The tray which brought Katharine's cup of tea the next morning brought, also, a note from her mother, announcing that it was her intention to catch an early train to Stratford-on-Avon that very day.
"Please find out the best way of getting there," the note ran, "and wire to dear Sir John Burdett to expect me, with my love. I've been dreaming all night of you and Shakespeare, dearest Katharine."
This was no momentary impulse. Mrs. Hilbery had been dreaming of Shakespeare any time these six months, toying with the idea of an excursion to what she considered the heart of the civilized world. To stand six feet above Shakespeare's bones, to see the very stones worn by his feet, to reflect that the oldest man's oldest mother had very likely seen Shakespeare's daughter--such thoughts roused an emotion in her, which she expressed at unsuitable moments, and with a passion that would not have been unseemly in a pilgrim to a sacred shrine. The only strange thing was that she wished to go by herself. But, naturally enough, she was well provided with friends who lived in the neighborhood of Shakespeare's tomb, and were delighted to welcome her; and she left later to catch her train in the best of spirits. There was a man selling violets in the street. It was a fine day. She would remember to send Mr. Hilbery the first daffodil she saw. And, as she ran back into the hall to tell Katharine, she felt, she had always felt, that Shakespeare's command to leave his bones undisturbed applied only to odious curiosity-mongers--not to dear Sir John and herself. Leaving her daughter to cogitate the theory of Anne Hathaway's sonnets, and the buried manuscripts here referred to, with the implied menace to the safety of the heart of civilization itself, she briskly shut the door of her taxi-cab, and was whirled off upon the first stage of her pilgrimage.
The house was oddly different without her. Katharine found the maids already in possession of her room, which they meant to clean thoroughly during her absence. To Katharine it seemed as if they had brushed away sixty years or so with the first flick of their damp dusters. It seemed to her that the work she had tried to do in that room was being swept into a very insignificant heap of dust. The china shepherdesses were already shining from a bath of hot water. The writing-table might have belonged to a professional man of methodical habits.
Gathering together a few papers upon which she was at work, Katharine proceeded to her own room with the intention of looking through them, perhaps, in the course of the morning. But she was met on the stairs by Cassandra, who followed her up, but with such intervals between each step that Katharine began to feel her purpose dwindling before they had reached the door. Cassandra leant over the banisters, and looked down upon the Persian rug that lay on the floor of the hall.
"Doesn't everything look odd this morning?" she inquired. "Are you really going to spend the morning with those dull old letters, because if so--"
The dull old letters, which would have turned the heads of the most sober of collectors, were laid upon a table, and, after a moment's pause, Cassandra, looking grave all of a sudden, asked Katharine where she should find the "History of England" by Lord Macaulay. It was downstairs in Mr. Hilbery's study. The cousins descended together in search of it. They diverged into the drawing-room for the good reason that the door was open. The portrait of Richard Alardyce attracted their attention.
"I wonder what he was like?" It was a question that Katharine had often asked herself lately.
"Oh, a fraud like the rest of them--at least Henry says so," Cassandra replied. "Though I don't believe everything Henry says," she added a little defensively.
Down they went into Mr. Hilbery's study, where they began to look among his books. So desultory was this examination that some fifteen minutes failed to discover the work they were in search of.
"Must you read Macaulay's History, Cassandra?" Katharine asked, with a stretch of her arms.
"I must," Cassandra replied briefly.
"Well, I'm going to leave you to look for it by yourself."
"Oh, no, Katharine. Please stay and help me. You see--you see--I told William I'd read a little every day. And I want to tell him that I've begun when he comes."
"When does William come?" Katharine asked, turning to the shelves again.
"To tea, if that suits you?"
"If it suits me to be out, I suppose you mean."
"Oh, you're horrid. . . . Why shouldn't you--?"
"Why shouldn't you be happy too?"
"I am quite happy," Katharine replied.
"I mean as I am. Katharine," she said impulsively, "do let's be married on the same day."
"To the same man?"
"Oh, no, no. But why shouldn't you marry--some one else?"
"Here's your Macaulay," said Katharine, turning round with the book in her hand. "I should say you'd better begin to read at once if you mean to be educated by tea-time."
"Damn Lord Macaulay!" cried Cassandra, slapping the book upon the table. "Would you rather not talk?"
"We've talked enough already," Katharine replied evasively.
"I know I shan't be able to settle to Macaulay," said Cassandra, looking ruefully at the dull red cover of the prescribed volume, which, however, possessed a talismanic property, since William admired it. He had advised a little serious reading for the morning hours.
"Have YOU read Macaulay?" she asked.
"No. William never tried to educate me." As she spoke she saw the light fade from Cassandra's face, as if she had implied some other, more mysterious, relationship. She was stung with compunction. She marveled at her own rashness in having influenced the life of another, as she had influenced Cassandra's life.
"We weren't serious," she said quickly.
"But I'm fearfully serious," said Cassandra, with a little shudder, and her look showed that she spoke the truth. She turned and glanced at Katharine as she had never glanced at her before. There was fear in her glance, which darted on her and then dropped guiltily. Oh, Katharine had everything--beauty, mind, character. She could never compete with Katharine; she could never be safe so long as Katharine brooded over her, dominating her, disposing of her. She called her cold, unseeing, unscrupulous, but the only sign she gave outwardly was a curious one--she reached out her hand and grasped the volume of history. At that moment the bell of the telephone rang and Katharine went to answer it. Cassandra, released from observation, dropped her book and clenched her hands. She suffered more fiery torture in those few minutes than she had suffered in the whole of her life; she learnt more of her capacities for feeling. But when Katharine reappeared she was calm, and had gained a look of dignity that was new to her.
"Was that him?" she asked.
"It was Ralph Denham," Katharine replied.
"I meant Ralph Denham."
"Why did you mean Ralph Denham? What has William told you about Ralph Denham?" The accusation that Katharine was calm, callous, and indifferent was not possible in face of her present air of animation. She gave Cassandra no time to frame an answer. "Now, when are you and William going to be married?" she asked.
Cassandra made no reply for some moments. It was, indeed, a very difficult question to answer. In conversation the night before, William had indicated to Cassandra that, in his belief, Katharine was becoming engaged to Ralph Denham in the dining-room. Cassandra, in the rosy light of her own circumstances, had been disposed to think that the matter must be settled already. But a letter which she had received that morning from William, while ardent in its expression of affection, had conveyed to her obliquely that he would prefer the announcement of their engagement to coincide with that of Katharine's. This document Cassandra now produced, and read aloud, with considerable excisions and much hesitation.
". . . a thousand pities--ahem--I fear we shall cause a great deal of natural annoyance. If, on the other hand, what I have reason to think will happen, should happen--within reasonable time, and the present position is not in any way offensive to you, delay would, in my opinion, serve all our interests better than a premature explanation, which is bound to cause more surprise than is desirable--"
"Very like William," Katharine exclaimed, having gathered the drift of these remarks with a speed that, by itself, disconcerted Cassandra.
"I quite understand his feelings," Cassandra replied. "I quite agree with them. I think it would be much better, if you intend to marry Mr. Denham, that we should wait as William says."
"But, then, if I don't marry him for months--or, perhaps, not at all?"
Cassandra was silent. The prospect appalled her. Katharine had been telephoning to Ralph Denham; she looked queer, too; she must be, or about to become, engaged to him. But if Cassandra could have overheard the conversation upon the telephone, she would not have felt so certain that it tended in that direction. It was to this effect:
"I'm Ralph Denham speaking. I'm in my right senses now."
"How long did you wait outside the house?"
"I went home and wrote you a letter. I tore it up."
"I shall tear up everything too."
"I shall come."
"Yes. Come to-day."
"I must explain to you--"
"Yes. We must explain--"
A long pause followed. Ralph began a sentence, which he canceled with the word, "Nothing." Suddenly, together, at the same moment, they said good-bye. And yet, if the telephone had been miraculously connected with some higher atmosphere pungent with the scent of thyme and the savor of salt, Katharine could hardly have breathed in a keener sense of exhilaration. She ran downstairs on the crest of it. She was amazed to find herself already committed by William and Cassandra to marry the owner of the halting voice she had just heard on the telephone. The tendency of her spirit seemed to be in an altogether different direction; and of a different nature. She had only to look at Cassandra to see what the love that results in an engagement and marriage means. She considered for a moment, and then said: "If you don't want to tell people yourselves, I'll do it for you. I know William has feelings about these matters that make it very difficult for him to do anything."
"Because he's fearfully sensitive about other people's feelings," said Cassandra. "The idea that he could upset Aunt Maggie or Uncle Trevor would make him ill for weeks."
This interpretation of what she was used to call William's conventionality was new to Katharine. And yet she felt it now to be the true one.
"Yes, you're right," she said.
"And then he worships beauty. He wants life to be beautiful in every part of it. Have you ever noticed how exquisitely he finishes everything? Look at the address on that envelope. Every letter is perfect."
Whether this applied also to the sentiments expressed in the letter, Katharine was not so sure; but when William's solicitude was spent upon Cassandra it not only failed to irritate her, as it had done when she was the object of it, but appeared, as Cassandra said, the fruit of his love of beauty.
"Yes," she said, "he loves beauty."
"I hope we shall have a great many children," said Cassandra. "He loves children."
This remark made Katharine realize the depths of their intimacy better than any other words could have done; she was jealous for one moment; but the next she was humiliated. She had known William for years, and she had never once guessed that he loved children. She looked at the queer glow of exaltation in Cassandra's eyes, through which she was beholding the true spirit of a human being, and wished that she would go on talking about William for ever. Cassandra was not unwilling to gratify her. She talked on. The morning slipped away. Katharine scarcely changed her position on the edge of her father's writing-table, and Cassandra never opened the "History of England."
And yet it must be confessed that there were vast lapses in the attention which Katharine bestowed upon her cousin. The atmosphere was wonderfully congenial for thoughts of her own. She lost herself sometimes in such deep reverie that Cassandra, pausing, could look at her for moments unperceived. What could Katharine be thinking about, unless it were Ralph Denham? She was satisfied, by certain random replies, that Katharine had wandered a little from the subject of William's perfections. But Katharine made no sign. She always ended these pauses by saying something so natural that Cassandra was deluded into giving fresh examples of her absorbing theme. Then they lunched, and the only sign that Katharine gave of abstraction was to forget to help the pudding. She looked so like her mother, as she sat there oblivious of the tapioca, that Cassandra was startled into exclaiming:
"How like Aunt Maggie you look!"
"Nonsense," said Katharine, with more irritation than the remark seemed to call for.
In truth, now that her mother was away, Katharine did feel less sensible than usual, but as she argued it to herself, there was much less need for sense. Secretly, she was a little shaken by the evidence which the morning had supplied of her immense capacity for--what could one call it?--rambling over an infinite variety of thoughts that were too foolish to be named. She was, for example, walking down a road in Northumberland in the August sunset; at the inn she left her companion, who was Ralph Denham, and was transported, not so much by her own feet as by some invisible means, to the top of a high hill. Here the scents, the sounds among the dry heather-roots, the grass-blades pressed upon the palm of her hand, were all so perceptible that she could experience each one separately. After this her mind made excursions into the dark of the air, or settled upon the surface of the sea, which could be discovered over there, or with equal unreason it returned to its couch of bracken beneath the stars of midnight, and visited the snow valleys of the moon. These fancies would have been in no way strange, since the walls of every mind are decorated with some such tracery, but she found herself suddenly pursuing such thoughts with an extreme ardor, which became a desire to change her actual condition for something matching the conditions of her dream. Then she started; then she awoke to the fact that Cassandra was looking at her in amazement.
Cassandra would have liked to feel certain that, when Katharine made no reply at all or one wide of the mark, she was making up her mind to get married at once, but it was difficult, if this were so, to account for some remarks that Katharine let fall about the future. She recurred several times to the summer, as if she meant to spend that season in solitary wandering. She seemed to have a plan in her mind which required Bradshaws and the names of inns.
Cassandra was driven finally, by her own unrest, to put on her clothes and wander out along the streets of Chelsea, on the pretence that she must buy something. But, in her ignorance of the way, she became panic-stricken at the thought of being late, and no sooner had she found the shop she wanted, than she fled back again in order to be at home when William came. He came, indeed, five minutes after she had sat down by the tea-table, and she had the happiness of receiving him alone. His greeting put her doubts of his affection at rest, but the first question he asked was:
"Has Katharine spoken to you?"
"Yes. But she says she's not engaged. She doesn't seem to think she's ever going to be engaged."
William frowned, and looked annoyed.
"They telephoned this morning, and she behaves very oddly. She forgets to help the pudding," Cassandra added by way of cheering him.
"My dear child, after what I saw and heard last night, it's not a question of guessing or suspecting. Either she's engaged to him--or--"
He left his sentence unfinished, for at this point Katharine herself appeared. With his recollections of the scene the night before, he was too self-conscious even to look at her, and it was not until she told him of her mother's visit to Stratford-on-Avon that he raised his eyes. It was clear that he was greatly relieved. He looked round him now, as if he felt at his ease, and Cassandra exclaimed:
"Don't you think everything looks quite different?"
"You've moved the sofa?" he asked.
"No. Nothing's been touched," said Katharine. "Everything's exactly the same." But as she said this, with a decision which seemed to make it imply that more than the sofa was unchanged, she held out a cup into which she had forgotten to pour any tea. Being told of her forgetfulness, she frowned with annoyance, and said that Cassandra was demoralizing her. The glance she cast upon them, and the resolute way in which she plunged them into speech, made William and Cassandra feel like children who had been caught prying. They followed her obediently, making conversation. Any one coming in might have judged them acquaintances met, perhaps, for the third time. If that were so, one must have concluded that the hostess suddenly bethought her of an engagement pressing for fulfilment. First Katharine looked at her watch, and then she asked William to tell her the right time. When told that it was ten minutes to five she rose at once, and said:
"Then I'm afraid I must go."
She left the room, holding her unfinished bread and butter in her hand. William glanced at Cassandra.
"Well, she IS queer!" Cassandra exclaimed.
William looked perturbed. He knew more of Katharine than Cassandra did, but even he could not tell--. In a second Katharine was back again dressed in outdoor things, still holding her bread and butter in her bare hand.
"If I'm late, don't wait for me," she said. "I shall have dined," and so saying, she left them.
"But she can't--" William exclaimed, as the door shut, "not without any gloves and bread and butter in her hand!" They ran to the window, and saw her walking rapidly along the street towards the City. Then she vanished.
"She must have gone to meet Mr. Denham," Cassandra exclaimed.
"Goodness knows!" William interjected.
The incident impressed them both as having something queer and ominous about it out of all proportion to its surface strangeness.
"It's the sort of way Aunt Maggie behaves," said Cassandra, as if in explanation.
William shook his head, and paced up and down the room looking extremely perturbed.
"This is what I've been foretelling," he burst out. "Once set the ordinary conventions aside--Thank Heaven Mrs. Hilbery is away. But there's Mr. Hilbery. How are we to explain it to him? I shall have to leave you."
"But Uncle Trevor won't be back for hours, William!" Cassandra implored.
"You never can tell. He may be on his way already. Or suppose Mrs. Milvain--your Aunt Celia--or Mrs. Cosham, or any other of your aunts or uncles should be shown in and find us alone together. You know what they're saying about us already."
Cassandra was equally stricken by the sight of William's agitation, and appalled by the prospect of his desertion.
"We might hide," she exclaimed wildly, glancing at the curtain which separated the room with the relics.
"I refuse entirely to get under the table," said William sarcastically.
She saw that he was losing his temper with the difficulties of the situation. Her instinct told her that an appeal to his affection, at this moment, would be extremely ill-judged. She controlled herself, sat down, poured out a fresh cup of tea, and sipped it quietly. This natural action, arguing complete self-mastery, and showing her in one of those feminine attitudes which William found adorable, did more than any argument to compose his agitation. It appealed to his chivalry. He accepted a cup. Next she asked for a slice of cake. By the time the cake was eaten and the tea drunk the personal question had lapsed, and they were discussing poetry. Insensibly they turned from the question of dramatic poetry in general, to the particular example which reposed in William's pocket, and when the maid came in to clear away the tea-things, William had asked permission to read a short passage aloud, "unless it bored her?"
Cassandra bent her head in silence, but she showed a little of what she felt in her eyes, and thus fortified, William felt confident that it would take more than Mrs. Milvain herself to rout him from his position. He read aloud.
Meanwhile Katharine walked rapidly along the street. If called upon to explain her impulsive action in leaving the tea-table, she could have traced it to no better cause than that William had glanced at Cassandra; Cassandra at William. Yet, because they had glanced, her position was impossible. If one forgot to pour out a cup of tea they rushed to the conclusion that she was engaged to Ralph Denham. She knew that in half an hour or so the door would open, and Ralph Denham would appear. She could not sit there and contemplate seeing him with William's and Cassandra's eyes upon them, judging their exact degree of intimacy, so that they might fix the wedding-day. She promptly decided that she would meet Ralph out of doors; she still had time to reach Lincoln's Inn Fields before he left his office. She hailed a cab, and bade it take her to a shop for selling maps which she remembered in Great Queen Street, since she hardly liked to be set down at his door. Arrived at the shop, she bought a large scale map of Norfolk, and thus provided, hurried into Lincoln's Inn Fields, and assured herself of the position of Messrs. Hoper and Grateley's office. The great gas chandeliers were alight in the office windows. She conceived that he sat at an enormous table laden with papers beneath one of them in the front room with the three tall windows. Having settled his position there, she began walking to and fro upon the pavement. Nobody of his build appeared. She scrutinized each male figure as it approached and passed her. Each male figure had, nevertheless, a look of him, due, perhaps, to the professional dress, the quick step, the keen glance which they cast upon her as they hastened home after the day's work. The square itself, with its immense houses all so fully occupied and stern of aspect, its atmosphere of industry and power, as if even the sparrows and the children were earning their daily bread, as if the sky itself, with its gray and scarlet clouds, reflected the serious intention of the city beneath it, spoke of him. Here was the fit place for their meeting, she thought; here was the fit place for her to walk thinking of him. She could not help comparing it with the domestic streets of Chelsea. With this comparison in her mind, she extended her range a little, and turned into the main road. The great torrent of vans and carts was sweeping down Kingsway; pedestrians were streaming in two currents along the pavements. She stood fascinated at the corner. The deep roar filled her ears; the changing tumult had the inexpressible fascination of varied life pouring ceaselessly with a purpose which, as she looked, seemed to her, somehow, the normal purpose for which life was framed; its complete indifference to the individuals, whom it swallowed up and rolled onwards, filled her with at least a temporary exaltation. The blend of daylight and of lamplight made her an invisible spectator, just as it gave the people who passed her a semi-transparent quality, and left the faces pale ivory ovals in which the eyes alone were dark. They tended the enormous rush of the current--the great flow, the deep stream, the unquenchable tide. She stood unobserved and absorbed, glorying openly in the rapture that had run subterraneously all day. Suddenly she was clutched, unwilling, from the outside, by the recollection of her purpose in coming there. She had come to find Ralph Denham. She hastily turned back into Lincoln's Inn Fields, and looked for her landmark--the light in the three tall windows. She sought in vain. The faces of the houses had now merged in the general darkness, and she had difficulty in determining which she sought. Ralph's three windows gave back on their ghostly glass panels only a reflection of the gray and greenish sky. She rang the bell, peremptorily, under the painted name of the firm. After some delay she was answered by a caretaker, whose pail and brush of themselves told her that the working day was over and the workers gone. Nobody, save perhaps Mr. Grateley himself, was left, she assured Katharine; every one else had been gone these ten minutes.
The news woke Katharine completely. Anxiety gained upon her. She hastened back into Kingsway, looking at people who had miraculously regained their solidity. She ran as far as the Tube station, overhauling clerk after clerk, solicitor after solicitor. Not one of them even faintly resembled Ralph Denham. More and more plainly did she see him; and more and more did he seem to her unlike any one else. At the door of the station she paused, and tried to collect her thoughts. He had gone to her house. By taking a cab she could be there probably in advance of him. But she pictured herself opening the drawing-room door, and William and Cassandra looking up, and Ralph's entrance a moment later, and the glances--the insinuations. No; she could not face it. She would write him a letter and take it at once to his house. She bought paper and pencil at the bookstall, and entered an A.B.C. shop, where, by ordering a cup of coffee, she secured an empty table, and began at vice to write:
"I came to meet you and I have missed you. I could not face William and Cassandra. They want us--" here she paused. "They insist that we are engaged," she substituted, "and we couldn't talk at all, or explain anything. I want--" Her wants were so vast, now that she was in communication with Ralph, that the pencil was utterly inadequate to conduct them on to the paper; it seemed as if the whole torrent of Kingsway had to run down her pencil. She gazed intently at a notice hanging on the gold-encrusted wall opposite. ". . . to say all kinds of things," she added, writing each word with the painstaking of a child. But, when she raised her eyes again to meditate the next sentence, she was aware of a waitress, whose expression intimated that it was closing time, and, looking round, Katharine saw herself almost the last person left in the shop. She took up her letter, paid her bill, and found herself once more in the street. She would now take a cab to Highgate. But at that moment it flashed upon her that she could not remember the address. This check seemed to let fall a barrier across a very powerful current of desire. She ransacked her memory in desperation, hunting for the name, first by remembering the look of the house, and then by trying, in memory, to retrace the words she had written once, at least, upon an envelope. The more she pressed the farther the words receded. Was the house an Orchard Something, on the street a Hill? She gave it up. Never, since she was a child, had she felt anything like this blankness and desolation. There rushed in upon her, as if she were waking from some dream, all the consequences of her inexplicable indolence. She figured Ralph's face as he turned from her door without a word of explanation, receiving his dismissal as a blow from herself, a callous intimation that she did not wish to see him. She followed his departure from her door; but it was far more easy to see him marching far and fast in any direction for any length of time than to conceive that he would turn back to Highgate. Perhaps he would try once more to see her in Cheyne Walk? It was proof of the clearness with which she saw him, that she started forward as this possibility occurred to her, and almost raised her hand to beckon to a cab. No; he was too proud to come again; he rejected the desire and walked on and on, on and on--If only she could read the names of those visionary streets down which he passed! But her imagination betrayed her at this point, or mocked her with a sense of their strangeness, darkness, and distance. Indeed, instead of helping herself to any decision, she only filled her mind with the vast extent of London and the impossibility of finding any single figure that wandered off this way and that way, turned to the right and to the left, chose that dingy little back street where the children were playing in the road, and so--She roused herself impatiently. She walked rapidly along Holborn. Soon she turned and walked as rapidly in the other direction. This indecision was not merely odious, but had something that alarmed her about it, as she had been alarmed slightly once or twice already that day; she felt unable to cope with the strength of her own desires. To a person controlled by habit, there was humiliation as well as alarm in this sudden release of what appeared to be a very powerful as well as an unreasonable force. An aching in the muscles of her right hand now showed her that she was crushing her gloves and the map of Norfolk in a grip sufficient to crack a more solid object. She relaxed her grasp; she looked anxiously at the faces of the passers-by to see whether their eyes rested on her for a moment longer than was natural, or with any curiosity. But having smoothed out her gloves, and done what she could to look as usual, she forgot spectators, and was once more given up to her desperate desire to find Ralph Denham. It was a desire now--wild, irrational, unexplained, resembling something felt in childhood. Once more she blamed herself bitterly for her carelessness. But finding herself opposite the Tube station, she pulled herself up and took counsel swiftly, as of old. It flashed upon her that she would go at once to Mary Datchet, and ask her to give her Ralph's address. The decision was a relief, not only in giving her a goal, but in providing her with a rational excuse for her own actions. It gave her a goal certainly, but the fact of having a goal led her to dwell exclusively upon her obsession; so that when she rang the bell of Mary's flat, she did not for a moment consider how this demand would strike Mary. To her extreme annoyance Mary was not at home; a charwoman opened the door. All Katharine could do was to accept the invitation to wait. She waited for, perhaps, fifteen minutes, and spent them in pacing from one end of the room to the other without intermission. When she heard Mary's key in the door she paused in front of the fireplace, and Mary found her standing upright, looking at once expectant and determined, like a person who has come on an errand of such importance that it must be broached without preface.
Mary exclaimed in surprise.
"Yes, yes," Katharine said, brushing these remarks aside, as if they were in the way.
"Have you had tea?"
"Oh yes," she said, thinking that she had had tea hundreds of years ago, somewhere or other.
Mary paused, took off her gloves, and, finding matches, proceeded to light the fire.
Katharine checked her with an impatient movement, and said:
"Don't light the fire for me. . . . I want to know Ralph Denham's address."
She was holding a pencil and preparing to write on the envelope. She waited with an imperious expression.
"The Apple Orchard, Mount Ararat Road, Highgate," Mary said, speaking slowly and rather strangely.
"Oh, I remember now!" Katharine exclaimed, with irritation at her own stupidity. "I suppose it wouldn't take twenty minutes to drive there?" She gathered up her purse and gloves and seemed about to go.
"But you won't find him," said Mary, pausing with a match in her hand. Katharine, who had already turned towards the door, stopped and looked at her.
"Why? Where is he?" she asked.
"He won't have left his office."
"But he has left the office," she replied. "The only question is will he have reached home yet? He went to see me at Chelsea; I tried to meet him and missed him. He will have found no message to explain. So I must find him--as soon as possible."
Mary took in the situation at her leisure.
"But why not telephone?" she said.
Katharine immediately dropped all that she was holding; her strained expression relaxed, and exclaiming, "Of course! Why didn't I think of that!" she seized the telephone receiver and gave her number. Mary looked at her steadily, and then left the room. At length Katharine heard, through all the superimposed weight of London, the mysterious sound of feet in her own house mounting to the little room, where she could almost see the pictures and the books; she listened with extreme intentness to the preparatory vibrations, and then established her identity.
"Has Mr. Denham called?"
"Did he ask for me?"
"Yes. We said you were out, miss."
"Did he leave any message?"
"No. He went away. About twenty minutes ago, miss."
Katharine hung up the receiver. She walked the length of the room in such acute disappointment that she did not at first perceive Mary's absence. Then she called in a harsh and peremptory tone:
Mary was taking off her outdoor things in the bedroom. She heard Katharine call her. "Yes," she said, "I shan't be a moment." But the moment prolonged itself, as if for some reason Mary found satisfaction in making herself not only tidy, but seemly and ornamented. A stage in her life had been accomplished in the last months which left its traces for ever upon her bearing. Youth, and the bloom of youth, had receded, leaving the purpose of her face to show itself in the hollower cheeks, the firmer lips, the eyes no longer spontaneously observing at random, but narrowed upon an end which was not near at hand. This woman was now a serviceable human being, mistress of her own destiny, and thus, by some combination of ideas, fit to be adorned with the dignity of silver chains and glowing brooches. She came in at her leisure and asked: "Well, did you get an answer?"
"He has left Chelsea already," Katharine replied.
"Still, he won't be home yet," said Mary.
Katharine was once more irresistibly drawn to gaze upon an imaginary map of London, to follow the twists and turns of unnamed streets.
"I'll ring up his home and ask whether he's back." Mary crossed to the telephone and, after a series of brief remarks, announced:
"No. His sister says he hasn't come back yet."
"Ah!" She applied her ear to the telephone once more. "They've had a message. He won't be back to dinner."
"Then what is he going to do?"
Very pale, and with her large eyes fixed not so much upon Mary as upon vistas of unresponding blankness, Katharine addressed herself also not so much to Mary as to the unrelenting spirit which now appeared to mock her from every quarter of her survey.
After waiting a little time Mary remarked indifferently:
"I really don't know." Slackly lying back in her armchair, she watched the little flames beginning to creep among the coals indifferently, as if they, too, were very distant and indifferent.
Katharine looked at her indignantly and rose.
"Possibly he may come here," Mary continued, without altering the abstract tone of her voice. "It would be worth your while to wait if you want to see him to-night." She bent forward and touched the wood, so that the flames slipped in between the interstices of the coal.
Katharine reflected. "I'll wait half an hour," she said.
Mary rose, went to the table, spread out her papers under the green-shaded lamp and, with an action that was becoming a habit, twisted a lock of hair round and round in her fingers. Once she looked unperceived at her visitor, who never moved, who sat so still, with eyes so intent, that you could almost fancy that she was watching something, some face that never looked up at her. Mary found herself unable to go on writing. She turned her eyes away, but only to be aware of the presence of what Katharine looked at. There were ghosts in the room, and one, strangely and sadly, was the ghost of herself. The minutes went by.
"What would be the time now?" said Katharine at last. The half-hour was not quite spent.
"I'm going to get dinner ready," said Mary, rising from her table.
"Then I'll go," said Katharine.
"Why don't you stay? Where are you going?"
Katharine looked round the room, conveying her uncertainty in her glance.
"Perhaps I might find him," she mused.
"But why should it matter? You'll see him another day."
Mary spoke, and intended to speak, cruelly enough.
"I was wrong to come here," Katharine replied.
Their eyes met with antagonism, and neither flinched.
"You had a perfect right to come here," Mary answered.
A loud knocking at the door interrupted them. Mary went to open it, and returning with some note or parcel, Katharine looked away so that Mary might not read her disappointment.
"Of course you had a right to come," Mary repeated, laying the note upon the table.
"No," said Katharine. "Except that when one's desperate one has a sort of right. I am desperate. How do I know what's happening to him now? He may do anything. He may wander about the streets all night. Anything may happen to him."
She spoke with a self-abandonment that Mary had never seen in her.
"You know you exaggerate; you're talking nonsense," she said roughly.
"Mary, I must talk--I must tell you--"
"You needn't tell me anything," Mary interrupted her. "Can't I see for myself?"
"No, no," Katharine exclaimed. "It's not that--"
Her look, passing beyond Mary, beyond the verge of the room and out beyond any words that came her way, wildly and passionately, convinced Mary that she, at any rate, could not follow such a glance to its end. She was baffled; she tried to think herself back again into the height of her love for Ralph. Pressing her fingers upon her eyelids, she murmured:
"You forget that I loved him too. I thought I knew him. I DID know him."
And yet, what had she known? She could not remember it any more. She pressed her eyeballs until they struck stars and suns into her darkness. She convinced herself that she was stirring among ashes. She desisted. She was astonished at her discovery. She did not love Ralph any more. She looked back dazed into the room, and her eyes rested upon the table with its lamp-lit papers. The steady radiance seemed for a second to have its counterpart within her; she shut her eyes; she opened them and looked at the lamp again; another love burnt in the place of the old one, or so, in a momentary glance of amazement, she guessed before the revelation was over and the old surroundings asserted themselves. She leant in silence against the mantelpiece.
"There are different ways of loving," she murmured, half to herself, at length.
Katharine made no reply and seemed unaware of her words. She seemed absorbed in her own thoughts.
"Perhaps he's waiting in the street again to-night," she exclaimed. "I'll go now. I might find him."
"It's far more likely that he'll come here," said Mary, and Katharine, after considering for a moment, said:
"I'll wait another half-hour."
She sank down into her chair again, and took up the same position which Mary had compared to the position of one watching an unseeing face. She watched, indeed, not a face, but a procession, not of people, but of life itself: the good and bad; the meaning; the past, the present, and the future. All this seemed apparent to her, and she was not ashamed of her extravagance so much as exalted to one of the pinnacles of existence, where it behoved the world to do her homage. No one but she herself knew what it meant to miss Ralph Denham on that particular night; into this inadequate event crowded feelings that the great crises of life might have failed to call forth. She had missed him, and knew the bitterness of all failure; she desired him, and knew the torment of all passion. It did not matter what trivial accidents led to this culmination. Nor did she care how extravagant she appeared, nor how openly she showed her feelings.
When the dinner was ready Mary told her to come, and she came submissively, as if she let Mary direct her movements for her. They ate and drank together almost in silence, and when Mary told her to eat more, she ate more; when she was told to drink wine, she drank it. Nevertheless, beneath this superficial obedience, Mary knew that she was following her own thoughts unhindered. She was not inattentive so much as remote; she looked at once so unseeing and so intent upon some vision of her own that Mary gradually felt more than protective--she became actually alarmed at the prospect of some collision between Katharine and the forces of the outside world. Directly they had done, Katharine announced her intention of going.
"But where are you going to?" Mary asked, desiring vaguely to hinder her.
"Oh, I'm going home--no, to Highgate perhaps."
Mary saw that it would be useless to try to stop her. All she could do was to insist upon coming too, but she met with no opposition; Katharine seemed indifferent to her presence. In a few minutes they were walking along the Strand. They walked so rapidly that Mary was deluded into the belief that Katharine knew where she was going. She herself was not attentive. She was glad of the movement along lamp-lit streets in the open air. She was fingering, painfully and with fear, yet with strange hope, too, the discovery which she had stumbled upon unexpectedly that night. She was free once more at the cost of a gift, the best, perhaps, that she could offer, but she was, thank Heaven, in love no longer. She was tempted to spend the first instalment of her freedom in some dissipation; in the pit of the Coliseum, for example, since they were now passing the door. Why not go in and celebrate her independence of the tyranny of love? Or, perhaps, the top of an omnibus bound for some remote place such as Camberwell, or Sidcup, or the Welsh Harp would suit her better. She noticed these names painted on little boards for the first time for weeks. Or should she return to her room, and spend the night working out the details of a very enlightened and ingenious scheme? Of all possibilities this appealed to her most, and brought to mind the fire, the lamplight, the steady glow which had seemed lit in the place where a more passionate flame had once burnt.
Now Katharine stopped, and Mary woke to the fact that instead of having a goal she had evidently none. She paused at the edge of the crossing, and looked this way and that, and finally made as if in the direction of Haverstock Hill.
"Look here--where are you going?" Mary cried, catching her by the hand. "We must take that cab and go home." She hailed a cab and insisted that Katharine should get in, while she directed the driver to take them to Cheyne Walk.
Katharine submitted. "Very well," she said. "We may as well go there as anywhere else."
A gloom seemed to have fallen on her. She lay back in her corner, silent and apparently exhausted. Mary, in spite of her own preoccupation, was struck by her pallor and her attitude of dejection.
"I'm sure we shall find him," she said more gently than she had yet spoken.
"It may be too late," Katharine replied. Without understanding her, Mary began to pity her for what she was suffering.
"Nonsense," she said, taking her hand and rubbing it. "If we don't find him there we shall find him somewhere else."
"But suppose he's walking about the streets--for hours and hours?"
She leant forward and looked out of the window.
"He may refuse ever to speak to me again," she said in a low voice, almost to herself.
The exaggeration was so immense that Mary did not attempt to cope with it, save by keeping hold of Katharine's wrist. She half expected that Katharine might open the door suddenly and jump out. Perhaps Katharine perceived the purpose with which her hand was held.
"Don't be frightened," she said, with a little laugh. "I'm not going to jump out of the cab. It wouldn't do much good after all."
Upon this, Mary ostentatiously withdrew her hand.
"I ought to have apologized," Katharine continued, with an effort, "for bringing you into all this business; I haven't told you half, either. I'm no longer engaged to William Rodney. He is to marry Cassandra Otway. It's all arranged--all perfectly right. . . . And after he'd waited in the streets for hours and hours, William made me bring him in. He was standing under the lamp-post watching our windows. He was perfectly white when he came into the room. William left us alone, and we sat and talked. It seems ages and ages ago, now. Was it last night? Have I been out long? What's the time?" She sprang forward to catch sight of a clock, as if the exact time had some important bearing on her case.
"Only half-past eight!" she exclaimed. "Then he may be there still." She leant out of the window and told the cabman to drive faster.
"But if he's not there, what shall I do? Where could I find him? The streets are so crowded."
"We shall find him," Mary repeated.
Mary had no doubt but that somehow or other they would find him. But suppose they did find him? She began to think of Ralph with a sort of strangeness, in her effort to understand how he could be capable of satisfying this extraordinary desire. Once more she thought herself back to her old view of him and could, with an effort, recall the haze which surrounded his figure, and the sense of confused, heightened exhilaration which lay all about his neighborhood, so that for months at a time she had never exactly heard his voice or seen his face--or so it now seemed to her. The pain of her loss shot through her. Nothing would ever make up--not success, or happiness, or oblivion. But this pang was immediately followed by the assurance that now, at any rate, she knew the truth; and Katharine, she thought, stealing a look at her, did not know the truth; yes, Katharine was immensely to be pitied.
The cab, which had been caught in the traffic, was now liberated and sped on down Sloane Street. Mary was conscious of the tension with which Katharine marked its progress, as if her mind were fixed upon a point in front of them, and marked, second by second, their approach to it. She said nothing, and in silence Mary began to fix her mind, in sympathy at first, and later in forgetfulness of her companion, upon a point in front of them. She imagined a point distant as a low star upon the horizon of the dark. There for her too, for them both, was the goal for which they were striving, and the end for the ardors of their spirits was the same: but where it was, or what it was, or why she felt convinced that they were united in search of it, as they drove swiftly down the streets of London side by side, she could not have said.
"At last," Katharine breathed, as the cab drew up at the door. She jumped out and scanned the pavement on either side. Mary, meanwhile, rang the bell. The door opened as Katharine assured herself that no one of the people within view had any likeness to Ralph. On seeing her, the maid said at once:
"Mr. Denham called again, miss. He has been waiting for you for some time."
Katharine vanished from Mary's sight. The door shut between them, and Mary walked slowly and thoughtfully up the street alone.
Katharine turned at once to the dining-room. But with her fingers upon the handle, she held back. Perhaps she realized that this was a moment which would never come again. Perhaps, for a second, it seemed to her that no reality could equal the imagination she had formed. Perhaps she was restrained by some vague fear or anticipation, which made her dread any exchange or interruption. But if these doubts and fears or this supreme bliss restrained her, it was only for a moment. In another second she had turned the handle and, biting her lip to control herself, she opened the door upon Ralph Denham. An extraordinary clearness of sight seemed to possess her on beholding him. So little, so single, so separate from all else he appeared, who had been the cause of these extreme agitations and aspirations. She could have laughed in his face. But, gaining upon this clearness of sight against her will, and to her dislike, was a flood of confusion, of relief, of certainty, of humility, of desire no longer to strive and to discriminate, yielding to which, she let herself sink within his arms and confessed her love.Next