On an afternoon three or four days after the recovery of Sam, matters became complicated. George, as usual, discovered that he had been dawdling in the portals of his desires, when the doors came to with a bang. Then he hastened to knock.
"Tell her," he said, "I will come up tomorrow after milking—tell her I'm coming to see her."
On the evening of that morrow, the first person to put in an appearance was a garrulous spinster who had called ostensibly to inquire into the absence of the family from church: "I said to Elizabeth, 'Now what a thing if anything happens to them just now, and the wedding is put off.' I felt I must come and make myself sure—that nothing had happened. We all feel so interested in Lettie just now. I'm sure everybody is talking of her, she seems in the air.—I really think we shall have thunder: I hope we shan't.—Yes, we are all so glad that Mr. Tempest is content with a wife from at home—the others, his father and Mr. Robert and the rest—they were none of them to be suited at home, though to be sure the wives they brought were nothing—indeed they were not—as many a one said—Mrs. Robert was a paltry choice—neither in looks or manner had she anything to boast of—if her family was older than mine. Family wasn't much to make up for what she lacked in other things, that I could easily have supplied her with; and, oh, dear, what an object she is now, with her wisp of hair and her spectacles! She for one hasn't kept much of her youth. But when is the exact date, dear?—Some say this and some that, but as I always say, I never trust a 'they say.' It is so nice that you have that cousin a canon to come down for the service, Mrs. Beardsall, and Sir Walter Houghton for the groom's man! What?—You don't think so—oh, but I know, dear, I know; you do like to treasure up these secrets, don't you; you are greedy for all the good things just now."
She shook her head at Lettie, and the jet ornaments on her bonnet twittered like a thousand wagging little tongues. Then she sighed, and was about to recommence her song, when she happened to turn her head and to espy a telegraph boy coming up the path.
"Oh, I hope nothing is wrong, dear—I hope nothing is wrong! I always feel so terrified of a telegram. You'd better not open it yourself, dear—don't now—let your brother go."
Lettie, who had turned pale, hurried to the door. The sky was very dark—there was a mutter of thunder.
"It's all right," said Lettie, trembling, "it's only to say he's coming to-night."
"I'm very thankful, very thankful," cried the spinster. "It might have been so much worse. I'm sure I never open a telegram without feeling as if I was opening a death-blow. I'm so glad, dear; it must have upset you. What news to take back to the village, supposing something had happened!" she sighed again, and the jet drops twinkled ominously in the thunder light, as if declaring they would make something of it yet.
It was six o'clock. The air relaxed a little, and the thunder was silent. George would be coming about seven; and the spinster showed no signs of departure; and Leslie might arrive at any moment. Lettie fretted and fidgeted, and the old woman gabbled on. I looked out of the window at the water and the sky.
The day had been uncertain. In the morning it was warm, and the sunshine had played and raced among the cloud-shadows on the hills. Later, great cloud masses had stalked up from the northwest and crowded thick across the sky; in this little night, sleet and wind, and rain whirled furiously. Then the sky had laughed at us again. In the sunshine came the spinster. But as she talked, over the hilltop rose the wide forehead of the cloud, rearing slowly, ominously higher. A first messenger of storm passed darkly over the sky, leaving the way clear again.
"I will go round to Highclose," said Lettie. "I am sure it will be stormy again. Are you coming down the road, Miss Slaighter, or do you mind if I leave you?"
"I will go, dear, if you think there is going to be another storm—I dread it so. Perhaps I had better wait——"
"Oh, it will not come over for an hour, I am sure. We read the weather well out here, don't we, Cyril? You'll come with me, won't you?"
We three set off, the gossip leaning on her toes, tripping between us. She was much gratified by Lettie's information concerning the proposals for the new home. We left her in a glow of congratulatory smiles on the highway. But the clouds had upreared, and stretched in two great arms, reaching overhead. The little spinster hurried along, but the black hands of the clouds kept pace and clutched her. A sudden gust of wind shuddered in the trees, and rushed upon her cloak, blowing its bugles.
An icy raindrop smote into her cheek. She hurried on, praying fervently for her bonnet's sake that she might reach Widow Harriman's cottage before the burst came. But the thunder crashed in her ear, and a host of hailstones flew at her. In despair and anguish she fled from under the ash trees; she reached the widow's garden gate, when out leapt the lightning full at her. "Put me in the stair-hole!" she cried. "Where is the stair-hole?"
Glancing wildly round, she saw a ghost. It was the reflection of the sainted spinster, Hilda Slaighter, in the widow's mirror; a reflection with a bonnet fallen backwards, and to it attached a thick rope of grey-brown hair. The author of the ghost instinctively twisted to look at the back of her head. She saw some ends of grey hair, and fled into the open stair-hole as into a grave.
We had gone back home till the storm was over, and then, restless, afraid of the arrival of George, we set out again into the wet evening. It was fine and chilly, and already a mist was rising from Nethermere, veiling the farther shore, where the trees rose loftily, suggesting groves beyond the Nile. The birds were singing riotously. The fresh green hedge glistened vividly and glowed again with intense green. Looking at the water, I perceived a delicate flush from the west hiding along it. The mist licked and wreathed up the shores; from the hidden white distance came the mournful cry of water fowl. We went slowly along behind a heavy cart, which clanked and rattled under the dripping trees, with the hoofs of the horse moving with broad thuds in front. We passed over black patches where the ash flowers were beaten down, and under great massed clouds of green sycamore. At the sudden curve of the road, near the foot of the hill, I stopped to break off a spray of larch, where the soft cones were heavy as raspberries, and gay like flowers with petals. The shaken bough spattered a heavy shower on my face, of drops so cold that they seemed to sink into my blood and chill it.
"Hark!" said Lettie, as I was drying my face. There was the quick patter of a motor-car coming downhill. The heavy cart was drawn across the road to rest, and the driver hurried to turn the horse back. It moved with painful slowness, and we stood in the road in suspense. Suddenly, before we knew it, the car was dropping down on us, coming at us in a curve, having rounded the horse and cart. Lettie stood faced with terror. Leslie saw her, and swung round the wheels on the sharp, curving hill-side; looking only to see that he should miss her. The car slid sideways; the mud crackled under the wheels, and the machine went crashing into Nethermere. It caught the edge of the old stone wall with a smash. Then for a few moments I think I was blind. When I saw again, Leslie was lying across the broken hedge, his head hanging down the bank, his face covered with blood; the car rested strangely on the brink of the water, crumpled as if it had sunk down to rest.
Lettie, with hands shuddering, was wiping the blood from his eyes with a piece of her underskirt. In a moment she said:
"He is not dead—let us take him home—let us take him quickly."
I ran and took the wicket gate off its hinges and laid him on that. His legs trailed down, but we carried him thus, she at the feet, I at the head. She made me stop and put him down. I thought the weight was too much for her, but it was not that.
"I can't bear to see his hand hanging, knocking against the bushes and things."
It was not many yards to the house. A maidservant saw us, came running out, and went running back, like the frightened lapwing from the wounded cat.
We waited until the doctor came. There was a deep graze down the side of the head—serious, but not dangerous; there was a cut across the cheek-bone that would leave a scar; and the collar-bone was broken. I stayed until he had recovered consciousness. "Lettie," he wanted Lettie, so she had to remain at Highclose all night. I went home to tell my mother.
When I went to bed I looked across at the lighted windows of Highclose, and the lights trailed mistily towards me across the water. The cedar stood dark guard against the house; bright the windows were, like the stars, and, like the stars, covering their torment in brightness. The sky was glittering with sharp lights—they are too far off to take trouble for us, so little, little almost to nothingness. All the great hollow vastness roars overhead, and the stars are only sparks that whirl and spin in the restless space. The earth must listen to us; she covers her face with a thin veil of mist, and is sad; she soaks up our blood tenderly, in the darkness, grieving, and in the light she soothes and reassures us. Here on our earth is sympathy and hope, the heavens have nothing but distances.
A corn-crake talked to me across the valley, talked and talked endlessly, asking and answering in hoarse tones from the sleeping, mist-hidden meadows. The monotonous voice, that on past summer evenings had had pleasant notes of romance, now was intolerable to me. Its inflexible harshness and cacophany seemed like the voice of fate speaking out its tuneless perseverance in the night.
In the morning Lettie came home wan, sad-eyed, and self-reproachful. After a short time they came for her, as he wanted her again.
When in the evening I went to see George, he too was very despondent.
"It's no good now," said I. "You should have insisted and made your own destiny."
"Yes—perhaps so," he drawled in his best reflective manner.
"I would have had her—she'd have been glad if you'd done as you wanted with her. She won't leave him till he's strong, and he'll marry her before then. You should have had the courage to risk yourself—you're always too careful of yourself and your own poor feelings—you never could brace yourself up to a shower-bath of contempt and hard usage, so you've saved your feelings and lost—not much, I suppose—you couldn't."
"But——" he began, not looking up; and I laughed at him.
"Go on," I said.
"Well—she was engaged to him——"
"Pah—you thought you were too good to be rejected."
He was very pale, and when he was pale, the tan on his skin looked sickly. He regarded me with his dark eyes, which were now full of misery and a child's big despair.
"And nothing else," I completed, with which the little, exhausted gunboat of my anger wrecked and sank utterly. Yet no thoughts would spread sail on the sea of my pity: I was like water that heaves with yearning, and is still.
Leslie was very ill for some time. He had a slight brain fever, and was delirious, insisting that Lettie was leaving him. She stayed most of her days at Highclose.
One day in June he lay resting on a deck chair in the shade of the cedar, and she was sitting by him. It was a yellow, sultry day, when all the atmosphere seemed inert, and all things were languid.
"Don't you think, dear," she said, "it would be better for us not to marry?"
He lifted his head nervously from the cushions; his face was emblazoned with a livid red bar on a field of white, and he looked worn, wistful.
"Do you mean not yet?" he asked.
"Yes—and, perhaps,—perhaps never."
"Ha," he laughed, sinking down again. "I must be getting like myself again, if you begin to tease me."
"But," she said, struggling valiantly, "I'm not sure I ought to marry you."
He laughed again, though a little apprehensively.
"Are you afraid I shall always be weak in my noddle?" he asked. "But you wait a month."
"No, that doesn't bother me——"
"Oh, doesn't it!"
"Silly boy—no, it's myself."
"I'm sure I've made no complaint about you."
"Not likely—but I wish you'd let me go."
"I'm a strong man to hold you, aren't I? Look at my muscular paw!"—he held out his hands, frail and white with sickness.
"You know you hold me—and I want you to let me go. I don't want to——"
"To get married at all—let me be, let me go."
"Oh—for my sake."
"You mean you don't love me?"
"Love—love—I don't know anything about it. But I can't—we can't be—don't you see—oh, what do they say,—flesh of one flesh."
"Why?" he whispered, like a child that is told some tale of mystery.
She looked at him, as he lay propped upon his elbow, turning towards hers his white face of fear and perplexity, like a child that cannot understand, and is afraid, and wants to cry. Then slowly tears gathered full in her eyes, and she wept from pity and despair.
This excited him terribly. He got up from his chair, and the cushions fell on to the grass:
"What's the matter, what's the matter!—Oh, Lettie,—is it me?—don't you want me now?—is that it?—tell me, tell me now, tell me,"—he grasped her wrists, and tried to pull her hands from her face. The tears were running down his cheeks. She felt him trembling, and the sound of his voice alarmed her from herself. She hastily smeared the tears from her eyes, got up, and put her arms round him. He hid his head on her shoulder and sobbed, while she bent over him, and so they cried out their cries, till they were ashamed, looking round to see if anyone were near. Then she hurried about, picking up the cushions, making him lie down, and arranging him comfortably, so that she might be busy. He was querulous, like a sick, indulged child. He would have her arm under his shoulders, and her face near his.
"Well," he said, smiling faintly again after a time. "You are naughty to give us such rough times—is it for the pleasure of making up, bad little Schnucke—aren't you?"
She kept close to him, and he did not see the wince and quiver of her lips.
"I wish I was strong again—couldn't we go boating—or ride on horseback—and you'd have to behave then. Do you think I shall be strong in a month? Stronger than you?"
"I hope so," she said.
"Why, I don't believe you do, I believe you like me like this—so that you can lay me down and smooth me—don't you, quiet girl?"
"When you're good."
"Ah, well, in a month I shall be strong, and we'll be married and go to Switzerland—do you hear, Schnucke—you won't be able to be naughty any more then. Oh—do you want to go away from me again?"
"No—only my arm is dead," she drew it from beneath him, standing up, swinging it, smiling because it hurt her.
"Oh, my darling—what a shame! oh, I am a brute, a kiddish brute. I wish I was strong again, Lettie, and didn't do these things."
"You boy—it's nothing." She smiled at him again.