Anna did not receive the boy's letter in the Tyrol. It followed her to Oxford. She was just going out when it came, and she took it up with the mingled beatitude and almost sickening tremor that a lover feels touching the loved one's letter. She would not open it in the street, but carried it all the way to the garden of a certain College, and sat down to read it under the cedar-tree. That little letter, so short, boyish, and dry, transported her halfway to heaven. She was to see him again at once, not to wait weeks, with the fear that he would quite forget her! Her husband had said at breakfast that Oxford without 'the dear young clowns' assuredly was charming, but Oxford 'full of tourists and other strange bodies' as certainly was not. Where should they go? Thank heaven, the letter could be shown him! For all that, a little stab of pain went through her that there was not one word which made it unsuitable to show. Still, she was happy. Never had her favourite College garden seemed so beautiful, with each tree and flower so cared for, and the very wind excluded; never had the birds seemed so tame and friendly. The sun shone softly, even the clouds were luminous and joyful. She sat a long time, musing, and went back forgetting all she had come out to do. Having both courage and decision, she did not leave the letter to burn a hole in her corsets, but gave it to her husband at lunch, looking him in the face, and saying carelessly:
"Providence, you see, answers your question."
He read it, raised his eyebrows, smiled, and, without looking up, murmured:
"You wish to prosecute this romantic episode?"
Did he mean anything--or was it simply his way of putting things?
"I naturally want to be anywhere but here."
"Perhaps you would like to go alone?"
He said that, of course, knowing she could not say: Yes. And she answered simply: "No."
"Then let us both go--on Monday. I will catch the young man's trout; thou shalt catch--h'm!--he shall catch-- What is it he catches--trees? Good! That's settled."
And, three days later, without another word exchanged on the subject, they started.
Was she grateful to him? No. Afraid of him? No. Scornful of him? Not quite. But she was afraid of herself, horribly. How would she ever be able to keep herself in hand, how disguise from these people that she loved their boy? It was her desperate mood that she feared. But since she so much wanted all the best for him that life could give, surely she would have the strength to do nothing that might harm him. Yet she was afraid.
He was there at the station to meet them, in riding things and a nice rough Norfolk jacket that she did not recognize, though she thought she knew his clothes by heart; and as the train came slowly to a standstill the memory of her last moment with him, up in his room amid the luggage that she had helped to pack, very nearly overcame her. It seemed so hard to have to meet him coldly, formally, to have to wait--who knew how long--for a minute with him alone! And he was so polite, so beautifully considerate, with all the manners of a host; hoping she wasn't tired, hoping Mr. Stormer had brought his fishing-rod, though they had lots, of course, they could lend him; hoping the weather would be fine; hoping that they wouldn't mind having to drive three miles, and busying himself about their luggage. All this when she just wanted to take him in her arms and push his hair back from his forehead, and look at him!
He did not drive with them--he had thought they would be too crowded--but followed, keeping quite close in the dust to point out the scenery, mounted on a 'palfrey,' as her husband called the roan with the black swish tail.
This countryside, so rich and yet a little wild, the independent- looking cottages, the old dark cosy manor-house, all was very new to one used to Oxford, and to London, and to little else of England. And all was delightful. Even Mark's guardian seemed to her delightful. For Gordy, when absolutely forced to face an unknown woman, could bring to the encounter a certain bluff ingratiation. His sister, too, Mrs. Doone, with her faded gentleness, seemed soothing.
When Anna was alone in her room, reached by an unexpected little stairway, she stood looking at its carved four-poster bed and the wide lattice window with chintz curtains, and the flowers in a blue bowl. Yes, all was delightful. And yet! What was it? What had she missed? Ah, she was a fool to fret! It was only his anxiety that they should be comfortable, his fear that he might betray himself. Out there those last few days--his eyes! And now! She brooded earnestly over what dress she should put on. She, who tanned so quickly, had almost lost her sunburn in the week of travelling and Oxford. To-day her eyes looked tired, and she was pale. She was not going to disdain anything that might help. She had reached thirty-six last month, and he would be nineteen to- morrow! She decided on black. In black she knew that her neck looked whiter, and the colour of her eyes and hair stranger. She put on no jewellery, did not even pin a rose at her breast, took white gloves. Since her husband did not come to her room, she went up the little stairway to his. She surprised him ready dressed, standing by the fireplace, smiling faintly. What was he thinking of, standing there with that smile? Was there blood in him at all?
He inclined his head slightly and said:
"Good! Chaste as the night! Black suits you. Shall we find our way down to these savage halls?"
And they went down.
Everyone was already there, waiting. A single neighbouring squire and magistrate, by name Trusham, had been bidden, to make numbers equal.
Dinner was announced; they went in. At the round table in a dining-room, all black oak, with many candles, and terrible portraits of departed ancestors, Anna sat between the magistrate and Gordy. Mark was opposite, between a quaint-looking old lady and a young girl who had not been introduced, a girl in white, with very fair hair and very white skin, blue eyes, and lips a little parted; a daughter evidently of the faded Mrs. Doone. A girl like a silvery moth, like a forget-me-not! Anna found it hard to take her eyes away from this girl's face; not that she admired her exactly; pretty she was--yes; but weak, with those parted lips and soft chin, and almost wistful look, as if her deep-blue half-eager eyes were in spite of her. But she was young--so young! That was why not to watch her seemed impossible. "Sylvia Doone?" Indeed! Yes. A soft name, a pretty name--and very like her! Every time her eyes could travel away from her duty to Squire Trusham, and to Gordy (on both of whom she was clearly making an impression), she gazed at this girl, sitting there by the boy, and whenever those two young things smiled and spoke together she felt her heart contract and hurt her. Was this why that something had gone out of his eyes? Ah, she was foolish! If every girl or woman the boy knew was to cause such a feeling in her, what would life be like? And her will hardened against her fears. She was looking brilliant herself; and she saw that the girl in her turn could not help gazing at her eagerly, wistfully, a little bewildered--hatefully young. And the boy? Slowly, surely, as a magnet draws, Anna could feel that she was drawing him, could see him stealing chances to look at her. Once she surprised him full. What troubled eyes! It was not the old adoring face; yet she knew from its expression that she could make him want her--make him jealous--easily fire him with her kisses, if she would.
And the dinner wore to an end. Then came the moment when the girl and she must meet under the eyes of the mother, and that sharp, quaint-looking old governess. It would be a hard moment, that! And it came--a hard moment and a long one, for Gordy sat full span over his wine. But Anna had not served her time beneath the gaze of upper Oxford for nothing; she managed to be charming, full of interest and questions in her still rather foreign accent. Miss Doone--soon she became Sylvia--must show her all the treasures and antiquities. Was it too dark to go out just to look at the old house by night? Oh, no. Not a bit. There were goloshes in the hall. And they went, the girl leading, and talking of Anna knew not what, so absorbed was she in thinking how for a moment, just a moment, she could contrive to be with the boy alone.
It was not remarkable, this old house, but it was his home--might some day perhaps be his. And houses at night were strangely alive with their window eyes.
"That is my room," the girl said, "where the jessamine is--you can just see it. Mark's is above--look, under where the eave hangs out, away to the left. The other night--"
"Yes; the other night?"
"Oh, I don't--! Listen. That's an owl. We have heaps of owls. Mark likes them. I don't, much."
"He's awfully keen, you see, about all beasts and birds--he models them. Shall I show you his workshop?--it's an old greenhouse. Here, you can see in."
There through the glass Anna indeed could just see the boy's quaint creations huddling in the dark on a bare floor, a grotesque company of small monsters. She murmured:
"Yes, I see them, but I won't really look unless he brings me himself."
"Oh, he's sure to. They interest him more than anything in the world."
For all her cautious resolutions Anna could not for the life of her help saying:
"What, more than you?"
The girl gave her a wistful stare before she answered:
"Oh! I don't count much."
Anna laughed, and took her arm. How soft and young it felt! A pang went through her heart, half jealous, half remorseful.
"Do you know," she said, "that you are very sweet?"
The girl did not answer.
"Are you his cousin?"
"No. Gordy is only Mark's uncle by marriage; my mother is Gordy's sister--so I'm nothing."
"I see--just what you English call 'a connection.'"
They were silent, seeming to examine the night; then the girl said:
"I wanted to see you awfully. You're not like what I thought."
"Oh! And what did you think?"
"I thought you would have dark eyes, and Venetian red hair, and not be quite so tall. Of course, I haven't any imagination."
They were at the door again when the girl said that, and the hall light was falling on her; her slip of a white figure showed clear. Young--how young she looked! Everything she said--so young!
And Anna murmured: "And you are--more than I thought, too."
Just then the men came out from the dining-room; her husband with the look on his face that denoted he had been well listened to; Squire Trusham laughing as a man does who has no sense of humour; Gordy having a curly, slightly asphyxiated air; and the boy his pale, brooding look, as though he had lost touch with his surroundings. He wavered towards her, seemed to lose himself, went and sat down by the old governess. Was it because he did not dare to come up to her, or only because he saw the old lady sitting alone? It might well be that.
And the evening, so different from what she had dreamed of, closed in. Squire Trusham was gone in his high dog-cart, with his famous mare whose exploits had entertained her all through dinner. Her candle had been given her; she had said good-night to all but Mark. What should she do when she had his hand in hers? She would be alone with him in that grasp, whose strength no one could see. And she did not know whether to clasp it passionately, or to let it go coolly back to its owner; whether to claim him or to wait. But she was unable to help pressing it feverishly. At once in his face she saw again that troubled look; and her heart smote her. She let it go, and that she might not see him say good-night to the girl, turned and mounted to her room.
Fully dressed, she flung herself on the bed, and there lay, her handkerchief across her mouth, gnawing at its edges.
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