Chapter 17




A SPRIG OF HELIOTROPE


The light of a pale young moon filtered in through the chinks of the blind and crept towards the bed where Ann lay tremulously awake, overwhelmed by the sudden revelation--which had come to her--the revelation of her love for Eliot Coventry.

Too unselfconscious to be much given to introspection, she had never asked herself whither the last few months had been leading her. But now, an hour ago, the touch of Eliot's lips against her hand and the sudden, passionate demand in his voice had torn aside the veil and shown her her own heart.

With a shy, almost childlike sense of wonder, she realised that her love for him was not a thing of new or sudden growth. It had been slumbering deep within her, unrecognised and unacknowledged, ever since that moment when their eyes had first met across the Kursaal terrace at Montricheux. Like a little closed bud it had lain curled in her heart, to open wide when the sun kissed its petals.

And that Eliot loved her in return she had now no doubt. In that brief, poignant moment of understanding, as they stood together in the warm starlit dusk, he had revealed it. She could still feel his lips crushed suddenly against her palm, and hear his shaken voice: "Ann, do you think I shall find the way?"

The way to the garden of happy hours! They would find it together. He had known many bitter hours, and out of them had learned a dogged scepticism--a cynical mistrust of the thing which is called love. And with all the young, uplifting faith that was in her Ann vowed to herself that what one woman had pulled down, destroyed, she would build up and make live again.

She was no longer frightened of love--not even of a love that by the very nature of things might exact far more from her than from most women. She would never be afraid of the big claims which life might make on her. Hitherto, whatever had come her way she had met with a gay courage and confidence, and now that the biggest thing of all had come to her, with its shadow of incalculable demands upon her womanhood, she would go to meet that, too, with the same brave steadfastness.

With the unerring instinct of the mother-woman, she realised how Eliot had fought against his love for her, tried to withstand it, utterly distrustful of her sex, and she smiled with a tenderly amused indulgence as she recalled his sudden withdrawals and brusquenesses. His sending down a groom to inquire how she was--it had hurt her badly at the time to think he cared so little. But now she recognised that it was because he cared so much--so much that he had begun to be afraid. So he had hidden behind his groom!

And with the realisation of how much he cared--must care, to have striven so hard to hide and fight it down--she was shaken with a shy, quivering ecstasy, a hesitant sweetness of need and longing that pulsed through every nerve of her. The thought of the morrow almost frightened her. He would come to-morrow--come to tell her all that he had left unsaid, to claim that promise of surrender which a woman both loves and fears to give.

... It was late when at last she slept, and she woke to find the sunlight streaming in through her window, and Maria standing at her bedside, an appetising breakfast-tray in her hands and a world of shrewd suspicion in her twinkling eyes. Last night she had chanced to look out of her kitchen window--which admitted of a slanting glimpse of the Cottage gateway--and had drawn her own deductions accordingly.

"You've had a brave sleep, Miss Ann," she observed, as she deposited the tray she was carrying on a small table beside the bed. "Mr. Coventry stayed late, I reckon?"

Ann flushed a little, smiling. She did not resent the kindly inquisitiveness which gleamed at her out of Maria's sharp old eyes, but she had no mind to gratify it at the moment.

"Not very late. I think he left by about eleven o'clock," she answered, with quite a good assumption of indifference. "But I expect being out in the fresh air for the first time for several days made me sleep rather soundly. Why didn't you call me as usual? I'm not an invalid any longer, you know."

"I thought if so be you'd a mind to sleep on, 'twouldn't do you no harm," vouchsafed Maria rather grumpily. She was inwardly burning with curiosity, but felt unequal to the task of coping with her young mistress's facility for eluding tentative inquiries, so she stumped downstairs to the kitchen regions, and left her to consume her breakfast in solitude.

Ann hurried through the meal as quickly as possible. She felt tremendously alive to-day, and the breezy sunshiny morning, the blue sky with white fleecy clouds blowing across it, the wheeling swallows, all seemed curiously in accord with her mood. She rose and, dressing quickly, went about her various household duties with a subconscious desire to get them finished and out of the way as soon as possible, and thus be free for whatever the day might bring forth.

That afternoon she and Robin were due at the rectory for tea. It was what Miss Caroline called her "day," a bi-monthly occasion when she sat in state--and a villainous shade of mauve satin--to receive visitors. During the winter this sacred rite resolved itself chiefly into an opportunity for tea and feminine gossip in a hot, ill-ventilated room, but in the summer it was rather a pleasant little function. Tea was served in the pretty old rectory garden, and the proceedings developed on the lines of an informal garden-party at which most of the neighbours, of both sexes, showed up. For although Miss Caroline was of too inquiring a mind to be very popular, the rector himself was beloved by men and women alike.

The morning hours seemed to Ann interminably long. Insensibly she was keyed up to a delicate pitch of expectancy, her ear nervously alert for the sound of a familiar footstep on the flagged path. And as the leaden moments crawled by, and the warm, sunshiny silence which enfolded the Cottage remained unbroken, a vague sense of apprehension crept into her heart. The glamour of those moments alone with Eliot at the gate, the pulsating sweetness of the thoughts which, in the night, had sent little quivering rivulets of fire racing through her veins, grew dim and uncertain. Had she misunderstood--mistaken him? The bare idea sent a swift stab of fear through her whole being. But in a few moments her faith in the man she loved returned, and with it her serenity. She was ready to laugh at herself. Probably, she reflected, he had merely been detained by some unexpected piece of business which had cropped up necessitating his attention--and, as a matter of fact, this was precisely what had occurred.

So that when at length she and Robin made their way down a shady path and emerged on to the rectory lawn, dotted about with groups of people, and she perceived Coventry's tall, lean figure in the distance, leaning rather moodily against a tree, she reproached herself for having doubted him even for an instant. While she was greeting Miss Caroline and the rector her heart seemed to be singing a little pćan of happiness all to itself.

"... so glad to see you." Ann came suddenly down to earth, and tried to focus her attention on. Miss Caroline's hospitable gabble. "Such a lot of people here this afternoon, too.... I'm so pleased. And a beautiful day, isn't it? Even Mr. Coventry has been tempted out of his shell. He'll be quite a social acquisition to the neighbourhood soon, at this rate."

She turned to envelop Robin in a similar flood of meaningless prattle, while Ann and Tempest sauntered on together.

"Yes," said the latter, his eyes resting thoughtfully on Eliot's distant figure. "It's a real joy to me to see Coventry here. He's too much of a hermit. I'm afraid, though," he admitted with a rueful laugh, "I rather badgered him into coming. And I expect now he is here he's not exactly blessing me for my persistency! Will you go and be very nice to him, Ann"--he had dropped into the friendly usage of her Christian name, and Ann liked it--"and get me out of hot water?"

"I don't suppose you're in it very deeply," she returned, with some amusement at his air of apprehension.

"Well, I really made him come," confessed the rector apologetically: "I simply wouldn't take 'no'."

"And you know perfectly well that nobody ever resents what you 'make' them do," said Ann, smiling. "'The rector have a way with him,' as Maria remarked the other day."

Tempest's mouth curved in a responsive smile

"Did she? Nice woman, your Maria Coombe. But I expect the real truth of the matter is that the rector has a particularly kind and long-suffering flock."

"A good shepherd makes a good flock, I think," said Ann softly. And for the hundredth time wondered how so human and lovable a man came to possess a sister of Miss Caroline's description.

"Ha! There you are, Coventry!" exclaimed Tempest, as they came abreast of the solitary figure. "I've just been telling Miss Lovell that I fancied you weren't altogether blessing me for having lured you out of your lair to this sort of parish pow-wow."

"Not at all. It's very good of people like you and Lady Susan to bother about me, seeing that, even when I am dug up, I'm afraid I'm very poor company."

Eliot smiled rather briefly as he answered, but there was a certain friendly good-humour in his eyes as they rested on the other man's face. As Ann had remarked, no one ever resented the rector's kindly strategy.

"Have either of you seen the greenhouses?" demanded Tempest presently. "No? Oh, you must. We're rather conceited over our show of flowers this year."

Accordingly they progressed towards the hot-houses, collecting Lady Susan and Cara, and one or two other scattered guests, as they went. Ann felt hemmed in. It began to look rather as though she and Eliot would not get a moment to themselves throughout the afternoon. Then she found him at her side, and something in the quickly amused glance of his eyes, as they swept over the gradually increasing numbers of the party, and then met her own, served to comfort her.

"The world is too much with us," he murmured.

After that it seemed as though they were companions in distress, linked by a secret, wordless understanding, and Ann walked on with a lighter heart.

Cara was a few paces ahead, flanked by Robin and the local doctor, who were each endeavouring to secure her undivided attention. She was looking very lovely, in an elusive frock of some ephemeral material veiling a delicate prismatic undertone of colour. She always dressed rather wonderfully, every detail perfect. There was a kind of frail, worldly charm about her clothes--the sort of charm you never find in the clothes of a thoroughly good and virtuous woman, as Lady Susan trenchantly observed one day.

Ann herself was acutely conscious of that faintly languorous, mysterious atmosphere of charm with which Mrs. Hilyard seemed to be invested, and she had sometimes wondered how Eliot was able to resist it and treat her with the same cool detachment which he accorded to other people. To her there was something magnetic in Cara's personality. Perhaps her very silence about herself, and the vague background of an unhappy marriage of which Ann was dimly aware, contributed towards it. She glanced up to see Eliot gazing straight ahead, apparently supremely oblivious of that slender, gracious figure in front, moving lightly betwixt Robin and the stooping, rather clever-looking doctor.

Presently they all trooped into the hot-houses--warm and fragrant with the smell of freshly-watered earth, and a rather fierce-looking gardener paused in his work to exhibit this or that particular plant in which he took a special interest. But the pride of the rectory was the orchid-house, and insensibly everybody gravitated towards it.

Ann and Eliot were strolling along a little behind the rest, and she paused a moment to rifle a pot of heliotrope of a spray of clustered blossom.

"Heavenly stuff!" she exclaimed, sniffing it rapturously. "Smell it!" And she held it out just under Eliot's nose, obviously expecting him to share her enthusiasm.

Nothing in the world brings back the past so poignantly as remembered scents--neither sight nor sound. A pictured face, the refrain of a song, may chance to stir the pulse of memory, but a remembered fragrance--intangible, unseen--seems to penetrate to the inmost soul itself, ripping asunder the veil which the years between have woven and refashioning the dead past for us as vividly as though it had never died. Even the very atmosphere of the moment rushes back, and thoughts and feelings we had begun to believe inert and negligible reassert themselves with the old irresistible force with which they swayed us years ago.

As Ann light-heartedly proffered her sprig of heliotrope, Eliot's face whitened beneath its tan, and with a swift, almost violent movement he snatched the spray from her hand and, flinging it on to the ground, set his foot upon it.

She looked up in astonishment, then shrank back with a low exclamation of dismay as she saw his face. It was altered almost out of recognition--the mouth set in a grim straight line of bitterness, the eyes so hard that they looked cruel.

"What is it?" she faltered. "What have I done?"

With an immense effort he seemed to recover himself.

"Nothing," he returned harshly. "Only reminded me that a man is a double fool who tempts Providence a second time."

Ann quivered as though he had struck her.

"I--I don't understand," she said, her voice hardly; more than a mere thread of sound.

He gave a short laugh.

"Don't you? Will you understand if I tell you this--that I'm shut out from the 'happy garden' by the gates of memory, now and always."

She made no answer. For the moment she was physically unable to reply. But she understood--oh, yes, she understood quite well. He had repented that short, poignantly sweet moment of last night, repudiated all that it implied. He did not trust her--did not believe in her! And he was telling her in just so many words.

The revulsion of feeling left her stunned and dazed. She had been so entirely happy--had already given herself in spirit in response to his unspoken demand, and now with a single roughly uttered phrase he had closed the gates--those unyielding gates of memory--and thrust her outside.

And then her pride came to her aid. He should never know--never guess--how he had hurt her. With the pluck that is born of race, she smiled at him quite naturally.

"Well, you needn't have closed your gates so hard on my wee bit of heliotrope! Look, you've crushed it completely!" She pointed to where it lay, broken and bruised, between them.

He picked it up, and tossed it aside--a poor little corpse of heliotrope.

"I'll get you another piece," he said shortly.

"No, no!" she checked him, laughing. "We shall have that alarming-looking gardener on our track if we steal any more! Mr. Tempest says he doesn't even allow him to pick his own flowers. Let's join the others, and escape from the wrath to come."

It was pluckily done, and when they rejoined the rest of the party few would have suspected from her insouciant manner that she and Eliot Coventry had been engaged upon anything more heart-searching than a botanical discussion.

But that night Ann lay wakeful until the pale streamers of dawn fanned out across the sky, while Eliot Coventry, pacing restlessly to and fro in his silent study, gibed at himself with a savage irony because, though he had successfully steeled himself to meet, unmoved, the woman who had violated all his trust in her, a whiff of the sweet, heady scent of heliotrope had flooded his whole being with a resurgent bitterness so deep and so indomitable that it had utterly submerged his dawning faith.




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