THE others had been so absorbed that they had not seen Jean Martle approach, and she, on her side, was close to them before appearing to perceive a stranger in the gentleman who held Effie in his lap and whom she had the air of having assumed, at a greater distance, to be Anthony Bream. Effie’s reach towards her friend was so effective that, with Vidal’s obligation to rise, it enabled her to slip from his hands and rush to avail herself of the embrace offered her, in spite of a momentary arrest, by Jean. Rose, however, at the sight of this movement, was quicker than Jean to catch her; she seized her almost with violence, and, holding her as she had held her before, dropped again upon the bench and presented her as a yielding captive. This act of appropriation was confirmed by the flash of a fine glance a single gleam, but direct which, how ever, producing in Jean’s fair face no retort, had only the effect of making her look, in gracious recognition, at Dennis. He had evidently, for the moment, nothing but an odd want of words to meet her with; but this, precisely, gave her such a sense of having disturbed a scene of intimacy that, to be doubly courteous, she said:
“Perhaps you remember me. We were here together ”
“Four years ago perfectly,” Rose broke in, speaking for him with an amenity that might have been intended as a quick corrective of any impres sion conveyed by her grab of the child. “ Mr. Vidal and I were just talking of you. He has come back, for the first time since then, to pay us a little visit.”
“Then he has things to say to you that I’ve rudely interrupted. Please excuse me I’m off again,” Jean went on to Dennis. “ I only came for the little girl.” She turned back to Rose. “ I’m afraid it’s time I should take her home.”.
Rose sat there like a queen-regent with a baby sovereign on her knee. “ Must I give her up to you? ”
“I’m responsible for her, you know, to Gorham,” Jean returned.
Rose gravely kissed her little ward, who, now that she was apparently to be offered the entertain ment of a debate in which she was so closely concerned, was clearly prepared to contribute to it the calmness of impartial beauty at a joust. She was just old enough to be interested, but she was just young enough to be judicial; the lap of her present friend had the compass of a small child-world, and she perched there in her loveliness as if she had been Helen on the walls of Troy. “ It’s not to Gorman I’m responsible,” Rose presently answered.
Jean took it good-humouredly. “ Are you to Mr. Bream? ”
“I’ll tell you presently to whom.” And Rose looked intelligently at Dennis Vidal.
Smiled at in alternation by two clever young women, he had yet not sufficiently to achieve a jocose manner shaken off his sense of the strange climax of his conversation with the elder of them. He turned away awkwardly, as he had done four years before, for the hat it was one of the privileges of such a colloquy to make him put down in an odd place. “ I’ll go over to Bounds,” he said to Rose. And then to Jean, to take leave of her: “I’m stay ing at the other house.”
“Really? Mr. Bream didn’t tell me. But I must never drive you away. You’ve more to say to Miss Armiger than I have. I’ve only come to get Effie,” Jean repeated.
Dennis at this, brushing off his recovered hat, gave way to his thin laugh. “ That apparently may take you some time! ”
Rose generously helped him off. “ I’ve more to say to Miss Martle than I’ve now to say to you. I think that what I’ve already said to you is quite enough.
“Thanks, thanks quite enough. I’ll just go over.”
“You won’t go first to Mrs. Beever? ”
“Not yet I’ll come in this evening. Thanks, thanks!” Dennis repeated with a sudden dramatic gaiety that was presumably intended to preserve appearances to acknowledge Rose’s aid and, in a spirit of reciprocity, cover any exposure she might herself have incurred. Raising his hat, he passed down the slope and disappeared, leaving our young ladies face to face.
Their situation might still have been embarrassing had Rose not taken immediate measures to give it a lift. “ You must let me have the pleasure of making you the first person to hear of a matter that closely corfcerns me.” She hung fire, watching her companion; then she brought out: “ I’m engaged to be married to Mr. Vidal.”
“Engaged?” Jean almost bounded forward, holding up her relief like a torch.
Rose greeted with laughter this natural note. “He arrived half an hour ago, for a supreme appeal and it has not, you see, taken long. I’ve just had the honour of accepting him.”
Jean’s movement had brought her so close to the bench that, though slightly disconcerted by its action on her friend, she could only, in consistency, seat herself. “ That’s very charming I congratu late you.”
“It’s charming of you to be so glad,” Rose returned. “ However, you’ve the news in all its freshness.”
“I appreciate that too,” said Jean. “ But fancy my dropping on a conversation of such impor tance! ”
“Fortunately you didn’t cut it short. We had settled the question. He had got his answer.”
“If I had known it I would have congratulated Mr. Vidal,” Jean pursued.
“You would have frightened him out of his wits he’s so dreadfully shy,” Rose laughed.
“Yes I could see he was dreadfully shy. But the great thing,” Jean candidly observed, “ is that he was not too dreadfully shy to come back to you.”
Rose continued to be moved to mirth. “ Oh, I don’t mean with me I He’s as bold with me as I am for instance with you.” Jean had riot touched the child, but Rose smoothed our her ribbons as if to redress some previous freedom. “ You’ll think that says everything. I can easily imagine how you judge my frankness,” she added. “ But of course I’m grossly immodest I always was.”
Jean wistfully watched her light hands play here and there over Effie’s adornments. “ I think you’re a person of great courage if you’ll let me also be frank. There’s nothing in the world I admire so much for I don’t consider that I’ve, myself, a great deal. I daresay, however, that I should let you know just as soon if I were engaged.”
“Which, unfortunately, is exactly what you’re not!” Rose, having finished her titivation of the child, sank comfortably back on the bench. “Do you object to my speaking to you of that?” she asked.
Jean hesitated; she had only after letting them escape become conscious of the reach of her words, the inadvertence of which showed how few waves of emotion her scene with Paul Beever had left to subside. She coloured as she replied: “ I don’t know how much you know.”
“I know everything,” said Rose. “ Mr. Beever has already told me.”
Jean’s flush, at this, deepened. “ Mr. Beever already doesn’t care! ”
“That’s fortunate for you, my dear! Will you let me tell you,” Rose continued, “how much I do?” Jean again hesitated, looking, however, through her embarrassment, very straight and sweet. “ I don’t quite see that it’s a thing you should tell me or that I’m really obliged to hear. It’s very good of you to take an interest ”
“But however good it may be, it’s none of my business: is that what you mean?” Rose broke in. “ Such an answer is doubtless natural enough. My having hoped you would accept Paul Beever, and above all my having rather publicly expressed that hope, is an apparent stretch of discretion that you’re perfectly free to take up. But you must allow me to say that the stretch is more apparent than real. There’s discretion and discretion and it’s all a matter of motive. Perhaps you can guess mine for having found a reassurance in the idea of your definitely bestowing your hand. It’s a very small and a very pretty hand, but its possible action is out of proportion to its size and even to its beauty. It was not a question of meddling in your affairs your affairs were only one side of the matter. My interest was wholly in the effect of your marriage on the affairs of others. Let me say, moreover,” Rose went smoothly and inexorably on, while Jean, listening intently, drew shorter breaths and looked away, as if in growing pain, from the wonderful white, mobile mask that supplied half the meaning of this speech “ let me say, morever, that it strikes me you hardly treat me with fairness in forbidding me an allusion that has after all so much in common with the fact, in my own situation, as to which you’ve no scruple in showing me your exuberant joy. You clap your hands over my being if you’ll forgive the vulgarity of my calling things by their names got out of the way; yet I must suffer in silence to see you rather more in it than ever.”
Jean turned again upon her companion a face bewildered and alarmed: unguardedly stepping into water that she had believed shallow, she found herself caught up in a current of fast-moving depths a cold, full tide that set straight out to sea. “ Where am I?” her scared silence seemed for the moment to ask. Her quick intelligence indeed, came to her aid, and she spoke in a voice out of which she showed that she tried to keep her heart-beats. “You call things, certainly, by names that are extraordinary; but I, at any rate, follow you far enough to be able to remind you that what I just said about your engage ment was provoked by your introducing the subject.”
Rose was silent a moment, but without prejudice, clearly, to her firm possession of the ground she stood on a power to be effectively cool in exact proportion as her interlocutress was troubled. “ I introduced the subject for two reasons. One of them was that your eager descent upon us at that particular moment seemed to present you in the light of an inquirer whom it would be really rude not to gratify. The other was just to see if you would succeed in restraining your glee.”
“Then your story isn’t true?” Jean asked with a promptitude that betrayed the limits of her cir cumspection.
“There you are again!” Rose laughed. “ Do you know your apprehensions are barely decent? I haven’t, however, laid a trap with a bait that’s all make-believe. It’s perfectly true that Mr. Vidal has again pressed me hard it’s not true that I’ve yet given him an answer completely final. But as I mean to at the earliest moment, you can say so to whomever you like.”
“I can surely leave the saying so to you!” Jean returned. “ But I shall be sorry to appear to have treated you with a want of confidence that may give you a complaint to make on the score of my manners as to which you set me too high an example by the rare perfection of your own. Let me simply let you know, then, to cover every possibility of that sort, that I intend, under no circumstances ever ever to marry. So far as that knowledge may satisfy you, you’re welcome to the satisfaction. Perhaps in consideration of it,” Jean wound up, with an effect that must have struck her own ear as the greatest she had ever produced “ perhaps in consideration of it you’ll kindly do what I ask you.”
The poor girl was destined to see her effect reduced to her mere personal sense of it. Rose made no movement save to lay her hands on Effie’s shoulders, while that young lady looked up at the friend of other occasions in round-eyed detachment, following the talk enough for curiosity, but not enough either for comprehension or for agitation. “You take my surrender for granted, I suppose, because you’ve worked so long to produce the impression, which no one, for your good fortune, has gainsaid, that she’s safe only in your hands. But I gainsay it at last, for her safety becomes a very different thing from the moment you give such a glimpse of your open field as you must excuse my still continuing to hold that you do give. My ‘ knowledge ’ to use your term that you’ll never marry has exactly as much and as little weight as your word for it. I leave it to your conscience to estimate that wonderful amount. You say too much both more than I ask you and more than I can oblige you by prescribing to myself to take seriously. You do thereby injustice to what must be always on the cards for you the possible failure of the great impediment, fm disinterested in the matter I shall marry, as” I’ve had the honour to inform you, without having to think at all of impediments or failures. That’s the difference between us, and it seems to me that it alters everything. I had a delicacy but now I’ve nothing in the world but a fear.”
Jean had got up before these remarks had gone far, but even though she fell back a few steps her dismay was a force that condemned her to take them in. “God forbid I should understand you,” she panted; “I only make out that you say and mean horrible things and that you’re doing your best to seek a quarrel with me from which you shall derive some advantage that, I’m happy to feel, is beyond my conception.” Both the women were now as pale as death, and Rose was brought to her feet by the pure passion of this retort. The manner of it was such as to leave Jean nothing but to walk away, which she instantly proceeded to do. At the end of ten paces, however, she turned to look at their companion, who stood beside Rose, held by the hand, and whom, as if from a certain considera tion for infant innocence and a certain instinct of fair play, she had not attempted to put on her side by a single direct appeal from intimate eyes. This appeal she now risked, and the way the little girl’s face mutely met it suddenly precipitated her to blind supplication. She became weak she broke down. “ I beseech you to let me have her.”
Rose Armiger’s countenance made no secret of her appreciation of this collapse. “ I’ll let you have her on one condition,” she presently replied.
“What condition? ”
“That you deny to me on the spot that you’ve but one feeling in your soul. Oh, don’t look vacant and dazed,” Rose derisively pursued; “don’t look as if you didn’t know what feeling I mean! Renounce it repudiate it, and I’ll never touch her again! ”
Jean gazed in sombre stupefaction. “I know what feeling you mean,” she said at last, “and I’m incapable of meeting your condition. I ‘ deny,’ I ‘ renounce,’ I ‘ repudiate ’ as little as I hope, as I dream, or as I feel that I’m likely ever again even to utter!” Then she brought out in her baffled
sadness, but with so little vulgarity of pride that she sounded, rather, a note of compassion for a perversity so deep: “ It’s because of that that I want her! ”
“Because you adore him and she’s his? ”
Jean faltered, but she was launched. “ Because I adore him and she’s his.”
“ I want her for another reason,” Rose declared. “I adored her poor mother and she’s hers. That’s my ground, that’s my love, that’s my faith.” She caught Effie up again; she held her in two strong arms and dealt her a kiss that was a long consecra tion. “ It’s as your dear dead mother’s, my own my sweet, that if it’s time I shall carry you to bed!” She passed swiftly down the slope with her burden and took the turn which led her out of sight. Jean stood watching her till she disappeared and then waited till she had emerged for the usual minute on the rise in the middle of the bridge. She saw her stop again there, she saw her again, as if in the triumph a great open-air insolence of possession, press her face to the little girl’s. Then they dipped together to the further end and were lost, and Jean, after taking a few vague steps on the lawn, paused, as if sick with the aftertaste of her encounter, and turned to the nearest seat. It was close to Mrs. Beever’s blighted tea-table, and when she had sunk into the chair she threw her arms upon this support and wearily dropped her head.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10