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The Crown of Life by George Gissing

Part 8 out of 8

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Otway to take me?"

"I beg your pardon. You are become so critical of words and phrases.
To take _us_, I'll say."

"That wouldn't be a very agreeable walk, Helen, whilst you are in
this strange mood. What does it all mean? I never foresaw the
possibility of misunderstandings such as this between us. Is it I
who am to blame, or you? Have I offended you?"

"No, dear," was the dreamy response.

"Then why do you seem to wish to quarrel with me?"

Helen had the look of one who strugglingly overcomes a paroxysm of
anger. She stood up.

"Would you leave me alone for a little, Irene? I'm not quite able to
talk. I think we've both of us been doing too much--overtaxing
ourselves. It has got on my nerves."

"Yes I will go," was the answer, spoken very quietly. "And to-morrow
morning I will return to London."

She moved away.



"I have something to tell you before you go." Helen spoke with a set
face, forcing herself to meet her friend's eyes. "Mr. Otway wants an
opportunity of talking with you, alone. He hoped for it this
morning. As he couldn't see you, he talked about you to me--you
being the only subject he could talk about. I promised to be out of
the way if he came this afternoon."

"Thank you--but why didn't you tell me this before?"

"Because, as I said, things have got rather on my nerves." She took
a step forward. "Will you overlook it--forget about it? Of course
I should have told you before he came."

"It's strange that there should he anything to overlook or forget
between _us_," said Irene, with wide pathetic eyes.

"There isn't really! It's not you and I that have got muddled--
only things, circumstances. If you had been a little more chummy
with me. There's a time for silence, but also a time for talking."

"Dear, there are things one _can't_ talk about, because one doesn't
know what to say, even to oneself."

"I know! I know it!" replied Helen, with emphasis.

And she came still nearer, with hand held out.

"All nerves, Irene! Neuralgia of--of the common sense, my dear!"

They parted with a laugh and a quick clasp of hands.


For half an hour Irene sat idle. She was waiting, and could do
nothing but wait. Then the uncertainty as to how long this suspense
might hold her grew insufferable; she was afraid too, of seeing
Helen again, and having to talk, when talk would be misery. A
thought grew out of her unrest--a thought clear-shining amid the
tumult of turbid emotions. She would go forth to meet him. He should
see that she came with that purpose--that she put away all
trivialities of prescription and of pride. If he were worthy, only
the more would he esteem her. If she deluded herself--it lay in
the course of Fate.

His way up from Redmire was by the road along which she had driven
on the evening of her arrival, the road that dipped into a wooded
glen, where a stream tumbled amid rocks and boulders, over
smooth-worn slabs and shining pebbles, from the moor down to the
river of the dale. He might not come this way. She hoped--she
trusted Destiny.

She stood by the crossing of the beck. The flood of yesterday had
fallen; the water was again shallow at this spot, but nearly all the
stepping-stones had been swept away. For help at such times, a crazy
little wooden bridge spanned the current a few yards above. Irene
brushed through the long grass and the bracken, mounted on to the
bridge, and, leaning over the old bough which formed a rail, let the
voice of the beck soothe her impatience.

Here one might linger for hours, in perfect solitude; very rarely in
the day was this happy stillness broken by a footfall, a voice, or
the rumbling of a peasant's cart. A bird twittered, a breeze
whispered in the branches; ever and ever the water kept its hushing

But now someone was coming. Not with audible footstep; not down the
road at which Irene frequently glanced; the intruder approached from
the lower part of the glen, along the beckside, now walking in soft
herbage, now striding from stone to stone, sometimes lifting the
bough of a hazel or a rowan that hung athwart his path. He drew near
to the crossing. He saw the figure on the bridge, and for a moment
stood at gaze.

Irene was aware of someone regarding her. She moved. He stood below,
the ripple-edge of the water touching his foot. Upon his upturned
face, dark eyes wide in joy and admiration, firm lips wistfully
subduing their smile, the golden sunlight shimmered through
overhanging foliage. She spoke.

"Everything around is beautiful, but this most of all."

"There is nothing more beautiful," he answered, "in all the dales."

The words had come to her easily and naturally, after so much
trouble as to what the first words should be. His look was enough.
She scorned her distrust, scorned the malicious gossip that had
excited it. Her mind passed into consonance with the still, warm
hour, with the loveliness of all about her.

"I haven't been that way yet." She pointed up the glen. "Will you

"Gladly! I was here with Mrs. Borisoff this morning, and wished so
much you had been with us."

Irene stepped down from the bridge down to the beckside. The
briefest shadow of annoyance had caused her to turn her face away;
there followed contentment that he spoke of the morning, at once and
so frankly. She was able to talk without restraint, uttering her
delight at each new picture as they went along. They walked very
slowly, ever turning to admire, stopping to call each other's
attention with glowing words. At a certain point, they were obliged
to cross the water, their progress on this side barred by natural
obstacles. It was a crossing of some little difficulty for Irene,
the stones being rugged, and rather far apart; Piers guided her, and
at the worst spot held out his hand.

"Jump! I won't let you fall."

She sprang with a happy girlish laugh to his side, and withdrew her
hand very gently.

"Here is a good place to rest," she said, seating herself on a
boulder. And Piers sat down at a little distance.

The bed of the torrent was full of great stones, very white, rounded
and smoothed by the immemorial flow, by their tumbling and grinding
in time of spate; they formed innumerable little cataracts, with
here and there a broad plunge of foam-streaked water, perilously
swift and deep. By the bank the current spread into a large, still
pool, of colour a rich brown where the sunshine touched it, and
darkly green where it lay beneath spreading branches; everywhere
limpid, showing the pebbles or the sand in its cool depths. Infinite
were the varyings of light and shade, from a dazzling gleam on the
middle water, to the dense obscurity of leafy nooks. On either hand
was a wood, thick with undergrowth; great pines, spruces, and
larches, red-berried rowans, crowding on the steep sides of the
ravine; trees of noble stature, shadowing fern and flower, towering
against the sunny blue. Just below the spot where Piers and Irene
rested, a great lichened hazel stretched itself all across the beck;
in the upward direction a narrowing vista, filled with every tint of
leafage, rose to the brown of the moor and the azure of the sky. All
about grew tall, fruiting grasses, and many a bright flower;
clusters of pink willow-weed, patches of yellow ragwort, the
perfumed meadowsweet, and, amid bracken and bramble, the purple
shining of a great campanula.

On the open moor, the sun blazed with parching heat; here was
freshness as of spring, the waft of cool airs, the scent of verdure
moistened at the root.

"Once upon a time," said Otway, when both had been listening to
their thoughts, "I fancied myself as unlucky a man as walked the
earth. I've got over that."

Irene did not look at him; she waited for the something else which
his voice promised.

"Think of my good fortune in meeting you this afternoon. If I had
gone to the Castle another way, I should have missed you; yet I all
but did go by the fields. And there was nothing I desired so much as
to see you somewhere--by yourself."

The slight failing of his voice at the end helped Irene to speak

"Chance was in my favour, too. I came down to the beck, hoping I
might meet you."

She saw his hand move, the fingers clutch together. Before he could
say anything, she continued:

"I want to tell you of an ill-natured story that has reached my
ears. Not to discuss it; I know it is untrue. Your two brothers--
do you know that they speak spitefully of you?"

"I didn't know it. I don't think I have given them cause."

"I am very sure you haven't. But I want you to know about it, and I
shall tell you the facts. After the death of my aunt, Mrs.
Hannaford, you got from the hands of Daniel Otway a packet of her
letters; he bargained with you, and you paid his price, wishing
those letters to be seen by my father and my cousin Olga, whose
minds they would set at rest. Now, Daniel Otway is telling people
that you never paid the sum you promised him, and that, being in
poverty, he vainly applies to you for help."

She saw his hand grasp a twig that hung near him, and drag it rudely
down; she did not look at his face.

"I should have thought," Piers answered with grave composure, "that
nothing Daniel Otway said could concern me. I see it isn't so. It
must have troubled you, for you to speak of it."

"It has; I thought about it. I rejected it as a falsehood."

"There's a double falsehood. I paid him the price he asked, on the
day he asked it, and I have since"--he checked himself--"I have
not refused him help in his poverty."

Irene's heart glowed within her. Even thus, and not otherwise, would
she have desired him to refute the slander. It was a test she had
promised herself; she could have laughed for joy. Her voice betrayed
this glad emotion.

"Let him say what he will; it doesn't matter now. But how comes it
that he is poor?"

"That I should like to know." Piers threw a pebble into the still,
brown water near him. "Five years ago, he came into a substantial
sum of money. I suppose--it went very quickly. Daniel is not
exactly a prudent man."

"I imagine not," remarked Irene, allowing herself a glimpse of his
countenance, which she found to be less calm than his tone. "Let us
have done with him. Five years ago," she added, with soft accents,
"some of that money ought to have been yours, and you received

"Nothing was legally due to me," he answered, in a voice lower than

"That I know. I mention it--you will forgive me?--because I have
sometimes feared that you might explain to yourself wrongly my
failure to reply when you sent me those verses, long ago. I have
thought, lately, that you might suppose I knew certain facts at that
time. I didn't; I only learnt them afterwards. At no time would it
have made any difference."

Piers could not speak.

"Look!" said Irene, in a whisper, pointing.

A great dragon-fly, a flash of blue, had dropped on to the surface
of the pool, and lay floating. As they watched it rose, to drop
again upon a small stone amid a shallow current; half in, half out
of, the sunny water, it basked.

"Oh, how lovely everything is!" exclaimed Irene, in a voice that
quivered low. "How perfect a day!"

"It was weather like this when I first saw you," said Piers.
"Earlier, but just as bright. My memory of you has always lived in
sunshine. I saw you first from my window; you were standing in the
garden at Ewell; I heard your voice. Do you remember telling the
story of Thibaut Rossignol?"

"Oh yes, yes!"

"Is he still with your father?"

"Thibaut? Why, Thibaut is an institution. I can't imagine our house
without him. Do you know that he always calls me Mademoiselle

"Your name is beautiful in any language. I wonder how many times I
have repeated it to myself? And thought, too, so often of its
meaning; longed, for _that_--and how vainly!"

"Say the name--now," she faltered.


"Why, you make music of it! I never knew how musical it sounded.
Hush! look at that thing of light and air!"

The dragon-fly had flashed past them. This way and that it darted
above the shining water, then dropped once more, to float, to sail
idly with its gossamer wings.

Piers stole nearer. He sat on a stone by her side.


"Yes. I like the name when you say it."

"May I touch your hand?"

Still gazing at the dragon-fly, as if careless of what she did, she
held her hand to him. Piers folded it in both his own.

"May I hold it as long as I live?"

"Is that a new thought of yours?" she asked, in a voice that shook
as it tried to suggest laughter in her mind.

"The newest! The most daring and the most glorious I ever had."

"Why, then I have been mistaken," she said softly, for an instant
meeting his eyes. "I fancied I owed you something for a wrong I did,
without meaning it, more than eight years gone by."

"That thought had come to you?" Piers exclaimed, with eyes gleaming.

"Indeed it had. I shall be more than half sorry if I have to lose

"How foolish I was! What wild, monstrous folly! How could you have
dreamt for a moment that such a one as I was could dare to love you?
--Irene, you did me no wrong. You gave me the ideal of my life--
something I should never lose from my heart and mind--something to
live towards! Not a hope; hope would have been madness. I have loved
you without hope; loved you because I had found the only one I could
love--the one I must love--on and on to the end."

She laid her free hand upon his that clasped the other, and bowed
him to her reasoning mood.

"Let me speak of other things--that have to be made plain between
you and me. First of all, a piece of news. I have just heard that my
brother is going to marry Mrs. John Jacks."

Piers was mute with astonishment. It was so long since he had seen
Mrs. Jacks, and he pictured her as a woman much older than Eustace
Derwent. His clearest recollection of her was that remark she made
at the luncheon-table about the Irish, that they were so
"sentimental"; it had blurred her beauty and her youth in his

"Yes, Eustace is going to marry her; and I shouldn't wonder if the
marriage turns out well. It leads to the disagreeable thing I have
to talk about. You know that. I engaged myself to Arnold Jacks. I
did so freely, thinking I did right. When the time of the marriage
drew near, I had learnt that I had done _wrong_. Not that I wished
to be the wife of anyone else. I loved nobody; I did not love the
man I was pretending to. As soon as I knew that--what was I to do?
To marry him was a crime--no less a crime for its being committed
every day. I took my courage in both hands. I told him I did not love
him, I would not marry him. And--I ran away."

The memory made her bosom heave, her cheeks flush.

"Magnificent!" commented the listener, with a happy smile.

"An! but I didn't do it very well. I treated him badly--yes,
inconsiderately, selfishly. The thing had to be done--but there
were ways of doing it. Unfortunately I had got to resent my
captivity, and I spoke to him as if _he_ were to blame. From the
point of view of delicacy, perhaps he was; he should have released
me at once, and that he wouldn't. But I was too little regardful of
what it meant to him--above all to his pride. I have so often
reproached myself. I do it now for the last time. There!" She picked
up a pebble to fling away. "It is gone I We speak of the thing no

A change was coming upon the glen. The sun had passed; it shone now
only on the tree-tops. But the sky above was blue and warm as ever.

"Another thing," she pursued, more gravely. "My father----"

Piers waited a moment, then said with eyes downcast:

"He does not think well of me?"

"That is my grief, and my trouble. However, not a serious trouble.
Of you, personally, he has no dislike; it was quite the opposite
when he met you; when you dined at our house--you remember? He
said things of you I am not going to repeat, sir. It was only after
the disaster which involved your name. Then he grew prejudiced."

"Who can wonder?"

"It will pass over. My father is no stage-tyrant. If _he_ is not
open to reason, what man living is? And no man has a tenderer heart.
He was all kindness and forbearance and understanding when I did a
thing which might well have made him angry. Some day you shall see
the letter he wrote me, when I had run away to Paris. In it, he
spoke, as never to me before, of his own marriage--of his love for
my mother. Every word remains in my memory, but I can't trust my
voice to repeat them, and perhaps I ought not--even to you."

"May I go to him, and speak for myself?"

"Yes--but not till I have seen him."

"Can't I spare you that?" said Piers, in a voice which, for the
first time, sounded his triumphant manhood. "Do you think I fear a
meeting with your father, or doubt of its result? If I had gone
merely on my own account, to try to remove his prejudice and win his
regard, it would have been a different thing; indeed, I could never
have done that; I felt too keenly his reasons for disliking me. But
now! In what man's presence should I shrink, and feel myself
unworthy? You have put such words into my heart as will gain my
cause for me the moment they are spoken. I have no false shame--no
misgivings. I shall speak the truth of myself and you, and your
father will hear me."

Irene listened with the love-light in her hazel eyes; the face she
turned upon him brought back a ray of sunshine to the slowly
shadowing glen.

"I will think till to-morrow," she said. "Come to the Castle
to-morrow morning, and I shall have settled many things. But now we
must go; Helen will wonder what has become of me; I didn't tell her
I was going out."

He bent over her hand; she did not withdraw it from him as they
walked through the bracken, and beneath the green boughs, and picked
their way over the white stones of the rushing beck.

At the road, they parted.

An hour after sunset, Piers was climbing the hillside towards the
Castle, now a looming shape against a sky still duskily purpled from
the west. He climbed slowly, doubting at each step whether to go
nearer, or to wave his hand and turn. Still, he approached. In the
cottages a few lights were seen; but no one moved; there was no
voice. His own footstep on the sward fell soundless.

He stood before the tower which was inhabited, and looked at the
dim-lighted windows. To the entrance led a long flight of steps, and
as he gazed through the gloom, he seemed to discern a figure
standing there, before the doorway. He was not mistaken; the figure
moved, descended. Motionless, he saw it turn towards him. Then he
knew the step, the form; he sprang forward.


"You have come to say good-night? See how our thoughts chime; I
guessed you would."

Her voice had a soft, caressing tremor; her hand sought his.

"Irene! You have given me a new life, a new soul!"

Her lips were near as she answered him.

"Rest from your sorrows, my dearest. I love you! I love you!"

He was alone again in the darkness, on the hillside. He heard the
voice of the far-off river, and to his rapturous mood it sounded as
a moaning, brought a sudden sadness. All at once, he thought amid
his triumph of those unhappy ones whom the glory of love would never
bless; those, men and women, born to a vain longing such as he had
known, doomed to the dread solitude from which he by miracle had
been saved. His heart swelled, and his eyes were hot with tears.

But as he went down to the dale, the calm of the silent hour crept
over him. He whispered the beloved name, and it gave him peace; such
peace as follows upon the hallowing of a profound passion, justified
of reason, and proof under the hand of time.

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