CHAPTER SEVEN--ON THE PAVEMENT (Page 2)
"Oh!" I retorted airily. "That little dog. He isn't really a bad little dog." But she lowered her eyelids and went on:
"I was so miserable that I could think only of myself. This was mean. It was cruel too. And besides I had NOT given it up--not then."
Marlow changed his tone.
"I don't know much of the psychology of self-destruction. It's a sort of subject one has few opportunities to study closely. I knew a man once who came to my rooms one evening, and while smoking a cigar confessed to me moodily that he was trying to discover some graceful way of retiring out of existence. I didn't study his case, but I had a glimpse of him the other day at a cricket match, with some women, having a good time. That seems a fairly reasonable attitude. Considered as a sin, it is a case for repentance before the throne of a merciful God. But I imagine that Flora de Barral's religion under the care of the distinguished governess could have been nothing but outward formality. Remorse in the sense of gnawing shame and unavailing regret is only understandable to me when some wrong had been done to a fellow-creature. But why she, that girl who existed on sufferance, so to speak--why she should writhe inwardly with remorse because she had once thought of getting rid of a life which was nothing in every respect but a curse--that I could not understand. I thought it was very likely some obscure influence of common forms of speech, some traditional or inherited feeling--a vague notion that suicide is a legal crime; words of old moralists and preachers which remain in the air and help to form all the authorized moral conventions. Yes, I was surprised at her remorse. But lowering her glance unexpectedly till her dark eye-lashes seemed to rest against her white cheeks she presented a perfectly demure aspect. It was so attractive that I could not help a faint smile. That Flora de Barral should ever, in any aspect, have the power to evoke a smile was the very last thing I should have believed. She went on after a slight hesitation:
"One day I started for there, for that place."
Look at the influence of a mere play of physiognomy! If you remember what we were talking about you will hardly believe that I caught myself grinning down at that demure little girl. I must say too that I felt more friendly to her at the moment than ever before.
"Oh, you did? To take that jump? You are a determined young person. Well, what happened that time?"
An almost imperceptible alteration in her bearing; a slight droop of her head perhaps--a mere nothing--made her look more demure than ever.
"I had left the cottage," she began a little hurriedly. "I was walking along the road--you know, THE road. I had made up my mind I was not coming back this time."
I won't deny that these words spoken from under the brim of her hat(oh yes, certainly, her head was down--she had put it down) gave me a thrill; for indeed I had never doubted her sincerity. It could never have been a make-believe despair.
"Yes," I whispered. "You were going along the road."
"When . . . " Again she hesitated with an effect of innocent shyness worlds asunder from tragic issues; then glided on . . . "When suddenly Captain Anthony came through a gate out of a field."
I coughed down the beginning of a most improper fit of laughter, and felt ashamed of myself. Her eyes raised for a moment seemed full of innocent suffering and unexpressed menace in the depths of the dilated pupils within the rings of sombre blue. It was--how shall I say it?--a night effect when you seem to see vague shapes and don't know what reality you may come upon at any time. Then she lowered her eyelids again, shutting all mysteriousness out of the situation except for the sobering memory of that glance, nightlike in the sunshine, expressively still in the brutal unrest of the street.
"So Captain Anthony joined you--did he?"
"He opened a field-gate and walked out on the road. He crossed to my side and went on with me. He had his pipe in his hand. He said:
'Are you going far this morning?'"
These words (I was watching her white face as she spoke) gave me a slight shudder. She remained demure, almost prim. And I remarked:
"You have been talking together before, of course."
"Not more than twenty words altogether since he arrived," she declared without emphasis. "That day he had said 'Good morning' to me when we met at breakfast two hours before. And I said good morning to him. I did not see him afterwards till he came out on the road."
I thought to myself that this was not accidental. He had been observing her. I felt certain also that he had not been asking any questions of Mrs. Fyne.
"I wouldn't look at him," said Flora de Barral. "I had done with looking at people. He said to me: 'My sister does not put herself out much for us. We had better keep each other company. I have read every book there is in that cottage.' I walked on. He did not leave me. I thought he ought to. But he didn't. He didn't seem to notice that I would not talk to him."
She was now perfectly still. The wretched little parasol hung down against her dress from her joined hands. I was rigid with attention. It isn't every day that one culls such a volunteered tale on a girl's lips. The ugly street-noises swelling up for a moment covered the next few words she said. It was vexing. The next word I heard was "worried."
"It worried you to have him there, walking by your side."
"Yes. Just that," she went on with downcast eyes. There was something prettily comical in her attitude and her tone, while I pictured to myself a poor white-faced girl walking to her death with an unconscious man striding by her side. Unconscious? I don't know. First of all, I felt certain that this was no chance meeting. Something had happened before. Was he a man for a coup-de-foudre, the lightning stroke of love? I don't think so. That sort of susceptibility is luckily rare. A world of inflammable lovers of the Romeo and Juliet type would very soon end in barbarism and misery. But it is a fact that in every man (not in every woman) there lives a lover; a lover who is called out in all his potentialities often by the most insignificant little things--as long as they come at the psychological moment: the glimpse of a face at an unusual angle, an evanescent attitude, the curve of a cheek often looked at before, perhaps, but then, at the moment, charged with astonishing significance. These are great mysteries, of course. Magic signs.
I don't know in what the sign consisted in this case. It might have been her pallor (it wasn't pasty nor yet papery) that white face with eyes like blue gleams of fire and lips like red coals. In certain lights, in certain poises of head it suggested tragic sorrow. Or it might have been her wavy hair. Or even just that pointed chin stuck out a little, resentful and not particularly distinguished, doing away with the mysterious aloofness of her fragile presence. But any way at a given moment Anthony must have suddenly SEEN the girl. And then, that something had happened to him. Perhaps nothing more than the thought coming into his head that this was "a possible woman."
Followed this waylaying! Its resolute character makes me think it was the chin's doing; that "common mortal" touch which stands in such good stead to some women. Because men, I mean really masculine men, those whose generations have evolved an ideal woman, are often very timid. Who wouldn't be before the ideal? It's your sentimental trifler, who has just missed being nothing at all, who is enterprising, simply because it is easy to appear enterprising when one does not mean to put one's belief to the test.
Well, whatever it was that encouraged him, Captain Anthony stuck to Flora de Barral in a manner which in a timid man might have been called heroic if it had not been so simple. Whether policy, diplomacy, simplicity, or just inspiration, he kept up his talk, rather deliberate, with very few pauses. Then suddenly as if recollecting himself:
"It's funny. I don't think you are annoyed with me for giving you my company unasked. But why don't you say something?"
I asked Miss de Barral what answer she made to this query.
"I made no answer," she said in that even, unemotional low voice which seemed to be her voice for delicate confidences. "I walked on. He did not seem to mind. We came to the foot of the quarry where the road winds up hill, past the place where you were sitting by the roadside that day. I began to wonder what I should do. After we reached the top Captain Anthony said that he had not been for a walk with a lady for years and years--almost since he was a boy. We had then come to where I ought to have turned off and struck across a field. I thought of making a run of it. But he would have caught me up. I knew he would; and, of course, he would not have allowed me. I couldn't give him the slip."
"Why didn't you ask him to leave you?" I inquired curiously.
"He would not have taken any notice," she went on steadily. "And what could I have done then? I could not have started quarrelling with him--could I? I hadn't enough energy to get angry. I felt very tired suddenly. I just stumbled on straight along the road. Captain Anthony told me that the family--some relations of his mother--he used to know in Liverpool was broken up now, and he had never made any friends since. All gone their different ways. All the girls married. Nice girls they were and very friendly to him when he was but little more than a boy. He repeated: 'Very nice, cheery, clever girls.' I sat down on a bank against a hedge and began to cry."
"You must have astonished him not a little," I observed.
Anthony, it seems, remained on the road looking down at her. He did not offer to approach her, neither did he make any other movement or gesture. Flora de Barral told me all this. She could see him through her tears, blurred to a mere shadow on the white road, and then again becoming more distinct, but always absolutely still and as if lost in thought before a strange phenomenon which demanded the closest possible attention.
Flora learned later that he had never seen a woman cry; not in that way, at least. He was impressed and interested by the mysteriousness of the effect. She was very conscious of being looked at, but was not able to stop herself crying. In fact, she was not capable of any effort. Suddenly he advanced two steps, stooped, caught hold of her hands lying on her lap and pulled her up to her feet; she found herself standing close to him almost before she realized what he had done. Some people were coming briskly along the road and Captain Anthony muttered: "You don't want to be stared at. What about that stile over there? Can we go back across the fields?"
She snatched her hands out of his grasp (it seems he had omitted to let them go), marched away from him and got over the stile. It was a big field sprinkled profusely with white sheep. A trodden path crossed it diagonally. After she had gone more than half way she turned her head for the first time. Keeping five feet or so behind, Captain Anthony was following her with an air of extreme interest. Interest or eagerness. At any rate she caught an expression on his face which frightened her. But not enough to make her run. And indeed it would have had to be something incredibly awful to scare into a run a girl who had come to the end of her courage to live.
As if encouraged by this glance over the shoulder Captain Anthony came up boldly, and now that he was by her side, she felt his nearness intimately, like a touch. She tried to disregard this sensation. But she was not angry with him now. It wasn't worth while. She was thankful that he had the sense not to ask questions as to this crying. Of course he didn't ask because he didn't care. No one in the world cared for her, neither those who pretended nor yet those who did not pretend. She preferred the latter.
Captain Anthony opened for her a gate into another field; when they got through he kept walking abreast, elbow to elbow almost. His voice growled pleasantly in her very ear. Staying in this dull place was enough to give anyone the blues. His sister scribbled all day. It was positively unkind. He alluded to his nieces as rude, selfish monkeys, without either feelings or manners. And he went on to talk about his ship being laid up for a month and dismantled for repairs. The worst was that on arriving in London he found he couldn't get the rooms he was used to, where they made him as comfortable as such a confirmed sea-dog as himself could be anywhere on shore.
In the effort to subdue by dint of talking and to keep in check the mysterious, the profound attraction he felt already for that delicate being of flesh and blood, with pale cheeks, with darkened eyelids and eyes scalded with hot tears, he went on speaking of himself as a confirmed enemy of life on shore--a perfect terror to a simple man, what with the fads and proprieties and the ceremonies and affectations. He hated all that. He wasn't fit for it. There was no rest and peace and security but on the sea.
This gave one a view of Captain Anthony as a hermit withdrawn from a wicked world. It was amusingly unexpected to me and nothing more. But it must have appealed straight to that bruised and battered young soul. Still shrinking from his nearness she had ended by listening to him with avidity. His deep murmuring voice soothed her. And she thought suddenly that there was peace and rest in the grave too.
She heard him say: "Look at my sister. She isn't a bad woman by any means. She asks me here because it's right and proper, I suppose, but she has no use for me. There you have your shore people. I quite understand anybody crying. I would have been gone already, only, truth to say, I haven't any friends to go to." He added brusquely: "And you?"
She made a slight negative sign. He must have been observing her, putting two and two together. After a pause he said simply: "When I first came here I thought you were governess to these girls. My sister didn't say a word about you to me."
Then Flora spoke for the first time.
"Mrs. Fyne is my best friend."
"So she is mine," he said without the slightest irony or bitterness, but added with conviction: "That shows you what life ashore is. Much better be out of it."
As they were approaching the cottage he was heard again as though a long silent walk had not intervened: "But anyhow I shan't ask her anything about you."
He stopped short and she went on alone. His last words had impressed her. Everything he had said seemed somehow to have a special meaning under its obvious conversational sense. Till she went in at the door of the cottage she felt his eyes resting on her.
That is it. He had made himself felt. That girl was, one may say, washing about with slack limbs in the ugly surf of life with no opportunity to strike out for herself, when suddenly she had been made to feel that there was somebody beside her in the bitter water. A most considerable moral event for her; whether she was aware of it or not. They met again at the one o'clock dinner. I am inclined to think that, being a healthy girl under her frail appearance, and fast walking and what I may call relief-crying (there are many kinds of crying) making one hungry, she made a good meal. It was Captain Anthony who had no appetite. His sister commented on it in a curt, business-like manner, and the eldest of his delightful nieces said mockingly: "You have been taking too much exercise this morning, Uncle Roderick." The mild Uncle Roderick turned upon her with a "What do you know about it, young lady?" so charged with suppressed savagery that the whole round table gave one gasp and went dumb for the rest of the meal. He took no notice whatever of Flora de Barral. I don't think it was from prudence or any calculated motive. I believe he was so full of her aspects that he did not want to look in her direction when there were other people to hamper his imagination.
You understand I am piecing here bits of disconnected statements. Next day Flora saw him leaning over the field-gate. When she told me this, I didn't of course ask her how it was she was there. Probably she could not have told me how it was she was there. The difficulty here is to keep steadily in view the then conditions of her existence, a combination of dreariness and horror.
That hermit-like but not exactly misanthropic sailor was leaning over the gate moodily. When he saw the white-faced restless Flora drifting like a lost thing along the road he put his pipe in his pocket and called out "Good morning, Miss Smith" in a tone of amazing happiness. She, with one foot in life and the other in a nightmare, was at the same time inert and unstable, and very much at the mercy of sudden impulses. She swerved, came distractedly right up to the gate and looking straight into his eyes: "I am not Miss Smith. That's not my name. Don't call me by it."
She was shaking as if in a passion. His eyes expressed nothing; he only unlatched the gate in silence, grasped her arm and drew her in. Then closing it with a kick -
"Not your name? That's all one to me. Your name's the least thing about you I care for." He was leading her firmly away from the gate though she resisted slightly. There was a sort of joy in his eyes which frightened her. "You are not a princess in disguise," he said with an unexpected laugh she found blood-curdling. "And that's all I care for. You had better understand that I am not blind and not a fool. And then it's plain for even a fool to see that things have been going hard with you. You are on a lee shore and eating your heart out with worry."
What seemed most awful to her was the elated light in his eyes, the rapacious smile that would come and go on his lips as if he were gloating over her misery. But her misery was his opportunity and he rejoiced while the tenderest pity seemed to flood his whole being. He pointed out to her that she knew who he was. He was Mrs. Fyne's brother. And, well, if his sister was the best friend she had in the world, then, by Jove, it was about time somebody came along to look after her a little.
Flora had tried more than once to free herself, but he tightened his grasp of her arm each time and even shook it a little without ceasing to speak. The nearness of his face intimidated her. He seemed striving to look her through. It was obvious the world had been using her ill. And even as he spoke with indignation the very marks and stamp of this ill-usage of which he was so certain seemed to add to the inexplicable attraction he felt for her person. It was not pity alone, I take it. It was something more spontaneous, perverse and exciting. It gave him the feeling that if only he could get hold of her, no woman would belong to him so completely as this woman.
"Whatever your troubles," he said, "I am the man to take you away from them; that is, if you are not afraid. You told me you had no friends. Neither have I. Nobody ever cared for me as far as I can remember. Perhaps you could. Yes, I live on the sea. But who would you be parting from? No one. You have no one belonging to you."
At this point she broke away from him and ran. He did not pursue her. The tall hedges tossing in the wind, the wide fields, the clouds driving over the sky and the sky itself wheeled about her in masses of green and white and blue as if the world were breaking up silently in a whirl, and her foot at the next step were bound to find the void. She reached the gate all right, got out, and, once on the road, discovered that she had not the courage to look back. The rest of that day she spent with the Fyne girls who gave her to understand that she was a slow and unprofitable person. Long after tea, nearly at dusk, Captain Anthony (the son of the poet) appeared suddenly before her in the little garden in front of the cottage. They were alone for the moment. The wind had dropped. In the calm evening air the voices of Mrs. Fyne and the girls strolling aimlessly on the road could be heard. He said to her severely:
"You have understood?"
She looked at him in silence.
"That I love you," he finished.
She shook her head the least bit.
"Don't you believe me?" he asked in a low, infuriated voice.
"Nobody would love me," she answered in a very quiet tone. "Nobody could."
He was dumb for a time, astonished beyond measure, as he well might have been. He doubted his ears. He was outraged.
"Eh? What? Can't love you? What do you know about it? It's my affair, isn't it? You dare say THAT to a man who has just told you! You must be mad!"
"Very nearly," she said with the accent of pent-up sincerity, and even relieved because she was able to say something which she felt was true. For the last few days she had felt herself several times near that madness which is but an intolerable lucidity of apprehension.
The clear voices of Mrs. Fyne and the girls were coming nearer, sounding affected in the peace of the passion-laden earth. He began storming at her hastily.
"Nonsense! Nobody can . . . Indeed! Pah! You'll have to be shown that somebody can. I can. Nobody . . . " He made a contemptuous hissing noise. "More likely YOU can't. They have done something to you. Something's crushed your pluck. You can't face a man--that's what it is. What made you like this? Where do you come from? You have been put upon. The scoundrels--whoever they are, men or women, seem to have robbed you of your very name. You say you are not Miss Smith. Who are you, then?"
She did not answer. He muttered, "Not that I care," and fell silent, because the fatuous self-confident chatter of the Fyne girls could be heard at the very gate. But they were not going to bed yet. They passed on. He waited a little in silence and immobility, then stamped his foot and lost control of himself. He growled at her in a savage passion. She felt certain that he was threatening her and calling her names. She was no stranger to abuse, as we know, but there seemed to be a particular kind of ferocity in this which was new to her. She began to tremble. The especially terrifying thing was that she could not make out the nature of these awful menaces and names. Not a word. Yet it was not the shrinking anguish of her other experiences of angry scenes. She made a mighty effort, though her knees were knocking together, and in an expiring voice demanded that he should let her go indoors. "Don't stop me. It's no use. It's no use," she repeated faintly, feeling an invincible obstinacy rising within her, yet without anger against that raging man.
He became articulate suddenly, and, without raising his voice, perfectly audible.
"No use! No use! You dare stand here and tell me that--you white- faced wisp, you wreath of mist, you little ghost of all the sorrow in the world. You dare! Haven't I been looking at you? You are all eyes. What makes your cheeks always so white as if you had seen something . . . Don't speak. I love it . . . No use! And you really think that I can now go to sea for a year or more, to the other side of the world somewhere, leaving you behind. Why! You would vanish . . . what little there is of you. Some rough wind will blow you away altogether. You have no holding ground on earth. Well, then trust yourself to me--to the sea--which is deep like your eyes."
She said: "Impossible." He kept quiet for a while, then asked in a totally changed tone, a tone of gloomy curiosity:
"You can't stand me then ? Is that it?"
"No," she said, more steady herself. "I am not thinking of you at all."
The inane voices of the Fyne girls were heard over the sombre fields calling to each other, thin and clear. He muttered: "You could try to. Unless you are thinking of somebody else."
"Yes. I am thinking of somebody else, of someone who has nobody to think of him but me."
His shadowy form stepped out of her way, and suddenly leaned sideways against the wooden support of the porch. And as she stood still, surprised by this staggering movement, his voice spoke up in a tone quite strange to her.
"Go in then. Go out of my sight--I thought you said nobody could love you."
She was passing him when suddenly he struck her as so forlorn that she was inspired to say: "No one has ever loved me--not in that way--if that's what you mean. Nobody would."
He detached himself brusquely from the post, and she did not shrink; but Mrs. Fyne and the girls were already at the gate.
All he understood was that everything was not over yet. There was no time to lose; Mrs. Fyne and the girls had come in at the gate. He whispered "Wait" with such authority (he was the son of Carleon Anthony, the domestic autocrat) that it did arrest her for a moment, long enough to hear him say that he could not be left like this to puzzle over her nonsense all night. She was to slip down again into the garden later on, as soon as she could do so without being heard. He would be there waiting for her till--till daylight. She didn't think he could go to sleep, did she? And she had better come, or-- he broke off on an unfinished threat.
She vanished into the unlighted cottage just as Mrs. Fyne came up to the porch. Nervous, holding her breath in the darkness of the living-room, she heard her best friend say: "You ought to have joined us, Roderick." And then: "Have you seen Miss Smith anywhere?"
Flora shuddered, expecting Anthony to break out into betraying imprecations on Miss Smith's head, and cause a painful and humiliating explanation. She imagined him full of his mysterious ferocity. To her great surprise, Anthony's voice sounded very much as usual, with perhaps a slight tinge of grimness. "Miss Smith! No. I've seen no Miss Smith."
Mrs. Fyne seemed satisfied--and not much concerned really.
Flora, relieved, got clear away to her room upstairs, and shutting her door quietly, dropped into a chair. She was used to reproaches, abuse, to all sorts of wicked ill usage--short of actual beating on her body. Otherwise inexplicable angers had cut and slashed and trampled down her youth without mercy--and mainly, it appeared, because she was the financier de Barral's daughter and also condemned to a degrading sort of poverty through the action of treacherous men who had turned upon her father in his hour of need. And she thought with the tenderest possible affection of that upright figure buttoned up in a long frock-coat, soft-voiced and having but little to say to his girl. She seemed to feel his hand closed round hers. On his flying visits to Brighton he would always walk hand in hand with her. People stared covertly at them; the band was playing; and there was the sea--the blue gaiety of the sea. They were quietly happy together . . . It was all over!
An immense anguish of the present wrung her heart, and she nearly cried aloud. That dread of what was before her which had been eating up her courage slowly in the course of odious years, flamed up into an access of panic, that sort of headlong panic which had already driven her out twice to the top of the cliff-like quarry. She jumped up saying to herself: "Why not now? At once! Yes. I'll do it now--in the dark!" The very horror of it seemed to give her additional resolution.
She came down the staircase quietly, and only on the point of opening the door and because of the discovery that it was unfastened, she remembered Captain Anthony's threat to stay in the garden all night. She hesitated. She did not understand the mood of that man clearly. He was violent. But she had gone beyond the point where things matter. What would he think of her coming down to him--as he would naturally suppose. And even that didn't matter. He could not despise her more than she despised herself. She must have been light-headed because the thought came into her mind that should he get into ungovernable fury from disappointment, and perchance strangle her, it would be as good a way to be done with it as any.
"You had that thought," I exclaimed in wonder.
With downcast eyes and speaking with an almost painstaking precision(her very lips, her red lips, seemed to move just enough to be heard and no more), she said that, yes, the thought came into her head. This makes one shudder at the mysterious ways girls acquire knowledge. For this was a thought, wild enough, I admit, but which could only have come from the depths of that sort of experience which she had not had, and went far beyond a young girl's possible conception of the strongest and most veiled of human emotions.
"He was there, of course?" I said.
"Yes, he was there." She saw him on the path directly she stepped outside the porch. He was very still. It was as though he had been standing there with his face to the door for hours.
Shaken up by the changing moods of passion and tenderness, he must have been ready for any extravagance of conduct. Knowing the profound silence each night brought to that nook of the country, I could imagine them having the feeling of being the only two people on the wide earth. A row of six or seven lofty elms just across the road opposite the cottage made the night more obscure in that little garden. If these two could just make out each other that was all.
"Well! And were you very much terrified?" I asked.
She made me wait a little before she said, raising her eyes: "He was gentleness itself."
I noticed three abominable, drink-sodden loafers, sallow and dirty, who had come to range themselves in a row within ten feet of us against the front of the public-house. They stared at Flora de Barral's back with unseeing, mournful fixity.
"Let's move this way a little," I proposed.Next