Minor punctuation errors have been corrected without notice. Several words were spelled in two different ways and not corrected; they are listed at the end of this book. A few obvious typographical errors have been corrected, and they are also listed at the end.
"To love is the great amulet which makes the world a garden."
R. L. STEVENSON
By Margaret Peterson : Author of
"The Lure of the Little Drum," "Tony Bellew," etc.
LONDON: HURST AND BLACKETT, LTD. PATERNOSTER HOUSE, E.C. :: :: 1917
"Oh, but the door that waits a friend Swings open to the day. There stood no warder at my gate To bid love stand or stay."
"You don't believe in marriage, and I can't afford to marry"—Gilbert Stanning laughed, but the sound was not very mirthful and his eyes, as he glanced at his companion, were uneasy and not quite honest. "We are the right sort of people to drift together, aren't we, Joan?" His hands as he spoke were restless, fidgeting with a piece of string which he tied and untied repeatedly.
Joan Rutherford sat very straight in her chair, her eyes looking out in front of her. His words had called just the faintest tinge of colour to her cheeks. It was not exactly a beautiful face, but it was above everything else lovable and appealing. Joan was twenty-three, yet she looked still a child; the lines of her face were all a little indefinite, except the obstinacy of her chin and the frankness of her eyes. Her one claim to beauty, indeed, lay in those eyes; wide, innocent, unfathomable, sometimes green, sometimes brown flecked with gold. They seemed to hint at tragedy, yet they were far more often laughter-filled than anything else. For the rest, Joan was an ordinary independent young lady of the twentieth century who had lived in London "on her own" for six months.
How her independence had come about is a complicated story. It had not been with the approval of her people; the only people she possessed being an old uncle and aunt who lived in the country. All Joan's nearer relations were dead; had died when she was still a child; Uncle John and Aunt Janet had seen to her bringing up. But at twenty-two and a-half Joan had suddenly rebelled against the quiet monotony of their home life. She had broken it to them gently at first, with an obstinate resolve to get her own way at the back of her mind; in the end, as is usually the case when youth pits itself against age, she had won the day. Uncle John had agreed to a small but adequate allowance, Aunt Janet had wept a few rather bitter tears in private, and Joan had come to London to train as a secretary, according to herself. They had taken rooms for her in the house of a lady Aunt Janet had known in girlhood, and there Joan had dutifully remained. It was not very lively, but she had a sense of gratitude in her heart towards Aunt Janet which prevented her from moving. Joan was not thinking of all this as she sat there, nor was she exactly seeing the sweep of grass that spread out in front of them, nor the flowering shrubs on every side. Hyde Park was ablaze with flowers on this hot summer's day and in addition a whole bed of heliotrope was in bloom just behind their chairs. The faint sweet scent of the flowers mixed with Joan's thoughts and brought a quick vision of Aunt Janet. But more deeply still her mind was struggling with a desire to know what exactly it was that swayed her when Gilbert Stanning spoke to her, or when—as more often than not—he in some way or other contrived to touch her. She had met him first at a dance that she had been taken to by another girl and she had known him now about four months. It was strange and a little disturbing the tumult his eyes waked in her heart. The first time he had kissed her, one evening when they had been driving home from the theatre in a taxi, she had turned and clung to him, because suddenly it had seemed as if the whole world was sweeping away from her. Gilbert had taken the action to mean that she loved him; he had never wavered from that belief since. He possessed every spare minute of her days, he kissed her whenever he could, and Joan never objected. Only oddly, at moments such as this, her mind would suddenly push forward the terse argument:
"Do you love him, or is it just the little animal in you that likes all he has to give?"
Joan was often greatly disturbed about what she called the beast side of her. During her year in London, under the guidance of another girl far older and wiser than herself, she had plunged recklessly into all sorts of knowledge, gleaned mostly from books such as Aunt Janet and even Uncle John had never heard of, far less read. So Joan knew that there is a beast side to all human nature, and she was for ever pausing to probe this or that sensation down to its root. Her books had taught her other theories too, and very young, very impetuous by nature, Joan rushed to a full acceptance of the facts over which older women were debating. The sanctity of marriage, for instance, was a myth invented by man because he wished to keep women enslaved. Free love was the only beautiful relationship that could exist between the sexes. Frankness and free speech between men and women was another rule Joan asserted, in pursuance of which she had long since threshed out the complicated question of marriage with Gilbert. It was all rather childish and silly, yet pathetic beyond the scope of tears, if you looked into Joan's sunlit eyes and caught the play of dimples round her mouth. Rather as if you were to come suddenly upon a child playing with a live shell.
What Gilbert Stanning thought of it all is another matter; Joan with all her book-learned wisdom had not fathomed his character. He was a man about thirty-two, good-looking, indolent and selfish. He had just enough money to be intensely comfortable, provided he spent it all on himself, and Gilbert certainly succeeded in being comfortable. There had been a good many women in Gilbert's life of one kind and another, but he had never known anyone like Joan before. At times her startling mixture of knowledge and innocence amazed him, and she had fascinated him from the first. He was a man easily fascinated by the little feminine things in a woman. The way Joan's hair grew in curls at the nape of her neck fascinated him, the soft red of her mouth, the way the lashes lay like a spread-out fan on her cheeks and the quick changing lights and colours in those eyes themselves. With Gilbert, when he wanted a thing he generally got it, by fair means or foul; for the moment he wanted Joan passionately, almost insanely. But the way in which she made the path easy for his desire sometimes startled him; he could not make up his mind whether she was playing some very deep game at his expense or whether she really loved him to the exclusion of all caution.
It was this problem which he had been more or less trying to solve this afternoon. At Joan's continued silence he leaned forward and put his hand over hers where they lay on her lap.
"What are you dreaming of, little girl?" he asked.
The odd flutter which his touch always caused was shaking Joan's heart; she tried, however, to face him indifferently, summoning up a smile.
"I was thinking," she corrected, "not dreaming."
"Well, the thoughts, then," asked the man, his fingers moved caressingly up and down her hand, "what were they?"
"I was thinking," began Joan slowly; her eyes fell from his and she stirred restlessly. "What did you mean just now when you spoke about drifting together?" she asked.
"Little Miss Pretence," he whispered, "as if you didn't know what I meant. If I were well off," he said suddenly (perhaps for the moment he really meant it), "I would make you marry me whether you had new ideas about it or not."
"Being well off wouldn't have anything to do with it," Joan answered, "it is more degrading to marry for money than anything else."
"Sometimes I believe you think that we are degrading altogether," the man said; he watched the colour creep into her face, "God knows we are not much to boast of, and that is the truth."
Joan struggled with the problem in her mind. "There ought not to be anything degrading about love," she said finally, and this time it was his eyes that fell away from hers.
For a little they sat silent, Joan, for some reason known only to herself, fighting against a strong inclination to cry. Gilbert had taken away his hands, he sat back in his chair, his feet thrust out, head down, eyes glooming at the dust. Joan stole a glance at him and felt a sudden intense admiration for the beauty of his clean-cut profile, his sleek, well-groomed head. Instinctively she put out a timid hand and touched him.
"Are you angry with me about something?" she asked.
It may have been that during that pause Gilbert had been forming a good resolution with all that was best in him to keep from spoiling this girl's life. Her eyes perhaps had touched on some slumbering chord of conscience. Her movement though, the little whispered words, drove all thoughts except the ones which centred round his desire from his mind.
"Joan," he said quickly, his hands caught at hers again, "let us stop playing this game of make-believe. Let us face the future one way or another. I love you, I want you. If you love me, come to me, dear, as you say there can be nothing degrading in love. Let us live our lives together in the new best way."
It was all clap-trap nonsense and he did not believe a word of it, but the force of his passion was unmistakable. It frightened and held Joan.
"You mean——" she whispered.
"I mean that I want you to come and live at my place," he answered. "I have a decent little flat, as you know. That is not living on my money, O proud and haughty one"—he was so sure of his victory that he could afford to laugh—"you shall buy your own food if you like. And you shall be free, as free as you are now, and—I, Joan," his voice thrilled through her, "I shall love you and love you and love you till you waken to see the world in quite a new light. Joan!"
His face was very close against hers, the scent of the heliotrope had grown on the sudden stronger and more piercingly sweet, perhaps because the sun had vanished behind the distant line of trees and a little breeze from the oncoming night was blowing across the flower-beds towards them. The quick-gathering twilight seemed to be shutting them in; people passed along the path, young sweethearting couples too happy in each other to notice anyone else. The tumult in Joan's mind died down and grew very still, a sense of well-being and content invaded her heart.
"Yes"—she spoke the word so softly he hardly heard—"I'll come, Gilbert." Then she threw back her head a little and laughed, gay, confident laughter. "It will be rather fun, won't it?" she said.
"Oh, wisdom never comes when it is gold, And the great price we pay for it full worth. We have it only when we are half earth, Little avails that coinage to the old."
It was not quite so much "rather fun" as Joan had expected. It had, she discovered, its serious and unpleasant side. Serious, because of the strange undreamt-of woman that it awoke within her, and unpleasant because of the deceit and the telling of lies which Gilbert insisted it must involve. Joan hated deceit, she had one of those natures that can never be really happy with an unconfessed lie on their mind.
Gilbert won her to do as he thought necessary, first by persuasion and then by using the power which he had discovered he could wield over her by his touch.
"For my sake, darling," he argued, "it is all right for us because we understand each other, but the world would certainly describe me as a cad."
So for his sake Joan told Mrs. Thomas, with whom she had been living, that she had accepted a residential post as private secretary; packed up her boxes and took her departure amidst a shower of good wishes and warnings as to how she was to hold her own and not be put upon. To Aunt Janet, with a painful twinge of regret, Joan wrote the same lie. She wanted to tell the truth to Aunt Janet more even than she wanted to live it out aloud to herself. The memory of Aunt Janet's face with its kindly deep-set eyes kept her miserable and uncomfortable, and the home letters brought no more a feeling of pleasure, only a sense of shame and distaste.
How silly it was to connect shame with what she and Gilbert had chosen as life! Yet, unfortunately for her peace of mind, the word was constantly reverting to her thoughts. "It is the telling lies that I am ashamed of," she would argue hotly to herself, and she would shut her heart to the still small voice and throw herself because of it with more zest than ever into their life together.
Gilbert's flat was high up in one of the top stories of a block of buildings which fronts on to Knightsbridge, bright, airy and cheerful. Not too big, "Just room for the two of us and we shut the world outside," as Gilbert took pleasure in saying. It only consisted of four rooms, their bedroom and dressing-room, the sitting-room and Gilbert's smoking-room, a place that he talked vaguely of working in and where he could entertain his men friends, without bothering Joan, when they called to see him.
The windows of their bedroom opened out over the green of the Park. Sometimes the scent of the heliotrope crept up even as far as that; whenever it did Joan would have to hold her breath and stand quite still because the fragrance brought—not Aunt Janet now—but Gilbert before her. It had blown in just like that the first night she had been in the room; the memories it could rouse were bewildering, intoxicating, and yet ... Joan would have to push the disturbing thoughts from her and run to find Gilbert if he were anywhere in their tiny domain, to perch on the arm of his chair and rub her face against his coat. His presence could drive away the vague feeling of uneasiness, his hands could win her back to placid contentment or wake in her the restless passionate desire which she judged to be love.
It had been on one of these occasions that, running to find Gilbert, she had flung open the door of his smoking-room and got well inside before she discovered that he had some men with him. Gilbert lifted his head with a frown, that she noticed, while the guests struggled to their feet. There was a little silence while they all looked at her, then, with a muttered excuse, she retreated, closing the door behind her. But before it quite shut she heard one of the men laugh and say:
"Hulloa, Stanning, so that is the secret of our bachelor flat is it? thought you had been lying very low this last two months."
She did not catch Gilbert's reply, she only knew that the sense of shame which had been but a fleeting vision before had suddenly taken sharp, strong hold of her. She stood almost as it were battling against tears.
That evening across their small dining-table, after the waiter from the restaurant downstairs had served the coffee and left them, she spoke to Gilbert, crumbling her bread with nervous fingers, finding it difficult to meet his eyes.
"Those men," she said, "who were here this afternoon, what do they think of me? I mean," she flushed quickly, "what do they think I am?"
"Think you are," Gilbert repeated, "my dear girl, I suppose they could see you were a woman."
"I mean, had you told them, did they know about us?"
"Silly kid," he smiled at her indulgently, "the world is not so fearfully interested in our doings."
"No, but they are your friends," the hazel eyes meeting his held some wistful question. "Wouldn't they wonder, doesn't it seem funny that they shouldn't be my friends too?"
Gilbert rose, conscious of a little impatience. The strange thing was that since the very commencement of their life together his conscience had not been as easy as he would have liked to have had it. Joan's ideas had been so ridiculously simple and straightforward, she was almost a child, he had discovered, in her knowledge and thoughts. Not that he was a person to pay much attention to principles when they came in contact with his desires, only it annoyed and irritated him to find she could waken an undreamt of conscience in this way. He shook off the feeling, however, with a little laugh, and, rising from the table, crossed over to her, standing behind her, drawing her head back against his heart.
"Not satisfied with our solitude," he teased; "find it dull?"
"No, it's not that," she answered; she had to fight against the temptation to let things go, to lift up her lips for his kiss. "It's because—well, you didn't introduce me, they must have thought it queer."
"Oh, hang it all, dear," he remonstrated, "I could not pass you off as my wife or sister, they would know it was not true. What do you want to know them for anyhow? Sclater works at the office with me and the other man is a pal of his, I have never met him before."
"I see," she agreed; he had not at all understood her, but she doubted if she could quite explain herself. "It doesn't matter, Gilbert." She sat a little away from him, sweeping the crumbs together with her fingers.
Behind her back Gilbert shrugged his shoulders and allowed the frown to show for a second on his face. Then he turned aside and lit a cigarette.
"Let's do a theatre to-night, Joan," he suggested, "I am just in the mood for it."
She was not just in the mood for it, but she went; and after the theatre they had supper at the Monico and Gilbert ordered a bottle of champagne to cheer them up; with the lights and music all round them and Gilbert's face opposite her, his lips smiling at her, his eyes caressing her, Joan forgot her mood of uneasiness. In the taxi going home she crept close up against him, liking to feel the strong hold of his arms.
"You love me, and I love you, don't I, Gilbert?" she whispered; "that is all that really counts."
"It counts more than all the world," he answered, and stooped to kiss her upturned lips.
She made no new friends in her life with him, the old ones naturally fell rather into the background; it was impossible to keep up girl friendships when she was never able to ask any of them home with her. Once she went back to see Mrs. Thomas, but the torrent of questions, none of which could be answered truthfully, had paralysed her. She had sat dumb and apparently sulky. Mrs. Thomas had written afterwards to Aunt Janet:
"I do not think Joan can be really happy in her new post. She is quite changed, no longer her bright, cheery self."
And that had called forth a long letter from Aunt Janet to Joan. If she was not happy and did not feel well she was to leave at once. It had been her own wish to go to London, they had never liked the idea. "You would not believe, Joan, how dull the house is with only John and me in it, we miss your singing and laughter about the place. Come back home, dear; even if it is only for a holiday, we shall be delighted."
There was a hint behind the letter that unless she had a satisfactory reply at once she or Uncle John would come up to London to see Joan for themselves! Joan could imagine the agitation and yet firm purpose which would preface the journey. She wrote hastily. She was perfectly happy and ridiculously underworked. Everyone was so good to her, one day soon she would take a day off and run down and see them, they should see how well she was looking.
But the writing of the letter brought tears to her eyes, and when it was sealed up and pushed safely out of harm's way she sat and cried and cried. Once or twice lately she had had these storms of tears, she was so unused to crying that she could not account for them in any way except that she hated having to tell lies. That was it, she hated having to tell lies.
It was about a fortnight later that Gilbert at breakfast one morning looked up from a letter which the early post had brought him with a frown of intense annoyance on his face. Also he said "Damn!" very clearly and distinctly.
Joan pushed aside the paper and looked at him.
"Anything wrong?" she asked; "is it business, or money, or——"
"No, it is only the mater," he answered quickly; "she writes to say she is coming to pay me a little visit, that I am to see if I can get her a room somewhere in the building, she is going to spend two or three days shopping in town and hopes to see a lot of me."
"Oh," said Joan rather blankly. Gilbert never talked very much of his people; once he had shown her a photograph of his mother because she had teased him till he produced it. "Don't you like the idea? Gilbert, was that what you said 'damn' about?"
"Not exactly," his eyes travelled round the room; "you'll have to clear out, you know," he said abruptly.
"You mean you want her to have our room and take another one in the building for yourself?" asked Joan. "I daresay Mrs. Thomas would give me a bed for a night or two."
"Yes, that is it," he agreed; "and you will have to hide away all traces of yourself, mustn't leave anything suspicious lying about. The old lady might have given me a day or two's notice;" he had returned to his letter, "hang it all, she says she will be here to-morrow."
Joan had pushed her chair back and stood up, her breakfast unfinished. She was staring at his down-bent head, struggling with a wild desire to scream, to cry out against the curtain of shame he was so wilfully sweeping across their life together. She fought down the impulse though and moved over to the window.
"You want me to go away and hide?" she asked from there, her voice dangerously quiet.
He glanced up at her. "Keep out of the mater's way," he acknowledged, "she would have seven fits."
"Why?" asked Joan.
"Why," he repeated, "good Lord, you don't know the mater. She——"
Joan interrupted. "You are ashamed of me," she spoke quickly, her face had flushed. "You have always been a little ashamed of me. You have never really looked at it as I did. I thought——" she broke off and turned away from him, stupid hot tears were blinding her eyes, she did not want to cry, it was so useless and childish.
Gilbert stuffed his mother's letter into his pocket and rose to his feet, stretching a little as he moved.
"Don't be ridiculous, kiddie," he said, "you must see it would not do for you to meet the mater. She is old-fashioned and—well, she would not understand."
"We could make her understand," Joan whispered, "if she saw we both really meant it."
"Well, I don't want you to try," he answered bluntly.
"Don't you feel the same about me as if I were your wife?" She knew he was close beside her, but she did not turn to look at him.
Gilbert put an arm round her and drew her close. "Of course I do," he said, "but mother wouldn't. One does not exactly introduce one's mother to one's mistress."
The inclination to tears had left Joan, a very set calm had taken its place. Suddenly she knew, as she stood there stiff held within the circle of his arms, that it was all ended. The dream, if it had been a dream, was finished, she could not live in it any longer.
"Very well," she agreed listlessly. "I will see about going away, the place shall be all ready for her to-morrow."
She moved away from him, he did not notice how purposely she shook the touch of his hands from off her.
"Out of my dreams, I fashioned a flower; Nursed it within my heart, Thought it my dower. What wind is this that creeps within and blows Roughly away the petals of my rose?"
"That is the end of lying," whispered Joan.
She threw down her cloak to keep the corner seat in the carriage and stepped out on to the platform to see if she could catch sight of a paper boy.
She had not seen Gilbert since the morning. He had had an appointment in the city, he had left it to her to get the flat ready for his mother. And she had done everything, there was nothing that she could reproach herself with. She had engaged an extra room for Gilbert on the next floor, she had bought fresh flowers, she had made the place look as pretty as possible. It had not taken her long to do her own packing, there was nothing of hers left anywhere about. And all morning she had kept the window overlooking the Park tight shut. The scent of flowers should bring no disturbing memories to weaken her resolve. Then when everything had been quite settled she had sat down to write just a short note to Gilbert.
"I have tried to make you understand a little of all I felt this morning, but it was not any use. You cannot understand. It is just that we have always looked at things differently. I cannot live with you any more, Gilbert; what is the use of trying to explain. It is better just to say—as we agreed that either of us should be free to say—it is all finished, and good-bye."
She had propped the letter up for him to find, where she knew he would look first of all, by his pipe and matches on the mantelpiece. Now she had taken her ticket to Wrotham and wired Aunt Janet to say she was coming. But as she stood waiting for the train to start it occurred to her that she was really watching to see Gilbert's slim, well-built figure push its way through the crowd towards her. The thought made her uneasy, she hoped he would have been late getting home; she doubted her strength of will to stand against him should he appear in person to persuade her.
He did not come, however, and presently with a great deal of noise and excitement, whistles blowing and doors slamming, the train was off and she could sit back in her corner seat with a strange sense of pleasurable excitement at having so far achieved her purpose.
Uncle John was at the station to meet her. A straight-held old figure—in his young days he had been in the army and very good-looking—now the bristling moustache was white and the hair grew in little tufts either side of an otherwise bald head. Ever since Joan could first remember him Uncle John had moved in a world separate from the rest of the household and entirely his own. It was not that he took no interest in them, it was just that he appeared to forget them for long intervals, talking very seldom, and when he did always about the days that were past. He had never married, but there had been one great love in his life. Aunt Janet had told Joan all about it, a girl who had died many years ago; after her death Uncle John had lived for nothing but his regiment. Then he had had to leave it because old age had called for retirement, and he had sent for Aunt Janet to come and keep house for him and together they had settled down in the old home at Wrotham—both unmarried, both very quiet and content to live in the past. Then Joan had descended on them, a riotous, long-legged, long-haired girl of eight, the child of a very much younger, little known brother.
With the coming of Joan, new life and new surprising interest had awakened in Aunt Janet's heart, but Uncle John had remained impervious to the influence. He was very fond of Joan in his way, but he scarcely ever noticed and he certainly knew nothing about her. He had realized her less and less as she grew up; when he spoke or thought of her now it was always as still a child.
"You are a nice young lady," he greeted her good-humouredly, stooping to kiss Joan at the station; "your Aunt Janet was sure this sudden return meant a breakdown. She is all of a twitter, so to speak, and would have been here to meet you herself only we have got a Miss Abercrombie staying with us. Where's the luggage?"
"I have only brought my small things with me," Joan explained, "the rest are coming on. I am sorry Aunt Janet is worried, and who is Miss Abercrombie?"
"Friend of your aunt's," he answered; he took her bag from her. "I have brought the trap, Janet thought you might be too delicate to walk." He chuckled to himself at the thought and picking up the reins climbed into the cart beside her. "Don't think Sally has been out twice since you left, see how fat she has got."
The little brown pony certainly answered to the implication. Her sides bulged against the shafts and bald patches were manifesting themselves, caused by the friction.
"What have you been doing then?" asked Joan; "why haven't you been out?"
"Nothing to go for," he answered, "and I have been too busy in the garden. Extended that bit down through the wood." The garden was his one great hobby.
"And Aunt Janet," Joan questioned, "she always used to like taking Sally out."
"I suppose that was when you were here;" he looked down at her sideways, "she missed you, I think, but she potters about the village sometimes." He relapsed into silence, and Joan could see that his thoughts were once more far away.
Several of the villagers came out as they passed through the little village street to bob greetings to the young lady of the manor, as they had always called Joan. Wrotham did not boast many county families; there was no squire, for instance. The Rutherfords occupied the old manor house and filled the position to a great extent, but they owned none of the land in the neighbourhood, and the villagers were not really their tenants. And beyond the Rutherfords there was no one in the village who could undertake parochial work except the vicar, a hard-working, conscientiously mild gentleman, with a small income and a large family. He could give plenty of spiritual advice and assistance, but little else; the old people and the invalids of the parish looked to Aunt Janet for soups and warm clothes and kindly interest.
Wrotham boasted a doctor too. As Joan remembered him he had been a gentleman of very rubicund complexion and rough manners. Village gossip had held that he was too fond of the bottle, but when sober he was kindly and efficient enough for their small needs. He had been unmarried and had lived under the charge of a slovenly housekeeper. As the Rutherfords drove past his house, a square brick building with a front door that opened on to the village street, Joan noticed an unfamiliar air of spruce cleanliness about the front door and the window blinds.
"Dr. Simpson has had a spring cleaning," she said, pointing out the transformation to Colonel Rutherford.
He came out of his reverie, whatever it was, and glanced at the house. "No," he said, "Simpson has left. There are new people in there. Grant is their name, I think. Young chap and his sister and their old mother. Came to call the other day; nice people, but very ignorant about gardens. Your aunt has taken a great fancy to the young man."
With that the trap turned into the wide open gates of the manor, and Joan, seeing the old house, was conscious of a quick rush of contentment. She had come home; how good it was to be home.
The house, a beautiful grey building of the Tudor days, stood snug and warm amid a perfect bower of giant trees. Ivy and creepers of all sorts clung to its stones and crept up its walls, long tendrils of vivid green. The drive swept round a beautifully kept lawn and vanished through a stone gateway leading into the stable-yard. It was only a pretence at a garden in front. Uncle John always held that the open space which lay at the back of the house and on to which the drawing-room windows opened was the real thing. There, was more green grass, which centuries of care and weeding and rolling had transformed into a veritable soft velvet carpet of exquisite colour that stretched out and down till it met the wood of tall trees that fringed the garden. Flowers were encouraged to grow wild under those trees; in spring it was a paradise of wild daffodils and tulips. That was Aunt Janet's arrangement; Uncle John liked his gardens to be orderly. He was responsible for the straight, tidy flower-beds, for the rose gardens, for the lavender clumps that grew down at the foot of the vegetable garden. For lavender is not really an ornamental flower and Uncle John only tolerated it because of Aunt Janet's scent-sachets.
Beautiful and old and infinitely peaceful, the sight and colour of it could bring back childhood and a sense of safety to Joan, a sense that Uncle John's figure and face—dear and familiar as they were—had been quite unable to do. London, her life with Gilbert, the rack and tumult of her thoughts during the past six months appeared almost as a dream when seen against this dear old background.
Aunt Janet was waiting their arrival in the hall, and Joan, clambering down out of the trap, ran straight into those outstretched arms.
"Oh, Aunt Janet, it is good to be back," she gasped. Then she drew away a little to take in the tall, trim figure dressed all in black save for a touch of white at neck and wrists; the face stern and narrow, lit by a pair of very dark eyes, the firm, thin-cut mouth, the dark hair, showing grey in places, brushed back so smooth and straight and wound in little plaits round and round the neat head. "You are just the same as ever," Joan said. "Oh, Aunt Janet, it is good to get back."
The dark eyes, softened for the moment by something like tears, smiled at her. "Of course I am just the same, child. What did you expect? And you?"
"Oh, I am I," Joan answered; her laughter sounded unreal even to herself.
"You have been ill," contradicted Miss Rutherford, "it is plain to see all over your face. Thank God, I have got you back."
She brushed aside the sentiment, since it was a thing she did not always approve of.
"Come away in and have your tea. John, leave Mary to carry up Joan's boxes; she will get Dick to help her; they are too heavy for you. Your uncle is getting old," she went on, talking brusquely as she helped Joan off with her coat, "he feels things these days."
"I haven't been away more than a year, Aunt Janet," laughed Joan; "you talk as if it had been centuries."
"It has seemed long," the other woman answered; her eyes were hungry on the girl's face as if she sought for something that kept eluding her. "A year is a long time to people of our age."
"Dear, silly, old Aunt Janet." Joan hugged her. "You are not a second older nor the tiniest fragment different to what you used to be. I know you don't like being hugged; it makes you untidy; but you have simply got to be just once more."
"You always were harum-scarum," remonstrated Aunt Janet, under this outburst. She did not, however, offer any real objection and they went into the drawing-room hand-in-hand.
A small, thin lady rose to greet them at their entrance and Joan was introduced to Miss Abercrombie. Everything about Miss Abercrombie, except her size, seemed to denote strength—strength of purpose, strength of will, strength of love and hate. She gave Joan the impression—and hers was a face that demanded study, Joan found herself looking at it again and again—of having come through great battles against fate. And if she had not won—the tell-tale lines of discontent that hung about her mouth did not betoken victory—at least she had not been absolutely defeated. She had carried the banner of her convictions through thick and thin.
Joan was roused to a sudden curiosity to know what those convictions were and a desire to have the same courage granted to herself. It gave her a thrill of pleasure to hear that Miss Abercrombie would be staying on for some time. She was a schoolmistress, it appeared, only just lately health had interfered with her duties and it was then that Aunt Janet had persuaded her, after many attempts, to take a real holiday and spend it at Wrotham.
"Sheer vice on my part, agreeing," Miss Abercrombie told Joan with a laugh; "but everyone argued with me all at once and I succumbed."
"Just in time," Aunt Janet reminded her; "I was going to have given up asking you; even friendship has its limits."
They had tea in the drawing-room with the windows open on to the garden and a small, bright fire burning in the grate. Aunt Janet said she had discovered a nip in the air that morning and was sure Joan would feel cold after London. Uncle John wandered in and drank a cup of tea and wandered out again without paying much attention to anyone.
Aunt Janet sat and watched Joan, and the girl, conscious of the scrutiny and restless under those brown eyes as she had always been restless in the old days with a childish, unconfessed sin on her conscience, talked as lightly and as quickly as she could upon every topic under the sun to Miss Abercrombie. And Miss Abercrombie rose like a sportswoman to the need. She was too clever a reader of character not to feel the strain which rested between her two companions. She knew Aunt Janet through and through, the stern loyalty, the unbending precision of a nature slow to anger, full of love, but more inclined to justice than mercy where wrongdoing was concerned. And Joan—well, she had only known Joan half an hour, but Aunt Janet had been talking of nothing else for the last fortnight.
They kept the subject of Joan's life in London very well at bay for some time, but presently Aunt Janet, breaking a silence that had held her, leaned forward and interrupted their discussion.
"You have not told us why you left, Joan," she said, "or what has been settled about your plans. Are you on leave, or have you come away for good?"
Miss Abercrombie watched the faint pink rise up over the girl's face and die away again, leaving a rather unnatural pallor.
"I have left," Joan was answering. "I——" Suddenly she looked up and for a moment she and Miss Abercrombie stared at each other. It was as if Joan was asking for help and the other woman trying to give it by the very steadiness of her eyes. Then Joan turned. "Aunt Janet," she said, hurrying a little over the words, "I want to ask you to let us not talk of my time in London. It—it was not what I meant it to be, perhaps because of my own fault, but——"
"You were not happy," said Aunt Janet; her love rose to meet the appeal. "I never really thought you were. I am content to have you back, Joan; we will let the rest slip away into the past."
"Thank you," whispered Joan; the burden of lying, it seemed, had followed her, even into this safe retreat; "perhaps some day, later on, I will try and tell you about it, Aunt Janet."
"Just as you like, dear." Aunt Janet pressed the hand in hers and at that moment Mary, the servant-girl, appeared in the doorway with a somewhat perturbed countenance.
"Please, mum, there is that Bridget girl from the village and her mother; will you see them a minute?"
The charity and sweetness left Miss Rutherford's face as if an artist had drawn a sponge across some painting. "I'll come directly," she said stiffly; "make them wait in my little room, Mary."
"The village scandal," Miss Abercrombie remarked, as the door closed behind the servant; "how are you working it out, Janet? Don't be too hard on the unrighteous; it is your one little failing."
"I hardly think it is a subject which can be discussed before Joan," Miss Rutherford answered. She rose and moved to the door. "I have always kept her very much a child, Ann; will you remember that in talking to her."
Miss Abercrombie waited till the door shut, then her eyes came back to Joan. The child had grown into a woman, she realized; what would that knowledge cost her old friend? Then she laughed, but not unkindly.
"I know someone else who has kept herself a child," she said, "and it makes the outlook of her mind a little narrow. Oh, well! you won't like me to speak disrespectfully of that very dear creature, your aunt. Will you come for a stroll down to the woods or are you longing to unpack?"
Joan chose the latter, because, for a second, despite her instantaneous liking for Miss Abercrombie, she was a little afraid. She wanted to set her thoughts in order too, to try and win back to the glad joy which she had first felt at being home, and which had been dispelled by Aunt Janet's questions and her own evasive replies.
"I will do my unpacking, I think," she said, "and put my room straight." She met the blue eyes again, kindly yet keen in their scrutiny. "I understand what you mean about Aunt Janet," she added; "I have felt it too, and, Miss Abercrombie, I am not quite such a child as she thinks; I could not help growing up."
"I know that, my dear," the other answered, "and God gave us our eyes to see both good and evil with; that is a thing your Aunt Janet is apt to forget. Well, run away and do your unpacking; we will meet later on at dinner."
"I have forgotten you! Wherefore my days Run gladly, as in those white hours gone by Before I learnt to love you. Now have I Returned to that old freedom, where the rays Of your strange wonder no more shall amaze My spirit."
If you see trouble in the back of a girl's eyes look always for a man in the case. That was Miss Abercrombie's philosophy of life. Girls do not as a rule get into trouble over money, for debts or gambling. She had spent the whole of her practical life in studying girls; she knew fairly well the ins and outs of their complicated natures. Joan was in trouble of sorts; what then had become of the man? Until the time came when the girl would be driven to speak—and Miss Abercrombie was sure the time would come sooner or later—she was content to stay silent and observant in the background of events. Often Joan felt as though the shrewd eyes were drawing the unwilling truth from behind her mask of indifference, and she was, in a way, afraid of the little, alert woman who seemed to be taking such an intense though silent interest in her.
For the first fortnight Gilbert wrote every day. To begin with, his letters were cheerful. He was inclined, indeed, to chaff her for losing her temper over his mother's visit.
"The old lady is gone," he wrote on the third day. "You can come back with perfect safety. She never smelt a rat, but tried to talk to me very seriously about taking unto myself a wife. It was on the tip of my tongue once or twice to tell her that I was already as good as married. Don't keep on being stuffy, Joan, hurry up and come back. You can't think what a lot I miss you, little girl, or how much I want you."
It was the first of his letters that she made any attempt to answer and her reply was not easy to write. She had come very suddenly to her decision as she had stood within the circle of Gilbert's arms that morning and answered his arguments about his mother. Now she was realizing that for weeks before that her allegiance had been wavering. She had no wish to go back to him. She could not understand herself, but the fact was self-evident, even though the scent of heliotrope haunted her days and crept into the land of her dreams. Her letter, when it was finished, struck her as cold and stupid, yet she let it go; she could not somehow make her meaning any clearer.
"Dear Gilbert," she wrote, "I am sorry you do not seem to be understanding that what I wrote in my first letter is really true. It is all finished between us and I am not coming back. There is not anything else to say, except that I should be happier if you did not go on writing. Nothing can change me, and it only keeps open old thoughts."
He wrote in answer to that a furiously angry, altogether unpleasant letter. Joan read it with shrinking horror, it seemed to lay bare all that she had been only half aware of before, the ugliness, the smallness of what she had at first thought was love.
"If you try to marry anyone else," the letter ended on a cruelly ugly note, "remember I can spoil your little game for you, Joan. There is no man who will marry you when they learn the truth."
She tore up his other letters after that; the very sight of his handwriting brought hot shame to her heart.
How much the people of the house noticed she hardly knew. Aunt Janet had fallen into the habit of watching her covertly, pathetically; she was trying in her own way to read the secret hidden away behind a changed Joan. But she did her best to keep her curiosity out of sight; she was very gentle, very anxious to divert Joan's thoughts and keep her happy.
Uncle John, of course, noticed nothing. Joan helped him to potter about in the garden—they were building a rookery down by the woods—or sometimes she would take him for long walks and he would stump along beside her wrapped in indifferent silence, or else, carried away by some reminiscence of the old days, would start talking about the regiment and the places where he had been stationed. It was only Miss Abercrombie that Joan was really uneasy with, and the end of Miss Abercrombie's visit was in sight.
One afternoon, on a day which had seen one of Gilbert's unopened letters destroyed, Joan and Miss Abercrombie started out together soon after tea to take a basin of jelly to one of Aunt Janet's pet invalids who lived in a cottage away out at what was called the Four Cross Roads.
It was one of those very fine blue days common to September. Just a nip of cold in the air, the forerunner of winter, and overhead the leaves on the trees turning all their various reds and golds for autumn.
"The sky gives one a great sense of distance this afternoon," Miss Abercrombie said presently. "You never see a sky like this in towns; that is why you get into the habit of thinking things out of proportion."
"What makes you say that?" asked Joan; "I mean, how does the distance of the sky affect it?"
"Oh, well, it makes one feel small," the other answered, "unimportant; as if the affairs that worry our hearts out are, after all, of very little consequence in the scheme of existence."
"They are our life," Joan argued, "one has to worry and work things out for oneself."
"You are a Browningite," laughed Miss Abercrombie; she glanced up sideways at her companion.
"'As it were better youth Should strive through acts uncouth Towards making, than repose on aught found made.'
He is right in a way, though, mind you, I don't know that it pays women to do much in the struggling line."
"I do wonder why you say that," said Joan; "you have always struck me as being, above everything else, a fighter."
"Probably why my advice lies along other directions," admitted Miss Abercrombie; "it is extremely uncomfortable to be a pioneer."
"But in the end, even if you have won nothing, it brings you the courage of having stuck to your convictions."
"Yes," Miss Abercrombie answered dryly, "it certainly brings you that."
They walked in silence again for a while, turning into a short cut to their destination across the fields.
"Your aunt has got convictions too." Miss Abercrombie reopened the conversation, evidently her thoughts had been working along the same lines. "They are uncomfortable things; witness the judgment she metes out to that unfortunate girl in the village."
"You mean Bridget?" Joan's voice had suddenly a touch of fear in it; Miss Abercrombie stole a quick look at her. "I was asking Mary about her the other day."
"Immorality, your aunt calls it," sniffed Miss Abercrombie, "and for that she would quite willingly, good, kind woman as she is, make this child—Bridget is seventeen, you know—an outcast for the rest of her life. Immorality!"
"What would you call it?" questioned Joan; she spoke stiffly, for she was singularly uneasy under the discussion, yet she had always wanted to argue the matter out with Miss Abercrombie.
"I hate the word 'immoral' to begin with," the little woman went on; "not that I am exactly out against regulations. Laws and customs have come into being, there is little doubt about that, to protect the weak against the strong. The peculiar thing about them is that they always wreak their punishments on the weak. Poor Bridget, even without your aunt's judgment, she pays the penalty, doesn't she?"
"I suppose Aunt Janet is a little hard about these things," Joan admitted. "You see, the idea of going against laws and things has never occurred to her. She has always obeyed, she has never wanted to do anything else."
"Quite so," agreed Miss Abercrombie; "my dear, don't let us talk about it any more. I always lose my temper, and I hate losing my temper with someone whom I love as much as I do your Aunt Janet."
"But I am interested in what you think," Joan went on slowly; the red crept into her cheeks. "I don't believe in marriage myself; I think people ought to live together if and when they want to, and leave each other when they like."
Miss Abercrombie stared with dismay at the flushed face. "My dear," she said, and her tone had fallen upon far greater seriousness than the former discussion had evoked, "both of those are very rash statements. The problem of life is unfortunately not quite so easily settled."
"But marriage," Joan argued, "marriage, which tries to tie down in hard bonds something which ought only to be of the spirit—I think it is hideous, hideous! I could never marry."
"No," agreed Miss Abercrombie, "a great many of us feel like that when we are young and hot-headed. I nearly said empty-headed. Then we read fat books about the divine right of Motherhood, Free Love and State Maternity. All very well in the abstract and fine theories to argue about, but they do not work in real life. Believe me, the older you get the more and more you realize how far away they all are from the ideal. Marriage may be sometimes a mistaken solution, but at present it is the only one we have."
"Why do you say that?" asked Joan; for the first time she turned and looked at her companion. "Do you really believe it is true?"
"Yes," nodded Miss Abercrombie. "My dear," she put a hand on Joan's arm, "we women have got to remember that our actions never stand by themselves alone. Someone else has always to foot the bill for what we do. I said just now that laws had been evolved to protect the weak; well, marriage protects the child."
"But if two people love each other," Joan tried to argue, but her words were bringing a cold chill of fear to her heart even as she spoke, "what other protection can be needed?"
"Love is something that no one can define," stated Miss Abercrombie; "but centuries have gone to prove that it is not as binding as marriage, and for the sake of the children the man and woman must be bound. That is the long and short of all the arguments."
"If there is no child?" Joan's fear prompted her to the question; she spoke it almost in a whisper.
Miss Abercrombie paused in her act of unlatching the gate, for they had arrived at the cottage by now, to look up at her. "Ah, there you open wider fields," she assented, "only childless people are and must be the exceptions. One cannot lay down laws for the exceptions."
Mrs. Starkey, the invalid old lady, was garrulous, and delighted to see them. So anxious to tell them all her ailments and scraps of gossip that by the time they got away it was quite late and already the sun was sinking behind the range of hills at the back of the village.
"We will have to hurry," Joan said. "Aunt Janet gets so fussed if one is out after dark."
Hurrying precluded any reopening of the subject they had been discussing, but Joan's mind was busy with all the thoughts it had roused as they walked. The faint hint of fear that had stirred to life in her when Miss Abercrombie had spoken of Bridget was fast waking to very definite panic. She could feel it tugging at her heart and making her breathing fast and difficult. Supposing that the vaguely-dreamed-of possibility had crystallized into fact in her case? How would Aunt Janet think of it; what changes would it bring into her life?
As they turned into the little village street they came straight into a crowd of people standing round an open cottage door. The crowd was strangely quiet, talking amongst themselves in whispers, but from within the cottage came the sound of wailing, the hysterical crying of old age.
Miss Abercrombie, with Joan following, pushed her way to the front, and with awed faces the villagers drew back to let them pass. At the open door Sam Jones, the village constable, an old man who had known Joan in her very young days, put out his hand.
"Don't you go in now, miss," he said, "it is not for the likes of you to see, and you can do no good. Besides which, your aunt is there already."
But Joan paid no attention to him and, pushing past his outstretched hand, followed Miss Abercrombie.
The inside of the cottage was dimly lit, and scattered with a profuse collection of what appeared to be kitchen utensils, dishes and clothes, all flung about in confusion. The only light in the place glinted on the long deal table and the stiff dead figure stretched out on it, still and quiet, with white, vacant face and lifeless arms that hung down on either side. Water was oozing out of the clothes and dripping from the unbound hair; it had gathered already into little pools on the floor. In the darkest corner of the room a crouched-up form sat sobbing hopelessly, and by the figure on the table Aunt Janet stood, her face in shadow, since she was above the shade of the lamp, but her hands singularly white and gentle-looking as they moved about drying the dead girl's face, pushing the wet, clogged hair from eyes and mouth.
Joan paused just within the door, the terror of that figure on the table holding her spellbound, but Miss Abercrombie moved brusquely forward so that she stood in the lamplight confronting Aunt Janet.
"So," she said, quick and sharp, yet not over loud, the people outside could not have heard, "Bridget has found this way out. A kinder way than your stern judgment, Janet. Poor little girl."
"I did not judge," Miss Rutherford answered stiffly, "'the wages of sin is death.'"
"Yet you can be kind to her now," snorted Miss Abercrombie; "it would not have been wasted had you been a little kinder before. Forgive me, Janet, I speak quickly, without thinking. You live up to your precepts; everyone has to do that."
The old woman in the corner lifted her face to look at them; perhaps she thought that in some way or other they were reviling the dead, for she staggered to her feet and crossed over to the table.
"It was fear made her do it," she wailed; "fear, and because we spoke her harsh. I hated the shame of it all. Yet, God knows, I would have stood by her in the end. My little girl, my little Bridget!" Sobs choked her, she fell to her knees, pressing her lips to one of the cold, stiff hands.
Joan saw Aunt Janet stoop and lay a gentle hand on the heaving shoulders, she heard, too, a movement of the crowd outside and saw the Vicar's good-natured, perturbed face appear in the doorway. Behind him again was a younger man, stern-faced, with quiet, very steady blue eyes and a firm-lined mouth. All this she noticed, why she could not have explained, for the man was a perfect stranger to her; then the fear and giddiness which all this time she had been fighting against gained the upper hand and, swaying a little, she moved forward with the intention of getting outside, only to fall in a dead faint across the doorway of the cottage.
"Love wakes men, once a lifetime each They lift their heavy heads and look.
* * * * *
And some give thanks, and some blaspheme, And most forget, but either way That, and the child's unheeded dream Is all the light of all their day."
The Grants were sitting at breakfast in their small, red-walled dining-room. Richard, commonly called Dick, at the end of the table, Mabel at the one side and Mrs. Grant in the seat of honour at the top. Wherever Mrs. Grant sat was the seat of honour; she was that kind of old lady. Marvellously handsome still, despite her age, with a commanding presence and a nature which had sublime contempt for everyone and everything except herself, she sailed through life exacting service from all and obedience from her children. Why they obeyed her they could not have themselves explained; perhaps it was an inheritance from the dead Mr. Grant, who had worshipped his wife as if she had been some divinity. In her own way Mrs. Grant had always been gracious and kindly to her husband, but he had been altogether a nonentity in her life. Before the children were old enough to see why, they realized that Daddy was only the man who made the money in their house. Mother spent it, buying the luxuries with which they were surrounded, the magnificent toys which they disregarded, as is the way of children, the splendidly expensive clothes, which were a perfect burden to them. Then, just when Dick was beginning to understand, Mr. Grant died.
* * * * *
He had sent for his son—Dick was about eighteen then—and spoken to him just before the end came.
"You will have to look after your mother, Dick," he had said, clutching at the young, strong hands; "she has always been looked after. She has never had to rough things in her life. And you won't be any too well off. Promise me, promise me, you will always give her of your best."
"Of course, I promise, Dad," he had answered.
Further conversation between then had ceased because Mrs. Grant swept into the room, regal even in the face of death. Dick remembered the incident afterwards with a little twitch of his lips because it was so typical of his mother and it was just at this period that he had begun to criticize her. The sick-room had been in shadowed gloom until her entry; the lights hurt the fast-failing eyes.
"I cannot sit in the dark," stated Mrs. Grant, as she settled herself, with a delightful rustle of silk and a wave of perfume, beside the bed. "You know that, Harry. It always has depressed me, hasn't it?"
"Turn up the lights, Dick," whispered the man, his hand had closed on one of hers; happiness flooded his heart at her presence.
"But you know they hurt your eyes," Dick expostulated; he was new to death, yet he could read the signs well enough to know his father was dying.
"Harry can lie with his eyes shut," answered Mrs. Grant calmly. There was no disagreeableness in her tone: her selfishness was on too gigantic a scale for her ever to be disagreeable.
And Dick had turned up the lights and gone fuming from the room, conscious for the time being of a sense of dislike for his mother's perfection!
It soon faded though; he had been trained too thoroughly in his youth. Once he said to Mabel hotly:
"Why does Mother cry for Dad? She did not really love him, and she just delighted in buying all that expensive and becoming mourning."
And Mabel had surprised him by replying: "Mother does not really love anyone but herself."
The remark sounded odd from Mabel, who spent her life slaving with apparent devotion in her mother's service. She was a tall, rather colourless girl, with big grey eyes and a quaint-shaped mouth that was always very silent. She moved through the background of their lives doing things for mother. She had always done that; Dick wondered sometimes whether the soul within her would ever flame into open rebellion, but it never did.
By the time Dick had passed his various exams, and was ready to take up a practice somewhere, Mrs. Grant and Mabel had been practically everywhere on the Continent.
"Money is running short," Mabel wrote crisply to Dick; "cannot you do anything in the way of taking a house and settling down, so as to make a home for Mother and me?"
Dick's ambitions lay in the direction of bachelor's diggings and work in London. He thrust them aside and bought what was supposed to be a very good and flourishing practice at Birmingham. Unfortunately Mrs. Grant took a violent dislike to Birmingham. Their house was gloomy and got on her nerves; the air, she said, was laden with smoke which irritated her throat. She developed a cough, quite the most annoying sound that Dick had ever imagined, and he was not easy to irritate. Mother coughed from the time she woke till the time she went to sleep—coughed and remembered old times and wept for Harry, who would at least have taken care not to expose her to such overwhelming discomfort.
At the end of six months Dick threw up the practice in despair and placed himself at her disposal. They put in a year in London, but what Dick earned was quite insufficient to cope with what Mrs. Grant spent and things went from bad to worse.
Mabel never offered any advice until she was asked but when Dick spoke to her finally she was quite definite.
"You have got to take Mother in hand," she said. "Father never did. He spent his life making money for her to spend, but there is no reason why you should. Get a small practice somewhere in the country where there are no shops and just tell Mother you are going to settle there for five years at least."
"She will get another cough," argued Dick.
"You must let her cough, it won't hurt her," answered Mabel.
Undoubtedly Mrs. Grant did not approve of Wrotham to begin with, but it had its advantages, even for her. She settled very quickly into the role of Lady Bountiful; the villagers gazing upon her with such unmixed admiration that she was moved to remark to Mabel that it was really pleasant doing things for such grateful people. Dick provided her with a victoria and horse in place of the usual doctor's trap, and she could drive abroad to visit this or that protege in truly regal style. It meant that Dick had to pay all his visits, and some of them very far off and at all sorts of unseasonable hours, on a bicycle, but he never grudged making sacrifices of that kind for her. No one admired his mother in the abstract more than Dick did.
Mabel perhaps resented the extra work it entailed on him, for she loved Dick with the whole force of her self-restrained heart. But, as usual, she kept silent. The villagers could see that she drove out in attendance on Mrs. Grant, but to them she was only an uninteresting shadow that waited on the other's splendour. They often wondered among themselves how Mrs. Grant could have a daughter as drab and uninteresting as Miss Grant; they did not realize how, like a vampire, the older woman lived upon the younger one's vitality. People like Mrs. Grant exist at the expense of those they come in contact with. You either have to live for them or away from them.
On this particular morning Dick finished his breakfast before either his mother or sister, and pushing back his chair, asked, as he had always asked since the days of his childhood, if he might rise.
"Before I am finished, Dick?" remonstrated Mrs. Grant; "it is not very polite, dear."
"I know," Dick apologized, "but the truth is I have an early call to pay this morning. The people of the Manor House have sent for me; Miss Rutherford the younger is not awfully well, or something."
"Miss Rutherford the younger?" repeated his mother; "I did not know there was a younger; I have never seen her, have I, Mabel?"
"I don't suppose so," Dick answered for his sister; "she has been away in London."
"What is the matter with her?" asked Mrs. Grant. "Why do they want you to see her?"
"I can't know that till I have seen her, can I? Last night she happened to come into the Rendle cottage just after they had brought that poor girl home, and the sight must have upset her; anyway she fainted. I expect that is what Miss Rutherford is worried about."
"It is hardly polite of her not to have brought her niece to call on me," said Mrs. Grant. "Still, if you are going there, dear, and the girl doesn't seem well, tell them I shall be only too happy to come and fetch her for a drive some afternoon. I daresay my carriage is more comfortable than that ramshackle old trap of theirs."
"You are a dear to think of it," he said, stooping to kiss her good-bye. "If you can spare Mabel this afternoon, Mother, I thought perhaps she might come into Sevenoaks with me. I have got to attend a meeting there, and it will be an outing for her."
"If Mabel would like to go, of course she must," Mrs. Grant agreed. "I shall be a little lonely, and to-day is the day I am supposed to have my hair shampooed. Not that it really matters."
"I could not go any way," Mabel put in for herself. "Mr. Jarvis is coming to tea, Dick; he asked himself last week."
She followed her brother out to the front door.
"The day is going to be full of disagreeables for you," he said, as they stood waiting for his bicycle to be brought round. "Mother's shampoo, I know what that involves, and Mr. Jarvis. Nuisance the fellow is; why can't he see that you dislike him?"
"Oh, I don't exactly," she answered, without meeting his eyes.
She hated him like poison, Dick knew. He wondered rather vaguely why Mabel had lied to him, generally speaking they were too good friends for that to be necessary. Then he dismissed the subject, and his thoughts turned again to the girl he was on his way to see. He had been thinking a great deal of Joan since he had first seen her. The startled, child-like face, the wide frightened eyes, had impressed themselves on his mind the night before. He had lifted her in his arms and carried her outside; the poise of her thrown-back head against his arm stayed in his mind, a very warm memory. Poor little girl, it must have been horrible for her to have come in from the gay placidness of her own life and thoughts to the stark tragedy of Bridget Rendle's death.
He was very ignorant and very reverent in his thoughts about women. He could imagine Joan's sweet, well-ordered life, the fragrance of youth hung about his idea of her. Bridget Rendle had been a girl too, younger perhaps than the other one; but Bridget had dipped into the waters of life, and sorrow and sin had closed over her. The two girls were as far apart as the poles, it seemed almost irreverent to think of them in the same breath.
Aunt Janet met him in the hall when she heard of his arrival.
"I have not told my niece about sending for you," she said; "it might only make her nervous. I am very alarmed about her, Dr. Grant. She has been home now three weeks and she is really not at all like herself. Then that faint last night. I am afraid of fainting-fits; my mother, I may as well tell you, died very suddenly from a heart-attack."
"It is not likely to be anything of that sort," he told her. "Yesterday's tragedy was quite sufficient to upset very strong nerves."
"I hope not," Aunt Janet agreed; "anyway, I shall feel happier once you have seen her. Will you come this way?"
She led him through the house to a room on the other side of the drawing-room which had been fitted up as a special sanctum for Joan since her return from London.
"I am nervous," she admitted to the doctor with her hand on the door-knob, "she will perhaps be annoyed at my having sent for you." Then she opened the door and they passed in.
Joan was sitting in the far corner near the open window, a book on her lap. But she was not pretending to read; Dick could have sworn that she had been crying as they came in. As she saw her aunt was not alone she stood up quickly and the book fell unheeded to the floor.
"This is the doctor, dear," Aunt Janet began nervously. "I asked him to call and see you. You need a tonic, I am sure you do."
"You sent for him," whispered Joan. Dick felt horribly uncomfortable; it was impossible not to sense the tragedy which hung heavy in the air. "Why, oh why, have you done that, Aunt Janet?"
"I was afraid," the other began; "last night you——" Rather waveringly she came to a full stop, staring at Joan.
The girl had drawn herself up to her full height. She faced them as someone brought suddenly to bay, her hands clenched at her sides, two flags of colour flaming in her cheeks.
"I was going to have told you," she said, addressing herself solely to Aunt Janet, "now you have brought him in he must know it too. But I do not need him to tell me what is the matter with me; I found it out for myself last night. I am not ashamed, I do not even hold that I have done anything wrong; I would have told you before only I did not know it was going to come to this, and for the rest it was like a shut book in my life that I did not want to have to open or look at again. I am like Bridget Rendle," she said, head held very high. "I am going to have a baby. Bridget was afraid and ashamed, but I am neither. I have done nothing to be ashamed of."
The telling of it sapped at her much boasted courage, and left her whiter than the white wall-paper; Dick could see that she had some ado to keep back her tears.
Aunt Janet seemed to have been paralysed; she stayed where she was, stiff, stricken, and Dick, glancing at her, thought he had never seen such anguish and terror combined on a human face. He felt himself completely forgotten in this crisis. The two women stared at each other. Twice Aunt Janet moistened her lips and tried to speak, but the words died in her throat. When she succeeded at last her voice was scarce recognizable.
"You said—like Bridget Rendle," she whispered; "did you mean what you said?"
"Yes," answered Joan.
The older woman turned towards the door. She walked as if blind, her hands groping before her. "God!" Dick heard her say under her breath, "Dear God, what have I done that this should come upon me?"
As she reached the door Joan called to her, her voice sharp with fear. "Aunt Janet, Aunt Janet, aren't you going to say anything to me?"
"I must hold my tongue," the other answered stiffly, "or I shall curse that which I have loved." Suddenly the anguish in her flamed to white beat. "I would rather have known you dead," she said, and passed swiftly from the room.
Joan took a step forward, and her foot touched on the book she had let fall. Mechanically she stooped to pick it up, then, because her knees were in reality giving way under her, she stumbled to the chair and sat down again. She seemed to have forgotten the man standing by the door, she just sat there, hands folded in her lap, with her white face and great brown eyes looking unseeingly at the garden.
Dick moved uneasily. He had not the slightest idea what he ought to do; he felt horribly like an intruder. And he was intensely sorry for the girl, even though behind this sorrow lay the shock of a half-formed ideal which she had shattered in his mind. Finally he submerged the man in the doctor and moved towards her.
"I am most awfully sorry for you," he said, "will you let me help you if I can? There may be some mistake, and anyway I could give you something to help with those fainting-fits."
Joan brought her eyes away from the garden and looked at him. "No," she said, "there is no mistake and I do not make a habit of fainting. Yesterday it was different, perhaps I realized definitely and for the first time what it would all mean. I saw Aunt Janet's face as she spoke of the dead girl, and ... I do not know why I am telling you all this," she broke off, "it cannot be very interesting, but I do not want you to think that I feel as Bridget Rendle felt."
"No," he agreed, "you are facing it with more courage than she had been taught to have."
"It is not a question of courage," Joan answered. He was not understanding her, she realized, and for some stupid reason it hurt that he should not, but she must not stoop to further explanations. She stood up, making a stern effort at absolute calmness.
"Good-bye," she said, "I am sorry you should have been troubled to come and that you should have had to go through this sort of scene."
"Good-bye," was all he could answer.
At the door he turned to look back at her. "If you should need help of any sort at any time," he said, "will you send for me? I should like to feel you were going to do that."
"I cannot promise," she answered, "you see, I shall probably be leaving here quite soon."
And with that he had to be content to leave her.
"And bending down beside the glowing bars Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled And paced upon the mountains overhead, And hid his face amid a crowd of stars."
Mabel had shampooed her mother's hair, following out with unending patience the minute instructions which the process always involved. She had rinsed it in four relays of hot water, two of lukewarm and one of cold; she had dried it with the hard towel for the scalp and the soft towel for the hair. She had rubbed brilliantine in to give it the approved gloss. The whole proceeding had lasted fully two hours; now she stood and brushed out the long fine threads of grey turning to silver with just the steady gentle pressure which was necessary and which, according to Mrs. Grant, no one but Mabel was capable of producing.
Mrs. Grant liked to have her hair brushed for half an hour after a shampoo, it soothed the irritated nerves. From behind her mother's back Mabel could see her own face in the glass, the sallow cheeks flushed from her exertions, the grey, black-lashed eyes tired and a little angry. Once, long ago, during one of their journeys on the continent, there had been a young naval officer who had loved Mabel for those grey eyes of hers. He had raved about the way the lashes lay like a fringe of shadow round them. He had called them "Dream Eyes," and once he had kissed the lids close shut over them with hard, passionate kisses. Whenever Mabel looked at her eyes in the glass she thought of Jack Donald. She had loved him and she had sent him away because of Mother. He had only been able to offer her his love and the pay of a lieutenant in the Navy; he had not even shown that he liked Mother, he had resented the way Mabel slaved for her. Of course the outlook had been absurd, and Mrs. Grant had said so very plainly. If Mabel married it would have to be someone wealthy someone elderly enough to understand that Mother must live with them. But when he went he took with him all the dreams of Mabel's life; she never looked out into the future to make plans now, she could only look back into the past that held her memories.
"I hope," said Mrs. Grant suddenly breaking in on her thoughts, "that Dick does not fall in love with this young lady at the Manor."
"Why not?" asked Mabel, "he must fall in love sooner or later."
"Well, then, it must be later and with someone who has a great deal of money. We are quite badly enough off as it is."
"You and I could go away again on our own," suggested Mabel, "you know you said the other day that Wrotham was getting on your nerves."
"Don't be ridiculous," snapped Mrs. Grant, "I should like to know what you think we should live on once Dick has a wife. You say you won't marry Mr. Jarvis or anyone else."
"No," Mabel admitted, "but because I won't marry it hardly seems fair that we should stand in the way of Dick's doing so."
"What do you intend to imply by 'standing in the way'? Really Mabel, sometimes I wonder if you have any love for me, you so habitually and wilfully misconstrue my sentences. Surely it is permissible" (Mrs. Grant's sigh was a model of motherly affection) "for a mother to wish to keep her son, her eldest born, to herself for a little longer. One loses them so once they marry."
Mabel concealed a swift, rather bitter, smile. "I did not mean to misconstrue anything," she said, "only just the other day I was thinking that perhaps we did rather hamper Dick. He is twenty-seven, you know; it is funny he has never wanted to marry."
"He is waiting for the right girl," Mrs. Grant sighed again.
"And if he happens to find her," thought Mabel to herself, there was no use saying the words aloud, "we are to do our best to prevent him having her. Poor old Dick." Her eyes waked to sudden, vivid affection as she thought of him.
She ran downstairs presently, Mrs. Grant having retired to rest after exertions, to meet Dick just coming in. He had done a round of visits after his call at the Manor house. Visits which had included one to the Rendles' cottage, where he had seen the principal figure of last night's tragedy laid out, as her mother said, for decent burial, "even though it baint a going to be Christian."
The girl had been dressed in something white; white flowers, great beautiful-headed chrysanthemums, lay between her folded hands and against her face. She had been a handsome girl, death had robbed her of her vivid colouring, but it had given her in its stead something dignified and withdrawn, a look of suffering and yet great peace.
Mrs. Rendle was more resigned too this morning; she had cried her heart quiet through the night.
"Bridget is better so," she could confide to Dick as he stood looking down at the girl, "the shame is done away with, sir, and God will look to the sin. I hold there ain't much to fear there, even though they won't bury her in the churchyard."
"No, I don't think there is much to fear," he agreed. "I am sorry about the burial, Mrs. Rendle, I have tried to argue the matter out with the vicar."
"Oh, that is not to be helped," she answered. "God will rest her soul wherever she be. Miss Rutherford sent those flowers," she added, "she was rare set agin Bridget to begin with, but she be softened down."
That brought the other tragedy which he had witnessed this morning back to his mind. Not that he had really forgotten it. The picture of Joan, her head high, her cheeks flushed, was one that had imprinted itself very strongly upon his memory. He had given up trying to understand how such a thing could have happened, his own vague happy thoughts of her stirred wistfully behind the new knowledge. And he could not dismiss her altogether from the throne he had designed for her to occupy. There must be some explanation; if only he had not been such an absolute stranger perhaps she would have told him a little more, have given him a chance to understand.
"Well," asked Mabel, "is she nice, Dick, did you like her?" Her eyes were quick to notice the new shadow of trouble on his face.
"Very nice, I think," he answered, hoping his voice sounded as indifferent as he meant it to, "but I really did not see much of her and she is going back to London almost at once." He went past her on into the dining-room. "Is lunch nearly ready," he asked, "I have got to catch that 2.5, you know."
"I'll see about it," Mabel said, "Mother is having hers upstairs."
She turned away to comply, but all the time she was hurrying up the maidservant, and later, while she and Dick sat opposite each other, rather silent, through lunch, her eyes and mind were busy trying to read the secret of Dick's manner. The girl had impressed him strongly, that was evident, but why should she have occasioned this gloom in Dick who so very rarely allowed anything or anybody to ruffle his cheery good humour?
He rode off without letting her glean any explanation, and Mabel wandered into the drawing-room to get it ready for Mrs. Grant's descent. Had Dick really fallen in love? She remembered once before when he had been about eighteen or nineteen, how there had been a girl whom he had rather shyly confessed himself enamoured of. But since the damsel had been quite five years his senior the romance, to Mabel's relief, had faded away. Yet if Dick were ever really to fall in love it would be a deep and unshakable tie; he would be as his father had been, all faithful to the one woman in his life.
It was remembering her father that suddenly brought Mabel's thoughts back to her mother whose absorbing personality had stood so like a giant shadow across all their lives. Would Dick's love be strong enough to fight against his sense of duty and mother's selfishness, for most certainly mother would not help him to achieve his desire unless it ran along the same lines as her own. And if mother prevailed what would life mean for Dick? The same dry empty dreariness that her own days contained, the restless hopes that died too hard, the unsatisfied, cruel dreams? No, no! She had not fought to save her own happiness, but she would fight to the last inch to save Dick's.
Almost as if in answer to her heart's wild outcry the front-door bell rang, and looking up she saw the short stout figure which of late had taken to haunting her thoughts on the door-step.
Mr. Jarvis was an elderly man inclined to be fat, with round, heavy face, very thick about the jaws and unpleasantly small eyes. Yet the expression of the man's face was not altogether disagreeable and a certain shrewd humour showed in the lines of his mouth. He had lived for forty-two years in Wrotham, travelling twice a year to London in connection with his business, but never venturing further afield. His house, a magnificent farm building, lay about twelve miles away on the other side of Wrotham station. It had come down to him through generations of Jarvises, he was reputed to be marvellously wealthy, and he had no shyness about admitting the fact. His favourite topics of conversation were money and horses. He had never married, village gossip could have given you lurid details as to the why and the wherefore had you been willing to listen. Mr. Jarvis himself would have put it more plainly. The only woman he had ever had the least affection for had neither expected nor desired matrimony; she had been content to live with him as his housekeeper. This woman had been dead three years when Jarvis first met Mabel. Quite apart from the fact that of late he had been feeling that it was time he got married, Jarvis had been attracted to Mabel from the first. She was such a contrast to the other women he had known; he admired enormously her slim delicacy, her faintly coloured face, her grey eyes. He liked her way of talking, too, and the long silences which held her; her quiet dignity, the way she moved. He placed her on a pedestal in his thoughts, which was a thing he had never dreamt of doing for any other woman, and before long his admiration melted into love. Then being forty-two the disease took rapid and tense possession. He was only happy when he was with her, able to talk to her now and again, to watch her always.
Dick's impression was that Mabel hated the man. He disliked him himself, which perhaps coloured his view, for hate was not quite what Mabel felt. Had Mr. Jarvis been content to just like her she would have tolerated and more or less liked him. She had thought him, to begin with, a funny, in a way rather pathetic, little man. Ugly, and Mabel had such an instinctive sympathy for anything ugly or unloved. So, to begin with, she had been kind to him; then one day Mrs. Grant had opened her eyes to the evident admiration of the man, mentioning at the same time that from the money point of view he would be a good match, and suddenly Mabel had known that she was afraid. Afraid, without exactly knowing why, very much as is the hapless sheep on his way to the slaughter-house.
As the maid ushered in Mr. Jarvis a minute or two later this feeling of fear caught at Mabel's heart, and in answer to its summons the warm blood flushed to face and neck as she stood up to receive him.
"I am early," stammered the man, his eyes on her new-wakened beauty, for it was only in her lack of colour that Mabel's want of prettiness lay, "but I came on purpose, I wanted to catch you alone."
Mabel took what was almost a despairing look at the clock. "Mother won't be down for quite half an hour," she said, "so you have succeeded. Shall we stay here or will you come down to the garden? I want to show you my Black Prince rose, it is not doing at all well."
She moved to the window which opened doorways on to the garden, but Mr. Jarvis made no attempt to follow her.
"Let us stay here," he said, "what I have got to say won't take long and we can do the roses afterwards when Mrs. Grant is about. I guess you could help me a bit if you only chose to," he went on, his voice curiously gruff and unready, "but you won't, you won't even look at me. I suppose those great grey eyes of yours hate the sight of me, and I am a damned fool to put my heart into words. But I have got to," she heard him move close to her and how quickly he was breathing, "I love you, you pale, thin slip of a girl, I want you as a wife, will you marry me?"
The silence when he had finished speaking lay heavy between them. Mabel let him take her hand, though the moist warmth of his gave her a little shudder of aversion, but by no strength of will could she lift her eyes to look at him. She stood as immovable as a statue and the man, watching her from out of his small shrewd eyes, smiled a little bitterly.
"You hate the thought like poison," he said, "yet you don't throw off my hand or yell out your 'No.' Something is in the balance then. Well, marry me for my money, Mabel. I had rather it were love, but if there is anything about me that can win you, I am not going to give you up."
That flicked at her pride and the honesty of it appealed to her. She lifted her eyes and for the first time she became aware of the real kindness that lay in his.
"I have never hated you," she said slowly, "but I don't and can't love you. Will you take that as your answer?"
The man shook his head. "I was not fool enough to ask—'Do you love me?'" he reminded her; "what I want to know is, 'Will you marry me?'"
"Without love?"—her eyes besought him—"marriage must be hideous."
"I will risk it if you will," he answered. "Sit down, let us talk it out."
He had won back his self-possession, though his eyes were still eager in their demand. Mabel sat down on the window-seat and he pulled up a chair at a little distance from her.
"Look here," he began, "it is like this. I am not a young man, probably I am twelve to fourteen years older than you. If you have heard what the village scandal says about me you can take it from me that it is true; it is better that you should know the worst at once. But until I met you, this I can swear before God, I have never really loved. It is not a question of money this time; I would give my soul to win you. And I don't want you as I have wanted the other women in my life; I want you as my wife."