The day was so different from other days to three people in the house that the common routine of household life—the maid waiting at table, Mrs. Hilbery writing a letter, the clock striking, and the door opening, and all the other signs of long-established civilization appeared suddenly to have no meaning save as they lulled Mr. and Mrs. Hilbery into the belief that nothing unusual had taken place. It chanced that Mrs. Hilbery was depressed without visible cause, unless a certain crudeness verging upon coarseness in the temper of her favorite Elizabethans could be held responsible for the mood. At any rate, she had shut up “The Duchess of Malfi” with a sigh, and wished to know, so she told Rodney at dinner, whether there wasn’t some young writer with a touch of the great spirit—somebody who made you believe that life was BEAUTIFUL? She got little help from Rodney, and after singing her plaintive requiem for the death of poetry by herself, she charmed herself into good spirits again by remembering the existence of Mozart. She begged Cassandra to play to her, and when they went upstairs Cassandra opened the piano directly, and did her best to create an atmosphere of unmixed beauty. At the sound of the first notes Katharine and Rodney both felt an enormous sense of relief at the license which the music gave them to loosen their hold upon the mechanism of behavior. They lapsed into the depths of thought. Mrs. Hilbery was soon spirited away into a perfectly congenial mood, that was half reverie and half slumber, half delicious melancholy and half pure bliss. Mr. Hilbery alone attended. He was extremely musical, and made Cassandra aware that he listened to every note. She played her best, and won his approval. Leaning slightly forward in his chair, and turning his little green stone, he weighed the intention of her phrases approvingly, but stopped her suddenly to complain of a noise behind him. The window was unhasped. He signed to Rodney, who crossed the room immediately to put the matter right. He stayed a moment longer by the window than was, perhaps, necessary, and having done what was needed, drew his chair a little closer than before to Katharine’s side. The music went on. Under cover of some exquisite run of melody, he leant towards her and whispered something. She glanced at her father and mother, and a moment later left the room, almost unobserved, with Rodney.
“What is it?” she asked, as soon as the door was shut.
Rodney made no answer, but led her downstairs into the dining-room on the ground floor. Even when he had shut the door he said nothing, but went straight to the window and parted the curtains. He beckoned to Katharine.
“There he is again,” he said. “Look, there—under the lamp-post.”
Katharine looked. She had no idea what Rodney was talking about. A vague feeling of alarm and mystery possessed her. She saw a man standing on the opposite side of the road facing the house beneath a lamp-post. As they looked the figure turned, walked a few steps, and came back again to his old position. It seemed to her that he was looking fixedly at her, and was conscious of her gaze on him. She knew, in a flash, who the man was who was watching them. She drew the curtain abruptly.
“Denham,” said Rodney. “He was there last night too.” He spoke sternly. His whole manner had become full of authority. Katharine felt almost as if he accused her of some crime. She was pale and uncomfortably agitated, as much by the strangeness of Rodney’s behavior as by the sight of Ralph Denham.
“If he chooses to come—” she said defiantly.
“You can’t let him wait out there. I shall tell him to come in.” Rodney spoke with such decision that when he raised his arm Katharine expected him to draw the curtain instantly. She caught his hand with a little exclamation.
“Wait!” she cried. “I don’t allow you.”
“You can’t wait,” he replied. “You’ve gone too far.” His hand remained upon the curtain. “Why don’t you admit, Katharine,” he broke out, looking at her with an expression of contempt as well as of anger, “that you love him? Are you going to treat him as you treated me?”
She looked at him, wondering, in spite of all her perplexity, at the spirit that possessed him.
“I forbid you to draw the curtain,” she said.
He reflected, and then took his hand away.
“I’ve no right to interfere,” he concluded. “I’ll leave you. Or, if you like, we’ll go back to the drawing-room.”
“No. I can’t go back,” she said, shaking her head. She bent her head in thought.
“You love him, Katharine,” Rodney said suddenly. His tone had lost something of its sternness, and might have been used to urge a child to confess its fault. She raised her eyes and fixed them upon him.
“I love him?” she repeated. He nodded. She searched his face, as if for further confirmation of his words, and, as he remained silent and expectant, turned away once more and continued her thoughts. He observed her closely, but without stirring, as if he gave her time to make up her mind to fulfil her obvious duty. The strains of Mozart reached them from the room above.
“Now,” she said suddenly, with a sort of desperation, rising from her chair and seeming to command Rodney to fulfil his part. He drew the curtain instantly, and she made no attempt to stop him. Their eyes at once sought the same spot beneath the lamp-post.
“He’s not there!” she exclaimed.
No one was there. William threw the window up and looked out. The wind rushed into the room, together with the sound of distant wheels, footsteps hurrying along the pavement, and the cries of sirens hooting down the river.
“Denham!” William cried.
“Ralph!” said Katharine, but she spoke scarcely louder than she might have spoken to some one in the same room. With their eyes fixed upon the opposite side of the road, they did not notice a figure close to the railing which divided the garden from the street. But Denham had crossed the road and was standing there. They were startled by his voice close at hand.
“There you are! Come in, Denham.” Rodney went to the front door and opened it. “Here he is,” he said, bringing Ralph with him into the dining-room where Katharine stood, with her back to the open window. Their eyes met for a second. Denham looked half dazed by the strong light, and, buttoned in his overcoat, with his hair ruffled across his forehead by the wind, he seemed like somebody rescued from an open boat out at sea. William promptly shut the window and drew the curtains. He acted with a cheerful decision as if he were master of the situation, and knew exactly what he meant to do.
“You’re the first to hear the news, Denham,” he said. “Katharine isn’t going to marry me, after all.”
“Where shall I put—” Ralph began vaguely, holding out his hat and glancing about him; he balanced it carefully against a silver bowl that stood upon the sideboard. He then sat himself down rather heavily at the head of the oval dinner-table. Rodney stood on one side of him and Katharine on the other. He appeared to be presiding over some meeting from which most of the members were absent. Meanwhile, he waited, and his eyes rested upon the glow of the beautifully polished mahogany table.
“William is engaged to Cassandra,” said Katharine briefly.
At that Denham looked up quickly at Rodney. Rodney’s expression changed. He lost his self-possession. He smiled a little nervously, and then his attention seemed to be caught by a fragment of melody from the floor above. He seemed for a moment to forget the presence of the others. He glanced towards the door.
“I congratulate you,” said Denham.
“Yes, yes. We’re all mad—quite out of our minds, Denham,” he said. “It’s partly Katharine’s doing—partly mine.” He looked oddly round the room as if he wished to make sure that the scene in which he played a part had some real existence. “Quite mad,” he repeated. “Even Katharine—” His gaze rested upon her finally, as if she, too, had changed from his old view of her. He smiled at her as if to encourage her. “Katharine shall explain,” he said, and giving a little nod to Denham, he left the room.
Katharine sat down at once, and leant her chin upon her hands. So long as Rodney was in the room the proceedings of the evening had seemed to be in his charge, and had been marked by a certain unreality. Now that she was alone with Ralph she felt at once that a constraint had been taken from them both. She felt that they were alone at the bottom of the house, which rose, story upon story, upon the top of them.
“Why were you waiting out there?” she asked.
“For the chance of seeing you,” he replied.
“You would have waited all night if it hadn’t been for William. It’s windy too. You must have been cold. What could you see? Nothing but our windows.”
“It was worth it. I heard you call me.”
“I called you?” She had called unconsciously.
“They were engaged this morning,” she told him, after a pause.
“You’re glad?” he asked.
She bent her head. “Yes, yes,” she sighed. “But you don’t know how good he is—what he’s done for me—” Ralph made a sound of understanding. “You waited there last night too?” she asked.
“Yes. I can wait,” Denham replied.
The words seemed to fill the room with an emotion which Katharine connected with the sound of distant wheels, the footsteps hurrying along the pavement, the cries of sirens hooting down the river, the darkness and the wind. She saw the upright figure standing beneath the lamp-post.
“Waiting in the dark,” she said, glancing at the window, as if he saw what she was seeing. “Ah, but it’s different—” She broke off. “I’m not the person you think me. Until you realize that it’s impossible—”
Placing her elbows on the table, she slid her ruby ring up and down her finger abstractedly. She frowned at the rows of leather-bound books opposite her. Ralph looked keenly at her. Very pale, but sternly concentrated upon her meaning, beautiful but so little aware of herself as to seem remote from him also, there was something distant and abstract about her which exalted him and chilled him at the same time.
“No, you’re right,” he said. “I don’t know you. I’ve never known you.”
“Yet perhaps you know me better than any one else,” she mused.
Some detached instinct made her aware that she was gazing at a book which belonged by rights to some other part of the house. She walked over to the shelf, took it down, and returned to her seat, placing the book on the table between them. Ralph opened it and looked at the portrait of a man with a voluminous white shirt-collar, which formed the frontispiece.
“I say I do know you, Katharine,” he affirmed, shutting the book. “It’s only for moments that I go mad.”
“Do you call two whole nights a moment?”
“I swear to you that now, at this instant, I see you precisely as you are. No one has ever known you as I know you…. Could you have taken down that book just now if I hadn’t known you?”
“That’s true,” she replied, “but you can’t think how I’m divided—how I’m at my ease with you, and how I’m bewildered. The unreality—the dark—the waiting outside in the wind—yes, when you look at me, not seeing me, and I don’t see you either…. But I do see,” she went on quickly, changing her position and frowning again, “heaps of things, only not you.”
“Tell me what you see,” he urged.
But she could not reduce her vision to words, since it was no single shape colored upon the dark, but rather a general excitement, an atmosphere, which, when she tried to visualize it, took form as a wind scouring the flanks of northern hills and flashing light upon cornfields and pools.
“Impossible,” she sighed, laughing at the ridiculous notion of putting any part of this into words.
“Try, Katharine,” Ralph urged her.
“But I can’t—I’m talking a sort of nonsense—the sort of nonsense one talks to oneself.” She was dismayed by the expression of longing and despair upon his face. “I was thinking about a mountain in the North of England,” she attempted. “It’s too silly—I won’t go on.”
“We were there together?” he pressed her.
“No. I was alone.” She seemed to be disappointing the desire of a child. His face fell.
“You’re always alone there?”
“I can’t explain.” She could not explain that she was essentially alone there. “It’s not a mountain in the North of England. It’s an imagination—a story one tells oneself. You have yours too?”
“You’re with me in mine. You’re the thing I make up, you see.”
“Oh, I see,” she sighed. “That’s why it’s so impossible.” She turned upon him almost fiercely. “You must try to stop it,” she said.
“I won’t,” he replied roughly, “because I—” He stopped. He realized that the moment had come to impart that news of the utmost importance which he had tried to impart to Mary Datchet, to Rodney upon the Embankment, to the drunken tramp upon the seat. How should he offer it to Katharine? He looked quickly at her. He saw that she was only half attentive to him; only a section of her was exposed to him. The sight roused in him such desperation that he had much ado to control his impulse to rise and leave the house. Her hand lay loosely curled upon the table. He seized it and grasped it firmly as if to make sure of her existence and of his own. “Because I love you, Katharine,” he said.
Some roundness or warmth essential to that statement was absent from his voice, and she had merely to shake her head very slightly for him to drop her hand and turn away in shame at his own impotence. He thought that she had detected his wish to leave her. She had discerned the break in his resolution, the blankness in the heart of his vision. It was true that he had been happier out in the street, thinking of her, than now that he was in the same room with her. He looked at her with a guilty expression on his face. But her look expressed neither disappointment nor reproach. Her pose was easy, and she seemed to give effect to a mood of quiet speculation by the spinning of her ruby ring upon the polished table. Denham forgot his despair in wondering what thoughts now occupied her.
“You don’t believe me?” he said. His tone was humble, and made her smile at him.
“As far as I understand you—but what should you advise me to do with this ring?” she asked, holding it out.
“I should advise you to let me keep it for you,” he replied, in the same tone of half-humorous gravity.
“After what you’ve said, I can hardly trust you—unless you’ll unsay what you’ve said?”
“Very well. I’m not in love with you.”
“But I think you ARE in love with me…. As I am with you,” she added casually enough. “At least,” she said slipping her ring back to its old position, “what other word describes the state we’re in?”
She looked at him gravely and inquiringly, as if in search of help.
“It’s when I’m with you that I doubt it, not when I’m alone,” he stated.
“So I thought,” she replied.
In order to explain to her his state of mind, Ralph recounted his experience with the photograph, the letter, and the flower picked at Kew. She listened very seriously.
“And then you went raving about the streets,” she mused. “Well, it’s bad enough. But my state is worse than yours, because it hasn’t anything to do with facts. It’s an hallucination, pure and simple—an intoxication…. One can be in love with pure reason?” she hazarded. “Because if you’re in love with a vision, I believe that that’s what I’m in love with.”
This conclusion seemed fantastic and profoundly unsatisfactory to Ralph, but after the astonishing variations of his own sentiments during the past half-hour he could not accuse her of fanciful exaggeration.
“Rodney seems to know his own mind well enough,” he said almost bitterly. The music, which had ceased, had now begun again, and the melody of Mozart seemed to express the easy and exquisite love of the two upstairs.
“Cassandra never doubted for a moment. But we—” she glanced at him as if to ascertain his position, “we see each other only now and then—”
“Like lights in a storm—”
“In the midst of a hurricane,” she concluded, as the window shook beneath the pressure of the wind. They listened to the sound in silence.
Here the door opened with considerable hesitation, and Mrs. Hilbery’s head appeared, at first with an air of caution, but having made sure that she had admitted herself to the dining-room and not to some more unusual region, she came completely inside and seemed in no way taken aback by the sight she saw. She seemed, as usual, bound on some quest of her own which was interrupted pleasantly but strangely by running into one of those queer, unnecessary ceremonies that other people thought fit to indulge in.
“Please don’t let me interrupt you, Mr.—” she was at a loss, as usual, for the name, and Katharine thought that she did not recognize him. “I hope you’ve found something nice to read,” she added, pointing to the book upon the table. “Byron—ah, Byron. I’ve known people who knew Lord Byron,” she said.
Katharine, who had risen in some confusion, could not help smiling at the thought that her mother found it perfectly natural and desirable that her daughter should be reading Byron in the dining-room late at night alone with a strange young man. She blessed a disposition that was so convenient, and felt tenderly towards her mother and her mother’s eccentricities. But Ralph observed that although Mrs. Hilbery held the book so close to her eyes she was not reading a word.
“My dear mother, why aren’t you in bed?” Katharine exclaimed, changing astonishingly in the space of a minute to her usual condition of authoritative good sense. “Why are you wandering about?”
“I’m sure I should like your poetry better than I like Lord Byron’s,” said Mrs. Hilbery, addressing Ralph Denham.
“Mr. Denham doesn’t write poetry; he has written articles for father, for the Review,” Katharine said, as if prompting her memory.
“Oh dear! How dull!” Mrs. Hilbery exclaimed, with a sudden laugh that rather puzzled her daughter.
Ralph found that she had turned upon him a gaze that was at once very vague and very penetrating.
“But I’m sure you read poetry at night. I always judge by the expression of the eyes,” Mrs. Hilbery continued. (“The windows of the soul,” she added parenthetically.) “I don’t know much about the law,” she went on, “though many of my relations were lawyers. Some of them looked very handsome, too, in their wigs. But I think I do know a little about poetry,” she added. “And all the things that aren’t written down, but—but—” She waved her hand, as if to indicate the wealth of unwritten poetry all about them. “The night and the stars, the dawn coming up, the barges swimming past, the sun setting…. Ah dear,” she sighed, “well, the sunset is very lovely too. I sometimes think that poetry isn’t so much what we write as what we feel, Mr. Denham.”
During this speech of her mother’s Katharine had turned away, and Ralph felt that Mrs. Hilbery was talking to him apart, with a desire to ascertain something about him which she veiled purposely by the vagueness of her words. He felt curiously encouraged and heartened by the beam in her eye rather than by her actual words. From the distance of her age and sex she seemed to be waving to him, hailing him as a ship sinking beneath the horizon might wave its flag of greeting to another setting out upon the same voyage. He bent his head, saying nothing, but with a curious certainty that she had read an answer to her inquiry that satisfied her. At any rate, she rambled off into a description of the Law Courts which turned to a denunciation of English justice, which, according to her, imprisoned poor men who couldn’t pay their debts. “Tell me, shall we ever do without it all?” she asked, but at this point Katharine gently insisted that her mother should go to bed. Looking back from half-way up the staircase, Katharine seemed to see Denham’s eyes watching her steadily and intently with an expression that she had guessed in them when he stood looking at the windows across the road.