The Pottery House was a square, ugly, brick house girt in by the wall that enclosed the whole grounds of the pottery itself. To be sure, a privet hedge partly masked the house and its ground from the pottery-yard and works: but only partly. Through the hedge could be seen the desolate yard, and the many-windowed, factory-like pottery, over the hedge could be seen the chimneys and the outhouses. But inside the hedge, a pleasant garden and lawn sloped down to a willow pool, which had once supplied the works.
The Pottery itself was now closed, the great doors of the yard permanently shut. No more the great crates with yellow straw showing through, stood in stacks by the packing shed. No more the drays drawn by great horses rolled down the hill with a high load. No more the pottery-lasses in their clay-coloured overalls, their faces and hair splashed with grey fine mud, shrieked and larked with the men. All that was over.
'We like it much better--oh, much better--quieter,' said Matilda Rockley.
'Oh, yes,' assented Emmie Rockley, her sister.
'I'm sure you do,' agreed the visitor.
But whether the two Rockley girls really liked it better, or whether they only imagined they did, is a question. Certainly their lives were much more grey and dreary now that the grey clay had ceased to spatter its mud and silt its dust over the premises. They did not quite realize how they missed the shrieking, shouting lasses, whom they had known all their lives and disliked so much.
Matilda and Emmie were already old maids. In a thorough industrial district, it is not easy for the girls who have expectations above the common to find husbands. The ugly industrial town was full of men, young men who were ready to marry. But they were all colliers or pottery-hands, mere workmen. The Rockley girls would have about ten thousand pounds each when their father died: ten thousand pounds' worth of profitable house-property. It was not to be sneezed at: they felt so themselves, and refrained from sneezing away such a fortune on any mere member of the proletariat. Consequently, bank-clerks or nonconformist clergymen or even school-teachers having failed to come forward, Matilda had begun to give up all idea of ever leaving the Pottery House.
Matilda was a tall, thin, graceful fair girl, with a rather large nose. She was the Mary to Emmie's Martha: that is, Matilda loved painting and music, and read a good many novels, whilst Emmie looked after the house-keeping. Emmie was shorter, plumper than her sister, and she had no accomplishments. She looked up to Matilda, whose mind was naturally refined and sensible.
In their quiet, melancholy way, the two girls were happy. Their mother was dead. Their father was ill also. He was an intelligent man who had had some education, but preferred to remain as if he were one with the rest of the working people. He had a passion for music and played the violin pretty well. But now he was getting old, he was very ill, dying of a kidney disease. He had been rather a heavy whisky-drinker.
This quiet household, with one servant-maid, lived on year after year in the Pottery House. Friends came in, the girls went out, the father drank himself more and more ill. Outside in the street there was a continual racket of the colliers and their dogs and children. But inside the pottery wall was a deserted quiet.
In all this ointment there was one little fly. Ted Rockley, the father of the girls, had had four daughters, and no son. As his girls grew, he felt angry at finding himself always in a house-hold of women. He went off to London and adopted a boy out of a Charity Institution. Emmie was fourteen years old, and Matilda sixteen, when their father arrived home with his prodigy, the boy of six, Hadrian.
Hadrian was just an ordinary boy from a Charity Home, with ordinary brownish hair and ordinary bluish eyes and of ordinary rather cockney speech. The Rockley girls--there were three at home at the time of his arrival--had resented his being sprung on them. He, with his watchful, charity-institution instinct, knew this at once. Though he was only six years old, Hadrian had a subtle, jeering look on his face when he regarded the three young women. They insisted he should address them as Cousin: Cousin Flora, Cousin Matilda, Cousin Emmie. He complied, but there seemed a mockery in his tone.
The girls, however, were kind-hearted by nature. Flora married and left home. Hadrian did very much as he pleased with Matilda and Emmie, though they had certain strictnesses. He grew up in the Pottery House and about the Pottery premises, went to an elementary school, and was invariably called Hadrian Rockley. He regarded Cousin Matilda and Cousin Emmie with a certain laconic indifference, was quiet and reticent in his ways. The girls called him sly, but that was unjust. He was merely cautious, and without frankness. His Uncle, Ted Rockley, understood him tacitly, their natures were somewhat akin. Hadrian and the elderly man had a real but unemotional regard for one another.
When he was thirteen years old the boy was sent to a High School in the County town. He did not like it. His Cousin Matilda had longed to make a little gentleman of him, but he refused to be made. He would give a little contemptuous curve to his lip, and take on a shy, charity-boy grin, when refinement was thrust upon him. He played truant from the High School, sold his books, his cap with its badge, even his very scarf and pocket-handkerchief, to his school-fellows, and went raking off heaven knows where with the money. So he spent two very unsatisfactory years.
When he was fifteen he announced that he wanted to leave England and go to the Colonies. He had kept touch with the Home. The Rockleys knew that, when Hadrian made a declaration, in his quiet, half-jeering manner, it was worse than useless to oppose him. So at last the boy departed, going to Canada under the protection of the Institution to which he had belonged. He said good-bye to the Rockleys without a word of thanks, and parted, it seemed, without a pang. Matilda and Emmie wept often to think of how he left them: even on their father's face a queer look came. But Hadrian wrote fairly regularly from Canada. He had entered some electricity works near Montreal, and was doing well.
At last, however, the war came. In his turn, Hadrian joined up and came to Europe. The Rockleys saw nothing of him. They lived on, just the same, in the Pottery House. Ted Rockley was dying of a sort of dropsy, and in his heart he wanted to see the boy. When the armistice was signed, Hadrian had a long leave, and wrote that he was coming home to the Pottery House.
The girls were terribly fluttered. To tell the truth, they were a little afraid of Hadrian. Matilda, tall and thin, was frail in her health, both girls were worn with nursing their father. To have Hadrian, a young man of twenty-one, in the house with them, after he had left them so coldly five years before, was a trying circumstance.
They were in a flutter. Emmie persuaded her father to have his bed made finally in the morning-room downstairs, whilst his room upstairs was prepared for Hadrian. This was done, and preparations were going on for the arrival, when, at ten o'clock in the morning the young man suddenly turned up, quite unexpectedly. Cousin Emmie, with her hair bobbed up in absurd little bobs round her forehead, was busily polishing the stair-rods, while Cousin Matilda was in the kitchen washing the drawing-room ornaments in a lather, her sleeves rolled back on her thin arms, and her head tied up oddly and coquettishly in a duster.
Cousin Matilda blushed deep with mortification when the self-possessed young man walked in with his kit-bag, and put his cap on the sewing machine. He was little and self-confident, with a curious neatness about him that still suggested the Charity Institution. His face was brown, he had a small moustache, he was vigorous enough in his smallness.
'Well, is it Hadrian!' exclaimed Cousin Matilda, wringing the lather off her hand. 'We didn't expect you till tomorrow.'
'I got off Monday night,' said Hadrian, glancing round the room.
'Fancy!' said Cousin Matilda. Then, having dried her hands, she went forward, held out her hand, and said:
'How are you?'
'Quite well, thank you,' said Hadrian.
'You're quite a man,' said Cousin Matilda.
Hadrian glanced at her. She did not look her best: so thin, so large-nosed, with that pink-and-white checked duster tied round her head. She felt her disadvantage. But she had had a good deal of suffering and sorrow, she did not mind any more.
The servant entered--one that did not know Hadrian.
'Come and see my father,' said Cousin Matilda.
In the hall they roused Cousin Emmie like a partridge from cover. She was on the stairs pushing the bright stair-rods into place. Instinctively her hand went to the little knobs, her front hair bobbed on her forehead.
'Why!' she exclaimed, crossly. 'What have you come today for?'
'I got off a day earlier,' said Hadrian, and his man's voice so deep and unexpected was like a blow to Cousin Emmie.
'Well, you've caught us in the midst of it,' she said, with resentment. Then all three went into the middle room.
Mr. Rockley was dressed--that is, he had on his trousers and socks--but he was resting on the bed, propped up just under the window, from whence he could see his beloved and resplendent garden, where tulips and apple-trees were ablaze. He did not look as ill as he was, for the water puffed him up, and his face kept its colour. His stomach was much swollen. He glanced round swiftly, turning his eyes without turning his head. He was the wreck of a handsome, well-built man.
Seeing Hadrian, a queer, unwilling smile went over his face. The young man greeted him sheepishly.
'You wouldn't make a life-guardsman,' he said. 'Do you want something to eat?'
Hadrian looked round--as if for the meal.
'I don't mind,' he said.
'What shall you have--egg and bacon?' asked Emmie shortly.
'Yes, I don't mind,' said Hadrian.
The sisters went down to the kitchen, and sent the servant to finish the stairs.
'Isn't he altered?' said Matilda, sotto voce.
'Isn't he!' said Cousin Emmie. 'What a little man!'
They both made a grimace, and laughed nervously.
'Get the frying-pan,' said Emmie to Matilda.
'But he's as cocky as ever,' said Matilda, narrowing her eyes and shaking her head knowingly, as she handed the frying-pan.
'Mannie!' said Emmie sarcastically. Hadrian's new-fledged, cock-sure manliness evidently found no favour in her eyes.
'Oh, he's not bad,' said Matilda. 'You don't want to be prejudiced against him.'
I'm not prejudiced against him, I think he's all right for looks,' said Emmie, 'but there's too much of the little mannie about him.'
'Fancy catching us like this,' said Matilda.
'They've no thought for anything,' said Emmie with contempt. 'You go up and get dressed, our Matilda. I don't care about him. I can see to things, and you can talk to him. I shan't.'
'He'll talk to my father,' said Matilda, meaningful.
'Sly--!' exclaimed Emmie, with a grimace.
The sisters believed that Hadrian had come hoping to get something out of their father--hoping for a legacy. And they were not at all sure he would not get it.
Matilda went upstairs to change. She had thought it all out how she would receive Hadrian, and impress him. And he had caught her with her head tied up in a duster, and her thin arms in a basin of lather. But she did not care. She now dressed herself most scrupulously, carefully folded her long, beautiful, blonde hair, touched her pallor with a little rouge, and put her long string of exquisite crystal beads over her soft green dress. Now she looked elegant, like a heroine in a magazine illustration, and almost as unreal.
She found Hadrian and her father talking away. The young man was short of speech as a rule, but he could find his tongue with his 'uncle'. They were both sipping a glass of brandy, and smoking, and chatting like a pair of old cronies. Hadrian was telling about Canada. He was going back there when his leave was up.
'You wouldn't like to stop in England, then?' said Mr. Rockley.
'No, I wouldn't stop in England,' said Hadrian.
'How's that? There's plenty of electricians here,' said Mr. Rockley.
'Yes. But there's too much difference between the men and the employers over here--too much of that for me,' said Hadrian.
The sick man looked at him narrowly, with oddly smiling eyes.
'That's it, is it?' he replied.
Matilda heard and understood. 'So that's your big idea, is it, my little man,' she said to herself. She had always said of Hadrian that he had no proper respect for anybody or anything, that he was sly and common. She went down to the kitchen for a sotto voce confab with Emmie.
'He thinks a rare lot of himself!' she whispered.
'He's somebody, he is!' said Emmie with contempt.
'He thinks there's too much difference between masters and men, over here,' said Matilda.
'Is it any different in Canada?' asked Emmie.
'Oh, yes--democratic,' replied Matilda, 'He thinks they're all on a level over there.'
'Ay, well he's over here now,' said Emmie dryly, 'so he can keep his place.'
As they talked they saw the young man sauntering down the garden, looking casually at the flowers. He had his hands in his pockets, and his soldier's cap neatly on his head. He looked quite at his ease, as if in possession. The two women, fluttered, watched him through the window.
'We know what he's come for,' said Emmie, churlishly. Matilda looked a long time at the neat khaki figure. It had something of the charity-boy about it still; but now it was a man's figure, laconic, charged with plebeian energy. She thought of the derisive passion in his voice as he had declaimed against the propertied classes, to her father.
'You don't know, Emmie. Perhaps he's not come for that,' she rebuked her sister. They were both thinking of the money.
They were still watching the young soldier. He stood away at the bottom of the garden, with his back to them, his hands in his pockets, looking into the water of the willow pond. Matilda's dark-blue eyes had a strange, full look in them, the lids, with the faint blue veins showing, dropped rather low. She carried her head light and high, but she had a look of pain. The young man at the bottom of the garden turned and looked up the path. Perhaps he saw them through the window. Matilda moved into shadow.
That afternoon their father seemed weak and ill. He was easily exhausted. The doctor came, and told Matilda that the sick man might die suddenly at any moment--but then he might not. They must be prepared.
So the day passed, and the next. Hadrian made himself at home. He went about in the morning in his brownish jersey and his khaki trousers, collarless, his bare neck showing. He explored the pottery premises, as if he had some secret purpose in so doing, he talked with Mr. Rockley, when the sick man had strength. The two girls were always angry when the two men sat talking together like cronies. Yet it was chiefly a kind of politics they talked.
On the second day after Hadrian's arrival, Matilda sat with her father in the evening. She was drawing a picture which she wanted to copy. It was very still, Hadrian was gone out somewhere, no one knew where, and Emmie was busy. Mr. Rockley reclined on his bed, looking out in silence over his evening-sunny garden.
'If anything happens to me, Matilda,' he said, 'you won't sell this house--you'll stop here--'
Matilda's eyes took their slightly haggard look as she stared at her father.
'Well, we couldn't do anything else,' she said.
'You don't know what you might do,' he said. 'Everything is left to you and Emmie, equally. You'do as you like with it--only don't sell this house, don't part with it.'
'No,' she said.
'And give Hadrian my watch and chain, and a hundred pounds out of what's in the bank--and help him if he ever wants helping. I haven't put his name in the will.'
'Your watch and chain, and a hundred pounds--yes. But you'll be here when he goes back to Canada, father.'
'You never know what'll happen,' said her father.
Matilda sat and watched him, with her full, haggard eyes, for a long time, as if tranced. She saw that he knew he must go soon--she saw like a clairvoyant.
Later on she told Emmie what her father had said about the watch and chain and the money.
'What right has he'--he--meaning Hadrian--'to my father's watch and chain--what has it to do with him? Let him have the money, and get off,' said Emmie. She loved her father.
That night Matilda sat late in her room. Her heart was anxious and breaking, her mind seemed entranced. She was too much entranced even to weep, and all the time she thought of her father, only her father. At last she felt she must go to him.
It was near midnight. She went along the passage and to his room. There was a faint light from the moon outside. She listened at his door. Then she softly opened and entered. The room was faintly dark. She heard a movement on the bed.
'Are you asleep?' she said softly, advancing to the side of the bed.
'Are you asleep?' she repeated gently, as she stood at the side of the bed. And she reached her hand in the darkness to touch his forehead. Delicately, her fingers met the nose and the eyebrows, she laid her fine, delicate hand on his brow. It seemed fresh and smooth--very fresh and smooth. A sort of surprise stirred her, in her entranced state. But it could not waken her. Gently, she leaned over the bed and stirred her fingers over the low-growing hair on his brow.
'Can't you sleep tonight?' she said.
There was a quick stirring in the bed. 'Yes, I can,' a voice answered. It was Hadrian's voice. She started away. Instantly, she was wakened from her late-at-night trance. She remembered that her father was downstairs, that Hadrian had his room. She stood in the darkness as if stung.
'It is you, Hadrian?' she said. 'I thought it was my father.' She was so startled, so shocked, that she could not move. The young man gave an uncomfortable laugh, and turned in his bed.
At last she got out of the room. When she was back in her own room, in the light, and her door was closed, she stood holding up her hand that had touched him, as if it were hurt. She was almost too shocked, she could not endure.
'Well,' said her calm and weary mind, 'it was only a mistake, why take any notice of it.'
But she could not reason her feelings so easily. She suffered, feeling herself in a false position. Her right hand, which she had laid so gently on his face, on his fresh skin, ached now, as if it were really injured. She could not forgive Hadrian for the mistake: it made her dislike him deeply.
Hadrian too slept badly. He had been awakened by the opening of the door, and had not realized what the question meant. But the soft, straying tenderness of her hand on his face startled something out of his soul. He was a charity boy, aloof and more or less at bay. The fragile exquisiteness of her caress startled him most, revealed unknown things to him.
In the morning she could feel the consciousness in his eyes, when she came downstairs. She tried to bear herself as if nothing at all had happened, and she succeeded. She had the calm self-control, self-indifference, of one who has suffered and borne her suffering. She looked at him from her darkish, almost drugged blue eyes, she met the spark of consciousness in his eyes, and quenched it. And with her long, fine hand she put the sugar in his coffee.
But she could not control him as she thought she could. He had a keen memory stinging his mind, a new set of sensations working in his consciousness. Something new was alert in him. At the back of his reticent, guarded mind he kept his secret alive and vivid. She was at his mercy, for he was unscrupulous, his standard was not her standard.
He looked at her curiously. She was not beautiful, her nose was too large, her chin was too small, her neck was too thin. But her skin was clear and fine, she had a high-bred sensitiveness. This queer, brave, high-bred quality she shared with her father. The charity boy could see it in her tapering fingers, which were white and ringed. The same glamour that he knew in the elderly man he now saw in the woman. And he wanted to possess himself of it, he wanted to make himself master of it. As he went about through the old pottery-yard, his secretive mind schemed and worked. To be master of that strange soft delicacy such as he had felt in her hand upon his face,--this was what he set himself towards. He was secretly plotting.
He watched Matilda as she went about, and she became aware of his attention, as of some shadow following her. But her pride made her ignore it. When he sauntered near her, his hands in his pockets, she received him with that same commonplace kindliness which mastered him more than any contempt. Her superior breeding seemed to control him. She made herself feel towards him exactly as she had always felt: he was a young boy who lived in the house with them, but was a stranger. Only, she dared not remember his face under her hand. When she remembered that, she was bewildered. Her hand had offended her, she wanted to cut it off. And she wanted, fiercely, to cut off the memory in him. She assumed she had done so.
One day, when he sat talking with his 'uncle', he looked straight into the eyes of the sick man, and said:
'But I shouldn't like to live and die here in Rawsley.'
'No--well--you needn't,' said the sick man.
'Do you think Cousin Matilda likes it?'
'I should think so.'
'I don't call it much of a life,' said the youth. 'How much older is she than me, Uncle?'
The sick man looked at the young soldier.
'A good bit,' he said.
'Over thirty?' said Hadrian.
'Well, not so much. She's thirty-two.'
Hadrian considered a while.
'She doesn't look it,' he said.
Again the sick father looked at him.
'Do you think she'd like to leave here?' said Hadrian.
'Nay, I don't know,' replied the father, restive.
Hadrian sat still, having his own thoughts. Then in a small, quiet voice, as if he were speaking from inside himself, he said:
'I'd marry her if you wanted me to.'
The sick man raised his eyes suddenly, and stared. He stared for a long time. The youth looked inscrutably out of the window.
'You!' said the sick man, mocking, with some contempt. Hadrian turned and met his eyes. The two men had an inexplicable understanding.
'If you wasn't against it,' said Hadrian.
'Nay,' said the father, turning aside, 'I don't think I'm against it. I've never thought of it. But--But Emmie's the youngest.'
He had flushed, and looked suddenly more alive. Secretly he loved the boy.
'You might ask her,' said Hadrian.
The elder man considered.
'Hadn't you better ask her yourself?' he said.
'She'd take more notice of you,' said Hadrian.
They were both silent. Then Emmie came in.
For two days Mr. Rockley was excited and thoughtful. Hadrian went about quietly, secretly, unquestioning. At last the father and daughter were alone together. It was very early morning, the father had been in much pain. As the pain abated, he lay still, thinking.
'Matilda!' he said suddenly, looking at his daughter.
'Yes, I'm here,' she said.
'Ay! I want you to do something--'
She rose in anticipation.
'Nay, sit still. I want you to marry Hadrian--'
She thought he was raving. She rose, bewildered and frightened.
'Nay, sit you still, sit you still. You hear what I tell you.'
'But you don't know what you're saying, father.'
'Ay, I know well enough. I want you to marry Hadrian, I tell you.'
She was dumbfounded. He was a man of few words.
'You'll do what I tell you,' he said.
She looked at him slowly.
'What put such an idea in your mind?' she said proudly.
Matilda almost looked her father down, her pride was so offended.
'Why, it's disgraceful,' she said.
She watched him slowly.
'What do you ask me for?' she said. 'It's disgusting.'
'The lad's sound enough,' he replied, testily.
'You'd better tell him to clear out,' she said, coldly.
He turned and looked out of the window. She sat flushed and erect for a long time. At length her father turned to her, looking really malevolent.
'If you won't,' he said, 'you're a fool, and I'll make you pay for your foolishness, do you see?'
Suddenly a cold fear gripped her. She could not believe her senses. She was terrified and bewildered. She stared at her father, believing him to be delirious, or mad, or drunk. What could she do?
'I tell you,' he said. 'I'll send for Whittle tomorrow if you don't. You shall neither of you have anything of mine.'
Whittle was the solicitor. She understood her father well enough: he would send for his solicitor, and make a will leaving all his property to Hadrian: neither she nor Emmie should have anything. It was too much. She rose and went out of the room, up to her own room, where she locked herself in.
She did not come out for some hours. At last, late at night, she confided in Emmie.
'The sliving demon, he wants the money,' said Emmie. 'My father's out of his mind.'
The thought that Hadrian merely wanted the money was another blow to Matilda. She did not love the impossible youth--but she had not yet learned to think of him as a thing of evil. He now became hideous to her mind.
Emmie had a little scene with her father next day.
'You don't mean what you said to our Matilda yesterday, do you, father?' she asked aggressively.
'Yes,' he replied.
'What, that you'll alter your will?'
'You won't,' said his angry daughter.
But he looked at her with a malevolent little smile.
'Annie!' he shouted. 'Annie!'
He had still power to make his voice carry. The servant maid came in from the kitchen.
'Put your things on, and go down to Whittle's office, and say I want to see Mr. Whittle as soon as he can, and will he bring a will-form.'
The sick man lay back a little--he could not lie down. His daughter sat as if she had been struck. Then she left the room.
Hadrian was pottering about in the garden. She went straight down to him.
'Here,' she said. 'You'd better get off. You'd better take your things and go from here, quick.'
Hadrian looked slowly at the infuriated girl.
'Who says so?' he asked.
'We say so--get off, you've done enough mischief and damage.'
'Does Uncle say so?'
'Yes, he does.'
'I'll go and ask him.'
But like a fury Emmie barred his way.
'No, you needn't. You needn't ask him nothing at all. We don't want you, so you can go.'
'Uncle's boss here.'
'A man that's dying, and you crawling round and working on him for his money!--you're not fit to live.'
'Oh!' he said. 'Who says I'm working for his money?'
'I say. But my father told our Matilda, and she knows what you are. She knows what you're after. So you might as well clear out, for all you'll get--guttersnipe!'
He turned his back on her, to think. It had not occurred to him that they would think he was after the money. He did want the money--badly. He badly wanted to be an employer himself, not one of the employed. But he knew, in his subtle, calculating way, that it was not for money he wanted Matilda. He wanted both the money and Matilda. But he told himself the two desires were separate, not one. He could not do with Matilda, without the money. But he did not want her for the money.
When he got this clear in his mind, he sought for an opportunity to tell it her, lurking and watching. But she avoided him. In the evening the lawyer came. Mr. Rockley seemed to have a new access of strength--a will was drawn up, making the previous arrangements wholly conditional. The old will held good, if Matilda would consent to marry Hadrian. If she refused then at the end of six months the whole property passed to Hadrian.
Mr. Rockley told this to the young man, with malevolent satisfaction. He seemed to have a strange desire, quite unreasonable, for revenge upon the women who had surrounded him for so long, and served him so carefully.
'Tell her in front of me,' said Hadrian.
So Mr. Rockley sent for his daughters.
At last they came, pale, mute, stubborn. Matilda seemed to have retired far off, Emmie seemed like a fighter ready to fight to the death. The sick man reclined on the bed, his eyes bright, his puffed hand trembling. But his face had again some of its old, bright handsomeness. Hadrian sat quiet, a little aside: the indomitable, dangerous charity boy.
'There's the will,' said their father, pointing them to the paper.
The two women sat mute and immovable, they took no notice.
'Either you marry Hadrian, or he has everything,' said the father with satisfaction.
'Then let him have everything,' said Matilda boldly.
'He's not! He's not!' cried Emmie fiercely. 'He's not going to have it. The guttersnipe!'
An amused look came on her father's face.
'You hear that, Hadrian,' he said.
'I didn't offer to marry Cousin Matilda for the money,' said Hadrian, flushing and moving on his seat.
Matilda looked at him slowly, with her dark-blue, drugged eyes. He seemed a strange little monster to her.
'Why, you liar, you know you did,' cried Emmie.
The sick man laughed. Matilda continued to gaze strangely at the young man.
'She knows I didn't,' said Hadrian.
He too had his courage, as a rat has indomitable courage in the end. Hadrian had some of the neatness, the reserve, the underground quality of the rat. But he had perhaps the ultimate courage, the most unquenchable courage of all.
Emmie looked at her sister.
'Oh, well,' she said. 'Matilda--don't bother. Let him have everything, we can look after ourselves.'
'I know he'll take everything,' said Matilda, abstractedly.
Hadrian did not answer. He knew in fact that if Matilda refused him he would take everything, and go off with it.
'A clever little mannie--!' said Emmie, with a jeering grimace.
The father laughed noiselessly to himself. But he was tired....
'Go on, then,' he said. 'Go on, let me be quiet.'
Emmie turned and looked at him.
'You deserve what you've got,' she said to her father bluntly.
'Go on,' he answered mildly. 'Go on.'
Another night passed--a night nurse sat up with Mr. Rockley. Another day came. Hadrian was there as ever, in his woollen jersey and coarse khaki trousers and bare neck. Matilda went about, frail and distant, Emmie black-browed in spite of her blondness. They were all quiet, for they did not intend the mystified servant to learn anything.
Mr. Rockley had very bad attacks of pain, he could not breathe. The end seemed near. They all went about quiet and stoical, all unyielding. Hadrian pondered within himself. If he did not marry Matilda he would go to Canada with twenty thousand pounds. This was itself a very satisfactory prospect. If Matilda consented he would have nothing--she would have her own money.
Emmie was the one to act. She went off in search of the solicitor and brought him with her. There was an interview, and Whittle tried to frighten the youth into withdrawal--but without avail. The clergyman and relatives were summoned--but Hadrian stared at them and took no notice. It made him angry, however.
He wanted to catch Matilda alone. Many days went by, and he was not successful: she avoided him. At last, lurking, he surprised her one day as she came to pick gooseberries, and he cut off her retreat. He came to the point at once.
'You don't want me, then?' he said, in his subtle, insinuating voice.
'I don't want to speak to you,' she said, averting her face.
'You put your hand on me, though,' he said. 'You shouldn't have done that, and then I should never have thought of it. You shouldn't have touched me.'
'If you were anything decent, you'd know that was a mistake, and forget it,' she said.
'I know it was a mistake--but I shan't forget it. If you wake a man up, he can't go to sleep again because he's told to.'
'If you had any decent feeling in you, you'd have gone away,' she replied.
'I didn't want to,' he replied.
She looked away into the distance. At last she asked:
'What do you persecute me for, if it isn't for the money. I'm old enough to be your mother. In a way I've been your mother.'
'Doesn't matter,' he said. 'You've been no mother to me. Let us marry and go out to Canada--you might as well--you've touched me.'
She was white and trembling. Suddenly she flushed with anger.
'It's so indecent,' she said.
'How?' he retorted. 'You touched me.'
But she walked away from him. She felt as if he had trapped her. He was angry and depressed, he felt again despised.
That same evening she went into her father's room.
'Yes,' she said suddenly. 'I'll marry him.'
Her father looked up at her. He was in pain, and very ill.
'You like him now, do you?' he said, with a faint smile.
She looked down into his face, and saw death not far off. She turned and went coldly out of the room.
The solicitor was sent for, preparations were hastily made. In all the interval Matilda did not speak to Hadrian, never answered him if he addressed her. He approached her in the morning.
'You've come round to it, then?' he said, giving her a pleasant look from his twinkling, almost kindly eyes. She looked down at him and turned aside. She looked down on him both literally and figuratively. Still he persisted, and triumphed.
Emmie raved and wept, the secret flew abroad. But Matilda was silent and unmoved, Hadrian was quiet and satisfied, and nipped with fear also. But he held out against his fear. Mr. Rockley was very ill, but unchanged.
On the third day the marriage took place. Matilda and Hadrian drove straight home from the registrar, and went straight into the room of the dying man. His face lit up with a clear twinkling smile.
'Hadrian--you've got her?' he said, a little hoarsely.
'Yes,' said Hadrian, who was pale round the gills.
'Ay, my lad, I'm glad you're mine,' replied the dying man. Then he turned his eyes closely on Matilda.
'Let's look at you, Matilda,' he said. Then his voice went strange and unrecognizable. 'Kiss me,' he said.
She stooped and kissed him. She had never kissed him before, not since she was a tiny child. But she was quiet, very still.
'Kiss him,' the dying man said.
Obediently, Matilda put forward her mouth and kissed the young husband.
'That's right! That's right!' murmured the dying man.