As for him, he went home in a beautiful dream, and in the morning he wrote a song about her eyes which was so good that he sent it to the Athenæum, and got two guineas for it – so that his holiday was really not altogether wasted.
FROM her very earliest teens every man she met had fallen at her feet. Her father in paternal transports – dignified and symbolic as the adoration of the Magi, uncles in forced unwilling tribute, cousins according to their kind, even brothers, resentful of their chains yet still enslaved, lovers by the score, persons disposed to marriage by the half-dozen.
And she had smiled on them all, because it was so nice to be loved, and if one could make those who loved happy by smiling, why, smiles were cheap! Not cheap like inferior soap, but like the roses from a full June garden.
To one she gave something more than smiles – herself to wit – and behold her at twenty, married to the one among her slaves to whom she had deigned to throw the handkerchief – real Brussels, be sure! Behold her happy in the adoration of the one, the only one among her adorers whom she herself could adore. His name was John, of course, and it was a foregone conclusion that he should be a stock-broker.
All the same, he was nice, which is something: and she loved him, which is everything.
The little new red-brick Queen Anne villa was as the Garden of Eden to the man and the woman – but the jerry builder is a reptile more cursed than the graceful serpent who, in his handsome suit of green and gold, pulled out the lynch-pin from the wedding chariot of our first parents. The new house – "Cloudesley" its name was – was damp as any cloud, and the Paradise was shattered, not by any romantic serpent-and-apple business, but by plain, honest, every-day rheumatism. It was, indeed, as near rheumatic fever as one may go without tumbling over the grisly fence.
The doctor said "Buxton." John could not leave town. There was a boom or a slump or something that required his personal supervision.
So her old nurse was called up from out of the mists of the grey past before he and she were hers and his, and she went to Buxton in a specially reserved invalid carriage. She went, with half her dainty trousseau clothes – a helpless invalid.
Now I don't want to advertise Buxton waters as a cure for rheumatism, but I know for a fact that she had to be carried down to her first bath. It was a marble bath, and she felt like a Roman empress in it. And before she had had ten days of marble baths she was almost her own man again, and the youth in her danced like an imprisoned bottle-imp. But she was dull because there was no one to adore her. She had always been fed on adoration, and she missed her wonted food – without the shadow of a guess that it was this she was missing. It was, perhaps, unfortunate that her old nurse should have sprained a stout ankle in the very first of those walks on the moors which the Doctor recommended for the completion of the cure so magnificently inaugurated by the Marble Roman Empress baths.
She wrote to her John every day. Long letters. But when the letter was done, what else was there left to do with what was left of the day? She was very, very bored.
One must obey one's doctor. Else why pay him guineas?
So she walked out, after pretty apologies to the nurse, left lonely, across the wonder-wide moors. She learned the springy gait of the true hill climber, and drank in health and strength from the keen hill air. The month was March. She seemed to be the only person of her own dainty feather in Buxton. So she walked the moors alone. All her life joy had come to her in green elm and meadow land, and this strange grey-stone walled rocky country made her breathless with its austere challenge. Yet life was good; strength grew. No longer she seemed to have a body to care for. Soul and spirit were carried by something so strong as to delight in the burden. A month, her town doctor had said. A fortnight taught her to wonder why he had said it. Yet she felt lonely – too small for those great hills.
The old nurse, patient, loving, urged her lamb to "go out in the fresh air"; and the lamb went.
It was on a grey day, when the vast hill slopes seemed more than ever sinister and reluctant to the little figure that braved them. She wore an old skirt and an old jacket – her husband had slipped them in when he strapped her boxes.
"They're warm," he had said; "you may need them."
She had a rainbow-dyed neckerchief and a little fur hat, perky with a peacock's iridescent head and crest.
She was very pretty. The paleness of her illness lent her a new charm. And she walked the lonely road with an air. She had never been a great walker, and she was proud of each of the steps that this clear hill air gave her the courage to take.
And it was glorious, after all, to be alone – the only human thing on these wide moors, where the curlews mewed as if the place belonged to them. There was a sound behind her. The rattle of wheels.
She stopped. She turned and looked. Far below her lay the valley – all about her was the immense quiet of the hills. On the white road, quite a long way off, yet audible in that noble stillness, hoofs rang, wheels whirred. She waited for the thing to pass, for its rings of sound to die out in that wide pool of silence.
The wheels and the hoofs drew near. The rattle and jolt grew louder. She saw the horse and cart grow bigger and plainer. In a moment it would have passed. She waited.
It drew near. In another moment it would be gone, and she be left alone to meet again the serious inscrutable face of the grey landscape.
But the cart – as it drew near – drew up, the driver tightened rein, and the rough brown horse stopped – his hairy legs set at a strong angle.
"Have a lift?" asked the driver.
There was something subtly coercive in the absolute carelessness of the tone. There was the hearer on foot – here was the speaker in a cart. She being on foot and he on wheels, it was natural that he should offer her a lift in his cart – it was a greengrocer's cart. She could see celery, cabbages, a barrel or two, and the honest blue eyes of the man who drove it – the man who, seeing a fellow creature at a disadvantage, instantly offered to share such odds as Fate had allotted to him in life's dull handicap.
The sudden new impossible situation appealed to her. If lifts were offered – well – that must mean that lifts were generally accepted. In Rome one does as Rome does. In Derbyshire, evidently, a peacock crested toque might ride, unreproved by social criticism, in a greengrocer's cart. A tea-tray on wheels it seemed to her.
She was a born actress; she had that gift of throwing herself at a moment's notice into a given part which in our silly conventional jargon we nickname tact.
"Thank you," she said, "I should like it very much."
The box on which he arranged a seat for her contained haddocks. He cushioned it with a sack and his own shabby greatcoat, and lent her a thick rough hand for the mounting.
"Which way were you going?" he asked, and his voice was not the soft Peak sing-song – but something far more familiar.
"I was only going for a walk," she said, "but it's much nicer to drive. I wasn't going anywhere. Only I want to get back to Buxton some time."
"I live there," said he. "I must be home by five. I've a goodish round to do. Will five be soon enough for you?"
"Quite," she said, and considered within herself what rôle it would be kindest, most tactful, most truly gentlewomanly to play. She sought to find, in a word, the part to play that would best please the man who was with her. That was what she had always tried to find. With what success let those who love her tell.
"I mustn't seem too clever," she said to herself; "I must just be interested in what he cares about. That's true politeness: mother always said so."
So she talked of the price of herrings and the price of onions, and of trade, and of the difficulty of finding customers who had at once appreciation and a free hand.
When he drew up in some lean grey village, or at the repellent gates of some isolated slate-roofed house, he gave her the reins to hold, while he, with his samples of fruit and fish laid out on basket lids, wooed custom at the doors.
She experienced a strangely crescent interest in his sales.
Between the sales they talked. She found it quite easy, having swept back and penned in the major part of her knowledges and interests, to leave a residuum that was quite enough to meet his needs.
As the chill dusk fell in cloudy folds over the giant hill shoulders and the cart turned towards home, she shivered.
"Are you cold?" he asked solicitously. "The wind strikes keen down between these beastly hills."
"Beastly?" she repeated. "Don't you think they're beautiful?"
"Yes," he said, "of course I see they're beautiful – for other folks, but not for me. What I like is lanes an' elm trees and farm buildings with red tiles and red walls round fruit gardens – and cherry orchards and thorough good rich medders up for hay, and lilac bushes and bits o' flowers in the gardens, same what I was used to at home."
She thrilled to the homely picture.
"Why, that's what I like too!" she said. "These great hills – I don't see how they can feel like home to anyone. There's a bit of an orchard – one end of it is just a red barn wall – and there are hedges round, and it's all soft warm green lights and shadows – and thrushes sing like mad. That's home!"
He looked at her.
"Yes," he said slowly, "that's home."
"And then," she went on, "the lanes with the high green hedges, dog-roses and brambles and may bushes and traveller's joy – and the grey wooden hurdles, and the gates with yellow lichen on them, and the white roads and the light in the farm windows as you come home from work – and the fire – and the smell of apples from the loft."
"Yes," he said, "that's it – I'm a Kentish man myself. You've got a lot o' words to talk with."
When he put her down at the edge of the town she went to rejoin her nurse feeling that to one human being, at least, she had that day been the voice of the home-ideal, and of all things sweet and fair. And, of course, this pleased her very much.
Next morning she woke with the vague but sure sense of something pleasant to come. She remembered almost instantly. She had met a man on whom it was pleasant to smile, and whom her smiles and her talk pleased. And she thought, – quite honestly, – that she was being very philanthropic and lightening a dull life.
She wrote a long loving letter to John, did a little shopping, and walked out along a road. It was the road by which he had told her that he would go the next day. He overtook her and pulled up with a glad face, that showed her the worth of her smiles and almost repaid it.
"I was wondering if I'd see you," he said; "was you tired yesterday? It's a fine day to-day."
"Isn't it glorious!" she returned, blinking at the pale clear sun.
"It makes everything look a heap prettier, doesn't it? Even this country that looks like as if it had had all the colour washed out of it in strong soda and suds."
"Yes," she said. And then he spoke of yesterday's trade – he had done well; and of the round he had to go to-day. But he did not offer her a lift.
"Won't you give me a drive to-day?" she asked suddenly. "I enjoyed it so much."
"Will you?" he cried, his face lighting up as he moved to arrange the sacks. "I didn't like to offer. I thought you'd think I was takin' too much on myself. Come up – reach me your hand. Right oh!"
The cart clattered away.
"I was thinking ever since yesterday when I see you how is it you can think o' so many words all at once. It's just as if you was seeing it all – the way you talked about the red barns and the grey gates and all such."
"I do see it," she said, "inside my mind, you know. I can see it all as plainly as I see these great cruel hills."
"Yes," said he, "that's just what they are – they're cruel. And the fields and woods is kind – like folks you're friends with."
She was charmed with the phrase. She talked to him, coaxing him to make new phrases. It was like teaching a child to walk.
He told her about his home. It was a farm in Kent – "red brick with the glorydyjohn rose growin' all up over the front door – so that they never opened it."
"The paint had stuck it fast," said he, "it was quite a job to get it open to get father's coffin out. I scraped the paint off then, and oiled the hinges, because I knew mother wouldn't last long. And she didn't neither."
Then he told her how there had been no money to carry on the fruit-growing, and how his sister had married a greengrocer at Buxton, and when everything went wrong he had come to lend a hand with their business.
"And now I takes the rounds," said he; "it's more to my mind nor mimming in the shop and being perlite to ladies."
"You're very polite to me," she said.
"Oh, yes," he said, "but you're not a lady – leastways, I'm sure you are in your 'art – but you ain't a regular tip-topper, are you, now?"
"Well, no," she said, "perhaps not that."
It piqued her that he should not have seen that she was a lady – and yet it pleased her too. It was a tribute to her power of adapting herself to her environment.
The cart rattled gaily on – he talked with more and more confidence; she with a more and more pleased consciousness of her perfect tact. As they went a beautiful idea came to her. She would do the thing thoroughly – why not? The episode might as well be complete.
"I wish you'd let me help you to sell the things," she said. "I should like it."
"Wouldn't you be above it?" he asked.
"Not a bit," she answered gaily. "Only I must learn the prices of things. Tell me. How much are the herrings?"
He told her – and at the first village she successfully sold seven herrings, five haddocks, three score of potatoes, and so many separate pounds of apples that she lost count.
He was lavish of his praises.
"You might have been brought up to it from a girl," he said, and she wondered how old he thought she was then.
She yawned no more over dull novels now – Buxton no longer bored her. She had suddenly discovered a new life – a new stage on which to play a part, her own ability in mastering which filled her with the pleasure of a clever child, or a dog who has learned a new trick. Of course, it was not a new trick; it was the old one.
It was impossible not to go out with the greengrocer every day. What else was there to do? How else could she exercise her most perfectly developed talent – that of smiling on people till they loved her? We all like to do that which we can do best. And she never felt so contented as when she was exercising this incontestable talent of hers. She did not know the talent for what it was. She called it "being nice to people."
So every day saw her, with roses freshening in her cheeks, driving over the moors in the wheeled tea-tray. And now she sold regularly. One day he said —
"What a wife you'd make for a business chap!" But even that didn't warn her, because she happened to be thinking of Jack – and she thought how good a wife she meant to be to him. He was a "business chap" too.
"What are you really – by trade, I mean?" he said on another occasion.
"Nothing in particular. What did you think I was?" she said.
"Oh – I dunno – I thought a lady's maid, as likely as not, or maybe in the dressmaking. You aren't a common sort – anyone can see that."
Again pique and pleasure fought in her.
She never so much as thought of telling him that she was married. She saw no reason for it. It was her rôle to enter into his life, not to dazzle him with visions of hers.
At last that happened which was bound to happen. And it happened under the shadow of a great rock, in a cleft, green-grown and sheltered, where the road runs beside the noisy, stony, rapid, unnavigable river.
He had drawn the cart up on the grass, and she had got down and was sitting on a stone eating sandwiches, for her nurse had persuaded her to take her lunch with her so as to spend every possible hour on these life-giving moors. He had eaten bread and cheese standing by the horse's head. It was a holiday. He was not selling fish and vegetables. He was in his best, and she had never liked him so little. As she finished her last dainty bite he threw away the crusts and rinds of his meal and came over to her.
"Well," he said, with an abrupt tenderness that at once thrilled and revolted her, "don't you think it's time as we settled something betwixt us?"
"I don't know what you mean," she said. But, quite suddenly and terribly, she did.
"Why," he said, "I know well enough you're miles too good for a chap like me – but if you don't think so, that's all right. And I tell you straight, you're the only girl I ever so much as fancied."
"Oh," she breathed, "do you mean – "
"You know well enough what I mean, my pretty," he said; "but if you want it said out like in books, I've got it all on my tongue. I love every inch of you, and your clever ways, and your pretty talk. I haven't touched a drop these eight months – I shall get on right enough with you to help me – and we'll be so happy as never was. There ain't ne'er a man in England'll set more store by his wife nor I will by you, nor be prouder on her. You shan't do no hard work – I promise you that. Only just drive out with me and turn the customers round your finger. I don't ask no questions about you nor your folks. I know you're an honest girl, and I'd trust you with my head. Come, give me a kiss, love, and call it a bargain."
She had stood up while he was speaking, but she literally could not find words to stop the flow of his speech. Now she shrank back and said, "No – no!"
"Don't you be so shy, my dear," he said. "Come – just one! And then I'll take you home and interduce you to my sister. You'll like her. I've told her all about you."
Waves of unthinkable horror seemed to be closing over her head. She struck out bravely, and it seemed as though she were swimming for her life.
"No," she cried, "it's impossible! You don't understand! You don't know!"
"I know you've been keeping company with me these ten days," he said, and his voice had changed. "What did you do it for if you didn't mean nothing by it?"
"I didn't know," she said wretchedly. "I thought you liked being friends."
"If it's what you call 'friends,' being all day long with a chap, I don't so call it," he said. "But come – you're playing skittish now, ain't you? Don't tease a chap like this. Can't you see I love you too much to stand it? I know it sounds silly to say it – but I love you before all the world – I do – my word I do!"
He held out his arms.
"I see – I see you do," she cried, all her tact washed away by this mighty sea that had suddenly swept over her. "But I can't. I'm – I'm en – I'm promised to another young man."
"I wonder what he'll say to this," he said slowly.
"I'm so – so sorry," she said; "I'd no idea – "
"I see," he said, "you was just passing the time with me – and you never wanted me at all. And I thought you did. Get in, miss. I'll take you back to the town. I've just about had enough holiday for one day."
"I am so sorry," she kept saying. But he never answered.
"Do forgive me!" she said at last. "Indeed, I didn't mean – "
"Didn't mean," said he, lashing up the brown horse; "no – and it don't matter to you if I think about you and want you every day and every night so long as I live. It ain't nothing to you. You've had your fun. And you've got your sweetheart. God, I wish him joy of you!"
"Ah – don't," she said, and her soft voice even here, even now, did not miss its effect. "I do like you very, very much – and – "
She had never failed. She did not fail now. Before they reached the town he had formally forgiven her.
"I don't suppose you meant no harm," he said grudgingly; "though coming from Kent you ought to know how it is about walking out with a chap. But you say you didn't, and I'll believe you. But I shan't get over this, this many a long day, so don't you make no mistake. Why, I ain't thought o' nothing else but you ever since I first set eyes on you. There – don't you cry no more. I can't abear to see you cry."
He was blinking himself.
Outside the town he stopped.
"Good-bye," he said. "I haven't got nothing agin you – but I wish to Lord above I'd never seen you. I shan't never fancy no one else after you."
"Don't be unhappy," she said. And then she ought to have said good-bye. But the devil we call the force of habit would not let her leave well alone.
"I want to give you something," she said; "a keepsake, to show I shall always be your friend. Will you call at the house where I'm staying this evening at eight? I'll have it ready for you. Don't think too unkindly of me! Will you come?"
He asked the address, and said "Yes." He wanted to see her – just once again, and he would certainly like the keepsake.
She went home and looked out a beautiful book of Kentish photographs. It was a wedding present, and she had brought it with her to solace her in her exile by pictures of the home-land. Her unconscious thought was something like this: "Poor fellow; poor, poor fellow! But he behaved like a gentleman about it. I suppose there is something in the influence of a sympathetic woman – I am glad I was a good influence."
She bathed her burning face, cooled it with soft powder, and slipped into a tea-gown. It was a trousseau one of rich, heavy, yellow silk and old lace and fur. She chose it because it was warm, and she was shivering with agitation and misery. Then she went and sat with the old nurse, and a few minutes before eight she ran out and stood by the front door so as to open it before he should knock. She achieved this.
"Come in," she said, and led him into the lodging-house parlour and closed the door.
"It was good of you to come," she said, taking the big, beautiful book from the table. "This is what I want you to take, just to remind you that we're friends."
She had forgotten the tea-gown. She was not conscious that the accustomed suavity of line, the soft richness of texture influenced voice, gait, smile, gesture. But they did. Her face was flushed after her tears, and the powder, which she had forgotten to dust off, added the last touch to her beauty.
He took the book, but he never even glanced at the silver and tortoise-shell of its inlaid cover. He was looking at her, and his eyes were covetous and angry.
"Are you an actress, or what?"
"No," she said, shrinking. "Why?"
"What the hell are you, then?" he snarled furiously.
"I'm – I'm – a – "
The old nurse, scared by the voice raised beyond discretion, had dragged herself to the door of division between her room and the parlour, and now stood clinging to the door handle.
"She's a lady, young man," said the nurse severely; "and her aunt's a lady of title, and don't you forget it!"
"Forget it," he cried, with a laugh that Jack's wife remembers still; "she's a lady, and she's fooled me this way? I won't forget it, nor she shan't neither! By God, I'll give her something to forget!"
With that he caught the silken tea-gown and Jack's trembling wife in his arms and kissed her more than once. They were horrible kisses, and the man smelt of onions and hair-oil.
"And I loved her – curse her!" he cried, flinging her away, so that she fell against the arm of the chair by the fire.
He went out, slamming both doors. She had softened and bewitched him to the forgiving of the outrage that her indifference was to his love. The outrage of her station's condescension to his was unforgivable.
She went back to her Jack next day. She was passionately glad to see him. "Oh, Jack," she said, "I'll never, never go away from you again!"
But the greengrocer from Kent reeled down the street to the nearest public-house. At closing time he was telling, in muffled, muddled speech, the wondrous tale, how his girl was a real lady, awfully gone on him, pretty as paint, and wore silk dresses every day.
"She's a real lady – she is," he said.
"Ay!" said the chucker out, "we know all about them sort o' ladies. Time, please!"
"I tell you she is – her aunt's a lady of title, and the gal's that gone on me I expect I'll have to marry her to keep her quiet."
"I'll have to chuck you out to keep you quiet," returned the other. "Come on – outside!"