The Third Window. Iii
HE heard, as he waked next morning, that it was heavily raining. When he looked out, the trees stood still in gray sheets of straightly falling rain. There was no wind.
The mournful, obliterated scene did not oppress him. The weather was all to the good, he thought. He had always liked a rainy day in the country; and ghosts don’t walk in the rain. If Malcolm had n’t come in the moonlight, he would n’t come now. He felt sunken, exhausted, and rather sick; yet his spirits were not bad. He was fit for the encounter with Antonia.
When he went down to the dark dining-room, darker than ever to-day, he found only one place laid. The maid told him that both the ladies were breakfasting in their rooms. This was unexpected and disconcerting. But he made the best of it, and drank his coffee and ate kedgeree and toast with not too bad an appetite. A little coal-fire had been lighted in the library, and he went in there after breakfast and read the papers and wrote some letters, and the morning passed not too heavily.
But at luncheon-time his heart sank, almost to the qualm of the night before, when he found still only one place laid. After half an hour of indecision over his cigarette, he wrote a note and sent it up to Antonia.
DEAREST TONY, —
You don’t want to drive me away, I suppose? Because I don’t intend to go. When am I to see you? I hope you are n’t unwell?
Yours ever, BEVIS.
The answer was brought with the smallest delay.
DEAREST BEVIS, —
I’m not ill, only so dreadfully tired. Cicely will give you your tea and dine with you. I will see you to-morrow.
Yours ever, TONY.
This consoled him, much, though not altogether. And the handwriting puzzled him. He had never seen Tony write like that before. He could infer from the strong slant of the letters that she had written in bed; but it was in a hand cramped and controlled, as if with surely unnecessary thought and effort.
He was horribly lonely all the afternoon.
Tea was brought into the library, and with it came Miss Latimer. She wore rain-dashed tweeds, and under her battered black felt hat her hair was beaded with rain. At once he saw that she was altered. It was not that she was more pale than usual, — she was less pale, indeed, for she had a spot of color on each cheek, — but, as if her being had gathered itself together, for some emergency, about its irreducible core of flame, she showed, to his new perception of her, an aspect at once ashen and feverish; and even though in her entrance she was composed, if that were possible, beyond her wont, his subtle sense of change detected in her selfmastery something desperate and distraught.
She did not look at him as she went to the tea-table, drawing off her wet gloves. The table had been placed before the fire, and Bevis, who had risen on her entrance, dropped again into his seat, the capacious leather divan set at right angles to the hearth, its back to the window. Miss Latimer, thus, facing him across the table as she measured out the tea, was illuminated by such dying light as the sombre evening still afforded.
They had murmured a conventional greeting, and he now asked her if she’d been out walking in this bad weather. It was some relief to see that she had not been with Tony the whole day through.
‘Only down to the village,’ she said. ‘There is a woman ill there.’
He went on politely to inquire if she were n’t very wet and would not rather change before tea — he would n’t mind waiting a bit. But she said, seating herself and pouring on the boiling water, that she was used to being wet and did not notice it.
He was determined not to speak of Antonia and to ask no questions. To ask questions would be to recognize the new bond between her and Antonia. But, unasked, emphasizing to his raw consciousness his own exclusion, she said, ‘Antonia is so sorry to leave you alone like this. She had one of her bad nights and thought a complete rest would do her good.’
He reflected that it was more dignified to show strength by generosity and to play into her hands.
‘Does she have bad nights?’ he asked.
‘Oh, very. Did n’t you know?’ said Miss Latimer. ‘She’s obliged to take things.’
‘Drugs, do you mean?’ He had not known at all. ‘That’s very bad for her.’
‘Very bad. But her doctor allows it, apparently.’
‘She took one last night and it did no good?’
‘None at all. I hope she is getting a little sleep now. Sugar?’ Miss Latimer poised a lump before him in the tongs, and, on his assent, dropped it into his cup.
Could two creatures have looked more cosy, shut, for the blind-man’sholiday hour, into the tranquil intimacy of the studious room, with the even glow of its tended fire, the cheer of its humming kettle, the scented promise of its tea-table? She passed him toasted scones from the hot-water basin and offered home-made jam. He wanted no jam, but he found himself quite hungry, absurdly so, he thought, until he remembered that he had really eaten no lunch. He was coming, now that the opening had been made, and while he ate his scone, to a new decision. It was the moment, and perhaps the only one he would have, for finding out just how much she counted against him. He determined, if it were necessary, on open warfare.
‘I don’t think Wyndwards suits Tony,’ he said.
‘Don’t you?’ Miss Latimer returned, but quite without impertinence. ‘ She’s always been very well here before.’
‘ Before what?’
‘Her husband’s death,’ Miss Latimer replied.
‘Yes,’ said Bevis, disconcerted. ‘ Well, it’s that, perhaps.’
‘It is that, undoubtedly,’ said Miss Latimer.
Her voice, high and piping, was as dry and emotionless as her horrid little hands. What control it showed that it should be so. He felt that he hated her; hated her the more that she was not wishing to score off him as he wished to score off her. Yet he did not dislike her, if one could draw that distinction. And now he noticed, as she lifted her cup, that her hand trembled as if with the slight, incessant shaking of palsy. The fear of an emergency burned in her. He felt sure that she, too, had not slept.
’Well, it all comes to the same thing, does n’t it?’ he said. ‘Since Malcolm’s death the place oppresses her, quite naturally; and it would be much better that she should leave it — as soon as possible.’
‘I don’t think it would do Antonia any good to leave Wyndwards,’ said Miss Latimer, not looking at him.
‘You think it would do her good if I did, I imagine,’ Bevis commented, with his dry laugh. ‘Thanks awfully.’
She sat silent.
‘You saw, of course, last night, how it was with us,’ he said. ‘Perhaps you saw it before.’
Still she was silent, and for so long that he thought she might not be going to answer him. But she replied at last. ‘No; not before. I did not suspect it before.’
Ah! He had an inner triumph. She had n’t had her head down all the time; he was sure of it now. She had, when they went to the window, watched them. He did not quite know why this certainty should give him the sense of triumph ; unless — was that it ? — it pointed to some plotting secret instinct in her.
‘Yet you must have wondered how I came to be here — so intimately,’ he said.
‘No; I did not wonder; I know that young women nowadays have friendships like that. I knew that you had been Malcolm’s friend.’
‘You did not see that it was more than friendship till last night?’
She paused, but only for a moment. ‘I saw that you were in love with her from the first.’
‘But only last night saw that we were in love with each other?’
Again she did not reply. Turning her head slightly aside, as if in distaste for the intimacies he forced upon her, she took up the teapot and, still with that slightly, incessantly shaking hand, poured herself out a second cup of tea.
He would not pause for her distaste. ‘I am afraid you dislike it very much.’
To this she replied, ‘I dislike anything that makes Antonia unhappy.’
He owned that it was a good answer. Leaning back on the divan, his foot crossed over his knee, his hand holding his ankle, he contemplated his antagonist.
‘My point is that it would n’t make her unhappy if she came away,’ he took up. ‘If she came away and married me at once. It’s the place and its associations that have got upon her nerves — how much, you saw last night.’
She had poured out the cup and she raised it automatically to her lips while he spoke. Then, untasted, she set it down, and then, with the effect of a pale, sudden glare, her eyes were at last upon him.
‘I do not know what you mean by nerves. Antonia is not as light as you imagine,’ she said. ‘She loved her husband. She does not find it easy to forget him here, it is true; but I do not think she would find it easy if she left his home with another man.’
‘No one asks her to forget him,’ said Bevis. She could not drink her tea, but he passed his cup, blessing the bland ritual that made soft, sliding links in an encounter all harsh, had it been unaccompanied, with the embarrassment of their antagonism. ‘ May I have another cup, please?’ —There was a malicious satisfaction, too, in falling back upon the ritual at such a moment, — ‘with a little water? — I cared for Malcolm. I have no intention of forgetting him.’
Her eyes were still on him, and distraction, almost desperation, was working in her, for, though she took his cup as automatically as she had lifted her own, though she proceeded to fill it, it was, he noted with an amusement that almost expressed itself in a laugh, — he knew that he was capable of feeling amusement at the most unlikely times and places! — with the boiling water only. She put in milk and sugar and handed it to him, unconscious of the absurdity.
‘I did not mean in that sense,’ she said.’
‘I should like to know what you do mean.’ He drank his milk and water. ‘I should like to know where I am with you. Do you dislike me? Are you my enemy? Or is it merely that you are passionately opposed to remarriages?’
She rose as he asked his questions, as if the closeness of his pursuit had become too intolerable. ‘I do not know you. How could I be your enemy? I only dislike you because you make Antonia unhappy.’
‘Would you like me if I made her happy?’
The pale glare was in her eyes as she faced him, her hands on the back of her chair. ‘ You can never make her happy. Never, never,’ she repeated. ‘You can only mean unhappiness to her. If you care for her, if you have any real love for her, you will go away, now, at once, and leave her in peace.’
‘So you say. So you think. It’s a matter of opinion. I don’t agree with you. I don’t believe it would be to leave her in peace. You forget that we’re in love with each other.’ He, too, had risen, but in his voice, as he opposed her, there was appeal rather than antagonism. ‘Let us understand each other. Is it that you hate so much the idea of remarriages? Do you feel them to be infidelities?’
She had turned from him, but she paused now by the door, and it was as if, arrested by the appeal, she was willing to do justice to his mere need for enlightenment. ‘ Not if people care more for someone else.’
Care more? He did not echo her phrase, but he meditated, and then, courageously, accepted it. ‘ And if they can, you don’t hate it?’
At that she just glanced at him. He seemed to see the caged prisoner pass behind his bars and look out in passing; and he saw not only what her hate could be, but the dark and lonely anguish that encompassed her.
‘People should be true to themselves,’ was all she said.
When she was gone, Bevis, characteristically, went back to the table and made himself a proper cup of tea. He had managed to make tea for himself and a wounded Tommy when he had lain, with his shattered leg, in No Man’s Land.
Miss Latimer did not come to dinner, and he was thankful for it; though there was little to be thankful for, he felt, as he sat in the library afterwards and wondered what Tony was thinking of there in the darkness above him, if she were alone and in the dark. The thought that she was not, the thought that Miss Latimer, with her stone-curlew eyes and pallid, brooding face, was with her made him restless. He could not read. He threw his book aside and stared into the fire.
Next morning the rain had ceased, and it was cold and sunny. He found Miss Latimer in the dining-room. She was already dressed for going out and had started her breakfast.
‘My poor friend in the village is dying,’ she said, ‘and has asked for me. I have a message to you from Antonia. She is still resting this morning but will come down at three, if you will be in the library then.’
Her courteous terseness put barriers between them; but none were needed. He could not have asked questions or appealed this morning. He imagined, though he had looked at his face in the mirror with unregarding eyes, that he, too, was perceptibly aged, and his main feeling about Miss Latimer was that she was old and ugly and that he was sick of her.
After breakfast he went out into the hard, bright air. He walked about the grounds and found himself looking at the house with consciously appraising eyes, from the lawn, from the ringcourt, from the kitchen-garden. It was a solid, tasteful, graceful structure; mild, with its sunny facade looking to the moors; cheerful with its gable-ends; but as he had felt it at the first he felt it now more decisively, as empty of tradition and tenderness. It had remained, too, so singularly new; perhaps because, in its exposed situation, none of the trees carefully disposed about it had yet grown to a proportionate height. Yes, in spite of the passion and grief now burning within its walls, it was impersonal, unlovable, and it would need centuries, in spite of the care and love lavished upon it, to gain a soul.
He knew, as he walked, that he was taking comfort from these reflections, and was vexed that he should need them. He had completely placed, psychologically, if not scientifically, the events of the other evening, and it was not necessary that he should be satisfied that Wyndwards was a place to which the supernatural could not attach itself. Yet that desire, indubitably, directed his wanderings, and he could compute its power by the strength of the reluctance he felt for visiting the flagged garden where, if anywhere, the clement he thankfully missed might lurk.
But when, putting an ironic compulsion upon himself, he had entered the little enclosure, his main impression, as before, was one of mere beauty. It was the only corner of Wyndwards that had achieved individuality; the placing of the fountain, the stone bench, the beds among the flags, was a pleasure to the eye. And like a harbinger of good cheer, he heard, from the branches of the budding wood beyond the garden wall, the wiry, swinging notes of a chiffchaff, and his own soul as well as the flagged garden seemed exorcised by that assured and reiterated gladness. Ghosts, in a world where chiff-chaffs sang, were irrelevancies, even if they walked. And they did not walk. In sunlight as in moonlight he found the flagged garden empty.
He sat down on the stone bench for a little while and watched the fountain and listened to the chiff-chaff, while he lighted a cigarette and told himself that the day was pleasant. With reiteration the bird’s monotonous little utterance lost its special message for him and dropped to an accompaniment to thoughts which, if unhaunted, were not happy, in spite of the pleasant day. He felt that he hated silent, sunny Wyndwards. He cursed the impulse that had brought Antonia there, and him after her. It had seemed at the time the most natural of things that his young widowed friend should ask him to pay her a spring visit in her new home. His courtship of her, laconic, implicit, patient, had prolonged itself through the dreary London winter following the Armistice, and springtime on the moors had seemed full of promise to his hopes.
Alas! Why had they not stayed in safe, dear, dingy London — London of tubes and shops and theatres, of people and clever teaand dinner-tables? There one lived sanely in the world of the normal consciousness, one’s personality hedged round by activity and convention from the vagrant and disintegrating influences of the subliminal, or the subconscious, whichever it might have been that had infernally played the trick of the other evening. He sat there, poking with his stick at the crevices between the flags, and the song of the chiff-chaff was his only comfort.
Miss Latimer did not return to lunch, and he was in the library waiting for Tony long before the appointed hour. She came before it struck, softly and suddenly entering, turning without a pause to close the door behind her, not looking at him as she went to the fire and leaned there, her hand upon the mantelpiece. She was dressed in black, a flowing gown with wide sleeves that invested her with an unfamiliar, invalided air; but her hair was beautifully wreathed and she wore her little high-heeled satin shoes, tying about the instep. For a moment she stood looking down into the fire; then, as she raised her face, he saw the change in her.
‘Why, Tony,’ he said gently, ‘you look very ill.'
Her eyes met his for a moment, and, instinctively, he kept the distance they measured.
‘I’m not very well,’ she said. ‘I have n’t been able to sleep. Not for these two nights.’
‘Not at all?’
‘Not at all.’
‘Don’t take drugs,’ he said after a moment. ‘Miss Latimer tells me that you take drugs. I did n’t know it.’
‘It’s very seldom,’ she said, with a faint, deprecatory smile. ‘I’m very careful.’
Still he felt that he could not approach her, and it was with a sense of the unmeet, or at all events, the irrelevant, that he helplessly fell back on verbal intimacy. ‘You could, I am sure, sleep in the train to-night — with me to look after you.’
She said nothing to this for a moment, but then replied, as if she had really thought it over, ‘Not to-night; Cicely won’t get back in time. Her poor woman is dying; she could n’t leave her. But to-morrow — I intend to go tomorrow — with Cicely.’
‘Leaving me here?’ he inquired, with something of his own dryness; so that, again with the faint, defensive smile, she said, ‘Oh — you must come with us; we will all go together — as far as London. We are going down to Cornwall, Bevis, to some cousins of Cicely’s near Fowey.’
He came then, after a little silence, and leaned at the other end of the mantelpiece. ‘What’s the matter, Tony?’ he asked. He had not, in his worst imaginings, imagined this. She had never before spoken as if they were, definitely, to go different ways. And she stood looking down into the fire as if she could not meet his eyes. ‘You see,’ he said, but he felt it to be uselessly, ‘ I was right about that wretched table business. It’s that that has made you ill.’
‘Yes; it’s because of that,’ she said.
‘You must let me talk to you about it,’ he went on. ‘I can explain it all, I think.’
‘It is explained,’ she said.
Her voice was cold and gentle, cold, it seemed to him, with the immensity of some blank vastness of distance that divided them. And a cold presage fell upon him, of what he could not say, or would not.
‘You would not explain it as I should,’ he said. ‘You must listen to me and not to Miss Latimer.’
’It is all explained, Bevis,’ she repeated. ‘It was true. What it said was true.’
‘How do you mean — true?’ he asked; and he heard the presage in his voice.
‘He is there,’ she said. And now he knew why she was far from him and what the stillness was that wrapped her round. ‘He comes. Cicely has seen him. She saw him there that night — beside the fountain.’
It was, he saw it now, what he had expected, and his heart stood still to hear it. Then he said, ’You mean that she tells you she sees him; that she thinks she sees him; since he’s come just as you led her to expect he would, and just where.’
She shook her head gently and her downcast face kept its curious, considering look.
‘It was n’t I, nor you, nor Cicely. He was with us. We could see nothing, you and I. He could not show himself to us; we had put ourselves too far from him. But when we left her, Cicely went to the window and saw him standing in the moonlight. He was not looking up at her, but down at the fritillaries. She and he planted them there together, before we were married. And all the while she looked, he stayed there, not moving and plainly visible. I knew it. I knew he was there when I looked, although I could see nothing.’ She spoke with an astonishing and terrifying calm.
‘ And she came at once and told you this? That night?’
‘Not that night. She went down into the garden. She thought he might speak to her. But he was gone. And when she came back and looked from the window, he was gone. No; it was next morning she told me. She tried not to tell; but I made her.’
‘Curious,’ said Bevis after a silence, ‘ that she could have talked to me yesterday afternoon, and given me my tea, as if all this had never happened.’
But he knew as he spoke that it had not been so with Miss Latimer. Something had happened; he had seen it when she was with him; and he now knew what it had been.
Jibes and skepticism fell as idly upon Antonia as faint rain. She was unaware of them. ‘ No; she would never speak to you about it. There was no surprise in it for her, Bevis. She has always felt him there. When we went to the window, she thought that we should surely see him; and when we did not, she pretended to sleep, purposely, so that we should go and leave her to look out. It comforted her to see him. It was only for me she was frightened.’
‘Yes; I rather suspected that,’ he muttered; ‘that she was shamming. I did n’t want to leave her there alone.’
‘ You could n’t have kept her from him always, Bevis,’ Antonia said gently. ‘ If it had not been then, she would have seen him last night, I am sure; because I am sure he intended her to see him, meant and longed for it. But it was only the one time. Last night he was not there.’
He left the fire and took a turn or two up and down the room. His thoughts were divided against themselves. Did he feel, now, when, after all, the worst had happened, less fear, or more, than he had felt? Did he believe that Miss Latimer had lied? Did he believe Malcolm had appeared to her? And if Malcolm had, in very truth, appeared, did it make any difference? After all, what difference did it make?
‘Tony,’ he said presently, and really in a tone of ordinary argument, ‘you say it was only for you she was frightened. What frightened her, for you?’
She thought this over for a little while. ‘Was n’t it natural?’ she said at last. ‘She knew how I should feel it.’
‘In what way feel it?’
‘She knew that until then I had not really believed him still existing,’ said Antonia, with her cold, downcast face. ‘Not as she believed it; not even as you did. She knew what it must mean.’
‘That when you really believed, it must part us ? ’
‘Not only that. Perhaps that, alone, would not have parted us. But that he should come back.’
Still she did not look at him and he continued to limp up and down the room, his hands behind him, his eyes, also, downcast. He, too, was seeing Malcolm standing there, beside the fountain, as he had seen him when Antonia had first told him of her fear. He had visualized her thoughts on that first day; and though, while they sat at the table, he had not remembered Tony’s fear, it had doubtless been its doubled image that had printed itself from their minds on Miss Latimer’s clairvoyant brain. But now, seeing his dead friend as he always thought of him, the whole and happy creature, a painful memory suddenly assailed him, challenging that peaceful picture of his ghost; and he was aware as it came, as he dwelt on it, of a stir of hope, a tightening of craft, in his veins, along his nerves. Subtlety, after all, might serve better than flesh and blood. This, he was sure, was a memory not till then recalled, at Wyndwards; and it might strangely help him.
‘Tony, how was Malcolm dressed when she saw him?’ he asked.
‘In his uniform.’ He had avoided looking at her in asking his question, but he heard from her voice that she suspected nothing. ‘As he must have been when he was killed.’
‘Bareheaded, or with his cap?’
She did not answer at once, and, raising his eyes, he saw that she was looking at him. ‘Bareheaded. Yes.’ she assented. And she repeated, ‘As he was when he was killed, Bevis.’
‘Did he look pale — unhappy?’
He knew that he must go carefully, for, if what he hoped were true, if Miss Latimer had not seen Malcolm as he had been when he was killed, she, not he, must reveal the error.
‘Very calm,’ she said.
He had his reasons; but, alas, she had hers. Her eyes still dwelt on him as she answered, ‘Yes. Something more.
Something I did not know. Something Cicely did not know.’ She measured what he kept from her, with what a depth of melancholy, seeing his hope; as he, abandoning hope, measured what she had, till then, kept from him. ‘They told me that Malcolm was shot through the heart, Bevis. It was not only that. I do not know why they felt it kinder to say that. They told you the truth. There was something more. You do know,’ she said.
Her eyes were on his and he could not look away, though he felt, sickening him, that a dull flush crept revealingly to his face. ‘I know what?’ he repeated, stupidly.
‘How he was killed. That’s what Cicely saw.’
‘She got it from my mind,’ he muttered, while the flush, that felt like an exposure of guilt, dyed his face and, despite his words, horror settled round his heart. ‘She’s a clairvoyant. She got the khaki from you and the wound in the head from me.’
Now her eyes dropped from him. He had revealed nothing to her, except his own hope of escape. He had brought further evidence; but it was not needed. She was a creature fixed and frozen in an icy block of certainty.
‘A wound in the head,’ she repeated. ‘A terrible wound. That was what Cicely saw. He must have died at once. How did you know, Bevis? You were not with him.’
‘Alan Chichester told me,’ said the young man hoarsely. ‘The other was true, too. The shot in the breast would have been enough to kill him. It was instantaneous; the most merciful death. And he was not disfigured, Tony.’
She rested pitying eyes upon him. She pitied him.
‘His features were not touched; not on the side he turned to her. But Cicely saw that half his head was shot away,’ she answered.
His busy mind, while they spoke, was nimbly darting here and there with an odd, agile avoidance of certain recognitions. This was the moment of moments in which to show no fear. And his mind was not afraid. Clairvoyance — clairvoyance, it repeated; while the horror clotted round his heart. As if pushing against a weight, he forced his will through the horror and went back to his place at the other end of the mantelpiece; and, with a conscious volition, he put his hand on hers and drew it from the shelf.
‘Tony dear,’ he said, ‘come sit down. Let us talk quietly.’ — Heaven knew they had been quiet enough! — ‘Here; let me keep beside you. Don’t take your hand away. I shan’t trouble you. Listen, dear. Even if it were true, even if Malcolm came, — and I do not believe he comes, — it need not mean that we must part.’
She had suffered him to draw her down beside him on the leathern divan, and, as she felt his kindly hand upon her and heard his voice, empty of all but an immense gentleness, tears, for the first time, rose to her eyes. Slowly they fell down her cheeks and she sat there, mute, and let them fall.
‘Why should you think it means he wants to part us?’ he asked in a gentle and exhausted voice.
He asked, for he must still try to save himself and Tony; yet he knew that Miss Latimer had indeed done something to him; or that Malcolm had. The wraith of that inscrutability hovered between him and Tony, and in clasping her would he not always clasp its chill? The springs of ardor in his heart were killed. Never had he more loved and never less desired her. Poor, poor Tony! How could she live without him? And wretched he, how was he to win her back from this antagonist ?
He had asked his question, but she knew his thoughts.
‘He has parted us, Bevis. We are parted. You know it, too.’
‘I don’t. I don’t.’ Holding her hand he looked down at it while his heart mocked the protestation. ‘ I don’t know it. Life can cover this misery. We must be brave, and face it together.’
‘ It can’t be faced together. He would be there, always — seeing us.’
‘We want him to be there; happy; loving you; loving your happiness.’
‘It is not like that, Bevis.’ She only needed to remind him. The reality before them mocked his words. ‘He would not have called to us if he were happy. He would not have appeared to Cicely. He is not angry. I understand it all. He is trying to get through; but it is not because he is angry. It is because he feels I have gone from him. He is lonely, Bevis, and lost. Like the curlew, like the poor, forgotten curlew.’
When she said that, something seemed to break in his heart, if there were anything left to break. He sat for a little while, still looking down at the hand he held, the piteous, engulfed hand. But it was pity, not only for her, but for himself, and, unendurably, for Malcolm, in that vision she evoked, that brought the slow tears to his eyes. And then thought and feeling seemed washed away from him, and he knew only that he had laid his head upon her shoulder, as if in great weariness, and sobbed.
‘O my darling!’ whispered Tony. She put her arms around him. ‘O my darling Bevis! I’ve broken your heart, too. Oh, what grief! What misery!’
She had never spoken to him like that before; never clasped him to her. He had a beautiful feeling of comfort and contentment, even while, with her, he felt the waters closing over their heads.
‘Darling Tony,’ he said. He added after a moment, ‘My heart’s not broken when you are so lovely to me.’
Pressing her cheek against his forehead, kissing him tenderly, she held him as a mother holds her child. ‘I’d give my life for you,’ she said. ‘I’d die to make you happy.’
‘Ah, but you see,’ he put his hand up to her shoulder so that he should feel her more near, ‘that would n’t do any good. You must stay like this to make me happy.’
‘If I could!’ she breathed.
They sat thus for a long time and, in the stillness, sweetness, sorrow, he felt that it was he and Tony who lay drowned in each other’s arms at the bottom of the sea, dead and peaceful, and Malcolm who lived and roved so restlessly in the world from which they were mercifully sunken. They were the innocent ghosts and he the baleful living creature haunting their peace.
‘Don’t go. Why do you go?’ he said, almost with terror, as Antonia’s arms released him.
She had opened her eyes; but not to him. Their cold, fixed grief gazed above his head. And the faint, deprecatory smile flickered about her mouth as, rising, she said, ‘ I must. Cicely will soon be back. And I must rest again. I must rest for to-morrow, Bevis dear.’
‘We are all going away to-morrow? You will really rest?’
‘All going away. Yes; I will rest.’ Still she did not look at him, but around at the room. ‘I shall never see Wyndwards again.’
‘Forget it, Tony, and all it’s meant. That’s what I am going to do. I am to travel with you?’
She hesitated; then, ‘Of course. You and I and Cicely.’
‘And I may see you in London? You’ll take a day or two there before going on?’
‘A day or two, perhaps. But you must not try to see me, Bevis dear.’
He had risen, still keeping her hand as he went with her to the door, still feeling himself the bereft and terrified child who seeks pretexts so that its mother shall not leave it. And he thought, as he went, that their lives were strangely overturned since this could be; for until now Tony had been his child. It had been he who had sustained and comforted Tony.
‘Why do you go? ’ he repeated. ‘You can rest with me, here; not saying anything; only being quiet, together.’
‘No, Bevis dear; no.’ She shook her head slowly, and her face was turned away from him. ‘ We must not be together, now.’
He knew that it was what she must say. He knew the terror in her heart. He saw Malcolm, mourning, unappeased, between them. Yet, summoning his will, summoning the claim of life against that detested apparition, expressing, also, the sickness of his heart as he saw his devastated future, ‘You must n’t make me a lonely curlew, too,’ he said.
He was sorry for the words as soon as he had uttered them. It was a different terror they struck from her sunken face. She stood for a moment and looked at him, and he remembered how she had looked the other day, — oh! how long ago it seemed! — when he had frightened her by saying he might get over her. But it was not his child who looked at him now. ‘I have broken your heart. I have broken your heart, too,’ she said.
‘Far from it!’ he declared. And he tried to smile at her. ‘Wait till I get you safely to London! You’ll see how it will revive!’
The door stood open between them, and it was not his child who looked at him, answering his sally with a smile as difficult as his own. ‘Dear, brave Bevis! ’ she murmured.
And, as she turned and left him, he saw again the love that had cherished him so tenderly, faltering, helpless, at the threshold of her lips and eyes.
Miss Latimer dined with him. She told him that the poor woman had died, and they talked of the Peace Conference. Miss Latimer read her papers carefully and the subject floated them until dessert. She spoke with dry skepticism of the League of Nations. Her outlook was narrow, acute, and practical. As they rose from the table, she bade him good-night.’
‘Do you mind giving me a few moments in the library, first?’ he said. ‘I don’t suppose we’ll have another chance for a talk. You and Antonia are going to Cornwall, I hear.’
She hesitated, looking across at him, still at the table, from the place where she had risen.
‘Yes. We are. I have a great deal to do.’
‘I know. But our train is not early. I should be very much obliged.’
Under the compulsion of his courtesy she moved before him, reluctantly, to the library.
‘You see,’ — Bevis following, closed the door behind them, — ‘a great deal has happened to me since we talked yesterday. I’ve heard of things I did not know before. They have changed my life and Antonia’s. And since it’s owing to you that they’ve come, I think you ’ll own it fair that I should ask for a little more enlightenment.’
His heart had stayed sunken in what was almost despair since Tony had left him. He had no plan, no hope. It was in a dismal sincerity that he made his request. There might be enlightenment. If there were, only she could give it. She was his antagonist; yet, unwillingly, she might show him some loophole of escape.
Reluctance evidently battled in her with what might be pride. She did not wish to show reluctance. She took a straight chair near the table, at a little distance from the fire, and sat there with rather the air of an applicant for a post, willing, coldly and succinctly, to give information.
Bevis limped up and down the room.
‘ Why have you been working against me? ’ he said at last. He stopped before her. ‘Or, no, I don’t mean that. Of course you would work against me. You would have to. But why have n’t you been straight with me? Did n’t you owe it to me as much as to Tony to tell me what had happened?'
She looked back coldly at him. ‘I have not worked against you. I owe you nothing.’
‘Not even when what happened concerned me so closely?’
‘It was for Antonia to tell you anything that concerned you.’ She paused and added, in a lower voice, ‘ I should not choose to speak of some things to you.’
‘ I see.’ He took a turn or two away. ‘Yes. After all, that’s natural. But now you see me defeated and cast out. So perhaps you’ll be merely merciful.’
He stopped again and scrutinized her. Yes, he had seen in her face yesterday what her hatred could be. It was — all defeated and cast out as he was — hatred for him he saw now, evident, palpable, like a sword. And why should she hate him so much? Had she anything to fear? Like Œdipus before the Sphinx, he studied her.
‘You believe that you saw Malcolm the other night?'
She had not told him that she would be merciful, yet, evidently, she was willing to give information, since she sat there.
Something more evidently baleful came into her eyes as she answered, ‘ It is not a question of beliefs.’
‘Of course; naturally. What I mean is — you did see him. Well, this is what I would like to know. Did you see him when you sat at the table with your head down, before we left the room?’
The question — he had not meditated it: it had come to him instinctively, like a whisper from some unseen friend — was as unexpected to her as it had been to him. She had expected, no doubt, to be questioned as to Malcolm’s dress, attitude, and demeanor. She kept her eyes fixed; but a tremor knotted her brows, as if with bewilderment.
‘As I sat at the table?’ she repeated. ‘How do you mean?’
He did not take his eyes off her. He seemed to slide his hand along a sudden clue and to find it holding.
‘I mean the vision of him standing beside the fountain. Did it come to you first while we were at the window seeing nothing?’
She stared at him, and the bewilderment gained her eyes. ‘A vision? What do you mean by a vision? No. It was when you had gone. It was when I went to the window that I saw him standing there.’
Yet, even as she spoke, he saw that she was thinking with a new intensity. Something had been gained. Safety required him, at the moment, not to examine it overmuch, not to arouse her craft.
‘I see,’ he said, as if assenting; and again he turned from her and again he came back, with a new question. ‘You think that he came because he is suffering?’
She had looked away from him while she thought, and as her eyes turned to him he saw the new edge to their hatred.
‘Yes. Suffering,’ she said. And her eyes added: ‘Because of you.’
‘You told Tony he was suffering?’
‘I answered her questions.’
‘He will be appeased by her sacrifice of me?’
She paused a moment, as if with a cold irony for his grossness. ‘It is her heart he misses,’ she then said.
He stood across the table from her, considering her. For the first time he seemed to see in full clearness the force of the passion that moved her. Her very being was centred in one loyalty, one devotion. She would, he felt sure, sacrifice anything, anyone to it. He considered her, and she kept her cold, ironic face uplifted to his scrutiny. There was desecration, he felt, in the blow his mind now prepared. Yet, as she was merciless, so he, too, must be.
‘How is it he comes to you and not to Tony ? ’ he asked her. ‘ How is it you know what he suffers?’
Unsuspecting, she was still ready to deal with him, since that was to be done with him. ‘I have always been like that. I have always known things and felt them, and sometimes seen them. I have known Malcolm since he was a child. There is nothing he has felt that I have not known. It frightened him, sometimes, to find that I had known everything. The bond is not broken.’
‘No. It is not. But do you see what I am going to tell Antonia to-morrow?’ he said, not stirring as, with his folded arms, he looked across at her. ‘That such a bond as that sets her free. It’s you he comes for; you he misses. Realities take their place after death. Things come out. He did n’t know it while he was alive. You were too near for him to know it. But it’s you who are his mate. You are the creature nearest to him in the universe.’
She sat still for a moment after he had finished. Then she rose. Her little face, with its lighted glare, was almost terrifying. He saw, as he looked at her, that he had committed a sacrilege, yet he could not regret it.
‘You know you lie,’ she said. It had been a sacrilege, yet it might help him and Tony, for now all her barriers were down. ‘If that were true, how could I wish to keep her for him? He is the creature nearest to me in the universe, but I am not near him. Never, never, never!’ said Miss Latimer, and her voice, as she spoke, piped to a rising wail. ‘He was fond of me, never more than fond, and Antonia was the only woman he ever loved. I was with him in it all. I helped him sometimes to answer her letters, for she frightened him with her cleverness, and he was not like that. He was not clever in your way. And he would grow confused. Nothing ever brought us so near. It was of her we talked that last night, beside the fountain, in the flagged garden. It was then he told me that he knew, whatever happened to him, that he and Antonia belonged to each other forever.’
It was the truth, absolute and irrefutable. Yet, though before it, and her, in her bared agony, he knew himself ashamed, the light had come to him as it blazed from her. It gave him all he needed. He was sure now, as he had not been sure before, of what was not the truth. Malcolm, as a wraith, a menace, was exorcised. There was only Miss Latimer to deal with.
‘I beg your pardon,’ he said. ‘I was wrong. You convince me. But there’s something else.’ She had dropped down again on her chair and she had put up her hand to her face, and so she sat while he spoke to her. ‘You see, your love explains everything,’ he said. ‘I mean, everything that needs explaining. Don’t think I speak as an enemy. It’s only that I understand you and what has happened to you, and to us, better than you do yourself. You are so sure of your fact that you feel yourself justified in giving it to Antonia in a symbol; so, as you say, to keep her for him. You are sure he is here; you are sure he suffers; and you feel it right to tell her you have seen him, to save her from herself, as you would see it; and from me.’
Her hand had dropped, and the face she showed him was, in its bewilderment, in its desperation, its distraction, strangely young; like the face of a child judged by some standard it does not understand.
‘A symbol? What do you mean by a symbol?’ she asked; and her voice was the reedy, piping voice of a child.
He pressed home his advantage. ‘You have not seen Malcolm. You believe that he is here and you believe he suffers. But you have not seen him. On your honor — can you look at me and say, on your honor, that you have seen him?’
She looked at him. She stared. And it was with the eyes of the desperate child. ‘How could I not have seen him? How could I have known?’
‘ The table rapped it out for you, because you are a medium. It’s a mystery that such things should be; but you say yourself that, in life, your mind read Malcolm’s. In the same way, the other night, it read Tony’s. You saw what she saw. Everything is open to you.’
She had risen and, with a strange gesture, she put her hand up to her head. ‘No — no. It was more than that. It was more than that. Antonia did not know. I did not know. No one knew, till I saw it; how he died. I saw him. Half his head was shot away.’
He leaped to his triumph. ‘It was my mind that showed you that. I did know. I did know how he died. You read my mind as well as Tony’s. Our minds built up the picture for you.’
Her hand held to her head, she stared at him. ‘It is not true! Not true. You say so now when I have told you.’
‘Ask Tony if it’s not true. I told her what you’d seen before she told me. Miss Latimer — I appeal to you. Our lives hang on you. Tell me the truth — tell it to me now, and to Tony to-night. You did not see him. Not what we mean by seeing. Not as Tony believes you saw. You had your inner vision while you leaned there on the table, and it convinced you of the outer. I’ve shown you how you built it up. Every detail of our knowledge was revealed to you. It’s we who created Malcolm’s ghost.’
But she had turned away from him, and it was as if in desperate plight, blindly pushing aside the chair against which she stumbled, still with her hand held as if to Malcolm’s wound.
‘ Not true! Not true! ’ she cried; and she flung aside the hand he held out to arrest her. ‘He is here! He has saved her! I saw him! Beside the fountain!’
She was gone and he need not pursue her. Her desperation had given him all that he had hoped for, and there was no recantation or avowal to be wrested from that panic. He had followed her to the door, and he watched her mount the stairs, running as she went, and without one backward glance. And when, at the end of the corridor above, he heard her door shut, he still stood in the open doorway, his head bent, his hands in his pockets, and took, it seemed in long draughts of recovery, full possession of his almost miraculous escape. How difficult to put it into words. How difficult to bring it to Tony. For it had been by his intuition only that he had triumphed over his foe, and intuition, only, told him that it was a triumph and that he was free. How heavy the shackles that had fallen from him, he knew from the delicious sense of peace that filled him, bringing sweet tears to his eyes. Free. He had only a human antagonist to deal with, and all the fire that had failed him that afternoon was kindling again in his heart. Malcolm was exorcised and he could save Tony.
When he went upstairs at last, he paused at her door to listen. All was still within her room. He stood there for a long time and wondered if she slept. Did she lie, perhaps, with eyes open to the haunted darkness, tearing at her divided heart? If he could have been sure of that, he thought he would have gone in to tell her of his enfranchisement. Hers, he foresaw, could not come from anything he might say to her. Only by the slow infection of his security and ardor could he convince her that her fear was groundless, since it could no longer infect him.
He listened for a little longer. She must be asleep.
His own room was at the other end of the corridor, opposite Miss Latimer’s. He heard, as he reached it, that she was weeping, desperately weeping. Was it remorse, he wondered, or despair for her exposure? Was it a baffled fury at finding her prey escape her, and Tony to be restored to life again? Yet, with a curious, unwilling pity, he knew as he stood and listened, that he did not believe of her that she knew herself to be a liar. And, pitying her, seeing in her the sibyl who finds her magic fail her and feels herself helpless in a universe closed to her incantations, his instinct warned him, that, while she waked, he must not leave Tony unguarded.
He undressed and lay down with a book, his door ajar. He read, and found himself able to read, hearing at intervals, for hours, that Miss Latimer still wept. When, at last, for a long time, silence had fallen and he had put out his light, he could not have slept, had he wished it. It was his last night in the hateful house, and the hours seemed heavy with significance. The wailing sobs, though silenced, still beat an undertone to his thoughts — thoughts of Malcolm, his dead friend, now, harmlessly, the immortal spirit; and thoughts of his dear Tony. Not until yesterday, when the waters had closed over them, had he known the depths of his love for Tony; and only through their anguish had the depths of her innocent, tragically gentle heart been revealed to him. Yet, while he thought of her, yearning over her, in her childlike sleep, with love unspeakable, the anguish seemed to hover, like a cloud, above him, and Miss Latimer’s sobs still to beat: Dead. — Dead. — Dead.
The first housemaids were already stirring when at last he fell into a heavy sleep. So heavy it was that it seemed long; yet only a few hours could have gone by before he was awakened by a rapping at his half-open door. Even as he drowsily struggled forth from slumber, he was aware that it was not the competent knock that announced hot water and the hour of rising. He opened his eyes and saw Tony’s maid standing in the doorway.
He had noticed Thompson more than once, here and in London, for he had felt that the glances cast upon him as they crossed on the stairs or as she came in and out while he and Tony talked, had been friendly to his hopes. She was a middle-aged woman, elegant of figure, with a gentle, careworn face; and he had liked her, as she had liked him, for he had felt that hers was an almost romantic devotion to Tony. She stood there now, and, for a moment, her professional decorum veiled from him the expression of her face.
‘O sir —could you come?’ she said. And then he saw that her face was strange.
He sprang up while she stood outside. There was, he knew that, no time for his leg, though he seemed to know nothing else; and he threw on his dressing-gown and took up his crutches while Thompson waited for him. But when he went out to her, she still stood there, looking at him.
‘Is Mrs. Wellwood ill?’ he asked. ‘O sir, she’s dead!’ said Thompson.
Then, standing in the corridor, he felt himself trying to think. It was like the moment in France when his leg had been shattered and he had not known whether he were alive or dead. But this was worse. This was not like the moment in France. There was only, then, himself. He could not think. Thompson had put her arm under his. He was hanging forward heavily on his crutches.
‘O sir, perhaps you’d better go back to bed, till a little later—till the doctor comes,’ she said. ‘It was an over-dose of the powder. She’s sometimes taken them, since Mr. Wellwood was killed. And she must have made a mistake. She had everything to live for.’ Thompson broke into sobs. ‘I’ve just found her. Miss Cicely is there. She sent a boy for the doctor. But it’s too late. You’d only think her sleeping, so beautiful she is, sir.’
‘Help me,’ said Bevis. ‘I must come.’
The curtains had been drawn in Tony’s room, and the morning sunlight fell across the bed where she lay. It was not as if sleeping — he saw that at the first sight. She lay on her back and her head was sunken on her breast as if with a doggedness of oblivion. Still, she was beautiful; and he noted, his heart shattered by impotent tenderness, the dusky mark upon her eyelid, like the freaking on a lovely fruit.
Miss Latimer sat on the other side of the bed, with her back to the light. Beside her stood the little tray of early-morning tea that Thompson had brought in and set down on the table near her mistress before drawing the curtains.
Thompson helping him, he reached the bed and laid hold of the bed-post.
‘Yes. I can manage. Thank you so much,’ he said to her.
So he was left, confronting Miss Latimer; and Tony was between them.
He did not look at Miss Latimer. His being was absorbed in contemplation of the dead woman. With sickening sorrow he reconstructed the moments that had led her to this act. It had not been unintentional. He remembered her still look, her ineffable gentleness of the day before. She had intended then; or, if not then, the grief that had come upon them both had fixed her in her design.
She had escaped. She had taken refuge from herself, knowing that her longing heart must betray her did she linger. She had, perhaps, in some overwhelming skepticism, taken refuge, in what she craved to be unending sleep, from the haunting figure of her husband. Or perhaps it had been in atonement to Malcolm, and she had believed herself going to him. But no; but no; the dull hammer-stroke of conviction fell again and again upon his heart; it had been in despair that she had gone. In going she had turned her back upon her joy.
He had looked a long time, when a consciousness as of something unfitting pressed in upon his drugged absorption. Looking up from Tony’s dear, strange face, he saw that Miss Latimer was not weeping and that her eyes were on him. Shriveled, shrunken as she appeared, sitting there, her hair disheveled, a bright Chinese robe wrapped round her, there was in her gaze none of the fear or the bewilderment of the night before. It saw him, and its cruel radiance was for him; yet it passed beyond him. Free, exultant, it soared above him, above Tony, like a bird rising in crystal heights of air at daybreak. His mind fell back, blunted, from its attempt to penetrate her new significance. He only knew that she did not weep for Tony, that she rejoiced that Tony was gone; and an emotionless but calculating hatred rose in him.
‘You see you’ve killed her,’ he said.
‘It was n’t too late last night. If you’d gone in to her last night, after you left me, you could have saved her.’
And if he, last night, had gone in to Tony, he could have saved her. He thought of his long vigil. During all those hours that he had guarded her, she had been sinking away from him. He remembered his vision of her piteous, helpless hands lying on the table. She had stretched herself upon the darkness and it had sucked her down.
Miss Latimer’s radiant gaze was on him; but she made him no reply.
‘Curse you!’ said the young man. ‘Curse you!’
She saw him, but it was like the bird, gazing down from its height at some outsoared menace of a half-vanished earth. And her voice came to him now as from those crystal distances.
‘No,’ she said. ‘Antonia has saved herself. You drove her to it; you made it her only way.’
‘ You drove her to it, you cursed liar. I could have made her happy. It was me she loved. Yes, take that in—more than she loved Malcolm. Nothing stood between us but your lies. You determined and plotted it, when the weapon was put into your hands by our folly. You’ve killed her, and you are glad that she is dead.’
She did not pause for his revilement. Her mind was fixed in its exaltation.
‘No: it was Malcolm she loved more dearly. She chose between you. She knew herself too weak to stay. He came for her and she has gone to him. He has forgiven her. The husband and the wife are together.’
Bevis leaned his head against the bed-post and closed his eyes. The idle folly of his fury dropped from him. He felt only a sick loathing and exhaustion.
‘Leave me,’ he muttered. ‘You ’ll not grudge me what I have left. Leave me with her. Never let me see your face again.’
Almost as if with a glad docility, drawing, in the spring sunlight, her brilliant robe about her, Miss Latimer rose, and her face kept the glitter of its supernatural triumph. She obeyed as if recognizing to the full his claim upon the distenanted form lying there. For a moment only she paused and looked down at the dead woman, and he seemed then, dimly, and now indifferently, to see on her lips the pitiless smile of a priest above a sacrificial victim.
Then the rustle of her robe passed round the room. The door closed softly behind her, and he was alone with all that was left him of Tony.