Next day, still following the lead of her words about fresh air and his tired look, he told her that he was going to ride, and did not say with whom. After applauding his resolution, she was silent for a little--then asked:
"Why don't you ride with Nell?"
He had already so lost his dignity, that he hardly felt disgraced in answering:
"It might bore her!"
"Oh, no; it wouldn't bore her."
Had she meant anything by that? And feeling as if he were fencing with his own soul, he said:
"Very well, I will."
He had perceived suddenly that he did not know his wife, having always till now believed that it was she who did not quite know him.
If she had not been out at lunch-time, he would have lunched out himself--afraid of his own face. For feverishness in sick persons mounts steadily with the approach of a certain hour. And surely his face, to anyone who could have seen him being conveyed to Piccadilly, would have suggested a fevered invalid rather than a healthy, middle-aged sculptor in a cab.
The horses were before the door--the little magpie horse, and a thoroughbred bay mare, weeded from Dromore's racing stable. Nell, too, was standing ready, her cheeks very pink, and her eyes very bright. She did not wait for him to mount her, but took the aid of the confidential man. What was it that made her look so perfect on that little horse--shape of limb, or something soft and fiery in her spirit that the little creature knew of?
They started in silence, but as soon as the sound of hoofs died on the tan of Rotten Row, she turned to him.
"It was lovely of you to come! I thought you'd be afraid--you are afraid of me."
And Lennan thought: You're right!
"But please don't look like yesterday. To-day's too heavenly. Oh! I love beautiful days, and I love riding, and--" She broke off and looked at him. 'Why can't you just be nice to me'--she seemed to be saying--'and love me as you ought!' That was her power--the conviction that he did, and ought to love her; that she ought to and did love him. How simple!
But riding, too, is a simple passion; and simple passions distract each other. It was a treat to be on that bay mare. Who so to be trusted to ride the best as Johnny Dromore?
At the far end of the Row she cried out: "Let's go on to Richmond now," and trotted off into the road, as if she knew she could do with him what she wished. And, following meekly, he asked himself: Why? What was there in her to make up to him for all that he was losing--his power of work, his dignity, his self-respect? What was there? Just those eyes, and lips, and hair?
And as if she knew what he was thinking, she looked round and smiled.
So they jogged on over the Bridge and across Barnes Common into Richmond Park.
But the moment they touched turf, with one look back at him, she was off. Had she all the time meant to give him this breakneck chase--or had the loveliness of that Autumn day gone to her head-- blue sky and coppery flames of bracken in the sun, and the beech leaves and the oak leaves; pure Highland colouring come South for once.
When in the first burst he had tested the mare's wind, this chase of her, indeed, was sheer delight. Through glades, over fallen tree-trunks, in bracken up to the hocks, out across the open, past a herd of amazed and solemn deer, over rotten ground all rabbit- burrows, till just as he thought he was up to her, she slipped away by a quick turn round trees. Mischief incarnate, but something deeper than mischief, too! He came up with her at last, and leaned over to seize her rein. With a cut of her whip that missed his hand by a bare inch, and a wrench, she made him shoot past, wheeled in her tracks, and was off again like an arrow, back amongst the trees--lying right forward under the boughs, along the neck of her little horse. Then out from amongst the trees she shot downhill. Right down she went, full tilt, and after her went Lennan, lying back, and expecting the bay mare to come down at every stride. This was her idea of fun! She switched round at the bottom and went galloping along the foot of the hill; and he thought: Now I've got her! She could not break back up that hill, and there was no other cover for fully half a mile.
Then he saw, not thirty yards in front, an old sandpit; and Great God! she was going straight at it! And shouting frantically, he reined his mare outwards. But she only raised her whip, cut the magpie horse over the flank, and rode right on. He saw that little demon gather its feet and spring--down, down, saw him pitch, struggle, sink--and she, flung forward, roll over and lie on her back. He felt nothing at the moment, only had that fixed vision of a yellow patch of sand, the blue sky, a rook flying, and her face upturned. But when he came on her she was on her feet, holding the bridle of her dazed horse. No sooner did he touch her, than she sank down. Her eyes were closed, but he could feel that she had not fainted; and he just held her, and kept pressing his lips to her eyes and forehead. Suddenly she let her head fall back, and her lips met his. Then opening her eyes, she said: "I'm not hurt, only--funny. Has Magpie cut his knees?"
Not quite knowing what he did, he got up to look. The little horse was cropping at some grass, unharmed--the sand and fern had saved his knees. And the languid voice behind him said: "It's all right-- you can leave the horses. They'll come when I call."
Now that he knew she was unhurt, he felt angry. Why had she behaved in this mad way--given him this fearful shock? But in that same languid voice she went on: "Don't be cross with me. I thought at first I'd pull up, but then I thought: 'If I jump he can't help being nice'--so I did-- Don't leave off loving me because I'm not hurt, please."
Terribly moved, he sat down beside her, took her hands in his, and said:
"Nell! Nell! it's all wrong--it's madness!"
"Why? Don't think about it! I don't want you to think--only to love me."
"My child, you don't know what love is!"
For answer she only flung her arms round his neck; then, since he held back from kissing her, let them fall again, and jumped up.
"Very well. But I love you. You can think of that--you can't prevent me!" And without waiting for help, she mounted the magpie horse from the sand-heap where they had fallen.
Very sober that ride home! The horses, as if ashamed of their mad chase, were edging close to each other, so that now and then his arm would touch her shoulder. He asked her once what she had felt while she was jumping.
"Only to be sure my foot was free. It was rather horrid coming down, thinking of Magpie's knees;" and touching the little horse's goat-like ears, she added softly: "Poor dear! He'll be stiff to- morrow."
She was again only the confiding, rather drowsy, child. Or was it that the fierceness of those past moments had killed his power of feeling? An almost dreamy hour--with the sun going down, the lamps being lighted one by one--and a sort of sweet oblivion over everything!
At the door, where the groom was waiting, Lennan would have said good-bye, but she whispered: "Oh, no, please! I am tired now--you might help me up a little."
And so, half carrying her, he mounted past the Vanity Fair cartoons, and through the corridor with the red paper and the Van Beers' drawings, into the room where he had first seen her.
Once settled back in Dromore's great chair, with the purring kitten curled up on her neck, she murmured:
"Isn't it nice? You can make tea; and we'll have hot buttered toast."
And so Lennan stayed, while the confidential man brought tea and toast; and, never once looking at them, seemed to know all that had passed, all that might be to come.
Then they were alone again, and, gazing down at her stretched out in that great chair, Lennan thought:
"Thank God that I'm tired too--body and soul!"
But suddenly she looked up at him, and pointing to the picture that to-day had no curtain drawn, said:
"Do you think I'm like her? I made Oliver tell me about--myself this summer. That's why you needn't bother. It doesn't matter what happens to me, you see. And I don't care--because you can love me, without feeling bad about it. And you will, won't you?"
Then, with her eyes still on his face, she went on quickly:
"Only we won't talk about that now, will we? It's too cosy. I am nice and tired. Do smoke!"
But Lennan's fingers trembled so that he could hardly light that cigarette. And, watching them, she said: "Please give me one. Dad doesn't like my smoking."
The virtue of Johnny Dromore! Yes! It would always be by proxy! And he muttered:
"How do you think he would like to know about this afternoon, Nell?"
"I don't care." Then peering up through the kitten's fur she murmured: "Oliver wants me to go to a dance on Saturday--it's for a charity. Shall I?"
"Of course; why not?"
"Will you come?"
"Oh, do! You must! It's my very first, you know. I've got an extra ticket."
And against his will, his judgment--everything, Lennan answered: "Yes."
She clapped her hands, and the kitten crawled down to her knees.
When he got up to go, she did not move, but just looked up at him; and how he got away he did not know.
Stopping his cab a little short of home, he ran, for he felt cold and stiff, and letting himself in with his latch-key, went straight to the drawing-room. The door was ajar, and Sylvia standing at the window. He heard her sigh; and his heart smote him. Very still, and slender, and lonely she looked out there, with the light shining on her fair hair so that it seemed almost white. Then she turned and saw him. He noticed her throat working with the effort she made not to show him anything, and he said:
"Surely you haven't been anxious! Nell had a bit of a fall-- jumping into a sandpit. She's quite mad sometimes. I stayed to tea with her--just to make sure she wasn't really hurt." But as he spoke he loathed himself; his voice sounded so false.
She only answered: "It's all right, dear," but he saw that she kept her eyes--those blue, too true eyes--averted, even when she kissed him.
And so began another evening and night and morning of fever, subterfuge, wariness, aching. A round of half-ecstatic torment, out of which he seemed no more able to break than a man can break through the walls of a cell. . . .
Though it live but a day in the sun, though it drown in tenebrous night, the dark flower of passion will have its hour. . . .
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