THE IMMORTAL MOMENT
The Helpmate The Divine Fire Two Sides of a Question Mr. and Mrs. Nevill Tyson Etc., etc.
THE IMMORTAL MOMENT
The Story of Kitty Tailleur
ILLUSTRATED AND DECORATED BY
C. COLES PHILLIPS.
NEW YORK DOUBLEDAY PAGE & CO. 1908
COPYRIGHT, 1908 BY
PUBLISHED, OCTOBER, 1908
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, INCLUDING THAT OF TRANSLATION INTO FOREIGN LANGUAGES, INCLUDING THE SCANDINAVIAN
THIS STORY APPEARS IN ENGLAND UNDER THE TITLE "KITTY TAILLEUR"
"Kitty's face ... pleaded with the other face in the glass" FRONTISPIECE
"She stood there, strangely still ... before the pitiless stare that went up to her appealing face" 10
"'You won't be tied to me a minute longer than you like'" 208
"'I want to make you loathe me ... never see me again'" 268
THE IMMORTAL MOMENT
They came into the hotel dining-room like young persons making their first entry into life. They carried themselves with an air of subdued audacity, of innocent inquiry. When the great doors opened to them they stood still on the threshold, charmed, expectant. There was the magic of quest, of pure, unspoiled adventure in their very efforts to catch the head-waiter's eye. It was as if they called from its fantastic dwelling-place the attendant spirit of delight.
You could never have guessed how old they were. He, at thirty-five, had preserved, by some miracle, his alert and slender adolescence. In his brown, clean-shaven face, keen with pleasure, you saw the clear, serious eyes and the adorable smile of seventeen. She, at thirty, had kept the wide eyes and tender mouth of childhood. Her face had a child's immortal, spiritual appeal.
They were charming with each other. You might have taken them for bride and bridegroom, his absorption in her was so unimpaired. But their names in the visitors' book stood as Mr. Robert Lucy and Miss Jane Lucy. They were brother and sister. You gathered it from something absurdly alike in their faces, something profound and racial and enduring.
For they combined it all, the youth, the abandonment, the innocence, with an indomitable distinction.
They made their way with easy, unembarrassed movements, and seated themselves at a table by an open window. They bent their brows together over the menu. The head-waiter (who had flown at last to their high summons) made them his peculiar care, and they turned to him with the helplessness of children. He told them what things they would like, what things (he seemed to say) would be good for them. And when he went away with their order they looked at each other and laughed, softly and instantaneously.
They had done the right thing. They both said it at the same moment, smiling triumphantly into each other's face. Southbourne was exquisite in young June, at the dawn of its season. And the Cliff Hotel promised what they wanted, a gay seclusion, a refined publicity.
If you were grossly rich, you went to the big Hotel Metropole, opposite. If you were a person of fastidious tastes and an attenuated income, you felt the superior charm of the Cliff Hotel. The little house, the joy of its proprietor, was hidden in the privacy of its own beautiful grounds, having its back to the high road and its face to the open sea. They had taken stock of it that morning, with its clean walls, white as the Cliff it stood on; its bay windows, its long, green-roofed veranda, looking south; its sharp, slated roofs and gables, all sheltered by the folding Downs.
They did not know which of them had first suggested Southbourne. Probably they had both thought of it at the same moment, as they were thinking now. But it was she who had voted for the Cliff Hotel, in preference to lodgings. She thought that in an hotel there would be more scope, more chance of things happening.
Jane was always on the look-out for things happening. He saw her now, with her happy eyes, and her little, tilted nose, sniffing the air, scanning the horizon.
He knew Jane and her adventures well. They were purely, pathetically vicarious. Jane was the thrall of her own sympathy. So was he. At a hint she was off, and he after her, on wild paths of inference, on perilous oceans of conjecture. Only he moved more slowly, and he knew the end of it. He had seen, before now, her joyous leap to land, on shores of manifest disaster. He protested against that jumping to conclusions. He, for his part, took conclusions in his stride.
But Jane was always listening for a call from some foreign country of the soul. She was always entering surreptitiously into other people's feelings. They never caught her at it, never suspected her soft-footed, innocent intrusions.
She was wondering now whether they would have to make friends with any of the visitors. She hoped not, because that would spoil it, the adventure. People had a way of telling her their secrets, and Jane preferred not to be told. All she wanted was an inkling, a clue; the slenderer the better.
The guests as yet assembled were not conspicuously interesting.
There was a clergyman dining gloomily at a table by himself. There was a gray group of middle-aged ladies next to him. There was Colonel Hankin and his wife. They had arrived with the Lucys in the hotel 'bus, and their names were entered above Robert's in the visitors' book. They marked him with manifest approval as one of themselves, and they looked all pink perfection and silver white propriety. There was the old lady who did nothing but knit. She had arrived in a fly, knitting. She was knitting now, between the courses. When she caught sight of the Lucys she smiled at them over her knitting. They had found her, before dinner, with her feet entangled in a skein of worsted. Jane had shown tenderness in disentangling her.
It was almost as if they had made friends already.
Jane's eyes roamed and lighted on a fat, wine-faced man. Lucy saw them. He teased her, challenged her. She didn't think, did she, she could do anything with him?
No. Jane thought not. He wasn't interesting. There was nothing that you could take hold of, except that he seemed to be very fond of wine, poor old thing. But then, you had to be fond of something, and perhaps it was his only weakness. What did Robert think?
Robert did not hear her. He was bending forward, looking beyond her, across the room toward the great doors. They had swung open again, with a flash of their glass panels, to give passage to a lady.
She came slowly, with the irresistible motion of creatures that divide and trouble the medium in which they move. The white, painted wainscot behind her showed her small, eager head, its waving rolls and crowning heights of hair, black as her gown. She had a sweet face, curiously foreshortened by a low forehead and the briefest of chins. It was white with the same whiteness as her neck, her shoulders, her arms—a whiteness pure and profound. This face she kept thrust a little forward, while her eyes looked round, steadily, deliberately, for the place where she desired to be. She carried on her arm a long tippet of brown fur. It slipped, and her effort to recover it brought her to a standstill.
The large, white room, half empty at this season, gave her up bodily to what seemed to Lucy the intolerable impudence of the public gaze.
She was followed by an older lady who had the air of making her way with difficulty and vexation through an unpleasantly crowded space. This lady was somewhat oddly attired in a white dress cut high with a Puritan intention, but otherwise indiscreetly youthful. She kept close to the tail of her companion's gown, and tracked its charming evolutions with an irritated eye. Her whole aspect was evidently a protest against the publicity she was compelled to share.
Lucy was not interested in her. He was watching the lady in black who was now standing in the middle of the room. Her elbow touched the shoulder of a young man on her left. The fur tippet slipped again and lay at the young man's feet. He picked it up, and as he handed it to her he stared into her face, and sleeked his little moustache above a furtive, objectionable smile. His companion (Jane's uninteresting man), roused from communion with the spirit of Veuve Cliquot, fixed on the lady a pair of blood-shot eyes in a brutal, wine-dark face.
She stood there, strangely still, it seemed to Lucy, before the pitiless stare that went up, right and left, to her appealing face. She was looking, it seemed to him, for her refuge.
She moved forward. The Colonel, pinker than ever in his perfection, lowered his eyes as she approached. She paused again in her progress beside the clergyman on her right. He looked severely at her, as much as to say, "Madam, if you drop that thing in my neighbourhood, I shall not attempt to pick it up."
An obsequious waiter pointed out a table next to the middle-aged ladies. She shook her head at the middle-aged ladies. She turned in her course, and her eyes met Lucy's. He said something to his sister. Jane rose and changed her seat, thus clearing the way to a table that stood beside theirs, empty, secluded in the bay of the window.
The lady in black came swiftly, as if to the place of her desire. The glance that expressed her gratitude went from Lucy to Jane and from Jane to Lucy, and rested on him for a moment.
As the four grouped themselves at their respective tables, the lady in white, seated with her back to the window, commanded a front and side view of Jane. The lady in black sat facing Lucy.
She put her elbows on the table and turned her face (her profile was remarkably pretty) to her companion.
"Well," said she, "don't you want to sit here?"
"Oh," said the older woman, "what does it matter where we sit?"
She spoke in a small, crowing voice, the voice, Lucy said to himself, of a rather terrible person. She shivered.
"Poor lamb, does it feel a draught down its little back?"
The lady rose and put her fur tippet on the shivering shoulders. They shrank from her, and she drew it closer and fastened it with caressing and cajoling fingers. There was about her something impetuous and perverse, a wilful, ungovernable tenderness. Her hands had the swiftness of things moved by sweet, disastrous impulses.
The white person (she was quite terrible) undid the fastening and shook her shoulders free of the fur. It slid to the floor for the third time.
Lucy rose from his place, picked up the fur and restored it to its owner.
The quite terrible person flushed with vexation.
"You see," said the lady, "the trouble you've given that nice man."
"Oh don't! he'll hear you."
"If he does, he won't mind," said the lady.
He did hear her. It was difficult not to hear, not to look at her, not to be interested in every movement that she made. Her charm, however, was powerless over her companion.
Their voices, to Lucy's relief, sank low. Then suddenly the companion spoke.
"Of course," said she, "if you want all the men to look at you——"
Lucy looked no more. He heard the lady draw in her breath with a soft, sharp sound, and he felt his blood running scarlet to the roots of his hair.
"I believe" (the older lady spoke almost vindictively) "you like it."
The head-waiter, opportune in all his approaches, brought coffee at that moment. Lucy turned his chair slightly, so that he presented his back to the speaker, and to the lady in black his side-face, shaded by his hand, conspicuously penitential.
Jane tried to set everybody at their ease by talking in a clear, cool voice about the beautiful decorations, the perfect management of the hotel. The two drank their coffee hastily and left the table. In the doorway Lucy drew the head-waiter aside.
"Who," said he, "is that lady in the window?"
"The lady in the window, sir? Miss Keating, sir."
"I mean—the other lady."
The head-waiter looked reproachfully at Lucy and apologetically at Jane.
"The lady in black, sir? You want to know her name?"
"Her name, sir, is Mrs. Tailleur."
His manner intimated respectfully that Lucy would not like Mrs. Tailleur, and that, if he did, she would not be good for him.
The brother and sister went out into the hotel garden. They strolled up and down the cool, green lawns that overhung the beach.
Lucy smoked and was silent.
"Jane," he said presently, "could you see what she did?"
"I was just going," said Jane, "to ask you that."
"Upon my soul, I can't see it," said he.
"Nor I," said Jane.
"Could you see what I did?"
"What you did?"
"Yes, I. Did I look at her?"
"Well, yes; certainly you looked at her."
"And you think she minded?"
"No; I don't think she minded very much."
"Come, she couldn't have liked it, could she?"
"I don't know. I don't think she noticed it. You see" (Jane was off on the adventure) "she's in mourning for her husband. He has been dead about two years. He wasn't very kind to her, and she doesn't know whether to be glad or sorry he's dead. She's unhappy and afraid."
"I say, how do you know all that?"
"I know," said Jane, "because I see it in her face; and in her clothes. I always see things."
He laughed at that.
They talked a long time as they paced the green lawns, linked arm in arm, keeping their own path fastidiously.
Miss Keating, Mrs. Tailleur's companion, watched them from her seat on the veranda.
She had made her escape from the great, lighted lounge behind her where the men were sitting. She had found a corner out of sight of its wide windows. She knew that Kitty Tailleur was in there somewhere. She could hear her talking to the men. At the other end of the veranda the old lady sat with her knitting. From time to time she looked up over her needles and glanced curiously at Miss Keating.
On the lawn below, Colonel Hankin walked with his wife. They kept the same line as the Lucys, so that, in rhythmic instants, the couples made one group. There was an affinity, a harmony in their movements as they approached each other. They were all obviously nice people, people who belonged by right to the same group, who might approach each other without any impropriety.
Miss Keating wondered how long it would be before Kitty Tailleur would approach Mr. Lucy. That afternoon, on her arrival, she had approached the Colonel, and the Colonel had got up and gone away. Kitty had then laughed. Miss Keating suspected her of a similar social intention with regard to the younger man. She knew his name. She had looked it up in the visitors' book. (She was always looking up people's names.) She had made with determination for the table next to him. Miss Keating, in the dawn of their acquaintance, had prayed that Mrs. Tailleur might not elect to sit next anybody who was not nice. Latterly she had found herself hoping that their place might not be in view of anybody who was.
For three months they had been living in hotels, in horrifying publicity. Miss Keating dreaded most the hour they had just passed through. There was something terrible to her in their entry, in their passage down the great, white, palm-shaded, exotic room, their threading of the ways between the tables, with all the men turning round to stare at Kitty Tailleur. It was all very well for Kitty to pretend that she saved her by thus diverting and holding fast the public eye. Miss Keating felt that the tail of it flicked her unpleasantly as she followed in that troubled, luminous wake.
It had not been quite so unbearable in Brighton, at Easter, when the big hotels were crowded, and Mrs. Tailleur was not so indomitably conspicuous. Or else Miss Keating had not been so painfully alive to her. But Southbourne was half empty in early June, and the Cliff Hotel, small as it was, had room for the perfect exhibition of Mrs. Tailleur. It gave her wide, polished spaces and clean, brilliant backgrounds, yards of parquetry for the gliding of her feet, and monstrous mirrors for reflecting her face at unexpected angles. These distances fined her grace still finer, and lent her a certain pathos, the charm of figures vanishing and remote.
Not that you could think of Kitty Tailleur as in the least remote or vanishing. She seemed to be always approaching, to hover imminently and dangerously near.
Mr. Lucy looked fairly unapproachable. His niceness, Miss Keating imagined, would keep him linked arm in arm with his sister, maintaining, unconsciously, inoffensively, his distance and distinction. He would manage better than the Colonel. He would not have to get up and go away. So Miss Keating thought.
From the lounge behind the veranda, Kitty's voice came to her again. Kitty was excited and her voice went winged. It flew upward, touched a perilous height and shook there. It hung, on its delicate, feminine wings, dominating the male voices that contended, brutally, below. Now and then it found its lyric mate, a high, adolescent voice that followed it with frenzy, that broke, pitifully, in sharp, abominable laughter, like a cry of pain.
Miss Keating shut her eyes to keep out her vision of Kitty's face with the look it wore when her voice went high.
She was roused by the waiter bringing coffee. Kitty Tailleur had come out on to the veranda. She was pouring out Grace Keating's coffee, and talking to her in another voice, the one that she kept for children and for animals, and for all diminutive and helpless things. She was saying that Miss Keating (whom she called Bunny) was a dear little white rabbit, and she wanted to stroke her.
"You see, you are so very small," said Kitty, as she dropped sugar into Miss Keating's cup. She had ordered cigarettes and a liqueur for herself.
Miss Keating said nothing. She drank her coffee with a distasteful movement of her lips.
Kitty Tailleur stretched herself at full length on a garden chair. She watched her companion with eyes secretly, profoundly intent under lowered lids.
"Do you mind my smoking?" she said presently.
"No," said Miss Keating.
"Do you mind my drinking Kuemmel?"
"Do you mind my showing seven inches of stocking?"
"What do you mind, then?"
"I mind your making yourself so very conspicuous."
"I don't make myself conspicuous. I was born so."
"You make me conspicuous. Goodness knows what all these people take us for!"
"Holy Innocent! As long as you sit tight and do your hair like that, nobody could take you for anything but a dear little bunny with its ears laid back. But if you get palpitations in your little nose, and turn up your little white tail at people, and scuttle away when they look at you, you can't blame them if they wonder what's the matter with you."
"Yes; it's you who give the show away." Kitty smiled into her liqueur glass. "It doesn't seem to strike you that your behaviour compromises me."
Miss Keating's mouth twitched. Her narrow, rather prominent front teeth lifted an instant, and then closed sharply on her lower lip. Her throat trembled as if she were swallowing some bitter thing that had been on the tip of her tongue.
"If you think that," she said, and her voice crowed no longer, "wouldn't it be better for us not to be together?"
Kitty shook her meditative head. "Poor Bunny," said she, "why can't you be honest? Why don't you say plump out that you're sick and tired of me? I should be. I couldn't stand another woman lugging me about as I lug you."
"It isn't that. Only—everywhere we go—there's always some horrible man."
"Everywhere you go, dear lamb, there always will be."
"Yes; but one doesn't have anything to do with them."
"I don't have anything to do with them."
"You talk to them."
"Of course I do," said Kitty. "Why not?"
"You don't know them."
"H'm! If you never talk to people you don't know, pray how do you get to know them?"
Kitty sat up and began playing with the matches till she held a bunch of them blazing in her hand. She was blowing out the flame as the Hankins came up the steps of the veranda. They had a smile for the old lady in her corner, and for Miss Keating a look of wonder and curiosity and pity; but they turned from Mrs. Tailleur with guarded eyes.
"What do you bet," said Kitty, "that I don't make that long man there come and talk to me?"
"If you do——"
"I'll do it before you count ten. One, two, three, four. I shall ask him for a light——"
"Sh-sh! He's coming."
Kitty slid her feet to the floor and covered them with her skirt. Then she looked down, fascinated, apparently, by the shining tips of her shoes. You could have drawn a straight line from her feet to the feet of the man coming up the lawn.
"Five, six, seven." Kitty lit her last match. "T-t-t! The jamfounded thing's gone out."
The long man's sister came up the steps of the veranda. The long man followed her slowly, with deliberate pauses in his stride.
"Eight, nine," said Kitty, under her breath. She waited.
The man's eyes had been upon her; but in the approach he lowered them, and as he passed her he turned away his head.
"It's no use," said Miss Keating; "you can't have it both ways."
Kitty was silent. Suddenly she laughed.
"Bunny," said she, "would you like to marry the long man?"
Miss Keating's mouth closed tightly, with an effort, covering her teeth.
Kitty leaned forward. "Perhaps you can if you want to. Long men sometimes go crazy about little women. And you'd have such dear little long babies—little babies with long faces. Why not? You're just the right size for him. He could make a memorandum of you and put you in his pocket; or you could hang on his arm like a dear little umbrella. It would be all right. You may take it from me that man is entirely moral. He wouldn't think of going out without his umbrella. And he'd be so nice when the little umbrellas came. Dear Bunny, face massage would do wonders for you. Why ever not? He's heaps nicer than that man at the Hydro, and you'd have married him, you know you would, if I hadn't told you he was a commercial traveller. Never mind, ducky; I dare say he wasn't."
Kitty curled herself up tight on the long chair and smiled dreamily at Miss Keating.
"Do you remember the way you used to talk at Matlock, just after I found you there? You were such a rum little thing. You said it would be very much better if we hadn't any bodies, so that people could fall in love in a prettier way, and only be married spiritually. You said God ought to have arranged things on that footing. You looked so miserable when you said it. By the way, I wouldn't go about saying that sort of thing to people. That's how I spotted you. I know men think it's one of the symptoms."
"Symptoms of what?"
"Of that state of mind. When a woman comes to me and talks about being spiritual, I always know she isn't—at the moment. You asked me, Bunny—the second time I met you—if I believed in spiritual love, and all that. I didn't, and I don't. When you're gone on a man all you want is to get him, and keep him to yourself. I dare say it feels jolly spiritual—especially, when you're not sure of the man—but it isn't. If you're gone on him enough to give him up when you've got him, there might be some spirituality in that. I shall believe in it when I see it done."
"Seriously," she continued, "if you'd been married, Bunny, you wouldn't have had half such a beastly time. You're one of those leaning, clinging little women who require a strong, safe man to support them. You ought to be married."
Miss Keating smiled a little sad, spiritual smile, and said that was the last thing she wanted.
"Well," said Kitty, "I didn't say it was the first."
Kitty's smile was neither sad nor spiritual. She uncurled herself, got up, and stood over her companion, stroking her sleek, thin hair.
Miss Keating purred under the caress. She held up her hand to Kitty who took it and gave it a squeeze before she let it go.
"Poor Bunny. Nice Bunny," she said (as if Miss Keating were an animal). She stretched out her arms, turned, and disappeared through the lounge into the billiard-room.
It could not be denied that Kitty had a charm. Miss Keating was not denying it, even now, when she was saying to herself that Kitty had a way of attracting very disagreeable attention.
At first she had supposed that this was an effect of Kitty's charm, disagreeable to Kitty. Then, even in the beginning, she had seen that there was something deliberate and perpetual in Kitty's challenge of the public eye. The public eye, so far from pursuing Kitty, was itself pursued, tracked down and captured. Kitty couldn't let it go. Publicity was what Kitty coveted.
She had then supposed that Kitty was used to it; that she was, in some mysterious way, a personage. There would be temptations, she had imagined, for any one who had a charm that lived thus in the public eye.
And Kitty had her good points, too. There was nobody so easy to live with as Kitty in her private capacity, if she could be said to have one. She never wanted to be amused, or read to, or sat up with late at night, like the opulent invalids Miss Keating had been with hitherto. Miss Keating owed everything she had to Kitty, her health (she was constitutionally anaemic), her magnificent salary, the luxurious gaiety in which they lived and moved (moved, perhaps, rather more than lived). The very combs in her hair were Kitty's. So were the gowns she wore on occasions of splendour and display. It struck her as odd that they were all public, these occasions, things they paid to go to.
It had dawned on her by this time, coldly, disagreeably, that Kitty Tailleur was nobody, nobody, that is to say, in particular. A person of no account in the places where they had stayed. In their three months' wanderings they had never been invited to any private house. Miss Keating could not account for that air of ill-defined celebrity that hung round Kitty like a scent, and marked her trail.
Not that any social slur seemed to attach to Kitty. The acquaintances she had made in her brief and curious fashion were all, or nearly all, socially immaculate. The friends (they were all men) who came to her of their own intimate accord, belonged, some of them, to an aristocracy higher than that represented by Mr. Lucy or the Colonel. And they had been by no means impervious to Kitty's charm.
From the sounds that came from the billiard-room she gathered that Kitty's charm appealed also to her audience in there. Leaning her body forward so as to listen, Miss Keating became aware that Lucy had returned to the lounge, and was strolling about in it, as if he were looking for somebody. He strolled into the veranda.
The garden was dark now, but a little light fell on the veranda from the open windows of the lounge. Lucy looked at Mrs. Tailleur's empty chair. He was about to sit in it when he saw that he was alone with Mrs. Tailleur's companion. He rose again for flight. Miss Keating rose also with the same intention.
Lucy protested. "Please don't let me disturb you. I am not going to sit here."
"But I am driving you in."
"Not at all. I only thought you might object to my smoking."
"But I don't object."
"You don't, really?"
"If I stay," said she, "will that prove it?"
"Please do," said Lucy.
Miss Keating pushed her chair as far as possible from his. She seated herself with a fugitive, sidelong movement; as much as to say she left him to the sanctuary he sought. He would please to observe the perfection of her withdrawal. The table with the match-stand on it stood between them.
Lucy approached the match-stand tentatively. Miss Keating, averted and effaced, was yet aware of him.
"I'm afraid there are no matches," said she. "Mrs. Tailleur has used them all." So effaced and so averted was Miss Keating that there was nothing left of her but a sweet, attenuated, disembodied voice. It was as if spirit spoke to spirit with the consecrated doors between.
Lucy smiled. He paused at Mrs. Tailleur's chair.
"Is your friend coming back again?" he asked.
"I don't think so."
It might have been an effect of her remoteness, but Miss Keating's tone conveyed to him ever so slight a repudiation of Mrs. Tailleur.
He seated himself; and as he did so he searched his coat pockets. There were no matches there. He knew he would find some in the lounge. Perhaps he might find Mrs. Tailleur also. He would get up and look.
Miss Keating (still disembodied) rose and withdrew herself completely, and Lucy thought better of his intention. He lay back and closed his eyes.
A light tap on the table roused him. It was Miss Keating laying down a match-box. He saw her hand poised yet in the delicacy of its imperceptible approach.
He stared, stupefied with embarrassment. He stuttered with it. "Really—I—I—I wish you hadn't." He did not take up the match-box all at once, lest he should seem prompt in accepting this rather extraordinary service.
Mrs. Tailleur's companion slid back into her seat and sat there smiling to herself and to the incommunicative night.
"I hope," she said presently, "you are not refraining from smoking because of me."
She was very sweet and soft and gentle. But she had not struck him as gentle or soft or sweet when he had seen her with Mrs. Tailleur, and he was not prepared to take that view of her now.
"Thank you," he said. He could not think of anything else to say. He lit his cigarette, and smoked in an innocent abstraction.
A clock indoors struck ten. Miss Keating accounted for her continuance. "It is the only quiet place in the hotel," said she.
He assented, wondering if this were meant for a conversational opening.
"And the night air is so very sweet and pure."
"I'm afraid you find this smoke of mine anything but——"
"If you are so serious about it," said she, "I shall be afraid either to stay out or to go in."
If there were any opening there he missed it. He had turned at the sound of a skirt trailing, and he saw that Mrs. Tailleur had come back into the lounge. He was thoughtful for a moment. Then he got up quietly and went in.
He did not speak to her or look at her. He sat very still in a corner of the room where he could see her reflection in a big mirror. It did not occur to him that Mrs. Tailleur could see his, too.
Outside in the veranda, Miss Keating sat shuddering in the night air.
Lucy's mind was like his body. Superficial people called it narrow, because the sheer length of it diverted their attention from its breadth. Visionary, yet eager for the sound impact of the visible, it was never more alert than when it, so to speak, sat still, absorbed in its impressions. It was the sport of young and rapid impulses, which it seemed to obey sluggishly, while, all the time, it moved with immense, slow strides to incredibly far conclusions. Having reached a conclusion it was apt to stay there. The very length of its stride made turning awkward for it.
He had reached a conclusion now, on his third night in Southbourne. He must do something, he did not yet know what, for the protection of Mrs. Tailleur.
Her face was an appeal to the chivalry that sat quiet in Lucy's heart, nursing young dreams of opportunity.
Lucy's chivalry had been formed by three weeks of courtship and three years of wedded incompatibility. The incompatibility had hardly dawned on him when his wife died. Three years were too short a space for Lucy's mind to turn in; and so he always thought of her tenderly as dear little Amy. She had given him two daughters and paid for the younger with her life.
Five years of fatherhood finished his training in the school of chivalry. He had been profoundly moved by little Amy's sacrifice to the powers of life, and he was further touched by the heartrending spectacle of Jane. Jane doing all she knew for him; Jane, so engaging in her innocence, hiding her small, childlike charm under dark airs of assumed maternity; Jane, whose skirts fluttered wide to all the winds of dream; Jane with an apron on and two little girls tied to the strings of it; Jane, adorable in disaster, striving to be discreet and comfortable and competent.
He had a passionate pity for all creatures troubled and unfortunate. And Mrs. Tailleur's face called aloud to him for pity. For Lucy Mrs. Tailleur's face wore, like a veil, the shadow of the incredible past and of the future; it was reminiscent and prophetic of terrible and tragic things. Across the great spaces of the public rooms his gaze answered her call. Then Mrs. Tailleur's face would become dumb. Like all hurt things, she was manifestly shy of observation and pursuit.
Pursuit and observation, perpetual, implacable, were what she had to bear. The women had driven her from the drawing-room; the men made the smoke-room impossible. A cold, wet mist came with the evenings. It lay over the sea and drenched the lawns of the hotel garden. Mrs. Tailleur had no refuge but the lounge.
To-night the wine-faced man and his companion had tracked her there. Mrs. Tailleur had removed herself from the corner where they had hemmed her in. She had found an unoccupied sofa near the writing-table. The pursuer was seized instantly with a desire to write letters. Mrs. Tailleur went out and shivered on the veranda. His eyes followed her. In passing she had turned her back on the screened hearth-place where Lucy and his sister sat alone.
"Did you see that?" said Lucy.
"I did indeed," said Jane.
"It's awful that a woman should be exposed to that sort of thing. What can her people be thinking of?"
"Yes; to let her go about alone."
"I go about alone," said Jane pensively.
"Yes, but she's so good looking."
"Am I not?"
"You're all right, Jenny; but you never looked like that. There's something about her——"
"Is that what makes those men horrid to her?"
"Yes, I suppose so. The brutes!" He paused irritably. "It mustn't happen again."
"What's the poor lady to do?" said Jane.
"She can't do anything. We must."
"I must. You must. Go out to her, Janey, and be nice to her."
"No, you go and say I sent you."
He strode out on to the veranda. Mrs. Tailleur sat with her hands in her lap, motionless, and, to his senses, unaware.
She started and looked up at him.
"My sister asked me to tell you that there's a seat for you in there, if you don't mind sitting with us."
"But won't you mind me?"
"Not—not," said Lucy (he positively stammered), "not if you don't mind us."
Mrs. Tailleur looked at him again, wide eyed, with the strange and pitiful candour of distrust. Then she smiled incomprehensibly.
Her eyelids dropped as she slid past him to the seat beside Jane. He noticed that she had the sudden, furtive ways of the wild thing aware of the hunter.
"May I really?" said Mrs. Tailleur.
"Oh, please," said Jane.
As she spoke the man at the writing-table looked up and stared. Not at Mrs. Tailleur this time, but at Jane. He stared with a wonder so spontaneous, so supreme, that it purged him of offence.
He stared again (with less innocence) at Lucy as the young man gave way, reverently, to the sweep of Mrs. Tailleur's gown. Lucy's face intimated to him that he had made a bad mistake. The wretch admitted, by a violent flush, that it was possible. Then his eyes turned again to Mrs. Tailleur. It was as much as to say he had only been relying on the incorruptible evidence of his senses.
Mrs. Tailleur sat down and breathed hard.
"How sweet of you!" Her voice rang with the labour of her breast.
Lucy smiled as he caught the word. He would have condemned the stress of it, but that Mrs. Tailleur's voice pleaded forgiveness for any word she chose to utter. "Even," he said to himself, "if you could forget her face."
He couldn't forget it. As he sat there trying to read, it came between him and his book. It tormented him to find its meaning. Kitty's face was a thing both delicate and crude. When she was gay it showed a blurred edge, a fineness in peril. When she was sad it wore the fixed look of artificial maturity. It was like a young bud opened by inquisitive fingers and forced to be a flower. Some day, the day before it withered, the bruised veins would glow again, and a hectic spot betray, like a bruise, the violation of its bloom. At the moment, repose gave back its beauty to Kitty's face. Lucy noticed that the large black pupils of her eyes were ringed with a dark blue iris, spotted with black. There was no colour about her at all except that blue, and the delicate red of her mouth. In her black gown she was a revelation of pure form. Colour would have obscured her, made her ineffectual.
He sat silent, hardly daring to look at her. So keen was his sense of her that he could almost have heard the beating of her breast against her gown. Once she sighed, and Lucy stirred. Once she stirred slightly, and Lucy, unconsciously responsive, sighed. Then Kitty's glance lit on him. He turned a page of his book ostentatiously, and Kitty's glance slunk home again. She closed her eyes and opened them to find Lucy's eyes looking at her over the top of his book. Poor Lucy was so perturbed at being detected in that particular atrocity that he rose, drew his chair to the hearth, and arranged himself in an attitude that made these things impossible.
He was presently aware of Jane launching herself on a gentle tide of conversation, and of Mrs. Tailleur trembling pathetically on the brink of it.
"Do you like Southbourne?" he heard Jane saying.
Then suddenly Mrs. Tailleur plunged in.
"No," said she; "I hate it. I hate any place I have to be alone in, if it's only for five minutes."
Lucy felt that it was Jane who drew back now, in sheer distress. He tried to think of something to say, and gave it up, stultified by his compassion.
The silence was broken by Jane.
"Robert," said she, "have you written to the children?"
Mrs. Tailleur's face became suddenly sombre and intent.
"No; I haven't. I clean forgot it."
He went off to write his letter. When he came back Mrs. Tailleur had risen and was saying good night to Jane.
He followed her to the portiere and drew it back for her to pass. As she turned to thank him she glanced up at the hand that held the portiere. It trembled violently. Her eyes, a moment ago dark under her bent forehead, darted a sudden light sidelong.
She paused, interrogative, expectant. Lucy bowed.
As Mrs. Tailleur passed out she looked back over her shoulder, smiling again her incomprehensible smile.
The portiere dropped behind her.
Five days passed. The Lucys had now been a week at Southbourne. They knew it well by that time, for bad weather kept them from going very far beyond it. Jane had found, too, that they had to know some of the visitors. The little Cliff Hotel brought its guests together with a geniality unknown to its superb rival, the Metropole. Under its roof, in bad weather, persons not otherwise incompatible became acquainted with extraordinary rapidity. People had begun already to select each other. Even Mr. Soutar, the clergyman, had emerged from his lonely gloom, and dined by preference at the same table with the middle-aged ladies—the table farthest from the bay window. The Hankins, out of pure kindness, had taken pity on the old lady, Mrs. Jurd. They had made advances to the Lucys, perceiving an agreeable social affinity, and had afterward drawn back. For the Lucys were using the opportunity of the weather for cultivating Mrs. Tailleur.
It was not easy, they told themselves, to get to know her. She did not talk much. But as Jane pointed out to Robert, little things came out, things that proved that she was all right. Her father was a country parson, very strait-laced, they gathered; and she had little sisters, years younger than herself. When she talked at all it was in a pretty, innocent way, like a child's, and all her little legends were, you could see, transparently consistent. They had, like a child's, a quite funny reiterance and simplicity. But, like a child, she was easily put off by any sort of interruption. When she thought she had let herself go too far, she would take fright and avoid them for the rest of the day, and they had to begin all over again with her next time.
The thing, Lucy said, would be for Jane to get her some day all alone. But Jane said, No; Mrs. Tailleur was ten times more afraid of her than of him. Besides, they had only another week, and they didn't want, did they, to see too much of Mrs. Tailleur? At that Lucy got very red, and promised his sister to take her out somewhere by themselves the next fine day.
That was on Wednesday evening, when it was raining hard.
The weather lifted with the dawn. The heavy smell of the wet earth was pierced by the fine air of heaven and the sea.
Jane Lucy leaned out of her bedroom window and looked eastward beyond the hotel garden to the Cliff. The sea was full of light. Light rolled on the low waves and broke on their tops like foam. It hung quivering on the white face of the Cliff. It was like a thin spray thrown from the heaving light of the sea.
At breakfast Jane reminded Robert of his promise to take her for a sail on the first fine day. They turned their backs on the hotel and went seaward. On their way to the boats they passed Mrs. Tailleur sitting on the beach in the sun.
Neither of them enjoyed that expedition. It was the first of all the things they had done together that had failed. Jane wondered why. If they were not enjoying themselves on a day like that, when, she argued, would they enjoy themselves? The day remained as perfect as it had begun. There was nothing wrong, Robert admitted, with the day. They sailed in the sun's path and landed in a divine and solitary cove. Robert was obliged to agree that there was nothing wrong with the cove, and nothing, no nothing in the least wrong with the lunch. There might, yes, of course there might, be something very wrong with him.
Whatever it was, it disappeared as they sighted Southbourne. Robert, mounting with uneasy haste the steps that led from the beach to the hotel garden, was unusually gay.
They were late for dinner, and the table next theirs was empty. Outside, on the great green lawn in front of the windows, he could see Mrs. Tailleur walking up and down, alone.
He dined with the abstraction of a man pursued by the hour of an appointment. He established Jane in the lounge, with all the magazines he could lay his hands on, and went out by the veranda on to the lawn where Mrs. Tailleur was still walking up and down.
The Colonel and his wife were in the veranda. They made a low sound of pity as they saw him go.
Mrs. Tailleur seemed more than ever alone. The green space was bare around her as if cleared by the sweep of her gown. She moved quietly, with a long and even undulation, a yielding of her whole body to the rhythm of her feet. She had reached the far end of the lawn as Lucy neared her, and he looked for her to turn and face him.
She did not turn.
The lawn at this end was bounded by a gravel walk. The walk was fenced by a low stone wall built on the edge of the Cliff. Mrs. Tailleur paused there and seated herself sideways on the wall. Her face was turned from Lucy, and he judged her unaware of his approach. In his eyes she gained a new enchantment from the vast and simple spaces of her background, a sea of dull purple, a sky of violet, divinely clear. Her face had the intense, unsubstantial pallor, the magic and stillness of flowers that stand in the blue dusk before night.
She turned at the sound of the man's footsteps on the gravel. She smiled quietly, as if she knew of his coming, and was waiting for it there. He greeted her. A few words of no moment passed between them, and there was a silence. He stood by the low wall with his face set seaward, as if all his sight were fixed on the trail of smoke that marked the far-off passage of a steamer. Mrs. Tailleur's face was fixed on his. He was aware of it.
Standing beside her, he was aware, too, of something about her alien to sea and sky; something secret, impenetrable, that held her, as it were, apart, shut in by her own strange and solitary charm.
And she sat there in the deep quiet of a woman intent upon her hour. He had no ear for the call of her silence, for the voice of the instincts prisoned in blood and brain.
Presently she rose, shrugging her shoulders and gathering her furs about her.
"I want to walk," she said; "will you come?"
She led the way to the corner where the low wall was joined by a high one, dividing the hotel garden from the open down. There was a gate here; it led to a flight of wooden steps that went zig-zag to the beach below. At the first turn in the flight a narrow path was cut on the Cliff side. To the right it rose inland, following the slope of the down. To the left it ran level under the low wall, then climbed higher yet to the brow of the headland. There it ended in a square recess, a small white chamber cut from the chalk and open to the sea and sky. From the floor of the recess the Cliff dropped sheer to the beach two hundred feet below.
Mrs. Tailleur took the path to the left. Lucy followed her.
The path was stopped by the bend of the great Cliff, the recess roofed by its bulging forehead. There was a wooden seat set well back under this cover. Two persons who found themselves alone there might count on security from interruption.
Mrs. Tailleur and Lucy were alone.
Lucy looked at the Cliff wall in front of them.
"We must go back," said he.
"Oh no," said she; "don't let's go back."
"But if you want to walk——"
"I don't," said she; "do you?"
He didn't, and they seated themselves. In the charm of this intimate seclusion Lucy became more than ever dumb. Mrs. Tailleur waited a few minutes in apparent meditation.
All Lucy said was "May I smoke?"
"You may." She meditated again.
"I was wondering," said she, "whether you were ever going to say anything."
"I didn't know," said Lucy simply, "whether I might. I thought you were thinking."
"So I was. I was thinking of what you were going to say next. I never met anybody who said less and took so long a time to say it in."
"Well," said Lucy, "I was thinking too."
"I know you were. You needn't be so afraid of me unless you like."
"I am not," said he stiffly, "in the least afraid of you. I'm desperately afraid of saying the wrong thing."
"To me? Or everybody?"
"To me, then. Do you think I might be difficult?"
"To get on with?"
"Not in the least. Possibly, if I may say so, a little difficult to know."
She smiled. "I don't usually strike people in that light."
"Well, I think I'm afraid of boring you."
"You couldn't if you tried from now to midnight."
"How do you know what I mightn't do?"
"That's it. I don't know. I never should know. It's only the people I'm sure of that bore me. Don't they you?"
He laughed uneasily.
"The people," she went on, "who are sure of me; who think I'm so easy to know. They don't know me, and they don't know that I know them. And they're the only people I've ever, ever met. I can tell what they're going to say before they've said it. It's always the same thing. It's—if you like—the inevitable thing. If you can't have anything but the same thing, at least you like it put a little differently. You'd think, among them all, they might find it easy to put it a little differently sometimes; but they never do; and it's the brutal monotony of it that I cannot stand."
"I suppose," said Lucy, "people are monotonous."
"They don't know," said she, evidently ignoring his statement as inadequate, "they don't know how sick I am of it—how insufferably it bores me."
"Ah! there you see—that's what I'm afraid of."
"Of saying the wrong thing—the—the same thing."
"That's it. You'd say it differently, and it wouldn't be the same thing at all. And what's more, I should never know whether you were going to say it or not."
"There's one thing I'd like to say to you if I knew how—if I knew how you'd take it. You see, though I think I know you——" he hesitated.
"You don't really? You don't know who I am? Or where I come from? Or where I'm going to? I don't know myself."
"I know," said Lucy, "as much as I've any right to. But unluckily the thing I want to know——"
"Is what you haven't any right to?"
"I'm afraid I haven't. The thing I want to know is simply whether I can help you in any way."
She smiled. "Ah," said she, "you have said it."
"Haven't I said it differently?"
"I'm not sure. You looked different when you said it; that's something."
"I know I've no right to say it at all. What I mean is that if I could do anything for you without boring you, without forcing myself on your acquaintance, I'd be most awfully glad. You know you needn't recognise me afterward unless you like. Have I put it differently now?"
"Yes; I don't think I've ever heard it put quite that way before."
There was a long pause in which Lucy vainly sought for illumination.
"No," said Mrs. Tailleur, as if to herself; "I should never know what you were going to say or do next."
"No; I didn't know just now whether you were going to speak to me or not. When I said I wanted to walk I didn't know whether you'd come with me or not."
"You came; but when I go——"
"You're not going?"
"Yes; to-morrow, perhaps, or the next day. When I go I shall give you my address and ask you to come and see me; but I shan't know whether you'll come."
"Of course I'll come."
"There's no 'of course' about you; that's the charm of it. I shan't know until you're actually there."
"I shall be there all right."
"What? You'll come?"
"Yes; and I'll bring my sister."
"Your sister?" She drew back slightly. "Turn round, please—this way—and let me look at you."
He turned, laughing. Her eyes searched his face.
"Yes; you meant that. Why do you want to bring your sister?"
"Because I want you to know her."
"Are you sure—quite—quite sure—you want her to know me?"
"Quite—quite sure. If you don't mind—if she won't bore you."
"Oh, she won't bore me."
"You're not afraid of that monotony?"
She turned and looked long at him. "You are very like your sister," she said.
"Am I? How? In what way?"
"In the way we've been talking about. I suppose you know how remarkable you are?"
"No; I really don't think I do."
"Then," said Mrs. Tailleur, "you are all the more remarkable."
"Don't you think," she added, "we had better go back?"
They went back. As they mounted the steps to the garden door they saw Miss Keating approaching it from the inside. She moved along the low wall that overlooked the path by which they had just come. There was no crunching of pebbles under her feet. She trod, inaudibly, the soft edge of the lawn.
Lucy held the door open for Miss Keating when Mrs. Tailleur had passed through; but Miss Keating had turned suddenly. She made the pebbles on the walk scream with the vehemence of her retreat.
"Dear me," said Lucy, "it must be rather painful to be as shy as that."
"Mustn't it?" said Mrs. Tailleur.
The next day it rained, fitfully at first, at the will of a cold wind that dragged clouds out of heaven. A gleam of sunshine in the afternoon, then wild rain driven slantwise by the gusts; and now, at five o'clock, no wind at all, but a straight, soaking downpour.
The guests at the Cliff Hotel were all indoors. Colonel Hankin and his wife were reading in a corner of the lounge. Mr. Soutar, the clergyman, was dozing over a newspaper by an imaginary fire. The other men drifted continually from the bar to the billiard-room and back again.
Mrs. Tailleur and Lucy were sitting in the veranda, with rugs round them, watching the rain, and watched by Colonel and Mrs. Hankin.
Jane had gone into the drawing-room to write letters. There was nobody there but the old lady who sat in the bay of the window, everlastingly knitting, and Miss Keating isolated on a sofa near the door.
Everybody in the hotel was happy and occupied, except Miss Keating. Her eyes followed the labour of Miss Lucy's pen, watching for the stroke that should end it. She had made up her mind that she must speak to her.
Miss Keating was subject to a passion which circumstances were perpetually frustrating. She desired to be interesting, profoundly, personally interesting to people. She disliked publicity partly because it reduced her to mournful insignificance and silence. The few moments in her life which counted were those private ones when she found attention surrendered wholly to her service. She hungered for the unworn, unwearied sympathy of strangers. Her fancy had followed and fastened on the Lucys, perceiving this exquisitely virgin quality in them. And now she was suffering from an oppression of the nerves that urged her to a supreme outpouring.
Miss Lucy seemed absorbed in her correspondence. She felt that Miss Keating's eyes were upon her, and as she wrote she planned a dexterous retreat. It would, she knew, be difficult, owing to Miss Keating's complete occupation of the sofa by the door.
She had made that lady's acquaintance in the morning, having found her sitting sad and solitary in the lounge. She had then felt that it would be unkind not to say something to her, and she had spent the greater part of the morning saying it. Miss Keating had tracked the thin thread of conversation carefully, as if in search of an unapparent opportunity. Jane, aware of the watchfulness of her method, had taken fright and left her. She had had an awful feeling that Miss Keating was about to bestow a confidence on her; somebody else's confidence, which Miss Keating had broken badly, she suspected.
Jane had finished her letters. She was addressing the envelopes. Now she was stamping them. Now she was crossing the room. Miss Keating lowered her eyes as the moment came which was to bring her into communion with the Lucys.
Jane had made her way very quietly to the door, and thought to pass through it unobserved, when Miss Keating seemed to leap up from her sofa as from an ambush.
"Miss Lucy," she said, and Jane turned at the penetrating sibilants of her name.
Miss Keating thrust toward her a face of tragic and imminent appeal. A nervous vibration passed through her and communicated itself to Jane.
"What is it?" Jane paused in the doorway.
"May I speak to you a moment?"
But Miss Keating did not speak. She stood there, clasping and unclasping her hands. It struck Jane that she was trying to conceal an eagerness of which she was more than half ashamed.
"What is it?" she said again.
Miss Keating sighed. "Will you sit down? Here—I think." She glanced significantly at the old lady who was betraying unmistakable interest in the scene. There was no place where they could sit beyond her range of vision. But the sofa was on the far side of it, and Miss Keating's back protested against observation.
She bent forward, her thin arms stretched out to Jane, her hands locked, as if she still held tight the confidence she offered.
"Miss Lucy," she said, "you were so kind to me this morning, so kind and helpful."
"I didn't know it."
"No, you didn't know it." Miss Keating looked down, and she smiled as if at some pleasant secret of her own. "I think when we are really helping each other we don't know it. You couldn't realise what it meant to me, your just coming up and speaking to me that way."
"I'm very glad," said Jane; and thought she meant it.
Miss Keating smiled again. "I wonder," she said, "if I might ask you to help me again?"
"If I can."
"You look as if you could. I'm in a great difficulty, and I would like you—if you would—to give me your advice."
"That," said Jane, "is a very dangerous thing to give."
"It wouldn't be in this case. If I might only tell you. There's no one in the hotel whom I can speak to."
"Surely," said Jane, "there is Mrs. Tailleur, your friend."
"My friend? Yes, she is my friend; that's why I can't say anything to her. She is the difficulty."
"Indeed," said Jane coldly. Nothing in Miss Keating appealed to the spirit of adventurous sympathy.
"I have received so much kindness from her. She is kind."
"Evidently," said Jane.
"That makes my position so very delicate—so very disagreeable."
"I should think it would."
Miss Keating felt the antipathy in Miss Lucy's tone. "You do think it strange of me to come to you when I don't know you?"
"No, no; people are always coming to me. Perhaps because they don't know me."
"Ah, you see, you make them come."
"Indeed I don't. I try to stop them."
"Are you trying to stop me?"
"Yes; I think I am."
"Don't stop me, please."
"But surely it would be better to consult your own people."
Miss Keating paused. Miss Lucy had suggested the obvious course, which she had avoided for reasons which were not obvious even to herself.
"My own people?" she murmured pensively. "They are not here."
It was not her fault if Miss Lucy jumped to the conclusion that they were dead.
"I wonder," she said, "if you see my difficulty?"
"I see it plainly enough. Mrs. Tailleur has been very kind to you, and you want to leave her. Why?"
"I'm not sure that I ought to stay."
"You must be the best judge of your obligations."
"There are," said Miss Keating, "other things; I don't know that I'm a good judge of them. You see, I was brought up very carefully."
"Yes. I'm not sure that it's wise to be as careful as all that—to keep young girls in ignorance of things they—things they must, sooner or later——" she paused staring as if at an abyss.
"What things?" asked Jane bluntly.
"I don't know what things. I don't know anything. I'm afraid. I'm so innocent, Miss Lucy, that I'm like a child in the dark. I think I want some one to hold my hand and tell me there's nothing there."
"Perhaps there isn't."
"Yes, but it's so dark that I can't see whether there is or isn't. I'm just like a little child. Except that it imagines things and I don't."
"Don't you? Are you sure you don't let your imagination run away with you sometimes?"
"Not," said Miss Keating, "not on this subject. Even when I'm brought into contact"—her shoulder-blades obeyed the suggestion of her brain, and shuddered. "I don't know whether it's good or bad to refuse to face things. I can't help it. All that side of life is so intensely disagreeable to me."
"It's not agreeable to me," said Jane. "And what has it got to do with Mrs. Tailleur?"
Miss Keating smiled queerly. "I don't know. I wish I did."
"If you mean you think she isn't nice, I can tell you I'm sure you're mistaken."
"It's not what I think. It's what other people think."
"The people here."
Little Jane lifted her head superbly.
"We think the people here have behaved abominably to Mrs. Tailleur."
She lifted her voice too. She didn't care who heard her. She rose, making herself look as tall as possible.
"And if you're her friend," said she, "you ought to think so too."
She walked out of the room, still superbly. Miss Keating was left to a painful meditation on misplaced confidence.
She had had no intention of betraying Kitty. Kitty, she imagined, had sufficiently betrayed herself. And if she hadn't, as long as Kitty chose to behave like a dubious person, she could hardly be surprised if persons by no means dubious refused to be compromised. She, Miss Keating, was in no way responsible for Kitty Tailleur. Neither was she responsible for what other people thought of her. That was all, in effect, that she had intimated to Miss Lucy.
She did not say what she herself precisely thought, nor when she had first felt that uncomfortable sensation of exposure, that little shiver of cold and shame that seized her when in Kitty Tailleur's society. She had no means of measuring the lengths to which Kitty had gone and might yet go. She was simply possessed, driven and lashed by her vision of Kitty as she had seen her yesterday; Kitty standing at the end of the garden, on the watch for Mr. Lucy; Kitty returning, triumphant, with the young man at her heels.
She had seen Kitty with other men before, but there was something in this particular combination that she could not bear to think of. All the same, she had lain awake half the night thinking of it. She had Kitty Tailleur and Mr. Lucy on her nerves.
She had desired a pretext for approaching Miss Lucy, and poor Kitty was a pretext made to her hand. Nothing could be more appealing than the spectacle of helpless innocence struggling with a problem as terrible as Kitty. Miss Keating knew all the time that as far as she was concerned there was no problem. If she disliked being with Kitty she had nothing to do but to pack up and go. Kitty had said in the beginning that if she didn't like her she must go.
That course was obvious but unattractive. And the most obvious and most unattractive thing about it was that it would not have brought her any further with the Lucys. It would, in fact, have removed her altogether from their view.
But she had done for herself now with the Lucys. She should have kept her nerves to herself, rasped, as they were to a treacherous tenuity. And as the state of her nerves was owing to Kitty, she held Kitty responsible for the crisis. She writhed as she thought of it. She writhed as she thought of Mr. Lucy. She writhed as she thought of Kitty; and writhing, she rubbed her own venom into her hurt.
Of course she would have to leave Kitty now.
But, if she did, the alternatives were grim. She would have either to go back to her own people, or to look after somebody's children, or an invalid. Her own people were not interested in Miss Keating. Children and invalids demanded imperatively that she should be interested in them. And Miss Keating, unfortunately, was not interested in anybody but herself.
So interested was she that she had forgotten the old lady who sat knitting in the window, who, distracted by Miss Lucy's outburst, had let her ball roll on to the floor. It rolled away across the room to Miss Keating's feet, and there was a great tangle in the wool. Miss Keating picked up the ball and brought it to the old lady, winding and disentangling it as she went.
"Thank you; my wool is a nuisance to everybody," said the old lady. And she began to talk about her knitting. All the year round she knitted comforters for the deep-sea fishermen, gray and red and blue. When she was tired of one colour she went to another. It would be red's turn next.
Miss Keating felt as if she were being drawn to the old lady by that thin thread of wool. And the old lady kept looking at her all the time.
"Your face is familiar to me," she said. (Oddly enough, the old lady's face was familiar to Miss Keating.) "I have met you somewhere; I cannot think where."
"I wonder," said Miss Keating, "if it was at Wenden, my father's parish?"
The old lady's look was sharper. "Your father is the vicar of Wenden?"
"I thought so."
"Do you know him?" The ball slipped from Miss Keating's nervous fingers and the wool was tangled worse than ever.
"No, no; but I could tell that you were——" she hesitated. "It was at Ilkley that I met you. It's coming back to me. You were not then with Mrs. Tailleur, I think? You were with an invalid lady?"
"Yes; I was until I broke down."
"May I ask if you knew Mrs. Tailleur before you came to her?"
"No. I knew nothing of her. I know nothing now."
"Oh," said the old lady. It was as if she had said: that settles it.
The wool was disentangled. It was winding them nearer and nearer.
"Have you been with her long?"
"Not more than three months."
There were only five inches of wool between them now. "Do you mind telling me where you picked her up?"
Miss Keating remembered with compunction that it was Kitty who had picked her up. Picked her up, as it were, in her arms, and carried her away from the dreadful northern Hydropathic where she had dropped, forlorn and exhausted, in the trail of her opulent invalid.
"It was at Matlock, afterward. Why?"
"Because, my dear—you must forgive me, but I could not help hearing what that young lady said. She was so very—so very unrestrained."
"Very ill-bred, I should say."
"Well, I should not have said that. You couldn't mistake the Lucys for anything but gentlepeople. Evidently I was meant to hear. I've no doubt she thinks us all very unkind."
"Because we have—have not exactly taken to Mrs. Tailleur; if you'll forgive my saying so."
Miss Keating's smile forgave her. "People do not always take to her. She is more a favourite, I think, with men." She gave the ball into the old lady's hands.
The old lady coughed slightly. "Thank you, my dear. I dare say you have thought it strange. We are such a friendly little community here; and if Mrs. Tailleur had been at all possible——"
"I believe," said Miss Keating, "she is very well connected. Lord Matcham is a most intimate friend of hers."
"That doesn't speak very well for Lord Matcham, I'm afraid."
"I wish," said Miss Keating, "you would be frank with me."
"I should like to be, my dear."
"Then, please—if there's anything you think I should be told—tell me."
"I think you ought to be told that we all are wondering a little at your being seen with Mrs. Tailleur. You are too nice, if I may say so, and she is—well, not the sort of person you should be going about with."
Miss Keating's mouth opened slightly.
"Do you know anything about her?"
"I know less than you do. I'm only going by what Colonel Hankin says."
"Mrs. Hankin, I should say; of course I couldn't speak about Mrs. Tailleur to him."
"Has he ever met her?"
"Met her? In society? My dear!—he has never met her anywhere."
"Then would he—would he really know?"
"It isn't only the Colonel. All the men in the hotel say the same thing. You can see how they stare at her."
"Oh, those men!"
"You may depend upon it, they know more than we do."
"How can they? How—how do they tell?"
"I suppose they see something."
Miss Keating saw it, too. She shuddered involuntarily. Her knees shook under her. She sat down.
"I'm sure I don't know what it is," said the old lady.
"Nor I," said Miss Keating faintly.
"They say you've only got to look at her——"
A dull flush spread over Miss Keating's face. She was breathing hard. Her mouth opened to speak; a thick sigh came through it, but no words.
"I've looked," said the old lady, "and I can't see anything about her different from other people. She dresses so quietly; but I'm told they often do. They're very careful that we shouldn't know them."
"They? Oh, you don't mean that Mrs. Tailleur—is——"
"I'm only going by what I'm told. Mind you, I get it all from Mrs. Hankin."
Miss Keating, who had been leaning forward, sat suddenly bolt upright. Her whole body was shaking now. Her voice was low but violent.
"Oh—oh—I knew it—I knew. I always felt there was something about her."
"I'm sure, my dear, you didn't know."
"I didn't. I didn't think it was that; I only thought she wasn't nice. I thought she was fast, or she'd been divorced, or something—something terrible of that sort."
She still sat bolt upright, gazing open-eyed, open-mouthed at the terror. She was filled with a fierce excitement, a sort of exultation. Then doubt came to her.
"But surely—surely the hotel people would know?"
"Hotel people never know anything that isn't their interest to know. If there were any complaint, or if any of the guests were to leave on account of her, Mrs. Tailleur would have to go."
"And has there been any complaint?"
"I believe Mr. Soutar—the clergyman—has spoken to the manager."
"And the manager?"
"Well, you see, Mr. Soutar is always complaining. He complained about the food, and about his bedroom. He has the cheapest bedroom in the hotel."
Miss Keating was thinking hard. Her idea was that Kitty Tailleur should go, and that she should remain.
"Don't you think if Colonel Hankin spoke to the manager——"
"He wouldn't. He's much too kind. Besides, the manager can't do anything as long as she behaves herself. And now that the Lucys have taken her up——. And then, there's you. Your being with her is her great protection. As she very well knew when she engaged you."
"I was engaged for that?"
"There can be very little doubt of it."
"Oh! then nobody thinks that I knew it? That I'm like her?"
"Nobody could think that of you."
"What am I to do? I'm so helpless, and I've no one to advise me. And it's not as if we really knew anything."
"My dear, I think you should leave her."
"Of course I shall leave her. I can't stay another day. But I don't know how I ought to do it."
"Would you like to consult Colonel Hankin?"
"Oh no; I don't think I could bear to speak about it to him."
"Well—and perhaps he would not like to be brought into it, either."
"Then what reason can I give her?"
"Of course you cannot tell her what you've heard."
Miss Keating was silent.
"Or if you do, you must please not give me as your informant."
"I will not do that."
"Nor—please—Colonel and Mrs. Hankin. We none of us want to be mixed up with any unpleasant business."
"You may trust me," said Miss Keating. "I am very discreet."
She rose. The old lady held her with detaining eyes.
"What shall you do when you have left her?"
"I suppose I shall have to look for another place."
"You are not going home, then?"
Miss Keating's half-smile hinted at renunciation. "I have too many younger sisters."
"Well, let me see. I shall be going back to Surbiton the day after to-morrow. How would it be if you were to come with me?"
"Oh, Mrs.—Mrs.——" The smile wavered, but it held its place.
"Mrs. Jurd. If we suited each other you might stay with me, at any rate for a week or two. I've been a long time looking out for a companion."
Miss Keating's smile was now strained with hesitation. Mrs. Jurd was not an invalid, and she was interested in Miss Keating. These were points in her favour. On the other hand, nobody who could do better would choose to live with Mrs. Jurd and wind wool and talk about the deep-sea fishermen.
"I am living," said Mrs. Jurd, "with my nephew at Surbiton. I have to keep his house for him."
"Then do you think you would really need any one?"
"Indeed I do. My nephew isn't a companion for me. He's in the city all day and out most evenings, or he brings his friends in and they get smoking."
Miss Keating's smile was now released from its terrible constraint. A slight tremor, born of that deliverance, passed over her face, and left it rosy. But having committed herself to the policy of hesitation she had a certain delicacy in departing from it now.
"Are you quite sure you would care to have me?"
"My dear, I am quite sure that I don't care to have any one who is not a lady; and I am quite sure that I am talking to a lady. It is very seldom in these days that one can be sure."
Miss Keating made a little bow and blushed.
After a great deal of conversation it was settled that she should exchange the Cliff Hotel for the Metropole that night, and that she should stay there until she left Southbourne for Surbiton, with Mrs. Jurd.
When Colonel and Mrs. Hankin looked in to report upon the weather, this scheme was submitted to them as to supreme judges in a question of propriety.
Mrs. Tailleur was not mentioned. Her name stood for things that decorous persons do not mention, except under certain sanctions and the plea of privilege. The Colonel might mention them to his wife, and his wife might mention them to Mrs. Jurd, who might pass them on with unimpeachable propriety to Miss Keating. But these ladies were unable to discuss Mrs. Tailleur in the presence of the Colonel. Still, as none of them could do without her, she was permitted to appear in a purified form, veiled in obscure references, or diminished to an innocent abstraction.
Miss Keating, Mrs. Jurd said, was not at all satisfied with her—er—her present situation.
The Colonel lowered his eyes for one iniquitous instant while Mrs. Tailleur, disguised as Miss Keating's present situation, laughed through the veil and trailed before him her unabashed enormity.
He managed to express, with becoming gravity, his approval of the scheme. He only wondered whether it might not be better for Miss Keating to stay where she was until the morning, that her step might not seem so precipitate, so marked.
Miss Keating replied that she thought she had been sufficiently compromised already.
"I don't think," said the Colonel, "that I should put it that way."
He felt that by putting it that way Miss Keating had brought them a little too near what he called the verge, the verge they were all so dexterously avoiding. He would have been glad if he could have been kept out of this somewhat perilous debate, but, since the women had dragged him into it, it was his business to see that it was confined within the limits of comparative safety. Goodness knew where they would be landed if the women lost their heads.
He looked gravely at Miss Keating.
That look unnerved her, and she took a staggering step that brought her within measurable distance of the verge.
The Colonel might put it any way he liked, she said. There must not be a moment's doubt as to her attitude.
Now it was not her attitude that the Colonel was thinking of, but his own. It had been an attitude of dignity, of judicial benevolence, of incorruptible reserve. Any sort of unpleasantness was agony to a man who had the habit of perfection. It was dawning on him that unless he exercised considerable caution he would find himself mixed up in an uncommonly disagreeable affair. He might even be held responsible for it, since the dubiousness of the topic need never have emerged if he had not unveiled it to his wife. So that, when Miss Keating, in her unsteadiness, declared that there must not be a moment's doubt as to her attitude, the Colonel himself was seized with a slight vertigo. He suggested that people (luckily he got no nearer it than that)—people were, after all, entitled to the benefit of any doubt there might be.
Then, when the danger was sheer in front of them, he drew back. Miss Keating, he said, had nobody but herself to please. He had no more light to throw on the—er—the situation. Really, he said to himself, they couldn't have hit on a more serviceable word.
He considered that he had now led the discussion to its close, on lines of irreproachable symbolism. Nobody had overstepped the verge. Mrs. Tailleur had not once been mentioned. She might have disappeared behind the shelter provided by the merciful, silent decencies. Colonel Hankin had shown his unwillingness to pursue her into the dim and undesirable regions whence she came.
Then suddenly Miss Keating cried out her name.
She had felt herself abandoned, left there, all alone on the verge, and before any of them knew where they were she was over it. Happily, she was unaware of the violence with which she went. She seemed to herself to move, downward indeed, but with a sure and slow propulsion. She believed herself challenged to the demonstration by the Colonel's attitude. The high distinction of it, that was remotely akin to Mr. Lucy's, somehow obscured and degraded her. She conceived a dislike to this well-behaved and honourable gentleman, and to his visible perfections, the clean, silver whiteness and the pinkness of him.
His case was clear to her. He was a man, and he had looked at Kitty Tailleur, and his sympathies, like Mr. Lucy's, had suffered an abominable perversion. His judgment, like Mr. Lucy's, had surrendered to the horrible charm. She said to herself bitterly, that she could not compete with that.
She trembled as she faced the Colonel. "Very well, then," said she, "as there is no one to help me I must protect myself. I shall not sleep another night under the same roof as Mrs. Tailleur."
The three winced as if the name had been a blow struck at them. The Colonel's silver eyebrows rose bristling. Mrs. Hankin got up and went out of the room. Mrs. Jurd bent her head over her knitting. None of them looked at Miss Keating; not even the Colonel, as he spoke.
"If you feel like that about it," said he, "there is nothing more to be said."
He rose and followed his wife.
Upstairs, when their bedroom door had closed on them, he reproved her very seriously for her indiscretion.
"You asked me," said he, "what I thought of Mrs. Tailleur, and I told you; but I never said you were to go and hand it on. What on earth have you been saying to those women?"
"I didn't say anything to Miss Keating."
"No, but you must have done to Mrs. What's-her-name?"
"Not very much. I don't like talking about unpleasant subjects, as you know."
"Well, somebody's been talking about them. I shouldn't wonder, after this, if poor Mrs. Tailleur's room were wanted to-morrow."
"Oh, do you think they'll turn her out?"
She was a kind woman and she could not bear to think it would come to that.
The Colonel was silent. He was sitting on the bed, watching his wife as she undid the fastenings of her gown. At that moment a certain brief and sudden sin of his youth rose up before him. It looked at him pitifully, reproachfully, with the eyes of Mrs. Tailleur.
"I wish," said Mrs. Hankin, "we hadn't said anything at all."
"So do I," said the Colonel. But for the life of him he couldn't help saying something more. "If she goes," he said, "I rather think that young fellow will go, too."
"And the sister?"
"Oh, the sister, I imagine, will remain."
Kitty was dressed. She was calling out to her companion, "Bunny, hurry up, you'll be late." No answer came from the adjoining room. She tapped at the door and there was no answer. She tried to open the door. It was locked on the inside. "Bunny," she cried, "are you there?" She laid her ear to the panel. There was the sound of a box being dragged across the floor.
"You are there, are you? Why don't you answer? I can't hear you. Why can't you open the door?"
Miss Keating unlocked the door. She held it ajar and spoke through the aperture.
"Be good enough," she said, "to leave me alone."
"All right; but you'll be awfully late for dinner."
"I am not coming down to dinner."
Miss Keating shut the door, but she did not lock it.
Kitty gave a cry of distress.
"Bunny, what is the matter? Let me in—do let me in."
"You can come in if you like."
Kitty opened the door. But instead of going in, she stood fixed upon the threshold, struck dumb by what she saw.
The room was in disorder. Clothes littered the bed. More clothes were heaped on the floor around an open trunk. Miss Keating was kneeling on the floor seizing on things and thrusting them into the trunk. Their strangled, tortured forms witnessed to the violence of her mood.
"What are you doing?"
"You can see what I'm doing. I am packing my things."
"Because I am going away."
"Have you had bad news? Is—is anybody dead?"
"I wouldn't ask any questions if I were you."
"I must ask some. You know, people don't walk off like this without giving any reason."
"I am surprised at your asking for my reason."
"Sur—prised," said Kitty softly. "Are you going because of me?"
Miss Keating did not answer.
"I see. So you don't like me any more?"
"We won't put it that way."
Kitty came and stood beside Miss Keating and looked down at her.
"Bunny, have I been a brute to you?"
"Have I ever been a brute to any one? Have you ever known me do an unkind thing, or say an unkind word to any one?"
"Then why do you listen when people say unkind things about me?"
Miss Keating stooped very low over the trunk. Her attitude no doubt accounted for the redness of her face which Kitty noticed. "I think I know what they've been saying. Did you or did you not listen?"
"Yes. I don't mean behind doors and things. But you let them talk to you?"
"You cannot stop people talking."
"Can't you? I'd have stopped them pretty soon if they'd talked to me about you. What did they say?"
"You've said just now you knew."
"Very well. Who said it?"
"You've no reason to assume that anybody has said anything."
"Was it Mr. Lucy, or his sister?"
Miss Keating became agitated.
"I have never discussed you with Mr. Lucy. Or his sister." There was a little click in Miss Keating's throat where the lie stuck.
"I know you haven't. They wouldn't let you."
Kitty smiled. Miss Keating saw the smile. She trembled. Tears started to her eyes. She rose and began sorting the pile of clothing on the bed.
Something in her action inspired Kitty with an intolerable passion of wonder and of pity. She came to her and laid her hand on her hair, lightly and with a certain fear.
Miss Keating had once purred under Kitty's caresses. Now she jerked back suddenly and beat off the timid hand.
"I wish you wouldn't touch me."
"Because it makes me loathe you."
Kitty sat down on the bed. She had wrapped her hand in her pocket-handkerchief as if it had been hurt.
"Poor Bunny," she said; "are you feeling as bad as all that? You must want dreadfully to marry that long man. But you needn't loathe me. I'm not going to make him marry me."
"Can you not think of anything but that?"
"I can think of all sorts of things. At present I'm thinking of that. It does seem such an awful pity that you haven't married. A dear little, sweet little, good little thing like you—for you are good, Bunny. It's a shame that you should have to live in rage and fury, and be very miserable, and—and rather cruel, just because of that."
"If every word you said of me was true, I'd rather be myself than you, Mrs. Tailleur."
"That, Miss Keating, is purely a matter of taste. Unhappiness is all that's the matter with you. You'd be quite a kind woman if it wasn't for that. You see, I do understand you, Bunny. So it isn't very wise of you to leave me. Think what an awful time you'll have if you go and live with somebody who doesn't understand and won't make allowances. And you're not strong. You never will be as long as you're miserable. You'll go and live with ill old ladies and get into that state you were in at Matlock. And there won't be anybody to look after you. And, Bunny, you'll never marry—never; and it'll be simply awful. You'll go getting older and older and nervier and nervier, till you're so nervy that even the old ladies won't have you any more. Bad as I am, you'd better stop with me."
"Stop with you? How can I stop with you?"
"Well, you haven't told me yet why you can't."
"I can't tell you. I—I've written you a letter. It's there on the dressing-table."
Kitty went to the dressing-table.
"I am returning you my salary for the quarter I have been with you."
Kitty took up the letter.
"I'd rather you did not read it until after I am gone."
"That's not fair, Bunny."
"Please—I've written what I had to say because I wished to avoid a scene."
"There won't be any scene. I'm not going to read your beastly letter."
She opened the envelope and removed the notes and laid them on the dressing-table. Then she tore up the letter and the envelope together and tossed them into the grate.
"And I'm not going to take those notes."
"Nor am I."
"You'll have to." She found her companion's purse and tucked the notes inside it. Miss Keating turned on her. "Mrs. Tailleur, you shall not thrust your money on me. I will not take it."
"You little fool, you've got to."
Miss Keating closed her eyes. It was a way she had. "I can't. And you must please take back the things you've given me. They are all there; in that heap on the bed."
Kitty turned and looked at them. They were all there; everything she had ever given to her, the dresses, the combs, the little trinkets. She took some of these and stared at them as she held them in her hand.
"Won't you keep anything?"
"I won't keep a thing."
"Not even the little chain I gave you? Oh, Bunny, you liked your little chain."
Miss Keating took the chain from her and laid it with the rest.