[oe] represents the oe-ligature.
Author of "The Divine Fire," "The Helpmate," Etc.
With Illustrations by Arthur I. Keller
New York The Century Co. 1910
Copyright, 1909, 1910, by The Century Co.
Published, October, 1910
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
"To the book!" she said. "To Nina Lempriere's book! You can drink now, George."
"How any one can be unkind to dumb animals," said Rose, musing.
"Why do you talk about my heart?"
Jane started at this sudden voice of her own thought.
"And he," she said, "has still a chance if I fail you?"
She had wrung it from him, the thing that six days ago he had come to her to say.
It was Jinny who lay there, Jinny, his wife.
"Ah," she cried, "try not to hate me!"
"George," she said ... "I love you for defending him"
She closed her eyes, "I'm quite happy"
Jane stood in the doorway, quietly regarding them.
Three times during dinner he had asked himself what, after all, was he there for? And at the end of it, as she rose, her eyes held him for the first time that evening, as if they said that he would see.
She had put him as far from her as possible, at the foot of her table between two of the four preposterous celebrities whom she had asked him, George Tanqueray, to meet.
Everything, except her eyes, had changed since he had last dined with Jane Holland, in the days when she was, if anything, more obscure than he. It was no longer she who presided at the feast, but her portrait by Gisborne, R.A. He had given most of his attention to the portrait.
Gisborne, R.A., was a solemn egoist, and his picture represented, not Jane Holland, but Gisborne's limited idea of her. It was a sombre face, broadened and foreshortened by the heavy, leaning brows. A face with a straight-drawn mouth and eyes prophetic of tragedy, a face in which her genius brooded, downcast, flameless, and dumb. He had got all her features, her long black eyebrows, her large, deep-set eyes, flattened queerly by the level eyebrows, her nose, a trifle too long in the bridge, too wide in the nostril, and her mouth which could look straight enough when her will was dominant. He had got her hair, the darkness and the mass of it. Tanqueray, in his abominable way, had said that Gisborne had put his best work into that, and when Gisborne resented it he had told him that it was immortality enough for any one to have painted Jane Holland's hair. (This was in the days when Gisborne was celebrated and Tanqueray was not.)
If Jane had had the face that Gisborne gave her she would never have had any charm for Tanqueray. For what Gisborne had tried to get was that oppressive effect of genius, heavily looming. Not a hint had he caught of her high levity, of her look when the bright devil of comedy possessed her, not a flash of her fiery quality, of her eyes' sudden gold, and the ways of her delicate, her brilliant mouth, its fine, deliberate sweep, its darting tilt, like wings lifted for flight.
When Tanqueray wanted to annoy Jane he told her that she looked like her portrait by Gisborne, R.A.
They were all going to the play together. But at the last moment, she, to Tanqueray's amazement, threw them over. She was too tired, she said, to go.
The celebrities pressed round her, voluble in commiseration. Of course, if she wasn't going, they wouldn't go. They didn't want to. They would sacrifice a thousand plays, but not an evening with Jane Holland. They bowed before her in all the postures and ceremonies of their adoration. And Jane Holland looked at them curiously with her tired eyes; and Tanqueray looked at her. He wondered how on earth she was going to get rid of them.
She did it with a dexterity he would hardly have given her credit for. Her tired eyes helped her.
Then, as the door was closing on them, she turned to him.
"Are you going with them," she said, "or will you stay with me?"
"I am certainly not going with them——" He paused, hesitating.
"Then—you'll stay?" For the first time in their intercourse she hesitated too.
"But you're tired?" he said.
She smiled appealingly, but not like a woman sure of the success of her appeal.
That lapse of certainty marked a difference in their relations. He chose to put it down to the strange circumstance of her celebrity; and, though he hesitated, he stayed. To stay was, after all, the thing which at the moment he most wanted to do. And the thing which Tanqueray most wanted to do at the moment that he invariably did. This temper of his had but one drawback, that it left him at the moment's mercy.
That was what he felt now when he found himself alone with her for the first time in many weeks.
She wondered how far he had seen through her. She had made the others go that he might stay with her, a palpable man[oe]uvre. Of course she would not have lent herself to it for any ordinary man. His genius justified her.
Six weeks ago she would not have had to retreat behind his genius. Six weeks ago she had never thought of his genius as a thing apart from him. There was her own genius, if it came to that. It had its rights. Six weeks ago she would not have had to apologize to herself for keeping him.
"I didn't know you could change your mind so quickly," he said.
"If you had my mind, George, you'd want to change it."
"What's wrong with your mind, Jinny?"
"It won't work."
"Ah, it's come to that, has it? I knew it would."
She led the way into another room, the room she wrote in. Jane lived alone. Sometimes he had wondered how she liked it.
There was defiance in her choice of that top floor in the old house in Kensington Square. To make sure her splendid isolation, she had cut herself off by a boarded, a barricaded staircase, closed with a door at the foot. Tanqueray knew well that consecrated, book-lined room, and the place of everything it held. He had his own place there, the place of honour and affection. His portrait (a mere photograph) was on her writing-table. His "Works"—five novels—were on a shelf by themselves at the head of her chair, where she could lay her hands on them.
For they had found each other before the world had found her. That was the charm which had drawn them together, which, more than any of her charms, had held him until now. She had preserved the incomparable innocence of a great artist; she was free, with the freedom of a great nature, from what Tanqueray, who loathed it, called the "literary taint." They both avoided the circles where it spread deepest, in their nervous terror of the social process, of "getting to know the right people." They confessed that, in the beginning, they had fought shy even of each other, lest one of them should develop a hideous susceptibility and impart the taint. There were points at which they both might have touched the aristocracy of journalism; but they had had no dealings with its proletariat or its demi-monde. Below these infernal circles they had discerned the fringe of the bottomless pit, popularity, which he, the Master, told her was "the unclean thing." So that in nineteen hundred and two George Tanqueray, as a novelist, stood almost undiscovered on his tremendous height.
But it looked as if Jane Holland were about to break her charm.
"I hope," he said, "it hasn't spoilt you, Jinny?"
"Your pop—your celebrity."
"Don't talk about it. It's bad enough when they——"
"They needn't. I must. Celebrity—you observe that I call it by no harsher name—celebrity is the beginning of the end. I don't want you to end that way."
"I shan't. It's not as if I were intrigued by it. You don't know how I hate it sometimes."
"You hate it, yet you're drawn."
"By what? By my vanity?"
"Not by your vanity, though there is that."
"By what, then?"
"Oh, Jinny, you're a woman."
"Mayn't I be?"
"No," he said brutally, "you mayn't."
For a moment her eyes pleaded: "Mayn't I be a woman?" But she was silent, and he answered her silence rather than her eyes.
"Because you've genius."
"Do you, you of all people, tie me down to that?"
He laughed. "Why not I?"
"Because it was you who told me not to keep back. You told me not to live alone. Don't you remember?"
He remembered. It was in the days when he first knew her.
"I did. Because you ran to the other extreme then. You were terrified of life."
"Because I was a woman. You told me to be a woman!"
"Because I was the only man you knew. How you remember things."
"That comes of living alone. I've never really forgotten anything you ever said to me. It's where I score."
"You had nobody but me to talk to then, if you remember."
"No. Nobody but you."
"And it wasn't enough for you."
"Oh, wasn't it? When you were never the same person for a week together. It was like knowing fifteen or twenty men."
He smiled. "I've always been the same man to you, Jinny. Haven't I?"
"I'm not so sure," said she.
"Anyhow, you were safe with me."
"From being 'had.' But now you've begun knowing all sorts of people——"
"Is that why you've kept away from me?"
He ignored her question. "Awful people, implacable, insatiable, pernicious, destructive people. The trackers down, the hangers-on, the persecutors, the pursuers. Did I ever pursue you?"
"No, George. I can't say you ever did. I can't see you pursuing any one."
"They will. And they'll have you at every turn."
"No. I'm safe. You see, I don't care for any of them."
"They'll 'have' you all the same. You lend yourself to being 'had.'"
"Do I?" She said it defiantly.
"No. You never lend—you give yourself. To be eaten up. You let everybody prey on you. You'd be preyed on by me, if I let you."
"And yet," he said, "I wonder——"
He paused, considering her with brilliant but unhappy eyes.
"Jinny," he said, "where do you get the fire that you put into your books?"
"Where you get yours," she said.
Again he considered her. "Come out of it," he said. "Get away from these dreadful people, these dreadful, clever little people."
She smiled, recognizing them.
"Look at me," he said.
"Oh, you," she said again, with another intonation.
"Yes, me. I was born out of it."
"And I—wasn't I born? Look at me?" She turned to him, holding her head high.
"I am looking at you. I've been looking at you all the evening—and I see a difference already."
"What you see is the difference in my clothes. There is no difference in me."
It was he who was different. She looked at him, trying to penetrate the secret of his difference. There was a restlessness about him, a fever and the brilliance fever brought.
She looked at him and saw a creature dark and colourless, yet splendidly alive. She knew him by heart, every detail of him, the hair, close-cropped, that left clean the full backward curve of his head; his face with its patches of ash and bistre; his eyes, hazel, lucid, intent, sunk under irritable brows; his mouth, narrowish, the lower lip full, pushed forward with the slight prominence of its jaw, the upper lip accentuated by the tilt of its moustache. Tanqueray's face, his features, always seemed to her to lean forward as against a wind, suggesting things eager and in salient flight. They shared now in his difference, his excitement. His eyes as they looked at her had lost something of their old lucidity. They were more brilliant and yet somehow more obscure.
Then, suddenly, she saw how he was driven.
He was out on the first mad hunt with love. Love and he stalked the hills, questing the visionary maid.
It was not she. His trouble was as yet vague and purely impersonal. She saw (it was her business) by every infallible sign and token that it was not she. She saw, too, that he was enraged with her for this reason, that it was not she. That showed that he was approaching headlong the point of danger; and she, if she were his friend, was bound to keep him back. He was not in love with her or with any one, but he was in that insane mood when honourable men marry, sometimes disastrously. Any woman, even she, could draw him to her now by holding out her hand.
And between them there came a terror, creeping like a beast of prey, dumb, and holding them dumb. She searched for words to dispel it, but no words came; her heart beat too quickly; he must hear it beat. That was not the signal he was waiting for, that beating of her heart.
He tried to give himself the semblance and the sense of ease by walking about the room and examining the things in it. There were some that it had lacked before, signs that the young novelist had increased in material prosperity. Yes. He had liked her better when she had worked harder and was as poor as he. They had come to look on poverty as their protection from the ruinous world. He now realized that it had also been their protection from each other. He was too poor to marry.
He reflected with some bitterness that Jane was not, now.
She in her corner called him from his wanderings. She had made the coffee. He drank it where he stood, on the hearthrug, ignoring his old place on the sofa by her side.
She brooded there, leaving her cup untasted. She had man[oe]uvred to keep him. And now she wished that she had let him go.
"Aren't you going to drink your coffee?" he said.
"No. I shan't sleep if I do."
"Haven't you been sleeping?"
"Not very well."
"That's why you're looking like your portrait. That man isn't such a silly ass as I thought he was."
"I wish," she said, "you'd contrive to forget him, and it, and everything."
"You know what I mean. The horrid thing that's happened to me. My—my celebrity." She brought it out with a little shiver of revolt.
He laughed. "But when you remind me of it every minute? When it's everlastingly, if I may say so, on the carpet?"
Her eyes followed his. It was evident that she had bought a new one.
"It doesn't mean what you think it does. It isn't, it really isn't as bad as that——"
"I was afraid."
"You needn't be. I'm still living from hand to mouth, only rather larger mouthfuls."
"I can't help it. You make me feel like some horrid literary parvenu."
"I make you feel——?"
"Yes. You—you. You don't think me a parvenu, do you?" she pleaded.
"You know what I think you."
"I don't. I only know what you used to think me."
"I think the same."
"Tell me—tell me."
"I think, if you can hold yourself together for the next five years, you'll write a superb book, Jinny. But it all depends on what you do with yourself in the next five years."
"At the present moment there's hardly any one—of our generation, mind you—who counts except you and I."
He paused again.
"If you and I have done anything decent it's because, first of all, our families have cast us off."
"Mine hasn't yet."
"It's only a question of time if you go on," said Tanqueray.
He had never seen Jane's family. He knew vaguely that her father was the rector of a small parish in Dorset, and that he had had two wives in such rapid succession that their effect from a distance, so Tanqueray said, was scandalously simultaneous. The rector, indeed, had married his first wife for the sake of a child, and his second for the child's sake. He had thus achieved a younger family so numerous that it had kept him from providing properly for Jane. It was what Tanqueray called the "consecrated immorality" of Jane's father that had set Jane free.
Tanqueray's father was a retired colonel. A man of action, of rash and inconsiderate action, he regarded Tanqueray with a disapproval so warm and generous that it left the young man freer, if anything, than Jane.
"Anyhow," he went on, "we haven't let ourselves be drawn in. And yet that's our temptation, yours and mine."
Again he paused.
"If we were painters or musicians we should be safer. Their art draws them by one divine sense. Ours drags us by the heart and brain, by the very soul, into the thick of it. The unpardonable sin is separating literature from life. You know that as well as I do."
She did. She worked divinely, shaping unashamed the bodies and the souls of men. There was nothing in contemporary literature to compare with the serene, inspired audacity of Jane Holland. Her genius seemed to have kept the transcendent innocence of the days before creation.
Tanqueray continued in his theme. Talking like this allayed his excitement.
"We're bound," he said, "to get mixed up with people. They're the stuff we work in. It's almost impossible to keep sinless and detached. We're being tempted all the time. People—people—people—we can't have enough of 'em; we can't keep off 'em. The thing is—to keep 'em off us. And Jane, I know—they're getting at you."
She did not deny it. They were.
"And you haven't the—the nerve to stand up against it."
"I have stood up against it."
"You have. So have I. When we were both poor."
"You want me to be poor?"
"I don't want you to be a howling pauper like me, but, well, just pleasantly short of cash. There's nothing like that for keeping you out of it."
"You want me to be thoroughly uncomfortable? Deprived of everything that makes life amusing?"
"Thoroughly uncomfortable. Deprived of everything that stands in the way of your genius."
She felt a sudden pang of jealousy, a hatred of her genius, this thing that had been tacked on to her. He cared for it and could be tender to it, but not to her.
"You're a cruel beast," she said, smiling through her pain.
"My cruelty and my beastliness are nothing to the beastliness and the cruelty of art. The Lord our God is a consuming fire. You must be prepared to be burnt."
"It's all very well for you, George. I don't like being burnt."
That roused him; it stirred the devil in him.
"Do you suppose I like it? Why, you—you don't know what burning is. It means standing by, on fire with thirst, and seeing other people drink themselves drunk."
"You don't want to be drunk, George. Any more than I do."
"I do not, thank God. But it would be all the same if I did. I can't get a single thing I do want."
"Can't you? I should have thought you could have got most things you really wanted."
"I could if I were a grocer or a draper. Why, a hair-dresser has more mastery of the means of life."
He was telling her, she knew, that he was too poor for the quest of the matchless lady; and through all his young and sombre rage of frustration there flashed forth his anger with her as the unfit.
He began to tramp up and down the room again, by way of distraction from his mood. Now and then his eyes turned to her with no thought in them, only that dark, unhappy fire.
He was quiet now. He had caught sight of some sheets of manuscript lying on her desk.
"What's this?" he said.
"Only the last thing I've written."
"May I look?"
He took it up and sat beside her, close beside her, and turned the leaves over with a nervous hand. He was not reading. There was no thought in his eyes.
He looked at her again. She saw that he was at the mercy of his moment, and of hers.
For it was her moment. There was a power that every woman had, if she cared to use it and knew how. There was a charm that had nothing to do with beauty, for it was present in the unbeautiful. These things had their life secret and apart from every other charm and every other power. His senses called to the unknown and unacknowledged sense in her. She knew that he could be hers if she answered to that call. She had only to kindle her flame, send out her signal.
And she said to herself, "I can't. I can't take him like this. He isn't himself. It would be hateful of me."
In that moment she had no fear. Love held her back and burning honour that hardly knew itself from shame. It accused her of having man[oe]uvred for that moment. It said, "You can't let him come in like this and trap him."
Another voice in her whispered, "You fool. If you don't marry him some other woman will—in this mood of his." And honour cried, answering it, "Let her. So long as it isn't I."
She had a torturing sense of his presence. And with it her fear came back to her, and she rose suddenly to her feet, and stood apart from him.
He flung the manuscript into the place she had left, and bowed forward, hiding his face in his hands. He rose too, and she knew that his moment had gone. She had let it go.
Then, with a foreboding of his departure, she tried to call him back to her, not in his way, but her own, the way of the heart.
"Do you know what I should like to do?" she said. "I should like to sweep it all away, and to get back to that little room, and for nobody to come near me but you, nobody to read me but you, nobody to talk about me but you. Do you remember?"
He did, but he was not going to talk about it. In the fierceness of his mortal moment he was impatient of everything that for her held immorality.
"We were so happy then," she said. "Why can't we be happy now?"
"I've told you why."
"Yes, and I can't bear it. When I think of you——"
He looked at her with the lucid gaze of the psychologist, of the physician who knew her malady.
"Don't think of me," he said. His eyes seemed to say, "That would be worst of all."
And so he left her.
He really did not want her to think of him, any more than he wanted to think intensely and continuously of her. What he had admired in her so much was her deep loyalty to their compact, the way she had let him alone and insisted on his letting her alone.
This desire of Tanqueray's for detachment was not so much an attitude as an instinct. His genius actually throve on his seclusion, and absorption in life would have destroyed its finest qualities. It had no need of sustained and frequent intercourse with men and women. For it worked with an incredible rapidity. It took at a touch and with a glance of the eye the thing it wanted. It was an eye that unstripped, a hand that plunged under all coverings to the essential nakedness.
His device was, "Look and let go." He had never allowed himself to hold on or be held on to; for thus you were dragged down and swamped; you were stifled by the stuff you worked in. Your senses, he maintained, were no good if you couldn't see a thing at the first glance and feel it with the first touch. Vision and contact prolonged removed you so many degrees from the reality; and what you saw that way was not a bit of use to you. He denied perversely that genius was two-sexed, or that it was even essentially a virile thing. The fruitful genius was feminine, rather, humble and passive in its attitude to life. It yearned perpetually for the embrace, the momentary embrace of the real. But no more. All that it wanted, all that it could deal with was the germ, the undeveloped thing; the growing and shaping and bringing forth must be its own. The live thing, the thing that kicked, was never produced in any other way. Genius in a great realist was itself flesh and blood. It was only the little men that were the plagiarists of life; only the sterile imaginations that adopted the already born, and bargained with experience to do their work for them.
And yet there was no more assiduous devotee of experience than George Tanqueray. He repudiated with furious contempt any charge of inspiration. There was no such thing as inspiration. There was instinct, and there was eyesight. The rest was all infernal torment and labour in the sweat of your brow. All this Tanqueray believed sincerely.
It would have been hard to find a creature so subtle and at the same time so unsophisticated as he.
For five years his genius, his temperament and his poverty had combined to keep him in a half-savage virgin solitude. Men had penetrated it, among them one or two distinguished in his own profession. But as for their women, the wives and daughters of the distinguished, he had shrunk perceptibly from their advances. He condemned their manner as a shade too patronizing to his proud obscurity. And now, at two-and-thirty, of three women whom he really knew, he only really cared for one, Jane Holland.
He had further escaped the social round by shifting his abode incessantly, flying from the town to the country, and from the country back to the town, driven from each haunt, he declared, by people, persistent, insufferable people.
For the last week he had been what he called settled at Hampstead. The charm of Hampstead was that nobody whom he knew lived there.
He had chosen the house because it stood at a corner, in a road too steep for traffic. He had chosen his rooms because they looked on to a green slope with a row of willows at the bottom and a row of willows at the top, and because, beyond the willows, he could see the line of a low hill, pure and sharp against the sky. At sunset the grass of his slope turned to a more piercing green and its patches of brown earth to purple. He looked at the sublime procession of his willows and reminded himself with ecstasy that there was not a soul in Hampstead whom he knew. And that suburb appeared to him an enchanted place where at last he had found peace. He would stay there for ever, in those two rooms.
Here, on the morning after he had dined with Jane Holland, he sat down to write. And he wrote, but with a fury that destroyed more than it created. In those days Tanqueray could never count upon his genius. The thing would stay with him peaceably for months at a time; but it never let him know the precise moment of its arrival or departure. At times it seemed the one certainty in an otherwise dubious world, at other times it was a creature of unmistakably feminine caprice. He courted it, and it avoided him. He let it go, and it came back to him, caressing and tormenting him, compelling his embrace. There were days when it pursued and captured him, and then it had wings that swept him divinely to its end. There were days when he had to go out and find it, and lure the winged thing back to him. Once caught, it was unswerving in its operations.
But Tanqueray had no lower power he could fall back upon when his genius failed him. And apparently it had failed him now. In forty-eight hours he had accomplished nothing.
At the end of the forty-ninth hour wasted, he drew his pen through what he had written and sank into a depth as yet unknown to him. His genius had before now appeared to him as an insane hallucination. But still he had cared for it supremely. Now, the horrible thing was that he did not care. His genius was of all things that which interested him least. He was possessed by one trouble and by one want, the more devastating because it was aimless and obscure.
That came of dining with Jane Holland.
He was not in love with Jane. On the contrary, he was very angry with her for wanting him to be in love with her when he could not be. And he was angry with himself for wanting to be in love with her when he could not be, when his heart (by which the psychologist meant his senses) was not in it.
But wherever his heart was, his thoughts, when he let them go, were always running upon Jane. They ran on her now. He conceived of her more than ever as the unfit. "She's too damnably clever," he kept saying to himself, "too damnably clever." And he took up her last book just to see again how damnably clever she was.
In an instant he was at her feet. She wasn't clever when she wrote that. What a genius she had, what a burning, flashing, laughing genius. It matched his own; it rose to it, giving him flame for flame. Almost as clear-eyed it was, and tenderer hearted. Reading Jane Holland, Tanqueray became depressed or exalted according to his mood. He was now depressed.
But he could not leave her. In spirit he remained at her feet. He bowed himself in the dust. "I couldn't have done it," he said, "to save my life. I shall never do anything like that."
He wrote and told her so. But he did not go to see her, as he would have done six weeks ago.
And then he began wondering how she conceived these things if she did not feel them. "I don't believe," he said, "that she doesn't feel. She's like me." Too like him to be altogether fit.
So he found confusion in his judgment and mystery in his vision of her, while his heart made and unmade her image ten times a day.
He went out and tramped the lanes and fields for miles beyond Hampstead. He lay stretched out there on his green slopes, trying not to think about Jane. For all this exercise fatigued him, and made it impossible for him to think of anything else. And when he got back into his room its solitude was intolerable. For ten days he had not spoken to any woman but his landlady. Every morning, before he sat down to write, he had to struggle with his terror of Mrs. Eldred. It was growing on him like a nervous malady.
An ordinary man would have said of Mrs. Eldred that she was rather a large woman. To Tanqueray, in his malady, she appeared immense. The appeal of her immensity was not merely to the eye. It fascinated and demoralized the imagination. Tanqueray's imagination was sane when it was at work, handling the stuff of life; it saw all things unexaggerated, unabridged. But the power went wild when he turned it out to play. It played with Mrs. Eldred's proportions till it became tormented with visions of shapeless and ungovernable size. He saw her figure looming in the doorway, brooding over his table and his bed, rolling through space to inconceivable confines which it burst. For though this mass moved slowly, it was never still. When it stood it quivered. Worse than anything, when it spoke it wheezed.
He had gathered from Mrs. Eldred that her conversation (if you could call it conversation) was the foredoomed beginning of his day. He braced himself to it every morning, but at last his nerves gave way, and he forgot himself so far as to implore her for God's sake not to talk to him.
The large woman replied placably that if he would leave everything to her, it would not be necessary for her to talk.
He left everything. At the end of the week his peace was charged to him at a figure which surprised him by its moderation.
Still he was haunted by one abominable fear, the fear of being ill, frightfully ill, and dying in some vast portion of her arms. Under the obsession of this thought he passed whole hours sitting at his desk, bowed forward, with his face hidden in his hands.
He was roused from it one evening by a sound that came from the other end of the room, somewhere near the sideboard. It startled him, because, being unaccompanied by any wheezing, it could not have proceeded from Mrs. Eldred. It was, indeed, one of those small voices that come from things diminutive and young. It seemed to be trying to tell him that dinner was ready. He looked round over his shoulder to see what kind of creature it was that could thus introduce itself without his knowledge.
It was young, young almost to excess. He judged it to be about two- or three-and-twenty. At his approach it drew as close as possible to the sideboard. It had the air of cultivating assiduously the art of self-effacement, for its face, when looked at, achieved an expression of inimitable remoteness.
He now perceived that the creature was not only young but most adorably feminine. He smiled, simply to reassure it.
"How on earth did you get in without my hearing you?"
"I was told to be very quiet, sir. And not to speak."
"Well, you have spoken, haven't you?"
She, as it were, seized upon and recovered the smile that darted out to play reprehensibly about the corners of her mouth.
"I had to," said she.
Soft-footed and soft-tongued, moving like a breath, that was how Rose Eldred first appeared to George Tanqueray.
He had asked her name, and her name, she said, was Rose.
If you reasoned about Rose, you saw that she had no right to be pretty, yet she was. Nature had defied reason when she made her, working from some obscure instinct for roundness; an instinct which would have achieved perfection in the moulding of Rose's body if Rose had only grown two inches taller. Not that the purest reason could think of Rose as dumpy. Her figure, defying nature, passed for perfect. It was her face that baffled you. It had a round chin that was a shade too large for it; an absurd little nose with a round end, tilted; grey eyes a thought too round, and eyebrows too thick by a hair's-breadth. Not a feature that did not err by a thought, a hair's-breadth or a shade. All but her mouth, and that was perfect. A small mouth, with lips so soft, so full, that you could have called it round. It had pathetic corners, and when she spoke it trembled for very softness. From her mouth upwards it was as if Rose's face had been first delicately painted, and then as delicately blurred. Only her chin was left clean and decided.
And as Nature, in making Rose's body, had erred by excess of roundness, when it came to Rose's hair, she rioted in an iniquitous, an unjust largesse of vitality. Rose herself seemed aware of the sin of it, she tried so hard to restrain it, coiling it tight at the back, and smoothing it sleek as a bird's wing above her brows. Mouse-colored hair it was on the top, and shining gold at the temples and at the roots that curled away under the coil.
She wore a brown skirt, and a green bodice with a linen collar, and a knot of brown ribbon at her throat.
Thus attired, for three days Rose waited on him. For three days she never spoke a word except to tell him that a meal was ready.
In three days he noticed a remarkable increase in his material comfort. There was about Rose a shining cleanliness that imparted itself to everything she laid her hands on. (Her hands were light in their touch and exquisitely gentle.) His writing-table was like a shrine that she tended. Every polished surface of it shone, and every useful thing lay ready to his hand. Not a paper out of its order, or a pen out of its place. The charm was that he never caught her at it. In all her ministrations Rose was secret and silent and unseen.
Only every evening at nightfall he heard the street door open, and Rose's voice calling into the darkness, sending out a cry that had the magic and rhythm of a song, "Puss—Puss—Puss," she called; "Minny—Min—Min—Minny—Puss—Puss—Puss." That was the hymn with which Rose saluted the night. It ought to have irritated him, but it didn't.
It was all he heard of her, till on the fourth evening she broke her admirable silence. She had just removed the tablecloth, shyly, from under the book he was reading.
"It isn't good for you to read at meal-times, sir."
"I know it isn't. But what are you to do if you've nobody to talk to?"
A long silence. It seemed as if Rose was positively thinking.
"You should go out more, sir."
"I don't like going out."
Silence again. Rose had folded up the cloth and put it away in its drawer. Yet she lingered.
"Would you like to see the little dogs, sir?"
"Little dogs? I didn't know there were any."
"We keep them very quiet; but we've seven. We've a fox and a dandy" (Rose grew breathless with excitement), "and an Aberdeen, and two Aberdeen pups, and two Poms, a mole and a white. May they come up, sir?"
"By all means let them come up."
She ran down-stairs, and returned with the seven little dogs at her heels. Tanqueray held out his hand invitingly. (He was fond of animals.) The fox and the dandy sniffed him suspiciously. The old Aberdeen ran away from him backwards, showing her teeth. Her two pups sat down in the doorway and yapped at him.
Rose tried not to laugh, while the Poms ran round and round her skirts, panting with their ridiculous exertions.
"That's Prince—the mole—he's a pedigree dog. He doesn't belong to us. And this," said Rose, darting under the table and picking up the white Pom, "this is Joey."
The white Pom leaped in her arms. He licked her face in a rapture of affection.
"Is Joey a pedigree dog, too?" said Tanqueray.
"Yes," said Rose. She met his eyes without flinching.
"So young a dog——"
"No, sir, Joey's not so very young."
She was caressing the little thing tenderly, and Tanqueray saw that there was something wrong with Joey.
Joey was deplorably lean and puny, and his hair, which should have stood out till Joey appeared three times the size he was, his hair, what hair he had, lay straight and limp along his little back. Rose passed her hand over him the wrong way.
"You should always brush a Pom the wrong way, sir. It brings the hair on."
"I'm afraid, Rose, you've worn his hair away with stroking it."
"Oh no, sir. That's the peculiarity of Joey's breed. Joey's my dog, sir."
"So I see."
He saw it all. Joey was an indubitable mongrel, but he was Rose's dog, and she loved him, therefore Joey's fault, his hairlessness, had become the peculiarity, not to say the superiority, of Joey's breed.
She read his thoughts.
"We're taking great pains to bring it on before the tenth."
"The Dog Show, sir."
(Heavens above! She was going to show him!)
"And do you think you'll bring it on before the tenth?"
"Oh yes, sir. You've only got to brush a Pom's hair backwards and it comes."
The little dogs clamoured to be gone. She stooped, stroking them, smoothing their ears back and gazing into their eyes, lost in her own tenderness, and unaware that she was watched. If Rose had been skilled in the art of allurement she could not have done better than let him see how she loved all things that had life.
"How any one can be unkind to dumb animals," said Rose, musing.
She moved slowly to the door, gathering up the puppies in her arms, and calling to the rest to follow her. "Come along," she said, "and see what Pussy's doing."
He heard her voice going down-stairs saying, "Puss—Puss—Pussy—Min—Min—Min."
When she appeared to him the next day, Minny, the cat, was hanging by his claws on to her shoulder.
"Are you fond of cats, sir?"
"I adore them." (He did.)
"Would you like to have Minny, sir? He'll be nice company for you."
"Ought I to deprive you of his society?"
"I don't mind, sir. I've got the little dogs." She looked at him softly. "And you've got nothing."
"True, Rose. I've got nothing."
That evening, as he sat in his chair, with Rose's cat curled up on his knee, he found himself thinking, preposterously thinking, about Rose.
He supposed she was Mrs. Eldred's daughter. He did not like to think of her as Mrs. Eldred's daughter. She was charming now; but he had a vision of her as she might be in twenty years' time, grown shapeless and immense, and wheezing as Mrs. Eldred wheezed. Yet no; that was too horrible. You could not think of Rose as—wheezing. People did not always take after their mothers. Rose must have had a father. Of course, Eldred was her father; and Eldred was a small man, lean and brown as a beetle; and he had never heard him wheeze.
At dinner-time Rose solved his doubt.
"Aunt says, sir, do you mind my waitin' on you?"
"I do not mind it in the very least."
"It's beginning to be a trouble to Aunt now to get up-stairs."
"I wouldn't dream of troubling your aunt."
Her aunt? Mrs. Eldred was not her mother. Ah, but you could take after your aunt.
He found that this question absorbed him more than was becoming. He determined to settle it.
"Are you going to stay here, then?" he asked, with guile.
"Yes, sir. I've come back to live with Uncle."
"Have you always lived here?"
"Yes, sir. Father left me to Uncle when he died."
"Then, Rose, Mrs. Eldred is not your aunt?"
"Oh no, sir," said Rose eagerly.
Tanqueray felt a relief out of all proportion to its cause.
He continued the innocent conversation.
"And so you're going to look after me, are you?"
"Yes," said Rose. He noticed that when she dropped the "sir," it was because her voice drew itself back with a little gasping breath.
"And your aunt, you think, really won't be equal to it?"
"Well, sir, you see, she gets all of a flutter like, and then she w'eezes, and she knows that's irritating for you to hear." She paused. "And Aunt was afraid that if you was irritated, sir, you'd go. Nothin' could keep you."
(How thoroughly they understood him!)
"Well, I'm not irritated any more. But it is unfortunate, isn't it, that she—er—wheezes?"
He had tried before now to make Rose laugh. He wanted to see how she did it. It would be a test. And he perceived that, somewhere behind her propriety, Rose cherished a secret, iniquitous enjoyment of her aunt.
An imp of merriment danced in Rose's eyes, but the rest of her face was graver than ever. ("Good," he thought; "she doesn't giggle.")
"Oh, Mr. Tanqueray, talk of w'eezin', you should hear Aunt snore."
"I have heard her. In my dreams."
Rose, abashed at her own outburst, remained silent for several minutes. Then she spoke again.
"Do you think, sir, you could do without me on the tenth?"
"No. I don't think I could possibly do without you."
Her face clouded. "Not just for the tenth?"
"Why the tenth?"
"The Dog Show, sir. And Joey's in it."
"Miss Kentish, the lady up-stairs, is going for her holiday on the tenth."
He saw that she was endeavouring to suggest that if he couldn't do without her, he and he alone would be keeping her from the superb spectacle of the Dog Show with Joey in it.
"So you want me to go for a holiday, too. Is that it?"
"Well, sir, if it's not inconvenient, and you don't really mind Aunt——"
"Doesn't she want to see Joey, too?"
"Not if you required her, sir."
"I don't require her. I don't require anybody. I'm going away, like the lady up-stairs, for the tenth. I shall be away all day."
"Oh, thank you, sir." She glowed. "Do you think, sir, Joey'll get a prize?"
"Certainly, if you bring his hair on."
"It's coming. I've put paraffin all over him. You'd laugh if you were to see Joey now, sir."
Rose herself was absolutely serious.
"No, Rose, I should not laugh. I wouldn't hurt Joey's feelings for the world."
Tanqueray had his face hidden under the table where he was setting a saucer of milk for Minny, the cat.
Rose rejoiced in their communion. "He's quite fond of you, sir," she said.
"Of course he's fond of me," said Tanqueray, emerging. "Why shouldn't he be?"
"Well, Minny doesn't take to everybody."
"I am more than honoured that he should take to me."
Rose accepted that statement with incorruptible gravity. It was the fifth day, and she had not laughed yet.
But on the seventh day he met her on the stairs going to her room. She carried a lilac gown over her arm and a large hat in her hand. She was smiling at the hat. He smiled at her.
"A new gown for the Rose Show?"
"The Dog Show, sir." She stood by to let him pass.
"It's the same thing. I say, what a howling swell you'll be."
At that Rose laughed (at last he had made her).
She ran up-stairs; and through a door ajar, he heard her singing in her own room.
In Tanqueray's memorandum-book for nineteen hundred and two there stands this note: "June 10th. Rose Show. Remember to take a holiday."
Rose, he knew, was counting the days till the tenth.
About a fortnight before the tenth, Tanqueray was in bed, ill. He had caught a cold by walking furiously, and then lying out on the grass in the chill of the May evening. There was a chance, Rose said, of its turning to influenza and bronchitis, and it did.
He was so bad that Mrs. Eldred dragged herself up-stairs to look at him.
"Bed's the best place, sir, for you," she said. "So just you lie quiet 'ere, sir, and Rose'll look after you. And if there's anything you fancy, sir, you tell Rose, and I'll make it you."
There was nothing that he fancied but to lie still there and look at Rose when, in a spare hour, she sat by his window, sewing. Bad as he was, he was not so far gone as to be ever oblivious of her presence. Even at his worst, one night when he had had a touch of fever, he was aware of her wandering in and out of his room, hanging over him with a thermometer, and sitting by his bedside. When he flung the clothes off she was there to cover him; when his pillow grew hot she turned it; when he cried out with thirst she gave him a cool drink.
In the morning she was pale and heavy-eyed; her hair was all unsleeked, and its round coils were flattened at the back. She had lain down on her bed, dressed, for five minutes at a time, but she had not closed her eyes or her ears all night.
In a week he was well enough to enjoy being nursed. He was now exquisitely sensitive to the touch of her hands, and to the nearness of her breathing mouth as her face bent over him, tender, absorbed, and superlatively grave. What he liked best of all was to hold out his weak hands to be washed and dried by hers; that, and having his hair brushed.
He could talk to her now without coughing. Thus—
"I say, what a bother I am to you."
Rose had taken away the basin and towels, and was arranging his hair according to her own fancy. And Rose's fancy was to part it very much on one side, and brush it back in a curl off his forehead. It gave him a faint resemblance to Mr. Robinson, the elegant young draper in the High Street, whom she knew.
"There's nothing I like so much," said she, "as tucking people up in bed and 'aving them lie there and nursing 'em. Give me anybody ill, and anybody 'elpless, and me lookin' after 'em, and I'm happy."
"And the longer I lie here, Rose, the happier you'll be?"
"Yes. But I want you to get well, too, sir."
"Because you're so unselfish."
"Oh no. There isn't anybody selfisher than me."
"I suppose," said Tanqueray, "that's why I don't get well."
Rose had a whole afternoon to spare that day. She spent it turning out his drawers and finding all the things there were to mend there. She was sitting by his bed when, looking up from her mending, she saw his eyes fixed on her.
"I don't irritate you, sittin' here, do I, sir?"
"Irritate me? What do you think I'm made of?"
Rose meditated for the fraction of a second.
"Brains, sir," said she.
"So you think you know a man of brains when you see him, do you?"
"What were you, Rose, before you came here?"
"I was nurse in a gentleman's family. I took care of the baby."
"Did you like taking care of the baby?"
Rose blushed profoundly and turned away. He wondered why.
"I had a bad dream last night," said Tanqueray. "I dreamt that your aunt got into this room and couldn't get out again. I'm afraid of your aunt."
"I dare say, sir. Aunt is so very 'uge."
Rose dropped her g's and, when deeply moved, her aitches; but he did not mind. If it had to be done, it couldn't be done more prettily.
"Rose, do you know when I'm delirious and when I'm not?"
"Yes, sir. You see, I take your temperature."
"It must be up now to a hundred and eighty. You mustn't be alarmed at anything I say. I'm not responsible."
"No, sir." She rose and gravely took his temperature.
"Aren't you afraid of my biting the bulb off, and the quicksilver flying down my throat, and running about inside me for ever and ever?"
"You don't seem to be afraid of anything."
"I'm not afraid of many things, and I would never be afraid of you, sir."
"Not if I went mad, Rose? Raving?"
"No. Not if you went mad. Not if you was to strike me, I wouldn't." She paused. "Not so long as I knew you was really mad, and didn't mean to hurt me."
"I wouldn't hurt you for the world."
He sighed deeply and closed his eyes.
That evening, when she was giving him his medicine, he noticed that her eyelids were red and her eyes gleaming.
"You've been crying. What's made you cry?"
Rose did not answer.
"What is it?"
"Miss Kentish keeps on callin' and callin' me. And she scolds me something awful when I don't come."
"Give my compliments to Miss Kentish, Rose, and tell her she's a beast."
"I 'ave told her that if it was she that was ill I'd nurse her just the same and be glad to do it."
"You consider that equivalent to calling her a beast, do you?"
Rose said, "Well——" It was a little word she used frequently.
"Well, I'm sorry you think I'm a beast."
Rose's face had a scared look. She could not follow him, and that frightened her. It is always terrifying to be left behind. So he spared her.
"Why would you be glad to nurse Miss Kentish?"
"Because," said Rose, "I like taking care of people."
"Do you like taking care of me?"
Rose was silent again. She turned suddenly away. It was the second time she had done this, and again he wondered why.
By the eighth day Tanqueray was strong enough to wash his own hands and brush his own hair. On the ninth the doctor and Rose agreed that he might sit up for an hour or two in his chair by the window. On the eleventh he came down-stairs for dinner. On the thirteenth Rose had nothing more to do for him but to bring him his meals and give him his medicine, which he would otherwise have forgotten.
At bed-time, therefore, he had two sovereigns ready for her in an envelope. Rose refused obstinately to take them; to have anything to do with sovereigns.
"No, sir, I couldn't," she reiterated.
But when he pressed them on her she began to cry.
And that left him wondering more.
On the fourteenth day, Tanqueray, completely recovered, went out for a walk. And the first thing he did when he got back was to look at his note-book to see what day of the month it was.
It was the tenth, the tenth of June, the day of the Dog Show. And the memorandum stared him in the face: "Rose Show. Remember to take a holiday."
He looked in the paper. The show began at ten. And here he was at half-past one. And here was Rose, in her old green and brown, bringing in his luncheon.
"Rose," he said severely, "why are you not at the Rose Show?"
Rose lowered her eyes. "I didn't want to go, sir."
"How about the new gown?"
(He remembered it.)
"That don't matter. Aunt's gone instead of me."
"Wearing it? She couldn't. Get into it at once, and leave that confounded cloth alone and go. You've plenty of time."
She repeated that she did not want to go, and went on laying the cloth.
"Why not?" said he.
"I don't want to leave you, sir."
"Do you mean to say you've given up that Dog Show—with Joey in it—for me?"
"Joey isn't in it; and I'd rather be here looking after you."
"I won't be looked after. I insist on your going. Do you hear?"
"Yes, sir, I hear you."
"And you're going?"
"No, sir." She meditated with her head a little on one side; a way she had. "I've got a headache, and—and—and I don't want to go and see them other dogs, sir."
"Oh, that's it, is it? A feeling for Joey?"
But by the turn of head he knew it wasn't. Rose was lying, the little minx.
"But you must go somewhere. You shall go somewhere. You shall go—I say, supposing you go for a drive with me?"
"You mustn't take me for drives, sir."
"I don't want you to give me drives—or—or anything."
"I see. You are to do all sorts of things for me, and I'm not to be allowed to do anything for you."
She placed his chair for him in silence, and as he seated himself he looked up into her face.
"Do you want to please me, Rose?"
Her face was firm as she looked at him. It was as if she held him in check by the indomitable set of her chin, and the steady light of her eyes. (Where should he be if Rose were to let herself go?)
Her mouth trembled, it protested against these austerities and decisions. It told him dumbly that she did want, very much, to please him; but that she knew her place.
Did she? Did she indeed know her place? Did he know it?
"You're right, Rose. That isn't the way I ought to have put it. Will you do me the honour of going for a drive with me?"
She looked down, troubled and uncertain.
"It can be done, Rose," he said, answering her thoughts. "It can be done. The only thing is, would you like it?"
"Yes, sir, I would like it very much."
"Can you be ready by three o'clock?"
At three she was ready.
She wore the lilac gown she had bought for the Show, and the hat. It had red roses in it.
He did not like her gown. It was trimmed with coarse lace, and he could not bear to see her in anything that was not fine.
"Is anything wrong with my hair?" said Rose.
"No, nothing's wrong with your hair, but I think I like you better in the green and brown——"
"That's only for every day."
"Then I shall like you better every day."
"Why do you like my green and brown dress?"
He looked at her again and suddenly he knew why.
"Because you had it on when I first saw you. I say, would you mind awfully putting it on instead of that thing?"
She did mind, awfully; but she went and put it on. And still there was something wrong with her. It was her hat. It did not go with the green and brown. But he felt that he would be a brute to ask her to take that off, too.
They drove to Hendon and back. They had tea at "Jack Straw's Castle." (Rose's face surrendered to that ecstasy.) And then they strolled over the West Heath and found a hollow where Rose sat down under a birch-tree and Tanqueray stretched himself at her feet.
"Rose," he said suddenly, "do you know what a wood-nymph is?"
"Well," said Rose, "I suppose it's some sort of a little animal."
"Yes, it's a little animal. A delightful little animal."
"Can you catch it and stroke it?"
"No. If you tried it would run away. Besides, you're not allowed to catch it, or to stroke it. The wood-nymph is very strictly preserved."
Rose smiled; for though she did not know what a wood-nymph was, she knew that Mr. Tanqueray was looking at her all the time.
"The wood-nymphs always dress in green and brown."
"Like you. Only they don't wear boots" (Rose hid her boots), "nor yet collars."
"You wouldn't like to see me without a collar."
"I'd like to see you without that hat."
Any difficulty in taking Rose about with him would lie in Rose's hat. He could not say what was wrong with it except that the roses in it were too red and gay for Rose's gravity.
"Would you mind taking it off?"
She took it off and put it in her lap. Surrendered as she was, she could not disobey. The eternal spell was on her.
Tanqueray removed her hat gently and hid it behind him. He laid his hands in her lap. It was deep delight to touch her. She covered his hands with hers. That was all he asked of her and all she thought of giving.
On all occasions which she was prepared for, Rose was the soul of propriety and reserve. But this, the great occasion, had come upon her unaware, and Nature had her will of her. Through Rose she sent out the sign and signal that he waited for. And Rose became the vehicle of that love which Nature fosters and protects; it was visible and tangible, in her eyes, and in her rosy face and in the naif movements of her hands.
Sudden and swift and fierce his passion came upon him, but he only lay there at her feet, holding her hands, and gazing into her face, dumb, like any lover of her class.
Then Rose lifted her hands from his and spoke.
"What have you done with my hat?"
In that moment he had turned and sat on it.
Deliberately, yet impulsively, and without a twinge of remorse, he had sat on it. But not so that Rose could see him.
"I haven't done anything with it," said he, "I couldn't do anything with a hat like that."
"You've 'idden it somewhere."
He got up slowly, feigning a search, and produced what a minute ago had been Rose's hat.
It was an absurd thing of wire and net, Rose's hat, and it had collapsed irreparably.
"Well, I declare, if you haven't gone and sat on it."
"It looks as if I had. Can you forgive me?"
"Well—if it was an accident."
He looked down upon her tenderly.
"No, Rose, it was not an accident. I couldn't bear that hat."
He put his hand on her arm and raised her to her feet.
"And now," he said, "the only thing we can do is to go and get another one."
They went slowly back, she shamefaced and bareheaded, he leading her by the arm till they found themselves in Heath Street outside a magnificent hat-shop.
Chance took him there, for Rose, interrogated on the subject of hat-shops, was obstinately reticent.
But here, in this temple, in its wonderful window, before a curtain, on a stage, like actors in a gay drama, he saw hats; black hats and white hats; green and blue and rose-coloured hats; hats of all shapes and sizes; airily perched; laid upon velvet; veiled and unveiled; befeathered and beflowered. Hats of a beauty and a splendour before which Rose had stood many a time in awful contemplation, and had hurried past with eyes averted, leaving behind her the impermissible dream.
And now she had a thousand scruples about entering. He had hit, she said, on the most expensive shop in Hampstead. Miss Kentish wouldn't think of buying a hat there. No, she wouldn't have it. He must please, please, Mr. Tanqueray, let her buy herself a plain straw and trim it.
But he seized her by the arm and drew her in. And once in there was no more use resisting, it only made her look foolish.
Reality with its harsh conditions had vanished for a moment. It was like a funny dream to be there, in Madame Rodier's shop, with Mr. Tanqueray looking at her as she tried on innumerable hats, and Madame herself, serving her, putting the hats on the right way, and turning her round and round so that Mr. Tanqueray could observe the effect from every side of her.
Madame talked all the time to Mr. Tanqueray and ignored Rose.
Rose had a mortal longing for a rose-coloured hat, and Madame wouldn't let her have it. Madame, who understood Mr. Tanqueray's thoughts better than if he had expressed them, insisted on a plain black hat with a black feather.
"That's madame's hat, sir," said Madame. "We must keep her very simple."
"We must," said Tanqueray, with fervour. He thought he had never seen anything so enchanting in its simplicity as Rose's face under the broad black brim with its sweeping feather.
Rose had to wear the hat going home. Tanqueray carried the old one in a paper parcel.
At the gate of the corner house he paused and looked at his watch.
"We've half-an-hour yet before we need go in. I want to talk to you."
He led her through the willows, and up the green slope opposite the house. There was a bench on the top, and he made her sit on it beside him.
"I suppose," he said, "you think that when we go in I shall let you wait on me, and it'll be just the same as it was before?"
"Yes, sir. Just the same."
"It won't, Rose, it can't. You may wait on me to-night, but I shall go away to-morrow."
She turned her face to him, it was dumb with its trouble.
"Oh no—no, sir—don't go away."
"I must. But before I go, I want to ask you if you'll be my wife——"
The hands she held clasped in her lap gripped each other tight. Her mouth was set.
"I'm asking you now, Rose. To be my wife. My wife," he repeated fiercely, as if he repelled with violence a contrary suggestion.
"I can't be your wife, sir," she said.
"Because," she said simply, "I'm not a lady."
At that Tanqueray cried, "Ah," as if she had hurt him.
"No, sir, I'm not, and you mustn't think of it."
"I shall think of nothing else, and talk of nothing else, until you say yes."
She shook her little head; and from the set of her chin he was aware of the extreme decision of her character.
He refrained from any speech. His hand sought hers, for he remembered how, just now, she had unbent at the holding of her hand.
But she drew it gently away.
"No," said she. "I look at it sensible. I can see how it is. You've been ill, and you're upset, and you don't know what you're doin'—sir."
She smiled and drew back her smile as she had drawn back her head. She was all for withdrawal.
Tanqueray in his attempt had let go the parcel that he held. She seized it in a practical, business-like manner which had the perfect touch of finality. Then she rose and went back to the house, and he followed her, still pleading, still protesting. But Rose made herself more than ever deaf and dumb. When he held the gate open for her she saw her advantage, darted in, and vanished (his divinity!) down the area steps.
She went up-stairs to her little garret, and there, first of all, she looked at herself in the glass. Her face was strange to her under the black hat with its sweeping feather. She shook her head severely at the person in the glass. She made her take off the hat with the feather and put it by with that veneration which attends the disposal of a best hat. The other one, the one with the roses, she patted and pulled and caressed affectionately, till she had got it back into something of the shape it had been, to serve for second best. Then she wished she had left it as it was.
She loved them both, the new one because he had given it her, and the old one because he had sat on it.
Finally she smoothed her hair to an extreme sleekness, put on a clean apron and went down-stairs.
In the evening she appeared to Tanqueray, punctual and subservient, wearing the same air of reticence and distance with which she had waited on him first. He was to see, it seemed to say, that she was only little Rose Eldred, his servant, to whom it was not proper that he should speak.
But he did speak. He put his back to the door she would have escaped by, and kept her prisoned there, utterly in his power.
Rose, thus besieged, delivered her ultimatum.
"Well," she said, "you take a year to think it over sensible."
"A year. And if you're in the same mind then as you are now, p'raps I won't say no."
"A year? But in a year I may be dead."
"You come to me," said Rose, "if you're dyin'."
"And you'll have me then?" he said savagely.
"Yes. I'll 'ave you then."
But, though all night Tanqueray by turns raged and languished, it was Rose who, in the morning, looked about to die. Not that he saw her. He never saw her all that day. And at evening he listened in vain for her call at the gate, her salutation to the night: "Min—Min—Minny! Puss—Puss—Puss!"
For in the afternoon Rose left the house, attended by her uncle, who carried by its cord her little trunk.
In her going forth she wore a clean white linen gown. She wore, not the Hat, nor yet the sad thing that Tanqueray had sat on, but a little black bonnet, close as a cap, with a black velvet bow in the front, and black velvet strings tied beneath her chin.
It was the dress she had worn when she was nurse in a gentleman's family.
Late in the evening of that day, Tanqueray, as he sat in miserable meditation, was surprised by the appearance of Mrs. Eldred. She held in her hand Rose's hat, the hat he had given her, which she placed before him on the table.
"You'll be good enough, sir," said Mrs. Eldred, "to take that back."
"Why should I take it back?" he replied, with that artificial gaiety which had been his habitual defence against the approaches of Mrs. Eldred.
"Because, it was all very well for you to offer Rose wot you did, sir, and she'd no call to refuse it. But a 'at's different. There's meanin'," said Mrs. Eldred, "in a 'at."
Tanqueray looked at the hat.
"Meaning? If you knew all the meaning there is in that hat, Mrs. Eldred, you'd feel, as I do, that you knew something. Half the poetry that's been written has less meaning in it than that hat. That hat fulfills all the requirements of poetry. It is simple—extremely simple—and sensuous and passionate. Yes, passionate. It would be impossible to conceive a hat less afflicted with the literary taint. It stands, as I see it, for emotion reduced to its last and purest expression. In short, Mrs. Eldred, what that hat doesn't mean isn't worth meaning."
"If you'd explain your meaning, sir, I should be obliged."
"I am explaining it. My meaning, Mrs. Eldred, is that Rose wore that hat."
"I know she did, sir, and she 'adn't ought to 'ave wore it. I'm only askin' you, sir, to be good enough to take it back."
"Take it back? But whatever should I do with it? I can't wear it. I might fall down and worship it, but—No, I couldn't wear it. It would be sacrilege."
That took Mrs. Eldred's breath away, so that she sat down and wheezed.
"Does Rose not know what that hat means?" he asked.
"No, sir. I'll say that for her. She didn't think till I arst her."
"Then—I think—you'd perhaps better send Rose to me."
"Please send her to me. I want her."
"And you may want her, sir. Rose isn't here."
"Not here? Where is she? I must see her."
"Rose is visitin' in the country, for her 'ealth."
"Her health? Is she ill?"
Mrs. Eldred executed a vast gesture that dismissed Rose.
"Where is she?" he repeated. "I'll go down and see her."
"You will not, sir. Her uncle wouldn't hear of it."
"But, by God! he shall hear of it."
He rang the bell with fury.
"It's no use your ringin', sir. Eldred's out."
"What have you done this for?"
"To get the child out of harm's way, sir. We're not blamin' you, sir. We're blamin' 'er."
"Properly speakin', we're not blamin' anybody. We're no great ones for blamin', me and Eldred. But, if you'll excuse my sayin' so, sir, there's a party would be glad of your rooms next month, a party takin' the 'ole 'ouse, and if you would be so good as to try and suit yourself elsewhere——Though we don't want to put you to no inconvenience, sir."
It was extraordinary, but the more Mrs. Eldred's meaning was offensive, the more her manner was polite. He reflected long afterwards that, really, a lady, in such difficult circumstances, could hardly have acquitted herself better.
"Oh, is that all? I'll go. But you'll give me Rose's address."
"You leave Rose alone, sir. Rose's address don't concern you."
"Rose's address concerns me a good deal more than my own, I can tell you. So you'd better give it me."
"Look 'ere, sir. Are you actin' honest by that girl, or are you not?"
"What the devil do you mean by asking me that?"
His violence made her immense bulk tremble; but her soul stood firm.
"I dessay you mean no 'arm, sir. But we can't 'ave you playin' with 'er. That's all."
"Playing with her? Playing?"
"Yes, playin'. Wot else is it? You know, sir, you ain't thinkin' of marryin' 'er."
"That's just what I am thinking of."
"You 'aven't told 'er that."
"I have told her. And, by Heaven! I'll do it."
"You mean that, sir?"
"Of course I mean it. What else should I mean?"
She sat meditating, taking it in slowly.
"You'll never make 'er 'appy, sir. Nor she you."
"She and I are the best judges of that."
"'Ave you spoke to 'er?"
"Yes. I told you I had."
"Not a word 'ave she said to me."
"Well, I dare say she wouldn't."
"She wouldn't have me."
Mrs. Eldred's lower lip dropped, and she stared at Tanqueray.
"She wouldn't 'ave you? Then, depend upon it, that's wot made 'er ill."
"Yes, ill, sir. Frettin', I suppose."
"Where's that address? Give it me at once."
"No, sir, I darsen't give it you. Eldred'd never forgive me."
"Haven't I told you I'm going to marry her?"
"I don't know, sir, as 'ow Rose'll marry you. When she's set, she's set. And if you'll forgive my saying it, sir, Rose is a good girl, but she's not in your class, sir, and it isn't suitable. And Rose, I dessay, she's 'ad the sense to see it so."
"She's got to see it as I see it. That address?"
Mrs. Eldred rose heavily. She still trembled.
"You'd best speak to her uncle. 'E'll give it you if 'e approves. And if 'e doesn't 'e won't."
He stormed. But he was impotent before this monument of middle-class integrity.
"When will Eldred be back?"
"We're expecting of 'im nine o'clock to-night."
"Mind you send him up as soon as he comes in."
"Very good, sir."
"Wot am I to do with that 'at?"
He looked at her and at the hat. He laughed.
"You can leave the hat with me."
She moved slowly away. "Stop!" he cried; "have you got such a thing as a band-box?"
"I think I might 'ave, sir; if I could lay my 'and on it."
"Lay your hand on it, then, and bring it to me."
She brought it. An enormous band-box, but brown, which was a good colour. He lowered the hat into it with care and shut the lid on it, reverently, as if he were committing some sacred emblem to its shrine.
He sat at his writing-table, tried to work and accomplished nothing. His heart waited for the stroke of nine.
At nine there came to his summons the little, lean, brown man, Rose's uncle. Eldred, who was a groom, was attired with excessive horsiness. He refused to come further into the room than its threshold, where he stood at attention, austerely servile, and respectfully despotic.
The interview in all points resembled Tanqueray's encounter with Mrs. Eldred; except that the little groom, who knew his world, was even more firmly persuaded that the gentleman was playing with his Rose.
"And we can't 'ave that, sir," said Eldred.
"You're not going to have it."
"No, sir, we ain't," reiterated Eldred. "We can't 'ave any such goin's on 'ere."
"Look here—don't be an idiot—it isn't your business, you know, to interfere."
"Not my business? When 'er father left 'er to me? I should like to know what is my business," said Mr. Eldred hotly.
Tanqueray saw that he would have to be patient with him. "Yes, I know. That's all right. Don't you see, Eldred, I'm going to marry her."
But his eagerness woke in Eldred a ghastlier doubt. Rose's uncle stood firmer than ever, not turning his head, but casting at Tanqueray a small, sidelong glance of suspicion.
"And why do you want to marry her, sir? You tell me that."
"Because I want her. And it's the only way to get her. Do you need me to tell you that?"
The man reddened. "I beg your pardon, sir."
"You beg her pardon, you mean."
Eldred was silent. He had been hit hard, that time. Then he spoke.
"Are you certain sure of your feelin's, sir?"
"I'm certain of nothing in this world except my feelings."
"Because" (Eldred was slow but steady and indomitable in coming to his point), "because we don't want 'er 'eart broke."
"You're breaking it, you fool, every minute you stand there. Give me her address."
In the end he gave it.
Down-stairs, in the kitchen, by the ashes of the raked-out fire, he discussed the situation with his wife.
"Did you tell him plain," said Mrs. Eldred, "that we'd 'ave no triflin'?"
"Did you tell 'im that if 'e was not certain sure 'e wanted 'er, there was a young man who did?"
Eldred said nothing to that question. He lit a pipe and began to smoke it.
"Did you tell 'im," his wife persisted, "about Mr. Robinson?"
"No, I didn't, old girl."
"Well, if it 'ad bin me I should have said, 'Mr. Tanqueray, for all you've fam'ly on your side and that, we're not so awful anxious for Rose to marry you. We'd rather 'ave a young man without fam'ly, in a good line o' business and steady risin'. And we know of such as would give 'is 'ead to 'ave 'er.' That's wot I should 'ave said."
"I dessay you would. I didn't say it, because I don't want 'im to 'ave 'er. That I don't. And if 'e was wantin' to cry off, and I was to have named Mr. Robinson, that'd 'ave bin the very thing to 'ave stirred 'im up to gettin' 'er. That's wot men is, missis, and women, too, all of 'em I've ever set eyes on. Dorgs wot'll leave the bone you give 'em, to fight for the bone wot another dorg 'e's got. Wot do you say to that, Mrs. Smoker, old girl?"
Mrs. Smoker, the Aberdeen, pricked up her ears and smiled, with her eyes only, after the manner of her breed.
"Anyhow," said Mrs. Eldred, "you let 'im see as 'ow we wasn't any way snatchin' at 'im?"
"I did, missis."
Mr. Eldred, groom and dog fancier, profoundly musing upon human nature and illuminated by his study of the lower animals, had hit upon a truth. Once let him know that another man desired to take Rose away from him and Mr. Tanqueray would be ten times more desirous to have her. What Mr. Eldred did not see was the effect upon Mr. Tanqueray of Rose's taking herself away, or he would not have connived at her departure. "Out o' sight, out o' mind," said Mr. Eldred, arguing again from his experience of the lower animals.
But with Tanqueray, as with all creatures of powerful imagination, to be out of sight was to be perpetually in mind.
All night, in this region of the mind, Rose's image did battle with Jane's image and overcame it.
It was not only that Jane's charm had no promise for his senses. She was unfit in more ways than one. Jane was in love with him; yet her attitude implied resistance rather than surrender. Rose's resistance, taking, as it did, the form of flight, was her confession of his power. Jane held her ground; she stood erect. Rose bowed before him like a flower shaken by the wind. He loved Rose because she was small and sweet and subservient. Jane troubled and tormented him. He revolted against the tyranny of Jane.
Jane was not physically obtrusive, yet there were moments when her presence in a room oppressed him. She had further that disconcerting quality of all great personalities, the power to pursue and seize, a power so oblivious, so pure from all intention or desire, that there was no flattery in it for the pursued. It persisted when she was gone. Neither time nor space removed her. He could not get away from Jane. If he allowed himself to think of her he could not think of anything else. But he judged that Rose's minute presence in his memory would not be disturbing to his other thoughts.
His imagination could play tenderly round Rose. Jane's imagination challenged his. It stood, brandishing its flaming sword before the gates of any possible paradise. There was something in Jane that matched him, and, matching, rang defiance to his supremacy. Jane plucked the laurel and crowned herself. Rose bowed her pretty head and let him crown her. Laurel crowns, crowns of glory, for Jane. The crown of roses for Rose.
He meant, of course, the wedding-wreath and the wedding-ring. His conversation with the Eldreds had shown him that marriage had not entered into their humble contemplations; also that if there was no question of marriage, there could be no question of Rose.
He had known that in the beginning, he had known it from the uncompromising little Rose herself. From the first flowering of his passion until now, he had seen marriage as the sole means to its inevitable end. Tanqueray had his faults, but it was not in him to bring the creature he loved to suffering and dishonour. And the alternative, in Rose's case, was not dishonour, but frustration, which meant suffering for them both. He would have to give Rose up unless he married her.
At the moment, and the moment's vision was enough for him, he saw no reason why he should not marry her. He wanted to obtain her at once and to keep her for ever. She was not a lady and she knew it; but she had a gentleness, a fineness of the heart which was the secret of her unpremeditated charm. Without it Rose might have been as pretty as she pleased, she would not have pleased Tanqueray. He could withstand any manifestly unspiritual appeal, restrained by his own fineness and an invincible disdain. Therefore, when the divine folly fell upon him, he was like a thing fresh from the last touch of the creator, every sense in him unworn and delicate and alert.
And Rose had come to him when the madness of the quest was on him, a madness so strong that it overcame his perception of her social lapses. It was impossible to be unaware of some of them, of certain phrases, of the sudden wild flight of her aspirates. But these things were entangled with her adorable gestures, with the soft ways of her mouth, with her look when she hung about him, nursing him; so that a sane judgment was impossible.
It was palpable, too, that Rose was not intellectual, that she was not even half-educated. But Tanqueray positively disliked the society of intellectual, cultivated women; they were all insipid after Jane. After Jane, he did not need intellectual companionship in his wife. He would still have Jane. And when he was tired of Jane there would, no doubt, be others; and when he was tired of all of them, there was himself.
What he did need in his wife was the obstinate, dumb devotion of a creature that had no life apart from him; a creature so small that in clinging it would hang no weight on his heart. And he had found it in Rose.
Why should he not marry her?
She was now, he had learned, staying with her former mistress at Fleet, in Hampshire.
The next morning he took a suitable train down to Fleet, and arrived, carrying the band-box, at the door of the house where Rose was. He sat a long time in the hall of the house with the band-box on his knees. He did not mind waiting. People went in and out of the hall and looked at him; and he did not care. He gloried in the society of the sacred band-box. He enjoyed the spectacle of his own eccentricity.
At last he was shown into a little room where Rose came to him. She came from behind, from the garden, through the French window. She was at his side before he saw her. He felt her then, he felt her fear of him.
He turned. "Rose," he said, "I've brought you the moon in a band-box."
"Oh," said Rose, and her cry had a thick, sobbing vibration in it.
He put his arm on her shoulder and drew her out of sight and kissed her, and she was not afraid of him any more.
"Rose," he said, "have you thought it over?"
"Yes, I have. Have you?"
"I've thought of nothing else."
"Oh, Lord, yes."
"You've thought of how I haven't a penny and never shall have?"
"And how I'm not clever, and how it isn't a bit as if I'd any head for studyin' and that?"
"Have you thought of how I'm not a lady? Not what you'd call a lady?"
There was no answer to that, and so he kissed her.
"And how you'd be if you was to marry some one who was a lady? Have you thought of that?"
"Well then, it's this way. If you was a rich man I wouldn't marry you." She paused.
"But you will, because I'm a poor one?"
"Thank God I'm poor."
He drew her to him and she yielded, not wholly, but with a shrinking of her small body, and a soft, shy surrender of her lips.
She was thinking, "If he married a lady he'd have to spend ten times on her what he need on me."
All she said was, "There are things I can do for you that a lady couldn't."
"Oh—don't—don't!" he cried. That was the one way she hurt him.
"What are you going to do with me now?" said she.
"I'm going to take you for a walk. We can't stay here."
"Can you wait?"
"I have waited."
She ran away and stayed away for what seemed an interminable time. Then somebody opened the door and handed Rose in. Somebody kissed her where she stood in the doorway, and laughed softly, and shut the door upon Rose and Tanqueray.
Rose stood there still. "Do you know me?" said she, and laughed.
Somebody had transformed her, had made her slip her stiff white gown and dressed her in a muslin one with a belt that clipped her, showing her pretty waist. Somebody had taught her how to wear a scarf about her shoulders; and somebody had taken off that odious linen collar and bared the white column of her neck.
"She made me put it on," said Rose. "She said if I didn't, I couldn't wear the hat."
Somebody, Rose's mistress, had been in Rose's secret. She knew and understood his great poem of the Hat.
Rose took it out of the band-box and put it on. Impossible to say whether he liked her better with it or without it. He thought without; for she had parted her hair in the middle and braided it at the back.
"Do you like my hair?" said she.
"Why didn't you do it like that before?"
"I don't know. I wanted to. But I didn't."
Rose hid her face. "I thought," said she, "you'd notice, and think—and think I was after you."
No. He could never say that she had been after him, that she had laid a lure. No huntress she. But she had found him, the hunted, run down and sick in his dark den. And she had stooped there in the darkness, and tended and comforted him.
They set out.
"She said I was to tell you," said Rose, "to be sure and take me through the pine-woods to the pond."
How well that lady knew the setting that would adorn his Rose; sunlight and shadow that made her glide fawn-like among the tall stems of the trees. Through the pine-woods he took her, his white wood-nymph, and through the low lands covered with bog myrtle, fragrant under her feet. Beyond the marsh they found a sunny hollow in the sand where the heath touched the pond. The brushwood sheltered them.
Side by side they sat and took their fill of joy in gazing at each other, absolutely dumb.
It was Tanqueray who broke that beautiful silence. He had obtained her. He had had his way and must have it to the end. He loved her; and the thing beyond all things that pleased him was to tease and torment the creatures that he loved.
"Rose," he said, "do you think I'm good-looking?"
"No. Not what you call good-looking."
"How do you know what I call good-looking?"
"Well—me. Don't you?"
"You're a woman. Give me your idea of a really handsome man."
"Well—do you know Mr. Robinson?"
"No. I do not know Mr. Robinson."
"Yes, you do. He keeps the shop in the High Street where you get your 'ankychiefs and collars. You bought a collar off of him the other day. He told me."
"By Jove, so I did. Of course I know Mr. Robinson. What about him?"
"Well—he's what I call a handsome man."
"Oh." He paused. "Would you love me more if I were as handsome as Mr. Robinson?"
"No. Not a bit more. I couldn't. I'd love you just the same if you were as ugly as poor Uncle. There, what more do you want?"
"What, indeed? Rose, how much have you seen of Mr. Robinson?"
"How much? Well—I see him every time I go into his shop. And every Sunday evening when I go to church. And sometimes he comes and has supper with us. 'E plays and 'e sings beautiful."
"The devil he does! Well, did he ever take you anywhere?"
"Once—he took me to Madame Tussaws; and once to the Colonial Exhibition; and once——"
"You minx. That'll do. Has he ever given you anything?"
"He gave me Joey."
"I always knew there was something wrong about that dog."
"And last Christmas he gave me a scented sashy from the shop."
"Never anything else." She smiled subtly. "I wouldn't let 'im."
"Well, well. And I suppose you consider Mr. Robinson a better dressed man than I am?"
"Yes, he was always a beautiful dresser. He makes it what you might call 'is hobby."
"Of course Mr. Robinson wants you to marry him?"
"Yes. Leastways he says so."
"And I suppose your uncle and aunt want you to marry him?"
"They were more for it than I was."
"Rose—he's got a bigger income than I have."
"He never told me what his income is."
"But you know?"
"I dare say Uncle does."
"Better dressed—decidedly more handsome——"
"Well—he is that."
"A bigger income. Rose, do you want Mr. Robinson to be found dead in his shop—horribly dead—among the collars and the handkerchiefs—spoiling them, and—not—looking—handsome—any more?"
"Oh, Mr. Tanqueray!"
"Then don't talk about him."
He turned his face to hers. She put up her hands and drew his head down into the hollow of her breasts that were warm with the sun on them.
"Rose," he said, "if you stroke my hair too much it'll come off, like Joey's. Would you love me if my hair came off?"
She kissed his hair.
"When did you begin to love me, Rose?"
"I don't know. I think it must have been when you were ill."
"I see. When I was bowled over on my back and couldn't struggle. What made you love me?"
She was silent a long time, smiling softly to herself.
"I think it was because—because—because you were so kind to Joey."
"So you thought I would be kind to you?"
"I didn't—I didn't think at all. I just——"
"So did I," said Tanqueray.
It had been arranged that Rose was to be married from the house of her mistress, and that she was to remain there until her wedding-day. There were so many things to be seen to. There was the baby. You couldn't, Rose said, play fast and loose with him. Rose, at her own request, had come to take care of the baby for a month, and she was not going back on that, not if it was ever so. Then there were all the things that her mistress, Rose said, was going to learn her. So many things, things she was not to do, things she was not to say, things she was on no account to wear. Rose, buying her trousseau, was not to be trusted alone for a minute.