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OF GEMS AND PEBBLES
How I sought her, how I found her, that fine house of hers with the lawn round it and the river by it, the stare of her lackeys, the pomp of her living, the great lord who was bowed out as I went in, the maid who bridled and glanced and laughed--they are all there in my memory, but blurred, confused, beyond clear recall. Yet all that she was, looked, said, aye, or left the clearer for being unsaid, is graven on my memory in lines that no years obliterate and no change of mind makes hard to read. She wore the great diamond necklace whose purchase was a fresh text with the serious, and a new jest for the wits; on her neck it gleamed and flashed as brilliantly and variously as the dazzling turns in her talk and the unending chase of fleeting moods across her face. Yet I started from my lodging, sworn to win her, and came home sworn to have done with her. Let me tell it; I told it to myself a thousand times in the days that followed. But even now, and for all the times that the scene has played itself again before my unwilling eyes, I can scarcely tell whence and how at the last, the change came. I think that the pomp itself, the lord and the lackeys, the fine house, and all her state struck as it were cold at my heart, dooming to failure the mad appeal which they could not smother. But there was more; for all these might have been, and yet not reached or infected her soul. But when I spoke to her in words that had for me a sweetness so potent as to win me from all hesitation and make as nothing the whole world beside, she did not understand. I saw that she tried to understand; when she failed, I had failed also. The flower was dead; what use then to cherish or to water it? I had not thought it was dead, but had prayed that, faded and choked though it were, yet it might find life in the sunshine of my love and the water of her tears. But she did not weep, unless in a passing petulance because I asked what she could not give; and the clouds swept dark over my love's bright face.
And now, alas, I am so wise that I cannot weep! I must rather smile to have asked, than lament that my asking was in vain. I must wonder at her patience in refusing kindly, and be no more amazed that she refused at last. Yet this sad wisdom that sits well on age I do not love in youth. I was a fool; but if to hold that good shall win and a true love prevail be folly, let my sons be fools after me until their sons in turn catch up from them the torch of that folly which illuminates the world.
You would have said that she had not looked to see me, for she started as though in surprise when I stood before her, saying, "You sent for me."
"I sent for you?" she cried, still as if puzzled; then, "Ah, I remember. A whim seized me as I passed your lodging. Yet you deserved no such favour, for you treated me very rudely--why, yes, with great unkindness--last time we met. But I wouldn't have you think me resentful. Old friends must forgive one another, mustn't they? Besides, you meant no hurt, you were vexed, perhaps you were even surprised. Were you surprised? No, you weren't surprised. But were you grieved, Simon?"
I had been gazing dully at her, now I spoke heavily and dully.
"You wear gems there on your neck," said I, pointing at the necklace.
"Isn't the neck worthy?" she murmured quickly yet softly, pulling her dress away to let me see the better, and raising her eyes to mine.
"Yes, very worthy. But wouldn't you be grieved to find them pebbles?"
"By my faith, yes!" she laughed, "for I paid the price of gems for them."
"I also paid the price of a gem," said I, "and thought I had it."
"And it proved a pebble?" said she, leaning over me; for I had seated myself in a chair, being in no mood for ceremony.
"Yes, a pebble; a very pebble, a common pebble."
"A common pebble!" she echoed. "Oh, Simon, cruel Simon! But a pretty bright pebble? It looked like a gem, Simon?"
"God forgive you, yes. In Heaven's name--then--long ago, when you came to Hatchstead--what then? Weren't you then----"
"No gem," said she. "Even then a pebble." Her voice sank a little, as though for a single moment some unfamiliar shame came on her. "A common pebble," she added, echoing my words.
"Then God forgive you," said I again, and I leant my head on my hand.
"And you, good Simon, do you forgive me?"
I was silent. She moved away petulantly, crying,
"You're all so ready to call on God to forgive! Is forgiveness God's only? Will none of you forgive for yourselves? Or are you so righteous that you can't do what God must?"
I sprang up and came to her.
"Forgive?" I cried in a low voice. "Ay, I'll forgive. Don't talk of forgiveness to me. I came to love."
"To love? Now?" Her eyes grew wide in wonder, amusement, and delight.
"Yes," said I.
"You loved the gem; you'd love the pebble? Simon, Simon, where is Madame your mother, where my good friend the Vicar? Ah, where's your virtue, Simon?"
"Where yours shall be," I cried, seizing and covering her hands in mine. "Where yours, there mine, and both in love that makes delight and virtue one." I caught a hand to my lips and kissed it many times. "No sin comes but by desire," said I, pleading, "and if the desire is no sin, there is no sin. Come with me! I will fulfil all your desire and make your sin dead."
She shrank back amazed; this was strange talk to her; yet she left her hand in mine.
"Come with you? But whither, whither? We are no more in the fields at Hatchstead."
"We could be again," I cried. "Alone in the fields at Hatchstead."
Even now she hardly understood what I would have, or, understanding, could not believe that she understood rightly.
"You mean--leave--leave London and go with you? With you alone?"
"Yes--alone with your husband."
She pulled her hand away with a jerk, crying, "You're mad!"
"May be. Let me be mad, and be mad yourself also, sweetheart. If both of us are mad, what hurt?"
"What, I--I go--I leave the town--I leave the Court? And you?--You're here to seek your fortune!"
"Mayn't I dream that I've found it?" And again I caught her hand.
After a moment she drew nearer to me; I felt her fingers press mine in tenderness.
"Poor Simon!" said she with a little laugh. "Indeed he remembers Cydaria well. But Cydaria, such as she was, even Cydaria is gone. And now I am not she." Then she laughed again, crying, "What folly!"
"A moment ago you didn't call it folly."
"Then I was doubly a fool," she answered with the first touch of bitterness. "For folly it is, deep and black. I am not--nay, was I ever?--one to ramble in green fields all day and go home to a cottage."
"Never," said I. "Nor will be, save for the love of a man you love. Save for that, what woman has been? But for that, how many!"
"Why, very few," said she with a gentle little laugh. "And of that few--I am not one. Nay, nor do I--am I cruel?--nor do I love you, Simon."
"You swear it?"
"But a little--as a friend, an old friend."
"And a dear one?"
"One dear for a certain pleasant folly that he has."
"Why not? But in a day neither you nor I would ask why."
"I don't ask now. There's a regiment of reasons." Her laugh burst out again; yet her eyes seemed tender.
"Give me one."
"I have given one. I don't love you."
"I won't take it."
"I am what I am."
"You should be what I would make you."
"You're to live at the Court. To serve the Duke of Monmouth, isn't it?"
"What do I care for that? Are there no others?"
"Let go my hand--No, let it go. See now, I'll show you. There's a ring on it."
"I see the ring."
"A rich one."
"Simon, do you guess who set it there?"
"He is your King only while you make him such."
"Nay," she cried with sudden passion, "I am set on my course." Then came defiance. "I wouldn't change it. Didn't I tell you once that I might have power with the King?"
"Power? What's that to you? What's it to any of us beside love?"
"Oh, I don't know anything about your love," she cried fretfully, "but I know what I love--the stir, and the frowns of great ladies, and the courting of great lords. Ah, but why do I talk? Do we reason with a madman?"
"If we are touched ever so little with his disease."
She turned to me with sparkling eyes; she spoke very softly.
"Ah, Simon, you too have a tongue! Can you also lure women? I think you could. But keep it, Simon, keep it for your wife. There's many a maid would gladly take the title, for you're a fine figure, and I think that you know the way to a woman's heart."
Standing above me (for I had sunk back in my chair) she caressed my cheek gently with her hand. I was checked, but not beaten. My madness, as she called it (as must not I also call it?), was still in me, hot and surging. Hope was yet alive, for she had shown me tenderness, and once it had seemed as though a passing shadow of remorse had shot across her brightness. Putting out my hands, I took both of hers again, and so looked up in her face, dumbly beseeching her; a smile quivered on her lips as she shook her head at me.
"Heaven keeps you for better things," she said.
"I'd be the judge of them myself," I cried, and I sought to carry her hands to my lips.
"Let me go," she said; "Simon, you must let me go. Nay, you must. So! Sit there, and I'll sit opposite to you."
She did as she said, seating herself over against me, although quite close. She looked me in the face. Presently she gave a little sigh.
"Won't you leave me now?" she asked with a plaintive smile.
I shook my head, but made no other answer.
"I'm sorry," she went on softly, "that I came to Hatchstead; I'm sorry that I brought you to London, that I met you in the Lane, that I brought you here to-day. I didn't guess your folly. I've lived with players, and with courtiers, and with--with one other; so I didn't dream of such folly as yours. Yes, I'm sorry."
"You can give me joy infinitely greater than any sorrow I've had by you," said I in a low voice.
On this she sat silent for a full minute, seeming to study my face. Then she looked to right and left, as though she would fain have escaped. She laughed a little, but grew grave again, saying, "I don't know why I laughed," and sighing heavily. I watched every motion and change in her, waiting for her to speak again. At last she spoke.
"You won't be angry with me, Simon?" she asked coaxingly.
"Why, no," I answered, wondering.
"Nor run quite mad, nor talk of death, nor any horrors?"
"I'll hear all you say calmly," I answered.
She sat looking at me in a whimsical distress, seeming to deprecate wrath and to pray my pardon yet still to hint amusement deep-hidden in her mind. Then she drew herself up, and a strange and most pitiful pride appeared on her face. I did not know the meaning of it. She leant forward towards me, blushing a little, and whispered my name.
"I'm waiting to hear you," said I; my voice came hard, stern, and cold.
"You'll be cruel to me, I know you will," she cried petulantly.
"On my life, no," said I. "What is it you want to say?"
She was like a child who shows you some loved forbidden toy that she should not have, but prizes above all her trifles; there was that sly joy, that ashamed exultation in her face.
"I have promises," she whispered, clasping her hands and nodding her head at me. "Ah, they make songs on me, and laugh at me, and Castlemaine looks at me as though I were the street-dirt under her feet. But they shall see! Ay, they shall see that I can match them!" She sprang to her feet in reckless merriment, crying, "Shall I make a pretty countess, Simon?" She came near to me and whispered with a mysterious air, "Simon, Simon!"
I looked up at her sparkling eyes.
"Simon, what's he whom you serve, whom you're proud to serve? Who is he, I say?" She broke into a laugh of triumph.
But I, hearing her laugh, and finding my heart filled with a sudden terror, spread my hands over my eyes and fell back heavily in my chair, like a sick man or a drunken. For now, indeed, I saw that my gem was but a pebble. And the echo of her laugh rang in my ears.
"So I can't come, Simon," I heard her say. "You see that I can't come. No, no, I can't come"; and again she laughed.
I sat where I was, hearing nothing but the echo of her laugh, unable to think save of the truth that was driven so cruelly into my mind. The first realising of things that cannot be undone brings to a young man a fierce impotent resentment; that was in my heart, and with it a sudden revulsion from what I had desired, as intemperate as the desire, as cruel, it may be, as the thing which gave it birth. Nell's laughter died away, and she was silent. Presently I felt a hand rest on my hands as though seeking to convey sympathy in a grief but half-understood. I shrank away, moving my hands till hers no longer touched them. There are little acts, small matters often, on which remorse attends while life lasts. Even now my heart is sore that I shrank away from her; she was different now in nothing from what I had known of her; but I who had desired passionately now shunned her; the thing had come home to me, plain, close, in an odious intimacy. Yet I wish I had not shrunk away; before I could think I had done it; and I found no words; better perhaps that I attempted none.
I looked up; she was holding out the hand before her; there was a puzzled smile on her lips.
"Does it burn, does it prick, does it soil, Simon?" she asked. "See, touch it, touch it. It is as it was, isn't it?" She put it close by my hand, waiting for me to take it, but I did not take it. "As it was when you kissed it," said she; but still I did not take it.
I rose to my feet slowly and heavily, like a tired man whose legs are reluctant to resume their load. She stood quite still, regarding me now with alarmed and wondering eyes.
"It's nothing," I stammered. "Indeed it's nothing; only I hadn't thought of it."
Scarcely knowing what I did, I began to move towards the door. An unreasoned instinct impelled me to get away from her. Yet my gaze was drawn to her face; I saw her lips pouting and her cheek flushed, the brightness of her eyes grew clouded. She loved me enough to be hurt by me, if no more. A pity seized me; turning, I fell on my knee, and, seizing the hand whose touch I had refused, I kissed it.
"Ah, you kiss my hand now!" she cried, breaking into smiles again.
"I kiss Cydaria's hand," said I. "For in truth I'm sorry for my Cydaria."
"She was no other than I am," she whispered, and now with a touch of shame; for she saw that I felt shame for her.
"Not what is hurts us, but what we know," said I. "Good-bye, Cydaria," and again I kissed her hand. She drew it away from me and tossed her head, crying angrily:
"I wish I hadn't told you."
"In God's name don't wish that," said I, and drew her gaze on me again in surprise. I moved on my way, the only way my feet could tread. But she darted after me, and laid her hand on my arm. I looked at her in amazed questioning.
"You'll come again, Simon, when--?" The smile would not be denied though it came timidly, afraid for its welcome and distrustful of its right. "When you're better, Simon?"
I longed--with all my heart I longed--to be kind to her. How could the thing be to her what it was to me? She could not understand why I was aghast; extravagant despair, all in the style of a vanquished rival, would have been easy for her to meet, to ridicule, to comfort. I knew all this, but I could not find the means to affect it or to cover my own distress.
"You'll come again then?" she insisted pleadingly.
"No," said I, bluntly, and cruelly with unwilling cruelty.
At that a sudden gust of passion seized her and she turned on me, denouncing me fiercely, in terms she took no care to measure, for a prudish virtue that for good or evil was not mine, and for a narrowness of which my reason was not guilty. I stood defenceless in the storm, crying at the end no more than, "I don't think thus of you."
"You treat me as though you thought thus," she cried. Yet her manner softened and she came across to me, seeming now as if she might fall to weeping. But at the instant the door opened and the saucy maid who had ushered me in entered, running hastily to her mistress, in whose ears she whispered, nodding and glancing the while at me.
"The King!" cried Nell, and, turning to me, she added hastily: "He'd best not find you here."
"I ask no better than to be gone," said I.
"I know, I know," she cried. "We're not disturbed! The King's coming interrupts nothing, for all's finished. Go then, go, out of my sight." Her anger seemed to rise again, while the serving-girl stared back astonished as she passed out. But if she went to stay the King's coming, she was too late. For he was in the doorway the instant she had passed through; he had heard Nell's last speech, and now he showed himself, asking easily,
"Who's the gentleman of whose society you are so ready to be relieved?"
I turned, bowing low. The King arched his brows. It may well be that he had had enough of me already, and that he was not well pleased to stumble on me again and in this place. But he said nothing, merely turning his eyes to Nell in question.
"You know him, Sir," said she, throwing herself into a chair.
"Yes, I know him," said the King. "But, if I may ask without presumption, what brings him here?"
Nell looked at the pair of us, the King and Simon Dale, and answered coolly,
"The answer is all sufficient," bowed the King. "I'm before my time then, for I received a like honour."
"No, he's after his," said she. "But as you heard, Sir, I was urging him to go."
"Not on my account, I pray," said the King politely.
"No, on his. He's not easy here."
"Yet he outstayed his time!"
"We had a matter of business together, Sir. He came to ask something of me, but matters did not prove to be as he thought."
"Indeed you must tell me more, or should have told me less. I'm of a mighty curious disposition. Won't Mr Dale sit?" And the King seated himself.
"I will beg your Majesty's permission to depart," said I.
"All requests here, sir, lie with this lady to grant or to refuse. In this house I am a servant,--nay, a slave."
Nell rose and coming to the side of the King's chair stood there.
"Had things been other than they are, Mr Dale would have asked me to be his wife," said she.
A silence followed. Then the King remarked,
"Had things been other than they are, Mr Dale would have done well."
"And had they been other than they are, I might well have answered yes," said Nell.
"Why yes, very well," said the King. "For Mr Dale is, I'm very sure, a gentleman of spirit and honour, although he seems, if I may say so, just now rather taciturn."
"But as matters are, Mr Dale would have no more of me."
"It's not for me," said the King, "to quarrel with his resolve, although I'm free to marvel at it."
"And asks no more of me than leave to depart."
"Do you find it hard, madame, to grant him that much?"
She looked in the King's face and laughed in amusement, but whether at him or me or herself I cannot tell.
"Why, yes, mighty hard," said she. "It's strange how hard."
"By my faith," said the King, "I begin to be glad that Mr Dale asked no more. For if it be hard to grant him this little thing, it might have been easy to grant him more. Come, is it granted to him?"
"Let him ask for it again," said she, and leaving the King she came and stood before me, raising her eyes to mine. "Would you leave me, Simon?" she cried.
"Yes, I would leave you, madame," said I.
"To go whither?"
"I don't know."
"Yet the question isn't hard," interposed the King. "And the answer is--elsewhere."
"Elsewhere!" cried Nell. "But what does that mean, Sir?"
"Nay, I don't know her name," said the King. "Nor, may be, does Mr Dale yet. But he'll learn, and so, I hope, shall I, if I can be of service to him."
"I'm in no haste to learn it," cried Nell.
"Why no," laughed the King.
She turned to me again, holding out her hand as though she challenged me to refuse it.
"Good-bye, Simon," said she, and she broke into a strange little laugh that seemed devoid of mirth, and to express a railing mockery of herself and what she did.
I saw the King watching us with attentive eyes and brows bent in a frown.
"Good-bye," said I. Looking into her eyes, I let my gaze dwell long on her; it dwelt longer than I meant, reluctant to take last leave of old friends. Then I kissed her hand and bowed very low to the King, who replied with a good-natured nod; then turning I passed out of the room.
I take it that the change from youth to manhood, and again from full manhood to decline, comes upon us gradually, never ceasing but never swift, as mind and body alike are insensibly transformed beneath the assault of multitudinous unperceived forces of matter and of circumstances; it is the result we know; that, not the process, is the reality for us. We awake to find done what our sleepy brains missed in the doing, and after months or years perceive ourselves in a second older by all that period. We are jogged by the elbow, roused ruthlessly and curtly bidden to look and see how we are changed, and wonder, weep, or smile as may seem best to us in face of the metamorphosis. A moment of such awakening came to me now; I seemed a man different from him who had, no great number of minutes before, hastened to the house, inspired by an insane hope, and aflame with a passion that defied reason and summed up life in longing. The lackeys were there still, the maid's smile altered only by a fuller and more roguish insinuation. On me the change had passed, and I looked open-eyed on what I had been. Then came a smile, close neighbour to a groan, and the scorn of my old self which is the sad delirium wrought by moving time; but the lackey held the door for me and I passed out.
A noise sounded from above as the casement of the window was thrown open. She looked out; her anger was gone, her emotion also seemed gone. She stood there smiling, very kindly but with mockery. She held in either hand a flower. One she smelt and held her face long to it, as though its sweetness kept her senses willing prisoners; turning to the other, she smelt it for a short instant and then drew away, her face, that told every mood with unfailing aptness, twisted into disappointment or disgust. She leant out looking down on me; now behind her shoulder I saw the King's black face, half-hidden by the hangings of the window. She glanced at the first flower, then at the second, held up both her hands for a moment, turned for an instant with a coquettish smile towards the swarthy face behind, then handed the first flower with a laugh into a hand that was stretched out for it, and flung the second down to me. As it floated through the air, the wind disengaged its loose petals and they drifted away, some reaching ground, some caught by gusts and carried away, circling, towards the house-tops. The stalk fell by me, almost naked, stripped of its bloom. For the second flower was faded, and had no sweetness nor life left in it. Again her laugh sounded above me, and the casement closed.
I bent and picked up the stalk. Was it her own mood she told me in the allegory? Or was it the mood she knew to be in me? There had been an echo of sorrow in the laugh, of pity, kindness, and regret: and the laugh that she uttered in giving the fresh bloom to the King had seemed pure derision. It was my love, not hers, that found its symbol in the dying flower and the stalk robbed of its glory. She had said well, it was as she said; I picked up what she flung and went on my way, hugging my dead.
In this manner then, as I, Simon the old, have shewn, was I, Simon the young, brought back to my senses. It is all very long ago.
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