The Third Window
BY ANNE DOUGLAS SEDGWICK
‘I LOVE this window,5 said Antonia, walking down the drawing-room; ‘and this one. They both look over the moors, you see. This view is even lovelier.’ She stopped at the end of the long room, and the young man with the pale face and the limping step followed and looked out of the third window with her. ‘ But — I don’t know why — I hate it. I wish it were n’t here.5
Captain Saltonhall looked out and said nothing.
‘I wonder if you see what I mean,’ said Antonia.
‘No; I don’t. I like it.’
The young man spoke gently and with something of a drawl, unimpressed, apparently, by her antipathy, and putting up the back of a placid forefinger to stroke along the edge of his moustache.
“One gets the hills, peaceful and silvery; one gets the walled garden and the cedar,’ she enumerated. ‘The little pond with its fountain is as serene as a happy dream. It’s all like a happy dream. Yet. — I wish there were n’t this window here.5
‘You could wall it up if you don’t, like it,’ Captain Saltonhall suggested, his eyes, as he stood behind her, turning from the walled garden beneath to fix themselves with a rather sad attentiveness upon the head of the young woman. Her dark hair was near him, and the curve of her cheek; he thought that he felt against his the warmth of her shoulder in its thin black dress.
She looked out, motionless, for a little while; then, turning suddenly, as if with impatience of her thoughts, found him so near, and his eyes on hers. She, too, was pale and tall; but all in her was soft, splendid, and almost opulent, while he was sharp-edged and wasted. He looked much the older, although they were of the same age; both, indeed, were very young.
He did not. move away as she faced him, nor did his look alter. Sad and attentive, it merely remained attached upon her; and if he felt any nervousness, it showed itself only in the slight gesture of his forefinger passing meditatively along the edge of his moustache.
It was she who spoke.
‘Well, Bevis ?5 she said gravely. Her look asked, ‘Have you anything to tell me ?5
‘Well, Tony,5 he returned. He had, apparently, nothing to say.
She studied him for a moment longer, and then, with an added impatience, — if anything so soft could so be called, — walking away to an easy chair before the fire, she said, ‘You think me very silly, I suppose.’
‘Because of the window — my hating it.’
He came and leaned on the back of her chair, looking across her head up at the mantelpiece where a row of white fritillaries stood in tall crystal glasses, their reflections showing as if through a film of sea-water in the ancient mirror behind them. There had been white fritillaries among the flagged paths of the walled garden, and, finding them again, he recognized that they had been the only things he had felt uncanny there; for he had always felt them wraith-like flowers.
‘I think you’d better wall it up, quite seriously, if you really hate it’; he repeated his former suggestion. ‘ It would rather spoil the room. But I would n’t, if I were you, live with a discomfort like that — if it’s really a discomfort.’
The young woman beneath him laughed, a little sadly, if lightly. ‘ How you suspect me.’
‘Of what, pray?’
‘Oh, of unconscious humbug; of unconscious posing; of induced emotions generally. It’s always been the same.'
‘I rather like induced emotions in you,’ said Captain Saltonhall. ‘They suit you. They are like the color of a pomegranate or the taste of a mulberry or the smell of a branch of flowering hawthorne; something rich, thick, and pleasingly oppressive.’
‘Thanks. I don’t take it as a compliment.’
‘ I don’t mean it as one. I merely said I liked it in you; and if I do, it’s only because I’m in love with you.’
He lowered his eyes now from the fritillaries, to watch the very faint color that rose, very slowly, in her cheek. It could hardly be called a response. It was merely an awareness. And after a moment she said, still with her soft impatience, ‘ Do come and sit where I can see you. It’s bad for your leg to stand too long, I’m sure.’
He obeyed her, limping to a chair on the opposite side of the fireplace, laying his hands on either arm as he lowered himself with some little awkwardness. He was not yet accustomed to the complicated mechanical apparatus, the artificial leg, which, always, he felt hang so heavily about his thigh. Antonia Wellwood’s dark eyes watched him, with solicitude, it seemed, rather than tenderness; though indeed their very shape — the outer corners drooping, a line of white showing under the full iris — expressed so much melancholy sweetness that t heir most casual glance seemed to convey tenderness. The young people sat then for a little while in silence. Though the spring day was sunny, it was sharp. On a bed of ashes the log-fire burned softly and clearly. The silvery light of the high, northern sky shone along the polished floor.
The room was on the first floor, and, modern, like the house, imaged carefully — but not too carefully for ease — eighteenth-century austerities and graces. The walls were paneled in white; the chintzes were striped in white and citron-color. In spite of bowls of flowers, books and magazines, a halfknit sock here, its needles transfixing the ball of heather-colored wool, and the embroidery there with tangled skeins, it was an impersonal room, an object calmly and confidently awaiting appraisal rather than a long-memoried presence, making beauty forgotten in significance.
It was not a room expressive of the young woman sunken in the deep chair. Appointed elaborately as she was, in her dense or transparent blacks, her crossed feet in their narrow buckled shoes stretched before her, her hands lying along the white-and-citron chintz, she was neither disciplined nor austere. Brooding, melancholy, restless, and with a latent exasperation, her eyes dwelt on the flames, and her wide, small lips puckered themselves at moments as if with the bitterness of unshed tears.
She did not move for a long time, nor did the young man who, his elbows propped, rested his chin on the backs of interlaced hands and surveyed her over them. He noted her, as he had done for many months now; just as, for months before that, he had, in France, dreamed over her; not her mystery, her clouded, drifting quality; he had perhaps got, round that or perhaps given it up — sometimes he did not, himself know which; but the pictorial incidents of her appearance: the black velvet bow in the gauze upon her breast; the heavy pins of tortoise-shell that held up her great tresses; the odd, dusky mark on her eyelid that looked like the freaking of a lovely, else unblemished fruit; her pale cheek; her child-like forehead; her hand, beautiful and indolent, with its wedding-ring. He dwelt on all these appearances with a still absorption, and whether with more delight, or irony he could not have told; but it was an irony at his own expense, not at hers; for he had always been a young man aloof from appearances, tolerant yet contemptuous of their appeal, and he knew that they absorbed him now because he was in love with her, and he sometimes even wondered if he was in love with her because of them.
He did not, however, wonder much. Before the war he would have computed, analyzed, perhaps done away with his passion, with the fretting of over-acute thought. That sort of vitality, the analytic, destructive sort, had been, he imagined, bled, beaten, and cut out of him. He was now a wraith, a wreck of his former self, fit only for contemplation and acceptance. She was enough for him now, just as she was: ignorant, for all her accomplishment; indolent and self-absorbed; and she could more than satisfy him. The old acuteness remained, but it no longer tormented. He was aware of everything, and all he asked was to possess it all. That, however, did n’t mean that he pretended anything. If he had no illusions and asked for none, he did not let her think he had them.
‘When did you begin to know you were in love with me?’ she said at last; and now, in spite of the tearful pucker in her lips and liquid fullness of her eyes, he knew that the theme was the one to which she had intended to bring him. But it had not been deviously; for all her shifting shadows and eddies, she was one of the straightest creatures he had ever known. Perhaps, after all, it was that quality in her, rather than the appearances, that accounted for his state.
‘How long since I’ve loved you? Oh — since before Malcolm’s death, I’m afraid.’
It was what she had feared; he saw that, and that it. hurt her. Yet it pleased her, too.
‘I never guessed,’ she said.
He laughed. ‘Rather not! How could you have guessed ? ’
‘Women do — these things.’
‘Perhaps you are less clever than other women, then, or I more clever than other men.’
‘I don’t think I’m less clever than other women,’ said Antonia, and a smile just, touched her lips; another evidence of that straightness in her. She was willing to smile, even though smiling might be misunderstood. Yes, more than anything, perhaps, it was her genuineness he cherished.
‘You’re cleverer than most,’ he assured her. ‘ Far. But I’m cleverer than most men.’
‘We are a wonderful pair!’ she exclaimed.
And he agreed: ‘We are, indeed.’
‘ And why was it?’ she went on, more happily now; for — another precious point, and it seemed more than anything else to pair them — they were happy with each other. Apart from her woman’s craving to feel her power over him, apart from his definitely amorous condition, they were comrades, and it crossed his mind, oddly, at the moment of thinking it, that this could not have been said of Antonia and Malcolm. Their relation had been that, specially, of man and woman, lover and beloved. He doubted, really, whether Antonia would have cared much about Malcolm had he not been a man and a lover. Whereas, had he himself been another woman, Antonia, he felt sure, would have made a friend of him.
These reflections took him far from her question, and before the vague musing of his look she repeated it in an altered form. ‘Why did you begin—after having known me so long without?’
‘Ah, that I can’t tell. Perhaps it did n’t, begin. Perhaps it was always there. I knew it for the first time when I was ordered to France; that day I came to say good-bye to you and Malcolm in London — before he went.’
The name of her dead husband brought the cloud about her again. ‘Oh, yes,’ she murmured. ‘I remember that day. I was horribly frightened over the war. I had a presentiment. I knew he was going to volunteer.’
‘It could hardly have been a presentiment. He evidently would.’
She showed no resentment for his clipping of her dark pinions. It was as if she still hovered on t hem as she said, ‘ Of course. I mean presentiment of what came after that — what had to come. Don’t you believe in Fate, Bevis? Perhaps it was that you felt in me. You had never seen me suffering before.’
‘ Perhaps,’ said the young man, skeptically if kindly. ‘ However, I don’t want to talk about it,’ he added. ‘That is, unless you do, very much.’
She looked up at him, still unresentful, but now a little ironic, though irony was not her note. ‘You are an odd lover, Bevis.’
‘ You don’t like declaring your love.1
‘I have declared it.’
‘You don’t like talking about it..’
‘Why should I? Unless you’ll talk about yours, too. What you mean, I suppose, is that you miss pleading and passion in me and would like to see them displayed. I quite understand that in you. Perhaps it’s what’s needed to bring you round. But I’m not that sort of person. I could n’t do it naturally. I think, though you miss it. in me, you’d not really find it natural, either. We’re too clever, too civilized, I suppose.’
‘I suppose we are,’ she conceded, though a little wistfully. ‘I don’t exactly miss it. I know it’s there. It’s merely that I’d like you to talk about it, even if you don’t display it.’
‘I’m glad you recognize that it’s there,’ said the young man.
‘Shall I tell you what I really feel about the window?’ Antonia nowasked.
Her back was to it as she sat, and its great cedar, cutting against the paleblue sky, made a distant background to her head. Like a Renaissance portrait, sombre, serene, splendid in tone, the picture she made was before him: an allegorical figure of poetry, youth, or melancholy, with its dwelling eyes and spacings dark and pale. He was often to see her afterwards as she then looked across at him.
‘We never lived here, you know, Malcolm and I,’ she said, ‘though Malcolm, of course, spent his life here until we married. But we visited his mother, often, and I never thought about the window then. It was only after Malcolm’s death, and hers, when I stayed here alone for the first time a year ago — alone except for Cicely.’
‘Miss Latimer has always lived here, hasn’t she?’ Captain Saltonhall inquired.
4 Yes. But she is so much a part of it that it was like being alone. I used to walk up and down here and look out. Just a year ago it was; spring, like this. And, as I walked, I found that while I loved looking out of the front windows, I shrank, I could n’t tell why, from looking out of the third, the end one.’ Antonia turned herself still farther in her chair, leaning both elbows on the wide arm. 4I shrank from it, yet it drew me, too. And when I yielded, and looked, I felt frightened. And one day it came over me, as I looked out, that what I feared was that I should see Malcolm standing there, beside the fountain.’
Her voice had dropped. Her eyes dwelt on him, full of their genuine distress.
4 Ah, I see.’ Captain Saltonhall nodded. ‘That was very natural, I think.’
‘He had died so shortly before. Your thoughts were full of him. The place is full of him — with all the years he lived here.’
She listened to his alleviations, finding them, apparently, irrelevant.
‘But why the third window? Why only that one? Why not the others? He is more on the moors than in the flagged garden.’
‘A flagged garden, with a fountain and a cedar tree, is obviously a more suitable place for a ghost than the moors would be.’
‘You do believe in ghosts and apparitions, then?’
‘I don’t know whether I believe in them or not. There may be appearances we can’t account for. There’s a good deal of evidence for them. But I don’t believe they embody any consciousness. It’s far more likely, from what I ’ve read, that they are a kind of photograph of some past emotion.’
‘ But, Bevis, would n’t it frighten you dreadfully to see one, whatever it was ? ’
‘Perhaps. Yes. It might be very nasty,’ he agreed.
‘Yet if I could be sure that it embodied consciousness, as you say, it might frighten me, but it would mean such rapture, too. I should know, then, that Malcolm had survived death and still thought of me.’
‘Yes. I see,’ Captain Saltonhall murmured, rather awkwardly. ‘ Yes. Of course. That would be a great comfort to you.’
‘Comfort hardly expresses it, Bevis.’
Silence fell between them for a little while, and when the young man next spoke it was still with the slight awkwardness. ‘ But then, if that’s what you need, you ought to like the third window and the chance you feel it gives you.’
She heaved a weary, exasperated sigh, stretching out in her chair, stretching up her arms, lett ing them fall again along her sides, while, sunken, extended, she seemed to abandon to him the avowal of her own perplexity and extravagance. ‘I don’t know what I want. I don’t know what I fear. I don’t know anything,’ she said.
A step came outside at this point and, the door opening, there entered a woman, older than the other two, though still not old, with a bleached face and bleached wisps of hair, a straight, oldfashioned little fringe showing under her hat.
She paused at once on the threshold. ‘Am I interrupting?’ she asked. Her voice was curiously high; not sharp or shrill, but high and reedy, like a child’s.
‘No. Not a bit. Of course not. Come in, Cicely,’ said Antonia sadly.
She did not turn her eyes on the newcomer; but Captain Saltonhall did so, watching her as she crossed the room with her basket of spring flowers. She was dressed in weather-beaten mourning, with a knitted black silk scarf thrown back from her open jacket. The basket she carried was full of primroses and windflowers, and, setting it down on a distant table, she began to fill the bowls and vases that she had evidently placed there in readiness.
Her entry and her presence, which might be prolonged, were, he felt, very inopportune; yet Antonia showed no impatience of the interruption. Perhaps, indeed, Miss Latimer’s presence was a relief to her, since she had really no answer to give to his rather arid and even provocative logic. It had been a little vicious of him to put it to her like that; but there was, he recognized, an instinct in him to show her that her perplexities were irrelevant and even absurd, rather than to argue with them.
She remained silent and sunken in her chair, slowly twisting her wedding-ring round and round her finger, and it must have been apparent to Miss Latimer that she had interruptedaconvcrsation. He felt this to be a little unfortunate; why, he could not quite have said.
Miss Latimer, whom he had seen for the first time at dinner the night before, after his late arrival, had not endeared herself to him. He had not liked her stillness, or her whiteness, or her sudden piping voice. She was effaced, but not insignificant, and had an air, for all her silence, of taking everything in. Her small face, peaked and pinched rather than delicate, would have been childish, like her voice, were it not for her eyes. He reflected now, watching her move quietly among her flowers, that it was really because of her eyes he had not liked her. They were so tinchildish; so large; so bright; so pale; and her broad eyebrows, darker in tint than her faded hair, gave them an almost startling emphasis. Her face seemed barred across by those eyebrows, and beneath them her eyes were like captives looking out.
The flowers at last were finished and placed, beautifully placed, beautifully arranged, the primroses in shallow white earthenware, the windflowers in glasses that showed their thin rosy stems; and when Cicely Latimer went, at last, closing the door softly behind her, he felt himself draw a long breath of relief.
‘That’s a singular little person,’ he remarked.
Antonia, it was evident, was not thinking of Cicely Latimer. Her eyes came back to him from far distances. Or were they far, those distances? Was it in shallows or in depths that her mind had lain dreaming?
‘Is she a cousin, did you tell me?’ he asked.
‘ Cicely? ’ She recovered his comment as well as his question and answered that first. ‘She’s a great dear, and not singular at all. Yes — a cousin — Malcolm’s first cousin. A niece of old Mrs. Wcllwood’s.’
‘And she’s always lived here?’
‘Almost always. Mr. and Mrs. Wellwood built the house, you know, when they were first married, and Cicely came to them here as a child. She had been left, an orphan.’
‘How old is she, then?’
‘Oh, she must be quite old now,’ Antonia in her secure youth computed. ‘She was older, a good deal, than Malcolm; nearly forty, perhaps.’
‘She’s still in mourning, I see.’
‘Yes. So am I,’ said Antonia, not resentfully, but with an added sadness. ‘It’s not yet two years, Bevis. And hardly more than a year since Mrs. Wellwood’s death.’
‘It’s a matter of feeling, naturally. One does n’t expect a cousin to wear mourning as long as a widow. But they were like brother and sister, I suppose.’
‘Absolutely. Malcolm went to her with everything. He told her all about me when he first fell in love, and she helped him in it all.’
‘Will she go on living with you here?’
‘Goon? Cicely? Of course she will. I can’t think of this place without her. I think it would kill her if she were to be taken from it. Mrs. Wellwood spoke to me about it before she died. It’s like a sacred trust. She has a little money. It’s not that. But she’s as much a part of it as the trees and hills. She came to me at once, all the same, after everything happened, and said she would perfectly understand if I would rather start anew, quite by myself. There was n’t a quaver or an appeal. She was, I saw, quite ready. She is the sort of person who is ready for anything. I told her that as long as she lived it was her home. I took her in my arms, and, in a sense, she’s been there ever since. Though, in another sense, perhaps the deeper, it’s I who am in hers. She takes such wonderful, such devoted care of me.’
‘ I see ’ — Captain Saltonhall was feeling for his cigarette-case. ‘It’s lucky you are so much attached to each other. — Do you mind? Will you have one?’
He was preparing to hoist himself out of his chair with the cigarette-case and match-box, but she sprang up and came to him.
‘You can’t give yourself these luxuries of convention,’ she smiled, rather as if at an unruly patient. ‘You must let me wait on you, rather. At all events till you get more used to it. Dear old Bevis. You’re so brave that one forgets all about it.’
She leaned over him while he gave her a light, and then, the match having gone out in his rather unsteady fingers, leaned still nearer to light his cigarette from hers. But, gently, he laid his hands upon her arms and held her there, looking closely into her eyes.
‘Do you love me?’ he asked.
Her cigarette was between her lips. She could not answer. He released one hand so that she might free herself, and although the gesture might have brought an element of mirth into their gravity, she sought no refuge in it. Half-leaning, half-kneeling beside him, she made no attempt to draw away, and he saw her eyes widen in their grief, their perplexity, and their delight.
‘I don’t know, Bevis dear. — I don’t know. How can I know?’ she almost wept.
‘You do know. I can tell you that you know, for I do. You love me.’
He had laid his hold again upon her and he slightly shook her as he spoke.
‘I can’t. I can’t. — You must let me wait. You must give me time.’
‘All the time you want. I ’ve nothing to do but go on waiting. I ’m ready for it. But don’t be too cruel. What do you gain by it?’
‘I don’t mean to be cruel. Please believe that; please do.’
‘You don’t mean it; but you are. It’s enough for you to have me here, waiting, and making love to you, day after day, month after month, as I did in London. I understand it all. You keep him like that, and you keep me. And what torments you is that you can’t see how you can keep us both if you give me more.’
‘Oh — Bevis! You are so horrible! So horribly clear! You are far, far clearer than I can ever be. Yet — no, that’s not all there is to it. Give me time to think. I told you that I should think better up here, in his home — with you to help me. I can only think clearly if I’m given time.’
‘You can’t do anything clearly. You’re always in a mist. You want to know yourself; I grant you your honesty; but your feeling makes a mist around you. Listen to me. Let me show it to you. You love him still, of course. I should n’t care for you if you did n’t. You’ll go on loving him. And it will hurt sometimes. It will hurt me, too. People are made up of these irreconcilable knots. It can’t be helped. We’re here in life together, and we belong to each other, and there’s nothing between us but a memory. Perhaps you could go on holding out against me; but you can’t go on holding out against yourself. You want to be mine nearly as much as I want you to be. Darling Tony, your eyes are full of love as you look at me now.’
He had held her more tightly, drawn her more near, and now, his haggard young face lighted with the sudden ardor of his conviction, he saw his light flash back to him from her, so that, dropping his hands from her arms, he seized her, drew her down to him, enfolded her, and, feeling her yield, kissed her again and again.
‘Bevis!’ she whispered — amazed, aghast, yet, in her yielding, confessing everything.
When she drew herself away and stood up beside him, it was blindly, putting her hand out for the table, her face averted; and so she stood for a moment, while he saw that the color bathed her face and neck. Then he saw that the tears rained down. He had, strangely, never seen her cry before, though he had seen her at the earlier moments of her great grief. She had been frozen, gaunt, lost, then.
‘Darling Tony — forgive me.’
‘Oh,’ she wept. ‘It’s not your fault!’
‘Yes, it is. Don’t ask me to regret it, but it is.’
‘No, no. It’s not your fault,’ she repeated. And she moved away, blindly.
‘Tell me you forgive me.’ He had drawn himself up in his chair and looked after her.
‘Of course I forgive you. I can’t forgive myself.’
‘That’s just as bad. Must you go?’
‘ I must. I must. Later — we ’ll talk. I ’ll try to think. I ’ll try to understand. I ’ll try to explain everything.’
She had got herself to the door and she had not turned her face to him again. ‘Don’t despise me,’ she said as she left him.
Though the traces of her tears were still visible, Antonia met him at lunch with composure. Like all the rooms at Wyndwards, the dining-room was too accurate and intended,and, darkly paneled as it was, the low mullioned windows looking out on the high ring-court, it had, through some miscalculation in the lighting, an uncomfortably sombre air. They sat there, the three of them, around the polished table with its embroidered linens, its crystal and silver, highly civilized and modern in the highly civilized and modern room. He and Antonia, at all events, were that. Miss Latimer, perhaps, belonged to a more primitive tradition. It struck him that he would have liked Wyndwards better if it had kept to that tradition — the tradition, in fact, of making no attempts. As it was, it did n’t match Miss Latimer, nor did it match him and Tony. It was modern and civilized; but so differently.
Antonia leaned her elbow on the table while she ate and looked out at the ring-court. Miss Latimer never lounged. She still wore her hat and sat erect in her place, eating swiftly, and throwing from time to time a bit of bread or biscuit to the dogs. The task of talking to her fell entirely upon him, for Antonia, though composed, was evidently in no mood for talking. He asked her questions about the country and its birds, beasts, and flowers, and she answered, if not affably, yet with an accuracy that betrayed a community of taste. She told him that they were rather too far north to get stonecurlews, as he had hoped they might.
‘I found a nest once,’ she said; ‘but that was when I was staying with some people ten miles away.’
‘What luck! Did you see the birds?’
‘Yes. I hid near by for some hours and saw them going to and fro. I could have photographed them if I had had a camera.’
‘What luck,’ Captain Saltonhall repeated, with sincerity. ‘I’ve only once had a glimpse of one, flying. Queer, watchful, uncanny birds, are n’t they? with great, clear eyes.’
‘They are rather strange-looking birds.’
It struck him suddenly that Miss Latimer herself looked like a stonecurlew.
‘They’ve the same cry, nearly, as the ordinary curlew, have n’t they?’ he asked. ‘You get plenty of those up here, I suppose?’
‘Oh, yes. You can hear them any day. It is rather the same sort of cry.’
Antonia knew little about the country and was not observant of nature; but now, leaning her head on her hand and looking out of the window, she remarked, unexpectedly, ‘I hate their cry; if it is the cry of curlews, I mean. Aren’t they the birds that have that high, bleak, drifting wail?’
‘Oh, I rather like it,’ said Captain Saltonhall. ‘Yes; that’s the bird. It’s the sort of melancholy ordained by providence to go with tea-time and a wood-fire, as eggs arc ordained to go with bacon.’
‘No,’ said Antonia. ‘ It’s ordained to go with nothing. It makes me think of something that has been forgotten; something that has given up even the hope of being remembered, yet that laments.’
‘ But the curlew is n’t forgotten. It is probably calling to its mate.’
‘Probably. I am not talking of the natural history of the bird. Its cry sounds like the cry of a creature that has been forgotten by its mate.’
‘What do you think it sounds like?’ he asked Miss Latimer. He distrusted the direction taken by Antonia’s thoughts.
And, looking before her, seeming not to follow their definitions, she answered coldly, ‘I think Antonia describes it very beautifully.’
After lunch Antonia said that Miss Latimer must show them the garden. He saw that she intended to keep this companion near them and would not, for the present, be alone with him.
In the flagged hall, wide and light, there were oaken chests and tables and large framed engravings of cathedrals. Antonia selected a sunshade from the stand. None were black; they were all pre-war sunshades, and the one she found made her lovely head, when they went out into the sunlight, seem still paler and darker against its faded poppy-red.
They turned first into the little walled garden of Antonia’s fears.
‘That cedar is the oldest thing here, is n’t it?’ asked Captain Saltonhall.
‘The only old thing,’ said Antonia, who walked before them. ‘There was a border-castle here long ago — was n’t there, Cicely? One can see bits of its ruined walls in the kitchen garden — and the cedar must have belonged to its later days. I’m glad it’s all so new, aren’t you? I don’t like old places. Not to live in.’
Miss Latimer, walking beside the young man, gave no expression of preference.
‘How charmingly planned this is,’ he said.
He stopped to look at the fountain, the fritillaries, and t he stone bench under the cedar. He had never seen so many white fritillaries growing together; their alabaster and jade green, rising from narrow beds among the flags, seemed almost like another expression of the stone. Antonia had passed out into the sunlit kitchen-garden and Miss Latimer paused politely beside him. She agreed calmly to his praise, but it was as if, in answering him, she avoided some attempt at intimacy, and as if he could make no reference to the place without being too personal. This was rather funny, since, behind his praise, was the judgment that what the place lacked was personality; and he had n’t the faintest wish to be intimate with Miss Latimer.
In the spacious kitchen-garden there were cordon fruit-trees around the vegetable-beds, and daffodils grew against the wall. Farther on, a wide herbaceous border showed already its clumps and bosses of green and bronze. Antonia still walked before them.
‘ She plans it all and does heaps of the work herself, with spade and fork, you know,’ she said. ‘Mrs. Wellwood kept only the one gardener and a boy.’
‘It was she who planned it all,’said Miss Latimer. But she could not disown the work.
He was seeing her more and more clearly as one of those curious beings whose personalities are parasitic on a place. He doubted whether her thoughts ever wandered beyond Wyndwards. All her activities, certainly, were conditioned by it. It was not only that she dug and planted, hoed and watered in the garden. He felt sure that she cut out the loose chintz covers for the furniture; superintended the making of marmalade in spring and jam in summer; kept a careful eye on the storecupboard, and washed the dogs with her own hands.
There were two dogs, an old Dandie Dinmont and a young fox-terrier, and he had, all the while they walked in the garden, a feeling, not a bit ghostly, amusing rather than sad, that they were bits of Malcolm’s soul, the Dandie Dinmont the soul of his happy boyhood at Wyndwards and the fox-terrier the soul of his maturity. Miss Latimer would find in tending them the same passionate satisfaction she had in all of it, the place and the persons it. still embodied for her and who survived in it, indistinguishably mingled. All of it was her life; she could imagine no other.
Antonia would never be that sort of woman. Places were, if not parasitic on her, at least mere settings and backgrounds. She made the silvery forms of the distant hills subservient to her beauty as, with her faded silken sunshade, she drifted before them along the paths. She wore still her little black-satin house-shoes, high-heeled and laced about the ankle with satin ribbon; and as she walked, she cast admiring but unobservant glances to right and left and stooped now and then to pat the dogs.
It was he who still did all the talking to Miss Latimer, earning, he felt, less gratitude for his accurate appreciation of her gardening exploits than Antonia won by the vaguest smile. But Miss Latimer was certainly an excellent gardener, and his interest in her theories of mulching and transplanting was not feigned.
It was not till after tea that he found himself alone with Antonia. The teatable had been taken away, they were in the drawing-room, and Antonia was embroidering before the fire.
‘ Would she hate me if I ever did come to marry you?’ he asked. He asked it without seeming to recall the morning and its avowal.
Antonia, following his advice, was selecting another shade of azalea green to lay against her pearly gray; and as he considered the skeins she spread for his decision, he recalled how many summer afternoons before the war, when, on week-ends in the country, Antonia had held up a fire-screen or a cushion to ask, ‘Is that right, Bevis?’ while Malcolm smoked beside them, amused by their preoccupation over the alternative of pink or orange.
‘Cicely, you mean?’ Antonia asked.
‘Yes. Would she resent it? Would she hate me for it — and you?’
Antonia considered, and he knew while she considered, her eyes on the azalea silk, that he filled her again with deep delight. He and his passion were there, encompassing, yet not pursuing her. She gave nothing and betrayed nothing, and she was secure of all.
‘I don’t think she could hate me. That sounds fatuous; but I believe it’s true. I don’t know about you. But no; I don’t think she’d resent it. Why should she?’
‘Well, caring for him so much and seeing me here in his place.’
‘How brave you are, Bevis,’ said Antonia after a moment, drawing out her silk. It was the quality in him to which she most often reverted.
‘Am I? Why?’
‘You are not afraid to remind me.’
‘Why should I be afraid? I know your thoughts. But I’m not going to talk about them, or about mine. I want you to explain Miss Latimer.’
‘There’s not much to explain. She shows it all, I think. She’s deep and narrow and simple. You don’t like her. I can see that.’
‘ I can’t imagine how. I’m constantly making myself agreeable.’
‘To me; not to her. She knows as well as I do why you take trouble over her. Not that I blame you. I did n’t think I should like her when I first saw her. And then I came to find that I did — more and more; very, very much. Or, perhaps, it is trust rather than liking,’Antonia mused. ‘Poor little Cicely! Do you know, I don’t think anyone has ever really liked her much. Not old Mrs. Wellwood, really, nor even Malcolm. It hurt me to feel, in a moment, that Mrs. Wellwood liked even me, whom she hardly knew, better.’
‘I am not surprised,’ Captain Saltonhall commented.
‘No; but that’s not relevant, Bevis; because one does n’t expect one’s mother-in-law to like one, however charming one may be. What I felt about it was that Cicely had starved her, just as she starved Cicely. Neither could give the other anything except absolute trust. Cicely was the fonder, I think, for old Mrs. Wellwood was cold as well as shy — cold to everyone but Malcolm; even with me she was cold; and even with Malcolm she was, always, shy.’
‘Dismal it sounds, for all of them.’
‘No, it wasn’t that. Cheerful and serene, rather. But all the same, Cicely is pathetic. And the more I think of her, the more I admire her. She’s so individual, yet so impersonal, if one can make the distinction. There’s no appeal of any sort; no demand. She never seems to need anything or to ask anything; perhaps that is why she does n’t win devotion; the more self-absorbed and demanding people are, the more devotion they get, I’m afraid. At all events, she’s absolutely devoted, absolutely selfless and straight.’
‘What did they do with themselves, she and Mrs. Wellwood, when Malcolm was n’t here to give them an object? I never saw his mother. He said she hated coming to town.’
‘Oh, it was miserable to see them in town, as I did once; forlorn caged birds. Malcolm was their object, you see, even when he was n’t here. And they lived together just as Cicely lives now alone. There are country neighbors, and the village, and the garden. Cicely still goes to read to old bedridden women and to take them soup. I thought, in my London ignorance, that the lady bountiful was a figure of fun to everyone nowadays, flouted from the cottage door, and all the rest of it. But I’ve found out that there’s nothing the cottager really loves so well. Independence and committees bore them dreadfully; they have all that here; there’s an energetic vicar’s wife, and she got even poor Mrs. Wellwood on her committee; it bores the village people, but it frightened her. Cicely never would. I can’t imagine Cicely on a committee. She’d have nothing to say, though it would n’t frighten her.’
He always had savored Antonia’s vagrant impressionism. ‘Did they read?’ he asked.
‘ I should rather think so! ’ she laughed a little. ‘ They were great on reading. All the biographies in two volumes, and all the travels, and French mémoires — translated and expurgated. Cicely has the most ingenuous ideas about the court of Louis the Fourteenth. Novels, too; but they contrived always to miss the good ones. I don’t suppose they ever attempted a Henry James or heard of Anatole France.’
‘And never danced a tango, à plus forte raison, or saw a Russian ballet.’
‘They did see a Russian ballet, that once they were up. Malcolm and I took them. I think it distressed Mrs. Wellwood, and Cicely was very dry about it. And they saw me dance the tango; I did it for them, here,’ said Antonia; and involuntarily she sighed, although she did not look up at her companion. She and Bevis, adepts of the dance, had, before the war, danced together continually. ‘They liked seeing me do it,’ she said. ‘They liked my differences and what they felt to be my audacities. But they’d have liked anything Malcolm did.’ And then she came back to his first question. ‘As far as that goes, my remarrying, if I ever did, as long as it was n’t too quickly, and someone Malcolm liked, I don’t for a moment think she’d mind.’
Captain Saltonhall did not agree with her, but he did not say so. They talked, thus, very pleasantly, till the hour for dressing, and after dinner Antonia sang to him and Miss Latimer.
‘What shall it be, Cicely?’ she asked.
And Miss Latimer said, ‘The old favorites, please.’
So that Captain Saltonhall, who had only heard her sing Brahms, Duparc, and Debussy, heard now old English folk-songs and ‘Better lo’ed you could na be.’ She had a melancholy, sweet, imperfect voice, and though her singing had magic, it was the flute-like, expressionless magic of the woodland. She sang indolently, like a blackbird, and the current of the song carried her. But, as the song of the woodland bird may do, it moved him more than any other voice he knew; and as he sat, impassive, apparently, his hands clasped round his knee, he felt the tears continually rising to his eyes.
Miss Latimer sat staring into the fire. She was dry-eyed. But he felt sure that she, too, was only apparently impassive. He felt sure that the songs had been Malcolm’s favorites, too.
(To be continued)