The fact that she would be late in keeping her engagement with William was not the only reason which sent Katharine almost at racing speed along the Strand in the direction of his rooms. Punctuality might have been achieved by taking a cab, had she not wished the open air to fan into flame the glow kindled by Mary's words. For among all the impressions of the evening's talk one was of the nature of a revelation and subdued the rest to insignificance. Thus one looked; thus one spoke; such was love.
"She sat up straight and looked at me, and then she said, 'I'm in love,'" Katharine mused, trying to set the whole scene in motion. It was a scene to dwell on with so much wonder that not a grain of pity occurred to her; it was a flame blazing suddenly in the dark; by its light Katharine perceived far too vividly for her comfort the mediocrity, indeed the entirely fictitious character of her own feelings so far as they pretended to correspond with Mary's feelings. She made up her mind to act instantly upon the knowledge thus gained, and cast her mind in amazement back to the scene upon the heath, when she had yielded, heaven knows why, for reasons which seemed now imperceptible. So in broad daylight one might revisit the place where one has groped and turned and succumbed to utter bewilderment in a fog.
"It's all so simple," she said to herself. "There can't be any doubt. I've only got to speak now. I've only got to speak," she went on saying, in time to her own footsteps, and completely forgot Mary Datchet.
William Rodney, having come back earlier from the office than he expected, sat down to pick out the melodies in "The Magic Flute" upon the piano. Katharine was late, but that was nothing new, and, as she had no particular liking for music, and he felt in the mood for it, perhaps it was as well. This defect in Katharine was the more strange, William reflected, because, as a rule, the women of her family were unusually musical. Her cousin, Cassandra Otway, for example, had a very fine taste in music, and he had charming recollections of her in a light fantastic attitude, playing the flute in the morning-room at Stogdon House. He recalled with pleasure the amusing way in which her nose, long like all the Otway noses, seemed to extend itself into the flute, as if she were some inimitably graceful species of musical mole. The little picture suggested very happily her melodious and whimsical temperament. The enthusiasms of a young girl of distinguished upbringing appealed to William, and suggested a thousand ways in which, with his training and accomplishments, he could be of service to her. She ought to be given the chance of hearing good music, as it is played by those who have inherited the great tradition. Moreover, from one or two remarks let fall in the course of conversation, he thought it possible that she had what Katharine professed to lack, a passionate, if untaught, appreciation of literature. He had lent her his play. Meanwhile, as Katharine was certain to be late, and "The Magic Flute" is nothing without a voice, he felt inclined to spend the time of waiting in writing a letter to Cassandra, exhorting her to read Pope in preference to Dostoevsky, until her feeling for form was more highly developed. He set himself down to compose this piece of advice in a shape which was light and playful, and yet did no injury to a cause which he had near at heart, when he heard Katharine upon the stairs. A moment later it was plain that he had been mistaken, it was not Katharine; but he could not settle himself to his letter. His temper had changed from one of urbane contentment--indeed of delicious expansion--to one of uneasiness and expectation. The dinner was brought in, and had to be set by the fire to keep hot. It was now a quarter of an hour beyond the specified time. He bethought him of a piece of news which had depressed him in the earlier part of the day. Owing to the illness of one of his fellow-clerks, it was likely that he would get no holiday until later in the year, which would mean the postponement of their marriage. But this possibility, after all, was not so disagreeable as the probability which forced itself upon him with every tick of the clock that Katharine had completely forgotten her engagement. Such things had happened less frequently since Christmas, but what if they were going to begin to happen again? What if their marriage should turn out, as she had said, a farce? He acquitted her of any wish to hurt him wantonly, but there was something in her character which made it impossible for her to help hurting people. Was she cold? Was she self-absorbed? He tried to fit her with each of these descriptions, but he had to own that she puzzled him.
"There are so many things that she doesn't understand," he reflected, glancing at the letter to Cassandra which he had begun and laid aside. What prevented him from finishing the letter which he had so much enjoyed beginning? The reason was that Katharine might, at any moment, enter the room. The thought, implying his bondage to her, irritated him acutely. It occurred to him that he would leave the letter lying open for her to see, and he would take the opportunity of telling her that he had sent his play to Cassandra for her to criticize. Possibly, but not by any means certainly, this would annoy her--and as he reached the doubtful comfort of this conclusion, there was a knock on the door and Katharine came in. They kissed each other coldly and she made no apology for being late. Nevertheless, her mere presence moved him strangely; but he was determined that this should not weaken his resolution to make some kind of stand against her; to get at the truth about her. He let her make her own disposition of clothes and busied himself with the plates.
"I've got a piece of news for you, Katharine," he said directly they sat down to table; "I shan't get my holiday in April. We shall have to put off our marriage."
He rapped the words out with a certain degree of briskness. Katharine started a little, as if the announcement disturbed her thoughts.
"That won't make any difference, will it? I mean the lease isn't signed," she replied. "But why? What has happened?"
He told her, in an off-hand way, how one of his fellow-clerks had broken down, and might have to be away for months, six months even, in which case they would have to think over their position. He said it in a way which struck her, at last, as oddly casual. She looked at him. There was no outward sign that he was annoyed with her. Was she well dressed? She thought sufficiently so. Perhaps she was late? She looked for a clock.
"It's a good thing we didn't take the house then," she repeated thoughtfully.
"It'll mean, too, I'm afraid, that I shan't be as free for a considerable time as I have been," he continued. She had time to reflect that she gained something by all this, though it was too soon to determine what. But the light which had been burning with such intensity as she came along was suddenly overclouded, as much by his manner as by his news. She had been prepared to meet opposition, which is simple to encounter compared with--she did not know what it was that she had to encounter. The meal passed in quiet, well-controlled talk about indifferent things. Music was not a subject about which she knew anything, but she liked him to tell her things; and could, she mused, as he talked, fancy the evenings of married life spent thus, over the fire; spent thus, or with a book, perhaps, for then she would have time to read her books, and to grasp firmly with every muscle of her unused mind what she longed to know. The atmosphere was very free. Suddenly William broke off. She looked up apprehensively, brushing aside these thoughts with annoyance.
"Where should I address a letter to Cassandra?" he asked her. It was obvious again that William had some meaning or other to-night, or was in some mood. "We've struck up a friendship," he added.
"She's at home, I think," Katharine replied.
"They keep her too much at home," said William. "Why don't you ask her to stay with you, and let her hear a little good music? I'll just finish what I was saying, if you don't mind, because I'm particularly anxious that she should hear to-morrow."
Katharine sank back in her chair, and Rodney took the paper on his knees, and went on with his sentence. "Style, you know, is what we tend to neglect--"; but he was far more conscious of Katharine's eye upon him than of what he was saying about style. He knew that she was looking at him, but whether with irritation or indifference he could not guess.
In truth, she had fallen sufficiently into his trap to feel uncomfortably roused and disturbed and unable to proceed on the lines laid down for herself. This indifferent, if not hostile, attitude on William's part made it impossible to break off without animosity, largely and completely. Infinitely preferable was Mary's state, she thought, where there was a simple thing to do and one did it. In fact, she could not help supposing that some littleness of nature had a part in all the refinements, reserves, and subtleties of feeling for which her friends and family were so distinguished. For example, although she liked Cassandra well enough, her fantastic method of life struck her as purely frivolous; now it was socialism, now it was silkworms, now it was music--which last she supposed was the cause of William's sudden interest in her. Never before had William wasted the minutes of her presence in writing his letters. With a curious sense of light opening where all, hitherto, had been opaque, it dawned upon her that, after all, possibly, yes, probably, nay, certainly, the devotion which she had almost wearily taken for granted existed in a much slighter degree than she had suspected, or existed no longer. She looked at him attentively as if this discovery of hers must show traces in his face. Never had she seen so much to respect in his appearance, so much that attracted her by its sensitiveness and intelligence, although she saw these qualities as if they were those one responds to, dumbly, in the face of a stranger. The head bent over the paper, thoughtful as usual, had now a composure which seemed somehow to place it at a distance, like a face seen talking to some one else behind glass.
He wrote on, without raising his eyes. She would have spoken, but could not bring herself to ask him for signs of affection which she had no right to claim. The conviction that he was thus strange to her filled her with despondency, and illustrated quite beyond doubt the infinite loneliness of human beings. She had never felt the truth of this so strongly before. She looked away into the fire; it seemed to her that even physically they were now scarcely within speaking distance; and spiritually there was certainly no human being with whom she could claim comradeship; no dream that satisfied her as she was used to be satisfied; nothing remained in whose reality she could believe, save those abstract ideas--figures, laws, stars, facts, which she could hardly hold to for lack of knowledge and a kind of shame.
When Rodney owned to himself the folly of this prolonged silence, and the meanness of such devices, and looked up ready to seek some excuse for a good laugh, or opening for a confession, he was disconcerted by what he saw. Katharine seemed equally oblivious of what was bad or of what was good in him. Her expression suggested concentration upon something entirely remote from her surroundings. The carelessness of her attitude seemed to him rather masculine than feminine. His impulse to break up the constraint was chilled, and once more the exasperating sense of his own impotency returned to him. He could not help contrasting Katharine with his vision of the engaging, whimsical Cassandra; Katharine undemonstrative, inconsiderate, silent, and yet so notable that he could never do without her good opinion.
She veered round upon him a moment later, as if, when her train of thought was ended, she became aware of his presence.
"Have you finished your letter?" she asked. He thought he heard faint amusement in her tone, but not a trace of jealousy.
"No, I'm not going to write any more to-night," he said. "I'm not in the mood for it for some reason. I can't say what I want to say."
"Cassandra won't know if it's well written or badly written," Katharine remarked.
"I'm not so sure about that. I should say she has a good deal of literary feeling."
"Perhaps," said Katharine indifferently. "You've been neglecting my education lately, by the way. I wish you'd read something. Let me choose a book." So speaking, she went across to his bookshelves and began looking in a desultory way among his books. Anything, she thought, was better than bickering or the strange silence which drove home to her the distance between them. As she pulled one book forward and then another she thought ironically of her own certainty not an hour ago; how it had vanished in a moment, how she was merely marking time as best she could, not knowing in the least where they stood, what they felt, or whether William loved her or not. More and more the condition of Mary's mind seemed to her wonderful and enviable--if, indeed, it could be quite as she figured it--if, indeed, simplicity existed for any one of the daughters of women.
"Swift," she said, at last, taking out a volume at haphazard to settle this question at least. "Let us have some Swift."
Rodney took the book, held it in front of him, inserted one finger between the pages, but said nothing. His face wore a queer expression of deliberation, as if he were weighing one thing with another, and would not say anything until his mind were made up.
Katharine, taking her chair beside him, noted his silence and looked at him with sudden apprehension. What she hoped or feared, she could not have said; a most irrational and indefensible desire for some assurance of his affection was, perhaps, uppermost in her mind. Peevishness, complaints, exacting cross-examination she was used to, but this attitude of composed quiet, which seemed to come from the consciousness of power within, puzzled her. She did not know what was going to happen next.
At last William spoke.
"I think it's a little odd, don't you?" he said, in a voice of detached reflection. "Most people, I mean, would be seriously upset if their marriage was put off for six months or so. But we aren't; now how do you account for that?"
She looked at him and observed his judicial attitude as of one holding far aloof from emotion.
"I attribute it," he went on, without waiting for her to answer, "to the fact that neither of us is in the least romantic about the other. That may be partly, no doubt, because we've known each other so long; but I'm inclined to think there's more in it than that. There's something temperamental. I think you're a trifle cold, and I suspect I'm a trifle self-absorbed. If that were so it goes a long way to explaining our odd lack of illusion about each other. I'm not saying that the most satisfactory marriages aren't founded upon this sort of understanding. But certainly it struck me as odd this morning, when Wilson told me, how little upset I felt. By the way, you're sure we haven't committed ourselves to that house?"
"I've kept the letters, and I'll go through them to-morrow; but I'm certain we're on the safe side."
"Thanks. As to the psychological problem," he continued, as if the question interested him in a detached way, "there's no doubt, I think, that either of us is capable of feeling what, for reasons of simplicity, I call romance for a third person--at least, I've little doubt in my own case."
It was, perhaps, the first time in all her knowledge of him that Katharine had known William enter thus deliberately and without sign of emotion upon a statement of his own feelings. He was wont to discourage such intimate discussions by a little laugh or turn of the conversation, as much as to say that men, or men of the world, find such topics a little silly, or in doubtful taste. His obvious wish to explain something puzzled her, interested her, and neutralized the wound to her vanity. For some reason, too, she felt more at ease with him than usual; or her ease was more the ease of equality--she could not stop to think of that at the moment though. His remarks interested her too much for the light that they threw upon certain problems of her own.
"What is this romance?" she mused.
"Ah, that's the question. I've never come across a definition that satisfied me, though there are some very good ones"--he glanced in the direction of his books.
"It's not altogether knowing the other person, perhaps--it's ignorance," she hazarded.
"Some authorities say it's a question of distance--romance in literature, that is--"
"Possibly, in the case of art. But in the case of people it may be--" she hesitated.
"Have you no personal experience of it?" he asked, letting his eyes rest upon her swiftly for a moment.
"I believe it's influenced me enormously," she said, in the tone of one absorbed by the possibilities of some view just presented to them; "but in my life there's so little scope for it," she added. She reviewed her daily task, the perpetual demands upon her for good sense, self-control, and accuracy in a house containing a romantic mother. Ah, but her romance wasn't that romance. It was a desire, an echo, a sound; she could drape it in color, see it in form, hear it in music, but not in words; no, never in words. She sighed, teased by desires so incoherent, so incommunicable.
"But isn't it curious," William resumed, "that you should neither feel it for me, nor I for you?"
Katharine agreed that it was curious--very; but even more curious to her was the fact that she was discussing the question with William. It revealed possibilities which opened a prospect of a new relationship altogether. Somehow it seemed to her that he was helping her to understand what she had never understood; and in her gratitude she was conscious of a most sisterly desire to help him, too--sisterly, save for one pang, not quite to be subdued, that for him she was without romance.
"I think you might be very happy with some one you loved in that way," she said.
"You assume that romance survives a closer knowledge of the person one loves?"
He asked the question formally, to protect himself from the sort of personality which he dreaded. The whole situation needed the most careful management lest it should degenerate into some degrading and disturbing exhibition such as the scene, which he could never think of without shame, upon the heath among the dead leaves. And yet each sentence brought him relief. He was coming to understand something or other about his own desires hitherto undefined by him, the source of his difficulty with Katharine. The wish to hurt her, which had urged him to begin, had completely left him, and he felt that it was only Katharine now who could help him to be sure. He must take his time. There were so many things that he could not say without the greatest difficulty--that name, for example, Cassandra. Nor could he move his eyes from a certain spot, a fiery glen surrounded by high mountains, in the heart of the coals. He waited in suspense for Katharine to continue. She had said that he might be very happy with some one he loved in that way.
"I don't see why it shouldn't last with you," she resumed. "I can imagine a certain sort of person--" she paused; she was aware that he was listening with the greatest intentness, and that his formality was merely the cover for an extreme anxiety of some sort. There was some person then--some woman--who could it be? Cassandra? Ah, possibly--
"A person," she added, speaking in the most matter-of-fact tone she could command, "like Cassandra Otway, for instance. Cassandra is the most interesting of the Otways--with the exception of Henry. Even so, I like Cassandra better. She has more than mere cleverness. She is a character--a person by herself."
"Those dreadful insects!" burst from William, with a nervous laugh, and a little spasm went through him as Katharine noticed. It was Cassandra then. Automatically and dully she replied, "You could insist that she confined herself to--to--something else. . . . But she cares for music; I believe she writes poetry; and there can be no doubt that she has a peculiar charm--"
She ceased, as if defining to herself this peculiar charm. After a moment's silence William jerked out:
"I thought her affectionate?"
"Extremely affectionate. She worships Henry. When you think what a house that is--Uncle Francis always in one mood or another--"
"Dear, dear, dear," William muttered.
"And you have so much in common."
"My dear Katharine!" William exclaimed, flinging himself back in his chair, and uprooting his eyes from the spot in the fire. "I really don't know what we're talking about. . . . I assure you. . . ."
He was covered with an extreme confusion.
He withdrew the finger that was still thrust between the pages of Gulliver, opened the book, and ran his eye down the list of chapters, as though he were about to select the one most suitable for reading aloud. As Katharine watched him, she was seized with preliminary symptoms of his own panic. At the same time she was convinced that, should he find the right page, take out his spectacles, clear his throat, and open his lips, a chance that would never come again in all their lives would be lost to them both.
"We're talking about things that interest us both very much," she said. "Shan't we go on talking, and leave Swift for another time? I don't feel in the mood for Swift, and it's a pity to read any one when that's the case--particularly Swift."
The presence of wise literary speculation, as she calculated, restored William's confidence in his security, and he replaced the book in the bookcase, keeping his back turned to her as he did so, and taking advantage of this circumstance to summon his thoughts together.
But a second of introspection had the alarming result of showing him that his mind, when looked at from within, was no longer familiar ground. He felt, that is to say, what he had never consciously felt before; he was revealed to himself as other than he was wont to think him; he was afloat upon a sea of unknown and tumultuous possibilities. He paced once up and down the room, and then flung himself impetuously into the chair by Katharine's side. He had never felt anything like this before; he put himself entirely into her hands; he cast off all responsibility. He very nearly exclaimed aloud:
"You've stirred up all these odious and violent emotions, and now you must do the best you can with them."
Her near presence, however, had a calming and reassuring effect upon his agitation, and he was conscious only of an implicit trust that, somehow, he was safe with her, that she would see him through, find out what it was that he wanted, and procure it for him.
"I wish to do whatever you tell me to do," he said. "I put myself entirely in your hands, Katharine."
"You must try to tell me what you feel," she said.
"My dear, I feel a thousand things every second. I don't know, I'm sure, what I feel. That afternoon on the heath--it was then--then--" He broke off; he did not tell her what had happened then. "Your ghastly good sense, as usual, has convinced me--for the moment--but what the truth is, Heaven only knows!" he exclaimed.
"Isn't it the truth that you are, or might be, in love with Cassandra?" she said gently.
William bowed his head. After a moment's silence he murmured:
"I believe you're right, Katharine."
She sighed, involuntarily. She had been hoping all this time, with an intensity that increased second by second against the current of her words, that it would not in the end come to this. After a moment of surprising anguish, she summoned her courage to tell him how she wished only that she might help him, and had framed the first words of her speech when a knock, terrific and startling to people in their overwrought condition, sounded upon the door.
"Katharine, I worship you," he urged, half in a whisper.
"Yes," she replied, withdrawing with a little shiver, "but you must open the door."