BEHIND BIANCA'S VEIL
But Bianca was not out. She had been a witness of Hilary's long look at the little model. Coming from her studio through the glass passage to the house, she could not, of course, see what he was gazing at, but she knew as well as if the girl had stood before her in the dark opening of the window. Hating herself for having seen, she went to her room, and lay on her bed with her hands pressed to her eyes. She was used to loneliness--that necessary lot of natures such as hers; but the bitter isolation of this hour was such as to drive even her lonely nature to despair.
She rose at last, and repaired the ravages made in her face and dress, lest anyone should see that she was suffering. Then, first making sure that Hilary had left the garden, she stole out.
She wandered towards Hyde Park. It was Whitsuntide, a time of fear to the cultivated Londoner. The town seemed all arid jollity and paper bags whirled on a dusty wind. People swarmed everywhere in clothes which did not suit them; desultory, dead-tired creatures who, in these few green hours of leisure out of the sandy eternity of their toil, were not suffered to rest, but were whipped on by starved instincts to hunt pleasures which they longed for too dreadfully to overtake.
Bianca passed an old tramp asleep beneath a tree. His clothes had clung to him so long and lovingly that they were falling off, but his face was calm as though masked with the finest wax. Forgotten were his sores and sorrows; he was in the blessed fields of sleep.
Bianca hastened away from the sight of such utter peace. She wandered into a grove of trees which had almost eluded the notice of the crowd. They were limes, guarding still within them their honey bloom. Their branches of light, broad leaves, near heart-shaped, were spread out like wide skirts. The tallest of these trees, a beautiful, gay creature, stood tremulous, like a mistress waiting for her tardy lover. What joy she seemed to promise, what delicate enticement, with every veined quivering leaf! And suddenly the sun caught hold of her, raised her up to him, kissed her all over; she gave forth a sigh of happiness, as though her very spirit had travelled through her lips up to her lover's heart.
A woman in a lilac frock came stealing through the trees towards Bianca, and sitting down not far off, kept looking quickly round under her sunshade.
Presently Bianca saw what she was looking for. A young man in black coat and shining hat came swiftly up and touched her shoulder. Half hidden by the foliage they sat, leaning forward, prodding gently at the ground with stick and parasol; the stealthy murmur of their talk, so soft and intimate that no word was audible, stole across the grass; and secretly he touched her hand and arm. They were not of the holiday crowd, and had evidently chosen out this vulgar afternoon for a stolen meeting.
Bianca rose and hurried on amongst the trees. She left the Park. In the streets many couples, not so careful to conceal their intimacy, were parading arm-in-arm. The sight of them did not sting her like the sight of those lovers in the Park; they were not of her own order. But presently she saw a little boy and girl asleep on the doorstep of a mansion, with their cheeks pressed close together and their arms round each other, and again she hurried on. In the course of that long wandering she passed the building which "Westminister" was so anxious to avoid. In its gateway an old couple were just about to separate, one to the men's, the other to the women's quarters. Their toothless mouths were close together. "Well, goodnight, Mother!" "Good-night, Father, good-night-take care o' yourself!"
Once more Bianca hurried on.
It was past nine when she turned into the Old Square, and rang the bell of her sister's house with the sheer physical desire to rest--somewhere that was not her home.
At one end of the long, low drawing-room Stephen, in evening dress, was reading aloud from a review. Cecilia was looking dubiously at his sock, where she seemed to see a tiny speck of white that might be Stephen. In the window at the far end Thyme and Martin were exchanging speeches at short intervals; they made no move at Bianca's entrance; and their faces said: "We have no use for that handshaking nonsense!"
Receiving Cecilia's little, warm, doubting kiss and Stephen's polite, dry handshake, Bianca motioned to him not to stop reading. He resumed. Cecilia, too, resumed her scrutiny of Stephen's sock.
'Oh dear!' she thought. 'I know B.'s come here because she's unhappy. Poor thing! Poor Hilary! It's that wretched business again, I suppose.'
Skilled in every tone of Stephen's voice, she knew that Bianca's entry had provoked the same train of thought in him; to her he seemed reading out these words: 'I disapprove--I disapprove. She's Cis's sister. But if it wasn't for old Hilary I wouldn't have the subject in the house!'
Bianca, whose subtlety recorded every shade of feeling, could see that she was not welcome. Leaning back with veil raised, she seemed listening to Stephen's reading, but in fact she was quivering at the sight of those two couples.
Couples, couples--for all but her! What crime had she committed? Why was the china of her cup flawed so that no one could drink from it? Why had she been made so that nobody could love her? This, the most bitter of all thoughts, the most tragic of all questionings, haunted her.
The article which Stephen read--explaining exactly how to deal with people so that from one sort of human being they might become another, and going on to prove that if, after this conversion, they showed signs of a reversion, it would then be necessary to know the reason why--fell dryly on ears listening to that eternal question: Why is it with me as it is? It is not fair!--listening to the constant murmuring of her pride: I am not wanted here or anywhere. Better to efface myself!
From their end of the room Thyme and Martin scarcely looked at her. To them she was Aunt B., an amateur, the mockery of whose eyes sometimes penetrated their youthful armour; they were besides too interested in their conversation to perceive that she was suffering. The skirmish of that conversation had lasted now for many days--ever since the death of the Hughs' baby.
"Well," Martin was saying, "what are you going to do? It's no good to base it on the baby; you must know your own mind all round. You can't go rushing into real work on mere sentiment."
"You went to the funeral, Martin. It's bosh to say you didn't feel it too!"
Martin deigned no answer to this insinuation.
"We've gone past the need for sentiment," he said: "it's exploded; so is Justice, administered by an upper class with a patch over one eye and a squint in the other. When you see a dying donkey in a field, you don't want to refer the case to a society, as your dad would; you don't want an essay of Hilary's, full of sympathy with everybody, on 'Walking in a field: with reflections on the end of donkeys'--you want to put a bullet in the donkey."
"You're always down on Uncle Hilary," said Thyme.
"I don't mind Hilary himself; I object to his type."
"Well, he objects to yours," said Thyme.
"I'm not so sure of that," said Martin slowly; "he hasn't got character enough."
Thyme raised her chin, and, looking at him through half-closed eyes, said: "Well, I do think, of all the conceited persons I ever met you're the worst."
Martin's nostril curled.
"Are you prepared," he said, "to put a bullet in the donkey, or are you not?"
"I only see one donkey, and not a dying one!"
Martin stretched out his hand and gripped her arm below the elbow. Retaining it luxuriously, he said: "Don't wander!"
Thyme tried to free her arm. "Let go!"
Martin was looking straight into her eyes. A flush had risen in his cheeks.
Thyme, too, went the colour of the old-rose curtain behind which she sat.
"I won't! I'll make you know your mind. What do you mean to do? Are you coming in a fit of sentiment, or do you mean business?"
Suddenly, half-hypnotised, the young girl ceased to struggle. Her face had the strangest expression of submission and defiance--a sort of pain, a sort of delight. So they sat full half a minute staring at each other's eyes. Hearing a rustling sound, they looked, and saw Bianca moving to the door. Cecilia, too, had risen.
"What is it, B.?"
Bianca, opening the door, went out. Cecilia followed swiftly, too late to catch even a glimpse of her sister's face behind the veil...
In Mr. Stone's room the green lamp burned dimly, and he who worked by it was sitting on the edge of his campbed, attired in his old brown woollen gown and slippers.
And suddenly it seemed to him that he was not alone.
"I have finished for to-night," he said. "I am waiting for the moon to rise. She is nearly full; I shall see her face from here."
A form sat down by him on the bed, and a voice said softly:
"Like a woman's."
Mr. Stone saw his younger daughter. "You have your hat on. Are you going out, my dear?"
"I saw your light as I came in."
"The moon," said Mr. Stone, "is an arid desert. Love is unknown there."
"How can you bear to look at her, then?" Bianca whispered.
Mr. Stone raised his finger. "She has risen."
The wan moon had slipped out into the darkness. Her light stole across the garden and through the open window to the bed where they were sitting.
"Where there is no love, Dad," Bianca said, "there can be no life, can there?"
Mr. Stone's eyes seemed to drink the moonlight.
"That," he said, "is the great truth. The bed is shaking!"
With her arms pressed tight across her breast, Bianca was struggling with violent, noiseless sobbing. That desperate struggle seemed to be tearing her to death before his eyes, and Mr. Stone sat silent, trembling. He knew not what to do. From his frosted heart years of Universal Brotherhood had taken all knowledge of how to help his daughter. He could only sit touching her tremulously with thin fingers.
The form beside him, whose warmth he felt against his arm, grew stiller, as though, in spite of its own loneliness, his helplessness had made it feel that he, too; was lonely. It pressed a little closer to him. The moonlight, gaining pale mastery over the flickering lamp, filled the whole room.
Mr. Stone said: "I want her mother!"
The form beside him ceased to struggle.
Finding out an old, forgotten way, Mr. Stone's arm slid round that quivering body.
"I do not know what to say to her," he muttered, and slowly he began to rock himself.
"Motion," he said, "is soothing."
The moon passed on. The form beside him sat so still that Mr. Stone ceased moving. His daughter was no longer sobbing. Suddenly her lips seared his forehead.
Trembling from that desperate caress, he raised his fingers to the spot and looked round.
She was gone.
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