By E. F. BENSON
FLORENCE MEDLICOTT closed her eyes for a few moments' rest and relaxation when finally her nephew, with whom she had dined and spent a solitary evening, went upstairs, not, as he was careful to explain to her, to go to bed, but to get an hour's quiet reading before doing so. He did not usually, he expounded, occupy his brain with serious thought immediately before retiring, but he had positively done nothing all day except amuse himself. It made her feel tired to think of that, for to her knowledge h had spent a couple of hours at the British Museum in the morning, had attended a lecture at the French Institute that afternoon, and had endeavoured to make her grasp the more elementary principles of Relativity since dinner. Seymour was only nineteen, but he made her feel ninety, and how her sister Isabel could possibly be his mother seemed to Florence one of Nature's profoundest enigmas.
Hardly less difficult to explain was how he could possibly be the son of his late and little-lamented father; but certainly the less he was like his father the better, and she was content to accept that without any demur. Seymour was only staying with her for a few days, for he had just arrived from a six months' sojourn in France, where he had been perfecting himself in Parisian speech, and he was shortly starting for Weimar with parallel intentions. Florence felt, somehow, that he would soon be speaking German quite beautifully.
She saw with amazement that the hour was still only half-past ten, and in order to while away the time before her sister's return from her dinner and theatre, she pulled a card table towards her and began occupying herself with some vague sort of Patience. She did not usually indulge herself with so futile a pastime, except when she felt unwell, but to-night she wished to distract her mind from the thought of the talk which was soon due. She played it, in fact, with the intention of people in the waiting-room of a doctor's house, who turn over the pages of ancient picture magazines as they wait for the step outside and the opening of the door which will summon them to their interview. But even as that simile occurred to her, she realised that it must not be too strictly applied, for it was she, correctly speaking, who was soon to occupy the physician's rôle and it was the step of the consultant for which she waited. And the consultant was likely, so she guessed, to be rather obstinate; she would probably find the advice that was ready for her highly distasteful. She might, indeed, entirely refuse to take it. But Florence had made up her mind that no other treatment could possibly be successful.
She sat near the window in the front room on the ground floor, bending her shrewd, rather heavily-lined face over the cards, and making quick, decided dispositions of them. The night was hot, the sashes behind the drawn blinds were open, and a medley of itinerant noises came drifting in. There was the clacking of heels on the pavement outside, disjected fragments of laughter and conversation, the warning hoots of motors at the corner of the square and the faint cracklings of their studded wheels on the roadway. A few doors away a dance was going on, and sometimes she thought wheels had stopped at her door, and expected the next moment to hear the rattle of a latchkey, and at that she would immure herself in her foolish Patience again, for she wanted Isabel to think that she just casually happened to be sitting up for her. That would serve the purpose of the few introductory remarks about the weather and whatever with which the physician prefaced business. At last a motor stopped precisely outside, and she heard two voices. Isabel's was unmistakable, and it was with certainty that she conjectured the other. The two had plenty to say—laughter seemed to indicate that it was of an amusing nature—and then came the rattle of the latchkey, an audible "Good night," and the closing of the front door.
She looked up as the radiant arrival entered, with laughter still hovering round her mouth and lurking in her dark eyes.
"Alone?" she said. "Seymour gone to bed?"
"Yes, a few minutes ago," said Florence. "Relativity, most interesting."
Isabel Avesham's eyebrows raised themselves in a query as she saw her sister's occupation, and she advanced across the room with a quickened movement. She walked with a boyish ease and litheness, as if with simmering energy in reserve.
"Patience?" she said. "Darling, you're not ill, are you?"
Florence paused, considering apparently the destination of the card in her hand. She wedged in, so to speak, the thin end of the business.
"Not to my knowledge," she said. "Ah, there's a space for it! Really, I began to play Patience because I thought it would be useful to see what it feels like to behave as if one was old. Before many years are up I shall be playing Patience every evening, I suppose, just because it's after dinner and not yet bedtime. I think I shall like being old—it will be very tranquil."
These carefully-chosen remarks served their purpose: they faintly suggested the sort of thing that was coming. There was no need, indeed, for any preliminary "Won't you sit down?" on Florence's part, for Isabel by her reply showed she had sat down.
"I wonder if it will be tranquil," she said. "I don't think I shall find it tranquillising to be tranquil. I should be anxious and alarmed if I found myself getting tranquil. And please don't practise getting old any more, Florrie. It's a dismal occupation."
Florence swept the cards together. "I entirely agree with you," she said. "Tell me about your evening. Tell me about your play."
Isabel laughed. "It was the simpler sort," she said. "Somebody in pyjamas kept going to bed and getting up again."
"How marvellous! So like life," said Florence.
"I never thought of that. There were people under his bed, and sitting on his bed, and coming in most unexpectedly and telephoning. But we roared with laughter."
"I don't even know who 'we' are," said Lady Medlicott. "I only found your note when I came in, saying you were going to the play and would be out for dinner."
Isabel settled herself in a low chair with a cigarette. "My dear, what a liar you are! she observed. "You know perfectly well who 'we' were. Aren't you a liar?"
"I am," said Florence, "I guessed quite easily with whom you were going, and who it was who saw you home and chatted on the doorstep. Anyone else?"
"No, just Tom Langham and I."
They had pushed off into mid-stream by now, but it was with the intonation of a new idea that Florence spoke.
"Inclined for a little talk?" she asked.
Isabel gave a chuckle of laughter. "That means that you are," she said. "To find you playing Patience was evidence enough. You weren't practising for old age, darling; you were waiting for me to come in and corner me. I know your diplomatic methods. Well, I'm cornered: you begin."
Florence discarded her diplomacy and was singularly direct. "I want dreadfully to know what you mean to do about Tom Langham," she said.
"I don't in the least mind telling you. When he asks me to marry him I shall do so."
"And if he doesn't?" asked Florence.
Isabel's brilliant gaze circled round the room in a hovering flight before it settled on her sister again. "I suppose in that case I shall not do so," she said. "But I don't reckon with that. He will ask me to marry him."
"And are you in love with him?"
Isabel's eyes seemed to dance on her sister's like specks of sunlight on dark water. "I'm not quite certain," she said. "Now, don't interrupt me with your quickness and say that that means that I am not. I'm very near it, anyhow: a single turn of the screw may do it. We're the greatest friends. I find him perfectly charming, he's good-looking and he's young."
Florence felt the pitilessness of her questioning, but she would not have been pitiless if she had cared less. "And he?" she asked. "Is he in love with you?"
"My dear, what a catechism!" Isabel said. "He's there or thereabouts. He's fascinated by me, he thinks me marvellous. He's on the point of being in love with me. How cold-blooded it sounds when I put it into words, and that's a wrong impression to give you."
Florence got up and regarded her own elderly shrewdness in the glass above the mantelpiece. She wanted, somehow, to remind herself of that by way of a tonic to her relentlessness.
"But he hasn't proposed to you yet," she said, "and I'll tell you why that is. He is wanting to adjust himself to the situation, to look it in the face. He finds you adorable, darling, and I'm sure I don't wonder, but he has to face the fact that he's only twenty-five years old—I know that because I looked him out just now in the Snobs' Bible—and you're forty. That sounds absurd, but it's a fact, and you may be sure that his mother has told him. He's considering it, that's what he's doing. He's wondering whether in the years to come it won't terribly disagree with him if he swallows it."
Isabel's brightness had a little faded from her face, and she rose and stood by her sister, also looking into the glass. It would have been almost as easy to imagine that their relationship was that of mother and daughter as to realise their sisterhood. Though there was scarcely ten years between them, age had set its stamp on the one face as surely as youth still blossomed on the other.
"That doesn't concern me," she said; "it's his business."
Florence shook her head. "It will be the business of both of you if you marry him," she said, "though I grant you that if you were in love with him, nothing would seem to concern you except that fact."
The brightness kindled on Isabel's face again. "Perhaps, then, I am in love with him," she said.
"That would account for your letting sense and prudence go hang, for you would be blind to everything else but that. But you aren't quite blind to everything else: you have a quantity of admirable reasons ready to be produced for my benefit as to why you should marry him. If you were really in love with him, you would merely laugh in my face or yawn in it. To be in love is excuse enough for any folly."
She paused a moment.
"I must justify that word," she said. "It isn't that I call you a fool, for fools never commit follies. Fools only go maundering along, and the follies, so to speak, commit themselves. It is dear, splendid women who commit follies, and you're on the brink of an immense one. You're forty, and he's twenty-five, so that you'll be fifty—nearly as old as I, and look carefully at me in the glass there—when he is thirty-five. Oh, Isabel, what manner of wife is a crone of fifty to a young man of thirty-five? Which of you would be the more miserable, you with your wrinkles or he with his vigour? I grant you all the splendours of your youth now—I allow that no one in his senses would think you over thirty—but the years take their revenges. They will sit round you, ever so many of them, and make mock of you, each of them more hideous than the last."
Isabel's face remained unclouded under the pelting of these dismal prophecies. "My dear, what a croaking noise!" she observed. "Fancy looking ten years ahead! Who cares about what happens ten years from now? Years last an enormous time: one's horizon doesn't contain more than one or two."
"They come up quickly," said Florence.
"I don't agree. Each one stays so long—at least, mine have, and it's mine we're talking about."
She turned away, and now the cloud came over her face.
"For nearly twenty years of my life," she said, "each year has been a century. The same years have made you peaceably and gradually old, but in spite of all their battering they've left me young. I refused to submit, I wouldn't give in, and do you suppose that I'm going to give in now when happiness has dawned on me? You've had your life, Florence, you can look back on it, and stroke it and make it purr to you——"
"My dear, I didn't mean——" began Florence.
Isabel interrupted her. "But you should have meant," she said, "for it all concerns my decision. Supposing you had been tied to a brute of a husband for eighteen years, and had stood up to your misery and had kept your youth in spite of it, wouldn't you make the most of it when the struggle was over? What was the use of struggling otherwise? And wouldn't you feel that life owed you something? And when life, even late, came towards you with its hands full of gifts and wonderful things, would you turn your back on them and say 'It's too late'? You told me I had plenty of admirable reasons to give you, and there they are for you. You inferred from that that I was not in love, and perhaps that's true. But oh, my dear, he's adorable! I can't argue, and I don't want to. You always had the brains of the family."
She took a turn up and down the room.
"To console you for having utterly failed to affect me," she said, "I'll tell you that you said one very shrewd thing. You suggested something that hadn't occurred to me before, and I think you must be right about it. For the last two days I've wondered sometimes why Tom didn't propose to me, and perhaps you've guessed the reason. He's getting used to the idea of marrying a woman who is—well, just a shade his senior. I don't like the notion: it rather revolts me."
"I'm delighted to hear it," said Florence.
"How very disagreeable of you! But don't take any comfort to yourself because of that, for I shall swallow it. In fact, I shall have a quiet few days in which to cut it up small and eat it in pieces, for Tom is going into the country to-morrow, and won't be back till the end of the week. And now I think 'bed,' don't you? I give you a kiss to show I forgive you for all the disagreeable things you've said, and another because you're a darling."
Florence lifted her face towards the beautiful bent head. "My dear, I feel a brute," she said, "but that's quite an illusion, because I'm anything but that. I only desire your happiness, but I do desire it with my head as well as my heart."
"As if I don't know that! But there's one thing you don't know, and that is what the hunger for happiness is when you've starved for it for years."
Strong attraction is not, as Isabel began to find during the first two days of Tom Langham's absence, static in quality: it does not, that is to say, continue to exercise a stable uniform force. Nor is it of the nature of some strain or pull which, if powerless to overcome a certain inertia, remains for ever incapable of moving it. Its action is rather that of some chemical process which spiritually enkindles until, unless the ash of habit or disillusionment quenches it, a flame burns. Some such process was at work in her, and perhaps the very fact that the young man was away from her furthered the working of it, and she missed him with an acuteness that surprised her. Not at first did she realise what was stirring and fermenting within her, and she had moments of dismay when she pondered on Florence's odious surmise that he was adjusting himself, looking the future in the face. The thought of that had been repugnant to her even while she said it did not concern her; now it began to concern her very intimately, and the closer it came to her, the more icy was its touch. She shuddered at it, and snatched at the cold fingers that clutched her to unloose their hold. There were other thoughts, too—thoughts that she discovered creeping about her mind, like folk who grope through some encompassing fog—these also must be wrestled with and mastered. They had peering eyes and stealthy glances, and as she caught them and scrutinised them, she knew that she wondered whether she was as confident as she had said about his devotion. It was scarcely likely his affections were now engaged for the first time. How easily it might be that before he offered himself to her he was now making some last appeal to a girl who had refused him! The notion had no foundation in knowledge, but jealousy needs neither clay nor straw for the making of its bricks. It builds with monstrous substantiality out of nothing at all. The fact that she had not heard from him was material enough to rear such an edifice; if she had, she could have found a quarry in whatever he wrote.
But as the change in her progressed, these imaginings withered on their sapless stalks, and some sense of starvation at his absence came overwhelmingly upon her. It was not such starvation as that of which she had spoken to Florence, starvation bitter and aching, but a starvation sweet and exquisite, which feeds magically on the manna of thought and, while it stays its craving thus, securely waits for the true banquet to be spread.
The flame burst out. She was in love with him, and knew that she was in love with him. And Florence, shrewd, wise Florence, had said that this alone would justify her in letting prudence and reason go hang, and with the blindness of love to guide her, would account for her committing the immeasurable folly of marrying a man fifteen years her junior. Isabel, with the illumination bright about her, could have laughed at the amazing ignorance of these wise folk. What was Florence thinking of?
It was late. An hour ago her sister had gone up to bed, but the clear shining in Isabel's heart made some insistent immediate call to her; it clamoured for the assertion of its own superb renunciation. Florence must know, not to-morrow, but to-night, how false had been her shrewdness. That clever, plausible conclusion of hers must be stamped on. Isabel found herself thinking of it as some baleful insect that could no more be permitted to live than those jealousies which had groped about her own uncomprehending brain.
She went along the passage to her sister's room and entered. Florence was already in bed, and the room in dimness with just a circle of light from the shaded lamp illuminating the book she read.
"Isabel!" she said. "What is it, my dear? Nothing wrong?"
Isabel sat down on the side of her bed.
"No. Something right," she said. "I couldn't wait; I had to come to tell you now."
Something in her voice, some exultant vibration, caused her sister to tilt back the shade of her lamp and throw its illumination on to Isabel's face. Her voice had been a true interpreter: that exultation was radiant in her eyes and mouth.
"But what has happened?" she asked again.
Isabel gave a long sigh. "Everything has happened," she said.
She put up her hand and turned the glare of the light away from her.
"My dear, when we talked the other night," she said, "we neither of us understood. We were at cross-purposes. You told me that my being in love with Tom would justify my marrying him. I believed that I was justified in marrying him without that. But I love him—that is clear to me now—and what you thought would justify me is just that which makes my marriage impossible. Don't you see now that it must be so? I can see nothing else but that."
There was a long silence. Isabel's hand sought and clasped her sister's and held it tight.
"I've got to go through dark places, I expect," she said, "but I carry my lamp with me. It won't go out: nothing will quench it, but the dark will be all round me on every side——"
She broke off again.
"I must be wise, too," she said. "If Tom asked me to marry him, I know I should not be able to refuse him. I couldn't do it. I'm flesh and blood, among other things. So he mustn't propose to me. If I don't prevent him, he will. Very likely you are right about his adjusting himself, but when he comes back, in a day or two now, he will have adjusted himself. So I must prevent that. Oh, my dear, the years! The brutal things——"
Her breath caught in her throat for a moment.
"No, I'm not going to snivel," she said. "I'm going to carry my heart high with courage. It's of him that I must think. I must do all that has to be done with gaiety and lightness. A stony way is intolerable if you think about the stones. AH that matters is where the way takes you, and what the way is. It's the royal road——"
She stopped abruptly.
"Good night, you best of Florries," she said. "I had to come and tell you. I can't discuss with you either to-night or, indeed, ever, I think. There's nothing to be said. If you used all the words in the dictionary ten times over, you wouldn't be able to say anything about it worth mentioning."
Three mornings later the telephone conveyed an inquiry from Tom Langham as to whether Mrs. Avesham would be at home at half-past eleven that day, and in answer to her welcoming response he appeared.
Isabel was not alone: a short young man with spectacles was with her. He was in the middle apparently of some voluble explanation, directing her attention with his forefinger to a chart that was spread on a table beside her low chair.
"Most interesting," she was saying as Tom entered. "Yes, dear, I think I understand, but you must say it again. Ah, Mr. Langham! How nice to see you! Just back from the country?"
She grasped the arms of her chair and, with a wince, hoisted herself on to her feet.
"You see me a perfect cripple," she said. "Nothing the matter, but I suppose when one gets to my age one must have something, and I have rheumatics. Ah, I forgot you don't know my son Seymour. Seymour, this is Mr. Langham."
She moved stiffly across to the fireplace and rang the bell twice.
"Seymour was just telling me the most wonderful things about the attraction of the sun on rays of light," she said. "Dreadfully difficult to understand, but most interesting, all the same. I long to know Mr. Einstein. But tell me what you've been doing. Wasn't the country delicious? I wonder how you tore yourself away to come back to this swelter of town."
Florence Medlicott entered. ("Twice" had been the preconcerted signal.) In this bright, reverberating glare that came in from the pavement outside through the unshaded windows, she looked amazingly wizen and old.
"You do know my sister, don't you?" said Isabel. "You met the other night, surely? Yes, I thought so."
Tom Langham shook hands with her. He did remember her, but this was a new impression. Then he turned to Isabel.
"I just dropped in," he said, "to see if by good luck you were free this afternoon, and would care to drive down with me to Ranelagh. There's some polo——"
Florence interrupted. "Dear Isabel," she said, "I must put my foot down about that. You would be awfully unwise to stand about, and perhaps get wet."
Isabel hastened to confirm this. "Oh, I should have liked it," she said, "but—but I'm afraid my sister is right, Mr. Langham. Another day, perhaps."
He looked at her with kindly solicitude. "I'm so sorry," he said. "It—it is treacherous weather. But I won't wait any longer now. I dropped in just to see whether you were disengaged and felt inclined. I hope you'll soon be better."
There was a moment's silence after he had gone out. Isabel's eyes met her sister's for one second.
"Now, Seymour," she said, "tell me more about that wonderful experiment. They adjusted the telescope so that when the eclipse came on. . ."