(MRS. BASIL DE SELINCOURT)
T. NELSON & SONS LONDON AND EDINBURGH PARIS: 189, rue Saint-Jacques LEIPZIG: 35-37 Koenigstrasse
Miss Althea Jakes was tired after her long journey from Basle. It was a brilliant summer afternoon, and though the shutters were half closed on the beating Parisian sunlight, the hotel sitting-room looked, in its brightness, hardly shadowed. Unpinning her hat, laying it on the table beside her, passing her hands over the undisordered folds of her hair, Miss Jakes looked about her at the old-gold brocade of the furniture, the many mirrors in ornate gold frames, the photographs from Bougereau, the long, crisp lace curtains. It was the same sitting-room that she had had last year, the same that she had had the year before last—the same, indeed, to which she had been conducted on her first stay at the Hotel Talleyrand, eight years ago. The brocade looked as new, the gilded frames as glittering, the lace curtains as snowy as ever. Everything was as she had always seen it, from the ugly Satsuma vases flanking the ugly bronze clock on the mantelpiece, to the sheaf of pink roses lying beside her in their white paper wrappings. Even Miss Harriet Robinson's choice of welcoming flowers was the same. So it had always been, and so, no doubt, it would continue to be for many years to come; and she, no doubt, for many summers, would arrive from Basle to sit, jadedly, looking at it.
Amelie, her maid, was unpacking in the next room; the door was ajar, and Miss Jakes could hear the creaking of lifted trays and the rustling of multitudinous tissue-paper layers. The sounds suggested an answer to a dim question that had begun to hover in her travel-worn mind. One came back every summer to the Hotel Talleyrand for the purpose of getting clothes; that, perhaps, was a sufficient answer. Yet, to-day, it did not seem sufficient. She was not really so very much interested in her clothes; not nearly enough interested to make them a compensation for such fatigue and loneliness as she was now feeling. And as she realised this, a further question followed: in what was she particularly interested? What was a sufficient motive for all the European journeyings with which her life, for the past ten or twelve years, had been filled? In a less jaded mood, in her usual mood of mild, if rather wistful, assurance, she would have answered at once that she was interested in everything—in everything that was of the best—pictures, music, places, and people. These surely were her objects.
She was that peculiarly civilised being, the American woman of independent means and discriminating tastes, whose cosmopolitan studies and acquaintances give, in their multiplicity, the impression of a full, if not a completed, life. But to-day the gloomy question hovered: was not the very pilgrimage to Bayreuth, the study of archaeology in Rome, and of pictures in Florence, of much the same nature as the yearly visit to Paris for clothes? What was attained by it all? Was it not something merely superficial, to be put on and worn, as it were, not to be lived for with a growing satisfaction? Miss Jakes did not answer this question; she dismissed it with some indignation, and she got up and rang rather sharply for tea, which was late; and after asking the garcon, with a smile that in its gentleness contrasted with the sharpness of the pull, that it might be brought at once, she paused near the table to lean over and smell her sheaf of roses, and to read again, listlessly, Miss Harriet Robinson's words of affectionate greeting. Miss Robinson was a middle-aged American lady who lived in Paris, and had long urged Althea to settle there near her. Ten years ago, when she had first met Miss Robinson in Boston, Althea had thought her a brilliant and significant figure; but she had by now met too many of her kind—in Rome, in Florence, in Dresden—to feel any wish for a more intimate relationship. She was fond of Miss Robinson, but she prayed that fate did not reserve for her a withering to the like brisk, colourless spinsterhood. This hope, the necessity for such hope, was the final depth of her gloomy mood, and she found herself looking at something very dark as she stood holding Miss Robinson's expensive roses. For, after all, what was going to become of her? The final depth shaped itself to-day in more grimly realistic fashion than ever before: what was she going to do with herself, in the last resort, unless something happened? Her mind dwelt upon all the visible alternatives. There was philanthropic lunch-going and lunch-giving spinsterhood in Boston; there was spinsterhood in Europe, semi-social, semi-intellectual, and monotonous in its very variety, for Althea had come to feel change as monotonous; or there was spinsterhood in England established near her friend, Miss Buckston, who raised poultry in the country, and went up to London for Bach choir practices and Woman's Suffrage meetings. Althea couldn't see herself as taking an interest in poultry or in Woman's Suffrage, nor did she feel herself fitted for patriotic duties in Boston. There was nothing for it, then, but to continue her present nomadic life. After seeing herself shut in to this conclusion, it was a real relief to her to hear the tea-tray chink outside, and to see it enter, high on the garcon's shoulder, as if with a trivial but cheerful reply to her dreary questionings. Tea, at all events, would always happen and always be pleasant. Althea smiled sadly as she made the reflection, for she was not of an Epicurean temperament. After she had drunk her tea she felt strengthened to go in and ask Amelie about her clothes. She might have to get a great many new ones, especially if she went home for the autumn and winter, as she half intended to do. She took up the roses, as she passed them, to show to Amelie. Amelie was a bony, efficient Frenchwoman, with high cheek-bones and sleek black hair. She had come to Althea first, many years ago, as a courier-maid, to take her back to America. Althea's mother had died in Dresden, and Althea had been equipped by anxious friends with this competent attendant for her sad return journey. Amelie had proved intelligent and reliable in the highest degree, and though she had made herself rather disagreeable during her first year in Boston, she had stayed on ever since. She still made herself disagreeable from time to time, and Althea had sometimes lacked only the courage to dismiss her; but she could hardly imagine herself existing without Amelie, and in Europe Amelie was seldom disagreeable. In Europe, at the worst, she was gruff and ungracious, and Althea was fond enough of her to ignore these failings, although they frightened her a little; but though an easily intimidated person, and much at a loss in meeting opposition or rudeness, she was also tenacious. She might be frightened, but people could never make her do what she didn't want to do, not even Amelie. Her relations with Amelie were slightly strained just now, for she had not taken her advice as to their return journey from Venice. Amelie had insisted on Mont Cenis, and Althea had chosen the St. Gothard; so that it was as a measure of propitiation that she selected three of the roses for Amelie as she went into the bedroom. Amelie, who was kneeling before one of the larger boxes and carefully lifting skirts from its trays, paused to sniff at the flowers, and to express a terse thanks and admiration. 'Ah, bien merci, mademoiselle,' she said, laying her share on the table beside her.
She was not very encouraging about the condition of Althea's wardrobe.
'Elles sont defraichies—demodees—en verite, mademoiselle,' she replied, when Althea asked if many new purchases were necessary.
Althea sighed. 'All the fittings!'
'Il faut souffrir pour etre belle,' said Amelie unsympathetically.
Althea had not dared yet to tell her that she might be going back to America that winter. The thought of Amelie's gloom cast a shadow over the project, and she could not yet quite face it. She wandered back to the sitting-room, and, thinking of Amelie's last words, she stood for some time and looked at herself in the large mirror which rose from mantelpiece to cornice, enclosed in cascades of gilt. One of the things that Althea, in her mild assurance, was really secure of—for, as we have intimated, her assurance often covered a certain insecurity—was her own appearance. She didn't know about 'belle,' that seemed rather a trivial term, and the English equivalent better to express the distinctive characteristic of her face. She had so often been told she was nobly beautiful that she did not see herself critically, and she now leaned her elbow on the mantelpiece and gazed at herself with sad approbation. The mirror reflected only her head and shoulders, and Miss Jakes's figure could not, even by a partisan, have been described as beautiful; she was short, and though immature in outline, her form was neither slender nor graceful. Althea did not feel these defects, and was well satisfied with her figure, especially with her carriage, which was full of dignity; but it was her head that best pleased her, and her head, indeed, had aspects of great benignity and sweetness. It was a large head, crowned with coils of dull gold hair; her clothing followed the fashions obediently, but her fashion of dressing her hair did not vary, and the smooth parting, the carved ripples along her brow became her, though they did not become her stiffly conventional attire. Her face, though almost classic in its spaces and modelling, lacked in feature the classic decision and amplitude, so that the effect was rather that of a dignified room meagrely furnished. For these deficiencies, however, Miss Jakes's eyes might well be accepted as atonement. They were large, dark, and innocent; they lay far apart, heavily lidded and with wistful eyebrows above them; their expression varied easily from lucid serenity to a stricken, expectant look, like that of a threatened doe, and slight causes could make Miss Jakes's eyes look stricken. They did not look stricken now, but they looked profoundly melancholy.
Here she stood, in the heartless little French sitting-room, meaning so well, so desirous of the best, yet alone, uncertain of any aim, and very weary of everything.
Althea, though a cosmopolitan wanderer, had seldom stayed in an hotel unaccompanied. She did not like, now, going down to the table d'hote dinner alone, and was rather glad that her Aunt Julia and Aunt Julia's two daughters were to arrive in Paris next week. It was really almost the only reason she had for being glad of Aunt Julia's arrival, and she could imagine no reason for being glad of the girls'. Tiresome as it was to think of going to tea with Miss Harriet Robinson, to think of hearing from her all the latest gossip, and all the latest opinions of the latest books and pictures—alert, mechanical appreciations with which Miss Robinson was but too ready—it was yet more tiresome to look forward to Aunt Julia's appreciations, which were dogmatic and often belated, and to foresee that she must run once more the gauntlet of Aunt Julia's disapproval of expatriated Americans. Althea was accustomed to these assaults and met them with weary dignity, at times expostulating: 'It is all very well for you, Aunt Julia, who have Uncle Tom and the girls; I have nobody, and all my friends are married.' But this brought upon her an invariable retort: 'Well, why don't you get married then? Franklin Winslow Kane asks nothing better.' This retort angered Althea, but she was too fond of Franklin Winslow Kane to reply that perhaps she, herself, did ask something better. So that it was as a convenience, and not as a comfort, that she looked forward to Aunt Julia; and to the girls she did not look forward at all. They were young, ebullient, slangy; they belonged to a later generation than her own, strange to her in that it seemed weighted with none of the responsibilities and reverences that she had grown up among. It was a generation that had no respect for and no anxiety concerning Europe; that played violent outdoor games, and went without hats in summer.
The dining-room was full when she went down to dinner, her inward tremor of shyness sustained by the consciousness of the perfect fit and cut of her elaborate little dress. People sat at small tables, and the general impression was one of circumspection and withdrawal. Most of the occupants were of Althea's type—richly dressed, quiet-voiced Americans, careful of their own dignity and quick at assessing other people's. A French family loudly chattered and frankly stared in one corner; for the rest, all seemed to be compatriots.
But after Althea had taken her seat at her own table near the pleasantly open window, and had consulted the menu and ordered a half-bottle of white wine, another young woman entered and went to the last vacant table left in the room, the table next Althea's—so near, indeed, that the waiter found some difficulty in squeezing himself between them when he presented the carte des vins to the newcomer.
She was not an American, Althea felt sure of this at once, and the mere negation was so emphatic that it almost constituted, for the first startled glance, a complete definition. But, glancing again and again, while she ate her soup, Althea realised there were so many familiar things the newcomer was not, that she seemed made up of differences. The fact that she was English—she spoke to the waiter absent-mindedly in that tongue—did not make her less different, for she was like no English person that Althea had ever seen. She engaged at once the whole of her attention, but at first Althea could not have said whether this attention were admiring; her main impression was of oddity, of something curiously arresting and noticeable.
The newcomer sat in profile to Althea, her back to the room, facing the open window, out of which she gazed vaguely and unseeingly. She was dressed in black, a thin dress, rather frayed along the edges—an evening dress; though, as a concession to Continental custom, she had a wide black scarf over her bare shoulders. She sat, leaning forward, her elbows on the table, and once, when she glanced round and found Althea's eyes fixed on her, she looked back for a moment, but with something of the same vagueness and unseeingness with which she looked out of the window.
She was very odd. An enemy might say that she had Chinese eyes and a beak-like nose. The beak was small, as were all the features—delicately, decisively placed in the pale, narrow face—yet it jutted over prominently, and the long eyes were updrawn at the outer corners and only opened widely with an effect of effort. She had quantities of hair, dense and dark, arranged with an ordered carelessness, and widely framing her face and throat. She was very thin, and she seemed very tired; and fatigue, which made Althea look wistful, made this young lady look bored and bitter. Her grey eyes, perhaps it was the strangeness of their straight-drawn upper lids, were dazed and dim in expression. She ate little, leaned limply on her elbows, and sometimes rubbed her hands over her face, and sat so, her fingers in her hair, for a languid moment. Dinner was only half over when she rose and went away, her black dress trailing behind her, and a moon-like space of neck visible between her heavily-clustered hair and the gauze scarf.
Althea could not have said why, but for the rest of the meal, and after she had gone back to her sitting-room, the thought of the young lady in black remained almost oppressively with her.
She had felt empty and aimless before seeing her; since seeing her she felt more empty, more aimless than ever. It was an absurd impression, and she tried to shake it off with the help of a recent volume of literary criticism, but it coloured her mind as though a drop of some potent chemical had been tipped into her uncomfortable yet indefinable mood, and had suddenly made visible in it all sorts of latent elements.
It was curious to feel, as a deep conviction about a perfect stranger, that though the young lady in black might often know moods, they would never be undefined ones; to be sure that, however little she had, she would always accurately know what she wanted. The effect of seeing some one so hard, so clear, so alien, was much as if, a gracefully moulded but fragile earthenware pot, she had suddenly, while floating down the stream, found herself crashing against the bronze vessel of the fable.
A corrective to this morbid state of mind came to her with the evening post, and in the form of a thick letter bearing the Boston postmark. Franklin Winslow Kane had not occurred to Althea as an alternative to the various forms of dignified extinction with which her imagination had been occupied that afternoon. Franklin often occurred to her as a solace, but he never occurred to her as an escape.
He was a young man of very homespun extraction, who hovered in Boston on the ambiguous verge between the social and the scholastic worlds; the sort of young man whom one asked to tea rather than to dinner. He was an earnest student, and was attached to the university by an official, though unimportant, tie. A physicist, and, in his own sober way, with something of a reputation, he was profoundly involved in theories that dealt with the smallest things and the largest—molecules and the formation of universes.
He had first proposed to Althea when she was eighteen. She was now thirty-three, and for all these years Franklin had proposed to her on every occasion that offered itself. He was deeply, yet calmly, determinedly, yet ever so patiently, in love with her; and while other more eligible and more easily consoled aspirants had drifted away and got married and become absorbed in their growing families, Franklin alone remained admirably faithful. She had never given him any grounds for expecting that she might some day marry him, yet he evidently found it impossible to marry anybody else. This was the touching fact about Franklin, the one bright point, as it were, in his singularly colourless personality. His fidelity was like a fleck of orange on the wing of some grey, unobtrusive moth; it made him visible.
Althea's compassionate friendship seemed to sustain him sufficiently on his way; he did not pine or protest, though he punctually requested. He frequently appeared and he indefatigably wrote, and his long constancy, the unemotional trust and closeness of their intimacy, made him seem less a lover than the American husband of tradition, devoted and uncomplaining, who had given up hoping that his wife would ever come home and live with him.
Althea rather resented this aspect of their relation; she was well aware of its comicality; but though Franklin's devotion was at times something of a burden, though she could expect from him none of the glamour of courtship, she could ill have dispensed with his absorption in her. Franklin's absorption in her was part of her own personality; she would hardly have known herself without it; and her relation to him, irksome, even absurd as she sometimes found it, was perhaps the one thing in her life that most nearly linked her to reality; it was a mirage, at all events, of the responsible affections that her life lacked.
And now, in her mood of positive morbidity, the sight of Franklin's handwriting on the thick envelope brought her the keenest sense she had ever had of his value. One might have no aim oneself, yet to be some one else's aim saved one from that engulfing consciousness of nonentity; one might be uncertain and indefinite, but a devotion like Franklin's really defined one. She must be significant, after all, since this very admirable person—admirable, though ineligible—had found her so for so many years. It was with a warming sense of restoration, almost of reconstruction, that she opened the letter, drew out the thickly-folded sheets of thin paper and began to read the neat, familiar writing. He told her everything that he was doing and thinking, and about everything that interested him. He wrote to her of kinetics and atoms as if she had been a fellow-student. It was as if, helplessly, he felt the whole bulk of his outlook to be his only chance of interesting her, since no detail was likely to do so. Unfortunately it didn't interest her much. Franklin's eagerness about some local election, or admiration for some talented pupil, or enthusiasm in regard to a new theory that delved deeper and circled wider than any before, left her imagination inert, as did he. But to-night all these things were transformed by the greatness of her own need and of her own relief. And when she read that Franklin was to be in Europe in six weeks' time, and that he intended to spend some months there, and, if she would allow it, as near her as was possible, a sudden hope rose in her and seemed almost a joy.
Was it so impossible, after all, as an alternative? Equipped with her own outlooks, with her wider experience, and with her ample means, might not dear Franklin be eligible? To sink back on Franklin, after all these years, would be, of course, to confess to failure; but even in failure there were choices, and wasn't this the best form of failure? Franklin was not, could never be, the lover she had dreamed of; she had never met that lover, and she had always dreamed of him. Franklin was dun-coloured; the lover of her dreams a Perseus-like flash of purple and gold, ardent, graceful, compelling, some one who would open doors to large, bright vistas, and lead her into a life of beauty. But this was a dream and Franklin was the fact, and to-night he seemed the only fact worth looking at. Wasn't dun-colour, after all, preferable to the trivial kaleidoscope of shifting tints which was all that the future, apart from Franklin, seemed to offer her? Might not dun-colour, even, illuminated by joy, turn to gold, like highway dust when the sun shines upon it? Althea wondered, leaning back in her chair and gazing before her; she wondered deeply.
If only Franklin would come in now with the right look. If only he would come in with the right word, or, if not with the word, with an even more compelling silence! Compulsion was needed, and could Franklin compel? Could he make her fall in love with him? So she wondered, sitting alone in the Paris hotel, the open letter in her hand.
When Althea went in to lunch next day, after an arduous morning of shopping, she observed, with mingled relief and disappointment, that the young lady in black was not in her place. She might very probably have gone away, and it was odd to think that an impression so strong was probably to remain an impression merely. On the whole, she was sorry to think that it might be so, though the impression had not been altogether happy.
After lunch she lay down and read reviews for a lazy hour, and then dressed to receive Miss Harriet Robinson, who, voluble and beaming, arrived punctually at four.
Miss Robinson looked almost exactly as she had looked for the last ten years. She changed as little as the hotel drawing-room, but that the pictures on the wall, the vases on the shelf of her mental decoration varied with every season. She was always passionately interested in something, and it was surprising to note how completely in the new she forgot last year's passion. This year it was eugenics and Strauss; the welfare of the race had suddenly engaged her attention, and the menaced future of music. She was slender, erect, and beautifully dressed. Her hands were small, and she constantly but inexpressively gesticulated with them; her elaborately undulated hair looked like polished, fluted silver; her eyes were small, dark, and intent; she smiled as constantly and as inexpressively as she gesticulated.
'And so you really think of going back for the winter?' she asked Althea finally, when the responsibilities of parenthood and the impermanency of modern musical artifices had been demonstrated. 'Why, my dear? You see everybody here. Everybody comes here, sooner or later.'
'I don't like getting out of touch with home,' said Althea.
'I confess that I feel this home,' said Miss Robinson. 'America is so horribly changed, so vulgarised. The people they accept socially! And the cost of things! My dear, the last time I went to the States I had to pay five hundred francs—one hundred dollars—for my winter hat! Je vous demande! If they will drive us out they must take the consequences.'
Althea felt tempted to inquire what these might be. Miss Robinson sometimes roused a slight irony in her; but she received the expostulation with a dim smile.
'Why won't you settle here?' Miss Robinson continued, 'or in Rome—there is quite a delightful society in Rome—or Florence, or London. Not that I could endure the English winter.'
'I've sometimes thought of England,' said Althea.
'Well, do think of it. I'm perfectly disinterested. Rather than have you unsettled, I would like to have you settled there. You have interesting friends, I know.'
'Yes, very interesting,' said Althea, with some satisfaction.
'You would probably make quite a place for yourself in London, if you went at it carefully and consideringly, and didn't allow the wrong sort of people to accaparer you. We always count, when we want to, we American women of the good type,' said Miss Robinson, with frank complacency; 'and I don't see why, with your gifts and charm, you shouldn't have a salon, political or artistic.'
Althea was again tempted to wonder what it was Miss Robinson counted for; but since she had often been told that her gifts and charm demanded a salon, she was inclined to believe it. 'It's only,' she demurred, 'that I have so many friends, in so many places; it is hard to decide on settling.'
'One never does make a real life for oneself until one does settle. I've found that out for myself,' said Miss Robinson.
It did not enter into her mind that Althea might still settle, in a different sense. She was of that vast army of rootless Europeanised Americans, who may almost be said to belong to a celibate order, so little does the question of matrimony and family life affect their existence. For a younger, more frivolous type, Europe might have a merely matrimonial significance; but to Miss Robinson, and to thousands of her kind, it meant an escape from displeasing circumstance and a preoccupation almost monastic with the abstract and the aesthetic. To Althea it had never meant merely that. Her own people in America were fastidious and exclusive; from choice, they considered, but, in reality, partly from necessity; they had never been rich enough or fashionable enough to be exposed to the temptation of great European alliances. Althea would have scorned such ambitions as basely vulgar; she had never thought of Europe as an arena for social triumphs; but it had assuredly been coloured for her with the colour of romance. It was in Europe, rather than in America, that she expected to find, if ever, her ardent, compelling wooer. And it irritated her a little that Miss Robinson should not seem to consider such a possibility for her.
She did not accept her friend's invitation to go with her to the Francais that evening; the weariness of the morning of shopping was her excuse. She wanted to study a little; she never neglected to keep her mind in training; and after dinner she sat down with a stout tome on political economy. She had only got through half a chapter when Amelie came to her and asked her if she could suggest a remedy for a young lady next door who, the femme de chambre said, was quite alone, and had evidently succumbed to a violent attack of influenza.
'C'est une dame anglaise,' said Amelie, 'et une bien gentille.'
Althea sprang up, strangely excited. Was it the lady in black? Had she then not gone yet? 'Next door, you say?' she asked. Yes; the stranger's bedroom was next her own, and she had no salon.
'I will go in myself and see her,' said Althea, after a moment of reflection.
She was not at all given to such impulses, and, under any other circumstances, would have sent Amelie with the offer of assistance. But she suddenly felt it an opportunity, for what she could not have said. It was like seeing a curious-looking book opened before one; one wanted to read in it, if only a snatched paragraph here and there.
Amelie protested as to infection, but Althea was a resourceful traveller and had disinfectants for every occasion. She drenched her handkerchief, gargled her throat, and, armed with her little case of remedies, knocked at the door near by. A languid voice answered her and she entered.
The room was lighted by two candles that stood on the mantelpiece, and the bed in its alcove was dim. Tossed clothes lay on the chairs; a battered box stood open, its tray lying on the floor; the dressing-table was in confusion, and the scent of cigarette smoke mingled with that of a tall white lily that was placed in a vase on a little table beside the bed. To the well-maided Althea the disorder was appalling, yet it expressed, too, something of charm. The invalid lay plunged in her pillows, her dark hair tossed above her head, and, as Althea approached, she did not unclose her eyes.
'Oh, I beg your pardon,' said Althea, feeling some trepidation. 'My maid told me that you were ill—that you had influenza, and I know just what to do for it. May I give you some medicine? I do hope I have not waked you up,' for the invalid was now looking at her with some astonishment.
'No; I wasn't asleep. How very kind of you. I thought it was the chambermaid,' she said. 'Forgive me for seeming so rude.'
Her eyes were more dazed than ever, and she more mysterious, with her unbound hair.
'You oughtn't to lie with your arms outside the covers like that,' said Althea. 'It's most important not to get chilled. I'm afraid you don't know how to take care of yourself.' She smiled a little, gentle and assured, though inwardly with still a tremor; and she drew the clothes about the invalid, who had relapsed passively on to her pillows.
'I'm afraid I don't. How very kind of you!' she murmured again.
Althea brought a glass of water and, selecting her little bottle, poured out the proper number of drops. 'You were feeling ill last night, weren't you?' she said, after the dose had been swallowed. 'I thought that you looked ill.'
'Yes, don't you remember? I sat next you in the dining-room.'
'Oh yes; of course, of course! I remember now. You had this dress on; I noticed all the little silver tassels. Yes, I've been feeling wretched for several days; I've done hardly anything—no shopping, no sight-seeing, and I ought to be back in London to-morrow; but I suppose I'll have to stay in bed for a week; it's very tiresome.' She spoke wearily, yet in decisive little sentences, and her voice, its hardness and its liquid intonations, made Althea think of wet pebbles softly shaken together.
'You haven't sent for a doctor?' she inquired, while she took out her small clinical thermometer.
'No, indeed; I never send for doctors. Can't afford 'em,' said the young lady, with a wan grimace. 'Must I put that into my mouth?'
'Yes, please; I must take your temperature. I think, if you let me prescribe for you, I can see after you as well as a doctor,' Althea assured her. 'I'm used to taking care of people who are ill. The friend I've just been staying with in Venice had influenza very badly while I was with her.'
She rather hoped, after the thermometer was removed, that the young lady would ask her some question about Venice and her present destination; but, though so amiable and so grateful, she did not seem to feel any curiosity about the good Samaritan who thus succoured her.
Althea found her patient less feverish next morning when she went in early to see her, and though she said that her body felt as though it were being beaten with red-hot hammers, she smiled in saying it, and Althea then, administering her dose, asked her what her name might be.
It was Helen Buchanan, she learned.
'And mine is Althea Jakes. You are English, aren't you?'
'Oh no, I'm Scotch,' said Miss Buchanan.
'And I am American. Do you know any Americans?'
'Oh yes, quite a lot. One of them is a Mrs. Harrison, and lives in Chicago,' said Miss Buchanan, who seemed in a more communicative mood. 'I met her in Nice one winter; a very nice, kind woman, who gives most sumptuous parties. Her husband is a millionaire; one never sees him. Do you come from Chicago? Do you know her?'
Althea, with some emphasis, said that she came from Boston.
'Another,' Miss Buchanan pursued, 'lives in New York, though she is usually over here; she is immensely rich, too. She hunts every winter in England, and is great fun and is frightfully well up in everything—pictures, books, music, you know: Americans usually are well up, aren't they? She wants me to stay with her some day in New York; perhaps I shall, if I can manage to afford the voyage. Her name is Bigham; perhaps you know her.'
'No. I know of her, though; she is very well known,' said Althea rather coldly; for Mrs. Bigham was an excessively fashionable and reputedly reckless lady who had divorced one husband and married another, and whose doings filled more scrupulous circles with indignation and unwilling interest.
'Then I met a dear little woman in Oxford once,' said Miss Buchanan. 'She was studying there—she had come from a college in America. She was so nice and clever, and charming, too; quaint and full of flavour. She was going to teach in a college when she went back. She was very poor, quite different from the others. Her father, she told me, kept a shop, but didn't get on at all; and her brother, to whom she was devoted, sold harmoniums. It was just like an American novel. Wayman was her name—Miss Carrie Wayman; perhaps you know her. I forget the name of the town she came from, but it was somewhere in the western part of America.'
No, Althea said, she did not know Miss Wayman, and she felt some little severity for the confusion that Miss Buchanan's remarks indicated. With greater emphasis than before, she said that she did not know the West at all.
'It must be rather nice—plains and cowboys and Rocky Mountains,' Miss Buchanan said. 'I've a cousin on a ranch in Dakota, and I've often thought I'd like to go out there for a season; he says the riding is wonderful, and the scenery and flowers. Oh, my wretched head; it feels as if it were stuffed with incandescent cotton-wool.'
'You must remember to keep your arms under the covers,' said Althea, as Miss Buchanan lifted her hands and pressed them to her brows. 'And let me plait your hair for you; it must be so hot and uncomfortable.'
And now again, looking up at her while the friendly office was performed, Miss Buchanan said, 'How kind you are! too kind for words. I can't think what I should have done without you.'
It became easy after this for Althea to carry into effect all her beneficent wishes. The friends who had taken Miss Buchanan to the Riviera had gone on to London, leaving her alone in Paris for a week's shopping, and there was no one else to look after her. She brought her fruit and flowers and sat with her in all her spare moments. The feeling of anxiety that had oppressed her on the evening of gloom when she had first seen her was transformed into a soft and delightful perturbation. As the unknown lady in black Miss Buchanan had indeed charmed as well as oppressed her, and the charm grew while the oppression, though it still hovered, was felt more as a sense of alluring mystery. She had never in her life met any one in the least like Miss Buchanan. She was at once so open and so impenetrable. She replied to all questions with complete unreserve, but she had never, with all her candour, the air of making confidences. It hurt Althea a little, and yet was part of the allurement, to see that she was, probably, too indifferent to be reticent. Lying on her pillows, a cigarette—all too frequently, Althea considered—between her lips, and her hair wound in a heavy wreath upon her head, she would listen pleasantly, and as pleasantly reply; and Althea could not tell whether it was because she really found it pleasant to talk and be talked to, or whether, since she had nothing better to do, she merely showed good manners. Althea was sensitive to every shade in manners, and was sure that Miss Buchanan, however great her tact might be, did not find her a bore; yet she could not be at all sure that she found her interesting, and this disconcerted her. Sometimes the suspicion of it made her feel humble, and sometimes it made her feel a little angry, for she was not accustomed to being found uninteresting. She herself, however, was interested; and it was when she most frankly owned to this, laying both anger and humility aside, that she was happiest in the presence of her new acquaintance. She liked to talk to her, and she liked to make her talk. From these conversations she was soon able to build up a picture of Miss Buchanan's life. She came of an old Scotch family, and she had spent her childhood and girlhood in an old Scotch house. This house, Althea was sure, she really did enjoy talking about. She described it to Althea: the way the rooms lay, and the passages ran, and the queer old stairs climbed up and down. She described the ghost that she herself had seen once—her matter-of-fact acceptance of the ghost startled Althea—and the hills and moors that one looked out on from the windows. Led by Althea's absorbed inquiries, she drifted on to detailed reminiscence—the dogs she had cared for, the flowers she had grown, and the dear red lacquer mirror that she had broken. 'Papa did die that year,' she added, after mentioning the incident.
'Surely you don't connect the two things,' said Althea, who felt some remonstrance necessary. Miss Buchanan said no, she supposed not; it was silly to be superstitious; yet she didn't like breaking mirrors.
Her brother lived in the house now. He had married some one she didn't much care about, though she did not enlarge on this dislike. 'Nigel had to marry money,' was all she said. 'He couldn't have kept the place going if he hadn't. Jessie isn't at all a bad sort, and they get on very well and have three nice little boys; but I don't much take to her nor she to me, so that I'm not much there any more.'
'And your mother?' Althea questioned, 'where does she live? Don't you stay with her ever?' She had gathered that the widowed Mrs. Buchanan was very pretty and very selfish, but she was hardly prepared for the frankness with which Miss Buchanan defined her own attitude towards her.
'Oh, I can't stand Mamma,' she said; 'we don't get on at all. I'm not fond of rowdy people, and Mamma knows such dreadful bounders. So long as people have plenty of money and make things amusing for her, she'll put up with anything.'
Althea had all the American reverence for the sanctities and loyalties of the family, and these ruthless explanations filled her with uneasy surprise. Miss Buchanan was ruthless about all her relatives; there were few of them, apparently, that she cared for except the English cousins with whom she had spent many years of girlhood, and the Aunt Grizel who made a home for her in London. To her she alluded with affectionate emphasis: 'Oh, Aunt Grizel is very different from the rest of them.'
Aunt Grizel was not well off, but it was she who made Helen the little allowance that enabled her to go about; and she had insured her life, so that at her death, when her annuity lapsed, Helen should be sure of the same modest sum. 'Owing to Aunt Grizel I'll just not starve,' said Helen, with the faint grimace, half bitter, half comic, that sometimes made her strange face still stranger. 'One hundred and fifty pounds a year: think of it! Isn't it damnable? Yet it's better than nothing, as Aunt Grizel and I often say after groaning together.'
Althea, safely niched in her annual three thousand, was indeed horrified.
'One hundred and fifty,' she repeated helplessly. 'Do you mean that you manage to dress on that now?'
'Dress on it, my dear! I pay all my travelling expenses, my cabs, my stamps, my Christmas presents—everything out of it, as well as buy my clothes. And it will have to pay for my rent and food besides, when Aunt Grizel dies—when I'm not being taken in somewhere. Of course, she still counts on my marrying, poor dear.'
'Oh, but, of course you will marry,' said Althea, with conviction.
Miss Buchanan, who was getting much better, was propped high on her pillows to-day, and was attired in a most becoming flow of lace and silk. Nothing less exposed to the gross chances of the world could be imagined. She did not turn her eyes on her companion as the confident assertion was made, and she kept silence for a moment. Then she answered placidly:
'Of course, if I'm to live—and not merely exist—I must try to, I suppose.'
Althea was taken aback and pained by the wording of this speech. Her national susceptibilities were again wounded by the implication that a rare and beautiful woman—for so she termed Helen Buchanan—might be forced, not only to hope for marriage, but to seek it; the implication that urgency lay rather in the woman's state than in the man's. She had all the romantic American confidence in the power of the rare and beautiful woman to marry when and whom she chose.
'I am sure you need never try,' she said with warmth. 'I'm sure you have dozens of delightful people in love with you.'
Miss Buchanan turned her eyes on her and laughed as though she found this idea amusing. 'Why, in heaven's name, should I have dozens of delightful people in love with me?'
'You are so lovely, so charming, so distinguished.'
'Am I? Thanks, my dear. I'm afraid you see things en couleur de rose.' And, still smiling, her eyes dwelling on Althea with their indifferent kindness, she went on: 'Have you delightful dozens in love with you?'
Althea did not desert her guns. She felt that the very honour of their sex—hers and Helen's—was on trial in her person. She might not be as lovely as her friend—though she might be; that wasn't a matter for her to inquire into; but as woman—as well-bred, highly educated, refined and gentle woman—she, too, was chooser, and not seeker.
'Only one delightful person is in love with me at this moment, I'm sorry to say,' she answered, smiling back; 'but I've had very nearly my proper share in the past.' It had been necessary thus to deck poor Franklin out if her standpoint were to be maintained; and, indeed, could not one deem him delightful, in some senses—in moral senses; he surely was delightfully good. The little effort to see dear Franklin's goodness as delightful rather discomposed her, and as Miss Buchanan asked no further question as to the one delightful suitor, the little confusion mounted to her eyes and cheeks. She wondered if she had spoken tastelessly, and hastened away from this personal aspect of the question.
'You don't really mean—I'm sure you don't mean that you would marry just for money.'
Miss Buchanan kept her ambiguous eyes half merrily, half pensively upon her. 'Of course, if he were very nice. I wouldn't marry a man who wasn't nice for money.'
'Surely you couldn't marry a man unless you were in love with him?'
'Certainly I could. Money lasts, and love so often doesn't.' Helen continued to smile as she spoke.
There was now a tremor of pain in Althea's protest. 'Dear Miss Buchanan, I can't bear to hear you speak like that. I can't bear to think of any one so lovely doing anything so sordid, so miserable, as making a mariage de convenance.' Tears rose to her eyes.
Miss Buchanan was again silent for a moment, and it was now her turn to look slightly confused. 'It's very nice of you to mind,' she said; and she added, as if to help Althea not to mind, 'But, you see, I am sordid; I am miserable.'
'Sordid? Miserable? Do you mean unhappy?' Poor Althea gazed, full of her most genuine distress.
'Oh no; I mean in your sense. I'm a poor creature, quite ordinary and grubby; that's all,' said Miss Buchanan.
They said nothing more of it then, beyond Althea's murmur of now inarticulate protest; but the episode probably remained in Miss Buchanan's memory as something rather puzzling as well as rather pitiful, this demonstration of a feeling so entirely unexpected that she had not known what to do with it.
If, in these graver matters, she distressed Althea, in lesser ones she was continually, if not distressing her, at all events calling upon her, in complete unconsciousness, for readjustments of focus that were sometimes, in their lesser way, painful too. When she asserted that she was not musical, Althea almost suspected her of saying it in order to evade her own descriptions of experiences at Bayreuth. Pleasantly as she might listen, it was sometimes, Althea had discovered, with a restive air masked by a pervasive vagueness; this vagueness usually drifted over her when Althea described experiences of an intellectual or aesthetic nature. It could be no question of evasion, however, when, in answer to a question of Althea's, she said that she hated Paris. Since girlhood Althea had accepted Paris as the final stage in a civilised being's education: the Theatre Francais, the lectures at the Sorbonne, the Louvre and the Cluny, and, for a later age, Anatole France—it seemed almost barbarous to say that one hated the splendid city that clothed, as did no other place in the world, one's body and one's mind. 'How can you hate it?' she inquired. 'It means so much that is intellectual, so much that is beautiful.'
'I suppose so,' said Miss Buchanan. 'I do like to look at it sometimes; the spaces and colour are so nice.'
'The spaces, and what's in them, surely. What is it that you don't like? The French haven't our standards of morality, of course, but don't you think it's rather narrow to judge them by our standards?'
Althea was pleased to set forth thus clearly her own liberality of standard. She sometimes suspected Miss Buchanan of thinking her naive. But Miss Buchanan now looked a little puzzled, as if it were not this at all that she had meant, and said presently that perhaps it was the women's faces—the well-dressed women. 'I don't mind the poor ones so much; they often look too sharp, but they often look kind and frightfully tired. It is the well-dressed ones I can't put up with. And the men are even more horrid. I always want to spend a week in walking over the moors when I've been here. It leaves a hot taste in my mouth, like some horrid liqueur.'
'But the beauty—the intelligence,' Althea urged. 'Surely you are a little intolerant, to see only people's faces in Paris. Think of the Salon Carree and the Cluny; they take away the taste of the liqueur. How can one have enough of them?'
Miss Buchanan again demurred. 'Oh, I think I can have enough of them.'
'But you care for pictures, for beautiful things,' said Althea, half vexed and half disturbed. But Miss Buchanan said that she liked having them about her, not having to go and look at them. 'It is so stuffy in museums, too; they always give me a headache. However, I don't believe I really do care about pictures. You see, altogether I've had no education.'
Her education, indeed, contrasted with Althea's well-ordered and elaborate progression, had been lamentable—a mere succession of incompetent governesses. Yet, on pressing her researches, Althea, though finding almost unbelievable voids, felt, more than anything else, tastes sharp and fine that seemed to cut into her own tastes and show her suddenly that she did not really like what she had thought she liked, or that she liked what she had hardly before been aware of. All that Helen could be brought to define was that she liked looking at things in the country: at birds, clouds, and flowers; but though striking Althea as a creature strangely untouched and unmoulded, she struck her yet more strongly as beautifully definite. She marvelled at her indifference to her own shortcomings, and she marvelled at the strength of personality that could so dispense with other people's furnishings.
Among the things that Helen made her see, freshly and perturbingly, was the sheaf of friends in England of whom she had thought with such security when Miss Robinson had spoken of the London salon.
Althea had been trained in a school of severe social caution. Social caution was personified to her in her memory of her mother—a slender, black-garbed lady, with parted grey hair, neatly waved along her brow, and a tortoiseshell lorgnette that she used to raise, mildly yet alarmingly, at foreign tables d'hotes, for an appraising survey of the company. The memory of this lorgnette operated with Althea as a sort of social standard; it typified delicacy, dignity, deliberation, a scrupulous regard for the claims of heredity, and a scrupulous avoidance of uncertain or all too certain types. Althea felt that she had carried on the tradition worthily. The lorgnette would have passed all her more recent friends—those made with only its inspiration as a guide. She was as careful as her mother as to whom she admitted to her acquaintanceship, eschewing in particular those of her compatriots whose accents or demeanour betrayed them to her trained discrimination as outside the radius of acceptance. But Althea's kindness of heart was even deeper than her caution, and much as she dreaded becoming involved with the wrong sort of people, she dreaded even more hurting anybody's feelings, with the result that once or twice she had made mistakes, and had had, under the direction of Lady Blair, to withdraw in a manner as painful to her feelings as to her pride. 'Oh no, my dear,' Lady Blair had said of some English acquaintances whom Althea had met in Rome, and who had asked her to come and see them in England. 'Quite impossible; most worthy people, I am sure, and no doubt the daughter took honours at Girton—the middle classes are highly educated nowadays; but one doesn't know that sort of people.'
Lady Blair was the widow of a judge, and, in her large velvet drawing-room, a thick fog outside and a number of elderly legal ladies drinking tea about her, Althea had always felt herself to be in the very heart of British social safety. Lady Blair was an old friend of her mother's, and, with Miss Buckston, was her nearest English friend. She also felt safe on the lawn under the mulberry-tree at Grimshaw Rectory, and when ensconced for her long visit in Colonel and Mrs. Colling's little house in Devonshire, where hydrangeas grew against a blue background of sea, and a small white yacht rocked in the bay at the foot of the garden.
It was therefore with some perplexity that, here too, she brought from her interviews with Helen an impression of new standards. They were not drastic and relegating, like those of Lady Blair's; they did not make her feel unsafe as Lady Blair's had done; they merely made her feel that her world was very narrow and she herself rather ingenuous.
Helen herself seemed unaware of standards, and had certainly never experienced any of Althea's anxieties. She had always been safe, partly, Althea had perceived, because she had been born safe, but, in the main, because she was quite indifferent to safety. And with this indifference and this security went the further fact that she had, probably, never been ingenuous. With all her admiration, her affection for her new friend, this sense of the change that she was working in her life sometimes made Althea a little afraid of her, and sometimes a little indignant. She, herself, was perfectly safe in America, and when she felt indignant she asked herself what Helen Buchanan would have done had she been turned into a strange continent with hardly any other guides than the memory of a lorgnette and a Baedeker.
It was when she was bound to answer this question, and to recognise that in such circumstances Miss Buchanan would have gone her way, entirely unperturbed, and entirely sure of her own preferences, that Althea felt afraid of her. In all circumstances, she more and more clearly saw it, Miss Buchanan would impose her own standards, and be oppressed or enlightened by none. Althea had always thought of herself as very calm and strong; it was as calm and strong that Franklin Winslow Kane so worshipped her; but when she talked to Miss Buchanan she had sharp shoots of suspicion that she was, in reality, weak and wavering.
Althea's accounts of her friends in England seemed to interest Miss Buchanan even less than her accounts of Bayreuth. She had met Miss Buckston, but had only a vague and, evidently, not a pleasant impression of her. Lady Blair she had never heard of, nor the inmates of Grimshaw Rectory. The Collings were also blanks, except that Mrs. Colling had an uncle, an old Lord Taunton; and when Althea put forward this identifying fact, Helen said that she knew him and liked him very much.
'I suppose you know a great many people,' said Althea.
Yes, Miss Buchanan replied, she supposed she did. 'Too many, sometimes. One gets sick of them, don't you think? But perhaps your people are more interesting than mine; you travel so much, and seem to know such heaps of them all over the world.'
But Althea, from these interviews, took a growing impression that though Miss Buchanan might be sick of her own people, she would be far more sick of hers.
Miss Buchanan was well on the way to complete recovery, was able to have tea every afternoon with Althea, and to be taken for long drives in the Bois, when Aunt Julia and the girls arrived at the Hotel Talleyrand.
Mrs. Pepperell was a sister of Althea's mother, and lived soberly and solidly in New York, disapproving as much of millionaires and their manners as of expatriated Americans. She was large and dressed with immaculate precision and simplicity, and had it not been for a homespun quality of mingled benevolence and shrewdness, she might have passed as stately. But Mrs. Pepperell had no wish to appear stately, and was rather intolerant of the pretension in others. Her sharp tongue had indulged itself in a good many sallies on this score at her sister Bessie's expense; Bessie being the lady of the lorgnette, Althea's deceased mother.
Althea, remembering that dear mother so well, all dignified elegance as she had been—too dignified, too elegant, perhaps, to be either so shrewd or so benevolent as her sister—always thought of Aunt Julia as rather commonplace in comparison. Yet, as she followed in her wake on the evening of her arrival, she felt that Aunt Julia was obviously and eminently 'nice.' The one old-fashioned diamond ornament at her throat, the ruffles at her wrist, the gloss of her silver-brown hair, reminded her of her own mother's preferences.
The girls were 'nice,' too, as far as their appearance and breeding went, but Althea found their manners very bad. They were not strident and they were not arrogant, but so much noisiness and so much innocent assurance might, to unsympathetic eyes, seem so. They were handsome girls, fresh-skinned, athletic, tall and slender. They wore beautifully simple white lawn dresses, and their shining fair hair was brushed off their foreheads and tied at the back with black bows in a very becoming fashion, though Althea thought the bows too large and the fashion too obviously local.
Helen was in her old place that night, and she smiled at Althea as she and her party took their places at a table larger and at a little distance. She was to come in for coffee after dinner, so that Althea adjourned introductions. Aunt Julia looked sharply and appraisingly at the black figure, and the girls did not look at all. They were filled with young delight and excitement at the prospect of a three weeks' romp in Paris, among dressmakers, tea-parties, and the opera. 'And Herbert Vaughan is here. I've just had a letter from him, forwarded from London,' Dorothy announced, to which Mildred, with glad emphasis, cried 'Bully!'
Althea sighed, crumbled her bread, and looked out of the window resignedly.
'You mustn't talk slang before Cousin Althea,' said Dorothy.
'What Cousin Althea needs is slang,' said Mildred.
'I shan't lack it with you, shall I, Mildred?' Althea returned, with, a rather chilly smile. She knew that Dorothy and Mildred considered her, as they would have put it, 'A back number'; they liked to draw her out and to shock her. She wanted to make it clear that she wasn't shocked, but that she was wearied. At the same time it was true that Mildred and Dorothy made her uncomfortable in subtler ways; she was, perhaps, a little afraid of them, too. They, too, imposed their own standards, and were oppressed and enlightened by none.
Aunt Julia smiled indulgently at her children, and asked Althea if she did not think that they were looking very well. They certainly were, and Althea had to own it. 'But don't let them overdo their athletics, Aunt Julia,' she said. 'It is such a pity when girls get brawny.'
'I'm brawny; feel my muscle,' said Mildred, stretching a hard young arm across the table. Althea shook her head. She did not like being made conspicuous, and already the girls' loud voices had drawn attention; the French family were all staring.
'Who is the lady in black, Althea?' Mrs. Pepperell asked. 'A friend of yours?'
'Yes, a most charming friend,' said Althea. 'Helen Buchanan is her name; she is Scotch—a very old family—and she is one of the most interesting people I've ever known. You will meet her after dinner. She is coming in to spend the evening.'
'Where did you meet her? How long have you known her?' asked Aunt Julia, evidently unimpressed.
Althea said that she had met her here, but that they had mutual friends, thinking of Miss Buckston in what she felt to be an emergency.
Aunt Julia, with her air of general scepticism as to what she could find so worth while in Europe, often made her embark on definitions and declarations. She could certainly tolerate no uncertainty on the subject of Helen's worth.
'Very odd looking,' said Aunt Julia, while the girls glanced round indifferently at the subject of discussion.
'And peculiarly distinguished looking,' said Althea. 'She makes most people look so half-baked and insignificant.'
'I think it a rather sinister face,' said Aunt Julia. 'And how she slouches! Sit up, Mildred. I don't want you to catch European tricks.'
But, after dinner, Althea felt that Helen made her impression. She was still wan and weak; she said very little, though she smiled very pleasantly, and she sat—as Aunt Julia had said, 'slouched,' yet so gracefully—in a corner of the sofa. The charm worked. The girls felt it, Aunt Julia felt it, though Aunt Julia held aloof from it. Althea saw that Aunt Julia, most certainly, did not interest Helen, but the girls amused her; she liked them. They sat near her and made her laugh by their accounts of their journey, the funny people on the steamer, their plans for the summer, and life in America, as they lived it. Dorothy assured her that she didn't know what fun was till she came to America, and Mildred cried: 'Oh, do come! We'll give you the time of your life!' Helen declared that she hoped some day to experience this climax.
Before going to bed, and attired in her dressing-gown, Althea went to Helen's room to ask her how she felt, but also to see what impression her relatives had made. Helen was languidly brushing her hair, and Althea took the brush from her and brushed it for her.
'Isn't it lamentable,' she said, 'that Aunt Julia, who is full of a certain sort of wise perception about other things, doesn't seem to see at all how bad the children's manners are. She lets them monopolise everybody's attention with the utmost complacency.'
Helen, while her hair was being brushed, put out her hand for her watch and was winding it. 'Have they bad manners?' she said. 'But they are nice girls.'
'Yes, they are nice. But surely you don't like their slang?'
Helen smiled at the recollection of it. 'More fun than a goat,' she quoted. 'Why shouldn't they talk slang?'
'Dear Helen,'—they had come quite happily to Christian names—'surely you care for keeping the language pure. Surely you think it regrettable that the younger generation should defile and mangle it like that.'
But Helen only laughed, and confessed that she really didn't care what happened to the language. 'There'll always be plenty of people to talk it too well,' she said.
Mrs. Pepperell, on her side, had her verdict, and she gave it some days later when she and her niece were driving to the dressmaker's.
'She is a very nice girl, Miss Buchanan, and clever, too, in her quiet English way, though startlingly ignorant. Dorothy actually told me that she had never read any Browning, and thought that Sophocles was Diogenes, and lived in a tub. But frankly, Althea, I can't say that I take to her very much.'
Aunt Julia, often irritating to Althea, was never more so than when, as now, she assumed that her verdicts and opinions were of importance to her niece. Althea shrank from open combat with anybody, yet she could, under cover of gentle candour, plant her shafts. She planted one now in answering: 'I don't think that you would, either of you, take to one another. Helen's flavour is rather recondite.'
'Recondite, my dear,' said Aunt Julia, who never pretended not to know when a shaft had been planted. 'I think, everyday mere de famille as I am, that I am quite capable of appreciating the recondite. Miss Buchanan's appearance is striking, and she is an independent creature; but, essentially, she is the most commonplace type of English girl—well-bred, poor, idle, uneducated, and with no object in life except to amuse herself and find a husband with money. And under that air of sleepy indifference she has a very sharp eye to the main chance, you may take my word for it.'
Althea was very angry, the more so for the distorted truth this judgment conveyed. 'I'm afraid I shouldn't take your word on any matter concerning my friend,' she returned; 'and I think, Aunt Julia, that you forget that it is my friend you are speaking of.'
'My dear, don't lose your temper. I only say it to put you on your guard. You are so given to idealisation, and you may find yourself disappointed if you trust to depths that are not there. As to friendship, don't forget that she is, as yet, the merest acquaintance.'
'One may feel nearer some people in a week than to others after years.'
'As to being near in a week—she doesn't feel near you; that is all I mean. Don't cast your pearls too lavishly.'
Althea made no reply, but under her air of unruffled calm, Aunt Julia's shaft rankled.
She found herself that afternoon, when she and Helen were alone at tea, sounding her, probing her, for reassuring symptoms of warmth or affection. 'I so hope that we may keep really in touch with one another,' she said. 'I couldn't bear not to keep in touch with you, Helen.'
Helen looked at her with the look, vague, kind, and a little puzzled, that seemed to plant Aunt Julia's shaft anew. 'Keep in touch,' she repeated. 'Of course. You'll be coming to England some day, and then you'll be sure to look me up, won't you?'
'But, until I do come, we will write? You will write to me a great deal?'
'Oh, my dear, I do so hate writing. I never have anything to say in a letter. Let us exchange postcards, when our doings require it.'
'Postcards!' Althea could not repress a disconsolate note. 'How can I tell from postcards what you are thinking and feeling?'
'You may always take it for granted that I'm doing very little of either,' said Helen, smiling.
Althea was silent for a moment, and then, with a distress apparent in voice and face, she said: 'I can't bear you to say that.'
Helen still smiled, but she was evidently at a loss. She added some milk to her tea and took a slice of bread and butter before saying, more kindly, yet more lightly than before: 'You mustn't judge me by yourself. I'm not a bit thoughtful, you know, or warm-hearted and intellectual, like you. I just rub along. I'm sure you'll not find it worth while keeping in touch with me.'
'It's merely that I care for you very much,' said Althea, in a slightly quivering voice. 'And I can't bear to think that I am nothing to you.'
There was again a little pause in which, because her eyes had suddenly filled with tears, Althea looked down and could not see her friend. Helen's voice, when she spoke, showed her that she was pained and disconcerted. 'You make me feel like such a clumsy brute when you say things like that,' she said. 'You are so kind, and I am so selfish and self-centred. But of course I care for you too.'
'Do you really?' said Althea, who, even if she would, could not have retained the appearance of lightness and independence. 'You really feel me as a friend, a true friend?'
'If you really think me worth your while, of course. I don't see how you can—an ill-tempered, ignorant, uninteresting woman, whom you've run across in a hotel and been good to.'
'I don't think of you like that, as you know. I think you a strangely lovely and strangely interesting person. From the first moment I saw you you appealed to me. I felt that you needed something—love and sympathy, perhaps. The fact that it's been a sort of chance—our meeting—makes it all the sweeter to me.'
Again Helen was silent for a moment, and again Althea, sitting with downcast eyes, knew that, though touched, she was uncomfortable. 'You are too nice and kind for words,' she then said. 'I can't tell you how kind I think it of you.'
'Then we are friends? You do feel me as a friend who will always be interested and always care?'
'Yes, indeed; and I do so thank you.'
Althea put out her hand, and Helen gave her hers, saying, 'You are a dear,' and adding, as though to take refuge from her own discomposure, 'much too dear for the likes of me.'
The bond was thus sealed, yet Aunt Julia's shaft still stuck. It was she who had felt near, and who had drawn Helen near. Helen, probably, would never have thought of keeping in touch. She was Helen's friend because she had appealed for friendship, and because Helen thought her a dear. The only comfort was to know that Helen's humility was real. She might have offered her friendship could she have realised that it was of value to anybody.
It was a few evenings after this, and perhaps as a result of their talk, that, as they sat in Althea's room over coffee, Helen said: 'Why don't you come to England this summer, Althea?'
Aunt Julia had proposed that Althea should go on to Bayreuth with her and the girls, and Althea was turning over the plan, thinking that perhaps she had had enough of Bayreuth, so that Helen's suggestion, especially as it was made in Aunt Julia's presence, was a welcome one. 'Perhaps I will,' she said. 'Will you be there?'
'I'll be in London, with Aunt Grizel, until the middle of July; after that, in the country till winter. You ought to take a house in the country and let me come to stay with you,' said Helen, smiling.
'Will you pay me a long visit?' Althea smiled back.
'As long as you'll ask me for.'
'Well, you are asked for as long as you will stay. Where shall I get a house? There are some nice ones near Miss Buckston's.'
'Oh, don't let us be too near Miss Buckston,' said Helen, laughing.
'But surely, Althea, you won't give up Bayreuth,' Aunt Julia interposed. 'It is going to be specially fine this year. And then you know so few people in England, you will be very lonely. Nothing is more lonely than the English country when you know nobody.'
'Helen is a host in herself,' said Althea; and though Helen did not realise the full force of the compliment, it was more than satisfactory to have her acquiesce with: 'Oh, as to people, I can bring you heaps of them, if you want them.'
'It is a lovely idea,' said Althea; 'and if I must miss Bayreuth, Aunt Julia, I needn't miss you and the girls. You will have to come and stay with me. Do you know of a nice house, Helen, in pretty country, and not too near Miss Buckston?' It was rather a shame of her, she felt, this proviso, but indeed she had never found Miss Buckston endearing, and since knowing Helen she had seen more clearly than before that she was in many ways oppressive.
Helen was reflecting. 'I do know of a house,' she said, 'in a very nice country, too. You might have a look at it. It's where I used to go, as a girl, you know, and stay with my cousins, the Digbys.'
'That would be perfect, Helen.'
'Oh, I don't know that you would find it perfect. It is a plain stone house, with a big, dilapidated garden, nice trees and lawns, miles from everything, and with old-fashioned, shabby furniture. Since Gerald came into the place, he's not been able to keep it up, and he has to let it. He hasn't been able to let it for the last year or so, and would be glad of the chance. If you like the place you'll only have to say the word.'
'I know I shall like it. Don't you like it?'
'Oh, I love it; but that's a different matter. It is more of a home to me than any place in the world.'
'I consider it settled. I don't need to see it.'
'No; it certainly isn't settled,' Helen replied, with her pleasant decisiveness. 'You certainly shan't take it till you see it. I will write to Gerald and tell him that no one else is to have it until you do.'
'I am quite determined to have that house,' said Althea. 'A place that you love must be lovely. Write if you like. But the matter is settled in my mind.'
'Don't be foolish, my dear,' said Aunt Julia. 'Miss Buchanan is quite right. You mustn't think of taking a house until you see it. How do you know that the drainage is in order, or even that the beds are comfortable. Miss Buchanan says that it is miles away from everything, too. You may find the situation very dismal and unsympathetic.'
'It's pretty country, I think,' said Helen, 'and I'm sure the drainage and the beds are all right. But Althea must certainly see it first.'
It was settled, however, quite settled in Althea's mind that she was to take Merriston House. She bade Helen farewell three days later, and they had arranged that they were, within a fortnight, to meet in London, and go together to look at it.
And Althea wrote to Franklin Winslow Kane, and informed him of her new plans, and that he must be her guest at Merriston House for as long as his own plans allowed him. Her mood in regard to Franklin had greatly altered since that evening of gloom a fortnight ago. Franklin, then, had seemed the only fact worth looking at; but now she seemed embarked on a voyage of discovery, where bright new planets swam above the horizon with every forward rock of her boat. Franklin was by no means dismissed; Franklin could never be dismissed; but he was relegated; and though, as far as her fondness went, he would always be firmly placed, she could hardly place him clearly in the new and significantly peopled environment that her new friendship opened to her.
Helen Buchanan was a person greatly in demand, and, in her migratory existence, her pauses at her Aunt Grizel's little house near Eaton Square were, though frequent, seldom long. When she did come, her bedroom and her sitting-room were always waiting for her, as was Aunt Grizel with her cheerful 'Well, my dear, glad to see you back again.' Their mutual respect and trust were deep; their affection, too, though it was seldom expressed. She knew Aunt Grizel to the ground, and Aunt Grizel knew her to the ground—almost; and they were always pleased to be together.
Helen's sitting-room, where she could see any one she liked and at any time she liked, was behind the dining-room on the ground floor, and from its window one saw a small neat garden with a plot of grass, bordering flower-beds, a row of little fruit-trees, black-branched but brightly foliaged, and high walls that looked as though they were built out of sooty plum cake. Aunt Grizel's cat, Pharaoh, sleek, black, and stalwart, often lay on the grass plot in the sunlight; he was lying there now, languidly turned upon his side, with outstretched feet and drowsily blinking eyes, when Helen and her cousin, Gerald Digby, talked together on the day after her return from Paris.
Gerald Digby stood before the fireplace looking with satisfaction at his companion. He enjoyed looking at Helen, for he admired her more than any woman he knew. It was always a pleasure to see her again; and, like Aunt Grizel, he trusted and respected her deeply, though again, like Aunt Grizel, he did not, perhaps, know her quite down to the ground. He thought, however, that he did; he knew that Helen was as intimate with nobody in the world as with him, not even with Aunt Grizel, and it was one of his most delightful experiences to saunter through all the chambers of Helen's mind, convinced that every door was open to him.
Gerald Digby was a tall and very slender man; he tilted forward when he walked, and often carried his hands in his pockets. He had thick, mouse-coloured hair, which in perplexed or meditative moments he often ruffled by rubbing his hand through it, and even when thus disordered it kept its air of fashionable grace. His large, long nose, his finely curved lips and eyelids, had a delicately carved look, as though the sculptor had taken great care over the details of his face. His brown eyes had thick, upturned lashes, and were often in expression absent and irresponsible, but when he looked at any one, intent and merry, like a gay dog's eyes. And of the many charming things about Gerald Digby the most charming was his smile, which was as infectious as a child's, and exposed a joyous array of large white teeth.
He was smiling at his cousin now, for she was telling him, dryly, yet with a mocking humour all her own, of her Paris fiasco that had delayed her return to London by a fortnight, and, by the expense it had entailed upon her, had deprived her of the new hat and dress that she had hoped in Paris to secure. Talking of Paris led to the letter she had sent him four or five days ago. 'About this rich American,' said Gerald; 'is she really going to take Merriston, do you think? It's awfully good of you, Helen, to try and get a tenant for me.'
'I don't know that you'd call her rich—not as Americans go; but I believe she will take Merriston. She wanted to take it at once, on faith; but I insisted that she must see it first.'
'You must have cried up the dear old place for her to be so eager.'
'I think she is eager about pleasing me,' said Helen. 'I told her that I loved the place and hadn't been there for years, and that moved her very much. She has taken a great fancy to me.'
'Really,' said Gerald. 'Why?'
'I'm sure I don't know. She is a dear little person, but rather funny.'
'Of course, there is no reason why any one shouldn't take a fancy to you,' said Gerald, smiling; 'only—to that extent—in so short a time.'
'I appealed to her pity, I think; she came in and took care of me, and was really unspeakably kind. And she seemed to get tremendously interested in me. But then, she seemed capable of getting tremendously interested in lots of things. I've noticed that Americans often take things very seriously.'
'And you became great pals?'
'Yes, I suppose we did.'
'She interested you?'
Helen smiled a little perplexedly, and lit a cigarette before answering. 'Well, no; I can't say that she did that; but that, probably, was my own fault.'
'Why didn't she interest you?' Gerald went on, taking a cigarette from the case she offered. He was fond of such desultory pursuit of a subject; he and Helen spent hours in idle exchanges of impression.
Helen's answer was hardly illuminating: 'She wasn't interesting.'
'It was rather interesting of her to take such an interest in you,' said Gerald subtly.
'No.' Helen warmed to the theme. It had indeed perplexed her, and she was glad to unravel her impressions to this understanding listener. 'No, that's just what it wasn't; it might have been if one hadn't felt her a person so easily affected. She had—how can I put it?—it seems brutal when she is such a dear—but she had so little stuff in her; it was as if she had to find it all the time in other things and people. She is like a glass of water that would like to be wine, and she has no wine in her; it could only be poured in, and there's not room for much. At best she can only be eau rougie.'
Gerald laughed. 'How you see things, and say them! Poor Miss Jakes!—that's her name, isn't it? She sounds tame.'
'She is tame.'
'Is she young, pretty?'
'Not young, about my age; not pretty, but it's a nice face; wistful, with large, quite lovely eyes. She knows a lot about everything, and has been everywhere, and has kept all her illusions intact—a queer mixture of information and innocence. It's difficult to keep one's mind on what she's saying; there is never any background to it. She wants something, but she doesn't know whether it's what other people want or whether it's what she wants, so that she can't want anything very definitely.'
Gerald still laughed. 'How you must have been taking her in!'
'I suppose I must have been, though I didn't know it. But I did like her, you know. I liked her very much. A glass of water is a nice thing sometimes.'
'Nicer than eau rougie; I'm afraid she's eau rougie.'
'Eau rougie may be nice, too, if one is tired and thirsty and needs mild refreshment, not altogether tasteless, and not at all intoxicating. She was certainly that to me. I was very much touched by her kindness.'
'I shall be touched if she'll take Merriston. I'm fearfully hard up. I suppose it would only be a little let; but that would be better than nothing.'
'She might stay for the winter if she liked it. I shan't try to make her like it, but I'll do my best to make her stay on if she does, and with a clear conscience, for I think that her staying will depend on her seeing me.'
'Wouldn't that mean that she'd be a great deal on your hands?'
'I shouldn't mind that; we get on very well. She will be here next week, you know. You must come to tea and meet her.'
'Well, I don't know. I don't think that I'm particularly eager to meet her,' Gerald confessed jocosely.
'You'll have to meet her a good deal if you are to see much of me,' said Helen; on which he owned that, with that compulsion put upon him, he and Miss Jakes might become intimates.
Gerald Digby was a young man who did very little work. He had been vaguely intended, by an affectionate but haphazard family, for the diplomatic service, but it was found, after he had done himself some credit at Eton and Oxford, that the family resources didn't admit of this obviously suitable career for him; and an aged and wealthy uncle, who had been looked to confidently for succour, married at the moment, most unfeelingly, so that Gerald's career had to be definitely abandoned. Another relation found him a berth in the City, where he might hope to amass quite a fortune; but Gerald soon said that he far preferred poverty. He thought that he would like to paint and be an artist; he had a joyful eye for delicate, minute forms of beauty, and was most happily occupied when absorbed in Japanese-like studies of transient loveliness—a bird in flight, a verdant grasshopper on a wheat-blade, the tangled festoons of a wild convolvulus spray. His talent, however, though genuine, could hardly supply him with a livelihood, and he would have been seriously put to it had not his father's death left him a tiny income, while a half-informal secretaryship to a political friend, offered him propitiously at the same time, gave him leisure for his painting as well as for a good many other pleasant things. He had leisure, in especial, for going from country-house to country-house, where he was immensely in demand, and where he hunted, danced, and acted in private theatricals—usually in company with his cousin Helen. Helen's position in life was very much like his own, but that she hadn't even an informal secretaryship to depend upon. He had known Helen all his life, and she was almost like a sister, only nicer; for he associated sisters with his own brood, who were lean, hunting ladies, pleasant, but monotonous and inarticulate. Helen was very articulate and very various. He loved to look at her, as he loved to look at birds and flowers, and he loved to talk with her. He had many opportunities to look and talk. They stayed at the same houses in the country, and in London, when she was with old Miss Buchanan, he usually saw her every day. If he didn't drop in for a moment on his way to work at ten-thirty in the morning, he dropped in to tea; and if his or Helen's day were too full to admit of this, he managed to come in for a goodnight chat after a dinner or before a dance. He enjoyed Helen's talk and Helen's appearance most of all, he thought, at these late hours, when, a little weary and jaded, in evening dress and cloak, she lit her invariable cigarette, and mused with him over the events and people of the day. He liked Helen's way of talking about people; they knew an interminable array of them, many involved in enlivening complications, yet Helen never gossiped; the musing impersonality and impartiality with which she commented and surmised lifted her themes to a realm almost of art; she was pungent, yet never malicious, and the tolerant lucidity of her insight was almost benign.
Her narrow face, leaning back in its dark aureole of hair, her strange eyes and bitter-sweet lips—all dimmed, as it were, by drowsiness and smoke, and yet never more intelligently awake than at these nocturnal hours—remained with him as most typical of Helen's most significant and charming self. It was her aspect of mystery and that faint hint of bitterness that he found so charming; Helen herself he never thought of as mysterious. Mystery was a mere outward asset of her beauty, like the powdery surface of a moth's wing. He didn't think of Helen as mysterious, perhaps because he thought little about her at all; he only looked and listened while she made him think about everything but herself, and he felt always happy and altogether at ease in her presence. There seemed, indeed, no reason for thinking about a person whom one had known all one's life long.
And Helen was more than the best of company and the loveliest of objects; she was at once comrade and counsellor. He depended upon her more than upon any one. Comically helpless as he often found himself, he asked her advice about everything, and always received the wisest.
He had had often, though not so much in late years, to ask her advice about girls, for in spite of his financial ineligibility he was so engaging a person that he found himself continually drawn to the verge of decisive flirtations. His was rarely the initiative; he was responsive and affectionate and not at all susceptible, and Helen, who knew girls of her world to the bone, could accurately gauge the effect upon him of the pleading coquetry at which they were such adepts. She could gauge them the better, no doubt, from having herself no trace of coquetry. Men often liked her, but often found her cold and cynical, and even suspected her of conceit, especially since it was known that she had refused many excellent opportunities for establishing herself in life. She was also suspected by many of abysmal cleverness, and this reputation frightened admiring but uncomplicated young men more than anything else. Now, when her first youth was past, men more seldom fell in love with her and more frequently liked her; they had had time to find out that if she were cold she was also very kind, and that if abysmally clever, she could adapt her cleverness to pleasant, trivial uses.
Gerald, when he thought at all about her, thought of Helen as indeed cold, clever, and cynical; but these qualities never oppressed him, aware from the first, as he had been, of the others, and he found in them, moreover, veritable shields and bucklers for himself. It was to some one deeply experienced, yet quite unwarped by personal emotions, that he brought his recitals of distress and uncertainty. Lady Molly was a perfect little dear, but could he go on with it? How could he if he would? She hadn't any money, and her people would be furious; she herself, he felt sure, would be miserable in no time, if they did marry. They wouldn't even have enough—would they, did Helen think?—for love in a cottage, and Molly would hate love in a cottage. They would have to go about living on their relations and friends, as he now did, more or less; but with a wife and babies, how could one? Did Helen think one could? Gerald would finish dismally, standing before her with his hands thrust deeply into his pockets and a ruffled brow of inquiry. Or else it was the pretty Miss Oliver who had him—half alarmed, half enchanted—in her toils, and Gerald couldn't imagine what she was going to do with him. For such entanglements Helen's advice had always shown a way out, and for his uncertainties—though she never took the responsibility of actual guidance—her reflective questionings, her mere reflective silences, were illuminating. They made clear for him, as for her, that recklessness could only be worth while if one were really—off one's own bat, as it were—'in love'; and that, this lacking, recklessness was folly sure to end in disaster. 'Wait, either until you care so much that you must, or else until you meet some one so nice, so rich, and so suitable that you may,' said Helen. 'If you are not careful you will find yourself married to some one who will bore you and quarrel with you on twopence a year.'
'You must be careful for me,' said Gerald. 'Please warn and protect.'
And Helen replied that she would always do her best for him.
It had never occurred to Gerald to turn the tables on Helen and tell her that she ought to marry. His imagination was not occupied with Helen's state, though once, after a conversation with old Miss Buchanan, he remarked to Helen, looking at her with a vague curiosity, that it was a pity she hadn't taken Lord Henry or Mr. Fergusson. 'Miss Buchanan tells me you might have been one of the first hostesses in London if you hadn't thrown away your chances.'
'I'm all right,' said Helen.
'Yes, you yourself are; but after she dies?'
Helen owned, with a smile, that she could certainly do with some few thousands a year; but that, in default of them, she could manage to scrape along.
'But you've never had any better chances, have you?' said Gerald rather tentatively. He might confide everything in Helen, but he realised, as a restraining influence, that she never made any confidences, even to him, who, he was convinced, knew her down to the ground.
Helen owned that she hadn't.
'Your aunt thinks it a dreadful pity. She's very much worried about you.'
'It's late in the day for the poor dear to worry. The chances were over long ago.'
'You didn't care enough?'
'I was young and foolish enough to want to be in love when I married,' said Helen, smiling at him with her half-closed eyes.
And Gerald said that, yes, he would have expected that from her; and with this dismissed the subject from his mind, taking it for granted that Helen's disengaged, sustaining, and enlivening spinsterhood would always be there for his solace and amusement.
Helen was on one side of her and Mr. Digby sat in an opposite corner of the railway carriage, and they were approaching the end of the journey to Merriston House on a bright July day soon after Althea's arrival in England. She had met Mr. Digby at Helen's the day before and had suggested that he should come with them. Gerald had remarked that it might be tiresome if she hated Merriston, and he were there to see that she hated it; but Althea was so sure of liking it that her conviction imposed itself.
Mr. Digby and Helen were both smoking; they had asked her very solicitously whether she minded, and she had said she didn't, although in fact she did not like the smell of tobacco, and Helen's constant cigarette distressed her quite unselfishly on the score of health. The windows were wide open, and though the gale that blew through ruffled her smooth hair and made her veil tickle disagreeably, these minor discomforts could not spoil her predominant sense of excitement and adventure. Mr. Digby's presence, particularly, roused it. He was so long, so limp, so graceful, lounging there in his corner. His socks and his tie were of such a charming shade of blue and his hair such a charming shade of light mouse-colour. He was vague and blithe, immersed in his own thoughts, which, apparently, were pleasant and superficial. When his eyes met Althea's, he smiled at her, and she thought his smile the most engaging she had ever seen. For the rest, he hardly spoke at all, and did not seem to consider it incumbent on him to make any conversational efforts, yet his mere presence lent festivity to the occasion.
Helen did not talk much either; she smoked her cigarette and looked out of the window with half-closed eyes. Her slender feet, encased in grey shoes, were propped on the opposite seat; her grey travelling-dress hung in smoke-like folds about her; in her little hat was a bright green wing.
Althea wondered if Mr. Digby appreciated his cousin's appearance, or if long brotherly familiarity had dimmed his perception of it. She wondered how her own appearance struck him. She knew that she was very trim and very elegant, and in mere beauty—quite apart from charm, which she didn't claim—she surely excelled Helen; Helen with her narrow eyes, odd projecting nose, and small, sulkily-moulded lips. Deeply though she felt the fascination of her friend's strange visage, she could but believe her own the lovelier. So many people—not only Franklin Winslow Kane—had thought her lovely. There was no disloyalty in recognising the fact for oneself, and an innocent satisfaction in the hope that Mr. Digby might recognise it too.
The day that flashed by on either side had also a festive quality: blue skies heaped with snowy clouds; fields brimmed with breeze-swept grain, green and silver, or streaked with the gold of butter-cups; swift streams and the curves of summer foliage. It was a country remote, wooded and pastoral, and Althea, a connoisseur in landscapes, was enchanted.
'Do you like it?' Helen asked her as they passed along the edge of a little wood, glimpses of bright meadow among its clearings. 'We are almost there now, and it's like this all about Merriston.'
'I've hardly seen any part of England I like so much,' said Althea. 'It has a sweet, untouched wildness rather rare in England.'
'I always think that it's a country to love and live in,' said Helen. 'Some countries seem made only to be looked at.'
Althea wondered, as she then went on looking at this country, whether she were thinking of her girlhood and of her many journeys to Merriston. She wondered if Mr. Digby were thinking of his boyhood. Ever since seeing those two together yesterday afternoon she had wondered about them. She had never encountered a relationship quite like theirs; it was so close, so confident, yet so untender. She could hardly make out that they liked each other; all that one saw was that they trusted, so that it had something of the businesslike quality of a partnership. Yet she found herself building up an absurd little romance about their past. It might be, who knew, that Mr. Digby had once been in love with Helen and that she had refused him; he was poor, and she had said that she must marry money. Althea's heart tightened a little with compassion for Mr. Digby. Only, if this ever had been, it was well over now; and more narrowly observing Mr. Digby's charming and irresponsible face, she reflected that he was hardly the sort of person to illustrate large themes of passion and fidelity.
A fly was waiting for them at the station, and as they jolted away Gerald remarked that she was now to see one of the worst features of Merriston; it was over an hour from the station, and if one hadn't a motor the drive was a great bore. Althea, however, didn't find it a bore. Her companions talked now, their heads at the windows; it had been years since they had traversed that country together; every inch of it was known to them and significant of weary waits, wonderful runs, feats and misadventures at gates and ditches; for their reminiscences were mainly sportsmanlike. Althea listened, absorbed, but distressed. It was Gerald who caught and interpreted the expression of her large, gentle eyes.
'I don't believe you like fox-hunting, Miss Jakes,' he said.
'No, indeed, I do not,' said Althea, shaking her head.
'You mean you think it cruel?'
'Yet where would we be without it?' said Gerald. 'And where would the foxes be? After all, while they live, their lives are particularly pleasant.'
'With possible intervals of torture? Don't you think that, if they could choose, they would rather not live at all?'
'Oh, a canny old fox doesn't mind the run so much, you know—enjoys it after a fashion, no doubt.'
'Don't salve your conscience by that sophism, Gerald; the fox is canny because he has been terrified so often,' said Helen. 'Let us own that it is barbarous, but such glorious sport that one tries to forget the fox.'
It required some effort for Althea to testify against her and Mr. Digby, but she felt so strongly on the subject of animals, foxes in particular, that her courage did not fail her. 'I think it is when we forget, that the dreadful things in life, the sins and cruelties, happen,' she said.
Gerald's gay eyes were cogitatingly fixed on her, and Helen continued to look out of the window; but she thought that they both liked her the better for her frankness, and she felt in the little ensuing silence that it had brought them nearer—bright, alien creatures that they were.
Her first view of Merriston House hardly confirmed her hopes of it, though she would not have owned to herself that this was so. It was neither so beautiful nor so imposing as she had expected; it was even, perhaps, rather commonplace; but in a moment she was able to overcome this slight disloyalty and to love it the more for its unpretentiousness. A short, winding avenue of limes led to it, and it stood high among lawns that fell away to lower shrubberies and woods. It was a square stone house, covered with creepers, a white rose clustering over the doorway and a group of trees over-topping its chimneys.
Inside, where the housekeeper welcomed them and tea waited for them, was the same homely brightness. Hunting prints hung in the hall; rows of mediocre, though pleasing, family portraits in the dining-room. The long drawing-room at the back of the house, overlooking the lawns and a far prospect, was a much inhabited room, cheerful and shabby. There were old-fashioned water-colour landscapes, porcelain in cabinets and on shelves, and many tables crowded with ivory and silver bric-a-brac; things from India and things from China, that Digbys in the Army and Digbys in the Navy had brought home.
'What a Philistine room it is,' said Gerald, smiling as he looked around him; 'but I must say I like it just as it is. It has never made an aesthetic effort.'
Gerald's smile irradiated the whole house for Althea, and lit up, in especial, the big, sunny school-room where he and Helen found most memories of all. 'The same old table, Helen,' he said, 'and other children have spilled ink on it and scratched their initials just as we used to; here are yours and mine. Do you remember the day we did them under Fraeulein's very nose? And here are all our old books, too. Look, Helen, the Roman history with your wicked drawings on the fly-leaves: Tullia driving over her poor old father, and Cornelia—ironic little wretch you were even then—what a prig she is with her jewels! And what splendid butter-scotch you used to make over the fire on winter evenings.'
Helen remembered everything, smiling as she followed Gerald about the room and looked at ruthless Tullia; and Althea, watching them, was touched—for them, and then, with a little counter-stroke of memory, for herself. She remembered her old home too—the dignified old house in steep Chestnut Street, and the little house on the blue Massachusetts coast where she had often passed long days playing by herself, for she had been an only child. She loved it here, for it was like a home, peaceful and sheltering; but where in all the world had she really a home? Where in all the world did she belong? The thought brought tears to her eyes as she looked out of the schoolroom window and listened to Gerald and Helen. It had ended, of course, for of course it had really begun, in Althea's decision to take Merriston House. It was quite fixed now, and on the way back she had made her new friends promise to be often together with her in the home of their youth. She had made them promise this so prettily and with such gentle warmth that it was very natural that Gerald, in talking over the event with Helen that evening, should say, strolling round Helen's little sitting-room, 'She's rather a dear, that little friend of yours.'
Helen was tired and lay extended on the divan in the grey dress she had not had time to change. She had doffed her hat and, thrusting its hatpins through it, had laid it on her knees, so that, as Gerald had remarked, she looked rather like Bruenhilde on her rocky couch. But, unlike Bruenhilde, her hands were clasped behind her neck, and she looked up at the ceiling. 'A perfect little dear,' she assented.
'Did you notice her eyes when she was talking about the foxes? They were as sorrowful and piteous as a Mater Dolorosa's. She is definite enough about some things, isn't she? Things like right and wrong, I mean, as she sees them.'
'Yes; she is clear about outside things, like right and wrong.'
'It's a good deal to be clear about, isn't it?'
'I suppose so,' Helen reflected. 'I don't feel that I really understand Althea. People who aren't clear about themselves are difficult to understand, I think.'
'It's that that really gives them a mystery. I feel that she really is a little mysterious,' said Gerald. 'One wonders what she would do in certain cases, and feel in certain situations, and one can't remotely imagine. She is a sealed book.'