BY FRANCES HODGSON BURNETT
AUTHOR OF "THE SHUTTLE" "THE SECRET GARDEN" "THE HEAD OF THE HOUSE OF COOMBE" ETC.
NEW YORK FREDERICK A. STOKES COMPANY PUBLISHERS
COPYRIGHT, 1922, BY FRANCES HODGSON BURNETT
COPYRIGHT, 1921, 1922, BY THE INTERNATIONAL MAGAZINE COMPANY
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
THE YEARS BEFORE
Outline Arranged by Hamilton Williamson
THE HEAD OF THE HOUSE OF COOMBE
In the years when Victorian standards and ideals began to dance an increasingly rapid jig before amazed lookers-on, who presently found themselves dancing as madly as the rest—in these years, there lived in Mayfair, in a slice of a house, Robert Gareth-Lawless and his lovely young wife. So light and airy was she to earthly vision and so diaphanous the texture of her mentality that she was known as "Feather."
The slice of a house between two comparatively stately mansions in the "right street" was a rash venture of the honeymoon.
Robert—well born, irresponsible, without resources—evolved a carefully detailed method of living upon nothing whatever, of keeping out of the way of duns, and telling lies with aptness and outward gaiety. But a year of giving smart little dinners and going to smart big dinners ended in a condition somewhat akin to the feat of balancing oneself on the edge of a sword.
Then Robin was born. She was an intruder and a calamity, of course. That a Feather should become a parent gave rise to much wit of light weight when Robin was exhibited in the form of a bundle of lace.
It was the Head of the House of Coombe who asked:
"What will you do with her?"
"Do?" Feather repeated. "What is it people 'do' with babies? I don't know. I wouldn't touch her for the world. She frightens me."
"She is staring at me. There is antipathy in her gaze." He stared back unwaveringly also, but with a sort of cold interest.
"The Head of the House of Coombe" was not a title to be found in Burke or Debrett. It was a fine irony of the Head's own. The peerage recorded him as a marquis and added several lesser attendant titles.
To be born the Head of the House is a weighty and awe-inspiring thing—one is called upon to be an example.
"I am not sure what I am an example of—or to," he said, on one occasion, in his light, rather cold and detached way, "which is why I at times regard myself in that capacity with a slightly ribald lightness."
A reckless young woman once asked him:
"Are you as wicked as people say you are?"
"I really don't know. It is so difficult to decide," he answered. "Perhaps I am as wicked as I know how to be. And I may have painful limitations or I may not."
He had reached the age when it was safe to apply to him that vague term "elderly," and marriage might have been regarded as imperative. But he had remained unmarried and seemed to consider his abstinence entirely his own affair.
Courts and capitals knew him, and his opportunities were such as gave him all ease as an onlooker. He saw closely those who sat with knit brows and cautiously hovering hand at the great chess-board which is formed by the map of Europe.
As a statesman or a diplomat he would have gone far, but he had been too much occupied with Life as an entertainment, too self-indulgent for work of any order. Having, however, been born with a certain type of brain, it observed and recorded in spite of him, thereby adding flavour and interest to existence. But that was all.
Texture and colour gave him almost abnormal pleasure. For this reason, perhaps, he was the most perfectly dressed man in London.
It was at a garden-party that he first saw Feather. When his eyes fell upon her, he was talking to a group of people and he stopped speaking. Some one standing quite near him said afterwards that he had, for a second or so, became pale—almost as if he saw something which frightened him. He was still rather pale when Feather lifted her eyes to him. But he had not talked to her for fifteen minutes before he knew that there was no real reason why he should ever again lose his colour at the sight of her. He had thought, at first, there was.
This was the beginning of an acquaintance which gave rise to much argument over tea-cups regarding the degree of Coombe's interest in her. Remained, however, the fact that he managed to see a great deal of her. Feather was guilelessly doubtless concerning him. She was quite sure that he was in love with her, and very practically aware that the more men of the class of the Head of the House of Coombe who came in and out of the slice of a house, the more likely the dwellers in it were to get good invitations and continued credit.
The realisation of these benefits was cut short. Robert, amazingly and unnaturally, failed her by dying. He was sent away in a hearse and the tiny house ceased to represent hilarious little parties.
Bills were piled high everywhere. The rent was long overdue and must be paid. She had no money to pay it, none to pay the servants' wages.
"It's awful—it's awful—it's awful!" broke out between her sobs.
From her bedroom window—at evening—she watched "Cook," the smart footman, the nurse, the maids, climb into four-wheelers and be driven away.
"They're gone—all of them!" she gasped. "There's no one left in the house. It's empty!"
Then was Feather seized with a panic. She had something like hysterics, falling face downward upon the carpet and clutching her hair until it fell down. She was not a person to be judged—she was one of the unexplained incidents of existence.
The night drew in more closely. A prolonged wailing shriek tore through the utter soundlessness of the house. It came from the night-nursery. It was Robin who had wakened and was screaming.
"I—I won't!" Feather protested, with chattering teeth. "I won't! I won't!"
She had never done anything for the child since its birth. To reach her now, she would be obliged to go out into the dark—past Robert's bedroom—the room.
"I—I couldn't—even if I wanted to!" she quaked. "I daren't! I daren't! I wouldn't do it—for a million pounds!"
The screams took on a more determined note. She flung herself on her bed, burrowing her head under the coverings and pillows she dragged over her ears to shut out the sounds.
* * * * *
Feather herself had not known, nor in fact had any other human being known why Lord Coombe drifted into seeming rather to follow her about. But there existed a reason, and this it was, and this alone, which caused him to appear—the apotheosis of exquisite fitness in form—at her door.
He listened while she poured it all forth, sobbing. Her pretty hair loosened itself and fell about her in wild but enchanting disorder.
"I would do anything—any one asked me, if they would take care of me."
A shuddering knowledge that it was quite true that she would do anything for any man who would take care of her produced an effect on him nothing else would have produced.
"Do I understand," he said, "that you are willing that I should arrange this for you?"
"Do you mean—really?" she faltered. "Will you—will you—?"
Her uplifted eyes were like a young angel's brimming with crystal drops which slipped—as a child's tears slip—down her cheeks.
* * * * *
The florist came and refilled the window-boxes of the slice of a house with an admirable arrangement of fresh flowers. It became an established fact that the household had not fallen to pieces, and its frequenters gradually returned to it, wearing, indeed, the air of people who had never really remained away from it.
As a bird in captivity lives in its cage and, perhaps, believes it to be the world, Robin lived in her nursery. She was put to bed and taken up, she was fed and dressed in it, and once a day she was taken out of it downstairs and into the street. That was all.
It is a somewhat portentous thing to realise that a newborn human creature can only know what it is taught. To Robin the Lady Downstairs was merely a radiant and beautiful being of whom one might catch a glimpse through a door, or if one pressed one's face against the window pane at the right moment. On the very rare occasions when the Lady appeared on the threshold of the day-nursery, Robin stood and stared with immense startled eyes and answered in a whisper the banal little questions put to her.
So she remained unaware of mothers and unaware of affection. She never played with other children. Andrews, her nurse—as behooved one employed in a house about which there "was talk" bore herself with a lofty and exclusive air.
"My rule is to keep myself to myself," she said in the kitchen, "and to look as if I was the one that would turn up noses, if noses was to be turned up. There's those that would snatch away their children if I let Robin begin to make up to them."
But one morning, when Robin was watching some quarrelsome sparrows, an old acquaintance surprised Andrews by appearing in the Gardens and engaged her in a conversation so delightful that Robin was forgotten to the extent of being allowed to follow her sparrows round a clump of shrubbery out of sight.
It was while she watched them that she heard footsteps that stopped near her. She looked up. A big boy in Highland kilts and bonnet and sporan was standing by her. He spread and curved his red mouth, then began to run and prance round in a circle, capering like a Shetland pony to exhibit at once his friendliness and his prowess. After a minute or two he stopped, breathing fast and glowing.
"My pony in Scotland does that. His name is Chieftain. I'm called Donal. What are you called?"
"Robin," she answered, her lips and voice trembling with joy. He was so beautiful.
They began to play together while Andrews' friend recounted intimate details of a country house scandal.
Donal picked leaves from a lilac bush. Robin learned that if you laid a leaf flat on the seat of a bench you could prick beautiful patterns on the leaf's greenness. Donal had—in his rolled down stocking—a little dirk. He did the decoration with the point of this while Robin looked on, enthralled.
Through what means children so quickly convey to each other the entire history of their lives is a sort of occult secret. Before Donal was taken home, Robin knew that he lived in Scotland and had been brought to London on a visit, that his other name was Muir, that the person he called "mother" was a woman who took care of him. He spoke of her quite often.
"I will bring one of my picture-books to-morrow," he said grandly. "Can you read at all?"
"No," answered Robin, adoring him. "What are picture books?"
"Haven't you any?" he blurted out.
She lifted her eyes to the glowing blueness of his and said quite simply, "I haven't anything."
His old nurse's voice came from the corner where she sat.
"I must go back to Nanny," he said, feeling, somehow, as if he had been running fast. "I'll come to-morrow and bring two picture books."
He put his strong little eight-year-old arms round her and kissed her full on the mouth. It was the first time, for Robin. Andrews did not kiss. There was no one else.
"Don't you like to be kissed?" said Donal, uncertain because she looked so startled and had not kissed him back.
"Kissed," she repeated, with a small caught breath. "Ye—es." She knew now what it was. It was being kissed. She drew nearer at once and lifted up her face as sweetly and gladly as a flower lifts itself to the sun. "Kiss me again," she said, quite eagerly. And this time, she kissed too. When he ran quickly away, she stood looking after him with smiling, trembling lips, uplifted, joyful—wondering and amazed.
The next morning Andrews had a cold and her younger sister Anne was called in to perform her duties. The doctor pronounced the cold serious, and Andrews was confined to her bed. Hours spent under the trees reading were entirely satisfactory to Anne. And so, for two weeks, the soot-sprinkled London square was as the Garden of Eden to Donal and Robin.
In her fine, aloof way, Helen Muir had learned much in her stays in London and during her married life—in the exploring of foreign cities with her husband. She was not proud of the fact that in the event of the death of Lord Coombe's shattered and dissipated nephew her son would become heir presumptive to Coombe Court. She had not asked questions about Coombe. It had not been necessary. Once or twice she had seen Feather by chance. She was to see her again—by Feather's intention.
With Donal prancing at her side, Mrs. Muir went to the Gardens to meet the child Nanny had described as "a bit of witch fire dancing—with her colour and her big silk curls in a heap, and Donal staring at her like a young man at a beauty."
Robin was waiting behind the lilac bushes and her nurse was already deep in the mystery of "Lady Audley."
"There she is!" cried Donal, as he ran to her. "My mother has come with me. This is Robin, mother! This is Robin."
Her exquisiteness and physical brilliancy gave Mrs. Muir something not unlike a slight shock. Oh! No wonder, since she was like that. She stooped and kissed the round cheek delicately. She took the little hand and they walked round the garden, then sat on a bench and watched the children "make up" things to play.
A victoria was driving past. Suddenly a sweetly hued figure spoke to the coachman. "Stop here," she said. "I want to get out."
Robin's eyes grew very round and large and filled with a worshipping light.
"It is," she gasped, "the Lady Downstairs!"
Feather floated near to the seat and paused, smiling. "Where is your nurse, Robin?" she asked.
"She is only a few yards away," said Mrs. Muir.
"So kind of you to let Robin play with your boy. Don't let her bore you. I am Mrs. Gareth-Lawless."
There was a little silence, a delicate little silence.
"I recognized you as Mrs. Muir at once," added Feather, unperturbed and smiling brilliantly. "I saw your portrait at the Grovenor."
"Yes," said Mrs. Muir, gently.
"I wanted very much to see your son; that was why I came."
"Yes," still gently from Mrs. Muir.
"Because of Coombe, you know. We are such old friends. How queer that the two little things have made friends too. I didn't know."
She bade them good-bye and strayed airily away.
And that night Donal was awakened, was told that "something" had happened, that they were to go back to Scotland. He was accustomed to do as he was told. He got out of bed and began to dress, but he swallowed very hard.
"I shall not see Robin," he said in a queer voice. "She won't find me when she goes behind the lilac bushes. She won't know why I don't come." Then, in a way that was strangely grown up: "She has no one but me to remember."
* * * * *
The next morning a small, rose-coloured figure stood still for so long in the gardens that it began to look rigid and some one said, "I wonder what that little girl is waiting for."
A child has no words out of which to build hopes and fears. Robin could only wait in the midst of a slow dark rising tide of something she had no name for. Suddenly she knew. He was gone! She crept under the shrubbery. She cried, she sobbed. If Andrews had seen her she would have said she was "in a tantrum." But she was not. Her world had been torn away.
* * * * *
Five weeks later Feather was giving a very little dinner in the slice of a house. There was Harrowby, a good looking young man with dark eyes, and the Starling who was "emancipated" and whose real name was Miss March. The third diner was a young actor with a low, veiled voice—Gerald Vesey—who adored and understood Feather's clothes.
Over coffee in the drawing-room Coombe joined them just at the moment that Feather was "going to tell them something to make them laugh."
"Robin is in love!" she cried. "She is five years old and she has been deserted and Andrews came to tell me she can neither eat nor sleep. The doctor says she has had a shock."
Coombe did not join in the ripple of laughter, but he looked interested.
"Robin is a stimulating name," said Harrowby. "Is it too late to let us see her?"
"They usually go to sleep at seven, I believe," remarked Coombe, "but of course I am not an authority."
Robin was not asleep, though she had long been in bed with her eyes closed. She had heard Andrews say to her sister Anne:
"Lord Coombe's the reason. She does not want her boy to see or speak to him, so she whisked him back to Scotland."
"Is Lord Coombe as bad as they say?" put in Anne, with bated breath.
"As to his badness," Robin heard Andrews answer, "there's some that can't say enough against him. It's what he is in this house that does it. She won't have her boy playing with a child like Robin."
Then—even as there flashed upon Robin the revelation of her own unfitness—came a knock at the door.
She was taken up, dressed in her prettiest frock and led down the narrow stairway. She heard the Lady say:
"Shake hands with Lord Coombe."
Robin put her hand behind her back—she who had never disobeyed since she was born!
"Be pretty mannered, Miss Robin my dear," Andrews instructed, "and shake hands with his Lordship."
Each person in the little drawing-room saw the queer flame in the child-face. She shrilled out her words:
"Andrews will pinch me—Andrews will pinch me! But—No—No!"
She kept her hands behind her back and hatred surged up in her soul.
In spite of her tender years, the doctor held to the theory that Robin had suffered a shock; she must be taken away to be helped by the bracing air of the Norfolk coast. Before she went, workmen were to be seen coming in and out of the house. When she returned to London, she was led into rooms she had never been in before—light and airy rooms with pretty walls and furniture.
It was "a whim of Coombe's," as Feather put it, that she should no longer occupy the little dog-kennels of nurseries, so these new apartments had been added in the rear. A whim of his also that Andrews, whose disciplinary methods included pinching, should be dismissed and replaced by Dowson, a motherly creature with a great deal of common sense. Robin's lonely little heart opened to her new nurse, who became in time her "Dowie."
It was Dowson who made it clear to Lord Coombe, at length, that Robin had reached the age when she needed a governess, and it was he who said to Feather a few days later:
"A governess will come here to-morrow at eleven o'clock. She is a Mademoiselle Valle. She is accustomed to the education of young children. She will present herself for your approval."
"What on earth can it matter?" Feather cried.
"It does not matter to you," he answered. "It chances for the time being to matter to me."
Mademoiselle Valle was an intelligent, mature French woman, with a peculiar power to grasp an intricate situation. She learned to love the child she taught—a child so strangely alone. As time went on she came to know that Robin was to receive every educational advantage, every instruction. In his impersonal, aloof way Coombe was fixed in his intention to provide her with life's defences. As she grew, graceful as a willow wand, into a girlhood startlingly lovely, she learned modern languages, learned to dance divinely.
And all the while he was deeply conscious that her infant hatred had not lessened—that he could show her no reason why it should.
There were black hours when she was in deadly peril from a human beast, mad with her beauty. Coombe had almost miraculously saved her, but her detestation of him still held.
Her one thought—her one hope—was to learn—learn, so that she might make her own living. Mademoiselle Valle supported her in this, and Coombe understood.
* * * * *
In one of the older London squares there was a house upon the broad doorsteps of which Lord Coombe stood oftener than upon any other. The old Dowager Duchess of Darte, having surrounded herself with almost royal dignity, occupied that house in an enforced seclusion. She was a confirmed rheumatic invalid, but her soul was as strong as it was many years before, when she had given its support to Coombe in his unbearable hours. She had poured out her strength in silence, and in silence he had received it. She saved him from slipping over the verge of madness.
But there came a day when he spoke to her of this—of the one woman he had loved, Princess Alixe of X——:
"There was never a human thing so transparently pure, and she was the possession of a brute incarnate. She shook with terror before him. He killed her."
"I believe he did," she said, unsteadily. "He was not received here at Court afterward."
"He killed her. But she would have died of horror if he had not struck her a blow. I saw that. I was in attendance on him at Windsor."
"When I first knew you," the Duchess said gravely.
"There was a night—I was young—young—when I found myself face to face with her in the stillness of the wood. I went quite mad for a time. I threw myself face downward on the earth and sobbed. She knelt and prayed for her own soul as well as mine. I kissed the hem of her dress and left her standing—alone."
After a silence he added:
"It was the next night that I heard her shrieks. Then she died."
The Duchess knew what else had died: the high adventure of youth and joy of life in him.
On a table beside her winged chair were photographs of two women, who, while obviously belonging to periods of some twenty years apart, were in face and form so singularly alike that they might have been the same person. One was the Princess Alixe of X—— and the other—Feather.
"The devil of chance," Coombe said, "sometimes chooses to play tricks. Such a trick was played on me."
It was the photograph of Feather he took up and set a strange questioning gaze upon.
"When I saw this," he said, "this—exquisitely smiling at me in a sunny garden—the tomb opened under my feet and I stood on the brink of it—twenty-five again."
He made clear to her certain facts which most persons would have ironically disbelieved. He ended with the story of Robin.
"I am determined," he explained, "to stand between the child and what would be inevitable. Her frenzy of desire to support herself arises from her loathing of the position of accepting support from me. I sympathise with her entirely."
"Mademoiselle Valle is an intelligent woman," the Duchess said. "Send her to me; I shall talk to her. Then she can bring the child."
And so it was arranged that Robin should be taken into the house in the old fashioned square to do for the Duchess what a young relative might have done. And, a competent person being needed to take charge of the linen, "Dowie" would go to live under the same roof.
Feather's final thrust in parting with her daughter was:
"Donal Muir is a young man by this time. I wonder what his mother would do now if he turned up at your mistress' house and began to make love to you." She laughed outright. "You'll get into all sorts of messes but that would be the nicest one!"
* * * * *
The Duchess came to understand that Robin held it deep in her mind that she was a sort of young outcast.
"If she consorted," she thought, "with other young things and shared their pleasures she would forget it."
She talked the matter over with her daughter, Lady Lothwell.
"I am not launching a girl in society," she said, "I only want to help her to know a few nice young people. I shall begin with your children. They are mine if I am only a grandmother. A small dinner and a small dance—and George and Kathryn may be the beginning of an interesting experiment."
* * * * *
The Duchess was rarely mistaken. The experiment was interesting. For George—Lord Halwyn—it held a certain element of disaster. It was he who danced with Robin first. He had heard of the girl who was a sort of sublimated companion to his grandmother. He had encountered companions before. This one, as she flew like a blown leaf across the floor and laughed up into his face with wide eyes produced a new effect and was a new kind.
He led her to the conservatory. He was extremely young and his fleeting emotions had never known a tight rein. An intoxicating hot-house perfume filled his nostrils. Suddenly he let himself go and was kissing the warm velvet of her slim little neck.
"You—you—you've spoiled everything in the world!" she cried. "Now"—with a desolate, horrible little sob—"now I can only go back—back." She spoke as if she were Cinderella and he had made the clock strike twelve. Her voice had absolute grief in it.
"I say,"—he was contrite—"don't speak like that. I beg pardon. I'll grovel. Don't— Oh, Kathryn! Come here!"
This last because his sister had suddenly appeared.
Kathryn bore Robin away. Boys like George didn't really matter, she pointed out, though of course it was bad manners. She had been kissed herself, it seemed. As they walked between banked flowers she added:
"By the way, somebody important has been assassinated in one of the Balkan countries. Lord Coombe has just come in and is talking it over with grandmamma."
As they neared the entrance to the ballroom she paused with a new kind of impish smile.
"The very best looking boy in all England," she said, "is dancing with Sara Studleigh. He dropped in by chance to call and grandmamma made him stay. His name is Donal Muir. He is Lord Coombe's heir. Here he comes. Look!"
He was now scarcely two yards away. Almost as if he had been called he turned his eyes toward Robin and straight into hers they laughed—straight into hers.
The incident of their meeting was faultlessly correct; also, when Lady Lothwell appeared, she presented him to Robin as if the brief ceremony were one of the most ordinary in existence.
They danced for a time without a word. She wondered if he could not feel the beating of her heart.
"That—is a beautiful waltz," he said at last, as if it were a sort of emotional confidence.
"Yes," she answered. Only, "Yes."
Once round the great ballroom, twice, and he gave a little laugh and spoke again.
"I am going to ask you a question. May I?"
"Is your name Robin?"
"Yes." She could scarcely breathe it.
"I thought it was. I hoped it was—after I first began to suspect. I hoped it was."
"It is—it is."
"Did we once play together in a garden?"
Back swept the years, and the wonderful happiness began again.
* * * * *
In the shining ballroom the music rose and fell and swelled again into ecstasy as he held her white young lightness in his arm and they swayed and darted and swooped like things of the air—while the old Duchess and Lord Coombe looked on almost unseeing and talked in murmurs of Sarajevo.
It was a soft starlit night mystically changing into dawn when Donal Muir left the tall, grave house on Eaton Square after the strangely enchanted dance given by the old Dowager Duchess of Darte. A certain impellingness of mood suggested that exercise would be a good thing and he decided to walk home. It was an impellingness of body as well as mind. He had remained later than the relative who had by chance been responsible for his being brought, an uninvited guest, to the party. The Duchess had not known that he was in London. It may also be accepted as a fact that to this festivity given for the pleasure of Mrs. Gareth-Lawless' daughter, she might not have chosen to assume the responsibility of extending him an invitation. She knew something of his mother and had sometimes discussed her with her old friend, Lord Coombe. She admired Helen Muir greatly and was also much touched by certain aspects of her maternity. What Lord Coombe had told her of the meeting of the two children in the Gardens, of their innocent child passion of attraction for each other, and of the unchildlike tragedy their enforced parting had obviously been to both had at once deeply interested and moved her. Coombe had only been able to relate certain surface incidents connected with the matter, but they had been incidents not easy to forget and from which unusual things might be deduced. No! She would not have felt prepared to be the first to deliberately throw these two young people across each other's paths at this glowing moment of their early blooming—knowing as she did Helen Muir's strongly anxious desire to keep them apart.
She had seen Donal Muir several times as the years had passed and had not been blind to the physical beauty and allure of charm the rest of the world saw and proclaimed with suitable adjectives. When the intimate friend who was his relative appeared with him in her drawing-room and she found standing before her, respectfully appealing for welcome with a delightful smile, this quite incomparably good-looking young man, she was conscious of a secret momentary disturbance and a recognition of the fact that something a shade startling had happened.
"When a thing of the sort occurs entirely without one's aid and rather against one's will—one may as well submit," she said later to Lord Coombe. "Endeavouring to readjust matters is merely meddling with Fate and always ends in disaster. As an incident, I felt there was a hint in it that it would be the part of wisdom to leave things alone."
She had watched the two dancing with a kind of absorption in her gaze. She had seen them go out of the room into the conservatory. She had known exactly when they had returned and, seeing the look on their young faces, had understood why the eyes of the beholders followed them.
When Lord Coombe came in with the ominous story of the assassination at Sarajevo, all else had been swept from her mind. There had been place in her being for nothing but the shock of a monstrous recognition. She had been a gravely conscious looker-on at the slow but never ceasing growth of a world peril for too many years not to be widely awake to each sign of its development.
"Servia, Russia, Austria, Germany. It will form a pretext and a clear road to France and England," Lord Coombe had said.
"A broad, clear road," the Duchess had agreed breathlessly—and, while she gazed before her, ceased to see the whirl of floating and fluttering butterfly-wings of gauze or to hear the music to whose measure they fluttered and floated.
But no sense of any connection with Sarajevo disturbed the swing of the fox trot or the measure of the tango, and when Donal Muir walked out into the summer air of the starlit street and lifted his face, because already a faint touch of primrose dawn was showing itself on the eastern sky, in his young world there was only recognition of a vague tumult of heart and brain and blood.
"What's the matter?" he was thinking. "What have I been doing— What have I been saying? I've been like a chap in a dream. I'm not awake yet."
All that he had said to the girl was a simple fact. He had exaggerated nothing. If, in what now seemed that long-ago past, he had not been a sturdy, normal little lad surrounded by love and friendliness, with his days full of healthy play and pleasure, the child tragedy of their being torn apart might have left ugly marks upon his mind, and lurked there, a morbid memory. And though, in time, rebellion and suffering had died away, he had never really forgotten. Even to the cricket-playing, larking boy at Eton there had now and then returned, with queer suddenness, recollections which gave him odd moments of resurrected misery. They passed away, but at long intervals they came back and always with absolute reality. At Oxford the intervals had been longer but a certain picture was one whose haunting never lost its clearness. It was a vision of a colour-warm child kneeling on the grass, her eyes uplifted, expressing only a lonely patience, and he could actually hear her humble little voice as she said:
"I—I haven't anything." And it always roused him to rage.
Then there was the piteous break in her voice when she hid her eyes with her arm and said of her beast of a mother:
"She—doesn't like me!"
"Damn! Damn!" he used to say every time the thing came back. "Oh! damn!—damn!" And the expletive never varied in its spontaneity.
* * * * *
As he walked under the primrose sky and breathed in the faint fragrant stir of the freshening morning air, he who had always felt joyously the sense of life knew more than ever before the keen rapture of living. The springing lightness of his own step as it rang on the pavement was part of it. It was as though he were still dancing and he almost felt something warm and light in his arm and saw a little head of dark silk near his breast.
Throughout his life he had taken all his joys to his closest companion and nearest intimate—his mother. Theirs had not been a common life together. He had not even tried to explain to himself the harmony and gaiety of their nearness in which there seemed no separation of years. She had drawn and held him to the wonder of her charm and had been the fine flavour of his existence. It was actually true that he had so far had no boyish love affairs because he had all unconsciously been in love with the beautiful completeness of her.
Always when he returned home after festivities, he paused for a moment outside her bedroom door because he so often found her awake and waiting to talk to him if he were inclined to talk—to listen—to laugh softly—or perhaps only to say good-night in her marvel of a voice—a marvel because its mellow note held such love.
This time when, after entering the house and mounting the stairs he reached her door, he found it partly open.
"Come in," he heard her say. "I went to sleep very early and awakened half an hour ago. It is really morning."
She was sitting up in a deep chair by the window.
"Let me look at you," she said with a little laugh. "And then kiss me and go to bed."
But even the lovely, faint early light revealed something to her.
"You walk like a young stag on the hillside," she said. "You don't want to go to sleep at all. What is it?"
He sat on a low ottoman near her and laughed a little also.
"I don't know," he answered, "but I'm wide awake."
The English summer dawn is of a magical clear light and she could see him well. She had a thrilled feeling that she had never quite known before what a beautiful thing he was—how perfect and shining fair in his boy manhood.
"Mother," he said, "you won't remember perhaps—it's a queer thing that I should myself—but I have never really forgotten. There was a child I played with in some garden when I was a little chap. She was a beautiful little thing who seemed to belong to nobody—"
"She belonged to a Mrs. Gareth-Lawless," Helen interpolated.
"Then you do remember?"
"Yes, dear. You asked me to go to the Gardens with you to see her. And Mrs. Gareth-Lawless came in by chance and spoke to me."
"And then we had suddenly to go back to Scotland. I remember you wakened me quite early in the morning—I thought it was the middle of the night." He began to speak rather slowly as if he were thinking it over. "You didn't know that, when you took me away, it was a tragedy. I had promised to play with her again and I felt as if I had deserted her hideously. It was not the kind of a thing a little chap usually feels—it was something different—something more. And to-night it actually all came back. I saw her again, mother."
He was so absorbed that he did not take in her involuntary movement.
"You saw her again! Where?"
"The old Duchess of Darte was giving a small dance for her. Hallowe took me—"
"Does the Duchess know Mrs. Gareth-Lawless?" Helen had a sense of breathlessness.
"I don't quite understand the situation. It seems the little thing insists on earning her own living and she is a sort of companion and secretary to the Duchess. Mother, she is just the same!"
The last words were a sort of exclamation. As he uttered them, there came back to her the day when—a little boy—he had seemed as though he were speaking as a young man might have spoken. Now he was a young man, speaking almost as if he were a little boy—involuntarily revealing his exaltation.
As she had felt half frightened years before, so she felt wholly frightened now. He was not a little boy any longer. She could not sweep him away in her arms to save him from danger. Also she knew more of the easy, fashionably accepted views of the morals of pretty Mrs. Gareth-Lawless, still lightly known with some cynicism as "Feather." She knew what Donal did not. His relationship to the Head of the House of Coombe made it unlikely that gossip should choose him as the exact young man to whom could be related stories of his distinguished relative, Mrs. Gareth-Lawless and her girl. But through the years Helen Muir had unavoidably heard things she thought particularly hideous. And here the child was again "just the same."
"She has only grown up." His laugh was like a lightly indrawn breath. "Her cheek is just as much like a rose petal. And that wonderful little look! And her eyelashes. Just the same! Do girls usually grow up like that? It was the look most. It's a sort of asking and giving—both at once."
There it was! And she had nothing to say. She could only sit and look at him—at his beautiful youth all alight with the sudden flame of that which can set a young world on fire and sweep on its way either carrying devastation or clearing a path to Paradise.
His own natural light unconsciousness was amazing. He only knew that he was in delightful high spirits. The dancing, the music, the early morning were, he thought, accountable for it.
She bent forward to kiss his cheek and she patted his hand.
"My dear! My dear!" she said. "How you have enjoyed your evening!"
"There never was anything more perfect," with the light laugh again. "Everything was delightful—the rooms, the music, the girls in their pretty frocks like a lot of flowers tossed about. She danced like a bit of thistledown. I didn't know a girl could be so light. The back of her slim little neck looks as fine and white and soft as a baby's. I am so glad you were awake. Are you sure you don't want to go to sleep again?" suddenly.
"Not in the least. Look at the sun beginning to touch the tips of the little white clouds with rose. That stir among the leaves of the plane trees is the first delicious breath of the morning. Go on and tell me all about the party."
"It's a perfect time to talk," he laughed.
And there he sat and made gay pictures for her of what he had seen and done. He thought he was giving her mere detail of the old Duchess' dance. He did not know that when he spoke of new tangos, of flowers, of music and young nymphs like tossed blossoms, he never allowed her for a moment to lose sight of Mrs. Gareth-Lawless' girl. She was the light floating over his vision of the happy youth of the assembly—she was the centre—the beginning and the ending of it all.
If some uncomplex minded and even moderately articulate man or woman, living in some small, ordinary respectable London house and going about his or her work in the customary way, had been prompted by chance upon June 29th, 1914, to begin to keep on that date a day-by-day diary of his or her ordinary life, the effects of huge historic events, as revealed by the every-day incidents to be noted in the streets, to be heard in his neighbours' houses as well as among his fellow workers, to be read in the penny or half-penny newspapers, would have resulted—if the record had been kept faithfully and without any self-conscious sense of audience—between 1914 and 1918 in the gradual compiling of a human document of immense historical value. Compared with it, the diaries of Defoe and Pepys would pale and be flavourless. But it must have been begun in June, 1914, and have been written with the casualness of that commonplace realism which is the most convincing realism of all. It is true that the expression of the uncomplex mind is infrequently articulate, but the record which would bring home the clearest truth would be the one unpremeditatedly depicting the effect produced upon the wholly unprepared and undramatic personality by the monstrous drama, as the Second Deluge rose for its apparent overwhelming, carrying upon its flood old civilisations broken from anchor and half submerged as they tossed on the rising and raging waves. Such a priceless treasure as this might have been the quite unliterary and unromantic diary of any—say, Mr. James Simpson of any house number in any respectable side street in Regents Park, or St. Johns Wood or Hampstead. One can easily imagine him, sitting in his small, comfortable parlour and bending over his blotting-pad in unilluminated cheerful absorption after his day's work. It can also without any special intellectual effort be imagined that the record might have begun with some such seemingly unprophetic entry as follows:—
"June 29th, 1914. I made up my mind when I was at the office to-day that I would begin to keep a diary. I have thought several times that I would, and Harriet thinks it would be a good thing because we should have it to refer to when there was any little dispute about dates and things that have happened. To-night seemed a good time because there is something to begin the first entry with. Harriet and I spent part of the evening in reading the newspaper accounts of the assassination of the Austrian Archduke and his wife. There seems to be a good deal of excitement about it because he was the next heir to the Austrian throne. The assassination occurred in Bosnia at a place called Sarajevo. Crawshaw, whose desk is next to mine in the office, believes it will make a nice mess for the Bosnians and Servians because they have been rather troublesome about wanting to be united into one country instead of two, and called Greater Serbia. That seems a silly sort of reason for throwing bombs and killing people. But foreigners have a way of thinking bombs settle everything. Harriet brought out her old school geography and we looked up Sarajevo on the map of Austria-Hungary. It was hard to find because the print was small and it was spelt Saraievo—without any j in it. It was just on the line between Bosnia and Servia and the geography said it was the chief city in Bosnia. Harriet said it was a queer thing how these places on maps never seemed like real places when you looked them up and just read their names and yet probably the people in them were as real to themselves as we were, and there were streets in them as real as Lupton Street where we were sitting, finding them on the map on the sitting-room table. I said that bombs were pretty real things and the sound of this one when it exploded seemed to have reached a long way to judge from the newspapers and the talk in London. Harriet said my putting it like that gave her a queer feeling—almost as if she had heard it and it had made her jump. Somehow it seemed something like it to me. At any rate we sat still a minute or two, thinking it over. Then Harriet got up and went into the kitchen and made some nice toasted cheese for our supper before we went to bed."
Men of the James Simpson type were among the many who daily passed Coombe House on their way to and from their office work. Some of them no doubt caught sight of Lord Coombe himself as he walked or drove through the entrance gates. Their knowledge of him was founded upon rumoured stories, repeated rather privately among themselves. He was a great swell and there weren't many shady things he hadn't done and didn't know the ins and outs of, but his remoteness from their own lives rendered these accepted legends scarcely prejudicial. The perfection of his clothes, and his unusual preservation of physical condition and good looks, also his habit of the so-called "week-end" continental journeys, were the points chiefly recalled by the incidental mention of his name.
If James Simpson, on his way home to Lupton Street with his friend Crawshaw, chanced to see his lordship's car standing before his door a few days after the bomb throwing in Sarajevo, he might incidentally have referred to him somewhat in this wise:—
"As we passed by Coombe House the Marquis of Coombe came out and got into his car. There were smart leather valises and travelling things in it and a rug or so, as if he was going on some journey. He is a fine looking man for one that's lived the life he has and reached his age. I don't see how he's done it, myself. When I said to Crawshaw that it looked as if he was going away for the week end, Crawshaw said that perhaps he was taking Saturday to Monday off to run over to talk to the Kaiser and old Franz Josef about the Sarajevo business, and he might telephone to the Czar about it because he's intimate with them all, and the whole lot seem to be getting mixed up in the thing and writing letters and sending secret telegrams. It seems to be turning out, as Crawshaw said it would, into a nice mess for Servia. Austria is making it out that the assassination really was committed to stir up trouble, and says it wasn't done just by a crazy anarchist, but by a secret society working for its own ends. Crawshaw came in to supper and we talked it all over. Harriet gave us cold beef and pickled onions and beer, and we looked at the maps in the old geography again. We got quite interested in finding places. Bosnia and Servia (it's often spelled Serbia) are close up against Austria-Hungary, and Germany and Russia are close against the other side. They can get into each other's countries without much travelling. I heard to-day that Russia will have to help Servia if she has a row with Austria. Crawshaw says that will give Germany the chance she's been waiting for and that she will try to get through Belgium to England. He says she hates England. Harriet began to look pale as she studied the map and saw how little Belgium was and that the Channel was so narrow. She said she felt as if England had been silly to let herself get so slack and she almost wished she hadn't looked at the geography. She said she couldn't help thinking how awful it would be to see the German army marching up Regent Street and camping in Hyde Park, and who in goodness' name knew what they might do to people if they hated England so? She actually looked as if she would have cried if Crawshaw and I hadn't chaffed her and made her laugh by telling her we would join the army; and Crawshaw began to shoulder arms with the poker and I got my new umbrella."
In this domesticated and almost comfortable fashion did the greatest tragedy the human race has known since the beginning of the world gradually prepare its first scenes and reveal glimpses of itself, as the curtain of Time was, during that June, slowly raised by the hand of Fate.
This is not what is known as a "war story." It is not even a story of the War, but a relation of incidents occurring amidst and resulting from the strenuousness of a period to which "the War" was a background so colossal that it dwarfed all events, except in the minds of those for whom such events personally shook and darkened or brightened the world. Nothing can dwarf personal anguish at its moment of highest power; to the last agony and despairing terror of the heart-wrung the cataclysm of earthquake, tornado, shipwreck is but the awesome back drop of the scene.
Also—incidentally—the story is one of the transitions in, and convulsive changes of, points of view produced by the convulsion itself which flung into new perspective the whole surface of the earth and the races existing upon it.
The Head of the House of Coombe had, as he said, been born at once too early and too late to admit of any fixed establishment of tastes and ideals. His existence had been passed in the transition from one era to another—the Early Victorian, under whose disappearing influences he had spent his youth; the Late Victorian and Edwardian, in whose more rapidly changing atmosphere he had ripened to maturity. He had, during this transition, seen from afar the slow rising of the tidal wave of the Second Deluge; and in the summer days of 1914 he heard the first low roaring of its torrential swell, and visualised all that the overwhelming power of its bursting flood might sweep before it and bury forever beneath its weight.
He made seemingly casual crossings of the Channel and journeys which were made up of the surmounting of obstacles, and when he returned, brought with him a knowledge of things which it would have been unwise to reveal carelessly to the general public. The mind of the general public had its parallel, at the moment, in the temperature of a patient in the early stages of, as yet, undiagnosed typhoid or any other fever. Restless excitement and spasmodic heats and discomforts prompted and ruled it. Its tendency was to nervous discontent and suspicious fearfulness of approaching, vaguely formulated, evils. These risings of temperature were to be seen in the very streets and shops. People were talking—talking—talking. Ordinary people, common people, all kinds of classes. The majority of them did not know what they were talking about; most of them talked either uneducated, frightened or blustering nonsense, but everybody talked more or less. Enormous numbers of newspapers were bought and flourished about, or pored over anxiously. Numbers of young Germans were silently disappearing from their places in shops, factories and warehouses. That was how Germany showed her readiness for any military happening. Her army was already trained and could be called from any country and walk in life. A mysterious unheard command called it and it was obliged to obey. The entire male population of England had not been trained from birth to regard itself as an immense military machine, ready at any moment for action. The James Simpson type of Englishman indulged in much discussion of the pros and cons of enforced military training of youth. Germany's well known contempt of the size and power of the British Army took on an aspect which filled the James Simpsons with rage. They had not previously thought of themselves as martial, because middle-class England was satisfied with her belief in her strength and entire safety. Of course she was safe. She always had been. Britannia Rules the Waves and the James Simpsons were sure that incidentally she ruled everything else. But as there stole up behind the mature Simpsons the haunting realization that, if England was "drawn in" to a war, it would be the young Simpsons who must gird their loins and go forth to meet Goliath in his armour, with only the sling and stone of untrained youth and valour as their weapon, there were many who began to feel that even inconvenient drilling and discipline might have been good things.
"There is something quite thrilling in going about now," said Feather to Coombe, after coming in from a shopping round, made in her new electric brougham. "One doesn't know what it is, but it's in the air. You see it in people's faces. Actually shop girls give one the impression of just having stopped whispering together when you go into a place and ask for something. A girl who was trying on some gloves for me—she was a thin girl with prominent watery eyes—had such a frightened look, that I said to her, just to see what she would say—'I wonder what would happen to the shops if England got into war?' She turned quite white and answered, 'Oh, Madam, I can't bear to think of it. My favourite brother's a soldier. He's such a nice big fellow and we're so fond of him. And he's always talking about it. He says Germany's not going to let England keep out. We're so frightened—mother and me.' She almost dropped a big tear on my glove. It would be quite exciting if England did go in."
"It would," Coombe answered.
"London would be crowded with officers. All sorts of things would have to be given for them—balls and things."
"Cannon balls among other things," said Coombe.
"But we should have nothing to do with the cannon balls, thank goodness," exhilaration sweeping her past unpleasant aspects. "One would be sorry for the Tommies, of course, if the worst came to the worst. But I must say army and navy men are more interesting than most civilians. It's the constant change in their lives, and their having to meet so many kinds of people."
"In actual war, men who are not merely 'Tommies' actually take part," Coombe suggested. "I was looking at a ball-room full of them the night after the news came from Sarajevo. Fine, well-set-up youngsters dancing with pretty girls. I could not help asking myself what would have happened to them before the German army crossed the Channel—if they were not able to prevent the crossing. And what would happen to the girls after its crossing, when it poured over London and the rest of England in the unbridled rage of drunken victory."
He so spoke because beneath his outward coldness he himself felt a secret rage against this lightness which, as he saw things, had its parallel in another order of trivial unawareness in more important places and larger brains. Feather started and drew somewhat nearer to him.
"How hideous! What do you mean! Where was the party?" she asked.
"It was a small dance given by the Duchess, very kindly, for Robin," he answered.
"For Robin!" with open eyes whose incredulity held irritation. "The old Duchess giving parties to her 'useful companion' girl! What nonsense! Who was there?" sharply.
"The young fellows who would be first called on if there was war. And the girls who are their relatives. Halwyn was there—and young Dormer and Layton—they are all in the army. The cannon balls would be for them as well as for the Tommies of their regiments. They are spirited lads who wouldn't slink behind. They'd face things."
Feather had already forgotten her moment's shock in another thought.
"And they were invited to meet Robin! Did they dance with her? Did she dance much? Or did she sit and stare and say nothing? What did she wear?"
"She looked like a very young white rose. She danced continually. There was always a little mob about her when the music stopped. I do not think she sat at all, and it was the young men who stared. The only dance she missed—Kathryn told her grandmother—was the one she sat out in the conservatory with Donal Muir."
At this Feather's high, thin little laugh broke forth.
"He turned up there? Donal Muir!" She struck her hands lightly together. "It's too good to be true!"
"Why is it too good to be true?" he inquired without enthusiasm.
"Oh, don't you see? After all his mother's airs and graces and running away with him when they were a pair of babies—as if Robin had the plague. I was the plague—and so were you. And here the old Duchess throws them headlong at each other—in all their full bloom—into each other's arms. I did not do it. You didn't. It was the stuffiest old female grandee in London, who wouldn't let me sweep her front door-steps for her—because I'm an impropriety."
She asked a dozen questions, was quite humorous over the picture she drew of Mrs. Muir's consternation at the peril her one ewe lamb had been led into by her highly revered friend.
"A frightfully good-looking, spoiled boy like that always plunges headlong into any adventure that attracts him. Women have always made love to him and Robin will make great eyes, and blush and look at him from under her lashes as if she were going to cry with joy—like Alice in the Ben Bolt song. She'll 'weep with delight when he gives her a smile and tremble with fear at his frown.' His mother can't stop it, however furious she may be. Nothing can stop that sort of thing when it once begins."
"If England declares war Donal Muir will have more serious things to do than pursue adventures," was Coombe's comment. He looked serious himself as he said the words, because they brought before him the bodily strength and beauty of the lad. He seemed suddenly to see him again as he had looked when he was dancing. And almost at the same moment he saw other scenes than ball-rooms and heard sounds other than those drawn forth by musicians screened with palms. He liked the boy. He was not his son, but he liked him. If he had been his son, he thought—! He had been through the monster munition works at Essen several times and he had heard technical talks of inventions, the sole reason for whose presence in the world was that they had the power to blow human beings into unrecognisable, ensanguined shreds and to tear off limbs and catapult them into the air. He had heard these powers talked of with a sense of natural pride in achievement, in fact with honest and cheerful self gratulation.
He had known Count Zeppelin well and heard his interesting explanation of what would happen to a thickly populated city on to which bombs were dropped.
But Feather's view was lighter and included only such things as she found entertaining.
"If there's a war the heirs of great families won't be snatched at first," she quite rattled on. "There'll be a sort of economising in that sort of thing. Besides he's very young and he isn't in the Army. He'd have to go through some sort of training. Oh, he'll have time! And there'll be so much emotion and excitement and talk about parting forever and 'This may be the last time we ever meet' sort of thing that every boy will have adventure—and not only boys. When I warned Robin, the night before she went away, I did not count on war or I could have said more—"
"What did you warn her of?"
"Of making mistakes about the men who would make love to her. I warned her against imagining she was as safe as she would be if she were a daughter of the house she lived in. I knew what I was talking about."
"Did she?" was Coombe's concise question.
"Of course she did—though of course she pretended not to. Girls always pretend. But I did my duty as a parent. And I told her that if she got herself into any mess she mustn't come to me."
Lord Coombe regarded her in silence for a moment or so. It was one of the looks which always made her furious in her small way.
"Good morning," he said and turned his back and walked out of the room. Almost immediately after he had descended the stairs she heard the front door close after him.
It was the kind of thing which made her feel her utter helplessness against him and which enraged all the little cat in her being. She actually ground her small teeth.
"I was quite right," she said. "It's her affair to take care of herself. Would he want her to come to him in any silly fix? I should like to see her try it."
Robin sat at the desk in her private room and looked at a key she held in her hand. She had just come upon it among some papers. She had put it into a narrow lacquered box when she arranged her belongings, after she left the house in which her mother continued to live. It was the key which gave entrance to the Gardens. Each householder possessed one. She alone knew why she rather timidly asked her mother's permission to keep this one.
"One of the first things I seem to remember is watching the gardeners planting flowers," Robin had said. "They had rows of tiny pots with geraniums and lobelia in them. I have been happy there. I should like to be able to go in sometimes and sit under the trees. If you do not mind—"
Feather did not mind. She herself was not in the least likely to be seized with a desire to sit under trees in an atmosphere heavy with nursemaids and children.
So Robin had been allowed to keep the key and until to-day she had not opened the lacquer box. Was it quite by accident that she had found it? She was not quite sure it was and she was asking herself questions, as she sat looking at it as it lay in her palm.
The face of the whole world had changed since the night when she had sat among banked flowers and palms and ferns, and heard the splashing of the fountain and the sound of the music and dancing, and Donal Muir's voice, all at the same time. That which had happened had made everybody and everything different; and, because she lived in this particular house and saw much of special people, she realised that the growing shudder in the life about her was only the first convulsive tremor of an earthquake. The Duchess began to have much more for her to do. She called on her to read special articles in the papers, and to make notes and find references. Many visitors came to the house to discuss, to plan, to prepare for work. A number of good-looking, dancing boys had begun to come in and out in uniform, and with eager faces and a businesslike military air which oddly transformed them. The recalcitrant George was more transformed than any of the rest. His eyes looked almost fierce in their anxious intensity, his voice had taken on a somewhat hard defiant ring. It could not be possible that he had ever done that silly thing by the fountain and that she had splashed him from head to foot. It was plain that there were young soldiers who were straining at leashes, who were restless at being held back by the bindings of red tape, and who every hour were hearing things—true or untrue—which filled them with blind fury. As days passed Robin heard some of these things—stories from Belgium—which caused her to stare straight before her, blanched with horror. It was not only the slaughter and helplessness which pictured itself before her—it was stories half hinted at about girls like herself—girls who were trapped and overpowered—carried into lonely or dark places where no one could hear them. Sometimes George and the Duchess forgot her because she was so quiet—people often forgot everything but their excitement and wrath—and every one who came in to talk, because the house had become a centre of activities, was full of new panics or defiances or rumours of happenings or possibilities.
The maelstrom had caught Robin herself in its whirling. She realised that she had changed with the rest. She was no longer only a girl who was looked at as she passed along the street and who was beginning to be happy because she could earn her living. What was every girl in these days? How did any girl know what lay before her and those who protected the land she lived in? What could a girl do but try in some way to help—in any way to help the fight and the fighters. She used to lie awake and think of the Duchess' plans and concentrate her thought on the mastering of details. There was no hour too early or too late to find her ready to spring to attention. The Duchess had set her preparations for future possibilities in train before other women had quite begun to believe in their existence. Lady Lothwell had at first laughed quite gaily at certain long lists she found her mother occupied with—though this, it is true, was in early days.
But Robin, even while whirled by the maelstrom, could not cease thinking certain vague remote thoughts. The splashing of fountains among flowers, and the sound of music and dancing were far away—but there was an echo to which she listened unconsciously as Donal Muir did. Something she gave no name to. But as the, as yet unheard, guns sent forth vibrations which reached far, there rose before her pictures of columns of marching men—hundreds, thousands, young, erect, steady and with clear eyes—marching on and on—to what—to what? Would every man go? Would there not be some who, for reasons, might not be obliged—or able—or ready—until perhaps the, as yet hoped for, sudden end of the awful thing had come? Surely there would be many who would be too young—or whose youth could not be spared because it stood for some power the nation needed in its future.
She had taken out and opened the lacquered box while thinking these things. She was thinking them as she looked at the key in her hand.
"It is not quiet anywhere now," she said to herself. "But there will be some corner under a tree in the Gardens where it will seem quiet if one sits quite still there. I will go and try."
There were very few nursemaids with their charges in the place when she reached it about an hour later.
The military element filling the streets engendered a spirit of caution with regard to nursemaids in the minds of their employers. Even those who were not young and good-looking were somewhat shepherded. The two or three quite elderly ones in the Gardens cast serious glances at the girl who walked past them to a curve in the path where large lilac bushes and rhododendrons made a sort of nook for a seat under a tree.
They could not see her when she sat down and laid her book beside her on the bench. She did not even open it, but sat and looked at the greenery of the shrubs before her. She was very still, and she looked as if she saw more than mere leaves and branches.
After a few minutes she got up slowly and went to a tall bush of lilac. She plucked several leaves and carried them back to her bench, somewhat as if she were a girl moving in a dream. Then, with a tiny shadow of a smile, she took a long pin from under the lapel of her coat and, leaning forward, began to prick out a pattern on the leaf she had laid on the wooden seat. She was in the midst of doing it—had indeed decorated two or three—when she found herself turning her head to listen to something. It was a quick, buoyant marching step—not a nursemaid's, not a gardener's, and it was coming towards her corner as if with intention—and she suddenly knew that she was listening as if the intention concerned herself. This was only because there are psychological moments, moods, conditions at once physical and mental when every incident in life assumes the significance of intention—because unconsciously or consciously one is waiting.
Here was a crisp tread somehow conveying a suggestion of familiar happy eagerness. The tall young soldier who appeared from behind the clump of shrubs and stood before her with a laughing salute had evidently come hurriedly. And the hurry and laughter extraordinarily brought back the Donal who had sprung upon her years ago from dramatic ambush. It was Donal Muir who had come.
"I saw you from a friend's house across the street," he said. "I followed you."
He made no apology and it did not even cross her mind that apology was conventionally necessary. He sat down beside her and his effect—though it did not express itself physically—was that of one who was breathing quickly. The clear blueness of his gaze seemed to enfold and cover her. The wonderfulness of him was the surrounding atmosphere she had felt as a little child.
"The whole world is rocking to and fro," he said. "It has gone mad. We are all mad. There is no time to wait for anything."
"I know! I know!" she whispered, because her pretty breast was rising and falling, and she had scarcely breath left to speak with.
Even as he looked down at her, and she up at him, the colour and laughter died out of him. Some suddenly returning memory brought a black cloud into his eyes and made him pale. He caught hold of both her hands and pressed them quite hard against his bowed face. He did not kiss them but held them against his cheek.
"It is terrible," he said.
Without being told she knew what he meant.
"You have been hearing new horrible things?" she said. What she guessed was that they were the kind of things she had shuddered at, feeling her blood at once hot and cold. He lifted his face but did not release her hands.
"At my friend's house. A man had just come over from Holland," he shook himself as if to dismiss a nightmare. "I did not come here to say such things. The enormous luck of catching sight of you, by mere chance, through the window electrified me. I—I came because I was catapulted here." He tried to smile and managed it pretty well. "How could I stay when—there you were! Going into the same garden!" He looked round him at the greenness with memory awakening. "It's the same garden. The shrubs have grown much bigger and they have planted some new ones—but it is the same garden." His look came back to her. "You are the same Robin," he said softly.
"Yes," she answered, as she had always answered "yes" to him.
"You are the same little child," he added and he lifted her hands again, but this time he kissed them as gently as he had spoken. "God! I'm glad!" And that was said softly, too. He was not a man of thirty or forty—he was a boy of twenty and his whole being was vibrating with the earthquake of the world.
That he vaguely recognised this last truth revealed itself in his next words.
"It would have taken me six months to say this much to you—to get this far—before this thing began," he said. "I daren't have run after you in the street. I should have had to wait about and make calls and ask for invitations to places where I might see you. And when we met we should have been polite and have talked all round what we wanted to say. It would have been cheek to tell you—the second time we met—that your eyes looked at me just as they did when you were a little child. I should have had to be decently careful because you might have felt shy. You don't feel shy now, do you? No, you don't," in caressing conviction and appeal.
"No—no." There was the note of a little mating bird in the repeated word.
This time he spread one of her hands palm upward on his own larger one. He looked down at it tenderly and stroked it as he talked.
"It is because there is no time. Things pour in upon us. We don't know what is before us. We can only be sure of one thing—that it may be death or wounds. I don't know when they'll think me ready to be sent out—or when they'll be ready to send me and other fellows like me. But I shall be sent. I am sitting in a garden here with you. I'm a young chap and big and strong and I love life. It is my duty as a man to go and kill other young chaps who love it as much as I do. And they must do their best to kill me, 'Gott strafe England,' they're saying in Germany—I understand it. Many a time it's in me to say, 'Gott strafe Germany.'"
He drew in his breath sharply, as if to pull himself together, and was still a moment. The next he turned upon her his wonderful boy's smile. Suddenly there was trusting appeal in it.
"You don't mind my holding your hand and talking like this, do you? Your eyes are as soft as—I've seen fawns cropping among the primroses with eyes that looked like them. But yours understand. You don't mind my doing this?" he kissed her palm. "Because there is no time."
Her free hand caught at his sleeve.
"No," she said. "You're going—you're going!"
"Yes," he answered. "And you wouldn't hold me back."
"No! No! No! No!" she cried four times, "Belgium! Belgium! Oh! Belgium!" And she hid her eyes on his sleeve.
"That's it—Belgium! There has been war before, but this promises from the outset to be something else. And they're coming on in their millions. We have no millions—we have not even guns and uniforms enough, but we've got to stop them, if we do it with our bare hands and with walls of our dead bodies. That was how Belgium held them back. Can England wait?"
"You can't wait!" cried Robin. "No man can wait."
How he glowed as he looked at her!
"There. That shows how you understand. See! That's what draws me. That's why, when I saw you through the window, I had to follow you. It wasn't only your lovely eyes and your curtains of eyelashes and because you are a sort of rose. It is you—you! Whatsoever you said, I should know the meaning of, and what I say you will always understand. It's as if we answered each other. That's why I never forgot you. It's why I waked up so when I saw you at the Duchess'." He tried to laugh, but did not quite succeed. "Do you know I have never had a moment's real rest since that night—because I haven't seen you."
"I—" faltered Robin, "have wondered and wondered—where you were."
All the forces of nature drew him a little nearer to her—though the gardener who clumped past them dully at the moment only saw a particularly good-looking young soldier, apparently engaged in agreeable conversation with a pretty girl who was not a nursemaid.
"Did you come here because of that?" he asked with frank anxiety. "Do you come here often and was it just chance? Or did you come because you were wondering?"
"I didn't exactly know—at first. But I know now. I have not been here since I went to live in Eaton Square," she gave back to him. Oh! how good and beautiful his asking eyes were! It was as he drew even a little nearer that he saw for the first time the pricked lilac leaves lying on the bench beside her.
"Did you do those?" he said suddenly quite low. "Did you?"
"Yes," as low and quite sweetly unashamed. "You taught me—when we played together."
The quick emotion in his flushing face could scarcely be described.
"How lovely—how lovely you are!" he exclaimed, almost under his breath. "I—I don't know how to say what I feel—about your remembering. You little—little thing!" This last because he somehow strangely saw her five years old again.
It was a boy's unspoiled, first love making—the charming outburst of young passion untrained by familiar use to phrases. It was like the rising of a Spring freshet and had the same irresistible power.
"May I have them? Will you give them to me with your own little hand?"
The happy glow of her smiling, as she picked them up and laid them, one by one, on his open extended palm, was as the glow of the smiling of young Eve. The dimples playing round her mouth and the quiver of her lashes, as she lifted them to laugh into his eyes, were an actual peril.
"Must I give you the pin too?" she said.
"Yes—everything," he answered in a sort of helpless joy. "I would carry the wooden bench away with me if I could. But they would stop me at the gate." They were obliged to treat something a little lightly because everything seemed tensely tremulous.
"Here is the pin," she said, taking it from under the lapel of her coat. "It is quite a long one." She looked at it a moment and then ended in a whisper. "I must have known why I was coming here—because, you see, I brought the pin." And her eyelashes lifted themselves and made their circling shadows again.
"Then I must have the pin. And it will be a talisman. I shall have a little flat case made for the leaves and the sacred pin shall hold it together. When I go into battle it will keep me safe. Bullets and bayonets will glance aside." He said it, as he laid the treasure away in his purse, and he did not see her face as he spoke of bullets and bayonets.
"I am a Highlander," he said next and for the moment he looked as if he saw things far away. "In the Highlands we believe more than most people do. Perhaps that's why I feel as if we two are not quite like other people,—as if we had been something—I don't know what—to each other from the beginning of time—since the 'morning stars first sang together.' I don't know exactly what that means, or how stars sing—but I like the sound of it. It seems to mean something I mean though I don't know how to say it." He was not in the least portentous or solemn, but he was the most strongly feeling and real creature she had ever heard speaking to her and he swept her along with him, as if he had indeed been the Spring freshet and she a leaf. "I believe," here he began to speak slowly as if he were thinking it out, "that there was something—that meant something—in the way we two were happy together and could not bear to be parted—years ago when we were nothing but children. Do you know that, little chap as I was, I never stopped thinking of you day and night when we were not playing together. I couldn't!"
"Neither could I stop thinking," said Robin. "I had dreams about seeing your eyes looking at me. They were blue like clear water in summer. They were always laughing. I always wanted them to look at me! They—they are the same eyes now," in a little rush of words.
Their blueness was on hers—in the very deeps of their uplifted liquidity.
"God! I'm glad!" his voice was on a hushed note.
There has never been a limner through all the ages who has pictured—at such a moment—two pairs of eyes reaching, melting into, lost in each other in their human search for the longing soul drawing together human things. Hand and brush and colour cannot touch That which Is and Must Be—in its yearning search for the spirit which is its life on earth. Yet a boy and girl were yearning towards it as they sat in mere mortal form on a bench in a London square. And neither of them knew more than that they wondered at and adored the beauty in each other's eyes.
"I didn't know what a little chap I was," he said next. "I'd had a splendid life for a youngster and I was big for my age and ramping with health and strength and happiness. You seemed almost a baby to me, but—it was the way you looked at me, I think—I wanted to talk to you, and please you and make you laugh. You had a red little mouth with deep dimples that came and went near the corners. I liked to see them twinkle."
"You told me," she laughed, remembering. "You put the point of your finger in them. But you didn't hurt me," in quick lovely reassuring. "You were not a rough little boy."
"I wouldn't have hurt you for worlds. I didn't even know I was cheeky. The dimples were so deep that it seemed quite natural to poke at them—like a sort of game."
"We laughed and laughed. It was a sort of game. I sat quite still and let you make little darts at them," Robin assisted him. "We laughed like small crazy things. We almost had child hysterics."
The dimples showed themselves now and he held himself in leash.
"You did everything I wanted you to do," he said, "and I suppose that made me feel bigger and bigger."
"I thought you were big. And I had never seen anything so wonderful before. You knew everything in the world and I knew nothing. Don't you remember," with hesitation—as if she were almost reluctant to recall the memory of a shadow into the brightness of the moment—"I told you that I had nothing—and nobody?"
All rushed back to him in a warm flow.
"That was it," he said. "When you said that I felt as if some one had insulted and wronged something of my own. I remember I felt hot and furious. I wanted to give you things and fight for you. I—caught you in my arms and squeezed you."
"Yes," Robin answered.
"It was because of—that time when the morning stars first sang together," he answered smiling, but still as real as before. "It wasn't a stranger child I wanted to take care of. It was some one I had—belonged to—long—long and long. I'm a Highlander and I know it's true. And there's another thing I know," with a sudden change almost to boyish fierceness, "you are one of the things I'm going to face cannon and bayonets for. If there were nothing else and no one else in England, I should stand on the shore and fight until I dropped dead and the whole Hun mass surged over me before they should reach you."
"Yes," whispered Robin, "I know."
They both realised that the time had come when they must part, and when he lifted again the hand nearest to him, it was with the gesture of one who had reached the moment of farewell.
"It's our garden," he said. "It's the same garden. Just because there is no time—may I see you here again? I can't go away without knowing that."
"I will come," she answered, "whenever the Duchess does not need me. You see I belong to nobody but myself."
"I belong to people," he said, "but I belong to myself too." He paused a second or so and a strange half puzzled expression settled in his eyes. "It's only fair that a man who's looking the end of things straight in the face should have something for himself—to himself. If it's only a heavenly hour now and then. Before things stop. There's such a lot of life—and such a lot to live for—forever if one could. And a smash—or a crash—or a thrust—and it's over! Sometimes I can hardly get hold of it."
He shook his head as he rose and stood upright, drawing his splendid young body erect.
"It's only fair," he said. "A chap's so strong and—and ready for living. Everything's surging through one's mind and body. One can't go out without having something—of one's own. You'll come, won't you—just because there's no time? I—I want to keep looking into your eyes."
"I want you to look into them," said Robin. "I'll come."
He stood still a moment looking at her just as she wanted him to look. Then after a few more words he bent low and kissed her hands and then stood straight again and saluted and went away.
There was one facet of the great stone of War upon which many strange things were written. They were not the things most discussed or considered. They were results—not causes. But for the stress of mental, spiritual and physical tempest-of-being the colossal background of storm created, many of them might never have happened; but the consequences of their occurrence were to touch close, search deep, and reach far into the unknown picture of the World the great War might leave in fragments which could only be readjusted by centuries of time.
The interested habit of observation of, and reflection on, her kind which knew no indifferences, in the mind of the Duchess of Darte, awakened by stages to the existence of this facet and to the moment of the writings thereupon.
"It would seem almost as if Nature—Fate—had meant to give a new impulse to the race—to rouse human creatures to new moods, to thrust them into places where they see new things. Men and women are being dragged out of their self-absorbed corners and stirred up and shaken. Emotions are being roused in people who haven't known what a real emotion was. Middle-aged husbands and wives who had sunk into comfortable acceptance of each other and their boys and girls are being dragged out of bed, as it were, and wakened up and made to stand on their feet and face unbelievable possibilities. If you have boys old enough to be soldiers and girls old enough to be victims—your life makes a sort of volte face and everyday, worldly comforts and successes or little failures drop out of your line of sight, and change their values. Mothers are beginning to clutch at their sons; and even self-centred fathers and selfish pretty sisters look at their male relatives with questioning, with a hint of respect or even awe in it. Perhaps the women feel it more than the men. Good-looking, light-minded, love-making George has assumed a new aspect to his mother and to Kathryn. They're secretly yearning over him. He has assumed a new aspect to me. I yearn over him myself. He has changed—he has suddenly grown up. Boys are doing it on every hand."
"The youngest youngster vibrates with the shock of cannon firing, even though the sound may not be near enough to be heard," answered Coombe. "We're all vibrating unconsciously. We are shuddering consciously at the things we hear and are mad to put a stop to, before they go further."
"Innocent little villages full of homes torn and trampled under foot and burned!" the Duchess almost cried out. "And worse things than that—worse things! And the whole monstrosity growing more huge and throwing out new and more awful tentacles every day."
"Every hour. No imagination has yet conceived what it may be."
"That is why the poor human things are clutching at each other, and finding values and attractions where they did not see them before. Colonel Marion and his wife were here yesterday. He is a stout man over fifty and has a red face and prominent eyes. His wife has been so occupied with herself and her children that she had almost forgotten he existed. She looked at and listened to him as if she were a bride."
"I have seen changes of that sort myself," said Coombe. "He is more alive himself. He has begun to be of importance. And men like him have been killed already—though the young ones go first."
"The young ones know that, and they clutch the most frantically. That is what I am seeing in young eyes everywhere. Mere instinct makes it so—mere uncontrollable instinct which takes the form of a sort of desperateness at facing the thousand chances of death before they have lived. They don't know it isn't actual fear of bullets and shrapnel. Sometimes they're afraid it's fear and it makes them sick at themselves and determined to grin and hide it. But it isn't fear—it's furious Nature protesting."
"There are hasty bridals and good-bye marriages being made in all ranks," Coombe put in. "They are inevitable."
"God help the young things—those of them who never meet again—and perhaps, also, some of those who do. The nation ought to take care of the children. If there is a nation left, God knows they will be needed," the Duchess said. "One of my footmen who 'joined up' has revealed an unsuspected passion for a housemaid he used to quarrel with, and who seemed to detest him. I have three women in my household who have soldier lovers in haste to marry them. I shall give them my blessing and take care of the wives when they are left behind. One can be served by old men and married women—and one can turn cottages into small orphanages if the worst happens."
There was a new vigour in her splendid old face and body.
"There is a reason now why I am the Dowager Duchess of Darte," she went on, "and why I have money and houses and lands. There is a reason why I have lived when it sometimes seemed as if my usefulness was over. There are uses for my money—for my places—for myself. Lately I have found myself saying, as Mordecai said to Esther, 'Who knowest whether thou art not come to the kingdom for such a time as this.' A change is taking place in me too. I can do more because there is so much more to do. I can even use my hands better. Look at them."
She held them out that he might see them—her beautiful old-ivory fingers, so long stiffened by rheumatism. She slowly opened and shut them.
"I can move them more—I have been exercising them and having them rubbed. I want to be able to knit and sew and wait on myself and perhaps on other people. Because I have been a rich, luxurious old woman it has not occurred to me that there were rheumatic old women who were forced to do things because they were poor—the things I never tried to do. I have begun to try."
She let her hands fall on her lap and sat gazing up at him with a rather strange expression.
"Do you know what I have been doing?" she said. "I have been praying to God—for a sort of miracle. In their terror people are beginning to ask their Deity for things as they have never done it before. We are most of us like children waking in horror of the black night and shrieking for some one to come—some one—any one! Each creature cries out to his own Deity—the God his own need has made. Most of us are doing it in secret—half ashamed to let it be known. We are abject things. Mothers and fathers are doing it—young lovers and husbands and wives."
"What miracle are you asking for?"
"For power to do things I have not done for years. I want to walk—to stand—to work. If under the stress of necessity I begin to do all three, my doctors will say that mental exaltation and will power have caused the change. It may be true, but mental exaltation and will power are things of the soul not of the body. Anguish is actually forcing me into a sort of practical belief. I am trying to 'have faith even as a grain of mustard seed' so that I may say unto my mountain, 'Remove hence to yonder place and it shall be removed.'"
"'The things which I do, ye shall do also and even greater things than these shall ye do.'" Coombe repeated the words deliberately. "I heard an earnest middle-aged dissenter preach a sermon on that text a few days ago."
"What?"—his old friend leaned forward. "Are you going to hear sermons?"
"I am one of the children, I suppose. Though I do not shriek aloud, probably something shrieks within me. I was passing a small chapel and heard a singular voice. I don't know exactly why I went into the place, but when I sat down inside I felt the tension of the atmosphere at once. Every one looked anxious or terrified. There were pale faces and stony or wild eyes. It did not seem to be an ordinary service and voices kept breaking out with spasmodic appeals, 'Almighty God, look down on us!' 'Oh, Christ, have mercy!' 'Oh, God, save us!' One woman in black was rocking backwards and forwards and sobbing over and over again, 'Oh, Jesus! Jesus! Oh, Lord Jesus!'"
"Part of her body and soul was lying done to death in some field—or by some roadside," said the Duchess. "She could not pray—she could only cry out. I can hear her, 'Oh, Lord Jesus!'"
Later came the morning when the changed George came to say good-bye. He was wonderfully good-looking in his khaki and seemed taller and more square of jaw. He made a few of the usual young jokes which were intended to make things cheerful and to treat affectionate fears lightly, but his good-natured blue eye held a certain deadly quiet in its depths.
His mother and Kathryn were with him, and it was while they were absorbed in anxious talk with the Duchess that he walked over to where Robin sat and stood before her.
"Will you come into the library and let me say something to you? I don't want to go away without saying it," he put it to her.
The library was the adjoining room and Robin rose and went with him without any comment or question. Already the time had come when formalities had dropped away and people did not ask for trivial explanations. The pace of events had become too rapid.
"There are a lot of chances when a man goes out—that he won't come back," he said, still standing after she had taken a place in the window-seat he guided her to. "There are not as many as one's friends can't help thinking—but there are enough to make him feel he'd like to leave things straight when he goes. What I want you to let me say is, that the minute I had made a fool of myself the night of the dance, I knew what an ass I had been and I was ready to grovel."
Robin's lifted face was quite gentle. Suddenly she was thinking self-reproachingly, "Oh, poor boy—poor boy!"
"I flew into a temper and would not let you," she answered him. "It was temper—but there were things you didn't know. It was not your fault that you didn't." The square, good-natured face flushed with relief, and George's voice became even slightly unsteady.
"That's kind of you," he said, "it's kind and I'm jolly grateful. Things mean a lot just now—with all one's people in such a state and trying so pluckily to hide it. I just wanted to make sure that you knew that I knew that the thing only happened because I was a silly idiot and for no other reason. You will believe me, won't you, and won't remember it if you ever remember me?"
"I shall remember you—and it is as if—that had never happened at all."
She put out, as she got up, such a kind hand that he grasped it almost joyously.
"You have made it awfully easy for me. Thank you, Miss Lawless." He hesitated a second and then dropped his voice. "I wonder if I dare—I wonder if it would be cheek—and impudence if I said something else?"
"Scarcely anything seems cheek or impudence now," Robin answered with simple sadness. "Nothing ordinary seems to matter because everything is of so much importance."
"I feel as if what I wanted to say was one of the things that are important. I don't know what—older people—or safe ones—would think about it, but—" He broke off and began again. "To us young ones who are facing— It's the only big thing that's left us—in our bit of the present. We can only be sure of to-day—"
"Yes—yes," Robin cried out low. "Only to-day—just to-day." She even panted a little and George, looking into her eyes, knew that he might say anything, because for a reason she was one of the girls who in this hour could understand.
"Perhaps you don't know where our house is," he said quite quickly. "It is one of those in the Square—facing the Gardens. I might have played with you there when I was a little chap—but I don't think I did."
"Nobody did but Donal," she said, quickly also. How did she know that he was going to say something to her about Donal?
"I gave him the key to the Gardens that day," he hurried on. "I was at the window with him when he saw you. I understood in a minute when I saw his face and he'd said half a dozen words to me. I gave him my key. He has got it now." He actually snatched at both her hands and gripped them. It was a grip and his eyes burned through a sort of sudden moisture. "We can't stay here and talk. But I couldn't not say it! Oh, I say, be good to him! You would, if he had only a day to live because some damned German bullet had struck him. You're life—you're youngness—you're to-day! Don't say 'No' to anything he asks of you—for God's sake, don't."
"I'd give him my heart in his two hands," gasped Robin. "I couldn't give him my soul because it was always his."