A COMEDY OF RESOLUTION
"Rest Harrow grows in any soil.... The seeds may be sown as soon as ripe in warm, sheltered spots out of doors.... It is a British plant."
WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY FRANK CRAIG
BOOK I OF THE NATURE OF A PROLOGUE, DEALING WITH A BRUISED PHILOSOPHER IN RETIREMENT
BOOK II SANCHIA AT WANLESS HALL
BOOK III INTERLUDE OF THE RECLUSE PHILOSOPHER
BOOK IV SANCHIA IN LONDON
BOOK V OF THE NATURE OF AN EPILOGUE, DEALING WITH DESPOINA
Wrote deliberately to each of her sisters
The hum of cities, and buzz of dinner tables . . sound in his ears not at all.
The housekeeper! This—person!
He had eloquence, he thought, as he watched her, he had won. But he was anxious. She was such a deep one.
Ploughman in the vales would sometimes see his gaunt figure on the sky- line.
"Well, Sanchia," he said, "here I am."
The great music went sobbing and chiding through her frame, like wounded nightingales.
Senhouse came back to her bedside and put a little flower into her hand
OF THE NATURE OF A PROLOGUE, DEALING WITH A BRUISED PHILOSOPHER IN RETIREMENT
An observant traveller, homing to England by the Ostend-Dover packet in the April of some five years ago, relished the vagaries of a curious couple who arrived by a later train, and proved to be both of his acquaintance. He had happened to be early abroad, and saw them come on. They were a lady of some personal attraction, comfortably furred, who, descending from a first-class carriage, was met by a man from a third- class, bare-headed, free in the neck, loosely clad in grey flannel trousers which flapped about his thin legs in the sea-breeze, a white sweater with a rolling collar, and a pair of sandals upon brown and sinewy feet uncovered by socks: these two. The man's garniture was extraordinary, but himself no less so. He had a lean and deeply bronzed face, hatchet- shaped like a Hindoo's. You looked instinctively for rings in his ears. His moustache was black and sinuous, outlining his mouth rather than hiding it. His hair, densely black, was longish and perfectly straight. His eyes were far-sighted and unblinking; he smiled always, but furtively, as if the world at large amused him, but must never know it. He seemed to observe everything, except the fact that everybody observed himself.
To have once seen such a man must have provided for his recollection; and yet our traveller, who was young and debonnaire, though not so young as he seemed, first recognised the lady. "Mrs. Germain, by George!" This to himself, but aloud, "Now, where's she been all this time?" The frown which began to settle about his discerning eyes speedily dissolved in wonder as they encountered the strange creature in the lady's company. He stared, he gaped, then slapped his thigh. "Jack Senhouse! That's the man. God of battles, what a start! Now, what on earth is Jack Senhouse doing, playing courier to Mrs. Germain?"
That was precisely the employment. His man had handed the lady out of her compartment, entered it when she left it, and was possessing himself of her littered vestiges while these speculations were afloat. Dressing-case, tea-basket, umbrellas, rugs, and what not, he filled his arms with them, handed them over to expectant porters, then smilingly showed their proprietress the carriage ridded. He led the way to the steamer, deposited his burdens and saw to the bestowal of others, fetched a chair, wrapped her in rugs, found her book, indicated her whereabouts to a mariner in case of need. All this leisurely done, in the way of a man who has privilege and duty for his warrants. Enquiring then, with an engaging lift of the eyebrows, whether she was perfectly comfortable, and receiving with a pleasant nod her answering nod of thanks, he left her and returned to the train. Tracked through the crowd, and easily by his height, bare head, and leisurely motions, he was next seen shouldering a canvas bag on his way back to the boat. Jack's belongings, his bag of tricks; Jack all over, the same inexhaustible Jack! It was delightful to our traveller to find Jack Senhouse thus verifying himself at every turn. He was for the steerage, it appears—and of course he was!—where depressed foreigners share with bicycles, motor cars, and newly boiled pigs the amenities of economical travel. In this malodorous and slippery well his interested friend saw him sit down upon his bundle, roll a cigarette, and fall into easy conversation with an Italian voyager who, having shaved, was now putting on a clean collar and a tartan necktie.
The traveller, Mr. William Chevenix, who had watched him so long, a well- dressed and cheerful Englishman of some five-and-thirty summers, with round eyes in a round and rosy face, now assuring himself that he would be damned if he didn't have it out with the chap, descended the companion, picked his way through the steerage, and approached the seated philosopher. He saw that he was known, and immediately. Nothing escaped Senhouse.
"How d'ye do, how d'ye do?" He held out his hand. Senhouse rose and grasped it. The Italian took off his hat, and strolled away.
"I'm very well, thanks," he said. "Have you noticed those shores beyond the canal? Samphire there just as we have it at home. Leagues of samphire."
The younger man looked in the direction indicated cheerfully and blankly. "'The samphire by the ocean's brim,'" he said lightly. "I attach no importance to it whatever, but it's very like you to lift one into your privacy at a moment's notice. I'm all for the formalities myself, so I observe that I haven't seen you for years. Years! Not since—why, it must be eighteen."
"It's precisely eight," said Senhouse, "and I've been abroad for four of them."
His friend inspected him with candid interest. "At your old games, I take it. You've filled England with hardy perennials and now you're starting on Europe. Great field for you. You'll want a pretty big trowel, though. A wheelbarrow might be handy, I should have said."
Senhouse fired. "I've been planting the Black Forest, you see. Great games. They gave me a free hand, and ten thousand marks a year to spend. I've done some rather showy things. Now I want to go to Tibet."
The other's attention had wandered. "I saw you come on board," he said. "I watched you play the Squire of Dames to a rather pretty woman whom I happen to know. She was a Mrs. Germain in those days."
"She still calls herself so," Senhouse said. He was staring straight before him out to sea. The steamer was under way.
"Married a queer old file in Berkshire, who died worth a plum. Goodish time ago. They called him Fowls, or Fowls of the Air. So she's still a widow, eh?"
Senhouse nodded. "She's his widow." Then he asked, "You know her? You might go and amuse her. I can't, because of these bonds." He exhibited his sockless feet with a cheerful grin.
"Oh, I shall, you know," he was assured. "You're not dressy enough for Mrs. Germain. She'd never stand it."
"She doesn't," said Senhouse. "She dislikes a fuss, and thinks me rather remarkable."
"Well," said the other, "I think she's right. You always were a conspicuous beggar. Now look at me. Think I'll do?"
Senhouse peered at him. "I think you are exactly what she wants just now," he said. "Go in and approve yourself, Chevenix."
Mr. Chevenix, the spick and span, had something on his mind, however, which he did not know how to put. He continued to reflect upon Mrs. Germain, but only by way of marking time. "She used to be very good fun in my young days. And she made things spin in Berkshire, they tell me. I know she did in London—while it lasted. What's she doing? There was a chap called Duplessis, I remember."
"There still is," Senhouse said, but in such a manner as to chalk No Thoroughfare across the field. Chevenix perceived this rather late in the day, and ended his ruminations in a whistle. "She kept him dangling—" he had begun. Instead of pursuing, he said abruptly, "I say, you remember Sancie Percival, of course."
A change came over Senhouse's aspect which a close observer might have noticed. He was very quiet, hardly moved; but he seemed to be listening with all his senses, listening with every pore of his skin. "Yes," he said, slowly. "Yes, I do; I'm not likely to forget her. She was my dearest friend, and is so still, I hope."
The solemnity of his intended message clouded Mr. Chevenix's candid brow. "She's still at Wanless, you know."
Senhouse set a watch upon himself. "No doubt she is," he said. "She's well?"
The other probed him. "She's never made it up with her people. I think she feels it nowadays."
Senhouse asked sharply, "Where's Ingram?"
"Ingram," said Chevenix, "is just off for a trip. He's to be abroad for a year. India."
Senhouse shivered. "Alone?"
"Well, without her, anyhow. He always was a casual beggar, was Nevile." He could see now that he was making a hit. "Got old Senhouse where he lives," he told himself, and then continued. "Fact is, I've been out with him as far as Brindisi. He asked me to. I had nothing to do. But I want to see Sancie Percival again. I was awfully fond of her—of the whole lot of them." He reflected, as .a man might deliberate upon familiar things, and discover them to be wonders. "What a family they were, by Jove! Five—of— the—loveliest girls a man could meet with. Melusine, what a girl she was! Married Tubby Scales—fat chap with a cigar. Vicky, now. How about Vicky? She was my chum, you know. She's married, too. Chap called Sinclair—in the Guides. But Sancie beat them all in her quiet way. A still water— what?"
Senhouse, his chin clasped in his bony hands, contemplated the sea. His face was drawn and stern. There was a queer twitching of the cheek-bones. "Got him, by Jove!" said Mr. Chevenix to himself, and pushed on. "I say, I wish you'd go and see her," he said.
Senhouse got up and leaned over the bulwarks. He was plainly disturbed. Chevenix waited for him nervously, but got nothing.
Then he said, "The fact is, Senhouse, I think that you should go. You were the best friend she ever had." Senhouse turned him then a tragic face.
"No, I wasn't," he said. "I think I was the worst."
Chevenix blinked. "I know what you mean. If it hadn't been for you and your confounded theories, you imply that she—"
"I don't know—" Senhouse began. "God only knows what she might have done. She was not of our sort, you know. I always said that she was unhuman."
"That's the last thing she was," said Chevenix, neatly. Senhouse scorned him.
"You don't know anything about it," he said. "What are the doings of this silly world, of our makeshift appearances, to the essentials? Antics— filling up time! You speak as if she gave Ingram everything, and lost it. She did, but he never knew it—so never had it. Ingram had what he was fitted to receive. Her impulse, her impulsion were divine. She has lost nothing—and he has gained nothing."
"If you talk philosophy I'm done," cried Mr. Chevenix. "Well, I say to you, my boy, Go and see her. She's so far human that she's got a tongue, and likes to wag it, I suppose. I don't say that there's trouble, and I don't say there's not. But there are the makings of it. She's alone, and may be moped. I don't know. You'd better judge for yourself."
Senhouse, trembling from his recent fire, turned away his face. "I don't know that I dare. If she's unhappy, I shall be in the worst place I ever was in my life. I don't know what I shall do."
"That's the first time you ever said that, I'll go bail," Chevenix interrupted him. But Senhouse did not hear him.
"I did everything I could at the time. I nearly made her quarrel with me— I dared do that. I went up to Wanless and saw Ingram. I hated the fellow, I disapproved of him, feared him. He was the last man in the world I could have tackled with a view to redemption. He was almost hopelessly bad, according to my view of things. Fed by slaves from the cradle, hag-ridden by his vices; a purple young bully, a product of filthy sloth, scabbed with privilege. I saw just how things were. She pitied him, and thought it was her business to save him. She did nobly. She gave herself for pity; and if she mistook that for love, the splendid generosity of her is enough to take the breath away. The world ought to have gone down on its knees to her—but it picked up its skirts for fear she might touch them. What a country! What a race! Well, feeling towards her as I did, and loathing him, I urged him to marry her—to make her his property for life. Dead against my conviction, mind you, but what else could I do? God help me, I played the renegade to what I sincerely believed. I couldn't see her done to death by a world of satyrs."
"Of course you couldn't, my dear man," cried Chevenix. "Girls of her sort must be married, you know."
"I don't know anything of the kind," replied Senhouse, fiercely; "but I loved her. You may put it that I funked. I did—and to no purpose."
"If you were to see her now," Chevenix put in, "you could do some good. She'll be pretty lonely up there." Senhouse got up.
"I'll see her," he said. "Whatever happens."
"Right," said Chevenix. "That's a good man. That's what I wanted of you. I'll tell her that you're coming. Now I'm going to do the civil to Mrs. Germain."
Senhouse had turned away, and was leaning over the bulwarks, lost in his thoughts. He remained there until the passage was over.
Mr. Chevenix, having approached the lady with all forms observed, made himself happy in her company, as, indeed, he did in all. "Now this is very jolly, Mrs. Germain, I must say. I'm a companionable beggar, I believe; and here I was in a ship where I didn't know a living soul until I met you and Senhouse. Didn't even know that you knew Senhouse. Queer fish, eh? Oh, the queerest fish in the sea! But you know all that, of course."
Mrs. Germain, a brunette with the power of glowing, coloured becomingly, and veiled her fine eyes with somewhat heavy and heavily-fringed eye-lids. "Oh, yes," she said, "I have known him for a long time."
"Met him abroad, I suppose—tinkering round, as he does. The everlasting loafer, artist, tinker, poet, gardener. 'Pon my soul, he's like the game we used to do with cherry-stones round the pudding plate. Don't you know? Soldier, sailor, tinker, tailor, and all the rest. He's all those things, and has two pair of bags to his name, and lives in a cart, and's a gentleman. Not a doubt about that, mind you, Mrs. Germain."
She smiled upon him kindly. "None at all," she said. "I like him extremely."
"You would, you know," said Chevenix, his tones rich in sympathy. "All women do. You couldn't help it. You've got such a kind heart. All women have. Now, I've known Senhouse himself five or six years, but I've known about him for at least eight. I used to hear about him from morn to dewy eve, once upon a time, from one—of—the—loveliest and most charming girls you ever met in your life. Did you know her? A Miss Percival— Sanchia Percival. We used to call her Sancie. Thought you might have met her, perhaps. No? Well, this chap Senhouse would have gone through the fire for her. He would have said his prayers to her. Did you ever see his poems about her? My word! He published 'em after the row, you know. He as good as identified her with—well, we won't mention names, Mrs. Germain, but he identified her with a certain holy lady not a hundred miles from the Kingdom of Heaven. Blasphemous old chap—he did, though."
Mrs. Germain, toying with her scent-bottle, was interested. "I never heard him speak about a Miss Percival," she said. She used a careless tone, but her flickering eyelids betrayed her.
"You wouldn't, you know," he told her with the same sympathetic earnestness. "There was too much of a row. He was cut all to pieces. I thought he'd go under; but he's not that sort. Who called somebody—some political johnny—the Sea-green Incorruptible? Oh, ask me another! You might call old Senhouse the Green-tea Irrepressible; for that was his drink (to keep himself awake all night, writin' poems), and there never was a cork that would hold him down—not even Sancie Percival. No, no, out he must come—fizzling."
"I see," said Mrs. Germain, still looking at her fingers in her lap. "I'm very much interested. You mean that he was very much—that he paid her a great deal of attention?"
Chevenix stared roundly about him. "Attention! Oh, heavens! Why, three of his letters to her would fill The Times for a week—and he kept it up for years! She used to get three a week—budgets! blue-books! For simple years! Attentions!" He shook his head. "The word's no good. He paid nobody anything at all when she was in the same county. He used to sit listening to her thrilling the waves of air. He used to hear her voice in the wind— and when it changed, he used to fire off his answers!"
Mrs. Germain laughed—whether at Chevenix or his preposterous hero is not to be known. "You are rather absurd," she said. "Mr. Senhouse never gave me the idea of that sort of person. Why did they never—?"
Chevenix narrowed his eyes to the merest slats. "Marry?" he said, in an awed whisper. "Is that what you mean?"
Mrs. Germain showed him her soft brown orbs, which for two seasons had been said to be the finest pair of dark eyes in London. "Yes," she said, "I do mean that. How clever of you to guess!"
Chevenix bowed to her. "Not at all," he said. "I'm quite good at that kind of thing. You have to be, if you knock about. Besides, that's the whole point. Bless you! He would just as soon have married Diana of the Ephesians. He said so. I heard him. He would have thought it an insult to hint at it. Didn't I tell you that he was a poet?"
"Yes," the lady said quickly. "You did. But I suppose poets occasionally marry."
"Not that sort," Chevenix pronounced, with a shake of the head. "At least, they don't marry the right person. They never do. Or there are two or three persons. Look at Shelley. Look at Dante. I happen to know all about both of 'em. Senhouse drank 'em up—and gave 'em out like steam. He thought no end of Dante and Shelley. As a matter of fact, he didn't believe in marriage, as a game—as a kind of institution, you know. He thought it devilish wrong—and said so—and that's where the trouble was. Marry Sancie! I wish to heaven he had. There'd have been no trouble at all. They were made for each other. She loved his fun—and was easy with him, you see. She was queerish, too—a shy young bird; but she was quite at home with him. No, no. The trouble really began with him putting her out of conceit with marriage. And then she didn't care for him in that sort of way, then. And then—well, the less said the better."
"Oh," said Mrs. Germain, absorbed by the devolutions of the tale. "Oh!"
"'Oh's the sort of expression one used at the time," said Chevenix. "There wasn't much else to be said. It was a holy row." He mused, he brooded, and said no more. Luckily for him, he discovered Dover at hand, and escaped. Mrs. Germain was put into a first-class carriage by two attendant squires, provided with tea and a foot-warmer; and then Chevenix bowed himself away and Senhouse disappeared. She had a novel on her knees, but read little. She looked out of window, frowning and biting her red lip. When she reached Victoria she tightened both lips, and you saw that, so compressed, they made a thin red line straight above a square chin. Her charm and favour both lay, you then discovered, in expression.
Senhouse, hatless and loose-limbed, stood at the door to help her out. She accepted his services, and was put into a cab.
"Where's he to take you?" he asked her pleasantly.
She said at once, "To Brown's Hotel." Then, before she got in, with a hand, unperceived by the general, just touching his arm, "Jack, I want to speak to you, but not to-night. Will you come in the morning, please? I am rather tired, and shall dine early and go to bed. Is my maid here?" She looked about. "Oh, I suppose she's seeing to the luggage. You might find her, and tell her where to come to."
Senhouse smiled and nodded. "Certainly. All these things shall be done. Anything else before you go off?"
She hesitated for a minute, then said, "Yes, there is one more thing. You mustn't come to Brown's like that. You must put on ordinary things."
He raised his eyebrows, then laughed—throwing his head up. "Wonderful lady! Wherewithal shall I be clothed? Do you really think these things matter?"
She was firm. "I really do. I hope you will be kind enough to—to—please me."
He looked very kindly at her. "My dear," he said, "of course I shall. Be quite easy about it." He held out his hand. "Good night, Mary."
She took it, but didn't meet his look. "Good night," she said, and drove away without another signal.
Senhouse, shouldering his bundle, found the lady's maid, and gave her her sailing orders. His manner to her was exactly that which he had shown to the mistress, easy, simple, and good-humoured. Leaving her, he went a leisurely way through the press, and took a tram-car from the corner of Vauxhall Bridge Road in the direction of Battersea.
Senhouse, after a night of solitary musing upon certain waste places known best to outlanders, walked up Saint James's Street at six o'clock in the morning, talking lightly and fiercely to himself. A long life of loneliness had given him that habit incurably. Discovering the hour by a clock in Piccadilly, he realised that it was too early to wait upon Mrs. Germain in Albemarle Street, so continued his way up the empty hill, entered the Park, and flung himself upon the turf under the elms. Other guests were harboured by that hospitable sward, shambling, downcast lice of the town. These, having shuffled thither, dropped, huddled and slept. His way was not theirs: to him the open space was his domain. He ranged the streets, one saw, as if they had been the South Downs, with the long stride and sensitive tread of a man who reckons with inequalities of footing. The country and the town were earth alike, though now of springing grass and now again of flagstones.
His face, after a night of fierce self-searching, looked its age, that of a man past forty; his aspect upon affairs was no more a detached observer's; his eyes were hard, his smile was bleak. Sodden misery, stupor, and despair lay all about him, and would have drawn his pitying comments if it had not been so with him that all his concern must be for himself.
"She wants me, and I must go to her," was the burden of his thought; but, like a recurring line in a poem, it concluded very diverse matter.
"I played the traitor to her; I could not wait—and yet I must have known. I said to myself, It is enough to have known and loved her; watch her happy, and thank God. That should have been enough for any man who had ever seen the blue beam of her eyes shed in kindliness upon him; but I grew blind and could not see. I lost my lamp and went astray. I ran about asking one after another to stop the bleeding of my wound. God is good. After eight years, she wants me, and I must go to her.
"I love her, as I have always loved; for she is always there, and I have come back. She can never change, though her beauty grow graver, and all knowledge of the vile usage of the world have passed before her young eyes. Artemis no more, for she has stooped to the lot of women; but still invincibly pure, incapable of sin, though she know it all. It can never touch her; she goes her way. She wears a blue gown now, not a white one. Demeter, the sad, bountiful Mother she will be—yet the same woman, the sweet and grave, the inflexible, the eternal. And, standing as she has always stood, she wants me, and I must go to her.
"I remember the wonder, I remember the morning glory of her first appearing. The spell of the woods was upon her. Bare-headed, gowned in white, she girt up her vesture and dipped her white limbs in the pool. I went to her, all my worship in my face; I worked with her at her task. Together we pulled the weed, we set the lilies free. High-minded as a goddess, she revealed herself to me. I was the postulant, dumb before the mysteries; I adored without a thought. I was nothing, could be nothing, to her but her lover—and now she wants me, and I must go to her.
"For two years I was close to her side—either I or my words never left her. She became humble, suffered me to lead her, opened to me her mind, shared with me her secret thoughts. I told her the truth; I hid nothing from the first. From the first day she knew that I loved her. There was no presumption in this—I asked nothing, expected nothing. I told her often that I looked forward to her wedded state—and then it came, and I was not ready for it as it came. Horrible thing, her nobility was her punishment. She has suffered, she suffers; she wants me, and I must go to her.
"How am I to go, tied and bound as I am? What can I do? I have been false to my vows. I belong in duty to another world, to another woman, who can command me as she will. I don't know, I don't see. I know only one thing, and see only her, calling me with her inflexibly grave eyes. She wants me, and I must go to her."
He got up and left the Park. It was ten o'clock of an April morning. Crocuses—her flowers—were blowing sideways under a south-west wind. Blue sky, white clouds, shining on the just and the unjust, covered her in Yorkshire and him, her grim knight, in Mayfair. He stalked, gaunt and haggard-eyed, down the hill, threading his way through the growing traffic of the day, and faced his business with the lady in the case.
Mrs. Germain was serious when he entered her sitting-room. She was in a loose morning gown of lace and pink ribbon. Pink was her colour. Her dark eyes looked heavy. She should have been adorable, and she was—but not to him just now. He stood before her, looked at her where she sat with her eyes cast down at her hands in her lap. She had let them rest upon him for the moment of his entry, but had not greeted him.
Now, as he stood watching her, she had no greeting.
"Good morning, Mary," he said presently, and she murmured a reply. He saw at once that she was prepared for him, and began in the middle.
"A friend of mine," he said, "is alone and unhappy. I heard of it yesterday from Chevenix. I must go and see her. I shan't be away long, and shall then be at your disposition."
Her strength lay in her silence. She sat perfectly still, looking at her white hands. Her heavy eyelids, weighted with all the knowledge she had, seemed beyond her power of lifting. He was driven to speak again, and, against his will, to defend himself.
"I am in a hatefully false position. I ought to have told you long ago all about it. It seemed impossible at the time, and so from time to time, to open the shut book. I closed it deliberately, and from the time of doing it until this moment I have never spoken of it even to myself. Chevenix, who knew her well, broke it open unawares yesterday, and now we must read in it, you and I."
He stopped, took breath, and began again. "I don't see how you can forgive me, or how I can, so to speak, look myself in the face again. I have played the knave so long with you that it is perhaps the greatest knavery I can commit to be honest at last. But I am going to do it, Mary. I want to tell you the whole story. You have told me yours."
Her eyes flickered at that, but she said nothing. Passive as she sat, heavy in judgment, she was yet keenly interested. All her wits were at work, commenting, comparing, judging, and weighing every word that he said.
He told her a strange, incoherent story of poet's love. This mysterious, shrouded Sanchia figured in it as the goddess of a shrine—omnipresent, a felt influence, yet never a woman. He spoke her name with a drop of the voice; every act of hers, as he related it, was coloured by sanction to seem the dealing of a divine person with creeping mankind. To Mrs. Germain it was all preposterous; if she had owned the humorous sense it would have been tragically absurd. For what did it amount to, pray, but this, that Jack Senhouse had been in love with a girl who had loved somebody else, had married her choice, and was now repenting it? Jack, then, in a pique, had trifled with her, Mary Germain, and made love to her. Now he found that this Sanchia was to be seen he was for jumping back. Was he to jump, or not to jump? Did it lie with her? Jack seemed to think that it did.
If it did, what did she want? As to one thing she had long been clear. Jack Senhouse was a good lover, but would be an impossible mate. She had found his gypsy tent and hedgerow practice in the highest degree romantic. With gypsy practice he had the wheedling gypsy ways. An adventure of hers in the North, for instance—when, panic-struck, she had fled to him by a midnight train, had sought him through the dales and over limestone mountains through a day and night, and cried herself to sleep, and been found by him in the dewy dawn and soothed by his masterful cool sense— wasn't this romantic? It had drawn her to him as she had never before been drawn to a man. She felt that here at last was a man indeed to be trusted. For she had been there with him, and not a living soul within miles, entirely at his discretion, and he had not so much as kissed her fingers. No, not even that, though he had wanted to. That she knew, as women do know such things. Romantic, indeed, trustworthy! Why, a Bayard, a Galahad of a gypsy! After this adventure, after he had driven her back to her duty, she had owned allegiance to nobody else in the world. And when her husband died she had renounced her widow-right, embraced hardship, kept herself by teaching; and when, finally, he came to her and offered her her choice, she had chosen Poverty for her lord as single-heartedly as ever did Francis find his lady in a beggar's garb.
And that being done, it did not "do." That was how she put it now; but the process had been slow, and never defined. He had carried her off to Baden for his work of naturalising plants. He had a great name for that, a European name. In three weeks his work absorbed him; within that time she knew that she was no mate for him. You can't be picturesque for ever, she thought. She had never reckoned with his incredible simplicity, and never for a moment connected his talk with his acts. Perhaps this Jack was the only really logical man in the world. Now she found that in talking of Poverty as the only happiness, he literally and really believed it so. He would own nothing but the barest necessities—neither pictures, nor furniture, neither clothes nor books. Pictures, furniture? Why, he had no roof to shelter them! Clothes? Where was he to carry them, if not on his back? Books? He had half-dozen, which contained all the wisdom of the world. So he used to cry. Now, this might be as it was; but when he seemed to expect her to be of the same mind and behaviour, you will see that he must needs be mad.
Yet so it was. He had lived in a tent for twenty years, so took his tent to Germany, and went on living in it. In that, with complete gravity, he received the Grand Duke of Baden, and several uniformed high officials, who wore plumed headgear and incredibly high collars, and glittering boots of patent leather. Folded superbly in cloaks of milky blue, they looked to Mary like gods; to Senhouse they were amusing fellow-creatures, interested in his plants and plans. He spread maps on the ground and followed his racing finger with racing speech. His German was faulty, but exceedingly graphic. His words shook the tent curtains. Within half-an-hour, such was the infection of his eloquence, he had most of his company on their knees beside him, and the Grand Duke, accommodated with a camp-stool, buried his hand in his beard and followed every line without a breath. Of all in that tent, she, Mary Germain, had been the only person to feel the indescribable squalor in the situation—and she the only one who might have been born to it; for her upbringing had been humble, and her rise in the world sudden and short of durance. But she knew now that she had hardly been able to live it out for very shame.
Directly the visitors had departed there had been a scene—she in tears of vexation which scalded, and he concerned at her trouble, but unable for the life of him to see what it was all about. He had been kindness itself. He always was the kindest and gentlest creature. If she wanted a house, hotel or what not, she should have it. In fact, he got her one, installed her, and undertook to keep her there. She bit her lip now to remember that she had agreed—and the ensuing difficulties. He had no money, and would have none of his own, and he refused to live under a roof on any terms whatsoever. Of ten thousand marks a year, which he was to receive from his Grand Duke, half was to be hers; he would see her when she would, and she might follow him about as she would—or not, if she would not. He could not see that there was anything extraordinary in these propositions. To him it was the simplest thing in the world that two people should do as they pleased. Society? What in the name of God had society to do with it? She remembered her tears, and his blank dismay when he saw them. He thought that she was unhappy, and so she was; but she was grievously angry also, that she could not make him see what things would "do" and what things "never do."
His work had inflamed him; he had marched from place to place, unencumbered and without a thought or care in the world—inspired with his scheme, in which plants stood for the words in a poem. He slept out many nights on the Felsenberg, on the ground, wrapped in a cloak. He disappeared for weeks at a time in impenetrable forests, sharing the fires of charcoal-burners, mapping, planning, giving orders to a secretary from the Botanical Department, as wild as a disciple should be. There was nothing for her, poor lady, but to sit about in hotel saloons—as the widow of an English gentleman, occasionally visited by an eccentric friend. So she put it for the benefit of society; but this had not been her idea of things when she had tumbled into Senhouse's arms—nor had it been his.
Her ruling idea in these days of disenchantment and discomfort—and it was her ruling idea still—was to preserve appearances. The great, invincible, fundamental instinct of the class from which she had sprung—to keep oneself unspotted by the world. The variation upon the text is Senhouse's own, done in a moment of exasperation over her untiring effort to appear what she was not and did not want to be. She loved the man sincerely; if she had been married to him she would have kept faithfully to his side. But she had no lines; her wedding ring was not of his giving. Without these assurances she simply could not love him. It came to that.
He had, when they had approached the matter of alliance, put aside marriage, literal marriage, as out of the question. He took it airily for granted that she agreed with him. The servitude of the woman which it implied was to him unspeakably wicked. He could not have treated the vilest woman in such a manner. But he had reckoned without the woman in her case. To her, freedom to love, without sanction or obligation, destroyed love. When he found that out, which he did after a year of her German vexations, he offered himself and his convictions to her. He humbled himself before her—but by that time she would not. By that time she had recovered her widow's portion (which had been dependent upon her remaining sole), and was entitled to some thousands a year and a good dower-house in Berks. She declined to marry him, and acted as such. She had been his wife in fact for a quarter of a year; she was his friend—as he was hers—for the rest of their time abroad. He had respected her wish, but had kept himself at her free disposal, until now of late, when this disturbing Sanchia Percival arose out of the nothingless and was shown to her as a goddess newly from the shades. And so now here sat Mrs. Germain, with her eccentric friend pale and gaunt before her, unlike himself as she had always known him, about to take her at her word, and to behave as a friend might. What should she say?
He would come back if she chose; he had said so—and he was incapable of lies. If he came back, and if she chose, he would marry her, and be the imperturbable, delightful, incalculable, impossible companion she had always known him. He would marry her—and decline to come under her roof. He would, perhaps, pitch his tent in her paddock; he would sit at her table in sweater and flannels, sandals on his feet, while she and her guests were in the ordinary garb of—gentlefolks. Gentlefolks! Yes. But the maddening and baffling thought was a conviction that he would be the greatest gentleman there. She knew that. Lord of his mind, lord of his acts, easy in his will, and refusing to bow to any necessity but that, he would be the superior of them all. Could this be borne? Or could she bear to surrender so rare a friend to a Miss Percival?
Who could Miss Percival be? It was a good name—better than Middleham, which had been her own, as good as Germain, which had been her husband's. Sanchia, an extraordinary name, an unusual name. It sounded Spanish and aristocratic. The Honourable Hertha de Speyne: she had known the daughter of a noble house so styled in her governess days, her days of drudgery, and even now it had a glamour for her, who had since hobnobbed with many honourables, flirted with many young lords, and been kissed by a duchess. Miss Sanchia Percival: the Honourable Sanchia Percival. No doubt this was a high lady. And she must be beautiful, or Jack wouldn't speak of her as he had. He hushed his voice down, he spoke as if she were a goddess, as if to disobey her call was out of the question. A dull heat stirred deeply within her, and she found herself setting her teeth together. No! Jack had brought her to this pass—and she would not be left there.
These were the thoughts of Mrs. Germain as she sat very still, with heavy- lidded eyes, listening to Senhouse's story. He ended it in these words: "You charmed me, Mary, and you still charm me. You are very sweet, and I shall never want a dearer mate than you might be, if you would. I vow to you that you are the only woman with whom I have wished to live, as we might live if you would. I can't make you see, I'm conscious, what I feel about Sanchia—but it's certainly not that. My little dear, can't you trust me?" He looked down, and saw her tears slowly dropping; he was very much moved, knelt by her side. She turned her face away, dangerously moved also. She struggled with her tears, her face contorted, her bosom heaving in riot. Senhouse took her hands, but she wrenched them away and covered her face with them. Passion grew upon her, passion of regret, of loss, of rage, of desire—"Oh, leave me, leave me! Oh, cruel, cruel! No man in the world could be so cruel—" and then she sprang up, and faced him, flushed and fierce as a woman whom love has made mad.
"I believed in you, I gave you everything I had. You have had it, and you leave me. I made no pretences—I told you all my secrets. You said that you loved me—and now you leave me. Go, please. I hope I shall never see you again."
Her great eyes loomed in her hot face like beacons. Her colour was high, her lips vivid. She looked as beautiful as an Indian flower. She was fighting for her own like a cat. An absent, shadowy, icily-pure Sanchia could never contend with this quivering reality of scarlet and burning brown; and the man stood disarmed before her, watching her every movement and sensible of every call of her body. Her wild words provoked him, her beauty melted him; pity for her, shame, memories of what he had believed her, impossible visions of what she might be; he was tossed this way and that, was whirled, engulfed, overwhelmed. There is only one end to such strifes. With a short cry, he threw up his arms.
"God help us, I stay," he said.
Hear now of the immediate end. This gentleman, a philosopher and poet, rich in theory, having reached a middle point in his career, had found that he had, without knowing it, encountered a Fact which had gripped him in a vital part, squeezed the very fibres of him, sucked him apparently dry of human juices, even of the zest to live, and presently departed, leaving him faint by the wayside. Not until he was clean gone did he have the least suspicion that it had been there, and (if he could have known it) the first glimmering of reawakening pulse in him was the considering of its nature. Brooding upon it, while he grieved over his languor, he discovered that it had not been hard and scaly, like your ordinary vampire, but soft-lipped, brown-eyed, warm-fleshed, cloudy-haired; in fact, a pretty woman. Now, in all his previous relations with that sex, while he had given much of himself, he had never met before with a woman whose need was the measure of her allure. If she had not wanted him so much, he would never have thought of her twice. But this was precisely what had happened. She had acted upon him as a vacuum upon air. Her helplessness, her ignorance, her appealing belief in him, her clinging power, heightening her physical charm, had sucked him in a stream; and when she was full of him, he was empty. She had been the first to find it out. Having trailed him in her wake for a season, against his instincts, against his conscience, she presently coaxed him to let her go. Let her go! He asked nothing better than to see her happy, and saw no other way of being so himself. When she had gone, and was safely married to an old admirer, our expended friend lay, like a gaffed salmon, faintly flapping on the bank. For a year or more he lay, and dated his recovery of tone from the moment of finding out the nature of his disaster. "She was hungry, and I fed her. She was thirsty, and I gave her drink. The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away. Blessed, by all means, be the name of the Lord."
He proposed now to resume his former life of sojourn in tents and desultory practice of the arts, a life which, as it was at once highly practical and entirely dependent upon enjoyment, we may call one of contemplative activity. For twenty years he had not lived in a house, slept in a bed, or owned anything beyond the barest necessities. (The only thing he had, indeed, found himself owning, had at last removed itself.) He had been by turns poet, painter-in-water-colours, tinker, botaniser, antinomian, and anarchist; and attributed his success in all these busy walks to the fact that he was as strongly averse to the possession of property as he was incapable of getting any. Here, then, was his capital, with which to commence the world again.
With this at his back, you would have said, he had but to pack his knapsack, stow his tent, and take to the road. But that was not so.
He had, with the purest intentions, broken all the laws of Society. Entitled to a competence, he had had neither house nor gear, earned just so much as would keep him in food. He knew what it was to go without a dinner, and what to sleep under the stars. Yet he had been extraordinarily happy. He had held up his head, and kept it, alike with the learned—for he had learning—and with the simple, whose simplicity he shared. He had had the knack, in fact, of getting himself accepted on his own terms, exorbitant as they were; and of both rich and poor alike he had demanded entire equality. "Barefoot I stand," had been his proposition, "of level inches with your lordship, or with you, my hedgerow acquaintance. Take me for a man, decently furnished within, or take me not at all. Take me never, at least, for a clothes-horse." In all these things, which he had proclaimed far and wide, in divers tongues, all of them eloquent, he had violated the unwritten laws of our country as great and small know them to be. Chiefest he broke them in being happy. That was outrageous. But he was now, it seemed, confronted with a Law of Nature when he found that, having broken with a way of life, you cannot resume it, not because it isn't there (for there it is), but rather because you are not there yourself. You are elsewhere, and the road is hard to find. At forty-two you are not the mountaineer of thirty-five. Worse than that, worst sign of all, you don't want to be.
Here was a shock for the poet in him, which it was the philosopher's task to allay. In heated debate the two contended for his reasonable soul.
Poet. I am young.
Philosopher. You put it so. You are forty-two, and as old as you feel.
Poet. Away with you. I am young, I tell you. There are worlds to see.
Philosopher. Europe, Asia, Africa—
Poet. Alas! I have never been to Tibet.
Philosopher. My friend, if you wished to see Tibet you would be half-way there by now. I know you so well. Believe me you have seen more than enough. The world is so much larger than you, that five-and-twenty acres in Sussex will yield you more wonders than you can use. Take them, make them yours, and from them build up your Tibet. I understood that you were a poet.
Poet. My heart fails me. I have loved and lost. I have seen the dawn, and it has blinded me.
Philosopher. Mary is happy. You could never have made her so.
Poet. A sweet, good girl, but—I was not speaking of Mary.
Philosopher. So I supposed. Let me remind you—
Poet. Remind me of nothing. I remember everything. She was like the dayspring from on high. When I think of Greece, I think not of Plato and Sophocles, but of things more delicate and shy; of the tender hedge- flowers of the Anthology, of Tanagra and its maidens in reedy gowns, of all of this in a sweet clean light, as she was, and is, and must be. Ah, and I think of her, as I saw her first in the woodland, in her white gown, with the sun upon her hair. She was like the fluting of a bird; she was clear melody. She girt herself high and set her foot in the black water. She dipped her pure body in above the knees; she, the noblest, the wholesomest the youngest of the gods. Remind me of nothing, I beg you.
Philosopher. I must really remind you of this. You renounced her of your own deliberation, and promised to dance at her wedding.
Poet (with a sob). So I would, God bless her!
Philosopher. That is a charitable sentiment. I have done you good.
Poet. You are an ass.
I have summarised an argument which was really prolonged and very acrimonious. The philosopher prevailed, and the poet, beaten at every point, forswore what ambitions remained to him, built himself a shepherd's hut in a valley of the Wiltshire Downs, and planned out his memoirs in three stout volumes. He believed that he had reached that stage in life where retrospect is all.
Volume I., Open Country; Volume II., Halfway House; Volume III., Shepherd's Crown—are titles which indicate the scope and spirit of the projected work. They were characteristically chosen before a line was written; nor, indeed, was a single other word put to paper, not so much as an Advice to the Reader, for two years. The building of his house with his own hands, and the disposition of the land about it occupied him for the better part of one; the next, with its progressive seasons of fruition, was spent in meditative ecstasy; by the beginning of the third his cure was complete. The poet in him was now the philosopher's humble servant, as should surely always be the case. Resolved that the world should be sweetened yet, he attacked his book.
He began with the third volume, in which, under the heading of Shepherd's Crown, he proposed to discharge himself of the conclusions of his ripened manhood upon the world, as he now saw it from his grassy outlook. Not yet could he trust himself with Open Country. That was for Thoughts. That was to be filled with spheral music which lay under lock and bolt deep within his nature. Before he could set that free to throb and beat in his brain, he must be quite sure that it could not win a way back into his heart. For she of whom it must consist, whose very name was music, whose presence, as he said, was like the fluting of a bird, was the renounced, impossible She; that She whom for reason clear and good he had loved (upon his knees, with covered eyes), and suffered go her ways. The philosopher was clear upon the point that Volume I. must be withheld for a season, and that Volume II., if it was to deal with the enchantment of the flitted Mary, must wait also. Mary must be charitably handled; give her time. In Volume the third, now, we were to have neither music on the one hand, nor the sharp fragrance of loose hair and warm breath on the other; but green thoughts, rather, "calm of mind, all passion spent," as surely at forty- two it must be. Let the wise book deal with life, not the living; with love, not of woman; with death, but not of the body.
Early in the third year this wanderer, come to anchor, began his book, and at his desk I propose to leave him until near the end of mine. But, that he shall know the man again when the tale hath need of him, the reader will be pleased to accompany me into his neighbourhood for a moment.
Into the great ridge of chalk which is the backbone of South Wilts, and runs east and west from Sarum to Shaftesbury, there cuts up from the south a deep, winding, and narrow valley. The hills, between whose breasts it runs a turfy way, fold one into the other; a man coming up from Blandford, and minded to strike across country to Marlborough, might well pass within two hundred yards of our recluse and never see a sign of him. It was at the head of this glen, sheltered by hills from north, east, and west, but open full to the south, he had built his one-storied, deep-eaved house of larch and shingles. Here, under the sky, he watched and laboured and slept, and saw nobody, living principally on vegetables of his own growing, and cheese, which he made from the milk of a flock of goats. Bread he had once a week from a peasant's cottage at the valley's foot; gypsy folk brought him occasionally tea and tobacco. For the most part he drank water, and was too good a traveller to be rooted to his pipe.
The group behind him sloped sharply up to the ridge, which we call the Race-Plain in those parts, and had nourished, when he first took up his rest below it, little but nettles, mulleins, and scrub of elder. A few fair trees—ash, thorn, spindle, service—struggled with the undergrowth which should live. He was for the trees, needing their shade; cleared the ground, terraced it with infinite pains, and utilised the water of a mist pool which he had made on the high land by a system of canals of remarkable neatness and ingenuity. Tree-trunks, split and hollowed out, conveyed what water he wanted as and whither he would.
To the west of his dwelling the slope was gentler, and there woods and brake-fern grew peacefully together and made a fine refuge from the heats. Behind this shelter, hidden from sight of the house, he had a broad lynch for his vegetables, and grew and protected them to be the envy and despair of rabbits. In the woods, and below, in the valley bottom, where wind-sown thorns made a natural park, his goats found eatage. He reserved the terraces about the house for the flowers which he loved and understood.
He was an expert gardener, who in his day had been famous for his skill in naturalisation. His feats in this work have made a stir beyond our shores. Alpine plants grow wild upon English rock-faces at his whim, irises from the glaring crags of the Caucasus spread out their filmy wings, when he bids them, on Devonshire tors. These wonders he chose not to repeat—for reasons. Pence, to begin with, failed him. The work itself was associated with the happiest and the saddest moments of his life; he had not the heart to begin it. Moreover, in the course of his year's work of house- building and settling in, he had kept an eye for Nature's way in his valley, and when it came to making a flower-garden he found that she had one there to his hand.
He said, "Nothing is lovelier in flowers than true colour. Form is nothing to Nature; it is one of Art's tricks. Here I may have a succession of pure washes by mere concentration of what I find. The downs give me everything; all I have to do is to group them.
"Here is my design. For early spring, cowslips in a cloud. Scattered broadcast, they are happy accidents which you come upon walking; but if you mass them their scent tells, and you find they are nearer the colour of oranges than of limes.
"For mid-April and early May I have the orchids—a blood-spatter on the bottom; higher the flecked white, the pink, and the yellow with brown. Then for a shelf among rocks the milk-worts, the sky-blue, the white and the pink; with these I float out May like Fra Angelico. For June there are Ragged Robins like filaments of rosy cloud, and Forget-me-not to drift like wood-smoke over the chalk rubble. In July I have a pageant. Foxglove and Eglantine make melodious my woods; Ladies' Slipper gives a golden cope to the hillside, with purple campanula to wind about it like a scarf. After this—August, September, October—our uplands faint out in semitones: grey scabious, grey harebell, pale bed-straw, white meadowsweet, like the lace of an old lady's cap. But even so, if I must have a sunset glow of brown-pink, herb-willow gives it me. Pinch out the leader of each slim spike, and you make a different plant of it." Thus the poet embroidered the philosopher's text, and kept away from his memories, and husbanded his pence.
These things, at any rate, he did, collecting with diligence the plants to his hand, separating them from the grasses and bents in which they hid, massing them and marshalling to his purposes. The thing was done with extreme art and infinite patience; the result, a rainbow stream of colour through the working year.
He added a few foreign growths: cyclamen for the woods, because he did not see how one could do without them who had once seen them in Calabria; wild gladiolus, because it loved the corn, and there was land in tillage within a mile of him; a few primulas for his conduit's edges; wild crocus, because She whom he had loved best had loved them; colchicums for the bottoms in Autumn, because once She, straying with him in meadows, had picked some for her bosom and at parting given him one. He had it still, though he never cared to look at it. She and it belonged to his first volume, and neither crocus nor colchicum had been added at the date of which I write. He planted them when he reopened that book, and they are thriving now.
Here was work enough for a man somewhat mauled by the world to forget his hard knocks withal; and he forgot them. Looking about him, the length and breadth of his silent and lonely valley, he could see nothing but amenity in the earth which owed man so little. It was so with him at this time that the more he saw to love in Nature the less he could find admirable in man, who denied her at every turn. It was men, not She, who had given him his bruises; it was She, not men, who had taught him how to forget them. When outraged Society cried him down for a breaker of laws, he had replied that, so far as he knew, he had broken none of Nature's; and had it been argued that we live otherwise than as the beasts that perish, he would have retorted, "Whether the beasts perish or not, it is very clear that they live to the full in this world, and that we don't. Suppose they perish, at least they have lived. If we are to live hereafter, as to which no one is certain, we are faced at our temporal death with the fact that, born into this world with certain faculties, instincts, appetites, and senses, we have let most of them atrophy, and the rest rot, by many contributory causes, of which the chief is over-eating. If I die, to live again, I have it behind me that I have lived well already. I am that much to the good. And, that others may have the same fortune, I shall devote what time remains to me to teaching the truth, The less you have the more you are. This was his intention when he sat down to pen his Shepherd's Crown; before he dared look back upon Open Country, or to plant the sacred crocus, or to look upon the dry colchicum flower which had been granted the grace of a fair breast."
We meet him again, but not yet. We have him fast in his moorings, and are to see him rather as a fixed point about which other wandering lights stray in narrowing circles, to which they converge. We are to conceive of him, if you please, as writing his Book, while the hum of cities, and buzz of dinner-tables, noisy enough to us and full of excitement, sound in his ears not at all. And when I have done, you will discover, if you care, why he changed the title of his third volume from Shepherd's Crown, and chose it to be called Rest Harrow.
The way thither is long, and many things are to happen to many people; but little happens to him except the wheeling of the years.
SANCHIA AT WANLESS HALL
A telegram was handed to her as she came in from the garden, her broad- brimmed straw hat in her hand, and a bunch of fritillaries nodding in her blouse. That dates and places her at once: the time was April, and she was fond of curious flowers. She stood in the doorway to get the sunset glow upon the missive, and was herself ensanguined and enhanced, a sunny- haired, low-breasted young woman of middle height, rather faintly coloured, wholesome to see, with a bowed upper lip, and clear, grey-blue eyes of extreme directness and candour. A trick of looking you full, of considering you and her answer together, she had—a mild, steady beam, a radiance within the orb which told of a hidden glory. Her brows were level, eyebrows arched; her bust, though set like Aphrodite's of Melos, was full. The curving corners of the bow of her lips assured her the possession, even when she was most serious, of a lurking smile. Taking off her gardening gloves that she might break the red envelope, she disclosed a pair of fine, white, nervous hands, and pointed fingers which wore no rings.
The address, which she was careful to read before she tore the envelope, was—
Miss Percival, Wanless, Felsboro'.
Opening then, she read as follows:—
Home to-morrow seven people Ingram.
If she frowned slightly, it was a mere approach of the fine eyebrows to each other. She certainly smiled—wisely and meditatively, without showing her teeth. She touched her chin—a rounded, full chin—with the telegram, as she looked up at the maid who brought it.
"I must see Mrs. Benson about this. It's from Mr. Ingram."
"Yes, Miss Percival."
A friendly desire to share the puzzle was now manifest in the clear eyes.
"You see, Minnie, it might mean one of two things, and I am not quite sure which of them it does mean." She looked again at the message with amused interest; but one could not have said whether she was amused at her interest, or interested in her amusement. That was part of Miss Percival's charm, that she was always baffling you.
But Minnie, the maid, was demure and monotonous under the attack of friendly desires. "No, Miss Percival," she said, and added, "I am sure I couldn't say." She stood aside from the doorway as the young lady entered the billiard-room, saying, as she went, "Ask Mrs. Benson to come to my room, Minnie, please; and tell Frodsham I should like to see him directly he comes to-morrow morning."
She heard Minnie's "Very well, Miss Percival," as she disappeared, smiling still, and with a slight heightening of colour. When her colour rose, it rose evenly, flooding her face and neck with the dawn-hue. There were no patches or streaks of flame; she showed, as it were, incandescent.
She crossed the hall in the deepening dusk, a fine, littered room, where a great log-fire revealed the tall portraits of ladies and gentleman of long ago—sportsmen with spaniels at their feet, general officers in scarlet, pointing through smoke the direction of the enemy, a judge in ermine and full bottomed wig, a lady in white satin leaning against a broken column in a park, and backed by a brewing thunderstorm; and as she went her way gave a couple of glances to right and left, picked up a Bradshaw from a side-table, stooped to put a tiger-skin straight. She continued down a long corridor, swinging her hat, and entered an open doorway at the extreme end. By the way she tossed the hat on to a chair and stirred the crackling logs with the point of her shoe, it was to be supposed that she was in her demesne. Standing with a foot on the fender she presently fell into a reverie, and presently reopened and re-read her telegram. Certainly she was smiling, and certainly her colour was enhanced.
The room, though business-like, was feminine. It had a Chippendale bureau between the windows, its pigeon-holes stuffed with papers; but there were flowers upon it, and elsewhere many photographs, and pictures evidently chosen by the tenant. The Dante from the Bargello was one, the three headless Fates of the Parthenon another; the Hermes and the Sophocles, all in autogravure. It had a piano and a small bookcase containing the poets in green morocco, a uniform set. Elsewhere, in a larger bookcase, were miscellaneous volumes, by no means all novels, though novels there were. One shelf was filled with household books: cookery, bee-keeping, poultry, the Dog in Health and Disease, the horse, the flower-garden, Botany, British Edible Fungi, the World of Vegetables, were some of the subjects treated of. Below the bookcase was a row of japanned tin boxes, carefully lettered in white paint. House Accounts, Garden Accounts, Stable Accounts, one read. A fourth bore the words "Wood Sales and Miscellaneous."
If you were alone, waiting in the room, you would glance at the photographs perched about, like alighting butterflies, upon piano and mantelshelf and occasional table. You would pass over, I believe, the children on ponies and in sailor suits, that elderly, ample lady, brooched and in black, beaming under the status of Grandmamma, that gaitered gentleman with a square-topped felt hat upon his head and grizzled whiskers below his ears, in favour of a group of five girls in black muslin and lace, sisters evidently, prosperously together, an uncommonly happy five. They look on good terms with themselves and with each other. They look frankly at you out of the frame—and how they must have dazzled the photographer with their five pair of bright, uncompromising eyes! Hands rest easily upon familiar shoulders, elbows on knees. One of them smiles outright, two are very ready to smile; one is more serious, as becomes the eldest of five; and one is round-cheeked and solemn—the baby.
Miss Percival and her sisters, it's clear. One can't mistake the rounded chin, the level brows, the promise of womanhood. Women should always be photographed in evening dress if, like the Misses Percival, they have nothing to hide. But now to pick out our Miss Percival. You will observe that the young ladies' names are neatly printed beneath their persons.
Even if I were sure of dates, I should not insist upon the serious one. So far as I can judge, the photograph is some eight or ten years old. I go by the style of hair-dressing which it shows, and by the name of the photographer, who signs from Wigmore Street. He is out of date; fashion has deserted him. Then that grave, watchful young goddess, who sits enthroned with her nymphs about her, must be a great deal older than our lady of this room, of the doubtful smile and friendly desires. She has the sedate air of eight-and-twenty, and by this time must be thirty-six or even more. She is Philippa, anyhow, we read. Who comes next? Here is Hawise, standing behind her of the throne and the centre, with a hand on her bare shoulder. She is laughing, sleepily; she is distinctly pretty, but distinctly, also, fat. She cannot be the owner of this room.
There's a taste for names in the Percival family: we have Philippa, Hawise. Now for the seated pair, one on either side of Philippa: they are Melusine, who has a long neck and a very demure look, and a great deal of hair, and Victoria, who, having just tossed back her head, lifts her chin and glimmers at you through half-shut eyes. Her lips laugh snugly at some mischief meditating. Neither of these can be our lady, who must therefore be the last and youngest, this child of eighteen or so, round-cheeked, round-eyed and serious, with critical lids, like those of the Farnese Hera, and a beautiful mouth: Sanchia-Josepha, crouched on the floor at the feet of Philippa. A charming bevy of maidens—Philippa, Hawise, Melusine, Victoria, Sanchia-Josepha; ten years ago happily sisters and rich in promise, looking out boldly at the veiled years ahead of them. Ten years ago? Call it eight, and you make our Miss Percival, say, six-and-twenty by this time.
There are many other photographs—girls and women, most of them; but here is a man, dignified by a place apart upon the bureau. He occupies one side of it by himself, balanced by the sisters at the other. A youngish man in yeomanry uniform he appears only in torso. He has the smooth head of a soldier, and rather a low, but very square, forehead. His eyes are smallish, and set deep. They look to be grey, light grey, but may be light blue. He has a good nose, high-bridged, large, thin, and practically straight. Such noses are seldom perfectly straight, and his is not. I observe that he has curled his moustache with the tongs, so that it is well away from his upper lip. If I had been he I should not have done that. It is too much trouble—and if a man takes pains about his toilette, those pains ought not to be evident. Moreover, the mouth is by no means this young man's best feature. There is a twist, the hint of a snarl in the upper lip. The lower protrudes. The gentleman is the least in life underhung. Consider his chin. It has the jut of the Hapsburgs', of Charles the Fifth's, not pronounced by any means, but undoubtedly there. Firmness, or perhaps obstinacy, hard judgment, an uneven temper, a leaning to autocracy, I read in this portrait. There is no signature, nothing to tell you who he is. Certainly, no Percival.
I call your attention to one more photograph, in marked distinction to others of your notice. Those were, in every sense, full—dress affairs; this one, in all senses, undress. It is the work of an amateur, you can see at once—small, rather blurred to begin with, not perfectly focussed, and fading now towards the end of all such gear. It represents a bareheaded young lady in a white gown pinned very high. She is standing in a pond, with the water well over her knees. One hand keeps her balance with a pole, the other grasps a streamer of water-weed. Floating beyond her upon some kind of raft is a man, bareheaded also, in a white sweater with a rolling collar. His face is shadowed—you can see that his hair, black and straight, falls over his eyes. He is raking up the weed with his hand, his arm bare to the shoulder. Below is written, in a round, sprawling hand, "To Sanchia from Percy." Both the workers are intent upon their task, with no idea that they are posing. The girl has a Greek face, and a very fine pair of legs heedlessly displayed. The man is as thin as a gypsy. Out of the dark in which his face is hidden gleam his white teeth. A classical, rather than romantic scene. The absence of draperies suggest it; but the absence of self-consciousness is conclusive.
But I keep Miss Percival too long at the fender. She had been standing there for some minutes after her entry, first re-reading her telegram, next stroking her chin with it. She was thoughtful still, and still smiling. Once she looked over her shoulder through the window to the dying day, and lightly sighed. The time was April's end, and had been squally, with violent storms; but the last onslaughts of the north-wester had routed the rain-clouds. The day was dying under a clear saffron sky, and a thrush piped its mellow elegy. Miss Percival heard him, and listened, smiling with her lips, and with her eyes also which the serene light soothed. Her lips barely moved, just relaxed their firm embrace, but no more. She held the light gratefully with her eyes, seemed unwilling to lose a moment of it, wistful to be still out of doors. Again she lightly sighed, and presently resumed her downward gazing at the fire.
Knuckles quavered at the door. She straightened herself, turned, and called out definitely, "Come in." Mrs. Benson stood before her, vast, massive, black-gowned, cloudy for trouble, a cook.
There was instantly to be observed in Miss Percival's lifted head and eyes the same frank appeal for interchange of sentiments as had been manifested to Minnie the maid. Her brows were smoothed out, her smile became less dubious; her intention to be friendly was deliberately expressed. But truth will have it that, just as before, Mrs. Benson's guard turned out at the same moment, as at a signal. To vary the figure, her vedettes, in touch with the advancers, fell back upon the main body.
If the young lady perceived this she did not cease to be amiably disposed. "Oh, Mrs. Benson," she said, "I've had a telegram."
Mrs. Benson, with strict non-committal, lifted her eyebrows to "Well, well!" It was as if she implied that such things were to be expected in a world full of trouble. "So I hear, Miss Percival," she grimly said.
"It's from Mr. Ingram, you know."
"Ah, well—" Mrs. Benson could have been heard to sigh; but among the many things which Miss Percival chose to ignore, this sort of thing was one. Trouble to her, always, was a signal which braced the nerves and sinews.
"It's to say—but I think you had better read it." It was held out unfalteringly, while Mrs. Benson dived for, opened, wiped, tested, and fixed her spectacles. These operations concluded, it was received as might have been a dangerous explosive.
Punctuating as she went, Mrs. Benson read, "Home to-morrow—seven people —Ingram." Then she looked, confirmed in her omens, over the rim of her spectacles. "Seven people, Miss Percival! A house-party! And, as you may say, at a moment's notice. Dear, dear, dear!"
Miss Percival remained cheerful. "Oh, I don't read it like that," she said, went behind Mrs. Benson, and read over her shoulder, pointing the words with a pencil still wet from her mouth. "'Home to-morrow, seven— with people—Ingram.' That's what it must mean, of course." She spoke wooingly, but Mrs. Benson was not to be won.
"Then, why does he say 'Seven people,' Miss Percival? Why does he say that?"
"But he doesn't, according to me." She laughed. "He is telling us the time of his train. How could we meet him and his people if he didn't?"
"Ah," said Mrs. Benson, heavily prepared for the worst, "how could we? That's where it is, you see. But of course he wouldn't think of us."
"But he does, you know. He has. He says that he will have people with him. That is to prepare us." Mrs. Benson's fist crashed into the paper.
"How many people, Miss Percival? How many people? Why, seven, of course? What else could it be? And where's the fish to come from for seven people? And what about maids and valets? Does he count up the likes of them? He's not Mr. Ingram if he does. Not he! Nor his father before him. And what's Frodsham going to do about carriage-room for seven—and the servants as well—and the luggage, and all? Dogs, very likely, dogs and cats, and parrots. Who knows? I've seen 'em bring scritch-owls and hawks on their wrists before now. Oh, they'll do anything, some of 'em—anything to be looked at. That's what it is; they want looking at. And I'd look at 'em if I had my way!"
Mrs. Benson, shining with indignant heat, had to be pacified. She required much tact, the exercise of a low and musical voice. It cooed upon her like a dove's. Miss Percival used her hands, too, and in the end had one of them on Mrs. Benson's shoulder. The charm worked. Dinner should be cooked for five or six; Frodsham should meet the seven-four from London with the omnibus and luggage-cart. There would be no dogs at this time of year. Parrots were urged upon her again, but tentatively. She chuckled them away, musically, with real relish for the picture. She was sure there would be no parrots. Now she must see about the bedrooms—but Mrs. Benson peered round into her glowing face.
"And what about your supper, Miss Percival? It's just upon ready. And there's a sweet-bread."
Miss Percival almost caressed the ridiculous good soul. Her arm remained about her shoulder, her hand touched it. "How nice of you! I'll go and get ready at once. Then I'll see what rooms we had better have. Wasn't it lucky we did the drawing-rooms last week?"
Gloom gathered again. Mrs. Benson thought that some people didn't deserve their luck. It was clear to whom she referred; certainly not to Miss Percival, for instance. But the young lady, with really extraordinary simplicity, replied that surely Mr. Ingram deserved credit for having well-chosen his ministers. "Yourself," she said, "for the kitchen, and me for the hall." She exploded this little bomb with some heightening of colour.
Mrs. Benson, glancing at her sideways, observed the blush, and was scared. She blinked. Miss Percival's blush deepened.
In the awkward pause that ensued the friendly hand was about to be removed, when Mrs. Benson, with an effort which did honour to her resources, said, "We all have our troubles, Miss Percival, else we shouldn't be here, as the Bible says. The good Book! Well for them as read therein. Now, only this afternoon Mr. Menzies was talking to me about things at large, and he says, 'Mrs. Benson, what's to be done with Struan Glyde?' quite sudden. So I says, 'And what should be done with such a one, Mr. Menzies, but wallop him?' and he shakes his head and says, 'He's on the catarampus, ma'am—in one of his black fits. Tells me to go my way and let him alone; then turns his back.' Now, what about such troubles as that, Miss Percival?"
Miss Percival looked serious, but not especially interested. Her eyes looked before her, but seemed not to see anything. She asked, "What did Mr. Menzies say to him next?" but if she was interested it was not in that matter.
Mrs. Benson brandished her voice. "Ha, you may well ask me. 'No, my man,' he says, 'but 'tis you that must go mine while I'm head-gardener at Wanless,' he says. That's what Mr. Menzies told him, the elderly man that he is—and now look at this. Young Glyde turns his back upon him, with no more notice taken than you or I would have of a flea on the arm. Insolence, that is. Downright insolence of an elderly man. Ah," said Mrs. Benson with tightening lips, "if you come to troubles!"
Miss Percival's tone was sympathetic, if her eyes were still sightless. "Really! I'm very sorry. I'll see Mr. Menzies about it to-morrow, and of course I'll talk to Struan. He is difficult—it's very tiresome of him. I saw him this afternoon but had no notion of all this. I can't think how it is. Nerves, I suppose. He's a human creature, you see, as well as a gardener."
Mrs. Benson was incapable of seeing such a possible combination: her explanation was simpler. Human! She scorned him. "Bad blood," she said with energy; "bad, black, gypsy blood. He'll be murdering one of us in her bed in a day or two. You see if he don't."
Miss Percival did not deny the suggestion. She considered it rather—its effect, its effectiveness. "Struan is tiresome, of course," she said, "but I do think he has tried to restrain himself lately. He promised me he would." She turned her full gaze suddenly upon Mrs. Benson, and almost disarmed that lady. "I like him, you know. He's very nice to me."
Mrs. Benson gasped, but recovered just in time to resume the dark oracles in her keeping. "Ah," she said, "he would be. If you can call it nice—"
"He's wonderful in the garden," Miss Percival calmly continued. "Even Menzies admits it. He'll work all day. He's never tired."
"Nor's a tiger," the cook snapped. "Nor's a tom-cat."
Miss Percival looked pitifully at her and smiled. "Poor Struan—you don't like him. I'll see him to-night. I have an influence, I think."
Mrs. Benson touched the hand that lay within her reach, which had lately been upon her shoulder. "Don't, my dear, don't," she said.
"Why not?" asked the lady with her lifted brows. "Why shouldn't I?"
"Influence! The likes of him!—Gypsy blood at midnight—soft-voiced, murderous—"
She gave no coherent answer, but smiled always, then leaned forward and stroked Mrs. Benson upon her personable cheek. "Dear old thing, let me do as I like. It's much better for everybody," she presently said.
It had clouded over after sunset: there was no moon visible, but an irradiance was omnipresent, and showed the muffled yew-tree walks, and the greater trees colossal, mountains overshadowing the land. Here and there, as you went, glimmered daffodils, like the Pleiades half-veiled, and long files of crocuses burned like waning fires.
Miss Percival, at about nine o'clock, came gently down one of these alleys, with a scarf over her head and shoulders. She looked like a nymph in Tanagra. And as if she knew where she was going, exactly, she walked gently but unfalteringly between the linked crocus-beacons to where the alley broadened into a bay of cut yews, to where ghostly white seats and a dim sun-dial seemed disposed as for a scene in a comedy. The leaden statue of a skipping faun would have been made out in a recess if you had known it was there. And as she entered the place a figure seated there, with elbows on knees and chin between his palms, looked up, listening, watching intently, then rose and waited.
"Struan," said Miss Percival comfortably, "are you there?"
"I'm here," she was answered.
Thereupon she came easily forward and stood near him. She was in white from top to toe; he could see the clean outline of her head and neck, denned by the hooding scarf. He had not as yet taken off his hat, but now, as she stood there silent, he slowly removed it. Still there was nothing said. Miss Percival was very deliberate.
Presently she spoke. "You didn't tell me this afternoon that you'd had a bother with Mr. Menzies. Why didn't you tell me?"
"Why should I tell you?" The words seemed wrung from him. "Why should you care?"
"Of course I care," she said. "You know that I care. Why didn't you tell me? ... But I know why you didn't."
"You do not." He denied her hotly.
"Oh, but I do. Because you were ashamed."
"It was not. I'm not ashamed. He's an old fool. He thinks he can teach me my business. Melons! Plants! Why, I'm one of them. What can he teach me?"
"He's a very good gardener," Miss Percival began, but the rest was drowned.
"Gardener—he! He's a botcher. He measures his melons by the pound. It's money he wants, money-value. So much dung—so much meat. He says, 'Be careful, you, of the water-pot; go steady with your syringe. You'll damp off those plants it you're not handy,' he tells me. To me, this! Don't I know what the life of a plant must have, and how, and where it must be fed? He's an old fool, and you know it. And I'll not be told things I have got by heart before a lad new to his breeches. Besides," he added darkly, "he'd vexed me before that, and bitterly."
"How did he vex you?" Miss Percival's voice came cool and clear, but commanding.
"That I cannot tell you," said he.
"But I want to know." This seemed to her sufficing reason.
But he was dogged. "Then I can't help you. You cannot be told."
"But perhaps I ought to be told. Do you think I ought?"
"Indeed, I don't know."
"Well, will you tell me?"
"I will not, indeed. That is, I cannot."
"It's very extraordinary."
He made no answer.
"Struan," said Miss Percival, after a while, "you are angry."
He turned quickly. "With you? Never."
"I didn't say that. I said you were angry."
He said, "Ah—and so I am."
"I am included, I suppose."
"You are not. It could not be."
She laughed. "I don't know—-"
He was vehement. "But you do know. You know it very well."
She had no answer; but she smiled to herself; and I have no doubt she knew.
For two minutes or more there was silence, a time of suspense. Then Miss Percival said, "I've had a telegram. Mr. Ingram is coming to-morrow."
To this he said nothing. She went on.
"He is bringing people with him. Mrs. Benson was very funny about it. He is coming at seven with some people, and she would read it that he was coming with seven people. When I asked her, how could we meet him if he had not told us the time? she made a grievance of it, and said that was so like him. So it is, of course."
Struan remained speechless, and had turned away his face. Miss Percival continued her reflections aloud.
"How long has he been away? More than a year. He wrote once from Singapore—then from Rawal-pindi—and that was all, until I got this telegram. He's very casual, I must say." Here she paused.
Struan said suddenly, "Miss Percival, I'm going."
She turned with interest, and asked, with not too much interest, "Oh! Why?"
He said, "You know why."
She lowered her voice by a tone, but no more. "I hope you won't. It would be a pity. There's no real reason for it. I'll speak to Menzies to-morrow. He doesn't mean any harm to you. He's only old and grumpy."
"He's a fool," said Struan. "Certainly, he's a fool. But that's neither here nor there."
Miss Percival, ignoring what she chose to ignore, said again, "I hope you won't go."
The young man shifted his ground, and dug his heel into the turf. "I must —indeed, I must."
"Where shall you go?"
"Why must you go?"
"You know why."
"Is it because of Menzies?"
He threw his head up. "Menzies, forsooth!" He scorned Menzies.
"Then I don't see why you should go. I shouldn't like it. I hope you will stay."
He looked at her now across the dusk, intensely. "You hope I will stay?"
"Yes, certainly I do."
"You hope I will stay? You ask me to stay?"
She considered. Then she said, "Yes, I think so. Yes, I do."
"Then," said Struan, "God help us all. I stay."
Miss Percival said cheerfully, "I'm so glad. I'll speak to Menzies to- morrow, and get him to leave you alone. He knows how well you do the melons, but of course he would never admit it." She broke off the interview shortly afterwards.
"I'm going to bed," she told him. "I've got lots to do to-morrow. Heaps of things. You must get me some of your flowers for the rooms."
He was not appeased, "Menzies will do it," he said. She laughed.
"You know what Menzies will say—'Pelargoniums for the hall, Miss Percival, and some nice maidenhair.' He's not inventive, poor Menzies."
"He's an old fool," said Struan. "He takes flowers for spangles in a circus."
Miss Percival again laughed softly, and held out her hand. "Good-night," she said. "I'm going."
He touched her hand, and then put his own behind his back.
"Aren't you going to bed?" she asked him.
"Presently," he said. "I'm going to walk round for a while."
She hovered for a moment, seemed to hesitate, to weigh the attractions of walking round. It had a charm. Then she decided.
"Good-night," she bade him for the third time.
He grumbled his good-night, and watched her fade into the dark. Not until she was completely hidden up did he put on his hat again. Then he prowled noiselessly about among the breathing flowers.
Wanless, as they call it there,—Wanless Hall, Felsboro', as it is politically,—stands squarely and deeply in the hills of a northern county, plentifully embowered in trees, with a river washing its southern side. To reach house from river you ascend a gentle slope of lawns and groves for some hundreds of feet, then find a broad stepway. That takes you to a terraced, parapeted garden very well tended, as one should be which has four men at its disposition. There stands the house of Wanless, stone-built in the days of Charles the Second—a gleaming, grey front, covered to the first-floor windows with a magnolia of unknown age. The main entrance faces north, from which point the true shape of the place is revealed as a long body with wings, an E-shaped house. Here are the carriage-drive and carriage-sweep; then there's a belt of trees, and beyond that, shaped by the valley, which gradually narrows to the incline of the hills, kitchen-gardens, glass-houses, a pond (fed by a beck), water meadows, and hanging woods. Above those again heather-clad slopes climb to piled rocks and a ragged sky-line. It is a fine property with 5,000 acres of shooting, a good many farms, and a hill village to its account. The lodge at the gate was half a mile away, at the end of a good avenue of beech and sycamore.
Mr. Nevile Ingram who, at thirty, had still the air of a brisk young man and was owner by inheritance of this place, arrived with his guests by the 7.4 train from London. The omnibus brought the four of them, with a maid sitting on the box beside Frodsham, and a bank of luggage behind her head. No parrots, no dogs; but a Mr. Chevenix brought his fishing-rods. Besides this Mr. Chevenix, who had been here before, there was an elderly Mrs. Devereux, white-haired and short-sighted, who used, whenever she could find them, a pair of long-handled glasses, and a young Mrs. Wilmot, pretty, very fair, rather helpless. It was her maid who shared the box- seat with Frodsham.
The absence of a footman at the station had been noted by Mrs. Devereux, the absence of any man-servant at the house struck her as remarkable. There was none, and had been none since Miss Percival assumed command; but at this time Mrs. Devereux knew nothing of Miss Percival. Nevile Ingram, banging the door open with his knee, jumped out first, and stood to help the ladies; the next to emerge was Mr. Chevenix who, the moment he touched earth, said "Right!" and looked as if he had sparkled. It was clear that he bad abundant health and was satisfied with all the arrangements of Providence. He surveyed the house, the awaiting virgins at the door, wished them both good evening, nosed the upper air, snuffed the gale, said "Good old Wanless—my precious rods!" and dived for them before the ladies could descend. Thereafter a timidly poising foot and some robust breadth of stocking revealed the anxieties of Mrs. Devereux. On alighting she shook herself like a hen, and her draperies rustled to their length. She found her lorgnettes and surveyed (so to speak) the absent men-servants with blank misgivings. A maid advanced for her jewel-case, but Mrs. Devereux, shutting her eyes, said "Thanks, I carry it," and pressed it to her bosom. A butler would have had it. Meantime, Mrs. Wilmot, a hand to each cavalier, was descending from the omnibus. She was a pretty, bedraped lady, with wide blue Greuze eyes, and soft lips, always wet and mostly apart. She murmured, "How kind you are to me," and liked it from Ingram to Chevenix. Ingram said nothing, but Chevenix dropped down his brisk "By Jove, Mrs. Wilmot, that's nothing to what I could do for you—nothing at all." And then they turned to the house.
When Miss Percival, looking frailer than she really was because of her black gown, fairer, that is, and paler, entered the hall, she found the party at a loose end. Mr. Chevenix was in a deep chair, turning over Bradshaw, and whistling softly to himself. Ingram, hands in pockets, was deprecating the portraits of his ancestors to the two ladies, who were not at all interested in them. He appeared to be considerably bored by his guests, and they to be aware of it. Miss Percival's arrival was timely, if only because she effectively chased out ennui. Chevenix, as if he had been waiting for her, jumped up and went to meet her. He shook hands. "Hulloa, Sancie!" he was heard distinctly to say. "By Jove, I'm glad to see you again." The latter sentence was not quite audible, but sufficiently so to send Mrs. Devereux' lorgnettes up to her nose. Sanchia herself, receiving civilities as if born to them, impelled her to keep them there. She had appeared silently and suddenly out of the blue. And now she hovered, smiling, fair, and unconcerned, like a goddess out of a chariot come to deal judgment, and listened charitably to Mr. Chevenix. How odd! How more than odd! Mrs. Wilmot looked as if her eyes were full of tears, but let nothing escape her. As for Ingram, he greeted the apparition with a smile and a nod sideways. But Mrs. Devereux could have sworn to a scare in the eye. "How are you, Sanchia?" he said, and then to his guests, "Miss Percival will show you where you all are, if you'll— Dinner's at half-past eight, I believe. At least, it always used to be; but I've been away for a year, and they may have changed all that. Have you, by the way?" he asked, with a sudden turn to Miss Percival.
She looked calmly at him. "No. It's still at half-past eight," she said. He lit his cigarette.
"Will you show these ladies their rooms?" he required of her, adding as an afterthought, "Mrs. Devereux, Mrs. Wilmot. Mrs. Wilmot has a maid somewhere."
It was a quasi-introduction, awkwardly done. Sanchia gravely bowed, and all might have been well had not her gentle smile persisted. The baffling quality of this, the archaic enigma of it, made Mrs. Wilmot stare at her helpless with brimming blue eyes. It made Mrs. Devereux shiver. It was she, however, who accepted the inclination of the head. "Good evening to you," she said. The housekeeper! This—person! The pair of them followed her upstairs, Mrs. Devereux marching before, like one of the old regime to the guillotine, Mrs. Wilmot trailing in her wake.
Young Chevenix, when they had disappeared, returned with a grin to his Bradshaw. "No change from Sanchia," he said; and "Let's see: Birmingham depart 4.45. By Gad, that's a good train. No," he resumed; "no change out of Sancie. How long is it since you were here, Nevile?"
Ingram was staring blankly out of window. "I think a year. I don't know. You went out with me to Brindisi, I believe, and that was April, and so's this—just. So you can work it out. D'you want me to fix you up? You're in the east wing, you know—I expect you are, anyhow. Where you were before."
"Right," said Chevenix; "right. Only we're none of us where we were before, my boy. Don't flatter yourself." He shut Bradshaw with a bang, and went off, singing softly, to a tune of his own, "No change, no change from Sanchia," which he turned into "Who is Sanchia? What is she, that all our swains...?"
Miss Percival, having played the exact and perfect housekeeper above—with no apparent interest in life but submergence in her duties—returned to the ground floor and sought Minnie in the dining-room. She made her survey calmly, and gave such orders as pertained in smooth tones which could not jar. She seemed to consult where she really directed. "Shall we have the epergne? I think we will, don't you? Yes. It's a grand occasion. I don't think we have ever had ladies at Wanless before." An admission which staggered Minnie. Her "Oh, yes, Miss Percival," and "Oh, no, Miss Percival," were appreciative and good to hear.
She was butler, we find, as well as housekeeper, for as she stood there, meditating the table, Ingram came in, in a hurry, with ideas about wine. He gave them out in jerks, without looking at her. Sherry, of course, a hock, Lafite. No champagne: it's beastly unless you are tired. Oh, and old brandy—the very old. Nothing of the sort to be had in India. The climate kills it. He stood very close to her as he spoke. When he remembered the brandy he put his hand on her shoulder, and finding it there, kept it so. Minnie presently went out of the room upon affairs; and then he looked into her face and said in a new tone, "How are you, Sancie?" He let his hand slide down, encircled her waist lightly with his arm. She gave him her grey eyes and a slow, patient smile. "I am quite well," she said. "Are you?" Ingram, watching her still, seemed disconcerted, as if he wanted to say or do more, but couldn't, for some reason. What he did was to remove his hand quickly and thrust it into his trouser pocket. It might have been suddenly stung, judging from his way of whipping it away. "Oh, I'm all right, of course. I must go and dress, I suppose." A year is a long time for an absence. In the doorway he stopped and looked back, a last look. "Supper in my room, you know. We'll talk." She held to her mysteries, and he went.
Dinner passed gaily, Miss Percival away. Ingram was loquacious, though rather caustic; Chevenix a good foil, easy-tempered, always at a run, a very fair marksman for all his random shooting. His was that happy disposition which finds Nature at large, including men, as precisely there for his amusement. He relished, never failed to relish, the works of God. But then he had perfect health. Mrs. Devereux was something of a grandee, though not quite so much of one as she suspected. Her white hair towered; she wore black velvet and diamonds. Mrs. Wilmot was very much of a pretty woman, and knew to the turn of a hair how much. She had the air of a spoiled child, which became her; was golden and rosy; could pout; had dark blue eyes, which she could cloud at will, and fill, as we know, with tears. She excelled in pathetic silences, to which her parted lips gave an air of being breathless. She was beautifully dressed in cloudy, filmy things, and had a soft, slight, drooping figure. Innocence was her forte: her rings were superb.