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They were walking home from the theatre.
'Well, Mr White,' said Valentia, 'I think it was just fine.'
'It was magnificent!' replied Mr White.
And they were separated for a moment by the crowd, streaming up from the Français towards the Opera and the Boulevards.
'I think, if you don't mind,' she said, 'I'll take your arm, so that we shouldn't get lost.'
He gave her his arm, and they walked through the Louvre and over the river on their way to the Latin Quarter.
Valentia was an art student and Ferdinand White was a poet. Ferdinand considered Valentia the only woman who had ever been able to paint, and Valentia told Ferdinand that he was the only man she had met who knew anything about Art without being himself an artist. On her arrival in Paris, a year before, she had immediately inscribed herself, at the offices of the New York Herald, Valentia Stewart, Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.A. She settled down in a respectable pension, and within a week was painting vigorously. Ferdinand White arrived from Oxford at about the same time, hired a dirty room in a shabby hotel, ate his meals at cheap restaurants in the Boulevard St Michel, read Stephen Mallarmé, and flattered himself that he was leading 'la vie de Bohême.'
After two months, the Fates brought the pair together, and Ferdinand began to take his meals at Valentia's pension. They went to the museums together; and in the Sculpture Gallery at the Louvre, Ferdinand would discourse on ancient Greece in general and on Plato in particular, while among the pictures Valentia would lecture on tones and values and chiaroscuro. Ferdinand renounced Ruskin and all his works; Valentia read the Symposium. Frequently in the evening they went to the theatre; sometimes to the Français, but more often to the Odéon; and after the performance they would discuss the play, its art, its technique—above all, its ethics. Ferdinand explained the piece he had in contemplation, and Valentia talked of the picture she meant to paint for next year's Salon; and the lady told her friends that her companion was the cleverest man she had met in her life, while he told his that she was the only really sympathetic and intelligent girl he had ever known. Thus were united in bonds of amity, Great Britain on the one side and the United States of America and Ireland on the other.
But when Ferdinand spoke of Valentia to the few Frenchmen he knew, they asked him,—
'But this Miss Stewart—is she pretty?'
'Certainly—in her American way; a long face, with the hair parted in the middle and hanging over the nape of the neck. Her mouth is quite classic.'
'And have you never kissed the classic mouth?'
'Has she a good figure?'
'And yet—Oh, you English!' And they smiled and shrugged their shoulders as they said, 'How English!'
'But, my good fellow,' cried Ferdinand, in execrable French, 'you don't understand. We are friends, the best of friends.'
They shrugged their shoulders more despairingly than ever.
They stood on the bridge and looked at the water and the dark masses of the houses on the Latin side, with the twin towers of Notre Dame rising dimly behind them. Ferdinand thought of the Thames at night, with the barges gliding slowly down, and the twinkling of the lights along the Embankment.
'It must be a little like that in Holland,' she said, 'but without the lights and with greater stillness.'
'When do you start?'
She had been making preparations for spending the summer in a little village near Amsterdam, to paint.
'I can't go now,' cried Valentia. 'Corrie Sayles is going home, and there's no one else I can go with. And I can't go alone. Where are you going?'
'I? I have no plans.... I never make plans.'
They paused, looking at the reflections in the water. Then she said,—
'I don't see why you shouldn't come to Holland with me!'
He did not know what to think; he knew she had been reading the Symposium.
'After all,' she said, 'there's no reason why one shouldn't go away with a man as well as with a woman.'
His French friends would have suggested that there were many reasons why one should go away with a woman rather than a man; but, like his companion, Ferdinand looked at it in the light of pure friendship.
'When one comes to think of it, I really don't see why we shouldn't. And the mere fact of staying at the same hotel can make no difference to either of us. We shall both have our work—you your painting, and I my play.'
As they considered it, the idea was distinctly pleasing; they wondered that it had not occurred to them before. Sauntering homewards, they discussed the details, and in half an hour had decided on the plan of their journey, the date and the train.
Next day Valentia went to say good-bye to the old French painter whom all the American girls called Popper. She found him in a capacious dressing-gown, smoking cigarettes.
'Well, my dear,' he said, 'what news?'
'I'm going to Holland to paint windmills.'
'A very laudable ambition. With your mother?'
'My good Popper, my mother's in Cincinnati. I'm going with Mr White.'
'With Mr White?' He raised his eyebrows. 'You are very frank about it.'
'Why—what do you mean?'
He put on his glasses and looked at her carefully.
'Does it not seem to you a rather—curious thing for a young girl of your age to go away with a young man of the age of Mr Ferdinand White?'
'Good gracious me! One would think I was doing something that had never been done before!'
'Oh, many a young man has gone travelling with a young woman, but they generally start by a night train, and arrive at the station in different cabs.'
'But surely, Popper, you don't mean to insinuate—Mr White and I are going to Holland as friends.'
He looked at her more curiously than ever.
'One can have a man friend as well as a girl friend,' she continued. 'And I don't see why he shouldn't be just as good a friend.'
'The danger is that he become too good.'
'You misunderstand me entirely, Popper; we are friends, and nothing but friends.'
'You are entirely off your head, my child.'
'Ah! you're a Frenchman, you can't understand these things. We are different.'
'I imagine that you are human beings, even though England and America respectively had the intense good fortune of seeing your birth.'
'We're human beings—and more than that, we're nineteenth century human beings. Love is not everything. It is a part of one—perhaps the lower part—an accessory to man's life, needful for the continuation of the species.'
'You use such difficult words, my dear.'
'There is something higher and nobler and purer than love—there is friendship. Ferdinand White is my friend. I have the amplest confidence in him. I am certain that no unclean thought has ever entered his head.'
She spoke quite heatedly, and as she flushed up, the old painter thought her astonishingly handsome. Then she added as an afterthought,—
'We despise passion. Passion is ugly; it is grotesque.'
The painter stroked his imperial and faintly smiled.
'My child, you must permit me to tell you that you are foolish. Passion is the most lovely thing in the world; without it we should not paint beautiful pictures. It is passion that makes a woman of a society lady; it is passion that makes a man even of—an art critic.'
'We do not want it,' she said. 'We worship Venus Urania. We are all spirit and soul.'
'You have been reading Plato; soon you will read Zola.'
He smiled again, and lit another cigarette.
'Do you disapprove of my going?' she asked after a little silence.
He paused and looked at her. Then he shrugged his shoulders.
'On the contrary, I approve. It is foolish, but that is no reason why you should not do it. After all, folly is the great attribute of man. No judge is as grave as an owl; no soldier fighting for his country flies as rapidly as the hare. You may be strong, but you are not so strong as a horse; you may be gluttonous, but you cannot eat like a boa-constrictor. But there is no beast that can be as foolish as man. And since one should always do what one can do best—be foolish. Strive for folly above all things. Let the height of your ambition be the pointed cap with the golden bells. So, bon voyage! I will come and see you off to-morrow.'
The painter arrived at the station with a box of sweets, which he handed to Valentia with a smile. He shook Ferdinand's hand warmly and muttered under his breath,—
'Silly fool! he's thinking of friendship, too!'
Then, as the train steamed out, he waved his hand and cried,—
'Be foolish! Be foolish!'
He walked slowly out of the station, and sat down at a café. He lit a cigarette, and, sipping his absinthe, said,—
They arrived at Amsterdam in the evening, and, after dinner, gathered together their belongings and crossed the Ij as the moon shone over the waters; then they got into the little steam tram and started for Monnickendam. They stood side by side on the platform of the carriage and watched the broad meadows bathed in moonlight, the formless shapes of the cattle lying on the grass, and the black outlines of the mills; they passed by a long, sleeping canal, and they stopped at little, silent villages. At last they entered the dead town, and the tram put them down at the hotel door.
Next morning, when she was half dressed, Valentia threw open the window of her room, and looked out into the garden. Ferdinand was walking about, dressed as befitted the place and season—in flannels—with a huge white hat on his head. She could not help thinking him very handsome—and she took off the blue skirt she had intended to work in, and put on a dress of muslin all bespattered with coloured flowers, and she took in her hand a flat straw hat with red ribbons.
'You look like a Dresden shepherdess,' he said, as they met.
They had breakfast in the garden beneath the trees; and as she poured out his tea, she laughed, and with the American accent which he was beginning to think made English so harmonious, said,—
'I reckon this about takes the shine out of Paris.'
They had agreed to start work at once, losing no time, for they wanted to have a lot to show on their return to France, that their scheme might justify itself. Ferdinand wished to accompany Valentia on her search for the picturesque, but she would not let him; so, after breakfast, he sat himself down in the summer-house, and spread out all round him his nice white paper, lit his pipe, cut his quills, and proceeded to the evolution of a masterpiece. Valentia tied the red strings of her sun-bonnet under her chin, selected a sketchbook, and sallied forth.
At luncheon they met, and Valentia told of a little bit of canal, with an old windmill on one side of it, which she had decided to paint, while Ferdinand announced that he had settled on the names of his dramatis personæ. In the afternoon they returned to their work, and at night, tired with the previous day's travelling, went to bed soon after dinner.
So passed the second day; and the third day, and the fourth; till the end of the week came, and they had worked diligently. They were both of them rather surprised at the ease with which they became accustomed to their life.
'How absurd all this fuss is,' said Valentia, 'that people make about the differences of the sexes! I am sure it is only habit.'
'We have ourselves to prove that there is nothing in it,' he replied. 'You know, it is an interesting experiment that we are making.'
She had not looked at it in that light before.
'Perhaps it is. We may be the fore-runners of a new era.'
'The Edisons of a new communion!'
'I shall write and tell Monsieur Rollo all about it.'
In the course of the letter, she said,—
'Sex is a morbid instinct. Out here, in the calmness of the canal and the broad meadows, it never enters one's head. I do not think of Ferdinand as a man—'
She looked up at him as she wrote the words. He was reading a book and she saw him in profile, with the head bent down. Through the leaves the sun lit up his face with a soft light that was almost green, and it occurred to her that it would be interesting to paint him.
'I do not think of Ferdinand as a man; to me he is a companion. He has a wider experience than a woman, and he talks of different things. Otherwise I see no difference. On his part, the idea of my sex never occurs to him, and far from being annoyed as an ordinary woman might be, I am proud of it. It shows me that, when I chose a companion, I chose well. To him I am not a woman; I am a man.'
And she finished with a repetition of Ferdinand's remark,—
'We are the Edisons of a new communion!'
When Valentia began to paint her companion's portrait, they were naturally much more together. And they never grew tired of sitting in the pleasant garden under the trees, while she worked at her canvas and green shadows fell on the profile of Ferdinand White. They talked of many things. After a while they became less reserved about their private concerns. Valentia told Ferdinand about her home in Ohio, and about her people; and Ferdinand spoke of the country parsonage in which he had spent his childhood, and the public school, and lastly of Oxford and the strange, happy days when he had learnt to read Plato and Walter Pater....
At last Valentia threw aside her brushes and leant back with a sigh.
'It is finished!'
Ferdinand rose and stretched himself, and went to look at his portrait. He stood before it for a while, and then he placed his hand on Valentia's shoulder.
'You are a genius, Miss Stewart.'
She looked up at him.
'Ah, Mr White, I was inspired by you. It is more your work than mine.'
In the evening they went out for a stroll. They wandered through the silent street; in the darkness they lost the quaintness of the red brick houses, contrasting with the bright yellow of the paving, but it was even quieter than by day. The street was very broad, and it wound about from east to west and from west to east, and at last it took them to the tiny harbour. Two fishing smacks were basking on the water, moored to the side, and the Zuyder Zee was covered with the innumerable reflections of the stars. On one of the boats a man was sitting at the prow, fishing, and now and then, through the darkness, one saw the red glow of his pipe; by his side, huddled up on a sail, lay a sleeping boy. The other boat seemed deserted. Ferdinand and Valentia stood for a long time watching the fisher, and he was so still that they wondered whether he too were sleeping. They looked across the sea, and in the distance saw the dim lights of Marken, the island of fishers. They wandered on again through the street, and now the lights in the windows were extinguished one by one, and sleep came over the town; and the quietness was even greater than before. They walked on, and their footsteps made no sound. They felt themselves alone in the dead city, and they did not speak.
At length they came to a canal gliding towards the sea; they followed it inland, and here the darkness was equal to the silence. Great trees that had been planted when William of Orange was king in England threw their shade over the water, shutting out the stars. They wandered along on the soft earth, they could not hear themselves walk—and they did not speak.
They came to a bridge over the canal and stood on it, looking at the water and the trees above them, and the water and the trees below them—and they did not speak.
Then out of the darkness came another darkness, and gradually loomed forth the heaviness of a barge. Noiselessly it glided down the stream, very slowly; at the end of it a boy stood at the tiller, steering; and it passed beneath them and beyond, till it lost itself in the night, and again they were alone.
They stood side by side, leaning against the parapet, looking down at the water.... And from the water rose up Love, and Love fluttered down from the trees, and Love was borne along upon the night air. Ferdinand did not know what was happening to him; he felt Valentia by his side, and he drew closer to her, till her dress touched his legs and the silk of her sleeve rubbed against his arm. It was so dark that he could not see her face; he wondered of what she was thinking. She made a little movement and to him came a faint wave of the scent she wore. Presently two forms passed by on the bank and they saw a lover with his arm round a girl's waist, and then they too were hidden in the darkness. Ferdinand trembled as he spoke.
'Only Love is waking!'
'And we!' she said.
He wondered why she said nothing. Did she understand? He put his hand on her arm.
He had never called her by her Christian name before. She turned her face towards him.
'What do you mean?'
'Oh, Valentia, I love you! I can't help it.'
A sob burst from her.
'Didn't you understand,' he said, 'all those hours that I sat for you while you painted, and these long nights in which we wandered by the water?'
'I thought you were my friend.'
'I thought so too. When I sat before you and watched you paint, and looked at your beautiful hair and your eyes, I thought I was your friend. And I looked at the lines of your body beneath your dress. And when it pleased me to carry your easel and walk with you, I thought it was friendship. Only to-night I know I am in love. Oh, Valentia, I am so glad!'
She could not keep back her tears. Her bosom heaved, and she wept.
'You are a woman,' he said. 'Did you not see?'
'I am so sorry,' she said, her voice all broken. 'I thought we were such good friends. I was so happy. And now you have spoilt it all.'
'Valentia, I love you.'
'I thought our friendship was so good and pure. And I felt so strong in it. It seemed to me so beautiful.'
'Did you think I was less a man than the fisherman you see walking beneath the trees at night?'
'It is all over now,' she sighed.
'What do you mean?'
'I can't stay here with you alone.'
'You're not going away?'
'Before, there was no harm in our being together at the hotel; but now—'
'Oh, Valentia, don't leave me. I can't—I can't live without you.'
She heard the unhappiness in his voice. She turned to him again and laid her two hands on his shoulders.
'Why can't you forget it all, and let us be good friends again? Forget that you are a man. A woman can remain with a man for ever, and always be content to walk and read and talk with him, and never think of anything else. Can you forget it, Ferdinand? You will make me so happy.'
He did not answer, and for a long time they stood on the bridge in silence. At last he sighed—a heartbroken sigh.
'Perhaps you're right. It may be better to pretend that we are friends. If you like, we will forget all this.'
Her heart was too full; she could not answer; but she held out her hands to him. He took them in his own, and, bending down, kissed them.
Then they walked home, side by side, without speaking.
Next morning Valentia received M. Rollo's answer to her letter. He apologised for his delay in answering.
'You are a philosopher,' he said—she could see the little snigger with which he had written the words—'You are a philosopher, and I was afraid lest my reply should disturb the course of your reflections on friendship. I confess that I did not entirely understand your letter, but I gathered that the sentiments were correct, and it gave me great pleasure to know that your experiment has had such excellent results. I gather that you have not yet discovered that there is more than a verbal connection between Friendship and Love.'
The reference is to the French equivalents of those states of mind.
'But to speak seriously, dear child. You are young and beautiful now, but not so very many years shall pass before your lovely skin becomes coarse and muddy, and your teeth yellow, and the wrinkles appear about your mouth and eyes. You have not so very many years before you in which to collect sensations, and the recollection of one's loves is, perhaps, the greatest pleasure left to one's old age. To be virtuous, my dear, is admirable, but there are so many interpretations of virtue. For myself, I can say that I have never regretted the temptations to which I succumbed, but often the temptations I have resisted. Therefore, love, love, love! And remember that if love at sixty in a man is sometimes pathetic, in a woman at forty it is always ridiculous. Therefore, take your youth in both hands and say to yourself, "Life is short, but let me live before I die!"'
She did not show the letter to Ferdinand.
Next day it rained. Valentia retired to a room at the top of the house and began to paint, but the incessant patter on the roof got on her nerves; the painting bored her, and she threw aside the brushes in disgust. She came downstairs and found Ferdinand in the dining-room, standing at the window looking at the rain. It came down in one continual steady pour, and the water ran off the raised brickwork of the middle of the street to the gutters by the side, running along in a swift and murky rivulet. The red brick of the opposite house looked cold and cheerless in the wet.... He did not turn or speak to her as she came in. She remarked that it did not look like leaving off. He made no answer. She drew a chair to the second window and tried to read, but she could not understand what she was reading. And she looked out at the pouring rain and the red brick house opposite. She wondered why he had not answered.
The innkeeper brought them their luncheon. Ferdinand took no notice of the preparations.
'Will you come to luncheon, Mr White?' she said to him. 'It is quite ready.'
'I beg your pardon,' he said gravely, as he took his seat.
He looked at her quickly, and then immediately dropping his eyes, began eating. She wished he would not look so sad; she was very sorry for him.
She made an observation and he appeared to rouse himself. He replied and they began talking, very calmly and coldly, as if they had not known one another five minutes. They talked of Art with the biggest of A's, and they compared Dutch painting with Italian; they spoke of Rembrandt and his life.
'Rembrandt had passion,' said Ferdinand, bitterly, 'and therefore he was unhappy. It is only the sexless, passionless creature, the block of ice, that can be happy in this world.'
She blushed and did not answer.
The afternoon Valentia spent in her room, pretending to write letters, and she wondered whether Ferdinand was wishing her downstairs.
At dinner they sought refuge in abstractions. They talked of dykes and windmills and cigars, the history of Holland and its constitution, the constitution of the United States and the edifying spectacle of the politics of that blessed country. They talked of political economy and pessimism and cattle rearing, the state of agriculture in England, the foreign policy of the day, Anarchism, the President of the French Republic. They would have talked of bi-metallism if they could. People hearing them would have thought them very learned and extraordinarily staid.
At last they separated, and as she undressed Valentia told herself that Ferdinand had kept his promise. Everything was just as it had been before, and the only change was that he used her Christian name. And she rather liked him to call her Valentia.
But next day Ferdinand did not seem able to command himself. When Valentia addressed him, he answered in monosyllables, with eyes averted; but when she had her back turned, she felt that he was looking at her. After breakfast she went away painting haystacks, and was late for luncheon.
'It is of no consequence,' he said, keeping his eyes on the ground. And those were the only words he spoke to her during the remainder of the day. Once, when he was looking at her surreptitiously, and she suddenly turned round, their eyes met, and for a moment he gazed straight at her, then walked away. She wished he would not look so sad. As she was going to bed, she held out her hand to him to say good-night, and she added,—
'I don't want to make you unhappy, Mr White. I'm very sorry.'
'It's not your fault,' he said. 'You can't help it, if you're a stock and a stone.'
He went away without taking the proffered hand. Valentia cried that night.
In the morning she found a note outside her door:—
'Pardon me if I was rude, but I was not master of myself. I am going to Volendam; I hate Monnickendam.'
Ferdinand arrived at Volendam. It was a fishing village, only three miles across country from Monnickendam, but the route, by steam tram and canal, was so circuitous, that, with luggage, it took one two hours to get from place to place. He had walked over there with Valentia, and it had almost tempted them to desert Monnickendam. Ferdinand took a room at the hotel and walked out, trying to distract himself. The village consisted of a couple of score of houses, built round a semi-circular dyke against the sea, and in the semi-circle lay the fleet of fishing boats. Men and women were sitting at their doors mending nets. He looked at the fishermen, great, sturdy fellows, with rough, weather-beaten faces, huge earrings dangling from their ears. He took note of their quaint costume—black stockings and breeches, the latter more baggy than a Turk's, and the crushed strawberry of their high jackets, cut close to the body. He remembered how he had looked at them with Valentia, and the group of boys and men that she had sketched. He remembered how they walked along, peeping into the houses, where everything was spick and span, as only a Dutch cottage can be, with old Delft plates hanging on the walls, and pots and pans of polished brass. And he looked over the sea to the island of Marken, with its masts crowded together, like a forest without leaf or branch. Coming to the end of the little town he saw the church of Monnickendam, the red steeple half-hidden by the trees. He wondered where Valentia was—what she was doing.
But he turned back resolutely, and, going to his room, opened his books and began reading. He rubbed his eyes and frowned, in order to fix his attention, but the book said nothing but Valentia. At last he threw it aside and took his Plato and his dictionary, commencing to translate a difficult passage, word for word. But whenever he looked up a word he could only see Valentia, and he could not make head or tail of the Greek. He threw it aside also, and set out walking. He walked as hard as he could—away from Monnickendam.
The second day was not quite so difficult, and he read till his mind was dazed, and then he wrote letters home and told them he was enjoying himself tremendously, and he walked till he felt his legs dropping off.
Next morning it occurred to him that Valentia might have written. Trembling with excitement, he watched the postman coming down the street—but he had no letter for Ferdinand. There would be no more post that day.
But the next day Ferdinand felt sure there would be a letter for him; the postman passed by the hotel door without stopping. Ferdinand thought he should go mad. All day he walked up and down his room, thinking only of Valentia. Why did she not write?
The night fell and he could see from his window the moon shining over the clump of trees about Monnickendam church—he could stand it no longer. He put on his hat and walked across country; the three miles were endless; the church and the trees seemed to grow no nearer, and at last, when he thought himself close, he found he had a bay to walk round, and it appeared further away than ever.
He came to the mouth of the canal along which he and Valentia had so often walked. He looked about, but he could see no one. His heart beat as he approached the little bridge, but Valentia was not there. Of course she would not come out alone. He ran to the hotel and asked for her. They told him she was not in. He walked through the town; not a soul was to be seen. He came to the church; he walked round, and then—right at the edge of the trees—he saw a figure sitting on a bench.
She was dressed in the same flowered dress which she had worn when he likened her to a Dresden shepherdess; she was looking towards Volendam.
He went up to her silently. She sprang up with a little shriek.
'Oh, Valentia, I cannot help it. I could not remain away any longer. I could do nothing but think of you all day, all night. If you knew how I loved you! Oh, Valentia, have pity on me! I cannot be your friend. It's all nonsense about friendship; I hate it. I can only love you. I love you with all my heart and soul, Valentia.'
She was frightened.
'Oh! how can you stand there so coldly and watch my agony? Don't you see? How can you be so cold?'
'I am not cold, Ferdinand,' she said, trembling. 'Do you think I have been happy while you were away?'
'I thought of you, too, Ferdinand, all day, all night. And I longed for you to come back. I did not know till you went that—I loved you.'
He took her in his arms and pressed her passionately to him.
'No, for God's sake!'
She tore herself away. But again he took her in his arms, and this time he kissed her on the mouth. She tried to turn her face away.
'I shall kill myself, Ferdinand!'
'What do you mean?'
'In those long hours that I sat here looking towards you, I felt I loved you—I loved you as passionately as you said you loved me. But if you came back, and—anything happened—I swore that I would throw myself in the canal.'
He looked at her.
'I could not—live afterwards,' she said hoarsely. 'It would be too horrible. I should be—oh, I can't think of it!'
He took her in his arms again and kissed her.
'Have mercy on me!' she cried.
'You love me, Valentia.'
'Oh, it is nothing to you. Afterwards you will be just the same as before. Why cannot men love peacefully like women? I should be so happy to remain always as we are now, and never change. I tell you I shall kill myself.'
'I will do as you do, Valentia.'
'If anything happens, Valentia,' he said gravely, 'we will go down to the canal together.'
She was horrified at the idea; but it fascinated her.
'I should like to die in your arms,' she said.
For the second time he bent down and took her hands and kissed them. Then she went alone into the silent church, and prayed.
They went home. Ferdinand was so pleased to be at the hotel again, near her. His bed seemed so comfortable; he was so happy, and he slept, dreaming of Valentia.
The following night they went for their walk, arm in arm; and they came to the canal. From the bridge they looked at the water. It was very dark; they could not hear it flow. No stars were reflected in it, and the trees by its side made the depth seem endless. Valentia shuddered. Perhaps in a little while their bodies would be lying deep down in the water. And they would be in one another's arms, and they would never be separated. Oh, what a price it was to pay! She looked tearfully at Ferdinand, but he was looking down at the darkness beneath them, and he was intensely grave.
And they wandered there by day and looked at the black reflection of the trees. And in the heat it seemed so cool and restful....
They abandoned their work. What did pictures and books matter now? They sauntered about the meadows, along shady roads; they watched the black and white cows sleepily browsing, sometimes coming to the water's edge to drink, and looking at themselves, amazed. They saw the huge-limbed milkmaids come along with their little stools and their pails, deftly tying the cow's hind legs that it might not kick. And the steaming milk frothed into the pails and was poured into huge barrels, and as each cow was freed, she shook herself a little and recommenced to browse.
And they loved their life as they had never loved it before.
One evening they went again to the canal and looked at the water, but they seemed to have lost their emotions before it. They were no longer afraid. Ferdinand sat on the parapet and Valentia leaned against him. He bent his head so that his face might touch her hair. She looked at him and smiled, and she almost lifted her lips. He kissed them.
'Do you love me, Ferdinand?'
He gave the answer without words.
Their faces were touching now, and he was holding her hands. They were both very happy.
'You know, Ferdinand,' she whispered, 'we are very foolish.'
'I don't care.'
'Monsieur Rollo said that folly was the chief attribute of man.'
'What did he say of love?'
Then, after a pause, he whispered in her ear,—
'I love you!'
And she held up her lips to him again.
'After all,' she said, 'we're only human beings. We can't help it. I think—'
She hesitated; what she was going to say had something of the anti-climax in it.
'I think—it would be very silly if—if we threw ourselves in the horrid canal.'
'Valentia, do you mean—?'
She smiled charmingly as she answered,—
'What you will, Ferdinand.'
Again he took both her hands, and, bending down, kissed them.... But this time she lifted him up to her and kissed him on the lips.
One night after dinner I told this story to my aunt.
'But why on earth didn't they get married?' she asked, when I had finished.
'Good Heavens!' I cried. 'It never occurred to me.'
'Well, I think they ought,' she said.
'Oh, I have no doubt they did. I expect they got on their bikes and rode off to the Consulate at Amsterdam there and then. I'm sure it would have been his first thought.'
'Of course, some girls are very queer,' said my aunt.
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