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  • 1915
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been sittin’ here worryin’ by yourself. You think she’s bad, but any one comin’ with a fresh eye would see she was better. Mr. Elliot’s had fever; he’s all right now,” she threw out. “It wasn’t anythin’ she caught on the expedition. What’s it matter– a few days’ fever? My brother had fever for twenty-six days once. And in a week or two he was up and about. We gave him nothin’ but milk and arrowroot–“

Here Mrs. Chailey came in with a message.

“I’m wanted upstairs,” said Terence.

“You see–she’ll be better,” Mrs. Flushing jerked out as he left the room. Her anxiety to persuade Terence was very great, and when he left her without saying anything she felt dissatisfied and restless; she did not like to stay, but she could not bear to go. She wandered from room to room looking for some one to talk to, but all the rooms were empty.

Terence went upstairs, stood inside the door to take Helen’s directions, looked over at Rachel, but did not attempt to speak to her. She appeared vaguely conscious of his presence, but it seemed to disturb her, and she turned, so that she lay with her back to him.

For six days indeed she had been oblivious of the world outside, because it needed all her attention to follow the hot, red, quick sights which passed incessantly before her eyes. She knew that it was of enormous importance that she should attend to these sights and grasp their meaning, but she was always being just too late to hear or see something which would explain it all. For this reason, the faces,–Helen’s face, the nurse’s, Terence’s, the doctor’s,–which occasionally forced themselves very close to her, were worrying because they distracted her attention and she might miss the clue. However, on the fourth afternoon she was suddenly unable to keep Helen’s face distinct from the sights themselves; her lips widened as she bent down over the bed, and she began to gabble unintelligibly like the rest. The sights were all concerned in some plot, some adventure, some escape. The nature of what they were doing changed incessantly, although there was always a reason behind it, which she must endeavour to grasp. Now they were among trees and savages, now they were on the sea, now they were on the tops of high towers; now they jumped; now they flew. But just as the crisis was about to happen, something invariably slipped in her brain, so that the whole effort had to begin over again. The heat was suffocating. At last the faces went further away; she fell into a deep pool of sticky water, which eventually closed over her head. She saw nothing and heard nothing but a faint booming sound, which was the sound of the sea rolling over her head. While all her tormentors thought that she was dead, she was not dead, but curled up at the bottom of the sea. There she lay, sometimes seeing darkness, sometimes light, while every now and then some one turned her over at the bottom of the sea.

After St. John had spent some hours in the heat of the sun wrangling with evasive and very garrulous natives, he extracted the information that there was a doctor, a French doctor, who was at present away on a holiday in the hills. It was quite impossible, so they said, to find him. With his experience of the country, St. John thought it unlikely that a telegram would either be sent or received; but having reduced the distance of the hill town, in which he was staying, from a hundred miles to thirty miles, and having hired a carriage and horses, he started at once to fetch the doctor himself. He succeeded in finding him, and eventually forced the unwilling man to leave his young wife and return forthwith. They reached the villa at midday on Tuesday.

Terence came out to receive them, and St. John was struck by the fact that he had grown perceptibly thinner in the interval; he was white too; his eyes looked strange. But the curt speech and the sulky masterful manner of Dr. Lesage impressed them both favourably, although at the same time it was obvious that he was very much annoyed at the whole affair. Coming downstairs he gave his directions emphatically, but it never occurred to him to give an opinion either because of the presence of Rodriguez who was now obsequious as well as malicious, or because he took it for granted that they knew already what was to be known.

“Of course,” he said with a shrug of his shoulders, when Terence asked him, “Is she very ill?”

They were both conscious of a certain sense of relief when Dr. Lesage was gone, leaving explicit directions, and promising another visit in a few hours’ time; but, unfortunately, the rise of their spirits led them to talk more than usual, and in talking they quarrelled. They quarrelled about a road, the Portsmouth Road. St. John said that it is macadamised where it passes Hindhead, and Terence knew as well as he knew his own name that it is not macadamised at that point. In the course of the argument they said some very sharp things to each other, and the rest of the dinner was eaten in silence, save for an occasional half-stifled reflection from Ridley.

When it grew dark and the lamps were brought in, Terence felt unable to control his irritation any longer. St. John went to bed in a state of complete exhaustion, bidding Terence good-night with rather more affection than usual because of their quarrel, and Ridley retired to his books. Left alone, Terence walked up and down the room; he stood at the open window.

The lights were coming out one after another in the town beneath, and it was very peaceful and cool in the garden, so that he stepped out on to the terrace. As he stood there in the darkness, able only to see the shapes of trees through the fine grey light, he was overcome by a desire to escape, to have done with this suffering, to forget that Rachel was ill. He allowed himself to lapse into forgetfulness of everything. As if a wind that had been raging incessantly suddenly fell asleep, the fret and strain and anxiety which had been pressing on him passed away. He seemed to stand in an unvexed space of air, on a little island by himself; he was free and immune from pain. It did not matter whether Rachel was well or ill; it did not matter whether they were apart or together; nothing mattered–nothing mattered. The waves beat on the shore far away, and the soft wind passed through the branches of the trees, seeming to encircle him with peace and security, with dark and nothingness. Surely the world of strife and fret and anxiety was not the real world, but this was the real world, the world that lay beneath the superficial world, so that, whatever happened, one was secure. The quiet and peace seemed to lap his body in a fine cool sheet, soothing every nerve; his mind seemed once more to expand, and become natural.

But when he had stood thus for a time a noise in the house roused him; he turned instinctively and went into the drawing-room. The sight of the lamp-lit room brought back so abruptly all that he had forgotten that he stood for a moment unable to move. He remembered everything, the hour, the minute even, what point they had reached, and what was to come. He cursed himself for making believe for a minute that things were different from what they are. The night was now harder to face than ever.

Unable to stay in the empty drawing-room, he wandered out and sat on the stairs half-way up to Rachel’s room. He longed for some one to talk to, but Hirst was asleep, and Ridley was asleep; there was no sound in Rachel’s room. The only sound in the house was the sound of Chailey moving in the kitchen. At last there was a rustling on the stairs overhead, and Nurse McInnis came down fastening the links in her cuffs, in preparation for the night’s watch. Terence rose and stopped her. He had scarcely spoken to her, but it was possible that she might confirm him in the belief which still persisted in his own mind that Rachel was not seriously ill. He told her in a whisper that Dr. Lesage had been and what he had said.

“Now, Nurse,” he whispered, “please tell me your opinion. Do you consider that she is very seriously ill? Is she in any danger?”

“The doctor has said–” she began.

“Yes, but I want your opinion. You have had experience of many cases like this?”

“I could not tell you more than Dr. Lesage, Mr. Hewet,” she replied cautiously, as though her words might be used against her. “The case is serious, but you may feel quite certain that we are doing all we can for Miss Vinrace.” She spoke with some professional self-approbation. But she realised perhaps that she did not satisfy the young man, who still blocked her way, for she shifted her feet slightly upon the stair and looked out of the window where they could see the moon over the sea.

“If you ask me,” she began in a curiously stealthy tone, “I never like May for my patients.”

“May?” Terence repeated.

“It may be a fancy, but I don’t like to see anybody fall ill in May,” she continued. “Things seem to go wrong in May. Perhaps it’s the moon. They say the moon affects the brain, don’t they, Sir?”

He looked at her but he could not answer her; like all the others, when one looked at her she seemed to shrivel beneath one’s eyes and become worthless, malicious, and untrustworthy.

She slipped past him and disappeared.

Though he went to his room he was unable even to take his clothes off. For a long time he paced up and down, and then leaning out of the window gazed at the earth which lay so dark against the paler blue of the sky. With a mixture of fear and loathing he looked at the slim black cypress trees which were still visible in the garden, and heard the unfamiliar creaking and grating sounds which show that the earth is still hot. All these sights and sounds appeared sinister and full of hostility and foreboding; together with the natives and the nurse and the doctor and the terrible force of the illness itself they seemed to be in conspiracy against him. They seemed to join together in their effort to extract the greatest possible amount of suffering from him. He could not get used to his pain, it was a revelation to him. He had never realised before that underneath every action, underneath the life of every day, pain lies, quiescent, but ready to devour; he seemed to be able to see suffering, as if it were a fire, curling up over the edges of all action, eating away the lives of men and women. He thought for the first time with understanding of words which had before seemed to him empty: the struggle of life; the hardness of life. Now he knew for himself that life is hard and full of suffering. He looked at the scattered lights in the town beneath, and thought of Arthur and Susan, or Evelyn and Perrott venturing out unwittingly, and by their happiness laying themselves open to suffering such as this. How did they dare to love each other, he wondered; how had he himself dared to live as he had lived, rapidly and carelessly, passing from one thing to another, loving Rachel as he had loved her? Never again would he feel secure; he would never believe in the stability of life, or forget what depths of pain lie beneath small happiness and feelings of content and safety. It seemed to him as he looked back that their happiness had never been so great as his pain was now. There had always been something imperfect in their happiness, something they had wanted and had not been able to get. It had been fragmentary and incomplete, because they were so young and had not known what they were doing.

The light of his candle flickered over the boughs of a tree outside the window, and as the branch swayed in the darkness there came before his mind a picture of all the world that lay outside his window; he thought of the immense river and the immense forest, the vast stretches of dry earth and the plains of the sea that encircled the earth; from the sea the sky rose steep and enormous, and the air washed profoundly between the sky and the sea. How vast and dark it must be tonight, lying exposed to the wind; and in all this great space it was curious to think how few the towns were, and how small little rings of light, or single glow-worms he figured them, scattered here and there, among the swelling uncultivated folds of the world. And in those towns were little men and women, tiny men and women. Oh, it was absurd, when one thought of it, to sit here in a little room suffering and caring. What did anything matter? Rachel, a tiny creature, lay ill beneath him, and here in his little room he suffered on her account. The nearness of their bodies in this vast universe, and the minuteness of their bodies, seemed to him absurd and laughable. Nothing mattered, he repeated; they had no power, no hope. He leant on the window-sill, thinking, until he almost forgot the time and the place. Nevertheless, although he was convinced that it was absurd and laughable, and that they were small and hopeless, he never lost the sense that these thoughts somehow formed part of a life which he and Rachel would live together.

Owing perhaps to the change of doctor, Rachel appeared to be rather better next day. Terribly pale and worn though Helen looked, there was a slight lifting of the cloud which had hung all these days in her eyes.

“She talked to me,” she said voluntarily. “She asked me what day of the week it was, like herself.”

Then suddenly, without any warning or any apparent reason, the tears formed in her eyes and rolled steadily down her cheeks. She cried with scarcely any attempt at movement of her features, and without any attempt to stop herself, as if she did not know that she was crying. In spite of the relief which her words gave him, Terence was dismayed by the sight; had everything given way? Were there no limits to the power of this illness? Would everything go down before it? Helen had always seemed to him strong and determined, and now she was like a child. He took her in his arms, and she clung to him like a child, crying softly and quietly upon his shoulder. Then she roused herself and wiped her tears away; it was silly to behave like that, she said; very silly, she repeated, when there could be no doubt that Rachel was better. She asked Terence to forgive her for her folly. She stopped at the door and came back and kissed him without saying anything.

On this day indeed Rachel was conscious of what went on round her. She had come to the surface of the dark, sticky pool, and a wave seemed to bear her up and down with it; she had ceased to have any will of her own; she lay on the top of the wave conscious of some pain, but chiefly of weakness. The wave was replaced by the side of a mountain. Her body became a drift of melting snow, above which her knees rose in huge peaked mountains of bare bone. It was true that she saw Helen and saw her room, but everything had become very pale and semi-transparent. Sometimes she could see through the wall in front of her. Sometimes when Helen went away she seemed to go so far that Rachel’s eyes could hardly follow her. The room also had an odd power of expanding, and though she pushed her voice out as far as possible until sometimes it became a bird and flew away, she thought it doubtful whether it ever reached the person she was talking to. There were immense intervals or chasms, for things still had the power to appear visibly before her, between one moment and the next; it sometimes took an hour for Helen to raise her arm, pausing long between each jerky movement, and pour out medicine. Helen’s form stooping to raise her in bed appeared of gigantic size, and came down upon her like the ceiling falling. But for long spaces of time she would merely lie conscious of her body floating on the top of the bed and her mind driven to some remote corner of her body, or escaped and gone flitting round the room. All sights were something of an effort, but the sight of Terence was the greatest effort, because he forced her to join mind to body in the desire to remember something. She did not wish to remember; it troubled her when people tried to disturb her loneliness; she wished to be alone. She wished for nothing else in the world.

Although she had cried, Terence observed Helen’s greater hopefulness with something like triumph; in the argument between them she had made the first sign of admitting herself in the wrong. He waited for Dr. Lesage to come down that afternoon with considerable anxiety, but with the same certainty at the back of his mind that he would in time force them all to admit that they were in the wrong.

As usual, Dr. Lesage was sulky in his manner and very short in his answers. To Terence’s demand, “She seems to be better?” he replied, looking at him in an odd way, “She has a chance of life.”

The door shut and Terence walked across to the window. He leant his forehead against the pane.

“Rachel,” he repeated to himself. “She has a chance of life. Rachel.”

How could they say these things of Rachel? Had any one yesterday seriously believed that Rachel was dying? They had been engaged for four weeks. A fortnight ago she had been perfectly well. What could fourteen days have done to bring her from that state to this? To realise what they meant by saying that she had a chance of life was beyond him, knowing as he did that they were engaged. He turned, still enveloped in the same dreary mist, and walked towards the door. Suddenly he saw it all. He saw the room and the garden, and the trees moving in the air, they could go on without her; she could die. For the first time since she fell ill he remembered exactly what she looked like and the way in which they cared for each other. The immense happiness of feeling her close to him mingled with a more intense anxiety than he had felt yet. He could not let her die; he could not live without her. But after a momentary struggle, the curtain fell again, and he saw nothing and felt nothing clearly. It was all going on–going on still, in the same way as before. Save for a physical pain when his heart beat, and the fact that his fingers were icy cold, he did not realise that he was anxious about anything. Within his mind he seemed to feel nothing about Rachel or about any one or anything in the world. He went on giving orders, arranging with Mrs. Chailey, writing out lists, and every now and then he went upstairs and put something quietly on the table outside Rachel’s door. That night Dr. Lesage seemed to be less sulky than usual. He stayed voluntarily for a few moments, and, addressing St. John and Terence equally, as if he did not remember which of them was engaged to the young lady, said, “I consider that her condition to-night is very grave.”

Neither of them went to bed or suggested that the other should go to bed. They sat in the drawing-room playing picquet with the door open. St. John made up a bed upon the sofa, and when it was ready insisted that Terence should lie upon it. They began to quarrel as to who should lie on the sofa and who should lie upon a couple of chairs covered with rugs. St. John forced Terence at last to lie down upon the sofa.

“Don’t be a fool, Terence,” he said. “You’ll only get ill if you don’t sleep.”

“Old fellow,” he began, as Terence still refused, and stopped abruptly, fearing sentimentality; he found that he was on the verge of tears.

He began to say what he had long been wanting to say, that he was sorry for Terence, that he cared for him, that he cared for Rachel. Did she know how much he cared for her–had she said anything, asked perhaps? He was very anxious to say this, but he refrained, thinking that it was a selfish question after all, and what was the use of bothering Terence to talk about such things? He was already half asleep. But St. John could not sleep at once. If only, he thought to himself, as he lay in the darkness, something would happen–if only this strain would come to an end. He did not mind what happened, so long as the succession of these hard and dreary days was broken; he did not mind if she died. He felt himself disloyal in not minding it, but it seemed to him that he had no feelings left.

All night long there was no call or movement, except the opening and shutting of the bedroom door once. By degrees the light returned into the untidy room. At six the servants began to move; at seven they crept downstairs into the kitchen; and half an hour later the day began again.

Nevertheless it was not the same as the days that had gone before, although it would have been hard to say in what the difference consisted. Perhaps it was that they seemed to be waiting for something. There were certainly fewer things to be done than usual. People drifted through the drawing-room–Mr. Flushing, Mr. and Mrs. Thornbury. They spoke very apologetically in low tones, refusing to sit down, but remaining for a considerable time standing up, although the only thing they had to say was, “Is there anything we can do?” and there was nothing they could do.

Feeling oddly detached from it all, Terence remembered how Helen had said that whenever anything happened to you this was how people behaved. Was she right, or was she wrong? He was too little interested to frame an opinion of his own. He put things away in his mind, as if one of these days he would think about them, but not now. The mist of unreality had deepened and deepened until it had produced a feeling of numbness all over his body. Was it his body? Were those really his own hands?

This morning also for the first time Ridley found it impossible to sit alone in his room. He was very uncomfortable downstairs, and, as he did not know what was going on, constantly in the way; but he would not leave the drawing-room. Too restless to read, and having nothing to do, he began to pace up and down reciting poetry in an undertone. Occupied in various ways–now in undoing parcels, now in uncorking bottles, now in writing directions, the sound of Ridley’s song and the beat of his pacing worked into the minds of Terence and St. John all the morning as a half comprehended refrain.

They wrestled up, they wrestled down, They wrestled sore and still:
The fiend who blinds the eyes of men, That night he had his will.

Like stags full spent, among the bent They dropped awhile to rest–

“Oh, it’s intolerable!” Hirst exclaimed, and then checked himself, as if it were a breach of their agreement. Again and again Terence would creep half-way up the stairs in case he might be able to glean news of Rachel. But the only news now was of a very fragmentary kind; she had drunk something; she had slept a little; she seemed quieter. In the same way, Dr. Lesage confined himself to talking about details, save once when he volunteered the information that he had just been called in to ascertain, by severing a vein in the wrist, that an old lady of eighty-five was really dead. She had a horror of being buried alive.

“It is a horror,” he remarked, “that we generally find in the very old, and seldom in the young.” They both expressed their interest in what he told them; it seemed to them very strange. Another strange thing about the day was that the luncheon was forgotten by all of them until it was late in the afternoon, and then Mrs. Chailey waited on them, and looked strange too, because she wore a stiff print dress, and her sleeves were rolled up above her elbows. She seemed as oblivious of her appearance, however, as if she had been called out of her bed by a midnight alarm of fire, and she had forgotten, too, her reserve and her composure; she talked to them quite familiarly as if she had nursed them and held them naked on her knee. She assured them over and over again that it was their duty to eat.

The afternoon, being thus shortened, passed more quickly than they expected. Once Mrs. Flushing opened the door, but on seeing them shut it again quickly; once Helen came down to fetch something, but she stopped as she left the room to look at a letter addressed to her. She stood for a moment turning it over, and the extraordinary and mournful beauty of her attitude struck Terence in the way things struck him now–as something to be put away in his mind and to be thought about afterwards. They scarcely spoke, the argument between them seeming to be suspended or forgotten.

Now that the afternoon sun had left the front of the house, Ridley paced up and down the terrace repeating stanzas of a long poem, in a subdued but suddenly sonorous voice. Fragments of the poem were wafted in at the open window as he passed and repassed.

Peor and Baalim
Forsake their Temples dim,
With that twice batter’d God of Palestine And mooned Astaroth–

The sound of these words were strangely discomforting to both the young men, but they had to be borne. As the evening drew on and the red light of the sunset glittered far away on the sea, the same sense of desperation attacked both Terence and St. John at the thought that the day was nearly over, and that another night was at hand. The appearance of one light after another in the town beneath them produced in Hirst a repetition of his terrible and disgusting desire to break down and sob. Then the lamps were brought in by Chailey. She explained that Maria, in opening a bottle, had been so foolish as to cut her arm badly, but she had bound it up; it was unfortunate when there was so much work to be done. Chailey herself limped because of the rheumatism in her feet, but it appeared to her mere waste of time to take any notice of the unruly flesh of servants. The evening went on. Dr. Lesage arrived unexpectedly, and stayed upstairs a very long time. He came down once and drank a cup of coffee.

“She is very ill,” he said in answer to Ridley’s question. All the annoyance had by this time left his manner, he was grave and formal, but at the same time it was full of consideration, which had not marked it before. He went upstairs again. The three men sat together in the drawing-room. Ridley was quite quiet now, and his attention seemed to be thoroughly awakened. Save for little half-voluntary movements and exclamations that were stifled at once, they waited in complete silence. It seemed as if they were at last brought together face to face with something definite.

It was nearly eleven o’clock when Dr. Lesage again appeared in the room. He approached them very slowly, and did not speak at once. He looked first at St. John and then at Terence, and said to Terence, “Mr. Hewet, I think you should go upstairs now.”

Terence rose immediately, leaving the others seated with Dr. Lesage standing motionless between them.

Chailey was in the passage outside, repeating over and over again, “It’s wicked–it’s wicked.”

Terence paid her no attention; he heard what she was saying, but it conveyed no meaning to his mind. All the way upstairs he kept saying to himself, “This has not happened to me. It is not possible that this has happened to me.”

He looked curiously at his own hand on the banisters. The stairs were very steep, and it seemed to take him a long time to surmount them. Instead of feeling keenly, as he knew that he ought to feel, he felt nothing at all. When he opened the door he saw Helen sitting by the bedside. There were shaded lights on the table, and the room, though it seemed to be full of a great many things, was very tidy. There was a faint and not unpleasant smell of disinfectants. Helen rose and gave up her chair to him in silence. As they passed each other their eyes met in a peculiar level glance, he wondered at the extraordinary clearness of his eyes, and at the deep calm and sadness that dwelt in them. He sat down by the bedside, and a moment afterwards heard the door shut gently behind her. He was alone with Rachel, and a faint reflection of the sense of relief that they used to feel when they were left alone possessed him. He looked at her. He expected to find some terrible change in her, but there was none. She looked indeed very thin, and, as far as he could see, very tired, but she was the same as she had always been. Moreover, she saw him and knew him. She smiled at him and said, “Hullo, Terence.”

The curtain which had been drawn between them for so long vanished immediately.

“Well, Rachel,” he replied in his usual voice, upon which she opened her eyes quite widely and smiled with her familiar smile. He kissed her and took her hand.

“It’s been wretched without you,” he said.

She still looked at him and smiled, but soon a slight look of fatigue or perplexity came into her eyes and she shut them again.

“But when we’re together we’re perfectly happy,” he said. He continued to hold her hand.

The light being dim, it was impossible to see any change in her face. An immense feeling of peace came over Terence, so that he had no wish to move or to speak. The terrible torture and unreality of the last days were over, and he had come out now into perfect certainty and peace. His mind began to work naturally again and with great ease. The longer he sat there the more profoundly was he conscious of the peace invading every corner of his soul. Once he held his breath and listened acutely; she was still breathing; he went on thinking for some time; they seemed to be thinking together; he seemed to be Rachel as well as himself; and then he listened again; no, she had ceased to breathe. So much the better–this was death. It was nothing; it was to cease to breathe. It was happiness, it was perfect happiness. They had now what they had always wanted to have, the union which had been impossible while they lived. Unconscious whether he thought the words or spoke them aloud, he said, “No two people have ever been so happy as we have been. No one has ever loved as we have loved.”

It seemed to him that their complete union and happiness filled the room with rings eddying more and more widely. He had no wish in the world left unfulfilled. They possessed what could never be taken from them.

He was not conscious that any one had come into the room, but later, moments later, or hours later perhaps, he felt an arm behind him. The arms were round him. He did not want to have arms round him, and the mysterious whispering voices annoyed him. He laid Rachel’s hand, which was now cold, upon the counterpane, and rose from his chair, and walked across to the window. The windows were uncurtained, and showed the moon, and a long silver pathway upon the surface of the waves.

“Why,” he said, in his ordinary tone of voice, “look at the moon. There’s a halo round the moon. We shall have rain to-morrow.”

The arms, whether they were the arms of man or of woman, were round him again; they were pushing him gently towards the door. He turned of his own accord and walked steadily in advance of the arms, conscious of a little amusement at the strange way in which people behaved merely because some one was dead. He would go if they wished it, but nothing they could do would disturb his happiness.

As he saw the passage outside the room, and the table with the cups and the plates, it suddenly came over him that here was a world in which he would never see Rachel again.

“Rachel! Rachel!” he shrieked, trying to rush back to her. But they prevented him, and pushed him down the passage and into a bedroom far from her room. Downstairs they could hear the thud of his feet on the floor, as he struggled to break free; and twice they heard him shout, “Rachel, Rachel!”

Chapter XXVI

For two or three hours longer the moon poured its light through the empty air. Unbroken by clouds it fell straightly, and lay almost like a chill white frost over the sea and the earth. During these hours the silence was not broken, and the only movement was caused by the movement of trees and branches which stirred slightly, and then the shadows that lay across the white spaces of the land moved too. In this profound silence one sound only was audible, the sound of a slight but continuous breathing which never ceased, although it never rose and never fell. It continued after the birds had begun to flutter from branch to branch, and could be heard behind the first thin notes of their voices. It continued all through the hours when the east whitened, and grew red, and a faint blue tinged the sky, but when the sun rose it ceased, and gave place to other sounds.

The first sounds that were heard were little inarticulate cries, the cries, it seemed, of children or of the very poor, of people who were very weak or in pain. But when the sun was above the horizon, the air which had been thin and pale grew every moment richer and warmer, and the sounds of life became bolder and more full of courage and authority. By degrees the smoke began to ascend in wavering breaths over the houses, and these slowly thickened, until they were as round and straight as columns, and instead of striking upon pale white blinds, the sun shone upon dark windows, beyond which there was depth and space.

The sun had been up for many hours, and the great dome of air was warmed through and glittering with thin gold threads of sunlight, before any one moved in the hotel. White and massive it stood in the early light, half asleep with its blinds down.

At about half-past nine Miss Allan came very slowly into the hall, and walked very slowly to the table where the morning papers were laid, but she did not put out her hand to take one; she stood still, thinking, with her head a little sunk upon her shoulders. She looked curiously old, and from the way in which she stood, a little hunched together and very massive, you could see what she would be like when she was really old, how she would sit day after day in her chair looking placidly in front of her. Other people began to come into the room, and to pass her, but she did not speak to any of them or even look at them, and at last, as if it were necessary to do something, she sat down in a chair, and looked quietly and fixedly in front of her. She felt very old this morning, and useless too, as if her life had been a failure, as if it had been hard and laborious to no purpose. She did not want to go on living, and yet she knew that she would. She was so strong that she would live to be a very old woman. She would probably live to be eighty, and as she was now fifty, that left thirty years more for her to live. She turned her hands over and over in her lap and looked at them curiously; her old hands, that had done so much work for her. There did not seem to be much point in it all; one went on, of course one went on. . . . She looked up to see Mrs. Thornbury standing beside her, with lines drawn upon her forehead, and her lips parted as if she were about to ask a question.

Miss Allan anticipated her.

“Yes,” she said. “She died this morning, very early, about three o’clock.”

Mrs. Thornbury made a little exclamation, drew her lips together, and the tears rose in her eyes. Through them she looked at the hall which was now laid with great breadths of sunlight, and at the careless, casual groups of people who were standing beside the solid arm-chairs and tables. They looked to her unreal, or as people look who remain unconscious that some great explosion is about to take place beside them. But there was no explosion, and they went on standing by the chairs and the tables. Mrs. Thornbury no longer saw them, but, penetrating through them as though they were without substance, she saw the house, the people in the house, the room, the bed in the room, and the figure of the dead lying still in the dark beneath the sheets. She could almost see the dead. She could almost hear the voices of the mourners.

“They expected it?” she asked at length.

Miss Allan could only shake her head.

“I know nothing,” she replied, “except what Mrs. Flushing’s maid told me. She died early this morning.”

The two women looked at each other with a quiet significant gaze, and then, feeling oddly dazed, and seeking she did not know exactly what, Mrs. Thornbury went slowly upstairs and walked quietly along the passages, touching the wall with her fingers as if to guide herself. Housemaids were passing briskly from room to room, but Mrs. Thornbury avoided them; she hardly saw them; they seemed to her to be in another world. She did not even look up directly when Evelyn stopped her. It was evident that Evelyn had been lately in tears, and when she looked at Mrs. Thornbury she began to cry again. Together they drew into the hollow of a window, and stood there in silence. Broken words formed themselves at last among Evelyn’s sobs. “It was wicked,” she sobbed, “it was cruel– they were so happy.”

Mrs. Thornbury patted her on the shoulder.

“It seems hard–very hard,” she said. She paused and looked out over the slope of the hill at the Ambroses’ villa; the windows were blazing in the sun, and she thought how the soul of the dead had passed from those windows. Something had passed from the world. It seemed to her strangely empty.

“And yet the older one grows,” she continued, her eyes regaining more than their usual brightness, “the more certain one becomes that there is a reason. How could one go on if there were no reason?” she asked.

She asked the question of some one, but she did not ask it of Evelyn. Evelyn’s sobs were becoming quieter. “There must be a reason,” she said. “It can’t only be an accident. For it was an accident– it need never have happened.”

Mrs. Thornbury sighed deeply.

“But we must not let ourselves think of that,” she added, “and let us hope that they don’t either. Whatever they had done it might have been the same. These terrible illnesses–“

“There’s no reason–I don’t believe there’s any reason at all!” Evelyn broke out, pulling the blind down and letting it fly back with a little snap.

“Why should these things happen? Why should people suffer? I honestly believe,” she went on, lowering her voice slightly, “that Rachel’s in Heaven, but Terence. . . .”

“What’s the good of it all?” she demanded.

Mrs. Thornbury shook her head slightly but made no reply, and pressing Evelyn’s hand she went on down the passage. Impelled by a strong desire to hear something, although she did not know exactly what there was to hear, she was making her way to the Flushings’ room. As she opened their door she felt that she had interrupted some argument between husband and wife. Mrs. Flushing was sitting with her back to the light, and Mr. Flushing was standing near her, arguing and trying to persuade her of something.

“Ah, here is Mrs. Thornbury,” he began with some relief in his voice. “You have heard, of course. My wife feels that she was in some way responsible. She urged poor Miss Vinrace to come on the expedition. I’m sure you will agree with me that it is most unreasonable to feel that. We don’t even know–in fact I think it most unlikely–that she caught her illness there. These diseases–Besides, she was set on going. She would have gone whether you asked her or not, Alice.”

“Don’t, Wilfrid,” said Mrs. Flushing, neither moving nor taking her eyes off the spot on the floor upon which they rested. “What’s the use of talking? What’s the use–?” She ceased.

“I was coming to ask you,” said Mrs. Thornbury, addressing Wilfrid, for it was useless to speak to his wife. “Is there anything you think that one could do? Has the father arrived? Could one go and see?”

The strongest wish in her being at this moment was to be able to do something for the unhappy people–to see them–to assure them– to help them. It was dreadful to be so far away from them. But Mr. Flushing shook his head; he did not think that now– later perhaps one might be able to help. Here Mrs. Flushing rose stiffly, turned her back to them, and walked to the dressing-room opposite. As she walked, they could see her breast slowly rise and slowly fall. But her grief was silent. She shut the door behind her.

When she was alone by herself she clenched her fists together, and began beating the back of a chair with them. She was like a wounded animal. She hated death; she was furious, outraged, indignant with death, as if it were a living creature. She refused to relinquish her friends to death. She would not submit to dark and nothingness. She began to pace up and down, clenching her hands, and making no attempt to stop the quick tears which raced down her cheeks. She sat still at last, but she did not submit. She looked stubborn and strong when she had ceased to cry.

In the next room, meanwhile, Wilfrid was talking to Mrs. Thornbury with greater freedom now that his wife was not sitting there.

“That’s the worst of these places,” he said. “People will behave as though they were in England, and they’re not. I’ve no doubt myself that Miss Vinrace caught the infection up at the villa itself. She probably ran risks a dozen times a day that might have given her the illness. It’s absurd to say she caught it with us.”

If he had not been sincerely sorry for them he would have been annoyed. “Pepper tells me,” he continued, “that he left the house because he thought them so careless. He says they never washed their vegetables properly. Poor people! It’s a fearful price to pay. But it’s only what I’ve seen over and over again–people seem to forget that these things happen, and then they do happen, and they’re surprised.

Mrs. Thornbury agreed with him that they had been very careless, and that there was no reason whatever to think that she had caught the fever on the expedition; and after talking about other things for a short time, she left him and went sadly along the passage to her own room. There must be some reason why such things happen, she thought to herself, as she shut the door. Only at first it was not easy to understand what it was. It seemed so strange– so unbelievable. Why, only three weeks ago–only a fortnight ago, she had seen Rachel; when she shut her eyes she could almost see her now, the quiet, shy girl who was going to be married. She thought of all that she would have missed had she died at Rachel’s age, the children, the married life, the unimaginable depths and miracles that seemed to her, as she looked back, to have lain about her, day after day, and year after year. The stunned feeling, which had been making it difficult for her to think, gradually gave way to a feeling of the opposite nature; she thought very quickly and very clearly, and, looking back over all her experiences, tried to fit them into a kind of order. There was undoubtedly much suffering, much struggling, but, on the whole, surely there was a balance of happiness–surely order did prevail. Nor were the deaths of young people really the saddest things in life– they were saved so much; they kept so much. The dead–she called to mind those who had died early, accidentally–were beautiful; she often dreamt of the dead. And in time Terence himself would come to feel–She got up and began to wander restlessly about the room.

For an old woman of her age she was very restless, and for one of her clear, quick mind she was unusually perplexed. She could not settle to anything, so that she was relieved when the door opened. She went up to her husband, took him in her arms, and kissed him with unusual intensity, and then as they sat down together she began to pat him and question him as if he were a baby, an old, tired, querulous baby. She did not tell him about Miss Vinrace’s death, for that would only disturb him, and he was put out already. She tried to discover why he was uneasy. Politics again? What were those horrid people doing? She spent the whole morning in discussing politics with her husband, and by degrees she became deeply interested in what they were saying. But every now and then what she was saying seemed to her oddly empty of meaning.

At luncheon it was remarked by several people that the visitors at the hotel were beginning to leave; there were fewer every day. There were only forty people at luncheon, instead of the sixty that there had been. So old Mrs. Paley computed, gazing about her with her faded eyes, as she took her seat at her own table in the window. Her party generally consisted of Mr. Perrott as well as Arthur and Susan, and to-day Evelyn was lunching with them also.

She was unusually subdued. Having noticed that her eyes were red, and guessing the reason, the others took pains to keep up an elaborate conversation between themselves. She suffered it to go on for a few minutes, leaning both elbows on the table, and leaving her soup untouched, when she exclaimed suddenly, “I don’t know how you feel, but I can simply think of nothing else!”

The gentlemen murmured sympathetically, and looked grave.

Susan replied, “Yes–isn’t it perfectly awful? When you think what a nice girl she was–only just engaged, and this need never have happened–it seems too tragic.” She looked at Arthur as though he might be able to help her with something more suitable.

“Hard lines,” said Arthur briefly. “But it was a foolish thing to do–to go up that river.” He shook his head. “They should have known better. You can’t expect Englishwomen to stand roughing it as the natives do who’ve been acclimatised. I’d half a mind to warn them at tea that day when it was being discussed. But it’s no good saying these sort of things–it only puts people’s backs up– it never makes any difference.”

Old Mrs. Paley, hitherto contented with her soup, here intimated, by raising one hand to her ear, that she wished to know what was being said.

“You heard, Aunt Emma, that poor Miss Vinrace has died of the fever,” Susan informed her gently. She could not speak of death loudly or even in her usual voice, so that Mrs. Paley did not catch a word. Arthur came to the rescue.

“Miss Vinrace is dead,” he said very distinctly.

Mrs. Paley merely bent a little towards him and asked, “Eh?”

“Miss Vinrace is dead,” he repeated. It was only by stiffening all the muscles round his mouth that he could prevent himself from bursting into laughter, and forced himself to repeat for the third time, “Miss Vinrace. . . . She’s dead.”

Let alone the difficulty of hearing the exact words, facts that were outside her daily experience took some time to reach Mrs. Paley’s consciousness. A weight seemed to rest upon her brain, impeding, though not damaging its action. She sat vague-eyed for at least a minute before she realised what Arthur meant.

“Dead?” she said vaguely. “Miss Vinrace dead? Dear me . . . that’s very sad. But I don’t at the moment remember which she was. We seem to have made so many new acquaintances here.” She looked at Susan for help. “A tall dark girl, who just missed being handsome, with a high colour?”

“No,” Susan interposed. “She was–” then she gave it up in despair. There was no use in explaining that Mrs. Paley was thinking of the wrong person.

“She ought not to have died,” Mrs. Paley continued. “She looked so strong. But people will drink the water. I can never make out why. It seems such a simple thing to tell them to put a bottle of Seltzer water in your bedroom. That’s all the precaution I’ve ever taken, and I’ve been in every part of the world, I may say–Italy a dozen times over. . . . But young people always think they know better, and then they pay the penalty. Poor thing–I am very sorry for her.” But the difficulty of peering into a dish of potatoes and helping herself engrossed her attention.

Arthur and Susan both secretly hoped that the subject was now disposed of, for there seemed to them something unpleasant in this discussion. But Evelyn was not ready to let it drop. Why would people never talk about the things that mattered?

“I don’t believe you care a bit!” she said, turning savagely upon Mr. Perrott, who had sat all this time in silence.

“I? Oh, yes, I do,” he answered awkwardly, but with obvious sincerity. Evelyn’s questions made him too feel uncomfortable.

“It seems so inexplicable,” Evelyn continued. “Death, I mean. Why should she be dead, and not you or I? It was only a fortnight ago that she was here with the rest of us. What d’you believe?” she demanded of mr. Perrott. “D’you believe that things go on, that she’s still somewhere–or d’you think it’s simply a game– we crumble up to nothing when we die? I’m positive Rachel’s not dead.”

Mr. Perrott would have said almost anything that Evelyn wanted him to say, but to assert that he believed in the immortality of the soul was not in his power. He sat silent, more deeply wrinkled than usual, crumbling his bread.

Lest Evelyn should next ask him what he believed, Arthur, after making a pause equivalent to a full stop, started a completely different topic.

“Supposing,” he said, “a man were to write and tell you that he wanted five pounds because he had known your grandfather, what would you do? It was this way. My grandfather–“

“Invented a stove,” said Evelyn. “I know all about that. We had one in the conservatory to keep the plants warm.”

“Didn’t know I was so famous,” said Arthur. “Well,” he continued, determined at all costs to spin his story out at length, “the old chap, being about the second best inventor of his day, and a capable lawyer too, died, as they always do, without making a will. Now Fielding, his clerk, with how much justice I don’t know, always claimed that he meant to do something for him. The poor old boy’s come down in the world through trying inventions on his own account, lives in Penge over a tobacconist’s shop. I’ve been to see him there. The question is–must I stump up or not? What does the abstract spirit of justice require, Perrott? Remember, I didn’t benefit under my grandfather’s will, and I’ve no way of testing the truth of the story.”

“I don’t know much about the abstract spirit of justice,” said Susan, smiling complacently at the others, “but I’m certain of one thing– he’ll get his five pounds!”

As Mr. Perrott proceeded to deliver an opinion, and Evelyn insisted that he was much too stingy, like all lawyers, thinking of the letter and not of the spirit, while Mrs. Paley required to be kept informed between the courses as to what they were all saying, the luncheon passed with no interval of silence, and Arthur congratulated himself upon the tact with which the discussion had been smoothed over.

As they left the room it happened that Mrs. Paley’s wheeled chair ran into the Elliots, who were coming through the door, as she was going out. Brought thus to a standstill for a moment, Arthur and Susan congratulated Hughling Elliot upon his convalescence,– he was down, cadaverous enough, for the first time,–and Mr. Perrott took occasion to say a few words in private to Evelyn.

“Would there be any chance of seeing you this afternoon, about three-thirty say? I shall be in the garden, by the fountain.”

The block dissolved before Evelyn answered. But as she left them in the hall, she looked at him brightly and said, “Half-past three, did you say? That’ll suit me.”

She ran upstairs with the feeling of spiritual exaltation and quickened life which the prospect of an emotional scene always aroused in her. That Mr. Perrott was again about to propose to her, she had no doubt, and she was aware that on this occasion she ought to be prepared with a definite answer, for she was going away in three days’ time. But she could not bring her mind to bear upon the question. To come to a decision was very difficult to her, because she had a natural dislike of anything final and done with; she liked to go on and on– always on and on. She was leaving, and, therefore, she occupied herself in laying her clothes out side by side upon the bed. She observed that some were very shabby. She took the photograph of her father and mother, and, before she laid it away in her box, she held it for a minute in her hand. Rachel had looked at it. Suddenly the keen feeling of some one’s personality, which things that they have owned or handled sometimes preserves, overcame her; she felt Rachel in the room with her; it was as if she were on a ship at sea, and the life of the day was as unreal as the land in the distance. But by degrees the feeling of Rachel’s presence passed away, and she could no longer realise her, for she had scarcely known her. But this momentary sensation left her depressed and fatigued. What had she done with her life? What future was there before her? What was make-believe, and what was real? Were these proposals and intimacies and adventures real, or was the contentment which she had seen on the faces of Susan and Rachel more real than anything she had ever felt?

She made herself ready to go downstairs, absentmindedly, but her fingers were so well trained that they did the work of preparing her almost of their own accord. When she was actually on the way downstairs, the blood began to circle through her body of its own accord too, for her mind felt very dull.

Mr. Perrott was waiting for her. Indeed, he had gone straight into the garden after luncheon, and had been walking up and down the path for more than half an hour, in a state of acute suspense.

“I’m late as usual!” she exclaimed, as she caught sight of him. “Well, you must forgive me; I had to pack up. . . . My word! It looks stormy! And that’s a new steamer in the bay, isn’t it?”

She looked at the bay, in which a steamer was just dropping anchor, the smoke still hanging about it, while a swift black shudder ran through the waves. “One’s quite forgotten what rain looks like,” she added.

But Mr. Perrott paid no attention to the steamer or to the weather.

“Miss Murgatroyd,” he began with his usual formality, “I asked you to come here from a very selfish motive, I fear. I do not think you need to be assured once more of my feelings; but, as you are leaving so soon, I felt that I could not let you go without asking you to tell me–have I any reason to hope that you will ever come to care for me?”

He was very pale, and seemed unable to say any more.

The little gush of vitality which had come into Evelyn as she ran downstairs had left her, and she felt herself impotent. There was nothing for her to say; she felt nothing. Now that he was actually asking her, in his elderly gentle words, to marry him, she felt less for him than she had ever felt before.

“Let’s sit down and talk it over,” she said rather unsteadily.

Mr. Perrott followed her to a curved green seat under a tree. They looked at the fountain in front of them, which had long ceased to play. Evelyn kept looking at the fountain instead of thinking of what she was saying; the fountain without any water seemed to be the type of her own being.

“Of course I care for you,” she began, rushing her words out in a hurry; “I should be a brute if I didn’t. I think you’re quite one of the nicest people I’ve ever known, and one of the finest too. But I wish . . . I wish you didn’t care for me in that way. Are you sure you do?” For the moment she honestly desired that he should say no.

“Quite sure,” said Mr. Perrott.

“You see, I’m not as simple as most women,” Evelyn continued. “I think I want more. I don’t know exactly what I feel.”

He sat by her, watching her and refraining from speech.

“I sometimes think I haven’t got it in me to care very much for one person only. Some one else would make you a better wife. I can imagine you very happy with some one else.”

“If you think that there is any chance that you will come to care for me, I am quite content to wait,” said Mr. Perrott.

“Well–there’s no hurry, is there?” said Evelyn. “Suppose I thought it over and wrote and told you when I get back? I’m going to Moscow; I’ll write from Moscow.”

But Mr. Perrott persisted.

“You cannot give me any kind of idea. I do not ask for a date . . . that would be most unreasonable.” He paused, looking down at the gravel path.

As she did not immediately answer, he went on.

“I know very well that I am not–that I have not much to offer you either in myself or in my circumstances. And I forget; it cannot seem the miracle to you that it does to me. Until I met you I had gone on in my own quiet way–we are both very quiet people, my sister and I–quite content with my lot. My friendship with Arthur was the most important thing in my life. Now that I know you, all that has changed. You seem to put such a spirit into everything. Life seems to hold so many possibilities that I had never dreamt of.”

“That’s splendid!” Evelyn exclaimed, grasping his hand. “Now you’ll go back and start all kinds of things and make a great name in the world; and we’ll go on being friends, whatever happens . . . we’ll be great friends, won’t we?”

“Evelyn!” he moaned suddenly, and took her in his arms, and kissed her. She did not resent it, although it made little impression on her.

As she sat upright again, she said, “I never see why one shouldn’t go on being friends–though some people do. And friendships do make a difference, don’t they? They are the kind of things that matter in one’s life?”

He looked at her with a bewildered expression as if he did not really understand what she was saying. With a considerable effort he collected himself, stood up, and said, “Now I think I have told you what I feel, and I will only add that I can wait as long as ever you wish.”

Left alone, Evelyn walked up and down the path. What did matter than? What was the meaning of it all?

Chapter XXVII

All that evening the clouds gathered, until they closed entirely over the blue of the sky. They seemed to narrow the space between earth and heaven, so that there was no room for the air to move in freely; and the waves, too, lay flat, and yet rigid, as if they were restrained. The leaves on the bushes and trees in the garden hung closely together, and the feeling of pressure and restraint was increased by the short chirping sounds which came from birds and insects.

So strange were the lights and the silence that the busy hum of voices which usually filled the dining-room at meal times had distinct gaps in it, and during these silences the clatter of the knives upon plates became audible. The first roll of thunder and the first heavy drop striking the pane caused a little stir.

“It’s coming!” was said simultaneously in many different languages.

There was then a profound silence, as if the thunder had withdrawn into itself. People had just begun to eat again, when a gust of cold air came through the open windows, lifting tablecloths and skirts, a light flashed, and was instantly followed by a clap of thunder right over the hotel. The rain swished with it, and immediately there were all those sounds of windows being shut and doors slamming violently which accompany a storm.

The room grew suddenly several degrees darker, for the wind seemed to be driving waves of darkness across the earth. No one attempted to eat for a time, but sat looking out at the garden, with their forks in the air. The flashes now came frequently, lighting up faces as if they were going to be photographed, surprising them in tense and unnatural expressions. The clap followed close and violently upon them. Several women half rose from their chairs and then sat down again, but dinner was continued uneasily with eyes upon the garden. The bushes outside were ruffled and whitened, and the wind pressed upon them so that they seemed to stoop to the ground. The waiters had to press dishes upon the diners’ notice; and the diners had to draw the attention of waiters, for they were all absorbed in looking at the storm. As the thunder showed no signs of withdrawing, but seemed massed right overhead, while the lightning aimed straight at the garden every time, an uneasy gloom replaced the first excitement.

Finishing the meal very quickly, people congregated in the hall, where they felt more secure than in any other place because they could retreat far from the windows, and although they heard the thunder, they could not see anything. A little boy was carried away sobbing in the arms of his mother.

While the storm continued, no one seemed inclined to sit down, but they collected in little groups under the central skylight, where they stood in a yellow atmosphere, looking upwards. Now and again their faces became white, as the lightning flashed, and finally a terrific crash came, making the panes of the skylight lift at the joints.

“Ah!” several voices exclaimed at the same moment.

“Something struck,” said a man’s voice.

The rain rushed down. The rain seemed now to extinguish the lightning and the thunder, and the hall became almost dark.

After a minute or two, when nothing was heard but the rattle of water upon the glass, there was a perceptible slackening of the sound, and then the atmosphere became lighter.

“It’s over,” said another voice.

At a touch, all the electric lights were turned on, and revealed a crowd of people all standing, all looking with rather strained faces up at the skylight, but when they saw each other in the artificial light they turned at once and began to move away. For some minutes the rain continued to rattle upon the skylight, and the thunder gave another shake or two; but it was evident from the clearing of the darkness and the light drumming of the rain upon the roof, that the great confused ocean of air was travelling away from them, and passing high over head with its clouds and its rods of fire, out to sea. The building, which had seemed so small in the tumult of the storm, now became as square and spacious as usual.

As the storm drew away, the people in the hall of the hotel sat down; and with a comfortable sense of relief, began to tell each other stories about great storms, and produced in many cases their occupations for the evening. The chess-board was brought out, and Mr. Elliot, who wore a stock instead of a collar as a sign of convalescence, but was otherwise much as usual, challenged Mr. Pepper to a final contest. Round them gathered a group of ladies with pieces of needlework, or in default of needlework, with novels, to superintend the game, much as if they were in charge of two small boys playing marbles. Every now and then they looked at the board and made some encouraging remark to the gentlemen.

Mrs. Paley just round the corner had her cards arranged in long ladders before her, with Susan sitting near to sympathise but not to correct, and the merchants and the miscellaneous people who had never been discovered to possess names were stretched in their arm-chairs with their newspapers on their knees. The conversation in these circumstances was very gentle, fragmentary, and intermittent, but the room was full of the indescribable stir of life. Every now and then the moth, which was now grey of wing and shiny of thorax, whizzed over their heads, and hit the lamps with a thud.

A young woman put down her needlework and exclaimed, “Poor creature! it would be kinder to kill it.” But nobody seemed disposed to rouse himself in order to kill the moth. They watched it dash from lamp to lamp, because they were comfortable, and had nothing to do.

On the sofa, beside the chess-players, Mrs. Elliot was imparting a new stitch in knitting to Mrs. Thornbury, so that their heads came very near together, and were only to be distinguished by the old lace cap which Mrs. Thornbury wore in the evening. Mrs. Elliot was an expert at knitting, and disclaimed a compliment to that effect with evident pride.

“I suppose we’re all proud of something,” she said, “and I’m proud of my knitting. I think things like that run in families. We all knit well. I had an uncle who knitted his own socks to the day of his death– and he did it better than any of his daughters, dear old gentleman. Now I wonder that you, Miss Allan, who use your eyes so much, don’t take up knitting in the evenings. You’d find it such a relief, I should say–such a rest to the eyes–and the bazaars are so glad of things.” Her voice dropped into the smooth half-conscious tone of the expert knitter; the words came gently one after another. “As much as I do I can always dispose of, which is a comfort, for then I feel that I am not wasting my time–“

Miss Allan, being thus addressed, shut her novel and observed the others placidly for a time. At last she said, “It is surely not natural to leave your wife because she happens to be in love with you. But that–as far as I can make out–is what the gentleman in my story does.”

“Tut, tut, that doesn’t sound good–no, that doesn’t sound at all natural,” murmured the knitters in their absorbed voices.

“Still, it’s the kind of book people call very clever,” Miss Allan added.

“_Maternity_–by Michael Jessop–I presume,” Mr. Elliot put in, for he could never resist the temptation of talking while he played chess.

“D’you know,” said Mrs. Elliot, after a moment, “I don’t think people _do_ write good novels now–not as good as they used to, anyhow.”

No one took the trouble to agree with her or to disagree with her. Arthur Venning who was strolling about, sometimes looking at the game, sometimes reading a page of a magazine, looked at Miss Allan, who was half asleep, and said humorously, “A penny for your thoughts, Miss Allan.”

The others looked up. They were glad that he had not spoken to them. But Miss Allan replied without any hesitation, “I was thinking of my imaginary uncle. Hasn’t every one got an imaginary uncle?” she continued. “I have one–a most delightful old gentleman. He’s always giving me things. Sometimes it’s a gold watch; sometimes it’s a carriage and pair; sometimes it’s a beautiful little cottage in the New Forest; sometimes it’s a ticket to the place I most want to see.”

She set them all thinking vaguely of the things they wanted. Mrs. Elliot knew exactly what she wanted; she wanted a child; and the usual little pucker deepened on her brow.

“We’re such lucky people,” she said, looking at her husband. “We really have no wants.” She was apt to say this, partly in order to convince herself, and partly in order to convince other people. But she was prevented from wondering how far she carried conviction by the entrance of Mr. and Mrs. Flushing, who came through the hall and stopped by the chess-board. Mrs. Flushing looked wilder than ever. A great strand of black hair looped down across her brow, her cheeks were whipped a dark blood red, and drops of rain made wet marks upon them.

Mr. Flushing explained that they had been on the roof watching the storm.

“It was a wonderful sight,” he said. “The lightning went right out over the sea, and lit up the waves and the ships far away. You can’t think how wonderful the mountains looked too, with the lights on them, and the great masses of shadow. It’s all over now.”

He slid down into a chair, becoming interested in the final struggle of the game.

“And you go back to-morrow?” said Mrs. Thornbury, looking at Mrs. Flushing.

“Yes,” she replied.

“And indeed one is not sorry to go back,” said Mrs. Elliot, assuming an air of mournful anxiety, “after all this illness.”

“Are you afraid of dyin’?” Mrs. Flushing demanded scornfully.

“I think we are all afraid of that,” said Mrs. Elliot with dignity.

“I suppose we’re all cowards when it comes to the point,” said Mrs. Flushing, rubbing her cheek against the back of the chair. “I’m sure I am.”

“Not a bit of it!” said Mr. Flushing, turning round, for Mr. Pepper took a very long time to consider his move. “It’s not cowardly to wish to live, Alice. It’s the very reverse of cowardly. Personally, I’d like to go on for a hundred years–granted, of course, that I had the full use of my faculties. Think of all the things that are bound to happen!” “That is what I feel,” Mrs. Thornbury rejoined. “The changes, the improvements, the inventions–and beauty. D’you know I feel sometimes that I couldn’t bear to die and cease to see beautiful things about me?”

“It would certainly be very dull to die before they have discovered whether there is life in Mars,” Miss Allan added.

“Do you really believe there’s life in Mars?” asked Mrs. Flushing, turning to her for the first time with keen interest. “Who tells you that? Some one who knows? D’you know a man called–?”

Here Mrs. Thornbury laid down her knitting, and a look of extreme solicitude came into her eyes.

“There is Mr. Hirst,” she said quietly.

St. John had just come through the swing door. He was rather blown about by the wind, and his cheeks looked terribly pale, unshorn, and cavernous. After taking off his coat he was going to pass straight through the hall and up to his room, but he could not ignore the presence of so many people he knew, especially as Mrs. Thornbury rose and went up to him, holding out her hand. But the shock of the warm lamp-lit room, together with the sight of so many cheerful human beings sitting together at their ease, after the dark walk in the rain, and the long days of strain and horror, overcame him completely. He looked at Mrs. Thornbury and could not speak.

Every one was silent. Mr. Pepper’s hand stayed upon his Knight. Mrs. Thornbury somehow moved him to a chair, sat herself beside him, and with tears in her own eyes said gently, “You have done everything for your friend.”

Her action set them all talking again as if they had never stopped, and Mr. Pepper finished the move with his Knight.

“There was nothing to be done,” said St. John. He spoke very slowly. “It seems impossible–“

He drew his hand across his eyes as if some dream came between him and the others and prevented him from seeing where he was.

“And that poor fellow,” said Mrs. Thornbury, the tears falling again down her cheeks.

“Impossible,” St. John repeated.

“Did he have the consolation of knowing–?” Mrs. Thornbury began very tentatively.

But St. John made no reply. He lay back in his chair, half-seeing the others, half-hearing what they said. He was terribly tired, and the light and warmth, the movements of the hands, and the soft communicative voices soothed him; they gave him a strange sense of quiet and relief. As he sat there, motionless, this feeling of relief became a feeling of profound happiness. Without any sense of disloyalty to Terence and Rachel he ceased to think about either of them. The movements and the voices seemed to draw together from different parts of the room, and to combine themselves into a pattern before his eyes; he was content to sit silently watching the pattern build itself up, looking at what he hardly saw.

The game was really a good one, and Mr. Pepper and Mr. Elliot were becoming more and more set upon the struggle. Mrs. Thornbury, seeing that St. John did not wish to talk, resumed her knitting.

“Lightning again!” Mrs. Flushing suddenly exclaimed. A yellow light flashed across the blue window, and for a second they saw the green trees outside. She strode to the door, pushed it open, and stood half out in the open air.

But the light was only the reflection of the storm which was over. The rain had ceased, the heavy clouds were blown away, and the air was thin and clear, although vapourish mists were being driven swiftly across the moon. The sky was once more a deep and solemn blue, and the shape of the earth was visible at the bottom of the air, enormous, dark, and solid, rising into the tapering mass of the mountain, and pricked here and there on the slopes by the tiny lights of villas. The driving air, the drone of the trees, and the flashing light which now and again spread a broad illumination over the earth filled Mrs. Flushing with exultation. Her breasts rose and fell.

“Splendid! Splendid!” she muttered to herself. Then she turned back into the hall and exclaimed in a peremptory voice, “Come outside and see, Wilfrid; it’s wonderful.”

Some half-stirred; some rose; some dropped their balls of wool and began to stoop to look for them.

“To bed–to bed,” said Miss Allan.

“It was the move with your Queen that gave it away, Pepper,” exclaimed Mr. Elliot triumphantly, sweeping the pieces together and standing up. He had won the game.

“What? Pepper beaten at last? I congratulate you!” said Arthur Venning, who was wheeling old Mrs. Paley to bed.

All these voices sounded gratefully in St. John’s ears as he lay half-asleep, and yet vividly conscious of everything around him. Across his eyes passed a procession of objects, black and indistinct, the figures of people picking up their books, their cards, their balls of wool, their work-baskets, and passing him one after another on their way to bed.