Wild weather set in after Ascot. The break-up was sudden; in England it generally is. In a single night the wind flew into the east, and clouds swept into the sky, and thermometers and barometers went down with a run together. One went to bed on a warm, still, oppressive night in June; one got up four months later, in the rough October weather. The Bride came down shivering and aggrieved; the whims and frailties of the English climate were new to her, and sufficiently disagreeable. She happened to be down before any one else, moreover; and there were no fires in the rooms, which were filled with a cheerless, pallid light; while outside the prospect was dismal indeed.
The rain beat violently upon the windows facing the river, and the blurred panes distorted a picture that was already melancholy enough. The sodden leaves, darkened and discoloured by the rain, swung heavily and nervelessly in the wind; the strip of river behind the trees was leaden, like the sky, and separable from it only by the narrow, formless smear that marked the Surrey shore. In the garden, the paths were flanked with yellow, turbid runnels; the lawn alone looked happy and healthy; the life seemed drowned out of everything else — in this single night after Ascot. Gladys shivered afresh, and turned her back on the windows in miserable spirits. And, indeed, in downright depressing spectacles, a hopeless summer’s day in the Thames Valley is exceptionally rich.
The Bride, however, had no monopoly of bad spirits that morning. This became plain at breakfast, but it was not so plain that the dejection of the others arose from the same simple cause as her own. Vaguely, she felt that it did not. At once she asked herself if aught that she had done or said unwittingly could be connected in any way with the general silence and queer looks; and then she questioned herself closely on every incident of the previous day and her own conduct therein — a style of self-examination to which Gladys was becoming sadly used. But no, she could remember nothing that she had done or said amiss yesterday. With respect to that day, at least, her conscience was clear. She could say the same of no other day, perhaps; but yesterday morning she had promised her husband golden behaviour; and she honestly believed, this morning, that she had kept her promise well. Yet his manner was strangest of all this morning, and particularly strange towards her, his wife. It was as though he had heard something against her. He barely looked at her. He only spoke to her to tell her that he must go up to town on business, and therefore alone; and he left without any tenderness in bidding her good-bye, though it was the first time he had gone up without her.
Gladys was distressed and apprehensive. What had she done? She did not know; nor could she guess. But she did know that the longer she stood in the empty rooms, and drummed with her fingers upon the cold, bleared panes, gazing out at the wretched day, the more she yearned for one little glimpse of the sunlit bush. The barest sand-hill on her father’s run would have satisfied her so long as its contour came with a sharp edge against the glorious dark-blue sky; the worst bit of mallee scrub in all Riverina — with the fierce sun gilding the leaves — would have presented a more cheery prospect than this one on the banks of the renowned (but overrated) Thames. So thought Gladys; and her morning passed without aim or occupation, but with many sad reflections and bewildering conjectures, and in complete solitude; for Lady Bligh was upstairs in her little room, and everybody else was in town. Nor did luncheon enliven matters in the least. It was virtually a silent, as it was certainly a disagreeable, tête-à-tête.
And yet, though Lady Bligh went up again to her little room without so much as inquiring into her daughter-in-law’s plans for the afternoon, neither was she without a slight twinge of shame herself.
‘But I could not help it!’ Lady Bligh exclaimed to herself more than once — so often, in fact, as to prove conclusively that she could have helped it. ‘I could not help it — indeed I could not. Once or twice I did try to say something — but there, I could not do it! After all, what have I to talk to her about? What is there in common between us? On the other hand, is not talking to her hanging oneself on tenter-hooks, for dread of what she will say next? And this is Alfred’s wife! No pretensions — none of the instincts — no, not one!’
A comfortable fire was burning in the sanctum, lighting up the burnished brass of fender and guard and the brown tiles of the fireplace with a cheerful effect; and this made the chill gray light that hung over the writing-table under the window less inviting, if possible, than it had been before luncheon. Lady Bligh immediately felt that, for this afternoon, writing letters over there in the cold was out of the question. She stood for a moment before the pleasant fire, gazing regretfully at Alfred’s photograph on the chimney-piece. Then a thought smote her — heavily. She rang the bell. A maid answered it.
‘Light a fire for Mrs Alfred downstairs — in the morning-room, I think — and this minute. How dreadful of me not to think of it before!’ said Lady Bligh, when the servant was gone. ‘Poor girl! Now I think of it, she did look cold at the table. I feel the cold myself today, but she must feel it ten times more, coming from that hot country. And I have had a fire all the morning, and she has not! She looked sad, too, as well as cold, now I think of it. I wonder why? She seems so unconscious of everything, so independent, so indifferent. And, certainly, I blame myself for seeing so little of her. But does the smallest advance ever come from her side? Does she ever try to meet me half-way? If only she had done so — if only she were to do so now ——’
Lady Bligh stopped before following further a futile and mortifying train of speculation. No; it were better, after all, that no advances should be made now. It was a little too late for them. If, in the beginning, her daughter-in-law had come to her and sought her sympathy and her advice, it would have been possible then to influence and to help her; it might have been not difficult, even, to break to her — gently and with tact — many of her painful peculiarities as they appeared. But she had not come, and now it was too late. The account might have been settled item by item; but the sum was too heavy to deal with in the lump.
‘Yet her face troubles me,’ said Lady Bligh. ‘It is so handsome, so striking, so full of character and of splendid possibilities; and I cannot understand why it should sometimes look so wistful and longing; for at all events this must be a very different — and surely a preferable — existence to her old rough life out there, with her terrible father’ (Lady Bligh shuddered), ‘and no mother.’
She could not write, so she drew the easy-chair close to the fire, and wrapped a shawl about her shoulders, and placed a footstool for her feet, and sat down in luxury with a Review. But neither could Lady Bligh read, and ultimately her brooding would probably have ended in a nap, had not some one tapped at the door.
Lady Bligh — a hater of indolence, who commonly practised her principle — being taken unawares, was weak enough to push back her chair somewhat, and to kick aside the footstool, before saying, ‘Come in.’ Then she looked round — and it was the Bride herself.
‘Am I disturbing you very much?’ asked Gladys, calmly; indeed, she shut the door behind her without waiting for the answer.
Lady Bligh was taken aback rather; but she did not show it. ‘Not at all. Pray come in. Is it something you want to ask me about?’
‘There’s lots of things I want to ask you about; if it isn’t really bothering you too much altogether, Lady Bligh.’
‘Of course it is not, child; I should say so if it were,’ Lady Bligh answered, with some asperity. But her manner was not altogether discouraging.
‘Thank you. Then I think I will sit down on that footstool by the fender — it is so cold. May I? Thanks. There, that won’t keep the fire from you at all. Now, first of all, may I do all the questioning, Lady Bligh, please?’
Lady Bligh stared.
‘What I mean is, may I ask you questions without you asking me any? You needn’t answer if you don’t like, you know. You may even get in a — in a rage with me, and order me out of the room, if you like. But please let me do the questioning.’
‘I am not likely to get in a rage with you,’ said Lady Bligh, dryly, ‘though I have no idea what is coming; so you had better begin, perhaps.’
‘Very well; then what I want to know is this — and I do want to know it very badly indeed. When you married, Lady Bligh, were you beneath Sir James?’
Lady Bligh sat bolt upright in her chair, and stared severely at her daughter-in-law. Gladys was sitting on the low stool with her hands clasped about her knees, and leaning backward with half her weight thus thrown upon her long straight arms. And she was gazing, not at the fire nor at Lady Bligh, but straight ahead at the wall in front of her. Her fine profile was stamped out sharply against the fire, yet touched at the edge with the glowing light, which produced a kind of Rembrandt effect. There was no movement of the long eyelashes projecting from the profile; the well-cut lips were firm. So far as could be seen from this silhouette, the Bride was in earnest. Lady Bligh checked the exclamation that had risen to her lips, and answered slowly:—
‘I do not understand you, Gladys.’
‘No?’ Gladys slowly turned her face to that of her companion; her eyes now seemed like still black pools in a place of shadows; and round her head the red firelight struggled through the loopholes and outworks of her hair. ‘Well, I mean — was it considered a very great match for you?’
‘No; it certainly was not.’
‘Then he was not much above you — in riches or rank or anything else?’
‘No; we were both very poor; our early days were a struggle.’
‘But you were equals from the very beginning — not only in money?’
‘Yes; socially we were equals too.’
Gladys turned her face to the fire, and kept it so turned. ‘I am rather sorry,’ she said at length, and sighed.
‘You are sorry? Indeed!’
‘Yes, Lady Bligh, and disappointed too; for I’d been hoping to find you’d been ever so much beneath Sir James. Don’t you see, if you had been ever so much beneath him, you aren’t a bit now; and it would have proved that the wife can become what the husband is, if she isn’t that to begin with — and if she tries hard. No — you mustn’t interrupt unless it’s to send me away. I want you to suppose a case. Look back, and imagine that your own case was the opposite to what it really was. That Sir James was of a very good family. That you were not only not that, but were stupid and ignorant, and a worse thing — vulgar. That you had lived your rough life in another country; so that when he brought you to England as his wife, your head was full of nothing but that other country, which nobody wanted to know anything about. That you couldn’t even talk like other people, but gave offence, not only without meaning to, but without knowing how. That ——’
Lady Bligh could hear no more. ‘Oh, Gladys!’ she exclaimed in a voice of pain, ‘you are not thinking of yourself?’
‘That’s a question! Still, as it’s your first, I don’t mind telling you you’ve hit it, Lady Bligh. I am thinking of myself. But you must let me finish. Suppose — to make short work of it — that you had been me, what would you have done to get different, like?’
‘My poor child! I cannot bear to hear you talk like this!’
‘Nonsense, Lady Bligh. I want you to tell me how you’d have gone about it — you know what I mean.’
‘I can’t tell you, Gladys; I can’t indeed!’
‘What! Can’t tell me what you would have done — what I ought to do?’
‘I cannot!’ Lady Bligh commanded her voice with difficulty. ‘I cannot!’
‘Oh! then it’s no good saying anything more about that.’ There was a touch of bitterness in the girl’s tone. ‘But, at any rate, you might give me a hint or two how to be more like what you are. Can’t you do that, even?’
‘No, my dear — how can I? I am no model, Heaven knows!’
‘Aren’t you? Then I will get up. I am going, Lady Bligh. It’s no good staying and bothering you any longer. I have asked my questions.’
She rose sadly from the stool, and her eyes met Lady Bligh’s again. For some minutes she had kept her face turned steadily to the fire. The rich warm glow of the fire still flushed her face and lingered in her luminous eyes. In the half-lit room, with the rain rattling ceaselessly against the panes, the presence of the Bride was especially attractive and comforting; but perhaps it was chiefly the rarity of her companionship to Lady Bligh that made the latter clutch Gladys’s hand so eagerly.
‘Don’t go, my dear. Stop, and let us talk. This is practically our first talk together, Gladys, dear; you needn’t be in such a hurry to end it. Sit down again. And — and I do wish you would not always call me “Lady Bligh”!’
‘Then what am I to call you, pray?’ Gladys smiled up into the old lady’s face; she could not help facing her now, for Lady Bligh would hold her hand; she was even forced to draw the footstool closer to the easy-chair; and thus she was now sitting at Lady Bligh’s feet, touching her, and holding her hand.
‘Could you not — sometimes — call me —“mother”?’
Gladys laughed. ‘It wouldn’t be easy.’
‘But why not?’
‘Because you could never be a mother to me. You might to another daughter-in-law, but not to me. You, who are so gentle and graceful and — and everything, could never seem like a mother to a — well, to me. People would say so, too, if they heard me call you “mother.” It would make everybody laugh.’
‘Gladys! Gladys! How cruel you are to yourself! You are not what you say you are. Here — just now ——’
‘Ah,’ said the Bride, sadly. ‘Here! Just now! Yes, it is easy enough here and now. Here in the quiet, by the fireside, alone with you, it is easy enough to be well-behaved. I am on my good behaviour, and no one knows it better than I do. And I know it, too, when I behave badly; but not till afterwards. I go forgetting myself, you see. I believe it’s principally when they talk to me about Australia. I suppose I lose my head, and talk wildly, and less like a lady than usual even. Alfred has told me, you see; though I don’t know where it was I went wrong yesterday. I thought I was so very good all day. I hardly opened my mouth to anybody. But somehow I can’t help it when the Bush crops up. You see, I’m a Bush girl. All the girls out there aren’t like me; don’t you believe it. They would think me as bad as you do. I’m not a sample, you see. I should be riled if I was taken for one; nothing riles me so much as people speaking or thinking meanly of Australia! But here, alone with you, with everything so quiet, it would be difficult not to be quiet too. What’s more, I like it, Lady Bligh — I do indeed. I can’t come lady-like all at once, perhaps; but if I was oftener beside you, like just now, I might by degrees get more like you, Lady Bligh.’
‘Then you shall be oftener with me — you shall, my dear!’
‘Thank you — thank you so much! And I shan’t mind if you send me away; yet I won’t speak if you’re busy. If you’ll only let me come in sometimes, for a little bit, that’s all I ask.’
‘You shall come in as often as ever you like, my darling!’
The old lady had drawn her daughter-in-law’s head backward upon her lap, and was caressing the lovely hair, more and more nervously, and bending over the upturned face. Gladys leant back with half-closed eyes. Suddenly a scalding drop fell upon her cheek. Next moment the girl was upon her feet. The moment after that she had fallen upon her knees and caught Lady Bligh’s hands in her own.
‘You are crying!’ said Gladys, hoarsely. ‘You are crying, and because of me! Oh, Lady Bligh, forgive me! How could I know I should bring you such trouble as this? I never knew — I never dreamt it would be like this. Alfred told me that I should get on well with you all. He was blind, poor boy, but I might have known; only we loved each other so! Oh, forgive me — forgive me for marrying him! Say that you forgive me! Before God, I never thought it would be like this!’
‘My daughter! I have nothing to forgive! Kiss me, Gladys — kiss me!’
‘Yes, I will kiss you; but I have brought misery upon you all; and I will never forgive myself.’
‘Gladys — you have not! Do not think it — and don’t go, Gladys.’
‘I must go. You have been good and kind to me; but this is hard for me too, though I am not crying. I never cry, though sometimes I feel inclined to, when I think of everything.’
‘But now you will often come beside me, Gladys?’
‘Yes, I will come. And I will try to change; you have helped me already. It will not come all at once; but perhaps I can prevent myself giving you any fresh cause to be downright ashamed of me. Nay, I must. That’s the least I can do. If I fail ——’
She stopped, as though to think well of what she was saying. Her face became pale and stern — Lady Bligh never forgot it.
‘If I fail,’ she repeated slowly, ‘after this, you will know that I am hopeless!’
She went to the door, but turned on the threshold, as though wishful to carry away a distinct impression of the scene — the half-lit room, the failing fire still reflected in the burnished brasses, the darkening panes still beaten by the wild rain, and the figure of Lady Bligh, dimly outlined and quivering with gentle weeping. Then she was gone.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55