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In the morning, after breakfast, James went for a walk. He wanted to think out clearly what he had better do, feeling that he must make up his mind at once. Hesitation would be fatal, and yet to speak immediately seemed so cruel, so brutally callous.
Wishing to be absolutely alone, he wandered through the garden to a little wood of beech-trees, which in his boyhood had been a favourite haunt. The day was fresh and sweet after the happy rain of April, the sky so clear that it affected one like a very beautiful action.
James stood still when he came into the wood, inhaling the odour of moist soil, the voluptuous scents of our mother, the Earth, gravid with silent life. For a moment he was intoxicated by the paradise of verdure. The beech-trees rose very tall, with their delicate branches singularly black amid the young leaves of the spring, tender and vivid. The eye could not pierce the intricate greenery; it was more delicate than the summer rain, subtler than the mists of the sunset. It was a scene to drive away all thought of the sadness of life, of the bitterness. Its exquisite fresh purity made James feel pure also, and like a little child he wandered over the undulating earth, broken by the tortuous courses of the streamlets of winter.
The ground was soft, covered with brown dead leaves, and he tried to see the rabbit rustling among them, or the hasty springing of a squirrel. The long branches of the briar entangled his feet; and here and there, in sheltered corners, blossomed the primrose and the violet He listened to the chant of the birds, so joyous that it seemed impossible they sang in a world of sorrow. Hidden among the leaves, aloft in the beeches, the linnet sang with full-throated melody, and the blackbird and the thrush. In the distance a cuckoo called its mysterious note, and far away, like an echo, a fellow-bird called back.
All Nature was rejoicing in the delight of the sunshine; all Nature was rejoicing, and his heart alone was heavy as lead. He stood by a fir-tree, which rose far above the others, immensely tall, like the mast of a solitary ship; it was straight as a life without reproach, but cheerless, cold, and silent. His life, too, was without reproach, thought James--without reproach till now.... He had loved Mary Clibborn. But was it love, or was it merely affection, habit, esteem? She was the only girl he knew, and they had grown up together. When he came from school for his holidays, or later from Sandhurst, on leave, Mary was his constant friend, without whom he would have been miserably dull. She was masculine enough to enter into his boyish games, and even their thoughts were common. There were so few people in Little Primpton that those who lived there saw one another continually; and though Tunbridge Wells was only four miles away, the distance effectually prevented very close intimacy with its inhabitants. It was natural, then, that James should only look forward to an existence in which Mary took part; without that pleasant companionship the road seemed long and dreary. When he was appointed to a regiment in India, and his heart softened at the prospect of the first long parting from all he cared for, it was the separation from Mary that seemed hardest to bear.
"I don't know what I shall do without you, Mary," he said.
"You will forget all about us when you've been in India a month."
But her lips twitched, and he noticed that she found difficulty in speaking quite firmly. She hesitated a moment, and spoke again.
"It's different for us," she said, "Those who go forget, but those who stay--remember. We shall be always doing the same things to remind us of you. Oh, you won't forget me, Jamie?"
The last words slipped out against the girl's intention.
"Mary!" he cried.
And then he put his arms round her, and Mary rested her face on his shoulder and began to cry. He kissed her, trying to stop her tears; he pressed her to his heart. He really thought he loved her then with all his strength.
"Mary," he whispered, "Mary, do you care for me? Will you marry me?"
Then quickly he explained that it would make it so much better for both if they became engaged.
"I shan't be able to marry you for a long time; but will you wait for me, Mary?"
She began to smile through her tears.
"I would wait for you to the end of my life."
During the first two years in India the tie had been to James entirely pleasurable; and if, among the manifold experiences of his new life, he bore Mary's absence with greater equanimity than he had thought possible, he was always glad to receive her letters, with their delicate aroma of the English country; and it pleased him to think that his future was comfortably settled. The engagement was a sort of ballast, and he felt that he could compass his journey without fear and without disturbance. James did not ask himself whether his passion was very ardent, for his whole education had led him to believe that passion was hardly moral. The proper and decent basis of marriage was similarity of station, and the good, solid qualities which might be supposed endurable. From his youth, the wisdom of the world had been instilled into him through many proverbs, showing the advisability of caution, the transitoriness of beauty and desire; and, on the other hand, the lasting merit of honesty, virtue, domesticity, and good temper....
But we all know that Nature is a goddess with no sense of decency, for whom the proprieties are simply non-existent; men and women in her eyes have but one point of interest, and she walks abroad, with her fashioning fingers, setting in order the only work she cares for. All the rest is subsidiary, and she is callous to suffering and to death, indifferent to the Ten Commandments and even to the code of Good Society.
James at last made the acquaintance of a certain Mrs. Pritchard-Wallace, the wife of a man in a native regiment, a little, dark-hatred person, with an olive skin and big brown eyes--rather common, but excessively pretty. She was the daughter of a riding-master by a Portuguese woman from Goa, and it had been something of a scandal when Pritchard-Wallace, who was an excellent fellow, had married her against the advice of all the regimental ladies. But if those charitable persons had not ceased to look upon her with doubtful eyes, her wit and her good looks for others counterbalanced every disadvantage; and she did not fail to have a little court of subalterns and the like hanging perpetually about her skirts. At first Mrs. Wallace merely amused James. Her absolute frivolity, her cynical tongue, her light-heartedness, were a relief after the rather puritanical atmosphere in which he had passed his youth; he was astonished to hear the gay contempt which she poured upon all the things that he had held most sacred--things like the Tower of London and the British Constitution. Prejudices and cherished beliefs were dissipated before her sharp-tongued raillery; she was a woman with almost a witty way of seeing the world, with a peculiarly feminine gift for putting old things in a new, absurd light. To Mrs. Wallace, James seemed a miracle of ingenuousness, and she laughed at him continually; then she began to like him, and took him about with her, at which he was much flattered.
James had been brought up in the belief that women were fashioned of different clay from men, less gross, less earthly; he thought not only that they were pious, sweet and innocent, ignorant entirely of disagreeable things, but that it was man's first duty to protect them from all knowledge of the realities of life. To him they were an ethereal blending of milk-and-water with high principles; it had never occurred to him that they were flesh and blood, and sense, and fire and nerves--especially nerves. Most topics, of course, could not be broached in their presence; in fact, almost the only safe subject of conversation was the weather.
But Mrs. Pritchard-Wallace prided herself on frankness, which is less common in pretty women than in plain; and she had no hesitation in discussing with James matters that he had never heard discussed before. She was hugely amused at the embarrassment which made him hesitate and falter, trying to find polite ways of expressing the things which his whole training had taught him to keep rigidly to himself. Then sometimes, from pure devilry, Mrs. Wallace told stories on purpose to shock him; and revelled in his forced, polite smile, and in his strong look of disapproval.
"What a funny boy you are!" she said. "But you must take care, you know; you have all the makings of a perfect prig."
"D'you think so?"
"You must try to be less moral. The moral young man is rather funny for a change, but he palls after a time."
"If I bore you, you have only to say so, and I won't bother you again."
"And moral young men shouldn't get cross; it's very bad manners," she answered, smiling.
Before he knew what had happened, James found himself madly in love with Mrs. Wallace. But what a different passion was this, resembling not at all that pallid flame which alone he had experienced! How could he recognise the gentle mingling of friendship and of common-sense which he called love in that destroying violence which troubled his days like a fever? He dreamed of the woman at night; he seemed only to live when he was with her. The mention of her name made his heart beat, and meeting her he trembled and turned cold. By her side he found nothing to say; he was like wax in her hands, without will or strength. The touch of her fingers sent the blood rushing through his veins insanely; and understanding his condition, she took pleasure in touching him, to watch the little shiver of desire that convulsed his frame. In a very self-restrained man love works ruinously; and it burnt James now, this invisible, unconscious fire, till he was consumed utterly--till he was mad with passion. And then suddenly, at some chance word, he knew what had happened; he knew that he was in love with the wife of his good friend, Pritchard-Wallace; and he thought of Mary Clibborn.
There was no hesitation now, nor doubt; James had only been in danger because he was unaware of it. He never thought of treachery to his friend or to Mary; he was horror-stricken, hating himself. He looked over the brink of the precipice at the deadly sin, and recoiled, shuddering. He bitterly reproached himself, taking for granted that some error of his had led to the catastrophe. But his duty was obvious; he knew he must kill the sinful love, whatever pain it cost him; he must crush it as he would some noxious vermin.
James made up his mind never to see Mrs. Wallace again; and he thought that God was on his side helping him, since, with her husband, she was leaving in a month for England. He applied for leave. He could get away for a few weeks, and on his return Mrs. Wallace would be gone. He managed to avoid her for several days, but at last she came across him by chance, and he could not escape.
"I didn't know you were so fond of hide-and-seek," she said, "I think it's rather a stupid game."
"I don't understand," replied James, growing pale.
"Why have you been dodging round corners to avoid me as if I were a dun, and inventing the feeblest excuses not to come to me?"
James stood for a moment, not knowing what to answer; his knees trembled, and he sweated with the agony of his love. It was an angry, furious passion, that made him feel he could almost seize the woman by the throat and strangle her.
"Did you know that I am engaged to be married?" he asked at length.
"I've never known a sub who wasn't. It's the most objectionable of all their vicious habits. What then?" She looked at him, smiling; she knew very well the power of her dark eyes, fringed with long lashes. "Don't be silly," she added. "Come and see me, and bring her photograph, and you shall talk to me for two hours about her. Will you come?"
"It's very kind of you. I don't think I can."
"Why not? You're really very rude."
"I'm extremely busy."
"Nonsense! You must come. Don't look as if I were asking you to do something quite horrible. I shall expect you to tea."
She bound him by his word, and James was forced to go. When he showed the photograph, Mrs. Pritchard-Wallace looked at it with a curious expression. It was the work of a country photographer, awkward and ungainly, with the head stiffly poised, and the eyes hard and fixed; the general impression was ungraceful and devoid of charm, Mrs. Wallace noticed the country fashion of her clothes.
"It's extraordinary that subalterns should always get engaged to the same sort of girl."
James flushed, "It's not a very good one of her."
"They always photograph badly," murmured Mrs. Wallace.
"She's the best girl in the world. You can't think how good, and kind, and simple she is; she reminds me always of an English breeze."
"I don't like east winds myself," said Mrs. Wallace. "But I can see she has all sorts of admirable qualities."
"D'you know why I came to see you to-day?"
"Because I forced you," said Mrs. Wallace, laughing.
"I came to say good-bye; I've got a month's leave."
"Oh, but I shall be gone by the time you come back."
"I know. It is for that reason."
Mrs. Wallace looked at him quickly, hesitated, then glanced away.
"Is it so bad as that?"
"Oh, don't you understand?" cried James, breaking suddenly from his reserve. "I must tell you. I shall never see you again, and it can't matter. I love you with all my heart and soul. I didn't know what love was till I met you. God help me, it was only friendship I had for Mary! This is so different. Oh, I hate myself! I can't help it; the mere touch of your hand sends me mad with passion. I daren't see you again--I'm not a blackguard. I know it's quite hopeless. And I've given my word to Mary."
The look of her eyes, the sound of her voice, sent half his fine intentions flying before the wind. He lost command over himself--but only for a moment; the old habits were strong.
"I beg your pardon! I oughtn't to have spoken. Don't be angry with me for what I've said. I couldn't help it. You thought me a fool because I ran away from you. It was all I could do. I couldn't help loving you. You understand now, don't you? I know that you will never wish to see me again, and it's better for both of us. Good-bye."
He stretched out his hand.
"I didn't know it was so bad as that," she said, looking at him with kindly eyes.
"Didn't you see me tremble when the hem of your dress touched me by accident? Didn't you hear that I couldn't speak; the words were dried up in my throat?" He sank into a chair weakly; but then immediately gathering himself together, sprang up. "Good-bye," he said. "Let me go quickly."
She gave him her hand, and then, partly in kindness, partly in malice, bent forward and kissed his lips. James gave a cry, a sob; now he lost command over himself entirely. He took her in his arms roughly, and kissed her mouth, her eyes, her hair--so passionately that Mrs. Wallace was frightened. She tried to free herself; but he only held her closer, madly kissing her lips.
"Take care," she said. "What are you doing? Let me go!" And she pushed him away.
She was a cautious woman, who never allowed flirtation to go beyond certain decorous lengths, and she was used to a milder form of philandering.
"You've disarranged my hair, you silly boy!" She went to the glass to put it in order, and when she turned back found that James had gone. "What an odd creature!" she muttered.
To Mrs. Pritchard-Wallace the affair was but an incident, such as might have been the love of Phædra had she flourished in an age when the art of living consists in not taking things too seriously; but for Hippolitus a tragedy of one sort or another is inevitable. James was not a man of easy affections; he made the acquaintance of people with a feeling of hostility rather than with the more usual sensation of friendly curiosity. He was shy, and even with his best friends could not lessen his reserve. Some persons are able to form close intimacies with admirable facility, but James felt always between himself and his fellows a sort of barrier. He could not realise that deep and sudden sympathy was even possible, and was apt to look with mistrust upon the appearance thereof. He seemed frigid and perhaps supercilious to those with whom he came in contact; he was forced to go his way, hiding from all eyes the emotions he felt. And when at last he fell passionately in love, it meant to him ten times more than to most men; it was a sudden freedom from himself. He was like a prisoner who sees for the first time in his life the trees and the hurrying clouds, and all the various movement of the world. For a little while James had known a wonderful liberty, an ineffable bliss which coloured the whole universe with new, strange colours. But then he learnt that the happiness was only sin, and he returned voluntarily to his cold prison.... Till he tried to crush it, he did not know how strong was this passion; he did not realise that it had made of him a different man; it was the only thing in the world to him, beside which everything else was meaningless. He became ruthless towards himself, undergoing every torture which he fancied might cleanse him of the deadly sin.
And when Mrs. Wallace, against his will, forced herself upon his imagination, he tried to remember her vulgarity, her underbred manners, her excessive use of scent. She had merely played with him, without thinking or caring what the result to him might be. She was bent on as much enjoyment as possible without exposing herself to awkward consequences; common scandal told him that he was not the first callow youth that she had entangled with her provoking glances and her witty tongue. The epithet by which his brother officers qualified her was expressive, though impolite. James repeated these things a hundred times: he said that Mrs. Wallace was not fit to wipe Mary's boots; he paraded before himself, like a set of unread school-books, all Mary's excellent qualities. He recalled her simple piety, her good-nature, and kindly heart; she had every attribute that a man could possibly want in his wife. And yet--and yet, when he slept he dreamed he was talking to the other; all day her voice sang in his ears, her gay smile danced before his eyes. He remembered every word she had ever said; he remembered the passionate kisses he had given her. How could he forget that ecstasy? He writhed, trying to expel the importunate image; but nothing served.
Time could not weaken the impression. Since then he had never seen Mrs. Wallace, but the thought of her was still enough to send the blood racing through his veins. He had done everything to kill the mad, hopeless passion; and always, like a rank weed, it had thriven with greater strength. James knew it was his duty to marry Mary Clibborn, and yet he felt he would rather die. As the months passed on, and he knew he must shortly see her, he was never free from a sense of terrible anxiety. Doubt came to him, and he could not drive it away. The recollection of her was dim, cold, formless; his only hope was that when he saw her love might rise up again, and kill that other passion which made him so utterly despise himself. But he had welcomed the war as a respite, and the thought came to him that its chances might easily solve the difficulty. Then followed the months of hardship and of fighting; and during these the image of Mrs. Wallace had been less persistent, so that James fancied he was regaining the freedom he longed for. And when he lay wounded and ill, his absolute weariness made him ardently look forward to seeing his people again. A hotter love sprang up for them; and the hope became stronger that reunion with Mary might awaken the dead emotion. He wished for it with all his heart.
But he had seen Mary, and he felt it hopeless; she left him cold, almost hostile. And with a mocking laugh, James heard Mrs. Wallace's words:
"Subalterns always get engaged to the same type of girl. They photograph so badly."
* * * * * * *
And now he did not know what to do. The long recalling of the past had left James more uncertain than ever. Some devil within him cried, "Wait, wait! Something may happen!" It really seemed better to let things slide a little. Perhaps--who could tell?--in a day or two the old habit might render Mary as dear to him as when last he had wandered with her in that green wood, James sighed, and looked about him.... The birds still sang merrily, the squirrel leaped from tree to tree; even the blades of grass stood with a certain conscious pleasure, as the light breeze rustled through them. In the mid-day sun all things took pleasure in their life; and all Nature appeared full of joy, coloured and various and insouciant. He alone was sad.
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