Considering that Mr. Hilbery lived in a house which was accurately numbered in order with its fellows, and that he filled up forms, paid rent, and had seven more years of tenancy to run, he had an excuse for laying down laws for the conduct of those who lived in his house, and this excuse, though profoundly inadequate, he found useful during the interregnum of civilization with which he now found himself faced. In obedience to those laws, Rodney disappeared; Cassandra was dispatched to catch the eleven-thirty on Monday morning; Denham was seen no more; so that only Katharine, the lawful occupant of the upper rooms, remained, and Mr. Hilbery thought himself competent to see that she did nothing further to compromise herself. As he bade her good morning next day he was aware that he knew nothing of what she was thinking, but, as he reflected with some bitterness, even this was an advance upon the ignorance of the previous mornings. He went to his study, wrote, tore up, and wrote again a letter to his wife, asking her to come back on account of domestic difficulties which he specified at first, but in a later draft more discreetly left unspecified. Even if she started the very moment that she got it, he reflected, she would not be home till Tuesday night, and he counted lugubriously the number of hours that he would have to spend in a position of detestable authority alone with his daughter.
What was she doing now, he wondered, as he addressed the envelope to his wife. He could not control the telephone. He could not play the spy. She might be making any arrangements she chose. Yet the thought did not disturb him so much as the strange, unpleasant, illicit atmosphere of the whole scene with the young people the night before. His sense of discomfort was almost physical.
Had he known it, Katharine was far enough withdrawn, both physically and spiritually, from the telephone. She sat in her room with the dictionaries spreading their wide leaves on the table before her, and all the pages which they had concealed for so many years arranged in a pile. She worked with the steady concentration that is produced by the successful effort to think down some unwelcome thought by means of another thought. Having absorbed the unwelcome thought, her mind went on with additional vigor, derived from the victory; on a sheet of paper lines of figures and symbols frequently and firmly written down marked the different stages of its progress. And yet it was broad daylight; there were sounds of knocking and sweeping, which proved that living people were at work on the other side of the door, and the door, which could be thrown open in a second, was her only protection against the world. But she had somehow risen to be mistress in her own kingdom, assuming her sovereignty unconsciously.
Steps approached her unheard. It is true that they were steps that lingered, divagated, and mounted with the deliberation natural to one past sixty whose arms, moreover, are full of leaves and blossoms; but they came on steadily, and soon a tap of laurel boughs against the door arrested Katharine's pencil as it touched the page. She did not move, however, and sat blank-eyed as if waiting for the interruption to cease. Instead, the door opened. At first, she attached no meaning to the moving mass of green which seemed to enter the room independently of any human agency. Then she recognized parts of her mother's face and person behind the yellow flowers and soft velvet of the palm-buds.
"From Shakespeare's tomb!" exclaimed Mrs. Hilbery, dropping the entire mass upon the floor, with a gesture that seemed to indicate an act of dedication. Then she flung her arms wide and embraced her daughter.
"Thank God, Katharine!" she exclaimed. "Thank God!" she repeated.
"You've come back?" said Katharine, very vaguely, standing up to receive the embrace.
Although she recognized her mother's presence, she was very far from taking part in the scene, and yet felt it to be amazingly appropriate that her mother should be there, thanking God emphatically for unknown blessings, and strewing the floor with flowers and leaves from Shakespeare's tomb.
"Nothing else matters in the world!" Mrs. Hilbery continued. "Names aren't everything; it's what we feel that's everything. I didn't want silly, kind, interfering letters. I didn't want your father to tell me. I knew it from the first. I prayed that it might be so."
"You knew it?" Katharine repeated her mother's words softly and vaguely, looking past her. "How did you know it?" She began, like a child, to finger a tassel hanging from her mother's cloak.
"The first evening you told me, Katharine. Oh, and thousands of times --dinner-parties--talking about books--the way he came into the room-- your voice when you spoke of him."
Katharine seemed to consider each of these proofs separately. Then she said gravely:
"I'm not going to marry William. And then there's Cassandra--"
"Yes, there's Cassandra," said Mrs. Hilbery. "I own I was a little grudging at first, but, after all, she plays the piano so beautifully. Do tell me, Katharine," she asked impulsively, "where did you go that evening she played Mozart, and you thought I was asleep?"
Katharine recollected with difficulty.
"To Mary Datchet's," she remembered.
"Ah!" said Mrs. Hilbery, with a slight note of disappointment in her voice. "I had my little romance--my little speculation." She looked at her daughter. Katharine faltered beneath that innocent and penetrating gaze; she flushed, turned away, and then looked up with very bright eyes.
"I'm not in love with Ralph Denham," she said.
"Don't marry unless you're in love!" said Mrs. Hilbery very quickly. "But," she added, glancing momentarily at her daughter, "aren't there different ways, Katharine--different--?"
"We want to meet as often as we like, but to be free," Katharine continued.
"To meet here, to meet in his house, to meet in the street." Mrs. Hilbery ran over these phrases as if she were trying chords that did not quite satisfy her ear. It was plain that she had her sources of information, and, indeed, her bag was stuffed with what she called "kind letters" from the pen of her sister-in-law.
"Yes. Or to stay away in the country," Katharine concluded.
Mrs. Hilbery paused, looked unhappy, and sought inspiration from the window.
"What a comfort he was in that shop--how he took me and found the ruins at once--how safe I felt with him--"
"Safe? Oh, no, he's fearfully rash--he's always taking risks. He wants to throw up his profession and live in a little cottage and write books, though he hasn't a penny of his own, and there are any number of sisters and brothers dependent on him."
"Ah, he has a mother?" Mrs. Hilbery inquired.
"Yes. Rather a fine-looking old lady, with white hair." Katharine began to describe her visit, and soon Mrs. Hilbery elicited the facts that not only was the house of excruciating ugliness, which Ralph bore without complaint, but that it was evident that every one depended on him, and he had a room at the top of the house, with a wonderful view over London, and a rook.
"A wretched old bird in a corner, with half its feathers out," she said, with a tenderness in her voice that seemed to commiserate the sufferings of humanity while resting assured in the capacity of Ralph Denham to alleviate them, so that Mrs. Hilbery could not help exclaiming:
"But, Katharine, you are in love!" at which Katharine flushed, looked startled, as if she had said something that she ought not to have said, and shook her head.
Hastily Mrs. Hilbery asked for further details of this extraordinary house, and interposed a few speculations about the meeting between Keats and Coleridge in a lane, which tided over the discomfort of the moment, and drew Katharine on to further descriptions and indiscretions. In truth, she found an extraordinary pleasure in being thus free to talk to some one who was equally wise and equally benignant, the mother of her earliest childhood, whose silence seemed to answer questions that were never asked. Mrs. Hilbery listened without making any remark for a considerable time. She seemed to draw her conclusions rather by looking at her daughter than by listening to her, and, if cross-examined, she would probably have given a highly inaccurate version of Ralph Denham's life-history except that he was penniless, fatherless, and lived at Highgate--all of which was much in his favor. But by means of these furtive glances she had assured herself that Katharine was in a state which gave her, alternately, the most exquisite pleasure and the most profound alarm.
She could not help ejaculating at last:
"It's all done in five minutes at a Registry Office nowadays, if you think the Church service a little florid--which it is, though there are noble things in it."
"But we don't want to be married," Katharine replied emphatically, and added, "Why, after all, isn't it perfectly possible to live together without being married?"
Again Mrs. Hilbery looked discomposed, and, in her trouble, took up the sheets which were lying upon the table, and began turning them over this way and that, and muttering to herself as she glanced:
"A plus B minus C equals 'x y z'. It's so dreadfully ugly, Katharine. That's what I feel--so dreadfully ugly."
Katharine took the sheets from her mother's hand and began shuffling them absent-mindedly together, for her fixed gaze seemed to show that her thoughts were intent upon some other matter.
"Well, I don't know about ugliness," she said at length.
"But he doesn't ask it of you?" Mrs. Hilbery exclaimed. "Not that grave young man with the steady brown eyes?"
"He doesn't ask anything--we neither of us ask anything."
"If I could help you, Katharine, by the memory of what I felt--"
"Yes, tell me what you felt."
Mrs. Hilbery, her eyes growing blank, peered down the enormously long corridor of days at the far end of which the little figures of herself and her husband appeared fantastically attired, clasping hands upon a moonlit beach, with roses swinging in the dusk.
"We were in a little boat going out to a ship at night," she began. "The sun had set and the moon was rising over our heads. There were lovely silver lights upon the waves and three green lights upon the steamer in the middle of the bay. Your father's head looked so grand against the mast. It was life, it was death. The great sea was round us. It was the voyage for ever and ever."
The ancient fairy-tale fell roundly and harmoniously upon Katharine's ears. Yes, there was the enormous space of the sea; there were the three green lights upon the steamer; the cloaked figures climbed up on deck. And so, voyaging over the green and purple waters, past the cliffs and the sandy lagoons and through pools crowded with the masts of ships and the steeples of churches--here they were. The river seemed to have brought them and deposited them here at this precise point. She looked admiringly at her mother, that ancient voyager.
"Who knows," exclaimed Mrs. Hilbery, continuing her reveries, "where we are bound for, or why, or who has sent us, or what we shall find--who knows anything, except that love is our faith--love--" she crooned, and the soft sound beating through the dim words was heard by her daughter as the breaking of waves solemnly in order upon the vast shore that she gazed upon. She would have been content for her mother to repeat that word almost indefinitely--a soothing word when uttered by another, a riveting together of the shattered fragments of the world. But Mrs. Hilbery, instead of repeating the word love, said pleadingly:
"And you won't think those ugly thoughts again, will you, Katharine?" at which words the ship which Katharine had been considering seemed to put into harbor and have done with its seafaring. Yet she was in great need, if not exactly of sympathy, of some form of advice, or, at least, of the opportunity of setting forth her problems before a third person so as to renew them in her own eyes.
"But then," she said, ignoring the difficult problem of ugliness, "you knew you were in love; but we're different. It seems," she continued, frowning a little as she tried to fix the difficult feeling, "as if something came to an end suddenly--gave out--faded--an illusion--as if when we think we're in love we make it up--we imagine what doesn't exist. That's why it's impossible that we should ever marry. Always to be finding the other an illusion, and going off and forgetting about them, never to be certain that you cared, or that he wasn't caring for some one not you at all, the horror of changing from one state to the other, being happy one moment and miserable the next--that's the reason why we can't possibly marry. At the same time," she continued, "we can't live without each other, because--" Mrs. Hilbery waited patiently for the sentence to be completed, but Katharine fell silent and fingered her sheet of figures.
"We have to have faith in our vision," Mrs. Hilbery resumed, glancing at the figures, which distressed her vaguely, and had some connection in her mind with the household accounts, "otherwise, as you say--" She cast a lightning glance into the depths of disillusionment which were, perhaps, not altogether unknown to her.
"Believe me, Katharine, it's the same for every one--for me, too--for your father," she said earnestly, and sighed. They looked together into the abyss and, as the elder of the two, she recovered herself first and asked:
"But where is Ralph? Why isn't he here to see me?"
Katharine's expression changed instantly.
"Because he's not allowed to come here," she replied bitterly.
Mrs. Hilbery brushed this aside.
"Would there be time to send for him before luncheon?" she asked.
Katharine looked at her as if, indeed, she were some magician. Once more she felt that instead of being a grown woman, used to advise and command, she was only a foot or two raised above the long grass and the little flowers and entirely dependent upon the figure of indefinite size whose head went up into the sky, whose hand was in hers, for guidance.
"I'm not happy without him," she said simply.
Mrs. Hilbery nodded her head in a manner which indicated complete understanding, and the immediate conception of certain plans for the future. She swept up her flowers, breathed in their sweetness, and, humming a little song about a miller's daughter, left the room.
The case upon which Ralph Denham was engaged that afternoon was not apparently receiving his full attention, and yet the affairs of the late John Leake of Dublin were sufficiently confused to need all the care that a solicitor could bestow upon them, if the widow Leake and the five Leake children of tender age were to receive any pittance at all. But the appeal to Ralph's humanity had little chance of being heard to-day; he was no longer a model of concentration. The partition so carefully erected between the different sections of his life had been broken down, with the result that though his eyes were fixed upon the last Will and Testament, he saw through the page a certain drawing-room in Cheyne Walk.
He tried every device that had proved effective in the past for keeping up the partitions of the mind, until he could decently go home; but a little to his alarm he found himself assailed so persistently, as if from outside, by Katharine, that he launched forth desperately into an imaginary interview with her. She obliterated a bookcase full of law reports, and the corners and lines of the room underwent a curious softening of outline like that which sometimes makes a room unfamiliar at the moment of waking from sleep. By degrees, a pulse or stress began to beat at regular intervals in his mind, heaping his thoughts into waves to which words fitted themselves, and without much consciousness of what he was doing, he began to write on a sheet of draft paper what had the appearance of a poem lacking several words in each line. Not many lines had been set down, however, before he threw away his pen as violently as if that were responsible for his misdeeds, and tore the paper into many separate pieces. This was a sign that Katharine had asserted herself and put to him a remark that could not be met poetically. Her remark was entirely destructive of poetry, since it was to the effect that poetry had nothing whatever to do with her; all her friends spent their lives in making up phrases, she said; all his feeling was an illusion, and next moment, as if to taunt him with his impotence, she had sunk into one of those dreamy states which took no account whatever of his existence. Ralph was roused by his passionate attempts to attract her attention to the fact that he was standing in the middle of his little private room in Lincoln's Inn Fields at a considerable distance from Chelsea. The physical distance increased his desperation. He began pacing in circles until the process sickened him, and then took a sheet of paper for the composition of a letter which, he vowed before he began it, should be sent that same evening.
It was a difficult matter to put into words; poetry would have done it better justice, but he must abstain from poetry. In an infinite number of half-obliterated scratches he tried to convey to her the possibility that although human beings are woefully ill-adapted for communication, still, such communion is the best we know; moreover, they make it possible for each to have access to another world independent of personal affairs, a world of law, of philosophy, or more strangely a world such as he had had a glimpse of the other evening when together they seemed to be sharing something, creating something, an ideal--a vision flung out in advance of our actual circumstances. If this golden rim were quenched, if life were no longer circled by an illusion (but was it an illusion after all?), then it would be too dismal an affair to carry to an end; so he wrote with a sudden spurt of conviction which made clear way for a space and left at least one sentence standing whole. Making every allowance for other desires, on the whole this conclusion appeared to him to justify their relationship. But the conclusion was mystical; it plunged him into thought. The difficulty with which even this amount was written, the inadequacy of the words, and the need of writing under them and over them others which, after all, did no better, led him to leave off before he was at ail satisfied with his production, and unable to resist the conviction that such rambling would never be fit for Katharine's eye. He felt himself more cut off from her than ever. In idleness, and because he could do nothing further with words, he began to draw little figures in the blank spaces, heads meant to resemble her head, blots fringed with flames meant to represent--perhaps the entire universe. From this occupation he was roused by the message that a lady wished to speak to him. He had scarcely time to run his hands through his hair in order to look as much like a solicitor as possible, and to cram his papers into his pocket, already overcome with shame that another eye should behold them, when he realized that his preparations were needless. The lady was Mrs. Hilbery.
"I hope you're not disposing of somebody's fortune in a hurry," she remarked, gazing at the documents on his table, "or cutting off an entail at one blow, because I want to ask you to do me a favor. And Anderson won't keep his horse waiting. (Anderson is a perfect tyrant, but he drove my dear father to the Abbey the day they buried him.) I made bold to come to you, Mr. Denham, not exactly in search of legal assistance (though I don't know who I'd rather come to, if I were in trouble), but in order to ask your help in settling some tiresome little domestic affairs that have arisen in my absence. I've been to Stratford-on-Avon (I must tell you all about that one of these days), and there I got a letter from my sister-in-law, a dear kind goose who likes interfering with other people's children because she's got none of her own. (We're dreadfully afraid that she's going to lose the sight of one of her eyes, and I always feel that our physical ailments are so apt to turn into mental ailments. I think Matthew Arnold says something of the same kind about Lord Byron.) But that's neither here nor there."
The effect of these parentheses, whether they were introduced for that purpose or represented a natural instinct on Mrs. Hilbery's part to embellish the bareness of her discourse, gave Ralph time to perceive that she possessed all the facts of their situation and was come, somehow, in the capacity of ambassador.
"I didn't come here to talk about Lord Byron," Mrs. Hilbery continued, with a little laugh, "though I know that both you and Katharine, unlike other young people of your generation, still find him worth reading." She paused. "I'm so glad you've made Katharine read poetry, Mr. Denham!" she exclaimed, "and feel poetry, and look poetry! She can't talk it yet, but she will--oh, she will!"
Ralph, whose hand was grasped and whose tongue almost refused to articulate, somehow contrived to say that there were moments when he felt hopeless, utterly hopeless, though he gave no reason for this statement on his part.
"But you care for her?" Mrs. Hilbery inquired.
"Good God!" he exclaimed, with a vehemence which admitted of no question.
"It's the Church of England service you both object to?" Mrs. Hilbery inquired innocently.
"I don't care a damn what service it is," Ralph replied.
"You would marry her in Westminster Abbey if the worst came to the worst?" Mrs. Hilbery inquired.
"I would marry her in St. Paul's Cathedral," Ralph replied. His doubts upon this point, which were always roused by Katharine's presence, had vanished completely, and his strongest wish in the world was to be with her immediately, since every second he was away from her he imagined her slipping farther and farther from him into one of those states of mind in which he was unrepresented. He wished to dominate her, to possess her.
"Thank God!" exclaimed Mrs. Hilbery. She thanked Him for a variety of blessings: for the conviction with which the young man spoke; and not least for the prospect that on her daughter's wedding-day the noble cadences, the stately periods, the ancient eloquence of the marriage service would resound over the heads of a distinguished congregation gathered together near the very spot where her father lay quiescent with the other poets of England. The tears filled her eyes; but she remembered simultaneously that her carriage was waiting, and with dim eyes she walked to the door. Denham followed her downstairs.
It was a strange drive. For Denham it was without exception the most unpleasant he had ever taken. His only wish was to go as straightly and quickly as possible to Cheyne Walk; but it soon appeared that Mrs. Hilbery either ignored or thought fit to baffle this desire by interposing various errands of her own. She stopped the carriage at post-offices, and coffee-shops, and shops of inscrutable dignity where the aged attendants had to be greeted as old friends; and, catching sight of the dome of St. Paul's above the irregular spires of Ludgate Hill, she pulled the cord impulsively, and gave directions that Anderson should drive them there. But Anderson had reasons of his own for discouraging afternoon worship, and kept his horse's nose obstinately towards the west. After some minutes, Mrs. Hilbery realized the situation, and accepted it good-humoredly, apologizing to Ralph for his disappointment.
"Never mind," she said, "we'll go to St. Paul's another day, and it may turn out, though I can't promise that it will, that he'll take us past Westminster Abbey, which would be even better."
Ralph was scarcely aware of what she went on to say. Her mind and body both seemed to have floated into another region of quick-sailing clouds rapidly passing across each other and enveloping everything in a vaporous indistinctness. Meanwhile he remained conscious of his own concentrated desire, his impotence to bring about anything he wished, and his increasing agony of impatience.
Suddenly Mrs. Hilbery pulled the cord with such decision that even Anderson had to listen to the order which she leant out of the window to give him. The carriage pulled up abruptly in the middle of Whitehall before a large building dedicated to one of our Government offices. In a second Mrs. Hilbery was mounting the steps, and Ralph was left in too acute an irritation by this further delay even to speculate what errand took her now to the Board of Education. He was about to jump from the carriage and take a cab, when Mrs. Hilbery reappeared talking genially to a figure who remained hidden behind her.
"There's plenty of room for us all," she was saying. "Plenty of room. We could find space for four of you, William," she added, opening the door, and Ralph found that Rodney had now joined their company. The two men glanced at each other. If distress, shame, discomfort in its most acute form were ever visible upon a human face, Ralph could read them all expressed beyond the eloquence of words upon the face of his unfortunate companion. But Mrs. Hilbery was either completely unseeing or determined to appear so. She went on talking; she talked, it seemed to both the young men, to some one outside, up in the air. She talked about Shakespeare, she apostrophized the human race, she proclaimed the virtues of divine poetry, she began to recite verses which broke down in the middle. The great advantage of her discourse was that it was self-supporting. It nourished itself until Cheyne Walk was reached upon half a dozen grunts and murmurs.
"Now," she said, alighting briskly at her door, "here we are!"
There was something airy and ironical in her voice and expression as she turned upon the doorstep and looked at them, which filled both Rodney and Denham with the same misgivings at having trusted their fortunes to such an ambassador; and Rodney actually hesitated upon the threshold and murmured to Denham:
"You go in, Denham. I . . ." He was turning tail, but the door opening and the familiar look of the house asserting its charm, he bolted in on the wake of the others, and the door shut upon his escape. Mrs. Hilbery led the way upstairs. She took them to the drawing-room. The fire burnt as usual, the little tables were laid with china and silver. There was nobody there.
"Ah," she said, "Katharine's not here. She must be upstairs in her room. You have something to say to her, I know, Mr. Denham. You can find your way?" she vaguely indicated the ceiling with a gesture of her hand. She had become suddenly serious and composed, mistress in her own house. The gesture with which she dismissed him had a dignity that Ralph never forgot. She seemed to make him free with a wave of her hand to all that she possessed. He left the room.
The Hilberys' house was tall, possessing many stories and passages with closed doors, all, once he had passed the drawing-room floor, unknown to Ralph. He mounted as high as he could and knocked at the first door he came to.
"May I come in?" he asked.
A voice from within answered "Yes."
He was conscious of a large window, full of light, of a bare table, and of a long looking-glass. Katharine had risen, and was standing with some white papers in her hand, which slowly fluttered to the ground as she saw her visitor. The explanation was a short one. The sounds were inarticulate; no one could have understood the meaning save themselves. As if the forces of the world were all at work to tear them asunder they sat, clasping hands, near enough to be taken even by the malicious eye of Time himself for a united couple, an indivisible unit.
"Don't move, don't go," she begged of him, when he stooped to gather the papers she had let fall. But he took them in his hands and, giving her by a sudden impulse his own unfinished dissertation, with its mystical conclusion, they read each other's compositions in silence.
Katharine read his sheets to an end; Ralph followed her figures as far as his mathematics would let him. They came to the end of their tasks at about the same moment, and sat for a time in silence.
"Those were the papers you left on the seat at Kew," said Ralph at length. "You folded them so quickly that I couldn't see what they were."
She blushed very deeply; but as she did not move or attempt to hide her face she had the appearance of some one disarmed of all defences, or Ralph likened her to a wild bird just settling with wings trembling to fold themselves within reach of his hand. The moment of exposure had been exquisitely painful--the light shed startlingly vivid. She had now to get used to the fact that some one shared her loneliness. The bewilderment was half shame and half the prelude to profound rejoicing. Nor was she unconscious that on the surface the whole thing must appear of the utmost absurdity. She looked to see whether Ralph smiled, but found his gaze fixed on her with such gravity that she turned to the belief that she had committed no sacrilege but enriched herself, perhaps immeasurably, perhaps eternally. She hardly dared steep herself in the infinite bliss. But his glance seemed to ask for some assurance upon another point of vital interest to him. It beseeched her mutely to tell him whether what she had read upon his confused sheet had any meaning or truth to her. She bent her head once more to the papers she held.
"I like your little dot with the flames round it," she said meditatively.
Ralph nearly tore the page from her hand in shame and despair when he saw her actually contemplating the idiotic symbol of his most confused and emotional moments.
He was convinced that it could mean nothing to another, although somehow to him it conveyed not only Katharine herself but all those states of mind which had clustered round her since he first saw her pouring out tea on a Sunday afternoon. It represented by its circumference of smudges surrounding a central blot all that encircling glow which for him surrounded, inexplicably, so many of the objects of life, softening their sharp outline, so that he could see certain streets, books, and situations wearing a halo almost perceptible to the physical eye. Did she smile? Did she put the paper down wearily, condemning it not only for its inadequacy but for its falsity? Was she going to protest once more that he only loved the vision of her? But it did not occur to her that this diagram had anything to do with her. She said simply, and in the same tone of reflection:
"Yes, the world looks something like that to me too."
He received her assurance with profound joy. Quietly and steadily there rose up behind the whole aspect of life that soft edge of fire which gave its red tint to the atmosphere and crowded the scene with shadows so deep and dark that one could fancy pushing farther into their density and still farther, exploring indefinitely. Whether there was any correspondence between the two prospects now opening before them they shared the same sense of the impending future, vast, mysterious, infinitely stored with undeveloped shapes which each would unwrap for the other to behold; but for the present the prospect of the future was enough to fill them with silent adoration. At any rate, their further attempts to communicate articulately were interrupted by a knock on the door, and the entrance of a maid who, with a due sense of mystery, announced that a lady wished to see Miss Hilbery, but refused to allow her name to be given.
When Katharine rose, with a profound sigh, to resume her duties, Ralph went with her, and neither of them formulated any guess, on their way downstairs, as to who this anonymous lady might prove to be. Perhaps the fantastic notion that she was a little black hunchback provided with a steel knife, which she would plunge into Katharine's heart, appeared to Ralph more probable than another, and he pushed first into the dining-room to avert the blow. Then he exclaimed "Cassandra!" with such heartiness at the sight of Cassandra Otway standing by the dining-room table that she put her finger to her lips and begged him to be quiet.
"Nobody must know I'm here," she explained in a sepulchral whisper. "I missed my train. I have been wandering about London all day. I can bear it no longer. Katharine, what am I to do?"
Katharine pushed forward a chair; Ralph hastily found wine and poured it out for her. If not actually fainting, she was very near it.
"William's upstairs," said Ralph, as soon as she appeared to be recovered. "I'll go and ask him to come down to you." His own happiness had given him a confidence that every one else was bound to be happy too. But Cassandra had her uncle's commands and anger too vividly in her mind to dare any such defiance. She became agitated and said that she must leave the house at once. She was not in a condition to go, had they known where to send her. Katharine's common sense, which had been in abeyance for the past week or two, still failed her, and she could only ask, "But where's your luggage?" in the vague belief that to take lodgings depended entirely upon a sufficiency of luggage. Cassandra's reply, "I've lost my luggage," in no way helped her to a conclusion.
"You've lost your luggage," she repeated. Her eyes rested upon Ralph, with an expression which seemed better fitted to accompany a profound thanksgiving for his existence or some vow of eternal devotion than a question about luggage. Cassandra perceived the look, and saw that it was returned; her eyes filled with tears. She faltered in what she was saying. She began bravely again to discuss the question of lodging when Katharine, who seemed to have communicated silently with Ralph, and obtained his permission, took her ruby ring from her finger and giving it to Cassandra, said: "I believe it will fit you without any alteration."
These words would not have been enough to convince Cassandra of what she very much wished to believe had not Ralph taken the bare hand in his and demanded:
"Why don't you tell us you're glad?" Cassandra was so glad that the tears ran down her cheeks. The certainty of Katharine's engagement not only relieved her of a thousand vague fears and self-reproaches, but entirely quenched that spirit of criticism which had lately impaired her belief in Katharine. Her old faith came back to her. She seemed to behold her with that curious intensity which she had lost; as a being who walks just beyond our sphere, so that life in their presence is a heightened process, illuminating not only ourselves but a considerable stretch of the surrounding world. Next moment she contrasted her own lot with theirs and gave back the ring.
"I won't take that unless William gives it me himself," she said. "Keep it for me, Katharine."
"I assure you everything's perfectly all right," said Ralph. "Let me tell William--"
He was about, in spite of Cassandra's protest, to reach the door, when Mrs. Hilbery, either warned by the parlor-maid or conscious with her usual prescience of the need for her intervention, opened the door and smilingly surveyed them.
"My dear Cassandra!" she exclaimed. "How delightful to see you back again! What a coincidence!" she observed, in a general way. "William is upstairs. The kettle boils over. Where's Katharine, I say? I go to look, and I find Cassandra!" She seemed to have proved something to her own satisfaction, although nobody felt certain what thing precisely it was.
"I find Cassandra," she repeated.
"She missed her train," Katharine interposed, seeing that Cassandra was unable to speak.
"Life," began Mrs. Hilbery, drawing inspiration from the portraits on the wall apparently, "consists in missing trains and in finding--" But she pulled herself up and remarked that the kettle must have boiled completely over everything.
To Katharine's agitated mind it appeared that this kettle was an enormous kettle, capable of deluging the house in its incessant showers of steam, the enraged representative of all those household duties which she had neglected. She ran hastily up to the drawing-room, and the rest followed her, for Mrs. Hilbery put her arm round Cassandra and drew her upstairs. They found Rodney observing the kettle with uneasiness but with such absence of mind that Katharine's catastrophe was in a fair way to be fulfilled. In putting the matter straight no greetings were exchanged, but Rodney and Cassandra chose seats as far apart as possible, and sat down with an air of people making a very temporary lodgment. Either Mrs. Hilbery was impervious to their discomfort, or chose to ignore it, or thought it high time that the subject was changed, for she did nothing but talk about Shakespeare's tomb.
"So much earth and so much water and that sublime spirit brooding over it all," she mused, and went on to sing her strange, half-earthly song of dawns and sunsets, of great poets, and the unchanged spirit of noble loving which they had taught, so that nothing changes, and one age is linked with another, and no one dies, and we all meet in spirit, until she appeared oblivious of any one in the room. But suddenly her remarks seemed to contract the enormously wide circle in which they were soaring and to alight, airily and temporarily, upon matters of more immediate moment.
"Katharine and Ralph," she said, as if to try the sound. "William and Cassandra."
"I feel myself in an entirely false position," said William desperately, thrusting himself into this breach in her reflections. "I've no right to be sitting here. Mr. Hilbery told me yesterday to leave the house. I'd no intention of coming back again. I shall now--"
"I feel the same too," Cassandra interrupted. "After what Uncle Trevor said to me last night--"
"I have put you into a most odious position," Rodney went on, rising from his seat, in which movement he was imitated simultaneously by Cassandra. "Until I have your father's consent I have no right to speak to you--let alone in this house, where my conduct"--he looked at Katharine, stammered, and fell silent--"where my conduct has been reprehensible and inexcusable in the extreme," he forced himself to continue. "I have explained everything to your mother. She is so generous as to try and make me believe that I have done no harm--you have convinced her that my behavior, selfish and weak as it was--selfish and weak--" he repeated, like a speaker who has lost his notes.
Two emotions seemed to be struggling in Katharine; one the desire to laugh at the ridiculous spectacle of William making her a formal speech across the tea-table, the other a desire to weep at the sight of something childlike and honest in him which touched her inexpressibly. To every one's surprise she rose, stretched out her hand, and said:
"You've nothing to reproach yourself with--you've been always--" but here her voice died away, and the tears forced themselves into her eyes, and ran down her cheeks, while William, equally moved, seized her hand and pressed it to his lips. No one perceived that the drawing-room door had opened itself sufficiently to admit at least half the person of Mr. Hilbery, or saw him gaze at the scene round the tea-table with an expression of the utmost disgust and expostulation. He withdrew unseen. He paused outside on the landing trying to recover his self-control and to decide what course he might with most dignity pursue. It was obvious to him that his wife had entirely confused the meaning of his instructions. She had plunged them all into the most odious confusion. He waited a moment, and then, with much preliminary rattling of the handle, opened the door a second time. They had all regained their places; some incident of an absurd nature had now set them laughing and looking under the table, so that his entrance passed momentarily unperceived. Katharine, with flushed cheeks, raised her head and said:
"Well, that's my last attempt at the dramatic."
"It's astonishing what a distance they roll," said Ralph, stooping to turn up the corner of the hearthrug.
"Don't trouble--don't bother. We shall find it--" Mrs. Hilbery began, and then saw her husband and exclaimed: "Oh, Trevor, we're looking for Cassandra's engagement-ring!"
Mr. Hilbery looked instinctively at the carpet. Remarkably enough, the ring had rolled to the very point where he stood. He saw the rubies touching the tip of his boot. Such is the force of habit that he could not refrain from stooping, with an absurd little thrill of pleasure at being the one to find what others were looking for, and, picking the ring up, he presented it, with a bow that was courtly in the extreme, to Cassandra. Whether the making of a bow released automatically feelings of complaisance and urbanity, Mr. Hilbery found his resentment completely washed away during the second in which he bent and straightened himself. Cassandra dared to offer her cheek and received his embrace. He nodded with some degree of stiffness to Rodney and Denham, who had both risen upon seeing him, and now altogether sat down. Mrs. Hilbery seemed to have been waiting for the entrance of her husband, and for this precise moment in order to put to him a question which, from the ardor with which she announced it, had evidently been pressing for utterance for some time past.
"Oh, Trevor, please tell me, what was the date of the first performance of 'Hamlet'?"
In order to answer her Mr. Hilbery had to have recourse to the exact scholarship of William Rodney, and before he had given his excellent authorities for believing as he believed, Rodney felt himself admitted once more to the society of the civilized and sanctioned by the authority of no less a person than Shakespeare himself. The power of literature, which had temporarily deserted Mr. Hilbery, now came back to him, pouring over the raw ugliness of human affairs its soothing balm, and providing a form into which such passions as he had felt so painfully the night before could be molded so that they fell roundly from the tongue in shapely phrases, hurting nobody. He was sufficiently sure of his command of language at length to look at Katharine and again at Denham. All this talk about Shakespeare had acted as a soporific, or rather as an incantation upon Katharine. She leaned back in her chair at the head of the tea-table, perfectly silent, looking vaguely past them all, receiving the most generalized ideas of human heads against pictures, against yellow-tinted walls, against curtains of deep crimson velvet. Denham, to whom he turned next, shared her immobility under his gaze. But beneath his restraint and calm it was possible to detect a resolution, a will, set now with unalterable tenacity, which made such turns of speech as Mr. Hilbery had at command appear oddly irrelevant. At any rate, he said nothing. He respected the young man; he was a very able young man; he was likely to get his own way. He could, he thought, looking at his still and very dignified head, understand Katharine's preference, and, as he thought this, he was surprised by a pang of acute jealousy. She might have married Rodney without causing him a twinge. This man she loved. Or what was the state of affairs between them? An extraordinary confusion of emotion was beginning to get the better of him, when Mrs. Hilbery, who had been conscious of a sudden pause in the conversation, and had looked wistfully at her daughter once or twice, remarked:
"Don't stay if you want to go, Katharine. There's the little room over there. Perhaps you and Ralph--"
"We're engaged," said Katharine, waking with a start, and looking straight at her father. He was taken aback by the directness of the statement; he exclaimed as if an unexpected blow had struck him. Had he loved her to see her swept away by this torrent, to have her taken from him by this uncontrollable force, to stand by helpless, ignored? Oh, how he loved her! How he loved her! He nodded very curtly to Denham.
"I gathered something of the kind last night," he said. "I hope you'll deserve her." But he never looked at his daughter, and strode out of the room, leaving in the minds of the women a sense, half of awe, half of amusement, at the extravagant, inconsiderate, uncivilized male, outraged somehow and gone bellowing to his lair with a roar which still sometimes reverberates in the most polished of drawing-rooms. Then Katharine, looking at the shut door, looked down again, to hide her tears.
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