The Literary Sense/The Brute
THE pearl of the dawn was not yet dissolved in the gold cup of the sunshine, but in the northwest the dripping opal waves were ebbing fast to the horizon, and the sun was already half risen from his couch of dull crimson. She leaned out of her window. By fortunate chance it was a jasmine-muffled lattice, as a girl's window should be, and looked down on the dewy stillness of the garden. The cloudy shadows that had clung in the earliest dawn about the lilac bushes and rhododendrons had faded like grey ghosts, and slowly on lawn and bed and path new black shadows were deepening and intensifying.
She drew a deep breath. What a picture! The green garden, the awakened birds, the roses that still looked asleep, the scented jasmine stars! She saw and loved it all. Nor was she unduly insensible to the charm of the central figure, the girl in the white lace-trimmed gown who leaned her soft arms on the window-sill and looked out on the dawn with large dark eyes. Of course, she knew that her eyes were large and dark, also that her hair was now at its prettiest, rumpled and tumbled from the pillow, and far prettier so than one dared to allow it to be in the daytime. It seemed a pity that there should be no one in the garden save the birds, no one who had awakened thus early just that he might gather a rose and cover it with kisses and throw it up to the window of his pretty sweetheart. She had but recently learned that she was pretty. It was on the evening after the little dance at the Rectory. She had worn red roses at her neck, and when she had let down her hair she had picked up the roses from her dressing-table and stuck them in the loose, rough, brown mass, and stared into the glass till she was half mesmerised by her own dark eyes. She had come to herself with a start, and then she had known quite surely that she was pretty enough to be anyone's sweetheart. When she was a child a well-meaning aunt had told her that as she would never be pretty or clever she had better try to be good, or no one would love her. She had tried, and she had never till that red-rose day doubted that such goodness as she had achieved must be her only claim to love. Now she knew better, and she looked out of her window at the brightening sky and the deepening shadows. But there was no one to throw her a rose with kisses on it.
"If I were a man," she said to herself, but in a very secret shadowy corner of her inmost heart, and in a wordless whisper, "if I were a man, I would go out this minute and find a sweetheart. She should have dark eyes, too, and rough brown hair, and pink cheeks."
In the outer chamber of her mind she said briskly—
"It's a lovely morning. It's a shame to waste it indoors. I'll go out."
The sun was fully up when she stole down through the still sleeping house and out into the garden, now as awake as a lady in full dress at the court of the King.
The garden gate fell to behind her, and the swing of her white skirts went down the green lane. On such a morning who would not wear white? She walked with the quick grace of her nineteen years, and as she went fragments of the undigested poetry that had been her literary diet of late swirled in her mind—
"With tears and smiles from heaven again,
The maiden spring upon the plain
Came in a sunlit fall of rain,"
and so on, though this was July, and not spring at all. And—
"A man had given all other bliss
And all his worldly work for this,
To waste his whole heart in one kiss
Upon her perfect lips."
Her own lips were not perfect, yet, as lips went, they were well enough, and, anyway, kisses would not be wasted on them.
She went down the lane, full of the anxious trembling longing that is youth's unrecognised joy, and at the corner, where the lane meets the high white road, she met him. That is to say, she stopped short, as the whispering silence of the morning was broken by a sudden rattle and a heavy thud, not pleasant to hear. And he and his bicycle fell together, six yards from her feet. The bicycle bounded, and twisted, and settled itself down with bold, resentful clatterings. The man lay without moving.
Her Tennyson quotations were swept away. She ran to help.
"Oh, are you hurt?" she said. He lay quite still. There was blood on his head, and one arm was doubled under his back. What could she do? She tried to lift him from the road to the grass edge of it. He was a big man, but she did succeed in raising his shoulders, and freeing that right arm. As she lifted it, he groaned. She sat down in the dust of the road, and lowered his shoulders till his head lay on her lap. Then she tied her handkerchief round his head, and waited till someone should pass on the way to work. Three men and a boy came after the long half hour in which he lay unconscious, the red patch on her handkerchief spreading slowly, and she looking at him, and getting by heart every line of the pale, worn, handsome face. She spoke to him, she stroked his hair. She touched his white cheek with her finger-tips, and wondered about him, and pitied him, and took possession of him as a new and precious appanage of her life, so that when the labourers appeared, she said—
"He's very badly hurt. Go and fetch some more men and a hurdle, and the boy might run for the doctor. Tell him to come to the White House. It's nearest, and it may be dangerous to move him further."
"The 'Blue Lion' ain't but a furlong further, miss," said one of the men, touching his cap.
"It's much more than that," said she, who had but the vaguest notion of a furlong's length. "Do go and do what I tell you."
They went, and, as they went, remorselessly dissected, with the bluntest instruments, her motives and her sentiments. It was not hidden from them, that wordless whisper in the shadowy inner chamber of her heart. "Perhaps the 'Blue Lion' isn't so very much further, but I can't give him up. No, I can't." But it was almost hidden from her. In her mind's outer hall she said—
"I'm sure I ought to take him home. No girl in a book would hesitate. And I can make it all right with mother. It would be cruel to give him up to strangers."
Deep in her heart the faint whisper followed—
"I found him; he's mine. I won't let him go."
He stirred a little before they came back with the hurdle, and she took his uninjured hand, and pressed it firmly and kindly, and told him it was "all right," he would feel better presently.
She did have him carried home, and when the doctor had set the arm and the collar-bone, and had owned that it would be better not to move him at present, she knew that her romance would not be cut short just yet. She did not nurse him, because it is only in books that young girls of the best families act as sick-nurses to gentlemen. But her mother—dear, kind, clever, foolish gentlewoman—did the nursing, and the daughter gathered flowers daily to brighten his room. And when he was better, yet still not well enough to resume the bicycle tour so sharply interrupted by a flawed nut, she read to him, and talked to him, and sat with him in the hushed August garden. Up to this point, observe, her interest had been purely romantic. He was a man of forty-five. Perhaps he had a younger brother, a splendid young man, and the brother would like her because she had been kind. He had lived long abroad, had no relatives in England. He knew her Cousin Reginald at Johannesburg—everyone knew everyone else out there. The brother—there really was a brother—would come some day to thank her mother for all her goodness, and she would be at the window and look down, and he would look up, and the lamp of life would be lighted. She longed, with heart-whole earnestness, to be in love with someone, for as yet she was only in love with love.
But on the evening when there was a full moon—the time of madness as everybody knows—her mother falling asleep after dinner in her cushioned chair in the lamp lit drawing-room, he and she wandered out into the garden. They sat on the seat under the great apple tree. He was talking gently of kindness and gratitude, and of how he would soon be well enough to go away. She listened in silence, and presently he grew silent, too, under the spell of the moonlight. She never knew exactly how it was that he took her hand, but he was holding it gently, strongly, as if he would never let it go. Their shoulders touched. The silence grew deeper and deeper. She sighed involuntarily; not because she was unhappy, but because her heart was beating so fast. Both were looking straight before them into the moonlight. Suddenly he turned, put his other hand on her shoulder, and kissed her on the lips. At that instant her mother called her, and she went into the lamplight. She said good night at once. She wanted to be alone, to realise the great and wonderful awakening of her nature, its awakening to love—for this was love, the love the poets sang about—
"A kiss, a touch, the charm was snapped."
She wanted to be alone to think about him. But she did not think. She hugged to her heart the physical memory of that strong magnetic hand-clasp, the touch of those smooth sensitive lips on hers—held it close to her till she fell asleep, still thrilling with the ecstasy of her first lover's kiss.
Next day they were formally engaged, and now her life became an intermittent delirium. She longed always to be alone with him, to touch his hands, to feel his cheek against hers. She could not understand the pleasure which he said he felt in just sitting near her and watching her sewing or reading, as he sat talking to her mother of dull things—politics, and the war, and landscape gardening. If she had been a man, she said to herself, always far down in her heart, she would have found a way to sit near the beloved, so that at least hands might meet now and then unseen. But he disliked public demonstrations, and he loved her. She, however, was merely in love with him.
That was why, when he went away, she found it so difficult to write to him. She thought his letters cold, though they told her of all his work, his aims, ambitions, hopes, because not more than half a page was filled with lover's talk. He could have written very different letters—indeed, he had written such in his time, and to more than one address; but he was wise with the wisdom of forty years, and he was beginning to tremble for her happiness, because he loved her.
When she complained that his letters were cold he knew that he had been wise. She found it very difficult to write to him. It was far easier to write to Cousin Reginald, who always wrote such long, interesting letters, all about interesting things—Cousin Reginald who had lived with them at the White House till a year ago, and who knew all the little family jokes, and the old family worries.
They had been engaged for eight months when he came down to see her without any warning letter.
She was alone in the drawing-room when he was announced, and with a cry of joy, she let fall her work on the floor, and ran to meet him with arms outstretched. He caught her wrists.
"No," he said, and the light of joy in her face made it not easy to say it. "My dear, I've come to say something to you, and I mustn't kiss you till I've said it."
The light had died out.
"You're not tired of me?"
He laughed. "No, not tired of you, my little princess, but I am going away for a year. If you still love me when I come back we'll be married. But before I go I must say something to you."
Her eyes were streaming with tears.
"Oh, how can you be so cruel?" she said, and her longing to cling to him, to reassure herself by personal contact, set her heart beating wildly.
"I don't want to be cruel," he said; "you understand, dear, that I love you, and it's just because I love you that I must say it. Now sit down there and let me speak. Don't interrupt me if you can help it. Consider it a sort of lecture you're bound to sit through."
He pushed her gently towards a chair. She sat down sulkily, awkwardly, and he stood by the window, looking out at the daffodils and early tulips.
"Dear, I am afraid I have found something out. I don't think you love me—"
"Oh, how can you, how can you?"
"Be patient," he said. "I've wondered almost from the first. You're almost a child, and I'm an old man—oh, no, I don't mean that that's any reason why you shouldn't love me, but it's a reason for my making very sure that you do before I let you marry me. It's your happiness I have to think of most. Now shall I just go away for a year, or shall I speak straight out and tell you everything? If your father were alive I would try to tell him; I can't tell your mother, she wouldn't understand. You can understand. Shall I tell you?"
"Yes," she said, looking at him with frightened eyes.
"Well: look back. You think you love me. Haven't my letters always bored you a little, though they were about all the things I care for most?"
"I don't understand politics," she said sullenly.
"And I don't understand needle-work, but I could sit and watch you sew for ever and a day."
"Well, go on. What other crime have I committed besides not going into raptures over Parliament?"
She was growing angry, and he was glad. It is not so easy to hurt people when they are angry.
"And when I am talking to your mother, that bores you too, and when we are alone, you don't care to talk of anything, but—but—"
This task was harder than he had imagined possible.
"I've loved you too much, and I've shown it too plainly," she said bitterly.
"My dear, you've never loved me at all. You have only been in love with me."
"And isn't that the same thing?"
"Oh! it's no use," he said, "I must be a brute then. No, it's not the same thing. It's your poets and novelists who pretend it is. It's they who have taught you all wrong. It's only half of love, and the worst half, the most untrustworthy, the least lasting. My little girl, when I kissed you first, you were just waking up to your womanhood, you were ready for love, as a flower-bud is ready for sunshine, and I happened to be the first man who had the chance to kiss you and hold your dear little hands."
"Do you mean that I should have liked anyone else as well if he had only been kind enough to kiss me?"
"No, no; but . . . I wish girls were taught these things out of books. If you only knew what it costs me to be honest with you, how I have been tempted to let you marry me and chance everything! Don't you see you're a woman now—women were made to be kissed, and when a man behaves like a brute and kisses a girl without even asking first, or finding out first whether she loves him, it's not fair on the girl. I shall never forgive myself. Don't you see I took part of you by storm, the part of you that is just woman nature, not yours but everyone's; and how were you to know that you didn't love me, that it was only the awakening of your woman nature?"
"I hate you," she said briefly.
"Yes," he answered simply, "I knew you would. Hate is only one step from passion."
She rose in a fury. "How dare you use that word to me!" she cried. "Oh, you are a brute! You are quite right: I don't love you—I hate you, I despise you. Oh, you brute!"
"Don't," he said; "I only used that word because it's what people call the thing when it's a man who feels it. With you it's what I said, the unconscious awakening of the womanhood God gave you. Try to forgive me. Have I said anything so very dreadful? It's a very little thing, dear, the sweet kindness you've felt for me. It's nothing to be ashamed or angry about. It's not a hundredth part of what I have felt when you have kissed me. It's because it's such a poor foundation to build a home on that I am frightened for you. Suppose you got tired of my kisses, and here was nothing more in me that you did care for. And that sort of . . . lover's love doesn't last for ever—without the other kind of love—"
"Oh, don't say any more," she cried, jumping up from her chair. "I did love you with all my heart. I was sorry for you. I thought you were so different. Oh, how could you say these things to me? Go!"
"Shall I come back in a year?" he asked, smiling rather sadly.
"Come back? Never! I'll never speak to you again. I'll never see you again. I hope to God I shall never hear your name again. Go at once!"
"You'll be grateful to me some day," he said, "when you've found out that love and being in love are not the same thing."
"What is love, then? The kind of love you'd care for?"
"I care for it all," he said. "I think love is tenderness, esteem, affection, interest, pity, protection, and passion. Yes, you needn't be frightened by the word; it is the force that moves the world, but it's only a part of love. Oh, I see it's no good. God bless you, child: you'll understand some day!"
She does understand now; she has married her Cousin Reginald, and she understands deeply and completely. But she only admits this in that deep, shadowy, almost disowned corner of her heart. In the reception room of her mind she still thinks of her first lover as "That Brute!"