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Chapter 24

PARADISE


Antonia, in a sunny angle of the old brick wall, amid the pinks and poppies and cornflowers, was humming to herself. Shelton saw the stained-glass man pass out of sight, then, unobserved, he watched her smelling at the flowers, caressing her face with each in turn, casting away spoiled blossoms, and all the time humming that soft tune.

In two months, or three, all barriers between himself and this inscrutable young Eve would break; she would be a part of him, and he a part of her; he would know all her thoughts, and she all his; together they would be as one, and all would think of them, and talk of them, as one; and this would come about by standing half an hour together in a church, by the passing of a ring, and the signing of their names.

The sun was burnishing her hair--she wore no hat flushing her cheeks, sweetening and making sensuous her limbs; it had warmed her through and through, so that, like the flowers and bees, the sunlight and the air, she was all motion, light, and colour.

She turned and saw Shelton standing there.

"Oh, Dick!" she said: "Lend me your hand-kerchief to put these flowers in, there 's a good boy!"

Her candid eyes, blue as the flowers in her hands, were clear and cool as ice, but in her smile was all the warm profusion of that corner; the sweetness had soaked into her, and was welling forth again. The sight of those sun-warmed cheeks, and fingers twining round the flower-stalks, her pearly teeth, and hair all fragrant, stole the reason out of Shelton. He stood before her, weak about the knees.

"Found you at last!" he said.

Curving back her neck, she cried out, "Catch!" and with a sweep of both her hands flung the flowers into Shelton's arms.

Under the rain of flowers, all warm and odorous, he dropped down on his knees, and put them one by one together, smelling at the pinks, to hide the violence of his feelings. Antonia went on picking flowers, and every time her hand was full she dropped them on his hat, his shoulder, or his arms, and went on plucking more; she smiled, and on her lips a little devil danced, that seemed to know what he was suffering. And Shelton felt that she did know.

"Are you tired?" she asked; "there are heaps more wanted. These are the bedroom-flowers--fourteen lots. I can't think how people can live without flowers, can you?" and close above his head she buried her face in pinks.

He kept his eyes on the plucked flowers before him on the grass, and forced himself to answer,

"I think I can hold out."

"Poor old Dick!" She had stepped back. The sun lit the clear-cut profile of her cheek, and poured its gold over the bosom of her blouse. "Poor old Dick! Awfully hard luck, is n't it?" Burdened with mignonette, she came so close again that now she touched his shoulder, but Shelton did not look; breathless, with wildly beating heart, he went on sorting out the flowers. The seeds of mignonette rained on his neck, and as she let the blossoms fall, their perfume fanned his face. "You need n't sort them out!" she said.

Was she enticing him? He stole a look; but she was gone again, swaying and sniffing at the flowers.

"I suppose I'm only hindering you," he growled; "I 'd better go."

She laughed.

"I like to see you on your knees, you look so funny!" and as she spoke she flung a clove carnation at him. "Does n't it smell good?"

"Too good Oh, Antonia! why are you doing this?"

"Why am I doing what?"

"Don't you know what you are doing?"

"Why, picking flowers!" and once more she was back, bending and sniffing at the blossoms.

"That's enough."

"Oh no," she called; "it's not not nearly.

"Keep on putting them together, if you love me."

"You know I love you," answered Shelton, in a smothered voice.

Antonia gazed at him across her shoulder; puzzled and inquiring was her face.

"I'm not a bit like you," she said. "What will you have for your room?"

"Choose!"

"Cornflowers and clove pinks. Poppies are too frivolous, and pinks too--"

"White," said Shelton.

"And mignonette too hard and--"

"Sweet. Why cornflowers?"

Antonia stood before him with her hands against her sides; her figure was so slim and young, her face uncertain and so grave.

"Because they're dark and deep."

"And why clove pinks?"

Antonia did not answer.

"And why clove pinks?"

"Because," she said, and, flushing, touched a bee that had settled on her skirt, "because of something in you I don't understand."

"Ah! And what flowers shall t give YOU?"

She put her hands behind her.

"There are all the other flowers for me."

Shelton snatched from the mass in front of him an Iceland poppy with straight stem and a curved neck, white pinks, and sprigs of hard, sweet mignonette, and held it out to her.

"There," he said, "that's you." But Antonia did not move.

"Oh no, it is n't!" and behind her back her fingers slowly crushed the petals of a blood-red poppy. She shook her head, smiling a brilliant smile. The blossoms fell, he flung his arms around her, and kissed her on the lips.

But his hands dropped; not fear exactly, nor exactly shame, had come to him. She had not resisted, but he had kissed the smile away; had kissed a strange, cold, frightened look, into her eyes.

"She did n't mean to tempt me, then," he thought, in surprise and anger. "What did she mean?" and, like a scolded dog, he kept his troubled watch upon her face.


John Galsworthy

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