Part 3 out of 10
At this moment, just as Mrs. Hilbery was examining the weather from
the window, there was a knock at the door. A slight, elderly lady came
in, and was saluted by Katharine, with very evident dismay, as "Aunt
Celia!" She was dismayed because she guessed why Aunt Celia had come.
It was certainly in order to discuss the case of Cyril and the woman
who was not his wife, and owing to her procrastination Mrs. Hilbery
was quite unprepared. Who could be more unprepared? Here she was,
suggesting that all three of them should go on a jaunt to Blackfriars
to inspect the site of Shakespeare's theater, for the weather was
hardly settled enough for the country.
To this proposal Mrs. Milvain listened with a patient smile, which
indicated that for many years she had accepted such eccentricities in
her sister-in-law with bland philosophy. Katharine took up her
position at some distance, standing with her foot on the fender, as
though by so doing she could get a better view of the matter. But, in
spite of her aunt's presence, how unreal the whole question of Cyril
and his morality appeared! The difficulty, it now seemed, was not to
break the news gently to Mrs. Hilbery, but to make her understand it.
How was one to lasso her mind, and tether it to this minute,
unimportant spot? A matter-of-fact statement seemed best.
"I think Aunt Celia has come to talk about Cyril, mother," she said
rather brutally. "Aunt Celia has discovered that Cyril is married. He
has a wife and children."
"No, he is NOT married," Mrs. Milvain interposed, in low tones,
addressing herself to Mrs. Hilbery. "He has two children, and another
on the way."
Mrs. Hilbery looked from one to the other in bewilderment.
"We thought it better to wait until it was proved before we told you,"
"But I met Cyril only a fortnight ago at the National Gallery!" Mrs.
Hilbery exclaimed. "I don't believe a word of it," and she tossed her
head with a smile on her lips at Mrs. Milvain, as though she could
quite understand her mistake, which was a very natural mistake, in the
case of a childless woman, whose husband was something very dull in
the Board of Trade.
"I didn't WISH to believe it, Maggie," said Mrs. Milvain. "For a long
time I COULDN'T believe it. But now I've seen, and I HAVE to believe
"Katharine," Mrs. Hilbery demanded, "does your father know of this?"
"Cyril married!" Mrs. Hilbery repeated. "And never telling us a word,
though we've had him in our house since he was a child--noble
William's son! I can't believe my ears!"
Feeling that the burden of proof was laid upon her, Mrs. Milvain now
proceeded with her story. She was elderly and fragile, but her
childlessness seemed always to impose these painful duties on her, and
to revere the family, and to keep it in repair, had now become the
chief object of her life. She told her story in a low, spasmodic, and
somewhat broken voice.
"I have suspected for some time that he was not happy. There were new
lines on his face. So I went to his rooms, when I knew he was engaged
at the poor men's college. He lectures there--Roman law, you know, or
it may be Greek. The landlady said Mr. Alardyce only slept there about
once a fortnight now. He looked so ill, she said. She had seen him
with a young person. I suspected something directly. I went to his
room, and there was an envelope on the mantelpiece, and a letter with
an address in Seton Street, off the Kennington Road."
Mrs. Hilbery fidgeted rather restlessly, and hummed fragments of her
tune, as if to interrupt.
"I went to Seton Street," Aunt Celia continued firmly. "A very low
place--lodging-houses, you know, with canaries in the window. Number
seven just like all the others. I rang, I knocked; no one came. I went
down the area. I am certain I saw some one inside--children--a cradle.
But no reply--no reply." She sighed, and looked straight in front of
her with a glazed expression in her half-veiled blue eyes.
"I stood in the street," she resumed, "in case I could catch a sight
of one of them. It seemed a very long time. There were rough men
singing in the public-house round the corner. At last the door opened,
and some one--it must have been the woman herself--came right past me.
There was only the pillar-box between us."
"And what did she look like?" Mrs. Hilbery demanded.
"One could see how the poor boy had been deluded," was all that Mrs.
Milvain vouchsafed by way of description.
"Poor thing!" Mrs. Hilbery exclaimed.
"Poor Cyril!" Mrs. Milvain said, laying a slight emphasis upon Cyril.
"But they've got nothing to live upon," Mrs. Hilbery continued. "If
he'd come to us like a man," she went on, "and said, 'I've been a
fool,' one would have pitied him; one would have tried to help him.
There's nothing so disgraceful after all-- But he's been going about
all these years, pretending, letting one take it for granted, that he
was single. And the poor deserted little wife--"
"She is NOT his wife," Aunt Celia interrupted.
"I've never heard anything so detestable!" Mrs. Hilbery wound up,
striking her fist on the arm of her chair. As she realized the facts
she became thoroughly disgusted, although, perhaps, she was more hurt
by the concealment of the sin than by the sin itself. She looked
splendidly roused and indignant; and Katharine felt an immense relief
and pride in her mother. It was plain that her indignation was very
genuine, and that her mind was as perfectly focused upon the facts as
any one could wish--more so, by a long way, than Aunt Celia's mind,
which seemed to be timidly circling, with a morbid pleasure, in these
unpleasant shades. She and her mother together would take the
situation in hand, visit Cyril, and see the whole thing through.
"We must realize Cyril's point of view first," she said, speaking
directly to her mother, as if to a contemporary, but before the words
were out of her mouth, there was more confusion outside, and Cousin
Caroline, Mrs. Hilbery's maiden cousin, entered the room. Although she
was by birth an Alardyce, and Aunt Celia a Hilbery, the complexities
of the family relationship were such that each was at once first and
second cousin to the other, and thus aunt and cousin to the culprit
Cyril, so that his misbehavior was almost as much Cousin Caroline's
affair as Aunt Celia's. Cousin Caroline was a lady of very imposing
height and circumference, but in spite of her size and her handsome
trappings, there was something exposed and unsheltered in her
expression, as if for many summers her thin red skin and hooked nose
and reduplication of chins, so much resembling the profile of a
cockatoo, had been bared to the weather; she was, indeed, a single
lady; but she had, it was the habit to say, "made a life for herself,"
and was thus entitled to be heard with respect.
"This unhappy business," she began, out of breath as she was. "If the
train had not gone out of the station just as I arrived, I should have
been with you before. Celia has doubtless told you. You will agree
with me, Maggie. He must be made to marry her at once for the sake of
"But does he refuse to marry her?" Mrs. Hilbery inquired, with a
return of her bewilderment.
"He has written an absurd perverted letter, all quotations," Cousin
Caroline puffed. "He thinks he's doing a very fine thing, where we
only see the folly of it. . . . The girl's every bit as infatuated as
he is--for which I blame him."
"She entangled him," Aunt Celia intervened, with a very curious
smoothness of intonation, which seemed to convey a vision of threads
weaving and interweaving a close, white mesh round their victim.
"It's no use going into the rights and wrongs of the affair now,
Celia," said Cousin Caroline with some acerbity, for she believed
herself the only practical one of the family, and regretted that,
owing to the slowness of the kitchen clock, Mrs. Milvain had already
confused poor dear Maggie with her own incomplete version of the
facts. "The mischief's done, and very ugly mischief too. Are we to
allow the third child to be born out of wedlock? (I am sorry to have
to say these things before you, Katharine.) He will bear your name,
Maggie--your father's name, remember."
"But let us hope it will be a girl," said Mrs. Hilbery.
Katharine, who had been looking at her mother constantly, while the
chatter of tongues held sway, perceived that the look of
straightforward indignation had already vanished; her mother was
evidently casting about in her mind for some method of escape, or
bright spot, or sudden illumination which should show to the
satisfaction of everybody that all had happened, miraculously but
incontestably, for the best.
"It's detestable--quite detestable!" she repeated, but in tones of no
great assurance; and then her face lit up with a smile which,
tentative at first, soon became almost assured. "Nowadays, people
don't think so badly of these things as they used to do," she began.
"It will be horribly uncomfortable for them sometimes, but if they are
brave, clever children, as they will be, I dare say it'll make
remarkable people of them in the end. Robert Browning used to say that
every great man has Jewish blood in him, and we must try to look at it
in that light. And, after all, Cyril has acted on principle. One may
disagree with his principle, but, at least, one can respect it--like
the French Revolution, or Cromwell cutting the King's head off. Some
of the most terrible things in history have been done on principle,"
"I'm afraid I take a very different view of principle," Cousin
Caroline remarked tartly.
"Principle!" Aunt Celia repeated, with an air of deprecating such a
word in such a connection. "I will go to-morrow and see him," she
"But why should you take these disagreeable things upon yourself,
Celia?" Mrs. Hilbery interposed, and Cousin Caroline thereupon
protested with some further plan involving sacrifice of herself.
Growing weary of it all, Katharine turned to the window, and stood
among the folds of the curtain, pressing close to the window-pane, and
gazing disconsolately at the river much in the attitude of a child
depressed by the meaningless talk of its elders. She was much
disappointed in her mother--and in herself too. The little tug which
she gave to the blind, letting it fly up to the top with a snap,
signified her annoyance. She was very angry, and yet impotent to give
expression to her anger, or know with whom she was angry. How they
talked and moralized and made up stories to suit their own version of
the becoming, and secretly praised their own devotion and tact! No;
they had their dwelling in a mist, she decided; hundreds of miles away
--away from what? "Perhaps it would be better if I married William,"
she thought suddenly, and the thought appeared to loom through the
mist like solid ground. She stood there, thinking of her own destiny,
and the elder ladies talked on, until they had talked themselves into
a decision to ask the young woman to luncheon, and tell her, very
friendlily, how such behavior appeared to women like themselves, who
knew the world. And then Mrs. Hilbery was struck by a better idea.
Messrs. Grateley and Hooper, the solicitors in whose firm Ralph Denham
was clerk, had their office in Lincoln's Inn Fields, and there Ralph
Denham appeared every morning very punctually at ten o'clock. His
punctuality, together with other qualities, marked him out among the
clerks for success, and indeed it would have been safe to wager that
in ten years' time or so one would find him at the head of his
profession, had it not been for a peculiarity which sometimes seemed
to make everything about him uncertain and perilous. His sister Joan
had already been disturbed by his love of gambling with his savings.
Scrutinizing him constantly with the eye of affection, she had become
aware of a curious perversity in his temperament which caused her much
anxiety, and would have caused her still more if she had not
recognized the germs of it in her own nature. She could fancy Ralph
suddenly sacrificing his entire career for some fantastic imagination;
some cause or idea or even (so her fancy ran) for some woman seen from
a railway train, hanging up clothes in a back yard. When he had found
this beauty or this cause, no force, she knew, would avail to restrain
him from pursuit of it. She suspected the East also, and always
fidgeted herself when she saw him with a book of Indian travels in his
hand, as though he were sucking contagion from the page. On the other
hand, no common love affair, had there been such a thing, would have
caused her a moment's uneasiness where Ralph was concerned. He was
destined in her fancy for something splendid in the way of success or
failure, she knew not which.
And yet nobody could have worked harder or done better in all the
recognized stages of a young man's life than Ralph had done, and Joan
had to gather materials for her fears from trifles in her brother's
behavior which would have escaped any other eye. It was natural that
she should be anxious. Life had been so arduous for all of them from
the start that she could not help dreading any sudden relaxation of
his grasp upon what he held, though, as she knew from inspection of
her own life, such sudden impulse to let go and make away from the
discipline and the drudgery was sometimes almost irresistible. But
with Ralph, if he broke away, she knew that it would be only to put
himself under harsher constraint; she figured him toiling through
sandy deserts under a tropical sun to find the source of some river or
the haunt of some fly; she figured him living by the labor of his
hands in some city slum, the victim of one of those terrible theories
of right and wrong which were current at the time; she figured him
prisoner for life in the house of a woman who had seduced him by her
misfortunes. Half proudly, and wholly anxiously, she framed such
thoughts, as they sat, late at night, talking together over the
gas-stove in Ralph's bedroom.
It is likely that Ralph would not have recognized his own dream of a
future in the forecasts which disturbed his sister's peace of mind.
Certainly, if any one of them had been put before him he would have
rejected it with a laugh, as the sort of life that held no attractions
for him. He could not have said how it was that he had put these
absurd notions into his sister's head. Indeed, he prided himself upon
being well broken into a life of hard work, about which he had no sort
of illusions. His vision of his own future, unlike many such
forecasts, could have been made public at any moment without a blush;
he attributed to himself a strong brain, and conferred on himself a
seat in the House of Commons at the age of fifty, a moderate fortune,
and, with luck, an unimportant office in a Liberal Government. There
was nothing extravagant in a forecast of that kind, and certainly
nothing dishonorable. Nevertheless, as his sister guessed, it needed
all Ralph's strength of will, together with the pressure of
circumstances, to keep his feet moving in the path which led that way.
It needed, in particular, a constant repetition of a phrase to the
effect that he shared the common fate, found it best of all, and
wished for no other; and by repeating such phrases he acquired
punctuality and habits of work, and could very plausibly demonstrate
that to be a clerk in a solicitor's office was the best of all
possible lives, and that other ambitions were vain.
But, like all beliefs not genuinely held, this one depended very much
upon the amount of acceptance it received from other people, and in
private, when the pressure of public opinion was removed, Ralph let
himself swing very rapidly away from his actual circumstances upon
strange voyages which, indeed, he would have been ashamed to describe.
In these dreams, of course, he figured in noble and romantic parts,
but self-glorification was not the only motive of them. They gave
outlet to some spirit which found no work to do in real life, for,
with the pessimism which his lot forced upon him, Ralph had made up
his mind that there was no use for what, contemptuously enough, he
called dreams, in the world which we inhabit. It sometimes seemed to
him that this spirit was the most valuable possession he had; he
thought that by means of it he could set flowering waste tracts of the
earth, cure many ills, or raise up beauty where none now existed; it
was, too, a fierce and potent spirit which would devour the dusty
books and parchments on the office wall with one lick of its tongue,
and leave him in a minute standing in nakedness, if he gave way to it.
His endeavor, for many years, had been to control the spirit, and at
the age of twenty-nine he thought he could pride himself upon a life
rigidly divided into the hours of work and those of dreams; the two
lived side by side without harming each other. As a matter of fact,
this effort at discipline had been helped by the interests of a
difficult profession, but the old conclusion to which Ralph had come
when he left college still held sway in his mind, and tinged his views
with the melancholy belief that life for most people compels the
exercise of the lower gifts and wastes the precious ones, until it
forces us to agree that there is little virtue, as well as little
profit, in what once seemed to us the noblest part of our inheritance.
Denham was not altogether popular either in his office or among his
family. He was too positive, at this stage of his career, as to what
was right and what wrong, too proud of his self-control, and, as is
natural in the case of persons not altogether happy or well suited in
their conditions, too apt to prove the folly of contentment, if he
found any one who confessed to that weakness. In the office his rather
ostentatious efficiency annoyed those who took their own work more
lightly, and, if they foretold his advancement, it was not altogether
sympathetically. Indeed, he appeared to be rather a hard and self-
sufficient young man, with a queer temper, and manners that were
uncompromisingly abrupt, who was consumed with a desire to get on in
the world, which was natural, these critics thought, in a man of no
means, but not engaging.
The young men in the office had a perfect right to these opinions,
because Denham showed no particular desire for their friendship. He
liked them well enough, but shut them up in that compartment of life
which was devoted to work. Hitherto, indeed, he had found little
difficulty in arranging his life as methodically as he arranged his
expenditure, but about this time he began to encounter experiences
which were not so easy to classify. Mary Datchet had begun this
confusion two years ago by bursting into laughter at some remark of
his, almost the first time they met. She could not explain why it was.
She thought him quite astonishingly odd. When he knew her well enough
to tell her how he spent Monday and Wednesday and Saturday, she was
still more amused; she laughed till he laughed, too, without knowing
why. It seemed to her very odd that he should know as much about
breeding bulldogs as any man in England; that he had a collection of
wild flowers found near London; and his weekly visit to old Miss
Trotter at Ealing, who was an authority upon the science of Heraldry,
never failed to excite her laughter. She wanted to know everything,
even the kind of cake which the old lady supplied on these occasions;
and their summer excursions to churches in the neighborhood of London
for the purpose of taking rubbings of the brasses became most
important festivals, from the interest she took in them. In six months
she knew more about his odd friends and hobbies than his own brothers
and sisters knew, after living with him all his life; and Ralph found
this very pleasant, though disordering, for his own view of himself
had always been profoundly serious.
Certainly it was very pleasant to be with Mary Datchet and to become,
directly the door was shut, quite a different sort of person,
eccentric and lovable, with scarcely any likeness to the self most
people knew. He became less serious, and rather less dictatorial at
home, for he was apt to hear Mary laughing at him, and telling him, as
she was fond of doing, that he knew nothing at all about anything. She
made him, also, take an interest in public questions, for which she
had a natural liking; and was in process of turning him from Tory to
Radical, after a course of public meetings, which began by boring him
acutely, and ended by exciting him even more than they excited her.
But he was reserved; when ideas started up in his mind, he divided
them automatically into those he could discuss with Mary, and those he
must keep for himself. She knew this and it interested her, for she
was accustomed to find young men very ready to talk about themselves,
and had come to listen to them as one listens to children, without any
thought of herself. But with Ralph, she had very little of this
maternal feeling, and, in consequence, a much keener sense of her own
Late one afternoon Ralph stepped along the Strand to an interview with
a lawyer upon business. The afternoon light was almost over, and
already streams of greenish and yellowish artificial light were being
poured into an atmosphere which, in country lanes, would now have been
soft with the smoke of wood fires; and on both sides of the road the
shop windows were full of sparkling chains and highly polished leather
cases, which stood upon shelves made of thick plate-glass. None of
these different objects was seen separately by Denham, but from all of
them he drew an impression of stir and cheerfulness. Thus it came
about that he saw Katharine Hilbery coming towards him, and looked
straight at her, as if she were only an illustration of the argument
that was going forward in his mind. In this spirit he noticed the
rather set expression in her eyes, and the slight, half-conscious
movement of her lips, which, together with her height and the
distinction of her dress, made her look as if the scurrying crowd
impeded her, and her direction were different from theirs. He noticed
this calmly; but suddenly, as he passed her, his hands and knees began
to tremble, and his heart beat painfully. She did not see him, and
went on repeating to herself some lines which had stuck to her memory:
"It's life that matters, nothing but life--the process of discovering
--the everlasting and perpetual process, not the discovery itself at
all." Thus occupied, she did not see Denham, and he had not the
courage to stop her. But immediately the whole scene in the Strand
wore that curious look of order and purpose which is imparted to the
most heterogeneous things when music sounds; and so pleasant was this
impression that he was very glad that he had not stopped her, after
all. It grew slowly fainter, but lasted until he stood outside the
When his interview with the barrister was over, it was too late to go
back to the office. His sight of Katharine had put him queerly out of
tune for a domestic evening. Where should he go? To walk through the
streets of London until he came to Katharine's house, to look up at
the windows and fancy her within, seemed to him possible for a moment;
and then he rejected the plan almost with a blush as, with a curious
division of consciousness, one plucks a flower sentimentally and
throws it away, with a blush, when it is actually picked. No, he would
go and see Mary Datchet. By this time she would be back from her work.
To see Ralph appear unexpectedly in her room threw Mary for a second
off her balance. She had been cleaning knives in her little scullery,
and when she had let him in she went back again, and turned on the
cold-water tap to its fullest volume, and then turned it off again.
"Now," she thought to herself, as she screwed it tight, "I'm not going
to let these silly ideas come into my head. . . . Don't you think Mr.
Asquith deserves to be hanged?" she called back into the sitting-room,
and when she joined him, drying her hands, she began to tell him about
the latest evasion on the part of the Government with respect to the
Women's Suffrage Bill. Ralph did not want to talk about politics, but
he could not help respecting Mary for taking such an interest in
public questions. He looked at her as she leant forward, poking the
fire, and expressing herself very clearly in phrases which bore
distantly the taint of the platform, and he thought, "How absurd Mary
would think me if she knew that I almost made up my mind to walk all
the way to Chelsea in order to look at Katharine's windows. She
wouldn't understand it, but I like her very much as she is."
For some time they discussed what the women had better do; and as
Ralph became genuinely interested in the question, Mary unconsciously
let her attention wander, and a great desire came over her to talk to
Ralph about her own feelings; or, at any rate, about something
personal, so that she might see what he felt for her; but she resisted
this wish. But she could not prevent him from feeling her lack of
interest in what he was saying, and gradually they both became silent.
One thought after another came up in Ralph's mind, but they were all,
in some way, connected with Katharine, or with vague feelings of
romance and adventure such as she inspired. But he could not talk to
Mary about such thoughts; and he pitied her for knowing nothing of
what he was feeling. "Here," he thought, "is where we differ from
women; they have no sense of romance."
"Well, Mary," he said at length, "why don't you say something
His tone was certainly provoking, but, as a general rule, Mary was not
easily provoked. This evening, however, she replied rather sharply:
"Because I've got nothing amusing to say, I suppose."
Ralph thought for a moment, and then remarked:
"You work too hard. I don't mean your health," he added, as she
laughed scornfully, "I mean that you seem to me to be getting wrapped
up in your work."
"And is that a bad thing?" she asked, shading her eyes with her hand.
"I think it is," he returned abruptly.
"But only a week ago you were saying the opposite." Her tone was
defiant, but she became curiously depressed. Ralph did not perceive
it, and took this opportunity of lecturing her, and expressing his
latest views upon the proper conduct of life. She listened, but her
main impression was that he had been meeting some one who had
influenced him. He was telling her that she ought to read more, and to
see that there were other points of view as deserving of attention as
her own. Naturally, having last seen him as he left the office in
company with Katharine, she attributed the change to her; it was
likely that Katharine, on leaving the scene which she had so clearly
despised, had pronounced some such criticism, or suggested it by her
own attitude. But she knew that Ralph would never admit that he had
been influenced by anybody.
"You don't read enough, Mary," he was saying. "You ought to read more
It was true that Mary's reading had been rather limited to such works
as she needed to know for the sake of examinations; and her time for
reading in London was very little. For some reason, no one likes to be
told that they do not read enough poetry, but her resentment was only
visible in the way she changed the position of her hands, and in the
fixed look in her eyes. And then she thought to herself, "I'm behaving
exactly as I said I wouldn't behave," whereupon she relaxed all her
muscles and said, in her reasonable way:
"Tell me what I ought to read, then."
Ralph had unconsciously been irritated by Mary, and he now delivered
himself of a few names of great poets which were the text for a
discourse upon the imperfection of Mary's character and way of life.
"You live with your inferiors," he said, warming unreasonably, as he
knew, to his text. "And you get into a groove because, on the whole,
it's rather a pleasant groove. And you tend to forget what you're
there for. You've the feminine habit of making much of details. You
don't see when things matter and when they don't. And that's what's
the ruin of all these organizations. That's why the Suffragists have
never done anything all these years. What's the point of drawing-room
meetings and bazaars? You want to have ideas, Mary; get hold of
something big; never mind making mistakes, but don't niggle. Why don't
you throw it all up for a year, and travel?--see something of the
world. Don't be content to live with half a dozen people in a
backwater all your life. But you won't," he concluded.
"I've rather come to that way of thinking myself--about myself, I
mean," said Mary, surprising him by her acquiescence. "I should like
to go somewhere far away."
For a moment they were both silent. Ralph then said:
"But look here, Mary, you haven't been taking this seriously, have
you?" His irritation was spent, and the depression, which she could
not keep out of her voice, made him feel suddenly with remorse that he
had been hurting her.
"You won't go away, will you?" he asked. And as she said nothing, he
added, "Oh no, don't go away."
"I don't know exactly what I mean to do," she replied. She hovered on
the verge of some discussion of her plans, but she received no
encouragement. He fell into one of his queer silences, which seemed to
Mary, in spite of all her precautions, to have reference to what she
also could not prevent herself from thinking about--their feeling for
each other and their relationship. She felt that the two lines of
thought bored their way in long, parallel tunnels which came very
close indeed, but never ran into each other.
When he had gone, and he left her without breaking his silence more
than was needed to wish her good night, she sat on for a time,
reviewing what he had said. If love is a devastating fire which melts
the whole being into one mountain torrent, Mary was no more in love
with Denham than she was in love with her poker or her tongs. But
probably these extreme passions are very rare, and the state of mind
thus depicted belongs to the very last stages of love, when the power
to resist has been eaten away, week by week or day by day. Like most
intelligent people, Mary was something of an egoist, to the extent,
that is, of attaching great importance to what she felt, and she was
by nature enough of a moralist to like to make certain, from time to
time, that her feelings were creditable to her. When Ralph left her
she thought over her state of mind, and came to the conclusion that it
would be a good thing to learn a language--say Italian or German. She
then went to a drawer, which she had to unlock, and took from it
certain deeply scored manuscript pages. She read them through, looking
up from her reading every now and then and thinking very intently for
a few seconds about Ralph. She did her best to verify all the
qualities in him which gave rise to emotions in her; and persuaded
herself that she accounted reasonably for them all. Then she looked
back again at her manuscript, and decided that to write grammatical
English prose is the hardest thing in the world. But she thought about
herself a great deal more than she thought about grammatical English
prose or about Ralph Denham, and it may therefore be disputed whether
she was in love, or, if so, to which branch of the family her passion
It's life that matters, nothing but life--the process of discovering,
the everlasting and perpetual process," said Katharine, as she passed
under the archway, and so into the wide space of King's Bench Walk,
"not the discovery itself at all." She spoke the last words looking up
at Rodney's windows, which were a semilucent red color, in her honor,
as she knew. He had asked her to tea with him. But she was in a mood
when it is almost physically disagreeable to interrupt the stride of
one's thought, and she walked up and down two or three times under the
trees before approaching his staircase. She liked getting hold of some
book which neither her father or mother had read, and keeping it to
herself, and gnawing its contents in privacy, and pondering the
meaning without sharing her thoughts with any one, or having to decide
whether the book was a good one or a bad one. This evening she had
twisted the words of Dostoevsky to suit her mood--a fatalistic mood--
to proclaim that the process of discovery was life, and that,
presumably, the nature of one's goal mattered not at all. She sat down
for a moment upon one of the seats; felt herself carried along in the
swirl of many things; decided, in her sudden way, that it was time to
heave all this thinking overboard, and rose, leaving a fishmonger's
basket on the seat behind her. Two minutes later her rap sounded with
authority upon Rodney's door.
"Well, William," she said, "I'm afraid I'm late."
It was true, but he was so glad to see her that he forgot his
annoyance. He had been occupied for over an hour in making things
ready for her, and he now had his reward in seeing her look right and
left, as she slipped her cloak from her shoulders, with evident
satisfaction, although she said nothing. He had seen that the fire
burnt well; jam-pots were on the table, tin covers shone in the
fender, and the shabby comfort of the room was extreme. He was dressed
in his old crimson dressing-gown, which was faded irregularly, and had
bright new patches on it, like the paler grass which one finds on
lifting a stone. He made the tea, and Katharine drew off her gloves,
and crossed her legs with a gesture that was rather masculine in its
ease. Nor did they talk much until they were smoking cigarettes over
the fire, having placed their teacups upon the floor between them.
They had not met since they had exchanged letters about their
relationship. Katharine's answer to his protestation had been short
and sensible. Half a sheet of notepaper contained the whole of it, for
she merely had to say that she was not in love with him, and so could
not marry him, but their friendship would continue, she hoped,
unchanged. She had added a postscript in which she stated, "I like
your sonnet very much."
So far as William was concerned, this appearance of ease was assumed.
Three times that afternoon he had dressed himself in a tail-coat, and
three times he had discarded it for an old dressing-gown; three times
he had placed his pearl tie-pin in position, and three times he had
removed it again, the little looking-glass in his room being the
witness of these changes of mind. The question was, which would
Katharine prefer on this particular afternoon in December? He read her
note once more, and the postscript about the sonnet settled the
matter. Evidently she admired most the poet in him; and as this, on
the whole, agreed with his own opinion, he decided to err, if
anything, on the side of shabbiness. His demeanor was also regulated
with premeditation; he spoke little, and only on impersonal matters;
he wished her to realize that in visiting him for the first time alone
she was doing nothing remarkable, although, in fact, that was a point
about which he was not at all sure.
Certainly Katharine seemed quite unmoved by any disturbing thoughts;
and if he had been completely master of himself, he might, indeed,
have complained that she was a trifle absent-minded. The ease, the
familiarity of the situation alone with Rodney, among teacups and
candles, had more effect upon her than was apparent. She asked to look
at his books, and then at his pictures. It was while she held
photograph from the Greek in her hands that she exclaimed,
impulsively, if incongruously:
"My oysters! I had a basket," she explained, "and I've left it
somewhere. Uncle Dudley dines with us to-night. What in the world have
I done with them?"
She rose and began to wander about the room. William rose also, and
stood in front of the fire, muttering, "Oysters, oysters--your basket
of oysters!" but though he looked vaguely here and there, as if the
oysters might be on the top of the bookshelf, his eyes returned always
to Katharine. She drew the curtain and looked out among the scanty
leaves of the plane-trees.
"I had them," she calculated, "in the Strand; I sat on a seat. Well,
never mind," she concluded, turning back into the room abruptly, "I
dare say some old creature is enjoying them by this time."
"I should have thought that you never forgot anything," William
remarked, as they settled down again.
"That's part of the myth about me, I know," Katharine replied.
"And I wonder," William proceeded, with some caution, "what the truth
about you is? But I know this sort of thing doesn't interest you," he
added hastily, with a touch of peevishness.
"No; it doesn't interest me very much," she replied candidly.
"What shall we talk about then?" he asked.
She looked rather whimsically round the walls of the room.
"However we start, we end by talking about the same thing--about
poetry, I mean. I wonder if you realize, William, that I've never read
even Shakespeare? It's rather wonderful how I've kept it up all these
"You've kept it up for ten years very beautifully, as far as I'm
concerned," he said.
"Ten years? So long as that?"
"And I don't think it's always bored you," he added.
She looked into the fire silently. She could not deny that the surface
of her feeling was absolutely unruffled by anything in William's
character; on the contrary, she felt certain that she could deal with
whatever turned up. He gave her peace, in which she could think of
things that were far removed from what they talked about. Even now,
when he sat within a yard of her, how easily her mind ranged hither
and thither! Suddenly a picture presented itself before her, without
any effort on her part as pictures will, of herself in these very
rooms; she had come in from a lecture, and she held a pile of books in
her hand, scientific books, and books about mathematics and astronomy
which she had mastered. She put them down on the table over there. It
was a picture plucked from her life two or three years hence, when she
was married to William; but here she checked herself abruptly.
She could not entirely forget William's presence, because, in spite of
his efforts to control himself, his nervousness was apparent. On such
occasions his eyes protruded more than ever, and his face had more
than ever the appearance of being covered with a thin crackling skin,
through which every flush of his volatile blood showed itself
instantly. By this time he had shaped so many sentences and rejected
them, felt so many impulses and subdued them, that he was a uniform
"You may say you don't read books," he remarked, "but, all the same,
you know about them. Besides, who wants you to be learned? Leave that
to the poor devils who've got nothing better to do. You--you--ahem!--"
"Well, then, why don't you read me something before I go?" said
Katharine, looking at her watch.
"Katharine, you've only just come! Let me see now, what have I got to
show you?" He rose, and stirred about the papers on his table, as if
in doubt; he then picked up a manuscript, and after spreading it
smoothly upon his knee, he looked up at Katharine suspiciously. He
caught her smiling.
"I believe you only ask me to read out of kindness," he burst out.
"Let's find something else to talk about. Who have you been seeing?"
"I don't generally ask things out of kindness," Katharine observed;
"however, if you don't want to read, you needn't."
William gave a queer snort of exasperation, and opened his manuscript
once more, though he kept his eyes upon her face as he did so. No face
could have been graver or more judicial.
"One can trust you, certainly, to say unpleasant things," he said,
smoothing out the page, clearing his throat, and reading half a stanza
to himself. "Ahem! The Princess is lost in the wood, and she hears the
sound of a horn. (This would all be very pretty on the stage, but I
can't get the effect here.) Anyhow, Sylvano enters, accompanied by the
rest of the gentlemen of Gratian's court. I begin where he
soliloquizes." He jerked his head and began to read.
Although Katharine had just disclaimed any knowledge of literature,
she listened attentively. At least, she listened to the first twenty-
five lines attentively, and then she frowned. Her attention was only
aroused again when Rodney raised his finger--a sign, she knew, that
the meter was about to change.
His theory was that every mood has its meter. His mastery of meters
was very great; and, if the beauty of a drama depended upon the
variety of measures in which the personages speak, Rodney's plays must
have challenged the works of Shakespeare. Katharine's ignorance of
Shakespeare did not prevent her from feeling fairly certain that plays
should not produce a sense of chill stupor in the audience, such as
overcame her as the lines flowed on, sometimes long and sometimes
short, but always delivered with the same lilt of voice, which seemed
to nail each line firmly on to the same spot in the hearer's brain.
Still, she reflected, these sorts of skill are almost exclusively
masculine; women neither practice them nor know how to value them; and
one's husband's proficiency in this direction might legitimately
increase one's respect for him, since mystification is no bad basis
for respect. No one could doubt that William was a scholar. The
reading ended with the finish of the Act; Katharine had prepared a
"That seems to me extremely well written, William; although, of
course, I don't know enough to criticize in detail."
"But it's the skill that strikes you--not the emotion?"
"In a fragment like that, of course, the skill strikes one most."
"But perhaps--have you time to listen to one more short piece? the
scene between the lovers? There's some real feeling in that, I think.
Denham agrees that it's the best thing I've done."
"You've read it to Ralph Denham?" Katharine inquired, with surprise.
"He's a better judge than I am. What did he say?"
"My dear Katharine," Rodney exclaimed, "I don't ask you for criticism,
as I should ask a scholar. I dare say there are only five men in
England whose opinion of my work matters a straw to me. But I trust
you where feeling is concerned. I had you in my mind often when I was
writing those scenes. I kept asking myself, 'Now is this the sort of
thing Katharine would like?' I always think of you when I'm writing,
Katharine, even when it's the sort of thing you wouldn't know about.
And I'd rather--yes, I really believe I'd rather--you thought well of
my writing than any one in the world."
This was so genuine a tribute to his trust in her that Katharine was
"You think too much of me altogether, William," she said, forgetting
that she had not meant to speak in this way.
"No, Katharine, I don't," he replied, replacing his manuscript in the
drawer. "It does me good to think of you."
So quiet an answer, followed as it was by no expression of love, but
merely by the statement that if she must go he would take her to the
Strand, and would, if she could wait a moment, change his dressing-
gown for a coat, moved her to the warmest feeling of affection for him
that she had yet experienced. While he changed in the next room, she
stood by the bookcase, taking down books and opening them, but reading
nothing on their pages.
She felt certain that she would marry Rodney. How could one avoid it?
How could one find fault with it? Here she sighed, and, putting the
thought of marriage away, fell into a dream state, in which she became
another person, and the whole world seemed changed. Being a frequent
visitor to that world, she could find her way there unhesitatingly. If
she had tried to analyze her impressions, she would have said that
there dwelt the realities of the appearances which figure in our
world; so direct, powerful, and unimpeded were her sensations there,
compared with those called forth in actual life. There dwelt the
things one might have felt, had there been cause; the perfect
happiness of which here we taste the fragment; the beauty seen here in
flying glimpses only. No doubt much of the furniture of this world was
drawn directly from the past, and even from the England of the
Elizabethan age. However the embellishment of this imaginary world
might change, two qualities were constant in it. It was a place where
feelings were liberated from the constraint which the real world puts
upon them; and the process of awakenment was always marked by
resignation and a kind of stoical acceptance of facts. She met no
acquaintance there, as Denham did, miraculously transfigured; she
played no heroic part. But there certainly she loved some magnanimous
hero, and as they swept together among the leaf-hung trees of an
unknown world, they shared the feelings which came fresh and fast as
the waves on the shore. But the sands of her liberation were running
fast; even through the forest branches came sounds of Rodney moving
things on his dressing-table; and Katharine woke herself from this
excursion by shutting the cover of the book she was holding, and
replacing it in the bookshelf.
"William," she said, speaking rather faintly at first, like one
sending a voice from sleep to reach the living. "William," she
repeated firmly, "if you still want me to marry you, I will."
Perhaps it was that no man could expect to have the most momentous
question of his life settled in a voice so level, so toneless, so
devoid of joy or energy. At any rate William made no answer. She
waited stoically. A moment later he stepped briskly from his
dressing-room, and observed that if she wanted to buy more oysters he
thought he knew where they could find a fishmonger's shop still open.
She breathed deeply a sigh of relief.
Extract from a letter sent a few days later by Mrs. Hilbery to her
sister-in-law, Mrs. Milvain:
" . . . How stupid of me to forget the name in my telegram. Such a
nice, rich, English name, too, and, in addition, he has all the graces
of intellect; he has read literally EVERYTHING. I tell Katharine, I
shall always put him on my right side at dinner, so as to have him by
me when people begin talking about characters in Shakespeare. They
won't be rich, but they'll be very, very happy. I was sitting in my
room late one night, feeling that nothing nice would ever happen to me
again, when I heard Katharine outside in the passage, and I thought to
myself, 'Shall I call her in?' and then I thought (in that hopeless,
dreary way one does think, with the fire going out and one's birthday
just over), 'Why should I lay my troubles on HER?' But my little self-
control had its reward, for next moment she tapped at the door and
came in, and sat on the rug, and though we neither of us said
anything, I felt so happy all of a second that I couldn't help crying,
'Oh, Katharine, when you come to my age, how I hope you'll have a
daughter, too!' You know how silent Katharine is. She was so silent,
for such a long time, that in my foolish, nervous state I dreaded
something, I don't quite know what. And then she told me how, after
all, she had made up her mind. She had written. She expected him
to-morrow. At first I wasn't glad at all. I didn't want her to marry
any one; but when she said, 'It will make no difference. I shall
always care for you and father most,' then I saw how selfish I was,
and I told her she must give him everything, everything, everything! I
told her I should be thankful to come second. But why, when
everything's turned out just as one always hoped it would turn out,
why then can one do nothing but cry, nothing but feel a desolate old
woman whose life's been a failure, and now is nearly over, and age is
so cruel? But Katharine said to me, 'I am happy. I'm very happy.' And
then I thought, though it all seemed so desperately dismal at the
time, Katharine had said she was happy, and I should have a son, and
it would all turn out so much more wonderfully than I could possibly
imagine, for though the sermons don't say so, I do believe the world
is meant for us to be happy in. She told me that they would live quite
near us, and see us every day; and she would go on with the Life, and
we should finish it as we had meant to. And, after all, it would be
far more horrid if she didn't marry--or suppose she married some one
we couldn't endure? Suppose she had fallen in love with some one who
was married already?
"And though one never thinks any one good enough for the people one's
fond of, he has the kindest, truest instincts, I'm sure, and though he
seems nervous and his manner is not commanding, I only think these
things because it's Katharine. And now I've written this, it comes
over me that, of course, all the time, Katharine has what he hasn't.
She does command, she isn't nervous; it comes naturally to her to rule
and control. It's time that she should give all this to some one who
will need her when we aren't there, save in our spirits, for whatever
people say, I'm sure I shall come back to this wonderful world where
one's been so happy and so miserable, where, even now, I seem to see
myself stretching out my hands for another present from the great
Fairy Tree whose boughs are still hung with enchanting toys, though
they are rarer now, perhaps, and between the branches one sees no
longer the blue sky, but the stars and the tops of the mountains.
"One doesn't know any more, does one? One hasn't any advice to give
one's children. One can only hope that they will have the same vision
and the same power to believe, without which life would be so
meaningless. That is what I ask for Katharine and her husband."
Is Mr. Hilbery at home, or Mrs. Hilbery?" Denham asked, of the parlor-
maid in Chelsea, a week later.
"No, sir. But Miss Hilbery is at home," the girl answered.
Ralph had anticipated many answers, but not this one, and now it was
unexpectedly made plain to him that it was the chance of seeing
Katharine that had brought him all the way to Chelsea on pretence of
seeing her father.
He made some show of considering the matter, and was taken upstairs to
the drawing-room. As upon that first occasion, some weeks ago, the
door closed as if it were a thousand doors softly excluding the world;
and once more Ralph received an impression of a room full of deep
shadows, firelight, unwavering silver candle flames, and empty spaces
to be crossed before reaching the round table in the middle of the
room, with its frail burden of silver trays and china teacups. But
this time Katharine was there by herself; the volume in her hand
showed that she expected no visitors.
Ralph said something about hoping to find her father.
"My father is out," she replied. "But if you can wait, I expect him
It might have been due merely to politeness, but Ralph felt that she
received him almost with cordiality. Perhaps she was bored by drinking
tea and reading a book all alone; at any rate, she tossed the book on
to a sofa with a gesture of relief.
"Is that one of the moderns whom you despise?" he asked, smiling at
the carelessness of her gesture.
"Yes," she replied. "I think even you would despise him."
"Even I?" he repeated. "Why even I?"
"You said you liked modern things; I said I hated them."
This was not a very accurate report of their conversation among the
relics, perhaps, but Ralph was flattered to think that she remembered
anything about it.
"Or did I confess that I hated all books?" she went on, seeing him
look up with an air of inquiry. "I forget--"
"Do you hate all books?" he asked.
"It would be absurd to say that I hate all books when I've only read
ten, perhaps; but--' Here she pulled herself up short.
"Yes, I do hate books," she continued. "Why do you want to be for ever
talking about your feelings? That's what I can't make out. And
poetry's all about feelings--novels are all about feelings."
She cut a cake vigorously into slices, and providing a tray with bread
and butter for Mrs. Hilbery, who was in her room with a cold, she rose
to go upstairs.
Ralph held the door open for her, and then stood with clasped hands in
the middle of the room. His eyes were bright, and, indeed, he scarcely
knew whether they beheld dreams or realities. All down the street and
on the doorstep, and while he mounted the stairs, his dream of
Katharine possessed him; on the threshold of the room he had dismissed
it, in order to prevent too painful a collision between what he dreamt
of her and what she was. And in five minutes she had filled the shell
of the old dream with the flesh of life; looked with fire out of
phantom eyes. He glanced about him with bewilderment at finding
himself among her chairs and tables; they were solid, for he grasped
the back of the chair in which Katharine had sat; and yet they were
unreal; the atmosphere was that of a dream. He summoned all the
faculties of his spirit to seize what the minutes had to give him; and
from the depths of his mind there rose unchecked a joyful recognition
of the truth that human nature surpasses, in its beauty, all that our
wildest dreams bring us hints of.
Katharine came into the room a moment later. He stood watching her
come towards him, and thought her more beautiful and strange than his
dream of her; for the real Katharine could speak the words which
seemed to crowd behind the forehead and in the depths of the eyes, and
the commonest sentence would be flashed on by this immortal light. And
she overflowed the edges of the dream; he remarked that her softness
was like that of some vast snowy owl; she wore a ruby on her finger.
"My mother wants me to tell you," she said, "that she hopes you have
begun your poem. She says every one ought to write poetry. . . . All
my relations write poetry," she went on. "I can't bear to think of it
sometimes--because, of course, it's none of it any good. But then one
needn't read it--"
"You don't encourage me to write a poem," said Ralph.
"But you're not a poet, too, are you?" she inquired, turning upon him
with a laugh.
"Should I tell you if I were?"
"Yes. Because I think you speak the truth," she said, searching him
for proof of this apparently, with eyes now almost impersonally
direct. It would be easy, Ralph thought, to worship one so far
removed, and yet of so straight a nature; easy to submit recklessly to
her, without thought of future pain.
"Are you a poet?" she demanded. He felt that her question had an
unexplained weight of meaning behind it, as if she sought an answer to
a question that she did not ask.
"No. I haven't written any poetry for years," he replied. "But all the
same, I don't agree with you. I think it's the only thing worth
"Why do you say that?" she asked, almost with impatience, tapping her
spoon two or three times against the side of her cup.
"Why?" Ralph laid hands on the first words that came to mind.
"Because, I suppose, it keeps an ideal alive which might die
A curious change came over her face, as if the flame of her mind were
subdued; and she looked at him ironically and with the expression
which he had called sad before, for want of a better name for it.
"I don't know that there's much sense in having ideals," she said.
"But you have them," he replied energetically. "Why do we call them
ideals? It's a stupid word. Dreams, I mean--"
She followed his words with parted lips, as though to answer eagerly
when he had done; but as he said, "Dreams, I mean," the door of the
drawing-room swung open, and so remained for a perceptible instant.
They both held themselves silent, her lips still parted.
Far off, they heard the rustle of skirts. Then the owner of the skirts
appeared in the doorway, which she almost filled, nearly concealing
the figure of a very much smaller lady who accompanied her.
"My aunts!" Katharine murmured, under her breath. Her tone had a hint
of tragedy in it, but no less, Ralph thought, than the situation
required. She addressed the larger lady as Aunt Millicent; the smaller
was Aunt Celia, Mrs. Milvain, who had lately undertaken the task of
marrying Cyril to his wife. Both ladies, but Mrs. Cosham (Aunt
Millicent) in particular, had that look of heightened, smoothed,
incarnadined existence which is proper to elderly ladies paying calls
in London about five o'clock in the afternoon. Portraits by Romney,
seen through glass, have something of their pink, mellow look, their
blooming softness, as of apricots hanging upon a red wall in the
afternoon sun. Mrs. Cosham was so appareled with hanging muffs,
chains, and swinging draperies that it was impossible to detect the
shape of a human being in the mass of brown and black which filled the
arm-chair. Mrs. Milvain was a much slighter figure; but the same doubt
as to the precise lines of her contour filled Ralph, as he regarded
them, with dismal foreboding. What remark of his would ever reach
these fabulous and fantastic characters?--for there was something
fantastically unreal in the curious swayings and noddings of Mrs.
Cosham, as if her equipment included a large wire spring. Her voice
had a high-pitched, cooing note, which prolonged words and cut them
short until the English language seemed no longer fit for common
purposes. In a moment of nervousness, so Ralph thought, Katharine had
turned on innumerable electric lights. But Mrs. Cosham had gained
impetus (perhaps her swaying movements had that end in view) for
sustained speech; and she now addressed Ralph deliberately and
"I come from Woking, Mr. Popham. You may well ask me, why Woking? and
to that I answer, for perhaps the hundredth time, because of the
sunsets. We went there for the sunsets, but that was five-and-twenty
years ago. Where are the sunsets now? Alas! There is no sunset now
nearer than the South Coast." Her rich and romantic notes were
accompanied by a wave of a long white hand, which, when waved, gave
off a flash of diamonds, rubies, and emeralds. Ralph wondered whether
she more resembled an elephant, with a jeweled head-dress, or a superb
cockatoo, balanced insecurely upon its perch, and pecking capriciously
at a lump of sugar.
"Where are the sunsets now?" she repeated. "Do you find sunsets now,
"I live at Highgate," he replied.
"At Highgate? Yes, Highgate has its charms; your Uncle John lived at
Highgate," she jerked in the direction of Katharine. She sank her head
upon her breast, as if for a moment's meditation, which past, she
looked up and observed: "I dare say there are very pretty lanes in
Highgate. I can recollect walking with your mother, Katharine, through
lanes blossoming with wild hawthorn. But where is the hawthorn now?
You remember that exquisite description in De Quincey, Mr. Popham?--
but I forget, you, in your generation, with all your activity and
enlightenment, at which I can only marvel"--here she displayed both
her beautiful white hands--"do not read De Quincey. You have your
Belloc, your Chesterton, your Bernard Shaw--why should you read De
"But I do read De Quincey," Ralph protested, "more than Belloc and
"Indeed!" exclaimed Mrs. Cosham, with a gesture of surprise and relief
mingled. "You are, then, a 'rara avis' in your generation. I am
delighted to meet anyone who reads De Quincey."
Here she hollowed her hand into a screen, and, leaning towards
Katharine, inquired, in a very audible whisper, "Does your friend
"Mr. Denham," said Katharine, with more than her usual clearness and
firmness, "writes for the Review. He is a lawyer."
"The clean-shaven lips, showing the expression of the mouth! I
recognize them at once. I always feel at home with lawyers, Mr.
"They used to come about so much in the old days," Mrs. Milvain
interposed, the frail, silvery notes of her voice falling with the
sweet tone of an old bell.
"You say you live at Highgate," she continued. "I wonder whether you
happen to know if there is an old house called Tempest Lodge still in
existence--an old white house in a garden?"
Ralph shook his head, and she sighed.
"Ah, no; it must have been pulled down by this time, with all the
other old houses. There were such pretty lanes in those days. That was
how your uncle met your Aunt Emily, you know," she addressed
Katharine. "They walked home through the lanes."
"A sprig of May in her bonnet," Mrs. Cosham ejaculated, reminiscently.
"And next Sunday he had violets in his buttonhole. And that was how we
Katharine laughed. She looked at Ralph. His eyes were meditative, and
she wondered what he found in this old gossip to make him ponder so
contentedly. She felt, she hardly knew why, a curious pity for him.
"Uncle John--yes, 'poor John,' you always called him. Why was that?"
she asked, to make them go on talking, which, indeed, they needed
little invitation to do.
"That was what his father, old Sir Richard, always called him. Poor
John, or the fool of the family," Mrs. Milvain hastened to inform
them. "The other boys were so brilliant, and he could never pass his
examinations, so they sent him to India--a long voyage in those days,
poor fellow. You had your own room, you know, and you did it up. But
he will get his knighthood and a pension, I believe," she said,
turning to Ralph, "only it is not England."
"No," Mrs. Cosham confirmed her, "it is not England. In those days we
thought an Indian Judgeship about equal to a county-court judgeship at
home. His Honor--a pretty title, but still, not at the top of the
tree. However," she sighed, "if you have a wife and seven children,
and people nowadays very quickly forget your father's name--well, you
have to take what you can get," she concluded.
"And I fancy," Mrs. Milvain resumed, lowering her voice rather
confidentially, "that John would have done more if it hadn't been for
his wife, your Aunt Emily. She was a very good woman, devoted to him,
of course, but she was not ambitious for him, and if a wife isn't
ambitious for her husband, especially in a profession like the law,
clients soon get to know of it. In our young days, Mr. Denham, we used
to say that we knew which of our friends would become judges, by
looking at the girls they married. And so it was, and so, I fancy, it
always will be. I don't think," she added, summing up these scattered
remarks, "that any man is really happy unless he succeeds in his
Mrs. Cosham approved of this sentiment with more ponderous sagacity
from her side of the tea-table, in the first place by swaying her
head, and in the second by remarking:
"No, men are not the same as women. I fancy Alfred Tennyson spoke the
truth about that as about many other things. How I wish he'd lived to
write 'The Prince'--a sequel to 'The Princess'! I confess I'm almost
tired of Princesses. We want some one to show us what a good man can
be. We have Laura and Beatrice, Antigone and Cordelia, but we have no
heroic man. How do you, as a poet, account for that, Mr. Denham?"
"I'm not a poet," said Ralph good-humoredly. "I'm only a solicitor."
"But you write, too?" Mrs. Cosham demanded, afraid lest she should be
balked of her priceless discovery, a young man truly devoted to
"In my spare time," Denham reassured her.
"In your spare time!" Mrs. Cosham echoed. "That is a proof of
devotion, indeed." She half closed her eyes, and indulged herself in a
fascinating picture of a briefless barrister lodged in a garret,
writing immortal novels by the light of a farthing dip. But the
romance which fell upon the figures of great writers and illumined
their pages was no false radiance in her case. She carried her pocket
Shakespeare about with her, and met life fortified by the words of the
poets. How far she saw Denham, and how far she confused him with some
hero of fiction, it would be hard to say. Literature had taken
possession even of her memories. She was matching him, presumably,
with certain characters in the old novels, for she came out, after a
"Um--um--Pendennis--Warrington--I could never forgive Laura," she
pronounced energetically, "for not marrying George, in spite of
everything. George Eliot did the very same thing; and Lewes was a
little frog-faced man, with the manner of a dancing master. But
Warrington, now, had everything in his favor; intellect, passion,
romance, distinction, and the connection was a mere piece of
undergraduate folly. Arthur, I confess, has always seemed to me a bit
of a fop; I can't imagine how Laura married him. But you say you're a
solicitor, Mr. Denham. Now there are one or two things I should like
to ask you--about Shakespeare--" She drew out her small, worn volume
with some difficulty, opened it, and shook it in the air. "They say,
nowadays, that Shakespeare was a lawyer. They say, that accounts for
his knowledge of human nature. There's a fine example for you, Mr.
Denham. Study your clients, young man, and the world will be the
richer one of these days, I have no doubt. Tell me, how do we come out
of it, now; better or worse than you expected?"
Thus called upon to sum up the worth of human nature in a few words,
Ralph answered unhesitatingly:
"Worse, Mrs. Cosham, a good deal worse. I'm afraid the ordinary man is
a bit of a rascal--"
"And the ordinary woman?"
"No, I don't like the ordinary woman either--"
Ah, dear me, I've no doubt that's very true, very true." Mrs. Cosham
sighed. "Swift would have agreed with you, anyhow--" She looked at
him, and thought that there were signs of distinct power in his brow.
He would do well, she thought, to devote himself to satire.
"Charles Lavington, you remember, was a solicitor," Mrs. Milvain
interposed, rather resenting the waste of time involved in talking
about fictitious people when you might be talking about real people.
"But you wouldn't remember him, Katharine."
"Mr. Lavington? Oh, yes, I do," said Katharine, waking from other
thoughts with her little start. "The summer we had a house near Tenby.
I remember the field and the pond with the tadpoles, and making
haystacks with Mr. Lavington."
"She is right. There WAS a pond with tadpoles," Mrs. Cosham
corroborated. "Millais made studies of it for 'Ophelia.' Some say that
is the best picture he ever painted--"
"And I remember the dog chained up in the yard, and the dead snakes
hanging in the toolhouse."
"It was at Tenby that you were chased by the bull," Mrs. Milvain
continued. "But that you couldn't remember, though it's true you were
a wonderful child. Such eyes she had, Mr. Denham! I used to say to her
father, 'She's watching us, and summing us all up in her little mind.'
And they had a nurse in those days," she went on, telling her story
with charming solemnity to Ralph, "who was a good woman, but engaged
to a sailor. When she ought to have been attending to the baby, her
eyes were on the sea. And Mrs. Hilbery allowed this girl--Susan her
name was--to have him to stay in the village. They abused her
goodness, I'm sorry to say, and while they walked in the lanes, they
stood the perambulator alone in a field where there was a bull. The
animal became enraged by the red blanket in the perambulator, and
Heaven knows what might have happened if a gentleman had not been
walking by in the nick of time, and rescued Katharine in his arms!"
"I think the bull was only a cow, Aunt Celia," said Katharine.
"My darling, it was a great red Devonshire bull, and not long after it
gored a man to death and had to be destroyed. And your mother forgave
Susan--a thing I could never have done."
"Maggie's sympathies were entirely with Susan and the sailor, I am
sure," said Mrs. Cosham, rather tartly. "My sister-in-law," she
continued, "has laid her burdens upon Providence at every crisis in
her life, and Providence, I must confess, has responded nobly, so
"Yes," said Katharine, with a laugh, for she liked the rashness which
irritated the rest of the family. "My mother's bulls always turn into
cows at the critical moment."
"Well," said Mrs. Milvain, "I'm glad you have some one to protect you
from bulls now."
"I can't imagine William protecting any one from bulls," said
It happened that Mrs. Cosham had once more produced her pocket volume
of Shakespeare, and was consulting Ralph upon an obscure passage in
"Measure for Measure." He did not at once seize the meaning of what
Katharine and her aunt were saying; William, he supposed, referred to
some small cousin, for he now saw Katharine as a child in a pinafore;
but, nevertheless, he was so much distracted that his eye could hardly
follow the words on the paper. A moment later he heard them speak
distinctly of an engagement ring.
"I like rubies," he heard Katharine say.
"To be imprison'd in the viewless winds,
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendant world. . . ."
Mrs. Cosham intoned; at the same instant "Rodney" fitted itself to
"William" in Ralph's mind. He felt convinced that Katharine was
engaged to Rodney. His first sensation was one of violent rage with
her for having deceived him throughout the visit, fed him with
pleasant old wives' tales, let him see her as a child playing in a
meadow, shared her youth with him, while all the time she was a
stranger entirely, and engaged to marry Rodney.
But was it possible? Surely it was not possible. For in his eyes she
was still a child. He paused so long over the book that Mrs. Cosham
had time to look over his shoulder and ask her niece:
"And have you settled upon a house yet, Katharine?"
This convinced him of the truth of the monstrous idea. He looked up at
once and said:
"Yes, it's a difficult passage."
His voice had changed so much, he spoke with such curtness and even
with such contempt, that Mrs. Cosham looked at him fairly puzzled.
Happily she belonged to a generation which expected uncouthness in its
men, and she merely felt convinced that this Mr. Denham was very, very
clever. She took back her Shakespeare, as Denham seemed to have no
more to say, and secreted it once more about her person with the
infinitely pathetic resignation of the old.
"Katharine's engaged to William Rodney," she said, by way of filling
in the pause; "a very old friend of ours. He has a wonderful knowledge
of literature, too--wonderful." She nodded her head rather vaguely.
"You should meet each other."
Denham's one wish was to leave the house as soon as he could; but the
elderly ladies had risen, and were proposing to visit Mrs. Hilbery in
her bedroom, so that any move on his part was impossible. At the same
time, he wished to say something, but he knew not what, to Katharine
alone. She took her aunts upstairs, and returned, coming towards him
once more with an air of innocence and friendliness that amazed him.
"My father will be back," she said. "Won't you sit down?" and she
laughed, as if now they might share a perfectly friendly laugh at the
But Ralph made no attempt to seat himself.
"I must congratulate you," he said. "It was news to me." He saw her
face change, but only to become graver than before.
"My engagement?" she asked. "Yes, I am going to marry William Rodney."
Ralph remained standing with his hand on the back of a chair in
absolute silence. Abysses seemed to plunge into darkness between them.
He looked at her, but her face showed that she was not thinking of
him. No regret or consciousness of wrong disturbed her.
"Well, I must go," he said at length.
She seemed about to say something, then changed her mind and said
"You will come again, I hope. We always seem"--she hesitated--"to be
He bowed and left the room.
Ralph strode with extreme swiftness along the Embankment. Every muscle
was taut and braced as if to resist some sudden attack from outside.
For the moment it seemed as if the attack were about to be directed
against his body, and his brain thus was on the alert, but without
understanding. Finding himself, after a few minutes, no longer under
observation, and no attack delivered, he slackened his pace, the pain
spread all through him, took possession of every governing seat, and
met with scarcely any resistance from powers exhausted by their first
effort at defence. He took his way languidly along the river
embankment, away from home rather than towards it. The world had him
at its mercy. He made no pattern out of the sights he saw. He felt
himself now, as he had often fancied other people, adrift on the
stream, and far removed from control of it, a man with no grasp upon
circumstances any longer. Old battered men loafing at the doors of
public-houses now seemed to be his fellows, and he felt, as he
supposed them to feel, a mingling of envy and hatred towards those who
passed quickly and certainly to a goal of their own. They, too, saw
things very thin and shadowy, and were wafted about by the lightest
breath of wind. For the substantial world, with its prospect of
avenues leading on and on to the invisible distance, had slipped from
him, since Katharine was engaged. Now all his life was visible, and
the straight, meager path had its ending soon enough. Katharine was
engaged, and she had deceived him, too. He felt for corners of his
being untouched by his disaster; but there was no limit to the flood
of damage; not one of his possessions was safe now. Katharine had
deceived him; she had mixed herself with every thought of his, and
reft of her they seemed false thoughts which he would blush to think
again. His life seemed immeasurably impoverished.
He sat himself down, in spite of the chilly fog which obscured the
farther bank and left its lights suspended upon a blank surface, upon
one of the riverside seats, and let the tide of disillusionment sweep
through him. For the time being all bright points in his life were
blotted out; all prominences leveled. At first he made himself believe
that Katharine had treated him badly, and drew comfort from the
thought that, left alone, she would recollect this, and think of him
and tender him, in silence, at any rate, an apology. But this grain of
comfort failed him after a second or two, for, upon reflection, he had
to admit that Katharine owed him nothing. Katharine had promised
nothing, taken nothing; to her his dreams had meant nothing. This,
indeed, was the lowest pitch of his despair. If the best of one's
feelings means nothing to the person most concerned in those feelings,
what reality is left us? The old romance which had warmed his days for
him, the thoughts of Katharine which had painted every hour, were now
made to appear foolish and enfeebled. He rose, and looked into the
river, whose swift race of dun-colored waters seemed the very spirit
of futility and oblivion.
"In what can one trust, then?" he thought, as he leant there. So
feeble and insubstantial did he feel himself that he repeated the word
"In what can one trust? Not in men and women. Not in one's dreams
about them. There's nothing--nothing, nothing left at all."
Now Denham had reason to know that he could bring to birth and keep
alive a fine anger when he chose. Rodney provided a good target for
that emotion. And yet at the moment, Rodney and Katharine herself
seemed disembodied ghosts. He could scarcely remember the look of
them. His mind plunged lower and lower. Their marriage seemed of no
importance to him. All things had turned to ghosts; the whole mass of
the world was insubstantial vapor, surrounding the solitary spark in
his mind, whose burning point he could remember, for it burnt no more.
He had once cherished a belief, and Katharine had embodied this
belief, and she did so no longer. He did not blame her; he blamed
nothing, nobody; he saw the truth. He saw the dun-colored race of
waters and the blank shore. But life is vigorous; the body lives, and
the body, no doubt, dictated the reflection, which now urged him to
movement, that one may cast away the forms of human beings, and yet
retain the passion which seemed inseparable from their existence in
the flesh. Now this passion burnt on his horizon, as the winter sun
makes a greenish pane in the west through thinning clouds. His eyes
were set on something infinitely far and remote; by that light he felt
he could walk, and would, in future, have to find his way. But that
was all there was left to him of a populous and teeming world.
The lunch hour in the office was only partly spent by Denham in the
consumption of food. Whether fine or wet, he passed most of it pacing
the gravel paths in Lincoln's Inn Fields. The children got to know his
figure, and the sparrows expected their daily scattering of bread-
crumbs. No doubt, since he often gave a copper and almost always a
handful of bread, he was not as blind to his surroundings as he
He thought that these winter days were spent in long hours before
white papers radiant in electric light; and in short passages through
fog-dimmed streets. When he came back to his work after lunch he
carried in his head a picture of the Strand, scattered with omnibuses,
and of the purple shapes of leaves pressed flat upon the gravel, as if
his eyes had always been bent upon the ground. His brain worked
incessantly, but his thought was attended with so little joy that he
did not willingly recall it; but drove ahead, now in this direction,
now in that; and came home laden with dark books borrowed from a
Mary Datchet, coming from the Strand at lunch-time, saw him one day
taking his turn, closely buttoned in an overcoat, and so lost in
thought that he might have been sitting in his own room.
She was overcome by something very like awe by the sight of him; then
she felt much inclined to laugh, although her pulse beat faster. She
passed him, and he never saw her. She came back and touched him on the
"Gracious, Mary!" he exclaimed. "How you startled me!"
"Yes. You looked as if you were walking in your sleep," she said. "Are
you arranging some terrible love affair? Have you got to reconcile a
"I wasn't thinking about my work," Ralph replied, rather hastily.
"And, besides, that sort of thing's not in my line," he added, rather
The morning was fine, and they had still some minutes of leisure to
spend. They had not met for two or three weeks, and Mary had much to
say to Ralph; but she was not certain how far he wished for her
company. However, after a turn or two, in which a few facts were
communicated, he suggested sitting down, and she took the seat beside
him. The sparrows came fluttering about them, and Ralph produced from
his pocket the half of a roll saved from his luncheon. He threw a few
crumbs among them.
"I've never seen sparrows so tame," Mary observed, by way of saying
"No," said Ralph. "The sparrows in Hyde Park aren't as tame as this.
If we keep perfectly still, I'll get one to settle on my arm."
Mary felt that she could have forgone this display of animal good
temper, but seeing that Ralph, for some curious reason, took a pride
in the sparrows, she bet him sixpence that he would not succeed.
"Done!" he said; and his eye, which had been gloomy, showed a spark of
light. His conversation was now addressed entirely to a bald cock-
sparrow, who seemed bolder than the rest; and Mary took the
opportunity of looking at him. She was not satisfied; his face was
worn, and his expression stern. A child came bowling its hoop through
the concourse of birds, and Ralph threw his last crumbs of bread into
the bushes with a snort of impatience.
"That's what always happens--just as I've almost got him," he said.
"Here's your sixpence, Mary. But you've only got it thanks to that
brute of a boy. They oughtn't to be allowed to bowl hoops here--"
"Oughtn't to be allowed to bowl hoops! My dear Ralph, what nonsense!"
"You always say that," he complained; "and it isn't nonsense. What's
the point of having a garden if one can't watch birds in it? The
street does all right for hoops. And if children can't be trusted in
the streets, their mothers should keep them at home."
Mary made no answer to this remark, but frowned.
She leant back on the seat and looked about her at the great houses
breaking the soft gray-blue sky with their chimneys.
"Ah, well," she said, "London's a fine place to live in. I believe I
could sit and watch people all day long. I like my fellow-
creatures. . . ."
Ralph sighed impatiently.
"Yes, I think so, when you come to know them," she added, as if his
disagreement had been spoken.
"That's just when I don't like them," he replied. "Still, I don't see
why you shouldn't cherish that illusion, if it pleases you." He spoke
without much vehemence of agreement or disagreement. He seemed
"Wake up, Ralph! You're half asleep!" Mary cried, turning and pinching
his sleeve. "What have you been doing with yourself? Moping? Working?
Despising the world, as usual?"
As he merely shook his head, and filled his pipe, she went on:
"It's a bit of a pose, isn't it?"
"Not more than most things," he said.
"Well," Mary remarked, "I've a great deal to say to you, but I must go
on--we have a committee." She rose, but hesitated, looking down upon
him rather gravely. "You don't look happy, Ralph," she said. "Is it
anything, or is it nothing?"
He did not immediately answer her, but rose, too, and walked with her
towards the gate. As usual, he did not speak to her without
considering whether what he was about to say was the sort of thing
that he could say to her.
"I've been bothered," he said at length. "Partly by work, and partly
by family troubles. Charles has been behaving like a fool. He wants to
go out to Canada as a farmer--"
"Well, there's something to be said for that," said Mary; and they
passed the gate, and walked slowly round the Fields again, discussing
difficulties which, as a matter of fact, were more or less chronic in
the Denham family, and only now brought forward to appease Mary's
sympathy, which, however, soothed Ralph more than he was aware of. She
made him at least dwell upon problems which were real in the sense
that they were capable of solution; and the true cause of his
melancholy, which was not susceptible to such treatment, sank rather
more deeply into the shades of his mind.
Mary was attentive; she was helpful. Ralph could not help feeling
grateful to her, the more so, perhaps, because he had not told her the
truth about his state; and when they reached the gate again he wished
to make some affectionate objection to her leaving him. But his
affection took the rather uncouth form of expostulating with her about
"What d'you want to sit on a committee for?" he asked. "It's waste of
your time, Mary."
"I agree with you that a country walk would benefit the world more,"
she said. "Look here," she added suddenly, "why don't you come to us
at Christmas? It's almost the best time of year."
"Come to you at Disham?" Ralph repeated.
"Yes. We won't interfere with you. But you can tell me later," she
said, rather hastily, and then started off in the direction of Russell
Square. She had invited him on the impulse of the moment, as a vision
of the country came before her; and now she was annoyed with herself
for having done so, and then she was annoyed at being annoyed.
"If I can't face a walk in a field alone with Ralph," she reasoned,
"I'd better buy a cat and live in a lodging at Ealing, like Sally Seal
--and he won't come. Or did he mean that he WOULD come?"
She shook her head. She really did not know what he had meant. She
never felt quite certain; but now she was more than usually baffled.
Was he concealing something from her? His manner had been odd; his
deep absorption had impressed her; there was something in him that she
had not fathomed, and the mystery of his nature laid more of a spell
upon her than she liked. Moreover, she could not prevent herself from
doing now what she had often blamed others of her sex for doing--from
endowing her friend with a kind of heavenly fire, and passing her life
before it for his sanction.
Under this process, the committee rather dwindled in importance; the
Suffrage shrank; she vowed she would work harder at the Italian
language; she thought she would take up the study of birds. But this
program for a perfect life threatened to become so absurd that she
very soon caught herself out in the evil habit, and was rehearsing her
speech to the committee by the time the chestnut-colored bricks of
Russell Square came in sight. Indeed, she never noticed them. She ran
upstairs as usual, and was completely awakened to reality by the sight
of Mrs. Seal, on the landing outside the office, inducing a very large
dog to drink water out of a tumbler.
"Miss Markham has already arrived," Mrs. Seal remarked, with due
solemnity, "and this is her dog."
"A very fine dog, too," said Mary, patting him on the head.
"Yes. A magnificent fellow, Mrs. Seal agreed. "A kind of St. Bernard,
she tells me--so like Kit to have a St. Bernard. And you guard your
mistress well, don't you, Sailor? You see that wicked men don't break
into her larder when she's out at HER work--helping poor souls who
have lost their way. . . . But we're late--we must begin!" and
scattering the rest of the water indiscriminately over the floor, she
hurried Mary into the committee-room.
Mr. Clacton was in his glory. The machinery which he had perfected and
controlled was now about to turn out its bi-monthly product, a
committee meeting; and his pride in the perfect structure of these
assemblies was great. He loved the jargon of committee-rooms; he loved
the way in which the door kept opening as the clock struck the hour,
in obedience to a few strokes of his pen on a piece of paper; and when
it had opened sufficiently often, he loved to issue from his inner
chamber with documents in his hands, visibly important, with a
preoccupied expression on his face that might have suited a Prime
Minister advancing to meet his Cabinet. By his orders the table had
been decorated beforehand with six sheets of blotting-paper, with six
pens, six ink-pots, a tumbler and a jug of water, a bell, and, in
deference to the taste of the lady members, a vase of hardy
chrysanthemums. He had already surreptitiously straightened the sheets
of blotting-paper in relation to the ink-pots, and now stood in front
of the fire engaged in conversation with Miss Markham. But his eye was
on the door, and when Mary and Mrs. Seal entered, he gave a little
laugh and observed to the assembly which was scattered about the room:
"I fancy, ladies and gentlemen, that we are ready to commence."
So speaking, he took his seat at the head of the table, and arranging
one bundle of papers upon his right and another upon his left, called
upon Miss Datchet to read the minutes of the previous meeting. Mary
obeyed. A keen observer might have wondered why it was necessary for
the secretary to knit her brows so closely over the tolerably
matter-of-fact statement before her. Could there be any doubt in her
mind that it had been resolved to circularize the provinces with
Leaflet No. 3, or to issue a statistical diagram showing the
proportion of married women to spinsters in New Zealand; or that the
net profits of Mrs. Hipsley's Bazaar had reached a total of five
pounds eight shillings and twopence half-penny?
Could any doubt as to the perfect sense and propriety of these
statements be disturbing her? No one could have guessed, from the look
of her, that she was disturbed at all. A pleasanter and saner woman
than Mary Datchet was never seen within a committee-room. She seemed a
compound of the autumn leaves and the winter sunshine; less poetically
speaking, she showed both gentleness and strength, an indefinable
promise of soft maternity blending with her evident fitness for honest
labor. Nevertheless, she had great difficulty in reducing her mind to
obedience; and her reading lacked conviction, as if, as was indeed the
case, she had lost the power of visualizing what she read. And
directly the list was completed, her mind floated to Lincoln's Inn
Fields and the fluttering wings of innumerable sparrows. Was Ralph
still enticing the bald-headed cock-sparrow to sit upon his hand? Had
he succeeded? Would he ever succeed? She had meant to ask him why it
is that the sparrows in Lincoln's Inn Fields are tamer than the
sparrows in Hyde Park--perhaps it is that the passers-by are rarer,
and they come to recognize their benefactors. For the first half-hour
of the committee meeting, Mary had thus to do battle with the
skeptical presence of Ralph Denham, who threatened to have it all his
own way. Mary tried half a dozen methods of ousting him. She raised
her voice, she articulated distinctly, she looked firmly at Mr.
Clacton's bald head, she began to write a note. To her annoyance, her
pencil drew a little round figure on the blotting-paper, which, she
could not deny, was really a bald-headed cock-sparrow. She looked
again at Mr. Clacton; yes, he was bald, and so are cock-sparrows.
Never was a secretary tormented by so many unsuitable suggestions, and
they all came, alas! with something ludicrously grotesque about them,
which might, at any moment, provoke her to such flippancy as would
shock her colleagues for ever. The thought of what she might say made
her bite her lips, as if her lips would protect her.
But all these suggestions were but flotsam and jetsam cast to the
surface by a more profound disturbance, which, as she could not
consider it at present, manifested its existence by these grotesque
nods and beckonings. Consider it, she must, when the committee was
over. Meanwhile, she was behaving scandalously; she was looking out of
the window, and thinking of the color of the sky, and of the
decorations on the Imperial Hotel, when she ought to have been
shepherding her colleagues, and pinning them down to the matter in
hand. She could not bring herself to attach more weight to one project
than to another. Ralph had said--she could not stop to consider what
he had said, but he had somehow divested the proceedings of all
reality. And then, without conscious effort, by some trick of the
brain, she found herself becoming interested in some scheme for
organizing a newspaper campaign. Certain articles were to be written;
certain editors approached. What line was it advisable to take? She
found herself strongly disapproving of what Mr. Clacton was saying.
She committed herself to the opinion that now was the time to strike
hard. Directly she had said this, she felt that she had turned upon
Ralph's ghost; and she became more and more in earnest, and anxious to
bring the others round to her point of view. Once more, she knew
exactly and indisputably what is right and what is wrong. As if
emerging from a mist, the old foes of the public good loomed ahead of
her--capitalists, newspaper proprietors, anti-suffragists, and, in
some ways most pernicious of all, the masses who take no interest one
way or another--among whom, for the time being, she certainly
discerned the features of Ralph Denham. Indeed, when Miss Markham
asked her to suggest the names of a few friends of hers, she expressed
herself with unusual bitterness:
"My friends think all this kind of thing useless." She felt that she
was really saying that to Ralph himself.
"Oh, they're that sort, are they?" said Miss Markham, with a little
laugh; and with renewed vigor their legions charged the foe.
Mary's spirits had been low when she entered the committee-room; but
now they were considerably improved. She knew the ways of this world;
it was a shapely, orderly place; she felt convinced of its right and
its wrong; and the feeling that she was fit to deal a heavy blow
against her enemies warmed her heart and kindled her eye. In one of
those flights of fancy, not characteristic of her but tiresomely
frequent this afternoon, she envisaged herself battered with rotten
eggs upon a platform, from which Ralph vainly begged her to descend.
"What do I matter compared with the cause?" she said, and so on. Much
to her credit, however teased by foolish fancies, she kept the surface
of her brain moderate and vigilant, and subdued Mrs. Seal very
tactfully more than once when she demanded, "Action!--everywhere!--at
once!" as became her father's daughter.
The other members of the committee, who were all rather elderly
people, were a good deal impressed by Mary, and inclined to side with
her and against each other, partly, perhaps, because of her youth. The
feeling that she controlled them all filled Mary with a sense of
power; and she felt that no work can equal in importance, or be so
exciting as, the work of making other people do what you want them to
do. Indeed, when she had won her point she felt a slight degree of
contempt for the people who had yielded to her.
The committee now rose, gathered together their papers, shook them
straight, placed them in their attache-cases, snapped the locks firmly
together, and hurried away, having, for the most part, to catch
trains, in order to keep other appointments with other committees, for
they were all busy people. Mary, Mrs. Seal, and Mr. Clacton were left
alone; the room was hot and untidy, the pieces of pink blotting-paper
were lying at different angles upon the table, and the tumbler was
half full of water, which some one had poured out and forgotten to
Mrs. Seal began preparing the tea, while Mr. Clacton retired to his
room to file the fresh accumulation of documents. Mary was too much
excited even to help Mrs. Seal with the cups and saucers. She flung up
the window and stood by it, looking out. The street lamps were already
lit; and through the mist in the square one could see little figures
hurrying across the road and along the pavement, on the farther side.
In her absurd mood of lustful arrogance, Mary looked at the little
figures and thought, "If I liked I could make you go in there or stop
short; I could make you walk in single file or in double file; I could
do what I liked with you." Then Mrs. Seal came and stood by her.
"Oughtn't you to put something round your shoulders, Sally?" Mary
asked, in rather a condescending tone of voice, feeling a sort of pity
for the enthusiastic ineffective little woman. But Mrs. Seal paid no
attention to the suggestion.
"Well, did you enjoy yourself?" Mary asked, with a little laugh.
Mrs. Seal drew a deep breath, restrained herself, and then burst
out, looking out, too, upon Russell Square and Southampton Row, and
at the passers-by, "Ah, if only one could get every one of those
people into this room, and make them understand for five minutes!
But they MUST see the truth some day. . . . If only one could MAKE
them see it. . . ."
Mary knew herself to be very much wiser than Mrs. Seal, and when Mrs.
Seal said anything, even if it was what Mary herself was feeling, she
automatically thought of all that there was to be said against it. On
this occasion her arrogant feeling that she could direct everybody
"Let's have our tea," she said, turning back from the window and
pulling down the blind. "It was a good meeting--didn't you think so,
Sally?" she let fall, casually, as she sat down at the table. Surely
Mrs. Seal must realize that Mary had been extraordinarily efficient?
"But we go at such a snail's pace," said Sally, shaking her head
At this Mary burst out laughing, and all her arrogance was dissipated.
"You can afford to laugh," said Sally, with another shake of her head,
"but I can't. I'm fifty-five, and I dare say I shall be in my grave by
the time we get it--if we ever do."
"Oh, no, you won't be in your grave," said Mary, kindly.
"It'll be such a great day," said Mrs. Seal, with a toss of her locks.
"A great day, not only for us, but for civilization. That's what I
feel, you know, about these meetings. Each one of them is a step
onwards in the great march--humanity, you know. We do want the people
after us to have a better time of it--and so many don't see it. I
wonder how it is that they don't see it?"
She was carrying plates and cups from the cupboard as she spoke, so
that her sentences were more than usually broken apart. Mary could not
help looking at the odd little priestess of humanity with something
like admiration. While she had been thinking about herself, Mrs. Seal
had thought of nothing but her vision.
"You mustn't wear yourself out, Sally, if you want to see the great
day," she said, rising and trying to take a plate of biscuits from
Mrs. Seal's hands.
"My dear child, what else is my old body good for?" she exclaimed,
clinging more tightly than before to her plate of biscuits. "Shouldn't
I be proud to give everything I have to the cause?--for I'm not an
intelligence like you. There were domestic circumstances--I'd like to
tell you one of these days--so I say foolish things. I lose my head,
you know. You don't. Mr. Clacton doesn't. It's a great mistake, to
lose one's head. But my heart's in the right place. And I'm so glad
Kit has a big dog, for I didn't think her looking well."
They had their tea, and went over many of the points that had been
raised in the committee rather more intimately than had been possible
then; and they all felt an agreeable sense of being in some way behind
the scenes; of having their hands upon strings which, when pulled,
would completely change the pageant exhibited daily to those who read
the newspapers. Although their views were very different, this sense
united them and made them almost cordial in their manners to each
Mary, however, left the tea-party rather early, desiring both to be
alone, and then to hear some music at the Queen's Hall. She fully
intended to use her loneliness to think out her position with regard
to Ralph; but although she walked back to the Strand with this end in
view, she found her mind uncomfortably full of different trains of
thought. She started one and then another. They seemed even to take
their color from the street she happened to be in. Thus the vision of
humanity appeared to be in some way connected with Bloomsbury, and
faded distinctly by the time she crossed the main road; then a belated
organ-grinder in Holborn set her thoughts dancing incongruously; and
by the time she was crossing the great misty square of Lincoln's Inn
Fields, she was cold and depressed again, and horribly clear-sighted.
The dark removed the stimulus of human companionship, and a tear
actually slid down her cheek, accompanying a sudden conviction within
her that she loved Ralph, and that he didn't love her. All dark and
empty now was the path where they had walked that morning, and the
sparrows silent in the bare trees. But the lights in her own building
soon cheered her; all these different states of mind were submerged in
the deep flood of desires, thoughts, perceptions, antagonisms, which
washed perpetually at the base of her being, to rise into prominence
in turn when the conditions of the upper world were favorable. She put
off the hour of clear thought until Christmas, saying to herself, as
she lit her fire, that it is impossible to think anything out in
London; and, no doubt, Ralph wouldn't come at Christmas, and she would
take long walks into the heart of the country, and decide this
question and all the others that puzzled her. Meanwhile, she thought,
drawing her feet up on to the fender, life was full of complexity;
life was a thing one must love to the last fiber of it.
She had sat there for five minutes or so, and her thoughts had had
time to grow dim, when there came a ring at her bell. Her eye
brightened; she felt immediately convinced that Ralph had come to
visit her. Accordingly, she waited a moment before opening the door;
she wanted to feel her hands secure upon the reins of all the
troublesome emotions which the sight of Ralph would certainly arouse.
She composed herself unnecessarily, however, for she had to admit, not
Ralph, but Katharine and William Rodney. Her first impression was that
they were both extremely well dressed. She felt herself shabby and
slovenly beside them, and did not know how she should entertain them,
nor could she guess why they had come. She had heard nothing of their
engagement. But after the first disappointment, she was pleased, for
she felt instantly that Katharine was a personality, and, moreover,
she need not now exercise her self-control.
"We were passing and saw a light in your window, so we came up,"
Katharine explained, standing and looking very tall and distinguished
and rather absent-minded.
"We have been to see some pictures," said William. "Oh, dear," he
exclaimed, looking about him, "this room reminds me of one of the
worst hours in my existence--when I read a paper, and you all sat
round and jeered at me. Katharine was the worst. I could feel her
gloating over every mistake I made. Miss Datchet was kind. Miss
Datchet just made it possible for me to get through, I remember."
Sitting down, he drew off his light yellow gloves, and began slapping
his knees with them. His vitality was pleasant, Mary thought, although
he made her laugh. The very look of him was inclined to make her
laugh. His rather prominent eyes passed from one young woman to the
other, and his lips perpetually formed words which remained unspoken.
"We have been seeing old masters at the Grafton Gallery," said
Katharine, apparently paying no attention to William, and accepting a
cigarette which Mary offered her. She leant back in her chair, and the
smoke which hung about her face seemed to withdraw her still further
from the others.
"Would you believe it, Miss Datchet," William continued, "Katharine
doesn't like Titian. She doesn't like apricots, she doesn't like
peaches, she doesn't like green peas. She likes the Elgin marbles, and
gray days without any sun. She's a typical example of the cold
northern nature. I come from Devonshire--"
Had they been quarreling, Mary wondered, and had they, for that
reason, sought refuge in her room, or were they engaged, or had
Katharine just refused him? She was completely baffled.
Katharine now reappeared from her veil of smoke, knocked the ash from
her cigarette into the fireplace, and looked, with an odd expression
of solicitude, at the irritable man.
"Perhaps, Mary," she said tentatively, "you wouldn't mind giving us
some tea? We did try to get some, but the shop was so crowded, and in
the next one there was a band playing; and most of the pictures, at
any rate, were very dull, whatever you may say, William." She spoke
with a kind of guarded gentleness.
Mary, accordingly, retired to make preparations in the pantry.
"What in the world are they after?" she asked of her own reflection in
the little looking-glass which hung there. She was not left to doubt
much longer, for, on coming back into the sitting-room with the tea-
things, Katharine informed her, apparently having been instructed so
to do by William, of their engagement.
"William," she said, "thinks that perhaps you don't know. We are going
to be married."
Mary found herself shaking William's hand, and addressing her
congratulations to him, as if Katharine were inaccessible; she had,
indeed, taken hold of the tea-kettle.
"Let me see," Katharine said, "one puts hot water into the cups first,
doesn't one? You have some dodge of your own, haven't you, William,
about making tea?"
Mary was half inclined to suspect that this was said in order to
conceal nervousness, but if so, the concealment was unusually perfect.
Talk of marriage was dismissed. Katharine might have been seated in
her own drawing-room, controlling a situation which presented no sort
of difficulty to her trained mind. Rather to her surprise, Mary found
herself making conversation with William about old Italian pictures,
while Katharine poured out tea, cut cake, kept William's plate
supplied, without joining more than was necessary in the conversation.
She seemed to have taken possession of Mary's room, and to handle the
cups as if they belonged to her. But it was done so naturally that it
bred no resentment in Mary; on the contrary, she found herself putting
her hand on Katharine's knee, affectionately, for an instant. Was
there something maternal in this assumption of control? And thinking
of Katharine as one who would soon be married, these maternal airs
filled Mary's mind with a new tenderness, and even with awe. Katharine
seemed very much older and more experienced than she was.
Meanwhile Rodney talked. If his appearance was superficially against
him, it had the advantage of making his solid merits something of a
surprise. He had kept notebooks; he knew a great deal about pictures.
He could compare different examples in different galleries, and his
authoritative answers to intelligent questions gained not a little,
Mary felt, from the smart taps which he dealt, as he delivered them,
upon the lumps of coal. She was impressed.
"Your tea, William," said Katharine gently.
He paused, gulped it down, obediently, and continued.
And then it struck Mary that Katharine, in the shade of her
broad-brimmed hat, and in the midst of the smoke, and in the obscurity
of her character, was, perhaps, smiling to herself, not altogether in
the maternal spirit. What she said was very simple, but her words,
even "Your tea, William," were set down as gently and cautiously and
exactly as the feet of a Persian cat stepping among China ornaments.
For the second time that day Mary felt herself baffled by something
inscrutable in the character of a person to whom she felt herself much