"Oh, they were a civilised people," said Ed cheerfully. "It all gives you an idea. I only hope you didn't tire yourself out. You'll soon be all right, of course, but you have to be careful yet. We'll have a clean tablecloth, shall we?"
She had been seriously ill; her life had been despaired of; and somehow the young Polytechnic student seemed anxious to assure her that she was now all right again, or soon would be. They were to be married "as soon as things brightened up a bit," and he was very much in love with her. He watched her head and neck as he continued to lay the table, and then, as he crossed once more to the cupboard, he put his hand lightly in passing on her hair.
She gave so quick a start that he too started. She must have been very deep in her reverie to have been so taken by surprise.
"I say, Bessie, don't jump like that!" he cried with involuntary quickness. Indeed, had his hand been red-hot, or ice-cold, or taloned, she could not have turned a more startled, even frightened, face to him.
"It was your touching me," she muttered, resuming her gazing into the grate.
He stood looking anxiously down on her. It would have been better not to discuss her state, and he knew it; but in his anxiety he forgot it.
"That jumpiness is the effect of your illness, you know. I shall be glad when it's all over. It's made you so odd."
She was not pleased that he should speak of her "oddness." For that matter, she, too, found him "odd"—at any rate, found it difficult to realise that he was as he always had been. He had begun to irritate her a little. His club-footed reading of the verses had irritated her, and she had tried hard to hide from him that his cocksure opinions and the tone in which they were pronounced jarred on her. It was not that she was "better" than he, "knew" any more than he did, didn't (she supposed) love him still the same; these moods, that dated from her illness, had nothing to do with those things; she reproached herself sometimes that she was subject to such doldrums.
"It's all right, Ed, but please don't touch me just now," she said.
He was in the act of leaning over her chair, but he saw her shrink, and refrained.
"Poor old girl!" he said sympathetically. "What's the matter?"
"I don't know. It's awfully stupid of me to be like this, but I can't help it. I shall be better soon if you leave me alone."
"Nothing's happened, has it?"
"Only those silly dreams I told you about."
"Bother the dreams!" muttered the Polytechnic student.
During her illness she had had dreams, and had come to herself at intervals to find Ed or the doctor, Mrs. Hepburn or her aunt, bending over her. These kind, solicitous faces had been no more than a glimpse, and then she had gone off into the dreams again. The curious thing had been that the dreams had seemed to be her vivid waking life, and the other things—the anxious faces, the details of her dingy bedroom, the thermometer under her tongue—had been the dream. And, though she had come back to actuality, the dreams had never quite vanished. She could remember no more of them than that they had seemed to hold a high singing and jocundity, issuing from some region of haze and golden light; and they seemed to hover, ever on the point of being recaptured, yet ever eluding all her mental efforts. She was living now between reality and a vision.
She had fewer words than sensations, and it was a little pitiful to hear her vainly striving to make clear what she meant.
"It's so queer," she said. "It's like being on the edge of something—a sort of tiptoe—I can't describe it. Sometimes I could almost touch it with my hand, and then it goes away, but never quite away. It's like something just past the corner of my eye, over my shoulder, and I sit very still sometimes, trying to take it off its guard. But the moment I move my head it moves too—like this—"
Again he gave a quick start at the suddenness of her action. Very stealthily her faunish eyes had stolen sideways, and then she had swiftly turned her head.
"Here, I say, don't, Bessie!" he cried nervously. "You look awfully uncanny when you do that! You're brooding," he continued, "that's what you're doing, brooding. You're getting into a low state. You want bucking up. I don't think I shall go to the Polytec. to-night; I shall stay and cheer you up. You know, I really don't think you're making an effort, darling."
His last words seemed to strike her. They seemed to fit in with something of which she too was conscious. "Not making an effort ..." she wondered how he knew that. She felt in some vague way that it was important that she should make an effort.
For, while her dream ever evaded her, and yet never ceased to call her with such a voice as he who reads on a magic page of the calling of elves hears stilly in his brain, yet somehow behind the seduction was another and a sterner voice. There was warning as well as fascination. Beyond that edge at which she strained on tiptoe, mingled with the jocund calls to Hasten, Hasten, were deeper calls that bade her Beware. They puzzled her. Beware of what? Of what danger? And to whom?...
"How do you mean, I'm not making an effort, Ed?" she asked slowly, again looking into the fire, where the kettle now made a gnat-like singing.
"Why, an effort to get all right again. To be as you used to be—as, of course, you will be soon."
"As I used to be?" The words came with a little check in her breathing.
"Yes, before all this. To be yourself, you know."
"All jolly, and without these jerks and jumps. I wish you could get away. A fortnight by the sea would do you all the good in the world."
She knew not what it was in the words "the sea" that caused her suddenly to breathe more deeply. The sea!... It was as if, by the mere uttering of them, he had touched some secret spring, brought to fulfilment some spell. What had he meant by speaking of the sea?... A fortnight before, had somebody spoken to her of the sea it would have been the sea of Margate, of Brighton, of Southend, that, supplying the image that a word calls up as if by conjuration, she would have seen before her; and what other image could she supply, could she possibly supply, now?... Yet she did, or almost did, supply one. What new experience had she had, or what old, old one had been released in her? With that confused, joyous dinning just beyond the range of physical hearing there had suddenly mingled a new illusion of sound—a vague, vast pash and rustle, silky and harsh both at once, its tireless voice holding meanings of stillness and solitude compared with which the silence that is mere absence of sound was vacancy. It was part of her dream, invisible, intangible, inaudible, yet there. As if he had been an enchanter, it had come into being at the word upon his lips. Had he other such words? Had he the Master Word that—(ah, she knew what the Master Word would do!)—would make the Vision the Reality and the Reality the Vision? Deep within her she felt something—her soul, herself, she knew not what—thrill and turn over and settle again....
"The sea," she repeated in a low voice.
"Yes, that's what you want to set you up—rather! Do you remember that fortnight at Littlehampton, you and me and your Aunt? Jolly that was! I like Littlehampton. It isn't flash like Brighton, and Margate's always so beastly crowded. And do you remember that afternoon by the windmill? I did love you that afternoon, Bessie!"...
He continued to talk, but she was not listening. She was wondering why the words "the sea" were somehow part of it all—the pins and brooches of the Museum, the book on her knees, the dream. She remembered a game of hide-and-seek she had played as a child, in which cries of "Warm, warm, warmer!" had announced the approach to the hidden object. Oh, she was getting warm—positively hot....
He had ceased to talk, and was watching her. Perhaps it was the thought of how he had loved her that afternoon by the windmill that had brought him close to her chair again. She was aware of his nearness, and closed her eyes for a moment as if she dreaded something. Then she said quickly, "Is tea nearly ready, Ed?" and, as he turned to the table, took up the book again.
She felt that even to touch that book brought her "warmer." It fell open at a page. She did not hear the clatter Ed made at the table, nor yet the babble his words had evoked, of the pierrots and banjos and minstrels of Margate and Littlehampton. It was to hear a gladder, wilder tumult that she sat once more so still, so achingly listening....
"The earnest trumpet spake, and silver thrills From kissing cymbals made a merry din—"
The words seemed to move on the page. In her eyes another light than the firelight seemed to play. Her breast rose, and in her thick white throat a little inarticulate sound twanged.
"Eh? Did you speak, Bessie?" Ed asked, stopping in his buttering of bread.
In answering, her head had turned for a moment, and she had seen him. Suddenly it struck her with force: what a shaving of a man he was! Desk-chested, weak-necked, conscious of his little "important" lip and chin—yes, he needed a Polytechnic gymnastic course! Then she remarked how once, at Margate, she had seen him in the distance, as in a hired baggy bathing-dress he had bathed from a machine, in muddy water, one of a hundred others, all rather cold, flinging a polo-ball about and shouting stridently. "A sound mind in a sound body!"... He was rather vain of his neat shoes, too, and doubtless stunted his feet; and she had seen the little spot on his neck caused by the chafing of his collar-stud.... No, she did not want him to touch her, just now at any rate. His touch would be too like a betrayal of another touch ... somewhere, sometime, somehow ... in that tantalising dream that refused to allow itself either to be fully remembered or quite forgotten. What was that dream? What was it?...
She continued to gaze into the fire.
Of a sudden she sprang to her feet with a choked cry of almost animal fury. The fool had touched her. Carried away doubtless by the memory of that afternoon by the windmill, he had, in passing once more to the kettle, crept softly behind her and put a swift burning kiss on the side of her neck.
Then he had retreated before her, stumbling against the table and causing the cups and saucers to jingle.
The basket-chair tilted up, but righted itself again.
"I told you—I told you—" she choked, her stockish figure shaking with rage, "I told you—you—"
He put up his elbow as if to ward off a blow.
"You touch me—you!—you!" the words broke from her.
He had put himself farther round the table. He stammered.
"Here—dash it all, Bessie—what is the matter?"
"You touch me!"
"All right," he said sullenly. "I won't touch you again—no fear. I didn't know you were such a firebrand. All right, drop it now. I won't again. Good Lord!"
Slowly the white fist she had drawn back sank to her side again.
"All right now," he continued to grumble resentfully. "You needn't take on so. It's said—I won't touch you again." Then, as if he remembered that after all she was ill and must be humoured, he began, while her bosom still rose and fell rapidly, to talk with an assumption that nothing much had happened. "Come, sit down again, Bessie. The tea's in the pot and I'll have it ready in a couple of jiffs. What a ridiculous little girl you are, to take on like that!... And I say, listen! That's a muffin-bell, and there's a grand fire for toast! You sit down while I run out and get 'em. Give me your key, so I can let myself in again—"
He took her key from her bag, caught up his hat, and hastened out.
But she did not sit down again. She was no calmer for his quick disappearance. In that moment when he had recoiled from her she had had the expression of some handsome and angered snake, its hood puffed, ready to strike. She stood dazed; one would have supposed that that ill-advised kiss of his had indeed been the Master Word she sought, the Word she felt approaching, the Word to which the objects of the Museum, the book, that rustle of a sea she had never seen, had been but the ever "warming" stages. Some merest trifle stood between her and those elfin cries, between her and that thin golden mist in which faintly seen shapes seemed to move—shapes almost of tossed arms, waving, brandishing objects strangely all but familiar. That roaring of the sea was not the rushing of her own blood in her ears, that rosy flush not the artificial glow of the cheap red lampshade. The shapes were almost as plain as if she saw them in some clear but black mirror, the sounds almost as audible as if she heard them through some not very thick muffling....
"Quick—the book," she muttered.
But even as she stretched out her hand for it, again came that solemn sound of warning. As if something sought to stay it, she had deliberately to thrust her hand forward. Again the high dinning calls of "Hasten! Hasten!" were mingled with that deeper "Beware!" She knew in her soul that, once over that terrible edge, the Dream would become the Reality and the Reality the Dream. She knew nothing of the fluidity of the thing called Personality—not a thing at all, but a state, a balance, a relation, a resultant of forces so delicately in equilibrium that a touch, and—pff!—the horror of Formlessness rushed over all.
As she hesitated a new light appeared in the chamber. Within the frame of the small square window, beyond the ragged line of the chimney-cowls, an edge of orange brightness showed. She leaned forward. It was the full moon, rusty and bloated and flattened by the earth-mist.
The next moment her hand had clutched at the book.
"Whence came ye, merry Damsels! Whence came ye So many, and so many, and such glee? Why have ye left your bowers desolate, Your lutes, and gentler fate? 'We follow Bacchus, Bacchus on the wing A-conquering! Bacchus, young Bacchus! Good or ill betide We dance before him thorough kingdoms wide! Come hither, Lady fair, and joined be To our wild minstrelsy!'"
There was an instant in which darkness seemed to blot out all else; then it rolled aside, and in a blaze of brightness was gone. It was gone, and she stood face to face with her Dream, that for two thousand years had slumbered in the blood of her and her line. She stood, with mouth agape and eyes that hailed, her thick throat full of suppressed clamour. The other was the Dream now, and these!... they came down, mad and noisy and bright—Maenades, Thyades, satyrs, fauns—naked, in hides of beasts, ungirded, dishevelled, wreathed and garlanded, dancing, singing, shouting. The thudding of their hooves shook the ground, and the clash of their timbrels and the rustling of their thyrsi filled the air. They brandished frontal bones, the dismembered quarters of kids and goats; they struck the bronze cantharus, they tossed the silver obba up aloft. Down a cleft of rocks and woods they came, trooping to a wide seashore with the red of the sunset behind them. She saw the evening light on the sleek and dappled hides, the gilded ivory and rich brown of their legs and shoulders, the white of inner arms held up on high, their wide red mouths, the quivering of the twin flesh-gouts on the necks of the leaping fauns. And, shutting out the glimpse of sky at the head of the deep ravine, the god himself descended, with his car full of drunken girls who slept with the serpents coiled about them.
Shouting and moaning and frenzied, leaping upon one another with libidinous laughter and beating one another with the half-stripped thyrsi, they poured down to the yellow sands and the anemonied pools of the shore. They raced to the water, that gleamed pale as nacre in the deepening twilight in the eye of the evening star. They ran along its edge over their images in the wet sands, calling their lost companion.
"Hasten, hasten!" they cried; and one of them, a young man with a torso noble as the dawn and shoulder-lines strong as those of the eternal hills, ran here and there calling her name.
"Louder, louder!" she called back in an ecstasy.
Something dropped and tinkled against the fender. It was one of her hairpins. One side of her hair was in a loose tumble; she threw up the small head on the superb thick neck.
"Louder!—I cannot hear! Once more—"
The throwing up of her head that had brought down the rest of her hair had given her a glimpse of herself in the glass over the mantelpiece. For the last time that formidable "Beware!" sounded like thunder in her ears; the next moment she had snapped with her fingers the ribbon that was cutting into her throbbing throat. He with the torso and those shoulders was seeking her ... how should he know her in that dreary garret, in those joyless habiliments? He would as soon known his Own in that crimson-bodiced, wire-framed dummy by the window yonder!...
Her fingers clutched at the tawdry mercerised silk of her blouse. There was a rip, and her arms and throat were free. She panted as she tugged at something that gave with a short "click-click," as of steel fastenings; something fell against the fender.... These also.... She tore at them, and kicked them as they lay about her feet as leaves lie about the trunk of a tree in autumn....
And as she stood there, as if within the screen of a spectrum that deepened to the band of red, her eyes fell on the leopard-skin at her feet. She caught it up, and in doing so saw purple grapes—purple grapes that issued from the mouth of a paper bag on the table. With the dappled pelt about her she sprang forward. The juice spurted through them into the mass of her loosened hair. Down her body there was a spilth of seeds and pulp. She cried hoarsely aloud.
"Once more—oh, answer me! Tell me my name!"
Ed's steps were heard on the oilclothed portion of the staircase.
"My name—oh, my name!" she cried in an agony of suspense.... "Oh, they will not wait for me! They have lighted the torches—they run up and down the shore with torches—oh, cannot you see me?..."
Suddenly she dashed to the chair on which the litter of linings and tissue-paper lay. She caught up a double handful and crammed them on the fire. They caught and flared. There was a call upon the stairs, and the sound of somebody mounting in haste.
"Once—once only—my name!"
The soul of the Bacchante rioted, struggled to escape from her eyes. Then as the door was flung open, she heard, and gave a terrifying shout of recognition.
"I hear—I almost hear—but once more.... IO! Io, Io, Io!"
Ed, in the doorway, stood for one moment agape; the next, ignorant of the full purport of his own words—ignorant that though man may come westwards he may yet bring his worship with him—ignorant that to make the Dream the Reality and the Reality the Dream is Heaven's dreadfullest favour—and ignorant that, that Edge once crossed, there is no return to the sanity and sweetness and light that are only seen clearly in the moment when they are lost for ever—he had dashed down the stairs crying in a voice hoarse and high with terror:
"She's mad! She's mad!"
The street had not changed so much but that, little by little, its influence had come over Romarin again; and as the clock a street or two away had struck seven he had stood, his hands folded on his stick, first curious, then expectant, and finally, as the sound had died away, oddly satisfied in his memory. The clock had a peculiar chime, a rather elaborate one, ending inconclusively on the dominant and followed after an unusually long interval by the stroke of the hour itself. Not until its last vibration had become too subtle for his ear had Romarin resumed the occupation that the pealing of the hour had interrupted.
It was an occupation that especially tended to abstraction of mind—the noting in detail of the little things of the street that he had forgotten with such completeness that they awakened only tardy responses in his memory now that his eyes rested on them again. The shape of a doorknocker, the grouping of an old chimney-stack, the crack, still there, in a flagstone—somewhere deep in the past these things had associations; but they lay very deep, and the disturbing of them gave Romarin a curious, desolate feeling, as of returning to things he had long out-grown.
But, as he continued to stare at the objects, the sluggish memories roused more and more; and for each bit of the old that reasserted itself scores of yards of the new seemed to disappear. New shop-frontages went; a wall, brought up flush where formerly a recess had been, became the recess once more; the intermittent electric sign at the street's end, that wrote in green and crimson the name of a whiskey across a lamp-lit facade, ceased to worry his eyes; and the unfamiliar new front of the little restaurant he was passing and repassing took on its old and well-known aspect again.
Seven o'clock. He had thought, in dismissing his hansom, that it had been later. His appointment was not until a quarter past. But he decided against entering the restaurant and waiting inside; seeing who his guest was, it would be better to wait at the door. By the light of the restaurant window he corrected his watch, and then sauntered a few yards along the street, to where men were moving flats of scenery from a back door of the new theatre into a sort of tumbril. The theatre was twenty years old, but to Romarin it was "the new theatre." There had been no theatre there in his day.
In his day!... His day had been twice twenty years before. Forty years before, that street, that quarter, had been bound up in his life. He had not, forty years ago, been the famous painter, honoured, decorated, taken by the arm by monarchs; he had been a student, wild and raw as any, with that tranquil and urbane philosophy that had made his success still in abeyance within him. As his eyes had rested on the doorknocker next to the restaurant a smile had crossed his face. How had that door-knocker come to be left by the old crowd that had wrenched off so many others? By what accident had that survived, to bring back all the old life now so oddly? He stood, again smiling, his hands folded on his stick. A Crown Prince had given him that stick, and had had it engraved, "To my Friend, Romarin."
"You oughtn't to be here, you know," he said to the door-knocker. "If I didn't get you, Marsden ought to have done so...."
It was Marsden whom Romarin had come to meet—Marsden, of whom he had thought with such odd persistency lately. Marsden was the only man in the world between whom and himself lay as much as the shadow of an enmity; and even that faint shadow was now passing. One does not guard, for forty years, animosities that take their rise in quick outbreaks of the young blood; and, now that Romarin came to think of it, he hadn't really hated Marsden for more than a few months. It had been within those very doors (Romarin was passing the restaurant again) that there had been that quick blow, about a girl, and the tables had been pushed hastily back, and he and Marsden had fought, while the other fellows had kept the waiters away.... And Romarin was now sixty-four, and Marsden must be a year older, and the girl—who knew?—probably dead long ago ... Yes, time heals these things, thank God; and Romarin had felt a genuine flush of pleasure when Marsden had accepted his invitation to dinner.
But—Romarin looked at his watch again—it was rather like Marsden to be late. Marsden had always been like that—had come and gone pretty much as he had pleased, regardless of inconvenience to others. But, doubtless, he had had to walk. If all reports were true, Marsden had not made very much of his life in the way of worldly success, and Romarin, sorry to hear it, had wished he could give him a leg-up. Even a good man cannot do much when the current of his life sets against him in a tide of persistent ill-luck, and Romarin, honoured and successful, yet knew that he had been one of the lucky ones....
But it was just like Marsden to be late, for all that.
At first Romarin did not recognise him when he turned the corner of the street and walked towards him. He hadn't made up his mind beforehand exactly how he had expected Marsden to look, but he was conscious that he didn't look it. It was not the short stubble of grey beard, so short that it seemed to hesitate between beard and unshavenness; it was not the figure nor carriage—clothes alter that, and the clothes of the man who was advancing to meet Romarin were, to put it bluntly, shabby; nor was it... but Romarin did not know what it was in the advancing figure that for the moment found no response in his memory. He was already within half a dozen yards of the men who were moving the scenery from the theatre into the tumbril, and one of the workmen put up his hand as the edge of a fresh "wing" appeared....
But at the sound of his voice the same thing happened that had happened when the clock had struck seven. Romarin found himself suddenly expectant, attentive, and then again curiously satisfied in his memory. Marsden's voice at least had not changed; it was as in the old days—a little envious, sarcastic, accepting lower interpretations somewhat willingly, somewhat grudging of better ones. It completed the taking back of Romarin that the chiming of the clock, the doorknocker, the grouping of the chimney-stack and the crack in the flagstone had begun.
"Well, my distinguished Academician, my—"
Marsden's voice sounded across the group of scene-shifters...
"'Alf a mo, if you please, guv'nor," said another voice...
For a moment the painted "wing" shut them off from one another.
* * * * *
In that moment Romarin's accident befell him. If its essential nature is related in arbitrary terms, it is that there are no other terms to relate it in. It is a decoded cipher, which can be restored to its cryptic form as Romarin subsequently restored it.
* * * * *
As the painter took Marsden's arm and entered the restaurant, he noticed that while the outside of the place still retained traces of the old, its inside was entirely new. Its cheap glittering wall-mirrors, that gave a false impression of the actual size of the place, its Loves and Shepherdesses painted in the style of the carts of the vendors of ice-cream, its hat-racks and its four-bladed propeller that set the air slowly in motion at the farther end of the room, might all have been matched in a dozen similar establishments within hail of a cab-whistle. Its gelatine-written menu-cards announced that one might dine there a la carte or table d'hote for two shillings. Neither the cooking nor the service had influenced Romarin in his choice of a place to dine at.
He made a gesture to the waiter who advanced to help him on with his coat that Marsden was to be assisted first; but Marsden, with a grunted "All right," had already helped himself. A glimpse of the interior of the coat told Romarin why Marsden kept waiters at arm's-length. A little twinge of compunction took him that his own overcoat should be fur-collared and lined with silk.
They sat down at a corner table not far from the slowly moving four-bladed propeller.
"Now we can talk," Romarin said. "I'm glad, glad to see you again, Marsden."
It was a peculiarly vicious face that he saw, corrugated about the brows, and with stiff iron-grey hair untrimmed about the ears. It shocked Romarin a little; he had hardly looked to see certain things so accentuated by the passage of time. Romarin's own brow was high and bald and benign, and his beard was like a broad shield of silver.
"You're glad, are you?" said Marsden, as they sat down facing one another. "Well, I'm glad—to be seen with you. It'll revive my credit a bit. There's a fellow across there has recognised you already by your photographs in the papers.... I assume I may...?"
He made a little upward movement of his hand. It was a gin and bitters Marsden assumed he might have. Romarin ordered it; he himself did not take one. Marsden tossed down the aperitif at one gulp; then he reached for his roll, pulled it to pieces, and—Romarin remembered how in the old days Marsden had always eaten bread like that—began to throw bullets of bread into his mouth. Formerly this habit had irritated Romarin intensely; now ... well, well, Life uses some of us better than others. Small blame to these if they throw up the struggle. Marsden, poor devil ... but the arrival of the soup interrupted Romarin's meditation. He consulted the violet-written card, ordered the succeeding courses, and the two men ate for some minutes in silence.
"Well," said Romarin presently, pushing away his plate and wiping his white moustache, "are you still a Romanticist, Marsden?"
Marsden, who had tucked his napkin between two of the buttons of his frayed waistcoat, looked suspiciously across the glass with the dregs of the gin and bitters that he had half raised to his lips.
"Eh?" he said. "I say, Romarin, don't let's go grave-digging among memories merely for the sake of making conversation. Yours may be pleasant, but I'm not in the habit of wasting much time over mine. Might as well be making new ones ... I'll drink whiskey and soda."
It was brought, a large one; and Marsden, nodding, took a deep gulp.
"Health," he said.
"Thanks," said Romarin—instantly noting that the monosyllable, which matched the other's in curtness, was not at all the reply he had intended. "Thank you—yours," he amended; and a short pause followed, in which fish was brought.
This was not what Romarin had hoped for. He had desired to be reconciled with Marsden, not merely to be allowed to pay for his dinner. Yet if Marsden did not wish to talk it was difficult not to defer to his wish. It was true that he had asked if Marsden was still a Romanticist largely for the sake of something to say; but Marsden's prompt pointing out of this was not encouraging. Now that he came to think of it, he had never known precisely what Marsden had meant by the word "Romance" he had so frequently taken into his mouth; he only knew that this creed of Romanticism, whatever it was, had been worn rather challengingly, a chip on the shoulder, to be knocked off at some peril or other. And it had seemed to Romarin a little futile in the violence with which it had been maintained ... But that was neither here nor there. The point was, that the conversation had begun not very happily, and must be mended at once if at all. To mend it, Romarin leaned across the table.
"Be as friendly as I am, Marsden," he said. "I think—pardon me—that if our positions were reversed, and I saw in you the sincere desire to help that I have, I'd take it in the right way." Again Marsden looked suspiciously at him. "To help? How to help?" he demanded "That's what I should like you to tell me. But I suppose (for example) you still work?"
"Oh, my work!" Marsden made a little gesture of contempt. "Try again, Romarin."
"You don't do any?... Come, I'm no bad friend to my friends, and you'll find me—especially so."
But Marsden put up his hand.
"Not quite so quickly," he said. "Let's see what you mean by help first. Do you really mean that you want me to borrow money from you? That's help as I understand it nowadays."
"Then you've changed," said Romarin—wondering, however, in his secret heart whether Marsden had changed very much in that respect after all.
Marsden gave a short honk of a laugh.
"You didn't suppose I hadn't changed, did you?" Then he leaned suddenly forward. "This is rather a mistake, Romarin—rather a mistake," he said.
"This—our meeting again. Quite a mistake."
Romarin sighed. "I had hoped not," he said.
Marsden leaned forward again, with another gesture Romarin remembered very well—dinner knife in hand, edge and palm upwards, punctuating and expounding with the point.
"I tell you, it's a mistake," he said, knife and hand balanced. "You can't reopen things like this. You don't really want to reopen them; you only want to reopen certain of them; you want to pick and choose among things, to approve and disapprove. There must have been somewhere or other something in me you didn't altogether dislike—I can't for the life of me think what it was, by the way; and you want to lay stress on that and to sink the rest. Well, you can't. I won't let you. I'll not submit my life to you like that. If you want to go into things, all right; but it must be all or none. And I'd like another drink."
He put the knife down with a little clap as Romarin beckoned to the waiter.
There was distress on Romarin's face. He was not conscious of having adopted a superior attitude. But again he told himself that he must make allowances. Men who don't come off in Life's struggle are apt to be touchy, and he was; after all, the same old Marsden, the man with whom he desired to be at peace.
"Are you quite fair to me?" he asked presently, in a low voice.
Again the knife was taken up and its point advanced.
"Yes, I am," said Marsden in a slightly raised voice; and he indicated with the knife the mirror at the end of the table. "You know you've done well, and I, to all appearances, haven't; you can't look at that glass and not know it. But I've followed the line of my development too, no less logically than you. My life's been mine, and I'm not going to apologise for it to a single breathing creature. More, I'm proud of it. At least, there's been singleness of intention about it. So I think I'm strictly fair in pointing that out when you talk about helping me."
"Perhaps so, perhaps so," Romarin agreed a little sadly. "It's your tone more than anything else that makes things a little difficult. Believe me, I've no end in my mind except pure friendliness."
"No-o-o," said Marsden—a long "no" that seemed to deliberate, to examine, and finally to admit. "No. I believe that. And you usually get what you set out for. Oh yes. I've watched your rise—I've made a point of watching it. It's been a bit at a time, but you've got there. You're that sort. It's on your forehead—your destiny."
"Hallo, that's new, isn't it?" he said. "It wasn't your habit to talk much about destiny, if I remember rightly. Let me see; wasn't this more your style—'will, passion, laughs-at-impossibilities and says,' et cetera—and so forth? Wasn't that it? With always the suspicion not far away that you did things more from theoretical conviction than real impulse after all?"
A dispassionate observer would have judged that the words went somewhere near home. Marsden was scraping together with the edge of his knife the crumbs of his broken roll. He scraped them into a little square, and then trimmed the corners. Not until the little pile was shaped to his liking did he look surlily up.
"Let it rest, Romarin," he said curtly. "Drop it," he added. "Let it alone. If I begin to talk like that, too, we shall only cut one another up. Clink glasses—there—and let it alone."
Mechanically Romarin clinked; but his bald brow was perplexed.
"'Cut one another up?'" he repeated.
"Yes. Let it alone."
"'Cut one another up?'" he repeated once more. "You puzzle me entirely."
"Well, perhaps I'm altogether wrong. I only wanted to warn you that I've dared a good many things in my time. Now drop it."
Romarin had fine brown eyes, under Oriental arched brows. Again they noted the singularly vicious look of the man opposite. They were full of mistrust and curiosity, and he stroked his silver beard.
"Drop it?" he said slowly ... "No, let's go on. I want to hear more of this."
"I'd much rather have another drink in peace and quietness.... Waiter!"
Either leaned back in his chair, surveying the other. "You're a perverse devil still," was Romarin's thought. Marsden's, apparently, was of nothing but the whiskey and soda the waiter had gone to fetch.
* * * * *
Romarin was inclined to look askance at a man who could follow up a gin and bitters with three or four whiskeys and soda without turning a hair. It argued the seasoned cask. Marsden had bidden the waiter leave the bottle and the syphon on the table, and was already mixing himself another stiff peg.
"Well," he said, "since you will have it so—to the old days."
"To the old days," said Romarin, watching him gulp it down.
"Queer, looking back across all that time at 'em, isn't it? How do you feel about it?"
"In a mixed kind of way, I think; the usual thing: pleasure and regret mingled."
"Oh, you have regrets, have you?"
"For certain things, yes. Not, let me say, my turn-up with you, Marsden," he laughed. "That's why I chose the old place—" he gave a glance round at its glittering newness. "Do you happen to remember what all that was about? I've only the vaguest idea."
Marsden gave him a long look. "That all?" he asked.
"Oh, I remember in a sort of way. That 'Romantic' soap-bubble of yours was really at the bottom of it, I suspect. Tell me," he smiled, "did you really suppose Life could be lived on those mad lines you used to lay down?"
"My life," said Marsden calmly, "has been."
"You mean to say that you haven't outgrown that?"
"I hope not."
Romarin had thrown up his handsome head. "Well, well!" he murmured incredulously.
"Why 'well, well'?" Marsden demanded.... "But, of course, you never did and never will know what I meant."
"By Romance? ... No, I can't say that I did; but as I conceived it, it was something that began in appetite and ended in diabetes."
"Not philosophic, eh?" Marsden inquired, picking up a chicken bone.
"Highly unphilosophic," said Romarin, shaking his head.
"Hm!" grunted Marsden, stripping the bone... "Well, I grant it pays in a different way."
"It does pay, then?" Romarin asked.
"Oh yes, it pays."
The restaurant had filled up. It was one frequented by young artists, musicians, journalists and the clingers to the rather frayed fringes of the Arts. From time to time heads were turned to look at Romarin's portly and handsome figure, which the Press, the Regent Street photographic establishments, and the Academy Supplements had made well known. The plump young Frenchwoman within the glazed cash office near the door, at whom Marsden had several times glanced in a way at which Romarin had frowned, was aware of the honour done the restaurant; and several times the blond-bearded proprietor had advanced and inquired with concern whether the dinner and the service was to the liking of M'sieu.
And the eyes that were turned to Romarin plainly wondered who the scallawag dining with him might be.
Since Romarin had chosen that their conversation should be of the old days, and without picking and choosing, Marsden was quite willing that it should be so. Again he was casting the bullets of bread into his mouth, and again Romarin was conscious of irritation. Marsden, too, noticed it; but in awaiting the roti he still continued to roll and bolt the pellets, washing them down with gulps of whiskey and soda.
"Oh yes, it paid," he resumed. "Not in that way, of course—" he indicated the head, quickly turned away again, of an aureoled youngster with a large bunch of black satin tie, "—not in admiration of that sort, but in other ways—"
"Tell me about it."
"Certainly, if you want it. But you're my host. Won't you let me hear your side of it all first?"
"But I thought you said you knew that—had followed my career?"
"So I have. It's not your list of honours and degrees; let me see, what are you? R.A., D.C.L., Doctor of Literature, whatever that means, and Professor of this, that, and the other, and not at the end of it yet. I know all that. I don't say you haven't earned it; I admire your painting; but it's not that. I want to know what it feels like to be up there where you are."
It was a childish question, and Romarin felt foolish in trying to answer it. Such things were the things the adoring aureoled youngster a table or two away would have liked to ask. Romarin recognised in Marsden the old craving for sensation; it was part of the theoretical creed Marsden had made for himself, of doing things, not for their own sakes, but in order that he might have done them. Of course, it had appeared to a fellow like that, that Romarin himself had always had a calculated end in view; he had not; Marsden merely measured Romarin's peck out of his own bushel. It had been Marsden who, in self-consciously seeking his own life, had lost it, and Romarin was more than a little inclined to suspect that the vehemence with which he protested that he had not lost it was precisely the measure of the loss.
But he essayed it—essayed to give Marsden a resume of his career. He told him of the stroke of sheer luck that had been the foundation of it all, the falling ill of another painter who had turned over certain commissions to him. He told him of his poor but happy marriage, and of the windfall, not large, but timely, that had come to his wife. He told him of fortunate acquaintanceships happily cultivated, of his first important commission, of the fresco that had procured for him his Associateship, of his sale to the Chantrey, and of his quietly remunerative Visitorships and his work on Boards and Committees.
And as he talked, Marsden drew his empty glass to him, moistened his finger with a little spilt liquid, and began to run the finger round the rim of the glass. They had done that formerly, a whole roomful of them, producing, when each had found the note of his instrument, a high, thin, intolerable singing. To this singing Romarin strove to tell his tale.
But that thin and bat-like note silenced him. He ended lamely, with some empty generalisation on success.
"Ah, but success in what?" Marsden demanded, interrupting his playing on the glass for a moment.
"In your aim, whatever it may be."
"Ah!" said Marsden, resuming his performance.
Romarin had sought in his recital to minimise differences in circumstances; but Marsden seemed bent on aggravating them. He had the miserable advantage of the man who has nothing to lose. And bit by bit, Romarin had begun to realise that he was going considerably more than halfway to meet this old enemy of his, and that amity seemed as far on as ever. In his heart he began to feel the foreknowledge that their meeting could have no conclusion. He hated the man, the look of his face and the sound of his voice, as much as ever.
The proprietor approached with profoundest apology in his attitude. M'sieu would pardon him, but the noise of the glass ... it was annoying ... another M'sieu had made complaint....
"Eh?..." cried Marsden. "Oh, that! Certainly! It can be put to a much better purpose."
He refilled the glass.
The liquor had begun to tell on him. A quarter of the quantity would have made a clean-living man incapably drunk, but it had only made Marsden's eyes bright. He gave a sarcastic laugh.
"And is that all?" he asked.
Romarin replied shortly that that was all.
"You've missed out the R.A., and the D.C.L."
"Then let me add that I'm a Doctor of Civil Law and a full Member of the Royal Academy," said Romarin, almost at the end of his patience. "And now, since you don't think much of it, may I hear your own account?"
"Oh, by all means. I don't know, however, that—" he broke off to throw a glance at a woman who had just entered the restaurant—a divesting glance that caused Romarin to redden to his crown and drop his eyes. "I was going to say that you may think as little of my history as I do of yours. Supple woman that; when the rather scraggy blonde does take it into her head to be a devil she's the worst kind there is...."
Without apology Romarin looked at his watch.
"All right," said Marsden, smiling, "for what I've got out of life, then. But I warn you, it's entirely discreditable."
Romarin did not doubt it.
"But it's mine, and I boast of it. I've done—barring receiving honours and degrees—everything—everything! If there's anything I haven't done, tell me and lend me a sovereign, and I'll go and do it."
"You haven't told the story."
"That's so. Here goes then ... Well, you know, unless you've forgotten, how I began...."
Fruit and nutshells and nutcrackers lay on the table between them, and at the end of it, shielded from draughts by the menu cards, the coffee apparatus simmered over its elusive blue flame. Romarin was taking the rind from a pear with a table-knife, and Marsden had declined port in favour of a small golden liqueur of brandy. Every seat in the restaurant was now occupied, and the proprietor himself had brought his finest cigarettes and cigars. The waiter poured out the coffee, and departed with the apparatus in one hand and his napkin in the other.
Marsden was already well into his tale...
The frightful unction with which he told it appalled Romarin. It was as he had said—there was nothing he had not done and did not exult in with a sickening exultation. It had, indeed, ended in diabetes. In the pitiful hunting down of sensation to the last inch he had been fiendishly ingenious and utterly unimaginative. His unholy curiosity had spared nothing, his unnatural appetite had known no truth. It was grinning sin. The details of it simply cannot be told....
And his vanity in it all was prodigious. Romarin was pale as he listened. What! In order that this malignant growth in Society's breast should be able to say "I know," had sanctities been profaned, sweet conventions assailed, purity blackened, soundness infected, and all that was bright and of the day been sunk in the quagmire that this creature of the night had called—yes, stilled called—by the gentle name of Romance? Yes, so it had been. Not only had men and women suffered dishonour, but manhood and womanhood and the clean institutions by which alone the creature was suffered to exist had been brought to shame. And what was he to look at when it was all done?...
"Romance—Beauty—the Beauty of things as they are!" he croaked.
If faces in the restaurant were now turned to Romarin, it was the horror on Romarin's own face that drew them. He drew out his handkerchief and mopped his brow.
"But," he stammered presently, "you are speaking of generalities—horrible theories—things diabolically conceivable to be done—"
"What?" cried Marsden, checked for a moment in his horrible triumph. "No, by God! I've done 'em, done 'em! Don't you understand? If you don't, question me!..."
"No, no!" cried Romarin.
"But I say yes! You came for this, and you shall have it! I tried to stop you, but you wanted it, and by God you shall have it! You think your life's been full and mine empty? Ha ha!... Romance! I had the conviction of it, and I've had the courage too! I haven't told you a tenth of it! What would you like? Chamber-windows when Love was hot? The killing of a man who stood in my way? (I've fought a duel, and killed.) The squeezing of the juice out of life like that?" He pointed to Romarin's plate; Romarin had been eating grapes. "Did you find me saying I'd do a thing and then drawing back from it when we—" he made a quick gesture of both hands towards the middle of the restaurant floor.
"When we fought—?"
"Yes, when we fought, here!... Oh no, oh no! I've lived, I tell you, every moment! Not a title, not a degree, but I've lived such a life as you never dreamed of—!"
But suddenly Marsden's voice, which had risen, dropped again. He began to shake with interior chuckles. They were the old, old chuckles, and they filled Romarin with a hatred hardly to be borne. The sound of the animal's voice had begun it, and his every word, look, movement, gesture, since they had entered the restaurant, had added to it. And he was now chuckling, chuckling, shaking with chuckles, as if some monstrous tit-bit still remained to be told. Already Romarin had tossed aside his napkin, beckoned to the waiter, and said, "M'sieu dines with me...."
"Ho ho ho ho!" came the drunken sounds. "It's a long time since M'sieu dined here with his old friend Romarin! Do you remember the last time? Do you remember it? Pif, pan! Two smacks across the table, Romarin—oh, you got it in very well!—and then, brrrrr! quick! Back with the tables—all the fellows round—Farquharson for me and Smith for you, and then to it, Romarin!... And you really don't remember what it was all about?..."
Romarin had remembered. His face was not the face of the philosophic master of Life now.
"You said she shouldn't—little Pattie Hines you know—you said she shouldn't—"
Romarin sprang half from his chair, and brought his fist down on the table.
"And by Heaven, she didn't! At least that's one thing you haven't done!"
Marsden too had risen unsteadily.
"Oho, oho? You think that?"
A wild thought flashed across Romarin's brain.
"I mean?... Oho, oho! Yes, I mean! She did, Romarin...."
The mirrors, mistily seen through the smoke of half a hundred cigars and cigarettes, the Loves and Shepherdesses of the garish walls, the diners starting up in their places, all suddenly seemed to swing round in a great half-circle before Romarin's eyes. The next moment, feeling as if he stood on something on which he found it difficult to keep his balance, he had caught up the table-knife with which he had peeled the pear and had struck at the side of Marsden's neck. The rounded blade snapped, but he struck again with the broken edge, and left the knife where it entered. The table appeared uptilted almost vertical; over it Marsden's head disappeared; it was followed by a shower of glass, cigars, artificial flowers and the tablecloth at which he clutched; and the dirty American cloth of the table top was left bare.
* * * * *
But the edge behind which Marsden's face had disappeared remained vertical. A group of scene-shifters were moving a flat of scenery from a theatre into a tumbril-like cart...
And Romarin knew that, past, present, and future, he had seen it all in an instant, and that Marsden stood behind that painted wing.
And he knew, too, that he had only to wait until that flat passed and to take Marsden's arm and enter the restaurant, and it would be so. A drowning man is said to see all in one unmeasurable instant of time; a year-long dream is but, they say, an instantaneous arrangement in the moment of waking of the molecules we associate with ideas; and the past of history and the future of prophecy are folded up in the mystic moment we call the present....
It would come true....
For one moment Romarin stood; the next, he had turned and run for his life.
At the corner of the street he collided with a loafer, and only the wall saved them from going down. Feverishly Romarin plunged his hand into his pocket and brought out a handful of silver. He crammed it into the loafer's hand.
"Here—quick—take it!" he gasped. "There's a man there, by that restaurant door—he's waiting for Mr. Romarin—tell him—tell him—tell him Mr. Romarin's had an accident—"
And he dashed away, leaving the man looking at the silver in his palm.
THE CIGARETTE CASE
"A cigarette, Loder?" I said, offering my case. For the moment Loder was not smoking; for long enough he had not been talking.
"Thanks," he replied, taking not only the cigarette, but the case also. The others went on talking; Loder became silent again; but I noticed that he kept my cigarette case in his hand, and looked at it from time to time with an interest that neither its design nor its costliness seemed to explain. Presently I caught his eye.
"A pretty case," he remarked, putting it down on the table. "I once had one exactly like it."
I answered that they were in every shop window.
"Oh yes," he said, putting aside any question of rarity.... "I lost mine."
He laughed. "Oh, that's all right—I got it back again—don't be afraid I'm going to claim yours. But the way I lost it—found it—the whole thing—was rather curious. I've never been able to explain it. I wonder if you could?"
I answered that I certainly couldn't till I'd heard it, whereupon Loder, taking up the silver case again and holding it in his hand as he talked, began:
"This happened in Provence, when I was about as old as Marsham there—and every bit as romantic. I was there with Carroll—you remember poor old Carroll and what a blade of a boy he was—as romantic as four Marshams rolled into one. (Excuse me, Marsham, won't you? It's a romantic tale, you see, or at least the setting is.) ... We were in Provence, Carroll and I; twenty-four or thereabouts; romantic, as I say; and—and this happened.
"And it happened on the top of a whole lot of other things, you must understand, the things that do happen when you're twenty-four. If it hadn't been Provence, it would have been somewhere else, I suppose, nearly, if not quite as good; but this was Provence, that smells (as you might say) of twenty-four as it smells of argelasse and wild lavender and broom....
"We'd had the dickens of a walk of it, just with knapsacks—had started somewhere in the Ardeche and tramped south through the vines and almonds and olives—Montelimar, Orange, Avignon, and a fortnight at that blanched skeleton of a town, Les Baux. We'd nothing to do, and had gone just where we liked, or rather just where Carroll had liked; and Carroll had had the De Bello Gallico in his pocket, and had had a notion, I fancy, of taking in the whole ground of the Roman conquest—I remember he lugged me off to some place or other, Pourrieres I believe its name was, because—I forget how many thousands—were killed in a river-bed there, and they stove in the water-casks so that if the men wanted water they'd have to go forward and fight for it. And then we'd gone on to Arles, where Carroll had fallen in love with everything that had a bow of black velvet in her hair, and after that Tarascon, Nimes, and so on, the usual round—I won't bother you with that. In a word, we'd had two months of it, eating almonds and apricots from the trees, watching the women at the communal washing-fountains under the dark plane-trees, singing Magali and the Que Cantes, and Carroll yarning away all the time about Caesar and Vercingetorix and Dante, and trying to learn Provencal so that he could read the stuff in the Journal des Felibriges that he'd never have looked at if it had been in English....
"Well, we got to Darbisson. We'd run across some young chap or other—Rangon his name was—who was a vine-planter in those parts, and Rangon had asked us to spend a couple of days with him, with him and his mother, if we happened to be in the neighbourhood. So as we might as well happen to be there as anywhere else, we sent him a postcard and went. This would be in June or early in July. All day we walked across a plain of vines, past hurdles of wattled cannes and great wind-screens of velvety cypresses, sixty feet high, all white with dust on the north side of 'em, for the mistral was having its three-days' revel, and it whistled and roared through the cannes till scores of yards of 'em at a time were bowed nearly to the earth. A roaring day it was, I remember.... But the wind fell a little late in the afternoon, and we were poring over what it had left of our Ordnance Survey—like fools, we'd got the unmounted paper maps instead of the linen ones—when Rangon himself found us, coming out to meet us in a very badly turned-out trap. He drove us back himself, through Darbisson, to the house, a mile and a half beyond it, where he lived with his mother.
"He spoke no English, Rangon didn't, though, of course, both French and Provencal; and as he drove us, there was Carroll, using him as a Franco-Provencal dictionary, peppering him with questions about the names of things in the patois—I beg its pardon, the language—though there's a good deal of my eye and Betty Martin about that, and I fancy this Felibrige business will be in a good many pieces when Frederic Mistral is under that Court-of-Love pavilion arrangement he's had put up for himself in the graveyard at Maillanne. If the language has got to go, well, it's got to go, I suppose; and while I personally don't want to give it a kick, I rather sympathise with the Government. Those jaunts of a Sunday out to Les Baux, for instance, with paper lanterns and Bengal fire and a fellow spouting O blanche Venus d'Arles—they're well enough, and compare favourably with our Bank Holidays and Sunday League picnics, but ... but that's nothing to do with my tale after all.... So he drove on, and by the time we got to Rangon's house Carroll had learned the greater part of Magali....
"As you, no doubt, know, it's a restricted sort of life in some respects that a young vigneron lives in those parts, and it was as we reached the house that Rangon remembered something—or he might have been trying to tell us as we came along for all I know, and not been able to get a word in edgeways for Carroll and his Provencal. It seemed that his mother was away from home for some days—apologies of the most profound, of course; our host was the soul of courtesy, though he did try to get at us a bit later.... We expressed our polite regrets, naturally; but I didn't quite see at first what difference it made. I only began to see when Rangon, with more apologies, told us that we should have to go back to Darbisson for dinner. It appeared that when Madame Rangon went away for a few days she dispersed the whole of the female side of her establishment also, and she'd left her son with nobody to look after him except an old man we'd seen in the yard mending one of these double-cylindered sulphur-sprinklers they clap across the horse's back and drive between the rows of vines.... Rangon explained all this as we stood in the hall drinking an aperitif—a hall crowded with oak furniture and photographs and a cradle-like bread-crib and doors opening to right and left to the other rooms of the ground floor. He had also, it seemed, to ask us to be so infinitely obliging as to excuse him for one hour after dinner—our postcard had come unexpectedly, he said, and already he had made an appointment with his agent about the vendange for the coming autumn.... We, begged him, of course, not to allow us to interfere with his business in the slightest degree. He thanked us a thousand times.
"'But though we dine in the village, we will take our own wine with us,' he said, 'a wine surfin—one of my wines—you shall see—'
"Then he showed us round his place—I forget how many hundreds of acres of vines, and into the great building with the presses and pumps and casks and the huge barrel they call the thunderbolt—and about seven o'clock we walked back to Darbisson to dinner, carrying our wine with us. I think the restaurant we dined in was the only one in the place, and our gaillard of a host—he was a straight-backed, well-set-up chap, with rather fine eyes—did us on the whole pretty well. His wine certainly was good stuff, and set our tongues going....
"A moment ago I said a fellow like Rangon leads a restricted sort of life in those parts. I saw this more clearly as dinner went on. We dined by an open window, from which we could see the stream with the planks across it where the women washed clothes during the day and assembled in the evening for gossip. There were a dozen or so of them there as we dined, laughing and chatting in low tones—they all seemed pretty—it was quickly falling dusk—all the girls are pretty then, and are quite conscious of it—you know, Marsham. Behind them, at the end of the street, one of these great cypress wind-screens showed black against the sky, a ragged edge something like the line the needle draws on a rainfall chart; and you could only tell whether they were men or women under the plantains by their voices rippling and chattering and suddenly a deeper note.... Once I heard a muffled scuffle and a sound like a kiss.... It was then that Rangon's little trouble came out....
"It seemed that he didn't know any girls—wasn't allowed to know any girls. The girls of the village were pretty enough, but you see how it was—he'd a position to keep up—appearances to maintain—couldn't be familiar during the year with the girls who gathered his grapes for him in the autumn.... And as soon as Carroll gave him a chance, he began to ask us questions, about England, English girls, the liberty they had, and so on.
"Of course, we couldn't tell him much he hadn't heard already, but that made no difference; he could stand any amount of that, our strapping young vigneron; and he asked us questions by the dozen, that we both tried to answer at once. And his delight and envy!... What! In England did the young men see the young women of their own class without restraint—the sisters of their friends meme—even at the house? Was it permitted that they drank tea with them in the afternoon, or went without invitation to pass the soiree?... He had all the later Prevosts in his room, he told us (I don't doubt he had the earlier ones also); Prevost and the Disestablishment between them must be playing the mischief with the convent system of education for young girls; and our young man was—what d'you call it?—'Co-ed'—co-educationalist—by Jove, yes!... He seemed to marvel that we should have left a country so blessed as England to visit his dusty, wild-lavender-smelling, girl-less Provence.... You don't know half your luck, Marsham....
"Well, we talked after this fashion—we'd left the dining-room of the restaurant and had planted ourselves on a bench outside with Rangon between us—when Rangon suddenly looked at his watch and said it was time he was off to see this agent of his. Would we take a walk, he asked us, and meet him again there? he said.... But as his agent lived in the direction of his own home, we said we'd meet him at the house in an hour or so. Off he went, envying every Englishman who stepped, I don't doubt.... I told you how old—how young—we were.... Heigho!...
"Well, off goes Rangon, and Carroll and I got up, stretched ourselves, and took a walk. We walked a mile or so, until it began to get pretty dark, and then turned; and it was as we came into the blackness of one of these cypress hedges that the thing I'm telling you of happened. The hedge took a sharp turn at that point; as we came round the angle we saw a couple of women's figures hardly more than twenty yards ahead—don't know how they got there so suddenly, I'm sure; and that same moment I found my foot on something small and white and glimmering on the grass.
"I picked it up. It was a handkerchief—a woman's—embroidered—
"The two figures ahead of us were walking in our direction; there was every probability that the handkerchief belonged to one of them; so we stepped out....
"At my 'Pardon, madame,' and lifted hat one of the figures turned her head; then, to my surprise, she spoke in English—cultivated English. I held out the handkerchief. It belonged to the elder lady of the two, the one who had spoken, a very gentle-voiced old lady, older by very many years than her companion. She took the handkerchief and thanked me....
"Somebody—Sterne, isn't it?—says that Englishmen don't travel to see Englishmen. I don't know whether he'd stand to that in the case of Englishwomen; Carroll and I didn't.... We were walking rather slowly along, four abreast across the road; we asked permission to introduce ourselves, did so, and received some name in return which, strangely enough, I've entirely forgotten—I only remember that the ladies were aunt and niece, and lived at Darbisson. They shook their heads when I mentioned M. Rangon's name and said we were visiting him. They didn't know him....
"I'd never been in Darbisson before, and I haven't been since, so I don't know the map of the village very well. But the place isn't very big, and the house at which we stopped in twenty minutes or so is probably there yet. It had a large double door—a double door in two senses, for it was a big porte-cochere with a smaller door inside it, and an iron grille shutting in the whole. The gentle-voiced old lady had already taken a key from her reticule and was thanking us again for the little service of the handkerchief; then, with the little gesture one makes when one has found oneself on the point of omitting a courtesy, she gave a little musical laugh.
"'But,' she said with a little movement of invitation, 'one sees so few compatriots here—if you have the time to come in and smoke a cigarette ... also the cigarette,' she added, with another rippling laugh, 'for we have few callers, and live alone—'
"Hastily as I was about to accept, Carroll was before me, professing a nostalgia for the sound of the English tongue that made his recent protestations about Provencal a shameless hypocrisy. Persuasive young rascal, Carroll Was—poor chap ... So the elder lady opened the grille and the wooden door beyond it, and we entered.
"By the light of the candle which the younger lady took from a bracket just within the door we saw that we were in a handsome hall or vestibule; and my wonder that Rangon had made no mention of what was apparently a considerable establishment was increased by the fact that its tenants must be known to be English and could be seen to be entirely charming. I couldn't understand it, and I'm afraid hypotheses rushed into my head that cast doubts on the Rangons—you know—whether they were all right. We knew nothing about our young planter, you see....
"I looked about me. There were tubs here and there against the walls, gaily painted, with glossy-leaved aloes and palms in them—one of the aloes, I remember, was flowering; a little fountain in the middle made a tinkling noise; we put our caps on a carved and gilt console table; and before us rose a broad staircase with shallow steps of spotless stone and a beautiful wrought-iron handrail. At the top of the staircase were more palms and aloes, and double doors painted in a clear grey.
"We followed our hostesses up the staircase. I can hear yet the sharp clean click our boots made on that hard shiny stone—see the lights of the candle gleaming on the handrail ... The young girl—she was not much more than a girl—pushed at the doors, and we went in.
"The room we entered was all of a piece with the rest for rather old-fashioned fineness. It was large, lofty, beautifully kept. Carroll went round for Miss ... whatever her name was ... lighting candles in sconces; and as the flames crept up they glimmered on a beautifully polished floor, which was bare except for an Eastern rug here and there. The elder lady had sat down in a gilt chair, Louis Fourteenth I should say, with a striped rep of the colour of a petunia; and I really don't know—don't smile, Smith—what induced me to lead her to it by the finger-tips, bending over her hand for a moment as she sat down. There was an old tambour-frame behind her chair, I remember, and a vast oval mirror with clustered candle-brackets filled the greater part of the farther wall, the brightest and clearest glass I've ever seen...."
He paused, looking at my cigarette case, which he had taken into his hand again. He smiled at some recollection or other, and it was a minute or so before he continued.
"I must admit that I found it a little annoying, after what we'd been talking about at dinner an hour before, that Rangon wasn't with us. I still couldn't understand how he could have neighbours so charming without knowing about them, but I didn't care to insist on this to the old lady, who for all I knew might have her own reasons for keeping to herself. And, after all, it was our place to return Rangon's hospitality in London if he ever came there, not, so to speak, on his own doorstep.... So presently I forgot all about Rangon, and I'm pretty sure that Carroll, who was talking to his companion of some Felibrige junketing or other and having the air of Gounod's Mireille hummed softly over to him, didn't waste a thought on him either. Soon Carroll—you remember what a pretty crooning, humming voice he had—soon Carroll was murmuring what they call 'seconds,' but so low that the sound hardly came across the room; and I came in with a soft bass note from time to time. No instrument, you know; just an unaccompanied murmur no louder than an Aeolian harp; and it sounded infinitely sweet and plaintive and—what shall I say?—weak—attenuated—faint—'pale' you might almost say—in that formal, rather old-fashioned salon, with that great clear oval mirror throwing back the still flames of the candles in the sconces on the walls. Outside the wind had now fallen completely; all was very quiet; and suddenly in a voice not much louder than a sigh, Carroll's companion was singing Oft in the Stilly Night—you know it...."
He broke off again to murmur the beginning of the air. Then, with a little laugh for which we saw no reason, he went on again:
"Well, I'm not going to try to convince you of such a special and delicate thing as the charm of that hour—it wasn't more than an hour—it would be all about an hour we stayed. Things like that just have to be said and left; you destroy them the moment you begin to insist on them; we've every one of us had experiences like that, and don't say much about them. I was as much in love with my old lady as Carroll evidently was with his young one—I can't tell you why—being in love has just to be taken for granted too, I suppose... Marsham understands.... We smoked our cigarettes, and sang again, once more filling that clear-painted, quiet apartment with a murmuring no louder than if a light breeze found that the bells of a bed of flowers were really bells and played on 'em. The old lady moved her fingers gently on the round table by the side of her chair,.. oh, infinitely pretty it was.... Then Carroll wandered off into the Que Cantes—awfully pretty—'It is not for myself I sing, but for my friend who is near me'—and I can't tell you how like four old friends we were, those two so oddly met ladies and Carroll and myself.... And so to Oft in the Stilly Night again....
"But for all the sweetness and the glamour of it, we couldn't stay on indefinitely, and I wondered what time it was, but didn't ask—anything to do with clocks and watches would have seemed a cold and mechanical sort of thing just then.... And when presently we both got up neither Carroll nor I asked to be allowed to call again in the morning to thank them for a charming hour.... And they seemed to feel the same as we did about it. There was no 'hoping that we should meet again in London'—neither an au revoir nor a good-bye—just a tacit understanding that that hour should remain isolated, accepted like a good gift without looking the gift-horse in the mouth, single, unattached to any hours before or after—I don't know whether you see what I mean.... Give me a match somebody....
"And so we left, with no more than looks exchanged and finger-tips resting between the back of our hands and our lips for a moment. We found our way out by ourselves, down that shallow-stepped staircase with the handsome handrail, and let ourselves out of the double door and grille, closing it softly. We made for the village without speaking a word.... Heigho!..."
Loder had picked up the cigarette case again, but for all the way his eyes rested on it I doubt whether he really saw it. I'm pretty sure he didn't; I knew when he did by the glance he shot at me, as much as to say "I see you're wondering where the cigarette case comes in."... He resumed with another little laugh.
"Well," he continued, "we got back to Rangon's house. I really don't blame Rangon for the way he took it when we told him, you know—he thought we were pulling his leg, of course, and he wasn't having any; not he! There were no English ladies in Darbisson, he said.... We told him as nearly as we could just where the house was—we weren't very precise, I'm afraid, for the village had been in darkness as we had come through it, and I had to admit that the cypress hedge I tried to describe where we'd met our friends was a good deal like other cypress hedges—and, as I say, Rangon wasn't taking any. I myself was rather annoyed that he should think we were returning his hospitality by trying to get at him, and it wasn't very easy either to explain in my French and Carroll's Provencal that we were going to let the thing stand as it was and weren't going to call on our charming friends again.... The end of it was that Rangon just laughed and yawned....
"'I knew it was good, my wine,' he said, 'but—' a shrug said the rest. 'Not so good as all that,' he meant....
"Then he gave us our candles, showed us to our rooms, shook hands, and marched off to his own room and the Prevosts.
"I dreamed of my old lady half the night.
"After coffee the next morning I put my hand into my pocket for my cigarette case and didn't find it. I went through all my pockets, and then I asked Carroll if he'd got it.
"'No,' he replied.... 'Think you left it behind at that place last night?'
"'Yes; did you?' Rangon popped in with a twinkle.
"I went through all my pockets again. No cigarette case....
"Of course, it was possible that I'd left it behind, and I was annoyed again. I didn't want to go back, you see.... But, on the other hand, I didn't want to lose the case—it was a present—and Rangon's smile nettled me a good deal, too. It was both a challenge to our truthfulness and a testimonial to that very good wine of his....
"'Might have done,' I grunted.... 'Well, in that case we'll go and get it.'
"'If one tried the restaurant first—?' Rangon suggested, smiling again.
"'By all means,' said I stuffily, though I remembered having the case after we'd left the restaurant.
"We were round at the restaurant by half-past nine. The case wasn't there. I'd known jolly well beforehand it wasn't, and I saw Rangon's mouth twitching with amusement.
"'So we now seek the abode of these English ladies, hein?' he said.
"'Yes,' said I; and we left the restaurant and strode through the village by the way we'd taken the evening before....
"That vigneron's smile became more and more irritating to me.... 'It is then the next village?' he said presently, as we left the last house and came out into the open plain.
"We went back....
"I was irritated because we were two to one, you see, and Carroll backed me up. 'A double door, with a grille in front of it,' he repeated for the fiftieth time.... Rangon merely replied that it wasn't our good faith he doubted. He didn't actually use the word 'drunk.'...
"'Mais tiens,' he said suddenly, trying to conceal his mirth. 'Si c'est possible... si c'est possible... a double door with a grille? But perhaps that I know it, the domicile of these so elusive ladies.... Come this way.'
"He took us back along a plantain-groved street, and suddenly turned up an alley that was little more than two gutters and a crack of sky overhead between two broken-tiled roofs. It was a dilapidated, deserted ruelle, and I was positively angry when Rangon pointed to a blistered old porte-cochere with a half-unhinged railing in front of it.
"'Is it that, your house?' he asked.
"'No,' says I, and 'No,' says Carroll ... and off we started again....
"But another half-hour brought us back to the same place, and Carroll scratched his head.
"'Who lives there, anyway?' he said, glowering at the porte-cochere, chin forward, hands in pockets.
"'Nobody,' says Rangon, as much as to say 'look at it!' 'M'sieu then meditates taking it?'...
"Then I struck in, quite out of temper by this time.
"'How much would the rent be?' I asked, as if I really thought of taking the place just to get back at him.
"He mentioned something ridiculously small in the way of francs.
"'One might at least see the place,' says I. 'Can the key be got?'
"He bowed. The key was at the baker's, not a hundred yards away, he said....
"We got the key. It was the key of the inner wooden door—that grid of rusty iron didn't need one—it came clean off its single hinge when Carroll touched it. Carroll opened, and we stood for a moment motioning to one another to step in. Then Rangon went in first, and I heard him murmur 'Pardon, Mesdames.'...
"Now this is the odd part. We passed into a sort of vestibule or hall, with a burst lead pipe in the middle of a dry tank in the centre of it. There was a broad staircase rising in front of us to the first floor, and double doors just seen in the half-light at the head of the stairs. Old tubs stood against the walls, but the palms and aloes in them were dead—only a cabbage-stalk or two—and the rusty hoops lay on the ground about them. One tub had come to pieces entirely and was no more than a heap of staves on a pile of spilt earth. And everywhere, everywhere was dust—the floor was an inch deep in dust and old plaster that muffled our footsteps, cobwebs hung like old dusters on the walls, a regular goblin's tatter of cobwebs draped the little bracket inside the door, and the wrought-iron of the hand-rail was closed up with webs in which not even a spider moved. The whole thing was preposterous....
"'It is possible that for even a less rental—'
"Rangon murmured, dragging his forefinger across the hand-rail and leaving an inch-deep furrow....
"'Come upstairs,' said I suddenly....
"Up we went. All was in the same state there. A clutter of stuff came down as I pushed at the double doors of the salon, and I had to strike a stinking French sulphur match to see into the room at all. Underfoot was like walking on thicknesses of flannel, and except where we put our feet the place was as printless as a snowfield—dust, dust, unbroken grey dust. My match burned down....
"'Wait a minute—I've a bougie,' said Carroll, and struck the wax match....
"There were the old sconces, with never a candle-end in them. There was the large oval mirror, but hardly reflecting Carroll's match for the dust on it. And the broken chairs were there, all gutless, and the rickety old round table....
"But suddenly I darted forward. Something new and bright on the table twinkled with the light of Carroll's match. The match went out, and by the time Carroll had lighted another I had stopped. I wanted Rangon to see what was on the table....
"'You'll see by my footprints how far from that table I've been,' I said. 'Will you pick it up?'
"And Rangon, stepping forward, picked up from the middle of the table—my cigarette case."
* * * * *
Loder had finished. Nobody spoke. For quite a minute nobody spoke, and then Loder himself broke the silence, turning to me.
"Make anything of it?" he said.
I lifted my eyebrows. "Only your vigneron's explanation—" I began, but stopped again, seeing that wouldn't do.
"Anybody make anything of it?" said Loder, turning from one to another.
I gathered from Smith's face that he thought one thing might be made of it—namely, that Loder had invented the whole tale. But even Smith didn't speak.
"Were any English ladies ever found to have lived in the place—murdered, you know—bodies found and all that?" young Marsham asked diffidently, yearning for an obvious completeness.
"Not that we could ever learn," Loder replied. "We made inquiries too.... So you all give it up? Well, so do I...."
And he rose. As he walked to the door, myself following him to get his hat and stick, I heard him humming softly the lines—they are from Oft in the Stilly Night—
"I seem like one who treads alone Some banquet-hall deserted, Whose guests are fled, whose garlands dead, And all but he—departed!"
There was little need for the swart gipsies to explain, as they stood knee-deep in the snow round the bailiff of the Abbey Farm, what it was that had sent them. The unbroken whiteness of the uplands told that, and, even as they spoke, there came up the hill the dark figures of the farm men with shovels, on their way to dig out the sheep. In the summer, the bailiff would have been the first to call the gipsies vagabonds and roost-robbers; now ... they had women with them too.
"The hares and foxes were down four days ago, and the liquid-manure pumps like a snow man," the bailiff said.... "Yes, you can lie in the laithes and welcome—if you can find 'em. Maybe you'll help us find our sheep too—"
The gipsies had done so. Coming back again, they had had some ado to discover the spot where their three caravans made a hummock of white against a broken wall.
The women—they had four women with them—began that afternoon to weave the mats and baskets they hawked from door to door; and in the forenoon of the following day one of them, the black-haired, soft-voiced quean whom the bailiff had heard called Annabel, set her babe in the sling on her back, tucked a bundle of long cane-loops under her oxter, and trudged down between eight-foot walls of snow to the Abbey Farm. She stood in the latticed porch, dark and handsome against the whiteness, and then, advancing, put her head into the great hall-kitchen.
"Has the lady any chairs for the gipsy woman to mend?" she asked in a soft and insinuating voice....
They brought her the old chairs; she seated herself on a box in the porch; and there she wove the strips of cane in and out, securing each one with a little wooden peg and a tap of her hammer. The child remained in the sling at her back, taking the breast from time to time over her shoulder; and the silver wedding ring could be seen as she whipped the cane, back and forth.
As she worked, she cast curious glances into the old hall-kitchen. The snow outside cast a pallid, upward light on the heavy ceiling-beams; this was reflected in the polished stone floor; and the children, who at first had shyly stopped their play, seeing the strange woman in the porch—the nearest thing they had seen to gipsies before had been the old itinerant glazier with his frame of glass on his back—resumed it, but still eyed her from time to time. In the ancient walnut chair by the hearth sat the old, old lady who had told them to bring the chairs. Her hair, almost as white as the snow itself, was piled up on her head a la Marquise; she was knitting; but now and then she allowed the needle in the little wooden sheath at her waist to lie idle, closed her eyes, and rocked softly in the old walnut chair.
"Ask the woman who is mending the chairs whether she is warm enough there," the old lady said to one of the children; and the child went to the porch with the message.