"Exactly how I should have described her," interjected Killigrew.
"What I mean to say is that of course Miss Grey would not have dweamt of coming down if she had known you two were here...."
"Should have thought we made enough noise coming in. But I suppose what you're driving at is that she only comes when you're alone; is that it?" asked Killigrew wickedly.
"Damn it all! you know it's not what I mean at all, only you twist everything a fellow says so. Anyway, I'd hate anyone to go and make a mistake about her."
"I won't," said Killigrew.
"It wouldn't be possible, I think," said Ishmael; "she's got that sort of clear look, you couldn't."
"Yes, that's just it," agreed Carminow gratefully. "Sometimes she even does things that might seem a little odd or rash, and it's all because she is such a child of nature she doesn't understand. A sort of Miwanda."
"What is her name, by the way?" asked Killigrew idly.
"Blanche, I believe."
"Blanche Grey ... a rather humorous combination. Well, we must go or we shall be keeping you from your beastly legalised murder at eight. Come on, Ishmael!"
"I'll come up to the Strand with you," said Carminow. "I have to be early at the prison, or one doesn't get through the crowd, not with a single valuable left on you anyway, and lucky to keep your shirt and trousers. You're sure you won't come? I could manage something for you."
Neither felt disposed—Ishmael not only because he knew it would make him deadly sick, but because the mere though of it had somehow become horrible, and Killigrew because he was rather glad to make Ishmael an excuse for not going himself. They all strode along the dim, quiet street, empty except for a dweller of the night who slunk into deeper shadows on seeing that there were three of them.
"She's an interesting-looking girl, that Miss Grey," observed Killigrew, more to try and draw Carminow than because he was really interested in the subject himself.
"She reminded me of someone, and at first I couldn't think who," said Ishmael, feeling a queer little pleasure at talking of her thus casually; "and then I remembered Hilaria—you remember little Hilaria Eliot, who used to be so jolly to us all at St. Renny?"
"She is the last person I should have compared with Miss Grey," said Killigrew decidedly. "I should say they were as different as it is possible for two persons of the same sex to be. Hilaria was like a boy; Miss Grey is most feminine."
"Yes, she is," said Ishmael eagerly; "but there's the same frankness, that way of meeting you that other girls don't have."
"I know what you mean," agreed Carminow, "though I don't think one notices it when one sees more of Miss Grey. As Killigrew says, she is so essentially feminine—she is always gwateful for support in a way that is really very sad in one who has to battle with the world. It is a hard life for a refined gentlewoman, I fear."
"Dear old chap, with his 'battling with the world' and all the rest of his really highly moral conventional views!" exclaimed Killigrew. "He's a fraud, isn't he, Ishmael, who pretends to love to wallow in blug just to hide his lamblike disposition."
"You always did talk wot," remarked Carminow placidly. "You're weally not a bit changed, Killigrew, in spite of Paris. By the way, I suppose you heard about Polkinghorne?"
"Yes, from Old Tring. I went to St. Renny a little while ago."
"Ah! then you heard about Hilaria? I thought from Ruan's mention of her you had neither of you heard."
"Why," said Carminow in rather a shocked voice, "about her illness."
"No!..." exclaimed Ishmael and Killigrew in a breath; and Killigrew went on: "What illness? I can't imagine the Hilaria we used to know ill."
"She's not the Hilaria we used to know, I'm afraid. You would hardly recognize her. She's got a disease—you wouldn't know it if I were to tell you its name—that is one of the most obscure known to science, if you can call a thing known when no cure can be discovered to it. Yes, she's hopelessly paralysed, is poor Hilaria." A certain impersonal note as he spoke of the illness had crept through all the genuine feeling in Carminow's voice.
"But it's impossible!" cried Ishmael, profoundly shocked, not so much at any personal feeling for Hilaria, as an instinctive protest that such things could be. "Hilaria—why she was never still, and the things she did—why, you remember her walks and her fencing and everything—"
"Old Dr. Harvey at St. Renny puts it down very largely to those excessive walks she used to take," said Carminow.
Ishmael said nothing; he was struck by a greater horror that it should have been those walks, which had so seemed to set Hilaria apart from her sex, on which he had so often accompanied her, of which even now he could recall the delight though he had not thought of them since.... Carminow went on:
"But of course I don't agree with him; he only says that because he always disapproved of the way poor old Eliot brought her up. Personally I think it was a very healthy way, and I believe it will be for the good of the race when women are made to exercise more. But Hilaria had the seeds of this sclerosis in her then, and nothing can stop it; over-exertion may have made it worse, as it does any illness, but it couldn't have caused it. It's being mercifully rapid, that's one comfort."
"It's ghastly," said Killigrew in a low voice. "Where is she, Carminow? Have you seen her?"
"Well, yes, as a matter of fact I go when I can. I think it gives her pleasure to see anyone from the old days. She's in a home for such things in London. Her father lodges round the corner to be near her. It's awful to see him. You know how he was about her.... She would be brought back from France when they found out how bad it was. D'you remember how her eyes used to give out sometimes when she was reading to us? That was all part of the same thing, always in her, beginning to come out."
A little silence. Both Ishmael and Killigrew were wondering if they ought to go and see her or not, both fighting a repulsion of which Killigrew's was more purely aesthetic and Ishmael's rather a passionate wish to keep thought of such a thing away from life....
They had come to the parting of their way from Carminow's, and all three were standing at the street corner under a flickering gas lamp.
"Well," said Carminow a little awkwardly, "I suppose now we've met I shall be seeing you fellows again? I'm genewally in in the evenings when I don't have to be on duty at the hospital."
It was Ishmael who replied:
"I shall probably be round some time soon," he said. "I shall want to hear how the new drop worked, you know. By the way, what theatre is Miss Grey appearing at? It might be interesting to go and see the performance, mightn't it, Joe?"
"Oh, damn it all! I can only think for the moment of poor little Hilaria," exclaimed Killigrew. "I used to be very fond of her.... I wonder—"
"I'll find out if she'd like to see you and Ruan when next I go if you like, but it's painful, because she can only get her words out in jerks," said Carminow. "It's the Strand that Miss Grey's appearing at. Quite a small part; but at least it's a lady-like one, and her stage name is Miss Blanche Nevill. Good-night, you fellows!"
They echoed his farewell, and then, finding no belated growler, set out to walk all the way back to Tavistock Square. They mentioned neither Hilaria nor Blanche Grey again that night, but as Ishmael lay for a long time awake staring into the darkness he could not keep his mind from reverting with a sense of deep fear to what he had heard about Hilaria. That such things could lie in wait in life, around the path of people one knew—people like oneself.... To others these exotic misfortunes, not to oneself or those near one. He had the sensation of incredulity with which one hears of some intimate friend involved in a train accident or attacked by some freakish fate such as may be read of in the newspapers daily but is never realised as being an actual and possible happening. Polkinghorne's death had made him believe there was such a thing as death, but it was so remote. This was different. If these things could come into life, ordinary every-day life....
He sorrowed not only for Hilaria, but for life. The news had given him his first pang of dread about it; his trust in it was never to be quite the same again. That was all, for him, that Hilaria had existed for, simply to teach him so much of knowledge. It seemed odd, even to the egoism of his youth, that she should have had so great a share in the pattern of his life at one time only to go out of it so inevitably. He was not to realise for many years how important the lesson was of which she, by the mere news of her state, had taught him the beginnings. If her contact with him formerly had been less, so would the shock of the news have been. People have impinged more deeply upon others' lives and both by their entry and their leaving of them stood for less.
From that evening Ishmael entered upon a new phase of his London visit. He told himself, when seriously considering the situation now and then, that he was certainly not in love. He was deeply interested in Blanche Grey, but if this were being in love, then was that emotion very different from anything the books always led one to expect. For instance, had the question been posed him by some wizard potent to arrange the lives of humans, whether he would sooner let Cloom or Miss Grey slip away from him, he would not have hesitated. His values were not in the least upset. He felt certain things in spite of them, that was all. There was an uncomfortable emptiness about a day on which he did not see her, and when at night he waited for her outside the shabby stage door of the Strand Theatre his heart would go thump-thump in a manner over which he had no control, but which seemed so very remotely connected with himself as he understood the term that he made no account of it. Killigrew said very little to him on the subject once he had found that he really did not like being chaffed about the fair Blanche, but it at once lowered Killigrew in Ishmael's estimation, and yet made him less certain about his own feelings, that he knew Killigrew did not share his enthusiasm.
Blanche had one of those definite personalities there is no overlooking, that people, especially men, either adore or actively dislike. Killigrew had never said he did not like her, but Ishmael felt the fact none the less certainly. And, as a matter of fact, Killigrew himself was puzzled by Miss Grey. He was certain enough that she was technically "good"—what Carminow called "all right"—and he admitted her charm, but to him the over-emphasis she laid on everything, as on that action of hers in coming down for the lamp, made the charm of no avail. He went to the house in Cecil Street a few times with Ishmael and then washed his hands of the affair.
When Ishmael was not allowed in the presence, then Killigrew still took him round the town and was not unamused to notice that his tastes had begun to alter. He was more interested in the personal note, less in things. Horticultural shows no longer lured him, polytechnics flaunted in vain.
He went once to the House of Commons and heard a debate on Russell's abortive Reform Bill, which was to sound the knell of that Minister's career. Ishmael heard Gladstone in the Bill's defence defying an attack by Lowe, whilst Mr. Disraeli leant back with a slight smile on his face, which was a blot of pallor beneath his dark, oiled ringlets. Ishmael was stirred, yet in him something felt amazement and disappointment. These were only men after all, not demigods, and some of them were peevish, some rude, some bored and inattentive. The whole thing seemed somehow childish; it was difficult to believe, except later when Bright's golden tongue was speaking, that in this place the nation was governed.... Afterwards he was with the crowd, borne helplessly along, that wrecked the Hyde Park railings in their anger that the hastily constructed Ministry of Derby should still let Reform hang in air. Yet all these affairs of the nation only affected Ishmael from the outside, for he was beginning to be at his most personal.
Turns of singing and dancing interested him less than plays where there was a definite and necessarily keenly personal story. The characters were all occupied with their feelings for each other, never with theories or conditions. There was one exception to this rule, though Ishmael kept that to himself—he went often to see a little dancer whose turn only lasted ten minutes, while the particular moment of it for which he went was over in a flash, the moment when, whirling round and round very quickly, her short filmy skirts stood out and were nothing but a misty circlet about her, so that she gave the illusion of having nothing to break the slim straight lines of her. She seemed nude with an elfin nudity that charmed him while it did not inflame, or if it did, only with the subtle inflammation of the mind, which can withstand such onslaughts for many years before a sudden reaction of the body shows the connection between the two. Ishmael, who took no interest in damsels in tights or in the exuberant proportions of the "frail" ladies that amused Killigrew, found himself waiting for that moment every evening, and his satisfaction when he caught it was rather that of a person who is pleased at verifying something he has had the acumen to discover than any more poignant emotion. He went far oftener to see this than he did to watch Blanche in her small part as one of the innocuous and well-bred company performing at the little old Strand Theatre, which was then still a phalanx of the respectable Swanborough family.
Blanche kept her work as a thing apart from her life—that is to say, she did not join the rest of the company at supper at the pothouse opposite, nor acknowledge the attentions of the mashers from the front row who waited at the shabby little stage door of a night. She was very charming to the other members of the company, especially the women, and the fact that she had enemies there was easily explained on the ground of her aloofness. She told Ishmael very little with all her frankness of address, but one night as he was seeing her home she asked him to come and have tea with her next day, which happened to be a Sunday, and Ishmael accepted eagerly; it was the first time she had actually asked him to the house.
When he arrived, clasping a bouquet he had bought overnight and nursed in his bedroom water-jug, he found that she had begged the loan of the ground-floor sitting-room, which was unlet, from her landlady, and was awaiting him there, wearing her grey dress and a rose pinned by the little white muslin collar that spanned the base of her throat. She was not looking her best, but somehow that made her all the more appealing to Ishmael; the sudden heat had made dark shadows under her eyes, and her movements were more languid even than usual.
It was an ugly room, like all its kind; but Blanche had the triumphant quality of rising superior to her background, which is one of the most valuable a woman can possess. Against the hot, hideous red of the wall-paper and the mass of tawdry ornaments she seemed to gain in simplicity, and that peculiar clearness of hers was intensified. She was grave, and only gave Ishmael the ghost of a little wan smile on his entry over his tendered bouquet. She dispensed tea with her firm, rather square hands, hands with short, blunt-tipped fingers that yet were not without the beauty of fitting in with her puma-like solidity of frame; while the way in which she used them was grace itself. They were the typical hands of a courtesan, but neither she nor Ishmael knew that, though Carminow had marvelled to himself at the fact.
Ishmael was silent, falling in with her mood, and suddenly she fixed her limpid eyes upon him and asked with disconcerting directness:
"What are you thinking of!"
"I was thinking about you," he was startled into saying; "I was wondering if it's true you're insincere...."
"Who says so ...? Mr. Killigrew? He doesn't like me; I knew it from the first. I'm sorry; I think he's rather fine, though I'm not sure I think he's good for you. He guesses that, and that's why he doesn't like me."
"Oh, I'm sure he couldn't be such an ass as to think that," protested Ishmael. "Besides, surely I am capable of looking after myself!"
"You're capable of a good deal, I believe. You could look after yourself and other people too. You're strong, you know. I suppose you don't know, or you wouldn't be you. But I'm sorry you think like that about me."
"I don't. I mean—I do sometimes wonder. You're so charming to everyone and—"
"But I'm not insincere because of that, am I? I wish you hadn't thought that. Of course, one meets people, at the theatre and so on, and one doesn't really know them and can't get at them, and so one just tries to be very nice to them, but I don't call that insincere...."
"No. I didn't mean to people like that. But to your friends—to old Carminow, for instance, and myself.... I sometimes wonder. And to yourself—"
"Ah! I'm not insincere to myself."
"I sometimes wonder if you know what your real self is."
"Don't I? I do. Why do you say that, Mr. Ruan?"
"Because you asked me, and because I can't help saying what I think when I'm asked like that and I think the person's worth it."
Blanche had pushed away her cup, and now she folded her arms on the table and bent to him over them. Her face was very earnest.
"I do know what you mean," she admitted; "I think I know it better than you do. And I suppose it's partly because I've no mother and I've had to protect myself. A woman is very like some kinds of animals I've heard of—she has to assume protective colouring. If I seem to like people that have nothing in common with me it's because I find it's the simplest way. You are different; I don't have to pretend anything with you. I think if my real self were beginning to be overlaid you could help me revive her."
"Your real self ... haven't I seen that?"
"I thought so till you said what you did," she answered in a low voice, looking away from him; then she went on hurriedly: "You know, when Mamma died I was only thirteen, and though I loved my father very dearly it's never quite the same, is it? It was dreadful leaving Papa, but I had to earn money somehow; you see, he wants all sorts of little things, extra delicacies he can't get on his small means, and I do manage most times to send him them. He didn't like my choosing the stage; but I'm not really well enough educated for a governess—besides, I did try that once...."
"What happened?" asked Ishmael as she paused.
"She—the lady—had a grown-up son as well as the children, and he fell in love with me. I couldn't help that, but she was very angry. And I was so unhappy I couldn't bear to go anywhere else. I wanted a new life. You see—I cared rather."
"But if you both cared—"
"I wouldn't let him defy his mother. It would have made it all dreadful, somehow. And he wasn't a strong character, not like you. You wouldn't mind who was against you if you were in love."
Ishmael did not reply and she went on:
"I've been trying to make a fine thing out of acting now for three years, ever since I was little more than a child—a real child in the little I knew. And if I had not minded certain things of course by now I could have been a leading lady and driven in my brougham, or left the stage for good—or for bad. But one cannot alter the way one is made, or drop the ideas one was brought up to have ... at least I can't; and so I'm still in the attic in Cecil Street, with a small part and no prospects. And how I hate it all sometimes; you can't imagine how I hate it! London is like an awful monster that draws one in inch by inch—a monster that breathes soot instead of fire."
Ishmael had been turning over a wonderful plan in his mind while she was speaking, an idea that had flashed on him before, but that had seemed too splendid to be possible of realization. Now, emboldened by her words, he ventured on the great question.
"I say," he began, "why not, when you want a holiday, when this piece you're playing in is over, come and stay at Cloom? I don't know whether you've heard—whether Carminow has told you about me—I hope he has; I dropped him a hint, because I hate to think I'm sailing under false colours with you—" He paused, his courageous words dying in hot embarrassment. Blanche met him perfectly.
"I know all about it. Mr. Carminow told me. What difference does it make, except to make your friends care all the more for you?"
"Then you would come? My sister Vassie—you'd like her. And I think even my mother would love you. It would be so good for you after all this."
She did not reply at once and Ishmael's heart sank.
"Your father...." he murmured; "I suppose you feel—"
She interrupted with a sudden radiance: "Oh, no, it's not that. My father is married again, you know.... I don't often talk of it; it was a grief to me. We were so everything to each other. But I don't go home very often, because of that. I would love to come, Mr. Ruan. I wonder if I can; I wonder...."
"But why should you wonder?" he urged more boldly; "one advantage of your lonely situation is that you are free to decide for yourself. Do promise me!"
She turned her head away as though to hide eyes suddenly dewy, then met his look with her wonted level candour.
"I'll come," she said; "I'll come. Oh, it will he heavenly!... You don't know what the mere thought of it means.... To get away, even for a little while, from all this...." She swept her hands expressively around on the lodging-house surroundings.
"It must be rotten," said Ishmael in heartfelt accents. "I know how I felt in the parlour at home after my sister Vassie had done it up for my return. I felt as though the woolly mats were choking me. And I couldn't say anything for fear of hurting her feelings."
"And have you got used to it? That's what I'm always so afraid of—getting used to ugliness."
"Vassie has altered. She is the cleverest girl at picking up ideas I've ever known, and somehow when Killigrew was down with us she soon found out, though I don't think he actually said anything. And we have beautiful old furniture hidden away in the attics, so we simply pulled it all out, and Vassie and Phoebe are making new needlework seats for the chairs."
"Is Phoebe another sister?"
"Oh, no; she's the daughter of Mr. Lenine, the miller. She was at boarding-school in Plymouth with Vassie, and they're just like sisters," said Ishmael in the simplicity of his heart.
"How nice!" said Blanche Grey.
So it was settled between them that Blanche should renew her acquaintance with the country that summer at Cloom, and when Ishmael left he walked on air. It was not that he was excited so much as that a deep content filled him; life seemed full of promise and even more worth living than he had thought it. The distrust which that news of Carminow's had engendered drifted to the back of his brain; he wandered through the streets, picturing the days to come at Cloom. He came to a pause at last, aware that he had missed the way to the hotel where he was to sup with Carminow and Killigrew. He looked at the name of the street he was in, and saw that it was the name Carminow had mentioned as being that of the street where Hilaria was lodged.
He stood between the rows of houses and tried to realise that one of them sheltered Hilaria. He stood quite still, beset by the same thoughts as on the first evening he had been told of her. He looked up at the houses and wondered which it was; it seemed odd that the bricks and stone which hid so much of sadness should not declare it in some way unmistakable to him. Odd that he could no more tell at what elevation, whether just above him or nearer the roof, she lay, as odd that, wherever it might be, she was equally unknowing that someone was thinking of her with such intensity so near. He walked along, looking for the number Carminow had mentioned, found he had passed it, and turned back to see it was the house one door further down than that at which he had first stopped. He looked at the door as though it could fly open and bid him enter; he pictured with a vividness he could not suppress her entrance there, carried, her head lolling on her breast. Several times he walked up and down, wondering if she would care to see him, trying to remember if she had ever shown any predilection for him which could make him think she would. Then he turned away and went on, the thought of her and the pity of her going with him. He was not surprised when at supper Carminow began to speak of her; it seemed as though it would not be possible to sit so near to himself and not feel the trend of his thoughts.
"I saw Hilaria yesterday," said Carminow, "and I asked her if she wanted to see you two. I thought she might, but she waited a minute and then let me know most unmistakably that she would rather not. She can only speak very queerly now—most painful business—and make a few gestures, but there was no mistaking her. I expect it would have been too much for her anyway."
Both his listeners felt a half-guilty relief, and that night when alone in his room Ishmael, aided by that glimpse of the exterior of her surroundings and by Carminow's words, was assailed again by the thought of her, but not as keenly as before. Shocked senses had been responsible for that first keenness, and imagination, however aided, could not sting to the same depth. He thought as he fell asleep of Blanche and Cloom. Life had ugly, unthought-of things in it, but, thinking of her steady radiance, he could not believe that any fate would dare to dim its lustre.
Blanche sat long at the window of her bedroom that evening, her ashen fair hair about her shoulders and her brush idle in her hand. As it was Sunday and she had no engagement, she was going to bed early, so early that it was still sunset-light.
She stood at the open window of the bedroom, staring with unseeing eyes; her thoughts were revolving round her own problems, but gradually the sights and sounds without won her to notice of them. The back windows of the house looked on to other house-backs that formed a square well, wherein smaller, much lower roofs and flat expanses of ribbed leads and stable yards all huddled together in soft blue shadow. Only an occasional chimney-pot, higher than its fellows, made a note of glowing orange where it pierced the slant of the evening sun: To Blanche's left there showed a pale gleam from the Thames between the house-backs of brownish-grey brick; to her right roof-tops and fantastic cowls were patterned in a flat purple tone against the luminous sky. In the eaves the sparrows were chirping shrilly; one flew downwards so swiftly between Blanche's eyes and the sky that his little body seemed nothing but a dark blot with a flickering upon either side of it. The sight caught at her memory, and she had a quick vision of a day when she had lain upon a sloping cliff and watched the gulls wheel far above her, the light of the setting sun making their breasts and the underneath of their wings flash like silver. A smaller bird had darted past, and then, as now, she had noted the curious effect of the solid little body flanked by that flickering which meant wings invisible through their own speed. The surface of her mind was quick to respond to suggestion, and the thought of the country struck her as being an answer to the unspoken questionings that were pricking at her. The West—the land of ready sleep and sweet dreams. So Ishmael had told her, and the way lay open if she chose to take it, a way that would not necessarily commit her to anything. When she saw Ishmael in his own environment, then she would know whether it were worth it or not....
To blot herself out of existence for a few weeks, that was what it amounted to; there should be no such person as the town-ridden Blanche Nevill on the face of the earth. She felt a delightful stirring of anticipation, and nothing had had power to awaken that emotion in her for several years. Her own surroundings once shed, she would, she felt, meet a new world with all the hopes and dreams that had once been hers. She was twenty-six years of age, though with her bland face she looked much younger; and the truth was she had no love for any work in itself, but only for the praise it brought her—a temperament which can never make the artist, but results in the brilliant amateur.
She was sick of the stage, for no worthy captive of her bow and spear had presented himself, and she detected the dawning of criticism in the friends that had been so warm when she first met them in town. Blanche was always posing, and people had found it out. As a child she had played the misunderstood genius or shy mother's darling as occasion demanded; she had posed with others till she was unable to do anything but pose with herself. A few years, a very few years, ago, and even her own sex had had to admit her charm; now she was beginning to be played out, and she knew it. Her triumphant personality always attracted attention, even when prettier and cleverer women were present, but it was a very critical attention she attracted now.
When the light faded she moved to the bed and began to brush out her hair. The sun had set, and she had drawn the dark, narrow blinds; down their edges showed the gleam of the outside world steeped in a cold blue-green light like the depths of the sea, and the faded curtains wavered slowly in the breeze like long swaying strips of seaweed. Blanche, swathed in a pale wrapper and sitting on the bed whose whiteness was dimmed by the greenish dusk, was suggestive of a stage mermaid combing her locks upon a property sandbank.
She lit her lamp, and at once the gleam without turned a deep, soft blue. She knotted her pale hair on the nape of her neck, and, chin up, hands on hips, stared critically at herself in the glass, and, as she looked her lips parted a little in pleasure. Snatching up the hand-glass, she poised from one foot to the other, craning her neck to see herself from every possible point of view.
"Yes," she decided, "I'll go. And then—a new life. Miss Blanche Nevill will vanish into thin air, and hurrah! for Blanche Grey, who will be—herself."
She slept, thinking of Ishmael and herself, as he of her, while in a dim room, lying perforce motionless in her hot bed, a girl thought, with the brain left clear amidst all her failing senses, of two boys who stood as symbols of a happy time when life was unclouded by even the least conscious hints of the creeping Thing. She felt, in her thick confusion of tongue and ear and eye, more uncouth than she was, and not for any good life could still hold for her would she have had either see her—Killigrew because he had been fond of her, Ishmael because she had been fond of him.
A week later Ishmael arrived back at Cloom. As he walked along on the first evening after his return the feel of the country smote him as never before. Ecstasy welled in him, clear and living; the strong, pure air made him want to shout with joy. And more than the sight of the swelling land, more than the feel of the springy turf beneath his feet, or the wind on his eyelids, it was the smell of the country that woke in him this ecstasy. Sweet as the breath of cows came its mingled fragrance of grass and earth and of the fine dust on the roadway, of the bitter-sweet tang of the bracken and faint aftermath of hay; the breath at his nostrils was drunken with sweet odour. He had come back to face Archelaus, it was true, but he came back a man.
It was a good world, and he would make his corner of it still better.... How splendid it was to be alive and tingling with the knowledge that everything lay before one! Pain and sorrow were only words that fell away into nothingness before the joy of merely living....
So he felt as, late that night, he leant upon his window sill and stared out at the darkness that was the background for his imagings of what was to come. Upon his thoughts there broke the chattering scream of a rabbit caught by a stoat, tearing the velvet tissues of the night's silence. On and on it kept, always on one high note, with a horrible persistence. Ishmael listened, sorry that even a rabbit should suffer on this night of nights, and was glad when the screaming wavered and died into a merciful stillness. As he dropped asleep the sardonic laughing bark of a full-fed fox came echoing from the earn.
Full summer had come, and with it Miss Grey. She was not staying at the Manor, as Annie had taken a violent dislike to the idea of visitors, and Ishmael dreaded possible unpleasantness, so that he had been thankful when Blanche of her own accord suggested going into lodgings. She wanted to bring a friend with her, she said, a girl who was peaky after too long nursing of a sick mother in London. Therefore Vassie interviewed Mrs. Penticost, a cheery soul who rejoiced in a little old Queen Anne house called "Paradise," a mile along the cliff-path, where it gave on the outskirts of the village. Blanche was in raptures over the names Penticost and Paradise, and would have been in raptures over her landlady too if that worthy woman had not chosen to be rather unresponsive towards her, though frankly adoring the little friend Judith Parminter.
Judy was only nineteen, a slim, awkward girl with high cheekbones and deep-sunk hazel eyes that gave her a look not unlike that of a beautiful monkey—so Killigrew, when he came down to take up his quarters at the inn, for a summer's painting, declared. He swore that Judy would be a great beauty, but that she would always be like a monkey with those deep, sad eyes and the bistre stains below them that were the only tinge of colour upon her dark skin. She was a shy, wild creature, given to solitary roaming and much scribbling of astonishingly good poems in a little note-book. Blanche said she had genius, and, though Blanche would have said it just then if it had been true or not, there was something not without a touch of genius animating the rough, vivid verses of the monkey-girl. Blanche was "very fond of the little thing," but did not see much of her. Ishmael not unnaturally absorbed the forefront of her attention.
One day, when Blanche had been two weeks at Paradise, a morning more golden, of a stiller warmth than any yet, dawned, and she knew it would bring Ishmael over early with some plan for a picnic. The little garden lay steeped in sunshine that turned the stonecrop on the roof to fire and made the slates iridescent as a pigeon's breast. The rambler that half-hid the whitewashed lintel threw over it a delicate tracery of shadow which quivered slightly as though it breathed in a charmed sleep. Fuchsias drooped their purple and scarlet heads, dahlias, with a grape-like bloom on their velvety petals, stood stiffly staring, and against the granite wall giant sunflowers hung their heavy heads on a curve of sticky green stem. In the sloping fields beyond the lane the stubble stood glittering and the great golden arishmows cast over it blue pools of shade. Beyond the fields could be seen the sparkling blue of the lazily-heaving Atlantic, merging into a heat-haze which glistened with a jewel-like quality at the world's rim.
Blanche opened the door of the cottage and stood upon the threshold, swinging her hat in her hand. A white butterfly fluttered down aimlessly as a scrap of torn paper, and a bee hung buzzing on a sustained note of content, drowned for a moment as it swung with arched body in the cup of a flower, then booming forth as it shot out and poised on wings that seemed nothing but a glistening blur. Blanche stood with eyes half shut and sniffing nostrils, and as she felt the warm caress of the sun, so positive as to seem almost tangible, on her bare head, she stretched herself, cat-like, with a deep sigh of content.
Life was good here, away from the old faces and the old pursuits. She had been at Paradise only two weeks, but they had been weeks of sun and soft winds and sweet smells, and the impressionable surface of her mind, that beneath was so shallow and so unmalleable, was gradually responding to the influences around her.
Almost imperceptibly to herself her point of view had been changing; a group of white foxgloves, like ghost-flames, that she had seen in a coppice, the creeping of a bright eyed shrew mouse through last year's leaves at her feet, the hundreds of little rabbits with curved-in backs that ran with their curious rocking action over the dewy fields at evening—all these things gave her a shock of pleasure so keen it surprised her. Till now she had not admitted her own artificiality even to herself; now that she was regaining directness she told herself she could afford to be more candid.
Nearly every day she and Ishmael, with Vassie and sometimes Killigrew or Judy, or even the Parson, would go on long expeditions to the cromlechs and carns of the country around; but sometimes she and Ishmael would slip away together, defying convention, sometimes on foot, sometimes in a light market-gig—casual wanderings with no fixed goal, and inexpressibly delightful to both. On sunny days they put up the pony at some farm, and lay upon the short, warm grass of a cliff-face watching the foam patterns form and dissolve again beneath a diamond scatter of spray. When the sea-mist rolled up steadily over Cloom like blown smoke, here opaque, there gossamer-thin, they would sally forth and tramp the spongy moors, the ground sobbing beneath their feet and the mournful calling of the gulls sounding in their heedless ears. And all the while her turns of head and throat, the inflections of her low, rich voice, were being registered on a mind free till now of all such impressions and tenacious as a child's. Small wonder that as the days drifted past Ishmael felt that he, too, was drifting on a tide of golden waters to some shore of promise in a golden dawn.
Blanche, too, was slipping into something like love these days; the beauty of their surroundings and something simple and primitive in the boy himself both made the same appeal to her. Was it possible that after all her flirtations, all her insincerities, she should capture the birthright of the single-hearted? It seemed so, for Blanche had this much of grace left—she was responsive to simplicity. There was something more than the instinct of the coquette in the fullness with which she gave him all he asked, step by step; she had thrown away calculation and was letting herself be guided by her own instinct and the finer instinct she felt to be in him. Each demand his moods made on her she met, each thing his reverent hand unconsciously asked of hers as he helped her over the rough places, each expression his eyes looked for in hers—she gave them all. For here was that rarest of rare things, a man to whom all could be given without his prizing less highly gift or giver.
Long after she had gone to bed he would walk the fields and make sweet picture-plans, all centred tenderly round her. He would stand and look up at her window when the light in it was out, picturing the room, the freshness, the delightful girlishness of it, and at this intimacy of thought he would redden in the dark. His sense of humour was in abeyance, and the reality, could he have seen it, would have been a shock to him—the dressing-table a litter of cosmetics and pin-curls; and on the pillow the face of Blanche surrounded by wavers and shiny with cold-cream.
On this golden morning Ishmael found Blanche, as she had meant him to, in the garden at Paradise, the sun turning her ashen hair to fire.
"Don't let's waste a minute of to-day," he said. "We'll have the cart out and not come back till the evening—that is, if you care about it?"
"Of course I care about it," she told him, and ran upstairs to pin on a shady hat and powder her face.
"Shall I speak now? Shall I speak now?" thought Ishmael as he drove down the lane; but with a thrill of anticipation came "No—my hands aren't free." For Mrs. Penticost's cob, a nervous, spirited creature, newly broken in, was between the shafts.
"Will he speak yet?" thought Blanche; "and if he does, what shall I say?" She glanced up at the set, earnest face, and, sensitive to her look, his eyes met hers. He averted his gaze quickly, but his heart sang, "She cares! she cares!" And quite suddenly he felt he wished to postpone speaking as long as possible, that the savour of this suspended bliss was too sweet to lose. A tremor ran through Blanche as their eyes met. She recognised that in him was an austerity against which even she could beat in vain.
It was evening by the time they drove back, and the shadows lay cool and long across the roads. Urged on by visions of his snug stall, the pony went like the wind; neither of the two in the cart spoke much: once he bent down to tuck the rugs more closely round her and his hand, touching hers, lingered a moment. When they drove into the little yard, Lylie, the dairymaid, was mixing barley-meal and scald-milk for the pigs and carrying on bucolic flirtation with Billy Penticost. With the sheepishness of his sex, that youth made a great business of setting off to the well, his pails slung outwards on a hoop. The rustic comedy touched a long-atrophied fibre in Blanche. On an impulse of simplicity, she told herself, "Yes, this is the best thing. I won't go back to town; I'll live down here, close to the things that matter, and we'll just be happy." In the rush of warm feeling she turned her eyes on Ishmael, her love for him expanding because of the love she felt for the unsentient things about her. His heart leapt to the look.
"Will you come out into the big field after everyone has gone to bed?" he asked her, busy unfastening a trace; and as she bent over a buckle on her side of the pony she whispered, "Yes."
She ate her supper in a state almost too placidly joyous for excitement, and afterwards went up to her room and sat with her elbows on the window-sill and her chin on her hands, looking out. The corn had been cut and stacked in great Cornish arishmows, and Blanche, watching the orange moon swim up, told herself, "When that shadow has reached the nearest stook I will go." The shadow lay, finger-like, touching the stook, but still she sat on, reluctant to go out and make sure of her happiness. The moon, paling to pearl as it rose, shone clearly into the room, making sharp shadows under the bed-curtains and lying slantwise on the white counterpane; Blanche rose and slipped off her frock; she moved as in a dream—her affectations of thought fell away, leaving her instinctive. She felt as though this lover were her first, and, without reasoning about it, knew she must be fitly dressed to meet him. She bathed her face and hands in cold water, then put on a fresh muslin gown, moving to and fro in full view of anyone who might be in the sloping field outside. She half hoped, quite innocently, that Ishmael was there watching; it seemed to her nothing unclean could live in the white light that permeated the very air of the room. Overcome for a moment by the strength of her own emotions, she sat on the bed and buried her face in her hands. As she looked at herself in the glass before leaving the room she smiled for pleasure that she was unpowdered and unrouged, not pausing, in her exalted mood, to wonder whether she would have faced the daylight so. It was a better, an honester, Blanche, transmuted by happiness, that crept down the stairs, through the small garden and across the road into the field. He was awaiting her by the hedge.
"How late you are!" he said, not reproachfully, but in relief that she should have come at all. "I thought you must have changed your mind. Do you know it is past eleven?"
"Have I been as long as that?" Blanche hugged herself to think that she had been so genuinely wrapped in dreams as to let so much time slip by unheeded. Together they went down the moonlit field, where the arishmows seemed like the pavilions of a long-dead Arthurian host conjured up by some magician's spells. In the last field before the moor Ishmael pulled the corn out lavishly as a throne for her and installed her on it.
"You look like the spirit of harvest sitting there on your golden throne," he told her, and, leaning back against the rustling stook, she smiled mysteriously at him, all the glamour of the moonlight and her own womanhood in her half-shut eyes.
He was kneeling beside her, his hands on her shoulders. Her eyelids dropped before his gaze and she shook slightly.
"You are the most beautiful thing on earth! I love you with all my heart and soul, with every bit of me. Say you can care—Blanche, say you can...!"
She raised her eyes: the sphinx-like look of her level brows and calm mouth held for an instant, then her face quivered, grew tremulous and tender. Her hands made a blind, passionate movement, and as he caught her to him he heard her sobbing that she loved him.
He held her close, covering her face with clumsy eager kisses, the first he had ever given a woman, and he gave himself up to worshipping her as she sat on the throne he had made for her.
"Let us go to the boulders above the wood," whispered Blanche, who even in the grip of one of the deepest feelings of her life kept her unfailing flair for the right background; "we can see the sun rise there, over the trees...."
He helped her to her feet and they walked together, hand in hand, like children. The keen personal emotion had passed, leaving them almost timid; now certainty had settled on them passionate inquiry gave place to peace. So they went, and he felt as though he walked in Eden, with the one mate in all the world. Across the moors they went; then—for they were going inland—they came to fields again, and the path ran through acres of cabbages. The curves of the grey-green leaves held the light in wide shimmers of silver, the dew vibrating with diamond colours; edging their two shadows the refraction of the beams brought a halo of brightest white. Another stretch of furze brought them to the boulders above the wood on a level with the massed tree-tops. Ishmael made Blanche put on his coat; then he sat beside her, his hand holding the coat together under her chin.
Nestling her head against him, she closed her eyes, and with soft, regular breathings feigned a sleep that presently became reality. Through the starlit hour between moon-setting and sun-rising Ishmael held her; every now and then she stirred, half woke, and, moving a little to ease his arm, lifted the pallor of her face to his. Before the dawn she awoke completely and began to reproach herself and him.
The time of un-self-consciousness was already over for her, and she was once more the woman who knew how to make men love.
"Oh, how could you let me waste time sleeping? I've not been really asleep—only drowsing. I knew I was sitting beside you all the while."
"Then it wasn't waste for you either." His lips trembled a little, and he said nothing about his own emotions; it had been so unutterably sweet to him to hold her, trusting, quiescent, in his arms and feel the night-wind ruffling her hair against his cheek.
It was still dusk, though the misty blue-grey of the tree-tops was imperceptibly changing to a more living hue, and the sky, stained a deep rust colour, showed a molten whiteness where it touched the world's rim. He unknowingly gripped Blanche's hand till she nearly cried out; except as something that made beauty more beautiful he hardly knew she was there. Slowly the miracle of dawn unfolded; down in the woods birds lifted glad heads, the lids were raised from round, bright eyes, and there came up to the watchers on the rocks the first faint notes that pierced the air of the new day.
Nothing was very wide-awake as yet; all life stirred as though beneath a film; a dim blue coverlet still lay lightly over the wood; the earth held her breath for the moment of birth. What a waiting, what a wide clear sense of certain expectation! The sky, naked of clouds, had become a brightening sphere of pearliness; a deep rose gathered over the hills and spread fanlike, licking up the ashen pallor with stabs of flame. A livid red-gold rim sprang into being behind the hill crests, and slowly and in state the sun swam up the molten sky. He turned to Blanche with the tears in his eyes.
"Dearest, the sun has risen!" He drew her face to his and kissed her, not as before, but with the sense of consummating a sacrament. She rose to her feet a little unsteadily, and they set their faces towards Paradise cottage.
"You must get some rest," he said; "it's only half-past four now."
The exaltation of the dawn had left her, and she quickened her steps, wondering uneasily what her skin looked like unaided in this dazzling light. She slipped noiselessly into the house by the front door, which she barred behind her; the clatter of hobnails from the little yard told that Billy was already about his business, but behind Mrs. Penticost's door all was quiet. With her finger to her lips Blanche leaned from her window and breathed "Good-night" and disappeared into the shadows.
The following day dawned still and hot as ever, but overcast with a grey film, though the pale sky held a glaring quality that reflected on to the eyeballs. Down in the lowest meadow the oats had not yet been gathered into sheaves, and John-James, gazing at the sky, was of opinion that the sooner it was done the better. Ishmael agreed without enthusiasm, till it occurred to him that Blanche, who was so charmed with a farmer's life, would probably enjoy helping. It might be made into a sort of picnic, a fete champetre; the beautiful monkey could help, and he could send a boy over to the mill to fetch Phoebe. They would make a day of it—the kind of pastoral occasion which cannot exactly be called artificial and yet which does not in the least represent the actual life of those who live by land.
Vassie was enthusiastic about the idea, and soon the house was in a ferment with preparations; bottles of cider were brought out, a stone puncheon of beer produced for the men, cakes and pasties began to form beneath Vassie's willing hands. Ishmael felt a pang as he watched her. How could it affect her but adversely, this change he was to make? He felt that Blanche would not want any of his family, even Vassie, living in the house with them, and it was her right to order such a matter as she would. To settle anywhere with her mother was impossible for the proud fastidious Vassie, and, though he could allow her enough money to make her independent, she could hardly, in the ideas of those days, go alone into the world upon it.
There would be terrible scenes with his mother, he realised, before she would consent to go, but he shook the thought of it all off him on this the first morning of his plighted faith with Blanche. It would be unpleasant, but imperative, and how well worth it!... Meanwhile, there was love to be enjoyed, every moment of it—love that was still to him such a shy and delicate thing that he hardly dared to breathe upon it for fear of ruffling in some clumsy way Blanche's fine susceptibilities. She must have had so much to suffer from undue approaches in her battle with the world; not from him should such tarnishing come.
He sent a note down to her at Mrs. Penticost's to tell her again, in his morning greeting, of his love and to advise her of the mock-business of the day. Blanche was still in bed when it arrived, and Judith, looking more like a handsome monkey than ever in a faded red Garibaldi, took it in to her.
Judith still admired Blanche above all women, although she saw her as now with a creamed face and hair that resembled a row of little slugs disposed about her brow. Blanche rose above all this as she managed to rise above an inauspicious background, and the lazy stretch she gave beneath the sheet that was all that covered her, bringing out two white arms above her head so that the muscles swelled under the tight skin, was so lovely in its feline grace as to triumph over anything else.
"Here's a note for you; I think it's from Mr. Ruan," said Judith. "Mrs. Penticost said she thought it was." Judy did not add that Mrs. Penticost's precise method of giving the information had been to snort out: "T'young maister can't live through the night wethout writing to she, simminly.... Poor sawl!"
Blanche read the little note through twice, a smile on her face, then pulled Judith down to her and kissed her.
"Blanche, are you ...?" asked Judy breathlessly.
"Oh, Blanche, what is it like? Is it as wonderful as books say? Do you feel thrills?"
"What sort of thrills?"
"Oh, up and down your spine, I suppose! Like I feel when I hear music."
"Yes, it's just like music. It somehow sets the whole of life to music," answered Blanche solemnly.
"How wonderful!... Blanche—has he kissed you?"
"Yes, last night. Judy, a woman doesn't know what life means till the man she loves kisses her."
Judy sat rapt, saying nothing. Her deep-set hazel eyes took on a look as of one who sees visions, impersonal but entrancing. Blanche rolled herself out of bed and, going over to the glass, began to examine her skin in the white light shed from the sky in at the window.
"Bother!" she murmured; "I'm getting a spot! Oh, Judy, isn't that too bad just when I want to look nice?... Of course, he's the kind to love me just as much with a spot, but I feel I can't love myself so much...."
"I'll lend you some of my lotion," said Judy, jumping up; "you can cover it over, if you try, with that and powder. It doesn't look anything really. I always think one sees one's own spots long before anyone else can, anyway."
"Yes, that's true; it will be all right if I can prevent it getting any worse. You never have any spots, you lucky baby. Just hand me the lotion ... and my dressing-gown ... thanks ever so." Blanche slipped on the wrapper, and going to the top of the little flight of stairs called down them: "Mrs. Penticost ... my bath-water, please!"
"Mrs. Pe-e-e-ntico-s-st," called Blanche, "I must have my bath-water! I shall die, dear Mrs. Penticost, if I can't have my bath-water this very moment!"
From subterranean distance came a muffled voice which nevertheless enunciated distinctly: "Die, then, damon, die...."
"Oh, Mrs. Penticost, how unkind you are!" cried Blanche, laughing. "I don't a bit want to die to-day. I want to live and be happy and for everyone in the world to be happy too."
These last remarks were addressed to the form of Mrs. Penticost toiling upstairs with the can of water. The good lady clanked the can down and pulled out the flat tin bath from under the bed before replying, which she did over her shoulder as she was leaving the room.
"Aw!" she observed, "I'd be careful if I was you. Be cryen before night!"
"Cheery old thing!" grimaced Blanche. "Do go and see she gets breakfast ready quickly, Judy. She'll do anything for you."
Judy flung herself downstairs and upon the neck of Mrs. Penticost, who called her a lamb, bade her get out of the way and sit down while she got her a cup of tea and some bread and butter to keep her going till that lazy faggot overstairs should have put enough mucks on her face to be able to breakfast.
The day brightened, though still with a curious pallor that was more glare than sunlight, and both girls put on cool muslin dresses, or as cool as the long full skirts would allow of their being. Vassie was in blue, Phoebe in pink, Judy in primrose, while Blanche was white even to her shady hat. Girls never look as well as when there are several of them together, just as men never look so ill as in a crowd. What brings out all the ungainliness of men's attire emphasises the butterfly nature of girls—their look, their voices, the little graces they half-consciously and half-unknowingly display with each other, show each off to better advantage than at any other time. Vassie, Phoebe, Judith, and Blanche made the rough field a flower-garden that day to eye and ear, almost to nostril, for their presence was so quickening that the sweet smell of the oats and the green things cut with it seemed to emanate from the girls and be part of their presence. Laughter and the swish of skirts mingled with the rustle of stalk and grain, the sway and the dip of skirts mingled with the bending of the sheaves. To Ishmael his lover seemed the sweeter thus absorbed as one of others than even alone. All that month he had been seeing her only, to such an extent that her relationship with the rest of the world down at Cloom had not held his attention. Now he realised how vital the state of those relationships was, and seeing her one of a beautiful scheme that seemed inevitable and lasting as a Greek frieze, he took that purely physical circumstance to mean mental harmony as well.
It was hard work, though sweet, among the oats, and the physical exertion satisfied everyone, so that no fringe was left beyond it for thought. When they first entered the field the crop lay in broad tawny bands across the greener stubble, just as it had fallen from the scythes. The amateur harvesters had to gather the oats into great bundles and, binding them, stack the sheaves thus made together, against the day, close at hand now, when they would be carried to the threshing.
Bent-backed, the girls went along the rows, pushing the oats as they went into bundles bigger than themselves, trying to keep the feathery heads as much as possible at one end. Round each bundle Ishmael pulled a roughly-twisted rope of the oats, tugging it fast; and when it was Blanche's bundle be spanned, then his hands would touch hers through the glossy straws. Every now and again, for change of labour, the girls would stagger under a heavy sheaf to where one or two others lay ready and prop them up against each other, with a careful eye to the wind, lest, if the sheaves were not built solidly enough or fairly balanced, they might be found spilt along the ground in the morning. And all through the work, the sweeping up of the bundles, the twisting of the ropes, the carrying and the stacking, the rustling noise filled the air, while the faint but pervading smell, that subtle, inexpressibly wholesome smell of ripe grain, made it sweet.
"I love you!" said Ishmael over the dancing oats as Blanche's eyes met his.
"And I you!..." she replied, slipping her fingers through the yielding straws for his to find and press, while he drew her as near him as she could come for the sheaf between.
She had, indeed, never been so sure she loved him, not even the night before when passion had called to her. He looked so splendid with his brown throat laid bare by his open shirt; his dark hair, wet with sweat, pushed off his brow; his dark eyes at once younger and more the eyes of a man than they had ever showed. Blanche felt an odd and delicious thrill as she met his dominant glance; she exulted in the swing of his lithe body, in the ease with which he tossed the heavy sheaves, even in the sweat that stood out over his face and chest, and which made him the more male, the more primitive. She herself had never seemed so fascinating and so sure; Vassie was swept away by her for the first time; Phoebe lost a certain sense of grudge in awed admiration; Judy, in speech and action, contrived to lead up to her friend, whole-heartedly exploiting the wonder of her. John-James and Killigrew were probably the only two there who did not acknowledge the sway.
Killigrew declined to labour with the rest; he set up his easel and did several little sketches, nearly all of Judy, whose dark head showed against the grey-gold background of the field with a greater distinction than the pale chignons of Blanche and Vassie or the indeterminate locks of Phoebe.
"You don't repent?" asked Ishmael, sure of his answer, as he and Blanche each poised a sheaf against the other's.
"No, no, and no," she told him, bending round the stack to see his face, her hands still holding it at either side as children stand and dodge when they are playing hide-and-seek. He shot out a hand to her, but she evaded it and was off to where more bundles lay upon the stubble, and not for some time did he get another chance to speak to her. Without a word said they tacitly agreed to play this game of only meeting, hands and eyes, now and again as though by chance, she sheltering behind the oats, feeling his passion of worship, even so, as much as she could face under watching eyes. Like children they played at this game which had grown up without a word, both recognising it, and both the happier for the frail barriers and the secret exchanged by stealth before the others. At lunch, eaten on the grassy slope of the next field, he did not even sit next her, but both had to watch over themselves that they did not yield too often to the temptation of a glance that would have told as much to an onlooker as to each other.
The afternoon somehow lacked the first ecstasy of the morning, the labour suddenly became harder to unaccustomed muscles, and the girls lay in the shadows of the stooks and idled. They had time to talk among themselves while Ishmael and John-James worked on at the far end of the field. Blanche thought it rather silly and tiresome of Ishmael to keep on at it; surely he could leave that clumsy brother of his—for the first time the realisation that John-James actually was whole brother to Ishmael flashed into her mind—and wander away somewhere with her! What was the good of being the owner and master if he could not get some one else to do the work when it became a bore? So Blanche inwardly; and Ishmael, to whom it would never have occurred to begin work on a field and leave it half-done, went on steadily—stooping, gathering, binding; she could see the perpetual crouch of his figure, hardly ever straightening itself, down there against a background of green hedge and sullen grey sea.
Blanche leant up alongside her stook and Vassie sat watching her, while Judy, who had seen a wistful look on Phoebe's baby face, drew her into such superficial personal talk as she could best compass.
"When do you go back to London?" was Vassie's abrupt and not very happy opening.
"Why, I don't know ... it all depends," answered Blanche, her beautiful low voice sounding very rich after Vassie's hard tones. "You've never been to London, have you, Vassie? I may call you Vassie, mayn't I?"
"I've never been further than Plymouth."
"You must come to London some day with me," said Blanche. She had no intention of spending all her days at Cloom, and she wished to win over this sulky beauty to her side. Vassie looked doubtfully at her, but began to thaw. London ... it meant all of hope and the future to Vassie.
"I would dearly love to," she said. "I suppose you know it very well, like I know Penzance. I don't go even to Plymouth very often, and of course it's not London. The people are rather common. I daresay there's all sorts in London, but I suppose you know a lot of families up there?"
"A good many," said Blanche casually. She was pleased at the signs of a thaw; she was one of those women who are as eager to stand well with their own sex as with men and take as much care to ensure it.
"You would do well in London, Vassie," she went on, fixing her eyes on the girl after a habit she had, and which always gave the impression that she was talking to the only person on earth who really interested her; "you are very beautiful, you know."
Vassie flushed with pleasure and did not trouble to deny the obvious truth of the statement. She knew she was the only girl there with undoubted beauty; what she did not know was that she was also the only one who would never be very attractive to men. She looked at Phoebe's retreating chin, at Judith's prominent cheek-bones and deep-set, melancholy eyes with the bistre stains below them, at Blanche's subtly-broad face with its too-small lips, and unconsciously she put up her hand to feel her own lovely contours and smooth skin.
Blanche slipped a firm, cool hand into hers. "Don't worry, Vassie," she said in a low voice; "I foresee great things for you. You're a wonderful girl, my dear. Now, I suppose we ought to be helping those two poor, dear men again." She rose to her feet with one of the lithe movements that always seemed rather surprising in a girl of her firmly-knit build, which would have been heavy had it not been for its grace. Vassie, with a fulness that was so much more supple to a casual glance, yet followed her less beautifully.
"Still, a lot can be done with her," thought Blanche, watching. She motioned to her to come and help her with a row that had not yet been gathered into a bundle, and Vassie stooped over it with her.
"Why, what's that?" exclaimed Blanche, catching sight of something grey that went rustling swiftly downwards between the straws. She thrust her hand down, thinking it was a field-mouse, and caught the thing. A speckled toad wriggled in her fingers, lustily enough, but it was a toad that had seen tragedy. The keen edge of a scythe must have caught it, for one side of its head was shorn away; the eye had just been missed, but the inside of the poor little animal's mouth and throat lay exposed, pulsating and brilliantly red—a purer hue of blood was never seen than in that grey creature.
Blanche cried out in pity, while Vassie calmly advised death, seconded by Phoebe, and Judith looked away, sorry and sick, Blanche called to Ishmael, using his Christian name for the first time publicly, and aware of it herself and of its effect on Vassie through all her real pity. Ishmael came running, and, taking the little beast tenderly, offered to knock it on the head with a stone before it knew what was happening; but Blanche forbade him. She took it back, her fingers slipping in between it and his palm, and stood bending over it.
"Poor little thing!" she said; "at least it's not bleeding now, and I believe it may live. It doesn't seem to be suffering, so let's give it its chance. Put it over the wall onto the grass, Ishmael."
He vaulted over and, taking the toad from her, laid it down on the dewy grass. It sat trembling for a few moments, and then began to hop away and was lost in the tall blades that met above its mutilated head—one of the many tragedies of harvest.
Dusk had fallen while the toad's fate hung in the balance; a pastel dusk that, even as the girls still stood watching, was made tremulous by the first faint breath of the moon. From the sea came the red glare of the Wolf and the cold pure beam of the Bishop; in the north Charles' Wain gave the first twinkle of its lights; while from the roads came the creak of the terrestrial waggons beginning to lumber slowly home. It was time for supper, for lamps, for that meeting within walls which enforces a sudden intimacy after a day spent in the open, for beginning real life, as it would have to be lived, once more. The three men stayed behind to gather the remnants of the picnic, but the girls lifted their pale skirts about them and were gone over the high stone stile like moths.
That evening as supper was being eaten in the new dining-room at Cloom—a merry supper enough, for all Annie's skeleton presence at one end of the table—Archelaus walked in. It was the first time he had been over to Cloom since the night of the bush-beating, and it was the first time Ishmael had seen him since that glimpse in the light of a lantern in the wood.
Ishmael looked at his brother, and all that affair seemed very long ago, in a life when he had not been to London, mixed with men, or met Blanche. He held out a hand to Archelaus, who for a stupid moment stood staring at it; then he saw the stranger girl from London, Ishmael's girl, of whom he had heard, watching him. Beyond her sat Phoebe. Some train of thought was lit in Archelaus's mind, and burned there; the second of hesitation during which his survey and the thought took place within his mind was imperceptible as he awkwardly struck his big fist into Ishmael's palm. Everyone present was aware, in greater or less degree, according to the amount of his knowledge, of relief.
Archelaus drew out a chair and partook of supper, talking little; but that little was good, racy, at times too much so, full of shrewd observations and little flashing gleams of knowledge of men and things. Ishmael was not abashed and silenced by it as he had been on the night of his birthday; he too, as he sat there with his "girl" and his wider experiences, felt that the ground over which Archelaus roamed was not altogether untrodden by himself. Annie, by the incursion of her eldest born, was changed, as always, from an acrid acquiescence to definite enmity towards Ishmael and his concerns. She became so rude to Blanche that it seemed the temper of a veritable angel still to be able to smile and answer with politeness. For her sake Ishmael also kept his temper, though inwardly he was ragingly angry—not so much with Annie for being rude as with Archelaus for behaving so unwontedly well through it all—hushing his mother up instead of encouraging her, and speaking respectfully to Blanche himself.
After supper the young people drifted out of doors, and before the girls, wrapping themselves against the dew, joined them, Archelaus drifted in his cat-like way—odd for so big a man—to Ishmael's side.
"Will I wish 'ee joy, Ishmael?" he asked. "'Tes easy to see where your heart be set. Does the maid feel she can love 'ee and Cloom Manor?"
The last words and some indefinable quality in the tone jarred on Ishmael, disturbing the satisfaction he had felt glowing over him at the supper-table.
"If you mean have I proposed to Miss Grey?" he said a little pompously as youth will speak, "I have."
"And will she have 'ee, or has she given 'ee a clout in th' ear?"
Ishmael hated having to tell this barbarian anything about his lovely Blanche; he turned sick when he thought that this would be Blanche's brother ... free to call her by her name, to take her hand.... All he could bring himself to say was that he believed Miss Grey was going to become his wife, but that he would thank Archelaus not to go talking about it, as nothing was to be made public as yet.
"There are other people to consider," he said: "her relations whom I shall have to see, and a lot of things like that. It is not like marrying a girl from the nearest village," he added tactlessly, but without, in his self-absorption, meaning to wound.
Archelaus drew away through the night. He laughed a little.
"Not as if you was wedding Phoebe, who's only a miller's girl?" he asked. Ishmael laughed too, though a little doubtfully, not sure of the cordiality of Archelaus's chuckle.
"Of course it's not like. Phoebe's a dear little thing, but Miss Grey is different, naturally."
In the passage Archelaus ran into Phoebe, emerging with the other girls, and took from her with an air of gallantry the wrap she had upon her arm.
"I'll put 'ee home," he told her: "best have this on; 'tes a bit cool on cliff."
"Oh, but—" began Phoebe. She had no hopes, such as she had cherished, against all reason, upon getting Ishmael's note that morning, of a moonlit walk home with him, but something in her shrank from the walk undertaken with Archelaus. He wrapped the shawl about her as she spoke. Phoebe could no more have resisted a man who had his mind made up than a frog can get away from a viper which has once sighted it, and she let herself be swathed without further protest. Good-byes were said, with careless affection on the part of Vassie, and kindliness from Judith and a pressure of the hand and a deep look from Blanche.
"Good-night, little girl! You're going to be very happy, too, you know," said Blanche, who knew nothing about it, but felt it was a good thing to say. Phoebe and Archelaus, both tongue-tied now they were alone, set off through the moonlight and the soft air to the cliff path.
It was a long time now since she had met Archelaus out of doors, as he had several times half-coaxed, half-bullied her into doing. Now she felt a constraint with him she had not previously, as though there were some portent in the simple act of seeing her home there had never been before. She had, of course, flirted with him in a very innocent way, if her methods had been a little cruder than Blanche's would have under the same circumstances. The repartee had been simple and the caresses nothing more than a slight touch on waist or arm, repulsed by her with more alarm than prudery. Phoebe was fonder far of Ishmael than of Archelaus; she told herself that she admired Ishmael more—he was so much the gentleman.... What she did not know was that a rebel thing in her, the thing for which poor facile, soft little Phoebe had been as much created as though she had been a field-mouse, responded to Archelaus because it felt he was so much the male. Phoebe had been safeguarded all her short life by her notions of gentility and by her fear, the fear, not of consequences, but, less base than that, the fear of actual passion, which is often implanted in very passionate girls as though to guard them till the time comes.
When they reached the first stile Phoebe lifted her skirts and pattered up to it, stood poised upon its crest, and then, with a little gasp, yielded to Archelaus's strong arms as he seized her and swung her down bodily.
"Such a lil' bit of a thing as you be," said Archelaus; "like a lil' cat in my arms, so soft and all."
They went on, he leading and brushing away the tendrils of bramble and the tougher branches of furze across the narrow cliff-path. At each stile he lifted her, only now he picked her up as they approached and carried her right over them. At the last stile he held her instead of putting her down when they reached the further side.
"Put me down, Archelaus," she whispered. He still held her, his hands beneath her armpits, so that they cupped the curve of her breast, her face just beneath his, her feet dangling.
"I'll have a kiss afore putten 'ee down, then. I've never kissed 'ee since you was a lil' maid to school."
"No!" said Phoebe; "no!" She did not know why she protested; she had been kissed with the awkward shy kisses of youth often enough for her years, but she turned her mouth this way and that to escape his. He went on holding her in air, though his arms were beginning to tremble a little with the strain, and simply followed her mouth with his, brushing it lightly. Suddenly she felt she could bear no longer that easy mastery, those following lips that passed and repassed over hers and could so easily have settled if they chose. Why didn't they? She turned like a little animal, and instead of evading any longer, sank her lips into his.
She hung there then, helpless indeed; for his mouth, no longer making a play of hers, held it, bore it down. When he released her he dropped her on to her feet at the same time. Phoebe turned from him and ran towards the mill. He followed leisurely, sure of her next action as only his experience of women could have made him sure, and found her, for all her flight, waiting for him in the shadow of the door.
"You shouldn't," she murmured. "I had to wait and tell you you shouldn't. 'Tesn't right or fitty to kiss that way. It frightens me, Archelaus."
"Why edn' it right?"
"Because—because we aren't wed," faltered Phoebe.
"Wed!..." In his voice was light laughter and a kindly scorn. "What's wed but a word? We're men and women on this earth; that's all that matters to my way of thinken!"
Phoebe was vaguely hurt and insulted, which did duty for being shocked very well. She opened the door and passed into the passage.
"I'd best be going," she said, still half-wishful to linger—anxious not to make herself cheap, yet wishing he would start some conversation which would make it possible to stay without seeming to want to over much.
"When'll you be out again?" asked Archelaus, his foot in the door.
"I don't know."
"I do. Good-night, lil' thing!" And he withdrew the foot and was off through the darkness under the elms. Phoebe was left with her awakened heart-beats.
Harvest had all been gathered in at Cloom, the threshing was over, the grain lay in heaps, grey-green and golden, in the barn, or had been sold and taken away, and the first tang of early autumn was in the air. The peewits had come down and were mewing in the dappled skies, and on the telegraph wires the high-shouldered swallows sat in rows preparing for flight; in the hedgerows the dead hemlocks, brittle as fine shells, were ready to scatter their pale seeds at a touch, and the blackberries, on which as the West Country saying has it, the devil had already laid his finger, were filmed with mildew. It was autumn, but rich, warm autumn, dropping her leaf and seed into the teeming earth, whose grain was garnered, but whose womb was already fertile with the future.
Blanche was still at Mrs. Penticost's, and the engagement, though it had not actually been announced, had leaked out, and Blanche was not at all satisfied with the results that had followed upon that dissemination of knowledge. Annie's hostility she could bear, for she knew that, once married to Ishmael, his mother would be placed somewhere too far removed for the nuisance of her to be more than occasional; it was not that which was blowing with so chill a breath over her spirit. It was, as she phrased it to herself, the whole thing....
Ever since that night upon the boulders above the wood her sureness, both of the depth of her own feeling for Ishmael and for the country method of life that went with him, had been declining, as from some crest set in too rarefied an air for her to breathe with comfort. Poise had been slipping from her, and she was genuinely distressed. In the first stage of her declension she was chiefly occupied with a frantic snatching at her passion—a sustained effort to pull it back and keep it with her; in the second she was occupied in wondering how best to get gracefully out of the entanglement, which was how she grew to envisage it. At first this seemed to be hardly possible; she saw pathetic pictures of herself going on with it and sacrificing herself, unaware how the pleasure of the moment was leading her on, how charming she found Ishmael's considerate and tender love-making that came to her jaded nerves with the refreshing quality of a draught of pure water to a man who has lived too long on champagne. The actual present continued to be pleasurable long after she had determined that it could never crystallise into anything more definite, and so she went on from day to day, enjoying herself, yet vaguely hoping something would happen which would enable her to retire from the engagement without loss of self-respect or that of Ishmael.
For gradually she became quite sure that she could not go through with it, that she must get right away. The people she wanted to know had not called on her—the Parson, on whose help she had relied, held out no assistance; Annie was stubborn and would obviously, wherever she was, do her best to make of herself a barrier against the world, the world that Blanche must know if life were to be tolerable here. The climax, to Blanche's mind, had been a ball just given by a local magnate and his wife who lived on the outskirts of Penzance. Ishmael had been invited and she with him, under the chaperonage of an elderly cousin of the Parson's who was staying at the Vicarage. And the ball, from Blanche's point of view, had been a failure. She had been received politely, but without enthusiasm; and she had overheard some of the other guests saying that they supposed young Ruan had had to be invited, but that it was really dashed awkward!... And she was beginning to realise that Ishmael, when he had paid his mother a little income, paid Vassie enough to live on, paid John-James bigger wages to allow of his living elsewhere, would not be nearly as well off as she had thought ... a visit to London once a year would be the utmost to be hoped for. And for the rest—year in, year out, at Cloom, watching the waxing and waning of the seasons, bearing children, the children Ishmael looked for to inherit the horrid place after him.... Blanche, fond as she still was of him, literally shuddered as she saw where glamour, in company with boredom and desperation, had been about to lead her. After all, she need not despair: there were other men in the world, and she had been silly to expect to meet anyone she could marry at the theatre; it was no sign of waning charm that she had failed there. If only she could think of a good excuse, she would go home and write to Ishmael from there.... Yet that gave her no scope, allowed no scene such as her soul loved as long as she could shine creditably....
She could not quite decide how to stage-manage her exit; but, whether she went or not, Judy had to go back to her people—Judy who would bear with her the slim little sheaf of poems she had written during her stay, Judy sun-browned, almost more of the elf than the monkey. Killigrew had settled to go the same day to accompany her on the tiresome journey, and then he was for Paris again, his beloved Paris; he vowed that he should burst if he stayed in England any longer. On the morning of the day before Judy's departure Blanche, who, half-packed, was still trying to make up her mind, received a letter that, with no sense of impiousness, she considered providential.
Mrs. Penticost brought it in to her, between a red finger and thumb, rather steamy from washing-up, and busied herself about the room while her lodger read the closely-written pages. Mrs. Penticost was frankly curious, and if Blanche did not tell her what was in that letter she meant to find out by questioning her.
Blanche hardly noticed her presence; she was too rapt in the providential happenings described to her by the garrulous pen of her stepmother. The very crackle of the paper between her fingers gave her fresh courage as she read. And yet it was a very simple letter, coming as it did from the simple woman who she so often said had nothing in common with herself.
* * * * *
"Dear Blanche," ran the letter, "I wonder how much longer you are going to stay in Cornwall? Your father feels it hard that you should not spend any of your holiday with him, and I don't think will go on much longer with your allowance if you are neither working nor staying at home. You know he was determined you should have your chance to become a great actress, as you were so set on it and discontented at home, and indeed I do not blame you, for I know how dull it is here. However, just at present the neighbourhood is very lively, as we have a new lord of the manor—only imagine it! You know old Mr. Crossthwaite died in the spring and the place has been sold this summer to a very rich young man—trade, I think, but quite a gentleman; you would never know the difference, and has been educated at Cambridge, I am told. He seems a quite nice young man, and all the neighbours are making him give parties and giving them themselves, I believe to try and marry him to one of their daughters, but as you know there is nobody much here now. There are Dr. Smythe's daughters, but they are so very plain, poor dears! and the only others are Lady Geraldine and Lady Sybil, and I don't suppose they would look at him, being so much older and occupied in their charities, even if he were inclined, so I'm sure we can't blame the young man if he refuses to fall in love at all down here. If you were here I expect it would be a very different story; he's just your type, if you know what I mean, very like your Mr. Bellew, poor young man. I wonder what has happened to him. I did hear he married a barmaid, and I'm sure it was a judgment on his mother for saying he was too young to marry you. Well, there is no more news, except that that silly little housemaid I got a good place for at the Hall is in trouble—the gamekeeper, I believe; but she is very obstinate and won't say. These girls are enough to make one give up trying to help them. Also the carpet in the drawing-room is right through at last, so I am in hopes of persuading your father we really must have a new one. I don't think it looks at all well for the rector of the parish to have a carpet that callers have to be warned not to catch their feet in. The rug cannot be made to cover it as it's right in the middle. I do my best with an occasional table, but then that gets in the way. With love, my dear Blanche, from myself and your father, believe me,