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Chapter 12

ROTTEN ROW


With a headache and a sense of restlessness, hopeful and unhappy, Shelton mounted his hack next morning for a gallop in the Park.

In the sky was mingled all the languor and the violence of the spring. The trees and flowers wore an awakened look in the gleams of light that came stealing down from behind the purple of the clouds. The air was rain-washed, and the passers by seemed to wear an air of tranquil carelessness, as if anxiety were paralysed by their responsibility of the firmament.

Thronged by riders, the Row was all astir.

Near to Hyde Park Corner a figure by the rails caught Shelton's eye. Straight and thin, one shoulder humped a little, as if its owner were reflecting, clothed in a frock-coat and a brown felt hat pinched up in lawless fashion, this figure was so detached from its surroundings that it would have been noticeable anywhere. It belonged to Ferrand, obviously waiting till it was time to breakfast with his patron. Shelton found pleasure in thus observing him unseen, and sat quietly on his horse, hidden behind a tree.

It was just at that spot where riders, unable to get further, are for ever wheeling their horses for another turn; and there Ferrand, the bird of passage, with his head a little to one side, watched them cantering, trotting, wheeling up and down.

Three men walking along the rails were snatching off their hats before a horsewoman at exactly the same angle and with precisely the same air, as though in the modish performance of this ancient rite they were satisfying some instinct very dear to them.

Shelton noted the curl of Ferrand's lip as he watched this sight. "Many thanks, gentlemen," it seemed to say; "in that charming little action you have shown me all your souls."

What a singular gift the fellow had of divesting things and people of their garments, of tearing away their veil of shams, and their phylacteries! Shelton turned and cantered on; his thoughts were with Antonia, and he did not want the glamour stripped away.

He was glancing at the sky, that every moment threatened to discharge a violent shower of rain, when suddenly he heard his name called from behind, and who should ride up to him on either side but Bill Dennant and--Antonia herself!

They had been galloping; and she was flushed--flushed as when she stood on the old tower at Hyeres, but with a joyful radiance different from the calm and conquering radiance of that other moment. To Shelton's delight they fell into line with him, and all three went galloping along the strip between the trees and rails. The look she gave him seemed to say, "I don't care if it is forbidden!" but she did not speak. He could not take his eyes off her. How lovely she looked, with the resolute curve of her figure, the glimpse of gold under her hat, the glorious colour in her cheeks, as if she had been kissed.

"It 's so splendid to be at home! Let 's go faster, faster!" she cried out.

"Take a pull. We shall get run in," grumbled her brother, with a chuckle.

They reined in round the bend and jogged more soberly down on the far side; still not a word from her to Shelton, and Shelton in his turn spoke only to Bill Dennant. He was afraid to speak to her, for he knew that her mind was dwelling on this chance forbidden meeting in a way quite different from his own.

Approaching Hyde Park Corner, where Ferrand was still standing against the rails, Shelton, who had forgotten his existence, suffered a shock when his eyes fell suddenly on that impassive figure. He was about to raise his hand, when he saw that the young foreigner, noting his instinctive feeling, had at once adapted himself to it. They passed again without a greeting, unless that swift inquisition; followed by unconsciousness in Ferrand's eyes, could so be called. But the feeling of idiotic happiness left Shelton; he grew irritated at this silence. It tantalised him more and more, for Bill Dennant had lagged behind to chatter to a friend; Shelton and Antonia were alone, walking their horses, without a word, not even looking at each other. At one moment he thought of galloping ahead and leaving her, then of breaking the vow of muteness she seemed to be imposing on him, and he kept thinking: "It ought to be either one thing or the other. I can't stand this." Her calmness was getting on his nerves; she seemed to have determined just how far she meant to go, to have fixed cold-bloodedly a limit. In her happy young beauty and radiant coolness she summed up that sane consistent something existing in nine out of ten of the people Shelton knew. "I can't stand it long," he thought, and all of a sudden spoke; but as he did so she frowned and cantered on. When he caught her she was smiling, lifting her face to catch the raindrops which were falling fast. She gave him just a nod, and waved her hand as a sign for him to go; and when he would not, she frowned. He saw Bill Dennant, posting after them, and, seized by a sense of the ridiculous, lifted his hat, and galloped off.

The rain was coming down in torrents now, and every one was scurrying for shelter. He looked back from the bend, and could still make out Antonia riding leisurely, her face upturned, and revelling in the shower. Why had n't she either cut him altogether or taken the sweets the gods had sent? It seemed wicked to have wasted such a chance, and, ploughing back to Hyde Park Corner, he turned his head to see if by any chance she had relented.

His irritation was soon gone, but his longing stayed. Was ever anything so beautiful as she had looked with her face turned to the rain? She seemed to love the rain. It suited her--suited her ever so much better than the sunshine of the South. Yes, she was very English! Puzzling and fretting, he reached his rooms. Ferrand had not arrived, in fact did not turn up that day. His non-appearance afforded Shelton another proof of the delicacy that went hand in hand with the young vagrant's cynicism. In the afternoon he received a note.

. . . You see, Dick [he read], I ought to have cut you; but I felt too crazy--everything seems so jolly at home, even this stuffy old London. Of course, I wanted to talk to you badly--there are heaps of things one can't say by letter--but I should have been sorry afterwards. I told mother. She said I was quite right, but I don't think she took it in. Don't you feel that the only thing that really matters is to have an ideal, and to keep it so safe that you can always look forward and feel that you have been--I can't exactly express my meaning.

Shelton lit a cigarette and frowned. It seemed to him queer that she should set more store by an "ideal" than by the fact that they had met for the first and only time in many weeks.

"I suppose she 's right," he thought--"I suppose she 's right. I ought not to have tried to speak to her!" As a matter of fact, he did not at all feel that she was right.


John Galsworthy

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