It was calm, with a dark-blue sky, and a golden moon, and the lighted street full of people out for airing. The great cathedral, cutting the heavens with its massive towers, was shut. No means of getting in; and while they stood there looking up the thought came into Nedda's mind: Where would they bury poor Tryst who had killed himself? Would they refuse to bury that unhappy one in a churchyard? Surely, the more unhappy and desperate he was, the kinder they ought to be to him!
They turned away down into a little lane where an old, white, timbered cottage presided ghostly at the corner. Some church magnate had his garden back there; and it was quiet, along the waving line of a high wall, behind which grew sycamores spreading close-bunched branches, whose shadows, in the light of the corner lamps, lay thick along the ground this glamourous August night. A chafer buzzed by, a small black cat played with its tail on some steps in a recess. Nobody passed.
The girl's heart was beating fast. Derek's face was so strange and strained. And he had not yet said one word to her. All sorts of fears and fancies beset her till she was trembling all over.
"What is it?" she said at last. "You haven't--you haven't stopped loving me, Derek?"
"No one could stop loving you."
"What is it, then? Are you thinking of poor Tryst?"
With a catch in his throat and a sort of choked laugh he answered:
"But it's all over. He's at peace."
"Peace!" Then, in a queer, dead voice, he added: "I'm sorry, Nedda. It's beastly for you. But I can't help it."
What couldn't he help? Why did he keep her suffering like this--not telling her? What was this something that seemed so terribly between them? She walked on silently at his side, conscious of the rustling of the sycamores, of the moonlit angle of the church magnate's house, of the silence in the lane, and the gliding of their own shadows along the wall. What was this in his face, his thoughts, that she could not reach! And she cried out:
"Tell me! Oh, tell me, Derek! I can go through anything with you!"
"I can't get rid of him, that's all. I thought he'd go when I'd seen him there. But it's no good!"
Terror got hold of her then. She peered at his face--very white and haggard. There seemed no blood in it. They were going down-hill now, along the blank wall of a factory; there was the river in front, with the moonlight on it and boats drawn up along the bank. From a chimney a scroll of black smoke was flung out across the sky, and a lighted bridge glowed above the water. They turned away from that, passing below the dark pile of the cathedral. Here couples still lingered on benches along the river-bank, happy in the warm night, under the August moon! And on and on they walked in that strange, miserable silence, past all those benches and couples, out on the river-path by the fields, where the scent of hay-stacks, and the freshness from the early stubbles and the grasses webbed with dew, overpowered the faint reek of the river mud. And still on and on in the moonlight that haunted through the willows. At their footsteps the water-rats scuttled down into the water with tiny splashes; a dog barked somewhere a long way off; a train whistled; a frog croaked. From the stubbles and second crops of sun-baked clover puffs of warm air kept stealing up into the chillier air beneath the willows. Such moonlit nights never seem to sleep. And there was a kind of triumph in the night's smile, as though it knew that it ruled the river and the fields, ruled with its gleams the silent trees that had given up all rustling. Suddenly Derek said:
"He's walking with us! Look! Over there!"
And for a second there did seem to Nedda a dim, gray shape moving square and dogged, parallel with them at the stubble edges. Gasping out:
"Oh, no; don't frighten me! I can't bear it tonight!" She hid her face against his shoulder like a child. He put his arm round her and she pressed her face deep into his coat. This ghost of Bob Tryst holding him away from her! This enemy! This uncanny presence! She pressed closer, closer, and put her face up to his. It was wonderfully lonely, silent, whispering, with the moongleams slipping through the willow boughs into the shadow where they stood. And from his arms warmth stole through her! Closer and closer she pressed, not quite knowing what she did, not quite knowing anything but that she wanted him never to let her go; wanted his lips on hers, so that she might feel his spirit pass, away from what was haunting it, into hers, never to escape. But his lips did not come to hers. They stayed drawn back, trembling, hungry-looking, just above her lips. And she whispered:
She felt him shudder in her arms, saw his eyes darken, his lips quiver and quiver, as if he wanted them to, but they would not. What was it? Oh, what was it? Wasn't he going to kiss her--not to kiss her? And while in that unnatural pause they stood, their heads bent back among the moongleams and those willow shadows, there passed through Nedda such strange trouble as she had never known. Not kiss her! Not kiss her! Why didn't he? When in her blood and in the night all round, in the feel of his arms, the sight of his hungry lips, was something unknown, wonderful, terrifying, sweet! And she wailed out:
"I want you--I don't care--I want you!" She felt him sway, reel, and clutch her as if he were going to fall, and all other feeling vanished in the instinct of the nurse she had already been to him. He was ill again! Yes, he was ill! And she said:
"Derek--don't! It's all right. Let's walk on quietly!"
She got his arm tightly in hers and drew him along toward home. By the jerking of that arm, the taut look on his face, she could feel that he did not know from step to step whether he could stay upright. But she herself was steady and calm enough, bent on keeping emotion away, and somehow getting him back along the river-path, abandoned now to the moon and the bright, still spaces of the night and the slow-moving, whitened water. Why had she not felt from the first that he was overwrought and only fit for bed?
Thus, very slowly, they made their way up by the factory again into the lane by the church magnate's garden, under the branches of the sycamores, past the same white-faced old house at the corner, to the high street where some few people were still abroad.
At the front door of the hotel stood Felix, looking at his watch, disconsolate as an old hen. To her great relief he went in quickly when he saw them coming. She could not bear the thought of talk and explanation. The one thing was to get Derek to bed. All the time he had gone along with that taut face; and now, when he sat down on the shiny sofa in the little bedroom, he shivered so violently that his teeth chattered. She rang for a hot bottle and brandy and hot water. When he had drunk he certainly shivered less, professed himself all right, and would not let her stay. She dared not ask, but it did seem as if the physical collapse had driven away, for the time at all events, that ghostly visitor, and, touching his forehead with her lips--very motherly--so that he looked up and smiled at her--she said in a matter-of-fact voice:
"I'll come back after a bit and tuck you up," and went out.
Felix was waiting in the hall, at a little table on which stood a bowl of bread and milk. He took the cover off it for her without a word. And while she supped he kept glancing at her, trying to make up his mind to words. But her face was sealed. And all he said was:
"Your uncle's gone to Becket for the night. I've got you a room next mine, and a tooth-brush, and some sort of comb. I hope you'll be able to manage, my child."
Nedda left him at the door of his room and went into her own. After waiting there ten minutes she stole out again. It was all quiet, and she went resolutely back down the stairs. She did not care who saw her or what they thought. Probably they took her for Derek's sister; but even if they didn't she would not have cared. It was past eleven, the light nearly out, and the hall in the condition of such places that await a morning's renovation. His corridor, too, was quite dark. She opened the door without sound and listened, till his voice said softly:
"All right, little angel; I'm not asleep."
And by a glimmer of moonlight, through curtains designed to keep out nothing, she stole up to the bed. She could just see his face, and eyes looking up at her with a sort of adoration. She put her hand on his forehead and whispered: "Are you comfy?"
He murmured back: "Yes, quite comfy."
Kneeling down, she laid her face beside his on the pillow. She could not help doing that; it made everything seem holy, cuddley, warm. His lips touched her nose. Her eyes, for just that instant, looked up into his, that were very dark and soft; then she got up.
"Would you like me to stay till you're asleep?"
"Yes; forever. But I shouldn't exactly sleep. Would you?"
In the darkness Nedda vehemently shook her head. Sleep! No! She would not sleep!
"Good night, then!"
"Good night, little dark angel!"
"Good night!" With that last whisper she slipped back to the door and noiselessly away.
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