The winter had been an open one. Things in the trade were slack; and as Soames had reflected before making up his mind, it had been a good time for building. The shell of the house at Robin Hill was thus completed by the end of April.
Now that there was something to be seen for his money, he had been coming down once, twice, even three times a week, and would mouse about among the debris for hours, careful never to soil his clothes, moving silently through the unfinished brickwork of doorways, or circling round the columns in the central court.
And he would stand before them for minutes' together, as though peering into the real quality of their substance.
On April 30 he had an appointment with Bosinney to go over the accounts, and five minutes before the proper time he entered the tent which the architect had pitched for himself close to the old oak tree.
The accounts were already prepared on a folding table, and with a nod Soames sat down to study them. It was some time before he raised his head.
“I can't make them out,” he said at last; “they come to nearly seven hundred more than they ought.”
After a glance at Bosinney's face he went on quickly:
“If you only make a firm stand against these builder chaps you'll get them down. They stick you with everything if you don't look sharp.... Take ten per cent. off all round. I shan't mind it's coming out a hundred or so over the mark!”
Bosinney shook his head:
“I've taken off every farthing I can!”
Soames pushed back the table with a movement of anger, which sent the account sheets fluttering to the ground.
“Then all I can say is,” he flustered out, “you've made a pretty mess of it!”
“I've told you a dozen times,” Bosinney answered sharply, “that there'd be extras. I've pointed them out to you over and over again!”
“I know that,” growled Soames: “I shouldn't have objected to a ten pound note here and there. How was I to know that by 'extras' you meant seven hundred pounds?”
The qualities of both men had contributed to this not-inconsiderable discrepancy. On the one hand, the architect's devotion to his idea, to the image of a house which he had created and believed in—had made him nervous of being stopped, or forced to the use of makeshifts; on the other, Soames' not less true and wholehearted devotion to the very best article that could be obtained for the money, had rendered him averse to believing that things worth thirteen shillings could not be bought with twelve.
“I wish I'd never undertaken your house,” said Bosinney suddenly. “You come down here worrying me out of my life. You want double the value for your money anybody else would, and now that you've got a house that for its size is not to be beaten in the county, you don't want to pay for it. If you're anxious to be off your bargain, I daresay I can find the balance above the estimates myself, but I'm d——d if I do another stroke of work for you!”
Soames regained his composure. Knowing that Bosinney had no capital, he regarded this as a wild suggestion. He saw, too, that he would be kept indefinitely out of this house on which he had set his heart, and just at the crucial point when the architect's personal care made all the difference. In the meantime there was Irene to be thought of! She had been very queer lately. He really believed it was only because she had taken to Bosinney that she tolerated the idea of the house at all. It would not do to make an open breach with her.
“You needn't get into a rage,” he said. “If I'm willing to put up with it, I suppose you needn't cry out. All I meant was that when you tell me a thing is going to cost so much, I like to—well, in fact, I—like to know where I am.”
“Look here!” said Bosinney, and Soames was both annoyed and surprised by the shrewdness of his glance. “You've got my services dirt cheap. For the kind of work I've put into this house, and the amount of time I've given to it, you'd have had to pay Littlemaster or some other fool four times as much. What you want, in fact, is a first-rate man for a fourth-rate fee, and that's exactly what you've got!”
Soames saw that he really meant what he said, and, angry though he was, the consequences of a row rose before him too vividly. He saw his house unfinished, his wife rebellious, himself a laughingstock.
“Let's go over it,” he said sulkily, “and see how the money's gone.”
“Very well,” assented Bosinney. “But we'll hurry up, if you don't mind. I have to get back in time to take June to the theatre.”
Soames cast a stealthy look at him, and said: “Coming to our place, I suppose to meet her?” He was always coming to their place!
There had been rain the night before-a spring rain, and the earth smelt of sap and wild grasses. The warm, soft breeze swung the leaves and the golden buds of the old oak tree, and in the sunshine the blackbirds were whistling their hearts out.
It was such a spring day as breathes into a man an ineffable yearning, a painful sweetness, a longing that makes him stand motionless, looking at the leaves or grass, and fling out his arms to embrace he knows not what. The earth gave forth a fainting warmth, stealing up through the chilly garment in which winter had wrapped her. It was her long caress of invitation, to draw men down to lie within her arms, to roll their bodies on her, and put their lips to her breast.
On just such a day as this Soames had got from Irene the promise he had asked her for so often. Seated on the fallen trunk of a tree, he had promised for the twentieth time that if their marriage were not a success, she should be as free as if she had never married him!
“Do you swear it?” she had said. A few days back she had reminded him of that oath. He had answered: “Nonsense! I couldn't have sworn any such thing!” By some awkward fatality he remembered it now. What queer things men would swear for the sake of women! He would have sworn it at any time to gain her! He would swear it now, if thereby he could touch her—but nobody could touch her, she was cold-hearted!
And memories crowded on him with the fresh, sweet savour of the spring wind-memories of his courtship.
In the spring of the year 1881 he was visiting his old school-fellow and client, George Liversedge, of Branksome, who, with the view of developing his pine-woods in the neighbourhood of Bournemouth, had placed the formation of the company necessary to the scheme in Soames's hands. Mrs. Liversedge, with a sense of the fitness of things, had given a musical tea in his honour. Later in the course of this function, which Soames, no musician, had regarded as an unmitigated bore, his eye had been caught by the face of a girl dressed in mourning, standing by herself. The lines of her tall, as yet rather thin figure, showed through the wispy, clinging stuff of her black dress, her black-gloved hands were crossed in front of her, her lips slightly parted, and her large, dark eyes wandered from face to face. Her hair, done low on her neck, seemed to gleam above her black collar like coils of shining metal. And as Soames stood looking at her, the sensation that most men have felt at one time or another went stealing through him—a peculiar satisfaction of the senses, a peculiar certainty, which novelists and old ladies call love at first sight. Still stealthily watching her, he at once made his way to his hostess, and stood doggedly waiting for the music to cease.
“Who is that girl with yellow hair and dark eyes?” he asked.
“That—oh! Irene Heron. Her father, Professor Heron, died this year. She lives with her stepmother. She's a nice girl, a pretty girl, but no money!”
“Introduce me, please,” said Soames.
It was very little that he found to say, nor did he find her responsive to that little. But he went away with the resolution to see her again. He effected his object by chance, meeting her on the pier with her stepmother, who had the habit of walking there from twelve to one of a forenoon. Soames made this lady's acquaintance with alacrity, nor was it long before he perceived in her the ally he was looking for. His keen scent for the commercial side of family life soon told him that Irene cost her stepmother more than the fifty pounds a year she brought her; it also told him that Mrs. Heron, a woman yet in the prime of life, desired to be married again. The strange ripening beauty of her stepdaughter stood in the way of this desirable consummation. And Soames, in his stealthy tenacity, laid his plans.
He left Bournemouth without having given himself away, but in a month's time came back, and this time he spoke, not to the girl, but to her stepmother. He had made up his mind, he said; he would wait any time. And he had long to wait, watching Irene bloom, the lines of her young figure softening, the stronger blood deepening the gleam of her eyes, and warming her face to a creamy glow; and at each visit he proposed to her, and when that visit was at an end, took her refusal away with him, back to London, sore at heart, but steadfast and silent as the grave. He tried to come at the secret springs of her resistance; only once had he a gleam of light. It was at one of those assembly dances, which afford the only outlet to the passions of the population of seaside watering-places. He was sitting with her in an embrasure, his senses tingling with the contact of the waltz. She had looked at him over her, slowly waving fan; and he had lost his head. Seizing that moving wrist, he pressed his lips to the flesh of her arm. And she had shuddered—to this day he had not forgotten that shudder—nor the look so passionately averse she had given him.
A year after that she had yielded. What had made her yield he could never make out; and from Mrs. Heron, a woman of some diplomatic talent, he learnt nothing. Once after they were married he asked her, “What made you refuse me so often?” She had answered by a strange silence. An enigma to him from the day that he first saw her, she was an enigma to him still....
Bosinney was waiting for him at the door; and on his rugged, good-looking, face was a queer, yearning, yet happy look, as though he too saw a promise of bliss in the spring sky, sniffed a coming happiness in the spring air. Soames looked at him waiting there. What was the matter with the fellow that he looked so happy? What was he waiting for with that smile on his lips and in his eyes? Soames could not see that for which Bosinney was waiting as he stood there drinking in the flower-scented wind. And once more he felt baffled in the presence of this man whom by habit he despised. He hastened on to the house.
“The only colour for those tiles,” he heard Bosinney say,—“is ruby with a grey tint in the stuff, to give a transparent effect. I should like Irene's opinion. I'm ordering the purple leather curtains for the doorway of this court; and if you distemper the drawing-room ivory cream over paper, you'll get an illusive look. You want to aim all through the decorations at what I call charm.”
Soames said: “You mean that my wife has charm!”
Bosinney evaded the question.
“You should have a clump of iris plants in the centre of that court.”
Soames smiled superciliously.
“I'll look into Beech's some time,” he said, “and see what's appropriate!”
They found little else to say to each other, but on the way to the Station Soames asked:
“I suppose you find Irene very artistic.”
“Yes.” The abrupt answer was as distinct a snub as saying: “If you want to discuss her you can do it with someone else!”
And the slow, sulky anger Soames had felt all the afternoon burned the brighter within him.
Neither spoke again till they were close to the Station, then Soames asked:
“When do you expect to have finished?”
“By the end of June, if you really wish me to decorate as well.”
Soames nodded. “But you quite understand,” he said, “that the house is costing me a lot beyond what I contemplated. I may as well tell you that I should have thrown it up, only I'm not in the habit of giving up what I've set my mind on.”
Bosinney made no reply. And Soames gave him askance a look of dogged dislike—for in spite of his fastidious air and that supercilious, dandified taciturnity, Soames, with his set lips and squared chin, was not unlike a bulldog....
When, at seven o'clock that evening, June arrived at 62, Montpellier Square, the maid Bilson told her that Mr. Bosinney was in the drawing-room; the mistress—she said—was dressing, and would be down in a minute. She would tell her that Miss June was here.
June stopped her at once.
“All right, Bilson,” she said, “I'll just go in. You, needn't hurry Mrs. Soames.”
She took off her cloak, and Bilson, with an understanding look, did not even open the drawing-room door for her, but ran downstairs.
June paused for a moment to look at herself in the little old-fashioned silver mirror above the oaken rug chest—a slim, imperious young figure, with a small resolute face, in a white frock, cut moon-shaped at the base of a neck too slender for her crown of twisted red-gold hair.
She opened the drawing-room door softly, meaning to take him by surprise. The room was filled with a sweet hot scent of flowering azaleas.
She took a long breath of the perfume, and heard Bosinney's voice, not in the room, but quite close, saying.
“Ah! there were such heaps of things I wanted to talk about, and now we shan't have time!”
Irene's voice answered: “Why not at dinner?”
“How can one talk....”
June's first thought was to go away, but instead she crossed to the long window opening on the little court. It was from there that the scent of the azaleas came, and, standing with their backs to her, their faces buried in the golden-pink blossoms, stood her lover and Irene.
Silent but unashamed, with flaming cheeks and angry eyes, the girl watched.
“Come on Sunday by yourself—We can go over the house together.”
June saw Irene look up at him through her screen of blossoms. It was not the look of a coquette, but—far worse to the watching girl—of a woman fearful lest that look should say too much.
“I've promised to go for a drive with Uncle....”
“The big one! Make him bring you; it's only ten miles—the very thing for his horses.”
“Poor old Uncle Swithin!”
A wave of the azalea scent drifted into June's face; she felt sick and dizzy.
“Do! ah! do!”
“I must see you there—I thought you'd like to help me....”
The answer seemed to the girl to come softly with a tremble from amongst the blossoms: “So I do!”
And she stepped into the open space of the window.
“How stuffy it is here!” she said; “I can't bear this scent!”
Her eyes, so angry and direct, swept both their faces.
“Were you talking about the house? I haven't seen it yet, you know—shall we all go on Sunday?”
From Irene's face the colour had flown.
“I am going for a drive that day with Uncle Swithin,” she answered.
“Uncle Swithin! What does he matter? You can throw him over!”
“I am not in the habit of throwing people over!”
There was a sound of footsteps and June saw Soames standing just behind her.
“Well! if you are all ready,” said Irene, looking from one to the other with a strange smile, “dinner is too!”