Into that same black night, almost, indeed, into the very same layer of starlit air, Katharine Hilbery was now gazing, although not with a view to the prospects of a fine day for duck shooting on the morrow. She was walking up and down a gravel path in the garden of Stogdon House, her sight of the heavens being partially intercepted by the light leafless hoops of a pergola. Thus a spray of clematis would completely obscure Cassiopeia, or blot out with its black pattern myriads of miles of the Milky Way. At the end of the pergola, however, there was a stone seat, from which the sky could be seen completely swept clear of any earthly interruption, save to the right, indeed, where a line of elm-trees was beautifully sprinkled with stars, and a low stable building had a full drop of quivering silver just issuing from the mouth of the chimney. It was a moonless night, but the light of the stars was sufficient to show the outline of the young woman’s form, and the shape of her face gazing gravely, indeed almost sternly, into the sky. She had come out into the winter’s night, which was mild enough, not so much to look with scientific eyes upon the stars, as to shake herself free from certain purely terrestrial discontents. Much as a literary person in like circumstances would begin, absent-mindedly, pulling out volume after volume, so she stepped into the garden in order to have the stars at hand, even though she did not look at them. Not to be happy, when she was supposed to be happier than she would ever be again—that, as far as she could see, was the origin of a discontent which had begun almost as soon as she arrived, two days before, and seemed now so intolerable that she had left the family party, and come out here to consider it by herself. It was not she who thought herself unhappy, but her cousins, who thought it for her. The house was full of cousins, much of her age, or even younger, and among them they had some terribly bright eyes. They seemed always on the search for something between her and Rodney, which they expected to find, and yet did not find; and when they searched, Katharine became aware of wanting what she had not been conscious of wanting in London, alone with William and her parents. Or, if she did not want it, she missed it. And this state of mind depressed her, because she had been accustomed always to give complete satisfaction, and her self-love was now a little ruffled. She would have liked to break through the reserve habitual to her in order to justify her engagement to some one whose opinion she valued. No one had spoken a word of criticism, but they left her alone with William; not that that would have mattered, if they had not left her alone so politely; and, perhaps, that would not have mattered if they had not seemed so queerly silent, almost respectful, in her presence, which gave way to criticism, she felt, out of it.
Looking now and then at the sky, she went through the list of her cousins’ names: Eleanor, Humphrey, Marmaduke, Silvia, Henry, Cassandra, Gilbert, and Mostyn—Henry, the cousin who taught the young ladies of Bungay to play upon the violin, was the only one in whom she could confide, and as she walked up and down beneath the hoops of the pergola, she did begin a little speech to him, which ran something like this:
“To begin with, I’m very fond of William. You can’t deny that. I know him better than any one, almost. But why I’m marrying him is, partly, I admit—I’m being quite honest with you, and you mustn’t tell any one—partly because I want to get married. I want to have a house of my own. It isn’t possible at home. It’s all very well for you, Henry; you can go your own way. I have to be there always. Besides, you know what our house is. You wouldn’t be happy either, if you didn’t do something. It isn’t that I haven’t the time at home—it’s the atmosphere.” Here, presumably, she imagined that her cousin, who had listened with his usual intelligent sympathy, raised his eyebrows a little, and interposed:
“Well, but what do you want to do?”
Even in this purely imaginary dialogue, Katharine found it difficult to confide her ambition to an imaginary companion.
“I should like,” she began, and hesitated quite a long time before she forced herself to add, with a change of voice, “to study mathematics—to know about the stars.”
Henry was clearly amazed, but too kind to express all his doubts; he only said something about the difficulties of mathematics, and remarked that very little was known about the stars.
Katharine thereupon went on with the statement of her case.
“I don’t care much whether I ever get to know anything—but I want to work out something in figures—something that hasn’t got to do with human beings. I don’t want people particularly. In some ways, Henry, I’m a humbug—I mean, I’m not what you all take me for. I’m not domestic, or very practical or sensible, really. And if I could calculate things, and use a telescope, and have to work out figures, and know to a fraction where I was wrong, I should be perfectly happy, and I believe I should give William all he wants.”
Having reached this point, instinct told her that she had passed beyond the region in which Henry’s advice could be of any good; and, having rid her mind of its superficial annoyance, she sat herself upon the stone seat, raised her eyes unconsciously and thought about the deeper questions which she had to decide, she knew, for herself. Would she, indeed, give William all he wanted? In order to decide the question, she ran her mind rapidly over her little collection of significant sayings, looks, compliments, gestures, which had marked their intercourse during the last day or two. He had been annoyed because a box, containing some clothes specially chosen by him for her to wear, had been taken to the wrong station, owing to her neglect in the matter of labels. The box had arrived in the nick of time, and he had remarked, as she came downstairs on the first night, that he had never seen her look more beautiful. She outshone all her cousins. He had discovered that she never made an ugly movement; he also said that the shape of her head made it possible for her, unlike most women, to wear her hair low. He had twice reproved her for being silent at dinner; and once for never attending to what he said. He had been surprised at the excellence of her French accent, but he thought it was selfish of her not to go with her mother to call upon the Middletons, because they were old family friends and very nice people. On the whole, the balance was nearly even; and, writing down a kind of conclusion in her mind which finished the sum for the present, at least, she changed the focus of her eyes, and saw nothing but the stars.
To-night they seemed fixed with unusual firmness in the blue, and flashed back such a ripple of light into her eyes that she found herself thinking that to-night the stars were happy. Without knowing or caring more for Church practices than most people of her age, Katharine could not look into the sky at Christmas time without feeling that, at this one season, the Heavens bend over the earth with sympathy, and signal with immortal radiance that they, too, take part in her festival. Somehow, it seemed to her that they were even now beholding the procession of kings and wise men upon some road on a distant part of the earth. And yet, after gazing for another second, the stars did their usual work upon the mind, froze to cinders the whole of our short human history, and reduced the human body to an ape-like, furry form, crouching amid the brushwood of a barbarous clod of mud. This stage was soon succeeded by another, in which there was nothing in the universe save stars and the light of stars; as she looked up the pupils of her eyes so dilated with starlight that the whole of her seemed dissolved in silver and spilt over the ledges of the stars for ever and ever indefinitely through space. Somehow simultaneously, though incongruously, she was riding with the magnanimous hero upon the shore or under forest trees, and so might have continued were it not for the rebuke forcibly administered by the body, which, content with the normal conditions of life, in no way furthers any attempt on the part of the mind to alter them. She grew cold, shook herself, rose, and walked towards the house.
By the light of the stars, Stogdon House looked pale and romantic, and about twice its natural size. Built by a retired admiral in the early years of the nineteenth century, the curving bow windows of the front, now filled with reddish-yellow light, suggested a portly three-decker, sailing seas where those dolphins and narwhals who disport themselves upon the edges of old maps were scattered with an impartial hand. A semicircular flight of shallow steps led to a very large door, which Katharine had left ajar. She hesitated, cast her eyes over the front of the house, marked that a light burnt in one small window upon an upper floor, and pushed the door open. For a moment she stood in the square hall, among many horned skulls, sallow globes, cracked oil-paintings, and stuffed owls, hesitating, it seemed, whether she should open the door on her right, through which the stir of life reached her ears. Listening for a moment, she heard a sound which decided her, apparently, not to enter; her uncle, Sir Francis, was playing his nightly game of whist; it appeared probable that he was losing.
She went up the curving stairway, which represented the one attempt at ceremony in the otherwise rather dilapidated mansion, and down a narrow passage until she came to the room whose light she had seen from the garden. Knocking, she was told to come in. A young man, Henry Otway, was reading, with his feet on the fender. He had a fine head, the brow arched in the Elizabethan manner, but the gentle, honest eyes were rather skeptical than glowing with the Elizabethan vigor. He gave the impression that he had not yet found the cause which suited his temperament.
He turned, put down his book, and looked at her. He noticed her rather pale, dew-drenched look, as of one whose mind is not altogether settled in the body. He had often laid his difficulties before her, and guessed, in some ways hoped, that perhaps she now had need of him. At the same time, she carried on her life with such independence that he scarcely expected any confidence to be expressed in words.
“You have fled, too, then?” he said, looking at her cloak. Katharine had forgotten to remove this token of her star-gazing.
“Fled?” she asked. “From whom d’you mean? Oh, the family party. Yes, it was hot down there, so I went into the garden.”
“And aren’t you very cold?” Henry inquired, placing coal on the fire, drawing a chair up to the grate, and laying aside her cloak. Her indifference to such details often forced Henry to act the part generally taken by women in such dealings. It was one of the ties between them.
“Thank you, Henry,” she said. “I’m not disturbing you?”
“I’m not here. I’m at Bungay,” he replied. “I’m giving a music lesson to Harold and Julia. That was why I had to leave the table with the ladies—I’m spending the night there, and I shan’t be back till late on Christmas Eve.”
“How I wish—” Katharine began, and stopped short. “I think these parties are a great mistake,” she added briefly, and sighed.
“Oh, horrible!” he agreed; and they both fell silent.
Her sigh made him look at her. Should he venture to ask her why she sighed? Was her reticence about her own affairs as inviolable as it had often been convenient for rather an egoistical young man to think it? But since her engagement to Rodney, Henry’s feeling towards her had become rather complex; equally divided between an impulse to hurt her and an impulse to be tender to her; and all the time he suffered a curious irritation from the sense that she was drifting away from him for ever upon unknown seas. On her side, directly Katharine got into his presence, and the sense of the stars dropped from her, she knew that any intercourse between people is extremely partial; from the whole mass of her feelings, only one or two could be selected for Henry’s inspection, and therefore she sighed. Then she looked at him, and their eyes meeting, much more seemed to be in common between them than had appeared possible. At any rate they had a grandfather in common; at any rate there was a kind of loyalty between them sometimes found between relations who have no other cause to like each other, as these two had.
“Well, what’s the date of the wedding?” said Henry, the malicious mood now predominating.
“I think some time in March,” she replied.
“And afterwards?” he asked.
“We take a house, I suppose, somewhere in Chelsea.”
“It’s very interesting,” he observed, stealing another look at her.
She lay back in her arm-chair, her feet high upon the side of the grate, and in front of her, presumably to screen her eyes, she held a newspaper from which she picked up a sentence or two now and again. Observing this, Henry remarked:
“Perhaps marriage will make you more human.”
At this she lowered the newspaper an inch or two, but said nothing. Indeed, she sat quite silent for over a minute.
“When you consider things like the stars, our affairs don’t seem to matter very much, do they?” she said suddenly.
“I don’t think I ever do consider things like the stars,” Henry replied. “I’m not sure that that’s not the explanation, though,” he added, now observing her steadily.
“I doubt whether there is an explanation,” she replied rather hurriedly, not clearly understanding what he meant.
“What? No explanation of anything?” he inquired, with a smile.
“Oh, things happen. That’s about all,” she let drop in her casual, decided way.
“That certainly seems to explain some of your actions,” Henry thought to himself.
“One thing’s about as good as another, and one’s got to do something,” he said aloud, expressing what he supposed to be her attitude, much in her accent. Perhaps she detected the imitation, for looking gently at him, she said, with ironical composure:
“Well, if you believe that your life must be simple, Henry.”
“But I don’t believe it,” he said shortly.
“No more do I,” she replied.
“What about the stars?” he asked a moment later. “I understand that you rule your life by the stars?”
She let this pass, either because she did not attend to it, or because the tone was not to her liking.
Once more she paused, and then she inquired:
“But do you always understand why you do everything? Ought one to understand? People like my mother understand,” she reflected. “Now I must go down to them, I suppose, and see what’s happening.”
“What could be happening?” Henry protested.
“Oh, they may want to settle something,” she replied vaguely, putting her feet on the ground, resting her chin on her hands, and looking out of her large dark eyes contemplatively at the fire.
“And then there’s William,” she added, as if by an afterthought.
Henry very nearly laughed, but restrained himself.
“Do they know what coals are made of, Henry?” she asked, a moment later.
“Mares’ tails, I believe,” he hazarded.
“Have you ever been down a coal-mine?” she went on.
“Don’t let’s talk about coal-mines, Katharine,” he protested. “We shall probably never see each other again. When you’re married—”
Tremendously to his surprise, he saw the tears stand in her eyes.
“Why do you all tease me?” she said. “It isn’t kind.”
Henry could not pretend that he was altogether ignorant of her meaning, though, certainly, he had never guessed that she minded the teasing. But before he knew what to say, her eyes were clear again, and the sudden crack in the surface was almost filled up.
“Things aren’t easy, anyhow,” she stated.
Obeying an impulse of genuine affection, Henry spoke.
“Promise me, Katharine, that if I can ever help you, you will let me.”
She seemed to consider, looking once more into the red of the fire, and decided to refrain from any explanation.
“Yes, I promise that,” she said at length, and Henry felt himself gratified by her complete sincerity, and began to tell her now about the coal-mine, in obedience to her love of facts.
They were, indeed, descending the shaft in a small cage, and could hear the picks of the miners, something like the gnawing of rats, in the earth beneath them, when the door was burst open, without any knocking.
“Well, here you are!” Rodney exclaimed. Both Katharine and Henry turned round very quickly and rather guiltily. Rodney was in evening dress. It was clear that his temper was ruffled.
“That’s where you’ve been all the time,” he repeated, looking at Katharine.
“I’ve only been here about ten minutes,” she replied.
“My dear Katharine, you left the drawing-room over an hour ago.”
She said nothing.
“Does it very much matter?” Henry asked.
Rodney found it hard to be unreasonable in the presence of another man, and did not answer him.
“They don’t like it,” he said. “It isn’t kind to old people to leave them alone—although I’ve no doubt it’s much more amusing to sit up here and talk to Henry.”
“We were discussing coal-mines,” said Henry urbanely.
“Yes. But we were talking about much more interesting things before that,” said Katharine.
From the apparent determination to hurt him with which she spoke, Henry thought that some sort of explosion on Rodney’s part was about to take place.
“I can quite understand that,” said Rodney, with his little chuckle, leaning over the back of his chair and tapping the woodwork lightly with his fingers. They were all silent, and the silence was acutely uncomfortable to Henry, at least.
“Was it very dull, William?” Katharine suddenly asked, with a complete change of tone and a little gesture of her hand.
“Of course it was dull,” William said sulkily.
“Well, you stay and talk to Henry, and I’ll go down,” she replied.
She rose as she spoke, and as she turned to leave the room, she laid her hand, with a curiously caressing gesture, upon Rodney’s shoulder. Instantly Rodney clasped her hand in his, with such an impulse of emotion that Henry was annoyed, and rather ostentatiously opened a book.
“I shall come down with you,” said William, as she drew back her hand, and made as if to pass him.
“Oh no,” she said hastily. “You stay here and talk to Henry.”
“Yes, do,” said Henry, shutting up his book again. His invitation was polite, without being precisely cordial. Rodney evidently hesitated as to the course he should pursue, but seeing Katharine at the door, he exclaimed:
“No. I want to come with you.”
She looked back, and said in a very commanding tone, and with an expression of authority upon her face:
“It’s useless for you to come. I shall go to bed in ten minutes. Good night.”
She nodded to them both, but Henry could not help noticing that her last nod was in his direction. Rodney sat down rather heavily.
His mortification was so obvious that Henry scarcely liked to open the conversation with some remark of a literary character. On the other hand, unless he checked him, Rodney might begin to talk about his feelings, and irreticence is apt to be extremely painful, at any rate in prospect. He therefore adopted a middle course; that is to say, he wrote a note upon the fly-leaf of his book, which ran, “The situation is becoming most uncomfortable.” This he decorated with those flourishes and decorative borders which grow of themselves upon these occasions; and as he did so, he thought to himself that whatever Katharine’s difficulties might be, they did not justify her behavior. She had spoken with a kind of brutality which suggested that, whether it is natural or assumed, women have a peculiar blindness to the feelings of men.
The penciling of this note gave Rodney time to recover himself. Perhaps, for he was a very vain man, he was more hurt that Henry had seen him rebuffed than by the rebuff itself. He was in love with Katharine, and vanity is not decreased but increased by love; especially, one may hazard, in the presence of one’s own sex. But Rodney enjoyed the courage which springs from that laughable and lovable defect, and when he had mastered his first impulse, in some way to make a fool of himself, he drew inspiration from the perfect fit of his evening dress. He chose a cigarette, tapped it on the back of his hand, displayed his exquisite pumps on the edge of the fender, and summoned his self-respect.
“You’ve several big estates round here, Otway,” he began. “Any good hunting? Let me see, what pack would it be? Who’s your great man?”
“Sir William Budge, the sugar king, has the biggest estate. He bought out poor Stanham, who went bankrupt.”
“Which Stanham would that be? Verney or Alfred?”
“Alfred…. I don’t hunt myself. You’re a great huntsman, aren’t you? You have a great reputation as a horseman, anyhow,” he added, desiring to help Rodney in his effort to recover his complacency.
“Oh, I love riding,” Rodney replied. “Could I get a horse down here? Stupid of me! I forgot to bring any clothes. I can’t imagine, though, who told you I was anything of a rider?”
To tell the truth, Henry labored under the same difficulty; he did not wish to introduce Katharine’s name, and, therefore, he replied vaguely that he had always heard that Rodney was a great rider. In truth, he had heard very little about him, one way or another, accepting him as a figure often to be found in the background at his aunt’s house, and inevitably, though inexplicably, engaged to his cousin.
“I don’t care much for shooting,” Rodney continued; “but one has to do it, unless one wants to be altogether out of things. I dare say there’s some very pretty country round here. I stayed once at Bolham Hall. Young Cranthorpe was up with you, wasn’t he? He married old Lord Bolham’s daughter. Very nice people—in their way.”
“I don’t mix in that society,” Henry remarked, rather shortly. But Rodney, now started on an agreeable current of reflection, could not resist the temptation of pursuing it a little further. He appeared to himself as a man who moved easily in very good society, and knew enough about the true values of life to be himself above it.
“Oh, but you should,” he went on. “It’s well worth staying there, anyhow, once a year. They make one very comfortable, and the women are ravishing.”
“The women?” Henry thought to himself, with disgust. “What could any woman see in you?” His tolerance was rapidly becoming exhausted, but he could not help liking Rodney nevertheless, and this appeared to him strange, for he was fastidious, and such words in another mouth would have condemned the speaker irreparably. He began, in short, to wonder what kind of creature this man who was to marry his cousin might be. Could any one, except a rather singular character, afford to be so ridiculously vain?
“I don’t think I should get on in that society,” he replied. “I don’t think I should know what to say to Lady Rose if I met her.”
“I don’t find any difficulty,” Rodney chuckled. “You talk to them about their children, if they have any, or their accomplishments—painting, gardening, poetry—they’re so delightfully sympathetic. Seriously, you know I think a woman’s opinion of one’s poetry is always worth having. Don’t ask them for their reasons. Just ask them for their feelings. Katharine, for example—”
“Katharine,” said Henry, with an emphasis upon the name, almost as if he resented Rodney’s use of it, “Katharine is very unlike most women.”
“Quite,” Rodney agreed. “She is—” He seemed about to describe her, and he hesitated for a long time. “She’s looking very well,” he stated, or rather almost inquired, in a different tone from that in which he had been speaking. Henry bent his head.
“But, as a family, you’re given to moods, eh?”
“Not Katharine,” said Henry, with decision.
“Not Katharine,” Rodney repeated, as if he weighed the meaning of the words. “No, perhaps you’re right. But her engagement has changed her. Naturally,” he added, “one would expect that to be so.” He waited for Henry to confirm this statement, but Henry remained silent.
“Katharine has had a difficult life, in some ways,” he continued. “I expect that marriage will be good for her. She has great powers.”
“Great,” said Henry, with decision.
“Yes—but now what direction d’you think they take?”
Rodney had completely dropped his pose as a man of the world, and seemed to be asking Henry to help him in a difficulty.
“I don’t know,” Henry hesitated cautiously.
“D’you think children—a household—that sort of thing—d’you think that’ll satisfy her? Mind, I’m out all day.”
“She would certainly be very competent,” Henry stated.
“Oh, she’s wonderfully competent,” said Rodney. “But—I get absorbed in my poetry. Well, Katharine hasn’t got that. She admires my poetry, you know, but that wouldn’t be enough for her?”
“No,” said Henry. He paused. “I think you’re right,” he added, as if he were summing up his thoughts. “Katharine hasn’t found herself yet. Life isn’t altogether real to her yet—I sometimes think—”
“Yes?” Rodney inquired, as if he were eager for Henry to continue. “That is what I—” he was going on, as Henry remained silent, but the sentence was not finished, for the door opened, and they were interrupted by Henry’s younger brother Gilbert, much to Henry’s relief, for he had already said more than he liked.