The Incomplete Amorist/Book 1/Chapter V
When Vernon looked back on that interview he was honestly pleased with himself. He had been patient, he had been kind even. In the end he had been positively chivalrous. He had hardly allowed himself to be ruffled for an instant, but had met the bitter flow of Mr. Underwood's biblical language with perfect courtesy.
He regretted, of course, deeply, this unfortunate misunderstanding. Accident had made him acquainted with Miss Desmond's talent, he had merely offered her a little of that help which between brother artists—The well-worn phrase had not for the Rector the charm it had had for Betty.
The Rector spoke again, and Mr. Vernon listened, bare-headed, in deepest deference.
No, he had not been holding Miss Desmond's hand—he had merely been telling her fortune. No one could regret more profoundly than he,—and so on. He was much wounded by Mr. Underwood's unworthy suspicions.
The Rector ran through a few texts. His pulpit denunciations of iniquity, though always earnest, had lacked this eloquence.
Vernon listened quietly.
"I can only express my regret that my thoughtlessness should have annoyed you, and beg you not to blame Miss Desmond. It was perhaps a little unconventional, but—"
"Unconventional—to try to ruin—"
Mr. Vernon held up his hand: he was genuinely shocked.
"Forgive me," he said, "but I can't hear such words in connection with—with a lady for whom I have the deepest respect. You are heated now, Sir, and I can make every allowance for your natural vexation. But I must ask you not to overstep the bounds of decency."
The Rector bit his lip, and Vernon went on:
"I have listened to your abuse—yes, your abuse—without defending myself, but I can't allow anyone, even her father, to say a word against her."
"I am not her father," said the old man bitterly. And on the instant Vernon understood him as Betty had never done. The young man's tone changed instantly.
"Look here," he said, and his face grew almost boyish, "I am really most awfully sorry. The whole thing—what there is of it, and it's very little—was entirely my doing. It was inexcusably thoughtless. Miss Desmond is very young and very innocent. It is I who ought to have known better,—and perhaps I did. But the country is very dull, and it was a real pleasure to teach so apt a pupil."
He spoke eagerly, and the ring of truth was in his voice. But the Rector felt that he was listening to the excuses of a serpent.
"Then you'd have me believe that you don't even love her?"
"No more than she does me," said Vernon very truly. "I've never breathed a word of love to her," he went on; "such an idea never entered our heads. She's a charming girl, and I admire her immensely, but—" he sought hastily for a weapon, and defended Betty with the first that came to hand, "I am already engaged to another lady. It is entirely as an artist that I am interested in Miss Betty."
"Serpent," said the Rector within himself, "Lying serpent!"
Vernon was addressing himself silently in terms not more flattering. "Fool, idiot, brute to let the child in for this!—for it's going to be a hell of a time for her, anyhow. And as for me—well, the game is up, absolutely up!"
"I am really most awfully sorry," he said again.
"I find it difficult to believe in the sincerity of your repentance," said the Rector frowning.
"My regret you may believe in," said Vernon stiffly. "There is no ground for even the mention of such a word as repentance."
"If your repentance is sincere"—he underlined the word—"you will leave Long Barton to-day."
Leave without a word, a sign from Betty—a word or a sign to her? It might be best—if—
"I will go, Sir, if you will let me have your assurance that you will say nothing to Miss Desmond, that you won't make her unhappy, that you'll let the whole matter drop."
"I will make no bargains with you!" cried the Rector. "Do your worst! Thank God I can defend her from you!"
"She needs no defence. It's not I who am lacking in respect and consideration for her," said Vernon a little hotly, "but, as I say, I'll go—if you'll just promise to be gentle with her."
"I do not need to be taught my duty by a villain, Sir!—" The old clergyman was trembling with rage. "I wish to God I were a younger man, that I might chastise you for the hound you are." His upraised cane shook in his hand. "Words are thrown away on you! I'm sorry I can't use the only arguments that can come home to a puppy!"
"If you were a younger man," said Vernon slowly, "your words would not have been thrown away on me. They would have had the answer they deserved. I shall not leave Long Barton, and I shall see Miss Desmond when and how I choose."
"Long Barton shall know you in your true character, Sir, I promise you."
"So you would blacken her to blacken me? One sees how it is that she does not love her father."
He meant to be cruel, but it was not till he saw the green shadows round the old man's lips that he knew just how cruel he had been. The quivering old mouth opened and closed and opened, the cold eyes gleamed. And the trembling hand in one nervous movement raised the cane and struck the other man sharply across the face. It was a hysterical blow, like a woman's, and with it the tears sprang to the faded eyes.
Then it was that Vernon behaved well. When he thought of it afterwards he decided that he had behaved astonishingly well.
With the smart of that cut stinging on his flesh, the mark of it rising red and angry across his cheek, he stepped back a pace, and without a word, without a retaliatory movement, without even a change of facial expression he executed the most elaborately courteous bow, as of one treading a minuet, recovered the upright and walked away bareheaded. The old clergyman was left planted there, the cane still jigging up and down in his shaking hand.
"A little theatrical, perhaps," mused Vernon, when the cover of the wood gave him leave to lay his fingers to his throbbing cheek, "but nothing could have annoyed the old chap more."
However effective it may be to turn the other cheek, the turning of it does not cool one's passions, and he walked through the wood angrier than he ever remembered being. But the cool rain dripping from the hazel and sweet chestnut leaves fell pleasantly on his uncovered head and flushed face. Before he was through the wood he was able to laugh, and the laugh was a real laugh, if rather a rueful one. Vernon could never keep angry very long.
"Poor old devil!" he said. "He'll have to put a special clause in the general confession next Sunday. Poor old devil! And poor little Betty! And poorest me! Because, however, we look at it, and however we may have damn well bluffed over it, the game is up—absolutely up."
When one has a definite end in view—marriage, let us say, or an elopement,—secret correspondences, the surmounting of garden walls, the bribery of servants, are in the picture. But in a small sweet idyll, with no backbone of intention to it, these things are inartistic. And Vernon was, above and before all, an artist. He must go away and he knew it. And his picture was not finished. Could he possibly leave that incomplete? The thought pricked sharply. He had not made much progress with the picture in these last days. It had been pleasanter to work at the portrait of Betty. If he moved to the next village? Yes, that must be thought over.
He spent the day thinking of that and of other things.
The Reverend Cecil Underwood stood where he was left till the man he had struck had passed out of sight. Then the cane slipped through his hand and fell rattling to the ground. He looked down at it curiously. Then he reached out both hands vaguely and touched the shaft of the plough. He felt his way along it, and sat down, where they had sat, staring dully before him at the shadows in the shed, and at the steady fall of the rain outside. Betty's mackintosh was lying on the floor. He picked it up presently and smoothed out the creases. Then he watched the rain again.
An hour had passed before he got stiffly up and went home, with her cloak on his arm.
Yes, Miss Lizzie was in her room—had a headache. He sent up her breakfast, arranging the food himself, and calling back the maid because the tray lacked marmalade.
Then he poured out his own tea, and sat stirring it till it was cold.
She was in her room, waiting for him to send for her. He must send for her. He must speak to her. But what could he say? What was there to say that would not be a cruelty? What was there to ask that would not be a challenge to her to lie, as the serpent had lied?
"I am glad I struck him," the Reverend Cecil told himself again and again; "that brought it home to him. He was quite cowed. He could do nothing but bow and cringe away. Yes, I am glad."
But the girl? The serpent had asked him to be gentle with her—had dared to ask him. He could think of no way gentle enough for dealing with this crisis. The habit of prayer caught him. He prayed for guidance.
Then quite suddenly he saw what to do.
"That will be best," he said; "she will feel that less."
He rang and ordered the fly from the Peal of Bells, went to his room to change his old coat for a better one, since appearances must be kept up, even if the heart be breaking. His thin hair was disordered, and his tie, he noticed, was oddly crumpled, as though strange hands had been busy with his throat. He put on a fresh tie, smoothed his hair, and went down again. As he passed, he lingered a moment outside her door.
Betty watching with red eyes and swollen lips saw him enter the fly, saw him give an order, heard the door bang. The old coachman clambered clumsily to his place, and the carriage lumbered down the drive.
"Oh, how cruel he is! He might have spoken to me now! I suppose he's going to keep me waiting for days, as a penance. And I haven't really done anything wrong. It's a shame! I've a good mind to run away!"
Running away required consideration. In the meantime, since he was out of the house, there was no reason why she should not go downstairs. She was not a child to be kept to her room in disgrace. She bathed her distorted face, powdered it, and tried to think that the servants, should they see her, would notice nothing.
Where had he gone? For no goal within his parish would a hired carriage be needed. He had gone to Sevenoaks or to the station. Perhaps he had gone to Westerham—there was a convent there, a Protestant sisterhood. Perhaps he was going to make arrangements for shutting her up there! Never!—Betty would die first. At least she would run away first. But where could one run to?
The aunts? Betty loved the aunts, but she distrusted their age. They were too old to sympathise really with her. They would most likely understand as little as her step-father had done. An Inward Monitor told Betty that the story of the fortune-telling, of the seven stolen meetings with no love-making in them, would sound very unconvincing to any ears but those of the one person already convinced. But she would not be shut up in a convent—no, not by fifty aunts and a hundred step-fathers!
She would go to Him. He would understand. He was the only person who ever had understood. She would go straight to him and ask him what to do. He would advise her. He was so clever, so good, so noble. Whatever he advised would be right.
Trembling and in a cold white rage of determination, Betty fastened on her hat, found her gloves and purse. The mackintosh she remembered had been left in the shed. She pictured her step-father trampling fiercely upon it as he told Mr. Vernon what he thought of him. She took her golf cape.
At the last moment she hesitated. Mr. Vernon would not be idle. What would he be doing? Suppose he should send a note? Suppose he had watched Mr. Underwood drive away and should come boldly up and ask for her? Was it wise to leave the house? But perhaps he would be hanging about the church yard, or watching from the park for a glimpse of her. She would at least go out and see.
"I'll leave a farewell letter," she said, "in case I never come back."
She found her little blotting-book—envelopes, but no paper. Of course! One can't with dignity write cutting farewells on envelopes. She tore a page from her diary.
"You have driven me to this," she wrote. "I am going away, and in time I shall try to forgive you all the petty meannesses and cruelties of all these years. I know you always hated me, but you might have had some pity. All my life I shall bear the marks on my soul of the bitter tyranny I have endured here. Now I am going away out into the world, and God knows what will become of me."
She folded, enveloped, and addressed the note, stuck a long hat-pin fiercely through it, and left it, patent, speared to her pin-cushion, with her step-father's name uppermost.
"Good-bye, little room," she said. "I feel I shall never see you again."
Slowly and sadly she crossed the room and turned the handle of the door. The door was locked.
Once, years ago, a happier man than the Reverend Cecil had been Rector of Long Barton. And in the room that now was Betty's he had had iron bars fixed to the two windows, because that room was the nursery.
That evening, after dinner, Mr. Vernon sat at his parlour window looking idly along the wet bowling-green to the belt of lilacs and the pale gleams of watery sunset behind them. He had passed a disquieting day. He hated to leave things unfinished. And now the idyll was ruined and the picture threatened,—and Betty's portrait was not finished, and never would be.
"Come in," he said; and his landlady heavily followed up her tap on his door.
"A lady to see you, Sir," said she with a look that seemed to him to be almost a wink.
"A lady? To see me? Good Lord!" said Vernon. Among all the thoughts of the day this was the one thought that had not come to him.
"Shall I show her in?" the woman asked, and she eyed him curiously.
"A lady," he repeated. "Did she give her name?"
"Yes, Sir. Miss Desmond, Sir. Shall I shew her in?"
"Yes; shew her in, of course," he answered irritably.
And to himself he said: