the most good-natured smile to my lips, and the quietest tone to my voice, as I turned to her and said,—
"Of course, dearest, I will consider it sufficient if you say so."
Perhaps she expected farther opposition, and my yielding surprised her. She looked at me full for a minute in silence, then, failing to discover a trace of the savage irritation I was feeling, she laid her hand impulsively on mine, and said with a smile,—
"You are a dear, good-tempered fellow, Victor!" at which I laughed— considerably.
The Academy is a place of all others, I should think, most calculated to fatigue and oppress a person in nervous ill-health. It was just twelve when Lucia and I arrived. The sun was at its hottest, and the crowds within the rooms at their thickest. The air seemed lifeless and laden with dust, swept up by the women's dresses, and filled with a mixture of scents from White Rose to Eau de Cologne. The daylight was harshly bright, and the unbroken lines of pictures in their glaring gilt frames, annoyed and jarred upon the eye.
We moved very slowly with the rank of people passing down our side of the gallery. Lucia never removed her eyes from the walls, except to glance at me and make me refer to a name in the catalogue, and the women who passed her were able to scrutinise her dress and face without a return glance. This they did to the utmost limits of good breeding, for both were sufficiently worthy of notice.
Whether Lucia looked pretty or plain, at her best or her worst, she always looked more or less striking. Some women are like this; they can appear everything but quiet and common-place. Lucia would be noticed everywhere, sometimes favourably, sometimes the reverse; but noticed she must infallibly be. An exceptionally beautiful figure, a certain extravagance in dress, and an unusually fair skin made her conspicuous where far more regular faces and straight profiles passed unnoticed. She herself was absolutely indifferent to everything save the paintings. Twice I called her attention to men who saluted her without being seen by her as she passed close to them.
"I am very sorry," she said in answer. "It is a stupid fashion to notice one's friends here. One should not be supposed to recognise them at the Academy any more than in church!"
We drifted on slowly with the mass, and at last came to a standstill before a wedge of figures in front of a prominent canvas. A nude female figure stood upright, facing the spectator, with both arms upraised to fasten a pomegranate blossom in the tightly twisted hair: an indefinite heap of sketchy clothing lay upon the ground.
"The title?" murmured Lucia; and I pressed my way a little forward to see the number, looked it up in the catalogue, and read to her "The Toilette." "Before the toilette! I should think," said Lucia, in a satirical whisper. I nodded and laughed.
We could not move on till the circle before us moved, and we stood silent looking at the shadowy representation of human flesh and blood smiling with fixed inanity from the canvas.
"The most successful picture of the year!" remarked one man just in front of us.
"Eminently artistic!" murmured another, stifling a yawn.
"Did you ever see such a thing?" said Lucia. "No living woman ever looked like that!"
"No," I answered, unguardedly.
Lucia threw a sudden, brilliant, mocking glance over my face.
"Come, Victor! you ought to have said you didn't know!"
I coloured, and then laughed.
"Ah, yes; so I ought. Well, really, I answered you in absence of mind."
"Oh, don't apologise! Let's sit down."
I glanced at her face. It was white to the lips which laughed so readily. I looked round desperately. The lounge behind was filled completely before the most successful picture of the year.
"Let us try another room," I said, hastily drawing her arm more through mine. It leant heavily there, and she grew more pallid.
"They are all alike—I can't stand the heat—we must go, I think," she murmured.
"It doesn't seem very easy," I said.
Lucia threw a helpless glance round on the crown pressing up eagerly to catch a glimpse of the popular painting, and some one in artistic circles recognised her.
A whisper went from one to the other of the little sets within the crowd, and they fell back from us; heads were turned from the canvas towards Lucia. There was an exit made, and I walked determinedly through the staring loungers, who yielded before us.
A voice said behind us,—
"They say she'll be the greatest artist of the times!"
"How I envy her!" came a girl's answer.
Lucia's blue-white lips smiled mockingly.
"Take me home, Victor," she said, faintly.
* * * * *
The hot summer days dragged slowly by.
The Grants did not leave town, and I hesitated to do as my father suggested, and go myself. I waited, and saw Lucia daily, and hoped daily to hear the words I thirsted for, but she persistently refused to say anything of herself or her health or her wishes. I might see her as often as I liked, go and come to and from her house as I pleased, but speak of our marriage or allow me any of the privileges of a fiance she would not.
As the weeks passed the life became intolerable for me. I could not expect my book to be produced till the autumn. There was no fresh impetus in my brain toward writing another. All my thoughts centred now round this woman, whom I saw apparently growing more listless, languid, and indifferent to myself every day.
The nervous strain told upon me. Night followed night in which I got no sleep, and which left me with a blinding headache to commence the day. Gradually these headaches lengthened, till they stretched throughout the tedious, desultory hours; and one stifling August afternoon, lying, dizzy with pain, on the couch, I determined to win an answer from her or cut all the ties, dear and clinging though they might be, and leave her finally.
To-morrow! What was to-morrow? My brain went round when I tried to think of the simplest thing. We had some men coming in to luncheon, I remembered, but I would go and see her early in the morning. We were generally alone with each other in the morning. This evening I should have no chance of speaking as I meant to speak. When the evening came, I felt unfit even to go and see her, and it was later than I intended the next morning when I reached the house. I had made myself later, too, by stopping on the way to get her some flowers. There was little in the shop worth having but some lilies, all price, scent, and brilliance. I took these and hurried on. They were very fine specimens, certainly, I thought, as I glanced over them. I care very little for flowers; they are useful, of course, sometimes, as a present for women, and a button-hole; but there, for me, their merits cease. Howard would have sentimentalised into two or three verses over these.
I found her in the drawing-room, as usual now, for the studio was rarely ever visited, except when she went to gaze in an abstracted way on the finished work. She was doing nothing—as usual now—she who formerly worked without ceasing every hour of daylight. Nor was there anything near her that suggested or made possible the supposition of work or even occupation. Every book was ranged in different cases in remote corners of the room. Not a newspaper, nor blotting-book, nor pen, lay on the table. She was sitting in an armchair facing the window, her knees crossed idly, her elbow leaning on a table beside her, her head resting on her hand; idle, listless. Perhaps her toilette alone, as an elaborate work, might excuse her from any other for several hours. She looked round with a smile, and even that was tired, as I entered and crossed to her.
"How are you, dearest, to-day?" I said, as I took her hand. "No, pray, don't get up," I added, as she made a movement to rise, and to obviate her doing so, I dropped into a low wicker chair, which I drew up close to hers, and laid the lilies on her lap.
"I am as well as usual, thanks, Victor. These are lovely! Where did you get them?"
"At a shop in Regent Street. I wanted something extraordinary, but they had nothing."
"What could you have more beautiful than these?"
"Beautiful? Yes; but there is no worth in beauty unless there is some peculiarity about it to attract one. May I do that for you?"
She had lifted the flowers and begun to fasten them into the front of her bodice, a difficult work, covered, as it was, with an intricate maze of lace.
"Thank you! I am perfectly capable of achieving it myself."
The familiar, cold pride in the tone brought an ironical smile to my lips—suppressed, however, before she saw it.
"You are afraid of the risk of my hand touching your breast accidentally in fastening a flower!" I thought, satirically, as I watched her in silence, and remembered the mission with which I had come. I glanced at the clock and saw it was later than I thought.
"Do you know what I have come for this morning, Lucia?" I asked, leaning my elbow on the arm of her chair, and looking into the soft blue eyes that seemed to have a sort of timidity in them of me now.
"To torment me as usual, I suppose," she answered.
"That depends upon how you take it," I said, with a slight laugh.
"I have come to say Good-bye."
I watched her keenly as I spoke, and I saw she was perceptibly startled. She fixed her eyes upon me, and the colour began to recede visibly from her face. However, she only said calmly after a moment,—
"Well, if you are going away, I shall have peace at any rate."
"Yes, dear," I answered gently, "you will have peace certainly as far as I am concerned, for if I go now I shall consider our engagement terminated."
Lucia started into an upright position in her chair.
"Victor!" she exclaimed, fixing two widely-dilated eyes upon me, "what are you talking about? What have I done? What do you mean? You must not go!"
And her hand sought mine and closed over it with an appealing, seducing touch. It went through my nerves and frame like flame. It seemed to confuse and scatter speech, sweep it from me as some useless trifle, and wake one intolerable burning desire for action.