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The cliff at Newport--the long winding path that follows it from the great beach to the point of the island, always just above the sea, hardly once descending to it, as the evenly-gravelled path, too narrow for three, though far too broad for two, winds by easy curves through the grounds, and skirts the lawns of the million-getters who have their tents and their houses therein--it is a pretty place. There the rich men come and seethe in their gold all summer; and Lazarus comes to see whether he cannot marry Dives's daughter. And the choleric architect, dissatisfied with the face of Nature, strikes her many a dread blow, and produces an unhealthy eruption wherever he strikes, and calls the things he makes houses. Here also, on Sunday afternoon, young gentlemen and younger ladies patrol in pairs, and discourse of the most saccharine inanities, not knowing what they shall say, and taking no thought, for obvious reasons. And gardeners sally forth in the morning and trim the paths with strange-looking instruments--the earth-barbers, who lather and shave and clip Nature into patterns, and the world into a quincunx.
It is a pretty place. There is nothing grand, not even anything natural in Newport, but it is very pretty for all that. For an artificial place, destined to house the most artificial people in the world during three months of the year, it is as pleasing as it can be in a light-comedy-scenery style. Besides, the scenery in Newport is very expensive, and it is impossible to spend so much money without producing some result. It cost a hundred thousand to level that lawn there, and Dives paid the money cheerfully. Then there is Croesus, his neighbour, who can draw a cheque for a hundred millions if he likes. His house cost him a pot of money. And so they build themselves a landscape, and pare off the rough edges of the island, and construct elegant landing-stages, and keep yachts, and make to themselves a fashionable watering-place; until by dint of putting money into it, they have made it remarkable among the watering-places of the world, perhaps the most remarkable of all.
But there are times when the cliff at Newport is not an altogether flippant bit of expensive scene-painting, laid out for the sole purpose of "effect." Sometimes in the warm summer nights the venerable moon rises stately and white out of the water; the old moon, that is the hoariest sinner of us all, with her spells and enchantments and her breathing love-beams, that look so gently on such evil works. And the artist-spirits of the night sky take of her silver as much as they will, and coat with it many things of most humble composition, so that they are fair to look upon. And they play strange pranks with faces of living and dead. So when the ruler of the darkness shines over poor, commonplace Newport, the aspect of it is changed, and the gingerbread abominations wherein the people dwell are magnified into lofty palaces of silver, and the close-trimmed lawns are great carpets of soft dark velvet; and the smug-faced philistine sea, that the ocean would be ashamed to own for a relation by day, breaks out into broken flashes of silver and long paths of light. All this the moonlight does, rejoicing in its deception.
There is another time, too, when Newport is no longer commonplace, when that same sea, which never seems to have any life of its own, disgorges its foggy soul over the land. There is an ugly odour as of musty salt-water in men's nostrils, and the mist is heavy and thick to the touch. It creeps up to the edge of the cliff, and greedily clings to the wet grass, and climbs higher and over the lawns, and in at the windows of Dives's dining-room, and of Croesus's library, with its burden of insiduous mould. The pair of trim-built flirtlings, walking so daintily down the gravel path, becomes indistinct, and their forms are seen but as the shadows of things dead--treading on air, between three worlds. The few feet of bank above the sea, dignified by the name of cliff, fall back to a gaping chasm, a sheer horror of depths, misty and unfathomable. Onward slides the thick cloud, and soon the deep-mouthed monotone of the fog-horns in the distance tells it is in the bay. There is nothing commonplace about the Newport cliff in a fog; it is wild enough and dreary enough then, for the scene of a bad deed. You might meet the souls of the lost in such a fog, hiding before the wrath to come.
Late on Tuesday afternoon Claudius and Margaret had taken their way towards the cliff, a solitary couple at that hour on a week-day. Even at a distance there was something about their appearance that distinguished them from ordinary couples. Claudius's great height seemed still more imposing now that he affected the garb of civilisation, and Margaret had the air of a woman of the great world in every movement of her graceful body, and in every fold of her perfect dress. American women, when they dress well, dress better than any other women in the world; but an American woman who has lived at the foreign courts is unapproachable. If there had been any one to see these two together on Tuesday afternoon, there would have been words of envy, malice, and hatred. As it was, they were quite alone on the cliff walk.
Margaret was happy; there was light in her eyes, and a faint warm flush on her dark cheek. A closed parasol hung from her hand, having an ivory handle carved with an "M" and a crown--the very one that three months ago had struck the first spark of their acquaintance from the stones of the old Schloss at Heidelberg--perhaps she had brought it on purpose. She was happy still, for she did not know that Claudius was going away, though he had brought her out here, away from every one, that he might tell her. But they had reached the cliff and had walked some distance in the direction of the point, and yet he spoke not. Something tied his tongue, and he would have spoken if he could, but his words seemed too big to come out. At last they came to a place where a quick descent leads from the path down to the sea. A little sheltered nook of sand and stones is there, all irregular and rough, like the lumps in brown sugar, and the lazy sea splashed a little against some old pebbles it had known for a long time, never having found the energy to wash them away. The rocks above overhung the spot, so that it was entirely shielded from the path, and the rocks below spread themselves into a kind of seat. Here they sat them down, facing the water--towards evening--not too near to each other, not too far,--Margaret on the right, Claudius on the left. And Claudius punched the little pebbles with his stick after he had sat down, wondering how he should begin. Indeed it did not seem easy. It would have been easier if he had been less advanced, or further advanced, in his suit. Most people never jump without feeling, at the moment of jumping, that they could leap a little better if they could "take off" an inch nearer or further away.
"Countess," said the Doctor at last, turning towards her with a very grave look in his face, "I have something to tell you, and I do not know how to say it." He paused, and Margaret looked at the sea, without noticing him, for she half fancied he was on the point of repeating his former indiscretion and saying he loved her. Would it be an indiscretion now? She wondered what she should say, what she would say, if he did--venture. Would she say "it was not right" of him now? In a moment Claudius had resolved to plunge boldly at the truth.
"I am obliged to go away very suddenly," he said; and his voice trembled violently.
Margaret's face lost colour in answer, and she resisted an impulse to turn and meet his eyes. She would have liked to, but she felt his look on her, and she feared lest, looking once, she should look too long.
"Must you go away?" she asked with a good deal of self-possession.
"Yes, I fear I must. I know I must, if I mean to remain here afterwards. I would rather go at once and be done with it." He still spoke uncertainly, as if struggling with some violent hoarseness in his throat.
"Tell me why you must go," she said imperiously. Claudius hesitated a moment.
"I will tell you one of the principal reasons of my going," he said. "You know I came here to take possession of my fortune, and I very naturally relied upon doing so. Obviously, if I do not obtain it I cannot continue to live in the way I am now doing, on the slender resources which have been enough for me until now."
"Et puis?" said the Countess, raising her eyebrows a little.
"Et puis," continued the Doctor, "these legal gentlemen find difficulty in persuading themselves that I am myself--that I am really the nephew of Gustavus Lindstrand, deceased."
"What nonsense!" exclaimed Margaret. "And so to please them you are going away. And who will get your money, pray?"
"I will get it," answered Claudius, "for I will come back as soon as I have obtained the necessary proofs of my identity from Heidelberg."
"I never heard of anything so ridiculous," said Margaret hotly. "To go all that distance for a few papers. As if we did not all know you! If you are not Dr. Claudius, who are you? Why, Mr. Barker went to Heidelberg on purpose to find you."
"Nevertheless, Messrs. Screw and Scratch doubt me. Here is their letter--the last one. Will you look at it?" and Claudius took an envelope from his pocket-book. He was glad to have come over to the argumentative tack, for his heart was very sore, and he knew what the end must be.
"No." The Countess turned to him for the first time, with an indescribable look in her face, between anger and pain. "No, I will not read it."
"I wish you would," said Claudius, "you would understand better." Something in his voice touched a sympathetic chord.
"I think I understand," said the Countess, looking back at the sea, which was growing dim and indistinct before her. "I think you ought to go."
The indistinctness of her vision was not due to any defect in her sight. The wet fog was rising like a shapeless evil genius out of the sluggish sea, rolling heavily across the little bay to the lovers' beach, with its swollen arms full of blight and mildew. Margaret shivered at the sight of it, and drew the lace thing she wore closer to her throat. But she did not rise, or make any sign that she would go.
"What is the other reason for your going?" she asked at length.
"What other reason?"
"You said your inheritance, or the evidence you require in order to obtain it, was one of the principal reasons for your going. I suppose there is another?"
"Yes, Countess, there is another reason, but I cannot tell you now what it is."
"I have no right to ask, of course," said Margaret,--"unless I can help you," she added, in her soft, deep voice.
"You have more right than you think, far more right," answered Claudius. "And I thank you for the kind thought of help. It is very good of you." He turned towards her, and leaned upon his hand as he sat. Still the fog rolled up, and the lifeless sea seemed overshed with an unctuous calm. They were almost in the dark on their strip of beach, and the moisture was already clinging in great, thick drops to their clothes, and to the rocks where they sat. Still Claudius looked at Margaret, and Margaret looked at the narrow band of oily water still uncovered by the mist.
"When are you going?" she asked slowly, as if hating to meet the answer.
"To-night," said Claudius, still looking earnestly at her. The light was gone from her eyes, and the flush had long sunk away to the heart whence it had come.
"To-night?" she repeated, a little vaguely.
"Yes," he said, and waited; then after a moment, "Shall you mind when I am gone?" He leaned towards her, earnestly looking into her face.
"Yes," said Margaret, "I shall be sorry." Her voice was kind, and very gentle. Still she did not look at him. Claudius held out his right hand, palm upward, to meet hers.
"Shall you mind much?" he asked earnestly, with intent eyes. She met his hand and took it.
"Yes, I shall be very sorry." Claudius slipped from the rock where he was sitting, and fell upon one knee before her, kissing the hand she gave as though it had been the holy cross. He looked up, his face near hers, and at last he met her eyes, burning with a startled light under the black brows, contrasting with the white of her forehead, and face, and throat. He looked one moment.
"Shall you really mind very much?" he asked a third time, in a strange, lost voice. There was no answer, only the wet fog all around, and those two beautiful faces ashy pale in the mist, and very near together. One instant so--and then--ah, God! they have cast the die at last, for he has wound his mighty arms about her, and is passionately kissing the marble of her cheek.
"My beloved, my beloved, I love you--with, all my heart, and with all my soul, and with all my strength"--but she speaks no word, only her arms pass his and hang about his neck, and her dark head lies on his breast; and could you but see her eyes, you would see also the fair pearls that the little god has formed deep down in the ocean of love--the lashes thereof are wet with sudden weeping. And all around them the deep, deaf fog, thick and muffled as darkness, and yet not dark.
"Ugh!" muttered the evil genius of the sea, "I hate lovers; an' they drown not, they shall have a wet wooing." And he came and touched them all over with the clamminess of his deathly hand, and breathed upon them the thick, cold breath of his damp old soul. But he could do nothing against such love as that, and the lovers burned him and laughed him to scorn.
She was very silent as she kissed him and laid her head on his breast. And he could only repeat what was nearest, the credo of his love, and while his arms were about her they were strong, but when he tried to take them away, they were as tremulous as the veriest aspen.
The great tidal wave comes rolling in, once in every lifetime that deserves to be called a lifetime, and sweeps away every one of our landmarks, and changes all our coast-line. But though the waters do not subside, yet the crest of them falls rippling away into smoothness after the first mad rush, else should we all be but shipwrecked mariners in the sea of love. And so, after a time, Margaret drew away from Claudius gently, finding his hands with hers as she moved, and holding them.
"Come," said she, "let us go." They were her first words, and Claudius thought the deep voice had never sounded so musical before. But the words, the word "go," sounded like a knell on his heart. He had forgotten that he must sail on the morrow. He had forgotten that it was so soon over.
They went away, out of the drizzling fog and the mist, and the evil sea-breath, up to the cliff walk and so by the wet lanes homewards, two loving, sorrowing hearts, not realising what had come to them, nor knowing what should come hereafter, but only big with love fresh spoken, and hot with tears half shed.
"Beloved," said Claudius as they stood together for the last time in the desolation of the great, dreary, hotel drawing-room--for Claudius was going--"beloved, will you promise me something?"
Margaret looked down as she stood with her clasped hands on his arm.
"What is it I should promise you--Claudius?" she asked, half hesitating.
Claudius laid his hand tenderly--tenderly, as giants only can be tender, on the thick black hair, as hardly daring, yet loving, to let it linger there.
"Will you promise that if you doubt me when I am gone, you will ask of the Duke the 'other reason' of my going?"
"I shall not doubt you," answered Margaret, looking proudly up.
"God bless you, my beloved!"--and so he went to sea again.
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