Anne Douglas Sedgwick
AUTHOR OF "THE RESCUE," "PATHS OF JUDGEMENT," "A FOUNTAIN SEALED," ETC.
NEW YORK The Century Co. 1908
Copyright, 1908, by THE CENTURY CO.
Published October, 1908
THE DE VINNE PRESS
Lady Channice was waiting for her son to come in from the garden. The afternoon was growing late, but she had not sat down to the table, though tea was ready and the kettle sent out a narrow banner of steam. Walking up and down the long room she paused now and then to look at the bowls and vases of roses placed about it, now and then to look out of the windows, and finally at the last window she stopped to watch Augustine advancing over the lawn towards the house. It was a grey stone house, low and solid, its bareness unalleviated by any grace of ornament or structure, and its two long rows of windows gazed out resignedly at a tame prospect. The stretch of lawn sloped to a sunken stone wall; beyond the wall a stream ran sluggishly in a ditch-like channel; on the left the grounds were shut in by a sycamore wood, and beyond were flat meadows crossed in the distance by lines of tree-bordered roads. It was a peaceful, if not a cheering prospect. Lady Channice was fond of it. Cheerfulness was not a thing she looked for; but she looked for peace, and it was peace she found in the flat green distance, the far, reticent ripple of hill on the horizon, the dark forms of the sycamores. Her only regret for the view was that it should miss the sunrise and sunset; in the evenings, beyond the silhouetted woods, one saw the golden sky; but the house faced north, and it was for this that the green of the lawn was so dank, and the grey of the walls so cold, and the light in the drawing-room where Lady Channice stood so white and so monotonous.
She was fond of the drawing-room, also, unbeautiful and grave to sadness though it was. The walls were wainscotted to the ceiling with ancient oak, so that though the north light entered at four high windows the room seemed dark. The furniture was ugly, miscellaneous and inappropriate. The room had been dismantled, and in place of the former drawing-room suite were gathered together incongruous waifs and strays from dining- and smoking-room and boudoir. A number of heavy chairs predominated covered in a maroon leather which had cracked in places; and there were three lugubrious sofas to match.
By degrees, during her long and lonely years at Charlock House, Lady Channice had, at first tentatively, then with a growing assurance in her limited sphere of action, moved away all the ugliest, most trivial things: tattered brocade and gilt footstools, faded antimacassars, dismal groups of birds and butterflies under glass cases. When she sat alone in the evening, after Augustine, as child or boy, had gone to bed, the ghostly glimmer of the birds, the furtive glitter of a glass eye here and there, had seemed to her quite dreadful. The removal of the cases (they were large and heavy, and Mrs. Bray, the housekeeper, had looked grimly disapproving)—was her crowning act of courage, and ever since their departure she had breathed more freely. It had been easier to dispose of all the little colonies of faded photographs that stood on cabinets and tables; they were photographs of her husband's family and of his family's friends, people most of whom were quite unknown to her, and their continued presence in the abandoned house was due to indifference, not affection: no one had cared enough about them to put them away, far less to look at them. After looking at them for some years,—these girls in court dress of a bygone fashion, huntsmen holding crops, sashed babies and matrons in caps or tiaras,—Lady Channice had cared enough to put them away. She had not, either, to ask for Mrs. Bray's assistance or advice for this, a fact which was a relief, for Mrs. Bray was a rather dismal being and reminded her, indeed, of the stuffed birds in the removed glass cases. With her own hands she incarcerated the photographs in the drawers of a heavily carved bureau and turned the keys upon them.
The only ornaments now, were the pale roses, the books, and, above her writing-desk, a little picture that she had brought with her, a water-colour sketch of her old home painted by her mother many years ago.
So the room looked very bare. It almost looked like the parlour of a convent; with a little more austerity, whitened walls and a few thick velvet and gilt lives of the saints on the tables, the likeness would have been complete. The house itself was conventual in aspect, and Lady Channice, as she stood there in the quiet light at the window, looked not unlike a nun, were it not for her crown of pale gold hair that shone in the dark room and seemed, like the roses, to bring into it the brightness of an outer, happier world.
She was a tall woman of forty, her ample form, her wide bosom, the falling folds of her black dress, her loosely girdled waist, suggesting, with the cloistral analogies, the mournful benignity of a bereaved Madonna. Seen as she stood there, leaning her head to watch her son's approach, she was an almost intimidating presence, black, still, and stately. But when the door opened and the young man came in, when, not moving to meet him, she turned her head with a slight smile of welcome, all intimidating impressions passed away. Her face, rather, as it turned, under its crown of gold, was the intimidated face. It was curiously young, pure, flawless, as though its youth and innocence had been preserved in some crystal medium of prayer and silence; and if the nun-like analogies failed in their awe-inspiring associations, they remained in the associations of unconscious pathos and unconscious appeal. Amabel Channice's face, like her form, was long and delicately ample; its pallor that of a flower grown in shadow; the mask a little over-large for the features. Her eyes were small, beautifully shaped, slightly slanting upwards, their light grey darkened under golden lashes, the brows definitely though palely marked. Her mouth was pale coral-colour, and the small upper lip, lifting when she smiled as she was smiling now, showed teeth of an infantile, milky whiteness. The smile was charming, timid, tentative, ingratiating, like a young girl's, and her eyes were timid, too, and a little wild.
"Have you had a good read?" she asked her son. He had a book in his hand.
"Very, thanks. But it is getting chilly, down there in the meadow. And what a lot of frogs there are in the ditch," said Augustine smiling, "they were jumping all over the place."
"Oh, as long as they weren't toads!" said Lady Channice, her smile lighting in response. "When I came here first to live there were so many toads, in the stone areas, you know, under the gratings in front of the cellar windows. You can't imagine how many! It used quite to terrify me to look at them and I went to the front of the house as seldom as possible. I had them all taken away, finally, in baskets,—not killed, you know, poor things,—but just taken and put down in a field a mile off. I hope they didn't starve;—but toads are very intelligent, aren't they; one always associates them with fairy-tales and princes."
She had gone to the tea-table while she spoke and was pouring the boiling water into the teapot. Her voice had pretty, flute-like ups and downs in it and a questioning, upward cadence at the end of sentences. Her upper lip, her smile, the run of her speech, all would have made one think her humorous, were it not for the strain of nervousness that one felt in her very volubility.
Her son lent her a kindly but rather vague attention while she talked to him about the toads, and his eye as he stood watching her make the tea was also vague. He sat down presently, as if suddenly remembering why he had come in, and it was only after a little interval of silence, in which he took his cup from his mother's hands, that something else seemed to occur to him as suddenly, a late arriving suggestion from her speech.
"What a horribly gloomy place you must have found it."
Her eyes, turning on him quickly, lost, in an instant, their uncertain gaiety.
"Gloomy? Is it gloomy? Do you feel it gloomy here, Augustine?"
"Oh, well, no, not exactly," he answered easily. "You see I've always been used to it. You weren't."
As she said nothing to this, seeming at a loss for any reply, he went on presently to talk of other things, of the book he had been reading, a heavy metaphysical tome; of books that he intended to read; of a letter that he had received that morning from the Eton friend with whom he was going up to Oxford for his first term. His mother listened, showing a careful interest usual with her, but after another little silence she said suddenly:
"I think it's a very nice place, Charlock House, Augustine. Your father wouldn't have wanted me to live here if he'd imagined that I could find it gloomy, you know."
"Oh, of course not," said the young man, in an impassive, pleasant voice.
"He has always, in everything, been so thoughtful for my comfort and happiness," said Lady Channice.
Augustine did not look at her: his eyes were fixed on the sky outside and he seemed to be reflecting—though not over her words.
"So that I couldn't bear him ever to hear anything of that sort," Lady Channice went on, "that either of us could find it gloomy, I mean. You wouldn't ever say it to him, would you, Augustine." There was a note at once of urgency and appeal in her voice.
"Of course not, since you don't wish it," her son replied.
"I ask you just because it happens that your father is coming," Lady Channice said, "tomorrow;—and, you see, if you had this in your mind, you might have said something. He is coming to spend the afternoon."
He looked at her now, steadily, still pleasantly; but his colour rose.
"Really," he said.
"Isn't it nice. I do hope that it will be fine; these Autumn days are so uncertain; if only the weather holds up we can have a walk perhaps."
"Oh, I think it will hold up. Will there be time for a walk?"
"He will be here soon after lunch, and, I think, stay on to tea."
"He didn't stay on to tea the last time, did he."
"No, not last time; he is so very busy; it's quite three years since we have had that nice walk over the meadows, and he likes that so much."
She was trying to speak lightly and easily. "And it must be quite a year since you have seen him."
"Quite," said Augustine. "I never see him, hardly, but here, you know."
He was still making his attempt at pleasantness, but something hard and strained had come into his voice, and as, with a sort of helplessness, her resources exhausted, his mother sat silent, he went on, glancing at her, as if with the sudden resolution, he also wanted to make very sure of his way;—
"You like seeing him more than anything, don't you; though you are separated."
Augustine Channice talked a great deal to his mother about outside things, such as philosophy; but of personal things, of their relation to the world, to each other, to his father, he never spoke. So that his speaking now was arresting.
His mother gazed at him. "Separated? We have always been the best of friends."
"Of course. I mean—that you've never cared to live together.—Incompatibility, I suppose. Only," Augustine did not smile, he looked steadily at his mother, "I should think that since you are so fond of him you'd like seeing him oftener. I should think that since he is the best of friends he would want to come oftener, you know."
When he had said these words he flushed violently. It was an echo of his mother's flush. And she sat silent, finding no words.
"Mother," said Augustine, "forgive me. That was impertinent of me. It's no affair of mine."
She thought so, too, apparently, for she found no words in which to tell him that it was his affair. Her hands clasped tightly in her lap, her eyes downcast, she seemed shrunken together, overcome by his tactless intrusion.
"Forgive me," Augustine repeated.
The supplication brought her the resource of words again. "Of course, dear. It is only—I can't explain it to you. It is very complicated. But, though it seems so strange to you,—to everybody, I know—it is just that: though we don't live together, and though I see so little of your father, I do care for him very, very much. More than for anybody in the world,—except you, of course, dear Augustine."
"Oh, don't be polite to me," he said, and smiled. "More than for anybody in the world; stick to it."
She could but accept the amendment, so kindly and, apparently, so lightly pressed upon her, and she answered him with a faint, a grateful smile, saying, in a low voice:—"You see, dear, he is the noblest person I have ever known." Tears were in her eyes. Augustine turned away his own.
They sat then for a little while in silence, the mother and son.
Her eyes downcast, her hands folded in an attitude that suggested some inner dedication, Amabel Channice seemed to stay her thoughts on the vision of that nobility. And though her son was near her, the thoughts were far from him.
It was characteristic of Augustine Channice, when he mused, to gaze straight before him, whatever the object might be that met his unseeing eyes. The object now was the high Autumnal sky outside, crossed only here and there by a drifting fleet of clouds.
The light fell calmly upon the mother and son and, in their stillness, their contemplation, the two faces were like those on an old canvas, preserved from time and change in the trance-like immutability of art. In colour, the two heads chimed, though Augustine's hair was vehemently gold and there were under-tones of brown and amber in his skin. But the oval of Lady Channice's face grew angular in her son's, broader and more defiant; so that, palely, darkly white and gold, on their deep background, the two heads emphasized each other's character by contrast. Augustine's lips were square and scornful; his nose ruggedly bridged; his eyes, under broad eyebrows, ringed round the iris with a line of vivid hazel; and as his lips, though mild in expression, were scornful in form, so these eyes, even in their contemplation, seemed fierce. Calm, controlled face as it was, its meaning for the spectator was of something passionate and implacable. In mother and son alike one felt a capacity for endurance almost tragic; but while Augustine's would be the endurance of the rock, to be moved only by shattering, his mother's was the endurance of the flower, that bends before the tempest, unresisting, beaten down into the earth, but lying, even there, unbroken.
The noise and movement of an outer world seemed to break in upon the recorded vision of arrested life.
The door opened, a quick, decisive step approached down the hall, and, closely following the announcing maid, Mrs. Grey, the local squiress, entered the room. In the normal run of rural conventions, Lady Channice should have held the place; but Charlock House no longer stood for what it had used to stand in the days of Sir Hugh Channice's forbears. Mrs. Grey, of Pangley Hall, had never held any but the first place and a consciousness of this fact seemed to radiate from her competent personality. She was a vast middle-aged woman clad in tweed and leather, but her abundance of firm, hard flesh could lend itself to the roughest exigences of a sporting outdoor life. Her broad face shone like a ripe apple, and her sharp eyes, her tight lips, the cheerful creases of her face, expressed an observant and rather tyrannous good-temper.
"Tea? No, thanks; no tea for me," she almost shouted; "I've just had tea with Mrs. Grier. How are you, Lady Channice? and you, Augustine? What a man you are getting to be; a good inch taller than my Tom. Reading as usual, I see. I can't get my boys to look at a book in vacation time. What's the book? Ah, fuddling your brains with that stuff, still, are you? Still determined to be a philosopher? Do you really want him to be a philosopher, my dear?"
"Indeed I think it would be very nice if he could be a philosopher," said Lady Channice, smiling, for though she had often to evade Mrs. Grey's tyranny she liked her good temper. She seemed in her reply to float, lightly and almost gaily above Mrs. Grey, and away from her. Mrs. Grey was accustomed to these tactics and it was characteristic of her not to let people float away if she could possibly help it. This matter of Augustine's future was frequently in dispute between them. Her feet planted firmly, her rifle at her shoulder, she seemed now to take aim at a bird that flew from her.
"And of course you encourage him! You read with him and study with him! And you won't see that you let him drift more and more out of practical life and into moonshine. What does it do for him, that's what I ask? Where does it lead him? What's the good of it? Why he'll finish as a fusty old don. Does it make you a better man, Augustine, or a happier one, to spend all your time reading philosophy?"
"Very much better, very much happier, I find:—but I don't give it all my time, you know," Augustine answered, with much his mother's manner of light evasion. He let Mrs. Grey see that he found her funny; perhaps he wished to let her see that philosophy helped him to. Mrs. Grey gave up the fantastic bird and turned on her heel.
"Well, I've not come to dispute, as usual, with you, Augustine. I've come to ask you, Lady Channice, if you won't, for once, break through your rules and come to tea on Sunday. I've a surprise for you. An old friend of yours is to be of our party for this week-end. Lady Elliston; she comes tomorrow, and she writes that she hopes to see something of you."
Mrs. Grey had her eye rather sharply on Lady Channice; she expected to see her colour rise, and it did rise.
"Lady Elliston?" she repeated, vaguely, or, perhaps, faintly.
"Yes; you did know her; well, she told me."
"It was years ago," said Lady Channice, looking down; "Yes, I knew her quite well. It would be very nice to see her again. But I don't think I will break my rule; thank you so much."
Mrs. Grey looked a little disconcerted and a little displeased. "Now that you are growing up, Augustine," she said, "you must shake your mother out of her way of life. It's bad for her. She lives here, quite alone, and, when you are away—as you will have to be more and more, for some time now,—she sees nobody but her village girls, Mrs. Grier and me from one month's end to the other. I can't think what she's made of. I should go mad. And so many of us would be delighted if she would drop in to tea with us now and then."
"Oh, well, you can drop in to tea with her instead," said Augustine. His mother sat silent, with her faint smile.
"Well, I do. But I'm not enough, though I flatter myself that I'm a good deal. It's unwholesome, such a life, downright morbid and unwholesome. One should mingle with one's kind. I shall wonder at you, Augustine, if you allow it, just as, for years, I've wondered at your father."
It may have been her own slight confusion, or it may have been something exasperating in Lady Channice's silence, that had precipitated Mrs. Grey upon this speech, but, when she had made it, she became very red and wondered whether she had gone too far. Mrs. Grey was prepared to go far. If people evaded her, and showed an unwillingness to let her be kind to them—on her own terms,—terms which, in regard to Lady Channice, were very strictly defined;—if people would behave in this unbecoming and ungrateful fashion, they only got, so Mrs. Grey would have put it, what they jolly well deserved if she gave them a "stinger." But Mrs. Grey did not like to give Lady Channice "stingers"; therefore she now became red and wondered at herself.
Lady Channice had lifted her eyes and it was as if Mrs. Grey saw walls and moats and impenetrable thickets glooming in them. She answered for Augustine: "My husband and I have always been in perfect agreement on the matter."
Mrs. Grey tried a cheerful laugh;—"You won him over, too, no doubt."
"Well, Augustine," Mrs. Grey turned to the young man again, "I don't succeed with your mother, but I hope for better luck with you. You're a man, now, and not yet, at all events, a monk. Won't you dine with us on Saturday night?"
Now Mrs. Grey was kind; but she had never asked Lady Channice to dinner. The line had been drawn, firmly drawn years ago—and by Mrs. Grey herself—at tea. And it was not until Lady Channice had lived for several years at Charlock House, when it became evident that, in spite of all that was suspicious, not to say sinister, in her situation, she was not exactly cast off and that her husband, so to speak, admitted her to tea if not to dinner,—it was not until then that Mrs. Grey voiced at once the tolerance and the discretion of the neighbourhood and said: "They are on friendly terms; he comes to see her twice a year. We can call; she need not be asked to anything but tea. There can be no harm in that."
There was, indeed, no harm, for though, when they did call in Mrs. Grey's broad wake, they were received with gentle courtesy, they were made to feel that social contacts would go no further. Lady Channice had been either too much offended or too much frightened by the years of ostracism, or perhaps it was really by her own choice that she adopted the attitude of a person who saw people when they came to her but who never went to see them. This attitude, accepted by the few, was resented by the many, so that hardly anybody ever called upon Lady Channice. And so it was that Mrs. Grey satisfied at once benevolence and curiosity in her staunch visits to the recluse of Charlock House, and could feel herself as Lady Channice's one wholesome link with the world that she had rejected or—here lay all the ambiguity, all the mystery that, for years, had whetted Mrs. Grey's curiosity to fever-point—that had rejected her.
As Augustine grew up the situation became more complicated. It was felt that as the future owner of Charlock House and inheritor of his mother's fortune Augustine was not to be tentatively taken up but decisively seized. People had resented Sir Hugh's indifference to Charlock House, the fact that he had never lived there and had tried, just before his marriage, to sell it. But Augustine was yet blameless, and Augustine would one day be a wealthy not an impecunious squire, and Mrs. Grey had said that she would see to it that Augustine had his chance. "Apparently there's no one to bring him out, unless I do," she said. "His father, it seems, won't, and his mother can't. One doesn't know what to think, or, at all events, one keeps what one thinks to oneself, for she is a good, sweet creature, whatever her faults may have been. But Augustine shall be asked to dinner one day."
Augustine's "chance," in Mrs. Grey's eye, was her sixth daughter, Marjory.
So now the first step up the ladder was being given to Augustine.
He kept his vagueness, his lightness, his coolly pleasant smile, looking at Mrs. Grey and not at his mother as he answered: "Thanks so much, but I'm monastic, too, you know. I don't go to dinners. I'll ride over some afternoon and see you all."
Mrs. Grey compressed her lips. She was hurt and she had, also, some difficulty in restraining her temper before this rebuff. "But you go to dinners in London. You stay with people."
"Ah, yes; but I'm alone then. When I'm with my mother I share her life." He spoke so lightly, yet so decisively, with a tact and firmness beyond his years, that Mrs. Grey rose, accepting her defeat.
"Then Lady Elliston and I will come over, some day," she said. "I wish we saw more of her. John and I met her while we were staying with the Bishop this Spring. The Bishop has the highest opinion of her. He said that she was a most unusual woman,—in the world, yet not of it. One feels that. Her eldest girl married young Lord Catesby, you know; a very brilliant match; she presents her second girl next Spring, when I do Marjory. You must come over for a ride with Marjory, soon, Augustine."
"I will, very soon," said Augustine.
When their visitor at last went, when the tramp of her heavy boots had receded down the hall, Lady Channice and her son again sat in silence; but it was now another silence from that into which Mrs. Grey's shots had broken. It was like the stillness of the copse or hedgerow when the sportsmen are gone and a vague stir and rustle in ditch or underbrush tells of broken wings or limbs, of a wounded thing hiding.
Lady Channice spoke at last. "I wish you had accepted for the dinner, Augustine. I don't want you to identify yourself with my peculiarities."
"I didn't want to dine with Mrs. Grey, mother."
"You hurt her. She is a kind neighbour. You will see her more or less for all of your life, probably. You must take your place, here, Augustine."
"My place is taken. I like it just as it is. I'll see the Greys as I always have seen them; I'll go over to tea now and then and I'll ride and hunt with the children."
"But that was when you were a child. You are almost a man now; you are a man, Augustine; and your place isn't a child's place."
"My place is by you." For the second time that day there was a new note in Augustine's voice. It was as if, clearly and definitely, for the first time, he was feeling something and seeing something and as if, though very resolutely keeping from her what he felt, he was, when pushed to it, as resolutely determined to let her see what he saw.
"By me, dear," she said faintly. "What do you mean?"
"She ought to have asked you to dinner, too."
"But I would not have accepted; I don't go out. She knows that. She knows that I am a real recluse."
"She ought to have asked knowing that you would not accept."
"Augustine dear, you are foolish. You know nothing of these little feminine social compacts."
"Are they only feminine?"
"Only. Mere crystallised conveniences. It would be absurd for Mrs. Grey, after all these years, to ask me in order to be refused."
There was a moment's silence and then Augustine said: "Did she ever ask you?"
The candles had been lighted and the lamp brought in, making the corners of the room look darker. There was only a vague radiance about the chimney piece, the little candle-flames doubled in the mirror, and the bright circle where Lady Channice and her son sat on either side of the large, round table. The lamp had a green shade, and their faces were in shadow. Augustine had turned away his eyes.
And now a strange and painful thing happened, stranger and more painful than he could have foreseen; for his mother did not answer him. The silence grew long and she did not speak. Augustine looked at her at last and saw that she was gazing at him, and, it seemed to him, with helpless fear. His own eyes did not echo it; anger, rather, rose in them, cold fierceness, against himself, it was apparent, as well as against the world that he suspected. He was not impulsive; he was not demonstrative; but he got up and put his hand on her shoulder. "I don't mean to torment you, like the rest of them," he said. "I don't mean to ask—and be refused. Forget what I said. It's only—only—that it infuriates me.—To see them all.—And you!—cut off, wasted, in prison here. I've been seeing it for a long time; I won't speak of it again. I know that there are sad things in your life. All I want to say, all I wanted to say was—that I'm with you, and against them."
She sat, her face in shadow beneath him, her hands tightly clasped together and pressed down upon her lap. And, in a faltering voice that strove in vain for firmness, she said: "Dear Augustine—thank you. I know you wouldn't want to hurt me. You see, when I came here to live, I had parted—from your father, and I wanted to be quite alone; I wanted to see no one. And they felt that: they felt that I wouldn't lead the usual life. So it grew most naturally. Don't be angry with people, or with the world. That would warp you, from the beginning. It's a good world, Augustine. I've found it so. It is sad, but there is such beauty.—I'm not cut off, or wasted;—I'm not in prison.—How can you say it, dear, of me, who have you—and him."
Augustine's hand rested on her shoulder for some moments more. Lifting it he stood looking before him. "I'm not going to quarrel with the world," he then said. "I know what I like in it."
"Dear—thanks—" she murmured.
Augustine picked up his book again. "I'll study for a bit, now, in my room," he said. "Will you rest before dinner? Do; I shall feel more easy in my conscience if I inflict Hegel on you afterwards."
Lady Channice did not go and rest. She sat on in the shadowy room gazing before her, her hands still clasped, her face wearing still its look of fear. For twenty years she had not known what it was to be without fear. It had become as much a part of her life as the air she breathed and any peace or gladness had blossomed for her only in that air: sometimes she was almost unconscious of it. This afternoon she had become conscious. It was as if the air were heavy and oppressive and as if she breathed with difficulty. And sitting there she asked herself if the time was coming when she must tell Augustine.
What she might have to tell was a story that seemed strangely disproportionate: it was the story of her life; but all of it that mattered, all of it that made the story, was pressed into one year long ago. Before that year was sunny, uneventful girlhood, after it grey, uneventful womanhood; the incident, the drama, was all knotted into one year, and it seemed to belong to herself no longer; she seemed a spectator, looking back in wonder at the disaster of another woman's life. A long flat road stretched out behind her; she had journeyed over it for years; and on the far horizon she saw, if she looked back, the smoke and flames of a burning city—miles and miles away.
Amabel Freer was the daughter of a rural Dean, a scholarly, sceptical man. The forms of religion were his without its heart; its heart was her mother's, who was saintly and whose orthodoxy was the vaguest symbolic system. From her father Amabel had the scholar's love of beauty in thought, from her mother the love of beauty in life; but her loves had been dreamy: she had thought and lived little. Happy compliance, happy confidence, a dawn-like sense of sweetness and purity, had filled her girlhood.
When she was sixteen her father had died, and her mother in the following year. Amabel and her brother Bertram were well dowered. Bertram was in the Foreign Office, neither saintly nor scholarly, like his parents, nor undeveloped like his young sister. He was a capable, conventional man of the world, sure of himself and rather suspicious of others. Amabel imagined him a model of all that was good and lovely. The sudden bereavement of her youth bewildered and overwhelmed her; her capacity for dependent, self-devoting love sought for an object and lavished itself upon her brother. She went to live with an aunt, her father's sister, and when she was eighteen her aunt brought her to London, a tall, heavy and rather clumsy country girl, arrested rather than developed by grief. Her aunt was a world-worn, harassed woman; she had married off her four daughters with difficulty and felt the need of a change of occupation; but she accepted as a matter of course the duty of marrying off Amabel. That task accomplished she would go to bed every night at half past ten and devote her days to collecting coins and enamels. Her respite came far more quickly than she could have imagined possible. Amabel had promise of great beauty, but two or three years were needed to fulfill it; Mrs. Compton could but be surprised when Sir Hugh Channice, an older colleague of Bertram's, a fashionable and charming man, asked for the hand of her unformed young charge. Sir Hugh was fourteen years Amabel's senior and her very guilelessness no doubt attracted him; then there was the money; he was not well off and he lived a life rather hazardously full. Still, Mrs. Compton could hardly believe in her good-fortune. Amabel accepted her own very simply; her compliance and confidence were even deeper than before. Sir Hugh was the most graceful of lovers. His quizzical tenderness reminded her of her father, his quasi-paternal courtship emphasized her instinctive trust in the beauty and goodness of life.
So at eighteen she was married at St. George's Hanover Square and wore a wonderful long satin train and her mothers lace veil and her mother's pearls around her neck and hair. A bridesmaid had said that pearls were unlucky, but Mrs. Compton tersely answered:—"Not if they are such good ones as these." Amabel had bowed her head to the pearls, seeing them, with the train, and the veil, and her own snowy figure, vaguely, still in the dreamlike haze. Memories of her father and mother, and of the dear deanery among its meadows, floating fragments of the poetry her father had loved, of the prayers her mother had taught her in childhood, hovered in her mind. She seemed to see the primrose woods where she had wandered, and to hear the sound of brooks and birds in Spring. A vague smile was on her lips. She thought of Sir Hugh as of a radiance lighting all. She was the happiest of girls.
Shortly after her marriage, all the radiance, all the haze was gone. It had been difficult then to know why. Now, as she looked back, she thought that she could understand.
She had been curiously young, curiously inexperienced. She had expected life to go on as dawn for ever. Everyday light had filled her with bleakness and disillusion. She had had childish fancies; that her husband did not really love her; that she counted for nothing in his life. Yet Sir Hugh had never changed, except that he very seldom made love to her and that she saw less of him than during their engagement. Sir Hugh was still quizzically tender, still all grace, all deference, when he was there. And what wonder that he was little there; he had a wide life; he was a brilliant man; she was a stupid young girl; in looking back, no longer young, no longer stupid, Lady Channice thought that she could see it all quite clearly. She had seemed to him a sweet, good girl, and he cared for her and wanted a wife. He had hoped that by degrees she would grow into a wise and capable woman, fit to help and ornament his life. But she had not been wise or capable. She had been lonely and unhappy, and that wide life of his had wearied and confused her; the silence, the watching attitude of the girl were inadequate to her married state, and yet she had nothing else to meet it with. She had never before felt her youth and inexperience as oppressive, but they oppressed her now. She had nothing to ask of the world and nothing to give to it. What she did ask of life was not given to her, what she had to give was not wanted. She was very unhappy.
Yet people were kind. In especial Lady Elliston was kind, the loveliest, most sheltering, most understanding of all her guests or hostesses. Lady Elliston and her cheerful, jocose husband, were Sir Hugh's nearest friends and they took her in and made much of her. And one day when, in a fit of silly wretchedness, Lady Elliston found her crying, she had put her arms around her and kissed her and begged to know her grief and to comfort it. Even thus taken by surprise, and even to one so kind, Amabel could not tell that grief: deep in her was a reticence, a sense of values austere and immaculate: she could not discuss her husband, even with the kindest of friends. And she had nothing to tell, really, but of herself, her own helplessness and deficiency. Yet, without her telling, for all her wish that no one should guess, Lady Elliston did guess. Her comfort had such wise meaning in it. She was ten years older than Amabel. She knew all about the world; she knew all about girls and their husbands. Amabel was only a girl, and that was the trouble, she seemed to say. When she grew older she would see that it would come right; husbands were always so; the wider life reached by marriage would atone in many ways. And Lady Elliston, all with sweetest discretion, had asked gentle questions. Some of them Amabel had not understood; some she had. She remembered now that her own silence or dull negation might have seemed very rude and ungrateful; yet Lady Elliston had taken no offence. All her memories of Lady Elliston were of this tact and sweetness, this penetrating, tentative tact and sweetness that sought to understand and help and that drew back, unflurried and unprotesting before rebuff, ready to emerge again at any hint of need,—of these, and of her great beauty, the light of her large clear eyes, the whiteness of her throat, the glitter of diamonds about and above: for it was always in her most festal aspect, at night, under chandeliers and in ball-rooms, that she best remembered her. Amabel knew, with the deep, instinctive sense of values which was part of her inheritance and hardly, at that time, part of her thought, that her mother would not have liked Lady Elliston, would have thought her worldly; yet, and this showed that Amabel was developing, she had already learned that worldliness was compatible with many things that her mother would have excluded from it; she could see Lady Elliston with her own and with her mother's eyes, and it was puzzling, part of the pain of growth, to feel that her own was already the wider vision.
Soon after that the real story came. The city began to burn and smoke and flames to blind and scorch her.
It was at Lady Elliston's country house that Amabel first met Paul Quentin. He was a daring young novelist who was being made much of during those years; for at that still somewhat guileless time to be daring had been to be original. His books had power and beauty, and he had power and beauty, fierce, dreaming eyes and an intuitive, sudden smile. Under his aspect of careless artist, his head was a little turned by his worldly success, by great country-houses and flattering great ladies; he did not take the world as indifferently as he seemed to. Success edged his self-confidence with a reckless assurance. He was an ardent student of Nietzsche, at a time when that, too, was to be original. Amabel met this young man constantly at the dances and country parties of a season. And, suddenly, the world changed. It was not dawn and it was not daylight; it was a wild and beautiful illumination like torches at night. She knew herself loved and her own being became precious and enchanting to her. The presence of the man who loved her filled her with rapture and fear. Their recognition was swift. He told her things about herself that she had never dreamed of and as he told them she felt them to be true.
To other people Paul Quentin did not speak much of Lady Channice. He early saw that he would need to be discreet. One day at Lady Elliston's her beauty was in question and someone said that she was too pale and too impassive; and at that Quentin, smiling a little fiercely, remarked that she was as pale as a cowslip and as impassive as a young Madonna; the words pictured her; her fresh Spring-like quality, and the peace, as of some noble power not yet roused.
In looking back, it was strange and terrible to Lady Channice to see how little she had really known this man. Their meetings, their talks together, were like the torchlight that flashed and wavered and only fitfully revealed. From the first she had listened, had assented, to everything he said, hanging upon his words and his looks and living afterward in the memory of them. And in memory their significance seemed so to grow that when they next met they found themselves far nearer than the words had left them.
All her young reserves and dignities had been penetrated and dissolved. It was always themselves he talked of, but, from that centre, he waved the torch about a transformed earth and showed her a world of thought and of art that she had never seen before. No murmur of it had reached the deanery; to her husband and the people he lived among it was a mere spectacle; Quentin made that bright, ardent world real to her, and serious. He gave her books to read; he took her to hear music; he showed her the pictures, the statues, the gems and porcelains that she had before accepted as part of the background of life hardly seeing them. From being the background of life they became, in a sense, suddenly its object. But not their object—not his and hers,—though they talked of them, looked, listened and understood. To Quentin and Amabel this beauty was still background, and in the centre, at the core of things, were their two selves and the ecstasy of feeling that exalted and terrified. All else in life became shackles. It was hardly shock, it was more like some immense relief, when, in each other's arms, the words of love, so long implied, were spoken. He said that she must come with him; that she must leave it all and come. She fought against herself and against him in refusing, grasping at pale memories of duty, honour, self-sacrifice; he knew too well the inner treachery that denied her words. But, looking back, trying not to flinch before the scorching memory, she did not know how he had won her. The dreadful jostle of opportune circumstance; her husband's absence, her brother's;—the chance pause in the empty London house between country visits;—Paul Quentin following, finding her there; the hot, dusty, enervating July day, all seemed to have pushed her to the act of madness and made of it a willess yielding rather than a decision. For she had yielded; she had left her husband's house and gone with him.
They went abroad at once, to France, to the forest of Fontainebleau. How she hated ever after the sound of the lovely syllables, hated the memory of the rocks and woods, the green shadows and the golden lights where she had walked with him and known horror and despair deepening in her heart with every day. She judged herself, not him, in looking back; even then it had been herself she had judged. Though unwilling, she had been as much tempted by herself as by him; he had had to break down barriers, but though they were the barriers of her very soul, her longing heart had pressed, had beaten against them, crying out for deliverance. She did not judge him, but, alone with him in the forest, alone with him in the bland, sunny hotel, alone with him through the long nights when she lay awake and wondered, in a stupor of despair, she saw that he was different. So different; there was the horror. She was the sinner; not he. He belonged to the bright, ardent life, the life without social bond or scruple, the life of sunny, tolerant hotels and pagan forests; but she did not belong to it. The things that had seemed external things, barriers and shackles, were the realest things, were in fact the inner things, were her very self. In yielding to her heart she had destroyed herself, there was no life to be lived henceforth with this man, for there was no self left to live it with. She saw that she had cut herself off from her future as well as from her past. The sacred past judged her and the future was dead. Years of experience concentrated themselves into that lawless week. She saw that laws were not outside things; that they were one's very self at its wisest. She saw that if laws were to be broken it could only be by a self wiser than the self that had made the law. And the self that had fled with Paul Quentin was only a passionate, blinded fragment, a heart without a brain, a fragment judged and rejected by the whole.
To both lovers the week was one of bitter disillusion, though for Quentin no such despair was possible. For him it was an attempt at joy and beauty that had failed. This dulled, drugged looking girl was not the radiant woman he had hoped to find. Vain and sensitive as he was, he felt, almost immediately, that he had lost his charm for her; that she had ceased to love him. That was the ugly, the humiliating side of the truth, the side that so filled Amabel Channice's soul with sickness as she looked back at it. She had ceased to love him, almost at once.
And it was not guilt only, and fear, that had risen between them and separated them; there were other, smaller, subtler reasons, little snakes that hissed in her memory. He was different from her in other ways.
She hardly saw that one of the ways was that of breeding; but she felt that he jarred upon her constantly, in their intimacy, their helpless, dreadful intimacy. In contrast, the thought of her husband had been with her, burningly. She did not say to herself, for she did not know it, her experience of life was too narrow to give her the knowledge,—that her husband was a gentleman and her lover, a man of genius though he were, was not; but she compared them, incessantly, when Quentin's words and actions, his instinctive judgments of men and things, made her shrink and flush. He was so clever, cleverer far than Hugh; but he did not know, as Sir Hugh would have known, what the slight things were that would make her shrink. He took little liberties when he should have been reticent and he was humble when he should have been assured. For he was often humble; he was, oddly, pathetically—and the pity for him added to the sickness—afraid of her and then, because he was afraid, he grew angry with her.
He was clever; but there are some things cleverness cannot reach. What he failed to feel by instinct, he tried to scorn. It was not the patrician scorn, stupid yet not ignoble, for something hardly seen, hardly judged, merely felt as dull and insignificant; it was the corroding plebeian scorn for a suspected superiority.
He quarrelled with her, and she sat silent, knowing that her silence, her passivity, was an affront the more, but helpless, having no word to say. What could she say?—I do love you: I am wretched: utterly wretched and utterly destroyed.—That was all there was to say. So she sat, dully listening, as if drugged. And she only winced when he so far forgot himself as to cry out that it was her silly pride of blood, the aristocratic illusion, that had infected her; she belonged to the caste that could not think and that picked up the artist and thinker to amuse and fill its vacancy.—"We may be lovers, or we may be performing poodles, but we are never equals," he had cried. It was for him Amabel had winced, knowing, without raising her eyes to see it, how his face would burn with humiliation for having so betrayed his consciousness of difference. Nothing that he could say could hurt her for herself.
But there was worse to bear: after the violence of his anger came the violence of his love. She had borne at first, dully, like the slave she felt herself; for she had sold herself to him, given herself over bound hand and foot. But now it became intolerable. She could not protest,—what was there to protest against, or to appeal to?—but she could fly. The thought of flight rose in her after the torpor of despair and, with its sense of wings, it felt almost like a joy. She could fly back, back, to be scourged and purified, and then—oh far away she saw it now—was something beyond despair; life once more; life hidden, crippled, but life. A prayer rose like a sob with the thought.
So one night in London her brother Bertram, coming back late to his rooms, found her sitting there.
Bertram was hard, but not unkind. The sight of her white, fixed face touched him. He did not upbraid her, though for the past week he had rehearsed the bitterest of upbraidings. He even spoke soothingly to her when, speechless, she broke into wild sobs. "There, Amabel, there.—Yes, it's a frightful mess you've made of things.—When I think of mother!—Well, I'll say nothing now. You have come back; that is something. You have left him, Amabel?"
She nodded, her face hidden.
"The brute, the scoundrel," said Bertram, at which she moaned a negation.—"You don't still care about him?—Well, I won't question you now.—Perhaps it's not so desperate. Hugh has been very good about it; he's helped me to keep the thing hushed up until we could make sure. I hope we've succeeded; I hope so indeed. Hugh will see you soon, I know; and it can be patched up, no doubt, after a fashion."
But at this Amabel cried:—"I can't.—I can't.—Oh—take me away.—Let me hide until he divorces me. I can't see him."
"Divorces you?" Bertram's voice was sharp. "Have you disgraced publicly—you and us? It's not you I'm thinking of so much as the family name, father and mother. Hugh won't divorce you; he can't; he shan't. After all you're a mere child and he didn't look after you." But this was said rather in threat to Hugh than in leniency to Amabel.
She lay back in the chair, helpless, almost lifeless: let them do with her what they would.
Bertram said that she should spend the night there and that he would see Hugh in the morning. And:—"No; you needn't see him yet, if you feel you can't. It may be arranged without that. Hugh will understand." And this was the first ray of the light that was to grow and grow. Hugh would understand.
She did not see him for two years.
All that had happened after her return to Bertram was a blur now. There were hasty talks, Bertram defining for her her future position, one of dignity it must be—he insisted on that; Hugh perfectly understood her wish for the present, quite fell in with it; but, eventually, she must take her place in her husband's home again. Even Bertram, intent as he was on the family honour, could not force the unwilling wife upon the merely magnanimous husband.
Her husband's magnanimity was the radiance that grew for Amabel during these black days, the days of hasty talks and of her journey down to Charlock House.
She had never seen Charlock House before; Sir Hugh had spoken of the family seat as "a dismal hole," but, on that hot July evening of her arrival, it looked peaceful to her, a dark haven of refuge, like the promise of sleep after nightmare.
Mrs. Bray stood in the door, a grim but not a hostile warder: Amabel felt anyone who was not hostile to be almost kind.
The house had been hastily prepared for her, dining-room and drawing-room and the large bedroom upstairs, having the same outlook over the lawn, the sycamores, the flat meadows. She could see herself standing there now, looking about her at the bedroom where gaiety and gauntness were oddly mingled in the faded carnations and birds of paradise on the chintzes and in the vastness of the four-poster, the towering wardrobes, the capacious, creaking chairs and sofas. Everything was very clean and old; the dressing-table was stiffly skirted in darned muslins and near the pin-cushion stood a small, tight nosegay, Mrs. Bray's cautious welcome to this ambiguous mistress.
"A comfortable old place, isn't it," Bertram had said, looking about, too; "You'll soon get well and strong here, Amabel." This, Amabel knew, was said for the benefit of Mrs. Bray who stood, non-committal and observant just inside the door. She knew, too, that Bertram was depressed by the gauntness and gaiety of the bedroom and even more depressed by the maroon leather furniture and the cases of stuffed birds below, and that he was at once glad to get away from Charlock House and sorry for her that she should have to be left there, alone with Mrs. Bray. But to Amabel it was a dream after a nightmare. A strange, desolate dream, all through those sultry summer days; but a dream shot through with radiance in the thought of the magnanimity that had spared and saved her.
And with the coming of the final horror, came the final revelation of this radiance. She had been at Charlock House for many weeks, and it was mid-Autumn, when that horror came. She knew that she was to have a child and that it could not be her husband's child.
With the knowledge her mind seemed unmoored at last; it wavered and swung in a nightmare blackness deeper than any she had known. In her physical prostration and mental disarray the thought of suicide was with her. How face Bertram now,—Bertram with his tenacious hopes? How face her husband—ever—ever—in the far future? Her disgrace lived and she was to see it. But, in the swinging chaos, it was that thought that kept her from frenzy; the thought that it did live; that its life claimed her; that to it she must atone. She did not love this child that was to come; she dreaded it; yet the dread was sacred, a burden that she must bear for its unhappy sake. What did she not owe to it—unfortunate one—of atonement and devotion?
She gathered all her courage, armed her physical weakness, her wandering mind, to summon Bertram and to tell him.
She told him in the long drawing-room on a sultry September day, leaning her arms on the table by which she sat and covering her face.
Bertram said nothing for a long time. He was still boyish enough to feel any such announcement as embarrassing; and that it should be told him now, in such circumstances, by his sister, by Amabel, was nearly incredible. How associate such savage natural facts, lawless and unappeasable, with that young figure, dressed in its trousseau white muslin and with its crown of innocent gold. It made her suddenly seem older than himself and at once more piteous and more sinister. For a moment, after the sheer stupor, he was horribly angry with her; then came dismay at his own cruelty.
"This does change things, Amabel," he said at last.
"Yes," she answered from behind her hands.
"I don't know how Hugh will take it," said Bertram.
"He must divorce me now," she said. "It can be done very quietly, can't it. And I have money. I can go away, somewhere, out of England—I've thought of America—or New Zealand—some distant country where I shall never be heard of; I can bring up the child there."
Bertram stared at her. She sat at the table, her hands before her face, in the light, girlish dress that hung loosely about her. She was fragile and wasted. Her voice seemed dead. And he wondered at the unhappy creature's courage.
"Divorce!" he then said violently; "No; he can't do that;—and he had forgiven already; I don't know how the law stands; but of course you won't go away. What an idea; you might as well kill yourself outright. It's only—. I don't know how the law stands. I don't know what Hugh will say."
Bertram walked up and down biting his nails. He stopped presently before a window, his back turned to his sister, and, flushing over the words, he said: "You are sure—you are quite sure, Amabel, that it isn't Hugh's child. You are such a girl. You can know nothing.—I mean—it may be a mistake."
"I am quite sure," the unmoved voice answered him. "I do know."
Bertram again stood silent. "Well," he said at last, turning to her though he did not look at her, "all I can do is to see how Hugh takes it. You know, Amabel, that you can count on me. I'll see after you, and after the child. Hugh may, of course, insist on your parting from it; that will probably be the condition he'll make;—naturally. In that case I'll take you abroad soon. It can be got through, I suppose, without anybody knowing; assumed names; some Swiss or Italian village—" Bertram muttered, rather to himself than to her. "Good God, what an odious business!—But, as you say, we have money; that simplifies everything. You mustn't worry about the child. I will see that it is put into safe hands and I'll keep an eye on its future—." He stopped, for his sister's hands had fallen. She was gazing at him, still dully—for it seemed that nothing could strike any excitement from her—but with a curious look, a look that again made him feel as if she were much older than he.
"Never," she said.
"Never what?" Bertram asked. "You mean you won't part from the child?"
"Never; never," she repeated.
"But Amabel," with cold patience he urged; "if Hugh insists.—My poor girl, you have made your bed and you must lie on it. You can't expect your husband to give this child—this illegitimate child—his name. You can't expect him to accept it as his child."
"No; I don't expect it," she said.
"Well, what then? What's your alternative?"
"I must go away with the child."
"I tell you, Amabel, it's impossible," Bertram in his painful anxiety spoke with irritation. "You've got to consider our name—my name, my position, and your husband's. Heaven knows I want to be kind to you—do all I can for you; I've not once reproached you, have I? But you must be reasonable. Some things you must accept as your punishment. Unless Hugh is the most fantastically generous of men you'll have to part from the child."
She sat silent.
"You do consent to that?" Bertram insisted.
She looked before her with that dull, that stupid look. "No," she replied.
Bertram's patience gave way, "You are mad," he said. "Have you no consideration for me—for us? You behave like this—incredibly, in my mother's daughter—never a girl better brought up; you go off with that—that bounder;—you stay with him for a week—good heavens!—there'd have been more dignity if you'd stuck to him;—you chuck him, in one week, and then you come back and expect us to do as you think fit, to let you disappear and everyone know that you've betrayed your husband and had a child by another man. It's mad, I tell you, and it's impossible, and you've got to submit. Do you hear? Will you answer me, I say? Will you promise that if Hugh won't consent to fathering the child—won't consent to giving it his name—won't consent to having it, as his heir, disinherit the lawful children he may have by you—good heavens, I wonder if you realize what you are asking!—will you promise, I say, if he doesn't consent, to part from the child?"
She did look rather mad, her brother thought, and he remembered, with discomfort, that women, at such times, did sometimes lose their reason. Her eyes with their dead gaze nearly frightened him, when, after all his violence, his entreaty, his abuse of her, she only, in an unchanged voice, said "No."
He felt then the uselessness of protestation or threat; she must be treated as if she were mad; humored, cajoled. He was silent for a little while, walking up and down. "Well, I'll say no more, then. Forgive me for my harshness," he said. "You give me a great deal to bear, Amabel; but I'll say nothing now. I have your word, at all events," he looked sharply at her as the sudden suspicion crossed him, "I have your word that you'll stay quietly here—until you hear from me what Hugh says? You promise me that?"
"Yes," his sister answered. He gave a sigh for the sorry relief.
That night Amabel's mind wandered wildly. She heard herself, in the lonely room where she lay, calling out meaningless things. She tried to control the horror of fear that rose in her and peopled the room with phantoms; but the fear ran curdling in her veins and flowed about her, shaping itself in forms of misery and disaster. "No—no—poor child.—Oh—don't—don't.—I will come to you. I am your mother.—They can't take you from me."—this was the most frequent cry.
The poor child hovered, wailing, delivered over to vague, unseen sorrow, and, though a tiny infant, it seemed to be Paul Quentin, too, in some dreadful plight, appealing to her in the name of their dead love to save him. She did not love him; she did not love the child; but her heart seemed broken with impotent pity.
In the intervals of nightmare she could look, furtively, fixedly, about the room. The moon was bright outside, and through the curtains a pallid light showed the menacing forms of the two great wardrobes. The four posts of her bed seemed like the pillars of some vast, alien temple, and the canopy, far above her, floated like a threatening cloud. Opposite her bed, above the chimney-piece, was a deeply glimmering mirror: if she were to raise herself she would see her own white reflection, rising, ghastly.—She hid her face on her pillows and sank again into the abyss.
Next morning she could not get up. Her pulses were beating at fever speed; but, with the daylight, her mind was clearer. She could summon her quiet look when Mrs. Bray came in to ask her mournfully how she was. And a little later a telegram came, from Bertram.
Her trembling hands could hardly open it. She read the words. "All is well." Mrs. Bray stood beside her bed. She meant to keep that quiet look for Mrs. Bray; but she fainted. Mrs. Bray, while she lay tumbled among the pillows, and before lifting her, read the message hastily.
From the night of torment and the shock of joy, Amabel brought an extreme susceptibility to emotion that showed itself through all her life in a trembling of her hands and frame when any stress of feeling was laid upon her.
After that torment and that shock she saw Bertram once, and only once, again;—ah, strange and sad in her memory that final meeting of their lives, though this miraculous news was the theme of it. She was still in bed when he came, the bed she did not leave for months, and, though so weak and dizzy, she understood all that he told her, knew the one supreme fact of her husband's goodness. He sent her word that she was to be troubled about nothing; she was to take everything easily and naturally. She should always have her child with her and it should bear his name. He would see after it like a father; it should never know that he was not its father. And, as soon as she would let him, he would come and see her—and it. Amabel, lying on her pillows, gazed and gazed: her eyes, in their shadowy hollows, were two dark wells of sacred wonder. Even Bertram felt something of the wonder of them. In his new gladness and relief, he was very kind to her. He came and kissed her. She seemed, once more, a person whom one could kiss. "Poor dear," he said, "you have had a lot to bear. You do look dreadfully ill. You must get well and strong, now, Amabel, and not worry any more, about anything. Everything is all right. We will call the child Augustine, if it's a boy, after mother's father you know, and Katherine, if it's a girl, after her mother: I feel, don't you, that we have no right to use their own names. But the further away ones seem right, now. Hugh is a trump, isn't he? And, I'm sure of it, Amabel, when time has passed a little, and you feel you can, he'll have you back; I do really believe it may be managed. This can all be explained. I'm saying that you are ill, a nervous breakdown, and are having a complete rest."
She heard him dimly, feeling these words irrelevant. She knew that Hugh must never have her back; that she could never go back to Hugh; that her life henceforth was dedicated. And yet Bertram was kind, she felt that, though dimly feeling, too, that her old image of him had grown tarnished. But her mind was far from Bertram and the mitigations he offered. She was fixed on that radiant figure, her husband, her knight, who had stooped to her in her abasement, her agony, and had lifted her from dust and darkness to the air where she could breathe,—and bless him.
"Tell him—I bless him,"—she said to Bertram. She could say nothing more. There were other memories of that day, too, but even more dim, more irrelevant. Bertram had brought papers for her to sign, saying: "I know you'll want to be very generous with Hugh now," and she had raised herself on her elbow to trace with the fingers that trembled the words he dictated to her.
There was sorrow, indeed, to look back on after that. Poor Bertram died only a month later, struck down by an infectious illness. He was not to see or supervise the rebuilding of his sister's shattered life, and the anguish in her sorrow was the thought of all the pain that she had brought to his last months of life: but this sorrow, after the phantoms, the nightmares, was like the weeping of tears after a dreadful weeping of blood. Her tears fell as she lay there, propped on her pillows—for she was very ill—and looking out over the Autumn fields; she wept for poor Bertram and all the pain; life was sad. But life was good and beautiful. After the flames, the suffocation, it had brought her here, and it showed her that radiant figure, that goodness and beauty embodied in human form. And she had more to help her, for he wrote to her, a few delicately chosen words, hardly touching on their own case, his and hers, but about her brother's death and of how he felt for her in her bereavement, and of what a friend dear Bertram had been to himself. "Some day, dear Amabel, you must let me come and see you" it ended; and "Your affectionate husband."
It was almost too wonderful to be borne. She had to close her eyes in thinking of it and to lie very still, holding the blessed letter in her hand and smiling faintly while she drew long soft breaths. He was always in her thoughts, her husband; more, far more, than her coming child. It was her husband who had made that coming a thing possible to look forward to with resignation; it was no longer the nightmare of desolate flights and hidings.
And even after the child was born, after she had seen its strange little face, even then, though it was all her life, all her future, it held the second place in her heart. It was her life, but it was from her husband that the gift of life had come to her.
She was a gentle, a solicitous, a devoted mother. She never looked at her baby without a sense of tears. Unfortunate one, was her thought, and the pulse of her life was the yearning to atone.
She must be strong and wise for her child and out of her knowledge of sin and weakness in herself must guide and guard it. But in her yearning, in her brooding thought, was none of the mother's rapturous folly and gladness. She never kissed her baby. Some dark association made the thought of kisses an unholy thing and when, forgetting, she leaned to it sometimes, thoughtless, and delighting in littleness and sweetness, the dark memory of guilt would rise between its lips and hers, so that she would grow pale and draw back.
When first she saw her husband, Augustine was over a year old. Sir Hugh had written and asked if he might not come down one day and spend an hour with her. "And let all the old fogies see that we are friends," he said, in his remembered playful vein.
It was in the long dark drawing-room that she had seen him for the first time since her flight into the wilderness.
He had come in, grave, yet with something blithe and unperturbed in his bearing that, as she stood waiting for what he might say to her, seemed the very nimbus of chivalry. He was splendid to look at, too, tall and strong with clear kind eyes and clear kind smile.
She could not speak, not even when he came and took her hand, and said: "Well Amabel." And then, seeing how white she was and how she trembled, he had bent his head and kissed her hand. And at that she had broken into tears; but they were tears of joy.
He stood beside her while she wept, her hands before her face, just touching her shoulder with a paternal hand, and she heard him saying: "Poor little Amabel: poor little girl."
She took her chair beside the table and for a long time she kept her face hidden: "Thank you; thank you;" was all that she could say.
"My dear, what for?—There, don't cry.—You have stopped crying? There, poor child. I've been awfully sorry for you."
He would not let her try to say how good he was, and this was a relief, for she knew that she could not put it into words and that, without words, he understood. He even laughed a little, with a graceful embarrassment, at her speechless gratitude. And presently, when they talked, she could put down her hand, could look round at him, while she answered that, yes, she was very comfortable at Charlock House; yes, no place could suit her more perfectly; yes, Mrs. Bray was very kind.
And he talked a little about business with her, explaining that Bertram's death had left him with a great deal of management on his hands; he must have her signature to papers, and all this was done with the easiest tact so that naturalness and simplicity should grow between them; so that, in finding pen and papers in her desk, in asking where she was to sign, in obeying the pointing of his finger here and there, she should recover something of her quiet, and be able to smile, even, a little answering smile, when he said that he should make a business woman of her. And—"Rather a shame that I should take your money like this, Amabel, but, with all Bertram's money, you are quite a bloated capitalist. I'm rather hard up, and you don't grudge it, I know."
She flushed all over at the idea, even said in jest:—"All that I have is yours."
"Ah, well, not all," said Sir Hugh. "You must remember—other claims." And he, too, flushed a little now in saying, gently, tentatively;—"May I see the little boy?"
"I will bring him," said Amabel.
How she remembered, all her life long, that meeting of her husband and her son. It was the late afternoon of a bright June day and the warm smell of flowers floated in at the open windows of the drawing-room. She did not let the nurse bring Augustine, she carried him down herself. He was a large, robust baby with thick, corn-coloured hair and a solemn, beautiful little face. Amabel came in with him and stood before her husband holding him and looking down. Confusion was in her mind, a mingling of pride and shame.
Sir Hugh and the baby eyed each other, with some intentness. And, as the silence grew a little long, Sir Hugh touched the child's cheek with his finger and said: "Nice little fellow: splendid little fellow. How old is he, Amabel? Isn't he very big?"
"A year and two months. Yes, he is very big."
"He looks like you, doesn't he?"
"Does he?" she said faintly.
"Just your colour," Sir Hugh assured her. "As grave as a little king, isn't he. How firmly he looks at me."
"He is grave, but he never cries; he is very cheerful, too, and well and strong."
"He looks it. He does you credit. Well, my little man, shall we be friends?" Sir Hugh held out his hand. Augustine continued to gaze at him, unmoving. "He won't shake hands," said Sir Hugh.
Amabel took the child's hand and placed it in her husband's; her own fingers shook. But Augustine drew back sharply, doubling his arm against his breast, though not wavering in his gaze at the stranger.
Sir Hugh laughed at the decisive rejection. "Friendship's on one side, till later," he said.
* * * * *
When her husband had gone Amabel went out into the sycamore wood. It was a pale, cool evening. The sun had set and the sky beyond the sycamores was golden. Above, in a sky of liquid green, the evening star shone softly.
A joy, sweet, cold, pure, like the evening, was in her heart. She stopped in the midst of the little wood among the trees, and stood still, closing her eyes.
Something old was coming back to her; something new was being given. The memory of her mother's eyes was in it, of the simple prayers taught her by her mother in childhood, and the few words, rare and simple, of the presence of God in the soul. But her girlish prayer, her girlish thought of God, had been like a thread-like, singing brook. What came to her now grew from the brook-like running of trust and innocence to a widening river, to a sea that filled her, over-flowed her, encompassed her, in whose power she was weak, through whose power her weakness was uplifted and made strong.
It was as if a dark curtain of fear and pain lifted from her soul, showing vastness, and deep upon deep of stars. Yet, though this that came to her was so vast, it made itself small and tender, too, like the flowers glimmering about her feet, the breeze fanning her hair and garments, the birds asleep in the branches above her. She held out her hands, for it seemed to fall like dew, and she smiled, her face uplifted.
* * * * *
She did not often see her husband in the quiet years that followed. She did not feel that she needed to see him. It was enough to know that he was there, good and beautiful.
She knew that she idealised him, that in ordinary aspects he was a happy, easy man-of-the-world; but that was not the essential; the essential in him was the pity, the tenderness, the comprehension that had responded to her great need. He was very unconscious of aims or ideals; but when the time for greatness came he showed it as naturally and simply as a flower expands to light. The thought of him henceforth was bound up with the thought of her religion; nothing of rapture or ecstasy was in it; it was quiet and grave, a revelation of holiness.
It was as if she had been kneeling to pray, alone, in a dark, devastated church, trembling, and fearing the darkness, not daring to approach the unseen altar; and that then her husband's hand had lighted all the high tapers one by one, so that the church was filled with radiance and the divine made manifest to her again.
Light and quietness were to go with her, but they were not to banish fear. They could only help her to live with fear and to find life beautiful in spite of it.
For if her husband stood for the joy of life, her child stood for its sorrow. He was the dark past and the unknown future. What she should find in him was unrevealed; and though she steadied her soul to the acceptance of whatever the future might bring of pain for her, the sense of trembling was with her always in the thought of what it might bring of pain for Augustine.
Lady Channice woke on the morning after her long retrospect bringing from her dreams a heavy heart.
She lay for some moments after the maid had drawn her curtains, looking out at the fields as she had so often looked, and wondering why her heart was heavy. Throb by throb, like a leaden shuttle, it seemed to weave together the old and new memories, so that she saw the pattern of yesterday and of today, Lady Elliston's coming, the pain that Augustine had given her in his strange questionings, the meeting of her husband and her son. And the ominous rhythm of the shuttle was like the footfall of the past creeping upon her.
It was more difficult than it had been for years, this morning, to quiet the throb, to stay her thoughts on strength. She could not pray, for her thoughts, like her heart, were leaden; the whispered words carried no message as they left her lips; she could not lift her thought to follow them. It was upon a lesser, a merely human strength, that she found herself dwelling. She was too weak, too troubled, to find the swiftness of soul that could soar with its appeal, the stillness of soul where the divine response could enter; and weakness turned to human help. The thought of her husband's coming was like a glow of firelight seen at evening on a misty moor. She could hasten towards it, quelling fear. There she would be safe. By his mere presence he would help and sustain her. He would be kind and tactful with Augustine, as he had always been; he would make a shield between her and Lady Elliston. She could see no sky above, and the misty moor loomed with uncertain shapes; but she could look before her and feel that she went towards security and brightness.
Augustine and his mother both studied during the day, the same studies, for Lady Channice, to a great extent, shared her son's scholarly pursuits. From his boyhood—a studious, grave, yet violent little boy he had been, his fits of passionate outbreak quelled, as he grew older, by the mere example of her imperturbability beside him—she had thus shared everything. She had made herself his tutor as well as his guardian angel. She was more tutor, more guardian angel, than mother.
Their mental comradeship was full of mutual respect. And though Augustine was not of the religious temperament, though his mother's instinct told her that in her lighted church he would be a respectful looker-on rather than a fellow-worshipper, though they never spoke of religion, just as they seldom kissed, Augustine's growing absorption in metaphysics tinged their friendship with a religious gravity and comprehension.
On three mornings in the week Lady Channice had a class for the older village girls; she sewed, read and talked with them, and was fond of them all. These girls, their placing in life, their marriages and babies, were her most real interest in the outer world. During the rest of the day she gardened, and read whatever books Augustine might be reading. It was the mother and son's habit thus to work apart and to discuss work in the evenings.
Today, when her girls were gone, she found herself very lonely. Augustine was out riding and in her room she tried to occupy herself, fearing her own thoughts. It was past twelve when she heard the sound of his horse's hoofs on the gravel before the door and, throwing a scarf over her hair, she ran down to meet him.
The hall door at Charlock House, under a heavy portico, looked out upon a circular gravel drive bordered by shrubberies and enclosed by high walls; beyond the walls and gates was the high-road. An interval of sunlight had broken into the chill Autumn day: Augustine had ridden bareheaded and his gold hair shone as the sun fell upon it. He looked, in his stately grace, like an equestrian youth on a Greek frieze. And, as was usual with his mother, her appreciation of Augustine's nobility and fineness passed at once into a pang: so beautiful; so noble; and so shadowed. She stood, her black scarf about her face and shoulders, and smiled at him while he threw the reins to the old groom and dismounted.
"Nice to find you waiting for me," he said. "I'm late this morning. Too late for any work before lunch. Don't you want a little walk? You look pale."
"I should like it very much. I may miss my afternoon walk—your father may have business to talk over."
They went through the broad stone hall-way that traversed the house and stepped out on the gravel walk at the back. This path, running below the drawing-room and dining-room windows, led down on one side to the woods, on the other to Lady Channice's garden, and was a favourite place of theirs for quiet saunterings. Today the sunlight fell mildly on it. A rift of pale blue showed in the still grey sky.
"I met Marjory," said Augustine, "and we had a gallop over Pangley Common. She rides well, that child. We jumped the hedge and ditch at the foot of the common, you know—the high hedge—for practice. She goes over like a bird."
Amabel's mind was dwelling on the thought of shadowed brightness and Marjory, fresh, young, deeply rooted in respectability, seemed suddenly more significant than she had ever been before. In no way Augustine's equal, of course, except in that impersonal, yet so important matter of roots; Amabel had known a little irritation over Mrs. Grey's open manoeuvreings; but on this morning of rudderless tossing, Marjory appeared in a new aspect. How sound; how safe. It was of Augustine's insecurity rather than of Augustine himself that she was thinking as she said: "She is such a nice girl."
"Yes, she is," said Augustine.
"What did you talk about?"
"Oh, the things we saw; birds and trees and clouds.—I pour information upon her."
"She likes that, one can see it."
"Yes, she is so nice and guileless that she doesn't resent my pedantry. I love giving information, you know," Augustine smiled. He looked about him as he spoke, at birds and trees and clouds, happy, humorous, clasping his riding crop behind his back so that his mother heard it make a pleasant little click against his gaiter as he walked.
"It's delightful for both of you, such a comradeship."
"Yes; a comradeship after a fashion; Marjory is just like a nice little boy."
"Ah, well, she is growing up; she is seventeen, you know. She is more than a little boy."
"Not much; she never will be much more."
"She will make a very nice woman."
Augustine continued to smile, partly at the thought of Marjory, and partly at another thought. "You mustn't make plans, for me and Marjory, like Mrs. Grey," he said presently. "It's mothers like Mrs. Grey who spoil comradeships. You know, I'll never marry Marjory. She is a nice little boy, and we are friends; but she doesn't interest me."
"She may grow more interesting: she is so young. I don't make plans, dear,—yet I think that it might be a happy thing for you."
"She'll never interest me," said Augustine.
"Must you have a very interesting wife?"
"Of course I must:—she must be as interesting as you are!" he turned his head to smile at her.
"You are not exacting, dear!"
"Yes, I am, though. She must be as interesting as you—and as good; else why should I leave you and go and live with someone else.—Though for that matter, I shouldn't leave you. You'd have to live with us, you know, if I ever married."
"Ah, my dear boy," Lady Channice murmured. She managed a smile presently and added: "You might fall in love with someone not so interesting. You can't be sure of your feelings and your mind going together."
"My feelings will have to submit themselves to my mind. I don't know about 'falling'; I rather dislike the expression: one might 'fall' in love with lots of people one would never dream of marrying. It would have to be real love. I'd have to love a woman very deeply before I wanted her to share my life, to be a part of me; to be the mother of my children." He spoke with his cheerful gravity.
"You have an old head on very young shoulders, Augustine."
"I really believe I have!" he accepted her somewhat sadly humorous statement; "and that's why I don't believe I'll ever make a mistake. I'd rather never marry than make a mistake. I know I sound priggish; but I've thought a good deal about it: I've had to." He paused for a moment, and then, in the tone of quiet, unconfused confidence that always filled her with a sense of mingled pride and humility, he added:—"I have strong passions, and I've already seen what happens to people who allow feeling to govern them."
Amabel was suddenly afraid. "I know that you would always be—good Augustine; I can trust you for that." She spoke faintly.
They had now walked down to the little garden with its box borders and were wandering vaguely among the late roses. She paused to look at the roses, stooping to breathe in the fragrance of a tall white cluster: it was an instinctive impulse of hiding: she hoped in another moment to find an escape in some casual gardening remark. But Augustine, unsuspecting, was interested in their theme.
"Good? I don't know," he said. "I don't think it's goodness, exactly. It's that I so loathe the other thing, so loathe the animal I know in myself, so loathe the idea of life at the mercy of emotion."
She had to leave the roses and walk on again beside him, steeling herself to bear whatever might be coming. And, feeling that unconscious accusation loomed, she tried, as unconsciously, to mollify and evade it.
"It isn't always the animal, exactly, is it?—or emotion only? It is romance and blind love for a person that leads people astray."
"Isn't that the animal?" Augustine inquired. "I don't think the animal base, you know, or shameful, if he is properly harnessed and kept in his place. It's only when I see him dominating that I hate and fear him so. And," he went on after a little pause of reflection, "I especially hate him in that form;—romance and blind love: because what is that, really, but the animal at its craftiest and most dangerous? what is romance—I mean romance of the kind that jeopardizes 'goodness'—what is it but the most subtle self-deception? You don't love the person in the true sense of love; you don't want their good; you don't want to see them put in the right relation to their life as a whole:—what you want is sensation through them; what you want is yourself in them, and their absorption in you. I don't think that wicked, you know—I'm not a monk or even a puritan—if it's the mere result of the right sort of love, a happy glamour that accompanies, the right sort; it's in its place, then, and can endanger nothing. But people are so extraordinarily blind about love; they don't seem able to distinguish between the real and the false. People usually, though they don't know it, mean only desire when they talk of love."
There was another pause in which she wondered that he did not hear the heavy throbbing of her heart. But now there was no retreat; she must go on; she must understand her son. "Desire must enter in," she said.
"In its place, yes; it's all a question of that;" Augustine replied, smiling a little at her, aware of the dogmatic flavour of his own utterances, the humorous aspect of their announcement, to her, by him;—"You love a woman enough and respect her enough to wish her to be the mother of your children—assuming, of course, that you consider yourself worthy to carry on the race; and to think of a woman in such a way is to feel a rightful emotion and a rightful desire; anything else makes emotion the end instead of the result and is corrupting, I'm sure of it."
"You have thought it all out, haven't you"; Lady Channice steadied her voice to say. There was panic rising in her, and a strange anger made part of it.
"I've had to, as I said," he replied. "I'm anything but self-controlled by nature; already," and Augustine looked calmly at his mother, "I'd have let myself go and been very dissolute unless I'd had this ideal of my own honour to help me. I'm of anything but a saintly disposition."
"My dear Augustine!" His mother had coloured faintly. Absurd as it was, when the reality of her own life was there mocking her, the bald words were strange to her.
"Do I shock you?" he asked. "You know I always feel that you are a saint, who can hear and understand everything."
She blushed deeply, painfully, now. "No, you don't shock me;—I am only a little startled."
"To hear that I'm sensual? The whole human race is far too sensual in my opinion. They think a great deal too much about their sexual appetites;—only they don't think about them in those terms unfortunately; they think about them veiled and wreathed; that's why we are sunk in such a bog of sentimentality and sin."
Lady Channice was silent for a long time. They had left the garden, and walked along the little path near the sunken wall at the foot of the lawn, and, skirting the wood of sycamores, had come back to the broad gravel terrace. A turmoil was in her mind; a longing to know and see; a terror of what he would show her.
"Do you call it sin, that blinded love? Do you think that the famous lovers of romance were sinners?" she asked at last; "Tristan and Iseult?—Abelard and Heloise?—Paolo and Francesca?"
"Of course they were sinners," said Augustine cheerfully. "What did they want?—a present joy: purely and simply that: they sacrificed everything to it—their own and other people's futures: what's that but sin? There is so much mawkish rubbish talked and written about such persons. They were pathetic, of course, most sinners are; that particular sin, of course, may be so associated and bound up with beautiful things;—fidelity, and real love may make such a part of it, that people get confused about it."
"Fidelity and real love?" Lady Channice repeated: "you think that they atone—if they make part of an illicit passion?"
"I don't think that they atone; but they may redeem it, mayn't they? Why do you ask me?" Augustine smiled;—"You know far more about these things than I do."
She could not look at him. His words in their beautiful unconsciousness appalled her. Yet she had to go on, to profit by her own trance-like strength. She was walking on the verge of a precipice but she knew that with steady footsteps she could go towards her appointed place. She must see just where Augustine put her, just how he judged her.
"You seem to know more than I do, Augustine," she said: "I've not thought it out as you have. And it seems to me that any great emotion is more of an end in itself than you would grant. But if the illicit passion thinks itself real and thinks itself enduring, and proves neither, what of it then? What do you think of lovers to whom that happens? It so often happens, you know."
Augustine had his cheerful answer ready. "Then they are stupid as well as sinful. Of course it is sinful to be stupid. We've learned that from Plato and Hegel, haven't we?"
The parlour-maid came out to announce lunch. Lady Channice was spared an answer. She went to her room feeling shattered, as if great stones had been hurled upon her.
Yes, she thought, gazing at herself in the mirror, while she untied her scarf and smoothed her hair, yes, she had never yet, with all her agonies of penitence, seen so clearly what she had been: a sinner: a stupid sinner. Augustine's rigorous young theories might set too inhuman an ideal, but that aspect of them stood out clear: he had put, in bald, ugly words, what, in essence, her love for Paul Quentin had been: he had stripped all the veils and wreaths away. It had been self; self, blind in desire, cruel when blindness left it: there had been no real love and no fidelity to redeem the baseness. A stupid sinner; that, her son had told her, was what she had been. The horror of it smote back upon her from her widened, mirrored eyes, and she sat for a moment thinking that she must faint.
Then she remembered that Augustine was waiting for her downstairs and that in little more than an hour her husband would be with her. And suddenly the agony lightened. A giddiness of relief came over her. He was kind: he did not judge her: he knew all, yet he respected her. Augustine was like the bleak, stony moor; she must shut her eyes and stumble on towards the firelight. And as she thought of that nearing brightness, of her husband's eyes, that never judged, never grew hard or fierce or remote from human tolerance, a strange repulsion from her son rose in her. Cold, fierce, righteous boy; cold, heartless theories that one throb of human emotion would rightly shatter;—the thought was almost like an echo of Paul Quentin speaking in her heart to comfort her. She sprang up: that was indeed the last turn of horror. If she was not to faint she must not think. Action alone could dispel the whirling mist where she did not know herself.
She went down to the dining-room. Augustine stood looking out of the window. "Do come and see this delightful swallow," he said: "he's skimming over and over the lawn."
She felt that she could not look at the swallow. She could only walk to her chair and sink down on it. Augustine repelled her with his cheerfulness, his trivial satisfactions. How could he not know that she was in torment and that he had plunged her there. This involuntary injustice to him was, she saw again, veritably crazed.
She poured herself out water and said in a voice that surprised herself:—"Very delightful, I am sure; but come and have your lunch. I am hungry."
"And how pale you are," said Augustine, going to his place. "We stayed out too long. You got chilled." He looked at her with the solicitude that was like a brother's—or a doctor's. That jarred upon her racked nerves, too.
"Yes; I am cold," she said.
She took food upon her plate and pretended to eat. Augustine, she guessed, must already feel the change in her. He must see that she only pretended. But he said nothing more. His tact was a further turn to the knot of her sudden misery.
* * * * *
Augustine was with her in the drawing-room when she heard the wheels of the station-fly grinding on the gravel drive; they sounded very faintly in the drawing-room, but, from years of listening, her hearing had grown very acute.
She could never meet her husband without an emotion that betrayed itself in pallor and trembling and today the emotion was so marked that Augustine's presence was at once a safeguard and an anxiety; before Augustine she could be sure of not breaking down, not bursting into tears of mingled gladness and wretchedness, but though he would keep her from betraying too much to Sir Hugh, would she not betray too much to him? He was reading a review and laid it down as the door opened: she could only hope that he noticed nothing.
Sir Hugh came in quickly. At fifty-four he was still a very handsome man of a chivalrous and soldierly bearing. He had long limbs, broad shoulders and a not yet expanded waist. His nose and chin were clearly and strongly cut, his eyes brightly blue; his moustache ran to decisive little points twisted up from the lip and was as decorative as an epaulette upon a martial shoulder. Pleasantness radiated from him, and though, with years, this pleasantness was significant rather of his general attitude than of his individual interest, though his movements had become a little indolent and his features a little heavy, these changes, to affectionate eyes, were merely towards a more pronounced geniality and contentedness.
Today, however, geniality and contentment were less apparent. He looked slightly nipped and hardened, and, seeming pleased to find a fire, he stood before it, after he had shaken hands with his wife and with Augustine, and said that it had been awfully cold in the train.
"We will have tea at half past four instead of five today, then," said Amabel.
But no, he replied, he couldn't stop for tea: he must catch the four-four back to town: he had a dinner and should only just make it.
His eye wandered a little vaguely about the room, but he brought it back to Amabel to say with a smile that the fire made up for the loss of tea. There was then a little silence during which it might have been inferred that Sir Hugh expected Augustine to leave the room. Amabel, too, expected it; but Augustine had taken up his review and was reading again. She felt her fear of him, her anger against him, grow.
Very pleasantly, Sir Hugh at last suggested that he had a little business to talk over. "I think I'll ask Augustine to let us have a half hour's talk."
"Oh, I'll not interfere with business," said Augustine, not lifting his eyes.
The silence, now, was more than uncomfortable; to Amabel it was suffocating. She could guess too well that some latent enmity was expressed in Augustine's assumed unconsciousness. That Sir Hugh was surprised, displeased, was evident; but, when he spoke again, after a little pause, it was still pleasantly:—"Not with business, but with talk you will interfere. I'm afraid I must ask you.—I don't often have a chance to talk with your mother.—I'll see you later, eh?"
Augustine made no reply. He rose and walked out of the room.
Sir Hugh still stood before the fire, lifting first the sole of one boot and then the other to the blaze. "Hasn't always quite nice manners, has he, the boy"; he observed. "I didn't want to have to send him out, you know."
"He didn't realize that you wanted to talk to me alone." Amabel felt herself offering the excuse from a heart turned to stone.
"Didn't he, do you think? Perhaps not. We always do talk alone, you know. He's just a trifle tactless, shows a bit of temper sometimes. I've noticed it. I hope he doesn't bother you with it."
"No. I never saw him like that, before," said Amabel, looking down as she sat in her chair.
"Well, that's all that matters," said Sir Hugh, as if satisfied.
His boots were quite hot now and he went to the writing-desk drawing a case of papers from his breast-pocket.
"Here are some of your securities, Amabel," he said: "I want a few more signatures. Things haven't been going very well with me lately. I'd be awfully obliged if you'd help me out."
"Oh—gladly—" she murmured. She rose and came to the desk. She hardly saw the papers through a blur of miserable tears while she wrote her name here and there. She was shut out in the mist and dark; he wasn't thinking of her at all; he was chill, preoccupied; something was displeasing him; decisively, almost sharply, he told her where to write. "You mustn't be worried, you know," he observed as he pointed out the last place; "I'm arranging here, you see, to pass Charlock House over to you for good. That is a little return for all you've done. It's not a valueless property. And then Bertram tied up a good sum for the child, you know."
His speaking of "the child," made her heart stop beating, it brought the past so near.—And was Charlock House to be her very own? "Oh," she murmured, "that is too good of you.—You mustn't do that.—Apart from Augustine's share, all that I have is yours; I want no return."
"Ah, but I want you to have it"; said Sir Hugh; "it will ease my conscience a little. And you really do care for the grim old place, don't you."
"I love it."
"Well, sign here, and here, and it's yours. There. Now you are mistress in your own home. You don't know how good you've been to me, Amabel."
The voice was the old, kind voice, touched even, it seemed, with an unwonted feeling, and, suddenly, the tears ran down her cheeks as, looking at the papers that gave her her home, she said, faltering:—"You are not displeased with me?—Nothing is the matter?"
He looked at her, startled, a little confused. "Why my dear girl,—displeased with you?—How could I be?—No. It's only these confounded affairs of mine that are in a bit of a mess just now."
"And can't I be of even more help—without any returns? I can be so economical for myself, here. I need almost nothing in my quiet life."
Sir Hugh flushed. "Oh, you've not much more to give, my dear. I've taken you at your word."
"Take me completely at my word. Take everything."
"You dear little saint," he said. He patted her shoulder. The door was wide; the fire shone upon her. She felt herself falling on her knees before it, with happy tears. He, who knew all, could say that to her, with sincerity. The day of lowering fear and bewilderment opened to sudden joy. His hand was on her shoulder; she lifted it and kissed it.
"Oh! Don't!"—said Sir Hugh. He drew his hand sharply away. There was confusion, irritation, in his little laugh.
Amabel's tears stood on scarlet cheeks. Did he not understand?—Did he think?—And was he right in thinking?—Shame flooded her. What girlish impulse had mingled incredibly with her gratitude, her devotion?
Sir Hugh had turned away, and as she sat there, amazed with her sudden suspicion, the door opened and Augustine came in saying:—"Here is Lady Elliston, Mother."