Part 5 out of 5
that the fierceness of those past moments had killed his power of
feeling? An almost dreamy hour--with the sun going down, the lamps
being lighted one by one--and a sort of sweet oblivion over
At the door, where the groom was waiting, Lennan would have said
good-bye, but she whispered: "Oh, no, please! I AM tired now--you
might help me up a little."
And so, half carrying her, he mounted past the Vanity Fair
cartoons, and through the corridor with the red paper and the Van
Beers' drawings, into the room where he had first seen her.
Once settled back in Dromore's great chair, with the purring kitten
curled up on her neck, she murmured:
"Isn't it nice? You can make tea; and we'll have hot buttered
And so Lennan stayed, while the confidential man brought tea and
toast; and, never once looking at them, seemed to know all that had
passed, all that might be to come.
Then they were alone again, and, gazing down at her stretched out
in that great chair, Lennan thought:
"Thank God that I'm tired too--body and soul!"
But suddenly she looked up at him, and pointing to the picture that
to-day had no curtain drawn, said:
"Do you think I'm like her? I made Oliver tell me about--myself
this summer. That's why you needn't bother. It doesn't matter
what happens to me, you see. And I don't care--because you can
love me, without feeling bad about it. And you will, won't you?"
Then, with her eyes still on his face, she went on quickly:
"Only we won't talk about that now, will we? It's too cosy. I AM
nice and tired. Do smoke!"
But Lennan's fingers trembled so that he could hardly light that
cigarette. And, watching them, she said: "Please give me one. Dad
doesn't like my smoking."
The virtue of Johnny Dromore! Yes! It would always be by proxy!
And he muttered:
"How do you think he would like to know about this afternoon,
"I don't care." Then peering up through the kitten's fur she
murmured: "Oliver wants me to go to a dance on Saturday--it's for a
charity. Shall I?"
"Of course; why not?"
"Will YOU come?"
"Oh, do! You must! It's my very first, you know. I've got an
And against his will, his judgment--everything, Lennan answered:
She clapped her hands, and the kitten crawled down to her knees.
When he got up to go, she did not move, but just looked up at him;
and how he got away he did not know.
Stopping his cab a little short of home, he ran, for he felt cold
and stiff, and letting himself in with his latch-key, went straight
to the drawing-room. The door was ajar, and Sylvia standing at the
window. He heard her sigh; and his heart smote him. Very still,
and slender, and lonely she looked out there, with the light
shining on her fair hair so that it seemed almost white. Then she
turned and saw him. He noticed her throat working with the effort
she made not to show him anything, and he said:
"Surely you haven't been anxious! Nell had a bit of a fall--
jumping into a sandpit. She's quite mad sometimes. I stayed to
tea with her--just to make sure she wasn't really hurt." But as he
spoke he loathed himself; his voice sounded so false.
She only answered: "It's all right, dear," but he saw that she kept
her eyes--those blue, too true eyes--averted, even when she kissed
And so began another evening and night and morning of fever,
subterfuge, wariness, aching. A round of half-ecstatic torment,
out of which he seemed no more able to break than a man can break
through the walls of a cell. . . .
Though it live but a day in the sun, though it drown in tenebrous
night, the dark flower of passion will have its hour. . . .
To deceive undoubtedly requires a course of training. And,
unversed in this art, Lennan was fast finding it intolerable to
scheme and watch himself, and mislead one who had looked up to him
ever since they were children. Yet, all the time, he had a feeling
that, since he alone knew all the circumstances of his case, he
alone was entitled to blame or to excuse himself. The glib
judgments that moralists would pass upon his conduct could be
nothing but the imbecilities of smug and pharisaic fools--of those
not under this drugging spell--of such as had not blood enough,
perhaps, ever to fall beneath it!
The day after the ride Nell had not come, and he had no word from
her. Was she, then, hurt, after all? She had lain back very
inertly in that chair! And Sylvia never asked if he knew how the
girl was after her fall, nor offered to send round to inquire. Did
she not wish to speak of her, or had she simply--not believed?
When there was so much he could not talk of it seemed hard that
just what happened to be true should be distrusted. She had not
yet, indeed, by a single word suggested that she felt he was
deceiving her, but at heart he knew that she was not deceived. . . .
Those feelers of a woman who loves--can anything check their
delicate apprehension? . . .
Towards evening, the longing to see the girl--a sensation as if she
were calling him to come to her--became almost insupportable; yet,
whatever excuse he gave, he felt that Sylvia would know where he
was going. He sat on one side of the fire, she on the other, and
they both read books; the only strange thing about their reading
was, that neither of them ever turned a leaf. It was 'Don Quixote'
he read, the page which had these words: "Let Altisidora weep or
sing, still I am Dulcinea's and hers alone, dead or alive, dutiful
and unchanged, in spite of all the necromantic powers in the
world." And so the evening passed. When she went up to bed, he
was very near to stealing out, driving up to the Dromores' door,
and inquiring of the confidential man; but the thought of the
confounded fellow's eyes was too much for him, and he held out. He
took up Sylvia's book, De Maupassant's 'Fort comme la mort'--open
at the page where the poor woman finds that her lover has passed
away from her to her own daughter. And as he read, the tears
rolled down his cheek. Sylvia! Sylvia! Were not his old
favourite words from that old favourite book still true? "Dulcinea
del Toboso is the most beautiful woman in the world, and I the most
unfortunate knight upon the earth. It were unjust that such
perfection should suffer through my weakness. No, pierce my body
with your lance, knight, and let my life expire with my honour. . . ."
Why could he not wrench this feeling from his heart, banish
this girl from his eyes? Why could he not be wholly true to her
who was and always had been wholly true to him? Horrible--this
will-less, nerveless feeling, this paralysis, as if he were a
puppet moved by a cruel hand. And, as once before, it seemed to
him that the girl was sitting there in Sylvia's chair in her dark
red frock, with her eyes fixed on him. Uncannily vivid--that
impression! . . . A man could not go on long with his head in
Chancery like this, without becoming crazed!
It was growing dusk on Saturday afternoon when he gave up that
intolerable waiting and opened the studio door to go to Nell. It
was now just two days since he had seen or heard of her. She had
spoken of a dance for that very night--of his going to it. She
MUST be ill!
But he had not taken six steps when he saw her coming. She had on
a grey furry scarf, hiding her mouth, making her look much older.
The moment the door was shut she threw it off, went to the hearth,
drew up a little stool, and, holding her hands out to the fire,
"Have you thought about me? Have you thought enough now?"
And he answered: "Yes, I've thought, but I'm no nearer."
"Why? Nobody need ever know you love me. And if they did, I
Simple! How simple! Glorious, egoistic youth!
He could not speak of Sylvia to this child--speak of his married
life, hitherto so dignified, so almost sacred. It was impossible.
Then he heard her say:
"It can't be wrong to love YOU! I don't care if it is wrong," and
saw her lips quivering, and her eyes suddenly piteous and scared,
as if for the first time she doubted of the issue. Here was fresh
torment! To watch an unhappy child. And what was the use of even
trying to make clear to her--on the very threshold of life--the
hopeless maze that he was wandering in! What chance of making her
understand the marsh of mud and tangled weeds he must drag through
to reach her. "Nobody need know." So simple! What of his heart
and his wife's heart? And, pointing to his new work--the first man
bewitched by the first nymph--he said:
"Look at this, Nell! That nymph is you; and this man is me." She
got up, and came to look. And while she was gazing he greedily
drank her in. What a strange mixture of innocence and sorcery!
What a wonderful young creature to bring to full knowledge of love
within his arms! And he said: "You had better understand what you
are to me--all that I shall never know again; there it is in that
nymph's face. Oh, no! not YOUR face. And there am I struggling
through slime to reach you--not MY face, of course."
She said: "Poor face!" then covered her own. Was she going to cry,
and torture him still more? But, instead, she only murmured: "But
you HAVE reached me!" swayed towards him, and put her lips to his.
He gave way then. From that too stormy kiss of his she drew back
for a second, then, as if afraid of her own recoil, snuggled close
again. But the instinctive shrinking of innocence had been enough
for Lennan--he dropped his arms and said:
"You must go, child."
Without a word she picked up her fur, put it on, and stood waiting
for him to speak. Then, as he did not, she held out something
white. It was the card for the dance.
"You said you were coming?"
And he nodded. Her eyes and lips smiled at him; she opened the
door, and, still with that slow, happy smile, went out. . . .
Yes, he would be coming; wherever she was, whenever she wanted
him! . . .
His blood on fire, heedless of everything but to rush after
happiness, Lennan spent those hours before the dance. He had told
Sylvia that he would be dining at his Club--a set of rooms owned by
a small coterie of artists in Chelsea. He had taken this
precaution, feeling that he could not sit through dinner opposite
her and then go out to that dance--and Nell! He had spoken of a
guest at the Club, to account for evening dress--another lie, but
what did it matter? He was lying all the time, if not in words, in
action--must lie, indeed, to save her suffering!
He stopped at the Frenchwoman's flower shop.
"Que desirez-vous, monsieur? Des oeillets rouges--j'en ai de bien
beaux, ce soir."
Des oeillets rouges? Yes, those to-night! To this address. No
green with them; no card!
How strange the feeling--with the die once cast for love--of
rushing, of watching his own self being left behind!
In the Brompton Road, outside a little restaurant, a thin musician
was playing on a violin. Ah! and he knew this place; he would go
in there, not to the Club--and the fiddler should have all he had
to spare, for playing those tunes of love. He turned in. He had
not been there since the day before that night on the river, twenty
years ago. Never since; and yet it was not changed. The same
tarnished gilt, and smell of cooking; the same macaroni in the same
tomato sauce; the same Chianti flasks; the same staring, light-blue
walls wreathed with pink flowers. Only the waiter different--
hollow-cheeked, patient, dark of eye. He, too, should be well
tipped! And that poor, over-hatted lady, eating her frugal meal--
to her, at all events, a look of kindness. For all desperate
creatures he must feel, this desperate night! And suddenly he
thought of Oliver. Another desperate one! What should he say to
Oliver at this dance--he, aged forty-seven, coming there without
his wife! Some imbecility, such as: 'Watching the human form
divine in motion,' 'Catching sidelights on Nell for the statuette'--
some cant; it did not matter! The wine was drawn, and he must
It was still early when he left the restaurant--a dry night, very
calm, not cold. When had he danced last? With Olive Cramier,
before he knew he loved her. Well, THAT memory could not be
broken, for he would not dance to-night! Just watch, sit with the
girl a few minutes, feel her hand cling to his, see her eyes turned
back to him; and--come away! And then--the future! For the wine
was drawn! The leaf of a plane-tree, fluttering down, caught on
his sleeve. Autumn would soon be gone, and after Autumn--only
Winter! She would have done with him long before he came to
Winter. Nature would see to it that Youth called for her, and
carried her away. Nature in her courses! But just to cheat Nature
for a little while! To cheat Nature--what greater happiness!
Here was the place with red-striped awning, carriages driving away,
loiterers watching. He turned in with a beating heart. Was he
before her? How would she come to this first dance? With Oliver
alone? Or had some chaperon been found? To have come because she--
this child so lovely, born 'outside'--might have need of
chaperonage, would have been some comfort to dignity, so wistful,
so lost as his. But, alas! he knew he was only there because he
could not keep away!
Already they were dancing in the hall upstairs; but not she, yet;
and he stood leaning against the wall where she must pass. Lonely
and out of place he felt; as if everyone must know why he was
there. People stared, and he heard a girl ask: "Who's that against
the wall with the hair and dark moustache?"--and her partner
murmuring his answer, and her voice again: "Yes, he looks as if he
were seeing sand and lions." For whom, then, did they take him?
Thank heaven! They were all the usual sort. There would be no one
that he knew. Suppose Johnny Dromore himself came with Nell! He
was to be back on Saturday! What could he say, then? How meet
those doubting, knowing eyes, goggling with the fixed philosophy
that a man has but one use for woman? God! and it would be true!
For a moment he was on the point of getting his coat and hat, and
sneaking away. That would mean not seeing her till Monday; and he
stood his ground. But after to-night there must be no more such
risks--their meetings must be wisely planned, must sink
underground. And then he saw her at the foot of the stairs in a
dress of a shell-pink colour, with one of his flowers in her light-
brown hair and the others tied to the handle of a tiny fan. How
self-possessed she looked, as if this were indeed her native
element--her neck and arms bare, her cheeks a deep soft pink, her
eyes quickly turning here and there. She began mounting the
stairs, and saw him. Was ever anything so lovely as she looked
just then? Behind her he marked Oliver, and a tall girl with red
hair, and another young man. He moved deliberately to the top of
the stairs on the wall side, so that from behind they should not
see her face when she greeted him. She put the little fan with the
flowers to her lips; and, holding out her hand, said, quick and low:
"The fourth, it's a polka; we'll sit out, won't we?"
Then swaying a little, so that her hair and the flower in it almost
touched his face, she passed, and there in her stead stood Oliver.
Lennan had expected one of his old insolent looks, but the young
man's face was eager and quite friendly.
"It was awfully good of you to come, Mr. Lennan. Is Mrs. Lennan--"
And Lennan murmured:
"She wasn't able; she's not quite--" and could have sunk into the
shining floor. Youth with its touching confidence, its eager
trust! This was the way he was fulfilling his duty towards Youth!
When they had passed into the ballroom he went back to his position
against the wall. They were dancing Number Three; his time of
waiting, then, was drawing to a close. From where he stood he
could not see the dancers--no use to watch her go round in someone
Not a true waltz--some French or Spanish pavement song played in
waltz time; bizarre, pathetic, whirling after its own happiness.
That chase for happiness! Well, life, with all its prizes and its
possibilities, had nothing that quite satisfied--save just the
fleeting moments of passion! Nothing else quite poignant enough to
be called pure joy! Or so it seemed to him.
The waltz was over. He could see her now, on a rout seat against
the wall with the other young man, turning her eyes constantly as
if to make sure that he was still standing there. What subtle fuel
was always being added to the fire by that flattery of her
inexplicable adoration--of those eyes that dragged him to her, yet
humbly followed him, too! Five times while she sat there he saw
the red-haired girl or Oliver bring men up; saw youths cast longing
glances; saw girls watching her with cold appraisement, or with a
touching, frank delight. From the moment that she came in, there
had been, in her father's phrase, 'only one in it.' And she could
pass all this by, and still want him. Incredible!
At the first notes of the polka he went to her. It was she who
found their place of refuge--a little alcove behind two palm-
plants. But sitting there, he realized, as never before, that
there was no spiritual communion between him and this child. She
could tell him her troubles or her joys; he could soothe or
sympathize; but never would the gap between their natures and their
ages be crossed. His happiness was only in the sight and touch of
her. But that, God knew, was happiness enough--a feverish, craving
joy, like an overtired man's thirst, growing with the drink on
which it tries to slake itself. Sitting there, in the scent of
those flowers and of some sweet essence in her hair, with her
fingers touching his, and her eyes seeking his, he tried loyally
not to think of himself, to grasp her sensations at this her first
dance, and just help her to enjoyment. But he could not--
paralyzed, made drunk by that insensate longing to take her in his
arms and crush her to him as he had those few hours back. He could
see her expanding like a flower, in all this light, and motion, and
intoxicating admiration round her. What business had he in her
life, with his dark hunger after secret hours; he--a coin worn thin
already--a destroyer of the freshness and the glamour of her youth
Then, holding up the flowers, she said:
"Did you give me these because of the one I gave you?"
"What did you do with that?"
"Oh! but why?"
"Because you are a witch--and witches must be burned with all their
"Are you going to burn me?"
He put his hand on her cool arm.
"Feel! The flames are lighted."
"You may! I don't care!"
She took his hand and laid her cheek against it; yet, to the music,
which had begun again, the tip of her shoe was already beating
time. And he said:
"You ought to be dancing, child."
"Oh, no! Only it's a pity you don't want to."
"Yes! Do you understand that it must all be secret--underground?"
She covered his lips with the fan, and said: "You're not to think;
you're not to think--never! When can I come?"
"I must find the best way. Not to-morrow. Nobody must know, Nell--
for your sake--for hers--nobody!"
She nodded, and repeated with a soft, mysterious wisdom: "Nobody."
And then, aloud: "Here's Oliver! It was awfully good of you to
And as, on Oliver's arm, she left their little refuge, she looked
He lingered--to watch her through this one dance. How they made
all the other couples sink into insignificance, with that something
in them both that was better than mere good looks--that something
not outre or eccentric, but poignant, wayward. They went well
together, those two Dromores--his dark head and her fair head; his
clear, brown, daring eyes, and her grey, languorous, mesmeric eyes.
Ah! Master Oliver was happy now, with her so close to him! It was
not jealousy that Lennan felt. Not quite--one did not feel jealous
of the young; something very deep--pride, sense of proportion, who
knew what--prevented that. She, too, looked happy, as if her soul
were dancing, vibrating with the music and the scent of the
flowers. He waited for her to come round once more, to get for a
last time that flying glance turned back; then found his coat and
hat and went.
Outside, he walked a few steps, then stood looking back at the
windows of the hall through some trees, the shadows of whose
trunks, in the light of a street lamp, were spilled out along the
ground like the splines of a fan. A church clock struck eleven.
For hours yet she would be there, going round and round in the arms
of Youth! Try as he might he could never recapture for himself the
look that Oliver's face had worn--the look that was the symbol of
so much more than he himself could give her. Why had she come into
his life--to her undoing, and his own? And the bizarre thought
came to him: If she were dead should I really care? Should I not
be almost glad? If she were dead her witchery would be dead, and I
could stand up straight again and look people in the face! What
was this power that played with men, darted into them, twisted
their hearts to rags; this power that had looked through her eyes
when she put her fan, with his flowers, to her lips?
The thrumming of the music ceased; he walked away.
It must have been nearly twelve when he reached home. Now, once
more, would begin the gruesome process of deception--flinching of
soul, and brazening of visage. It would be better when the whole
thievish business was irretrievably begun and ordered in its secret
There was no light in the drawing-room, save just the glow of the
fire. If only Sylvia might have gone to bed! Then he saw her,
sitting motionless out there by the uncurtained window.
He went over to her, and began his hateful formula:
"I'm afraid you've been lonely. I had to stay rather late. A dull
evening." And, since she did not move or answer, but just sat
there very still and white, he forced himself to go close, bend
down to her, touch her cheek; even to kneel beside her. She looked
round then; her face was quiet enough, but her eyes were strangely
eager. With a pitiful little smile she broke out:
"Oh, Mark! What is it--what is it? Anything is better than this!"
Perhaps it was the smile, perhaps her voice or eyes--but something
gave way in Lennan. Secrecy, precaution went by the board. Bowing
his head against her breast, he poured it all out, while they
clung, clutched together in the half dark like two frightened
children. Only when he had finished did he realize that if she had
pushed him away, refused to let him touch her, it would have been
far less piteous, far easier to bear, than her wan face and her
hands clutching him, and her words: "I never thought--you and I--
oh! Mark--you and I--" The trust in their life together, in
himself, that those words revealed! Yet, not greater than he had
had--still had! She could not understand--he had known that she
could never understand; it was why he had fought so for secrecy,
all through. She was taking it as if she had lost everything; and
in his mind she had lost nothing. This passion, this craving for
Youth and Life, this madness--call it what one would--was something
quite apart, not touching his love and need of her. If she would
only believe that! Over and over he repeated it; over and over
again perceived that she could not take it in. The only thing she
saw was that his love had gone from her to another--though that was
not true! Suddenly she broke out of his arms, pushing him from
her, and cried: "That girl--hateful, horrible, false!" Never had
he seen her look like this, with flaming spots in her white cheeks,
soft lips and chin distorted, blue eyes flaming, breast heaving, as
if each breath were drawn from lungs that received no air. And
then, as quickly, the fire went out of her; she sank down on the
sofa; covering her face with her arms, rocking to and fro. She did
not cry, but a little moan came from her now and then. And each
one of those sounds was to Lennan like the cry of something he was
murdering. At last he went and sat down on the sofa by her and
"Sylvia! Sylvia! Don't! oh! don't!" And she was silent, ceasing
to rock herself; letting him smooth and stroke her. But her face
she kept hidden, and only once she spoke, so low that he could
hardly hear: "I can't--I won't keep you from her." And with the
awful feeling that no words could reach or soothe the wound in that
tender heart, he could only go on stroking and kissing her hands.
It was atrocious--horrible--this that he had done! God knew that
he had not sought it--the thing had come on him. Surely even in
her misery she could see that! Deep down beneath his grief and
self-hatred, he knew, what neither she nor anyone else could know--
that he could not have prevented this feeling, which went back to
days before he ever saw the girl--that no man could have stopped
that feeling in himself. This craving and roving was as much part
of him as his eyes and hands, as overwhelming and natural a longing
as his hunger for work, or his need of the peace that Sylvia gave,
and alone could give him. That was the tragedy--it was all sunk
and rooted in the very nature of a man. Since the girl had come
into their lives he was no more unfaithful to his wife in thought
than he had been before. If only she could look into him, see him
exactly as he was, as, without part or lot in the process, he had
been made--then she would understand, and even might not suffer;
but she could not, and he could never make it plain. And solemnly,
desperately, with a weary feeling of the futility of words, he went
on trying: Could she not see? It was all a thing outside him--a
craving, a chase after beauty and life, after his own youth! At
that word she looked at him:
"And do you think I don't want my youth back?"
For a woman to feel that her beauty--the brightness of her hair and
eyes, the grace and suppleness of her limbs--were slipping from her
and from the man she loved! Was there anything more bitter?--or
any more sacred duty than not to add to that bitterness, not to
push her with suffering into old age, but to help keep the star of
her faith in her charm intact!
Man and woman--they both wanted youth again; she, that she might
give it all to him; he, because it would help him towards
something--new! Just that world of difference!
He got up, and said:
"Come, dear, let's try and sleep."
He had not once said that he could give it up. The words would not
pass his lips, though he knew she must be conscious that he had not
said them, must be longing to hear them. All he had been able to
"So long as you want me, you shall never lose me" . . . and, "I
will never keep anything from you again."
Up in their room she lay hour after hour in his arms, quite
unresentful, but without life in her, and with eyes that, when his
lips touched them, were always wet.
What a maze was a man's heart, wherein he must lose himself every
minute! What involved and intricate turnings and turnings on
itself; what fugitive replacement of emotion by emotion! What
strife between pities and passions; what longing for peace! . . .
And in his feverish exhaustion, which was almost sleep, Lennan
hardly knew whether it was the thrum of music or Sylvia's moaning
that he heard; her body or Nell's within his arms. . . .
But life had to be lived, a face preserved against the world,
engagements kept. And the nightmare went on for both of them,
under the calm surface of an ordinary Sunday. They were like
people walking at the edge of a high cliff, not knowing from step
to step whether they would fall; or like swimmers struggling for
issue out of a dark whirlpool.
In the afternoon they went together to a concert; it was just
something to do--something that saved them for an hour or two from
the possibility of speaking on the one subject left to them. The
ship had gone down, and they were clutching at anything that for a
moment would help to keep them above water.
In the evening some people came to supper; a writer and two
painters, with their wives. A grim evening--never more so than
when the conversation turned on that perennial theme--the freedom,
spiritual, mental, physical, requisite for those who practise Art.
All the stale arguments were brought forth, and had to be joined in
with unmoved faces. And for all their talk of freedom, Lennan
could see the volte-face his friends would be making, if they only
knew. It was not 'the thing' to seduce young girls--as if,
forsooth, there were freedom in doing only what people thought 'the
thing'! Their cant about the free artist spirit experiencing
everything, would wither the moment it came up against a canon of
'good form,' so that in truth it was no freer than the bourgeois
spirit, with its conventions; or the priest spirit, with its cry of
'Sin!' No, no! To resist--if resistance were possible to this
dragging power--maxims of 'good form,' dogmas of religion and
morality, were no help--nothing was any help, but some feeling
stronger than passion itself. Sylvia's face, forced to smile!--
that, indeed was a reason why they should condemn him! None of
their doctrines about freedom could explain that away--the harm,
the death that came to a man's soul when he made a loving, faithful
But they were gone at last--with their "Thanks so much!" and their
And those two were face to face for another night.
He knew that it must begin all over again--inevitable, after the
stab of that wretched argument plunged into their hearts and turned
and turned all the evening.
"I won't, I mustn't keep you starved, and spoil your work. Don't
think of me, Mark! I can bear it!"
And then a breakdown worse than the night before. What genius,
what sheer genius Nature had for torturing her creatures! If
anyone had told him, even so little as a week ago, that he could
have caused such suffering to Sylvia--Sylvia, whom as a child with
wide blue eyes and a blue bow on her flaxen head he had guarded
across fields full of imaginary bulls; Sylvia, in whose hair his
star had caught; Sylvia, who day and night for fifteen years had
been his devoted wife; whom he loved and still admired--he would
have given him the lie direct. It would have seemed incredible,
monstrous, silly. Had all married men and women such things to go
through--was this but a very usual crossing of the desert? Or was
it, once for all, shipwreck? death--unholy, violent death--in a
storm of sand?
Another night of misery, and no answer to that question yet.
He had told her that he would not see Nell again without first
letting her know. So, when morning came, he simply wrote the
words: "Don't come today!"--showed them to Sylvia, and sent them by
a servant to Dromore's.
Hard to describe the bitterness with which he entered his studio
that morning. In all this chaos, what of his work? Could he ever
have peace of mind for it again? Those people last night had
talked of 'inspiration of passion, of experience.' In pleading
with her he had used the words himself. She--poor soul!--had but
repeated them, trying to endure them, to believe them true. And
were they true? Again no answer, or certainly none that he could
give. To have had the waters broken up; to be plunged into
emotion; to feel desperately, instead of stagnating--some day he
might be grateful--who knew? Some day there might be fair country
again beyond this desert, where he could work even better than
before. But just now, as well expect creative work from a
condemned man. It seemed to him that he was equally destroyed
whether he gave Nell up, and with her, once for all, that roving,
seeking instinct, which ought, forsooth, to have been satisfied,
and was not; or whether he took Nell, knowing that in doing so he
was torturing a woman dear to him! That was as far as he could see
to-day. What he would come to see in time God only knew! But:
'Freedom of the Spirit!' That was a phrase of bitter irony indeed!
And, there, with his work all round him, like a man tied hand and
foot, he was swept by such a feeling of exasperated rage as he had
never known. Women! These women! Only let him be free of both,
of all women, and the passions and pities they aroused, so that his
brain and his hands might live and work again! They should not
strangle, they should not destroy him!
Unfortunately, even in his rage, he knew that flight from them both
could never help him. One way or the other the thing would have to
be fought through. If it had been a straight fight even; a clear
issue between passion and pity! But both he loved, and both he
pitied. There was nothing straight and clear about it anywhere; it
was all too deeply rooted in full human nature. And the appalling
sense of rushing ceaselessly from barrier to barrier began really
to affect his brain.
True, he had now and then a lucid interval of a few minutes, when
the ingenious nature of his own torments struck him as supremely
interesting and queer; but this was not precisely a relief, for it
only meant, as in prolonged toothache, that his power of feeling
had for a moment ceased. A very pretty little hell indeed!
All day he had the premonition, amounting to certainty, that Nell
would take alarm at those three words he had sent her, and come in
spite of them. And yet, what else could he have written? Nothing
save what must have alarmed her more, or plunged him deeper. He
had the feeling that she could follow his moods, that her eyes
could see him everywhere, as a cat's eyes can see in darkness.
That feeling had been with him, more or less, ever since the last
evening of October, the evening she came back from her summer--
grown-up. How long ago? Only six days--was it possible? Ah, yes!
She knew when her spell was weakening, when the current wanted, as
it were, renewing. And about six o'clock--dusk already--without
the least surprise, with only a sort of empty quivering, he heard
her knock. And just behind the closed door, as near as he could
get to her, he stood, holding his breath. He had given his word to
Sylvia--of his own accord had given it. Through the thin wood of
the old door he could hear the faint shuffle of her feet on the
pavement, moved a few inches this way and that, as though
supplicating the inexorable silence. He seemed to see her head,
bent a little forward listening. Three times she knocked, and each
time Lennan writhed. It was so cruel! With that seeing-sense of
hers she must know he was there; his very silence would be telling
her--for his silence had its voice, its pitiful breathless sound.
Then, quite distinctly, he heard her sigh, and her footsteps move
away; and covering his face with his hands he rushed to and fro in
the studio, like a madman.
No sound of her any more! Gone! It was unbearable; and, seizing
his hat, he ran out. Which way? At random he ran towards the
Square. There she was, over by the railings; languidly,
irresolutely moving towards home.
But now that she was within reach, he wavered; he had given his
word--was he going to break it? Then she turned, and saw him; and
he could not go back. In the biting easterly wind her face looked
small, and pinched, and cold, but her eyes only the larger, the
more full of witchery, as if beseeching him not to be angry, not to
send her away.
"I had to come; I got frightened. Why did you write such a tiny
He tried to make his voice sound quiet and ordinary.
"You must be brave, Nell. I have had to tell her."
She clutched at his arm; then drew herself up, and said in her
clear, clipped voice:
"Oh! I suppose she hates me, then!"
"She is terribly unhappy."
They walked a minute, that might have been an hour, without a word;
not round the Square, as he had walked with Oliver, but away from
the house. At last she said in a half-choked voice: "I only want a
little bit of you."
And he answered dully: "In love, there are no little bits--no
Then, suddenly, he felt her hand in his, the fingers lacing,
twining restlessly amongst his own; and again the half-choked voice
"But you WILL let me see you sometimes! You must!"
Hardest of all to stand against was this pathetic, clinging,
frightened child. And, not knowing very clearly what he said, he
"Yes--yes; it'll be all right. Be brave--you must be brave, Nell.
It'll all come right."
But she only answered:
"No, no! I'm not brave. I shall do something."
Her face looked just as when she had ridden at that gravel pit.
Loving, wild, undisciplined, without resource of any kind--what
might she not do? Why could he not stir without bringing disaster
upon one or other? And between these two, suffering so because of
him, he felt as if he had lost his own existence. In quest of
happiness, he had come to that!
Suddenly she said:
"Oliver asked me again at the dance on Saturday. He said you had
told him to be patient. Did you?"
"I was sorry for him."
She let his hand go.
"Perhaps you would like me to marry him."
Very clearly he saw those two going round and round over the
"It would be better, Nell."
She made a little sound--of anger or dismay.
"You don't REALLY want me, then?"
That was his chance. But with her arm touching his, her face so
pale and desperate, and those maddening eyes turned to him, he
could not tell that lie, and answered:
"Yes--I want you, God knows!"
At that a sigh of content escaped her, as if she were saying to
herself: 'If he wants me he will not let me go.' Strange little
tribute to her faith in love and her own youth!
They had come somehow to Pall Mall by now. And scared to find
himself so deep in the hunting-ground of the Dromores, Lennan
turned hastily towards St. James's Park, that they might cross it
in the dark, round to Piccadilly. To be thus slinking out of the
world's sight with the daughter of his old room-mate--of all men in
the world the last perhaps that he should do this to! A nice
treacherous business! But the thing men called honour--what was
it, when her eyes were looking at him and her shoulder touching
Since he had spoken those words, "Yes, I want you," she had been
silent--fearful perhaps to let other words destroy their comfort.
But near the gate by Hyde Park Corner she put her hand again into
his, and again her voice, so clear, said:
"I don't want to hurt anybody, but you WILL let me come sometimes--
you will let me see you--you won't leave me all alone, thinking
that I'll never see you again?"
And once more, without knowing what he answered, Lennan murmured:
"No, no! It'll be all right, dear--it'll all come right. It must--
Again her fingers twined amongst his, like a child's. She seemed
to have a wonderful knowledge of the exact thing to say and do to
keep him helpless. And she went on:
"I didn't try to love you--it isn't wrong to love--it wouldn't hurt
her. I only want a little of your love."
A little--always a little! But he was solely bent on comforting
her now. To think of her going home, and sitting lonely,
frightened, and unhappy, all the evening, was dreadful. And
holding her fingers tight, he kept on murmuring words of would-be
Then he saw that they were out in Piccadilly. How far dared he go
with her along the railings before he said good-bye? A man was
coming towards them, just where he had met Dromore that first fatal
afternoon nine months ago; a man with a slight lurch in his walk
and a tall, shining hat a little on one side. But thank Heaven!--
it was not Dromore--only one somewhat like him, who in passing
stared sphinx-like at Nell. And Lennan said:
"You must go home now, child; we mustn't be seen together."
For a moment he thought she was going to break down, refuse to
leave him. Then she threw up her head, and for a second stood like
that, quite motionless, looking in his face. Suddenly stripping
off her glove, she thrust her warm, clinging hand into his. Her
lips smiled faintly, tears stood in her eyes; then she drew her
hand away and plunged into the traffic. He saw her turn the corner
of her street and disappear. And with the warmth of that
passionate little hand still stinging his palm, he almost ran
towards Hyde Park.
Taking no heed of direction, he launched himself into its dark
space, deserted in this cold, homeless wind, that had little sound
and no scent, travelling its remorseless road under the grey-black
The dark firmament and keen cold air suited one who had little need
of aids to emotion--one who had, indeed, but the single wish to get
rid, if he only could, of the terrible sensation in his head, that
bruised, battered, imprisoned feeling of a man who paces his cell--
never, never to get out at either end. Without thought or
intention he drove his legs along; not running, because he knew
that he would have to stop the sooner. Alas! what more comic
spectacle for the eyes of a good citizen than this married man of
middle age, striding for hours over those dry, dark, empty
pastures--hunted by passion and by pity, so that he knew not even
whether he had dined! But no good citizen was abroad of an autumn
night in a bitter easterly wind. The trees were the sole witnesses
of this grim exercise--the trees, resigning to the cold blast their
crinkled leaves that fluttered past him, just a little lighter than
the darkness. Here and there his feet rustled in the drifts,
waiting their turn to serve the little bonfires, whose scent still
clung in the air. A desperate walk, in this heart of London--round
and round, up and down, hour after hour, keeping always in the
dark; not a star in the sky, not a human being spoken to or even
clearly seen, not a bird or beast; just the gleam of the lights far
away, and the hoarse muttering of the traffic! A walk as lonely as
the voyage of the human soul is lonely from birth to death with
nothing to guide it but the flickering glow from its own frail
spirit lighted it knows not where. . . .
And, so tired that he could hardly move his legs, but free at last
of that awful feeling in his head--free for the first time for days
and days--Lennan came out of the Park at the gate where he had gone
in, and walked towards his home, certain that tonight, one way or
the other, it would be decided. . . .
This then--this long trouble of body and of spirit--was what he
remembered, sitting in the armchair beyond his bedroom fire,
watching the glow, and Sylvia sleeping there exhausted, while the
dark plane-tree leaves tap-tapped at the window in the autumn wind;
watching, with the uncanny certainty that, he would not pass the
limits of this night without having made at last a decision that
would not alter. For even conflict wears itself out; even
indecision has this measure set to its miserable powers of torture,
that any issue in the end is better than the hell of indecision
itself. Once or twice in those last days even death had seemed to
him quite tolerable; but now that his head was clear and he had
come to grips, death passed out of his mind like the shadow that it
was. Nothing so simple, extravagant, and vain could serve him.
Other issues had reality; death--none. To leave Sylvia, and take
this young love away; there was reality in that, but it had always
faded as soon as it shaped itself; and now once more it faded. To
put such a public and terrible affront on a tender wife whom he
loved, do her to death, as it were, before the world's eyes--and
then, ever remorseful, grow old while the girl was still young? He
could not. If Sylvia had not loved him, yes; or, even if he had
not loved her; or if, again, though loving him she had stood upon
her rights--in any of those events he might have done it. But to
leave her whom he did love, and who had said to him so generously:
"I will not hamper you--go to her"--would be a black atrocity.
Every memory, from their boy-and-girl lovering to the desperate
clinging of her arms these last two nights--memory with its
innumerable tentacles, the invincible strength of its countless
threads, bound him to her too fast. What then? Must it come,
after all, to giving up the girl? And sitting there, by that warm
fire, he shivered. How desolate, sacrilegious, wasteful to throw
love away; to turn from the most precious of all gifts; to drop and
break that vase! There was not too much love in the world, nor too
much warmth and beauty--not, anyway, for those whose sands were
running out, whose blood would soon be cold.
Could Sylvia not let him keep both her love and the girl's? Could
she not bear that? She had said she could; but her face, her eyes,
her voice gave her the lie, so that every time he heard her his
heart turned sick with pity. This, then, was the real issue.
Could he accept from her such a sacrifice, exact a daily misery,
see her droop and fade beneath it? Could he bear his own happiness
at such a cost? Would it be happiness at all? He got up from the
chair and crept towards her. She looked very fragile sleeping
there! The darkness below her closed eyelids showed cruelly on
that too fair skin; and in her flax-coloured hair he saw what he
had never noticed--a few strands of white. Her softly opened lips,
almost colourless, quivered with her uneven breathing; and now and
again a little feverish shiver passed up as from her heart. All
soft and fragile! Not much life, not much strength; youth and
beauty slipping! To know that he who should be her champion
against age and time would day by day be placing one more mark upon
her face, one more sorrow in her heart! That he should do this--
they both going down the years together!
As he stood there holding his breath, bending to look at her, that
slurring swish of the plane-tree branch, flung against and against
the window by the autumn wind, seemed filling the whole world.
Then her lips moved in one of those little, soft hurrying whispers
that unhappy dreamers utter, the words all blurred with their
And he thought: I, who believe in bravery and kindness; I, who hate
cruelty--if I do this cruel thing, what shall I have to live for;
how shall I work; how bear myself? If I do it, I am lost--an
outcast from my own faith--a renegade from all that I believe in.
And, kneeling there close to that face so sad and lonely, that
heart so beaten even in its sleep, he knew that he could not do it--
knew it with sudden certainty, and a curious sense of peace.
Over!--the long struggle--over at last! Youth with youth, summer
to summer, falling leaf with falling leaf! And behind him the fire
flickered, and the plane-tree leaves tap-tapped.
He rose, and crept away stealthily downstairs into the drawing-
room, and through the window at the far end out into the courtyard,
where he had sat that day by the hydrangea, listening to the piano-
organ. Very dark and cold and eerie it was there, and he hurried
across to his studio. There, too, it was cold, and dark, and
eerie, with its ghostly plaster presences, stale scent of
cigarettes, and just one glowing ember of the fire he had left when
he rushed out after Nell--those seven hours ago.
He went first to the bureau, turned up its lamp, and taking out
some sheets of paper, marked on them directions for his various
works; for the statuette of Nell, he noted that it should be taken
with his compliments to Mr. Dromore. He wrote a letter to his
banker directing money to be sent to Rome, and to his solicitor
telling him to let the house. He wrote quickly. If Sylvia woke,
and found him still away, what might she not think? He took a last
sheet. Did it matter what he wrote, what deliberate lie, if it
helped Nell over the first shock?
"I write this hastily in the early hours, to say that we are called
out to Italy to my only sister, who is very ill. We leave by the
first morning boat, and may be away some time. I will write again.
Don't fret, and God bless you.
He could not see very well as he wrote. Poor, loving, desperate
child! Well, she had youth and strength, and would soon have--
Oliver! And he took yet another sheet.
"My wife and I are obliged to go post-haste to Italy. I watched
you both at the dance the other night. Be very gentle with Nell;
and--good luck to you! But don't say again that I told you to be
patient; it is hardly the way to make her love you.
That, then, was all--yes, all! He turned out the little lamp, and
groped towards the hearth. But one thing left. To say good-bye!
To her, and Youth, and Passion!--to the only salve for the aching
that Spring and Beauty bring--the aching for the wild, the
passionate, the new, that never quite dies in a man's heart. Ah!
well, sooner or later, all men had to say good-bye to that. All
He crouched down before the hearth. There was no warmth in that
fast-blackening ember, but it still glowed like a dark-red flower.
And while it lived he crouched there, as though it were that to
which he was saying good-bye. And on the door he heard the girl's
ghostly knocking. And beside him--a ghost among the ghostly
presences--she stood. Slowly the glow blackened, till the last
spark had faded out.
Then by the glimmer of the night he found his way back, softly as
he had come, to his bedroom.
Sylvia was still sleeping; and, to watch for her to wake, he sat
down again by the fire, in silence only stirred by the frail tap-
tapping of those autumn leaves, and the little catch in her
breathing now and then. It was less troubled than when he had bent
over her before, as though in her sleep she knew. He must not miss
the moment of her waking, must be beside her before she came to
full consciousness, to say: "There, there! It's all over; we are
going away at once--at once." To be ready to offer that quick
solace, before she had time to plunge back into her sorrow, was an
island in this black sea of night, a single little refuge point for
his bereaved and naked being. Something to do--something fixed,
real, certain. And yet another long hour before her waking, he sat
forward in the chair, with that wistful eagerness, his eyes fixed
on her face, staring through it at some vision, some faint,
glimmering light--far out there beyond--as a traveller watches a
star. . . .