It happened, the next day after the funeral, I came upon reproductions of Aubrey Beardsley’s Atalanta, and of the tailpiece to Salome, and others. I sat and looked and my soul leaped out upon the new thing. I was bewildered, wondering, grudging, fascinated. I looked a long time, but my mind, or my soul, would come to no state of coherence. I was fascinated and overcome, but yet full of stubbornness and resistance.
Lettie was out, so, although it was dinner-time, even because it was dinner-time, I took the book and went down to the mill.
The dinner was over; there was the fragrance of cooked rhubarb in the room. I went straight to Emily, who was leaning back in her chair, and put the Salome before her.
“Look,” said I, “look here!”
She looked; she was short-sighted, and peered close. I was impatient for her to speak. She turned slowly at last and looked at me, shrinking, with questioning.
“Well?” I said.
“Isn’t it — fearful!” she replied softly.
“No! — why is it?”
“It makes you feel — Why have you brought it?”
“I wanted you to see it.”
Already I felt relieved, seeing that she too was caught in the spell.
George came and bent over my shoulder. I could feel the heavy warmth of him.
“Good Lord!” he drawled, half amused. The children came crowding to see, and Emily closed the book.
“I shall be late — Hurry up, Dave!” and she went to wash her hands before going to school.
“Give it me, will you?” George asked, putting out his hand for the book. I gave it him, and he sat down to look at the drawings. When Mollie crept near to look, he angrily shouted to her to get away. She pulled a mouth, and got her hat over her wild brown curls. Emily came in ready for school.
“I’m going — good-bye,” she said, and she waited hesitatingly. I moved to get my cap. He looked up with a new expression in his eyes, and said:
“Are you going? — wait a bit — I’m coming.”
“Oh, very well — good-bye,” said Emily bitterly, and she departed.
When he had looked long enough he got up and we went out. He kept his finger between the pages of the book as he carried it. We went towards the fallow land without speaking. There he sat down on a bank, leaning his back against a holly tree, and saying, very calmly:
“There’s no need to be in any hurry now —” whereupon he proceeded to study the illustrations.
“You know,” he said at last, “I do want her.”
I started at the irrelevance of this remark, and said, “Who?”
“Lettie. We’ve got notice, did you know?”
I started to my feet this time with amazement.
“Notice to leave? — What for?”
“Rabbits I expect. I wish she’d have me, Cyril.”
“To leave Strelley Mill!” I repeated.
“That’s it — and I’m rather glad. But do you think she might have me, Cyril?”
“What a shame! Where will you go? And you lie there joking —!”
“I don’t. Never mind about the damned notice. I want her more than anything. — And the more I look at these naked lines, the more I want her. It’s a sort of fine sharp feeling, like these curved lines. I don’t know what I’m saying — but do you think she’d have me? Has she seen these pictures?”
“If she did perhaps she’d want me — I mean she’d feel it clear and sharp coming through her.”
“I’ll show her and see.”
“I’d been sort of thinking about it — since Father had that notice. It seemed as if the ground was pulled from under our feet. I never felt so lost. Then I began to think of her, if she’d have me — but not clear, till you showed me those pictures. I must have her if I can — and I must have something. It’s rather ghostish to have the road suddenly smudged out, and all the world anywhere, nowhere for you to go. I must get something sure soon, or else I feel as if I should fall from somewhere and hurt myself. I’ll ask her.”
I looked at him as he lay there under the holly tree, his face all dreamy and boyish, very unusual.
“You’ll ask Lettie?” said I. “When — how?”
“I must ask her quick, while I feel as if everything had gone, and I was ghostish. I think I must sound rather a lunatic.”
He looked at me, and his eyelids hung heavy over his eyes as if he had been drinking, or as if he were tired.
“Is she at home?” he said.
“No, she’s gone to Nottingham. She’ll be home before dark.”
“I’ll see her then. Can you smell violets?”
I replied that I could not. He was sure that he could, and he seemed uneasy till he had justified the sensation. So he arose, very leisurely, and went along the bank, looking closely for the flowers.
“I knew I could. White ones!”
He sat down and picked three flowers, and held them to his nostrils, and inhaled their fragrance. Then he put them to his mouth, and I saw his strong white teeth crush them. He chewed them for a while without speaking; then he spat them out and gathered more.
“They remind me of her too,” he said, and he twisted a piece of honeysuckle stem round the bunch and handed it to me.
“A white violet, is she?” I smiled.
“Give them to her, and tell her to come and meet me just when it’s getting dark in the wood.”
“But if she won’t?”
“If she’s not at home?”
“Come and tell me.”
He lay down again with his head among the green violet leaves, saying:
“I ought to work, because it all counts in the valuation. But I don’t care.”
He lay looking at me for some time. Then he said:
“I don’t suppose I shall have above twenty pounds left when we’ve sold up — but she’s got plenty of money to start with — if she has me — in Canada. I could get well off — and she could have — what she wanted — I’m sure she’d have what she wanted.”
He took it all calmly as if it were realised. I was somewhat amused.
“What frock will she have on when she comes to meet me?” he asked.
“I don’t know. The same as she’s gone to Nottingham in, I suppose — a sort of gold-brown costume with a rather tight-fitting coat. Why?”
“I was thinking how she’d look.”
“What chickens are you counting now?” I asked.
“But what do you think I look best in?” he replied.
“You? Just as you are — no, put that old smooth cloth coat on — that’s all.” I smiled as I told him, but he was very serious. “Shan’t I put my new clothes on?”
“No — you want to leave your neck showing.”
He put his hand to his throat, and said naïvely:
“Do I?”— and it amused him.
Then he lay looking dreamily up into the tree. I left him, and went wandering round the fields finding flowers and bird’s nests.
When I came back, it was nearly four o’clock. He stood up and stretched himself. He pulled out his watch.
“Good Lord,” he drawled, “I’ve lain there thinking all afternoon. I didn’t know I could do such a thing. Where have you been? It’s with being all upset, you see. You left the violets — here, take them, will you; and tell her; I’ll come when it’s getting dark. I feel like somebody else — or else really like myself. I hope I shan’t wake up to the other things — you know, like I am always — before them.”
“Oh, I don’t know — only I feel as if I could talk straight off without arranging — like birds, without knowing what note is coming next.”
When I was going he said:
“Here, leave me that book — it’ll keep me like this — I mean I’m not the same as I was yesterday, and that book’ll keep me like it. Perhaps it’s a bilious bout — I do sometimes have one, if something very extraordinary happens. When it’s getting dark then!”
Lettie had not arrived when I went home. I put the violets in a little vase on the table. I remembered he had wanted her to see the drawings — it was perhaps as well he had kept them.
She came about six o’clock — in the motor-car with Marie. But the latter did not descend. I went out to assist with the parcels. Lettie had already begun to buy things; the wedding was fixed for July.
The room was soon over-covered with stuffs: table linen, underclothing, pieces of silken stuff and lace stuff, patterns for carpets and curtains, a whole gleaming, glowing array. Lettie was very delighted. She could hardly wait to take off her hat, but went round cutting the string of her parcels, opening them, talking all the time to my mother.
“Look, Little Woman. I’ve got a ready-made underskirt — isn’t it lovely. Listen!” and she ruffled it through her hands. “Shan’t I sound splendid! Frou-Frou! But it is a charming shade, isn’t it, and not a bit bulky or clumsy anywhere?” She put the band of the skirt against her waist, and put forward her foot, and looked down, saying, “It’s just the right length, isn’t it, Little Woman? — and they said I was tall — it was a wonder. Don’t you wish it were yours, Little? — oh, you won’t confess it. Yes, you like to be as fine as anybody — that’s why I bought you this piece of silk — isn’t it sweet, though? — you needn’t say there’s too much lavender in it, there is not. Now!” She pleated it up and held it against my mother’s chin. “It suits you beautifully — doesn’t it? Don’t you like it, Sweet? You don’t seem to like it a bit, and I’m sure it suits you — makes you look ever so young. I wish you wouldn’t be so old-fashioned in your notions. You do like it, don’t you?”
“Of course I do — I was only thinking what an extravagant mortal you are when you begin to buy. You know you mustn’t keep on always —”
“Now — now, Sweet, don’t be naughty and preachey. It’s such a treat to go buying. You will come with me next time, won’t you? Oh, I have enjoyed it — but I wished you were there — Marie takes anything, she’s so easy to suit — I like to have a good buy — Oh, it was splendid! — and there’s lots more yet. Oh, did you see this cushion-cover — these are the colours I want for that room — gold and amber —”
This was a bad opening. I watched the shadows darken farther and farther along the brightness, hushing the glitter of the water. I watched the golden ripeness come upon the west, and thought the rencontre was never to take place. At last, however, Lettie flung herself down with a sigh, saying she was tired.
“Come into the dining-room and have a cup of tea,” said Mother. “I told Rebecca to mash when you came in.”
“All right. Leslie’s coming up later on, I believe — about half-past eight, he said. Should I show him what I’ve bought?”
“There’s nothing there for a man to see.”
“I shall have to change my dress, and I’m sure I don’t want the fag. Rebecca, just go and look at the things I’ve bought — in the other room — and, Becky, fold them up for me, will you, and put them on my bed?”
As soon as she’d gone out, Lettie said:
“She’ll enjoy doing it, won’t she, Mother, they’re so nice! Do you think I need dress, Mother?”
“Please yourself — do as you wish.”
“I suppose I shall have to; he doesn’t like blouses and skirts of an evening, he says; he hates the belt. I’ll wear that old cream cashmere; it looks nice now I’ve put that new lace on it. Don’t those violets smell nice? — who got them?”
“Cyril brought them in.”
“George sent them you,” said I.
“Well, I’ll just run up and take my dress off. Why are we troubled with men!”
“It’s a trouble you like well enough,” said Mother. “Oh, do I? such a bother!” and she ran upstairs.
The sun was red behind Highclose. I kneeled in the window seat and smiled at Fate and at people who imagine that strange states are near to the inner realities. The sun went straight down behind the cedar trees, deliberately, and, it seemed as I watched, swiftly lowered itself behind the trees, behind the rim of the hill.
“I must go,” I said to myself, “and tell him she will not come.”
Yet I fidgeted about the room, loth to depart. Lettie came down, dressed in white — or cream — cut low round the neck. She looked very delightful and fresh again, with a sparkle of the afternoon’s excitement still.
“I’ll put some of these violets on me,” she said, glancing at herself in the mirror, and then taking the flowers from their water, she dried them, and fastened them among her lace.
“Don’t Lettie and I look nice tonight?” she said, smiling, glancing from me to her reflection which was like a light in the dusky room.
“That reminds me,” I said, “George Saxton wanted to see you this evening.”
“I don’t know. They’ve got notice to leave their farm, and I think he feels a bit sentimental.”
“Oh, well — is he coming here?”
“He said would you go just a little way in the wood to meet him.”
“Did he! Oh, indeed! Well, of course I can’t.”
“Of course not — if you won’t. They’re his violets you’re wearing, by the way.”
“Are they — let them stay, it makes no difference. But whatever did he want to see me for?”
“I couldn’t say, I assure you.”
She glanced at herself in the mirror, and then at the clock.
“Let’s see,” she remarked, “it’s only a quarter to eight. Three-quarters of an hour —! But what can he want me for? — I never knew anything like it.”
“Startling, isn’t it!” I observed satirically.
“Yes.” She glanced at herself in the mirror.
“I can’t go out like this.”
“All right, you can’t then.”
“Besides — it’s nearly dark, it will be too dark to see in the wood, won’t it?”
“It will directly.”
“Well, I’ll just go to the end of the garden, for one moment — run and fetch that silk shawl out of my wardrobe — be quick, while it’s light.”
I ran and brought the wrap. She arranged it carefully over her head.
We went out, down the garden path. Lettie held her skirts carefully gathered from the ground. A nightingale began to sing in the twilight; we stepped along in silence as far as the rhododendron bushes, now in rosy bud.
“I cannot go into the wood,” she said.
“Come to the top of the riding”— and we went round the dark bushes.
George was waiting. I saw at once he was half distrustful of himself now. Lettie dropped her skirts and trailed towards him. He stood awkwardly awaiting her, conscious of the clownishness of his appearance. She held out her hand with something of a grand air.
“See.” she said, “I have come.”
“Yes — I thought you wouldn’t — perhaps”— he looked at her, and suddenly gained courage.
“You have been putting white on — you, you do look nice — though not like —”
“What? — Who else?”
“Nobody else — only I— well, I’d — I’d thought about it different — like some pictures.”
She smiled with a gentle radiance, and asked indulgently, “And how was I different?”
“Not all that soft stuff — plainer.”
“But don’t I look very nice with all this soft stuff, as you call it?”— and she shook the silk away from her smiles.
“Oh, yes — better than those naked lines.”
“You are quaint tonight — what did you want me for — to say good-bye?”
“Yes — you’re going away, Cyril tells me. I’m very sorry — fancy horrid strangers at the Mill! But then I shall be gone away soon, too. We are all going, you see, now we’ve grown up”— she kept hold of my arm.
“And where will you go — Canada? You’ll settle there and be quite a patriarch, won’t you?”
“I don’t know.”
“You are not really sorry to go, are you?”
“No, I’m glad.”
“Glad to go away from us all.”
“I suppose so — since I must.”
“Ah, Fate — Fate! It separates you whether you want it or not.”
“Why, you see, you have to leave. I mustn’t stay out here — it is growing chilly. How soon are you going?”
“I don’t know.”
“Not soon then?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then I may see you again?”
“I don’t know.”
“Oh yes, I shall. Well, I must go. Shall I say good-bye now? — that was what you wanted, was it not?”
“To say good-bye?”
“No — it wasn’t — I wanted, I wanted to ask you —”
“What?” she cried.
“You don’t know, Lettie, now the old life’s gone, everything — how I want you — to set out with — it’s like beginning life, and I want you.”
“But what could I do — I could only hinder — what help should I be?”
“I should feel as if my mind was made up — as if I could do something clearly. Now it’s all hazy — not knowing what to do next.”
“And if — if you had — what then?”
“If I had you I could go straight on.”
“Oh — I should take a farm in Canada —”
“Well, wouldn’t it be better to get it first and make sure —?”
“I have no money.”
“Oh! — so you wanted me —?”
“I only wanted you, I only wanted you. I would have given you —”
“You’d have me — you’d have all me, and everything you wanted.”
“That I paid for — a good bargain! No, oh no, George, I beg your pardon. This is one of my flippant nights. I don’t mean it like that. But you know it’s impossible — look how I’m fixed — it is impossible, isn’t it now?”
“I suppose it is.”
“You know it is. — Look at me now, and say if it’s not impossible — a farmer’s wife — with you in Canada.”
“Yes — I didn’t expect you like that. Yes, I see it is impossible. But I’d thought about it, and felt as if I must have you. Should have you . . . Yes, it doesn’t do to go on dreaming. I think it’s the first time, and it’ll be the last. Yes, it is impossible. Now I have made up my mind.”
“And what will you do?”
“I shall not go to Canada.”
“Oh, you must not — you must not do anything rash.”
“No — I shall get married.”
“You will? Oh, I am glad. I thought — you — you were too fond —. But you’re not — of yourself, I meant. I am so glad. Yes — do marry!”
“Well, I shall — since you are —”
“Yes,” said Lettie. “It is best. But I thought that you she smiled at him in sad reproach.
“Did you think so?” he replied, smiling gravely.
“Yes,” she whispered. They stood looking at one another. He made an impulsive movement towards her. She, however, drew back slightly, checking him.
“Well — I shall see you again some time — so good-bye,” he said, putting out his hand.
We heard a foot crunching on the gravel. Leslie halted at the top of the riding. Lettie, hearing him, relaxed into a kind of feline graciousness, and said to George:
“I am so sorry you are going to leave — it breaks the old life up. You said I would see you again —” She left her hand in his a moment or two.
“Yes,” George replied. “Good night”— and he turned away. She stood for a moment in the same drooping, graceful attitude watching him, then she turned round slowly. She seemed hardly to notice Leslie.
“Who was that you were talking to?” he asked.
“He has gone now,” she replied irrelevantly, as if even then she seemed hardly to realise it.
“It appears to upset you — his going — who is it?”
“He! — Oh — why, it’s George Saxton.”
“What did he want?”
“Eh? What did he want? Oh, nothing.”
“A mere trysting — in the interim, eh!” he said this laughing, generously passing off his annoyance in a jest.
“I feel so sorry,” she said.
“Oh — don’t let us talk about him — talk about something else. I can’t bear to talk about — him.”
“All right,” he replied — and after an awkward little pause, “What sort of a time had you in Nottingham?”
“Oh, a fine time.”
“You’ll enjoy yourself in the shops between now and — July. Some time I’ll go with you and see them.”
“That sounds as if you don’t want me to go. Am I already in the way on a shopping expedition, like an old husband?”
“I should think you would be.”
“That’s nice of you! Why?”
“Oh, I don’t know.”
“Yes you do.”
“Oh, I suppose you’d hang about.”
“I’m much too well brought up.”
“Rebecca has lighted the hall lamp.”
“Yes, it’s grown quite dark. I was here early. You never gave me a good word for it.”
“I didn’t notice. There’s a light in the dining-room, we’ll go there.”
They went into the dining-room. She stood by the piano and carefully took off the wrap. Then she wandered listlessly about the room for a minute.
“Aren’t you coming to sit down?” he said, pointing to the seat on the couch beside him.
“Not just now,” she said, trailing aimlessly to the piano. She sat down and began to play at random, from memory. Then she did that most irritating thing — played accompaniments to songs, with snatches of the air where the voice should have predominated.
“I say Lettie . . . ” he interrupted after a time.
“Yes,” she replied, continuing to play.
“It’s not very interesting . . . ”
“No?”— she continued to play.
“Nor very amusing . . . ”
She did not answer. He bore it for a little time longer, then he said:
“How much longer is it going to last, Lettie?”
“That sort of business . . . ”
“The piano? — I’ll stop playing if you don’t like it.” She did not, however, cease.
“Yes — and all this dry business.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Don’t you? — you make me.”
There she went on, tinkling away at “If I built a world for you, dear”.
“I say, stop it, do!” he cried.
She tinkled to the end of the verse, and very slowly closed the piano.
“Come on — come and sit down,” he said.
“No, I don’t want to — I’d rather have gone on playing.”
“Go on with your damned playing then, and I’ll go where there’s more interest.”
“You ought to like it.”
He did not answer, so she turned slowly round on the stool, opened the piano, and laid her fingers on the keys. At the sound of the chord he started up, saying: “Then I’m going.”
“‘t’s very early — why?” she said, through the calm jingle of “Meine Ruh is hin —”
He stood biting his lips. Then he made one more appeal. “Lettie!”
“Aren’t you going to leave off — and be-amiable?”
“You are a jolly torment. What’s upset you now?”
“Nay, it’s not I who am upset.”
“I’m glad to hear it — what do you call yourself?”
“I? — nothing.”
“Oh, well, I’m going then.”
“Must you? — so early tonight?”
He did not go, and she played more and more softly, languidly, aimlessly. Once she lifted her head to speak, but did not say anything.
“Look here!” he ejaculated all at once, so that she started, and jarred the piano, “What do you mean by it?”
She jingled leisurely a few seconds before answering, then she replied:
“What a worry you are!”
“I suppose you want me out of the way while you sentimentalise over that milkman. You needn’t bother. You can do it while I’m here. Or I’ll go and leave you in peace. I’ll go and call him back for you, if you like — if that’s what you want —”
She turned on the piano stool slowly and looked at him, smiling faintly.
“It is very good of you!” she said.
He clenched his fists and grinned with rage.
“You tantalising little —” he began, lifting his fists expressively. She smiled. Then he swung round, knocked several hats flying off the stand in the hall, slammed the door, and was gone.
Lettie continued to play for some time, after which she went up to her own room.
Leslie did not return to us the next day, nor the day after. The first day Marie came and told us he had gone away to Yorkshire to see about the new mines that were being sunk there, and was likely to be absent for a week or so. These business visits to the north were rather frequent. The firm, of which Mr Tempest was director and chief shareholder, were opening important new mines in the other county, as the seams at home were becoming exhausted or unprofitable. It was proposed that Leslie should live in Yorkshire when he was married, to superintend the new workings. He at first rejected the idea, but he seemed later to approve of it more.
During the time he was away Lettie was moody and cross-tempered. She did not mention George nor the mill; indeed, she preserved her best, most haughty and ladylike manner.
On the evening of the fourth day of Leslie’s absence we were out in the garden. The trees were “uttering joyous leaves”. My mother was in the midst of her garden, lifting the dusky faces of the auriculas to look at the velvet lips, or tenderly taking a young weed from the black soil. The thrushes were calling and clamouring all round. The japonica flamed on the wall as the light grew thicker; the tassels of white cherry-blossom swung gently in the breeze.
“What shall I do, Mother?” said Lettie, as she wandered across the grass to pick at the japonica flowers. “What shall I do? There’s nothing to do.”
“Well, my girl — what do you want to do? You have been moping about all day — go and see somebody.”
“It’s such a long way to Eberwich.”
“Is it? Then go somewhere nearer.”
Lettie fretted about with restless, petulant indecision.
“I don’t know what to do,” she said, “And I feel as if I might just as well never have lived at all as waste days like this. I wish we weren’t buried in this dead little hole — I wish we were near the town — it’s hateful having to depend on about two or three folk for your — your — your pleasure in life.”
“I can’t help it, my dear — you must do something for yourself.”
“And what can I do? — I can do nothing.”
“Then I’d go to bed.”
“That I won’t — with the dead weight of a wasted day on me. I feel as if I’d do something desperate.”
“Very well, then,” said Mother, “do it, and have done.”
“Oh, it’s no good talking to you — I don’t want —” She turned away, went to the laurestinus, and began pulling off it the long red berries. I expected she would fret the evening wastefully away. I noticed all at once that she stood still. It was the noise of a motor-car running rapidly down the hill towards Nethermere — a light, quick-clicking sound. I listened also. I could feel the swinging drop of the car as it came down the leaps of the hill. We could see the dust trail up among the trees. Lettie raised her head and listened expectantly. The car rushed along the edge of Nethermere — then there was the jar of brakes, as the machine slowed down and stopped. In a moment with a quick flutter of sound, it was passing the lodge gates and whirling up the drive, through the wood, to us. Lettie stood with flushed cheeks and brightened eyes. She went towards the bushes that shut off the lawn from the gravelled space in front of the house, watching. A car came racing through the trees. It was the small car Leslie used on the firm’s business — now it was white with dust. Leslie suddenly put on the brakes, and tore to a standstill in front of the house. He stepped to the ground. There he staggered a little, being giddy and cramped with the long drive. His motor-jacket and cap were thick with dust.
Lettie called to him, “Leslie!”— and flew down to him. He took her into his arms, and clouds of dust rose round her. He kissed her, and they stood perfectly still for a moment. She looked up into his face — then she disengaged her arms to take off his disfiguring motor-spectacles. After she had looked at him a moment, tenderly, she kissed him again. He loosened his hold of her, and she said, in a voice full of tenderness:
“You are trembling, dear.”
“It’s the ride. I’ve never stopped.”
Without further words she took him into the house.
“How pale you are — see, lie on the couch — never mind the dust. All right, I’ll find you a coat of Cyril’s. Oh, Mother, he’s come all those miles in the car without stopping — make him lie down.”
She ran and brought him a jacket, and put the cushions round, and made him lie on the couch. Then she took off his boots and put slippers on his feet. He lay watching her all the time; he was white with fatigue and excitement.
“I wonder if I shall be had up for scorching — I can feel the road coming at me yet,” he said.
“Why were you so headlong?”
“I felt as if I should go wild if I didn’t come — if I didn’t rush. I didn’t know how you might have taken me, Lettie when I said — what I did.”
She smiled gently at him, and he lay resting, recovering, looking at her.
“It’s a wonder I haven’t done something desperate — I’ve been half mad since I said — Oh, Lettie, I was a damned fool and a wretch — I could have torn myself in two. I’ve done nothing but curse and rage at myself ever since. I feel as if I’d just come up out of hell. You don’t know how thankful I am, Lettie, that you’ve not — oh — turned against me for what I said.”
She went to him and sat down by him, smoothing his hair from his forehead, kissing him, her attitude tender, suggesting tears, her movements impulsive, as if with a self-reproach she would not acknowledge, but which she must silence with lavish tenderness. He drew her to him, and they remained quiet for some time, till it grew dark.
The noise of my mother stirring in the next room disturbed them. Lettie rose, and he also got up from the couch.
“I suppose,” he said, “I shall have to go home and get bathed and dressed — though,” he added in tones which made it clear he did not want to go, “I shall have to get back in the morning — I don’t know what they’ll say.”
“At any rate,” she said, “You could wash here —”
“But I must get out of these clothes — and I want a bath.”
“You could — you might have some of Cyril’s clothes — and the water’s hot. I know. At all events, you can stay to supper —”
“If I’m going I shall have to go soon — or they’d not like it, if I go in late; — they have no idea I’ve come; — they don’t expect me till next Monday or Tuesday —”
“Perhaps you could stay here — and they needn’t know.” They looked at each other with wide, smiling eyes — like children on the brink of a stolen pleasure.
“Oh, but what would your mother think! — no, I’ll go.”
“She won’t mind a bit.”
“Oh, but —”
“I’ll ask her.”
He wanted to stay far more than she wished it, so it was she who put down his opposition and triumphed.
My mother lifted her eyebrows, and said very quietly: “He’d better go home — and be straight.”
“But look how he’d feel — he’d have to tell them . . . and how would he feel! It’s really my fault, in the end. Don’t be piggling and mean and Grundyish, Matouchka.”
“It is neither meanness nor Grundyishness —”
“Oh, Ydgrun, Ydgrun —!” exclaimed Lettie, ironically. “He may certainly stay if he likes,” said Mother, slightly nettled at Lettie’s gibe.
“All right, Mutterchen — and be a sweetling, do!”
Lettie went out a little impatient at my mother’s unwillingness, but Leslie stayed, nevertheless.
In a few moments Lettie was up in the spare bedroom, arranging and adorning, and Rebecca was running with hot-water bottles, and hurrying down with clean bedclothes. Lettie hastily appropriated my best brushes — which she had given me — and took the suit of pyjamas of the thinnest, finest flannel and discovered a new tooth-brush — and made selections from my shirts and handkerchiefs and underclothing — and directed me which suit to lend him. Altogether I was astonished, and perhaps a trifle annoyed, at her extraordinary thoughtfulness and solicitude.
He came down to supper, bathed, brushed, and radiant. He ate heartily and seemed to emanate a warmth of physical comfort and pleasure. The colour was flushed again into his face, and he carried his body with the old independent, assertive air. I have never known the time when he looked handsomer, when he was more attractive. There was a certain warmth about him, a certain glow that enhanced his words, his laughter, his movements; he was the predominant person, and we felt a pleasure in his mere proximity. My mother, however, could not quite get rid of her stiffness, and soon after supper she rose, saying she would finish her letter in the next room, bidding him good-night, as she would probably not see him again. The cloud of this little coolness was the thinnest and most transitory. He talked and laughed more gaily than ever, and was ostentatious in his movements, throwing back his head, taking little attitudes which displayed the broad firmness of his breast, the grace of his well-trained physique. I left them at the piano; he was sitting pretending to play, and looking up all the while at her, who stood with her hand on his shoulder.
In the morning he was up early, by six o’clock downstairs and attending to the car. When I got down I found him very busy, and very quiet.
“I know I’m a beastly nuisance,” he said, “but I must get off early.”
Rebecca came and prepared breakfast, which we two ate alone. He was remarkably dull and wordless.
“It’s a wonder Lettie hasn’t got up to have breakfast with you — she’s such a one for raving about the perfection of the early morning — its purity and promises and so forth,” I said.
He broke his bread nervously, and drank some coffee as if he were agitated, making noises in his throat as he swallowed.
“It’s too early for her, I should think,” he replied, wiping his moustache hurriedly. Yet he seemed to listen for her. Lettie’s bedroom was over the study, where Rebecca had laid breakfast, and he listened now and again, holding his knife and fork suspended in their action. Then he went on with his meal again.
When he was laying down his serviette, the door opened. He pulled himself together, and turned round sharply. It was Mother. When she spoke to him, his face twitched with a little frown, half of relief, half of disappointment.
“I must be going now,” he said —“thank you very much — Mother.”
“You are a harum-scarum boy. I wonder why Lettie doesn’t come down. I know she is up.”
“Yes,” he replied. “Yes, I’ve heard her. Perhaps she is dressing. I must get off.”
“I’ll call her.”
“No — don’t bother her — she’d come if she wanted —”
But Mother had called from the foot of the stairs. “Lettie, Lettie — he’s going.”
“All right,” said Lettie, and in another minute she came downstairs. She was dressed in dark, severe stuff, and she was somewhat pale. She did not look at any of us, but turned her eyes aside.
“Good-bye,” she said to him, offering him her cheek. He kissed her, murmuring, “Good-bye — my love.”
He stood in the doorway a moment, looking at her with beseeching eyes. She kept her face half averted, and would not look at him, but stood pale and cold, biting her under-lip. He turned sharply away with a motion of keen disappointment, set the engines of the car into action, mounted, and drove quickly away.
Lettie stood pale and inscrutable for some moments. Then she went in to breakfast and sat toying with her food, keeping her head bent down, her face hidden.
In less than an hour he was back again, saying he had left something behind. He ran upstairs, and then, hesitating, went into the room where Lettie was still sitting at table. “I had to come back,” he said.
She lifted her face towards him, but kept her eyes averted, looking out of the window. She was flushed.
“What had you forgotten?” she asked.
“I’d left my cigarette-case,” he replied.
There was an awkward silence.
“But I shall have to be getting off,” he added.
“Yes, I suppose you will,” she replied.
After another pause, he asked:
“Won’t you just walk down the path with me?”
She rose without answering. He took a shawl and put it round her carefully. She merely allowed him. They walked in silence down the garden.
“You — are you — are you angry with me?” he faltered. Tears suddenly came to her eyes.
“What did you come back for?” she said, averting her face from him. He looked at her.
“I knew you were angry and —” he hesitated.
“Why didn’t you go away?” she said impulsively. He hung his head and was silent.
“I don’t see why — why it should make trouble between us, Lettie,” he faltered. She made a swift gesture of repulsion, whereupon, catching sight of her hand, she hid it swiftly against her skirt again.
“You make my hands — my very hands disclaim me,” she struggled to say.
He looked at her clenched fist pressed against the folds of her dress.
“But —” he began, much troubled.
“I tell you, I can’t bear the sight of my own hands,” she said in low, passionate tones.
“But surely, Lettie, there’s no need — if you love me —”
She seemed to wince. He waited, puzzled and miserable. “And we’re going to be married, aren’t we?” he resumed, looking pleadingly at her.
She stirred, and exclaimed:
“Oh, why don’t you go away? What did you come back for?”
“You’ll kiss me before I go?” he asked.
She stood with averted face, and did not reply. His forehead was twitching in a puzzled frown.
“Lettie!” he said.
She did not move or answer, but remained with her face turned full away, so that he could see only the contour of her cheek. After waiting awhile, he flushed, turned swiftly and set his machine rattling. In a moment he was racing between the trees.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10