Ah, For One Hour of Burning Love, 'tis Worth an Age of Cold Respect!
We walked in perfect silence, Harold not offering to carry my little basket. I did not dare lift my eyes, as something told me the face of the big man would not be pleasant to look upon just then. I twirled the ring he had given me round and round my finger. I occasionally put it on, wearing the stones on the palm-side of my finger, so that it would not he taken for other than one of two or three aunt Helen had lent me, saying I was at liberty to use them while at Caddagat, if it gave me any pleasure.
The Caddagat orchard contained six acres, and being a narrow enclosure, and the cherries growing at the extreme end from the house, it took us some time to reach them. I led the way to our destination--a secluded nook where grape-vines clambered up fig-trees, and where the top of gooseberry bushes met the lower limbs of cherry-trees. Blue and yellow lupins stood knee-high, and strawberries grew wild among them. We had not uttered a sound, and I had not glanced at my companion. I stopped; he wheeled abruptly and grasped my wrist in a manner which sent the basket whirling from my hand. I looked up at his face, which was blazing with passion, and dark with a darker tinge than Nature and the sun had given it, from the shapely swelling neck, in its soft well-turned-down collar, to where the stiff black hair, wet with perspiration, hung on the wide forehead.
"Unhand me, sir!" I said shortly, attempting to wrench myself free, but I might as well have tried to pull away from a lion.
"Unhand me!" I repeated.
For answer he took a firmer hold, in one hand seizing my arm above the elbow, and gripping my shoulder with the other so tightly that, through my flimsy covering, his strong fingers bruised me so severely that in a calmer moment I would have squirmed and cried out with pain.
"How dare you touch me!" He drew me so closely to him that, through his thin shirt--the only garment on the upper part of his figure--I could feel the heat of his body, and his big heart beating wildly.
At last! at last! I had waked this calm silent giant into life. After many an ineffectual struggle I had got at a little real love or passion, or call it by any name--something wild and warm and splendidly alive that one could feel, the most thrilling, electric, and exquisite sensation known.
I thoroughly enjoyed the situation, but did not let this appear. A minute or two passed and he did not speak.
"Mr Beecham, I'll trouble you to explain yourself. How dare you lay your hands upon me?"
"Explain!" he breathed rather than spoke, in a tone of concentrated fury. "I'll make you explain, and I'll do what I like with you. I'll touch you as much as I think fit. I'll throw you over the fence if you don't explain to my satisfaction."
"What is there that I can explain?"
"Explain your conduct with other men. How dare you receive their attentions and be so friendly with them!"
"How dare you speak to me like that! I reserve the right of behaving as I please without your permission."
"I won't have a girl with my engagement ring on her finger going on as you do. I think I have a right to complain, for I could get any amount of splendid women in every way to wear it for me, and behave themselves properly too," he said fiercely.
I tossed my head defiantly, saying, "Loose your hold of me, and I'll quickly explain matters to my own satisfaction and yours, Harold Beecham."
He let me go, and I stepped a pace or two away from him, drew the costly ring from my finger, and, with indifference and contempt, tossed it to his feet, where the juice of crushed strawberries was staining the ground, and facing him, said mockingly:
"Now, speak to the girl who wears your engagement ring, for I'll degrade myself by wearing it no more. If you think I think you as great a catch as you think yourself, just because you have a little money, you are a trifle mistaken, Mr Beecham, that is all. Ha ha ha! So you thought you had a right to lecture me as your future slave! Just fancy! I never had the slightest intention of marrying you. You were so disgustingly conceited that I have been attempting to rub a little of it out of you. Marry you! Ha ha! Because the social laws are so arranged that a woman's only sphere is marriage, and because they endeavour to secure a man who can give them a little more ease, you must not run away with the idea that it is yourself they are angling for, when you are only the bothersome appendage with which they would have to put up, for the sake of your property. And you must not think that because some women will marry for a home they all will. I trust I have explained to your satisfaction, Mr Beecham. Ha ha ha!"
The jealous rage had died out of his face and was succeeded by trembling and a pallor so ghastly, that I began to have a little faith in descriptions of love which I had hitherto ridiculed.
"Are you in earnest?" he asked in a deadly calm voice.
"Most emphatically I am."
"Then all I can say is that I haven't much respect for you, Miss Melvyn. I always considered that there were three classes of women--one, that would marry a blackfellow if he had money; another, that were shameless flirts, and who amuse themselves by flirting and disgracing the name of woman; and a third class that were pure and true, on whom a man could stake his life and whom he could worship. I thought you belonged to this class, but I have been mistaken. I know you always try to appear heartless and worthless, but I fancied it was only your youth and mischief, and imagined you were good underneath; but I have been mistaken," he repeated with quiet contempt.
His face had regained its natural colour, and the well-cut pleasant mouth, clearly seen beneath the soft drooping moustache, had hardened into a sullen line which told me he would never be first to seek reconciliation--not even to save his life.
"Bah!" I exclaimed sarcastically. "It appears that we all labour under delusions. Go and get a beautiful woman to wear your ring and your name. One that will be able to say yes and no at the right time; one who will know how to dress properly; one who wouldn't for the world do anything that other women did not also; one who will know where to buy the best groceries and who will readily sell herself to you for your wealth. That's the sort of woman that suits men, and there are plenty of them; procure one, and don't bother with me. I am too small and silly, and have nothing to recommend me. I fear it speaks little for your sense or taste that you ever thought of me. Ta-ta, Mr Beecham," I said over my shoulder with a mocking smile, and walked away.
When about half-way down the orchard reflection pulled me up shortly under an apple-tree.
I had said what I had said because, feeling bitter for the want of love, and because full of pain myself, I rejoiced with a sort of revenge to see the same feeling flash across another's face. But now I was cool, and, forgetting myself, thought of Harold.
I had led him on because his perpetually calm demeanour had excited in me a desire to test if it were possible to disturb him. I had thought him incapable of emotion, but he had proved himself a man of strong and deep emotion; might he not also be capable of feeling--of love? He had not been mean or nasty in his rage, and his anger had been righteous. By accepting his proposal of marriage, I had given him the right of expressing his objection to any of my actions of which he disapproved. I on my part had the liberty of trying to please him or of dissolving our engagement. Perhaps in some cases there was actually something more than wounded vanity when a man's alleged love was rejected or spurned. Harold had seemed to suffer, to really experience keen disappointment. I was clearly in the wrong, and had been unwomanly beyond a doubt, as, granting that Harold Beecham was conceited, what right had I to constitute myself his judge or to take into my own hands the responsibility of correcting him? I felt ashamed of my conduct; I was sorry to have hurt any one's feelings. Moreover, I cannot bear to be at ill-will with my fellows, and am ever the first to give in after having quarrelled. It is easier than sulking, and it always makes the other party so self-complacent that it is amusing as well as convenient, and--and--and--I found I was very, very fond of Harold Beecham.
I crept noiselessly up the orchard. He had his back to me, and had moved to where a post of the fence was peeping out among the greenery. He had his elbow placed thereon, and his forehead resting on his hand. His attitude expressed dejection. Maybe he was suffering the torture of a broken ideal.
His right hand hung limply by his side. I do not think he heard me approach.
My heart beat quickly, and a fear that he would snub me caused me to pause. Then I nerved myself with the thought that it would be only fair if he did. I had been rude to him, and he had a right to play tit-for-tat if he felt so disposed. I expected my action to be spurned or ignored, so very timidly slipped my fingers into his palm. I need not have been nervous, for the strong brown hand, which had never been known to strike a cowardly blow, completely enfolded mine in a gentle caressing clasp.
"Mr Beecham, Harold, I am so sorry I was so unwomanly, and said such horrible things. Will you forgive me, and let us start afresh?" I murmured. All flippancy, bitterness, and amusement had died out of me; I was serious and in earnest. This must have expressed itself in my eyes, for Harold, after gazing searchingly right there for a time, seemed satisfied, and his mouth relaxed to its habitually lovable expression as he said:
"Are you in earnest? Well, that is something more like the little woman."
"Yes, I'm in earnest. Can you forgive me?"
"There is nothing to forgive, as I'm sure you didn't mean and don't remember the blood curdling sentiments you aired."
"But I did mean them in one sort of a way, and didn't in another. Let us start afresh."
"How do you mean to start afresh?"
"I mean for us to be chums again."
"Oh, chums!" he said impatiently; I want to be something more.
"Well, I will he something more if you will try to make me," I replied.
"How? What do you mean?"
I mean you never try to make me fond of you. You have never uttered one word of love to me."
"Why, bless me!" he ejaculated in surprise.
"It's a fact. I have only flirted to try and see if you cared, but you didn't care a pin."
"Why, bless me, didn't you say I was not to show any affection yet awhile? And talk about not caring--why, I have felt fit to kill you and myself many a time the last fortnight, you have tormented me so; but I have managed to keep myself within bounds till now. Will you wear my ring again?"
"Oh no; and you must not say I am flirting if I cannot manage to love you enough to marry you, but I will try my best."
"Don't you love me, Syb? I have thought of nothing else but you night and day since I saw you first. Can it be possible that you don't care a straw for me?" and a pained expression came upon his face.
"Oh, Harold, I'm afraid I very nearly love you, but don't hurry me too much! You can think me sort of secretly engaged to you if you like, but I won't take your ring. Keep it till we see how we get on." I looked for it, and finding it a few steps away, gave it to him.
"Can you really trust me again after seeing me get in such a vile beast of a rage? I often do that, you know," he said.
"Believe me, Hal, I liked it so much I wish you would get in a rage again. I can't bear people who never let themselves go, or rather, who have nothing in them to carry them away--they cramp and bore me."
"But I have a frightful temper. Satan only knows what I will do in it yet. Would you not be frightened of me?"
"No fear," I laughed; I would defy you."
"A tomtit might as well defy me," he said with amusement.
"Well, big as you are, a tomtit having such superior facilities for getting about could easily defy you," I replied.
"Yes, unless it was caged," he said.
"But supposing you never got it caged," I returned.
"Syb, what do you mean?"
"What could I mean?"
I don't know. There are always about four or five meanings in what you say."
"Oh, thanks, Mr Beecham! You must be very astute. I am always thankful when I am able to dish one meaning out of my idle gabble."
The glorious summer day had fallen asleep on the bosom of the horizon, and twilight had merged into dusk, as, picking up the basket, Harold and I returned cherry- and strawberry-less to the tennis court. The players had just ceased action, and the gentlemen were putting on their coats. Harold procured his, and thrust his arms into it, while we were attacked on all sides by a flood of banter.
My birthday tea was a great success, and after it was done we enjoyed ourselves in the drawing-room. Uncle Jay-Jay handed me a large box, saying it contained a present. Everyone looked on with interest while I hurriedly opened it, when they were much amused to see--nothing but a doll and materials to make it clothes! I was much disappointed, but uncle said it would be more in my line to play with that than to worry about tramps and politics.
I took care to behave properly during the evening, and when the good-byes were in full swing had an opportunity of a last word with Harold, he stooping to hear me whisper:
"Now that I know you care, I will not annoy you any more by flirting."
"Don't talk like that. I was only mad for the moment. Enjoy yourself as much as you like. I don't want you to be like a nun. I'm not quite so selfish as that. When I look at you and see how tiny you are, and how young, I feel it is brutal to worry you at all, and you don't detest me altogether for getting in such an infernal rage?"
"No. That is the very thing I liked. Good night!"
"Good night," he replied, taking both my hands in his. "You are the best little woman in the world, and I hope we will spend all your other birthdays together."
"It's to be hoped you've said something to make Harry a trifle sweeter than he was this afternoon," said Goodchum. Then it was:
"Good night, Mrs Bossier! Good night, Harry! Good night, Archie! Good night, Mr Goodchum! Good-bye, Miss Craddock! Ta-ta, Miss Melvyn! So long, Jay-Jay! Good-bye, Mrs Bell! Goodbye, Miss Goodjay! Good night, Miss Melvyn! Good night, Mr Goodjay! Good night, Mrs Bossier! Good-bye, Miss Melvyn! Good night all!"
I sat long by my writing-table that night--thinking long, long thoughts, foolish thoughts, sad ones, merry ones, old-headed thoughts, and the sweet, sweet thoughts of youth and love. It seemed to me that men were not so invincible and invulnerable as I had imagined them--it appeared they had feeling and affections after all.
I laughed a joyous little laugh, saying, "Hal, we are quits," when, on disrobing for the night, I discovered on my soft white shoulders and arms--so susceptible to bruises--many marks, and black.
It had been a very happy day for me.