On the way back--at that very level-crossing where he had paused on his upward route--Rickie stopped suddenly and told the girl why he had fainted. Hitherto she had asked him in vain. His tone had gone from him, and he told her harshly and brutally, so that she started away with a horrified cry. Then his manner altered, and he exclaimed: "Will you mind? Are you going to mind?"
"Of course I mind," she whispered. She turned from him, and saw up on the sky-line two figures that seemed to be of enormous size.
"They're watching us. They stand on the edge watching us. This country's so open--you--you can't they watch us wherever we go. Of course you mind."
They heard the rumble of the train, and she pulled herself together. "Come, dearest, we shall be run over next. We're saying things that have no sense." But on the way back he repeated: "They can still see us. They can see every inch of this road. They watch us for ever." And when they arrived at the steps there, sure enough, were still the two figures gazing from the outer circle of the Rings.
She made him go to his room at once: he was almost hysterical. Leighton brought out some tea for her, and she sat drinking it on the little terrace. Of course she minded.
Again she was menaced by the abnormal. All had seemed so fair and so simple, so in accordance with her ideas; and then, like a corpse, this horror rose up to the surface. She saw the two figures descend and pause while one of them harnessed the pony; she saw them drive downward, and knew that before long she must face them and the world. She glanced at her engagement ring.
When the carriage drove up Mrs. Failing dismounted, but did not speak. It was Stephen who inquired after Rickie. She, scarcely knowing the sound of her own voice, replied that he was a little tired.
"Go and put up the pony," said Mrs. Failing rather sharply.
"Agnes, give me some tea."
"It is rather strong," said Agnes as the carriage drove off and left them alone. Then she noticed that Mrs. Failing herself was agitated. Her lips were trembling, and she saw the boy depart with manifest relief.
"Do you know," she said hurriedly, as if talking against time-- "Do you know what upset Rickie?"
"I do indeed know."
"Has he told any one else?"
"I believe not."
"Agnes--have I been a fool?"
"You have been very unkind," said the girl, and her eyes filled with tears.
For a moment Mrs. Failing was annoyed. "Unkind? I do not see that at all. I believe in looking facts in the face. Rickie must know his ghosts some time. Why not this afternoon?"
She rose with quiet dignity, but her tears came faster. "That is not so. You told him to hurt him. I cannot think what you did it for. I suppose because he was rude to you after church. It is a mean, cowardly revenge.
"What--what if it's a lie?"
"Then, Mrs. Failing, it is sickening of you. There is no other word. Sickening. I am sorry--a nobody like myself--to speak like this. How could you, oh, how could you demean yourself? Why, not even a poor person--Her indignation was fine and genuine. But her tears fell no longer. Nothing menaced her if they were not really brothers.
"It is not a lie, my clear; sit down. I will swear so much solemnly. It is not a lie, but--"
"--we can call it a lie if we choose."
"I am not so childish. You have said it, and we must all suffer. You have had your fun: I conclude you did it for fun. You cannot go back. He--" She pointed towards the stables, and could not finish her sentence.
"I have not been a fool twice."
Agnes did not understand.
"My dense lady, can't you follow? I have not told Stephen one single word, neither before nor now."
There was a long silence.
Indeed, Mrs. Failing was in an awkward position.
Rickie had irritated her, and, in her desire to shock him, she had imperilled her own peace. She had felt so unconventional upon the hillside, when she loosed the horror against him; but now it was darting at her as well. Suppose the scandal came out. Stephen, who was absolutely without delicacy, would tell it to the people as soon as tell them the time. His paganism would be too assertive; it might even be in bad taste. After all, she had a prominent position in the neighbourhood; she was talked about, respected, looked up to. After all, she was growing old. And therefore, though she had no true regard for Rickie, nor for Agnes, nor for Stephen, nor for Stephen's parents, in whose tragedy she had assisted, yet she did feel that if the scandal revived it would disturb the harmony of Cadover, and therefore tried to retrace her steps. It is easy to say shocking things: it is so different to be connected with anything shocking. Life and death were not involved, but comfort and discomfort were.
The silence was broken by the sound of feet on the gravel. Agnes said hastily, "Is that really true--that he knows nothing?"
"You, Rickie, and I are the only people alive that know. He realizes what he is--with a precision that is sometimes alarming. Who he is, he doesn't know and doesn't care. I suppose he would know when I'm dead. There are papers."
"Aunt Emily, before he comes, may I say to you I'm sorry I was so rude?"
Mrs. Failing had not disliked her courage. "My dear, you may. We're all off our hinges this Sunday. Sit down by me again."
Agnes obeyed, and they awaited the arrival of Stephen. They were clever enough to understand each other. The thing must be hushed up. The matron must repair the consequences of her petulance. The girl must hide the stain in her future husband's family. Why not? Who was injured? What does a grown-up man want with a grown brother? Rickie upstairs, how grateful he would be to them for saving him.
"I'm tired of you. Go and bathe in the sea."
And the whole thing was settled. She liked no fuss, and so did he. He sat down on the step to tighten his bootlaces. Then he would be ready. Mrs. Failing laid two or three sovereigns on the step above him. Agnes tried to make conversation, and said, with averted eyes, that the sea was a long way off.
"The sea's downhill. That's all I know about it." He swept up the money with a word of pleasure: he was kept like a baby in such things. Then he started off, but slowly, for he meant to walk till the morning.
"He will be gone days," said Mrs. Failing. "The comedy is finished. Let us come in."
She went to her room. The storm that she had raised had shattered her. Yet, because it was stilled for a moment, she resumed her old emancipated manner, and spoke of it as a comedy.
As for Miss Pembroke, she pretended to be emancipated no longer. People like "Stephen Wonham" were social thunderbolts, to be shunned at all costs, or at almost all costs. Her joy was now unfeigned, and she hurried upstairs to impart it to Rickie.
"I don't think we are rewarded if we do right, but we are punished if we lie. It's the fashion to laugh at poetic justice, but I do believe in half of it. Cast bitter bread upon the waters, and after many days it really will come back to you." These were the words of Mr. Failing. They were also the opinions of Stewart Ansell, another unpractical person. Rickie was trying to write to him when she entered with the good news.
"Dear, we're saved! He doesn't know, and he never is to know. I can't tell you how glad I am. All the time we saw them standing together up there, she wasn't telling him at all. She was keeping him out of the way, in case you let it out. Oh, I like her! She may be unwise, but she is nice, really. She said, 'I've been a fool but I haven't been a fool twice.' You must forgive her, Rickie. I've forgiven her, and she me; for at first I was so angry with her. Oh, my darling boy, I am so glad!"
He was shivering all over, and could not reply. At last he said, "Why hasn't she told him?"
"Because she has come to her senses."
"But she can't behave to people like that. She must tell him."
"Because he must be told such a real thing."
"Such a real thing?" the girl echoed, screwing up her forehead. "But--but you don't mean you're glad about it?"
His head bowed over the letter. "My God--no! But it's a real thing. She must tell him. I nearly told him myself--up there-- when he made me look at the ground, but you happened to prevent me."
How Providence had watched over them!
"She won't tell him. I know that much."
"Then, Agnes, darling"--he drew her to the table "we must talk together a little. If she won't, then we ought to."
"We tell him?" cried the girl, white with horror. "Tell him now, when everything has been comfortably arranged?"
"You see, darling"--he took hold of her hand--"what one must do is to think the thing out and settle what's right, I'm still all trembling and stupid. I see it mixed up with other things. I want you to help me. It seems to me that here and there in life we meet with a person or incident that is symbolical. It's nothing in itself, yet for the moment it stands for some eternal principle. We accept it, at whatever costs, and we have accepted life. But if we are frightened and reject it, the moment, so to speak, passes; the symbol is never offered again. Is this nonsense? Once before a symbol was offered to me--I shall not tell you how; but I did accept it, and cherished it through much anxiety and repulsion, and in the end I am rewarded. There will be no reward this time. I think, from such a man--the son of such a man. But I want to do what is right."
"Because doing right is its own reward," said Agnes anxiously.
"I do not think that. I have seen few examples of it. Doing right is simply doing right."
"I think that all you say is wonderfully clever; but since you ask me, it is nonsense, dear Rickie, absolutely."
"Thank you," he said humbly, and began to stroke her hand. "But all my disgust; my indignation with my father, my love for--" He broke off; he could not bear to mention the name of his mother. "I was trying to say, I oughtn't to follow these impulses too much. There are others things. Truth. Our duty to acknowledge each man accurately, however vile he is. And apart from ideals" (here she had won the battle), "and leaving ideals aside, I couldn't meet him and keep silent. It isn't in me. I should blurt it out."
"But you won't meet him!" she cried. "It's all been arranged. We've sent him to the sea. Isn't it splendid? He's gone. My own boy won't be fantastic, will he?" Then she fought the fantasy on its own ground. "And, bye the bye, what you call the 'symbolic moment' is over. You had it up by the Rings. You tried to tell him, I interrupted you. It's not your fault. You did all you could."
She thought this excellent logic, and was surprised that he looked so gloomy. "So he's gone to the sea. For the present that does settle it. Has Aunt Emily talked about him yet?"
"No. Ask her tomorrow if you wish to know. Ask her kindly. It would be so dreadful if you did not part friends, and--"
It was Stephen calling up from the drive. He had come back. Agnes threw out her hand in despair.
"Elliot!" the voice called.
They were facing each other, silent and motionless. Then Rickie advanced to the window. The girl darted in front of him. He thought he had never seen her so beautiful. She was stopping his advance quite frankly, with widespread arms.
He moved forward--into what? He pretended to himself he would rather see his brother before he answered; that it was easier to acknowledge him thus. But at the back of his soul he knew that the woman had conquered, and that he was moving forward to acknowledge her. "If he calls me again--" he thought.
"Well, if he calls me once again, I will answer him, vile as he is."
He did not call again.
Stephen had really come back for some tobacco, but as he passed under the windows he thought of the poor fellow who had been "nipped" (nothing serious, said Mrs. Failing), and determined to shout good-bye to him. And once or twice, as he followed the river into the darkness, he wondered what it was like to be so weak,--not to ride, not to swim, not to care for anything but books and a girl.
They embraced passionately. The danger had brought them very near to each other. They both needed a home to confront the menacing tumultuous world. And what weary years of work, of waiting, lay between them and that home! Still holding her fast, he said, "I was writing to Ansell when you came in."
"Do you owe him a letter?"
"No." He paused. "I was writing to tell him about this. He would help us. He always picks out the important point."
"Darling, I don't like to say anything, and I know that Mr. Ansell would keep a secret, but haven't we picked out the important point for ourselves?"
He released her and tore the letter up.
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