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Chapter 9


At the back of the room the applause had been loud at the
moment of the kiss, real or counterfeit. The cause was partly
owing to an exceptional circumstance which had occurred in
that quarter early in the play.

The people had all seated themselves, and the first act had
begun, when the tapestry that screened the door was lifted
gently and a figure appeared in the opening. The general
attention was at this moment absorbed by the newly disclosed
stage, and scarcely a soul noticed the stranger. Had any one
of the audience turned his head, there would have been
sufficient in the countenance to detain his gaze,
notwithstanding the counter-attraction forward.

He was obviously a man who had come from afar. There was not
a square inch about him that had anything to do with modern
English life. His visage, which was of the colour of light
porphyry, had little of its original surface left; it was a
face which had been the plaything of strange fires or
pestilences, that had moulded to whatever shape they chose his
originally supple skin, and left it pitted, puckered, and
seamed like a dried water-course. But though dire
catastrophes or the treacherous airs of remote climates had
done their worst upon his exterior, they seemed to have
affected him but little within, to judge from a certain
robustness which showed itself in his manner of standing.

The face-marks had a meaning, for any one who could read them,
beyond the mere suggestion of their origin: they signified
that this man had either been the victim of some terrible
necessity as regarded the occupation to which he had devoted
himself, or that he was a man of dogged obstinacy, from sheer
sang froid holding his ground amid malign forces when others
would have fled affrighted away.

As nobody noticed him, he dropped the door hangings after a
while, walked silently along the matted alley, and sat down in
one of the back chairs. His manner of entry was enough to
show that the strength of character which he seemed to possess
had phlegm for its base and not ardour. One might have said
that perhaps the shocks he had passed through had taken all
his original warmth out of him. His beaver hat, which he had
retained on his head till this moment, he now placed under the
seat, where he sat absolutely motionless till the end of the
first act, as if he were indulging in a monologue which did
not quite reach his lips.

When Paula entered at the beginning of the second act he
showed as much excitement as was expressed by a slight
movement of the eyes. When she spoke he turned to his next
neighbour, and asked him in cold level words which had once
been English, but which seemed to have lost the accent of
nationality: 'Is that the young woman who is the possessor of
this castle--Power by name?'

His neighbour happened to be the landlord at Sleeping-Green,
and he informed the stranger that she was what he supposed.

'And who is that gentleman whose line of business seems to be
to make love to Power?'

'He's Captain De Stancy, Sir William De Stancy's son, who used
to own this property.'

'Baronet or knight?'

'Baronet--a very old-established family about here.'

The stranger nodded, and the play went on, no further word
being spoken till the fourth act was reached, when the
stranger again said, without taking his narrow black eyes from
the stage: 'There's something in that love-making between
Stancy and Power that's not all sham!'

'Well,' said the landlord, 'I have heard different stories
about that, and wouldn't be the man to zay what I couldn't
swear to. The story is that Captain De Stancy, who is as poor
as a gallicrow, is in full cry a'ter her, and that his on'y
chance lies in his being heir to a title and the wold name.
But she has not shown a genuine hanker for anybody yet.'

'If she finds the money, and this Stancy finds the name and
blood, 'twould be a very neat match between 'em,--hey?'

'That's the argument.'

Nothing more was said again for a long time, but the
stranger's eyes showed more interest in the passes between
Paula and De Stancy than they had shown before. At length the
crisis came, as described in the last chapter, De Stancy
saluting her with that semblance of a kiss which gave such
umbrage to Somerset. The stranger's thin lips lengthened a
couple of inches with satisfaction; he put his hand into his
pocket, drew out two half-crowns which he handed to the
landlord, saying, 'Just applaud that, will you, and get your
comrades to do the same.'

The landlord, though a little surprised, took the money, and
began to clap his hands as desired. The example was
contagious, and spread all over the room; for the audience,
gentle and simple, though they might not have followed the
blank verse in all its bearings, could at least appreciate a
kiss. It was the unusual acclamation raised by this means
which had led Somerset to turn his head.

When the play had ended the stranger was the first to rise,
and going downstairs at the head of the crowd he passed out of
doors, and was lost to view. Some questions were asked by the
landlord as to the stranger's individuality; but few had seen
him; fewer had noticed him, singular as he was; and none knew
his name.

While these things had been going on in the quarter allotted
to the commonalty, Somerset in front had waited the fall of
the curtain with those sick and sorry feelings which should be
combated by the aid of philosophy and a good conscience, but
which really are only subdued by time and the abrading rush of
affairs. He was, however, stoical enough, when it was all
over, to accept Mrs. Goodman's invitation to accompany her to
the drawing-room, fully expecting to find there a large
company, including Captain De Stancy.

But none of the acting ladies and gentlemen had emerged from
their dressing-rooms as yet. Feeling that he did not care to
meet any of them that night, he bade farewell to Mrs. Goodman
after a few minutes of conversation, and left her. While he
was passing along the corridor, at the side of the gallery
which had been used as the theatre, Paula crossed it from the
latter apartment towards an opposite door. She was still in
the dress of the Princess, and the diamond and pearl necklace
still hung over her bosom as placed there by Captain De
Stancy.

Her eye caught Somerset's, and she stopped. Probably there
was something in his face which told his mind, for she invited
him by a smile into the room she was entering.

'I congratulate you on your performance,' he said
mechanically, when she pushed to the door.

'Do you really think it was well done?' She drew near him
with a sociable air.

'It was startlingly done--the part from "Romeo and Juliet"
pre-eminently so.'

'Do you think I knew he was going to introduce it, or do you
think I didn't know?' she said, with that gentle sauciness
which shows itself in the loved one's manner when she has had
a triumphant evening without the lover's assistance.

'I think you may have known.'

'No,' she averred, decisively shaking her head. 'It took me
as much by surprise as it probably did you. But why should I
have told!'

Without answering that question Somerset went on. 'Then what
he did at the end of his gag was of course a surprise also.'

'He didn't really do what he seemed to do,' she serenely
answered.

'Well, I have no right to make observations--your actions are
not subject to my surveillance; you float above my plane,'
said the young man with some bitterness. 'But to speak
plainly, surely he--kissed you?'

'No,' she said. 'He only kissed the air in front of me--ever
so far off.'

'Was it six inches off?'

'No, not six inches.'

'Nor three.'

'It was quite one,' she said with an ingenuous air.

'I don't call that very far.'

'A miss is as good as a mile, says the time-honoured proverb;
and it is not for us modern mortals to question its truth.'

'How can you be so off-hand?' broke out Somerset. 'I love you
wildly and desperately, Paula, and you know it well!'

'I have never denied knowing it,' she said softly.

'Then why do you, with such knowledge, adopt an air of levity
at such a moment as this! You keep me at arm's-length, and
won't say whether you care for me one bit, or no. I have
owned all to you; yet never once have you owned anything to
me!'

'I have owned much. And you do me wrong if you consider that
I show levity. But even if I had not owned everything, and
you all, it is not altogether such a grievous thing.'

'You mean to say that it is not grievous, even if a man does
love a woman, and suffers all the pain of feeling he loves in
vain? Well, I say it is quite the reverse, and I have grounds
for knowing.'

'Now, don't fume so, George Somerset, but hear me. My not
owning all may not have the dreadful meaning you think, and
therefore it may not be really such a grievous thing. There
are genuine reasons for women's conduct in these matters as
well as for men's, though it is sometimes supposed to be
regulated entirely by caprice. And if I do not give way to
every feeling--I mean demonstration--it is because I don't
want to. There now, you know what that implies; and be
content'

'Very well,' said Somerset, with repressed sadness, 'I will
not expect you to say more. But you do like me a little,
Paula?'

'Now!' she said, shaking her head with symptoms of tenderness
and looking into his eyes. 'What have you just promised?
Perhaps I like you a little more than a little, which is much
too much! Yes,--Shakespeare says so, and he is always right.
Do you still doubt me? Ah, I see you do!'

'Because somebody has stood nearer to you to-night than I.'

'A fogy like him!--half as old again as either of us! How can
you mind him? What shall I do to show you that I do not for a
moment let him come between me and you?'

'It is not for me to suggest what you should do. Though what
you should permit ME to do is obvious enough.'

She dropped her voice: 'You mean, permit you to do really and
in earnest what he only seemed to do in the play.'

Somerset signified by a look that such had been his thought.

Paula was silent. 'No,' she murmured at last. 'That cannot
be. He did not, nor must you.'

It was said none the less decidedly for being spoken low.

'You quite resent such a suggestion: you have a right to. I
beg your pardon, not for speaking of it, but for thinking it.'

'I don't resent it at all, and I am not offended one bit. But
I am not the less of opinion that it is possible to be
premature in some things; and to do this just now would be
premature. I know what you would say--that you would not have
asked it, but for that unfortunate improvisation of it in the
play. But that I was not responsible for, and therefore owe
no reparation to you now. . . . Listen!'

'Paula--Paula! Where in the world are you?' was heard
resounding along the corridor in the voice of her aunt. 'Our
friends are all ready to leave, and you will surely bid them
good-night!'

'I must be gone--I won't ring for you to be shown out--come
this way.'

'But how will you get on in repeating the play tomorrow
evening if that interpolation is against your wish?' he asked,
looking her hard in the face.

'I'll think it over during the night. Come to-morrow morning
to help me settle. But,' she added, with coy yet genial
independence, 'listen to me. Not a word more about a--what
you asked for, mind! I don't want to go so far, and I will
not--not just yet anyhow--I mean perhaps never. You must
promise that, or I cannot see you again alone.'

'It shall be as you request.'

'Very well. And not a word of this to a soul. My aunt
suspects: but she is a good aunt and will say nothing. Now
that is clearly understood, I should be glad to consult with
you tomorrow early. I will come to you in the studio or
Pleasance as soon as I am disengaged.'

She took him to a little chamfered doorway in the corner,
which opened into a descending turret; and Somerset went down.
When he had unfastened the door at the bottom, and stepped
into the lower corridor, she asked, 'Are you down?' And on
receiving an affirmative reply she closed the top door.

Thomas Hardy