"Where now?" Antonia asked, wheeling her chestnut mare, as they turned up High Street, Oxford City. "I won't go back the same way, Dick!"
"We could have a gallop on Port Meadow, cross the Upper River twice, and get home that way; but you 'll be tired."
Antonia shook her head. Aslant her cheek the brim of a straw hat threw a curve of shade, her ear glowed transparent in the sun.
A difference had come in their relations since that kiss; outwardly she was the same good comrade, cool and quick. But as before a change one feels the subtle difference in the temper of the wind, so Shelton was affected by the inner change in her. He had made a blot upon her candour; he had tried to rub it out again, but there was left a mark, and it was ineffaceable. Antonia belonged to the most civilised division of the race most civilised in all the world, whose creed is "Let us love and hate, let us work and marry, but let us never give ourselves away; to give ourselves away is to leave a mark, and that is past forgive ness. Let our lives be like our faces, free from every kind of wrinkle, even those of laughter; in this way alone can we be really civilised."
He felt that she was ruffled by a vague discomfort. That he should give himself away was natural, perhaps, and only made her wonder, but that he should give her the feeling that she had given herself away was a very different thing.
"Do you mind if I just ask at the Bishop's Head for letters?" he said, as they passed the old hotel.
A dirty and thin envelope was brought to him, addressed "Mr. Richard Shelton, Esq.," in handwriting that was passionately clear, as though the writer had put his soul into securing delivery of the letter. It was dated three days back, and, as they rode away, Shelton read as follows:
IMPERIAL PEACOCK HOTEL,
MON CHER MONSIEUR SHELTON,
This is already the third time I have taken up pen to write to you, but, having nothing but misfortune to recount, I hesitated, awaiting better days. Indeed, I have been so profoundly discouraged that if I had not thought it my duty to let you know of my fortunes I know not even now if I should have found the necessary spirit. 'Les choses vont de mal en mal'. From what I hear there has never been so bad a season here. Nothing going on. All the same, I am tormented by a mob of little matters which bring me not sufficient to support my life. I know not what to do; one thing is certain, in no case shall I return here another year. The patron of this hotel, my good employer, is one of those innumerable specimens who do not forge or steal because they have no need, and if they had would lack the courage; who observe the marriage laws because they have been brought up to believe in them, and know that breaking them brings risk and loss of reputation; who do not gamble because they dare not; do not drink because it disagrees with them; go to church because their neighbours go, and to procure an appetite for the mid-day meal; commit no murder because, not transgressing in any other fashion, they are not obliged. What is there to respect in persons of this sort? Yet they are highly esteemed, and form three quarters of Society. The rule with these good gentlemen is to shut their eyes, never use their thinking powers, and close the door on all the dogs of life for fear they should get bitten.
Shelton paused, conscious of Antonia's eyes fixed on him with the inquiring look that he had come to dread. In that chilly questioning she seemed to say: "I am waiting. I am prepared to be told things--that is, useful things--things that help one to believe without the risk of too much thinking."
"It's from that young foreigner," he said; and went on reading to himself.
I have eyes, and here I am; I have a nose 'pour, flairer le humbug'. I see that amongst the value of things nothing is the equal of "free thought." Everything else they can take from me, 'on ne pent pas m'oter cela'! I see no future for me here, and certainly should have departed long ago if I had had the money, but, as I have already told you, all that I can do barely suffices to procure me 'de quoi vivre'. 'Je me sens ecceuye'. Do not pay too much attention to my Jeremiads; you know what a pessimist I am. 'Je ne perds pas courage'.
Hoping that you are well, and in the cordial pressing of your hand, I subscribe myself,
Your very devoted
He rode with the letter open in his hand, frowning at the curious turmoil which Ferrand excited in his heart. It was as though this foreign vagrant twanged within him a neglected string, which gave forth moans of a mutiny.
"What does he say?" Antonia asked.
Should he show it to her? If he might not, what should he do when they were married?
"I don't quite know," he said at last; "it 's not particularly cheering."'
"What is he like, Dick--I mean, to look at? Like a gentleman, or what?"
Shelton stifled a desire to laugh.
"He looks very well in a frock-coat," he replied; "his father was a wine merchant."
Antonia flicked her whip against her skirt.
"Of course," she murmured, "I don't want to hear if there's anything I ought not."
But instead of soothing Shelton, these words had just the opposite effect. His conception of the ideal wife was not that of one from whom the half of life must be excluded.
"It's only," he stammered again, "that it's not cheerful."
"Oh, all right!" she cried, and, touching her horse, flew off in front. "I hate dismal things."
Shelton bit his lips. It was not his fault that half the world was dark. He knew her words were loosed against himself, and, as always at a sign of her displeasure, was afraid. He galloped after her on the scorched turf.
"What is it?" he said. "You 're angry with me!"
"Darling, I can't help it if things are n't cheerful. We have eyes," he added, quoting from the letter.
Antonia did not look at him; but touched her horse again.
"Well, I don't want to see the gloomy side," she said, "and I can't see why YOU should. It's wicked to be discontented;" and she galloped off.
It was not his fault if there were a thousand different kinds of men, a thousand different points of view, outside the fence of her experience! "What business," he thought, digging in his dummy spurs, "has our class to patronise? We 're the only people who have n't an idea of what life really means." Chips of dried turf and dust came flying back, stinging his face. He gained on her, drew almost within reach, then, as though she had been playing with him, was left hopelessly behind.
She stooped under the far hedge, fanning her flushed face with dock-leaves:
"Aha, Dick! I knew you'd never catch me" and she patted the chestnut mare, who turned her blowing muzzle with contemptuous humour towards Shelton's steed, while her flanks heaved rapturously, gradually darkening with sweat.
"We'd better take them steadily," grunted Shelton, getting off and loosening his girths, "if we mean to get home at all."
"Don't be cross, Dick!"
"We oughtn't to have galloped them like this; they 're not in condition. We'd better go home the way we came."
Antonia dropped the reins, and straightened her back hair.
"There 's no fun in that," she said. "Out and back again; I hate a dog's walk."
"Very well," said Shelton; he would have her longer to himself!
The road led up and up a hill, and from the top a vision of Saxonia lay disclosed in waves of wood and pasture. Their way branched down a gateless glade, and Shelton sidled closer till his knee touched the mare's off-flank.
Antonia's profile conjured up visions. She was youth itself; her eyes so brilliant, and so innocent, her cheeks so glowing, and her brow unruffled; but in her smile and in the setting of her jaw lurked something resolute and mischievous. Shelton put his hand out to the mare's mane.
"What made you promise to marry me?" he said.
"Well, what made you?"
"I?" cried Shelton.
She slipped her hand over his hand.
"Oh, Dick!" she said.
"I want," he stammered, "to be everything to you. Do you think I shall?"
Of course! The words seemed very much or very little.
She looked down at the river, gleaming below the glade in a curving silver line. "Dick, there are such a lot of splendid things that we might do."
Did she mean, amongst those splendid things, that they might understand each other; or were they fated to pretend to only, in the old time-honoured way?
They crossed the river by a ferry, and rode a long time in silence, while the twilight slowly fell behind the aspens. And all the beauty of the evening, with its restless leaves, its grave young moon, and lighted campion flowers, was but a part of her; the scents, the witchery and shadows, the quaint field noises, the yokels' whistling, and the splash of water-fowl, each seemed to him enchanted. The flighting bats, the forms of the dim hayricks, and sweet-brier perfume-she summed them all up in herself. The fingermarks had deepened underneath her eyes, a languor came upon her; it made her the more sweet and youthful. Her shoulders seemed to bear on them the very image of our land--grave and aspiring, eager yet contained--before there came upon that land the grin of greed, the folds of wealth, the simper of content. Fair, unconscious, free!
And he was silent, with a beating heart.
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