IT was Anne’s birthday. It shone in mid-May like the front of June. Anne’s bedroom was over Edith’s, and looked out on the garden. A little rain had fallen over night. Through the open window the day greeted her with a breath of flowers and earth; a day that came to her all golden, ripe, and sweet from the south.
Her dressing-table was placed sideways from the window. Anne, fresh from her cold bath, in a white muslin gown, with her thick, sleek hair coiled and burnished, sat before the lookingglass.
There was a knock at the door, not Nanna’s bold awakening summons, but a shy and gentle sound. Her heart shook her voice as she responded.
“Is it permitted ?" said Majendie.
“If you like,” she answered quietly.
He presented his customary morning sacrifice of flowers. Hitherto he had not presumed so far as to bring it to her room. It waited for her decorously at breakfast time, beside her plate. She took the flowers from him, acknowledged their fragrance by a quiver of her delicate nostrils, thanked him, and laid them on the dressing-table.
He seated himself on the window-sill, where he could see her with the day upon her. She noticed that he had brought with him, beside the flowers, a small oblong wooden box. He laid the box on his knee and covered it with his hand. He sat very still, looking at her as her firm white hands caressed her coiled hair into shape. Once she moved his flowers to find her comb, and laid them down again.
“Are n’t you going to wear them ?” he inquired anxiously.
Her upper lip lifted an instant, caught up, in its fashion, by the pretty play of the little sensitive amber mole. Two small white teeth showed, and were hidden again. It was as if she had been about to smile, or to speak, and had thought better of it.
She took up the flowers and tried them, now at her breast, and now at her waist.
“Where shall I put them ?” said she. “Here? Or here?”
She let them stay there in the hollow of her breast.
He laid the box on the dressing-table, close to her hand where it searched for pins.
“I’ve brought you this,” he said gently.
She smiled that divine and virgin smile of hers. Anne was big, but her smile was small and close and shy.
“You remembered my birthday?”
“Did you think I should forget?”
She opened the lid with cool, unhurried fingers. Under the wrappings of tissue paper and cotton wool, a shape struck clear and firm and familiar to her touch. A sacred thrill ran through her as she felt there the presence of the holy thing, the symbol so dear and so desired that it was divined before seen.
She lifted from the box an old silver crucifix. It must have been the work of some craftsman whose art was pure and fine as the silver he had wrought in. But that was not what Anne saw. She had always found something painful and repellent in those crucifixes of wood which distort and deepen the lines of agony, or of ivory which gives again the very pallor of human death. But the precious metal had somehow eternalized the symbol of the crucified body. She saw more than the torture, the exhaustion, the attenuation. Surely, on the closed eyelids there rested the glory and the peace of divine accomplishment ?
She stood still, holding it in her hand and looking at it. Majendie stood still, also, looking at her. He was not quite sure whether she were going to accept that gift, whether she would hesitate to take from his profane hands a thing so sacred and so supreme. He was aware that his fate somehow hung on her acceptance, and he waited in silence, lest a word should destroy the work of love in her.
Anne, too (when she could detach her mind from the crucifix), felt that the moment was decisive. To accept that gift, of all gifts, was to lay her spirit under obligation to him. It was more than a surrender of body, heart, or mind. It was to admit him to association with the unspeakably sacred acts of prayer and adoration.
If it were possible that that had been his desire; if he had meant his gift as tribute, not to her only, but to the spirit of holiness in her; if, in short, he had been serious, then, indeed, she could not hesitate. For, if it were so, her prayer was answered.
She laid down the crucifix and turned to him. They searched each other with their eyes. She saw, without wholly understanding, the pain in his. He saw, also unintelligently, the austerity in hers.
“Are you not going to take it, then ?” he said.
“I don’t know. Do you realize that you are giving me a very sacred thing ? ”
“ I do.”
“And that I can’t treat it as I would an ordinary present?”
He lowered his eyelids. “I did n’t think you ’d want to wear it in your hair, dear.”
She was about to ask him what he did mean then; but some instinct held her, told her not to press the sign of grace too hard. She looked at him slill more intently. His eyes had disconcerted and baffled her, but now she was sheltered by their lowered lids. Then she noticed for the first time that his face showed the marks of suffering. It was as if it had dropped suddenly the brilliant mask it wore for her, and given up its secret unaware. He had suffered so that he had not slept. It was plain to her in the droop of his eyelids, and in the drawn lines about his eyes and mouth and nostrils. She was touched with tenderness and pity, and a certain unintelligible awe. And she knew her hour. She knew that if she closed her heart now, it would never open to him. She knew that it was his hour as well as hers. She felt, reverently, that it was, above all, God’s hour.
She laid her hand on her husband’s gift, saying to herself that if she took that crucifix she would be taking him with it. into the holy places of her heart.
“I will take it.” Her voice came shy and inarticulate as a marriage vow.
“Thank you,” he said.
He wondered if she would turn to him with some sign of tenderness; whether she would stoop to him and touch him with her hand or her lips; or whether she looked to him to offer the first caress.
She did nothing. It was as if her intentness, her concentration upon her holy purpose held her. While her soul did but turn to him in the darkness, it kept and would keep their hands and lips apart.
He divined that she was only half won. But, though her body yet moved in its charmed inviolate circle, he felt dimly that the spiritual barrier was down.
She turned from him and went slowly to the door. He opened it and followed her. On the stair she parted from him and went alone into his sister’s bedroom.
Edith’s spine had been hurting her in the night. She lay flat and exhausted, and the embrace of her loving arms was slow and frail.
Edith was what she called “dressed,” and waiting for her sister-in-law. The little table by her bed was strewn with the presents she had bought and made for Anne. A birthday was a very serious affair for Edith. She was not content to buy (buying was nothing; anybody could buy); she must also make, and make beautifully. “I may n’t have any legs that can carry me,” said Edith; “but I’ve hands and I will use them. If it was n’t for my hands I’d be nothing but a great lumbering, lazy mass of palpitating heart.” But her making had become every year more and more expensive. Her beautiful, pitiful embroideries were paid for in sleepless nights. And at six o’clock that morning she had given her little dismal cry: “Oh Nanna, Nanna, my beast of a spine is going to bother me to-day, and it’s Anne’s birthday!” “And what else,” said Nanna severely, “do you expect, Miss Edith?”
“I did n’t expect this. I do believe it’s getting worse.”
“Worse?” Nanna was contemptuous. “It was worse on Master Walter’s birthday last year.”
(Last year she had made a waistcoat.)
“I can’t think,” moaned Edith, “why it’s always bad on birthdays.”
But however badly “it” might behave in the night, it was never permitted to destroy the spirit of the day.
Anne looked anxiously at the collapsed, exhausted figure in the bed.
“Yes,” said Edith, having smiled at her sister-in-law with magnificent mendacity, “you may well look at me. You could n’t make yourself as flat as I am if you tried. There are two books for you, and a thingummy-jig, and a handkerchief to blow your dear nose with.”
“Do you like them?”
“Like them? Oh, you dear—”
“Why don’t you have a birthday oftener ? It makes you look so pretty, dear.”
Anne’s heart leaped. Edie’s ways, her very moods sometimes were like Walter’s. “Has Walter seen you?”
Anne’s face became instantly solemn, but it was not sad.
“Edie,” she said, “do you know what he has given me?”
“Yes,” said Edith. Her eyes searched Anne’s eyes, with pain in them that was somehow akin to Walter’s pain.
“She knows everything,” thought Anne, “and it was her idea then, not his.”
“Edith,” said she, “was it you who thought of it, or he?”
“I? Never. He did n’t say a word about it. He just went and got it. He thought it all out by himself, poor dear.”
“Can you think why he thought of it ? ”
“Yes,” said Edith gravely. “I can. Can’t you?”
Anne was silent.
“It’s very simple. He wants you to trust him a little more, that’s all.”
Anne’s mouth trembled, and she tightened it.
“Are you afraid of him ?”
“Yes,” she said. “I am.”
“Because you think he is n’t very spiritual ? ”
“Oh, but he’s on his way there,” said Edith. “He ’s human. You ’ve got to be human before you can be spiritual. It’s a most important part of the process. Don’t you omit it.”
“Have I omitted it?”
She stroked one of the thin hands that were outstretched towards her on the coverlet, and the other closed on her caress. The touch brought the tears into her eyes. She raised her head to keep them from falling.
“Dear,” said Edith in answer to her question, and paused and reiterated, “dear, you have all the great things that I haven’t. You ’re splendid. There is only one thing I want for you. If you could only see how divinely sacred the human part of us is — and how pathetic.”
Anne looked at her as she lay there, bright and brave, untroubled by her own mortal pathos. In her, humanity, woman’s humanity, was reduced to its simplest expression of spiritual loving and bodily suffering. Anne was a child in her ignorance of the things that had been revealed to Edith lying there.
Looking at her, Anne’s tears grew heavy and fell.
“It’s your birthday,” said Edith softly.
And as she heard Majendie’s foot on the stairs Anne dried her eyes on the birthday handkerchief.
“Here she is,” said Edith as he entered. “What are you going to do with her? She does n’t have a birthday every day.”
“I’m going,” he said, “to take her down to breakfast.”
Their meals so abounded in occasions for courtesy that they had become profoundly formal. This morning Anne’s courtesy was colored by some emotion that defied analysis. She wore her new mood like a soft veil that heightened her attraction in obscuring it.
He watched her with a baffled preoccupation that kept him unusually quiet. His quietness did him good service with Anne in her new mood.
When the meal was over she rose and went to the window. The sedate Georgian street was full of the day that shone soberly here from the cool, clear north.
“What are you thinking of ? ” said he.
“I’m thinking what a beautiful day it is.”
“Yes, is n’t it a jolly day?”
“If it’s beautiful here what must it be in the country?”
“The country?” A thought struck him. “I say, would you like to go there ? ”
“Do you mean to-day?”
Her upper lip lifted, and the two teeth showed again on the pale rose of its twin. In spite of the dignity of her proportions, Anne had the look of a child contemplating some hardly permissible delight.
“Now, this minute. There’s a train to Westleydale at nine fifty.”
“It would be very nice. But — how about business?”
“No, no, not that word.”
“But it is, you know; it can’t help itself. There’s a devil in all the offices in Scale at this time of the year.”
“Would you like it?”
“I? Rather. I’m on!”
“But—Edith — Oh, no, we can’t.”
She turned with a sudden gesture of renunciation, so that she faced him where he stood smiling at her. His face grew grave for her.
“Look here,” he said, “You must n’t be morbid about Edith. It is n’t necessary. All the time we’re gone, she’ll lie there, in perfect bliss with simply thinking of the good time we’re having.”
“But her back’s bad to-day.”
“Then she’ll be glad that we’re not there to feel it. Her back will add to her happiness, if anything.”
She drew in a sharp breath, as if he had hurt her.
“Oh, Walter, how can you?”
He replied with emphasis: " How can I? I can, not because I’m a brute as you seem to suppose, but because she’s a saint and an angel. I take off my hat and go down on my knees when I think of her. Go and put your hat on.”
She felt herself diminished, humbled, and in two ways. It was as if he had said, “You are not the saint that Edith is, nor yet the connoisseur in saintship that I am.”
She knew that she was not the one; but to the other distinction she certainly fancied that she had the superior claim. And she had never yet come behind him in appreciation of Edith. Besides, she was hurt at being spoken to in that way on her birthday.
Her resentment faded when she found him standing at the foot of the stairs by Edith’s door, waiting for her. He looked up at her as she descended, and his eyes brightened with pleasure at the sight.
Edith was charmed with their plan. It might have been conceived as an exquisite favor to herself, by the fine style in which she handled it.
They set out, Majendie carrying the luncheon basket and Anne’s coat. He had changed, and appeared in the Norfolk jacket, knickerbockers, and cap he had worn at Scarby. The pang that struck her at the sight of them was softened by her practical perception of their fitness for the adventure. They became him, too, and she had memory of the charm he had once worn for her with that openair attire.
An hour’s journey by rail brought them to the little wayside station. They turned off the high road, walked for ten minutes across an upland field, and came to the bridle path that led down into the beechwoods of Westleydale, in the heart of the hills.
They followed a mossy trail. The shade fell, thin, warm, and colored. from leaves so tender that the light passed through their half-transparent panes. Overhead there was the delicate scent of green things and of sap, and underfoot the deep smell of moss and moistened earth.
Anne drew the long breath of delight. She took off her hat and gloves, and moved forward a few steps to a spot where the wood opened and the vivid light received her. Majendie hung back to look at her. She turned and stood before him, superb and still, shrined in a crescent of tall beech stems, column by column, with the light descending on the fine gold of her hair. Nothing in Anne even remotely suggested a sylvan and primeval creature; but, as she stood there in her temperate and alien beauty, she seemed to him to have yielded to a brief enchantment. She threw back her head, as if her while throat drank the sweet air like wine. She held out her white hands, and let the warmth play over them palpably as a touch.
And Majendie longed to take her by those white hands and draw her to him. If he could have trusted her — but some instinct plucked him backward, saying to him, “Not yet.”
A mossy rise under a beech-tree offered itself to Anne as a suitable throne for the regal woman that she was. He spread out her coat, and she made room for him beside her. He sat for a long time without speaking. The powers which were working that day for Majendie gave to him that subtle silence. He had at most times an inexhaustible capacity for keeping still.
Above them, just discernible through the treetops, veiled by a gauze of dazzling air, the hill brooded in its majestic dream. Its green arms, plunging to the valley, gathered them and shut them in.
Majendie’s figure was not diminished by the background. The smallest nervous moment on his part would have undone him, but he did not move. His profound stillness, suggesting an interminable patience, gave him a beautiful immensity of his own.
Anne, left in her charmed, inviolate circle, surrendered sweetly to the spirit of Westleydale.
The place was peace folded upon the breast of peace.
Presently she spoke, calling his name, as if out of the far-off unutterable peace.
“Walter, it was kind of you to bring me here.”
“I am so glad if you like it.”
“I do, indeed.”
He tried to say more, but his heart choked him.
She closed her eyes, and the peace poured over her and sank in. Her heart beat quietly.
She opened her eyes and turned them on her husband. She knew that it was his gaze that had compelled them to open. She smiled to herself, like a young girl, shyly but happily aware of him, and turned from him to her contemplation of the woods.
Anne had always rather prided herself on her susceptibility to the beauty of nature, but it had never before reached her with this poignant touch. Hitherto she had drawn it in with her eyes only; now it penetrated her through every nerve. She was vaguely but deliciously aware of her own body as a part of it, and of her husband’s joy in contemplating her.
“He thinks me good-looking,” she said to herself; and the thought came to her as a revelation.
Then her young memory woke again and thrust at her.
“He thinks me good-looking. That’s why he married me.”
She longed to find out. if it were so.
“Walter,” said she, “I want to ask you a question.”
“Well —if it’s an easy one.”
“It is n’t — very. What made you want to marry me?”
He paused a moment, searching for the truth.
“Your goodness.” “Is that really true?”
“To the best of my belief, madam, it is.”
“But there are so many other women better than me.”
“Possibly. I have n’t been happy enough to meet them.”
“And if you had met them?”
“As far as I can make out, I should n’t have fallen in love with them. I should n’t have fallen in love with you, if it had n’t been for your goodness. But I should n’t have fallen in love with your goodness in any other woman.”
“Have you known many other women?”
“One way and another, in the course, of my life — yes. And what I liked so much about you was your difference from those other women. You gave me rest from them and their ways. They bored me even when I was half in love with them, and made me restless for them even when I was n’t a little bit. It was as if they were always expecting something from me, — I could n’t for the life of me tell what, — always on the look-out, don’t you know, for some mysterious moment that never arrived.”
She thought she knew. She felt that he was describing vaguely and with incomparable innocence the approaches of the ladies who had once designed to marry him. He had never seen through them; they (and they must have been so obvious, those ladies) had remained for him inscrutable, mysterious. He could deal competently with effects, but he was not clever at assigning causes.
He seemed conscious of her reflections. “They were quite nice, don’t you know. Only they could n’t let you alone. You let me alone so perfectly. Being with you was peace.”
“I see,” she said quietly. “It was peace. That was all.”
“Oh, was it? That was only the beginning, if you must know how it began.”
“It began.” she murmured, “in peace. That was what struck you most in me. I must have seemed to you at peace, then.” “You did — you did. Were n’t you ? ”
“I must have been. But I’ve forgotten. It’s so long ago. There’s peace here, though. Why did n’t we choose this place instead of Scarby?”
“I wish we had. I say — are you never going to forget that?”
“I’ve forgiven it. I might forget it if I could only understand.”
“How you could be capable of caring for me — like that — and yet — ”
“But the two things are so entirely different. It’s impossible to explain to you how different. Heaven forbid that you should understand the difference.”
“I understand enough to know—”
“You understand enough to know nothing. You must simply take my word for it. Besides, the one thing \s an old thing, over and done with.”
“Over and done with. But, if the two things are so different, how can you be sure? ”
“That sounds awfully clever of you, but I’m hanged if I know what you mean.”
“I mean, how can you tell that it— the old thing—never would come back ? ”
It teas clever of her. He realized that he had to deal now with a more complete and complex creature than Anne had been.
“How could it?” he said.
“If she came back —”
“Never. And, if it did —”
“Ah, if it did —”
“It could n’t, in this case — my case — your case—”
“Her case,” she whispered.
“Her case? She has n’t got one. She simply does n’t exist. She might come back as much as she pleased, and still she would n’t exist. Is that what you ’ve been afraid of all the time?”
“I was never really afraid till now.”
“What you’re afraid of could n’t happen. You can put that out of your head forever. If I could mention you in the same sentence as that woman, you should know why I am so certain. As it is, I must ask you again to take my word for it.”
“But, since you have raised the question — and it ’s interesting too — I knew a man once — not a ' bad ’ man — to whom that very thing did happen. And it did n’t mean that he’d left off caring for his wife. On the contrary, he was still insanely fond of her.”
“What did it mean, then?”
“That she’d left off showing that she cared for him. And he cared more for her, that man, after having left her, than he did before. In its way it was a sort of test.”
“I pray heaven — ” said Anne; but she was too greatly shocked by the anecdote to shape her prayer.
Majendie, feeling that the time, the place, and her mood were propitious for the exposition, went on.
“There’s another man I know. He was very fond of Edie. He ’s fond of her still. He’ll come and sit for hours playing backgammon with her. And yet all his fondness for her has n’t kept him entirely straight. But he’d have been as straight as anybody if he could have married her.”
“But what does all this prove?”
“It proves nothing,” he said almost passionately, “except that these two things, just because they’re different, are not so incompatible as you seem to think.”
“Did Edie care for that man ?”
“I believe so.”
“Ah, don’t you see? There’s the difference. What made Edie a saint made him a sinner.”
“I doubt if Edie would look on it quite in that light. She thinks it was uncommonly hard on him.”
“Does she know?”
“Oh, there’s no end to the things that Edie knows.”
“And she loves him in spite of it?”
“Yes. I suppose there’s no end to that either.”
No end to her loving. That was the secret, then, of Edie’s peace.
Anne meditated upon that, and when she spoke again her voice rang on its vibrating, sub-passionate note.
“And you said that I gave you rest. You were different.”
He made as if he would draw nearer to her, and refrained. The kind heart of Nature was in league with his. Nature, having foreknowledge of her own hour, warned him that his hour was not yet.
And so he waited, while Nature, mindful of her purpose, began in Anne Majendie her holy, beneficent, work. The soul of the place was charged with memories, with presciences, with prophecies. A thousand woodland influences, tender timidities, shy assurances, wooed her from her soul. They pleaded sweetly, persistently, till Anne’s brooding face wore the flush of surrender to the mysteries of earth.
The spell was broken by a squirrel’s scurrying flight in the boughs above them. Anne looked up, and laughed, and their moment passed them by.
“Are you tired?” he asked.
They had walked about the wood, made themselves hungry, and lunched like laborers at high noon.
“No, I’m only thirsty. Do you think there’s a cottage anywhere where you could get me some water?”
“Yes, there’s one somewhere about. I’ll try and find it if you’ll sit here and rest till I come back.”
She waited. He came back, but without the water. His eyes sparkled with some mysterious, irrepressible delight.
“Can’t you find it?”
“Rather. I say, do come and look. There’s such a pretty sight.”
She rose and went with him. Up a turning in the dell, about fifty yards from their tree, a long grassy way cut. sheer through a sheet of wild hyacinths. It ran as if between two twin borders of blue mist, that hemmed it in and closed it by the illusion of their approach. On either side the blue mist spread, and drifted away through the inlets of the wood, and became a rarer and rarer atmosphere, torn by the tree-trunks and the fern. The path led to a small circular clearing, a shaft that sucked the daylight down. It was as if the sunshine were being poured in one stream from a flooded sky, and danced in the dark cup earth held for it. The trees grew close and tall round the clearing. Light dripped from their leaves and streamed down their stems, turning their gray to silver. The bottom of the cup was a level floor of grass that had soaked in light till it shone like emerald. A stone cottage faced the path; so small that a laburnum brushed its roof, and a maytree laid a crimson face against the gray gable of its side. The patch of garden in front was stuffed with wall-flowers and violets. The sun lay warm on them; their breath stirred in the cup, like the rich sweet fragrance of the wine of day.
Majendie grasped Anne’s arm and led her forward.
In the middle of the green circle, under the streaming sun, cradled in warm grass, a girl baby sat, laughing and fondling her naked feet. She laughed as she lay on her back and opened one folded, wrinkled foot to the sun; she laughed as she threw herself forward and beat her knees with the outspread palms of her hands; she laughed as she rocked her soft body to and fro from her rosy hips; then she stopped laughing suddenly, and began crooning to herself a delicious, unintelligible song.
“Look,” said Majendie, “that’s what I wanted to show you.”
“Oh — oh — oh —” said Anne, and looked, and stood stock still.
The beatitude of that adorable little figure possessed the scene. Green earth and blue sky were so much shelter and illumination to its pure and solitary joy.
“Did you ever see anything so heartrending?” said Majendie. “That anything could be so young!”
Anne shook her head, dumb with the fascination.
As they approached again, the little creature rolled on its waist, and crawled over the grass to her feet.
“The little lamb — ” said she, and stooped, and lifted it.
It turned to her, cuddling. Through the thin muslin of her bodice she could feel the pressure of its tender palms.
Majendie stood close to her, and tried gently to detach and possess himself of the delicate fingers. But his eyes were upon Anne’s eyes. They drew her; she looked up, her eyes flashed to the meeting-point; his widened in one long penetrating gaze.
A sudden pricking pain went through her, there where the pink and flaxen thing lay sun-warm and life-warm to her breast.
At first she did not heed it. She stood hushed, attentive to the prescience that woke in her; surrendered to the secret, with desire that veiled itself to meet its unveiled destiny.
Then the veil fell.
The eyes that looked at her grew tender, and before their tenderness the veil, the veil of her desire that had hidden him from her, fell.
Her face burned, and she hid it against the child’s face as it burrowed into the softness of her breast. When she would have parted the child from her, it clung.
She laughed: “Release me.” And he undid the clinging arms, and took the child from her, and laid it again in the cradling grass.
“It’s conceived a violent passion for you,” said he.
“They always do,” said she serenely.
The door of the cottage was open. The mother stood on the threshold, shading her eyes and wondering at them. She gave Anne water, hospitably, in an old china cup.
When Anne had drunk she handed the cup to her husband. He drank with his eyes fixed on her over the brim, and gave it to her again. He wondered whether she would drink from it after him (Anne was excessively fastidious). To his intense satisfaction, she drank, draining the last drop.
They went back together to their tree. On the way he stopped to gather wild hyacinths for her. He gathered slowly, in a grave and happy passion of preoccupation. Anne stood erect in the path and watched him, and laughed the girl’s laugh that he longed to hear.
It was as if she saw him for the first time through Edith’s eyes, with so tender an intelligence did she take in his attitude, the absurd, the infantile intentness of his stooping figure, the still more absurdly infantile emotion of his hands. It was the same attitude which had melted Edith, that unhappy day when they had watched him as he walked disconsolate in the garden, and she, his wife, had hardened her heart against him. She remembered Edith’s words to her not two hours ago: “If you could only see how unspeakably sacred the human part of us is — and how pathetic.” Surely she saw.
The deep feeling and enchantment of the woods was upon her. He was sacred to her; and for pathos, it seemed to her that there was poured upon his stooping body all the pathos of all the living creatures of God.
She saw deeper. In the illumination that rested on him there, she saw the significance of that carelessness, that happiness of his which once troubled her. It was simply that his experience, his detestable experience, had had no power to harm his soul. Through it all he had preserved, or, by some miracle of God, recovered, an incorruptible innocence. She said to herself, “ Why should I not love him ? His heart must be as pure as the heart of that little blessed child.”
The warning voice of the wisdom she had learnt from him whispered, “And it rests with you to keep him so.”
He led her to the tree, where she seated herself regally as before. He poured his sheaves of hyacinths as tribute into her lap. As his hands touched hers her cold face flushed again and softened. He stretched himself beside her, and love stirred in her heart, unforbidden as in a happy dream. He watched the movements of her delicate fingers as they played with the tangled hyacinth bells. Her hands were wet with the thick streaming juice of the torn stalks; she stretched them out to him helplessly. He knelt before her, and spread his handkerchief on his knees, and took her hands and wiped them. She let them rest in his for a moment, and, with a low panting cry, he bowed his head and covered them with kisses.
At his cry her lips parted. And as her Soul had called to him across the spiritual ramparts, so her eyes said to him, “Come;" and he knew that with all her body and her soul she yearned to him and consented.
He held her tight by the wrists and drew her to him; and she laid her arms lightly on his neck and kissed him.
“I’m glad now,” she whispered, “that Edith did n’t tell me. She knew you. Oh, my dear, she knew.”
And to herself she said proudly, “It rests with me.”
It was October, five months after Anne’s birthday.
She was not to know again the mood that determined her complete surrender. Supreme moods can never be recaptured or repeated. The passion that inspires them is unique, self-sacrificial, immortal only through fruition; doomed to pass and perish in its exaltation. She would know tenderness, but never just that tenderness; gladness, but never that gladness; peace, but never the peace that possessed her in the woods at Westleydale.
The new soul in her moved steadily to a rhythm which lacked the diviner thrill of the impulse which had given it birth. It was but seldom that the moment revived in memory. If Anne had accounted to herself for that day, she would have said that they had taken the nine-fifty train to Westleydale, that they had had a nice luncheon, that the weather was exceptionally fine, and that,—well, yes, certainly, that day had been the beginning of their entirely satisfactory relations. Anne’s mind had a tendency to lapse into the commonplace when not greatly stirred. Happily for her, she had a refuge from it in her communion with the Unseen.
Only at times was she conscious of a certain foiled expectancy. For the greater while it seemed to her that she had attained an indestructible spiritual content.
She conceived a profound affection for her home. The house in Prior Street became the centre of her earthward thoughts, and she seldom left it for very long. Her health remained magnificent; her nature being adapted to an undisturbed routine, appeased by the wellordered, even passage of her days.
She had made a household religion for herself, and would have suffered in departing from it. To be always down before her husband for eight o’clock breakfast; to sit with Edith from twelve till luncheon time, and in the early afternoon; to spend her evenings with her husband, reading aloud or talking, or sitting silent when silence soothed him; these things were as sacred and imperative as her punctual attendance at St. Saviour’s. Indeed, she had left off going to the week-day services, because they were appointed for five o’clock.
For, above all, she had made a point of always being at home in time for Majendie’s return from his office. At five o’clock she was ready for him, beside her tea-table, irreproachably dressed. Her friends complained that they had lost sight of her. Regularly at a quarter to five she would forsake the drawingrooms of Thurston Square. However absorbing Mrs. Eliott’s conversation, towards the quarter, the tender abstraction of Anne’s manner showed plainly that her spirit had surrendered to another charm. Mrs. Eliott, in letting her go, had the air of a person serenely sane, indulgent to a persistent and punctual obsession. Anne divided her friends into those who understood, and those who did n’t. Fanny Eliott would never understand. But little Mrs. Gardner, through the immortality of her bridal spirit, understood completely. And for Anne Mrs. Gardner’s understanding of her amounted to an understanding of her husband. Anne’s heart went out to Mrs. Gardner.
Not that she saw much of her, either. She had grown impatient of interests that lay outside her home. Once she had decided to give herself up to her husband, other people’s claims appeared as an impertinence beside that perfection of possession.
She was less vividly aware of her own perfect possession of him. Majendie was hardly aware of it himself. His happiness was so profound that he had not yet measured it. He, too, had slipped into the same imperturbable routine. It was seldom that he kept her waiting past five o’clock. He hated the people who made business appointments with him for that hour. His old associates saw little of him, and his club knew him no more. He preferred Anne’s society to that, of any other person. They had no more fear of each other. He saw that she was beginning to forget.
In one thing only was he disappointed. The trembling woman who had held him in her arms at Westleydale had never shown herself to him again. She had been called, created, for an end beyond herself. The woman he had married again was pure from passion, and of an uncomfortable reluctance in the giving and taking of caresses. He forced himself to respect her reluctance. He had simply to accept this emotional parsimony as one of the many curious facts about Anne. He no longer went to Edith for an explanation of them; for the Anne he had known in Westleydale was too sacred to be spoken of. An immense reverence possessed him when he thought of her. As for the actual, present Anne, loyalty was part of the large simplicity of his nature, and he could not criticise her. Remembering Westleydale, he told himself that her blanched susceptibility was tenderness at white heat. If she said little, he argued that (like himself) she felt the more. And at times she could say perfect things.
“I wonder, Nancy,” he once said to her, “if you know how divinely sweet your voice is?”
“I shall begin to think it is, if you think so,” said she.
“And would you think yourself beautiful, if I thought so?”
“Very beautiful. At any rate, as beautiful as I want to be.”
He could not control the demonstration provoked by that admission, and she asked him if he were coming to church with her to-morrow ?
His Nancy chose her moments strangely.
But not for worlds would he have admitted that she was deficient in a sense of humor. She had her small hilarities that passed for it. Keenness in that direction would have done violence to the repose and sweetness of her blessed presence. The peace of it remained with him during his hours of business.
Anne did not like his business. But in spite of it, she was proud of him, of his appearance, his charm, his distinction, his entire superiority to even the aristocracy of Scale.
She no longer resented his indifference to her friends in Thurston Square, since it meant that he desired to have her to himself. Of his own friends he had seen little, and she nothing. If she had not pressed Fanny Eliott on him, he had spared her Mrs. Lawson Hannay and Mrs. Dick Ransome. She had been fortunate enough to find both those ladies out when she. returned their calls. And Majendie had spoken of his most intimate friend, Charlie Gorst, as absent on a holiday in Norway.
It was, therefore, in a mood of more than usual concession that she proposed to return, now in October, the second advance made to her by Mrs. Hannay, in July.
Majendie was relieved to think that he would no longer be compelled to perjure himself on Anne’s account. The Hannays had frequently reproached him with his wife’s unreadiness in response, and, as he had told her, he had exhausted all acceptable explanations of her conduct. He had “worked” her headaches “for all they were worth” with Hannay; for weeks he had kept Hannay’s wife from calling, by the fiction, discreetly presented, of a severe facial neuralgia; and his last shameless intimation, that Anne was “rather shy, you know,” had been received with a respectful incredulity that left him with nothing more to say.
Mrs. Hannay was not at home when Anne called, for Anne had deliberately avoided her “day.” But Mrs. Hannay was irrepressibly forgiving, and Anne found herself invited to dine at the Hannays’ with her husband early in the following week. It was hardly an hour since she had left Mrs. Hannay’s doorstep when the pressing, the almost alarmingly affectionate little note came hurrying after her.
“I’ll go, dear, if you really want me to,” said she.
“Well — I think, if you don’t mind. The Hannays have been awfully good to me.”
So they went.
“Don’t snub the poor little woman too unmercifully,” was Edith’s parting charge.
“I promise you I’ll not snub her at all,” said Anne.
“You can’t,” said Majendie. “She ’s like a soft sofa cushion with lots of frills on. You can sit on her, as you sit on a sofa cushion, and she’s as plump, and soft, and accommodating as ever the next day.”
The Hannays lived in the Park.
Majendie talked a great deal on the way there. His supporting and attentive manner was not quite the stimulant he had meant it to be. Anne gathered that the ordeal would be trying, — he was so eager to make it appear otherwise.
“Once you’re there, it won’t be bad, you know, at all. The Hannays are really all right. They’ll ask the very nicest people they know to meet you. They think you’re doing them a tremendous honor, you know, and they’ll rise to it. You’ll see how they’ll rise.”
Mrs. Hannay had every appearance of having risen to it. Anne’s entrance (she was impressive in her entrances) set the standard high; yet Mrs. Hannay rose. When agreeably excited, Mrs. Hannay was accustomed to move from one end of her drawing-room to the other with the pleasing and impalpable velocity of all soft round bodies inspired by gayety. So exuberant was the softness of the little lady, and so voluminous her flying frills, that at these moments her descent upon her guests appeared positively winged, like the descent of cherubim. To-night she advanced slowly from her hearthrug, with no more than the very slightest swaying and rolling of all her softness, the very faintest tremor of her downy wings. Mrs. Hannay’s face was the round face of innocence, the face of a cherub with blown cheeks and lips shaped for the trumpet.
“My dear Mrs. Majendie — at last.” She retained Mrs. Majendie’s hand for the moment of presenting her to her husband. By this gesture she appropriated Mrs. Majendie, taking her under her small cherubic wing. “Wallie, how d’you do?” Her left hand furtively appropriated Mrs. Majendie’s husband. Anne marked the familiarity with dismay. It was evident that at the Hannays’ Walter was in the warm lap of intimacy.
It was evident, too, that Mr. Hannay had married considerably beneath him. Anne owned that he had a certain dignity, and that there was something rather pleasing in his loose, clean-shaven face. The sharp slenderness of youth was now vanishing in a rosy corpulence, — corpulence to which Mr. Hannay resigned himself without a struggle. But above it the delicate arch of his nose attested the original refinement of his type. His mouth was not without sweetness, Mr. Hannay being as indulgent to other people as he was to himself. He stood there for a great light in Scale, “holding,” as he said, “ the light, carrying the light, battling for light in that capital of commerce, that stronghold of materialism, founded on money, built up in money, cemented with money!” He snarled out the word “money” and flung it in the face of his fashionable congregation; he gnashed his teeth over it; he shook his fist at them; and they rose to his mood, delighting in little Tommy Wharton’s pluck in “giving it them hot.” He was always giving it them hot, warming himself at his own fire. And then little Tommy Wharton slipped out of his little surplice and his little cassock, and into the Hannays’ house for whisky and soda. He’d drink peg for peg with Lawson Hannay, without turning a hair; while poor Lawson turned many hairs, till his little wife ran in and hid the whisky, and shook her handkerchief at the little canon, and “shooed” him merrily away. And Lawson, big, good-natured Lawson, would lend him more money to build his church with.
He received Anne with a benign air; he assured her of his delight in making her acquaintance, and refrained from allusions to the long delay of his delight.
Little Mrs. Hannay was rolling softly in another direction.
“Canon Wharton, let me present you to Mrs. Walter Majendie.”
She had risen to Canon Wharton. For she had said to her husband, “You must get the canon. She can’t think us such a shocking bad lot if we have him.” Her face expressed triumph in the capture of Canon Wharton, triumph in the capture of Mrs. Walter Majendie, triumph in the introduction. Owing to the Hannays’ determination to rise to it, the dinner-party, in being rigidly select, was of necessity extremely small.
“Miss Mildred Wharton — Sir Rigley Barker — Mr. Gorst. Now you all know each other.”
The last person to be introduced had lingered with a certain charming diffidence at Mrs. Majendie’s side. He was a man of about, her husband’s age, or a little younger, fair and slender, with a restless, flushed face and brilliant eyes.
“I can’t tell you what a pleasure this is, Mrs. Majendie.”
He had an engaging voice and a still more engaging smile.
“You may have heard about me from your husband. I was awfully sorry to miss you when I called before I went to Norway. I only came back this morning, but I made Hannay invite me.”
Anne murmured some suitable politeness. She said afterwards that her instinct had warned her against Mr. Gorst, with his restlessness and brilliance; but, as a matter of fact, her instinct had done nothing of the sort, and his manners had prejudiced her in his favor. Fanny Eliott had told her that he belonged to a very old Lincolnshire family. There was a distinction about him. And he really had a particularly engaging smile.
So she received him amiably; so amiably that Majendie, who had been observing their encounter with an intent and rather anxious interest, appeared finally reassured. He joined them, releasing himself adroitly from Sir Rigley Barker.
“How’s Edith?” said Mr. Gorst.
His use of the name and something in his intonation made Anne attentive.
“She’s better,” said Majendie. “Come and see her soon.”
“Oh, rather. I’ll come round to-morrow. If,” he added, “Mrs. Majendie will permit me.”
“Mrs. Majendie,” said her husband, “will be delighted.”
Anne smiled assent. Her amiability extended even to Mrs. Hannay, who had risen to it, so far, well.
During dinner Anne gave her attention to her right-hand neighbor, Canon Wharton; and Mrs. Hannay, looking down from her end of the table, saw her selection justified. In rising to the canon she had risen her highest; for the exmember hardly counted: he was a fallen star. But Canon Wharton, the vicar of All Souls, stood on an eminence, social and spiritual, in Scale. He had built himself a church in the new quarter of the town, and had filled it to overflowing by the power of his eloquence. Lawson Hannay, in a moment of unkind insight, had described the canon as “a speculative builder;” but he lent him money for his building, and liked him none the less.
Out of the pulpit the vicar of All Souls was all things to all men. In the pulpit he was nothing but the vicar of All Souls.
So the vicar of All Souls, who aspired to be all things to all men, was hand in glove with the Lawson Hannays. He had occasionally been known to provide for the tables of the poor, but he dearly loved to sit at the tables of the rich; and he justified his predilection by the highest example.
Anne, who knew the canon by his spiritual reputation only, turned to him with interest. Her eye, keen to discern these differences, saw at once that he was a man of the people. He had the unfinished features, the stunted form of an artisan; his body sacrificed, his admirers said, to the energies of his mighty brain. His face was a heavy, powerful oval, bilious-colored, scarred with deep lines, and cleft by the wide mouth of an orator, a mouth that had acquired the appearance of strength through the canon’s habit of bringing his lips together with a snap at the close of his periods. His eyes were a strange opaque gray, but the clever canon made them seem almost uncomfortably penetrating by simply knitting his eyebrows in a savage pent-house over them. They now looked forth at Anne as if the canon knew very well that her soul had a secret, and that it would not long be hidden from him.
They talked about the Eliotts, for the canon’s catholicity bridged the gulf between Thurston Square and vociferous, high-living, fashionable Scale. He had lately succeeded (by the power of his eloquence) in winning over Mrs. Eliott from St. Saviour’s to All Souls. He hoped also to win over Mrs. Eliott’s distinguished friend. For the canon was mortal. He had yielded to the unspiritual seduction of filling All Souls by emptying other men’s churches. Lawson Hannay smiled on the parson’s success, hoping (he said) to see his money back again.
Money, or no money, he left him a clear field with Mrs. Majendie. Ladies, when they were pretty, appealed to Lawson as part of the appropriate decoration of a table; but, much as he loved their charming society, he loved his dinner more. He loved it with a certain pure extravagance, illuminated by thought and imagination. Mrs. Hannay was one with him in this affection. Her heart shared it; her fancy ministered to it, rising higher and higher in unwearying flights. It was a link between them; almost (so fine was the passion) an intellectual tie. But reticence was not in Hannay’s nature; and his emotion affected Anne very unpleasantly. She missed the high lyric note in it. All epicurean pleasures, even so delicate and fantastic a joy as Hannay’s in his dinner, appeared gross to Anne.
Majendie at the other end of the table caught sight of her detached, unhappy look, and became detached and unhappy himself, till Mrs. Hannay rallied him on his abstraction.
“If you are in love, my dear Wallie,” she whispered, “you need n’t show it so much. It’s barely decent.”
“Is n’t it? Anyhow, I hope it’s quite decently bare,” he answered, tempted by her folly. They were gay at Mrs. Hannay’s end of the table. But Anne, who watched her husband intently, looked in vain for the brilliance which had distinguished him when he dined in Thurston Square. These Hannays made him dull.
Now, though Anne did n’t in the least want to talk to Mr. Hannay, Mr. Hannay displeased her by not wanting to talk more to her. Not that he talked very much to anybody. Now and then the canon’s niece, Mildred Wharton, the pretty girl on his left, moved him to a high irrelevance, in those rare moments when she was not absorbed in Mr. Gorst. Pretty Mildred and Mr. Gorst were flirting unabashed behind the roses, and it struck Anne that the canon kept an alarmed and watchful eye upon their intercourse.
To Anne the dinner was intolerably long. She tried to be patient with it, judging that its length was a measure of the height her hosts had risen to. There she did them an injustice; for in the matter of a menu the Hannays could not rise; for they lived habitually on a noble elevation.
At the other end of the table Mrs. Hannay called gayly on her guests to eat and drink. But, when the wine went round, Anne noticed that she whispered to the butler, and, after that, the butler only made a feint of filling his master’s glass, and turned a politely deaf ear to his protests. And then her voice rose: —
“Lawson, that pineapple ice is delicious. Gould, hand the pineapple ice again to Mr. Hannay. I adore pineapple ice,” said Mrs. Hannay. “Wallie, you ’re drinking nothing. Fill Mr. Majendie’s glass, Gould, fill it — fill it.” She was the immortal soul of hospitality, was Mrs. Hannay.
In the drawing-room Mrs. Hannay again took possession of Anne, and led her to the sofa. She fairly enthroned her there; she hovered round her; she put cushions at her head, and more cushions under her feet; for Mrs. Hannay liked to be comfortable herself and to see every one comfortable about her.
“You come,” said she, “and sit down by me on this sofa, and let’s have a cosy talk. That’s it. Only you want another cushion. No? Do! Won’t you really? Then it’s four for me,” said Mrs. Hannay, supporting herself in various postures of experimental comfort, “one for my back, two for my fat sides, and one for my head. Now I’m comfy. I adore cushions, don’t you ? My husband says I’m a little down cushion myself, so I suppose that’s why.”
Anne in her mood had crushed many innocent, vulgarities before now; but she owned that she could no more have snubbed Mrs. Hannay than you could snub a little down cushion. It would be impossible, she thought, to make any impression at all on that yielding surface. Impossible to take any impression from her, to say where her gayety ended and her vulgarity began.
“Is n’t it funny ?” the little lady went on, unconscious of Mrs. Majendie’s attitude. “My husband’s your husband’s oldest friend. So I think you and I ought to be friends too.”
Anne’s face intimated that she hardly considered the chain of reasoning unbreakable; but Mrs. Hannay continued to play cheerful elaborations on the theme of friendship, till her husband appeared with the other three men. He had his hand on Majendie’s shoulder, and Mrs. Hannay’s soft smile drew Mrs. Majendie’s attention to this manifestation of intimacy. And it dawned on Anne that Mrs. Hannay’s gayety would not end here; though it was here, with the mixing of the company, that her vulgarity would begin.
“Did you ever see such a pair? I tell Lawson he’s fonder of Wallie than he is of me. I believe he’d go down on his knees and black his boots for nothing, if he asked him. I’d do it myself; only you must n’t tell Lawson I said so.” She paused. “I think Lawson wants to come and have a little talk with you.”
Hannay approached heavily, and his wife gave up her place to him, cushions and all. He seated himself heavily. His eyes wandered heavily to the other side of the room, following Majendie. And as they rested on his friend there was a light in them that redeemed their heaviness.
He had come to Mrs. Majendie prepared for weighty utterance.
“That man,” said Hannay, “is the best, man I know. You’ve married, dear lady, my dearest and most intimate friend. He’s a saint — a Bayard.” He flung the name at her defiantly, and with a gesture he emphasized the crescendo of his thought. “A preux chevalier ; sans peur,” said Mr. Hannay, “et sans reproche.”
Having delivered his soul, he sat, still heavily, in silence.
Anne repressed the rising of her indignation. To her it was as if he had been defending her husband against some accusation brought by his wife.
And so, indeed, he was. Poor Hannay had been conscious of her attitude, conscious, under her pure and austere eyes, of his own shortcomings, and it struck him that Majendie needed some defense against her judgment of his taste in friendship.
When the door closed behind the Majendies, Mr. Gorst was left the last lingering guest.
“Poor Wallie,” said Mrs. Hannay.
“Poor Wallie,” said Mr. Hannay, and sighed.
“What do you think of her?” said the lady to Mr. Gorst.
“Oh, I think she ’s magnificent,”
“Do you think he ’ll be able to live up to it ?”
“Why not?” said Mr. Gorst cheerfully.
“Well, it was n’t very gay for him before he married, and I don’t imagine it’s going to be any gayer now.” “Now,” said Mr. Hannay, “I understand what’s meant by the solemnization of holy matrimony. That woman would solemnize a farce at the Vaudeville, with Gwen Richards on.”
“She very nearly solemnized my din ner,” said Mrs. Hannay.
“She does n’t know,” said Mr. Hannay, “what a dinner is. She’s got no appetite herself, and she tried to take mine away from me. A regular dog-inthe-manger of a woman.”
“Oh come, you know,” said Gorst. “She can’t be as bad as all that. Edith ’s awfully fond of her.”
“And that’s good enough for you?” said Mrs. Hannay.
“Yes. That’s good enough for me, I like her,” said Gorst stoutly; and Mrs. Hannay hid in her pocket-handkerchief a face quivering with mirth.
But Gorst, as he departed, turned on the doorstep and repeated, “Honestly, I like her.”
“Well, honestly,” said Mr. Hannay, “I don’t.” And, lost in gloomy forebodings for his friend, he sought consolation in whisky and soda.
Mrs. Hannay took a seat beside him.
“And what did you think of the dinner ? ” said she.
“It was a dead failure, Pussy.”
“You old stupid, I mean the dinner, not the dinner-party.”
Mrs. Hannay rubbed her soft cherubic face against his sleeve, and as she did so, she gently removed the whisky from his field of vision. She was a woman of exquisite tact.
“Oh, the dinner, my plump Pussycat, was a dream — a happy dream.”
“There are moments, I admit,” said Majendie, “when Hannay saddens me.”
Anne had drawn him into discussing at breakfast time their host and hostess of the night before.
“Shall you have to see very much of them ?” She had made up her mind that she would see very little, or nothing, of the Hannays.
“Well, I have n’t, lately, have I ?” said he, and she owned that he had not.
“How you ever could —” she began, but he stopped her.
“Oh well, we need n’t go into that.”
It seemed to her that there was something dark and undesirable behind those words, something into which she could well conceive he would not wish to go. It never struck her that he merely wished to put an end to the discussion.
She brooded over it and became dejected. The great tide of her trouble had long ago ebbed out of her sight. Now it was as if it had turned, somewhere on the edge of the invisible, and was creeping back again. She wished she had never seen or heard of the Hannays — detestable people.
She betrayed something of this feeling to Edith, who was impatient for an account of the evening. (It was thus that Edith entered vicariously into life.)
“Did you expect me to enjoy it ?” she replied to the first eager question.
“No, I don’t know that I did. I should have enjoyed it very much indeed.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Was there anybody there that you disliked so much?”
“The Hannays were there. It was enough.”
“You liked Mr. Gorst?”
“Yes. He was different.”
“Poor Charlie. I’m glad you liked him.”
“I don’t like him any better for meeting him there, my dear.”
“Don’t say that to Walter, Nancy.”
“I have said it. How Walter can care for those people is a mystery to me.”
“He ought to be ashamed of himself if he did n’t. Lawson Hannay has been a good friend to him.”
“Do you mean that he’s under any obligation to him ?”
“Yes. Obligations, my dear, that none of us can ever repay.”
“It’s intolerable — " said Anne. “Is it? Wait till you know what the obligations are. That man you dislike so much stood by Walter when your friends, the Eliotts, my child, turned their virtuous backs on him — when none of his own people, even, would lend him a helping hand. It was Lawson Hannay who saved him.”
“Saved him. Moved heaven and earth to get him out of that woman’s clutches.”
Anne shook her head, and put her hands over her eyes to dispel her vision of him. Edith laughed.
“You can’t see Mr. Hannay moving heaven ? ”
“No, really, I can’t.”
“Well, I saw him. At least, if he did n’t move heaven, he moved earth. When nothing else could shake her hold, he bought her off.”
“ Bought — her — off ?”
“Yes, bought her — paid her money to go. And she went.”
“He owes him money, then?”
“Money, and a great many other things besides. You don’t like it?”
“I can’t bear it.”
“Of course you can’t. It hurts your pride. It hurt mine badly. But my pride has had to go down in the dust before Lawson Hannay.”
Anne raised her head as if she refused to lower her pride an inch to him. She was trying to put the whole episode behind her, as it had come before her. She had nothing whatever to do with it. Edith, of course, had to be grateful. She was not bound by the same obligation. But she was determined that they should be quit of the Hannays. She would make Walter pay back that money.
Meanwhile Edith’s eyes filled with tears at the recollection. “ Lawson Hannay may not have been a very good man himself — I believe at one time he was n’t. But he loved his friend, and he did n’t want to see him going the same way.”
“The same way? That means that, if it had n’t been for Mr. Hannay, he would never have met her.”
“Mr. Hannay did his best to prevent his meeting her. He knew what she was, and Walter did n’t. He took him off in his yacht for weeks at a time, to get him out of her way. When she followed him he brought him back. When she persecuted him — well, I’ve told you what he did.”
Anne lifted her hand in supplication, and rose and went to the open window, as if, after that recital, she thirsted for fresh air. Edith smiled, in spite of herself, at her sister-in-law’s repudiation of the subject.
“Poor Mr. Hannay,” said she, “the worst you can say of him now is that he eats and drinks a little more than’s good for him.”
“And that he ’s married a wife who sets him the example,” said Anne, returning from the window-sill refreshed.
“She keeps him straight, dear.”
“Edith! I shall never understand you. You ’re angelically good. But it’s horrible, the things you take for granted. ‘She keeps him straight’!”
“You think I take for granted a natural tendency to crookedness? I don’t, I don’t. What I take for granted is a natural tendency to straightness, when it gets its way. — It does n’t always get it, though, especially in a town like Scale.”
“I wish we were out of it.”
“So did I, dear, once; but I don’t now. We must make the best of it.”
“Has Walter paid any of that money back to Mr. Hannay?”
Edith looked up at her sister-in-law, startled by the hardness in her voice. She had meant to spare Anne’s pride the worst blow, but something in her question stirred the fire that slept in Edith.
“No,” she said, “he has n’t. He was going to, but Mr. Hannay cancelled the debt, in order that he might marry. — That he might marry you.”
Anne drew back as if Edith had struck her bodily. She, then, had been bought, too, with Mr. Hannay’s money. Without it, Walter could not have afforded to marry her ; for she was poor.
She sat silent, until her self-appointed hour with Edith ended; and then, still silently, she left the room.
And Edith turned her cheek on her cushions and sobbed weakly to herself. “Walter would never forgive me if he knew I’d told her that. It was awful of me. But Anne would have provoked the patience of a saint.”
Anne owned that Edith was a saint, and that the provocation was extreme.
In the afternoon, Edith, at her own request, was forgiven, and Anne, by way of proving and demonstrating her forgiveness, announced her amiable intention of calling on Mrs. Hannay on her “day.”
The day fell within a week of the dinner. It was agreed that Majendie was to meet his wife at the Hannays’, and to take her home. There was a good mile between Prior Street and the Park, and Anne was a leisurely walker; so it happened that she was late, and that Majendie had arrived a few minutes before her. She did not notice him there all at once. Mrs. Hannay was a sociable little lady; the radius of her circle was rapidly increasing, and her “day” drew crowds. The lamps were not yet lit, and as Anne entered the room, it was dim to her after the daylight of the open air. She had counted on an inconspicuous entrance, and was astonished to find that the announcement of her name caused a curious disturbance and division in the assembly. A finer ear than Anne’s might have detected an ominous sound, something like the rustling of leaves before a storm. But Anne’s self-possession rendered her at times insensible to changes in the social atmosphere. In any case the slight commotion was no more than she had come prepared for, in a whole roomful of ill-bred persons.
“Pussy,” said a lady who stood near Mrs. Hannay. Mrs. Hannay had her back to the doorway. The lady’s voice rang on a low note of warning, and she brought her mouth close to Mrs. Hannay’s ear.
The hostess started, turned, and came at once towards Mrs. Majendie, rolling deftly between the persons who obstructed her perturbed and precipitate way. The perfect round of her cheeks had dropped a little; it was the face of a poor cherub in vexation and dismay.
“Dear Mrs. Majendie—” her voice, once so triumphant, had dropped, too, almost to a husky whisper— “how very good of you.”
She led her to a sofa, the seat of intimacy, set back a little from the central throng. Majendie could be seen fairly immersed in the turmoil, struggling desperately through it, with a plate in his hand.
Mrs. Hannay was followed by her husband, by the other lady, and by Gorst. She introduced the other lady as Mrs. Ransome, and they seated themselves, one on each side of Anne. The two men drew up in front of the sofa, and began to talk very fast, in loud tones and with an unnatural gayety. The women, too, closed in upon her somewhat with their knees; they were both a little confused, both more than a little frightened, and the manner of both was mysteriously apologetic.
Anne, with her deep insulating sense of superiority, had no doubt as to the secret of the situation. She felt herself suitably protected, guarded from contact, screened from view, distinguished very properly from persons to whom it. was manifestly impossible, even for Mrs. Hannay, to introduce her. She was very sorry for poor Mrs. Hannay, she tried to make it less difficult for her, by ignoring the elements of confusion and fright. But poor Mrs. Hannay kept on being frightened; she refused to part with her panic and be natural. So terrified was she that she hardly seemed to take in what Mrs. Majendie was saying.
Anne however conversed with the utmost amiability, while her thoughts ran thus: “Dear lady, why this agitation ? You cannot help being vulgar. As for your friends, what do you think I expected ? ”
The other lady, Mrs. Dick Ransome, could not be held accountable for anything but her own private vulgarity; and it struck Anne as odd that Mrs. Dick Ransome, who was not responsible for Mrs. Hannay, seemed, if anything, more terrified than Mrs. Hannay, who was responsible for her.
Mrs. Dick Ransome did not, at the first blush, inspire confidence. She was a woman with a great, deal of blonde hair, and a fresh-colored, conspicuously unspiritual face; coarse-grained, thicknecked, ruminantly animal; but kind; kind to Mrs. Hannay, kind to Anne,— kinder even than Mrs. Hannay, who was responsible for all the kindness.
Charlie Gorst hurried away to get Mrs. Majendie some tea, and Lawson Hannay’s large form moved into the gap thus made, blocking Anne’s view of the room. He stood looking down upon her with an extraordinary smile of mingled apology and protection. Gorst s return was followed by Majendie, wandering uneasily with his plate. He smiled at Anne, too, and his smile conveyed the same suggestion of desperation and distress. It was as if he said to her, “I’m sorry for letting you in for such a crew, but how can I help it ? ”
She smiled back at him brightly, as much as to say, “Don’t mind. It amuses me. I’m taking it all in.”
He wandered away, and Anne felt that the women exchanged looks across her shoulders.
“I think I’ll be going, Pussy dear,” said Mrs. Ransome, nodding some secret intelligence. She elbowed her way gently across the room, and came back again, shaking her head hopelessly and helplessly. “She says I can go if I like, but she’ll stay,” said Mrs. Ransome under her breath.
“Oh — h-h,” said Mrs. Hannay under hers.
“What am I to do?” said Mrs. Ransome, flurried into audible speech.
“Stay — stay. It’s much better.” She plucked her husband by the sleeve, and he lowered an attentive ear. Mrs. Ransome covered the confidence with a high-pitched babble.
“You find Scale a very sociable place, don’t you, Mrs. Majendie?” said Mrs. Ransome.
“Go,” said Mrs. Hannay, “and take her off into the conservatory, or somewhere.”
“More sociable in the winter-time, of course.” Mrs. Ransome in her agitation almost screamed it.
“I can’t take her off anywhere, if she won’t go,” said Mr. Hannay in a thick but penetrating whisper. He collapsed into a chair in front of Anne, where he seemed to spread himself, sheltering her with his supine, benignant gaze.
Mrs. Hannay was beside herself, beholding his invertebrate behavior. “ Don’t sit down, stupid. Do something — anything.”
He went to do it, but evidently, whatever it was, he had no heart for it.
A maid came in and lit a lamp. There was a simultaneous movement of departure among the nearer guests.
“Oh Heavens,” said Mrs. Hannay, “don’t tell me they’re all going!”
Anne, serenely contemplating these provincial manners, was bewildered by the horror in Mrs. Hannay’s tone. There was no accounting for provincial manners, or she would have supposed that Mrs. Hannay, mortified by the presence of her most undesirable acquaintance, would have rejoiced to see them go.
Their dispersal cleared a space down the middle of the room to the bay window, and disclosed a figure, a woman’s figure, which occupied, majestically, a settee. The settee, set far back in the bay of the window, was in a direct line with Anne’s sofa. That part of the room was still unlighted, and the figure, sitting a little sideways, remained obscure.
A servant went round lighting lamps. The first lamp to be lit stood beside Anne’s sofa. The effect of the illumination was to make the lady in the window turn on her settee. Across the space between, her eyes, obscure lights in a face still undefined, swept with the turning of her body, and fastened upon Anne’s face, bared for the first time to their view. They remained fixed, as if Anne’s face had a peculiar fascination for them.
“Who is the lady sitting in the window?” asked Anne.
“It’s my sister,” Mrs. Ransome blinked as she answered, and her blood ran scarlet to the roots of her blonde hair.
A cherub, discovering a horrible taste in his trumpet, would have looked like Mrs. Hannay.
“Do let me give you some more tea, Mrs. Majendie?” said she, while Mrs. Ransome signaled to her husband. “Here, Dick, come and make yourself useful.”
Mr. Ransome, a little stout man with a bald head, a pale puffy face, a twinkling eye and a severe mustache, was obedient to her summons.
“Let me see.” said she; “have you met Mrs. Majendie?”
“I have not had that pleasure,” said Mr. Ransome, and bowed profoundly. He waited assiduously on Mrs. Majendie. The Ransomes might have been responsible for the whole occasion, they so rallied round and supported her.
Hannay and Gorst, Ransome and another man, were gathered together in communion with the lady of the settee. There was a general lull, and her voice, a voice of sweet but somewhat penetrating quality, was heard.
“Don’t talk to me,” said she, “about women being jealous of each other. Do you suppose I mind another woman being handsome ? I don’t care how handsome she is, so long as she is n’t handsome in my style. Of course, I don’t say I could stand it if she was the very moral of me.”
“I say, supposing Toodles met the very moral of herself?”
“Could Toodles have a moral? I doubt it.”
“I want to know what she’d do with it.”
“Yes, by Jove, what would you do?”
“Do? I should do my worst. I should make her sit somewhere with a good strong light on her.”
“Hold hard there,” said her brotherin-law (the man who called her Toodles). “Lady Cayley does n’t want that lamp lit just yet.”
In the silence of the rest, the name seemed to leap straight across the room to Anne.
The two women beside her heard it, and looked at each other and at her. Anne sickened under their eyes, struck suddenly by the meaning of their protection and their sympathy. She longed to rise, to sweep them aside and go. But she was kept motionless by some superior instinct of disdain.
Outwardly she appeared in no way concerned by this revelation of the presence of Lady Cayley. She might never have heard of her, for any knowledge that her face betrayed.
Majendie, not far from the settee in the window, was handing cucumber sandwiches to an old lady.
And Lady Cayley had taken the matches from the maid, and was lighting the lamp herself, and was saying, “I’m not afraid of the light yet, I assure you. There — look at me.”
Everybody looked at her, and she looked at everybody as she sat in the lamplight, and let it pour over her. She seemed to be offering herself lavishly, recklessly, triumphantly, to the light.
Lady Cayley was a large woman of thirty-seven, who had been a slender and a pretty woman at thirty. She would have been pretty still if she had been a shade less large. She had tiny upward-tilted features in her large white face; but the lines of her jaw and her little round prominent chin were already vanishing in a soft enveloping fold, flushed through its whiteness with a bloom that was a sleeping color. Her forehead and eyelids were exceedingly white, so white that against them her black eyebrows and blue eyes were vivid and emphatic. Her head carried high a Gainsborough hat of white felt, with black plumes and a black line round its rim. Under its upward and its downward curve her light brown hair was tossed up, and curled, and waved, and puffed info an appearance of great exuberance and volume. Exuberance and volume were the note of this lady, a note subdued a little by the art of her dressmaker. A gown of smooth black cloth clung to her vast form without a wrinkle, sombre, severe, giving her a kind of slenderness in stoutness. She wore a white lace vest, and any quantity of lace ruffles, any number of little black velvet lines and points set with paste buttons. And every ruffle, every line, every point and button was an accent, emphasizing some beauty of her person.
And Anne looked at Lady Cayley once and no more.
It was enough. The trouble that she put from her came again upon her, no longer in its merciful immensity, faceless and formless (for she had shrunk from picturing Lady Cayley), but boldly, abominably defined. She grasped it now, the atrocious tragedy, made visible and terrible for her in the body of Lady Cayley, the phantom of her own horror made flesh.
A terrible comprehension fell on her of that body, of its power, its secret and its sin.
For the first moment, when she looked from it to her husband, her mind refused to associate him with that degradation. Reverence held her, and a sudden memory of her passion in the woods at Westleydale. Mercifully they veiled her intelligence, and made it impossible for her to realize that he should have sunk so low.
Then she remembered. She had known that it. was, that it would be so, that sooner or later the woman would come back. Her brain conceived a curious twofold intuition of the fact.
It was all foreappointed and foreknown, that she should come to this hateful house, and should sit there, and that her eyes should be opened and that she should see.
And the woman’s voice rose again. “Do I see cucumber sandwiches ?” said Lady Cayley. “Dick, go and tell Mr. Majendie that, if he does n’t want all those sandwiches himself, I’ll have one.”
Ransome gave the message, and Majendie turned to the lady of the settee, presenting the plate with the finest air of abstraction. Her large arm hovered in selection long enough for her to shoot out one low, quick speech.
“I only wanted to see if you’d cut me, Wallie. Topsie bet me two to ten you would n’t.”
“Why on earth should I?”
“Oh, on earth, I know you would n’t. But did n’t I hear just now you’d married and gone to heaven?”
“Gone to — ?”
“Sh—sh — sh — I’m sure she does n’t let you use those naughty words. You need n’t say you ’re not in heaven, for I can see you are. You did n’t expect to meet me there, did you ?”
“I certainly did n’t expect to meet you here.”
“How can you be so rude. Dick, take that tiresome plate from him; he does n’t know what to do with it. Yes, I’ll have another before it goes away forever.”
Majendie had given up the plate before he realized that he was parting with the link that bound him to the outer world. He turned instantly to follow it there; but she saw his intention and frustrated it.
“Butter? Ugh! You might hold my cup for me while I take my gloves off.”
She peeled two skin-tight gloves from her plump hands, so carefully that the operation gave her all the time she wanted. “I believe you ’re still afraid of me?" said she.
He was doing his best to look over her head; but she smiled a smile so flashing that it drew his eyes to her involuntarily; he felt it as positively illuminating their end of the room.
“You ’re not? Well, prove it.”
“Is it possible to prove anything to you?”
Again he was about to break from her impatiently. Nothing, he had told himself, would induce him to stay and talk to her. But he saw Anne’s face across the room; it was pale and hard, fixed in an expression of implacable repulsion. And she was looking, not at Lady Cayley, but at him.
“You can prove it,” said Lady Cayley, “to me and everybody else — they’re all looking at you — by sitting down quietly for one moment, and trying to look a little less as if we compromised each other.”
He stayed, to prove his innocence before Anne; and he stood, to prove his independence before Lady Cayley. He had longed to get away from the woman, to stand by his wife’s side ; to take her out of the room, out of the house, into the open air. And now the perversity that was in him kept him where he hated to be.
“That’s right. Thank heaven one of us has got some presence of mind.”
“Presence of mind?”
“ Yes. You don’t, seem to think of me,” she added softly.
“Why should I?” he replied with a brutality that surprised himself.
She looked at him with blue eyes softly suffused, and the curve of a red mouth sweet and tremulous. “Why?” her whisper echoed him. “Because I’m a woman.”
Her eyelids dropped ever so little; but their dark lashes (following the upward trend of her features) curled to such a degree that the veil was ineffectual. He saw a large slit of the wonderful, indomitable blue. “I’m a woman, and you’re a man, you see; and the world’s on your side, my friend, not mine.”
She said it sweetly. If she had been bitter she would have (as she expressed it) “choked him off;” but Lady Cayley knew better than to be bitter now, at thirty-seven. She had learnt that her power was in her sweetness.
His face softened (from the other end of the room Anne saw it soften), and Lady Cayley pursued with soundless feet her fugitive advantage.
“Poor Wallie, you need n’t look so frightened. I’m quite safe now, or soon will be. Did n’t I tell you I was going there too. I’m going to be married.”
“I’m delighted to hear it,” said he stiffly.
“To a perfect angel,” said she.
“Really? If you’re going up to heaven, he, I take it, is not coming down to earth ?”
“Nothing is settled,” said Lady Cayley, with such monstrous gravity that his stiffness melted and he laughed outright.
(Anne heard him.)
“Who, if I may ask, is this celestial, this transcendent being?”
She shook her head. “I can’t tell you, yet.”
“What, is n’t even that settled ?”
Majendie was so genuinely diverted at that moment that he would not have left her if he could.
She took the sting of it and flushed dumbly. Remorse seized him, and he sought to soothe her.
“My dear lady, I had a vision of heavenly hosts standing round you in such quantities that it might be difficult to make a selection, you know.”
She rallied finely under the reviving compliment. “My dear, it’s a case of quality, not quantity — ” Her past was so present to them both that he almost understood her to say “this time.”
“I see,” he said. “The wings. But nothing ’s settled?”
“It’s settled right enough,” said she, by which he understood her to imply that the “angel’s” case was. She had settled him. Majendie could see her doing it. His imagination played lightly with the preposterous idea. He conceived her in the act of bringing down her bird of heaven, actually “winging him.”
“But it’s not given out yet.”
“You’re the first I’ve told, except Topsie. Topsie knows it. So you must n’t tell anybody else.”
“I never tell anybody anything,” said he.
He gathered that it was not quite so settled as she wished him to suppose, and that Lady Cayley anticipated some possible dashing of the cup of matrimony from her lips.
“So I’m not to have panics, in the night, and palpitations, every time I think of it ? ”
“Certainly not, if it rests with me.”
“I wanted you to know. But it’s so precious, I’m afraid of losing it. Nothing,” said Lady Cayley, “can make up for the loss of a good man’s love. Except,” she added, “a good woman’s.”
“Quite so,” he assented coldly, with horror at his perception of her drift.
His coldness riled her.
“Who,” said she with emphasis, “is the lady who keeps making those awful eyes at us over Pussy’s topknot ? ”
“That lady,” said Majendie, “as it happens, is my wife.”
“ Why did n’t you tell me that before ? That’s what comes, you see, of not introducing people. I’ll tell you one thing, Wallie. She’s awfully handsome. But you always had good taste. Br—r—r, there’s a draught cutting my head off. You might shut that window, there’s a dear.”
He shut it.
“And put my cup down.”
He put it down.
(Anne saw him. She had seen everything.)
“And help me on with ray cape.”
He lifted the heavy sable thing with two fingers and helped her gingerly. A scent, horrid and thick, and profuse with memories, was shaken from her as she turned her shoulder. He hoped she was going. But she was not going; not she. Her body swayed towards him sinuously, from hips obstinately immobile, weighted, literally, with her unshakable determination to sit on.
She rewarded him with a smile which seemed to him, if anything, more atrociously luminous than the last. “I must keep you up to the mark,”said she, as she turned with it. “Your wife’s looking at you, and I feel responsible for your good behavior. Don’t keep her waiting. Can’t you see she wants to go ? ”
“And I want to go, too,”said he savagely. And he went.
And as she watched Mrs. Walter Majendie’s departure, Lady Cayley smiled softly to herself, tasting the first delicious flavor of success.
She had made Mrs. Walter Majendie betray herself; she had made her furious ; she had made her go.
She had sat Mrs. Walter Majendie out.
If the town of Scale, the mayor and the aldermen, had risen up and given her an ovation, she could not have celebrated more triumphantly her return.
(To be Continued.)
- Copyright, 1906, by MAY SINCLAIR.↩