by E.F. Benson

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Chapter V

During the next month the foam and froth which spouted from the weir of London, into which Mrs. Wardour, of her own design and desire, had been so expensively plunged, began to be less tumultuous as she floated away from the occasion of her first bewildering dive. Lady Thirlmere, that admirable godmother, had chucked her into it, holding her breath and shutting her eyes, and now Mrs. Wardour was getting her head above water and beginning to paddle on her own account. The sponsor had provided the richness of total immersion, and Lucy Wardour was certainly swimming. As she came up to the surface, she found herself surrounded by iridescent bubbles; she was bobbing along in a mill-race of desirable acquaintances. She had made no friends—there was no time for leisurely processes of this sort; but when she had decided that she wanted to spend her months and her money in the pursuit of some such indefinite goal as now loomed promisingly in front of her, she had not expected to make friends. She had not “gone for” friends; she had gone for something that attracted the attention of the accomplished gentlemen who wrote those small and exquisite paragraphs in the daily papers. Inscrutably enough, that happened to be her ambition; what she wanted was to see (though she knew it already) that “Mrs. Wardour was among those who brought a party to the first night of The Bugaboo.”... “Mrs. Wardour gave a dinner at Wardour House last night,{81} followed by a small dance.” ... “Mrs. Wardour was in the Park, chatting to her friends, and wearing a green toque and her famous pearls.”... Among her secretary’s duties was that of pasting these juicy morsels, supplied by a press-agency, into a red morocco scrapbook. In fact, she was streaking her way across the bespangled firmament of London, like a comet, with a blank face and an anxious eye. But those who thought that the anxious eye received no impressions just because they were not instantly recorded on the blank face, made the mistake of this season.

May Trentham had undeniably been guilty of this error. From that first night, when she had brought her young men to the opera, she had thought that Mrs. Wardour was not sufficiently alive to her value, and as Mrs. Wardour did not appear to be learning any better, she had certainly permitted herself to indulge in little rudenesses, little patronizations, little contempts, which Mrs. Wardour did not appear to notice. Certainly she made no direct allusion to them, and her rather meaningless countenance showed no sign of having perceived them....

This afternoon she was occupied with her secretary in making out a list of a favoured few, not more than eighty all told, who were to be bidden to an entertainment at which the Russian ballet was to figure. She ran her short, blunt forefinger down the alphabetical pages of her “visiting-list,” and dictated names to the gaunt Miss Winterton, who took them down in an angry scribble of shorthand. The last few pages were approaching.

“Then there’s Mrs. Trentham,” she said to Silvia. “I think we’ll leave out Mrs. Trentham.”

Silvia put in a mild plea.

“She rather enjoys things, mother,” she said.

There was a pause, in which Mrs. Wardour slowly and deliberately recalled certain moments which nobody would have thought she had noticed.

“Well, she isn’t going to enjoy my things,” she said.

They were seated in Mrs. Wardour’s private sitting-room in the great house in Piccadilly. It was hung with French brocade; an immense Aubusson carpet covered the floor, and a Reisener table and bureau, with half a dozen very splendid chairs, echoed the same epoch. Mrs. Wardour had found this a little too stiff for domestic ease, and a decidedly more homely note was struck by a few wicker chairs, upholstered in cretonne, and a tea-table of the same imperishable material, with flaps which let down on hinges and formed convenient shelves for cakes and teacups. On the top of the bureau was a large photograph of the late Mr. Wardour in watch-chain and broadcloth. There were but a few more names, and Mrs. Wardour closed the book.

“Then you’ll send invitations to the names I’ve given you, Miss Winterton,” she said, “on R.S.V.P. cards. There’s no one else you’d like to ask, Silvia?”

Silvia knew quite well what she was intending to say, and wondered why she hesitated.

“Will you ask Mr. Peter Mainwaring?” she said.

“Mr. Mainwaring? I don’t seem to recollect——”

“Darling, of course you can’t recollect everybody,” said the girl; “but I should like him to be asked.”

“Certainly then. What’s his initials and address?”

Silvia supplied this information, and Miss Winterton gathered up her papers and left them. She{83} had the air of some dethroned queen, for whom disastrous circumstances had made it necessary to perform menial offices. Mrs. Wardour breathed a sigh of obvious relief when she had gone.

“She terrifies me, Silvia,” she said, when the door had closed. “She and that new butler. To think that one of them is called Summerton and the other Winterton. Well, I’m sure!”

Silvia blew out a little bubble of laughter.

“Stand up to them, dear,” she said.

“Yes, it’s all very well to talk; but how am I to stand up to them when my knees tremble? I wouldn’t have it known, but that’s the fact. Well, we are going to have a grand party next week.”

Mrs. Wardour relaxed herself in the wicker chair.

“It’s been a job and a half,” she said, “and I wish your father was alive to see what a good job and a half I’ve made of it. He always had a hankering for high life himself, but he was too busy to catch hold of it. ‘When I give the word, Lucy,’ he’s often said to me, ‘we’ll start in and show them all how to do it.’ Often he’s said that to me. And I always had a taste for it, too; and sure enough it came natural to me from the first. We’re pretty well sitting down and knowing everybody now.”

Hard work it certainly had been; for the last two months Mrs. Wardour had worked as hard at securing the goal she had so steadfastly set before her as her husband had ever done in providing the paraphernalia for the enterprise; but now she might fairly claim that she was beginning to sit and know everybody. She had brought to her task an unremitting industry, and—when the tide was once flowing in her favour, so that it was possible to consider not so much whom she would ask but whom she would{84} leave out—a steely ruthlessness. That ruthlessness, indeed, had been a weapon throughout the campaign; if a desirable guest was unable to come on Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday, Mrs. Wardour had adamantinely proceeded with Thursday, Friday, and Saturday; she had even taken her place at the telephone and demanded in her flat, firm voice that her quarry should consult his engagement-book and let her know which was the first disengaged night. Ruthless, also, she had now become, as in the case of Mrs. Trentham, when the question was one of exclusion, and the party for the Russian ballet had been selected on the sternest principles. Thinking over that now, her mind reverted to Silvia’s final invitation.

“And who is your Mr. Mainwaring?” she asked.

Silvia again had to stifle some embarrassment that, since it did not exist on the surface at all, must have had some more secret origin.

“Oh, I’ve met him a score of times,” she said. “He’s one of the people who is always there. He sat between us once at the opera, I think I remember. One evening when Lord Poole made love to you, dear. But, somehow, he’s never been to your house yet.”

“That’s more than most can say,” remarked Mrs. Wardour, so nearly smacking her lips that an impartial umpire might have said that “it counted.” This set Silvia laughing.

“And what have I said now?” asked Mrs. Wardour.

It was not so much what her mother was saying as what she was being that so continually kept Silvia in a state of simmering hilarity. Contemplate it as she might, she had never been able to comprehend{85} the impulse, or rather the steady, unwavering devotion, that had kept Mrs. Wardour at such high pressure all these weeks. She did not enjoy the process of these eternal entertainments; the gaiety of others did not make her gay; music made no appeal to her; she was long past the age of dancing (though so many of her contemporaries were not), and yet she would sit benignly content through the short hours of the summer night, with her great tiara on her head, and feeling the heat acutely, for the mere pleasure of being there. That she was there was now undeniable, and, happily, having got there, she suffered no disillusionment. The mere chasse, the acquisition, was certainly not the mainspring of her activities. She had engaged in the chasse not for the sake of getting but of having....

The second terror of her busy life entered.

“Miss Heaton wants to know if you are at home, miss?” said the formidable Summerton.

It was a relief to Silvia’s mother that she had not got to “stand up” to Summerton, and, indeed, there was no crisis at all, for close behind him was Nellie.

“My dear, I was so afraid you might say that you weren’t at home,” she said, “that I thought it only my duty to save you telling lies. Am I interrupting? How are you, Mrs. Wardour? Send me away if I am intruding, or say that you have just gone out if you don’t want me to stop, and I will promise to believe you.”

Silvia had risen with a flush of pleasure on her face at the entrance of her friend. From all the new acquaintances of London, Nellie had made a shining emergence; through all the mists and bewilderments of the new life she shone with a steady beam, like{86} the luminous finger from a lighthouse, clear and steadfast above the complicated currents.

“But this is lovely,” said Silvia. “Sit down. Tea? Something? Anything?”

She stood looking at her with frank, surrendered gaze; a little dazzled, as she always was, with such easy unconscious splendour. She regarded Nellie, if she could have put her appreciation into words, as she might have regarded some golden casket, set with gems, which seemed to have been laid in her hands. She had, as yet, no idea what was inside it; she had not attempted to raise the lid. It was enough at present to be allowed to hold it in shy, adoring fingers.

“No, nothing,” said Nellie; “not even to sit down. I came, in fact, to make you stand up.”

“I’m doing that,” said Silvia.

“That’s not enough.... My dear, what a delicious frock! But my horrible Philip has been obliged to go out of town, and I’m at a loose end till dinner, and thought it would be wonderfully pleasant to sit on the grass somewhere. Isn’t that original? At the moment when that rural idea occurred to me, I passed your gilded portals and thought it would be even more wonderful if you came and sat there too. I don’t mean ordinary, dirty grass, but clean grass. Richmond Park, or something. Top of a bus, of course. Old hats.”

There could have been no more attractive notion to Silvia. She felt that it was just that she had long been wanting; namely, to be with Nellie on the grass in an old hat. She could still ecstatically be dazzled, could follow the beam of the lighthouse with steady rapture; but a fresh aspect of her, away from ball-rooms and crowds, just that old-hat aspect, she felt{87} at once to be what most she desired. She might, it is true, be just as dazzling thus, she might, indeed, be more dazzling when other lesser brightnesses were withdrawn from her vicinity; but however she turned out, she could not fail to show a new enchantment.

“Of course I’ll come,” she said. “Let me go and get an old hat. You don’t want me, mother, do you?”

“No, dear. But if you’ll ring the bell, I’ll order the car for you. Far more comfortable and far quicker than the top of a bus.”

Nellie had been taking in the appurtenances of this room, to which she had not previously penetrated, with those quick, bird-like glances which were away again, scarcely alighting, before you knew they had perched at all. Mrs. Wardour’s hospitable suggestion seemed to contrast with her own project in just the manner in which those creaking cretonne chairs contrasted with the brocade on the walls and the Aubusson on the floor.

“Ah, how kind,” she said; “but, dear Mrs. Wardour, the point of our expedition is not to be comfortable and quick, but uncomfortable and slow. I yearn for that, and for being rustic and common. Otherwise, I should ask you to lend me one of those glorious chairs and let me sit and look at Buckingham Palace.”

“Yes, you can see it out of the window,” said Mrs. Wardour. “But the top of a bus—let me see, Miss Heaton, isn’t it—is the top of a bus quite the thing for girls like Silvia and you?”

“But absolutely,” said Nellie. “It wouldn’t be a bit the thing to drive in your lovely Rolls-Royce. And we shall have tea somewhere quite unspeakable, with dirty napkins.{88}”

Mrs. Wardour shook her head.

“Now a nice tea-basket and the car,” she insinuated. “Ready in ten minutes, I beg you, Miss Heaton.”

Why the notion of Richmond Park and a bus and a tea-shop had blown in upon Nellie she had no clear idea; but as she and Silvia swayed and bounced westwards, it easily yielded an unconscious analysis. Her morning had been taken up with dress and trousseau for the imminent wedding, her mother had joined her at the dressmaker’s flushed with triumph over some grabbing business called settlements, and over the afternoon there had hung, rather sultrily, the prospect of long hours with Philip, who was coming to lunch. Her mother, as usual, had a bridge party of harpies, and no doubt she and Philip, just as she and Peter had done not many weeks ago, would sit in the window and pass for being absorbed in each other. It was owing, no doubt, to the hymeneal morning, and the prospect of a similar afternoon, that, on the outpouring through the telephone of Philip’s calm, but sincere, regrets that business claimed him in the country, reaction had opened its sluice-gates and overwhelmed her with the desire for hours physically and morally remote from rich fabrics and opulent comfort, and from the ambient atmosphere of things connected with just one theme. She was perfectly well satisfied with the general prospect, matrimonially considered; but she wanted just now, as celibacy was so soon to vanish, a foreground of it and simplicity and freedom to her picture. Originally, when the telephone had first told her of Philip’s defection, she had scarcely made the needful pause of ringing off before getting into communication with Peter to know whether he could slip the official collar{89} for an afternoon. Certainly that was “ringing off” Philip with some completeness, and with whom better than with the other could she take a last excursion into the country that would so soon be severed from her by the sea, placid she hoped, of matrimony? But the official collar could not, so Peter’s very distinct voice told, be shifted. He, Peter’s voice, at any rate, said he was sorry; but he added no superlatives of regret, and before she had removed her ear she heard the click of the replaced instrument at the other end. He rang off, so it seemed to her, with a certain finality, not lingering to gossip. That had been rather characteristic of him lately; though she had constantly met him, he had always appeared in that light, impenetrable armour of his aloofness, never raising his visor, nor showing a joint in his harness where she could get at him. Ever since the interview on the window-seat six weeks ago he had been withdrawn like that.

Failing to get Peter, her next inclination had been to sip her celibacy alone, for though Peter, better than anybody, symbolized the things that were passing away (the wet woods and the roving and the independence), she would, in his absence, get nearest to them alone. So she had already started on her suburban pilgrimage, strolling down the glare and wilderness of Piccadilly to get on to a Richmond bus at the corner of Hyde Park, when, finding herself dazzled by the sun on the newly-gilded gates of Wardour House, the notion of Silvia’s companionship suggested itself, and she paused weighing its advantages. Silvia would certainly give her an eager, appreciative comradeship (so much was instantly clear), and on the heels of that a tangle of other interesting little curiosities, with tentacles protruding,{90} plumped themselves into the same scale. She did not trouble to unravel them now; they would straighten themselves out as the afternoon went on.

Richmond Park proved very empty of loiterers; occasionally a motor-bicycle, with a wake of dust hanging in the air behind it, streaked down the yellow road; but, by the Pen Ponds, no more than the distant throb of such passenger was audible. Summer was in full leaf among the oaks and beeches, retaining still the varnished freshness of spring, and populous in the shade of the leafy trees were herds of fallow-deer, which lay sleepy and yet alert, with twitching ears and whisking tail against the incorrigible menace of flies, until an abatement of the heat restored appetite for the young tussocky grass. The hawthorn was nearly over; smouldering coronets of faded flame, or grey ash of dazzling blossom represented the glories of May; but round the ponds the humps of the rhododendron banks were still on fire.

Such talk as had flourished between the two girls had not yet penetrated beyond the barrier where triviality ceases, and past dances, with keen criticism on their merits, and dances to come, and the adequacy of various partners (among whom Peter’s name flitted by like blowing thistledown) had been flashed on and off the public plate. There had been a little longer exposure for the projected party at which the Russian ballet were to supply the entertainment, and Nellie had been informed, with horrified eagerness on the part of Silvia, that, of course, she had been bidden: the invitation had only been inscribed that afternoon. Her acceptance of it was equally “of course,” and with the luck that attended friends, the date of it was a clear two days before her marriage. Trivial though it had all been, she felt that the Hama{91}dryad (herself) had been doing spade-work in the shade. The ground was cleared and levelled; every topic that she might now wish to work up into a more elaborate tapestry had been put in on tentative threads, much as characters in a decently-written drama, flit, at any rate, across the stage in the first act. The two, delightfully grouped, hatless, and secure from interruption, had come to anchor in the circular shade of an old thorn-bush not far from the edge of reeds that fringed the pond. The red petals of the spent blossom dropped down from time to time; the hum and murmur of June woods was a carpet on which more intimate conversation could lightly spread itself.

Nellie drew up and clasped her knees.

“Fancy my impertinence in dragging you out to Richmond Park when I know that you had a hundred things that you wanted to do,” she said. “Tell me, what would you have done if I hadn’t appeared like some bird of prey and clawed you? Now don’t say that you would have had tea with your mother and gone for a drive in the Park. If you do, I simply shan’t believe you.”

Yes, she was more dazzling, so Silvia found, when there was no one to contrast her with. The sheer, silly, conventional tittle-tattle took a sparkling quality quite alien to it when it came from her mouth. Her personality was like coloured lights playing on a fountain and turning the drops to gems.

“I must be silent, then,” she said.

“Oh, don’t be silent! When people are silent it means they are only being polite. If they were less polite they would say that they were excruciatingly bored. Then, after a suitable silence, they say, ‘How charming it is here!’ Don’t say ‘how charm{92}ing it is here.’ That will be the last straw, Silvia. Dear me, I said ‘Silvia’ by accident. It—what they call—slipped out.”

“Oh, do say it on purpose, then,” said Silvia.

“Very well; me too, you understand. What a funny business is Christian names! The Christian name is never really ripe till it drops. I wonder if you know what an unutterable boon you and your mother have been to that smoky place over there. And to crown it all, you are giving the most delightful party with the most gorgeous punctuality, as far as I am concerned. Do say you settled it for that night because you knew I couldn’t come on any subsequent night.”

Silvia gave a little moan like a dove in a tree.

“I can’t say that,” she said.

Nellie sighed, wholly appreciatively.

“That’s so refreshing of you,” she said. “You’re one of the real people, I expect; the people who mean what they say. I usually mean what I don’t say.”

Silvia turned round and lay facing her friend.

“Don’t say it, then, Nellie,” she said. “I mean—do say the things you mean. How complicated it sounds, and how simple it is. Shall we stop talking about me, do you think? I’ve got another subject.”

“I know it,” said Nellie. “What about Peter? I adore Peter, by the way; don’t say anything horrid.”

A certain sense of shock came to Silvia. Peter had not, ever so remotely, been the subject to which she alluded. But when Nellie suggested him, he was flashed on the screen with disconcerting vividness.

“But I didn’t mean him at all,” she said. “I wasn’t thinking about—about Mr. Mainwaring.”

“He wouldn’t like that,” said Nellie.

Silvia sat up. She had a perfectly clear conscience{93} to endorse an immediate repudiation. What caused that suspicious, that questionable little leap of blood to her cheeks, was, indeed, not that she had been thinking of Peter, but that Nellie supposed she had.

“Oh, but this is quite silly!” she exclaimed. “Indeed, he wasn’t in my mind at all. Why should he be? I scarcely know him.”

Nellie knew that she had ceased for that moment to dazzle Silvia, to whom the suggestion that Peter had been in her mind was clearly unwelcome and unexpected. It might be true or it might not (so ran Nellie’s swift argument) that Silvia was not thinking of Peter at all; but that she should be ruffled—ever so delightfully—at the notion that she had been, constituted a symptom, did it not?... But it was enough to note that, and pass on at once to the easy task of dazzling Silvia again.

“You are too delicious,” she said. “Yes, I’m going to stick to my subject for a minute longer, which is you, since yours isn’t Peter. You’ve got the most lovely lack of self-consciousness, do you know? Of course you don’t, or you wouldn’t have it. But when I talk to other girls, we each think about ourselves. It’s like talking to a boy—not Peter, mind—to talk to you.”

Silvia made some gesture of deprecation.

“No, I will go on,” said Nellie. “Look at the glass I hold up to you, please. It isn’t only the lovely parties that you and your mother have given us that have polished up the rusty old season: it’s your quality—what shall I call it—wind and sun, sexlessness. You just move along like a spring day, with all your banners streaming, in the most entrancing glee. You’re absolutely insouciante, if you understand French.{94}”

Silvia had lost sight of Peter by now; he was round the corner, and how near that corner was, was immaterial. She wanted to put herself round the corner, too, and seized on this as a possible diversion.

“Oh, yes, I do,” she said. “I only came back this spring from three years in France.”

“There you are again! There’s another of your completenesses. You’re spread evenly, richly, like butter (when we’re all eating margarine) over the whole slice of life. I wish I could bite you! I believe that with a little trouble I could, and, if so, I should hate you, not for what you’ve got but for what I haven’t.”

At this moment Nellie became aware that her day in the wet woods had changed the character with which, prospectively, she had endowed it. She had meant, first with Peter as her companion, and next by herself, to enjoy the last hours of her celibacy. With Silvia, on the other hand, she was now not enjoying her own, but envying her companion’s. What she envied her most for was her decorated simplicity. Silvia wore her decorations externally; she didn’t attempt to swallow them and, by digestion, make them build up a complicated identity. Worst of all—from the envious point of view—she didn’t know how splendidly embellished she was.... It was as if you said to a gallant soldier, “Have you got the V.C.?” sarcastically almost, and then he looked down—not up—at his decorations, and found that the little piece of riband was there.

Silvia moved a shade away from her companion. The break in the thorn tree, with the consequent oval of hot sunlight, quite accounted for that.

“But what haven’t you got?” she asked. “You live, as naturally as drawing breath, the life that’s so{95} new to me, and so puzzling and so delightful; and below and beyond all that, you’re on the point of being married. He chose you, out of all the world, and you found all the time that you had chosen him. What is there left for you, just you now and here, to want? You’re adorable——”

Silvia wrestled and threw the bugbear of shyness which so often sat on her shoulders and strangled her neck. There it writhed on the grass, not in the least dead, but, for the moment, knocked out.

“Oh, sometimes I wish I was a boy,” she said. “I’m more in that key than in ours. Sometimes I think——”

Nellie projected herself into that gap of sunlight from which, possibly, Silvia shrank. She had no definite scheme of exploration for the moment, but it seemed to her that something in the tangle of motives with which she had invited Silvia to share her afternoon was faintly stirring as if with unravelment. Those loops and knots might get more inextricably muddled, it is true; but, conceivably, the whole thing might “come out” like a conjuring trick.

“Ah, what is it that you think?” she asked. “Don’t stop so tantalizingly. As if thinking wasn’t everything! Whatever one does is only a clumsy translation of what one has thought. Think aloud!”

Nellie looked more than ever at that moment like some exquisite wild presence of the woodlands, Dryad or Bacchante, delicate and subtle in face and limb and brain, and merely proto-plasmic in soul, a creature made for the bedazzlement and the undoing of man. Certainly she had woven her spells over Silvia again; the momentary check in the incantation, when she had attributed “Peter-thought” to her, had{96} passed as swiftly as the shadow of one of those light clouds which drifted over the grass.

But at that moment, when she so bewilderingly shone out again, there formed itself in Silvia’s mind, as she tried to follow this injunction to think aloud, not the image of her at all, but of Peter. For if Nellie was divinely akin to the blossoming thickets and the shadows that were beginning to lengthen over the grass, making cool islands on which the deer were grazing now, he, too, would be no less harmoniously bestowed by this reflecting lake-side. It was not that either of them suggested rurality; no one, indeed, was more emphatically of the street and the ballroom and the complication of the city than they. But by some secret pedigree of soul they were of the house and lineage of the things that glowed and enjoyed and were lovely, and gave as little thought to yesterday as they took for to-morrow. All this, not catalogued in detail, but fused into a single luminous impression, passed through Silvia’s consciousness like the wink of summer lightning....

“As if it wasn’t difficult enough to think at all,” she said, “and as for thinking aloud, thinking articulately—if I’m to sum it up, ever so clumsily, it’s merely that I adore, with all the incense I’ve got, the thought of your happiness. It does matter so much to me, and ... and isn’t it noble fun to find someone who matters? Very few people really matter; I suppose little, silly, finite hearts like ours can’t take in many. But those who do matter must come right in, if they don’t mind. They mustn’t risk themselves by hanging about on the doorstep; they might catch cold. Aren’t I talking nonsense? It’s your fault for taking me into the country, for assuredly it has gone to my head. Where there’s a stifle of roofs and{97} a choke of streets nobody matters and everyone is quite delightful. What a stupid word that is, and how expressive of a stupid thing.”

Silvia very deliberately shot off into the backwater of nonsense, so to speak, out of the main stream, for the sun was on the water, in this dazzle of Nellie’s personality, and she could not see towards what weir the hurrying river might be taking her. Very likely there was no weir; the glistening tide, running swift, would very likely spread out into some broad expanse of Peace-pools; but it was the brightness that prevented scrutiny.

By some flash of woodland instinct, by some uncanny perception, Nellie divined the cause of this retirement into the backwater of triviality. With a ruthlessness that rivalled Mrs. Wardour’s pursuit of desirable guests, she caught the rope of Silvia’s boat, so to speak, before she could tie it to the security of some overhanging branch, and shot it out into the main stream again.

“Yes, my dear,” she said, “you talk nonsense delightfully. Ah, I didn’t mean stupidly; I didn’t mean in the sense you had just labelled it with. I meant delightfully, charmingly. But just for a change after that delightful (now I mean stupid) London, we’re talking sense. You interested me indescribably just now. You said you were more in a boy’s key than a girl’s. What did you mean exactly?”

Silvia watched the receding shore to which she had hoped to tie up.... After all, what did it matter if there was a weir, not a Peace-pool down there in that dazzle of benignant sunshine? But there was another difficulty in the way of expression.

“I can’t really explain,” she said. “There are{98} things so simple that no explanation is possible. If I said, ‘It is a hot day,’ and you told me to explain, I couldn’t. I could only say, ‘If you don’t feel it, if you don’t know what that means, I can’t help you.’ It’s the same with all elemental things.”

Nellie regarded her with eyes that were framed in some steely sort of interest; eyes that were eager to know not from the kindly tenderness of friends but from some surgical curiosity.

“I think I know what you mean by a ‘boy’s key,’” she said. “Let me see if I can explain you to yourself, Silvia, since you won’t—ah, can’t—explain yourself to me. If you were in love, for instance, you would passionately want to give love, to pour yourself out, instead of, like most girls, provoking love and permitting it and ever so eagerly receiving it. You wouldn’t want a man’s homage so much as you would want to be allowed to love him. You would want, and how queer and delicious of you—you lovely upside-down, inside-out creature.”

This abrupt termination of the presentment of Silvia in love, as imagined by her friend, was due to something quite unexpected. There came on Silvia’s face, as her own privacy was thus invaded, a dumb, but none the less violent signal of protest. She shrank and withdrew herself, as if a burglarious bullseye had been shot through the window of her room, where she lay lost in cool, soft maidenliness. The contact was even more direct than that; it was as if some pitiless incision had been made in her very flesh. But with this pause in the application of the knife, this shuttering of the bullseye—for any further beam would have disclosed the deliberate attempt to rifle the jewel-chest—there came the complete withdrawal of her protesting signal.... It had{99} been the bullseye of a friend that looked in, the scissors of a dear amateur manicurist....

She was sitting there hatless in the shade, and with her hand she pushed her hair back.

“Oh, you’re a witch, Nellie,” she said. “Two hundred years ago you would have been burned, and I should have helped to pile the faggots. I expect that you’re magically right. I can’t tell, you know, because I assure you, literally and soberly, that I never have been in love. Literally never. Soberly never. But, somehow, what you suggested (how did you divine it, you witch?) touched something, made something vibrate and sing. I didn’t know anything about it; I didn’t know it was there. Then you put your finger on it, and I knew ... I knew I had it.”

“And then you just hated me for a moment,” said Nellie.

Silvia did not quite accept this.

“You made me wince,” she said in correction. “And, oh, yes, I’ll confess: just for a moment you seemed to me hostile and hurting. You aren’t; you’re heavenly and healing. You taught me, bless you. But I think you’re a witch all the same. It wasn’t telepathy; you told me something about myself that I didn’t know, and couldn’t have known, and can’t know now, for that matter. Oh, you lucky creature. You’ve fallen in love. You know it all. Did you do it in the manner you attribute to me? Did you savagely give, not wanting anything but to give, give.... How did you put it just now? To be allowed to love, to pour yourself out, to pay homage instead of exacting it? The boy’s key! My dear it seems ages and ages since that phrase came up. I’ve had a whole drama since then, you know.{100}”

Nellie, in point of fact, had had her drama, too. But it was as yet undetermined. She had not got at the root facts for which she was burrowing. Silvia’s volley of questions, anyhow, were easy of response. They were, barring, a certain inversion, very Victorian questions, dating from the days when men blindly adored and women swooned at the declaration of the passion which they had done their level best to excite. But that inversion made to her, and for particular reasons, a wildly interesting speculation. Silvia, when she loved (so much was certain), would love in the “boy’s key,” the eager, evocative key. She acknowledged herself, in contemplation of the event, as blindly adoring, as being “allowed” to love. Whether that was entirely a prognostication, or whether it was already partially, potentially fulfilled was another question, and the application of that concerned Nellie, and her own purposes, alone. Soon, deftly now, with the lesson of Silvia’s revolt against surprises, she would get a further result from her dissection. At present there was the impatient, intimate volley of questions to answer.

“Oh, my dear, I understand so well the ‘boy’s key,’” she said. “A triumphal, victorious surrender, with all the bells ringing—isn’t that it? A march out with white flags insolently flying. I should love to be like that, if I was like that. But that isn’t my key. I just surrendered, rather terrified, you know. But I couldn’t be terrified of Philip for long: he’s such a dear.”

This could not be considered more than an approximate account, a vague sketch, very faintly resembling the scene it portrayed—a quiet, feminine disclosure. But Nellie did not want to discuss that; she wanted to get back to her tangled skeins again.{101}

“I should like to see you in love, Silvia,” she said. “Promise to tell me when it happens. At least, you needn’t; it will be wonderfully obvious, you in your ‘boy’s key.’ Whom can we find for you who will just fall in with that, and be the complement of it, making, it complete and round and perfect? Hasn’t ever so little a bit of him, just the top of his head, come over the horizon yet?”

Silvia did not withdraw or raise any signal of protest this time. She made no signal at all; none, at any rate, that could be perceived by the girl who sat watching her very narrowly. And once more Nellie fumbled, so to speak, at the shutter of her bullseye, which would flash on the light.

She looked at the watch on her wrist.

“My dear, how late it is!” she said. “We must go at once. I promised to go to Mr. Mainwaring’s studio. Peter’s father, you know. Peter will be vexed if I don’t come.”

Then came the signal. Silvia jumped up with wholly unnecessary alacrity. But more nimbly yet did the high colour mount to her face.


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