The Incomplete Amorist/Book 4/Chapter XXVI
It seemed quite dark down in the forest—or rather, it seemed, after the full good light that lay upon the summit of the rocks, like the gray dream-twilight under the eyelids of one who dozes in face of a dying fire.
"Don't let's go straight back to Grez," said Betty when the pony was harnessed, "let's go on to Fontainebleau and have dinner and drive back by moonlight. Don't you think it would be fun? We've never done that."
"Thank you," he said. "You are good."
His eyes met hers in the green shadow, and she was satisfied because he had understood that this was her reply to his appeal to her "not to avoid him in the little time there was left."
Both were gay as they drove along the golden roads, gayer than ever they had been. The nearness of a volcano has never been a bar to gaiety. Dinner was a joyous feast, and when it was over, and the other guests had strolled out, Temple sang all the songs Betty liked best. Betty played for him. It was all very pleasant, and both pretended, quite beautifully, that they were the best of friends, and that it had never, never been a question of anything else. The pretence lasted through all the moonlight of the home drive—lasted indeed till the pony was trotting along the straight avenue that leads down into Grez. And even then it was not Temple who broke it. It was Betty, and she laid her hand on his arm.
"Look here," she said. "I've been thinking about it ever since you said it. And I'm not going to let it spoil anything. Only I don't want you to think I don't understand. And I'm most awfully proud that you should.... I am really. And I'd rather be liked by you than by anyone—"
"Almost," said Temple a little bitterly.
"I don't feel sure about that part of it—really. One feels and thinks such a lot of different things—and they all contradict everything else, till one doesn't know what anything means, or what it is one really—I can't explain. But I don't want you to think your having talked about it makes any difference. At least I don't mean that at all. What I mean is that of course I like you ever so much better now I know that you like me, and—oh, I don't want to—I don't want you to think it's all no good, because really and truly I don't know."
All this time she had kept her hand on his wrist.
Now he laid his other hand over it.
"Dear," he said, "that's all I want, and more than I hoped for now. I won't say another word about it—ever, if you'd rather not,—only if ever you feel that it is me, and not that other chap, then you'll tell me, won't you?"
"I'll tell you now," said Betty, "that I wish with all my heart it was you, and not the other."
When he had said goodnight at the deserted door of the courtyard Betty slipped through the trees to her pavilion. The garden seemed more crowded with trees than it had ever been. It was almost as though new trees from the forest had stolen in while she was at Fontainebleau, and joined the ranks of those that stood sentinel round the pavilion. There was a lamp in the garden room—as usual. Its light poured out and lay like a yellow carpet on the terrace, and lent to the foliage beyond that indescribable air of festivity, of light-heartedness that green leaves can always borrow from artificial light.
"I'll just see if there are any letters," she told herself. "There always might be: from Aunt Julia or Miss Voscoe or—someone."
She went along the little passage that led to the stairs. The door that opened from it into the garden room was narrowly ajar. A slice of light through the chink stood across the passage.
There was someone in the room. Someone was speaking. She knew the voice. "She must be in soon," it said. It was her Aunt Julia's voice. She stopped dead. And there was silence in the room.
Oh! to be caught like this! In a trap. And just when she had decided to go home! She would not be caught. She would steal up to her room, get her money, leave enough on the table to pay her bill, and go. She could walk to Marlotte—and go off by train in the morning to Brittany—anywhere. She would not be dragged back like a prisoner to be all the rest of her life with a hateful old man who detested her. Aunt Julia thought she was very clever. Well, she would just find out that she wasn't. Who was she talking to? Not Madame, for she spoke in English. To some one from Paris? Who could have betrayed her? Only one person knew. Lady St. Craye. Well, Lady St. Craye should not betray her for nothing. She would not go to Brittany: she would go back to Paris. That woman should be taught what it costs to play the traitor.
All this in the quite small pause before her aunt's voice spoke again.
"Unless she's got wind of our coming and flown," it said.
"Our" coming? Who was the other?
Betty was eavesdropping then? How dishonourable! Well, it is. And she was.
"I hope to Heaven she's safe," said another voice. Oh—it was her step-father! He had come—Then he must know everything! She moved, quite without meaning to move; her knee touched the door and it creaked. Very very faintly, but it creaked. Would they hear? Had they heard? No—the aunt's voice again:
"The whole thing's inexplicable to me! I don't understand it. You let Betty go to Paris."
"By your advice."
"By my advice, but also because you wanted her to be happy."
"Yes—Heaven knows I wanted her to be happy." The old man's voice was sadder than Betty had ever heard it.
"So we found Madame Gautier for her—and when Madame Gautier dies, she doesn't write to you, or wire to you, to come and find her a new chaperone. Why?"
"I can't imagine why."
"Don't you think it may have been because she was afraid of you, thought you'd simply make her come back to Long Barton?"
"It would surely have been impossible for her to imagine that I should lessen the time which I had promised her, on account of an unfortunate accident. She knows the depth of my affection for her. No, no—depend upon it there must have been some other reason for the deceit. I almost fear to conjecture what the reason may have been. Do you think it possible that she has been seeing that man again?"
There was a sound as of a chair impatiently pushed back. Betty fled noiselessly to the stairs. No footstep followed the movement of the chair. She crept back.
"—when you do see her?" her aunt was asking, "I suppose you mean to heap reproaches on her, and take her home in disgrace?"
"I hope I shall have strength given me to do my duty," said the Reverend Cecil.
"Have you considered what your duty is?"
"It must be my duty to reprove, to show her her deceit in its full enormity."
"You'll enjoy that, won't you? It'll gratify your sense of power. You'll stand in the place of God to the child, and you'll be glad to see her humbled and ashamed."
"Because a thing is painful to me it is none the less my duty."
"Nor any the more," snapped Miss Desmond; "nor any the more! That's what you won't see. She knows you don't care about her, and that's why she kept away from you as long as she could."
"She can't know it. It isn't true."
"She thinks it is."
"Do you think so? Do you imagine I don't care for her? Have you been poisoning her mind and—"
"Oh, don't let's talk about poison!" said Miss Desmond. "If she's lost altogether it won't matter to you. You'll have done your duty."
"If she's lost I—if she were lost I should not care to be saved. I am aware that the thought is sinful. But I fear that it is so."
"Of course," said Miss Desmond. "She's not your child—why should you care? You never had a child."
"What have I done to you that you should try to torture me like this?" It was her step-father's voice, but Betty hardly knew it. "For pity's sake, woman, be quiet! Let me bear what I have to bear without your chatter."
"I'm sorry," said Miss Desmond very gently. "Forgive me if I didn't understand. And you do really care about her a little?"
"Care about her a little! She's the only living thing I do care for—or ever have cared for except one. Oh, it is like a woman to cast it up at me as a reproach that I have no child! Why have I no child? Because the woman whom Almighty God made for my child's mother was taken from me—in her youth—before she was mine. Her name was Lizzie. And my Lizzie, my little Lizzie that's lied and deceived us, she is my child—the one we should have had. She's my heart's blood. Do you think I want to scold her; do you think I want to humble her? Do you not perceive how my own heart will be torn? But it is my duty. I will not spare the rod. And she will understand as you never could. Oh, my little Lizzie!—Oh, pray God she is safe! If it please God to restore her safely to me, I will not yield to the wicked promptings of my own selfish affection. I will show her her sin, and we will pray for forgiveness together. Yes, I will not shrink, even if it break my heart—I will tell her—"
"I should tell her," said Miss Desmond, "just what you've told me."
The old man was walking up and down the room. Betty could hear every movement.
"It's been the struggle of my life not to spoil her—not to let my love for her lead me to neglect her eternal welfare—not to lessen her modesty by my praises—not to condone the sin because of my love for the sinner. My love has not been selfish.—It has been the struggle of my life not to let my affection be a snare to her."
"Then I must say," said Miss Desmond, "that you might have been better employed."
"Thank God I have done my duty! You don't understand. But my Lizzie will understand."
"Yes, she will understand," cried Betty, bursting open the door and standing between the two with cheeks that flamed. "I do understand, Father dear! Auntie, I don't understand you! You're cruel,—and it's not like you. Will you mind going away, please?"
The cruel aunt smiled, and moved towards the door. As she passed Betty she whispered: "I thought you were never going to come from behind that door. I couldn't have kept it up much longer."
Then she went out and closed the door firmly.
Betty went straight to her step-father and put her arms round his neck.
"You do forgive me—you will forgive me, won't you?" she said breathlessly.
He put an arm awkwardly round her.
"There's nothing you could do that I couldn't forgive," he said in a choked voice. "But it is my duty not to—"
She interrupted him by drawing back to look at him, but she kept his arm where it was, by her hand on his.
"Father," she said, "I've heard everything you've been saying. It's no use scolding me, because you can't possibly say anything that I haven't said to myself a thousand times. Sit down and let me tell you everything, every single thing! I did mean to come home this week, and tell you; I truly did. I wish I'd gone home before."
"Oh, Lizzie," said the old man, "how could you? How could you?"
"I didn't understand. I didn't know. I was a blind idiot. Oh, Father, you'll see how different I'll be now! Oh, if one of us had died—and I'd never known!"
"Known what, my child? Oh, thank God I have you safe! Known what?"
"Why, that you—how fond you are of me."
"You didn't know that?"
"I—I wasn't always sure," Betty hastened to say. A miracle had happened. She could read now in his eyes the appeal that she had always misread before. "But now I shall always be sure—always. And I'm going to be such a good daughter to you—you'll see—if you'll only forgive me. And you will forgive me. Oh, you don't know how I trust you now!"
"Didn't you always?"
"Not enough—not nearly enough. But I do now. Let me tell you—Don't let me ever be afraid of you—oh, don't let me!" She had pushed him gently into a chair and was half kneeling on the floor beside him.
"Have you ever been afraid of me?"
"Oh, I don't know; a little perhaps sometimes! You don't know how silly I am. But not now. You are glad to see me?"
"Lizzie," he said, "God knows how glad I am! But it's my duty to ask you at once whether you've done anything wrong."
"Everything wrong you can think of!" she answered enthusiastically, "only nothing really wicked, of course. I'll tell you all about it. And oh, do remember you can't think worse of me than I do! Oh, it's glorious not to be afraid!"
"Of me?" His tone pleaded again.
"No, no—of anything! Of being found out. I'm glad you've come for me. I'm glad I've got to tell you everything—I did mean to go home next week, but I'm glad it's like this. Because now I know how much you care, and I might never have found that out if I hadn't listened at the door like a mean, disgraceful cat. I ought to be miserable because I've done wrong—but I'm not. I can't be. I'm really most frightfully happy."
"Thank God you can say that," he said, timidly stroking her hair with the hand that she was not holding. "Now I'm not afraid of anything you may have to tell me, my child—my dear child."
To four persons the next day was one of the oddest in their lives.
Arriving early to take Betty to finish her sketch, the stricken Temple was greeted on the doorstep by a manly looking lady in gold-rimmed spectacles, short skirts, serviceable brown boots and a mushroom hat.
"I know who you are," said she; "you're Mr. Temple. I'm Betty Desmond's aunt. Would you like to take me on the river? Betty is busy this morning making the acquaintance of her step-father. She's taken him out in the little cart."
"I see," said Temple. "I shall be delighted to take you on the river."
"Nice young man. You don't ask questions. An excellent trait."
"An acquired characteristic, I assure you," said Temple, remembering his first meeting with Betty.
"Then you won't be able to transmit it to your children. That's a pity. However, since you don't ask I'll tell you. The old man has 'persistently concealed his real nature' from Betty. You'd think it was impossible, living in the same house all these years. Last night she found him out. She's as charmed with the discovery as a girl child with a doll that opens and shuts its eyes—or a young man with the nonentity he calls his ideal. Come along. She'll spend the morning playing with her new toy. Cheer up. You shall see her at dejeuner."
"I do not need cheering," said the young man. And I don't want you to tell me things you'd rather not. On the contrary—"
"You want me not to tell you the things I'd rather tell you?"
"No: I should like to tell you all about—"
"All about yourself. My dear young man, there is nothing I enjoy more; the passion for confidences is my only vice. It was really to indulge that that I asked you to come on the river with me."
"I thought," said Temple as they reached the landing stage, "that perhaps you had asked me to console me for not seeing your niece this morning."
"Thank you kindly," Miss Desmond stepped lightly into the boat. "I rather like compliments, especially when you're solidly built—like myself. Oh, yes, I'll steer; pull hard, bow, she's got no way on her yet, and the stream's strong just here under the bridge. I gather that you've been proposing to my niece."
"I didn't mean to," said Temple, pulling a racing stroke in his agitation.
"Gently, gently! The Diamond Sculls aren't at stake. She led you on, you mean?"
He rested on his oars a moment and laughed.
"What is there about you that makes me feel that I've known you all my life?"
"Possibly it's my enormous age. Or it may be that I nursed you when you were a baby. I have nursed one or two in my time, though I mayn't look it.—So Betty entrapped you into a proposal?"
"Are you trying to make me angry? It's a dangerous river. Can you swim."
"Like any porpoise. But of course I misunderstand people if they won't explain themselves. You needn't tremble like that. I'll be gentle with you."
"If I tremble it's with pleasure," said Temple.
"Come, moderate your transports, and unfold your tale. My ears are red, I know, but they are small, well-shaped and sympathetic."
"Well then," said Temple; and the tale began. By the time it was ended the boat was at a standstill on the little backwater below the pretties of the sluices.
There was a silence.
"Well?" said Temple.
"Well," said Miss Desmond, dipping her hand in the water—"what a stream this is, to be sure!—Well, your means are satisfactory and you seem to me to have behaved quite beautifully. I don't think I ever heard of such profoundly correct conduct."
"If I've made myself out a prig," said Temple, "I'm sorry. I could tell you lots of things."
"Please spare me! Why are people always so frightfully ashamed of having behaved like decent human beings? I esteem you immensely."
"I'd rather you liked me."
"Well, so I do. But I like lots of people I don't esteem. If I'd married anyone it would probably have been some one like that. But for Betty it's different. I shouldn't have needed to esteem my own husband. But I must esteem hers."
"I'll try not to deserve your esteem more than I'm obliged," said Temple, "but your liking—what can I do to deserve that—?"
"Go on as you've begun, my dear young man, and you'll be Aunt Julia's favourite nephew. No—don't blush. It's an acknowledgement of a tender speech that I always dispense with."
"Advise me," said he, red to the ears and hands. "She doesn't care for me, at present. What can I do?"
"What most of us have to do—when we want anything worth wanting. Wait. We're going home the day after to-morrow. If you turn up at Long Barton about the middle of September—you might come down for the Harvest Festival; it's the yearly excitement. That's what I should do."
"Must I wait so long as that?" he asked. "Why?"
"Let me whisper in your ear," said Miss Desmond, loud above the chatter of the weir. "Long Barton is very dull! Now let's go back."
"I don't want her to accept me because she's bored."
"No more do I. But one sees the proportions of things better when one's dull. And—yes. I esteem you; I like you. You are ingenuous, and innocuous.—No, really that was a yielding to the devil of alliteration. I mean you are a real good sort. The other man has the harmlessness of the serpent. As for me, I have the wisdom of the dove. You profit by it and come to Long Barton in September."
"It seems like a plot to catch her," said Temple.
"A friend of yours told me you were straight. And you are. I thought perhaps she flattered you."
"Who?—No, I'm not to ask questions."
"Lady St. Craye."
"Do you know," he said, slowly pulling downstream, "there's one thing I didn't tell you. I came away from Paris because I wasn't quite sure that I wasn't in love with her."
"Not you," said Miss Desmond. "She'd never have suited you. And now she'll throw herself away on the man with the green eyes and the past. I mean Pasts. And it's a pity. She's a woman after my own heart."
"She's extraordinarily charming," said Temple with a very small sigh.
"Yes extraordinarily, as you say. And so you came away from Paris! I begin to think you have a little of the wisdom of the dove too. Pull now—or we shall be late for breakfast."
"Now that," said the Reverend Cecil that evening to his sister-in-law, "that is the kind of youth I should wish to see my Lizzie select for her help-mate."
"Well," said Miss Desmond, "if you keep that wish strictly to yourself, I should think it had a better chance than most wishes of being gratified."