Denham had no conscious intention of following Katharine, but, seeing her depart, he took his hat and ran rather more quickly down the stairs than he would have done if Katharine had not been in front of him. He overtook a friend of his, by name Harry Sandys, who was going the same way, and they walked together a few paces behind Katharine and Rodney.
The night was very still, and on such nights, when the traffic thins away, the walker becomes conscious of the moon in the street, as if the curtains of the sky had been drawn apart, and the heaven lay bare, as it does in the country. The air was softly cool, so that people who had been sitting talking in a crowd found it pleasant to walk a little before deciding to stop an omnibus or encounter light again in an underground railway. Sandys, who was a barrister with a philosophic tendency, took out his pipe, lit it, murmured “hum” and “ha,” and was silent. The couple in front of them kept their distance accurately, and appeared, so far as Denham could judge by the way they turned towards each other, to be talking very constantly. He observed that when a pedestrian going the opposite way forced them to part they came together again directly afterwards. Without intending to watch them he never quite lost sight of the yellow scarf twisted round Katharine’s head, or the light overcoat which made Rodney look fashionable among the crowd. At the Strand he supposed that they would separate, but instead they crossed the road, and took their way down one of the narrow passages which lead through ancient courts to the river. Among the crowd of people in the big thoroughfares Rodney seemed merely to be lending Katharine his escort, but now, when passengers were rare and the footsteps of the couple were distinctly heard in the silence, Denham could not help picturing to himself some change in their conversation. The effect of the light and shadow, which seemed to increase their height, was to make them mysterious and significant, so that Denham had no feeling of irritation with Katharine, but rather a half-dreamy acquiescence in the course of the world. Yes, she did very well to dream about—but Sandys had suddenly begun to talk. He was a solitary man who had made his friends at college and always addressed them as if they were still undergraduates arguing in his room, though many months or even years had passed in some cases between the last sentence and the present one. The method was a little singular, but very restful, for it seemed to ignore completely all accidents of human life, and to span very deep abysses with a few simple words.
On this occasion he began, while they waited for a minute on the edge of the Strand:
“I hear that Bennett has given up his theory of truth.”
Denham returned a suitable answer, and he proceeded to explain how this decision had been arrived at, and what changes it involved in the philosophy which they both accepted. Meanwhile Katharine and Rodney drew further ahead, and Denham kept, if that is the right expression for an involuntary action, one filament of his mind upon them, while with the rest of his intelligence he sought to understand what Sandys was saying.
As they passed through the courts thus talking, Sandys laid the tip of his stick upon one of the stones forming a time-worn arch, and struck it meditatively two or three times in order to illustrate something very obscure about the complex nature of one’s apprehension of facts. During the pause which this necessitated, Katharine and Rodney turned the corner and disappeared. For a moment Denham stopped involuntarily in his sentence, and continued it with a sense of having lost something.
Unconscious that they were observed, Katharine and Rodney had come out on the Embankment. When they had crossed the road, Rodney slapped his hand upon the stone parapet above the river and exclaimed:
“I promise I won’t say another word about it, Katharine! But do stop a minute and look at the moon upon the water.”
Katharine paused, looked up and down the river, and snuffed the air.
“I’m sure one can smell the sea, with the wind blowing this way,” she said.
They stood silent for a few moments while the river shifted in its bed, and the silver and red lights which were laid upon it were torn by the current and joined together again. Very far off up the river a steamer hooted with its hollow voice of unspeakable melancholy, as if from the heart of lonely mist-shrouded voyagings.
“Ah!” Rodney cried, striking his hand once more upon the balustrade, “why can’t one say how beautiful it all is? Why am I condemned for ever, Katharine, to feel what I can’t express? And the things I can give there’s no use in my giving. Trust me, Katharine,” he added hastily, “I won’t speak of it again. But in the presence of beauty—look at the iridescence round the moon!—one feels—one feels—Perhaps if you married me—I’m half a poet, you see, and I can’t pretend not to feel what I do feel. If I could write—ah, that would be another matter. I shouldn’t bother you to marry me then, Katharine.”
He spoke these disconnected sentences rather abruptly, with his eyes alternately upon the moon and upon the stream.
“But for me I suppose you would recommend marriage?” said Katharine, with her eyes fixed on the moon.
“Certainly I should. Not for you only, but for all women. Why, you’re nothing at all without it; you’re only half alive; using only half your faculties; you must feel that for yourself. That is why—” Here he stopped himself, and they began to walk slowly along the Embankment, the moon fronting them.
“With how sad steps she climbs the sky, How silently and with how wan a face,”
“I’ve been told a great many unpleasant things about myself to-night,” Katharine stated, without attending to him. “Mr. Denham seems to think it his mission to lecture me, though I hardly know him. By the way, William, you know him; tell me, what is he like?”
William drew a deep sigh.
“We may lecture you till we’re blue in the face—”
“Yes—but what’s he like?”
“And we write sonnets to your eyebrows, you cruel practical creature. Denham?” he added, as Katharine remained silent. “A good fellow, I should think. He cares, naturally, for the right sort of things, I expect. But you mustn’t marry him, though. He scolded you, did he—what did he say?”
“What happens with Mr. Denham is this: He comes to tea. I do all I can to put him at his ease. He merely sits and scowls at me. Then I show him our manuscripts. At this he becomes really angry, and tells me I’ve no business to call myself a middle-class woman. So we part in a huff; and next time we meet, which was to-night, he walks straight up to me, and says, ‘Go to the Devil!’ That’s the sort of behavior my mother complains of. I want to know, what does it mean?”
She paused and, slackening her steps, looked at the lighted train drawing itself smoothly over Hungerford Bridge.
“It means, I should say, that he finds you chilly and unsympathetic.”
Katharine laughed with round, separate notes of genuine amusement.
“It’s time I jumped into a cab and hid myself in my own house,” she exclaimed.
“Would your mother object to my being seen with you? No one could possibly recognize us, could they?” Rodney inquired, with some solicitude.
Katharine looked at him, and perceiving that his solicitude was genuine, she laughed again, but with an ironical note in her laughter.
“You may laugh, Katharine, but I can tell you that if any of your friends saw us together at this time of night they would talk about it, and I should find that very disagreeable. But why do you laugh?”
“I don’t know. Because you’re such a queer mixture, I think. You’re half poet and half old maid.”
“I know I always seem to you highly ridiculous. But I can’t help having inherited certain traditions and trying to put them into practice.”
“Nonsense, William. You may come of the oldest family in Devonshire, but that’s no reason why you should mind being seen alone with me on the Embankment.”
“I’m ten years older than you are, Katharine, and I know more of the world than you do.”
“Very well. Leave me and go home.”
Rodney looked back over his shoulder and perceived that they were being followed at a short distance by a taxicab, which evidently awaited his summons. Katharine saw it, too, and exclaimed:
“Don’t call that cab for me, William. I shall walk.”
“Nonsense, Katharine; you’ll do nothing of the kind. It’s nearly twelve o’clock, and we’ve walked too far as it is.”
Katharine laughed and walked on so quickly that both Rodney and the taxicab had to increase their pace to keep up with her.
“Now, William,” she said, “if people see me racing along the Embankment like this they WILL talk. You had far better say good-night, if you don’t want people to talk.”
At this William beckoned, with a despotic gesture, to the cab with one hand, and with the other he brought Katharine to a standstill.
“Don’t let the man see us struggling, for God’s sake!” he murmured. Katharine stood for a moment quite still.
“There’s more of the old maid in you than the poet,” she observed briefly.
William shut the door sharply, gave the address to the driver, and turned away, lifting his hat punctiliously high in farewell to the invisible lady.
He looked back after the cab twice, suspiciously, half expecting that she would stop it and dismount; but it bore her swiftly on, and was soon out of sight. William felt in the mood for a short soliloquy of indignation, for Katharine had contrived to exasperate him in more ways than one.
“Of all the unreasonable, inconsiderate creatures I’ve ever known, she’s the worst!” he exclaimed to himself, striding back along the Embankment. “Heaven forbid that I should ever make a fool of myself with her again. Why, I’d sooner marry the daughter of my landlady than Katharine Hilbery! She’d leave me not a moment’s peace—and she’d never understand me—never, never, never!”
Uttered aloud and with vehemence so that the stars of Heaven might hear, for there was no human being at hand, these sentiments sounded satisfactorily irrefutable. Rodney quieted down, and walked on in silence, until he perceived some one approaching him, who had something, either in his walk or his dress, which proclaimed that he was one of William’s acquaintances before it was possible to tell which of them he was. It was Denham who, having parted from Sandys at the bottom of his staircase, was now walking to the Tube at Charing Cross, deep in the thoughts which his talk with Sandys had suggested. He had forgotten the meeting at Mary Datchet’s rooms, he had forgotten Rodney, and metaphors and Elizabethan drama, and could have sworn that he had forgotten Katharine Hilbery, too, although that was more disputable. His mind was scaling the highest pinnacles of its alps, where there was only starlight and the untrodden snow. He cast strange eyes upon Rodney, as they encountered each other beneath a lamp-post.
“Ha!” Rodney exclaimed.
If he had been in full possession of his mind, Denham would probably have passed on with a salutation. But the shock of the interruption made him stand still, and before he knew what he was doing, he had turned and was walking with Rodney in obedience to Rodney’s invitation to come to his rooms and have something to drink. Denham had no wish to drink with Rodney, but he followed him passively enough. Rodney was gratified by this obedience. He felt inclined to be communicative with this silent man, who possessed so obviously all the good masculine qualities in which Katharine now seemed lamentably deficient.
“You do well, Denham,” he began impulsively, “to have nothing to do with young women. I offer you my experience—if one trusts them one invariably has cause to repent. Not that I have any reason at this moment,” he added hastily, “to complain of them. It’s a subject that crops up now and again for no particular reason. Miss Datchet, I dare say, is one of the exceptions. Do you like Miss Datchet?”
These remarks indicated clearly enough that Rodney’s nerves were in a state of irritation, and Denham speedily woke to the situation of the world as it had been one hour ago. He had last seen Rodney walking with Katharine. He could not help regretting the eagerness with which his mind returned to these interests, and fretted him with the old trivial anxieties. He sank in his own esteem. Reason bade him break from Rodney, who clearly tended to become confidential, before he had utterly lost touch with the problems of high philosophy. He looked along the road, and marked a lamp-post at a distance of some hundred yards, and decided that he would part from Rodney when they reached this point.
“Yes, I like Mary; I don’t see how one could help liking her,” he remarked cautiously, with his eye on the lamp-post.
“Ah, Denham, you’re so different from me. You never give yourself away. I watched you this evening with Katharine Hilbery. My instinct is to trust the person I’m talking to. That’s why I’m always being taken in, I suppose.”
Denham seemed to be pondering this statement of Rodney’s, but, as a matter of fact, he was hardly conscious of Rodney and his revelations, and was only concerned to make him mention Katharine again before they reached the lamp-post.
“Who’s taken you in now?” he asked. “Katharine Hilbery?”
Rodney stopped and once more began beating a kind of rhythm, as if he were marking a phrase in a symphony, upon the smooth stone balustrade of the Embankment.
“Katharine Hilbery,” he repeated, with a curious little chuckle. “No, Denham, I have no illusions about that young woman. I think I made that plain to her to-night. But don’t run away with a false impression,” he continued eagerly, turning and linking his arm through Denham’s, as though to prevent him from escaping; and, thus compelled, Denham passed the monitory lamp-post, to which, in passing, he breathed an excuse, for how could he break away when Rodney’s arm was actually linked in his? “You must not think that I have any bitterness against her—far from it. It’s not altogether her fault, poor girl. She lives, you know, one of those odious, self-centered lives—at least, I think them odious for a woman—feeding her wits upon everything, having control of everything, getting far too much her own way at home—spoilt, in a sense, feeling that every one is at her feet, and so not realizing how she hurts—that is, how rudely she behaves to people who haven’t all her advantages. Still, to do her justice, she’s no fool,” he added, as if to warn Denham not to take any liberties. “She has taste. She has sense. She can understand you when you talk to her. But she’s a woman, and there’s an end of it,” he added, with another little chuckle, and dropped Denham’s arm.
“And did you tell her all this to-night?” Denham asked.
“Oh dear me, no. I should never think of telling Katharine the truth about herself. That wouldn’t do at all. One has to be in an attitude of adoration in order to get on with Katharine.
“Now I’ve learnt that she’s refused to marry him why don’t I go home?” Denham thought to himself. But he went on walking beside Rodney, and for a time they did not speak, though Rodney hummed snatches of a tune out of an opera by Mozart. A feeling of contempt and liking combine very naturally in the mind of one to whom another has just spoken unpremeditatedly, revealing rather more of his private feelings than he intended to reveal. Denham began to wonder what sort of person Rodney was, and at the same time Rodney began to think about Denham.
“You’re a slave like me, I suppose?” he asked.
“A solicitor, yes.”
“I sometimes wonder why we don’t chuck it. Why don’t you emigrate, Denham? I should have thought that would suit you.”
“I’ve a family.”
“I’m often on the point of going myself. And then I know I couldn’t live without this”—and he waved his hand towards the City of London, which wore, at this moment, the appearance of a town cut out of gray-blue cardboard, and pasted flat against the sky, which was of a deeper blue.
“There are one or two people I’m fond of, and there’s a little good music, and a few pictures, now and then—just enough to keep one dangling about here. Ah, but I couldn’t live with savages! Are you fond of books? Music? Pictures? D’you care at all for first editions? I’ve got a few nice things up here, things I pick up cheap, for I can’t afford to give what they ask.”
They had reached a small court of high eighteenth-century houses, in one of which Rodney had his rooms. They climbed a very steep staircase, through whose uncurtained windows the moonlight fell, illuminating the banisters with their twisted pillars, and the piles of plates set on the window-sills, and jars half-full of milk. Rodney’s rooms were small, but the sitting-room window looked out into a courtyard, with its flagged pavement, and its single tree, and across to the flat red-brick fronts of the opposite houses, which would not have surprised Dr. Johnson, if he had come out of his grave for a turn in the moonlight. Rodney lit his lamp, pulled his curtains, offered Denham a chair, and, flinging the manuscript of his paper on the Elizabethan use of Metaphor on to the table, exclaimed:
“Oh dear me, what a waste of time! But it’s over now, and so we may think no more about it.”
He then busied himself very dexterously in lighting a fire, producing glasses, whisky, a cake, and cups and saucers. He put on a faded crimson dressing-gown, and a pair of red slippers, and advanced to Denham with a tumbler in one hand and a well-burnished book in the other.
“The Baskerville Congreve,” said Rodney, offering it to his guest. “I couldn’t read him in a cheap edition.”
When he was seen thus among his books and his valuables, amiably anxious to make his visitor comfortable, and moving about with something of the dexterity and grace of a Persian cat, Denham relaxed his critical attitude, and felt more at home with Rodney than he would have done with many men better known to him. Rodney’s room was the room of a person who cherishes a great many personal tastes, guarding them from the rough blasts of the public with scrupulous attention. His papers and his books rose in jagged mounds on table and floor, round which he skirted with nervous care lest his dressing-gown might disarrange them ever so slightly. On a chair stood a stack of photographs of statues and pictures, which it was his habit to exhibit, one by one, for the space of a day or two. The books on his shelves were as orderly as regiments of soldiers, and the backs of them shone like so many bronze beetle-wings; though, if you took one from its place you saw a shabbier volume behind it, since space was limited. An oval Venetian mirror stood above the fireplace, and reflected duskily in its spotted depths the faint yellow and crimson of a jarful of tulips which stood among the letters and pipes and cigarettes upon the mantelpiece. A small piano occupied a corner of the room, with the score of “Don Giovanni” open upon the bracket.
“Well, Rodney,” said Denham, as he filled his pipe and looked about him, “this is all very nice and comfortable.”
Rodney turned his head half round and smiled, with the pride of a proprietor, and then prevented himself from smiling.
“Tolerable,” he muttered.
“But I dare say it’s just as well that you have to earn your own living.”
“If you mean that I shouldn’t do anything good with leisure if I had it, I dare say you’re right. But I should be ten times as happy with my whole day to spend as I liked.”
“I doubt that,” Denham replied.
They sat silent, and the smoke from their pipes joined amicably in a blue vapor above their heads.
“I could spend three hours every day reading Shakespeare,” Rodney remarked. “And there’s music and pictures, let alone the society of the people one likes.”
“You’d be bored to death in a year’s time.”
“Oh, I grant you I should be bored if I did nothing. But I should write plays.”
“I should write plays,” he repeated. “I’ve written three-quarters of one already, and I’m only waiting for a holiday to finish it. And it’s not bad—no, some of it’s really rather nice.”
The question arose in Denham’s mind whether he should ask to see this play, as, no doubt, he was expected to do. He looked rather stealthily at Rodney, who was tapping the coal nervously with a poker, and quivering almost physically, so Denham thought, with desire to talk about this play of his, and vanity unrequited and urgent. He seemed very much at Denham’s mercy, and Denham could not help liking him, partly on that account.
“Well,… will you let me see the play?” Denham asked, and Rodney looked immediately appeased, but, nevertheless, he sat silent for a moment, holding the poker perfectly upright in the air, regarding it with his rather prominent eyes, and opening his lips and shutting them again.
“Do you really care for this kind of thing?” he asked at length, in a different tone of voice from that in which he had been speaking. And, without waiting for an answer, he went on, rather querulously: “Very few people care for poetry. I dare say it bores you.”
“Perhaps,” Denham remarked.
“Well, I’ll lend it you,” Rodney announced, putting down the poker.
As he moved to fetch the play, Denham stretched a hand to the bookcase beside him, and took down the first volume which his fingers touched. It happened to be a small and very lovely edition of Sir Thomas Browne, containing the “Urn Burial,” the “Hydriotaphia,” and the “Garden of Cyrus,” and, opening it at a passage which he knew very nearly by heart, Denham began to read and, for some time, continued to read.
Rodney resumed his seat, with his manuscript on his knee, and from time to time he glanced at Denham, and then joined his finger-tips and crossed his thin legs over the fender, as if he experienced a good deal of pleasure. At length Denham shut the book, and stood, with his back to the fireplace, occasionally making an inarticulate humming sound which seemed to refer to Sir Thomas Browne. He put his hat on his head, and stood over Rodney, who still lay stretched back in his chair, with his toes within the fender.
“I shall look in again some time,” Denham remarked, upon which Rodney held up his hand, containing his manuscript, without saying anything except—“If you like.”
Denham took the manuscript and went. Two days later he was much surprised to find a thin parcel on his breakfast-plate, which, on being opened, revealed the very copy of Sir Thomas Browne which he had studied so intently in Rodney’s rooms. From sheer laziness he returned no thanks, but he thought of Rodney from time to time with interest, disconnecting him from Katharine, and meant to go round one evening and smoke a pipe with him. It pleased Rodney thus to give away whatever his friends genuinely admired. His library was constantly being diminished.