It was seven and more when Shelton returned, from his walk; a few heat drops had splashed the leaves, but the storm had not yet broken. In brooding silence the world seemed pent beneath the purple firmament.
By rapid walking in the heat Shelton had got rid of his despondency. He felt like one who is to see his mistress after long estrangement. He, bathed, and, straightening his tie-ends, stood smiling at the glass. His fear, unhappiness, and doubts seemed like an evil dream; how much worse off would he not have been, had it all been true?
It was dinner-party night, and when he reached the drawing-room the guests were there already, chattering of the coming storm. Antonia was not yet down, and Shelton stood by the piano waiting for her entry. Red faces, spotless shirt-fronts, white arms; and freshly-twisted hair were all around him. Some one handed him a clove carnation, and, as he held it to his nose, Antonia came in, breathless, as though she had rushed down-stairs, Her cheeks were pale no longer; her hand kept stealing to her throat. The flames of the coming storm seemed to have caught fire within her, to be scorching her in her white frock; she passed him close, and her fragrance whipped his senses.
She had never seemed to him so lovely.
Never again will Shelton breathe the perfume of melons and pineapples without a strange emotion. From where he sat at dinner he could not see Antonia, but amidst the chattering of voices, the clink of glass and silver, the sights and sounds and scents of feasting, he thought how he would go to her and say that nothing mattered but her love. He drank the frosted, pale-gold liquid of champagne as if it had been water.
The windows stood wide open in the heat; the garden lay in thick, soft shadow, where the pitchy shapes of trees could be discerned. There was not a breath of air to fan the candle-flames above the flowers; but two large moths, fearful of the heavy dark, flew in and wheeled between the lights over the diners' heads. One fell scorched into a dish of fruit, and was removed; the other, eluding all the swish of napkins and the efforts of the footmen, continued to make soft, fluttering rushes till Shelton rose and caught it in his hand. He took it to the window and threw it out into the darkness, and he noticed that the air was thick and tepid to his face. At a sign from Mr. Dennant the muslin curtains were then drawn across the windows, and in gratitude, perhaps, for this protection, this filmy barrier between them and the muffled threats of Nature, everyone broke out in talk. It was such a night as comes in summer after perfect weather, frightening in its heat, and silence, which was broken by the distant thunder travelling low along the ground like the muttering of all dark places on the earth--such a night as seems, by very breathlessness, to smother life, and with its fateful threats to justify man's cowardice.
The ladies rose at last. The circle of the rosewood dining-table, which had no cloth, strewn with flowers and silver gilt, had a likeness to some autumn pool whose brown depths of oily water gleam under the sunset with red and yellow leaves; above it the smoke of cigarettes was clinging, like a mist to water when the sun goes down. Shelton became involved in argument with his neighbour on the English character.
"In England we've mislaid the recipe of life," he said. "Pleasure's a lost art. We don't get drunk, we're ashamed of love, and as to beauty, we've lost the eye for' it. In exchange we have got money, but what 's the good of money when we don't know how to spend it?" Excited by his neighbour's smile, he added: "As to thought, we think so much of what our neighbours think that we never think at all.... Have you ever watched a foreigner when he's listening to an Englishman? We 're in the habit of despising foreigners; the scorn we have for them is nothing to the scorn they have for us. And they are right! Look at our taste! What is the good of owning riches if we don't know how to use them?"
"That's rather new to me," his neighbour said. "There may be something in it.... Did you see that case in the papers the other day of old Hornblower, who left the 1820 port that fetched a guinea a bottle? When the purchaser--poor feller!--came to drink it he found eleven bottles out of twelve completely ullaged--ha! ha! Well, there's nothing wrong with this"; and he drained his glass.
"No," answered Shelton.
When they rose to join the ladies, he slipped out on the lawn.
At once he was enveloped in a bath of heat. A heavy odour, sensual, sinister, was in the air, as from a sudden flowering of amorous shrubs. He stood and drank it in with greedy nostrils. Putting his hand down, he felt the grass; it was dry, and charged with electricity. Then he saw, pale and candescent in the blackness, three or four great lilies, the authors of that perfume. The blossoms seemed to be rising at him through the darkness; as though putting up their faces to be kissed. He straightened himself abruptly and went in.
The guests were leaving when Shelton, who was watching; saw Antonia slip through the drawing-room window. He could follow the white glimmer of her frock across the lawn, but lost it in the shadow of the trees; casting a hasty look to see that he was not observed, he too slipped out. The blackness and the heat were stifling he took great breaths of it as if it were the purest mountain air, and, treading softly on the grass, stole on towards the holm oak. His lips were dry, his heart beat painfully. The mutter of the distant thunder had quite ceased; waves of hot air came wheeling in his face, and in their midst a sudden rush of cold. He thought, "The storm is coming now!" and stole on towards the tree. She was lying in the hammock, her figure a white blur in, the heart of the tree's shadow, rocking gently to a little creaking of the branch. Shelton held his breath; she had not heard him. He crept up close behind the trunk till he stood in touch of her. "I mustn't startle her," he thought. "Antonia!"
There was a faint stir in the hammock, but no answer. He stood over her, but even then he could not see her face; he only, had a sense of something breathing and alive within a yard of him--of something warm and soft. He whispered again, "Antonia!" but again there came no answer, and a sort of fear and frenzy seized on him. He could no longer hear her breathe; the creaking of the branch had ceased. What was passing in that silent, living creature there so close? And then he heard again the sound of breathing, quick and scared, like the fluttering of a bird; in a moment he was staring in the dark at an empty hammock.
He stayed beside the empty hammock till he could bear uncertainty no longer. But as he crossed the lawn the sky was rent from end to end by jagged lightning, rain spattered him from head to foot, and with a deafening crack the thunder broke.
He sought the smoking-room, but, recoiling at the door, went to his own room, and threw himself down on the bed. The thunder groaned and sputtered in long volleys; the lightning showed him the shapes of things within the room, with a weird distinctness that rent from them all likeness to the purpose they were made for, bereaved them of utility, of their matter-of-factness, presented them as skeletons, abstractions, with indecency in their appearance, like the naked nerves and sinews of a leg preserved in, spirit. The sound of the rain against the house stunned his power of thinking, he rose to shut his windows; then, returning to his bed, threw himself down again. He stayed there till the storm was over, in a kind of stupor; but when the boom of the retreating thunder grew every minute less distinct, he rose. Then for the first time he saw something white close by the door.
It was a note:
I have made a mistake. Please forgive me, and go away.
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