Now that she was gone, it was curious how little they spoke of her, considering how long she had been with them. And they had from her but one letter written to Sylvia, very soon after she left, ending: "Dad sends his best respects, please; and with my love to you and Mr. Lennan, and all the beasts.--NELL.
"Oliver is coming here next week. We are going to some races."
It was difficult, of course, to speak of her, with that episode of the flower, too bizarre to be told--the sort of thing Sylvia would see out of all proportion--as, indeed, any woman might. Yet--what had it really been, but the uncontrolled impulse of an emotional child longing to express feelings kindled by the excitement of that opera? What but a child's feathery warmth, one of those flying peeps at the mystery of passion that young things take? He could not give away that pretty foolishness. And because he would not give it away, he was more than usually affectionate to Sylvia.
They had made no holiday plans, and he eagerly fell in with her suggestion that they should go down to Hayle. There, if anywhere, this curious restlessness would leave him. They had not been down to the old place for many years; indeed, since Gordy's death it was generally let.
They left London late in August. The day was closing in when they arrived. Honeysuckle had long been improved away from that station paling, against which he had stood twenty-nine years ago, watching the train carrying Anna Stormer away. In the hired fly Sylvia pressed close to him, and held his hand beneath the ancient dust- rug. Both felt the same excitement at seeing again this old home. Not a single soul of the past days would be there now--only the house and the trees, the owls and the stars; the river, park, and logan stone! It was dark when they arrived; just their bedroom and two sitting-rooms had been made ready, with fires burning, though it was still high summer. The same old execrable Heatherleys looked down from the black oak panellings. The same scent of apples and old mice clung here and there about the dark corridors with their unexpected stairways. It was all curiously unchanged, as old houses are when they are let furnished.
Once in the night he woke. Through the wide-open, uncurtained windows the night was simply alive with stars, such swarms of them swinging and trembling up there; and, far away, rose the melancholy, velvet-soft hooting of an owl.
Sylvia's voice, close to him, said:
"Mark, that night when your star caught in my hair? Do you remember?"
Yes, he remembered. And in his drowsy mind just roused from dreams, there turned and turned the queer nonsensical refrain: "I never--never--will desert Mr. Micawber. . . ."
A pleasant month that--of reading, and walking with the dogs the country round, of lying out long hours amongst the boulders or along the river banks, watching beasts and birds.
The little old green-house temple of his early masterpieces was still extant, used now to protect watering pots. But no vestige of impulse towards work came to him down there. He was marking time; not restless, not bored, just waiting--but for what, he had no notion. And Sylvia, at any rate, was happy, blooming in these old haunts, losing her fairness in the sun; even taking again to a sunbonnet, which made her look extraordinarily young. The trout that poor old Gordy had so harried were left undisturbed. No gun was fired; rabbits, pigeons, even the few partridges enjoyed those first days of autumn unmolested. The bracken and leaves turned very early, so that the park in the hazy September sunlight had an almost golden hue. A gentle mellowness reigned over all that holiday. And from Ireland came no further news, save one picture postcard with the words: "This is our house.--NELL."
In the last week of September they went back to London. And at once there began in him again that restless, unreasonable aching-- that sense of being drawn away out of himself; so that he once more took to walking the Park for hours, over grass already strewn with leaves, always looking--craving--and for what?
At Dromore's the confidential man did not know when his master would be back; he had gone to Scotland with Miss Nell after the St. Leger. Was Lennan disappointed? Not so--relieved, rather. But his ache was there all the time, feeding on its secrecy and loneliness, unmentionable feeling that it was. Why had he not realized long ago that youth was over, passion done with, autumn upon him? How never grasped the fact that 'Time steals away'? And, as before, the only refuge was in work. The sheep--dogs and 'The Girl on the Magpie Horse' were finished. He began a fantastic 'relief'--a nymph peering from behind a rock, and a wild-eyed man creeping, through reeds, towards her. If he could put into the nymph's face something of this lure of Youth and Life and Love that was dragging at him, into the man's face the state of his own heart, it might lay that feeling to rest. Anything to get it out of himself! And he worked furiously, laboriously, all October, making no great progress. . . . What could he expect when Life was all the time knocking with that muffled tapping at his door?
It was on the Tuesday, after the close of the last Newmarket meeting, and just getting dusk, when Life opened the door and walked in. She wore a dark-red dress, a new one, and surely her face--her figure--were very different from what he had remembered! They had quickened and become poignant. She was no longer a child-- that was at once plain. Cheeks, mouth, neck, waist--all seemed fined, shaped; the crinkly, light-brown hair was coiled up now under a velvet cap; only the great grey eyes seemed quite the same. And at sight of her his heart gave a sort of dive and flight, as if all its vague and wistful sensations had found their goal.
Then, in sudden agitation, he realized that his last moment with this girl--now a child no longer--had been a secret moment of warmth and of emotion; a moment which to her might have meant, in her might have bred, feelings that he had no inkling of. He tried to ignore that fighting and diving of his heart, held out his hand, and murmured:
"Ah, Nell! Back at last! You've grown." Then, with a sensation of every limb gone weak, he felt her arms round his neck, and herself pressed against him. There was time for the thought to flash through him: This is terrible! He gave her a little convulsive squeeze--could a man do less?--then just managed to push her gently away, trying with all his might to think: She's a child! It's nothing more than after Carmen! She doesn't know what I am feeling! But he was conscious of a mad desire to clutch her to him. The touch of her had demolished all his vagueness, made things only too plain, set him on fire.
He said uncertainly:
"Come to the fire, my child, and tell me all about it."
If he did not keep to the notion that she was just a child, his head would go. Perdita--'the lost one'! A good name for her, indeed, as she stood there, her eyes shining in the firelight--more mesmeric than ever they had been! And, to get away from the lure of those eyes, he bent down and raked the grate, saying:
"Have you seen Sylvia?" But he knew that she had not, even before she gave that impatient shrug. Then he pulled himself together, and said:
"What has happened to you, child?"
"I'm not a child."
"No, we've both grown older. I was forty-seven the other day."
She caught his hand--Heavens! how supple she was!--and murmured:
"You're not old a bit; you're quite young." At his wits' end, with his heart thumping, but still keeping his eyes away from her, he said:
"Where is Oliver?"
She dropped his hand at that.
"Oliver? I hate him!"
Afraid to trust himself near her, he had begun walking up and down. And she stood, following him with her gaze--the firelight playing on her red frock. What extraordinary stillness! What power she had developed in these few months! Had he let her see that he felt that power? And had all this come of one little moment in a dark corridor, of one flower pressed into his hand? Why had he not spoken to her roughly then--told her she was a romantic little fool? God knew what thoughts she had been feeding on! But who could have supposed--who dreamed--? And again he fixed his mind resolutely on that thought: She's a child--only a child!
"Come!" he said: "tell me all about your time in Ireland?"
"Oh! it was just dull--it's all been dull away from you."
It came out without hesitancy or shame, and he could only murmur:
"Ah! you've missed your drawing!"
"Yes. Can I come to-morrow?"
That was the moment to have said: No! You are a foolish child, and I an elderly idiot! But he had neither courage nor clearness of mind enough; nor--the desire. And, without answering, he went towards the door to turn up the light.
"Oh, no! please don't! It's so nice like this!"
The shadowy room, the bluish dusk painted on all the windows, the fitful shining of the fire, the pallor and darkness of the dim casts and bronzes, and that one glowing figure there before the hearth! And her voice, a little piteous, went on:
"Aren't you glad I'm back? I can't see you properly out there."
He went back into the glow, and she gave a little sigh of satisfaction. Then her calm young voice said, ever so distinctly:
"Oliver wants me to marry him, and I won't, of course."
He dared not say: Why not? He dared not say anything. It was too dangerous. And then followed those amazing words: "You know why, don't you? Of course you do."
It was ridiculous, almost shameful to understand their meaning. And he stood, staring in front of him, without a word; humility, dismay, pride, and a sort of mad exultation, all mixed and seething within him in the queerest pudding of emotion. But all he said was:
"Come, my child; we're neither of us quite ourselves to-night. Let's go to the drawing-room."
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