AUTHOR OF "THE DIVINE FIRE," ETC.
"Made subject to vanity"
HENRY HOLT AND COMPANY
Everybody knew that Miss Audrey Craven was the original of "Laura," the heroine of Langley Wyndham's masterpiece. She first attracted the attention of that student of human nature at Oxford, at a dinner given by her guardian, the Dean of St. Benedict's, ostensibly in honour of the new Master of Lazarus, in reality for his ward's entertainment and instruction in the bewildering art of life.
It was thunder-weather. Out of doors, a hot and sleepy air hung over the city; indoors, the forecast was no less heavy and depressing. Not so, however, to Miss Audrey Craven. The party was large and mixed; and to the fresh, untutored mind of a tyro, this in itself was promising. The Dean pursued the ruinous policy of being all things to all men; and to-night, together with nonentities and Oxonians of European renown, there was a sprinkling of celebrities from the outside world. Among these were Mr. Langley Wyndham, the eminent novelist, and his friend Mr. Percival Knowles, the critic who had helped him to his eminence. Having collected these discordant elements around him, the Dean withdrew from the unequal contest, and hovered, smiling ineffectually, on the outskirts of his little chaos. Perhaps he tried to find comfort in a conscience satisfied for a party spoiled. But for Audrey this wild confusion was rich in possibility. However baffling to those officially responsible, it offered a wider field for individual enterprise; and if she did not possess that fine flow of animal spirits which sometimes supports lesser minds under such circumstances, she had other qualities which stood her in good stead. Conspicuous amongst these was an indomitable moral courage. She prepared to hurl herself into the breach.
Wyndham was standing a little apart from the herd, leaning against the wall, as if overcome by an atmosphere too oppressive for endurance, when he saw his friend approaching him. Knowles was looking about him with eyes alert, and that furtive but uncontrollable smile which made ladies say, "Yes; but Mr. Knowles is so dreadfully cynical, you know."
"By the way, Wyndham—I don't want to startle you, but there is a lady here who particularly wants me to introduce you to her."
Wyndham turned on him a look terrible in its dignified reproach.
"Anything but that, my dear fellow. No more introductions to-night, please. I've just suffered torture from an unspeakable youth from Aberdeen, who expected me to rejoice with him because Oxford is at last recognising the 'exeestence of a metapheesical principle in the wur-r-ld and mon——'"
"I admit that the party is dull, from a mere worldling's point of view. But it's a glorious field for the student of human nature. And here's an opportunity for exceptional research—something quite off the beaten track. The admirer of you and all your works is the lovely Miss Craven, and I assure you she's creating a sensation at the other end of the room."
"Which is she?"
"There, the girl with the copper-coloured hair, talking to Broadbent."
"Ah, that one. No, thanks. I know what you're going to tell me—she writes."
"She doesn't, but she's pretty enough to do that or anything else she chooses. Scandal says she's looking for a religion. She must be a simple soul if she thinks she can pick up the article in Oxford."
"Oh, I don't know. Religions are cheap everywhere nowadays, the supply being so remarkably in excess of the demand, and Miss Craven's soul may be immortal (we'll give it the benefit of the doubt), but its simplicity is un grand peut-etre. What's the matter?"
"It makes me ill to see the way these fellows go about leading captive silly women. Do look at Broadbent cramming his spiritual pabulum into that girl's mouth. Moral platitudes—all the old crusts he can lay his hands on, soaked in the milk-and-water of sentiment."
"And a little new wine—with the alcohol extracted by the latest process; no possible risk of injury to the bottles. Don't be uneasy; I've been watching her all evening, ever since I found her in a corner with the unspeakable youth, talking transcendentalism. A woman who can look you in the face and ask you if you have ever doubted your own existence, and if it isn't a very weird and unaccountable sensation, would be capable of anything. Five minutes afterwards she was complimenting Flaxman Reed on the splendid logic of the Roman Faith, and now I've no doubt she's contributing valuable material to Broadbent's great work on the Fourth Gospel."
He was wrong. At that moment the earnest seeker after truth was gazing abstractedly in his direction, and had left the Canon lecturing to empty benches, balancing himself on his toes, while he defined his theological position with convincing emphasis of finger and thumb. What he said is neither here nor there. Then Wyndham repented of his rudeness. He waited till Knowles was looking another way, and made for the Dean in a bee-line, approaching him from the rear to find him introducing a late arrival to his niece. He heard the name Mr. Jackson, and noted the faint shade of annoyance on the girl's face, as the interloper sat down beside her with a smile of dreamy content. It was enough to quench Wyndham's languid ardour. He was not going to take any more trouble to get an introduction to Miss Audrey Craven.
He saw her once more that evening as he turned to take leave of his host. She was still sitting beside Mr. Jackson, and Wyndham watched them furtively. Mr. Jackson was a heavy, flaxen-haired young man, with a large eye-glass and no profile to speak of. To judge by Miss Craven's expression, his conversation was not very interesting, though he was evidently exerting himself to give it a humorous turn. Wyndham smiled in spite of himself.
"Hard lines, wasn't it?" said Knowles at his elbow. "Brilliant idea of the Dean's, though—introduce the biggest bore in the county to the prettiest girl in the room."
The unconscious Mr. Jackson burst into laughter, and Audrey raised her eyebrows; she looked from Mr. Jackson to Wyndham, and from Wyndham to Mr. Jackson, and laughed a low musical laugh, without any humour in it, which echoed unmusically in the memory. Wyndham turned abruptly away, and Audrey looked after him as he turned. Her face was that of one who sees her last hope disappearing. Poor Audrey! Who would not have pitied her? After hovering all evening on the verge of an introduction to his Eminence, it was hard to bear the irony of this decline, unsustained by any sense of its comedy. He had avoided her in the most marked manner; but all the same, she wondered whether he was thinking about her, and if so, what he was thinking.
What he thought that night, and the next, and the next after that, was something like this: "My dear lady, you think yourself remarkably clever. But really there is nothing striking about you except the colour of your hair. Biggest bore in the county—prettiest girl in the room? If it weren't for your prettiness—well, as yet that may have saved you from being a bore." After that he laughed whenever he caught himself trying to piece together the image which his memory persistently presented to him in fragments: now an oval face tinged with a childlike bloom, now grey eyes ringed with black, under dark eyebrows and lashes; or a little Roman nose with a sensitive tip, or a mouth that to the best of his recollection curled up at the corners, making a perpetual dimple in each cheek. They were frivolous details, but for weeks he carried them about with him along with his more valuable property.
Scandal was mistaken. Miss Audrey Craven was not in search of a religion, but she had passed all her life looking for a revelation. She had no idea of the precise form it was to take, but had never wavered in her belief that it was there, waiting for her, as it were, round a dark corner. Hitherto the ideal had shown a provoking reticence; the perfectly unique sensation had failed to turn up at the critical moment. Audrey had reached the ripe age of ten before the death of her father and mother, and this event could not be expected to provide her with a wholly new emotion. She had been familiarised with sorrow through fine gradations of funereal tragedy, having witnessed the passing of her canary, her dormouse, and her rabbit. The end of these engaging creatures had been peculiarly distressing, hastened as it was by starvation, under most insanitary conditions.
The age of ten is the age of disenchantment—for those of us who can take a hint. For Audrey disenchantment never wholly came. She went on making the same extravagant demands, without a suspicion of the limited resources of life. It was the way of the Cravens. Up to the last her father never lost his blind confidence in a world which had provided him with a great deal of irregular amusement. But the late Mr. Craven could be wise for others, though not for himself, and he had taken a singular precaution with regard to his daughter. Not counting the wife whom he had too soon ceased to care for, he had a low opinion of all women, and he distrusted Audrey's temperament, judging it probably by his own and that of his more intimate acquaintance. By a special clause in his will, she had to wait for her majority four years longer than the term by law appointed. Further, until she reached her majority she was to spend six months of the year at Oxford, near her guardian, for the forming and informing of her mind—always supposing that she had a mind to form. And now, at the age of five-and-twenty, being the mistress of her own person, her own income, and her own house in Chelsea, she was still looking out for a revelation.
Her cousin, Mr. Vincent Hardy, believed that he had been providentially invented to supply it. But in the nature of things a cousin whom you have known familiarly from childhood cannot strike you as a revelation. He is really little better than a more or less animated platitude.
Vincent Hardy would have been unaffectedly surprised if you had told him so. To himself he seemed the very incarnation of distinguished paradox. This simply meant that he was one of those who innocently imagine that they can defy the minor conventions with a rarer grace than other men.
Certainly his was not exactly the sort of figure that convention expects to find in its drawing-rooms at nine o'clock in the evening. It was in Audrey's house in Chelsea, the little brown house with discreet white storm-shutters, that stands back from the Embankment, screened by the narrow strip of railed plantation known as Chelsea Gardens. Here or hereabouts Hardy was to be met with at any hour of the day; and late one July evening he had settled himself, as usual, near a certain "cosy corner" in the big drawing-room. His face, and especially his nose, was bronzed with recent exercise in sun and wind, his hair was limp with the steam of his own speed, and on his forehead his hat had left its mark in a deep red cincture. His loose shooting jacket, worn open, displayed a flannel shirt, white, but not too white. This much of Hardy was raised and supported on his elbow; the rest of him, encased in knickerbockers, stockings, and exceedingly muddy boots, sprawled with a naive abandonment at the feet of the owner of the drawing-room. Lying in this easy attitude, he delivered himself of the following address—
"Life in London is a life for lunatics. And life in England generally is a glorious life for clergymen and counter-hoppers, but it's not the life for a man. It was all very well in the last century, you know, when Englishmen were men first, and lunatics, if they chose, or clergymen or counter-hoppers, afterwards. Ah! if that wasn't exactly our golden age, it was the age of our maturity, of our manhood. If you doubt it, read the literature of the eighteenth century. Take Fielding—no, don't take Fielding. Anyhow, since then we have added nothing to the fabric of life. To pile it on above, we've simply been digging away like mad from below, and at last our top-heavy civilisation is nodding to its fall; and its fall will sweep us all back into barbarism again. Then, when we are forced back into natural conditions, the new race will be born. No more of your big-headed, spindle-shanked manikins: we shall have a chance then of seeing a man—that is, a perfect animal. You may turn up your nose, my superfine lady: let me tell you that this glorious animalism means sanity, and sanity means strength, and strength means virtue. Vis—vir—virtus, ma'am."
Hardy sat up and caressed the calves of his legs with thoughtful emotion, as if he recognised them as the sources of the moral law within him. His cousin had not followed his precipitate logic. With woman's well-known aversion from the abstract, she was concentrating her attention on the concrete case, the glorious animal before her. Now it would be very wrong to suppose that Hardy was in the least tainted with socialism, anarchism, or any such pestilent heresies, or that he had read "Emile" and "Walden." He had never heard of either of these works, and had no desire whatever for the restoration of society on a primitive basis of animalism, modified by light literature, clothing, and the moral law. For all modern theories he had a withering contempt, his own simple creed being that in the beginning God made man a Tory squire. His quarrel with the social order was a purely private and particular one. In our modern mythology, Custom, Circumstance, and Heredity are the three Fates that weave the web of human life. Hardy did not wholly sympathise with this belief. He had too profound a respect for his own pedigree to lay his sins at his great-grandfather's door. As the nephew of a Tory squire, he was but two degrees removed from original righteousness. In spite of this consideration, he was wont to describe himself with engaging candour as a "bad hat." In doing so he recognised that he was a dependent part of a vast and complicated system. If he, Vincent Hardy, was a bad hat, who was to blame for it? Obviously, civilisation for providing him with temptation, and society for supplying encouragement. As a consequence he owed both civilisation and society a grudge.
"Therefore I say that a return to barbarism will be our salvation. You and I mayn't live to see the day, but——"
Here the impassioned orator, who had been making charges at his boots with the point of his walking-stick, succeeded in detaching a large cake of mud, which he immediately ground to powder on the carpet. Civilisation personified in Audrey Craven gazed at him in polite reproach.
"My new carpet will certainly not live to see it. It may be part of the detestable social order, but it is not responsible for it, any more than I am."
"Never mind, Audrey. It's honest Hertfordshire mud—clean from the country as God made it, if I hadn't had to cross your filthy London in order to get here."
Audrey smiled, though she knew that brown streaks of the honest Hertfordshire mud marked the hero's passage from the doorway to her feet. She was naturally long-suffering, and seldom repulsed any one, save a few of the more impertinent of her own sex. She lay back in her cosy corner, outwardly contemplating the unusual length of muscular humanity extended before her, inwardly admiring her own smile, a smile of indulgent lips and arch eyebrows, in which the eyes preserved a languid neutrality.
Being thus pleasantly preoccupied, she may be supposed ignorant of her cousin's broad gaze of unreflecting admiration, and totally unprepared for his rapid change of theme.
"Audrey," he began, with alarming suddenness, "some people would lead up to the subject cautiously. That would only waste time, and time's everything now. Is Miss Craven at home?"
"Miss Craven is always at home when I am. Would you like to see her?"
"See her? Good heavens, no! Do you know positively where she is secreting herself, or must I lock the door?"
"That is unnecessary. She will not come in—she never does."
A suspicious look darted from the corners of Hardy's eyes.
"Except when I ask her," added Audrey, sweetly.
"Well, then, if you can ensure me against the sort of interruption that annoyed me before, we will return to the question we were discussing when——"
"Please don't go over any old ground. That would bore me."
"It would bore me. I will begin where we left off. The problem, if you remember, was this—to put it baldly—do you care for me, or do you not?"
"Didn't we get any farther than that?"
"No, we didn't."
"Do I—or—do I not? Really I cannot tell you, Vincent, for I don't know myself."
"Nonsense! there's no logical dilemma. You can't go on for ever treating it as an open question."
"Well—you draw such absurdly hard-and-fast lines."
"Audrey, do you honestly suppose that I've walked here thirty miles, parboiled between sun and rain, in order to be made a fool of?" (in his excitement Hardy forgot that twenty miles was the precise distance, and that he had much better have taken the train). "How much longer are you going to keep up this fiendish cat-and-mouse sort of game?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that ten years is a devil of a time to keep a man waiting for his answer."
"Ten years?—ten days, you mean."
"Excuse me, I broached this subject for the first time ten years ago."
"Oh, I daresay, when we were both children."
"We are neither of us children now, Audrey."
"Speak for yourself. I was an infant in the eyes of the law till the other day."
"You are—let me see—five-and-twenty. If you have any mind at all, you must have made it up by this time."
"The case would be much easier if you were not such a mass of inconsistency yourself."
"I've been consistent enough in one respect. Do you remember the first time you stayed with us at Woodford, when you weren't much higher than that table, and how you and I set off together for Wanstead Woods?"
"Yes—before breakfast. I have never forgotten it."
"Nor I. You did rile me that day, Audrey. You waited till we came within a stone's-throw of the woods, and then you sat down in a turnip field and cried because you couldn't go any farther."
"After running at your heels for two miles, like a dog."
"Yes—and, with the irresponsibility of the inferior animal, eating up the whole of the cake I provided for us both."
"It was perfectly fair; you dragged me out against my will."
"So you argued at the time, but I couldn't follow your reasoning. Perhaps you have forgotten how I carried you on my back to Woodford, and then gave the milkman sixpence to drive us the rest of the way home. And you were such a contemptible little snob that you cried again because you had to sit next the milkman."
"I remember perfectly. You only carried me as far as Red Bridge, in a position the most comfortable for yourself and the most undignified for me. You borrowed that sixpence from me and never paid me again; and we were both punished with dry bread for breakfast, because we were seen in the milk-cart."
"The abominable injustice of my parents was of a piece with the whole system I complain of. You will observe that we were punished, not for disobedience, but for riding in a milk-cart, and not so much for being in it as for being seen in it."
"Exactly, otherwise the reminiscence would be slightly irrelevant."
"Not at all. It illustrates my thorough-going consistency. I loved you then, in spite of your detestable conduct in the matter of that cake, and I have loved you ever since in spite of your other faults."
"I suppose you would prefer some hypocrite who told you that you had none?"
"On the contrary, I enjoy being told of my faults."
This was true. If it came to the point, Audrey would boldly offer her own character for dissection rather than suffer conversation to be diverted to a less interesting topic. Hardy had rather neglected these opportunities for psychological study, and herein lay the secret of his failure. He continued, adopting a more practical line of argument suggested by the episode of the sixpence—
"It's not as if you were a millionaire and I a grovelling pauper. I shall have Lavernac and two thousand a-year when my uncle, Sir Theophilus Parker, dies." Hardy rolled out the title with a certain proprietary unction; his cousin had no share in this enviable relationship. "I give the old bird five years at the very worst, and it's a moral impossibility that he should leave me in the lurch. But I don't count on that. My own property has kept me idle all my life; but I've sold it at last, and, as I said just now, I am going out to Canada to farm."
Audrey blushed, and punished her blush with a frown. If she had been playing the amusing game that Hardy suggested, it was one thing to give the mouse a little run in order to renew the pleasures of the chase, another thing to let him escape altogether from her paws. Hardy saw his advantage and followed it up.
"When I told you that I had done with civilisation, I suppose you thought it was a joke?"
"I did. Only I couldn't see the point."
"The point is this, that I'm going down to Liverpool to-morrow, and shall sail for Canada this day week. I can't stand it any longer. I can't breathe here. Town or country, it's all the same—the air chokes me, it's teeming with moral bacilli. You never thought I was so particular? No more did I——". He paused, knitting his brows. "I admit frankly that I'm a bad hat. This place has been my ruin, as it has of many a better man than me. Perhaps, if it hadn't been for you, Audrey—but I won't press that point; it wouldn't be generous, however just. Anyhow, whatever my past has been, my future lies in your hands. I would say your love was life or death to me, but that wouldn't be anywhere near the truth. It's not so much a question of death as a question of damnation."
Hardy was desperately in earnest, but not so much so as to be careless of rhetorical effect. In his desire to represent himself as a fallen angel he had done himself no little injustice, as well as grossly exaggerated the power of Audrey's regenerative influence.
She was evidently moved. She took no pains to restrain the trembling of her lips, more than was necessary to preserve their delicate outline. Hardy had paid homage to her as the superior being.
It marked an epoch in the history of his passion.
He rose to his feet and looked down on her as from a height. A fallen angel is not without his epic sublimity.
The lady hesitated. She pulled out the tremolo stop, and then spoke.
"You say that if it hadn't been for me—I don't quite understand you, but you are mistaken if you think I never cared for you—never cared, I mean to say, for your good." She also rose, with an air of having made a statement as final as it was clear and convincing. He laid his hand on her shoulder and looked steadily in her face. There was no evasion in her eyes, but her eyelids quivered.
"It's all right, Audrey; you never have denied that you love me, and you can't for the life of you deny it now."
She did not attempt to; for the entrance of the footman with coffee made denial indecent at the moment, if not impossible. That deus ex machina from below the stage retired, unconscious of the imminent catastrophe he had averted. But he had brought into the little drama a certain prosaic element. Coffee and romantic passion do not go hand in hand.
Then it seemed to Audrey that the welcome interval of commonplace lapsed into a dream, in which Hardy's voice went sounding on in interminable monologue.
"I shall hear the wind, Audrey, rushing over prairies infinite as the sea; I shall see the great wall of the Rockies rising sky-high. And England will seem like a little piece of patchwork, with a pattern of mole-hills for mountains, and brooks for rivers. And when I've set our Canadian farm going, I shall hunt big game. And when I've exterminated the last bison off the face of the boundless prairie, I shall devote myself to literature."
"Literature?" she echoed faintly. It was all so grotesquely strange that even this announcement brought only a dreamlike surprise.
"Yes, literature. Do you think literature is only produced by the miserable noodles who sit in their studies at home, till their muscles wither and their hearts get flabby? My book will be a man's book, with a man's blood and a man's brains in it. It will be a book that will make posterity sit up. And when you have enjoyed the fame of it a little, we'll go out again together. In Canada we shall find a new heaven and a new earth."
She sat silent and passive. The situation had a charm which she was powerless to break. It seemed as if the mere brute force through which Hardy had dominated her intellect hitherto, had become refined by some extraordinary process, and was exerting a moral influence over her. In order to assert herself against the intolerable fascination she rose hastily and crossed the room to where her piano stood open in the corner.
She played loud and long,—wild Polish music, alive with the beating pulses of love and frenzy and despair. It would have roused another man to sublime enthusiasm or delirious rapture.
It sent Hardy to sleep.
Stretched on the hearthrug, with slackened jaw, and great chest heaving with regular rise and fall, he slept like a tired dog. She played on, and as she played he dreamed that he stood with her in the midst of the burning prairie, they two on a little ring of charred black earth, an island in a roaring sea of fire. The ring grew smaller and smaller, till they could only find standing-room by clinging close together. As he turned to her she thrust him from her into the sea of fire, crying, "It's perfectly fair, Vincent, for you dragged me here against my will!"
He woke with a snort as the music suddenly ceased. It was midnight. He had to start from home early next morning, and if he delayed longer he would lose the last train out.
He parted from Audrey as only the traveller outward bound parts from his betrothed. In fact, as she remarked afterwards, "For the fuss he made about it he might have been going to the North Pole with his life in his hands. So like Vincent!" As for Hardy, he felt already the wind of the new heaven and the sweetness of the new earth.
Audrey was staring abstractedly into the looking-glass, when she heard the front-door shut with a violent bang, and the sound of his quick footsteps on the pavement below. She came to herself with a cold shiver.
What had she done? Surely she had not gone and engaged herself to Vincent? bound herself in the first year of her liberty to a man she had known all her life, and her own cousin too?
It was impossible; for, you see, it would have argued great weakness of mind and a total want of originality.
Whether Audrey did or did not understand herself, she was a mystery to all about her, and to none more than her father's cousin and her own chaperon, Miss Craven. This unfortunate lady, under stress of circumstances, had accepted the charge of Audrey after her parents' death, and had never ceased to watch her movements with bewildered interest and surprise. The most familiar phenomena are often the least understood, and Miss Craven's intelligence was daily baffled by the problem of Audrey. Daily she renewed her researches, with enthusiasm which would have done credit to a natural philosopher, but hitherto she had found no hypothesis to cover all the facts. The girl was either a rule for herself, or the exception that proved other people's rules; and Miss Craven was obliged to rest satisfied in the vague conclusion that she had a great deal of "character." Strange to say, that is how Audrey struck most of her acquaintance, though as yet no one had been known to venture on further definition. Miss Craven was repaid for her affectionate solicitude by an indifference none the less galling because evidently unstudied. Audrey rather liked her chaperon than otherwise. The "poor old thing," as she called her, never got in her way, never questioned her will, and made no claims whatsoever on her valuable time; besides relieving her of all those little duties that make us wonder whether life be worth living.
Under the present dispensation chaperons were a necessary evil; and Audrey was not one to fly heedlessly in the face of her Providence, Society.
All the same, Miss Craven had her drawbacks. If you, being young and vivacious, take a highly nervous old lady and keep her in a state of perpetual repression, shutting her out from all your little confidences, you will find that the curiosity so natural to her age will be sure to burst out, after such bottling, in alarming effervescence. As soon as Hardy's unmistakable footsteps were heard on the stairs, she had left the drawing-room on a hint from Audrey. In her room above she had heard the alternate booming and buzzing of their voices prolonged far into the night, but could make out no intelligible sounds. To ears tingling with prophetic apprehension the provocation was intense.
The old lady passed a restless night, and came down to breakfast the next morning quivering with suppressed excitement. Audrey's face did not inspire confidence; and it was not until she had touched lightly on the state of the weather, and other topics of general interest, that Miss Craven darted irrelevantly to her point.
"My dear, is there anything between you and your—er—cousin Mr. Hardy?"
The awful question hung in the air without a context, while Audrey went on making tea. This she did with a graceful and deliberate precision, completing the delicate operation before answering.
"Yes, there is a great deal between me and my cousin Mr. Hardy, which neither of us can get over."
There was a freezing finality in the manner of the reply, in spite of the smile which accompanied it; and even Miss Craven could not fail to understand. She bridled a little, wrapping herself closer in her soft shawl as in an impenetrable husk of reserve, and began nervously buttering toast. The whole thing was very odd; but then the ways of Audrey were inscrutable.
Audrey herself felt an unspeakable relief after that question and her own inspired answer. Last night she had possibly been ambiguous; to-day, at any rate, her words had a trenchant force which severed one of the thousand little threads that bound her to Hardy. After all, when it came to the point, there was an immense amount of decision in her character. And as the days went on, and Hardy with them, leaving league after league of the Atlantic behind him, the load at her heart grew lighter; and when at last the letter came which told her that he had crossed the Rocky Mountains, she felt with a little tremor of delight that she was a free woman once more. Her world was all before her, vaguely alluring, as it had been a month ago.
The letters which Hardy sent from time to time had no power to destroy this agreeable illusion; for of course letters were bound to come, and she answered them all with cousinly affection, as she would have answered them in any case. At last one came which roused her from her indifference, for it had a postscript:—
"By the way, there's a Miss Katherine Haviland living near you, at 12 Devon Street, Pimlico. She's a sort of little half-sister of mine, so I'd be glad if you'd go and look her up some day and be kind to her. There's a brother knocking about somewhere, but he doesn't count, he's only a baby. Ripping sport—shot a moose and two wapiti this morning."
Audrey read the letter with languid attention. She was not in the least interested to hear that he had taken up land and put it into the hands of an agent to farm. She was tired of the long highly-coloured descriptions of Canadian scenery and the tales of Vincent's adventures, and she had got into the way of skipping his vain repetitions of all the absurd things he had said to her on the night of his departure; but the postscript stirred strange feelings in her breast. His mother was married a second time, but to Audrey's certain knowledge Vincent had no little half-sisters; it followed that for some reason he had used a figure of speech. She was not in the least in love with him, but at the same time she felt all the dignity of her position as empress of his heart, and could bear no little half-sisters near the throne. She would certainly look Miss Haviland up. She would go and be kind to her that afternoon; and she put on her best clothes for the occasion.
A few minutes' walk brought her to No. 12 Devon Street, one of a row of gloomy little houses—"full of dreadful city clerks and dressmakers," she said to herself in a flight of imagination.
She lifted the knocker gingerly in her white gloved hand, and felt by no means reassured when she was shown in, and followed the servant up the narrow staircases to the attics. As she neared the top she heard a voice above her sounding in passionate remonstrance.
"Three baths in the one blessed dy, a-splashin' and a-sloogin' somethin' orful—'e didn't ought for to do it, m'm, not if it was ever so!"
Here the voice was cut short by a mingled roar and ripple of laughter, and Miss Audrey Craven paused before announcing herself. Through the half-open doorway she saw a girl standing before an easel. She had laid down her palette and brushes, and with bold sure strokes of the pencil was sketching against time, leaning a little backwards, with her head in a critically observant pose. The voice reasserted itself in crushing peroration—
"I tell you wot it is, Mr. 'Aviland—you're no gentleman."
And Audrey's entrance coincided with the retreat of a stout woman, moving slowly with an unnatural calm.
The girl doubled back her sketch-book and came forward, apologising for the confusion. Face to face with the object of her curiosity, Audrey's first feeling was one of surprised and reluctant admiration. Miss Haviland was dark, and pale, and thin; she was also a little too tall, and Audrey did not know whether she quite liked the airy masses of black hair that curled high up from her forehead and low down on it, in crisp tendrils like fine wire. Yet, but for her nose, which was a shade too long, a thought too retrousse, Miss Haviland would have been beautiful after the Greek type. (Audrey's own type, as she had once described it in a moment of introspection, was the "Roman piquante," therefore she made that admission the more readily.) There was a touch of classic grace, too, in the girl's figure and her dress. She had rolled up the sleeves of her long blue overall, and bound it below her breasts and waist with a girdle of tape—not for the sake of effect, as Audrey supposed, but to give her greater freedom as she worked and moved about the studio. At this point Audrey found out that all Miss Haviland's beauty lay in the shape of her head and neck. With "that nose" she might be "interesting," but could never be beautiful; in fact, her mouth was too firm and her chin stuck out too much even for moderate prettiness.
Audrey did not arrive at these conclusions in the gradual manner here set forth. The total impression was photographed on her sensitive feminine brain by the instantaneous process; and with the same comprehensive rapidity she began to take in the details of her surroundings. The attic was long, and had one window to the west, and another to the north under the roof, looking over the leads. At the far end were a plain square table and a corner cupboard. That was the dining-room and the pantry. Before the fireplace were a small Persian rug bounded by a revolving book-case, a bamboo couch, a palm fern, a tea-table. That was the library and drawing-room. All the remaining space was the studio; and amongst easels, stacks of canvases, draperies, and general litter, a few life-size casts from the antique gleamed from their corners.
From these rapid observations Audrey concluded that Miss Haviland was poor.
"You were busy when I came in?" she asked sweetly.
"No; I was only taking a hurried sketch from the life. It's not often that our landlady exhibits herself in that sublime mood; so I seized the opportunity."
"And I interrupted you."
"No; you interrupted Mrs. Rogers, for which we were much obliged—she might have sat for us longer than we liked. I am very pleased to see you."
Certainly Audrey was a pleasant sight. There was no critical afterthought in the admiring look which Miss Haviland turned on her visitor, and Audrey felt to her finger-tips this large-hearted feminine homage. To compel another woman to admire you is always a triumph; besides, Miss Haviland was an artist, and her admiration was worth something—it was like having the opinion of an expert. Audrey pondered for a moment, with her head at a becoming angle, for she had not yet accounted for herself.
"My cousin Vincent Hardy asked me to call on you. I believe he is a very old friend of yours?"
"Yes; we have known each other since we were children."
"What do you think of his going out to Canada to farm?"
"I didn't know he had gone."
(Then Vincent had not thought it worth while to say good-bye to his "little half-sister." So far, so good.)
"Oh, didn't you? He went six weeks ago."
"I never heard. It's an unlikely thing for him to do, but that's the sort of thing he always did do."
"He hated going, poor fellow. He came to say good-bye to me the night before he went, and he was in a dreadful state. I've heard from him every week since he sailed, and he's promised to send me some bearskins. Isn't it nice of him?" ("She won't like that!")
Miss Haviland assented gravely, but her eyes smiled.
"I suppose you've seen a good deal of Vincent? He wrote to me about you from the Rocky Mountains."
"Did he? We used to be a good deal together when we were little. Since then we have been the best of friends, which means that we ignore each other's existence with the most perfect understanding in the world. I always liked Vincent."
This was reassuring. Miss Haviland's manner was candour itself; and depend upon it, if there had been any self-consciousness about her, Audrey would have found it out at once. She dropped the subject, and looked about her for another. The suggestions of the place were obvious.
"I see you are a great artist. My cousin didn't prepare me for that."
Miss Haviland laughed.
"Vincent is probably unaware of the interesting fact, like the rest of the world."
"That picture is very beautiful; may I look at it?" said Audrey, going up to the easel.
"Certainly. It's hardly finished yet, and I don't think it will be particularly beautiful when it is. I can't choose my subjects."
"It looks—interesting," murmured Audrey, fatuously. (What was the subject, after all?) "Have you done many others?"
"Yes, a good many."
"May I——?" she hesitated, wondering whether her request might not be a social solecism, like asking a professional to play.
"If you care about pictures, I will show you some of my brother's some day. His are better than mine—more original, at least."
"Your brother? Oh, of course. Vincent told me you had a brother, a baby brother. Surely——"
Miss Haviland laughed again.
"How like Vincent! He is unconscious of the flight of time. I suppose he told you I was about ten years old. But you must really see the baby; he will be delighted with your description of him." She called through the skylight, and Audrey remembered the gentleman who was "no gentleman," and who must have been responsible for half the laughter she had overheard.
"You see," Miss Haviland explained, "we've only one room for everything; so Ted always climbs on to the leads when we hear people coming—he's bound to meet them on the stairs, if he makes a rush for the bedrooms. If any bores come, I let him stay up there; and if it's any one likely to be interesting, I call him down."
"He must have great confidence in your judgment."
"He has. Here he comes."
Audrey looked up in time to see the baby lowering himself through the skylight. With his spine curved well back, his legs hanging within the room, and his head and the upper part of his body laid flat on the leads outside it, he balanced himself for a second of time. It was a most undignified position; but he triumphed over it, as, with one supple undulation, he shot himself on to the floor, saving his forehead from the window by a hair's-breath.
After this fashion Ted Haviland was revealed to Audrey. She was, if anything, more surprised by his personal appearance than by the unusual manner of his entrance. The baby could not have been more than nineteen or twenty, and there could be no dispute as to his beauty. Nature had cast his features in the same mould as his sister's, and produced a very striking effect by giving him the same dark eyebrows and lashes, with blue eyes and a mass of light brown hair. Detractors complained that the type was too feminine for their taste; but when challenged to show a single weak line in his face, they evaded the point and laid stress on the delicate pallor of his complexion. Not that it mattered, for Ted soon made you think as little of his good looks as he did himself. But Audrey never forgot him as she first saw him, glowing with exercise and the midday bath which had roused his landlady's indignation.
"I'm extremely sorry," he began airily, "for disappearing in that rude way."
"Perhaps I ought to apologise," said Audrey, "for I frightened you away."
"Not at all, though I was desperately frightened too. I was flying before Mrs. Rogers when you came in. You'll probably think I ought to have braved it out, just for the look of the thing—especially after her reflections on my social position—but unfortunately my sister has imbued that terrible woman with the belief that art can't possibly flourish anywhere outside this attic of hers. Ever since then she's kept us in the most humiliating subjection. I don't want you to think badly of Mrs. Rogers: there's no malice about her; she wouldn't raise your rent suddenly, or leave pails of water on the stairs, or anything of that kind, and she's capable of really deep feeling when it's a question of dinner."
"Ted—if you can forget Mrs. Rogers for a minute—I told Miss Craven that you would show her some of your sketches and things some day."
"All right; we'll have the exhibition to-day, if Miss Craven cares to stop. Plenty of time before the light goes."
Audrey hesitated: but Miss Haviland had moved aside her own easel to make room for her brother's; she seconded his invitation, and Miss Craven stopped.
Three months ago, in an Oxford drawing-room, she had found herself absorbing metaphysics, as it were through the pores of her skin, without any previous discipline in that exacting science; now, in a London studio, she became aware of a similarly miraculous influx of power. Yesterday she would have told you that she knew nothing about art, and cared less. To-day it seemed that she had lived in its atmosphere from her cradle, and learned its language at her nurse's knee. But, though familiar with art, she was not prepared for the behaviour of the artist. Ted treated his works as if he were the last person concerned with them. He would pass scathing judgment on those which pleased Audrey best; or he would stand, like a self-complacent deity, aloof from his own creations, beholding them to be very good, and not hesitating to say so.
"Well," said Audrey at last, "you've shown me a great many lovely things, but which is your masterpiece?"
"They were all masterpieces when I first finished them."
"Yes; but seriously, which do you consider your best? I want to know."
Ted hesitated, and then turned to a stack of larger canvases.
"I wonder," she murmured, "if I shall think it your best."
Ted did not answer: he hardly liked to say, "Because hitherto you have persistently admired my worst."
"This," he said, laughing, as he lifted a large canvas on to the easel, "is the only masterpiece that has withstood the test of time."
"He means," struck in his sister, "that he finished it a week ago, and that in another week he'll want to stick a knife into it."
With all its faults the picture had a poetic audacity that defied the criticism it provoked. If you looked long enough, you saw that a youth and a maiden were lying in a trance that was half sleep, half death; while their souls, diaphanous forms with indefinite legs, hovered above them in mid-air, each leaning towards the other's body. The souls described two curves that crossed like the intersecting of rainbows; and where they met, their wings mingled in a confused iridescence. Eros, in a flame-coloured tunic, looked on with an air of studied indifference that might or might not have been intended by the painter.
Audrey looked helplessly at the picture. She could not understand it, and with things that she could not understand she always felt a vague impotent displeasure.
"What—what is the subject?" she gasped at length.
She knitted her brows and said nothing.
"Transmigration of souls—why didn't I say so at first?" returned Ted, in cheerful response to the frown.
"So I see; but what's Apollo doing there with his bow and arrows, and why is he all in red?"
"It's not meant for Apollo—it's an Eros."
"I beg your pardon?"
"An Eros—Love, a very inferior order of deity."
"Why is he in red?"
"I don't know, I'm sure. His taste in dress always was a little loud."
"But why is he there at all?"
"Love! Can't you see? I can't explain if it's not obvious. He—er—he must be there."
Audrey looked up, but the baby was not looking at her; he was absorbed in his masterpiece. She flushed, and pressed one little pointed boot firmly to the ground.
"Yes, yes, I see that; but I can't make out the rest of it."
Ted shook his head helplessly, while his sister laughed at his discomfiture.
"Please don't mind my sister," said he, nervously flourishing his maul-stick. "The picture represents two people exchanging souls"—Audrey raised her eyebrows: "those are the souls, and these are the people—do be quiet, Katherine! It's a perfectly conceivable transaction, though I own it might be a very bad bargain for some. I wouldn't like to swop souls with my sister, for instance—she hasn't any imagination."
Audrey gave a little shudder.
"What a curious idea! It makes me feel quite creepy. But I'm sure I never could lose my sense, of personal identity. My individuality is too strong—or something. And then, what has Love got to do with it? What does it all mean?"
"Obviously, that Love is Master of the Ceremonies at every well-regulated metempsychosis," said Katherine.
"I see." Audrey lay back in her chair and gazed dreamily at the painting, while the painter gazed at her. Was he trying to find out the secret of that individuality?
Audrey turned to Katherine with her radiant smile.
"Do you paint like this, too?"
"No, I'm a portrait-painter."
"Ah! that means that you'd rather paint what you see?"
"It means that I have to paint a great deal that I'd rather not see."
"But your brother is an idealist—aren't you, Mr. Haviland?"
"Probably. I've always noticed that when people call you an idealist, it's a polite way of saying you're a failure. I may be an idealist; I don't know, and I'm afraid I don't much care."
"I'm sure you do care; and you must have your ideals."
"Oh, as for that, I've kept as many as seven of them at a time. But I never could tame them, and when it comes to taking their portraits the things don't know how to sit properly. Look at that woman's soul, for instance"—and Ted pointed to his masterpiece with disgust.
"Why, what's wrong with it? It's beautiful."
"Yes; I got on all right with the upper half, but, as you see, I've been a little unfortunate with the feet and legs."
"Of course!" interrupted Katherine, "because you got tired of the whole thing. That's what a man's idealism comes to!"
Audrey looked up with a quick sidelong glance.
"And what does a woman's idealism come to?"
"Generally to this—that she's tried to paint her own portrait large, with a big brush, and made a mess of the canvas."
There was a sad inflection in the girl's voice, and she looked away as she spoke. The look and the tone were details that lay beyond the range of Audrey's observation, and she felt hurt, though she hardly knew why. She rose, carefully adjusting her veil and the lace about her throat.
"I adore idealists—I can't help it; I'm made that way, you see."
She shrugged her shoulders, in delicate deprecation of the decrees of Fate.
Katherine did not see, but she went down with Miss Craven to the door. Ted had proposed tea on the leads, and Audrey had agreed that it would have been charming—idyllic—if she could have stayed. But she had looked at the skylight, and then at her own closely fitting gown, and Propriety, her guardian angel, had suggested that she had better not.
"Ted," said Katherine an hour later, "I've got an idea. What a magnificent model Miss Craven would make!"
Ted made no answer; but he flung his sketch-book to the other end of the room, where it took Apollo neatly in the eye.
"I've failed miserably in my Mrs. Rogers," said he, and went off for solitary contemplation on the leads.
Katherine picked up the book and looked at it.
He had failed in his Mrs. Rogers; but in a corner of a fresh page he had made a little sketch of a face and figure which were not those of Mrs. Rogers. And that was a failure too.
There was a certain truth in Hardy's description of Ted Haviland. Ted had all a baby's fascination, a baby's irresponsibility, and a baby's rigid tenacity of purpose. There perhaps the likeness ended. At any rate, Ted had contrived to plan a career for himself at the age of seven, had said nothing about it for ten years, and then quietly carried it through in spite of circumstances and the influential members of his family. These powers had been against him from the first. His mother had died in giving him birth; and as his father chose to hold him directly responsible for the tragedy, his early years were passed somewhat under a cloud. Katherine was his only comfort and stay. The girl had five years the start of him, which gave her an enormous advantage in dealing with the uncertain details of life. Her method was simplicity itself. It was summed up in the golden rule: Take your own way first, and then let other people take theirs. It was in this spirit that, mounted on a table, she painted the great battle-piece that covered the north wall of the nursery; and with equal heroism she met the unrighteous Nemesis that waits upon mortal success, and skipped off to bed at three o'clock in the afternoon as if to a tea-party. Ted worshipped his sister, because of her courage and resource, because of her fuzzy black hair cut short like a boy's, for the strength of her long limbs, and for a hundred other reasons. And Katherine loved Ted with a passion all the more intense because he was the only creature she knew that would let itself be loved comfortably; for "Papa" was an abstraction, and "Nurse" erred on the opposite extreme, being a terribly concrete reality, with a great many acute angles about her, which was a drawback to demonstrations of affection.
One day Katherine mixed some colours for Ted and taught him how to manage a pencil and paint-brush. That was just before she went to school, and then Ted said to himself, "I too will paint battle-pieces"; and he painted them in season and out of season, and was obliged to hide them away in drawers and cupboards and places, for there was no one to care for them now that Kathy was gone. As for that headstrong young person, her method was so far successful that when she was eighteen it began to be rumoured in the family that Katherine would do great things, but that Ted was an idle young beggar. The boy had shown no talent for anything in particular, and nobody had thought of his future: not Katherine—she was too busy with her own—and certainly not his father, who at the best of times lived piously in the past with the memory of his dead wife, and was day by day loosening his hold upon the present. For Ted "Papa" became more and more an abstraction, until a higher Power withdrew him altogether from earthly affairs.
Mr. Haviland had lived in a melancholy gentility on a pension which died with him, and at his death the children were left with nothing but the pittance they inherited from their mother. When the family met in solemn conclave to decide the fate of Katherine and Ted, it learned that Katherine, true to her old principles, had taken the decision into her own hands. She meant to live for art and by art, and Uncle James was much mistaken if he thought that an expensive training was to be flung away upon a "niggling amateur." At any rate, she had taken a studio in Pimlico and furnished it, and as she had come of age yesterday, there was really no more to be said. Ted, of course, would live with her, and choose his own profession. But Ted's profession was not so easily chosen. The boy had brought a perfectly open mind to the subject, and discussed the reasons for and against the Church, the Bar, the Bank, and a trade, with admirable clearness and impartiality; but when invited to make a selection from among the four, he betrayed no enthusiasm. Finally he was asked if he had any objection to the medical profession, and replied that he had none, having, indeed, never thought about it. On the whole, he considered that the idea was not a bad one, and he would try it. He tried it for a year and a half, but not altogether with success. He had been advised to take up surgery, for a great man had noticed his long sensitive fingers, and told him that he had the hands of a born surgeon. He managed to get through the hours in the dissecting-room, standing on his head from time to time as a precaution against faintness; but his heroism gave way before the horrors of the theatre. Soon, with indignation naturally mingled with pleasure at this fulfilment of its own predictions, the family heard that Ted had flung up the medical profession. That the boy had the hands of a born surgeon was considered to be an aggravation of his offence; it constituted it flying in the face of Providence. When Ted drew attention to the fact that he had passed first in Comparative Anatomy, his uncle James told him that stupidity was excusable, and that his abilities only proved him a lazy good-for-nothing fellow. He then offered him a berth in his office, with board and lodging in his own house; and as Ted was in low water, there was nothing for it but to accept. Mr. James Pigott remained master of the situation, without a suspicion of its pathetic irony. Ted, whose intellect was incapable of adding two and two together, had to sit on a high stool and work endless sums in arithmetic. Ted, whose soul was married sub rosa to ideal beauty, had to live in a house where every object had the same unwinking self-complacent ugliness, and where the cook was the only artist whose genius was appreciated. Ted was a little bit of a Stoic, and he could have borne the long impressive dinners and the unstudied malice of the furniture, if only his uncle would have let him alone. But Mr. Pigott was nothing if not conscientious; and now that he had him under his thumb, he made superhuman efforts to understand his nephew's character and to win his confidence. The poor gentleman might just as well have tried to understand the character of an asymptote, or to win the confidence of a Will-o'-the-wisp; and nothing but misery can come of it when a middle-aged city merchant, born without even a rudimentary sense of humour, suddenly determines to cultivate that gift for the benefit of a boy who can detect humour in the wording of an invoice.
Well, he never knew how it happened—his mind might have been running on an illustrated edition of the cash accounts of Messrs. Pigott & Co.—but at last Ted made an arithmetical blunder so unprecedented, so astounding, that a commercial career was closed to him for ever. "Stupidity is excusable," said Uncle James. "If you had been stupid, I would have forgiven you; but you have ability enough, sir, and it follows that you are careless—criminally careless—and I wash my hands of you." And, like Pilate, he suited the action to the word.
So it happened that as Katherine was putting the last touches to her great picture "The Witch of Atlas," and to her sketch of an elaborate future, Fate stepped in and altered all her arrangements. She called it Fate, for she never could bring herself to say it was Ted. For months she had been living in a dream, in which she was no longer a poor artist toiling in a London garret: she was on the highest peak of Atlas, in the land where, as you know, dreams last forever, where the light comes down unfiltered through the transcendental air, and where, owing to the unmelting ice and snow, the shadows are always colours. To live for art and by art—she had not yet realised the incompatibility of these two aims; for Katherine was as uncompromising in this as in everything else, and refused to work in a liberal and enlightened spirit. She believed that beauty is the only right or possible or conceivable aim of the artist, and she was ready to sacrifice a great deal for this belief. For this she slept and worked in one room, which she left bare of all but necessary furniture—under which head, in defiance of all laws of political economy, she included a small Pantheon of plaster deities: for this she stinted herself in everything except air and exercise, which were cheap; and for this she refused to join housekeeping with her cousin Nettie, thereby giving lasting offence to an influential branch of the family. At the end of three years she had begun to hope, and to feel the quickening of new powers; and as her nature expanded, her art took on a subtler quality, a subdued and delicate sensuousness, which, it must be owned, had very little in common with the flesh and blood of ordinary humanity.
She was painting steadily, in a pallid fervour of concentrated excitement, the ease of her pliant hands contrasting with her firm lips and knitted brows, when Ted burst into the studio, with a thin Gladstone bag in one hand and a fat portfolio in the other. His face told her of a crisis in his history; it was humorous, pathetic, deprecating, and determined, all at once,—not the face of a boy dropping in casually at tea-time. When asked if anything had gone wrong at the office, he replied, "Probably—by this time. They lost their brightest ornament this morning. You see they said—among other things—that it wasn't the least use my stopping, as I hadn't any head for figures,—which was odd, considering that it's just with figures I've been most successful." But Katherine was to judge for herself. He sat down leisurely and began untying his portfolio. Then he caught sight of "The Witch of Atlas." "That's going to be a stunning picture, Kathy," said he. He stood before the canvas for a moment, and then turned abruptly away. When he looked at Katherine again, his face was set and a little flushed. He seemed to be making a calculation—a thing he had always some difficulty in doing. "You've been at it practically all your life; but it took you—one—two—three—five years' real hard work, didn't it, before you could paint like that?"
"Yes, Ted, five years' hard labour, with costs."
"It'll take me four. Thank heaven, I've learnt anatomy!"
Katherine said nothing: she had opened the portfolio and spread out the drawings, and was hanging over them in amazement. How, when, and where the boy had done the things, she could not imagine. There were finished studies in anatomy, of heads and limbs in every conceivable attitude. There were shilling drawing-books crammed with illustrations of most possible subjects and some impossible ones; loose sketches done on the backs of envelopes, the fly-leaves of books, and (fearful revelation of artistic depravity!) the ruled pages of ledgers. And in every one of them there was power and wild exuberant vitality. It was genius, rampant and undisciplined, but unmistakable; and she told him so. Her first feeling sent the blood to her cheeks for pure joy; her second drove it back to her heart again. Katherine was one of those people who can see a thing instantly, in all its possible bearings; and at the present moment she saw clearly, not only that Ted was a genius, but that his genius had everything to learn, and that it would take the whole of his tiny income to teach it, while the necessities of his board and lodging in the meanwhile would more than double her own expenses. She saw herself doomed to the production of an unbroken succession of pot-boilers, and for the next few years at least Ted's career was only possible at the sacrifice of her own. "Yes," she said at last, sitting down and tying the strings of the portfolio tenderly, "you'll have to work hard for four or five years or so; and then you'll have to wait. Art is long, you know, and high art's the longest of all." And when she told him that it would be a great help to her if they clubbed together, Ted actually believed her, so unaware was he of the complexities of life.
Katherine understood why Ted had gone to Guy's Hospital; but when she asked him—idiot!—why he had wasted a year at his uncle Pigott's office, he said that he wanted to prove to his uncle Pigott's limited capacity that he was utterly incapable of managing anybody's business but his own. Katherine asked no more questions, for she was trying to think. Then when she had done thinking, she took the Witch and turned her with her face to the wall. And when she looked at Ted again it was with a choking sensation, and for the first time for three years she was aware that she had a heart beating under the blue overall. She had come down from Atlas faster than she had gone up. After all, the climate there is frightfully cold, and there are passes on that lonely mountain which overhang the bottomless pit, where some have perished very miserably. Katherine had escaped the abyss, and left behind her the dreams and the golden mists and the starry peaks of ice. It was dark in the studio, and a voice was heard inquiring whether the young gentleman was going to stay for supper, "Because, if a bysin of hoatmeal porridge yn't enuff for one——"
Mrs. Rogers was great in the argument a fortiori.
Audrey had never been able to enjoy the friendship of her own sex for more than ten minutes at a time. Her own society bored her inexpressibly, and that of the women she had known hitherto was uninteresting because it was like her own. But Katherine was unlike all other women, and she had taken Audrey's fancy. Audrey was always devising pretty little excuses for calling, always bringing in hothouse flowers, or the last hothouse novel, which Katherine positively must read; until, by dint of a naive persistency, she won the right to come and go as she pleased. As for Katherine, she considered that a beautiful woman is exempt from criticism; and so long as she could watch Audrey moving about, arranging flowers with dainty fastidious touches, or lying back on the couch in some reckless but perfect pose, she reserved her judgment. She rejoiced in her presence for its beauty's sake. She loved the curves of her limbs, the play of her dimples, the shifting lights in her hair. But she had to pay for the pleasure these things afforded her, and "man's time" became a frequent item in the account. Katherine had set her heart on Ted's studying in Paris for six months, and was trying hard to make enough money to send him there. With this absorbing object in view, she herself worked equally well whether Audrey were in the studio or out of it; but it seemed that Ted's powers were either paralysed or diverted into another channel from the moment she came in. The baby was trying to solve a problem which had puzzled wiser heads than his. But he had no clue to the labyrinth of Audrey's soul; he was not even certain whether she was an intelligent being, though to doubt it was blasphemy against the divine spirit of beauty.
His researches took him very often to Chelsea Gardens, and most of his spare time not spent there was employed in running errands to and fro. Owing to these distractions his nerves became quite unhinged, and for the first time in his life he began to show signs of a temper. He had been full of the Paris scheme at first, but he had not spoken of it now for at least a month.
He had just sat down for the twentieth time to a study of Katherine's head as "Sappho," and had thrown down his palette in disgust, exclaiming—
"What's the use of keeping your mouth still, if your confounded eyes giggle?" when a note arrived from Miss Craven.
You can't step out of a violent passion all in a minute, and perhaps that was the reason why Ted's hands trembled a little as he tore open the envelope and read—
"DEAR MR. HAVILAND,—Do come over at once. I'm in a dreadful fix, and want your advice and help badly. I would ask your sister, only I know she is always busy.—Sincerely yours,
Audrey wrote on rough-edged paper, in the bold round hand they teach in schools. She had modelled hers on another girl's, and she signed her name with an enormous A and a flourish. People said there was a great deal of character in her hand-writing.
Ted crammed the note hastily into his pocket, and did his best to hide the radiance of his smile.
"It's only Miss Craven. I'm just going over for half an hour,—I'll be back for tea."
And before Katherine had time to answer he was gone.
Ted's first thought as he entered Miss Craven's drawing-room was that she was in the midst of a removal. The place was turned topsy-turvy. Curtains had been taken down, ornaments removed from their shelves, pictures from their hangings; and the grand piano stood where it had never yet been allowed to stand, in a draught between the window and the door. Tripping over a Persian rug, he saw that the floor was littered with tapestries and rich stuffs of magnificent design. On his left was a miscellaneous collection of brass and copper ware, on his right a heap of shields and weapons of barbarous warfare. On all the tables and cabinets there stood an array of Venetian glass, and statuettes in bronze, marble, and terra-cotta. He was looking about for Miss Craven, when that lady arose from a confused ocean of cushions and Oriental drapery—Aphrodite in an "Art" tea-gown. She greeted him with childlike effusion.
"At last! I'm so glad you've come—I was afraid you mightn't. Help me out of this somehow—I'm simply distracted."
And she pointed to the floor with a gesture of despair.
"Yes; but what do you want me to do?"
"Why, to offer suggestions, advice, anything—only speak."
Ted looked about him, and his eyes rested on the grand piano. "Is it a ball, a bazaar, or an auction? And are we awake or dreaming, alive or dead?"
"Can't you see, Mr. Haviland?"
"Yes, I see a great many things. But what does it all mean?"
Audrey sank on to an ottoman, and answered slowly and incisively, looking straight before her—
"It means that I'm sick of the hideousness of life, of the excruciating lower middle-class arrangement of this room. I don't know how I've stood it all these years. My soul must have been starved—stifled. I want to live in another atmosphere, to be surrounded by beautiful things. Don't laugh like that,—I know I'm not an artist; I couldn't paint a picture—how could I? I haven't been taught. But I know that Art is the only thing worth caring about. I want to cultivate my sense of beauty, and I don't want my room to look like anybody else's."
"It certainly doesn't at present."
"Please be serious. You're not helping me one bit. Look at that pile of things Liberty's have sent me! First of all, I want you to choose between them. Then I want you to suggest a colour-scheme, and to tell me the difference between Louis Quinze and Louis Quatorze (I can't remember), whether it'll do to mix Queen Anne with either. And whether would you have old oak, real old oak, or Chippendale, for the furniture? and must I do away with the cosy corner?"
Ted felt his head going round and round. Artistic delight in Audrey's beauty, pagan adoration of it, saintly belief in it, the first tremor of crude unconscious passion, mingled with intense amusement, reduced him to a state of utter bewilderment. But he had sufficient presence of mind to take her last question first and to answer authoritatively—
"Certainly. A cosy corner is weak-minded and conventional."
"Yes, it is. I'm not in the least conventional, and I don't think I'm weak-minded. And I want my room to express my character, to be a bit of myself. So give me some ideas. You don't mind my asking you, do you? You're the only artist I know."
"Am I really? And if you knew six or seven artists, what then?"
"Why, then—I should ask you all the same, of course."
Boy-like he laughed for pure pleasure, and boy-like he tried to dissemble his emotion, and did her bidding under a faint show of protest. He gave his vote in favour of Venetian glass and a small marble Diana, against majolica and a French dancing-girl in terra-cotta; he made an intelligent choice from amongst the various state-properties around him, and avoided committing himself on the subject of Louis Quatorze. On one point Audrey was firm. For what reasons nobody can say, but some Malay creeses had caught her fancy, and no argument could dissuade her from arranging them over the Neapolitan Psyche which she had kept at Ted's suggestion. The gruesome weapons, on a background of barbaric gold, hung above that pathetic torso, like a Fate responsible for its mutilation. Audrey was pleased with the effect; she revelled in strong contrasts and grotesque combinations, and if Liberty's had sent her a stuffed monkey, she would have perched him on Psyche's pedestal.
"I know a man," said Ted, when he had disposed the last bit of drapery according to an ingenious colour-scheme, in which Audrey's hair sounded a brilliant staccato note—"a first-rate artist—who was asked to decorate a lady's room. What do you think he did? He made her take all the pictures off the walls, and he covered them over with little halfpenny Japanese fans, and stuck little halves and quarters of fans in the corners and under the ceiling. Then he put a large Japanese umbrella in the fireplace, and went away smiling."
"Was the lady pleased?"
"Immensely. She asked all her friends to a Japanese tea-party in Mr. Robinson's room. The rest of the furniture was early Victorian."
This anecdote was not altogether to Audrey's taste. She walked to a shelf where Ted had put some bronzes, looked at them with a decided air of criticism, and arranged them differently. Having asserted her independence, she replied severely—
"Your friend's friend must have been an extremely silly woman."
"Not at all; she was a most intelligent, well-informed person, with—er—a deep sense of religion."
"And now, Mr. Haviland, you're making matters worse. You care nothing about her religion; you simply think her a fool, and you meant that I'm like her. Else why did you tell such a pointless story?"
"Forgive me; the association of ideas was irresistible. You are like her—in your utter simplicity and guileless devotion to an ideal."
He looked all round the room again, and sank back on the sofa cushions all limp with laughter.
"I—I never saw anything so inexpressibly sad as this afternoon's work; it's heartrending."
His eye fell on the terra-cotta Parisienne dancing inanely on her pedestal, and he moaned like one in pain. Audrey's mouth twitched and her cheeks flamed for a second. She turned her back on Ted, until his fit had spent itself, dying away among the cushions in low gurgles. Then there was silence.
Ted raised his head and looked up. She was still standing in the same place, but one hand was moving slowly towards her pocket.
He sprang to his feet and faced her. She walked to the window, convulsively grasping her pocket-handkerchief.
He followed her.
"Miss Craven—dear Miss Craven—on my soul—I swear—I never——Can't you—won't you believe me?"
Still there was silence and an averted head.
"Speak, can't you!"
He leant against the window and began to giggle again. Audrey turned at the sound, and looked at him through eyes veiled with tears; her lips were trembling a little, and her fingers relaxed their convulsive grasp. He darted forward, seized her hand, and kissed it an indefinite number of times, exclaiming incoherently—
"Brute, hound, cur that I am! Forgive me—only say you'll forgive me! I know I'm not fit to live! And yet, how could I tell? Good heavens! what funny things women are?" Here he took possession of the little lace pocket-handkerchief, and wiped her eyes very gently. Then he kissed her once on the mouth, reverently but deliberately.
To do Audrey justice, she had meant to sustain her part with maidenly reserve, but she was totally unprepared for this acceleration of the march of events. She said nothing, but went back submissively to her sofa, hand in hand with Ted. There they sat for a minute looking rather stupidly into each other's faces.
The lady was the first to recover her self-possession. She raised her hand with a benedictory air and let it rest lightly, ever so lightly, on Ted's hair.
"My dear boy," she murmured, "I forgave you all the time."
Now there is nothing that will dwarf the proportions of the grand passion and bring you to your sober senses sooner than being patted on the head and called "My dear boy" by the lady of your love. Ted ducked from under the delicate caress, and rose to his feet with dignity. His emotion was spent, and he was chiefly conscious of the absurdity of the situation. Every object in that ridiculous room accentuated the distasteful humour of the thing. Psyche looked downcast virgin disapproval from her pedestal under the Malay creeses, and the frivolous little Parisienne flung her skirts abroad in the very abandonment of derision.
If only he hadn't made a fool of himself, if only he hadn't told that drivelling story about the Japanese umbrella, if only he hadn't laughed in that frantic manner, and if only——But no, he could not look back on the last five minutes. The past was a grey blank, but the flaming episode of the kiss had burnt a big black hole in his present consciousness. He felt that by that rash, unpardonable act he had desecrated the holy thing; and with it all, had forestalled, delayed, perhaps for ever prevented, the sanction of some diviner opportunity. If he had only waited another year, she could not have called him her dear boy.
"I'm fully aware," he said, ruefully, "that I've behaved like a heaven-afflicted idiot, and I'd better go."
"No, you shall not go. You shall stay. I wish it. Sit down—here."
She patted the sofa beside her, and he obeyed mechanically.
"Poor, poor Ted! I do forgive you. We will never misunderstand each other again—never. And now I want to talk to you. What distressed me so much just now was not anything that you said or thought about me, but the shocking way you treat yourself and what is best in you. Can't you understand it? You know how I believe in you and hope for you, and it was your affectation of indifference to things which are a religion to me—as they are to you—that cut me to the heart."
She had worked herself up till she believed firmly in this little fiction. Yes, those tears were tears of pure altruism—tears not of wounded vanity and self-love, but of compassion for an erring genius.
She drew back her head proudly and looked him full in the face. Then she continued, in a subdued voice, with a certain incisive tremor in it, the voice that is usually expressive of the deeper emotions—
"You know, and I know, that there is nothing worth caring about except art. Then why pretend to despise it as you do? And Katherine's every bit as bad as you are,—she encourages you. I know—what perhaps she doesn't—that you have great enthusiasms, great ideals; but you are unfaithful to them. You laughed at me; you know you did——"
("I didn't," from Ted.)
"——because I'm trying to make my life beautiful. You're led away by your strong sense of humour, till you see something ridiculous in the loveliest and noblest things" (Ted's eyes wandered in spite of himself to the little lady in terra-cotta). "I know why: you're afraid of being sentimental. But if people have feelings, why should they be ashamed of them? Why should they mind showing them? Now I want you to promise me that, from this day forth, you'll take yourself and your art seriously; that you'll work hard—you've been idling shamefully lately" (oh, Audrey! whose fault was that?)—"and finish some great picture before the year's out" (he had only five weeks to do it in, but that was a detail). "Now promise."
"I—I'll promise anything," stammered the miserable Ted, "if only you'll look at me like that—sometimes, say between the hours of seven and eight in the evening."
"Ridiculous baby! Now we must see about the pictures; we've just time before tea."
The mention of tea was a master-stroke; it brought them both back to the world of fact, and restored the familiar landmarks.
Ted, solemnly penitent, gave his best attention to the pictures: there was not a trace of his former abominable levity in the air with which he passed sentence on each as Audrey brought them up for judgment. But when he came to the family portraits he suspended his verdict, and Audrey was obliged to take the matter into her own hands.
She took up a small picture in a square frame and held it close to Ted's face.
"Portrait of my uncle, the Dean of St. Benedict's. What shall I do with it?"
"That depends entirely on the amount of affection you feel for the original."
"H'm—does it? He's a dear old thing, and I'm very fond of him, but—what do you think of him?—from an artistic point of view?"
She stood with her body curved a little backwards, holding the Dean up high in a good light. Her attitude was so lovely that it was impossible to disapprove of her. Ted's reason tottered on its throne, and he laughed, which was perhaps the best thing he could have done.
"He is not, strictly speaking, handsome."
"No," said Audrey; "I'm afraid he'll have to go."
She knelt down beside the portrait of a lady. It was evidently the work of an inferior artist, but his most malignant efforts had failed to disguise the beauty of the face. It bore a strong resemblance to Audrey, but it was the face of an older woman, grave, intelligent, and refined by suffering.
"I've been obliged to take this down," she said, as if apologising more to herself than Ted, "because I want to hang my large photo of the Sistine Madonna in its place."
"What is it?"
"It's—my mother's portrait. She died when I was a very little girl, and I hardly ever saw her, you know. I'm not a bit like her."
He stood silent, watching her intently as she spoke.
"Family portraits," she continued, "may be interesting, but they are not decorative. Unless, of course," she added, hastily, being at a loss to account for the peculiar expression of Ted's face, "they're very old ones—Lelys and Sir Joshua Reynoldses."
"That face does not look old, certainly."
"No. She died young."
She had not meant to say that; a little shiver went through her as the words passed her lips, and she felt a desire to change the subject. But the portrait of the late Mrs. Craven was turned to the wall along with the Dean.
"Hullo!" exclaimed Ted, taking up a photo in a glass frame, hand-painted, "here's old Hardy! What on earth is he doing here?"
Audrey blushed, but answered with unruffled calm.
"Vincent? Oh, he's a family portrait too. He's my cousin—first cousin, you know."
"What are you going to do with him?"
"I—I hardly know."
She took the photo out of his hands and examined it carefully back and front. Then she looked at Ted.
"What shall I do with him? Is he to go too?"
"Well, I suppose he ought to. He's all very well in his own line, but—from an artistic point of view—he's not exactly—decorative."
"Poor old Vincent! No, he's not."
And Vincent was turned face downward among the ruins of the cosy corner, and Audrey and Ted rested from their labours.
When Ted had gone, the very first thing Audrey did was to get a map and to look out the Rocky Mountains. There they were, to be sure, just as Vincent had described them, a great high wall dividing the continent. At that moment Hardy was kneeling on the floor of his little shanty, busy sorting bearskins and thinking of Audrey and bears. He had had splendid sport—that is, he had succeeded in killing a grizzly just before the grizzly killed him. How nervous Audrey would feel when she got the letter describing that encounter! Then he chose the best and fluffiest bearskin to make a nice warm cape for her, and amused himself by picturing her small oval chin nestling in the brown fur. And then he fell to wondering what she was doing now.
He would have been delighted if he could have seen her poring over that map with her pencilled eyebrows knit, while she traced the jagged outlines of the Rockies with her finger-nail, congratulating herself on the height of that magnificent range.
Yes, there was a great deal between her and her cousin Mr. Hardy.
One fine morning in latter spring, about four months after the day of the transformation scene in Audrey's drawing-room, Ted Haviland was lying on his back sunning himself on the leads. There are many lovelier places even in London than the leads of No. 12 Devon Street, Pimlico, but none more favourable to high and solitary thinking. Here the roar of traffic is subdued to a murmur hardly greater than the stir of country woods on a warm spring morning—a murmur less obtrusive, because more monotonous. It is the place of all others for one absorbed in metaphysical speculation, or cultivating the gift of detachment. The very chimney-pots have a remote abstracted air; the slopes of the slates rise up around you, shutting you in on three sides, and throwing you so far back on yourself; while before you lies the vast, misty network of roofs, stretching eastward towards the heart of the city, and above you is the open sky. It is even pleasant here on a day like this, a day with all the ardour of summer in it, and all the languor of spring, with the sun warming the slates at your back, and a soft breeze from the river fanning your face. You must go up on to the leads on such a day to feel the beauty and infinity of blue sky, the only beautiful and boundless thing here, where there is no green earth to rival heaven.
Ted had certainly no taste for detachment, but he was so far advanced towards metaphysical speculation that he was engaged in an analysis of sensation. Off and on, ever since that day of unreasonable mirth and subsequent madness, he had been a prey to remorse. He had kept away from Audrey for a fortnight, during which time his imagination had run riot through past, present, and future. Audrey had been sweet and confiding from the first; she had believed in him with childlike simplicity, and when she had trusted to his guidance in her innocent aestheticism, he, like the coarse-minded villain that he was, had made fun of all her dear little arrangements, those pathetic efforts to make her life beautiful. He had made her cry, and then taken a brutal advantage of her tears. To Ted's conscience, in the white-heat of his virgin passion, that premature kiss, the kiss that transformed a boyish fancy into full-grown love, was a crime. And yet she had forgiven him. All the time she had been thinking, not of herself, but of him. Her words, hardly heeded at the moment, came back to him like a dull sermon heard in some exalted mood, and henceforth transfigured in memory. She had done well to reproach him for his frivolity and want of purpose. She was so ready to say pleasant things, that blame from her mouth was sweeter than its praise. It showed that she cared more. By this time he had forgotten the traits that had impressed him less pleasantly.
Happily for him, his passion for Audrey was at first altogether bound up with his art. We are not all geniuses, but to some of us, once perhaps in a lifetime, genius comes in the form of love. To Ted love came in the form of genius, quickening his whole nature, and bringing his highest powers to a sudden birth. He had begun and almost finished the work which Audrey had urged him to undertake, and nobody could say that he had approached his subject in a frivolous spirit. It was a portrait of herself. Ted had been rather inclined to affect the romantic antique: Audrey had been a revelation of the artistic possibilities of modern womanhood, and he turned in disgust from his languid studies of decadent renaissance, or renaissant decadence, to this brilliant type. One corner of the studio was stacked with sketches and little full-length portraits of Audrey. Audrey from every point of view. Audrey in a black Gainsborough hat, Audrey with brown fur about her throat, Audrey half-smothered in billowy silk and chiffon, Audrey as she appeared at a dance in a simple frock and sash, and Audrey in a tailor-made gown, in the straight lines of which Ted professed to have discovered new principles of beauty. In fact, he dreamed of founding a New Art on portraits of Audrey alone. From which it would appear that he was taking himself and his art very seriously indeed.
Audrey had just left him after a protracted sitting, and up among the dreamy chimney-pots he was reviving in fancy the sensations of the morning. He was brought back from his ecstasy by Katherine's voice calling, "Ted, come down this minute—I've got something to show you"; and, rousing himself very much against the grain, he dropped languidly into the room below.
Katherine had come in all glowing with excitement. She pushed back her broad-brimmed hat from her forehead, and thrust both hands into her coat-pockets, bringing out two loose heaps of gold.
"There!" she said, letting sovereigns and half-sovereigns drip on to the table with an impressive chink, "aren't you thankful that I wasn't murdered, walking through the great sinful city with all that capital about me?"
"What's up? Has our uncle climbed down, or have you been robbing a till?"
"Neither. I've been to the bank, cashing real live cheques. Five pounds for my black-and-white for the Saint Abroad, I mean the "Woman at Home." Fifteen pounds for Miss Maskelyne's prize bull-dog (I idealised him). Twenty pounds for Lady Stodart's prize baby. Total, forty pounds." She arranged the sovereigns in neat little piles on the table. "That's enough to take you to Paris and set you going." Ted started, and his face fell a little. "It's positively my only dream that ever came true. Picture it, think of it, just on the brink of it. You can start next week, to-morrow if you like!"