She took her letters up to her room with her, having persuaded her mother to go to bed directly Mr. Hilbery left them, for so long as she sat in the same room as her mother, Mrs. Hilbery might, at any moment, ask for a sight of the post. A very hasty glance through many sheets had shown Katharine that, by some coincidence, her attention had to be directed to many different anxieties simultaneously. In the first place, Rodney had written a very full account of his state of mind, which was illustrated by a sonnet, and he demanded a reconsideration of their position, which agitated Katharine more than she liked. Then there were two letters which had to be laid side by side and compared before she could make out the truth of their story, and even when she knew the facts she could not decide what to make of them; and finally she had to reflect upon a great many pages from a cousin who found himself in financial difficulties, which forced him to the uncongenial occupation of teaching the young ladies of Bungay to play upon the violin.
But the two letters which each told the same story differently were the chief source of her perplexity. She was really rather shocked to find it definitely established that her own second cousin, Cyril Alardyce, had lived for the last four years with a woman who was not his wife, who had borne him two children, and was now about to bear him another. This state of things had been discovered by Mrs. Milvain, her aunt Celia, a zealous inquirer into such matters, whose letter was also under consideration. Cyril, she said, must be made to marry the woman at once; and Cyril, rightly or wrongly, was indignant with such interference with his affairs, and would not own that he had any cause to be ashamed of himself. Had he any cause to be ashamed of himself, Katharine wondered; and she turned to her aunt again.
“Remember,” she wrote, in her profuse, emphatic statement, “that he bears your grandfather’s name, and so will the child that is to be born. The poor boy is not so much to blame as the woman who deluded him, thinking him a gentleman, which he IS, and having money, which he has NOT.”
“What would Ralph Denham say to this?” thought Katharine, beginning to pace up and down her bedroom. She twitched aside the curtains, so that, on turning, she was faced by darkness, and looking out, could just distinguish the branches of a plane-tree and the yellow lights of some one else’s windows.
“What would Mary Datchet and Ralph Denham say?” she reflected, pausing by the window, which, as the night was warm, she raised, in order to feel the air upon her face, and to lose herself in the nothingness of night. But with the air the distant humming sound of far-off crowded thoroughfares was admitted to the room. The incessant and tumultuous hum of the distant traffic seemed, as she stood there, to represent the thick texture of her life, for her life was so hemmed in with the progress of other lives that the sound of its own advance was inaudible. People like Ralph and Mary, she thought, had it all their own way, and an empty space before them, and, as she envied them, she cast her mind out to imagine an empty land where all this petty intercourse of men and women, this life made up of the dense crossings and entanglements of men and women, had no existence whatever. Even now, alone, at night, looking out into the shapeless mass of London, she was forced to remember that there was one point and here another with which she had some connection. William Rodney, at this very moment, was seated in a minute speck of light somewhere to the east of her, and his mind was occupied, not with his book, but with her. She wished that no one in the whole world would think of her. However, there was no way of escaping from one’s fellow-beings, she concluded, and shut the window with a sigh, and returned once more to her letters.
She could not doubt but that William’s letter was the most genuine she had yet received from him. He had come to the conclusion that he could not live without her, he wrote. He believed that he knew her, and could give her happiness, and that their marriage would be unlike other marriages. Nor was the sonnet, in spite of its accomplishment, lacking in passion, and Katharine, as she read the pages through again, could see in what direction her feelings ought to flow, supposing they revealed themselves. She would come to feel a humorous sort of tenderness for him, a zealous care for his susceptibilities, and, after all, she considered, thinking of her father and mother, what is love?
Naturally, with her face, position, and background, she had experience of young men who wished to marry her, and made protestations of love, but, perhaps because she did not return the feeling, it remained something of a pageant to her. Not having experience of it herself, her mind had unconsciously occupied itself for some years in dressing up an image of love, and the marriage that was the outcome of love, and the man who inspired love, which naturally dwarfed any examples that came her way. Easily, and without correction by reason, her imagination made pictures, superb backgrounds casting a rich though phantom light upon the facts in the foreground. Splendid as the waters that drop with resounding thunder from high ledges of rock, and plunge downwards into the blue depths of night, was the presence of love she dreamt, drawing into it every drop of the force of life, and dashing them all asunder in the superb catastrophe in which everything was surrendered, and nothing might be reclaimed. The man, too, was some magnanimous hero, riding a great horse by the shore of the sea. They rode through forests together, they galloped by the rim of the sea. But waking, she was able to contemplate a perfectly loveless marriage, as the thing one did actually in real life, for possibly the people who dream thus are those who do the most prosaic things.
At this moment she was much inclined to sit on into the night, spinning her light fabric of thoughts until she tired of their futility, and went to her mathematics; but, as she knew very well, it was necessary that she should see her father before he went to bed. The case of Cyril Alardyce must be discussed, her mother’s illusions and the rights of the family attended to. Being vague herself as to what all this amounted to, she had to take counsel with her father. She took her letters in her hand and went downstairs. It was past eleven, and the clocks had come into their reign, the grandfather’s clock in the hall ticking in competition with the small clock on the landing. Mr. Hilbery’s study ran out behind the rest of the house, on the ground floor, and was a very silent, subterranean place, the sun in daytime casting a mere abstract of light through a skylight upon his books and the large table, with its spread of white papers, now illumined by a green reading-lamp. Here Mr. Hilbery sat editing his review, or placing together documents by means of which it could be proved that Shelley had written “of” instead of “and,” or that the inn in which Byron had slept was called the “Nag’s Head” and not the “Turkish Knight,” or that the Christian name of Keats’s uncle had been John rather than Richard, for he knew more minute details about these poets than any man in England, probably, and was preparing an edition of Shelley which scrupulously observed the poet’s system of punctuation. He saw the humor of these researches, but that did not prevent him from carrying them out with the utmost scrupulosity.
He was lying back comfortably in a deep arm-chair smoking a cigar, and ruminating the fruitful question as to whether Coleridge had wished to marry Dorothy Wordsworth, and what, if he had done so, would have been the consequences to him in particular, and to literature in general. When Katharine came in he reflected that he knew what she had come for, and he made a pencil note before he spoke to her. Having done this, he saw that she was reading, and he watched her for a moment without saying anything. She was reading “Isabella and the Pot of Basil,” and her mind was full of the Italian hills and the blue daylight, and the hedges set with little rosettes of red and white roses. Feeling that her father waited for her, she sighed and said, shutting her book:
“I’ve had a letter from Aunt Celia about Cyril, father…. It seems to be true—about his marriage. What are we to do?”
“Cyril seems to have been behaving in a very foolish manner,” said Mr. Hilbery, in his pleasant and deliberate tones.
Katharine found some difficulty in carrying on the conversation, while her father balanced his finger-tips so judiciously, and seemed to reserve so many of his thoughts for himself.
“He’s about done for himself, I should say,” he continued. Without saying anything, he took Katharine’s letters out of her hand, adjusted his eyeglasses, and read them through.
At length he said “Humph!” and gave the letters back to her.
“Mother knows nothing about it,” Katharine remarked. “Will you tell her?”
“I shall tell your mother. But I shall tell her that there is nothing whatever for us to do.”
“But the marriage?” Katharine asked, with some diffidence.
Mr. Hilbery said nothing, and stared into the fire.
“What in the name of conscience did he do it for?” he speculated at last, rather to himself than to her.
Katharine had begun to read her aunt’s letter over again, and she now quoted a sentence. “Ibsen and Butler…. He has sent me a letter full of quotations—nonsense, though clever nonsense.”
“Well, if the younger generation want to carry on its life on those lines, it’s none of our affair,” he remarked.
“But isn’t it our affair, perhaps, to make them get married?” Katharine asked rather wearily.
“Why the dickens should they apply to me?” her father demanded with sudden irritation.
“Only as the head of the family—”
“But I’m not the head of the family. Alfred’s the head of the family. Let them apply to Alfred,” said Mr. Hilbery, relapsing again into his arm-chair. Katharine was aware that she had touched a sensitive spot, however, in mentioning the family.
“I think, perhaps, the best thing would be for me to go and see them,” she observed.
“I won’t have you going anywhere near them,” Mr. Hilbery replied with unwonted decision and authority. “Indeed, I don’t understand why they’ve dragged you into the business at all—I don’t see that it’s got anything to do with you.”
“I’ve always been friends with Cyril,” Katharine observed.
“But did he ever tell you anything about this?” Mr. Hilbery asked rather sharply.
Katharine shook her head. She was, indeed, a good deal hurt that Cyril had not confided in her—did he think, as Ralph Denham or Mary Datchet might think, that she was, for some reason, unsympathetic—hostile even?
“As to your mother,” said Mr. Hilbery, after a pause, in which he seemed to be considering the color of the flames, “you had better tell her the facts. She’d better know the facts before every one begins to talk about it, though why Aunt Celia thinks it necessary to come, I’m sure I don’t know. And the less talk there is the better.”
Granting the assumption that gentlemen of sixty who are highly cultivated, and have had much experience of life, probably think of many things which they do not say, Katharine could not help feeling rather puzzled by her father’s attitude, as she went back to her room. What a distance he was from it all! How superficially he smoothed these events into a semblance of decency which harmonized with his own view of life! He never wondered what Cyril had felt, nor did the hidden aspects of the case tempt him to examine into them. He merely seemed to realize, rather languidly, that Cyril had behaved in a way which was foolish, because other people did not behave in that way. He seemed to be looking through a telescope at little figures hundreds of miles in the distance.
Her selfish anxiety not to have to tell Mrs. Hilbery what had happened made her follow her father into the hall after breakfast the next morning in order to question him.
“Have you told mother?” she asked. Her manner to her father was almost stern, and she seemed to hold endless depths of reflection in the dark of her eyes.
Mr. Hilbery sighed.
“My dear child, it went out of my head.” He smoothed his silk hat energetically, and at once affected an air of hurry. “I’ll send a note round from the office…. I’m late this morning, and I’ve any amount of proofs to get through.”
“That wouldn’t do at all,” Katharine said decidedly. “She must be told—you or I must tell her. We ought to have told her at first.”
Mr. Hilbery had now placed his hat on his head, and his hand was on the door-knob. An expression which Katharine knew well from her childhood, when he asked her to shield him in some neglect of duty, came into his eyes; malice, humor, and irresponsibility were blended in it. He nodded his head to and fro significantly, opened the door with an adroit movement, and stepped out with a lightness unexpected at his age. He waved his hand once to his daughter, and was gone. Left alone, Katharine could not help laughing to find herself cheated as usual in domestic bargainings with her father, and left to do the disagreeable work which belonged, by rights, to him.