THE FLOWERING OF THE ALOE
This same day, returning through Kensington Gardens, from his preparations for departure, Hilary came suddenly on Bianca standing by the shores of the Round Pond.
To the eyes of the frequenters of these Elysian fields, where so many men and shadows daily steal recreation, to the eyes of all drinking in those green gardens their honeyed draught of peace, this husband and wife appeared merely a distinguished-looking couple, animated by a leisured harmony. For the time was not yet when men were one, and could tell by instinct what was passing in each other's hearts.
In truth, there were not too many people in London who, in their situation, would have behaved with such seemliness--not too many so civilised as they!
Estranged, and soon to part, they retained the manner of accord up to the last. Not for them the matrimonial brawl, the solemn accusation and recrimination, the pathetic protestations of proprietary rights. For them no sacred view that at all costs they must make each other miserable--not even the belief that they had the right to do so. No, there was no relief for their sore hearts. They walked side by side, treating each other's feelings with respect, as if there had been no terrible heart-turnings throughout the eighteen years in which they had first loved, then, through mysterious disharmony, drifted apart; as if there were now between them no question of this girl.
Presently Hilary said:
"I've been into town and made my preparations; I'm starting tomorrow for the mountains. There will be no necessity for you to leave your father."
"Are you taking her?"
It was beautifully uttered, without a trace of bias or curiosity, with an unforced accent, neither indifferent nor too interested--no one could have told whether it was meant for generosity or malice. Hilary took it for the former.
"Thank you," he said; "but that comedy is finished."
Close to the edge of the Round Pond a swanlike cutter was putting out to sea; in the wake of this fair creature a tiny scooped-out bit of wood, with three feathers for masts, bobbed and trembled; and the two small ragged boys who owned that little galley were stretching bits of branch out towards her over the bright waters.
Bianca looked, without seeing, at this proof of man's pride in his own property. A thin gold chain hung round her neck; suddenly she thrust it into the bosom of her dress. It had broken into two, between her fingers.
They reached home without another word.
At the door of Hilary's study sat Miranda. The little person answered his caress by a shiver of her sleek skin, then curled herself down again on the spot she had already warmed.
"Aren't you coming in with me?" he said.
Miranda did not move.
The reason for her refusal was apparent when Hilary had entered. Close to the long bookcase, behind the bust of Socrates, stood the little model. Very still, as if fearing to betray itself by sound or movement, was her figure in its blue-green frock, and a brimless toque of brown straw, with two purplish roses squashed together into a band of darker velvet. Beside those roses a tiny peacock's feather had been slipped in--unholy little visitor, slanting backward, trying, as it were, to draw all eyes, yet to escape notice. And, wedged between the grim white bust and the dark bookcase, the girl herself was like some unlawful spirit which had slid in there, and stood trembling and vibrating, ready to be shuttered out.
Before this apparition Hilary recoiled towards the door, hesitated, and returned.
"You should not have come here," he muttered, "after what we said to you yesterday."
The little model answered quickly: "But I've seen Hughs, Mr. Dallison. He's found out where I live. Oh, he does look dreadful; he frightens me. I can't ever stay there now."
She had come a little out of her hiding-place, and stood fidgeting her hands and looking down.
'She's not speaking the truth,' thought Hilary.
The little model gave him a furtive glance. "I did see him," she said. "I must go right away now; it wouldn't be safe, would it?" Again she gave him that swift look.
Hilary thought suddenly: 'She is using my own weapon against me. If she has seen the man, he didn't frighten her. It serves me right!' With a dry laugh, he turned his back.
There was a rustling round. The little model had moved out of her retreat, and stood between him and the door. At this stealthy action, Hilary felt once more the tremor which had come over him when he sat beside her in the Broad Walk after the baby's funeral. Outside in the garden a pigeon was pouring forth a continuous love song; Hilary heard nothing of it, conscious only of the figure of the girl behind him--that young figure which had twined itself about his senses.
"Well, what is it you want?" he said at last.
The little model answered by another question.
"Are you really going away, Mr. Dallison?"
She raised her hands to the level of her breast, as though she meant to clasp them together; without doing so, however, she dropped them to her sides. They were cased in very worn suede gloves, and in this dire moment of embarrassment Hilary's eyes fastened themselves on those slim hands moving against her skirt.
The little model tried at once to slip them away behind her. Suddenly she said in her matter-of-fact voice: "I only wanted to ask--Can't I come too?"
At this question, whose simplicity might have made an angel smile, Hilary experienced a sensation as if his bones had been turned to water. It was strange--delicious--as though he had been suddenly offered all that he wanted of her, without all those things that he did not want. He stood regarding her silently. Her cheeks and neck were red; there was a red tinge, too, in her eyelids, deepening the "chicory-flower" colour of her eyes. She began to speak, repeating a lesson evidently learned by heart.
"I wouldn't be in your way. I wouldn't cost much. I could do everything you wanted. I could learn typewriting. I needn't live too near, or that; if you didn't want me, because of people talking; I'm used to being alone. Oh, Mr. Dallison, I could do everything for you. I wouldn't mind anything, and I'm not like some girls; I do know what I'm talking about."
The little model put her hands up, and, covering her face, said:
"If you'd try and see!"
Hilary's sensuous feeling almost vanished; a lump rose in his throat instead.
"My child," he said, "you are too generous!"
The little model seemed to know instinctively that by touching his spirit she had lost ground. Uncovering her face, she spoke breathlessly, growing very pale:
"Oh no, I'm not. I want to be let come; I don't want to stay here. I know I'll get into mischief if you don't take me--oh, I know I will!"
"If I were to let you come with me," said Hilary, "what then? What sort of companion should I be to you, or you to me? You know very well. Only one sort. It's no use pretending, child, that we've any interests in common."
The little model came closer.
"I know what I am," she said, "and I don't want to be anything else. I can do what you tell me to, and I shan't ever complain. I'm not worth any more!"
"You're worth more," muttered Hilary, "than I can ever give you, and I'm worth more than you can ever give me."
The little model tried to answer, but her words would not pass her throat; she threw her head back trying to free them, and stood, swaying. Seeing her like this before him, white as a sheet, with her eyes closed and her lips parted, as though about to faint, Hilary seized her by the shoulders. At the touch of those soft shoulders, his face became suffused with blood, his lips trembled. Suddenly her eyes opened ever so little between their lids, and looked at him. And the perception that she was not really going to faint, that it was a little desperate wile of this child Delilah, made him wrench away his hands. The moment she felt that grasp relax she sank down and clasped his knees, pressing them to her bosom so that he could not stir. Closer and closer she pressed them to her, till it seemed as though she must be bruising her flesh. Her breath came in sobs; her eyes were closed; her lips quivered upwards. In the clutch of her clinging body there seemed suddenly the whole of woman's power of self-abandonment. It was just that, which, at this moment, so horribly painful to him, prevented Hilary from seizing her in his arms just that queer seeming self-effacement, as though she were lost to knowledge of what she did. It seemed too brutal, too like taking advantage of a child.
From calm is born the wind, the ripple from the still pool, self out of nothingness--so all passes imperceptibly, no man knows how. The little model's moment of self-oblivion passed, and into her wet eyes her plain, twisting spirit suddenly writhed up again, for all the world as if she had said: 'I won't let you go; I'll keep you--I'll keep you.'
Hilary broke away from her, and she fell forward on her face.
"Get up, child," he said--"get up; for God's sake, don't lie there!"
She rose obediently, choking down her sobs, mopping her face with a small, dirty handkerchief. Suddenly, taking a step towards him, she clenched both her hands and struck them downwards.
"I'll go to the bad," she said---"I will--if you don't take me!" And, her breast heaving, her hair all loose, she stared straight into his face with her red-rimmed eyes. Hilary turned suddenly, took a book up from the writing-table, and opened it. His face was again suffused with blood; his hands and lips trembled; his eyes had a queer fixed stare.
"Not now, not now," he muttered; "go away now. I'll come to you to-morrow."
The little model gave him the look a dog gives you when it asks if you are deceiving him. She made a sign on her breast, as a Catholic might make the sign of his religion, drawing her fingers together, and clutching at herself with them, then passed her little dirty handkerchief once more over her eyes, and, turning round, went out.
Hilary remained standing where he was, reading the open book without apprehending what it was.
There was a wistful sound, as of breath escaping hurriedly. Mr. Stone was standing in the open doorway.
"She has been here," he said. "I saw her go away."
Hilary dropped the book; his nerves were utterly unstrung. Then, pointing to a chair, he said: "Won't you sit down, sir?"
Mr. Stone came close up to his son-in-law.
"Is she in trouble?"
"Yes," murmured Hilary.
"She is too young to be in trouble. Did you tell her that?"
Hilary shook his head.
"Has the man hurt her?"
Again Hilary shook his head.
"What is her trouble, then?" said Mr. Stone. The closeness of this catechism, the intent stare of the old man's eyes, were more than Hilary could bear. He turned away.
"You ask me something that I cannot answer.
"It is a private matter."
With the blood still beating in his temples, his lips still quivering, and the feeling of the girl's clasp round his knees, he almost hated this old man who stood there putting such blind questions.
Then suddenly in Mr. Stone's eyes he saw a startling change, as in the face of a man who regains consciousness after days of vacancy. His whole countenance had become alive with a sort of jealous understanding. The warmth which the little model brought to his old spirit had licked up the fog of his Idea, and made him see what was going on before his eyes.
At that look Hilary braced himself against the wall.
A flush spread slowly over Mr. Stone's face. He spoke with rare hesitation. In this sudden coming back to the world of men and things he seemed astray.
"I am not going," he stammered, "to ask you any more. I could not pry into a private matter. That would not be---" His voice failed; he looked down.
Hilary bowed, touched to the quick by the return to life of this old man, so long lost to facts, and by the delicacy in that old face.
"I will not intrude further on your trouble," said Mr. Stone, "whatever it may be. I am sorry that you are unhappy, too."
Very slowly, and without again looking up at his son-in-law, he went out.
Hilary remained standing where he had been left against the wall.
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