The Literary Sense

Эдит Несбит
The Literary Sense

He stood up and held out his hand. This was about the time when the cook packed her box and went off, leaving it to be sent after her. Public opinion in the servants' hall was too strong to be longer faced.

The shadows of the trees lay black and level across the pastures when the two children reached the lodge gates. A floral arch was above the gate, and wreaths of flowers and flags made the avenue gay. Charling had grown very tired, and Harry had carried her on his back for the last mile or two – resting often, because Charling was a strong, healthy child, and, as he phrased it, "no slouch of a weight."

Now they paused at the gate of the lodge.

"This is my house," said Charling. "They've put all these things up for her, I suppose. If you'll write down your address I'll give you mine, and we can write and tell each other what they are like afterwards. I've got a bit of chalk somewhere."

She fumbled in the dusty confusion of her little pocket while Harry found the envelope of his sister's letter and tore it in two. Then, one on each side of the lodge gate-post, the children wrote, slowly and carefully, for some moments. Presently they exchanged papers, and each read the words written by the other. Then suddenly both turned very red.

"But this is my address," said she. "The Grange, Falconbridge."

"It's where my sister's gone to live, anyhow," said he.

"Then – then – "

Conviction forced itself first on the boy.

"What a duffer I've been! It's him she's married."

"Your sister?"

"Yes. Are you sure your father's a good sort?"

"How dare you ask!" said Charling. "It's your sister I want to know about."

"She's the dearest old darling!" he cried. "Oh! kiddie, come along; run for all you're worth, and perhaps we can get in the back way, and get tidied up before they come, and they need never know."

He held out his hand; Charling caught at it, and together they raced up the avenue. But getting in the back way was impossible, for Murchison met them full on the terrace, and Charling ran straight into his arms. There should have been scolding and punishment, no doubt, but Charling found none.

And, now, who so sleek and demure as the runaways, he in Eton jacket and she in spotless white muslin, when the carriage drew up in front of the hall, amid the cheers of the tenants and the bowing of the orderly, marshalled servants?

And then a lady, pretty as a princess in a fairy tale, with eyes as blue as Harry's, was hugging him and Charling both at once; while a man, whom Harry at once owned to be a man, stood looking at the group with grave, kind eyes.

"We'll never, never tell," whispered the boy. The servants had been sworn to secrecy by Murchison.

Charling whispered back, "Never as long as we live."

But long before bedtime came each of the runaways felt that concealment was foolish in the face of the new circumstances, and with some embarrassment, a tear or two, and a little gentle laughter, the tale was told.

"Oh, Harry! how could you?" said the stepmother, and went quietly out by the long window with her arm round her brother's shoulders.

Charling was left alone with her father.

"Why didn't you tell me, father?"

"I wish I had, childie; but I thought – you see – I was going away – I didn't want to leave you alone for a fortnight to think all sorts of nonsense. And I thought my little girl could trust me." Charling hid her face in her hands. "Well! it's all right now! don't cry, my girlie." He drew her close to him.

"And you'll love Harry very much?"

"I will. He brought you back."

"And I'll love her very much. So that's all settled," said Charling cheerfully. Then her face fell again. "But, father, don't you love mother any more? Cook said you didn't."

He sighed and was silent. At last he said, "You are too little to understand, sweetheart. I have loved the lady who came home to-day all my life long, and I shall love your mother as long as I live."

"Cook said it was like being unkind to mother. Does mother mind about it, really?"

He muttered something inaudible – to the cook's address.

"I don't think they either of them mind, my darling Charling," he said. "You cannot understand it, but I think they both understand."

WITH AN E

SHE had been thinking of him all day – of the incredible insignificance of the point on which they had quarrelled; the babyish folly of the quarrel itself, the silly pride that had made the quarrel strong till the very memory of it was as a bar of steel to keep them apart. Three years ago, and so much had happened since then. Three years! and not a day of them all had passed without some thought of him; sometimes a happy, quiet remembrance transfigured by a wise forgetfulness; sometimes a sudden recollection, sharp as a knife. But not on many days had she allowed the quiet remembrance to give place to the knife-thrust, and then kept the knife in the wound, turning it round with a scientific curiosity, which, while it ran an undercurrent of breathless pleasure beneath the pain, yet did not lessen this – intensified it, rather. To-day she had thought of him thus through the long hours on deck, when the boat sped on even keel across the blue and gold of the Channel, in the dusty train from Ostend – even in the little open carriage that carried her and her severely moderate luggage from the station at Bruges to the Hôtel du Panier d'Or. She had thought of him so much that it was no surprise to her to see him there, drinking coffee at one of the little tables which the hotel throws out like tentacles into the Grande Place.

There he sat, in a grey flannel suit. His back was towards her, but she would have known the set of his shoulders anywhere, and the turn of his head. He was talking to someone – a lady, handsome, but older than he – oh! evidently much older.

Elizabeth made the transit from carriage to hotel door in one swift, quiet movement. He did not see her, but the lady facing him put up a tortoiseshell-handled lorgnon and gazed through it and through narrowed eyelids at the new comer.

Elizabeth reappeared no more that evening. It was the waiter who came out to dismiss the carriage and superintend the bringing in of the luggage. Elizabeth, stumbling in a maze of forgotten French, was met at the stair-foot by a smiling welcome, and realised in a spasm of grateful surprise that she need not have brought her dictionary. The hostess of the "Panier d'Or," like everyone else in Belgium, spoke English, and an English far better than Elizabeth's French had been.

She secured a tiny bedroom, and a sitting room that looked out over the Place, so that whenever he drank coffee she might, with luck, hope to see the back of his dear head.

"Idiot!" said Elizabeth, catching this little thought wandering in her mind, and with that she slapped the little thought and put it away in disgrace. But when she woke in the night, it woke, too, and cried a little.

That night it seemed to her that she would have all her meals served in the little sitting-room, and never go downstairs at all, lest she should meet him. But in the morning she perceived that one does not save up one's money for a year in order to have a Continental holiday, and sweeten all one's High-school teaching with one thought of that holiday, in order to spend its precious hours between four walls, just because – well, for any reason whatsoever.

So she went down to take her coffee and rolls humbly, publicly, like other people.

The dining-room was dishevelled, discomposed; chairs piled on tables and brooms all about. It was in the hotel café, where the marble-topped little tables were, that Mademoiselle would be served. Here was a marble-topped counter, too, where later in the day apéritifs and petits verres would be handed. On this, open for the police to read, lay the list of those who had spent the night at the "Panier d'Or."

The room was empty. Elizabeth caught up the list. Yes, his name was there, at the very top of the column – Edward Brown, and below it "Mrs. Brown– "

Elizabeth dropped the paper as though it had bitten her, and, turning sharply, came face to face with that very Edward Brown. He raised his hat gravely, and a shiver of absolute sickness passed over her, for his glance at her in passing was the glance of a stranger. It was not possible… Yet it was true. He had forgotten her. In three little years! They had been long enough years to her, but now she called them little. In three little years he had forgotten her very face.

Elizabeth, chin in air, marched down the room and took possession of the little table where her coffee waited her.

She began to eat. It was not till the sixth mouthful that her face flushed suddenly to so deep a crimson that she dared not raise her eyes to see how many of the folk now breaking their rolls in her company had had eyes for her face. As a matter of fact, only one observed the sudden colour, and he admired and rejoiced, for he had seen such a colour in that face before.

"She is angry – good!" said he, and poured out more coffee with a steady hand.

The thought that flooded Elizabeth's face and neck and ears with damask was one quite inconsistent with the calm eating of bread-and-butter. She laid down her knife and walked out, chin in air to the last. Alone in her sitting-room she buried her face in a hard cushion and went as near to swearing as a very nice girl may.

"Oh! oh! oh! – oh! bother! Why did I go down? I ought to have fled to the uttermost parts of the earth: or even to Ghent. Of course. Oh, what a fool I am! It's because he's married that he won't speak to me. You fool! you fool! you fool! Yes, of course, you knew he was married; only you thought you'd like the silly satisfaction of hearing his voice speak to you, and yours speaking to him. But – oh! fool! fool! fool!"

 

Elizabeth put on the thickest veil she had, and the largest hat, and went blindly out. She walked very fast, never giving a glance to the step-and-stair gables of the old houses, the dominant strength of the belfry, the curious, un-English groups in the streets. Presently she came to a bridge – a canal – overhanging houses – balconies – a glimpse like the pictures of Venice. She leaned her elbows on the parapet and presently became aware of the prospect.

"It is pretty," she said grudgingly, and at the same moment turned away, for in a flower-hung balcony across the water she saw him.

"This is too absurd," she said. "I must get out of the place – at least, for the day. I'll go to Ghent."

He had seen her, and a thrill of something very like gratified vanity straightened his shoulders. When a girl has jilted you, it is comforting to find that even after three years she has not forgotten you enough to be indifferent, no matter how you may have consoled yourself in the interval.

Elizabeth walked fast, but she did not get to the railway station, because she took the wrong turning several times. She passed through street after strange street, and came out on a wide quay; another canal; across it showed old, gabled, red-roofed houses. She walked on and came presently to a bridge, and another quay, and a little puffing, snorting steamboat.

She hurriedly collected a few scattered items of her school vocabulary —

"Est-ce que – est-ce que – ce bateau à vapeur va – va– anywhere?"

A voluble assurance that it went at twelve-thirty did not content her. She gathered her forces again.

"Oui; mais où est-ce qu'il va aller – ?"

The answer sounded something like "Sloosh," and the speaker pointed vaguely up the green canal.

Elizabeth went on board. This was as good as Ghent. Better. There was an element of adventure about it. "Sloosh" might be anywhere; one might not reach it for days. But the boat had not the air of one used to long cruises; and Elizabeth felt safe in playing with the idea of an expedition into darkest Holland.

And now by chance, or because her movements interested him as much as his presence repelled her, this same Edward Brown also came on board, and, concealed by the deep daydream into which she had fallen, passed her unseen.

When she shook the last drops of the daydream from her, she found herself confronting the boat's only other passenger – himself.

She looked at him full and straight in the eyes, and with the look her embarrassment left her and laid hold on him.

He remembered her last words to him —

"If ever we meet again, we meet as strangers." Well, he had kept to the very letter of that bidding, and she had been angry. He had been very glad to see that she was angry. But now, face to face for an hour and a half – for he knew the distance to Sluys well enough – could he keep silence still and yet avoid being ridiculous? He did not intend to be ridiculous; yet even this might have happened. But Elizabeth saved him.

She raised her chin and spoke in chill, distant courtesy.

"I think you must be English, because I saw you at the 'Panier d'Or'; everyone's English there. I can't make these people understand anything. Perhaps you could be so kind as to tell me how long the boat takes to get to wherever it does get to?"

It was a longer speech than she would have made had he been the stranger as whom she proposed to treat him, but it was necessary to let him understand at the outset what was the part she intended to play.

He did understand, and assumed his rôle instantly.

"Something under two hours, I think," he said politely, still holding in his hand the hat he had removed on the instant of her breaking silence. "How cool and pleasant the air is after the town!" The boat was moving now quickly between grassy banks topped by rows of ash trees. The landscape on each side spread away like a map intersected with avenues of tall, lean, wind-bent trees, that seemed to move as the boat moved.

"Good!" said she to herself; "he means to talk. We shan't sit staring at each other for two hours like stuck pigs. And he really doesn't know me? Or is it the wife? Oh! I wish I'd never come to this horrible country!" Aloud she said, "Yes, and how pretty the trees and fields are – "

"So – so nice and green, aren't they?" said he.

And she said, "Yes."

Each inwardly smiled. In the old days each had been so eager for the other's good opinion, so afraid of seeming commonplace, that their conversations had been all fine work, and their very love-letters too clever by half. Now they did not belong to each other any more, and he said the trees were green, and she said "Yes."

"There seem to be a great many people in Bruges," said she.

"Yes," he said, in eager assent. "Quite a large number."

"There is a great deal to be seen in these old towns. So quaint, aren't they?"

She remembered his once condemning in a friend the use of that word. Now he echoed it.

"So very quaint," said he. "And the dogs drawing carts! Just like the pictures, aren't they?"

"You can get pictures of them on the illustrated post-cards. So nice to send to one's relations at home."

She was getting angry with him. He played the game too well.

"Ah! yes," he answered, "the dear people like these little tokens, don't they?"

"He's getting exactly like a curate," she thought, and a doubt assailed her. Perhaps he was not playing the game at all. Perhaps in these three years he had really grown stupid.

"How different it all is from England, isn't it?"

"Oh, quite!" said he.

"Have you ever been in Holland?"

"Yes, once."

"What was it like?" she asked.

That was a form of question they had agreed to hate – once, long ago.

"Oh, extremely pleasant," he said warmly. "We met some most agreeable people at some of the hotels. Quite the best sort of people, you know."

Another phrase once banned by both.

The sun sparkled on the moving duckweed of the canal. The sky was blue overhead. Here and there a red-roofed farm showed among the green pastures. Ahead the avenues tapered away into distance, and met at the vanishing point. Elizabeth smiled for sheer pleasure at the sight of two little blue-smocked children solemnly staring at the boat as it passed. Then she glanced at him with an irritated frown. It was his turn to smile.

"You called the tune, my lady," he said to himself, "and it is you shall change it, not I."

"Foreign countries are very like England, are they not?" he said. "The same kind of trees, you know, and the same kind of cows, and – and everything. Even the canals are very like ours."

"The canal system," said Elizabeth instructively, "is the finest in the world."

"Adieu, Canal, canard, canaille," he quoted. They had always barred quotations in the old days.

"I don't understand Latin," said she. Then their eyes met, and he got up abruptly and walked to the end of the boat and back. When he sat down again, he sat beside her.

"Shall we go on?" he said quietly. "I think it is your turn to choose a subject – "

"Oh! have you read Alice in Wonderland?" she said, with simple eagerness. "Such a pretty book, isn't it?"

He shrugged his shoulders. She was obstinate; all women were. Men were not. He would be magnanimous. He would not compel her to change the tune. He had given her one chance; and if she wouldn't – well, it was not possible to keep up this sort of conversation till they got to Sluys. He would —

But again she saved him.

"I won't play any more," she said. "It's not fair. Because you may think me a fool. But I happen to know that you are Mr. Brown, who writes the clever novels. You were pointed out to me at the hotel; and – oh! do tell me if you always talk like this to strangers?"

"Only to English ladies on canal boats," said he, smiling. "You see, one never knows. They might wish one to talk like that. We both did it very prettily. Of course, more know Tom Fool than Tom Fool knows, but I think I may congratulate you on your first attempt at the English-abroad conversation."

"Do you know, really," she said, "you did it so well that if I hadn't known who you were, I should have thought it was the real you. The felicitations are not all mine. But won't you tell me about Holland? That bit of yours about the hotel acquaintances was very brutal. I've heard heaps of people say that very thing. You just caught the tone. But Holland – "

"Well, this is Holland," said he; "but I saw more of it than this, and I'll tell you anything you like if you won't expect me to talk clever, and turn the phrase. That's a lost art, and I won't humiliate myself in trying to recover it. To begin with, Holland is flat."

"Don't be a geography book," Elizabeth laughed light-heartedly.

"The coinage is – "

"No, but seriously."

"Well, then," said he, and the talk lasted till the little steamer bumped and grated against the quay-side at Sluys.

When they had landed the two stood for a moment on the grass-grown quay in silence.

"Well, good afternoon," said Elizabeth suddenly. "Thank you so much for telling me all about Holland." And with that she turned and walked away along the narrow street between the trim little houses that look so like a child's toy village tumbled out of a white wood box. Mr. Edward Brown was left, planted there.

"Well!" said he, and spent the afternoon wandering about near the landing-stage, and wondering what would be the next move in this game of hers. It was a childish game, this playing at strangers, yet he owned that it had a charm.

He ate currant bread and drank coffee at a little inn by the quay, sitting at the table by the door and watching the boats. Two o'clock came and went. Four o'clock came, half-past four, and with that went the last return steamer for Bruges. Still Mr. Edward Brown sat still and smoked. Five minutes later Elizabeth's blue cotton dress gleamed in the sunlight at the street corner.

He rose and walked towards her.

"I hope you have enjoyed yourself in Holland," he said.

"I lost my way," said she. He saw that she was very tired, even before he heard it in her voice. "When is the next boat?"

"There are no more boats to-day. The last left about ten minutes ago."

"You might have told me," she said resentfully.

"I beg your pardon," said he. "You bade me good-bye with an abruptness and a decision which forbade me to tell you anything."

"I beg your pardon," she said humbly. "Can I get back by train?"

"There are no trains."

"A carriage?"

"There are none. I have inquired."

"But you," she asked suddenly, "how did you miss the boat? How are you going to get back?"

"I shall walk," said he, ignoring the first question. "It's only eleven miles. But for you, of course, that's impossible. You might stay the night here. The woman at this inn seems a decent old person."

"I can't. There's a girl coming to join me. She's in the sixth at the High School where I teach. I've promised to chaperon and instruct her. I must meet her at the station at ten. She's been ten years at the school. I don't believe she knows a word of French. Oh! I must go. She doesn't know the name of my hotel, or anything. I must go. I must walk."

"Have you had any food?"

"No; I never thought about it."

She did not realise that she was explaining to him that she had been walking to get away from him and from her own thoughts, and that food had not been among these.

"Then you will dine now; and, if you will allow me, we will walk back together."

Elizabeth submitted. It was pleasant to be taken care of. And to be "ordered about," that was pleasant, too. Curiously enough, that very thing had been a factor in the old quarrel. At nineteen one is so independent.

She was fed on omelettes and strange, pale steak, and Mr. Brown insisted on beer. The place boasted no wine cellar.

Then the walk began. For the first mile or two it was pleasant. Then Elizabeth's shoes began to hurt her. They were smart brown shoes, with deceitful wooden heels. In her wanderings over the cobblestones of Sluys streets one heel had cracked itself. Now it split altogether. She began to limp.

"Won't you take my arm?" said he.

"No, thank you. I don't really need it. I'll rest a minute, though, if I may." She sat down, leaning against a tree, and looked out at the darting swallows, dimpling here and there the still green water. The level sunlight struck straight across the pastures, turning them to gold. The long shadows of the trees fell across the canal and lay black on the reeds at the other side. The hour was full of an ample dignity of peace.

 

They walked another mile. Elizabeth could not conceal her growing lameness.

"Something is wrong with your foot," said he. "Have you hurt it?"

"It's these silly shoes; the heel's broken."

"Take them off and let me see."

She submitted without a protest, sat down, took off the shoes, and gave them to him. He looked at them kindly, contemptuously.

"Silly little things!" he said, and she, instead of resenting the impertinence, smiled.

Then he tore off the heels and dug out the remaining bristle of nails with his pocket-knife.

"That'll be better," said he cheerfully. Elizabeth put on the damp shoes. The evening dew lay heavy on the towing-path, and she hardly demurred at all to his fastening the laces. She was very tired.

Again he offered his arm; again she refused it.

Then, "Elizabeth, take my arm at once!" he said sharply.

She took it, and they had kept step for some fifty paces before she said —

"Then you knew all the time?"

"Am I blind or in my dotage? But you forbade me to meet you except as a stranger. I have an obedient nature."

They walked on in silence. He held her hand against his side strongly, but, as it seemed, without sentiment. He was merely helping a tired woman-stranger on a long road. But the road seemed easier to Elizabeth because her hand lay so close to him; she almost forgot how tired she was, and lost herself in dreams, and awoke, and taught herself to dream again, and wondered why everything should seem so different just because one's hand lay on the sleeve of a grey flannel jacket.

"Why should I be so abominably happy?" she asked herself, and then lapsed again into the dreams that were able to wipe away three years, as a kind hand might wipe three little tear-drops from a child's slate, scrawled over with sums done wrong.

When she remembered that he was married, she salved her conscience innocently. "After all," she said, "it can't be wrong if it doesn't make him happy; and, of course, he doesn't care, and I shall never see him again after to-night."

So on they went, the deepening dusk turned to night, and in Elizabeth's dreams it seemed that her hand was held more closely; but unless one moved it ever so little one could not be sure; and she would not move it ever so little.

The damp towing-path ended in a road cobblestoned, the masts of ships, pointed roofs, twinkling lights. The eleven miles were nearly over.

Elizabeth's hand moved a little, involuntarily, on his arm. To cover the movement she spoke instantly.

"I am leaving Bruges to-morrow."

"No; your sixth-form girl will be too tired, and besides – "

"Besides?"

"Oh, a thousand things! Don't leave Bruges yet; it's so 'quaint,' you know; and – and I want to introduce you to – "

"I won't," said Elizabeth almost violently.

"You won't?"

"No; I don't want to know your wife."

He stopped short in the street – not one of the "quaint" streets, but a deserted street of tall, square-shuttered, stern, dark mansions, wherein a gas-lamp or two flickered timidly.

"My wife?" he said; "it's my aunt."

"It said 'Mrs. Brown' in the visitors' list," faltered Elizabeth.

"Brown's such an uncommon name," he said; "my aunt spells hers with an E."

"Oh! with an E? Yes, of course. I spell my name with an E too, only it's at the wrong end."

Elizabeth began to laugh, and the next moment to cry helplessly.

"Oh, Elizabeth! and you looked in the visitors' list and – " He caught her in his arms there in the street. "No; you can't get away. I'm wiser than I was three years ago. I shall never let you go any more, my dear."

The girl from the sixth looked quite resentfully at the two faces that met her at the station. It seemed hardly natural or correct for a classical mistress to look so happy.

Elizabeth's lover schemed for and got a goodnight word with her at the top of the stairs, by the table where the beautiful brass candlesticks lay waiting in shining rows.

"Sleep well, you poor, tired little person," he said, as he lighted the candle; "such little feet, such wicked little shoes, such a long, long, long walk."

"You must be tired, too," she said.

"Tired? with eleven miles, and your hand against my heart for eight of them? I shall remember that walk when we're two happy old people nodding across our own hearthrug at each other."

So he had felt it too; and if he had been married, how wicked it would have been! But he was not married – yet.

"I am not very, very tired, really," she said. "You see, it was my hand against – I mean your arm was a great help – "

"It was your hand," he said. "Oh, you darling!"

It was her hand, too, that was kissed there, beside the candlesticks, under the very eyes of the chambermaid and two acid English tourists.

Другие книги автора

Все книги автора
Рейтинг@Mail.ru