“This mighty sea of Love, with wondrous tides.
Is sternly just to sun and grain;
’Tis laving at this moment Saturn’s sides,
’Tis in my blood and brain.”
— Alexander Smith.
One evening, as the shadows began to lengthen across the valley, I came in from my walk, and saw Mrs. LeVallon on the veranda, looking out towards the ridges now tipped with the sunset gold. Her back was to me. One hand shaded her eyes; her tall figure was like a girl’s; her attitude conveyed expectancy. I got the impression she had been watching for me.
She turned at the sound of my footstep on the boards. “Ah, I hoped you’d get back before the dark,” she said, with a smile of welcome that betrayed a touch of relief. “It’s so easy to get lost in those big woods.” She led the way indoors, where a shaded lamp stood on the table laid for tea. She talked on easily and simply. She had been washing “hankercheefs,” and as the dusk came on had felt she “oughter” be seeing where I’d got to. I thanked her laughingly, saying that she must never regard me as a guest who had to be looked after, and she replied, her big eyes penetratingly on my own — “Oh, I didn’t mean that. Professor. I knew by instinc’ you were not one to need entertaining. I saw it reely the moment you arrived. I was just wondering where you’d got to and — whether you’d find your way back all right.” And then, as I made no reply, she went on to talk about the housework, what fun it was, how it amused her, and how different it was from working for other people. “I could work all day and night, you see, when the results are there, in sight. It’s working for others when you never see the result, or what it leads to, and jest get paid so much a week or month, that makes you tired. Seeing the result seems to take away fatigue. The other’s simply toil. Now, come to tea. I do relish my cup of tea.”
It was very still and peaceful in the house; the logs burned brightly on the open hearth; Julius was upstairs in his room. The winds had gone to sleep, and the hush of dusk crept slowly on the outside world.
I followed my hostess into the corner by the fire where two deep armchairs beside the table beckoned us. Rather severe she looked now in a dark stuff dress, dignified, something half stately, half remote about her attitude. The poise in her physical expression came directly from the mind. She moved with grace, sure of herself, seductive too, yet with a seduction that led the thoughts far beyond mere physical attraction. It was the charm of a natural simplicity I felt.
“I’ve taken up Julius his,” I heard her saying in her uncultivated voice, as she began to pour out tea. “And I’ve made these — these sort of flat unleavened cakes for us.” The adjective startled me. She pointed to thin, round scone-like things that lay steaming in a plate. But her eyes were fixed on mine as though, they questioned.
“You used to like ’em. . . . ”
Or, whether she said “I hope you’ll like ’em,” I am not certain — for a sudden sense of intimacy flashed between us and disconcerted me. Perhaps it was the tone and gesture rather than the actual words. A sweetness as of some deep, remembered joy rose in me.
I started. There had been disclosure, a kind of revelation. A door had opened. They were familiar to me — those small “unleavened cakes.” Something of happiness that had seemed lost slipped back of its own accord into my heart. My head swam a second. Some part of me was drawn backwards. For, as I took the offered cake, there stole to my nostrils a faint perfume that made me tremble. Elusive, ghostly sensations dropped their hair-like tracery on the brain, then vanished utterly. It was all dim, yet haunting as a dream. The perfume faded instantly.
“Thank you,” I murmured. “You make them deliciously . . . ” aware at the same moment I had been about to say another thing in place of the empty words, but had deliberately kept it back.
The bewilderment came and went. Mrs. LeVallon dropped her eyes from mine, although the question in their penetrating gaze still lingered. I realised this new sense of intimacy that seemed uncannily perfect, it was so natural. No suggestion lay in it of anything that should not be, but rather the close-knit comfortable atmosphere of two minds that were familiar and at home in silence. It deepened with every minute. It seemed the deep companionship that many, many years had forged.
Yet the moment of wonder had mysteriously come and gone. Even the aroma of the little steaming cake was lost as well — I could not recapture the faint odour. And it was my surface consciousness, surely, that asked then about the recipe, and joined in the soft, familiar laughter with which she answered that she “reely couldn’t say quite,” because “it seemed to have come of its own accord while I was doing nothing in particular with odds and ends about the cooking-stove.”
“A very simple way,” I suggested, trying to keep my thoughts upon the present, “a very easy way of finding new recipes,” whereupon, her manner graver somewhat, she replied: “But, of course, I could make them better if I stopped to think a bit first . . . and had the proper things. It’s jest my laziness. I know how — only” — she looked peeringly at me again as with an air of searching for something I might supply — “I’ve sort of mislaid something — forgot it, rather . . . and I can’t, for the life of me, remember where I learned it first.”
There stirred between us into that corner of the lamp-lit room an emotion that made me feel we used light words together as men use masks upon their faces for disguise, fully aware that while the skin is hidden the eyes are clear. My happiness seemed long-established. There was a little pause in which the key sank deeper. Before I could find anything to say, Mrs. LeVallon went on again:
“There’s several things come to me like that these last few days ”
“Since I came?” I could not prevent the question, nor could I hide the pleasure in my voice.
“That’s it,” she agreed instantly; “it’s as though you brought them — back — simply by being here. It’s got to do with you.” Her elbows were on the table, the chin resting on her folded hands as she stared at me, both concentration and absent-mindedness in her expression at the same time. Her thoughts were travelling, searching, beating backwards into time. She leaned a little nearer to me suddenly, so that I could almost feel her breath upon my face.
“Like memories of childhood revived,” I said. My heart beat quickly. There was great sweetness in me.
“That’s it,” she repeated, but in a lowered tone. “That’s it, I think; as if we’d been children together, only so far back I can’t hardly remember.”
She gazed again into my eyes, searching for words her untutored brain could not supply. There was a moment of extraordinary tenseness. I felt unsure of myself; uneasiness was in it, but a strange, lifting joy as well. I knew an instant’s terror that either she or I might say an undesirable thing.
And to my relief just then the Man came clattering in with a cup containing — cream! Her eyes left mine as with an effort. Drawing herself free, yet not easily. from some inner entanglement that had captured both of us, she turned and took the little cup. “There is no proper cream jug,” she observed with a smile, dropping back into the undisguised accent of the East Croydon fruiterer’s daughter, “but the cream’s thick and good jest the same, and we’ll take it like this, won’t we?” She stirred it with a spoon into my teacup.
The “Man” stood watching us a moment with a questioning, puzzled look, and then went out again. At the door he turned once more to assure himself that all was as it should be, decided that it was so, and vanished with a little run. Slowly, then, upon her face stole back that graver aspect of the eyes and mouth; and into my own mind stole equally a sense of deep confusion as I watched her — very delightful, strangely sweet, but my first uneasiness oddly underlying it. Instinctively I caught myself shrinking as from vague pain or danger. I made a struggle to get free, but it was a feeble and half-hearted effort. Mrs. LeVallon was saying exactly what I had known she was going to say.
“I’m all upset today,” she said with blunt simplicity, “and you must excuse my manners. I feel sort of lost and queer. I can’t make it out, but I keep forgettin’ who I am, and sometimes even where I am. You” — raising her eyes from the plate to mine — “oughter be able to help me. D’you know what I mean? Professor, sometimes, especially nights,” her voice sinking as she said it,
“I feel afraid of something “ She paused, correcting herself suddenly. “Oh, no, it isn’t fear exactly, you see, but a great happiness that seems too big to get hold of quite. It’s jest out of reach always, and something’ll go wrong before it reely comes.” She looked very hard at me. The strange sea-green eyes became luminous. I felt power in her, a power she was not aware of herself. “As if,” she continued earnestly, “there was some price to pay for it — first. And somehow it’s for you — it’s what you’ve come for “ She broke off suddenly.
A touch of rapture caught me. It was only with strong effort that I made a commonplace reply:
“This valley, Mrs. LeVallon” — I purposely used the name and title — “is exceedingly lonely; you are shut off from the world you are accustomed to.” I tried to put firmness and authority into my words and manner. “You have no companionship — of your own sex ”
She brushed my explanation aside impatiently. “Oh, but it ain’t nothing of that sort,” she exclaimed, seeing through my conventional words, and knowing I realised that she did so; “it’s not loneliness, nor anything ordin’ry like that. Julius is everything to me in that way. It’s something bigger and quite different — that’s got worse, got stronger I mean, since you came. But I like your being here,” she added quickly, “because I feel it’s jest the thing for Julius and for — for all of us. Only, since you’ve been here it seems — well, it’s sort of coming to a head.”
I remained speechless. A kind of helplessness — came over me. I could not prevent it.
“And mixed up with it,” she continued, not waveringly, but wholly mistress of herself, “is the feeling that you’ve been here before too — been with me. We’ve been together, and you know we have.” Her cheek turned a shade paler; she was very earnest; there was deep emotion in her. “That’s what I keep feelin’ for one thing. Everything is that familiar — as if all three of us had been together before and had come back again.” Her breath came faster.
“You understand me, don’t you? When Julius told me you were coming, it seemed quite natural, and I didn’t feel nothing of any kind except that it was so natural; but the day you arrived I felt — afraid, though always with this tremendous happiness behind it. And that’s why I didn’t come down to meet you!” The words came pouring out, yet without a sign of talking wildly. Her eyes shone; the velvet band on her throat rose and fell; I was aware of happiness and amazement, but never once of true surprise. I had expected this, and more besides. “The moment I saw you — up there at the winder in the early mornin’ — it came bursting over me. Professor, as sure as anything in this world, that we’ve come together again like old, old friends.”
And it was still my conventional sense of decent conduct that held me to make a commonplace rejoinder. Yet how the phrases came, and why the thin barrier between us did not fall with a crash is more than I can tell.
“Julius had spoken about me, and no doubt your imagination — here in this deserted place —— ”
She shook her head almost contemptuously. “Julius said nothing,” she put in quickly, “nothing in particular, I mean; only that you were old friends and he was positive sure you’d come because you’d promised. It’s since you’ve come here that I’ve felt all this so strong. You come as familiar and natural to me as my own mother,” she continued, a faint flush rising on the former pallor; “and what’s more, your coming has brought a whole lot of other things nearer, too,” adding in a whisper suddenly, “things that make me afraid and happy at the same time.”
She paused a moment, peering round the room and out of the blindless windows into the darkening valley. “Now, he” — pointing with her thumb in the direction of the kitchen — “is all new to me, and I have no feeling about him at all. But you! Why, I always know where you are, and what you’ll be doing next, and saying, and even what you’re thinking and feeling half the time — jest as I do with Julius — almost.”
The next minute came the direct question that I dreaded. It was like a pistol shot:
“And you feel the same. Professor? You feel it, too? You know all about me — and this great wonderful thing that’s creepin’ up nearer all the time. Don’t you, now?”
I looked straight at her over the big lampshade, feeling that some part of me went lost in the depths of those strange, peering eyes. There was a touch of authority in her face — about lips and mouth — that I had seen once before. For an instant it hovered there while she waited for my reply. It lifted the surface plainness of her expression into a kind of solemn beauty. Her charm poured over me envelopingly.
“There is,” I stammered, “a curious sense of intimacy between us — all, and it is very delightful. It comes to me rather like childhood memories revived. The loneliness of this valley,” I added, sinking my voice lest its trembling should be noticeable, “may account for a good many strange feelings, but it’s the peace and loveliness that should make the chief appeal.”
The searching swiftness of the look she flashed upon me, faintly touched with scorn, I have seen sometimes in the eyes of a child who knows an elder says vain things for its protection in the dark. Such weak attempts but bring the reality nearer.
“Oh, I feel that too — the loveliness — right enough,” she said at once, her eyes still fixed on mine, “but I mean these other things as well.” Her tone, her phrase, assumed that I also was aware of them. “Where do they come from? What are they exactly? I often fancy there’s lots of other people up here besides ourselves, only they’re hidden away always — watchin’, waitin’ for something to happen — something that’s being got ready like. Oh, but it’s a splendid feeling, too, and makes me feel alive all over.” She sat up and clapped her hands softly like a child, but there was awe as well as joy in her. “And it comes from the woods and sky somehow — like wind and lightning. God showed Himself once, didn’t He, in a burnin’ bush and in a mighty rushin’ wind?”
“Nature seems very real in a place like this,” I said hurriedly. “We see no other human beings. Imagination grows active and constructs ”
The instant way she swept aside the evasive reply I was so proud of made me feel foolish.
“Imagination,” she said firmly, yet with a bewitching smile, “is not making up. It’s finding out. You know that!”
We stared at one another for a moment without speech. It seemed as if the forest, the meadows, the little rivulet of cool, clear water, the entire valley itself became articulate — through her. Her personality rushed over me like a gush of wind. In her enthusiasm and belief rose the glow of fire.
“You feel the same,” she went on, with conviction in her voice, “or you wouldn’t try to pretend you don’t. You wouldn’t try to hide it.” And the authority grew visibly upon her face. There was a touch of something imperious as well. “You see, I can’t speak to him about it, I can’t ask him” — jerking her head towards the room upstairs — “because” — she faltered oddly for a second — “because it’s about himself. I mean he knows it all. And if I asked him — my God, he’d tell me!”
“You prefer not to know?”
She smiled and shrugged her shoulders with a curious gesture impossible to interpret. “I long to know,” she replied, “but I’m half afraid” — she shivered slightly — “to hear everything. I feel as if it would change me — ■ into — someone else.” The last words were spoken almost below her breath.
But the joy broke loose in me as I heard. It was another state of consciousness she dreaded yet desired. This new consciousness was creeping over her as well. She shared it with me; our innate sympathy was so deep and perfect. More, it was a type of consciousness we had shared together before. An older day rose hauntingly about us both. We felt-with one another.
“For yourself?” I asked, dropping pretence as useless any longer. “You feel afraid for yourself?”
She moved the lamp aside with a gesture so abrupt it seemed almost violent; no object intervened between our gaze; and she leaned forward, folding her hands upon the white tablecloth. I sat rigidly still and watched her. Her face was very near to mine. I could see myself reflected in her glowing eyes.
“Not for myself, Professor, nor for you,” she said in a low voice. Then, dropping the tone to a whisper, “but for him. I’ve felt it on and off ever since we came up here last spring. But since you’ve come, I’ve known it positive — that something’ll happen to Julius — before we leave — and before you leave. . . . ”
“But, Mrs. LeVallon ”
“And it’s something we can’t prevent,” she went on whispering, “neither of us — nor oughter prevent either — because it’s something we’ve got to do all three together.”
The intense conviction in her manner blocked utterance in me.
“Something I want to do, what’s more,” she continued, “because it’s sort of magnificent — if it comes off proper and as it should — magnificent for all of us, and like a great vision or something. You know what I mean. We are together in it, but this old valley and the whole world is somehow in it, too. I can’t quite understand. It’s very wonderful. Julius will suffer, too, only he’ll call it jest development.” Her voice sank lower still, “D’you know. Professor, I sometimes feel there’s something in Julius that seems to me like — God.”
She stood up as she said it, tall, erect, her figure towering above me; and as she rose her face passed out of the zone of yellow lamplight into comparative shadow, the eyes fixed always penetratingly upon my own. And I could have sworn that not alone their expression altered, growing as with fiery power, but that the very outline of her head and shoulders shifted into something else, something dark, remote and solemn as a tree at midnight, drawn almost visibly into larger scale.
She bent lower again a little over the table, leaning her hands upon the back of the chair she had just occupied. I knew exactly what she was going to say. The sentences dropped one by one from her lips just as I expected.
“I’ve always had a dread in me, ever since I can remember,” I heard this familiar thing close in my ear, “a. sinking like — of some man that I was bound to meet — that there was an injury I’d got to put right, and that I’d have to suffer a lot in doing it. When I met Julius first I thought it might be him. Then I knew it wasn’t him, but that I’d meet the other — the right man — through him sooner or later.” She stopped and watched me for a second. Her eyes looked through and through me. “It’s you, Professor,” she concluded; “it’s you.”
She straightened up again and passed behind my chair. I heard her retreating steps. A thousand words rose up in me, but I kept silence. What should I say? How should I confess that I, too, had known a similar dread of meeting — her? A net encompassed me, a web was flung that tightened as it fell — a web of justice, marvellously woven, old as the stars and certain as the pull of distant planets, closing us all together into a pattern of actions necessary and inexorable.
I turned. I saw her against the window where she stood looking out into the valley, now thick with darkness about the little house. And for one passing instant it seemed to me that the entire trough of that dark valley brimmed with the forces of wind and fire that were waiting to come in upon us.
And Mrs. LeVallon turned and looked at me across the room. There was a smile upon her lips.
“But we’ll play it out,” her whisper reached me, “and face it all without fear or shirking . . . when it . . . comes. . . . ” And as she whispered it I hid my face in my hands so as not to meet her gaze. For my own dread of years ago returned in force upon me, and I knew beyond all doubt or question, though without a shred of evidence, that what she said was true.
And when I lifted my eyes a moment later Mrs. LeVallon had gone from the room, and the Man, I saw, was clearing away the tea things, glancing at me from time to time for a word or smile, as though to show that whatever happened he was always faithful, ready to fight for all of us to the death if necessary, and to be depended upon absolutely.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52