“Is Mr. Hilbery at home, or Mrs. Hilbery?” Denham asked, of the parlor-maid in Chelsea, a week later.
“No, sir. But Miss Hilbery is at home,” the girl answered.
Ralph had anticipated many answers, but not this one, and now it was unexpectedly made plain to him that it was the chance of seeing Katharine that had brought him all the way to Chelsea on pretence of seeing her father.
He made some show of considering the matter, and was taken upstairs to the drawing-room. As upon that first occasion, some weeks ago, the door closed as if it were a thousand doors softly excluding the world; and once more Ralph received an impression of a room full of deep shadows, firelight, unwavering silver candle flames, and empty spaces to be crossed before reaching the round table in the middle of the room, with its frail burden of silver trays and china teacups. But this time Katharine was there by herself; the volume in her hand showed that she expected no visitors.
Ralph said something about hoping to find her father.
“My father is out,” she replied. “But if you can wait, I expect him soon.”
It might have been due merely to politeness, but Ralph felt that she received him almost with cordiality. Perhaps she was bored by drinking tea and reading a book all alone; at any rate, she tossed the book on to a sofa with a gesture of relief.
“Is that one of the moderns whom you despise?” he asked, smiling at the carelessness of her gesture.
“Yes,” she replied. “I think even you would despise him.”
“Even I?” he repeated. “Why even I?”
“You said you liked modern things; I said I hated them.”
This was not a very accurate report of their conversation among the relics, perhaps, but Ralph was flattered to think that she remembered anything about it.
“Or did I confess that I hated all books?” she went on, seeing him look up with an air of inquiry. “I forget—”
“Do you hate all books?” he asked.
“It would be absurd to say that I hate all books when I’ve only read ten, perhaps; but—’ Here she pulled herself up short.
“Yes, I do hate books,” she continued. “Why do you want to be for ever talking about your feelings? That’s what I can’t make out. And poetry’s all about feelings—novels are all about feelings.”
She cut a cake vigorously into slices, and providing a tray with bread and butter for Mrs. Hilbery, who was in her room with a cold, she rose to go upstairs.
Ralph held the door open for her, and then stood with clasped hands in the middle of the room. His eyes were bright, and, indeed, he scarcely knew whether they beheld dreams or realities. All down the street and on the doorstep, and while he mounted the stairs, his dream of Katharine possessed him; on the threshold of the room he had dismissed it, in order to prevent too painful a collision between what he dreamt of her and what she was. And in five minutes she had filled the shell of the old dream with the flesh of life; looked with fire out of phantom eyes. He glanced about him with bewilderment at finding himself among her chairs and tables; they were solid, for he grasped the back of the chair in which Katharine had sat; and yet they were unreal; the atmosphere was that of a dream. He summoned all the faculties of his spirit to seize what the minutes had to give him; and from the depths of his mind there rose unchecked a joyful recognition of the truth that human nature surpasses, in its beauty, all that our wildest dreams bring us hints of.
Katharine came into the room a moment later. He stood watching her come towards him, and thought her more beautiful and strange than his dream of her; for the real Katharine could speak the words which seemed to crowd behind the forehead and in the depths of the eyes, and the commonest sentence would be flashed on by this immortal light. And she overflowed the edges of the dream; he remarked that her softness was like that of some vast snowy owl; she wore a ruby on her finger.
“My mother wants me to tell you,” she said, “that she hopes you have begun your poem. She says every one ought to write poetry…. All my relations write poetry,” she went on. “I can’t bear to think of it sometimes—because, of course, it’s none of it any good. But then one needn’t read it—”
“You don’t encourage me to write a poem,” said Ralph.
“But you’re not a poet, too, are you?” she inquired, turning upon him with a laugh.
“Should I tell you if I were?”
“Yes. Because I think you speak the truth,” she said, searching him for proof of this apparently, with eyes now almost impersonally direct. It would be easy, Ralph thought, to worship one so far removed, and yet of so straight a nature; easy to submit recklessly to her, without thought of future pain.
“Are you a poet?” she demanded. He felt that her question had an unexplained weight of meaning behind it, as if she sought an answer to a question that she did not ask.
“No. I haven’t written any poetry for years,” he replied. “But all the same, I don’t agree with you. I think it’s the only thing worth doing.”
“Why do you say that?” she asked, almost with impatience, tapping her spoon two or three times against the side of her cup.
“Why?” Ralph laid hands on the first words that came to mind. “Because, I suppose, it keeps an ideal alive which might die otherwise.”
A curious change came over her face, as if the flame of her mind were subdued; and she looked at him ironically and with the expression which he had called sad before, for want of a better name for it.
“I don’t know that there’s much sense in having ideals,” she said.
“But you have them,” he replied energetically. “Why do we call them ideals? It’s a stupid word. Dreams, I mean—”
She followed his words with parted lips, as though to answer eagerly when he had done; but as he said, “Dreams, I mean,” the door of the drawing-room swung open, and so remained for a perceptible instant. They both held themselves silent, her lips still parted.
Far off, they heard the rustle of skirts. Then the owner of the skirts appeared in the doorway, which she almost filled, nearly concealing the figure of a very much smaller lady who accompanied her.
“My aunts!” Katharine murmured, under her breath. Her tone had a hint of tragedy in it, but no less, Ralph thought, than the situation required. She addressed the larger lady as Aunt Millicent; the smaller was Aunt Celia, Mrs. Milvain, who had lately undertaken the task of marrying Cyril to his wife. Both ladies, but Mrs. Cosham (Aunt Millicent) in particular, had that look of heightened, smoothed, incarnadined existence which is proper to elderly ladies paying calls in London about five o’clock in the afternoon. Portraits by Romney, seen through glass, have something of their pink, mellow look, their blooming softness, as of apricots hanging upon a red wall in the afternoon sun. Mrs. Cosham was so appareled with hanging muffs, chains, and swinging draperies that it was impossible to detect the shape of a human being in the mass of brown and black which filled the arm-chair. Mrs. Milvain was a much slighter figure; but the same doubt as to the precise lines of her contour filled Ralph, as he regarded them, with dismal foreboding. What remark of his would ever reach these fabulous and fantastic characters?—for there was something fantastically unreal in the curious swayings and noddings of Mrs. Cosham, as if her equipment included a large wire spring. Her voice had a high-pitched, cooing note, which prolonged words and cut them short until the English language seemed no longer fit for common purposes. In a moment of nervousness, so Ralph thought, Katharine had turned on innumerable electric lights. But Mrs. Cosham had gained impetus (perhaps her swaying movements had that end in view) for sustained speech; and she now addressed Ralph deliberately and elaborately.
“I come from Woking, Mr. Popham. You may well ask me, why Woking? and to that I answer, for perhaps the hundredth time, because of the sunsets. We went there for the sunsets, but that was five-and-twenty years ago. Where are the sunsets now? Alas! There is no sunset now nearer than the South Coast.” Her rich and romantic notes were accompanied by a wave of a long white hand, which, when waved, gave off a flash of diamonds, rubies, and emeralds. Ralph wondered whether she more resembled an elephant, with a jeweled head-dress, or a superb cockatoo, balanced insecurely upon its perch, and pecking capriciously at a lump of sugar.
“Where are the sunsets now?” she repeated. “Do you find sunsets now, Mr. Popham?”
“I live at Highgate,” he replied.
“At Highgate? Yes, Highgate has its charms; your Uncle John lived at Highgate,” she jerked in the direction of Katharine. She sank her head upon her breast, as if for a moment’s meditation, which past, she looked up and observed: “I dare say there are very pretty lanes in Highgate. I can recollect walking with your mother, Katharine, through lanes blossoming with wild hawthorn. But where is the hawthorn now? You remember that exquisite description in De Quincey, Mr. Popham?—but I forget, you, in your generation, with all your activity and enlightenment, at which I can only marvel”—here she displayed both her beautiful white hands—“do not read De Quincey. You have your Belloc, your Chesterton, your Bernard Shaw—why should you read De Quincey?”
“But I do read De Quincey,” Ralph protested, “more than Belloc and Chesterton, anyhow.”
“Indeed!” exclaimed Mrs. Cosham, with a gesture of surprise and relief mingled. “You are, then, a ‘rara avis’ in your generation. I am delighted to meet anyone who reads De Quincey.”
Here she hollowed her hand into a screen, and, leaning towards Katharine, inquired, in a very audible whisper, “Does your friend WRITE?”
“Mr. Denham,” said Katharine, with more than her usual clearness and firmness, “writes for the Review. He is a lawyer.”
“The clean-shaven lips, showing the expression of the mouth! I recognize them at once. I always feel at home with lawyers, Mr. Denham—”
“They used to come about so much in the old days,” Mrs. Milvain interposed, the frail, silvery notes of her voice falling with the sweet tone of an old bell.
“You say you live at Highgate,” she continued. “I wonder whether you happen to know if there is an old house called Tempest Lodge still in existence—an old white house in a garden?”
Ralph shook his head, and she sighed.
“Ah, no; it must have been pulled down by this time, with all the other old houses. There were such pretty lanes in those days. That was how your uncle met your Aunt Emily, you know,” she addressed Katharine. “They walked home through the lanes.”
“A sprig of May in her bonnet,” Mrs. Cosham ejaculated, reminiscently.
“And next Sunday he had violets in his buttonhole. And that was how we guessed.”
Katharine laughed. She looked at Ralph. His eyes were meditative, and she wondered what he found in this old gossip to make him ponder so contentedly. She felt, she hardly knew why, a curious pity for him.
“Uncle John—yes, ‘poor John,’ you always called him. Why was that?” she asked, to make them go on talking, which, indeed, they needed little invitation to do.
“That was what his father, old Sir Richard, always called him. Poor John, or the fool of the family,” Mrs. Milvain hastened to inform them. “The other boys were so brilliant, and he could never pass his examinations, so they sent him to India—a long voyage in those days, poor fellow. You had your own room, you know, and you did it up. But he will get his knighthood and a pension, I believe,” she said, turning to Ralph, “only it is not England.”
“No,” Mrs. Cosham confirmed her, “it is not England. In those days we thought an Indian Judgeship about equal to a county-court judgeship at home. His Honor—a pretty title, but still, not at the top of the tree. However,” she sighed, “if you have a wife and seven children, and people nowadays very quickly forget your father’s name—well, you have to take what you can get,” she concluded.
“And I fancy,” Mrs. Milvain resumed, lowering her voice rather confidentially, “that John would have done more if it hadn’t been for his wife, your Aunt Emily. She was a very good woman, devoted to him, of course, but she was not ambitious for him, and if a wife isn’t ambitious for her husband, especially in a profession like the law, clients soon get to know of it. In our young days, Mr. Denham, we used to say that we knew which of our friends would become judges, by looking at the girls they married. And so it was, and so, I fancy, it always will be. I don’t think,” she added, summing up these scattered remarks, “that any man is really happy unless he succeeds in his profession.”
Mrs. Cosham approved of this sentiment with more ponderous sagacity from her side of the tea-table, in the first place by swaying her head, and in the second by remarking:
“No, men are not the same as women. I fancy Alfred Tennyson spoke the truth about that as about many other things. How I wish he’d lived to write ‘The Prince’—a sequel to ‘The Princess’! I confess I’m almost tired of Princesses. We want some one to show us what a good man can be. We have Laura and Beatrice, Antigone and Cordelia, but we have no heroic man. How do you, as a poet, account for that, Mr. Denham?”
“I’m not a poet,” said Ralph good-humoredly. “I’m only a solicitor.”
“But you write, too?” Mrs. Cosham demanded, afraid lest she should be balked of her priceless discovery, a young man truly devoted to literature.
“In my spare time,” Denham reassured her.
“In your spare time!” Mrs. Cosham echoed. “That is a proof of devotion, indeed.” She half closed her eyes, and indulged herself in a fascinating picture of a briefless barrister lodged in a garret, writing immortal novels by the light of a farthing dip. But the romance which fell upon the figures of great writers and illumined their pages was no false radiance in her case. She carried her pocket Shakespeare about with her, and met life fortified by the words of the poets. How far she saw Denham, and how far she confused him with some hero of fiction, it would be hard to say. Literature had taken possession even of her memories. She was matching him, presumably, with certain characters in the old novels, for she came out, after a pause, with:
“Um—um—Pendennis—Warrington—I could never forgive Laura,” she pronounced energetically, “for not marrying George, in spite of everything. George Eliot did the very same thing; and Lewes was a little frog-faced man, with the manner of a dancing master. But Warrington, now, had everything in his favor; intellect, passion, romance, distinction, and the connection was a mere piece of undergraduate folly. Arthur, I confess, has always seemed to me a bit of a fop; I can’t imagine how Laura married him. But you say you’re a solicitor, Mr. Denham. Now there are one or two things I should like to ask you—about Shakespeare—” She drew out her small, worn volume with some difficulty, opened it, and shook it in the air. “They say, nowadays, that Shakespeare was a lawyer. They say, that accounts for his knowledge of human nature. There’s a fine example for you, Mr. Denham. Study your clients, young man, and the world will be the richer one of these days, I have no doubt. Tell me, how do we come out of it, now; better or worse than you expected?”
Thus called upon to sum up the worth of human nature in a few words, Ralph answered unhesitatingly:
“Worse, Mrs. Cosham, a good deal worse. I’m afraid the ordinary man is a bit of a rascal—”
“And the ordinary woman?”
“No, I don’t like the ordinary woman either—”
“Ah, dear me, I’ve no doubt that’s very true, very true.” Mrs. Cosham sighed. “Swift would have agreed with you, anyhow—” She looked at him, and thought that there were signs of distinct power in his brow. He would do well, she thought, to devote himself to satire.
“Charles Lavington, you remember, was a solicitor,” Mrs. Milvain interposed, rather resenting the waste of time involved in talking about fictitious people when you might be talking about real people. “But you wouldn’t remember him, Katharine.”
“Mr. Lavington? Oh, yes, I do,” said Katharine, waking from other thoughts with her little start. “The summer we had a house near Tenby. I remember the field and the pond with the tadpoles, and making haystacks with Mr. Lavington.”
“She is right. There WAS a pond with tadpoles,” Mrs. Cosham corroborated. “Millais made studies of it for ‘Ophelia.’ Some say that is the best picture he ever painted—”
“And I remember the dog chained up in the yard, and the dead snakes hanging in the toolhouse.”
“It was at Tenby that you were chased by the bull,” Mrs. Milvain continued. “But that you couldn’t remember, though it’s true you were a wonderful child. Such eyes she had, Mr. Denham! I used to say to her father, ‘She’s watching us, and summing us all up in her little mind.’ And they had a nurse in those days,” she went on, telling her story with charming solemnity to Ralph, “who was a good woman, but engaged to a sailor. When she ought to have been attending to the baby, her eyes were on the sea. And Mrs. Hilbery allowed this girl—Susan her name was—to have him to stay in the village. They abused her goodness, I’m sorry to say, and while they walked in the lanes, they stood the perambulator alone in a field where there was a bull. The animal became enraged by the red blanket in the perambulator, and Heaven knows what might have happened if a gentleman had not been walking by in the nick of time, and rescued Katharine in his arms!”
“I think the bull was only a cow, Aunt Celia,” said Katharine.
“My darling, it was a great red Devonshire bull, and not long after it gored a man to death and had to be destroyed. And your mother forgave Susan—a thing I could never have done.”
“Maggie’s sympathies were entirely with Susan and the sailor, I am sure,” said Mrs. Cosham, rather tartly. “My sister-in-law,” she continued, “has laid her burdens upon Providence at every crisis in her life, and Providence, I must confess, has responded nobly, so far—”
“Yes,” said Katharine, with a laugh, for she liked the rashness which irritated the rest of the family. “My mother’s bulls always turn into cows at the critical moment.”
“Well,” said Mrs. Milvain, “I’m glad you have some one to protect you from bulls now.”
“I can’t imagine William protecting any one from bulls,” said Katharine.
It happened that Mrs. Cosham had once more produced her pocket volume of Shakespeare, and was consulting Ralph upon an obscure passage in “Measure for Measure.” He did not at once seize the meaning of what Katharine and her aunt were saying; William, he supposed, referred to some small cousin, for he now saw Katharine as a child in a pinafore; but, nevertheless, he was so much distracted that his eye could hardly follow the words on the paper. A moment later he heard them speak distinctly of an engagement ring.
“I like rubies,” he heard Katharine say.
“To be imprison’d in the viewless winds, And blown with restless violence round about The pendant world....”
Mrs. Cosham intoned; at the same instant “Rodney” fitted itself to “William” in Ralph’s mind. He felt convinced that Katharine was engaged to Rodney. His first sensation was one of violent rage with her for having deceived him throughout the visit, fed him with pleasant old wives’ tales, let him see her as a child playing in a meadow, shared her youth with him, while all the time she was a stranger entirely, and engaged to marry Rodney.
But was it possible? Surely it was not possible. For in his eyes she was still a child. He paused so long over the book that Mrs. Cosham had time to look over his shoulder and ask her niece:
“And have you settled upon a house yet, Katharine?”
This convinced him of the truth of the monstrous idea. He looked up at once and said:
“Yes, it’s a difficult passage.”
His voice had changed so much, he spoke with such curtness and even with such contempt, that Mrs. Cosham looked at him fairly puzzled. Happily she belonged to a generation which expected uncouthness in its men, and she merely felt convinced that this Mr. Denham was very, very clever. She took back her Shakespeare, as Denham seemed to have no more to say, and secreted it once more about her person with the infinitely pathetic resignation of the old.
“Katharine’s engaged to William Rodney,” she said, by way of filling in the pause; “a very old friend of ours. He has a wonderful knowledge of literature, too—wonderful.” She nodded her head rather vaguely. “You should meet each other.”
Denham’s one wish was to leave the house as soon as he could; but the elderly ladies had risen, and were proposing to visit Mrs. Hilbery in her bedroom, so that any move on his part was impossible. At the same time, he wished to say something, but he knew not what, to Katharine alone. She took her aunts upstairs, and returned, coming towards him once more with an air of innocence and friendliness that amazed him.
“My father will be back,” she said. “Won’t you sit down?” and she laughed, as if now they might share a perfectly friendly laugh at the tea-party.
But Ralph made no attempt to seat himself.
“I must congratulate you,” he said. “It was news to me.” He saw her face change, but only to become graver than before.
“My engagement?” she asked. “Yes, I am going to marry William Rodney.”
Ralph remained standing with his hand on the back of a chair in absolute silence. Abysses seemed to plunge into darkness between them. He looked at her, but her face showed that she was not thinking of him. No regret or consciousness of wrong disturbed her.
“Well, I must go,” he said at length.
She seemed about to say something, then changed her mind and said merely:
“You will come again, I hope. We always seem”—she hesitated—“to be interrupted.”
He bowed and left the room.
Ralph strode with extreme swiftness along the Embankment. Every muscle was taut and braced as if to resist some sudden attack from outside. For the moment it seemed as if the attack were about to be directed against his body, and his brain thus was on the alert, but without understanding. Finding himself, after a few minutes, no longer under observation, and no attack delivered, he slackened his pace, the pain spread all through him, took possession of every governing seat, and met with scarcely any resistance from powers exhausted by their first effort at defence. He took his way languidly along the river embankment, away from home rather than towards it. The world had him at its mercy. He made no pattern out of the sights he saw. He felt himself now, as he had often fancied other people, adrift on the stream, and far removed from control of it, a man with no grasp upon circumstances any longer. Old battered men loafing at the doors of public-houses now seemed to be his fellows, and he felt, as he supposed them to feel, a mingling of envy and hatred towards those who passed quickly and certainly to a goal of their own. They, too, saw things very thin and shadowy, and were wafted about by the lightest breath of wind. For the substantial world, with its prospect of avenues leading on and on to the invisible distance, had slipped from him, since Katharine was engaged. Now all his life was visible, and the straight, meager path had its ending soon enough. Katharine was engaged, and she had deceived him, too. He felt for corners of his being untouched by his disaster; but there was no limit to the flood of damage; not one of his possessions was safe now. Katharine had deceived him; she had mixed herself with every thought of his, and reft of her they seemed false thoughts which he would blush to think again. His life seemed immeasurably impoverished.
He sat himself down, in spite of the chilly fog which obscured the farther bank and left its lights suspended upon a blank surface, upon one of the riverside seats, and let the tide of disillusionment sweep through him. For the time being all bright points in his life were blotted out; all prominences leveled. At first he made himself believe that Katharine had treated him badly, and drew comfort from the thought that, left alone, she would recollect this, and think of him and tender him, in silence, at any rate, an apology. But this grain of comfort failed him after a second or two, for, upon reflection, he had to admit that Katharine owed him nothing. Katharine had promised nothing, taken nothing; to her his dreams had meant nothing. This, indeed, was the lowest pitch of his despair. If the best of one’s feelings means nothing to the person most concerned in those feelings, what reality is left us? The old romance which had warmed his days for him, the thoughts of Katharine which had painted every hour, were now made to appear foolish and enfeebled. He rose, and looked into the river, whose swift race of dun-colored waters seemed the very spirit of futility and oblivion.
“In what can one trust, then?” he thought, as he leant there. So feeble and insubstantial did he feel himself that he repeated the word aloud.
“In what can one trust? Not in men and women. Not in one’s dreams about them. There’s nothing—nothing, nothing left at all.”
Now Denham had reason to know that he could bring to birth and keep alive a fine anger when he chose. Rodney provided a good target for that emotion. And yet at the moment, Rodney and Katharine herself seemed disembodied ghosts. He could scarcely remember the look of them. His mind plunged lower and lower. Their marriage seemed of no importance to him. All things had turned to ghosts; the whole mass of the world was insubstantial vapor, surrounding the solitary spark in his mind, whose burning point he could remember, for it burnt no more. He had once cherished a belief, and Katharine had embodied this belief, and she did so no longer. He did not blame her; he blamed nothing, nobody; he saw the truth. He saw the dun-colored race of waters and the blank shore. But life is vigorous; the body lives, and the body, no doubt, dictated the reflection, which now urged him to movement, that one may cast away the forms of human beings, and yet retain the passion which seemed inseparable from their existence in the flesh. Now this passion burnt on his horizon, as the winter sun makes a greenish pane in the west through thinning clouds. His eyes were set on something infinitely far and remote; by that light he felt he could walk, and would, in future, have to find his way. But that was all there was left to him of a populous and teeming world.