Isbel commenced unbuttoning her left-hand glove, with slightly trembling fingers.
“Something is to go out our the window, but not you,” She removed the diamond ring from her third finger, and eyed it pensively, before handing it to him . . . “Throw it out! Let strange find strange. I never should have worn it.”
“Better to return it to the giver.”
“As long as I carry it about with me, I haven’t cast off the past. Do as I say. That episode is finished.”
Judge, without further demur, took the ring to the window and dropped it out.
“That’s done!” said Isbel, drawing a deep breath. “We shall have no more anxiety from that quarter.”
Raising her ungloved hand, he bent over and kissed it submissively. She offered no resistance, but closed her eyes, as if to think the better, reopening them only when he had relinquished her fingers.
“Had your wife been still alive, would you have done as much for my sake, I wonder?”
“Don’t doubt it. I would have sacrificed everything. But let the poor girl rest in peace. Fortunately, my loyalty wasn’t put to the test during her lifetime.”
“That magic word ‘loyalty’! How can we be loyal to those to whom we don’t naturally belong? You mean, fortunately you were enabled to act a living lie with her, without either of you suspecting the fact . . . You know you never loved her.”
“What has been, has been. Whatever we felt towards each other, after all, she was my dear companion. You can’t grudge her that.”
Isbel laughed lightly. “I grudge her nothing. If you assured me you loved her, even I should accept your word . . . But you didn’t. Love doesn’t come twice in a lifetime . . . However, to avoid competition, it seems I must aim at higher things than being a mere dear companion.”
“You must be aware that, in that sense, companionship is impossible between us,” said Judge, in a low voice.
“Tell me why?”
“Because I am a man, and you are a beautiful girl, and all our ways and thoughts are strange and foreign to each other. Because my place is not standing face-to-face with you, exchanging incomprehensible ideas, but at your feet, smothering the hem of your skirt with kisses . . . ” He stopped abruptly.
Her eyes danced. “But why waste precious kisses on inanimate cloth?”
“You’re quite justified in laughing — I know my language sounds exaggerated . . . Pardon me, I’m excited!”
“And I— am I cool, do you think? . . . Now finish it all — and kiss me quickly! . . . ”
Judge looked at her slowly. “You grant me this favour without my asking it?”
“Do you want it in writing, to make quite sure? . . . Oh, what are we here for? Why have we been brought to this place, except for this very one purpose? For half an hour I’ve done nothing else but count the minutes disappearing, one by one . . . ”
“Isbel!” He approached her, almost as if disbelieving.
“Did you imagine that women’s feelings had been left out of my anatomy?” laughed Isbel, pressing both cheeks with her fingers in an automatic attempt to cool them.
But as they were on the point of meeting, the music sounded again through the open window. Its scrape was so strangely insistent that they remained where they were until the interruption should come to an end; a moment afterwards, however, Isbel walked quietly to the window to see what could be seen, resuming her former attitude of leaning one arm on the sill.
The tune was as before, but once more its interpretation was varied. The gaiety had gone out of it, and it now possessed a swift, smooth strength which curiously suggested an incoming tide. Neither of the other versions had been half as beautiful; it was like a quick, tragic, irresistible summary of all which had gone before. Nothing had changed in the landscape. The sun shone, the trees waved, the brook glittered at the foot of the chalk hill, the musician remained half-concealed, half-visible, as his body swayed in unison with the rhythm of the theme. The entering breeze brought with it the smell of growing life, while, as an undertone to the music, many a soft cry of nature reached Isbel’s ear. But as she continued to listen it seemed to her as if the world were at last moving, after a long, enchanted dream — as if a current had begun to run, and things could no longer be what they had been hitherto . . .
Her heart deepened. She felt suddenly that she had up to now been playing with life, but that reality had at length clutched her in its grip grasp, and now she must show what stuff she was made of. She was like a bather for whom a river proves too strong, and who is being walked downstream step by step, struggling in vain for footholds, until her waist is covered, and she must either swim or resign herself to be carried away to death . . . Her old happiness was past recovery. It rested with herself whether she were to be borne along backwards, looking after it despairingly, or whether she should throw herself audaciously into this new element, confiding in her strength and courage to bring her to safety . . . She realised that this was the moment she had been waiting for all her life . . .
The music stopped. Isbel faced round towards Judge, but did not stir from the window.
“These interruptions have a strangely agitating effect,” he said, with a quiet smile. “Apparently he means neither to take notice of us nor leave us in peace. I see you are rather deeply moved.”
“And you are not?”
“When you are present, music can be no more than a decoration of life. You are the centre of the piece, and the disturbing factor. If he plays again, I shall suggest that we return to the other room. We have seen everything here there is to see.”
“You wish to resume where we left off, but I don’t think we can . . . Henry, can’t you understand that all this has a meaning? Don’t you see that it’s carrying us higher and higher? If you have forgotten your own words, I haven’t.”
“We were talking of tests. You said that one test of love is the craving to sacrifice oneself. At the time, I didn’t understand you, but it was fearfully true. When a woman loves a man, there are no half-measures with her — she wishes to give him everything. Of course, ‘sacrifice’ isn’t the right word to express it. A gift like that gives nothing up . . . ”
Judge trembled slightly, in spite of his control. “Why do you say all this? I want neither sacrifices nor gifts from you, and you know it.”
“But if I offer it?”
There was a short silence.
“Let me understand you,” said Judge, “for perhaps we are at cross purposes. What is it you are offering me?”
“Myself,” was the low-spoken reply.
Overcome by her own daring, without waiting for his response, she turned her back on him again, and stared out of the window.
With a dull shock, she perceived that the musician had risen at last to his full height. His tall, broad, gaily-attired figure was visible from top to toe, but his face was still turned away. He held his instrument by the neck with one hand, and seemed to be contemplating a descent to the foot of the hill. Isbel immediately glanced round to Judge.
“Henry, he’s up now.”
He joined her at the window.
“I thought he was going to sit there for ever,” said Isbel. “He seemed a part of the landscape. Will he turn round now, do you think?”
“It’s an extraordinary business,” muttered Judge. “He’s real enough, but what man goes about in that sort of costume?”
“Or plays that sort of music? . . . I’ve a feeling that if he’s going we’d better make haste. After he’s gone, things will be different. I don’t know whether we ought to attract his attention, or not.”
Judge continued staring at the man in silence. Although she sun shone and the sky remained clear, with but few clouds, the tree-tops were sighing and swaying in greater agitation than before, and little, swirling wind-flurries kept coming and going in the air, freshening the room, and swinging the outside shutter to and fro with a harsh, musical creak.
“Is there no way of getting down?” demanded Isbel, the next minute. “It’s awful to be shut up here in this box of a room while all that’s going on . . . If we walked on and on through those woods, where should we come to?”
He sighed. “You’re right. Our place is down there, in God’s fresh air . . . But it’s most remarkable he doesn’t once look round. Can it be that he’s sublimely unconscious of the existence of a house behind him?”
“No, he knows well enough . . . But I mean to see his face — if not now, another time . . . Look! he’s off . . . ”
The musician had begun to walk down the steep hillside with short steps, digging his heels into the turf for security. They watched him, fascinated, until he reached the bottom, when, instead of proceeding straight ahead up the opposite hill, he moved to the left along the bank of the stream. Though his action was quite leisurely, he never once paused or turned hid head, so doubtless he was making for a destination. In a few minutes he would be out of sight, round the bend of the valley.
“It’s too late now, but why didn’t you call out to him again?” demanded Isbel. “I purposely refrained from asking you to, as I wanted to see what you would do.”
“You attach such importance to it?”
“He brought us together. It was his music I heard the first time I came to Runhill, and it’s plain to see he’s had a hand in everything. It’s natural one should want to see one’s benefactor.”
Judge led the way into the room, and once more they face each other; she cast her eyes down, her arms falling limply on either side.
“I was frightened on your account, Isbel.”
“But that is not what I want.”
“What do you want?”
“I want you to feel what I feel. I want you to feel that as long as you are with me nothing can hurt either of us. Fear spells cold blood. But I think you can’t be passionate . . . or else you wouldn’t scorn my gift so.”
“You think I do?”
“I know you do, for otherwise you would have accepted it.”
“I have accepted it, and you’re blind and foolish not to have seen it at once.”
Isbel’s eyes leapt to his face with a flash. “You accept my full love?”
“Yes, your full love,” said Judge, setting his jaw hard. “There’s no other kind worth the price we’re paying. Be it so! . . . Bit I accept it in deep humility, for the gift is far too rich, and I have done nothing to deserve it . . . I shall dedicate the rest of my life to your service.”
She approached him unsteadily.
“You must know that such a gift can’t be paid for by service. There can only be one return for passion, and that’s passion. If you haven’t that to give, I want nothing.”
“That you shall have in full measure,” replied Judge.
He moved forward to embrace her.
At the same moment, quite suddenly, the sun went in, the wind ceased, and every outside sound stopped, as if cut off by a screen. The brightness of the room changed to twilight, while the air became perceptibly colder, and, at the same time stale-smelling. Judge’s upraised arm fell slowly to his side, as he mechanically shrank back. Both turned their heads inquiringly towards the window. Then Isbel walked over to it, almost with reluctance, to look out.
“Henry, come here quickly! . . . ”
He was already beside her. The landscape they were looking at was no longer the same. Immediately beneath them were the familiar grounds of Runhill Court; the chalk hill, diminished in height, had become the sloping lawn, with its continuation of the field they had traversed on the day of the picnic; in the background were other fields innumerable, with roads, lanes, and cottages. The unbroken forest of fresh green trees was transformed into scattered tracts of woodland, the prevailing colour of whose leaves was russet. The sun had disappeared; the country was wrapped in a misty dusk. The musician was nowhere to be discovered.
They gazed at each other in consternation, during which time their excitement rapidly subsided.
“Are we dreaming now, or were we dreaming before?” asked Isbel earnestly, laying her hand on his arm.
“We can’t doubt this, at all events.”
“Wasn’t that real, then? Have we been the fools of our senses?”
“I fear it looks extremely like it.”
“What, has it all been false?”
Judge shook his head grimly, but did not answer at once . . . “Anyway, it has happened in time. There’s no harm done but what we can cover up and forget. We must be thankful for small mercies.”
She turned fiery-red. “Has it really come to that?”
“At least, as you, too, have been involved, you will acquit me of deliberate wrong-doing. I fear it’s hopeless trying to reconstruct our state of mind, or to understand what has taken place. Some unpleasant agency has been at work.”
They went back into the room.
“So you don’t love me?” demanded Isbel quietly.
“Yes, I love you.”
“You know that, if our senses are restored, my ring is not restored?”
“Unfortunately, I know it only too well.”
“So it means that your old generosity has come back?”
They stood for a long time, looking away from each other. Then, with death in her heart, Isbel started to put on her glove.
“We had better go downstairs again.”
He bowed with stern gravity, and at once moved to the door, which he held open to allow her to pass out. She walked straight across to the stairs, without once turning her head to see if he were following.
The hall, when she reached it, was in dusk. Her watch told her it that it was nearing five o’clock. She looked dully around her, remembering nothing of what had occurred to her during the past hour and a half, but somehow, confusedly wondering why Judge had failed to descend that staircase with her — though, as a matter of fact, she did not even know whether he had been up there.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57