FOR two or three hours longer the moon poured its light through the empty air. Unbroken by clouds it fell straightly, and lay almost like a chill white frost over the sea and the earth. During these hours the silence was not broken, and the only movement was caused by the movement of trees and branches which stirred slightly, and then the shadows that lay across the white spaces of the land moved too. In this profound silence one sound only was audible, the sound of a slight but continuous breathing which never ceased, although it never rose and never fell. It continued after the birds had begun to flutter from branch to branch, and could be heard behind the first thin notes of their voices. It continued all through the hours when the east whitened, and grew red, and a faint blue tinged the sky, but when the sun rose it ceased, and gave place to other sounds.
The first sounds that were heard were little inarticulate cries, the cries, it seemed, of children or of the very poor, of people who were very weak or in pain. But when the sun was above the horizon, the air which had been thin and pale grew every moment richer and warmer, and the sounds of life became bolder and more full of courage and authority. By degrees the smoke began to ascend in wavering breaths over the houses, and these slowly thickened, until they were as round and straight as columns, and instead of striking upon pale white blinds, the sun shone upon dark windows, beyond which there was depth and space.
The sun had been up for many hours, and the great dome of air was warmed through and glittering with thin gold threads of sunlight, before any one moved in the hotel. White and massive it stood in the early light, half asleep with its blinds down.
At about half-past nine Miss Allan came very slowly into the hall, and walked very slowly to the table where the morning papers were laid, but she did not put out her hand to take one; she stood still, thinking, with her head a little sunk upon her shoulders. She looked curiously old, and from the way in which she stood, a little hunched together and very massive, you could see what she would be like when she was really old, how she would sit day after day in her chair looking placidly in front of her. Other people began to come into the room, and to pass her, but she did not speak to any of them or even look at them, and as last, as if it were necessary to do something, she sat down in a chair, and looked quietly and fixedly in front of her. She felt very old this morning, and useless too, as if her life had been a failure, as if it had been hard and laborious to no purpose. She did not want to go on living, and yet she knew that she would. She was so strong that she would live to be a very old woman. She would probably live to be eighty, and as she was now fifty, that left thirty years more for her to live. She turned her hands over and over in her lap and looked at them curiously; her old hands, that had done so much work for her. There did not seem to be much point in it all; one went on, of course one went on…. She looked up to see Mrs. Thornbury standing beside her, with lines drawn upon her forehead, and her lips parted as if she were about to ask a question.
Miss Allan anticipated her.
"Yes," she said. "She died this morning, very early, about three o'clock."
Mrs. Thornbury made a little exclamation, drew her lips together, and the tears rose in her eyes. Through them she looked at the hall which was now laid with great breadths of sunlight, and at the careless, casual groups of people who were standing beside the solid arm-chairs and tables. They looked to her unreal, or as people look who remain unconscious that some great explosion is about to take place beside them. But there was no explosion, and they went on standing by the chairs and the tables. Mrs. Thornbury no longer saw them, but, penetrating through them as though they were without substance, she saw the house, the people in the house, the room, the bed in the room, and the figure of the dead lying still in the dark beneath the sheets. She could almost see the dead. She could almost hear the voices of the mourners.
"They expected it?" she asked at length.
Miss Allan could only shake her head.
"I know nothing," she replied, "except what Mrs. Flushing's maid told me. She died early this morning."
The two women looked at each other with a quiet significant gaze, and then, feeling oddly dazed, and seeking she did not know exactly what, Mrs. Thornbury went slowly upstairs and walked quietly along the passages, touching the wall with her fingers as if to guide herself. Housemaids were passing briskly from room to room, but Mrs. Thornbury avoided them; she hardly saw them; they seemed to her to be in another world. She did not even look up directly when Evelyn stopped her. It was evident that Evelyn had been lately in tears, and when she looked at Mrs. Thornbury she began to cry again. Together they drew into the hollow of a window, and stood there in silence. Broken words formed themselves at last among Evelyn's sobs. "It was wicked," she sobbed, "it was cruel—they were so happy."
Mrs. Thornbury patted her on the shoulder.
"It seems hard—very hard," she said. She paused and looked out over the slope of the hill at the Ambroses' villa; the windows were blazing in the sun, and she thought how the soul of the dead had passed from those windows. Something had passed from the world. It seemed to her strangely empty.
"And yet the older one grows," she continued, her eyes re- gaining more than their usual brightness, "the more certain one becomes that there is a reason. How could one go on if there were no reason?" she asked.
She asked the question of some one, but she did not ask it of Evelyn. Evelyn's sobs were becoming quieter. "There must be a reason," she said. "It can't only be an accident. For it was an accident—it need never have happened."
Mrs. Thornbury sighed deeply.
"But we must not let ourselves think of that," she added, "and let us hope that they don't either. Whatever they had done it might have been the same. These terrible illnesses——"
"There's no reason—I don't believe there's any reason at all!" Evelyn broke out, pulling the blind down and letting it fly back with a little snap.
"Why should these things happen? Why should people suffer? I honestly believe," she went on, lowering her voice slightly, "that Rachel's in Heaven, but Terence…."
"What's the good of it all?" she demanded.
Mrs. Thornbury shook her head slightly but made no reply, and pressing Evelyn's hand she went on down the passage. Impelled by a strong desire to hear something, although she did not know exactly what there was to hear, she was making her way to the Flushings' room. As she opened their door she felt that she had interrupted some argument between husband and wife. Mrs. Flushing was sitting with her back to the light, and Mr. Flushing was standing near her, arguing and trying to persuade her of something.
"Ah, here is Mrs. Thornbury," he began with some relief in his voice. "You have heard, of course. My wife feels that she was in some way responsible. She urged poor Miss Vinrace to come on the expedition. I'm sure you will agree with me that it is most unreasonable to feel that. We don't even know—in fact I think it most unlikely—that she caught her illness there. These diseases— Besides, she was set on going. She would have gone whether you asked her or not, Alice."
"Don't, Wilfrid," said Mrs. Flushing, neither moving nor taking her eyes off the spot on the floor upon which they rested. "What's the use of talking? What's the use?" She ceased.
"I was coming to ask you," said Mrs. Thornbury, addressing Wilfrid, for it was useless to speak to his wife. "Is there anything you think that one could do? Has the father arrived? Could one go and see?"
The strongest wish in her being at this moment was to be able to do something for the unhappy people—to see them—to assure them—to help them. It was dreadful to be so far away from them. But Mr. Flushing shook his head; he did not think that now—later perhaps one might be able to help. Here Mrs. Flushing rose stiffly, turned her back to them, and walked to the dressing-room opposite. As she walked, they could see her breast slowly rise and slowly fall. But her grief was silent. She shut the door behind her.
When she was alone by herself she clenched her fists together, and began beating the back of a chair with them. She was like a wounded animal. She hated death; she was furious, outraged, indignant with death, as if it were a living creature. She refused to relinquish her friends to death. She would not submit to dark and nothingness. She began to pace up and down, clenching her hands, and making no attempt to stop the quick tears which raced down her cheeks. She sat still at last, but she did not submit. She looked stubborn and strong when she had ceased to cry.
In the next room, meanwhile, Wilfrid was talking to Mrs. Thornbury with greater freedom now that his wife was not sitting there.
"That's the worst of these places," he said. "People will behave as though they were in England, and they're not. I've no doubt myself that Miss Vinrace caught the infection up at the villa itself. She probably ran risks a dozen times a day that might have given her the illness. It's absurd to say she caught it with us."
If he had not been sincerely sorry for them he would have been annoyed. "Pepper tells me," he continued, "that he left the house because he thought them so careless. He says they never washed their vegetables properly. Poor people! It's a fearful price to pay. But it's only what I've seen over and over again—people seem to forget that these things happen, and then they do happen, and they're surprised."
Mrs. Thornbury agreed with him that they had been very careless, and that there was no reason whatever to think that she had caught the fever on the expedition; and after talking about other things for a short time, she left him and went sadly along the passage to her own room. There must be some reason why such things happen, she thought to herself, as she shut the door. Only at first it was not easy to understand what it was. It seemed so strange—so unbelievable. Why, only three weeks ago—only a fortnight ago, she had seen Rachel; when she shut her eyes she could almost see her now, the quiet, shy girl who was going to be married. She thought of all that she would have missed had she died at Rachel's age, the children, the married life, the unimaginable depths and miracles that seemed to her, as she looked back, to have lain about her, day after day, and year after year. The stunned feeling, which had been making it difficult for her to think, gradually gave way to a feeling of the opposite nature; she thought very quickly and very clearly, and, looking back over all her experiences, tried to fit them into a kind of order. There was undoubtedly much suffering, much struggling, but, on the whole, surely there was a balance of happiness—surely order did prevail. Nor were the deaths of young people really the saddest things in life—they were saved so much; they kept so much. The dead—she called to mind those who had died early, accidentally—were beautiful; she often dreamt of the dead. And in time Terence himself would come to feel—— She got up and began to wander restlessly about the room.
For an old woman of her age she was very restless, and for one of her clear, quick mind she was unusually perplexed. She could not settle to anything, so that she was relieved when the door opened. She went up to her husband, took him in her arms, and kissed him with unusual intensity, and then as they sat down together she began to pat him and question him as if he were a baby, an old, tired, querulous baby. She did not tell him about Miss Vinrace's death, for that would only disturb him, and he was put out already. She tried to discover why he was uneasy. Politics again? What were those horrid people doing? She spent the whole morning in discussing politics with her husband, and by degrees she became deeply interested in what they were saying. But every now and then what she was saying seemed to her oddly empty of meaning.
At luncheon it was remarked by several people that the visitors at the hotel were beginning to leave; there were fewer every day. There were only forty people at luncheon, instead of the sixty that there had been. So old Mrs. Paley computed, gazing about her with her faded eyes, as she took her seat at her own table in the window. Her party generally consisted of Mr. Perrott as well as Arthur and Susan, and to-day Evelyn was lunching with them also.
She was unusually subdued. Having noticed that her eyes were red, and guessing the reason, the others took pains to keep up an elaborate conversation between themselves. She suffered it to go on for a few minutes, leaning both elbows on the table, and leaving her soup untouched, when she exclaimed suddenly, "I don't know how you feel, but I can simply think of nothing else!"
The gentlemen murmured sympathetically, and looked grave. Susan replied, "Yes—isn't it perfectly awful? When you think what a nice girl she was—only just engaged, and this need never have happened—it seems too tragic." She looked at Arthur as though he might be able to help her with something more suitable.
"Hard lines," said Arthur briefly. "But it was a foolish thing to do—to go up that river." He shook his head. "They should have known better. You can't expect Englishwomen to stand roughing it as the natives do who've been acclimatised. I'd half a mind to warn them at tea that day when it was being discussed. But it's no good saying these sort of things—it only puts people's backs up—it never makes any difference."
Old Mrs. Paley, hitherto contented with her soup, here intimated, by raising one hand to her ear, that she wished to know what was being said.
"You heard, Aunt Emma, that poor Miss Vinrace has died of the fever," Susan informed her gently. She could not speak of death loudly or even in her usual voice, so that Mrs. Paley did not catch a word. Arthur came to the rescue.
"Miss Vinrace is dead," he said very distinctly.
Mrs. Paley merely bent a little towards him and asked, Eh?"
"Miss Vinrace is dead," he repeated. It was only by stiffening all the muscles round his mouth that he could prevent himself from bursting into laughter, and force himself to repeat for the third time, "Miss Vinrace…. She's dead."
Let alone the difficulty of hearing the exact words, facts that were outside her daily experience took some time to reach Mrs. Paley's consciousness. A weight seemed to rest upon her brain, impeding, though not damaging, its action. She sat vague-eyed for at least a minute before she realised what Arthur meant.
"Dead?" she said vaguely. "Miss Vinrace dead? Dear me…that's very sad. But I don't at the moment remember which she was. We seem to have made so many new acquaintances here." She looked at Susan for help. "A tall dark girl, who just missed being handsome, with a high colour?"
"No," Susan interposed. "She was——" then she gave it up in despair. There was no use in explaining that Mrs. Paley was thinking of the wrong person. "She ought not to have died," Mrs. Paley continued.
"She looked so strong. But people will drink the water. I can never make out why. It seems such a simple thing to tell them to put a bottle of Seltzer water in your bedroom. That's all the precaution I've ever taken, and I've been in every part of the world, I may say—Italy a dozen times over…. But young people always think they know better, and then they pay the penalty. Poor thing—I am very sorry for her." But the difficulty of peering into a dish of potatoes and helping herself engrossed her attention.
Arthur and Susan both secretly hoped that the subject was now disposed of, for there seemed to them something unpleasant in this discussion. But Evelyn was not ready to let it drop. Why would people never talk about the things that mattered?
"I don't believe you care a bit!" she said, turning savagely upon Mr. Perrott, who had sat all this time in silence.
"I? Oh, yes, I do," he answered awkwardly, but with obvious sincerity. Evelyn's questions made him too feel uncomfortable.
"It seems so inexplicable," Evelyn continued. "Death, I mean. Why should she be dead, and not you or I? It was only a fortnight ago that she was here with the rest of us. What d'you believe?" she demanded of Mr. Perrott. "D'you believe that things go on, that she's still somewhere—or d'you think it's simply a game—we crumble up to nothing when we die? I'm positive Rachel's not dead."
Mr. Perrott would have said almost anything that Evelyn wanted him to say, but to assert that he believed in the immortality of the soul was not in his power. He sat silent, more deeply wrinkled than usual, crumbling his bread.
Lest Evelyn should next ask him what he believed, Arthur, after making a pause equivalent to a full stop, started a completely different topic. "Supposing," he said, "a man were to write and tell you that he wanted five pounds because he had known your grandfather, what would you do? It was this way. My grandfather——"
"Invented a stove," said Evelyn. "I know all about that. We had one in the conservatory to keep the plants warm."
"Didn't know I was so famous," said Arthur. "Well," he continued, determined at all costs to spin his story out at length, "the old chap, being about the second best inventor of his day, and a capable lawyer too, died, as they always do, without making a will. Now Fielding, his clerk, with how much justice I don't know, always claimed that he meant to do something for him. The poor old boy's come down in the world through trying inventions on his own account, lives in Penge over a tobacconist's shop. I've been to see him there. The question is—must I stump up or not? What does the abstract spirit of justice required, Perrott? Remember, I didn't benefit under my grandfather's will, and I've no way of testing the truth of the story."
"I don't know much about the abstract spirit of justice," said Susan, smiling complacently at the others, "but I'm certain of one thing—he'll get his five pounds!"
As Mr. Perrott proceeded to deliver an opinion, and Evelyn insisted that he was much too stingy, like all lawyers, thinking of the letter and not of the spirit, while Mrs. Paley required to be kept informed between the courses as to what they were all saying, the luncheon passed with no interval of silence, and Arthur congratulated himself upon the tact with which the discussion had been smoothed over.
As they left the room it happened that Mrs. Paley's wheeled chair ran into the Elliots, who were coming through the door, as she was going out. Brought thus to a standstill for a moment, Arthur and Susan congratulated Hughling Elliot upon his ,—he was down, cadaverous enough, for the first time,—and Mr. Perrott took occasion to say a few words in private to Evelyn.
"Would there be any chance of seeing you this afternoon, about three-thirty say? I shall be in the garden, by the fountain."
The block dissolved before Evelyn answered. But as she left them in the hall, she looked at him brightly and said, "Half-past three, did you say? That'll suit me."
She ran upstairs with the feeling of spiritual exaltation and quickened life which the prospect of an emotional scene always aroused in her. That Mr. Perrott was again about to propose to her, she had no doubt, and she was aware that on this occasion she ought to be prepared with a definite answer, for she was going away in three days' time. But she could not bring her mind to bear upon the question. To come to a decision was very difficult to her, because she had a natural dislike of anything final and done with; she liked to go on and on—always on and on. She was leaving, and, therefore, she occupied herself in laying her clothes out side by side upon the bed. She observed that some were very shabby. She took the photograph of her father and mother, and, before she laid it away in her box, she held it for a minute in her hand. Rachel had looked at it. Suddenly the keen feeling of some one's personality, which things that they have owned or handled sometimes preserves, overcame her; she felt Rachel in the room with her; it was as if she were on a ship at sea, and the life of the day was as unreal as the land in the distance. But by degrees the feeling of Rachel's presence passed away, and she could no longer realise her. for she had scarcely known her. But this momentary sensation left her depressed and fatigued. What had she done with her life? What future was there before her? What was make-believe, and what was real? Were these proposals and intimacies and adventures real, or was the contentment which she had seen on the faces of Susan and Rachel more real than anything she had ever felt?
She made herself ready to go downstairs, absent-mindedly, but her fingers were so well trained that they did the work of preparing her almost of their own accord. When she was actually on the way downstairs, the blood began to circle through her body of its own accord too, for her mind felt very dull.
Mr. Perrott was waiting for her. Indeed, he had gone straight into the garden after luncheon, and had been walking up and down the path for more than half an hour, in a state of acute suspense.
"I'm late as usual!" she exclaimed, as she caught sight of him. "Well, you must forgive me; I had to pack up…. My word! It looks stormy! And that's a new steamer in the bay, isn't it?"
She looked at the bay, in which a steamer was just dropping anchor, the smoke still hanging about it, while a swift black shudder ran through the waves. "One's quite forgotten what rain looks like," she added.
But Mr. Perrott paid no attention to the steamer or to the weather.
"Miss Murgatroyd," he began with his usual formality, "I asked you to come here from a very selfish motive, I fear. I do not think you need to be assured once more of my feelings; but, as you are leaving so soon, I felt that I could not let you go without asking you to tell me—have I any reason to hope that you will ever come to care for me?"
He was very pale, and seemed unable to say any more.
The little gush of vitality which had come into Evelyn as she ran downstairs had left her, and she felt herself impotent. There was nothing for her to say; she felt nothing. Now that he was actually asking her, in his elderly gentle words, to marry him, she felt less for him than she had ever felt before.
"Let's sit down and talk it over," she said rather unsteadily.
Mr. Perrott followed her to a curved green seat under a tree. They looked at the fountain in front of them, which had long ceased to play. Evelyn kept looking at the fountain instead of thinking of what she was saying; the fountain without any water seemed to be the type of her own being.
"Of course I care for you," she began, rushing her words out in a hurry; "I should be a brute if I didn't. I think you're quite one of the nicest people I've ever known, and one of the finest too. But I wish…I wish you didn't care for me in that way. Are you sure you do?" For the moment she honestly desired that he should say no.
"Quite sure," said Mr. Perrott.
"You see, I'm not as simple as most women," Evelyn continued. "I think I want more. I don't know exactly what I feel."
He sat by her, watching her and refraining from speech.
"I sometimes think I haven't got it in me to care very much for one person only. Some one else would make you a better wife. I can imagine you very happy with some one else."
"If you think that there is any chance that you will come to care for me, I am quite content to wait," said Mr. Perrott.
"Well—there's no hurry, is there?" said Evelyn. "Suppose I thought it over and wrote and told you when I get back? I'm going to Moscow; I'll write from Moscow."
But Mr. Perrott persisted.
"You cannot give me any kind of idea. I do not ask for a date…that would be most unreasonable." He paused, looking down at the gravel path.
As she did not immediately answer, he went on.
"I know very well that I am not—that I have not much to offer you either in myself or in my circumstances. And I forget; it cannot seem the miracle to you that it does to me. Until I met you I had gone on in my own quiet way—we are both very quiet people, my sister and I—quite content with my lot. My friendship with Arthur was the most important thing in my life. Now that I know you, all that has changed. You seem to put such a spirit into everything. Life seems to hold so many possibilities that I had never dreamt of."
"That's splendid!" Evelyn exclaimed, grasping his hand. "Now you'll go back and start all kinds of things and make a great name in the world; and we'll go on being friends, whatever happens…we'll be great friends, won't we?"
"Evelyn!" he moaned suddenly, and took her in his arms, and kissed her. She did not resent it, although it made little impression on her.
As she sat upright again, she said, "I never see why one shouldn't go on being friends—though some people do. And friendships do make a difference, don't they? They are the kind of things that matter in one's life?"
He looked at her with a bewildered expression as if he did not really understand what she was saying. With a considerable effort he collected himself, stood up, and said, "Now I think I have told you what I feel, and I will only add that I can wait as long as ever you wish."
Left alone, Evelyn walked up and down the path. What did matter then? What was the meaning of it all?