THE HOUSE OF HARMONY
At half-past ten that evening Stephen walked up the stone-flagged pathway of his brother's house.
"Can I see Mrs. Hilary?"
"Mr. Hilary went abroad this morning, sir, and Mrs. Hilary has not yet come in."
"Will you give her this letter? No, I'll wait. I suppose I can wait for her in the garden?"
"Oh yes, sit!"
"I'll leave the door open, sir, in case you want to come in."
Stephen walked across to the rustic bench and sat down. He stared gloomily through the dusk at his patent-leather boots, and every now and then he flicked his evening trousers with the letter. Across the dark garden, where the boughs hung soft, unmoved by wind, the light from Mr. Stone's open window flowed out in a pale river; moths, born of the sudden heat, were fluttering up this river to its source.
Stephen looked irritably at the figure of Mr. Stone, which could be seen, bowed, and utterly still, beside his desk; so, by lifting the spy-hole thatch, one may see a convict in his cell stand gazing at his work, without movement, numb with solitude.
'He's getting awfully broken up,' thought Stephen. 'Poor old chap! His ideas are killing him. They're not human nature, never will be.' Again he flicked his trousers with the letter, as though that document emphasised the fact. 'I can't help being sorry for the sublime old idiot!'
He rose, the better to see his father-in-law's unconscious figure. It looked as lifeless and as cold as though Mr. Stone had followed some thought below the ground, and left his body standing there to await his return. Its appearance oppressed Stephen.
'You might set the house on fire,' he thought; 'he'd never notice.'
Mr. Stone's figure moved; the sound of along sigh came out to Stephen in the windless garden. He turned his eyes away, with the sudden feeling that it was not the thing to watch the old chap like this; then, getting up, he went indoors. In his brother's study he stood turning over the knick-knacks on the writing-table.
'I warned Hilary that he was burning his fingers,' he thought.
At the sound of the latch-key he went back to the hall.
However much he had secretly disapproved of her from the beginning, because she had always seemed to him such an uncomfortable and tantalising person, Stephen was impressed that night by the haunting unhappiness of Bianca's face; as if it had been suddenly disclosed to him that she could not help herself. This was disconcerting, being, in a sense, a disorderly way of seeing things.
"You look tired, B.," he said. "I'm sorry, but I thought it better to bring this round tonight."
Bianca glanced at the letter.
"It is to you," she said. "I don't wish to read it, thank you."
Stephen compressed his lips.
"But I wish you to hear it, please," he said. "I'll read it out, if you'll allow me.
"'CHARING CROSS STATION.
"'I told you yesterday morning that I was going abroad alone. Afterwards I changed my mind--I meant to take her. I went to her lodgings for the purpose. I have lived too long amongst sentiments for such a piece of reality as that. Class has saved me; it has triumphed over my most primitive instincts.
"'I am going alone--back to my sentiments. No slight has been placed on Bianca--but my married life having become a mockery, I shall not return to it. The following address will find me, and I shall ask you presently to send on my household gods.
"'Please let Bianca know the substance of this letter.
"'Ever your affectionate brother,
With a frown Stephen folded up the letter, and restored it to his breast pocket.
'It's more bitter than I thought,' he reflected; 'and yet he's done the only possible thing!'
Bianca was leaning her elbow on the mantelpiece with her face turned to the wall. Her silence irritated Stephen, whose loyalty to his brother longed to fend a vent.
"I'm very much relieved, of course," he said at last. "It would have been fatal."
She did not move, and Stephen became increasingly aware that this was a most awkward matter to touch on.
"Of course," he began again. "But, B., I do think you--rather--I mean---" And again he stopped before her utter silence, her utter immobility. Then, unable to go away without having in some sort expressed his loyalty to Hilary, he tried once more: "Hilary is the kindest man I know. It's not his fault if he's out of touch with life--if he's not fit to deal with things. He's negative!"
And having thus in a single word, somewhat to his own astonishment, described his brother, he held out his hand.
The hand which Bianca placed in it was feverishly hot. Stephen felt suddenly compunctious.
"I'm awfully sorry," he stammered, "about the whole thing. I'm awfully sorry for you---"
Bianca drew back her hand.
With a little shrug Stephen turned away.
'What are you to do with women like that?' was his thought, and saying dryly, "Good-night, B.," he went.
For some time Bianca sat in Hilary's chair. Then, by the faint glimmer coming through the half-open door, she began to wander round the room, touching the walls, the books, the prints, all the familiar things among which he had lived so many years....
In that dim continual journey she was like a disharmonic spirit traversing the air above where its body lies.
The door creaked behind her. A voice said sharply:
"What are you doing in this house?"
Mr. Stone was standing beside the bust of Socrates. Bianca went up to him.
Mr. Stone stared. "It is you! I thought it was a thief! Where is Hilary?"
Bianca bowed her head. "It is very late, Dad," she whispered.
Mr. Stone's hand moved as though he would have stroked her.
"The human heart," he murmured, "is the tomb of many feelings."
Bianca put her arm round him.
"You must go to bed, Dad," she said, trying to get him to the door, for in her heart something seemed giving way.
Mr. Stone stumbled; the door swung to; the room was plunged in darkness. A hand, cold as ice, brushed her cheek. With all her force she stiffed a scream.
"I am here," Mr. Stone said.
His hand, wandering downwards, touched her shoulder, and she seized it with her own burning hand. Thus linked, they groped their way out into the passage towards his room.
"Good-night, dear," Bianca murmured.
By the light of his now open door Mr. Stone seemed to try and see her face, but she would not show it him. Closing the door gently, she stole upstairs.
Sitting down in her bedroom by the open window, it seemed to her that the room was full of people--her nerves were so unstrung. It was as if walls had not the power this night to exclude human presences. Moving, or motionless, now distinct, then covered suddenly by the thick veil of some material object, they circled round her quiet figure, lying back in the chair with shut eyes. These disharmonic shadows flitting in the room made a stir like the rubbing of dry straw or the hum of bees among clover stalks. When she sat up they vanished, and the sounds became the distant din of homing traffic; but the moment she closed her eyes, her visitors again began to steal round her with that dry, mysterious hum.
She fell asleep presently, and woke with a start. There, in a glimmer of pale light, stood the little model, as in the fatal picture Bianca had painted of her. Her face was powder white, with shadows beneath the eyes. Breath seemed coming through her parted lips, just touched with colour. In her hat lay the tiny peacock's feather beside the two purplish-pink roses. A scent came from her, too--but faint, as ever was the scent of chicory flower. How long had she been standing there? Bianca started to her feet, and as she rose the vision vanished.
She went towards the spot. There was nothing in that corner but moonlight; the scent she had perceived was merely that of the trees drifting in.
But so vivid had that vision been that she stood at the window, panting for air, passing her hand again and again across her eyes.
Outside, over the dark gardens, the moon hung full and almost golden. Its honey-pale light filtered down on every little shape of tree, and leaf, and sleeping flower. That soft, vibrating radiance seemed to have woven all into one mysterious whole, stilling disharmony, so that each little separate shape had no meaning to itself.
Bianca looked long at the rain of moonlight falling on the earth's carpet, like a covering shower of blossom which bees have sucked and spilled. Then, below her, out through candescent space, she saw a shadow dart forth along the grass, and to her fright a voice rose, tremulous and clear, seeming to seek enfranchisement beyond the barrier of the dark trees: "My brain is clouded. Great Universe! I cannot write! I can no longer discover to my brothers that they are one. I am not worthy to stay here. Let me pass into You, and die!"
Bianca saw her father's fragile arms stretch out into the night through the sleeves of his white garment, as though expecting to be received at once into the Universal Brotherhood of the thin air.
There ensued a moment, when, by magic, every little dissonance in all the town seemed blended into a harmony of silence, as it might be the very death of self upon the earth.
Then, breaking that trance, Mr. Stone's voice rose again, trembling out into the night, as though blown through a reed.
"Brothers!" he said.
Behind the screen of lilac bushes at the gate Bianca saw the dark helmet of a policeman. He stood there staring steadily in the direction of that voice. Raising his lantern, he flashed it into every corner of the garden, searching for those who had been addressed. Satisfied, apparently, that no one was there, he moved it to right and left, lowered it to the level of his breast, and walked slowly on.
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