A Yellow Aster
“And if this fought-for climax is ever reached
and science, creeping along the path of experiment,
so invades the realm of Nature that a blue chrysanthemum
or A Yellow Aster can be produced at
will, the question still remains, has Nature been
made more beautiful thereby?”
IN THREE VOLUMES
HUTCHINSON & CO.
34 PATERNOSTER ROW
PRINTED AT NIMEGUEN (HOLLAND)
BY H. C. A. THIEME OF NIMEGUEN (HOLLAND)
TALBOT HOUSE, ARUNDEL STREET
A YELLOW ASTER.
“To look at the fellow one would never give him credit for half the grit he has,” thought Strange as he glanced round for a cab at the street corner. “If I had money I should send him to Paris,” he went on as soon as he had settled himself comfortably, “the Kensington methods are no manner of use to him. It’s the deuce of a shame too, that he has to attempt 2finished work for a living when he should be swatting over the primaries; and that colour mania—that will get chronic and overgrow him, and then God help him!”
As it happened Lady Mary was at home and quite wide-awake. As a rule this was not the case until much later in the day, but just now various things combined to keep off sleep.
When Strange was announced, she was sitting well screened from the small bright fire, gazing in soft meditation at her plump white hands, with the corners of her mouth slightly drawn downwards, and her smooth round forehead wrinkled up in a way that would have gone to the heart of a stone to see in such a picture of comfort as she was made to be.
3“Humphrey!” she exclaimed, making a vain try at a spring and flopping down again limply, “Humphrey!”
“Myself and no other,” said Strange, receiving her kiss cheerfully, and settling himself into a chair after he had shaken it to see if it would bear. “I needn’t ask you how you are, Aunt Moll, you look just as you always did, like a catkin.”
“A what, Humphrey?” she enquired anxiously.
“A catkin, we used to call them goslings, soft, oval, pale gold, silky, fluffy masses—you have a weakness for adjectives I know, judging from the line in literature you patronize. The harshest wind has never been known to ruffle a gosling, it always skips them, they always feel warm to the touch, as if the sun were on them, they 4are delicious things. The sun is always on you, Aunt Moll, ain’t it?”
“Ah, Humphrey, you little know, you can make but a faint guess at my troubles, the death of my dear——”
“Aunt Moll, we’ll skip that!” interrupted Strange, with a twinkle.
He knew quite well what an unmixed relief the deceased peer’s removal was to all his kith and kin, more especially to his wife.
“If you recollect, before I went to Algeria we agreed to let my uncle rest undisturbed in his present retreat, which, from what we know of his past, must be unexceptionable—whatever his faults may have been no one can deny that he was a most exclusive person and had a very just notion of his position.”
5“Dear Humphrey! That flippancy! I had hoped that the many dangers you have experienced, the many times you have come face to face with death—and, Humphrey—with Eternity—would have brought the seriousness of life before your eyes.”
“Aunt Moll, the sight of you there in that chair brings that view of the case more clearly before me than ever the sight of death did.”
Lady Mary again looked anxious, her nephew always made her feel like that, his eyes seemed to rake her from stem to stern and to find some mute amusement in the process. Suddenly she gave a little start.
“What have I been thinking of?” she murmured. “Humphrey,” she began again, 6“we must speak of your prospects.”
She was bubbling over with them as it happened, besides, they would keep him off her.
“What are you thinking of doing now?”
“What I have always been thinking of doing and have never done yet, making the result of my face to face encounters with death—and Eternity—of some practical value to the world in general and to myself in particular, by filling my trousers’ pockets, which at this present moment contain one pound six and threepence, and that’s mostly due for beer.”
“Humphrey! Have you heard nothing? Your letters?”
“I never read them. For Heaven’s sake, speak, divulge, I’m ready for anything!”
7“Your great-uncle is dead—died last month. Before he went he confessed a heavy sin that had lain for years on his soul, poor dear creature. That great lanky son of his, about whom, as you know, I always had a nasty feeling, as if he were not altogether quite right, as if somehow he was not one of us. This now proves to have been a quite prophetic instinct, he turns out to be—ahem—illegitimate, and you, you, Humphrey, are the heir.”
“I say! It’s beastly hard lines on Tom!”
Strange was quite as staggered with the news, as any other younger son in his condition would have been. It vibrated through and through him, but as one cannot clothe thunder in harmonies any more than one can a tumultuous muddle of sensations 8in speech in the presence of a woman inclined to gush and stoutness, he swallowed his muddle and was flippant.
“Humphrey!” said Lady Mary with dignity, wondering a little if Humphrey himself were quite right. “This minute you have ten thousand a year, and you, my nephew, are Sir Humphrey Strange.”
“Am I? You’ll be astonished to hear I don’t feel a bit like it, I feel exactly as I did before. Is there any difference to the naked eye, if so, do you mind telling me?”
Lady Mary stirred uneasily and crossed her hands.
“Dear Humphrey!” she cried at last, with a soft wailing bleat, “I confess I did expect some show of proper feeling from you on this occasion. It is a shock 9to me to see you in your present frame of mind, it seems like flying in the face of Providence, and may end in bringing down a judgment on your head.”
Lady Mary sighed and continued, lowering her voice to a coo, “When I heard the news, Humphrey, I went down on my knees and prayed that my poor sinful uncle might be forgiven for foisting that counterfeit young man off on our family, and that you, my nephew, might face your responsibilities with a seriousness befitting the occasion. My dear, if you knew what it costs me to kneel, now that I have grown a little stout, you might perhaps appreciate this act.”
“Aunt Moll, my feelings are always too deep for expression, it would upset 10you for a month if I were to give you the merest glimpse of the emotions that are ravaging me this minute. These inward upheavals are frightfully wasting, your acts of prayer and thanksgiving are a fool to them—There doesn’t happen to be any tea going, does there?”
“Tea! Is it five o’clock? What can have happened? Pray ring. The misery I have to endure with servants! I wonder my hair isn’t even greyer than it is, and my poor face more worn.”
“Your hair is as brown as a nut, and there isn’t a crease in your dear, soft young face. What was wrong with you when I came in, the corners of your mouth were turned the wrong way?”
Lady Mary reflected as she made his tea.
11“Ah, it was Gwen, she has thrown aside another most unexceptionable match, the third in three months.”
“Gwen Waring, she is with me for the season.”
“Ah, that queer, sulky, imperturbable, long-legged girl, belonging to those wonderful young fossils at Waring Park. I shouldn’t have thought she’d have got the chance to throw over any match, let alone three unexceptionable ones——”
“What’s up? Gru!—”
He sprang to his feet.
A tall superb girl with a face like a hothouse flower, was standing in the middle of the room, looking at him with a cool aloofness that made his blood run cold. 12She had heard every word, she must have, his voice was a big one.
This magnificent dominant creature, before whom he felt as a worm, was only an enlarged completed edition of the “sulky, long-legged” slip he used to catch fitful glances of, in his stays with his aunt.
If only he hadn’t classified her in such cool pleasant tones! It was not often the fellow felt at such a disadvantage. If the girl had made a joke now, or even looked as if she could make one! But she knew better than to joke, she had her tactics ready to her hand, and she was determined his impertinence should be brought home to him.
Her own classification never troubled her in the least, it was the good-humoured sneer at her parents which touched her. 13Was she always to suffer for being the product of such a house?
The next few minutes Strange felt younger than he had done for ten years.
“Lady Mary has been telling me of your good fortune,” she remarked kindly, sipping her tea, and looking at him in as motherly a way as so very splendid a person could look. “You must be quite excited—I suppose you are already making a hundred plans?
“I seem to know you quite well,” she went on, not giving him the chance to reply, “Lady Mary is always telling anecdotes of ‘her boy’, very entertaining ones they are too, and I should fancy characteristic.”
She helped herself to more cream and regarded him coolly.
14“When she reads prayers, she always makes a special and very full mention of you.”
Lady Mary winced abjectly and looked deprecatingly at her nephew, but his eyes were fastened on Gwen. His aunt felt she had escaped for once. She settled herself into her pillows, and wondered vaguely what would happen next.
She had a horrid feeling that there were breakers ahead somewhere, but as she never by any chance could see farther than her own nose, she decided not to make any effort at sighting them, but to drift on with faith.
“Very considerate of my aunt!” said Strange, in a pause.
“Oh, that is only one instance of her consideration and the least important. She 15has done much more than that for you, she is like John the Baptist without the skins and locusts, she has ‘been preparing the way before’ you, and you have only to appear to be mobbed, Sir Humphrey. There’s not a matron nor a maid in London who doesn’t babble of you; your name is rippling off a hundred tongues at this very minute; you are the hero of a hundred teas. All this came on after a long round of calls Lady Mary and I paid last Monday,” she continued, scanning him. “I had only heard your name before, in the outward world, that is—the Baronetcy never affected Lady Mary’s prayers and anecdotes, they were always with us—in a queer aside way, as if one hinted at dark things that had better not be unearthed. Ah, but that is all changed! You have no notion 16though how exhausting the process has been to Lady Mary.”
She stopped at last.
“No,” he said, looking at his aunt, “I certainly hadn’t perceived any symptoms of a cave-in about her. Monday, did you say, Miss Waring? Would you mind letting me have your visiting list for that day, Aunt Moll? I suppose I know some of the people, and my soul’s one desire for years has been to pose as an afternoon-tea hero. I shall just have time to get a foretaste of the joys this afternoon. Good-bye, Aunt Moll, pray don’t look anxious on my account, my morals are tough enough to run the gauntlet of all the teas in London, and my digestion is unimpaired. Good-bye, Miss Waring,” he said, bowing gravely in her direction, 17“thank you for standing by my aunt on Monday’s warpath, I am gratified to see you are in no sort of way exhausted by the process. Damnation!” he muttered as he got out into the street, “she smells of a hothouse with her overpowering beauty and her insolent airs, and that cool inexorable way of hers. Oh, Aunt Moll, you’ll rue the day you made me a by-word. To think I had to swallow all that, and let a girl bait me!”
He laughed aloud.
“And so I am the coming parti! Good Lord! I’ll be fine practice for the ‘sport,’ anyway they’ll find me shy game. I’ll go home, finish a chapter or two, dose Tolly, and then I’ll dine.
“Hullo!” he exclaimed suddenly, “things 18are looking up for Charlie, he can go to Paris now when he likes. I wonder how I can reduce his high stomach to seeing it in that light!”
Strange found the preliminaries of his induction into the rôle of an English Squire even more unpleasant than he had expected.
During the period when he had read Roman law and knocked about the Courts with the hope of supplementing his income by the experience he picked up there, the technicalities of the law had bored him to excruciation point. Now, when they were brought specially to bear 20on him he found them more galling still, but being a wise man in his way, he shirked none of them, and took good care not to take a solitary step in the dark, till, by the time they had got him off their hands, the solicitors of the Stranges were in a position to congratulate themselves at last, on the fact of having found a whole man in the family.
He had gone the rounds of his duties doggedly and had found them insufferably dull, he had been down to Strange Hall, had left things there in trim, and had now flown back to London.
One afternoon in June he was standing in the shadow of a deep window, in one of his rooms in Piccadilly, lazily sharpening a pencil.
21He had plenty of work to do, but somehow he had no stomach for it, the change in his life had got into his bones, and had filled him with unrest and a certain loss of faith in himself. When at last after a long meditation, the truth of this broke upon him, it came with an audible and ample, “Damn!”
“I may as well give it up and amuse myself in a mild way,” he thought, after a hasty review of matters, “nothing can be too weak and vapid for my present condition—I feel flabby.”
A mild grunt at his back made him swing round. It was Tolly, just back from the dentist, of a deeper puce than usual, and with a terrible uncompromising row of glistening teeth shooting out aggressively between his thin lips.
22He gave a deferential duck, and stood on approval, with a laboured attempt at an appearance of modest deprecation.
“Turn round, Tolly,” said his master, “away from me, I can’t bear it all at once!”
He was shaking with silent laughter.
“How do you feel about them yourself, Tolly?”
“Fust-rate, sir—your wussup.”
Since his master’s rise in life he was much exercised as to the best terms by which to give him honour, and he varied them daily.
“I can bite nails, your wussup.”
“Ah! You mustn’t play fast and loose with these tusks as you might with ones bred and reared on the premises.”
“Lord! your wussup, I wouldn’t make 23that free, being, as they are your property, sir, besides, any fool can see as how they be the real bought article, money down, not your everyday common grinders. There weren’t a toff I met as didn’t mention ’em, I tried to keep ’em dark, sir.”
“I shall expect a good deal more from you,” said Strange, pointing the moral, “now you’re complete. If anyone calls to-day say I’m out and I won’t be home till night, and—take these to the post before I start,” he pointed to a big heap of notes on the table, “and don’t drop any of them, nor swallow your teeth.
“Twenty invitations in a week,” reflected Tolly’s master, “the first-fruits of my rise in life! they used to average six a week. I’ll go 24and see Lady Mary. Damn it all, why need a man lie to himself, I’ll go and see Miss Waring!”
And he went, and somehow the next day he went again, and the next, and the next after that. Then he and Gwen discovered a mutual passion for riding, not up and down the Row, that seemed as tame a pastime to the one as to the other, but in the early mornings out on the heath at Hampstead, or sometimes far out on the Surrey side.
Once they went as far as Surbiton, where they got drenched in a shower and had to take refuge and have tea in an old inn.
But it is not at all to be supposed that with all this intimacy those two got an inch nearer one another, they were 25intellectual companions, nothing more, not even to be called comrades.
Gwen neither evaded nor shirked conventions, she simply swept them aside, as she did her lovers. As for Strange, he felt her and the rides very distinctly a boon. She was an excellent flint to make sparks with, her ways of thought were so new, let alone startling, her modes of expression so quaint, her tongue so remarkably sharp, and she had such a brutal habit of speaking undiluted truths. For the once the two agreed, they disagreed at least three times, and a good pitched battle had to be fought to settle any question. The sponge was never by any chance thrown up, it was forced out of the hand of one or of the other of them. It was a most bracing and delightful experience for Gwen, 26it was so satisfactory and so absolutely free from mawkishness, and she reflected, with superb self-congratulation, that the man had just as little capacity for that phase as herself.
“She’s hard—hard as nails,” he reflected after an evening at Lady Mary’s, “and yet, she wasn’t made like that, I could swear. I wonder what the devil’s wrong with her eyes, and what’ll put them right? I believe, upon my word I do, that a baby might do the business for her. There’s not a man living that would have any effect upon them, and yet there are fellows going who would take that dewiness, for softness, hang it! it’s mere moisture, but—ah, well, the effect is magnificent!”
He took out his watch, but his hand shook so that he could not open it.
27“God forgive me!” he muttered, “this is awful! I have had a good deal in the way of education at women’s hands, but this is a new experience,” he remarked after a pause, grinning, and flicking a spot of ash off his coat, “her want of self-consciousness is next to ghastly, it has an uncanny sexless sort of air about it that gives one the shivers.”
The intellectual companionship continued unabated for ten more days, then one evening at the end of June, Gwen Waring told Strange that she and Lady Mary were going down into the country early in July.
When he got home that night he had a difficulty in mounting the stairs. When he succeeded, he got himself to the glass, and found he was white to the lips. He had 28had a shock—he had discovered, as he had turned out of Lady Mary’s softly-lighted hall into the street, that he loved the girl irretrievably, and with the knowledge came fear.
For a few minutes he leaned against the mantel-piece, his head sunk into his hands, then he raised himself with a sigh, threw off his light overcoat, and sat down to smoke, but he couldn’t draw a puff, then it struck him that he was numb with cold.
He looked at the grate with a purpose to make a fire lighting in his eyes, but with a shrug he shirked the trouble. He could not go to bed, that was out of the question; as for sitting there freezing, that was just as impossible. He must move, he must feel the life stir in him 29again. He stood up and shook himself, then a thought struck him, he hurried to his room, changed his clothes, and went out round the corner to the mews where he kept the horses he had brought up from Strange Hall.
He found the gear, saddled the freshest, and rode away through short cuts and byways, away from the noise and hurly-burly, out into the quiet of the country. Then he drew rein, pulled the mare aside on to a green strip flanking the road, and let her go her own pace. For a long time he gave her grace and smoked savagely.
“It is about the most killing blow that could have fallen on a man. It would be bad for any fellow; but for me, who can love if I can do anything, to have to 30pour it all out at the feet of a girl who couldn’t understand what love, much less passion, means, to save her life! It’s a beastly backhanded stroke of fate, and I don’t know that I’ve ever done anything bad enough to deserve it. Lord, how the mare’s sides smoke! I must have ridden like a maniac. The worst of it is, this isn’t a thing one can clear off and forget—with the woman right in one’s soul!—the fine, grand, proud creature! God! it’s almost sacrilege to expect her to love, with love in the beastly state it is—to love any man-Jack of us; it’s honour enough to love her and yet,—yet,—when a man has once done it, done it once and for ever, the only thing in life seems to be to get something in return. What commercial brutes we are even in this holiest 31connection of all! But let her love or not, I’ll give her my love if she’ll take it and I shall pick up crumbs like old Lazarus.—Pah, how she dominates one!—Ah, and when her love wakes up—but, the devil! suppose another fellow is the instrument chosen! Ah!—ah! hold up, mare, are you stumbling or am I reeling? It’s myself, by Jove, God help us!”
Involuntarily he drove his spurs into the beast, she started forward angrily, unused to maniacs. Presently he came to his senses and pulled her up with a drag on her mouth that she did not forget for some time. She went sulky and stumbled for the next mile, small blame to her! A Christian would have done more.
Gradually her master’s face cleared itself and softened.
32“Perhaps,” he muttered, “perhaps no other fellow after all, but—who knows?—a baby’s tender little mouth may do it.”
When Strange got back to town, after baiting man and beast at a little inn on the outskirts of Weybridge, Tolly’s greeting, which was blasphemous and amazed, and the unusual look in his green eyes, caused his master to glance at himself in the glass.
“Heaven!” he thought, turning away, “I’m a nice object to go courting! One would think I had just emerged from D.T., 34or Bedlam! Tolly, turn on the hot water, empty a bottle of vinegar into it, and put out clean clothes for me. I feel like jelly. Good Lord! has love this limping effect often?”
He turned into his bedroom. As he was wrestling with one of his shirt buttons he muttered,
“However this goes, it’s a toss-up what the gain will be, heaven or hell. Well, a man might do worse than face hell for her.”
He had hardly made this heroic remark when the absurdity of it struck him; he laughed aloud. “I had better face my bath,” he said.
When he was washed and dressed, he rather thought of the Club and a good lunch, but the game didn’t seem worth 35the candle. He felt that his hands were quite sufficiently full with one woman, he had no desire for men, more especially at feeding-time.
“I shall have my lunch here,” he said, looking up from his paper, “get out some bread and cheese, and beer, and anything else you can lay your hands on.”
In five minutes Tolly had covered a little round table with a cloth, and had set out on it a mixed assortment of cheese, beer, jam, and a freshly-opened tin of foie gras, and he stood proudly in attendance with napkin on arm, keeping down with difficulty a grin of self-satisfaction.
However full he was of himself, Strange never let a new accomplishment of Tolly’s 36escape him, if he did, the effect on the boy would have been disastrous. No sinner ever strove after God as this sinner after his owner.
“Well done, Tolly, you’ll shine in life yet, the way you flourish that damask is sublime!”
“Beggin’ your pardon, your wussup,” said Tolly, “Bill, the groom, ’e were round after ye, a-stormin’ at me because the horse was out. Bill always lets out at me like when he feels hisself put about in his mind, and he thought you and the beast were lost,” sniggered Tolly. “I told him you was big enough to take care of yourself, and that gents often finds the nights more convenienter than the days,” he remarked confidentially, pushing the salt under his master’s nose. “Bill 37is that ignorant, sir, of loife and sich, he erstonishes me.”
Strange drank his beer with a look at the half-made creature who had plumbed ‘loife’ from the vantage ground of her sewers.
“Very like his betters,” he thought, “we get lots of our views from a vantage ground not one whit sweeter or cleaner than Tolly’s.”
He made a fresh dive into the pâté and his thoughts broke out on a new track.
“I think we’re going off somehow. I believe it is a good deal the women’s fault; this new craze for advanced talk between the sexes is no good, the women who affect it are never clever enough nor good enough to make a success of 38the thing, it’s a pose mostly, as their smoking is, just done for effect.—Tolly, pass that jam!”
When he had rounded off his meal with a hunch of bread and strawberry jam, he stretched himself, went to the window and looked out, drumming gently on the pane.
“I wonder,” he thought, “I wonder if I am quite a fool or not, but—but, God! how I love her!”
Then he stopped drumming, and began to wonder vaguely how in the name of Heaven he was able to eat great hunches of bread and jam not five minutes before.
He turned and watched Tolly through the door, devouring at his ease, with a sudden shock of disgust, more at himself than at 39the fellow, with his hideous mouth all moist and jammy. He turned again to the window and tried to steady his brain, but it reeled and everything in the room swam before him, he dropped his head in his hands and trembled from head to foot, when he raised it he felt steadier and not so raging hot.
“I shall chance it,” he said, “I shall chance it.”
When he reached Lady Mary’s he was in a much more wholesome frame of mind. He had gone there by roundabout ways, where he saw a good deal of stark, staring, naked humanity; this helped to crystallize his emotions, to sift the dross out and leave the clean stuff.
He never in his life felt clearer-headed than when he went up the stairs unannounced, 40and paused to look through the half opened door at Gwen, sitting near a window in a cloudy dress of soft yellow crêpey stuff and with her strong, long-fingered, composed hands lying idle in her lap and the guard dropped from her eyes, showing a good deal more of herself than he had ever seen before.
He only paused for one minute, he had no right yet to the girl’s secrets; then he threw open the door with a little bang and brought her back to the present.
“Oh, is it you?” she said with the ghost of a start, looking up at him.
She felt in a vague way that he knew more of her in that one minute than he had any business to do, and she was not quite sure if she liked it or not. He did 41not offer to shake hands with her but glanced round the room silently. Gwen laughed.
“You are looking for Lady Mary? She has a bad headache, an abnormally bad one, and won’t be down till five.”
He offered up a dumb thanksgiving and sat down carefully, then he felt a horrible desire to say, “Hem!” or to mention the deuce or the weather.
He had felt intensely reasonable the minute before, but he was confused by the beauty of the girl sitting so close to him, with the flickering sunshine running golden threads in and out her twisted russet hair, and clothing her in pale molten gold.
“She shall have nothing to add to her beauty,” he thought, “I shall not 42make a beast of myself to desire the least of her when it is the greatest I want.”
He started up, and asked if he might draw down the blinds.
“Yes,” said Gwen wonderingly, as she saw his big brown hand tremble on the blind line.
Then a sudden certainty of his intention came upon her with a burst of angry horror, but she swept this off and waited coolly, with a sort of sneering excitement.
Strange drew his chair farther forward and sat facing her.
“Miss Waring,” he said, “I have come to ask if you will listen to the shady side of a man’s life.”
There was no more tremble or hesitation 43about him now, he looked as cool as she did.
“It is a side that men as a rule keep to themselves and to their male companions, no matter how near a man and a woman come to each other, this impalpable barrier keeps them apart. This has always struck me as a rather low form of lie and distinctly dishonourable, especially practised, as it is, by the stronger on the presumably weaker. If a woman is not strong and pure and magnanimous enough to bear this knowledge, a man should find it out and go his way before he has dared to touch her life; if she is strong enough she should be given the opportunity of gaining this knowledge at first hand, and taking her subsequent course accordingly. You are immeasurably 44nobler than any other woman who has crossed my path.”
Involuntarily he lowered his head as he spoke, in a reverential way that touched Gwen and forced her to hear him. After the first disgusted shock her impulse had been to send him about his business. She had half risen from her seat on the spur of this impulse, but somehow she had sat down again, and in spite of herself she had let him speak.
“No decent man could deceive you,” he went on, “even if every word he spoke were to cut his own throat. May I speak to you as man to man?”
He watched the palpitations of her throat—which unfortunately were beyond her control—with a sort of choking sensation—
45“Or more,” he added simply, “as if you were God.”
Gwen’s colour neither increased nor left her, she neither trembled nor stirred. For a minute she was quite silent except for one quick little swallowing sound, she was fighting with a concentrated restrained frenzy of despair against her fate, against the overpowering longing to hear this man, as he sat there ready to spoil his own life sooner than lie to her even in a fashion recognized by the use of generations.
She was quite aware she had nothing whatsoever to give him in exchange, she knew perfectly well she was about to do him a grievous wrong, and yet her whole being was concentrated into one imperative demand to hear what he had to say.
46“You may speak,” she said in a hard emotionless voice.
Then he told her simply, with neither condonation nor reservation, the whole truth about his life.
It is all very well to talk glibly about the advantages of calling a spade a spade, but when it comes to giving dozens of spades their unvarnished titles in the presence of one virgin clean woman, and when every fresh spade may be about to dig up the heart you would foster, the matter is no joke.
By the time that Strange had arrived at the end of his unadorned record, his smooth, brick-dust cheeks looked gray and haggard, and his voice sounded tired.
Once during the recital Gwen had lost guard over herself and had let a flash of 47half-triumphant interest escape from her eyes. It was when he had said—“Thank Heaven! I never loved one of these women, that is, taking love in its all-round, large sense.”
When he had finished he stood up and looked at her, waiting.
She had herself still in her power, she felt, with a wild leap of her spirit, she could yet ward off her fate and his; “his,” she thought with a wave of soft unaccustomed pity. She had nothing to give this man, nothing, not even the germs of a possible something—something called Love.
She laughed aloud and looked in his face when the empty word stirred her brain, then she lowered her eyes and turned all her thoughts in on herself, 48moving a small pearl ring up and down her finger with a swift rhythmic movement.—This man would take her for mere hope—hope that had no foundation in fact,—it was a mean exchange, nothing for everything,—mean and unjust; for the minute she was hideous to herself, with her own whole life a protest against the injustice of others.
She looked at him again, and a horrible power seemed to drag and bind her to him, she turned her eyes away angrily and made a little involuntary sound of trouble.
“Oh, if I only could treat him as I did the others!” she muttered under her breath, “but I can’t, I can’t!”
She was frightened at herself—at the power which drove her to the man inexorably,—she 49looked at the door and stirred in her seat, half-rising, but she sat down again and began to move her ring with the old movement, only quicker and with tenser fingers.
Then a cold feeling of finality came on her, she knew she must say something and she knew she was going to say the wrong thing; an inexplicable smile flickered across her face and touched her mouth, she grew quite calm and ceased to move her ring.
“You have done me a very high honour,” she said; “thank you.”
He came nearer and looked down on her.
“I have tried to be perfectly honest,” he said, “and you have no idea what an awful grind it has been. It would be 50quite impossible for me to give you any idea of how I honour you, and as for love—” he stopped, breathing hard, “I have a heart full for you, dear, I don’t think I know myself how much I love you.”
The girl looked at him curiously, the simple intensity of his manner struck her, then her eyes fell and she sighed.
“Love is such a mere name to me,” she said, “it seems such a collapsable bubbly thing and put to such feeble uses. You want me to be your wife then, and you offer me a whole heart full of love, whatever that may mean. I must be honest too, and tell you that I shouldn’t know how to dispose of a whole heart full of love. I know nothing at all practically about the matter, and theoretically 51it has never interested me. My situation is hard to explain,” she exclaimed, with a petulant sweeping movement of her hand, “in the face of all this I want to accept your offer, I don’t know why, I really believe it is not I, Gwen Waring, that wants this, it is something outside me that wants it for me. I never felt so impersonal in all my life.”
He winced, her honesty, to say the least of it, was a trifle bald.
“Perhaps I am more concerned in it than I think,” she went on with a queer intense serenity, dissecting herself audibly, “I like new sensations, I am curious, most things are so flat and boring.”
Strange started forward and was about to speak, she raised her hand imperiously.
52“Stop!” she cried, “I must finish, I want you quite clearly to understand that if I take you at your word and become your wife—wife,” she repeated, “how astonishing the word sounds in connection with me!”
She laughed in an untranslatable way and went on,
“Remember and understand that I am doing it as an experiment.”
He flushed, it was his own precise thought but it seemed less hideous when thought than when spoken.
“An experiment,” she repeated, “but whether it is fair to try experiments in lives is another matter. I wish—” she cast a half-wistful, half-provoked look at him, “I wish you were sufficiently clear and reasonable yourself to help me to 53answer the question—I am so ignorant in these matters.”
A sudden crimson rushed to her cheeks, she was furious. What right had she to blush like a dairy-maid and mislead the man?
“I’m not blushing properly, as girls ought to blush,” she explained, “I am merely angry, I feel caught in a trap. Why can’t I tell you to begone and leave me at peace?” she demanded, looking at him with curious swift repulsion, “I have never found any difficulty before,—why don’t you help me?”
In spite of his love, Strange shook with laughter.
It was no laughing matter for Gwen, she kept her eyes fixed on him, angry and full of pain.
“You stand there and laugh—laugh! I 54wish to mercy I could. Don’t you know I am going to accept you—I, who don’t know what love means—I, who am, I believe, sexless, don’t you know you’re mad and don’t you think it’s rather degrading to give all you offer me for nothing? After all, it is not absolutely necessary to my salvation that I should make experiments on you.”
She felt a sudden tiredness come on her and nestled back in her cushions.
“I am ready to take you with open eyes, Gwen; you are very honest, dear; you will lose some of that when you have suffered a little,” he added, with a ring of sadness in his voice, as he looked tenderly down on her.
She raised her head quickly. “Suffer! Why should I suffer?”
55He watched her for a minute with sombre eyes.
“I don’t know,” he said half-absently, “but you will. Then this is our betrothal, is it, dear?”
She bowed her head.
“Oh, my darling!” he said suddenly.
“Will he often say it?” she thought curiously, “can I stand this?”
“My darling, you have no idea how I shall enjoy giving you lessons in love.”
“Will you?” she said grimly, “I doubt it, I tell you I have no taste for the cult. Well, it is at least fortunate that one can be honest and that it isn’t necessary for me to befool you for the sake of your income. This marriage is the very perfection of an alliance from all such points of view, and yet—do 56you know, Sir Humphrey, I wish quite intensely, we were both of us in another position, in quite a low, unknown one, then we need not marry. Engagements are nothing; I know as much of you now as any engagement can teach me. We might then try a preliminary experiment as to how life together goes; if it did not do, we might each go our own way and bury the past. I never wished for such a thing before, it follows, I suppose,” she added with a mirthless little laugh, “that I care this much for you or for my experiment. Have you grasped the whole situation?” she demanded, turning her troubled eyes full on him.
“My child, you have been very explicit, I think I have quite grasped it. When will you marry me?”
57She gave a little start.
“I was wondering,” she said at last, “if this was final?”
“It is final,” he said, “you know it is.”
“Yes, I know; it was rather paltry to pretend I didn’t—oh!—”
She looked up at him with her face held in both her hands. “Final? yes, so it is. I am one section of a puzzle moved by fate, you’re another. It is humiliating when one comes to think of it.”
“I will marry you when you like.”
“The end of next month?”
“Won’t it interfere with the shooting?”
“I had forgotten that—I don’t think I shall mind—the end of July, then.”
He took her hands and kissed them, and he thought as he got out into the street that 58he had felt them tremble. It was a pleasant surprise, on which he felt inclined to congratulate himself.
The knowledge had a quite other effect on his betrothed. She smote her clenched fists angrily together and scorned herself for the feebleness of her extremities.
“Mean deceitful wretch,” she cried, “to mislead that man, when I am only tired and wanting my tea!”
There were some slight eruptions in the domestic circle at Waring Park before it was decided what form the wedding was to take. As might be expected, Mr. and Mrs. Waring in no way interfered, but kept themselves carefully aloof from the whole concern. But not so Dacre.
On hearing of the engagement, he swooped down on the paternal abode, all agog to have his say in the arrangements. He 60was now a budding warrior, full of himself and his profession, and horribly cocksure on all subjects in heaven and on earth, a good honest affectionate creature of conventions, but with “a coarse thumb” which he wielded in a promiscuous style, and often planted sheer on the quick.
Dacre wanted a wedding that would have astonished the neighbours, and that would more than probably have been the death of the two rarified beings who had borne him, but Gwen, backed by Mr. and Mrs. Fellowes, arranged things quite her own way.
The wedding was to be as quiet as a wedding can be. Neither Strange nor Gwen were rich in relations, which simplified matters. Lady Mary must come, of course, and the old Waring uncle, and one or two creatures of an unobservant and 61fossilized type, not worth mentioning, besides a few of Strange’s belongings.
As for friends, when Gwen began to cast about in her mind on that subject, she found that for her, putting aside Mr. and Mrs. Fellowes, none existed. Of the girl friends who usually flock in the wake of a bride, Gwen hadn’t a vestige.
She had gone to her room to straighten her thoughts after a hot encounter with Dacre, whose carnal mind still hankered after a proper full-blown wedding, and had been making itself objectionable in a bumptious youthful style. She had lost her cool scornful calm at last, and had given him such a glance from her big eyes as had quelled the British lion in him, and had accompanied it with a lash of her able tongue.
62“Oh, you are anxious to amuse yourself by importing the world and the flesh down here—here! that they may sneer at two people who, if they have brought children into the world for pure purposes of investigation, are at any rate too good to make sport for your friends. You can get your world and your flesh elsewhere, not here at my expense.”
“I never saw anyone just going to be married like you before!” said Dacre, with a dash of his old astonished terror at her.
“Probably not, your experience not being wide.”
“Strange is a million times too good for you!”
To his astonishment he got no immediate retort.
Gwen stood up, getting rather white, 63and went to the door. She stopped in the shadow of the threshold, and a gray shade fell on her face and made it whiter, but a sunbeam caught her hair and turned it to the orange-gold that Dacre hated.
“Fools speak the truth a great deal oftener than they have any notion of,” she said, “it is a pity that being thick-headed themselves they can’t know how it hurts.”
Now she was in her room reflecting gloomily on things in general.
“I never thought,” she said, “I never thought that by any process of reasoning I should be ashamed of the fact of having no girl friends—I used rather to pique myself on it, but upon my word I am ashamed, I am degradingly, abjectly ashamed 64of it, it is one of the symptoms of my disease.”
She went to the glass, and crossing her arms on a little table near, she looked at herself, laughing.
“Would anyone think it to look at me? I look so very sound and complete, and yet I am rotten at the core, a sort of Dead Sea apple. What a hackneyed order of fruit to belong to, I am not even original—ugh! I am inclined to think if I were a downright bad woman, who had sinned, sinned solidly, and all for love—I wish to Heaven I could get the feelings of one of them just for five minutes, to understand this temptation which to me is so utterly incomprehensible—Well, I really think that Humphrey would do better to marry a woman of this 65sort than me. It has come to a pretty pass when I—I, Gwen Waring, have taken to envying that sort of person!”
She raised her head, got to her feet, and went down and played for an hour, then she went out and walked, walked, walked, till she hadn’t a leg to stand on, and could no more think than she could fly.
About a week before his marriage, Strange ran up to London for a couple of days, but even to Gwen he did not specify the nature of his business, which altogether concerned Brydon’s launching in life.
When he reached the studio, he found things looking pretty bad. Like many a better man, if his Art didn’t drive him Brydon couldn’t drive his Art; besides, his health was below par, there were days 66and days when he couldn’t so much as paint a potboiler, then he starved.
He was learning Italian just now, to solace himself. Strange perceived, however, that the soft vowels hardly appealed to an empty stomach. Brydon was a haggard and distressful object, sitting with Dante on the table before him, smoking cheap tobacco, and with the ghastly beginning of a sketch crying shame on him from every corner.
“Goodness, how outrageously jolly you look! Is it engagement or ten thousand a year?”
“Oh, I’m all right, which is more than you look! Taken to shag, I see—well, I can stomach a lot, but not that. Would you mind chucking that pipe somewhere where it won’t smell, and try some of my stuff, 67just to oblige me? Overheated Arab and shag are the two stinks I draw the line at. Hallo!” he remarked, looking at one of the sketches.
“I am taking a holiday.”
He was going on to lie a little—but with a shrug he changed his course.
“I have to, as a matter of fact. I can’t paint, I’ve lost the way—do you ever forget the way to write?” he asked.
“Do I? The deuce I do! We all do at times, then we feel like throat-cutting or ‘Rough on Rats.’ However, I came on business. I have some spare cash and I want to invest it, and on looking round I have come to the conclusion you would be rather a good thing to put some of it into.”
“Yes, even your beastliest daubs have something in them that saves their souls. One has to look more than once at everything you do, even if it is only to swear at it. You have capacity somewhere about you, wherever you hide it—as for drawing, you don’t know the beginnings of it! But what’s that? You can learn, it’s a mere question of swatting. If I had any doubt of your success, I wouldn’t be here to-day. I never on principle put a penny into a rotten concern, and I am here to make you a definite distinct offer, as binding on you as on me. I will defray your expenses in Paris for three years, I will give you enough to learn under the best men, and to live decently, not a farthing more,—don’t speak yet!—”
69Brydon had jumped up rather wildly.
“Wait till you hear all about it—your conditions are pretty hard. In case you should die during your apprenticeship—the best of us are liable to that contingency—I shall insist on you insuring your life for an amount equivalent to that I lay out on you. If you live (the best thing you can do under the circumstances), you shall pay me back principal and interest in a given term of years, say fifteen, after you begin to sell.”
Brydon threw himself down into his chair and buried his head in his hands, a limited diet of bread and mustard had taken the starch out of him. He was soft, and his eyes were brimful of tears, he was young too, and nearly burst in his efforts to bolt them, then he lifted 70his head from his hands and began precipitately,
“You have given me the chance of a career, you put the world within reach of me, you trust me down to the ground, all in one breath. Look here!”
For one minute he was about to throw back the salvation waiting under his nose with most laudable self-respect, but he looked at Strange and his heart got soft again.
“I’d black your boots for you, why shouldn’t I be dependent on you? I’ll take your offer, and—and—and—”
“I told you the conditions, I shall stick to them, we don’t thank one another or get emotional in these transactions, I mean to have my money back, principal and interest, my full pound of flesh. I’m 71doing a trade with you—take it or leave it, as you like.”
“Do you know I’d die for you?” cried Brydon, in a burst of low-diet mawkishness.
“Die, before you’ve paid in a penny of your premium! If we can come to terms off-hand, I should like to finish up the matter at once, and start for my lawyer’s.”
Brydon got up without a word, and began to make himself decent with shaking hands. At last he found safety in a wild burst of gaiety and by the time he had his best coat on, he was bubbling over with a nervous gentle sort of fun peculiar to his kind.
When they were going downstairs he stopped, and remarked in a soft deprecatory sort of way,
“I say! I believe my heart’s next to 72gone. Three goes of rheumatic fever leaves that part of a fellow not worth mentioning. Won’t that make the premium pretty stiff?”
“Probably, I never thought of that. However, it’s you will have to pay the piper, not I.”
“You’re an artist in conferring favours—”
“Oh, for Heaven’s sake, stow that!”
“I wouldn’t take your offer, by Jove! I wouldn’t, but that I mean to repay you.”
“But I’ve already taken good care of that!”
“The money isn’t everything,” said Brydon impatiently, “there is such a thing as being proud of a fellow you’ve made, of valuing your own creation—”
“All that comes in the contract, the sense of moral elevation it gives one to 73run a successful concern, even if it’s only an artist, pleases the carnal mind. There was only the choice between you and a patent medicine, I’d have gone for that but that I heard at the last moment that peppermint was the active principle in its manufacture—I draw the line at peppermint—and you were the only alternative. And look here, old man—But, good Lord! See that child there? Which is more human, the child’s face or the monkey’s on the organ? Upon my word, the imp scores off the beast only in the matter of cheek pouch. Gru! how it hangs!”
“You always see the beastliest details! Couldn’t you keep them to yourself! I shall dream of that child for a week.”
“And yet you devour Zola? I had 74begun something, what was it? Oh,—if I were you I should walk gingerly as soon as you strike Paris pavement; there is something in it that drives fellows mad. London is a fool to it! It’s a bad investment for any man, but it would spoil your work for a twelvemonth, if it didn’t give me my premium sooner than I want it. That weak heart of yours, Charlie, if you work the thing properly, should be as good as a family chaplain to you, and it isn’t every man that can boast of as much.”
“Talk of utilitarianism,” sighed Brydon, “it is to be a struggle, then, between my natural instincts and my game heart. I wonder which will win?”
When Gwen was dressing for her wedding, it never somehow struck her mother to go to her room, and Gwen had herself given an absolute command that no one should ask her to do so. She made no remark at all on the subject when she did not come, but she insisted on going to the church in the carriage with Mrs. Fellowes.
It was useless to oppose her, she was like adamant on this point, which set Dacre 76swearing like mad. She was white and silent as they drove off. Mrs. Fellowes was silent too, and rather whiter, but she daren’t show any feeling; they were on the brink of a general upheaval, and her whole energy must be concentrated to ward it off.
Gwen felt her situation with such cruel intensity, that even to herself she had to pretend to a total stony indifference, but when they got to the gates she sighed and stirred softly and put out her hand with unaccustomed wistfulness and laid it on Mrs. Fellowes. It was cold and stiff. Mrs. Fellowes rubbed it gently between hers and laid it lovingly against her cheek, and kept in her tears, she dared not speak.
“God help her, God help her, and God 77help Humphrey!” she kept repeating to herself in a sort of childish entreaty.
“Gwen,” she said at last, “you must not look like this when Humphrey sees you. Gwen, my darling, you have nothing to fear with such a man!”
“Do you think I fear him? I thought you would have known better, it is myself I fear.”
“Yourself is a bogie you have set up, Gwen, Humphrey will soon demolish that!”
“I wish I felt sure of it. I wish I felt sure of anything. Upon my word, Mrs. Fellowes, upon my word, I wish from the bottom of my soul I could say with any decent show of honesty, God help us, Humphrey and me! But God never felt so unreal, such a mere bubble to please fools, as He does at this minute—Don’t, 78don’t exclaim, or protest, or be shocked—not to-day, my wedding day, and such a brilliant match, too!” she added laughing. “Ah, well! I won’t hurt you, we’ll leave that part.—My father is to go through the farce of bringing me up to the altar, is he not?” she asked, thrusting all trace of emotion from her face and sitting up straight.
“If you don’t keep a very sharp eye on him he is sure to do something quite unique. If one could only wind him up and touch springs at intervals! one can’t unfortunately, and I feel sure I shall be made ridiculous. Your eye must get off him now and again, so I suppose I may as well accustom myself to the thought,” she went on with a shrug, “and resolve to swallow the whole hog 79without grimacing, but I do so loathe being made to look like a fool. Are we here? Oh, my flowers! The children have them perhaps? Yes, look!”
As she walked up the church, just touching her father’s arm, with Mrs. Fellowes’ two little nieces in white gauze and water lilies, looking like a pair of lilies themselves for softness and cool creaminess, trotting after her, her mother from her chancel pew caught sight of her for the first time.
For a minute she looked dazed and frightened, then suddenly with a broken smothered cry, she leaned forward and threw out both her hands to her daughter, two big tears in her eyes, and her face tremulous with a great joy that was pain.
Mrs. Fellowes saw it, it was intensely 80pathetic to her and a revelation. She had at last, at the end of all these years, seen a glimpse of this small, golden-headed creature’s motherhood—after all she was really human! She hurried up, sat down beside her, and gently brought her back to herself. Then with one of Mrs. Waring’s hands caught in hers, as if she had been a child, she looked at Gwen, and wondered how on earth any girl with a stone for a heart could look as divine as she did. She looked round the church, and every man, woman, and child was worshipping her in audible silence. There was not a whisper, not a joke, not a smile.
As soon as the cake was cut, Gwen went away to dress. As she passed Mrs. Fellowes she whispered,
81“Will you help me? I want to speak to you.—Mary, Mrs. Fellowes will help me to dress, and please don’t cry,” she said wearily, “I shall see you often, and—really, I have given you no very special reason to cry for me.”
She half laughed, then she stooped and kissed the old woman’s cheek.
“You have always been so good to me, come and see me before I go.”
When Mary had disappeared, choking, Gwen turned to the glass and began to take off her bracelets.
“Sit down and let me take off your wreath,” said Mrs. Fellowes.
“I wish I had done as Mr. Fellowes suggested,” said Gwen at last, playing with a diamond dagger that Strange had given her, “and looked through that 82marriage service; it is a degrading thing to lie as I have done to-day. I might have been any common-minded vulgar woman perjuring myself for a settlement. You see, I am marrying as a sort of experiment!—Oh, don’t, you gave my hair an awful pull!—Humphrey knows it, but I didn’t realize that I should actually have to swear to a lie—no experiment is worth that. I have put myself in a false position,” she continued, stirring irritably, “from having told those miserable blatant lies. I was never at a wedding in my life in the church, I always managed to escape that part, and I really never thought of the words, ‘love, honour, and obey,’ in any solemn, binding, personal connection. On the whole, it is a pity for women not to have been reared on Bibles and 83Prayer-books, it might keep them from some pitfalls, and no doubt the ordinary mother is useful too, in such cases.”
Mrs. Fellowes’ heart quivered painfully, and her hands trembled as she twisted up a coil of Gwen’s hair that had come loose. She had suspected the truth very early in the day, but all through her short engagement Gwen had kept both her and the Rector at arm’s length.
“When I found out what I really was in for,” went on Gwen, “it was too late to draw back—no, it wasn’t!” she cried, “the habit of lies is growing on me, but then I was ashamed, too much of a coward.”
“This is very sad,” said Mrs. Fellowes at last, “it is so sad, dear, that one can 84hardly speak of it. No woman has the right to try experiments, to play pranks with hearts and souls. You deserve—ah, what a brute I am! I have no right to scold you, my poor Gwen, you’ll have to pay dearly enough for your play. You will know some day what you have done,” said she, laying her soft warm cheek down on the girl’s head in the caressing way she had when Gwen was a child, “then you will suffer, ah, child, how you will suffer! But it is Humphrey one feels for now. Gwen, you must not let him feel you are so far from loving him.”
“He knows. You don’t suppose I lied to him?”
“He knows in a way, but he doesn’t realize the knowledge, nor does he quite 85know the material he has to work on, or how the twist came into the warp and woof of it. Gwen, don’t let your horrid truthfulness make you cruel, be patient, dearest, be patient, this love won’t come like a shock, it will steal in on you, and I am perfectly convinced your first impulse will be to kick it out.”
Gwen gave a little laugh.
Mrs. Fellowes dropped the brooch with which she was going to fasten Gwen’s collar, went a few steps away, and looked at her.
“Humphrey knows precious little about you,” she cried, with some natural irritation, “he is dazed, small blame to him! so am I, so is John, we are all dazed.”
Her eyes filled suddenly with tears.
86“We all pour out our love on you, and—and for what? Just for a cold ghost of a thing, for mere hope—hope, what good is that to any man? Now, look here, Gwen, don’t let Humphrey know this, naked truth though it be. There is no lie in the matter, you can love, darling, you can, ’tis only the learning that is the trouble for you, but I have a horrid hateful presentiment, in spite of all I can say, that your most objectionable direct methods will run you into deplorable difficulties.”
“Truth is tangible, even if it is brutal,” said Gwen, “but love—love—love, this intangible vague horror, why should I be persecuted with it, why should I realize now that, vague as the thing is, it is sacred, and a sort of crime of a very low 87order to be incapable of it? I got as far as that in church to-day with all those glaring faces on me, and Mr. Fellowes’ eyes—he has no right to look through people like that!”
She turned away to hide the crimson in her cheeks.
“Then this one-flesh business, this is a horrid thing.”
She squeezed her hands into her eyes.
“This is maddening!” she cried, and sprang up and stood looking out of the window.
“One flesh!” she murmured breathlessly, “One flesh!”
Presently she shook herself, and with a long sigh brought the calmness back into her face, then she went and put her two hands on Mrs. Fellowes’ shoulders and 88looked down on the sad face with a little laugh.
“Look here!” she said, “advise every girl you care about not to try experiments in marriage, and to read the marriage service with the man she is engaged to standing opposite to her, before she dares to quote from it in church before all the rag-tag and bobtail of society. And now, give me my hat and kiss me, you don’t know how much a part of my life your love for me is, even though it is fed on hope only, and—I shall try to be honest to myself without any flagrant brutality to Humphrey,” she said laughing, “I think that is all I can promise just yet. Ah, what a lovely scheme of colour!” she cried, looking at her superb figure, in its dusty-amethyst gown with the flashes of lemon-yellow in it.
89“Do you think my father and mother are awake to the fact that I am married to-day?” she demanded.
“If you had heard your mother’s cry when she saw you go up the aisle, and had seen her face—as long as I live I shall never forget either!—you would have no need to ask such a question,” said Mrs. Fellowes, with gentle gravity.
“I thought she looked rather different from usual, and I fancied my father’s arm trembled when I held it. So—so!” she said with a half-mocking smile as she fastened the top button of her glove, “so marriage is so solemn and sacred a subject that it has actually touched the human part of those two people! Ah, Mary, here I am, ready for my new life—do you like me? The outside is satisfactory, 90is it not? It is quite pleasant to feel so like a whited sepulchre!” she said to Mrs. Fellowes as they went down the stairs, “it excites me.”
When the two drove away on the first stage of their experiment, Mr. and Mrs. Waring, the Rector and Mrs. Fellowes, Dacre and a few others stood watching them from the great stone steps of the hall.
Mrs. Fellowes was reflecting with mixed feelings on Gwen’s good-bye to her mother, which by chance she had witnessed. The girl had already, in the face of everyone, 92bidden her a quiet and emotionless farewell, but just at the last she had swept round suddenly, as if she were driven, and had caught the little dazed creature—a deal too young to be her mother—in her arms, and had given her an imperative hug of the volcanic order. As it was a first experience, no one could blame the little woman from shrinking visibly from it, and, when it was over, for escaping with a sigh to the side of her husband, and slipping her hand into his with the air of one who has escaped a danger. Gwen allowed one flash of angry pain to shoot from her eyes, then she walked grandly out of the house with her hand quite properly on her father’s arm, which Dacre took good care to have in readiness.
93“Dacre!” said Mrs. Fellowes, as soon as they were well off, “we must get rid of these people. I am sure we have all done our duty by them, and your father and mother have, very obviously, had enough of them.”
“I am ready to swear that Admiral Trowe has had a good sight too much of the governor. He has been hammering into him the life and blow-up of that gray rock at Henty’s they are always grubbing at, for a solid ten minutes. Now he’s on selection, and the Admiral has murder in his eye—look!”
“Yes, and your mother, see how tired she looks! She is telling Mrs. Irvine the most wonderful new facts about babies. Mrs. Irvine has ten, two sets of twins among them, and she is the champion 94mother of the parish. Dacre, you cover one wing, I shall manœuvre the other, there’s not a minute to lose.”
In next to no time they had cleared the field, and Mr. and Mrs. Fellowes were just about to say good-bye and to carry Dacre off to dinner, when to their amazement, after a hurried consultation, Mr. and Mrs. Waring begged them to stay, and drew them into the library, utterly ignoring the furious Dacre, who betook himself, softly swearing, to the stables, where he wandered disconsolately, scathing the screws that lumbered the stalls and thanking God lustily that his stud was elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Mr. and Mrs. Fellowes were closeted together in the library. While the other two looked silently and questioningly at one another Mrs. Fellowes 95telegraphed despairing signals to her husband.
“It has been a most wearing day,” said Mr. Waring at last, “I feared my wife would break down under the strain. No doubt you felt it too?” he went on with his brows raised, looking concernedly at his guests. “I thought, my dear,” and he pressed her hand, “I thought, my dear, that our daughter Gwen bore it admirably, the girl appears to have much courage, the courage of your race, my love.”
He beamed softly down on her, and paused for an unconscionable time, then suddenly he remembered himself and started.
“Our daughter Gwen is a very beautiful person,” he went on, musing aloud. “I do not think I ever noticed the fact until lately, until that night she went to some—h’m—party 96with Lady Mary. Dearest, do you recollect?”
“Perfectly,” said Mrs. Waring, getting a shade paler, and with a troubled look in her eyes, “you saw her, Mrs. Fellowes,” she said with sudden eagerness, “that night?”
“I did indeed, Gwen’s beauty was a shock to me. But I didn’t know—that is, I thought you were busy.”
“Ah yes, very busy, I remember, but we came out to see Gwen, she was on the stairs, and we got no farther than the door, the lamplight shone on her and cast soft strange lovely shadows on her white silk—it was silk, was it not, Mrs. Fellowes?”—She nodded. “And her arms and neck were like—down—”
“Snow,” murmured her husband.
97“No, dear, they looked too warm for that, and her face! We were, I think, a little frightened at its beauty.”
She gave a little shy laugh.
“We should have come out, but just then I do not think I could have spoken. My husband thought I was not very well and he brought me back—Henry spoils me, Mrs. Fellowes—but to-day I shall never forget Gwen’s look, never!” and her small face got still one shade whiter.
She tried to say something but she only made a little husky noise, she turned to Mrs. Fellowes and tried again.
“You know Gwen,” she said faintly, “do you think she was happy to-day, as a bride should be?”
Mrs. Fellowes looked keenly at her and turned to her husband.
98“Mrs. Waring must lie down, she is worn out,” she said.
He made ready the sofa and drew the trembling small creature down on it.
Mr. Waring yielded her up with a disturbed and astonished gaze, and stood aside contemplating events patiently.
“Henry,” she said softly, after resting silently for a minute, “ask Mrs. Fellowes what we want to know—tell her our—our fears.”
He came over and laid his hand on her sunny head, that time seemed to have quite forgotten.
“My dear friends,” he said solemnly, “my wife and I are in some perplexity. The fact is—h’m—we have never, so to speak, known much of our daughter Gwen, she is a difficult person to know. From 99time to time we have attempted to gain some nearer knowledge of her, but she—ahem—in fact, did not seem inclined to encourage our advances. From her very babyhood,” he went on more fluently, “the girl has interested us very keenly, she has been quite a study to us, but I regret to say we have never arrived at any very definite conclusions about her, we have never quite understood her.”
“Never!” said Mrs. Waring, suddenly bending towards Mrs. Fellowes, with a look very like terror in her face.
“Of course you more than I, dear,” said Mr. Waring, “you have your woman’s instincts to guide you, and they, as a rule, are trustworthy.”
“I have never known Gwen,” said she, with very unusual decision.
100“What is your opinion on this matter?” said Mr. Waring, turning to Mr. Fellowes, “you know our daughter.”
It was all cruelly pathetic, his voice, and his face, and his gesture, and the strained hopeless look in his small wife’s eyes.
“Gwen is not ready yet for complete happiness,” said Mr. Fellowes; “when she is, it will come to her in full measure.”
“But—she is a person of intelligence and what is called grown-up,” said Mr. Waring anxiously, “and very perfect in her development—outwardly,” he added, a doubtful look fleeting across his face.
“Yes, to look at, she is perfect, but does it not strike you,” said Mrs. Fellowes slowly, “that much of Gwen’s womanhood is still elemental? Do you not think that some 101of her senses are also still in that condition?”
“Ah!” murmured Mr. Waring, looking sadly down on his wife, “Ah! I have thought, I have feared this. I cannot see in our daughter Gwen a complete creature, but I thought, knowing so little of women as I do, that I might be mistaken. Do you hope for ultimate completeness in our daughter?” he asked suddenly, watching curiously for the answer.
The Rector’s superior knowledge of Gwen had fixed him very uncomfortably on a pedestal, there was no getting off it just yet, he had to make the best of the situation.
“Indeed I do, no half development will content Gwen when she learns her deficiencies, nor her husband either.”
“These elements then may develop to 102ultimate greatness or wither and die—to reappear, of course, in some form or other. But to disappear from our knowledge untimely! Ah! that would be sad waste. We will hope it may not occur. Do you happen to know if her husband looks on our daughter as we do, in relation to her ultimate possibilities of development, or if he has chosen her for the thing she looks—a most beautiful and finished young woman of fair intelligence?”
“I am quite sure that Strange loves Gwen strongly and truly,” began Mr. Fellowes evasively.
It was a difficult subject to thrash out thoroughly with this wonderful pair, it might be better to let it fade gradually from their minds, and to aid them to glide back into their own still waters.
103“Yes, but on what grounds?” went on Mr. Waring with strange persistence.
“Have you ever spoken to Strange himself on the subject?” asked Mr. Fellowes.
“Ahem, no. In fact, under like circumstances,” he reddened and coughed a little, “I should myself have resented any attempt of such nature. No, I did not put any questions to Strange. But will you not favour us with an opinion, you, who know our daughter so well?”
“I think that, in a measure, Strange knows what he is about, and we are bound to trust his judgment. It would be folly to suppose that he sees the entire truth clearly, he is under the usual conditions of a man in love. Gwen dominates him 104as she does even us old married people, hearts and brains will always fall before our Gwen.”
“What is the entire truth?” said Mrs. Waring, pushing her hair back and sitting up.
“The truth as it strikes me,” said Mr. Fellowes very gently, “is, that Gwen is at present incapable of loving.”
“You refer—ahem, to that phase of the emotion known as sexual love?” said Mr. Waring hurriedly.
“Or of any other yet.”
“I knew it, we both knew it, but it was hard to speak out,” murmured Mrs. Waring sadly.
“She was in no way constrained,” said Mr. Waring in a frightened way.
His wife sat still with sad wide eyes.
105“It seems a reasonless thing in one in Gwen’s position,” he went on with a fine touch of pride, “to marry without love. I know such things do happen now and again with young portionless women—women have a feline craving for soft living and pretty things, but our daughter Gwen—ah!”
“I thought all this, I knew it,” said Mrs. Waring quietly, “I wished so often to ask Gwen definitely for the truth, but I did not seem able to do so, I wish now I had.”
Mrs. Fellowes put her hands tenderly on her shoulders and made her lie down again.
“She will love, she will be happy!” she whispered softly, “she is in good hands.”
“Too soon, too soon!” murmured the 106mother, “she should be in mine still. But they never held her. She should be happy now, now,” she cried with sudden passion, her voice still in soft minors, “not in the future! Why should she have to reach her happiness and her love ‘through much tribulation’? It should come by divine right. She is so strong, she will suffer strongly, she is so strong that when passion comes to her it will tear her, torture her, break her to pieces! Henry, Henry,” she gasped, “we are to blame, we have failed miserably! We never had any right to have children. While we have been worrying over the dry fossils of the past we have allowed the living—the young—to wither around us. Ah, how sad it all is, how sad!” she sighed, “how sad!”
107The Rector came and put his hand on his wife’s shoulder softly. He well knew how awful this too-late awakening of the other woman’s motherhood was to her, with her own so terribly, persistently wide-awake and alive with the throbbing of unsatisfied pain.
There was nothing further to be said, nothing, altogether unsatisfactory as everything was. Mr. Fellowes felt this and said in his bright frank way.
“We are all very tired, and you—” he said, turning to his wife, “you are frightfully washed out! And, good gracious! Dacre is waiting all this time!”
To her own intense amazement, Mrs. Fellowes stooped down and gave Mrs. Waring a kiss.
108The other’s tremor went through her like an electric shock and she did not get over it for the rest of the evening.
The day after the wedding Dacre decided to depart in rather indecent haste. The situation was too much for him.
All the morning he had been receiving a succession of small shocks, but some time after lunch he experienced an awful one. He caught his mother’s eyes fixed on him with such a dumb yearning as would have upset a rhinoceros, not to say Dacre, and he could have sworn 110to two tears that gathered in them and were as suddenly dried up. He blushed furiously and fled, in a terrible access of shyness, to the Rectory, where he astonished Mrs. Fellowes by the heat of his countenance and his greedy consumption of tea.
“Good gracious!” she thought, “is he in love—Dacre?”
She took up her cup, and gulping down her tea in rather an hysterical way, she watched him over the edge of it.
“The colour, and the stutter, and that awful thirst, they are all deadly symptoms. On the contrary, the amount of cake he swallows goes against it. What can it be anyway? Mercy! Can’t he hurry? I feel worn out between them all.”
111Presently Dacre recovered a little and began to talk in a desultory way, saying a vast number of things he didn’t want to say, but on the whole lucidly enough.
Mrs. Fellowes pricked up her ears and grew keen all over, she got for her pains little direct information but, with a previous experience of the family, enough to go on.
“Worse than lovers!” she thought ruefully, “poor little woman! All the same, I am not the least surprised he wants to clear—he ought to stay though!”
“Dacre, your mother will miss Gwen more than any of us think, you have no idea how upsetting a wedding is, you might come in very useful just now. Won’t the regiment survive if you stay down for a few days?”
112Dacre wriggled on his seat.
“Mrs. Fellowes, I have to go back, it is absolutely imperative.”
She laughed. “So it seems by the look of you!”
“Look at that big fellow!” she thought, “who fears neither man, death, nor devil, nor God much to speak of, routed by one flash of feeling from an unexpected quarter. The creatures can’t stand the unexpected at all, they are intrinsically conventional! If that fool had a glimmer of sense in him, he would have given the poor little woman a hug, and have let her have a comfortable easy howl for once in her life. I suppose she is doing problems with the old fossil in the library instead.”
Dacre felt his size frightfully, and began to contrast it mentally with the Sevres 113cup in his hand. He set it down, and towering huge above Mrs. Fellowes, delivered himself of another solemn asseveration as to the impossibility of staying one day longer.
“My dear boy, I am quite convinced,” she said, “if you did, your country must infallibly burst up.”
“Mrs. Fellowes, that isn’t fair!”
“No more it is! Sit down, Dacre, I have to shout to make my voice reach you up there, and yours comes down on me like a thousand bricks. What do you want me to do?”
He gave a sigh of relief and settled down comfortably.
“I want you to go and see her, and—oh, you know best then what to do. Don’t you think—I don’t know, 114but perhaps if you were to take her out for a walk or something.—Oh, good-bye, Mrs. Fellowes, and thanks, thanks, most awfully!”
Mrs. Fellowes watched him swing along down the drive, then pull up with a jerk to speak to her husband who was coming up, then swing off again out of sight.
“Poor old Dacre! But why didn’t he kiss her, the fool? I suppose he wasn’t ‘game’.”
She put some fresh tea into the pot and set her kettle on the little spirit lamp to boil up.
“Has Dacre been making you a declaration of unlawful love?” said the Rector when he came in. “He had precisely that air.”
“Worse than that a thousand times. His 115mother looked like crying, and was on the point of breaking out into sudden and condign maternal affection. Dacre fled incontinently. He is going to make a precipitate retreat to his regiment, and he came to plant me in the breach. The longer one lives, the less one thinks of the courage of your sex.”
“Want of experience makes cowards of us all. You couldn’t expect the fellow to face the unknown!”
“That’s it, you are all tarred with the same brush, you must have brutal sight to steady your nerves. Now, we——”
“You! You, my love, have intuition. Besides, there is a quotation that might apply, ‘fools rush in—’”
“Do drink your tea, and don’t try to be funny, I feel awful.”
116“I feel rather off myself, I have just been at the Park.”
“Oh, oh! What were they at?”
“Waring was lost in some new speculation, his wife was lost in a bad dream. I suppose this late awakening of her nature is good for her, but it seems cruel. It hurts one to see her suffer in that still, patient way of hers, and it will play the deuce with Waring’s way of life if it goes on. It wasn’t nature, of course, but that absolute oneness of their life was a beautiful thing to watch, and quite unique. I suppose I ought to be glad that it has received this check, but I’m not.”
“Then you ought to be ashamed of yourself for wanting to perpetuate such a life—have you forgotten Gwen’s face?”
“Shall I ever forget it, Ruth? But 117anything absolutely unusual in a sober married couple, and in a Midland parish on a clay soil, the carnal mind will cling to like any burr. Let us put the moralities aside for a moment and consider the subject with the pagan mind. What would outside life be to you or to me in these smug levels, except for that delicious pair of maniacs? We both know how stodgy undiluted duty grows, how one’s feet stick and stumble in it, faithfully as one tries to keep one’s eyes on the ‘everlasting hills’; how dreary and hopeless work often seems in scattered districts, with neither abject poverty nor active crime to fight against, to raise and keep alive in one the inspiring battle greed. But to be obliged to face a level life daily; to spend one’s soul in trying to raise sodden dough; 118to galvanize half-dead things, heavy, dull, sullen hearts, neither hot nor cold, desiring neither good nor evil, knowing neither tears nor laughter, but slogging on to the grave in dreadful patience! And, in spite of exceptions, this is the life of dozens of country parsons, only we hold our tongues about it, or else we hunt and fatten ourselves, or we have big families to blunt our feelings.”
“John, what’s wrong?” she said.
He stroked her hair softly.
“Nothing except myself, I suppose. You know I was at the Low Church Meeting yesterday, and the fellows tried me, some of them are so intense as regards food—that isn’t so indecent as haste, however. In the hurry to gobble his brown soup that he might have a 119go at the white, Lang nearly choked himself. Then it went against one to see how they swallowed syrupy port, one could feel the saccharine sediment on one’s tongue, it showed somehow a defective development. Then when gossip, chiefly concerning the gone-astray young women of the neighbourhood set in, they grew so keen on their subject, that three of them fairly spluttered. When this course was removed and religion brought on, one seemed to get a blow at every turn, the meat and the drink had got into our souls and it came out in our speech.
“It looks well for me, little woman, me, a middle-aged country parson, with a fat parish, and reputed sane; but I would give it all, and my eyes into the bargain, to be in the thick of 120the turmoil—I don’t care a rap where, London holds no talisman for me any more than any other big centre—where men teem and life lives, for it seems even better to live in pain than to doze in apathy. Ah! if only my brutal health would have stood it!”
“Poor John, how the old sore will break out!” she said tenderly, with a short, dry little sob, “and I too, I would give it all, and my eyes to boot, if I had just one little child.—And Mrs. Waring, up there in her fine house, would give it all if she could only grasp her lost motherhood. Two old sores and a new!
“After all,” she added, “when all’s said and done, we are no worse off than our neighbours. None of us, it seems to me, get any more than the rags and 121fragments of their hearts’ desires, and yet we all manage to make life jolly on them. We do, John,” she said, with a gay little laugh.—It was wonderful how she managed it with her heart quivering.—“Look in my face and say we do!”
He looked in her face, and he kissed her.
When Strange set out on his honeymoon, it was with a distinct project simmering in his brain. He meditated a good three months’ loiter through the byways of the Tyrol, on into Switzerland, and then home through the towns of the Netherlands, and all by routes best known to himself.
It becomes, however, a moral impossibility for a man to loiter with any comfort by the side of a new-made wife, into whose 123very bones and marrow the spirit of unrest has crept, and so, by intangible gradations the loiter had developed into a tumultuous forging on.
Gwen seemed possessed by a very dignified and quite calm-seeming devil; he was a gentlemanly creature and made no untoward fuss or excitement, but movement he must have, he dared not rest.
In spite of herself, Gwen found growing in her from the very day of her marriage, a craving, full of subdued fierceness, to be in the very middle of the hurly-burly, no matter whether it raged in a fashionable hotel, or, in the market-place of a country town. She had, besides, other uncomfortable ways. In valleys, where the sun shone and the wind rested, and where ordinary 124mortals were bathed in a soft entrancement of delight, she seemed to lose half her life.
On the contrary, she lived, her voice regained its timbre, her eyes shone, her mouth laughed, her very hair sparkled with vitality, as soon as ever she got high on a mountain—the bleaker and harsher the better.
One day they had climbed to the top of the D’Auburg, a dour-looking mountain in the Tyrol generally avoided of tourists, but for some reason Gwen took it into her head to ascend it.
She now sat glowing and tingling with radiant health, leaning up against a rock that sheltered her from the blast that was screeching across the ledge of the mountain. She looked as cool, and as beautiful and 125unruffled, as if she had just dropped from the clouds, instead of climbing up to them by a most villainous path. There was always a sort of exotic splendour about her, and yet she never seemed out of place.
“Are you never tired?” said her husband, as he was pouring some wine into a little silver cup.
“Never! I don’t remember ever once having been tired.”
“Looked at from the carnal mind of a chaperon, that was rather a nuisance, wasn’t it?”
“It was; Lady Mary suffered a good deal from it. I used to try to accommodate myself to her in this matter and to look tired, but I never could manage it.”
“Have another sandwich?”
126She went on in a reflective way as she ate it,
“It is a wretched thing generally, for a woman to be absolutely untireable. A very strong woman is docked of half the privileges of her sex. If you notice the stock devoted husband, he has always a sickly creature of a wife to devote himself to—or one that poses as sickly—or if her body isn’t sickly, her brain is. You hardly ever find a woman quite sound in wind and limb and intellect, with an absolutely unselfish husband, ready to think all things for her, and to dance attendance on her to all eternity. Helplessness is such supreme flattery. I tell you, the modern man doesn’t like intellect any more than his fathers before him did, if it comes home too much to him.”
127“No! Sickliness and softness of brain don’t, however, appeal equally to all men.”
“I suppose not; but the things they carry in their train do. The parasitical, gracious, leaning ways, the touch of pathos and pleading,—those are the things I should look for if I were a man, they charm me infinitely. Then that lovely craving for sympathy, and that delicious feeling of insecurity they float in, which makes the touch of strong hands a Heaven-sent boon to them—those women, you see, strew incense in your path and they get it back in service. When one hears of a devoted couple and is called on to admire with bated breath, I never can till I have dug out the reason of this devotion. I hate sticking up people on pinnacles, and then 128having to knock them down like a pair of nine-pins.”
“Hero worship isn’t your tap evidently, but if one makes a principle of never smelling a flower or eating fruit until one has ascertained the manure used in its growth, one gets put off a lot. By the way, I haven’t noticed any marked symptoms of mental or physical decay in you, and yet, God knows and can possibly score up the number of your lovers—they certainly were beyond all human computation.”
She flashed a quick untranslatable look at him and smiled.
“My lovers? They weren’t lovers at all, they were explorers, experimental philosophers. They had the same strong yearning for me that a botanist has 129for a blue chrysanthemum or a yellow aster. If a man could succeed in getting this thing he would go mad over it and put it in the best house in his grounds for all his neighbours and friends to admire, but do you think he would love it like an ordinary sweet red rose that he can gather, and smell, and caress, and bury his nose in, and wear near his heart? Not he!
“Do you think one of these men ever wanted to touch me,” she went on calmly, taking little sips of wine, “or to ruffle the hair round my forehead which is their invariable habit in novels, or to lay his hand on my bare shoulder—they do that, too, I have read—or to clasp me to his breast, the climax to these pretty little customs of theirs? Goodness! 130And imagine my feelings if one had! But they didn’t even want to; and yet they were my slaves, to do with precisely as I liked.
“When I was in the thick of it I thought I could not live without all this, yet it was disappointing on the whole, I believe. I remember wishing now and then that I could flirt like other girls, and make men make palpable fools of themselves for my sake. It looks such a very delightful pastime! I have seen plain girls look positively quite beautiful when engaged in it. The under-current of heaps of girls lives, upon which it seems to me all the rest is built up, is a sort of simmering, unconfessed, vague longing for the sensation of being ‘caught and kissed’, like the little brown maid in the 131old rhyme; not in a general vulgar way, but in a well-bred particular way. It is a quite incomprehensible sensation to me.”
“Probably. It’s natural all the same,” he said looking at her eyes which regarded him curiously, “and Nature is such a vindictive grasping beast it is as well not to run counter to her, or she will have limb for limb.”
“I wonder what limb of mine she will want?”
“Oh you, she’ll trip you up in your own coils somehow! Fill you with an overpowering desire to be ‘caught and kissed’,” he said with a short laugh, “and have no one handy to do it.”
“Oh, then she must make me over again!”
132She stood up and looked down over the gloomy valley.
“What is it to be natural, I wonder? I don’t know.”
“Time will tell you all about it. Now, you want to be down over that precipice? Well, anyway, I am glad you are warranted sound. Come on, my yellow aster!”
They were past the precipice, far down the other side when Gwen spoke again.
“Humphrey,” she said, with a stronger trace of emotion in her voice than he had ever detected there before, “upon my word, I often wish for your sake I was just a good common frowsy red cabbage-rose.”
“Ah, do you?—Well, ‘die Zeit bringt Rosen!’”
About a week later they arrived in Paris. Gwen had never been there before, and her curiosity to see everything was insatiable and unresting.
She often seemed to herself as if she were caught in the whirl of a mad intoxicating race with fate; it was glorious; it stimulated her like a draught of wine; it filled her veins with fire; it was as if the spirit of the world had got into 134her spirit and shot streams of the strength of immortality through all her being.
She was as a god to herself, and fate was as a thing of naught. This was in her times of exaltation however; but even in these early days there came moments of reaction in their due season. Fortunately she knew the symptoms of their approach, and could hide herself away from her husband’s eyes. Her room could tell strange tales whenever Gwen shut herself in and threw up the sponge till the next round.
Then there came shame into that proud face, fear into those fearless eyes, a stoop into those stoopless shoulders. She neither ranted nor raved, she dared not; if she had once raised her voice, she knew quite well she must shriek, and howl 135forth the terror and disgust and dismay with which the possible ending to this race with fate filled her.
Sometimes she would pull off her shoes and stockings, and go barefooted to and fro the length of the long polished floor with its strips of Eastern carpet—the cool slippery surface soothing the fever of her flying feet. Invariably she would pull off her guard and wedding-ring and lay them with curious gentle wistfulness down on the table. Once when she did this, she drew a deep breath, threw out her arms and laughed.
“I am free, free!” she cried, “my body is my own again, and my soul, and my brain! I am myself again, Gwen Waring, a self-respecting creature, with no man’s brand on me—”
136In a few minutes she came back and looked at the golden bands.
“What is the use of lying?” she said, “that mends nothing, and only degrades me. I am not free; whatever happens, whatever could possibly happen, I shall never any more be what I was! Good God! And yet women take marriage as they do a box at the Opera!”
But it was not in the strong nature of her, wholesome what there was of it awake, to lose courage often, and her powers of recuperation were superb. Half an hour after she was striding wildly through the room, she came down as unruffled and more untranslatable than ever, to propose some expedition.
Strange looked at his watch. “Too late for that, suppose we go and see Brydon?”
137“Oh, yes, let us go,” she said eagerly.
He looked at her, and knew all about it.
For a minute he felt an overmastering desire to shake her, and make her eyes speak plain English, he was getting tired of their hieroglyphics. He was buttoning her glove at the time and involuntarily he gave the button a cross twist and twitched it out.
“Oh, hang it, is the glove rotten or are my methods? Will it matter?” he asked.
“Oh, not at all, my sleeve will cover it.”
It was a diabolical lottery altogether, and the soul of the man groaned within him. It was even worse than he had anticipated in the first hot glamour of 138love. He freely confessed this, but he had sworn to himself, in his foolish raptures, that he would face hell for the girl, and he was not the man to eat his words.
They walked to Brydon’s.
Gwen took a great delight in going in and out among the streets, and a shamefaced pleasure in listening to her husband’s stories of every twist and turning in them.
“There is no one like him for a companion!” she often confessed to herself angrily, “no one I know that comes near him. What made me marry him, what? Even this part of him I can’t accept and enjoy without disgust and self-loathing.”
At last they got to the little street 139that Brydon lived in, and climbed to the fourth flat of a tall house.
When Brydon saw Strange he reddened with delight, but when he was presented to Gwen, he paled suddenly and his eyes fell.
“You could have knocked me down with a feather!” he explained afterwards, to his chosen comrade.
It was a superb compliment to her, and her husband laughed as he saw it. And then a queer wonder took hold of him as to the sort of ending this good humoured half-impersonal pride he took in her conquests would have, then this evolved another wonder which dealt with the birth of a strong woman’s passion.
Strange pulled himself up and thrust 140this out of his mind with a rough shove.
“On the whole, what’s the result so far, Charlie?” he asked, when that young man had established his wife in a big cane chair, softening the light from one side and strengthening it from another in a lingering, absorbed way, as with half-closed eyes he furtively drank in the fulness of her beauty.
The question stripped the glamour from him at a rush, he flopped limply down on to a seat.
“If only you hadn’t asked that question for three more months, but now, now, it is cruel! Just imagine a fellow, free all his life to ride his own nag, a sorry jade it might be, but anyway fit enough for him, and his own; just fancy him 141strapped on to a small donkey belonging to another fellow, that it would be more than his life was worth to prod into a gallop, and to have to peg along on this beast week in, week out, along the same old road! Oh Lord, the grind, it’s awful, awful, digging one’s heels into that confounded ass—Oh!—”
He jumped up with a guilty start. “Lady Strange, I beg your pardon, I forget what ladies are like, and Strange is such a comfortable fellow to growl to, bad language slips out before one can catch it, at the very sight of him.”
“Don’t apologize to me, especially if my husband is the cause of your offence,” said Gwen kindly.
She had a fancy to be kind to this boy, if she had confessed it to 142herself, it was with a distinct view of getting to know a side of her husband, that Brydon knew all about and she nothing. She was making a study of him in spite of herself, and liked to collect evidence.
Meantime Strange had been looking carefully through some of Brydon’s sketches, scattered everywhere.
“You’ll draw as well as you colour, old man, and that is more than I ever expected of you. What does Legrun say?”
“He says he’ll say nothing until I have unlearned every cursed mannerism I have picked up in England, that den of bad taste. Then ‘peut-être—who knows?’
“But the fellow rages just as much against his own rapid methods, as he does against those we’ve been born and bred in. How 143dare we think to get an effect with a few strokes like he does, he, who has worked, parbleu! who has sweated, who has prayed, who has blasphemed, who has torn the heart out of his body to arrive at this ease, this divine confidence—‘the head of us should be punched!’ he is great in English. We must take twenty strokes to one of his; we must do with pain, with tears, what is but ‘delices’ to him—details—we must know them as the ‘bon Dieu’ knows them, before we venture to omit or even to suggest one! Then he ups and splutters out some delicious blasphemy on some unwary youth’s head.
“Look at me, the ghost of a creature, stalking mournfully on eggs, with furtive fear in all my lineaments. And this is 144an artist’s training! Good Lord, when I remember how I sat in that garret in Bland Street and thought of fame and myself in a new suit, dancing a war-dance before my masterpiece on the line, with duchesses squabbling for the first shake of my hand!—Lady Strange, I am going to make some tea.”
“I wish you would,” said Gwen laughing, “we walked, and I am so thirsty.”
“Hu!” said Brydon, examining his milk-jug when he had filled his kettle and set it on the little charcoal stove, “every drop gone! I won’t be two minutes. The old lady on the first flat and I are affinities to a certain extent; in return for sundry packets of English tea, she keeps me in milk at odd times. Strange, will you shepherd the kettle?”
145“I wonder if his cups are clean?” said Strange rummaging them out of a cupboard over the stove, “look, an inch thick with dust, and the handles! That fellow moons too much to be very cleanly. Look at the tea-cloth, Lord! Have you a clean handkerchief, Gwen?”
Gwen’s brows contracted slightly. She was a dainty person and unpractical, and teacups in connection with handkerchiefs gave her an uncomfortable feeling of impropriety.
She gave him a handkerchief however, with a small gasp of disgust, and watched his doings with a faint, half-scornful interest.
“How particular you are!” she said, “I had no idea you could trouble yourself about such things.”
146“I can’t stand dirt in man or beast.”
“How did you stand travelling—in Algeria, for example?”
“Ah! there—there were compensations, the game was worth the candle, and if civilization has produced nothing better—give the devil his due—it has produced clean skins and clean eating. I fancy I was originally designed for an inspector of nuisances,” he continued, running Gwen’s lovely morsel of cambric on the end of a pointed stick in and out the handle of a cup.
Gwen noticed with some wonder the curiously delicate way in which he did it, “The thing would have smashed long ago in any other man’s hand,” she thought. “He treats women like that, he is very gentle, but he is the master, he holds 147them in his hand and does as he likes with them. And I have no doubt whatever, that there are at this minute hundreds of women who would like it. Why doesn’t that handle break and cut him—there is no legal bond between them?” This struck her grim sense of humour, and she had to bite her lips to keep in a wild laugh.
“Yes, as a nuisance man I should have been a success,” he went on, “whereas, as a British landowner!” he gave an expressive shrug. “Gwen, how do you think you’ll stand a flat clay country, overrun with woolly-brained squires and their dames and daughters?”
It was a horrid thought. Gwen gave a swift little turn to put it away from her; her dress caught in a stretched canvas 148put up face inwards against the wall, and brought it down with a muffled crash.
Strange came forward to help her put it up, and, with a hand of each of them on it, they paused suddenly and started, and with a quick turn of his hand Strange set it this time face outwards in its place, and looked into it with eager excitement, while Gwen’s face grew cold and still, with a touch of sternness on it.
While they were looking, the door burst open and Brydon came in with the milk and a soft paper parcel—looking like cakes.
“Strange, how did you find it?” he cried, “I never meant you to see it. Lady Strange, it is only a sketch.”
“I beg your pardon,” she said, “my 149dress caught in it and knocked it down, and as we raised it we saw the face, then, I suppose, curiosity did the rest.”
“When did you see my wife, Brydon?” said Strange, still absorbed in the picture.
“In church, the day she was married. I know I should have been in Paris, but I wanted to make this sketch. I want, when I know well enough how to do it,” he said, turning to her humbly, “to make a picture of you, Lady Strange, and to give it to Strange, and this is just the idea for it.”
“I am sure my husband must appreciate your kindness,” she said half absently.
Perhaps she might have put a little more warmth into her voice if she had seen the fallen face of the boy as he turned to look to his kettle. She had, however, 150already more to occupy her than she wanted.
The sketch was a stroke of genius. It was a gracious, graceful girl, standing before the altar in her shimmering marriage robes, in actual flesh and blood, the great soul of a woman shining out from the violet eyes; the tender strength of the mouth, the resolute pose of the rounded chin, the russet gold of the hair—the whole lived and thought. One held one’s breath to catch the regular soft rhythm of hers, the very hand held out for its ring was palpitating with life.
Naturally, the whole thing would have filled the soul of a dilettante with unutterable disgust, being as glaringly full of faults of detail as it well could be, but an artist with half an eye in his head 151would have put all these by in a place by themselves to be dealt with later, and would have gone mad over the truth that remained.
It was the girl’s figure alone that made the picture; the man she stood before, was a mere blur of an idea, as were all the surroundings.
Strange’s eyes, as he watched the woman, were brimful of a terrible joy, and of a more terrible sadness.
As for Gwen, she fell to criticizing the details in a way that made Brydon’s flesh creep on his bones.
“This is not the original sketch,” she said suddenly, stopping short in a sweeping criticism, “I wish you would show us that.”
“It is very bad, you would like it still less than you do this.”
152“I might like it less as a picture, but, as a likeness, more, perhaps. Do show it to me.”
The mere suspicion of entreaty she threw into her voice had never yet been rejected by any man, and soft-hearted Brydon was not going to be the first to run counter to her inclinations, so altogether against his will he pulled the sketch, about half the size of the other one, out from among a number of others, and put it in a good light where she could examine it at her ease.
“Ah!” she said, “yes, that’s me, myself! What induced you to idealize? It was unjust towards me and dishonest to yourself.”
“It was neither, it was prophetic,” said Strange in a low voice only audible to her.
153She glanced at him for a second with curling scornful lips.
“Was it impossible then to make a decent picture of me as I look now?” she asked with a laugh, turning to Brydon, who was blushing furiously and wishing he could swallow himself.
“No fellow living could do justice to you,” he blurted out painfully, “however you may look! but I was trying to paint a bride, and there in that first study you didn’t look just like one—from my own confounded fault, no doubt, so I tried the other.”
“You have certainly succeeded in producing your bride,” she remarked with a curious, absent smile.
To give her her due, she did not know how cruel her own pain made her. Her 154husband did, however; he winced as he put the two sketches side by side to compare them. He had the delicate sensitive respect of most strong men for feelings and other frail nervous things of that sort.
Gwen came and stood beside her husband, and looked from one to the other of the sketches.
“Now in this first one,” she said, “the girl looks as if she were pre-ordained to the rôle of bride; in this other one, as you observe, she does not, but she is me. I am so sorry to disillusion you of your idea.”
“You have not,” said Brydon softly, “only showed her many-sidedness.”
“I can get my wedding dress over,” said Gwen, with a touch of malice about 155her mouth, “shall I, and give you a few sittings in the character of bride?”
“No, thank you, Lady Strange,” said the boy, with admirable coolness, “I shall stick to the ideal for my picture, I will work hard on it. And when it is finished, will you have it, Strange?”
“Will I? The deuce I will! It would be a magnificent present without another stroke of work in it.”
“What will you call it, Humphrey?” asked his wife.
“I shall call it ‘The Incognita’.”
“Mr. Brydon, tea is getting cold all this time, and I am so thirsty,” she said with serene imperiousness, turning from the sketches and going over to the little table. “I hope you are as good at making tea as you are at making brides,” she 156went on mockingly. “Sugar? Yes, please, two lumps, and—galette? How delicious! I do like French cake.”
“Lady Strange, you said you would sit to me as a bride, did you mean it?”
“I did,” she said amusedly.
The ungainly-looking boy with his great saving clauses of eyes and his queer red blushes and open admiration of herself, gave her a sensation of interest.
“Would you sit just once in that dress—or any other you like? You don’t know how good of you it would be.”
“Is it such a boon then when I require such an amount of idealization?”
“Lady Strange!” he murmured reproachfully, with ludicrous woe.
“Ah, well, then, I will sit for you—where—here?”
157“Oh, not here! Did you think I would have the cheek to ask you to climb these steps to sit for me? Anywhere you arrange for me to come.”
“Then come to our hotel, but I know my husband intends to ask you to dine with us to-day so we can then settle the time.”
“Thank you more than awfully!” he cried with most unaffected fervour, “it’s such a boon for a fellow like me to get a lady; we can get more or less colour and lovely flesh, you know, to paint from in the cheap models, but then they are grisette to the very marrow. Besides, it is not safe with Legrun even to experiment on them. We must learn to draw before we go about libelling even models, he says, ‘Poor devils, they have 158enough to put up without that!’ So you can see what an inestimable benefit you are bestowing on me. Strange, do you notice my walls? Not a rag to break the monotony.”
“I do; I thought the sternness of Art had come on you prematurely.”
“No, but Legrun did. I brought all the old rags from the old shop and renewed the stock here, and those four walls were one delicate glimmer of colour, when, as Satan himself arranged it, who should come shambling and blaspheming up the stairs one blessed Sabbath day but Legrun, who insists upon having our addresses. I thought he’d have a fit when he sat down gasping and glaring at the walls. ‘My good lad,’ he roared at last, ‘how old are you?’ ‘Nineteen,’ says I, shaking 159like a jelly fish. ‘I thought you were nine,’ he yelled, ‘and making a doll’s house; clean down that filth, clean it from the decent lime-washed walls that never injured you, and remember—remember, boy, that Art is serious, severe, stern, grave, terrible,’ he shrieked, waving his arms like a maniac, and spitting horribly, ‘it will stand no tricks, no mockings, parbleu! Rags!—Filth!—with the disease shock full in them! Gur! Guz! Hu! Never no more let me see such sights!’ and he raged down the stairs into the street, spitting, and scraping his throat,—he lives in an awful funk of infection,—and so I had to strip off my rags and leave the walls to their native nakedness.”
“You can have your revenge when 160you set up on your own account. Gwen, it is nearly six o’clock.”
“Yes, we must go. We’ll see you at dinner, Mr. Brydon?”
“Will you walk or drive, Gwen?”
“I will drive,” she said, and there was a dull, tired tone in her voice.
Gwen was in an unusual humour this afternoon. She was silent until they got into the fiacre, but directly it moved she began to talk in a swift even way peculiarly her own.
Everything she said had the calm cold brilliancy of steel about it, and she advanced the most dangerously heterodox opinions in a most unimpassioned and frozen style.
162Strange shrugged his shoulders with grim good humour as she went on. He admired her splendid insolence, as any man would have done; all the same, he felt a half frantic longing for that picture-bride and an ever-increasing wonder as to how any woman cast in the same mould, eye for eye, mouth for mouth, dimple for dimple, curve for curve, could so atrociously belie her nature.
Suddenly Gwen veered round and turned the conversation into a personal and analytical channel. She had never done it before, except in her one brief allusion to the yellow aster.
“That boy of yours is a genius, Humphrey, your swan is no goose,” said she, “but, tell me, did I look in the very 163least like that woman, the day you married me?”
He looked at her face of fine scorn.
“Not in the least, except in the matter of form, and colour, and pose. These are you in tangible flesh and blood.”
“What did you mean by your ‘prophetic’?” she demanded, casting pink shadows over her face as she moved the red silk blind slowly to and fro.
“The possibility of your being as she is one day.”
The blind moved a little faster and her hand held it tighter.
“I put it to you as a reasonable man—do you believe in that possibility?”
“As a reasonable man, I do,” said he 164watching the pink shadows playing in her dimples.
“Yes—? And how is this to come to pass?”
“Ah, there you have me!” he said, “I don’t know—possibly God may, or the modern monster, Evolution.”
“Through what processes, I should very much like to know?”
“So should I, but I don’t, you see.”
“She’d feel better if her face flushed like other women’s,” he thought; “it must be ghastly to have to consume all one’s own smoke like that.”
Gwen looked out of the window, laughing softly to herself.
“You look super-humanly cool,” she said, “but this minute your pride is all agog to knead and mould me into that bridal 165creature. It would be a triumph of Art assuredly, and to your credit. I wish you might have the kudos of it—why can’t you—why can’t I help you to, for the life of me?”
There came a rush of calm restrained vehemence into her cold tones that brought them to a sort of white heat. “Why am I not mouldable—or like other women?”
“My good child, you could hardly expect that from the daughter of your father and mother—you are unreasonable!”
“Yes, you are right, I had forgotten them,” she said.
“It is abominable we should be such puppets, not only present chances to play fast and loose with us, but to 166have to dance to the tune of old, ignorant, half-daft ones, that should go and rot in the grave of old failures! Why should they stay and torment us? We have enough of their kind to deal with on our own account. Have you ever read the Bible?”
“Have I ever read the Bible! Do I not know every inch of Syria, and every second inch of Egypt? Yes, I have read the Book, and on its native soil.”
“Perhaps that may suit it, I don’t think ours does. There was one thing, however, I read in it, that took hold of me; you may know it—‘God’s ways are past finding out,’—this seems to me to contain a whole philosophy, capable of universal application, and reaching to the present time.”
167“You are going too fast, my good Gwen; isn’t that rather the philosophy of ignorance? You are arguing from a point you rarely affect—from the point of view of Jewish theology with its strong, and primitive, and mystery-loving methods. God’s ways, after all, if we choose to dig into them are no denser, and are just on the same line as Nature’s. She permits no cause without an effect, or she will very well know the reason why.”
“I wasn’t arguing from any point of view, Jewish or otherwise, I was just applying a theological axiom personally, thinking of parents and other chances.”
“Ah, that’s an idle subject, isn’t it? By the way, you have a sneaking regard yourself for that bridal creature—you admire the woman, don’t you?”
168“Admire her! Yes, as a woman, of course I do. Why, she is—superb! With that mature strong tenderness in every line of her, and that divine protecting patient air of hers—that woman might be a mother of nations.”
Strange started and his mouth twitched suddenly, the blood stopped in his veins and red and blue stars swam before his eyes. Gwen went on unheeding, in her passionless tones—
“That woman is not, however, me. I am a beautiful girl—that, and no more—I contain nothing, I assure you, nothing that could be moulded into that woman.”
“You contain everything,” said her husband slowly, “only the deuce of the matter is, that none of us know where to find it!”
169“No, nor ever will.”
She leant forward so that her breath touched his cheek. “Humphrey, I wish you had never seen that picture! This necessity for idealization is an insult to me and to yourself—you should have had more insight from the beginning.”
“My good child,” he said laughing softly, “I thought the experiment was an avowed fact.”
She drew in her lips sharply, and was silent.
When she spoke again her voice was rather hoarse.
“I have often tried to imagine the things that go to a murder, and I really do think I understand the impulse now. I shall never altogether hate a murderer again. I am glad I know; one feels 170better—more liberal, for every new sensation.”
“And, after all, it was supremely silly,” she went on, “the experiment is two-sided, but you have no idea how infinitely brutal the bald fact sounded.”
“Bald facts mostly do.”
“Well—there is reason even in experiments, and remember, once for all, I am not a dramatic creature given to sudden new developments, I am no emporium for the creation of fresh sensations; here I am, finished and complete.”
“‘Finished and complete!’ Was ever conceit like unto hers! My good girl, you are neither.”
She threw up her head.
171“Well, here I am then, unfinished and incomplete.”
“Ah, but Nature invariably finishes her work if it’s worth the tools.”
“Like Providence shapes our ends,” she sneered with modulated savageness. “Ah, this marriage truly is an experiment! Look at those two at the window—that girl and that man, that stunted creature there! Perhaps he’s an artist. She has a measly look and the man’s nose is awful! They are not a scrap like Browning’s artist and the girl, and yet, I fancy, they think themselves in love with one another—tell the man to stop for a minute!—here, here, at this house—there, do you see the idiotic simpers! Ah, yes, that’s love! And the two will marry, no doubt, on next Shrove Tuesday, but it won’t be an experiment, 172I don’t think either of the pair looks as if he or she went in for observing new phases.”
“They’ll have enough to do to keep the wolf from the door. Perhaps in time, instead of observing new phases they’ll punch one another’s heads if they must have fresh sensations.”
“Is that the usual and orthodox end to being in love—punching the head physically or morally, according to the rank of the lovers?”
“No, the methods vary according to the quality of the love. Have you had enough, shall we drive on?”
“If it’s worth its salt, of course there’s no end.”
“One even continuous stream into the 173ocean of—Nothingness! How appallingly trite and stale—nothing fresh, nothing new!”
“The state has a quite peculiar freshness and newness of its own, I am told, which is perennial—and here we are at the door.”
Gwen dropped quite easily into the ways of her new home, she could generally adapt herself to mere physical conditions, her unnatural unrest and craving for excitement, in the first few weeks of her married life, were, of course, the symptoms of an abnormal mental condition.
So when she had to face the inevitable, and to stay her albatross-flight and betake herself to the domestic roost she 175did it gracefully enough, and if her wings did strain and stretch themselves now and again, till they often came near snapping, and would pull and tug at her as if they wanted to drag the heart out of her body, no one but herself—and one other, who guessed very near to the truth—was any the wiser.
But it was perhaps the unconfessed humdrumness of life when her flight had ceased, that set her off on her new track—that, and her sense of justice, which began to fret and peak in her again, now there was no longer constant outer stir and movement to shut thought’s mouth.
The necessity to touch dogs that will sleep no longer is a hideous one, but it must be dealt with.
When Gwen found this necessity a real 176and absolute one, and no imaginary demand that could be shelved, she faced it, and proceeded to thrash out the ground with an organized exhaustiveness, that was almost brutal in its uncompromising frankness.
She had gone through it all, by bits, in a desultory way, several times since her home-coming. This was unsatisfactory; the matter must be laid out in its full bearings and fundamentally cleared up. But the time to do this was hard to find between callers and calling.
This afternoon she was quite idle, however. Humphrey was off attending a meeting in the neighbouring town, and it was snowing heavily.
“The most daring visitor must jib to-day!” thought Gwen, “I shall claim it 177unreservedly, and I must have open air for this business.”
Her maid naturally thought her mad; that mattered little. She was dressed and right out in the storm in ten minutes from the time she had taken her resolution.
An old hound of Strange’s that had taken to her from the first, was as much scandalized as the maid, but he was not the one to be outdone by any slip of a girl. He gathered up his great legs, shook himself with a drowsy grunt, and followed her with a half-contemptuous curiosity.
The Park had a certain beauty of its own, it was big and, if its undulations were insignificant, their curves were soft and full, and the timber was magnificent and well-placed; 178the whole looked well under snow. The great dull red-brick house stood out in fine contrast to the dazzling white of the earth, and the glittering green of the clump of pines that flanked its left wing, and from which the fierce wind kept stripping the snow wreaths, that tried hard to nestle in the shelter of the cosy branches.
When Gwen got beyond the terraces to a turn in the drive, she could see the sluggish stream that ran through a mile or so of the Park, turned into a torrent, rushing and foaming onward in its brilliant course.
She stopped in the very teeth of the storm, and looked round her with a radiant face.
“The whole place is transformed!” she 179thought. “It generally reminds me of a great soft white cow, chewing the cud knee-deep in water in the shade of a full silky beech, it has all that beast’s ample, contented, intolerably depressing beauty; but to-day it is grand, glorious, like anything but a cow, the heart of it is alive and throbbing under that driving storm, it is the birth of passion in that suave smooth green sod, and the snow is the christening robe. Oh, I wish it were always like this!”
She threw off her veil and turned round, that the blast might strike every part of her.
“It’s magnificent!” she shouted in her excitement, “and—after all, passion’s a wonderful thing!”
She laughed as she bent to the blast. 180“But it’s amazing the way it subsides without leaving a token of its presence—what’s a broken bough or two as a witness to these wonders? In two days, in less, this place will be as uncompromisingly smooth and smug as ever. Ah, passion is a fraud then, or else it requires explanation!”
She hurried on to the little ivy-covered bridge that spanned the stream, and looked down into the roaring seething waters with laughing parted lips.
She wanted to stay, the hurrying foaming mass of unrest had a fascination for her, but she dragged herself from it and turned off from the drive on to a narrow path that led to a sheltered wooded glade about half a mile from the gates.
“I see the deer and the sheep have 181taken refuge there!” she said to herself, “I suppose the fury of the storm goes over their heads. I can think of nothing I ought to here, I shall follow the deer. Bran, what do you mean to do?”
She pointed significantly to the antlers peeping through the snow-laden branches. The hound gave a solemn nod. Seemingly he understood her, at any rate he kept by her side and refrained from sport for that afternoon.
When she got to the trees she looked round for a seat.
The snow on the ground was too soft for sitting purposes, even for her reckless strength to venture on, but she found at last safe anchorage on a broad wooden fence that skirted the grove, then she turned all her senses in on herself.
182She fixed her eyes advisedly on a peaceful group of sheep, cuddled together on the lee side of an old beech, as being less disturbing to the mind than the tossing antlers of the deer, and then she fell to meditation.
“To begin with,” she said, “I am married. That is the one solid fact to argue from. Into the bargain I was, I believe, sane when I committed the deed which is beyond recall, even on the plea of insanity—that idea struck me once in the early days with tremendous force. I must then give up crying over spilt milk, it is a degrading pursuit and offers no loophole of escape, I must just face the future—ah, my dear, that wrings your withers, does it?” she muttered, as a cold shiver ran down her spine.
183“Humphrey and I are playing at cross-purposes now, that must be put a stop to—well, perhaps it is as well to leave that to time which will do the business for him quite effectually. Ah, that picture! That has deluded the man, he has hampered himself with two wives—the sooner he returns to monogamy, the better for himself. This,” she said, touching her breast, “this is as nothing to that other! Men might fall down before her and call her blessed; they fall down before me, sure enough, but they don’t call me blessed—quite the contrary!—even Humphrey can’t go the length of that, but fancy him before that other! I wish I had never looked at her, I shall get to hate her yet, she confuses me, she complicates matters in the most 184annoying way! Pah! I never intended to dissect her to-day, why can’t I keep to myself, me, who belongs body and soul—soul!”
She looked down on herself with curling lips, “Soul! Well, any soul I have and all my body belongs to Humphrey Strange, as sure as any horse in his stable does. And he calls this thing wife and loves it, loves it, bless you! and in a most astonishing way. Then this wife, she honours Humphrey Strange, she obeys him, I have never gone contrary to him in one solitary thing and I never will—that is vulgar. But as for love! I don’t love the man; I see every good point in him; he dominates me in a way that is simply horrible; but love him! Why, every day it seems less possible to do it, yet it 185seems that one’s first and paramount duty in this amazing contract is to love—and now I have got to face this duty. How, I wonder?—Am I to set diligently to fall in love with this husband of mine, and how? And how?” she cried, with a short hard laugh.
Then she stopped thinking, and looked out on the whitened earth and the sheep huddled together still closer under a sudden sharp side blast, that whisked round their shelter and set the branches above them sighing and moaning.
The sun had sunk further into the West and had carried its glow away, and the snow had lost its glitter. Gwen shivered.
“It chokes one to think of it!” she 186said. Pulling her hands out of her muff, and taking off her hat, she turned her face to the blast, and let it beat her at its savage will.
“Oh, my hair—how heavy it is!” she muttered, and began pulling out the hairpins until the whole heavy mass fell about her and was caught by the wind, which shrieked with delight at its prize. “Ah, that’s better! Well—now, this duty! After all, it’s only sheer justice. I must, must, must face it! If only an earthquake would come into our lives, if I were dying or Humphrey mortally wounded, or if some catastrophe could fall on us, in the general shock and upheaval something might snap in me, some undiscovered spring might burst up and I might feel as duty demands! But in this everyday 187existence, in this flat country, among the flatter squires and squiresses, nothing ever happens, no one dies, no one gets a mortal wound, there is never a sign of an earthquake of any description, and yet this duty stands out as clear and as aggressive as ever.”
A strand of her long hair got caught in a nail in the fence, she lingered over the disentangling of it, then she turned to Bran and had a little talk with him, but the patient love in his eyes vexed her.
“Go!” she said, giving him a little shove with her foot, “go! You look like that other woman! Oh, this duty, this duty! Well, I will make one solitary conscientious try at it, I will begin this very day!”
188She drew a long breath.
“Touches and caresses and things of that sort bring thrills and shakes and trembles and flushes, every female novelist assures one of that fact. Well, I must practise touches and such, and hope for results; also, I must not let myself shiver and feel sick when I in my turn get them bestowed upon me. I wish to goodness I had thought of all this before, it would have been far easier to have begun right from the first.”
She suddenly hid her face in her muff.
“How awful that was, how awful! oh!—gr—”
She began to drum her feet with some slight violence on the lower rail of the fence and she beat her hands together—“to 189keep them warm,” she assured herself.
“That picture person must be put down and this, this,” she whispered, taking her face with a sudden soft pathos between her hands, “this must be brought forward, made inevitable, so to speak; then, then, perhaps, with time and custom the other will be allowed to rest, and—rot!” she cried sharply, lifting her face and turning it again to the blast. “Ugh! how vulgar I am, that painted creature demoralizes me altogether! Ah, there comes Humphrey, walking and leading his horse, I will call him and launch out on my duty. Look at him, it’s a wonder I can say ‘No,’ to that ‘pulse’s magnificent come and go!’ I can though, it doesn’t move me the eighth of an inch.”
190She stood up on the fence and waved her handkerchief to him.
“Now, enter duty, exit vague speculation!” she cried with a laugh, as she jumped off the fence.
Strange’s horse had stood on a sharp stump hidden by the snow and had lamed himself, and they were both making the best of their way to the house. It was bad going, the fluttering snow kept constantly balling in Lorraine’s hoofs. Any attempt at hurry was out of the question, so Strange’s thoughts turned, as they always did in any unhurried moment, on his wife, and the puzzle they were both dissecting.
192“There is one thing,” he said with a laugh, “we are not likely to pall on one another in a hurry, there is nothing in the least mawkish in our relations, and we are both of us good-humoured. That half-amused malice in her radiant face whenever she catches me watching her!—Was there ever before such radiance in any woman’s face? This wife of mine is superb, and yet I haven’t an atom of claim to her, except from the law’s brutal point of view. But the mistake was mine, I thought it was in all women to be taught to love, given a decent education, but it seems there are some who want a special dispensation to get it driven into them. What a mystery the whole thing is! And you try to do your duty, my poor little girl, groping blindly in the cold outer air 193of ignorance, and you think I know nothing of your unrest and your wild endeavours! How little you know after all, with all your big brain! Hallo, there you are—yourself, on the top of the fence, with your hair flying! What hair it is! If you were anyone else,” he shouted, “I should see visions of colds and swollen noses; you can laugh and dare anything. Have you been long out?”
She came up panting.
“Since two o’clock. I had no idea I could be moved to enthusiasm for this part of the world. But this storm has rummaged out every latent spark in me. Look at those pines fighting the wind! Oh, oh, my hat!”
“Hold Lorraine, I’ll catch it.”
Gwen laughed gaily as she watched the 194chase. At first it was even betting between the two, but in the end Strange brought it back in triumph.
“You can’t catch cold, but don’t you think the dignity of your position in the county demands a hat?”
“If it wants a hat as disreputable as this to prop itself up with, it can’t be up to much! By the way, what a united couple the servants will think us, what a striking picture of easy affection!”
Strange laughed, but his wife could have bitten out her tongue. After getting nearly frozen to the fence in her zeal to map out her duty, this to be the outcome of it all!
She began to speak quickly, and her voice had a curious new little note in it that interested her husband, and made him 195turn his eyes on her more than once. But she was talking too fast to notice him, then she had the wind to fight. Besides all this, wild ideas of touches and such like began to float about her brain in rather a frantic way.
She brought herself to reason with a shake, fortunately perhaps, the time being hardly fitting to launch out on any new line.
When Gwen was coming down to tea in a wonderful gown of white velvet with slashes of crocus yellow, she met Tolly, now the valet’s young man, carrying off an armful of Strange’s wet clothes. By some sudden impulse she stopped and accosted him.
“I hope you will be happy here,” she said, if the truth must be told, in rather 196a shy way, the experience was so new and shocking.
“You must try to keep away from gin,” she added sagely, “and then you will be sure to get on well. I know your master wants you to.”
Tolly gave a wild dab at his red mat of stubble, muttered inarticulately and fled.
“Oh, what made me do it, what? That horror will haunt me for a week. What is Humphrey made of that he can endure the constant sight of him? And now I remember, Mrs. Fellowes told me one day, he nursed that awful thing for three weeks once, because it whimpered at the thought of a hospital. Imagine that mouth, that nose, that ghastly whole, in delirium, oh imagine the mere touch of those flabby paws with their great red knobs—those 197knobs fascinated me and, ugh! they have got into my eyes! Without doubt I have a remarkable man for a husband! I wish, oh, I wish I had my tea, I am dying for it, I think I must be tired.”
She sank down into a big chair and put her feet out to catch the heat, then she put her hands up and set to to rub her eyes, in a foolish futile effort to clear her whirling brain, and then Strange and the tea came in.
“I have seen Tolly,” she said, giving him some tea.
“In that gown?”
“Ah, that’s good, it may awaken some sense of religion in the beggar. I have experimented on him with every variety of church, and with a most mixed assortment 198of parsons, without the slightest effect, but there is a certain divinity about you in that gown that may appeal to the fellow—be the thin edge of the wedge, and lead to higher things. It would be a new rôle for you to pose in, Gwen, as an instrument of grace.”
“I think I should do better as an instrument of wrath,” she said, with rather a strained smile; she felt a sudden impulse of loathing against what Strange called her “divinity.”
“It is one of the things which keeps me so remote, so absolutely aloof,” she thought hurriedly, “what do women want with divinity or any other superhuman attribute? I believe Rossetti must have thought of me for his ‘Lilith’.”
199She stood up half absently and looked into a mirror near at hand, then she moved away suddenly with sneering lips and a quick flush.
“That’s not the fire!” her husband thought, “Oh Lord, what’s up now?”
After a few minutes she went slowly over to the piano, and began to play in a vague fitful way. Her husband dropped the paper he had taken up, and listened. It struck him that her playing had altered, it used to be mechanical and rather expressionless, no one could accuse it of want of expression to-night, even if the expression did limit itself to anger and unrest.
After a time she stopped playing, with one dissatisfied, disordered chord, then there was a little pause which she broke by singing, first softly and half humming, 200then she seemed to awaken with a start, and she sang on, song after song, with a sort of excited vehemence. Her voice was a low contralto, there was not a sharp nor a hard tone in it, but there were some strong harsh ones, like the groans of men, and some deep guttural ones, like the sighs of women; there was no passion in her voice, but it was full of consuming soft tumults of vague sad unrest.
“This is rather a pleasanter modification of her first storms!” thought Strange. “What possibilities there are in that voice, I wonder what would happen if I went over and tried to kiss that dead woman into life! Pygmalion’s task was a fool to mine, what’s marble to an undeveloped woman!”
201He stood behind her and joined in with her song, his bass to her contralto. The combination gave one rather a shock at first, but it grew fascinating as they went on.
Gwen stopped suddenly in the middle of a song.
“I could not have believed our two voices could ever mix and make completeness.”
“It is a ‘sport’.”
“I like explicable things best,” she said, peering out into the semi-gloom.
“You go about with a scalpel in your brain, Gwen! What a thing it is to come of scientific stock!”
“Oh, it’s a diabolical thing for a woman!” said Gwen.
She shut the piano up softly—she never 202by any chance banged things—and went upstairs to dress.
“I shall wear that silk that looks like flesh,” she said.
“I put it away your ladyship, you said you did not like it.”
“If you could get at it quite easily, I should like to wear it to-night.”
“That dress suggests good sound flesh and blood, with no remote divinity about it,” she thought. “Oh, I wish I could let things be, and stop poking about among mysteries. I will touch him to-night, yes, I will. I wonder—I wonder—if I can possibly muster up strength for a kiss.”
Mrs. Fellowes, meanwhile, was having a most unsatisfactory time with the Park people; it seemed absolutely impossible to dig into them or to be of any service to them. They were wearing her to skin and bone, and she was meditating a change somewhere or other, when one day, crossing the hall just after lunch, she heard a knock at the door and opened it herself.
204She found Mr. and Mrs. Waring standing in their normal attitude and looking frightfully embarrassed; she saw at a glance that they looked queerer than usual, and not feeling equal just at that minute to face them alone, she carried them straight off to the dining-room.
“Ah, the Nineteenth Century, I perceive,” said Mr. Waring as soon as he found himself in a chair, with his hat grasped in one hand and the other on the edge of his knee with the fingers stretched out and feeling nervously in a baulked way.
“In that last article of St. George Mivart’s,” continued Mr. Waring, “we find a marked evidence of the deteriorating effect of any special bias on a man’s mind. If this man were not an ardent churchman 205of the Romish persuasion I have always thought he might have done well in literary science, but as it is—it seems to me he has so much confused the thread of his discourse as to render it comparatively valueless by weaving into it, with most conscientious persistence, stray fragments of the deductions he has drawn from his own crude creed. This demands, on the reader’s part, a searching, sifting process, which the intrinsic value of the gentleman’s articles to my mind hardly warrants.”
“Ah, you like your science neat,” said the rector, “so possibly might I, if I had time to collect my own facts.”
“Ah, but for work that must last, time and an undivided mind are necessities, no matter what the cause may be that clouds the brain.”
206He looked at his wife, and his floating, near-sighted eyes grew dim with tender pain, and the tendril-like movement of his fingers increased.
He forgot St. George Mivart, and all at once it occurred to him why he had come.
“Poor old boy, his punishment is horribly out of proportion to his deserts,” thought the rector, as, in the pause that followed, he caught snatches of the low-toned talk of the women, with Gwen’s name entering largely into it, and saw Mrs. Waring’s face fixed on his own wife with pathetic shy yearning, not veering round to her husband with covert eagerness, as it used to do.
Mr. Fellowes caught himself echoing the other husband’s sigh, and he laughed 207as the absurdity of the situation struck him.
“This must be stopped,” he thought, “it grows mawkish. I wonder if they have forgotten to feed—more than likely. Ruth, have you asked Mrs. Waring if she has lunched?”
“Indeed I haven’t!” she cried, “I don’t know what I can have been thinking about.”
“Oh, please, Mrs. Fellowes,” stammered the little woman, then her eyes turned towards their magnet.
Mr. Waring was at her side and with her hand in his, with a speed that made Mrs. Fellowes gasp.
“The fact is, Mrs. Fellowes,” he explained heroically, “we were both a little forgetful, we—we—” he paused painfully and gulped. “Ah!——I”—
208He repented the word sadly, it was the first time his conscience had forced him to separate the two, and it hurt him. “Yes, I was much absorbed in my work—and my wife, I think she is not very well.”
“I am quite well, dear,” she murmured.
“Ah, dearest, I doubt it. I thought some quinine might be beneficial, Mrs. Fellowes. In fact, that was the primary motive of our call.”
“Give her some claret for the present, and make her eat something, wine and meat are as good as quinine any day.”
Mrs. Waring was the most docile creature breathing, she swallowed obediently everything set before her, when suddenly a little tremble ran all down her and shook her gently, and she let her fork drop with a little clash.
209She had caught sight just over the sideboard of one of Brydon’s sketches of Gwen, that she had sent Mrs. Fellowes.
Her husband had not seen the picture, so he only pressed her knife hand gently, and murmured, “Nerves!”
She went back obediently to her meal, and if they had given her the whole of a chicken and a quart of claret, she would have swallowed both without a murmur, so long as they let her get finished and go close up to that picture.
Mr. Waring’s meal, on the contrary, was very interesting to him, and he enjoyed it with a zest that set him playing at a quite new and charming departure in classification. A graceful pretty house-mother moving on the field of his vision, and 210supplying every unspoken want of his, was a pleasing variation.
“A charming type, this serving woman,” he reflected, regarding her with gentle favour, “charming. By no means a unique or even an unusual one, but really quite charming and pleasant to observe. In that woman the maternal instinct will be found in a very advanced state of development—and yet, if I recollect aright,” he started, frowning, and pausing, with a morsel of meat on his fork, he contemplated her curiously, “Yes, I believe my recollections are accurate, she has never had any children and probably, after this lapse of time, will not produce any. Very strange indeed, very strange, another of those most puzzling instances of Nature’s waste.”
He sighed and reflected a little on 211Mrs. Fellowes as she helped his wife to cream, then he went rather sadly to his tart, feeling a slight tinge of contempt for Nature’s inconsistency.
When Mrs. Waring had consumed as much nourishment as her entertainers thought fit for her, Mr. Fellowes went over to the sideboard, unhooked the sketch, and propped it against the claret jug.
“The colouring is good, isn’t it?” he said. “Gwen sent it to us last week.”
Mrs. Waring threw up her head and looked at the rector’s wife, then her face flooded with pink, and there came a pain into her heart that she had never felt before. For the first time in her seven-and-thirty years this little woman was jealous.
“Gwen gave it!” she repeated. “Henry, 212do you think Gwen would give us one?”
There was a perceptible choke in her voice, and she put up her little hand to her throat with a swift movement.
“My love!” he said in a rather frightened way, “we could hardly ask our daughter for such a very valuable present.”
“I suppose we could not,” she said, with sweet humility.
“My reasonable, my docile one!” he thought, with tender satisfaction, “better a thousand times than any other female type, serving or otherwise.”
He might have felt more disturbed if he had had the merest ghost of a notion as to the causes of her humility, which had less to do with him than he would altogether have relished. With all this 213congestion of novel emotion the woman was losing her pristine transparency.
“What are your plans for the afternoon?” asked the rector. “You know that even the ordinary decencies of civilization have to be shunted in a parson’s life, I must be off in five minutes. Are you on for a walk, Waring?”
“I!—Oh, thank you, but, we—I—we—” he caught nervously on to his wife’s eyes, “we—we are very much engaged just now. We just called concerning this matter of quinine, and we have already absorbed too much of your time; untimely visitors are a keen trial—my wife and I have suffered much from this form of affliction.”
The rector laughed.
“Visitors are a brutal bane, ninety per cent. of them, but you two are most 214marked exceptions. We can go as far as the Park, anyway, for that is on my way, and I know my wife has designs on yours—you won’t get her back much before dinner time.”
Mr. Waring turned round with a start.
“Is this the case?” he asked blankly.
“I would like to stay,” said Mrs. Waring softly, but she hung her head and did not look at her husband.
He looked at her, however, and his brows lifted themselves. He turned with solemnity to Mrs. Fellowes.
“Pray consider this question of quinine,” he said, “and let us know the result—our experience is quite insufficient to go on.”
“You are quite welcome to all mine,” said Mrs. Fellowes laughing.
215He turned to his wife again. “Good-bye, my love. I hope I shall be able to get on with my work, but—ahem—this upsets one sadly.”
Mrs. Fellowes went to her husband in the hall just then and they were alone.
“This is quite unusual, love—are you wise to remain?” he said.
Mrs. Waring’s eyes wandered to Gwen’s picture.
“I would like to stay,” she said, then suddenly she bent towards him and the pink deepened on her cheeks, “but I will go if you like.”
“I wish you to do just as you like yourself, love.”
He loosed his hand gently from her clasp and followed Mrs. Fellowes into the hall, his fingers twitching.
216In an instant she was after him and making for her hat when Mrs. Fellowes caught her.
“Come to the door and see them off,” she remarked innocently, drawing her arm through her own.
When she had seen them off the premises, Mrs. Fellowes shut her guest up with the picture and went to dress, then she scurried her off to the village, where they spent a rather remarkable two hours.
Mrs. Fellowes’ companion was first discovered by an urchin who was making mud pies in a gutter. At the first shock of his find, he gave a whoop and turned a summersault back into the dust, then he uplifted himself and fled with the news, despatching scouts to right and left on his progress.
217When the ladies reached the village they found it all agog, every door was full of faces, and the howls of scrubbing infancy arose from every yard.
Mrs. Waring looked shy and twitched a good deal, but on the whole she bore herself gallantly.
The mothers embarrassed her, they seemed to expect conversation, and this was even the case with the children; she could just smile at them, however, and be silent. It was among the babies she shone, not, indeed, in her mode of holding them—she did that with her fingers, delicately, as if they were pens—but she got so eager over them, so full of interest, asked so many anxious questions as to their appetites, and gave such amazing hints concerning their management that 218she made an impression on the village such as astonished the oldest inhabitant, and set the women’s tongues wagging at a rate to surprise even their husbands.
It was an event, an epoch-making day in the village of Waring, when the squire’s wife stepped in bodily presence in and out of its houses, and disseminated useful knowledge concerning the human infant.
When Gwen heard of it, in the same letter that told her to send her mother a sketch of herself without delay, she laughed sarcastically.
“This is dishonest of Mrs. Fellowes!” she cried with a little stamp, “how dare she make all this fresh phase of lunacy into a pathetic story? There is a ring of false sentiment through the whole business.”
END OF VOL. II.
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This book uses inconsistent spelling and hyphenation, which were retained in the ebook version. Ditto marks used to represent repeated text have been replaced with the text that they represent. Some corrections have been made to the text, including normalizing punctuation. Further corrections are noted below:
p. 10: The misery I have to endureit wh servants -> The misery I have to endure with servants#ENGLISH