THE pearl of the dawn was not yet dissolved in the gold cup of the sunshine, but in the northwest the dripping opal waves were ebbing fast to the horizon, and the sun was already half risen from his couch of dull crimson. She leaned out of her window. By fortunate chance it was a jasmine-muffled lattice, as a girl's window should be, and looked down on the dewy stillness of the garden. The cloudy shadows that had clung in the earliest dawn about the lilac bushes and rhododendrons had faded like grey ghosts, and slowly on lawn and bed and path new black shadows were deepening and intensifying.
She drew a deep breath. What a picture! The green garden, the awakened birds, the roses that still looked asleep, the scented jasmine stars! She saw and loved it all. Nor was she unduly insensible to the charm of the central figure, the girl in the white lace-trimmed gown who leaned her soft arms on the window-sill and looked out on the dawn with large dark eyes. Of course, she knew that her eyes were large and dark, also that her hair was now at its prettiest, rumpled and tumbled from the pillow, and far prettier so than one dared to allow it to be in the daytime. It seemed a pity that there should be no one in the garden save the birds, no one who had awakened thus early just that he might gather a rose and cover it with kisses and throw it up to the window of his pretty sweetheart. She had but recently learned that she was pretty. It was on the evening after the little dance at the Rectory. She had worn red roses at her neck, and when she had let down her hair she had picked up the roses from her dressing-table and stuck them in the loose, rough, brown mass, and stared into the glass till she was half mesmerised by her own dark eyes. She had come to herself with a start, and then she had known quite surely that she was pretty enough to be anyone's sweetheart. When she was a child a well-meaning aunt had told her that as she would never be pretty or clever she had better try to be good, or no one would love her. She had tried, and she had never till that red-rose day doubted that such goodness as she had achieved must be her only claim to love. Now she knew better, and she looked out of her window at the brightening sky and the deepening shadows. But there was no one to throw her a rose with kisses on it.
"If I were a man," she said to herself, but in a very secret shadowy corner of her inmost heart, and in a wordless whisper, "if I were a man, I would go out this minute and find a sweetheart. She should have dark eyes, too, and rough brown hair, and pink cheeks."
In the outer chamber of her mind she said briskly —
"It's a lovely morning. It's a shame to waste it indoors. I'll go out."
The sun was fully up when she stole down through the still sleeping house and out into the garden, now as awake as a lady in full dress at the court of the King.
The garden gate fell to behind her, and the swing of her white skirts went down the green lane. On such a morning who would not wear white? She walked with the quick grace of her nineteen years, and as she went fragments of the undigested poetry that had been her literary diet of late swirled in her mind —
"With tears and smiles from heaven again,
The maiden spring upon the plain
Came in a sunlit fall of rain,"
and so on, though this was July, and not spring at all. And —
"A man had given all other bliss
And all his worldly work for this,
To waste his whole heart in one kiss
Upon her perfect lips."
Her own lips were not perfect, yet, as lips went, they were well enough, and, anyway, kisses would not be wasted on them.
She went down the lane, full of the anxious trembling longing that is youth's unrecognised joy, and at the corner, where the lane meets the high white road, she met him. That is to say, she stopped short, as the whispering silence of the morning was broken by a sudden rattle and a heavy thud, not pleasant to hear. And he and his bicycle fell together, six yards from her feet. The bicycle bounded, and twisted, and settled itself down with bold, resentful clatterings. The man lay without moving.
Her Tennyson quotations were swept away. She ran to help.
"Oh, are you hurt?" she said. He lay quite still. There was blood on his head, and one arm was doubled under his back. What could she do? She tried to lift him from the road to the grass edge of it. He was a big man, but she did succeed in raising his shoulders, and freeing that right arm. As she lifted it, he groaned. She sat down in the dust of the road, and lowered his shoulders till his head lay on her lap. Then she tied her handkerchief round his head, and waited till someone should pass on the way to work. Three men and a boy came after the long half hour in which he lay unconscious, the red patch on her handkerchief spreading slowly, and she looking at him, and getting by heart every line of the pale, worn, handsome face. She spoke to him, she stroked his hair. She touched his white cheek with her finger-tips, and wondered about him, and pitied him, and took possession of him as a new and precious appanage of her life, so that when the labourers appeared, she said —
"He's very badly hurt. Go and fetch some more men and a hurdle, and the boy might run for the doctor. Tell him to come to the White House. It's nearest, and it may be dangerous to move him further."
"The 'Blue Lion' ain't but a furlong further, miss," said one of the men, touching his cap.
"It's much more than that," said she, who had but the vaguest notion of a furlong's length. "Do go and do what I tell you."
They went, and, as they went, remorselessly dissected, with the bluntest instruments, her motives and her sentiments. It was not hidden from them, that wordless whisper in the shadowy inner chamber of her heart. "Perhaps the 'Blue Lion' isn't so very much further, but I can't give him up. No, I can't." But it was almost hidden from her. In her mind's outer hall she said —
"I'm sure I ought to take him home. No girl in a book would hesitate. And I can make it all right with mother. It would be cruel to give him up to strangers."
Deep in her heart the faint whisper followed —
"I found him; he's mine. I won't let him go."
He stirred a little before they came back with the hurdle, and she took his uninjured hand, and pressed it firmly and kindly, and told him it was "all right," he would feel better presently.
She did have him carried home, and when the doctor had set the arm and the collar-bone, and had owned that it would be better not to move him at present, she knew that her romance would not be cut short just yet. She did not nurse him, because it is only in books that young girls of the best families act as sick-nurses to gentlemen. But her mother – dear, kind, clever, foolish gentlewoman – did the nursing, and the daughter gathered flowers daily to brighten his room. And when he was better, yet still not well enough to resume the bicycle tour so sharply interrupted by a flawed nut, she read to him, and talked to him, and sat with him in the hushed August garden. Up to this point, observe, her interest had been purely romantic. He was a man of forty-five. Perhaps he had a younger brother, a splendid young man, and the brother would like her because she had been kind. He had lived long abroad, had no relatives in England. He knew her Cousin Reginald at Johannesburg – everyone knew everyone else out there. The brother – there really was a brother – would come some day to thank her mother for all her goodness, and she would be at the window and look down, and he would look up, and the lamp of life would be lighted. She longed, with heart-whole earnestness, to be in love with someone, for as yet she was only in love with love.
But on the evening when there was a full moon – the time of madness as everybody knows – her mother falling asleep after dinner in her cushioned chair in the lamp lit drawing-room, he and she wandered out into the garden. They sat on the seat under the great apple tree. He was talking gently of kindness and gratitude, and of how he would soon be well enough to go away. She listened in silence, and presently he grew silent, too, under the spell of the moonlight. She never knew exactly how it was that he took her hand, but he was holding it gently, strongly, as if he would never let it go. Their shoulders touched. The silence grew deeper and deeper. She sighed involuntarily; not because she was unhappy, but because her heart was beating so fast. Both were looking straight before them into the moonlight. Suddenly he turned, put his other hand on her shoulder, and kissed her on the lips. At that instant her mother called her, and she went into the lamp-light. She said good night at once. She wanted to be alone, to realise the great and wonderful awakening of her nature, its awakening to love – for this was love, the love the poets sang about —
"A kiss, a touch, the charm, was snapped."
She wanted to be alone to think about him. But she did not think. She hugged to her heart the physical memory of that strong magnetic hand-clasp, the touch of those smooth sensitive lips on hers – held it close to her till she fell asleep, still thrilling with the ecstasy of her first lover's kiss.
Next day they were formally engaged, and now her life became an intermittent delirium. She longed always to be alone with him, to touch his hands, to feel his cheek against hers. She could not understand the pleasure which he said he felt in just sitting near her and watching her sewing or reading, as he sat talking to her mother of dull things – politics, and the war, and landscape gardening. If she had been a man, she said to herself, always far down in her heart, she would have found a way to sit near the beloved, so that at least hands might meet now and then unseen. But he disliked public demonstrations, and he loved her. She, however, was merely in love with him.
That was why, when he went away, she found it so difficult to write to him. She thought his letters cold, though they told her of all his work, his aims, ambitions, hopes, because not more than half a page was filled with lover's talk. He could have written very different letters – indeed, he had written such in his time, and to more than one address; but he was wise with the wisdom of forty years, and he was beginning to tremble for her happiness, because he loved her.
When she complained that his letters were cold he knew that he had been wise. She found it very difficult to write to him. It was far easier to write to Cousin Reginald, who always wrote such long, interesting letters, all about interesting things – Cousin Reginald who had lived with them at the White House till a year ago, and who knew all the little family jokes, and the old family worries.
They had been engaged for eight months when he came down to see her without any warning letter.
She was alone in the drawing-room when he was announced, and with a cry of joy, she let fall her work on the floor, and ran to meet him with arms outstretched. He caught her wrists.
"No," he said, and the light of joy in her face made it not easy to say it. "My dear, I've come to say something to you, and I mustn't kiss you till I've said it."
The light had died out.
"You're not tired of me?"
He laughed. "No, not tired of you, my little princess, but I am going away for a year. If you still love me when I come back we'll be married. But before I go I must say something to you."
Her eyes were streaming with tears.
"Oh, how can you be so cruel?" she said, and her longing to cling to him, to reassure herself by personal contact, set her heart beating wildly.
"I don't want to be cruel," he said; "you understand, dear, that I love you, and it's just because I love you that I must say it. Now sit down there and let me speak. Don't interrupt me if you can help it. Consider it a sort of lecture you're bound to sit through."
He pushed her gently towards a chair. She sat down sulkily, awkwardly, and he stood by the window, looking out at the daffodils and early tulips.
"Dear, I am afraid I have found something out. I don't think you love me – "
"Oh, how can you, how can you?"
"Be patient," he said. "I've wondered almost from the first. You're almost a child, and I'm an old man – oh, no, I don't mean that that's any reason why you shouldn't love me, but it's a reason for my making very sure that you do before I let you marry me. It's your happiness I have to think of most. Now shall I just go away for a year, or shall I speak straight out and tell you everything? If your father were alive I would try to tell him; I can't tell your mother, she wouldn't understand. You can understand. Shall I tell you?"
"Yes," she said, looking at him with frightened eyes.
"Well: look back. You think you love me. Haven't my letters always bored you a little, though they were about all the things I care for most?"
"I don't understand politics," she said sullenly.
"And I don't understand needle-work, but I could sit and watch you sew for ever and a day."
"Well, go on. What other crime have I committed besides not going into raptures over Parliament?"
She was growing angry, and he was glad. It is not so easy to hurt people when they are angry.
"And when I am talking to your mother, that bores you too, and when we are alone, you don't care to talk of anything, but – but – "
This task was harder than he had imagined possible.
"I've loved you too much, and I've shown it too plainly," she said bitterly.
"My dear, you've never loved me at all. You have only been in love with me."
"And isn't that the same thing?"
"Oh! it's no use," he said, "I must be a brute then. No, it's not the same thing. It's your poets and novelists who pretend it is. It's they who have taught you all wrong. It's only half of love, and the worst half, the most untrustworthy, the least lasting. My little girl, when I kissed you first, you were just waking up to your womanhood, you were ready for love, as a flower-bud is ready for sunshine, and I happened to be the first man who had the chance to kiss you and hold your dear little hands."
"Do you mean that I should have liked anyone else as well if he had only been kind enough to kiss me?"
"No, no; but … I wish girls were taught these things out of books. If you only knew what it costs me to be honest with you, how I have been tempted to let you marry me and chance everything! Don't you see you're a woman now – women were made to be kissed, and when a man behaves like a brute and kisses a girl without even asking first, or finding out first whether she loves him, it's not fair on the girl. I shall never forgive myself. Don't you see I took part of you by storm, the part of you that is just woman nature, not yours but everyone's; and how were you to know that you didn't love me, that it was only the awakening of your woman nature?"
"I hate you," she said briefly.
"Yes," he answered simply, "I knew you would. Hate is only one step from passion."
She rose in a fury. "How dare you use that word to me!" she cried. "Oh, you are a brute! You are quite right: I don't love you – I hate you, I despise you. Oh, you brute!"
"Don't," he said; "I only used that word because it's what people call the thing when it's a man who feels it. With you it's what I said, the unconscious awakening of the womanhood God gave you. Try to forgive me. Have I said anything so very dreadful? It's a very little thing, dear, the sweet kindness you've felt for me. It's nothing to be ashamed or angry about. It's not a hundredth part of what I have felt when you have kissed me. It's because it's such a poor foundation to build a home on that I am frightened for you. Suppose you got tired of my kisses, and there was nothing more in me that you did care for. And that sort of … lover's love doesn't last for ever – without the other kind of love – "
"Oh, don't say any more," she cried, jumping up from her chair. "I did love you with all my heart. I was sorry for you. I thought you were so different. Oh, how could you say these things to me? Go!"
"Shall I come back in a year?" he asked, smiling rather sadly.
"Come back? Never! I'll never speak to you again. I'll never see you again. I hope to God I shall never hear your name again. Go at once!"
"You'll be grateful to me some day," he said, "when you've found out that love and being in love are not the same thing."
"What is love, then? The kind of love you'd care for?"
"I care for it all," he said. "I think love is tenderness, esteem, affection, interest, pity, protection, and passion. Yes, you needn't be frightened by the word; it is the force that moves the world, but it's only a part of love. Oh, I see it's no good. God bless you, child: you'll understand some day!"
She does understand now; she has married her Cousin Reginald, and she understands deeply and completely. But she only admits this in that deep, shadowy, almost disowned corner of her heart. In the reception room of her mind she still thinks of her first lover as "That Brute!"
"AND so I look in to see her whenever I can spare half an hour. I fancy it cheers her up a bit to have some one to talk to about Edinburgh – and all that. You say you're going to tell her about its having been my doing, your getting that berth. Now, I won't have it. You promised you wouldn't. I hate jaw, as you know, and I don't want to have her gassing about gratitude and all that rot. I don't like it, even from you. So stow all that piffle. You'd do as much for me, any day. I suppose Edinburgh is a bit dull, but you've got all the higher emotions of our fallen nature to cheer you up. Essex Court is dull, if you like! It's three years since I had the place to myself, and I tell you it's pretty poor sport. I don't seem to care about duchesses or the gilded halls nowadays. Getting old, I suppose. Really, my sole recreation is going to see another man's girl, and letting her prattle prettily about him. Lord, what fools these mortals be! Sorry I couldn't answer your letter before. I suppose you'll be running up for Christmas! So long! I'm taking her down those Ruskins she wanted. Here's luck!"
The twisted knot of three thin initials at the end of the letter stood for one of the set of names painted on the black door of the Temple Chambers. The other names were those of Tom, who had strained a slender competence to become a barrister, and finding the achievement unremunerative, had been glad enough to get the chance of sub-editing a paper in Edinburgh.
Dick enveloped and stamped his letter, threw it on the table, and went into his bedroom. When he came back in a better coat and a newer tie he looked at the letter and shrugged his shoulders, and he frowned all the way down the three flights and as far as Brick Court. Here he posted the letter. Then he shrugged his shoulders again, but after the second shrug the set of them was firmer.
As his hansom swung through the dancing lights of the Strand, he shrugged his shoulders for the third time.
And, at that, his tame devil came as at a signal, and drew a pretty curtain across all thoughts save one – the thought of the "other man's girl." Indeed, hardly a thought was left, rather a sense of her – of those disquieting soft eyes of hers – the pretty hands, the frank laugh – the long, beautiful lines her gowns took on – the unexpected twists and curves of her hair – above all, the reserve, veiling tenderness as snowflakes might veil a rose, with which she spoke of the other man.
Dick had known Tom for all of their men's lives, and they had been friends. Both had said so often enough. But now he thought of him as the "other man."
The lights flashed past. Dick's eyes were fixed on a picture. A pleasant room – an artist's room – prints, sketches, green curtains, the sparkle of old china, fire and candle light. A girl in a long straight dress; he could see the little line where it would catch against her knee as she came forward to meet him with both hands outstretched. Would it be both hands? He decided that it would – to-night.
He was right, even to the little line in the sea-blue gown.
Both hands; such long, thin, magnetic hands.
"You are good," she said at once. "Oh – you must let me thank you. Tom's told me who it was that got him that splendid berth. Oh – what a friend you are! And lending him the money and everything. I can't tell you – It's too much – You are – "
"Don't," he said; "it's nothing at all."
"It's everything," said she. "Tom's told me quite all about it, mind! I know we owe everything to you."
"My dear Miss Harcourt," he began. But she interrupted him.
"Why not Harry?" she asked. "I thought – "
"Yes. Thank you. But it was nothing. You see I couldn't let poor old Tom go on breaking his heart in silence, when just writing a letter or two would put him in a position to speak."
She had held his hands, or he hers, or both, all this time. Now she moved away to the fire.
"Come and sit down and be comfortable," she said. "This is the chair you like. And I've got some cigarettes, your very own kind, from the Stores."
She remembered a time when she had thought that it was he, Dick, who might break his heart for her. The remembrance of that vain thought was a constant pin-prick to her vanity, a constant affront to her modesty. She had tried to snub him in those days – to show him that his hopes were vain. And after all he hadn't had any hopes: he'd only been anxious about Tom! In the desolation of her parting from Tom she had longed for sympathy. Dick had given it, and she had been kinder to him than she had ever been to any man but her lover – first, because he was her lover's friend, and, secondly, because she wanted to pretend to herself that she had never fancied that there was any reason for not being kind to him.
She sat down in the chair opposite to his.
"Now," she said, "I won't thank you any more, if you hate it so; but you are good, and neither of us will ever forget it."
He sat silent for a moment. He had played for this – for this he had delayed to answer the letter wherein Tom announced his intention of telling Harriet the whole fair tale of his friend's goodness. He had won the trick. Yet for an instant he hesitated to turn it over. Then he shrugged his shoulders – I will not mention this again, but it was a tiresome way he had when the devil or the guardian angel were working that curtain I told you of – and said —
"Dear little lady – you make me wish that I were good."
Then he sighed: it was quite a real sigh, and she wondered whether he could possibly not be good right through. Was it possible that he was wicked in some of those strange, mysterious ways peculiar to men: billiards – barmaids – opera-balls flashed into her mind. Perhaps she might help him to be good. She had heard the usual pretty romances about the influence of a good woman.
"Come," she said, "light up – and tell me all about everything."
So he told her many things. And now and then he spoke of Tom, just to give himself the pleasure-pain of that snow-veiled-rose aspect.
He kissed her hand when he left her – a kiss of studied brotherliness. Yet the kiss had in it a tiny heart of fire, fierce enough to make her wonder, when he had left her, whether, after all… But she put the thought away hastily. "I may be a vain fool," she said, "but I won't be fooled by my vanity twice over."
And she kissed Tom's portrait and went to bed.
Dick went home in a heavenly haze of happiness – so he told himself as he went. When he woke up at about three o'clock, and began to analyse his sensations, he had cooled enough to call it an intoxication of pleasurable emotion. At three in the morning, if ever, the gilt is off the ginger-bread.
Dick lay on his back, his hands clenched at his sides, and, gazing open-eyed into the darkness, he saw many things. He saw all the old friendship: the easy, jolly life in those rooms, the meeting with Harriet Harcourt – it was at a fancy-ball, and she wore the white-and-black dress of a Beardsley lady; he remembered the contrast of the dress with her eyes and mouth.
He saw the days when his thoughts turned more and more to every chance of meeting her, as though each had been his only chance of life. He saw the Essex Court sitting-room as it had looked on the night when Tom had announced that Harriet was the only girl in the world – adding, at almost a night's length, that impassioned statement of his hopeless, financial condition. He could hear Tom's voice as he said —
"And I know she cares!"
Dick felt again the thrill of pleasure that had come with the impulse to be, for once, really noble, to efface himself, to give up the pursuit that lighted his days, the dream that enchanted his nights. His own voice, too, he heard —
"Cheer up, old chap! We'll find a lucrative post for you in five minutes, and set the wedding bells a-ringing in half an hour, or less! Why on earth didn't you tell me before?"
The glow of conscious nobility had lasted a long while – nearly a week, if he recollected aright. Then had come the choice of two openings for Tom, one in London, and one, equally good, in Edinburgh. Dick had chosen to offer to his friend the one in Edinburgh. He had told himself then that both lovers would work better if they were not near enough to waste each other's time, and he had almost believed – he was almost sure, even now, that he had almost believed – that this was the real reason.
But when Tom had gone there had been frank tears in the lovers' parting, and Dick had walked up the platform to avoid the embarrassment of witnessing them.
"You beast, you brute, you hound!" said Dick to himself, lying rigid and wretched in the darkness. "You knew well enough that you wanted him out of the way. And you promised to look after her and keep her from being dull. And you've done all you can to keep your word, haven't you? She hasn't been dull, I swear. And you've been playing for your own hand – and that poor stupid honest chap down there slaving away and trusting you as he trusts God. And you've written him lying letters twice a week, and betrayed him, as far as you got the chance, every day, and seen what a cur you are, every night, as you see it now. Oh, yes – you're succeeding splendidly. She forgets to think of Tom when she's talking to you. How often did she mention him last night? It was you every time. You're not fit to speak to a decent man, you reptile!"
He relaxed the clenched hands.
"Can't you stop this infernal see-saw?" he asked, pounding at his pillow; "light and fire every day, and hell-black ice every night. Look at it straight, you coward! If you're game to face the music, why, face it! Marry her, and friendship and honesty be damned! Or perhaps you might screw yourself up to another noble act – not a shoddy one this time."
Still sneering, he got up and pottered about in slippers and pyjamas till he had stirred together the fire and made himself cocoa. He drank it and smoked two pipes. This is very unromantic, but so it was. He slept after that.
When he woke in the morning all things looked brighter. He almost succeeded in pretending that he did not despise himself.
But there was a letter from Tom, and the guardian angel took charge of the curtain again.
He was tired, brain and body. The prize seemed hardly worth the cost. The question of relative values, at any rate, seemed debatable. The day passed miserably.
At about five o'clock he was startled to feel the genuine throb of an honest impulse. Such an impulse in him at that hour of the day, when usually the devil was arranging the curtain for the evening's tragi-comedy, was so unusual as to rouse in him a psychologic interest strong enough to come near to destroying its object. But the flame of pleasure lighted by the impulse fought successfully against the cold wind of cynical analysis, and he stood up.
"Upon my word," said he, "the copy-books are right – 'Be virtuous and you will be happy.' At least if you aren't, you won't. And if you are… One could but try!"
He packed a bag. He went out and sent telegrams to his people at King's Lynn, and to all the folk in town with whom he ought in these next weeks to have danced and dined, and he wrote a telegram to her. But that went no further than the floor of the Fleet Street Post Office, where it lay in trampled, scattered rhomboids.
Then he dined in Hall – he could not spare from his great renunciation even such a thread of a thought as should have decided his choice of a restaurant; and he went back to the gloomy little rooms and wrote a letter to Tom.
It seemed, until his scientific curiosity was aroused by the seeming, that he wrote with his heart's blood. After the curiosity awoke, the heart's blood was only highly-coloured water.
"Look here. I can't stand it any longer. I'm a brute and I know it, and I know you'll think so. The fact is I've fallen in love with your Harry, and I simply can't bear it seeing her every day almost and knowing she's yours and not mine" (there the analytic demon pricked up its ears and the scratching of the pen ceased). "I have fought against this," the letter went on after a long pause. "You don't know how I've fought, but it's stronger than I am. I love her – impossibly, unbearably – the only right and honourable thing to do is to go away, and I'm going. My only hope is that she'll never know."Your old friend."
As he scrawled the signatory hieroglyphic, his only hope was that she would know it, and that the knowledge would leaven, with tenderly pitying thoughts of him, the heroic figure, her happiness with Tom, the commonplace.
He addressed and stamped the envelope; but he did not close it.
"I might want to put in another word or two," he said to himself. And even then in his inmost heart he hardly knew that he was going to her. He knew it when he was driving towards Chenies Street, and then he told himself that he was going to bid her good-bye – for ever.
Angel and devil were so busy shifting the curtain to and fro that he could not see any scene clearly.