THE MISSES MALLETT
(The Bridge Dividing)
by E. H. Young
BOOK I ROSE
BOOK II HENRIETTA
BOOK III ROSE AND HENRIETTA
Book I: Rose
On the high land overlooking the distant channel and the hills beyond it, the spring day, set in azure, was laced with gold and green. Gorse bushes flaunted their colour, larch trees hung out their tassels and celandines starred the bright green grass in an air which seemed palpably blue. It made a mist among the trees and poured itself into the ground as though to dye the earth from which hyacinths would soon spring. Far away, the channel might have been a still, blue lake, the hills wore soft blue veils and, like a giant reservoir, the deeper blue of the sky promised unlimited supplies. There were sheep and lambs bleating in the fields, birds sang with a piercing sweetness, and no human being was in sight until, up on the broad grassy track which branched off from the main road and had the larch wood on one side and, on the other, rough descending fields, there appeared a woman on a horse. The bit jingled gaily, the leather creaked, the horse, smelling the turf, gave a snort of delight, but his rider restrained him lightly. On her right hand was the open country sloping slowly to the water; on her left was the stealthiness of the larch wood; over and about everything was the blue day. Straight ahead of her the track dipped to a lane, and beyond that the ground rose again in fields sprinkled with the drab and white of sheep and lambs and backed by the elm trees of Sales Hall. She could see the chimneys of the house and the rooks' nests in the elm tops and, as though the sight reminded her of something mildly amusing, the smoothness of her face was ruffled by a smile, the stillness of her pose by a quick glance about her, but if she looked for anyone she did not find him. There were small sounds from the larch wood, little creakings and rustlings, but there was no human footstep, and the only visible movements were made by the breeze in the trees and in the grass, the flight of a bird and the distant gambolling of lambs.
She rode on down the steep, stony slope into the lane, and after hesitating for a moment she turned to the right where the lane was broadened by a border of rich grass and a hedge-topped bank. Here primroses lay snugly in their clumps of crinkled leaves and, wishing to feel the coolness of their slim, pale stalks between her fingers, Rose Mallett dismounted, slipped the reins over her arm and allowed her horse to feed while she stooped to the flowers. Then, in the full sunshine, with the soft breeze trying to loosen her hair, with the flowers in her bare hand, she straightened herself, consciously happy in the beauty of the day, in the freedom and strength of her body, in the smell of the earth and the sight of the country she had known and loved all her life. It was long since she had ridden here without encountering Francis Sales, who was bound up with her knowledge of the country, and who, quite evidently, wished to annex some of the love she lavished on it. This was a ridiculous desire which made her smile again, yet, while she was glad to be alone, she missed the attention of his presence. He had developed a capacity, which was like another sense, for finding her when she rode on his domains or in their neighbourhood, and she was surprised to feel a slight annoyance at his absence, an annoyance which, illogically, was increased by the sight of his black spaniel, the sure forerunner of his master, making his way through the hedge. A moment later the tall figure of Sales himself appeared above the budding twigs.
He greeted her in the somewhat sulky manner to which she was accustomed. He was a young man with a grievance, and he looked at her as though to-day it were personified in her.
She answered him cheerfully: 'What a wonderful day!'
'The day's all right,' he said.
Holding the primroses to her nose, she looked round. Catkins were swaying lightly on the willows, somewhere out of sight a tiny runnel of water gurgled, the horse ate noisily, the grass had a vividness of green like the concentrated thought of spring.
'I don't see how anything can be wrong this morning,' she said.
'Ah, you're lucky to think so,' he answered, gazing at her clear, pale profile.
'Well,' she turned to ask patiently, 'what is the matter with you?'
'Has a cow died?' And ignoring his angry gesture, she went on: 'I don't think you take enough care of your property. Whenever I ride here I find you strolling about miserably, with a dog.'
'That's your fault.'
'I don't quite see why,' she said pleasantly; 'but no doubt you are right. But has a cow died?'
'Of course not. Why should it?'
'They do, I suppose?'
'It's the old man. He isn't well, and he's badgering me to go away, to Canada, and learn more about farming.'
'So you should.'
'Of course you'd say so.'
'Or do you think you can't?'
He missed, or ignored, her point. 'He's ill. I don't want to leave him'; and in a louder voice he added, almost shouted, 'I don't want to leave you!'
Her grey eyes were watching the swinging catkins, her hand, lifting the primroses, hid a smile. Again he had the benefit of her profile, the knot of her dark, thick hair and the shadowy line of her eyelashes, but she made no comment on his remark and after a moment of sombre staring he uttered the one word, 'Well?'
'Well, I've told you.'
'Oh, I think you ought to go.'
'Then you don't love me?'
From under her raised eyebrows she looked at him steadily. 'No, I don't love you,' she said slowly. There was no need to consider her answer: she was sure of it. She was fond of him, but she could not romantically love some one who looked and behaved like a spoilt boy. She glanced from his handsome, frowning face in which the mouth was opening for protest to a scene perfectly set for a love affair. There was not so much as a sheep in sight: there was only the horse who, careless of these human beings, still ate eagerly, chopping the good grass with his teeth, and the spaniel who panted self-consciously and with a great affectation of exhaustion. The place was beautiful and the sunlight had some quality of enchantment. Faint, delicious smells were offered on the wind and withdrawn in caprice; the trees were all tipped with green and interlaced with blue air and blue sky; she wished she could say she loved him, and she repeated her denial half regretfully.
'Rose,' he pleaded, 'I've known you all my life!'
'Perhaps that's why. Perhaps I know you too well.'
'You don't. You don't know how—how I love you. And I should be different with you. I should be happy. I've never been happy yet.'
'You can't,' she said slowly, 'get happiness through a person if you can't get it through yourself.'
'Yes—if you are the person.'
She shook her head. 'I'm sorry. I can't help it.'
He reproached her. 'You've never thought about it.'
'Well, isn't that the same thing? And,' she added, 'you're so far away.'
'I can get through the hedge,' he said practically.
She smiled in the way that always puzzled, irritated and allured him. His words set him still farther off; he did not even understand her speech.
'Is it better now?' he asked, close to her.
'No, no better.' She looked at his face, so deeply tanned that his brown hair and moustache looked pale by contrast and his eyes extraordinarily blue. His appearance always pleased her. It was almost a part of the landscape, but the landscape was full of change, of mystery in spite of its familiarity, and she found him dull, monotonous, with a sort of stupidity which was not without attraction, but which would be wearying for a whole life. She had no desire to be his wife and the mistress of Sales Hall, its fields and woods and farms. The world was big, the possibilities in life were infinite, and she felt she was fit, perhaps destined, to play a larger part than this he offered her, and if she could, as she foresaw, only play a greater one through the agency of some man, she must have that man colossal, for she was only twenty-three years old.
'No,' she said firmly, 'we are not suited to each other.'
'You are to me.' His angry helplessness seemed to darken the sunlight. 'You are to me. No one else. I've known you all my life. Rose, think about it!'
'I shall—but I shan't change. I don't believe you really love me, Francis, but you want some one you can growl at legitimately. I don't think you would find me satisfactory. Another woman might enjoy the privilege.'
He made a wild movement, startling to the horse. 'You don't understand me!'
'Well, then, that ought to settle it. And now I'm going.'
'Don't go,' he pleaded. 'And look here, you might have loosened your girths.'
'I might, but I didn't expect to be here so long. I didn't expect to be so pleasantly entertained.' She put out her hand for his shoulder, and, bending unwillingly, he received her foot.
'You needn't have said that,' he muttered, 'about being entertained.'
'You're so ungracious, Francis.'
'I can't help it when I care so much.'
From her high seat she looked at him with a sort of envy. 'It must be rather nice to feel anything deeply enough to make you rude.'
'You torture me,' he said.
She was hurt by the sight of his suffering, she wished she could give him what he wanted, she felt as though she were injuring a child, yet her youth resented his childishness: it claimed a passion capable of overwhelming her. She hardened a little. 'Good-bye,' she said, 'and if I were you, I should certainly go abroad.'
'I shall!' he threatened her.
'Good-bye, then,' she repeated amiably.
'Don't go,' he begged in a low voice. 'Rose, I don't believe you know what you are doing, and you've always loved the country, you've always loved our place. You like our house. You told me once you envied us our rookery.'
'Yes, I love the rookery,' she said.
'And you'd have your own stables and as many horses as you wanted—'
'And milk from our own cows! And home-laid eggs!'
'Ah, you're laughing at me. You always do.'
'So you see,' she said, bending a little towards him, 'I shouldn't make a very good companion.'
'But I could put up with it from you!' he cried. 'I could put up with anything from you.'
She made a gesture. That was where he chiefly failed. The colossal gentleman of her imagination was a tyrant.
* * * * *
She rode home, up and along the track, on to the high road with its grass borders and across the shadows of the elm branches which striped the road with black. It was a long road accompanied on one side and for about two miles by a tall, smooth wall, unscalable, guarding the privacy of a local magnate's park. It was a pitiless wall, without a chink, without a roughness that could be seized by hands; it was higher than Rose Mallett as she sat on her big horse and, but for the open fields on the other side where lambs jumped and bleated, that road would have oppressed the spirit, for the wall was a solid witness to the pride and the power of material possession. Rose Mallett hated it, not on account of the pride and the power, but because it was ugly, monstrous, and so inhospitably smooth that not a moss would grow on it. More vaguely, she disliked it because it set so definite a limit to her path. She was always glad when she could turn the corner and, leaving the wall to prolong the side of the right angle it made at this point, she could take a side road, edging a wooded slope. That slope made one side of the gorge through which the river ran, and, looking down through the trees, she caught glimpses of water and a red scar of rock on the other cliff.
The sound of a steamer's paddles threshing the water came to her clearly, and the crying of the gulls was so familiar that she hardly noticed it. And all the way she was thinking of Francis Sales, his absurdity, his good looks and his distress; but in the permanence of his distress, even in its sincerity, she did not much believe, for he had failed to touch anything but her pity, and that failure seemed an argument against the vehemence of his love. Yet she liked him, she had always liked him since, as a little girl, she had been taken by her stepsisters to a haymaking party at Sales Hall.
They had gone in a hired carriage, but one so smart and well-equipped that it might have been their own, and she remembered the smell of the leather seats warmed by the sun, the sound of the horse's hoofs and the sight of Caroline and Sophia, extremely gay in their summer muslins and shady hats, each holding a lace parasol to protect the complexion already delicately touched up with powder and rouge. She had been very proud of her stepsisters as she sat facing them and she had decided to wear just such muslin dresses, just such hats, when she grew up. Caroline was in pink with coral beads and a pink feather drooping on her dark hair; and Sophia, very fair, with a freckle here and there peeping, as though curious, through the powder, wore yellow with a big-bowed sash. She was always very slim, and the only fair Mallett in the family; but even in those days Caroline was inclined to stoutness. She carried it well, however, with a great dignity, fortified by reassurances from Sophia, and Rose's recollections of the conversations of these two was of their constant compliments to each other and the tireless discussion of clothes. These conversations still went on.
Fifteen years ago she had sat in that carriage in a white frock, with socks and ankle-strapped black shoes, her long hair flowing down her back, and she had heard then, as one highly privileged, the words she would hear again when she arrived home for tea. Under their tilted parasols they had made their little speeches. No one was more distinguished than Caroline; no girl of twenty had a prettier figure than Sophia's; how well the pink feather looked against Caroline's hair. Rose, listening intently, but not staring too hard lest her gaze should attract their attention to herself, had looked at the fields and at the high, smooth wall, and wondered whether she would rather reach Sales Hall and enjoy the party, or drive on for ever in this delightful company, but the carriage turned up the avenue of elms and Rose saw for the first time the house which Francis Sales now offered as an attraction. It was a big, square house with honest, square windows, and the drive, shadowed by the elms, ran through the fields where the haymaking was in progress. Only immediately in front of the house were there any flower-beds and there were no garden trees or shrubs. The effect was of great freedom and spaciousness, of unaffected homeliness; and even then the odd delightful mixture of hall and farm, the grandeur of the elm avenue set in the simplicity of fields, gave pleasure to Rose Mallett's beauty-loving eyes. Anything might happen in a garden that suddenly became a field, in a field that ended in a garden, and the house had the same capacity for surprise.
There was a matted hall sunk a foot below the threshold, and to Rose, accustomed to the delicate order of Nelson Lodge with its slim, shining, old furniture, its polished brass and gleaming silver, the comfortable carelessness of this place, with a man's cap on the hall table, a group of sticks and a pair of slippers in a corner, and an opened newspaper on a chair, seemed the very home of freedom. It was a masculine house in which Mrs. Sales, a gentle lady with a fichu of lace round her soft neck, looked strangely out of place, yet entirely happy in her strangeness.
On the day of the party Rose had only a glimpse of the interior. The three Miss Malletts, Caroline sweeping majestically ahead, were led into the hayfield where Mrs. Sales sat serenely in a wicker chair. It was evident at once that Mr. Sales, bluff and hearty, with gaitered legs, was fond of little girls. He realized that this one with the black hair and the solemn grey eyes would prefer eating strawberries from the beds to partaking of them with cream from a plate; he knew without being told that she would not care for gambolling with other children in the hay; he divined her desire to see the pigs and horses, and it was near the pigsties that she met Francis Sales. He was tall for twelve years old and Rose respected him for his age and size; but she wondered why he was with the pigs instead of with his guests, to whom his father drove him off with a laugh.
'Says he can't bear parties,' Mr. Sales remarked genially to Rose. 'What do you think of that?'
'I like pigs, too,' Rose answered, to be surprised by his prolonged chuckle.
Mr. Sales, in the intervals of his familiar conversation with the pigs, wanted to know why Rose had not brought her father with her.
'Oh, he's too old,' Rose said, rather shocked. Her father had always seemed old to her, as indeed he was, for she was the child of his second marriage, and her young mother had died when she was born. Her stepsisters, devoted to the little girl, and perhaps not altogether sorry to be rid of a stepmother younger than themselves, had tried to make up for that loss, but they were much occupied with the social activities of Radstowe and they belonged to an otherwise inactive generation, so that if Rose had a grievance it was that they never played games with her, never ran, or played ball or bowled hoops as she saw the mothers of other children doing. For such sporting she had to rely upon her nurse who was of rather a solemn nature and liked little girls to behave demurely out of doors.
General Mallett saw to it that his youngest daughter early learnt to ride. Her memories of him were of a big man on a big horse, not talkative, somewhat stern and sad, becoming companionable only when they rode out together on the high Downs crowning the old city, and then he was hardly recognizable as the father who heard her prayers every night. These two duties of teaching her to ride and of hearing her pray, and his insistence on her going, as Caroline and Sophia had done, to a convent school in France, made up, as far as she could remember, the sum of his interest in her, and when she returned home from school for the last time, it was to attend his funeral.
She was hardly sorry, she was certainly not glad; she envied the spontaneous tears of her stepsisters, and she found the lugubriousness of the occasion much alleviated by the presence of her stepbrother Reginald. She had hardly seen him since her childhood. Sophia always spoke of him as she might have spoken of the dead. Caroline sometimes referred to him in good round terms, sometimes with an indulgent laugh; and for Rose he had the charm of mystery, the fascination of the scapegrace. He was handsome, but good looks were a prerogative of the Malletts; he was married to a wife he had never introduced to his family and he had a little girl. What his profession was, Rose did not know. Perhaps his face was his fortune, as certainly his sisters had been his victims.
After the funeral he had several interviews with Caroline and Sophia, when Rose could hear the mannish voice of Caroline growing gruff with indignation and the high tones of Sophia rising to a squeak. He emerged from these encounters with an angry face and a weak mouth stubbornly set; but for Rose he had always a gay word or a pretty speech. She was a real Mallett, he told her; she was more his sister than the others, and she liked to hear him say so because he had a kind of grace and a caressing voice, yet the cool judgment which was never easily upset assured her that a man with his mouth must be in the wrong. He was, in fact, pursuing his old practice of extracting money from his sisters, and he only returned, presumably, to his wife and child, when James Batty, the family solicitor, had been called to the ladies' aid.
But they both cried when he went away.
'He is so lovable,' Sophia sobbed.
'My dear, he's a rake,' Caroline replied, carefully dabbing her cheeks. 'All the Malletts are rakes—yes, even the General. Oh, he took to religion in the end, I know, but that's what they do.' She chuckled. 'When there's nothing left! I'm afraid I shall take to it myself some day. I've sown my wild oats, too. Oh, no, I'm not going to tell Rose anything about them, Sophia. You needn't be afraid, but she'll hear of them sooner or later from anybody who remembers Caroline Mallett in her youth.'
Rose had received this confession gravely, but she had not needed the reassurance of Sophia; 'It isn't so, dear Rose—a flirt, yes, but never wicked, never! My dear, of course not!'
'Of course not,' Rose repeated. She had already realized that her stepsisters must be humoured.
* * * * *
Riding slowly, Rose recalled that haymaking party and her gradual friendship, as the years went by, with the unsociable young Sales, a friendship which had been tacitly recognized by them both when, meeting her soon after his mother's death, he had laid his arms and head on the low stone wall by which they were standing, and wept without restraint. It was a display she could not have given herself and it shocked her in a young man, but it left her in his debt. She felt she owed something to a person who had shown such confidence in her and though at the time she had been dumb and, as it seemed to her, far from helpful, she did not forget her liability. However, she could not remember it to the extent of marrying him; she had always shown him more kindness than she really felt and, in considering these things on her way home, she decided that she was still doing as much as he could expect.
She had by this time turned another corner and the high bridge, swung from one side of the gorge to the other, was before her. At the toll-house was the red-faced man who had not altered in the whiteness of a single hair since she had been taken across the bridge by her nurse and allowed to peep fearfully through the railings which had towered like a forest above her head. And the view from the bridge was still for her a fairy vision.
Seawards, the river, now full and hiding its muddy banks which, revealed, had their own opalescent beauty, went its way between the cliffs, clothed on one hand with trees, save for a big red and yellow gash where the stone was being quarried, and on the other with bare rock, topped by the Downs spreading far out of sight. Landwards the river was trapped into docks, spanned by low bridges and made into the glistening part of a patchwork of water, brick and iron. Red-roofed old houses, once the haunts of fashion, were clustered near the water but divided from it now by tram-lines, companion anachronisms to the steamers entering and leaving the docks, but by the farther shore, one small strip of river was allowed to flow in its own way, and it skirted meadows rising to the horizon and carrying with them more of those noble elms in which the whole countryside was rich.
Her horse's hoofs sounding hollow on the bridge, Rose passed across, and at the other toll-house door she saw the thin, pale man, with spectacles on the end of his pointed nose, who had first touched his hat to her when she rode on a tiny pony by the side of her father on his big horse. That man was part of her life and she, presumably, was part of his. He had watched many Upper Radstowe children from the perambulator stage, and to him she remarked on the weather, as she had done to the red-faced man at the other end. It was a beautiful day; they were having a wonderful spring; it would soon be summer, she said, but on repetition these words sounded false and intensely dreary. It would soon be summer, but what did that mean to her? Festivities suited to the season would be resumed in Radstowe. There would be lawn tennis in the big gardens, and young men in flannels and girls in white would stroll about the roads and gay voices would be heard in the dusk. There would be garden-parties, and Mrs. Batty, the wife of the lawyer, would be lavish with tennis for the young, gossip for the middle-aged and unlimited strawberries and ices for all. Rose would be one of the guests at this as at all the parties and, for the first time, as though her refusal of Francis Sales had had some strange effect, as though that rejected future had created a distaste for the one fronting her, she was aghast at the prospect of perpetual chatter, tea and pretty dresses. She was surely meant for something better, harder, demanding greater powers. She had, by inheritance, good manners, a certain social gift, but she had here nothing to conquer with these weapons. What was she to do? The idea of qualifying for the business of earning her bread did not occur to her. No female Mallett had ever done such a thing, and not all the male ones. Marriage opened the only door, but not marriage with Francis Sales, not marriage with anyone she knew in Radstowe, and her stepsisters had no inclination to leave the home of their youth, the scene of their past successes, for her sake.
Rose sat very straight on her horse, not frowning, for she never frowned, but wearing rather a set expression, so that an acquaintance, passing unrecognized, made the usual reflection on the youngest Miss Mallett's pride, and the pity that one so young should sometimes look so old.
And Rose was wishing that the spring would last for ever, the spring with its promise of excitement and adventure which would not be fulfilled, though one was willingly deceived into believing that it would. Yet she had youth's happy faith in accident: something breathless and terrific would sweep her, as on the winds of storm, out of this peaceful, gracious life, this place where feudalism still survived, where men touched their hats to her as her due. And it was her due! She raised her head and gave her pale profile to the houses on one side, the trees and the open spaces of green on the other. And not because she was a Mallett though it was a name honoured in Radstowe, but because she was herself. Hats would always be touched to her, and it was the touchers who would feel themselves complimented in the act. She knew that, but the knowledge was not much to her; she wished she could offer homage for a change, and the colossal figure of her imagination loomed up again; a rough man, perhaps; yes, he might be rough if he were also great; rough and the scandal of her stepsisters!
As she rode under the flowering trees to the stable where she kept her horse, she wondered whether she should tell her stepsisters of Francis Sales's proposal, but she knew she would not do so. She seldom told them anything they did not know already. They would think it a reasonable match; they might urge her acceptance; they were anxious for her to marry, but Caroline, at least, was proud of the inherent Mallett distaste for the marriage state. 'We're all flirts,' she would say for the thousandth time. 'We can't settle down, not one of us,' and holding up a thumb and forefinger and pinching them together, she would add, 'We like to hold men's hearts like that—and let them go!' It was great nonsense, Rose thought, but it had the necessary spice of truth. The Malletts were not easily pleased, and they were not good givers of anything except gold, the easiest thing to give. Rose wished she could give the difficult things—love, devotion, and self-sacrifice; but she could not, or perhaps she had no opportunity. She was fond of her stepsisters, but her most conscious affection was the one she felt for her horse.
She left him at the stable and, fastening up her riding-skirt, she walked slowly home. She had not far to go. A steep street, where narrow-fronted old houses informed the public that apartments were to be let within, brought her to the broad space of grass and trees called The Green, which she had just passed on her horse. Straight ahead of her was the wide street flanked by houses of which her home was one—a low white building hemmed in on each side by another and with a small walled garden in front of it; not a large house, but one full of character and of quiet self-assurance. Malletts had lived in it for several generations, long before the opposite houses were built, long before the road had, lower down, degenerated into a region of shops. These houses, all rechristened in a day of enthusiasm, Nelson Lodge, with Trafalgar House, taller, bigger, but not so white, on one side of it, and Hardy Cottage, somewhat smaller, on the other, had faced open meadows in General Mallett's boyhood. Round the corner, facing The Green, were a few contemporaries, and they all had a slight look of disdain for the later comers, yet no single house was flagrantly new. There was not a villa in sight and on The Green two old stone monuments, to long-dead and long-forgotten warriors, kept company with the old trees under which children were now playing, while nurses wheeled perambulators on the bisecting paths. The Green itself sloped upwards until it became a flat-topped hill, once a British or a Roman camp, and thence the river could be seen between its rocky cliffs and the woods Rose had lately skirted clothing the farther side in every shade of green.
She lingered for a moment to watch the children playing, the nursemaids slowly pushing, the elms opening their crumpled leaves like babies' hands. She had a momentary desire to stay, to wander round the hill and look with untired eyes at the familiar scene; but she passed on under the tyranny of tea. The Malletts were always in time for meals and the meals were exquisite, like the polish on the old brass door-knocker, like the furniture in the white panelled hall, like the beautiful old mahogany in the drawing-room, the old china, the glass bowls full of flowers.
Rose found Caroline and Sophia there on either side of a small wood fire, while, facing the fire and spread in a chair not too low and not too narrow for her bulk, sat Mrs. Batty, flushed, costumed for spring, her hat a flower garden.
'Just in time,' Caroline said. 'Touch the bell, please, Sophia.'
'Susan saw me,' Rose said, and the elderly parlourmaid entered at that moment with the teapot.
'Rose insists on having a latchkey,' Sophia explained. 'What would the General have said?'
'What, indeed!' Caroline echoed. 'Young rakes are always old prudes. Yes, the General was a rake, Sophia; you needn't look so modest. I think I understand men.'
'Yes, yes, Caroline, no one better, but we are told to honour our father and mother.'
'And I do honour him,' Caroline guffawed, 'honour him all the more.' She had a deep voice and a deep laugh; she ought, she always said, to have been a man, but there was nothing masculine about her appearance. Her dark hair, carefully tinted where greyness threatened, was piled in many puffs above a curly fringe: on the bodice of her flounced silk frock there hung a heavy golden chain and locket; ear-rings dangled from her large ears; there were rings on her fingers, and powder and a hint of rouge on her face.
She laughed again. 'Mrs. Batty knows I'm right.'
Mrs. Batty's tightly gloved hand made a movement. She was a little in awe of the Miss Malletts. With them she was always conscious of her inferior descent. No General had ever ornamented her family, and her marriage with James Batty had been a giddy elevation for her, but she was by no means humble. She had her place in local society: she had a fine house in that exclusive part of Radstowe called The Slope, and her husband was a member of the oldest firm of lawyers in the city.
'You are very naughty, Miss Caroline,' she said, knowing that was the remark looked for. She gave a little nod of her flower-covered head. 'And we've just got to put up with them, whatever they are.'
'Yes, yes, poor dears,' Sophia murmured. 'They're different, they can't help it.'
'Nonsense,' Caroline retorted, 'they're just the same, there's nothing to choose between me and Reginald—nothing except discretion!'
'Oh, Caroline dear!' Sophia entreated.
'Discretion!' Caroline repeated firmly, and Mrs. Batty, bending forward stiffly because of her constricting clothes, and with a creak and rustle, ventured to ask in low tones, 'Have you any news of Mr. Mallett lately?' The three elder ladies murmured together; Rose, indifferent, concerned with her own thoughts, ate a creamy cake. This was one of the conversations she had heard before and there was no need for her to listen.
She was roused by the departure of Mrs. Batty.
'Poor thing,' Caroline remarked as the door closed. 'It's a pity she has no daughter with an eye for colour. The roses in her hat were pale in comparison with her face. Why doesn't she use a little powder, though I suppose that would turn her purple, and after all, she does very well considering what she is; but why, why did James Batty marry her? And he was one of our own friends! You remember the sensation at the time, Sophia?'
Sophia remembered very well. 'She was a pretty girl, Caroline, and good-natured. She has lost her looks, but she still has a kind heart.'
'Personally I would rather keep my looks,' said Caroline, touching her fringe before the mirror. 'And I never had a kind heart to cherish.'
Tenderly Sophia shook her head. 'It isn't true,' she whispered to Rose. 'The kindest in the world. It's just her way.'
Rose nodded understanding; then she stood up, tall and slim in her severe clothes, her high boots. The gilt clock on the mantelpiece said it was only five o'clock. There were five more hours before she could reasonably go to bed.
'Where did you ride to-day, dear?' Sophia asked.
'Over the bridge.' And to dissipate some of her boredom, she added, 'I met Francis Sales. He thinks of going abroad.'
There was an immediate confusion of little exclamations and a chatter. 'Going abroad? Why?'
'To learn farming.'
'Oh, dear,' Sophia sighed, 'and we thought—we hoped—'
'She must do as she likes,' Caroline said, and Rose smiled. 'The Malletts don't care for marrying. Look at us, free as the air and with plenty of amusing memories. In this world nobody gets more than that, and we have been saved much trouble. Don't marry, my dear Rose.'
'You're assuming a good deal,' Rose said.
'But Rose is not like us,' Sophia protested. 'We have each other, but we shall die before she does and leave her lonely. She ought to marry, Caroline; we ought to have more parties. We are not doing our duty.'
'Parties! No!' Rose said. 'We have enough of them. If you threaten me with more I shall go into a convent.'
Caroline laughed, and Sophia sighed again. 'That would be beautiful,' she said.
'Sophia, how dare you?'
Sophia persisted mildly: 'So romantic—a young girl giving up all for God;' and Caroline gave the ribald laugh on which she prided herself— a shocking sound. 'Rose Mallett,' Sophia went on, so lost in her vision that the jarring laughter was not heard, 'such a pretty name—a nun! She would never be forgotten: people would tell their children. Sister Rose!' She developed her idea. 'Saint Rose! It's as pretty as Saint Cecilia—prettier!'
'Sophia, you're in your dotage,' Caroline cried. 'A Mallett and a nun! Well, she could pray for the rest of us, I suppose.'
'But I would rather you were married, dear,' Sophia said serenely. 'And we have known the Sales all our lives. It would have been so suitable.'
'So dull!' Rose murmured.
'And we need praying for,' Caroline said. 'You'd be dull either way, Rose. Have your fling, as I did. I've never regretted it. I was the talk of Radstowe, wasn't I, Sophia? There was never a ball where I was not looked for, and when I entered the ballroom'—she gave a display of how she did it—'there was a rush of black coats and white shirts— a mob—I used just to wave them all away—like that. Oh, yes, Sophia, you were a belle, too—'
'But never as you were, Caroline.'
'You were admired for yourself, Sophia, but with me it was curiosity. They only wanted to hear what I should say next. I had a tongue like a lash! They were afraid of it.'
'Yes, yes,' Sophia said hastily, and she glanced at Rose, afraid of meeting scepticism in her clear young eyes; but though Rose was smiling it was not in mockery. She was thinking of her childhood when, like a happier Cinderella, she had seen her stepsisters, in satins and laces, with pendant fans and glittering jewels, excited, rustling, with little words of commendation for each other, setting out for the evening parties of which they never tired. They had always kissed her before they went, looking, she used to think, as beautiful as princesses.
'And men like what they fear,' Caroline added.
'Yes, dear,' Sophia said. A natural flush appeared round the delicate dabs of rouge. She hoped she might be forgiven for her tender deceits. Those young men in the white waistcoats had often laughed at Caroline rather than at her wit; she was, as Sophia had shrinkingly divined, as often as not their butt, and dear Caroline had never known it; she must never know it, never know it. She drew half her happiness from the past, as, so differently, Sophia did herself, and, drooping a little, her thoughts went farther back to the last year of her teens when a pale and penniless young man had been her secret suitor, had gone to America to make his fortune there—and died. She had told no one; Caroline would have scorned him because he was shy and timid, and he had not had time to earn enough to keep her; he had not had time. She had a faded photograph of him pushed away at the back of a drawer of the walnut bureau in the bedroom she shared with Caroline, a pale young man wearing a collar too large for his thin neck, a young man with kind, honest eyes. It was a grief to her that she could not wear that photograph in a locket near her heart, but Caroline would have found out. They had slept in the same bed since they were children, and nothing could be hidden from her except the love she still cherished in her heart. Some day she meant to burn that photograph lest unsympathetic hands should touch it when she died; but death still seemed far off, and sometimes, even while she was talking to Caroline, she would pretend to rummage in the drawer, and for a moment she would close her hand upon the photograph to tell him she had not forgotten. She loved her little romance, and the gaiety in which she had persisted, even on the day when she heard of his death and which at first had seemed a necessary but cruel disloyalty, had become in her mind the tenderest of concealments, as though she had wrapped her secret in beauty, laughter, music and shining garments.
'Oh, yes, dear Rose,' she said, lifting her head, 'you must be married.'
The outward life of the Mallett household was elegant and ordered. Footsteps fell quietly on the carpeted stairs and passages; doors were quietly opened and closed. The cook and the parlourmaid were old and trusted servants; the house and kitchen maids were respectable young women fitting themselves for promotion, and their service was given with the thoroughness and deference to which the Malletts were accustomed. In the whole house there was hardly an object without beauty or tradition, the notable exception being the portrait of General Mallett which hung above the Sheraton sideboard in the dining-room, a gloomy daub, honoured for the General's sake.
From the white panelled hall, the staircase with its white banisters and smooth mahogany rail led to a square landing which branched off narrowly on two sides, and opening from the square were the bedroom occupied by Rose, the one shared by her stepsisters and the one which had been Reginald's. This room was never used, but it was kept, like everything else in that house, in a state of cleanliness and polish, ready for his arrival. He might come: if he needed money badly enough he would come, and in spite of the already considerable depletion of their capital, Caroline and Sophia lived in hope of hearing his impatient assault of the door-knocker, the brass head of a lion holding a heavy ring in his mouth. Rose, too, wished he would come, but that last interview with the lawyer Batty had been more successful than anyone but the lawyer himself had wished, and there was no knock, no letter, no news.
The usual life of parties, calls and concerts continued without any excitement but that felt by Caroline and Sophia in the getting of new clothes, the refurbishing of old ones, the hearing of the latest gossip, the reading of the latest novel. Sophia sometimes apologized for the paper-backed books lying about the drawing-room by saying that she and dear Caroline liked to keep up their French, but Caroline loudly proclaimed her taste for salacious literature. She had a reputation to keep up and she liked to shock her friends; but everything was forgiven to Miss Mallett, the more readily, perhaps, after Sophia's reassuring whisper, 'They are really charming books, quite beautiful, nothing anybody could disapprove of. Why, there is hardly an episode to make one shrink, though, of course, the French are different,' and the Radstowe ladies would nod over their tea and say, 'Of course, quite different!'
But Caroline, suspecting that murmured explanation, had been known to call out in her harsh voice, 'It's no good asking Sophia about them. She simply doesn't understand the best bits! She is jeune fille still, she always will be!' Sophia, blushing a little, would feel herself richly complimented, and the ladies laughed, Mrs. Batty uncertainly, having no acquaintance with the French language.
Rose read steadily through all the books in the house and gained a various knowledge which left her curiously untouched. She studied music, and liked it better than anything else because it roused emotions otherwise unobtainable, yet she did not care much for the emotional kind. Perhaps her intensest feeling was the desire to feel intensely, but being half ashamed of this desire she rarely dwelt on it; she pursued her way, calm and aloof and proud. She was beautiful and found pleasure in the contemplation of herself, and though she did not discuss her appearance as her stepsisters discussed theirs, she spent a good deal of time on it and much money on her plain but perfect clothes. All three had more money than they needed, but Rose was richer than the others, having inherited her mother's little fortune as well as her share of what the General had left. She was, as Caroline often told her with a hit at that gentleman's unnecessary impartiality, a very desirable match. 'But they're afraid of you, my dear; they were afraid of me, but I amused them, while you simply look as if they were not there. Of course, that's attractive in its way, and one must follow one's own line, but it takes a brave man to come up to the scratch.'
'Caroline, what an expression!'
'Well, I want a brave man,' Rose said, 'if I want one at all.'
Caroline turned on Sophia. 'What's language for except to express oneself? You're out of date, Sophia; you always were, and I've always been ahead of my time. Now, Rose,'—these personalities were dear to Caroline—'Rose belongs to no time at all. That frightens them. They don't understand. You can't imagine a Radstowe young man making love to the Sphinx. They were more daring when I was young. Look at Reginald! Look at the General!'
'It was his profession,' Rose remarked.
'Yes, I suppose that's what he told himself when he married your mother, a mere girl, no older than myself, but he was afraid of her and adored her. I believe men always like their second wives best— they're flattered at succeeding in getting two. I know men. Our own mother was pious and made him go to church, but with your mother he looked as if he were in a temple all the time. Those big, stern men are always managed by their women; it's the thin men with weak legs who really go their own way.'
'Caroline,' Sophia sighed, 'I don't know how you think of such things. Is that an epigram?'
'I don't know,' Caroline said, 'but I shouldn't be surprised.'
Smiling in her mysterious way, Rose left the room, and Sophia, slightly pink with anxiety, murmured, 'Caroline, there's no one in Radstowe really fit for her. Don't you think we ought to go about, perhaps to London, or abroad?'
'I'm not going to budge,' Caroline said. 'I love my home and I don't believe in matchmaking, I don't believe in marriage. It wouldn't do her any good, but if you feel like that, why don't you exploit her yourself?'
'Oh—exploit! Certainly not! And you know I couldn't leave you.'
'Then don't talk nonsense,' Caroline said, and the life at Nelson Lodge went on as before.
Every day Rose rode out, sometimes early in the morning on the Downs when nobody was about and she had them to herself, but oftener across the bridge into the other county where the atmosphere and the look of things were immediately different, softer, more subtle yet more exhilarating. She went there now with no fear of meeting Francis Sales. He had gone to Canada without another word, and his absence made him interesting for the first time. If she had not been bored in a delicate way of her own which left no mark but an expression of impassivity she would not have thought of him at all; but the days went by and summer passed into autumn and autumn was threatened by winter, with so little change beyond the coming and going of flowers and leaves and birds, that her mind began to fix itself on a man who loved her to the point of disgust and departure; and to her love of the country round about Sales Hall was added a tender half-ironic sentiment.
Once or twice she rode up to the Hall itself and paid a visit to Mr. Sales who, crippled by rheumatism and half suffocated by asthma, was hardly recognizable as the man who had shown her the pigs long ago. In the little room called the study, where there was not a single book, or in the big clear drawing-room of pale chintzes and faded, gilt-framed water-colours, he entertained her with the ceremony due to a very beautiful and dignified young woman, producing the latest letter from his son and reading extracts from it. Sometimes there was a photograph of Francis on a horse, Francis with a dog, or Francis at a steam plough or other agricultural machine, but these she only pretended to examine. She had not the least desire to see how he looked, for in these last months she had made a picture of her own and she would not have it overlaid by any other. It was a game of pretence; she knew she was wasting her time; she had her youth and strength and money and limitless opportunity for wide experience, but her very youth, and the feeling that it would last for ever, made her careless of it. There was plenty of time, she could afford to waste it, and gradually that occupation became a habit, almost an absorption. She warned herself that she must shake it off, but the effort would leave her very bare, it would rob her of the fairy cloak which made her inner self invisible, and she clung to it, secure in her ability to be rid of it if she chose.
Her intellect made no mistake about Francis Sales, but her imagination, finding occupation where it could, began to endow him with romance, and that scene among the primroses, the startlingly green grass, the pervading blue of the air, the horse so indifferent to the human drama, the dog trying to understand it, became the salient event of her life because it had awakened her capacity for dreaming.
She did not love him, she could never love him, but he had loved her, angrily, and, in retrospect, the absurd manner of his proposal had a charm. She would have given much to know whether his feeling for her persisted. From the letters read wheezily by Mr. Sales and sometimes handed to her to read for herself, she learnt so little that she was the freer to create a great deal and, riding home, she would break into astonished inward laughter. Rose Mallett playing a game of sentiment! And, crossing the bridge and passing through the streets where she was known to every second person, she had pleasure in the conviction that no one could have guessed what absurdity went on behind the pale, impassive face, what secret and unsuspected amusement she enjoyed; a little comedy of her own! The unsuitability of Francis Sales for the part of hero supplied most of the humour and saved her from loss of dignity. The thing was obviously absurd; she had never cared for dolls, but in her young womanhood she was finding amusement in the manipulation of a puppet.
The death of Mr. Sales in the cold March of the next year shocked her from her game. She was sorry he had gone, for she had always liked him, and he seemed to have taken with him the little girl who was fond of pigs, and while Caroline and Sophia mourned the loss of an old friend, Rose was faced with the certainty of his son's return. She would have to stop her ridiculous imaginings, she must pretend she had never had them for, when she saw him as flesh and blood, her game would be ruined and she would be shamed. The imminence of his arrival reminded her of his dullness, his handsome, sullen face and, more tenderly, of those tears which had put her so oddly in his debt. But she had no difficulty in casting away the false image she had made. She was, she found, glad to be rid of it; she liked to feel herself delivered of a weakness.
But she need not have been in such a hurry, for it was some months before the man who brought the milk from Sales Hall also brought the news that the master was returning. This information was handed to Caroline and Sophia with their early tea.
Sitting up in bed and looking grotesquely terrible, they discussed the event. Caroline, like Medusa, but with hair curlers instead of snakes sprouting from her head, and Sophia with her heavy plait hanging over her shoulder and defying with its luxuriance the yellowness of her skin, they sat side by side, propped up with pillows, inured to the sight of each other in undress.
'He has come back!' Sophia said ecstatically. 'Perhaps after all—'
'Oh, nonsense!' Caroline said as usual, 'she's meant for better things. My dear, she was born for a great affair. She ought to be the mistress of a king. Yes, something of that kind, with her looks, her phlegm.'
'But there are no kings in Radstowe,' Sophia said, 'and I don't think you ought to say such things.'
'It's my way. You ought to know that. And I can't control my tongue any more than Reginald can control his body.'
'And I don't want to. We're all wrapped up in cotton-wool nowadays. I ought to have lived in another century. I, too, would have adorned a court, and kept it lively! There's no wit left in the world, and there's no wickedness of the right kind. We might as well be Nonconformists at once.'
'Certainly not,' Sophia said firmly. 'Certainly not that.'
'But as you so cleverly remind me, there are no kings in Radstowe. There's not even,' she added with a mocking smile which made her face gay in a ghastly way, 'not even a foreign Count who would turn out an impostor. Rose would do very well there, too. An imitation foreign Count with a black moustache and no money! She would be magnificent and tragic. Imagine them at Monte Carlo, keeping it up! She would hate him, grandly; she would hate herself for being deceived; she would never lose her dignity. You can't picture Rose with a droop or a tear. They'd trail about the Continent and she would never come back.'
'But we don't want her to go away at all,' Sophia cried.
'And when she came to the point of being afraid of murdering him, she would leave him without any fuss and live alone and mysterious somewhere in the South of France, or Italy, or Spain. Yes, Spain. There must be real Counts there and she would get her love affair at last.'
'But she would still be married.'
'Of course!' Caroline, looking roguish, was terrible. 'That is necessary for a love affair, ma chre.'
'I would much rather she married Francis Sales and came to see us every week. Or any other nice young man in Radstowe. She would never marry beneath her.'
'On the contrary,' Caroline remarked, 'she's bound to marry beneath her—not in class, Sophia, not in class, though in Radstowe that's possible, too. Look at the Battys! But certainly in brains and manners.'
Sophia, clinging to her own idea, repeated plaintively, 'I would rather it were Francis Sales, and he must be lonely in that big house.'
It appeared, however, that he was not to be lonely, for Susan, entering with hot water, let fall in her discreet, impersonal way, another piece of gossip. 'John Gibbs says they think Mr. Francis must be bringing home a wife, Miss Caroline. He's having some of the rooms done up.'
'Ah!' said Caroline, and her plump elbow pressed Sophia's. 'Which rooms, I wonder?'
'I did not inquire, Miss Caroline.'
'Then kindly inquire this afternoon, and tell him the butter is deteriorating, but inquire first or you'll get nothing out of him.' She turned with malicious triumph to Sophia. 'So that dream's over!'
'We shall have to break it to her gently,' Sophia said; 'but it may not be true.'
In the dining-room over which the General's portrait tried, and failed, to preside, as he himself had done in life, and where he was conquered by an earlier and a later generation, by the shining eloquence of the old furniture and silver and the living flesh and blood of his children, Caroline gave Rose the news without, Sophia thought, a spark of delicacy.
'They say Francis Sales is bringing home a wife.'
'Really?' Rose said, taking toast.
'He has sent orders for part of the house to be done up.'
Rose raised her eyes. 'Ah, she's hurt,' Sophia thought, but Rose merely said, 'If he touches the drawing-room or the study I shall never forgive him'; and then, thoughtfully, she added, 'but he won't touch the drawing-room.'
'H'm, he'll do what his wife tells him, I imagine. No girl will appreciate Mrs. Sales's washy paintings.'
'Rose would,' Sophia sighed.
'Yes, I do,' Rose said cheerfully. She was too cheerful for Sophia's romantic little theory, but an acuter audience would have found her too cheerful for herself. She had overdone it by half a tone, but the exaggeration was too fine for any ears but her own. She was, as a matter of fact, in the grip of a violent anger. She was not the kind of woman to resent the new affections of a rejected lover, but she had, through her own folly, attached herself to Francis Sales, as, less unreasonably, his tears had once attached him to her, and the immaterial nature of the bond composed its strength. Consciously foolish as her thoughts had been, they became at that breakfast table, with the water bubbling in the spirit kettle and the faint crunch of Caroline eating toast, intensely real, and she was angry both with herself and with his unfaithfulness. She did not love him—how could she?—but he belonged to her; and now, if this piece of gossip turned out to be true, she must share him with another. Jealousy, in its usual sense, she had none as yet, but she had forged a chain she was to find herself unable to break. It was her pride to consider herself a hard young person, without spirituality, without sentiment, yet all her personal relationships were to be of the fantastic kind she now experienced, all her obligations such as others would have ignored.
'We shall know more when John Gibbs brings the afternoon milk,' Caroline said.
Rose went upstairs and left her stepsisters to their repetitions. Her window looked out on the little walled front garden and the broad street. Tradesmen's carts went by without hurry, ladies walked out with their dogs, errand-boys loitered in the sun, and presently Caroline and Sophia went down the garden path, Caroline sailing majestically like a full-rigged ship, Sophia with her girlish, tripping gait. They put up their sunshades, and sailed out on what was, in effect, a foraging expedition. They were going to collect the news.
Outside the gate, they were hidden by the wall, but for a little while Rose could hear Caroline's loud voice. Without doubt she was talking of Francis Sales, unless she were asking Sophia if her hat, a large one with pink roses, really became her. Rose knew it all so well, and she closed her eyes for a moment in weariness. Suddenly she felt tired and old; the flame of her anger had died down, and for that moment she allowed herself to droop. She found little comfort in the fact that she alone knew of her folly, and calling it folly no longer justified it. She, too, had been rejected, more cruelly than had Francis Sales, for she had given him something of her spirit. And she had liked to imagine him far away, thinking of her and of her beauty; she had fancied him remembering the scene among the primroses and continuing to adore her in his sulky, inarticulate way. Well, he would think of her no more, but she was subtly bound to him, first by his need, and now, against all reason, by her thoughts. She had already learnt that time, which sometimes seems so swift and heartless, is also slow and kind. Her feelings would lose their intensity; she only had to wait, and she waited with that outward impassivity which did not spoil her beauty; it suited the firm modelling of her features, the creamy whiteness of her skin, the clear grey eyes under the straight dark eyebrows, and the lips bent into the promise of a smile.
Caroline and Sophia waited differently, first for the afternoon milk and the information they wanted and, during the next weeks, for the rumours which slowly developed into acknowledged facts. The housekeeper at Sales Hall had heard from the young master: he was married and returning immediately with his wife. Caroline sniffed and hoped the woman was respectable; Sophia was charitably certain she would be a charming girl; and Rose, knowing she questioned one of the life occupations of her stepsisters, said coolly, 'Why speculate? We shall see her soon. We must go and call.'
'Of course,' Caroline said, and Sophia, with her fixed idea, which was right in the wrong way, said gently, 'If you're sure you want to go, dear.'
'Me?' asked Caroline.
'No, no, I was thinking of Rose.'
'Nonsense!' Caroline said, 'we're all going'; and Rose reassured Sophia with perfect truth, 'I have been longing to see her for weeks.'
So it came about that the three sisters once more sat in a hired carriage and drove to Sales Hall. On the box was the son of the man who had driven them years ago, and though the carriage was a new one and the old horse had long been metamorphosed into food for the wild animals in the Radstowe Zoo, this expedition was in many ways a repetition of the other. Caroline and Sophia faced the horses and Rose sat opposite her stepsisters, but now she did not listen to their talk with ears stretched, not to miss a word, and she did not think her companions as beautiful as princesses. It was she who might have been a princess for another child, but she did not think of that. She looked with amusement and with misplaced pity at the other two. It was a September afternoon and they were very gaily dressed, and again Caroline had a feather drooping over her hair, while Sophia, more girlish, wore a wide hat with a blue bow, and both their parasols were tilted as before against the sun. It seemed to Rose that even the cut of their garments had not changed with time. The two had always the appearance of fashion plates of twenty years ago, but no doubt of their correctness ever entered their minds; and so they managed to preserve their elegance, as though their belief in themselves were strong enough to impose it on those who saw them. Without this faith, the severity of Rose's black dress, filmy enough for the season but daringly plain, must have rebuked them. The pearls in her ears and on her neck were her only ornaments; her little hat, wreathed with a cream feather, shaded her brow. She sat with the repose which was one of her gifts.
'I'm sure we all look very nice,' Caroline said suddenly, the very remark she had made when they went to the haymaking party, 'though you do look rather like a widow, Rose—a widow, getting over it very comfortably, as they do—as they do!'
'I'm glad I look so interesting,' Rose murmured.
'Oh, interesting, always. Yes.'
They were jogging along the road bordered by the high smooth wall, despairingly efficient, guarding treasures bought with gold; and the tall elm-trees looked over it as though they wanted to escape. The murmuring in their branches seemed to be of discontent, and the birds singing in them had a taunting note. The road mounted a little and the wall went with it, backed by the imprisoned trees. But at last, at the cross-roads, the wall turned and the road went on without it. There were open fields now on either hand, the property of Francis Sales, and another mile brought the carriage to the opening of the grassy track where Rose liked to think she had left her youth, but the road went round on the other side of the larch woods, and when these were passed Sales Hall came into sight.
'I always think,' Caroline said, 'it's a pity this beautiful avenue hasn't a better setting. Mere fields, and open to the road! It's undignified. It ought to have been a park.'
'With a high wall all round it,' Rose suggested.
'Exactly,' Caroline agreed. She was touching her fringe, giving little pats and pulls to her dress, preparatory to descent, and Sophia whispered, 'Just see, Caroline, that wisp of hair near my ear—so tiresome! I can never be sure of it.'
'Not a sign of it,' Caroline assured her. 'Now I wonder what we are going to find.'
They found the drawing-room empty and untouched. On the pale walls the water-colours were still hanging, the floral carpet still covered the floor, the faded chintzes had not been removed, and the light came clearly through the long windows with their pale primrose curtains. In the middle of the room was the circular settee to seat four persons, back to back, with a little woolwork stool set for each pair of feet. There were no flowers in the room, and they were not needed, for the room itself was like some pale, scentless and old-fashioned bloom.
The three Miss Malletts sat down: Caroline gay and aggressive as a parrot, and a parrot in a big gilded cage would not have been out of place; Sophia fitting naturally into the gentle scheme of things; Rose startlingly modern in her elegance.
'Well,' Caroline said, 'she's a long time. Changing her dress, I expect,' and she sniffed. But Mrs. Francis Sales entered in a pink cotton garment, her fair, curling hair a little untidy, for she had, she said, been in the old walled garden behind the house. There was, in fact, a rose hanging from her left hand. She was pretty, she seemed artless and defenceless, but her big blue eyes had a wary look, and in spite of that look spoiling an otherwise ingenuous countenance, Rose imagined herself noticeably old and mature. She thought it was no wonder that Francis was attracted, but at the same time she despised him for a failure in taste, as though, faced with the choice between a Heppelwhite chair and an affair of wicker and cretonne, he had chosen the inferior article, though she had to admit that, for a permanent seat, it might be more comfortable and certainly more yielding.
But as she watched Mrs. Sales presiding over the teacups, her scared eyes moving swiftly from the parlourmaid, entering with cakes, to Caroline, and from Caroline to Sophia, and then with added shyness to the woman nearest her own age, Rose found her opinion changing. Mrs. Francis Sales was timid, but she was not weak; the fair fluffiness of her exterior was deceptive; and while Rose made this discovery and now and then dropped a quiet word into the chatter of the others, she was listening for Francis. He had been with his wife in the garden, but he was some time in following her, and Rose knew that Mrs. Sales was listening, too. She wondered whose ear first caught the sound of his feet on the matted passage; she felt an absurd inward tremor and, looking at Mrs. Sales, she saw that her pretty pink colour had deepened and her blue eyes were bright, like flowers. She was certainly charming in her simple frock, but her unsuitable shoes with very high heels and sparkling buckles hurt Rose's eye as much as the voice, also high and slightly grating, hurt her ear, and this voice sharpened nervously as it said, 'Oh, here is Francis coming.'
No, he was not the person of Rose's dreams, and she felt an immense relief: she had expected to be disappointed, but she was glad to find the old Francis, big, bronzed and handsome, smelling of the open air and tobacco and tweed, and no dangerous, disturbing, heroic figure.
For an instant he looked at Rose before he greeted the elder ladies, and then, as Rose let her hand touch his and pleasantly said, 'How are you?' she experienced a faint, almost physical shock. He was different after all, and now she did not know whether to be glad or sorry. Unchanged, she need not have given him another thought; subtly altered, she was bound to probe into the how and why. He sat beside her on the old-fashioned couch with a curled head, and his thirteen stone descending heavily on the springs sent up her light weight with a perceptible jerk.
'Clumsy boy!' Mrs. Sales exclaimed playfully.
Rose laughed. 'It's like the old see-saw. I was always in the air and you on the ground. Is it there still—near the pigsties?'
'Yes, still there.' But this threatened to become too exclusive a conversation, and Rose tried to do her share in more general topics.
Caroline, talking of the advantage of Radstowe, regretting the greater gaiety of the past, when Sophia and she were belles, was adding gratuitous advice on the management of husbands and some information on the ways of men. Mrs. Sales laughed and glanced now and then at Francis, but whether he responded Rose could not see, unless she turned her head. He ought certainly to have been smiling at so pretty a person, wrinkling his eyes in the way he had and straightening the mouth which was sullen in repose. Yet she was almost sure he was doing the minimum demanded of politeness, almost sure he was thinking of herself and was conscious of her nearness, just as she, for the first time, was physically conscious of his.
She rose, saying, 'May I look out of the window? I always liked this view of the garden.' And having gazed out and made the necessary remarks, she sat down, separated from him by the width of the room and with her back to the light, a strategical position she ought to have taken up before. But here she was at the disadvantage of facing him and a scrutiny of which she had not thought him capable. With his legs stretched out, his hands in his pockets, his eyes apparently half shut but unquestionably fixed on her, he was really behaving rather badly. She had never been stared at like this before and she told herself that under the shelter of his marriage he had grown daring, if not insolent; but at the same time she knew she was not telling herself the truth: he was simply in the position of a thirsty man who has at last found a stream. It appeared, then, that his wife did not sufficiently quench his thirst.
Rose carefully did not look his way, but she experienced an altogether new excitement, the very ancient one of desiring to taste forbidden fruit simply because it was forbidden; this particular fruit, as such, had no special charm; but she was born a Mallett and the half-sister of Reginald. She had, however, as he had not, a substantial basis of personal pride and a love of beauty which was at least as effectual as a moral principle and she had not Francis's excuse for his behaviour. She believed he did not know what he was doing; but she was entirely clear-sighted as to herself and she refused to encourage the silent intercourse which had established itself between them.
Caroline was in the midst of a piece of gossip, Sophia was interjecting exclamations of moderation and reproach, and Mrs. Sales was manifestly amused. Her chromatic giggle was as punctual as Sophia's reproof, and Rose drew closer to the group made by the three, and said, 'I'm missing Caroline's story. Which one is it?' And now it was Francis who laughed.
'It's finished,' Caroline said. 'Don't tell your husband, at least till we have gone—and we ought to go at once.'
But the coachman was not on the box. He had been invited to take tea in the kitchen.
'We won't disturb him,' Sophia said. 'No, Caroline, let him have his tea. We ought to encourage teetotal drinking in his class. Perhaps Mrs. Sales will let us go round the garden. I am so fond of flowers.'
'Come and look at the pigsties,' Francis said to Rose, but, assuring him she had grown too old for pigs, she followed the rest.
The walled garden had a beautiful disorder. A grey kitten and a white puppy sat together on the grass, enjoying the sunshine and each other's company and pretending to be asleep; and though the kitten displayed no interest in the visitors, holding its personality of more importance than anything else, the puppy jumped up, barked, and rushed at each person in turn. Caroline, picking up her skirts and showing the famous Mallett ankle, said, 'Go away, dog!' in a severe tone, and the puppy rolled on the grass to show that he did not care and could not by any possibility be snubbed. Under an apple-tree on which the fruit was ripening were two cane chairs, a table, a newspaper and a work-basket.
'This is my favourite place,' Mrs. Sales said to Rose. 'I hate that drawing-room, and Francis won't have it touched. But I've got a boudoir that's lovely. He sent an order to the best shop and had it ready for a surprise, so if I'm not out of doors I sit there. Would you like to see it?'
'I should, very much,' Rose said.
'Then come quickly while the others are eating those plums off the wall.'
Rose looked back. 'I can't think what Sophia will do with the stone,' she murmured, smiling her faint smile.
Mrs. Sales was puzzled by this remark. 'Oh, she'll manage, won't she? You don't want to help her, do you?'
'No, I don't want to help her.'
'Come along, then.'
Rose saw the boudoir, a little room half-way up the stairs. 'It's Louis something,' said Mrs. Sales, 'but all the same, I think it's sweet, and pink's my favourite colour. Francis thought of that. I was wearing pink when I first met him.'
'I see,' Rose said. 'Was that long ago?'
'Only three months. I think we both fell in love at the same minute, and that's nice, isn't it? I know I'm going to be happy, but I do hope I shan't be dull. We're a big family at home. I'm English,' she added a little anxiously, 'but my father settled there.'
'I don't think you should be dull,' Rose said. 'Everybody in Radstowe will call on you, and there are lots of parties. And then there's hunting.'
'Yes,' said Mrs. Sales. Her eyes left Rose's face, to return a little wider, a little warier. 'Do you hunt too?'
'As often as I can. I only have one horse.'
'Francis says I am to have two.'
'And they will be good ones. He likes hunting and horses better than anything else, I suppose.'
'But he mustn't neglect the farm,' his wife said firmly, and she added slowly, 'I don't know that I need two horses, really. I haven't ridden much, and there's a lot to do in the house. I don't believe in people being out all day.'
'Well, you can't hunt all the year round, you know.'
Mrs. Sales let out a sigh so faint that most people would have missed it. 'It will be beginning soon, won't it?'
'It feels a long way off in weather like this,' Rose said. 'But they are getting into the carriage. I must go.'
Mrs. Sales lingered for an instant. 'I do hope we're going to be friends.' This was more than a statement, it was a request, and Rose shrank from it; but she said lightly, 'We shall be meeting often. You will see more of us than you will care for, I'm afraid. The Malletts are rather ubiquitous in Radstowe. It's fortunate for us, or Caroline would die of boredom, but I don't know how it appears to other people.'
She was going down the shallow stairs and the voice of Mrs. Sales followed her sadly: 'He hasn't told me anything about any of his friends.'
'In three months? He hasn't had time, with you to think about!' A laugh, pleased and self-conscious, reached her ears. 'No, but it's rather lonely in this old house. We're a big family at home—and so lively. There was always something going on. I wished we lived nearer Radstowe.'
'And I envy you here. It's peaceful.'
'Yes, it's that,' Mrs. Sales agreed.
'I'm a good deal older than you, you see,' Rose elaborated.
'That's just it,' said Mrs. Sales.
Rose laughed, and Francis, standing at the door, turned at the sound in time to catch the end of Rose's smile.
'What are you laughing at?'
'Mrs. Sales's candour.'
'Oh, was I rude?'
'No. Good-bye. I liked it.' Yet, as she settled herself in her place, she was not more than half pleased. She liked her superior age only because it marked a difference between her and the wife of Francis Sales.
'H'm!' Caroline said when the carriage had turned into the road and the figures in the doorway had disappeared. 'Pretty, but unformed.'
'They seem very happy,' Sophia said, 'but I do think she ought to have been wearing black. Her father-in-law has only been dead six months, and even Francis was not wearing a black tie.'
But if Caroline condemned men in general, she supported them in particular. 'Quite right, too. Men don't think of these things—and a black tie with those tweeds! Sophia, don't be silly and sentimental; but you always were, you always will be.'
'She might have had a white frock with a black ribbon,' Sophia persisted. 'Why, Rose looked more like our old friend's daughter-in-law.'
'But hardly like a bride,' Rose said. 'And you see, pink is her colour.'
'So it is, dear. One could see that. Pink and blue, just as they were mine.' She corrected herself. 'Are mine. Our complexions are very much alike; in fact, she reminded me a little of myself.'
'Nonsense, Sophia! If you had been like that I should have disowned you. However, she will do well enough for Sales Hall.'
Rose bent forward slightly. 'I like her,' she said distinctly. 'And she's lonely.'
'Well, my dear, she'll soon have half a dozen children to keep her lively.'
'Hush, Caroline! The man will hear you.'
Caroline addressed Rose. 'Sophia's modesty is indecent. I've done what I could for her.'
'Please listen to me,' Rose said. 'You are not to belittle Mrs. Sales to people, Caroline. You can be a powerful friend, if you choose, and if you sing her praises there will be a mighty chorus.'
'That's true,' Caroline said.
'Yes, that's true, dear Caroline,' Sophia echoed. 'And I think you're taking this very sweetly, Rose.'
Caroline pricked up her ears. 'What's this? I'm out of this. Oh, that old rubbish! She will have it you and Francis should have married. My dear Sophia, Rose could have married anybody if she'd wanted to. You'll admit that? Yes? Then can't you see'—she tapped Sophia's knee—'then can't you see that Rose didn't want him? That's logic—and something you lack.'
'Yes, dear,' Sophia said with the meekness of the unconvinced. 'And of course it's wrong to think of it now that he's married to another.'
Caroline guffawed her loudest, and the astonished horse quickened his pace. The driver cast a look over his shoulder to see that all was well, for he had a sister who made strange noises in her fits; and Sophia, sitting in her drooping fashion, as though her head with its great knob of fair hair, in which the silver was just beginning to show, were too heavy for her body, had to listen to the old gibes which had never made and never would make any impression on her, though she would have felt forlorn without them. She was the only puritanical Mallett in history, Caroline said. Oh, yes, the General had been great at family prayers, but he was trying to make up for lost time. It was difficult to believe that Sophia and Reginald were the same flesh and blood.
Sophia interrupted. She was fond of Reginald, but she had no desire to be like him, and Caroline knew he was a disgrace. They argued for some time, and Rose closed her eyes until the talk, never really acrimonious, drifted into reminiscences of their childhood and Reginald's.
It was strange that they should have chosen that day to speak so much of him, for when they reached home they found a letter addressed in an unfamiliar hand.
'What's this?' Caroline said.
It was a thin, cheap envelope bearing a London postmark, and Caroline drew out a flimsy sheet of paper.
'I must get my glasses,' she said. Her voice was agitated. 'No, no, I can manage without them. The writing is immense, but faint. It's from that woman.' She looked up, showing a face drawn and blotched with ugly colour. 'It's to say that Reginald is dead.'
Mrs. Reginald Mallett had written the letter on the day of her husband's funeral, and Caroline's tears for her brother were stemmed by her indignation with his wife. She had purposely made it impossible for his relatives to attend the ceremony.
'No,' Sophia said, 'the poor thing was distressed. We mustn't blame her.'
'And such a letter!' Caroline flicked it with a disdainful finger.
Rose picked up the sheet. 'I don't see what else she could have said. I think it's dignified—a plain statement. Why should you expect more? You have never taken any notice of her.'
'Certainly not! And Reginald never suggested it. Of course he was ashamed, poor boy. However, I am now going to write to her, asking if she is in need, and enclosing a cheque. I feel some responsibility for the child. She is half a Mallett, and the Malletts have always been loyal to the family.'
'Yes, dear, we'll send a cheque, and—shouldn't we?—a few kind words. She will value them.'
'She'll value the money more,' Caroline said grimly.
Here she was wrong, for the cheque was immediately returned. Mrs. Mallett and her daughter were able to support themselves without help.
'Then we need think no more about them,' Caroline said, concealing her annoyance, 'and I shall be able to afford a new dinner dress. Black sequins, I thought, Sophia—and we must give a dinner for the Sales.'
'Caroline, no, you forget. We mustn't entertain for a little while.'
'Upon my word, I did forget. But it's no use pretending. It really isn't quite like a death in the family, is it? Poor dear Reginald! I was very fond of him, but half our friends believe he has been dead for years. I shall wear black for three months, of course, but a little dinner to the Sales would not be out of place. We have a duty to the living as well as to the dead.'
Leaving her stepsisters to argue this point, Rose went upstairs and looked into Reginald's old room. She had known very little of him, but she was sorry he was dead, sorry there was no longer a chance of his presence in the house, of meeting him on the stairs, very late for breakfast and quite oblivious of the inconvenience he was causing, and on his lips some remark which no one else would have made.
His room had not been occupied for some time, but it seemed emptier than before; the mirror gave back a reflection of polished furniture and vacancy; the bed looked smooth and cold enough for a corpse. No personal possessions were strewn about, and the room itself felt chilly.
She was glad to enter her own, where beauty and luxury lived together. The carpet was soft to her feet, a small wood fire burned in the grate, for the evening promised to be cold, and the severe lines of the furniture were clean and exquisite against the white walls. A pale soft dressing-gown hung across a chair, a little handkerchief, as fine as lace, lay crumpled on a table, there was a discreet gleam of silver and tortoiseshell. This, at least, was the room of a living person. Yet, as she stood before the cheval-glass, studying herself after the habit of the Malletts, she thought perhaps she was less truly living than Reginald in his grave. He left a memory of animation, of sin, of charm; he had injured other people all his life, but they regretted him and, presumably, he had had his pleasure out of their pain. And what was she, standing there? A negatively virtuous young woman, without enough desire of any kind to impel her to trample over feelings, creeds and codes. If she died that moment, it would be said of her that she was beautiful, and that was all. Reginald, with his greed, his heartlessness, his indifference to all that did not serve him, would not be forgotten: people would sigh and smile at the mention of his name, hate him and wish him back. She envied him; she wished she could feel in swift, passionate gusts as he had done, with the force and the forgetfulness of a passing wind. His life, flecked with disgrace, must also have been rich with temporary but memorable beauty. The exterior of her own was all beauty, of person and surroundings, but within there seemed to be only a cold waste.
She had been tempted the other afternoon, and she had resisted with what seemed to her a despicable ease: she had not really cared, and she felt that the necessity to struggle, even the collapse of her resistance, would have argued better for her than her self-possession. And for a moment she wished she had married Francis Sales. She would at least have had some definite work in the world; she could have kept him to his farming, as Mrs. Sales had set herself to do; she would have had a home to see to and daily interviews with the cook! She laughed at this decline in her ambition; she no longer expected the advent of the colossal figure of her young dreams; and she knew this was the hour when she ought to strike out a new way for herself, to leave this place which offered her nothing but ease and a continuous, foredoomed effort after enjoyment; but she also knew that she would not go. She had not the energy nor the desire. She would drift on, never submerged by any passion, keeping her head calmly above water, looking coldly at the interminable sea. This was her conviction, but she was not without a secret hope that she might at last be carried to some unknown island, odorous, surprising and her own, where she would, for the first time, experience some kind of excess.
The little dinner was duly given to the Sales. The Sales returned the compliment; and Mrs. Batty, not to be outdone, offered what could only adequately be described as a banquet in honour of the bride; there was a general revival of hospitality, and the Malletts were at every function. This was Caroline's reward for her instructed enthusiasm for Christabel Sales, and before long the black sequin dress gave way to a grey brocade and a purple satin, and the period of mourning was at an end. For Rose, these entertainments were only interesting because the Sales were there, and she hardly knew at what moment annoyance began to mingle definitely with her pity for the little lady with the wary eyes, or when the annoyance almost overcame the pity.
It might have been at a dinner-party when Christabel, seated at the right hand of a particularly facetious host, let out her high chromatic laughter incessantly, and the hostess, leaning towards Francis, told him with the tenderness of an elderly woman whose own romance lies far behind her, that it was a pleasure to see Mrs. Sales so happy. He murmured something in response and, as he looked up and met the gaze of Rose, she smiled at him and saw his eyes darken with feeling, or with thought.
After dinner he sought her out. She had known that would happen: she had been avoiding it for weeks, but it was useless to play at hide-and-seek with the inevitable, and she calmly watched him approach.
'Why did you laugh?' he asked at once, in his old, angry fashion. 'You were laughing at me.'
'No, I smiled.'
'Ah, you're not so free with your smiles that they have no meaning.'
'Perhaps not, but I don't know what the meaning was.'
'I believe you've been laughing at me ever since I came back.'
'Indeed, I haven't. Why should I?'
'God knows,' he answered with a shrug; 'I never do understand what people laugh at.'
'You're too self-conscious, Francis.'
'Only with you,' he said.
'Somebody is going to sing,' she warned him as a gaunt girl went towards the piano; and sinking on to a convenient and sheltered couch, they resigned themselves to listen—or to endure. From that corner Rose had a view of the long room, mediocre in its decoration, mediocre in its occupants. She could see her host standing before the fire, swinging his eyeglasses on a cord and gazing at the cornice as the song proceeded. She could see Christabel's neck and shoulders and the back of her fair head. Beside her a plump matron had her face suitably composed; three bored young men were leaning against a wall.
The music jangled, the voice shrieked a false emotion, and Rose's eyebrows rose with the voice. It was dull, it was dreary, it was a waste of time, yet what else, Rose questioned, could she do with time, of which there was so much? She could not find an answer, and there rose at that moment a chorus of thanks and a gentle clapping of hands. The gaunt girl had finished her song and, poking her chin, returned to her seat. The room buzzed with chatter; it seemed that only Francis and Rose were silent. She turned to look at him.
'This is awful,' he said.
'No worse than usual.'
'When do you think we shall have exhausted Radstowe hospitality? And the worst of it is we have to give dinners ourselves, and the same things happen every time.'
'I find it soporific,' said Rose.
'I'd rather be soporific in an arm-chair with a pipe.'
'This is one of the penalties of marriage,' Rose said lightly.
'Look here, I'm giving Christabel another jumping lesson to-morrow. I've put some hurdles up. Will you come? She's getting on very well. I'll take her hunting before long.'
'Does she like it?'
'Oh, rather! My word, it would have been a catastrophe if she hadn't taken to it.' He paused, considering the terrible situation from which he had been saved. 'Can't imagine what I should have done. But she's never satisfied. She's beginning to jeer at the old brown horse. I've seen a grey mare that might do for her,' and he went on to enumerate the animal's points.
Rose said, 'Why don't you let her have her first season with the old horse? He knows his business. He'll take care of her.'
'She wouldn't approve of that. I tell you, she's ambitious. I'll go and fetch her and you'll hear for yourself.'
She watched him bending over his wife, and saw Christabel rise and slip a hand under his arm. The action was a little like that of a young woman taking a walk with her young man, but it betokened a confidence which roused a slight feeling of envy and sadness in Rose's heart.
'We have been talking about hunting,' she began at once.
'Oh, yes,' Christabel said. She looked warily from one to the other.
'I'm recommending you to stick to the old brown horse, but Francis says you laugh at him.'
'Would you ride him yourself?' Christabel asked.
'Not if I could get something better.'
'Well, then—' Christabel's tone was final.
But Rose persisted, saying, 'But, you see, this isn't my first season. Stick to the old horse for a little while.'
'No,' Christabel said firmly. 'If Francis thinks I can ride the mare, I should like to have her.'
Rose laughed, but she felt uneasy, and Francis said, 'I told you so. She has any amount of pluck. You come and watch.'
'No, I can't come to-morrow. I think I'll see her first in all her glory on the grey mare.'
'All the same,' Christabel added, 'if she's very expensive, I don't want her. Francis is extravagant over horses, and we have to be careful.'
'We'll economize somewhere else,' he said. 'The mare is yours.'
She suppressed a sigh. Rose was sure of it, and in after days she was to ask herself many times if she had been to blame in not interpreting that sigh to Francis. But she had to give Christabel, and Christabel especially, the loyalty of one woman to another. She would not wrench from her in a few words the pride Francis took in her, to which she sacrificed her fears. Rose had the astuteness of a jealousy she would not own, of a sense of possession she could not discard, and she had known, from the first moment, that Christabel was afraid of horses and dreaded the very name of hunting. And Rose divined, too, that if she herself had not been a horsewoman of some repute, Christabel would have been less ambitious; she would have been contented with the old brown horse; but Christabel, too, had an astuteness. No, she could not have interfered; yet when she first saw Christabel on the mare she was alarmed to the point of saying:
'Are you sure she's all right? You'd better keep beside her, Francis.'
The mare was fidgety and hot-headed. Christabel's hands were unsteady, her face was pale, her lips were tight; but she was gay, and Francis was proud to have her and her mount admired.
Rose looked round in despair. Could no one else see what was so plain to her? She was tempted to go home. She felt she could not bear the strain of watching that little figure perched on the grey beast that looked like a wraith, like a warning. But she did not go, and she learnt to be glad to have shared with Francis the horror of the moment when the mare, out of control and mad with excitement, tried a fence topping a bank, failed, and fell with Christabel beneath her.
On the ground there was a flurry of white and black, and then stillness, while over the fields the hounds and the foremost riders went like things seen in a dream, with the same callousness, the same speed.
Rose saw men dismount and run towards the queer, ugly muddle on the grass. She dismounted, too, and gave her horse to somebody to hold, but she did nothing. Other, more capable people were before her, and it struck her at that moment, while a bird in a bare hedge set up a short chirrup of surprise, how little used she was to action. She seemed to be standing alone in the big field: the rest was a picture with which she had nothing to do. There was a busy group near the fence, some men came running with a door, and then the sound of a shot broke through her numbness. The mare had been put out of her pain; but what of Christabel?
She hurried forward; she heard some one say, 'Ah, here's Miss Mallett,' and she answered vaguely, 'Men are gentler.' But as they lifted Christabel, Rose held one of her hands. It felt lifeless; she looked small and broken; she made no sound.
'She's not conscious,' a man said, and at that she opened her eyes.
'My God, she's got some pluck!' Francis said. 'My God—'
She smiled at him, and he dropped behind with a gesture of despair.
'You were right,' he said to Rose, 'she wasn't equal to that brute.' He turned angrily. 'Why didn't you make me see?'
She made no answer then, or afterwards, to him, but over and over again, with the awful reiteration of the conscience-smitten, she set out her reasons for her silence. She might have told him that of these he was the chief. If he had looked at her less persistently on her visits to Sales Hall, if he had married another kind of woman, she would not have been afraid to speak, but she had tried not to extinguish what little flame of love still flickered in his heart for Christabel and she had succeeded in almost extinguishing her life, in reducing her to permanent helplessness.
This was Rose's first experience of how evil comes out of good. What would happen to that love, Rose did not know. For a time it burned more brightly, fanned by Christabel's heroism and Francis's remorse, but heroism can become monotonous to the spectator and poignant remorse cannot be endured for ever. Christabel's plight was pitiful, but Rose was sorrier for Francis. He had, as it were, engaged her compassion years ago, he had a prior claim, and as time went on, her pity for Christabel changed at moments to annoyance. It was cruel, but Rose had no fund of patience. She disliked illness as she did deformity, and though Christabel never complained of her constant pain, she developed the exactions of an invalid, and the suspicions. In those blue eyes, bluer, and more than ever wary, Rose saw the questions which were never asked.
In the bedroom which, with the boudoir, had been furnished and decorated by the best shop in Radstowe, for a surprise, Christabel lay on a couch near the window, with a nurse in attendance, the puppy and the kitten, both growing staid, for company. It tired her to use her hands, she had never cared for reading and she lay there with little for consolation but her pride in stoically bearing pain.
Often, and with many interruptions, she made Rose repeat the details of the accident.
'I was riding well, wasn't I?' she would ask. 'Francis was pleased with me. He said so. It wasn't my fault, was it? And then, when they were carrying me home did you hear what he said? Tell me what he said.'
And Rose told her: 'He said, "My God, she has got pluck!" Oh, Christabel, don't talk about it.'
'I like to,' she replied, but the day came when she insisted on this subject for the last time.
'Tell me what you thought when you saw me on the mare,' she said, and Rose, careless for once, answered immediately, 'I thought she wasn't fit for you to ride.'
'Ah,' Christabel said slowly, 'did you? Did you? But you didn't say anything. That was—queer.'
Rose said nothing. She was frozen dumb and there was no possible reply to such an implication; but she rose and drew on her gloves. She looked tall and straight in her habit, and formidable.
'Are you going? But you must have tea with Francis. He's expecting you.'
'I won't stay to-day,' Rose said. She was shaking with the anger she suppressed.
'But if you don't,' Christabel cried, 'he'll want to know why. He'll ask me!'
'I can't help that,' Rose said.
Tears came into Christabel's eyes. 'You might at least do that for me.'
'Very well. Because you ask me.'
'And you'll come again soon?'
The sternness of Rose's face was broken by an ironic smile. 'Of course! If you are sure you want me!'
She went downstairs and, as usual, Francis was waiting for her in the matted hall. He did not greet her with a word or a smile. He watched her descend the shallow flight, and together they went down the passage to the clear drawing-room, where the faded water-colours looked unreal and innocent and ignorant of tragedy.
'What's the matter?' he asked.
'Nothing.' She looked into the oval mirror which had so often reflected his mother's placid face. 'My hat's a little crooked,' she said.
He laughed without mirth. 'Never in its life. Has Christabel been worrying you?'
'Worrying me? Poor child—'
'Yes, it's damnable, but she does worry one—and you look odd.'
'I'm getting old,' she murmured, not seeking reassurance but stating a fact plain to her.
'You're exactly the same!' he said. 'Exactly the same!' He swept his face with his hands, and at that sight a new sensation seized her delicately, delightfully, as though a firm hand held her for an instant above the earth, high in the air, free from care, from restrictions, from the necessity for thought—but only for an instant. She was set down again, inwardly swaying, apparently unmoved, but conscious of the carpet under her feet, the chairs with twisted legs, the primrose curtains, the spring afternoon outside.
'Let us have tea,' she said. She handled the pretty flowered cups and under her astonished eyes the painted flowers were like a little garden, gay and sweet and gilded. She seemed to smell them and the hiss of the kettle was like a song. Then, as she handed him his cup and looked into his wretched face and remembered the bitter reality of things, she still could not lose all sense of sweetness.
'Don't say any more!' she said quickly. 'Don't say another word.'
'I won't, if you're sure you know everything. Do you?'
'Every single thing.'
'And you care?'
'Yes.' She drew a breath. 'I care—beyond speaking of it. Francis, not a word!'
It was extraordinary, it was inexplicable, but it was true and happily beyond the region of regrets, for if she had married him years ago she would never have loved him in this miraculous, sudden way, with this passion of tenderness, this desire to make him happy, this terrible conviction that she could not do it, this promise of suffering for herself. And the wonder of it was that he had no likeness to that absurd Francis of whom she had dreamed and whom she had not loved; no likeness, either, to the colossal tyrant. The man she loved was in some ways weak, he was petulant, he was a baby, but he needed her and, for a romantic and sentimental moment, she saw herself as his refuge, his strength. She could not, must not communicate those thoughts. She began to talk happily and serenely about ordinary things until she remembered that she had lingered past her usual hour and that upstairs Christabel must be listening for the sound of her horse's hoofs. She started up.
'Will you fetch Peter for me?'
'If you will tell me when you are coming again.'
'One day next week.'
He kissed her hand, and held it.
'Francis, don't. You mustn't spoil things.'
'I haven't said a word.'
'Silence is good,' she said.
And she knew she could be silent for ever. Restraint and a love of danger lived together in her nature and these two qualities were fed by the position in which she found herself, nor would she have had the position changed. It supplied her with the emotion she had wanted. She had the privilege of feeling deeply and dangerously and yet of preserving her pride.