The Literary Sense

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The Literary Sense

"Want mammy," she said sleepily, and at the transfer remembered her father, "and daddy too," she added politely.

Miss Eden was somewhere or other. Wherever she was she was alone.

And these three were together.

"I daresay you're right about that girl," said Mr. Despard. "Poor wretch! By Jove, she was ugly!"

THE LOVER, THE GIRL, AND THE ONLOOKER

The two were alone in the grassy courtyard of the ruined castle. The rest of the picnic party had wandered away from them, or they from it. Out of the green-grown mound of fallen masonry by the corner of the chapel a great may-bush grew, silvered and pearled on every scented, still spray. The sky was deep, clear, strong blue above, and against the blue, the wallflowers shone bravely from the cracks and crevices of ruined arch and wall and buttress.

"They shine like gold," she said. "I wish one could get at them!"

"Do you want some?" he said, and on the instant his hand had found a strong jutting stone, his foot a firm ledge – and she saw his figure, grey flannel against grey stone, go up the wall towards the yellow flowers.

"Oh, don't!" she cried. "I don't really want them – please not – I wish – "

Then she stopped, because he was already some twelve feet from the ground, and she knew that one should not speak to a man who is climbing ruined walls. So she clasped her hands and waited, and her heart seemed to go out like a candle in the wind, and to leave only a dark, empty, sickening space where, a moment before, it had beat in anxious joy. For she loved him, had loved him these two years, had loved him since the day of their first meeting. And that was just as long as he had loved her. But he had never told his love. There is a code of honour, right or wrong, and it forbids a man with an income of a hundred and fifty a year to speak of love to a girl who is reckoned an heiress. There are plenty who transgress the code, but they are in all the other stories. He drove his passion on the curb, and mastered it. Yet the questions – Does she love me? Does she know I love her? Does she wonder why I don't speak? and the counter-questions – Will she think I don't care? Doesn't she perhaps care at all? Will she marry someone else before I've earned the right to try to make her love me? afforded a see-saw of reflection, agonising enough, for those small hours of wakefulness when we let our emotions play the primitive games with us. But always the morning brought strength to keep to his resolution. He saw her three times a year, when Christmas, Easter, and Midsummer brought her to stay with an aunt, brought him home to his people for holidays. And though he had denied himself the joy of speaking in words, he had let his eyes speak more than he knew. And now he had reached the wallflowers high up, and was plucking them and throwing them down so that they fell in a wavering bright shower round her feet. She did not pick them up. Her eyes were on him; and the empty place where her heart used to be seemed to swell till it almost choked her.

He was coming down now. He was only about twenty-five feet from the ground. There was no sound at all but the grating of his feet as he set them on the stones, and the movement, now and then, of a bird in the ivy. Then came a rustle, a gritty clatter, loud falling stones: his foot had slipped, and he had fallen. No – he was hanging by his hands above the great refectory arch, and his body swung heavily with the impetus of the checked fall. He was moving along now, slowly – hanging by his hands; now he grasped an ivy root – another – and pulled himself up till his knee was on the moulding of the arch. She would never have believed anyone who had told her that only two minutes had been lived between the moment of his stumble and the other moment when his foot touched the grass and he came towards her among the fallen wallflowers. She was a very nice girl and not at all forward, and I cannot understand or excuse her conduct. She made two steps towards him with her hands held out – caught him by the arms just above the elbow – shook him angrily, as one shakes a naughty child – looked him once in the eyes and buried her face in his neck – sobbing long, dry, breathless sobs.

Even then he tried to be strong.

"Don't!" he said tenderly, "don't worry. It's all right – I was a fool. Pull yourself together – there's someone coming."

"I don't care," she said, for the touch of his cheek, pressed against her hair, told her all that she wanted to know. "Let them come, I don't care! Oh, how could you be so silly and horrid? Oh, thank God, thank God! Oh, how could you?"

Of course, a really honourable young man would have got out of the situation somehow. He didn't. He accepted it, with his arms round her and his lips against the face where the tears now ran warm and salt. It was one of the immortal moments.

The picture was charming, too – a picture to wring the heart of the onlooker with envy, or sympathy, according to his nature. But there was only one onlooker, a man of forty, or thereabouts, who paused for an instant under the great gate of the castle and took in the full charm and meaning of the scene. He turned away, and went back along the green path with hell in his heart. The other two were in Paradise. The Onlooker fell like the third in Eden – the serpent, in fact. Two miles away he stopped and lit a pipe.

"It's got to be borne, I suppose," he said, "like all the rest of it. She's happy enough. I ought to be glad. Anyway, I can't stop it." Perhaps he swore a little. If he did, the less precise and devotional may pardon him. He had loved the Girl since her early teens, and it was only yesterday's post that had brought him the appointment that one might marry on. The appointment had come through her father, for whom the Onlooker had fagged at Eton. He went back to London, hell burning briskly. Moral maxims and ethereal ideas notwithstanding, it was impossible for him to be glad that she was happy – like that.

The Lover who came to his love over strewn wallflowers desired always, as has been seen, to act up to his moral ideas. So he took next day a much earlier train than was at all pleasant, and called on her father to explain his position and set forth his prospects. His coming was heralded by a letter from her. One must not quote it – it is not proper to read other people's letters, especially letters to a trusted father, from a child, only and adored. Its effect may be indicated briefly. It showed the father that the Girl's happiness had had two long years in which to learn to grow round the thought of the young man, whom he now faced for the first time. Odd, for to the father he seemed just like other young men. It seemed to him that there were so many more of the same pattern from whom she might have chosen. And many of them well off, too. However, the letter lay in the prosperous pocket-book in the breast of the father's frock-coat, and the Lover was received as though that letter were a charm to ensure success. A faulty, or at least a slow-working, charm, however, for the father did not lift a bag of gold from his safe and say: "Take her, take this also – be happy" – he only consented to a provisional engagement, took an earnest interest in the young man's affairs, and offered to make his daughter an annual allowance on her marriage.

"At my death she will have more," he said, "for, of course, I have insured my life. You, of course, will insure yours."

"Of course I will," the Lover echoed warmly; "does it matter what office?"

"Oh, any good office – the Influential, if you like. I'm a director, you know."

The young man made a reverent note of the name, and the interview seemed played out.

"It's a complicated nuisance," the father mused; "it isn't even as if I knew anything of the chap. I oughtn't to have allowed the child to make these long visits to her aunt. Or I ought to have gone with her. But I never could stand my sister Fanny. Well, well," and he went back to his work with the plain unvarnished heartache of the anxious father – not romantic and pretty like the lover's pangs, but as uncomfortable as toothache, all the same.

He had another caller that afternoon; he whom we know as the Onlooker came to thank him for the influence that had got him the appointment as doctor to the Influential Insurance Company.

The father opened his heart to the Onlooker – and the Onlooker had to bear it. It was an hour full of poignant sentiments. The only definite thought that came to the Onlooker was this – "I must hold my tongue. I must hold my tongue." He held it.

Three days later he took up his new work. And the very first man who came to him for medical examination was the man in whose arms he had seen the girl he loved.

The Onlooker asked the first needful questions automatically. To himself he was saying: "The situation is dramatically good; but I don't see how to develop the action. It really is rather amusing that I —I should have to tap his beastly chest, and listen to his cursed lungs, and ask sympathetic questions about his idiotic infant illnesses – one thing, he ought to be able to remember those pretty vividly – the confounded pup."

The Onlooker had never done anything wronger than you have done, my good reader, and he never expected to meet a giant temptation, any more than you do. A man may go all his days and never meet Apollyon. On the other hand, Apollyon may be waiting for one round the corner of the next street. The devil was waiting for the Onlooker in the answers to his careless questions – "Father alive? No? What did he die of?" For the answer was "Heart," and in it the devil rose and showed the Onlooker the really only true and artistic way to develop the action in this situation, so dramatic in its possibilities. The illuminative flash of temptation was so sudden, so brilliant, that the Doctor-Onlooker closed his soul's eyes and yielded without even the least pretence of resistance.

 

He took his stethoscope from the table, and he felt as though he had picked up a knife to stab the other man in the back. As, in fact, he had.

Ten minutes later, the stabbed man was reeling from the Onlooker's consulting room. Mind and soul reeled, that is, but his body was stiffer and straighter than usual. He walked with more than his ordinary firmness of gait, as a man does who is just drunk enough to know that he must try to look sober.

He walked down the street, certain words ringing in his ears – "Heart affected – probably hereditary weakness. No office in the world would insure you."

And so it was all over – the dreams, the hopes, the palpitating faith in a beautiful future. His days might be long, they might be brief; but be his life long or short, he must live it alone. He had a little fight with himself as he went down Wimpole Street; then he hailed a hansom, and went and told her father, who quite agreed with him that it was all over. The father wondered at himself for being more sorry than glad.

Then the Lover went and told the Girl. He had told the father first to insure himself against any chance of yielding to what he knew the Girl would say. She said it, of course, with her dear arms round his neck.

"I won't give you up just because you're ill," she said; "why, you want me more than ever!"

"But I may die at any moment."

"So may I! And you may live to be a hundred – I'll take my chance. Oh, don't you see, too, that if there is only a little time we ought to spend it together?"

"It's impossible," he said, "it's no good. I must set my teeth and bear it. And you – I hope it won't be as hard for you as it will for me."

"But you can't give me up if I won't be given up, can you?"

His smile struck her dumb. It was more convincing than his words.

"But why?" she said presently. "Why – why —why?"

"Because I won't; because it's wrong. My father ought never to have married. He had no right to bring me into the world to suffer like this. It's a crime. And I'll not be a criminal. Not even for you – not even for you. You'll forgive me – won't you? I didn't know – and – oh, what's the use of talking?"

Yet they talked for hours. Conventionally he should have torn himself away, unable to bear the strain of his agony. As a matter of fact, he sat by her holding her hand. It was for the last time – the last, last time. There was really a third at that interview. The Onlooker had imagination enough to see the scene between the parting lovers.

They parted.

And now the Onlooker dared not meet her – dared not call at the house as he had used to do. At last – the father pressed him – he went. He met her. And it was as though he had met the ghost of her whom he had loved. Her eyes had blue marks under them, her chin had grown more pointed, her nose sharper. There was a new line on her forehead, and her eyes had changed.

Over the wine he heard from the father that she was pining for the Lover who had inherited heart disease.

"I suppose it was you who saw him, by the way," said he, "a tall, well-set-up young fellow – dark – not bad looking."

"I – I don't remember," lied the Onlooker, with the eyes of his memory on the white face of the man he had stabbed.

Now the Lover and the Onlooker had each his own burden to bear. And the Lover's was the easier. He worked still, though there was now nothing to work for more; he worked as he had never worked in his life, because he knew that if he did not take to work he should take to drink or worse devils, and he set his teeth and swore that her Lover should not be degraded. He knew that she loved him, and there was a kind of fierce pain-pleasure – like that of scratching a sore – in the thought that she was as wretched as he was, that, divided in all else, they were yet united in their suffering. He thought it made him more miserable to know of her misery. But it didn't. He never saw her, but he dreamed of her, and sometimes the dreams got out of hand, and carried him a thousand worlds from all that lay between them. Then he had to wake up. And that was bad.

But the Onlooker was no dreamer, and he saw her about three times a week. He saw how the light of life that his lying lips had blown out was not to be rekindled by his or any man's breath. He saw her slenderness turn to thinness, the pure, healthy pallor of her rounded cheek change to a sickly white, covering a clear-cut mask of set endurance. And there was no work that could shut out that sight – no temptation of the world, the flesh, or the devil to give him even the relief of a fight. He had no temptations; he had never had but the one. His soul was naked to the bitter wind of the actual; and the days went by, went by, and every day he knew more and more surely that he had lied and thrown away his soul, and that the wages of sin were death, and no other thing whatever. And gradually, little by little, the whole worth of life seemed to lie in the faint, far chance of his being able to undo the one triumphantly impulsive and unreasoning action of his life.

But there are some acts that there is no undoing. And the hell that had burned in his heart so fiercely when he had seen her in the other man's arms burned now with new bright lights and infernal flickering flame tongues.

And at last, out of hell, the Onlooker reached out his hands and caught at prayer. He caught at it as a drowning man catches at a white gleam in the black of the surging sea about him – it may be a painted spar, it may be empty foam. The Onlooker prayed.

And that very evening he ran up against the Lover at the Temple Station, and he got into the same carriage with him.

He said, "Excuse me. You don't remember me?"

"I'm not likely to have forgotten you," said the Lover.

"I fear my verdict was a great blow. You look very worried, very ill. News like that is a great shock."

"It is a little unsettling," said the Lover.

"Are you still going on with your usual work?"

"Yes."

"Speaking professionally, I think you are wrong. You lessen your chances of life! Why don't you try a complete change?"

"Because – if you must know, my chances of life have ceased to interest me."

The Lover was short with the Onlooker; but he persisted.

"Well, if one isn't interested in one's life, one may be interested in one's death – or the manner of it. In your place, I should enlist. It's better to die of a bullet in South Africa than of fright in London."

That roused the Lover, as it was meant to do.

"I don't really know what business it is of yours, sir," he said; "but it's your business to know that they wouldn't pass a man with a heart like mine."

"I don't know. They're not so particular just now. They want men. I should try it if I were you. If you don't have a complete change you'll go all to pieces. That's all."

The Onlooker got out at the next station. Short of owning to his own lie, he had done what he could to insure its being found out for the lie it was – or, at least, for a mistake. And when he had done what he could, he saw that the Lover might not find it out – might be passed for the Army – might go to the Front – might be killed – and then – "Well, I've done my best, anyhow," he said to himself – and himself answered him: "Liar – you have not done your best! You will have to eat your lie. Yes – though it will smash your life and ruin you socially and professionally. You will have to tell him you lied – and tell him why. You will never let him go to South Africa without telling him the truth – and you know it."

"Well – you know best, I suppose," he said to himself.

"But are you perfectly certain?"

"Perfectly. I tell you, man, you're sound's a bell, and a fine fathom of a young man ye are, too. Certain? Losh, man – ye can call in the whole College of Physeecians in consultation, an' I'll wager me professional reputation they'll endorse me opeenion. Yer hairt's as sound's a roach. T'other man must ha' been asleep when ye consulted him. Ye'll mak' a fine soldier, my lad."

"I think not," said the Lover – and he went out from the presence. This time he reeled like a man too drunk to care how drunk he looks.

He drove in cabs from Harley Street to Wimpole Street, and from Wimpole Street to Brooke Street – and he saw Sir William this and Sir Henry that, and Mr. The-other-thing, the great heart specialist.

And then he bought a gardenia, and went home and dressed himself in his most beautiful frock-coat and his softest white silk tie, and put the gardenia in his button-hole – and went to see the Girl.

"Looks like as if he was going to a wedding," said his landlady.

When he had told the Girl everything, and when she was able to do anything but laugh and cry and cling to him with thin hands, she said —

"Dear – I do so hate to think badly of anyone. But do you really think that man was mistaken? He's very, very clever."

"My child – Sir Henry – and Sir William and Mr. – "

"Ah! I don't mean that. I know you're all right. Thank God! Oh, thank God! I mean, don't you think he may have lied to you to prevent your – marrying me?"

"But why should he?"

"He asked me to marry him three weeks ago. He's a very old friend of ours. I do hate to be suspicious – but – it is odd. And then his trying to get you to South Africa. I'm certain he wanted you out of the way. He wanted you to get killed. Oh, how can people be so cruel!"

"I believe you're right," said the Lover thoughtfully; "I couldn't have believed that a man could be base like that, through and through. But I suppose some people are like that – without a gleam of feeling or remorse or pity."

"You ought to expose him."

"Not I – we'll just cut him. That's all I'll trouble to do. I've got you– I've got you in spite of him – I can't waste my time in hunting down vermin."

THE DUEL

"BUT I wasn't doing any harm," she urged piteously. She looked like a child just going to cry.

"He was holding your hand."

"He wasn't – I was holding his. I was telling him his fortune. And, anyhow, it's not your business."

She had remembered this late and phrased it carelessly.

"It is my Master's business," said he.

She repressed the retort that touched her lips. After all, there was something fine about this man, who, in the first month of his ministrations as Parish Priest, could actually dare to call on her, the richest and most popular woman in the district, and accuse her of – well, most people would hardly have gone so far as to call it flirting. Propriety only knew what the Reverend Christopher Cassilis might be disposed to call it.

They sat in the pleasant fire-lit drawing-room looking at each other.

"He's got a glorious face," she thought. "Like a Greek god – or a Christian martyr! I wonder whether he's ever been in love?"

He thought: "She is abominably pretty. I suppose beauty is a temptation."

"Well," she said impatiently, "you've been very rude indeed, and I've listened to you. Is your sermon quite done? Have you any more to say? Or shall I give you some tea?"

"I have more to say," he answered, turning his eyes from hers. "You are beautiful and young and rich – you have a kind heart – oh, yes – I've heard little things in the village already. You are a born general. You organise better than any woman I ever knew, though it's only dances and picnics and theatricals and concerts. You have great gifts. You could do great work in the world, and you throw it all away; you give your life to the devil's dance you call pleasure. Why do you do it?"

"Is that your business too?" she asked again.

And again he answered —

"It is my Master's business."

Had she read his words in a novel they would have seemed to her priggish, unnatural, and superlatively impertinent. Spoken by those thin, perfectly curved lips, they were at least interesting.

"That wasn't what you began about," she said, twisting the rings on her fingers. The catalogue of her gifts and graces was less a novelty to her than the reproaches to her virtue.

"No – am I to repeat what I began about? Ah – but I will. I began by saying what I came here to say: that you, as a married woman, have no right to turn men's heads and make them long for what can never be."

"But you don't know," she said. "My husband – "

"I don't wish to know," he interrupted. "Your husband is alive, and you are bound to be faithful to him, in thought, word, and deed. What I saw and heard in the little copse last night – "

 

"I do wish you wouldn't," she said. "You talk as if – "

"No," he said, "I'm willing – even anxious, I think – to believe that you would not – could not – "

"Oh," she cried, jumping up, "this is intolerable! How dare you!"

He had risen too.

"I'm not afraid of you," he said. "I'm not afraid of your anger, nor of your – your other weapons. Think what you are! Think of your great powers – and you are wasting them all in making fools of a pack of young idiots – "

"But what could I do with my gifts – as you call them?"

"Do? – why, you could endow and organise and run any one of a hundred schemes for helping on God's work in the world."

"For instance?" Her charming smile enraged him.

"For instance? Well —for instance– you might start a home for those women who began as you have begun, and who have gone down into hell, as you will go – unless you let yourself be warned."

She was for the moment literally speechless. Then she remembered how he had said: "I am not afraid of – your weapons." She drew a deep breath and spoke gently —

"I believe you don't mean to be insulting – I believe you mean kindly to me. Please say no more now. I'll think over it all. I'm not angry – only – do you really think you understand everything?"

He might have answered that he did not understand her. She did not mean him to understand. She knew well enough that she was giving him something to puzzle over when she smiled that beautiful, troubled, humble, appealing half-smile.

He did not answer at all. He stood a moment twisting his soft hat in his hands: she admired his hands very much.

"Forgive me if I've pained you more than was needed," he said at last, "it is only because – " here her smile caught him, and he ended vaguely in a decreasing undertone. She heard the words "king's jewels," "pearl of great price."

When he was gone she said "Well!" more than once. Then she ran to the low mirror over the mantelpiece, and looked earnestly at herself.

"You do look rather nice to-day," she said. "And so he's not afraid of any of your weapons! And I'm not afraid of any of his. It's a fair duel. Only all the provocation came from him – so the choice of weapons is mine. And they shall be my weapons: he has weapons to match them right enough, only the poor dear doesn't know it." She went away to dress for dinner, humming gaily —

 
"My love has breath o' roses,
O' roses, o' roses;
And arms like lily posies
To fold a lassie in!"
 

Not next day – she was far too clever for that, but on the day after that he received a note. Her handwriting was charming; no extravagances, every letter soberly but perfectly formed.

"I have been thinking of all you said the other day. You are quite mistaken about some things – but in some you are right. Will you show me how to work? I will do whatever you tell me."

Then the Reverend Christopher was glad of the courage that had inspired him to denounce to his parishioners all that seemed to him amiss in them.

"I am glad," he said to himself, "that I had the courage to treat her exactly as I have done the others – even if she has beautiful hair, and eyes like – like – "

He stopped the thought before he found the simile – not because he imagined that there could be danger in it, but because he had been trained to stop thoughts of eyes and hair as neatly as a skilful boxer stops a blow.

She had not been so trained, and she admired his eyes and hair quite as much as he might have admired hers if she had not been married.

So now the Reverend Christopher had a helper in his parish work; and he needed help, for his plain-speaking had already offended half his parish. And his helper was, as he had had the sense to know she could be, the most accomplished organiser in the country. She ran the parish library, she arranged the school treat, she started evening classes for wood carving and art needlework. She spent money like water, and time as freely as money. Quietly, persistently, relentlessly, she was making herself necessary to the Reverend Christopher. He wrote to her every day – there were so many instructions to give – but he seldom spoke with her. When he called she was never at home. Sometimes they met in the village and exchanged a few sentences. She was always gravely sweet, intensely earnest. There was a certain smile which he remembered – a beautiful, troubled, appealing smile. He wondered why she smiled no more.

Her friends shrugged their shoulders over her new fancy.

"It is odd," her bosom friend said. "It can't be the parson, though he's as beautiful as he can possibly be, because she sees next to nothing of him. And yet I can't think that Betty of all people could really – "

"Oh – I don't know," said the bosom friend of her bosom friend. "Women often do take to that sort of thing, you know, when they get tired of – "

"Of?"

"The other sort of thing, don't you know!"

"How horrid you are," said Betty's bosom friend. "I believe you're a most dreadful cynic, really."

"Not at all," said the friend, complacently stroking his moustache.

Betty certainly was enjoying herself. She had the great gift of enjoying thoroughly any new game. She enjoyed, first, the newness; and, besides, the hidden lining of her new masquerade dress enchanted her. But as her new industries developed she began to enjoy the things for themselves. It is always delightful to do what we can do well, and the Reverend Christopher had been right when he said she was a born general.

"How easy it all is," she said, "and what a fuss those clergy-hags make about it! What a wife I should be for a bishop!" She smiled and sighed.

It was pleasant, too, to wake in the morning, not to the recollection of the particular stage which yesterday's flirtation happened to have reached, but to the sense of some difficulty overcome, some object achieved, some rough place made smooth for her Girls' Friendly, or her wood carvers, or her Parish Magazine. And within it all the secret charm of a purpose transfiguring with its magic this eager, strenuous, working life.

Her avoidance of the Reverend Christopher struck him at first as modest, discreet, and in the best possible taste. But presently it seemed to him that she rather overdid it. There were many things he would have liked to discuss with her, but she always evaded talk with him. Why? he began to ask himself why. And the question wormed through his brain more and more searchingly. He had seen her at work now; he knew her powers, and her graces – the powers and the graces that made her the adored of her Friendly girls and her carving boys. He remembered, with hot ears and neck crimson above his clerical collar, that interview. The things he had said to her! How could he have done it? Blind idiot that he had been! And she had taken it all so sweetly, so nobly, so humbly. She had only needed a word to turn her from the frivolities of the world to better things. It need not have been the sort of word he had used. And at a word she had turned. That it should have been at his word was not perhaps a very subtle flattery – but the Reverend Christopher swallowed it and never tasted it. He was not trained to distinguish the flavours of flatteries. He never tasted it, but it worked in his blood, for all that. And why, why, why would she never speak to him? Could it be that she was afraid that he would speak to her now as he had once spoken? He blushed again.

Next time he met her she was coming up to the church with a big basket of flowers for the altar. He took the basket from her and carried it in.

"Let me help you," he said.

"No," she said in that sweet, simple, grave way of hers. "I can do it very well. Indeed, I would rather."

He had to go. The arrangement of the flowers took more than an hour, but when she came out with the empty basket, he was waiting in the porch. Her heart gave a little joyful jump.

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