CHAPTER THE SECOND
Love among the Wreckage
When I came back I found that my share in the escape and death of my uncle had made me for a time a notorious and even popular character. For two weeks I was kept in London "facing the music," as he would have said, and making things easy for my aunt, and I still marvel at the consideration with which the world treated me. For now it was open and manifest that I and my uncle were no more than specimens of a modern species of brigand, wasting the savings of the public out of the sheer wantonness of enterprise. I think that, in a way, his death produced a reaction in my favour, and my flight, of which some particulars now appeared, stuck in the popular imagination. It seemed a more daring and difficult feat than it was, and I couldn't very well write to the papers to sustain my private estimate. There can be little doubt that men infinitely prefer the appearance of dash and enterprise to simple honesty. No one believed I was not an arch plotter in his financing. Yet they favoured me. I even got permission from the trustee to occupy my chalet for a fortnight while I cleared up the mass of papers, calculations, notes of work, drawings and the like, that I left in disorder when I started on that impulsive raid upon the Mordet quap heaps. I was there alone. I got work for Cothope with the Ilchesters, for whom I now build these destroyers. They wanted him at once, and he was short of money, so I let him go and managed very philosophically by myself.
But I found it hard to fix my attention on aeronautics. I had been away from the work for a full half-year and more, a half-year crowded with intense disconcerting things. For a time my brain refused these fine problems of balance and adjustment altogether; it wanted to think about my uncle's dropping jaw, my aunt's reluctant tears, about dead negroes and pestilential swamps, about the evident realities of cruelty and pain, about life and death. Moreover, it was weary with the frightful pile of figures and documents at the Hardingham, a task to which this raid to Lady Grove was simply an interlude. And there was Beatrice.
On the second morning, as I sat out upon the verandah recalling memories and striving in vain to attend to some too succinct pencil notes of Cothope's, Beatrice rode up suddenly from behind the pavilion, and pulled rein and became still; Beatrice a little flushed from riding and sitting on a big black horse.
I did not instantly rise. I stared at her. "You!" I said.
She looked at me steadily. "Me," she said.
I did not trouble about any civilities. I stood up and asked point blank a question that came into my head.
"Whose horse is that?" I said.
She looked me in the eyes. "Carnaby's," she answered.
"How did you get here—this way?"
"The wall's down."
"A great bit of it between the plantations."
"And you rode through, and got here by chance?"
"I saw you yesterday. And I rode over to see you."
I had now come close to her, and stood looking up into her face.
"I'm a mere vestige," I said.
She made no answer, but remained regarding me steadfastly with a curious air of proprietorship.
"You know I'm the living survivor now of the great smash. I'm rolling and dropping down through all the scaffolding of the social system. . . . It's all a chance whether I roll out free at the bottom, or go down a crack into the darkness out of sight for a year or two."
"The sun," she remarked irrelevantly, "has burnt you. . . . I'm getting down."
She swung herself down into my arms, and stood beside me face to face.
"Where's Cothope?" she asked.
Her eyes flitted to the pavilion and back to me. We stood close together, extraordinarily intimate, and extraordinarily apart.
"I've never seen this cottage of yours," she said, "and I want to."
She flung the bridle of her horse round the verandah post, and I helped her tie it.
"Did you get what you went for to Africa?" she asked.
"No," I said, "I lost my ship."
"And that lost everything?"
She walked before me into the living-room of the chalet, and I saw that she gripped her riding-whip very tightly in her hand. She looked about her for a moment, and then at me.
"It's comfortable," she remarked.
Our eyes met in a conversation very different from the one upon our lips. A sombre glow surrounded us, drew us together; an unwonted shyness kept us apart. She roused herself, after an instant's pause, to examine my furniture.
"You have chintz curtains. I thought men were too feckless to have curtains without a woman——. But, of course, your aunt did that! And a couch and a brass fender, and—is that a pianola? That is your desk. I thought men's desks were always untidy, and covered with dust and tobacco ash."
She flitted to my colour prints and my little case of books. Then she went to the pianola. I watched her intently.
"Does this thing play?" she said.
"What?" I asked.
"Does this thing play?"
I roused myself from my preoccupation.
"Like a musical gorilla with fingers all of one length. And a sort of soul. . . . It's all the world of music to me."
"What do you play?"
"Beethoven, when I want to clear up my head while I'm working. He is—how one would always like to work. Sometimes Chopin and those others, but Beethoven. Beethoven mainly. Yes."
Silence again between us. She spoke with an effort.
"Play me something." She turned from me and explored the rack of music rolls, became interested and took a piece, the first part of the Kreutzer Sonata, hesitated. "No," she said, "that!"
She gave me Brahm's Second Concerto, Op. 58, and curled up on the sofa watching me as I set myself slowly to play. . . .
"I say," she said when I had done, "that's fine. I didn't know those things could play like that. I'm all astir. . . ."
She came and stood over me, looking at me. "I'm going to have a concert," she said abruptly, and laughed uneasily and hovered at the pigeon-holes. "Now—now what shall I have?" She chose more of Brahms. Then we came to the Kreutzer Sonata. It is queer how Tolstoy has loaded that with suggestions, debauched it, made it a scandalous and intimate symbol. When I had played the first part of that, she came up to the pianola and hesitated over me. I sat stiffly—waiting.
Suddenly she seized my downcast head and kissed my hair. She caught at my face between her hands and kissed my lips. I put my arms about her and we kissed together. I sprang to my feet and clasped her.
"Beatrice," I said. "Beatrice!"
"My dear," she whispered, nearly breathless, with her arms about me. "Oh! my dear!"
Love, like everything else in this immense process of social disorganization in which we live, is a thing adrift, a fruitless thing broken away from its connexions. I tell of this love affair here because of its irrelevance, because it is so remarkable that it should mean nothing, and be nothing except itself. It glows in my memory like some bright casual flower starting up amidst the débris of a catastrophe. For nearly a fortnight we two met and made love together. Once more this mighty passion, that our aimless civilization has fettered and maimed and sterilized and debased, gripped me and filled me with passionate delights and solemn joys—that were all, you know, futile and purposeless. Once more I had the persuasion "This matters. Nothing else matters so much as this." We were both infinitely grave in such happiness as we had. I do not remember any laughter at all between us.
Twelve days it lasted from that encounter in my chalet until our parting.
Except at the end, they were days of supreme summer, and there was a waxing moon. We met recklessly day by day. We were so intent upon each other at first, so intent upon expressing ourselves to each other, and getting at each other, that we troubled very little about the appearance of our relationship. We met almost openly. . . . We talked of ten thousand things, and of ourselves. We loved. We made love. There is no prose of mine that can tell of hours transfigured. The facts are nothing. Everything we touched, the meanest things, became glorious. How can I render bare tenderness and delight and mutual possession?
I sit here at my desk thinking of untellable things.
I have come to know so much of love that I know now what love might be. We loved, scarred and stained; we parted—basely and inevitably, but at least I met love.
I remember as we sat in a Canadian canoe, in a reedy, bush-masked shallow we had discovered opening out of that pine-shaded Woking canal, how she fell talking of the things that happened to her before she met me again. . . .
She told me things, and they so joined and welded together other things that lay disconnected in my memory, that it seemed to me I had always known what she told me. And yet indeed I had not known nor suspected it, save perhaps for a luminous, transitory suspicion ever and again.
She made me see how life had shaped her. She told me of her girlhood after I had known her. "We were poor and pretending and managing. We hacked about on visits and things. I ought to have married. The chances I had weren't particularly good chances. I didn't like 'em."
She paused. "Then Carnaby came along."
I remained quite still. She spoke now with downcast eyes, and one finger just touching the water.
"One gets bored, bored beyond redemption. One goes about to these huge expensive houses. I suppose—the scale's immense. One makes one's self useful to the other women, and agreeable to the men. One has to dress. . . . One has food and exercise and leisure. It's the leisure, and the space, and the blank opportunity it seems a sin not to fill. Carnaby isn't like the other men. He's bigger. . . . They go about making love. Everybody's making love. I did. . . . And I don't do things by halves."
"You knew?" she asked, looking up, quite steadily.
"Those last days. . . . It hasn't seemed to matter really. I was a little surprised——"
She looked at me quietly. "Cothope knew," she said. "By instinct. I could feel it."
"I suppose," I began, "once, this would have mattered immensely. Now——"
"Nothing matters," she said, completing me. "I felt I had to tell you. I wanted you to understand why I didn't marry you—with both hands. I have loved you"—she paused—"have loved you ever since the day I kissed you in the bracken. Only—I forgot."
And suddenly she dropped her face upon her hands, and sobbed passionately—
"I forgot—I forgot," she cried, and became still. . . .
I dabbed my paddle in the water. "Look here!" I said; "forget again! Here am I—a ruined man. Marry me."
She shook her head without looking up.
We were still for a long time. "Marry me," I whispered.
She looked up, twined back a whisp of hair, and answered dispassionately—
"I wish I could. Anyhow, we have had this time. It has been a fine time—has it been—for you also? I haven't grudged you all I had to give. It's a poor gift—except for what it means and might have been. But we are near the end of it now."
"Why?" I asked. "Marry me! Why should we two——"
"You think," she said, "I could take courage and come to you and be your everyday wife—while you work and are poor?"
"Why not?" said I.
She looked at me gravely, with extended finger. "Do you really think that?—of me? Haven't you seen me—all?"
"Never once have I really meant marrying you," she insisted. "Never once. I fell in love with you from the first. But when you seemed a successful man, I told myself I wouldn't. I was love-sick for you, and you were so stupid, I came near it then. But I knew I wasn't good enough. What could I have been to you? A woman with bad habits and bad associations, a woman smirched. And what could I do for you or be to you? If I wasn't good enough to be a rich man's wife, I'm certainly not good enough to be a poor one's. Forgive me for talking sense to you now, but I wanted to tell you this somewhen——"
She stopped at my gesture. I sat up, and the canoe rocked with my movement.
"I don't care," I said. "I want to marry you and make you my wife!"
"No," she said, "don't spoil things. That is impossible!"
"Think! I can't do my own hair! Do you mean you will get me a maid?"
"Good God!" I cried, disconcerted beyond measure, "won't you learn to do your own hair for me? Do you mean to say you can love a man——"
She flung out her hands at me. "Don't spoil it," she cried. "I have given you all I have, I have given you all I can. If I could do it, if I was good enough to do it, I would. But I am a woman spoilt and ruined, dear, and you are a ruined man. When we are making love we are lovers—but think of the gulf between us in habits and ways of thought, in will and training, when we are not making love. Think of it—and don't think of it! Don't think of it yet. We have snatched some hours. We still may have some hours!"
She suddenly knelt forward toward me, with a glowing darkness in her eyes. "Who cares if it upsets?" she cried. "If you say another word I will kiss you. And go to the bottom clutching you. I'm not afraid of that. I'm not a bit afraid of that. I'll die with you. Choose a death, and I'll die with you—readily. Do listen to me! I love you. I shall always love you. It's because I love you that I won't go down to become a dirty familiar thing with you amidst the grime. I've given all I can. I've had all I can. . . . Tell me," and she crept nearer, "have I been like the dusk to you, like the warm dusk? Is there magic still? Listen to the ripple of water from your paddle. Look at the warm evening light in the sky. Who cares if the canoe upsets? Come nearer to me. Oh, my love! come near! So."
She drew me to her and our lips met.
I asked her to marry me once again.
It was our last morning together, and we had met very early, about sunrise, knowing that we were to part. No sun shone that day. The sky was overcast, the morning chilly and lit by a clear, cold spiritless light. A heavy dampness in the air verged close on rain. When I think of that morning, it has always the quality of graying ashes wet with rain.
Beatrice too had changed. The spring had gone out of her movement; it came to me, for the first time, that some day she might grow old. She had become one flesh with the rest of common humanity; the softness had gone from her voice and manner, the dusky magic of her presence had gone. I saw these things with perfect clearness, and they made me sorry for them and for her. But they altered my love not a whit, abated it nothing. And when we had talked awkwardly for half a dozen sentences, I came dully to my point.
"And now," I cried, "will you marry me?"
"No," she said, "I shall keep to my life here."
I asked her to marry me in a year's time. She shook her head.
"This world is a soft world," I said, "in spite of my present disasters. I know now how to do things. If I had you to work for—in a year I could be a prosperous man——"
"No," she said, "I will put it brutally, I shall go back to Carnaby."
"But——!" I did not feel angry. I had no sort of jealousy, no wounded pride, no sense of injury. I had only a sense of grey desolation, of hopeless cross-purposes.
"Look here," she said. "I have been awake all night and every night. I have been thinking of this—every moment when we have not been together. I'm not answering you on an impulse. I love you. I love you. I'll say that over ten thousand times. But here we are——"
"The rest of life together," I said.
"It wouldn't be together. Now we are together. Now we have been together. We are full of memories. I do not feel I can ever forget a single one."
"And I want to close it and leave it at that. You see, dear, what else is there to do?"
She turned her white face to me. "All I know of love, all I have ever dreamt or learnt of love I have packed into these days for you. You think we might live together and go on loving. No! For you I will have no vain repetitions. You have had the best and all of me. Would you have us, after this, meet again in London or Paris or somewhere, scuffle to some wretched dressmaker's, meet in a cabinet particulier?"
"No," I said. "I want you to marry me. I want you to play the game of life with me as an honest woman should. Come and live with me. Be my wife and squaw. Bear me children."
I looked at her white, drawn face, and it seemed to me I might carry her yet. I spluttered for words.
"My God! Beatrice!" I cried; "but this is cowardice and folly! Are you afraid of life? You of all people! What does it matter what has been or what we were? Here we are with the world before us! Start clean and new with me. We'll fight it through! I'm not such a simple lover that I'll not tell you plainly when you go wrong, and fight our difference out with you. It's the one thing I want, the one thing I need—to have you, and more of you and more! This love-making—it's love-making. It's just a part of us, an incident——"
She shook her head and stopped me abruptly. "It's all," she said.
"All!" I protested.
"I'm wiser than you. Wiser beyond words." She turned her eyes to me and they shone with tears.
"I wouldn't have you say anything—but what you're saying," she said. "But it's nonsense, dear. You know it's nonsense as you say it."
I tried to keep up the heroic note, but she would not listen to it.
"It's no good," she cried almost petulantly. "This little world has made—made us what we are. Don't you see—don't you see what I am? I can make love. I can make love and be loved, prettily. Dear, don't blame me! I have given you all I have. If I had anything more——. I have gone through it all over and over again—thought it out. This morning my head aches, my eyes ache. The light has gone out of me and I am a sick and tired woman. But I'm talking wisdom—bitter wisdom. I couldn't be any sort of helper to you, any sort of wife, any sort of mother. I'm spoilt. I'm spoilt by this rich idle way of living, until every habit is wrong, every taste wrong. The world is wrong. People can be ruined by wealth just as much as by poverty. Do you think I wouldn't face life with you if I could, if I wasn't absolutely certain I should be down and dragging in the first half-mile of the journey? Here I am—damned! Damned! But I won't damn you. You know what I am! You know. You are too clear and simple not to know the truth. You try to romance and hector, but you know the truth. I am a little cad—sold and done. I'm——. My dear, you think I've been misbehaving, but all these days I've been on my best behaviour. . . . You don't understand, because you're a man. A woman, when she's spoilt, is spoilt. She's dirty in grain. She's done."
She walked on weeping.
"You're a fool to want me," she said. "You're a fool to want me—for my sake just as much as yours. We've done all we can. It's just romancing——"
She dashed the tears from her eyes and turned upon me. "Don't you understand?" she challenged. "Don't you know?"
We faced one another in silence for a moment.
"Yes," I said, "I know."
For a long time we spoke never a word, but walked on together, slowly and sorrowfully, reluctant to turn about towards our parting. When at last we did, she broke silence again.
"I've had you," she said.
"Heaven and hell," I said, "can't alter that."
"I've wanted——" she went on. "I've talked to you in the nights and made up speeches. Now when I want to make them I'm tongue-tied. But to me it's just as if the moments we have had lasted for ever. Moods and states come and go. To-day my light is out. . . ."
To this day I cannot determine whether she said or whether I imagined she said "chloral." Perhaps a half-conscious diagnosis flashed it on my brain. Perhaps I am the victim of some perverse imaginative freak of memory, some hinted possibility that scratched and seared. There the word stands in my memory, as if it were written in fire.
We came to the door of Lady Osprey's garden at last, and it was beginning to drizzle.
She held out her hands and I took them.
"Yours," she said, in a weary unimpassioned voice; "all that I had—such as it was. Will you forget?"
"Never," I answered.
"Never a touch or a word of it?"
"You will," she said.
We looked at one another in silence, and her face was full of fatigue and misery.
What could I do? What was there to do?
"I wish——" I said, and stopped.
That should have been the last I saw of her, but, indeed, I was destined to see her once again. Two days after I was at Lady Grove, I forget altogether upon what errand, and as I walked back to the station believing her to be gone away she came upon me, and she was riding with Carnaby, just as I had seen them first. The encounter jumped upon us unprepared. She rode by, her eyes dark in her white face, and scarcely noticed me. She winced and grew stiff at the sight of me and bowed her head. But Carnaby, because he thought I was a broken and discomfited man, saluted me with an easy friendliness, and shouted some genial commonplace to me.
They passed out of sight and left me by the roadside. . . .
And then indeed I tasted the ultimate bitterness of life. For the first time I felt utter futility, and was wrung by emotion that begot no action, by shame and pity beyond words. I had parted from her dully and I had seen my uncle break and die with dry eyes and a steady mind, but this chance sight of my lost Beatrice brought me to tears. My face was wrung, and tears came pouring down my cheeks. All the magic she had for me had changed to wild sorrow. "Oh God!" I cried, "this is too much," and turned my face after her and made appealing gestures to the beech trees and cursed at fate. I wanted to do preposterous things, to pursue her, to save her, to turn life back so that she might begin again. I wonder what would have happened had I overtaken them in pursuit, breathless with running, uttering incoherent words, weeping, expostulatory? I came near to doing that.
There was nothing in earth or heaven to respect my curses or weeping. In the midst of it a man who had been trimming the opposite hedge appeared and stared at me.
Abruptly, ridiculously, I dissembled before him and went on and caught my train. . . .
But the pain I felt then I have felt a hundred times; it is with me as I write. It haunts this book, I see, that is what haunts this book, from end to end. . . .