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  ― 214 ―

(vii)

“MY friend,” the letter began. “Or no. Let us observe the formalities. My dear Lady Henrietta, ahem! (You are to suppose that I have tied my stock neatly, and that my hair smells of costly oils. I am a gentleman paying a call by letter.) What months since I've seen you, and what weather we've been having! Actually it is no more than half an hour since I saw you, but I must look forward to the time when Winter will deliver this missive into your hand. He has his orders, to give it you six months from the day of my departure. If I return before that time he is not to trouble you with it. If I delay, then you may need a little light conversation to keep you in spirits till I come back. This is the best I can contrive.

“How do you do, six months from now? Are you standing the test of time, my lady masterpiece? How does a poet, John Keats, say, feel when he turns up the sonnet that kept him awake and sweating blood a week of months ago? Well, never mind that question, there's nobody can answer it. But you might, at this point, take out the little list I made you, and examine your conscience with regard to Social and Domestic Duties. Are you ordering the dinner? Do you go about more? You should have a salon by now, full of gentlemen confidently holding forth, and ladies watching you narrowly.


  ― 215 ―
Are you taking an interest in the garden as you should? Are you writing home to my sister Alethea?

“I have a sufficiently good conceit of myself to suppose that you are obedient in all. Ridiculous it may be, but a young man who throws his whole heart into any endeavour is unwilling to believe that there will be nothing to show for it in the end. If I did not think that you were safe I would not leave you. (Confound it, we are back in the present tense again. No matter.)

“And now for a scolding. It is the matter of your attitude to this departure of mine. Why do you talk, look, protest as if your husband were trying to murder me? You cannot rationally suppose it. I grant there was uneasiness once, but we have talked that out, in so far as talking is possible with him. (He has a scunner, by the way, at gentlemen.) He is a man almost too simple for us to understand, who are sophisticated creatures. His manœuvrings are those of a child, and like a child he cannot speak out what he means, has not the words for it. Nor do I believe he always knows what he intends to do until it is done. He must do his thinking and talking by deeds. This money for equipment, this fifty pounds, is an amende bonorable for having at one time suspected me. There will be a new dress or a trinket for you, on the same account. It is not our way of doing things, but we are not for that reason to condemn it. Wear your trinket, as I take the money. He is a creature people could love if he would let them, like a sort of rough cantankerous retriever dog. I begin to see in him what


  ― 216 ―
you saw, the day you ran away with him out of Ireland.

“And that reminds me. Do you recollect S. Quaife of the petticoat? I saw her yesterday (damn these tenses) and I am taken with a sort of heartburn at the thought that it will be a good many months till I see her again. If she were not whose daughter she is, and had not a voice that I don't care for, I should be in danger of falling in love. What a phrase, falling in love! I could do you an extravagance à la Touchstone on the various degrees of falling—the slip courteous, the tumble with circumstance, and so forth. My adventure, despite that petticoat which might seem to witness the contrary, comes under fall number three, the trip modest. An odd thing, that while your beauty and tenderness could not touch me, S. Quaife should set me off like tinder. Perhaps it is not so. Perhaps six months hence, when this is in your hands, I shall have forgotten her. But it is too soon after seeing her to think so now. Will you, then——

“I can't ask it. The hangman's daughter! No, no. I have still some feeling for the proprieties left, Lady Henrietta. (My hands go under my coat-tails, and I make for the fireplace, that rostrum of the domestic preacher.) I have still some regard for the decencies, and therefore I do not ask your ladyship to go in person to a small barber's shop—clean, though—and enquire for S. Quaife. I only say that the shop may be discovered by the curious somewhere in George Street, not so very far from a stationer's, and that the lady in question may be recognized by her having a face shaped like a heart, dark


  ― 217 ―
hair, blue eyes, and a mole at the corner of her mouth.

“That is not a description by a man in love, is it? Unemotional as those Wanteds by which criminals are made known, only the touch about the face's heart-shape, which will not quite do. Omit that, and the rest may stand for proof that I am not a lover yet. Remember, I have asked nothing of you.

“I had thought to leave half a dozen of these missives with Winter, so that you might have them delivered regularly, every fortnight. But that would be to take for granted that I shall be absent longer than six months, a depressing consideration. There is only this one letter, therefore, to hold you in talk till I can come and button-hole you myself. You looked heavenly with the light on your hair an hour ago. Why am I not over ears in love with you? Do not forget me.”

Lady Henrietta ceased to read. She was at that stage of her trouble when the perceptions take on a momentary delusive acuteness. The people lately thronging her room had been definite in outline as paintings, every detail of colour and texture clear. While they raged a bird flew past the window. In the half-second of its passing she had perceived the set and colour of every feather, and the expressionless roundel of its eye. So sensitive was she that her flesh had seemed to reflect the whole scene unquestioning, her blood, restlessness stilled, quicksilver on glass, served to record those movements which her mind could not interpret. The young man, grey in the face, who rushed in to thrust


  ― 218 ―
a paper under her pillow she had seen fall without any concern. Milly's triumphant look had neither escaped nor interested her. And she had answered nothing to any questions, lying still, mute, half in love with easeful death.

Only when they were gone did she remember the single word Winter had spoken, and move a hand to feel for the paper he had hidden under her head. This she read, simultaneously seeing and hearing, as though someone were speaking the letter aloud while her eyes followed the strokes of the pen. It meant nothing to her, entranced as she was. The letters and syllables were distinct, their meaning absent. She felt, however, a warning very subtle and far off, the kind of warning dreams give of some real pain to which the dreamer must wake. Raising her head she looked about her at the confusion of the room, and imagined herself dressing, moving with purpose amid that confusion. She saw her own fine nose, thickened chin, tousled hair, and surveyed them, while an echo gravely informed her that all love could do for you was to fill you up with gin. She could not at once discover what the purpose was that sooner or later would set her moving about the room. Her eyes closed again, her head sank back. Unconsciously her will imposed a duty upon the first finger of her right hand, which traced and retraced upon the counterpane two letters, S. and Q. unrelated to reality, but like abracadabra somehow giving assurance of protection.

She woke three hours later and remembered what she had determined to do. Also she was ashamed, as on


  ― 219 ―
that night when Adare, climbing up by the magnolia tree, had found her drunk. She touched his letter as a talisman, making no attempt to read it again. A clock struck, and now her ears were strained to number the sounds which three hours earlier had descended on them loud as a hammer on iron. It was six o'clock. She pulled the bell-rope.

It was Milly who answered. She came in bearing a neatly-dressed tray, shining, tempting, the very tray to wheedle an invalid out of indifference to food; set it down on Lady Henrietta's knees with an encouraging, “There now!” and began to remedy the room's disorder, talking as she stooped and folded.

“He's out of the house, Mr. Flusky said I was to tell you. I wouldn't have his back, this time to-morrow. Rushing in like that to a lady's bedroom! That's the end of Mister Winter.”

There was no answer from the bed. Miss Milly went on, drawing a stocking over her thin red hand, turning it, seeking for holes before she rolled it up.

“Accusing me, he was. But Mr. Flusky stood by me, and always has. We're better off without these young fellows that think they're somebody.”

The stocking showed no imperfections. Miss Milly rolled it with its fellow and gave the compact light bundle such a pat as a mother in good humour will give her child's bottom before she tucks it into bed.

“Now we can all settle down, no mischief-making, everything like it was. Try and eat some of that chicken.


  ― 220 ―
And I brought you a little draught the doctor ordered.”

Miss Milly was in command again. No longer did she show as that sour and raucous spinster who had watched Charles Adare and routed William Winter, but as the good servant, plain-spoken, who would run any house like a palace if only she might have her way. Lady Henrietta, eyes following her, knew that the purpose which informed this woman was stronger than her own.

When Milly departed, she made an effort, as a diver turns his hands upward and kicks himself towards the light. She got out of bed, and went to her work-box, feeling through its pockets, recognizing by touch those silks which should have clad the flocks and garlanded the crook of her shepherdess. She found a needle-book in which, one evening, she had hidden the scrap of tape with the name S. Quaife cross-stitched on it in big letters. When she had it in her fingers she could not remember what she had intended to do, and so went back to bed. She slipped the tape into Adare's letter before (Miss Milly's draught powerfully aiding) she fell asleep again, to dream urgent reasons why she should live, and to find herself clinging to a hangman's noose as to a rope of salvation.

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