The Sea Lady/Chapter 7
CHAPTER THE SEVENTH
The crisis came about a week from that time—I say about because of Melville's conscientious inexactness in these matters. And so far as the crisis goes, I seem to get Melville at his best. He was keenly interested, keenly observant, and his more than average memory took some excellent impressions. To my mind, at any rate, two at least of these people come out, fuller and more convincingly than anywhere else in this painfully disinterred story. He has given me here an Adeline I seem to believe in, and something much more like Chatteris than any of the broken fragments I have had to go upon, and amplify and fudge together so far. And for all such transient lucidities in this mysterious story, the reader no doubt will echo my Heaven be thanked!
Melville was called down to participate in the crisis at Sandgate by a telegram from Mrs. Bunting, and his first exponent of the situation was Fred Bunting.
"Come down. Urgent. Please," was the irresistible message from Mrs. Bunting. My cousin took the early train and arrived at Sandgate in the forenoon.
He was told that Mrs. Bunting was upstairs with Miss Glendower and that she implored him to wait until she could leave her charge. "Miss Glendower not well, then?" said Melville. "No, sir, not at all well," said the housemaid, evidently awaiting a further question. "Where are the others?" he asked casually. The three younger young ladies had gone to Hythe, said the housemaid, with a marked omission of the Sea Lady. Melville has an intense dislike of questioning servants on points at issue, so he asked nothing at all concerning Miss Waters. This general absence of people from the room of familiar occupation conveyed the same suggested warning of crisis as the telegram. The housemaid waited an instant longer and withdrew.
He stood for a moment in the drawing-room and then walked out upon the veranda. He perceived a richly caparisoned figure advancing towards him. It was Fred Bunting. He had been taking advantage of the general desertion of home to bathe from the house. He was wearing an umbrageous white cotton hat and a striped blanket, and a more aggressively manly pipe than any fully adult male would ever dream of smoking, hung from the corner of his mouth.
"Hello!" he said. "The mater sent for you?"
Melville admitted the truth of this theory.
"There's ructions," said Fred, and removed the pipe. The act offered conversation.
"Where's Miss Waters?"
"Lord, no! Catch her! She's gone to Lummadge's Hotel. With her maid. Took a suite."
"The mater made a row with her."
My cousin stared at the situation.
"It broke out," said Fred.
"What broke out?"
"The row. Harry's gone daft on her, Addy says."
"On Miss Waters?"
"Rather. Mooney. Didn't care for his electioneering—didn't care for his ordinary nourishment. Loose ends. Didn't mention it to Adeline, but she began to see it. Asked questions. Next day, went off. London. She asked what was up. Three days' silence. Then—wrote to her."
Fred intensified all this by raising his eyebrows, pulling down the corners of his mouth and nodding portentously. "Eh?" he said, and then to make things clearer: "Wrote a letter."
"He didn't write to her about Miss Waters?"
"Don't know what he wrote about. Don't suppose he mentioned her name, but I dare say he made it clear enough. All I know is that everything in the house felt like elastic pulled tighter than it ought to be for two whole days—everybody in a sort of complicated twist—and then there was a snap. All that time Addy was writing letters to him and tearing 'em up, and no one could quite make it out. Everyone looked blue except the Sea Lady. She kept her own lovely pink. And at the end of that time the mater began asking things, Adeline chucked writing, gave the mater half a hint, mater took it all in in an instant and the thing burst."
"Miss Glendower didn't——?"
"No, the mater did. Put it pretty straight too—as the mater can. . . . She didn't deny it. Said she couldn't help herself, and that he was as much hers as Adeline's. I heard that," said Fred shamelessly. "Pretty thick, eh?—considering he's engaged. And the mater gave it her pretty straight. Said, 'I've been very much deceived in you, Miss Waters—very much indeed.' I heard her. . . ."
"Asked her to go. Said she'd requited us ill for taking her up when nobody but a fisherman would have looked at her."
"She said that?"
"Well, words to that effect."
"And Miss Waters went?"
"In a first-class cab, maid and boxes in another, all complete. Perfect lady. . . . Couldn't have believed if I hadn't seen it—the tail, I mean."
"And Miss Glendower?"
"Addy? Oh, she's been going it. Comes downstairs and does the pale-faced heroine and goes upstairs and does the broken-hearted part. I know. It's all very well. You never had sisters. You know——"
Fred held his pipe elaborately out of the way and protruded his face to a confidential nearness.
"I believe they half like it," said Fred, in a confidential half whisper. "Such a go, you know. Mabel pretty near as bad. And the girls. All making the very most they can of it. Me! I think Chatteris was the only man alive to hear 'em. I couldn't get up emotion as they do, if my feet were being flayed. Cheerful home, eh? For holidays."
"Where's—the principal gentleman?" asked Melville a little grimly. "In London?"
"Unprincipled gentleman, I call him," said Fred. "He's stopping down here at the Métropole. Stuck."
"Down here? Stuck?"
"Rather. Stuck and set about."
My cousin tried for sidelights. "What's his attitude?" he asked.
"Slump," said Fred with intensity.
"This little blow-off has rather astonished him," he explained. "When he wrote to say that the election didn't interest him for a bit, but he hoped to pull around——"
"You said you didn't know what he wrote."
"I do that much," said Fred. "He no more thought they'd have spotted that it meant Miss Waters than a baby. But women are so thundering sharp, you know. They're born spotters. How it'll all end——"
"But why has he come to the Métropole?"
"Middle of the stage, I suppose," said Fred.
"What's his attitude?"
"Says he's going to see Adeline and explain everything—and doesn't do it. . . . Puts it off. And Adeline, as far as I can gather, says that if he doesn't come down soon, she's hanged if she'll see him, much as her heart may be broken, and all that, if she doesn't. You know."
"Naturally," said Melville, rather inconsecutively. "And he doesn't?"
"Does he see—the other lady?"
"We don't know. We can't watch him. But if he does he's clever——"
"There's about a hundred blessed relatives of his in the place—came like crows for a corpse. I never saw such a lot. Talk about a man of good old family—it's decaying! I never saw such a high old family in my life. Aunts they are chiefly."
"Aunts. Say, they've rallied round him. How they got hold of it I don't know. Like vultures. Unless the mater— But they're here. They're all at him—using their influence with him, threatening to cut off legacies and all that. There's one old girl at Bate's, Lady Poynting Mallow—least bit horsey, but about as all right as any of 'em—who's been down here twice. Seems a trifle disappointed in Adeline. And there's two aunts at Wampach's—you know the sort that stop at Wampach's—regular hothouse flowers—a watering-potful of real icy cold water would kill both of 'em. And there's one come over from the Continent, short hair, short skirts—regular terror—she's at the Pavilion. They're all chasing round saying, 'Where is this woman-fish sort of thing? Let me peek!'"
"Does that constitute the hundred relatives?"
"Practically. The Wampachers are sending for a Bishop who used to be his schoolmaster——"
"No stone unturned, eh?"
"And has he found out yet——"
"That she's a mermaid? I don't believe he has. The pater went up to tell him. Of course, he was a bit out of breath and embarrassed. And Chatteris cut him down. 'At least let me hear nothing against her,' he said. And the pater took that and came away. Good old pater. Eh?"
"And the aunts?"
"They're taking it in. Mainly they grasp the fact that he's going to jilt Adeline, just as he jilted the American girl. The mermaid side they seem to boggle at. Old people like that don't take to a new idea all at once. The Wampach ones are shocked—but curious. They don't believe for a moment she really is a mermaid, but they want to know all about it. And the one down at the Pavilion simply said, 'Bosh! How can she breathe under water? Tell me that, Mrs. Bunting. She's some sort of person you have picked up, I don't know how, but mermaid she cannot be.' They'd be all tremendously down on the mater, I think, for picking her up, if it wasn't that they can't do without her help to bring Addy round again. Pretty mess all round, eh?"
"I suppose the aunts will tell him ?"
"About the tail."
"I suppose they will."
"And what then?"
"Heaven knows! Just as likely they won't."
My cousin meditated on the veranda tiles for a space.
"It amuses me," said Fred Bunting.
"Look here," said my cousin Melville, "what am I supposed to do? Why have I been asked to come?"
"I don't know. Stir it up a bit, I expect. Everybody do a bit—like the Christmas pudding."
"But—" said Melville."I've been bathing," said Fred.
Adjusting the folds of his blanket to a greater dignity.
"Nobody asked me to take a hand and I didn't. It won't be a good pudding without me, but there you are! There's only one thing I can see to do——"
"It might be the right thing. What is it?"
"Punch Chatteris's head."
"I don't see how that would help matters."
"Oh, it wouldn't help matters," said Fred, adding with an air of conclusiveness, "There it is!" Then adjusting the folds of his blanket to a greater dignity, and replacing his long extinct large pipe between his teeth, he went on his way. The tail of his blanket followed him reluctantly through the door. His bare feet padded across the hall and became inaudible on the carpet of the stairs.
"Fred!" said Melville, going doorward with a sudden afterthought for fuller particulars.
But Fred had gone.
Instead, Mrs. Bunting appeared.
She appeared with traces of recent emotion. "I telegraphed," she said. "We are in dreadful trouble."
"Miss Waters, I gather——"
She went towards the bell and stopped. "They'll get luncheon as usual," she said. "You will be wanting your luncheon."
She came towards him with rising hands. "You can not imagine," she said. "That poor child!"
"You must tell me," said Melville.
"I simply do not know what to do. I don't know where to turn." She came nearer to him. She protested. "All that I did, Mr. Melville, I did for the best. I saw there was trouble. I could see that I had been deceived, and I stood it as long as I could. I had to speak at last."
My cousin by leading questions and interrogative silences developed her story a little.
"And every one," she said, "blames me. Every one."
"Everybody blames everybody who does anything, in affairs of this sort," said Melville. "You mustn't mind that."
"I'll try not to," she said bravely. "You know, Mr. Melville——"
He laid his hand on her shoulder for a moment. "Yes," he said very impressively, and I think Mrs. Bunting felt better.
"We all look to you," she said. "I don't know what I should do without you."
"That's it," said Melville. "How do things stand? What am I to do?"
"Go to him," said Mrs. Bunting, "and put it all right."
"But suppose—" began Melville doubtfully.
"Go to her. Make her see what it would mean for him and all of us."
He tried to get more definite instructions. "Don't make difficulties," implored Mrs. Bunting. "Think of that poor girl upstairs. Think of us all."
"Exactly," said Melville, thinking of Chatteris and staring despondently out of the window.
"Bunting, I gather——"
"It is you or no one," said Mrs. Bunting, sailing over his unspoken words. "Fred is too young, and Randolph—! He's not diplomatic. He—he hectors."
"Does he?" exclaimed Melville.
"You should see him abroad. Often—many times I have had to interfere. . . . No, it is you. You know Harry so well. He trusts you. You can say things to him—no one else could say."
"That reminds me. Does he know——"
"We don't know. How can we know? We know he is infatuated, that is all. He is up there in Folkestone, and she is in Folkestone, and they may be meeting——"
My cousin sought counsel with himself.
"Say you will go?" said Mrs. Bunting, with a hand upon his arm.
"I'll go," said Melville, "but I don't see what I can do!"
And Mrs. Bunting clasped his hand in both of her own plump shapely hands and said she knew all along that he would, and that for coming down so promptly to her telegram she would be grateful to him so long as she had a breath to draw, and then she added, as if it were part of the same remark, that he must want his luncheon.
He accepted the luncheon proposition in an incidental manner and reverted to the question in hand.
"Do you know what his attitude——"
"He has written only to Addy."
"It isn't as if he had brought about this crisis?"
"It was Addy. He went away and something in his manner made her write and ask him the reason why So soon as she had his letter saying he wanted to rest from politics for a little, that somehow he didn't seem to find the interest in life he thought it deserved, she divined everything——"
"Everything? Yes, but just what is everything?"
"That she had led him on."
My cousin reflected. So that was what they considered to be everything! "I wish I knew just where he stood," he said at last, and followed Mrs. Bunting luncheonward. In the course of that meal, which was tête-à-tête, it became almost unsatisfactorily evident what a great relief Melville's consent to interview Chatteris was to Mrs. Bunting. Indeed, she seemed to consider herself relieved from the greater portion of her responsibility in the matter, since Melville was bearing her burden. She sketched out her defence against the accusations that had no doubt been levelled at her, explicitly and implicitly.
"How was I to know?" she asked, and she told over again the story of that memorable landing, but with new, extenuating details. It was Adeline herself who had cried first, "She must be saved!" Mrs. Bunting made a special point of that. "And what else was there for me to do?" she asked.
And as she talked, the problem before my cousin assumed graver and yet graver proportions. He perceived more and more clearly the complexity of the situation with which he was entrusted. In the first place it was not at all clear that Miss Glendower was willing to receive back her lover except upon terms, and the Sea Lady, he was quite sure, did not mean to release him from any grip she had upon him. They were preparing to treat an elemental struggle as if it were an individual case. It grew more and more evident to him how entirely Mrs. Bunting overlooked the essentially abnormal nature of the Sea Lady, how absolutely she regarded the business as a mere every-day vacillation, a commonplace outbreak of that jilting spirit which dwells, covered deep, perhaps, but never entirely eradicated, in the heart of man; and how confidently she expected him, with a little tactful remonstrance and pressure, to restore the statu quo ante.
As for Chatteris!—Melville shook his head at the cheese, and answered Mrs. Bunting abstractedly.
"She wants to speak to you," said Mrs. Bunting, and Melville with a certain trepidation went upstairs. He went up to the big landing with the seats, to save Adeline the trouble of coming down. She appeared dressed in a black and violet tea gown with much lace, and her dark hair was done with a simple carefulness that suited it. She was pale, and her eyes showed traces of tears, but she had a certain dignity that differed from her usual bearing in being quite unconscious.
She gave him a limp hand and spoke in an exhausted voice.
"You know—all?" she asked.
"All the outline, anyhow."
"Why has he done this to me?"
Melville looked profoundly sympathetic through a pause.
"I feel," she said, "that it isn't coarseness."
"Certainly not," said Melville.
"It is some mystery of the imagination that I cannot understand. I should have thought—his career at any rate—would have appealed . . ." She shook her head and regarded a pot of ferns fixedly for a space.
"He has written to you?" asked Melville.
"Three times," she said, looking up.
Melville hesitated to ask the extent of that correspondence, but she left no need for that.
"I had to ask him," she said. "He kept it all from me, and I had to force it from him before he would tell."
"Tell!" said Melville, "what?"
"What he felt for her and what he felt for me."
"But did he——?"
"He has made it clearer. But still even now. No, I don't understand."
She turned slowly and watched Melville's face as she spoke: "You know, Mr. Melville, that this has been an enormous shock to me. I suppose I never really knew him. I suppose I—idealised him. I thought he cared for—our work at any rate. . . . He did care for our work. He believed in it. Surely he believed in it."
"He does," said Melville.
"And then— But how can he?"
"He is—he is a man with rather a strong imagination."
"Or a weak will?"
"It is so strange," she sighed. "It is so inconsistent. It is like a child catching at a new toy. Do you know, Mr. Melville"—she hesitated—"all this has made me feel old. I feel very much older, very much wiser than he is. I cannot help it. I am afraid it is for all women . . . to feel that sometimes."
She reflected profoundly. "For all women— The child, man! I see now just what Sarah Grand meant by that."
She smiled a wan smile. "I feel just as if he had been a naughty child. And I—I worshipped him, Mr. Melville," she said, and her voice quivered.
My cousin coughed and turned about to stare hard out of the window. He was, he perceived, much more shockingly inadequate even than he had expected to be.
"If I thought she could make him happy!" she said presently, leaving a hiatus of generous self-sacrifice.
"The case is—complicated," said Melville.
Her voice went on, clear and a little high, resigned, impenetrably assured.
"But she would not. All his better side, all his serious side— She would miss it and ruin it all."
"Does he—" began Melville and repented of the temerity of his question.
"Yes?" she said.
"Does he—ask to be released?"
"No. . . . He wants to come back to me."
"He doesn't come."
"But do you—do you want him back?"
"How can I say, Mr. Melville? He does not say certainly even that he wants to come back."
My cousin Melville looked perplexed. He lived on the superficies of emotion, and these complexities in matters he had always assumed were simple, put him out.
"There are times," she said, "when it seems to me that my love for him is altogether dead. . . . Think of the disillusionment—the shock—the discovery of such weakness."
My cousin lifted his eyebrows and shook his head in agreement.
"His feet—to find his feet were of clay!"
There came a pause.
"It seems as if I have never loved him. And then—and then I think of all the things that still might be."
Her voice made him look up, and he saw that her mouth was set hard and tears were running down her cheeks.
It occurred to my cousin, he says, that he would touch her hand in a sympathetic manner, and then it occurred to him that he wouldn't. Her words rang in his thoughts for a space, and then he said somewhat tardily, "He may still be all those things."
"I suppose he may," she said slowly and without colour. The weeping moment had passed.
"What is she?" she changed abruptly. "What is this being, who has come between him and all the realities of life? What is there about her—? And why should I have to compete with her, because he—because he doesn't know his own mind?"
"For a man," said Melville, "to know his own mind is—to have exhausted one of the chief interests in life. After that—! A cultivated extinct volcano—if ever it was a volcano."
He reflected egotistically for a space. Then with a secret start he came back to consider her.
"What is there," she said, with that deliberate attempt at clearness which was one of her antipathetic qualities for Melville—"what is there that she has, that she offers, that I——?"
Melville winced at this deliberate proposal of appalling comparisons. All the catlike quality in his soul came to his aid. He began to edge away, and walk obliquely and generally to shirk the issue. "My dear Miss Glendower," he said, and tried to make that seem an adequate reply.
"What is the difference?" she insisted.
"There are impalpable things," waived Melville. "They are above reason and beyond describing."
"But you," she urged, "you take an attitude, you must have an impression. Why don't you— Don't you see, Mr. Melville, this is very"—her voice caught for a moment—"very vital for me. It isn't kind of you, if you have impressions— I'm sorry, Mr. Melville, if I seem to be trying to get too much from you. I—I want to know."
It came into Melville's head for a moment that this girl had something in her, perhaps, that was just a little beyond his former judgments.
"I must admit, I have a sort of impression," he said.
"You are a man; you know him; you know all sorts of things—all sorts of ways of looking at things, I don't know. If you could go so far—as to be frank."
"Well," said Melville and stopped.
She hung over him as it were, as a tense silence.
"There is a difference," he admitted, and still went unhelped.
"How can I put it? I think in certain ways you contrast with her, in a way that makes things easier for her. He has—I know the thing sounds like cant, only you know, he doesn't plead it in defence—he has a temperament, to which she sometimes appeals more than you do."
"Yes, I know, but how?"
"You are austere. You are restrained. Life—for a man like Chatteris—is schooling. He has something—something perhaps more worth having than most of us have—but I think at times—it makes life harder for him than it is for a lot of us. Life comes at him, with limitations and regulations. He knows his duty well enough. And you— You mustn't mind what I say too much, Miss Glendower—I may be wrong."
"Go on," she said, "go on."
"You are too much—the agent general of his duty."
"But surely!—what else——?"
"I talked to him in London and then I thought he was quite in the wrong. Since that I've thought all sorts of things—even that you might be in the wrong. In certain minor things."
"Don't mind my vanity now," she cried. "Tell me."
"You see you have defined things—very clearly. You have made it clear to him what you expect him to be, and what you expect him to do. It is like having built a house in which he is to live. For him, to go to her is like going out of a house, a very fine and dignified house, I admit, into something larger, something adventurous and incalculable. She is—she has an air of being—natural. She is as lax and lawless as the sunset, she is as free and familiar as the wind. She doesn't—if I may put it in this way—she doesn't love and respect him when he is this, and disapprove of him highly when he is that; she takes him altogether. She has the quality of the open sky, of the flight of birds, of deep tangled places, she has the quality of the high sea. That I think is what she is for him, she is the Great Outside. You—you have the quality——"
"Go on," she insisted. "Let us get the meaning."
"Of an edifice. . . . I don't sympathise with him," said Melville. "I am a tame cat and I should scratch and mew at the door directly I got outside of things. I don't want to go out. The thought scares me. But he is different."
"Yes," she said, "he is different."
For a time it seemed that Melville's interpretation had hold of her. She stood thoughtful. Slowly other aspects of the thing came into his mind.
"Of course," she said, thinking as she looked at him. "Yes. Yes. That is the impression. That is the quality. But in reality— There are other things in the world beside effects and impressions. After all, that is—an analogy. It is pleasant to go out of houses and dwellings into the open air, but most of us, nearly all of us must live in houses."
"Decidedly," said Melville.
"He cannot— What can he do with her? How can he live with her? What life could they have in common?"
"It's a case of attraction," said Melville, "and not of plans."
"After all," she said, "he must come back—if I let him come back. He may spoil everything now; he may lose his election and be forced to start again, lower and less hopefully; he may tear his heart to pieces——"
She stopped at a sob.
"Miss Glendower," said Melville abruptly.
"I don't think you quite understand."
"You think he cannot marry this—this being who has come among us?"
"How could he?"
"No—he couldn't. You think his imagination has wandered away from you—to something impossible. That generally, in an aimless way, he has cut himself up for nothing, and made an inordinate fool of himself, and that it's simply a business of putting everything back into place again."
He paused and she said nothing. But her face was attentive. "What you do not understand," he went on, "what no one seems to understand, is that she comes——"
"Out of the sea."
"Out of some other world. She comes, whispering that this life is a phantom life, unreal, flimsy, limited, casting upon everything a spell of disillusionment——"
"So that he——"
"Yes, and then she whispers, 'There are better dreams!'"
The girl regarded him in frank perplexity.
"She hints of these vague better dreams, she whispers of a way——"
"I do not know what way. But it is something—something that tears at the very fabric of this daily life."
"She is a mermaid, she is a thing of dreams and desires, a siren, a whisper and a seduction. She will lure him with her——"
"Where?" she whispered.
"Into the deeps."
They hung upon a long pause. Melville sought vagueness with infinite solicitude, and could not find it. He blurted out at last: "There can be but one way out of this dream we are all dreaming, you know."
"And that way?"
"That way—" began Melville and dared not say it.
"You mean," she said, with a pale face, half awakened to a new thought, "the way is——?"
Melville shirked the word. He met her eyes and nodded weakly.
"But how—?" she asked.
"At any rate"—he said hastily, seeking some palliative phrase—"at any rate, if she gets him, this little world of yours— There will be no coming back for him, you know."
"No coming back?" she said.
"No coming back," said Melville.
"But are you sure?" she doubted.
"That it is so?"
"That desire is desire, and the deep the deep—yes."
"I never thought—" she began and stopped.
"Mr. Melville," she said, "you know I don't understand. I thought—I scarcely know what I thought. I thought he was trivial and foolish to let his thoughts go wandering. I agreed—I see your point—as to the difference in our effect upon him. But this—this suggestion that for him she may be something determining and final— After all, she——"
"She is nothing," he said. "She is the hand that takes hold of him, the shape that stands for things unseen."
"What things unseen?"
My cousin shrugged his shoulders. "Something we never find in life," he said. "Something we are always seeking."
"But what?" she asked.
Melville made no reply. She scrutinised his face for a time, and then looked out at the sunlight again.
"Do you want him back?" he said.
"I don't know."
"Do you want him back?"
"I feel as if I had never wanted him before."
"Yes. . . . But—if he will not come back?"
"He will not come back," said Melville, "for the work."
"He will not come back for his self-respect—or any of those things."
"Those things, you know, are only fainter dreams. All the palace you have made for him is a dream. But——"
"He might come back—" he said, and looked at her and stopped. He tells me he had some vague intention of startling her, rousing her, wounding her to some display of romantic force, some insurgence of passion, that might yet win Chatteris back, and then in that moment, and like a blow, it came to him how foolish such a fancy had been. There she stood impenetrably herself, limitedly intelligent, well-meaning, imitative, and powerless. Her pose, her face, suggested nothing but a clear and reasonable objection to all that had come to her, a critical antagonism, a steady opposition. And then, amazingly, she changed. She looked up, and suddenly held out both her hands, and there was something in her eyes that he had never seen before.
Melville took her hands mechanically, and for a second or so they stood looking with a sort of discovery into each other's eyes.
"Tell him," she said, with an astounding perfection of simplicity, "to come back to me. There can be no other thing than what I am. Tell him to come back to me!"
"Tell him that."
"No! Tell him I want him. If he will not come for that he will not come at all. If he will not come back for that"—she halted for a moment—"I do not want him. No! I do not want him. He is not mine and he may go."
His passive hold of her hands became a pressure. Then they dropped apart again.
"You are very good to help us," she said as he turned to go.
He looked at her. "You are very good to help me," she said, and then: "Tell him whatever you like if only he will come back to me! . . . No! Tell him what I have said." He saw she had something more to say, and stopped. "You know, Mr. Melville, all this is like a book newly opened to me. Are you sure——?"
"Sure of what you say—sure of what she is to him—sure that if he goes on he will—" She stopped.
"It means—" she said and stopped again.
"No adventure, no incident, but a going out from all that this life has to offer."
"You mean," she insisted, "you mean——?"
"Death," said Melville starkly, and for a space both stood without a word.
She winced, and remained looking into his eyes. Then she spoke again.
"Mr. Melville, tell him to come back to me."
"Tell him to come back to me, or"—a sudden note of passion rang in her voice—"if I have no hold upon him, let him go his way."
"But—" said Melville.
"I know," she cried, with her face set, "I know. But if he is mine he will come to me, and if he is not— Let him dream his dream."
Her clenched hand tightened as she spoke. He saw in her face she would say no more, that she wanted urgently to leave it there. He turned again towards the staircase. He glanced at her and went down.
As he looked up from the bend of the stairs she was still standing in the light.
He was moved to proclaim himself in some manner her adherent, but he could think of nothing better than: "Whatever I can do I will." And so, after a curious pause, he departed, rather stumblingly, from her sight.
After this interview it was right and proper that Melville should have gone at once to Chatteris, but the course of events in the world does occasionally display a lamentable disregard for what is right and proper. Points of view were destined to crowd upon him that day—for the most part entirely unsympathetic points of view. He found Mrs. Bunting in the company of a boldly trimmed bonnet in the hall, waiting, it became clear, to intercept him.
As he descended, in a state of extreme preoccupation, the boldly trimmed bonnet revealed beneath it a white-faced, resolute person in a duster and sensible boots. This stranger, Mrs. Bunting made apparent, was Lady Poynting Mallow, one of the more representative of the Chatteris aunts. Her ladyship made a few enquiries about Adeline with an eye that took Melville's measure, and then, after agreeing to a number of the suggestions Mrs. Bunting had to advance, proposed that he should escort her back to her hotel. He was much too exercised with Adeline to discuss the proposal. "I walk," she said. "And we go along the lower road."
He found himself walking.
She remarked, as the Bunting door closed behind them, that it was always a comfort to have to do with a man; and there was a silence for a space.
I don't think at that time Melville completely grasped the fact that he had a companion. But presently his meditations were disturbed by her voice. He started.
"I beg your pardon," he said.
"That Bunting woman is a fool," repeated Lady Poynting Mallow.
There was a slight interval for consideration.
"She's an old friend of mine," said Melville.
"Quite possibly," said Lady Poynting Mallow.
The position seemed a little awkward to Melville for a moment. He flicked a fragment of orange peel into the road. "I want to get to the bottom of all this," said Lady Poynting Mallow. "Who is this other woman?"
"What other woman?"
"Tertium quid," said Lady Poynting Mallow, with a luminous incorrectness.
"Mermaid, I gather," said Melville.
"What's the objection to her?"
"Fin and all?"
"You're sure of it?"
"How do you know?"
"I'm certain," repeated Melville with a quite unusual testiness.
The lady reflected.
"Well, there are worse things in the world than a fishy tail," she said at last.
Melville saw no necessity for a reply. "H'm," said Lady Poynting Mallow, apparently by way of comment on his silence, and for a space they went on.
"That Glendower girl is a fool too," she added after a pause.
My cousin opened his mouth and shut it again. How can one answer when ladies talk in this way? But if he did not answer, at any rate his preoccupation was gone. He was now acutely aware of the determined person at his side.
"She has means?" she asked abruptly.
"No. I know all about her. The other?"
"Yes, the mermaid. Why not?"
"Oh, she— Very considerable means. Galleons. Phœnician treasure ships, wrecked frigates, submarine reefs——"
"Well, that's all right. And now will you tell me, Mr. Melville, why shouldn't Harry have her? What if she is a mermaid? It's no worse than an American silver mine, and not nearly so raw and ill-bred."
"In the first place there's his engagement——"
"And in the next there's the Sea Lady."
"But I thought she——"
"She's a mermaid."
"It's no objection. So far as I can see, she'd make an excellent wife for him. And, as a matter of fact, down here she'd be able to help him in just the right way. The member here—he'll be fighting—this Sassoon man—makes a lot of capital out of deep-sea cables. Couldn't be better. Harry could dish him easily. That's all right. Why shouldn't he have her?"
She stuck her hands deeply into the pockets of her dust-coat, and a china-blue eye regarded Melville from under the brim of the boldly trimmed bonnet.
"You understand clearly she is a properly constituted mermaid with a real physical tail?"
"Well?" said Lady Poynting Mallow.
"Apart from any question of Miss Glendower——"
"I think that such a marriage would be impossible."
My cousin played round the question. "She's an immortal, for example, with a past."
"Simply makes her more interesting."
Melville tried to enter into her point of view. "You think," he said, "she would go to London for him, and marry at St. George's, Hanover Square, and pay for a mansion in Park Lane and visit just anywhere he liked?"
"That's precisely what she would do. Just now, with a Court that is waking up——"
"It's precisely what she won't do," said Melville.
"But any woman would do it who had the chance."
"She's a mermaid."
"She's a fool," said Lady Poynting Mallow.
"She doesn't even mean to marry him; it doesn't enter into her code."
"The hussy! What does she mean?"
My cousin made a gesture seaward. "That!" he said. "She's a mermaid."
Lady Poynting Mallow scanned the sea as if it were some curious new object. "It's an amphibious outlook for the family," she said after reflection. "But even then—if she doesn't care for society and it makes Harry happy—and perhaps after they are tired of—rusticating——"
"I don't think you fully realise that she is a mermaid," said Melville; "and Chatteris, you know, breathes air."
"That is a difficulty," admitted Lady Poynting Mallow, and studied the sunlit offing for a space.
"I don't see why it shouldn't be managed for all that," she considered after a pause.
"It can't be," said Melville with arid emphasis.
"She cares for him?"
"She's come to fetch him."
"If she wants him badly he might make terms. In these affairs it's always one or other has to do the buying. She'd have to marry—anyhow."
My cousin regarded her impenetrably satisfied face.
"He could have a yacht and a diving bell," she suggested; "if she wanted him to visit her people."
"They are pagan demigods, I believe, and live in some mythological way in the Mediterranean."
"Dear Harry's a pagan himself—so that doesn't matter, and as for being mythological—all good families are. He could even wear a diving dress if one could be found to suit him."
"I don't think that anything of the sort is possible for a moment."
"Simply because you've never been a woman in love," said Lady Poynting Mallow with an air of vast experience.
She continued the conversation. "If it's sea water she wants it would be quite easy to fit up a tank wherever they lived, and she could easily have a bath chair like a sitz bath on wheels. . . . Really, Mr. Milvain——"
"Mr. Melville, I don't see where your 'impossible' comes in."
"Have you seen the lady?"
"Do you think I've been in Folkestone two days doing nothing?"
"You don't mean you've called on her?"
"Dear, no! It's Harry's place to settle that. But I've seen her in her bath chair on the Leas, and I'm certain I've never seen any one who looked so worthy of dear Harry. Never!"
"Well, well," said Melville. "Apart from any other considerations, you know, there's Miss Glendower."
"I've never regarded her as a suitable wife for Harry."
"Possibly not. Still—she exists."
"So many people do," said Lady Poynting Mallow.
She evidently regarded that branch of the subject as dismissed.
They pursued their way in silence.
"What I wanted to ask you, Mr. Milvain——"
"Mr. Melville, is just precisely where you come into this business?"
"I'm a friend of Miss Glendower."
"Who wants him back."
"Isn't she devoted to him?"
"I presume as she's engaged——"
"She ought to be devoted to him—yes. Well, why can't she see that she ought to release him for his own good?"
"She doesn't see it's for his good. Nor do I."
"Simply an old-fashioned prejudice because the woman's got a tail. Those old frumps at Wampach's are quite of your opinion."
Melville shrugged his shoulders.
"And so I suppose you're going to bully and threaten on account of Miss Glendower. . . . You'll do no good."
"May I ask what you are going to do?"
"What a good aunt always does."
"Let him do what he likes."
"Suppose he wants to drown himself?"
"My dear Mr. Milvain, Harry isn't a fool."
"I've told you she's a mermaid."
A constrained silence fell between them.
It became apparent they were near the Folkestone Lift.
"You'll do no good," said Lady Poynting Mallow.
Melville's escort concluded at the lift station. There the lady turned upon him.
"I'm greatly obliged to you for coming, Mr. Milvain," she said; "and very glad to hear your views of this matter. It's a peculiar business, but I hope we're sensible people. You think over what I have said. As a friend of Harry's. You are a friend of Harry's?"
"We've known each other some years."
"I feel sure you will come round to my point of view sooner or later. It is so obviously the best thing for him."
"There's Miss Glendower."
"If Miss Glendower is a womanly woman, she will be ready to make any sacrifice for his good."
And with that they parted.
In the course of another minute Melville found himself on the side of the road opposite the lift station, regarding the ascending car. The boldly trimmed bonnet, vivid, erect, assertive, went gliding upward, a perfect embodiment of sound common sense. His mind was lapsing once again into disorder; he was stunned, as it were, by the vigour of her ladyship's view. Could any one not absolutely right be quite so clear and emphatic? And if so, what became of all that oppression of foreboding, that sinister promise of an escape, that whisper of "other dreams," that had dominated his mind only a short half-hour before?
He turned his face back to Sandgate, his mind a theatre of warring doubts. Quite vividly he could see the Sea Lady as Lady Poynting Mallow saw her, as something pink and solid and smart and wealthy, and, indeed, quite abominably vulgar, and yet quite as vividly he recalled her as she had talked to him in the garden, her face full of shadows, her eyes of deep mystery, and the whisper that made all the world about him no more than a flimsy, thin curtain before vague and wonderful, and hitherto, quite unsuspected things.
Chatteris was leaning against the railings. He started violently at Melville's hand upon his shoulder. They made awkward greetings.
"The fact is," said Melville, "I—I have been asked to talk to you."
"Don't apologise," said Chatteris. "I'm glad to have it out with some one."
There was a brief silence.
They stood side by side—looking down upon the harbour. Behind, the evening band played remotely and the black little promenaders went to and fro under the tall electric lights. I think Chatteris decided to be very self-possessed at first—a man of the world.
"It's a gorgeous night," he said.
"Glorious," said Melville, playing up to the key set.
He clicked his cutter on a cigar. "There was something you wanted me to tell you——"
"I know all that," said Chatteris with the shoulder towards Melville becoming obtrusive. "I know everything."
"You have seen and talked to her?"
There was perhaps a minute's pause.
"What are you going to do?" asked Melville.
Chatteris made no answer and Melville did not repeat his question.
Presently Chatteris turned about. "Let's walk," he said, and they paced westward, side by side.
He made a little speech. "I'm sorry to give everybody all this trouble," he said with an air of having prepared his sentences; "I suppose there is no question that I have behaved like an ass. I am profoundly sorry. Largely it is my own fault. But you know—so far as the overt kick-up goes—there is a certain amount of blame attaches to our outspoken friend Mrs. Bunting."
"I'm afraid there is," Melville admitted.
"You know there are times when one is under the necessity of having moods. It doesn't help them to drag them into general discussion."
"The mischief's done."
"You know Adeline seems to have objected to the presence of—this sea lady at a very early stage. Mrs. Bunting overruled her. Afterwards when there was trouble she seems to have tried to make up for it."
"I didn't know Miss Glendower had objected."
"She did. She seems to have seen—ahead."
Chatteris reflected. "Of course all that doesn't excuse me in the least. But it's a sort of excuse for your being dragged into this bother."
He said something less distinctly about a "stupid bother" and "private affairs."
They found themselves drawing near the band and already on the outskirts of its territory of votaries. Its cheerful rhythms became insistent. The canopy of the stand was a focus of bright light, music-stands and instruments sent out beams of reflected brilliance, and a luminous red conductor in the midst of the lantern guided the ratatoo-tat, ratatoo-tat of a popular air. Voices, detached fragments of conversation, came to our talkers and mingled impertinently with their thoughts.
"I wouldn't 'ave no truck with 'im, not after that," said a young person to her friend.
"Let's get out of this," said Chatteris abruptly.
They turned aside from the high path of the Leas to the head of some steps that led down the declivity. In a few moments it was as if those imposing fronts of stucco, those many-windowed hotels, the electric lights on the tall masts, the band-stand and miscellaneous holiday British public, had never existed. It is one of Folkestone's best effects, that black quietness under the very feet of a crowd. They no longer heard the band even, only a remote suggestion of music filtered to them over the brow. The black-treed slopes fell from them to the surf below, and out at sea were the lights of many ships. Away to the westward like a swarm of fire-flies hung the lights of Hythe. The two men sat down on a vacant seat in the dimness. For a time neither spoke. Chatteris impressed Melville with an air of being on the defensive. He murmured in a meditative undertone, "I wouldn't 'ave no truck with 'im not after that."
"I will admit by every standard," he said aloud, "that I have been flappy and feeble and wrong. Very. In these things there is a prescribed and definite course. To hesitate, to have two points of view, is condemned by all right-thinking people. . . . Still—one has the two points of view. . . . You have come up from Sandgate?"
"Did you see Miss Glendower?"
"Talked to her? . . . I suppose— What do you think of her?"
His cigar glowed into an expectant brightness while Melville hesitated at his answer, and showed his eyes thoughtful upon Melville's face.
"I've never thought her—" Melville sought more diplomatic phrasing. "I've never found her exceptionally attractive before. Handsome, you know, but not—winning. But this time, she seemed . . . rather splendid."
"She is," said Chatteris, "she is."
He sat forward and began flicking imaginary ash from the end of his cigar.
"She is splendid," he admitted. "You—only begin to imagine. You don't, my dear man, know that girl. She is not—quite—in your line. She is, I assure you, the straightest and cleanest and clearest human being I have ever met. She believes so firmly, she does right so simply, there is a sort of queenly benevolence, a sort of integrity of benevolence——"
He left the sentence unfinished, as if unfinished it completely expressed his thought.
"She wants you to go back to her," said Melville bluntly.
"I know," said Chatteris and flicked again at that ghostly ash. "She has written that. . . . That's just where her complete magnificence comes in. She doesn't fence and fool about, as the she-women do. She doesn't squawk and say, 'You've insulted me and everything's at an end;' and she doesn't squawk and say, 'For God's sake come back to me!' She doesn't say, she 'won't 'ave no truck with me not after this.' She writes—straight. I don't believe, Melville, I half knew her until all this business came up. She comes out. . . . Before that it was, as you said, and I quite perceive—I perceived all along—a little too—statistical."
He became meditative, and his cigar glow waned and presently vanished altogether.
"You are going back?"
"By Jove! Yes."
Melville stirred slightly and then they both sat rigidly quiet for a space. Then abruptly Chatteris flung away his extinct cigar. He seemed to fling many other things away with that dim gesture. "Of course," he said, "I shall go back.
"It is not my fault," he insisted, "that this trouble, this separation, has ever arisen. I was moody, I was preoccupied, I know—things had got into my head. But if I'd been left alone. . . .
"I have been forced into this position," he summarised.
"You understand," said Melville, "that—though I think matters are indefined and distressing just now—I don't attach blame—anywhere."
"You're open-minded," said Chatteris. "That's just your way. And I can imagine how all this upset and discomfort distresses you. You're awfully good to keep so open-minded and not to consider me an utter outcast, an ill-regulated disturber of the order of the world."
"It's a distressing state of affairs," said Melville. "But perhaps I understand the forces pulling at you—better than you imagine."
"They're very simple, I suppose."
He seemed to hesitate at a dangerous topic. "The other," he said.
Melville's silence bade him go on.
He plunged from his prepared attitude. "What is it? Why should this being—come into my life, as she has done, if it is so simple? What is there about her, or me, that has pulled me so astray? She has, you know. Here we are at sixes and sevens! It's not the situation, it's the mental conflict. Why am I pulled about? She has got into my imagination. How? I haven't the remotest idea."
"She's beautiful," meditated Melville.
"She's beautiful certainly. But so is Miss Glendower."
"She's very beautiful. I'm not blind, Chatteris. She's beautiful in a different way."
"Yes, but that's only the name for the effect. Why is she very beautiful?"
Melville shrugged his shoulders.
"She's not beautiful to every one."
"Bunting keeps calm."
"And other people don't seem to see it—as I do."
"Some people seem to see no beauty at all, as we do. With emotion, that is."
"Why do we?"
"Do we? Is it finer? Why should it be finer to see beauty where it is fatal to us to see it? Why? Unless we are to believe there is no reason in things, why should this—impossibility, be beautiful to any one anyhow? Put it as a matter of reason, Melville. Why should her smile be so sweet to me, why should her voice move me! Why her's and not Adeline's? Adeline has straight eyes and clear eyes and fine eyes, and all the difference there can be, what is it? An infinitesimal curving of the lid, an infinitesimal difference in the lashes—and it shatters everything—in this way. Who could measure the difference, who could tell the quality that makes me swim in the sound of her voice. . . . The difference? After all, it's a visible thing, it's a material thing! It's in my eyes. By Jove!" he laughed abruptly. "Imagine old Helmholtz trying to gauge it with a battery of resonators, or Spencer in the light of Evolution and the Environment explaining it away!"
"These things are beyond measurement," said Melville.
"Not if you measure them by their effect," said Chatteris. "And anyhow, why do they take us? That is the question I can't get away from just now."
My cousin meditated, no doubt with his hands deep in his trousers' pockets. "It is illusion," he said. "It is a sort of glamour. After all, look at it squarely. What is she? What can she give you? She promises you vague somethings. . . . She is a snare, she is deception. She is the beautiful mask of death."
"Yes," said Chatteris. "I know."
And then again, "I know.
"There is nothing for me to learn about that," he said. "But why—why should the mask of death be beautiful? After all— We get our duty by good hard reasoning. Why should reason and justice carry everything? Perhaps after all there are things beyond our reason, perhaps after all desire has a claim on us?"
He stopped interrogatively and Melville was profound. "I think," said my cousin at last, "Desire has a claim on us. Beauty, at any rate——
"I mean," he explained, "we are human beings. We are matter with minds growing out of ourselves. We reach downward into the beautiful wonderland of matter, and upward to something—" He stopped, from sheer dissatisfaction with the image. "In another direction, anyhow," he tried feebly. He jumped at something that was not quite his meaning. "Man is a sort of half-way house he must compromise."
"As you do?"
"Well. Yes. I try to strike a balance."
"A few old engravings—good, I suppose—a little luxury in furniture and flowers, a few things that come within your means. Art—in moderation, and a few kindly acts of the pleasanter sort, a certain respect for truth; duty—also in moderation. Eh? It's just that even balance that I cannot contrive. I cannot sit down to the oatmeal of this daily life and wash it down with a temperate draught of beauty and water. Art! . . . I suppose I'm voracious, I'm one of the unfit—for the civilised stage. I've sat down once, I've sat down twice, to perfectly sane, secure, and reasonable things. . . . It's not my way."
He repeated, "It's not my way."
Melville, I think, said nothing to that. He was distracted from the immediate topic by the discussion of his own way of living. He was lost in egotistical comparisons. No doubt he was on the verge of saying, as most of us would have been under the circumstances: "I don't think you quite understand my position."
"But, after all, what is the good of talking in this way?" exclaimed Chatteris abruptly. "I am simply trying to elevate the whole business by dragging in these wider questions. It's justification, when I didn't mean to justify. I have to choose between life with Adeline and this woman out of the sea."
"Who is Death."
"How do I know she is Death?"
"But you said you had made your choice!"
He seemed to recollect.
"I have," he corroborated. "I told you. I am going back to see Miss Glendower to-morrow.
"Yes." He recalled further portions of what I believe was some prepared and ready-phrased decision—some decision from which the conversation had drifted. "The need of my life is discipline, the habit of persistence, of ignoring side issues and wandering thoughts. Discipline!"
"Work, if you like to put it so; it's the same thing. The trouble so far has been I haven't worked hard enough. I've stopped to speak to the woman by the wayside. I've paltered with compromise, and the other thing has caught me. . . . I've got to renounce it, that is all."
"It isn't that your work is contemptible."
"By Jove! No. It's—arduous. It has its dusty moments. There are places to climb that are not only steep but muddy——"
"The world wants leaders. It gives a man of your class a great deal. Leisure. Honour. Training and high traditions——"
"And it expects something back. I know. I am wrong—have been wrong anyhow. This dream has taken me wonderfully. And I must renounce it. After all it is not so much—to renounce a dream. It's no more than deciding to live. There are big things in the world for men to do."
Melville produced an elaborate conceit. "If there is no Venus Anadyomene," he said, "there is Michael and his Sword."
"The stern angel in armour! But then he had a good palpable dragon to slash and not his own desires. And our way nowadays is to do a deal with the dragons somehow, raise the minimum wage and get a better housing for the working classes by hook or by crook."
Melville does not think that was a fair treatment of his suggestion.
"No," said Chatteris, "I've no doubt about the choice. I'm going to fall in—with the species; I'm going to take my place in the ranks in that great battle for the future which is the meaning of life. I want a moral cold bath and I mean to take one. This lax dalliance with dreams and desires must end. I will make a time table for my hours and a rule for my life, I will entangle my honour in controversies, I will give myself to service, as a man should do. Clean-handed work, struggle, and performance."
"And there is Miss Glendower, you know."
"Rather!" said Chatteris, with a faint touch of insincerity. "Tall and straight-eyed and capable. By Jove! if there's to be no Venus Anadyomene, at any rate there will be a Pallas Athene. It is she who plays the reconciler."
And then he said these words: "It won't be so bad, you know."
Melville restrained a movement of impatience, he tells me, at that.
Then Chatteris, he says, broke into a sort of speech. "The case is tried," he said, "the judgment has been given. I am that I am. I've been through it all and worked it out. I am a man and I must go a man's way. There is Desire, the light and guide of the world, a beacon on a headland blazing out. Let it burn! Let it burn! The road runs near it and by it—and past. . . . I've made my choice. I've got to be a man, I've got to live a man and die a man and carry the burden of my class and time. There it is! I've had the dream, but you see I keep hold of reason. Here, with the flame burning, I renounce it. I make my choice. . . . Renunciation! Always—renunciation! That is life for all of us. We have desires, only to deny them, senses that we all must starve. We can live only as a part of ourselves. Why should I be exempt. For me, she is evil. For me she is death. . . . Only why have I seen her face? Why have I heard her voice? . . ."
They walked out of the shadows and up a long sloping path until Sandgate, as a little line of lights, came into view below. Presently they came out upon the brow and walked together (the band playing with a remote and sweetening indistinctness far away behind them) towards the cliff at the end. They stood for a little while in silence looking down. Melville made a guess at his companion's thoughts.
"Why not come down to-night?" he asked.
"On a night like this!" Chatteris turned about suddenly and regarded the moonlight and the sea. He stood quite still for a space, and that cold white radiance gave an illusory strength and decision to his face. "No," he said at last, and the word was almost a sigh.
"Go down to the girl below there. End the thing. She will be there, thinking of you——"
"No," said Chatteris, "no."
"It's not ten yet," Melville tried again.
Chatteris thought. "No," he answered, "not to-night. To-morrow, in the light of everyday.
"I want a good, gray, honest day," he said, "with a south-west wind. . . . These still, soft nights! How can you expect me to do anything of that sort to-night?"
And then he murmured as if he found the word a satisfying word to repeat, "Renunciation."
"By Jove!" he said with the most astonishing transition, "but this is a night out of fairyland! Look at the lights of those windows below there and then up—up into this enormous blue of sky. And there, as if it were fainting with moonlight—shines one star."