To deceive undoubtedly requires a course of training. And, unversed in this art, Lennan was fast finding it intolerable to scheme and watch himself, and mislead one who had looked up to him ever since they were children. Yet, all the time, he had a feeling that, since he alone knew all the circumstances of his case, he alone was entitled to blame or to excuse himself. The glib judgments that moralists would pass upon his conduct could be nothing but the imbecilities of smug and pharisaic fools--of those not under this drugging spell--of such as had not blood enough, perhaps, ever to fall beneath it!
The day after the ride Nell had not come, and he had no word from her. Was she, then, hurt, after all? She had lain back very inertly in that chair! And Sylvia never asked if he knew how the girl was after her fall, nor offered to send round to inquire. Did she not wish to speak of her, or had she simply--not believed? When there was so much he could not talk of it seemed hard that just what happened to be true should be distrusted. She had not yet, indeed, by a single word suggested that she felt he was deceiving her, but at heart he knew that she was not deceived. . . . Those feelers of a woman who loves--can anything check their delicate apprehension? . . .
Towards evening, the longing to see the girl--a sensation as if she were calling him to come to her--became almost insupportable; yet, whatever excuse he gave, he felt that Sylvia would know where he was going. He sat on one side of the fire, she on the other, and they both read books; the only strange thing about their reading was, that neither of them ever turned a leaf. It was 'Don Quixote' he read, the page which had these words: "Let Altisidora weep or sing, still I am Dulcinea's and hers alone, dead or alive, dutiful and unchanged, in spite of all the necromantic powers in the world." And so the evening passed. When she went up to bed, he was very near to stealing out, driving up to the Dromores' door, and inquiring of the confidential man; but the thought of the confounded fellow's eyes was too much for him, and he held out. He took up Sylvia's book, De Maupassant's 'Fort comme la mort'--open at the page where the poor woman finds that her lover has passed away from her to her own daughter. And as he read, the tears rolled down his cheek. Sylvia! Sylvia! Were not his old favourite words from that old favourite book still true? "Dulcinea del Toboso is the most beautiful woman in the world, and I the most unfortunate knight upon the earth. It were unjust that such perfection should suffer through my weakness. No, pierce my body with your lance, knight, and let my life expire with my honour. . . ." Why could he not wrench this feeling from his heart, banish this girl from his eyes? Why could he not be wholly true to her who was and always had been wholly true to him? Horrible--this will-less, nerveless feeling, this paralysis, as if he were a puppet moved by a cruel hand. And, as once before, it seemed to him that the girl was sitting there in Sylvia's chair in her dark red frock, with her eyes fixed on him. Uncannily vivid--that impression! . . . A man could not go on long with his head in Chancery like this, without becoming crazed!
It was growing dusk on Saturday afternoon when he gave up that intolerable waiting and opened the studio door to go to Nell. It was now just two days since he had seen or heard of her. She had spoken of a dance for that very night--of his going to it. She must be ill!
But he had not taken six steps when he saw her coming. She had on a grey furry scarf, hiding her mouth, making her look much older. The moment the door was shut she threw it off, went to the hearth, drew up a little stool, and, holding her hands out to the fire, said:
"Have you thought about me? Have you thought enough now?"
And he answered: "Yes, I've thought, but I'm no nearer."
"Why? Nobody need ever know you love me. And if they did, I wouldn't care."
Simple! How simple! Glorious, egoistic youth!
He could not speak of Sylvia to this child--speak of his married life, hitherto so dignified, so almost sacred. It was impossible. Then he heard her say:
"It can't be wrong to love you! I don't care if it is wrong," and saw her lips quivering, and her eyes suddenly piteous and scared, as if for the first time she doubted of the issue. Here was fresh torment! To watch an unhappy child. And what was the use of even trying to make clear to her--on the very threshold of life--the hopeless maze that he was wandering in! What chance of making her understand the marsh of mud and tangled weeds he must drag through to reach her. "Nobody need know." So simple! What of his heart and his wife's heart? And, pointing to his new work--the first man bewitched by the first nymph--he said:
"Look at this, Nell! That nymph is you; and this man is me." She got up, and came to look. And while she was gazing he greedily drank her in. What a strange mixture of innocence and sorcery! What a wonderful young creature to bring to full knowledge of love within his arms! And he said: "You had better understand what you are to me--all that I shall never know again; there it is in that nymph's face. Oh, no! not your face. And there am I struggling through slime to reach you--not my face, of course."
She said: "Poor face!" then covered her own. Was she going to cry, and torture him still more? But, instead, she only murmured: "But you have reached me!" swayed towards him, and put her lips to his.
He gave way then. From that too stormy kiss of his she drew back for a second, then, as if afraid of her own recoil, snuggled close again. But the instinctive shrinking of innocence had been enough for Lennan--he dropped his arms and said:
"You must go, child."
Without a word she picked up her fur, put it on, and stood waiting for him to speak. Then, as he did not, she held out something white. It was the card for the dance.
"You said you were coming?"
And he nodded. Her eyes and lips smiled at him; she opened the door, and, still with that slow, happy smile, went out. . . .
Yes, he would be coming; wherever she was, whenever she wanted him! . . .
His blood on fire, heedless of everything but to rush after happiness, Lennan spent those hours before the dance. He had told Sylvia that he would be dining at his Club--a set of rooms owned by a small coterie of artists in Chelsea. He had taken this precaution, feeling that he could not sit through dinner opposite her and then go out to that dance--and Nell! He had spoken of a guest at the Club, to account for evening dress--another lie, but what did it matter? He was lying all the time, if not in words, in action--must lie, indeed, to save her suffering!
He stopped at the Frenchwoman's flower shop.
"Que desirez-vous, monsieur? Des oeillets rouges--j'en ai de bien beaux, ce soir."
Des oeillets rouges? Yes, those to-night! To this address. No green with them; no card!
How strange the feeling--with the die once cast for love--of rushing, of watching his own self being left behind!
In the Brompton Road, outside a little restaurant, a thin musician was playing on a violin. Ah! and he knew this place; he would go in there, not to the Club--and the fiddler should have all he had to spare, for playing those tunes of love. He turned in. He had not been there since the day before that night on the river, twenty years ago. Never since; and yet it was not changed. The same tarnished gilt, and smell of cooking; the same macaroni in the same tomato sauce; the same Chianti flasks; the same staring, light-blue walls wreathed with pink flowers. Only the waiter different-- hollow-cheeked, patient, dark of eye. He, too, should be well tipped! And that poor, over-hatted lady, eating her frugal meal-- to her, at all events, a look of kindness. For all desperate creatures he must feel, this desperate night! And suddenly he thought of Oliver. Another desperate one! What should he say to Oliver at this dance--he, aged forty-seven, coming there without his wife! Some imbecility, such as: 'Watching the human form divine in motion,' 'Catching sidelights on Nell for the statuette'-- some cant; it did not matter! The wine was drawn, and he must drink!
It was still early when he left the restaurant--a dry night, very calm, not cold. When had he danced last? With Olive Cramier, before he knew he loved her. Well, that memory could not be broken, for he would not dance to-night! Just watch, sit with the girl a few minutes, feel her hand cling to his, see her eyes turned back to him; and--come away! And then--the future! For the wine was drawn! The leaf of a plane-tree, fluttering down, caught on his sleeve. Autumn would soon be gone, and after Autumn--only Winter! She would have done with him long before he came to Winter. Nature would see to it that Youth called for her, and carried her away. Nature in her courses! But just to cheat Nature for a little while! To cheat Nature--what greater happiness!
Here was the place with red-striped awning, carriages driving away, loiterers watching. He turned in with a beating heart. Was he before her? How would she come to this first dance? With Oliver alone? Or had some chaperon been found? To have come because she-- this child so lovely, born 'outside'--might have need of chaperonage, would have been some comfort to dignity, so wistful, so lost as his. But, alas! he knew he was only there because he could not keep away!
Already they were dancing in the hall upstairs; but not she, yet; and he stood leaning against the wall where she must pass. Lonely and out of place he felt; as if everyone must know why he was there. People stared, and he heard a girl ask: "Who's that against the wall with the hair and dark moustache?"--and her partner murmuring his answer, and her voice again: "Yes, he looks as if he were seeing sand and lions." For whom, then, did they take him? Thank heaven! They were all the usual sort. There would be no one that he knew. Suppose Johnny Dromore himself came with Nell! He was to be back on Saturday! What could he say, then? How meet those doubting, knowing eyes, goggling with the fixed philosophy that a man has but one use for woman? God! and it would be true! For a moment he was on the point of getting his coat and hat, and sneaking away. That would mean not seeing her till Monday; and he stood his ground. But after to-night there must be no more such risks--their meetings must be wisely planned, must sink underground. And then he saw her at the foot of the stairs in a dress of a shell-pink colour, with one of his flowers in her light- brown hair and the others tied to the handle of a tiny fan. How self-possessed she looked, as if this were indeed her native element--her neck and arms bare, her cheeks a deep soft pink, her eyes quickly turning here and there. She began mounting the stairs, and saw him. Was ever anything so lovely as she looked just then? Behind her he marked Oliver, and a tall girl with red hair, and another young man. He moved deliberately to the top of the stairs on the wall side, so that from behind they should not see her face when she greeted him. She put the little fan with the flowers to her lips; and, holding out her hand, said, quick and low:
"The fourth, it's a polka; we'll sit out, won't we?"
Then swaying a little, so that her hair and the flower in it almost touched his face, she passed, and there in her stead stood Oliver.
Lennan had expected one of his old insolent looks, but the young man's face was eager and quite friendly.
"It was awfully good of you to come, Mr. Lennan. Is Mrs. Lennan--"
And Lennan murmured:
"She wasn't able; she's not quite--" and could have sunk into the shining floor. Youth with its touching confidence, its eager trust! This was the way he was fulfilling his duty towards Youth!
When they had passed into the ballroom he went back to his position against the wall. They were dancing Number Three; his time of waiting, then, was drawing to a close. From where he stood he could not see the dancers--no use to watch her go round in someone else's arms.
Not a true waltz--some French or Spanish pavement song played in waltz time; bizarre, pathetic, whirling after its own happiness. That chase for happiness! Well, life, with all its prizes and its possibilities, had nothing that quite satisfied--save just the fleeting moments of passion! Nothing else quite poignant enough to be called pure joy! Or so it seemed to him.
The waltz was over. He could see her now, on a rout seat against the wall with the other young man, turning her eyes constantly as if to make sure that he was still standing there. What subtle fuel was always being added to the fire by that flattery of her inexplicable adoration--of those eyes that dragged him to her, yet humbly followed him, too! Five times while she sat there he saw the red-haired girl or Oliver bring men up; saw youths cast longing glances; saw girls watching her with cold appraisement, or with a touching, frank delight. From the moment that she came in, there had been, in her father's phrase, 'only one in it.' And she could pass all this by, and still want him. Incredible!
At the first notes of the polka he went to her. It was she who found their place of refuge--a little alcove behind two palm- plants. But sitting there, he realized, as never before, that there was no spiritual communion between him and this child. She could tell him her troubles or her joys; he could soothe or sympathize; but never would the gap between their natures and their ages be crossed. His happiness was only in the sight and touch of her. But that, God knew, was happiness enough--a feverish, craving joy, like an overtired man's thirst, growing with the drink on which it tries to slake itself. Sitting there, in the scent of those flowers and of some sweet essence in her hair, with her fingers touching his, and her eyes seeking his, he tried loyally not to think of himself, to grasp her sensations at this her first dance, and just help her to enjoyment. But he could not-- paralyzed, made drunk by that insensate longing to take her in his arms and crush her to him as he had those few hours back. He could see her expanding like a flower, in all this light, and motion, and intoxicating admiration round her. What business had he in her life, with his dark hunger after secret hours; he--a coin worn thin already--a destroyer of the freshness and the glamour of her youth and beauty!
Then, holding up the flowers, she said:
"Did you give me these because of the one I gave you?"
"What did you do with that?"
"Oh! but why?"
"Because you are a witch--and witches must be burned with all their flowers."
"Are you going to burn me?"
He put his hand on her cool arm.
"Feel! The flames are lighted."
"You may! I don't care!"
She took his hand and laid her cheek against it; yet, to the music, which had begun again, the tip of her shoe was already beating time. And he said:
"You ought to be dancing, child."
"Oh, no! Only it's a pity you don't want to."
"Yes! Do you understand that it must all be secret--underground?"
She covered his lips with the fan, and said: "You're not to think; you're not to think--never! When can I come?"
"I must find the best way. Not to-morrow. Nobody must know, Nell-- for your sake--for hers--nobody!"
She nodded, and repeated with a soft, mysterious wisdom: "Nobody." And then, aloud: "Here's Oliver! It was awfully good of you to come. Good-night!"
And as, on Oliver's arm, she left their little refuge, she looked back.
He lingered--to watch her through this one dance. How they made all the other couples sink into insignificance, with that something in them both that was better than mere good looks--that something not outre or eccentric, but poignant, wayward. They went well together, those two Dromores--his dark head and her fair head; his clear, brown, daring eyes, and her grey, languorous, mesmeric eyes. Ah! Master Oliver was happy now, with her so close to him! It was not jealousy that Lennan felt. Not quite--one did not feel jealous of the young; something very deep--pride, sense of proportion, who knew what--prevented that. She, too, looked happy, as if her soul were dancing, vibrating with the music and the scent of the flowers. He waited for her to come round once more, to get for a last time that flying glance turned back; then found his coat and hat and went.
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