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Chapter VI

The verandahed bungalow on the South Coast, built and inhabited by an artist friend of Aunt Rosamund's, had a garden of which the chief feature was one pine-tree which had strayed in advance of the wood behind. The little house stood in solitude, just above a low bank of cliff whence the beach sank in sandy ridges. The verandah and thick pine wood gave ample shade, and the beach all the sun and sea air needful to tan little Gyp, a fat, tumbling soul, as her mother had been at the same age, incurably fond and fearless of dogs or any kind of beast, and speaking words already that required a glossary.

At night, Gyp, looking from her bedroom through the flat branches of the pine, would get a feeling of being the only creature in the world. The crinkled, silvery sea, that lonely pine-tree, the cold moon, the sky dark corn-flower blue, the hiss and sucking rustle of the surf over the beach pebbles, even the salt, chill air, seemed lonely. By day, too--in the hazy heat when the clouds merged, scarce drifting, into the blue, and the coarse sea-grass tufts hardly quivered, and sea-birds passed close above the water with chuckle and cry--it all often seemed part of a dream. She bathed, and grew as tanned as her little daughter, a regular Gypsy, in her broad hat and linen frocks; and yet she hardly seemed to be living down here at all, for she was never free of the memory of that last meeting with Summerhay. Why had he spoken and put an end to their quiet friendship, and left her to such heart-searchings all by herself? But she did not want his words unsaid. Only, how to know whether to recoil and fly, or to pass beyond the dread of letting herself go, of plunging deep into the unknown depths of love--of that passion, whose nature for the first time she had tremulously felt, watching "Pagliacci"--and had ever since been feeling and trembling at! Must it really be neck or nothing? Did she care enough to break through all barriers, fling herself into midstream? When they could see each other every day, it was so easy to live for the next meeting--not think of what was coming after. But now, with all else cut away, there was only the future to think about-- hers and his. But need she trouble about his? Would he not just love her as long as he liked?

Then she thought of her father--still faithful to a memory--and felt ashamed. Some men loved on--yes--even beyond death! But, sometimes, she would think: 'Am I a candle-flame again? Is he just going to burn himself? What real good can I be to him--I, without freedom, and with my baby, who will grow up?' Yet all these thoughts were, in a way, unreal. The struggle was in herself, so deep that she could hardly understand it; as might be an effort to subdue the instinctive dread of a precipice. And she would feel a kind of resentment against all the happy life round her these summer days--the sea-birds, the sunlight, and the waves; the white sails far out; the calm sun-steeped pine-trees; her baby, tumbling and smiling and softly twittering; and Betty and the other servants--all this life that seemed so simple and untortured.

To the one post each day she looked forward terribly. And yet his letters, which began like hers: "My dear friend," might have been read by anyone--almost. She spent a long time over her answers. She was not sleeping well; and, lying awake, she could see his face very distinct before her closed eyes--its teasing, lazy smile, its sudden intent gravity. Once she had a dream of him, rushing past her down into the sea. She called, but, without turning his head, he swam out further, further, till she lost sight of him, and woke up suddenly with a pain in her heart. "If you can't love me, I've got to break away!" His face, his flung-back head reminded her too sharply of those words. Now that he was away from her, would he not feel that it was best to break, and forget her? Up there, he would meet girls untouched by life--not like herself. He had everything before him; could he possibly go on wanting one who had nothing before her? Some blue-eyed girl with auburn hair--that type so superior to her own--would sweep, perhaps had already swept him, away from her! What then? No worse than it used to be? Ah, so much worse that she dared not think of it!

Then, for five days, no letter came. And, with each blank morning, the ache in her grew--a sharp, definite ache of longing and jealousy, utterly unlike the mere feeling of outraged pride when she had surprised Fiorsen and Daphne Wing in the music-room--a hundred years ago, it seemed. When on the fifth day the postman left nothing but a bill for little Gyp's shoes, and a note from Aunt Rosamund at Harrogate, where she had gone with Winton for the annual cure, Gyp's heart sank to the depths. Was this the end? And, with a blind, numb feeling, she wandered out into the wood, where the fall of the pine-needles, season after season, had made of the ground one soft, dark, dust-coloured bed, on which the sunlight traced the pattern of the pine boughs, and ants rummaged about their great heaped dwellings.

Gyp went along till she could see no outer world for the grey-brown tree-stems streaked with gum-resin; and, throwing herself down on her face, dug her elbows deep into the pine dust. Tears, so rare with her, forced their way up, and trickled slowly to the hands whereon her chin rested. No good--crying! Crying only made her ill; crying was no relief. She turned over on her back and lay motionless, the sunbeams warm on her cheeks. Silent here, even at noon! The sough of the calm sea could not reach so far; the flies were few; no bird sang. The tall bare pine stems rose up all round like columns in a temple roofed with the dark boughs and sky. Cloud-fleeces drifted slowly over the blue. There should be peace-- but in her heart there was none!

A dusky shape came padding through the trees a little way off, another--two donkeys loose from somewhere, who stood licking each other's necks and noses. Those two humble beasts, so friendly, made her feel ashamed. Why should she be sorry for herself, she who had everything in life she wanted--except love--the love she had thought she would never want? Ah, but she wanted it now, wanted it at last with all her being!

With a shudder, she sprang up; the ants had got to her, and she had to pick them off her neck and dress. She wandered back towards the beach. If he had truly found someone to fill his thoughts, and drive her out, all the better for him; she would never, by word or sign, show him that she missed, and wanted him--never! She would sooner die!

She came out into the sunshine. The tide was low; and the wet foreshore gleamed with opal tints; there were wandering tracks on the sea, as of great serpents winding their way beneath the surface; and away to the west the archwayed, tawny rock that cut off the line of coast was like a dream-shape. All was dreamy. And, suddenly her heart began beating to suffocation and the colour flooded up in her cheeks. On the edge of the low cliff bank, by the side of the path, Summerhay was sitting!

He got up and came toward her. Putting her hands up to her glowing face, she said:

"Yes; it's me. Did you ever see such a gipsified object? I thought you were still in Scotland. How's dear Ossy?" Then her self-possession failed, and she looked down.

"It's no good, Gyp. I must know."

It seemed to Gyp that her heart had given up beating; she said quietly: "Let's sit down a minute"; and moved under the cliff bank where they could not be seen from the house. There, drawing the coarse grass blades through her fingers, she said, with a shiver:

"I didn't try to make you, did I? I never tried."

"No; never."

"It's wrong."

"Who cares? No one could care who loves as I do. Oh, Gyp, can't you love me? I know I'm nothing much." How quaint and boyish! "But it's eleven weeks to-day since we met in the train. I don't think I've had one minute's let-up since."

"Have you tried?"

"Why should I, when I love you?"

Gyp sighed; relief, delight, pain--she did not know.

"Then what is to be done? Look over there--that bit of blue in the grass is my baby daughter. There's her--and my father--and--"

"And what?"

"I'm afraid--afraid of love, Bryan!"

At that first use of his name, Summerhay turned pale and seized her hand.

"Afraid--how--afraid?"

Gyp said very low:

"I might love too much. Don't say any more now. No; don't! Let's go in and have lunch." And she got up.

He stayed till tea-time, and not a word more of love did he speak. But when he was gone, she sat under the pine-tree with little Gyp on her lap. Love! If her mother had checked love, she herself would never have been born. The midges were biting before she went in. After watching Betty give little Gyp her bath, she crossed the passage to her bedroom and leaned out of the window. Could it have been to-day she had lain on the ground with tears of despair running down on to her hands? Away to the left of the pine-tree, the moon had floated up, soft, barely visible in the paling sky. A new world, an enchanted garden! And between her and it--what was there?

That evening she sat with a book on her lap, not reading; and in her went on the strange revolution which comes in the souls of all women who are not half-men when first they love--the sinking of 'I' into 'Thou,' the passionate, spiritual subjection, the intense, unconscious giving-up of will, in preparation for completer union.

She slept without dreaming, awoke heavy and oppressed. Too languid to bathe, she sat listless on the beach with little Gyp all the morning. Had she energy or spirit to meet him in the afternoon by the rock archway, as she had promised? For the first time since she was a small and naughty child, she avoided the eyes of Betty. One could not be afraid of that stout, devoted soul, but one could feel that she knew too much. When the time came, after early tea, she started out; for if she did not go, he would come, and she did not want the servants to see him two days running.

This last day of August was warm and still, and had a kind of beneficence--the corn all gathered in, the apples mellowing, robins singing already, a few slumberous, soft clouds, a pale blue sky, a smiling sea. She went inland, across the stream, and took a footpath back to the shore. No pines grew on that side, where the soil was richer--of a ruddy brown. The second crops of clover were already high; in them humblebees were hard at work; and, above, the white-throated swallows dipped and soared. Gyp gathered a bunch of chicory flowers. She was close above the shore before she saw him standing in the rock archway, looking for her across the beach. After the hum of the bees and flies, it was very quiet here--only the faintest hiss of tiny waves. He had not yet heard her coming, and the thought flashed through her: 'If I take another step, it is for ever! She stood there scarcely breathing, the chicory flowers held before her lips. Then she heard him sigh, and, moving quickly forward, said:

"Here I am."

He turned round, seized her hand, and, without a word, they passed through the archway. They walked on the hard sand, side by side, till he said:

"Let's go up into the fields."

They scrambled up the low cliff and went along the grassy top to a gate into a stubble field. He held it open for her, but, as she passed, caught her in his arms and kissed her lips as if he would never stop. To her, who had been kissed a thousand times, it was the first kiss. Deadly pale, she fell back from him against the gate; then, her lips still quivering, her eyes very dark, she looked at him distraught with passion, drunk on that kiss. And, suddenly turning round to the gate, she laid her arms on the top bar and buried her face on them. A sob came up in her throat that seemed to tear her to bits, and she cried as if her heart would break. His timid despairing touches, his voice close to her ear:

"Gyp, Gyp! My darling! My love! Oh, don't, Gyp!" were not of the least avail; she could not stop. That kiss had broken down something in her soul, swept away her life up to that moment, done something terrible and wonderful. At last, she struggled out:

"I'm sorry--so sorry! Don't--don't look at me! Go away a little, and I'll--I'll be all right."

He obeyed without a word, and, passing through the gate, sat down on the edge of the cliff with his back to her, looking out over the sea.

Gripping the wood of the old grey gate till it hurt her hands, Gyp gazed at the chicory flowers and poppies that had grown up again in the stubble field, at the butterflies chasing in the sunlight over the hedge toward the crinkly foam edging the quiet sea till they were but fluttering white specks in the blue.

But when she had rubbed her cheeks and smoothed her face, she was no nearer to feeling that she could trust herself. What had happened in her was too violent, too sweet, too terrifying. And going up to him she said:

"Let me go home now by myself. Please, let me go, dear. To-morrow!"

Summerhay looked up.

"Whatever you wish, Gyp--always!"

He pressed her hand against his cheek, then let it go, and, folding his arms tight, resumed his meaningless stare at the sea. Gyp turned away. She crossed back to the other side of the stream, but did not go in for a long time, sitting in the pine wood till the evening gathered and the stars crept out in a sky of that mauve- blue which the psychic say is the soul-garment colour of the good.

Late that night, when she had finished brushing her hair, she opened her window and stepped out on to the verandah. How warm! How still! Not a sound from the sleeping house--not a breath of wind! Her face, framed in her hair, her hands, and all her body, felt as if on fire. The moon behind the pine-tree branches was filling every cranny of her brain with wakefulness. The soft shiver of the wellnigh surfless sea on a rising tide, rose, fell, rose, fell. The sand cliff shone like a bank of snow. And all was inhabited, as a moonlit night is wont to be, by a magical Presence. A big moth went past her face, so close that she felt the flutter of its wings. A little night beast somewhere was scruttling in bushes or the sand. Suddenly, across the wan grass the shadow of the pine-trunk moved. It moved--ever so little--moved! And, petrified--Gyp stared. There, joined to the trunk, Summerhay was standing, his face just visible against the stem, the moonlight on one cheek, a hand shading his eyes. He moved that hand, held it out in supplication. For long--how long--Gyp did not stir, looking straight at that beseeching figure. Then, with a feeling she had never known, she saw him coming. He came up to the verandah and stood looking up at her. She could see all the workings of his face--passion, reverence, above all amazement; and she heard his awed whisper:

"Is it you, Gyp? Really you? You look so young--so young!"

John Galsworthy