Lettie was twenty-one on the day after Christmas. She woke me in the morning with cries of dismay. There was a great fall of snow, multiplying the cold morning light, startling the slow-footed twilight. The lake was black like the open eyes of a corpse; the woods were black like the beard on the face of a corpse. A rabbit bobbed out, and floundered in much consternation; little birds settled into the depth, and rose in a dusty whirr, much terrified at the universal treachery of the earth. The snow was eighteen inches deep, and drifted in places.
"They will never come!" lamented Lettie, for it was the day of her party.
"At any rate—Leslie will," said I.
"One!" she exclaimed.
"That one is all, isn't it?" said I. "And for sure George will come, though I've not seen him this fortnight. He's not been in one night, they say, for a fortnight."
"I cannot say."
Lettie went away to ask Rebecca for the fiftieth time if she thought they would come. At any rate the extra woman-help came.
It was not more than ten o'clock when Leslie arrived, ruddy, with shining eyes, laughing like a boy. There was much stamping in the porch, and knocking of leggings with his stick, and crying of Lettie from the kitchen to know who had come, and loud, cheery answers from the porch bidding her come and see. She came, and greeted him with effusion.
"Ha, my little woman!" he said kissing her. "I declare you are a woman. Look at yourself in the glass now——" She did so—"What do you see?" he asked laughing.
"You—mighty gay, looking at me."
"Ah, but look at yourself. There! I declare you're more afraid of your own eyes than of mine, aren't you?"
"I am," she said, and he kissed her with rapture.
"It's your birthday," he said.
"I know," she replied.
"So do I. You promised me something."
"What?" she asked.
"Here—see if you like it,"—he gave her a little case. She opened it, and instinctively slipped the ring on her finger. He made a movement of pleasure. She looked up, laughing breathlessly at him.
"Now!" said he, in tones of finality.
"Ah!" she exclaimed in a strange, thrilled voice.
He caught her in his arms.
After a while, when they could talk rationally again, she said:
"Do you think they will come to my party?"
"I hope not—By Heaven!"
"But—oh, yes! We have made all preparations."
"What does that matter! Ten thousand folks here to-day——!"
"Not ten thousand—only five or six. I shall be wild if they can't come."
"You want them?"
"We have asked them—and everything is ready—and I do want us to have a party one day."
"But to-day—damn it all, Lettie!"
"But I did want my party to-day. Don't you think they'll come?"
"They won't if they've any sense!"
"You might help me——" she pouted.
"Well I'll be—! and you've set your mind on having a houseful of people to-day?"
"You know how we look forward to it—my party. At any rate—I know Tom Smith will come—and I'm almost sure Emily Saxton will."
He bit his moustache angrily, and said at last:
"Then I suppose I'd better send John round for the lot."
"It wouldn't be much trouble, would it?"
"No trouble at all."
"Do you know," she said, twisting the ring on her finger. "It makes me feel as if I tied something round my finger to remember by. It somehow remains in my consciousness all the time."
"At any rate," said he, "I have got you."
After dinner, when we were alone, Lettie sat at the table, nervously fingering her ring.
"It is pretty, mother, isn't it?" she said a trifle pathetically.
"Yes, very pretty. I have always liked Leslie," replied my mother.
"But it feels so heavy—it fidgets me. I should like to take it off."
"You are like me, I never could wear rings. I hated my wedding ring for months."
"Did you, mother?"
"I longed to take it off and put it away. But after a while I got used to it."
"I'm glad this isn't a wedding ring."
"Leslie says it is as good," said I.
"Ah well, yes! But still it is different—" She put the jewels round under her finger, and looked at the plain gold band—then she twisted it back quickly, saying:
"I'm glad it's not—not yet. I begin to feel a woman, little mother—I feel grown up to-day."
My mother got up suddenly and went and kissed Lettie fervently.
"Let me kiss my girl good-bye," she said, and her voice was muffled with tears. Lettie clung to my mother, and sobbed a few quiet sobs, hidden in her bosom. Then she lifted her face, which was wet with tears, and kissed my mother, murmuring:
About three o'clock the carriage came with Leslie and Marie. Both Lettie and I were upstairs, and I heard Marie come tripping up to my sister.
"Oh, Lettie, he is in such a state of excitement, you never knew. He took me with him to buy it—let me see it on. I think it's awfully lovely. Here, let me help you to do your hair—all in those little rolls—it will look charming. You've really got beautiful hair—there's so much life in it—it's a pity to twist it into a coil as you do. I wish my hair were a bit longer—though really, it's all the better for this fashion—don't you like it?—it's 'so chic'—I think these little puffs are just fascinating—it is rather long for them—but it will look ravishing. Really, my eyes, and eyebrows, and eyelashes are my best features, don't you think?"
Marie, the delightful, charming little creature, twittered on. I went downstairs.
Leslie started when I entered the room, but seeing only me, he leaned forward again, resting his arms on his knees, looking in the fire.
"What the Dickens is she doing?" he asked.
"Then we may keep on waiting. Isn't it a deuced nuisance, these people coming?"
"Well, we generally have a good time."
"Oh—it's all very well—we're not in the same boat, you and me."
"Fact," said I laughing.
"By Jove, Cyril, you don't know what it is to be in love. I never thought—I couldn't ha' believed I should be like it. All the time when it isn't at the top of your blood, it's at the bottom:—'the Girl, the Girl.'"
He stared into the fire.
"It seems pressing you, pressing you on. Never leaves you alone a moment."
Again he lapsed into reflection.
"Then, all at once, you remember how she kissed you, and all your blood jumps afire."
He mused again for awhile—or rather, he seemed fiercely to con over his sensations.
"You know," he said, "I don't think she feels for me as I do for her."
"Would you want her to?" said I.
"I don't know. Perhaps not—but—still I don't think she feels——"
At this he lighted a cigarette to soothe his excited feelings, and there was silence for some time. Then the girls came down. We could hear their light chatter. Lettie entered the room. He jumped up and surveyed her. She was dressed in soft, creamy, silken stuff; her neck was quite bare; her hair was, as Marie promised, fascinating; she was laughing nervously. She grew warm, like a blossom in the sunshine, in the glow of his admiration. He went forward and kissed her.
"You are splendid!" he said.
She only laughed for answer. He drew her away to the great arm-chair, and made her sit in it beside him. She was indulgent and he radiant. He took her hand and looked at it, and at his ring which she wore.
"It looks all right!" he murmured.
"Anything would," she replied.
"What do they mean—sapphires and diamonds—for I don't know?"
"Nor do I. Blue for hope, because Speranza in 'Fairy Queen' had a blue gown—and diamonds for—the crystalline clearness of my nature."
"Its glitter and hardness, you mean—You are a hard little mistress. But why Hope?"
"Why?—No reason whatever, like most things. No, that's not right. Hope! Oh—Blindfolded—hugging a silly harp with no strings. I wonder why she didn't drop her harp framework over the edge of the globe, and take the handkerchief off her eyes, and have a look round! But of course she was a woman—and a man's woman. Do you know I believe most women can sneak a look down their noses from underneath the handkerchief of hope they've tied over their eyes. They could take the whole muffler off—but they don't do it, the dears."
"I don't believe you know what you're talking about, and I'm sure I don't. Sapphires reminded me of your eyes—and—isn't it 'Blue that kept the faith?' I remember something about it."
"Here," said she, pulling off the ring, "you ought to wear it yourself, Faithful One, to keep me in constant mind."
"Keep it on, keep it on. It holds you faster than that fair damsel tied to a tree in Millais' picture—I believe it's Millais."
She sat shaking with laughter.
"What a comparison! Who'll be the brave knight to rescue me—discreetly—from behind?"
"Ah," he answered, "it doesn't matter. You don't want rescuing, do you?"
"Not yet," she replied, teasing him.
They continued to talk half nonsense, making themselves eloquent by quick looks and gestures, and communion of warm closeness. The ironical tones went out of Lettie's voice, and they made love.
Marie drew me away into the dining room, to leave them alone.
Marie is a charming little maid, whose appearance is neatness, whose face is confident little goodness. Her hair is dark, and lies low upon her neck in wavy coils. She does not affect the fashion in coiffure, and generally is a little behind the fashion in dress. Indeed she is a half-opened bud of a matron, conservative, full of proprieties, and of gentle indulgence. She now smiled at me with a warm delight in the romance upon which she had just shed her grace, but her demureness allowed nothing to be said. She glanced round the room, and out of the window, and observed:
"I always love Woodside, it is restful—there is something about it—oh—assuring—really—it comforts one—I've been reading Maxim Gorky."
"You shouldn't," said I.
"Dadda reads them—but I don't like them—I shall read no more. I like Woodside—it makes you feel—really at home—it soothes one like the old wood does. It seems right—life is proper here—not ulcery——"
"Just healthy living flesh," said I.
"No, I don't mean that, because one feels—oh, as if the world were old and good, not old and bad."
"Young, and undisciplined, and mad," said I.
"No—but here, you, and Lettie, and Leslie, and me—it is so nice for us, and it seems so natural and good. Woodside is so old, and so sweet and serene—it does reassure one."
"Yes," said I, "we just live, nothing abnormal, nothing cruel and extravagant—just natural—like doves in a dovecote."
"Oh!—doves!—they are so—so mushy."
"They are dear little birds, doves. You look like one yourself, with the black band round your neck. You a turtle-dove, and Lettie a wood-pigeon."
"Lettie is splendid, isn't she? What a swing she has—what a mastery! I wish I had her strength—she just marches straight through in the right way—I think she's fine."
I laughed to see her so enthusiastic in her admiration of my sister. Marie is such a gentle, serious little soul. She went to the window. I kissed her, and pulled two berries off the mistletoe. I made her a nest in the heavy curtains, and she sat there looking out on the snow.
"It is lovely," she said reflectively. "People must be ill when they write like Maxim Gorky."
"They live in town," said I.
"Yes—but then look at Hardy—life seems so terrible—it isn't, is it?"
"If you don't feel it, it isn't—if you don't see it. I don't see it for myself."
"It's lovely enough for heaven."
"Eskimo's heaven perhaps. And we're the angels eh? And I'm an archangel."
"No, you're a vain, frivolous man. Is that—? What is that moving through the trees?"
"Somebody coming," said I.
It was a big, burly fellow moving curiously through the bushes.
"Doesn't he walk funnily?" exclaimed Marie. He did. When he came near enough we saw he was straddled upon Indian snow-shoes. Marie peeped, and laughed, and peeped, and hid again in the curtains laughing. He was very red, and looked very hot, as he hauled the great meshes, shuffling over the snow; his body rolled most comically. I went to the door and admitted him, while Marie stood stroking her face with her hands to smooth away the traces of her laughter.
He grasped my hand in a very large and heavy glove, with which he then wiped his perspiring brow.
"Well, Beardsall, old man," he said, "and how's things? God, I'm not 'alf hot! Fine idea though——" He showed me his snow-shoes.
"Ripping! ain't they? I've come like an Indian brave——" He rolled his "r's", and lengthened out his "ah's" tremendously—"brra-ave".
"Couldn't resist it though," he continued. "Remember your party last year—Girls turned up? On the war-path, eh?" He pursed up his childish lips and rubbed his fat chin.
Having removed his coat, and the white wrap which protected his collar, not to mention the snowflakes, which Rebecca took almost as an insult to herself—he seated his fat, hot body on a chair, and proceeded to take off his gaiters and his boots. Then he donned his dancing pumps, and I led him upstairs.
"Lord, I skimmed here like a swallow!" he continued—and I looked at his corpulence.
"Never met a soul, though they've had a snow-plough down the road. I saw the marks of a cart up the drive, so I guessed the Tempests were here. So Lettie's put her nose in Tempest's nosebag—leaves nobody a chance, that—some women have rum taste—only they're like ravens, they go for the gilding—don't blame 'em—only it leaves nobody a chance. Madie Howitt's coming, I suppose?"
I ventured something about the snow.
"She'll come," he said, "if it's up to the neck. Her mother saw me go past."
He proceeded with his toilet. I told him that Leslie had sent the carriage for Alice and Madie. He slapped his fat legs, and exclaimed:
"Miss Gall—I smell sulphur! Beardsall, old boy, there's fun in the wind. Madie, and the coy little Tempest, and——" he hissed a line of a music-hall song through his teeth.
During all this he had straightened his cream and lavender waistcoat:
"Little pink of a girl worked it for me—a real juicy little peach—chipped somehow or other"—he had arranged his white bow—he had drawn forth two rings, one a great signet, the other gorgeous with diamonds, and had adjusted them on his fat white fingers; he had run his fingers delicately, through his hair, which rippled backwards a trifle tawdrily—being fine and somewhat sapless; he had produced a box, containing a cream carnation with suitable greenery; he had flicked himself with a silk handkerchief, and had dusted his patent-leather shoes; lastly, he had pursed up his lips and surveyed himself with great satisfaction in the mirror. Then he was ready to be presented.
"Couldn't forget to-day, Lettie. Wouldn't have let old Pluto and all the bunch of 'em keep me away. I skimmed here like a 'Brra-ave' on my snow-shoes, like Hiawatha coming to Minnehaha."
"Ah—that was famine," said Marie softly. "And this is a feast, a gorgeous feast, Miss Tempest," he said, bowing to Marie, who laughed.
"You have brought some music?" asked mother.
"Wish I was Orpheus," he said, uttering his words with exaggerated enunciation, a trick he had caught from his singing I suppose.
"I see you're in full feather, Tempest. Is she kind as she is fair?'"
Will pursed up his smooth sensuous face that looked as if it had never needed shaving. Lettie went out with Marie, hearing the bell ring.
"She's an houri!" exclaimed William. "Gad, I'm almost done for! She's a lotus-blossom!—But is that your ring she's wearing, Tempest?"
"Keep off," said Leslie.
"And don't be a fool," said I.
"Oh, O-O-Oh!" drawled Will, "so we must look the other way! 'Le bel homme sans merci!'"
He sighed profoundly, and ran his fingers through his hair, keeping one eye on himself in the mirror as he did so. Then he adjusted his rings and went to the piano. At first he only splashed about brilliantly. Then he sorted the music, and took a volume of Tchaikowsky's songs. He began the long opening of one song, was unsatisfied, and found another, a serenade of Don Juan. Then at last he began to sing.
His voice is a beautiful tenor, softer, more mellow, less strong and brassy than Leslie's. Now it was raised that it might be heard upstairs. As the melting gush poured forth, the door opened. William softened his tones, and sang 'dolce,' but he did not glance round.
"Rapture!—Choir of Angels," exclaimed Alice, clasping her hands and gazing up at the lintel of the door like a sainted virgin.
"Persephone—Europa——" murmured Madie, at her side, getting tangled in her mythology.
Alice pressed her clasped hands against her bosom in ecstasy as the notes rose higher.
"Hold me, Madie, or I shall rush to extinction in the arms of this siren." She clung to Madie. The song finished, and Will turned round.
"Take it calmly, Miss Gall," he said. "I hope you're not hit too badly."
"Oh—how can you say 'take it calmly'—how can the savage beast be calm!"
"I'm sorry for you," said Will.
"You are the cause of my trouble, dear boy," replied Alice.
"I never thought you'd come," said Madie.
"Skimmed here like an Indian 'brra-ave,'" said Will. "Like Hiawatha towards Minnehaha. I knew you were coming."
"You know," simpered Madie, "It gave me quite a flutter when I heard the piano. It is a year since I saw you. How did you get here?"
"I came on snow-shoes," said he. "Real Indian,—came from Canada—they're just ripping."
"Oh—Aw-w do go and put them on and show us—do!—do perform for us, Billy dear!" cried Alice.
"Out in the cold and driving sleet—no fear," said he, and he turned to talk to Madie. Alice sat chatting with mother. Soon Tom Smith came, and took a seat next to Marie; and sat quietly looking over his spectacles with his sharp brown eyes, full of scorn for William, full of misgiving for Leslie and Lettie.
Shortly after, George and Emily came in. They were rather nervous. When they had changed their clogs, and Emily had taken off her brown-paper leggings, and he his leather ones, they were not anxious to go into the drawing room. I was surprised—and so was Emily—to see that he had put on dancing shoes.
Emily, ruddy from the cold air, was wearing a wine coloured dress, which suited her luxurious beauty. George's clothes were well made—it was a point on which he was particular, being somewhat self-conscious. He wore a jacket and a dark bow. The other men were in evening dress.
We took them into the drawing-room, where the lamp was not lighted, and the glow of the fire was becoming evident in the dusk. We had taken up the carpet—the floor was all polished—and some of the furniture was taken away—so that the room looked large and ample.
There was general hand shaking, and the newcomers were seated near the fire. First mother talked to them—then the candles were lighted at the piano, and Will played to us. He is an exquisite pianist, full of refinement and poetry. It is astonishing, and it is a fact. Mother went out to attend to the tea, and after a while, Lettie crossed over to Emily and George, and, drawing up a low chair, sat down to talk to them. Leslie stood in the window bay, looking out on the lawn where the snow grew bluer and bluer and the sky almost purple.
Lettie put her hands on Emily's lap, and said softly, "Look—do you like it?"
"What! engaged? exclaimed Emily.
"I am of age, you see," said Lettie.
"It is a beauty, isn't it. Let me try it on, will you? Yes, I've never had a ring. There, it won't go over my knuckle—no—I thought not. Aren't my hands red?—it's the cold—yes, it's too small for me. I do like it."
George sat watching the play of the four hands in his sister's lap, two hands moving so white and fascinating in the twilight, the other two rather red, with rather large bones, looking so nervous, almost hysterical. The ring played between the four hands, giving an occasional flash from the twilight or candlelight.
"You must congratulate me," she said, in a very low voice, and two of us knew she spoke to him.
"As, yes," said Emily, "I do."
"And you?" she said, turning to him who was silent.
"What do you want me to say?" he asked.
"Say what you like."
"Sometime, when I've thought about it."
"Cold dinners!" laughed Lettie, awaking Alice's old sarcasm at his slowness.
"What?" he exclaimed, looking up suddenly at her taunt. She knew she was playing false; she put the ring on her finger and went across the room to Leslie, laying her arm over his shoulder, and leaning her head against him, murmuring softly to him. He, poor fellow, was delighted with her, for she did not display her fondness often.
We went in to tea. The yellow shaded lamp shone softly over the table, where Christmas roses spread wide open among some dark-coloured leaves; where the china and silver and the coloured dishes shone delightfully. We were all very gay and bright; who could be otherwise, seated round a well-laid table, with young company, and the snow outside. George felt awkward when he noticed his hands over the table, but for the rest, we enjoyed ourselves exceedingly.
The conversation veered inevitably to marriage.
"But what have you to say about it, Mr. Smith?" asked little Marie.
"Nothing yet," replied he in his peculiar grating voice. "My marriage is in the unanalysed solution of the future—when I've done the analysis I'll tell you."
"But what do you think about it—?"
"Do you remember Lettie," said Will Bancroft, "that little red-haired girl who was in our year at college? She has just married old Craven out of Physic's department."
"I wish her joy of it!" said Lettie; "wasn't she an old flame of yours?"
"Among the rest," he replied smiling. "Don't you remember you were one of them; you had your day."
"What a joke that was!" exclaimed Lettie, "we used to go in the arboretum at dinner-time. You lasted half one autumn. Do you remember when we gave a concert, you and I, and Frank Wishaw, in the small lecture theatre?"
"When the Prinny was such an old buck, flattering you," continued Will. "And that night Wishaw took you to the station—sent old Gettim for a cab and saw you in, large as life—never was such a thing before. Old Wishaw won you with that cab, didn't he?"
"Oh, how I swelled!" cried Lettie. "There were you all at the top of the steps gazing with admiration! But Frank Wishaw was not a nice fellow, though he played the violin beautifully. I never liked his eyes—"
"No," added Will. "He didn't last long, did he?—though long enough to oust me. We had a giddy ripping time in Coll., didn't we?"
"It was not bad," said Lettie. "Rather foolish. I'm afraid I wasted my three years."
"I think," said Leslie, smiling, "you improved the shining hours to great purpose."
It pleased him to think what a flirt she had been, since the flirting had been harmless, and only added to the glory of his final conquest. George felt very much left out during these reminiscences.
When we had finished tea, we adjourned to the drawing-room. It was in darkness, save for the fire light. The mistletoe had been discovered, and was being appreciated.
"Georgie, Sybil, Sybil, Georgie, come and kiss me," cried Alice.
Will went forward to do her the honour. She ran to me, saying, "Get away, you fat fool—keep on your own preserves. Now Georgie dear, come and kiss me, 'cause you haven't got nobody else but me, no y' ave n't. Do you want to run away, like Georgy-Porgy apple-pie? Shan't cry, sure I shan't, if you are ugly."
She took him and kissed him on either cheek, saying softly, "You shan't be so serious, old boy—buck up, there's a good fellow."
We lighted the lamp, and charades were proposed, Leslie and Lettie, Will and Madie and Alice went out to play. The first scene was an elopement to Gretna Green—with Alice a maid servant, a part that she played wonderfully well as a caricature. It was very noisy, and extremely funny. Leslie was in high spirits. It was remarkable to observe that, as he became more animated, more abundantly energetic, Lettie became quieter. The second scene, which they were playing as excited melodrama, she turned into small tragedy with her bitterness. They went out, and Lettie blew us kisses from the doorway.
"Doesn't she act well?" exclaimed Marie, speaking to Tom.
"Quite realistic," said he.
"She could always play a part well," said mother.
"I should think," said Emily, "she could take a role in life and play up to it."
"I believe she could," mother answered, "there would only be intervals when she would see herself in a mirror acting."
"And what then?" said Marie.
"She would feel desperate, and wait till the fit passed off," replied my mother, smiling significantly.
The players came in again. Lettie kept her part subordinate. Leslie played with brilliance; it was rather startling how he excelled. The applause was loud—but we could not guess the word. Then they laughed, and told us. We clamoured for more.
"Do go, dear," said Lettie to Leslie, "and I will be helping to arrange the room for the dances. I want to watch you—I am rather tired—it is so exciting—Emily will take my place."
They went. Marie and Tom, and Mother and I played bridge in one corner. Lettie said she wanted to show George some new pictures, and they bent over a portfolio for some time. Then she bade him help her to clear the room for the dances.
"Well, you have had time to think," she said to him.
"A short time," he replied. "What shall I say?"
"Tell me what you've been thinking."
"Well—about you——" he answered, smiling foolishly.
"What about me?" she asked, venturesome.
"About you, how you were at college," he replied.
"Oh! I had a good time. I had plenty of boys. I liked them all, till I found there was nothing in them; then they tired me."
"Poor boys!" he said laughing. "Were they all alike?"
"All alike," she replied, "and they are still."
"Pity," he said, smiling. "It's hard lines on you."
"Why?" she asked.
"It leaves you nobody to care for——" he replied.
"How very sarcastic you are. You make one reservation."
"Do I?" he answered, smiling. "But you fire sharp into the air, and then say we're all blank cartridges—except one, of course."
"You?" she queried, ironically—"oh, you would forever hang fire."
"'Cold dinners!'" he quoted in bitterness. "But you knew I loved you. You knew well enough."
"Past tense," she replied, "thanks—make it perfect next time."
"It's you who hang fire—it's you who make me," he said.
"And so from the retort circumstantial to the retort direct,'" she replied, smiling.
"You see—you put me off," he insisted, growing excited. For reply, she held out her hand and showed him the ring. She smiled very quietly. He stared at her with darkening anger.
"Will you gather the rugs and stools together, and put them in that corner?" she said.
He turned away to do so, but he looked back again, and said, in low, passionate tones:
"You never counted me. I was a figure naught in the counting all along."
"See—there is a chair that will be in the way," she replied calmly; but she flushed, and bowed her head. She turned away, and he dragged an armful of rugs into a corner.
When the actors came in, Lettie was moving a vase of flowers. While they played, she sat looking on, smiling, clapping her hands. When it was finished Leslie came and whispered to her, whereon she kissed him unobserved, delighting and exhilarating him more than ever. Then they went out to prepare the next act.
George did not return to her till she called him to help her. Her colour was high in her cheeks.
"How do you know you did not count?" she said nervously, unable to resist the temptation to play this forbidden game.
He laughed, and for a moment could not find any reply.
"I do!" he said. "You knew you could have me any day, so you didn't care."
"Then we're behaving in quite the traditional fashion," she answered with irony.
"But you know," he said, "you began it. You played with me, and showed me heaps of things—and those mornings—when I was binding corn, and when I was gathering the apples, and when I was finishing the straw-stack—you came then—I can never forget those mornings—things will never be the same—You have awakened my life—I imagine things that I couldn't have done."
"Ah!—I am very sorry, I am so sorry."
"Don't be!—don't say so. But what of me?"
"What?" she asked rather startled. He smiled again; he felt the situation, and was a trifle dramatic, though deadly in earnest.
"Well," said he, "you start me off—then leave me at a loose end. What am I going to do?"
"You are a man," she replied.
He laughed. "What does that mean?" he said contemptuously.
"You can go on—which way you like," she answered.
"Oh, well," he said, "we'll see."
"Don't you think so?" she asked, rather anxious.
"I don't know—we'll see," he replied.
They went out with some things. In the hall, she turned to him, with a break in her voice, saying: "Oh, I am so sorry—I am so sorry."
He said, very low and soft,—"Never mind—never mind."
She heard the laughter of those preparing the charade. She drew away and went in the drawing room, saying aloud:
"Now I think everything is ready—we can sit down now."
After the actors had played the last charade, Leslie came and claimed her.
"Now, Madam—are you glad to have me back?"
"That I am," she said. "Don't leave me again, will you?"
"I won't," he replied, drawing her beside him. "I have left my handkerchief in the dining-room," he continued; and they went out together.
Mother gave me permission for the men to smoke.
"You know," said Marie to Tom, "I am surprised that a scientist should smoke. Isn't it a waste of time?"
"Come and light me," he said.
"Nay," she replied, "let science light you."
"Science does—Ah, but science is nothing without a girl to set it going—Yes—Come on—now, don't burn my precious nose."
"Poor George!" cried Alice. "Does he want a ministering angel?"
He was half lying in a big arm chair.
"I do," he replied. "Come on, be my box of soothing ointment. My matches are all loose."
"I'll strike it on my heel, eh? Now, rouse up, or I shall have to sit on your knee to reach you."
"Poor dear—he shall beluxurious," and the dauntless girl perched on his knee.
"What if I singe your whiskers—would you send an Armada? Aw—aw—pretty!—You do look sweet—doesn't he suck prettily?"
"Do you envy me?" he asked, smiling whimsically.
"Shame to debar you," he said, almost with tenderness.
"Smoke with me."
He offered her the cigarette from his lips. She was surprised, and exceedingly excited by his tender tone. She took the cigarette.
"I'll make a heifer—like Mrs. Daws," she said.
"Don't call yourself a cow," he said.
"Nasty thing—let me go," she exclaimed.
"No—you fit me—don't go," he replied, holding her.
"Then you must have growed. Oh—what great hands—let go. Lettie, come and pinch him."
"What's the matter?" asked my sister.
"He won't let me go."
"He'll be tired first," Lettie answered.
Alice was released, but she did not move. She sat with wrinkled forehead trying his cigarette. She blew out little tiny whiffs of smoke, and thought about it; she sent a small puff down her nostrils, and rubbed her nose.
"It's not as nice as it looks," she said.
He laughed at her with masculine indulgence.
"Pretty boy," she said, stroking his chin.
"Am I?" he murmured languidly.
"Cheek!" she cried, and she boxed his ears. Then "Oh, pore fing!" she said, and kissed him.
She turned round to wink at my mother and at Lettie. She found the latter sitting in the old position with Leslie, two in a chair. He was toying with her arm; holding it and stroking it.
"Isn't it lovely?" he said, kissing the forearm, "so warm and yet so white. Io—it reminds one of Io."
"Somebody else talking about heifers," murmured Alice to George.
"Can you remember," said Leslie, speaking low, "that man in Merimée who wanted to bite his wife and taste her blood?"
"I do," said Lettie. "Have you a strain of wild beast too?"
"Perhaps," he laughed, "I wish these folks had gone. Your hair is all loose in your neck—it looks lovely like that though——"
Alice, the mocker, had unbuttoned the cuff of the thick wrist that lay idly on her knee, and had pushed his sleeve a little way.
"Ah!" she said. "What a pretty arm, brown as an overbaked loaf!"
He watched her smiling.
"Hard as a brick," she added.
"Do you like it?" he drawled.
"No," she said emphatically, in a tone that meant "yes." "It makes me feel shivery." He smiled again.
She superposed her tiny pale, flower-like hands on his.
He lay back looking at them curiously.
"Do you feel as if your hands were full of silver?" she asked almost wistfully, mocking.
"Better than that," he replied gently.
"And your heart full of gold?" she mocked.
"Of hell!" he replied briefly.
Alice looked at him searchingly.
"And am I like a blue-bottle buzzing in your window to keep your company?" she asked.
"Good-bye," she said, slipping down and leaving him.
"Don't go," he said—but too late.
The irruption of Alice into the quiet, sentimental party was like taking a bright light into a sleeping hen-roost. Everybody jumped up and wanted to do something. They cried out for a dance.
"Emily—play a waltz—you won't mind, will you, George? What! You don't dance, Tom? Oh, Marie!"
"I don't mind, Lettie," protested Marie.
"Dance with me, Alice," said George, smiling "and Cyril will take Miss Tempest."
"Glory!—come on—do or die!" said Alice.
We began to dance. I saw Lettie watching, and I looked round. George was waltzing with Alice, dancing passably, laughing at her remarks. Lettie was not listening to what her lover was saying to her; she was watching the laughing pair. At the end she went to George.
"Why!" she said, "You can——"
"Did you think I couldn't?" he said. "You are pledged for a minuet and a valeta with me—you remember?"
"I went to Nottingham and learned."
"Why—because?—Very well, Leslie, a mazurka. Will you play it, Emily—Yes, it is quite easy. Tom, you look quite happy talking to the Mater."
We danced the mazurka with the same partners. He did it better than I expected—without much awkwardness—but stiffly. However, he moved quietly through the dance, laughing and talking abstractedly all the time with Alice.
Then Lettie cried a change of partners, and they took their valeta. There was a little triumph in his smile.
"Do you congratulate me?" he said.
"I am surprised," she answered.
"So am I. But I congratulate myself."
"Do you? Well, so do I."
"Thanks! You're beginning at last."
"What?" she asked.
"To believe in me."
"Don't begin to talk again," she pleaded sadly, "nothing vital."
"Do you like dancing with me?" he asked
"Now, be quiet—that's real," she replied.
"By Heaven, Lettie, you make me laugh!"
"Do I?" she said—"What if you married Alice—soon."
"I—Alice!—Lettie!! Besides, I've only a hundred pounds in the world, and no prospects whatever. That's why—well—I shan't marry anybody—unless its somebody with money."
"I've a couple of thousand or so of my own——"
"Have you? It would have done nicely," he said smiling.
"You are different to-night," she said, leaning on him.
"Am I?" he replied—"It's because things are altered too. They're settled one way now—for the present at least."
"Don't forget the two steps this time," said she smiling, and adding seriously, "You see, I couldn't help it."
"No, why not?"
"Things! I have been brought up to expect it—everybody expected it—and you're bound to do what people expect you to do—you can't help it. We can't help ourselves, we're all chess-men," she said.
"Ay," he agreed, but doubtfully.
"I wonder where it will end," she said.
"Lettie!" he cried, and his hand closed in a grip on her's.
"Don't—don't say anything—it's no good now, it's too late. It's done; and what is done, is done. If you talk any more, I shall say I'm tired and stop the dance. Don't say another word."
He did not—at least to her. Their dance came to an end. Then he took Marie who talked winsomely to him. As he waltzed with Marie he regained his animated spirits. He was very lively the rest of the evening, quite astonishing and reckless. At supper he ate everything, and drank much wine.
"Have some more turkey, Mr. Saxton."
"Thanks—but give me some of that stuff in brown jelly, will you? It's new to me."
"Have some of this trifle, Georgie?"
"I will—you are a jewel."
"So will you be—a yellow topaz tomorrow!"
"Ah! tomorrow's tomorrow!"
After supper was over, Alice cried:
"Georgie, dear—have you finished?—don't die the death of a king—King John—I can't spare you, pet."
"Are you so fond of me?"
"I am—Aw! I'd throw my best Sunday hat under a milk-cart for you, I would!"
"No; throw yourself into the milk-cart—some Sunday, when I'm driving."
"Yes—come and see us," said Emily.
"How nice! Tomorrow you won't want me, Georgie dear, so I'll come. Don't you wish Pa would make Tono-Bungay? Wouldn't you marry me then?"
"I would," said he.
When the cart came, and Alice, Madie, Tom and Will departed, Alice bade Lettie a long farewell—blew Georgie many kisses—promised to love him faithful and true—and was gone.
George and Emily lingered a short time.
Now the room seemed empty and quiet, and all the laughter seemed to have gone. The conversation dribbled away; there was an awkwardness.
"Well," said George heavily, at last. "To-day is nearly gone—it will soon be tomorrow. I feel a bit drunk! We had a good time to-night."
"I am glad," said Lettie.
They put on their clogs and leggings, and wrapped themselves up, and stood in the hall.
"We must go," said George, "before the clock strikes,—like Cinderella—look at my glass slippers—" he pointed to his clogs. "Midnight, and rags, and fleeing. Very appropriate. I shall call myself Cinderella who wouldn't fit. I believe I'm a bit drunk—the world looks funny."
We looked out at the haunting wanness of the hills beyond Nethermere. "Good-bye, Lettie; good-bye."
They were out in the snow, which peered pale and eerily from the depths of the black wood.
"Good-bye," he called out of the darkness. Leslie slammed the door, and drew Lettie away into the drawing-room. The sound of his low, vibrating satisfaction reached us, as he murmured to her, and laughed low. Then he kicked the door of the room shut. Lettie began to laugh and mock and talk in a high strained voice. The sound of their laughter mingled was strange and incongruous. Then her voice died down.
Marie sat at the little piano—which was put in the dining-room—strumming and tinkling the false, quavering old notes. It was a depressing jingling in the deserted remains of the feast, but she felt sentimental, and enjoyed it.
This was a gap between to-day and tomorrow, a dreary gap, where one sat and looked at the dreary comedy of yesterdays, and the grey tragedies of dawning tomorrows, vacantly, missing the poignancy of an actual to-day.
The cart returned.
"Leslie, Leslie, John is here, come along!" called Marie.
There was no answer.
"Leslie—John is waiting in the snow."
"But you must come at once." She went to the door and spoke to him. Then he came out looking rather sheepish, and rather angry at the interruption. Lettie followed, tidying her hair. She did not laugh and look confused, as most girls do on similar occasions; she seemed very tired.
At last Leslie tore himself away, and after more returns for a farewell kiss, mounted the carriage, which stood in a pool of yellow light, blurred and splotched with shadows, and drove away, calling something about tomorrow.