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SHE had practically, he believed, conveyed the intimation, the horrid, brutal, vulgar menace, in the course of their last dreadful conversation, when, for whatever was left him of pluck or confidence — confidence in what he would fain have called a little more aggressively the strength of his position — he had judged best not to take it up. But this time there was no question of not understanding, or of pretending he didn’t; the ugly, the awful words, ruthlessly formed by her lips, were like the fingers of a hand that she might have thrust into her pocket for extraction of the monstrous object that would serve best for — what should he call it? — a gage of battle.
“If I haven’t a very different answer from you within the next three days I shall put the matter into the hands of my solicitor, whom it may interest you to know I’ve already seen. I shall bring an action for ‘breach’ against you, Herbert Dodd, as sure as my name’s Kate Cookham.”
There it was, straight and strong — yet he felt he could say for himself, when once it had come, or even, already, just as it was coming, that it turned on, as if she had moved an electric switch, the very brightest light of his own very reasons. There she was, in all the grossness of her native indelicacy, in all her essential excess of will and destitution of scruple; and it was the woman capable of that ignoble threat who, his sharper sense of her quality having become so quite deterrent, was now making for him a crime of it that he shouldn’t wish to tie himself to her for life. The vivid, lurid thing was the reality, all unmistakable, of her purpose; she had thought her case well out; had measured its odious, specious presentability; had taken, he might be sure, the very best advice obtainable at Properley, where there was always a first-rate promptitude of everything fourth-rate; it was disgustingly certain, in short, that she’d proceed. She was sharp and adroit, moreover — distinctly in certain ways a master-hand; how otherwise, with her so limited mere attractiveness, should she have entangled him? He couldn’t shut his eyes to the very probable truth that if she should try it she’d pull it off. She knew she would — precisely; and her assurance was thus the very proof of her cruelty. That she had pretended she loved him was comparatively nothing; other women had pretended it, and other women too had really done it; but that she had pretended he could possibly have been right and safe and blest in loving her, a creature of the kind who could sniff that squalor of the law-court, of claimed damages and brazen lies and published kisses, of love-letters read amid obscene guffaws, as a positive tonic to resentment, as a high incentive to her course — this was what put him so beautifully in the right It was what might signify in a woman all through, he said to himself, the mere imagination of such machinery. Truly what a devilish conception and what an appalling nature!
But there was no doubt, luckily, either, that he could plant his feet the firmer for his now intensified sense of these things. He was to live, it appeared, abominably worried, he was to live consciously rueful, he was to live perhaps even what a scoffing world would call abjectly exposed; but at least he was to live saved. In spite of his clutch of which steadying truth, however, and in spite of his declaring to her, with many other angry protests and pleas, that the line of conduct she announced was worthy of a vindictive barmaid, a lurking fear in him, too deep to counsel mere defiance, made him appear to keep open a little, till he could somehow turn round again, the door of possible composition. He had scoffed at her claim, at her threat, at her thinking she could hustle and bully him — “Such a way, my eye, to call back to life a dead love!” — yet his instinct was ever, prudentially but helplessly, for gaining time, even if time only more wofully to quake, and he gained it now by not absolutely giving for his ultimatum that he wouldn’t think of coming round. He didn’t in the smallest degree mean to come round, but it was characteristic of him that he could for three or four days breathe a little easier by having left her under the impression that he perhaps might. At the same time he couldn’t not have said — what had conduced to bring out, in retort, her own last word, the word on which they had parted — “Do you mean to say you yourself would now be willing to marry and live with a man of whom you could feel, the thing done, that he’d be all the while thinking of you in the light of a hideous coercion?” “Never you mind about my willingness,” Kate had answered; “you’ve known what that has been for the last six months. Leave that to me, my willingness — I’ll take care of it all right; and just see what conclusion you can come to about your own.”
He was to remember afterward how he had wondered whether, turned upon her in silence while her odious lucidity reigned unchecked, his face had shown her anything like the quantity of hate he felt. Probably not at all; no man’s face could express that immense amount; especially the fair, refined, intellectual, gentlemanlike face which had had — and by her own more than once repeated avowal — so much to do with the enormous fancy she had originally taken to him. “Which — frankly now — would you personally rather I should do,” he had at any rate asked her with an intention of supreme irony: “just sordidly marry you on top of this, or leave you the pleasure of your lovely appearance in court and of your so assured (since that’s how you feel it) big haul of damages? Sha’n’t you be awfully disappointed, in fact, if I don’t let you get something better out of me than a poor plain ten-shilling gold ring and the rest of the blasphemous rubbish, as we should make it between us, pronounced at the altar? I take it of course,” he had swaggered on, “that your pretension wouldn’t be for a moment that I should — after the act of profanity — take up my life with you.”
“It’s just as much my dream as it ever was, Herbert Dodd, to take up mine with you! Remember for me that I can do with it, my dear, that my idea is for even as much as that of you!” she had cried; “remember that for me, Herbert Dodd; remember, remember!”
It was on this she had left him — left him frankly under a mortal chill. There might have been the last ring of an appeal or a show of persistent and perverse tenderness in it, however preposterous any such matter; but in point of fact her large, clean, plain, brown face — so much too big for her head, he now more than ever felt it to be, just as her head was so much too big for her body, and just as her hats had an irritating way of appearing to decline choice and conformity in respect to any of her dimensions — presented itself with about as much expression as his own shop-window when the broad, blank, sallow blind was down. He was fond of his shop-window with some good show on; he had a fancy for a good show and was master of twenty different schemes of taking arrangement for the old books and prints, “high-class rarities” his modest catalogue called them, in which he dealt and which his maternal uncle, David Geddes, had, as he liked to say, “handed down” to him. His widowed mother had screwed the whole thing, the stock and the connection and the rather bad little house in the rather bad little street, out of the ancient worthy, shortly before his death, in the name of the youngest and most interesting, the “delicate” one and the literary, of her five scattered and struggling children. He could enjoy his happiest collocations and contrasts and effects, his harmonies and varieties of toned and faded leather and cloth, his sought color-notes and the high clearnesses, here and there, of his white and beautifully figured price-labels, which pleased him enough in themselves almost to console him for not oftener having to break, on a customer’s insistence, into the balanced composition. But the dropped expanse of time-soiled canvas, the thing of Sundays and holidays, with just his name, “Herbert Dodd, Successor,” painted on below his uncle’s antique style, the feeble penlike flourishes already quite archaic — this ugly vacant mask, which might so easily be taken for the mask of failure, somehow always gave him a chill.
That had been just the sort of chill — the analogy was complete — of Kate Cookham’s last look. He supposed people doing an awfully good and sure and steady business, in whatever line, could see a whole front turned to vacancy that way and merely think of the hours off represented by it. Only for this — nervously to bear it, in other words, and Herbert Dodd, quite with the literary temperament himself, was capable of that amount of play of fancy, or even of morbid analysis — you had to be on some footing, you had to feel some confidence, pretty different from his own up to now. He had never not enjoyed passing his show on the other side of the street and taking it in thence with a casual obliquity; but he had never held optical commerce with the drawn blind for a moment longer than he could help. It always looked horribly final and as if it never would come up again. Big and bare, with his name staring at him from the middle, it thus offered in its grimness a turn of comparison for Miss Cookham’s ominous visage. She never wore pretty, dotty, transparent veils, as Nan Drury did, and the words “Herbert Dodd” — save that she had sounded them at him there two or three times more like a Meg Merrilies or the bold bad woman in one of the melodramas of high life given during the fine season in the pavilion at the end of Properley Pier — were dreadfully, were permanently, seated on her lips. She was grim, no mistake.
That evening, alone in the back room above the shop, he saw so little what he could do that, consciously demoralised for the hour, he gave way to tears about it. Her taking a stand so incredibly “low,” that was what he couldn’t get over. The particular bitterness of his cup was his having let himself in for a struggle on such terms — the use, on her side, of the vulgarest process known to the law: the vulgarest, the vulgarest, he kept repeating that, clinging to the help rendered him by this imputation to his terrorist of the vice he sincerely believed he had ever, among difficulties (for oh he recognised the difficulties!) sought to keep most alien to him. He knew what he was, in a dismal, down-trodden sphere enough — the lean young proprietor of an old business that had itself rather shrivelled with age than ever grown fat, the purchase and sale of second-hand books and prints, with the back street of a long-fronted south-coast watering-place (Old Town by good luck) for the dusky field of his life. But he had gone in for all the education he could get — his educated customers would often hang about for more talk by the half-hour at a time, he actually feeling himself, and almost with a scruple, hold them there; which meant that he had had (he couldn’t be blind to that) natural taste and had lovingly cultivated and formed it. Thus, from as far back as he could remember, there had been things all round him that he suffered from when other people didn’t; and he had kept most of his suffering to himself — which had taught him, in a manner, how to suffer, and how almost to like to.
So, at any rate, he had never let go his sense of certain differences, he had done everything he could to keep it up — whereby everything that was vulgar was on the wrong side of his line. He had believed, for a series of strange, oppressed months, that Kate Cookham’s manners and tone were on the right side; she had been governess — for young children — in two very good private families, and now had classes in literature and history for bigger girls who were sometimes brought by their mammas; in fact, coming in one day to look over his collection of students’ manuals, and drawing it out, as so many did, for the evident sake of his conversation, she had appealed to him that very first time by her apparently pronounced intellectual side — goodness knew she didn’t even then by the physical! — which she had artfully kept in view till she had entangled him past undoing. And it had all been but the cheapest of traps — when he came to take the pieces apart a bit — laid over a brazen avidity. What he now collapsed for, none the less — what he sank down on a chair at a table and nursed his weak, scared sobs in his resting arms for — was the fact that, whatever the trap, it held him as with the grip of sharp murderous steel. There he was, there he was; alone in the brown summer dusk — brown through his windows — he cried and he cried. He shouldn’t get out without losing a limb. The only question was which of his limbs it should be.
Before he went out, later on — for he at last felt the need to — he could, however, but seek to remove from his face and his betraying eyes, over his washing-stand, the traces of his want of fortitude. He brushed himself up; with which, catching his stricken image a bit spectrally in an old dim toilet-glass, he knew again, in a flash, the glow of righteous resentment. Who should be assured against coarse usage if a man of his really elegant, perhaps in fact a trifle over-refined or “effete” appearance, his absolutely gentlemanlike type, couldn’t be? He never went so far as to rate himself, with exaggeration, a gentleman; but he would have maintained against all comers, with perfect candour and as claiming a high advantage, that he was, in spite of that liability to blubber, “like” one; which he was no doubt, for that matter, at several points. Like what lady then, who could ever possibly have been taken for one, was Kate Cookham, and therefore how could one have anything — anything of the intimate and private order — out with her fairly and on the plane, the only possible one, of common equality? He might find himself crippled for life; he believed verily, the more he thought, that that was what was before him. But be ended by seeing this doom in the almost redeeming light of the fact that it would all have been because he was, comparatively, too aristocratic. Yes, a man in his station couldn’t afford to carry that so far — it must sooner or later, in one way or another, spell ruin. Never mind — it was the only thing he could be. Of course he should exquisitely suffer — but when hadn’t he exquisitely suffered? How was he going to get through life by any arrangement without that? No wonder such a woman as Kate Cookham had been keen to annex so rare a value. The right thing would have been that the highest price should be paid for it — by such a different sort of logic from this nightmare of his having to pay.
Which was the way, of course, he talked to Nan Drury — as he had felt the immediate wild need to do; for he should perhaps be able to bear it all somehow or other with her — while they sat together, when time and freedom served, on one of the very last, the far westward, benches of the interminable sea-front. It wasn’t every one who walked so far, especially at that flat season — the only ghost of a bustle now, save for the gregarious, the obstreperous haunters of the fluttering, far-shining Pier, being reserved for the sunny Parade of midwinter. It wasn’t every one who cared for the sunsets (which you got awfully well from there and which were a particular strong point of the lower, the more “sympathetic,” as Herbert Dodd liked to call it, Properley horizon) as he had always intensely cared, and as he had found Nan Drury care; to say nothing of his having also observed how little they directly spoke to Miss Cookham. He had taught this oppressive companion to notice them a bit, as he had taught her plenty of other things, but that was a different matter; for the reason that the “land’s end” (stretching a point it carried off that name) had been, and had had to be, by their lack of more sequestered resorts and conveniences, the scene of so much of what she styled their wooing-time — or, to put it more properly, of the time during which she had made the straightest and most unabashed love to him: just as it could henceforth but render possible, under an equal rigour, that he should enjoy there periods of consolation from beautiful, gentle, tender-souled Nan, to whom he was now at last, after the wonderful way they had helped each other to behave, going to make love, absolutely unreserved and abandoned, absolutely reckless and romantic love, a refuge from poisonous reality, as hard as ever he might.
The league-long, paved, lighted, garden-plotted, seated and refuged Marina renounced its more or less celebrated attractions to break off short here; and an inward curve of the kindly westward shore almost made a wide-armed bay, with all the ugliness between town and country, and the further casual fringe of the coast, turning, as the day waned, to rich afternoon blooms of grey and brown and distant — it might fairly have been beautiful Hampshire — blue. Here it was that, all that blighted summer, with Nan — from the dreadful May-day on — he gave himself up to the reaction of intimacy with the kind of woman, at least, that he liked; even if of everything else that might make life possible he was to be, by what he could make out, forever starved. Here it was that — as well as on whatever other scraps of occasions they could manage — Nan began to take off and fold up and put away in her pocket her pretty, dotty, becoming veil; as under the logic of his having so tremendously ceased, in the shake of his dark storm-gust, to be engaged to another woman. Her removal of that obstacle to a trusted friend’s assuring himself whether the peachlike bloom’ of her finer facial curves bore the test of such further inquiry into their cool sweetness as might reinforce a mere baffled gaze — her momentous, complete surrender of so much of her charm, let us say, both marked the change in the situation of the pair and established the record of their perfect observance of every propriety for so long before. They afterward in fact could have dated it, their full clutch of their freedom and the bliss of their having so little henceforth to consider save their impotence, their poverty, their ruin; dated it from the hour of his recital to her of the — at the first blush — quite appalling upshot of his second and conclusive “scene of violence” with the mistress of his fortune, when the dire terms of his release had had to be formally, and oh! so abjectly, acceded to. She “compromised,” the cruel brute, for Four Hundred Pounds down — for not a farthing less would she stay her strength from “proceedings.” No jury in the land but would give her six, on the nail (“Oh she knew quite where she was, thank you!”) and he might feel lucky to get off with so whole a skin. This was the sum, then, for which he had grovellingly compounded — under an agreement sealed by a supreme exchange of remarks.
“‘Where in the name of lifelong ruin are you to find Four Hundred?’” Miss Cookham had mockingly repeated after him while he gasped as from the twist of her grip on his collar. “That’s your look-out, and I should have thought you’d have made sure you knew before you decided on your base perfidy.” And then she had mouthed and minced, with ever so false a gentility, her consistent, her sickening conclusion. “Of course — I may mention again — if you too distinctly object to the trouble of looking, you know where to find me.”
“I had rather starve to death than ever go within a mile of you!” Herbert described himself as having sweetly answered; and that was accordingly where they devotedly but desperately were — he and she, penniless Nan Drury. Her father, of Drury & Dean, was, like so far too many other of the anxious characters who peered through the dull window-glass of dusty offices at Properley, an Estate and House Agent, Surveyor, Valuer and Auctioneer; she was the prettiest of six, with two brothers, neither of the least use, but, thanks to the manner in which their main natural protector appeared to languish under the accumulation of his attributes, they couldn’t be said very particularly or positively to live. Their continued collective existence was a good deal of a miracle even to themselves, though they had fallen into the way of not unnecessarily, or too nervously, exchanging remarks upon it, and had even in a sort, from year to year, got used to it. Nan’s brooding pinkness when he talked to her, her so very parted lips, considering her pretty teeth, her so very parted eyelids, considering her pretty eyes, all of which might have been those of some waxen image of uncritical faith, cooled the heat of his helplessness very much as if he were laying his head on a tense silk pillow. She had, it was true, forms of speech, familiar watchwords, that affected him as small scratchy perforations of the smooth surface from within; but his pleasure in her and need of her were independent of such things and really almost altogether determined by the fact of the happy, even if all so lonely, forms and instincts in her which claimed kinship with his own. With her natural elegance stamped on her as by a die, with her dim and disinherited individual refinement of grace, which would have made any one wonder who she was anywhere — hat and veil and feather-boa and smart umbrella-knob and all — with her regular God-given distinction of type, in fine, she couldn’t abide vulgarity much more than he could.
Therefore it didn’t seem to him, under his stress, to matter particularly, for instance, if she would keep on referring so many things to the time, as she called it, when she came into his life — his own great insistence and contention being that she hadn’t in the least entered there till his mind was wholly made up to eliminate his other friend. What that methodical fury was so fierce to bring home to him was the falsity to herself involved in the later acquaintance; whereas just his precious right to hold up his head to everything — before himself at least — sprang from the fact that she couldn’t make dates fit anyhow. He hadn’t so much as heard of his true beauty’s existence (she had come back but a few weeks before from her two years with her terribly trying deceased aunt at Swindon, previous to which absence she had been an unnoticeable chit) till days and days, ever so many, upon his honour, after he had struck for freedom by his great first backing-out letter — the precious document, the treat for a British jury, in which, by itself, Miss Cookham’s firm instructed her to recognise the prospect of a fortune. The way the ruffians had been “her” ruffians — it appeared as if she had posted them behind her from the first of her beginning her game! — and the way “instructions” bounced out, with it, at a touch, larger than life, as if she had arrived with her pocket full of them! The date of the letter, taken with its other connections, and the date of her first give-away for himself, his seeing her get out of the Brighton train with Bill Frankle that day he had gone to make the row at the Station parcels’ office about the miscarriage of the box from Wales — those were the facts it sufficed him to point to, as he had pointed to them for Nan Drury’s benefit, goodness knew, often and often enough. If he didn’t seek occasion to do so for any one else’s — in open court as they said — that was his own affair, or at least his and Nan’s.
It little mattered, meanwhile, if on their bench of desolation, all that summer — and it may be added for summers and summers, to say nothing of winters, there and elsewhere, to come — she did give way to her artless habit of not contradicting him enough, which led to her often trailing up and down before him, too complacently, the untimely shreds and patches of his own glooms and desperations. “Well, I’m glad I am in your life, terrible as it is, however or whenever I did come in!” and “Of course you’d rather have starved — and it seems pretty well as if we shall, doesn’t it? — than have bought her off by a false, abhorrent love, wouldn’t you?” and “It isn’t as if she hadn’t made up to you the way she did before you had so much as looked at her, is it? or as if you hadn’t shown her what you felt her really to be before you had so much as looked at me, is it either?” and “Yes, how on earth, pawning the shoes on your feet, you’re going to raise another shilling — that’s what you want to know, poor darling, don’t you?”
His creditor, at the hour it suited her, transferred her base of operations to town, to which impenetrable scene she had also herself retired; and his raising of the first Two Hundred, during five exasperated and miserable months, and then of another Seventy piecemeal, bleedingly, after long delays and under the epistolary whiplash cracked by the London solicitor in his wretched ear even to an effect of the very report of Miss Cookham’s tongue — these melancholy efforts formed a scramble up an arduous steep where steps were planted and missed, and bared knees were excoriated, and clutches at wayside tufts succeeded and failed, on a system to which poor Nan could have intelligently entered only if she had been somehow less ladylike. She kept putting into his mouth the sick quaver of where he should find the rest, the always inextinguishable rest, long after he had in silent rage fallen away from any further payment at all — at first, he had but too blackly felt, for himself, to the still quite possible non-exclusion of some penetrating ray of “exposure.” He didn’t care a tuppenny damn now, and in point of fact, after he had by hook and by crook succeeded in being able to unload to the tune of Two–Hundred-and-Seventy, and then simply returned the newest reminder of his outstanding obligation unopened, this latter belated but real sign of fight, the first he had risked, remarkably caused nothing at all to happen; nothing at least but his being moved to quite tragically rueful wonder as to whether exactly some such demonstration mightn’t have served his turn at an earlier stage.
He could by this time at any rate measure his ruin — with three fantastic mortgages on his house, his shop, his stock, and a burden of interest to carry under which his business simply stretched itself inanimate, without strength for a protesting kick, without breath for an appealing groan. Customers lingering for further enjoyment of the tasteful remarks he had cultivated the unobstrusive art of throwing in, would at this crisis have found plenty to repay them, might his wit have strayed a little more widely still, toward a circuitous egotistical outbreak, from the immediate question of the merits of this and that author or of the condition of this and that volume. He had come to be conscious through it all of strangely glaring at people when they tried to haggle — and not, as formerly, with the glare of derisive comment on their overdone humour, but with that of fairly idiotised surrender — as if they were much mistaken in supposing, for the sake of conversation, that he might take himself for saveable by the difference between sevenpence and ninepence. He watched everything impossible and deplorable happen as in an endless prolongation of his nightmare; watched himself proceed, that is, with the finest, richest incoherence, to the due preparation of his catastrophe. Everything came to seem equally part of this — in complete defiance of proportion; even his final command of detachment, on the bench of desolation (where each successive fact of his dire case regularly cut itself out black, yet of senseless silhouette, against the red west) in respect to poor Nan’s flat infelicities, which for the most part kept no pace with the years or with change, but only shook like hard peas in a child’s rattle, the same peas a ways, of course, so long as the rattle didn’t split open with usage or from somebody’s act of irritation. They represented, or they had long done so, her contribution to the more superficial of the two branches of intimacy — the intellectual alternative, the one that didn’t merely consist of her preparing herself for his putting his arm round her waist.
There were to have been moments, nevertheless, all the first couple of years, when she did touch in him, though to his actively dissimulating it, a more or less sensitive nerve — moments as they were too, to do her justice, when she treated him not to his own wisdom, or even folly, served up cold, but to a certain small bitter fruit of her personal, her unnatural, plucking. “I wonder that since she took legal advice so freely, to come down on you, you didn’t take it yourself, a little, before being so sure you stood no chance. Perhaps your people would have been sure of something quite different — perhaps, I only say, you know.” She “only” said it, but she said it, none the less, in the early time, about once a fortnight. In the later, and especially after their marriage, it had a way of coming up again to the exclusion, as it seemed to him, of almost everything else; in fact during the most dismal years, the three of the loss of their two children, the long stretch of sordid embarrassment ending in her death, he was afterward to think of her as having generally said it several times a day. He was then also to remember that his answer, before she had learnt to discount it, had been inveterately at hand: “What would any solicitor have done or wanted to do but drag me just into the hideous public arena” — he had always so put it — “that it has been at any rate my pride and my honour, the one rag of self-respect covering my nakedness, to have loathed and avoided from every point of view?”
That had disposed of it so long as he cared, and by the time he had ceased to care for anything it had also lost itself in the rest of the vain babble of home. After his wife’s death, during his year of mortal solitude, it awoke again as an echo of far-off things — far-off, very far-off, because he felt then not ten but twenty years older. That was by reason simply of the dead weight with which his load of debt had settled — the persistence of his misery dragging itself out. With all that had come and gone the bench of desolation was still there, just as the immortal flush of the westward sky kept hanging its indestructible curtain. He had never got away — everything had left him, but he himself had been able to turn his back on nothing — and now, his day’s labour before a dirty desk at the Gas Works ended, he more often than not, almost any season at temperate Properley serving his turn, took his slow straight way to the Land’s End and, collapsing there to rest, sat often for an hour at a time staring before him. He might in these sessions, with his eyes on the grey-green sea, have been counting again and still recounting the beads, almost all worn smooth, of his rosary of pain — which had for the fingers of memory and the recurrences of wonder the same felt break of the smaller ones by the larger that would have aided a pious mumble in some dusky altar-chapel.
If it has been said of him that when once full submersion, as from far back, had visibly begun to await him, he watched himself, in a cold lucidity, do punctually and necessarily each of the deplorable things that were inconsistent with his keeping afloat, so at present again he might have been held agaze just by the presented grotesqueness of that vigil. Such ghosts of dead seasons were all he had now to watch — such a recaptured sense for instance as that of the dismal unavailing awareness that had attended his act of marriage. He had let submersion final and absolute become the signal for it — a mere minor determinant having been the more or less contemporaneously unfavourable effect on the business of Drury & Dean of the sudden disappearance of Mr. Dean with the single small tin box into which the certificates of the firm’s credit had been found to be compressible. That had been his only form — or had at any rate seemed his only one. He couldn’t not have married, no doubt, just as he couldn’t not have suffered the last degree of humiliation and almost of want, or just as his wife and children couldn’t not have died of the little he was able, under dire reiterated pinches, to do for them; but it was “rum,” for final solitary brooding, that he hadn’t appeared to see his way definitely to undertake the support of a family till the last scrap of his little low-browed, high-toned business, and the last figment of “property” in the old tiled and timbered shell that housed it, had been sacrificed to creditors mustering six rows deep.
Of course what had counted too in the odd order was that even at the end of the two or three years he had “allowed” her, Kate Cookham, gorged with his unholy tribute, had become the subject of no successful siege on the part either of Bill Frankle or, by what he could make out, of any one else. She had judged decent — he could do her that justice — to take herself personally out of his world, as he called it, for good and all, as soon as he had begun regularly to bleed; and, to whatever lucrative practice she might be devoting her great talents in London or elsewhere, he felt his conscious curiosity about her as cold, with time, as the passion of vain protest that she had originally left him to. He could recall but two direct echoes of her in all the bitter years — both communicated by Bill Frankle, disappointed and exposed and at last quite remarkably ingenuous sneak, who had also, from far back, taken to roaming the world, but who, during a period, used fitfully and ruefully to reappear. Herbert Dodd had quickly seen, at their first meeting — every one met every one sooner or later at Properley, if meeting it could always be called, either in the glare or the gloom of the explodedly attractive Embankment — that no silver stream of which he himself had been the remoter source could have played over the career of this all but repudiated acquaintance. That hadn’t fitted with his first, his quite primitive raw vision of the probabilities, and he had further been puzzled when, much later on, it had come to him in a roundabout way that Miss Cookham was supposed to be, or to have been, among them for a few days “on the quiet,” and that Frankle, who had seen her and who claimed to know more about it than he said, was cited as authority for the fact. But he hadn’t himself at this juncture seen Frankle; he had only wondered, and a degree of mystification had even remained.
That memory referred itself to the dark days of old Drury’s smash, the few weeks between his partner’s dastardly flight and Herbert’s own comment on it in the form of his standing up with Nan for the nuptial benediction of the Vicar of St. Bernard’s on a very cold, bleak December morning and amid a circle of seven or eight long-faced, red-nosed and altogether dowdy persons. Poor Nan herself had come to affect him as scarce other than red-nosed and dowdy by that time, but this only added, in his then, and indeed in his lasting view, to his general and his particular morbid bravery. He had cultivated ignorance, there were small inward immaterial luxuries he could scrap-pily cherish even among other, and the harshest, destitutions; and one of them was represented by this easy refusal of his mind to render to certain passages of his experience, to various ugly images, names, associations, the homage of continued attention. That served him, that helped him; but what happened when, a dozen dismal years having worn themselves away, he sat single and scraped bare again, as if his long wave of misfortune had washed him far beyond everything and then conspicuously retreated, was that, thus stranded by tidal action, deposited in the lonely hollow of his fate, he felt even sustaining pride turn to nought and heard no challenge from it when old mystifications, stealing forth in the dusk of the day’s work done, scratched at the door of speculation and hung about, through the idle hours, for irritated notice.
The evenings of his squalid clerkship were all leisure now, but there was nothing at all near home on the other hand, for his imagination, numb and stiff from its long chill, to begin to play with. Voices from far off would quaver to him therefore in the stillness; where he knew for the most recurrent, little by little, the faint wail of his wife. He had become deaf to it in life, but at present, after so great an interval, he listened again, listened and listened, and seemed to hear it sound as by the pressure of some weak broken spring. It phrased for his ear her perpetual question, the one she had come to at the last as under the obsession of a discovered and resented wrong, a wrong withal that had its source much more in his own action than anywhere else. “That you didn’t make sure she could have done anything, that you didn’t make sure and that you were too afraid!” — this commemoration had ended by playing such a part of Nan’s finally quite contracted consciousness as to exclude everything else.
At the time, somehow, he had made his terms with it; he had then more urgent questions to meet than that of the poor creature’s taste in worrying pain; but actually it struck him — not the question, but the fact itself of the taste — as the one thing left over from all that had come and gone. So it was; nothing remained to him in the world, on the bench of desolation, but the option of taking up that echo — together with an abundance of free time for doing so. That he hadn’t made sure of what might and what mightn’t have been done to him, that he had been too afraid — had the proposition a possible bearing on his present apprehension of things? To reply indeed he would have had to be able to say what his present apprehension of things, left to itself, amounted to; an uninspiring effort indeed he judged it, sunk to so poor a pitch was his material of thought — though it might at last have been the feat he sought to perform as he stared at the grey-green sea.
It was seldom he was disturbed in any form of sequestered speculation, or that at his times of predilection, especially that of the long autumn blankness between the season of trippers and the season of Bath-chairs, there were westward stragglers enough to jar upon his settled sense of priority. For himself his seat, the term of his walk, was consecrated; it had figured to him for years as the last (though there were others, not immediately near it, and differently disposed, that might have aspired to the title); so that he could invidiously distinguish as he approached, make out from a distance any accident of occupation, and never draw nearer while that unpleasantness lasted. What he disliked was to compromise on his tradition, whether for a man, a woman or a connoodling couple; it was to idiots of this last composition he most objected, he having sat there, in the past, alone, having sat there interminably with Nan, having sat there with — well, with other women when women, at hours of ease, could still care or count for him, but having never shared the place with any shuffling or snuffling stranger. It was a world of fidgets and starts, however, the world of his present dreariness — he alone possessed in it, he seemed to make out, of the secret, of the dignity of sitting still with one’s fate; so that if he took a turn about or rested briefly elsewhere even foolish philanderers — though this would never have been his and Nan’s way — ended soon by some adjournment as visibly pointless as their sprawl. Then, their backs turned, he would drop down on it, the bench of desolation — which was what he, and he only, made it by sad adoption; where, for that matter, moreover, once he had settled at his end, it was marked that nobody else ever came to sit. He saw people, along the Marina, take this liberty with other resting presences; but his own struck them perhaps in general as either of too grim or just of too dingy a vicinage. He might have affected the fellow-lounger as a man evil, unsociable, possibly engaged in working out the idea of a crime; or otherwise, more probably — for on the whole he surely looked harmless — devoted to the worship of some absolutely unpractical remorse.
On a certain October Saturday he had got off, as usual, early; but the afternoon light, his pilgrimage drawing to its aim, could still show him, at long range, the rare case of an established usurper. His impulse was then, as by custom, to deviate a little and wait, all the more that the occupant of the bench was a lady, and that ladies, when alone, were — at that austere end of the varied frontal stretch — markedly discontinuous; but he kept on at sight of this person’s rising, while he was still fifty yards off, and proceeding, her back turned, to the edge of the broad terrace, the outer line of which followed the interspaced succession of seats and was guarded by an iron rail from the abruptly lower level of the beach. Here she stood before the sea, while our friend on his side, recognising no reason to the contrary, sank into the place she had quitted. There were other benches, eastward and off by the course of the drive, for vague ladies. The lady indeed thus thrust upon Herbert’s vision might have struck an observer either as not quite vague or as vague with a perverse intensity suggesting design.
Not that our own observer at once thought of these things; he only took in, and with no great interest, that the obtruded presence was a “real” lady; that she was dressed — he noticed such matters — with a certain elegance of propriety or intention of harmony; and that she remained perfectly still for a good many minutes; so many in fact that he presently ceased to heed her, and that as she wasn’t straight before him, but as far to the left as was consistent with his missing her profile, he had turned himself to one of his sunsets again (though it wasn’t quite one of his best) and let it hold him for a time that enabled her to alter her attitude and present a fuller view. Without other movement, but her back now to the sea and her face to the odd person who had appropriated her corner, she had taken a sustained look at him before he was aware she had stirred. On that apprehension, however, he became also promptly aware of her direct, her applied observation. As his sense of this quickly increased he wondered who she was and what she wanted — what, as it were, was the matter with her; it suggested to him, the next thing, that she had, under some strange idea, actually been waiting for him. Any idea about him to-day on the part of any one could only be strange.
Yes, she stood there with the ample width of the Marina between them, but turned to him, for all the world, as to show frankly that she was concerned with him. And she was — oh yes — a real lady: a middle-aged person, of good appearance and of the best condition, in quiet but “handsome” black, save for very fresh white kid gloves, and with a pretty, dotty, becoming veil, predominantly white, adjusted to her countenance; which through it somehow, even to his imperfect sight, showed strong fine black brows and what he would have called on the spot character. But she was pale; her black brows were the blacker behind the flattering tissue; she still kept a hand, for support, on the terrace-rail, while the other, at the end of an extended arm that had an effect of rigidity, clearly pressed hard on the knob of a small and shining umbrella, the lower extremity of whose stick was equally, was sustainingly, firm on the walk. So this mature, qualified, important person stood and looked at the limp, undistinguished — oh his values of aspect now! — shabby man on the bench.
It was extraordinary, but the fact of her interest, by immensely surprising, by immediately agitating him, blinded him at first to her identity and, for the space of his long stare, diverted him from it; with which even then, when recognition did break, the sense of the shock, striking inward, simply consumed itself in gaping stillness. He sat there motionless and weak, fairly faint with surprise, and there was no instant, in all the succession of so many, at which Kate Cookham could have caught the special sign of his intelligence. Yet that she did catch something he saw — for he saw her steady herself, by her two supported hands, to meet it; while, after she had done so, a very wonderful thing happened, of which he could scarce, later on, have made a clear statement, though he was to think it over again and again. She moved toward him, she reached him, she stood there, she sat down near him, he merely passive and wonderstruck, unresentfully “impressed,” gaping and taking it in — and all as with an open allowance on the part of each, so that they positively and quite intimately met in it, o the impertinence for their case, this case that brought them again, after horrible years, face to face, of the vanity, the profanity, the impossibility, of anything between them but silence.
Nearer to him, beside him at a considerable interval (oh she was immensely considerate!) she presented him, in the sharp terms of her transformed state — but thus the more amply, formally, ceremoniously — with the reasons that would serve him best for not having precipitately known her. She was simply another and a totally different person, and the exhibition of it to which she had proceeded with this solemn anxiety was all, obviously, for his benefit — once he had, as he appeared to be doing, provisionally accepted her approach. He had remembered her as inclined to the massive and disowned by the graceful; but this was a spare, fine, worn, almost wasted lady — who had repaired waste, it was true, however, with something he could only appreciate as a rich accumulation of manner. She was strangely older, so far as that went — marked by experience and as if many things had happened to her; her face had suffered, to its improvement, contraction and concentration; and if he had granted, of old and from the first, that her eyes were remarkable, had they yet ever had for him this sombre glow? Withal, something said, she had flourished — he felt it, wincing at it, as that; she had had a life, a career, a history — something that her present waiting air and nervous consciousness couldn’t prevent his noting there as a deeply latent assurance. She had flourished, she had flourished — though to learn it after this fashion was somehow at the same time not to feel she flaunted it. It wasn’t thus execration that she revived in him; she made in fact, exhibitively, as he could only have put it, the matter of long ago irrelevant, and these extraordinary minutes of their reconstituted relation — how many? how few? — addressed themselves altogether to new possibilities.
Still it after a little awoke in him as with the throb of a touched nerve that his own very attitude was supplying a connection; he knew presently that he wouldn’t have had her go, couldn’t have made a sign to her for it — which was what she had been uncertain of — without speaking to him; and that therefore he was, as at the other, the hideous time, passive to whatever she might do. She was even yet, she was always, in possession of him; she had known how and where to find him and had appointed that he should see her, and, though he had never dreamed it was again to happen to him, he was meeting it already as if it might have been the only thing that the least humanly could. Yes, he had come back there to flop, by long custom, upon the bench of desolation as the man in the whole place, precisely, to whom nothing worth more than tuppence could happen; whereupon, in the grey desert of his consciousness, the very earth had suddenly opened and flamed. With this, further, it came over him that he hadn’t been prepared and that his wretched appearance must show it. He wasn’t fit to receive a visit — any visit; a flush for his felt misery, in the light of her opulence, broke out in his lean cheeks. But if he coloured he sat as he was — she should at least, as a visitor, be satisfied. His eyes only, at last, turned from her and resumed a little their gaze at the sea. That, however, didn’t relieve him, and he perpetrated in the course of another moment the odd desperate gesture of raising both his hands to his face and letting them, while he pressed it to them, cover and guard it. It was as he held them there that she at last spoke.
“I’ll go away if you wish me to.” And then she waited a moment. “I mean now — now that you’ve seen I’m here. I wanted you to know it, and I thought of writing — I was afraid of our meeting accidentally. Then I was afraid that if I wrote you might refuse. So I thought of this way — as I knew you must come out here.” She went on with pauses, giving him a chance to make a sign. “I’ve waited several days. But I’ll do what you wish. Only I should like in that case to come back.” Again she stopped; but strange was it to him that he wouldn’t have made her break off. She held him in boundless wonder. “I came down — I mean I came from town — on purpose. I’m staying on still, and I’ve a great patience and will give you time. Only may I say it’s important? Now that I do see you,” she brought out in the same way, “I see how inevitable it was — I mean that I should have wanted to come. But you must feel about it as you can,” she wound up — “till you get used to the idea.”
She spoke so for accommodation, for discretion, for some ulterior view already expressed in her manner, that, after taking well in, from behind his hands, that this was her very voice — oh ladylike! — heard, and heard in deprecation of displeasure, after long years again, he uncovered his face and freshly met her eyes. More than ever he couldn’t have known her. Less and less remained of the figure all the facts of which had long ago so hardened for him. She was a handsome, grave, authoritative, but refined and, as it were, physically rearranged person — she, the outrageous vulgarity of whose prime assault had kept him shuddering so long as a shudder was in him. That atrocity in her was what everything had been built on, but somehow, all strangely, it was slipping from him; so that, after the oddest fashion conceivable, when he felt he mustn’t let her go, it was as if he were putting out his hand to save the past, the hideous real unalterable past, exactly as she had been the cause of its being and the cause of his undergoing it. He should have been too awfully “sold” if he wasn’t going to have been right about her.
“I don’t mind,” he heard himself at last say. Not to mind had seemed for the instant the length he was prepared to go; but he was afterward aware of how soon he must have added: “You’ve come on purpose to see me?” He was on the point of putting to her further: “What then do you want of me?” But he would keep — yes, in time — from appearing to show he cared. If he showed he cared, where then would be his revenge? So he was already, within five minutes, thinking his revenge uncomfortably over instead of just comfortably knowing it. What came to him, at any rate, as they actually fell to talk, was that, with such precautions, considerations, reduplications of consciousness, almost avowed feelings of her way on her own part, and light fingerings of his chords of sensibility, she was understanding, she had understood, more things than all the years, up to this strange eventide, had given him an inkling of. They talked, they went on — he hadn’t let her retreat, to whatever it committed him and however abjectly it did so; yet keeping off and off, dealing with such surface facts as involved ancient acquaintance but held abominations at bay. The recognition, the attestation that she had come down for him, that there would be reasons, that she had even hovered and watched, assured herself a little of his habits (which she managed to speak of as if, on their present ampler development, they were much to be deferred to), detained them enough to make vivid how, listen as stiffly or as serenely as he might, she sat there in fear, just as she had so stood there at first, and that her fear had really to do with her calculation of some sort of chance with him. What chance could it possibly be? Whatever it might have done, on this prodigious showing, with Kate Cookham, it made the present witness to the state of his fortunes simply exquisite: he ground his teeth secretly together as he saw he should have to take that. For what did it mean but that she would have liked to pity him if she could have done it with safety? Ah, however, he must give her no measure of safety!
By the time he had remarked, with that idea, that she probably saw few changes about them there that weren’t for the worse — the place was going down, down and down, so fast that goodness knew where it would stop — and had also mentioned that in spite of this he himself remained faithful, with all its faults loving it still; by the time he had, after that fashion, superficially indulged her, adding a few further light and just sufficiently dry reflections on local matters, the disappearance of landmarks and important persons, the frequency of gales, the low policy of the town-council in playing down to cheap excursionists: by the time he had so acquitted himself, and she had observed, of her own motion, that she was staying at the Royal, which he knew for the time-honoured, the conservative and exclusive hotel, he had made out for himself one thing at least, the amazing fact that he had been landed by his troubles, at the end of time, in a “social relation,” of all things in the world, and how of that luxury he was now having unprecedented experience. He had but once in his life had his nose in the Royal, on the occasion of his himself delivering a parcel during some hiatus in his succession of impossible small boys and meeting in the hall the lady who had bought of him, in the morning, a set of Crabbe, largely, he flattered himself, under the artful persuasion of his acute remarks on that author, gracefully associated by him, in this colloquy, he remembered, with a glance at Charles Lamb as well, and who went off in a day or two without settling, though he received her cheque from London three or four months later.
That hadn’t been a social relation; and truly, deep within his appeal to himself to be remarkable, to be imperturbable and impenetrable, to be in fact quite incomparable now, throbbed the intense vision of his drawing out and draining dry the sensation he had begun to taste. He would do it, moreover — that would be the refinement of his art — not only without the betraying anxiety of a single question, but just even by seeing her flounder (since she must, in a vagueness deeply disconcerting to her) as to her real effect on him. She was distinctly floundering by the time he had brought her — it had taken ten minutes — down to a consciousness of absurd and twaddling topics, to the reported precarious state, for instance, of the syndicate running the Bijou Theatre at the Pierhead — all as an admonition that she might want him to want to know why she was thus waiting on him, might want it for all she was worth, before he had ceased to be so remarkable as not to ask her. He didn’t — and this assuredly was wondrous enough — want to do anything worse to her than let her flounder; but he was willing to do that so long as it mightn’t prevent his seeing at least where he was. He seemed still to see where he was even at the minute that followed her final break-off, clearly intended to be resolute, from make-believe talk.
“I wonder if I might prevail on you to come to tea with me to-morrow at five.”
He didn’t so much as answer it — though he could scarcely believe his ears. To-morrow was Sunday, and the proposal referred, clearly, to the custom of “five-o’clock” tea, known to him only by the contemporary novel of manners and the catchy advertisement of table-linen. He had never in his life been present at any such luxurious rite, but he was offering practical indifference to it as a false mark of his sense that his social relation had already risen to his chin. “I gave up my very modest, but rather interesting little old book business, perhaps you know, ever so long ago.”
She floundered so that she could say nothing — meet that with no possible word; all the less too that his tone, casual and colourless, wholly defied any apprehension of it as a reverse. Silence only came; but after a moment she returned to her effort. “If you can come I shall be at home. To see you otherwise than thus was in fact what, as I tell you, I came down for. But I leave it,” she returned, “to your feeling.”
He had at this, it struck him, an inspiration; which he required however a minute or two to decide to carry out; a minute or two during which the shake of his foot over his knee became an intensity of fidget. “Of course I know I still owe you a large sum of money. If it’s about that you wish to see me,” he went on, “I may as well tell you just here that I shall be able to meet my full obligation in the future as little as I’ve met it in the past. I can never,” said Herbert Dodd, “pay up that balance.”
He had looked at her while he spoke, but on finishing looked off at the sea again and continued to agitate his foot. He knew now what he had done and why; and the sense of her fixed dark eyes on him during his speech and after didn’t alter his small contentment. Yet even when she still said nothing he didn’t turn round; he simply kept his corner as if that were his point made, should it even be the last word between them. It might have been, for that matter, from the way in which she presently rose, gathering herself, her fine umbrella and her very small smart reticule, in the construction of which shining gilt much figured, well together, and, after standing another instant, moved across to the rail of the terrace as she had done before and remained, as before, with her back to him, though this time, it well might be, under a different fear. A quarter of an hour ago she hadn’t tried him, and had had that anxiety; now that she had tried him it wasn’t easier — but she was thinking what she still could do. He left her to think — nothing in fact more interesting than the way she might decide had ever happened to him; but it was a part of this also that as she turned round and came nearer again he didn’t rise, he gave her no help. If she got any, at least, from his looking up at her only, meeting her fixed eyes once more in silence, that was her own affair. “You must think,” she said — “you must take all your time, but I shall be at home.” She left it to him thus — she insisted, with her idea, on leaving him something too. And on her side as well she showed an art — which resulted, after another instant, in his having to rise to his feet. He flushed afresh as he did it — it exposed him so shabbily the more; and now if she took him in, with each of his seedy items, from head to foot, he didn’t and couldn’t and wouldn’t know it, attaching his eyes hard and straight to something quite away from them.
It stuck in his throat to say he’d come, but she had so curious a way with her that he still less could say he wouldn’t, and in a moment had taken refuge in something that was neither. “Are you married?” — he put it to her with that plainness, though it had seemed before he said it to do more for him than while she waited before replying.
“No, I’m not married,” she said; and then had another wait that might have amounted to a question of what this had to do with it.
He surely couldn’t have told her; so that he had recourse, a little poorly as he felt, but to an “Oh!” that still left them opposed. He turned away for it — that is for the poorness, which, lingering in the air, had almost a vulgar platitude; and when he presently again wheeled about she had fallen off as for quitting him, only with a pause, once more, for a last look. It was all a bit awkward, but he had another happy thought, which consisted in his silently raising his hat as for a sign of dignified dismissal. He had cultivated of old, for the occasions of life, the right, the discriminated bow, and now, out of the grey limbo of the time when he could care for such things, this flicker of propriety leaped and worked She might, for that matter, herself have liked it; since, receding further, only with her white face toward him, she paid it the homage of submission. He remained dignified, and she almost humbly went.
Nothing in the world, on the Sunday afternoon, could have prevented him from going; he was not after all destitute of three or four such articles of clothing as, if they wouldn’t particularly grace the occasion, wouldn’t positively dishonour it. That deficiency might have kept him away, but no voice of the spirit, no consideration of pride. It sweetened his impatience in fact — for he fairly felt it a long time to wait — that his pride would really most find its account in his acceptance of these conciliatory steps. From the moment he could put it in that way — that he couldn’t refuse to hear what she might have, so very elaborately, to say for herself — he ought certainly to be at his ease; in illustration of which he whistled odd snatches to himself as he hung about on that cloud-dappled autumn Sunday, a mild private minstrelsy that his lips hadn’t known since when? The interval of the twenty-four hours, made longer by a night of many more revivals than oblivions, had in fact dragged not a little; in spite of which, however, our extremely brushed-up and trimmed and polished friend knew an unprecedented flutter as he was ushered, at the Royal Hotel, into Miss Cookham’s sitting-room. Yes, it was an adventure, and he had never had an adventure in his life; the term, for him, was essentially a term of high appreciation — such as disqualified for that figure, under due criticism, every single passage of his past career.
What struck him at the moment as qualifying in the highest degree this actual passage was the fact that at no great distance from his hostess in the luxurious room, as he apprehended it, in which the close of day had begun to hang a few shadows, sat a gentleman who rose as she rose, and whose name she at once mentioned to him. He had for Herbert Dodd all the air of a swell, the gentleman — rather red-faced and bald-headed, but moustachioed, waistcoated, necktied to the highest pitch, with an effect of chains and rings, of shining teeth in a glassily monocular smile; a wondrous apparition to have been asked to “meet” him, as in contemporary fiction, or for him to have been asked to meet. “Captain Roper, Mr. Herbert Dodd” — their entertainer introduced them, yes; but with a sequel immediately afterward more disconcerting apparently to Captain Roper himself even than to her second and more breathless visitor; a “Well then, good-bye till the next time,” with a hand thrust straight out, which allowed the personage so addressed no alternative but to lay aside his teacup, even though Herbert saw there was a good deal left in it, and glare about him for his hat. Miss Cookham had had her tea-tray on a small table before her, she had served Captain Roper while waiting for Mr. Dodd; but she simply dismissed him now, with a high sweet unmistakable decision, a knowledge of what she was about, as our hero would have called it, which enlarged at a stroke the latter’s view of the number of different things and sorts of things, in the sphere of the manners and ways of those living at their ease, that a social relation would put before one. Captain Roper would have liked to remain, would have liked more tea, but Kate signified in this direct fashion that she had had enough of him. Herbert had seen things, in his walk of life — rough things, plenty; but never things smoothed with that especial smoothness, carried out as it were by the fine form of Captain Roper’s own retreat, which included even a bright convulsed leave-taking cognisance of the plain, vague individual, of no lustre at all and with the very low-class guard of an old silver watch buttoned away under an ill-made coat, to whom he was sacrificed.
It came to Herbert as he left the place a shade less remarkable — though there was still wonder enough and to spare — that he had been even publicly and designedly sacrificed; exactly so that, as the door closed behind him, Kate Cookham, standing there to wait for it, could seem to say, across the room, to the friend of her youth, only by the expression of her fine eyes: “There — see what I do for you!” “For” him — that was the extraordinary thing, and not less so that he was already, within three minutes, after this fashion, taking it in as by the intensity of a new light; a light that was one somehow with this rich inner air of the plush-draped and much-mirrored hotel, where the fire-glow and the approach of evening confirmed together the privacy, and the loose curtains at the wide window were parted for a command of his old lifelong Parade — the field of life so familiar to him from below and in the wind and the wet, but which he had never in all the long years hung over at this vantage.
“He’s an acquaintance, but a bore,” his hostess explained in respect to Captain Roper. “He turned up yesterday, but I didn’t invite him, and I had said to him before you came in that I was expecting a gentleman with whom I should wish to be alone. I go quite straight at my idea that way, as a rule; but you know,” she now strikingly went on, “how straight I go. And he had had,” she added, “his tea.”
Dodd had been looking all round — had taken in, with the rest, the brightness, the distinguished elegance, as he supposed it, of the tea-service with which she was dealing and the variously tinted appeal of certain savoury edibles on plates. “Oh but he hadn’t had his tea!” he heard himself the next moment earnestly reply; which speech had at once betrayed, he was then quickly aware, the candour of his interest, the unsophisticated state that had survived so many troubles. If he was so interested how could he be proud, and if he was proud how could he be so interested?
He had made her at any rate laugh outright, and was further conscious, for this, both that it was the first time of that since their new meeting, and that it didn’t affect him as harsh. It affected him, however, as free, for she replied at once, still smiling and as a part of it: “Oh, I think we shall get on!”
This told him he had made some difference for her, shown her the way, or something like it, that she hadn’t been sure of yesterday; which moreover wasn’t what he had intended — he had come armed for showing her nothing; so that after she had gone on with the same gain of gaiety, “You must at any rate comfortably have yours,” there was but one answer for him to make.
His eyes played again over the tea-things — they seemed strangely to help him; but he didn’t sit down.
“I’ve come, as you see — but I’ve come, please, to understand; and if you require to be alone with me, and if I break bread with you, it seems to me I should first know exactly where I am and to what you suppose I so commit myself.” He had thought it out and over and over, particularly the turn about breaking bread; though perhaps he didn’t give it, in her presence — this was impossible, her presence altered so many things — quite the full sound or the weight he had planned.
But it had none the less come to his aid — it had made her perfectly grave. “You commit yourself to nothing. You’re perfectly free. It’s only I who commit myself.”
On which, while she stood there as if all handsomely and deferentially waiting for him to consider and decide, he would have been naturally moved to ask her what she committed herself then to — so moved, that is, if he hadn’t, before saying it, thought more sharply still of something better. “Oh, that’s another thing.”
“Yes, that’s another thing,” Kate Cookham returned. To which she added, “So now won’t you sit down?” He sank with deliberation into the seat from which Captain Roper had risen; she went back to her own and while she did so spoke again. “I’m not free. At least,” she said over her tea-tray, “I’m free only for this.”
Everything was there before them and around them, everything massive and shining, so that he had instinctively fallen back in his chair as for the wondering, the resigned acceptance of it; where her last words stirred in him a sense of odd deprecation. Only for “that”? “That” was everything, at this moment, to his long inanition, and the effect, as if she had suddenly and perversely mocked him, was to press the spring of a protest. “Isn’t ‘this’ then riches?”
“Riches?” she smiled over, handing him his cup — for she had triumphed in having struck from him a question.
“I mean haven’t you a lot of money?” He didn’t care now that it was out; his cup was in his hand, and what was that but proved interest? He had succumbed to the social relation.
“Yes, I’ve money. Of course you wonder — but I’ve wanted you to wonder. It was to make you take that in that I came. So now you know,” she said, leaning back where she faced him, but in a straighter chair and with her arms closely folded, after a fashion characteristic of her, as for some control of her nerves.
“You came to show you’ve money?”
“That’s one of the things. Not a lot — not even very much. But enough,” said Kate Cookham.
“Enough? I should think so!” he again couldn’t help a bit crudely exhaling.
“Enough for what I wanted. I don’t always live like this — not at all. But I came to the best hotel on purpose. I wanted to show you I could. Now,” she asked, “do you understand?”
“Understand?” He only gaped.
She threw up her loosed arms, which dropped again beside her. “I did it for you — I did it for you!”
“‘For’ me ——?”
“What I did — what I did here of old.”
He stared, trying to see it. “When you made me pay you?”
“The Two Hundred and Seventy — all I could get from you, as you reminded me yesterday, so that I had to give up the rest It was my idea,” she went on — “it was my idea.”
“To bleed me quite to death?” Oh, his ice was broken now!
“To make you raise money — since you could, you could. You did, you did — so what better proof?”
His hands fell from what he had touched; he could only stare — her own manner for it was different now too. “I did. I did indeed —!” And the woful weak simplicity of it, which seemed somehow all that was left him, fell even on his own ear.
“Well then, here it is — it isn’t lost!” she returned with a graver face.
“‘Here’ it is,” he gasped, “my poor agonised old money — my blood?”
“Oh, it’s my blood too, you must know now!” She held up her head as not before — as for her right to speak of the thing to-day most precious to her. “I took it, but this — my being here this way — is what I’ve made of it! That was the idea I had!”
Her “ideas,” as things to boast of, staggered him. “To have everything in the world, like this, at my wretched expense?”
She had folded her arms back again — grasping each elbow she sat firm; she knew he could see, and had known well from the first, what she had wanted to say, difficult, monstrous though it might be. “No more than at my own — but to do something with your money that you’d never do yourself.”
“Myself, myself?” he wonderingly wailed. “Do you know — or don’t you? — what my life has been?”
She waited, and for an instant, though the light in the room had failed a little more and would soon be mainly that of the flaring lamps on the windy Parade, he caught from her dark eye a silver gleam of impatience. “You’ve suffered and you’ve worked — which, God knows, is what I’ve done! Of course you’ve suffered,” she said — “you inevitably had to! We have to,” she went on, “to do or to be or to get anything.”
“And pray what have I done or been or got?” Herbert Dodd found it almost desolately natural to demand.
It made her cover him again as with all she was thinking of. “Can you imagine nothing, or can’t you conceive —?” And then as her challenge struck deeper in, deeper down than it had yet reached, and with the effect of a rush of the blood to his face, “It was for you, it was for you!” she again broke out — “and for what or whom else could it have been?”
He saw things to a tune now that made him answer straight: “I thought at one time it might be for Bill Frankle.”
“Yes — that was the way you treated me,” Miss Cookham as plainly replied.
But he let this pass; his thought had already got away from it. “What good then — its having been for me — has that ever done me?”
“Doesn’t it do you any good now?” his friend returned. To which she added, with another dim play of her tormented brightness, before he could speak: “But if you won’t even have your tea ——!”
He had in fact touched nothing and, if he could have explained, would have pleaded very veraciously that his appetite, keen when he came in, had somehow suddenly failed. It was beyond eating or drinking, what she seemed to want him to take from her. So if he looked, before him, over the array, it was to say, very grave and graceless: “Am I to understand that you offer to repay me?”
“I offer to repay you with interest, Herbert Dodd” — and her emphasis of the great word was wonderful.
It held him in his place a minute, and held his eyes upon her; after which, agitated too sharply to sit still, he pushed back his chair and stood up. It was as if mere distress or dismay at first worked in him, and was in fact a wave of deep and irresistible emotion which made him, on his feet, sway as in a great trouble and then, to correct it, throw himself stiffly toward the window, where he stood and looked out unseeing. The road, the wide terrace beyond, the seats, the eternal sea beyond that, the lighted lamps now flaring in the October night-wind, with the few dispersed people abroad at the tea-hour; these things, meeting and melting into the firelit hospitality at his elbow — or was it that portentous amenity that melted into them? — seemed to form round him and to put before him, all together, the strangest of circles and the newest of experiences, in which the unforgettable and the unimaginable were confoundingly mixed. “Oh, oh, oh!” — he could only almost howl for it.
And then, while a thick blur for some moments mantled everything, he knew she had got up, that she stood watching him, allowing for everything, again all “cleverly” patient with him, and he heard her speak again as with studied quietness and clearness. “I wanted to take care of you — it was what I first wanted — and what you first consented to. I’d have done it, oh I’d have done it, I’d have loved you and helped you and guarded you, and you’d have had no trouble, no bad blighting ruin, in all your easy, yes, just your quite jolly and comfortable life. I showed you and proved to you this — I brought it home to you, as I fondly fancied, and it made me briefly happy. You swore you cared for me, you wrote it and made me believe it — you pledged me your honour and your faith. Then you turned and changed suddenly from one day to another; everything altered, you broke your vows, you as good as told me you only wanted it off. You faced me with dislike, and in fact tried not to face me at all; you behaved as if you hated me — you had seen a girl, of great beauty, I admit, who made me a fright and a bore.”
This brought him straight round. “No, Kate Cookham.”
“Yes, Herbert Dodd.” She but shook her head, calmly and nobly, in the now gathered dusk, and her memories and her cause and her character — or was it only her arch-subtlety, her line and her “idea”? — gave her an extraordinary large assurance.
She had touched, however, the treasure of his own case — his terrible own case that began to live again at once by the force of her talking of hers, and which could always all cluster about his great asseveration. “No, no, never, never; I had never seen her then and didn’t dream of her; so that when you yourself began to be harsh and sharp with me, and to seem to want to quarrel, I could have but one idea — which was an appearance you didn’t in the least, as I saw it then, account for or disprove.”
“An appearance —?” Kate desired, as with high astonishment, to know which one.
“How shouldn’t I have supposed you really to care for Bill Frankle? — as thoroughly believing the motive of your claim for my money to be its help to your marrying him, since you couldn’t marry me. I was only surprised when, time passing, I made out that that hadn’t happened; and perhaps,” he added the next instant with something of a conscious lapse from the finer style, “hadn’t been in question.”
She had listened to this only staring, and she was silent after he had said it, so silent for some instants that while he considered her something seemed to fail him, much as if he had thrown out his foot for a step and not found the place to rest it. He jerked round to the window again, and then she answered, but without passion unless it was that of her weariness for something stupid and forgiven in him, “Oh, the blind, the pitiful folly!” — to which, as it might perfectly have applied to her own behaviour, he returned nothing. She had moreover at once gone on. “Have it then that there wasn’t much to do — between your finding that you loathed me for another woman or discovering only, when it came to the point, that you loathed me quite enough for myself.”
Which, as she put it in that immensely effective fashion, he recognised that he must just unprotestingly and not so very awkwardly — not so very! — take from her; since, whatever he had thus come to her for, it wasn’t to perjure himself with any pretence that, “another woman” or no other woman, he hadn’t, for years and years, abhorred her. Now he was taking tea with her — or rather, literally, seemed not to be; but this made no difference, and he let her express it as she would while he distinguished a man he knew, Charley Coote, outside on the Parade, under favour of the empty hour and one of the flaring lamps, making up to a young woman with whom (it stuck out grotesquely in his manner) he had never before conversed. Dodd’s own position was that of acquiescing in this recall of what had so bitterly been — but he hadn’t come back to her, of himself, to stir up, to recall or to recriminate, and for her it could but be the very lesson of her whole present act that if she touched anything she touched everything. Soon enough she was indeed, and all overwhelmingly, touching everything — with a hand of which the boldness grew.
“But I didn’t let that, even, make a difference in what I wanted — which was all,” she said, “and had only and passionately been, to take care of you. I had no money whatever — nothing then of my own, not a penny to come by anyhow; so it wasn’t with mine I could do it. But I could do it with yours,” she amazingly wound up — “if I could once get yours out of you.”
He faced straight about again — his eyebrows higher than they had ever been in his life. “Mine? What penny of it was mine? What scrap beyond a bare, mean little living had I ever pretended to have?”
She held herself still a minute, visibly with force; only her eyes consciously attached to the seat of a chair the back of which her hands, making it tilt toward her a little, grasped as for support. “You pretended to have enough to marry me — and that was all I afterward claimed of you when you wouldn’t.”
He was on the point of retorting that he had absolutely pretended to nothing — least of all to the primary desire that such a way of stating it fastened on him; he was on the point for ten seconds of giving her full in the face: “I never had any such dream till you yourself — infatuated with me as, frankly, you on the whole appeared to be — got round me and muddled me up and made me behave as if in a way that went against the evidence of my senses.” But he was to feel as quickly that, whatever the ugly, the spent, the irrecoverable truth, he might better have bitten his tongue off: there beat on him there this strange and other, this so prodigiously different beautiful and dreadful truth that no far remembrance and no abiding ache of his own could wholly falsify, and that was indeed all out with her next words. “That — using it for you and using you yourself for your own future — was my motive. I’ve led my life, which has been an affair, I assure you; and, as I’ve told you without your quite seeming to understand, I’ve brought everything fivefold back to you.”
The perspiration broke out on his forehead. “Everything’s mine?” he quavered as for the deep piercing pain of it.
“Everything!” said Kate Cookham.
So it told him how she had loved him — but with the tremendous effect at once of its only glaring out at him from the whole thing that it was verily she, a thousand times over, who, in the exposure of his youth and his vanity, had, on the bench of desolation, the scene of yesterday’s own renewal, left for him no forward steps to take. It hung there for him tragically vivid again, the hour she had first found him sequestered and accessible after making his acquaintance at his shop. And from this, by a succession of links that fairly clicked to his ear as with their perfect fitting, the fate and the pain and the payment of others stood together in a great grim order. Everything there then was his — to make him ask what had been Nan’s, poor Nan’s of the constant question of whether he need have collapsed. She was before him, she was between them, his little dead dissatisfied wife; across all whose final woe and whose lowly grave he was to reach out, it appeared, to take gifts. He saw them too, the gifts; saw them — she bristled with them — in his actual companion’s brave and sincere and authoritative figure, her strangest of demonstrations. But the other appearance was intenser, as if their ghost had waved wild arms; so that half a minute hadn’t passed before the one poor thing that remained of Nan, and that yet thus became a quite mighty and momentous poor thing, was sitting on his lips as for its sole opportunity.
“Can you give me your word of honour that I mightn’t, under decent advice, have defied you?”
It made her turn very white; but now that she had said what she had said she could still hold up her head. “Certainly you might have defied me, Herbert Dodd.”
“They would have told me you had no legal case?”
Well, if she was pale she was bold. “You talk of decent advice —!” She broke off, there was too much to say, and all needless. What she said instead was: “They would have told you I had nothing.”
“I didn’t so much as ask,” her sad visitor remarked.
“Of course you didn’t so much as ask.”
“I couldn’t be so outrageously vulgar,” he went on.
“I could, by God’s help!” said Kate Cookham.
“Thank you.” He had found at his command a tone that made him feel more gentlemanlike than he had ever felt in his life or should doubtless ever feel again. It might have been enough — but somehow as they stood there with this immense clearance between them it wasn’t. The clearance was like a sudden gap or great bleak opening through which there blew upon them a deadly chill. Too many things had fallen away, too many new rolled up and over him, and they made something within shake him to his base. It upset the full vessel, and though she kept her eyes on him he let that consequence come, bursting into tears, weakly crying there before her even as he had cried to himself in the hour of his youth when she had made him groundlessly fear. She turned away then — that she couldn’t watch, and had presently flung herself on the sofa and, all responsively wailing, buried her own face on the cushioned arm. So for a minute their smothered sobs only filled the room. But he made out, through this disorder, where he had put down his hat; his stick and his new tan-coloured gloves — they had cost two-and-thruppence and would have represented sacrifices — were on the chair beside it He picked these articles up and all silently and softly — gasping, that is, but quite on tiptoe — reached the door and let himself out.
Off there on the bench of desolation a week later she made him a more particular statement, which it had taken the remarkably tense interval to render possible. After leaving her at the hotel that last Sunday he had gone forth in his reaggravated trouble and walked straight before him, in the teeth of the west wind, close to the iron rails of the stretched Marina and with his telltale face turned from persons occasionally met, and toward the surging sea. At the Land’s End, even in the confirmed darkness and the perhaps imminent big blow, his immemorial nook, small shelter as it yielded, had again received him; and it was in the course of this heedless session, no doubt, where the agitated air had nothing to add to the commotion within him, that he began to look his extraordinary fortune a bit straighter in the face and see it confess itself at once a fairy-tale and a nightmare That, visibly, confoundingly, she was still attached to him (attached in fact was a mild word!) and that the unquestionable proof of it was in this offered pecuniary salve, of the thickest composition, for his wounds and sores and shames — these things were the fantastic fable, the tale of money in handfuls, that he seemed to have only to stand there and swallow and digest and feel himself full-fed by; but the whole of the rest was nightmare, and most of all nightmare his having thus to thank one through whom Nan and his little girls had known torture.
He didn’t care for himself now, and this unextinguished and apparently inextinguishable charm by which he had held her was a fact incredibly romantic; but he gazed with a longer face than he had ever had for anything in the world at his potential acceptance of a great bouncing benefit from the person he intimately, if even in a manner indirectly, associated with the conditions to which his lovely wife and his children (who would have been so lovely too) had pitifully succumbed. He had accepted the social relation — which meant he had taken even that on trial — without knowing what it so dazzlingly masked; for a social relation it had become with a vengeance when it drove him about the place as now at his hours of freedom (and he actually and recklessly took, all demoralised and unstrung and unfit either for work or for anything else, other liberties that would get him into trouble) under this queer torment of irreconcilable things, a bewildered consciousness of tenderness and patience and cruelty, of great evident mystifying facts that were as little to be questioned as to be conceived or explained, and that were yet least, withal, to be lost sight of.
On that Sunday night he had wandered wild, incoherently ranging and throbbing, but this became the law of his next days as well, since he lacked more than ever all other resort or refuge and had nowhere to carry, to deposit, or contractedly let loose and lock up, as it were, his swollen consciousness, which fairly split in twain the raw shell of his sordid little boarding-place. The arch of the sky and the spread of sea and shore alone gave him space; he could roam with himself anywhere, in short, far or near — he could only never take himself back. That certitude — that this was impossible to him even should she wait there among her plushes and bronzes ten years — was the thing he kept closest clutch of; it did wonders for what he would have called his self-respect. Exactly as he had left her so he would stand off — even though at moments when he pulled up sharp somewhere to put himself an intensest question his heart almost stood still. The days of the week went by, and as he had left her she stayed; to the extent, that is, of his having neither sight nor sound of her, and of the failure of every sign. It took nerve, he said, not to return to her, even for curiosity — since how, after all, in the name of wonder, had she invested the fruits of her extortion to such advantage, there being no chapter of all the obscurity of the years to beat that for queer-ness? But he dropped, tired to death, on benches, half a dozen times an evening — exactly on purpose to recognise that the nerve required was just the nerve he had.
As the days without a token from her multiplied he came in as well for hours — and these indeed mainly on the bench of desolation — of sitting stiff and stark in presence of the probability that he had lost everything for ever. When he passed the Royal he never turned an eyelash, and when he met Captain Roper on the Front, three days after having been introduced to him, he “cut him dead” — another privileged consequence of a social relation — rather than seem to himself to make the remotest approach to the question of whether Miss Cookham had left Properley. He had cut people in the days of his life before, just as he had come to being himself cut — since there had been no time for him wholly without one or other face of that necessity — but had never effected such a severance as of this rare connection, which helped to give him thus the measure of his really precious sincerity. If he had lost what had hovered before him he had lost it, his only tribute to which proposition was to grind his teeth with one of those “scrunches,” as he would have said, of which the violence fairly reached his ear. It wouldn’t make him lift a finger, and in fact if Kate had simply taken herself off on the Tuesday or the Wednesday she would have been reabsorbed again into the darkness from which she had emerged — and no lifting of fingers, the unspeakable chapter closed, would evermore avail. That at any rate was the kind of man he still was — even after all that had come and gone, and even if for a few dazed hours certain things had seemed pleasant. The dazed hours had passed, the surge of the old bitterness had dished him (shouldn’t he have been shamed if it hadn’t?), and he might sit there as before, as always, with nothing at all on earth to look to. He had therefore wrongfully believed himself to be degraded; and the last word about him would be that he couldn’t then, it appeared, sink to vulgarity as he had tried to let his miseries make him.
And yet on the next Sunday morning, face to face with him again at the Land’s End, what she very soon came to was: “As if I believed you didn’t know by what cord you hold me!” Absolutely too, and just that morning in fact, above all, he wouldn’t, he quite couldn’t have taken his solemn oath that he hadn’t a sneaking remnant, as he might have put it to himself — a remnant of faith in tremendous things still to come of their interview. The day was sunny and breezy, the sea of a cold purple; he wouldn’t go to church as he mostly went of Sunday mornings, that being in its way too a social relation — and not least when two-and-thruppenny tan-coloured gloves were new; which indeed he had the art of keeping them for ages. Yet he would dress himself as he scarce mustered resources for even to figure on the fringe of Society, local and transient, at St. Bernard’s, and in this trim he took his way westward; occupied largely, as he went, it might have seemed to any person pursuing the same course and happening to observe him, in a fascinated study of the motions of his shadow, the more or less grotesque shape projected, in front of him and mostly a bit to the right, over the blanched asphalt of the Parade and dandling and dancing at such a rate, shooting out and then contracting, that, viewed in themselves, its eccentricities might have formed the basis of an interesting challenge: “Find the state of mind, guess the nature of the agitation, possessing the person so remarkably represented!” Herbert Dodd, for that matter, might have been himself attempting to make by the sun’s sharp aid some approach to his immediate horoscope.
It had at any rate been thus put before him that the dandling and dancing of his image occasionally gave way to perfect immobility, when he stopped and kept his eyes on it. “Suppose she should come, suppose she should!” it is revealed at least to ourselves that he had at these moments audibly breathed — breathed with the intensity of an arrest between hope and fear. It had glimmered upon him from early, with the look of the day, that, given all else that could happen, this would be rather, as he put it, in her line; and the possibility lived for him, as he proceeded, to the tune of a suspense almost sickening. It was, from one small stage of his pilgrimage to another, the “For ever, never!” of the sentimental case the playmates of his youth used to pretend to settle by plucking the petals of a daisy. But it came to his truly turning faint — so “queer” he felt — when, at the gained point of the long stretch from which he could always tell, he arrived within positive sight of his immemorial goal. His seat was taken and she was keeping it for him — it could only be she there in possession; whereby it shone out for Herbert Dodd that if he hadn’t been quite sure of her recurrence she had at least been quite sure of his. That pulled him up to some purpose, where recognition began for them — or to the effect, in other words, of his pausing to judge if he could bear, for the sharpest note of their intercourse, this inveterate demonstration of her making him do what she liked. What settled the question for him then — and just while they avowedly watched each other, over the long interval, before closing, as if, on either side, for the major advantage — what settled it was this very fact that what she liked she liked so terribly. If it were simply to “use” him, as she had said the last time, and no matter to the profit of which of them she called it, one might let it go for that; since it could make her wait over, day after day, in that fashion, and with such a spending of money, on the hazard of their meeting again. How could she be the least sure he would ever again consent to it after the proved action on him, a week ago, of her last monstrous honesty? It was indeed positively as if he were now himself putting this influence — and for their common edification — to the supreme, to the finest test. He had a sublime, an ideal flight, which lasted about a minute. “Suppose, now that I see her there and what she has taken so characteristically for granted, suppose I just show her that she hasn’t only confidently to wait or whistle for me, and that the length of my leash is greater than she measures, and that everything’s impossible always? — show it by turning my back on her now and walking straight away. She won’t be able not to understand that!”
Nothing had passed, across their distance, but the mute apprehension of each on the part of each; the whole expanse, at the church hour, was void of other life (he had scarce met a creature on his way from end to end), and the sun-seasoned gusts kept brushing the air and all the larger prospect clean. It was through this beautiful lucidity that he watched her watch him, as it were — watch him for what he would do. Neither moved at this high tension; Kate Cookham, her face fixed on him, only waited with a stiff appearance of leaving him, not for dignity but — to an effect of even deeper perversity — for kindness, free to choose. It yet somehow affected him at present, this attitude, as a gage of her knowing too — knowing, that is, that he wasn’t really free, that this was the thinnest of vain parades, the poorest of hollow heroics, that his need, his solitude, his suffered wrong, his exhausted rancour, his foredoomed submission to any shown interest, all hung together too heavy on him to let the weak wings of his pride do more than vaguely tremble. They couldn’t, they didn’t carry him a single beat further away; according to which he stood rooted, neither retreating nor advancing, but presently correcting his own share of the bleak exchange by looking off at the sea. Deeply conscious of the awkwardness this posture gave him, he yet clung to it as the last shred of his honour, to the clear argument that it was one thing for him to have felt beneath all others, the previous days, that she was to be counted on, but quite a different for her to have felt that he was. His checked approach, arriving thus at no term, could in these odd conditions have established that he wasn’t only if Kate Cookham had, as either of them might have said, taken it so — if she had given up the game at last by rising, by walking away and adding to the distance between them, and he had then definitely let her vanish into space. It became a fact that when she did finally rise — though after how long our record scarce takes on itself to say — it was not to confirm their separation but to put an end to it; and this by slowly approaching him till she had come within earshot He had wondered, once aware of it in spite of his averted face, what she would say and on what note, as it were, she would break their week’s silence; so that he had to recognise anew, her voice reaching him, that remarkable quality in her which again and again came up for him as her art.
“There are twelve hundred and sixty pounds, to be definite, but I have it all down for you — and you’ve only to draw.”
They lost themselves, these words, rare and exquisite, in the wide bright genial medium and the Sunday stillness, but even while that occurred and he was gaping for it she was herself there, in her battered ladylike truth, to answer for them, to represent them, and, if a further grace than their simple syllabled beauty were conceivable, almost embarrassingly to cause them to materialise. Yes, she let her smart and tight little reticule hang as if it bulged, beneath its clasp, with the whole portentous sum, and he felt himself glare again at this vividest of her attested claims. She might have been ready, on the spot, to open the store to the plunge of his hand, or, with the situation otherwise conceived, to impose on his pauperised state an acceptance of alms on a scale unprecedented in the annals of street charity. Nothing so much counted for him, however, neither grave numeral nor elegant fraction, as the short, rich, rounded word that the breeze had picked up as it dropped and seemed now to blow about between them. “To draw — to draw?” Yes, he gaped it as if it had no sense; the fact being that even while he did so he was reading into her use of the term more romance than any word in the language had ever had for him. He, Herbert Dodd, was to live to “draw,” like people, scarce hampered by the conditions of earth, whom he had remotely and circuitously heard about, and in fact when he walked back with her to where she had been sitting it was very much, for his strained nerves, as if the very bench of desolation itself were to be the scene of that exploit and he mightn’t really live till he reached it.
When they had sat down together she did press the spring of her reticule, from which she took, not a handful of gold nor a packet of crisp notes, but an oblong sealed letter, which she had thus waited on him, she remarked, on purpose to deliver, and which would certify, with sundry particulars, to the credit she had opened for him at a London bank. He received it without looking at it — he held it, in the same manner, conspicuous and unassimilated, for most of the rest of the immediate time, appearing embarrassed with it, nervously twisting and flapping it, yet thus publicly retaining it even while aware, beneath everything, of the strange, the quite dreadful, wouldn’t it be? engagement that such inaction practically stood for. He could accept money to that amount, yes — but not for nothing in return. For what then in return? He kept asking himself for what, while she said other things and made above all, in her high, shrewd, successful way the point that, no, he needn’t pretend that his conviction of her continued personal interest in him wouldn’t have tided him oyer any question besetting him since their separation. She put it to him that the deep instinct of where he should at last find her must confidently have worked for him, since she confessed to her instinct of where she should find him; which meant — oh it came home to him as he fingered his sealed treasure! — neither more nor less than that she had now created between them an equality of experience. He wasn’t to have done all the suffering, she was to have “been through” things he couldn’t even guess at; and, since he was bargaining away his right ever again to allude to the unforgettable, so much there was of it, what her tacit proposition came to was that they were “square” and might start afresh.
He didn’t take up her charge, as his so compromised “pride” yet in a manner prompted him, that he had enjoyed all the week all those elements of ease about her; the most he achieved for that was to declare, with an ingenuity contributing to float him no small distance further, that of course he had turned up at their old place of tryst, which had been, through the years, the haunt of his solitude and the goal of his walk any Sunday morning that seemed too beautiful for church; but that he hadn’t in the least built on her presence there — since that supposition gave him, she would understand, wouldn’t she? the air, disagreeable to him, of having come in search of her. Her quest of himself, once he had been seated there, would have been another matter — but in short “Of course after all you did come to me, just now, didn’t you?” He felt himself, too, lamely and gracelessly grin, as for the final kick of his honour, in confirmation of the record that he had then yielded but to her humility. Her humility became for him at this hour and to this tune, on the bench of desolation, a quantity more prodigious and even more mysterious than that other guaranteed quantity the finger-tips of his left hand could feel the tap by the action of his right; though what was in especial extraordinary was the manner in which she could keep making him such allowances and yet meet him again, at some turn, as with her residuum for her clever self so great.
“Come to you, Herbert Dodd?” she imperturbably echoed. “I’ve been coming to you for the last ten years!”
There had been for him just before this sixty supreme seconds of intensest aspiration — a minute of his keeping his certificate poised for a sharp thrust back at her, the thrust of the wild freedom of his saying: “No, no, I can’t give them up; I can’t simply sink them deep down in my soul forever, with no cross in all my future to mark that burial; so that if this is what our arrangement means I must decline to have anything to do with it.” The words none the less hadn’t come, and when she had herself, a couple of minutes later, spoken those others, the blood rose to his face as if, given his stiffness and her extravagance, he had just indeed saved himself.
Everything in fact stopped, even his fidget with his paper; she imposed a hush, she imposed at any rate the conscious decent form of one, and he couldn’t afterward have told how long, at this juncture, he must have sat simply gazing before him. It was so long, at any rate, that Kate herself got up — and quite indeed, presently, as if her own forms were now at an end. He had returned her nothing — so what was she waiting for? She had been on the two other occasions momentarily at a loss, but never so much so, no doubt, as was thus testified to by her leaving the bench and moving over once more to the rail of the terrace. She could carry it off, in a manner, with her resources, that she was waiting with so little to wait for; she could face him again, after looking off at the sea, as if this slightly stiff delay, not wholly exempt from awkwardness, had been but a fine scruple of her courtesy. She had gathered herself in; after giving him time to appeal she could take it that he had decided and that nothing was left for her to do. “Well then,” she clearly launched at him across the broad walk — “well then, good-bye.”
She had come nearer with it, as if he might rise for some show of express separation; but he only leaned back motionless, his eyes on her now — he kept her a moment before him. “Do you mean that we don’t — that we don’t —?” But he broke down.
“Do I ‘mean’ —?” She remained as for questions he might ask, but it was wellnigh as if there played through her dotty veil an irrepressible irony for that particular one. “I’ve meant, for long years, I think, all I’m capable of meaning. I’ve meant so much that I can’t mean more. So there it is.”
“But if you go,” he appealed — and with a sense as of final flatness, however he arranged it, for his own attitude — “but if you go sha’n’t I see you again?”
She waited a little, and it was strangely for him now as if — though at last so much more gorged with her tribute than she had ever been with his — something still depended on her. “Do you like to see me?” she very simply asked.
At this he did get up; that was easier than to say — at least with responsive simplicity; and again for a little he looked hard and in silence at his letter; which at last, however, raising his eyes to her own for the act, while he masked their conscious ruefulness, to his utmost, in some air of assurance, he slipped into the inner pocket of his coat, letting it settle there securely. “You’re too wonderful.” But he frowned at her with it as never in his life. “Where does it all come from?”
“The wonder of poor me?” Kate Cookham said. “It comes from you.”
He shook his head slowly — feeling, with his letter there against his heart, such a new agility, almost such a new range of interest. “I mean so much money — so extraordinarily much.”
Well, she held him a while blank. “Does it seem to you extraordinarily much — twelve-hundred-and-sixty? Because, you know,” she added, “it’s all.”
“It’s enough!” he returned with a slight thoughtful droop of his head to the right and his eyes attached to the far horizon as through a shade of shyness for what he was saying. He felt all her own lingering nearness somehow on his cheek.
“It’s enough? Thank you then!” she rather oddly went on.
He shifted a little his posture. “It was more than a hundred a year — for you to get together.”
“Yes,” she assented, “that was what year by year I tried for.”
“But that you could live all the while and save that —!” Yes, he was at liberty, as he hadn’t been, quite pleasantly to marvel. All his wonderments in life had been hitherto unanswered — and didn’t the change mean that here again was the social relation?
“Ah, I didn’t live as you saw me the other day.”
“Yes,” he answered — and didn’t he the next instant feel he must fairly have smiled with it? — “the other day you were going it!”
“For once in my life,” said Kate Cookham. “I’ve left the hotel,” she after a moment added.
“Ah, you’re in — a — lodgings?” he found himself inquiring as for positive sociability.
She had apparently a slight shade of hesitation, but in an instant it was all right; as what he showed he wanted to know she seemed mostly to give him. “Yes — but far of course from here. Up on the hill.” To which, after another instant, “At The Mount, Castle Terrace,” she subjoined.
“Oh, I know The Mount. And Castle Terrace is awfully sunny and nice.”
“Awfully sunny and nice,” Kate Cookham took from him.
“So that if it isn’t,” he pursued, “like the Royal, why you’re at least comfortable.”
“I shall be comfortable anywhere now,” she replied with a certain dryness.
It was astonishing, however, what had become of his own. “Because I’ve accepted ——?”
“Call it that!” she dimly smiled.
“I hope then at any rate,” he returned, “you can now thoroughly rest” He spoke as for a cheerful conclusion and moved again also to smile, though as with a poor grimace, no doubt; since what he seemed most clearly to feel was that since he “accepted” he mustn’t, for his last note, have accepted in sulkiness or gloom. With that, at the same time, he couldn’t but know, in all his fibres, that with such a still-watching face as the dotty veil didn’t disguise for him there was no possible concluding, at least on his part On hers, on hers it was — as he had so often for a week had reflectively to pronounce things — another affair. Ah, somehow, both formidably and helpfully, her face concluded — yet in a sense so strangely enshrouded in things she didn’t tell him. What must she, what mustn’t she, have done? What she had said — and she had really told him nothing — was no account of her life; in the midst of which conflict of opposed recognitions, at any rate, it was as if, for all he could do, he himself now considerably floundered. “But I can’t think — I can’t think ——!”
“You can’t think I can have made so much money in the time and been honest?”
“Oh, you’ve been honest!” Herbert Dodd distinctly allowed.
It moved her stillness to a gesture — which, however, she had as promptly checked; and she went on the next instant as for further generosity to his failure of thought. “Everything was possible, under my stress, with my hatred.”
“Your hatred —?” For she had paused as if it were after all too difficult.
“Of what I should for so long have been doing to you.”
With this, for all his failures, a greater light than any yet shone upon him. “It made you think of ways ——?”
“It made me think of everything. It made me work,” said Kate Cookham. She added, however, the next moment: “But that’s my story.”
“And I mayn’t hear it?”
“No — because I mayn’t hear yours.”
“Oh, mine —!” he said with the strangest, saddest, yet after all most resigned sense of surrender of it; which he tried to make sound as if he couldn’t have told it, for its splendor of sacrifice and of misery, even if he would.
It seemed to move in her a little, exactly, that sense of the invidious. “Ah, mine too, I assure you ——!”
He rallied at once to the interest. “Oh, we can talk then?”
“Never,” she all oddly replied. “Never,” said Kate Cookham.
They remained so, face to face; the effect of which for him was that he had after a little understood why. That was fundamental. “Well, I see.”
Thus confronted they stayed; and then, as he saw with a contentment that came up from deeper still, it was indeed she who, with her worn fine face, would conclude. “But I can take care of you.”
“You have!” he said as with nothing left of him but a beautiful appreciative candour.
“Oh, but you’ll want it now in a way —!” she responsibly answered.
He waited a moment, dropping again on the seat. So, while she still stood, he looked up at her; with the sense somehow that there were too many things and that they were all together, terribly, irresistibly, doubtless blessedly, in her eyes and her whole person; which thus affected him for the moment as more than he could bear. He leaned forward, dropping his elbows to his knees and pressing his head on his hands. So he stayed, saying nothing; only, with the sense of her own sustained, renewed and wonderful action, knowing that an arm had passed round him and that he was held. She was beside him on the bench of desolation.
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