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Chapter 22

HILARY PUTS AN END TO IT


Like flies caught among the impalpable and smoky threads of cobwebs, so men struggle in the webs of their own natures, giving here a start, there a pitiful small jerking, long sustained, and failing into stillness. Enmeshed they were born, enmeshed they die, fighting according to their strength to the end; to fight in the hope of freedom, their joy; to die, not knowing they are beaten, their reward. Nothing, too, is more to be remarked than the manner in which Life devises for each man the particular dilemmas most suited to his nature; that which to the man of gross, decided, or fanatic turn of mind appears a simple sum, to the man of delicate and speculative temper seems to have no answer.

So it was with Hilary in that special web wherein his spirit struggled, sunrise unto sunset, and by moonlight afterward. Inclination, and the circumstances of a life which had never forced him to grips with either men or women, had detached him from the necessity for giving or taking orders. He had almost lost the faculty. Life had been a picture with blurred outlines melting into a softly shaded whole. Not for years had anything seemed to him quite a case for "Yes" or "No." It had been his creed, his delight, his business, too, to try and put himself in everybody's place, so that now there were but few places where he did not, speculatively speaking, feel at home.

Putting himself into the little model's place gave him but small delight. Making due allowance for the sentiment men naturally import into their appreciation of the lives of women, his conception of her place was doubtless not so very wrong.

Here was a child, barely twenty years of age, country bred, neither a lady nor quite a working-girl, without a home or relatives, according to her own account--at all events, without those who were disposed to help her--without apparently any sort of friend; helpless by nature, and whose profession required a more than common wariness--this girl he was proposing to set quite adrift again by cutting through the single slender rope which tethered her. It was like digging up a little rose-tree planted with one's own hands in some poor shelter, just when it had taken root, and setting it where the full winds would beat against it. To do so brusque and, as it seemed to Hilary, so inhumane a thing was foreign to his nature. There was also the little matter of that touch of fever--the distant music he had been hearing since the waggons came in to Covent Garden.

With a feeling that was almost misery, therefore, he waited for her on Monday afternoon, walking to and fro in his study, where all the walls were white, and all the woodwork coloured like the leaf of a cigar; where the books were that colour too, in Hilary's special deerskin binding; where there were no flowers nor any sunlight coming through the windows, but plenty of sheets of paper--a room which youth seemed to have left for ever, the room of middle age!

He called her in with the intention of at once saying what he had to say, and getting it over in the fewest words. But he had not reckoned fully either with his own nature or with woman's instinct. Nor had he allowed--being, for all his learning, perhaps because of it, singularly unable to gauge the effects of simple actions--for the proprietary relations he had established in the girl's mind by giving her those clothes.

As a dog whose master has it in his mind to go away from him, stands gazing up with tragic inquiry in his eyes, scenting to his soul that coming cruelty--as a dog thus soon to be bereaved, so stood the little model.

By the pose of every limb, and a fixed gaze bright as if tears were behind it, and by a sort of trembling, she seemed to say: 'I know why you have sent for me.'

When Hilary saw her stand like that he felt as a man might when told to flog his fellow-creature. To gain time he asked her what she did with herself all day. The little model evidently tried to tell herself that her foreboding had been needless.

Now that the mornings were nice--she said with some animation--she got up much earlier, and did her needlework first thing; she then "did out" the room. There were mouse-holes in her room, and she had bought a trap. She had caught a mouse last night. She hadn't liked to kill it; she had put it in a tin box, and let it go when she went out. Quick to see that Hilary was interested in this, as well he might be, she told him that she could not bear to see cats hungry or lost dogs, especially lost dogs, and she described to him one that she had seen. She had not liked to tell a policeman; they stared so hard. Those words were of strange omen, and Hilary turned his head away. The little model, perceiving that she had made an effect of some sort, tried to deepen it. She had heard they did all sorts of things to people--but, seeing at once from Hilary's face that she was not improving her effect, she broke off suddenly, and hastily began to tell him of her breakfast, of how comfortable she was now she had got her clothes; how she liked her room; how old Mr. Creed was very funny, never taking any notice of her when he met her in the morning. Then followed a minute account of where she had been trying to get work; of an engagement promised; Mr. Lennard, too, still wanted her to pose to him. At this she gashed a look at Hilary, then cast down her eyes. She could get plenty of work if she began that way. But she hadn't, because he had told her not, and, of course, she didn't want to; she liked coming to Mr. Stone so much. And she got on very well, and she liked London, and she liked the shops. She mentioned neither Hughs nor Mrs. Hughs. In all this rigmarole, told with such obvious purpose, stolidity was strangely mingled with almost cunning quickness to see the effect made; but the dog-like devotion was never quite out of her eyes when they were fixed on Hilary.

This look got through the weakest places in what little armour Nature had bestowed on him. It touched one of the least conceited and most amiable of men profoundly. He felt it an honour that anything so young as this should regard him in that way. He had always tried to keep out of his mind that which might have given him the key to her special feeling for himself--those words of the painter of still life: "She's got a story of some sort." But it flashed across him suddenly like an inspiration: If her story were the simplest of all stories--the direct, rather brutal, love affair of a village boy and girl--would not she, naturally given to surrender, be forced this time to the very antithesis of that young animal amour which had brought on her such, sharp consequences?

But, wherever her devotion came from, it seemed to Hilary the grossest violation of the feelings of a gentleman to treat it ungratefully. Yet it was as if for the purpose of saying, "You are a nuisance to me, or worse!" that he had asked her to his study. Her presence had hitherto chiefly roused in him the half-amused, half-tender feelings of one who strokes a foal or calf, watching its soft uncouthness; now, about to say good-bye to her, there was the question of whether that was the only feeling.

Miranda, stealing out between her master and his visitor, growled.

The little model, who was stroking a china ash-tray with her ungloved, inky fingers, muttered, with a smile, half pathetic, half cynical: "She doesn't like me! She knows I don't belong here. She hates me to come. She's jealous!"

Hilary said abruptly:

"Tell me! Have you made any friends since you've been in London?"

The girl flashed a look at him that said:

'Could I make you jealous?'

Then, as though guilty of afar too daring thought, drooped her head, and answered:

"No."

"Not one?"

The little model repeated almost passionately: "No. I don't want any friends; I only want to be let alone."

Hilary began speaking rapidly.

"But these Hughs have not left you alone. I told you, I thought you ought to move; I've taken another room for you quite away from them. Leave your furniture with a week's rent, and take your trunk quietly away to-morrow in a cab without saying a word to anyone. This is the new address, and here's the money for your expenses. They're dangerous for you, those people."

The little model muttered desperately: "But I don't care what they do!"

Hilary went on: "Listen! You mustn't come here again, or the man will trace you. We will take care you have what's necessary till you can get other work."

The little model looked up at him without a word. Now that the thin link which bound her to some sort of household gods had snapped, all the patience and submission bred in her by village life, by the hard facts of her story, and by these last months in London, served her well enough. She made no fuss. Hilary saw a tear roll down her cheek.

He turned his head away, and said: "Don't cry, my child!"

Quite obediently the little model swallowed the tear. A thought seemed to strike her:

"But I could see you, Mr. Dallison, couldn't I, sometimes?"

Seeing from his face that this was not in the programme, she stood silent again, looking up at him.

It was a little difficult for Hilary to say: "I can't see you because my wife is jealous!" It was cruel to tell her: "I don't want to see you!" besides, it was not true.

"You'll soon be making friends," he said at last, "and you can always write to me"; and with a queer smile he added: "You're only just beginning life; you mustn't take these things to heart; you'll find plenty of people better able to advise and help you than ever I shall be!"

The little model answered this by seizing his hand with both of hers. She dropped it again at once, as if guilty of presumption, and stood with her head bent. Hilary, looking down on the little hat which, by his special wish, contained no feathers, felt a lump rise in his throat.

"It's funny," he said; "I don't know your Christian name."

"Ivy," muttered the little model.

"Ivy! Well, I'll write to you. But you must promise me to do exactly as I said."

The girl looked up; her face was almost ugly--like a child's in whom a storm of feeling is repressed.

"Promise!" repeated Hilary.

With a bitter droop of her lower lip, she nodded, and suddenly put her hand to her heart. That action, of which she was clearly unconscious, so naively, so almost automatically was it done, nearly put an end to Hilary's determination.

"Now you must go," he said.

The little model choked, grew very red, and then quite white.

"Aren't I even to say good-bye to Mr. Stone?"

Hilary shook his head.

"He'll miss me," she said desperately. "He will. I know he will!"

"So shall I," said Hilary. "We can't help that."

The little model drew herself up to her full height; her breast heaved beneath the clothes which had made her Hilary's. She was very like "The Shadow" at that moment, as though whatever Hilary might do there she would be--a little ghost, the spirit of the helpless submerged world, for ever haunting with its dumb appeal the minds of men.

"Give me your hand," said Hilary.

The little model put out her not too white, small hand. It was soft, clinging: and as hot as fire.

"Good-bye, my dear, and bless you!"

The little model gave him a look with who-knows-what of reproach in it, and, faithful to her training, went submissively away.

Hilary did not look after her, but, standing by the lofty mantelpiece above the ashes of the fire, rested his forehead on his arm. Not even a fly's buzzing broke the stillness. There was sound for all that-not of distant music, but of blood beating in his ears and temples.


John Galsworthy